Ryan had been prepared for Ashlee and Pete, and possibly Gabe plus an excess of purple. When he saw that there was yet another new human to encounter, he grew confused and shy.
The human was afflicted with no such doubts. He was long and rangy, with hair swinging over his eyes and a curving smile. His eyes travelled from one end of Ryan to the other as he hovered in the doorway.
Pete turned from the oven to carefully divest a skillet of a round, crispy brown object. When he saw Ryan, his face lit up.
"Sit down!" he crowed. "You can have this one."
"Uh-uh," said the new human. He hadn't taken his eyes off Ryan yet, which made Ryan uncomfortable and even more clumsy than he would otherwise have been. "You promised me the next one."
"You've already eaten three," Pete pointed out, "and Ryan is our guest."
"Ryan, huh." The newcomer's tongue slipped out of the corner of his mouth. He smiled around it in a way that was entirely disconcerting and would have made Ryan blush, if he wasn't already. "I'm William." He reached a hand across the table and didn't even have to stand up to do so. Ryan fumbled for composure, dropped it and accidentally kicked it into the next field, and settled for grabbing William's hand and letting it go within the same five seconds. His palm was cold and dry, nothing like Brendon's or Spencer's.
Pete plonked a plate in front of Ryan. "What's your pleasure?"
"What?" Ryan cleared his throat of the squeak and tried again, to William's accompanying grin. "What do you mean?"
"We have -" Pete performed a little flourish "- blueberries, strawberries, cream, maple syrup, chocolate syrup, raspberry syrup especially for Billvy, who is a sick sick man, apricots, almonds, and my special favourite: icing sugar and lemon juice."
"Um." Ryan's eyes widened at the choice, all of it fresh and some of it even hot. "I've never - what's good?"
"Here." William hooked Ryan's plate with one spindly finger. "I'll do it for you."
"Thanks," said Ryan. A squirming came from inside his pocket; Ryan gently cupped his hand over it, to let Brendon know he hadn't forgotten him.
William heaped a spoon of strawberries and cream into the middle of Ryan's pancake, folded it, and covered it with maple syrup and almonds. "If you don't like that," he said, returning the plate, "your taste buds aren't fit to be in my presence."
"Okay," said Ryan shyly. He took up a spoon, trying to remember what humans did with them in the TV shows. Pete let him attack the pancake with the handle for a few seconds before cracking up and showing him the right way. Ryan blushed deeper. William stared.
"What," he said, "are you from Europe?"
"I -" started Ryan.
"Yes," Pete broke in. "He's from, uh, Transchekoslakania. He has very good English, though. Knows loads about, um. Cabbage."
Ryan nodded, mouth full. Then he closed his eyes and swallowed, letting himself do nothing but savour the taste. And maybe letting out a little moan of appreciation. Under his spare hand, Brendon went still.
When Ryan opened his eyes again, having wrung out every last drop of taste from his spoonful, William was still staring. His expression had changed from bemusement to - something else. His lips were pushed out the way Brendon's did when he was pouting, but with a considerably different effect. Ryan felt like he was back in the bath, submerged in boiling water.
"Billvy," said Pete warningly. "Let the kid be."
"I didn't do anything!" William protested.
"Yeah," said Pete, "yet. Come on. Gabe said he wanted all hands on deck."
"Like I care about Gabe's silly little experiments," said William - and now he was definitely pouting.
"What, are you fighting again?" Pete sighed. "Whatever." He turned to Ryan. "Ashlee ran out to get some stuff to paint the bedrooms. I'll be over at Gabe's for an hour or so. Will you be okay? There's more food in the fridge - um." He patted the machine for good measure. Ryan nodded earnestly.
Pete and William were almost out of the room before Ryan called out, "Thank you."
Ryan waited until he could hear the doors close all the way through the house before he let Brendon out. Brendon demanded freedom well before this, so Ryan was obliged to push his head down every time he tried to force his way out of Ryan's pocket. Eventually, though, he said, "C'mon," and let Brendon climb into his palm. Ryan was growing to like the feel of Brendon there.
"Look at all this stuff!" said Brendon. "Can I have some?"
"Duh," said Ryan. "I'll get Spence and Jon, too."
"Don't worry, I'll do it," said Brendon. "They might think you're one of the humans."
Ryan felt gutted, but he had to admit Brendon was right. "But hang on, have something before you go." Ryan's reason for detaining Brendon was not entirely altruistic; Ryan thought about Brendon's stomach about as much as he did meteorological phenomena. Brendon was very willing to oblige, however, so Ryan didn't have to examine his own motives any further.
Brendon got his arms around a strawberry nearly as big as himself and bit into it. Juice spurted all over his face and most of his once-white shirt. Brendon didn't seem to mind, plunging his face into the strawberry with renewed vigour. Ryan ate more slowly, savouring the fresh, warm taste of the pancake. He cut off a Brendon-sized sliver and left it on the side of the plate for Brendon to try when the strawberry ceased to be sufficiently distracting.
"Oh, wow," moaned Brendon. His face was glazed pink and he had a lump of strawberry flesh in each hand. "This is amazing. This is so amazing. Have you had one, Ryan? You gotta have one."
"I have had one," said Ryan. "I didn't feel the need to become one with it, though."
"You're missing out," said Brendon, assertively. He began licking his arms and hands. Ryan rolled his eyes to the ceiling, looking away from the little, lapping pink tongue. His spoon had been resting on a white cloth, for whatever reason, and he flicked Brendon on the head to get him to stop sucking on himself and began dabbing instead. Brendon stilled and held out his hands submissively. The strawberry juice was either very stubborn or very attached to Brendon's skin, and Ryan found it necessary to wet the cloth in his mouth before he succeeded in getting Brendon clean.
"Okay, I'd really better go now. Spence will be so pissed if he misses this, he won't speak to me for a month and then he'll make it like he actually was and I only realise later I was talking to myself." At Ryan's raised eyebrows, Brendon added, "It's happened before."
"Yeah, Spencer is evil when he's mad," said Ryan. "When did you guys have a fight, though? I don't remember it."
"Oh -" Brendon sucked in a breath, eyes darting to the half-masticated strawberry "- it was a while back."
Ryan shrugged and held out his hands for Brendon to climb into. He felt almost hurt when Brendon shook his head.
"I've always wanted to do this instead!" he explained. He ran to the edge of the table, lowered himself fly-style over one leg, and slid to the bottom, whooping all the way.
"Freak," said Ryan, but he handed down the slice of pancake he'd saved all the same. He listened to Brendon's gleeful thanks as he ran away until he couldn't hear them anymore.
"You know what we should do," said Jon, sitting in the middle of the debris that was once a pile of almonds and the last of the cream, "we should go outside."
"What?" said Spencer.
"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Ryan. "We'll be seen - oh."
Jon nodded smugly. "Plus, we have you to protect us, warn us if the others are coming." His voice turned wistful. "One time, in Tyson's house, him and Nick got so drunk they passed out on the porch, and we got to sit there for a whole hour. Sean turned totally brown, it was awesome."
"I ... guess." Ryan turned to Brendon, face-deep in another strawberry. "What do you think?"
"Mhh-hmm." There was a sucking noise as Brendon extracted himself. "I think I want to marry a strawberry."
"About going outside," said Ryan, more patiently than he felt. Brendon's face glowed.
"Oh, really?" he crowed. "Ryan, you're the best."
"It was my idea," said Jon.
"You're the best too," said Brendon. "No. Strawberries are the best. Can we bring some with us? Ryan, you can, in your pocket."
"You've already chewed on most of them - and before you ask, no, gross."
"How did you know I was going to ask anything?"
"Don't even pretend, you were going to ask me to put those half-mangled ones that are covered in your spit in it - you were going to ask me to touch them. The bonds of friendship only go so far."
While he was speaking, Ryan prodded Brendon closer with his finger and began to wash his face. As before, Brendon passively turned his face up to the cloth. Not as before, Spencer looked at them with an expression halfway between laughter and horror.
"Are you - cleaning him?" he asked.
"I'm not putting him in my pocket all slimy," said Ryan quickly. Brendon scowled at him and ducked out of range of his cloth.
Once they were all ensconced safely in Ryan's pocket, Ryan made his way to the screen door. His heart pounded louder with each step he took. He managed to open the door, but no more. His breathing was too fast to function and grey shadows pushed at the sides of his vision. He hardly registered the change in weight until Brendon was on his shoulder again, tugging on his earlobe.
"It's okay," Brendon whispered. He was so close his lips moved across Ryan's skin, light as a dust-kiss. "You're human-sized now. If anyone sees you, they won't know. Plus, look how sunny it is. Take a step."
"What are you, my brain?" said Ryan, but he took a step. Then another. And Outside was there, he was in it, and it was huge.
"The sky doesn't look that big on television," he said helplessly.
"Oh man, there's the kitty!" cried Brendon. Ryan started involuntarily, prompting a chorus of 'hey!'s from his pocket. Brendon just pinched his ear.
The cat was ... not the hulking, ravening beast Ryan pictured it as from fleeting glimpses and a rational interpretation of Brendon's descriptions. It was quite the opposite; small, now, with fluffy white fur standing out at all angles, and an engaging rumble that only got louder when it spotted Ryan. Ryan poised to flee, but all the animal did was wind around his ankles in a concerted attempt to either trip him up or prevent him from moving ever again.
"Let me down, I wanna play!" said Brendon.
"It will eat you," snapped Ryan. Brendon just blew a raspberry in Ryan's ear and swung down the back of his shirt.
Ryan stomped over to a long white chair covered in frayed blankets. He let Spencer and Jon out of the pocket, then flung himself backwards. "Don't tell me if that animal tears him to shreds and decorates its nest with his remains," he told them. "I don't care."
"Right," said Spencer, and nestled into the crook of Ryan's elbow. "Wow, the heating out here is great."
"Hey, Brendon, wait up!" called Jon. He jumped off the chair, rolled a little on the landing, and was up and running before Ryan could do a thing about it. He and Spence managed to share a Look, despite their eyes being completely different sizes.
"The animal will be very well fed today," said Ryan.
"Good for it," said Spencer sleepily. Within minutes, Ryan could feel his whuffling snores against his arm. Ryan, however, kept his eyes peeled for imminent feline anthropophagy.
The cat didn't seem terribly interested in immediately devouring Jon and Brendon, but it was having a ball chasing after them, batting them with its paws when it caught them, or attempting to leap on them when it didn't. At one point Brendon got a hold of some of the outlying fur and pulled himself up on to the cat's back, where he swayed mightily but kept on. He yelled "Look at me, Ryan!" but Ryan just rolled his eyes and focused on the clouds, which seemed far away and close at the same time. When he looked over next, the cat was curled up around Jon, both of them apparently fast asleep. There was no sign of Brendon.
Ryan sat up, mouth drying out. He jostled Spencer, who muttered but didn't wake. "Brendon?" called Ryan. There was no reply. "Oh, shit -"
"What's wrong?" Brendon dragged himself over the side of the chair. Ryan immediately took him up in both hands and brought him close to Ryan's face, so that he could get the full effect of Ryan's glare.
"I thought you'd got eaten!"
"Naw," said Brendon comfortably. "The kitty loves me. I used to play with the cat back ho - at the old house. Cats love me. Guess who else loves me?"
"I don't know," said Ryan, "bald eagles? Vultures? Rats?"
"No, no, and no." Brendon bounced forward to the very ends of Ryan's fingertips, and planted a kiss on the tip of his nose. At least, Ryan thought it was a kiss - Brendon could have licked him; the sensation was so slight it was hard to tell. "You! Now lie back, you're more comfy that way."
"So now I'm your personal lounge," said Ryan.
"What do you mean, 'now'?" Brendon settled in against the curve of Ryan's neck, curling his legs into the hollow above Ryan's collarbone. "Oh wow, you're much less pointy at this size."
"Yeah, well, you're ... heavier."
Brendon just made a noise that was eerily close to the cat's purr and settled in closer. Which was when the screen door banged, and Ryan looked up to see Pete staring at him with a guilty expression.
"Sorry, I -"
Brendon sat up, looking at Pete with just as much curiosity as Pete was looking at him. Spencer was hidden by Ryan's arm and Jon was safe (relatively) with the cat, but Brendon and his purple boots were in full view.
"Please don't -" said Ryan, not knowing what he wanted to say. Guilt formed a leaden ball at the bottom of his stomach. Yet again, he'd failed in his duty to protect.
"So you really ..." Pete swallowed, obviously, his Adam's apple bobbing. "You really are. It wasn't just a trick."
"What do you mean?" asked Brendon. Pete started, before his face broke into one of his teeth-splitting smiles.
"You exist," he said. "All my life, I believed. Well, I hoped, mainly, but I believed. And you really exist."
Brendon looked as confused as Ryan felt, but one thing was clear: whatever else Pete was, he wasn't a danger to them.
"Listen," Pete continued, "do you guys, like, know where to find a unicorn?"
Spencer and Jon were not happy to talk to Pete, but he and Brendon had been having the longest conversation possibly ever on record. Ryan gave up timing it after an hour and a half and stared moodily across the fence instead. A tall man leaned over it at one point, winked at him - covering him in confusion and blushes - and called away the cat. Jon hid behind a tuft of grass and made his way back stealthily to the chair. He and Spencer held a whispered conversation that led to them getting Ryan to take them back inside. Ryan told Pete and Brendon where he was going, but neither of them so much as looked up. Brendon was sitting on a cupcake, pulling off chunks so he could talk with his mouth full, while Pete watched and talked in rapturous adoration.
Ryan let Spencer and Jon out of his pocket with regret, but Spencer's Ryan-sense hadn't altered with size. "See you later, loser," he said. "I know where you sleep now."
"Plus, you have an in to the best food," added Jon.
"Yeah, yeah," said Ryan. Smiling was an effort, but he made it.
No sooner had they disappeared behind the skirting than Ashlee wandered into the room, neck wrapped in orange feathers and a giant plastic flower on her head. Ryan, who respected human fashion as making so sense whatsoever, took no notice, but Ashlee laughed a little self-consciously and pulled out the flower.
"I've been cleaning out the wardrobe in the master bedroom," she explained. "Pete's granddad never touched a thing after his wife died. There's some awesome stuff in there, but most of it's junk. I mean, look at this!"
She held out the flower, which was a particularly tacky blue and surrounded by spiny plastic leaves. Ryan took it and turned it over in his hands.
"Maybe it meant something special to her," he said, slowly, thinking of his scarf and the piece of taffeta, Brendon's hats and Spencer's father's marble and the pieces of beer bottle Jon filed down into interesting shapes.
"Maybe," said Ashlee, "although more likely it came from some hideous eighties headdress, but it doesn't mean anything special to me. If we're going to move in here, we need to have room for our stuff." She added ruefully, "I wish I could say none of it included ugly plastic flowers, but that would be a lie."
"What - what happened to Old Man Wentz?" asked Ryan. "Has he gone away on vacation again? He's lived by himself all the time we've been here."
"Oh. Oh, Ryan." Ashlee's eyes went wide. "Pete's grandpa, he - well, he died, sweetie. He died a week ago."
Ryan put a hand to his forehead. "Humans die too?" he said faintly.
"Well, yes." Now Ashlee looked puzzled as well as concerned. "They die all the time, young and tragically sometimes. But Fred was eighty-seven, and he passed away peacefully in his sleep. As deaths go, it was ... kind."
"My dad's head was cut off in a mousetrap," said Ryan. The words came out neatly and one-by-one, as if Ryan said this all the time to people he barely knew, as opposed to never to anyone.
"Oh my god." Ashlee grabbed Ryan's arm - Ryan worried for a minute that she was going to shake him - and pulled him into a tight, fierce hug. It wasn't all that comfortable, because Ashlee was so much smaller than he was and the violence of her action had twisted Ryan's elbow into a weird place. Yet a small tight part inside of Ryan loosened slightly, for the first time. He took a deep breath.
"I can't even ... I don't know." Ashlee's voice was muffled somewhere below Ryan's jaw. Ryan nodded.
"I never told anyone," Ryan said, still amazed that he had now. "I mean, yeah, I told Spencer he died, but not ... how." Ashlee's arms tightened around him for a second before she stepped back to wipe her eyes.
"I'm going to get Pete to make you the biggest chocolate cake in the world," she said. "In the meantime, do you want to help me find all the other plastic flowers Kate hid in her wardrobe? You can keep them, if you want."
"I'd like that," said Ryan. "I'd like that a lot."
An hour later, he and Ashlee were sitting in the middle of a pile of clothes so big and bulky they could rest their backs against it. Ryan had never seen so many things in all his life. Although nothing would ever abate his love for Spencer's scarf, Kate Wentz had owned forty-seven: silk, cashmere, wool and even a few satin ones that Ashlee called 'wraps.' Ryan was particularly attached to the flowered blouses. Ashlee suggested he try one on, and it only escalated from there.
Ryan was now wearing a pair of flared velvet pants, pink flip-flops stuck all over with blue plastic flowers, a green silk shirt with daisies marching haphazardly across it, and a soft brown hat decorated with a purple feather. Ashlee looked no more sane, swathed in a satin opera cloak with ruby buckles, elbow length white gloves and a tiara. She'd tried to explain the concept of Daughters of the American Revolution to Ryan, but got sidetracked into explaining revolutions and America. When Ryan asked about daughters, she gave up.
"Well, it's different for me." Ryan fiddled with a worn patch in the knee of his pants, which was stitched up with big loops of silver thread. Jon would not be impressed. "Spencer, now, his parents used to live in the same house as us. They all moved away eventually - they live in this amazing apartment building and they can go visit each other by hanging on behind the elevators. And they send Spencer stuff because the human in the top apartment has pet pigeons, or something. But my dad had this thing for Borrowing the whiskey, and he'd get stupid. He was Discovered loads of times. Eventually, no one thought it was safe to stay, but - I couldn't leave him." He gulped. "Then the people who lived there started worrying about rats and mice. They put a trap in the drinks cabinet." Ashlee reached out and twined her fingers with his, freeing the thread for the moment. "After - after, I had to take him away. And. The remains. I couldn't let them see, you know? I lived by myself for a while after that. I don't really remember. Spencer came to visit one day and then his parents came and we moved into this house, so he could take care of me."
Ashlee had a really strong grip. It reminded Ryan of Brendon's.
They sat in silence for a while, until Ryan asked Ashlee about her pretty ring. It turned out humans gave them to each other when they got married. Borrowers didn’t, although Ryan was far from expert on the subject; his mom had disappeared when he was a baby. No one knew what happened to her, although there were whispers – all of them horrible.
“... So that's why I don't know much about - romance and stuff. Jon's had girlfriends, but he doesn't really care, you know? He likes a good time. Spencer has a girlfriend back in the apartment block. I think Brendon was supposed to get married, before he came here. My dad always said children are the curse of marriage, so I guess I thought you had to be married to have children."
Ashlee burbled a laugh. "Not at all." She patted her belly. "Pete and I are married, but I think the two things are so completely different that they shouldn't be connected at all. Unfortunately they are, all the time."
"So you're going to have a baby?" asked Ryan. "Where is it?"
"Oh god." Ashlee laughed harder. "Let me come back to you on the sex education. I'm pretty sure Pete has an instructive leaflet or two around - he likes to give them to the kids at shows. A one-man army battling gonorrhoea and genital warts." At Ryan's face, she just shook her head. "Never mind. Do you want to keep some of these clothes?"
Ryan nodded eagerly. "And do you have, maybe, a needle and thread?"
"You can sew?"
"I'm not sure I have any here," said Ashlee, "but we can go shopping tomorrow. You need some shoes that fit, for one. And I still haven't decided what colour to paint all these rooms. I was thinking this could be a nursery - for the baby? But it has to be gender-neutral, or Pete will have a fit."
"Paint it all colours," said Ryan, "with lots of flowers."
"You really have a thing for flowers, don't you?"
"There aren't many flowers in the walls," said Ryan simply. "Humans are so lucky."
Ashlee was silent a moment. "I would love to paint this room in flowers," she said, "but I don't have the skills. Maybe wallpaper? You can come with me and help."
"We can bring these," said Ryan. He picked up the bunch of plastic flowers they'd accumulated - Kate's collection had turned out to be monstrous - and beamed.
"You know what," said Ashlee, "we can. And the first place we're going is a park - or a florist - because you deserve to see real flowers."
Ryan laughed and flopped back against the piles of clothes. A warm, bubbly feeling filled him up inside. He didn't know what it was - it felt a little bit like the shivery feeling he got around Brendon, but less sharp and anxious - but it felt good. It felt very, very good.
Ryan decided against telling Brendon about his proposed trip to the 'mall', as Ashlee called it. It was one thing for him to sit in the relative safety of Pete's garden and talk to him about - whatever they were talking about; it was quite another for him to venture out into the public eye. Ryan felt terrified enough at the prospect without adding concern for Brendon's welfare to the mix - although he admitted that he would have liked Brendon's moral support. For all his flighty, flirty ways, Brendon had proved himself to be a pillar of support in the last few days. But Ryan felt enough guilt about most things in his life to add misjudging Brendon's character to the list.
Ashlee had soon tired of the limited prospects put forward by Kate Wentz's wardrobe, but Ryan didn't fail to be intrigued and excited for the rest of the night. Even the prospect of chocolate cake - which Spencer had once had on a birthday, stale and crumbly but still so good - didn't entice him away without reluctance. Ashlee found an old sewing kit of Kate's among her things, and Ryan whiled away the evening cutting and tacking things that appealed to his imagination, trying to fit them to the images behind his eyes. At one o'clock Ashlee popped her head around the door and told him he should get to bed, otherwise he'd be tired getting up early in the morning. Ryan hadn't even noticed the time passing.
Ryan wasn't sure what sort of costume humans were required to wear at malls, so he decided to put on something he'd created the night before. He was certain Pete and Ashlee would tell him if it was wrong. Ryan himself was exceedingly pleased with it. The tight green trousers went well with the flowery flip-flops, reminding him of fields on TV shows, although sadly deficient of cows. He'd eventually worked out how suspenders worked; Fred Wentz had owned a dashing set in gold lame, which accented the stitching he'd sewn into the pink blouse. The crowning touch was the hat. It was a bowler, one that had once been very dull, but was now reworked with a coil of plastic flowers and a small veil in back that Ryan had pinned up in loops of silver lace.
The effect on Ashlee and Pete - who were both wearing jeans and what looked like matching t-shirts - was certainly profound. Neither of them spoke for a good twenty seconds. Then Pete burst out a grin.
"My man!" he said. "You look sick! Where do you get that stuff?"
"Ashlee said I could keep a few things of your grandmother's," said Ryan, secretly elated by this reception.
"You look like - an imagination on legs." Ashlee stood up to inspect him more closely. "I never saw that blouse last night. I really like the roses on it."
"I stitched them on," said Ryan. "Roses are the only flower Jon knows how to do."
Ashlee's fine eyebrows met her long bangs. "You seriously did that? In a few hours?"
"And look at this hat!" enthused Pete. "Patrick would love it."
"Because he's in mourning?" said Ashlee. "It has a mantilla on the back."
"Was it not supposed to?" asked Ryan anxiously. "I just liked how it looked."
"Fashion," said Ashlee, "is all about that. God, you'll be the next Karl Lagerfeld or something."
Pete jumped up on tiptoes to hug Ryan's shoulders. "You are totally my favourite," he said.
It was probably not very mature of Ryan, but he felt very smug at that. Ha, Brendon, he thought meanly.
Ryan looked back with nothing but fondness on Mrs Smith's reading classes, but they just weren't equipped for preparing you to deal with human books. It wasn't till he sat back with an aching neck and yards of white fabric patterned with gardenias - Ashlee had bought him a book on flowers - that he realised he'd spent a whole day without the company of one of his friends. That hadn't happened since his father's death.
Yet he hadn't felt lonely. He could hear the sounds of Ashlee stripping paint and Pete cooking. They frequently popped their heads into his room to check how he was doing. Ashlee had claimed the fabric already for her baby's bedroom. The first thing Ryan planned on learning was how to sew curtains.
The setting sun streamed in the window with a vengeance that suggested it had a personal vendetta against both any metal surface and Ryan's face. Despite sitting mostly still, he was sweaty and not smelling of the sweetest. That was saying something, considering that Jon liked to go 'au naturel' for weeks on end. Ryan called down the stairs, where Ashlee and Pete had last been spotted. Pete turned up, his face smeared with flour.
"What up, Karl Lagerfeld?"
"Is it all right if I take another bath?"
Pete started to laugh and caught himself midway. "Sure, knock yourself out. You know how to work it and stuff?" Ryan nodded. "Cool. Dinner'll be about an hour!"
Ryan stripped in his bedroom and, swaddled in the lime green dressing gown, padded down the hall to the bathroom. It was warm and a little muggy.
Ryan sat on the floor, paddling his hand in the slowly rising, scented water. He occasionally closed his eyes and leaned against the cool marble. The water was just this side of too-hot and he liked the way his hand gently burned. When it was frothing with pale pink bubbles, Ryan slipped out of the dressing gown and stepped into the water. An involuntary hiss broke his lips as his skin met the burst of heat, but it turned from a slap to a caress as he slid under. The tingle seeped through his skin. He didn't think anything else in the world could feel so good.
He splashed the water at his toes, loving the way every inch of skin was abrading clean. It was the state of deep relaxation the whole experience engendered that probably saved him from drowning when a cheery little voice said, "Hi, Ryan!" Instead of squawking and disappearing beneath the water, there to breathe his last, Ryan just knocked his head on the back of the bath and said, "Ow!"
"Are you okay?" asked Brendon - for Brendon it was - not sounding sincerely anxious so much as sincerely amused. Ryan scowled and snatched his legs to his chest, sending great waves of water out over the sides of the bath.
"Where are you?" he demanded. "More importantly, how long have you been watching?"
"I'm hurt that you would think I'd do a thing like that." Brendon lightly dropped down from the soap dish on to the lip of the bath. He was dressed in a billowy pair of pants and nothing else. "Are you going to invite me in?"
"To my bath?" said Ryan, growing more indignant with every word. "Get lost."
"You're crap at sharing," Brendon informed him, seconds before he grabbed his nose and leapt into space. "Kowabunga!"
"Brendon!" Ryan half-screamed. Brendon sent up a small arc of water as he plunged through the surface. Ryan scrabbled frantically along the bottom of the bath, at last locating Brendon's squirming figure and lifting him out. Brendon was red-faced and gasping, but for all that he seemed no less delighted with himself than usual.
"That was awesome!" he yelped. "Put me back up so I can do it again!"
"I'll do no such thing! God, Brendon, why are you always so keen to do dangerous shit that could kill you?"
Brendon was silent for a moment. Ryan, who hadn't expected Brendon to take more notice of this remonstration than he did any other, was disconcerted. He wanted to rub his face, which was prickling with heat and rage, but his hands were cupped around Brendon, so he couldn't.
"Because otherwise I might as well be dead," said Brendon softly. "Or stuck back in the dollhouse, never moving, never talking, never doing." He wriggled, clawing at Ryan's fingers as if that would affect any change in their position. "Lemme go, then. I'll stop bothering you."
"Shut up, asshole." Ryan sighed, tipped Brendon fully into one palm - ignoring his squawks - and grabbed a sponge shaped like a duck, which was floating near his toes. He placed Brendon atop this and sent it spinning off. Ryan made a few lethargic waves with one hand while he relaxed and closed his eyes.
"Open your eyes."
There was a pause, followed by the sounds of determined paddling. Ryan let his eyes drift open to slits, just enough so that they still looked closed and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Brendon was riding the sponge duck with gusto - and it was working. A few seconds later he floated up to Ryan's chest; the duck's beak prodded him insistently just below his left nipple. Ryan hadn't even realised he was ticklish there, but he let out an involuntary snort of laughter all the same.
"Ryan." Brendon whispered it, even though there was no chance Ryan was fooling him now.
"Are you naked under there?"
"What?" Ryan frantically fluffed up the bubbles around his legs. They were still plenty numerous and, as chastity manoeuvres went, were pretty nifty. Still, the idea that Brendon had been looking -
Ryan's sudden full-body flush wasn't helped by Brendon crowing, "You are!"
"I'm washing," said Ryan defensively. "You can't wash properly while clothed."
"Yes, and please stay that way!" Ryan's voice hit a very high note at the end. Brendon leaned back on the duck and laughed, his bare chest hitching with the movement. His pants were white and practically transparent when wet, so they were even worse than bubbles for hiding anything. Ryan abruptly decided he was clean enough for the moment.
"I'm getting out," he announced. "Close your eyes."
Brendon rolled them instead. "You realise we both have dicks, right? Yours isn't going to shock me to death."
"It's called being modest," said Ryan stiffly. Brendon huffed.
"Fine." He rolled on to his stomach and paddled away from Ryan.
"Don't look this time, either."
"Well, don't throw things at my head! I tend to take it badly."
Ryan didn't answer, but he got out of the water and into a pair of sweatpants a lot faster than he'd thought possible, given his persisting awkwardness with all things human-sized. Brendon was still paddling in a direction determinedly opposite to Ryan, humming faintly and tunefully. Ryan took a washcloth off the rack and knelt down by the bath.
Brendon wasn't expecting to be picked up, but his reaction was more one of grief at parting from the duck than shock or annoyance. Ryan rolled him up in the washcloth and put him on a sun-splashed patch of nubbly bathmat while he continued dressing. When he was arrayed in another of William's t-shirts (this one reading 'Gabe is not a synonym for Sisky') and the pink flip-flops, Brendon still hadn't moved. His eyes were fixed on Ryan and his expression was thoughtful.
"I missed you today," he said. "Why didn't you come get us? Jon has been just dying for more pancakes."
"I, uh, was busy. I didn't think you'd notice."
"Of course we notice," said Brendon. "Do you ... not like spending time with me? I mean, us?"
"It's not that." Ryan sat cross-legged on the floor. Brendon stood up and climbed on to Ryan's knee, trailing the washcloth like a cape. He was still a little damp, soaking through to Ryan's skin, but Ryan didn't mind. "We spend all our time together, usually. It's interesting to get to know new people. Humans aren't what I thought they'd be."
"What did you think they'd be?" Brendon peered out from under a hood of terrycloth.
Ryan thought. "Evil. Harder. Less ... less like us."
"Anyone who invents TV can't be all bad," said Brendon.
"Yeah, but," Ryan hesitated, "they also invented dollhouses."
"Sure they did," said Brendon, "for dolls. We aren't dolls. The only ones who made us act like we were was, well, us."
Ryan's finger found Brendon's head and began gently massaging his hair dry. Brendon arched into the touch, half-closing his eyes. "My mom used to brush my hair with a Barbie brush," he said dreamily. "I loved that."
Ryan thought about the toy store he'd visited with Ashlee, who'd cooed over the tiny bicycles and Tonka trucks. Ryan had wanted very much to take home some of the doll clothes, to see what Spencer would look like in a proper shirt or Brendon in, well, anything. But he had no money, and the human world needed money for everything. That was a worry Ryan was currently shelving, far in the dusty recesses of his mind.
He took Brendon back to his bedroom and Brendon got comfy in the dent in the pillow left by Ryan's head. When Ryan hopped in himself, Brendon made no effort to move.
"It's bedtime now," Ryan tried.
"Yeah." Brendon yawned, stretching his arms up high before knuckling his eyes vigorously. Ryan did not find it cute, whatever his eyes had to say about it. "I'm so sleepy."
"So maybe you should go back to your own bed?"
Brendon started to smile, but buried it in the pillow. His voice came out muffled. "I like yours better."
"Fine." Ryan gave in and lay down. It wasn't like Brendon took up a huge amount of space, after all.
When they both fell asleep, it was with Brendon curled around Ryan's thumb, the curve of Ryan's hand sheltering his body.
Time moved on, and before Ryan knew it, a week had passed, and two. Time seemed faster and more liquid when you were this big. There was just so much more to do - even eating took longer - that time didn't hang on his hands the way he was used to. Hours passed when he didn't think about Spencer or Jon, although he rarely got through five minutes without remembering Brendon in some way. Ryan woke up one morning with a strange feeling and realised he hadn't seen Spencer in three days, Jon in five, and Brendon all of yesterday.
Ryan got up and, like he did every morning, sorted through the meticulously folded pile of clean clothes. Ashlee had taught him to use the washing machine and Pete to iron a few days after what they were now calling his 'arrival'. Ryan had yet to get over the novelty of it. Pete just laughed and accepted his flat-ironed socks; Ashlee said she never thought she'd see the day when not just one, but two men around the house were willing to do all the ironing.
The house was quiet as he shuffled downstairs. Pete and Ashlee weren't there all the time - in fact, they didn't even live there properly yet. They had another house somewhere else, to where they were always returning to meet people who didn't know about this one or who lived too far away to visit. Ryan guessed it was like the way Spencer's parents couldn't just come by at the drop of a hat, the way they'd used to when they all lived in the same house and Ryan's dad didn't drink so much.
Ryan was quite au fait with the cooking facilities now. There had been a run-in with the oven and the sudden appearance of smoke and flames, but Ashlee was determined. Pete wanted to start right away at teaching him things like Baked Alaska and cherries jubilee, but Ashlee was firm in her resolution to have Ryan boil an egg without killing himself first.
"It does not bode well for the future," she'd confided to Ryan. "He'll have Kiddo here learning ballet and karate before it can even crawl."
Ryan had vague thoughts of making French toast with strawberries, which thoughts he'd been having pretty continuously since he'd first tasted it. He walked unthinkingly through the living room, riffling his hands through his sleep-crumpled hair. He nearly jumped out of his skin when an amused voice said, "Love the t-shirt. I suppose I should - it is, after all, mine."
Ryan turned slowly, feeling the back of his neck prickle. William was sitting on the sofa, arms stretched out along the back and one ankle louchely hooked over the opposite knee. He was wearing cowboy boots and a thin pale shirt that clung to dips and curves Ryan hadn't even known could exist on a man's body.
"Pete isn't here," said Ryan. He knew the t-shirt was William's - even if every t-shirt he had wasn't, it would have been pretty obvious because of the way someone had scrawled 'Billvy = love' twelve times all over it.
"I'm aware of that," said William. His smile was stolen from a shark. "I just came from Gabe's. They're working on that Eat Me machine again."
"Eat Me?" said Ryan, confused.
"With pleasure." William's eyes flashed darkly for a second, before he registered Ryan's confusion. "Haven't you ever read Alice in Wonderland? Eat Me and Drink Me. One made you big and one made you small. I don't know why Gabe keeps on with it - it's never going to work. He might as well take a spaceship to the first star on the right."
Ryan, all too aware of just how well Gabe's machine worked, said nothing. William seemed happy to stare at him for a while, running his eyes up and down Ryan until Ryan's toes curled in under themselves.
Eventually William tired of this and patted the seat beside him. "Siddown," he said. "You are a mystery to me. Pete usually can't shut up about his new proteges, but you he's been annoying close-lipped about. If it weren't for Ashlee and the Womb of Doom, I'd say he'd got himself another little boy toy."
Ryan didn't understand half of this, but the meaning behind William's words was clear and Ryan didn't like it. "I was going to have breakfast, actually," he said. "But I'm sure Pete won't mind you hanging out."
"I'm sure he won't!" William threw back his head and laughed - at what, Ryan couldn't fathom. But his neck was long and slender and the way it moved sent hot shivers down Ryan's thighs. Abruptly, Ryan turned around and went into the kitchen.
The rhythm of preparation soon soothed him - cutting the crusts neatly off the bread, quartering the strawberries, preparing the plates. He was beating eggs in a bowl and whistling to himself - something he'd doubtless picked up from Brendon - when a warm weight enveloped his back.
"Whatcha doing?" William breathed into his ear.
"Uh, beating eggs." Ryan thought it would be impolite to simply thrust William off, although it was what he felt like doing. "You have to make them really light, you see, or they go gloopy -"
William's hand slid around his waist, unerringly finding the skin revealed between his sweat pants and the hem of his t-shirt. Every hair on Ryan's body stood on end, and he froze.
"Do you like that?" asked William, still in the same soft, contoured voice.
"I, uh - what?" William's little finger dug into his bellybutton, scooping beneath the waistband of his sweatpants as Ryan hissed in a breath. He dropped the whisk, eggs forgotten.
He didn't mean to let William do anything. The crawly feeling in his skin was only one step removed from horror, but it was closer to want than Ryan could ignore. William's hot hands turned him like a top until Ryan was trapped between William and the counter, the edge cold against his bare back because William slid his tshirt up, up, up, thumbs sinking roughly into his flesh.
When William kissed him, it was overpowering. Ryan's eyes closed and his mouth opened all in the same instant. The new sensation of being touched and kissed and held was liquifyingly intense. William's tongue pushed against his teeth in heavy strokes, making Ryan's breath catch in his throat. He grabbed William's hips to stop himself falling, which was when he heard a tiny, horrified voice say, "Ryan?" and a louder, angrier one say, "William!"
William leaned away from Ryan, but his thigh was still pressed between Ryan's knees and no one looking at Ryan could have failed to guess what had just happened. Pete looked angrier than Ryan had ever seen him, even when America's Next Top Model had been unexpectedly cancelled one night.
"I told you to leave him alone, you jackass!" Pete stormed over to William and pulled him away by the back of his shirt. Clearly he was like Brendon, in that he concealed strength in a tiny, fragile frame. The thought of Brendon made Ryan sick to his stomach. He wiped his hand across his mouth.
"He's a big boy, he can take care of himself," said William.
"Oh, fuck you," said Pete. "When I say things like that, I mean them."
"You also said that the demons of hell would hunt me down if I stole Patrick's hats," said William. "So far, no hellfire."
"Get out of my house, or so help me, I will feed you to Tyson's stupid fluffy animal." Pete was shaking, his fisted hands jittering.
"Jeez, man, calm down." William put up two hands. "I'm going, I'm going."
"Where do you want this?" called a voice from the hall. A moment later Gabe backed into the room, carrying a huge box. William's face went white and red, with some pink for variety. Gabe's face lit up when he saw him.
"Billvy, my man!" he said. "You're up before noon! Are you ill?"
"No, I was looking for you," William lied outright.
"Didn't I say I'd be in the lab today?" Gabe frowned. "Sorry."
"No big. I'll see you at home, 'kay?" William sauntered out, and if it was a little faster than usual, no one commented.
"That was weird," said Gabe.
"You don't say," said Pete grimly, and without asking tipped Ryan's eggs down the sink. Ryan opened his mouth to speak, but Gabe made a slashing motion with his hand. Ryan was happy enough to take the excuse; he didn't know what to say to Pete anyway.
He called and called for Brendon - or Spencer, or Jon - after Pete and Gabe went back to the lab, but no one answered.
Pete found Ryan slumped in Old Man Wentz's La-Z-Boy. The look on his face changed from chastising to empathic as soon as he saw Ryan's face. Being tiny, he was easily able to perch on the arm of the chair and hug Ryan at the same time.
"I'm sorry about William," said Pete. "He's, well. He's not good at dealing with his feelings. He's attracted to people like a kid is attracted to shiny things and dirt, and once he has them he doesn't know what to do with them. I didn't want that to happen to you, not after - everything else."
"I didn't mean to upset you," said Ryan lowly.
"You didn't upset me! Maybe you upset William, but he'll get over it as soon as he finds another piece of ass. Or falls in love properly for the first time. You deserve more than that."
They were mutually quiet for a minute, then - "The others aren't talking to me," said Ryan. "It's the first time I haven't seen Brendon for this long."
Pete bit his lip. "Ah. Well, I've got some news for you that will probably stop you thinking about them for a while."
Pete nodded. "I'm really sorry, Ryan, but it looks like you'll be this size for a long time. Forever, really. Gabe's experiments with the reverse-transcriptor have been yielding totally random results. It was only by chance that it worked on you. A really bad chance, I guess. He's not even sure what he did to create it, so he has no idea how to reverse it. I'm pretty sure he was drunk when he assembled it, actually." Pete abruptly stopped talking, scratching his head. He was probably provoked by the look on Ryan's face; Ryan didn't know what it was, himself, but if the way his lungs were turning inside out was any indication, it wasn't pretty.
"I'm going to be this big forever," he repeated. "But I'm not human."
"It's not that hard," offered Pete. "You can cook now, which is more than many can say."
"But - money," said Ryan. "Humans can't live without it and I have none. And where will I live?" He felt like he was gasping the words. "There's no wall big enough."
"Ryan. Ryan, look at me. I feel responsible for this; so does Ashlee, so does Gabe. We're not going to abandon you." Pete smiled. "Between us we've had about seventy years' worth of experience being human. I'm sure we can give you some pointers. Avoid racism, debt and getting behind little old ladies in lines, for starters."
"I don't even know - what's an inline?"
"Ah," said Pete, "you will have a long time to appreciate the joy of those." He hopped off the chair and dragged closer the box that Gabe had been carrying earlier. "This is for you."
Ryan's fingers proved unequal to the task of breaking through the layers of tape and cardboard, so Pete was obliged to run to the kitchen and fetch a variety of cutting devices, most of which they discarded in the battle with the wrapping. At long last, the styrofoam-covered object inside was set free. Ryan knocked the shells aside to reveal a gleaming white machine.
"What is it?" he breathed.
"A Singer Futura." Pete beamed proudly. At Ryan's lack of enlightenment, he added, "It's a sewing machine. That stuff you do with a needle is amazing, but this is easier, and faster. Plus, the lady at the store told me there's all kinds of things you can do with it that you can't with ordinary sewing. I ... don't really know, she lost me after embroidery."
"I saw one of these once," said Ryan. "Old Man Wentz left on the Shopping Channel when he fell asleep."
"There's an instruction manual." Pete rummaged around in the debris of the packaging. "Pretty much looks like gibberish crossed with Dutch, but, you know. You've got time to translate it."
"I don't know how to thank you," said Ryan.
"Don't," said Pete. "This is my way of apologising to you." He stood up and brushed off his jeans. "Listen, I've gotta get back to the lab. Gabe is freaking out, he's about to go on another bender and there's a lot of fragile glass here. If you hear a lot of shouting later on, just ignore it, 'kay? Gabe gets pretty ... decibel friendly with the need to tell everyone how much he loves stars and shit."
"And William," said Ryan, half-engrossed in a page that told him about the programmable needles. He barely saw Pete start.
"Yeah," said Pete, softly, after a moment. "Anyway, catch you later. Ashlee's at her sister's for the day. Next thing I'm gonna get you is a cell, but you'll be okay for a few hours, right?"
"Huh?" Ryan looked up from a diagram on hooping his fabric. "Oh, sure."
"Take care of yourself," said Pete, and it sounded a bit like a warning. A warning too late, Ryan thought. He carried the sewing machine upstairs and lost himself in it. It was a vastly superior alternative to thinking.
Ryan fell asleep after stepping back from the sewing machine and collapsing on to his bed. He was indeed woken by shouting - it sounded like Pete remonstrating with Gabe, who was gaily singing 'Smash, smash, smash!' But sleep was a sucking vortex dragging him back in, so he wasn't sure if it was minutes or hours later that he woke again. This time all was quiet, and it took a few seconds for Ryan to realise what had woken him. It was the odd, creepy sensation of being watched. Also, someone was stroking his hair.
Ryan had been having a lovely dream - vague as hell, but lovely. The hair-stroking seemed more of the same. He let a pleased little noise slip from between his lips.
"Wake up," said a familiar voice softly.
"Mmm," mumbled Ryan. "Brendon? Where are you?"
"I'm right here." Brendon's hand stilled on Ryan's hair, except for his thumb, which was rubbing circles into Ryan's temple. Ryan woke up a little more and started to feel confused. How could Brendon be - was he small again? Had the humans been a terrible dream?
"What," Ryan swallowed, "what are you doing?"
"Are you awake yet?" said Brendon, for an answer. "I have something to show you."
"Umph," was Ryan's reply. The bedsprings chinked as Brendon got off the bed - and wait, that made no sense - Ryan sat up, scratching his eyes. Brendon was standing in a shaft of moonlight, wearing an over-large button-down shirt and grey boxers. He was the most beautiful thing Ryan had ever seen. And he was human-sized.
"What the fuck?" whispered Ryan, scared out of his mind. "No, what the fuck? Brendon. No. I'm dreaming, right?"
"I hope it's a good dream." Brendon's smile twitched on and off. He bent his head to begin undoing buttons. His hair fell into his eyes and Ryan could see that he was biting his lip. Buttons required concentration, he knew from experience. But you only undid buttons to take things off -
Brendon yanked out the last remaining buttons and tried to shrug off the shirt. It got stuck at his wrists; with a growl, he shook his hands free. Meanwhile, a thick band of heat was burning its way down Ryan's belly. If Brendon was doing what Ryan thought he was doing - but why was Brendon doing that? - it didn't feel like it did with William, and Brendon was clumsily crawling on to the bed, knocking his knees against Ryan's until he was sitting on Ryan's thighs. Effectively trapping him, but Ryan barely noticed.
"I don't know how to work these," whispered Brendon. He held out his wrists, swathed in pale blue and white stripes. His hands were shaking slightly, and his chest rose and fell too rapidly to be normal. Ryan pushed Brendon's hands aside and struggled to sit upright.
"I don't understand," he said helplessly.
"Okay," said Brendon, sighing a little, as if in annoyance at Ryan's obtuseness, "I'm not sure, though, what -" He leaned forward, not very gracefully, and pressed his lips to the delicate skin crossing Ryan's jaw. Ryan gasped in shock and - something else. Brendon laughed a little breathlessly and did it again, his lips clinging for longer this time.
Ryan curled his hand around Brendon's face, intending to push him away. It didn't quite work out as planned, because Brendon chose that moment to dart his tongue against the spot he'd kissed. Ryan's hips jerked up beneath Brendon's.
"No." Brendon lifted his head, only to drop his mouth on to Ryan's in a crushing, almost painful kiss. It lasted barely a second, but Brendon was panting when he drew away. Ryan stared at him, eyes big and wondering. "You don't get to - not let me do this, when you did it with him and - and who is he, anyway? If I thought you'd let me I'd have done it the first week, the first day."
"I didn't - I didn't let him," said Ryan. "I wasn't expecting - but why did you make yourself bigger? It's permanent! Pete only told me last night. I can never go back, and now you can't either."
Brendon lifted one shoulder, a half-hearted shrug. "So? I don't want to be there if you're not."
Ryan grabbed Brendon's elbows for something to hold on to. But Brendon took the gesture differently, because he smiled and laid himself gently across Ryan's body, nuzzling his lips against Ryan's ear. His leg slid over Ryan until he was pinned and claimed in all directions, Brendon's breath tickling his neck and his fingertips brushing Ryan's face like it was the first thing he'd ever touched.
"Brendon?" Ryan tried, but it was too late. Brendon was asleep. Ryan smoothed the hair out of his face, trailing his fingers through the knotted silk strands, and smiled till it hurt.
Ryan woke overheated, from a double whammy of beery sunshine pouring on to his head and Brendon's slack weight across him, atop him and probably under him too, if the bump below his shoulder blades was Brendon's arm. Brendon was snuffling into Ryan's neck, which was damp all down one side. And something - something hard - was poking insistently into Ryan's hip.
Ryan tried to push Brendon off, but Brendon just made a noise of discontent and burrowed closer. The arm buried beneath Ryan wriggled further around until Brendon was clutching him around the middle. One of his legs was thrown across Ryan's thighs.
Ryan turned his eyes - about the only things that weren't being in some way held down - to discover what exactly was poking him. He could see the swell of Brendon's arm muscles - a lot prettier this size, and this close - a ruch of fabric slipping down from where it was still trapped about Brendon's wrists, Brendon's bellybutton, some pink sheet lines across his stomach, and his boxers, which were tenting in the middle.
"Brendon!" Ryan began pushing in earnest, alarmed and aroused and alarmed at being aroused.
"Whaaaat," mumbled Brendon. He dug his forehead against Ryan's chin. Ryan refused to find it adorable.
"Your - your thing is digging me in the side!" Ryan did not shriek; that is what he liked to think.
The little wet spluttering noises, Ryan eventually deduced, were Brendon laughing and trying to stifle it in Ryan's neck. At last, Brendon raised his head, hair all tousled and eyes warm and sleepy. Ryan felt heat suffuse his skin, tightening and drawing it up, but he ignored it.
"It does that every morning," he said. "Doesn't yours? It goes away after a while."
Ryan blushed. Hard. "Yeah, but - I can feel it."
"Oh - sorry." The sheets rustled as Brendon scrunched around a bit. Ryan levered himself up to give Brendon room. They ended up face to face. Brendon's hand settled on Ryan's waist, tapping a beat on the bare skin under his t-shirt. Ryan couldn't meet Brendon's eyes, so he focused on the cleft of his chin, the little pulse bouncing near his jaw.
"Ryan, I -" Brendon was panting a little, which made Ryan blush harder; he didn't know why. "I wanna kiss you."
"Yeah?" The heat in Ryan's cheeks ran through his brain; he had to close his eyes in need and embarrassment. Hotter and hotter, until he realised it wasn't all in his head, that Brendon's hot, chapped lips were pressed against his, unmoving. Ryan half-gasped, parting his lips in surprise. Brendon took that for permission, because he pressed in harder. So hard, in fact, that Ryan's teeth were smashed against his inner lip. He let out a mewl of pain.
"Sorry, sorry." Brendon ripped his mouth away, which wasn't what Ryan wanted at all. "I don't know how - I'm sorry."
"Shh." Drilling up courage from he didn't know where, Ryan slotted his hands either side of Brendon's face and pulled him back in. He let Brendon's lips touch his gently and rubbed them together, until they were slightly wet and sticky and everything moulded together more smoothly. Ryan remembered William doing something with his tongue, so he let his bottom lip fall open and just touched the tip of his tongue to the corner of Brendon's mouth. Brendon let out a gasp and licked back at Ryan's mouth.
Their tongues met in the middle, rough-warm and shocking. Brendon scrabbled at Ryan's side, pulling him closer, and like that his dick was jabbing at Ryan again. He didn't mind so much now, because it was sliding into the soft join between his thigh and his belly. Plus, his own dick was sort of trapped against Brendon's belly, which was firm and hard and Ryan was rocking up against it before he knew what he was doing.
Brendon broke the kiss and stared down at him, his cheeks all pink. "Ryan," he breathed.
"Sorry," said Ryan, but his hips were still rolling up and his hand moved to grip Brendon's hip, get a better angle.
"Can I - move?" whispered Brendon.
Ryan bit his lip and nodded, overcome. It was intense and sort of humiliating: the ragged noises from deep in his throat, the helpless thrusts that Brendon was meeting with even greater urgency. Brendon's mouth found his again, sloppy and awkward, his stubble grazing Ryan's cheek as their movements grew more frantic. Ryan's hand fell from Brendon's hip to his ass, squeezing in, because no one alive could resist that temptation. Brendon gasped and stopped moving; a second later, hot wetness seeped through to Ryan's dick. He felt he should be pissed off about it, but in fact his thighs clenched and his fingers dug into Brendon's flesh and he came too.
"Oh," said Brendon. "Ryan. Ryan."
"Shut up," mumbled Ryan. He belied his words with a swipe to Brendon's cheek, rubbing his palm across the tiny hairs and curling around the curve of his skull to drag him down again. Ryan could hear the sounds of their kissing now, outside of the hotwetslick feeling of it - tiny tucks and 'uhs' and guttering moans. Which was, of course, when Pete burst into the room.
"Ryan, where's Brendon, there's been a terrible - oh god." Pete covered his eyes, but almost immediately snapped open two fingers to peek through. "Seriously, guys? Seriously?"
Ryan couldn't speak. Brendon was laughing, hugging Ryan's neck and pressing his face to Brendon's collarbone as if he understood and was trying to hide Ryan's humiliation.
"We're kind of busy," said Brendon.
"You are getting jiggy in my spare-room bed," said Pete. "I'm so glad I taught Ryan to use the washing machine. So glad."
"We could maybe get jiggy again if you left," Brendon suggested.
"But, B," said Pete, "Gabe's about going mad downstairs. He said you coerced him while drunk and then he smashed the machine to bits, so any chance either of you had of turning back is completely gone -" Ryan stiffened. Brendon felt it, and hugged tighter. "- Why did you do it?"
"Ryan was alone," said Brendon. "And - and I saw him with William, and - he's mine, all right? He's mine, and I was losing him all the time and if I stayed small I'd lose him forever. That's all."
"You're crazy," said Pete, but Ryan looked up in time to see his face. It was as if Brendon had told him where to find a unicorn.
"I don't know if we can survive being human," said Ryan softly.
"I don't either," said Pete. "I just wake up every day and see how it goes. You'll catch on quick."
"Brendon!" yelled Ryan. "I think I'm finished!"
Brendon thundered up the stairs. As a Borrower, he could do nothing quietly; as a human, he revelled in making as much noise as possible. Even in bed, but Ryan was learning to deal with that. The secondary benefits were enormous.
Brendon collapsed across Ryan's shoulders and looked at the screen. Ryan had got the hang of typing quickly, while Brendon still picked out sentences with one finger and got bored after two. "That looks amazing," said Brendon. "So when will you make your first million and keep me in the lap of luxury?"
Sometimes, Ryan worried about the way Brendon fixated on really weird human ideas. "In three thousand and four years," he said. "If I can make enough to cover bills, we'll be doing well."
Brendon jumped off Ryan's shoulders and twirled around the room. Ashlee taking him to dance class had been an inspired move; the instructor was already talking about hiring him to teach kids. Pete was more excited about what Brendon could do with a guitar - how he could accompany his made-up songs almost without thinking.
A sound of scuffling came from the sideboard and a second later Spencer and Jon tumbled on to the carpet. Hayley was still too scared to come out in front of the humans, no matter how many times Spencer explained that Brendon and Ryan weren't; but his family and Jon's friends, who had all moved over, didn't mind as long as they got beer or food or Ryan's handmade clothes out of it.
"How are the renovations coming?" asked Ryan.
"Tom about died when Gabe gave him that little soldered hammer," said Jon exultingly. "The walls are gonna be so good when they're done, you guys. You won't believe your eyes."
Ryan and Brendon exchanged a look. Brendon squeezed Ryan's shoulder as Jon went on unheedingly. "He also said Pete promised him Borrower-sized Clan t-shirts. You up for that?"
"Sure," said Ryan. Pete's line of Ryan's designs was doing extremely well; it wasn't the first time the Borrowers had asked for copies. In fact, that was where Pete had got his idea for Ryan's mini-business in speciality doll-wear. The computer pinged. "Hang on, I've got an email."
"Wow, already?" said Brendon.
"It's probably just Pete," said Ryan, rolling his eyes.
It wasn't. The body of the email contained a mailing address, the sight of which made Brendon curl up into himself. He still did that sometimes, especially when there were ads for toys on TV.
"Is this -" Ryan gestured at the screen, but his eyes were on Brendon. Who nodded, stiffly, once.
"Yeah," he said, "it is."
Mrs Hughes hated people who rang doorbells. She preferred knocking, which was less insistent, and no one ever slammed their fist against a door the way they'd lean on a doorbell. But her daughter-in-law had insisted. "You can't live without modern appliances, Ma," she'd said. Mrs Hughes felt like telling Alma she wasn't her mother and, thank the lord, never had been, but Alma had Marv under her thumb. Alma would stop her seeing the grandchildren if Mrs Hughes made waves, because Marv had the spine of a dead meercat.
So she was well-disposed to whoever was at the door, because they knocked ever so quietly. As she shuffled towards the porch, she could see two faint shapes outside it. They were arguing; she could tell by the cant of their heads and the pitch of the conversation.
"- said we should press this button," said the dark-haired one as she opened the door.
"Hello, boys." Mrs Hughes smiled. She'd heard about gays from Alma, who thought they should all be horse-whipped into heterosexual submission. Mrs Hughes thought a woman who looked as much like a man as Alma did shouldn't be so hasty in wishing for such a thing. The boys had clearly just been holding hands, because they were standing too close and the little one was turned towards the other like a sunflower reaching for light. "What can I do for you?"
The tall, curly-haired one looked down at his companion, whose lower lip was disappearing between his teeth. He reached for the dark-haired boy's hand and said, "We heard - we were researching on the internet. I know this is a strange request, but - we were hoping we could buy your dollhouse."