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"There's a pool going for how long the new kid'll last," Ryan said.

"And by 'pool', you mean that you wanna guess and so are going to involve me in your bizarre and twisted forms of entertainment?" Spencer asked.

"You're the one who wanted to be my friend," Ryan said, clearly not put off by Spencer's censure.

"Wanted" was a strong term so far as Spencer was concerned. But whatever, they were friends, and Spencer was going to end up betting to keep Ryan happy. As such, he was pretty willing to give in gracefully; it would save time and energy, both things he preferred to conserve.

Spencer sighed. "What are you saying?"

"Two weeks."

Spencer looked over at the kid under discussion. He was lush, there was no question about that. It would work for him, except that he also smiled and bounced a lot. Like a kid. And the guys who wanted kids were always the worst types.

"Has anyone talked to him?"

"That would be called cheating, Spence."

"No, that would be called gathering valuable information," Spencer said, and sauntered over to New Meat.

New Meat blinked at his sudden company. "Um. I think this is my corner."

Spencer rolled his eyes. "We have the same pimp."

"Oh." New Meat's smile returned, full force and disturbingly sweet. "Okay, good. The standing-by-myself thing was getting a little bit tiresome and I was sort of wanting to join you and the other guy, but well, I'm new to this and there seem to be a lot of rules and I don't want to fuck up, since there seem to be consequences to the fucking up of the seeming rules and --"

"You talk a lot," Spencer interrupted.

"Yup," New Meat said, still rocking to and fro on his feet. He held out a hand. "I'm Brendon."

Spencer took the hand, cautiously. "Spencer."

"Who's your friend?"

"If he wants to tell you his name, he will."

"Oh." Brendon's smile faltered for a second but then he put it back on, forcefully. "Okay, that's cool. It's early, right? Because I haven't had many offers and Thomas was pretty insistent about my earnings this week--proving myself, you know--and uh, well--"

"Pout a little."

"What?"

"Pout. You're what, seventeen?"

Brendon nodded.

"The Johns like jailbait just a little reluctant. Feeds the fantasy that they're the only one in the world you'd go for. Your smile makes them think you're easy. Nobody wants an easy whore."

"That's a bit ironic, isn't it?"

Spencer smiled. "Welcome to our corner of the world, angel-face."

Brendon made a face at the nickname, so clearly facetious. "Heh. Well, thanks for the advice."

"Something else?"

"Yeah?"

"Don't let'em know you're new. Whatever else you do. Just. Lie."

Brendon must have heard some of the dressed down urgency in Spencer's tone, because he nodded. "Okay. Lying. I'm good at that."

"Really?"

For a second, Brendon's eyes flashed dark and just a touch inscrutable. "You'd be amazed."

Not as amazed as Spencer would have been the second before. "Good luck."

Brendon's smile was different this time, although Spencer couldn't have said exactly how. It just was. "Thanks."

Spencer made his way back over to the corner that he and Ryan had long learned to share without stepping on each other's toes or profits.

Ryan said, "No, you've ruined it, no betting for you."

Spencer said, "Fine."

It took Ryan all of thirty seconds to give in. "Oh, come on, tell me what you think."

"Stronger than he looks."

"So, a month?"

Spencer shook his head. He was betting on the kid making it, but knew better than to express that opinion aloud. He wasn't going to be the one to jinx Brendon.

*


Brendon had barely been around a week when Ryan caught him in the early evening, hand wrapping too tightly over his upper arm. Brendon already had bruises there from a John a couple of nights before. Nothing too extreme, but it made the action painful enough and he said, "Hey, man, come on, ease up."

Ryan didn't. He said, "Spencer's mine, you understand?"

Brendon didn't think Spencer was kept by anybody, other than himself and maybe Thomas--at least in a financial sense. "Sure, yours, no problem." Psychotic fucktard.

Ryan shook him a little. Brendon bit back a sound. His arm really was sore. The John had been a lot bigger than him. Ryan warned, "You'd better not be humoring me."

"I won't talk to him anymore, I swear. He comes over here, you know?" Brendon would miss that, too. Spencer was the only guy who'd been decent since he got it into his head to buy a Greyhound ticket and take his chance on the streets rather than with his parents. He didn't regret the choice, not yet. It was better lying to strangers all the time than the people who were supposed to love him.

Ryan squeezed harder. "Don't think you're special because of it. Spencer's just too fucking nice for his own good."

Brendon opened his mouth to say, "Yeah, okay, not special," but all that came out was a small sound of distress. Ryan was nearly digging into the bone.

Ryan frowned and then looked down at his hand. He let go almost instantly. Brendon wondered if he'd even realized how hard he was holding on. It didn't seem like it. Brendon brought his other hand up over the spot protectively. "You made your point."

Ryan shifted from one foot to the next. "I didn't mean--"

Brendon cut him off, "If you're not gonna let Spencer come talk to me, you think you could every once in a while? Because it gets pretty boring talking to myself over here." And crazy company was better than no company.

Ryan asked, "Are you serious?"

Brendon shrugged. "You seem to realize the value of company."

"More like someone at my back."

"Well, whatever. I like to start small."

Ryan laughed, a startled, unsure laugh. "That's kinda fucked up, you realize?"

"No more fucked up than your Mafia-style way of enforcing Spencer's friendships."

Ryan looked away for a second. "Sorry about your arm."

"Sorry enough to come talk to me here and there?"

"You're sort of tenacious, aren't you?"

"Nice word, and yes."

"I guess it couldn't hurt, now and then."

Brendon smiled. It wasn't a tentative smile. He was no good at those, no matter how hard he tried. No, it was a full-blown, let's-do-this, puppyish enthusiasm smile.

Ryan rolled his eyes. "Jesus, Spencer's so fucking wrong about you."

"What does that mean?"

But Ryan just shook his head and made for the corner where Spencer was already standing.

*


Spencer knew Ryan had done something he shouldn't have. Not that Ryan showed remorse. Ryan wasn't a regrets kind of guy. (Well, he was, at times, but he never admitted it, and Spencer had to unearth the clues, trace them back to the scene of the crime to figure out what Ryan had fucked up so spectacularly as to actually still be caught up in it.)

This wasn't one of those times. This was one of the times where Ryan smiled all too perfectly at him and said, "Listen, I talked to Brendon. He thinks you're trying to steal his clientele."

If it had been any, any of the other boys in Thomas' stable, Spencer would have believed Ryan in a second. With the exception of Ryan, the others would kill Spencer in a second in order to take his regulars, his earnings. In the same way that the others would kill Ryan. Their friendship was as real a friendship as anything Spencer imagined he would ever have, but it was also a bond of protection, and both of them knew it.

Brendon hadn't figured out the turf enough yet to be saying those things about Spencer. And if he had figured it out, he wouldn't have been saying them to Ryan.

Ryan was an amazing liar, absolutely brilliant at it. Spencer knew this, he had watched him with Johns. He couldn't lie for crap when he was trying with Spencer.

Spencer, though, just said, "Okay," and waited to figure out what the hell was going on with the situation.

It took him three nights to notice Ryan sneaking over to Brendon's corner early in the evening or late in the morning. Granted, those three nights were Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, which were the busiest nights in general, but Spencer thought he might be slipping.

Spencer didn't screw around with trying to get Ryan to tell him. Ryan would protect his secrets to the grave. Nah, Spencer went straight for Brendon, straight, in fact, to his apartment--or, well, the room that Thomas rented out for him. It was the same as any of their rooms, a thimble's worth of space, bathroom down the hall, shared with at least four other guys.

Brendon barely cracked the door at his knock and didn't open much wider upon seeing Spencer. He gave him a nervous smile. "Um, hey, I was about to sleep."

Brendon's walls were filled with scavenged event posters, the kind that could be found by the hundreds, all in a row, on dry wall and back alley brick throughout the city. Spencer's eyes scanned the different shows, movies being advertised through the crack in the door allowed him. Jesus.

Yeah, Spencer wanted some sleep, too. He got straight to the point. "What'd Ryan tell you?"

Brendon shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Well, he told me you thought I was trying to take your customers, which is about the caliber of lie Ryan always manages with me, so I figure he said something else to you."

"Look, Spencer, I'm pretty new out here and getting in between--"

"Let me worry about Ryan, okay? What'd he say?"

Brendon stepped back. "Why don't you, uh. Why don't you come in?"

Spencer took the invitation. In contrast to the riot of color and action that were his walls, Brendon's bed was the same tiny cot-type thing they all had, neatly made. His clothes were all hung up on nails he'd lined up next to the door. Brendon closed the door and said, "He told me you were his. He seemed pretty insistent, man."

Spencer bit back a sigh. Fucking hell, Ryan. "If he was warning you off, what's he been doing coming around your spot?"

Brendon danced from one foot to the other. "Oh, well, you know. I asked."

"You asked?"

"Cause I mean, clearly he wasn't gonna let you come around and look, eight hours is a long time on a street corner with just me to entertain me. I mean, sure, there's the Johns, but they're not really that entertaining, not most of them, and it takes care of monotony, I guess, except when they're sort of monotonous, which they really, really can be, and Ryan's kind of intense, but he's different and I can go for different if need be, so--"

"Okay," Spencer said softly.

"You're not gonna threaten me? About him being yours?"

Spencer resisted the urge to rub a hand over his face. "No, Brendon."

Brendon smiled then, quick and generous in the expression. "Well, that's cool of you."

Oh yeah, real cool. Spencer was going to shake Ryan Ross until his fucking eyes crossed. "Get some sleep."

Brendon nodded. "At least tonight's Monday, man. It's always the furtive ones on Monday."

It was. Which could be good or very, very bad. Spencer was guessing Brendon hadn't run into the latter just yet. He hoped it stayed that way.

It wouldn't.

He smiled. "Yeah, Monday."

Brendon saw him out.

*


Spencer didn't go straight back to his room. He went to Ryan's.

He had keys to Ryan's--illegally copied. Spencer figured Thomas knew; he knew most things. The question was always what he would let slide and what he wouldn't. So far the keys hadn't been confiscated.

Spencer didn't like to think how it would happen if they ever were.

He let himself in and said, "Wake up, Ryan."

Ryan muttered something before turning over, face into the pillow. Spencer said, "Now."

Ryan rolled over again, this time face up. He looked like he was about to complain about being woken up when he caught sight of Spencer's face. "He told you, didn't he? That little--"

"Shut up, Ryan. I asked. How fucking stupid do you think I am?"

"I don't--"

"Really? Because how you could think I wouldn't notice that you were going over there on your own, and what, he was gonna be less threatened by you and your turf stealing ass? Hardly, Ryan."

"I knew I should have left the little shit to his own devices."

Spencer hit the wall with his palm. "Stop it, Ryan."

Ryan startled slightly at the sound of impact.

Spencer asked, "Paying attention yet?" He felt sort of bad knowing that it wasn't the violence of the action that had caused that reaction, so much as Spencer committing the violence, but Spencer was tired, and he wanted to be in his bed, asleep, every bit as much as Ryan and Brendon.

Ryan recovered quickly. "Fine, I was a bad boy. I get it. When am I not? Would you prefer a new friend, someone shinier?"

"Yeah, Ryan, that's exactly why I went over there and talked to him. It couldn't have anything to do with the bet you fucking initiated, could it? Or the fact that he was kinda nice and most of the guys around here are total shits and that was sort of fun, for once, for someone else to just treat me like I was human. None of that could have anything to do with this. No, clearly, I was just looking to dump your ass."

Ryan's eyes were hard and a little distant. "It's not like we make each other promises."

"We would if we thought they would mean something. I would."

Ryan brought his arms up around himself, clasping tight to his shoulders. "Oh."

"I swear to fuck, Ryan, sometimes you are so utterly special." Spencer didn't mean it in a good way.

"Go fuck yourself."

"You do something like this again, you tell somebody that I'm yours again? I will disappear and you will never, ever hear so much as a word from me."

"Thomas would kill you."

"If he could find me, yeah." Spencer tried to always have an escape plan, just in case. He didn't think he would ever use it, not if it meant leaving Ryan behind, but it was a good thing to have.

"I'd be fine without you," Ryan told him, wearing so much bravado Spencer could smell it from where he was standing. "I was before."

Spencer didn't say anything.

Ryan broke first, his eyes sliding away. "You wanna stay here? Easier than walking home."

Yeah. Easier. Spencer said, "Move over."

*


Ryan was the one to hand Brendon the candy bar and say, "Surprise." The word was droll on his lips, suggesting the opposite of a surprise, or at least, a good one.

Brendon nearly dropped the candy at the appearance of both Ryan and Spencer on his corner. He tried, tried his very best to act cool. "Where'd you get this?"

"One of Spencer's regulars likes to ensure the upkeep of Spencer's child-bearing hips," Ryan told him.

"Seriously?" Brendon asked.

Ryan said, "Yes."

Spencer rolled his eyes. "No. He's just assuages pedo-guilt with candy. I think he works for Ghirardelli."

Brendon let a piece of the candy melt on his tongue, clearly getting the most possible out of the experience. "That's a little ironic, isn't it?"

"Little bit, yeah," Spencer agreed.

"Johns are funny," Ryan said, breaking into his own candy.

Funny was one word for it.

Brendon held out a piece to Ryan who showed him the candy bar he'd kept for his very own. Brendon offered it to Spencer, who took the piece. Brendon frowned. "You didn't keep one for yourself?"

"Girlish figure," Spencer said, sounding bored, but he was nibbling at his piece slowly.

Brendon pretended not to watch as Ryan surreptitiously pressed half his bar into Spencer's hand. Spencer shook his head. Ryan was doing a good job of acting like he didn't see. Spencer gave in.

Brendon closed his eyes for a bit, gave into the full, heady taste of the chocolate, the way it was just bitter enough for the sweetness to be that much more precious. Brendon's sister and he could argue for hours about which was better, milk or dark chocolate. Brendon never told her that he actually could have argued both sides.

He never would tell her.

He opened his eyes. That was another place. Here, for the moment, he had Ryan and Spencer visiting him, and dark chocolate. Life could be worse.

Spencer was smiling at him. "Save it for the customers, there."

Brendon grinned. "Why? They wouldn't appreciate it anyway."

Ryan laughed at that, a sudden bark of surprise and agreement. Brendon felt inordinately proud of himself. Ryan wasn't the easiest nut to crack, even if the crack was miniscule.

A car came cruising down the length of the street and Ryan's face slid back into its business arrangement. "I should get back." He threw his head a bit in the direction of Spencer's and his corner. Brendon could see two of Thomas' other guys eyeing it. Spencer and Ryan were probably already going to have to put down a mini-rebellion.

"Yeah," Brendon said, "What, you think you can just laze around on my territory all evening?"

Spencer mussed his hair and Brendon took a second longer than he should have to pull away, say, "You paying for damaged goods?"

"Pretty sure I already did," Spencer said, motioning at what was left of the candy bar. It wasn't much.

Brendon laughed, and watched as Spencer followed Ryan back, as the two reasserted their right to their space.



One of Spencer's Johns cut him two nights later. This sort of thing happened. It happened in two ways: there were the Johns who paid to do that sort of thing, and the ones who decided to surprise a guy with it. This particular time it was the former, which Spencer preferred. There were ways to keep it from going too far.

Of course, those ways didn't always pan out the way a guy could hope.

Spencer doused himself with hydrogen peroxide and bandaged himself up and went back to work.

The cut still hadn't stopped bleeding two nights later. Part of the problem, Spencer knew, was that it was hard not to have a cut on his back open up when his living pretty much dictated being somewhat acrobatic. The other part, he suspected, was that the cut was just too deep.

On the third night, a John put his hand to the spot where the bandage covered the wound and Spencer moaned in pain. He made it sound like pleasure. He wasn't too far gone for that. Ryan took a look at him when he got himself back to the corner and asked, "You feeling all right?"

Spencer said, "Fine," and ignored the heat that had settled along his lower back.

"Cause you've been a little slow tonight."

"I'm fine, Ryan." Spencer enunciated each syllable.

Ryan said, "Okay," but he didn't look convinced.

In truth, Spencer was pretty sure he was going to have to go to the free clinic. Spencer hated the clinic. They were nice enough, very much nice enough, but they always asked him questions about his age and looked at him with concerned eyes and Spencer despised having to lie to people who just validly wanted to help. But he wasn't going back into the system, hell no. Not even for a passle of good Samaritans.

He took himself in the morning, when Ryan had gone off to get some sleep. Mikey the hot nurse with the sweet smile and soft voice checked him in and asked, "What's the problem?"

"Cut myself," he said, and lifted his shirt. The movement really, really hurt, but Spencer trained his face into blankness.

Mikey, however, had worked at this clinic since it had opened, a clinic which serviced more prostitutes than any other in the San Francisco metro area and possibly in greater California. The clinic was known for not being judgmental and validly trying to get everything the patients needed to them at no price. He came over and helped Spencer ease the shirt, the bandage off. Mikey asked, "How long ago?"

"Three nights," Spencer admitted.

"Okay, sit tight, I'm gonna go get the doctor."

The doctor he came back with was new. Spencer sighed to himself. The old one had gotten used to him and Ryan, but this guy was young, probably still an intern. A lot of the doctors who worked the clinic were part time interns, all full up on idealism and in need of a second paycheck. The idealism was the killer, they always wanted to save the kids who were just coming in to get patched up.

The doctor held out his hand and said, "I'm Dr. Bryar, but I sort of prefer Bob, if it's not gonna freak you out. You?"

Spencer took the proffered hand. And of course this one had to be hot, too. Spencer was not having a good week. "Spencer."

"Okay, Spencer. Mind lying down on your stomach?"

Spencer spent a goodly part of his life lying in that particular position, most of the time for guys considerably less attractive than Dr. Bob, here. He laid down. "Is it gonna be a problem if I fall asleep?"

Spencer heard gloves being snapped onto hands. Bob said, "Go right ahead."

Then he touched the area around the cut lightly and Spencer tensed up. All right, maybe not.

"Yeah, okay. I'm gonna give you a couple of shots here. The first is just a little bit of local anesthetic, so I can get this cleaned up and stitched. The second's gonna be an antibiotic. You're gonna need to take them orally, too, but that'll get you started and cut down the course."

"How much is that gonna cost?" Diagnosis and even treatment was free, but medication wasn't always.

Mikey said, "I'll look around and see if we have any samples."

"And if not?" Spencer asked.

"Fifteen for the course."

Spencer closed his eyes. "Okay."

Bob said, "Gonna feel a little pinch."

The anesthetic burned going in, but once it kicked in, Spencer was blessedly, gorgeously free of pain for the first time in days. "I love you, Dr. Bob," he said.

Bob laughed. "But only for my injections."

"Take it where you can get it," Spencer told him. It was good advice. There was pressure, then, along the damaged area, but no pain and Spencer drifted off. He was exhausted.

He woke to Bob calling, "Spencer. Spencer," softly.

Spencer blinked. "Oh, hey. Sorry."

Bob smiled. "No apologies. Sleep is good for you. I regularly recommend it to my patients."

"I listen well," Spencer told him.

"Proactively, even," Bob agreed. He held out a plastic bag filled with all sorts of medical goodies and a sheet of paper. "How to take care of yourself and the stuff to take care of yourself with. Mikey found you meds. Listen to those instructions, okay? And if it gets worse at all? Don't wait to come back in. I know going to the doctor sucks, but seriously, Spencer, that cut was going the way of gangrenous, and if you'd lost any more blood, I probably would have had to do a transfusion."

Spencer nodded. "Thanks."

Bob shrugged, smiled an indecently kind smile. "That's my job."

"Yeah," Spencer said, and forced a responding smile. It was ridiculous to feel disappointment at that statement. Spencer was obviously even more tired than he had thought. He hopped off the table and went to go get what sleep was left to him.

*


Saturday nights were invariably the worst, if not in temperament of the Johns, then in number.

Brendon took an offer for two at a time because he could charge up for that, and the week had been a little slow. Brendon had been around long enough to see what happened to the guys who didn't turn in the expected earnings at the end of the week.

The Johns weren't cruel about going double on him, were even sort of considerate, but it hurt and it was all Brendon could do not to cry, to make himself sound like he was along for the ride, in for the good time, while he was writhing atop them, praying, pleading for it to be over.

While it was happening Brendon swore to himself he'd never, ever do this again, but as soon as he had the money pocketed he knew he would. It was better than the alternative. It was at least his choice.

They dropped him back off at his corner and he smiled and thanked them, called them studs. The Johns seemed to like him just a bit girly.

Brendon took two back alley blowjobs in quick succession after that, and an against-the-wall fuck. The guys who liked it in the alleys were generally a little bit rougher, which meant extra, and was normally an easy way to get slightly ahead, but it hurt so damn much after the earlier festivities that Brendon bit straight through the skin of his forearm trying to keep himself from throwing the guy off.

He collected with a line about the guy knowing how to give it real good--he didn't remember what he said, exactly--and stayed in the alley for just a bit, just a moment to collect himself.

Someone appeared at the end of the alley and Brendon dug into the back pocket of his jeans for the switchblade he kept handy, one of his first purchases after he'd managed to pull together enough for more than just food. The figure moved and Brendon tightened his fingers but then Ryan called out, "You gonna stay back here all night?"

Brendon plastered his game face on so hard he felt it settle. "What do you care? More for you."

Ryan tossed his head loftily. "I already made for the evening. Everything else is just cupcakes now."

For a second, Brendon let hatred burn through him. Then the dirty, interrupted light of the alley caught Ryan's face and Brendon could see the way one of his cheeks was quite a bit puffier than it generally was. Ryan was an earner, yeah, but Brendon got the feeling he made his money on more than his looks. "Cupcakes? What are you, Rita Hayworth?"

"Better," Ryan told him. "Bette Davis."

"Bette Davis was so not better than Rita Hayworth." Brendon shook his head at Ryan's obvious folly and started to walk toward the street.

Ryan stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. "Whoa. No."

"No, what?"

"You can't limp."

Brendon hadn't really even thought about it. He'd just been doing whatever his body had wanted to do to get him back to his corner. He concentrated this time and took a step. "Better?"

"A little. Straighten your hips," Ryan said, his hands coming to help out, "yeah, like that, and now take a step."

Brendon bit back a gasp.

"I know," Ryan said, "but Johns totally sense blood in the water. The worst ones always want someone who's already a little bit roughed up. And those kinds-- Stay away from them. No matter how much they offer. No matter how down you are."

Brendon nodded. "Thanks."

"Yeah, well, evidently Spencer would be sad if you died."

Brendon smiled. It was a tired smile, but it was the first one all night that was real, and the truth in it helped a little bit, soothed some of the ache of the night away. "You're all heart."

Ryan smirked. "C'mon," he said, and kept his hands on Brendon's hips just long enough to ensure that his walk looked right.

*


Wednesday night was their night off, the calm before the storm. Spencer knocked on Brendon's door. Brendon answered in boxers and a tee-shirt. Ryan stuck his chin on Spencer's shoulder. "That's what you're wearing?"

"Wearing?" Brendon grinned. "Oh, hey, are we going somewhere?"

"Not until you get dressed," Spencer told him. "Move."

Brendon closed the door and reappeared in less than a minute. Behind Spencer, Ryan snorted softly. "Hooker."

"Pot," Brendon called him.

Spencer listened to them bicker all the way to the club, where Spencer smiled at the bouncer and they were in within seconds. Spencer said to Ryan, "Keep an eye on him."

Ryan said, "I could--"

"Just keep an eye on him," Spencer repeated and went to go find Mike. He wasn't hard to find. Spencer had no doubt the bouncer had given him a heads up.

Mike said, "Well, if it isn't my favorite piece of jailbait."

Mike owned the club with his partner William. They weren't the worst people Spencer knew. They were slightly sleazy, but then, these days, Spencer didn't know many people who weren't.

William pulled up on Spencer's other side. "Two friends, huh?"

Spencer managed not to roll his eyes. Normally he could get him and Ryan in for a blowjob a piece, or letting one of them fuck him while the other watched. He had somewhat expected the price to go up. "What do you want?"

"I get your mouth," Mike said, "he gets your ass. Same time."

"Fine." Spencer wasn't a huge fan of going at both ends, it made him feel trapped, but the smile Brendon had showered him with when they stepped in the club, the way Ryan always unwound a notch when they were here, just living a little, those things were more than worth ten or so minutes of discomfort.

They took him to William's office and Spencer let them have their way. Afterward he rinsed his mouth out in the bathroom and then set out to find Ryan and Brendon. He saw them out on the floor, dancing together. Ryan had his head bent, listening to something Brendon was saying. Spencer was pretty sure they didn't need a third.

He was looking for a good spot to just sit and watch the two of them when he saw something that interested him more. He took a deep breath and did not, did not allow himself to think about what he was doing before approaching the something and saying, "Well, if it isn't Dr. Bob."

Blue eyes turned on him and for a second Spencer was absolutely sure he was going to get the brush off. Then Bob smiled. "And if it isn't Almost Gangrenous Boy."

"Spencer," Spencer supplied.

"I remembered," Bob said.

Spencer was glad he'd had blushing trained right out of him.

"How're you feeling?"

"Brand new."

"Uh huh."

"What's a nice young professional like you doing in a place like this?"

"I could ask you the same thing."

"I know the owners."

"The lab tech for the clinic, Ray? He DJs on certain Wednesdays."

"Really? He's good."

Bob nodded. "He is." Then, quickly, as though he were as nervous as Spencer, "Let me buy you a drink?"

"Are you offering to inebriate the underaged?"

"If you're old enough to provide sex as a career, you're old enough to imbibe."

Spencer realized Bob had no idea just how young he was. He wasn't going to tell him. "I don't drink."

"Soda? Pineapple juice? Or do you eschew all liquids?"

"Chocolate milk."

"Really?"

"Yes." Besides which, Spencer wanted to see if Bob would actually ask for it.

Bob didn't even blink while requesting it. The bartender did. But Bob returned with chocolate flavored milk and Spencer grinned at him.

"Drink up, that's good for your bones."

It probably was, but at the moment, it felt a hell of a lot better for his mindset.

*


When Brendon was four, his mother told him that it was curiosity that killed the cat. Brendon had been just old enough to know he was a boy, not a cat, and not yet old enough to understand that she was speaking metaphorically.

Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if she had just waited a few years. If he would have known better than to look over at his lab partner Jason and think, "Huh, wonder what that feels like?"

He knew it probably wouldn't have made a difference. But he was, by nature, a curious guy.

Which was of course, of course what got him into trouble with Ryan and Spencer.

Brendon was not stupid. He knew that part of the code of streetwalkers, prostitutes, rentboys, whores--whatever they chose to call themselves--was to act as though none of them had any past before the street. He liked that others respected that rule in regard to him. He didn't want to talk about home, not its winters nor its summers, not church nor school, certainly not his parents nor his siblings.

So he didn't ask, and he, in turn, was not asked.

Until the day he turned to Spencer and said, "What's your palm about?" referring to the letter T branded into Spencer's palm. Brendon shuddered to think how that must have felt.

"Fuck off," Ryan snarled.

Brendon literally took a step back.

"Come on, Spence," Ryan said and headed back to their corner.

Spencer, for his part, hesitated for a second. Softly, he said, "Ownership," before obediently following Ryan.

Brendon said, "Shit," aloud, bit his lip, and did not cry.

The problem was, it was nearly impossible to correct his mistake. Territory lines had long been drawn and it was Ryan and Spencer who came to Brendon, not the other way around. It was hard to apologize if he couldn't so much as speak to the other two.

In a moment of desperation, Brendon spent some of the money he'd been saving for some new jeans on the latest issues of Spin and Rolling Stone, both of which he knew Ryan and Spencer lusted over, and made his way over there, holding the magazines out as a peace offering and not actually stepping onto their corner.

Ryan looked furious. "We're not for sale. Not that way."

But Spencer said, "Shut up, Ryan." He took the magazines and maybe let his hand linger on Brendon's just a second longer than probably strictly necessary in order to grasp them.

Brendon said, "I didn't mean it like that. I'm sorry," and hied himself back off to his corner before Ryan could give into his clear urge to kill Brendon.

In the morning, he was walking home, too depressed to really pay much attention to anything. It was foolish he knew, and regretted it when footsteps came up beside him. His hand automatically went to his back pocket but Spencer said, "He's not really mad."

Brendon exhaled. "He seems pretty mad."

"Well, no, he is, but not at you."

"Oh." Brendon nodded. He generally didn't displace his anger, but it wasn't a concept he was unfamiliar with.

"At Thomas."

Brendon nodded again. He wasn't asking any more questions.

"I'll make you a deal."

"What sort of deal?" Evidently his resolution not to ask questions wasn't as strong as he would have preferred it to be.

"I'll tell you about my brand if you tell me something as important about yourself."

"Like what?"

"Up to you. You can decide after I've told you."

Brendon considered. There wasn't much he wanted to talk about, but then, clearly Spencer didn't want to talk about the brand, either. He could just refuse, spare both of them the pain. Brendon caught sight of Spencer's palm in the loose swing of his arms. "All right."

They were at Brendon's room and Brendon let them in, sat on the edge of his cot leaving plenty of room for Spencer. Spencer stayed standing. He said, "Thomas...I was on a lot of shit when he first found me. Stuff you ingested, injected, snorted. Pretty much if it was mind-altering I was into it. And that was how he got me started. I had already done things, a couple of times, for hits and I figured, you know, it wasn't so different, one main source. Then there was Ryan, and Ryan's story is his, but he got me off of that stuff. I was pretty ready, but I couldn't have done it, not by myself and-- Yeah, he just let me say awful, awful shit to him and cleaned me up after every bout of withdrawal and I probably wouldn't even be alive if he hadn't.

"Anyway, Thomas was pretty pissed when he figured it out. Not that I could really just go free, but that was one less hold on me, and he did his best to get me started up again, but Ryan just wouldn't let it happen." Spencer pressed his lips together at whatever memory accompanied that statement.

"When he figured out that I was gonna be clean no matter what he did, he wanted to make a point that I was his, make an example of the whore who wouldn't acquiesce to his desires, so he gathered his stable up and took us to a branding parlor and had this done." Spencer shrugged. "He said he wanted it to be on my face, but marking the merchandise is considered a bad idea."

Brendon swallowed. His throat was full of something and it was hard, but he managed.

Spencer said, "Your turn."

Brendon said, "I don't have any stories like that."

"Good. But I just said something important."

Brendon thought about it. He didn't want to cheat Spencer. "I was Mormon. From Nevada, you know. Tight knit community. Two brothers and a two sisters, all older. I was going to be a choir teacher." Brendon smiled. "I like to sing. I sang at church."

Spencer came and sat down next to Brendon. He said, "Would you like me to ask?"

Brendon closed his eyes. "No, no. This was our deal."

"But you asked me. Kind of a lopsided deal."

Brendon took the out. "Please."

"What made you leave?"

"Jason Henson. My lab partner. Not Mormon, although," Brendon laughed a little, "that was the least of the problems, really."

"You liked him?"

"We liked each other. And that was never-- Until I kissed Jason I thought I knew where G-d was, you know? I thought I heard Him every week when I would sing with the others. But it just paled in comparison, was weak. And they would never have accepted that. Not my brothers or my sisters or my mom and definitely, definitely not my dad. I didn't want to be told to go. This way, you know, this way they still loved their church-going, average student son when he left."

"Did you leave a note?"

"Yes."

"What did it say?"

Brendon intoned, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination."

"That's biblical, yeah?"

Brendon nodded. "Leviticus, 18:22."

Spencer whispered, "You're not an abomination."

Brendon said, "And Thomas doesn't own a single important part of you."

He was curious as to whether either of them actually believed the other.

*


Brendon divided regulars into two categories: bread-and-butter regulars and can't-get-this-anywhere-else regulars.

The former were just guys who, for whatever reason--fear of commitment, lack of physical appeal, a wife at home, a thing for guys who were too young--preferred their sex professional. They didn't ask for anything beyond the pedestrian orgasm in somebody's mouth or ass.

The latter were kinky motherfuckers, and paid whores because no boyfriend, no hook up, no anybody was going to allow them to do in an hour what any of Thomas' kids would take two hundred for without even blinking.

Brendon was building a portfolio of both. For obvious reasons, he preferred bread-and-butters.

Bread-and-butters were guarded jealously by every prostitute--easy and predictable money. So when one of the bread-and-butters that Brendon knew Ryan and Spencer shared--one or the other would take him depending on who was around--came over to cruise Brendon, he couldn't help it. He got fidgety. There wasn't a bread-and-butter in the world worth pissing the two of them off.

"You're kinda new," the John said.

Brendon shrugged. He'd been around almost four months. He looked over his shoulder. Neither Ryan nor Spencer was on the corner. He put out a prayer to a G-d he had left in Nevada for them to finish up and return, or for the John to realize he wanted to stick with what he knew.

G-d, however, was clearly busy with Real Mormons, because the John was asking, "What's your name?"

Why does it matter? "Brendon."

"Hey Brendon, I'm Jon."

Brendon caught himself just before he rolled his eyes. Mhm, sure you are.

Jon was holding his hand out, which was so old-fashioned and bizarre it took Brendon a moment to realize he was trying to shake hands. Brendon slid his hand into the outstretched palm. For the first time since he'd run, the touch of someone's skin who was not Spencer or Ryan didn't crawl along his own. Jon's hand was pleasantly warm, a little bit damp, his grip strong. And he kept eye contact with Brendon when they shook hands.

"Kinda chilly out here," Jon said.

The fog had rolled in earlier that week, and the nights were in the low forties. The cold winds of the night desert hadn't really prepared Brendon for the damp, pervasive cold of San Francisco's early spring. Everything in Brendon said it should have been getting warmer, but it just didn't, not to any noticeable degree. Normally Brendon would have said something cheesy about needing to be warmed up, but Jon was Ryan's and Spencer's, and he was going to stay that way, if Brendon had anything to say about it.

"I'd like to take you somewhere. Get you out of this weather." Jon was so utterly soft, cautious in his approach.

"It's refreshing," Brendon told him, well aware he sounded brain-damaged.

"You often play this hard-to-get?"

Brendon's gaze flickered back to the other corner without his permission, any permission at all.

Jon said, "Ah. Ryan and Spencer are your friends, huh?"

Brendon looked away.

"It is cold out here, Brendon. I don't want to wait. If it's not you, it'll be someone else."

Ryan and Spencer already hated all the other guys, that was fine.

"I want it to be you."

Jon's want sounded like real want, the kind Brendon had almost forgotten existed.

"They know I go with others sometimes. I always come back to them."

Always was a tricky word.

Brendon was shaking from the cold, hiding it only by dint of sheer will, and it was a Tuesday night. He could use the cash. He could really, really use the cash. He cocked his head a little, "What'd you have in mind?"

He was the worst friend ever.

*


Brendon was sniffling when they went out on Wednesday night and Ryan told him, "Oh no, you're not touching me with those leprosy bearing hands."

Brendon kept his hands to himself. He'd been oddly quiet ever since they'd come to pick him up and Spencer wondered if there was something on his mind, or if he was just feeling crappy enough that it was simply easier to stay silent.

Spencer said, "Let's skip the club tonight."

Ryan said, "I wanna dance, Spence."

Brendon just looked up, clearly waiting to hear what else Spencer was going to say. It was probably best to send him home, make him sleep, but the wariness in his eyes made Spencer suspect that was what he expected to hear. Spencer said, "Next week, Ry. Juice bar."

"Fine," Ryan grumbled, but Spencer knew that Ryan secretly liked to check out all the psuedo-hippy English majors from Stanford who frequented the place, liked the way they looked back and for a while, just a while, Ryan felt like someone who didn't need to sell his cock for someone to touch it.

Ryan felt like someone who could be more that just his cock.

Spencer would tell him that he already was, but Ryan would just roll his eyes and refuse to listen.

Once they were there, Spencer let Ryan grab them a table. He would pick out the most comfortable armchairs in the place and pull them around a table. He was crafty and mercenary in that way and yet nobody ever seemed to say anything about it to him.

The girl behind the counter was familiar. Spencer and Ryan didn't come here all that often, but often enough that she smiled at him and said, "Hi, honey, what'll it be?"

Spencer was a total weakling for women who called him pet names. They reminded him of his mom. "One very berry blue, one banarama, and one ginger snap."

"And one--" Brendon started.

Spencer cut him off with, "Yours is the ginger snap."

"I don't like ginger. It burns my throat."

"The cold you're picking up is gonna burn it a hell of a lot more."

"I can pay for my own drink, you know?"

"Drink the ginger snap and I'll get you a large hot chocolate."

Brendon considered the offer. "Really?"

"I'm a whore of my word," Spencer said flippantly. The girl behind the counter laughed a little.

"Ginger snap it is."

The girl made them their drinks, and Spencer paid, making sure to leave a tip.

By the time they reached Ryan he was already flirting with some brown-eyed, emo-haired college kid who was clearly impressed by his own deepness. Ryan was just as clearly having the time of his life nodding at the bullshit being spewed.

Then Ryan threw out something about Brecht and Brendon asked softly, "He's kinda smart, Ryan, yeah?"

Ryan was heartbreakingly brilliant, so far as Spencer was concerned. He scavenged books, newspapers, pretty much anything involving words that he could get his hands on. At first Spencer would read the stuff after him so that Ryan would have someone to talk to about it, but Ryan always went places that Spencer couldn't follow. Spencer's favorite subject had always been math. He missed the clear cut answers of algebra, the neat lines of geometry.

"Yeah," Spencer said, and tapped Ryan to give him his drink. Ryan took it without so much as looking back. Spencer could tell he was just about at the part where he completely deconstructed every pompous theory the college boy had just thrown at him in loving detail and showed why it was completely and utterly groundless.

Ryan was awesome when he got his full-on bitch on.

Brendon set in on his drink so quickly he choked on the ginger. Spencer rubbed his back. "Take it easy there, tiger."

Brendon rasped, "This is disgusting."

"So are colds. Trust me, Johns hate getting whore-snot on themselves."

Brendon pouted and returned to drinking, slightly slower this time.

Ryan, evidently done with his lesson in humiliation, turned back to them. He took a sip of his drink and asked Spencer, "You get the berry blue?"

Spencer nodded. He could handle being predictable.

"Taste?" Ryan held out a hand.

"Swap," Spencer told him, handing him the cup even as he held out his other hand. Ryan traded.

Brendon said, "I hate both of you."

"Hot chocolate," Spencer cooed.

Brendon sniffled.

*


By Friday evening, Brendon couldn't breathe through his nose, at all. His lungs weren't that much more reliable than his nasal passages.

There was a drugstore a few blocks down and he bought himself some over the counter decongestants and a couple of bottles of water. He told Spencer, when he and Ryan dropped by for a quick hello, "I don't think your ginger shit worked."

Ryan put a hand to Brendon's chest, said, "Breathe."

Brendon tried.

Ryan shared a look with Spencer. "I don't think that's a cold."

Spencer swore softly. "Keep yourself doped enough that you don't pass out on guys' cocks, okay? We'll take you in in the morning."

"Take me in?" Brendon asked, but Spencer and Ryan were already moving back, ready to get started on the evening's earnings. Brendon shrugged mentally. Wherever they took him, he'd go.

He was all right at first, the medicine helping a little bit, but as the night wore on the damp seemed to sink into his lungs and his eyes tore from the effort of trying not to cough while Johns were cruising him. He choked on a John's cock, his teeth glancing over the skin, and earned himself a couple of kicks to the stomach and a definite pay deduction.

He was pretty desperate by the time Jon showed, but not desperate enough to steal a second time, so he looked over and said, "Ryan and Spencer--"

Only Ryan and Spencer weren't there. Friday nights were busy, and the overflow that Brendon knew he wasn't managing was probably streaming over onto them.

Jon smiled. "Was I that bad?"

Brendon said, "I have Ebola."

"Then I'm already screwed, just standing this close to you."

"They'll be back, and then you can have somebody able to suck you." Brendon did his best for a goofy smile. "I'm pretty disabled on that count." It was going to make meeting goal problematic. Fucking and special jobs paid more, but blowjobs were the backbone of any street whore's night.

Jon said, "Not what I was looking for this evening."

Brendon pressed his lips closed, clamped down on another bout of coughing. His chest burned with the effort. He looked over once more, desperate but not really hopeful. Neither Spencer nor Ryan had returned. He bit back a sigh, and put some interest into his tone. "And what were you looking for?"

"Come on," Jon said.

Brendon followed.

Jon took him to one of the motels they all frequented. It was a pit, but it was heated, which was pretty much everything in the world Brendon wanted just then. Jon disappeared into the bathroom and when he emerged, threw a towel at Brendon. "Dry off."

The fog tended to settle on a person, sometimes just as a pervasive dampness, sometimes soaking into his clothes, his skin. Tonight it was the former, which was a small favor. It was nice to wipe what he could away.

Jon asked, "If you lie down, are you gonna fall asleep?"

"I'm sure you'll keep me awake." Brendon cocked his head. He hoped he looked appealing. Everything ached.

"So, that's a yes." Jon laughed. "Here, let's do this." He used one hand to back Brendon into the wall. Brendon kept himself poised for self-defense or flight, but Jon wasn't pushing that hard, and he hit the wall fairly gently.

Jon's hands went to Brendon's jeans. Brendon asked, "Want me to turn around?"

"That's gonna make things really fucking difficult for me," Jon told him as he got to his knees.

Brendon frowned down at him, literally not even registering the pleasure of Jon's mouth sliding up his cock for the shock of the event. Spencer had told him people paid for this, and he'd had a few Johns pay to be fucked, but not this, not yet. "Oh," he said, one hand grappling at the wall.

"You're pretty fucking hot, Brendon," Jon said, pulling off his cock for long enough to smile up at him.

Brendon couldn't summon a smile, couldn't do anything other than stare down in surprise. "You're not so bad yourself."

Jon laughed again, and went back to sucking. He wasn't brilliant at it, but he was only the second guy whose mouth had ever touched Brendon's dick, and the first one hadn't had a clue what he was doing. It took Brendon a while--the sickness and exhaustion slowing him down in just about every conceivable way--but he said, "Jon, you have to-- I'm going to--"

Jon pulled off just a little and swallowed neatly.

Brendon said, "Ebola."

Jon tucked him back inside his jeans, careful not to catch flesh in the zipper. "You warned me. If I get sick, I'll have nobody but myself to blame."

"You could always say you were walking down the street and whores molested you. You're just that hot." Brendon started to smile but broke off to suppress a coughing jag. He only partly managed, some of it tearing from him.

Jon asked, "You wanna stay here a bit? Actually get dry?"

Brendon would have liked nothing more, but the clock was ticking and the fee for getting blown was not particularly impressive. He kissed Jon's cheek in appreciation, murmured, "Places to be, people to meet."

Jon pressed some money into his hand.

Brendon said, "This is--"

Jon said, "I had fun. Keep it."

Brendon wasn't noble enough that he was going to argue.

*


Spencer sent Ryan home in the morning before walking Brendon to the clinic. There was really no point to all three of them being awake.

Spencer flipped through outdated Entertainment Weekly magazines while they waited, keeping an eye out to see that Brendon--who had curled into a ball in his chair and fallen asleep--didn't fall.

After a bit, Mikey came for them. Spencer asked, "Don't you get a day off?"

Mikey smiled. "Middle of the week. Weekends are the fun time here, don't you know?"

"I can imagine." Spencer didn't ask if that meant Bob was around. The last thing he needed was everybody at the clinic knowing he had some stupid little whore-boy crush on one of the doctors.

Brendon fell asleep again on the table and Spencer ran a cautious hand over his head, down his back. The door opened and Spencer snatched his hand back.

Bob said, "If it isn't my favorite gentleman of the night."

Spencer couldn't stop himself from laughing. "I've been keeping up with my calcium intake."

"Glad to hear it." Bob gestured toward Brendon's sleeping form. "I take it he's the problem?"

"For the moment, that's an accurate assessment."

Bob looked at the chart. "Brendon? Hey, Brendon, wake up for me for just a bit. Come on."

Brendon dragged his eyes open. There was a momentary flicker of panic in them at seeing Bob first. Spencer said, "We're at the clinic, remember?" and Brendon visibly calmed.

"Hi Brendon. I'm Dr. Bryar, but Bob will work better for me, if you're so inclined. Spencer and I go back aways."

"If by 'aways' you mean 'a little over a month'," Spencer interjected, but he felt bizarrely, inanely flattered.

"So you can trust me," Bob said, as if Spencer hadn't even spoken. It didn't feel as dismissive as something like that normally would have.

"I can't breathe," Brendon told him.

"Through your nose or through your mouth?" Bob asked.

Brendon opened his mouth to say something but instead began coughing. After a bit, when it didn't seem that he would stop, Bob said, "Right, I see."

Spencer watched the way Bob talked to Brendon through his distress, told him where he was going to touch, when. When the coughing finally eased, Bob rubbed a little bit between Brendon's shoulder blades, said, "How about we get you some stuff to help with that?"

Brendon barely had the energy to nod. Spencer said, "Give it to me, I'll make sure he takes it."

Bob told them, "It's an upper respiratory infection, which doesn't feel fun, but can be fixed with antibiotics. I'm gonna start you off with a shot, because I like injecting people with things and also, that'll give you a good start so that by the time you take the second course tonight, the symptoms should already be lessening. I'll also see if Mikey can dig up some cough syrup and cough drops and other yummy tasting stuff. Mikey always finds the best stuff."

When Bob left the room, Brendon said, "He's nice," before promptly passing out again.

Bob came back with a bag. "Mikey's totally in love with you."

"What'd he find us?"

"Dayquil pills."

Spencer nodded solemnly. "If I thought he'd accept, I'd totally show my appreciation."

"Since he won't, you wanna grab lunch some time this week?"

For a second, Spencer didn't understand the question. Then he had to clamp down on an urge to ask if Bob was serious. "I like lunch."

"There's this diner, Mary Ann's, about ten minutes walk from here. They serve milk."

"Well, I'm won."

"I know. We have that sort of history."

Spencer smirked.

"Tuesday? Noon?"

"I'll mark my calendar."

"Penciled in. I must rate." Bob pressed his lips to the corner of Spencer's, chaste and illicit all at once. "Go, get him home."

Spencer sighed, called, "Brendon, Brendon. Time to go."

*


Jon came back Monday night. He said, "Look, you're alive."

Brendon grinned. "And well." He still had a slight cough, but for the most part the meds and the soup that Ryan kept bringing him and glaring at him until he ate were doing the job. He looked over. Ryan was slouching against the brick wall of the building at his corner. "Hey, look who's available."

"Mhm," Jon said. "I've had that."

"You've had me," Brendon pointed out reasonably, despite his rising panic. Ryan was going to look over here any minute, he was.

"Not as often," Jon came back with, also quite reasonably. "You're shiny," he said, with a slightly mocking smile. It wasn't as mocking as perhaps it should have been. Brendon wasn't sure how he noticed the slip, he just did.

"Ryan is all shine, all the time." He really was, too. Brendon wasn't entirely sure how a person could get tired of the kind of mystery, elusive beauty that Ryan provided.

"I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree."

Brendon looked at him, concentrated as hard as he could on the words, you promised, you said you always go back to them. Tragically, Brendon's powers of telepathy were failing him at this crucial moment. "Jon--"

"Three hours," Jon said. "And I'll even let you charge me for four. Monday nights are kinda slow, right?"

"Maybe a threesome?" Brendon tried.

"Maybe another time. That could be fun. Right now I want you."

"I'm still kinda sniffly, I could still get you--"

Jon pulled him in, kissed him deep and slow. "Don't worry, I'll let you charge me for that, too," he said into Brendon's mouth when he pulled back a little. "Damage is done."

Brendon's gaze strayed to Ryan. He was standing now, not depending on the wall. Softly Brendon said, "Truer words were never spoken." Then, "Three hours, huh?"

It ended up being four. Jon liked to take his time with things, liked to talk, liked to listen. Brendon hated that he sort of liked it too, that Jon's hands were warm and his touch hummed pleasantly against Brendon's back, over his ass. Jon's laugh was cynical but not ugly, and when he asked Brendon questions, he actually paid attention to the answers.

When Jon dropped him back off at the corner with five hours worth of pay, Ryan and Spencer were already gone for the morning. Brendon took himself home, put himself to bed.

He woke up early, nightmares that he couldn't remember echoing in his mind. He thought about seeking Ryan out, trying to explain, but there was nothing to say, nothing but the truth and the truth was that Brendon was evidently the kind of guy who took things from people who couldn't really afford to give. People who had already given him things, despite their own lack.

Maybe he would start with Spencer, just get the truth out there and let Spencer intervene.

Brendon buried his face in his pillow. Yeah, because putting Spencer in the middle of it was just awesome of him.

Brendon reached under his bed for the Premiere he had rescued from a trash can the week before and tried to get a little lost in the world of Hollywood, of make believe and pretty untruths and shine.

You're shiny.

Ryan was too. He really, really was. People just didn't look, didn't see.

And Brendon was a thief.

He put the magazine back for a time when he could actually enjoy it and tried for sleep one more time.

Brendon was nothing if not an optimist.

*


Spencer asked, "How do I look?"

Ryan said, "Like a real boy."

"Ryan--"

Ryan hooked his fingers in the loops of Spencer's jeans and kissed him lightly. "You look hot. Go."

"Yeah," Spencer said, running his hands through his hair one last time. "Yeah, okay."

Ryan let go of him with only the slightest bit of hesitation. His tone was a little less light than he probably would have preferred when he said, "I expect you home by seven, young lady."

"It's his lunch hour, Ryan. Defined by the word 'hour'. I'll be back by one-thirty. By which time, I expect you to be asleep."

"Yes, mom."

"Jesus," Spencer said, and left. He wasn't used to being out at this time of the day. Things looked different in broad daylight. Spencer found his way to Mary Ann's and looked around. Bob waved shortly at him and Spencer headed that direction, slipping into the booth.

"How's Brendon?" he asked.

"Almost back to being as annoying as usual. How's Mikey?"

"As hot as usual."

"Excellent," Spencer said, and picked up his menu.

The waitress's name tag declared her to be Emily. She called Spencer "dear" and asked him if he wanted whipped cream on his milkshake. He did. She evidently knew Bob and so didn't even ask what he wanted. Spencer thought it would be cool to eat somewhere regularly enough that the helping staff just looked at you and got to making your food. Spencer, however, had to ask, "What'd you get?"

"Grilled cheese with tomato soup."

"Really?"

"I'm sort of a vegetarian. And they make the soup with real tomatoes."

"How is one sort of a vegetarian? Do you only eat things that died of old age?"

"Organic meat. And I can't generally afford that, so mostly a vegetarian, really."

"You should get yourself a real doctor's job. Then you could eat meat."

"Well, I'm still an intern, so probably not. Besides, I like the clinic. I meet young boyflesh there."

"Yeah, I bet they advertise that as one of the job perks. Seriously, why the clinic?"

"A bunch of reasons. One of my best friends in the universe runs it. I actually help people there. I get treated like a valued physician rather than mostly-free help. It's a good place."

"Is it true that Mikey's brother runs the place?"

Bob nodded.

"That place is a total incest pit."

"You have no idea."

Spencer blinked.

"Oh, not-- I didn't mean like that."

Spencer snorted. "Sure you didn't."

Bob laughed and changed the subject. "You like punk music?"

"I like music, but yeah, punk's good."

"I play the drums. Sort of."

"Like you're sort of a vegetarian?" Spencer was impressed by the evenness of his own question, given that he was possibly more turned on than he ever had been in his life. He was lucky the table was there, saving him. It was as surprising as it was embarrassing.

"Like I sort of suck because I don't have much time to devote to it, but I like it."

The food came and Spencer dove into his burger, a total treat to himself. Bob said, "Stop making meat look good again."

Spencer looked up at him. Yeah, no fucking way.

*


Within a week, Brendon gained two particularly vicious can't-get-this-anywhere-else regulars--one with a thing for putting out cigarette butts on skin, another with an asphyxiation fetish. It took him a few weeks to actually realize that they were regulars, instead of just guys out for one night of intensely kinky fun. It took him another week after that and Mr. Asphyxo saying, "Ryan was right about you, gorgeous," for Brendon to figure out how it was he'd come into them out of nowhere in such a short amount of time.

The pounding of his head when he came to was about more than just oxygen deprivation. He pretended it wasn't.

He thought about going to Ryan. He thought about asking, "Why? Whywhywhy?"

Only he knew why. And he should have known. Ryan's utter lack of reaction to Brendon's theft, his continuation as if Brendon hadn't taken the fucking soup and eaten it and then turned around and betrayed him should have warned Brendon.

So he took the regulars, and didn't tell Spencer, didn't do a damn thing except clean the burns up for himself, learn how to look like he was unconscious before he actually was.

At the very least, those were both kinks that Brendon could charge almost obscene sums for. It allowed him to save for something he'd kind of been hoping to do for over a month.

He went early, went to go get Spencer, instead of Spencer coming to him on the Wednesday in question. Ryan was already at Spencer's, which was convenient. Brendon grinned and told them, "We're going out to dinner. My treat."

Ryan narrowed his eyes. "Why?"

"Because you're my friends," he said. And they were. Even now, maybe Ryan didn't think Brendon was his friend, but he was and he would prove it, he would be like Spencer, steady and worthy. Then Ryan would forgive him and he would have them both back. Brendon couldn't imagine why Ryan hadn't told Spencer what Brendon had done, but he hadn't, and that gave Brendon hope. Clearly Ryan wasn't set on poisoning Spencer against him. That was almost like a truce of some sort, with Ryan.

"Yeah," Ryan said slowly, drawing the syllable out.

"Ryan--" Spencer started.

"No, uh uh, I'm not taking dinner from anyone until I know what the expected payment is."

Brendon had been kicked in the stomach more times than he could count by this point. It had never felt quite this intense. The words, "Monday was my birthday," crumbled in his mouth, out past his teeth, even though he hadn't planned on saying. "It was sort of a--" Bad night. It was a bad night. Burn Man decided to get creative and try out the sole of one of Brendon's feet. And he'd had one of the fucked up furtive ones, the ones who got a little bit violent in their self-hating homosexuality and took it out on the psuedo-object of their desire. "I just wanted to go to dinner with my friends."

Ryan's eyes burned large in his face. He said, "Happy birthday," and looked away. Brendon knew Ryan had seen his ex-regular cruise Brendon on Monday. He'd walked on his foot afterward, not limped, and he'd felt Ryan watching him.

Brendon didn't want Ryan's guilt. He wanted Ryan to go out and celebrate his birthday with him. Spencer said, "Hey, really? You're eighteen?"

Brendon nodded. "No more boy-whore here. I'm a total man-whore."

Spencer snorted. "You can say that again. Where are we going to dinner?"

"Mexican?" Brendon loved Mexican. The Mexican here wasn't the same as home, but it was a known quantity, familiar and filling and cheap.

"If we go to Consuelo's," Ryan said, "we could get you a petit fours from Beatrice afterward." He smiled, a small, dented sort of smile.

Brendon grinned at him. He knew Ryan well enough to know what his forgiveness looked like. "Oh, and a croissant for breakfast."

"Pig," Ryan said.

"It's my birthday," Brendon explained patiently, "I'm allowed to eat whatever I want."

"Monday was your birthday." Ryan was having none of it.

Spencer smacked the back of Ryan's head lightly. Ryan smirked and threw an arm over Brendon's shoulders. The action was completely fluid, but it was the first time Ryan had so much as brushed against Brendon in a month, and Brendon felt the way the arm rested precariously, ready to be thrown off.

Brendon insinuated his arm around Ryan's waist before reaching out and tugging Spencer to them.

*


Even had Spencer not recognized Ryan's cold, enforced normality toward Brendon over the span of a month as Ryan's reaction to being kicked by someone whom he should have expected it from, but whom he took his eyes off of for a little bit too long; even had Spencer not known that Ryan could be utterly heartless and nearly psychotic in taking his revenge, he would have known Ryan had done something unforgivable and had been forgiven all the same by the way Ryan bought both dinner and the pastries.

Brendon objected, said, "I saved--" but Ryan just said, "Save some more."

Ryan was a compulsive saver. Spencer suspected he still believed in freedom. Spencer had no idea what constituted the wheres and hows and whens of freedom for Ryan, but he was pretty sure they existed.

It was only fair that Ryan get to believe in freedom, since he couldn't seemingly believe in anything else.

The problem, Spencer knew, was that Ryan had a decisive lack of context for most things good. Whereas Brendon had seventeen years of conditional love--if nothing else--to fall back on, to frame his ideas of loyalty and safety and care around, and Spencer had twelve years of wholly unconditional love to build his conceptions of the world around, Ryan had only ever had his father's fists and feet to depend on.

Perhaps, in Ryan's mind, the fact that he had escaped that, had gotten himself away, was enough to make him believe that he could slip from Thomas' grip as well.

Spencer was not, was not going to be the person to tell him any different.

He didn't ask what Ryan what he had done, nor did he ask Brendon. He hadn't planned to, since clearly they had found a way past it, but any plans he might have had would have been derailed by Brendon asking, with a sort of prurient fascination, "How'd the fourth date go?"

Spencer was becoming a Tuesday lunch regular at Mary Ann's. His dreams of Emily knowing what he wanted were somewhat interrupted by the fact that he could never get himself to order the same thing. Except for the milkshake. She knew he was a strawberry milkshake with whipped cream, chocolate chips on top if they were available. The most impressive bit of information Spencer had garnered from his most recent date--sure to draw out even Ryan--was, "Bob owns a dog."

Bingo. Ryan leaned in. "What kind?"

"A vizla labrador mix. He showed me a picture. She's this really pretty brown color."

"What's her name?" Brendon asked.

"Elizabeth. Lizzy."

"That's kind of a stupid dog name," Ryan said. Brendon looked like he was forced to agree, but wasn't going to say anything.

Spencer had thought so too, at first, but Bob had explained, "She's named for two of the first female physicians ever, Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson."

"Bob's kind of a dork, isn't he?" Ryan asked.

"You read German existentialists in your free time," Spencer pointed out, not as gently as he otherwise might have.

"I like the Americanists more," Ryan said, as though that were some kind of defense.

Brendon laughed at him. Brendon was a good kid.

"Do you guys just...talk?" Ryan asked. Five weeks running and Ryan hadn't managed a single question about the dates until Brendon started it. Spencer knew where Ryan's brain took things, knew that in Ryan's head if Spencer got what he wanted then he'd find a way to leave Ryan behind to take it for himself. It wasn't even that Ryan didn't trust Spencer. It was that Ryan would want that for Spencer, even if it meant giving him up. Ryan would want that, even if it meant leaving Ryan utterly alone. But Ryan didn't want to be left. There were so very few things Ryan got that he wanted, and the few he did were generally double-edged. Spencer was pretty sure Ryan had lost the ability to comprehend desire as simple and fulfillable.

"We flirt," Spencer said. "Real flirting, not that shit we do with Johns. And he tells me things about the clinic and what he does when he's not there and I talk about music and some of the stupid shit Johns say, because he doesn't act like I'm not who I am, he doesn't make me feel like I can't talk about it if I want him to keep looking. I mean, I don't talk about the actual fucking, but that's just considerate, I think." Spencer was pretty sure there'd never been an etiquette book written on the subject.

Ryan and Brendon seemed to be in agreement on the subject, and that was a quorum, so Spencer went with it.

"Boyfriends are nice," Brendon said, and grinned at Spencer. "You go, Spence."

"I don't think he's my boyfriend," Spencer said. So there had maybe been that time--yesterday afternoon--when they'd left the diner a little bit early and Spencer had walked back to the clinic with Bob and then they'd made out in the supply closet for half an hour making Bob late for the second part of his shift. Bob's mouth was tangy with the aftertaste of real tomatoes, warm over Spencer's and his hands wandered, but in the good way, pressing nicely against Spencer's lower hips, over his shoulders, around his throat and chin without threatening pressure. Still, there hadn't been any real discussion about that, and they were only seeing each other once a week. Spencer wasn't entirely sure what the definition of a boyfriend was, but he didn't want to assign anything to Bob that he hadn't agreed to. Spencer didn't force himself on other people.

"He's not a John," Ryan said.

"And he's not us," Brendon added. The "us" was a little bit cautious, but he managed it. Ryan knocked one knee against Brendon's. Jesus. Spencer really didn't want to know what Ryan had done.

"There are a lot of other things in this world. Relationships," Spencer said.

"Maybe." Ryan didn't look so sure.

Brendon was still staring at his knee.

*


Jon was mostly a weeknights guy. Tuesdays and Thursdays, for the most part. Sometimes he hit a Sunday or a Monday, but Fridays and Saturdays almost never happened. Brendon figured he could get laid easier on those nights. Or, if not easier, more cheaply. Thomas' boys were street-whores and therefore not asking the kinds of prices that say, a brothel or a service would have, but there was still money involved in the transaction, sometimes even a considerable amount.

Enough that Brendon wouldn't have minded pocketing more than twenty percent.

Generally he didn't think about those sorts of things. They were likely to get him very dead.

Just the week before Thomas had reminded them what happened to whores who put a little something extra aside for themselves.

Brendon had needed to sleep at Spencer's for a couple of nights after that. Spencer hadn't said a word, just shared his cot with Brendon, holding him close and not acting like it was stupid, the way he would awaken shaking and wet. It was enough to allow Brendon to pull himself together when he needed to, be the perfectly alluring cocktease necessity dictated he be while out on the street. (Once in the alley or the hotel the "tease" part could disappear. Did disappear.)

So when Jon showed up on a Saturday night--he never had before that Brendon could remember--Brendon smiled and asked, "Slumming it, are we?"

Jon cocked his head and said, "Couldn't find anything better to do," but he looked Brendon up and down as he said it, like someone might do with a guy he was trying to pick up in a bar.

Brendon was a sure thing, but the attention was nice.

They went to the motel--this one was slightly further away, but Jon preferred the relative lack of sleaze that it offered. When they were in the room, Jon said, "I wanted to try something."

Brendon didn't stiffen, although the changing of the rules was a bit unfair at this stage of the game. Unfair was pretty par for the course, though, so Brendon thought, of course you do, and said, "Your money, Jon."

Jon looked out the window. There wasn't much of a view.

Brendon swallowed a sigh. He asked softly. "What's your pleasure?"

"No," Jon said without looking at him, "the other answer was better. That was you, in there."

Brendon wasn't sure what to say to that. It didn't matter how much money Jon had, there were parts of Brendon that actually weren't for sale. "I can't do it if I don't know what you want."

Jon turned back to him. "Rimming. I want-- It's sort of not the kind of thing you can just ask for."

Well, except with a whore. Brendon did not smile at Jon's utterly pedestrian kinks, neither in relief nor in amusement, though both rose up within him.

Jon said, "I showered. Before I went out."

Brendon didn't tell him he did it for people who hadn't. He did worse. "C'mere."

Jon crossed to him, didn't resist when Brendon pulled him down slightly into a kiss. Brendon worked at Jon's clothes even as they kissed. Brendon was really good at that part. Ryan had given him a few tips, but mostly he was just clever at the mechanics of things. He pushed Jon onto the bed and got him to tuck himself up a bit. Brendon ran a tongue down the length of Jon's spine. Jon gasped.

Brendon reached a hand down for the nipple piercing that ran through Jon's left nipple. One little tug at the right moment could have Jon completely ready to go.

Like that.

Jon said, "Jesus fuck, Brendon."

Wait for it, Brendon thought, and then swirled his tongue along the outer rim of Jon's ass.

Jon keened. Brendon hadn't even gotten to the impressive part, really.

He took his time. Jon wasn't particularly demanding about how things were done. Until now he hadn't really been all that demanding about what was done. Brendon got the feeling that if he'd said he didn't do rimming, Jon wouldn't have pressed. He might have found himself another whore who would, but he wouldn't have forced it on Brendon.

Brendon pressed his tongue in, slow, as far as he could manage. Then he dragged it back out.

Jon panted. Brendon played a little with the piercing, sunk back in. It wasn't so bad. Jon was clean and nicely, vocally appreciative and those weren't two things Brendon generally associated with sex any longer. It didn't hurt and he was in control, and those were both somewhat novel as well.

A change in Jon's pitch brought him out of his rhythm. Jon was saying, "Please, please," so Brendon brought his free hand up to Jon's cock.

Jon jerked away. "No." Then, "If you do that, I'll--"

Which was sort of the point, Brendon thought. Then he played events back a little bit and realized he must have missed something. Something before the pleading. He had to pay more attention. He was just lucky Jon wasn't the sort that got violent when denied.

He was also lucky Jon was willing to repeat himself without having to be asked. "I want you in me when I come."

It took Brendon a second to realize that Jon wasn't talking about his tongue.

Brendon grabbed one of the condoms Jon had thrown on the bed when they walked in, pushed his jeans down and rolled it on to himself. He bent down, swiped his tongue inside of Jon once more to get him wholly in the mood, twisting for emphasis. Jon whimpered. Brendon grinned, straightened slightly and sank in to Jon.

He wrapped his hand around Jon's cock asking, "Yeah?"

Jon babbled, "Brendon, Brendon, Brendon."

Brendon took that as an affirmative. He pulled back a little and pushed in, not even really thrusting, just pulsing back and forth, hitting Jon's prostate with an almost constant pressure. Jon came with a choked, strangled sort of sound and Brendon began to withdraw, only to have Jon reach back and hold him where he was with one insistent hand. When he had regained powers of speech, Jon ordered, "Finish."

Brendon did as told.

When he could, he pulled himself from Jon, took the condom off and disposed of it. When he returned to the bed, Jon was splayed on his back, watching Brendon. There was something in his gaze that Brendon thought he remembered from Jason, something like newborn awe, but Brendon figured he was just remembering wrong, since this was Jon, who liked him, but mostly just liked sex with people who wouldn't want more of him.

Jon pulled him down for a kiss. Brendon considered mentioning where his mouth had just been. He didn't The kiss was hot and heady and clearly meant for him.

Jon said, "You're fucking gorgeous."

"They all say that after an orgasm," Brendon said before he could stop himself. He bit his lip.

Jon laughed.

*


Brendon knew the rule about Johns. He knew a lot of rules about Johns, but he definitely knew the rule about not falling for them. That wasn't even just a movie thing, although, until recently, he had been pretty sure it was just a movie thing that there could be a John someone could fall for. He knew that rule, but so far as he could tell there wasn't a rule about enjoying the sex so when Ryan and Spencer came to walk part of the way home with him Sunday morning he asked, "You ever like it? When you're with the Johns?"

The question came out more ashamed then he had meant it to, like he already knew what he was asking was wrong.

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.

Ryan shrugged. "Sometimes it's not so bad. I have a regular who likes tying me up and blowing me. That can be kind of hot. I mean, he's not, but his mouth, sort of."

Spencer glanced at Brendon. "Sex is sex. It can be sorta fun."

Sex wasn't always sex, or at least not just that, but Brendon wasn't going to tell either one of them that, not when he was pretty sure they'd never done it with someone who wasn't paying them. Still, it was a relief to know that he wasn't the only one who could occasionally get a little more out of this than cash. "Okay."

The semi-regular who liked caning and schoolboy/teacher role play came by that evening--Sundays, always Sundays, between that and the fetish, Brendon suspected he was a priest--and somehow the pain of it, the way the cane snapped into him, even tore the skin at one point, made it better, easier to accept that there could be pleasure, too.

A trade off. Nothing to do with emotion.

Monday morning Ryan noticed the stripe of red bisecting Brendon's back just below the shoulder blades, ruining his shirt. "You want help with that?"

Brendon wasn't going to be able to reach himself so he just nodded and let Ryan follow him to his room. Ryan had never been. He looked around at the posters--neither Ryan nor Spencer had posters. Spencer had some fliers from the club, shows he and Ryan had gone to on their Wednesday nights, some pictures from the magazines Brendon had bought them or ones he had sprung for himself. Ryan's walls were bare.

Brendon said, "I'm gonna get some water," and went down the hall. There wasn't any hot water, there almost never was. Sometimes if he was super-crafty and ultra-fast, he could manage a shower in the middle of the day that was heated, but that was about the extent of it. He brought the bowl back to the room and threw the shirt into his trash bag. He laid on his stomach and said, "The peroxide and bandages are under the bed, at the foot. The towel is on the back of the door."

Ryan's touch, which generally translated itself in the form of a playful shove or the loose draping of an arm or a fake punch, was surprisingly gentle. He asked, "That guy always this bad?"

Brendon shook his head once. Maybe-Priest had been a little bit intense the evening before, normally his skin made it through intact.

"Alcohol?" Ryan asked.

"Didn't smell it," Brendon said. That wasn't a for sure sign, but a fairly good indicator.

The cleaning process was the worst, maybe worse than receiving the blow in the first place. Ryan had to really flush it out before depending on the strength of the peroxide's killing abilities. Brendon fisted his hands in the sheets and stayed quiet, so quiet.

Ryan said, "I wouldn't-- I'm not one of them. You could-- I know it hurts."

Brendon said, "I don't think you're one them."

"You're pretending like you're fine." Ryan's voice was soft, disbelieving.

"Easier to stay in the habit," Brendon told him.

Ryan soothed water along the other welts, cleaned them. He patted the area carefully dry and said, "C'mon, up," helping Brendon to kneel. "Arms up," he said, gently raising them.

Ryan pressed the end of the bandaging to Brendon's sternum and then began to wrap. When he removed his hand to make sure the bandage would hold, Brendon let out a small gasp of pain.

*


On the sixth Tuesday, Bob asked, "You said you like music. Does Classical count?"

"I don't know a lot of it," Spencer said, trying not to hunch up defensively. His education had somewhat disintegrated after his parents's death, when he was shuffled from one household to the next with state stays in between, nobody much caring if he ended up at the same school or even in the right grade. At fifteen the effective last of his foster parents threw him against a window. It didn't break. Spencer didn't wait around for the structure to give in to repeated stress. He basically had an eighth grade level education, if that.

"Yeah, me neither, really," Bob said, "but they have these free concerts in the park, y'know, Golden Gate Park, on Sunday afternoons and I really should be telling you to rest up at that time, but I'd prefer to be a selfish dick and take you on a date."

Spencer grinned. He tried not to, he had a stupid grin, all teeth and cheeks and it made him look even younger than he was and had gotten him hit a lot back before he knew he wasn't supposed to be happy like that. Bob grinned back.

Bob's grin wasn't stupid looking, but it wasn't helping Spencer reign his in, either.

When he got back Spencer made himself not wake Ryan up and tell him. Ryan needed his sleep.

Once they were on the corner, though, there was nothing keeping him from dragging Ryan over to Brendon, confiding, "Bob asked me on a date."

Brendon asked, "Haven't you guys been having dates?"

Reasonable question. "He called it a date."

Brendon and Ryan both nodded at this. Brendon looked to Ryan, but Ryan was paying attention to the very interesting cracks in the sidewalk. Brendon said, "Well? Tell us."

Which was how, on Sunday afternoon, Spencer found neither Ryan nor Brendon sleeping Saturday night off--despite the fact that they both desperately needed to--but standing in the too-crowded space of his room, trying to decide whether the blue t-shirt or the brown t-shirt said, "Respectable boy on a date," more.

"Maybe he should layer them," Ryan said thoughtfully.

"You don't think that says 'too much effort?'" Brendon asked.

Spencer grabbed both shirts. There really wasn't enough effort in the world when it came to Bob. He put the brown over the blue. "Yes? Or other way?"

Ryan and Brendon each inclined their head, very nearly bumping into one another.

"I think that works," Ryan said.

"You have good eyes," Brendon said.

"I have to go," Spencer said, "before I try and change again."

It was a considerable walk to the park, but Spencer was still early and it was a good twenty minutes before Bob showed. Spencer waved, a little, mostly just a here-I-am wave, and Bob came over, swooping in for a very quick kiss. "I brought a blanket."

Spencer looked at the worn throw in Bob's arms. "I see."

"Wanna find a place to sit?"

It was in the sixties and there was sun and Spencer really didn't give a crap where they sat. "Sure."

They found a spot where they could sprawl a little. Bob laid out the blanket and settled himself on his back. Spencer did the same, tentatively placing his head on the pillow of Bob's stomach. Bob reached down and gently carded his fingers through Spencer's hair, over and over again.

The music began at some point and Spencer tried to listen to every part of it, to all of the instruments as they came together, but it was just too much, too beautiful as a whole to ignore that part and trees were swaying rhythmically above him, Bob's fingers careful against his forehead, his skull. Spencer took a breath, and was carried away on it, into sleep.

Bob woke him up by sitting him up, pulling him into his arms, kissing at the swath of skin right behind Spencer's ear.

Spencer tried to reason through the pleasure of Bob's arms around his, the intent softness of the kiss. "What time is it?"

"Three. I let you sleep for an hour."

"I'm the best date ever."

"Mm, I think so."

"We could walk down to the water and make out behind the bushes."

"If you want. Or we could just stay here."

Both tempting choices. Spencer watched blearily as a couple of kids ran across his vision, chasing a dog. "You should bring Lizzy next time."

"I want her to meet you."

"Ryan's jealous."

"Ryan's welcome to meet her, too."

"I meant that you have a dog."

"I know."

"Right." Spencer was trying to come back from sleep stupidity, he really was.

"You wanna sleep some more, Spence?"

"We don't really get a lot of time," Spencer told him, as if that were an answer.

"I'll be here." Bob tightened his arms minimally.

"I meant--"

"I know. But I don't need you to be on for me."

"Don't you think that's odd?"

"I think that's what being in a relationship is like." Bob sounded a little sad. Spencer wasn't entirely sure why.

"I didn't know we were."

"I should have mentioned."

"I should have been smart enough to figure it out."

Bob nipped at the back of Spencer's neck and then soothed it over with his lips. "Sometimes it's not so much how smart you are as how much experience you've garnered."

"I have other sorts of experience."

"I know. And you're not stupid."

"If you say so. You're the doctor."

"I am. And you need your sleep."

Spencer shifted a little, curling up against Bob's chest and said, "Okay," through a yawn.

*


Jon hissed at the sight of Brendon's wrists, a low sound that registered somewhere between possession and concern.

Brendon frowned. Jon had seen worse on him.

Jon didn't explain though, just shepherded him to the bathroom and began running the cold water. Brendon put his wrists under the stream and bit the inside of his cheek so as not to make a sound at the sting of rope splinters and bacteria being flushed out.

Eventually Jon turned the tap to off, dried the spots carefully. The towel was rough against the raw skin, but Brendon was perfectly able to appreciate intent. Jon asked, "Do you have any--"

"I'll take care of it when I get home." Brendon did his best, 'I promise,' face. "They're fine. Would you like to have some sex?"

Jon smiled at the formal construction of the sentence. "Not the worst idea you've ever had."

"Definitely not," Brendon agreed. Jon had no idea.

But Jon was also, evidently, not completely convinced. He asked, "Who did that?"

"Jon," Brendon said.

"People shouldn't--"

"You don't pay for this. You can't pay for this. Do you understand?"

Jon looked at him. After a long moment he blinked and said, "It's the only way I know."

Brendon said, "That doesn't change anything." Except that perhaps now Brendon pitied him, just a bit. Brendon didn't need to buy the things that were real for him. "You pay me for sex. Or for time. But that part? That part's not on the market, okay?"

"Tell me how to get it," Jon said. "I'm pretty motivated, when I choose to be."

It was flattering, the suggestion that Brendon himself could be motivation. But Brendon knew the rules about Johns. He shook his head. "You can't have that."

Jon glanced at the floor for a long while. Brendon had to wonder if he'd lost himself one of the few regulars he validly trusted not to hurt him. He had to wonder if his integrity, his psychic personal space, was worth that.

He was pretty sure it was.

When Jon looked back up again, all he said was, "Then tell me what I can have."

Brendon knew Jon hadn't given up, not really, but he wasn't pushing at this moment, wasn't trying to break past the walls Brendon had erected and defined between them. It was something.

It was a lot, actually.

Brendon asked, "What sounds pleasurable? My tongue? My ass?" Brendon tilted his head, considered offering his cock. He didn't.

Jon said, "Something we haven't done before."

In Brendon's experience, that covered a lot of ground. "Did you have something in mind?"

"I want you to decide. Or is that something I can't have, either?"

The possibilities that came to mind made Brendon dizzy for several moments. He settled on something not all that terribly exotic. Jon hadn't shown any leanings toward being an exotic kind of guy. And Brendon was forced to be exotic all too often to suit his tastes.

Brendon said, "No, that you can have," and stripped out of his clothes. It wasn't a show, but Jon was treating it that way, which was fine. Brendon removed Jon's clothing and pushed him toward the bed. "Lie on your side."

Jon did as told and Brendon positioned himself facing John, his mouth at Jon's cock, his cock at Jon's mouth. He slipped his mouth onto Jon's cock and let Jon figure out the rest. Jon caught on fairly quickly.

One of Jon's hands scrabbled over Brendon's stomach, the other hooked a bit desperately around one of Brendon's thighs. Brendon ran his soothingly over Jon's hip. It didn't seem to settle him much.

Jon was an enthusiastic cocksucker, almost sweet in his efforts, where he wasn't otherwise much sweet at all.

Brendon felt the need to show off for no reason at all, to deep throat and tease and delay ultimate pleasure as a matter of proving that he was the one who had made this decision, the one in charge, even if that was illusory, no better than Jon pretending his money gave him the right to Brendon's emotions.

When he absolutely couldn't hold off anymore, he finished Jon, taking him all the way down, so far he didn't even taste anything, simply ingested.

He tried to pull off again, as he had that first time, as he generally did whenever his cock was in Jon's mouth. Jon actually let him this time but held the grip on his thigh, held him so that Brendon came on Jon's chest, on his face. Brendon froze under Jon's hand, unsure of the next step. Johns liked to do that to Brendon all the time, loved to do that, but he had never, ever had a John request it of him.

It was surprising, when he thought of it, since there were the Johns who liked humiliation in other forms, but that one hadn't yet come up for Brendon.

But when Jon looked down at him Brendon realized this had nothing to do with a humiliation kink. Jon asked, softly, "Clean me up?"

The cum was already cold, but it was his own, which was better than some of the other times he'd had to do this and he didn't mind the taste of Jon's skin beneath it, not at all. Jon kissed him when he was done, said, "Jesus, Brendon," like maybe his mouth wasn't dirty just from doing what Jon had asked and that was new, too.

*


Spencer didn't necessarily love going to the clinic--although, it wasn't so bad now--but Ryan had a valid aversion. After the point where a John broke three of Ryan's fingers and Spencer literally had to drag him there to get them set, Ryan said, "I don't like doctors."

Spencer said, "Yeah, that's a little obvious," and Ryan looked away with his jaw set until Spencer said, "Ryan, you needed the help."

Then Ryan broke and told Spencer in short, bitten off words of the time he was eleven and his father had come home from a Friday night bender. He'd gotten mad at Ryan for whatever it was he was mad at that time--Ryan could never remember afterward, it wasn't important--and pinned Ryan to the wall, his arm behind his back, twisting until it broke. Then his father had locked him in the pantry so that he could, "Think about his actions."

Ryan remembered those words.

The pantry had been empty. Ryan had been planning on walking up to the store that weekend, getting them some food. His dad tended to overlook stuff like that.

Ryan stayed locked in there until a coworker had come to check on his father late Monday morning. Ryan heard someone in the house and pounded on the door of the pantry for all he was worth.

The coworker took them both to the hospital, and while Ryan's father detoxed, Ryan was given liquids and had his bone set. The doctors asked what had happened and Ryan said, "Violent soccer game."

To her credit, one of the nurses was doubtful, asked about the dehydration, but Ryan just said, "Sometimes I don't drink as much as I should."

Nobody even asked about whether Ryan's dad normally got himself falling down drunk at Ryan's make believe soccer games.

Ryan's arm never healed as entirely as it should have after the interim of two days passing before having it seen. When the fog rolled in, pain tended to travel from his shoulder straight down to his fingers. Spencer tried his best to see that Ryan got some hot water for a shower during those times, to rub a little of the tension out of it.

In the following five years before the incident that finally pushed Ryan to leave, Ryan was hospitalized four more times in three different hospitals, along with thirteen visits to urgent care.

Social services were sent to him twice.

His dad always showed up sober to competency hearings.

When Ryan was sixteen, in the midst of a binge that had lasted the better part of a month, Ryan's father took out the gun he had acquired in army service--most likely, Ryan later realized, in the pursuit of committing suicide. The gun, so far as Ryan knew, had always been locked away--Spencer was pretty sure that if Ryan could have gotten to it, he would have used it to keep himself safe; he knew Ryan had tried other things, kitchen knives and such. They had fought, and whatever the original intent of having the gun had been, his father attempted to shoot Ryan.

He didn't miss entirely.

Ryan bore a scar across the meat of his left bicep from having been grazed.

Ryan left with a couple of pairs of pants, some shirts, and the two hundred or so dollars he'd managed to save from baby-sitting and other odd jobs.

By the time he'd met up with Spencer the money had been long gone.

Spencer still wondered if bringing Ryan to Thomas--at the time, in Spencer's smack drenched mind, it had seemed so logical; Ryan was living on the street, swiping food out of waste bins, and Thomas meant a room, if nothing else--was any better than what all those doctors and nurses had done. Ryan seemed able to forgive him.

Ryan's doctor-thing, however, added an extra layer of complication to the already fairly nerve-wracking business of introducing Ryan to Bob. They had both heard of each other, and though Spencer couldn't say to Bob, "Ryan can be kind of a hard-to-know guy," couldn't betray him even that much, he was pretty certain Bob had read between the lines.

And Ryan, while he was being the best friend a guy could possibly ask for, had good notions of Bob as the person who seemed to be treating Spencer right, but also the clear sense that Bob had the power to take Spencer from Ryan, and--just like all those other doctors in their negligence--not look back.

Spencer brought Brendon along for three reasons: 1) Brendon needed some time away from their corner almost as badly as Ryan, 2) he wanted Brendon to meet Bob while not largely passed out on an exam table, and 3) of late, Ryan had been behaving himself better when in Brendon's presence.

Spencer had his suspicions about what was causing that last, but he was ignoring them. If he was right, the shit would hit the fan soon enough, he had no doubt.

Bob invited Spencer "and friends" over to his place on a Wednesday night. Spencer asked, "You cook?"

"No, but Ray does, and I take wild, indecent advantage of this fact."

Spencer supposed it was only fair that Bob got to have a friend there, if he was going to have two.

"Mikey might come, too."

Spencer nodded. He had been following the love drama of Ray the Geeky Lab Tech and Mikey the Hot Nurse with the same sort of dedication and mild exasperation that he vaguely remembered his mom having for her soaps.

If Bob told him that Frank the Sexalicious HIV Case Worker or Gerard the Soulful Clinic Manager were joining, Spencer was putting his foot down.

Bob, however, seemed to have the sense not to overwhelm them. He said, "Relax, it's gonna be great. Ryan will like Lizzy, even if he doesn't like me, and Brendon's already met me."

Spencer did his best to smile confidently, and ate the rest of his lunch despite the way his stomach was churning.

*


The three of them stopped by the grocery store so that Spencer could pick a thank-you-for-inviting-me-to-your-home gift. Spencer was clearly stressing about what to get. Wine was too expensive and flowers were too girly and Ray was making dessert, so nothing from the bakery would do.

Brendon, who, for a long time lived in a place where these sorts of gifts were traditional asked, "How about a complimentary fruit?"

Watermelon was in season. They asked a produce clerk for help picking one out.

Ryan snickered at the image of Spencer carrying the watermelon, said, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."

Spencer asked, "Do you think you could make this a little bit more nerve wracking for me? I mean, in any way."

"I'll consider the question," Ryan told him, his face serious.

Brendon shook his head.

Ray answered the door. Brendon said, "You have good hair."

Ray called to Bob, "Hey, Bob, can we keep the spritely brunet?"

Lizzy appeared then, her whole body wagging in excitement. Ryan got to his knees but didn't touch until Ray said, "It's okay, she won't--"

Ryan hadn't cared if she would bite, Brendon knew, he was just waiting for permission to touch what wasn't his. Within seconds he was allowing Lizzy to lick his face, laughing at the sensation. Ray said, "Maybe you guys should come in the door."

Bob came out into the hall. Brendon stifled a laugh. He'd so obviously been doing last minute I-need-to-look-hot things. It was sweet. Spencer had found himself a good one. It made Brendon want to hug Bob, but he reined in his enthusiasm.

From the kitchen Mikey called, "Um, Ray? It's possible you should come back in here."

Ray smiled apologetically and went to go rescue his erstwhile love interest (according to Spencer, anyhow) from the stove-monster.

Bob kissed Spencer and took the watermelon from him. "Hi."

Spencer smiled. "Hey." He turned slightly. "So, you've met Brendon. Ryan is the one on the floor, molesting your dog."

Ryan looked up somewhat guiltily. He said, quite politely, "It's nice to meet you."

Bob said, "I've heard good things. If she starts to annoy you, you can tell her to get off. She will."

Brendon didn't really see that happening any time in the near future. They were going to have to bring dinner to Ryan and Lizzy.

To Brendon Bob said, "I see your lungs are working."

"Like lungs," Brendon assured him.

"That's what we like to hear." Bob started walking away. "Come on in. This thing is sort of heavy."

Spencer followed his boyfriend, only once looking back to check that they were following.

Brendon said, "Come on, Ry, she'll follow, I promise."

Ryan looked doubtful, but when he got up, Lizzy trotted right alongside him. Ryan grinned, a real, full, unadulterated grin. "You're such a good girl, aren't you? Yes, you are."

Brendon forgot how to walk for a moment.

By the time he remembered, people were starting to sit around the table. Brendon found himself in between Ryan and Mikey. Mikey smiled at him and said softly, "Nice to see you conscious."

"I like being that way myself," Brendon said.

Ray said, "All right. I made pizza. There's cheese and hamburger--and yes, asshole, the meat is organic--and mushrooms. All the crusts are thick, because I like them that way. If you don't, suck. Preferences? One? Two? All three? None?"

Brendon was not going to be the first two speak up. Luckily, Mikey tugged at Ray's sleeve. "Cut me a cheese, yeah?"

"That all you want?"

Mikey nodded.

Bob opened his mouth. Ray said, "I know what you want."

Bob shut his mouth.

Ray looked at Spencer who said, "Hamburger, please."

Ryan said, somewhat defensively given the situation, "One cheese and one mushroom, please." Brendon understood. It was within Ray's rights to tell him everyone else had only asked for one.

Ray said, "Now we're getting somewhere."

Ryan blinked at him.

Brendon said, "All three? Please?"

Ray told Bob, "I don't care what you say. We're keeping him."

*


Not that Brendon didn't love Wednesday nights, but they tended to make Thursdays that much harder. The beginning of the weekend slam came at a person and for a second, a brief second, he was still in this place where he had rights, where he was someone who could be seen rather than seen through.

Then Brendon remembered, and put that person back in his Wednesday Night Box.

After that it was easier.

Thursdays tended to be a veritable buffet of blowjobs and bread-and-butter regulars, ready to come off their week.

Burn Man came, and Brendon took him without much hesitation because he was mostly used to it by now, and it would put him ahead as he went into the weekend. Almost anything that made Saturday night easier was worth it.

Brendon said, "This is new," when the guy tied his hands behind his back. New wasn't good, as far as Brendon was concerned. Almost ever.

"Relax," the guy said, "I paid for burning, that's what I'm gonna do."

Brendon didn't relax. "You've never needed--"

"Shut up," the guy said. "Or you will have to charge extra."

Brendon shut up. The guy placed him on his back, trapping his tied arms, spread his legs and lit the cigarette.

He put it out on one of Brendon's balls, holding his thigh so that he wouldn't fold over on himself. Brendon screamed, he couldn't help it, screamed and fought not to pass out. No sooner had Brendon won the fight then the guy lit another cigarette. Brendon found the breath to say, "Please--" but then he was screaming again as the guy repeated the process on his other ball.

Brendon was too busy trying to navigate the pain to even notice the guy pulling out his dick, spraying himself all over Brendon's stomach, his legs.

Brendon heard a zipper, felt his arms being untied, and the guy said, "Get up or I'll leave you here to walk back."

It wasn't far, but Brendon really didn't want to try and pretend like he wasn't hurt for the full two blocks. He got up, ignoring the black swimming in his vision. Putting his jeans back on very nearly brought him to his knees. He didn't entirely remember getting to the car but he must have, because the guy dropped him back on his corner. "Here," the guy said, handing him the fee. Brendon counted. There was extra. He couldn't quite get himself to feel grateful that the guy wasn't a cheat.

Brendon took several blowjobs after that, trying to be careful when he went to his knees. He took a hand job thinking that was pretty safe until the guy decided he wanted a little groping action too, very nearly causing Brendon to puke on him. Brendon hoped that cleaning the burns and putting some ointment on would heal him up enough for him to be back to speed Friday and Saturday, because he was going to need his balls to make weekend quota. And Thomas wasn't going to give a shit that he had been in pain.

Jon came by around two. He was on foot, which was unfortunate, as the motel Jon liked was further out than most of the others. As he walked alongside Jon he imagined Ryan's hands on his hips, steadying him, teaching him how to do this. It wasn't his ass that was the problem, but the basic concept held true. Halfway there, Jon asked, "You okay? You're a little quiet."

Brendon dredged up a smile from someplace inside himself he'd forgotten about. "Sorry. Just a little preoccupied."

He regretted it the minute he said it, but amazingly, Jon didn't press. Brendon wondered if maybe he'd actually been listening when Brendon explained where the boundaries were.

That was...new. Interesting.

When they were in the room, Brendon leaned against the wall, trying to look casual.

Jon said, "You're kinda pale. You sure you're all right?"

"Want me to prove it to you?" Brendon asked, crooking his finger at Jon.

Jon came as beckoned. "Sort of, yeah."

Then Jon leaned in, his knee pressing between Brendon's thighs, against his balls. Normally, it would have been kind of nice.

Brendon moved frantically toward the toilet and threw up.

Jon waited until he was done, flushed the toilet and said, "If you really are all right, I'm feeling kind of insulted right now." His voice was soft though, worried.

"John went a little far, is all." Brendon made himself stand, rinse his mouth out. "You have any gum?"

Jon shook his head. "Could you maybe call them customers?"

"What? Oh. Yeah, okay. That is your real name, then?"

"You thought it wasn't?"

"You're a John, Jon."

Jon reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. He opened it to the ID and held it out to Brendon. Brendon looked. "Jonathan Jacob Walker, huh? I could call you JJ. Then it wouldn't be so confusing."

"I always hated that nickname."

"Oh, okay, well--"

"You can call me it."

"No, that's--"

"It sounds kinda good when you say it. Not like I'm just some stupid, spoiled kid. Which is funny, considering. But."

Brendon looked at Jon. After a bit he said, "JJ it is."

Jon asked, "You wanna lay down?"

Brendon ignored the question. "You probably don't wanna kiss me at this point, for which I don't blame you, but I could still dish out a pretty brainkilling blowjob."

"I can't touch you?"

"It's clearly not a good idea," Brendon said, his eyes straying to the toilet. "Although, you could still fuck me."

"I kinda prefer when you're into it," Jon said, sounding embarrassed.

"I'll give you a discount for the evening." He couldn't really afford it, but he couldn't really perform, either, so fair was fair.

"No, I don't want-- Maybe if you just laid down, for a bit, instead of the blowjob."

"You paid for sex, Jaje."

"You're already shortening my new nickname?"

Brendon shrugged. "Problem?"

"No, I sorta like it."

"You're kinky like that."

Jon laughed, then said, "I don't care what I paid for. The money's not the issue."

Maybe not for Jon. "You still can't have--"

"I just want you to rest. That's what I'm paying for, okay, Brendon? That is the servicing I require."

Jon looked away, his jaw tight.

Brendon, for some reason he couldn't have explained, pressed his lips to it. "All right. Resting. No problem."

And if he ignored his unease, it really, really wasn't.

*


Jon didn't come back for nearly two weeks after that. When Brendon let himself think about it--not often, it was unhealthy that he thought about it at all--he wondered if Jon had found himself someone he didn't have to pay for or gotten a job or moved or done any of the things that people who were actually people did.

It didn't matter. Brendon had other bread-and-butters and he found out by accident--treating chapped lips--that if he put on just the slightest bit of lip gloss, his blowjob frequency went up by about four to five a night. He bought tubes for Ryan and Spencer.

Ryan doubted him, but Brendon said, "Just try it," and Ryan was won over by the clear difference in numbers.

Brendon wasn't proud of the fact that he was still considering where Jon might have gone when he reappeared, but he was. He was even less proud of the fact that he might have been a little glad to see him. Jon took him away in his car, asked, "How're you feeling?"

"I'm good for whatever you want," Brendon told him with a grin.

"Excellent," Jon said.

Unlike most Johns, Jon bought by the hour, not by service, which was more expensive, because it was assumed the John could do whatever he wanted, and that had to be compensated for. He'd bought three hours that night. They spent the first twenty minutes of it having shower sex, which was kind of fun, given that the water was hot, and Jon's hand was strong and slippery over Brendon's cock, validly interested in that part of the proceedings.

Jon seemed to enjoy drying Brendon off, particularly his hair. He pulled Brendon over to the bed. He asked, "You cold?"

"Little bit," Brendon admitted.

Jon lifted up the covers.

Brendon asked, "You want to snuggle?"

"That not available in your repertoire? Because I seriously can't get it up again this quickly."

"No, just--" Brendon shrugged and got in. "You're a kinky boy, Jaje."

Jon laughed. "You're about to find out."

Brendon stiffened a little.

Jon just kept talking. "See, I've been thinking. I had to go out of town, go see some family, and this pretty much all starts with my family, because whose story doesn't start with their family, and I was mulling it over, this thing with you and I realized that I can't ask for your things, that those are yours, but I can give you mine and you have to at least pretend to listen because you're here with me. And even that's a little unfair, I'll admit, and sometimes I'm not good at being fair, too much piss poor training at an early age, but I really do like when people actually listen to me, it's sort of rare, and a pleasure that's different than sex, but pleasurable all the same and if I am paying for pleasure then I might as well ask for the pleasure of my choice, right?"

Brendon had no idea what he was talking about. "Right."

"So, see, you won't tell me about you, but you will listen to me talk about me, if only because you have to."

Oh. "You're going to tell me your life story?"

"The parts that I think matter."

"And you just want someone to listen?" That was maybe a little heartbreaking. Brendon knew all about not being heard, but he didn't really wish it on other people.

"Well, I want you to listen."

Brendon wasn't entirely sure what the difference was, but, "Okay."

"I'm rich," Jon said.

"I sorta figured."

"It's not my money, it's my dad's."

Brendon nodded. He'd gotten that far, too.

"We don't always get along. He wants me to finish up undergrad in Econ and do an MBA, preferably at his alma mater, Wharton. I want to finish on the course I'm on, which is music education and either teach or work for a non-profit that gets music into schools."

Yeah, those two weren't really compatible.

"So sometimes I like to do shit with his money that I know he wouldn't approve of. The week I started coming down here, found Ryan, that was the week my dad found out I was queer. He won't disown me, because I'm his only child, and he doesn't want the money to go to some random charity or to the state, and also, I think he figures if I just get a little older, I'll be more like him. Anyway, my point is, it was a way of getting back at him. And I do like sex."

Brendon sensed a but.

"Ryan and Spencer are really good, you know? I mean, real professionals."

Brendon didn't know, but he could have guessed.

"You wouldn't have any clue there was anything in there other than a boy who really wanted to suck your dick, get fucked by you, whatever."

Brendon did his best not to flinch.

"You, though. You were so fucking honest, even when you were lying."

Most Johns didn't think so. Jon had evidently been paying attention. He just hadn't known he was paying attention. Brendon hadn't known either.

Jon said, low and maybe just a bit afraid, "I'm a spoiled child, Brendon. I haven't heard no all the times I probably should have and I haven't heard yes in most of the times when it really mattered. I am a body, meant to fill a mold that somebody fitted incorrectly to me. So I make stupid mistakes and I take things I have no right to take and sometimes I pretend that money will fix more than it will, because it is all I have. But it's something, because you're here at least acting like you're listening. And that's something."

Brendon said, "We all make stupid mistakes," and kissed Jon before asking, "What else was your pleasure?" and kind of meaning it.

*


Bob said, "I wanna take you somewhere Saturday afternoon. You can sleep on the way up and back."

"Okay," Spencer said.

"Okay? You're not gonna ask where?"

Spencer probably should, he knew he should, but he was tired of never being able to trust, of always having to worry that the next person he followed into a room would be the last. He wouldn't do it with Bob, he just wouldn't. "Nope, I used to like surprises."

Bob looked at Spencer for a moment before breaking into a smile, a huge smile, the kind Spencer would have been embarrassed by, but it was nice on Bob, at least Spencer thought so. Bob said, "You're gonna love this one."

Spencer came by the clinic on Saturday and said, "All right, my expectations have been raised."

He fell asleep on the way there, despite his desire to stay awake. Bob woke him up with a soft, "Hey you."

Spencer opened his eyes to trees and the sky and a world that he remembered but no longer identified with. "Where are we?"

"Sausalito."

"Really?"

"Yup, c'mon."

Spencer got out of the car and followed Bob through a gate that declared the place he was entering to be The Marine Mammal Center. There were large tanks all around and Spencer really wanted to see what was in them, but Bob was waving at a guy with a truly impressive fro. The guy smiled and came over. Spencer could smell the pot wafting off of him.

Bob said, "Hey Joe," and the two of them wrapped each other in a classic guy-hug. Spencer stifled a laugh.

"Joe, this is Spencer."

Joe gave Spencer his hand. He told Bob, "Andy was waiting for you."

"Joe's on the janitorial staff here," Bob told Spencer, as Joe went off to go get Andy. "Andy's an educator here and got him the job. Andy was my roomie in college, but then he went off and got a degree in marine biology, where he met his sort of kind of husband, in that Andy doesn't believe in the institution of marriage, but Patrick does, and they like to fight about it roughly every five months, at which point Joe gets Andy high. Pete, who works to rehabilitate the animals here is Patrick's best friend--oh, wait, did I mention that Patrick is a research fellow here? Yeah, this place? Almost as incestuous as my workplace. If Joe were gay, it would surpass it. But Joe fails us in that, so, not quite. Anyway, so Joe gets Andy high, Pete makes Patrick swim with the seals and somehow, all is well until the next five months have passed."

Spencer asked, "Seals?"

Bob laughed. "Way to focus. Give it a few minutes, Andy's gonna come and tell us a little bit about the place, and then Pete's gonna let us meet some of the seals."

Andy came out and gave Bob a hug that wasn't quite so guy-ish. Spencer thought, yeah, roomie, but was surprisingly unbothered. Then again, the smaller guy next to him, who also hugged Bob with total enthusiasm, was clearly the Patrick of not-husband fame. Patrick grinned at Spencer. "You're The Spencer, huh?"

"Um," Spencer said, shaking the hand that had been thrust into his.

"Smooth, Patrick," Andy said, but he sounded fond. Spencer smiled a little, not too much, because he didn't know these people and didn't want to seem like he was laughing at them.

Andy shook his hand. "We just hear a lot about you, is all."

Spencer very carefully did not look at Bob. Because he would probably kiss him. Probably.

Patrick said, "We gotta do this, before Pete gets fidgety and makes the seals all uppity."

So Andy and Patrick lead Spencer through the complex, introducing him to a number of different animals, including several kinds of sea lions and seals and some sea otters. Patrick knew all kinds of bizarre things about their brains and Andy knew a lot about their lifestyles, migration patterns and the way they formed families. Spencer listened to it all. Ryan would love this stuff. He wished he'd brought him, only it was nice, being here with Bob, who was making fun of Andy's teacher-voice and the way Patrick talked too fast when he got excited.

They reached a tank with a man in it, swimming alongside a sea otter. The man glided over to the side. He rested his chin on the ledge of the tank. "Hey Bob. This Spencer?"

"Hi," Spencer said. "Pete?"

"Process of elimination, huh?"

Spencer smiled.

Pete said, "Walk over the other side, and I'll let you pet Lucky J."

Lucky J was the otter, evidently. He was softer, even wet, than Spencer would have imagined. After that Pete took him to another tank, where he introduced Spencer to Artemis, a sea lion.

At around five, Bob put his hands over Spencer's shoulders and leaned in to say softly, "We gotta get you back. We can pick up food on the way in, okay? And you can sleep a little."

Spencer asked, "They put the animals back? Where they were hurt?"

"The ocean is their home. They're not meant to be kept in tanks, Spence."

Yeah. But it was safe in those tanks. And Pete and Andy and Patrick clearly loved them. Spencer put his nose to Artemis' one more time. She made a clacking sound. Spencer smiled a little.

Pete, Andy, Patrick and Joe all saw them to the car. Pete and Patrick both hugged Spencer. Spencer wondered if maybe Bob hadn't told them what he did, or if they were just--like Bob--willing to overlook it. Either way, Spencer hugged back. He was a little damp after Pete's hug. It didn't bother him.

On their way back, before Spencer fell asleep, Bob asked, "Good surprise?"

"Better than I could have imagined."

*


Spencer set their course toward the library Wednesday afternoon and Ryan and Brendon followed easily enough. He let Ryan roam free for a bit. None of them had library cards--that required proper identification--but Ryan liked the smell of books, running his fingers through the pages.

When they left Spencer knew they would stop by the dumpster, see what the library had disposed of that day. Ryan could almost always find something he wanted.

After a bit though, when Spencer had found what he wanted, he made Ryan and Brendon sit down and showed them pictures of the marine mammals, repeated the facts and anecdotes he'd learned from Andy and Patrick.

Ryan looked at the picture of the sea lion with wide eyes. "Was he smooth?"

"Kinda. More soft."

Brendon peered at the book, his head almost pressing directly into Ryan's. "I petted some dolphins once."

"Really?" Ryan asked.

Brendon nodded. "We went to Sea World once, my whole family."

"Did you see the Orcas?" Ryan's look of jealousy made it hard for Spencer to swallow.
Brendon said, "They were really big. I was kinda scared at the time."

"Wimp," Ryan said.

"I was, like, seven." As defenses went, it was a pretty decent one. Unfortunately, the shit Ryan had been facing at seven--the year his mother left--had been scarier than any big whales. Ryan didn't change his opinion.

Brendon laughed a little, "Yeah, okay, you're so much tougher than me you big tough manly man." He stood. "I'm gonna use their bathrooms."

Ryan still had his eyes on a retreating Brendon when he asked softly, "He introduced you to his college roommate?"

"I think he mostly just wanted to get me out of the city."

"Spencer."

"I know, Ry. I know. But I'm sort of trying not to freak either of us out here, so if you could lay the fuck off, that would be great."

"You're freaked?" Ryan asked, looking over at him.

"That's one word for it," Spencer muttered.

"What's anoth--" Ryan's jaw dropped slightly before he slammed it back into its proper position. "Oh."

Spencer said into the silence that was most certainly not Ryan starting anything, "Don't start with me Ryan Ross. At least I'm not in love with Brendon, The Mentally Repressed Homosexual Child Whore."

"I'm not--"

Spencer pinned Ryan with a look.

Ryan stopped, bit his lower lip. "He's one of us. Just because he doesn't see me like that-- I could have chosen worse, okay?"

That was definitely true. "I don't know how he sees you, Ry. Sometimes I'm not sure how Brendon sees himself."

Ryan said, "He's my friend," and sounded pretty happy about that, if a bit wistful. "And you're avoiding this conversation."

Too right Spencer was.

"He sees you like that. Bob," Ryan said.

"You probably need to shut up."

"No, Spencer. You're always taking care of us, like you’re the oldest, when really I'm almost a year older than you, I'm just not as, you know, you have good caring skills and I mostly have good fending for myself skills, but I'm not completely devoid of that kinda stuff. And he does looks, he does, because I went to dinner and I paid attention. It was important to know if he did. It was you, so it was important."

"Okay." Spencer pressed his knee to Ryan's. "I believe you, okay? It's just--"

"Scary as fuck," Ryan said, sounding like Spencer wasn't the only one scared out of his mind.

Spencer thought Ryan's fears were slightly different, but he appreciated the company, all the same.

Brendon sat back down next to Ryan and said, "Thought you weren't afraid of anything."

Ryan said, "Well, not anything that comes in whale form."

*


The only, only saving grace to the fact of waking up, going to the bathroom and having it burn so intensely Spencer had to look down to make sure his dick wasn't actually on fire, was that it happened on a Sunday. Sunday nights were generally less busy than the others, and could be made with a combination of alley-fucks and blow jobs.

Which was helpful, because if anybody touched Spencer's balls he was going to pass out.

Monday morning he went to the clinic and peed into a cup.

Mikey said, "See you Thursday morning," and didn't say anything stupid, like, "Don't have sex until then." He gave Spencer some sample Tylenols, Aspirins, stuff that wasn't habit forming and would hopefully keep down the discomfort. Mikey really was the world's best nurse.

Monday night was another night of hell, and Tuesday kicked it up a notch, when the pain in his ass set in. Spencer spent Wednesday night in, curled up on his cot, trying not to have to pee. Ryan and Brendon walked over to Mary Ann's, bought him a burger and a shake and made him eat. Then they left him alone to suffer in silence.

He appreciated the dark and relative quiet.

He was back at the clinic early on Thursday morning. Mikey put him in a room with a sympathetic, "Hey there, kiddo."

Bob walked in a few minutes later and all Spencer really wanted was for him to fix the problem and maybe hug him. Or the other way around. Or, if he couldn't fix the problem, Spencer would settle for a hug, truly he would.

Bob said, "Bad news or good news first?"

That was easy. "Bad."

"You've got Chlamydia."

"Good news?"

"A course of antibiotics will fix you right up. You allergic to anything?" Bob flipped open Spencer's chart. "I don't remember you being, but Mikey was the one who arranged--"

After a second or so of complete silence, Spencer asked, "Bob?"

He wasn't sure he was going to get an answer, was about to ask again when Bob's answer came, short and utterly stricken. "You're seventeen."

Spencer could already hear what he didn't want to hear in Bob's voice. He had to ask, "How old did you think I was?" had to know.

"Nineteen. A mature nineteen."

"Brendon--"

"You take care of the others," Bob said, letting the chart flutter closed, his eyes huge when they fixed upon Spencer.

"Who else is going to?" Spencer asked.

"Who the fuck takes care of you, Spence?"

There was no answer to that, he didn't even really think Bob was actually looking for an answer so he said, "You'd seen my chart before."

"No, not really. I glanced at it last time for details, but the problem was pretty clear and Mikey was the one handling the chart. And then after that it seemed inappropriate, to find out information about you from confidential medical materials."

"Then forget about it. Go on thinking I'm nineteen. It's just a-- It's arbitrary."

Bob shook his head. "It's not, Spencer. It's not." The last word tore from him, a bit.

"It has been all this time." Months and months and fuck, why couldn't he have just looked at the chart the first time? Spencer had been doing all right on his own, he had. "Please, Bob--"

"You need antibiotics," Bob told him again, like maybe he'd forgotten over the course of the conversation, like it meant something anymore that Spencer's dick was releasing acid instead of urine.

Desperate, Spencer reached out to Bob, wrapped a hand around his wrist. Bob didn't jerk from his touch, didn't do anything other than to use his other hand to remove it. "No, Spencer."

"Tell me it's because I'm a diseased whore," Spencer said, and for the first time since walking into the clinic on Monday morning, felt the utter shame of his diagnosis, for the first time since walking in over six months before, felt the truth of who he was in comparison to Bob. But he could take that, he could take that as an answer, because at least he'd gotten himself into that, at least he'd made his own choices with the drugs, pulling himself in so far to Thomas' grasp that he would never, ever make it out.

His age was immutable, and not his fault. It was one of the few things he didn't deserve to be held accountable for.

"It's because," Bob said slowly, biting out each syllable, "every time I kissed you, every time I pressed myself over you, every time I thought of doing so much more, I was no better than one of them, Spencer. I was no better than all those men who tear and cut and come close to killing my patients, the patients I have to try and fix and then send back to those monsters. I was one of them."

Spencer shook his head. "I wanted--"

"You were barely seventeen. Barely. There's a reason eighteen--"

"That's for people with homes."

"No, Spencer, it's meant for everyone. For all humans." Bob's explanation was so gentle, and yet so forceful all at once.

Spencer opened his mouth, tried to find his next argument, but the only thing in his throat was utter desolation, need that couldn't be explained with words, that even could it have been, Spencer wouldn't have known the words to say them.

Bob said, "I'll get the meds," and left the room.

Spencer thought, get down off the table. Do it.

He slipped to the ground at first, but he managed to pick himself back up in time for when Bob came back with the bottle.

Amazingly, Spencer was able to ask, "How much do I owe?"

Evidently he was good at the mundane when his brain and his heart and other essential eternal organs decided they'd rather take the night off.

Bob waved a hand. "I'll take care of it."

Spencer took the bottle, fished the twenty he'd brought with him from his back pocket and laid it on the table. "I'd appreciate it," he said slowly, clearly, "if you didn't choose this moment to start treating me like a whore."

Later, he would never remember the walk back to his room.

*


When Ryan came to get him, Spencer was still sleeping. He awoke to Ryan's worried, "Spencer?"

There wasn't a window in his room, so he had no way of knowing how late it was. "What's wrong, Ry?"

"It's-- We've got to be out there."

Spencer tried to spark his brain into working. He looked at the travel alarm clock next to his cot. "Oh. Shit. Sorry, I must have forgotten to set the alarm."

He got up and went to bathroom to use the tap for his second dose of meds. He washed his face and scrubbed himself down just a little, glad he had taken a shower before going to the clinic. The memory of why, of not wanting Bob to have to touch all those other men, startled a strange sounding laugh from him.

He ignored it.

He came back and slipped into a t-shirt and some jeans, jammed his feet into sneakers. The lip gloss was in his back pocket, along with lube and condoms. He applied some and said, "It's fine, they like the just-woken look."

Ryan nodded. They did. He asked, "What'd Bob say?"

"What?" Spencer asked, trying to figure out how Ryan could have known anything. He didn't think he was acting odd. There was a sort of white noise in his head that he wasn't used to and it made the world not only sound but look sort of funny--fuzzy, like a TV that was going out. It was actually sort of comforting, made a lot of things like moving and breathing easier.

"Bob. Your boyfriend? What'd he say about the tests."

Oh, yes. "Clap."

He's not my boyfriend. Spencer swallowed at the river of caustic lye that his throat had suddenly become.

"Fixable," Ryan said, and breathed out a little. Spencer looked at him and could see--even through the fuzz--how scared Ryan had been. Spencer wondered how he'd missed that before. Ryan was good at hiding, but not from him, not really.

"Totally fixable," he said with a smile and he knew the second he pulled it on that it was a miscalculation, but there was no going back from it.

Ryan frowned. "Spence. Jesus, Spencer, what are you not telling me?"

Spencer shook his head. "It's nothing."

"It's not AIDS is it?" Ryan's question was so casual that the volley of terror had to come out somewhere and Spencer felt it hit his chest.

"I would tell you something like that, Ryan."

"No, no you wouldn't, you'd lie thinking it would be better for me not to know, not until I had to. You'd protect me until well past when the protection was just harming me."

"I swear it's just Chlamydia. I'm not feeling great, is all. But the meds'll probably have cleared up most of it by Saturday." Each word scored at the roof of his mouth.

Ryan's shoulders were hunched. Softly he said, "I could be strong for you. I did it before. Remember?"

Spencer remembered. He didn't think he'd ever forget. With the memory came a longing for the sweet obliviousness of the high so strong that Spencer couldn't quite breath through it.

Ryan's hand came to his shoulder. "Spencer?"

Spencer couldn't be strong enough for himself, he couldn't be, and Ryan was right there offering. He could hate himself for the failure later. Right then he was too busy drowning in other things. "He looked at my chart."

"What?"

"Bob. Looked at my chart. Saw my birthday."

Ryan frowned. "Spencer--"

"Saw how young I am."

"What-- What are you saying?"

"He's not my boyfriend," Spencer said the words aloud, because he needed to hear them as much as Ryan did. "He's not my boyfriend."

Ryan's breathing was loud against the white noise, it disturbed it.

The call of drug-induced euphoria was so strong Spencer could feel himself shake with it. He opened his mouth to say, "We have to go," and started, "I want--" before he could cut himself off.

Ryan said, "I know. But you don't need that. You have me and Brendon. You don't need-- You have us."

Spencer nodded. He took care of Ryan and Brendon. They didn't have anyone else. That was what Spencer did, who he was. He'd added something to that definition for a bit, but that was just extra. He had Ryan and Brendon. They were his. They couldn't decide otherwise, not really. "We gotta go."

Ryan said, "If I hugged you--"

"Please don't," Spencer begged. Stupidly, he still wanted Bob's arms around him as badly as he had that morning. If someone else, even Ryan, tried-- "Please."

Ryan said, "No, okay."

Spencer followed him out to the street.

*


Brendon knocked softly on Ryan's door Tuesday morning. He didn't want to wake him up, but he thought he might still be trying to get to sleep. He didn't look as though he'd been sleeping well, which was par for the course, because Spencer clearly hadn't been sleeping at all.

Ryan answered the door. "Something wrong?"

"I was thinking we should take Spencer somewhere good tomorrow night. Get his mind off of-- Cheer him up a little."

Ryan moved back so that Brendon could step into the room. "Did you have something in mind?"

Brendon worried his teeth at the nail of his thumb. "Maybe the club? He likes the music. It makes him not think as much."

Ryan said, "Maybe something else," and looked away.

Brendon asked, "Am I missing something?"

"No, it's just. . ." Ryan was silent for a bit. "Well, Ray might be DJing, and then Bob could be there--"

"Ray's generally on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month. Tomorrow's the third."

"But the schedule isn't set and. . ."

Brendon stopped hearing anything as he watched the way Ryan's hands jittered at his side, thought about the way Spencer was always disappearing for a little bit every time they went to the club. "Fuck."

"Brendon--"

"He was paying our way in, wasn't he?"

"Don't do this right now," Ryan said. "Don't."

Brendon took a breath. Ryan's eyes were red, almost blood-lined and they all needed to sleep, all of them. Yeah, not now. "All right. Not the club. But somewhere where he won't have to think."

That took out the library and Mary Ann's and the wharf, where they sometimes liked to go and people-watch in the summer. Tourists were funny things.

"You always know about movies," Ryan said, interrupting Brendon's fruitless chain of thought. "Is there anything funny out? Not romantic."

Brendon almost said, "Yeah, thanks," to that last, but stopped himself in time. "Um. I think so. That could work."

Ryan said, "Okay. We'll get him tomorrow. We can grab falafel from the street stand on the way there. He likes that."

The street stand also had shawarma, which Brendon had never even heard of before he met Ryan and Spencer, but they'd introduced him to it, and as of yet, he had found few things to surpass its brilliance. "Good. Plan. We came up with a plan."

It shouldn't have felt like such a big accomplishment.

Brendon didn't let it bother him too much that it did, let it help him to fall asleep, carry him through the night. It was something, and Brendon had learned how to cling to the somethings out here. Anything, really.

They picked Spencer up at six on Wednesday. He wasn't dressed and he said, "Guys, I was just--"

Ryan and Brendon stood shoulder to shoulder and Brendon didn't have to look at Ryan to know that they were both being the same kind of asshole, watching Spencer with expectant, hopeful eyes--the sort that Spencer never ignored, not even when he most wanted to. Spencer sighed. "Give me a couple of minutes, okay?"

They gave him half an hour.

Spencer got a little uppity about Brendon trying to treat for dinner, but Brendon said, "Hey, let me do this, okay? Just this," and didn't touch Spencer and evidently his point was made, because Spencer backed off.

He thanked Brendon when he was done and even kissed him on the cheek. By the time they reached the movie theater, Spencer was almost fully-on, and he smiled when Brendon told him what they were thinking about seeing, said, "Oh hey, I wanted to see that."

Brendon bought Ryan thin mints, because if he didn't eat something fattening he was going to fucking blow away, and Brendon would miss him. Also because Ryan glanced at the candy case wishfully and Brendon couldn't do a thing to help him or Spencer with any part of their lives that actually mattered.

Spencer fell asleep twenty minutes into the movie and Ryan put a cautious hand to his knee, relaxing a little when it didn't wake Spencer up.

He whispered, "He won't let me. Not when he's awake."

Brendon would have offered to let Ryan do whatever the hell he needed to Brendon, but he knew it wasn't the same. At all.

*


"Anyway, so then I went and told my advisor the whole story and she loves Dr. Z., we all do, but in that way where you're perfectly aware of the crazy, you know? And Anaya--that's my advisor, I can't remember if I've ever told you her name--kind of looked at me and said 'Should all my classroom dilemmas be so. . .complex,' and then we both on the floor, because I mean, seriously--" but Jon was laughing too hard to continue.

Brendon was laughing too, laughing in a way that had him curled up around himself, his arms over his stomach. It would start hurting pretty soon, he knew, but it would be a nice soreness, something to remember how unbelievably good it felt to be amused. Nothing more complex, just plain old amusement.

"So," and Brendon couldn't say what made him ask the question, he had never before asked anything of Jon, just let him tell his stories and listened and enjoyed the utter sort of normal trouble that Jon always seemed to run into, managed to get himself out of, "did Dr. Z manage to sort it out?"

"No, but his TF, Greta, who's amazingly together for a music theory TF, figured out a system and pretty much told him to let her take care of it."

"I think I'm a little bit in love with Greta, just at this moment."

"I see how it is." Jon rolled over onto Brendon.

Brendon smiled up at him.

Jon said, "Hey, that's better."

"Better than what?"

"Better than the fake smiling."

"I wasn't--"

"You were. I thought maybe someone had hurt you."

It wasn't a question; Jon knew better than that. And Brendon wasn't the one who had been hurt, not directly at least. "It's just been a long week." Week and a day, to be precise.

Jon kissed the peak of cartilage that connected Brendon's cheek with his ear. "Can I try something?"

Brendon considered telling Jon that he was the one paying, but he knew Jon would dredge up his own fake smile at the reminder, and Jon was right, like this was better. "Sure, Jaje."

"Gimme a second." Jon got up and went to grab something from his jeans' pocket. Brendon looked over to the nightstand. There were plenty of condoms available.

He came back with something that looked, well, kind of like a sperm. It had a ring at the head and a trail of silicon beads. As Jon was slipping Brendon's cock into the ring, he got an expression of concentration on his face that made Brendon have to bite his lip to keep from laughing. It was fond laughter. Still, he wasn't sure Jon would appreciate it. Most Johns were kind of sensitive on the issue of their sexual prowess.

Once Brendon's cock was situated, Jon asked, "All right?"

Brendon didn't say, "Depends on how long I'm in it," didn't tell him that there'd been a John who'd kept him in one for so long that he'd literally been afraid of castration. "Fine."

Jon grabbed the lube and worked the beads inside of Brendon. Then, once they were in place, flipped a switch somewhere.

And oh. Oh. Brendon's lips parted, just to take in some air, go with the easy pleasure of the vibrator, and Jon took the chance to kiss him. "Still fine?"

"Mm," Brendon murmured, "fiiine."

Jon smiled against Brendon's mouth before moving down, suckling at the tip of his cock.

Brendon grabbed the sheets. Jon pried one of his hands up, set it atop his head. He lifted off of Brendon's cock. "You can touch. And you-- You don't have to beg. When you're ready, just say, all right?"

Brendon blinked down at Jon for a few seconds, then nodded. "Yeah, all right."

Jon went back to Brendon's cock, and his enjoyment thereof.

He had gotten better since that first time between them, or maybe it was just that he knew Brendon's cock more intimately at this point. Jon liked sucking cock, so far as Brendon could tell, and Brendon sort of understood, could see how the power in controlling someone's pleasure like that could be enticing if it weren't so regularly stripped from the act by the Johns who held him down, fucked his face, choked him. Brendon had had glimpses of that sort of control when Jon turned things over to him, which was fairly regularly.

In any case, Jon had learned tricks like the best places to lick, like how hard to suck. He still couldn't take Brendon all the way, but he used his hand too, and it wasn't something Brendon would have really thought to complain about, not even with the beads arousing him, the ring taunting him.

He moaned, "Jaje," when he was nearly shaking with the desire for release, and Jon didn't even hesitate, just worked the ring gently off, the action a bit painful, but the care itself a turn-on, and said, "Come for me, gorgeous."

The word sounded like it might actually mean something on Jon's tongue. It hadn't in so damned long.

Brendon obeyed the request, for that's what it was. He could tell the difference with Jon.

When he was done, Jon had already slipped the beads from him. Brendon asked, "Wanna reward?"

"I want you," Jon said softly, a bit wistfully.

Brendon slithered down and gave him what he had that could still be given without Brendon disappearing completely.

*


Spencer really should have known the universe was just saving itself up, because the Saturday night had gone too damn well. The symptoms from his infection were completely gone and none of the high rollers had gotten too violent and basically, it had just been a plum of a Saturday.

Until Ryan was all but thrown out of a car and back onto the corner at around five-thirty--Almost time to go home.

Ryan stood where he had landed once outside the moving vehicle and looked around like he didn't recognize anything. Spencer knew that look. Not on Ryan, but he knew it.

He put his hands carefully over Ryan's shoulders. "Ryan, hey, look at me."

Ryan looked. "Spencer."

"What'd they give you, Ry?"

"I-- Something to make me hard, make me-- Beg. I don't know. Not street stuff."

"X?"

Ryan shook his head, which up until then had been the only part of him not shaking. "Injection. Held me down."

Assholes. Spencer tamped down on the urge to follow the car and strangle each and every last one of them. Instead he caressed a thumb along Ryan's neck. "Sh, okay? Whatever it was, most performance drugs aren't habit forming. You'll be all right, you just have to come off of it."

"Spencer."

Spencer knew, knew from the pure-out panic in Ryan's eyes that there was more.

"What is it?"

"They found the seam."

All street whores had a place where they kept their money. Somewhere not obvious. A few were brazen enough to find places around their corner, but most found somewhere on themselves that wouldn't be discovered. Spencer kept his in the false sole of his shoes.

Ryan kept them in a hidden seam in his jeans.

"How much did they take, Ry?" Spencer already knew. But until he heard Ryan say it, he couldn't quite process the fact.

Ryan just shook his head again.

Thomas collected on Sundays.

"Okay. You still have Sunday through Friday's take, right?"

"Yeah."

Not that it was going to save him, but Spencer needed some time to think and asking the question was all he'd had at that moment. "We're gonna go back to your place and pick that up, then we're gonna stay at my place today."

"I don't think--"

"We're staying at my place." He wasn't leaving Ryan alone. He didn't have any idea what the hell he was going to do that would help the situation, but he wasn't doing that.

Spencer glanced over. Sure enough, Brendon was watching them. Spencer shook his head once, made the international sign for "everything's fine," which, in this case, was some sort of vague wave of his hand. Brendon seemed to get it. He also seemed doubtful, but he didn't come over, so that was something.

The last thing Spencer needed was Brendon getting caught up in this, too.

By the time they got back to Spencer's Ryan was nearly swaying with exhaustion and the aftermath of his forced high. Spencer went and got some water from the tap in the bathroom and made him drink. Then he pulled him into bed, Spencer taking up as little room as possible, trying to allow Ryan some actual comfort.

Spencer inched a hand inside Ryan's shirt to rub at his stomach in circles. "Go to sleep, okay? Just. Let yourself sleep."

"Spence." Ryan's body tightened even more.

"What?"

"I-- They might not have used condoms. I was-- It was hard to tell."

Black spots appeared in front of Spencer's eyes for a moment. Then he said, "That just means we have to go see Frank of Sexalicious fame, that's all."

Ryan made a sound that Spencer suspected was meant to be a laugh, but was excruciatingly close to a sob.

"Come on, Ry, come on." Spencer sneaked his other hand into the back of Ryan's shirt, to press in between his shoulder blades. His skin was uncomfortably cool. "I've got you."

With those words, Ryan took a breath, the first breath Spencer could remember him taking since he'd gotten back to the corner.

He released it.

Spencer held on.

*


Spencer was floating on the edges of sleep when the knock came. He pressed Ryan to the bed as he climbed over him, grabbing the money on the way to the door. He opened it to the greeting, "I swear to fuck, Spencer, you'd better have Ryan and his cash in here."

Spencer opened the door slightly to show Thomas what he wanted to see. At least part of it. He handed over the cash, said, casually, "Mine's a little short."

Ryan flew out of the cot. He was still a little uncoordinated, the dregs of whatever they'd given him making him at ends with his limbs the way he never, never was. But he managed well enough to get to the door and push Spencer out of the way.

"He's a lying little shit," Ryan hissed.

Thomas looked in between the two of them. Then he glanced back at his three enforcers, who were in the room--one holding Spencer, another Ryan, the third just standing calmly--before Spencer could think to move out of the way.

There wasn't room to breathe.

"Think about it, Thomas," Ryan was saying, "Spencer would lie to protect me, but would I do the same for him?"

Thomas raked his eyes over Spencer. "He has a point. And I think your days of defiance are over."

Spencer looked at Ryan, Ryan who would lie without even having to think about it for him. Ryan's eyes were hard and set, a clear do fucking NOT floating in them.

Spencer would do just about anything to keep Thomas from hurting Ryan. Anything but take Ryan's right to make his own choices from him.

Spencer's palm ached, but he wouldn't move it, wouldn't so much as tighten it into a fist with Thomas there, watching.

Thomas moved to Ryan, who was cautiously staying still in the hold of his enforcer--a man easily twice his size. Thomas ran a finger down the side of Ryan's face. "You skimming on me, little one?"

"If I were, would I be this stupid about it? That's a whole night's take missing."

"Somebody steal your lunch money?" Thomas' voice dripped with false sympathy.

Ryan said, "They fucked me up. I didn't see them take it."

"Hm. Maybe they did. Maybe. Seeing as it's your first offence, I suppose I can be lenient. Leave you with a warning, say?"

Spencer doubted Ryan even saw the first punch coming. Spencer did. And despite knowing he hadn't a chance of breaking free, he struggled at the hands and arms of his captor, struggled with everything he had. He bit his lip to keep from yelling, from saying things that would just get them into further trouble.

Ryan was good at taking a beating. Spencer imagined that even that was a skill one could acquire if taught young enough. He moved with the fists of the third enforcer as much as he could, but he was being held as well, and there wasn't anywhere to go.

Ryan gasped at the landing of the first blow, right at his jaw, hard enough to bruise, but not to break. Thomas needed Ryan's jaw.

The rest fell below the neckline, Ryan managing a pained, dignified silence that lasted all the way through the final hit, a punch directly to his ribs.

Spencer heard the crack, saw the way Ryan lost what little color he still had.

Thomas said, "All right. I think he gets the point."

He looked over at Spencer. "You still have another hand and far too much dignity for your own good. Don't lie to me again, pretty. Ever."

Thomas turned to go, the enforcers following. When Spencer thought they were safe, Thomas threw his head over his shoulder and said, "Make it up, Ryan," and then was finally, finally gone.

Ryan had slid to the ground the moment he'd been let go of. Spencer got to his knees, touched his fingers a little to the puffy edge of Ryan's lower lip. Ryan said, "No worries, Spence. Nothing my old man didn't do."

His breathing was shallow, ragged.

"Stay here," Spencer said, and stood up to get his first aid kit. He wrapped Ryan's ribs, trying not to notice how Ryan dug his fingernails into the meat of his shoulder, closed his eyes so tightly his entire face scrunched with the effort. "Couple more seconds, Ry."

He secured the binding and said, "All right, back into bed."

He laid Ryan on his back and settled on the floor, next to the cot. "I'm gonna be right here."

"Maybe you should go back to my place. Sleep on my bed."

Spencer wasn't going to sleep either way. He didn't want to make it any worse on himself than he had to. He closed his eyes. "You would lie to protect me."

"I know that. Thomas doesn't. You're the obvious one. And don't you ever fucking try something like that again. Ever, do you understand?"

Spencer made a noncommittal noise.

"You're such an asshole," Ryan said slowly, talking clearly getting more painful by the second.

"Sleep, Ry."

Ryan was quiet for a bit and Spencer waited to hear the evening of his breathing. Just before it happened, Ryan said, "It's good that you know it, too."

*


Unsurprisingly, Ryan was stiff almost to the point of immobility when Spencer got up to wake him. He'd tried to wait until the absolute last moment possible, but he wanted to be able to clean Ryan up a little, give him some painkillers, see if maybe he could rub out some of the hurt.

When Spencer was running a washcloth over the back of Ryan's neck, his shoulders, Ryan said, "You know there's only one way for me to make this up."

"No, Ryan."

"Spencer--"

"No. We'll figure out something."

Ryan didn't say anything else, which Spencer knew wasn't agreement. "Promise me, Ryan. Promise me you won't do anything stupid."

After a second, Ryan said, "I promise to be a good boy."

It wasn't the same thing. Spencer hoped it would be enough.

Getting Ryan into a new shirt and a clean pair of jeans was utter agony, and when the were finished, Ryan sat on the edge of the cot and panted, keening a bit at the end of every inhalation. Then he pushed himself to his feet. "Let's go."

It was a slow walk to the corner.

Spencer set his own pace hard and fast, meanwhile making sure as best he could that Ryan took it easy, mostly blowjobs and bread-and-butters who were reliable in their habits. The plan was working, at least a little. Spencer was ahead and Ryan wasn't behind.

Spencer was well on his way to figuring out the more intricate details of the plan--i.e., how to make up that much money with Ryan fairly out of commission--when he came back from a job to find Ryan missing from the corner.

Ryan had been going off with the bread-and-butters who liked a room, so at first Spencer didn't think much of it, at least not beyond the vague unease of having Ryan out of his sight at this moment. That, however, couldn't be helped.

Ryan didn't come back, though. Not after an hour, not after two.

Spencer made his way over to Brendon's corner and asked, as calmly as possible, "Did you see who Ryan went off with?"

Brendon shook his head. "I wasn't here. Something wrong?"

"No," Spencer said, because he wasn't going to upset Brendon on top of everything.

"Because he was looking a little rough."

"Tough night last night."

Brendon winced sympathetically.

Spencer went back to his corner and took Johns he only took when desperate, the ones with humiliation kinks, other delights that made his skin crawl for weeks afterward.

By six o'clock, Spencer was frantic. "Good boy," he muttered under his breath. He should have known. Ryan's definitions were always so ridiculously out of wack with anything anyone could call normal. "Fucking fuck fuck."

He was jogging over to Brendon when he found himself being met half-way. Spencer started, "I have to go--"

"--look for him. I'm coming with you."

"You should sleep."

Brendon just looked at him. Spencer nodded. "Come on."

Ryan wasn't in the closest of the motels or anywhere around it. Spencer talked to the guy at the front desk but he was, predictably, unaware of having seen or heard anything. The second closest motel was the same story. He had actually been seen at the third one, but too early in the night for Spencer to identify it as the place to start looking. They were about to go into the fourth when Spencer's eye caught on something in the alleyway to the side of the building.

Spencer broke off from Brendon, who kept going for a second, but followed as soon as he realized what Spencer had done.

When they got closer, Brendon swore low and fervent and with a voice that shook as hard as every inch of Spencer's body wanted to, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph."

Ryan was lying on the ground, in the mud and sewage of the alley. He was more blood than skin.

Spencer said, "No. Nononono." He couldn't stop saying it. He dropped to his knees and put a hand to Ryan's neck. When he found what he was looking for, he pressed his fingers more tightly into the skin--unable, at first, to believe that it was actually there.

Ryan's pulse just beat against the firmer pressure.

Spencer saw black, then white, nearly passing out from the sheer relief. He said, "Not dead, not dead," just in case Brendon couldn't tell, couldn't see.

Ryan moaned, a scared, small sound.

"Ryan?" Spence asked. "Ryan, it's me. It's Spencer. And Brendon's here, too."

"Sor-- sorry."

"Hush, Ry. We have to get you to the clinic. You think you can help?"

Ryan whispered, "Just a belt. Just a belt."

Spencer couldn't understand at first. Then he looked again at the gashes in Ryan's skin, and caught on. Just the buckle end of a belt. But that would have been why Ryan agreed, even knowing the possible consequences. They would have told him they wanted to use a belt. Nothing Ryan couldn't handle.

And Ryan, Spencer knew, Ryan downplayed things in his head to survive them.

Nothing my old man didn't do.

Just a belt.

Spencer wondered how many times Ryan had told himself that while they were beating him with it, while it was crashing against skin and bone and muscle, making him bleed. One of Ryan's wrists was bent out at an awkward angle, swollen and bloody and Spencer knew he would have tried to bring it over himself, to protect his body with it, would have broken from his staunch stoic ways in the face of pain to try and stop it, try and end it.

"Help me," he said to Brendon.

Brendon said, "He told me. He told me to never go with the ones who want you because you're hurt. He told me."

"Brendon," Spencer said, forcing a sharpness he didn't feel into his voice.

Brendon blinked. "Right. Sorry. Right."

They worked to get Ryan up, each of them supporting him with a hand to his underarm. It was slow and Ryan was crying, actually crying, which Spencer had never once seen him do in almost two years of knowing him through hunger and cold and pain and anger and fear.

"Just a little further, Ry," Brendon said, which was a complete lie, because the clinic was a pretty decent walk, but they all knew it was a complete lie, so it was allowable.

Ryan stuttered, "Bren-- Brendon."

"Sh, breathe to walk, okay?"

Ryan wasn't really walking so much as being dragged, but Brendon's point was valid, particularly with the earlier damage to Ryan's ribs which couldn't have been helped by lying on the pavement.

"Brendon," Ryan said, more insistently.

Spencer mouthed, "Just listen."

"What, Ry?"

"The-- Regulars. Two--"

"I know. I know, Ryan."

"No, I--"

"I know, Ryan. It was fine. It was always fine. I stole. I stole from you."

"No," Ryan said, and it sounded so utterly broken. "No. Just. Wanted you. He--"

"Sh," Brendon said. "Please. Please."

Ryan hushed.

Spencer kept his eyes in the direction of the clinic.

Please.

*


They finally, finally made it in the door of the clinic and Spencer said, "Dr. Bryar, please," as calmly as he could manage. The receptionist got up and made time.

It didn't matter if Bob didn't want him, didn't see him, only saw a child, it didn't matter because he would take care of Ryan. He would fix Ryan. He would.

Mikey came from the back and walked up to them. He tried to take Ryan. It wasn't that Spencer didn't trust him to be careful, it was that he literally couldn't get his fingers to release him, now that they were here, that they were safe. Sort of.

Mikey said, "Spencer, Brendon, you've gotta let me have him, okay? Come on, let go, that's it. Let go."

Mikey kept up the mantra until Spencer managed to get his fingers working again, to pull himself off of Ryan. Mikey picked Ryan up as gently as possible. Ryan whimpered. Mikey said, "I know honey, I know. I'm sorry."

Spencer and Brendon followed Mikey into the exam room where he worked to set Ryan down as easily as possible on the exam bed. Spencer said, "His rib is cracked. Left side."

Mikey made sure to put him on his right. "Do you know if he's allergic to anything?"

"I don't think so," Spencer said. "I don't know. But they gave him something, the guys last night, he didn't know what, so I don't know if it's still in him and if that could--"

"Spence," Mikey said softly. "I'm gonna go get his chart. Then I'll see what I can do."

"Chart." Spencer nodded. That was a good idea.

"I want both of you to sit down in those chairs over there, okay? You can pull them up to the table so that you can sit next to him, but then you have to sit. Nurse's orders."

Next to him, Spencer could feel Brendon's obedient nodding. Spencer made himself follow Brendon's example.

"Okay," Mikey said, and left the room.

Brendon went and dragged both the chairs to the table. Spencer wanted to help, but his legs were being oddly recalcitrant. Brendon pulled him into a chair. Spencer reached out and closed his hands over Ryan's. The one that wasn't attached to the severely injured wrist.

Bob came back with Mikey and Spencer couldn't help the, "Please," that escaped from his mouth.

Bob nodded. He said, "Hey Ryan. You hang in there. We're gonna get you feeling better, okay?"

Mikey set up an IV drip and Spencer said, "You told him--"

"I did Spence. We're not gonna hurt him anymore, I promise." Mikey injected something into the IV, and Spencer felt Ryan's hand flutter inside of his. Then Ryan's eyes slid all the way shut.

"Ryan?" Brendon asked.

"Drugs," Spencer said, as reassuringly as he could manage.

Spencer watched as Mikey and Bob worked together to clean up the worst of the damage, undressing him, cleaning each wound thoroughly, sewing them up with infinite care.

Bob said, "Okay, we need to get an x-ray of the wrist, and I'd like one of the rib, which is going to involve taking him down the hall." He turned to Mikey. "Do we have a blood type on him?"

Mikey checked the chart. "He's O pos."

"Small favors. Get him set up for that, I'm gonna have Spencer help me with the pictures."

Mikey detached the IV unit from the port in Ryan's arm. Bob picked him up slowly, taking care with his ribs. He said, "Come on."

Spencer followed. He followed and when they got to the tiny room with all the right equipment he did all the things Bob told him to do. There wasn't much. He got the feeling Bob could have done it by himself. Spencer said, "Thanks."

Bob didn't look at him as he said, "He's gonna be fine," but Spencer didn't think it was because he was lying. There were plenty of other good reasons to look away.

When they were done Bob carried Ryan back, and Spencer marveled a little at how utterly safe Ryan seemed, despite everything. He didn't ask to be held. He didn't.

Mikey set up the transfusion and then went to go get the films. Bob looked at them, nodded and the two of them moved together to set the wrist. Ryan murmured in his sleep at that, but didn't wake. Mikey helped Bob to put the cast together, get it in place.

Brendon said, "We should sign it."

Spencer moved his chair closer to Brendon's and looped his arm over Brendon's shoulders. Brendon squirmed to be as close as he could, the arms cutting into his stomach. He didn't seem to mind. Spencer rubbed at his arm, and Brendon put his head on Spencer's shoulder.

When they were done with the cast, Bob said, "Brendon, can you stay with Ryan for a bit? I wanna talk with Spencer about meds and stuff."

Brendon said, "Be careful with him."

Bob closed his eyes for a moment. "We'll be right back."

Once again, Spencer followed Bob. Bob took him to his office. He said, "Spence, he can't go out tonight."

Spencer had checked Ryan's jeans once they were off of him. He understood why Ryan had taken the offer. It still wasn't enough. Not for Ryan to miss more nights and still make up. Not even with Spencer and Brendon's help, with both of them not taking any of the cut. It just wasn't. Ryan either went out tonight, or he dealt with Thomas on Sunday.

Either eventuality probably ended in death.

Spencer looked Bob straight in the eye, smiled a little, said, "All right."

"Spence--"

"I said all right." Spencer would not cry. He would not. He absolutely would not.

Bob hesitated. "I'm gonna give you pain meds for him. The good stuff. Let me-- It's not-- You can't afford this stuff, okay? If you have to think of it as being from the clinic, then you can do that."

It was for Ryan. Spencer wasn't about to turn it down.

"I'm gonna have Mikey write up the ways he needs to care for the cast and the wounds. The stitches are dissolvable, so he doesn't have to come back in for that, but he needs to take the antibiotics we're gonna give you with plenty of liquids. Seriously, lots and lots of liquids."

Spencer nodded. "Liquids."

Bob reached a hand out and Spencer jerked back before it could come into contact with him. "Don't touch me. Don't fucking--"

But Bob did something that he never had before, that Spencer hadn't even suspected him capable of, not really, and ignored Spencer's boundaries completely. He moved quickly, pulling Spencer to him and Spencer broke, burrowing in, biting both lips to keep from sobbing from pouring everything that was left in him out.

"I was wrong," Bob said.

Spencer didn't understand, couldn't understand, could only feel the way Bob had him and it was safe and he was cared for, only not enough, not enough because Bob hadn't held on before. But then Bob said, "I was wrong," again, and this time he added, "your age isn't-- You haven't been seventeen for a long time. You never were, really."

He put a hand to Spencer's chin and kissed him, making him release his lips and Spencer hated him because then it wasn't only tears pouring from Spencer, but actual cries, actual convulsions of fear and grief.

Bob's lips were so utterly perfect against his, Bob's arms still around him, still so damn stable and all Spencer could see was Ryan on that table, Ryan the way he would look on the street tonight, Ryan worrying about the lack of condoms. All Spencer could see was they way death waited for them, less patient than with others, less kind.

All he could see was that next time it would be him who left Bob and he wouldn't even mean to.

He'd rather it be his choice.

He pushed Bob off, wiped at his eyes, his nose, his mouth. "You weren't wrong." He took a step back. "I have to get to Ryan."

*


When they'd finally managed to get Ryan settled, Spencer said, "You should go back to your place. Try and rest some."

Brendon asked, "Were you dropped on your head as a child?"

"Not excessively," Spencer told him, but seemed to take his point. Spencer laid down on the ground and opened his arms a little to Brendon. Brendon took the invitation, fitting himself as tightly to Spencer as he could manage. His heart was still beating everywhere but where it was supposed to, the taste of ash that always signified adrenaline still lay atop his tongue. His exhaustion was great enough that he fell asleep regardless.

Spencer's alarm woke him, and the two of them got up, did some quick prep on themselves and began the long, slow process of getting Ryan out to the corner.

Spencer called to Ryan, a hand on his face, until Ryan came to, panicked and in pain. Spencer talked to him softly, getting him to still, to calm. Brendon found him his loosest pair of jeans and a soft t-shirt. They were Wednesday night clothes, Brendon knew. Brendon would buy him more, later, when this was over.

When.

It took both of them helping him to get him outfitted. Spencer gave him more pills and forced him to drink two glasses of water. Ryan didn't complain; Ryan didn't do anything other than control the noises that clearly wanted to break from him non-stop.

They both supported him down to the corner, taking a while to make sure he could stand on his own. They put him near the wall, just in case.

Brendon said, "Let me stay, even if it's just tonight."

Spencer said, "I was starting to think you were going to make me ask."

Without even talking about it, the two of them came to an arrangement, a way of making sure that Ryan was never left alone. They parceled all of the blowjobs on to Ryan. The edges of his lips were already torn--Brendon imagined they must have gagged him, because he would have screamed, he wouldn't have been able to help it--but on a body that had no area of relief, that was the one part of Ryan that was at least still working to some extent.

The first few times either he or Spencer--whoever was still on the corner with him--would go and pick Ryan up, help him back to the street. The fourth or fifth time Ryan rasped, "Could you just-- Could I maybe stay? And you could send them back?"

Brendon told Spencer when he returned and Spencer just nodded tightly.

Leaving with Johns, being unable to see Ryan, was hell on earth. Having to watch him surreptitiously, slumped over in the alley, doing his best to seem eager for cock, was maybe worse. Brendon couldn't really tell. He just wanted the night to be over. The week. Wanted Ryan to be back, standing where Brendon was, banishing Brendon to his own corner.

Jon rolled up at a little before two. The passenger side window slid down and Jon grinned, "Wanna go for a ride, gorgeous?"

Brendon did. Brendon wanted Jon to take him away, far away. "I can't. Not tonight. I-- If you want something, to fuck, I mean, I can go quickly--"

"Whoa, hey. Brendon. Hey." Jon killed the ignition and got out of the car, walking around to where Brendon was standing. He touched Brendon's arm. "You're shaking."

"I'm fine," Brendon said, "I just can't leave here, not for hours and hours."

"You're not fine."

Jon's fingers were warm where they were touching Brendon's bicep and Brendon thought, "There are parts of me that he would do anything to have." It was a sickening thought, and one that--once the words had swum confidently into his brain--could not be washed away. There was another thought, a, "Thomas will kill you if he finds out. Kill you," but that one was easier, that one was just about his body, that one was a variant on so many others that occurred to Brendon daily.

Brendon said, in a voice that he didn't recognize, "I have a proposition for you."

Slowly, Jon said, "All right."

"Take Ryan for the rest of the night. Pay the regular rate, what you would pay if you were going to take me for that time, but don't touch him. Not even a kiss. In exchange, you can have me for a day, free of charge." Brendon took a breath, "And I will answer any question you care to ask."

Jon's face scrunched the tiniest bit. After a moment he asked, "Why Ryan?"

Brendon didn't say anything, just lead Jon into the alley. Ryan's head snapped up at the sound of more than one person's footsteps, barely-subdued panic radiating from him.

Brendon said, "Just me, Ry. I brought someone to help." At least, he hoped he had. Jon hadn't agreed yet.

Jon bent down a little, put a gentle hand to Ryan's elbow. "Let's get you into the car."

Brendon closed his eyes for the barest of seconds, then he lowered himself as well and got to helping with the moving of Ryan. Ryan looked at him, a question in his eyes. Brendon smiled his best, it's-gonna-be-fine smile. Ryan took him at his expression. It almost made Brendon want to explain more. He curtailed the urge.

Spencer came back to find the alley empty and began, "Bren--"

"He's safe," Brendon cut him off. "He's with Jon. He's safe."

Spencer didn't look so sure. "He's a John, Brendon."

Brendon said, "I know. But this is Ryan." I wouldn't have taken a chance.

Spencer nodded at that. "All right."

It made earning easier when they were both able to leave the corner at once.

*


Jon brought Ryan back first thing in the morning. He said to Brendon and Spencer, "Why don't you guys get in? We'll grab you some breakfast and then I'll take you back to where you need to go."

Spencer looked at Brendon. Neither of them were taking their cut this week, and they had plans to put most of their savings in to cover the difference. Brendon asked, "Why don't you just drop us off?" It would be easier than walking Ryan back.

"You need to eat," Jon said.

"We have food in our rooms." Brendon didn't even think about the lie.

"Not real food," Jon said. "I'm swinging by IHOP and then taking you guys back. It's on me."

Spencer stiffened. Taking anything from a John when you couldn't see the price demanded was almost as bad as falling in love with one. Brendon whispered, "It's all right, I'll take care of it."

He would. He'd already made that deal.

Spencer looked unsure, but Brendon just climbed in behind Jon, allowing Spencer the seat behind Ryan. Spencer leaned forward in his seat, checking Ryan over as best he could. Ryan said, "Morning."

"Yeah," Spencer said, "We're gonna have you home real soon."

Jon went through the drive-in, he ordered pancakes and eggs for everyone, made sure to get forks and syrup packets and handed over his card. Then he drove off. "Where am I going?"

Brendon told him how to get to Brendon's place. He wasn't going to give him Ryan's or Spencer's.

When he pulled up, Jon waited for them to get Ryan out of the car, then gave the bag of breakfast sustenance to Brendon. "All right. See ya," he said, and drove off.

They put Ryan in Brendon's bed. Spencer made him eat a little something, and drink another couple of glasses to get down a set of pills. When he was just about asleep, Ryan said, "Seam, Spencer. Look."

Spencer fished his hand inside the requisite spot.

He pulled out more money than Brendon could credit. Spencer looked at it, as dumbfounded as Brendon. "Ryan. Ryan. This is enough to keep you until Thursday." At least, with all three of them putting in a full one hundred percent it would be. "Jesus, fuck, Ryan, what did you do?"

Ryan bent his head just enough that he could train his gaze on Brendon. Brendon wanted to look away, but Ryan seemed to demand that he not, and Brendon wasn't having a lot of luck at denying Ryan the things he wanted just then. Ryan said, "I sold Brendon," his expression so blank Brendon had a hard time seeing him underneath it. Then his eyes slipped closed and the last vestige of consciousness to which he'd been holding fled.

Spencer, though, Spencer was still awake and on Brendon immediately. "What does he mean? What does he mean by that?"

"He didn't," Brendon said. He didn't. "I sold myself. It was nothing to do with him." But Brendon hadn't asked for that. He'd asked for six or so hours of normal pay.

Brendon was so, so fucking stupid.

"Define 'sold yourself'." Spencer's voice was cold unto frigid.

"I told him he could have a day. For free. And I'd answer his questions. That's all."

"That's all? That's fucking all? Do you have any idea, any idea, what will happen if Thomas finds out?"

Brendon looked at Spencer's hand. He had it clenched. "Some, yeah."

"Take it back. We'll give the money back, we'll figure out a way--"

"No, Spence."

"Brendon--"

"No. I'll be careful, all right? But now Ryan can rest. He can heal. I'm not giving it back."

Spencer breathed through his nose, his chest moving in and out wildly. Brendon said, "He's gonna be fine."

Spencer laid down on the floor, his back to Brendon. Brendon ignored the willful pissiness, laying down as well, wrapping himself over Spencer's back.

*


Jon showed up early that night, only a little after ten. He reached over to open the passenger side door and said, "No excuses," but he just sounded hopeful, not demanding.

Brendon didn't try to give him any.

Jon took them to the usual motel and checked them into a room. Brendon said, "I could make it two days."

Jon said, "Let's start with you telling me how Ryan's doing." He sounded tired.

Brendon climbed on the bed, curled his arms up around his knees. "He's sleeping, mostly. I think he's gonna be okay."

"Good," Jon said softly.

"Seriously. You could have me Wednesday all the way through Thursday, if you wanted." It wasn't much to offer, but Jon seemed fairly desirous.

"No, Brendon."

It didn't sit easy with Brendon, not given the enormity of the sum, but he said, "Okay, I guess. Is there a day you prefer?"

Jon ran a hand over his face. He laughed a little into the hand. It wasn't a happy sound.

"Jaje?"

"I'm not taking a day, Brendon. I'm not taking a day, I'm not asking you questions, I'm not being some fucking John. I'm not."

Brendon frowned. "You took Ryan. I offered you the day and you took him."

"You asked, Brendon. You asked with yourself, you bargained, but it was really just you asking."

Brendon felt his stomach roll over. He took a breath, then another, waiting for it to settle back in its proper place. He said, softly, "Come here."

Jon came. He sat down next to Brendon. "I don't want to buy that part, B."

"B?"

Jon shrugged. "I figure you get to call me by my initials."

"We have that double letter thing in common."

"What?"

"You're JJ. I'm BB. Brendon Boyd."

Jon looked over at him, eyes just a little rounder than usual. "Brendon--"

"I thought I was B," Brendon said, and unfolded to kiss him before Jon could really respond. He broke off from the kiss and said, "At home I had a cockatoo named Obediah, after the prophet. I told my parents it was because he was always waking me up, you know, like to the presence of the lord, but really it was just because he was all white and I could shorten Obediah to Obi and know that I had really named him after Obi-Wan. In the original three. Although, Ewan MacGregor, hot."

Jon said, "A cockatoo?"

Brendon smiled. "My mom was allergic to cats and one of my sisters was bitten by a dog when young instilling a lifelong fear. Besides, he reached out and pecked me as I was walking by him in the store. What was I supposed to do, ignore him?"

"That would have been cruel of you," Jon said solemnly.

"That's what I thought," Brendon said, his smile fading a bit. "I may not be very good at this."

"This?"

"The part where I tell you things. I might tell you stupid things if you don't ask questions."

"That wasn't a stupid thing."

"It wasn't important, either."

Jon kissed at the corner of Brendon's mouth, rubbed the pad of his thumb over the hollow of Brendon's throat. "Maybe you should let me decide what's stupid. I'll tell you if I think something is."

"No you won't," Brendon called him on it.

"Who's to say we don't have different definitions of stupid?"

Brendon was pretty sure they did. Jon kissed him again. Brendon murmured, "I like the kissing part."

"If that's stupid," Jon whispered over Brendon's lips, "then I'm a complete moron."

*


It was almost four on Wednesday morning when Spencer started seeing things. Things that talked to him.

The Thing looked remarkably like Bob and it said, "Frank and Gerard really will kill me if I return without having convinced you to forgive me."

Spencer blinked, shook his head. It was okay. He was really tired and really stressed out. Nothing Ryan getting better and sleeping straight through to Thursday night wouldn't fix.

"Spencer, please. I've been walking this area for nearly five hours trying to find your corner. At least talk to me. You don't have to-- Well, we'll get to what you do or don't have to do in a moment, but for now, just talk to me."

"Five hours?"

"One of those was me getting lost," Bob admitted.

Spencer made himself not laugh, made himself not think, you were looking for me. "I have to work, Dr. Bryar. I have about three hours left, and I'm behind." Not for a normal week he wasn't. This week hadn't been any sort of normal.

"How much for the three hours?"

"No," Spencer said. "No."

"I don't want to fuck you, I mean, not right now, anyway, but I will do anything, anything Spencer, to get you to talk to me, up to and including exploiting your current profession."

"Five hundred dollars," Spencer said.

"Done," Bob said.

Spencer stilled. He'd chosen a ridiculous amount on purpose, something nobody would ever pay for him, certainly not for three hours. "What?"

"You'll have to trust me to pay you at around nine, when the banks open, because I don't have that much on me, but you can take anything you want as a guarantee. And I can give you twenty up front. I could do thirty-five, but I was sort of gonna treat you to breakfast at Mary Ann's."

Spencer said, "For five hundred dollars, you can do whatever the hell you want with me."

Bob pulled out his wallet, handed over the twenty. Spencer pocketed it. "Your license? Guarantor."

Bob didn't even hesitate. Spencer said, coolly, "All right. Mary Ann's?"

Bob nodded. They walked slowly. Bob was silent. Spencer didn't remind him that he'd paid to talk. Spencer was fine with not talking. If they talked, Spencer had to resist, had to find a way to make Bob walk away again. He was already five hundred dollars worth of attempt on that part along. Spencer didn't know how much more he could dish out.

Emily wasn't on her shift when they got to the diner, but Linnea evidently knew Bob as well. She poured him coffee and asked Spencer, "Some for you too, sweetie?"

The endearment didn't make Spencer feel any better. He shook his head. "Milk-- Milk, please."

"Sure thing."

She disappeared and Spencer buried his face in the menu, taking as long as he possibly could to decide what he wanted and then pretending to still be deciding until Linnea returned. "What'll it be, kiddos?"

Bob said, "Raisin bran with skim milk and side of cantaloupe."

Spencer said, "Two buttermilk pancakes, a plate of sausage and the blueberries with cream."

He'd tried to convince himself to order more just to rack up the bill, but Spencer abhorred wasting food. He'd spent too many times without it.

"Hungry?" Bob asked. He sounded worried.

Stop. Please stop. Spencer shrugged.

"How is Ryan?"

Spencer looked at him, didn't say a word.

"Come on Spence. I'm asking as his doctor, all right?"

"He's better. He's been resting."

"I was glad not to see him out."

Spencer wished he could be glad, wished he didn't have to worry quite so much about what the respite meant for Brendon. "Yeah."

"See, I've been thinking, thinking about the things I could say that would get you to forgive me, get you to come back and I realized that nothing was going to change what I did, nothing was going to make it better and that my only option was simply to beg, beg and beg and beg until you understood that I'm miserable, that I miss you so much sometimes I'll be doing dictation or other stuff that I'm supposed to do for, you know, my job and I'll find myself completely derailed, talking into the damn tape about you and I have to go back and erase it and start all over again.

"That when you walked into that clinic all I could think was how it could have been you and the last thing I would have said to you was that you were a child in my eyes and it would have been such a fucking lie, such an utter lie."

The food came and Spencer made himself tuck into the pancakes, despite the way they seemed to stick to his insides, heavy and sodden. "One of these days it will be me."

"It could be." Bob sucked in a breath. "I know, Spencer. Don't you think I know? Every time that clinic door opens I-- Sometimes I hate myself, for being relieved when it's someone else. But so long as it's not you I can hate myself, that's fine. So I know. But it's not enough, Spence, not nearly enough to give you up."

"What would be enough?"

"Not five hundred dollars. Not a million. You undervalued yourself."

"What, Bob?"

Bob shook his head. "I know where your corner is now. This leaves you with a couple of options. There's finding a new corner, although I don't know how that works and you'd have to move Ryan, too, which you're probably not real keen on doing, and I think between ignoring me and taking care of Ryan you'd prioritize the second. Or there's turning me down every single night, every single hour, because I swear I will stand there and wait my turn, wait and wait and wait."

Spencer grabbed his milk, swallowed at it convulsively. When he set it down, he had regained some semblance of calm. "Why?"

"Why?"

"Yes. Why?"

Bob frowned. "Because I'm in love with you. And I screwed up. And there's nothing else to be done."

Spencer tried to think past the buzzing in his head. It sounded quite a bit like the repetition of Bob's first sentence over and over and over again. "Find someone else, Bob. Find someone clean, find someone safe, find someone-- Find someone else."

"Spence. Spence. There is nobody else. Don't you see? Please, please if you even think you could feel this way about me, ever, even, I don't know, ten years from now, longer, if there's even the smallest, most remote possibility, please don't tell me no. Give me another chance."

Spencer looked down at his lap, squeezed his eyes shut, pulled back the tears. He thought, you're just tired, is all. Just tired.

If Bob had said one more thing, even just a "please" Spencer could have refused him, could have ridden on the righteous anger of Bob trying to take over his space, not allowing him the freedom of his own decisions.

Bob stayed silent, waited for Spencer's pronouncement.

Spencer whispered, "I will fail you." Like I failed Ryan. Worse.

"I've already failed you. If you can forgive me, why would you assume I wouldn't do the same for you? That I could do any less?"

Spencer looked up. "I will hurt you."

"Better hurt from you than anything from anyone else."

Yes, Spencer thought. Because that part, that part he knew. Bob had already taught him that. He said, "I feel--"

Bob waited a long time before asking, "Spence?"

"Three hours. It's not really five hundred dollars."

"Two minutes with you, Spence. Two fucking minutes. It would have been worth it."

"I just meant--"

"I want you to have it, I want it to be yours, I want you to be safe if just for tomorrow. I want--"

"I feel that way too."

Bob stuttered, "I'm sorry?"

"The part-- The part earlier about how you feel. About me. I feel that way, too." Spencer felt young, too young and too old and too stupid and too used. He wanted to say the words, he did, he wanted to give them to Bob the way Bob had given him everything, everything, but he just couldn't. They wouldn't move past his stomach, let alone his lips.

Bob grinned at him. Grinned. "Okay. Okay. You want some more milk?"

Spencer looked at his glass. It was empty. "Please."

*


Bob walked Spencer back to the corner so that Spencer could say to Brendon, "I hate to ask, but could you take care of Ryan for, um, until tomorrow?"

Brendon looked past Spencer for a second, which was all the warning Bob got before he had an armful of Brendon, who was managing--despite being considerably smaller--to crush Bob to death at the same time as he was repeating non-stop, "Oh thank G-d, thank G-d, thank G-d."

Spencer said, "Brendon, please don't harm my boyfriend."

Brendon let go. He shoved Bob. "Don't ever be stupid again."

"I'll do my best," Bob promised.

Brendon seemed to consider this good enough. He made shooing motions with his hand. Spencer turned and the two of them set off toward Bob's apartment. Bob flipped open his cell phone and hit memory two. He listened to something and then said, "I can't get in today. I have the death."

He sounded pretty happy about it.

Ten minutes later, his phone rang. Bob looked at the number. "Gerard," he said. "To pick up, or not to pick up?"

"Well, you were successful," Spencer said.

"True, but he's also my boss, and knows that I have nothing like the death."

"You really think he'll make you come in?"

"No. Good point." Bob answered. "I told you. The death."

Spencer overheard, "...lying, hookey-playing...should fire your ass."

"Mm," Bob said, noncommittally.

Another voice shouted, "WOOO!!! GO BOB!!!"

The first voice said, "...boyfriend...asshole." He sounded sort of contentedly resigned to the fact.

Bob told Spencer off to the side, "Frank is happy for us."

Spencer liked Frank.

"...me. ...too."

"Gerard's backpedaling now, he wants in on the happy."

There was laughter on the other end of the line, and then something about a day off before Gerard hung up. Bob closed his phone with a grin. Spencer asked, "I take it he's not going to fire you?"

"He'd just have to hire me back, and that would be rough on the ego, I think."

Bob let them into the apartment. He asked, "Mind if I put off running to the bank until later?"

"Bob--"

"No, Spencer. We agreed. And I know you don't like to let that part of you get in between us, but it is what you do and I don't want you having to make up the time tomorrow."

Spencer thought about arguing some more, but he was exhausted. "You can get it tomorrow, for all I care."

"Mm, no, but I was thinking that right now I could maybe take a shower with you, and sleep for a bit. Or more than a bit."

"Did you really walk around for almost five hours?"

"It's kind of a large area."

Spencer grabbed Bob's collar, and dragged him in for a kiss. "That's sorta the nicest thing anybody's ever done for me."

"I'm gonna have to have a talk with Ryan and Brendon about us all kicking it up a notch, then. Come on." Bob lead Spencer to the shower, and ran the water blissfully, orgasmically hot. Bob stood facing him, Spencer's back to the spray, letting the heat wash over him, actually clean him. Bob asked, "Can I wash your hair?"

Spencer nodded, stood still as Bob grabbed the shampoo, lathered it through every last strand. He massaged at the scalp, his fingers digging just enough to release some of the tension Spencer held there. When Bob tipped Spencer's head back, the water and heat did the rest.

Spencer washed himself, needing to scrub more thoroughly than he knew Bob would manage for him. When Spencer asked, "Can I--" and motioned to the soap in his hand, Bob just spread himself out, allowed Spencer whatever he so wished.

When the spray finally began to cool ever so slightly, Bob reached out and turned the tap off, grabbing a nearby towel and wrapping Spencer wholly in it. He found some boxers and a t-shirt for Spencer and the two of them climbed into Bob's bed. Spencer took a moment to press his face into the linens, marvel at the detergent-clean smell of them, the soft, broken-in feel of quality cotton. He missed real beds that were actually comfortable and not pits of bacteria, both his own and other people's.

Bob pulled him into his arms and Spencer twisted so that his nose rested roughly at the hollow of Bob's throat, so that he was entirely cuddled within Bob's grasp. As good as the sheets smelled and felt, they really had nothing on Bob.

He took a breath to say something, to promise things for later, but he was asleep before the air ever hit his lungs.

*


Spencer woke up screaming Ryan's name. He had no idea why, but he was shaking and his throat was clogged and Bob was saying, "Spencer, Spencer, hey, okay, okay."

Spencer clamped his lips shut. He never had nightmares. Never. Not ones he woke from, at least. Not ones he remembered. When he was pretty sure he could control what would come out of his mouth, he said, "Sorry."

"Sh, Spence. I'm gonna touch you now, okay?"

Spencer could control his words, but he couldn't control leaning into Bob's touch, giving himself over to Bob's hold. Bob rubbed at his back, kissed at the top of his head. When the worst of the shuddering passed, Bob said, "I'm gonna go get you some water. I'll be right back."

Spencer looked over at the clock. He'd been sleeping for nearly ten hours.

Bob came back with water and a banana. Spencer almost told him he wasn't hungry, but when Bob broke off a piece and Spencer popped it into his mouth, it turned out he was. Spencer downed the water. Bob asked, "You want some dinner? Ray made lasagna last night. He's at Mikey's. He won't care if we eat it."

Spencer nodded. He followed Bob out to the kitchen. Bob grabbed his hips and hoisted him atop the counter. Spencer laughed a little. He said, "I don't usually have nightmares."

Bob said, "Mine are pretty rare, too. But if I'm gonna have them, sleeping in a new place by myself would be pretty guaranteed to help the situation along."

"I wasn't alone."

"I got up at around three. Went to the bank. Checked in on the clinic."

"Oh."

"You were pretty gone, I wanted you to get as much rest as you could."

Spencer was still tired. Bob handed him a pasta bowl filled with some of the messiest lasagna Spencer had ever seen in his life and a fork. Spencer dug in. "Think I would have any chance of stealing Ray from Mikey?"

Bob gave the question some consideration, leaning against the counter and starting in on his own portion. "Mikey's pretty hot."

"Yeah, but you wouldn't believe the head I can give."

"If I made Ray teach me how to cook, would that dissuade you from your nefarious plans?"

"Worried about your friends?"

"Worried about my broken heart, is more like it."

Spencer smiled into his bowl. Bob leaned over and kissed his knee. They ate mostly in silence after that, even Lizzy--who had wandered in at the smell of food--curled up at Bob's feet and settled. Bob took Spencer's empty bowl, rinsed it and stuck it in the dishwasher. He said, "Close your eyes."

Spencer closed them. He felt Bob stand there for a moment. Spencer thought, I still trust you. He didn't say it. He kept his eyes shut.

Bob moved about the kitchen, opening and shutting things and then he said, "Open your mouth."

The spoon Bob inserted was cold, rested lightly on Spencer's tongue. Spencer closed his mouth over it, letting the sweet cream and caramel mix of the ice cream melt onto his taste buds, run down his throat. He opened his mouth when he was ready for another bite. Bob gave him another. And another. Until Spencer said, "Kiss me."

Bob tasted of the ice cream, too. Spencer smiled against his mouth. "Sneaking bites?"

"Sneaking nothing. Taking."

Without opening his eyes, Spencer said, "Bob, you should know, I've never-- Well, obviously I have, but not with-- Always for money."

Bob ran his thumbs over Spencer's lids, coaxed them open. When Spencer was looking at him, he said, "I sorta figured." Then, "Wrap your legs around me."

Spencer did, and Bob carried him to the bedroom without so much as breathing heavily. He laid him out on the bed before throwing his clothes aside. Spencer followed suit and lay there, suddenly, bizarrely aware of the awkward length of his legs in comparison to the rest of him, the various and sundry scars left to him, the sharp skinniness of his hips. It had never mattered before, not at all.

Bob grinned down at him, the expression greedy and eager. "Anything you wanna do?"

It was like offering a fire hydrant to the denizens of hell. There was no way to measure the things he wanted to do. "Have sex."

"Helpful, Spencer."

Spencer shrugged. "You asked."

Bob laid down, rolling onto his back, dragging Spencer atop him. "Fine, I'll have it my way."

He kissed Spencer, then. The kissing was nothing new, but Spencer never seemed to get bored by it, which was strange, because he'd always found kissing to be a bit blasè in the past. If there were fun parts to sex, that wasn't really one of them. Except that Bob's mouth was always just right against his, always that perfect mixture of salty-sweet, gentle-vicious, give-take.

Bob rubbed his cock once, just once up against Spencer's, and oh fuck, that should have been mundane, too. Spencer found himself holding to Bob's arms just so that he would have a grip on something, anything.

Bob asked, "Sure you don't have any preferences?" the words being fed directly into Spencer's ear.

"Don't stop," Spencer said, which wasn't exactly a preference, but really, really important at this moment.

"No, Spence, not until we're done." And then somehow Bob was everywhere, at the back of his ear, the base of his neck, the nub of his nipple, the dip of his belly, the backs of his knees. Bob's mouth, Bob's fingers, Spencer got to the point where the difference was hard to tell.

When Spencer was pretty sure he was going to die from having to wait--that the blood loss to other parts of his body would prove fatal--Bob rolled them over again so that Spencer was on his back, and slicked a condom down onto him. Bob said, "I'm gonna do this a little slow. It's been a while, and I kinda wanna feel you."

Spencer thought, what? and then, Jesus, Mary and fucking Joseph as Bob slid onto him, nano-inch by nano-inch. Spencer made himself stay still. Slow, slow.

When Bob was fully on him, the world ceased to exist. There was nothing but tight heat, but pleasure, but the pressure of Bob's hands on his chest, the expression of rapture on Bob's face. Spencer managed the words, "Let me do this part."

"Spence--"

"I want to make it good." And he did. He pulled out every trick he knew, everything that would make Bob scream and moan and beg, beg Spencer for it.

Spencer gave it to him.

Later he would tell Bob that he really didn't have to so much as ask.

He would try.

*


Brendon slipped in the door as quietly as possible, but Ryan's eyes were already on him. He grinned. "You're awake!"

"You're...bouncy."

"Guess where Spencer is?"

"In his room, getting some actual sleep?" Ryan sounded more hopeful than believing.

"Better, totally better."

"Better?" Ryan frowned.

Brendon could give him that it wasn't a word they'd heard in a while. "He's with Bob!"

Ryan blinked a couple of times. "What?"

"Bob, you know? His boyfriend? He came and got Spencer and took him home."

"Just... Just like that?"

"Spencer was gone from four to six that I could tell, so I'm thinking not very 'just', at least not on Bob's part. Don't worry, I threatened him for you."

"My relief is endless."

Brendon laughed. It clearly wasn't. Ryan was allowed to be a little cynical, though, it was what made him Ryan. "I have Apple Jacks. You want some?"

Ryan nodded and began the somewhat slow process of sitting up. He could do it by himself, though, sit and stand and even walk. It was clear that his rib was still paining him and the cast had to stay on for six weeks, but he was functional, would be more so by tomorrow night. Watching him move on his own felt like breathing. Brendon had forgotten it could be easy.

Brendon sat gingerly next to him and put the snack-size box between them. Ryan asked, "Where'd you snitch it from?"

"Not snitch," Brendon said with a great sense of his own dignity, "charmed. I charmed it off the cart that comes out caddy-corner to your spot."

"And by charmed--"

"I'm charming," Brendon said, and left it at that. Spencer let people fuck him for entrance to clubs, Brendon evidently gave people hand jobs for a variety of cereals. He wouldn't have normally, but with him and Spencer not taking twenty percent this week, things were a little tight.

"What else'd you charm?"

"Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Corn Pops, Rice Crispies and two things of Cocoa Puffs."

"Apple Jacks are the best," Ryan told him.

Brendon already knew Ryan's opinions on the subject.

Ryan crunched on a piece thoughtfully. "Did Jon-- Whatever the deal was, did he-- Are you all right?"

Brendon considered telling Ryan Jon hadn't gone through with their deal. It wouldn't have reassured Ryan, though, only worried him more, and Brendon was reluctant to betray Jon's secret that way.

"I'm fine, Ryan. He didn't hurt me. The trade-off was more than worth it." It would have been, even if Jon had required fulfillment.

"I owe you."

Brendon noticed the careful lack of the addendum of the word "one." "No, Ry. No."

"Shut up, Brendon. You shouldn't have done it, you shouldn't have done it at all, but you did and so now I do. And if you ever do something like that ever again I'll owe you more but it won't matter because I will have killed you, assuming whichever John you made the fucking deal with didn't get to it first. You fucking stupid little shit."

Brendon leaned in and kissed Ryan's cheek with cereal-dusted lips. "Love you, too."

Ryan stiffened. "Fuck off, Brendon."

Brendon felt the cereal solidify in his stomach. "I was just kidding."

Brendon was a good liar. It had been a long time since he'd had to be quite that good. Convenient, how one never forgot certain skills.

Ryan took another couple of pieces of cereal. They were getting to the bottom. He said, "You should steal my place for the day. Sleep on a bed. Or I could go--"

"Fuck you, Ryan." Brendon made himself smile. It should have torn his lips. "We're both staying right here."

"Fine," Ryan said, shoving the box at Brendon as he tried to make himself comfortable. Brendon peered into the box. There was still the last bit of cereal left.

*


Either Brendon was paying more attention this time, or he'd learned the rules of the game better, because it took him less than two full weeks after Ryan had gotten truly back on his feet to realize that he'd stolen not one, not two, but three of Brendon's can't-get-this-anywhere-elses. One of them just liked things pretty rough, rough enough to tear and leave bruises. He wasn't Brendon's favorite John ever, but he also wasn't anything all that out of the ordinary. The second, however, got off on unsafe bondage and the third was into golden showers.

At the same time, Brendon gained two bread-and-butters.

He told Ryan, "I said you didn't owe me."

Ryan said, "I don't know what you're talking about," and acted like he couldn't hear Brendon whenever he tried discussing it further.

So Brendon took another route and told Spencer on him.

Spencer rubbed a hand at the back of his neck and said, "Fuck. Ryan."

"You have to talk to him. Seriously. Tell him we have to re-swap."

"I don't think he's going to listen to me."

Brendon laughed. "He always listens to you."

"There are exceptions," Spencer muttered. He said, "I'll try Brendon, but I really don't think it's going to do any good."

Brendon wasn't really listening, though. "What sorts of exceptions?"

Spencer's glance was sharp before he looked away. "Just, y'know, exceptions."

Brendon didn't know, but he didn't press, either, because Spencer was rubbing at his palm the way he did when he was actually pretty upset about something.

Brendon went away and reconsidered the conversation, the way there was something Spencer wasn't telling him. Something important.

There were times when Ryan didn't listen to Spencer and this was one of them and this time involved Brendon. Brendon was pretty sure all the other times involved Ryan. He knew Spencer must have told Ryan not to do anything stupid to make up the money before, he knew. And Ryan had just ignored him. But Ryan had ignored his own knowledge on that as well. When it came to Ryan, Ryan didn't listen to anyone.

Evidently, when it came to Brendon, he was sort of the same way.

Except that he had listened to Brendon, or at least heard him, when Brendon had jokingly professed his love, because Brendon had felt him stiffen--

Brendon played back the sensation in his mind, the jerk of what he should have recognized as hurt. Ryan was so opaque at times--most of the time, really. Hurt could easily be confused with fear or anger or just plain annoyance.

But Ryan had said, "fuck off," and then he'd gone and done the only thing he could do to apologize, to pay what he saw as his debts, to make sure he didn't owe Brendon.

Make damn sure.

Fuck off.

Brendon was an idiot.

It made it slightly better that Ryan was evidently in love with him. That somehow made up for a goodly chunk of his stupidity. Or it would if Brendon could figure out how to get Ryan to admit it, to act on it.

If he hadn't been so irresponsibly flippant with the "I love you" thing in the first place, that might have been easy enough. Brendon sort of doubted it, but maybe. Ryan was cynical, but he also had that part of him that wanted to believe things so very badly. Brendon had managed to access that part once or twice, it wasn't unreasonable to believe that he could.

Words weren't going to do it, though. Ryan wasn't listening.

Ryan didn't listen when it came to Brendon.

There was really only one thing Brendon had to give that meant anything, only one gesture he could truly make. The thought twisted at his stomach, made his eyes tear involuntarily. Brendon wasn't sure if he could do it, not even for Ryan, Ryan who still had smiles in him even though the world had done nothing but try to steal them, try to cut them straight from his middle.

Brendon wanted those smiles to be his.

More than anything in the world.

Anything.

He just had to convince himself that "anything" included his gift.

*


Brendon asked in the moments when Jon had just come, when he was loose and warm and happy, draped around Brendon. He asked when Jon would least be able to say no and when he would least want Jon to say yes, because it was only fair that this be as horrible as possible for Brendon, that it hurt more than almost anything in his life had, with the exception--perhaps--of leaving home.

He said, "I need you to do something for me."

Jon nipped at one of his vertebrae. "Mm?"

"You're not going to like it." I'm not going to, either.

Jon rubbed a hand at Brendon's lower back, "Just ask, B."

"You have to go back to Ryan." Brendon took a breath, forced himself to finish. "For good."

The hand stilled. "I'm sorry, wh--"

"That's what I need." Brendon knew Jon had heard correctly.

"Can you--" Jon's breath was wet, uneven against the back of Brendon's neck. "Can you at least tell me why?"

Brendon had come up with so many lies, decided upon at least four ways to deflect from the truth.

Jon's desperation left him with no choice but to say, "Because you are the only thing I have to give him. The only thing that matters."

"But. If I matter. . .?" Jon sounded as though he'd somehow gotten lost in a place he knew well, intimately even.

Brendon could not say, "He matters more." It would have made things easier, for himself, maybe even for Jon. He couldn't say it. He said, "I love him," and that was something else, something different, something every bit as--if not more--destructive.

Jon stopped breathing. Brendon was about to flip himself over, force his hands against Jon's chest, his lips against Jon's lips, when a breath shuddered past the confines of Jon's mouth. It sounded like, "Oh."

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry. "Please, Jon. Please."

"Tell me-- Go back to the part where I mattered. Just, shortly."

Brendon did flip himself, then. He put his hand to Jon's face and watched as Jon struggled to neither pull away nor lean into the touch. Brendon said, "There is no value to act of sacrifice if the object of sacrifice isn't something for which the person partaking of the sacrifice will yearn throughout the rest of his days."

Tears were dripping over the bridge of Jon's nose, sluggish and resistant, but he was not making a sound, not even one of heavy breathing. Brendon dragged this thumb under one lid, pressed his lips to the site. "You matter," he said, his lips cresting over bone. "You matter so much."

"Anything else," Jon said. "Anything."

Brendon closed his eyes. "But this is what I need. What I ask."

Jon pleaded, "B."

Brendon said, "Jaje."

Jon said, "Because you asked."

Brendon had hoped there would be some small sense of triumph, some recognition of getting a step closer to having Ryan understand. There was only a sick pull at his stomach, a deep, ragged claw mark running every which way through his chest.

It took Brendon a moment to realize that the dampness of his cheeks wasn't from Jon's tears.

*


Bob looked up when Spencer slid into the booth across from him, said, "Hi," and, upon seeing his face, "Something you said?"

"Oh sure, blame the victim," Spencer said, and smiled, although it hurt both his cheek and his eye.

"You should let me look at that."

"It's just bruising," Spencer said. He knew, he'd been there when he'd gotten hit. "Sometimes Johns get a little uppity when they realize you've got a cock."

"I would've thought your cock would be the point," Bob muttered.

Spencer didn't say anything. Sometimes a thing could be both the point and the problem all at once.

Bob left it. He always knew when to leave things. Instead he said, "You wanna come back to the clinic afterward, sleep in Gerard's office? He has a couch."

"I have a bed." Okay, that was sort of a lie, he had a cot, but it was horizontal and it had sheets and a blanket.

"I know, but we're closer to the clinic and you look sorta wiped. Even for normal."

It wasn't a question. Bob never pried. Spencer wondered if he knew it made Spencer want to share with him more readily, if it was actually a technique on his part, or if that was just his way of respecting Spencer's privacy. Spencer said, "Something's going on between Brendon and Ryan. Something neither one of them is talking about."

It hadn't, however, slipped Spencer's attention that Jon had picked up Ryan last evening.

Ryan had argued about it. Spencer had watched. He couldn't hear; Ryan wasn't foolish enough to raise his voice on the streets--not to a John and not where the other boys could eavesdrop. But he had seen the way Ryan had coiled, boxed his shoulders up, shaken his head. He had also seen Ryan give in, slink away with him, more than one glance in Brendon's direction. Brendon had very clearly been looking anywhere but toward Ryan.

Ryan hadn't returned for hours, Spencer thought it might have been about four. And when he wasn't off doing business, he kept his eyes on Brendon for the rest of the night.

"You think they had a fight?" Bob asked.

Spencer thought about it. He decided, "I wish. Fights are easy. Fights are a matter of getting Ryan to pull his head out of his ass and talk about what's actually bothering him, or at least talk around it enough that I can decode the true meaning. Brendon doesn't fight. He says stupid things then he apologizes. No, this is--"

Bob waited.

"I think this might be what two complete emotional retards being in love with each other looks like." Spencer folded up his menu and looked at Bob, who had an odd expression on his face. Spencer asked, "What?"

Bob shook his head.

"No, seriously, what?"

"Just, Spence, they've kinda been in love with each other... At least since you guys came to dinner. I noticed it then. So, probably before that, you know?"

"Oh."

"You didn't know?"

"I figured Ryan out a while ago, but I've gotten used to the convoluted fucked-upedness that rules Ryan's head, his ways of doing things. I missed the Brendon part. He's so much easier to read except when he's not and it's those times that are always the killers."

"Maybe you just didn't know what to look for."

There was that, too. Spencer once knew familial love and he was currently learning about romantic love, but it wasn't something he had a breadth of experience around. There had probably been signs that real people would have noticed. He rubbed a hand over his face.

"Can I ask-- I mean, they love each other, yeah?"

"Evidently."

"So, what's the problem?"

Spencer looked up at Bob. "I thought I already pointed out the emotional retardation."

"But, just. Sit them together in a room and make them talk."

If anything in Spencer's life were to work out that easily, he really wasn't sure he would survive the shock. "That's sort of like me telling you to fix a brain wound with a bandage."

"You doubting my skills?"

"Never, Dr. Bob. Never that."

*


Thursday night, Brendon tried so very, very hard not to watch as Jon came and picked up Ryan. It was the third time he'd come in the week, which was pretty heavy traffic from him. Ryan hadn't said a word about the changeover, and Brendon was left to wonder if what he had done was to give the two people he wanted most in this world to each other, leaving himself entirely outside of things.

It seemed as though that would be a fitting punishment, in some ways, for what he had done to try and get what he wanted.

He was very busy Not Looking when he heard a, "Hi," behind him, a terribly familiar, "Hi."

Ryan said, "Turn around, dickface."

They were both standing behind him. "Um. Hi?"

"New plan," Jon said. "I'm taking both of you for the evening."

That sort of negated the point of Brendon's gesture, so he said, "Jaje--"

"Jaje?" Ryan asked.

Brendon bit his lip.

"That's Brendon's nickname for me." Jon placed a slight emphasis on Brendon's name.

Ryan's eyes darkened for a moment, and then he nodded, as though he had been thinking something for a long while and was only now making up his mind. He said, "Come on, Brendon."

"Ryan. Jon. This isn't--"

"I'm asking," Jon said, very quietly, and without much hope hidden in the inflection.

"I'm telling," Ryan said, not so quietly, and with an air of exasperation. Ryan always blustered worst when he was most scared.

Brendon had no idea what was scaring Ryan, but he knew it couldn't possibly be as bad as the things he feared, the way either of them could rip him apart with enough effort. Or, in Ryan's case, a complete lack of effort.

Jon looked worried, as though Brendon would say no. As though Brendon had the right to say no.

It was this last that decided the issue. Brendon asked, "Normal place?"

Jon started walking. When they got to the motel he paid for the room and then ushered Ryan and Brendon in ahead of him. Brendon stood in the middle, certain he looked slightly lost--feeling moreso than slightly--and asked, "Was there some way in particular you wanted this to go?"

"Sit down," Jon said tiredly, leaning a hip against the wall and staring out the window into the concrete block of the building next to them. Brendon perched at the edge of the bed. Ryan sat next to him, but didn't touch him.

Brendon wondered if maybe he was supposed to be getting naked. None of the obvious signs were forthcoming.

Jon sighed, still looking out the window. "Ryan and I talked," he said.

Brendon stiffened. Jon knew everything, everything of importance.

"Because the thing is that even if you love him and not me--"

Brendon was going to puke, right here, right now, into his lap, with Ryan sitting there, watching.

"--I matter, and you at least want me, and we both love you enough to agree that you should have what you want."

Brendon peeked over and sure enough, Ryan was looking pretty green, too. It shouldn't have been heartening, but it was. The only thing Brendon had to contribute to the conversation at this point was, "What?"

Ryan took over then, brave, defiant Ryan, with his ways of never saying what he meant, said, "You gave me him. To say the things you wanted to say, you gave me him. Because he was the... The gift had to be important, right? I got that. But it's no good if we start with part of you still invested in someone else, is it?"

"Ryan--"

"You wouldn't be you if you didn't have too fucking much in you. And maybe that's hard for me." Ryan nodded. "No, it is. Hard. But it's also-- Also part of the reason. Part of who I see when I look. At you."

"But you always think you're not enough," Brendon said, because there was no way to rephrase it, to make it sound nice, to make it something less devestational than it was. "When you're... I really did give him to you. I meant the-- It was more than a gesture."

"I think that's why I can do this. You... You wanted me. That badly. You needed me? It seemed, it seemed desperate. The way I felt. I've never, well, I mean, except Spencer, but that's Spencer and different, because I helped save him, you know? So he sort of has to love me, at least a little, but you don't. At all. Only Jon says you do."

"I do," Brendon breathed. "Ryan. Ryan."

"I don't want to take things from you. I don't want that to be who I am to you."

"It isn't."

Ryan leaned in a little, just enough to brush his lips over Brendon's ear. "Look at how he looks at you."

Brendon's eyes strayed to where Jon was still standing, but the view had lost out to what was happening in front of him. His gaze was tender and terrified and had a crazed sort of hope beneath it. Brendon caught the gaze. He asked, "How do you want us?" softly, and did not mean the words in their traditional whore-to-John sense. He just needed to know how this worked.

Jon breathed shallowly. "I want--" He looked at Ryan. "Has sex ever been real for you?"

"Define 'real'."

"Had meaning."

"Cash."

Jon nodded slowly. Ryan and he never looked away from each other as he told Brendon, "I want to watch you show him how good it can be."

Brendon said, "You don't want--"

Jon looked at him. Brendon nodded. Then he twisted his neck slightly and kissed Ryan. Ryan tasted of breath mints, a purposeful washing away of everything that had come before. If he concentrated enough, Brendon could catch hints of nicotine from cigarettes Ryan didn't smoke, of instant oatmeal from "breakfast" all those hours before.

Brendon hooked his hand gently around the back of Ryan's neck, running his thumb back and forth over the base of Ryan's skull.

Ryan's uninjured hand slipped beneath Brendon's shirt and at first Brendon thought Ryan might be trying to rush things, might not understand. But Ryan just curved the hand over Brendon's ribs, stroked soothingly.

It was hard, perhaps the hardest thing Brendon had ever done, to stop kissing Ryan, with the way Ryan was making lazy sweeps of his tongue inside Brendon's mouth, was sucking at his lower lip, doing all the things he'd maybe thought about, but had never had the chance, never wanted to do with a John. Brendon made himself pull back a little, say, "What do you want?"

"Anything."

"No, this is your first--"

"You. Anything."

Brendon nipped at Ryan's chin. "Okay. Okay. Naked, maybe, would be good."

Ryan didn't waste any time getting Brendon's shirt off of him. Brendon couldn't help laughing, hoped Ryan didn't think he was laughing at him. Ryan looked unsure for a second, but Brendon said, "I love you," and somehow, it was the easiest thing in the world. He knew, he could remember, how hard it had seemed, but it was just what there was to say. Ryan grinned so hard, so real, Brendon had to bite his lip, because there were better things ahead and he didn't want to come just yet.

Ryan stripped Brendon's sneakers and jeans off of him. The minute he let go Brendon sprang back, growled, "My turn," and uncovered Ryan, scarred, battered, elegant, beautiful Ryan. Brendon knew he didn't compare but Ryan was looking at him like he did, and that was all Brendon needed.

Well, perhaps not all. Brendon sneaked a peek at Jon, who was watching them with dark, enraptured eyes. He caught Brendon peeking and smiled a little, intense and honest. Brendon had a feeling his responding smile was a lot goofier.

Ryan said, "I want to-- Can I--"

"Anything," Brendon said back to him without a hint of mimicry.

Ryan pressed his lips to the burn at Brendon's shoulder. Then the two next to his right nipple. His left. And so on. Each and every single burn spot received the attention. Brendon's breath caught with the apology in it, the care. He kept his eyes on Jon the entire time, noticed the way Jon watched Ryan, considered Ryan, and Brendon thought, yes, now you see. Shiny. So very fucking shiny.

When Ryan finished up by kissing the burns on each of Brendon's balls, Brendon whimpered. "Ryan."

"Anything," Ryan said, and slipped his mouth right over Brendon's cock. Brendon's eyes rolled into the back of his head for a second before he regained control.

Ryan was good at this, brilliant at this and it only took a bit to have Brendon begging, "Stop, please, Ry, stop, please."

Ryan pulled off. "I thought--"

"I know, but I lied because I want--" Brendon spread his legs a bit, drew them back with his arms around his knees. "Please, I want to do this."

Ryan scrambled for the condom without having to be told twice. Then he came back and sank into Brendon and leaned all the way down so that they could kiss, so that he could play with Brendon's hair, so that Brendon could trace nonsensical patterns into his back.

Ryan was good at this part, too, despite the fact that he almost certainly had less practice. Brendon figured Ryan for a quick learner.

Or maybe it was just that it was Ryan. It was hard to tell when all Brendon's brain could supply was an endless stream of, ryanryanryan.

At some point Jon moved, came to lie beside them on the bed, to tentatively reach out and stroke Ryan's back as he climbed, took each step, toward completion.

Ryan wrapped his hand, his long, not-quite-delicate hand around the base of Brendon's cock and the touch itself was almost too much. When Ryan said, "Come on,"--Brendon missed the context, thought Ryan was talking to him--and there was a second hand, this one more solid, more familiar, around the head.

Brendon shouted and came, pouring the important parts of himself out over his stomach, up against Ryan's, onto Jon's hand. Ryan was still rocking inside of him and oh, oh, it was too much just then, just after. Brendon pulled Ryan tighter to him, said, "I love you," and it was still easy.

Ryan whimpered and stiffened and came.

When they were both breathing again, Jon said, "I'll get--"

Brendon pulled him to them by his shirt, kissed him hard and long and with an edge of possession that in any normal universe he wouldn't have been allowed, but Brendon had begun to sense that the rules made by the three of them were somehow different. He said, between kisses, "Ryan?"

Ryan said, "Yes," to the unspoken question, easily unbuttoning Jon's jeans with one hand.

Brendon's and Ryan's mouths met again, their tongues hitting up against each other as they swirled over the top of Jon's cock.

Jon moaned. Remembering, remembering things between them, Brendon reached out and took Jon's hands, putting one on his head, the other on Ryan's.

Jon curled his fingers but did not pull, did not tug, did nothing more than just hold.

Ryan went all the way down and then lifted off, giving Brendon a chance. It took three trade-offs and then Jon was coming in Brendon's mouth, still just holding.

When he was finished, Jon tugged a little, very lightly. Brendon rose up with it, bringing Ryan with him. He fell onto Jon, coordination completely gone for the moment. Ryan curved himself over the both of them, a stance of protection and claiming all at once.

Brendon kissed Jon's neck and whispered, "You matter."

Jon clung more tightly. Ryan dug his teeth lightly into the skin of Brendon's shoulder.

*


In the morning, when the sun was just a low orange line stretching out across the ground, Brendon made himself cross over to Ryan's and Spencer's corner, stand beside Ryan and ask, "You wanna go get some breakfast? My treat."

Ryan said, "Dutch."

Brendon slipped his hand in Ryan's. Ryan didn't pull away.

They ordered their bagels like that, staying linked until they had to pay, had to take their food. They meandered back toward their rooms, more in the direction of Brendon's than Ryan's. Brendon had figured out that Ryan preferred to be in Spencer's or Brendon's room if he could. Brendon wasn't sure if Ryan didn't like his room for a specific reason, or if he didn't like people being in his space. Or some combination thereof.

The last seemed pretty likely.

Brendon let him into the room and they curled up together on the cot without having to talk about it or even think about it, really. Ryan chose the spot closest to the wall. Brendon tucked his legs between Ryan's, pressed his torso up tight to his.

They were both asleep within minutes.

Brendon woke before his alarm went off. He glanced at it but before he could read the numbers, Ryan said, "Little after five."

"Dinner time."

Ryan laughed, but held Brendon to him. "Stay for just a bit."

As long as you want.

Ryan whispered, "I've never had something that was mine," as though saying it too loudly might mean the end of the experience.

Brendon shouldn't, but he can't help asking, "Why did you share me, then? Why didn't you just take what you'd been given?"

Ryan was quiet for a long time, and Brendon thought he wasn't going to answer, or maybe just that there was no answer. But then Ryan said, "He loves you. I mean, really really loves you. And you don't, um. What you have for him isn't not love. And there's just so little of that, you know? There's plenty of shit in this world that isn't love, but how much is there that is? It seemed like such a waste, to throw that away. Even if it meant sharing. Because you...yeah, I mean, I shared, but I still felt like I was the most important person in the world for you, just like maybe he was pretty damn important, too. And you're still mine. You were mine to give. That was pretty...wow."

Brendon knew the feeling. What he said, though, was, "He's a John."

"What?"

"Jon. Jaje. You said what I have for him isn't not love, but he's a John."

Ryan stilled for a second. "That's the issue?"

"You know the rules."

"I've broken worse ones."

"And look what happened."

"That rule is there because the Johns never fall in love back, Brendon. It's there to protect us. It...the fact that he fell in love with you first negates the rule."

Ryan would know. Ryan was a fucking unwritten manual to whoredom.

"Oh."

"Would you have-- If you'd known--"

"It still would have been you." Brendon didn't have to think about that.

"Why?"

Brendon closed his eyes again. "Because that first time you ever took me to the club with you guys, you danced with me and I could feel the hand you put on my hips all the way through my jeans to my fucking bones. Because you love dogs and pretty much anything with fur. Because you never expect anything good but you're always so damn grateful when you get it. Because you always eat like it's the best thing you've ever put in your mouth ever. Because you lie but you don't cheat and you don't steal and your lies are always about the important stuff. Because you're so fucking beautiful it hurts to look at you sometimes and how, how, how was I gonna refuse that once I knew I could have it? How, Ryan?"

"For Jon?"

Jon who was clever and kind and funny, and whom yes, okay, Brendon probably did love, but, "No, not even for him. You don't have to share me."

"He-- The first night, when he came to me and picked me up and he looked, fuck, he looked exhausted but he sat on the bed and told me things and when he looked at me, he saw me, you know?"

Brendon nodded.

"It was kinda heady."

"Did you guys...?"

"Yes. After we talked, a little."

"Did you like it?"

"Not as much as with you."

"Because I'd sorta wanna watch that. If you were into that."

"Sorta?"

The mere consideration of the image left Brendon somewhat wordless.

Ryan laughed. He dipped his head and kissed Brendon. "Wanna try with just us?"

Brendon didn't think there would be a lot of effort involved.

*


Sometimes Johns liked to watch two whores, or liked to have two Johns do as they so wished to one whore, or whatever. Brendon wasn't unfamiliar with the mechanics of threesomes. It had just never occurred to him that it opened up so damn many possibilities. Almost too many. Brendon felt a sort of urgency, as though maybe if he didn't hurry he would never be able to do all the things he wanted to do, never get through his list.

He had to make himself slow down, figure out what was most important, what he wanted first.

The thought of watching Jon and Ryan, of watching Jon show Ryan the things Brendon had begun to teach him, about pleasure and meaning and truth in sex, that was undeniably driving.

The thought of being in the middle was intense as well--being fucked and sucked at one, sucking and being fucked, fucking and being fucked. All on the list.

But in the end, the prospect of putting either Ryan or Jon in the middle was what floated to the top of the list every time. With the prospect of Ryan it was the idea, that moment of impressing upon him, physically his worth, his centrality, how he was so, so wanted.

With Jon it was a declaration, a way of saying things Brendon hadn't thought he was allowed to say--to feel. It was an apology, a begging of forgiveness. It was just, simply, something Brendon wanted.

And because he had put Ryan first over and over and over again, it was the option that perhaps absolutely had to settle itself at the top of the list.

Jon came for them again Monday night. He picked Brendon up first, and Brendon had to do no more than look in Ryan's direction for him to follow. Brendon said to Ryan, as they were walking, "I have a plan."

"Good that one of us does," Ryan said, but despite the flippancy, he sounded interested.

Once they were in the room, Brendon pressed Jon to the wall and kissed him. It wasn't a rough kiss, for all that he was pressing his hands into Jon's chest, but it was claiming. He said, "There are some things you should know," and kissed him some more. Then he pulled back and looked at Ryan who was watching them with heavy, languid eyes.

Ryan said, "This would be better viewing for me with less clothes."

"Not everything's always about you," Brendon told him, even as he smiled at him in the way that said it sort of was, even as he stripped.

Next to him, Jon was busy trying to please Ryan as well.

Brendon raised his eyebrows at Ryan and Ryan made an expression that was the equivalent of, "fine, fine" before throwing off his clothes as well. Brendon grinned. He caught Jon's hand in his own and brought him over to the bed. He said, "I think Ryan wants to fuck you."

Ryan made a small sound in his throat.

Jon said, thoughtfully, "You may be right." He was shaking, a slight vibration that ran through his fingers to Brendon's.

"Why don't you tell him that would be all right?"

"Because I would be lying."

Brendon frowned. Ryan took a step back.

"It would be more than all right. All right would be a stupid term for it."

Oh. Brendon agreed. "Good point."

Jon held out his free hand, held it out to Ryan, who came and took it and even leaned in for a kiss. Jon ran his hand up Ryan's arm to cup his chin, murmured, "Hey there," in between kisses.

While they were busy, Brendon slipped down to mouth experimentally at Jon's cock. When he looked up, both Jon and Ryan had stopped, and were watching him. He smiled around Jon's cock. Ryan bit Jon's ear. Jon said, "Fuck. Fuck."

Without needing to discuss, Ryan and Brendon got Jon laying on his side, working it so that Brendon never once had to stop what he was doing. Even if Brendon hadn't felt the moment when Ryan must have begun to prep Jon, he would have heard Jon's panting, heard his tiny little sounds of eagerness. Jon was a noisy guy. Brendon loved listening.

Ryan tapped Brendon's shoulder and he pulled off to watch, watch Ryan take Jon, watch Jon throw his head back, watch Ryan stroke his fingers over the lengthened neck, whisper, "So hot, so so."

Without really watching what he was doing--how could he look away, not pay attention to the slide of Ryan's hips, the way Jon's stomach fluttered with his frantic breathing?--Brendon slid a condom on Jon and then made himself turn, settle with his back against Jon so that there was no space, no space at all between the three of them. "Come on, Jaje," he said, and Jon pressed into him, depending more on the motions of Ryan than himself.

Ryan asked, "Feel good? Huh?" his voice low and not so much curious as sure.

Jon said, "B. B."

"Mm," Ryan said.

Brendon took the hand that Jon had gripped Brendon's stomach with and sucked Jon's thumb into his mouth. Silently, he said, "Love you," round the digit. He then repeated the process with the other four. By that time Jon was babbling, "Let me, let me, let me," so Brendon released his hand and made a happy noise as Jon used the freedom to wrap it around Brendon's cock.

It tightened even as the whole of Jon did, as Jon's lips pressed tight and fast to Brendon's neck. Ryan's laughter floated to Brendon, breathless and not quite sated, but almost, almost.

The sound, the feel of Jon coming behind him, in him, the closeness, the moment swirled around Brendon and he gave into it, gave into its utter, raw beauty.

Brendon wasn't sure how long the world took to right itself, to straighten into actuality again, but when it did, he pulled himself from Jon, turned to him, fit himself to him, kissed him once more. He said, "I'm sorry."

Jon said, "I know. I knew." Jon said, "I loved you anyway."

Brendon said, "Yes. Love. Yes," and pressed his forehead to Jon's. "Yes."

*


Ryan's birthday fell on a Monday. Jon came and kept them for a solid four hours. With the two of them it was generally easier for him to do two hours or so, since he was paying double what he had been, but he didn't even blink when Brendon said, "Ryan's nineteen tonight," just said, "Well, that calls for a little something special."

"Something special," as it turned out, was mostly Jon blowing Ryan and then Ryan falling asleep in Brendon's arms, since one of Ryan's regulars had gone a little too far the night before, and he had pretty serious bruising over his stomach, hips, thighs and balls.

Brendon smiled apologetically, but Jon just told him stories from the last week of school and his super secret crush on Greta the Über-TF. Brendon wasn't as threatened as maybe he should have been.

Brendon said, "My favorite movie is Funny Face."

"Yeah?"

"Or anything with Audrey Hepburn, really. But I love that one."

"I haven’t seen it."

"You haven't lived."

Jon grinned. "I'll get on top of that."

"You'd best."

Jon moved to where he was lying next to Brendon, his head cushioned on Brendon's shoulder. Brendon brought one hand up to Jon's head to play with his hair.

Brendon said, "Listen, um. I probably shouldn't be asking for any favors, particularly not around Ryan--"

"Kid looks like he could use a couple of favors."

Brendon ran his free hand up and down Ryan's arm and didn't look at the way the better part of Ryan's torso was mottled, darkened. "Yeah."

"What was the one you wanted now?"

"Spence and I are having a birthday thing for him, on Wednesday. Just dinner. Dim sum. He likes the dim sum. I was thinking, you know, if you weren't already booked, because it's sort of last minute--"

"Wait, you're inviting me to Ryan's birthday party?"

"That's where I was going with that, yeah."

"That's not a favor, Brendon, that's. . . Well, it's not a favor."

Brendon shrugged. "It's asking you for a night of your life."

"Obviously you haven't noticed that I tend to like giving you guys my nights."

Brendon didn't say anything.

"And you really think he'd want me to be there?"

Brendon looked down at Jon. "He fell asleep with you in the room."

"He's done that before. When he was hurt."

"He was on prescription strength pain meds and had just had a blood transfusion. That wasn't a sign of trust, it was a sign of being completely unable to stay conscious. This is a sign of trust. Which puts you in a group of three people he trusts. I'm pretty sure he'd be thrilled if you showed."

Jon shifted just enough to press his lips to Brendon's shoulder. "Which dim sum place?"

"Really?"

"Thanks for inviting me."

"Uh. Yeah."

*


Spencer sipped at his Coke and watched Ryan argue with Brendon about which dim sum pieces they wanted. Brendon was going to give in, he just liked to make Ryan feel like he had accomplished something. It would have been disgustingly cute except that they were Ryan and Brendon and the fact that they had managed to pull it together at all was sort of a miracle. Spencer wasn't going to be the one complaining.

Also, Bob had his hand over Spencer's knee, rubbing it slowly partly up his thigh and back down. It was currently hard to feel resentful about much in the world.

There were three empty seats at the table, which Spencer had asked about, but Brendon had only said, "We're expecting people."

One of the people walked in just as Brendon was beginning his slow graceful surrender. Ryan looked up to see Jon heading to their table and his eyes went wide. Jon grinned. "Hey there, birthday boy."

Ryan said, "What are you doing here?"

"Brendon sort of invited me. But I could--"

"And you came?" Ryan looked as though he wanted to smile, but wouldn't, wouldn't until told it was okay.

"It's your birthday," Jon said.

Ryan smiled, one of those full-fledged, genuinely pleased smiles. Spencer had seen far more of them since Ryan and Brendon managed to actually find each other, but he'd yet to get tired of them. He didn't really foresee it happening.

Jon took a seat, and asked, "So, what are we getting?"

"Shrimp dumplings, Bau, chicken feet and spring rolls," Ryan said, sticking his tongue out at Brendon. "To start."

"What," Ray said as he pulled out a chair, "no steamed meatballs?"

"Hm," Ryan said, and went back to considering.

Spencer looked over at Ray and Mikey. "Hi?"

"Happy birthday," Mikey said.

"It's Ryan's birthday," Spencer told him.

"Not tomorrow," Bob and Mikey both said.

"Chart-peeping. . .peepers," Spencer concluded, somewhat extremely lamely. "Who invited you, anyway?"

"Oh, that was us," Ryan said breezily.

Spencer looked at him.

Ryan returned the look unapologetically. "You thought we were just gonna go out to my favorite restaurant and pretend like I was the only one having a birthday all night when you're turning eighteen tomorrow?"

"We're bad friends," Brendon said, "but not that bad."

"Eighteen," Bob said, sounding unreasonably happy about the event.

Spencer took another sip of his drink. "Well, in that case, get the dumplings with the peanuts in them."

"Wasn't that what I was saying all along?" Brendon asked. "Jesus, you could've backed me up before, Spence."

"It was more fun letting you do all the work."

Next to him, Bob laughed.

"Yeah? Well, see if we give you your birthday present now," Brendon said.

"Oh, right," Ryan dug the card out from his jacket pocket. "Here."

Brendon looked at Ryan. "Traitor."

Ryan kissed Brendon, who continued to pout.

Spencer opened the card. It had a picture of three little boys on the front. Spencer looked up at Ryan, who was very studiously pretending to still be thinking about the menu. He flipped the card open. Inside was written, "Since you're legal, we thought we'd get you something you couldn't have before."

There was a card inside with an appointment for the Black and Blue Tattoo parlor.

Spencer said, "Um."

"You get to pick," Ryan said. "You get to decide. Where it goes, and what it looks like and, well. It's your choice, this time."

"And if I don't want a tattoo?"

Ryan and Brendon both looked a bit crestfallen. Spencer wondered how long it had taken them to come up with this, how much they had saved for it.

Brendon looked at Ryan. Ryan said softly, "We could come up with something else."

Spencer glanced at the card in his hand again. It was covering the brand. Where it goes, what it looks like. "That's. That's a perfect gift, you guys."

"You're sure?" Brendon asked. Ryan was silent, still beside him.

"Not even I would have come up with something that perfect for myself." He wouldn't have, either.

"What are you gonna get?" Bob asked.

"I don't know," Spencer said, and grinned. "I'll have to make up my mind."

Ryan and Brendon both beamed.

Bob told them, "You have no call to be going and making my boyfriend any hotter than he is now."

Spencer said, "You're just jealous because whatever you got me couldn't possibly be as good."

Ray said, "He's calling you out, man."

Bob said, "We shall see. We shall see."

*


Ray went back to Mikey's after dinner so that Bob and Spencer could have the apartment. He left them with the parting words, "Just wipe everything down afterward, okay?"

Spencer asked Mikey, "Is the OCD always this bad?"

Mikey said, "It comes and goes."

In the end there was nothing to wipe down because Bob had put jersey knit sheets on his bed, "Happy birthday, you know?" and there was no way in hell Spencer was having sex anywhere but on those babies.

Afterward, when Spencer was sprawled over Bob, contented and sleepy, he asked, "Was that my gift?"

"That would be sort of a crappy gift, don't you think? Seeing as how you can have it any time you please."

Spencer sucked lazily at the skin of Bob's shoulder. "I liked it."

"Envelope on the dresser," Bob said.

"I have to move?"

"It can wait until morning."

Spencer thought about it. He was happy where he was. Then the driving need to know what Bob thought would make a good offering overcame his post-coital haze. He rolled over and reached out, grabbing the crisp, white corner of the envelope. He flipped it open--Bob hadn't sealed it, just tucked the flap under--and pulled the card out. A key tumbled out right alongside it, landing on Spencer's stomach.

Spencer stared at it.

"Read the card," Bob said.

Somehow, Spencer's fingers managed the feat of opening it.

Spence--

I'm sort of bad at the gift thing, my mom and I always gave each other shit we needed, because there wasn't a lot of money growing up so, you know, a knew pot or a fresh set of underwear was actually pretty exciting, and it's not that I think that if I got you those things you wouldn't appreciate them, but this is my first chance to give you something, really give you something, and I just want it to be more than that.

Evidently, I talk a lot more when I write.

I've noticed that you allow others to make you feel stupid, that you're kind of sensitive about your level of education. You shouldn't be. I'm among the most highly educated members of society--American or otherwise--and you're more than smart enough for me, but you do and I thought it would be good if you didn't have to.

All this is to say I enrolled you in a GED program. It's a six month program, you can start any time. It's done over the internet, hence the key. You can now have access to my computer any time you want to work on it. I really, really wouldn't mind if you used the key for other things. All sorts of other things.

The paper doesn't matter one way or another to me, but I thought maybe it would help you feel better about things, if you knew you had it.

Love, Bob


Spencer read the card three times. Then he closed it very carefully, set it--with the key--back on the nightstand and kissed Bob so hard it hurt a bit. He didn't pull back. Bob didn't push at him. When he thought words were something he could manage again, he pulled back and said, "Bob. Bob.."

Okay, that might have been a bit premature.

"Like Ryan's and Brendon's, you don't have to do it if you don't want."

"In theory," Spencer said, because this was all theoretical, that he could finish the program, that it mattered, all of it, "in theory, I could go to college with a GED, right?"

"Absolutely. Or trade school or whatever you wanted."

"I mean, not that-- This is this, okay, and it's not like I don't know it, but it's-- I could."

Bob said, "You could." He sounded more saddened than Spencer thought the statement warranted. Spencer understood that for Bob the futility of the situation was a killer, but for Spencer, Bob had just given him a way to dream. And not that Spencer hadn't managed without any base in reality for a good long time now, but it had never occurred to him that a basis in actual events was even possible. Bob might as well have bought him a house.

There was no way to explain that, so Spencer just asked, "Will you help me start tomorrow? Get me set up and all? Or do you have to go in?"

"I traded for the late shift. Yeah, we can get you set up."

Spencer grinned and kissed Bob again. He told him excitedly, "GEDs are for real people."

"They are," Bob said softly, pointedly, and kissed Spencer with every bit as much force as Spencer's earlier kisses.

*


The territory squabble started on a Tuesday night, which was a somewhat inconspicuous--and therefore odd--night for a couple of guys to try and move in on Brendon's corner, but that was what happened, all the same. Spencer was glad he was watching at the time, because Brendon carried a blade, but there were three guys and Brendon wasn't all that big. Spencer knew they'd picked that corner because--unlike most of Thomas' others--Brendon had never acquired a partner.

Spencer was over there as quickly as his legs could carry him, his own knife tucked firmly into his palm. Ryan was out on a job, and Spencer was not, was not, was not having Ryan come back to find that Brendon had been taken down by rival whores while Spencer watched.

Brendon was already well into defending his territory with his mouth by the time Spencer arrived. Spencer stood at his back and watched the two peripheral boys.

Spencer used the distraction of Brendon mouthing off to grab the one closest to him, pull him into a headlock and place his knife at his throat. He looked at the others. "When you're around that corner," he gestured with his head at the corner in the opposite direction of his and Ryan's, "I'll let him go."

"How do we know that?" The Talker asked.

"What choice've you got?" Spencer countered.

The other two started walking. Spencer let the third one go when he said he would, both he and Brendon keeping their blades out until he was gone from sight. Brendon put his back, his hand shaking a bit. "Thanks."

Spencer nodded, still looking at the spot where they'd disappeared. "I'll talk to Thomas."

He did, too. He went to him and said, "You've got someone trying to move in on you."

Thomas nodded like he already knew. "I'll take care of it."

He didn't, though. Within two weeks Brendon got into three fights, the last one taking place while both Ryan and Spencer were off and ending with him bruised and limping. After that Ryan said, "He stays on our corner."

Spencer probably should have thought of that earlier.

The more he considered the situation, in fact, there were a lot of things he should have been thinking about. Like who these new kids were, and where they were coming from, and why Thomas was seemingly unable to stop them.

After a few weeks of pretty heavy territory defense, The Newbies--as Spencer had coined them in his mind--left one of their own on Brendon's old corner. Spencer went over to him while Brendon and Ryan were away. The kid was young-looking, sixteen, maybe, and although he blustered, "What the fuck you want?" when Spencer approached, Spencer could smell the fear on him at the one-to-one reality of the situation.

Spencer said, "Relax, I just want some information."

The kid didn't relax, so Spencer figured it couldn't hurt to add, "Although, if you tell anyone we talked, I'll send you a regular who likes to put needles through boys dicks. He likes'em young, I think he's starting to tire of me."

The kid paled. "I don't have any information."

"We'll see. Who's your pimp?"

Another skin shade was lost. "No, man. No."

"Sometimes he likes to insert things in your piss hole, too."

"That's pain. If I tell, I'll be dead."

"You won't."

"Oh, that's reassuring."

"I just want to talk to him."

"To my pimp?"

"Considering a change of management, we'll say. See? Now you know something that could get me killed."

The kid shook his head. "Better the devil you know, man."

Spencer shrugged. "Just tell me. His name and where I could get in touch with him."

The kid hesitated.

"Sometimes he coats the shit he inserts in IcyHot. Have any idea how bad that burns?"

"You're fucking crazy," the kid told him. "Fine. Vern. And he can be reached through the Cadillac Club."

If Spencer was crazy, it was the result of having been on the streets too long. The kid would get there as well. He smiled. "Pleasure doing business with you."

The kid spat on the street.

When Ryan came back, he asked, "Anything interesting happen while I was gone?"

It was a ritual.

Spencer said, "Rhino stampede."

*


It took Spencer three days to get up the nerve and find the opportunity to slip away to the Cadillac Club without Ryan or Brendon noticing. Their distraction in each other was helpful, but that didn't mean he could be stupid about things and expect them not to notice.

He went in the early morning. The place was closed to customers. There was a guy roughly four times the size of Spencer standing at the door despite this state. Spencer said, "I was told I could find Vern here."

"Who would have told you that?"

Spencer shook his head. "The important question here is, how badly does Vern want Thomas?"

The bouncer stared at him passively for several moments. Then he said, "Wait here."

Spencer made himself keep breathing through the wait. This was crazy, that was clear, clear now that he was here. His palm ached in a way that the relatively new tattoo across his lower back didn't, hadn't even upon application. He should go, leave, only he'd been seen now, so one way or another he was already in trouble. Might as well make it the trouble he'd come to create.

The bouncer came back. He felt every inch of Spencer up, but Spencer hadn't been stupid enough to bring his knife along.

"All right. Follow me."

Spencer thought he should pay attention to his surroundings but he was far, far too terrified to make his brain handle anything other than the need to set one foot in front of the other. He bumped into the bouncer when the man stopped. The Mountain of Flesh peered down at him, annoyance and then amusement on his face.

If Spencer had been roughly four hundred pounds, that probably would have bought him the right to look at people however he wanted as well.

They were in an office. A man--Spencer assumed him to be Vern--was sitting behind the desk, looking rather intently at his computer screen. He looked up and said, "That's good, Chase. You can go."

Spencer wondered if Chase had ever actually chased anything in his life. It seemed unlikely.

When he was gone, Vern asked, "So, you're one of Thomas' boys?"

Spencer unfurled his palm, held it up. "A very, very special one."

Vern narrowed his eyes. "It hard to fuck with your balls shot through with that much steel?"

"Most Johns don't so much care about that part of the deal."

"Lucky for you."

Yeah. Lucky.

"What makes you think I won't just betray you to Thomas in exchange for some ground?"

"Because I can give you Thomas, and then you take ground and flesh."

"And you would do this because?"

"Sanctuary. For me and two of the others. I give you his operation, you let the three of us go."

"What's to say I won't just kill you for being a snitch?"

"Nothing," Spencer said. Absolutely nothing. Hope.

Vern raised an eyebrow. "So this is either naivete or desperation."

"You choose." Spencer was pretty sure it was the latter, but if it was the former, well, he'd been worse things.

"Show me your hand again."

Spencer waited for a moment and then held it up.

"All right. You and your two little friends. But you take them and you go. And if I ever, ever see any of you--and don't think my boys won't know who you are, won't tell me--anywhere near my turf, I will assume your little ass decided to get smart and see if you could capitalize upon the shift in markets and I will kill you. I will kill them first, so that you have to watch and then I will give you to my enforcers and allow them some fun, are we clear?"

Spencer nodded. Blahblahblah. He had seen how betrayal was answered in these circles. Talking about it wasn't going to get him shaking.

"Tell me, then."

So Spencer told him about Thomas' collection routine: how many guys he took with him, the order of the buildings, how he sometimes switched things up, what times he could be counted on to come.

Vern said, "Very well. Sunday morning, don't go back to your place. Grab the others and go. I don't care where, so long as it is not, it is never again, here."

On that, Spencer and Vern were in complete agreement.

*


Spencer didn't tell anyone. Not Ryan, not Brendon, not even Bob.

If things went wrong, he didn't want them knowing anything, didn't want any of them having answers to give. It was his mess. Not that he thought that would save Brendon and Ryan, but he could try. And he would.

Spencer used the four days he had to siphon off a couple of t-shirts, some jeans from both of them. He took a few other things that he thought they might actually want.

Thursday night Ryan asked, "Have either of you seen my copy of Rolling Stone?"

Brendon said, "You probably left it at my place."

Spencer shrugged. "Sorry."

Ryan frowned, but let it go. Spencer possibly should have waited on that one.

He spent the week in an agony of distraction, too tense to relax into a basic whipping, on too much auto-pilot to make things good for his blowjob regulars. By Friday he was black and blue in places that had been utterly and wholly avoidable, but he was too strung out on fear to notice.

Ryan asked, "Spence, what's--"

Spencer waved the concern off. "Not sleeping well." He wasn't.

Sunday morning he grabbed Ryan and Brendon and said, "We're going to breakfast."

Ryan looked at him like he'd lost what little sanity he'd had left. "It's Sunday, Spence."

Spencer knew exactly what day it was. Exactly.

"I know, Ry. That's why we're going."

Brendon fidgeted at Ryan's side, eyes wide and more than a little scared. Ryan asked, softly, "What did you do?"

"I swear I'll tell you, but we have to go." Spencer reached into the bag he was wearing, the bag he'd hidden in the alley until the last of Thomas' others had disappeared and handed Ryan his magazine. "We have to, Ry."

Ryan curled the magazine up in his hand and didn't say another word even when Spencer walked them fourteen blocks up to Town's End. Spencer put them on the list, simply giving the maitre d' an even look when he eyed Spencer's apparel.

Spencer's even was a lot of other people's intimidating.

When they were finally seated--Spencer knew they'd let people in ahead of them--Spencer said, "Order whatever you want," because if this didn't work, having all the cash on him wasn't going to change a damn thing.

It was nearly eleven when they finished and paid. From there Spencer moved them to Golden Gate Park, inside the AIDS Memorial Grove where it was quiet and they could all curl up and sleep for a time. Or at least, Ryan and Brendon could. Spencer was far, far too wired.

At around four Spencer roused them and made them accompany him to a payphone. He called the clinic and asked to talk to Bob. Bob answered with, "Hey, where are you?" which was only reasonable, since Spencer didn't own a phone.

Spencer told him the cross street. "Can you come get us?"

Bob didn't ask questions. Spencer noticed that he took back roads to get them to his apartment. His boyfriend was so fucking smart. When Bob parked the car, Spencer asked, "You have to get back?"

Bob shook his head, "Gerard told me he'd get someone to cover."

One of these days, Spencer was going to have to actually meet Gerard and thank him for about forty different things. A problem for another day. Bob asked, "You guys hungry?"

From the floor, where he was curled up with Lizzy--who was being very sedate, as though she could sense Ryan's need for it--Ryan looked up at the mention of food. Brendon was sitting alongside Ryan on the side that Lizzy wasn't taking up. He said, "Food would be nice."

Bob tugged Spencer behind him, into the kitchen. Spencer watched Bob search the fridge, the cabinets. He said, "Maybe ordering in?"

Spencer wasn't in a place to make those sorts of decisions. He asked, "Can I use your computer?"

Bob frowned. "You know you don't have to ask."

Spencer went and keyed the computer up, searching local news sites until he found what he was looking for. A shooting at almost two in the afternoon, right district, identified among the dead was a Thomas Hearst.

Spencer had never known Thomas' last name. He didn't doubt for a minute that it was the right Thomas. All of the details were too correct.

He went and got Ryan and Brendon, made them read the report. Then he told them, all of them, Bob too, about Vern and the club and, "You can't go back, do you understand? You can't go anywhere near there."

Brendon said, "But--"

"No," Spencer said. "You've seen what Thomas did to traitors. Vern will do that to all of us, except maybe worse, because I didn't skim, I stepped out. Do you understand? You can't go back."

Bob asked, "Isn't this-- I mean, this is good, right? You probably need to be careful for a bit, just in case Thomas has some people out there still loyal to him, or Vern decides to get clever, but... Why isn't this good?"

There was a long silence, and it was Ryan who finally said, "Jon."

Brendon was looking away. Spencer knew what crying looked like from the back.

*


Gerard came over when he got out of the clinic at nearly midnight. He brought food, because despite their best attempts, Spencer and Bob hadn't managed to get either Brendon or Ryan to eat much. Gerard laid the bags on the table. "So, we need information?"

Brendon watched Spencer propel himself forcefully from the chair he'd hunched up in, say, "Hi. I'm Spencer."

Gerard's smile was about the kindest thing Brendon had ever seen, up to and including his grandmother's. His whole face lit with it. "Hey, jailbait."

"That might not be funny just yet, Gee," Bob said.

Spencer could see how, under the force of Gerard's smile--half-concern, half-genuine pleasure to be meeting him--Spencer had no choice but to say, "I think I can make an exception."

Gerard smiled just a bit wider and then turned to where Brendon had his head in Ryan's lap, right next to Lizzy's. Ryan was petting both of them. "So then you're Ryan and Brendon."

"Ryan," Ryan said.

Brendon figured that made it pretty obvious who he was.

"I got Mexican," Gerard said.

Brendon moved his eyes to Spencer. Spencer bit his lip. Brendon was aware he wasn't being fair, that Spencer had just done his utmost best to keep them safe, the way he always did. That he had, in fact, most likely saved all of their lives. But for a moment he was going to let the righteous indignation of the fact that if Spencer had just told them he could have warned Jon roll through him. It was easier than the hysterical, frantic beating of loss that overtook his chest otherwise. He had broken Jon once. He didn't think it would matter that he hadn't meant to this time. Sometimes intent was absolutely meaningless.

Ryan said, "C'mon. C'mon, up."

Brendon followed the direction, but only at the urging of Ryan's hands. He was no good at refusing Ryan.

They all took food, and sat around the table. Gerard asked, "So, what do we know about the person we need to find?"

"His full name is Jonathan Jacob Walker," Brendon said. "He's a college student in music education." He knew so much about Jon, a million tiny things, a million and one huge things. Not one of them would tell him where Jon was.

"He drives a Toyota Rav. It has New York license plates: AFV 5000," Ryan said.

Brendon looked at Ryan. Ryan shrugged. "What? We must have seen it at least a hundred times."

And yet, Brendon couldn't have remembered anything about the plate if he'd even thought to consider it. Spencer murmured, "Photographic memory."

Ryan concentrated on the guacamole.

Later, Brendon would consider just how smart Ryan was.

For now, Gerard was saying, "Okay, I know a guy on the Chronicle, the one who gives us our press?"

Bob nodded.

"He can run that stuff for me. Or at least find me someone who can. It's a place to start. We should be able to find him in no time. And if that doesn't work, we can start searching the local schools. You know he's in college, so it's gotta be somewhere around here. We'll find him."

Brendon wanted to believe. He did. But tomorrow night or the night after, Jon was going to come looking for him and Ryan and find them gone without explanation or trace. He closed his eyes, made himself breathe until he saw black, rather than white. "Okay. Okay."

Ryan's hand threaded in his, squeezed. When Brendon opened his eyes, Ryan was looking down at their hands.

*


They settled Brendon and Ryan in Ray's room, since Ray had called and said, "I'll stay at Mikey's, give the kids a bed."

Spencer had stood in the door for a few minutes watching Brendon roll around, just reacquainting himself in the feel of a quality bed. Ryan gave Spencer a small smile, a hey.

Spencer mouthed, "Hey," and turned and left.

Bob was waiting for him in his room. He said, "Let's take a shower, okay?"

Spencer looked down at himself. "I'm kinda rank, huh?"

"I think your muscles could use the heat."

"That your professional opinion?"

"That's my I-know-you-pretty-well opinion." Bob tugged Spencer's shirt over his head. He did all the work for Spencer. Spencer meant to help, but his muscles wouldn't respond to the commands his brain was sending.

Bob didn't seem to mind. He put them both in the shower, and Spencer thought, I've been here before, when Bob soaped up his hair. Spencer wished he could go back.

Bob washed the rest of Spencer, including his cock. Spencer thought he should get hard for that, tried, tried, but no matter what that part of him just wouldn't respond properly. The fear of the past few days, the fear he'd pushed away and ignored and completely disregarded was now crowding in, overwhelming him. He said, "Sorry, sorry. It's not--"

Bob said, "Sh. Wasn't expecting anything."

He dried Spencer and put him in bed, pulling Spencer into his arms. Spencer wrapped his hands over Bob's arms, held tight. Bob said, "Spence, you're safe. I swear I won't--"

"I didn't think," Spencer said, and it was a mistake, a mistake to open his mouth, because once it was open there was no closing it.

"You didn't--"

"I didn't think about after. I always think, I always plan, but I clearly didn't even think about Jon, and now Brendon's all-- And I know, I know, he'll forgive me, because he's Brendon and he forgives, but there will always be that part where I didn't think about that, and now we're here for tonight, but Ray will come back tomorrow and we don't have anywhere to go, we don't even have high school diplomas, for fuck's sake, and all I did was put us back where we were before, when I was a cokehead and Ryan was nearly starving to death and now there's Brendon, too, and--"

Bob pushed Spencer onto his stomach, pressed his hands over Spencer's shoulder blades, said, "Stop, Spence. Stop."

Spencer quieted. It was hard to breathe with Bob bearing down.

Bob released him. "Inhale."

Spencer did, almost instinctively.

"Exhale."

That wasn't as instinctive, but Bob sounded pretty insistent, so he managed.

"First thing's first. The Jon thing isn't your fault. You didn't tell them in order to protect them. You were probably even protecting Jon by extension. Gerard will find Jon and then there will be nothing to forgive, even if there was something in the first place."

Spencer closed his eyes and concentrated on the Gerard-will-find-Jon part, since that was probably the only one that mattered, in the end.

"Secondly, you're staying here. We'll discuss it again when you have some options, but for the moment, I'm playing mean and domineering boyfriend and keeping you at my side."

"Ry--"

"As for Brendon and Ryan, they can camp here until the first of next month. Gerard and I spoke. His mom helped him buy a house when he and Frank finally got their shit together. The two of them rent out the three extra rooms for a little extra income. They're in the process of evicting one of the tenants right now and wanted someone they trusted for the next lease anyway. They'll be willing to work with Brendon and Ryan on the rent so that it can be affordable but enough that they won't feel like they're not contributing.

"And yeah, okay, none of you have high school diplomas, but that's changing for you as we speak and we can help the others out in that regard. Meanwhile, we can help them find jobs. I have all sorts of contacts, as do Mikey and Ray and Gerard and even Frank. We'll set all of you up with jobs that probably won't pay much but will be safe and have regular hours and maybe even health care. If not, well, luckily, you know a doctor."

Spencer thought, luckily.

Bob lowered himself onto Spencer. He said, "I'm not gonna let anything happen to you. Or to them. They're part of you. I get that."

Spencer said, "Bob."

Bob said, "Sh. You've done the hard part. You've been brave. Now you have to let other people help."

"Please," Spencer said, "could you just?" He reached back, palmed at Bob's cock.

Bob nudged Spencer up a bit, felt around to his cock. "You're not--"

"Not about that," Spencer said. It wasn't, at all.

Bob said, "I don’t know--"

"Bob," Spencer said, "I need, I need--"

"Okay. Okay."

Spencer closed his eyes and breathed and then Bob was there, sliding into him, connecting, keeping them locked together and Spencer could believe, if only for that moment, if only for that stretch of space, of skin, that things would be all right, that he wasn't alone, not anymore.

Bob raised up a little to run his fingers over the flowing script at Spencer's back, particularly the second "d", which spiraled up into the scar left by the wound that had first brought Spencer to Bob. He said, "It's not just Wednesdays anymore, Spence. Not just Wednesdays."

The thought was too big for Spencer, but he repeated it silently anyway. Again and again and again.

*


"The important part to remember when I tell you what I'm about to tell you," Bob said, "is that you are allowed to say no. None of us will stop trying to help."

Ryan squinted, but nodded. Brendon said, "Okay."

Brendon looked over at Spencer who just stayed tucked in on himself in the corner of the couch. It was probable Spencer knew what Bob was about to say, but it was also probable that Spencer needed Gerard to get here--like he said he would an hour before--as badly as Brendon did. It had been over a week since they'd had to run, and Gerard swore he was working on finding Jon, but nine days was a long time to wait when every second seemed to count. Still, even with his mind occupied with counting, watching Spencer make himself small when Brendon had spent each of those nine days free to count, free to do whatever the hell he wished...

Well, Brendon could see where maybe he was being a bit of an ass.

He went and sat next to Spencer, tugged at him, repositioned him so that his legs were draped over Brendon's thighs. Spencer looked at him, the glance a little wary.

Brendon sighed. "Sorry."

Spencer shook his head. "I--"

"No," Brendon said, because if he thought about it, really thought about it, if it had been him, he would like to think that he wouldn't have told Ryan and Spencer, either, would have watched out for them like that. Brendon wasn't Spencer, and he knew it, so probably not, but it was a nice illusion.

Spencer said, "Brendon," and touched a hand to his shoulder.

Brendon pulled him into a hug and Spencer curled up again to get himself further into Brendon's arms. Brendon said, "Sorry," once more, since it really warranted being said twice.

Spencer said, "We'll find him. I won't let us stop looking until we do."

When Brendon looked up, Ryan's shoulders were a notch lower than they'd been in nine days and Bob was smiling a small smile, waiting.

Brendon asked, "You were saying?"

"Yeah," Bob picked up like nothing had just occurred. "So my friends and I have done some scouting and gotten job offers for you guys. They're not glamorous, but um--"

Ryan said, "Well, that makes mine a no, then."

Spencer rolled his eyes at Ryan.

"I'll just start with you, shall I?" Bob asked.

Ryan looked properly chagrined.

Bob said, "I don't know if Spencer told you about my friend Pete--"

"The sea otter guy," Ryan said.

"Yeah, that's Pete. Anyway, he knows this couple that runs their own vet practice, she's a vet, he does the books, and they've been looking for a receptionist type person to also help with cleaning all the cages and all the, y'know, grunt work. They actually will pay a little bit above minimum wage, since they're granola types and believe in taking care of their employees, but there are weekend hours on top of weekday hours that run past the normal business day and--"

"I'd get to be around animals?" Ryan interrupted.

"Household stuff. Dogs, cats, rabbits, that sort of thing."

"You're actually seriously offering me this job." Ryan sounded like he was waiting for the catch.

"Ry," Brendon said. "He's serious."

Ryan looked at Brendon. Brendon smiled at him, since Ryan couldn't yet, he knew, and sometimes Brendon's ability could shake that loose.

"Holy fuck," Ryan breathed.

"So that's a yes, huh?" Bob asked.

Ryan looked at him, mouth still hanging slightly open. "Holy fuck."

Spencer shook slightly with laughter, but there was no sound to it. He wasn't laughing at Ryan.

"Me next!" Brendon said, despite the fact that it was totally selfish of him. Spencer laughed some more, so Brendon didn't think he minded much.

"You next," Bob agreed. "Yours came down through Ray who has a wide network of very geeky friends. Anyway, one of them works at the Castro theater--"

"Stop right there," Brendon said. He needed a second to breathe. "The Castro? The Castro? That was, oh, I don't know, maybe nine parts out of ten why I chose the ticket to San Francisco over, say, LA or New York."

"Then you don't mind being an all around grunt for them? Janitor work, training on changing the film, box office fill-in, minimum wage, very few benefits?"

"Mind? Mind? Can I be uncouth for a moment here and remind you that we were all sucking cock for a living before this, so really, the thought of cleaning a few toilets isn't such a big deal, all things considered. The fucking Castro!"

Ryan was laughing at him, but Brendon didn't care, not a bit. "What'd you find for Spencer?"

"It's sort of similar, actually. Frank knew a guy up at the Indepedent--"

"The club?" Spencer asked.

"Yeah, music place, I thought, you know, even if you didn't really like the job, you get to see some of the shows for free, so that was something."

Brendon could feel the slight hum start up under Spencer's skin. Spencer said, "It's a lot of something."

Bob grinned at him. They were still busy looking stupidly at each other when there was a knock on the door and Ryan went to go let Gerard in with a fervent, "Good news, please."

*


"The problem was," Gerard said, even as he handed out hot chocolates to everyone, "when we traced the plates they traced back to Jon's home, which is in upstate New York, and clearly not where he is now."

Brendon watched Ryan nod; he'd been afraid of that.

"But my friend at the Chronicle said that one of his coworkers deals with this sort of crap all the time, so they called the number the plates were registered to--"

Brendon said, "Oh shit, no."

Ryan asked, "Brendon?"

"His dad can't know, he really, really--"

"Relax," Gerard said, managing to sound concerned rather than condescending, "the guy didn't say anything about the two of you. He evidently told them he was doing some sort of survey or something, I don't know, my friend didn't give me all the details. The point is, we have an address."

Brendon looked at Gerard for a few seconds before calmly setting his cocoa to the side, dumping Spencer off of him and flying at Gerard. Gerard caught him with an ease that suggested long practice. Brendon said, "Thank you. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you."

Gerard had one hand in Brendon's hair, the other around his shoulders. He said, "You're welcome," and held tight.

Brendon realized that he was shaking. He made himself pull away from Gerard. "Where is it? The address?"

"Near Berkeley's campus."

"Is that far?"

Gerard looked at Bob. "Forty-five minutes?"

"About, yeah," Bob said.

It was getting on midnight.

Ryan came up to Brendon's side, pulled at him until he was facing Ryan. "Brendon."

"It's been--"

"I know. I know how long it's been."

Brendon could see where Ryan had also been keeping count with that meticulous, number-remembering mind of his. He nodded.

"Eight more hours," Ryan said. "That's all."

Bob said, "I'll give you a little something to help you sleep. Then you can be rested."

Brendon didn't want to sleep, didn't want to do anything other than find Jon and say, "We didn't leave you, I didn't leave you, not this time. Not this time."

Only he had. Even if he hadn't wanted to, he had. They both had. And then they had chosen their safety, his, Ryan's, Spencer's, over the chance of finding Jon, of telling him.

Another eight hours would be ten days.

Brendon saw how Bob looked exhausted. He'd been working to get the jobs set up, and helping Gerard and Frank ready their place for new occupants, and making sure that Spencer was all right on top of his normally somewhat intense clinic schedule. Spencer was worn too, the uncertainty of their new world eating at him.

Ryan was busy trying to hold both of them together, trying to prepare for the worst and see a way to get them through it. Tangible hope was a killer though, and now the terrifying aspects of the situation were creeping up on him. Brendon could see where he held his arms tightly so that they wouldn't shake, how he struggled to keep each breath even.

Brendon said, "You take something, too. For sleep."

Ryan didn't like drugs, didn't like anything that altered the state of his mind. He hesitated.

Brendon said, "That's my condition."

Ryan gave in.

*


Brendon spent the car ride digging his nails into the skin of his arms, doing everything he could to keep quiet, let Bob drive, let Bob get them there. It was an hour of sheer and utter torture, even when Ryan reached over, unbuckled him and pulled him into his grasp. Ryan gently peeled back Brendon's fingers and soothed out the grooves left with his own. Bob glanced in the rearview mirror, but didn't say anything about their utter lack of safety concerns.

They finally, finally arrived. Bob looked over the back of his seat. "Okay, we're gonna stay here until you guys go in. You have my cell number, so if there's a problem just call and we'll come get you, all right?"

Ryan nodded. Brendon hoped he was somehow conveying that he understood the basic meaning of Bob's words.

His legs didn't want to help him out of the car, get him to the door of the apartment, which was actually a duplex. Ryan rang the bell. A long, gangly kid whose hair clearly needed a thorough washing stumbled to the door, looking like he'd rolled straight from bed. Brendon had heard stories upon stories of Jon's roommate, who, for some inexplicable reason--Brendon had asked Jon, but the origins of the nickname were lost to time and perpetuity--went by The Butcher. The Butcher said, "Um. Can I help you?"

Brendon couldn't breathe, but he managed to push the words, "We're looking for Jon Walker," past his teeth without the aid of oxygen.

The Butcher looked at the two of them for a second, blinking slowly. Then he said, "Holy Jesus on a sticky popscicle stick. You're them, aren't you? You're Ryan and Brendon."

It had never occurred to Brendon that for all Jon told him about his own life, that Jon might tell the other people in his life about Brendon. The thought tore at him, the recognition of what Jon had been saying when he had been brave enough to admit to loving Brendon, Brendon who hadn't known, hadn't known at all how to give that back to him.

He'd had ten days to figure it out. He hoped they counted for as much as they felt like they had.

Ryan said, "I'm Ryan."

The Butcher swung the door open. "Come in."

Brendon tripped over the step going in. Ryan reached out, steadied him.

The Butcher looked at them. He said, "I don't know where the fuck you've been, but if you plan on leaving him again, you're going to need to turn around and do that right now."

Neither Ryan nor Brendon moved so much as a finger. The Butcher called, "Jon. Jon, buddy, there's something you have to see."

The floors creaked and Brendon heard him before he saw him, heard him say, "Andy, what the--"

He looked like he'd given up eating and sleeping in one go. Beside Brendon, Ryan's inhalation was sharp. Brendon said, "Jaje. Oh, Jaje."

Jon scrubbed at his eyes. He looked over at The Butcher who said softly, "They're here, Jon. That's them." He ambled off, disappearing into another room.

Brendon walked toward Jon who was eying him warily. He stopped just short of touching him.

Jon said, "At first I thought you were dead." His voice sounded like it was tearing from his throat, from deeper. Brendon was afraid to see blood well up with the words.

Brendon opened his mouth to explain, but Jon was talking again and it was Jon's turn. It was so very much Jon's turn. "But it was all three of you and I thought that was a little strange, all at once."

"We--"

"And then I realized that you must have run, must have jumped ship, only it seemed like that sort of thing would have taken some time, some planning, like there would have been a chance for you to say--"

"Spencer planned it. Spencer. And he didn't say, not until it was too late and we couldn't get back. We couldn't, Jon. I swear. We've spent the last ten days doing everything to find you. You have to know that, we're here, you have to know that we wouldn't be here if we hadn't done everything, everything we could."

Jon looked at him. His gaze traveled over to Ryan and then back to Brendon. "You were just gone. Just. Gone. I went back night after night. The first five nights."

"I'm so sorry," Brendon said, uselessly. "I'm so--"

"We're sorry," Ryan corrected.

"We are. We're so fucking sorry." Brendon could barely see for the weight of remorse resting behind his eyes, in his mind.

Jon brought a hand up, let it hover just next to Brendon's cheek. Brendon waited, waited. When Jon didn't move, Brendon reached up, covered the hand with his own, pressed it to his cheek.

Jon said, "Brendon." It sounded like a wail, a sob.

"Jon," Brendon said, and he doubted his was any sturdier, any less distressed.

Jon reached out, wrapped a hand around Ryan's arm. He said, "Ryan."

Ryan brought himself into the uncompleted circle of Brendon's and Jon's bodies.

*


Brendon didn't know how long it had been when Ryan said, "Come on," and said, "Show us where your bed is."

Jon said, "I don't know if I can--"

"You need to sleep," Brendon told him.

"Oh," Jon said. He took them to his room. The sheets were tossed and smelled and Ryan asked, "You have another set?"

Jon shook his head. Ryan sighed. "Where's your laundry?"

"Attic."

Ryan gathered the sheets up. He said, "Shower and food first, I guess."

Brendon nodded. He put Jon in the shower and climbed in behind him. He soaked Jon under the water for a good long while before scrubbing him down, paying particular attention to the muscles in his back, working out as much of the tension and loss as he could. There was a safety razor on the ledge, so Brendon shaved him carefully. Jon never once moved, just bared his throat and waited for Brendon to be done.

There were tiny cuts along his jaw when Brendon finished. He kissed at each of them and said, "Sorry."

Jon said, "They'll heal," but the words cracked out, barely recognizable.

Brendon wrapped him in a towel and found some clean bed-appropriate clothes. Then he took both of them to the kitchen. He found some tea, so he set a pot with water to boil. He unearthed some bread and peanut butter, toasted the former, spread the latter over it and handed a plate of two pieces to Jon. He said, "Slowly."

Jon didn't argue, just ate one bite a time.

Jon was on his second cup of tea when Ryan appeared with the sheets. Brendon stayed with him as he finished, then brought him into the bedroom, helped Ryan with the last of making the bed.

The sheets were warm from the dryer.

The two of them put Jon into the bed, curling up on either side of him. Jon said, "Real, real."

Ryan kissed his cheek. Brendon said, "We're here, sleep."

He slept for nearly twelve hours. Brendon and Ryan went in and out with him. At times one would go the bathroom, or, at one point, Ryan went and called Spencer and Bob, just to give them some idea what was going on. They never both left him at once.

When he finally woke up he spent a long time staring at Ryan before turning to stare an equally long time at Brendon.

He asked, "Would there be any way for me to be absolutely sure that I haven't gone crazy? That you aren't figments of my very deluded mind?"

"I have an idea," Brendon said.

"Please," Jon said, quite pleasantly, as though they were having coffee or Sunday brunch, not lying in bed next to each other hoping the pieces of self that had been scattered would react well to super glue.

Brendon told him, "I'm going to do something you would never expect me to do. Never imagine me as doing. Never come up with on your own."

"What is that?" Jon didn't sound like he thought it would be hard.

Brendon looked at Ryan. Ryan smiled with his eyes, not his face. Brendon understood the implicit permission, the, do what needs being done.

Brendon said, "I'm giving you Ryan. To do anything you so please with."

Jon's eyes flickered. "Yeah. Okay. Not crazy." He sounded part-relieved, part-disappointed.

Brendon said, "Not crazy," just to reassure him.

Jon shifted his focus to Ryan. "Anything?"

Ryan took a deep breath, squared his chest. "Anything."

Jon looked at him with consideration in his gaze for a moment. Then he rolled out from beneath them, getting off the bed. He rifled through his dresser for a minute, tossing a couple of condoms and some lube onto his nightstand and unearthing an old undershirt. He ripped the shirt into three strips. He came back to the bed and said, "Give me your hands."

Ryan's breathing quickened, but he didn't resist. Jon said, "I won't hurt you."

Ryan said, "He gave me to you. You could."

"But I won't," Jon said and tied Ryan's hands to the headboard, his right foot to the post of the bed. He left the other foot free, cupping the ankle in his hand, bringing it up to his mouth, sucking slowly at each of the toes. Ryan's eyes widened.

Jon stopped in his task long enough to look at Brendon. "Don't touch yourself."

Brendon shook his head. It wasn't only Ryan he'd given to Jon. Ryan was just the most important part.

Jon worked his way slowly up the leg with his mouth and his fingers, prompting Ryan to laugh, to squirm, to gasp, to all-but-beg, "Jon, Jon."

Then Jon said, "Keep that leg still for me, beautiful," and started in on the other one, the bound one.

Ryan tried so, so hard. Brendon watched his stomach muscles clench with the effort, watched the way every breath pressed itself against his lungs, attempting to move straight out of his chest.

By the time Jon pulled himself up to where his mouth met Ryan's, his cock brushed over Ryan's, Ryan was a quivering, pleading wreck of a thing. Jon ground his cock against Ryan's a few times. Then he said, "Wait, beautiful. Wait. No coming until I say."

Ryan whimpered.

Jon whispered, "I'm going to want you to suck my cock. Do you think you can do it from there, or do I need to untie you? I don't want to untie you, you're so fucking pretty, laid out like that, all for me."

"I can," Ryan said, sounding eager, sounding proud.

"Good," Jon crooned. He rose up and straddled Ryan's face, using the headboard as support as he lowered himself into Ryan's mouth. Then he said, "B."

Brendon closed his eyes for a moment at the sound of the nickname. Jon hadn't called him by it until now and he thought maybe he'd lost that privilege.

"Yes?" Brendon asked.

"Fuck me."

Brendon didn't need to be asked twice, or even nicely, for that matter. He straddled Ryan carefully, pulled on one of the condoms, pressed himself so far into Jon that Jon would have no choice but to let him stay, let him finish things.

Ryan arched a little beneath them, trying to find a better position, to take more of Jon. Brendon moved out a little, thrust back in. Jon held both of them up, kept Ryan safe with his grip on the bars of the headboard, affected wrought iron. Jon pulled out as he came, because Ryan would most likely choke in this position. He came over Ryan's face, Ryan arching into the spray, not shying from it. The sight of Ryan taking it, almost reveling in Jon's possession shoved Brendon right into climax and it hit hard, nearly unexpected, ripping him from himself for several minutes.

When he could feel Jon's back still under him, could focus on Ryan's eyes below, Jon was swiping some of the mess from those eyes, from Ryan's mouth.

Jon said, "Brendon."

"Mm."

"Ryan."

Yes. Yes. Ryan.

"Want to share?" Jon asked as Brendon pulled from him.

Brendon did. It was Jon's choice. "Do you?"

Jon wrapped his hand hard and firm around the base of Ryan's cock. He said, "Kiss my hand."

Brendon leaned over, took half of Ryan into his mouth, and met Jon's hand with his lips.

*


Brendon went and wet some face towels while Jon untied Ryan. Brendon came back to watch Jon rubbing gently over the spot where the cotton had held him, despite there being a complete lack of chafing. Brendon gave Jon the towel to attend to Ryan, who was languidly lapping up the way he was being spoiled. Brendon watched, wholly entranced. Jon looked over at him at one point and laughed at the expression on his face, but Brendon didn't care. He smiled back at Jon and the laughter caught in Jon's throat, stuttered and stopped and for a moment Brendon's stomach twisted until he saw how Jon's eyes were soft, mildly awed.

Brendon said, "Yes," which was apropos of absolutely nothing and everything all at once.

Jon agreed. "Yes."

They all settled back in the bed, Ryan in the middle this time so that they could continue stroking him, contributing to the blissed out expression, body language that he was radiating.

Jon asked softly, "Can I ask--"

"Anything," Brendon said. "You can ask anything."

"Mm," Ryan added. The way it sounded, Brendon thought he might be taxing his verbal abilities just pitching in that much. Brendon appreciated the support.

"So then, tell me? Tell me what happened?"

Brendon said, "There are whole parts I don't know. Spencer didn't say much. He won't say much. He was... I don't think I've ever seen him scared like that."

"Petrified," Ryan whispered.

Brendon nodded, petted him some more.

Jon said, "Then tell me what you do know."

Brendon started at the beginning, or what he thought was probably the beginning with the other boys, not Thomas' and the knife fights and having to move corners.

Jon interrupted him, his eyes tight, "I thought you'd just decided to be near Ryan."

Brendon shook his head. "Three guys on a corner is a lot."

He told Jon about the Sunday they'd spent sleeping in the park and Bob coming to get them and about reading the news on Bob's computer. "Spencer said we couldn't go back. He said Vern--the new guy--he said he would do worse to us than what Thomas used to do to skimmers and--" Brendon stopped, pressed his lips together, fighting the urge to be sick.

"Okay," Jon said, reaching over, brushing his hand across Brendon's chest. "Okay. It's a good thing you didn't go back."

Brendon swallowed, swallowed again, and when the sensation had passed, he continued the story, talked about Gerard and his connections and Ryan's amazing license-plate memorizing brain and needing, needing, needing to find Jon. In the middle of that last, Jon said, "Hey, hey, you found me."

Brendon said, "I didn't meant to fuck up this time. Last time, well, I didn't mean that either, but I didn't know then, I didn't understand. You were a John. But this time it wasn't--"

"I know, B."

"You didn't see yourself--"

"I have mirrors."

"Not the same," Ryan said, low and flat, the way he sounded when something had scared the ability to emote right out of him.

Jon leaned down to kiss him. Ryan pushed himself into the kiss. Brendon watched, watched the two of them come together. His. Jon straightened slightly. "You came back. You both came back. It took me a while to see it, there, but you did."

Brendon said, "I'm Brendon Urie. In a couple of days, I'll be employed full time at the Castro theater. In about a week and a half, Ryan and I will be living in the Lower Haight, in a room we're renting from Gerard Way and Frank Iero."

Jon said, "I thought you were bad at this part."

Brendon said, "Now you can find me. You can find us."

Ryan said, "I'm Ryan Ross, and I'll be working at a vet on Fillmore street."

"RR?" Jon asks. "What was the likelihood?"

"Our alliterative beginnings brought us together," Ryan said mock-philosophically, curving his hip further against Jon's hand.

"Clearly," Jon said, a smile forming on his face, "we were meant for each other."

They were both laughing a little. Brendon--who still secretly believed in things like divine intervention--said, "We are."

*


Despite the fact that the vet stayed open late on Wednesdays and Spencer was often working shows and Brendon generally had to stay on box office until at least ten thirty, if not help close up, Wednesday nights were a hard habit to break. They tried moving things to Sundays or Mondays or whenever they had a free night, but Wednesday stayed with them, impossible to ignore.

Finally they gave up and just met at an all night coffeehouse by Ryan and Brendon's place at around eleven, or whenever they could get there. If Jon was pulling an all-nighter he might come and join them, sitting at Brendon's or Ryan's knee, letting them stroke his hair as he worked, or if Bob and Spencer hadn't gotten to see each other much that week he might stop by for more than just to pick Spencer up, but mostly it was the three of them and their real-people stories about customers and managers and people who might annoy them, but didn't cut them or rape them or threaten to kill them.

It occurred to Spencer at some point that Wednesday had always been the one night they didn't talk about work, and now it was almost all they spoke of.

He loved it.

Ryan had started the GED program about a month into his job, on a loan from Jon. Spencer got the feeling Jon had tried to just pay for it, but Ryan was reasonably wary of money and the exchanges it was involved in. He wanted to get into vet school. Spencer and he often talked about the parts they were having problems with. Well, Spencer, really. Ryan didn't have problems, because he had an unfair amount of intelligence, but he shared it with Spencer and helped, so Spencer could only feel so frustrated at Ryan's congenital brilliance.

Also, Spencer figured the universe probably owed Ryan a few.

On one Wednesday when it was just the three of them, Ryan said, "Frank says we can have a cat."

Spencer asked, "Yeah?"

"One of the other tenants is afraid of dogs," Brendon told him.

Ryan rolled his eyes. Ryan had very little patience for other people's fears. If they didn't involve serious amounts of violence Ryan really wasn't going to be seduced into sympathy. Brendon smiled into his hand.

"There's a DSH at Pets Unlimited I really like."

"DSH?" Spencer asked.

"Domestic short hair," Brendon said, sounding eminently knowledgeable. Then he ruined it by smiling. "He talks in letters a lot."

"Wait till he starts vet school. Half of Bob's vocabulary is consonants strung together, and he only has to deal with one species."

Brendon laughed.

Ryan ignored both of them. "She has blue eyes. I want to call her Ingrid."

"For Bergman," Brendon said excitedly. "We agree on her. Although, we could do Grace."

Ryan wrinkled his nose. "Ingrid's more distinctive."

Brendon thought about it. "Yeah, that's true."

"I like Ingrid," Spencer said.

"Decided then," Ryan said, because much like none of them could get past Wednesdays, Ryan had seemingly yet to learn to ignore Spencer's opinion. Spencer had to admit that sort of made him happy.

Brendon said, "My boyfriend loves you more than he loves me."

"Good thing you have Jon," Spencer said.

"You both suck," Ryan informed them.

Spencer and Brendon shared a not-so-furtive grin.

*


Since Spencer, Brendon, Gerard and Mikey were all working New Year's Eve and Bob was on call that night, Gerard suggested a birthday party at his and Frank's place the Monday before. The Castro was closed to patrons on Mondays, Ryan could get out of work by seven, Spencer could request that night off, and the clinic was generally less busy then, making it a good night for a Mass Way Exodus.

Jon had finished the semester by that time and purposely taken the honor's track so that he would have a reason not to go home for the holidays. Hence, he was making his own schedule. Patrick told Spencer, "I'll find someone else to watch over the Pete's babies. We'll all be there."

Spencer came over early to run errands like picking up the cake with Frank, who was wearing jeans that just barely clung to his hips. Spencer said, "Mm, nobody told me it was actually my birthday."

"Hands off, Baity Baity McBaiterson," Gerard warned.

Frank kissed Spencer's cheek and then walked off toward the car with a pronounced sway to said scantily clad hips. Gerard sighed. "I so never had a chance."

Spencer patted Gerard's shoulder consolingly and followed the hips.

When they returned, Ray and Mikey had gotten there with the paper and plastic ware and were setting the table.

The Aquarium Four showed up at around six. Patrick said, "Hello, The Spencer," and hugged Spencer tight. Andy and Joe asked what they could do to help. Pete slung his arm around Spencer's waist and said, "We're just here to make things prettier, right?"

Spencer said, "Yeah, I meant to have that officially printed on the invitation. It wasn't?"

Pete smirked and went to go help with the drinks. Spencer noticed that at some point, however, he got distracted by Ingrid. Ryan was going to love Pete.

Ryan ran in the back door at 7:15 and threw himself in the shower. Brendon came in at 7:30 and pouted about having missed out on that action. Jon walked in a few minutes later and treated them all to a repeat of the pouting. Frank said, "Sometimes I think I should get in that damn shower and see what all the fuss is about."

Gerard laid his head on Mikey's shoulder. Mikey patted it. Spencer told Frank, "Ryan's cock is made out of pure gold."

Frank considered this news. "I think I'll stick with what I have."

Spencer grinned. So did Gerard.

Bob walked in at around eight, obviously having stopped by the apartment and showered and changed. Spencer sort of liked Bob's scrubs, they were convenient in a number of ways, but Bob was wearing his long-sleeved Harley t-shirt which hugged his chest and always made Spencer picture him on a Harley and there just wasn't much to complain about in that, either.

Pete hugged Bob with Ingrid still perched atop his shoulders. She climbed onto Bob's head. She was a big fan of both Bob's and Gerard's heads. Brendon was jealous, but Spencer was pretty certain Brendon's head just wasn't big enough for her.

Pete looked pretty impressed.

Ryan rescued Bob by scooping up Ingrid, going up on his tiptoes to kiss Bob quickly on the lips. "Happy birthday, sorta."

Bob smiled at him. "I'll take it."

Ray sidled up to him. "I made you bruschetta. What say we eat before some of the smaller ones here blow away?"

"Yeah, we'd miss Pete. A little," Joe said.

Pete flipped him the finger. "Did you say bruschetta?"

Ray had made bruschetta, and Frank had made eggplant parmesan, and Jon had brought up three loaves of garlic bread from his favorite Italian place in Berkeley.

Gerard had ordered the chocolate soufflè cake from Tartine, which was extravagant and sort of made Spencer love Gerard when Bob gasped upon taking his first bite. He fed the second one to Spencer. Spencer said, "Oh, fuck."

"Later," Bob promised, his voice full of intent.

Spencer thought about how he could fulfill that promise in his own given time. They had all night to themselves.

Ryan started in on his own and kissed Jon slowly, letting it melt over their tongues. Brendon watched, patient until they broke apart, at which point he demanded, "My turn, my turn."

Ryan asked, "Which one of us?"

"Both," Brendon said, as if that were the only possible answer.

Spencer was beginning to think it probably was.

"I can't go to jail for watching this, right?" Pete asked.

"Not anymore," Gerard said cheerily.

Bob became very intent on his cake. Spencer whispered, "What did you wish? With the candles?"

Bob said, "I can't tell you. It won't come true."

Spencer said, "I won't tell that you told."

Bob said, "It doesn't work like that."

Spencer just waited. Bob shrugged, tossed his eyes to the side. "I didn't wish for anything."

Spencer frowned. "Why not?"

"I meant to. I meant to. But then I accidentally looked at you and, well. I forgot what I could possibly want."

"But. But things aren't perfect. There has to be--"

"You wish for perfection when you get the chance?"

Spencer generally wished for things like world peace, the stuff he knew was never going to happen so he wouldn't have to be disappointed when it didn't. "Good point."

"I just...didn't need to," Bob said.

Spencer said, "I love you," and knew even as he said it that that was his way of wishing for Bob, for all of them.

When he looked over, despite the fact that they were too far away to have heard, Ryan and Brendon were smiling at him.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile