It was possible, after careful thought – jealous stomach-clenching, check; buzz off close contact, check - that Ryan was a little bit infatuated with Brendon. Sad, but possible.
Brendon was. Okay, so Brendon was actually sort of really adorably hot. Ryan was willing to admit that agreeing to hang out in his room - it was a pretty normal room, too, as far as rooms went, except for the fact that he had a couple My Little Ponies on a wall shelf, set up around a pink and purple corral and barn combo, but that actually wasn’t so surprising, coming from Brendon - was maybe a bad idea.
Hanging out on Brendon’s bed was definitely a bad move, Ryan realized, halfway through Teen Witch, which was possibly the least sexy movie ever, and yet Brendon was snuggled up next to him petting the inside his arm, and Ryan felt hot all over.
Brendon was humming under his breath, cheek vibrating along Ryan’s shoulder, and all Ryan wanted to do was push him back on his pillow, press his weight into him, rub against him, all over, Christ, and maybe, like, bite his mouth. God. The humming was driving him crazy.
“Brendon.” Brendon slowly tipped his head up, eyes heavy-lidded with this sleepy hazy cast, and Ryan couldn’t help himself. “Hey,” he said, smoothing a hand onto Brendon’s thigh.
Brendon’s breath hitched and he went almost preternaturally still. “Um,” Brendon swallowed, “I don’t think—”
Ryan’s hand slid higher. “It’s okay,” he said, voice dropping down to its normal register, husky, and Brendon groaned a little, low, and it was awesome, this power Ryan suddenly had over him. He leaned down, mouth ghosting Brendon’s and just sort of lingering there, Brendon’s stiffness giving way to tiny shakes, fingers shifting to grip the front of Ryan’s blouse, tangling with buttons, one of them slipping past the fabric to skim Ryan’s bare stomach, and then Brendon gasped and scrambled away, hands out.
“Um. I’m gay,” Brendon said, eyes huge, confused, and Ryan almost laughed at that, until he realized, fuck, he was gay, and Ryan was supposed to be a girl, and that had to be all sorts of ironic.
“I didn’t mean,” Ryan floundered a little, because he couldn’t think of a single thing to say to make it right and okay, not when Brendon was so obviously freaking out. And even if Ryan wanted to reveal himself, could reveal himself, well. He’d been lying to Brendon and his friends for the better part of a month, and he wasn’t sure that’d go over too well. “I’m sorry, hey, let’s just. Can we just forget about this?”
Brendon nodded, biting his lip and sort of curled into himself on the other side of the mattress. “Sure, yeah,” he said.
Ryan stayed for the rest of the movie. He figured it would’ve been even more awkward if he’d left, and after a few minutes Brendon started lightly singing along with Popular Girl and they both just sort of relaxed. Ryan slumped down and Brendon curled up on his side, palm propping up his head, and his other hand was just this close to Ryan’s arm, fingers almost brushing his skin.
“Look. Look,” Ashlee said, cornering Ryan outside the library. “Your cousin’s a douchebag and all, okay, don’t get mad, he totally is, but Brendon’s been, like, in love with him since freshman year, so.” She patted Ryan’s hand.
Ryan stared at her, stunned. “What?”
“Brendon’s.” She cocked her head and pursed her lips. “Brendon likes you, Rhi, and you’re, like, a prettier version of Ryan, and I think it’s confusing the hell out of him. So just be careful, okay?”
“What?” Ryan repeated, because Brendon was in love with him? What?
“Hey, it’s not so surprising.” Ashlee shrugged. “He’s sort of hot if you like that hobo waif-boy look. And you’re sort of quirky yourself what with the,” she waved a hand in front of Ryan’s face, “paint. Are those crows?”
Ryan blinked. Holy crap. “He’s been. Why didn’t he say anything?”
Ashlee arched an eyebrow. “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with your cousin in the past couple years, Rhi, but he’s got the emotional range of a robot.”
Ryan’s jaw tightened, because that totally wasn’t true. He just wasn’t into big public displays. He was reserved.
“And he’s got this really inappropriate obsession with prostitutes. And, okay, I heard he’s, like, originally from Vegas or whatever, but if he submits one more article on syphilis I just might scream.”
Ryan’s reservation was serving him well right about then. He kind of wanted to punch Ashlee in the head, and he liked her now, he did, but there was nothing wrong with indulging in a little research on venereal diseases! “Ashlee—”
“I know, I know, he’s your cousin, you love him, whatever. We’re off topic anyhow.” She hooked her arm through his and leaned into his shoulder. “I had a point here. Brendon might, like, try something with you.”
“He’s gay,” Ryan pointed out weakly, because how much of a non-issue was that, right?
“Yeah, okay, that doesn’t define him,” Ashlee said, rolling her eyes. “He likes you, he thinks he likes you. I just wanted to make sure you knew about the cousin thing, because transference and all. Someone might get hurt.”
And then Ryan kind of got what Ashlee was trying to say, that she was worried about him, not necessarily Brendon, and he suddenly felt like a giant shit. There was no way he could come out of this situation unscathed.
“Cast list is up,” Brendon said, dropping down in the seat across from Ryan, tray clattering on the table.
“And?” Jon prompted.
Brendon sighed. “Ensemble. Ashlee and William get all the good songs.”
“Yeah,” Ashlee said, coming up behind him, “but I’m stuck with William. He’ll spend the whole time trying to get into Pete’s diaphanous harem pants.”
There was a moment of silence. Pete in harem pants.
Brendon said, “Wow,” and Ryan said, “That’s some heady imagery there,” and they shared a small smile.
Brendon’s cheeks pinked and Ryan felt a hot flush start up from his collar, making the scarf around his neck seem too tight and stifling, and that was all wrong, wrong, wrong. He was in some serious trouble.
“Whatever.” Ashlee snagged Brendon’s unopened soda can, tapped the top with a long fingernail before popping it. “Where’s V?”
“Right here,” Vicky said. She sat down next to Jon and slid a manila folder across the table to Ashlee. “Guess what time of the month it is.”
“Yes.” Ashlee grinned, flipping open the folder. “My Ms. Ivarsson-approved Dear Ashlee letters. Seriously, you should see half the stuff I get,” she said to Ryan.
“The best was the one from Piccolo-boy about the craisins,” Brendon said. “Frank is so obvious.”
“Frank has to be obvious,” Ashlee said. She licked her finger and paged through a few loose papers. “It’s Gerard. Hey, listen to this one: Dear Ashlee, if I asked you to Homecoming, would you kick me in the balls? Oh my god, how did that get past Ivarsson?” She laughed, then dug a pen out of her bag and murmured as she wrote, “Maybe if you asked nicely.”
“Who’s it from?” Brendon asked, craning his neck to see the paper.
“Third rate hustler, no capitals, I’m going to say it’s Pete,” Ashlee said, tapping the end of her pen on her lower lip. “That should be interesting. I’ll add something cryptic about denial and puppies in there somewhere.”
“So you’ll say yes?” Ryan asked.
Vicky glanced over at the letter, lips quirked up. “Of course she’ll say yes.”
“I don’t think so,” Ashlee countered, flipping her hair back over her shoulder. “Apparently he’s too much of a pussy to just ask Patrick, and I’m really bad at handling being second choice, you know? Anyway, I’m all V’s that night. I’ll be with the band.”
“Did I even ask you?”
“It’s early yet. You were going to.” Ashlee patted Vicky’s hand. “It’s either me or Jon, and Jon has secret plans already set in motion.”
“Secret plans?” Brendon asked, straightening up in his seat and leaning forward.
Jon grinned, jabbed a finger at him. “Not for your ears, little man.”
Ryan thought Brendon pouting was really fucking cute, goddamn it. He sighed, rubbing a hand over his jaw, and Jon shot him this indescribable look. Ryan gave him a wavering smile and shrugged, curling his hands into fists on his lap.
Ryan honestly didn’t think there was anything scary about Jon. Jon was this awesome all-American boy, and he was easygoing and unassuming and generally amiable, and Ryan really liked him.
Standing with him in the school parking lot after school, though, waiting for Spencer to show up, he was staring at Ryan with an edge of something sharp curving his lips. A smile that wasn’t a smile, despite the friendliness in his eyes. It was kind of creepy.
Ryan shifted on his feet. “Um—”
“Hey, so, I’ve decided that I’ll let you keep doing your thing,” Jon said, waving a hand that encompassed Ryan’s whole body, “but you fuck with Brendon’s head and I’m gonna have to destroy your soul.”
Ryan blinked, face heating up. “Uh. I’m not sure—”
“You seem like an okay guy,” Jon said, still grinning. “And I happen to have a huge mancrush on your friend Spencer, so. Just keep that in mind, okay?”
There was a long, mostly awkward pause. “Keep in mind. That you have a mancrush on Spencer?” Ryan finally asked, because wow. He had not seen that coming.
Jon arched an eyebrow. “That I will destroy your soul,” he said slowly.
“Right.” Okay. Fuck.
Ryan might have been a little slow on the uptake, but once Jon had made his intentions known, it was easy to see how every little thing between him and Spencer had been some form of flirtation. The laughing, the touching, the detentions.
“How’s Jon?” Ryan asked, sprawled next to Spencer on his bed. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were deliberately getting detention for him. Seriously, that’s so teenaged girl of you.”
“I wasn’t.” Spencer narrowed his eyes on him. “I got in trouble, Ryan.”
“Oh yeah? What’d you do?” Ryan asked, sure it was something inane.
Spencer muttered under his breath, and Ryan said, “Sorry, what was that?” hand cupping his ear.
“I got into a fight,” he bit out.
“A fight,” Ryan echoed. That was a surprise. Spencer, for all his bitchiness, wasn’t much of a fighter.
“With, um.” Spencer worried his lower lip. “Beckett.”
“William? Why would you—” He cut off, watched a blush heat up Spencer’s cheek. “Oh my god, it was over me, wasn’t it?”
“Uh,” Spencer hedged, still red, and Ryan burst out laughing.
“God, Spence, that’s.” He got up onto his knees on the mattress, took one of Spencer’s hands, and he totally meant it when he said, “That’s really fucking sweet.” It was still funny, though. He could picture both of them throwing slaps instead of fists. There’d probably been some hair-pulling, too.
“Shut up,” Spencer muttered, palming the back of his neck. Then he smiled, looked up at Ryan through his lashes. “The Jon part was just bonus.”
“Jon,” Ryan said, “apparently has a mancrush on you.”
Spencer perked up and asked, “Really?”
Ryan said, “You should ask him to Homecoming.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh, come on,” Ryan coaxed. “We all have to go anyway since Vicky’s band is playing. Although he did say he had plans or something.” He frowned.
Spencer scowled up at the ceiling. Ryan poked the side of his head until Spencer caught his finger, twisted it, and asked, “What about you and Brendon?”
“Ow, quit it, Spence,” Ryan groused at the burn, tugging his hand away. “Christ.” He sighed. “I think I’m gay.”
“You realize this was all a really bad idea, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but, like, I’ll just have.” Ryan closed his eyes, pressed the heel of his palm against his eye socket. He didn't like to think about how easily he was accepted as a girl, how easily he fit in, how he basically just had to stop being himself to make a bunch of cool new friends. He didn't like to think about how useless the entire charade actually turned out to be and how he was completely fucked. “Rhi will go home, and Ryan’ll come back from out east and it’ll be. You know. Something not so bad.”
Spencer leveraged up over him on his elbow. “You think that’ll work? That you’ll just keep lying to them, forever and ever?”
“Uh,” Ryan said faintly. “Maybe? God, Spence, they’ll hate me otherwise, and this is all just a fucking mess.”
“Yeah.” He squeezed Ryan’s arm. “Not gonna argue that.”
Ryan actually had no idea how a game of football was played. It kind of just looked like a lot of grunting and tackling and running around. Football wasn’t exactly a popular sport at Ridley High, either – the team was notoriously bad - so it wasn’t like he’d ever been to a game before. The marching band didn’t even bother playing at most of them, but then the marching band was, according to Spencer, more competition oriented than anything else.
“Okay, look,” Vicky said, pointing out to the huddle of guys on the field. “It’s first and ten.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means it’s our first try to get ten yards. If we gain over ten yards, then we get another first and ten. If we get blocked four downs in a row without—” Vicky cut off, glaring at Ryan. “Are you even listening?”
Ryan thought maybe his eyes had started to glaze over. He blinked rapidly. “Um. You sort of lost me after first and ten. Is it important?”
Vicky sighed. She was wearing a team jersey with Ritter’s name on the back and she looked sort of awesome in it. “Never mind.”
“Why Ritter?” he asked, and Vicky rolled her eyes.
“Because he’s the best?”
“You just like his chiseled good looks,” Jon said, peeking out from behind his camera with a cheeky grin. He was taking shots for the paper, a notebook balanced on his lap.
Vicky rubbed her temple. “Why do I sit with you guys?”
“I don’t know,” Jon said mock-earnestly. “Maybe you should move down with the other players’ wives. You might have to fight off Nick, though. I hear he’s the jealous mistress type.”
Vicky palmed the side of her face, middle finger prominently displayed.
“Oh, that’s just uncalled for,” Jon said, obviously fighting laughter. “Uncalled for and rude.”
“What did I miss, what did I miss?” Ashlee asked, sneakers squeaking on the metal bleachers as she rushed up the stairs. Spencer was walking behind her at a much slower pace, two sodas and a bag of chips balanced in his hands.
“Nothing,” Vicky said. “No touchdowns, still our ball.”
“Cool.” Ashlee settled down on the bench in front of Ryan, leaning back into his knees. “Oh, wow, we’ve got a great view of Ritter’s ass over here. Good choice, V. Hey, there’s Brendon and Bob. Brendon!” She waved a hand in the air, and Brendon jerked his head up and smiled at them, waving back.
Ryan figured he must have seen Brendon in his cheerleading uniform before, since he’d always known Brendon was on the squad, but he couldn’t actually remember. His white pants had clear and sharp creases in them, and the sweater vest was adorably dorkish. He was enthusiastic about everything: hands cupped over his mouth and yelling at the sparse crowd while the girls bounced and did high kicks around him.
Bryar was like a hulking, disgruntled mess beside him, the cuffs of his pants rolled up, and the t-shirt under his white, blue and gold vest was black. He had his arms crossed over his chest, and he only moved when he was supposed to lift one of the girls, and he didn’t open his mouth for anything. Ryan really wasn’t sure he actually qualified to have the label cheerleader, but whatever. It was pretty amusing to watch.
Spencer sat down next to Ryan and handed him a cup, then beaned Jon in the head with the bag of chips.
“What, no drink?” Jon asked, pouting a little. There was a flirty twinkle in his eye, though, and Ryan thought better of being seated in between them. It would’ve been kind of obvious if he stood up and kicked Spencer into shoving over, though, so he pursed his lips and tried his best to ignore all the back and forth beaming going on.
“You can have some of mine,” Spencer offered.
“That’s awfully nice of you, Spencer Smith.”
Spencer grinned, tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. “I’m a nice guy.”
“You are.” Jon nodded, face solidly earnest. “You totally are.”
Once practice for the musical started, Ryan and Spencer got into the habit of doing their homework in the back of the auditorium. Jon and Vicky were on stage crew, and Brendon was seriously amusing to watch, draping himself all over the other actors and basically bugging the shit out of Mr. Hoppus.
There was a lot of downtime for him, too, and he ended up hovering over Ryan, curled up in the seat next to him, or playing around in the sound booth with Bryar.
“I’m daring Pete to go commando,” Brendon said, leaning on the back of Ryan’s seat, arms dangling over Ryan’s shoulders.
Ryan shifted, grabbed one of his hands and threaded their fingers together. “What?”
“Commando. In the harem pants.”
There was a moment of appreciative silence. Naked Pete in harem pants.
“He’ll take you up on that,” Ryan said finally.
“He’s Genie. He’ll be all blue, anyhow. I bet no one would even notice.”
“And it’s not like the whole school hasn’t already seen his dick,” Spencer said idly without lifting his head from his Trig text.
Ryan said, “Yeah,” but it wasn’t exactly an agreement. The harem pants, Ryan thought, brought out a whole new dimension of hotness.
“Sorry, but the fact that it’s Pete sort of negates any appeal the harem pants have,” Spencer said, because Spencer obviously had no taste.
“So,” Brendon said, nuzzling down into Ryan’s neck and smiling against the crook. “So, are you giving me a ride home?”
It was a friendly Brendon nuzzle, something Ryan had seen him do countless times to Jon and Vicky, but Ryan shivered and tilted his head a little so Brendon could nose his jawline. “Up to Spencer,” Ryan said.
Brendon turned his head to look at Spencer, hair tickling Ryan’s ear. “Spencer. Spencer, you love me, you want to take me home.”
“Why can’t Jon take you home?”
“Because I like you better, Spencer Smith,” Brendon said, and he finally let go of Ryan to bounce into Spencer’s space, scrambling over an empty seat to drape himself across his lap. “I like you so much better.”
Spencer rolled his eyes. “I’m going to tell him you said that.”
Brendon hooked his hands around the back of Spencer’s neck. “It’s only the truth. Jon will forgive me.”
Ryan could tell Spencer was fighting a grin. It was sort of hard to scowl in the face of so much adorableness.
“Fine,” Spencer said. “Fine, but you’re sitting in the back.”
Sometimes, Ryan forgot that Jon knew.
They were painting the musical sets and Ryan was helping out, because Jon had asked, and Ryan had kind of just been staring at his History homework for twenty minutes, anyway, pretending not to watch Brendon dance around the stage. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
Ryan was up on his tiptoes, a mini-bucket of blue paint in his hands, thick brush over his head, when there was a strangled yelp somewhere behind him and Ryan was knocked into the still-wet palace door, bucket tipping down the front of his shirt.
“Oh, oh, Rhi, I’m.”
Ryan spun around, eyes wide on Brendon, of course. He had his fingers tangled together and looked genuinely apologetic, but his eyes were bright and his mouth sort of twitched at the corners and Ryan was covered in paint. “You.”
“You look nice in blue?” Brendon offered. A giggle slipped out.
Ryan nodded. “It’s okay,” he said, and then he took a slow step forward.
“Here, here.” Ryan held out his arms. “Look, you’re sorry right? So I just want to.” He stepped forward again, and Brendon looked like he knew he should run, but that it’d be more fun to stay put, so he’d only just barely turned away when Ryan grabbed for him and tackled him down.
“Wait,” Brendon said, but Ryan just said, “Hugs, Brendon, hugs,” arms tight around his wriggling body, and then Ryan gave into the urge and started tickling his sides, and Brendon was sort of hysterically laughing, trying and failing to crawl away from him, his shirt and pants covered in almost as much blue paint as Ryan’s.
“Stop!” Brendon finally yelled, breathless, and Ryan flopped back, panting, Brendon sprawled next to him on his stomach.
Ryan reached over, took hold of Brendon’s sleeve, and wiped his nose off on it.
Brendon leveraged himself away and pulled a face. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Ryan grinned.
Brendon grinned back.
They were kind of grinning stupidly at each other for a while, and then Ryan caught Jon’s arched eyebrow behind Brendon’s head and a flush started up from Ryan’s neck, but it didn’t stop his grin.
When Brendon finally gained his feet, he held out a hand for Ryan, then slipped a palm on Ryan’s waist, pulling him against his side.
It was a bad idea, it was such a bad idea, Jon’s face was reminding him of that fact, but Ryan sort of cocked a hip, leaned in, pressing his head down on Brendon’s shoulder. He sighed when Brendon turned a little, breath warm on his temple.
It wasn’t really unexpected when Brendon asked Ryan to Homecoming, all things considered. Ryan knew that he should say no, that would be the smart move, but Brendon was just gazing up at him with these big dark eyes, fingers twisting in the hem of his t-shirt, and Ryan wanted to say yes.
It was possible that Ashlee was completely right about Ryan being a massive douchebag.
“I think maybe I’m, you know, you sexual,” Brendon said in this fucking adorably confused voice and Ryan felt really bad for twisting Brendon up inside. Not enough to keep from kissing him, though, from clutching Brendon’s shoulders and shoving him up against the door and biting his lower lip. Ryan loved Brendon’s lower lip. He wanted to live there for a while.
“Wow,” Brendon said when Ryan pulled away. “Uh.”
“Yeah.” Ryan was really, really screwed. “Yes.”
“Why am I here with you?” Spencer asked. He had three boxes of shoes stacked in his arms, though, so Ryan thought the complaining was mostly for show.
“Because I have to find a fucking pretty dress,” Ryan said, wandering through the dresses displayed in Macy’s juniors department. There were a lot of sparkles and tacky appliqués. “And there’s no way I’m going shopping with Ashlee.”
Stacey was following them, piling dress after dress into her arms, anything that caught her eye, it seemed, and Ryan was dreading trying them all on. They all looked really bright.
“Black?” he asked hopefully, and Stacey shook her head.
“You’ve already established a precedent,” she said, shrugging. “Black makes you look emo, anyhow. Seriously, red is the way to go.” She cocked her head. “Or purple.”
“Please, no purple,” Spencer said with a pained grimace.
“Brendon likes purple,” Ryan said, fingering the slippery folds of a tea-length halter number. It was pleated, empire waist, and very, very cute.
“Seriously, Ryan. Seriously.”
Ryan blinked at Spencer. “What?”
“You are not a girl,” he stressed. “I think this whole experience has warped your brain.”
“I like this one,” Ryan said, ignoring Spencer’s disgruntlement. He was just upset about Jon still, Ryan thought. Which was stupid. Compared to Ryan, Spencer had it easy; he was just being stubborn.
“Perfect,” Stacey said, thumbing through the sizes and adding a couple different ones to the pile. “Let’s get you into a fitting room.”
The thing about William, Ryan realized, was that he didn’t give up so easily, and it was hard to get him to take no for an answer, particularly when he had no concept of the why behind the negative.
He stared down at Ryan blankly. “That makes no sense,” he said.
“It does,” Ryan insisted. “It does because I don’t actually want to go out with you.”
William narrowed his eyes. “Yet you’re clearly attracted to me.”
He wasn’t exactly sure where William got that idea, but William was apparently delusional, so Ryan wasn’t going to press that point. “Look, William, that doesn’t. One has nothing to do with the other,” Ryan tried again. William was kind of pushy. He had fast hands, too, and Ryan was absolutely certain he didn’t want to go to Homecoming with him. For starters, it’d be really hard to juggle two dates, even though William didn’t seem to feel that the fact that Ryan’d already said yes to Brendon was much of a deterrent.
“It could, though,” William said, mouth curving up slyly at the corners, and he slinked a little closer, hooking a finger over the top of Ryan’s belt and tugging.
“Will—” Ryan cut off with an embarrassing squeak as Williams other hand grabbed his ass.
“Hello,” William breathed across Ryan’s lips, and then he shifted his hips up against Ryan’s, bone to bone, and confusion clouded William’s eyes for a split second before he grinned even wider and purred, “Hello.”
“Shit,” Ryan hissed.
“Ross, you naughty boy.”
Ryan gripped the front of his shirt. “You can’t say anything.”
“Hmm, I don’t know.” William leaned in close and Ryan’s eyes crossed a little. “I think I deserve something nice for keeping my mouth shut.”
“I’m. I’m not going to.” Ryan didn’t know exactly what William was suggesting, but he really wasn’t interested.
“Relax, Ross,” William said. He waggled his eyebrows. “I might be satisfied with a kiss.”
“Well, this is awkward.” Mr. Schechter’s face popped up next to them, so close Ryan reeled back with a startled, “Oh.”
“Unsurprising, but awkward,” Schechter went on. “William, want to get your ass into my classroom? I’d hate to start the Revolutionary War without you.”
William grinned. “I’m the root of all conflict.”
“Where there’s a will,” Schechter muttered, rolling his eyes. “Move it, before I start handing out detentions.”
William gave Ryan a totally not reassuring look. A leer. “No problem, Mr. S. We’ll just put this. Conversation on hold ‘til later.”
Ryan groaned. “We won’t.”
“Ah-ah, Ross.” William flicked the end of his nose. “It looks like I’ve got the upper hand here.”
“Actually, I’ve got the upper hand,” Schechter said, tugging on the sleeves of his jacket. “I’m even decked out in authoritative tweed.” He clapped his hands together once. “Get where you’re going. Now.”
Ryan was pretty sure he’d never been so embarrassed in his life, but at least Mr. Schechter didn’t know what William knew and he hoped to god William could keep his mouth shut. He took a shaky breath and decided to spend all off sixth period hiding in the second floor bathroom.
The Homecoming game was just like any other football game, except there were more people in the stands, and most of them were drunk. Ryan kind of wished he was drunk, too.
It was early October, but it was warm out: California warm. The sun was golden and low in the sky, and even though they were losing spectacularly, there was a hum of excitement in the air. Jon put two fingers in his mouth and wolf-whistled when their band took the field at halftime. Ryan figured it was for Spencer.
Then he leaned over and whispered in Ryan’s ear, “I’m stealing Spencer for the evening.”
Ryan looked at him, head tilted. “And?”
“Just saying.” Jon shrugged.
“Does Spencer know?”
Jon grinned a secret little grin that made him look even more boyish than usual. “Maybe not.”
Ryan opened his mouth to threaten him in the name of best friends, but then promptly snapped it shut again. Jon had him by the balls, so to speak, and he really didn’t think Jon would hurt Spencer, anyhow. Jon was one of the most genuine guys Ryan knew. “Have fun,” he said instead, knocking Jon with his shoulder.
“I’m trusting you with Brendon,” Jon said. “I think you’re probably gonna want to tell him the truth.”
Jon flicked an eyebrow up.
“Uh. Okay.” Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“I don’t know what you were thinking, Ryan,” Jon said softly, “but you need to get your shit together.”
Ryan sighed. He wasn’t sure what he’d been thinking either, not anymore. He’d kind of forgotten what the whole thing had been about, and that was the really fucking horrible part. The entire ruling staff of the Ridley Tiger Times was pretty awesome, and maybe if he’d been a little more open-minded before he wouldn’t have had to lie to them all in order to find that out.
“I know,” Ryan said.
Jon nodded and said pointedly, “Brendon’s not gonna want to hear about this from someone else, which is the main reason I haven’t already told him.”
“Right.” Fantastic. His life was fantastic.
Jon was apparently reserving judgment, but Ryan was pretty sure Vicky and Ashlee would be pissed as hell at him. There was a chance Bryar would actually honest-to-god kill him with his bare hands, and Brendon.
Brendon was going to be hurt, Ryan knew that. And he knew Jon was right; it had to come from him, because otherwise there was no chance in hell that Brendon would ever forgive him.
When Ryan got home after the game – which they’d lost by an embarrassing landslide, though that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits – he dug out his latest rejected article, the one that had sparked this whole mess. It was filled with glaring red marks and thick capitals. He’d never gotten past the first page before, past the giant, emphasized, “What’s the point?”
But right then he sat down at his desk and really read it. Read what he’d written and read every single one of Ms. Ivarsson’s comments, and Ryan realized something that made his stomach cramp up and his hands sweaty. “What’s the point?” had apparently translated into, “How does this relate?” and, “Remember your audience,” and Ryan thought maybe, yeah, there’s nothing wrong with a little intelligent research, but it had to tie in with today, with the now, and kids had to fucking know what the hell he was trying to say. It was a simple concept, apparently, and Ryan was a fucking moron.
“Spencer, I’m a fucking moron,” Ryan said when Spencer picked up his phone.
“That’s nice. Hey, do you—”
“Hi, Ryan,” Jon said into Spencer’s cell. “Spencer’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“Um.” In the background, Ryan could hear Spencer say, “I’m being kidnapped,” but he sounded pretty happy about it, so Ryan just said, “Yeah, okay, sure.”
He had to get ready for the dance, anyway.
Ryan thought the easiest way to break the news to Brendon would probably be to open up his front door wearing a suit when Brendon and Bryar – and Bryar’s date, the lovely, sweet Greta, which was a little weird - picked him up for the dance, but Ryan kind of wanted to wear his dress. He’d spent a lot of money on it, and he couldn’t return it, and it was really pretty.
He painted his face to match the color, a purple fade at his right temple, navy shading his eyelid, a scattering of dark stars over his cheek with faint golden undertones. He blew his hair dry so it curled softly under, slanting over half his face, and he picked out a longer scarf, a soft gray, tying it at the front of his throat so the ends hung down between his practically nonexistent cleavage.
When the doorbell rang, Ryan was never so glad in his life that his father was a workaholic. Explaining the date would have been hard enough without the fancy purple dress and strappy silver sandals thrown into the mix.
“Brendon, hi,” Ryan said after jerking the door open. He’d rushed down the steps, so he was a little breathless, leaning into the door handle, and it had nothing to do with Brendon’s suit, Brendon all dressed up, because that was actually pretty hilarious. He had a ruffled shirt on and a short, tight waistcoat with a watch fob pinned to his chest, chain looping into a small pocket. He had a velvety bowler hat tipped at a rakish angle over his right eye, and his mouth was stretched in this huge, delighted smile.
“Wow,” Ryan said.
Brendon nodded. “I know. I look awesome.”
“You’re ready for a friendly hand of whist at White’s,” Ryan said.
“You look nice, too,” Brendon said, fingering the ends of Ryan’s scarf, and there.
Right there and then was a perfect opportunity to say, Brendon, I’m a guy! I’ve got boy parts and everything!
Instead, Ryan asked, “What, no corsage?” and hauled ass out the door. There’d be plenty of time to tell him later, maybe after some spiked punch.
“Well, if it isn’t my pretty princess,” William said, shackling Ryan’s wrist by the punch table. “Have you saved me a dance?”
Ryan’s jaw clenched. “No.”
“You owe me, Ross,” William said. His look would have been smarmy if William wasn’t so feminine himself: willowy, with the soft hair to match. He just ended up looking sort of gamine and coquettish.
And then Pete strolled up and said, “Hey, Ross. Heard you were packing a little something extra,” grabbing himself in the crotch and grinning with all of his teeth.
“Son of a bitch,” Ryan cursed, then jabbed a finger at William. “I don’t owe you anything, you queeny gossip whore.”
William possibly did not look as affronted as he should have. He pouted. “He tortured it out of me.”
“I said hi,” Pete countered, clearly amused. “Bill’s easy like that.”
Ryan groaned and would have buried his face in his hands if he wasn’t so conscious of smearing his makeup. “Who else knows?”
“Patrick, but Patrick’s like a little pink clam,” Pete said, “all soft and secret on the inside.”
Ryan blinked at him. Pete just grinned wider.
“Oh, oh, and Travis,” William added, snapping his fingers.
“And Travis,” Pete repeated. “And Andy and Joe, but that’s only because they overheard me telling Dirty.”
“Fuck. Fuck you guys, oh my god.” Ryan’s life was over. God, everyone fucking knew, and forget earlier, forget William, seriously, nothing was ever going to top the mortification of that moment, because Ryan was in a dress with heels and pantyhose at Homecoming, and the entire fucking gymnasium was now aware that he was a cross-dressing freak. “I have to find Brendon,” he said, and stalked off.
Brendon was right where Ryan had left him, talking with Ashlee at the right corner of the stage, bopping in place to the music, and he didn’t seem upset, so Ryan let out a slow breath, hoping against hope that he hadn’t heard what was probably already all over the fucking room by now.
“Brendon,” Ryan said, coming up behind him. “Brendon, I need to—”
“Hey.” Brendon beamed up at him.
“Brendon, there’s something I have to.” He flicked a glance at Ashlee, and it was hard to judge her expression. Her mouth was smiling, but something about her eyes made Ryan’s own widen in response. Ryan thought maybe she was dangerously close to slapping him. He looked back at Brendon and took a deep breath. “Can we talk? Alone?”
Brendon cocked his head, smile unwavering. “Sure.”
Ashlee grabbed hold of Ryan’s arm before he could walk away, fingernails biting into his skin as she tugged him close. She hissed into his ear, “You better not fuck this up, Ross,” and Ryan swallowed hard, because, seriously, he’d already fucked everything up. He could only try to minimize the damage.
“What’s up?” Brendon asked, leaning back against the concrete hallway wall just outside the gym.
“There’s something you should know. About me.”
Brendon nodded, still watching Ryan curiously. “Okay.”
Ryan took a deep breath, debated gripping Brendon’s arm, holding him still so he couldn’t just walk away, then decided against it, decided that trapping him there would just make it all worse. “I like you, Brendon, I really honestly do,” Ryan said, and he shook his head at the smile blooming across Brendon’s face. “Do you believe me?”
“Sure. Yeah, I believe you,” Brendon said, and Ryan’s heart was pounding in his throat and Brendon kept on smiling.
And then the door to the gymnasium burst open and Brent was there, and he had his I’m-kind-of-pissed face on, and he said, “Hey, I can’t believe you. Why didn’t you. Why didn’t you tell me, you asshole?”
“I mean,” Brent waved a hand, “it’s not like I haven’t known you just as long as Spencer, what the fuck? I had to find out from Siska.”
“Brent, could you just give me a minute here?” Ryan asked desperately.
Brent rolled his eyes. “Sure, whatever, Ryan. Asshole,” he stressed, then pushed his way past and disappeared into the men’s room.
“Shit,” Ryan said softly, head drooping, and Brendon’s eyes were fucking huge when he glanced at him again, huge and confused and just a little bit watery around the edges. “Bren—”
“What.” Brendon took a step backwards, palms pressed together in front of his chest. “Ryan?”
Ryan opened and closed his mouth, searching for words that would make all of this better, but there really weren’t any. Finally, he said, “I can’t really explain,” and Brendon looked like he was going to bolt, so Ryan did what he hadn’t wanted to do and grabbed his arm, pulled him close. “Brendon, please, I was going to tell you.”
“Okay,” Brendon said, and he was so jittery, feet shifting like the only thing in the world he wanted was to get out of there even though he didn’t try to pull away.
Ryan could already tell it wasn’t going to work, that anything he said wouldn’t make any bit of difference. So he tugged Brendon closer, reached out and gripped Brendon’s hip with his other hand, reeling him in until they were touching all along the front of their bodies.
Brendon’s breathing was harsh, and Ryan didn’t know if it was because of anger or hurt, or because Ryan was sliding him into a hug, lips pressed against Brendon’s temple.
“You’re,” Ryan started, then stopped, because he didn’t have any explanations, not any that would matter, and Brendon was either going to forgive him or he wasn’t. “I’m sorry.”
Brendon twitched against him, and then his hands came up and he pushed at Ryan’s hips, a steady pressure until Ryan dropped his arms and let him go. Brendon wouldn’t look at Ryan; he just rubbed a hand over his face, head tilted away.
“I’m.” Brendon’s voice was thick. “I’m going to go home now,” he said, and there wasn’t anything, really, that Ryan could do to stop him.
On Monday morning, Ryan was halfway into a skirt before he realized he was no longer a girl.
And then he spent nearly twenty minutes trying to figure out what to wear, because his old jeans and t-shirts didn’t feel right anymore, so he ended up in his pinstripe dress pants and a fitted vest, rosettes pinned at the collar of his shirt. His face felt kind of naked without makeup, so he smoked his eyes, shaded his lids and temples with a hint of pink fading to orange, and then went outside to sit on the curb and wait for Spencer.
The entire weekend had pretty much sucked. His cell rang almost constantly, but none of the calls had been from Brendon. One of them had been from Bryar, though, and had consisted of a lot of menacing heavy breathing. Ryan was dreading school, but Spencer would kick his ass if he didn’t show.
When Spencer pulled up, Ryan just slid wordlessly into the car, resigned, and Spencer said, “You look like a riverboat gambler.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said dryly.
“Hey, it’s a step up from carnie, right?”
Ryan sighed, slumped down in his seat, closing his eyes. “Everything’s a mess.”
Spencer didn’t say anything to that, and after a few moments of silence, Ryan popped open his eyes and glanced over at him. Spencer was smiling to himself. Spencer was smiling giddily.
“What?” Spencer flicked him a look before turning his attention back to the road.
“Oh my god,” Ryan said, sitting up straight. “Oh my god, you had sex with Jon.”
Spencer’s arm jerked and the car swerved onto the shoulder and back again. The truck behind them honked. “Uh,” Spencer hedged.
“You did. You did,” Ryan repeated. He hit Spencer in the shoulder with his fist. “You did and you didn’t fucking call me, Spence.”
“But I didn’t,” Spencer protested. “There was, uh, no actual sex, seriously, Ryan.”
“There was something, though,” Ryan said petulantly. “There was making out, making out with Jon, and you didn’t tell me.”
“Fuck, you’re such a girl,” Spencer said, scowling.
Ryan let out a noisy breath and his fingers dug into his thighs.
“Sorry,” Spencer said softly.
“I don’t want to go to school.”
“It’ll be fine,” Spencer insisted.
Ryan snorted. “Right.”
“Jon’s not.” Spencer paused, then said, “You didn’t do this to be mean, Ryan. Jon knows that, and he knows I’d choose you over him if it came down to it, okay? So I don’t think it’ll be as bad as you think it’ll be.”
Ryan chewed on his lip. “You’ll sit with me at lunch?”
“Yeah, I’ll sit with you at lunch.”
The weirdest part of his day was the hour he spent in Principal Mayer’s office, because Principal Mayer was putting together a Habitrail for his hamster, and he needed Ryan’s “little fingers” to help with all the smaller tubes.
“I didn’t know you had a hamster,” Ryan said for lack of anything else to say, since Mayer hadn’t seemed all that surprised to find him waiting outside his office that morning.
Mayer was down on his knees, staring quizzically at two pieces of blue plastic pipes. “I confiscated him from Gerard,” he said absently, and Ryan thought that was kind of mean, to take a guy’s pet, but whatever.
“Okay, these two don’t fit anywhere,” Mayer said, tossing the tubes aside and almost hitting the abandoned house of cards propped in the corner, the three walls Ryan had helped gum-together the only part of it still semi-upright, surrounded by the wreckage of collapsed cards. He swiped his hands on his khakis and stood up, then cocked his head at Ryan. “You want to keep the same schedule?” he asked.
Ryan blinked. “Sure?”
“Great. I’ll write you a note for second period.”
The oddly relieving part of Ryan’s day was that no one seemed to treat him any differently. They didn’t smirk at him, didn’t laugh – well, except for William and Pete, and they weren’t mean about it, so it didn’t really faze him. But his classes were the same, and he didn’t have any with Vicky or Brendon or Jon until after lunch, but everyone else, Brent even, just called him Ry and gave him the same easy smiles and the teachers didn’t even comment on his sudden lack of skirt and heels.
He met Spencer at his locker right before lunch and said as much to him, fingers twisting on the strap of his bag.
Spencer gave him a quick grin. “That’s because you’re not acting any differently.”
“Okay.” Ashlee popped up behind Spencer and Ryan didn’t squeal, but it was a close thing. Seriously, she had some sort of ninja training deep down in her bones. “Nice outfit,” she said to Ryan. “It’s a step up from vagrant chic, at least. I like your pants.”
Ryan just stared at her.
Ashlee rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks, Ash, that’s awfully nice of you to say, considering I’ve been pretending to be a girl for the past month and a half. You’re very welcome, Ryan, I just happen to be that awesome.”
Ryan blinked. “Hi, Ashlee.”
“Oh, boy.” Ashlee hooked her arm through his. “Lunch is gonna be fun.”
Ryan swallowed nervously. “Aren’t you—”
“Angry? Sure, I’m still kind of furious, but I’ve grown attached to you, Ryan Ross, so I’m willing to give you a second chance.” She frowned. “Can’t say as much for Bob, though. You might want to be careful around him.”
Ryan winced. “He’s going to kill me, isn’t he?”
Ashlee patted his arm and admonished, “Don’t go walking outside alone after dark.”
Vicky was already seated when the three of them trooped into the lunchroom. She arched an eyebrow at Ryan, but didn’t say anything other than a careful, “Hello.”
Ryan gave her a wan smile in response. “I’m—”
“Sorry, right, I get that. Nice pants, by the way.” She grinned at him, and Ryan remembered how totally cool Vicky was, and how he was really lucky she was so cool, because she was almost as dangerous as Bryar, and always wore really pointy shoes.
Ryan blew out a sort of relieved breath, shaking his hair out of his eyes. His fingers flexed on the edge of the table. He glanced between Vicky and Ashlee, then said, “I think I’m kind of in love with Brendon,” and it wasn’t something he’d ordinarily just volunteer like that, except he felt like he owed them, and that was the most he could give right then.
Vicky’s eyes widened, and then Ryan felt hands, large hands, clamp down on his shoulders, and his own widened, too. Holy crap.
Ryan froze and the hands on his shoulders squeezed, and Ryan held his breath, waiting, waiting for. He didn’t know. His neck to snap or something. But the hands just kept squeezing, and it would have been sort of painful if Ryan hadn’t already been desensitized by fear.
And then the hands were gone, and Vicky’s lips were twitching, and Ashlee said, “Oh my god,” and giggled a little.
“That was Bryar, wasn’t it?” Ryan asked when he could get his voice to work again.
“You are so lucky he heard you,” Ashlee said.
“Heard what?” Jon asked, dropping down next to Spencer, leaning into his space. “Why, hello, Spencer Smith.”
“Hi, Jon Walker,” Spencer said with a big grin.
“You two are such dorks, oh my god, seriously,” Ashlee said, but she was smiling. “And Bob just heard Ryan here declare his love for Brendon. It was kind of hilarious.”
“Thanks,” Ryan muttered, scooting down lower in his seat. He picked at his lunch, but he wasn’t very hungry. He’d had Spencer pack an extra Capri Sun for Brendon, just in case he was actually still talking to him, but Brendon hadn’t shown up yet. Finally, he cleared his throat and asked, “So, um, where’s Brendon?”
Jon gave him a sympathetic look, sad eyes and a half-quirked mouth. “He’s eating with the Butcher and Siska in the auditorium. Said he wanted to get some extra practice in.”
Ryan nodded. “Right, okay.” Extra practice. With the Butcher. He shoved his chair back and got to his feet, collecting what was left of his lunch. “Hey, I need to talk to Mr. Nolan before class, so. I’ll meet you there?”
Jon nodded. “Sure.”
It was probably a bad idea. It was probably one of the worst ideas he’d ever had, with the exception of the whole let’s-pretend-I’m-a-girl thing.
Brendon was sitting on the edge of the stage, legs swinging, and the Butcher was down in the orchestra pit with Siska. There was some sort of mock sword fight going on with cardboard tubes. Brendon was laughing.
The door swung shut behind Ryan louder than he’d thought it would, the metal clang and catch echoing around the acoustic room, and Brendon’s head jerked up, cutting his laughter off short.
They stared at each other for a few minutes, and Ryan tried to get his feet to move, to walk down that center aisle, but he felt stuck. Afraid, maybe, of what Brendon would or wouldn’t say.
Finally, Brendon slipped off the end of the stage and walked towards him, hands tucked in his hoodie. When he got closer, Ryan could see the fatigue rimming his eyes, the way his hair was sort of limp over his forehead. Ryan wanted to push it off his face, wanted to curl his hand around the back of his neck and tug him closer.
Instead, he stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Hi, Brendon,” he finally said.
“What are you doing here?” Brendon asked, and his tone was off, not angry or hurt, but sort of inflectionless, which was much, much worse.
“I mean, you never paid any attention to me before, right? So what was all this, exactly? What. What were you thinking?” Brendon went on, still in that scary dead voice that caused a knot to form in Ryan’s chest, to flutter his heart with hurt.
“It wasn’t because of you,” Ryan said. “I was. I was doing an experiment, for the paper, you know?” He didn’t know how he could explain it without sounding like a total ass, but, really, that didn’t matter very much. “It had nothing to do with you, nothing at all—”
“That makes me feel better.”
“No,” Ryan bit out, slightly desperate. “That’s not. I meant that there wasn’t any you before, okay? And then you were there, and you were kind of a dork and you were adorable, and I meant everything I ever said to you.”
Brendon had his head bent. He nodded a little, not looking up. “Okay.”
“This isn’t something you can just fix, you know.” Brendon did look up then, a rueful little smile on his face.
Ryan swallowed, felt an embarrassing burn behind his eyes. “Okay.”
Ryan went back to eating with Brent and Trevor at lunch, since Brendon had made his point, and he didn’t want to keep him from his friends, didn’t want him to spend his lunch period in the auditorium just because Ryan was sitting at his table. Spencer reluctantly went with him. Jon lasted two whole days before he decided to eat with them, too.
Ryan would think it was cute if he wasn’t busy being a complete emotional wreck.
“So what I don’t get,” Jon said one day, “is why you dressed up like a girl in the first place.”
Ryan scowled, and Spencer cheerfully offered, “He was pissed off at Ms. Ivarsson and wanted to prove that everyone on the school paper were elitist bitches who hated men.”
Jon blinked. Then he burst out laughing. Like, loud embarrassing guffaw laughing. “Dude,” he finally gasped out. “Dude, that’s so.” He shook his head.
Ryan scowled deeper. “It was a valid assumption at the time.”
“Probably not,” Jon said, laughter petering out. “You couldn’t prove anything, anyway. Did you even submit an article?”
“No. Not as Rhi,” Spencer answered for him, still smiling, because he was an asshole, seriously.
Ryan said, “I got a story out of it, though. Ms. Ivarsson’s interested in my experiences as a girl.”
“So essentially,” Spencer said, “it’s going to be about pretty dresses and makeup and boys.”
Ryan really wanted to punch Spencer. “Who’s the misogynist here?”
“You’re a misogynist?” Jon asked.
“He might have been, but then he started hanging out with me and V, and we are so cool he couldn’t help but love us, right Ross?” Ashlee sat her tray down next to Brent. “Shove over, Brent. God, lunch is so boring without you guys. I’m making a statement.”
“A statement,” Ryan echoed.
She leaned forward. “Brendon’s a miserable little puppy and you took Jon, how could you?”
“I thought it’d be better—”
“Oh, honey, no. Don’t think. You can’t change back now. You’re a real boy.”
Spencer buried his face in Jon’s shoulder and laughed, and Jon cupped the back of his neck with a hand, pulled him closer with a secretly amused grin of his own.
“Glad you find that funny, Spencer,” Ryan muttered.
“You can’t change back, is what I’m saying,” Ashlee repeated. “If you start going back to old Ryan, if you go back to your bitter little pre ‘Ashlee is super cool’ world, then Brendon’ll think he’s right.”
Ryan stared at her. “Brendon’s—not right?”
“Wow, you’re dense.” Ashlee tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Brendon wants to believe you, but he doesn’t want to get hurt. I need you to make an effort here.”
“So. We move back to eating lunch with you,” Ryan said, and his stomach was fluttering a little, almost nauseous at the prospect.
“It’s a start, yeah.” She nodded, face solemn. “We really miss Jon.”
Jon shrugged. “I’m sort of awesome.”
The next day, when Ryan, Spencer and Jon sat down at their old table with Vicky and Ashlee and Brendon, Vicky said, “Oh, thank god,” and Ryan could have sworn he saw Brendon smile. Just a tiny little twitch of his lips, which wasn’t much of a smile for Brendon, but it was there, he was sure of it.
In English right after, while Mr. Nolan was droning on about Hamlet’s moles or something, Ryan slipped Jon a note across the aisle: is he still mad?
Jon made a face, scribbled something on the paper, crumpled it up, and then tossed it back at him. It was a stick figure of a guy with some sort of spear next to an enormous hippo. Or it could have been a really fat dog.
Ryan glanced up at him, brow furrowed, and mouthed, ‘What?’
Jon just smiled. He reached over and tugged the paper back, then scribbled some more and held it up for Ryan to see. He’d added little floating hearts all over the place. Ryan had no idea what he was trying to say.
Brendon, on the other side of Jon, sent them a quizzical brow arch. Jon flashed him the picture he drew and Brendon ducked his head and blushed, which made no sense, seriously, but whatever the point was, it seemed that maybe Brendon wasn’t quite as upset with Ryan as he was before. Cool.
“So has he said anything about me?” Ryan asked when Ashlee picked up.
“Hang on.” Ashlee put him on hold, and then she was back with, “Okay, I’ve got V.”
“Hi, Ross,” Vicky said.
Ryan pulled back and stared at his cell. “You’ve got me on three-way?”
“Girl talk,” Ashlee lilted. “Seriously, we’re gonna gossip here and you can’t do that with only two people. Now. Brendon.”
“Oh my god, he’s so cute,” Vicky said, and Ryan scowled.
“You’re not funny.”
“Are you kidding? She’s hilarious. Ryan, you have no sense of humor. I was totally right about your robot past.”
“No, no, you’re right, we’re talking about Brendon, so. He’s super adorable, right?”
“I hate you guys,” Ryan said, but he didn’t hang up. He didn’t know why he’d called Ashlee in the first place, except Jon was either being predictably mum about the whole situation or he was drawing confusing doodles about bunnies, bears, and hippos, and Spencer’s eyes glazed over every time he brought Brendon up, and there was no one else he could really talk to about him.
“It’s been three weeks,” Vicky said.
Ryan waited for something more, but when neither of the girls said anything, he asked, “Yeah?”
“God, Ryan, I said you had to make an effort, didn’t I? Effort doesn’t mean sitting around on your bony ass moping about Brendon like the giant girl you so obviously are,” Ashlee said.
“These are your reckless teen years,” Vicky added. “You need to do something really stupid and endearing. You need to make a fool of yourself for him, make some sort of embarrassing grand gesture.”
Ryan heard faint snapping, and then Ashlee said, “Your article for the Times. You totally need to put yourself out there in that. What you learned as a girl, besides the fact that jersey is a totally awesome fabric.”
“I don’t think,” Ryan said slowly, tapping his fingers against his desk, head tilted back to stare up at his ceiling, “what I feel for Brendon has anything to do with being a girl.”
“Not a girl, then,” Vicky said, a shrug in her voice. “As somebody not you.”
Ryan was willing to admit, post-Rhianna, that he used to be kind of a snob. He hadn’t been all that popular, true, but he’d thought of himself as a superior nonconformist, which in retrospect was sort of laughable, since he’d worn the same tight jeans as every other self-proclaimed nonconformist in school, the same too small t-shirt and a cap that made him look, according to Ashlee, like a starving cockney pickpocket.
Brendon liked bright colors and ponies and had an extensive belt buckle collection. Ryan appreciated that more now that he was, as Spencer pointed out, past his enchantment with riverboat glamour and into some sort of flamboyant cowboy phase. He really liked the neckerchiefs and the way his wranglers made his legs look more substantial. The boots were kind of uncomfortable, but Ashlee was always saying they had to suffer for fashion, so he manned up and ignored the blisters on his toes.
So he wrote an article about being not him. About starting over, about being more open-minded and unprejudiced and sort of rebellious, because somewhere along the line, after his mom left, when his dad had stopped paying attention to him and started working insanely long hours at the office, he’d forgotten how to be stupid and reckless and fun.
And he bit the metaphorical bullet and wrote how he’d fallen head over heels for Brendon Urie, who was the most unaffected boy he knew, who let Jon Walker draw bunnies and hearts all over his arms in English, who had somehow, amazingly, charmed Bob Bryar into joining the cheerleading squad with him, who sang like nobody was watching, and smiled like the whole world’s happiness depended on his mood. It was a little over the top, Ryan knew that, but Vicky told him to make a fool out of himself, and he figured that was the most expedient and widespread way.
After handing the article in, he waited while Ms. Ivarsson looked it over, and when she finished her initial scan, she sent him an arch look under a pointed, thin brow.
“Very interesting, Mr. Ross,” she said, tapping her sharp nails on the paper. They were cherry red and sort of mesmerizing.
Ryan wasn’t sure if ‘interesting’ was good or bad.
She folded her hands together and leaned forward. “You’re a good writer, Ryan. Maybe not the best journalist, but your work is relatively solid. You keep pushing articles like this, though,” she tapped it again, “and we might be able to find you a place on staff.”
Ryan tightened his grip on his bag, resisting the urge to shout Yes! and nodded. “Thanks,” he said.
“Are you absolutely certain you want this printed?”
He almost said, You mean the part where I out myself and tell the entire school I’m in love with a spaz whose favorite color is purple? but he didn’t. He just nodded again, and tried not to think about the fallout.
Ryan wasn’t expecting Brendon to show up at his front door. He wasn’t expecting to hear from Brendon at all, really; not yet, at least, since the paper wasn’t due to be printed for another week. But his doorbell rang and Ryan opened his door to find Brendon on his stoop with Bryar down by the curb, leaning up against his black Firebird, smoking and looking generally menacing.
Ryan shifted awkwardly on his feet. “Uh—”
He cut off, staggering backwards as Brendon practically tackled him, and he had a split-second of ‘oh my god, he’s going to bite me’ before Brendon had his lips on his, fingers in his hair, head tilted and tongue turning some truly filthy little tricks to get Ryan’s mouth to open.
Ryan’s hands automatically gripped at Brendon’s hips, urging him closer and scrambling for skin, swallowing Brendon’s broken groan when his fingers dipped past the waistband of his pants, squirming against the tight fit of his belt, and Brendon’s breath was hot and wet against the corner of his mouth, his jaw, as he pulled away, eyes half-lidded and lips so red Ryan wanted to dive back in, gnaw them a bit with his teeth.
“What?” Ryan managed, only it came out kind of strangled.
Brendon licked his lips. “I read your article.”
“But it’s not. I mean.” He was a little incoherent, but it was totally understandable.
“I help Greta with the layout sometimes.”
Ryan nodded. “Okay.” He didn’t know what else to say. He kind of just really wanted to kiss Brendon again. He rubbed a palm over the small of Brendon’s back, pressed his fingers into his spine. “So.”
Brendon flashed a quick look towards Bryar, who stoically held up four fingers. Then Brendon smiled at Ryan. A slow, blooming smile. “Four minutes,” he said, and before Ryan could ask what the hell that meant Brendon was back to kissing him, hands smoothing down to curl into Ryan’s sharp shoulder blades.
It was just as slow as his smile, deep, and Ryan’s mind was empty of everything except the total awesomeness of Brendon’s body tight against his, so close Brendon was almost climbing him, pushing him back against the doorjamb, scrunching his shirt up in his clenching hands until his fingers touched the bare wings of his back. And then someone cleared his throat pointedly loud in Ryan’s ear and he jerked away to see Bryar looming half-threateningly over them.
“Right,” Brendon said, breathy. He let go of Ryan and took a step away and grinned at him. “We’re going to get some dinner. Wanna come?”
Ryan looked at Bryar. Bryar was pretty frightening, his eyes a cold blue, but it didn’t seem like he wanted to eat him or anything. “Uh. Okay?”
“God, finally,” Ashlee said when Ryan, Brendon and Bryar showed up at their table at the Tiger Den. “It was getting a little ridiculous.”
Brendon had his fingers threaded through Ryan’s. He grinned and looked very pleased with himself and said, “I know.”