It gets easier. Ryan finds new patterns to fall into, new rules that he can live by. They're allowed to be agreeable and – very, very occasionally – friendly to each other when they're alone if they're rude at school. They can skip sex sometimes in favour of sleeping half curled together as long as some kisses still have a bite to them. School itself is hard, but it gets easier with Brendon going over his science requirements – why did he take Biology, why, why – and if he keeps reading Brendon's English essays, then it can be an exchange like everything else is. Mutually beneficial, Ryan tells Spencer and Jon, and then folds his arms and glares in the face of their raised eyebrows.
(Actually, Spencer and Jon aren't being very helpful at all. Spencer has picked up a bad habit of grinning at Brendon in the hallways sometimes when they pass each other, and Ryan's just glad Brendon doesn't do anything but look down and pretend he hasn't seen. One afternoon, though, Ryan gets to Biology a little late and finds Jon turned around on his chair, talking to a very confused looking Brendon. Ryan has patterns, he has rules. Sometimes he regrets telling Spencer and Jon at all. Probably if they had found out on their own, they would have been so pissed that they would have spent most of their time bitching to each other about what an asshole Ryan was for not telling them, rather than coming up with strange plots and theories of their own that they refuse to share.)
Some days, though, it's harder to follow any kind of rule at all.
"I'm on the shortlist," is all Ryan can manage to say when he spills through the door. Brendon's sitting cross-legged on his mattress playing guitar, and he looks up and arches an eyebrow at Ryan. Ryan's cheeks turn slightly pink, and Brendon laughs, soft and not quite mocking. He's still playing guitar, the refrain of Anna Begins in a wistful kind of way.
"What was that, Ross?" he asks, and Ryan takes a breath and forces himself to calm down, closing the door behind him and dropping his bag on the floor. He walks across to Brendon and sprawls out beside him, not quite close enough to touch.
"The college scholarship committee," Ryan tells him. "They contacted Wentz for a reference. I'm on the shortlist."
"I guess all those years of kissing his ass must finally be coming in useful," Brendon says.
"Brendon." Ryan tries not to glare. The excitement fluttering in his stomach is slowly threatening to die in the face of Brendon's disinterest. "You're not listening."
"Yeah, I am. Don't get too excited yet. It's just the shortlist." Brendon punctuates it with a roll of his eyes, but he switches song abruptly, to something that Ryan vaguely recognizes, bright and sweet and welcome.
Later, he will ask Jon and Spencer what it is, humming the melody. "I'm sure I recognize it," he says.
Jon and Spencer stare in obvious disbelief. "You call yourself a musician?" Jon finally asks.
Ryan bristles and opens his mouth, but Spencer gets there first. "Point," he says. "It's The Beatles, Ryan. Haven't you heard it before?"
"Maybe," Ryan says. Jon opens his mouth and sings, little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter, little darling, it feels like years since you've been here and Ryan remembers the name of the song, tries to ignore the way his heart is pounding. "Yeah," he says. "I have heard it."
By the time Brendon's shift manager locks up, there's still no trace of Ryan even though he promised to pick Brendon up. Gabriella lingers at the back door for a moment, looking as if she's about to inquire whether Brendon is all right, whether someone's coming for him, and he remembers why he likes her.
"A friend should be here to pick me up any minute," Brendon tells her, before she can offer him a ride.
"Oh, good." She smiles at him. A strain about her eyes makes him wonder if she suspects he might be lying, but after another glance at his face, she wishes him a good night and turns in the direction of her car. Brendon leaves for the opposite end of the back alley, kicking at a dirty trashcan on his way to the main road.
He could take a bus, sure. He used to take a bus all the time, never thought twice about the thirty minutes it took to get to his apartment when it's only a ten-minutes ride with Ryan's car. Where is Ryan, anyway? His shift at the clothing store must have ended almost an hour ago.
The fact that he knows Ryan's schedule almost as well as he knows his own makes Brendon frown.
He glances up and down the silent road. Then he turns away to walk to the bus station. Since he didn't feel as if he had to hurry when he finished work, chances are he already missed the bus leaving at a quarter to, and the next one won't be by for another half hour. For good measure, Brendon aims another kick at a wall. It only results in making his toes sting while the wall appears entirely unmoved.
Stupid fucking thing.
Brendon doesn't turn around at the sound of a car on the otherwise deserted road. It approaches, going at a slow pace, while he continues walking briskly towards the bus station even though he'd recognize the telltale stuttering of that engine just about anywhere. Ryan hits the gas, enough to overtake Brendon by a few steps, before he pulls up beside him.
Brendon stops when Ryan leans over to push the passenger door open for him, followed by a quick, almost happy-sounding, "Brendon, hi. Come on."
"You're late." Brendon feels stupid, standing there with his hands in his pockets. He makes up for it with a glare.
"Sorry, yeah." Still Ryan is smiling. "My manager let me lock up today, told me to drop the key off at his house on my way home."
Oh. That's… good. A vote of confidence, definitely. Despite himself, Brendon feels his irritation dissipate, melting away just like that, just because Ryan's smiling and happy and hopeful.
He gets in the car. Ryan's hand settles warm and high on his thigh when Ryan leans over, and Brendon resists only for a moment before he opens his mouth under Ryan's kiss.
Brendon returns from the bathroom to find Ryan tapping away on his cell phone, frown visible only in the dim glow of the display. For a short, horrible second, Brendon fights the urge to say something like, "Texting your other boyfriend?"
Fortunately, it passes soon enough.
He sprawls on his stomach beside Ryan, closing his eyes while Ryan continues tapping. It doesn't take much longer until Ryan tosses his cell phone aside, and Brendon spares a vague thought that Ryan should be more careful with his belongings, now that his father won't be willing to pay his expenses much longer.
He doesn't voice that thought, either. Instead, he smiles and turns his head when Ryan shifts closer, his body coming to rest alongside Brendon's. Brendon twines his fingers in Ryan's hair to tug him closer for a kiss, but his plan is interrupted by Ryan's yawn. It's only when Brendon's body immediately decides to mirror it, his jaw nearly cracking, that he realizes just how exhausted he is.
"Hey," Ryan whispers, voice a soft murmur.
Brendon doesn't reply, but he uses his hold on Ryan's hair to pull him closer, until Ryan's forehead is resting against his. Then he exhales in a slow breath and mutters, "Sleep."
"Yeah," Ryan says, "Okay," and pushes his bare ankle between Brendon's feet. Brendon yawns and closes his eyes, only distantly aware of Ryan dragging the blanket up to cover both of them.
Ryan is already up when Brendon stirs awake. Since Brendon isn't wearing his glasses, he can only make out Ryan's lanky silhouette, a blurred cut-out against the light falling in through the small kitchen window. Something tightens and gives in Brendon's chest.
The strange feeling fades when Ryan drops a spoon and curses when it clatters against the metal sink. Brendon pushes himself up to lean his back against the wall. "What are you doing?"
"Oh." Ryan looks over, and while Brendon's short-sightedness keeps him from seeing clearly, Ryan's posture suggests an almost guilty edge. "Didn't mean to wake you," Ryan adds after a moment. "I mean, not until coffee was done."
"I don't drink coffee, remember?"
"With syrup," Ryan says. "Caramel." At what Brendon hopes is a questioning look, Ryan shifts his weight. "Bought it at Starbucks, a couple days ago."
Now that Ryan mentioned it, Brendon notices the bottle with brownish liquid sitting on the kitchen table. "You don't even like caramel," he says, somewhat stupidly.
Ryan shrugs and goes back to whatever he appears to be doing – boiling water and coffee powder, as far as Brendon can tell. "Jon and Spencer should be packing up stuff for a picnic right now," Ryan tells the pot on the stove. "So, uh, not so much time."
The tight line of Ryan's back makes Brendon wonder whether Ryan actually meant not to wake him at all, but simply sneak out and leave his stupid bottle of syrup behind. He swallows and looks away, crossing his arms to preserve some warmth. "Yeah, okay. Whatever."
Ryan huffs out an impatient breath that makes Brendon sneak a glance at him. Even without his glasses, he can tell Ryan's glaring at him. "Well, are you coming or not?"
"Yeah," Brendon says, "yeah, fine," and if his voice sounds a little rough, well, then it's because he only just woke up. Ryan turns around and looks at him, though, and there's no real condemnation in his gaze. He just smiles, and ducks his head, and Brendon feels a little unsteady on his feet. He takes in a breath and says, "Hey, so. How much time do we have?"
"We should probably leave in, like, ten minutes?" Ryan says. "I dunno, did you want to shower?"
"No," Brendon says, and he steps closer, presses Ryan back against the counter and ducks his head to breathe hotly against Ryan's neck, pressing his mouth against Ryan's skin and dragging his teeth.
"Oh," Ryan says, a little breathlessly, and when Brendon looks up he's smiling. Ryan bites his lip and says, "I could text Spence and say my car won't start?"
"Do that," Brendon says, and Ryan does, switching off the stove and sending the text quickly. He's barely put his cell down before Brendon steps up and kisses him, and Ryan sinks into him, clutching at Brendon's shoulder, drawing him close.
"I was making coffee stuff," Ryan mumbles, and Brendon laughs and closes his hands over Ryan's hips, steps backward and leads him to the bed, tumbling down on top of him. Ryan laughs, and Brendon thinks that he should put his contacts in, because he likes seeing Ryan properly, without the faint blurriness to his edges. He closes his eyes instead and kisses Ryan again, and Ryan spreads his legs and pulls Brendon down, rocks up against him until they're both panting into each other's mouths, kisses shallow for lack of air, rubbing gracelessly against each other.
"You should fuck me," Brendon says, and then ruins any potential commanding sexiness in that statement by adding, hopefully, "Please?"
Ryan doesn't seem to mind, though, groans a little with his mouth sliding sticky from Brendon's and across his cheek, sloppy enough that it really shouldn't be hot. It is, anyway, but Brendon has a sneaking suspicion that he might just be too easy when it comes to Ryan. He tries not to dwell on that thought too much.
Brendon rolls to the side and Ryan sits up enough that he can scramble out of his jeans and t-shirt, clumsy and eager enough that Brendon can't help laughing at him. Ryan scowls, says, "Shut up," and Brendon just hums and strips off his own boxers.
"S'your fault," Brendon tells him, "I can't believe you got dressed."
"I didn't know you were going to jump me, did I?" Ryan counters, but then he moves back down on Brendon and the first brush of their cocks has both of them closing their eyes and breathing in sharply. Ryan rocks against him once, twice, and then he reaches for the lube and moves down between Brendon's legs to finger him and suck on the head of his cock. Brendon fists his hand in the sheets and stars at the ceiling, forces himself not to rock up with each ragged breath.
Ryan fucks him pretty hard, harder than they've done in a while, but it's good, everything hot and blurry. Ryan spreads himself out on top of Brendon but holds himself high up enough that Brendon has to arch up to get just a little friction, rubbing his dick against Ryan's stomach, and for a while everything is fast and hard enough that Brendon has trouble forming coherent thoughts, let alone pleas for more.
He surprises himself when he comes; a moment ago he'd been thinking that he could hold out for ages, Ryan hot and sweaty against him, his heels digging into Ryan's back, and then there's no holding back, and he's busy making some strangled sound and shoving back hard on Ryan's cock. Ryan shifts backwards and digs his hands into Brendon's hips, lifting him up enough that Ryan can slam in hard, making Brendon gasp and clench down around him, and it isn't long until Ryan collapses forward, sprawling sticky across Brendon.
Brendon turns his head for a kiss, and grins. "Hey," he says. "You sure Spencer's straight? I think going on a picnic is the gayest thing I've ever heard."
"You might wanna wait for me to take my dick out of your ass before you say stuff like that," Ryan says sleepily into Brendon's collarbone, and Brendon laughs and pushes Ryan up, until he pulls out and sits back on his haunches, smiling crookedly at Brendon.
"Your hair is fucked," Brendon tells him. "What time is it?"
Ryan stands up and pads into the kitchen, checking his phone and groaning. "We really should go," he says. "You cool for skipping showers?"
"Yeah, whatever," Brendon says, agreeably enough, and starts trying to find some clean clothes.
When they finally get downstairs, Ryan twists his key in the ignition, and then looks horrified.
"What is it?" Brendon asks.
"The car," Ryan says. "It won't start."
For a second they just stare at each other – then Brendon rests his forehead against his knees, and laughs until he cries.
Spencer's got a flat, annoyed look on his face when they finally arrive, and Ryan knows he's in so much trouble. Jon looks like he's trying to hold back laughter, which further adds to the trouble, and Ryan actually goes to exchange a nervous glance with Brendon before he remembers that Brendon doesn't actually know them, doesn't know what those expressions mean. It makes something in Ryan start, and he has to blink it away.
In any case, Brendon's gaze isn't there to catch. He's staring at the ground, hands pushed in his pockets, shoulders drawn up, and Ryan bites his lip and walks a little bit closer to him, just enough that their shoulders bump. Brendon still doesn't look up, but Ryan hears the breath he draws in.
"I think you should open with 'picnics are gay'," Ryan tells him in a low voice. "Break the ice, you know. It'll be awesome."
"Fuck you," Brendon says, but he looks up and takes one hand out of his pocket to wave awkwardly at Spencer and Jon as they draw close to the rug.
"Hey, guys," Jon says, and Spencer smiles. They're sitting on a checkered blanket with a wicker basket and – Ryan blinks. Okay, so maybe Brendon has a slight point. Still, Jon collects kittens. He's never been a very normal teenage boy.
"Hey," Ryan says. "Sorry we're late."
"It's cool," Jon says, and they sit down on the rug, in a sort of circle. Brendon's knee is bumping against Ryan's, and Ryan wishes that they'd had time to shower – he doubts it's very noticeable, but he feels like Brendon's all over him, has to resist the urge to rest his nose against his own shoulder and breathe it in. Jon grins at them and says, waggling his eyebrows, "Car trouble, huh?"
Ryan frowns. "There really was," he says. "And personally, I find it rude and disloyal of you to doubt me just because—"
"Brendon's got a hickey," Jon says, and Brendon turns bright red and claps a hand over his neck, a little belatedly at this point.
"Um," Ryan says. Brendon glares at him.
"Thanks a lot, fucker," he says. Ryan blinks at him and Brendon says, "What am I going to do on Monday, wear a scarf? We don't all like making ourselves look ridiculous."
"Hey," Ryan says, affronted. "Scarves are awesome. I don't see what you're worried about, anyway, that people's view of you as a loser virgin are going to be ruined? Wow, yeah, I'm such an asshole."
Spencer's mouth is twitching in the corners, and Ryan glares at him, but then Brendon opens his mouth, looking huffy, and Spencer and Jon collapse into laughter. "Shut up," Ryan says weakly, and Brendon looks at him and smiles, like he's bewildered and delighted at the same time, and Ryan ducks his head before he does something stupid like smile back.
"So," Spencer says, when he's regained his breath. "Food," and Brendon perks up and makes grabby hands before he can stop himself, which makes Jon laugh again and Brendon grin sheepishly, and Spencer hands around the awesome rolls his mom makes. They sprawl out easier on the blanket, and Spencer starts talking about the course counseling they're doing in picking subjects for the final year, rolling his eyes at the coordinators, until everything's easy and warm, and Ryan closes his eyes and listens to them talk. Brendon even joins in, until he doesn't sound self-conscious at all, and after a while he wraps his hand around Ryan's ankle, not really doing anything, just like a reminder, and Ryan sighs and basks in the sun.
"I'm gonna throw the trash away," Jon says eventually, and then, "Brendon, come with?"
Brendon stands up agreeably, and Ryan has a few moments of peace before Spencer comes and lies down next to him, and that's a pretty huge signal, if ever Ryan knew one. Ryan opens his eyes warily and Spencer is looking at him in the fond, slightly annoyed way that Ryan connects automatically with being told off.
"Please don't give me a lecture," he says.
"What do you think you've done?" Spencer asks, smiling slightly.
"I don't know," Ryan says. "But you've got your Lecture Face on."
"Huh," Spencer says. "Funny about that."
"Really, Spence," Ryan says, and Spencer sighs and sits up, dragging Ryan with him.
"I'm not going to give you a lecture," he says quietly. "I do want to ask what you're doing, though."
"What do you mean?" Ryan asks, wide-eyed, and Spencer just looks at him. Ryan bites his lip, and turns slightly, automatically, to look where Brendon and Jon are walking across the park towards the garbage cans. Brendon's dancing a little, shimmying his ass, and Jon's turned towards him, looking like he's laughing. Ryan swallows hard, and Spencer nods.
"Yeah," he says.
"I – really, Spence," Ryan says. "We're just messing around. He's still an asshole."
"You don't look at him like he's an asshole," Spencer says, and Ryan breathes in deeply.
"I know it seems like – we've been spending time together, or whatever," Ryan says. "But it's just – it's sex, you know, and it's good sex. That's all it is."
"Ryan," Spencer says, frowning a little. "I get if you're – a little messed up over the whole thing, or whatever. But you're moving to Chicago for him."
"That's not fair," Ryan says. "I want to – it's not all about him, I want to study there too, I need to get out of Vegas."
"I know," Spencer says, "but you can't deny it's partly because of him. Ryan, this is really – I don't know anything about it. You won't talk about him. And that's fine, you don't need to tell us everything, but if you keep – I don't get how you can practically wind yourself around his legs out here, but act like he doesn't exist at school."
Ryan flushes. "I don't," he says. "The first one, I mean, I don't."
"You do," Spencer counters, smiling a little. "You're like one of Jon's cats. Ryan, I really don't know how to make it like – I'm not trying to tell you off, or judge whatever you've got going on, I'm just saying."
"What?" Ryan says, losing his temper a little bit. "What are you saying, Spencer? From your position of infinite wisdom?"
"Be careful," Spencer says, clear gaze trained on Ryan. "I'm saying be careful, because you're not the only one who's looking, and I think Brendon's alright. I don't want you to break his heart."
Ryan stares at him, mouth hanging open, and Spencer gives him a one-armed hug. "That's all," he says, and then Jon and Brendon arrive and Brendon flops down on his stomach on the blanket, resting his chin on his hands and grinning up at Ryan.
"Dude," he says, "don't you think it's weird that like, we haven't had any ants or something? I thought they were always there for picnics, you know, there's even fucking songs about it," and Jon looks at him and grins and they start singing the ants come marching one by one spontaneously.
Ryan takes a breath, hopes his voice is steady, and says, "Probably Spencer scared them off with his bossiness."
Brendon laughs and rolls over onto his back, resting his head in Ryan's lap, and says, "Do we have any grapes left? Chuck them at me, I can catch them in my mouth." Spencer starts aiming them viciously enough that Brendon yelps and scrambles behind Ryan to hide, and Ryan feels Brendon curled warm against his back and concentrates on breathing.
Ryan spends that night at Brendon's, too, because neither of them have work until Sunday afternoon, and Saturday nights with Ryan's dad are never any good. They're two good reasons, and Ryan has them all prepared, but when he says brusquely, driving Brendon back from the picnic, that he might as well stay another, Brendon doesn't ask for them, just shrugs and waves a hand in some vague, agreeable gesture.
They don't get back to the apartment until late that afternoon, and they end up spending most of their time messing around. Brendon fucks Ryan, but afterward they make out for what feels like hours, until Ryan's mouth is sore and swollen and Brendon's looks the same. There's a movie on TV that night, and they watch it, but later Ryan won't be able to remember what it was.
He wakes up in the middle of the night to Brendon shaking him, looking half-asleep himself, with the faint memory of a nightmare still clutching at him. Ryan gasps and rolls closer to Brendon and Brendon keeps his arm around Ryan and holds him close.
"What is it with you and bad dreams?" Brendon asks after a little while, voice slurring with sleep. "What are you so frightened of, Ross?"
"I don't know," Ryan snaps, angry and scared, still. "What about you?"
The question doesn't make sense, given that Ryan's never had to wake Brendon up from a nightmare, but Brendon hums out something soft and warm and just rolls closer. Ryan thinks Brendon's still mostly asleep, really, because he answers honestly, eyes closed.
"Hmmn," Brendon sighs. "I don't know. My family not talking to me again. Or not getting to Chicago. Or you, I guess."
Ryan swallows hard, Spencer's words playing back in his head. "I'm not scary," he says.
"I know," Brendon says, sinking back against the pillow and smiling crookedly. "Pretty stupid, huh?"
Ryan doesn't say anything for a long while. Then he slides his leg between Brendon's and says, "Brendon?"
"Sleep," Brendon whispers, eyelashes fluttering on his cheeks for a second as he tries to open his eyes, and then he just falls back asleep. Ryan closes his eyes, too, but it takes him a long time to go to sleep.
The following Friday is Cabaret Night at the school, which all seniors are expected to attend. Brendon's annoyed at it already, because it means that he has to cancel a shift at work and because he hates nothing more than having to play in the Jazz Band, even though he needs it for college applications, but the week passes agonizingly slowly, with a test that doesn't go as well as he'd hoped in Physics and a few awful shifts at the Smoothie Hut. He also hasn't seen Ryan since the weekend, but that's probably a good thing; in the Bad Weeks, Ryan either has a bizarre talent for calming him down entirely or, more often, manages to piss him off enough that they're yelling and spitting at each other for an evening. Brendon's had enough of those kind of headaches.
He ducks out from backstage as soon as the Jazz Band has played, not wanting to hang around for much longer with the rest of the students. None of them really like him, which is just fine, because Brendon hates them and makes no secret of it, much as it disappoints Mr. Stump. Besides that, he'd scanned the audience before he came on, and there was no sign of either of his parents. Brendon doesn't think he'll ever be able to stop looking. He'd hoped, that maybe, maybe – they both knew when Cabaret Night was on, had turned up every year that Brendon played at it – but it had been stupid of him, he knows.
He just needs a breath of fresh air, just needs to get away from the polite applause of the school hall and the laughter and bustle of kids backstage, so he heads into a corridor and goes to the bathroom, not out of any real need. He washes his hands and stares at himself in the mirror, splashes his face with cold water. It's an hour before he can go home. He plans to sleep until an hour before his shift tomorrow, ignore homework until Sunday, much as he'll regret it then. He just needs some peace.
He's about three paces away from the bathroom when Ryan turns the corner, and catches Brendon's eyes. For a moment, Brendon freezes, caught like a deer in the headlights; he's not quite sure what to do, how to react. They generally ignore each other at school, stay on different sides of the room in Biology and English and barely cross paths the rest of the time, and it makes it easier and harder at the same time, to keep Ryan as the guy who comes to pick him up from work or crash at his apartment, rather than the kid he's spent years beating up. School is uneasy territory for both of them, and Brendon feels it keenly when Ryan looks straight at him, face blank, eyes dark. He's wearing neater clothes than usual, dark straight-legged jeans that aren't too tight and a button-up shirt. Brendon wonders if his father is with him.
Then Ryan smiles, and Brendon relaxes without even realizing how tight and strained he'd been holding himself. "I thought I saw you sneak out," Ryan says, and Brendon makes a strange gesture, palms held out, what can you do?
Ryan shifts from foot to foot and says, "You were good, on stage. I liked the song."
"No pleasantries, please," Brendon says, rolling his eyes. "I fucking hate that band. The only kid who talks to me is Thomas Davies, and he has the worst breath in the world." He cringes as he says it, realizing too late the ammunition he's given Ryan, the admission of not having any friends, but Ryan just crosses the floor, backing Brendon up against the wall. Ryan gets this walk, sometimes, not the one he does when he's trying on purpose to look hot and swaying his hips, which generally makes him look ridiculous, but all slow and intent with his shoulder blades shifting, and it always, without fail, makes Brendon want to kiss him.
"Alright, no pleasantries," Ryan says, and Brendon leans back against the wall and closes his eyes, half-smiling, lets Ryan kiss him. Ryan murmurs, "You're so easy," and Brendon kind of wants to agree, but they're not at his place, a half-mumbled response against Ryan's mouth won't do. He doesn't want to pick a fight, though, so he pushes forward and, in a move that impresses even himself, flips them around until he's got Ryan's back pressed up against the wall. He kisses Ryan hard, and Ryan hums and hooks his fingers through Brendon's belt loops, draws him in close. Brendon can hear the murmuring of families in the auditorium, but his isn't there, and right now he doesn't mind so much.
He pulls back for a moment and Ryan looks at him, eyelashes dark against his skin, expression almost vulnerable. Brendon blinks at him and Ryan says, soft, "Hey, you've got – you've got something. Here," and he licks his thumb and scrubs it against Brendon's cheek, not too rough. Brendon closes his eyes and leans into the touch, and for a moment everything is warm and soft, and Brendon wonders what the chances are of both of them being able to skip out early and going back to his place. He has the sudden image of Ryan sinking to his knees in front of Brendon and man, yes, that would be nice. They haven't done that in a while. He bets he could talk Ryan into it, too.
Then Ryan's shoving him backwards, hard enough to knock the breath out of him, and Brendon's off-balance. He stumbles backwards and lands flat on his ass, and Ryan glares at him and says, "Fuck you, Urie, you're the asshole."
Brendon stares up at him, and hears for the first time the approaching footsteps.
"Yeah, there he is," Brent says. "Jesus, you two, do you ever stop beating each other around?"
Brendon feels something like bile rise in his throat, a strange, stupid anger that Ryan would push him away, that Ryan still needs to preserve his perfect fucking image, an acknowledgment of all that Brendon likes to think they've left behind: enemy, fuckbuddy, I hate you. He swallows hard and stares at Ryan with all of the sudden anger and hatred in him, and Ryan glares back at him, but his expression flickers for one second, and Brendon picks himself up and turns to look at the intruders for the first time.
He freezes yet again, because the woman standing next to Brent, looking disappointed, isn't one of Ryan's friends or classmates at all. It's Kara.
"Oh, Brendon," she says, and Brendon takes a stumbling step forward. Her mouth quirks up in a smile, and she says, "So this is the reason for all your detentions?"
"I think the reason is Urie's fat fucking mouth," Ryan snaps, and then he stomps past them, Brent following afterwards. He shoots a quick glance over his shoulder as they turn the corner, and raises his eyebrows slightly at Brendon. Brendon thinks, you're still a really bad actor.
"Hi, Kara," he says, and it sounds awkward and stilted, but he hasn't seen her in person since he moved out. Kara looks similarly uncomfortable, but then he takes another step forward and suddenly he's in her arms, face pressed against her shoulder, Kara's arms tight and trembling around him.
"You were so good up there," she whispers in his ear, and Brendon shivers, looks at her bright-eyed.
"You were there?" he asks.
"Of course," she says, and she laughs but looks like she's close to tears. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"But Mom and Dad—"
"What they don't know won't hurt them," she says, and then, "They should have been here tonight, anyway. You were so good, Brendon."
"I'm glad you're here," he says, and she hugs him again, holds him close for a long time.
"Come on," she says eventually, pulling back. "Let's go watch the other acts, and then I'll take you out to dinner."
Saturday night, Ryan's waiting outside his work like always. Brendon slides into the car awkwardly, and for a moment there's silence before he says, "Thank you. For last night."
"It's cool," Ryan says. "Was she—"
"My sister," Brendon says. "The one who still talks to me. I haven't seen her in a while."
"She's the nice one?" Ryan says, and Brendon bristles.
"They're all nice," he says, coldly. "They're my family."
"Whatever," Ryan mutters, and there's a tense silence, when Brendon knows they could either head to a fight or some angry making out. After a moment, though, Ryan exhales loudly and says, "Did you have a nice time, anyway? Catching up with her."
"Yeah," Brendon says. He pauses, and asks, "How did you know—"
"I wasn't sure," Ryan says. "But I figured – she looked enough like you, that." He stops and draws in a breath, adds, "Anyway, I don't fucking want to be associated with you by anyone, no matter who they are."
"Okay," Brendon says, even though it hurts, because he remembers the look on Ryan's face when he made Ryan drop him off before they got to the school. I've fucked up, he thinks. I've fucked up so bad.
Something must show in his voice, because Ryan looks over at him quickly. "Your family don't know," Ryan says. "About – that you're gay. Do they?"
Brendon wonders how many times he could have avoided the words, anyway. "No," he says. "They don't."
Ryan nods. "And – you want to talk to them some day," he says. "God knows why, but – you should be able to tell them, like. The way you want."
Brendon has an awful feeling his eyes are too bright, too obvious, so instead of looking at Ryan he just touches Ryan's wrist lightly and repeats, "Thank you."
"Does it seem weird to you," Jon asks lazily, "how fast this year has passed?"
Spencer hums and stretches out, knocking his head against Ryan's side. Ryan runs his hand over Spencer's hair and says, "Yeah. Yeah, it's really – I can't believe we're almost done. No more high school, ever."
"Speak for yourself, asshole," Spencer grumbles, and Ryan laughs, and rubs his hand through Spencer's hair again, combing it back the way Spencer likes, the way that always makes him purr slightly and press back into the touch.
"It's cool, though," he says. "I mean, I'll be glad to – college is going to be great, I think. If I get in. It's – learning something real, doing what I want to do."
"Pity you have to go all the way across the country to do it," Jon says, and Ryan swallows hard, focuses his gaze on Spencer's closed eyes.
"Yeah," he says, quietly. He speaks around the sudden lump in his throat, says, "I don't want it to be like – I'm leaving you guys, or something. I. I'm going to miss you so fucking much."
"Same here, Ross," Spencer says, and reaches up a hand to curl it around Ryan's free wrist, the one he's not pushing through Spencer's hair.
"But this is something you've got to do," Jon says, smiling crookedly at Ryan. "It's cool. We get it."
"It's going to be hard," Ryan says, letting himself think about it properly for the first time. The idea of Brendon going to Chicago without him, he'll admit, brings up a sense of wild, fluttering panic in his chest, his gut, and the idea of not leaving Vegas himself makes him sort of sick. Leaving Spencer and Jon behind, though – that just makes him achingly, achingly sad.
"Yeah," Spencer agrees. "It is. But maybe – it might not be for long."
Ryan laughs weakly. "I really hope you're not implying I'm going to drop out," he says.
"No," Spencer says. "I'm implying that I have a year of high school left, and that I'm not that fond of Vegas, either."
Ryan freezes, hand stilling in Spencer's hair. "Are you saying," he begins, and then has to cut himself off, because his voice is embarrassingly rough.
"I have a lot of family in Chicago," Jon says, still with that lazy, warm tone to his voice, like the things they're talking about are of no real consequence. "And my best friend when I was a kid, Tom Conrad, he still lives over there. I'm thinking I'll work for a year, get some savings, then see about some photography courses."
"I like the music management degrees they offer," Spencer says, shifting his head bossily from side to side until Ryan starts combing his hand through Spencer's hair again. "Seriously, Ryan, you're not the only one who sees the appeal of Chicago."
"Besides," Jon says, "you can't just take off to another state and not expect us to come trailing after. What kind of friends would we be then?"
Ryan swallows hard and stares at them, eyes embarrassingly bright. "I haven't been a very good friend," he admits. "This year, I haven't."
"Good enough for us," Spencer says, and opens his eyes to smile up at Ryan.
Kara’s plant has died from either a lack or an overdose of water. It’s impossible to tell as sometimes a week went by without Brendon even glancing at it, and often when he remembered to water it, Ryan did the same a few hours later.
Most likely, the death cause is a combination of both, of everything.
As it’s just a stupid plant, Brendon shouldn’t be feeling as morose as he does. It’s not as if his pet died, it’s just a plant that is now reduced to a mass of brown leaves. He should chuck it into the trash, but instead, he sets it down in the middle of the wobbly table, puts his chin on his hands and studies the remains with a heavy feeling in his gut.
“What are you staring at?” Ryan asks from the doorway. He’s towelling off his damp hair, bare-chested from his recent shower. Goosebumps have risen on his narrow arms, and Brendon swallows dryly against something unnamed that feels a lot like fear.
“Dead plant,” he replies.
“Oh.” Ryan comes closer, squinting at the brown leaves as if they might hold the answer to the question of life.
Brendon leans back in his chair, tilting his head slightly to the side so that it rests against Ryan’s stomach. “Forty-two,” he says.
“The answer to the question of life.” Brendon makes the corners of his mouth curl up. “You were looking as if the dead plant might have it. It’s forty-two, though.”
“Try reading decent literature.” There’s a snobby note to Ryan’s voice, but it’s negated by the hand he runs along Brendon’s shoulder. Brendon doesn't pick a fight, even though, seriously, Douglas Adams isn't decent literature? Ryan is such an elitist sometimes. Also, a moron. “So, what’s up with the plant.”
“Nothing.” Brendon shrugs. “My sister gave it to me.”
“Okay.” Ryan turns around, the tabletop digging into his back. He drapes the damp towel around his shoulders and gazes down at Brendon for a moment before he grins, something soft around his mouth. “Hey, it’s just a plant.”
“Yeah.” Brendon knows. It’s just—He doesn’t like losing things, he’s been losing a lot of good things recently, and he doesn’t—
It’s just a plant, though. And Ryan’s still watching him with that soft expression, almost as if he understands. He doesn’t, of course, but he hasn’t left yet.
Brendon decides to bury the question of when Ryan became a good thing, someone Brendon was afraid to lose, at the very back of his mind. With work and finals and college applications, there’s enough on Brendon’s plate. Ryan is just more than Brendon can deal with, maybe.
It doesn’t stop him from turning into Ryan’s touch.
Jon was right the other day, though, in that the year has passed quickly, in that it continues to pass quickly. Ryan finds the days going by in a rush of classes, exam preparation, constant studying and people talking about what they want to do, what they should do, what they're going to do. The announcement date for the Northwestern scholarships draws closer and Ryan feels his stomach tie itself into knots with each passing day, wishing sometimes that he could just know already, other days feeling sure that all that's going to come is a disappointment he'd like to postpone as long as possible.
He manages to spend at least one night a week with Brendon, but Brendon's working more than ever, and Ryan has the distinct impression that Brendon's avoiding him during school time hours, so it's not like he can snatch a moment here or there during the day. One afternoon, though, he comes across Brendon hunched into a corner and listening to a bunch of guys that Ryan recognizes at the ones who go to what used to be Brendon's Church, and he looks tired and lonely and kind of hungry, too. That night, Ryan follows him back to his place, and talks for a long time about how ridiculous it is, the thoughtless condemnation of things in organized religion.
"It's all about love, right," he rambles, "and if religion claims that God is so almighty and does only good, then it's obvious that He'd only create things He approves of, like, with gender and sexuality and stuff, you know? It's just illogical to disapprove of it." Brendon listens to it all, but he doesn't say anything and his expression is wary and tired, his shoulders hunched, and Ryan has the feeling that he's out of his depth, talking about things he's never really had to deal with, things he doesn't understand very much, anyway. He stops and stares helplessly at Brendon for a moment, and then he says, "You know what? I could blow you, right now."
Brendon looks straight at him, eager and surprised and amused all at once, and he drags Ryan over to the mattress and sprawls out with his legs parted and his hips pushing up into the air, demanding and hot all at once. Brendon's too lazy afterward to do more than just get Ryan off with his hand, but Ryan doesn't mind so much, not with how when he's sucking Brendon off Brendon forgets to be frustrated and sad, thrashes around and mutters stupid nonsense instead.
That night, though, he forgets all about the homework due the next day in favour of hanging out and sleeping at Brendon's place, and only some fast talking gets him out of a detention he really doesn't have time for. They go back to one night each weekend, and it's good, it's the way to do things so that they pass school and get where they want to go, Ryan knows, but it's still a little frustrating.
Jon gives him a knowing look when Ryan remarks upon it, and Ryan snaps, "I don't miss him, shut the fuck up."
"I never said anything about you missing him or not," Jon says mildly. "You did that."
Ryan moves on, starts going back over a year's worth of study, which is a lot harder than he had calculated for. He ends up staying up late every night for three weeks, sometimes roping Spencer in to test him on things, give him quizzes until every date for History is drummed into his head and he can list the causes and reactions to the 1905 Russian Revolution in his sleep (and, as Jon tells him in an amused voice after one Friday Movie Night, he does). During lunchtimes he starts writing practice essays for final exams, handing them in until Mr. Beckett flinches over-exaggeratedly at the sight of him every time they run into each other, cries, "Not another essay, Ross! I have a life, you know." He corrects every one, though, and he'll leave comments like this is really good. Here's the things that you can do better on, even when Ryan's ahead of most of the class. Annoying as it is, Ryan will grudgingly appreciate a teacher who doesn't let him get complacent.
One night, his dad is home for dinner, and sober. Ryan eyes him uneasily across the table and is mostly silent for the meal, until his dad asks, "You applied for colleges and stuff then?"
"Yes," Ryan says.
Ryan breathes in sharply. "Yes," he says. "But it's my back-up. My first choice is still Chicago."
His dad looks at him with narrowed eyes. "I'm still not paying for that," he says, and Ryan slams up to his feet.
"I don't think I asked you to," he says, and walks out of the room. His dad yells after him but Ryan gets in the car, and he's halfway to Brendon's place when he realises he's not that angry. He's tired and disappointed, but he doesn't have the same urge to bite and push and grab, take out all the directionless fury on Brendon. Mostly, the appeal of going over to Brendon's place right now is some lazy sex and making out and late night movies, and Ryan swallows hard, staring at the traffic light.
They both have a lot of work to do. Ryan goes to Jon's house instead, and they spend the night doing all the practice Calculus tests at the back of the textbook.
The days pass. More and more often, Ryan finds himself coming across some girls crying in a group together at the idea of leaving school, some student with a teacher talking seriously about options, asking for references. Everything seems kind of insanely huge and busy, and yet not very dramatic, either. The days just keep passing, and Ryan thinks that the year has gone by so fast, almost too fast, because he hasn't gotten the time to appreciate it properly. He's about to leave school. Possibly, he thinks, he should be some kind of new person, older and wiser and stronger on his feet; he shouldn't feel as messed up and small as ever, shouldn't be so nervous about the possibility of the scholarship that he finds himself nauseous. He definitely shouldn't be adding up exactly how much affection he's shown Brendon Urie over the past week, and how much more he can get away with. Then and then again: the strangest thing of all about this year still feels, sometimes, that instead of beating Brendon up he's fucking him.
Ryan wonders about the beginning of the year, about the fights and then the detentions and hating Brendon so much that it felt like it filled up every pore of him every time he looked at Brendon. He almost understands it, now; he'd needed it, that clean, simple kind of hate. Sometimes, he almost misses it – nothing about Brendon these days is clean and simple. Usually, though, he doesn't miss it for long. Brendon has a way of distracting him.
"Are you frightened?" Ryan had asked him one night, trying not to think about late night, half-asleep confessions, and Brendon had smiled at him, vicious and pleased, and said, I'm not afraid of anything.
The days keep passing. Ryan notes it with a mild kind of wonder, and then turns back to his books.
The letter is waiting for him on Tuesday afternoon, and Ryan sits it on the kitchen table and stares at it for almost an hour, a stupid sort of face off. He laughs at himself, and rips it open, and then he has to go and clutch at the sink for a moment before he takes the letter out of the envelope. For a moment he thinks he's going to throw up, stomach convulsing, breath hitching in awful little gagging gasps, and then he thinks, stop being so melodramatic, and turns back to the table.
His hands are almost steady when he pulls it out. The first sentence says, We are delighted to offer you a place in our English Department 2006 with complete scholarship, and Ryan sits down and has to concentrate for a few minutes on not doing anything too ridiculous or hysterical, like bursting into laughter, or tears. He pulls out his phone instead, and calls Brendon with a giddy, swooping feeling in his stomach, but it goes straight to voicemail – and Brendon works all night on Tuesdays, of course.
He calls Spencer and Jon instead, and they come around with pizza and ice cream and loud, delighted voices, and stay until nine, because it's a school night and they have reasonably strict parents when it comes to things like that. He means to just hang around until Brendon's shift finishes, and then call him again, but after a while he stands up with a curse and grabs his keys, heading out the door and into his car. It's late by the time he gets to Brendon's apartment, and Brendon's probably on his way home right then, so he lets himself in with Brendon's spare key and paces around Brendon's empty apartment, waiting.
The door below scrapes open and Brendon's voice says, very clearly, "Holy shit!" Ryan walks to the doorway and leans against it, and a moment later Brendon comes scrambling up the stairs, pulling out his cell and clutching a crumpled letter in his hand. He's beaming stupidly. Ryan doesn't think it's bad news.
"Hey," he says, grinning, and Brendon skids to a halt at the top of the landing, almost falling back over the stairs. He looks at Ryan, bright-eyed, and pushes his phone back in his pocket.
"Well?" Brendon demands, and Ryan waves his own letter at Brendon. Brendon's grin, impossibly, widens. "Fuck," he says. "Another four years stuck with you," and Ryan steps forward and Brendon meets him halfway, winding his arms around Ryan's neck and kissing him warm and hard enough to knock Ryan back through the doorway, send him staggering backwards for a few steps.
"Hi," Brendon says breathlessly against his mouth, and Ryan pulls back enough to look at him and thinks, heart racing, I am so in love with you.
He doesn't say it out loud. He doesn't think there's enough courage in the world that would let him say it out loud, so he tries instead with, "Are you – we're doing this, right?"
"No, Ryan," Brendon says, grinning stupidly. "We got the scholarships, and now we're going to stay here instead. The hairdressing apprenticeship of my dreams awaits."
"No, I mean," Ryan says, and takes a step back, can feel his cheeks turning red. "I mean, we're doing this together, I – you and me, just, you and me, right?"
Brendon's smile fades. He takes a breath and says, "You're not going to find some – some pretty girl in Chicago to live happily ever after with?"
"I don't want a pretty girl," Ryan says.
Brendon laughs. It sounds a little bit hollow. "Yeah, I know, man, bi or not you like getting fucked too much—"
"I don't want a pretty boy, either," Ryan says. He swallows hard. "I. Just you. I just want you."
Brendon lets out a shaky breath. He drops his backpack on the floor and puts the letter on the kitchen counter, stepping close to Ryan and backing him up against the table. Ryan's glad for the support, wood at his back and Brendon at his front – he feels a little bit like he's going to fall over. Brendon kisses him, soft and warm, and Ryan fists his hand in Brendon's shirt, clings blindly, dragging him close.
Brendon breaks away a little bit, rests his forehead against Ryan's. "Who else d'you think I'd have?" he asks quietly.
Ryan frowns. "Don't," he says. "Don't say that, you're." He pauses, frustrated; compliments don't really come as easy as the insults they've been throwing at each other for years. "Plenty of people would want—"
"No," Brendon says. "No, I mean, who else do you think I'd want?"
"Oh," Ryan says.
"Oh," Brendon mocks, and Ryan leans in and kisses him again, kisses him breathless, slides his arms around Brendon and helps him hold the both of them up. Ryan thinks, very briefly, about being fourteen; about being new in a high school without Spencer for a whole year, about not knowing that a week later Jonathan Walker would move to school and things would be pretty good, after all. He remembers his third day of school, and being tired and upset because his mom had come for one of her rare visits the night before, and spent the whole time talking about her amazing family "back home", and how that morning he'd watched some kid with a lame haircut hug his mom goodbye at the school gate, completely unembarrassed, even though they were teenagers, what the fuck. He remembers keeping an eye out for the kid in his English class, mocking some stumbling answer that the guy attempted, rudely enough to have the teacher send Ryan out. He remembers that lunchtime, and the first, clean punch, and the way the pain had felt good, had felt triumphant.
It feels the same when Brendon bites at his lip, and Ryan's still winning, four years on. This time, though, he thinks that maybe he can share the victory.