sparsenicjade
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Thanks to: Oh man, a lot of people helped to make this story happen

1) To begin with, harriet_vane, who had the original conversation that created the idea.

2) thepouncer, liketheroad and emmytie for betaing, encouragement, alphaing and all sorts of other help. Pouncer was the main beta, and she did an incredible job of fleshing this out and making it cleaner. All remaining mistakes are mine.

3) Artists kinetikatrue and saint_vee, and mixers thepouncer and x_feanryo for my FANTASTIC art and music.

4) Last but definitely not least, BB mods airgiodslv, foxxcub, jocondite, maleyka, shoemaster and sunsetmog, not only for running this smoothly and efficiently, but for their attention to detail and general awesomeness.



Jon wasn't a guy who hid stuff. Or, no, that wasn't true. Jon wasn't a guy who hid stuff from the people he trusted. For instance, Jon might tell a reporter that he was feeling fine when in fact he had the flu and was pretty hungover, but if Brendon asked, he was probably just going to puke on Brendon's shoes.

Brendon liked that nothing was made prettier by Jon. Really, Brendon kind of loved it, but Brendon didn't think about that, at least not if he couldn't say it casually in his head, as casually as he would make himself say it aloud. Casually enough that it would fool Ryan and Spencer, which was pretty fucking casual.

Brendon wasn't surprised that Jon got high and ate nothing but sugar for three days straight after he and Cassie broke up. Brendon wasn't even surprised by the binge drinking that came along with it--something Jon hadn't really done outside of a party ever--and that once, finding Jon on the floor of the bathroom and having to drag him to bed, there had been tear tracks on Jon's face. All of that was to be expected. Brendon was actually fairly certain that Jon hadn't expected Cassie to move out when he'd turned down her proposal. Spencer clearly had, but then, Spencer had sort of gone through the same thing with Haley a few years before, except for the part where Spencer had seen it coming. Then again, Haley had always been more verbal, in a lot of ways, than Cassie. It was easier to know something was coming when someone told you it was.

Brendon wasn't surprised either, that after the three days, Jon got up, walked to the kitchen on the bus with his eyes closed, tripped over one of Ryan's rogue pens, said, "Fuck," without opening his eyes and continued on to the coffee maker. Jon made the coffee with one eye open, drank the entire pot along with four aspirin, vomited for roughly an hour then showered for as long as the water would run on the bus. None of them said anything when he emerged, but when he'd thrown on some sweats he sat down and said, "Sorry."

Ryan shook his head and patted Jon's knee. Spencer said, "Happens," with the sort of open-ended lack of syntax that meant Jon could talk if he wanted, Spencer would listen and even kill someone, if he needed. Brendon nudged Jon and made him cuddle. Jon responded with his regular completely non-human purr sound. All in all, it had pretty much seemed like things would get back to normal.

Which was why Brendon was surprised when, a week later, in their hotel room, Jon kissed him. Brendon pulled back, thinking, "high," but when he met Jon's eyes he clearly wasn't, and Jon hadn't tasted high, or drunk, or anything that was less or more than Jon. Not that Brendon actually knew what Jon tasted like, or anything, but he had given him raspberries aplenty over the years and had thought about what a Jon-flavor might be a lot, enough that at least two of his long-term hookups had noticed and left him over it. If he was right about Jon not being high, he hadn't been that far off in his suppositions, which was pretty cool. Except, "Whoa, hey, no rebounding on bandmates. That's, like, an unwritten."

"Brendon," Jon said, and it was strange, because Brendon couldn't read his tone. Jon was ultimately readable. If his "Brendon," meant, "c'mon, just this once," it was calm and somewhat amused, less whiny than someone would have expected. If his "Brendon," meant, "that's a stupid rule," it was a little snide. Brendon knew all of Jon's tones, except, evidently, this one. It was hard to think about, too, because Jon was kissing him again, and Jon knew how to kiss, or maybe it was just that he knew Brendon, but Brendon could hardly think at all, even to breathe.

He said, "Jon," again, "Jon," and tried to push back, but Jon was strong, more grounded than Brendon, and Brendon didn't know how to fight against the hand that splayed itself, warm and solid and rough in all the right places, against his back. Brendon didn't know how to say no, when all he wanted was to have this, and maybe if he took it just once, maybe that would be enough. Maybe being Jon's rebound wasn't the worst thing in the world.

Brendon knew when he was being stupid, at least most of the time, but knowing and being able to stop himself, that was something else entirely. All the same, he tried, once more, to say, "No, no," but Jon said, "Brendon," again, and Brendon knew it was a lost cause. Brendon leaned in and kissed back with a little more intent, and Jon smiled against his lips, probably said his name again, but Brendon was too busy swallowing the sound to be sure.

Jon tugged at Brendon's shirt, and somehow, between the two of them, they got it off, barely breaking the kiss. Brendon had been desperate before--fuck, that first time with Shane, when all he'd wanted was to know, really know and Shane had been laughing, and trying to slow Brendon down, trying to make it exactly what Brendon had wanted; and with Jeremy, practically every time they'd seen each other, months of being away from each other always giving way to against-the-hotel-wall sex--but this was different, this was...Jon. This was something he was never supposed to get, had tried to train himself out of wanting.

He said, "Let me--" and he didn't even know the end to the sentence, "suck you, fuck you, beg for you," he had no idea. Anything, he wanted to be allowed anything, and Jon was still kissing him, like Jon couldn't get enough.

Jon settled it for him, though, pushing him to his knees, saying, "Your mouth, just, I've watched-- Brendon--"

But Brendon didn't need anything else, didn't need explicit directions. He could make this good for Jon, better than anything Jon would have ever thought, better than Cassie or anyone who had come before her, better than the fans who were part of Jon and Cassie's understanding. Brendon would be better. He didn't waste time being fancy getting Jon's jeans open, just stripped him down as fast as Brendon's hands could work, and shaking or no, he was good at this, experienced. When Brendon sucked in the head, one hard, slow suck, Jon groaned and leaned his head back. Brendon looked up. He wasn't going to close his eyes, not for this, not when he could watch.

He took Jon further, further, and thought about the new song he was working on, something that didn't sound like anything else, something that was about the ideas he had for the band, if he could get Ryan to listen. He couldn't just think about it without singing it, he knew that, and Jon swore as Brendon's throat tightened around the head of his cock, but Brendon didn't let up, wasn't going to let go. Jon was thick and short and perfectly proportioned, like the rest of him, like his fingers, Brendon thought, and had to press a hand to his cock to keep himself in check.

Jon was making noises, fast and a little high and sometimes he would say, "Please, please." Brendon forgot that he meant to wait and stuck his hands in his jeans, curling his fingers around his cock, tightening at each instance of pleading. It didn't take him long, not even with more than half his concentration on Jon--Jon--being in his mouth. His entire body tautened as he came and Jon said, "Fuck, oh, fuck," and came, too.

Brendon choked a little, unprepared, pulling off mid-orgasm, Jon's come hitting him in the eyes, which stung, and which Brendon normally hated, but he couldn't get up the energy to be bothered, not in the haze of post-orgasm, not with Jon making strung out noises above him. Brendon wiped off his face with the back of his hand and reached up so that Jon would fall mostly on Brendon, not his face.

At some point, Jon tugged them into one of the hotel beds, but Brendon was pretty much asleep by that point, and didn't notice, one way or another.

*


Brendon woke sticky and alone, which wasn't exactly unusual, but generally he didn't remember where he'd been when that happened, so it was a little disconcerting to have the sense memory of Jon's skin underneath his fingers, on his tongue. Brendon shivered, despite the fact that he was tucked neatly into the covers, neatly enough that Jon had to have pulled them up over him when he'd left. Brendon glanced at the clock. He had fifteen minutes until his alarm went off. He contemplated lying there, but he wasn't warm and he wasn't sleeping, so it seemed a little pointless.

He padded to the bathroom and took a shower, turning the water as hot as he could manage. He wondered if maybe Jon had turned the air down. Jon was always warm.

He pulled himself into sweats--they'd be on the road for most of the day--and went down to the hotel's restaurant. Spencer and Ryan weren't there, but that didn't surprise Brendon. Neither of them generally woke up a minute before they had to. Jon wasn't there either, and Brendon didn't really know what to think about that. He decided not to think about it, for the moment.

He was in the lobby on time for the bus and Zack looked at him in mild surprised, but just smiled. Brendon smiled back. He didn't mean to make Zack's life more difficult, it just happened sometimes. When he climbed inside, Jon was already there, on the phone. He smiled up at Brendon shortly and went back to his conversation. Brendon hadn't even had time to return the smile.

Brendon was used to awkward morning-after situations. There'd been one time where he'd had to drive a one night stand home, or the time when his one night stand was Sean Van Vleet and Jon had had to mediate between him and Tom for nearly a year, despite the fact that the whole thing had gotten Sean to wake the fucking fuck up. Brendon, really, was no stranger to awkward pauses and shuffling around people.

But this was Jon. And somehow, in Jon not paying attention to his protests, Brendon had sort of figured that there was a tacit implication that Jon would either pretend the whole thing had never happened, or be Jon about it, and incorporate it into casually their daily lives. Brendon didn't feel this was too much to ask. He figured Jon had been tacitly ignoring the fact that Brendon was in love with him for over eight years now. Brendon was a lot of things, but subtle wasn't on the list, so he was pretty certain Jon had been in on the secret for a while. A blow job wasn't that big of a complication.

Brendon smiled at Jon's head because it was what Brendon did. If he couldn't fix things he could at least smile about them. Most of the time they would eventually catch up to him, become something to smile about. At least, that was what he had always told himself and at a few key moments it had worked, so it seemed like the thing to do now. Then he went into the back of the bus, wrapped himself in blankets, and watched the weather channel until he fell asleep.

*


Trying not to seem fucking weird wasn't Brendon's strong suit, not even around the other guys, but that didn't mean he didn't make the attempt. They had a rotating schedule going on with hotel nights, so on the third one after The Hotel Night--Brendon figured that was pretty safe phrasing--Brendon and Jon ended up in a room together. Brendon could have asked to switch, but that would have lead to questions, and so far nobody was asking questions, not even with Jon acting sort of aloof and more high than he really was, and Brendon acting like everything was fine.

Jon was talking to Brendon, at least, which Brendon had decided was a good sign. He just needed to wait Jon out a bit and things would go back to the way they were, except for the part where now Brendon knew what he was missing. It surprised him, but so far, other than an extra twist of regret low in his stomach, it hadn't changed things much for Brendon. He had long ago reconciled himself to having Jon any way he could, much the way he had Ryan and Spencer. Brendon didn't need to change things that couldn't be changed--not his family, not himself, not his friends. He just needed to fit into the world somewhere, as best he could.

Brendon did a running flop onto the bed--hotel beds weren't all that conducive to the move, but better than bunks, so he was rarely able to resist. Jon laughed a little. It was a token laugh--he probably wouldn't have at all if things hadn't been weird--but Brendon would take it. Fake it till you make it, and all that.

Jon said, "Jim was gonna do a run for the techs down to the 7-11, he said he'd pick me up some chips. You want anything?"

Brendon arched up so that he could reach into his back pocket for his wallet. He pulled a five out. "Biggest bag of M&M's available for that, please thanks."

"Sure," Jon said, and left.

Brendon went to take advantage of having a shower that didn't move, something that never got old once a guy was out of the habit of having it regularly. Jon still wasn't back when he finished up, so he texted Ryan to see if they had plans for dinner. Ryan came back with, "y & a movie. in?"

Brendon didn't respond, just knocked on their adjoining door. Spencer asked, "Where's Jon?"

Brendon shrugged. "With the techs?"

Ryan frowned. "He's not answering my texts."

"Maybe he doesn't have his phone?" Brendon shook his head. "Dunno, he just ran out to give Jim an order for chips and M&Ms and never came back. The techs'll return him, though. Assuming he didn't get lost going a floor down."

Spencer smirked and dropped a hand on Ryan's shoulder. "Maybe he just wants a night off, Ry. What do you want for dinner?"

Ryan still didn't look wholly sure, but after a minute he asked Brendon, "Mexican or greasy American chain food?"

*


Jon came back to the room after Brendon was asleep. He fell into Brendon's bed and in his first moments of disorientation upon waking, Brendon thought it was an accident, because Jon was clearly more booze than man. He said, "Brendon, Brendon. I ate your M&M's." He sounded really apologetic.

Brendon sighed. "You owe me five dollars. Go get in your bed. No puking on other bandmembers unless they offer. 'Nother unwritten." Not that they were doing so well with those.

"Not gonna puke," Jon told him very solemnly, curling around him. "I miss my cats."

Brendon shifted so the hard-on that he clearly wasn't going to be able to avoid wouldn't be in direct contact with Jon. Brendon kept thinking that one of these days his body would react appropriately to cuddle time, but so far that was still a pipe dream. He stroked Jon's back and said, "I know. We'll be Chicago pretty soon, though."

"Cassie's got them," Jon said, sounding utterly bereft.

Fuck. Brendon remembered the ugly-ass custody battle that had gone on between Keltie and Ryan over Hobo. Granted, Ryan's break up with Keltie had been messy for a number of reasons, but they all had post-traumatic reactions to the thought of non-consensual pet-removal. "She'll give'em back."

Jon moved so that he could colonize more of Brendon. He stilled when his thigh came into contact with Brendon's cock. Brendon bit his cheek for a moment to see if the pain would help kill his erection slightly. He was going to apologize when Jon said, "Wasn't very nice last time," and brought his clothed cock directly onto Brendon's.

Brendon thought, what? and then, no, no, no, no and then, fuck, just--, "Jon," he gasped.

Jon kept grinding them together. He wasn't as hard as Brendon--not surprising given that Jon's breath could put a distillery to shame--but hard enough to make it worth his while, definitely worth Brendon's. Jon said, "S'good."

It was, was the problem, and in the moment, Brendon was having trouble remembering the awkward silences, the way Spencer was looking suspicious, his own worry that things wouldn't get back to how they should be. He tried one more, "Jon."

"Mm," Jon said, "like that."

Brendon's hands opened and closed over Jon's arms, trying to push Jon off, somehow pulling him closer. This should have been funny, he was pretty sure--Jon being drunk and himself technically being the one taken advantage of--except he felt like he wanted to cry. Jon drove down into him, making soft, desperate noises that Brendon thought might have been sobs. It was hard to think with Jon so close.

Brendon closed his eyes. Maybe Jon wouldn't remember when he woke up, and they wouldn't be back at square one. The thought left Brendon with more of the empty feeling he had been fighting off so often lately. Jon pressed into him with particular intent and Brendon stiffened, murmuring, "Jon," not really sure what he meant by it at all.

*


Spencer's plan had been to leave things alone. Jon could be a bit of a dicksmack when he was hurt, and Brendon could be a little sensitive, and for the most part, leaving those two to their own devices had always worked before. It was vaguely worrisome that Brendon had come to him and said, "Look, I just-- Maybe if Jon and I weren't in hotel night room rotation for a bit?" after the last hotel, because Brendon didn't avoid a problem until he really had no idea what to do with it. The fact that Jon hadn't asked why he wasn't rooming with Brendon, just looked ready to fight with Spencer about it, and then a little confused when Spencer hadn't started a fight--these were, yes, not good signs. But Jon and Brendon were big boys; given enough space, they'd figure it out themselves.

Then Ryan curled up in his bunk and didn't say, "Miss just you-and-me hotel nights." Spencer was sometimes better at hearing the things Ryan kept silent than understanding the things he actually verbalized. He was pretty good at the latter, too. Spencer threaded his fingers in Ryan's hair. Ryan exhaled, but none of the tension he was carrying seemed to release with the breath. Spencer bit back a sigh. He asked, "Need me to fix your band?"

"'S'not that simple," Ryan said, softly.

Spencer knew. Brendon wasn't Ryan's voice, Ryan's melody or harmony or duet partner. Brendon wasn't part of Ryan's band anymore than Spencer was Ryan's beat, his drum player. All of those words didn't add up to how Ryan saw the world, to what the others were for him. Spencer said, "Ry."

Ryan said, "I don't know. I don't."

And well, so much for leaving well enough alone.

*


The benefit to Brendon not sharing nights with Jon was that it was pretty easy to get him on his own. Spencer just switched with Ryan for another hotel night with Brendon. Brendon asked, "I piss Ryan off?" sounding largely unconcerned. Ryan could be a little moody, they had a band understanding regarding this which involved a lot of ignoring it.

Spencer, in turn, ignored the question, which was shorthand for, "No." Instead he asked, "What's going on with Jon?"

Brendon waved his hand. "He's just. Y'know. Cassie." Brendon wouldn't look at Spencer as he said it, though, and Spencer knew how to read guilt and discomfort on Brendon.

Spencer considered his plan of attack. After a beat he decided which way to go and said, "Hey, dinner? Just you and me?"

"Um. We bringing something back for them?" Brendon had a point. Ryan wasn't the best at remembering to eat ever, and Jon had been kind of hit and miss of late.

"I'll set Zack on them."

Brendon smiled at that. "Think we can find somewhere that has veggie burgers? I keep seeing commercials for stupid Boca burgers. It's making me homesick."

Spencer didn't mention that Brendon always got sick of Boca burgers two days into being home, because they were pretty much the only thing he knew how to make for himself. Instead he just said, "Probably," and did a search on his phone.

*


When Brendon was happily settled with his veggie burger--"extra pickles, please"--Spencer asked, "Cassie, huh?"

Brendon shrugged and paid more attention than really necessary to his burger. "Yeah. I think he needs more time, maybe."

"And you just, what? Can't deal with him being upset anymore?"

Brendon's gaze shot up at that, his mouth forming into an angry line. After a second, some of the anger drained out and he slumped a little, glaring at Spencer. "No. I just-- I break the rules less if we're not in a room together."

Spencer's stomach twisted in warning. "The rules?"

"Y'know, like, the stuff you don't do when you're in a band together. Like how you and Ryan still don't have sex and shit, even though you're pretty much married." His shoulders were tight, and he waved his hand, like the comment was meant to be airy, but Spencer knew better.

Spencer blinked. "You think that's why Ryan and I--"

"It isn't?"

"No," Spencer said. There were actually a few reasons, but Spencer's concern that it would ruin the band was not on the list.

"Oh," Brendon said, and took a bite, chewing slowly.

A thought formed in Spencer's mind, murky and somewhat dangerous feeling. "Bren. Are you and Jon-- Uh. Did you guys--"

"Not a lot, or anything. Like, three or four times."

Spencer counted, and yeah, Brendon and Jon had been in rooms together at least that many times since Jon's breakup.

Brendon continued, "It's just, y'know, sometimes how you need that, afterward?"

Spencer dug his fingers into his thighs. Yes, Spencer knew about rebounding. He wasn't an expert, or anything, but he'd definitely done it after Haley, with a tech girl who knew she was leaving their crew at the end of the tour. It had been a no-promises kind of thing for both of them, and it had worked out. Spencer could venture to say that he knew enough about it to know that a guy did not, absolutely did not rebound using his band member and best friend. Even Spencer had avoided that, and it would have been really, really easy not to. "You want me to talk to him?"

Brendon shook his head. "My mess. I'll clean it up."

"Brendon--"

"What could you say, Spencer?" And the question was casual, but the tone was not. "Don't screw with Brendon, he's always been a little pathetically in love with you? Jon, stop taking advantage of the fact that our lead singer's easy for you?" Brendon sliced the air a little with his hand. "Leave it, Spence. I'll take care of it."

Spencer didn't know if he believed that Brendon would or not. He did know that this was probably not the moment to doubt him, to go behind his back. Brendon had never said the love word before, not in relation to them, not seriously. It wasn't that Spencer hadn't known, not exactly. But there was something to be said for plausible deniability. He asked, "Are you--" He realized he didn't know the end of the question. To ask if Brendon was okay was stupid. Of course he wasn't. To ask if he would be okay was both asking for trouble and pointless, because Brendon would just lie. He always did when he wanted to believe things. In the end Spencer just sighed and said, "Okay."

Brendon asked, "Think they'd bring me extra pickles?"

*


The way Brendon figured, they only had two more weeks of the tour left. Two weeks and Brendon would go home to Vegas, Jon to Chicago. He'd hang out with Tom, and whoever else was in town. He'd cuddle with his cats and have his mom cook for him and when he came back to them, he'd be better. It would probably take a while for him to reach fine--it had with Spencer--and even longer for happy, but okay was manageable, he just had to get off the road.

Brendon would be okay, too--he just had to get away from Jon, just for a bit. In the meantime, if he couldn't make himself say no--and he couldn't, he'd tried, tried even when they weren't in the thick of touching, to just sit down and say, "we can't, we can't"--he was going to enjoy what was happening, because ever since Shane had told him to either get over the others or leave, Brendon had known he would take whatever they offered him.

*


By the fourth day home, Brendon and Ryan had migrated over to Spencer's house. Spencer wasn't surprised, and also, was pretty ready for them by then. The first day it was always nice, spreading out, not hearing so much as a word from the others. By the second day he was usually pretending he didn't want to at least text one of them with his thoughts. Third day in, he generally gave up and just went ahead and hit "send." Ryan and Brendon rarely took more than a moment or two to respond.

Spencer texted Jon on the second day this time, which broke with tradition, but he had to ask, "hve tom or some1 thr?"

Jon had come back with, "y," and Spencer had left well enough alone. Tom would get hold of one of them if there was a real problem, or he'd get hold of Jon's parents and word would get back to the band that they were needed, one way or another. In any case, that situation was under control and Spencer could concentrate on Brendon, who showed up looking like he hadn't slept since he'd left the bus and like he'd purposely been waiting behind his own door until he thought Spencer would let him in.

Spencer ordered a pizza and set the dogs on him until he fell asleep on the floor. Ryan covered him with a blanket, then, and the two of them folded themselves together on the couch to watch bad daytime television and make sure nothing disturbed Brendon.

Ryan actually helped take care of Brendon quite a bit in his own way, which meant a lot of prodding Brendon to write with him, and in turn, a lot of the two of them squabbling with each other. There had been a long time where their way of working things out had caused Spencer regular headaches, but now it was mostly just background noise, the sound of their process, or whatever. Spencer could also hear how they had actual patterns now, that what sounded like argument to other people wasn't necessarily to them, just really spirited ways of expression that only made sense between the two of them.

Brendon was actually starting to unwind, to get into the swing of being Brendon again, by the time Jon showed up. He was early, but he looked tired and lonely and his text from the airport had read, "brng me home pls?" and whatever else, Jon was still Jon. Spencer brought him home.

*


Contrary to popular belief, Brendon could be a very careful person. It had taken a ton of care to reunite with his family, to maintain his friendship with Shane after the breakup and to wriggle his way in Ryan Ross's affections. When Spencer said, "I have to go get Jon," Brendon said, "Um," and Spencer said, "I think he missed us."

Brendon said, "Okay." There wasn't anything else to say. Jon had the right to come to them if he needed them. Brendon kind of would've liked just a little bit longer to shake off the worst of his desire, get back to a place where everything was properly put away in its rightful nook and cranny, but he wasn't going to deny Jon the others just so that he could have that.

Instead, Brendon did his best to be careful for both of them. He was careful for himself in implementing a slight distance between the two of them, using Spencer to pick up the slack in hugs and other areas of physical affection that Jon normally would have been a great release for. The fact that this made Brendon's stomach tight and the spot right behind his eyes burn was temporary, Brendon was sure. Three days into Jon's stay, Ryan came to Brendon while Brendon was fucking around on the piano and slid himself until he was nearly atop Brendon. Brendon tapped his foot atop Ryan's to let him know he appreciated it.

Brendon wasn't sure if everything would have been fine if Jon hadn't said, "Hey. Um, you know we don't have to be weird around each other, right?"

Brendon had said, "Sure."

Not being weird was a little more complicated than Brendon would have credited. For one thing, he wasn't sure if the dictates of weird changed slightly after having had his band member's cock down his throat. Did that imply that weird meant less touching, or more touching? Brendon figured, though, that if he started with less touching, he could always go up, whereas scaling back was a lot harder.

As it turned out, Jon's definition of not being weird included making out. Brendon found this out the day that Ryan and Spencer had taken the dogs to the vet and were running errands while the pets were being checked out. They'd asked if Brendon wanted to go along, but he'd been needing some space to write without Ryan there to ask about things immediately, try and futz with them, so he said no, not realizing that Jon had turned down the opportunity as well.

Jon didn't even make it some big thing, they were just hanging out in the kitchen, drinking coffee. Jon was reading an old Rolling Stone and Brendon was going over some of the notations he'd written in the last week, trying to figure out what to keep and what had to go. Before he realized it, Jon was at his side, saying, "So," with a lazy smile. It was that smile that threw Brendon off. There hadn't been smiles before. Smiles, unless they were cutting or flat or from Ryan, were signs of encouragement, in Brendon's experience.

Still, Brendon hadn't been the one to start the kissing. That had been Jon. Definitely Jon who had leaned in a little, and pulled Brendon up; who had pressed him with a hip to the table, taking his time with the kisses, not the way it had been before. Then again, it had been Brendon who hadn't said no. It had been Brendon who had read words in the taste of Jon's tongue that were never said.

Brendon had decided, somewhere between the kissing, and Jon working his hand into Brendon's pants, around Brendon's cock, while tugging at Brendon's hand with his free one in something a little more than suggestion, that not being weird probably involved a lot more touching than he had been thinking.

For instance, it evidently involved skinny dipping in Spencer's pool after Spencer and Ryan had gone to sleep, both Jon and Brendon trying their best to giggle--and later gasp--quietly, so as not to wake them. Ryan was a freakishly light sleeper. It also involved ending every tousling session with something even more energetic, Brendon generally the one with his back to the floor, straining up into Jon. Oh, and then there were the times when Jon decided he couldn't wait for the shower, or, you know, use the other one Spencer had.

Brendon wasn't stupid, not exactly. Maybe a little when it came to people, but not half so much when it came to the guys. If he thought about it, he knew not that much could have changed since the tour, not really. That Jon wasn't over being broken and hadn't woken up and seen Brendon one day, only-- Only it kind of felt exactly like that. Because it wasn't like Jon closed his eyes, or called out Cassie's name or any of the things that Brendon really couldn't have ignored. The problem was, it was just so easy to excuse the things that he knew he should be paying attention to, so easy to think that he could make the things he believed true if he just had enough time.

Things between them were always casual, always spur of the moment, which was why Brendon didn't think it was such a big step to slip into Jon's bedroom one night and cuddle into him. Everyone had morning wood, they might as well take care of it together, and regardless of whether they'd been doing anything in front of Ryan and Spencer or not, Brendon was pretty sure they knew. Neither of them was an idiot, and as oblivious as Ryan pretended to be, he was never all that out of it when he might be affected.

When Jon woke, though, instead of smiling hazily and pressing himself to Brendon, or any other reaction Brendon had imagined, he said, "Oh, um. Hey."

Brendon smiled through his unease. Generally, if he could act like he was fine, people would not only believe it, they would react by meeting his own fine with a bit of theirs. "Hey. Morning."

"When'd you... Uh--"

"Sometime this morning. Woke up to pee and I just--"

Jon was still acting a little weird, so Brendon frowned. "Is something-- I mean, this is not the first time we've woken up in a bed together."

Jon made a noise in his throat, something that was like amusement, but not quite on the mark. "Sure, yeah. No, you're--" He turned into Brendon, then, cock lining up with Brendon's, and it felt good, really good, basic getting-off morning sex was one of Brendon's favorite things in the world, but he also knew when someone was using his cock to avoid him. He let Jon do it, because it was Jon, and Brendon was warm and comfortable and happy beneath him.

He tried figuring out a way to bring it up later, but it was a little hard when he wasn't there, in Jon's bed, and Jon was acting like there wasn't anything to talk about, no matter how strange his reaction had been. In the end, Brendon decided that the only way he was going to get anywhere was to recreate the circumstances under which the problem had first arisen, so when Ryan finally fell asleep on the floor in the middle of a sentence after a long night of discussing new influences and how they wanted the next album to scan, Brendon pulled him up, poured him into bed and sought some sleep of his own with Jon.

Jon wasn't asleep when Brendon climbed in. Brendon wasn't sure if Jon had been waiting for him, or if he just couldn't sleep--which would explain how easily he zoned out of late. Brendon said, "Hey," burrowing into Jon's back. Jon stiffened a little and Brendon backed off. "Jon?"

"Just, I mean, do you really think it's a good idea for us to be--" Jon's voice was quiet, trailing off uncertainly. "I mean, sure, before, but with the-- I just don't want things to get messy."

The word "messy" settled in Brendon's mind with a sort of splat, a kind of psychological onomatopoeia. He found himself repeating it more out of the need to get it out than any misunderstanding. "Um. Messy."

Jon was looking at him now, his eyes unsure. "I want this to be fun. Like, I haven't-- I can't just go and do this somewhere, and I couldn't handle a girl right now, I really couldn't fucking do that." Jon rubbed his hand over his face. He said softly, "I need this to just be fun, Bren."

Brendon tried taking a breath, to find that he couldn't. He made himself get up, because he wasn't doing this here, wasn't having a panic attack in front of Jon, not right at this moment, he wasn't. He pushed himself out of the bed, close to falling, but his feet caught him, held him. Brendon appreciated it. Jon was saying something, oh, his name, Jon was saying his name, but Brendon couldn't think clearly enough to listen. He needed to get out of there, away from Jon.

He grabbed his car keys from Spencer's rack and closed the door behind him. He heard it open, Jon following despite not being wholly dressed. Brendon started the car and realized, when his foot hit the pedal, that he wasn't either. That was fine. He was in a t-shirt and boxers. He thought it might be illegal to drive barefoot. He didn't care.

*


He thought he was going home, that had sort of been what he'd imagined, but he realized when the car took him onto the highway that that wasn't where he was going at all. It was going to take him considerably longer to get where he had in mind, but Jon wouldn't be able to follow, wouldn't even consider Brendon having gone there. He'd forgotten his phone at the house, so he couldn't call ahead, but he was pretty sure he'd be allowed in. Luckily, he kept his wallet in his car when he was at Spencer's, since he never needed it in the house and was likely to lose it there if he took it inside.

He drove for about three hours before the need to pee became overwhelming. He stopped at a truck stop, rifling in his back seat until he found the pair of flip-flops he'd been pretty sure he'd seen at some point. They were Jon's.

He filled the car up with gas, paying at the pump, and then went inside. He bought himself the first t-shirt that looked like he wouldn't get lost in it, and a pair of jeans that he had to roll over at the waist twice, the ankles three times. There were cheap sandals, so Brendon got some of those too, throwing out Jon's flip-flops. He sat in the Denny's that was connected to the stop and ordered himself coffee and pancakes. He poured half the container of available syrup on them and then didn't eat. He paid up before going back into the shop area and buying himself a map.

He ran his finger along the highway that he was on, making sure that he could get where he was going. He'd been there before, on the bus, but he'd never driven his way. It looked easy enough, though. It was a long ways away. Brendon got back in his car and started driving.

*


Spencer wasn't sure what had woken him. His clock told him it was nearly two. Ryan wasn't in bed, which either meant he'd fallen asleep on the couch or he was still up. Spencer closed his eyes to go back to sleep when his door opened and Jon said, "Spencer, wake the fuck up."

Spencer nearly snapped back at him, but Jon sounded freaked and he had just broken up with his girlfriend of roughly forever, so Spencer dug deep and found some patience. "Wh'tizzit?"

"Brendon's gone."

Seriously? "Jon, he probably went home. He'll come back."

"No, Spence, he--"

"He left his phone," Ryan said from out in the hall. Spencer hadn't even known he was awake.

That was, admittedly, somewhat worrisome, but sometimes Brendon was a flake. Spencer yawned. "I'll take it back to him in the morning."

"He was upset," Jon said. "He was really-- He didn't even have his shoes on."

Spencer hoped Brendon had been keeping his wallet in his car. If he got pulled over, it really wasn't going to go over well if he didn't have a license, and Spencer could only imagine the heyday Pete would have if Spencer had to go get Brendon out of lockup. Still, none of this was all that important. He could afford to pay Brendon's bail if it came to that. What was important was, "Why?"

"I--" Jon looked small, suddenly, in the dark. "I think I read some stuff wrong."

Spencer sat up. "What kind of stuff?" From his new angle, he could see Ryan holding himself rigidly, nothing but empty hall on either side.

Jon glanced up at Spencer and held his gaze. "I thought he knew it was just--"

"Just?" Spencer asked, feeling his tone rise more than hearing it. "Just?"

Ryan walked away, the slap of his feet on the main hallway tiles audible even from Spencer's room. Spencer threw back the covers. He shoved his feet into his slippers and walked past Jon. Jon said, "Spence, I didn't mean--"

"You came back after going home and you started up with him again. How the fuck did you think he would take it, Jon?" Spencer didn't even bother looking back. He had bigger things to worry about.

"I thought we were on the same page," Jon said, his voice taut. "Obviously. Because if you fucking believe--"

Spencer interrupted. "That you were the only person in this band who didn't know that Brendon has a-- Is in lo--"

"No," Jon said, only it wasn't a, "No, I wasn't the only person," it was a, "No, what you're saying isn't true."

Spencer put up a hand. They didn't have time to sit here and talk about Jon's mental deficiencies. "I'm going to go find him. You start thinking about how the fuck you're going to fix this."

When Spencer got to the door, Ryan was there, dressed and with the car keys in his hands. Spencer took them and didn't argue when Ryan followed him out of the house.

*


By eight in the morning, it was starkly clear that wherever Brendon was, he was missing, at least to them. Spencer had put in calls to Brendon's family and Shane as early as he possibly could and gotten a surprised, "He's not with you?" from just about everyone. He had even tried Haley and Brent and other people that weren't likely contenders to be hiding Brendon, but not wholly impossible, either. He'd made himself call hospitals as a last resort.

By ten, when it seemed obvious that Brendon wasn't going to call, Spencer said, "I think-- Ry, I think you should call Pete."

Jon looked between the two of them, but didn't say anything. Spencer thought that was smart on his part, because Spencer hadn't entirely decided not to kill him yet. Ryan rubbed at the back of his neck. He said, "It hasn't even been twenty-four hours."

Spencer looked at him, because sure, that was a reasonable demarcation for people who weren't them. They all knew the rules were different between the four of them.

Jon did speak up at that. "It's almost been twelve."

Closer to ten, really, but Spencer wasn't sure it made that much of a difference. Jon said, "I could call."

Ryan and Spencer both looked at him. Jon just said, "Yeah, I'll call."

Jon called on Spencer's house phone, because the speaker phone could be piped through the house-speaker system. Pete picked up with a very groggy, "I swear to fuck, Smith, one of you had better be dead."

"Brendon's missing."

There was some rustling, and Ashlee in the background saying, "I'll take care of the kids. You...yeah."

Things quieted after a few seconds, and Pete said, "Did you seriously lose my youngest's godfather?"

"We didn't lose him," Ryan said flatly, and Spencer could tell there were accents to both "we" and "lose" in Ryan's head. He wondered if Pete could hear that.

"What happened?" Pete asked, which could be interpreted in a lot of ways.

Jon chose the most straightforward. "I upset him. He drove away in his car. We don't know where."

"Nowhere obvious, I take it?"

"Nowhere not obvious, either," Spencer said.

"His phone have a GPS in it?"

"He didn't take it," Jon told him.

Pete was silent for a long time. Finally he said, "Okay. I'll call you back later."

"Pete," Ryan said.

"It's okay, Ry. I'll call later, promise."

Spencer looked at Ryan, who finally nodded. "Okay."

They all three listened to the dial tone for quite a while, until Spencer regained the presence of mind to reach over and hang up the phone.

*


Brendon got as far as eastern Colorado before he could feel sleep pulling at him. It wasn't all that late, but given that he hadn't slept the night before, he was surprised to have made it that far. He found a clean-looking motel and got a room. It had a public use computer, so he sat down and emailed his mom.

Mom--

Took a surprise road trip. Forgot my phone. If the guys call, tell them I'm fine. Tell the family I love them.

Brendon


He asked the girl at the desk if there was anywhere to get some clothes. It was coming on mid-November and while Vegas was still pretty warm, Colorado was definitely chilled. The girl directed him to a Sears, and Brendon got himself some jeans and a few hoodies, plus a pair of sneakers, some socks and a pack of underwear. He also found a drugstore where he picked up deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. After that he searched out the nearest restaurant. It was a pizza place, so he ordered himself a large cheese, ate the overwhelming majority of it by himself and went back to the motel.

He showered under the hottest water he could handle, letting it wash off the night and the better part of the day in the car, relax him as much as possible. Then he climbed in bed and went to sleep without turning the alarm on. It didn't really matter what time he left.

*


Brendon pushed through Illinois into Indiana, because it didn't matter that Chicago was nowhere near the part he was driving through, he wasn't stopping. Ohio and Pennsylvania took forever, and he ended up stopping in Amish country, taking another night, half because it was getting too late to press on, half because he wasn't sure what he would do once he got there. He stayed at a B&B with the best quilts Brendon had ever slept under and an omelet made to order that was pretty much all he had ever wanted in a breakfast food.

After the large midwestern states, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut flew by and before he knew it, Brendon was getting horribly lost in Boston, stopping at just about every gas station to try and figure out where the hell he was going. Nobody seemed to know, and those who did didn't seem to want to help him. Brendon knew he looked like shit, wrapped in layers of mismatched clothes--he'd picked up a coat in Indiana--sunglasses on, hair unwashed, face unshaven and patchy with it. Normally it was useful in keeping fans from noticing him, but right now he would have preferred for people to stop treating him like an indigent.

Finally, though, he made it to a three story Victorian house on a street with the right name. He checked the piece of paper in his wallet one more time. It was crinkled over right where the apartment number should have been. He couldn't have even said why he still had the information in his wallet, like he might need it one day, but it had been there, and evidently he had needed it. Brendon checked the mailboxes for the one that said "Benson". There was another name on it, too, but the Benson was definitely there. Brendon stood on the porch for several long minutes before laughing at himself. It wasn't like he was going to just turn around and drive back, and it was cold outside. He lifted his hand, and rang the doorbell.

It was the middle of the afternoon, Brendon wasn't even sure anyone would be home. After a second, though, he heard footsteps and some barking, and a voice he didn't recognize saying, "Hush, Mo."

A man who was slightly older than Brendon, in his early thirties, probably, with brown, wavy hair, very streamlined glasses and a nice smile said, "Hello. Can I help you?"

Brendon suddenly remembered that he still had his sunglasses on, which was kind of rude, so he took them off, smiling in return and said, "Hi. I'm, ah. I'm looking for Jeremy Benson."

The smile dropped from the guy's face and he said, "Shit. You're Brendon." The dog, standing patiently next to him, barked again, but the man dropped his hand on the dog's head and that quieted him.

Brendon wasn't exactly unused to being recognized, but normally people sounded more excited about it when it happened. He ratcheted up his smile a notch. "Um, yes. Hi?"

The man said, "I'm Court Matthews. I'm Jeremy's husband." He didn't hold his hand out.

Brendon blinked a few times. "Oh. He didn't-- I mean, not that we--" Brendon looked down and laughed a little. He brought his head back up. "Congratulations, man. That's awesome."

Court fixed him with a scrutinizing look for a moment before softening. "You might as well come on in. It's cold out and Jer'll kick my ass if he founds out you came and I turned you away."

Brendon followed him in the door. He took his shoes off and left them in the hall. He also hung his coat up on the rack by the door. Inside the apartment was not what he remembered thinking Jeremy would have wanted, but part of their problem had been that neither of them had really known what they wanted. There was a living room to the left of the hall. It was filled with welcoming-looking furniture, bathed in sunlight from large windows that were currently covered in plastic. Court said, "Have a seat. You want some coffee?"

"Please," Brendon said, and meant it with all his heart. Court disappeared into a room beyond and Brendon looked around at the pictures--Jeremy with Court, the two of them with friends, people who might have been Court's family. Beyond the living room was a dining room with a large oak table that seemed to have been taken over by papers. The room had a large window with what Brendon assumed was meant to have been a built-in sideboard. Braced against it was a cello. Since Brendon knew Jeremy didn't play, he called, "You play cello?"

Court popped his head out to glance at the cello, as if unsure of what could have given him away. "Yeah. BSO."

"BSO?"

"Boston Symphony Orchestra."

"Oh," Brendon said, his eyes widening. "Wow."

Court disappeared and Brendon went back to looking around, at the upright in one corner of the living room, battered but with the keys and pedals still clearly in great condition. The dog, who had followed Court into the kitchen, came trotting back to check Brendon out. Brendon called, "Your dog's name is Mo?"

"Yeah. And don't let him on the couch. He always tries with new people."

Brendon smiled and got down on the floor so that Mo wouldn't have to bother. Brendon wasn't a dog expert, but he would guess that Mo was some kind of Retriever-Pekingese mix. He was a little weird-looking, but friendly, happy to have someone to play with. Court came back to find Brendon mock-pinned to the floor by his dog and laughed. It loosened something in Brendon's chest. Court said, "Okay, Mo, let'im up," and Mo moved, largely, it seemed, because he'd heard Court say his voice.

Brendon stood and took the coffee from Court. Court said, "Wasn't sure if you took anything--"

"Black's fine, thanks."

They drank in silence for a while until Brendon said, "What's he do? Now?"

"Actuarial stuff for Liberty Mutual. They're pretty big out here."

"Yeah, he liked math." When they'd met, Jeremy had been dealing blackjack at The Palms.

"Look, I don't mean to be an asshole or anything, but you and Jer haven't been together for over five years, so, um. What the hell are you doing here?"

Brendon took a deep breath and admitted, for the first time since he'd left Vegas, "Hiding."
*

When Spencer stopped pretending to watch TV at around ten, with the intent of taking something and trying to sleep, Ryan followed him into his bedroom. This wasn't unusual--Ryan pretty much ignored the fact that he had his own room at Spencer's house--except for the fact that Ryan usually came to bed at least a couple of hours later than Spencer, and stayed there probably a few hours after Spencer had left. But when Spencer picked himself up from the couch, untangling himself from Ryan, Ryan patently refused to be untangled. Spencer said, "Okay," and tugged him along.

Ryan curled into Spencer, and although Ryan had started to put on--and actually keep on--some weight around the time he'd turned twenty-seven, he was still mostly the bony guy Spencer had always known. It had never bothered Spencer, not even when he was a kid, and used to hugs being soft and easy.

Spencer escaped long enough to get a Dramamine for both of them. Ryan took it and the water Spencer offered and swallowed without even asking what it was. He made a face at the aftertaste but then just laid down, waiting for Spencer to climb in. Spencer acquiesced, tucking the covers carefully around Ryan. He lost heat easily.

Ryan twisted his fingers in the material of Spencer's shirt and said, "Just so there's no confusion," before kissing Spencer. It was a quick kiss, but pointed.

Spencer couldn't really remember a time when he hadn't had a list of reasons why he shouldn't kiss Ryan Ross--the first always, always having been that it might mean losing him--but it was absolutely beyond Spencer not to say, "No confusion," and pull Ryan right back. Spencer hadn't ever been all that great at denying Ryan anything, and he'd had a long fucking day. He was better at denying himself the things he wanted, but even he had his limits. Ryan's mouth was warm, slightly bitter from the pill, open to Spencer.

Spencer rolled himself partially atop Ryan, and it wasn't all that comfortable--Ryan was still mostly bones, even if less so than before--but it was right. Ryan's hands were spanning his hips, digging in too hard. There would be bruises later. Spencer didn't care. He'd taken worse from Ryan Ross and come out the better for it.

Ryan pulled his mouth away. "Spencer, Spence."

Spencer breathed for a few seconds, trying to clear his brain enough to listen. "Yeah."

"This isn't like-- It's not just because he's missing."

Spencer felt a jerk of annoyance somewhere below his ribs. "Jesus fuck, Ryan, who do you think you're kissing?"

"Spencer Smith. Who's done pretty much everything I've ever wanted him to." Ryan said it evenly, and it was only because he was atop Ryan, because he could feel the faint tremor that Ryan managed to localize in his thighs, of all places, that Spencer knew how terrified it made him to say it aloud.

"I've had my limits," Spencer said. It was true, too. He'd always known the places that were just one step too far to go, even for Ryan. There just weren't that many of them. "And while it's flattering that you think you're the only one who's been an idiot for roughly twenty years now, you're wrong."

Ryan's expression didn't change. Slowly he said, "So if we do this--"

"No take-backs," Spencer said.

That did get Ryan to laugh, or, well, at least to breathe. Finally he said, "Right. No take-backs," and pulled Spencer all the way back onto him.

*


Ryan, miraculously, was still asleep when Spencer woke. Spencer considered his options for a few seconds, then slipped out of the bed, pushing pillows into the space he'd occupied. He padded down to his studio, not even stopping for coffee, and sat at his kit, glad he had soundproofed the room when he'd moved in. He started playing, not even anything in particular, just patterns he liked, sometimes songs, anything that his hands wanted to do.

When he was sweaty and sore and dehydrated, he slid off the stool and laid on his back, looking up at the white, wholly uninteresting ceiling. He didn't want to think about all the things he and Ryan hadn't said. It wasn't an issue, not for Ryan and him. They were good at knowing exactly what lay in the silence between them. But if they-- When they got Brendon back, well, that would be something different.

Maybe Spencer and Ryan had been idiots for a long time, but they'd both had their reasons and Spencer knew Brendon was at the top of that list. It was the same reason, Spencer was pretty sure, why neither of them had ever made a move on Brendon. For the longest time, particularly in his early twenties, Spencer had really thought he'd be with Haley, and Ryan and Brendon would eventually fall into bed together, or something equally unplanned, and it would work. Then Haley had left him for all the right reasons and he'd know that nothing was ever going to be that simple.

The door to the studio opened and Ryan said, "Pillow wasn't as warm."

"Sorry," Spencer said, absently.

Ryan came in and closed the door behind him. He opened his mouth and shut it. Then he opened it again and asked, "Brendon?" as fast as his tongue could manage. He looked scared, and for a second, Spencer wasn't sure of what. There were more than enough frightening prospects.

Spencer held up a hand and Ryan allowed himself to pulled onto the floor. He folded his legs. Spencer said, "We'll make it work."

"Spence--"

"I'm not giving you up."

Ryan shook his head. "No, but--"

"We won't give him up, either."

Ryan's expression was unsure. Spencer didn't really blame him.

*

Jeremy got home at five-thirty, just as Court was running out to practice. Court kissed him hello over the bike that Jeremy was rolling in the door, strapped on the case he'd put his cello in, said, "Hey, there's leftovers in the fridge. Oh, and we have company," and left.

Jeremy set the bike against the wall in the hallway and walked into the apartment calling, "Hello?"

Brendon came out from the wall he had been sort of kind of hiding behind and said, "Um, hey. Hi. Hello."

Jeremy looked better than Brendon remembered, but then, the last time they'd seen each other face to face they'd both been crying and exhausted and kind of disgusting overall. Still, Jeremy was in a plain black suit that fit him well, emphasized his shoulders and the stretch of his legs. He'd lost a lot of the baby fat he'd still had when they'd dated and was sharper now than he had been, more wiry seeming. His hair was darker now, either from lack of sun or dye, Brendon couldn't tell. His eyes were the same, though, dark brown-green, curious, somehow kind and mocking. They reminded Brendon of Spencer. They always had, even when they shouldn't have. After a very, very long silence, Jeremy said, "Hey Bren."

Brendon smiled nervously. He jerked his head a little toward Jeremy's left hand, hanging at his side. "Nice ring. You guys have good taste."

"Court said--"

"You guys were married, yeah. That's awesome."

Jeremy smiled, clearly also nervous, but relaxing. "It was part of the reason we stayed in Mass. That, and Court was offered an adjunct spot at Berklee, which, music teaching positions aren't the easiest to come by, and I can pretty much do what I do anywhere, so, y'know."

Brendon opened his mouth to say yeah, but ended up admitting, "No, I have no clue, but I want to. Know."

Jeremy said, "Look, I don't mean to sound like an asshole, but this is kind of sudden. What are you doing here?"

"Court asked the same thing. I-- Running away?"

"Bren--"

"I need somewhere to be. Somewhere they won't find me. Just for a little bit. Please."

Jeremy didn't say anything, and Brendon added, "I can get a hotel room. Just tell me somewhere clean and not flashy. Somewhere nobody's gonna look."

Jeremy ignored him, asking, "What happened, Bren?"

"Jer--"

"You can stay here, we have an extra bed. But that's my condition, you tell me what happened."

"Jon and Cassie, they split--"

"Jon and Cassie?"

Brendon smiled ruefully. "I know, right?"

"Hadn't they been together like, fifteen years or something?"

"Close enough." Brendon didn't like to acknowledge that he knew the exact length of other people's relationships. It made him seem lonely and pathetic. "Longer than most marriages, at any rate."

"Wow, that's-- How's he doing?"

"You'd have to ask him."

"Brendon?" Jeremy had clearly caught the note that was something between anger and desperation, bitterness and utter heartbreak.

"He kinda decided I'd make a good rebound fling." Brendon smiled self-deprecatingly. He might be lonely and pathetic, but he was at least self-aware.

Softly, Jeremy said, "C'mon. Let's see what Court left us for dinner."
*


Brendon called Matt because he wouldn't ask questions. It wasn't that Matt didn't care, just that Matt and he had come to an unspoken agreement that they could love each other without understanding each other. He called early, forgetting that it would be even earlier in Vegas, and Matt answered sounding fairly groggy.

"Shit. I'm sorry."

"Bren?" Matt asked. "Bren, wait."

Brendon heard Matt tell his wife to go back to sleep and the rustling that indicated he was getting out of bed. After a few seconds he said, "Hey, where are you?"

"Boston. I didn't realize, um. Time difference."

"Boston?"

"Yeah, um. I think I'm gonna stay out here for a bit."

There was a long silence before Matt asked, "You okay?"

Brendon didn't want to lie to Matt. He closed his eyes. "I just have to figure some stuff out."

"Anything I can do?"

"Matt. I need-- The guys can't know, okay?"

"Brendon--"

"It's not like--" Brendon bit his lip, because he couldn't say that he knew how to leave his family but not his guys, he wouldn't say that, not to his brother. "I just really need to make my own decisions right now. That's all."

Matt was quiet for a long time. "If you need somewhere to go, Bren. If you-- You know that, right?"

Brendon pressed his palm into his right eye. It didn't stop the burning in his eyes, but it helped him to be able to say, "Love you, Matt," without crying.

"Love you too, little brother."

Brendon gasped, but Matt didn't ask. Brendon appreciated it. "You should go back to sleep."

"Yeah. Is this your new number?"

"No, uh. Friend's phone."

"You'll give me it when you have it?"

"Promise."

"Cross your heart," Matt said.

"Crossed," Brendon told him.

Matt laughed softly and hung up.
*


Jeremy was at work by the time Brendon ventured from the guest room. Court was sitting in the living room, cello cradled between his knees. He looked up when Brendon came in and asked, "I wake you up?"

Brendon shook his head. "Just." He shrugged. "The bed was warm."

Court smiled. "I generally have to kick Jer out in the winter. He's from friggin Utah, you'd think he'd be used to it."

Brendon bit his lip for a moment before saying, "He just likes cuddling."

Court looked up. Brendon said, "I can pretend I don't know."

Court made a noise. "You know the first thing I ever learned about you from him?"

"From him," Brendon said.

"I have had a subscription to Rolling Stone since I was twelve."

"Oh."

This time Court's noise was a full-on snort. "Yeah. Oh."

"What? What was the first thing he said?"

"That you played the cello."

Brendon frowned. "Not really. I mean... I figured out enough to write it into things, but not, I don't play."

"I'm a concert cellist. I sorta figured that one out on my own."

Brendon crossed his arms over his chest. "Okay."

"Same way I figured out what happened between you and him on my own."

Brendon shivered, even in the grip of his arms and the decent warmth of the house. Court sighed and set aside the cello, grabbing a blanket and coming over to Brendon to wrap it around him. Brendon didn't move. He wasn't even sure if he wanted Court to hit him or hug him or what. Instead Court tugged at the blanket, pulling Brendon with him to the couch. Court asked, "Have any plans for today?"

Brendon laughed. "I don't have any plans for the rest of my life." When he swallowed his throat tasted like crushed aspirin, bitter and gritty.

"Let's take things one step at a time, huh? Wanna go to lunch with me and watch the symphony rehearse?"

Brendon looked over at the cello. He couldn't tell much about it other than that it was old. The name etched into it sounded vaguely Italian, but Brendon couldn't say for sure. His fingers itched to run over the wood, skim their way over the strings. "I don't know much about classical music."

"Might not be the worst time to learn."

Brendon didn't look up as he asked, "What happened? Between me and Jer. What happened?"

Court was silent for long enough that Brendon didn't think he was going to answer. Finally he said, "You weren't in love with him."

Brendon's gaze snapped up at that. "I was."

"Not like the others," Court said, not looking away, not flinching, not letting a hint of doubt steal into his tone.

"Enough," Brendon said.

"Enough?" Court asked.

"Enough for-- Enough to keep him standing."

Court's eyes softened at that. "Yeah. I owe you that much."

Brendon looked at the mantel, where there weren't any pictures of people who looked like Jeremy. "He still doesn't speak with them, does he?"

"He sent them a wedding invitation."

Brendon wasn't sure he wanted to know, but, "And?"

"They returned it unopened with a couple of quotes from Leviticus and a plea that he turn back from his path lest he burn in eternal agony. He had to stop me from going down there and beating them all with a fucking stick, which probably would have resulted in eternal conflagration, so after that he kind of let things lie."

Brendon said, "Your family, they--"

"It was dicey for a bit. They're a little, um, old New England. My mom's a Daughter of the American Revolution. But they love me, and other than his family, I can't find anyone who doesn't love Jer, so they came around."

"I couldn't give him that," Brendon said. "I mean, my family liked him, but it was never going to be as a son-in-law."

Court nodded. "Jer's said. He's talked about you. I mean, with them."

Brendon tried to remember where they'd gotten where they were. When he managed he said, "I did love him."

Court sighed. "You asked me what happened. I told you."

Brendon stole a glance at the cello. "The lunch and rehearsal deal still open?"

"Just. One thing."

Brendon had a feeling he knew what it was, but he said, "Sure."

"That's why you're here, isn't it? Because of them."

Brendon looked at him, not saying a word. Court said, "It's a long fucking drive from Vegas, is all."

"Yeah," Brendon said, not sure if he was replying to the question or the statement. It applied to either, so he figured it didn't matter.

Court asked, "Burritos okay?"

*


On the fifth day of Brendon's disappearance, Spencer slipped out of bed before Ryan was up, took the longest shower he could justify, put on clean jeans and a respectable looking shirt, and drove to Mr. and Mrs. Urie's. He stopped on the way for flowers, because it seemed like the thing to do, given as how he hadn't been invited.

Mrs. Urie let him in, thanking him for the flowers and heating some water for tea. Spencer sat with her quietly for a few moments before asking, "Has he-- Have you heard from him?"

She hesitated for a second before nodding. Spencer wasn't sure what else to say. He'd thought about it for days, the ride over, up until this moment, and there was nothing to say, not really, not if she wasn't going to offer the information. He watched as she made the tea, thinking this was going to be awkward, the two of them sitting, not saying a word. When she handed him the cup, though, safely resting on its saucer, she said, "He doesn't want to be found, Spencer."

"Yeah, I'd-- Yeah." Spencer didn't say that didn't mean they couldn't stop looking. He was pretty sure she knew.

"When he wants that, he'll be easy enough to find."

Spencer got that that was meant to be reassuring. Ryan hadn't slept through the night once since Brendon had disappeared, though, so it wasn't. "Will you just-- If you talk to him, will you tell him that we can't fix things if he won't let us?"

Mrs. Urie looked away from him. "I'll see what I can do."

It wasn't any sort of a promise, Spencer knew. It was also the best he was going to get. He drank the rest of his tea in silence.

*


Brendon bought a new phone on a completely new plan and a GPS system the day after he got lost for six hours just trying to buy some groceries and a solid winter coat. It was dark by the time he made it back to the apartment and when Jeremy answered the door it was clear he was going to yell until he saw Brendon's face. At which point he pulled Brendon in and said, "Hey, you okay?"

"This town makes no fucking sense," Brendon told him. He wanted to sound mad, but he was still getting over the confusion of consistently ending up in a different place he didn't recognize and the unwillingness--or inability--of most people to help him out.

"I know," Jeremy said, having the grace to be emphatic about it. "If you wanted to go out, why didn't you ask for directions?"

"I had a map." Brendon was really good with maps. He had navigated for countless family trips while his mom was sleeping when he was younger.

"Yeah, that doesn't mean anything in Boston," Court said, appearing with a cup of coffee.

Brendon took it from him gratefully. "No shit."

Jeremy had taken his coat off of him, and Court ushered him onto the couch. Jeremy said, "Tomorrow, after work, we're getting you a phone."

Brendon nodded and drank his coffee. Court reassured him, "After you've been here for a while, this'll be funny."

Brendon hadn't said he was staying, so he looked at Court. Court shrugged. Jeremy pulled the conversation in another direction with, "I saw you got stuff for cupcakes."

Brendon rubbed a hand over his face. "Good thing you guys already had the eggs."

"Wanna make them?" Jeremy asked.

"They were supposed to be a surprise for you guys." Brendon hadn't figured out what would be an appropriate thank you gift. He figured that in the meantime, cupcakes were easy and almost never went unappreciated.

"They're a surprise evening activity," Jeremy said, clearly unbothered, and stood. "C'mon. First one to the kitchen gets to decorate!"

Brendon let Jeremy win.

*


Court was saying something, but the sound of the train in the tunnel was too loud. Brendon shook his head, and Court nodded that he understood, subsiding. They hopped off at Davis and Court said, "I thought maybe you'd like some real cello lessons."

Brendon looked over at him. "Yeah?"

"Well, it's that or listen to you banging on the piano at all hours--"

Brendon shoved lightly at Court. Court laughed, but didn't say anything else, waiting for Brendon to respond. Brendon turned the offer over in his head. It was stupid, because he'd already said he was staying for a while to everyone who would listen. It was different, though, taking Court up on lessons and knowing that would mean he actually meant to stay, that he was leaving the guys to their own devices, whatever they may be. It was different knowing that this meant he was giving up the stuff he thought he'd never give up, the stuff starting with the guys and going on well past the stages and the buses and the recording studios.

They walked most of the way back to the house in silence and when they were at the door, Court said, "You don't have to decide right now. Offer's open."

Court was looking at him like he might break. Brendon remembered, years before--eleven, now, probably--Spencer doing the same thing. Spencer had always been good at hiding what he was thinking, but not that night, staying with Brendon in his new apartment, when every fucking noise made both of them jumpy and unsure that this had been the right decision at all. Brendon closed his eyes against the wash of memory, the awareness that it had been the right decision.

Then again, he'd gotten his family back. He wasn't sure he could have said that if he hadn't. Maybe. Maybe Jon and Spencer and Ryan and the music would have been enough. He wished... He wished he were going to something again this time, rather than just away from something. He thought that would have made it easier.

The last section the Symphony had been working on, repeating over and over, rolled around in Brendon's head, seemingly unconnected to anything. Brendon had scraps and fragments of music, familiar and unwritten, in his head all the time. Usually it was just sort of like a bodily function, like Brendon might forget to breathe without it setting his heart and lungs to a beat. Now, though, it was louder, more insistent. Brendon listened, let it take over his mind for a moment, even if it was just trying to provide some relief.

The sound of the strings stood out, stark against the woodwinds, the percussion, and Brendon couldn't help thinking of the smooth, elegant motions of the bows, synchronized like ballet. Brendon had only ever seen one ballet--the Nutcracker--but he liked to see it every year, was completely taken in by the skill beneath the pageantry. Ryan would always go with him. Brendon thought he saw different things, but he didn't think it mattered. Jon went too, but Jon was a Christmas junkie. It was like giving the guy on the street a crack pipe.

"Brendon?" Court asked.

Brendon brought his hand up to the back of his neck. "Sorry, just. Thinking."

"You can get back to me. I mean, you know where I live, right?"

Brendon took the key from Court's hand and opened the door for them.

*


Brendon was still hovering, spending his days cleaning an apartment that wasn't his, or following Court up to the school and sitting in on theory classes taught by Court's friends, or taking his GPS and having adventures with just himself and his car, when the doorbell rang in the middle of a Tuesday. Court was at the school and Jeremy was at work, so Brendon looked out the peephole. He took a step back, said, "Fuck," and considered whether to open the door. Mo was wagging his tail in excitement, waiting for Brendon to make his move. With one major exception, Brendon had never been all that great at disappointing others when they were right in front of him, so he undid the chain and opened up. "You found me."

Pete didn't smile. "Gonna let me in?"

Brendon stepped back to allow for that. Pete came in and Brendon closed the door behind him. Pete said, "And people say I'm the asshole."

"You are an asshole," Brendon said. "There can be more than one." When Pete didn't come back with something, Brendon asked tiredly, "So, they know?"

Pete shifted on his feet. "As far as anyone knows--and that includes Ash and Patrick--I'm here checking out a band. It would be great if I could go somewhere--"

"Yeah, I know a few places," Brendon said. Belatedly, he added, "Thanks."

Pete didn't say, "You're welcome." Brendon asked, "How's my godson?"

"He misses you," Pete told him.

That was low, but it wasn't like Brendon saw Pete's kids in person all that much anyway, so it was a little easier to blow off than it should have been. He came back with his own form of a verbal kick, which was to say, "Remember all those months when you didn't talk to Mikey Way?"

Pete folded his arms over his chest, but Brendon was kind of fighting for survival here, so Pete was going to have to do a hell of a lot more than that. "At least he fucking wanted to make it work at the time."

"Brendon--"

Brendon shook his head, sharply. "What do you know?"

"I know Jon is a stupid bastard, but he knows it too, and he feels miserable about it."

The thought of Jon feeling miserable at once made Brendon sick to his stomach and happier than he had any right to be. All he said, though, was, "Doesn't change anything, Pete."

Pete opened his mouth and then shut it. He turned and walked further into the house, sitting on the couch. He looked smaller even than usual, dwarfed by the cushions. Finally he asked, "What the hell are you going to do?"

Brendon tried to think of something that would make both of them feel better, but in the end he could only admit, "Don't know."

"Ryan's not sleeping."

Brendon's fingers itched to call him, but of all them, all three, Ryan was the one who had always had the most power to get Brendon to do what he wanted, needed. Brendon could scream all he wanted, but when it was between the two of them, Ryan won a good seventy-five percent of the time. "Spencer staying with him?"

There was something odd about Pete's, "Yeah," but Brendon didn't ask. If his suspicions were right, he didn't want to know. It was easier to be happy for the two of them if he didn't have to be heartbroken over it.

"He'll be okay." Brendon thought about explaining that Ryan survived things, but Pete already knew. Pete was one of the few people had seen it before Ryan had had the courage to talk about it.

Pete didn't look so sure. "The band--"

"I can't, Pete," Brendon said, and that was the one thing he knew. It didn't matter how much he loved music, loved the sound of the four of them together. "Could you? If it were Patrick and Joe and Andy and this had happened, could you?"

Pete held Brendon's gaze for a long time before shaking his head. "I-- Probably not."

"They'll figure something out. We did when it was Brent."

Neither of them mentioned that Brent only (barely) played one instrument, or that that had been almost nine years earlier. Pete did say, "Bren."

Brendon pressed a fist to his stomach, walking over and curling against Pete. Pete responded, hunching over him immediately. Brendon wondered if he could have made his decision without that tacit forgiveness, or if he would have followed Pete back, even knowing it would kill the important things in him. It didn't matter, because Pete gave it. Brendon said, "I have to stay here for a bit, at least. I'm gonna-- I'm gonna learn to play cello. And some theory." Brendon wasn't sure what he'd do with either skill, but that wasn't the important part.

"What am I supposed to tell them?" Pete asked.

"You can't find me."

"I hate lying to Ryan."

"I know." Brendon did, both personally and in reference to Pete. "But it's really kind of like I'm lying, isn't it?"

Pete made a noise that called bullshit on that theory, but didn't argue. Brendon burrowed further, squeezing as tight as he could. He said, "Stay for dinner. Court'll know good places for music."

Pete squeezed back.

*


"Should I go back to Chicago?"

Spencer looked over at Jon, a little surprised to hear his voice. Jon hadn't spoken much since Brendon had disappeared. Ryan was pointedly ignoring him any time he said anything--Spencer had mentioned that said behavior didn't really help, but Ryan was blissfully unconcerned--so Jon had mostly just given up. Spencer suspected it was more of a calculated play on Jon's part than anything. Jon knew Ryan pretty well; he knew when to push and when not to.

Spencer noted the way Jon looked like he'd been sick. His skin was a kind of yellowish color and his lips had a dryness to them that wasn't normal. Spencer asked, "Do you want to?"

Jon laughed, but it sounded like the beginning of a sob. "I want my two remaining best friends not to hate me. I want to do the last month of my life over. I want Brendon back."

Spencer wasn't horribly impressed by Jon's outburst. "You didn't answer the question."

"Jesus, Spence, no. Of course I don't want to leave. I can't believe you even--"

"Have to ask? Have to ask, Jon? That's funny, because a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have thought I did either, except then you went and mindfucked Brendon, so evidently I've been reading you wrong for a long time now."

Jon backed up a little, and Spencer thought he was going to leave the room, but in the end he stayed. He asked, "Is that what you really think?"

Spencer was tempted to say yes, to let all of the fear and bitterness and sadness of the last few weeks out on Jon. Instead he admitted, "I don't know what to think. I can't imagine what the fuck you were thinking."

Jon folded his arms over his stomach, as if protecting himself from a blow; nevermind the fact that Spencer was half-way across the room. "I was thinking about myself, I guess. I was... I just-- Brendon never asks for too much, you know? Or, I guess, he thinks that us just not leaving is too much. And I--"

"Took advantage of that," Ryan said from the doorway. His voice had a very deliberate edge, but he was speaking directly to Jon, which Spencer thought was probably a step toward reconciliation.

Jon stiffened and Spencer waited, waited to see if Jon would take the opening, call Ryan on all the times he'd done the same, just not to the same extent. In the end, though, Jon did know Ryan, knew what he was being offered and he said, simply, "Yes. I didn't-- It wasn't-- If I'd thought of it that way, I wouldn't have done it."

Jon looked at Ryan squarely and Spencer thought maybe that was Jon's answer in and of itself, as Ryan surely had, at times, known what he was doing and gone about it anyway. But Ryan never meant to cause harm, he just didn't think about the consequences for other people. And he had a sort of innate caution that came out when most needed; a defense-mechanism meant to keep others at his side. Spencer had never wished a dose of Ryan's caution on Jon before, but he did at this moment.

Ryan was trying to dig his fingers into the wood of the doorway with little to no success. After a nearly interminable silence he looked away from Jon and said, "Don't leave."

"Okay," Jon said, and didn't push any further, didn't ask if Ryan had been listening the whole time.

Ryan looked past Jon, at Spencer and asked, "What are we going to do?"

Spencer looked at Jon, who looked away. Spencer was still angry, but he thought mostly that he was just tired--tired and scared that he wouldn't be able to fix things this time. He took the deepest breath he could manage--his lungs felt shallow, and Brendon wasn't there to make him laugh through the worst of his fears--and said, "We'll figure something out."

*


Jeremy found Brendon poking about on Craigslist and asked, "Um, is that really a good idea? I mean, so far you've kept your presence here under wraps, but going to look at random people's apartments--"

"I can't just stay here," Brendon pointed out. "Mo's starting to think you guys love me more than him."

"Blasphemer," Court called from the kitchen.

"And one who leads good little Mormon boys astray," Brendon called back, hooking his fingers in Jeremy's. Jeremy laughed and squeezed back before letting go. Brendon clicked back to the main listings page. "Also, homeless."

"You have a price range?" Jeremy asked.

"I'm good. Spence helped me to invest way back, and I haven't really, I mean, other than the house and my car, I'm not Ry-- I don't go in for Luis Vuitton bags, or anything."

"Court, do you know of any doctoral students who are maybe subleasing?" Jeremy looked at Brendon. "I mean, if we knew who you were renting from--"

"Yeah," Brendon said, nodding.

Court wandered out and said, "Nothing off the top of my mind. The other thing I was thinking is that if he doesn't know how long he's going to stay, maybe we could talk to some of our friends to see if any of them knows of a trustworthy place he could get a month-by-month."

Jeremy stood still for a moment and then his eyes went wide. "Oh, hey! Kait!"

Court pointed a finger at him. "Good thinking."

"Kait?" Brendon asked.

"Friend of Court's from childhood," Jeremy explained. "She has a two family, but it's just her and her wife, and they're forever trying to rent out the top floor."

"What, they want a ton of money?"

"No," Court said. "They're just picky about who they'll rent to. Kait inherited the house from her aunt, and Stacia, her partner, is a lawyer, so they're not hard up for the money. They had a couple of bad experiences and ever since they'll only rent if they're super sure of the person."

"Oh. Well, it must be said that I shed."

"We've noticed," Court told him. Brendon reached out and flicked his fingers against Court's shoulder. Court grinned and flicked back. Only when they were getting to bruising intensity did Jeremy intervene, kissing Court away from Brendon.

Brendon said, "Kait?"

Court nodded. "I'll give her a call, see what she thinks. She has a parking space, so at least that problem'll be taken care of."

Brendon had managed to acquire enough tickets to wallpaper the apartment since he'd shown up, even with the visitor's pass they'd been loaning him.

"Praise heaven," Brendon said.

Jeremy said, "Yeah," and leaned into Court for another kiss. Brendon really needed a place of his own.

*


Kait and Stacia weren't what Brendon had been expecting. Kait was a perfect--natural--blonde, with the grace of someone who had been dragged to a few too many ballet lessons as a child. She was taller than Brendon even without the three inch pumps she was wearing, had clearly professional French tips on her nails, and an accent that spoke of a semester in Europe and summers on the lake. Stacia had long, beautiful braids that were tucked neatly into a clasp Brendon suspected of being fourteen carat gold. Her suit was tailored, and she wore a watch that probably cost as much as one or two of Brendon's guitars.

In short, they were the most picture-perfect lesbian power couple Brendon had ever seen in his entire life. But when he sat down to have coffee with them, the first thing Stacia said was, "Hi. You aren't allergic to dogs, are you?"

Brendon had held out a hand even while saying, "No, what kind of dogs?"

They looked at each other in what Brendon would have called a sheepish manner, if he could have credited either woman with being sheepish. Kait said, "Uh, an Alsatian and a Greyhound."

"I love Greyhounds," Brendon said sincerely. "Even mini ones, and they're pretty ugly."

Stacia laughed a little and said, "Well. And a Lhasa mix, a mutt nobody can identify, and a pit-bull mix."

Brendon blinked before bursting out laughing. He covered his mouth. "Sorry, sorry. That's awesome, totally awesome."

"Bleeding heart here keeps forgetting that fosters are meant to move on to permanent families," Kait said, sounding more fond than exasperated, although there was a little of that, too.

"I have to buy my soul out of hell somehow, dear," Stacia said, patting Kait's hand. Brendon got the feeling they had a variation of this conversation a lot.

Kait rolled her eyes. She said to Brendon, "You would honestly think she was a criminal defense lawyer rather than tax. She just likes furry things."

"Wow, the places I could do with that," Stacia said drolly.

Kait giggled, and she was still kind of intimidating, but less so when she sounded slightly like a fourteen year old. Stacia grinned and said, "So, Brendon. Tell us about yourself."

Brendon thought it should have been easy, given the number of times journalists had asked him questions, some specific, most less so. It wasn't. He could barely figure out where to start. "I'm a musician."

Kait said, "Yeah, okay, so what Stacia meant was, tell us things about yourself that we can't garner from, oh, walking into a Target."

Brendon hadn't actually been certain they knew who he was until that point. Also, it was hard to explain, but he didn't know much else about himself just then. He said, "I ran away from home." After a second he added, "Again."

Softly, Stacia asked, "Why?"

Brendon had been asking the same question, trying to figure out if there was a better answer than, because I was stupid and got my heart broken. Finally he said, "Because I'd forgotten what a guitar sounds like without another one accompanying it."

Kait took a sip of her coffee. "And you needed to know?"

Brendon thought about the miles and miles of road between him and home, and how just months ago that would have been nothing, that would have been a tour or some other mundane reason for distance. He said, "Evidently my car and I thought so."

Brendon didn't know what he was waiting for, but he knew he'd gotten in when Stacia nodded once, firmly. She said, "We have a maid service come every couple of weeks because one of our tenants left us with rats and we've been a little paranoid ever since. You need to keep the place neat in between, but they'll do the intense stuff. Kait and I both work day jobs, so no late, loud nights, and if there's some kind of emergency reason, let us know. Pets are all right so long as we are told beforehand. Rent's due on the first of the month, grace period through the fifth, then there's a late fee. We pay for utilities, including cable, it's semi-included in the rent." She looked at Kait. "What am I forgetting?"

"We're big on recycling. We find recyclables in the trash, we'll set the dogs on you." Kait paused to look thoughtful. "Oh, and boardgame night is Thursday's. It's mostly people from the school where I work, but a few of Stac's coworkers come around some times, and occasionally outside friends like Court and Jer, so yeah, welcome anytime."

"I am brilliant at Checkers and Life, I warn you."

Stacia and Kait shared a look. Stacia told him solemnly, "We consider ourselves warned."

*


Two months to the day after Brendon had left, Ryan stopped playing his guitar. It took Spencer a few days to figure it out, but no time at all to trace it back to the source, because he didn't think for a minute that he was the only one of them with a mental calendar. Spencer couldn't remember the last time a date had weighed so heavily in his mind. Perhaps the date of Haley moving out. For a while it had taken effort to breathe every month on that date, but it had gotten easier, easy enough that now it was mostly just a pang, a moment of loss. Spencer wasn't sure he was going to get so lucky in this instance.

Jon figured it out a little bit after Spencer, and tried coaxing Ryan out of it by playing around him, playing where Ryan's guitar was easily accessible, should he feel the need to join in. Jon quit when Ryan locked himself in "his" bedroom for four days, not even letting Spencer in until the second one. That was when Spencer said, "Either open this door or be prepared to get the fuck out of my house." He said it lightly, so that Ryan would be able to hear that he might be serious, but he wasn't mad.

Ryan had opened the door just wide enough to let Spencer in. Spencer rolled his eyes. "I'm not a fucking Trojan Horse, Ry."

Ryan shrugged, closing and locking the door all the same. Spencer wondered what had possessed him to put locks on the guest bedroom. He followed Ryan back to the bed, which was currently more a nest-bowl thing made of covers than a bed. He wrapped himself around Ryan. "You should eat."

"I know," Ryan said. "Sorry."

The problem was, Ryan was sorry because he was worrying Spencer, not because he was skipping meals wholesale. Spencer wrapped his hand over one of Ryan's wrist, rubbing his thumb over the veins. Ryan was still in his arms, too still to be relaxing into sleep. Spencer asked, "So, we're just gonna...stop?"

"I-- I don't know."

Spencer didn't have a sterling memory, or anything, but he could remember the day Brent had introduced them to Brendon, clear as fucking crystal. Mostly, he could remember because it was the one time--the only time--in his life, that he'd ever been scared of losing Ryan to something. Not even Jon or Keltie had posed the same threat that Brendon had from the very beginning. And it had been weird, because Brendon was a complete mess at that time, everything that Ryan usually laughed at in private, or even to the person's face. Not Brendon, though. From the beginning Brendon had been A Thing for Ryan, even if Spencer was the only one who'd known that.

It wasn't that Spencer didn't think Brendon deserved it, not even that Spencer wasn't glad Brendon had taken Ryan that way, since anything else probably would have been a road to disaster. But Spencer wouldn't let Brendon take Ryan from him now that he wasn't around, anymore than he had allowed it when Brendon was around. It wasn't just that Spencer couldn't handle losing Ryan, which he couldn't. Losing Ryan on top of Brendon, though--

Spencer's chest hurt and he held on tighter by instinct, until Ryan made a noise. Spencer backed off then, "Sorry."

Ryan shook his head a little, maybe telling Spencer it didn't matter, maybe telling him it was all right. Ryan forgave him, and that was the point, he felt. It made Spencer brave enough to say, "We know other guys who sing. Play guitar."

Ryan made another noise, not so different from the last. Spencer winced. He said, "Just, I mean. We could try it. Maybe, I could talk to Pete. Maybe we could just open, or something? Easy. It's out of our cycle, obviously, but it's hardly like we can write without--" Spencer bit his words off, then took a breath. "And then we could figure out if it was going to work."

"You've been thinking about this."

Spencer thought it might have been an accusation, but Ryan sounded too scared and tired to really back up his ire. Spencer came back with, "You haven't been playing." Or writing, but Spencer knew all about taking one step at a time.

"Haven't felt like it."

Spencer stayed quiet at that. Ryan could do some of the work here, that was only fair. After making Spencer wait for it, Ryan asked, "You think we should?"

Spencer considered his response before asking, "What're our choices? Make you lead singer? I think you'd have something to say about that."

Ryan's snort was weak, but it was an acknowledgment. Ryan didn't mind singing lead every once in a while, but he wasn't willing to limit their song writing capabilities to his range, nor did he enjoy the thought that everyone would be zeroing in on him the whole time. Hell, at first Brendon had all but had to hold his hand every damn time he performed a song as lead.

"Alternatively, we could stop doing this. Figure out...I don't know. What do you want to be when you grow up, Ryan?"

Ryan laughed, but Spencer knew the laughter Ryan used when he refused to cry. Spencer kissed at the sharp line of Ryan's jaw. "Ry."

Ryan nodded, ever so slightly. Spencer said, "I've been thinking. I mean, Alex isn't doing anything right now, right?"

Ryan took a few deep breaths. "Alex Greenwald?"

Spencer squeezed Ryan's wrist. "You like him, he's used to performing lead, we can rework the vocals for him, he plays guitar, he's a pretty viable choice, you have to admit."

Spencer didn't think Ryan was going to say anything just then, but finally he asked, "Have you talked to Jon?"

"Do you care?"

"Not really, at the moment, but I probably will."

Spencer tried to pinpoint when Ryan had grown into being fairly self-aware. He gave up after a few seconds. It had probably happened while he wasn't paying attention. "I'll take care of it."

"And you'll-- You'll make the call, right?"

Spencer swallowed a sigh. It really would have been better coming from Ryan. Not that Ryan didn't know that. "Yeah. But don't think I'm not gonna cash in on that one later."

"You should," Ryan told him, turning in Spencer's arms so that they were facing. "You should."

*


Kait and Stacia had a well-loved upright that Kait's uncle had played but neither of them ever touched. They had a movie collection that spanned decades as well as genres, from queer rom coms to classic horror to documentaries. They had the best dogs in the world, and at times needed Brendon to take care of them, which meant that Brendon was given a key fairly early on after moving up the stairs from them, and it was never rescinded. When Brendon asked, "Can I borrow--" Kait said, "Anything. Hell, watch it on the forty inch."

It was sort of like living in an amusement park made especially for Brendon. The only thing that would have made it better was the thing he never, ever allowed himself to think about. He had rules for how not to fall apart, and not thinking about the guys was the first one on the list.

As long as Brendon didn't think about how Jon would really love walking on the carpet in Brendon's apartment with his bare feet, or how Spencer would have helped the dogs make a total mess of the backyard, or how Ryan would have loved Kait's collection of books, he was fine. A significant chunk of Kait's books were history-oriented or biographies. Brendon had never been much in to either of those genres, but he found now that they helped. For one thing, he had to concentrate to read them. They weren't hard to understand, or anything, just often dense. It was nice, too, taking himself so far away, into the lives and times of other people, their own worries and tribulations that were generally so different from Brendon's.

He took lessons from Court almost every other day, practicing for hours on the days when he wasn't being taught. Court found him a piano tutor, and he picked those lessons--which he hadn't had in easily a decade--back up, scales and all. He bought himself two new guitars, an acoustic and an electric, and started teaching himself classical guitar. As long as he focused on classical music, his connection to the medium wasn't broken. When he tried anything else, even country, which was pretty far removed from Panic's sound, his fingers felt sore and his stomach ached.

On certain Sundays he would go with Kait and Stacia to the Frog Pond, where the ice rink had just opened. Kait had been a competitive skater when she was younger, which didn't surprise Brendon in the least. Stacia and he mostly skated in circles with the rest of the skaters while Kait moved into the center and did things like back layout spins. At one point, Brendon asked, "Where'd you find her?"

Stacia said, "Vassar."

Brendon said, "Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense."

Stacia laughed. "Do you have any clue what you're talking about?"

Brendon admitted, "Not really."

It was okay, though, because they still invited him into their place afterward and made him hot cocoa, the Jacques Torres kind that was so rich there were actual melting chunks of chocolate dissolving on his tongue while he drank. He helped them start a fire--okay, he went outside and brought the wood in so that Kait could light the fire--and played a couple of games of Spit before heading up to his room, where he read 1776 until he fell asleep, fully clothed.

*


When Spencer approached Jon with the idea, Jon said, "I could kind of use a drink."

It was ten in the morning, though, so Jon held off, which Spencer appreciated. Instead they shared a joint together and Jon, when he was finally high enough to even talk said, "Ryan... Ryan wants this?"

That was a bit strong, Spencer felt, but now wasn't the time to prevaricate. "Yeah."

"What about..." Jon looked off into the distance.

"Brendon?" Spencer asked. He wasn't really that high. He'd thought about it, but it seemed counterproductive. Jon hadn't been willing to say Brendon's name for weeks.

"You. What about you?"

Spencer rubbed a hand over his face and lied to his drugged friend. "Yeah. It's what I want."

*


The one thing Spencer insisted on was that they all meet with Alex. In the end he had to pretty much throw Ryan in the shower--well, okay, pull forcefully and keep him there by way of distraction--and stuff him into some clothes, but he got his way. Spencer had arranged the meeting to be at Ryan's favorite burger and shakes place, and he ordered what Ryan always ordered and let him just eat while he and Jon chatted with Alex. Alex threw a few glances at Ryan--whether because he wasn't talking or because he was lackadaisically playing with his food, Spencer wasn't quite sure--but knew Ryan well enough to leave well enough alone. It reassured Spencer a little bit that this wasn't the disaster it might seem like at first look.

When they'd finished with bitching about the latest price hike on gas, dissected a new band that had been playing the LA scene and munched through at least some of their food, Alex said, "So, um. I'm guessing you didn't fly me out here and pay for my hotel so that we could have a reunion lunch."

Spencer had discussed the situation with Ryan and Jon, and they'd all agreed that it was best if they didn't mention that they'd actually lost Brendon. Well, Ryan had mostly just nodded at appropriate moments, but Jon had said, "Yeah, that's probably-- Yeah."

The alternative was to say, "Brendon's taking a sort of...indefinite hiatus from the band," which made Ryan stiffen even further at his side and Jon scowl at the table. Spencer's lungs felt tight and twisted, but the words were out, now.

Alex said, "Brendon? Um, rea-- I mean, yeah, of course really. Stupid question. Okay, so, Brendon's taking a break."

Spencer had written out a few different ways of presenting the offer, but he couldn't remember any of them. He looked at Jon, pretty sure Ryan wasn't going to be any help, but in the seconds that Jon took to look back at him uncertainly, Ryan said, "We need a lead singer, Alex. Can't have a band without a lead singer."

Alex looked at Ryan. "No," he said slowly, so that it sounded much longer than the simple negation it was. "No, but you also can't just... I mean, when Sam decided he needed time to like, I don't know, do his own thing? That was that."

"We made it through Brent," Ryan argued. The argument sounded a little flat to Spencer, but he thought that might just be because he knew Ryan so well.

"We made it through Jason and Jacques," Alex said tightly.

Ryan looked away, out the window. Alex unwound slightly. Spencer felt for him. He and Ryan had always had the kind of friendship that involved a lot of fun and very little actual talking. This couldn't be a good time for him. Spencer said, "We have to try."

"You have to," Alex said. It wasn't exactly a question, but it wasn't not one, either.

"You-- You didn't. And that's awesome." Jon looked nervously at where Ryan was still pretending to ignore all of them. "But that's not-- We're not there yet." Then, quickly, "I mean, we're not there."

Alex fiddled with a French fry before eating it, crunching slowly. "What's Brendon say?"

"He left," Ryan said, and tried to pull his legs up before remembering there was a table there. Spencer heard his knees hit the underside.

Alex looked between the three of them. "You didn't ask him?"

Jon stole a look at Ryan. "It's complicated."

"Amazingly," Ryan said, looking back blankly at Jon. Spencer kicked Ryan's ankle. Ryan didn't so much as blink.

Alex said, "Give me the basics."

Spencer sighed, because knowing that was only fair kind of sucked at this moment. "He's kind of taking a break from us, really. We don't exactly know where he is."

"Exactly," Alex repeated.

Spencer warned Alex off then, settling him with a Look that Spencer had managed to stare everyone but his mom off with at one point or another. "He'll get in touch if he needs to."

Ryan's fingernails dug into Spencer's jeans so hard it hurt. Spencer allowed it. It was kind of a nice distraction. Alex said, "This is fucked up."

Spencer just knotted his jaw. "You can say no. That's kind of how the whole asking thing works."

Alex made a slight face. Then he tilted his head and asked, "How have I not heard about this?"

Spencer shrugged. "We're supposed to be recording. Pete says he'll get people to handle the PR. There'll probably be a press conference, but, I mean." They were mostly an indie band. Gone were the days when hundreds of teenies would have rent their clothing at the news. Now all they had to worry about was their dyed-in-the-wool audience. Admittedly, that was an audience none of them wanted to lose.

Alex took another French fry. When he was done chewing he said, "I don't know. Can I have a couple of days?"

"Not like we're going anywhere," Ryan said, trying for a smile and failing. Alex didn't seem surprised.

*


Sometimes, in the middle of the day, Brendon liked to get on a train and just take it to the end of the line. Then he would get on a train heading the other way and take it all the way back. He liked reading the ads and listening to other people's fragmented conversations, liked listening to his iPod, swaying to the rhythm of the train as it worked its way along the tracks, rarely smooth but sometimes fast. There was a place heading from Harvard toward Central where if you looked out the right hand windows there was a moving ad, rows and rows of still art that formed moving art when the train was speeding past. And once past Kendall, the train rose above ground, straddling the Charles, which was frozen for the winter, but Court assured him that it was home to sailboats and canoes and skullers come spring. Brendon liked it even in its quiet state.

Sometimes he rode the trains to a transfer station, like Park, and changed lines entirely, not even necessarily sure of where each would take him. It was pretty easy to hide, tucked in the North Face coat that Jeremy had insisted on. He generally stayed away from the worst of the college areas, since college students made up the overwhelming majority of Panic's fanbase. Harvard and MIT, even Tufts could be a little hard, since Kait and Stacia lived nearest to the Porter station, but BU, BC, Lesley and Simmons weren't so much.

On Fridays Brendon almost always went completely out of his way to get to the North End and bring home cannoli from Mike's, because it was Stacia's favorite things in the entire wide world. Brendon liked looking at all the choices, even if he knew he was going to get the cannoli (with the chocolate chips, the chocolate chips were key). He liked the girl with the slightly Polish (Russian?) accent who always took his order and wrapped his box in the string, tearing it off with a quick flick-and-jerk of her wrist.

Brendon discovered the red line that marked the Freedom Trail after one of their Duck Pond excursions and spent the next three weeks traversing every inch of it, spending time at each of the spots, even the graveyards, which left him a little empty feeling, outside of everything, for no reason that he could explain. He liked the places that showed up in the books he'd borrowed best. He stood at the prow of the Constitution for two hours before one of the Marines had asked him, "Sir, you all right?"

He'd smiled and said, "Sorry. Kind of...got lost."

She said, "Good thing this ship always made it back to port."

On a particularly sunny--if not-all-that-warm--day, Brendon made his way along the alternative path, up to Bunker Hill, and sat in the shadow of the memorial, where the sun couldn't get in his eyes. He walked his way back to the T through the North End and made a stop at one of the cafes that served gelato, furthering his agenda to personally try every one, and locate the best. So far the best one he had found had been a random find in Belmont, of all places, located only by accident after getting really, amazingly lost while picking up a package for Jeremy from the UPS warehouse in Watertown.

At first getting lost in Boston had scared him, because nothing led anywhere, the streets were never parallel nor perpendicular. Now he just figured he'd explore until he recognized something, and if he never recognized anything, he'd call someone who could tell him how to get home. It was weird, to trust himself like that, to trust the world in some ways, like that. It was also kind of awesome.

He'd gotten recognized once, when he'd been buying tickets for a movie at the Coolidge Corner theater, a little too close to BC and BU territory to be quite as safe as other parts of Boston, but when he'd looked politely confused, the girl had backed off, saying she must have been mistaken. That was the advantage of being by himself, across the country from where he was supposed to be: even if people noticed him, they weren't quite sure enough to assume it was him. If he had Stacia and Kait with him, he was never bothered, since it was clearly not a date and nobody stopped to think Brendon Urie might be hanging around with a couple of random women.

Brendon had always worried in a small, hidden corner of his mind, about what he would do if one of the others got tired of the band, if something happened to one of them and he was left to his own devices. It was nice to know that if he ignored the part of him that never felt like it woke up entirely in the morning, the parts that skittered away when he listened to music--any kind of music--the parts that were made up of Jon and Ryan and Spencer and would never be anything else, that he would be fine, that he knew how to spend time with himself, with other people who weren't parts of him. He knew how to get up in the morning and go to sleep at night and eat in between. He knew how to take care of his car and wash his clothes and all the things that he'd sometimes forgotten when they were on the road and someone would have to remind him once they stopped and he remembered what it felt like to have the ground under his feet again.

He thought maybe he'd come out there, come as far as he knew how to go to forget, to become his own person again, a person who wasn't made up of other people. That was kind of a stupid goal, he could acknowledge, but maybe inevitable, since he'd never tried before. Now that he was here, here where they weren't, he knew that wasn't going to happen. Brendon supposed it was like one of those types of cancer, the kind that could be killed with chemo, but the chemo would kill the patient, too. Some things just grew too deep to be eradicated. Unlike cancer, though, Brendon could survive with the disease inside of him. Living, that was fucking overrated.

*


Spencer thought Alex probably thought he was making a mistake. Spencer would have liked to have been able to reassure him, but he didn't really have anything to work with. To give Ryan his due, he really was trying to rework the songs so that they would fit better with Alex's voice, and Jon was sharing his pot, which was sort of like a welcome from him. It was kind of hard to tell these days if that was the most he was capable of, since he mostly just slunk off to be by himself, given the chance. When Pete called Spencer to make sure he'd gotten all the logistics, that everything was in order, he asked, "How's it going?" and Spencer hesitated about ninety seconds too long.

Pete said, "Yeah, okay. Well. The LA show's only a couple of days in. I'll come and see if I can do anything."

Spencer said, "Maybe Ryan could sleep at your place?"

Ryan had sold the LA house when someone had offered him about a million more than he'd paid for it. He hadn't been emotionally attached enough to turn the offer down. He'd always talked about getting another one, but never quite managed. Spencer hadn't been surprised. Ryan was waiting to buy another house with someone, that was all. But Ryan had always felt at home in Pete's space, it was probably the best bet for sleep Ryan was going to have until Spencer could get him acclimated to the bus. A bus with different noises, a bus that didn't-- Spencer turned off the thought.

"Just Ryan?" Pete asked.

Spencer didn't say anything. Pete said, "Even if he hadn't told me, I would have caught on."

"Yeah," Spencer knew. Pete wasn't stupid, and even if he had been, he still would have had a sixth sense for this kind of shit. Also, he knew Ryan just about as well as anyone who wasn't Spencer or Brendon or Jon. It made Spencer a little glad that Ryan had told him. Ryan was sparing about his self-honesty, even with the people who wouldn't have minded, maybe would have liked it. And in the secret part of Spencer that was still five years old, it also made him feel a little warm, Ryan claiming him like that.

"You're welcome, you know," Pete said. "You've always been welcome."

Spencer frowned at the phone, because while Pete and Ryan had always had a friendship that defied logic and the space-time continuum, it wasn't as though Pete had ever tried to push Spencer out, not that Spencer had noticed. "Okay."

"'Sides, the kids miss you. You're their favorite. I mean, other than--" Pete stopped.

Other than Brendon, but he doesn't count, because he's one of them. It was an old, old joke. "Yeah, well, I'm a pretty awesome uncle," Spencer said, to fill in the silence.

"And friend," Pete said softly.

Spencer didn't mean to snort, but he did, he couldn't help it. Brendon was who only knew where, Ryan was holding himself together by a thread, Jon was heading down the path of someone likely to get lost in his own bathroom while sober from sheer loss of brain cells, and Spencer could do fuck-all to fix any of that. "Yeah."

"This wasn't about you," Pete said, low but sure.

"Bullshit," Spencer said, and he could feel the anger, the betrayal, burning under his skin, but he kept his voice flat. He'd learned that from Ryan.

"No. I mean, it was... Like, sure, dude leaves his fucking band, and the band's got something to do with it, but this was about Brendon. Whatever else, this was about him needing to do what he needed to do."

Spencer knew that, but it didn't make him hate the fact that Brendon hadn't needed them for it any less. Spencer was used to being needed, and he was surprised--and less than pleased--to find that it wasn't always as much of a drag as he made it out to be. It was also something that defined him, made him Spencer Smith, Ryan Ross's best friend, Panic at the Disco's drummer, whatever-the-hell other epithet you assigned. Spencer said, "Yeah, well, next time I see him, I'm gonna kick his ass all the same."

"Sure," Pete said, and did Spencer the favor of sounding like he believed him. There were some days Spencer believed himself. He was angry enough, really, but he knew if he got Brendon back, it would be like the time he and Ryan ran away when Spencer was seven and Ryan was eight. They'd been gone half a day by the time his parents discovered them in a playground about a mile from their house. His mom had hugged him so tight Spencer couldn't breathe and had only yelled later, much later. Then again, the yelling had been all the more potent for the fact of her obvious fear, so obvious he had seen it even at seven. The thought left Spencer with some satisfaction. If they ever got him back, Brendon was going to feel so guilty.

"So, Los Angeles," Spencer said.

"See you in a few."

*


Alex said, fairly patiently for a guy who'd already been over this same fact at least four times, "I can't hit that note, Ryan. I'm not physically capable of hitting that note. I'm not--"

"We'll rework it," Jon said, before Alex trekked along the forbidden pathway of suggesting that he was not Brendon Urie. Spencer bit back a sigh. Ryan looked mutinous for a moment, and Spencer was almost certain he was going to have to take him for a "walk" to the back lounge, but then he sagged a little, and said, "Sorry," to Alex, sounding genuine. "Sorry, I'll think up something else."

"Believe me, it would be totally awesome if I could hit that note, I'm not denying," Alex said, also semi-apologetic, even though they all knew he had nothing to be sorry for.

Spencer offered, "Why don't we just insert an improvisation? Like when, um, we had that breakout of laryngitis."

Really, just Brendon and Jon had gotten it, but that had been enough. Ryan nodded. "Yeah, yeah, you're right, that was fun."

Spencer hoped like hell that Ryan didn't have some kind of freak out when Alex didn't play like Brendon. They'd played with Alex before, so it wouldn't be new, but Spencer remembered his style and it was drastically different, if no less flamboyant. Still, it was a better solution than trying to get Ryan and Jon to work together to rework all of the vocals, or even just asking one of them to do it by himself. And Spencer loved his band, but he sure as shit wasn't offering.

Spence looked over at Jon, who blinked at him, seemingly unsure of what Spencer needed. Then he said, "Oh. Good idea."

Ryan scowled at his knees. Spencer didn't think it was about Jon agreeing. He said, "Okay. Well, I mean, we've got a few hours, so I'm gonna--" he motioned toward the bunks. He wasn't surprised when, after a few minutes, someone joined him. He was pretty surprised that it was Jon.

Spencer made room, even thought there really wasn't much, and said, "Ryan's still in one piece out there, right?"

"Him 'n Alex are arguing about Molly Ringwald movies."

It got Spencer to smile, if not laugh. "Naturally."

Spencer kind of thought Jon had fallen asleep--he had his face buried in Spencer's collarbone, the way he often did when sleeping--but he said, "I don't know what to do."

Spencer stiffened a little and Jon made to move, but Spencer had the sense to keep him where he was. The bunks weren't really big enough for him to go anywhere without falling out. "Do?"

"It's not as if I can find him. Better men than I have failed. And I would leave, try and let it be known that he was safe to come back, except I think Ryan would just, well." Jon managed to shrug, even with his head down.

"See that as you leaving him, too," Spencer finished, because it was the truth. Ryan was mad, sure, but that didn't change the fact that Jon was one of his two remaining best friends, and if Jon left now, Ryan could very possibly go back to being the kid Spencer had left Vegas with, untrusting, frightened by kindness, and sure that he deserved to have everyone fuck off just when he needed them most.

Jon breathed deeply. "I tried apologizing."

"Were you high?" Spencer asked, and maybe his voice was a little sharper than intended. It wasn't as though Spencer had some moral issue with getting high, it wasn't even as though Spencer didn't do it himself, still, some of the time, although far less than his younger self. It was just that Spencer knew what apologies sounded like when a person was high. Spencer had had to not speak to Ryan more than once over the issue.

It was Jon's turn to stiffen. "Spence--"

"Whatever, Jon."

"He's not easy--"

"Seriously, shut up before I have to hit you."

Jon was quiet for a moment, the sound of the bus filling the silence. When he spoke, he said, "I'll try again. Sober."

Something in Spencer's chest loosened. He said, "Jon."

Jon's breathing quickened. "I miss him, too, is the thing. Even if I don't have the same right, or whatever, I miss him too. I wish--"

Spencer held his breath until he had to ask, "What? What do you wish?"

"I-- I was going to say that I wished I had never done it, but."

"But?" Spencer asked.

"I can't-- I mean, you haven't ever wanted...?"

Of course Spencer had fucking wanted. Spencer was the one who had to sit behind Brendon the whole damn concert. But he'd never just taken, because there were unwritten rules about this sort of thing, the kind him and Ryan were breaking, but had waited, waited forever to break. "Jon?"

"I think... I think maybe I made a mistake?" At Spencer's gasp of disbelief, he said, "No, I mean, not that one. I mean, I think-- I don't think I was looking for something casual at all."

Jon sounded so fucking broken at the prospect that Spencer didn't even have the heart to yell at him. He did say, "I swear, I've collected rocks smarter than you, Walker," but he didn't push Jon away, out of the bunk, and Jon didn't try to go, so he was pretty sure the comment was taken as intended.

Jon hooked his fingers in the collar of Spencer's shirt. "C'n I?"

Ryan was probably going to have some kind of non-verbal wig if he came to Spencer's bunk and found Jon colonizing Spencer, but at the moment, Spencer could only worry about so much at one time. Jon was going to have to be his priority, at least for a couple of hours. "Yeah, go to sleep."

*


The first snowstorm of the year came late, surprising everyone, and closing Boston down. Literally, the mayor made a statement closing the city. It was pretty much the coolest fucking thing Brendon had ever seen. He called Kara and said, "It's snowing!"

Kara had said, "You're in Boston, genius."

"No, I know, but you don't understand, there's snow everywhere."

When Kara had failed to be properly impressed, Brendon had gone downstairs, where both Kait and Stacia were holed up, Stacia working in the office, Kait making blueberry muffins. The schools had actually closed before Kait had had to go in, and Stacia could work from home if she felt the need, so neither of them had been in traffic that morning. Kait made him help with the measuring and the stirring, but then she said, "So. Snow time?"

Stacia's snow suit was kind of gigantic on Brendon, but Kait insisted that he needed it. She allowed him to wear his own hat, coat, scarf, gloves and boots. They tromped out to the backyard, the dogs coming with them, thrilled at the new landscape. The snow had begun overnight, and was still falling heavily, at eleven in the morning. Brendon opened his mouth and allowed the flakes, thick and cold, to fall on his tongue. It was cliché, but Brendon had never really had a chance to do it, to concentrate on how it felt, so that made it new.

The snow was at least five to six inches thick, more than enough for a solid snow angel. The dogs, fascinated by Brendon flailing on the ground, immediately attempted to come to his aid, pretty much destroying the integrity of the angel, but adding to the fun by times eleven million.

He joined Kait, then, diligently rolling herself out a Frosty. She had managed the bottom layer all on her own, but clearly needed an accomplice for the body and the head. Once they had managed this, Brendon traipsed around the yard, finding leaves and sticks and other minutiae to create the face. By that time he had pretty much exhausted himself, and Kait ushered them inside. They left their wet things by the back door and made their way into the kitchen, still warm from that morning's baking session. Kait called Stacia in to share the muffins and some tea.

When he had had his share, Brendon went upstairs and took the longest warm shower he could ever remember indulging in, before putting on wool socks and sweats an curling up in his bed, napping, despite the fact that he'd slept a solid nine hours the night before. When he woke, he made himself some lunch and set to practicing cello, since it was pretty clear he wasn't going to get to go into either the school or symphony practice. When his fingers hurt and he felt like he couldn't keep his back straight one minute longer, he gave up, going downstairs and curling up on the girls' couch, since there was a fire and the dogs would come and cuddle with him while he read.

At some point, Kait said, "If you're just going to sit there, come help me with dinner."

Neither Kait nor Stacia were vegetarians, but they had no problem making vegetarian dishes while Brendon was there. Slowly, Brendon was learning to trust himself in the kitchen, if only with the most basic of tasks. He would chop the veggies, or read the instructions, or program the oven, something of that sort. That evening Kait put together a from scratch tomato soup while Stacia pan fried three-cheese-and-pesto grilled cheese sandwiches. The cheese was soft and drippy when the bread broke apart, and they were all messy disasters by the end of it, but nobody seemed to care.

Brendon helped clean up and then went back up to his place. It was warm, the heat from downstairs penetrating through the floors. Brendon wrapped himself in blankets all the same, watching out his bedroom window as the snow kept falling, ever vigilant, despite darkness having come. He fell asleep to the sight at some point: he only knew because he awoke, too, sudden and startled. He couldn't remember quite where he was at first, the snow outside his window making no sense at all. Then he thought, "Oh, right," and realized what had woken him.

There was music in his head. That was actually pretty normal, it was rare that Brendon didn't have some song or another playing over and over in his mind. What was unusual was that he didn't know this music, had never heard it before in his life. It wasn't even really in a genre he could identify, more a mesh of the things he was spending his time mainlining and those he knew best--classical and rock. There were understrains of folk, though, and some of the jazz that Stacia was into.

Brendon stayed where he was at first, aware of what it meant if he got out of bed, found some paper. He wasn't sure he wanted to do that. The last time he had truly written on his own, without commentary or content input from the others, was in high school. A long time ago in a far away galaxy and best left there, or at least Brendon had thought. He closed his eyes again, willing himself back to sleep, but his mind was clearly going to be stubborn about the situation.

"Fine," Brendon said, and got out of bed, going to the bathroom first, more out of spite than need. He found some of the practice paper he had for the theory class he was auditing and said, "Just so I can sleep."

It was nearly light out when he went back to bed, his hand aching, a pleasant distraction from the worst of the hurt.

*


At three months into the tour, Alex got sick with some kind of bug that had him pretty much down, and Ryan, never the most tactful, managed to get himself overheard saying, "Brendon would have fucking performed," after they had called in for a replacement band for the evening. Spencer wasn't paying attention at the time--he was making arrangements--but he would piece everything back together later, unlike the fragments of Jon's iPod.

Jon--unwisely, but perhaps understandably--had dragged Ryan to the back lounge for a quick session of "what the fuck?" and Ryan had, subsequently, completely and totally lost his shit. By the time Spencer had figured out that he should be paying attention to the screaming, Jon's iPod had already gone the way of windows in hurricane season, he had a scratch on his face, and he was pinning a completely frenetic Ryan to the ground with all he had. Spencer stared for a minute, trying to process the scene in front of him, the two of them yelling so loudly at each other he was entirely certain neither could hear what the other was saying and then shouted, "Shut the fuck up!"

They snapped out of it, both of them looking at him. Spencer said, "I'm going out. When I get back, Alex had better be sleeping, this bus had better be clean, and I swear to fucking fuck the two of you had better be quietly talking your shit out."

He turned and was nearly to the door when he made the mistake of looking back and catching Ryan's face, eyes wholly panicked. He bit out, "I'll be back," and then made himself leave.

They were at the venue, since it wasn't a hotel night and there was nowhere better to go. Spencer got one of their techs to give him a ride to the nearest coffee place and bought his weight in coffee, muffins and cookies. The two of them brought them back and shared them among the techs. After a bit, Spencer slipped off to an area of the bus lot far enough that the smokers usually didn't bother to venture out there, and sat, drinking his coffee and working his way through a muffin.

It was kind of cold to be sitting outside, but not too bad. Houston never got all that frigid, at least not in the times Spencer had been there. The coffee was warm enough to negate the worst of the effects. Still, Spencer would have preferred to be on the bus, watching something in the back lounge, or sleeping, or possibly trying to have sex with Ryan as quietly as they were able in the bathroom. They weren't fooling anyone, but Spencer didn't really need that. He needed Ryan underneath him, atop him, beside him.

When Spencer started hearing the pre-opening band--some local act that the drummer of the headliner was friends with--Spencer walked slowly back to his bus. He got on and stood on the first stair for a moment, to see if he could hear anything. Alex still sounded like he was dying. The rest was silence. Cautiously, Spencer walked to the back. If it wasn't clean, it was at least not the disaster it had been. More significantly, Ryan and Jon were on the couch, Jon sitting, Ryan asleep, with his head in Jon's lap. Spencer looked at Jon. His eyes were red. Jon said softly, "Your best friend is an asshole."

Spencer cocked his hip and leaned on the door frame, unimpressed. Jon rubbed at his face. "But I think we're gonna be okay."

"We're fine, Spence," Ryan murmured, and held out a demanding hand without opening his eyes. Spencer hesitated then gave, coming over and fitting himself under Ryan's legs. Ryan shifted so that he could look up at them. He told Spencer, "I said sorry."

"So'd I," Jon agreed.

"I just, I don't know if I can-- I think maybe when this tour is up, maybe we should, y'know, just go home." Ryan bit his lip. It was kind of useless, since there was already a tear falling from the corner of his eye, but Spencer didn't say anything, didn't reach out to wipe the tear away. Jon did.

"I said maybe if I left, maybe he would--"

"And I said no," Ryan cut Jon off. Spencer would have liked to have felt like Ryan was being kind of selfish about this whole thing, but he agreed. Losing Jon wasn't any better than losing Brendon, it was just different. He was glad Ryan was back to seeing that.

Spencer said, "At least if we're at home, I mean. It's easy for him to find us there, right?"

Ryan smiled for Spencer. Spencer knew it was just for him, because Ryan had very specific smiles when he wasn't feeling like smiling at all. Jon said, "Maybe I should go back to Chicago. Just for a bit. Tom's been talking about getting together."

"Tell Conrad he can bring himself out to Vegas. Why does that band of his never tour westward anyway?" Ryan asked, sounding both disgruntled and vaguely unsettled.

Jon squeezed at Ryan's shoulder. "Just for a week, Ry. Then I'll come back. You guys should have the house to yourself for a bit."

"So you can stay at my place," Ryan said, still clearly not in the mood to give.

Spencer intervened. "Take a couple of weeks. We should all probably stop thinking about it, for a bit. See if we can...clear our minds, come up with new solutions."

Jon looked at him disbelievingly, and Ryan didn't manage to repress a snort, but they both deferred to him. Ryan said, "Fine."

Jon said, "Yeah, sounds good."

*


Brendon found out about the tour through an ad in the daily free paper. Staring at it, it seemed like he should have known, even though he didn't really speak with anybody who could have told him. He was too busy staring at the ad to notice his stop, and only got off the T when they forced him off at the end of the line. He placed the newspaper neatly in the recycling bins and went home, where he locked himself in and stayed for an indeterminate amount of time, until someone pounded loudly on his door and said, "Bren, I know you're in there."

Brendon thought about not answering. Sure, Jeremy would come back, but he could just not answer then, either. He could ignore his phone, his texts, whatever. He was still considering it when Jeremy said, "Or I could just get Kait to give me the key. She'll side with me and you know it."

Kait would, so Brendon got off the couch and went to go let Jeremy in. "Sorry, didn't hear you."

Jeremy rolled his eyes and walked in without being invited. He went and sat down on the couch and waited for Brendon to join. Brendon asked, "Can I get you anything? Water, OJ--"

"I saw the ad. I saw it a couple of days ago, actually, but you hadn't said anything, so I figured it was fine until Court came in today asking if you were sick and when I called Kait she said she hadn't seen you all day."

"What ad?"

"Stop it." Jeremy didn't sound pissed, but he didn't sound all that willing to fuck around, either.

Brendon shrugged. "They're a band. Bands tour."

"Less than six months after their lead singer of over a decade disappears on them?"

"Ryan and Alex have been friends forever. And it's almost been six months."

Jeremy mercifully didn't mention that the tour had most likely been going on for a while. They usually worked their way east. Instead he said, "Okay," and waited.

After several torturous moments of silence, Brendon asked, "Is there something you want me to say here? Would it help if I cried, or something?" He put as much anger into the question as he could muster. There should have been plenty. He'd been ping-ponging wildly between enraged and emotionally bleeding out for at least seven hours. It had evidently worn him out.

"Wouldn't hurt," Jeremy said mildly.

"Fuck you. I owe you one for taking me in, but--"

"Two."

"Two?"

"You owe me two. One for the taking in and one for the time Spencer called me and I lied and said I didn't know where you were."

Brendon's breath caught. "He-- You--?"

"Should I have told him the truth?" Jeremy raised his eyebrow.

After a second, Brendon shook his head, and collapsed, sitting down on the couch. "Sorry. Sorry, I just--"

"Yeah." Jeremy said. "And you don't really owe me."

"Fight for another time," Brendon said.

"Sure." Then, "Y'know, when I came up here, I was kinda... Like, a lot of the time the only thing that'd kept me from freaking out about the guilt and the fear and shame and all that shit, most of the time it was just being with you. Like you were standing between me and that stuff, you know?"

Brendon nodded. It had been like that with the guys, at first. When he'd come out to Spencer and Ryan, their teenage-fierceness in the face of others' disapproval had been just about the only thing that had made him able to stand strong in the decision. Later, Shane's surety, his calm at knowing who he was, sexually and otherwise, had helped to modulate Brendon's own emotions, until between his people and his scene, Brendon had started to settle in his own skin. It hadn't been easy, though, nor pretty. And he'd had it easier than Jeremy, who'd had to leave Salt Lake City altogether, get far enough away that it was just himself he had to answer to, himself and a G-d he no longer formally prayed to. "Yeah. I know."

"The school, it offered eight free counseling sessions. My roomie, he made me go after I tried drinking the window cleaner the janitor accidentally left on the hallway."

Brendon stilled. "Jer, you could've--"

"No, I couldn't." Jeremy shook his head. "Because you would have picked up and you would have been kind and you would have helped and I would have fallen in love all over again, and that wouldn't have been fair, not when you were in love with someone else. Someones else."

Brendon pressed a fist to his stomach but didn't argue. Jeremy smiled at him. "Eight free sessions. Only my therapist decided I needed more. So he took me on pro-bono in his outside practice. I, uh, actually, I still see him. Less now, once a month, unless needed, but there was a long time where it was once a week."

Brendon tilted his head, but didn't say anything. He knew what Jeremy was getting at. Jeremy said, "When you showed up, I asked him for names. Recommendations, you know? Just in case."

Brendon still didn't say anything. Jeremy reached out and touched his knee. "Bren, I think you should try it. Just for a bit. It's not like you have to stick with it. But it might be-- It might help, having someone to talk to who doesn't know them, doesn't really know you, can't judge, can't talk to others. I mean, someone who's only listening to you, really."

It wasn't like Brendon had never done therapy before. Pete had forced the issue for a bit, alongside Spencer, when Brendon's drinking started getting out of control after Shane. It hadn't been awful, but it hadn't been really helpful, either. Then again, half the time it had been over the phone, Brendon hidden in the back lounge, feeling terribly exposed. He wondered if it was different, just him and the doctor in the room, nobody to possibly overhear. He took a breath, the first he had really taken since seeing the paper. It still hurt, but it managed to bottom out in his lungs. "You got names?"

Jeremy drew a piece of paper out of his pocket and gave it to Brendon. Brendon crumpled it in his palm. "Thanks."

Jeremy said, "Well. That's what friends do."

Brendon wasn't sure he knew anymore.

*


Spencer, Ryan and Jon had all been nervously skirting around how exactly to talk to Alex about the whole thing for a full week toward the end of the tour when Alex took care of it for them. He showed up with donuts and coffee on their last hotel morning and said, "Look, guys, I don't want you to think I don't appreciate the opportunity, and it's not that you're not--"

Ryan cut him off by taking his coffee, setting it down on the nearest surface--Spencer--and hugging Alex, murmuring something Spencer couldn't hear, but he suspected was just a repeated, "sorry, sorry, sorry." In any case, Alex hugged back until Ryan was ready to let go, and then they all had donuts together. Alex asked, "Can I-- What're you guys gonna do?"

Jon looked at Spencer, just slightly behind Ryan's head. He said, "Go home."

Ryan played with his hands, the way he had early on during interviews, when he hadn't wanted to answer a question. "Maybe... Maybe write? I mean, there are bands with three people in them."

Spencer felt himself blink at the back of Ryan's head. It wasn't so much the suggestion, although there was that, too, as that Ryan hadn't even discussed the fact that he was thinking about it until now. It was some comfort that he could feel the same level of completely-fucking-gobsmacked rolling off of Jon. Alex caught the look on their faces, but had the decency not to say anything. Instead he answered Ryan, "Yeah. If you worked more with your voice, I mean. Definitely a different sound, but it could work."

And it could, sure, but Spencer didn't want it to. What's more, he couldn't believe, not for a second, that Ryan did either. He was still trying to think of something to say, something that would sound normal, and not like he was having a complete psychotic break, when Alex said, "I'm getting myself more coffee; didn't really sleep much last night," and left the room.

Somehow, Jon was the first to gasp, "Ryan?"

Ryan tensed so hard that Spencer knew even he wasn't allowed to touch and said, "What, he's the only one who gets to act like we don't matter?"

For a second Spencer's stomach burned, before settling with a cold that made him shiver. He said, "That's not how it is."

"How do you know, Spence? Have you talked to him?" Ryan whipped around, looking at Spencer, and at least there was that, but it wasn't much, not with the line of Ryan's body being so straight, so fragile.

Spencer crossed his arms over his chest and just waited. It took a while, but it paid off when Ryan relented, uncoiling a little and saying, "Sorry, I-- I wasn't accusing."

Spencer knew, but they weren't going to get anywhere with Ryan in attack mode. He sighed and moved toward Ryan, who let him in, made himself smaller in order to fit better in Spencer's hug. Spencer held out his hand and after a moment of clear hesitation, Jon came over as well, and they shifted until they were all comfortable. It took longer than it would have with Brendon, but that was because they had a system worked out for four of them. Three was weird and wrong. All the same, Spencer made himself ask, "Is that really what you want?"

Because if Ryan wanted to try, Spencer would be there, plucking out beats and trying to pretend like there wasn't a voice of encouragement and dissent missing at every step along the way. Jon shuddered slightly, but stayed quiet.

"No," Ryan said softly. "No, it's not what I want."

Spencer knew all about Ryan's relationship to the things he wanted, how tentative he was, even after a little over a third of his life having gone relatively the way he preferred. Jon asked quietly, "You think we should, though?"

"I don't-- What else is there? To just give up?"

"Bands, um." Jon flinched. Spencer felt it more than anything. Jon tried, "We have been together a pretty long time. I mean, if you wanted to do something completely--" Jon stopped talking because, like Spencer, he'd felt the way Ryan had just ceased breathing. He said, "I didn't mean not music. I just meant, like, maybe if you wanted to produce, or something."

Ryan swallowed, and Spencer buried his forehead deeper into Ryan's shoulder. When nobody said anything, Spencer said, "We don't have to decide right now. We're not even-- We've got another week before we're even home. And then, it's not like we have to release in a timely fashion. We talk to Pete, we say we're figuring our shit out. He probably expects it." He'd probably been expecting it before they decided to try touring without their lead singer, but hey, three guys were allowed to make huge mistakes when functioning without a fourth of their brain.

"What if we-- What if after the time, after the just, sitting, what if we still don't know?"

"Bridges, Ryan Ross," Spencer told him. "Bridges."

Ryan sighed. Jon tried to squeeze in closer.

*


After the third session, Brendon's therapist asked, "Have you written any lyrics recently?"

Brendon said, "That's not me, that's Ryan." They'd covered enough basics for the therapist to know exactly who Ryan was.

"I did some outside research, Brendon. It seemed only wise, considering you were in a band for ten years. I listened to the CDs, read the liner notes. You wrote lyrics for at least two of the songs on every album but the first. Ryan is the predominant lyric writer on your albums, not the only one."

"That stuff is just-- It's more about experimenting with the music than... I just mean, the words aren't as important as the chords underneath them. Does that make sense?"

"It makes sense, I just think it's pretty unself-aware."

Brendon paused for a minute to think about that. "Yeah, well, wouldn't be the first time."

The therapist, Dr. Blair, laughed. He had a soothing laugh, calm but not too monotone, nothing like Ryan's. (Not that Brendon really would have seen Ryan sitting there. Dr. Blair was six feet easy and wore designer glasses that actually fit his face.) "Okay, but you've already told me that you've been writing music. So where are the lyrics?"

"Maybe there aren't any. Maybe it's an instrumental piece."

"With four parts and instrumentation despite being a wholly different type of music than you've ever really experimented with?"

Brendon smiled in acknowledgment. "Not likely, huh?"

Dr. Blair shrugged. "You tell me."

Brendon scrubbed a hand over his face. "Even, I mean, even until this last album, the lyrics, they always came from the others words. I would listen and then things would come, things they'd said, but different, because there was music, rhythm and meter, and also, it was me, not just their words, because I was the filter? I don't know how to explain it. Just, I don't have any words right now. Or, no, I mean, there are words, but they're all mine, so they don't sound right. They sound...monotone. And you can't make a song like that. Or, um, I guess you can if you're a Gregorian monk? A little."

"Maybe you should write them out anyway."

Brendon glanced up. "Is that really an option or are you saying, 'write them out, I need to see them.'"

"They're your words, Brendon. You have the right of where they go and with whom you share them."

Brendon opened his mouth and then thought about that statement. Finally he asked, "But you think it would help if I did that? If I opened up with them? Let myself and you see."

"I think that people generally have more than one way of communicating, and that you've spent a lot of your life doing so through music. I can't really say if it will help, not until we've tried."

Brendon sighed. "But if we don't try, then you'll never be able to say."

"There is that."

"They might not even make any sense without the music."

"So make a recording. Or bring your guitar. Or make an appointment with me at a practice studio."

Brendon tilted his head. "I can bring my guitar?"

"Brendon, you could bring a gigantic stuffed hippo if it would help you open up. Hell, you could bring a real one, but we'd have to negotiate the space."

"Yeah, my guitar's more compact, luckily." Brendon grinned.

"I'll see you next week, then, guitar and lyrics in hand."

"I'll see what I can do," Brendon said. He had a new thing with not setting strict goals and deadlines for himself. It had been a while since he hadn't had others demands needing to be met, he was trying it out.

Dr. Blair said, "Or that."

*


As it turned out, Spencer's worries were largely moot, because Ryan couldn't write a damn thing. He didn't even try for the two weeks while Jon was in Chicago, nor the week that he came back, Tom in tow. He let another week go by when it was just the three of them, but by the fifth week it was obvious that he was just blocked. Jon was too, quietly open about it. Tom had tried to help with that, providing someone to play with if something came up at random moments, or coffee in the early mornings, when maybe things might be jogged from sheer lack of sleep, but after a while Jon just shook his head and said, "This isn't going to happen right now."

Spencer actually could compose, but only persistent, angry, terrified beats that had no place in any song Spencer wanted to see performed. He chose not to mention it. Ryan decided that he was going to use this time to catch up on all the movies he'd wanted to see and hadn't had time for in the last six or seven years. He had a list, of course he did. Ryan loved lists. And Spencer knew that it was easy for Ryan to sit and watch other people's lives, happy or miserable, and not have to think about his own. Spencer knew because he was guilty of joining Ryan more often than he should have.

Jon spent his days looking at houses that they all knew he wasn't going to buy. He kept picking places that needed too much work, were too far away from Spencer's, were too outlandish for Jon's taste. Spencer would go with him sometimes: on a really good day they could get Ryan to come along with a promise of Port of Subs or something sweet.

When two months had somehow gone by and none of them had done anything beyond polishing up their knowledge of modern cinema, Spencer called Pete and said, "Can you-- I know it's bad timing but can you maybe pack up Ash and the kids? Come out here for a week or so?"

"Is Hotel Ryan free and clear of any trace of human life?" Pete asked.

"It's all yours," Spencer told him.

"Gimme a couple of weeks. I promised Ash she could have uninterrupted studio time when we got off tour and Patrick is in writing heat and if I leave he's likely to mate with whomever is closest. I can't have that, okay?"

"I think you're getting yourself and Patrick confused, but okay."

"You only know his vanilla side, Smith. You've never been exposed to the dark underbelly of Patrick Stump. We keep it close to our chests."

"I say as a man in a band with Ryan Ross: your band freaks me the hell out."

"There's gotta be one on every label," Pete said, sagaciously. Spencer laughed and hung up, and didn't say anything to the others until Pete called him three weeks later and said, "Airport, bitch, now."

Spencer sighed, because he'd been considering some afternoon booty call, just to get Ryan to do something other than watch yet another subtitled film. Then again, this would work too. "Hey, Ry. Go for a ride with me?"

Ryan looked down at where he had another movie in his hands, ready to be popped in the player. "Where?"

"Surprise. Just come with?"

Ryan was considering it, Spencer could tell. Spencer yelled out, "Jon! Come for a ride with me."

Jon yelled back, "Sure!"

Ryan made a face at Spencer, since he knew as well as Spencer did that Spencer had been counting on Ryan's dislike of being left out. He rolled his eyes. "Fine."

Spencer made Jon take his own car and follow, since Pete, Ashlee and the kids weren't all going to fit into Spencer's car with the three of them already in it. When it was pretty clear they were headed to the airport, Jon called their car. "Are we expecting someone?"

"I told Pete he could have Ry's house at the rate of one dollar per kid, two dollars per adult per night, and a security for any damages incurred."

Ryan glanced over at him, clearly unsure as to whether he should be pissed at the wholesale pawning of his house behind his back, or happy that Pete was coming. Spencer left it to him to figure out. He told Jon, "I can take the littler ones. I scotch-guarded."

"Wow, you're like eighty-three," Jon said, but didn't turn the offer down. Spencer cut the connection and made the final turn toward the airport.

*


When Bronx was born, it was the first time in Ryan's life that he'd ever felt a connection to a child. Spencer remembered them receiving the pictures and Ryan looking for hours, finally coming up with, "He's kinda breakable," as a comment on the moment.

Spencer'd said, "Trust me, from the outside, you don't seem all that different."

Ryan had kind of taken the comparison to heart. When Bronx was in the room, often he was the only thing Ryan really had eyes for. At nearly seven, Bronx was a smaller, lighter, more sharply drawn version of Pete. Ryan reached out to give him a high-five--he'd been too scared to hug him when he was smaller, and the tradition had stuck. Bronx responded with quite the smack and Ryan grinned, pulling his hand back, pretending to nurse it. He asked, "How's my favorite city doing?"

Bronx rolled his eyes. "The Bronx is a borough, not a city."

Ryan grinned even wider and said, "Oh yeah? Where'd you learn that?"

"My mommy told me."

"Way to remember," Ryan said, and picked Bronx up. Bronx pretended to fuss, but then he settled down, resting his head on Ryan's shoulder.

Pete said, "You spoil the kid, you keep him, Ross," but he sounded pretty happy, and he had four-year-old Delphine Ostinato tucked against his chest, and Ashlee was carrying two-year-old Alembic Paddington.

Softly, Spencer said, "Tell me if you get tired."

"Lighter'n my guitar," Ryan told him. Spencer didn't mention that Ryan hadn't picked up his guitar in nearly three months. Ryan put Bronx in the car with Jon.

Spencer called, "You go back with him."

Pete went with Jon and Ashlee came with Spencer, Del and Al sitting on either side of her. Once they were on the road, Spencer said, "Sorry to drag you out here."

She smiled. "It was easier when y'all were in LA. Still, then I wouldn't have gotten a vacation. Pete promised me at least one night on the town."

"Hold him to it."

"Mm, I always do." She was distracted for a moment, answering a question of Del's, but then she asked, "How's Ryan?"

Spencer shrugged, even though he didn't know if she could see from the back. "He's had better years."

Ashlee made an unladylike noise, but just said, "How're you? The two of you?"

"The one thing that's still working," Spencer told her.

She fussed with Al's car seat for a bit and finally said, "No small thing."

Given what Brendon had left over, Spencer had to agree, "No. No it isn't."

She murmured, "Not much longer, baby," to Al, and said, "Maybe y'all should join us for our night on the town."

"Yeah, I don't--"

"When was the last time the three of you went out? Really, not just, have-to-do-this tour kind of things?"

Spencer said, "Before," and didn't specify what he meant. Either she knew that he'd started measuring time by Brendon's disappearance, or not.

"Definitely time then." She said it softly enough that Spencer knew he wasn't meant to hear. He did her the kindness of not responding.

*


Ginger took the kids--"How're my favorite grandbabies?--so that the five of them could spend a night at the casinos, people watching and screwing around more than gambling, as they had gotten used to over the years. It was just time together, really, but there were rhythms to it that were important to all of them.

They avoided the Palms by a silent agreement, but somehow, even at Paris--which Spencer was fairly certain they'd never gone to before, not together--it was pretty fucking obvious that there was someone missing. Maybe it was just because it had been obvious for the past year, or maybe because Brendon had always been the one to insist on these nights. It was always, "We're from here and it was never fun growing up, aren't we deserving of a little revenge?" or, "I rock at blackjack, you know I do." It was hard to deny the first because, well, growing up in Vegas had sucked a fair amount, the way it did for everyone who grew up there. It was impossible to deny the second--though Ryan often tried--because Brendon was freakily proficient at the game.

Now it was just the five of them, avoiding the blackjack tables, siccing Ryan on the poker tables not so much because he was good at it, but because his monotone always threw the other players, and by the time Spencer joined, they were softened up enough that it made playing easier in general. Ashlee was pretty damn good at poker, something she had picked up mostly to piss her parents off when she was younger. After a while, Ryan stopped playing and instead just watched her. Spencer followed. He wasn't enjoying the game all that much anyhow without Brendon to spout outrageous suggestions that made all the players at the table laugh.

It took less than an hour for Pete to whisper in Ashlee's ear and for her to nod and cash in after the next game was up. Pete asked, "How 'bout somewhere louder?" and Jon nodded without even asking, something he hadn't done much in the past year.

Spencer looked at Ryan, who shrugged and said, "Somewhere with good music, not house," even though Pete could generally be trusted to know about these things and choose well.

They ended up somewhere Spencer had never heard of, which told him it was new, two, maybe three years old. It was much like most Vegas clubs in that all the girls looked alike and the bar was lit just enough that it was easy to find in the dim of the rest of the club, but the music was a good mix of genres and eras, and although Spencer missed Brendon pulling Ryan out onto the floor, making sad eyes at Jon until he joined, and generally dancing like a monkey until Spencer was laughing so hard it hurt, he could handle this, being close enough to touch Ryan without it appearing odd, the loudness of the music drowning out everything, even the worst of the sorrow.

At around two, Pete said, "I need a milkshake," and Ashlee said, "Ooo, milkshakes."

They ended up at Mr. Lucky's, because, while likely to end in photos being snapped, it was also well-lit and casual and the milkshakes were thick and large and not ridiculously expensive. Also, it was another place they'd never all gone together. Jon ordered coffee and Spencer got vanilla so that Ryan could get strawberry and still have the other two. It was a long time habit, and the fact that Brendon wasn't there to order chocolate made it hard for all of them. Pete did it instead, Ashlee getting another chocolate so that they could have enough, since it was pretty obvious from their weird, cut-off negotiations that they had a problem.

Once they were sipping, Pete started talking quietly about Bronx's latest escapades in being a complete smartass. Ryan was clearly trying his best to actually drink the equivalent of a milkshake. Spencer put a hand at the small of his back. He didn't want him making himself sick, even if it would have made Spencer feel better for him to eat that much. In the middle of a story that Spencer, admittedly, wasn't paying that much attention to, Ashlee said, "Fuck," softly. Pete said, "You're not kidding."

Spencer looked over at them. Jon was studiously drinking. Spencer hoped he was breathing. Pete said, "We were kinda hoping things would have gotten better since the last time we saw you guys."

Spencer shrugged. Ryan started to apologize, but Spencer pressed his fingers a little further into Ryan's back to quiet him. Things were what they were. Jon said, "Brendon's still missing."

Ryan looked at Jon, who went back to his milkshake. Ryan took the milkshake, which was probably for the best, but it left Jon to flounder. Pete was the one who said, "Fuck," this time, before flagging down a waiter and getting himself a beer. Ashlee ordered one as well, but Spencer got the feeling that was more in case Pete needed a second one, rather than any sudden desire for fermented hops on her part.

Pete didn't swig, he took the beer at a completely normal pace, but he waited until he was halfway through to say, "I thought. When I promised, I thought, I guess, that he'd get over whatever the hell-- I didn't think he'd stay away, all right? I thought it would fix itself and I just--"

"Pete?" Spencer asked, because he had a feeling he might be the only one still capable of speech.

"You don't know, okay? He said, he said if it had been Patrick--" Pete looked over at Ashlee, who just rubbed her knuckles against his bicep.

And now it was Ryan who asked, "Pete?" sounding unsure and maybe a little bit scared and Spencer could honestly have killed Pete in that moment.

Pete said, "Boston," and looked away.

Ryan said, "You--"

"He made me promise, he--"

Ryan got up and said, "I have to--" Spencer was right behind him, and Pete was saying, "Ryan, I swear--" but Spencer just shook his head. Ashlee glared at him, putting herself a little between Pete and the two of them, and Spencer turned to Jon who said, "I'm gonna," and sort of motioned with his head toward Pete and Ashlee. Spencer said, "Thanks," and got Ryan out.

Ryan didn't say a word until they were in the cab, when he said, "Boston. Boston. You called Jer--"

"I think he lied. He must have."

"Like Pete." The words sounded hollow, like somebody had reached in and taken Ryan's insides out.

As much as Spencer kind of wanted to beat the crap out of Pete for that, he also knew that, "Brendon asked him to, Ryan. Brendon. Asked him."

Ryan looked out the window for a long moment. "So what do we do? Not go?"

And maybe, maybe that would have been best for Brendon, Spencer didn't know anymore, but it would drive Ryan out of his mind, never knowing if he could have gotten his band back, his life back, if they'd just taken the plane ride, just tried. "No, we go. We go and we. We say what we have to say and hope that--" Spencer didn't know. He didn't know what could possibly be a good outcome at this moment.

"Hope that he comes back to us?" Ryan's voice was small. The question, though, the question was huge.

Spencer closed his eyes for a moment, nothing but black behind them. "Hope."

*


Brendon pretended he'd gotten Stradivarius because Kait had looked at him with desperate eyes when Stacia had started talking about keeping another dog. The thing was, Stacia had grown up in Roxbury with herself, her mom and her brother. They'd been lower middle-class, her mom working two jobs and her and her brother starting part time jobs as soon as they could. There had been no money for a dog, so Stacia had spent a lot of time at dog parks, playing with other people's dogs, and sometimes picking up dogsitting or walking jobs.

She'd helped pay her way through college--and later law school--with those jobs, those and scholarships and federal aid. Now she served as the MSPCA's tax lawyer pro bono in her free time, which sometimes--often, according to Kait, who was more of a cat person, but consistently gave over in the face of Stacia's soft-heartedness for mongrels--ended in her fostering dogs. And fostering, more often than not, lead to her keeping the dogs.

Stradivarius's shelter name had been Hopscotch when Stacia had brought him home. He was a sheltie, corgi, possibly springer-spaniel mix. He was also three-legged. He was rescued from a puppy-mill, and was somewhat timid around other dogs as well as humans, but he'd settled in amongst Stacia and Kait's brood well enough.

From early on, though, he'd liked to sneak upstairs with Brendon, especially when Brendon was practicing. He would lie atop Brendon's feet, unless Brendon was on the piano, in which case, he'd curl beneath the piano bench. When Stacia started talking about keeping him--"He's full grown, and crippled, Kai, they never get adopted, and--" Brendon had said, "I want him."

When he'd brought it up to Dr. Blair--well, when he'd shown the doctor his first set of lyrics that wasn't about Jon or Spencer or Ryan in nearly five months--the doctor had said, "Not the worst idea, you having something other than yourself to take care of again."

Brendon had said, "I water Kait's plants more than she does."

Dr. Blair had laughed at him. Brendon had accepted it as gracefully as he could. Then he'd signed the adoption papers. It had been a while since he'd had a dog. He'd given Bogart to Ryan after he'd lost Hobo, and Shane had taken Dillon and Macchio after Brendon had moved back to Vegas around the time Ryan had. He thought that even if he hadn't been helping take care of Mo and the others for the better part of a year that it would have been like riding a bike.

It was nicer than he wanted to admit, Vari crawling into bed with him at night, warm and solid beside him. At first it had taken a while not to think about the last time he'd had that experience, but then it was just good, calming and less lonely at nights. He started running in the mornings with Vari. Short runs at first, because Brendon hadn't really kept up any kind of fitness routine in the year since he'd come to Boston, and because Vari was three-legged; he could only go so far before he tired out.

It was too cold to run outside a couple of months after Brendon adopted him, so he joined a gym and continued to run without Vari, taking Vari to a nearby dog park with the other dogs when he wanted to run around a bit. While Vari couldn't run very far, he did like going places with Brendon, and half the time he could get in to places that dogs weren't technically allowed. He sometimes came to Brendon's classes, his lessons, practice slots, the symphony practices that Brendon would sit in on, pretty much anywhere Brendon could get in.

Brendon didn't precisely want to remember what it felt like, having someone with him when he needed it, being able to depend on something, someone other than himself, but he couldn't help it. He said to Jeremy, "You think I'm just psychologically fucked? Like, innately?"

Jeremy asked, "What's your shrink say?"

"That some people get their energy from interacting with others. It's natural."

"Then I'm not sure we can call it 'fucked.'"

"You're the one who broke up with me because I couldn't cut the cord with the others," Brendon pointed out.

"I broke up with you because I got offered a scholarship and I was tired of always waiting, having to hope that you'd come back to me," Jeremy said.

Brendon looked at him, because he was kind of done with lying to the people who mattered to him, being lied to. Jeremy eventually smiled, ever so slightly and said, "And maybe I was jealous that you were always gonna love them more."

Brendon laughed, feeling it in his heart. It hurt like crying did, when a guy was trying to hold it back. "'M sorry."

"Bren--" Jeremy was shaking his head, but Brendon shook his as well. "Was it-- Was it at least helpful to you? Me coming here, unwanted? Was there at least that?"

"Brendon." Jeremy shook his head again, even more vehement. "Brendon, no. No, it wasn't-- I mean, sure, I was jealous, back then. But, for fuck's sake, you stayed with me when I was so sure I was going to hell, when I still, I mean, I was a complete mess and you-- I might have been mad at you, but I never stopped caring. I never wanted you hurt, not like this. Not at all like this."

Brendon laughed again, and this time there were tears. He could feel them, and he reached up to wipe them away, but Jeremy grabbed both his hands. He said, "Just, you should maybe..." He kept Brendon's hands while he sobbed. Brendon held on, needing something to keep him there, keep him from running back. Jeremy didn't let go.

*


It was cold when they stepped out of the airport, and Spencer was glad he'd been thinking clearly enough to make Jon pack shoes that weren't flip flops and remind Ryan to wear a jacket with his scarves. They got in line for a taxi, and Spencer opened his mouth to give the name of the hotel he'd booked them in, but what came out of his mouth was Jeremy's address.

It was barely eight in the morning. They'd taken a red-eye, because it was cheap and it wasn't as though any of them were planning on sleeping any time soon. Jon paid the cab driver while Spencer and Ryan made their way up the stairs, Spencer ringing the doorbell.

The guy who answered wasn't Jeremy. But he took one look at them and said, "Shit," then called, "Jer! I think you'd better get out here."

Jeremy came with a worried look on his face and a, "Cour-- Oh."

"You lied," Spencer said.

"I did," he said. His glance flickered over to Ryan, and behind him, trying to be even smaller than he was, Jon. "Fuck. Come in." He wandered into the house and picked up a cellphone. He hit a number and held it to his ear, waiting a few minutes and then said, "May? I'm gonna be in late." A pause. "Yeah, just-- Family issue."

He hung up and turned back to them. He crossed his arms over his chest. The other guy said, "So, I'm Court."

Jeremy blinked. "Oh. This is Court, my husband. Court, this is..."

"Brendon's ex-band," Court said, sounding kind of pissed for a guy that Spencer had never even met. Beside him, Ryan managed to flinch audibly.

Spencer held back a snarl. He needed Jeremy's help, and he probably wasn't going to get it by threatening to fuck up his husband. He took a breath and asked, "Where is he?"

"Not here," Jeremy said.

"Jeremy." Ryan said it softly. Ryan had had a pretty fucked up, complicated relationship with Jeremy back in the day, mostly because unlike Shane--who kind of belonged to all of them, even when he was Brendon's--Jeremy had just been Brendon's. And he'd been a boy, unlike Cassie or Haley and so it had been harder for Ryan to pretend that he couldn't have been in his place.

That had been seven years ago, though, and Ryan hadn't had Spencer, and Jeremy hadn't had Court and Brendon hadn't been missing for a year. Spencer had somehow always thought that if he and Ryan gave into each other that it would make Ryan smile more, it would calm him and gladden him the way Jon had in those first few years. Spencer knew, he knew that it wasn't fair to even think about that, to hold Ryan to those ideas, when Ryan hadn't even been told of them in the first place, and when it had all happened in the midst of Brendon being gone, but still, Spencer felt as though it should have been different.

Jeremy looked at Ryan and said, not unkindly, "You look like shit."

"He didn't even give us a chance. He-- He left without his shoes," Ryan said. "His phone."

Jeremy looked past Ryan, and Jon said, "You wanna be mad at someone, be mad at me."

"Oh, trust me, I am." Jeremy's eyes were hard. "Maybe he left you, but he came here. And shoes were about all he had, as far as being put together goes."

Jon nodded. "I can't go back. You-- Some part of you has to get that. There's no way to go back."

Jeremy didn't say anything, which Jon evidently took as a sign to say, "But we're here, man. We're here. We're not going anywhere until we've at least had the chance to talk him into going with us, so, I mean, we could sit on your porch until winter and just, like, freeze to death out there, or you can tell us where he is and we can try and do this the slightly less messy way."

"The fact that you think anything is going to be less messy--"

"Jeremy," Jon cut him off. "What do you need to hear? What is it you're looking to hear?"

It felt like forever before Jeremy said, "That you're not going to fuck with him."

Court added, "That you'll listen to him."

Jeremy put in, "That you won't take him if he doesn't want to go."

"You can be there," Ryan said, hoarse and desperate. "You can fucking be there if it'll--if that's better."

Court and Jeremy shared a look. Jeremy went and picked up his phone. "May? Yeah, I'm gonna need to take a personal day."

*


Stacia and Kait had had a fight earlier in the morning. Brendon had woken up to the muted sounds of screaming, but then rolled over and went back to sleep. Brendon was lucky, he had the advantage of being human and knowing that sometimes people yelled at each other, then they got over it and moved on, but Vari had been a skittish mess ever since. Brendon had taken him to the park and played frisbee with him until he honestly couldn't feel his fingers anymore, even in his gloves. Brendon couldn't even figure out why Vari liked variations of fetch so much, as he could never outrun what he was trying to catch, but he loved it, so Brendon bought him all sorts of projectiles, mostly just to see which ones would go the furthest.

Brendon had treated him with carrots, "Mmm, human fooood," when they'd gotten back, and then settled in for cello practice, which generally calmed both of them. Vari had started to settle when he got up and began growling at the window that looked out on the front of the house. He did that at everything from squirrels to visitors. He was an excellent warning system, but ran off as soon as presented with someone new, so not much of a guard dog.

Brendon ignored it, assuming it was a combination of his emotional morning and a surplus of ground rodents. He was working his way through scales, the boring stuff that Brendon had hated as a kid, but kind of loved now, basic and easy and the perfect way to move outside his other thoughts to where he was able to focus wholly on the music. Vari kept up and Brendon was just about to see if he could shush him when the doorbell rang and Vari erupted into full-out barking.

Brendon frowned, unsure of who it could be and really, really hoping he wasn't going to have to fend off Mormon missionaries, yet again. He looked through the peephole and then opened the door. Vari settled as soon as he saw that it was Jeremy. Brendon asked, "Aren't you supposed to be at work?"

"I was trying to call you--"

"I was practicing. Turned the sound off."

Normally Jeremy would have muttered something about musicians being the bane of his existence. Instead he just said, "Bren, um. So, the guys...your guys?"

Brendon shook his head, but Jeremy just kept talking, "They're kind of sitting in my car right now. I made them wait. Court's with them and I said they had to stay until I--"

"How'd they-- I mean." Brendon rubbed at his temple. It didn't really hurt, he just kind of wanted to see if rubbing would help things make more sense. "You're sure?" And okay, yeah, Jeremy was probably pretty fucking sure if he had three guys sitting out in his car or not.

"They were-- They said they'd sit on our porch until they caught hypothermia and died if we didn't take them."

"I'm pretty sure they were bluffing," Brendon said. Jeremy's expression didn't seem quite so sure. Brendon took a breath, then another. After a few more he said, "Well, I guess, um. I mean, they know where I am." There was still a part of him that wanted to simply refuse to allow them in the door. There was a much, much bigger part that needed to see them, now that they were here, close, here for him. He was pretty sure, when he'd run, gravel under his feet, the keys cold in his hands, that he had thought he'd be back, that he would return in a week, maybe a little longer. Even when he'd signed the lease with Stacia and Kait, somehow he'd still been thinking that there would be a point where he put his car in reverse, retraced his miles, and found the others just where he had left them. Only he hadn't, and now they'd come to them. Brendon wasn't sure he'd expected that, but he was pretty sure, in the places inside himself he never dared to look, that he'd wanted it.

Jeremy started, "You want me to--"

Brendon nodded. "I'm gonna... I'm gonna put Vari downstairs. That many new people."

"Yeah," Jeremy said, and went back out to his car.

*


Brendon made coffee. It wasn't meant as a gesture of welcome, or anything, just something to do. Something that might mean he didn't have to talk. He was listening to it drip when he heard his door open again. For a second he felt like if he didn't turn around that he could pretend like nothing had changed, like he was still safe in his apartment with his dog and his cello and he wouldn't have to make any decisions, now or until he was absolutely ready. Then Ryan said, "Brendon," softly, voice torn like he'd been screaming, only he hadn't. Brendon still knew the difference between when Ryan was simply scared and when he was worn down from exuberance. This was the former.

Brendon turned around. He said, "Ryan," doing his best to keep his voice even. "Spencer. Jon." A breath, a swallow. "Coffee?"

Court came around and said, "I'll get it. You just--"

"Court--" Brendon started, but Court faced him and said softly, "A year and they kept looking for you, Bren. I'm not siding with them, but maybe you ought to listen? Just listen."

Brendon stepped away from the coffee maker and headed toward the living room. "There's, um. I have a couch." His cello was still propped against the wall, near the chair he'd been sitting in to practice. Brendon saw Spencer look at it before tugging Ryan onto the couch. Jon sat on the arm, despite there being room. Brendon took the cello chair, inching it so that it was facing the couch more fully.

Just when Brendon was pretty sure nobody was going to say anything and they were all going to die, sitting there, waiting for someone else to start, Jon said, "I'm sorry. I'm so-- Brendon, I never meant, I wasn't-- You know I can be, I mean--"

"Jon's trying to apologize for being a moron who occasionally thinks with his dick," Spencer said, looking straight at Brendon. "And I'm going to apologize for not paying as much attention as I probably should have. Then I'm going to tell you you're a fucking asshole for doing this, even if I think you already kind of know that."

Ryan's hand came up to Spencer's shoulder, where his fingernails dug into the skin beneath his shirt. If Brendon had been feeling generous, he would have been glad Spencer had a hoodie on. He wasn't. He hoped Ryan's fingernails found their target. Brendon tried to make himself count to ten, but he'd barely gotten to three when he said, "Can't imagine why you're bothered. Got you what you wanted, didn't it?" Brendon looked at Ryan, because he'd known the second they'd walked in. Even if he hadn't wondered ever since Pete had opened the idea in his mind, Brendon would have known because he'd known the two of them for too long not to notice that kind of shift. He didn't think it was actually very noticeable at all. To people who hadn't been around them for the better part of their late teenage years and early adulthood, nothing would seem to have changed. Brendon hadn't even had to wonder, though.

"No," Spencer said softly and Brendon watched Ryan for the flinch, maybe with an eagerness he shouldn't have had. It never came. Spencer repeated, "No. Not like this."

It occurred to Brendon to wonder if getting them to go away was as easy as, "I'm sorry, then." He didn't allow himself to think about the part of him that didn't want them to go away, didn't want it to be that simple.

Court came with the coffee, then, Jeremy staying in the kitchen, as he was nowhere to be seen. Brendon sort of wished they'd come out, that he would have two people at his side as well, but he knew that wasn't how this could work. He took a sip and said, "You can go, now. You've come, you've said sorry, I've said sorry, we're good."

Ryan set his coffee on the coffee table without even touching it. He asked, "Is that... Is that what you want?"

Brendon opened his mouth to say, "Yes," opened his mouth to say, "I ran across the country to get away from you," opened his mouth to say anything but, "Are there really any other options?"

Most of the anger in Spencer's body slipped away until what was left was mostly just sadness. Despite himself, it hurt Brendon's stomach to see. He couldn't think about being what had caused it. That caused his throat to clench up, his lungs to clamor against his ribs. Spencer said, "There are always options." His face was tight with something close to grief, but not wholly that. Brendon wasn't sure how to describe it. Spencer said, "The fuck, Bren? You're the one-- When they told you it was, that you couldn't have the band, you-- Seventeen years old and you just, you figured it out, but now? Now all you can do is run? That's it?"

Brendon wanted to tell Spencer to go fuck himself, that he didn't understand, that the two weren't equivalent, but Dr. Blair and he had been working on being honest with himself, even if he couldn't talk about things aloud. Instead he said, "Staying wasn't an option. It just wasn't."

"You couldn't have said?" Ryan asked. He was holding his coffee again, but still not drinking.

"You would have told me to come back. Then you would have asked. Then asked again, until I said yes, because I always do, and you know it." Brendon looked at Ryan, then, nobody but him, because maybe there were problems between him and each of them, but this, this particular issue, was between him and Ryan.

Ryan said, "I know." He said, "I'm sorry. I--" Then he shook his head, clearly thinking better of whatever he'd been about to say. "I know."

Spencer said, "Then what, Bren? If we're not allowed to ask, what are we allowed to do?"

Brendon tried to say, "I'm happy here," to shut this down, finish this off, close this chapter of his life and not have to look back. He was happy there, as happy as he ever was when he wasn't with them, writing and playing and singing. And that was the problem. Being honest was no good if one functioned only in half-truths. He closed his eyes, listening to the apartment, wondering how long he had there. He opened them and said, "You can ask. You can. You just have to listen to my answers."

*


Jon didn't really say much, but he was the one to say, "Come back. Just-- Just for a tour. Not even an album. You can decide about that after the tour."

Brendon looked out the window. It had been a long, long time since he'd been in one place for as long as he had stayed in this apartment. Behind him, Spencer said, "Two months, domestic, mid-sized clubs. Very, very laid-back."

Brendon said, "I have to think about it."

Nobody said anything and when Brendon turned back to look at them, Ryan looked freshly woken from a bitch of a nightmare, Spencer was sitting like someone had shoved a poker up his ass, and Jon seemed to be actually holding his breath. Brendon said, "That means I have to think about it, not no."

"So," Spencer tilted his head.

"So you guys should go back to your hotel for a bit. Ryan should take high tea at the Taj, he'd be into that. Jon should go take some pictures by the Charles. You should hit up the shoe stores on Newbury. Go have fun in Boston. Unless you have somewhere else you need to be. In which case, you can have my phone number, I promise to answer."

There was another long moment of silence, and then Ryan started laughing. It was a stuttered, slightly frightening sound, and Ryan was pressing his hand to his mouth, clearly as startled by it as everyone else. Spencer rubbed at his back a little and after a few moments, Ryan managed to regain his breath, to say, "Somewhere else we need to be? Somewhere--"

Ryan moved, then, faster than Brendon had ever seen, and before Brendon even knew what was happening, he was being shaken, really shaken, the kind of shaking that causes the head to snap back, the teeth to click together. Before he could think to struggle, though, Jon and Spencer were there, pulling Ryan off, Jon asking, "The fuck?" but Spencer warning him off with a glare.

Ryan was panting, near to bearing his teeth, so far as Brendon could see, but then he blinked, jerked his head a little. His eyes were wide when he looked at Brendon again. "Oh fuck."

Brendon thought his eyes were probably as wide. Ryan and he had fought at least a few hundred times that Brendon could think of, right off the top of his head, but Ryan had never once so much as touched him during a fight, not even a finger poked against his shoulder. Brendon had been the far more physical one, sometimes kicking walls and stupid shit like that which only ended in him being sore. They didn't hurt each other with their hands, even if they were both pretty good at knowing exactly where to go with their words. Even then, their worst "punches" were always pulled, the things that they knew would land each other on the floor with no way to get back up.

He wanted to be pissed. He wanted to shake Ryan right back. He wanted to not look at Ryan--who had Spencer--and remember that Ryan almost always had a reason for the things he did, even if it was a bad reason. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Um. Okay. So, nothing pressing."

"Brendon," Spencer said, in a warning tone.

"Spencer," Brendon bit right back.

"Stop, stop, I'm sorry," Ryan said. Then, with more sincerity than panic, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean-- Well, I meant to hurt you, because I-- But I didn't mean to, like, become the abusive asshole in the room."

Brendon had grown up with brothers--shit, Brendon had grown up with older sisters. As far as Brendon was concerned, that was more like a sibling tussle, but Ryan was a single child, even if he had spent more time at Spencer's house than not. He was a total delicate flower sometimes. Brendon tried not to find it endearing. Also, really, the important part in all of that, Brendon knew--even with a year away, he knew--was the part where Ryan had meant to hurt him, had admitted that, because Ryan wasn't actually the kind of guy to go on the offensive. If he wanted to cause harm, it was because harm had already been caused to him, or one of his. Brendon wasn't ready to say sorry yet for the ways he might have hurt Ryan, but he did say, "'S'fine. I shouldn't have said that. I actually just meant-- Anyway, I shouldn't have said it."

"You just-- You just fucking left, Brendon. There wasn't even anyone to give us a call. Shit, we gave Brent that consideration."

That hit dead on, which was funny, because Brendon wasn't entirely sure Ryan had really meant it to, thought Ryan had probably been talking aloud more than anything. But Brendon remembered the phone call about Ryan's dad, the way Ryan had kept asking, "what?" and, "are you sure?" and once even, "George Ross, I mean-- He wasn't that old." If Brendon had thought about what leaving Ryan would say to him, what it would make him think, maybe he would have... Brendon wasn't sure what he would have done. He thought it was probably a good thing he'd been too selfish to consider it, maybe. It was harder to tell when he had to see the results. It hurt to breathe a little, but he said, "That wasn't my intention. I mean, the leaving, yeah, but not, I didn't, I wouldn't have done that to you, if I'd-- I kinda freaked."

"You left without your shoes," Jon said softly.

"I threw your flip-flops away," Brendon told him.

"I deserved that."

There was a short, tense silence before Spencer said, "Okay, compromise. We stay. For however long it takes you to think about it. But you have to see us once a day. Dinner, lunch, coffee, trip to the laundromat, whatever. We get at least an hour of your day, every day."

"Or?" Brendon tilted his head.

"Or we camp out on your porch until whoever lives downstairs takes pity on us, and we're suddenly living in your building."

Stacia and Kait were more likely to just sic the dogs on them, or whatever, but Brendon took the point as it was intended. He thought about it and said, "All right. An hour a day."

They stood there for a bit and he fought against the instinct to go to them, make them take him in, to say, "You've had yours for today."

*


Brendon took the laundromat suggestion to heart. He didn't actually go to a laundromat--Kait and Stacia let him use their machine--but he made the guys help him with his laundry one day, cooking dinner the next. On the third day he introduced Vari to them and asked,with an air of false innocence, "Wanna walk him with me?"

Ryan had been too interested in Vari to notice that it was cold out. Spencer had made a face at Brendon, but Jon and Ryan had agreed, so there was nothing for it but for him to make sure they were as dressed as they could be for the weather and follow Brendon out. Brendon didn't go far, just down to the neighborhood dog park, where he set Vari free. Vari hadn't been much in a mood to leave his side the past few days though--or maybe Brendon hadn't been in the mood to have his side left. It was hard to tell. Vari just sat, pressing into his leg until Brendon found a branch that wasn't too large to use as a throw toy, and set him off running.

Ryan bent down to grab the stick when Vari came running back. Vari pranced just outside of reaching distance, clearly unsure about whether this new person was going to take his stick and not give it back or not. Ryan looked up at Brendon, nose and cheeks and ears all red from the cold and Brendon couldn't help laughing. "Go on, Vari. It's okay, it's...there you go. Good boy."

Ryan scritched a little behind his ears and then threw the stick. He straightened and Brendon watched Spencer step a little closer, but not close enough, nowhere near enough to warm Ryan up the way he clearly wanted to. Brendon had sort of forgotten about that, about how hard that had to be. He looked away, played with Vari for a bit, but then took pity on the two of them, leading them back to the apartment, where they could snuggle on his couch, Spencer putting his hands over Ryan's ears.

Brendon went in the kitchen, heating water for the chai Court had recently brought him. He rooted through his fridge for the cream and then the baking cabinet for some brown sugar. He called, "Anyone else want tea?"

Three yeses came back at him. Brendon nodded and counted out four mugs. He only had six, and that was because he seemed to manage to find mugs in odd places and have to bring them home with him. He had a mug touting the fact that Virginia was for Lovers. Brendon was sure it was, but he hadn't been to Virginia for any longer than it took to play a show, and he didn't remember ever stashing a mug in his car after a concert. Sometimes Brendon was convinced that inanimate objects did up and walk, both into his home and out of it.

He was pouring the water into the cups when Spencer asked, "Can I help?" from behind him. Brendon jumped, startled, and poured some of the water onto himself, jumping back and hissing at the contact. He was bringing his hand up to his mouth when Spencer said, "Jesus, no," and took the tea pot, putting it back on the stove and pulling Brendon to the sink, where he turned on the cold water and held Brendon's hand underneath the stream. It took a second for the throb of the initial burn to die off. It took another to recognize the feel of Spencer's hand on his wrist.

Brendon closed his eyes for a second. Then he reached over and turned the water off, prying himself from Spencer's grip. "It's fine. Like spilling coffee on yourself." They'd lived on a bus most of their adult life. They'd all committed that act at least four or five times. "Without the mess."

Brendon took the teapot and poured the last two cups of tea, ignoring the sting of his left hand, the echo of sensation where Spencer had held him. It was the first time any of them had touched him other than Ryan's shaking episode. He'd been pretty sure he'd missed it, but he hadn't had any idea, not even close. He put in the chai bags, one in each and said, "Here, wanna?" after picking up two of the mugs, two still waiting to be taken. He'd come back for the cream and sugar and spoons.

Spencer picked up the mugs and followed Brendon into the living area. Jon caught sight of the redness on Brendon's hand and asked, "You all right?"

"I'll survive," Brendon told him.

"I'll make an ice pack," Jon said, and got up, heading into the kitchen. Brendon didn't remember Jon being a nervous fixer, but maybe he'd just never noticed. Or maybe that had happened in the year he'd been gone. It was a little strange, like knowing he had forgotten something but being unable to remember what, an itch at the back of his brain. Jon came back and tossed the pack at him, "Think fast."

That was more like it. Brendon caught the pack, but he kind of got the feeling that more than anything, Jon had thrown it to avoid touching Brendon, which was at once kind of respectful and also pretty much the most awful feeling in the world. Brendon put the silent word out to the universe that things could go back to being relatively simple any day now. He put the ice on his hand and drank the tea with his other. Ryan, warmed up, was busy trying to get Vari to trust him on his own merits. Spencer was making their tea up, stirring in some kind of perfect ratio of cream and sugar that Brendon couldn't quite determine.

Brendon said, "I've got class tomorrow. We should meet out by Copley. It's pretty close to me and there's a good sushi place. It has other stuff for Ryan," Brendon said before Ryan could protest. He looked over and noted that Ryan hadn't even started, which made him feel kind of weird.

"Sounds good," Jon said.

"Class?" Spencer asked.

"Auditing African-American composers and advanced lyric writing. I also do the cello lessons at the school, but it's not technically through it, I just pay Court privately."

"Which class is tomorrow?" Ryan asked, lying on his back with Vari on his stomach, licking at Ryan's face whenever Ryan let his guard down.

"The composers one," Brendon said.

There was a long silence and just as Spencer opened his mouth to speak, Brendon said, "I'll see if I can bring a few visitors."

Ryan broke into the first real smile Brendon had seen since they'd arrived. It was contagious.

*


Brendon went to therapy on Thursday morning. He brought Vari because Dr. Blair didn't care, Vari liked car rides, and sometimes it was easier to talk to Vari than Dr. Blair. Brendon sat on the floor, his back to the cushy chair he usually folded up into during his sessions. He'd called when the guys had shown up, probably sounding somewhat panicky, and Dr. Blair had asked, "What do you want from this?" when he'd gotten Brendon to calm down.

Brendon hadn't been able to answer at the time, but he'd been thinking about it. "The problem is that I don't know what I want, it's that everything I want conflicts with everything else I want. It's like I want to fucking come and go at the same time."

"Ah, so you've devolved into humanity. Had to happen."

Brendon looked at him for a second before laughing. "Yeah, okay, still."

"You should talk about it. I mean, you don't have to or anything, but you pay me a disgusting amount to listen, so you might as well."

"Are you really supposed to bring up money like that?"

"Has it psychologically scarred you?"

"Not that I notice right now, but what if it comes back at me, later?"

"Some other therapist will be thanking me."

Brendon smirked and switched topics for the sake of seeing if he could throw Dr. Blair. "I want them like I've always wanted them."

"Okay," he said, seemingly unthrown. But he was wily. Brendon chose to think he just covered well.

"I want to hurt them the way I--" Brendon frowned. He had been planning on saying "hurt when I'm around them," but it wasn't like the hurt had gone away just because they hadn't been there. "I want to hurt them back."

Dr. Blair nodded, not saying anything. Brendon buried his fingers in Vari's fur. "Except I'd totally kill anybody who hurt them. If it wasn't me. Or maybe I would want to, after I'd-- And I don't even know how I'd do it, except maybe say no, because I think, Ryan's like, the band's always been--" Brendon hadn't thought of that. It seemed so obvious, now, that all he had to do to cause the kind of damage he was craving was to just stay where he was. He turned the thought over in his head a few times. It didn't calm him the way it seemed like it should. If anything, he felt a little nauseated.

"Brendon?"

"I don't want to tell them no." It wasn't what he wanted, exactly, because he didn't know that he could say, "I want to go with them," but he also didn't know what the options between were. After all, they'd only asked for a tour, just a couple of months of his life. When he thought about it that way, it did seem like a compromise.

"Why not?"

Because he missed the way Spencer felt when he wrapped himself around Brendon, surprising and warm. Because he missed fighting with Ryan, Ryan's smile when he got to hear something he wanted happen. Because he missed watching crap TV with Jon unironically. Because he missed standing in front of people who knew every word he sang. "Because the songs I write still have four parts to them."

"Just to play devil's advocate, you could probably find yourself other musicians. You are taking classes at Berklee."

The guitarist wouldn't know that sometimes the best way to handle Brendon approaching with his own guitar was to still, unless he wanted to be run over. The drummer wouldn't crack jokes at him when he went back to steal Ry--the guitarist's water. If the guitarist even kept it on the stand, instead of out front, which he probably would. The bassist wouldn't be barefoot. "I-- I don't think I could."

"You defied your family for this band, you couldn't start over again?"

"I got my family back. After a year, I--" And that was it. If he said no, then he was closing off any reconciliation. It wasn't that he didn't have it in him to stand on his own two feet again, it was that he didn't have it in him to stay that way forever, not if he had the option of something else.

"Keep talking," Dr. Blair reminded him.

"When I started talking with my family again, like, really talking, we had guidelines. Stuff that each party was allowed to talk about and stuff that we weren't." Vari rolled over while Brendon was thinking, and he absentmindedly stroked at his stomach. "I think, hm. If I agree, I need to have, like, demands."

"What about them?"

Brendon sighed, but acknowledged, "Only fair."

"You know what you're going to demand? If you decide on this?"

"No," Brendon admitted. "No fucking clue."

"What do you want?" Dr. Blair asked again. Brendon closed his eyes. He really hated that fucking question.

*


"Wait. How come you get three demands and we get three? That's three for you and one for each of us," Spencer pointed out when Brendon brought it up. They were sitting in the Symphony Hall, whispering during one of the breaks in the music, the conductor going through notes.

Clearly, though, Brendon had prepared for that, because he said, "Because the three of you want me to come. I, on the other hand, need some persuading."

Spencer wasn't just going to fold. He felt like it probably set a bad precedent. "And if we don't agree to your terms, or you don't agree to ours?"

Brendon said, "Either we compromise on what we feel is a problem, or we go our separate ways."

Jon asked, softly, "What are yours?"

Brendon leaned forward, resting his forehead on the chair in the row in front of him. He said, "I've, uh, only figured out two."

"And?" Ryan prompted. His knee was jittering non-stop. Spencer put a hand to it, but even that didn't slow the movement.

"I get to take Vari with me," Brendon said, sounding so petulant that Spencer would have laughed if he hadn't sensed that might complicate things even further. Next to him, Ryan was looking a little excited about the idea, and Spencer knew that no matter how much he said about Vari being at least forty pounds, shedding like a mofo, and just not really being a bus dog, they were going to agree to that one. Honestly, Spencer didn't even mind so much. He missed his dogs while he was away from them.

The orchestra had started up again, and Brendon was clearly listening, one ear cocked toward them. Jon had to whisper sort of loudly to say, "I like Vari."

Ryan looked at Spencer. Spencer shrugged. "If Pete could fit Hemmy on the bus, I don't see why we couldn't manage Vari."

Brendon's smile was tentative, but real, and he turned his full attention to the music, closing his eyes. Spencer watched him, trying to ignore the relief that was seemingly constantly present in his shoulders these days, just knowing Brendon was near. Ryan tapped on Spencer's cheek, and motioned to Jon to lean in. "First demand: Brendon has to keep his cell phone on and on him at all times, unless we're doing a show and if he sees it's one of us, he can't not pick up?"

"I can actually hear you," Brendon said. Ryan didn't have the best whisper, it was true.

Ryan glared at him, which was definitely the first time Spencer had seen that since they'd found Brendon. It was a Ryan-glare, so more in the feeling than the expression, but Brendon held up his hands and went back to concentrating on the music. Ryan asked, "Group vote?"

"Thumbs up for yes, thumbs down for no," Spencer said. It had been a while since they'd been able to make decisions that way, they always ran the risk of a tie. Spencer was pretty sure the last major decision made by thumb had been whether or not to officially sign Jon.

They closed their eyes for the initial thumb turning and when Spencer opened them, they all had their thumbs up. Spencer nodded. He turned to Brendon. "That's our first condition."

"Fine, but I get to pick ring tones for each of you," Brendon said.

Spencer submitted to this rebuttal with all the grace he could. "I suppose that's only fair."

"What was your second demand?" Ryan asked, seeming a little less wary, although not wholly. Spencer was glad. Brendon tended to work up to things.

Brendon's voice was much softer when he spoke this time, his body language less sure. "We sing some of my songs. Four, at least. Five, maybe."

That pulled them all up short. Spencer wasn't even sure if he was really breathing. Jon must have found a way to because he asked, "You, uh. You've been writing?"

Brendon nodded absentmindedly. "They won't sound right, not really, we'd need, like, an MTV Unplugged special for that, or something, but the parts for us are all there and--"

"You could write," Ryan said, interrupting him, and Brendon looked over at that. The strings sounded fucking incensed in Spencer's ears.

After a long moment, Brendon said, "It was all I could do."

"We get to choose the four or five," Spencer said. He wasn't backing down on that.

"Sure," Brendon said easily. "But there aren't that many more. There's, like, seven, total? And most of them aren't quite finished."

"Maybe we can help," Ryan said, not sounding like he expected the offer to be taken at all.

Brendon said, "Maybe. I-- You'll see."

The orchestra cut off, the silence surprising just in its relativity to the noise that preceded it. Spencer said, "How about we name our second demand, and then we all get to think about our third one, shelve it until later?"

Brendon's gaze skittered to Jon and Ryan, but Spencer was pretty sure they looked as confused as Brendon. He wasn't going to discuss this, though. This was his demand, and it was being met. "You can't leave the tour. Afterward, if it doesn't work out, you can go your own way. But no matter what happens, you can't leave us hanging."

"That's not what I did," Brendon snarled.

"Fucking felt that way from where I was standing," Spencer said.

"Spence," Jon said, but Spencer shook his head, keeping his eyes trained on Brendon.

Ryan asked, "Bren?"

Brendon's eyes were dark, but he said, "You have my word. I'll be there all the way through the tour, whenever you need me, wherever, phone on." He shimmied out of the row he was sitting in, announcing, "I'm going to dinner," without looking back or inviting them along.

*


It was Jon who had come up with their third demand, even if Spencer was the one to say it to Brendon. "When reporters ask where you've been for a year, you answer the question. You can say whatever you want, but it's your turn with the mic. We told Pete we'd all do a conference. They didn't really bother us that much after we announced that we were touring with Alex, but I think somebody was turning down magazine offers for us, since none of us really gave a shit about making things look good. That stands. It doesn't have to look good, so long as we don't have to field it."

Brendon fiddled with the salt-shaker on the table. He'd taken them to brunch at a Kosher deli, and while the place was packed, most of the denizens weren't giving them so much as a second glance. "Whatever I want, huh?"

Jon tensed up, but he was the one to answer, "Whatever."

Brendon tapped his finger against the stainless-steel of the shaker's top. "Only fair. And we should maybe take a few magazine offers this time. If they come."

Spencer took a breath he hadn't realized he was waiting on. "You come up with your third?"

Brendon smiled in a way that Spencer didn't understand, which was frightening, because even after Brendon had learned to hide pieces of himself, Spencer had always known exactly where they were. Brendon shook his head, then. "I'll stay at two. Nothing else I want."

He was lying. Spencer didn't know why or exactly what the lie was, but he was definitely lying.

"Brendon?" Ryan asked. Ryan knew too, Spencer could hear.

"I mean, if you guys want me to make something up, I guess, like, I could ask for chocolate cake with every craft service."

Unless something had seriously changed in the last year, Brendon wasn't all that huge a fan of chocolate cake. He was more a brownie kind of guy. He liked things that were dense, more sugar per cubic millimeter.

"The deal was we each got three," Ryan said. "We asked for three."

"I'm not penalizing you," Brendon told him. "You still get to have your three. I just don't have anything to ask for as my third."

It was there again, the lie, just as elusive as before. It was making the muscles in Spencer's back tighten. Jon scratched at the table top for a moment. "You could take a raincheck."

"What?" Brendon asked. Ryan was looking at Jon, unsure. Spencer knew the feeling.

Jon shrugged. "Have a demand in reserve."

"Doesn't do much good if I can't leave the tour if I don't get it. And since I promised I wouldn't--"

"We'll do it," Spencer said.

Brendon's gaze snapped to him. For a moment, Spencer felt so tired it hurt. "Surprised?"

"Ryan needs his voice, and Jon needs his conscience allayed, but you? You don't need anything from me."

The coffee Spencer had been sipping was burning in his stomach. He made himself breathe. He was about to pull himself together, say something, when Ryan beat him to it, Ryan who wanted Brendon back so badly Spencer was fairly certain he'd lie down in the middle of a busy road if Brendon asked. Ryan said, "He needs his friend, asshole."

"He has two," Brendon spit back. "Or well, I guess you're something else now."

"Don't," Jon said, not sounding demanding just desperate. "Don't. Don't make it-- You know it's not. You know it's not like that at all," he said.

Brendon looked away from all of them, then, up at the walls, at nothing. When he looked back, his eyes were blank. "Yeah, okay, sorry. Sorry, Spence."

Spencer shook his head. He wasn't sure he should accept. He wasn't sure the apology was for the right things. Brendon laughed a little, a soft, jagged sound. He said, "Nah, there doesn't have to be a raincheck, I just--"

"There's a fucking raincheck," Spencer said, forcibly keeping his voice calmer than his words. "Whatever you want."

The blankness slipped, then. Spencer almost missed it, since it was replaced by emptiness. The two were hard to tell apart, but Spencer knew Brendon. For all the little things he needed to catch up on, he knew Brendon. Brendon said, "Well, okay," and faked a smile. It was a good imitation, Spencer would grant him that. Spencer reined in a snort. Fucking, okay, indeed.

Ryan pushed himself into Brendon in that way he had, where it should have been all sharpness and bone, but it wasn't. He said, "Is there even anything on this menu you can eat?"

Brendon rolled his eyes. "No, I brought you to an all-meat restaurant."

*


Brendon had just assumed that agreeing to tour meant agreeing to go back to Vegas, or at least LA in the immediate future, to work out dates and logistics, get a set list in place and practice a bit before they headed out. When he asked about plane tickets, though, Spencer said, "Nah, Jon thought maybe we should just do all that stuff up here, start East and go West. Ryan and I think he's right. It seems really inefficient to go back just to cross out this way again."

"Um. Isn't there logic to-- I mean, don't we have, like, test audiences and, um. Stuff?"

Spencer had nodded. "Yeah, but not a logic that can't replicated on this side of the country."

The suggestion bought Brendon about three weeks to do things like decide what to do about his lease in between practice and band meetings and, well, having a job, which he hadn't in a while. He'd forgotten how time consuming it was. The guys had chosen five songs rather than four. Brendon couldn't tell if it was an act of good faith on their parts, or if they were just ready for new music, regardless of where it came from. Spencer had said, "Maybe a cover, too?" and Jon and Ryan had both fallen on the idea like it was a trampoline outside a burning building. Brendon didn't exactly blame them. He remembered just how old Fever had felt toward the end. Even if they did have a far, far larger catalog to play through than they'd had back then, there hadn't been a new album in over two years now.

Spencer threw out ideas for days, either Ryan wrinkling his nose, or Jon making a face, until finally Spencer said, "I give. You fuckers find one."

It took another week of Ryan pitching thoughts that Spencer tamped down on, or Jon throwing out suggestions that Ryan sometimes just openly laughed at before Jon said, "Where I Stood."

Ryan opened his mouth, then shut it. After a bit, Brendon asked, "Missy Higgins, Where I Stood?" He figured he had to be wrong. He thought he was the only one of them to listen to her.

Jon shrugged. "It'll work well with the other stuff, if we just let Bren orchestrate it a bit."

That was true, Brendon could already hear the way it could be fleshed out in his head. He couldn't hear himself singing it, every time he tried, something in him shied from the lyrics. Ryan said, "You should show me-- I mean, you don't have to like consult, or anything--"

"I remember how being in this band works, Ross." Brendon carefully took most of the bite out of the statement. Ryan's tendency toward hesitation with him was driving him fucking crazy, even more so because he understood it. Making it worse wasn't going to help anyone.

"No," Ryan said. "Not like that. I just, you've been learning shit for a whole year."

Brendon heard the without us clear as if Ryan had simply appended it to the end of his sentence. "Okay, well. You know how much I suck at teaching."

Ryan actually smiled at that. "I remember how being your friend works, asshole."

Brendon gave him that, because, well, fair enough. He hesitated before saying, "All right, I'll give legal a call, tell them to work on permissions."

Spencer asked, "Brendon?"

Brendon thought about saying, "She can love you, more than I could?"; thought about saying, "hits too close;" thought about saying, "No." In the end, though, he just looked at Jon--whom he was pretty sure had never listened to Missy Higgins before Brendon had left for Boston--and shook his head. "Nothing. That's good. Decision made."

Jon eyed him, but didn't pursue it, and Brendon wondered if that was what this year had bought him--the freedom to have his thoughts in private. He wasn't sure how much he liked it.

*


Brendon took Kait, Stacia, Jeremy and Court to Top of the Hub for dinner on his second to last night in town. Brendon had never been, but it seemed right, somewhere where they could all sit and watch the city below them together. He hadn't invited the other guys, and they hadn't asked. Something in them not pushing had helped a lot, made Brendon feel better about the upcoming weeks, months.

He ordered two bottles of wine--Kait preferred red, Jeremy, white--and most of the appetizers, but let the others order the entrees on their own. He had settled it with Kait that he would keep up rent on the apartment. She had said, "We could negotiate--" but Brendon had waved a hand. "I'll even be working now. It's good. I want some place to come back to. And this way you guys don't have to worry about who's up there." He would never have admitted it to either of their faces, but he hated the idea of random people living above them, it made him nervous. It really was a home to him, though, as much as anywhere that didn't have the others had ever been.

"You guys are starting in Jersey, then?" Court asked.

Brendon smiled. "To quote Spence, 'Inauspicious, but it'll get the job done.'"

"What job is that?" Stacia asked.

"First show fumbles, particularly considering it's been a while since we've played live together. Rough estimates on how the tour's going to sell, that sort of thing. Spencer could tell you exactly what it is the first show tells you, Jon might be able to as well, he's a lot more business savvy than he acts. Me and Ryan, we're just here for our looks."

"And what looks they are," Stacia said dryly.

"From a chick who only sleeps with chicks," Brendon said, and raised his glass. They all raised theirs, flutes clinking against each other. Jeremy snickered.

Brendon said, "Well be in Boston about a week and a half in. We're actually going a little south before going north again, which doesn't make sense, but most tour schedules don't. I left comp tickets on Stacia's desk, on top of her checkbook, and in Court's cello case. I figured they wouldn't get lost there. I pretty much expect to see you unless, you know, you're dead." Brendon nodded to himself. "Please don't die in the next week and a half."

"Where is it?" Court asked.

"Somerville theatre."

"Oh, hey, nice," Kait said.

"Yeah, I pulled for that one. They were looking at the Middle East, and I told them all my friends were too old for that shit."

"Well, thanks for that," Jeremy said.

Brendon laughed. The appetizers came in and they made themselves busy, splitting and deciding who wanted what, and when the decisions had been made, when they were all chewing and making contented noises, Brendon said, "Thank you."

They looked at him, each of them. Stacia was still nibbling, Court in the middle of cutting his food with the edge of his fork. Kait tilted her head, and Jeremy started to shake his head, but Brendon said, "No, I mean, I don't want to make it some big thing, even if it kind of is, I don't want-- But I do want to say thanks." He wanted it said with words, because for all that dinner was going on his tab, Brendon had learned nothing from Jon if not that sometimes it was important to speak up, say what was actually going on in his mind. "I didn't have anywhere else to go, not really. And there wasn't a reason in the world you had to say yes to me staying, but you did. So," Brendon raised his glass again. They followed. It was a bit reluctant, but they did. "To...to finding good people. To a year of music I'd never really listened to. To too many dogs and hot chocolate with just a little too much chocolate. To the fact that I'm gonna miss all of you like a fucking bitch."

He took a breath and thought, but then smiled. "Yeah, that's about it." He lifted his glass slightly. "Cheers."

The others chimed in with traditional toasts of their own and they sipped quietly for a moment. After a bit, Jeremy asked, "You going to throw anything at me if I say I'm glad you showed up?"

Brendon looked at him. Jeremy shrugged. Court grinned, looking down at the table. Brendon said, "Whatever it is, I really don't want to know."

Kait laughed. She said, "Well, if it helps, we only love you for the extra income."

"It does help," Brendon told her, right before dissolving into completely indecorous giggles.

*


Spencer hooked his chin on Ryan's shoulder and said, "You should talk to him."

Ryan, unsurprisingly, took another bite from the apple that was more core than fruit, and ignored Spencer. Spencer poked him in his side. "I said you should talk to him."

"I heard you," Ryan said.

"So now I just have to keep saying it until you give up in annoyance and listen to me?"

"If he'd just told us where Brendon was when he first--"

"Things might have been different, yeah," Spencer agreed.

"We could have--"

"Could we have?"

Ryan went silent. Spencer nipped at the back of his neck, hard enough to grant an edge of pain. He let go and said, "Jon was still figuring his shit out. Brendon wasn't ready to listen. He's barely ready to listen now. And Pete promised him. Would you have had Pete be a guy who just promises things and then doesn't care?"

Ryan stiffened in his hold. Spencer just kept his arms as they were, working not to tighten around Ryan. It was hard not to respond in kind, but he'd learned. Finally, Ryan muttered, "We could have tried."

Spencer closed his eyes briefly. "Yeah. Yeah, we could've. But we're trying now."

"What if--"

Spencer cut him off. There were some days when letting Ryan voice his fears was just far, far too risky. "Ry. Just-- Pete's your friend, okay? He's loved you almost as long as Brendon has, and I get why you're pissed, I do. I'm not thrilled myself. But losing Pete isn't going to fix the situation with Brendon."

"He shouldn't've lied. He should've at least admitted he knew where Brendon was." Now Ryan just sounded truculent, so Spencer knew he was winning.

"Probably," Spencer admitted. He wasn't sure he would have had the nerve to do that either, or the will to hold out against Ryan pleading for the information. And Pete was shit at saying no to Ryan, always had been. "But then he would have had to tell you that Brendon had made him promise, and I don't think he wanted to hurt you like that."

There was a moment of suspense, then Ryan let the tension out of his shoulders. "He's in the dressing room?"

Spencer caressed his thumb over the back of Ryan's neck. "Yeah. Mikey Way's in there, too. I think Pete might've called for moral support."

"We should ask him if there's a good place to order pizza after the show."

"Jon's already got a list."

Ryan laughed a little, and didn't resist when Spencer stepped away to tug him down the hall. He pulled them into the dressing room where Pete was arguing with Jon about which Chicago pizza place was best. Spencer asked, "Seriously, still?"

Mikey said, "Still," without looking up from whatever he was texting.

"They show no signs of slowing," Brendon confirmed. It rang slightly false, though, as Pete had gotten way more alert and pretty much all his attention was on Ryan. Mikey, despite the texting, had moved a little closer to Pete, enough so that their legs were touching.

Ryan cast an apologetic look at Jon and said, "Gino's East," voice flat, but not any more so than normal.

"Oh, Ryan," Jon said, with an extra dose of melodrama. Spencer noticed Mikey's mouth turn up for a very short moment.

Pete, on the other hand, rocketed off the couch. "Yes! Ha! Take that, Jon Walker, and your Malnati's-loving wrong face!"

Spencer couldn't help it, he snorted. Pete was undeterred, however, and leaped from the couch onto Jon to prove his superiority. Spencer considered rescuing Jon, but his eye caught on Brendon, who was watching the situation with mild concern. Spencer imagined it was mostly because they had to actually play that evening, and things tended to get broken around Pete, but he would take it. Sure enough, as soon as Pete managed the seemingly-impossible task of kicking Jon in the head while they were both upright, Brendon came from behind and pulled Jon out of the fray. He told Pete, "Yeah, okay, your pizza place wins."

Jon muttered, "Does not," but followed Brendon to the sinks, where Brendon pressed a cold cloth to his temple and said, "Keep that there. I'm telling everyone Pete Wentz beat you up."

"You didn't give me time to take him."

"Yeah, okay," Brendon said, and walked off to the corner, where--so far as Spencer could tell--he was actually reading Guns, Germs and Steel.

Softly, Ryan said, "I should probably go fix Jon's wrong face."

Jon looked kind of pathetic, hair a little wet, towel held to his face where Spencer was pretty sure there was going to be slight swelling, his eyes following Brendon. Pete was already over there, singing something that sounded like, "I love youuuuu, Jonny Walker," but had too many syllables to be that. Fixing anything right now sounded pretty great, so Spencer said, "Yeah, probably."

*


The new songs weren't like anything they'd ever done before. They weren't really like much Spencer had ever heard before. It took them from genre-hopping to just refusing to acknowledge there were genres, really. Underneath it, at the very, very heart of the songs, Spencer thought they might have been post-punk, angry and grieving and with energy that had nowhere to go. But they were layered with Brendon's newly acquired nuanced understanding of theory, a year of listening to symphonic music, new and old. They were complex and hard to play, even when driven by the most straightforward of counts.

The songs themselves weren't marketable, not really, at least not to anybody but the indie crowd, most likely. But the lyrics made it so that, by the end of each song, Spencer could hear the crowd singing back. They were notably Brendon's words, not twisted and hidden like Ryan's. But there were questions to them, repeated inquiries that--even though Spencer knew exactly what was really being asked--came off as universal, as that piece of Brendon that every audience member could take for themselves and make into their own thing.

Between those songs--the newness of them, Jon flinching at the lyrics, playing to Ryan more than the crowd--Brendon's rustiness, and Ryan's clear need to keep everything together, it was a rough first show. There were moments when it came together, unquestionably. In the second song, off their fourth album, the one that they'd written while stuck on a bus that had broken down outside Des Moines in the dead heat of a Midwestern summer, Brendon came over to play to Ryan during the chorus they had come up with, singing at the top of their lungs on a dusty road with only the passing cars to pay attention. Ryan nearly tripped over himself in his anxiousness to play back to Brendon, but Brendon caught him in time, and the two of them laughed, breaking up the song, but neither of them seemed to care, and the audience sure as hell didn't. Then again, the audience seemed so happy to have Brendon back, he probably could have shot one of them and they would have cheered. Spencer, annoyingly, felt for them.

Then there was the point when Brendon opened up a little and talked about taking classes and his new dog, and little things that gave just enough away that when reporters really started coming after him, he would have a starting point and could control the interview. He still wasn't the most media savvy person ever to have lived, but he'd gotten a lot better over the years, and could hold his own when left to his own devices.

There were also moments where things just fell apart. Brendon was a little stiff with the bass in Mad as Rabbits. Spencer was actually considering taking it out of the set--or just having Jon play the damn thing--but so far Ryan didn't seem to be in agreement on that, and Spencer needed at least a two person majority to put forth something like that. Additionally, Jon was noticeably keeping his distance from Brendon, not bantering with Ryan as much, and looking like he'd maybe been a little bit beaten up. Spencer really hoped there weren't dumbass comments about intraband abuse on the web the next day. It wasn't going to sound much better to say, "Nah, that was our boss."

Still, when Spencer stood up from his kit after the encore and watched the three of them make their way off the stage, Brendon falling back a little to walk with Ryan who straightened when he realized what had happened, Spencer thought, First show. Okay. Okay. And when he checked on Ryan, who was staying in Jon's room so that Brendon wouldn't be either on his own or with Jon--the latter of which he fully refused to be---he was already fast asleep. Jon smiled and said, "Long time, huh?"

Spencer didn't say, "Little over a year."

In the morning, Spencer slipped over to Pete's hotel room to look at the numbers with him before they headed down to Baltimore, and Pete went back to his band. Mikey said, "That shit you're playing, I'm gonna make Gee go listen when you get to New York. It's different."

Spencer nodded. "Brendon's stuff."

Mikey was quiet for a minute before he said, "Yeah. Kind of cool that it's all written to your strengths." Then he said, "I'm getting breakfast," to Pete, and left the room.

Pete watched him go. Without turning to look at Spencer he said, "Ryan? Gonna hate me? No? Verdict?"

Spencer was a little busy thinking about Mikey's observation, so he said, "It'll be fine," and didn't think too hard about what the "it" was.

*


Brendon didn't begrudge Ryan and Spencer their Ryan and Spencer-ness. There was no point to it. They were pre-destined, foreordained, written in the stars. Some things were just meant to be, was all. They weren't even really that different from how they had been when he'd left, when they were still pretending like there were going to be other people. Neither of them seemed to have much problem staying with Brendon. Spencer always came to Ryan to make sure that he was asleep or was getting there, but Spencer had done that when Ryan was having a rough time for as long as Brendon could remember. He'd probably done it before Brendon came along.

He didn't begrudge them it at all, it just wasn't as comfortable to be around as, say, Court and Jeremy. Which was weird, because Brendon had been completely in love with Jeremy at one point. Or, at least, he had been as in love with him as he ever had someone who wasn't Ryan or Spencer or Jon, but it had been pretty intense, all the same. He really would have expected to have some twinge of jealousy, or something, but when he did, it was always about the fact that they had each other, not about it being Jeremy.

But it was a little bit harder than Brendon remembered it being to watch Ryan smile the smile he had for Spencer and nobody else, harder to watch Spencer pull Ryan back by his belt loop when he headed off in a wrong direction. The worst part was, he noticed that Jon often walked away when it got to be too much and Brendon fucking hated that he really wanted to go with Jon, for the two of them to make fond-but-mildly-annoyed jokes about the two of them and maybe find coffee together.

Instead he made Zack go with him to find coffee while the techs were setting up, not even because he was worried about needing Zack. Zack was just someone who wasn't Ryan or Spencer or Jon. Zack was also, unfortunately, still a little pissed with Brendon for wandering off in the middle of the night, no matter that Brendon had pointed out, "You weren't even in the same state. We were on break."

Zack got the coffee with him, but somehow it still wasn't the same. Brendon ordered one for Jon and brought it back as some sort of peace offering for leaving him behind, but then didn't stay around to make peace. When he found Ryan, he was tuning his guitar and looking guilty. Brendon shook his head and sat down across from Ryan, who stepped gently on Brendon's toes. Brendon laughed softly without pulling his foot away. He said, "Look, if you and Spence wanna share a room tonight, I'm pretty sure I could sweet talk my way into switching with one of the crew."

Ryan shook his head without looking up from his guitar, but didn't say anything. Brendon said, "I'm-- I'm not actively trying to be an asshole, here."

Ryan let out a breath and said, "We used to be able to."

"Sorry?"

"We used to be able to be as big of assholes as we wanted to each other and then, y'know, fix it."

Brendon tensed. "You're the last person in the world to believe that everything's fixable, Ry."

"Yeah," he said, shoulders hunching. "Yeah, I am."

Brendon knew he shouldn't, but he couldn't help himself from reaching out, touching at the spot Spencer always put his fingers when Ryan was wound so tight it had to hurt. Ryan took a sharp breath in, but didn't move. His skin was surprisingly warm under Brendon's fingers, and it wasn't like Brendon hadn't touched Ryan before, he had, of course he had, but he'd never quite felt him breathe, not like this, not that he could remember. Brendon said, "Ry--"

From the doorway, Spencer said, "Either do it or don't, but I swear, Brendon, I swear if you run out on him--"

"I don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Brendon said, pulling his hand back. Ryan's hands went white on the neck of his guitar, but he stayed silent, watching Spencer. Brendon said, "I was just trying to get him to loosen up. I don't-- It's nothing."

"Nothing," Spencer said, giving Ryan a run for flat tone.

Brendon stood up and said, "Yeah, and you're here, so--" There was no way to get out of the room except to go by Spencer and Brendon told himself it was ridiculous to be afraid of Spencer, he hadn't done anything, hadn't taken Ryan--not that Ryan would even let himself be taken from Spencer--so he made to just stride past, but Spencer was a fast mover, and bigger than Brendon, always bigger than Brendon. Brendon said, "Spence--"

Spencer kissed him. Spencer, with his drummer's arms and his full-faced smile and his Spencer Smithness, and for a second, just a second, Brendon let him, arched into him, took what he wanted. Then he remembered Ryan, remembered how they were all here in the first place, and kneed Spencer in the balls. From there, he ran.

*


He got as far as down the hall, where he ran smack into Zack who said, "Whoa, where you going?" and held him by his arms. Brendon's mind was nothing but mostly scrolling with thoughts of what the hell he was going to do. He couldn't leave the tour. He'd promised. And he wasn't that guy, he wasn't, he wasn't going back on that.

He made himself breathe, one breath, then two, then admitted. "I don't know. The bus? I just-- I need-- I need to call Jeremy." Only Jeremy would be at work. "Or Kait." Kait would probably be home from school by now.

"No," Ryan said softly from behind. "You need to talk to us."

"I swear I'm only going as far as the bus," Brendon pleaded, unsure of whom he was even saying it to.

Hands took him from the back, pulled him from Zack, and Spencer said, "We'll go with him, it's cool." It was mildly reassuring that Spencer still sounded like he was in pain. Brendon wouldn't want to think his knee was losing any of it ability to drive home a point.

Brendon was pretty sure that actually, no, it was really, really not cool, but there was nowhere to go. It was a tour, by definition, they were everywhere he was. He took another breath and smiled at Zack. "Yeah, it's-- I'm good."

Zack let go and Brendon pulled himself from Spencer's grip, straightened up. Ryan's hand came down on his shoulder, then, and Brendon cringed, pretty sure Ryan was going to press in with his fingers. Ryan knew how to hurt when he wanted to. But Ryan's touch stayed light and he said, "C'mon, we need to talk."

Ryan steered him back to the quiet room, Spencer on his other side so that he couldn't go anywhere. Spencer closed the door behind them, limped slightly to the nearest seat, and said, "That was clumsy."

"Clumsy," Brendon said, and considered clawing Spencer's eyes out. He didn't really need them to drum. If people could play the piano blind, Spencer could drum blind.

"I-- I should have explained, first. I shouldn't have just--" Spencer shrugged.

Brendon walked further into the room to take a seat and crossed his arms over his chest. "Explain."

Spencer and Ryan looked at each other for a long time and finally Ryan said, "Um. We're not sure how to."

Brendon really wanted a fucking nap. He rubbed at the back of his neck. "Figure it out."

Spencer said, "We-- We missed you."

Brendon closed his eyes. Ryan said, "No, I mean, we did, but it was, um. You haven't touched me, in a while, not even, not really. I mean, sometimes on stage? And I." Ryan looked away for a moment. "Brendon, we didn't fly halfway across the country and integrate five new songs into our set because we needed a lead singer."

Brendon looked at him, frustrated at the way Ryan's eyes could be fucking huge, the way he could look so desperate. "Ryan, you've always--"

"I've always said you were my voice. I've always used you as a counterbalance. I've always done a lot of things that weren't mutually exclusive from being-- Wanting. From wanting." A pause, then Ryan added, "You."

Brendon's heart hurt it was beating so hard. He narrowed his eyes. "And Spencer just figures he'll take one for the team?"

"You are a complete fucking asshole, Brendon Urie," Spencer said, sounding like he meant every word. "And for the record, I owe you a knee to the balls. So don't fucking tempt me."

"Not helping, Spence," Ryan said.

Spencer glared, but then sighed. He asked Brendon, "I don't know. You're the one who wants Ryan, were you just taking one of the team? Because for a moment there, hate to tell you, you were definitely kissing back."

"I--" Brendon admitted, "I don't understand. You're Ryan and Spencer. This was always the way it was going to be, you were the only ones who wouldn't admit it. Not until I left, I guess, which, okay, I mean, okay. But you're Ryan and Spencer, not Ryan and Spencer and Brendon. Everyone knows that."

Ryan and Spencer had another silent conversation which ended in Spencer shrugging. "Wouldn't be the first time everyone was wrong."

Ryan inched closer to Brendon and Brendon pulled in on himself. He said, "I can't. I can't. Don't you-- If something happens, it's not one of you that's going to have to go. If something-- If a threesome isn't what you thought it would be, it won't be Brendon and Ryan that makes it out or Brendon and Spencer. Even if that was what I wanted, that wouldn't be it. And I can't, I wouldn't, it was bad enough leaving before. It was, I mean, I got myself together, enough, enough to live day-to-day, but I can't have this and go back, there's just no fucking going back from that for me."

"Good," Ryan said, low and dangerous. "Then you can't leave."

Occasionally--rarely, but occasionally--Brendon would forget how vicious Ryan could be when he wanted to hold on to something. It should have been frightening. Instead, it sank into Brendon's chest, reassuring. Ryan never, never let go of the things he considered his, the things that were important to keep. All Brendon had to do was keep being important, which should have felt like an overwhelming task, but he'd gone away for a year and they'd come to find him even so. Brendon hadn't believed in G-d for a really, really long time, but he still knew there were certain things a person had to take on faith. He knew his voice wasn't steady as he said, "You have to be sure." He didn't care.

Spencer said, "The only thing I've ever been as sure about was Ryan."

Ryan nodded. Brendon looked at both of them. Finally he asked, "You think, maybe, you could kiss me again? Just as like, a signature on the contract?"

Ryan was laughing when his lips met Brendon's.

*


The show that night was fucking wired. Spencer was honestly concerned that either Ryan or Brendon was going to short out his microphone at certain points from sheer emotional energy. Ryan looked at Spencer when they came off the stage and Spencer said, "I need to go talk to Jon. Stay with Brendon."

Ryan looked over at Jon, clearly unsure, although whether about leaving Jon to Spencer, or being alone with Brendon, Spencer couldn't tell. Either way, he squeezed slightly at the back of Ryan's neck. "Trust me."

That was enough for Ryan, who nodded. When they got to the hotel he followed Brendon into his chosen room without a word. Spencer took a second, then pushed the key in the lock of the door next to it and walked in. Jon was already in the shower; Spencer could hear the water running. Spencer sat on the edge of one of the beds and flipped through channels, using the scroll bar on CNN to try and figure out what the hell was going on in the world. As usual, it didn't make much sense. He could never figure out if it was his lack of context, or if everyone was just insane.

Jon came out of the bathroom and said, "I think you're in the wrong room," more mildly than Spencer thought he would have been able to manage, if it had been him.

"Jon," Spencer said, and he really had intended to say more, but he stopped when he realized there was nothing more to say.

"I get it, Spence. I fucked up. It's--" He shook his head. "Well, anyway, I get it."

Spencer didn't think Jon did, but then, Spencer wasn't sure any of them did. Jon said, "Look, Spence, I think at the end of this tour-- I think I'm gonna help you guys find another bassist. No hard feelings, or anything--"

For the second time that day, Spencer found himself kissing someone half out of the desperate need to shut him up, half because it was the only way to make his point. Unlike Brendon's quick surge into it, his sweet melt against Spencer and rather violent rejection, Jon kissed back, hard and needy and with a whine on his lips that made Spencer fist his hands in Jon's hair. The kisses were wet, messy, more about contact than finesse. Jon pulled his face to the side, panting, and as much as Spencer wanted to, he didn't follow him. "Jon?"

"Do they know? Um. That you're...here? Like this?"

Spencer thought of the conversation with Ryan in the hall. "I think Ryan does."

"Brendon?" Jon asked, his voice just managing not to break.

"I-- I don't know. It's... Reading him is different than it was."

"Best guess," Jon said. He looked straight at Spencer until Spencer was forced to let his gaze drop.

"I don't think so."

Jon freed himself from Spencer's grip and pulled away. Spencer flexed his fingers, trying to get used to the feeling of emptiness, like he had to after every show, even practice session. Jon said, "I can't. I can't do anything else to--"

"Give me time, Jon. Give us time. Ryan's in this. And Brendon-- He's here. We just need time."

"I don't know that I-- He won't forgive me. He won't listen when I say sorry. The only thing he'll take from me is my willingness to stay away."

Spencer had been thinking about that, though. He said, "You can't be someone's breaking point if they don't care enough."

"I don't have a clue what you just said."

"Brendon's always forgiven everything. That's his way of showing he cares. Or, it's his way of needing the things he cares about. I don't know. But he's forgiven Ryan so many times it'd probably be seen as pathological by anyone from the outside, and he forgave his family, and as far as I can tell, they never even said they were sorry, not really. I mean, sometimes they showed it, in certain ways, but they didn't say it. But you he won't give in to. I don't think it's because he's always harbored some sort of secret resistance to your Jon Walker-y charms, Jon Walker."

Jon gave him a look that said, "I am patently unamused." It wasn't as good as Ryan's. Spencer took it to heart anyway. "Jon, c'mon. Brendon was in love with you from the second Ryan said, 'hey, this is Jon, the one who helped fix my pedal.' You had to have noticed. He didn't pick 'Under the Sea' to sing to you--which was his favorite, by the way--"

"Because he got to do the accent," Jon said in time with Spencer.

Spencer nodded. "He sang 'Whole New World.' That was seduction Brendon-style, and sure maybe you didn't see it then, but I can't believe that after your first year of being--"

"No, I knew, for a while. I just figured it went away. He'd had, what, seven, eight years to move on? He found Shane, he found Jeremy--"

"You had Cassie and I had Haley and shit, Ryan was still with Keltie for some of that. He wasn't the only one pretending he could have what he really wanted, was he?"

"I loved Cass," Jon said softly, not even defensively, just with an honesty that didn't deny what Spencer had been asking.

"I know," Spencer said. He did. He'd loved Haley. Sometimes things just weren't that simple. "You loved her for a fuck of a long time, but when it came time to make a choice, you chose us, Jon."

"It wasn't like--"

"It was," Spencer said. "It was for me and for Ryan and for Brendon, and it was for you, too."

After a long moment, Jon gave a small, cursory nod. Spencer said, "Give us time."

Jon closed his eyes, breathing slowly. He opened his hands as though he was giving something over and said, "Take it."
*


Brendon came to the door when Spencer knocked, looking at him for a bit before letting him in. He traced a finger over one of Spencer's cheekbones and, instead of pursuing the matter of where Spencer had been, just said, "You reek," managing to smirk and stick his tongue out at the same time.

Spencer shrugged. "I'm not the one blocking my way to the shower."

Brendon huffed out a small laugh and let Spencer inside. Spencer stripped on his way to the bathroom, aware of Ryan and Brendon's eyes on him. He wouldn't be ashamed for liking the fact that two of the prettiest men in the world--a largely acknowledged fact amongst the Decaydance set, and often outside--were looking at him with desire, with surprise that he would be theirs, shortly. He wouldn't be less than pleased that Ryan still hadn't gotten over the novelty of it all, not when he hadn't either.

He got in the shower as soon as the water was warm enough and started to soap up his hair. He heard the click of the door opening and said, "I'm pretty sure I told you to stay with Brendon."

"He's curled up with Vari on the bed. Comedy Central's airing 'Mean Girls;' he's golden." Then, "How's Jon?"

"Not golden," Spencer said.

Ryan was actually being pretty patient, but finally he had to ask, "Spencer?"

Spencer finished up his shower and turned the water off. He said, "I...asked him to give us time."

Ryan pulled back the shower curtain and looked at Spencer. He tilted his head slightly. "Before or after you kissed him?"

"What makes you think I kissed him?"

"Besides the fact that I know what you look like post-makeout session?"

Spencer granted Ryan that point. Ryan asked, "How else were you going to convince him we wouldn't just forget about him?" Ryan shivered, even in the trapped heat of the bathroom. Spencer dried off and pulled on the pajama pants Ryan was holding out to him. He tugged Ryan into a hug.

"After."

"Mm?" Ryan asked.

"I told him after I kissed him." Spencer wasn't telling Ryan what Jon had said about finding them another bassist. There was no point in freaking anyone out anymore than everybody already was.

"I blew Brendon in the shower," Ryan said.

"Yeah, I kinda figured. You looked pretty pleased with yourself, helped by a side of guilty."

"He started it. He touched my shoulder."

"Who decided to get in the shower with him?" Spencer asked mildly.

"I was conserving water," Ryan told him.

"Says the guy who can't remember how to pay his bill."

"Jesus, that was over seven years ago. Let it rest."

Spencer laughed. "What's being a best friend good for if I can't make fun of you forever for the stupid shit you did in your youth?"

"I'd say that I'd blow you too, but I kind of promised Brendon you'd fuck him."

"You kinda promised."

"Well, I was nice, you know, and helped him out, and he wanted to return the favor--"

"He's very polite," Spencer murmured.

"Very. But I thought we'd best wait for you, so I said maybe he could help while I was watching you fuck him. He seemed excited by the idea." Ryan leaned in, rubbing himself against where Spencer was clearly pretty excited by it as well.

"We'd better not keep him waiting, then."

Ryan all but pulled Spencer straight through the bathroom door. Brendon was still in bed, still watching TV, but he wasn't laughing at the movie, clearly hadn't been for a while. His gaze, when it drifted to them, was uncertain. He said, "Um."

Ryan said, "I'm gonna take Vari to Zack." They all knew it was a lie, Ryan was going to take Vari to Jon, so that he would have another being in that room with him, but Brendon allowed it with an, "Oh. Yeah, okay."

Ryan called to Vari who looked up at Brendon, but he gave the dog a light tap, and the dog went to Ryan. As soon as Ryan had left, Spencer said, "I think when he gets back he's going to be greeted by the sight of you naked and riding my cock, waiting for the chance to suck his."

"You really think we have that much time?" Brendon asked casually, but with a definite shortness of breath.

Spencer said, "I really don't think either of us is going to be able to wait any longer than that." He was already moving to the bed, and Brendon was kicking off his boxers, so Spencer was pretty sure he was right about that hunch. They could try for slow and interesting later, or even just slow. Spencer asked, "Lu--" but Brendon was already handing it and the condoms to him, from right at his side. Spencer grinned.

Brendon flushed. "Ryan promised."

"Yeah," Spencer said, pushing his pants off and climbing onto the bed. Brendon rose up to straddle him and Spencer said, "Turn, turn." He wanted Ryan to see Brendon's face, wanted Ryan to tell him about it, because if he was watching, Spencer wasn't entirely sure this was going to last all that long. He couldn't say for certain how long he'd wanted Brendon--he'd buried that realization deep the moment it had occurred to him--but long enough that he felt like some kind of twenty-seven year-old virgin.

Brendon said, "Not too-- Just, like, been a while, okay?"

"Yeah," Spencer agreed, and slicked Brendon up with one finger, then two, before asking, "Do you--"

"No, that's fine, just--"

"Yeah," Spencer said again, lifting Brendon's hips up just slightly and pushing in. Brendon made sweet, high noises, that were familiar from when Brendon hadn't really felt the need to hide his activities by say, not having sex in the bunks while the rest of the guys were on the bus. Spencer said, "Brendon," because he didn't know how to say that he'd wanted to make him sound like that so many times, so many.

Ryan came back in, then, and said, "Oh."

Spencer laughed, breathy and so turned on he could barely see. He managed, "Tell me."

Ryan smiled, then, small and just between the three of them. He said, "His pupils are blown, and his mouth is open, lower lip a little wet." Ryan was closer now, close enough to lean in and lick Brendon's lip. He said, "Tastes like toothpaste and...tea?"

"While you were--" One of Brendon's hands flailed.

"His stomach keeps making these shallow dips, and I--" Ryan lowered his head, nibbled at Brendon's stomach. Brendon made sounds that might have been Ryan's name, maybe.

Spencer whispered, "I like the edges of his teeth."

"Please," Brendon begged, "please, Ryan, he said--"

"Shh," Ryan said, bringing himself up so that he could kiss Brendon, calm him with his fingers to Brendon's face. "Shh."

Brendon repeated a plaintive, "Please," and Ryan couldn't get himself out of his sweats fast enough, standing up, using Brendon's shoulders to stay upright. Spencer looked up and he knew the exact moment when Brendon had taken him in his mouth. Ryan went rigid and said, "Brendon," like a lyric. Brendon drove himself down onto Spencer's cock and Spencer made a noise that he couldn't remember ever making, not even the time Ryan had managed to deep-throat him. Evidently he was going to have different sounds for both of them.

Brendon was writhing and squeezing and with Ryan's head thrown back, his neck long and perfectly within Spencer's line of vision if he focused just slightly above Brendon's head, his breaths coming out cut off from the position, Spencer couldn't hold on for long. He made himself slow his breathing, made himself wait, wait, because he'd wanted this for too damn long to just give in. Then Ryan said, "Oh, Spencer, he--" and Spencer groaned, pulling himself tight into Brendon, who took it, pushed into it. Spencer muttered things he didn't even understand into Brendon's hair, let the climax wash over him, take him where it would.

When Spencer could feel a few of his limbs, he pushed Brendon onto his knees so that he could free himself, move to where he had a better view of Ryan's cock sliding between Brendon's lips. The few times he'd allowed them, Spencer's fantasies of Brendon had heavily featured those lips. Brendon gave loud head, which Spencer had never, ever found sexy, and he was pretty sure there was something totally off about the fact that he did now, but he just didn't care.

Ryan was moaning, his voice deeper than usual when aroused and Spencer found the lube again, lazily reached up and fingered Ryan until he was shouting, coming in Brendon's mouth. When Brendon was ready, he pulled off of Ryan and leaned into Spencer, kissing him, tasting of toothpaste and tea and Ryan. Spencer kissed him until he fell backward onto the bed, the two of them working to get Brendon untangled, Ryan dog-piling atop them. Without discussing it, Ryan and Spencer both wrapped their hands around Brendon's cock, Spencer at the base, Ryan the head.

Brendon said, "Fuck, haven't done this in forever."

Ryan laughed, his bedroom laugh, and kissed the words from Brendon. Spencer licked at the skin of Brendon's neck, bit at his earlobe, his jaw, whispered, "Brendon, so hot, Brendon," against his cheek.

Ryan said, "Needed you, needed you," and Brendon came, sobbing, his lips holding to Ryan's tightly.

*


When Zack popped his head in the next morning and said, "Half hour guys," Brendon awoke pliant, and sore in places he hadn't felt in a while. He tried to wiggle free of the confines of the two-man body cage keeping him down, but Ryan just moved himself further atop Brendon and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "No."

Brendon grinned into the pillow but then turned his head to say, "Have to feed Vari."

"Jon Walker spoils the shit out of that dog in lieu of you," Spencer mumbled. "He's probably had two breakfasts by now."

"I thought Vari was with Zack," Brendon said as calmly as he could.

Ryan said, "Jon was closer," through a yawn.

Brendon jerked free of Ryan's grasp and said, "Don't lie to me. Not even about--"

Spencer came up and pinned Brendon on his back. "Okay. No lying. That's fair. Ryan probably didn't think about it that way, so you're gonna have to cut him some fucking slack. In the meantime, maybe you should consider the fact that Jon's the only one in that room, while we're all in here. And he listens to you sing about his fuck ups every night without saying a damn word. He chose a few of those songs. You can let him cuddle with your dog for a few hours."

Brendon counted to ten. It wasn't even to control his anger, just to consider whether he could stop himself from saying what he was about to say. It turned out he couldn't. "If I turned to you right now--if I turned to Ryan right now--and said, with a straight face, that I had just needed something casual? That last night had just been--"

"I'd probably never let you within a hundred miles of either Milo or Boba, but then, we talked before this. You told us your intentions. That wouldn't have been a mistake; that would have been you being purposely cruel."

Brendon stopped tensing against Spencer's grip. There was no way to explain that that very distinction was kind of what made it all worse--that purposeful cruelty would have meant he at least figured in Jon's world enough to merit that--so he just said, "Okay. Jon can have Vari."

Spencer let him up and Brendon got out of bed. "But only till we're on the bus." He padded to the bathroom, where he peed and splashed water on his face.

Ryan popped his head in and said, "Zack's making sure we have breakfast on the bus. Bagels or cereal?"

"Bagels with eggs and cheese?" Brendon asked. He seriously needed some protein.

"I'll let Spencer do the sweet-talking," Ryan said.

"Good plan," Brendon told the back of Ryan's head. After a second's thought, Brendon reached out and grabbed Ryan by the back of the collar of the t-shirt he'd put on. Ryan jerked back with a spluttering sound, but once Brendon had hold of him, he let Brendon have him, didn't fight to get free. Brendon said, "Hey."

Ryan said, "Morning?"

"You were awake when I awoke up." Brendon hadn't realized it at first, but despite Ryan's resistance to Brendon getting out of bed, he'd already held the tension that crept out of Ryan most times when he slept.

"Some of us aren't layabouts."

Brendon gave Ryan repeated raspberries on his neck until Ryan shouted, "Okay, okay, I couldn't sleep!"

Brendon sneaked a look at Spencer, who was texting--probably Zack about breakfast--but Spencer just gave him a look that said this was all him. That was totally unfair, as Spencer probably already knew what was wrong, or at least knew the best way to get it out of Ryan, but Brendon supposed he could use the practice. Brendon said, "Hm. It's tour, so I know it's not that you just weren't tired. You could be homesick, but you're usually not so long as you've got Spencer--"

"And you," Ryan said stiffly.

Brendon grinned in the direction that neither Ryan nor Spencer would see. "And m--"

"And Jon."

Brendon didn't say anything, just looked over to where Spencer was pretending to still be texting. Brendon sighed. "You want me to talk to him?"

"I want--" Ryan paused. "Yeah. Talk."

It was always weird when Ryan got monosyllabic with them, like Ryan sensed he was being put on the spot somehow, no pad of paper to hide behind. Brendon tried to figure out the truest thing he could say to Ryan. Finally he settled on, "I'll see what I have to say."

*


Brendon was still trying to figure out his plan of attack--what he even wanted from talking to Jon, other than making Ryan happy--four days later, when he became aware of someone vomiting in the bathroom stall next to his. Brendon bent to check if it was anyone he knew and then straightened and thought, Fuck. For a long second, he thought about just leaving Jon there. Then he heard the sounds that a guy only made when he was dry-heaving, which was pretty much the worst physical feeling in the world, and said, "Jesus, Walker, try and undo the lock."

It took a bit, but Jon did. There were pretty much three reasons for puking on a tour, so Brendon asked, "Bug, poisoning or hangover?"

"Dunno," Jon said weakly, when he finally stopped heaving. "Only had two beers last night. But, kind of a lot of coffee this morning. No food. So."

Brendon mentally added, "being a dumbass" to the list of reasons for puking on tour, which wasn't fair, since Brendon had totally done way stupider things, but he wasn't feeling entirely fair-minded. He hauled Jon up from the toilet with a, "C'mon," and ushered him to the sink, where he made him rinse and splash his face and even wet a paper towel and put it to the back of Jon's neck. He said, "That shit'll eat your stomach, you know that."

"Wasn't hungry," Jon said, flinching every time Brendon touched him. Brendon thought about it for a second and then just shoved. Jon toppled sideways but caught himself on the row of sinks. He looked over at Brendon.

Brendon asked, "Better?"

"More of what I expected," Jon admitted. Brendon waited. Jon shrugged. "Deserved."

"You know the thing about rebounds, asshole? You do them with people you don't give a shit about, so that when that person gets hurt, you don't have to care."

"I didn't--" Jon turned around and smacked the wall, but then made a sound and held his hand.

Brendon rolled his eyes. "Then what the fuck?"

"It wasn't a rebound. In my head it wasn't-- I mean, obviously, that's what it was, and I'm a complete dicksmack, but I didn't think about it like that, so it wasn't like that."

Brendon stared at him. "That's." And stared some more. "That's the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard, and I've been around Pete during some of his more spectacular moments. Shit, Gabe."

"Yeah, well, sometimes I'm a fucking moron. What do you want me to say here, Brendon?"

"I think it's the fact that you've had over a year to think about it and that you can't come up with anything better than that that's the real killer, you know?" Brendon sneered.

"Oh fuck you, Brendon. Did it ever once occur to you that maybe in that year where you were living it up without us that there were a fucking million things I needed to say to you at any given time and you just weren't there for them? You weren't even at the other end of a phone because you disappeared! Maybe I screwed up, sure, but you're the one who fucking left us."

Jon was nearly spitting with something that wasn't quite anger, and Brendon knew that before now, he would have folded, would have done what it took to get Jon smiling at him again. "Maybe I needed some time to make sure I wasn't a sure thing. Because that made it pretty easy on all of you."

Jon went white at that. "Bren--"

"Why wasn't it Spencer, Jon? Or Ryan? They were both there. And don't tell me it was because they were SpencerandRyan. That would have happened regardless and we all knew it and the only thing you fucking one of them might have done was to speed it up. Although, I guess fucking me did that too, huh?"

Jon shook his head and for the first time since they'd found him, stepped into Brendon's space. He said, slowly, "It wasn't Spencer or Ryan because it was you. And I did it wrong and it was stupid and now you don't want to forgive me, but it wasn't them because it was you, and there isn't any other answer to that, asshole."

Brendon opened his mouth, but this time it was Jon's turn to walk out. Brendon noticed, vaguely, that he at least had shoes on.

*


Brendon fumbled lyrics twice that night, which, it wasn't that Brendon didn't make mistakes, but he made both of those on the songs he had written, and that was actually a little unusual. Jon somehow managed to play "Sins" incorrectly, which threw Spencer so much that Ryan had to shoot him a dirty look because he was slowing the song down without realizing it. All in all, they were a fucking mess.

Spencer took the first shower by force--well, by running faster than any of the others--and then just glared at everyone until they were clean and sitting in the back lounge. Glaring hadn't worked for Brendon, he'd had to use kissing and--when that hadn't done the trick--frogmarching. Vari followed happily. Brendon grumbled, "Awesome guarding skills."

Spencer shut the door to the lounge, despite the fact that, other than the driver, they were the only four people on the bus. It was unlikely that the driver would interrupt them, as he was driving.

He sat down and prepared to wait out the silence. He wasn't expecting it to be Ryan who broke it. "So, evidently whatever Brendon said didn't really fix things."

"Astute," Brendon said. It sounded like he kind of wanted to snap, but was too tired to manage.

"Ry," Jon said, rubbing at his face. "Some stuff, just--"

"Don't you dare tell him his band is broken and we can't fix it. Don't you even--"

Jon whipped around on Brendon and said, low and intense and breathless, "You don't want me to touch you, you don't want me to sing with you, you don't want me to be in the same room as you, and those are the only things I want, so you tell me, Brendon, you tell me how to fucking fix Ryan's band."

"It's our band," Ryan hissed, and Spencer really wanted to touch him, but for the first time ever, he wasn't sure if it might get him punched. Ryan said, "The four of us," and his tone was calmer, but his body was still wire-tight.

"Or none of us," Spencer added, quietly. Ryan didn't look at him, he just nodded.

"The problem is not that I don't want you to touch me," Brendon said, breathing so hard that Spencer knew he was cutting back words. He imagined they probably included "fucking" and "moron" or possibly something more creative. Spencer thought the effort showed good faith.

Jon kind of exploded, his hands going one place, his body seemingly another as he got to his feet, stalking to within inches of Brendon. Vari snarled but subsided, confused, when Ryan took his collar and drew him away. "Then explain to me, Brendon. What the fucking fuck is the problem?"

Spencer watched Brendon's hands clench at his side and considered that Jon Walker was either a lot stupider than Spencer had convinced himself, or a surprising genius, because he was pretty sure it was only a few moments before-- Brendon stood and pushed Jon until his back was against the door where he held him, the muscles in his arms bunching. Jon didn't seem to be fighting. Brendon's breaths were coming in soft gasps, almost sobs, and he said, "Fuck you," a little high and shaky for it to have quite the effect he was probably going for.

"Brendon," Jon said softly. "Just-- Just ask, Brendon."

"Ask."

Jon nodded. "For anything."

"How do I know that you won't just decide... How do I trust you?"

Spencer winced at the desperation in Brendon's voice. Jon scuffed his foot a bit, keeping his gaze on Brendon. "I don't know. I don't know what I can say that you'll believe."

Brendon shook his head. "I don't know, either."

Ryan made a face. He said, "Stay," softly to Vari before walking to the two of them, standing to their sides, where he could look at both of them. Finally he asked Brendon, "Do you trust me? Me and Spence?"

Spencer could just see the frown on Brendon's face when he turned to Ryan. Jon carefully stayed where he was, despite the obvious lessening of tension in Brendon's arms. Brendon said, "I--"

Ryan tilted his head, eyes narrowing. Brendon rocked up a little and touched his lips to Ryan's. It wasn't even a kiss, really, just contact. "Yeah, Ry. Yeah."

Spencer knew precisely where Ryan was going with this by that time, so when Ryan looked at him briefly he flashed him a half-smile of encouragement. Ryan said, "Then trust us not to let you get hurt. Trust us until you can trust him again."

Brendon's fingers had twisted in Jon's shirt, seemingly without his knowledge. Jon said, "Just-- Okay. Trust them. Just give me a chance, here. That's all."

Brendon huddled in a little closer, clearly waiting for something. Spencer made himself not call out, but he did roll his eyes at Jon, because honestly, however much had changed, this was still Brendon. Jon blinked at him and then said, "Oh," and pulled Brendon in all the way, hugging him tightly. Brendon said, "You let go again, and I'll steal your cats and you'll never get them back."

"Fair," Jon said, "fair," and tightened his grip.

*


Brendon called Dr. Blair as soon as they were off the bus and left a message. "Hi, I realize that we talked two days ago, during my scheduled appointment, and that you're seeing patients right now, and I'll probably be playing by the time you're not, but could you maybe call me around midnight your time because-- Because I really need to talk. You can negotiate a higher fee. Totally. Just, please, call." Then he went and shared a bag of gummi worms with Spencer, who still pretended the worms were alive and had full out gummi worm conversations. At some point Ryan joined and created a love ballad for the neon orange-yellow snake and the electric blue-pink one.

By the time they went on for soundcheck, Brendon was riding a sugar wave that was closer to a white squall than anything. Somewhere in the middle of "Pavlov's Cat"--off the third album--when Brendon was pretty sure he was speeding things up but seemingly unable to find the others, Jon came as near as he seemingly dared and grounded Brendon by way of his bass. Brendon took a deep breath and turned, playing to Jon. Jon didn't get any closer, but he did smile, hopeful and annoyingly sweet. Brendon had conveniently forgotten how much he liked Jon's smile.

After the show, when his phone rang, the guys turned the back lounge over to him and he answered with, "Thank you. Thanks. I really-- Thanks."

Dr. Blair laughed a bit. "Take a breath, Brendon."

Brendon took his advice. Well, sort of. Brendon breathed for a while, trying to get himself to calm, to shake off the still-present buzz from the show. He said, "I hugged Jon," without realizing that was what he had been planning to say at all. In fact, he was pretty certain that was not what he had been planning to say.

"Oh?"

"Well, no, he hugged me, but I stood still and let him and enjoyed it."

"Having committed that crime, want to tell me how you're feeling about that?"

"Ryan seems less stressed."

"We've talked about this, Brendon."

They had, quite a few times. Basically, it went like this: Dr. Blair said, "All right, but how do you feel?" and Brendon said, "You can't just separate shit out like that," and Dr. Blair said, "But you need to, that's how friendships and lover-type relationships work, we're all individuals working within them," and Brendon said, "No, I guess, maybe for most people." He wasn't sure Dr. Blair thought that his relationship with Ryan and Spencer was healthy, but he didn't seemingly make judgment calls about it either, so Brendon was willing to be happy with that.

Still, Brendon realized that he wasn't asking the question to be a dick, he was asking because Brendon had begged him to call well-past his billing hours. Which reminded Brendon, "You really can negotiate a higher fee."

"Mm," he said. "Now let's go back to how you feel about Jon hugging you."

Brendon sighed. "Would it be a surprise to you if I said I'm still in love with him?"

"Anything else and I'd have to find an APA-approved method of telling you you're a liar."

"He says-- He says he's in love with me."

"Gut reaction?"

Brendon considered for a second. "Terror, I think."

"Of?" The question sounded rote, but that was kind of fair. Brendon should know the answer.

"Him being wrong, again."

"Wait. So you think he was wrong in his feelings the first time?"

"Maybe wrong's not... Careless, I guess. Careless of the consequences."

"Careless of you."

The words hurt. Not as much as the original action on Jon's part had, but hearing them aloud like that was never fun. "Yes."

"So why'd you stand still? When he was hugging you?"

Brendon closed his eyes, remembering how it had felt, how familiar and long-missed and wondered if maybe it was just because he wasn't strong enough to hold out. "I want to think it's because I believe in second chances."

"You want to believe that."

"Aren't some aspects of life just about, like, knowing what we want, putting that out there?"

"Yeah, some," Dr. Blair agreed casually, which was generally a sign that he was looking for Brendon to keep talking.

Brendon said, "I don't know. I kind of left a lot of faith shit behind with religion, and I don't know how big I am into picking it back up again. Didn't go so well the first time, can't imagine doing it a second." Brendon paused. "Which should sort of apply to Jon, I guess."

"I hear an 'only'."

Brendon laughed a little, more a release of breath than actual humor. "Only if I don't trust them, I don't have a fucking clue who to trust. I mean, I love Jer and Court and Kait and Stacia and shit, my family, but they're not-- They're not Ryan and Spencer and Jon, really. There's no other way to explain it, and nobody but us really gets it, except, well, I guess Pete, and maybe Mikey and those guys, that sort of thing. Other bands, sometimes, they do, although not always."

Dr. Blair waited a second and then said, "What I'm getting from all this is that you feel like you have to put something out there in order to get something back, that that's how trust works."

"Isn't it?"

"For some people, sure."

"I think-- I'm pretty sure it's true for me."

"Good thing to know about yourself. And I'm also getting from you that having trust in these guys is...a sort of line for you, a baseline of what you can and can't do."

"Do you disagree?"

"I'm not judging, Brendon, I'm trying to get you to hear your own words and weigh them for yourself."

"Couldn't you just tell me what to do?"

Dr. Blair laughed. "Would you honestly be happy with that?"

Brendon made a face. Dr. Blair, despite having no way of possibly seen, said, "Thought not."

"Fine," Brendon grumped. "It's that-- It's that I want to trust them," Brendon admitted quietly. "Good idea or no. Smart or not. I want to."

"There's nothing wrong with that."

"Nothing wrong with being stupid?"

"Wanting things that aren't necessarily logical isn't stupid, Brendon, it's human. If you want to not be human, well, I'm the wrong kind of doctor to help with that."

"Now you tell me."

"So, tell me. How's it going, the hugging?"

"Jon gives amazing hugs," Brendon told him, unhappily.

"Seems like a good start," he said softly.

Brendon said, "That's probably what has me feeling like I'm going to have a heart attack, any day."

"Well, if you do, remember: 911 first, my number second."

*


They slept together on the floor of the lounge that night. They hadn't planned it that way, but when all of them were milling around at nearly two, Ryan clearly unwilling to choose whom he was sleeping with and equally unwilling to sleep alone, Jon said, "I think-- If we stripped all the bunks it would be like, um--"

And Brendon said, "Blanket fort!" and shot off to destroy the bunks. Spencer suspected he'd had a little bit of coffee before talking with his therapist. Vari did his funny little limping run after him, barking insistently. Brendon stopped for long enough to get him calmed, Ryan taking over on dismantling duty. Spencer took the stuff that Ryan handed him and started setting up, Jon following shortly with more of Ryan and Brendon's loot.

When the blankets were laid out in a way where they would all fit--it would be tight, but it would work--Brendon managed to get Vari to settle near where their feet would be. Then they stood around eyeing each other like strange, alien creatures.

Finally, Ryan said, "I get to be on one side of Brendon."

Spencer looked at Jon. "Wanna flip for it?"

"Whoa, hey, in the room," Brendon said.

"What?" Spencer said. "You want in the flip? I mean, might be weird, but I'm sure we can find a way to replicate you, or some shit like that."

Brendon looked at him for a long second and Spencer was just this side of sure that Brendon was going to lecture him on why he should have a choice, but eventually Brendon just snorted with laughter and said, "Wow, that'd suck for you guys," and that, that was much more like the Brendon Spencer remembered.

Ryan said, "More for us," and came to hang on Brendon.

Spencer nodded. "In fact, if we had two Brendons, Jon and I wouldn't have to be flipping--"

"Why do I get the feeling our next album is going to have to be about mad scientists?" Ryan asked, raising an eyebrow.

Spencer smirked and said, "Heads."

Jon frowned at him. "I was going to pick heads."

"Sucks to be you."

"Fine, tails."

Spencer flipped the coin, looked and made a face. He tossed the coin to Jon. "You win."

Jon looked at Spencer for a moment, clearly suspicious at not having gotten to see the coin before Spencer tossed it, but he let it go, turning to Brendon and saying, "Um, obviously if you--"

Brendon held his hand out, palm up. "You're a good cuddler, too," he said.

"Too?" Jon asked.

"Just something I was talking with my therapist about." Brendon shrugged. That was clearly all he was going to say.

Jon nodded and took Brendon's hand, allowed himself to be drawn near. While they were settling, Ryan caught Spencer's eye and gave him a look. Jon.

Spencer nodded. Yeah, thought you'd feel that way.

Ryan smiled with his eyes and settled down behind Brendon, who mumbled, "You give Spencer to Jon?"

"You're not supposed to know our brain-language," Ryan told him firmly.

"Don't. Just...instinct."

Spencer was pretty sure that Ryan's and his brain-language was mostly intuition and history, but it was nice that Brendon still knew them well enough to call these things. Spencer settled himself behind Jon, spooning up in a way that he hadn't since before they'd found Brendon. It took a few moments, but Jon melted into the cuddle, some of Brendon's weight coming with him. It wasn't the most comfortable thing ever--the road wasn't precisely smooth beneath them--but for the first time in a while, Spencer felt like he knew where they all were, like he hadn't lost anything while he wasn't paying attention.

Spencer yawned and said, "G'night."

Ryan grumbled something like that back, Jon huffed softly, "night."

They waited for Brendon, but Jon whispered, "I think-- I think he's already asleep."

Spencer couldn't hear Brendon snuffling over the sound of the road, but he trusted Jon, believed him.

*


Brendon awoke warm and safe-feeling and extremely sore. Brendon groaned, "Too fucking old for this," into Jon's shoulder.

Jon said, "Tell me about it, zygote."

Brendon licked Jon's neck in retaliation and asked, "Where's Spencer?" He couldn't have rolled far enough that Brendon wouldn't be able to feel him, there just wasn't the room.

Jon said, "Ew," mildly in response to Brendon's attack, and Ryan mumbled, "Coffee. Shhhhh." Then, a moment later, and much more clearly, "Where did you learn the word zygote?"

"I have as much college experience as you, Ryan Ross."

"Over a decade ago and you've never used that term once? Spill."

Jon hesitated for a second. "I searched for something the last time Spencer and I had an age spat and I didn't have enough funny names for him."

Brendon tried not to, but he couldn't help it: he laughed. It sort of made him want to cry, too, because he hadn't precisely forgotten how funny Jon could be, but he had forgotten how it could make him feel, and he wasn't sure he could do that again, give it up a second time if need be. Ryan was smiling into Brendon's neck and he tried to take comfort from it, that maybe Jon was the one making Ryan smile, but Ryan was using Brendon to hide it. Brendon remembered a time when the only person Ryan would hide behind had been Spencer. He sort of wished Ryan had gotten over hiding at some point, but short of that, it was nice that Ryan trusted him with that, knew Brendon wouldn't use it against him when he was least expecting it.

Brendon was drifting back and forth between falling asleep again when Spencer said, "Up, lazyasses," and stole not one, but two of the covers at once. Brendon glared up at him. Spencer looked back down with what should have been his unimpressed-I-can-be-bitchier-than-you face, but was mildly ruined by the fact that he still had bedhead. Brendon laughed and held his hands out. Spencer rolled his eyes but assisted him in getting up.

Brendon leaned forward a little over Jon, tipping up his chin expectantly. Spencer kissed him chastely. "You have morning breath."

"You suck," Brendon responded creatively.

"Later," Spencer said. "For now, coffee."

Brendon didn't disagree with this sentiment, so he coaxed Ryan up while Spencer was helping Jon, and followed them back toward where the coffee was calling, fragrant and clearly strong enough to make boots walk by themselves. Brendon had definitely, unquestionably missed Spencer's coffee making "skills", which largely involved Spencer never remembering how much coffee needed to go in the filter and always overcompensating. It annoyed Ryan, which was always good fun, because he made all this noise about teaching Spencer properly, but he never followed through. Brendon suspected Ryan of secretly liking the coffee, or at least, associating it with Spencer too much to want to change it.

Once he had a cup, Brendon went and checked his email, taking his time with replying to Jeremy, and watching the online videos of the Symphony's performances that Court had sent him links to. He poked around a bit to see if he could find some quality vids of Panic's latest shows to send back to Court. He managed to find a few that bordered on good enough and cut and pasted the links. Stacia had sent him pictures of the dogs, so he called Vari in to say hello.

He got dressed shortly before they arrived at the venue. Once they were there he told Zach he just wanted to do a couple of laps around the place. He really missed his walks with Vari. Spencer volunteered to go with him, but it was clear his heart wasn't in it, so Brendon promised he was okay, put Vari on a leash and the two of them worked some energy out, Brendon going over mistakes from the previous show in his head, thinking about how to make this one better. He was back with more than enough time for soundcheck--they were still on the second opener.

Jon came and offered more coffee, standing a couple of steps away, carefully out of Brendon's space. Brendon read the hesitancy in his body language and made a decision, stepping into Jon's personal space to take the coffee. Jon still didn't seem sure, but he turned Brendon a little so that they were both facing the stage, rubbed at his shoulders. Brendon made a noise when Jon hit a particularly tight spot, and Jon said, "Sorry, didn't--"

"No, no, keep--"

Jon did and Brendon forced himself to breathe, to try and loosen the knots in the wake of Jon's pushing and prodding. "Forgot how good you are at this."

"Strong fingers," Jon said.

"No talking dirty in the performance space, Jonny Walker."

"You do it all the time," Jon said, but Brendon could hear how he was on uncertain ground with this.

"Only to the audience."

Jon snorted. "And Ryan."

"Doesn't count. Ryan."

Jon was silent for a second. "Yeah, okay."

Brendon laughed. Jon said, "Brendon."

Brendon said, "I think the show's going to be awesome tonight, y'know? I just. I have, like, a good feeling."

"It's a good space. Remember that time we--"

"Played here and that girl threw a stuffed kitten hat up and I made you wear it? Yeah, that's not really the sort of thing you forget. Also, if I did, boy would the internet ever remind me."

Brendon could feel Jon grin behind him. He didn't know how, he just could. Jon said, "Cassie used to love that picture," and he sounded wistful, but not sad, not lost. "She took it, you know? Came back to the apartment and couldn't find it."

"I have one. Shane gave me it. You want a copy?"

"Yeah, that'd be-- Yeah."

"Okay. But tonight really is going to be good. Fuzzy cat hats or no."

Jon rested his chin on Brendon's shoulder. "I believe you."

*


The Chicago dates were a little over a month into the tour. As they were pulling into the venue, Brendon asked, "How long since you've been home?"

Jon looked at Spencer and Ryan, who looked back at him, and for the first time, Brendon realized, whatever it was Jon hadn't told him, he hadn't told either of them. Spencer said, "Uh, Jon?"

"I gave my place here up."

Ryan said, "But you just-- After we, um, with Alex, and then you--"

"Yeah, when I went that time, I gave my landlord notice. I was either going home to Vegas or I wasn't, and if I wasn't, well. I guess I figured I could always find another apartment. But the cats took to Spencer's place, so, um. I don't really foresee that happening?"

"So you haven't had an apartment here for, what? Like seven months?" Spencer asked.

"Closer to eight. You knew I was looking in Vegas."

"Yeah, we just kinda thought you wanted some of your own space," Spencer told him.

"I kinda thought you might want me out of yours," Jon said with a one-shouldered shrug. "You know, at some point."

Ryan folded his arms up over his chest. Brendon asked, "D'you find anything?"

"Not yet. I mean, there was stuff, but it was like, more expensive than I wanted or smaller or larger or, just, place-shopping blows."

They all nodded at that. Spencer said, "You don't need to find one."

Jon said, "Except for how all of you kind of have one? Like, I just, if we all have our--"

"Getaway spots?" Brendon asked.

Jon looked at him guiltily. Ryan was the one to say, "Or we could do this differently."

"Ryan," Brendon started.

"Or we could admit that Brendon and I barely ever see the insides of our houses," Ryan said, and now he was looking directly at Brendon.

"What if--" Brendon started, but Spencer said, "Then you go to the grocery store or the park or over to your sister's place and after a few hours, when you're ready, you come back."

Brendon whipped around to him, and Spencer said, "You were going to ask about if you needed to get away, right?"

Brendon scowled at him, not even purposely. His face just fell into it. Ryan scowled right back, which had to be on purpose, since Brendon wasn't sure Ryan's face even knew how to form itself into anything without being distinctly told--with a firm tone. Brendon said, "The grocery store?"

Spencer bit his lip in a clear move to ward off laughter. "It was the first thing that came to mind."

"Never thought I'd say this, but you might have to work on your fighting skills there, Spence."

"Way to encourage him," Ryan muttered.

"I like the idea," Jon said.

"Of me fighting better?" Spencer asked.

"Of us having an us space," Jon said, like he wasn't making some huge-ass, life-changing, band-altering proclamation. He turned to Brendon. "You think Vari'll like the cats?"

Brendon refused to be charmed, he did. Or, at least, he definitely refused to show it in any way, shape or form. "I think I need time to think."

Jon's smile was muted, knowing. "Yeah."

Ryan said, "There's probably a grocery store somewhere nearby."

"Oh, shut up," Spencer said.

"Make me," Ryan told him, and then, in a move that was either sheer foolhardiness or so clever Brendon could hardly credit it, stuck out his tongue. Spencer made him.

*


Apartment or no, they didn't stay at a hotel while in Chicago. They had rooms booked, but then Jon's mom gave them this Face and said, "You know we have room, and you're always welcome," and there was just no way to say, "We're good with shitty beds and room service."

Also, Jon's mom made really good grilled cheese sandwiches pretty much any way a guy could want one, and she would hand-cut and fry potatoes right in front of them. She was a pretty awesome mom, all things told. The guys also had free-range over Jon, Bill and Mike's old rooms, so it was easy to be as spread out or as close as they chose.

Jon settled in his room. Spencer was still thinking about whether to park in there with him, or see what Brendon did and figure out how to best work with the situation, when Brendon said, "Bill has a queen."

"We can't all fit in a queen," Ryan said, "anymore than a double. We're not that small."

"Pessimist," Brendon said.

"Realist," Ryan replied, straightening his shoulders.

"My room has the most floor space," Jon said, clearly having thought about this.

"Dude, we seriously cannot keep sleeping on floors, it's only going to lead to surgery," Ryan said, even though he sounded a little wistful this time.

"My carpet is much softer than the bus floor and my house floor doesn't jolt. Also, I'm pretty sure my dad still has camping mats from when we were kids and my whole family used to go. It'll be more comfy than the last time," Jon promised.

Without any further discussion, Spencer put his thumb up. Jon added his. Ryan put his to the side. Brendon considered for a second and put his up. "Outvoted," he told Ryan, but stepped forward and kissed him to take the sting out of it. Spencer could tell it hadn't been meant as anything more than a "sorry," but Ryan slipped his fingers through Brendon's belt loops.

Spencer looked at Jon who made a motion toward the door. He and Spencer went and got the mats, leaving Ryan to keep Brendon right where he was. When they were all set up, Jon blinked at Spencer and said, "Uh, then. I'll just...close the door?"

Spencer smiled. Jon moaned, "I can't believe I'm going to do this in my parents' house." Spencer just smiled more widely and didn't admit how that part sort of turned him on. Evidently, sex that ran the risk of accidental parental discovery was a little illicitly thrilling no matter how old he got. Plus, he couldn't help being unabashadly happy, not when Jon was agreeing. Spencer waited until Jon had closed the door and then pulled him into a kiss.

Spencer kissed slowly, keeping control of the kiss, until he pulled back and asked, "What's something you never did with Brendon?"

Jon licked at his lips. "Lots of, I mean, we barely-- There's still a lot."

"Pick one," Spencer said, and watched as possibilities flashed across Jon's mind.

Finally, Jon said. "Actually, it's kind of stupid."

"Try me," Spencer said, glancing at where Ryan was letting Brendon undress him, very nicely waiting his turn. Or, well, if Spencer knew Ryan at all, pretending to be nice about it so that he could make Brendon be patient under torture when he got his chance.

Jon's breathing was quicker than it had been when he said, "Just. He never fucked me."

Spencer smiled, licking over the lips that Jon had so recently wet. "So vanilla, Walker."

"Asshole," Jon said, even while trying to get more of Spencer's mouth.

Spencer pushed him away. "Trust me, we want to see this."

Ryan was having his turn, now. He had Brendon's shirt off and he was checking out the goods with his tongue and his mouth, every last inch. Brendon was squirming, "Ryan!" but Ryan just said, "My turn," like he'd said it before. He probably had. A few times. Brendon would settle for a few minutes at these words, until he couldn't handle it anymore, and then the cycle would start again. They got through it three times before Ryan moved on to Brendon's pants. Brendon whimpered. He looked imploringly at Jon and Spencer. "Please?"

Jon said, "Askldjfr."

Spencer said, "Hm, no, I don't think so," and let Ryan go on his merry way.

Brendon sighed. "Mean. He shivered when Ryan exhaled over the length of his cock. "Jesus, fuck. Mean."

Spencer made himself be as good as Brendon, watching every last moment of Ryan's exploration, right down to Brendon's socks, and Ryan tracing Brendon's toes with his fingers. Then he said, casually, "Brendon, Jon has a question."

Jon was currently staring at Brendon's toes with a fair amount of awe, so Spencer had to smack him on the arm. "A question."

"Oh, um." Jon dragged his gaze up. "Um. I'd like you to fuck me? I mean, if Ryan doesn't--"

Ryan rolled his eyes. "Ryan doesn't."

Which left Jon and Brendon looking at each other, Jon waiting, Brendon thinking. Brendon said, "Something new."

"Everything--" Jon ran a hand through his hair. "Everything is new." His voice was rough, desperate.

"Except for the stuff that's not," Brendon said quietly, but lightly, smiling.

Jon took a step forward and Brendon was there, kissing him. He pulled back for a moment and looked at Jon. Jon said, "Bren?"

Brendon shook his head. "Just, uh. Just making sure."

"Ryan and Spencer are here. They wouldn't let me hurt you."

"Yeah, but." Brendon hesitated. "That's not a good enough reason."

Jon fisted his hand in Brendon's hair. "No. No. It's not." Jon looked at Brendon for a moment, something clearly on his lips, Brendon seeing that, obviously waiting. Jon said, "I never meant to in the first place. I didn't think. I wanted too much to think, and then later, I thought and I realized that all I had to do was admit that." Jon shook his head. "But then you were gone."

Brendon ran his pointer finger over down the line between Jon's eyes, over the tip of his nose. His, "Jon?" was soft, but not hesitant.

"Yeah?"

"I'm sure," Brendon said, and looked up at him expectantly. Ryan laughed, and Spencer felt it in his chest, despite the fact that Brendon and Jon were between them. He went to Ryan.

Ryan asked, "Why aren't you naked?" seeming genuinely perplexed.

Spencer laughed. "Jon's slower than you are."

Ryan made a face. "Lord preserve us."

Spencer snorted, stripping easily. "What do you want?"

Ryan raised an eyebrow. "What you you want?"

Spencer watched Jon and Brendon, and gave the question some thought. "To watch you fuck Brendon."

Ryan's breath hitched. "Yeah?"

Spencer fisted himself. "Mm. Now, what do you want?"

Ryan smiled and Spencer was pretty sure Ryan had been thinking of possibilities back while he was still undressing Brendon. Ryan was good at figuring out what he wanted. Ryan said, "Brendon and Jon jerking you off while you're watching me fuck him."

Spencer took his hand off his cock. He concentrated on not seeing that visual. "Deal."

"Yeah, I bet," Ryan said, and helped Spencer retrieve the condoms and lube. They pulled Jon's clothes from him, even as he and Brendon were still making out, Brendon laughing into Jon's mouth, Jon trying to stay on his feet.

Spencer said, "Brendon. Ryan wants to fuck you."

Brendon said, "Yes, please," more anxiously than politely.

Ryan laughed and pulled Jon away, down to the ground, on his hands and knees. Brendon made a sound at the sight of Jon's back. Spencer said, "Yeah," and sank to his own knees, aware that this wasn't part of the deal, but really, really intent on sucking Brendon ready. Brendon was, granted, mostly ready, and it was more a matter of a few strong sucks to the head than anything else. Spencer didn't think he could be blamed for that.

Ryan and Jon didn't seem likely to be the ones complaining, as Jon wasn't looking, too intent on sucking Ryan's cock, and Ryan was busy saying nice things about Jon's mouth. Spencer said, softly, "Ryan," and Ryan pulled regretfully away. Spencer rolled a condom onto Brendon and then just watched, his chest tight with a lack of air, while Brendon pushed his fingers into Jon, smooth and slow, talking the entire time, and that shouldn't have surprised Spencer, not with Brendon, only Spencer had heard Brendon have sex with other people, people who weren't them, and it wasn't like this, not this stream of dirty, affectionate words that only served to turn Spencer on more.

Spencer could tell that Brendon made Jon wait just a little longer than really necessary, but that was kind of fair, really. Also, Spencer liked the curl of Jon's feet, the way the muscles in his arms trembled, working to hold himself up. When Brendon deemed himself ready, he pushed into Jon, going slow, so slowly that Spencer felt like the moment might not end, might stretch forever. It did though, Brendon pressed skin-to-skin against Jon, gasping, Jon keening Brendon's name. Spencer let them get past the first flush of intimacy. Then he said, "Ry."

Ryan said something that not even Spencer understood. Spencer would have bet Ryan didn't understand it. Spencer stumbled over and kissed him. "Ryan," he said again, rolling a condom onto him.

Ryan looked down. "Oh, yeah. Yeah."

Spencer laughed, and pulled them both to Brendon, pouring lube over their fingers, taking turns at warming him up, their fingers brushing, in and out, in and out. Brendon was talking, still, "Please," and, "Jesus, Ryan's fingers," and other things that were less coherent. Spencer said, "Okay," softly, in Ryan's ear, his hands on Ryan's hips, guiding him. He stopped pushing every time Brendon said, "More, more," made Brendon wait, because, well, turnabout was fair play.

Finally, finally, Ryan was in him and Spencer sat back, pushing himself to the side, where it was all there for him, laid out. They were still for a moment until Jon said, "Please, please, I can't--" and Ryan pulled all the way out to slide right back in, quicker and a lot, lot harder than the first time.

Brendon laughed as much as he could without air. "Made your point."

Spencer watched, watched Brendon use Ryan's thrusts to propel his own, watched Jon lurch forward with response to both of them until he couldn't bear not to touch himself. Only then did he whisper, as best he could, "Jon, Brendon."

They both looked at him, eyes glazed, largely unseeing until he added, "Please." He knew it was plaintive as hell. He really could not have cared less.

"Oh." Brendon's lips formed the word, but it was silent. Spencer didn't really care, because his hand came off Jon's back, wrapping around Spencer's cock.

Spencer said, "Ugh, yeah, yeah."

Jon was jerking himself, quick and desperate, but Brendon knocked his hand away with his remaining hand and said, "Spencer."

Jon made a noise, but followed the command. He was rewarded by Brendon using his free hand to take over where Jon had left off. Jon said, "Just. Little harder, little--"

Brendon must have squeezed something fierce, because Jon made a sound that was pure pain. He also came, his hand tightening on Spencer's cock, and ow, but also kind of yes. Watching Jon tighten and Spencer throw his head back was clearly too much for Brendon, who also started making desperate noises and squeezing just-this-side-of-too-much, and Spencer said, "Oh, Bren--" and gave into it, into the squeeze, into the picture of Brendon coming, mouth open and somehow surprised, Ryan's eyes excitement-bright and his lips bitten up, too red for any real boy.

Spencer said, "Ryan, c'mon, c'mon," and came so hard all he could see was black.
*

When they came off the stage after the second Chicago show, Brendon said, "I think we should change the cover." He knew they hadn't done that mid-tour in a long time, but the words he was singing didn't feel right anymore, and it was killing his show energy, even if he did his best not to show it. It was also killing the bit of happy that he'd worked really hard to build up, hang onto, and that was just pissing him off.

Spencer raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"How 'bout Nine Inch Nails? 'Closer'?" Ryan asked, and it was only because he knew Ryan very, very well, that Brendon knew it was a joke.

"Funny," Brendon said, although, honestly, it would be kind of an awesome cover. "I was thinking something more, um, Macy Gray, 'Try'."

"Were you even alive when that song was popular?" Ryan asked.

Brendon just rolled his eyes. "Jon?" he asked.

Jon said, "Uh, probably not too hard to find the parts. As long as Spence can get legal to--"

"Not what I was asking," Brendon said, pretty sure that Jon knew.

It was Spencer who said in the silence that followed, "I like it. The song."

"Mm," Ryan said. "The song. It's good."

Jon made a huffing sound, his eyes soft, a little too bright in the dark of the car taking them back to his place. He said, "Yeah, it's a good song."

Brendon whistled a little into singing, "Try to say goodbye and I stumble," leaning back into the seat of the car, where he knew Spencer's arm was waiting to hang itself over Brendon's shoulders.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile