sparsenicjade
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AN: Thank you, roadmarks for the thorough beta, despite not really even knowing me. She's seriously the greatest. All mistakes still remaining are because I am recalcitrant. Additionally, it should be known that I have owed harriet_vane this story for NEARLY A YEAR. The original idea was comment-ficced out in her journal and is really largely to her credit.

***


November 7, 2005

Professor Stump looked up from his computer screen and said, "Oh, hey Brendon, c'mon in."

Brendon smiled at his academic advisor more out of reflex than the actual desire to smile. "Hi, Professor."

He shut the door behind himself and sat down in one of the chairs available for students. Dr. Stump flashed him a smile and asked, "How're you?"

Brendon shrugged. "I'm good. Yourself?"

"Brendon, I-- I think you know what this meeting is about."

Brendon knew. "I know my grades are bad, sir--"

"You're flunking two of four classes. And you need a 3.0 to maintain your scholarship."

"Right, I know, but I still have another month of classes--"

"Barely, Brendon, and I've spoken with your professors in the problem classes. Even with extra credit, they're not sure you can make it up."

"There has to be something--"

"You're work-study, right?"

Brendon nodded. "The scholarship's only for tuition. The work-study covers room and board."

Something flashed behind Dr. Stump's eyes. "You have a second job?"

Brendon shrugged. "Books. And instrument upkeep."

"So, basically, studying happens when you're not working or in class?"

"I prioritize practice sessions. I can get studying done on the train to and from work, and it's a host job at a restaurant, so sometimes I can get more done while I'm at the podium, if it's not a busy night. I swear, sir, I can do better. It was just the first couple of months, I had to find my feet."

"Julliard doesn't want to lose you, Brendon. We don't give full-ride scholarships to just anyone. You've amazing talent in a number of areas, and all your fellow students enjoy having you in class."

"Like I said, I can make it work, I just have to--"

"But for the moment, the deans think it would be best if you took a semester, went home, maybe tried to save up some, so that you're only working one job?"

"I--" Brendon closed his mouth. Then he straightened his spine as best he could, chin up. "It was Julliard or home, sir."
"Oh. I'm-- I'm sorry."

"So, if you could just see fit to give me a second chance--"

"Until the end of the semester, Brendon." Dr. Stump looked apologetic, but he said, "That's really all we can do. Anything else, and well-- If we let one person ignore the rules of a full ride when there are thousands we turned down for one, what kind of example would that set?"

Brendon wanted to know how the fuck anyone would know, when grades were protected, but all he said was, "I understand, of course." Then he stood, and got the fuck out of there before he cried in front of one of his lifelong idols.

*


January 18, 2006

Spencer sat next to where Ryan was kneeling on the ground, the knees of his--only--suit, mired in the dirt. Thirty, forty feet off a bulldozer was beeping to warn others that it was moving backward. In a moment, it would move forward again, heaping more dirt on Ryan's father's grave. They were the only two people in attendance. Ryan had left college when he'd heard, taken the money he'd had for books and room and board and everything not covered by his scholarship for second semester and used it to make sure his father was buried. He couldn't afford a headstone or a funeral, not with what was left of the estate, but he'd managed a coffin and a grave.

Ryan was looking at the half-filled grave, but Spencer didn't think he was really seeing it. They'd been sitting there for nearly ten minutes when Ryan said, "I have to get out of here."

"I can drive," Spencer offered. Ryan had sold his dad's car to help pay for the coffin. He'd been taking the bus and walking places for the last week. "Mom let me borrow the car."

Ryan looked confused for a second, then he said, "No, I meant--"

"Oh," Spencer said. "Out."

Ryan nodded, not looking at Spencer. "I'm sorry. I know we said-- I know we promised that we'd go to school together and all, but I can't. School's not on the table anymore and I can't stay here and, what? The house is being sold by the bank, since evidently they pretty much own it anyway, and it's not like there are a ton of jobs here, not unless I wanna deal at a casino, and just-- If I'm gonna be poor and uneducated, I have to do that somewhere else, y'know?"

Spencer wondered if Ryan even knew that his voice had caught at the end of that. Spencer hadn't seen Ryan cry over his dad, but he knew Ryan had. He had bruises on the edges of his cheekbones, like he'd swiped too hard, dug his fists in a little too deep in an effort to stop himself. Spencer asked, "Okay. Where're we going?"

*


February 3, 2006

Brendon was currently unamused by the irony of life. There was a good six inches of snow on the ground, and while it wasn't snowing anymore--small favors--Brendon's beat up Reeboks weren't really doing much to keep his feet from falling off. He'd thought to himself at least ten times in the hour that he'd been on the street about the fact that he'd wanted to see snow so badly as a kid, but the thought just wasn't helping that much anymore. If he made anything today--unshockingly, there weren't a lot of people out and about, standing around listening to buskers--he was going straight to the Goodwill store and getting himself some boots, and a warmer coat. The one he had from back in Vegas just wasn't cutting it.

He wished he still had some stuff to sell. When he'd been kicked out of the dorms, he'd sold everything he couldn't fit into his suitcase, and some of the stuff he could. By this point, though, all he had was a couple pairs of clothing and his guitar, which was his livelihood. He was still trying to get jobs, on and off. He made sure to clean up at the Y, and occasionally find enough change to hit the laundromat before going and filling out applications, but everywhere wanted an address and a phone number. Brendon didn't have either of those.

In late December and early January it had actually been a little all right. He'd found places where people wanted to hear holiday standards, and so long as Brendon didn't think about a thing while he sang them, he was really good at reworking those, making them fun and new. And Brendon could smile on command, so nobody had to know that he was racking up years of therapy while strumming along.

But then the holidays had ended, and people had disappeared inside, and everybody was very busy hibernating for the winter. Brendon had found himself a couple of good doorways in alleys, an abandoned building here and there to spend the nights in--something to keep the wind away, if nothing else. He'd hit up the Goodwill for some blankets and stuffed them in the suitcase where he kept his clothes and toothbrush, right where the books and cds that he'd brought to college and sold off had been before. Most days he could make enough for a couple of meals, at least one. If not, then he could usually scrape by with a cup of coffee. McDonald's had the Dollar Menu, and Brendon had learned some of the tricks of dumpster diving through practice and a few hard-knock lessons in food poisoning.
It was cold enough now, though, that his throat hurt, and he knew he was probably destroying his voice—which was, of course, his most marketable quality. He couldn't feel his fingers, either. He had on fingerless gloves that he'd also brought from back home, but back home they'd made sense. Here they were good for not keeping him from playing, but they didn't actually keep his fingers warm enough that he wasn't mildly concerned by the fact that he might lose them to frostbite. In an effort to make sure he didn't, he was resting between each song, shoving his hands into his armpits, getting the circulation flowing again.

Mikey, one of the brothers who owned the diner Brendon liked to play in front of, came out mid-morning. He offered Brendon a coffee. Brendon said, "Morning," but shook his head at the coffee. His earnings were going toward boots, dammit. He looked down at said earnings. So far, a dollar and thirty-five cents. Fan-fucking-tastic.

Mikey said, "On us. Seriously, Gee's been on all morning imagining how you're going to freeze to death and we'll have to explain to the cops and then, somehow get your body into cryogenic storage so you can be reanimated when we have the technology."
Put that way, Brendon reached out and took the coffee. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it. Also, Ray would totally come get you before it got to that point."

"Good to know."

"Not that I'm not enjoying what I can hear from inside, but maybe you should see if you can find some space at the train station? Just get inside for today?"

Brendon never made good money at the train station. Too many competing buskers, some of them just on the edge of violent about their territory. Still, "Maybe, yeah."

Mikey bent down and tucked a five in Brendon's case. "For the 'Don't Stop Believing' cover. I can't believe you made it into a jazz song. You own Bob's soul."

Brendon wondered how much he could sell it for. Still, six dollars and thirty-five cents was better than nothing. "Thanks, man."

Mikey nodded. "Come in later and get another coffee. On the house."

Brendon smiled, tired and cold but real, just for a moment. "Got any requests?"

*


Ryan and Spencer hadn't exactly meant to go to New Jersey, but that was about the farthest their compiled savings got them if they wanted to have anything over for, say, food. Spencer's savings, really, which Ryan had pitched a fit about, but Spencer had stood firm and asked, "How else are you going to get out of here?" and Ryan hadn't really had an answer to that.

It took less than a week for Ryan to want to put Spencer right back on a bus and send him home. The train station was okay during the day, if a little less than upscale, but at night it was creepy and Ryan had already heard two violent crimes go down, if not seen them directly. They liked to find alcoves or places behind phone booths. They fit, and they could watch what was coming at them that way. Also, cops generally avoided the dark corners: they really only bothered the people who slept on benches, or where the "paying customers" could see and be bothered.

In the mornings they would try and clean up in the bathroom as best possible and go out to find jobs. They split up for that, since going in anywhere together seemed likely to just lessen both their chances. So far, neither of them had run into anything even resembling luck.

Money for food wasn't going to last much longer. They weren't eating more than once a day as it was, but even doing so, the funds were drying up. Ryan had mentioned calling Ginger collect, telling her to come get Spencer, but Spencer had just said, "Not unless you're getting in the car, too."

The train station was cold, and creepy, and Ryan really, really wanted a meal that left him full, but even for all that, he couldn't go back to Nevada. He wasn't sure what he would do even if he did. Live with Spencer? Camp out in parks and alleys until he found himself a job and saved up enough for an apartment? It wasn't as though there offered anything that here didn't, except maybe warmer temperatures. The thought of going back to nothing made Ryan's chest and back ache so much he had to bite his lip to keep from making a sound.

Ryan was completely willing to take an under-the-table job washing dishes or as a courier, but he wasn't entirely sure of where to find those jobs. Ryan had taken care of himself for a long while, but he'd done so in the suburbs. He'd be the first to admit that he wasn't exactly street.

In the meantime, he kept going into any place that had a help wanted sign, any place at all, and turning in an application. He had decided that the number to the payphone on the southeast corner of the station would be his number. He was never there to actually answer it during the day, but at least it was a number to put down. He was putting the station's address, hoping nobody noticed. He sensed people were noticing. Sometimes he put an apartment number, to make it seem like maybe he lived above the station, or something, but he didn't think that was fooling anybody, either. It was better than nothing.

At night, when they were both exhausted from walking around all day without much to eat and without any decent winter clothing, Spencer would wrap himself around Ryan and say, "I've got more insulation."

Ryan didn't tell Spencer he was pretty sure that was a metaphor for their friendship.

*


Something was up with Ryan. Spencer couldn't say what--which bothered him more than he wanted to admit--but definitely something. For one thing, he'd brought food back from his job searches for three days now. Not a ton of food, but enough for both of them not to go to bed completely starving, which was more than they'd had for about a week after the money ran out.

He'd said he'd gotten some kind of courier job, under-the-table, and Spencer wanted to believe him. But Ryan had a curve to his voice when he lied, and Spencer could just hear the tail end of it whenever Ryan mentioned the job. Spencer knew what kind of under-the-table jobs Ryan could get in this city that he wouldn't want to mention, and whatever the hell Ryan was doing, Spencer really fucking hoped it wasn't illegal. Spencer wouldn't have been terribly surprised to find out "courier" was trade for "drug delivery dude." Ryan had the worst penchant for getting in over his head.

The worst part was, Spencer really appreciated the food. He couldn't track Ryan down and find out the truth, because if he did, he'd have to stop Ryan (most likely) and then they'd be freezing and starving, again, and one at a time was enough. It wasn't as if they were being gluttonous. One meal a day, light on actual nutrients, was hardly greedy, Spencer thought. And yet, if he let himself think about what Ryan might be doing for it, well, it felt a little like it was.

Instead, Spencer did things like try to find himself a job that would help them save for an apartment, or even just a few nights at a hostel. Spencer honestly wasn't picky at this point. He knew he should just call his parents and ask for money, but if he did that, he was pretty sure his parents would come and drag him back and Ryan wouldn't go. If there was one thing Spencer knew with absolute certainty, it was that Ryan wasn't going back to Nevada, even if he died staying here. Spencer wasn't even sure he could really blame Ryan. There just wasn't anything for him to go back to.

Spencer was tired, though, of managers at fast-food restaurants looking at him doubtfully because his hair wasn't as clean as he would have preferred, or retail clerks lying and saying positions had been filled when there was still a "Help Wanted" sign on the window. He had kind of been looking forward to going to college, falling for older boys who were way out of his league and having stupid, awkward sex with someone, finally, maybe. Possibly going to a few parties and even drinking a few beers. And he thought he might have enjoyed some of the classes. He'd liked math, had been good enough at it to finish a GED so he could head out with Ryan.

Every time Spencer thought about getting mad at Ryan, even ruminated, working up to it all day, Ryan would come back around again, looking worn and drained and defeated, and Spencer wouldn't be able to consider leaving him here on his own. Maybe once he was settled, and had some friends, maybe then. Spencer wasn't sure. He hadn't really left Ryan since he was five. He didn't know what it felt like to be without Ryan. He didn't know that he wanted to know. For all Ryan was a pain in the ass, he was also the guy who made Spencer look at the world in ways nobody else seem to see. Ryan was a pessimist, sure, but he was a creative, funny, and basically goodhearted one. And he was Spencer's pessimist, was the thing. Spencer wasn't great at letting things go, not when they mattered.

Spencer turned in a final application to a drugstore--overloaded with pink and red in preparation for Valentine's Day; the intensity of it was making Spencer's head spin--and made his way back to the train station. Ryan wasn't in their meetup spot yet, so he waited, and sure enough, Ryan came around the corner, carrying a McDonald's bag.

*


The clerks at the Goodwill store liked Brendon. Brendon had totally sworn off G-d and all that, but he had to admit, having people who put the best stuff aside for you when they knew you needed something was definitely a blessing. And while Gabe's idea of "best stuff" could always be a little questionable, Victoria, Alex, Ryland and Nate all had taste ranging from really amazingly good to solidly normal.

That said, it was Gabe who came through on the winter coat. Oh, the thing was a total monstrosity of neon blue and black, but it was the warmest thing Brendon had ever wrapped around himself, and they sold it to him for $7. (Brendon knew that was the employee rate, but when he tried to thank them, they just blew him off, like it wasn't a big deal. Alex kept trying to actually get him a job, but the organization was in a hiring freeze.)

Victoria found him boots he could actually stand in all day and only partially lose feeling in his toes. He told her, with utter sincerity, "If it were possible, things like this would make me straight."

"That's okay," she told him. "I evidently only date crazy people."

From somewhere else in the store, Gabe called, "I heard that."

She called back, "Meant you to."

A woman flipping through a clothes rack snickered. Victoria gave Brendon her most beatific grin. Brendon smiled back and spent as much time as he could inside the heated store before having to go back out. The sun had set by the time they closed up. Ryland said, "I'm meeting up with some people at a sandwich shop, if you wanna come."

Brendon said, "Nah, I appreciate it, but I should-- Go get things done."

He still had a place to find for the night, and needed to check his regular dumpsters, see if he was having dinner. He'd skipped meals until he could afford the clothes and he wasn't regretting it. The warmth of the coat was the nicest thing he'd felt since September, and the last of the truly warm days.

Brendon walked from the store to the place where he could usually find a spot for the night. He rescued a mostly-eaten salad in a plastic tub and some bread still inside the plastic bag. Mold could be picked off. When he actually found a spot in one of the abandoned warehouses, Brendon gave the day a gold star and didn't think about how pathetic that might be.

He pulled the hood of the coat up and curled over his guitar. The wind was rattling, screaming through the building. It had scared the everloving shit out of Brendon the first few times he had tried this, but now he tried to think of it in terms of melody. He'd always been good at converting things other people called noise into sound. He made himself keep taking deep breaths, despite the sharpness of the air, and that was sound, too, echoing in his own ears.

He contemplated trying to apply for jobs again tomorrow, while he was feeling decently optimistic. It helped when he actually felt like smiling, or at least something close to it. But Valentine's Day was in two days, and Brendon was pretty sure he was going to get the best market for busking the winter would show him in that time. After the holiday, when he had some money again, he'd try then.

In the meantime, he was willing to bet if he took requests off the kitchen crew, he could at least earn himself hot drinks for the next couple of days. That would be enough, Brendon decided. He would make it be.

*


Ryan hadn’t meant for it to happen. He hadn’t gone out to some street corner and offered himself to some dude in a car, okay? It wasn’t like that.

The guy had offered. Ryan had been taking a break after his last attempt to get an application, when the kid in the grocery store had actually laughed at him. Ryan knew he looked dirty, but it had been well below freezing the entire week and the water in the sinks wouldn’t warm up no matter how long he and Spencer left them running. It was hard enough to force himself to wash his face and brush his teeth, let alone take off his shirt and get his hair wet.

Ryan had sat down on a stoop in an alley. It was hardly as if he’d been advertising, or anything. But the guy had come up and said, “Ten for a handjob,” and Ryan had said, “Fuck you,” a little bit listlessly.

The guy had said, “Whatever,” and started to walk off, and Ryan should have let him go, he should have, but his stomach had chosen that moment to rumble. And just—ten dollars was a meal for him and Spencer.

“Okay. Wait, um. Okay.”

Ryan had done this before, once, with a guy at college. It wasn’t a big deal, just his hand, and the guy didn’t seem to expect anything else out of him, so whatever. And Spencer looked so fucking happy to be eating something that hadn’t come out of a garbage can.
Still, Ryan hadn’t just gone back to it. He’d made himself scrub the next morning, hugging himself through the icicles that formed in his hair. Spencer looked at him oddly, especially when Ryan washed his hands again for the fifth time since they’d woken up, but he didn’t say anything.

Ryan had taken his newly scrubbed self to the street with determination, walking further, filling out more applications than even when they’d first arrived. It was another week—and a full three days without food for either of them—when Ryan figured out that he could make fifteen if he talked a little dirty while he was doing a handjob. That time he maybe went to a place where he thought someone might find him, but he didn’t offer, or anything. He just…waited.

Spencer asked more questions that time, but Ryan just said something about delivering messages. He’d seen the bike couriers, fast and reckless in the traffic. He didn’t know if anyone actually did that on foot, but it didn’t seem completely implausible that he could pick up that kind of job here and there. Spencer didn’t seem completely convinced, but he didn’t try too hard to poke holes in the story, and that was all Ryan needed. Ryan had grown up lying to his dad about all sorts of things, and while Spencer was harder because he actually knew Ryan and paid attention, the underlying theory was the same.

It was like that for months, handjobs in alleys, every now and again, when they really needed the money. Then Spencer got a cough. At first it was a small thing, more of a clearing of his throat. But it was cold out and Spencer was diligent about keeping clean and pretty soon it was the kind of thing that made people scurry out of the way in the station.
There was a clinic, Ryan knew, at the pharmacy a couple of blocks over. Fifteen dollar copay, then whatever was needed in drugs. Ryan tried to find a couple of handjobs in one day—did offer—but the second guy who actually answered said, “Your mouth, twenty.”

“I—“ don’t know how to do that.

The guy rolled his eyes. “I’m not into the whole stuttering virgin thing. Make it good, you can have twenty-five.”

Ryan had the copay. Twenty-five was enough to cover over the counter meds, maybe some soup or something, to make Spencer’s throat feel better. Ryan didn’t even say okay, he just made himself go to his knees. It couldn’t be that complicated. One of his girlfriends had done it, once, and okay, her teeth had kinda hurt, so he probably should be careful about that. She had used her tongue a lot. That had been good. Ryan took a breath and undid the guy’s jeans. He wasn’t huge or anything. It would be fine.

That thought lasted about as long as the time it took Ryan’s tongue to touch the head of the guy’s cock. Then the guy said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” and pulled Ryan’s mouth on his cock. Ryan tried to breathe, tried not to gag, but neither worked. Before he knew what was happening, he was on his hands and knees, being kicked in the stomach.

“Watch your fucking teeth! Jesus, you would think I wasn’t paying.”
Ryan didn’t want to get up, wanted to stay there until the guy left, when Ryan could go and find someone who would let him use his hand. Instead, he said softly, “Sorry,” and tried again.

It didn’t go much better the second time around, but Ryan managed to keep his teeth covered. He gagged at every down thrust, his eyes watering, throat screaming, but he just kept his lips in their place. Finally, after a literal expanse of forever, the guy came, half down Ryan’s throat, half all over his face.

The guy tucked himself back in and pulled out a twenty. He leaned down and stuffed it into the waistband of Ryan’s jeans, then strolled off.

Ryan found the nearest public bathroom, vomited in the toilet and scrubbed his face until one of his cheeks bled. He gargled hot water long past when he’d burnt both his throat and his tongue. Then he put his thirty-five dollars together in his front pocket and went to go take Spencer to the clinic.

*


By the time Ryan came up with the money to help Spencer feel better, Spencer was too guilty about how hard he’d been contemplating calling his parents and asking for a one way trip home to even ask how Ryan had managed. Also, it was getting hard to speak—it just caused more coughing.

The doctor at the clinic didn’t seem too worried. She prescribed some antibiotics Spencer was able to fill at the clinic’s five dollar price and an over-the-counter cough-suppressant. Then she said, “Try and find somewhere warm to sleep, okay?” without any judgment in her tone and Spencer’s sob thankfully broke off into a coughing jag. He pretended not to notice how Ryan looked away.

The next day, when Ryan returned to the station later in the afternoon with forty-five dollars and took them to the nearest fleabag motel, Spencer didn’t ask a thing. He took the hottest shower the place could manage and tucked himself into bed. When he woke up, Ryan was gone and he fell back asleep before he could think about it. In the morning, Ryan had returned, hot tea and an orange waiting for Spencer.

At that point, Spencer was feeling well enough to ask, “Did you eat?”

Spencer could have been wrong, but he swore Ryan blushed. “Yeah, I had something.”

“Ry—“

“Promise, Spence. I had something.”

Ryan wasn’t lying, except how he was. Spencer couldn’t put his finger on it, which made him feel itchy inside. But another coughing spat left him doubled over, and when Ryan came and put hot towels on his chest and made him take some more medication, he let it go. Instead he asked, “What time we have to get out of here?”

“I got us another night.”

Spencer did look at Ryan then. “Lots of things to deliver, huh?”

“Guess it’s the busy season.” Ryan shrugged. “I’m getting a rep. People recommend me, or something. I don’t know. There’s been more jobs. It’s a good thing.”

Ryan was never particularly expressive, but that didn’t mean all his words were consistently terse. They were now. Spencer wished he could think more clearly. “Um. You must be good. At, like, running.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said, and there was definitely something off about that. “Must be.”
“Ryan—“

“Get some sleep.”

Spencer wanted to stay up, wanted to figure out what was going on, but his eyes were shutting of their own accord, the medication and illness winning this particular battle.

“Okay,” he mumbled. “But when I wake up, we’re talking.”

The last thing Spencer felt was Ryan smoothing the comforter out, not saying a word.

*


The middle of March brought a series of days in the forties, when people emerged from their habitats like it was tropical out. Compared to February and early March, it kind of was.

Brendon made some good money on people just being happy to be outside and see the sun. He got himself some spare strings for emergencies, having long since run out, and managed a non-dumpster-derived meal a day for a few days in a row. He even pulled enough together for a night at the Y, which meant an actual shower and laundering facilities.

He tried to keep a dollar back a day, if he could, in the likelihood that this was some kind of Indian Summer, and the brutal cold was just biding its time, waiting to return. And sure enough, there was a snowstorm on March 28 that sent everyone fleeing back indoors.
Brendon had sixteen dollars to his name, and he planned to use every penny of it on soup and coffee. He could bum matches off Gerard or Bob so that he could have fires if he found a metal trash can that hadn’t already been claimed. (Brendon didn’t mind sharing, but he’d learned the hard way other people did.)

Brendon didn’t go out the day of the storm, it wasn’t worth it. He’d found a fairly nice alcove in a relatively well shut-up building, and it was the closest thing to warm he was likely to get. The day after, though, he made himself get up and do jumping jacks until he could feel all his parts again, then slung his guitar case over his shoulder and headed out. Coffee first, then a decision of where he could play that might pay off, even though the snow was still swirling, sharp and frigid.

The diner wasn’t open yet when he arrived, so Brendon took shelter in the alleyway between it and the auto parts store in the next building over. He kept moving, it was too cold not to. He paced a little, his hands tucked tightly into his coat pockets. He had just pivoted toward the middle of the alley when he was jumped.

“Ow, fuck,” was what he said when the first hit came. It hit the back of his head and he wasn’t even sure what had happened, thought maybe an icicle had fallen, or something. Only then he saw the movement from the corner of his eye, and the second hit was to his stomach.

He tried to fight back. He had a guitar player’s strength and he was small and quick and he’d grown up with older brothers. Evidently his older brothers had always taken it easy on him, though, because Brendon sucked at fighting. Every punch he landed was almost as painful as the ones they were landing—there were at least two of them—and if they were so much as grunting, he couldn’t hear it over his own reactionary moans.

It didn’t occur to him to scream until they started taking his guitar case, but then he did. “No! No, you fucking bas—“

The punch that cut him off felt like it broke his jaw. Another one followed immediately and Brendon’s cheek exploded with something more intense than pain. His vision blacked out for a second, and when it came back there was something wrong, like it was only in one eye. He opened his mouth to shout again, stumbling after them as they took off. One came back and said, “Jesus, stay down.”

He punctuated the words with a couple more punches to Brendon’s midriff, and when Brendon doubled over, used the opportunity to aim a couple of kicks. Something cracked, unusually loud in Brendon’s ears and he threw up. He wished he hadn’t—it hurt more than burning alive, Brendon was certain.

His attacker said, “Ugh, fuck,” and kicked him again in retaliation, right where the pain was worst. Brendon had no idea what happened after that.

*


When the snowstorm hit, and Spencer came stumbling back to the station, his fingers and face raw and red, Ryan made a decision: no more moonlighting. He was going to make enough to send Spencer back home, and then, well, he had a full-time job, evidently. He could take care of himself.

Ignoring the level of cliché, Ryan bought himself a banana, and used it to practice. He was pretty sure he could charge twenty-five straight up if he could deep-throat. When he had checked the day before, one Greyhound ticket back to Nevada was seventy-nine dollars: three solid blowjobs and a handjob, plus maybe a few more, so Spencer could have snacks on his way back.

He’d been offered forty to fuck, but he’d turned it down. Maybe after Spencer left, maybe he’d do that, get himself somewhere to sleep. If he was staying at a motel indefinitely, he could use that as a street address, maybe actually find employment that didn’t involve being a living glory hole.

It was a good plan, solid, and Ryan was a fast learner. The deep-throating took a while, but he was getting tips by the end of his first week for creative use of his tongue and, no shit, “sexy noises, baby.”

There’d been one guy who’d wanted to jerk Ryan off. Ryan had said yes, because what the hell, but he didn’t think he’d do that again, not unless he had to. There was nothing sexy in Ryan’s mind about some old guy putting his wrinkled hand on Ryan’s dick in a cold alley. Ryan had had to find a fantasy, and even then it had taken him a while. The guy’d seemed frustrated after a bit, had started pulling way harder than was comfortable, calling Ryan names, and then it had been even harder.

Still, Ryan had the money soon enough. He waited a little bit, so it would seem like he’d saved up and Spencer wouldn’t get suspicious about where it was coming from—or at least no more suspicious than he already was. Ryan bought the ticket, though, because they weren’t refundable and Spencer wasn’t one to waste money. He also bought two apples, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of chips.

He turned the whole stash over to Spencer in a brown paper bag and said, “Leaves tomorrow at six.”

Spencer rooted around in the bag, looking tired. He pulled up an apple, took a bite and asked, “What does?”

“Your bus. Ticket’s in there. Oh, and some cash, to call home, tell’em you’re coming.”

Spencer choked on the second bite of apple he’d taken. Ryan got apple bits on his cheek, but honestly, he’d had worse from Spencer, and he’d definitely had worse from other people. That was kind of his job now.

When he could speak, Spencer said, “What?”

Ryan took the bag from him, fished around in it for a bit until he found the ticket. Then he held it out to Spencer. “Home, Spence.”

Spencer looked at the ticket for a long moment. Then, without looking up, he bit out, “You. Are. Such. An. Asshole.”

“Yeah, but—“

“I’m not going home, Ryan. Not without you, and I know you’re not going—“

“I’ve got this courier thing, Spence. It’ll do. I can take care—“

“I’m not going, and that’s final.” Spencer held out the second apple to Ryan like it was a proxy for punching him.

Ryan didn’t take it. “The ticket’s non-refundable.”

“Then I guess you’re a total fucking moron for buying it.”

“Spencer.” It was Ryan’s most serious pleading voice, the one that always made Spencer cave.

Spencer just shook his head, though, not even looking terribly angry. “No, Ry. I’m not leaving you here alone. I’m just not. You can buy yourself a ticket, or we can let this one go to waste, but those are the options.”

Ryan knew when he was losing. It invariably made him fight dirty. “I’m not going to spend my money feeding you. I’m done supporting your ass.”

Spencer just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, okay, Ry.”

Ryan turned on his heel and stomped off. Spencer called, “See you when you get back!”

*


Brendon couldn’t breathe when he woke up. He took a breath in, like he did normally, like he was just alive, was all, and it hurt so badly he stopped, held the breath until it wouldn’t hold any longer. Exhaling hurt even worse.

He knew he should open his eyes, but that thought hurt, too. He thought he fell asleep again, maybe, for a bit, because the next time he woke there were voices, soft and indistinct.

He tried not to panic. He couldn’t remember where he was, or how he’d gotten here. He remembered the alley and the mugging and that he didn’t have a guitar any longer, but had he actually walked somewhere? Was he in the hospital? This time, Brendon forced his eyes open.

He blinked a couple of times, but no, the guys standing near to where he was lying were definitely Mikey and Gerard, from the diner. He tried saying, “Mikey?” but his jaw wouldn’t cooperate at all.

He must have made some noise, because they both turned and Gerard said, “Are you awake? Please be awake.”

Brendon made what he hoped was an awake noise. Mikey said, “He should drink something. Help me get him sitting.”

Lying down was painful enough, but being moved into sitting position was enough to make Brendon wretch. He was indecently glad he hadn’t had anything to eat in a while. Throwing up on guys who took you in off the street was bad manners, probably.

The glass hurt against his lips, but the water was good. Mikey took it away fairly quickly, and yeah, if Brendon had almost just been thrown up on, he probably would too. Still, he wouldn’t have minded some more.

“We really should take him to a hospital,” Gerard fretted.

Brendon’s breathing picked up which hurt like a motherfucking bitch. Luckily, Mikey asked, “Who’s gonna pay the bill, Gee?”

Gerard sighed. “He could be bleeding internally.”

“He’s been asleep for over thirteen hours. If he had a concussion or internal damage, I’m pretty sure he’d be brain damaged or dead by now.” Mikey didn’t sound one hundred percent sure, but Brendon sure as shit couldn’t afford a doctor and the logic seemed pretty solid, so Brendon decided he was sure as sure could be.

“Well, he’s at least staying here, for now. Understand?” Gerard asked. “You’re staying here until—“ Gerard frowned.

“Until we say so,” Mikey supplied.

Brendon wasn’t in any shape to argue. If it gave him a few days to consider his options—hitchhiking home and trying to get taken back in, or following the lead of the guys who worked under the bridge and off the main streets at night—then he’d take them. He thought he kind of deserved a break, just this once.

Mikey brought the glass back to Brendon’s lips, and Brendon took another few sips. Then Gerard and Mikey laid Brendon down again, and when the world had cleared up from the haze of pure pain it had become for a moment, Brendon drifted back off into sleep, where at least shit was just black.

*


Spencer tumbled into the diner because he was really, completely lost. He felt bad, because he didn’t have any money on him to buy anything, not even a coffee, but he needed help getting back to the station. It was getting dark, he was further than he’d ever been, and the weather was brutal and only going to get worse. He didn’t really have a lot of options, and the diner looked blessedly warm.

It smelled really good, too, and Spencer had to close his eyes for a second against the dizziness that overtook him. He wanted something that wasn’t McDonald’s or a ready-made grocery store sandwich so bad he could honestly cry from the desire. He didn’t. He pulled himself together, went up to the counter, and when the guy with more tattoo than skin came over, Spencer said, “Hey, um, you know how to get to the train station from here?”

“Like, by bus?” the guy asked. “Because it’s kind of a serious walk and it’s nasty out there.”

“Yeah, well.” Spencer turned out the pockets of his pants in answer.

The guy rolled his eyes and walked over to a jar sitting on the order counter. He upended it and when he came back, he had $1.50. “Here, man. Take the bus.”

“No, that’s-- I can walk, really.”

“Look, if it’d make you feel better, I’d have you wash dishes, but we pay more than 1.50 per ten minutes, so then I’d end up owing you.

Spencer tried not to let his fingers tighten over the cash. “You have a dishwasher position open?”

The guy tilted his head. “That was a joke, man.”

“Right,” Spencer said. He was tired.

“What’re you headed to the train station for, anyway, if you haven’t got any money?”

Spencer backed away from the counter. “I’ll just get directions from somewhere else. Thanks, man.” He left the money.

Before he could get out the door, though, the guy had jumped the counter—literally, and Jesus, what the fuck—and was standing in front of him. “No, sorry, just, yeah, that was none of my business.”

Spencer shrugged and tried to walk around him. The guy put a hand on his arm, the grip firm, but not threatening. He asked, “You really want a job?”

Spencer hesitated for a moment, unable to believe, then nodded. “Yes. Really.”

“You living at the station?”

Spencer didn’t say anything. The guy nodded. “Lemme, there’s someone I gotta talk to, but we could kind of use a secondary cook and someone to generally help out. Pay’s probably miserable, minimum wage, and forget benefits—“

“Sounds awesome,” Spencer said sincerely.

“Jesus,” the guy said softly, and offered his hand. “Frank.”

“Spencer.”

“Okay, Spencer. Lemme go have a chat with the boss.”

*


Ryan had miscalculated that day. Normally he was pretty good at reading who really just wanted a blowjob or a handjob, but there were times when he fucked up, and got himself hit. Normally it was just slaps, nothing that would leave marks. Ryan could explain a little redness by pointing out the cold, or saying he’d run into someone or a few other excuses he had stored up, just in case.

This guy kicked Ryan while he was down on his knees, a boot to the stomach. He followed it up with, “You call that worth fifteen dollars?”

Ryan was honestly kind of surprised the guy had left ten when he had recovered enough breath to notice he was alone in the alley. He guessed it was his lucky day.

He pulled another few blowjobs and then it was getting late, Spencer probably would have been back for a while now, so he made his way back to the station. It hurt to walk upright, and he hunched over a bit until he got to the station. He could probably tell Spencer he had a stomachache if it came to that. He’d prefer it didn’t.

Spencer wasn’t on their bench when Ryan got back and Ryan had to remind himself to breathe. A million things could have happened. Spencer could have decided to slip into a store to warm up and lost track of time. Or he could actually have gotten a job and been asked to start tonight. Or maybe he was just a little lost and was going to find his way back any minute. Any of those were possible. It was just so unlike Spencer to be late at all, let alone this late.

Ryan hadn’t even watched which way Spencer had gone this morning. Not that it would really have helped, there were so many possible ways to go from any direction, but it would have made it feel better, having some idea. He was trying to figure out if he should call someone, maybe the police, maybe Spencer’s mom and dad, when Spencer came running through the station and crashed into him.

The pain was bad enough Ryan bit straight through the inside of his lip trying not to scream. Spencer was still hugging him and babbling about something. Ryan tried to focus.
“…directions and the guy behind the counter…job, Ryan, an actual fucking job.”

Oh. Ryan blinked and breathed, the pain coming somewhat under control. “Wait, doing what?”

Spencer let go and rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you been listening?”

“You talk like a monkey on speed.”

“Okay, hippo on pot. I’m, like, a cook’s assistant. And busboy. And kind of whatever the hell this place needs, but whatever. They’re actually gonna pay me fifty cents over minimum wage because the dude who owns the joint has a serious bleeding heart.”

Ryan felt something click into place inside himself. He smiled, “I knew you could get a job. I knew it.”

Spencer looked at Ryan in the way he did a lot, recently, like he knew there was something Ryan wasn’t saying. But all he said was, “Yeah, well, not like I was the first one.”

Ryan hadn’t realized quite how much he had completely believed in Spencer’s ability to get himself on his feet, but evidently it had been a lot, because the world felt balanced in a way it hadn’t in months.

Spencer was saying something about an apartment. Ryan just nodded along. If they could get an apartment, maybe Ryan could get a real job, too. In the meantime, he would help. He would pull in more jobs, maybe, maybe he’d take better jobs.

He looked at Spencer’s smile and fished out some of the money he’d made that day. “Celebrate?”

“Okay. But next time, I’m buying.”

“Just next time?” Ryan raised an eyebrow.

Spencer laughed.

*


When Brendon woke up a second time, his first thought was about his guitar and the nearly twenty bucks that had been in the case. Fuck. His second thought was, “ouch.”

He figured he would have had a third thought, but whatever it would have been was interrupted by a guy with pretty serious hair and a glass of water with a straw in it. “Here, drink.”

Brendon took the glass. His hands were shaking, but not so badly he couldn’t take small sips from the straw. When he’d taken three or so, he said, “Thanks.”

“Sure. Mikey tells me you’re the kid who’s got enough talent that we haven’t kicked him off our block in months. I think the last time that happened was, like, before Elena died.”

“Um,” Brendon said. Normally he’d have lit up like a Christmas tree, but it was hard to feel awesome about his talent when it was good for fuck-all. “Thanks.”

“Gee, the one who was up here before? Little flighty? He thinks it’s a shame to ask a guy who’s that good to wait on lazy fuckers who just want a burger, but I think Bob and I’ve got him convinced you can play on Saturday nights and a paycheck’d do you some good.”

Brendon had taken another sip, which had been a mistake, because now he was choking on it. “What?”

“Look, I adore Mikey, and I’m glad Elena left the guys this place because they have all the heart for it in the world, but Mikey’s a crap waiter. Frank’s not a hell of a lot better, and Bob and I’ve been trying to get Gee to hire someone who’s not practically family for, like, a decade.”

“Wait.” Brendon put the glass down on the bedstand. “You’re offering me a job?”

“Waiter, busboy, dude who helps us cart in the meat and other crap when it comes in every Monday. Very glamorous.”

Stupidly, all Brendon was able to say was, “I don’t have a permanent address.”

The guy smiled, just a little. “For the moment, you can give us this one.”

And then it hit Brendon. “Where’m I?”

“Mikey and Gee’s guest room. They own the whole building. We’re above the diner.”

Brendon said, “I’ve never waited a table before. I, uh, I worked for a Smoothie Hut, once. In high school.”

“More experience than Frank had when we hired his obnoxious ass. You’ll fit in fine.”

Also, “You guys don’t know me. I’m just—“

“A guy who plays really good guitar, sings like his heart’s in his words, and has clearly had a shitty last year or so. Sometimes we all gotta make guesses based on the little information we have. We think you’re a good bet. The only question is if you feel the same way about us.”

Brendon’s throat hurt from the need to cry. He shoved it down. “I’m Brendon.”

The guy held his hand out. “Ray. When can you start?”

*


Spencer showed at five a.m. the morning after his impromptu hiring and helped unload the supply trucks. It had been a while since he’d had three meals a day, let alone meals with nutrients, so he was dizzy and his lungs hurt by the end of it, but he wasn’t going to let that show. He wasn’t giving them any reason to fire him, no way.

Bob gave him a quick tour of the kitchen, explained basic daily functions, and started him cutting the potatoes. Spencer was perhaps a little more careful than he normally would have been, given that his vision was slightly blurred from exhaustion and hunger.

Frank showed at around seven to start serving the morning crowd. He shoved coffee and a bagel with cream cheese under Spencer’s nose and said, “Help eats for free. And we take home all the pies that don’t get eaten. Pie’s gotta be fresh, yeah?”

“Uh, obviously,” Spencer said, and drank the coffee black.

Ray was the pastry chef, and he’d been in even earlier than Bob and Spencer. His other job seemed to consist of running Gerard out of the kitchen whenever he started to inquire how things were, and keeping Mikey from eating the pies. He was pretty accomplished at both, but he sometimes didn’t notice Frank’s lateral attacks. Bob, though, had Ray and his pies’ backs, so they were pretty safe from all intruders.

Bob handed Spencer a Reuben on rye somewhere around twelve with a, “It’s what I do best.”

Not that Spencer was exactly a picky eater at the moment, but he took a bite and said, “Yeah, okay, fair.”

“You know where the soda machine is,” he said. Spencer had learned in his tour that morning.

Bob and Spencer’s shift in the kitchen ended at four, when the evening cook, Lyn, came in. She had a smile a mile wide and a way of stealing pie that none of the guys managed. Spencer wondered if it had to do with the fact that it was hard to look anywhere else when she was talking to you.

Bob and Spencer had kept the kitchen clean as they went, so there wasn’t much they needed to stick around for. Gerard said, “Spence, don’t forget to grab dinner before you go.”

Spencer took one of Lyn’s Golden Special Grilled Cheese sandwiches and a side of the handcut fries the diner advertised as its main draw with a root beer in a bag to go. He wanted to share with Ryan. Lyn asked, “You’re not gonna lemme see you try it and realize that I’m a total goddess, right here in front of my eyes?”

Spencer grinned. “I-- Um. Not hungry. Yet.”

Lyn made a face but then let him go. “Okay, but I expect a full report. Poetry, Spencer Smith, you hear me? Poetry.”

“Yeah, okay.” Spencer wasn’t worried. Ryan would totally come up with something.

*


The first time Ryan accepted a fucking job, it was due to the stomach flu. He’d managed to convince Spencer it was just something he’d eaten, and would pass. It would, but in the meantime, the thought alone of swallowing cum was enough to make Ryan vomit, and he didn’t have anything left to void.

Handjobs just didn’t pay that well, and the guy offered him a straight-up fifty. Ryan figured that was enough to rest for a few days. An hour, tops, and then he could take a long weekend, or some shit like that.

The john paid for an hour at a nearby motel and Ryan put all his concentration into getting his pants off. He wasn’t going to think about this. It was just sex. People seemed to like it with him, enough for twenty or so dollars, in any case.

He got himself naked and on the bed and was glad the john didn’t seem to need much working up, because Ryan wasn’t sure he was up to helping just then. The fingers hurt, both of them, and Ryan made himself breathe through his nose. This was just like learning to blow someone, he was sure. Make it through the first time, the second would be better, and then he’d learn and he would barely even feel it.

Ryan heard the john open the condom packet—Ryan had actually made sure that was part of the deal, he was trying not to be stupid, or at least, not the kind of stupid Spencer would yell at him for. The guy’s dick hadn’t really seemed that large when Ryan had looked, definitely not as big as Ryan’s, not even Spencer’s, but oh, fuck did it feel large going in.

Ryan bit the inside of his cheek and thought, breathe, fucking breathe, but it took a while for him to remember how. Ryan wanted to ask the john to slow down, just a little. He wasn’t being rough, or anything, but he hadn’t given Ryan any time to adjust, and every withdrawal felt like Ryan’s insides were being pulled out with the john’s cock.

Ryan kept quiet. He closed his eyes and tried not to listen to the john’s moans. The john’s mouth was wet on Ryan’s ear and he wanted to scrub his hand over the spot, take back that much of himself. Instead he clenched his fist tightly enough to draw blood and tried to concentrate on the pain of that, rather than the one radiating up his spine, sharper and with more burn every time the john pushed inside.

Just when Ryan had used up all of his stoicism, when he had actually covered his mouth to muffle the sob that wanted out, the john stiffened, came, and pulled out. Ryan did sob at that, but he was able to cut it off, drown it in quickly gulped breaths.

Sitting up hurt, badly enough that Ryan made sure to look away, take a second to school his face into blankness. The john had already given him the fifty, but he laid another ten on Ryan’s knee.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, then left the room. He had the decency to shut the door behind him. Ryan looked at the clock by the bed. He still had about seven minutes.

He stood shakily, panting a little, and then limped to the bathroom. He drank water from the sink as quickly as he could before another bout of the flu gripped him, one he’d been holding off, and he was over the toilet again, retching.

When he was done, he stood up, flushed the toilet, and washed his face and mouth in the sink. He made his way back into the main room, got dressed, and slipped out. He let himself limp back to the station. Spencer wouldn’t be back yet. He could always blame the limp on some kind of message-running accident, with a car, or something. He was sick, Spencer would have to believe him.

Ryan made it back to their bench, curled up, whispered, “Long weekend,” to himself and went to sleep.

*


After a few days, even with his ribs and stomach still aching and the bruises everywhere making themselves known, Brendon was going stir-crazy in his new room. He hadn’t really gotten used to thinking of it that way, yet, but he kept saying it to himself, trying.

He got up and put on the clothes that had been left for him. They were too big in pretty much every way, but he rolled up the hems and the sleeves and made his way down to the diner. It was mid-morning, when the breakfast rush would have already ended and the lunch one not yet begun.

Bob was cleaning up his area of the kitchen, Ray was checking the pastry and pie shelves, Mikey and Frank were busing tables, Gerard was working on a spring advertising coupon, and there was someone Brendon had never met washing dishes. A really attractive someone Brendon had never met, and suddenly coming downstairs looking like he’d been hit by a bus seemed kind of stupid.

It was too late, though, because Mikey looked up and saw him and asked, “What are you doing standing?”

“Um. Standing,” Brendon confirmed. He was pretty sure that was all he was good for at the moment.

“Well, stop,” Mikey said.

Gerard came from behind him and ushered him into one of the booths. Brendon winced upon settling. Frank asked, “Orange juice?”

“Please,” Brendon said.

“No, seriously, why are you down here?” Mikey asked.

Brendon flushed, but admitted, “I was bored.”

Gerard said, “The walls in that room are kinda boring.”

“Wanna be even more bored?” Hot Dishwasher Boy called from the kitchen.

“Um, sure?” Brendon wanted to be bored with Hot Dishwasher Boy—that was for certain.

“Great. There’s like a million napkins that need to be wrapped around three million sets of of flatware.”

“Awesome,” Brendon said, and sadly, kind of meant it. He needed to feel useful, if even just a little bit.

Hot Dishwasher Boy was up to his shoulders in soapsuds, so he called, “Frank, could you—“

“Yeah, yeah. I’m totally senior to you, you know, Smith.”

Hot Dishwasher Smith grunted and went back to concentrating on the dishes. Brendon didn’t take advantage of him being distracted to stare, not at all.

*


Spencer came and sat with the new guy, who was evidently Brendon From Upstairs, and helped put together the sets of flatware when he was done with the dishes. He had about half an hour before needing to prep for lunch rush and it felt good to sit.

He said, “So, hi.”

Brendon From Upstairs smiled kind of lopsidedly, and there was a bruise covering a good half his face--Jesus. He really should not have been hot, at all. Spencer pulled his mind out of his dick with a little bit of effort and said, “Uh, I’m Spencer. Smith.”

He offered Brendon From Upstairs his hand. It was accepted with a responding, “Brendon Urie. Nice to meet you.”

Spencer nodded. “They’re training me in the kitchen.”

Brendon said, “I’m gonna, uh, help out with the waiting, and stuff. I’ve never really-- Useful skills aren’t actually my thing.”

Spencer snorted. “Tell me about it. My resume is, like, ‘Ryan herding,’ ‘playing drums,’ and, most recently, ‘dumpster diving.’”

“That last is totally a useful skill. You play drums?”

Spencer shrugged. “Back home, when I had my kit. Kinda just a hobby, really.”

Brendon nodded at that. “I played drums. I mean, not really well, or anything, but they’re good to know, y’know? Help with rhythm and stuff. I definitely got better on piano after I started them.”

“You play drums and piano?”

“And guitar!” Gerard hollered from the kitchen. “Awesome guitar. I’m going to make him teach me!”

“Not again,” Ray said, clearly despairing.

“Stop eavesdropping, nosy motherfuckers,” Bob told them.

Spencer snickered. “Guitar, huh?”

Brendon looked caught in concentration at rolling his napkin around the spoon, knife and fork. “Cello and bass.”

“Holy fuck,” Spencer said, duly impressed.

“Like I said; no useful skills.”

“Don’t be a greedy douche,” Spencer said lightly. “You want useful skills on top of all that?”

Mikey wandered in with a stack of menus, resupplying certain tables that had somehow lost theirs, and said, gravely, “He sings, too.”

Spencer blinked at Brendon and said, “No, seriously, total douche.”

It took a second, but then, Brendon started laughing. It only lasted a moment before he was wincing and saying, “Ow, motherfucker, ow,” and Spencer was apologizing, but Brendon didn’t look all that upset, not even through his obvious pain.

*


Ryan was pretty good at calling what people wanted from the way they looked at him, but sometimes he miscalculated. Which was why he took a guy who seemed to just want a straight up fuck before heading home to the wife, or whatever, and ended up with bruises over his kidneys and an entire day’s worth of cash missing. He walked around for a while afterward, making sure he could move without arousing suspicion. When he had managed that, he headed back to the train station.

Spencer was already there, but it was after five and even though Spencer often didn’t get off his shift until an hour after he was supposed to, and it was a ways back to the station, Ryan had given him plenty of time. Ryan didn’t go out at night. Day trade was harder to find, but it also generally kept him clear of pimps and older, meaner hookers. Ryan could make enough on day trade that he was willing to play it safe. Also, trying to come up with an excuse for going out at night that Spencer would believe was a little beyond Ryan at the moment.

Spencer had food, good food, and was full of stories about the people he worked with, especially Brendon. So far as Ryan could tell, Brendon pooped Hostess cupcakes and vomited rainbows. Still, it was nice, listening to Spencer just talk about doing normal things all day long, about stupid customers and stressful lunch rushes and Ray’s hair catching on fire—that kind of thing.

Spencer poked Ryan with his toe and asked, “How was your day?”

Ryan shrugged. He regretted it a second later, but he kept his face straight. “Not much business.”

“Really?” Spencer frowned.

“Happens.”

“Yeah, sure, just. You look kinda beat.”

“Just the cold,” Ryan said. It was late March and still frigid, which wasn’t fair. He should have gone south, to L.A. What the fuck had made him go east?

“I was thinking. Um. Between the two of us, we probably have enough money to at least find a Y, or something. I mean, tonight it’s probably full up, but maybe a motel tonight, and then Y tomorrow. If you have time to look into it?”

It was really that Spencer had the money. Between Spencer bringing them free dinners every night and Spencer getting his other meals free, plus regular hours at a regular wage, plus the advance they’d given him for some new clothes, Spencer could seriously start thinking about a place to stay. Still, Ryan knew that if he brought that up, there was just going to be a huge fight. Also, the idea of sleeping somewhere warm was just too much to say no to. Maybe even a shower, warm water over the worst of the bruising, and a door to close behind him when he peed. A new set of clothes and enough money to get himself a second meal a day and Ryan would honestly have all he ever wanted from the world anymore. That was what he told himself as he said, “Yeah, sounds-- Sounds like a plan.”

Spencer grinned. “Great. Look, there’s a place closer to the diner, if you don’t mind the walk?”

Ryan’s back screamed bloody murder as he stood. “Nah, lovely night for it.”

Spencer snorted and lead them out of the station.

*


Brendon, as it turned out, liked waiting at the diner. Sure, there were the jerks he had to put up with, and all, but most of the diner’s clientele was pretty awesome, and Brendon had a chance to joke around or talk music with them, and got tipped fairly well for it. Jon was one of these customers. Well, okay, Jon didn’t actually pay, since he was Mikey’s boyfriend, but he did come in and get a cup of coffee every morning and leave a tip for Brendon, despite not having paid.

Jon worked down the block at a non-profit that spent its time getting local businesses to buy organic and free-trade coffee, chocolate and other goods that people in developing countries depended on for their livelihoods--which was why the diner served free-trade coffee. Brendon often thought about how that conversation had gone, Mikey silently crushing on the guy giving the pitch, Gerard all, “oh, but the children!!” It had to have been awesome.

Not that Brendon had any right to laugh. He probably would’ve been the guy crushing on Jon and thinking about diaperless infants, all at once. Luckily, there was Spencer Smith’s blinding hotness to distract Brendon, because Jon and Mikey were bizarrely functional as a pair, given that Mikey was one half the pair. Not that Brendon had anything against Mikey, he kind of adored him, actually, but he wasn’t always the most together of people.

It was possible, though, that Spencer Smith’s blinding hotness came with a boyfriend, since there was definitely a guy named Ryan, and they were definitely close—seriously close. Brendon wasn’t sure how to ask about it, so he did what he always did in these situations. Or, well, he did what he imagined he would have done had he ever been in a situation like this before—he gossiped.

Conveniently, Brian, the night manager, was one of those guys who knew everything about everything without really seeming like he did. Brendon was trying to figure out how to ask Brian about Spencer, when Brian asked, “Not that it’s any of my business, but you gonna grow a pair and ask Smith out any time soon?”

“Uh,” Brendon said. Then, trying again, “He’d say yes?”

“I’m not a psychic.”

Brendon just looked at him. “Dude, you started this.”

“The way he keeps checking out your ass bodes well.”

“You can check out a guy’s ass and still be dating someone else. Ryan’s in, like every single one of his stories, so I’m thinking—“

“Oh, you think-- No, Ryan and him, it’d be like me and Bob sleeping together or something.”

Brendon paused for a moment. “And that would be bad because?”

“Because I’ve known him since I was, like, preadolescent, or something. Like, before our balls had dropped. And also, because Katie would kick my fucking ass from here to fucking Bangladesh, or some shit.”

“Right.” Brendon nodded. He hadn’t met Bob’s longtime girlfriend, but he’d heard stories.

“Seriously, Urie, even if I’m wrong, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“I get horribly humiliated and have to leave this job and starve to death on the streets, kind of like I was doing before?”

“Nah, Gee and Mikey’d make you stay in the guest room even if you turned into a recluse and let birds nest in your hair. You’re set.”

“I feel. So relieved.”

Brian clapped Brendon on the back, hard. “That’s what I’m here for.”

*


Brendon said, “So, um, have any plans for Friday night?”

Spencer was pretty sure he’d heard right, but he was washing dishes, and the water was pretty loud, so he repeated, “Friday night?” just to be sure. Because, okay, look, it wasn’t exactly every day Spencer got asked out by hot, talented musicians. He had the right to savor the moment, if that was what was happening.

“Yeah,” Brendon nearly shouted. “Um, because I was just—“

Spencer turned off the water and, of course, everyone turned to look at them. Spencer flipped them all off and they went back to whatever they were doing. Brendon’s face was bright red. Spencer said, “I’m free.”

“Oh,” Brendon said, like maybe he hadn’t thought that far ahead.

Spencer said, “But, uh, kinda broke.”

“Totally,” Brendon agreed. “I figured we could hole up on Mikey and Gee’s couch, steal something from their video collection, and I’d spring for some microwave popcorn and a bag of something sweet, seeing as how I’m not paying rent, or anything.”

“Yeah, okay, that’s-- Wait, what kind of movies do you like?” Spencer asked, because, well, might as well know if this was doomed to failure beforehand, rather than waiting.

Brendon got red again. “Uh. I’m open. To, stuff.”

“That wasn’t an answer,” Spencer told him, feeling more confused than anything, because, what? Did Brendon only ever watch porn, or something?

Brendon cupped a hand over the back of his neck and looked down. “Uh, well, mostly I watched movies at home, I guess. Because I was too busy at school, and then I was here and-- Anyway, we didn’t have much at my house, so, yeah. Open.”

Spencer was curious, he figured that was kind of natural, but he wasn’t an asshole, and whatever else home was, it was clearly something of a sore spot for Brendon, so he let it go. “Okay, well, I kind of like stupid horror, but if that’s not—“

“Awesome. Mikey and Gee have, like, the entire collection ever of that stuff. Mikey showed me. In detail.”

“Mikey did?” Spencer knew he sounded skeptical, but, c’mon, Mikey?

“You just have to get him to talk about the right thing,” Brendon said, grinning. “Also, kind of interpret. It takes some practice, but once you get it, it’s not too hard.”

“If you say so.”

“I do,” Brendon assured him. Then, “So, uh, this is a date, right?”

“Fishing for flowers?”

“I like azaleas,” Brendon said, in the most unironic tone of voice Spencer had ever heard.

*


Spencer was working late Friday night. He’d told Ryan this looking apologetic, but mentioning the overtime and whatever, like Ryan was going to tell him what to do one way or the other. Friday nights were usually when they found a way to treat themselves, even back in the station they’d always tried, but if Spencer wanted to work, well, Ryan could work, too. Friday nights were probably a fucking goldmine.

Ryan took a couple of fucking jobs, mostly because he still hadn’t gotten to the point where they were completely comfortable, and he didn’t want to think. Pain wasn’t fun, but it worked as a distraction when he needed one, and he did just then.

He stopped at around ten, because Spencer hadn’t said how late he’d be, and the last, the very last thing Ryan needed to try and explain was where he’d been on a Friday night while they were trying to save money.

On the way home he took a little bit of the cash and bought some ice cream. He’d planned on having it with Spencer, but Spencer wasn’t there when Ryan got back, nor by the time he came out of his shower and the pint was halfway melted. Ryan ate it by himself, slowly sipping at the liquid.

At nearly midnight, Ryan considered going to the diner, just to make sure Spencer was all right, but he talked himself out of it, reminding himself that it probably stayed open pretty late on Friday nights and Spencer often stayed after his shift to help with the last of clean up. Ryan rifled through the stack of discarded and free newspapers that he’d collected over the week and tried to lose himself in human interest stories, travel columns and book reviews, but he couldn’t focus, the back of his mind waiting for the door to open, for Spencer to come back, safe and whole.

Ryan was just about to turn off the light and pretend to be asleep, when Spencer came through the door, cheeks a little too red from the cold, but otherwise looking fine. Ryan bit back a sigh of relief. Instead he put the newspaper aside and asked, “How was your shift?”

Spencer shrugged. “Oh, y’know. The guys I work with are awesome.”

Ryan didn’t know, but, “Yeah, that’s good.”

“You should meet them some time. Maybe come for lunch, or something. I mean, you have breaks in between deliveries, right?”

“Maybe,” Ryan said, which was his version of no fucking way at the moment. Spencer might not smell anything on him, or notice, but Ryan wasn’t taking the chance that other people wouldn’t. “I’ll, uh. I’ll see.”

Spencer narrowed his eyes, and Ryan figured he’d probably caught Ryan’s lie, but then, something was off about Spencer, too, and Ryan wasn’t calling it. They both knew how mutually assured destruction worked.

Spencer disappeared into the bathroom, and Ryan heard the water running. They were both a little overly excited about having an actual shower again, and a place they could leave their toothbrushes. Ryan turned back to the newspaper, but it wasn’t holding his attention any more than it had before Spencer came back.

He was about to turn off the light again when Spencer came out of the bathroom and looked at him for a moment. “You look exhausted.”

Ryan shrugged. “Physical job.”

Spencer hesitated for a moment before foregoing his own double bed and climbing in next to Ryan. Ryan panicked for a second, just a second, because no matter how hot the water was, he was always so sure Spencer would be able to smell, would know.

Spencer didn’t say anything, though, and Ryan relaxed, melting into him. Spencer smelled like the diner, and something else, something new, but Ryan couldn’t place it. He said, “Night, Spence.”

Spencer squeezed him a bit and said, “Night.”

*


Not that Brendon had much to compare Spencer with, but he was pretty sure Spencer was a really good kisser. Alternatively, it was possible Brendon was just easy for hot guys, but either way, there were worse things.

Friday night, after Spencer had left, Brendon had touched his swollen, tight-feeling lips and had to scurry to his room to take care of business. When he could think again, his first thought was, “Okay. Probably not gonna die a virgin. Solid.” His second thought was, “What if it wasn’t as good for him?” followed by a lot of panic about going into work the next day.

But Spencer just grinned like Brendon had said something really clever when Brendon came into the kitchen to steal eggs and coffee before going out to deliver food to the masses. Spencer said, “You look tired.”

Brendon grumped, “Your fault,” and then leaned into the tiny kiss Spencer was clearly offering.

“Seriously?” Bob asked. “This is my kitchen, fuckers.”

Bob didn’t really sound all that put out and Brendon was too high on the feeling of being touched—oh man, he had missed being touched—and the fact that the hottest guy in the room had somehow been tricked into being interested in Brendon. Brendon placed a loud smack of a kiss on Bob’s cheek and said, “You know you love it, Bryar.”

Bryar smacked Brendon’s ass, sending him nearly all the way out into the diner proper. Brendon sneaked back for his coffee and eggs, but then skedaddled, before Bob did start getting irritated by too many people in his space.

Spencer stole a chocolate croissant from Ray to give to Brendon, which was pretty romantic, since Ray had devious ways of getting back at a man for pastry-theft. He brought it to him with the first table’s order and said, “Hi,” that same grin still on his face.

“Hi,” Brendon said back.

“You should, like, take these people their food.”

“Right,” Brendon agreed.

Frank snorted, coming up for another order, which Spencer had placed beside Brendon’s. “You guys are worse than Jon and Mikey. Or Gee and Lyn, for that matter.”

Brendon didn’t really get the Jon and Mikey, thing, since Mikey was understated as a way of living, and Jon was too chill to actually live, but, “Wait. Gee and Lyn? Lyn the night cook?”

Frank walked away with his order, humming to himself. Spencer said, “I’ll talk to Ray.”

“Details, Smith. We need details.”

“Yeah, Jesus. I’m senior to you, you know.”

“By, like, a day.”

“Four,” Spencer told him snidely.

“Whatever, smartypants,” Brendon said, and took himself and his order off to be brilliant and charming for the customers, who deserved it.

“Smartypants?” Spencer called after him. Brendon sighed. He was not the king of the comeback. He felt a smile tugging at his lips, though. After all, Spencer didn’t seem to mind.

*


Spencer was going to tell Ryan the truth, fucking hated lying to him, it was just that every time he opened his mouth to say, “Listen, I have a date tonight,” he caught a flash of Ryan looking small in the middle of their crap motel room, or Ryan walking up the street, hugging his arms around himself, and he just couldn’t. It felt like saying, Yes, I’m going off to have a life without you. Hope you can get something other than static on the TV tonight.

Instead, Spencer kept trying to keep dates confined to times when Ryan wouldn’t be back at the motel anyway, which worked until Brendon caught on and asked, “Um, you’re-- You’re out, right?”

“Out?” Spencer asked, because, in fairness to himself, there hadn’t been a lot of context. They’d been talking about which breakfast cereal was best all of three minutes before.

“Like, out out. Out to your family, friends, that kind of thing.”

“Oh. Oh. Yeah, why?”

Brendon shifted away slightly then, moving to the other side of the couch. Spencer said, “Bren, what’s—“

“I kinda thought maybe that was why you were hiding us from Ryan. That he didn’t know you were gay.”

“What are you-- I’m not hiding us from Ryan.” And okay, evidently lying to Brendon sucked, too, but how did he even know that?

Brendon snorted. “I know what hiding looks like, Spence. I did it enough from my family.”

They hadn’t talked about each other’s families. Really, other than music and movies and the people from the diner, they hadn’t talked about much of anything. It was nice, how Brendon never pushed, and Spencer wanted to return the favor. Only, Brendon was pushing now. Spencer sighed. “Ry’s kind of-- I’ve just always been pretty much the only thing he had to count on. And definitely even more so since we got out here, and I’m trying to find a way to tell him that won’t completely wig him out.”

Brendon looked surprised. “You think he’ll be jealous of me?”

“Why wouldn’t he? You’re my boyfriend, he’s my best friend, that’s, like, what happens.”

“Yeah, but just, you talk about Ryan all the time. He’s got nothing-- If anything I—“

“No, seriously, you don’t,” Spencer said, stopping that train of thought. “I’m not into incest.”

Brendon made a face. “Okay, but he’s clearly a priority.”

Spencer shrugged. “Family.”

Brendon’s eyes shuttered a bit at that, but then he said, “Okay, I mean, I get that, I do. But. But I moved out here and stayed out here to be my own person, even when being that person kind of sucked. And I-- I don’t want to someone’s dirty little secret. Maybe, I mean, especially not yours.”

Spencer took in how tightly Brendon was holding himself and wondered if he had ever once been even a quarter as brave as Brendon clearly was. He said, “Yeah, you’re-- You’re totally right.”

Brendon blinked, seeming kind of surprised. Spencer’s stomach twisted a bit at that. “I’m sor-- I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have had to, I mean, just, this was something I should have done long before now.”

“Something you should have done?”

“Hey, Bren, wanna come back to my crap motel with me? Ryan should be home in, like, oh, an hour or so.”

“You sure you don’t wanna talk with him first?”

Spencer wasn’t one hundred percent sure of anything except: 1) he didn’t want Brendon feeling unwanted and, 2) with Ryan, often, it was best to get all the hard stuff out of the way in one go. He took a breath. “Yeah. I’m sure.”

*


Ryan had had a pretty good day, all things considered. Some dude had paid him thirty for a blowjob because Ryan had figured out deep-throating, and evidently that guy wasn’t picking up the right boywhores, since he’d been impressed. Also, there’d been the guy who’d given Ryan fifteen just to talk dirty while he whacked off, and yeah, if Ryan didn’t have to be physically involved? That was pretty awesome.

He bought a bag of M&M’s on the way back, splurging, because Spencer liked the brown, orange and green ones and Ryan liked the blue, yellow and red. It had been a while since they’d carefully divvied out the pieces between themselves, and Ryan wanted that, something familiar, if maybe a little stupid.

He went to the front desk and made sure they were paid up for the week, and then headed up to the room and opened the door. He was about to say, “Hey,” when he noticed that Spencer wasn’t the only one in the room. Also, that Spencer and the guy with him had clearly just wrenched themselves apart in the middle of some serious making out. Not that many guys wanted that, but it was sort of Ryan’s job: he knew the look. “Oh.”

“Ryan, um.” Spencer stood up, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Hey, so, this is Brendon. Brendon, Ryan.”

Ryan blinked. Brendon, right, from work. And how had Ryan missed that? He knew how Spencer sounded when he had a crush. Had he been that distracted? (Or in that much denial?) He tried to get his throat to work. “Uh. Hi.”

Brendon smiled a little, although it was clearly an effort. “Hi. I’ve, uh. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. For weeks. Weeks and weeks and Jesus, had Spencer even really been taking extra shifts? Ryan made himself back off of that thought. Of course Spencer had. Spencer didn’t lie, not like that, not to Ryan. That was Ryan’s specialty.

Ryan said, “Okay, um. I was just-- I was going to get some dinner, so, I’m gonna, you guys-- Nice meeting you, Brendon.”

Spencer was saying something, but Ryan really needed to be out of that room. He made his way down the hall, and when he thought he heard footsteps following him, started running. He ran until his chest hurt and he was cramping and then he sat down on a bus stop bench, aware he had no idea where he was. He looked over at the map and saw that, huh, he was close to the station.

When he was mostly recovered he got up and walked there, past the place where Spencer and he had made something of a nest, into a completely different part of the station. Something crunched in his fist, and he looked down, noticing the M&M bag. The sight alone made him queasy. He threw it in the nearest wastebasket and then found a spot where nobody else was sitting and slid down the wall, hugging his knees to himself.

Spencer had a boyfriend—a boyfriend and a job and coworkers who liked him. And he clearly hadn’t wanted to tell Ryan, because how do you tell a guy that you’ve moved on? But that was okay, Ryan was smart. And Brendon was a good thing; Spencer deserved good things. Maybe Ryan would call Ginger later and tell her how well Spencer was doing. Spencer didn’t call as much as he should.

Ryan put his head on his knees, trying to block out the sounds around him, fall asleep.

*


When Spencer came back to the room, out of breath and agitated, Brendon said, “Maybe—maybe I should go. So that when he gets back, you guys can talk.”

Spencer said, “Sorry. Sorry, I should have—“

“No, it’s okay.”

“It’s not. But there’s so much about Ryan I can’t talk about, not to someone he doesn’t know. Just, I swear, Bren, he’ll come around. He just needs some time and me to prove that I’m not leaving him. That’s all.”

Brendon let himself imagine punching Ryan in the face for a second. It was kind of nice, but only kind of, because if he was honest, he totally understood where Ryan was coming from. If Brendon had only had one best friend in the world, had one person in the world, he probably would have acted the same way. He kind of was, with Spencer, and he hadn’t known Spencer even a percentage of the time Ryan had. “Okay. If there’s anything I can do—“

“Just don’t-- I mean. I really like you. And, um, I’d hate for you to, like, hold this against me.” Spencer looked away, the line of his neck turning red.

Brendon leaned forward, and kissed it. Spencer whipped his gaze back toward Brendon, blinking. Brendon grinned. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to work way harder to get rid of me. I’m clingy.”

“Well, you haven’t really met Ryan yet, but trust me, I like clingy.”

Brendon said, “Okay, comparing me to your best friend—not really sexy.”

Spencer laughed a little wetly. “Yeah, I, you’re probably gonna have to break me of that habit. He-- I’ve known him since I was five. Most of the things I’ve valued in my life, I’ve learned from him.”

Brendon didn’t really want to take that from Spencer, not when he thought about it. If he’d had something like that, he would have protected it with everything he had. And Spencer, he’d gone after Ryan, but he hadn’t left Brendon, had come back when he’d been unable to catch up. And that was the first time anyone had ever chosen Brendon over anything.

“Brendon?” Spencer asked.

Brendon realized he’d been silent for a while. “I-- I don’t really mind, so much.”

Spencer looked confused.

“About Ryan,” Brendon clarified. “About the way you talk about him. Or how close you are.”

“Oh.”

“And, uh. He should know. That you won’t leave him. That’s, he should know that.”

“Lemme walk you back to the diner,” Spencer said. “It’s dark. I’ll go look for him after.”

“I lived on the streets for months.”

“I wasn’t around, then.”

Brendon didn’t point out that Spencer had also lived on the streets for months. He kind of liked the idea of being escorted home. He rolled his eyes, mostly to save face. “Okay, you big freak.”

*


By the third day Ryan had been missing, Spencer was doing shit like burning pancakes and breaking dishes. Brendon could tell Bob wasn’t really thrilled to have him in his kitchen, but it was also really obvious that Spencer was trying his hardest. He’d even gone out and bought a dish (and a spare) on his lunch break to replace the one he’d broken.

When Spencer wasn’t buying dishes or working, he was searching for Ryan. Spring was validly taking over at this point, and it wasn’t terribly cold until the sun went down, but Spencer stayed out far longer than that, asking questions, walking the streets, doing anything he could to find Ryan.

Brendon went out with him when he could, mostly to make sure Spencer didn’t simply stay out all night, as he suspected Spencer had that first night after taking Brendon home. Occasionally, he could get Spencer to go back to the motel to check and see if maybe Ryan had come back. Generally, the best he could manage was dragging Spencer back to the diner and making him sleep in one of the booths. Spencer wouldn’t even go up to the couch, just in case Ryan decided to come by and couldn’t see Spencer.

Bob threatened to fire him if he didn’t get some sleep, but Spencer just called the bluff, handing over his apron and saying, “Look, thanks, I appreciate you guys giving me a chance.”

At which point, Gerard wigged out, yelling at Bob, and Bob yelled back for a bit, and Spencer was almost gone by the time Ray cut in with, “Okay, clearly, what we need to do is have a search party.”

Gerard and Bob both stopped yelling and looked at Ray. Mikey said, “Gee, do you think you and Bob can stay here and not kill each other if we leave Frank and Brendon with you guys?”

Gerard looked kind of truculent, but all Bob said was, “I wasn’t actually going to fire him. Just for the record.” Then he went back to his stove.

Frank looked at Mikey, “You’re trusting me and Brendon to hold down the fort?”

Brendon said, “We’ve got it.”

Spencer looked sickeningly grateful. Brendon still would have preferred to actually go with him, but he got the whole part where someone needed to run the damn diner for the rest of them to go and search for Ryan.

Ray said, “Mikey, you go with Spencer. Spencer, give me a good description of Ryan, I’ll call Lyn and we’ll form a second team. You tell me the places you’ve searched before, and while I’m making the call, Mikey can draw up a plan for where we’ll go.”

“Yeah,” Mikey said. “Lemme just go grab the map.”

Gerard said, “Mikey’s awesome at maps,” because if there was a possibility of extolling Mikey’s virtues, Gerard was going to grab it.

Spencer was jittering in place. Brendon wrapped himself over Spencer as best he could, and said, “You guys’ll find him. You probably just trained him at hide ‘n go seek too well.”

Spencer’s laugh was kind of watery, but it was something.

*


Ryan had meant to go back to the motel once he had calmed down a little. Whenever he tried to return, though, he found himself unable to make himself walk past a certain point. Having failed three times, he decided he needed another plan.

Ryan had been around long enough to have figured out what kind of acts made what kind of cash in different areas. He couldn’t charge as much as the guys with pimps, but he also wasn’t getting his take skimmed. He preferred being a free-agent, thanks. It could be hard at times, but there were open areas of the city. Those weren’t prime areas, but they worked well enough.

What he needed to do, was start taking rough trade. Those guys paid. Ryan could find a studio in a crap part of town, like, say, the one he worked in, manage a security and first month’s. Then, if he could just save some, he could take a week off, find some professional-looking clothes, and reapply for day jobs with an address and not smelling faintly of rotted carcass.

Ryan was willing to acknowledge the plan had a few weak spots, but overall, it wasn’t the worst he’d ever come up with. After the first night, he thought he might have, perhaps, underestimated those weak spots, but hey, this wasn’t the first bad thing that had happened to Ryan. He was going to get a fucking studio apartment, even if that involved a shared bathroom and meant limping or breathing carefully at the moment.

He tried to be careful about who he chose. He went with the ones who approached him and were upfront about their interest, not lingering or cooing at him. Ryan didn’t mind pain too much, so long as the johns told him ahead of time what they planned on and stuck to the script. Pain paid well, and made it easy not to think about Spencer. It would have been awesome if it hadn’t hurt so fucking much.

He made a mistake three days in when he was trolling the pre-work crowd—Ryan wouldn’t have guessed people bought sex at six in the AM, but evidently it was a good way to loosen up before having to deal with a dick boss. Who knew?

He didn’t really think about it, the guy seemed kind of paranoid, but mostly fine, and honestly, a lot of johns were paranoid about getting caught. So Ryan said the guy could tie him up, sure.

He hadn’t said the guy could rape him with a bottle. That hadn’t been part of the deal. Just anal, that was all they had agreed upon. Ryan should have specified, fuck, he should have known he had to specify.

Ryan tried screaming, but then the guy threatened to break it in him, and Ryan spent the rest of the ordeal as silent as he could be, clamping down even on the whimpers for fear of what the guy would do. He tried not to move, not to move at all. Ryan kept praying for it to be over, breaking almost ten years of concerted abstinence on the whole G-d thing.

The guy slapped his face a few times, hard enough to split his lip, laughing. He said something, Ryan knew it was insulting but he was pretty busy freaking the hell out because the bottle was still in him, and then the guy left, locking the door behind him.

Ryan waited, made himself count and then started screaming as loud as he could while trying to stay still. They only had the room for an hour, someone had to find him. The neighbors banged on the wall and yelled back, but Ryan was too frantic to even care.

When he was getting hoarse and there was blood running down his wrists, despite trying to make himself not struggle, the guy from the desk came in to yell at him. He only got a couple of hostile words in before he said, “Shit,” and moved to cut Ryan free.

Ryan had a feeling he would be fucking mortified later, that he probably should have been now, but he was too worried about getting the bottle out of him, about getting out of there, away and somewhere safe, to think about it just then.

The guy was gone, the door closed, by the time Ryan was able to stand and get dressed. He walked out of the lobby with his face forward, doing his best not to look at anyone or anything.

The guy had tucked a twenty into the mouth of the bottle, like a tip. For the first time since before his father’s death, Ryan walked until he found the first bookstore, big and corporate and cleaner than Ryan had been in a while. He hid in the fiction section for hours, and when he walked out, there was a paperback tucked in his back jean pocket.

*


Spencer was calling in every hour, as promised, but by eleven-thirty, Frank said to Brendon, “Could you maybe just clean?”

Brendon nodded miserably. He’d completely screwed up at least four orders in the past couple of hours. Frank had been looking kind of pissed, but after a second he sighed and reached out to squeeze Brendon’s shoulder. “They’ll find him, dude.”

Around midnight Jon ambled in. Gerard said, “You look like a man who’s done too much inventory.”

“Funny, I feel like that, too.”

Gerard poured him some coffee. Then he poured a second cup and called, “Bren, I think the counter is cleaner than it’s been since it was built. Come sit down.”

Brendon sat and took the coffee, pouring half a container of sugar in before even thinking about sipping. He told Gerard, “I’ll refill it.”

Gerard said, “Wow, least of my worries.”

“Still no search results?” Jon asked sympathetically.

Brendon was confused for a second, wondering how Jon knew. Then logic returned and he remembered that a) Jon was Mikey’s boyfriend, and b) Mikey was surgically attached to his iPhone. (Jon wasn’t as dependent, Brendon had noticed, but he did take a ton of pictures with his. But Brendon thought that was probably just habit. The diner had some of Jon’s pictures up as art—the ones taken with his Nikon.)

Brendon shook his head. “Nope.”

“They have a lot of territory to cover,” Gerard pointed out. “It hasn’t been that long.”

Brendon was nice enough not to point out that Gerard sounded worried underneath the forceful optimism. Jon took a last draw from his coffee, considered Brendon and said, “You know what you need?”

“Spencer to find Ryan?” Brendon guessed.

“Barring that,” Jon said.

“Valium?”

“Close. Fur therapy.”

“I hate you,” Gerard told him, sounding very, very sincere.

“Gerard is allergic to my cats,” Jon said, patting Gerard on the shoulder. “It’s one of the many tragedies in his tragic life.”

“Fur therapy,” Brendon said.

“Cats,” Jon confirmed. “C’mon.”

“Spencer’s using Ray’s phone to call here.”

Gerard pushed at Brendon a little. “We’ll tell him to call Jon. Go on, it’ll be good for you.”

Brendon hesitated, but if Spencer was able to get hold of him then there wasn’t much of a reason not to go. In fact, if Spencer was going to bring Ryan back to the diner, it might be best if Brendon wasn’t there. He got down from the stool and said, “Yeah, okay. Just make sure he calls.”

Gerard held up what he probably thought was a Scout’s Honor sign. Brendon blinked. “Wow, you really weren’t a Boy Scout, huh?”

Gerard flipped him off and ambled back toward the kitchen.

*


Somewhere around midnight, Spencer said to Ray, “You can go on. I’ve got this.”

Ray smacked him upside the head and didn’t bother to answer. Spencer nodded and kept walking. He’d had some pictures of himself and Ryan in his bag, along with the few things he’d brought from Vegas. He’d given Mikey and Lyn one, kept one for himself and Ray. So far nobody had recognized Ryan. Spencer had even been telling them Ryan would be skinner, and his hair would be longer, but nothing.

It was past one when they approached the kid who rolled his eyes at them when they held the picture out and said, “BJs are twenty, so questions are ten.”

Spencer turned to leave, but Ray just got out his wallet and said, “Five, unless the answer’s really good.”

The kid shrugged. “He hooks a couple of blocks over sometimes. He’s a free agent, so never really in the same place, but I’ve definitely seen him on the corner by the old storage place and once or twice on the southern outskirts of the factory district. Ten.”

Ray gave him fifteen. The kid blinked and said, “Uh. I hope you find him.”

Spencer tried to follow Ray toward the block they’d been pointed to, but his legs wouldn’t work. Ray realized after a couple of steps and turned back. “Spence?”

“It’s someone else,” Spencer said, unsure how his voice was working. It didn’t feel like anything should be. Fucking courier job? And Spencer had just let him lie, even knowing better, even worrying that he had gotten himself in trouble, but not this kind of trouble.

Ray was quiet for a moment and then he said, “Maybe. But, uh, shouldn’t we check it out?”

Spencer didn’t want to. If he checked it out and Ryan was standing there, offering blowjobs for twenty dollars, and information for ten, like that other kid, he wasn’t sure what he’d do, other than completely fucking lose it.

Ray walked back to him. “You, uh, you wanna go back to the diner? I can do this.”

Yes, yes Spencer wanted to, but he knew that was even worse, to do that to Ryan, to not be willing to face up to this when Ryan had to live it. (If it was Ryan. It couldn’t be, it could not be.) He shook himself. “No. No, I’m coming.”

It didn’t take them long to reach the spot the kid had mentioned, and when they got there, other kids they asked just said, “I can offer you something better,” and Spencer knew, without having to see.

Finally one of the other kids said, “Yeah, that guy, I think I saw him by the coffee shop earlier. He was being picked up, so maybe he’s on a date?”

“Coffee shop?” Spencer asked, but Ray just pulled him along.

“I know the one. That’s kind of just a nickname.”

“Oh,” Spencer said, and didn’t ask. They walked briskly and when Ray slowed, Ryan was nowhere to be seen. It was a pretty quiet corner, comparatively. Spencer made himself take several breaths. He was rubbing at his temples when a car pulled up, and a sickeningly familiar figure climbed out of it.

“Fuck,” Spencer all but cried.

“C’mon,” Ray said softly, and started walking.

*


In the period of time between Ryan’s mom leaving because the drinking was too bad, and his dad taking up drinking as a profession again when Ryan was twelve, there had been about a ten year period where the drunkenness wasn’t all that common—when George was trying to actually be a father to Ryan. In that time, Ryan’s dad had taken Ryan to a lot of parks, and helped him with his homework and watched movies with him on Saturday nights. Sometimes Ryan thought he remembered those ten years more than any other time in his life. It wasn’t true—Ryan couldn’t remember a fucking thing about being three. But it felt like it.

When he was seven, there was this one time he’d been at a park with his dad. It had been a weekday, quiet, his dad off work because he’d handled both Saturday and Sunday. Ryan had been winging his way across the monkey bars when his hand—sweaty in the late-day sun of Nevada—had slipped and he’d fallen, straight onto his stomach, the wind well and truly knocked out of him.

His dad had been there before Ryan could even understand what had happened, turning him over, wiping the hair back from his face, saying, “Hey kiddo, you’re okay. You’re okay.”

When Ryan finally managed to draw a breath, his dad had gotten him to his feet and made him walk a little, until his brain could understand that he really was fine. Then his dad had made Ryan get back on the monkey bars. Ryan had wailed and fought, but his dad just kept saying, “You don’t do it now, Ry, and you won’t.”

He’d stayed by Ryan the whole way across—and back—but Ryan had managed without one mishap, and his dad had been right: it had taken most of the fear away. Ryan figured hooking was kind of the same, really: one fall just meant you had to make yourself get back on the fucking monkey bars before the worst of the fear could settle in. It would have been nice to have his dad there, though, or anyone, really. (Well, not in the session, just in general.)

After the bookstore, Ryan had splurged a little more with a coffee from Dunkin’, and then had gone to a different corner, one of his other spots. Monkey bars and all, a different corner was as good as it was going to get. He was sore from the width of the bottle, and his face was aching where the slap had exacerbated the bruising from a client earlier in the week who’d been into roughing him up the old fashioned way.

He agreed to a lot of blowjobs. Even at their worst, blowjobs were a somewhat known quantity. And they were a good way to make money, since Ryan wasn’t picky about being face-fucked or whatever. He didn’t have anyone to talk to these days anyways, and johns liked the raspy sound of an abused throat, that was clear.

He finally made himself work back up to fucks, but nothing fancy. Just backseat of the car, or behind-the-building type things. He wasn’t going into any motels rooms with anyone just yet, thanks.

Overall, it was a pretty run-of-the-mill night, and Ryan was making decent money--enough not to feel bad about his savings in the morning. Then, of course, he finished up with a backseat dude who’d just wanted to be ridden, and yeah, sure, Ryan was a pro at that, and came back to his street to be blindsided by Spencer.

At first he thought it was just another couple of guys, coming to haggle. Then the streetlight caught Spencer and Ryan couldn’t believe there had been a moment when he hadn’t recognized him. He almost ran. He knew this area better than Spencer, he could probably escape. But if he couldn’t, then they’d have to talk.

It wasn’t fair. Ryan would have rolled his eyes at himself, but at the moment, he was busy keeping them on Spencer. When Spencer got close enough, without even having realized he was planning to say anything, Ryan did what he did best: made sure nobody could see far enough inside of him to cause damage. He worked his best street-boy smile and said, “What’s your pleasure?”

Spencer looked devastated for all of a second. Then he hauled off and hit Ryan. He wasn’t really practiced or anything, and Ryan didn’t think it would have been a big deal except for how Spencer hit the cheek that had already taken a fair amount of abuse. Ryan kept his face to the side and bit back any response.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Spencer asked, but Ryan knew that tone of voice. Spencer was crying.

Ryan winced, but didn’t look up. Instead he said, “Thought you’d be glad to have a private room for you and Brendon.” He was careful to keep his voice flat. Spencer was good at reading him, the best, but Ryan still had his ways.

“You,” Spencer said, probably not as steadily as he wanted, “are an asshole.”

Ryan did look up at that, making himself meet Spencer’s eyes. “Tell me something I don’t know. Now, were you looking for some fun, or can I get back to business?” A pause, “Maybe your friend’s looking for something?”

“Hi, I’m Ray,” Ray said. “I have a wife who’s way hotter than you are, and even if she wasn’t, I’m not super into the whole starving waif thing, but thanks for the offer.”

Ryan blinked at him, but then rolled with it. “No problem. If you change your mind, y’know—“

Spencer reached out and grabbed Ryan by the wrist. Ryan yanked back, both wrists nowhere near to feeling better from this morning’s adventure with tightly tied rope. He snarled, “Don’t touch me.”

Spencer stared at the blood on his hand. “Ryan.

Ryan swallowed. “Go away, Spence. I’ve got this under control.”

“You’re bleeding.”

“Just a scratch.”

Spencer was silent at that. Ryan said, “Seriously. Unless you’re waiting for me to lower my prices or something, and good luck. Other guys are more than willing—“

“Shut the fuck up.”

“—to pay whatever the hell—“

“You know I’m going to stand here until you come with me, going to ruin every fucking sale you want to make from here until fucking eternity, so shut the fuck up and walk back to the car with us, Ryan.”

Ryan didn’t mean to say, “Make me,” like some stupid ten year old. It just came out.

Spencer said, “Ray, can I borrow your phone? I need to call my mom.”

Ryan just barely managed not to vomit from humiliation at the thought. He’d honestly thought nothing could make him feel any more ashamed. And Spencer would do it, Christ, he totally would. Ryan said, “All right, all right. Which way?”

*


The diner wasn’t what Ryan was expecting. He didn’t know when, exactly, he’d formulated the concept of it being sort of proto-fifties with poodle skirts for decorations, and shit, but it really wasn’t. He concentrated on this particular feeling of cognitive dissonance, because it was better than thinking about the silence in the car, the way Spencer’s anger had filled up the space until Ryan could barely breathe.

There was a lot of black in the diner: the surface of the coffee counter, the tables, the booths. But the art on the walls was all full of color, the different mediums contrasting off each other, offering the average restaurant-goer a million different places to look. Ryan focused on a drawing that had lots of sharp lines and reminded him of the comics he and Spencer had shared as kids.

Someone put a hand on Ryan’s shoulder and he jerked away from it. He turned to see whose hand it had been and saw a guy with dark black hair and startled looking eyes. The guy said, “Uh, sorry.”

“Sorry,” Ryan muttered, and promised himself that he’d act like less of a freak.

Spencer was standing next to the guy. “Ry, this is Gerard, my boss. He’s gonna let us use his and Mikey’s place upstairs to clean up.”

“Hi, um.” Fuck. “That’s nice of you, but if you could just point me to a motel—“

“Do you like the drawing?”

Ryan blinked. Gerard shrugged. “You were staring. Do you like it?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said, not sure why it was important.

“There’s more upstairs. Less finished, but still. You should go take a shower, or whatever, and then I’ll show you. Mikes’n Lyn’ll probably be back by that time, and we can all have breakfast for dinner.”

“That’s nice,” Ryan said again, “but—“

Spencer grabbed Ryan’s arm—not his wrist—and said, “We’re going upstairs, Ryan. I have plenty of phones at my disposal.”

Ryan wanted to say, “Call,” and leave, and go somewhere he wouldn’t be found. Maybe if he crossed state lines, then Spencer would never find him. (Well, probably not—Ryan was starting to wonder if Spencer didn’t have some freaky, unnatural way of honing in on Ryan.)

When they got up the stairs, Spencer took them into a bathroom and locked the door. For a second, Ryan thought Spencer was going to yell at him again, but the second passed, and Spencer just sagged a bit. He looked at Ryan, brought a hand up tuck Ryan’s hair behind his ear, where it wouldn’t hide the bruising on the left side of his face. Finally he said, “You should’ve told me, Ry.”

Ryan moved away, as much as he could in the small room, from Spencer’s touch. He shrugged. “So you could do what? Call Ginger?”

“Help you.”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “We needed to eat.”

Spencer held up his hands. “I’m not-- Maybe. But at least I could’ve, I don’t know. Watched out for you. Or fucking, I mean, why you and not me?”

Because you’re Spencer. “Because I thought of it first.” Well, got propositioned first, but really, same difference.

“I—“ Spencer shook his head. “Can we just, I mean, can you let me help?”

“Spence—“

“You let me come out here with you—“

“And look how well that turned out—“

“Let me do this.”

Ryan wanted to, he did, but, “And then what, Spence? So you let me use the shower and the First Aid kit and eat something and maybe even, sleep on the couch, or whatever, and then what? This is still my job. I still don’t have another one. I have a plan, okay, it’s just going to take a while.”

Spencer tilted his head to the side. “Is this plan at all like the time you thought that what Summerlin really needed was a limeade stand?”

“That was an awesome idea, dickface.”

“Maybe if you’d had limes,” Spencer came back, unperturbed.

“It is not at all like that time.”

Spencer waited. Ryan relented. “Maybe a little. But only a little.”

Ryan crossed his arms over his chest. The wrist Spencer had grabbed had stopped bleeding, but the sores itched, and they needed to be cleaned, he knew. His head was pounding, and the coffee he’d had before starting work wasn’t helping at all anymore. Spencer said softly, “You’re limping, Ryan.”

Ryan closed his eyes for a moment. “I didn’t mean to-- I was going to come back.”

“Yeah. I kinda thought it might have been like that time you and your dad got in that fight when you were fifteen.”

“Only I didn’t have your house to go to.”

“Yeah.”

“Where is Brendon?”

“With Jon. I called him when we found you and he said he was gonna stay there tonight, and that we could have the place if we didn’t want to go back to our shithole of a motel. Direct quote.”

“Who’s Jon?”

“Question for when you’re not barely standing.”

Ryan could see the wisdom in that. “Brendon, um, that was nice of him.”

“He’s nice. You’ll like him, once you get over yourself.”

Ryan laughed, but it felt heavy in his throat, not really at all like amusement. Spencer said, “Ry,” and wrapped him in a hug, and Ryan went, despite the fact that it hurt in several places. He really, really couldn’t be fucked to care at that moment.

*


Spencer got the water running and made sure Ryan had gotten in the shower before going to find First Aid supplies. If he knew Mikey and Gerard at all, he doubted there was a consolidated kit. Luckily, by that time, Lyn and Mikey had returned and when Spencer asked Lyn she said, “Oh yeah, under the kitchen sink. I got Gee the kit last Christmas. He was totally put off, but we’ve used it like six times since then, so I think he’s forgiven me.”

Spencer pulled the thing—heavier than a toolbox—out and said, “Thanks. Whatever you’re making smells great.”

“All my own favorites,” Lyn agreed with a smile.

Spencer laughed and went back to the bathroom, where Ryan was still in the shower, the heat of it filling the room. Spencer said, “Just me,” to let him know someone random hadn’t walked in.

He waited, listening to Ryan shampoo his hair—three times—and scrub himself down. When Spencer started worrying Ryan was scrubbing skin off, and the water was going to start making him cold, he said, “Ry, I’ve got antiseptic. And I’m pretty sure Lyn’s making Nutella crepes out there.”

It still took a few minutes for Ryan to shut off the taps, and when he emerged his skin was an unsettling shade of red, his eyes matching. Spencer just handed him the biggest towel he’d been able to find (easily twice Ryan’s size) and turned away to let him dry off.

He sat Ryan on the toilet and attended to his wrists first, looking slightly better now that they were clean. Spencer still had to pick out some rope splinters, and rinse them again, but nothing looked infected so far as he could tell. Ryan pressed his lips together tightly and didn’t make a sound. Spencer murmured low and largely without meaning, just so there was noise between them.

Finally Spencer used the antiseptic and bandaged Ryan’s wrists, moving onto the welts Spencer’d seen across Ryan’s upper back and thighs, and making sure the limp wasn’t indicative of a sprained ankle or anything. Ryan tried to push him away at that, but Spencer had eaten a hell of a lot better over the past few months and was determined. Ryan finally subsided and let him search. Everything was fine, so Spencer chose not to think about what else could be causing it.

He said, “Gee was gonna see if Mikey had some clothes you could borrow,” before leaving to go check. Sure enough, there was some stuff lying out on Brendon’s bed. Spencer handed it through the bathroom door and left Ryan to his own devices.

After a while, Ryan shuffled out, the pants too long on him and the t-shirt too broad, but clean and comfortable-looking. He said, “Um. Nutella crepes?”

“And potato-chive pancakes. Because who doesn’t love that combo?”

Ryan stood there for a moment before laughing. The laughter was stilted, but genuine. “Yeah, hell if I know.”

*


Jon’s couch was the most awesome couch Brendon had ever come into contact with. Supposedly it was a Goodwill purchase, but Brendon couldn’t imagine someone giving up something that soft, even if it was sort of egregiously ugly. Jon’s cats were pretty awesome as well, Brendon was willing to admit. They’d gotten even moreso after Brendon had finally gotten a call from Spencer saying he was at the diner and had Ryan. There’d been a weird silence then and Brendon had said, “I’m gonna stay here, tonight. Let you guys, y’know. Have the place. So you don’t have to go back to your shithole of a motel.”

“Way to make a guy feel like he’s got things under control.”

“You should’ve seen my alleyway. Boy howdy.”

“Boy howdy? For real?”

“For real go take care of Ryan. Call me when-- When you get a chance.”

“I’ll see you in the morning. We’ve both got work, remember?”

“Right,” Brendon said. With everything going on, he’d kind of forgotten. It cheered him up a little, knowing he had reason to see Spencer again without seeming annoying and intrusive.

“Bren?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for being—“

“Cool?” Brendon asked hopefully into the silence.

“I was going to say you, but sure, cool works.”

Brendon definitely would have taken either. He’d hung up after that, and Jon’s roommate Tom had popped his head out from the kitchen. “You want in on this cheese stick action we’ve got going here?”

Brendon couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten. “Oh yeah.”

Tom’s girlfriend, who evidently went by the letter Z and only the letter Z said, “Tabasco sauce, salsa, ketchup or marinara?”

“Wow, um, marinara.” Then, “Tabasco?”

Jon shrugged. “I like spicy.”

Brendon didn’t feel like insulting his host was really the way to go, so he reined in the desire to point out that Jon was a freak. The cheese sticks were crunchy and bready and garlicky on the outside and really good.

Tom said, “Jon says you play the guitar.”

Brendon blinked at Jon. Jon made a sheepish face. “Mikey.”

“Oh, uh. Well, when I had a guitar, yeah. Some other stuff, too, but I’m kind of in a waiter phase, right now, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, and I’m a receptionist for a piercing parlor, but I still like to play in my free time.”

“Tom,” Jon said. It sounded like a warning.

Brendon shook his head. “My guitar was stolen, so, at the moment, the waiter thing’s where it’s at.”

“Wait, that’s why you’re not playing right now?” Jon asked.

“Mikey didn’t say that part?”

“Nah, just that you were super down on your luck.”

Brendon shrugged and took the cheese stick Z was holding out sympathetically for him. She said, “Well, no offense, but that’s kind of a stupid reason, because between the three of us, I think we have at least two extra guitars that could use the attention.”

Jon looked a little abashed. “It’s true, I wish Mikey had said something earlier.”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “Z’s actually doing the band thing on her weekends, so she has a flashy one and one that stays home and pines for her. Jon’s extra is just because he saw it in a pawn shop and felt sorry for it.”

“Um,” Brendon said. Then, “That’s awesome.

“Tell dickface over there that,” Jon grumbled.

Brendon turned to face Tom. “That is awesome.”

Tom laughed. “Your orphaned guitar just found a forever home, Jonny Walker.”

Jonny Walker flipped Tom off and took the last cheese stick. Brendon could see how it was the best kind of revenge.

*


Ryan couldn’t eat much, but when he’d had what he could manage, Gerard just said, “Fridge is over there, microwave’s over here. If you get hungry later.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said softly. He got that Gerard was just a nice guy, Ryan wasn’t so fucked up as to not understand, but evidently he was fucked up enough that it made his skin itch, made him feel unsure about everything.

Mikey asked, “Are there clean sheets on the bed?”

Spencer said, “Brendon’s a wait-until-it’s-desperate kind of laundry guy, so probably not.”

“I think the extra pair from my bed should fit,” Mikey said, looking off into space and then wandering off, presumably to get said sheets. Mikey was a hard read, which—because Ryan was difficult like that—put Ryan more at ease with him.

Ryan said, “I’m just gonna, uh, help.”

Gerard started to say something, probably that it wasn’t necessary, but Lyn distracted him. Whether it had been on purpose or not, Ryan appreciated it. Spencer followed Ryan. Ryan had a feeling Spencer probably wasn’t going to let Ryan out his sight for a few days, not if Spencer could help it.

Mikey was already there when they got to the bedroom, futzing with the sheets. Ryan took one edge silently, and Mikey said, “Thanks. You wouldn’t think it would be some fucking epic battle.”

Ryan was surprised to find himself smiling, but the honest frustration Mikey managed to convey without changing his tone was kind of awesome. Spencer held up a hand. “Pillow cases.”

Mikey tossed them. Ryan worked on the bottom of the bed, tucking the sheets neatly into hospital corners, the way he always had, since he’d learned them from Nurse Jian when he was thirteen.

Mikey said, “Um, damn.”

“It’s my superpower,” Ryan told him solemnly.

“Are you good at folding shit, too?”

“I’m functional at it. Why?”

“Oh, I have a friend, he and his wife opened this boutique kinda place, and it’s doing pretty well, but they really need someone willing to work full-time at minimum wage, and mostly the kids they find either can’t do full time or want more pay or leave after a few months for one reason or another. You should think about it. They’re nice, and even if you can just stick around for a year, it’d really help them out.”

“I still don’t have an address,” Ryan said.

Mikey shrugged. “You have this one for as long as you need it. Also, I doubt either Pete or Ashlee’s gonna give a shit. Pete’s found himself in a number of questionable situations from time to time.”

“Can you give me the address?”

“I’ll take you by tomorrow morning. Pete owes me some bootlegs and I promised to bring him Jon’s latest shipment.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, and though it was soft, he meant it more than he could really emote.

Mikey shrugged. “Gerard ‘n me, we’d’ve been totally fucked if our grandma hadn’t left us the diner and we both know it. Night, guys.”

Mikey left the room and shut the door behind him. Ryan, without looking at Spencer, said, “Could you please just not say ‘I told you so.’”

Spencer wrapped himself around Ryan’s back, which hurt a little, due to the welts, but Spencer was clearly being careful. He said, “You’re a fucking moron,” but that was different, and Ryan could appreciate the difference.

Ryan admitted, “I’m tired.” It was an understatement—his bones ached from exhaustion.

Spencer pushed him a little, toward the bed.

*


Spencer woke up to an alarm clock that read nearly eleven o’clock and flew out bed. “Fuck.”

Ryan blinked awake and said, “Spence?” Then he caught sight of the clock and said, “Oh. Shit.”

“It’s fine,” Spencer said, more to calm himself down than Ryan, although, Spencer would feel better if Ryan’s under-the-skin panic would quiet a little. “Gee and Mikey would’ve woken me if I was really needed.” At least, Spencer was pretty sure that was true, and he was going with that theory.

He ran to the bathroom and threw a toothbrush in his mouth. He was rinsing and spitting when the door to the apartment opened and Spencer heard, “Hello?”

Spencer peered out of the bathroom and asked Brendon, “Am I fired? Please tell me I’m not fired.”

Brendon laughed. “It’s fine; Frank wrangled Jamia into coming in for the morning. Relax. They sent me up here to see if you guys were alive and if you needed breakfast. Everything okay?”

Spencer took his first actual breath of the morning. “Ry?”

Ryan shuffled to the door of the bedroom. He looked at Brendon and said, “Morning.”

Brendon did what Spencer was starting to learn Brendon always did when scared out of his fucking mind. He smiled hugely at Ryan and said, “So, um, hey, we didn’t really get to meet before, and I’ve heard a lot of awesome stuff about you, so if you’re feeling up to it, come downstairs and have breakfast with Spence. Frank and Jamia’ll let me have your table and hang in the down moments.”

Ryan, in turn, did what Ryan always did when scared out of his head and said, “I’m only three-fourths asshole. Well, on good days.”

Brendon’s smile got bigger, but Spencer could tell it was in relief. “I can work with that.”

Since things were going relatively well, Spencer asked Brendon, “How was Jon’s?”

“I’m leaving you to start a commune of love with him, Tom and Z. They gave me a guitar.”

Spencer only felt mildly threatened by that, since, “Really? And how’re you gonna get Jon to throw over Mikey for you guys?”

“Drugs. I’ve thought this through, Spencer Smith, don’t think I haven’t.”

“Heaven forbid,” Spencer said, and rolled his eyes. He resisted giving Brendon a hello kiss, but only because Ryan was still standing there, clearly unsure of himself. “C’mon, Ry, you can use my toothbrush.”

“Already did last night,” Ryan admitted. “My mouth has had way worse things in it.”

Brendon flinched, but just said, “So you’ve dumpster-dived, too, huh?”

Ryan blinked, turned to Brendon and opened his mouth. Spencer tensed, waiting for whatever cut Ryan was going to make, figuring out how to repair it. Only, after a moment, Ryan loosened up a bit and said, “Professionally,” with an attempt at a smile.

Brendon shuddered theatrically. “In happier news, Bob made this morning’s breakfast special Eggs Benedict, just for you, Spence.”

“It’s a good thing for you Bob would totally kick my ass if I tried to make a move on him,” Spencer said lightly.

“Yeah,” Brendon said, equally lightly, “but then who would you impress with your cooking skills?”

“Ryan.” Spencer didn’t even hesitate. He did wait for an uncomfortable second to see how Brendon would react.

Brendon stuck out his tongue and said, “You’re not clever,” before turning to go. He called over his shoulder, “See you downstairs!”

*


Brendon had a plan for the day. It had three parts: 1) wake up a little early and cuddle with cats until clawed in the face in a desperate bid for escape, 2) coffee, lots of it, and 3) survive. Part one had gone off flawlessly, even if he did have to keep explaining the scratch marks on his face to customers. Part two was making him a little bit frenetic. Part three he would assess when the day was over. No putting the horse before the cart for Brendon Urie, no sir.

Ryan and Spencer came down to the diner about fifteen minutes after Brendon had been sent to make sure Ryan hadn’t escaped out a window and Spencer gone running barefoot after him. Spencer went and plated the Eggs Benedict himself, which Brendon shoved him for once Spencer was sitting down. Brendon pouted. “I am good at the delivery part.”

“Yeah, but I’m a crap tipper,” Spencer told him.

Brendon said, “I can take it out in trade,” before turning his attention to Ryan. “What can I get you?”

“Um. You guys do pancakes?”

Brendon smacked his palm against his forehead. He walked away, grabbed a menu to hand to Ryan and said, “Take your time, I gotta go refill some coffees anyway.”

Brendon concentrated on not spilling, because, sure, Ryan’s closed-off eyes kind of made him want to talk endlessly, foolishly about nothing just to fill Ryan’s weird silence, but Brendon could do this. Ryan obviously wasn’t evil, or anything, just possibly not completely human.

When Brendon got back Ryan had folded the menu down and said, “Chocolate chip pancakes, please.”

“That all?” Brendon asked, refilling Ryan’s half-empty coffee by rote and pretending for a few seconds he wasn’t going to give Spencer anymore.

Spencer just removed the coffeepot from Brendon’s hand and said, “He’ll have strawberries, too. I saw that stuff Greta brought over from the co-op, he definitely needs some of that.”

“Spence,” Ryan said softly.

“Yeah, no, Spence is totally right, those things are awesome. ‘Kay, I’ll be right back.”

Brendon felt a little bit bad, because he knew how Ryan felt. Brendon hadn’t been great at accepting charity back when he’d truly needed it, and was horrible about it now that circumstances weren’t quite as dire. But Spencer was clearly the only person in the world who could get through to Ryan, and even that seemed to be a little hit and miss. Brendon wasn’t going to interfere.

When the pancakes came up, Brendon didn’t say a word about the bananas and apricots Bob had cut up and put alongside the strawberries. He did give Bob’s back a huge smile, but that didn’t count, because Bob couldn’t see.

Things were thinning out as the morning rush died down. They would need to flip for lunch, but Brendon could take a couple of seconds to slide in beside Spencer and ask Ryan, “How are they?”

“Chocolatey,” Ryan said, sounding pleased, or what Brendon thought was a pleased tone from him.

Brendon nodded knowingly. “Bob uses bittersweet chunks instead of chips.”

Ryan said, “Coffee’s really good. Like—“

“Free trade organic,” Brendon said proudly. “Jon gets us the stuff. He introduced us to Greta, the strawberry girl. Well, really, she brings us all kinds of stuff. She created this farming co-op just outside the city and evidently it’s huge. I don’t know, I’ve never been, but that’s what Jon and Tom and Z said. Gee’s kind of big into local and that stuff. I think even the chocolate chunks are free trade.”

“That’s cool,” Ryan said somewhat slowly. “Um. Is Mikey around?”

“I think he went to run the deposits to the bank. He’ll be back, did you need something?”

“A job.” Ryan shrugged.

“Yeah, fair,” Brendon said. “I gotta get back. Glad you enjoyed the pancakes.”

Ryan said, “Um, see you later.”

Brendon couldn’t help the face-eating smile that broke out at that. “Yeah, definitely.”

*


Mikey showed up right before the lunch rush, and asked Ryan, “Mind sticking around and helping us out? Lunch is on the house, and dinner.”

Ryan would have done it without the incentive, what with them having let him spend the night and eat breakfast and stuff. He just nodded and went where he was told to go, did what he was told to do. When he could, he watched Spencer out of the corner of his eye. Spencer had always been good with cookbooks and helping Ginger in the kitchen, but it was something altogether different to see him in action with Bob, chopping and grilling and frying in a million directions all at once. If Ryan had thought he still had the right—or that anyone would listen, and he wouldn’t sound special—he totally would have pulled someone over, pointed Spencer out and said, “That’s Spence, he’s my best friend.”

Ryan helped with dishes and occasionally with getting food to the window and other random things that needed doing, and when the rush was over, he had more energy than he could remember having in a long time. Mikey begged the lunch special off of Bob, who only gave him a hard time for a couple of seconds before acquiesing and making one for Ryan, too.

Spencer and Bob had to clean and prep for the next rush, so while they were waiting, Mikey said, “Sorry I was gone all morning. Gee needed me to deal with our electric company. They’ve been screwing us, and last time he went and nothing changed, so.”

Ryan nodded. “Electric companies are a pain in the ass. I had to deal with my father’s at least twice a year.” Admittedly, mostly because his dad would drink the money meant to go to the bill, and Ryan had to convince them not to turn off the air in the dead of summer, that he would get them the money. Still, it counted.

“Pete promised to make it up to me with bootlegs and a pint of coconut chip ice cream.”

“Just a pint?” Ryan asked, before he could stop himself. He managed to shut up before he questioned the veracity of such a flavor—and why the hell anyone would eat it.

Mikey quirked his lips. “It’s imported from the fucking Midwest.”

Ryan was pretty sure there was plenty of ice cream right there in Jersey, but hey, this was not going to be the moment he argued. “Okay.”

Mikey said, “You’ll see.”

Ryan did see, about an hour later, when they were sitting in the back room of Pete’s store, listening to Joy Division’s 1977 Manchester Polytechnic show. Mikey scooped a spoonful of his coveted ice cream and handed the spoon to Ryan, who took it, tried it and said, “Holy shit.”

“Definitely holy,” Mikey agreed, and took the spoon back.

“Okay, so, pretty much, anyone who Mikey likes and is willing to give Graeter’s a try is fine by me. You know how to, like, hang clothes, right?” Pete looked pretty sure of the response.

“I was a natural by the age of five,” Ryan told him solemnly.

“Well, I never say no to savants. I mean, you need to meet Ash, but the only time she told me I couldn’t hire someone or work with them was Patrick, and that’s because we fight when we work together. She was totally right about that, too. Saved the friendship, for sure.”

“Ash’ll like you,” Mikey said nonchalantly. He offered Ryan the spoon again.

Ryan took it with a small, “Thanks.”

“Here’s the thing,” Pete said, looking kind of nervous.

Ryan bit his lip so as not to sigh. He had known, he’d known all this was too good to be actually happening. He handed the spoon back to Mikey, his stomach clenching.

“Seriously, I’m not judging or anything, but it’s a clothes shop, you know? And what you’re hangs in weird places—“

“It’s my stuff, dickwad,” Mikey said without looking up from his pint. “Advance him some cash and I’m sure he’ll outdress you.”

“You don’t have to be insulting,” Pete said, flicking his fingers against Mikey’s shoulder.

“With you?” Mikey asked, his mouth full.

“See if I put your order in with the next shipment.”

Mikey batted his eyelashes slowly and somehow ironically at Pete. Ryan looked away from it, away from the way Mikey sucked on the spoon before taking it out of his mouth. Mikey repeated, “Cash advance, Pete. And throw in a t-shirt, Jesus.”

“Fine, fine,” Pete said. Even without looking, Ryan could hear Pete’s smile.

*


Spencer was multi-tasking: washing dishes and trying to figure out Ryan’s and his living situation, when Bob interrupted the chain of thoughts. Bob said, “Liked your idea about the strawberry reduction. Little less intense than raspberry, better for spring dishes.”

Spencer shrugged. “Just sounded good.” He’d do his happy dance of victory later, where only Ryan could see.

Bob took a towel and started drying, which was weird enough to throw Spencer off his rhythm. “Uh, is there something going on?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Gee and I’ve been—“

“Fighting like an old married couple without half the fondness?” Spencer tried.

“There’s fondness,” Bob said, clearly reflexively.

Spencer said, “It’s hard to miss.”

“The fondness?”

Spencer laughed. “That too.”

Bob huffed. “Yeah, well. Here’s the thing—Katie and I, we’ve been wanting to open up a drumming store and center for pretty much forever. I think we may have talked about it on our first date.”

Bob and the egregiously hot Katie Kay had been dating for nearly seven years now. Spencer could respect long-held dreams. “Gee has something against drumming centers?”

“Just this one. Mostly because Katie’s grandmother died about six months ago and left her enough money that with both of us pitching in our savings, we can actually do it.”

Spencer turned off the water. “You’re leaving the diner?”

“Could everybody stop asking that like I killed and skinned small babies in front of other small babies?”

Spencer blinked, “Sorry, it’s just—“

“I wasn’t going to leave Gee in a lurch anyway, but then you came along and it was clear that I could train you up.”

“Wait, you want to leave me as head daytime cook?”

“You know someone better?”

“Well, someone who’s done more than wash dishes and plate things for a few months might be on the list.” Spencer bit down on his excitement at the idea, and let rational thought and utter panic win the day.

Bob shook his head. “You have good work ethic, and you’re loyal. Also, it’ll mean a raise for you, which would in turn mean you and Ryan could rent the extra room in the upstairs apartment in the building Katie and I put a down payment on. It’d help us with mortgage payments for the business.”

“Bob—“

“You need somewhere to stay, right? I’m price negotiable, and I don’t need references or a safety deposit. It’s a good deal, Smith.”

“You realize I’m dating Brendon, right? Like, I’d bring him over.”

“As long as all Disney-related activities take place on Gee’s turf, I don’t mind the Urie kid.”

“I’m gonna tell him you like him.”

“Not if you want somewhere to live,” Bob said casually.

“You need the rent money,” Spencer countered.

“You’re a complete asshole.”

“I think that might be why you just offered me an apartment.” Spencer turned the water back on and went back to dishwashing. Bob didn’t argue.

*


Brendon offered to sleep on the couch that night so Ryan and Spencer could have the bed. Ryan was moving a little stiffly, and Spencer still kept flicking his gaze over to make sure Ryan was with them. Ryan fell asleep after dinner, the three of them sitting on the couch.

Brendon asked, “You okay?”

Spencer made a face. “He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Sure,” Brendon said.

Spencer raised an eyebrow. Brendon shrugged. “He kinda did what he did for you, right? I mean, that’s—“

“Ryan’s better at the big gestures than the small ones. He’s crap at the everyday stuff.”

“I’m glad you found him.”

“Bren—“

“My family didn’t look.” Brendon smiled tightly. “I know, because I was right where I said I’d be, at least until that place kicked me out, too.”

Ryan’s eyes fluttered open. “People have no taste.”

Brendon frowned. “How long have you been listening?”

“Long enough,” Ryan said. He pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going to bed. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“What does that leave, exactly?” Spencer asked.

“You don’t want to hear the list.”

Brendon agreed; that was probably for the best. He said, “Night, Ryan.”

Ryan inclined his head before disappearing. Brendon turned back to Spencer. “Was he being thoughtful?”

“First time for everything,” Spencer said, still looking at the door Ryan had disappeared behind.

“He thinks if he gives us enough space, you won’t have any reason to push him away.”

Spencer looked at Brendon. “What?”

Brendon smiled wryly. “We’re kinda both freaking out you’re gonna love one of us more. I mean, I’m people-stupid, but not that people-stupid.”

“You’re both mentally dysfunctional. It’s not the same.”

“Yeah, well, if Ryan had been the one to fall in love first, would you still be saying that?”

“Pretty sure, yeah.”

Brendon sighed. “Stop being so well-balanced. It makes me insecure.”

“I think I can fix that,” Spencer said solemnly. Brendon wasn’t exactly surprised at the first kiss.

*


Pete, Ryan learned quickly enough, had no filter on what came out of his mouth. It was how Ryan got all his best information. For example, he learned Mikey played the bass and had never learned to ride a bike and got really upset about international agricultural policy as a result of dating his food-hippie boyfriend, Jon. (Most of what Ryan considered the best information was about Mikey. He could get plenty else from Pete, he just didn’t always care.)

Patrick often corrected the stuff said. (“Pete, Jesus, Gabe did not snort three grams in one night,” or, “Oh, you mean that time you jumped into the city’s water supply butt-naked?”) Joe mostly made it worse with his neverending willingness to get Pete high. Ashlee just rolled her eyes and laughed where she thought Pete couldn’t hear.

Ryan never talked about these things with Mikey. Ryan had met Jon the Food-Hippie, and he was annoyingly awesome. He also played the bass and guitar, and sometimes wrote songs that he willingly shared even as he blushed and refused to look in Mikey’s direction. Oh, and Jon made really good coffee, of course. Bottom line, he was everything a guy could want in a boyfriend, with the added bonus of having never sold his sex parts for cash. Ryan knew when something was hopeless, but he had a long history of pursuing hopeless things and he didn’t see why now should be the time to stop.

Spencer figured it out after less than a week, when they were moving their stuff—two whole bags, most of it passed on from Gerard or Mikey—into Bob’s place. Mikey gave Ryan one of Gee’s drawings with a shrug and the comment, “I always really liked this one,” and Ryan spent half an hour looking around the room, finding the right spot.

Spencer said, “Ry,” and Ryan said, “Don’t, Spence. I already know better.”

So instead Spencer tickled Ryan until Ryan was making death threats and crying. Which, naturally, was when Katie found them. Katie had fingers of Pure Evil. When Ryan told Bob this solemnly, Bob said, “It depends on the context.”

Spencer said, “TMI.”

Bob looked unconcerned. “He started it.”

“Technically,” Katie told them, “I did. Kind of.”

Ryan snorted at that, and Spencer laughed, sounding more relieved than amused. Bob smirked and said, “I say we celebrate by not cooking. First meal with all of us in the house on me.”

Ryan hated the sense Bob was doing that for him, with his lack of savings. He’d have money soon enough, he just had to be careful, to save the paychecks that came into him. Spencer slung an arm over Ryan’s shoulders, easy and familiar, and said, “Awesome. What are we having?”

Ryan made himself smile and tried to feel it, all the way down to where his stomach was still churning, just a little bit.

*


Watching Ryan pine was almost as painful as watching him pretend to be a courier, Spencer decided. It was possibly even worse, because Spencer actually knew the truth, rather than just suspecting. Also because Spencer could find a way to get Ryan off the streets--had found a way—but Mikey was taken and Jon was fucking awesome. Jon had even taken Spencer seriously when Spencer had brought up the idea of making a special blend for the diner and only the diner.

To add insult to injury, Jon had evidently decided Ryan was the bee’s knees. Ryan was, in fact, pretty damn cool, but spending time with Jon just made him even more mopey than he was in his natural Ryan-state, and that was saying something.

After pulling a double one day, Spencer admittedly kind of lost it with Ryan. Ryan wasn’t really doing anything. He was writing bad emo poetry, but that was his right as a post-adolescent American. Spencer had just had a long day. So he didn’t really mean it when he said, “You could just stop fucking hanging around with them, unless you’re worried that you wouldn’t have enough to be miserable about.”

Ryan looked sufficiently blindsided. “Um. Did you and Brendon get in a fight?”

The concern in the question took the wind right out of Spencer’s sails. “You’re the only person I know who can fight with Brendon, Ryan. It’s like a special skill.”

Ryan looked back down at his notepad. “You should see what I can do with my tongue.”

“Stop it,” Spencer bit out.

Ryan shrugged and didn’t say anything. Spencer sighed. Normally Ryan was such fun to fight with, just to let off steam, but not when Ryan took things personally—that was to say, not recently. He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re right. I should get over it. It’s so very last century, pining.”

“Ry—“

“Mostly I think it’s safe. Because neither of them is going to touch me, and that’s, I mean, that’s definitely good. Except it doesn’t feel that way. But I just think some wires are crossed, or something.”

Spencer officially had no clue what to say to that.

Ryan smiled at him. It was obviously forced, but it was a smile. “You should bring Bren back tomorrow. I’ll let him pick the movie. Something annoyingly cheery. Just the three of us, unless Bob or Katie is around.”

As much as Spencer loved Ryan, and as much as he knew Brendon was coming around to loving Ryan, Spencer wasn’t sure things that were just the three of them were all that good for Ryan at the moment. “Yeah, actually, I was going to ask—Bren’s got some friends from back before I was around. He said he’d like us to meet. So maybe coffee instead? No big, just, he seems to like these people.”

“Are you subtly trying to broaden my social circle, Spencer Smith?”

“Evidently not so subtly. What do you say?”

“Not somewhere that serves Jon’s coffee?”

“We’ll make it Starbucks if we have to.”

Ryan made a face. “Let’s not go that far.”

*


Gabe was flirting with Ryan. Brendon couldn’t help watching. It was sort of like the Discovery Channel specials he’d liked so much when he was a kid. Brendon was secretly waiting for the moment when Gabe’s mate discovered his casual infidelity and ate his head. Victoria could totally munch on Gabe for a snack. Thinking about it, Brendon was kind of surprised Gabe had made it this long. But Victoria just came back to the table with two grande house blends and started giving Gabe a run for his money.

After a while, when Ryan started looking like he wasn’t sure which side the eventual attack was going to come from—only that it would be deadly—Nate and Alex took pity on him, and drew him away on the excuse of getting more pastries while Ryland distracted Gabe and Victoria from their prey. In Brendon’s opinion, Ryan did need to eat more pastries, so that wasn’t such a bad plan.

Brendon whispered to Spencer, “So, um, this is working, right?”

Spencer asked, “How queer friendly is this place, exactly?”

Brendon grinned and leaned over the table for a quick kiss. He was considering seeing if they could leave Ryan to his own devices when he heard Alex coming back to the table, saying, “I was starting to think Mikey and Jon were just imagining you. Seriously, according to them you’re made of a unique mixture of unicorn soul and puppy spirit. Well, kitten, in Walker’s case.”

“Wait, you’re that Ryan?” Gabe asked.

Brendon was feeling a little panicked. He’d had no idea Mikey even knew the thrift store crew. He probably should have guessed, given Mikey’s attire, but there was more than one thrift shop in Jersey, right?

“So, wait, Pete’s new Ryan?” Victoria asked.

Brendon threw up his hands and said, “Oh, seriously? Does everyone in this city know everyone else?”

Gabe grinned. “Mikey and I’ve known each other forever. Who do you think sets all the best shirts aside for him?”

Sounding shell-shocked, Ryan asked, “Mikey and Jon said that?”

“You have to read between the lines,” Nate explained. “They’re very expressive with their silences and wordless iterations.”

“Sometimes grunts, in Walker’s case,” Alex added.

Ryan blinked. “Mm.”

Victoria laughed, sharp but not mean, “Jesus, you really are perfect for them.”

Ryan stiffened. Gabe sighed. “Too bad. We were so close.”

Ryan opened his mouth to say something, but Victoria just drew a finger down his arm. “Mind if we treat you to another coffee anyway?”

Brendon waited, knowing neither Gabe nor Victoria meant anything cruel by their flirtation, but unsure Ryan would get that. After a few tense moments, though, Ryan smiled, uncertain, but a good attempt. “I never turn down free coffee.”

Victoria kissed his lips chastely. “Atta boy.”

*


Ryan headed to the diner after the boutique closed the next day, like he always did so long as it wasn’t Spencer’s day off. Sometimes even then, depending on if Brendon was working, and Spencer would be there anyway.

No sooner had Ryan gotten in the door than Jon was pulling him into the first booth, pushing a cup of coffee at him. “Spencer had to do a store run; there was an Emergency Lemon Situation.”

Ryan took a sip of the coffee—the diner’s blend. “Do I want to know?”

“Not really. Spencer’s gonna smell like citrus for days.”

“I suppose there are worse smells for a roommate to have.”

“For sure.” Jon grinned. “I heard you met Gabe and his band of merry misfits.”

“Nate seems pretty normal.”

“He’s their straight man.”

Ryan laughed. “Yeah.”

Mikey slid into the booth next to Jon. Jon kissed him. “Hey. Break time?”

Mikey rolled his eyes and motioned to the three whole customers in the diner. Jon laughed. “Fair enough.”

Mikey took a sip of Jon’s coffee, then focused on Ryan. “Rumor is you resisted the one-two Gabe-Victoria punch.”

Ryan blinked. Jon looked surprised. “Really? That’s a first.”

“What?” Ryan asked.

Mikey shrugged. “They like to take home pretty things and debauch them. As far as we know, nobody turns them down.”

“Mikey knows from personal experience.” Jon sounded jealous, but less so than Ryan would have expected.

Mikey looked unrepentant. “I got to Jon first, though. And warned them about what would happen if they tried.”

Jon seemed confused by that. “I’m not their type of pretty.”

“You have eyes, Jon Walker,” Mikey explained. “And other bits.”

“So—“ Ryan started.

“We don’t do that,” Jon said.

Ryan frowned. “What?”

“But we want to take you home anyway,” Mikey said, as though finishing Jon’s thought.

Ryan swallowed. Oh, that. He said, as calmly as possible, “I don’t do cash transactions any longer,” and got up to go to the kitchen, hoping Brendon would stay with him until Spencer got back.

*


There were people in his kitchen—lots of people. What was more, Mikey was sounding kind of frantic. Well, okay, Mikey was talking at a slightly faster pace than normal, but same difference. Brendon slipped in between people and reached Spencer’s side. “Hi, it’s good you’re back.”

“I was only gone for half an hour.” Spencer hefted the lemon bags onto the counter. “What the hell happened?”

Jon turned to him, his face very serious. “We didn’t mean it like that.”

“Not at all,” Mikey confirmed.

“They wouldn’t,” Gerard added, clearly feeling they needed character references.

Spencer turned to Brendon. “Do you know what the hell is going on?”

Brendon sighed. “I’ll explain it on the way up.”

“Way-- I’m at work,” Spencer pointed out.

“Lyn’s in the restroom; she came in early,” Gerard said.

“Why?” Spencer asked, with a worse feeling than the one he’d had a second ago, which was saying something.

Brendon took his hand and tugged. “C’mon, I’m letting Ryan hide in my room, but not for too long.”

Fuck. Hiding Ryan was never good. “Did Mikey and Jon say something about not meaning something?”

“I think they tried to ask him out on a date.”

“And they didn’t mean it?” Spencer was confused. Mikey and Jon were clearly happy with each other, sure, but he hadn’t seen any indications that they meant to be cruel to Ryan. And they had to know--everyone knew about Ryan’s puppy crush.

“No, uh. Well.” Brendon stopped on his way up the stairs. “The way they said it? Ryan might have thought they were propositioning him. For, uh, services.”

Spencer rubbed a hand over his face. “Why would he think that?”

“No offense, Spence, but Ryan’s got some issues.” Brendon said it gingerly, like he didn’t want to start a fight.

“Point,” Spencer conceded. “So, we’re sure they weren’t? Like, that’s what they didn’t mean?”

“We’re sure,” Brendon said. “Jon’s been considering giving Ryan one of his cats in apology. That’s some serious penitence.”

Spencer rolled his eyes and started going up the stairs again, herding Brendon ahead of him. “Yeah, okay. Let’s see what I can do before I end up with a feline member of my household.”

*


They caught Ryan on the stairs, trying to slip out the back door. Spencer just took Ryan’s arm and dragged him back up the stairs. Brendon wasn’t entirely sure he should follow, so he started to say, “I’ll just—“

Spencer said, “Don’t even think about abandoning me.”

“Right,” Brendon muttered under his breath, and followed them into the apartment, closing the door behind them. He was pretty sure this didn’t fall under his boyfriendly duties, but he was clearly shit at refusing Spencer anything.

Ryan jerked away from Spencer. “I was leaving.”

“Yeah,” Spencer agreed. “You’re good at the running.”

Brendon held his breath. It was kind of true, so far as Brendon could tell—hell, that was how Ryan and Spencer had ended up here, but still, saying it aloud seemed a bit like poking a wounded bear.

Ryan pulled himself up to his full height—not impressive, but Brendon liked the way Ryan worked with what he had. He said, “Tell you what: next time Bren asks you how much a blowjob costs, you can stop me from walking out that door and back to my own damn apartment. Until then, I get to make my own decisions.”

“I’m going to need you to stop being a drama queen for, like, point five seconds. Think you can manage?”

Ryan crossed his arms and tilted his hips and Brendon thought, obviously not, but it was evidently good enough for Spencer. Spencer exhaled a little and said, “Jon and Mikey are freaking out, Ry. I think-- I think maybe you’ve gotten so used to knowing when people want something from you that you can’t tell what they want anymore.”

Ryan made a sound at that, and before Brendon even realized what he was doing he was beside Ryan, hugging the crap out of him. Ryan stiffened at first, but Brendon was nothing if not a persistent hugger, and Ryan needed hugs more than anyone Brendon had ever met, which was saying something. After a few moments, Ryan melted a little, and hugged back. Brendon looked over at Spencer purposefully, and Spencer came over and joined in. Finally, when Brendon was pretty sure everyone was just a little bit better, he said, “I’m gonna go back downstairs.”

Brendon wasn’t expecting Ryan to tighten his hold, but he did. Brendon said, “You should maybe listen to Spence, Ry. I think you know he knows what the hell he’s talking about. Also, Jon Walker’s sad and really, do you want to make the baby Jesus cry? Because right now, you’re managing.”

Ryan snorted into Brendon’s side. “Shut up, you don’t know anything.” Ryan’s tone was so far from serious Brendon thought it might actually be fond.

“I know Spence loves you,” Brendon said, and pulled himself free. Ryan blinked at him, still held by Spencer. Brendon rolled his eyes and kissed Spencer on the cheek. “See you both when you come back down.”

*


Mikey was sitting at the bottom of the stairs when Ryan and Spencer left the apartment. Spencer reached down and squeezed Ryan’s hand, then left him there. Ryan took a moment to look forlornly after him. Spencer was turning out to be a total traitor. Then Ryan sat down next to Mikey. Ryan was about to say something, even if he wasn’t sure what, when Mikey said, “So, uh, before Jon? When I felt like being with someone, I would just get really trashed and go to a club. There was always someone up for it.”

Ryan managed to keep his well, yeah inside, but just barely. Instead, he nodded.

Mikey hunched a little further over himself. “Bob had to tell me Jon was interested. Jon bought me a stuffed unicorn and made chocolate covered coffee beans and did all sorts of ridiculous things and I had no clue.”

“Bob must’ve loved that.”

Mikey smiled, a little bit. “Well, Gee had told me, but I hadn’t believed him, because Gee can be a tad delusional, where I’m concerned.”

Ryan had noticed. It was one of the things he liked best about Gerard. “Once you knew, though—“

“Still took him months and months to convince me he wasn’t infatuated, or going to run out, or just looking for a fuckbuddy.”

“Out of curiosity, doesn’t that mean something in Jon’s life should be easy?”

“Jon doesn’t like easy. If he did, he’d be a dog person. We’ve talked about it.”

Ryan wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad thing that he got the metaphor. “What about you?”

Mikey looked at him then, for the first time since they’d started talking. “I like things I think I can’t have. Especially when it turns out I can.”

Ryan must have looked as uncertain as he felt, because Mikey continued, “I like that for once, I get to be Jon, I get to be the steady one, the one who can stand on his own two feet and wait for someone else.”

Ryan laughed at that. He didn’t mean to, but it escaped before he was able to catch it. Mikey looked affronted. Ryan shook his head. “It’s just-- What do you think you are to Gee?”

Mikey blinked. “His baby brother.”

“That’s because you’re as delusional about him as he is about you.”

“Yeah, well, you’re that way with Spencer.”

Ryan shrugged. “Takes one to know one.”

There was silence for a bit before Mikey asked, “Does this mean you’re willing to try? No cash, no services exchanged, just you, me and Jon.”

Ryan pulled in a shaky breath and let it out. “What the hell? It’s not like I’m well known for avoiding bad decisions anyway.”

“Romantic,” Mikey said, but he smiled a little when Ryan moved closer, and curled up against him.

*


Spencer was just about to cut Jon’s coffee supply off—he was literally vibrating—when Mikey and Ryan showed up in the kitchen. Spencer turned to clean the stove, mostly because it gave him a vantage where he could watch Ryan without seeming like he was watching Ryan. (Ryan would probably know, but neither Jon nor Mikey would. Spencer could work with that.)

Jon had stood up the second they’d walked in, nearly fallen off the stool he’d been hanging out on, truth be told. He was fidgeting. Spencer could see Ryan was trying to say something. If Spencer knew Ryan—and Spencer did, everything about this past year aside—Ryan had planned a whole speech and now couldn’t remember a damn word.

Jon said, “I didn’t even-- Mikey had to tell me what you’d-- I mean, we like you, Ryan Ross.”

Not eloquent, but Spencer gave Jon points for getting his sincerity across. Ryan shifted from foot to foot and said, “I have trust issues.”

Jon nodded. “Um. We can provide references? Mikey’s my main one, but I’ve got a few others, and Mikey’s got half of Jersey to vouch for him.”

Ryan flinched. “I don’t want it to start like that.”

Softly, Jon asked, “How do you want it to start?”

Ryan swallowed. “Ask-- Ask me out.”

There was a moment of silence, and Spencer could see Mikey tilt his head, as if he and Jon were discussing something. Neither of them spoke, however, until Jon said, “Tom’s band is playing this weekend. How would you feel about going to dinner with me and Mikey, then heading over to listen? There might be late night shenanigans afterward, I can never really say.”

Ryan smiled, the shy smile Spencer hadn’t seen in so long, the one Ryan only pulled out when he was genuinely pleased. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds like fun.”

“Where do you want to go for dinner?” Mikey asked.

Ryan’s smile widened. “Surprise me.”

*


“Are you going to stop freaking out at any given point tonight?” Brendon asked Spencer. Brendon was more amused than anything, really, but Spencer hadn’t been able to stop checking the clock or pacing or making sure he didn’t have a text every three to four minutes since he’d gotten off his Saturday shift at six.

Spencer stopped pacing—which was something, Brendon supposed—and said, miserably, “You love ‘em, you raise ‘em all your life and then they go off on dates with scene kids and kitten lovers and don’t even text to let you know they’re fine and not, like, having their heart trampled upon in a dirty corner of some punk club.”

“Tom’s band is alt-indie,” Brendon pointed out.

“Stop being reasonable.”

Brendon thought about that. “It is a little weird, huh? Is today opposites day?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. I like opposites day.”

Brendon laughed before he could help himself, but managed to look slightly contrite when Spencer turned baleful eyes on him. Brendon walked to where Spencer was and fitted himself tightly to Spencer. “Just, I mean, you don’t have to tell me, but were you like this about him before the whole—“ Brendon cocked his head, hoping that would convey “thing-where-Ryan-decided-streetwalker-was-his-destined-profession.”

Spencer sighed, leaning into Brendon. “I was slightly less psychotic.”

“But only slightly.”

“I’m a worrier.”

Brendon smiled against Spencer’s neck. “Maybe I can do something to distract you.”

For the first time that evening, some of the stress drained out of Spencer. He laughed softly. “What’re you offering?”

“I think we should live dangerously, steal the last of Gee’s Oreos, pop in one of his weird-ass cartoon DVDs and ignore it for each other.”

“I like that last part.”

“Oh shut up, you like the Oreo part, too.”

Spencer laughed a bit louder at that. “Mmm, double-stuffeds.”

“Dirty,” Brendon said, and tugged Spencer toward the kitchen.

*


After dinner and the concert, Mikey and Jon kept looking at each other nervously, until Ryan forced himself to say, “I can get myself home, you know?”

Ryan had thought the night was going pretty well, actually. Sure, he and Mikey had different opinions on Burroughs, and Ryan had laughed at Jon for getting a shot of whiskey to go with his carrot cake, but neither of them had seemed to mind too much. And the concert had been pretty awesome. Tom’s band was good in the way Ryan had missed since he’d left somewhere where he knew the scene and could afford to go to shows now and then. And both Jon and Mikey had sneaked in a kiss over the course of the evening.

Still, Ryan could take a hint. It was possible, though, he’d taken the wrong hint, because Jon’s expression was a little hurt and Mikey’s body language was more guarded than it had been all night. Mikey asked, “Is that what you want to do?”

Ryan wished Spencer were there. Spencer got people. “Um, no? I just-- You seemed like maybe you wanted some time alone.”

Another look passed between the two of them, and after a long moment, Mikey said, “We were trying to figure out how to ask you back to Jon’s place without, uh, making the same mistake we made the first time. With you thinking—“

“Yeah,” Ryan said softly. “Yeah.”

Jon crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re kinda tricky.”

“Spencer would say high-maintenance,” Ryan murmured.

Jon brightened. “I like high-maintenance.”

Something in Ryan’s chest loosened. “I’d kinda like to come back to Jon’s place. If the offer’s still open.”

Mikey grabbed Ryan’s hand and started walking, evidently afraid Ryan was going to change his mind. Ryan didn’t think that was going to happen, but he liked the feel of his hand in Mikey’s, so he kept quiet. After a bit, Jon ambled to Ryan’s other side and took his free hand, grinning when Ryan didn’t pull back. It scared Ryan a bit, how little Jon seemed to need.

The walk to Jon’s place wasn’t long. Ryan had heard Tom and Jon negotiating, and evidently Tom and Z were staying with Tom’s lead singer so Jon could have the place to himself for the night. Jon let them in and immediately introduced Ryan to the cats—who were seemingly unimpressed by him, but Mikey said, “They’re cats,” so evidently that was natural.

Jon made coffee and the three of them settled onto the couch, Ryan taking a little bit of time to adjust to the closeness, but then melting into the others just a tad. He had no idea when he fell asleep. They’d been flipping through infomercials, either making fun of products or considering what they could do with them. Ryan remembered laughing at one of the more bizarre suggestions Mikey had made, but that was the last thing that came to mind. Ryan was on the couch by himself, a pillow under his head and a blanket tucked over him.

He got up and folded the blanket, then wandered into the kitchen. The coffee pot was already on, so he meandered down the hall. Jon’s door was open, and Mikey and Jon were in bed, talking quietly. Ryan knocked on the doorframe.

Mikey rolled over to look at him, mussed and annoyingly hot, given how little sleep they’d all had. “Hey. Jon started coffee, but we were thinking we’d let it get cold. Sound good?” He held out a hand to Ryan.

Ryan hesitated a second, but Mikey just waited, and Ryan went to them, letting himself be pulled in the middle. Jon kissed at his neck. “We wanted to take you to bed, but we weren’t sure.”

Ryan blinked. “Thanks for-- Thanks.”

Jon hummed in response. Mikey cuddled in closer and said, “I’m going back to sleep. You’ll be here when I wake up again so we can eat breakfast later, right?”

Mikey kept his eyes closed, but Ryan knew that tone, even if Mikey’s tones were generally only about one note off from each other. Mikey needed reassurance—from Ryan. Ryan nodded. “Right.”

*


Mikey came in for his noon shift and told Spencer that Ryan had gone straight to work from Jon’s place. Spencer nodded. “Thanks for texting last night. I was starting to worry.”

“You, worry?” Brendon asked, coming up to get a couple of the Saturday brunch specials. “Nah.”

“You weren’t complaining last night,” Spencer said as Brendon walked off to deliver the food.

Mikey smiled at Spencer. Spencer hesitated, but then asked, “So it went well?”

“He’s coming for his lunch break, ask him yourself.”

“I’m not spying for you,” Spencer told him.

Mikey tucked a pen over his ear and said, “Spying’s such an ugly word,” before heading out of the kitchen.

Ryan showed up at two, right as the worst of the brunch-to-lunch rush was petering out. He took a spot at the bar, and Mikey slid in next to him. Gee passed by and said, “You’re a bad influence on my staff.”

Ryan nodded solemnly, and Spencer came out to give him the special. Ryan ate pretty much whatever Spencer saw fit to give him. Ryan asked, “What am I eating?”

“Mexican breakfast casserole.”

“Okay,” Ryan said, before taking a bite. “Oh. Huh. How much of this do you have left?”

Spencer grinned. “OJ?”

“Please.”

Mikey leaned over and kissed Ryan on the cheek. “I’m gonna go help with restocking before dinner. Come say goodbye before you leave.”

Spencer stayed far enough away to allow Ryan a last second with Mikey, and hip tagged Mikey on his way back, by way of thanks. He gave Ryan the juice and asked, “So, last night?”

“Sorry I forgot to call.” Ryan did sound sorry, too.

Spencer shook his head. “You had a good time?”

Ryan concentrated on his food. “It was-- I fell asleep on the couch and they didn’t even bother me.”

Spencer remembered, unbidden, all the times Ryan had shown up at his house shaken and quiet when they were kids, and fallen asleep on the couch while they were still watching Nick at Nite. “Yeah, okay.”

“Then they, um, when I came to bed to them, there was just-- I got to say what I was okay with.”

Spencer felt himself breathing, and it was an oddly new sensation. “That’s how it’s supposed to work, Ry.”

Ryan gave him a Look. Spencer held up his hands. “I know, it’s easy not to be aware when nobody acts like they’re supposed to. I do.”

Ryan made a face, but then went back to eating, which Spencer knew meant he’d been forgiven. After a moment, Ryan asked, “Your night was all right?”

Spencer smiled self-deprecatingly. “Bren’s good at pulling my head out of my ass.”

“Used to be my job,” Ryan said softly.

“Still is. I’m pretty sure there’s enough ass inhabitance to go around. Hey, you’ve got Mikey and Jon doing it for you and there’s still a place for me.”

“Different.”

“Nah, I just like that you believe it is.”

Ryan pushed out his plate in a silent request for more. Spencer went and got some, then came back. Ryan cocked his head to the side thoughtfully before asking, “So, maybe sometime we should do a date-thing. The five of us.”

Spencer was shocked into silence for a moment, mostly because Ryan had never asked Spencer to go on a date with him and any of his exes, even when Spencer and Haley had been the high school’s most settled couple. Back then Spencer had once asked Ryan why not and Ryan had said, “Because I don’t really feel like introducing them to the in-laws.”

At the time, Spencer had rolled his eyes and reminded Ryan: “I know your boyfriends.”

Ryan had explained to him, “Sure, but double dates make it real.”

In high school, Spencer had accepted that as Ryan-logic and let it go. Now, he managed somehow to get himself to say, “Um, yeah, if you want. That’d be great.”

“I think I do want,” Ryan said softly, and without looking at Spencer.

Spencer put a finger beneath Ryan’s chin and forced his gaze up. “How’s Wednesday for dinner sound?”

Ryan smiled. “Pretty sure I’m free.”


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile