Fiero was in his bed. Brendon rolled him off without barely a nod to kindness, not even caring when Fiero's head smacked the floor. Brendon lay down fully clothed, dry-eyed and over-heated. He must have slept because he opened his eyes once and Bert was stumbling around - another and Bert was curled up in his own bed with Fiero up against his back - a third and daylight broke through the grimy curtains. Brendon felt itchy, clogged-up, like he was coming down with the flu and had pulled a study all-nighter, all at the same time. Another school day. But not - not, because Brendon's worst secret had been revealed: to himself, and to the rest of the world.
He clattered around the room as he got ready for school. Usually he was more considerate of Bert's sore head - he had taken to visiting Fiero and Gee's room till all hours out of respect to Brendon's sleeping time, doing god knows what. This morning, Brendon didn't care if Bert suffered an aneurysm and died.
At one point Bert cracked open a groggy eye and mumbled, "Hey, did I do something stupid last night?" But he fell back asleep before Brendon could calmly explain that he'd ruined Brendon's life.
If only he'd known - well. He had known that he dreamed about Ryan a lot, and that the dreams left him sticky and gross when he woke up. He also knew that certain things happened when Ryan touched him too much in one day, or if he stared too much at Ryan's throat or hands or mouth, or if he lay in bed thinking of their conversations as he drifted to sleep. But the school nurse had said this sort of thing was normal and could be completely unconnected to whatever caused it. Brendon had just assumed - he'd hoped -
It got worse.
At lunchtime, Brendon was late and ended up sitting with Andy and Bob from his class. They hadn't been at the party and they spent the hour arguing over who deserved the title 'Greatest Drummer in History'. Brendon had nothing to contribute to that, so he ate in silence.
His usual people were one table over. Brendon was too afraid of seeing Spencer's face to try and make contact with them. It didn't occur to him to think it strange that they made no effort either, until dinner time rolled round and he reluctantly joined the table with his tray. He expected some good-natured ribaldry from Gabe, eye-rolling from Spencer and giggles from the girls - except Vicky, who'd probably just stare. He didn't bother trying to hope for anything other than distaste from Ryan, at least for a while.
He didn't expect silence.
"Hey," he said, faced with a row of backs that weren't shuffling to accommodate him and a row of blank faces beyond.
"Hello, Brendon," said Greta. She sounded like she had a cold.
"I, uh, I didn't see you at music club," he said to her.
"Yeah, I had detention," she said,
"Seriously?" Brendon's eyes popped. Greta was the ultimate good girl - half the teachers wanted to have her babies. She'd never so much as got extra homework before. "Why?"
"Like you don't know," said Ryan. His voice was always flat, but before Brendon had been able to pick out minute cadences and upswings in it. Now it was just ... dead.
"I wouldn't ask if I did," Brendon pointed out, to Ryan's plate.
"We all have detention, mousie," said Gabe. "Of course, it isn't quite the tragedy for me that it is for every -"
"Jesus," snarled Ryan. He threw down his fork. "Shut the fuck up."
"Is it that time of the month already?"
Ryan made an incoherent noise and threw himself across the table. Only Spencer's quick thinking saved Ryan's plate, but the water pitcher was a lost cause. It splashed everyone, including Brendon, who blinked. Gabe edged away from the puddle that was streaming across the wood.
"Fucking - fucking fuck," said Ryan, and whirled away from the table.
"Yup," said Gabe, "always so articulate, that one."
"Seriously." Greta looked strained. "Can you just leave it for now?"
"For you, my love, anything."
Vicky growled. Brendon looked around in bewilderment. Greta rubbed her forehead, not meeting his eyes. Brendon turned to Spencer, who had his tightest expression on.
"Why do you all have detention?" Brendon whispered, but it came out loud in the deathly quiet.
"We got busted by Finch," said Spencer, continuing with heavy emphasis, "just after you left."
"That sucks -" began Brendon. "Wait. You don't think I -"
"You gotta admit, it doesn't look good," said Gabe.
"I didn't." Brendon shook his head. All the tears that didn't come last night suddenly flooded his eyes. "I didn't, I wouldn't - Spencer -"
Spencer shrugged. "Sorry."
With trembling hands, Brendon carefully put his loaded tray down on the table. He walked away with his head held high, but it felt like his skin was the only thing holding all his broken insides together.
"- and now they think I squealed about the party," sniffled Brendon. He curled himself tighter around the phone. "It doesn't even make sense. I ran away because - because -"
"Because you were embarrassed," Melanie's voice crackled down the line. "Yeah, it's not hugely logical. But look at it from their point of view: you leave, and then their party gets broken up, and they all get punished for it. They probably want someone to blame."
"But they're my friends. At least, I thought they were."
Melanie gave a sigh of static. "It's usually easier to get mad at your friends. You know how to hurt them and get away with it."
"They think they'll get away with this?"
"Would you be friends with them again, if they apologised?"
"Yes," said Brendon instantly. "They're the first friends I've ever ... oh."
"Yeah," said Melanie. "Oh." There was a pause. Brendon rubbed his wet eyes. They itched as the tears seeped into his skin. "Tell me more about Ryan."
"I told you about Ryan." Brendon squirmed.
"You told me he's your best friend and this Bert guy embarrassed you in front of him at the party," said Melanie. "I'm guessing it wasn't because Bert told all about your Superman boxers. The Brendon I know could laugh almost everything off."
"Yeah, because he had no other option," muttered Brendon. "Well, it was embarrassing. I don't have to go through it all again, do I?"
"You have a crush on him."
Brendon nearly dropped the phone. He laughed, too big and fake. "On who, Bert? Trust me, that isn't even -"
"Jerk," said Melanie. "Don't think I won't still kick your ass, Beebee. You know I meant Ryan."
"So I can read minds now?"
"It's okay," said Melanie softly. "Bee. It's hard, and Ryan has a girlfriend, but it's okay. You'll be okay."
"He hates me." The word wobbled in the middle. "He hates me now. He thinks I - think those things, and ratted out his party. At least before I didn't realise and we were friends. Now it's all gone. It's ruined."
"Not to mention," Brendon cut across her ruthlessly, "it's a sin. I mean, it's wrong in the eyes of God. Ever since I came here I've been sinning nonstop and I'm going to hell and -"
Brendon sucked in a breath.
"You don't really believe that," said Melanie, quieter this time. "I know you. You're like me. You can't help ... questioning. Thinking. I can't believe that you believe you'll be punished for a feeling."
"Not a feeling," said Brendon. "A sin."
"You haven't killed someone," said Melanie, "you haven't hurt anyone, you haven't been cruel or bad. If you're wrong it's because of a - a technicality. That's all."
"Oh, really?" Brendon snorted. "You think Mom and Dad would agree?" Melanie didn't reply. "Yeah. Thought so."
"Not everything Mom and Dad think is true," said Melanie. "People with tattoos aren't marked by the devil - or do you still think that, just because Dad does?"
"He's my father," said Brendon, "and, more importantly, he's paying for this school."
"You're paying for most of it," said Melanie. "It was you who got that scholarship, not Dad. And ... well. If anything happens, you know I have a permanently spare bedroom, right?"
"What about Greg?"
"What about him? He's not the boss of me."
"I thought you were getting married."
"Did you ever hear me say that?" demanded Melanie. "As opposed to, I don't know, Mom and her silly bridge friends? Greg's a nice guy, but I don't know if I want to be tied to him for the rest of my life. I'd like to do things - travel. Go to school."
"You went to BYU."
"I'm thinking a little bigger than Salt Lake," said Melanie. "And so should you. You may not realise it now, but we're the lucky ones, us two. We can see that there's more than they know."
"Oh god, Mel, what am I going to do?"
"You're going to survive," said Melanie. "You're going to call me as often as you want, and come out with me on Saturday for a good old fashioned takeout -"
"It's a five-hour drive!" protested Brendon.
"I have gas and two days off," said Melanie. "Also an idiot brother who argues when he's getting a favour."
"I was just thinking of you," said Brendon.
"I know, Bee. I know. And I'm thinking of you. I might even pray, how about that?"
Brendon laughed his first real laugh in twelve hours. "Listen, I've gotta go - the quarters -"
Melanie humphed. "The first thing I'm buying you next week is a cell phone. Honestly, Mom and Dad live in the stone age."
"Bronze, at least." Brendon hesitated. "I love you, Mel."
"Oh, Brendon." Melanie sighed. "Hang in there."
Brendon hung up reluctantly. Every time his mind drifted to last night, it was like a scab breaking. He supposed he'd eventually get over it, but he still had the next fifty years to survive first.
"Hey." Gabe stepped out of an alcove as Brendon stood up from his foetal position to return the handset to its cradle.
"Jeez," said Brendon. "Do you always listen in on people's telephone conversations?"
"Usually I make them put on speaker," said Gabe. "You must be the only person in America without a cell phone."
"You're forgetting the Amish."
"I always forget the Amish," said Gabe, smacking his head.
"What do you want?" Brendon didn't bother to wipe his face. Gabe was the least of his problems. "I didn't do it, whatever, but I'm not going to -"
"I know," said Gabe. Brendon gaped. "Well, I mean I didn't think you did, and now I know. You aren't a sneak, mousie. You're way too transparent. Spies like you get shot in the head."
"Huh," said Brendon. "Was that supposed to be comforting?"
"You doing anything right now?"
"Let's see," said Brendon. "I've already been ostracised by my so-called friends, blamed for something I didn't do, totally embarrassed in front of my - in front of Ryan. I think my quota of crap is all filled up, thanks."
"Good." Gabe grabbed his arm. "That means you're free to hang out with me."
"And I thought my day couldn't get worse," said Brendon. But he let Gabe pull him along, just the same.
Ryland was hunched over in a pool of lamplight when Gabe and Brendon entered their shared study. Brendon made a wild, silent gesture and Gabe just smirked. "Ry!" he yelled. Ryland didn't even flinch.
"It's seven fifty-eight," he said. "What are the rules?"
"Study time between six and eight," said Gabe, with the voice of someone in dreadful pain. "Dude, it's nearly -"
"Six," said Ryland, "and eight. Silence for two more minutes."
Gabe shrugged and waved Brendon to the armchair. He swung his long legs under his own desk. Brendon was surprised to see neat piles of textbooks and a stack of colour-coded ring-binders. Gabe hadn't struck him as the studious type.
The silence was absolute and almost comforting. Brendon felt his tired, sore eyes flutter shut. He only awoke when Gabe prodded him and said, "Did you know you snored?"
"Only when I lie on my back," said Brendon. He knuckled his eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep. Wow, is it really nine o'clock?" Did I say anything in my sleep?
"We were gonna watch a DVD in our room," said Gabe. "Wanna hang till lights-out?"
"What about -" Brendon peered round Gabe, to where Ryland was clicking out of his laptop.
"He's cool," said Gabe. "You're cool, right?"
"Thirty-seven degrees Celsius," said Ryland. "I wouldn't recommend hanging around."
"Oh." Brendon dropped his head.
"It's Gabe's turn to pick, and he has abysmal taste," continued Ryland. "It's nearly always Scary Movie or American Pie."
"You need to move on," said Brendon. "There's about forty-five Scary Movies now, you know."
"Finally," said Ryland. "A voice of sense in the wilderness."
"I was going to let Brendon pick, seeing as he's a guest," said Gabe sulkily, "but if you're all just going to mock me -"
"You have fantastic judgment, no one could fault it," said Ryland. He gestured at Brendon. "Quick, Robin, to the DVD box."
The DVD box sat beside Gabe's desk. Brendon balanced his hand on a tattered copy of Gray's Anatomy while he rifled through it. "Awesome!" he said, unearthing a bootleg of Beauty and the Beast.
"Huh?" said Gabe. "Who does that belong to?"
"Vicky," said Ryland. "She's the only one that sells bootlegs."
"Did I buy it from her?" Gabe eyed the jewel case doubtfully.
"Probably," said Ryland cheerfully. "You've done everything else."
"It's awesome," repeated Brendon. "Nearly as good as The Little Mermaid."
"Okay, okay," said Gabe. "I don't think I've ever seen it, so..."
"Seriously? Do you live under a rock?"
Gabe smiled - a real smile, not a smirk or a grin or anything involving his tongue. "Set up," he said to Ryland. "Me and mousie'll go get snacks."
As they walked to the vending machine at the end of the hallway, Brendon asked, "Do you plan to be a doctor?"
"How'd you guess?"
"The book on your desk," said Brendon. "It was that or artist."
"Yeah, I fail at drawing so much," said Gabe. "Even Gee Way saw no hope for me, and he's a fan of Rothko."
"That's pretty -"
"I was going to say cool, but..." Brendon glanced over Gabe's outfit: yellow jeans and purple sports jacket teamed with white loafers. He also had five or ten gold chains strung around his neck. "Yeah. Also ridiculous."
"A lot of people say that," said Gabe, "which is why I stopped telling them after, oh, five minutes. I know what I want; that's what matters."
"Yeah," said Brendon, and went quiet.
"Now for the really important stuff." Gabe rubbed his hands together. "Chocolate or chips?"
"You mean we have to choose?" said Brendon, splaying one hand over the rack of chips and the other across the Snickers.
"You're right - I don't know what I was thinking."
"I'll get these if you want," offered Brendon.
"Halvsies," said Gabe. "I'll get soda."
It was hardly a fair trade, but Brendon wasn't about to explain why. He just nodded.
"Excuse me." Brendon stiffened. It was Ryan. "Are you planning to actually buy something, or should I go away and come back later?"
"Is it uncomfortable?" Gabe wanted to know.
"Is what uncomfortable?" snapped Ryan.
"That stick up your ass," said Gabe. "Is it uncomfortable?"
"Walked into that one," murmured Brendon.
Ryan glared at him. "Oh, fuck off."
"Honestly Ross," said Gabe lazily. "Get a life. Finch sometimes does rounds and we were pretty fucking noisy. It wasn't Brendon."
"Whatever," said Ryan. "I want chips, not a debate."
Brendon stepped back to allow him access. Ryan stabbed out the code and snatched the chips out of the chute. He stalked off, hardly bending his knees. Brendon watched him go - longingly - and chewed his lip.
"Of all the guys in all the world," sighed Gabe, "and you had to fall for him."
"What? I don't like Ryan Ross."
"Why, because he has a clone that's less of an ass?" Gabe raised his eyebrows. "That's an idea, actually. If only I knew more about biogenetic engineering ... but who are you kidding? It's written all over your face. And other places too, probably." He leered.
"I have nothing written on me anywhere," said Brendon firmly. He started jabbing in numbers on the keypad.
"The only thing that's funny," continued Gabe, "is that Ross didn't click sooner. I'm sure you've noticed that all the planets orbit around him and his giant ego."
"I don't like Ryan, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Romeo," said Gabe. Half a dozen Cokes rattled out of the next vending machine. Brendon sucked on his lower lip again, thoughts boiling and cresting against the black inside.
"Hey," he said slowly, "would you - would you pass me one of those?"
"Sure." Gabe tossed a can at Brendon. It was smooth and freezing between his palms. There was only a tiny sound when Brendon popped the tab; Gabe didn't even turn his head.
Brendon closed his eyes and drank.
When Brendon stopped going to Sunday services, Mr Waterstone came to find him. It was two weeks before this happened. In the meantime, Brendon had drunk his body weight in soda, smoked up with Bert - who gave him a gram of pot as an apology - and made out with Gabe one night, after his first can of beer and the other five that followed it. No one was speaking to him except Gabe and Ryland. Greta still said hello and Vicky grunted sometimes, but it was no replacement for the camaraderie he'd won and lost so easily.
Brendon was in the middle of doing his homework when Mr Waterstone knocked. He wasn't quite so far gone as to abandon the only thing that was keeping him in the school in the first place. In the end, Brendon would take Ryan's cold war over Chuck Lawrence's fists any day.
Mr Waterstone invited him to have some tea in his office. Brendon couldn't think of a reason to refuse, so he stood up from trigonometry and followed the chaplain. At the beginning, the conversation was of the innocuous, 'How's your life going?' type. Then Mr Waterstone laid out his first strike.
"None of the students has been so assiduous as you in attending Sunday service," said Mr Waterstone. "You never missed one until two weeks ago. I was just wondering if there's anything on your mind."
"I'm in a state of sin," said Brendon baldly. "I kissed another guy. God tends to frown on that sort of thing."
"Ah," said Mr Waterstone.
"And what's more," said Brendon recklessly, "I liked it. I drank soda, and beer, and I liked them too. In fact, I liked them more than I liked anything when I was doing exactly what God wanted me to."
"I'm not sure you can make that claim," said Mr Waterstone. "To know what God is thinking or what he intends for you. He may have sent this trial to test you."
"It's not a trial." Brendon stared angrily at the old man, who was steepling his fingers. "It's my life. It's how I feel."
"You truly believe that?"
"Then how can you tell that it's not what God wants, too?"
"I don't know - maybe because the Bible was pretty clear on where it stood on homosexuality?"
"It's been two thousand years since the Bible was written," said Mr Waterstone. "I think even God can factor in a few social shifts here and there. Jesus wanted us to love our neighbour as ourselves. That neighbour might have been a sinner in a thousand ways, but we were to forgive them seventy times seven. No matter what, Jesus forgives."
"Yes, but that implies that we're always doing wrong."
Mr Waterstone smiled. "Aren't we? Every day I think unkind thoughts - about my family, my co-workers, even the students here. Every day I say things I wish I hadn't. Every day I'm glad that Jesus is capable of forgiving everything I can't."
"I don't -" Brendon cleared his throat and started again. "I don't think I want to believe in a God who doesn't accept me for what I am."
"I think you're a little confused," said Mr Waterstone. "Your church - and many other churches - don't accept ways of life that are not their own." He leaned forward. "But the church is not God. God is the church. I'm sure God, in his infinite wisdom, is able to accept anything."
"But where does that leave me?" asked Brendon. "My parents have a pretty rock-hard version of what God does and doesn't like."
"Yes," said Mr Waterstone, "most people's gods are based on themselves." He sighed. "Put it this way: would God have given us the capacity to question, if he didn't think he could answer?"
"I hope not," said Brendon. "But I'm still not coming back to Sunday services."
"I was concerned for you, not your attendance." The kettle whistled. "And now. Tea. It cures ninety percent of ills, you know."
"Right," said Brendon sceptically, but he didn't refuse when Mr Waterstone offered him a packet of teabags to take with him.
The next week, he went back to Sunday service.
"Remember when we declared a moratorium on speaking of a certain person called Ryan Ross -"
"So why are we speaking of him?" murmured Brendon. He slashed through another line in Gabe's history essay. Gabe was a whiz at science and math, but he couldn't put a sentence together to save his life. Also, he had a tendency to try to bring cobras into everything. "Dude, I'm pretty sure there were no snakes at Gettysburg."
"Rattlesnakes are native to Pennsylvania," said Gabe.
"No snakes that had any historical impact, I mean." Brendon sighed. "You just do this to mess with Mr Navarro's head, don't you?"
"Just a little," said Gabe, "but listen -"
Ryland backed into the room, loaded down with two laptops. "Bloody Ross," he panted. "I have to download a fucking vid for his fucking party - honestly, you'd think someone was getting married -"
"Ryan is having a party," finished Gabe. "He invited you."
"I know." Brendon fiddled with his pen. "He texted me last night."
Gabe pinned him with a stare. Brendon very assiduously crossed out a reference to 'Washington's pet snake, Nagini.' "So you're back on speaking terms again?" asked Gabe.
"Texting terms," Brendon corrected him.
"So we're going?"
"You're going and I guess I will too," said Brendon. "If that's what you mean."
"Excellent." Gabe stretched his arms, exposing his tanned belly. Brendon liked the view, but it was nothing to the feeling he'd got when he saw Ryan's name under the message last night. "I suppose you've heard that Ryan and Keltie broke up?"
"What?" exclaimed Brendon. His fingers loosened on the pen, which streaked across the page and rolled to the floor. Half the pages went with it while Brendon stared at Gabe. He recollected himself a minute later, but it was too late. Gabe smirked widely but, amazingly, didn't say anything.
"Bound to happen," said Ryland. "They've been fighting since Christmas - over the stupidest things, too. I thought it was just to spice things up, you know how anger is an aphrodisiac -"
"Yeah, you can stop right there." Gabe winced. "If that's true, Vicky should want in my pants so bad. And we all know how she feels about me."
Ryland stared at Gabe in exasperation and shook his head. "You're so dumb. You know that, right?"
"Yeah," said Gabe. "What's this vid about, then?"
"The wildlife of the Arctic," said Ryland.
"You're joking," said Gabe flatly.
"I wish I was," said Ryland.
"Hey, I've gotta go," murmured Brendon. He stood up, shedding the rest of Gabe's essay. The other two didn't notice him leave.
Bert was in their room, actually studying. Brendon took a closer look and realised Bert was drawing naked women in the margins of his sociology book. Still, the intention was there.
"Hey, B-two," said Bert. "Fiero made you something."
"Oh no," said Brendon.
"Don't be like that," said Bert. "Gee helped."
"Oh no," said Brendon.
"It's on the bed," said Bert. "They thought you could wear it to the Ice Queen's party."
"How did you know -"
"You left your phone on your desk," said Bert. "You got another message from Ross, by the way. Gee says the smiley face is a very good sign."
Brendon didn't bother even trying to form a reply for that. He snatched up his phone and scrolled through the messages. There was an open one from Ryan, right above the one Brendon had read twenty times last night, before falling asleep on top of his phone and waking up with the keypad imprinted on his face.
hey bden just 2 remind u my partys on 2nite u never replied b4 but i hope ur comin :)
"You gonna text him back?" Bert eyed him keenly, his reproduction of the Kama Sutra forgotten. "Put him out of his misery?"
Brendon carefully closed the phone. "No," he said, thoughtfully. "I don't think I'll bother."
"Playing it mean, huh?"
"Sort of." Brendon picked up the t-shirt on his bed - or what remained of it. Brendon had a stock of plain white Ts supplied by his mother, which he mainly used as pyjamas or under his school shirt when it was cold. There was very little white left on this one.
"What exactly ... is this?" he asked Bert.
"In the middle, that's a broken heart," said Bert. "It's being squeezed to death by the robot spider. Gee says that's a metaphor. And the other thing is a unicorn with bat's wings, which was Fiero's idea. They are the ultimate steed for a master of darkness."
"Right." Brendon rolled the word around in his mouth. "And the little blobs of purple?"
"They're little blobs of purple," said Bert. "Gee said it was your favourite colour."
"That was very kind of them," said Brendon. "I'm sure they meant well."
"Gee's real sorry about that other party," said Bert. "It was his idea to go. Apparently I said something fucked-up to the Ice Queen? I don't remember. I didn't mean to. You're all right, you know. For a white guy."
Brendon stared at him. Bert stared back, his face pastier than the wall. "O-kay," said Brendon.
"You gonna wear it?"
"Yeah, why not." Brendon folded the t-shirt over his pillow and picked up a towel. "I'm going to have a shower first."
"Good idea," said Bert. "I don't think the fabric paint is totally dry."
With that cheering thought, Brendon padded down the hall to the shower block. It had a row of twenty cubicles. They were all empty, and Brendon picked the one nearest the door. He might be gay, but he still didn't want to walk around half-naked for longer than he had to.
The showers took a while to build up steam, so Brendon turned on the water before he stripped off his sweatpants and t-shirt. The water pounded against the tiled floor, drowning out every other sound.
Brendon stepped into the spray face-first, dousing his hair and shuddering at the shocking heat. He hadn't bothered to draw the curtain separating the shower from the changing area, so when he turned around to get soap he got a full-length view of Ryan Ross lounging against the wall.
Brendon's shout earned him a mouthful of water. He spat it out and fumbled for the curtain, yanking it across his lower half. Ryan's eyes followed the movement and he smirked.
"A bit late for that," he said. Brendon just stared. He couldn't even speak, although his tongue curled in his mouth, still tasting the metallic shower spray.
"Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here?" said Ryan, when Brendon continued to stare at him silently.
"I just assumed you'd lost your mind," said Brendon. "Because I'm, you know, showering. Naked."
"That part I noticed," said Ryan. "Nice ass, by the way."
Brendon flushed to the roots of his hair. "Seriously, what the -"
"Brent," said Ryan. "It was Brent who called Finch. About the party. He was always complaining about them because he wanted to sleep or study or, I don't know, jerk off. We've switched out, anyway. I'm sharing with Jon now."
"That's nice," said Brendon. He wanted Ryan to go.
"I wasn't angry at you about the party anyway," said Ryan. "It was just a convenient excuse. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?" Brendon's fingers clutched the curtain tightly. Ryan was prowling forward, focused and intent and wow, hot. Brendon subtly angled his body away from the material.
"That you liked me," said Ryan softly.
"Yeah, because I usually make friends with people I hate. Hello? It was implied -"
"No," said Ryan. "Like me like me. 'Kiss me now' like me. The way ... the way I like you."
"You don't like me - you like Keltie."
"I liked Keltie," countered Ryan. "I liked you too - I like you more. She wasn't stupid. She saw it before I did. The way I always hung out with you, laughed at you - couldn't take my eyes off you." Ryan was really close now - he put out a hand and touched the curtain, fingers brushing Brendon's. "I get that you're Mormon and things are ... different for you. Like, that was fine. But you played spin the bottle and you did seven minutes with me and when you came out you looked fucking freaked. Which wasn't hugely flattering, I have to say. Then you ran off and next thing Finch is screaming the place down. She's got a really loud voice for an old lady," he added reflectively. "Anyway. We all thought you'd gone fundamentalist on us. Me especially, for - corrupting you, or something."
"Why didn't you just ask me?" said Brendon. "It was really - it was really shit for me after the party."
Ryan ducked his head and mumbled, "We don't have that many gay couples here, you know."
"Yeah, right." Brendon snorted derisively.
"It's true! Sure, we all make out and Pete professes his undying love for Patrick once a month - but Patrick's not with him, Ashlee is." Ryan stared right into Brendon's eyes, making it impossible for him to look away. "I was breaking new ground, basically, and with someone who thought it was a sin. I was - fucking embarrassed, okay? I thought I'd come on to you and you were rejecting me and that wasn't fun -"
"No," breathed Brendon, "that's what I thought."
Ryan rubbed his mouth, looking rueful. "I didn't exactly handle the situation well, I know. Gabe had to come give me a talking-to. Can you imagine? Gabe, of all people?"
"Actually," said Brendon, "I kind of can."
Ryan smiled then, a full-blown beautiful smile. Brendon was so entranced he let Ryan pull his fingers off the curtain, let Ryan push him back into the shower. It was only when Ryan followed that he uttered a faint protest. "You're still dressed!"
"Yeah," said Ryan. He braced his hands on the shower wall beside Brendon's head, leaned in, and kissed him.
At first Brendon couldn't even move. Ryan's mouth moved over his, whisper-light, up towards his ear and back down again. Brendon felt water purling between his bare toes. His eyes were still wide open.
Ryan laughed, a warm puff against Brendon's lips. He dropped a hand to the sharp curve of Brendon's hip, rubbing soft circles with just a hint of nailbite. Brendon whimpered. "I'm -"
"I know," said Ryan. He angled his head and kissed Brendon's neck, sucking on the skin above his collarbone. Brendon's hands flew up to clutch Ryan's back, squeezing the sodden material. Ryan's hair was silkywet against the underside of Brendon's chin. His fingernail scraped an uneven line from Brendon's hipbone to the crinkly line of hair, while he tongued the curve of Brendon's throat. Brendon cried out, his hips bucking up involuntarily.
"Ryan," he breathed.
Ryan stilled. "Come to my party tonight."
"What?" Brendon arched his neck, trying to find Ryan's mouth again. But Ryan was moving away, grabbing Brendon's hands as he reached out and kissing the knuckles.
"Come to my party," said Ryan. "You never texted me back to say you would."
"As if," gasped Brendon, "as if I wouldn't."
"Good." Ryan flashed him that smile again, the one that made Brendon's insides melt and twist. "See you there." He slipped out before Brendon could do anything.
Brendon slumped against the wall. His whole body was thrumming, stretching out and tingling. He put a hand to his neck, brushing over the tender area Ryan had left.
After that, it didn't take long.
Everyone greeted Brendon at the party. Most people, like Spencer, seemed to have glossed over the part where he was public enemy number one for a month. Only Greta was uncomfortable: she came up to apologise to Brendon for doubting him. Brendon waved her off, but in his heart he was grateful.
Ryan was supervising Ryland while he set up the laptop. This was apparently serious business, involving low-voiced discussion and red faces. Ryan was wearing a clinging t-shirt and a yellow flower in his hair. He didn't do anything more than wave at Brendon and send him a secretive smile, but it was enough to make Brendon float across to the drinks table.
"Do you want me to kill you?" Vicky demanded of Gabe as Brendon approached. Gabe looked hunted.
"I was just offering you a drink -"
"I can get it myself," snapped Vicky, reaching around Gabe to prove it. Gabe gazed down at her with a strange expression.
"You know what," said Gabe, "you know what? You can. I'm done." He strode off, medallions clinking. Vicky stared after him.
"Done with what?" she asked the air in general.
Brendon didn't feel entirely qualified to answer, but - "Done with trying to win you," he said.
"He was trying to win me?" said Vicky. "What am I, a prize?"
Brendon couldn't stop the smile. "Yeah," he said, "a prize to be won. With elephants and flying carpets and bootleg DVDs."
"What are you talking about?" said Vicky, belligerently - but a faint blush tinged her cheeks.
"You're a smart girl," said Brendon, patting her on the shoulder. "You'll figure it out."
"What, like you and Ross?" sneered Vicky.
"Pretty much like that," said Brendon. He picked up a can of Red Bull and walked off. He passed Keltie, sitting on the armchair with her arms around Greta. Brendon didn't think much of it till Keltie kissed the back of Greta's neck and tucked a curl behind her ear.
"Wow," said Brendon, to no one in particular.
"I know," said Ryan. Brendon jumped, blushed and smiled, in that order. "It's great, huh?"
"A little unexpected," said Brendon.
"Oh, I don't know," said Ryan, with a funny little quirk of the lips. "Hey, I like your shirt. It's very ... festive. Here, I got you something." He produced a yellow carnation, identical to his own, and threaded it behind Brendon's ears. Brendon shivered at the touch, and Ryan didn't drop his hand - just pressed it to Brendon's jaw. "You liked my last one so much."
"I keep it under my pillow," said Brendon.
"You are such a g-"
"Don't say it," warned Vicky, slapping the back of Ryan's head in passing.
"Aw," said Brendon, "will I kiss it better?"
"I've got a better idea." Ryan's eyes went dark. In a swift sure motion, he put a hand on Brendon's spine and pulled him close. He tipped Brendon back and cradled his neck before dropping his head to kiss him, mouth firm and insistent. Brendon opened his lips and Ryan slipped his tongue inside Brendon's mouth, teasing and light. Brendon's eyes sunk shut and his arms came up around Ryan's neck as Ryan kissed him like Brendon had the last breath of air in the world. He didn't realise people were cheering till Ryan gently pulled him upright.
"I've been inspired," yelled Pete. "Where's Patrick?"
"He went on a double date with Mikeyway, remember?" said Ashlee.
"It's a pity you're not a boy," said Pete. "It would have been so symbolic."
"That's not what you said last night," said Ashlee, dragging him in for a kiss. Pete didn't come up for a while.
"If we could get started," said Ryland stridently. "I spent like, a fucking hour on this, you're all going to watch it whether you like it or not."
"C'mon," whispered Ryan. He tugged Brendon down into a heap atop some throw cushions. Brendon ended up between Ryan's long legs, cuddled close. Ryan's tongue flicked Brendon's ear before he said, "I thought you'd like this."
Brendon settled back against Ryan's chest, feeling so light and heady he thought he might dissolve. Only Ryan's arms kept him anchored, his hands touching Brendon's arm, leg, chin, hair as if he couldn't get enough.
Ryland switched off the lights, filling the room with the blue glow of the laptop screen. A frozen tundra appeared, and a deep, mournful voice began narrating.
"Some breeds of penguin," it said lugubriously, "mate for life..."
The first few times they just lay there, Ryan's fingers plucking at his shirt, only their mouths and Ryan's fingers touching, slipping through Brendon's buttonholes. The sound of Jon's 'sex music' thumped through the wall, even though the noises they made were soft, mostly sighs. Brendon was pretty proud of himself for not being louder, because he felt his heart thumping so hard whenever Ryan even looked at him that people in England could have heard it.
But Ryan got bored quickly. Well - not bored, but ... pushy. Brendon was happy with the kissing and the shifting fabric between them. He was still ashamed of his body's reaction to all of it, even though Ryan was very obviously having the same one. After a while, he'd rub up against Brendon and slide his thigh across Brendon's hip to make it obvious. The feel of him - hard - where Brendon was hard, always turned him breathless and a little trapped. He'd push Ryan back a little and that was the end of the makeout session.
He could tell Ryan was getting annoyed. The way he flopped back and squeezed himself between the legs - and God, the sight of it made Brendon flush from his ears to the tips of his toes - and groaned was a hint. The scowls and the pointed way he banged the bathroom door were another clue. Brendon just ... concentrated, mostly, and that dealt with the problem. Once or twice, though, he'd put his ear to the bathroom door. Ryan sounded like he was in pain, which shouldn't have been such a turn on - and wasn't, except for the wet slippery noises and the sighs of 'Brendon' that overlaid it. Both times, Brendon had to wait for Ryan to finish and slip into the bathroom, red-faced, when he came out. There was just no way he could walk down the hallway as he was.
The second time was when it all came to a head. So to speak.
Ryan was waiting outside the door when Brendon opened it - quietly, as if that would make the last five minutes politer. Brendon jumped. Ryan rolled his eyes and took Brendon's arm, guiding him back to the bed.
"But we just -" Brendon started, and stopped.
"Made out and came," said Ryan. "I'd noticed. The point is that both of those are supposed to be partnered activities."
Brendon blushed. He stared at his knees. In his peripheral vision, Ryan sighed.
"I get if you're nervous -"
"I'm not nervous!" said Brendon, on reflex.
"Oh really?" said Ryan. "Take your shirt off, then."
"How does that - no."
"Brendon." Ryan's voice was low and sweet, with just a hint of honeyed threat. "I want to see you naked. Again."
Brendon jumped, a bolt of fearnoplease arrowing through him. Ryan's hand came up around his back, stroking the skin under his ear while Ryan's lips dryly brushed the curve of his neck.
"Can't we just -" Brendon swallowed, feeling Ryan's mouth move against his skin as he did so. "- take things slow?"
Ryan pushed Brendon back against the bed - a quick, unexpected move - and pinned his shoulders, stopping the bounce. "You only take things slow if you're nervous," he said. "You said you weren't nervous, Brendon." Brendon almost whimpered at the way Ryan twisted his name - like a promise, like a curse. "And fuck, I could hear you in there." He sucked on Brendon's jaw and this time Brendon did whimper. Ryan's breath burned on the shell of his ear. "You came, like. Twice. Didn't you?"
Brendon froze. Ryan could feel that too, with his hands on Brendon's shoulders just this side of too-tight. He winced when he nodded, and knew he was blushing.
All at once Ryan released him. Brendon stared up at him as Ryan shoved up against the wall and pushed his hair out of his eyes.
"Hey." Brendon put a tentative hand on Ryan's knee. "Are you mad?"
"Yeah," said Ryan, but before the thump of betrayal fell he added, "at myself, mostly. Look, I shouldn't be pushing you. It's just, you're so - there. You. God." He crunched his fingers, thin white tendons standing out on the back of his hand. "Maybe we should stop this for a while. Till you're ready."
"No," said Brendon. It came out quiet, forceless, and he was sure Ryan didn't hear him because he dropped his head to his knees and shook it.
Brendon sat up. His shirt gaped where Ryan had got three buttons open. He should go back to his room and finish his homework. He should only kiss Ryan when other people were around to make it safe. He should stop all this sinfulness and repent.
His hands went to the fourth button and pushed it out of the hole.
His hair fell in his eyes as he looked down, watching almost disconnectedly as his hands slowly undid the shirt all the way down. He was on the last button when Ryan looked up and their eyes met.
"What -" said Ryan, but Brendon paused, took a deep breath and shrugged off the shirt entirely. Ryan didn't say anything while Brendon stood up and awkwardly untied his shoes, peeled off his socks and fumbled with his belt, but he stared. His eyes dropped with Brendon's pants as they puddled on the floor and flew back up to where Brendon's thumbs were hooked in his boxers. His already damp and tented boxers, and Brendon looked at the ceiling as if it would give him the last bit of courage he needed.
"If you," Ryan cleared his throat, but his voice still came out muddy, "I won't. I won't be able to stop. So."
Brendon nodded, once, and pushed down his boxers. He didn't mean to do it as slow as he did - like a tease - but his cock was still sensitive, and they clung to his ass, and then they got caught on his ankle and Brendon had to spend long, embarrassing seconds peeling them off. He crossed his arms across his chest and dared a look at Ryan. He instantly wished he hadn't.
Ryan was leaning on his elbows, fists clenched. His eyes were bottomless holes drinking Brendon in. The warm shiver that goose pebbled his skin wasn't entirely from anxiety.
"Can you -" Ryan's voice was strangely hollow, as if he were shouting from a long way away. "- can you - turn around?"
Brendon was okay with that, if it meant not having to look at Ryan and feel like he was seconds from being eaten alive. He wanted Ryan, he understood that - liked being with him, kissing him, thought about touching him - but always in a vague, fuzzy way. He didn't want Ryan like Ryan wanted Brendon. It was an exhilarating, terrifying thought.
"Shh, it's okay." Ryan's eyes were too bright as he put his arms around Brendon. It was weird to feel clothes touching him when he was actually naked. Ryan buried his face in Brendon's shoulder, biting a little. One of his hands slipped down to squeeze Brendon's ass and - Brendon liked it. He liked it a lot.
Ryan stepped back. He looked at Brendon, up and down, a little smirk at the side of his lips. Brendon felt an insane urge to cover his erection. One of his hands twitched, but Ryan caught it.
"Your cock," he said. "I'm gonna suck it now, okay?"
"What?" said Brendon, mind reeling, but Ryan wasn't listening. He slid to his knees - Brendon could hear the bones click - and pressed his cheek against the ridge of Brendon's hip. His nail gently scratched the underside of Brendon's cock. Brendon swallowed a shout. He stared down at Ryan's head, dark bangs flopping over his eyes as he wet his lips with the tip of his tongue - and Brendon had thought he couldn't get harder - and delicately closed his mouth around the head of Brendon's cock.
If he hadn't come twice already in the last half-hour, Brendon would have come right then, down Ryan's throat. He could feel Ryan's hands, both of them wrapped around the base of his cock as he guided it into further into his mouth. But all he could concentrate on was the roughness of Ryan's tongue pushing against the rim, the fleshy softness of his cheek and little bumps of teeth. He scrabbled for support, knocking half the contents of Jon's desk to the floor before he found the edge and grabbed on. His hips jolted up and Ryan made a surprised noise. It translated as a hum and a hard flick of his tongue, and Brendon's eyes rolled up.
He pushed a shaking hand into Ryan's hair. He couldn't even think, let alone speak; all that came out were hitching gasps, but Ryan got the message. He moved his head back, and Brendon's cock slipped past his lips with a soft pop. The air tickled the damp skin, making Brendon moan. Then Ryan's warm tongue was back, licking hurried stripes from base to tip before he closed his fist and pumped it hard. Brendon's back arched as he came, shooting over Ryan's shoulder on to -
"Jon's bed," said Brendon, huskily. "Shit."
"He's high, he won't notice." Ryan spoke too fast, panting. He stood up and smirked. "So?"
"You put it in your mouth." Brendon's eyes fluttered closed as his cock twitched, still very happy about that. "God. That was. God. The best thing ever."
Ryan gently pushed him back towards the bed, crowding him till he sat down. "Lie back," he commanded. "Like. Have a nap or something. You look completely wrecked."
"You put it in your mouth," Brendon reminded him.
"I was there," said Ryan. He knelt up on the bed to get over Brendon's sprawling legs, which was when Brendon realised - remembered - that Ryan was hard too. He sat up.
"But you -"
"Lie down." Ryan gave him a little shove. "This one's on me."
Brendon lay back. Ryan was still kneeling over him. As Brendon watched, Ryan shook his hair out of his eyes and undid his pants. He shoved them down impatiently, and not very far - just enough to free his own cock from his boxers. Brendon sat up again, interest warring with trepidation and winning this time. Ryan gave him a look. Brendon lay down.
"I kind of want to touch it," he whispered.
"Good," gritted Ryan. The tips of his fingers smeared precome around the head. "Now you know how I feel." He spat in his hand and started jerking off - hard, barely slick thrusts through the circle of his fingers. Brendon really wanted to help, but he was also really liking the show. Ryan's other hand was braced against the wall and he bit his lip, running it through his teeth. It only took a few seconds before he came.
All over Brendon's chest.
"So when you said this one's on me," said Brendon, "you meant on me."
"Shut up." Ryan leaned across him, not seeming to care that he was messing up his shirt. (And he was still fully dressed, how was that fair?) He grabbed a handful of tissues and cleaned off Brendon, first, before himself.
He pulled a blanket over both of them. Sweat started to cool on Brendon's skin, making it itchy and tight. He wouldn't have moved for the world.
"Can I come in yet?" called Jon. Brendon glanced guiltily at his duvet.
"Five more minutes," called Ryan, scratching patterns around Brendon's bellybutton. He squirmed, loving it.
They were spooning under the blanket, and the only part of Ryan that was naked - aside from his tickling hands - was his cock, nudging slightly at Brendon's ass with the movement of Ryan's hips. Brendon curved a hand around Ryan's sharp bone to pull him closer, sighing happily when the friction increased.
"One day," Ryan leaned in to kiss his throat, "I'm going to fuck you so hard. And you're going to love it."
Brendon's stomach clenched in pure, fearful anticipation. He thought he probably would.
"But not today," he whispered.
"No." Ryan kissed his neck a bit more before adding, thoughtfully, "Even Jon might notice that."
"- and she called the cat," Mrs Urie's voice dropped, "a d-e-v-i-l. And honestly, I'm inclined to agree. It kept Moses pinned up in his house for three hours yesterday! I couldn't get him out for anything. And you should see the size of the cat - I've seen bigger newborn kittens. Mrs Zuckerman said -"
"Mom," said Brendon, "I love you."
"Oh." Mrs Urie sounded surprised. "Well, I love you too, honey. What brought that on?"
"Just thought it needed saying," said Brendon. "Because I do. No matter what."
"That's so sweet," said Mrs Urie. "I can't wait to see you. And Ryan and Spencer and Gabe are all coming to visit this summer? You did ask them?"
"Yeah, it'll be great," said Brendon. "Especially for Ryan. His dad isn't around much."
"That poor boy," sighed Mrs Urie. Brendon didn't think she'd say that if she'd seen Ryan last night, naked and sweaty with his mouth around her son's cock. But that was one of the things Brendon had decided not to think about for the time being. God would show him the answer eventually. "It's so nice that he goes to Sunday service with you now. Speaking of school friends, I heard the strangest thing about that Charles Lawrence the other day."
"Chuck?" said Brendon. "He wasn't my friend, Mom."
A clattering noise came from the other end. Mrs Urie was probably cooking. "Yes, that's the one," she said, clearly not having heard a word. "One of the mothers was around collecting donations for the school gym - they're buying a new ball machine, whatever that is. I invited her in for coffee and his name came up. You'll never guess what happened to him."
"He fell in a hole and died?" said Brendon hopefully.
"Worse," said Mrs Urie. "He's become a gay."
"Oh, wow," said Brendon in a strangled voice. "That explains so much."
"Apparently he told everyone after he was dropped from the football team. He's 'dating' the quarterback." Brendon could hear the inverted commas clang around the word. "What do you think of that?"
"I'm not sure," said Brendon. "Listen, Mom, I've got to go."
"All right, dear," said Mrs Urie. "Take care of yourself. We'll see you next week!"
Ryan met Brendon at the door of his room. Ryan and Gee were fighting over the t-shirts again. Ryan wanted screenprinted fire-lilies. Gee wanted screenprinted zombies. At least they weren't arguing about the screenprinting part anymore.
Ryan greeted Brendon with a kiss, filthy and lovely and slow. Brendon was hard and panting by the end of it, but for once he didn't feel like dragging Ryan to the first quiet corner and fucking his mouth.
"Hey." Ryan smoothed a lock of hair behind Brendon's ear. "Are you okay? Did your mom say something?"
"Kind of." Brendon looked into the bedroom. It was washed with sunlight, bouncing off Gee's greasy hair, Bert's inevitable joint, Gabe's yellow jeans and dirty sneakers on Brendon's pillow, Spencer's earnest daubing on one of the last white t-shirts. "Did I ever tell you about my last school?"
"Not much," said Ryan. "Why, was it - bad?"
Brendon took Ryan's hand and lead him to the bed, swatting Gabe out of the way. Ryan sat down and let Brendon nestle into his shoulder as he yelled, "No, I'm telling you, flowers! No zombies!"
"They could have bouquets," said Gee. "Of skeletal roses! A zombie wedding!"
"God help me," groaned Ryan, sinking back. Brendon kissed his jaw and wound one of Ryan's curls around his finger.
"Once upon a time," he whispered, as Ryan looked up at him with joy and laughter and annoyance all mingled in his face. "There was a boy called Chuck..."