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AN: I'm not a historian, my research--which was scant--for this fic, was done by way of Wiki, etc. Thanks to liketheroad for holding my hand all the way through this, she's a total trooper, and foxxcub for giving me the opportunity to write it and being a wonderful, lifesaver of a beta.

November 3, 1918: Argonne Forest, France

There was a reporter on the lines with them. A reporter and a photographer, and Tom couldn't leave the latter alone. The man had a real, true Kodak and Tom hadn't even asked to touch it, was mostly just watching as he positioned it and pressed that famous Kodak button; Jon noticed that the camera really did do the rest. Tom couldn't stop himself from asking all kinds of questions about how the pictures were processed and where they would be shown and the photographer--old enough to be Tom or Jon's father--was being wearily indulgent of Tom's enthusiasm. Jon closed his eyes and listened more to the wash of Tom's voice than anything else. He was glad Tom was here.

Jon tucked his hand into the front pocket of his uniform, checking for the feel of Cassie's letter. It was there, of course. The paper was softened from the number of times Jon had held it between his fingers, not even reading, just...just letting himself know that it was there. Jon opened his eyes again. He was exhausted, but with them closed the sound of the front was too immediate. They would be there soon enough, and Jon could wait. He could wait forever.

"Hey." Tom hunkered down in front of Jon, looking more bright-eyed and like himself than he had in months. Jon couldn't help it, he smiled back.

Tom said, quietly, "I have extra biscuits."

Jon would have been happy never to see another biscuit in his life, but he was hungry, excruciatingly so. "Moldy?"

Tom's smile grew wider and he shook his head. Jon said, "Who'd you have to fuck to get that, Conrad?"

Shuffling in closer to Jon, Tom stuffed one of the biscuits secretly into his hand. He winked. "A gentleman never tells."

"Well, then I should know shortly enough."

Tom laughed and sat down next to Jon, propping his bayonet between them. The silence between them was old, comfortable. Tom said, "I could take pictures at your wedding. I've figured it out and I'm certain I can afford a camera on my wages."

"And who's going to be my best man?" Jon asked mildly. If Tom wanted to take pictures, Jon would find someone to stand beside him in a suit. Jon carefully didn't think about his brothers, about the fields of white crosses, and his mother's sharp, broken-off cries.

"Nick could do it."

"Cassie likes you better."

"Cassie likes me better than she likes you. All the more reason to keep me out of the groom's party, don't you think?"

Jon rolled his eyes. "Keep dreaming, my friend."

"Every night, Jonny Walker." Tom laughed. "Every single night."

November 5, 1918

Jon plowed forward through the fight, bayonet first. Tom was in the corner of his vision, still alive, still alive. Jon felt the heavy press of a man, a once living man, hitting the barrel of his rifle. He pulled the bayonet from him and didn't look down, couldn't. Looking down meant having to see, worse, meant sure death. Cassie was waiting for him.

There were shells screaming through the air, high-pitched and making it impossible to think. Not that it took a lot of thought, just kill, kill, don't be killed, kill, but Jon wished it were quieter all the same. Then again, the screams of the shells were infinitely better than the screams of men, which were still audible above the din.

Another man came, then another and another; Jon barely had time to notice that the screaming of the shells had gotten painfully loud, that he felt like his eardrums would split, when pain exploded through his entire frame, tearing him apart from the inside out, and all went completely, blissfully silent and still.

November 15, 1918

Jon's mom was rocking him to sleep, back and forth, back and forth. She hadn't done this in so long, not since he was a baby and Mike would complain--

Jon woke suddenly, starting and then moaning when the action translated itself into pain. He was still rocking, but he was in a bed, not his mother's arms. His mother was nowhere to be seen. There were other women, women in white uniforms. Jon tried to think. The last thing he remembered-- "Tom?" He looked around, but Tom wasn't in the bed either to his right or his left. "Tom?" His voice was getting louder and now one of the women in white was coming to him, saying, "Shh, shh, you'll wake the others," but it was a gentle warning.

"Tom," he said, "Tom, Thomas Conrad. He was-- My unit--"

"Shh," she said again, picking something up from the bedside. She asked, "Jonathan Walker? Seventy-first division, 283rd infantry regiment?"

"Yes, ma'am." Now that he wasn't yelling, Jon noticed how sore his throat was. The nurse walked away for a moment and came back, bringing water. She helped him to drink but he could only take a few sips. "Please, please, my friend--"

She said, "You should sleep."

"No, please, I need--"

She sighed. "I will see what I can find out."

"Thank you," Jon told her earnestly and prayed like he had never prayed before in all his life.

November 23, 1918

My best girl,

I am on a ship, headed home. Tom is In the last battle Tom's not coming home. I am injured, although I am told I owe my life to the accident of a German soldier, falling upon me as he died, protecting me from the worst of the shell. They tell me I shouldn't say these things to you, that they might 'offend your sensibilities.' You're all I have le You have always been the more sensible of us, though, and I need to tell someone.

I can only hope you will not find me too changed. I miss you.

Love, your Jon


December 13, 1918


Cassie met him at the docks. A nurse wheeled him from the boat. He had been shielded from the worst of the shrapnel spray, but quite a bit had managed to embed itself in the muscles of his left leg. They had removed the metal, but the damage to the nerves and muscles would take time to heal, they had told him, if it did at all. Jon was working on walking with a cane, but he hadn't the strength yet to make it more than a few steps.

She was as beautiful as ever, more, in Jon's estimation, for the time in which he hadn't seen her. She was in men's trousers and a top--she must have come straight from the factory--her hair in a messy bun that was likely to fall out at any moment. He said, "Cass," more an exhalation of breath than a word.

She said, "Jon," her voice breaking over it, making it into two syllables. She ran toward him, careful only when she neared his chair, leaning in to kiss him, heedless of the other people on the dock. "Jon," she said again, "Jon."

"Take me home, Cass. Please. I just-- I want to go home.”

December 27, 1918

In the mornings, Jon would get up with Cassie and walk to the tiny kitchen of their apartment. Even the few steps were exhausting, but he made himself, intent on getting stronger. If he could, he would help with breakfast from the table, and they would eat together before she left for the factory. Between the regular food and Jon's own attempts to work his muscles, he was getting stronger. He had come to the door to greet Cassie when she came home in the evening the night before.

He wasn't yet certain what he was going to do about a job just yet, but Jon had saved most of his army pay, having nothing much to spend it on, and the sum along with what Cassie was bringing in was enough to keep them all right at least for a while. Jon's parents had given them a new set of linens and a quality frying pan and other necessities for the Christmas holiday, and Cassie's parents had bought them a few sweaters to keep them both warm. Jon had a roof over his head and Cassie, and not even the nightmares and the pain of walking were enough to dampen his relief, his joy at both of those facts.

Cassie often hummed while moving around the house. She hummed showtunes and jingles she'd heard on the radio and whatever popped into her head, really. Jon enjoyed it, the soft, low buzz of her. She was humming something with a particularly high pitch to it when Jon found himself back in the trenches, bullets streaming past the shells screaming, screaming--

"Jon!! Jon! Stop it, Jon, stop it! Jon stopstopstopstop!"

Jon took a shuddering breath, Cassie's frantic yells crashing over him. "Cass?"

"Jon?" she sounded unsure. Jon looked down. He was on the floor, his palms pressed to the wood. He was hunched over, his leg in agony.

He said, "I wasn't-- I thought--"

"I started whistling and you just-- You were screaming," she said softly.

Jon concentrated on the grain of the wood, the feel of Cassie's breaths hitting his cheek. He turned slowly, biting his lip at the pain of shifting his leg and pulled her to him as best he could. She came easily. He whispered, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

She said, "It'll be fine. You'll see. We'll be fine."

February 22, 1919

"Shell shock," the doctor said, sounding apologetic. "We've been seeing it in more and more of the young men who have come home."

Jon looked at Cassie, but it was she who asked, "What does that-- I mean, I don't know what that is."

"You say the flashbacks happen when someone whistles, or a teakettle boils or anything with a high pitch reaches your ears?"

Jon nodded. He never actually remembered the cause, but Cassie or someone who could tell him what had happened was generally nearby. The doctor nodded in return. "The symptoms have been found to vary, but in your case, it is a condition where the mind associates certain sounds, or at times smells or sights with what it has seen on the battlefield, sending the person into a very real--to him--reenactment of the conflict he has been a part of."

Jon looked the doctor in the eyes. "Can it be fixed?"

The doctor's forehead creased. "The British have tried several treatments, most painful or extremely unpleasant. It hasn't seemed to garner any results so far as I am able to see."

Jon closed his eyes for a moment, not wanting to look at Cassie, not wanting to have to see what it meant having a husband who wasn't right even in his mind. The doctor said, "I realize it is small consolation, but your case is a very minor one. Most men with it, they-- Well, my best advice is to avoid high-pitched noises when possible."

Jon laughed. He didn't mean to, it just broke free from his chest, his throat. Once he had started, he found he couldn't stop.

March 9, 1919

He had the nightmare about Tom the morning before Cassie woke up sick. There were a million nightmares, and Jon had every single one of them, but this one was specific, and it repeated itself. In this one, Tom was the German soldier Jon had killed, the one who had fallen on him, saved him from the same fate. Tom was always unbearably heavy atop him, colder than he possibly could have been that immediately unto death.

When he woke up, Cassie was shivering beside him, despite the thick blanket atop them. He soothed back her hair. She murmured, "Jon?"

"Hey. I'm here."

"It's cold. Did it snow?" Her voice was rough. It hadn't been the night before.

"Maybe," Jon said, although he doubted it. The room seemed perfectly temperate to him.

"Hold me. You're always warm," she said, a smile in her voice.

Jon held her.

March 14, 1919

They were burying the victims of the Spanish flu in a mass grave outside of the town limits to try and stop the spread, but Jon wouldn't let them have Cassie. He kissed her even as she was drawing her last breath and a nurse pulled him off, said, "Are you crazy, you'll infect yourself!"

Jon stared at her with empty eyes and turned back to Cassie, but she was gone by that time. He wanted to cry, wanted to sob for her, but the pain was too harsh, too much, it crowded out anything that might have helped to heal it.

In the end he had to let her go, had to give her over because there were others who needed the bed and they held him down, stuck him with drugs when he screamed so that he slept, slept and slept and slept and when he woke, Cassie was still gone and Jon was still there, and there was no changing that, no finding her. She was as lost to him as Tom, as his brothers.

Jon took himself back to their--his--apartment and slept more, slept as the flu ravaged the city, taking hundreds, then thousands with it, slept until his father came and woke him and said, "Jon, Jon, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, son."

Jon said, "I have to leave. I have to leave here."

After a long moment, Jon's father asked, "Where will you go?"

Jon shook his head. "Somewhere. Just. Just somewhere."

Jon's father nodded, then. Jon said, "Tell mom I love her."

"Come back when you can."

"I don't know--"

"I know. But it's something a father has to say."

Jon hugged his father. Then he let go.

*


November 7, 1919

Jon avoided the trains. They were the easiest way to get from one place to another if he could sneak aboard them while stationed--once moving it was impossible; he had weaned himself from the cane, but he was never going to run again--but the train's whistle routinely sparked fits of the shell shock and Jon would rather have walked cross county. In a blizzard.

He walked for the most part, stopping whenever his injury demanded it. He wasn't going anywhere, not really, so it wasn't as though he was in any hurry to get there. At times people would give him a ride from one place to the next. When they asked where he was going he always just picked a town in the direction they were headed and stopped there for a bit. Occasionally he would get a job washing dishes or manning the counter at a store, things that didn't require much physical exertion, but the noise always drove him away and then he was on to the next place.

He tried to keep enough money on him for food, but when it ran out--and it would--he scrounged. If he was really desperate, he might steal. He didn't like the feeling it left him with afterward, though, so he tried to avoid that necessity. He wasn't hungry all that often, in any case. But it was getting steadily colder, and that was a problem. The cold exacerbated the pain in the scar tissue, stiffened muscles so that it was even harder to walk.

The nightmares came more frequently in the cold, although Jon couldn't say if that was the weather, or simply his mind's reaction to the time of year. One year and two days. Jon hadn't seen a calendar in months, but he knew the days of November.

He thought he should go south for the winter, follow the unending v-shapes of birds. Jon wondered what it would be like, lining up where you knew you were supposed to be, someone leading you to somewhere better. He shook off the thought.

He wasn't entirely sure where he was. One of the middle states, most likely. He felt like he ended up in them more than the rest. He was in a city this time, which he usually avoided, but it had been too cold to roam the countryside, hoping someone would take him in or that he could find a hospitable barn. He'd done that for most of October, even through an early snowstorm that had left him unsure of whether he was still going to have all his fingers. Jon wanted a night indoors. His best chance for that was a church of some sort, and it was easier finding churches in the city.

The first church he came to informed him it was full for the night. Jon said, "I'll sleep on a pew," but the priest didn't budge from the door, so Jon nodded, and moved on. The second church didn't answer his knock, evidently unmanned by night. He was looking to find a third when he heard music. Music was pretty common in the cities, but this was good, the sound of someone truly talented allowing himself free reign. It had been a long time since he'd really heard music, more than just having it float past him, since he'd let himself feel the beat the way he had back when Tom and he would sit with their guitars, fool around and sing songs that no other person would ever hear. Sometimes Cassie had caught them at it and she would--

Jon made himself concentrate on the music, following the sound until he came to a small, but clean-looking club. The sign out front informed him that the place called itself The Downbeat. Jon slipped inside and couldn't help but sigh at the immediate warmth that filtered through his bones. There were a fair amount of people sitting, enjoying the music, but it wasn't overly crowded. On the stage there was a man playing a piano. A boy, really, young enough that he wouldn't have been drafted, which was how Jon drew lines these days. The club's specialty was clearly jazz, but the kid was playing things that were an amalgamation of jazz, rag, American folk, maybe even some classical, like nothing Jon had ever heard before.

A soft voice asked, "He's good, isn't he?"

Jon startled. He hadn't noticed the blond man approaching, and he normally did notice those things; people getting too near to him made him itch in ways that couldn't be scratched. He wasn't feeling that right now, but he edged away all the same. "Amazing."

The man nodded, as if Jon had confirmed something he'd already known, just wanted someone else to say to him. Jon wasn't sure why that someone would be a dirty, underfed, still-shivering man who had just walked in off the street, but Jon had learned, among other things, that people were fucking strange. He wasn't one to question. After a long moment where the man was just watching the performer he said, without looking at Jon, "You look like you could use a cup of coffee."

The idea sounded nigh-on heavenly. Jon shook his head. "No money. I was just trying to find a church and I heard--" He stopped. He didn't think he'd said that many words in a row since Cassie had died. He shrugged and turned to leave.

The man asked, "You fought, yeah?"

Jon nodded tightly, and the man said, "Coffee's on me."

Jon said, "I--"

The man undid the button on the cuff of his sleeve and rolled it up just far enough for Jon to see the clean lines of an anchor tattoo on his bicep. Jon stared for a minute before holding out his hand. "Jon."

The man rebuttoned his sleeve and shook Jon's hand. "Bob. Welcome to my club."

*


Jon followed Bob over to a simple, but amply stocked bar. The man behind it was also young, possibly as young as the musician. His face was soft, a hint of femininity in the curves of his cheeks, the pout of his mouth. His eyes, though, were considering, sizing Jon up before he'd even taken a seat in one of the stools. It felt good to sit somewhere warm, and Jon couldn't help closing his eyes for a moment, just letting himself be.

He heard Bob talking with the bartender, but the noise sort of just floated around him, nowhere near as important as the music that was still everywhere in the club. He forced himself to open his eyes when he smelled coffee and looked down to see a steaming mug in front of him. He glanced up, and the bartender was smiling at him, an easy, welcoming smile. "Bob says your name is Jon. I'm Spencer. I own the other half of this place."

Jon nodded. "It's really nice."

Spencer's smile widened. "You take cream or sugar?"

Jon shook his head, curling his hands around the mug and just smelling it. The soup kitchens rarely had coffee, and when they did--and Jon felt the energy to go to one, deal with all those other people--it was always weak. He took a sip and swallowed, savoring the bitter burn all the way down. The music stopped and the performer said something about a break and bounded over to the bar. Jon had never seen someone actually bound. The man asked, "Is that coffee I smell, Spencer Smith?"

"Absolutely not," said the man sitting on the side of Jon that Bob wasn't occupying. Jon blinked down at his cup before the man had time to continue, "No coffee for you."

"But Ryan--" The performer practiced some of the most perfect puppy eyes Jon had ever seen on the Ryan fellow, who seemed entirely unmoved.

Ryan said, in the same tone he'd told the performer no, "Water for Brendon, with lemon, for his throat."

Brendon pouted. "Who are you, my manager?"

Ryan seemed unimpressed. "Your legal representation."

"That's a lie, Ryan Ross. You represent people who can actually afford to be represented." But Brendon was smiling as he said it, drinking the water Spencer had supplied him.

"Which you will be, one of these days," Ryan said, as if the vote of confidence were nothing. It didn't pass Jon's attention, however, that Brendon beamed at the words.

Jon took another sip, and found himself saying, softly, "You're very good. I--" He noticed then that they were all looking at him and went silent. Somehow, he hadn't expected his words to actually go anywhere. It had been a while since he'd really had a conversation with anyone.

Brendon just turned his grin to Jon, though, and said, "Thank you! Hi, I'm Brendon. Are you one of Bob's friends? Bob has friends all over and they come in and know everyone but we don't know them because Bob doesn't really talk much--"

"You talk enough for all of us," Spencer said, but there was only teasing in his tone. He was clearly fond of Brendon.

"I talk just the right amount," Brendon told him, quite firmly, and held out his glass for more water. Spencer gave it to him.

Bob said, "His name is Jon. And he came in because he heard the music."

Brendon, surprisingly, quieted a bit at that. He tilted his head and asked, "Really?"

Jon nodded and didn't add that he'd also been looking to get warm for a bit. Brendon asked, "Are you a musician?"

Jon shook his head. "No. No, I used--" He stopped though, and just shook his head again.

Brendon opened his mouth, but Spencer said, "Bren. Go get ready for the next set, all right?"

Brendon looked like he was about to argue for a moment, but in the end he just shrugged and said, "You pay the bills."

Ryan caught Spencer's eye and said, "I'm gonna go further up to watch."

"Yeah." Spencer pulled a towel from somewhere under the bar and started wiping down glasses. He asked Jon, "You need more coffee?"

Jon saw that, to his surprise, the cup was empty. "I-- I told Bob, I haven't any money--"

"We can spare a couple of cups of coffee," Spencer said, and poured him a second cup.

Jon said, softly, "Thank you." Then, "You don't mind if I stay for this set?" Without the music, Jon could hear the wind outside, and he imagined it would probably be a night in the park or, if he was lucky, an alley, for him. Also, he wanted to hear more.

Spencer's eyes strayed to Bob shortly. "We insist."

*


After the set, true to his word, Jon got up from the bar stool and said, "Thanks again. I'll just--" he motioned toward the door.

Before he could take a step, Spencer asked, "Where you headed?"

Jon gestured vaguely. "Somewhere for the night. Don't suppose you know any churches as would let me--"

Bob shook his head regretfully. "Not this time of night, not around here, at least. Maybe further out toward the city limits, but that's some ways."

Jon had been afraid of that. He worked up a smile, did his best to make it look easy. Even the coffee hadn't been enough to ward off the bone deep exhaustion that followed him everywhere. "Somewhere else, then."

"Jon," Spencer called his name as he served patrons their drinks in between sets. When the first rush had settled, Spencer said, "Stay. Bob and I, we room above the club. There's space on the floor. Nothing luxurious, but it'd be warm. It's turning into winter out there."




Jon narrowed his eyes. He'd had people offer him places to stay and he'd always refused, because he could feel the catch in the offer itself. He couldn't this time, and that worried him. Bob made a sound, something that Jon couldn't really decipher, but it sounded amused. He said, "No catch," and Jon turned to look at him sharply, because he knew he hadn't said any of that aloud.

Bob shrugged. "When I came back, I was living with my mom, working at a factory in a job she'd managed to get me. I couldn't sleep at night, it was too still, too silent."

Jon nodded after a bit. Sounds were bad, but silence was worse. Silence probably meant there was nobody left to make noise. Bob said, "Spencer was working in the factory, too, along with his younger sisters, trying to keep food on the table. He cleaned the machines, since he was small enough at that time to fit inside."

Jon shuddered. He knew what happened to kids who cleaned the machines. He'd seen Cassie's face after a few of those accidents.

Spencer said, "He saved my life." Nothing more, no big story about how or even the facts of what had happened, just, "he saved my life."

Bob shrugged. "It wasn't-- I was closest."

Spencer scowled, but didn't say anything. Instead, he told Jon, "He wasn't really talking back then. People thought he was dumb."

"Kept people away, which I--"

"Yeah," Jon said, with a short, empathetic nod.

"But not Spence."

Spencer rolled his eyes. "I grew up with Ryan."

"Yeah, well, I didn't know that at the time," Bob smiled a little. Jon thought back to the man who had needled Brendon a little bit, and decided either he had the wrong Ryan, or he didn't quite understand the joke.

"Didn't take long to figure out we both loved music," Spencer said. "He would actually talk about that."

Spencer moved off again to serve some more drinks, and Jon told Bob, "I don't think I understand."

"Spencer, he-- He finds people who need him, or they find him. I can't explain it, just that it's true, and I'm not the kind to believe in much."

"I don't need--"

"You need something. A roof, at the very least."

"I have family," Jon said. He did. He could go back at any time. They would be happy to see him. He made sure to send letters, let them know he was all right. The cold, the hunger, it was really his choice. He needed something new, was what he needed. He had thought he would just know when he had found it, had expected it to maybe settle into his bones the way his comfort with Cassie, with Tom, with home always had Before. But maybe...maybe the time for all that was past, too.

"A family that looks at you with worry in their eyes but doesn't know how to ask questions and when they do, it's always the wrong one?" Bob asked.

Jon rubbed at his face. "They love me."

"Yeah. Yeah, they do," Bob said. "My mom loves me too. And we do much better now that we have dinners on Sunday nights instead of living with each other all week."

Jon exhaled loudly. He knew the feeling. Spencer was back by then, watching Jon, making eye contact with Bob. Finally he said, "It's just one night. You're free to go in the morning. Hell, you're free to go in the middle of the night, but morning'd probably be easier."

Jon considered Spencer, whose eyes were earnest, but not overeager. And maybe this didn't feel comfortable, didn't feel like he'd thought it would, but it didn't feel wrong, either. It had been a while since things had just been quiet in Jon's head, and not in a way that made him feel abandoned. Jon nodded tightly. "But you let me help neaten up for the night."

Spencer's face split into a smile the likes of which Jon was pretty sure he'd never seen, not even on Brendon, who had clearly sold his soul to the devil in the smiles department. "You've got yourself a deal."

*


Despite the warmth of the blankets they had laid out for Jon, and their willingness to share eggs and toast and more coffee with him the next morning, Jon probably would have moved on then if it hadn't been for the cat. It was raining outside, but not much, not so much that Jon couldn't walk out into it. He'd been in worse. He'd slept in worse. He'd killed other men in worse.

The night before, when they'd finished cleaning the glasses, restocking the bar, setting the club up for the next day's business, they'd offered him a tub full of hot water and had even given him some flannels to wear when he'd chosen to use the leftover water to clean his clothes as much as he could. They'd shared their dinner with him as well, even when he'd said it wasn't necessary. The apartment, and their company, had had the sort of companionable silence that Jon had known with Tom. It didn't make any sense that Jon should have fit into that at all, only he did, at least from his end.

All in all, there had been every reason to leave as soon as possible before he got used to staying. Bob and Spencer both seemed less than supportive of his choice to leave, but they also seemed clear on the fact that it was his choice. Jon thanked them as best he could--helped them with their morning inventory--and then dressed in his own clothes and made to leave.

He was three streets down, the misting rain frigid against the back of his neck, when he heard the mewling. Jon stopped instinctively, then shook his head. "Move on, Walker." He took a step, and then another, before the sound came again. Jon closed his eyes and cursed under his breath before turning and following the cries.

He found the cat behind a trash barrel. She was nothing more than a kitten. He crouched down and said, "Hey, hey there," to which she hissed and swiped at him. One side of her was dark with what Jon was worried might be blood. He said, "I know you're scared, I know," and kept talking as he slowly leveled his hand toward her. She swiped again, catching him this time, but it was just a scratch. Jon kept his hand where it was, allowed her to smell him. When she went back to crying, he gently rubbed a little at her head.

When he had her as calm as she was going to get, Jon scooped her up before she could realize his plans and tucked her safely inside his jacket. She cried and hissed and even bit him, but Jon wasn't letting go. Instead he strode back to the club and knocked at the back door. Spencer was there within seconds, a look of shock and then a huge smile spreading on his face. He said, "Oh. We weren't expecting you back."

Jon said, "Can I come in?"

Spencer stood aside and all but pulled Jon in the door. Jon said, "D'you have bandages?"

Spencer frowned. "Are you hurt?"

Jon shook his head and unfolded his arms, revealing his grip on the kitten. Spencer's eyes widened. "C'mon. Upstairs."

Jon learned some tricks from their medic back in his unit. Nothing complex and the skills were generally meant for humans, but he knew how to clean and dress a wound. Spencer came back with some washrags draped over a basin of steaming water and the bandages Jon had requested. Jon took a while getting the kitten to lie calmly on his lap before taking one of the rags and starting to gently, but firmly dry her. When he'd done that as best he could, he used the water to clean the wound. It was a bite, and had clearly come from something with a mouth a lot bigger than her. Jon's guess was a dog. He hoped it hadn't been rabid, or there would be nothing to do for her.

Jon looked up to ask Spencer if they could spare a shot of cheap whiskey, but Bob was there, handing him over a bottle. He said, "Here," looking more at the kitten than Jon.

For a second it hurt to swallow. Jon said, "I'll need one of you to hold her. I can't exactly explain--"

Spencer's hands came around her, long and competent. Bob knelt on the other side, one big hand petting at her, clearly trying to let her know they meant no harm. Jon said, "One, two, three."

She yowled and fought, but Spencer had her good and tight and Bob just kept on soothing her as best he could. When most of the fight had gone out of her, Jon bandaged the area, making sure it was affixed well enough that she wouldn't be able to scratch it off. He asked Spencer, "Can she maybe have a bowl? For water?"

Spencer found a bowl that was the perfect size for her, and to Jon's surprise, Bob disappeared and returned with some small bits of meat on a plate. When Jon looked at him, Bob shrugged. "One of my friends is a big cat person. I guess I've learned something over the years. And we keep bones for soup--"

Spencer snorted. "I keep them. What Bob knows about cooking he learned on his ship." Spencer's disdain for the Navy's idea of feeding people was pretty clear. If the food had been anything like the stuff in the trenches, Jon couldn't really blame him. He watched as the kitten ate hungrily at the scraps, darting back to the water bowl after every few bites. When she had finished, she curled up next to the plate and was asleep almost immediately.

Bob made a sound and wandered off again only to reappear with a couple of what appeared to be dirty shirts. Jon couldn't help smiling. Bob arranged them into something like a bed and Jon moved her carefully onto it. She never stirred. When Jon finally looked up from her he caught Bob and Spencer both watching him. He rubbed a hand over his face and said, "Sorry, I didn't know where else--"

Spencer shook his head. "I was going to go to market in a bit. Why don't you just put the kinds of things we'll need for her on the list?"

"But--" Jon started. Bob's hand on his shoulder stopped him.

Bob said, "Give in now. It's easier."

Jon looked back over at the kitten, more a small ball of fur and bandages than anything. "For now."

Spencer looked all too smug, but Bob's hand was warm on Jon's shoulder, and he couldn't bring himself to regret saying it.

*


The Downbeat was closed on Sundays. Brendon played sets by himself Monday through Thursday, but on Fridays and Saturdays he played with a band. Brendon, so far as Jon could tell, could play piano, guitar, bass guitar and bass violin. He was a little shaky on the last, but evidently he'd taught himself. Jon said, "Oh, naturally," when Brendon told him that and Brendon was quiet for a second before grinning. "Hey, you made a joke."

Jon could remember a time when that wouldn't have been anything to comment on, but he'd just said, "Yeah," and given Brendon a small, responding smile.

Brendon played bass guitar in the band, with a guy named Darren on drums, a second Bob on trumpet, and two girls, Greta on the piano, Victoria on the clarinet. Jon had shown up on a Tuesday, so it was a few days before he came down to find the band setting up, all of them getting their instruments ready. Jon was listening to Greta rib Brendon--who was pretty clearly hopeless around women--when Victoria started going through her scales.

Jon hadn't had a shell shock incident since he'd accidentally gotten near a construction site three months earlier. He always thought, when they were over, that maybe they were gone, or maybe, the next time, he would remember that it was just in his mind, that nothing was going to hurt him, but he never did. He always ended up screaming and thrashing and trying to protect the people around him from a threat only he could see.

This time, when he came out of it, he was upstairs, in the apartment, the kitten licking his nose. Jon opened his eyes to see Bob sitting at the table with the books, working quietly on the accounts. Jon petted the kitten a little, careful of where she was still bandaged, before making himself sit up. He swallowed, his mouth dry, disgusting, but functional enough to ask, "I hurt anyone?"

Bob shook his head. "Brendon came and got me. Darren and Bob held you down until I could get there."

Jon curled up and wrapped his arm around his knees. "I-- Sorry. I should have told you."

"Shell shock?"

Jon nodded tightly, his eyes on the kitten. "The attacks, they're not-- I thought I'd be long gone before I had another one. I can-- She's probably fine to travel with me," Jon said, gesturing toward the kitten. "I'll just--"

"I'm trying to decide if you're trying to get me killed by Spencer when he finds out I've let you wander the streets on your own with a half-healed kitten, or if you've just forgotten that people can be kind."

Jon stared at Bob for a second. "Bob, I really could have hurt one of your musicians. I know I don't look like much, particularly not with the limp, but when I'm having a spell--"

"I've seen what men can do under the influence," Bob said, his eyes darker than usual. "I-- My oldest friend nearly killed me. He-- His was more battle inflicted, he got better when we came back, but I do know, Jon."

"It's high notes, sharp noises."

Bob frowned.

"That's what causes it. The--it calls up the shrieking. I don't know if you, I mean, you weren't in the trenches--"

"I've heard it," Bob said.

"You run a jazz club. There's going to be high-pitched sounds."

"Sure, but it's not like Victoria doesn't know when she plans to play those. We can always have you somewhere else at the time."

"I don't need looking after." Jon meant to snap, but he knew it came out sounding tired more than anything.

Bob made an aborted sound of amusement. "We all need looking after, Walker. Some of us are just more willing to admit it."

Jon looked at Bob hard. Bob did smile then and said, "Spencer cowed me into admitting it. Don't make me turn you over to him. He's merciless."

"Yeah, he looks it," Jon said flatly.

"Don't fool yourself," Bob said, and suddenly, Jon could hear how serious he was.

Jon put his forehead to his knees and said, "I try not to."

*


Ryan came to the club every night. Jon soon learned that he had been Spencer's best friend since childhood. Ryan was slightly older than Spencer, but had been given an academic exemption to the war. He'd completed law school with the use of the money his father had left him after the man's death when Ryan was twenty. Spencer had missed his number coming up by mere months, and when the threat had passed, had gone to Ryan with nothing more than the scant money his parents had insisted he put aside from his wages every week, and more interest in jazz than anything else in the world.

"The club was really Ryan's idea," Spencer told him, one night when Jon was helping tend bar so that Spencer could get out onto the floor a little more, talk to patrons, while Bob was helping Darren with a problem with his kit.

Ryan glanced back from where he had been watching Brendon and rolled his eyes. "All I said was, 'you're good at business.' You are. Our lemonade stand always made way more than any other kids on the block."

"That was because we priced competitively," Spencer said. "And because my house had a good location, right on that street where people could see when they were walking home from work."

Ryan looked over at Jon with a "see?" expression on his face, and Jon found himself saying, "I think Ryan might have had a point."

"He usually does," Spencer said. "If you can find it under all the words he hides it with."

Ryan shrugged. "I'm a lawyer. That's what we do."

"Uh huh. I'm pretty sure he makes up words sometimes."

"Do not," Ryan said. Jon got the feeling they'd had this argument before.

"Do too," Spencer quickly parried.

Ryan grabbed his soda and said, "I'm going to watch Brendon now."

Spencer smiled after him as he stalked off. Or, well, tried. Ryan was all limbs and awkward coordination. His body wasn't made to pull off righteous indignation, at least not while in motion.

Bob came over and asked, "You guys have the made-up words fight again?"

Spencer said, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Bob shared a glance with Jon, who looked away before they both laughed. Bob asked, "You need me here?"

Spencer shook his head. "Jon and I are good. Go, play."

"Play?" Jon asked.

Spencer frowned at Bob. "You've never--"

"Hasn't come up. You can tell him," Bob said, and wandered off.

"Jerk," Spencer said softly, fondly.

"Bob's a musician?" Jon asked.

"Drummer. That was how we-- After the accident at the factory, my parents insisted I stop. Me and the girls. And it was, I mean, we had pennies. My parents tried to give it to Bob, everything, my savings, their savings, it wasn't much, but it was what we had. Bob kept refusing, said he was fine, said the Navy had treated him all right, but I insisted that there must be something I could do. He told me to get out of the factory and I told him I was, told him what only Ryan knew, that I was trying to get a loan for this place. He said, 'let me audition.' I didn't even get it at first, because there wasn't even a loan, not yet. He said he'd invest, though, and I said, 'well, if you're going to invest, you might as well have a say in a few of the specifics,' and we got to talking and it just." Spencer shrugged. "We're smarter together and we both know it."

Jon nodded, thinking about the bed the two of them shared upstairs. He hadn't caught sight of it until he'd been with them for over a week, and even then, Bob had looked at him sharply, clearly waiting for harsh words, for judgment and condemnation and perhaps even for Jon to turn on them, report them to the police. Jon, though, had just closed the door to the bedroom, keeping everything as it had been. Though they had never spoken of it, Jon had seen the way Tom had looked at him at times, had known what it meant. He had never been able to judge Tom for that, never really wanted to try. He didn't find himself any more eager with Spencer and Bob.

"Think he ever wishes he had just stuck to the drums?" Jon asked with a small smile.

Spencer laughed. "All the time. All the damn time."

*


The day Jon took the kitten's bandages off and found her pretty well healed, Spencer asked, "You gonna call her something? Or are we stuck with kitten? Because one of these days she's gonna turn into a cat, right when none of us are looking. Then it'll sound pretty stupid."

"It'll sound stupid long before that," Bob opined, not looking up from where he was reading the Sunday paper.

Spencer waved a hand. "He's just grumpy because there's rumors congress is going to pass that 18th Amendment, and alcohol sales are a good three quarters of our profits."

"You think they are?" Jon asked. It seemed far fetched to him, but then, he'd been through dry-states, so he knew the power of people who didn't like to have fun.

"Not sure," Spencer said. "We'll figure out something." He said the last in Bob's direction, though, and Jon could tell he wasn't quite as sure as he was pretending to be. Bob did him the favor of not responding.

Jon said, "Yeah. They have in those places, the places the law's already passed."

Bob did look up at that. "You talking about speakeasies?"

Jon shrugged. Spencer whistled. "Jon Walker. Who knew you were so willing to break laws?"

"There are times when a guy needs a drink," Jon said softly. "It's a stupid law."

"Hm," Bob said, and went back to his paper. Spencer had a considering look on his face when he looked away from Bob, back to Jon. The kitten made her way to Spencer, scaling his shirt to sprawl on his shoulder and subsequently tumble off. Spencer just managed to catch her, laughing. She gave him first a confused look and then one that let him know she was above him and his rescuing ways. She jumped from his hands and stalked back over to Jon.

Spencer said, "We could name her Klutz."

Jon rubbed her head fondly. "Maybe--"

"Jon?" Bob asked, and Jon looked up to see Bob actually watching him.

"Maybe Clover."

"Well, sure, I mean, the C sounds like a K in that instance, and really, I just like the Kl sound--"

"Spence," Bob said, but he was smiling slightly, as was Spencer.

"Cassie always said--" Jon stopped. He hadn't said her name since, well, not since he had last called her by it.

Bob and Spencer were looking at him, both with their eyes soft, the look on their faces cautious. Finally, Spencer asked, "What did she say, Jon?"

Jon found himself able to breathe again, able to think. He couldn't have explained her to them, and if they'd asked, he was pretty sure he would have withdrawn, back into himself, back onto the road. But all they did was wait to hear the end of what he'd started to say. Finally he finished, "Lucky. She said four-leaf clovers were lucky."

"They are," Bob said. "My mom told me."

Spencer looked a little doubtful. "Only, you found her in an alley, half dead."

Jon nodded, looking down at her. "But I found her."

They were both quiet and Jon made himself say, "And she brought me back here."

After a long moment, Bob said, "You make a good argument, Walker."

"Clover, huh?" Spencer said, reaching out to pick the kitten up. She swiped at him, but it was half-hearted at best, and when he started petting her, she purred easily. "It is a nice name. Sounds kind of like spring."

"Clover," Jon said softly. The kitten purred long and low in reaction to Spencer scritching at her stomach.

Bob said, "She approves."

*


Spencer insisted on some mulberry plants and fake snowflakes to, "Give the place a little Christmas cheer. People like cheer, Bryar."

Jon got the feeling Bob only argued to give Spencer someone to argue with. As a crowning gesture, Spencer strung mistletoe up in a few places. Within the first twenty-four hours of its appearance, Victoria and Ryan got caught underneath it and Spencer made them kiss, even though Ryan flushed and sulked afterward, and Brendon refused to talk to Spencer, Ryan or Victoria for an entire twenty minutes. Then Victoria dragged him underneath the mistletoe and somehow that made everything even. Bob mostly just watched in well-hidden amusement.

Underneath the merriment, however, Jon noticed Spencer talking to Ryan more. At first, the talks had ended in a fight and Ryan hadn't come around for nearly four days, making Spencer quietly miserable and Bob less quietly enraged. Jon had been a little worried that if Ryan did show up again, Bob might kill him and be done with it, but when he did, Bob just nodded tightly, like he'd gotten what he'd wanted, and had gone off to see to the bar so that Ryan and Spencer could go somewhere and talk.

That night Spencer had looked tired--much more than usual--when they finally got into the apartment. Bob poured them all milk and they sat around the table, eating the Christmas cookies that Spencer's mom kept bringing. She said Jon looked skinny. Spencer scowled at his cookies and said, "He wants to help. He won't listen when I tell him to stay the fuck away."

Bob said, "Good for him."

"You're supposed to be on my side," Spencer told him.

Bob said, "The two of you have been getting in trouble together since you could walk. If he decided he was going to play it safe on this one, I wouldn't want him as a friend for you."

Spencer swallowed hard. "I don't want to get him in trouble. If-- If we have to do this, if he helps, it could get him disbarred."

"It could land us in jail." Bob shared a look with Spencer before they both turned to Jon.

Jon said, "Thinking of running a Speakeasy?"

"We're clearly too subtle for our own good," Spencer said wryly.

"I had brought it up," Jon said. "And it doesn't make sense for Ryan to get in trouble for doing something legal. I'm pretty good at connecting dots."

"We may not have to. They might not pass the law." Spencer didn't sound hopeful.

Bob broke a cookie into two and handed Spencer half, despite the fact that there were plenty of whole ones, waiting to be taken. Bob said, "Whatever happens, you know you don't have to stay." He was looking at Jon as he said it.

Jon contemplated his milk glass. "Let me get this straight, because from where I'm sitting, it sounds to me like you think I'm the kind of guy who would take your hospitality on a rainy night and for two months after, and not stick around when things got a little rough."

"All we're saying is that you didn't sign up for this. And you don't owe us. If that's what's got you thinking you should stay--"

Jon cut Spencer off. "I do owe you. But--" Jon shook his head. "That's-- I want to stay. I can't promise anything. This is the first time I've said that, felt that in over a year. I didn't really think I would. I think, when I left, I just thought I'd--"

"Walk until you couldn't?" Bob asked softly.

"Something like that. Yes."

There was a long moment of silence, all of them chewing quietly. Finally Spencer said, "So, basically, we should probably get you a bed."

Jon smiled a little. "A mattress, maybe. I don't know where we'd put a bed."

Bob gave the apartment a considering look. "We can move stuff around. Make it so you--"

"Belong," Spencer finished.

Jon smiled a little and took another cookie. "You did that. You--"

"We were just about say, moving the kitchen table," Spencer said, but the look on his face said he knew they weren't, that they all knew it.

Jon said, "Sure. Okay."

*


Christmas morning, Jon woke to the smell of bacon and pancakes, and the sound of Brendon's laughter. Spencer was saying, "Hush, you'll wake Bob and Jon."

Jon pulled the throw that lay atop the rest of his blankets around his shoulders and padded to the kitchen table, where Brendon sat. He reached down to ruffle Brendon's hair. "Yeah, you'll wake Jon." He asked Spencer, "Anything I can do?"

"Set some plates?" Spencer asked. "Ryan's coming, too. Ray said he'd show, too, if he could leave Krista and the baby with her parents."

Jon nodded. Ray was Bob's best friend, the one who'd suffered shellshock in the Navy. He lived outside the city limits with his wife Krista and their newborn, so they didn't see him all that often.

"He invited us to Christmas lunch. I told him we'd tell him yes if he came this morning."

"Tricky, Smith," Jon said. He dumped the throw on Brendon and went to go pull down the plates from the cabinets. Brendon snuggled in happily.

There was a knock on the door and Spencer said, "Brendon, go get the door."

Brendon grumbled about being put to work on his day off, but went and answered the door. It was Ryan, so Brendon cheered right up. "Wanna share a blanket?" He pulled Ryan in the door, shutting it behind him, and taking Ryan's coat from him so that they could get under the blanket.

Spencer glanced back at Ryan's coat, which Brendon had tossed on the hanger next to the door. "Is it snowing out there?"

"Just started," Ryan said. "Is there coffee?"

Spencer asked, "Jon, could you--"

"Sure, you want some?"

"Please."

Jon set to pouring the cups. He was just about done when Bob emerged from the bedroom. Jon grabbed another cup, then set the water to boiling again. He had no doubt most of them would want more. Bob had just grabbed his coffee when there was another knock at the door. Bob lit up mildly and shuffled off to answer it. Ray was there, his hair looking like a snowy, red Christmas tree. Bob hugged him, pulling him inside. Spencer asked, "How're Krista and the baby?"

"Mad at me for leaving them behind, but otherwise good," Ray smiled as he said it, so Jon got the feeling they weren't so terribly upset.

Spencer said, "Breakfast is almost done."

Bob got everyone organized and sitting. There were too many of them, but they managed to fit at the table in any case, with a couple of chairs stolen from the club. Ray told them stories about his son, and Brendon told stories about his roommate Shane, and Ryan tried to convince Spencer that adding costumes to the club's shows would draw in infinitely more people. Jon was starting to recognize the argument, which either said something about how long it had been going on, or how long Jon had been there--or both.

When they had finished, they all helped to clean up. Jon's leg was aching more than normal--the cold always settled right into his scar tissue--and after a bit, Bob silently made him sit, Ray coming with him to try and work some of it out. Ray had about as much medic training as Jon, but bigger hands and more ability to reach the tough places on Jon than Jon himself. Jon appreciated the attention.

When the plates were dried and put away and the pots and pans clean, they went down to sit at the tree Spencer had put up in the club. There were presents under it this morning that hadn't been there the night before, Jon was quite sure. Brendon was the first to dive in, and from there it was a spree of gift exchanging. Jon felt bad not having gotten Bob and Spencer anything, but he paid room and board with the work he put in at the club. He hadn't any idea what money he would have bought a present with.

Brendon and Ryan, for their part, had gone in together to get Jon a warm gray sweater that Jon immediately pulled on over the one he was already wearing. Spencer and Bob, though, pulled his gift from behind the tree and Jon just gaped. When he could think in words again, he said, "Spence. Bob--"

"Relax, Brendon knows a guy who has good deals on older, used ones. It wasn't that extravagant."

Jon took the guitar case from Spencer's hand and opened it up to see the instrument inside. It was plain, but the wood was solid, the color nice. Jon ran a finger gently along the surface. He had barely mentioned playing, simply helped pitch in when one of the guitars for the set needed tuning, or if someone was out sick for a day. He was quite sure he'd never said anything about wanting one.

Brendon said, "Well? What are we waiting for? Are we going to go back upstairs and play or freeze down here all day?"

Jon closed the case again and stood. It had been a long time since he had so much as touched a guitar, but he had this strange feeling, like he could remember how.

*


Jon dreamt of Tom that night. It wasn't the usual nightmares, nothing of blood and shrapnel and screams, but of laughter and music. He woke up with Long, Long Way to Tipperary echoing in his head. He wanted a drink, not to forget, but to keep the feelings mellow, pleasant as they still were in the wake of the dream.

He was behind the bar, grabbing a glass when he heard the noise. He froze for a second, one hand coming up around the neck of a bottle in case he should need a weapon. After a second, though, he recognized the sound as quiet laughter. Someone was saying softly, "Gonna take it down tomorrow and we haven't even taken proper advantage."

Jon saw, then, his eyes adjusting to the dark, his mind paying more attention to his surroundings, saw Bob and Spencer on the club floor, directly beneath where Spencer had hung the mistletoe. Jon wasn't sure how they hadn't heard him--perhaps they were too caught up in each other, or they had been stumbling out from somewhere else at the same moment. It didn't matter. What mattered was that they didn't see him and he should say something because Spencer was angling himself up, his hips pressed tightly to Bob's. Bob was leaning into Spencer at the same time, making himself just the slightest bit smaller, his arms holding them together.

Their kisses were small at first, sweet, really. They reminded Jon of the way he'd kissed Cassie when they were still just school sweethearts. Then Bob straightened a bit, bringing Spencer up with him, and Spencer made a needy, breathy noise, sliding his hands up Bob's nightshirt. Bob pulled off, laughing a little, growling, "Fuck, your hands are cold," but Spencer just recaptured his mouth for his own. "Mmm."

Jon thought, "Get a drink," thought, "Make some noise." He did neither.

Bob murmured something, trailing kisses and the occasional bite along Spencer's neck. Spencer laughed again, more throaty this time. He brought his hands up and out to bury them in Bob's hair, pull him into a kiss. Jon reached down and pressed the heel of his palm against his cock. He should leave. He should leave them to themselves, to their enjoyment of each other.

When Spencer dropped to his knees, looking up at Bob, causing Bob to whisper his name, longing and fierce all at once, Jon thought, "At least close your eyes. At least."

He found he couldn't, though, not with Spencer pulling down Bob's pajama pants, taking him into his mouth with a slow deliberation that was clearly meant to drive Bob crazy. Bob threaded his fingers in Spencer's hair, but so far as Jon could tell, didn't push or pull, just let them rest there. Spencer pulled back with one long, slow suck, his mouth making an obscene noise when it came off of Bob's cock. Bob's breathing was loud in the quiet of the club and Jon wondered if he'd ever be able to hear music in this space again without hearing the counter-beat of Bob's erratic, frantic pants for air.

Jon wasn't sure if it took a while or not. It felt slow, in a way, but all too quickly, Bob was saying Spencer's name, low and desperate, and Spencer was pulling back, but not off. Jon watched, not even telling himself he wasn't going to anymore, watched as Spencer stayed there, still and accepting as Bob stiffened. His fingers had to be tugging at Spencer's hair, hurting just a bit, but Spencer didn't seem to mind. He just swallowed.

Cassie had been willing, a few times, to suck Jon's cock, but she'd never-- He wouldn't have thought to ask. Bob leaned on Spencer for a bit, using him to regain his legs so far as Jon could tell, and then drew him up, kissing him. Jon blinked, wondering why he wasn't disgusted. He wasn't though. The state of his body more than attested to that.

Bob said, "What do you want? Anything you want."

Spencer spread his legs a little, pressing his groin to Bob's thigh. He licked a line clean up Bob's throat. "You do the work."

"Mm," Bob murmured, biting at Spencer's lips. He managed to tuck Spencer in closer to him and Spencer made an aborted groan. Bob said, "Stay still."

Spencer whimpered with every thrust of Bob's leg. Bob spaced them evenly, a distinctive pattern, but he waited long enough that Spencer was clearly just on the edge of begging between each one. By the time Spencer cried out, going limp and utterly boneless against Bob, Jon was ready to beg for him. Bob held Spencer up until he could stand on his own, at which point they resumed a bit of lazy, easy kissing. Bob asked, "Sure you wanna take the mistletoe down?"

Spencer laughed. "Bob Bryar. Proponent for Christmas all year 'round."

"I just like plants," Bob said, tugging at Spencer, leading him back toward the stairs. When they were out of sight, Jon laid his head on the bar for several long moments. Then he stood up and walked outside. He was barefoot and in his nightclothes and it was easily twenty below, the worst of the night air coming in off the lake.

Exactly, exactly what Jon needed.

*


"Where the hell'd you find this guy?" Spencer asked Ryan softly. They were both watching as Bob took Pete Wentz on a tour of the club, trying to figure out how best to make the deliveries, keep the moonshine easily stashable in case of raids and all the other logistics of running a highly illegal operation. Bob had already had to rescue Pete from getting stuck in various crevices twice. Pete didn't seemed fazed by his ability to fall down holes and be unable to retrieve himself.

"Gerard defends him every time he gets in trouble. He hasn't been found guilty once. And, I mean, Gerard's good, but I'm pretty sure it has a lot to do with Pete being smarter than he, uh, looks."

"Every time? The act just passed."

"Yeah, well, Pete only runs the operation out of Chicago. Some of the surrounding states have been dry for--"

"Jesus. He traffics across state lines and gets off?"

"I wouldn't have brought you someone I didn't think could do the job, Spence."

"Right, he just--"

Jon smiled at the face Spencer made. He understood, but he'd also been watching Pete, the way he waited for Bob to rescue him when he got into scrapes. Pete wasn't stupid, he was testing them. Jon wasn't entirely sure they'd passed just yet. He asked Ryan, "Gerard's a colleague?"

"Of sorts. He works at my firm, but he's been there far longer. He was the contact from my school. We get along well, though."

"Know how he ended up defending Pete?"

"Pete's close with his brother. That's all I know. Gee talks about Mikey all the time, but I've never actually met him."

"So Pete generally trusts by association?" Jon asked.

Ryan was silent for a moment. "So far as the evidence suggests."

Spencer looked over at Jon. "What are you thinking?"

"Not sure. How'd Pete react to you when you met him?" he asked Ryan.

Ryan shrugged. "Said he liked my hat."

Ryan had a thing for English driving caps most days, fedoras if he was trying to impress someone. Jon thought the hat in question had probably been the latter. Pete was in his shirtsleeves at the moment, but Jon had a feeling that wasn't how he'd been dressed to meet Ryan. Pete struck Jon as the kind of guy who knew his audience, and who didn't lie about his taste in fashion. "Probably a good sign."

"I think he liked me," Ryan said, a small frown on his face. Jon almost smiled. Spencer nearly hadn't known what to do with himself when Ryan had taken to Jon immediately. Ryan, evidently, wasn't much for people. Jon had never gotten around to asking exactly what kind of law it was that Ryan practiced. In any case, Ryan expected others to return the favor, so when someone did like him, despite his best efforts, Ryan was always a bit flummoxed by the choice.

"Points for taste," Spencer said.

"I think he might like Bob, too," Jon said dryly, given that Pete was currently using Bob as a stepping ladder to see something in the rafters. Bob, bizarrely, rather than looking wholly fed up, looked mildly put out and as though he were concerned at seeming amused. Inconveniently, that thought led Jon to think about Bob laughing, which lead him to realize that the rafters Pete was looking at were very close to the rafter Spencer had hung the mistlotoe from. Jon shut the thought down, replacing it with several less savory ones until he could focus again.

Spencer said, loudly, "I'd like my business partner back in one piece."

Pete said, "Picky, picky," but he sounded happy. Jon was pretty sure they were all going to be outlaws by next week--latest.

*


"Ryan's job," Pete explained, "is to worry about the law. My job is to worry about everything else."

Jon asked, "Everything else?" He didn't look at Spencer and Bob. He knew it wasn't his right to make decisions, but if there were dangers, he wanted to know every last one of them. Jon had no more illusions about his ability to protect the people he cared about--Tom and Cassie had taught him better. But he couldn't help trying.

"The making of the liquor, delivery, and staying under the radar--or at least in the good graces--of organized crime."

"You're not Mob?" Bob asked. Even knowing Bob, Jon was a little taken aback at the forthrightness of the question.

"I'm an independent contractor." Pete sniffed a little. "But I have agreements. Favors owed to me and favors I owe, both."

"How does that make you different?" Spencer asked.

"It probably doesn't," Pete said, but his eyes were fierce, as though in disagreement with the statement.

Spencer looked at Bob, who looked at Ryan. Spencer nodded a little, and shifted his focus to Ryan as well. Ryan took a moment before saying, "Gee wouldn't defend someone he thought was evil."

"And you trust his moral base?" Spencer asked.

"Hey. Gerard is a good guy." Pete positively bristled with protectiveness.

Ryan nodded. "He is. A little...unusual, but really good."

Jon thought it was kind of rich for Ryan to be calling anyone unusual. He caught Bob's eye and had to look away before they both broke out into laughter. While Jon was trying to control himself, Spencer nodded and said, "All right."

Bob said, "What do we need to know?"

"Deliveries will be twice a week. Frank and Jamia are my rum runners, and they only make it this far inland about twice a month, so that'll come in more portioned doses than the whiskey, gin and beer, which I have my own stills for. Occasionally Ryland or Gabe might make those deliveries. They see to the mills, and they're my guys, to be trusted. Travis handles the wine, which has to be moved in from the coast or overseas, so it's all dependent upon whom can be bribed and when. But I'll always keep you in the know to the best of my ability."

"What guarantees you we won't rat you out?" Bob sounded more curious than suspicious.

"Beside the fact that you would be implicating yourself?" Pete asked.

"Humor us," Spencer said.

"Gerard wouldn't put me in harm's way like that. And--" Pete smiled, but it was less open than the smile Jon had seen him use earlier, more wry.

"And?" Jon prompted. He thought maybe he should have waited for Spencer or Bob to ask, but there was something about Pete, something that made Jon want answers.

Pete’s eyes were suddenly darker than Jon had first noticed. "And sometimes you just have to trust your instincts."

Yeah, Jon could give him that. Hell, Jon had just been looking for a Church and his instincts had kept him here for a quarter of a year, now. Pete was looking straight at Bob, though and asking, "What do your instincts tell you?"

Bob looked over at Spencer, who raised an eyebrow at him. The two of them had a silent conversation before both turning to Jon at once. Jon blinked. Next to him, Ryan sighed. It sounded kind of like he muttered something, maybe, "Stupid," but Jon couldn't be sure, because he was busy paying attention to Bob and Spencer. He said, "So. When do we get to sample the merchandise?"

Pete's grin was back at that, and even Bob laughed a little.

*


The problem with cities--the reason Jon had mostly avoided them unless he really needed somewhere that wasn't a field to sleep--was that emergency vehicles in the cities sometimes had sirens. Small towns and rural areas generally still got by with horse-drawn ambulances or even fire carts, but the cities had cars and those cars were more and more likely to come equipped with a siren. There wasn't a way to escape the sirens, and the sirens invariably left Jon screaming, sure that he was back on the front, shells coming in around him.

During business hours, if Jon even thought he heard a siren, he would get himself upstairs, or outside, or away, where he couldn't scare the customers. At other times, he had learned that he could be slightly less cautious, could trust that Bob would hold him down, make sure that he hurt neither himself, nor any of his surroundings. It was an odd thing to be able to know he trusted someone for, but when he tried to apologize, Bob just shook his head and said, "I got lucky. Doesn't mean I don't know it could have been me."

After the attacks, Bob or Spencer would usually make Jon a cup of tea and Jon would allow himself to stay in the apartment, just himself and Clover--who was at best unlikely to leave his side, and at worst willing to dig her claws into him to make her point. He would re-emerge after about an hour, but he usually stayed down in the storeroom afterward. If the attacks happened during non-working hours, though, Jon might take a nap afterward, or play with Clover a little.

They didn't happen all that often at night, but every once in a rare while, Jon woke to the sound of a siren, and that was always the worst. As little as there was to ground himself in during the normal attacks, the ones that woke him from sleep were even worse, with nothing but darkness behind them, and no knowledge of light ahead. Also, he hated the awareness afterward that he had woken Bob and Spencer, who didn't have nearly enough time to sleep as it was.

The second time it happened was about a week after they had first begun receiving deliveries from Pete and were in the first phases of learning to admit those who wouldn't rat them out into the place. The combination of security and word of mouth meant a slow week, but Jon had a feeling things wouldn't stay that way. There was good energy and excitement in the people who were onto their secrets. Jon fell dead asleep once they had cleaned and closed up for the night, only to awake to the sounds of artillery and grown men crying out for their mothers.

By the time he came out of the spell, Bob looked haggard and Spencer worn through to the very bone. Jon said, "Sorry, I'm so--" but Bob just gave him water, and encouraged him to drink, which Jon did. When he was finished, Spencer said, "You, ah--"

"Do you have a problem with the things you know about us?" Bob asked, looking Jon square in the eyes.

Jon shook his head, trying not to think guiltily about that night back in December, about how very little problem he had about his knowledge.

Spencer said, "Then come on. Our bedroom is warmer than out here, anyway."

Jon rubbed at his eyes. "What?"

Bob said, "Clover's gonna come with him, you know?" but the comment seemed aimed more toward Spencer than Jon.

Spencer said, "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to do laundry tomorrow anyway," with only the smallest bit of a sigh. Then the two of them pulled Jon into a standing position and herded him into their bed. It was a tight fit with the three of them, but Jon found, curiously, that he didn't mind. It was warmer than the outside room, which couldn't quite keep out all of February's bite. Bob was at his back, large and safe, and Spencer was curled up against his front, soft and still, calm. Clover, as predicted, sprawled out above their heads.

Jon closed his eyes and, to his surprise, found sleep.

*


The next night, when Jon crawled into his bed, he found himself cold. He got up to grab the extra throw they'd bought earlier in the year to prepare for winter and pulled it over the other covers, but he still found himself chilled under the sheets. He huddled there for an hour, perhaps more, before he decided to get up and heat himself some milk or tea, something that would warm him from the inside.

He thought he was being fairly quiet, but Bob stumbled out of their bedroom, frowning at Jon. He asked, "Nightmare?"

Jon shook his head. "Nah, just couldn't get to sleep. Sorry I woke you."

Bob rubbed at his face a little. "Must not've been sleeping that hard." Then, "It's cold out here."

"Want some hot milk?" Jon offered.

"No, thanks." Bob made a face. "Never really liked the stuff."

"It's better--" Jon stopped himself, realizing what he'd been about to say. It was hard to breathe for a moment.

Bob asked, "Jon?" and it sounded like it came from a long distance.

Jon made himself breathe; one in, one out. One in. "It's better with cinnamon and honey."

"Someone used to make it that way for you?" Bob asked softly, understandingly.

"Cassie, my-- My wife." Jon could feel tears at the corners of his eyes. He swiped at them, frustrated. He'd been running from her memory forever, and still just the sound of her name, the thought of her stirring a stupid pot, could do this.

Bob asked quietly, "What happened?" His tone let Jon know he didn't have to answer, but he could, he could if he wanted to talk about it.

To his surprise, Jon found he had things to say. He never had before, had never wanted to talk about her or her death. He said, "Flu. I-- I stayed by her, but it wouldn't take me. And I couldn't, I just couldn't, after that, I mean, she was what I had left, after-- I came back without Tom, and she was there, holding the world together. And then she wasn't." Jon's face felt wet, his throat dry. He made himself pour the milk into a cup. His hands were shaking. He didn't pretend it was from the cold.

Bob came up behind him and took the pot from his hands. Even with inches of space between them, Bob warmed the air. When he'd poured the milk successfully, he put it in between Jon's hands. "I'm sorry," he said, nothing more. But Jon didn't need anything else, didn't even really need that, although it was soothing to hear in Bob's even voice.

"So I left."

"How long ago?"

Jon shrugged. He'd kind of let time as an overall concept slip for a bit. "Year? Maybe more?"

"Just moving from place to place."

"She was my home. I wasn't-- I didn't--"

"Sure," Bob said, and didn't say, "but you stopped here." Didn't push.

Jon sipped at the milk. It was a little too plain, not as warm as he would have liked. But it was warm enough.

Bob said, "I'm glad you came in to get warm. That night. Spencer is too." He got up to go back into the bedroom. "Get some sleep."

"Yeah," Jon said. Then, "Bob?"

Bob looked back. Jon took a breathe, forcing air into the tight stricture of his lungs. "Me too. I'm glad I-- Me too."

Bob smiled a little in acknowledgment and went back to bed. Jon finished his milk. He was warm enough to sleep after that.

*


Clover disappeared for a week around the beginning of February. Jon spent the week pretending he didn't miss her all that much. Right when he was about to give in and find somewhere private to cry, she showed up again, dragging an older, meaner-looking male feral, who was clearly devoted to her every whim. From the way Bob picked her up and scolded her but good, not even paying attention to the fact that the other cat was biting him, Jon got the sense he hadn't been the only one upset. Spencer drew the other cat off of Bob--not without the war wounds to prove it--and said, "And who are you?"

The cat swiped at him, but Spencer didn't let go, just carried him carefully to where they had been faithfully setting out food and water every day. The cat fell upon it, which didn't surprise Jon. He was a skinny looking cat. Jon wondered if he'd looked a bit like that when he'd found this place. He thought he probably had.

Jon sighed. He really didn't want to mention this, but, "She's probably pregnant."

Bob looked startled. Spencer said, "As in...kittens?"

"That's usually how it works, but I guess puppies are possible. Or foals--"

Spencer shoved at Jon. "You knew what I meant."

Jon smiled anyway. "She was in heat before she left. I was trying to be really careful about not letting her out, but--"

"I did it." Bob scowled. "She was making a lot of noise and rubbing at the door and I--"

Jon nodded. "Mating behavior."

"What do we do?" Spencer asked.

Jon shrugged and held out his arms to where Bob was still holding her. She hadn't wanted to be held at all before she'd disappeared, but now she cuddled up to Jon easily enough. He murmured, "S'pose we'll just have to find people who want kittens."

There was a long silence before Bob said, "Guess he's staying, huh?" He looked a little doubtful, sizing up the tom who was now licking the thoroughly empty food bowl. Clover jumped from Jon's arms and padded over to clean the other cat. He hissed at her, but then settled and allowed it.

Jon said, "Probably."

"I guess he'll need a name, then," Spencer mused. "We can't just call him look-what-the-cat-dragged-in."

"Clever," Bob said dryly. Jon hid a laugh. It kind of was.

Spencer grinned. "Chaplin? He kinda moves funny, like him."

Jon thought he moved like a cat who'd had to learn to run and run fast a few times too many. He watched him curl himself around Clover, his eyes flashing at them, clearly unsure of these people his queen called home. Softly, he found himself saying, "Dylan."

It took a while for Jon to realize how quiet things had gotten. Even the cats had stilled, at least bodily. The new one was still watching them, ever vigilant. Jon glanced at Spencer and Bob, who were having a silent conversation. Jon got the sense that it consisted of a lot of, "Wait, wait for him," on Bob's side, and, "But!" on Spencer's. Nonetheless, Spencer wasn't saying anything.

"Brother," Jon said. He'd meant for it to be a full sentence, but that was what his mouth had managed. Jon rubbed at his face and sank down to sit on the floor. Clover darted toward him and the other cat followed, more tentatively, but with determination. Jon let him get close without touching him. When he began to butt at Jon's thigh, clearly jealous of the attention Clover was receiving, Jon soothed his hand over his back. "Hey there, little man."

Spencer got down on the floor with him. "You have a brother?"

"Brothers. I-- I had brothers. Two. Mike was the oldest. Michael Dylan Walker."

"The war?" Bob asked, coming to sit on Jon's other side.

Jon nodded. "He was one of the first to enlist." They'd all been so fucking proud of him. Jon still was, he was, he just missed his big brother more than pride could overcome.

"Dylan's a nice name," Spencer said.

"It fits him," Bob agreed.

Jon said, "Welcome home, Dylan." He bit the inside of his cheek and if his face was a little wet, nobody said anything.

*


"The mayor's making noise about a vice crackdown," Spencer said quietly. Brendon was playing a set, so it was hard to hear, but Jon did, and he knew Ryan could as well.

"Pete says it's just noise, and I agree. Too much of the squad is living in organized crime's pocket. It's not going to go anywhere." Ryan's tone wasn't dismissive, just firm.

"And if it isn't?"

Ryan made a face. "If it isn't, then there's a good reason it'd take someone who knows where the alcohol is to find it in this place."

"People are drinking the alcohol, Ry."

"Assuming we don't know about the raid in advance, which is unlikely, given Pete's network, the drains were installed for a reason. The cops might be able to smell the alcohol, but if they can't find any in the place, they can't prove distribution."

Spencer rubbed at the back of his neck. It wasn't like he didn't know all this. All of them had had this conversation with each other more than once. Ryan was actually being fairly patient, seeing as how this had to be his sixth or seventh time. After a minute, Ryan asked, "What's got you all..." he motioned aimlessly with his hands.

Spencer, though, spoke Ryanese with a fluency that not even Ryan always had. Jon had witnessed it on more than one occasion. Spencer shook his head. "Nothing. Just been reading the paper too much, I guess."

Ryan looked suspicious. Jon didn't blame him, but Jon wasn't going to offer up the information that Bob had had one of his--rare and truly terrifying for all involved--nightmares the night before. It was impossible to wake Bob from his nightmares. They just had to wait them out and try as best possible to keep him from hurting himself or anything--anyone--else with his flailing.

When he did wake up, none of them were generally able to go back to sleep, so they would just make a pot of coffee and play with the cats, or read, or take out a pack of cards and settle down for a couple of rounds of gin. They could get started on work earlier than usual and nap before the club opened and it was fine, except for the part where Jon could never quite get Bob's sounds of distress out of his mind, and he doubted Spencer could, either. He wondered if Spencer knew what the dreams were about. Jon had never asked. He wasn't sure he ever would. It was bad enough that Bob had to have them, Jon wasn't sure he could make him verbally relive the memories.

Finally, Ryan said, "We're not going to get caught. And if we do, I won't let them keep you."

Spencer didn't say anything. Ryan bit at his lip and looked away. After a moment, Spencer said, "I know. I-- Sorry. I'm just tired. Dylan's loud when he wants to be."

This was also true. He hadn't quite gotten used to not being able to come and go as he pleased, and as it was, there were times when he disappeared for hours on end. He always came back, though, came home to the waiting food and Clover's expectant looks.

"You found anyone to take the kittens yet?" Ryan asked.

"The kittens aren't born yet, Ryan. That's like selling eggs a chicken hasn't laid."

"You're not asking for money, so technically, it's not selling anything."

Spencer rolled his eyes. "Lawyer."

Ryan smiled. "Seriously, though, you do need to find someone. Probably a few someones."

"We're trying," Jon admitted. Ryan, Pete and Victoria had all turned them down on the grounds of being dog people, and Gerard was evidently allergic to cats, according to Ryan, as was Darren. Mikey lived with Gerard. Frank said he could be persuaded, maybe. He needed a mouser for his runs. Ray was willing to take one, but Krista had said absolutely not to any more than that, that children were enough trouble as it was. Neither Brendon's nor Trumpet-Bob's landlords allowed pets. Greta had allowed that she might adopt one, depending on if they liked her when they were born. Jon doubted there were only going to be three kittens, not judging by Clover's current size. But as Spencer had pointed out, they had time; probably about a month, if Jon's calculations were correct.

"Or you could just settle down and start a kitten farm together," Ryan said, batting his eyelashes at Spencer. Spencer swatted him and gave him a warning look. Jon glanced between them, but wasn't sure what, exactly, was being conveyed. At that moment, however, Bob came over and asked, "How're we doing on the whiskey stores?"

Jon said, "I'll go look."

*


Occasionally the club saw new people, but most of the clientele were regulars, or friends of regulars. Jepha, so far as Jon knew, had been coming to the club since it had first opened its doors. He and Bob had evidently gone to school together. Jon had been introduced once, and was used to seeing Jepha around, but they'd never really spoken much, at least not one-on-one. Nearly two months after the kittens were born, however, Jepha ordered a drink from him and when he brought it said, "So, I hear you have a kitten problem."

Jon smiled. He wouldn't exactly have called it a problem, but there were two kittens left unclaimed. At the end of the six week period when they needed their mother, Frank had ended up taking two, since he couldn't stand to see the runt of the litter left behind, but one of the bigger ones was clearly more aggressive and likely to hunt. Greta had taken one, and so had Ray, true to their word, but Clover had birthed six of the little guys, and so far nobody had come around to take the remaining two home. "Oh?"

"Victoria said."

"Bob know you're flirting with his clarinet player?" Jon asked casually.

Jepha laughed, the skin around his eyes crinkling. "You gonna introduce me to those kittens or not, Jonny Boy?"

"Come around three tomorrow."

"Around three?"

"You don't seem like the punctual type. Didn't seem any reason to nail down a time."

"For serious business, Walker, I am always on time."

"And kittens are serious business."

Jepha nodded affirmatively. "Kittens and long-legged clarinet players who can beat me at arm wrestling."

"I'm telling Bob."

"Be it on your head when those kittens have to wander, homeless forever."

"Good point," Jon admitted grudgingly.

Jepha smirked and raised his glass. "Three o'clock."

Jon rolled his eyes and moved to the nearest patron whose glass was empty.

*


Frank came earlier in the day than usual, so Jon, Bob and Spencer were downstairs, helping him unload when Jepha showed up. Jon, who was marking the inventory, heard the knocking and said, "Oh, Jepha. I forgot."

Spencer said, "Go on, we've got this."

Jon checked the peephole, despite the fact that he was expecting someone. When it proved to be Jepha, he opened the door and said, "Come in, I'll show you up."

It took a second to find the kittens, but they were in the first place Jon looked--curled up together in the bathroom sink. Jepha laughed upon seeing them. "What, too stingy to give them a bed?"

Jon sighed fondly. "We only wish they'd sleep in it. It's a pain in the ass to try and shave over the two of them."

"You name them?"

"Nope. Kitten 2 and Kitten 5, in honor of birth order."

"Hm," Jepha said, scooping the two up, one per hand. "That will never do." He walked to the kitchen table and sat down with them, allowing them to sniff out and tumble around on their new territory.

"Coffee?" Jon asked, going to pout himself some.

"Please." Jepha watched as one of the kittens lost its purchase on his shoulder and skidded down his torso to land, looking mildly surprised, on his lap. "That one's clearly Grace."

"Yeah, she's a handful. Sweet, though." Jon set the coffees down on the table. "Sugar? Cream?"

Jepha shook his head. The second kitten was trying to play with the buttons on his shirt. He said, "And Mr. Buttons it is."

"Good names. It took Ray a week to name his, but that was because his wife kept disliking all the names he chose."

"I told him what comes of getting married, but he just wouldn't listen."

Jon thought Ray seemed pretty happy being married, but he kept the opinion to himself. Jepha said, "I also told Bob, but I guess Spence isn't too much trouble. And you're all right, as strangers who show up and stay go."

Jon laughed. "Glad to know what you really think of me."

"All you had to do was ask." Jepha's tone was mild, and he wasn't looking at Jon, his concentration on Grace, who was batting at Jepha's hand.

Something struck Jon then. "You-- Spencer and Bob. You know--"

"Don't worry. Bob knows more than enough of my secrets for there to be mutually assured destruction."

Jon hadn't really considered Jepha the type to care anyway. Not Jepha, who wore ink like clothes and stared down anyone who gave him trouble. He just didn't think Bob and Spencer told very many people. He knew Ray knew, and Brendon and Ryan. But the rest of the performers, the other people involved in the business, to them Bob and Spencer were just work partners who lived together for the sake of a cheap mortgage on the building and convenience. Jon said, "Good to know."

"Hurt him, though, and there really won't be anywhere on earth you can take your hobo self to, Jon Walker." Jepha said it calmly, almost kindly, his knuckles running over Mr. Button's head.

Jon blinked. "What?"

"I mean it. Bob's encouragement was one of the main reasons I went to college, got an exemption from the war. I probably owe him my life, or at least my sanity. Most people just thought I was a waste of space in school, but he kept telling me I was smart, and people should just shut their stupid mouths." Jepha shrugged.

"No, I mean-- It's-- That wasn't--" Jon stopped, took a breath, started again. "I just don't know what you mean. I'm not Spencer."

Jepha frowned slightly. "You mean you aren't-- Uh, the three of you, you don't--"

Jon shook his head. "No. It's not-- They just took me in."

"Are you sure?" Jepha asked, looking pretty confused.

"Yes, I'm sure. I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have missed something like that." Jon realized a second after saying it that maybe he should have protested his desire instead. It would seem transparent, though, to do it now, so he stayed silent.

"Huh. It's just-- I've known Bob a long time and I've never gotten the signals wrong before. Well, once, but we were kids and he didn't even know what the signals meant. Nobody teaches you that sort of thing for other boys."

Jon had never thought about it that way, but he supposed it was true. He'd never known anyone before Spencer and Bob who were willing to beak that taboo even to the mildly open extent that they did. He'd heard things, of course, and he'd suspected it in people at times, but suspicion was different than knowledge. "Guess there's a first for everything."

Jepha frowned. "Guess so." He didn't sound convinced.

Jon opened his mouth, but found he didn't have the heart to convince himself, let alone Jepha. Instead he said, "Thanks for taking the cats."

*


Jon tried to leave a week later. He put the things he'd come with back into his pack, petted the cats thoroughly, and walked outside while Spencer and Bob were asleep. It was a mid-April morning, so the wind was sharp but not as cold as it could have been. Jon picked a direction and started walking. He kept walking even when he got hungry, and when his leg hurt so much that it was a challenge to keep upright with each step. He'd healed a lot more in the time he'd stayed with Bob and Spencer--he never would have made it half as far without having to rest before--but the wound was still there and vehemently opposed to cold.

He walked until it started to pour in the late afternoon, at which point he found a coffee shop and bought himself a cup. He hadn't taken much money, just enough to get to the next place, find some work there, wherever there was. He looked outside the window, watching people scurry around, trying to get to places--home, work, somewhere where people knew them, expected them. Jon wondered if maybe it was time to go home, back to his parents, try and start again. His parents loved him, and they weren't dangerous, not like Spencer and Bob, not like the way he felt around Spencer and Bob. Jon thought maybe that was what Jepha had seen. If it was, well, Jon couldn't wait around for others to see it. For Spencer and Bob to see it and be made uncomfortable by it, or worse, pity him.

He should have left a note. The thought swirled in his stomach, mixing with the coffee. The caffeine was hitting him, making him feel jumpy in his own skin. He should have left a note. He wouldn't want them to worry. Just something small: "It was time for me to move on." They would understand. At least, Bob would understand, Jon was pretty sure. Some people just weren't meant to stay in one place. Still, he should have at least let them know, somehow. He should have said thank you.

The streets were clearing a little bit, as people chose to stay where they were in the midst of the deluge. Jon stared into the storm for a long moment, wondering if these were just excuses to go back. He wasn't sure that they weren't. He also wasn't sure that it mattered. He didn't want to hurt them, not even with his silence. He could go, he could say 'thank you, but I need to let my parents know I'm alive," and leave again. They would let him. There was no reason for them not to let him. He wasn't part of them, not like that, not like-- Not like that.

Once he'd made the decision, Jon couldn't sit there, couldn't wait any longer to enact it. He would lose his nerve, lose his way, his will. He left some cash by his cup and stepped out into the rain. It was cold, heavy on his skin, but he didn't think about it. He needed to get back, needed to tell them he appreciated it; needed to say the things he could say to make up for the things that he couldn't.

It had taken him most of the day to get where he was, and it was slower going on the way back, despite his need to arrive. It was harder to follow street markers in the dark and the rain kept up, a drizzle at times, a flood at others. His leg was threatening mutiny. Jon didn't care.

He stumbled up the stairs and knocked on the apartment door--he'd left the key they'd given him--in the early hours of the morning. Ryan answered the door. Jon frowned. Ryan was usually home by this time. He worked days. Ryan said, "Thank-- Where the hell have you been?"

Jon opened his mouth, maybe to explain, maybe to ask what Ryan was doing there, he wasn't sure. Ryan said, "Nevermind. Just know that when you stop looking like a drowned mutt I'm going to kill you for scaring Spencer so much."

Jon meant to say, "Sorry," but what came out was a volley of sneezes. He shivered.

By this time, Spencer, Bob, Ray and Brendon were all there, as well as the cats. Everybody was talking over everybody else until Ray said, "Ryan, Brendon, I'll walk you both home," and all but dragged them both from the apartment. Jon could feel Ryan's murderous glare, but he was too busy paying attention to Spencer and Bob, who were ushering him in the apartment, to actually look over and see it. When the door was closed behind him, he said, "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you." That wasn't exactly the speech he'd worked out in his head, but he could barely string words together, he was so tired. Now that he had made it, his body seemed unwilling to get him any further.

"You should be," Bob growled, but he didn't drop Jon.

"Sorry, I just thought--"

"No, I don't care what else you were doing, you weren't thinking," Spencer said, sounding really, incredibly angry, but his hands were gentle as he helped Bob peel Jon's wet clothes from him.

"Didn't mean to--" Jon broke off to sneeze. When it felt like he had sneezed for roughly forever, he lifted his head miserably and said, "I just didn't want to mess anything up."

Both of them looked at him, clearly confused, and Jon had the sense that hadn't been what he'd planned to say. Spencer opened his mouth, but Bob said, "Spence."

Spencer turned to Bob. "He--"

"I know. But he's soaked through and probably sick."

Spencer looked like he was going to pursue it for a moment, but then he just shook his head and said to Jon, "Don't think you've gotten away with anything." He stalked off then, Jon watching him go.

"C'mon," Bob said softly, and stripped Jon the rest of the way down. He herded him into the bathroom where it turned out that Spencer was running warm water into the tub. Bob all but picked Jon up and put him in. Jon hissed at how hot the water felt against his skin.

"Serves you right," Spencer said, but he carefully tested the water to make sure it wasn't too hot for Jon's overly chilled body.

Jon said, "I'm sorry," because it was the only thing he knew to say that didn't take too much energy.

Spencer wouldn't look at him. "Yeah, well, you should be."

All the same, when the worst of the pins and needles had faded and the water was starting to feel cool around Jon, Bob drew him up and Spencer was there, waiting, with towels.

*


Spencer and Bob put Jon in their bed. Jon said, "But--" and Spencer said, "Shut up before I make you."

Bob made him drink some tea before he allowed Jon to sleep, which was all Jon wanted in the entire world. Well, that and for Spencer and Bob to stay with him. He didn't ask for the latter; he knew better. When he woke up, though, they were still there.

He woke up to his own coughing fit and Bob sighed, and echoed Spencer's sentiment of the night before: "Serves you right." All the same, though, Spencer brought him some soup and hot compresses for his face and Jon was asleep again before he could explain. He would do it the next time he woke. He would.

*


As it turned out, Jon didn't really wake up for two days straight. There were brief periods of consciousness where Spencer or Bob or both would force feed him a bit and maybe help him to the bathroom, but other than that he slept, wrapped in fever dreams more tightly than the blankets they kept tucking him into.

On the third afternoon he woke, drenched in his own sweat and slightly chilled from it, feeling hollowed out and limbless but alive and aware. He blinked at the small amount of sunlight penetrating the curtains. To either side of him Bob or Spencer lay, each sleeping. When he tried to lever himself up a bit, just to sit, though, Spencer's arm came up possessively over him and Bob's eyes opened.

Jon mouthed, "Sorry."

"Hungry?" Bob mumbled, his eyes already dropping shut. Jon wondered if they'd been running the club and staying up to care for him. He thought it was likely.

"No," he said softly. He probably would be, in a bit.

"No leaving," Bob said, his words slurring. He dragged his eyes open again.

"No," Jon said. He swallowed. "I'll be here."

Jon wasn't sure Bob's eyes were even closed before he fell asleep. Gingerly, Jon lifted Spencer's arm off of him, placing it below the blankets. He managed to get himself seated and then to crawl, somewhat clumsily, to the edge of the bed. From there he used the restroom and got himself a glass of water. Exhausted after such strenuous activity, he returned to his mattress, still waiting, made the way he'd made it the night he left. He all but collapsed onto it, drew the covers up and fell back asleep.

He woke up to a very grumpy Spencer dragging him off the bed. Jon said, "Wha--"

"It's cold in here, you ass. Are you trying to die of pneumonia?"

It was cold, but not as much under the covers, and Jon was pretty sure he was mostly over the worst of whatever he'd contracted. "Spence--"

"We're not going to molest you," Spencer said coldly, not loosening his grip.

Jon pulled from it anyway. "I know."

Spencer looked at him then. "What, then? What is it that made you leave in the middle of the night without even so much as a 'thanks for the good times'? What Jon?"

Jon's glance flickered to where Bob was standing in the doorway to their room, yawning, but clearly paying attention. He knew, without even having to try, that he didn't have the words to say the necessary things. He tried, "I want--" but the truth was too likely to damage their trust, their friendship, even more than him running away had. He shook his head. "I want to sleep."

"What else?" Bob's voice was rough, low, and while Jon logically knew it was just from the sleep, it felt dangerous to lie, so he just didn't say anything. Spencer was looking back at Bob, the two of them having a conversation of facial expressions to which Jon was not privy. Finally Bob shrugged slightly. Spencer made a frustrated noise.

Jon said, "I'm tired." He could hear the whining in his voice. He couldn't stop it. It wasn't as if Spencer would really give up; he wouldn't, Jon knew. But sleeping would at least give him some time.

"Jon," Bob said. "We won't hurt you."

"I--" Jon flinched. "I know that."

"No, you don't," Spencer told him softly. "Not yet." Spencer tugged at Jon's arm again, and this time it was a light pull, nothing that should have compelled Jon forward, but it did. It took several more seconds than it should have for Jon to register the feel of Spencer's lips on his. When he did, though, he ripped himself from Spencer, staring accusatorily at both of them.

"You said you wouldn't molest me." Jon couldn't breathe, Spencer had taken his breath.

"Not unless that was what you wanted," Spencer told him, sounding rough now too, like Bob, only not.

"I--" Jon looked back and forth between them, not understanding.

Spencer put his palm to Jon's chest, his eyes light with relief. "Right now, just sleep. In a warm bed."

Jon made himself ask, "And later?"

Jon had never noticed, but Spencer's grin was very, very wicked. Bob turned around and led the way back.

*


Jon went down and helped with the club that night, but returned upstairs early when Bob threatened, mildly, "Do it, or I'll set Spencer on you."

Given his uncertainty about where he stood, Jon wasn't taking any chances. He went. He was asleep by the time they dragged themselves to bed. He tried asking them how the night had gone, but he was barely awake himself. Spencer put his hand over Jon's mouth and said, "Morning. Tomorrow. Sleep."

Jon woke up earlier than either of them, unsurprisingly, what with having gone to sleep hours earlier. Bob caught him once again when he tried to get up, but Jon said softly, "Breakfast," and after another beat, Bob let him go. Jon wasn't good in the kitchen, not like Spencer, but he had a fair amount of practical skills. He could fry and scramble eggs, cut fruit, pour milk. It got him by.

He made extras, and sure enough, when the house began smelling of food, Spencer and Bob trudged wearily into the kitchen. Jon made them both plates, then grabbed his own and sat at the table with them. At first it was silent, the three of them working their way ravenously through the food. Then it was silent except for the clinking sound of Spencer hitting his fork rhythmically against the plate, even their breaths sounding awkward. Surprisingly, Bob was the one to break it with, "It's not an invitation you can just hand someone."

Jon blinked. Spencer said, "You did tell us you had a wife. We weren't even sure if you-- If other things interested you."

That was fair. Jon admitted, "I'm not sure they do. But... You." Jon looked down and tried to remember how to breathe.

"Jon." Bob's voice made Jon look up.

Bob asked, "Just us?"

"I think-- I've never wanted that sort of, um. I mean, not before." Jon spread his hands wide in a gesture of non-understanding.

Spencer slid his hand over one of them and Jon couldn't help the gasp the rose up on his lips. Spencer smiled a little. He moved closer, then closer, then close enough that his lips were almost directly upon Jon's, almost. Jon wanted to strain, to lean into them. He stayed where he was. Spencer asked, "Yes?"

Jon whimpered. "Yes. Please."

And then Spencer's lips were on his. He'd done this before, of course he had. Cassie and he had kissed long before it was proper, when her parents surely would have kept her away from him for the rest of their lives as a bad influence. Cassie hadn't felt like this, hadn't tasted like this. Spencer was malt-whiskey and chewing gum and salt, his lips not as soft as Cassie's, not fitting quite as well. They were everything Jon wanted in the world. Almost everything, at least.

After a moment, Spencer was pulled from him and it was all Jon could do not to follow desperately. He was rewarded for his work when Bob pulled him up, lips replaced Spencer's. That wasn't the same either, not at all. The whiskey was still there, but also something a little bitter, an odd counterpoint. Bob was firmer in his kiss, more aggressive. It made Jon push back a little, give as he was getting. He ended the kiss by pulling back a little, his hand on Jon's chest to keep him where he was.

In the silence, the room a little fuzzy around the edges for Jon, Spencer said, "That's a really stupid reason to run."

Jon said, "Sorry," again, feeling it in his bones.

Bob said, "I suppose there are ways you can make it up to us," and pushed him a little in the direction of the bedroom.

Spencer said, "We're not real forgiving when it comes to stupidity. You have your work cut out for you."

Jon almost wished he felt afraid.

*


Jon remembered the look on Cassie's face--was pretty sure he would never forget--when she first saw the damage to his body. When Spencer and Bob had him in the bed, sharing him between themselves, their mouths on his mouth, his ears, his chin, jaw, neck, Jon said, "Uh, ah, there's-- There's a lot of scarring."

"We saw. Bath," Bob murmured against Jon's skin, Spencer's hands slipping beneath Jon's sweater, pressing flatly against his skin. Jon couldn't help arching up a bit, pressing himself into the warmth of the touch.

Spencer inched his way down the bed, pushing at Jon's sweater as he went. Bob helped him to pull it off and Jon had a moment to feel the chill of the air hitting his skin before Spencer's tongue was making patterns on the skin of Jon's stomach, tracing at where his fingers lay. Bob shifted so that he was supported by the headboard and pulled Jon onto him, rubbing slowly against Jon.

Spencer began to undo Jon's pants and Jon tried to find his fingers, remember how they worked, to help. Bob laughed, low in his throat, and pulled Jon's hands away, his own hands like bands around Jon's wrists. Jon didn't struggle; he didn't care to be let free. Spencer succeeded in his efforts and soon Jon was naked. He was going to point out the fact that he wanted to see, to feel them, their skin, but Spencer slipped his mouth over the head of Jon's cock and Jon forgot how to form words.

He and Cassie had experimented with this a few times, but she was always uncertain, not wanting to suck too hard, not having any concept of how it felt, what might hurt. And it had been a long time even since those days. Jon's breathing quickened and he clenched more tightly at Bob, who just clenched back and said, "Take it easy, Spence."

Spencer pulled off Jon and Jon made a protesting noise. Spencer laughed. "I have too many clothes on, gimme a moment."

Spencer had a point, so Jon just watched. It was dark in the room, the curtains drawn, but not so dark he couldn't see the pale, smooth lines of Spencer's skin as they came out from under his shirt, inside his pants. Jon said, "Spencer," because he didn't know a better word, didn't have a vocabulary for this. With Cassie it had been easy--beautiful, gorgeous, stunning--but Spencer wasn't Cassie, wasn't a girl, and Jon had never been taught the language to describe something like him.

"Mm," Bob agreed.

Spencer kissed his way up Jon's leg, knee to thigh, paying attention to the worst of the scarring, his tongue learning its grooves. That area didn't feel much anymore, but Jon could feel just enough to have his breath catch, be unable to look anywhere else. Jon reached out, carded his fingers through Spencer's hair and Spencer made a pleased sound even while kissing him. Jon shuddered.

Bob rocked up a little. "Yeah."

Spencer made it back to Jon's cock and spent several long minutes torturing him with licks and kisses before taking him in again. Jon's head fell back onto Bob's shoulder and Bob drew a line from Jon's throat to Spencer's head with his fingers.

Jon said, "Spencer," desperately, and Spencer pulled off.


"Jon."

Jon didn't understand the word. Spencer tried again. "Jon."

He blinked to try and clear his head. Oh. "Spencer?"

"I want-- I want you in me. If that's--"

"Oh," Jon said, rather stupidly, but he felt he couldn't quite be blamed.

"You don't have to. We know you haven't done any of this before and--"

Jon pulled Spencer down on top him, startling Spencer into silence and causing Bob to grunt at the extra weight. Spencer's cock pressed into Jon's.

"Yes," Jon whimpered.

Spencer dragged in an unsteady breath. "Good. That's-- Good."

Bob shifted so that they rolled off of him. Spencer looked over at him, flushed, eyes wide. Bob said, "Wait," and pulled back to take off his clothes. Jon watched with interest, noting the differences between Bob and Spencer, where each was hard and each soft, pale and flushed, long and compact. They were both oddly matched and somehow perfect together. Jon wondered if he fit when they looked at him, what they saw.

Bob climbed back onto the bed, kneeling to one side of Jon. He pulled Spencer up so that they were facing, leaning over Jon. He was looking at Spencer when he said, "Jon, there's oil in the nightstand, would you--"

Jon reached out and opened the stand, finding it quickly and straightening back up to look between them. Bob took the oil and set it by his side. He kissed Spencer, long and hard, until both of them needed to surface for air. Bob pushed Spencer back, laying him perpendicular to Jon, pulling his knees onto Bob's shoulders. Then Bob sank down, and took nearly all of Spencer in one fluid swallow. Spencer made a choking noise, and Jon was alarmed for a moment until he saw Spencer's face, the pure pleasure in it. Bob worked the oil open and poured some onto his hand before holding it to the side. Jon took it and closed it again. It took a couple of tries, because he was too busy watching Bob's finger disappear into Spencer, watching as something happened and Spencer nearly came off the bed. Bob made a pleased sound around Spencer's cock and Spencer moaned.

Bob gave him two fingers for a bit and then withdrew, running his fingers along Jon's thigh until he found his cock, slicking him up with his still-oiled hand. Jon gasped at the firm, perfect pressure. Bob pulled off of Spencer, which caused a couple of whines and some muttering. Bob smacked Spencer's thigh with his free hand. Spencer smirked.

Bob let go of Jon and said, "Since you haven't done this before, and he has, he's going to ride you, okay?"

Jon nodded. Honestly, he was pretty sure he would have agreed to anything at that point. Bob helped Spencer back up to his knees and Spencer straddled Jon, facing him. He was flushed, his hair falling over his face, in his eyes; he smiled and said, "Hi," putting his hand on Jon’s chest as he guided Jon inside. Jon bit the inside of his cheek and counted backwards from twenty. It was just enough to keep him from coming right then and there. He didn't think he'd last much longer though, not with how tight Spencer was, the noises he was making, the way his head fell back to reveal the long line of his throat every time he bottomed out.

Jon breathed in, and out, in, and out. He tried, tried to hold on, but it was too much, too good, and it had been too long. He came with a cry, every muscle in his body straining with the intensity of the pleasure. It took a little while for the world to make sense again, but when it did, Jon rolled to his side to watch Bob fuck Spencer. He'd rolled Spencer onto his back, legs up, like before, so that they could see each other. The pace Bob had set was punishing, but Spencer didn't seem to mind--at all. Jon reached out and tentatively wrapped his hand around Spencer's cock.

Spencer's eyes flew open. Jon almost took his hand back, except for the smile that took over Spencer's face, his, "Please, Jon. Please."

Jon tightened his grip, running his thumb along the vein on the underside, just like he liked. Spencer shouted, "Please!" and Jon kept working his hand, while Bob worked his entire body. Spencer arched, keening a bit, his mouth open, lips swollen and wet. Jon leaned over to kiss him, take those lips into his and felt it as Spencer came onto his hand. Jon didn't let go, not until Spencer went limp and made a little sound in the back of his throat that Jon interpreted as "too much."

He straightened to notice that Bob was still in Spencer. Spencer was panting, shuddering, and Jon was uncertain how to feel. Bob said, "He likes it," low and husky and with clear concentration and Jon realized that he'd made himself wait so that he could give Spencer this. Spencer said, "Bob," more breath than sound, and Bob drew his fingers over the damp skin of Spencer's chest, his belly.

Spencer said, "Bob," again, and Bob came, muscles in his back and arms cording. Jon leaned in and licked along the line of one, eliciting sounds from both Bob and Spencer. Bob loosened then, crumpling to lie atop Spencer. Spencer rolled to his side with a grunt. "Jesus, Bob."

Bob laughed. Jon, who didn't really have any experience with this sort of thing, but enough with sex, padded to the bathroom and got them washcloths. It was chilly, once outside the bed. When he returned, they cleaned each other up and pulled him into the bed with them, cold feet and all.

Spencer said, "You're gonna be good at that, I can tell," before burying his face in Jon's collarbone and falling dead asleep. Bob laughed quietly, kissing Jon and, despite it being morning, said, "'Night."

"Yeah," Jon said, "uh, night." He thought that the racing of his heart, his mind, would keep him awake, but in the end, the torpor of post-coital existence came over him, along with the heat they both exuded, and he settled, slept.

*


He'd dreamt of Cassie. Jon knew, because he could hear her voice when he woke up. He could hear her voice, but he didn't for a minute mistake the chest he was folded into for hers, nor the warm breath cresting over his shoulder. He was afraid to say "good morning," to break the stillness between them, just in case he was still dreaming. Then Bob said, "Someone's gotta reheat the coffee."

"I'm sleeping," Spencer said.

Jon stayed silent. Bob said, "I know you're awake, Walker."

He was bluffing, Jon knew. He had no proof.

Spencer rolled a bit away from Jon, stretching. Jon mourned the loss of his heat. "Guess we'll just have to take care of each other, then," Spencer said.

Jon opened an eye. "That's playing dirty, Spencer Smith."

"Love and war, Jon Walker," Spencer replied, clearly unbothered by the accusation being leveled against him.

"Love, war and coffee," Bob clarified.

After a moment, Jon asked, "What do I get out of the deal?"

Bob and Spencer passed a look between themselves. Bob asked, "What do you want?"

Jon opened his mouth, only to realize that he didn't really have an answer. Spencer laughed. "I think we can come up with something appropriate."

"I'm much more inventive after I've had coffee," Bob said, yawning.

Jon rolled his eyes and got out of bed, managing not to remind Bob that he already had had one cup, probably only a little over a couple of hours earlier. Jon stole the nearest pair of bottoms. They were Bob's and far too long on him, but Jon just contented himself with occasionally tripping over his own steps. He began reheating the coffee, grabbing the milk, and figured that while he was at it, they could probably use some more, ah, energy as well. He took the butter, and a couple of apples from the ice box, found the loaf of bread that Spencer had bought earlier in the week, sliced the remaining half as well as the apples, toasted the pieces of bread with butter, a shake or two of cinnamon and apple slices atop them. The coffee having heated enough, he poured it and was about to drag the other two out of bed when Spencer came up from behind him with Bob's robe. Jon sank into it gratefully--he hadn't even realized he was cold.

"Mm," Spencer said, "you made us second breakfast, too."

Most of the time Spencer did the cooking, since neither Jon nor Bob was particularly adept in the kitchen. Still, toast and apple slices didn't defeat Jon, at the very least. He said, "Racking up your debt."

Spencer laughed a little and pulled three cups from the cabinets. They ate mostly in silence, warming their hands on the coffee mugs, handing the plate of toast and apples to each other when needed. Bob washed the dishes when they were finished, Spencer drying and Jon putting them back in their proper place. When he had settled the last one, he leaned against the nearest counter and said, "Well?"

"Patience, patience." Spencer made a "tsk" sound with his tongue.

Bob took one look at Jon's face and laughed. Jon said, "See if I make you coffee first thing anymore."

Bob reached out and pulled Spencer flush against him, kissing Spencer until he was good and disoriented. Then Bob turned Spencer so that his back was to Bob, his front to Jon. Spencer's lips were puffy, his eyes bright. He grinned at Jon. Jon didn't even feel himself walk forward, but he felt his lips meet Spencer's. In his ear, even as he was lost in kissing Spencer, Bob was muttering things, things about Spencer, about what Jon wanted to do to Spencer. Jon wasn't listening, not really. It was more the cadence of sound that was hitting him than anything.

When Bob pushed him back slightly, Jon said, "No--" but was cut off by a gentle, but firm, pressure on his shoulders. Not really feeling in any mood to resist, Jon went to his knees. Spencer pushed at the hem of his bottoms, baring himself for Jon, and for a moment, Jon just looked, not sure how to start, what to do. Bob said, "Relax, Jon. You don't have to--"

Jon leaned just the tiniest bit forward and pressed a kiss to the head of Spencer's cock. Spencer drew in his breath, just slightly. Bob said, "All right. That's good. Now try with your tongue."

The head was hot and surprisingly smooth against Jon's tongue. He wasn't sure if he actually liked it, but he did like the way it made Spencer's breath speed up, the way his fingers opened and closed. Bob kept talking, giving him hints, reassuring him when he went too far and choked, pushing him back and saying, "Enough," well before Jon was really ready to stop experimenting. His jaw ached a bit, but he kind of liked it, in the way he imagined Spencer had felt, taking Bob in after reaching his own orgasm the night before.

Bob smiled at Jon for all of a second before moving slightly. Jon wasn't sure he would have even known what was happening, except for the way that Spencer threw his head back. Bob said, "Don't come, Spence."

Spencer moaned, but Jon noted the way every muscle in this body clenched, the way he struggled for control. This close, there was nothing he couldn't see. Spencer managed, "B-- Bob, p-plea--"

"No," Bob told him, slowing his strokes, making them even and deep, deep enough that Spencer came up on his toes every time. Jon thought Bob was never going to finish, never going to give in. Jon wasn't sure he wanted him to. Spencer like this--spread at Bob's will, struggling against himself--it was possibly the most gorgeous thing Jon had ever seen.

Bob did finish though, with a growl of, "Don't, Spencer," spending himself inside all the while. When he was finished, Spencer's breathing was frantic, and Bob soothed a hand over his stomach, waiting to pull from him. When it seemed like Spencer wasn't quite on the edge anymore, Bob sat him down in the nearest seat and pulled Jon up. He kissed Jon, massaging at the back of his neck with one hand. He said, "Jon. Jon."

Jon tried to ask, "Yes?" but he was pretty sure it came out as a blurring of syllables.

Bob didn't seem to mind. "Would you let Spencer have you?"

Jon's mind stopped for a moment, literally halted. Bob's thumb brushed over his skin and that was enough to get his mouth working again, make him able to say, "I-- Spencer."

Spencer was blinking at them rapidly. Bob said, "I'll get him ready. Watch. Watch and don't--"

"I know how it works, Bob," Spencer said, but he was too breathless to sound as sarcastic as he clearly wanted to. Bob laughed, a short bite of amusement, and shifted out of the way, pushing Jon toward the bedroom. Spencer followed behind the both of them, stopping in the doorway. Bob settled Jon on his stomach, a pillow beneath his hips, a kiss behind his right ear, at the nape of his neck. Jon shivered under the touches. Bob ran his fingers over Jon's back, lightly, lightly, then dug in, working at where the fear, the sadness of the last few weeks had burrowed and not quite gone away. By the time he was finished, Jon was close to sleep again.

He woke wholly up to the feeling of Bob sliding a finger into him. "Oh."

"Breathe, Jon."

Jon did. It didn't hurt, it was just, "Odd."

"Give him a bit," Spencer murmured. Spencer had moved to the side of the bed at some point.

Bob did something, twisted or pulled or, Jon couldn't really tell because, "Oh." He blinked at the white behind his eyes and said, "Oh," again.

Spencer said, "Told you."

Jon had no time for Spencer's smartness, he was busy adjusting to the feel of two fingers, wider and a little harder to take, but still almost unnoticeable when Bob brushed at the right spot. Bob reminded him, "Breathe," and Jon tried, but it was really hard to concentrate. At three fingers, Bob said, "Breathe," sounding half-amused, half-concerned, and Jon made himself take a deep breath, then another.

Bob's fingers disappeared and Jon thought, "What?" right as Spencer said, "Breathe again." Jon was conditioned. He did as he was told. Spencer said, "Push out."

Jon didn't understand, but he did as Spencer said all the same, and, "Oh."

Spencer stopped. "Too much?"

Jon's breathing was a little fast. He closed his eyes, concentrated on the feel of the hands on his back. He couldn't differentiate Bob and Spencer, didn't want to. He said, "Okay, okay," and pushed out again. Spencer went slowly, stopping whenever Jon made a noise. Jon wanted him to just do it. Jon wanted him to pay attention like he was. Spencer pulled out a little and brushed against the spot Bob had previously found and Jon really didn't give a shit about anything other than having that happen again. Spencer being in him still burned, just the slightest bit, but even that sort of felt good, a counterpoint to the pleasure, an anchoring.

Spencer said, "Jon. Jon, I can't-- I'm too--"

"Mm," Jon said, and felt Spencer stiffen, felt him come. He was clearly about to pull out when Bob made a noise of disagreement. Instead he rolled the two of them so that Jon was slightly atop Spencer, Spencer still inside. Bob leaned over Jon and took his cock into his mouth as far as he could, making up the distance with the tight grip of his hand. As good as Spencer had been at this, Bob was every bit as much so, but different, so different, stronger in his sucks, less artful in his advances. Jon closed his eyes, said, "Oh," once more and shattered into millions of nerves, nothing but this, nothing but feeling.

*


Jon had tried to send notes back to his parents every few months in general. Mostly they had been nothing more than a note, with paper scrounged from churches, motels, wherever he could find it. They told them where he was, and that he had a job--even if he didn't--and he was doing all right. He was never in one place for very long, so he'd never given them a return address, some way to contact him. Jon couldn't even be sure that his letters had reached them.

When Jon had finished helping Bob and Spencer ready the club to open that evening, he stole a page from the back of one of Spencer's accounting books. It was gridded paper, but it would do. He sat at one of the tables, trying to figure out what to say, how to describe this place. He'd written them since settling at the club. He'd written and told them he had a job and he was fine, and everything he'd always said. Jon knew it was time to write something else, something more, but now that he had the paper, he wasn't entirely sure what that meant.

After about half an hour, when all he had was, Dear Mom and Dad, Spencer sat down across the table and asked, "What're you writing?"

"Letter to my parents. Although, the word 'writing' may be stretching things a bit. More like sitting, staring at the paper."

Spencer leaned back in his chair, rocking on the hind legs for a minute. "You tell'em about the kittens? My mom liked hearing about that."

Jon nodded. "That's-- Yeah, that's good." He leaned over the paper and tried, My cat had kittens. The cat I told you about last time I wrote, Clover? She found herself a tom. Then he realized that maybe he should say, We're still in Chicago, Clover and me. I told you about the club I was working at. They decided to keep me on, and the rent's cheap, living with roommates, so I've stayed. I think I will for a while. You can find me at the address on the envelope.

Bob wandered out from the storage area and settled his hands on Jon's shoulders. "Tell them you're eating, and the shell-shock has lessened. And that you're sorry you haven't written more."

Bob had a point, so Jon took a breath and tried to just let his hand move. I'm sorry this is my first letter in so long. I'll try and be better about that. Spencer, one of the owners of the club, he cooks well, so I'm eating. I haven't had many lapses, either. I think that maybe I'm getting better. The doctors, when he had first spoken to them, said that happened, on occasion, that men just healed over time. They had reassured him it was possible in his case, which seemed fairly mild. He was afraid to really hope, but the weekend before he'd heard the vague strains of Victoria's clarinet in the storeroom, where they'd sent him to help for the evening. He'd found himself listening without meaning to, listening and hearing just music. He hadn't said anything later, not wanting to share the news before he'd tested its strength. He still hadn't said anything, but clearly Bob had noticed. Or perhaps he was just pleased that Jon hadn't had an episode in nearly a month. Jon was, certainly. He was also a little afraid to trust the lull.

Bob tightened his hands, massaged a bit at Jon's shoulders. Jon nodded a little to himself and wrote, I love you both. Your son, Jon.

Jon folded up the piece of paper and tapped his pointer finger rhythmically over it. Spencer asked, "You want me to send it?"

Jon knew he should do it himself. He also knew that the better part of valor was often knowing when you needed help. "I'll give you the address."

Spencer reached out to take the letter, his hand brushing over Jon's. At the last second, Jon turned his hand, catching Spencer's. He said, "Thanks," and he didn't mean for the letter.

Spencer let himself be held and said, "Well, I mean, you owe me one, Walker," but his voice was pitched low and his gaze was fixed on Jon, serious in its happiness.

"Suppose you'll be wanting to take it out in trade," Jon said, nodding. Bob laughed, a quick, surprised sound. Spencer held on only a moment longer, before his mouth curled up, the same smile lighting up his face that Jon was pretty sure could charm Satan out of hell.

"Trade," Spencer said, and then laughed. "Yeah."

Jon laughed then, too, unable to hold out, and not sure why he wanted to.

Epilogue: November 11, 1920

Jon left a note on the kitchen table: "Needed some air. I'll be back."

He made his way down to the lake. It was cold outside, fall having come early and with a bite. Jon wrapped his coat more tightly around himself and turned his face into the wind, tasting the water in it.

There weren't many others out. It was a Friday, he imagined people were at work, at school, living their lives. Jon would go back in time to help receive the weekend shipment, unload it into the stores. Frank hadn't been able to get through a blockade up north the week before, so it was probably going to be a larger order than usual. Jon hoped Bob had ordered some more of the whiskey Jon liked, as they were nearly out. He was pretty sure Bob had. Spencer paid attention to things like that, made sure Bob knew.

Jon walked away from the water, toward downtown. People were coming and going from the Drake, men in business suits, mostly. Jon kept his stride slow, taking pictures of the scenes in his head like he hadn't wanted to, not since Tom died. It felt like a good day to start, though, the right day.

There was a woman standing on the sidewalk, her nose nearly plastered to the glass of a glove shop. She had a perfect shade of blonde hair, just a touch shy of Cassie's yellow-gold. The thought ached, but it didn't take his breath, didn't slow his steps.

He wound his way through a few of the stores, considering Christmas presents idly. There would be enough time to acquire them later. When his leg began to burn in a way that meant, "Stop, Jonny," he began making his journey back.

He let himself in and smiled at Bob, who was sipping at coffee at the table. Spencer said, "I put extra bacon on for you. Just in case you weren't out long."

When Jon had seated himself, Bob reached over and dug into the muscles that had tightened up worst. Jon grunted, but let him work. Spencer brought them both plates, leaning down for appreciative kisses. When Bob let him off his lap, Spencer went and sat down with his own plate, sneaking his feet into Jon’s lap under the table. He took a bite before saying, "Two years since the Armistice."

Bob nodded tightly. Jon thought, oh, and leaned over, careful not to dump Spencer’s feet from his lap, in order to kiss Bob, his hand playing with the hair that was just a little too long, over the nape of Bob’s neck.

When Jon had straightened, Spencer said, "Brendon wanted to riff off some war standards tonight. Sort of a tribute. I told him I'd ask."

Bob said, "I'm pretty sure we pay him to be the musical genius. Seems sort of stupid to stunt that."

Jon stood and poured himself some coffee, taking a long sip. He said, "Sounds nice. It's a good idea."

Clover bounded out from the bedroom and twisted herself between Jon's legs. He reached down to pick her up, laughing. "Missed you too, highness."

Spencer said, "I think Dylan's hiding in the dirty laundry again."

Jon sat back down. "Probably. I'll find him before we head downstairs."

Spencer eyed Jon's plate. "Eat up. Frank said he's bringing the entire boat today."

"Frank's a liar."

Bob laughed. "But he does have the best rum."

Jon raised his coffee cup. "I'll drink to that."

Spencer and Bob raised theirs as well, the mugs meeting over the center of the table. Clink.

Jon drank.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile