The day that Ryan disappeared was the same day the beagle puppy turned up at the shelter.
Holly let herself in, holding onto the box carefully with one arm. The puppy didn't stir beyond a sleepy snuffle, and she took it straight into Dr Crawford's office.
"What have we here?" Dr Crawford looked up from the paperwork on her desk. "New arrival?"
Holly nodded. "It was on the step just now." She set the box down. "Beagle puppy, looks about four months old, I'd say."
"Thank you, Holly." Dr Crawford lifted the sleeping dog and set it on the table. "Let's have a look at you." She began gently examining the puppy – male, in good condition, no evidence of maltreatment, not undernourished – "Well," she said after a minute, "just going by initial assessment, he seems to be in perfect health. Why anyone would want to –"
The puppy cut her off by waking up, shaking himself, looking at his paws and starting to bark.
Ryan Ross was not happy. He had gone to bed the night before, a perfectly ordinary boy, set his alarm so he could go into the shelter the next morning for his volunteering shift, and now he had woken up at the shelter.
And he appeared to be a small dog.
The fact that he couldn't possibly be a small dog, because he was human and what the fuck, was being completely ignored by whatever was in charge here. Ryan had tried to explain, after his initial and total freaking out at waking up with paws, that it was him and they didn't need to put him in a cage, no really, it's me, wait hang on what are you doing?
After he'd come round from the sedative they'd given him and worked out that actually, it hadn't been a terrible nightmare – or, if it was, he was still in it – he'd ended up yelling "I'M RYAN! IT'S ME! LET ME OUT OF HERE!" until Holly had told him he'd be given more sedatives if he didn't stop barking, it was distressing the other dogs.
So. Talking didn't appear to work. Ryan put his head on his paws and fumed silently. He was hungry, and he wanted to hear some music, and this place was a whole lot better from the other side of the bars. He wondered if Spencer would come looking for him later, they'd talked about maybe hanging out when Ryan's shift was done. He wondered if the shelter had called his dad. He wondered when the puppy-nightmare would end.
"Hey," came a voice from the cage next to him. He looked, and saw Missy, the labrador he'd fussed over the week before. "Are you – you smell like human. Like. Like that boy."
Ryan moved closer. "I am that boy," he said, and oh, someone understood him at last. His tail thumped, once. "I don't know what happened to me, but I woke up this morning, and, I'm a – I'm."
Missy looked at him, her eyes sad. "It's not so bad here," she said, lifting one paw to rest on the bars and stirring her tail. She smelled like sympathy. "Much better than where I – much better." She shuddered, and drew away again.
"You won't be here forever. You'll find a better home," Ryan said, awkwardly, and a sudden thought struck him. What if someone tries to adopt me? He shook it off. He would go back to normal before then, he just would.
"Will I?" It wasn't asked with hope, or curiosity; just a quiet, tranquil desperation. Ryan whined in his throat, inching closer and putting his paw through the bars.
"You will," he said, and decided that when he was human again and got out of here, he'd take her with him.
Missy curled up, smiled at him, and tucked her nose under her tail.
Evening came, and bowls of food and water were brought into his cage. Ryan sniffed at the food, disgusted, but was surprised to find his stomach growling at the smell. No, he thought. There is no way I am going to eat dog food.
A voice at the back of his head whispered, I'm hungry.
I'm going to sleep now, and when I wake up I'll be human again, Ryan told the voice, pushing it firmly to the back of his mind. He lapped at the water, frustrated when a third of it landed on the floor, and flopped at the other end of the cage, closing his eyes. Tomorrow, he decided. Tomorrow he'd be back to normal, and he'd adopt Missy, and he'd tell Spencer all about his crazy fucking insane day, and then everything would go on as if it had never happened.
The next morning, Ryan woke up cautiously. He was still in the cage at the shelter. He was still gnawingly hungry. He still had floppy furry ears, and a furry tail, and he was, basically, still a dog.
He buried his nose in his paws and muffled a howl.
By the time another of the volunteers (Brian, who was a year older than Ryan and was sort of okay) came in with breakfast, Ryan was ready to chew his own leg off. He leaped up, tail wagging half-heartedly, and barked a greeting. "Hey there, little guy," Brian said, and Ryan nipped his ankle. "Hey! Bad dog. No biting." He set the food down after a moment of wavering, and Ryan began gulping it down so fast he could barely taste it. Brian gently pulled him back away from it, his tone returning to the soothing he had started off with. "Don't go so fast, okay?" Ryan growled and wriggled towards the food again, but forced himself to slow down.
It was gross, but Ryan was starving and his new body seemed to think the food was alright. He put his nose into his water bowl and practically inhaled it, chasing the bowl around as it scraped across the floor with the force of his laps. He sat back afterwards, licking around his mouth, and uttered a sigh.
"Is that better?" Missy was still watching him through the bars. Ryan nodded.
"Kind of. I thought I'd wake up normal today," he admitted, flopping onto his side. "Like, I'd just spend a day as a dog, or something, and then it'd wear off. But I guess not." He stared at his paws.
"Well," said Missy, a smile in it, "maybe you'll stay like this."
Ryan's head snapped up and his eyes were wide. "Don't say that," he whined, and broke into a volley of yips. "Get me out of here!" he cried. "Get me out!"
A large boxer a few cages opposite and down took up the yell and added his deep voice. "Get the kid out of here, so we can all have some peace!" barked a greyhound further down, and a collie laughed.
"Quiet in there!" called Dr Crawford, silencing all but Ryan, who shrank back in his cage and set up a high-pitched whining.
"Don't cry," Missy said, softly, but Ryan just shook his head.
After the first couple of days, Ryan got used to the texture of the food. He even got used to the other dogs completely ignoring him – a German Shepherd and a spaniel had both said, when he'd asked why nobody would talk to him, "You're not one of us. You're a – you're human," and they'd looked at him like he'd just crawled out of the black lagoon. On the second day, he'd thought for a moment he'd heard his father's voice – on the third day, he'd definitely heard it, and smelled him, and he'd yelled himself hoarse trying to tell someone, anyone, that's my dad, I'm Ryan, let me OUT, but all it had got him was shouted down by the boxer and the spaniel.
"Don't worry," Missy told him, when he was huddled in a corner of his cage as far from the other dogs as he could get. "You'll be back to normal soon."
Ryan looked mournfully at her and continued trying to remember all of the Blink 182 songs he knew.
By the time he'd been a puppy for a week, Ryan had come to almost like the food. Once he got over the initial grossness and total lack of anything sweet, he realised, hey, it isn't so bad. They gave him chicken flavour, and some other things he couldn't identify, but the dog part of his brain told him what they were – not so much in words as sensations and a sense of certainty ingrained into his cells. This one's rabbit, it said, and he thought of chasing hopping balls of fluff into holes, and wondered what had happened to him.
"I think I'm," he whispered to Missy, hesitant, "I – it's like I'm becoming a dog. I mean, before I was. I was me, just in a dog's body. But now it's like." He shook himself. "I don't know. Like I'm more aware of being a dog than being me."
Missy smiled at him, and said, "You're still you. You're just," she searched for the right word. "Adapting," she finished, and he sighed.
"I don't want to adapt," he murmured, and he could smell misery on it. "I want to go home and call Spencer and talk to him all night like always."
"My –" Ryan paused. "I," he said, and he thought, well, if he couldn't tell Missy then who could he tell? "He's my best friend. And I … Ikindoflikehim. Like, I – uh." He stopped. "But I don't think, I mean, Spencer's not into guys, so, but we're best friends. That's," he looked up at her, "that's who Spencer is."
"Oh," Missy said, and she smiled. "You'll see Spencer again." And for that minute, Ryan believed her.
A week later, Missy was taken by a sweet-looking family. She touched her nose to Ryan's side, briefly, through the bars, to say goodbye. Ryan whined softly, and put his head between his paws.
A Yorkshire terrier moved into Missy's cage that evening, and Ryan tried to make conversation but the terrier just cowered under a blanket and didn't say anything. He shuddered when any of the volunteers touched him, seemed terrified of Dr Crawford, and looked at the other dogs as if he expected them to jump on him at any second. Ryan tried to cheer him up, telling him it was okay and nobody was going to hurt him now, but the terrier just whimpered, "Everybody always hurts you in the end," and buried himself under as many blankets as they'd given him.
Ryan watched, trying hard to make soothing noises, as one of the volunteers carried the terrier out to the doctor the next morning. He caught snatches of words he had always hated hearing – "very weak, if he doesn't start keeping his food down – it's all right, hey, it's okay, we're not going to harm you – Alison, the vaccine, please" – and watched the door anxiously.
He woke up two days later and saw an empty cage next to his. He realised, with a jolt, that he'd never found out the terrier's name.
That afternoon, Ryan returned from his walk to the smell of disinfectant and a new occupant of the cage next to his; a Doberman kid. "Hi," Ryan said, reaching to nip at Brian's fingers as he tried to get his lead off. He trotted over the minute he was free of it. "Ugh, I hate those things," he muttered.
"Yeah," agreed the puppy. "They're so stupid when the humans pull on them and your neck goes tight and you can't breathe."
"Er," said Ryan.
"Don't you just hate that? I'm Susie, by the way, but I think that woman leader wants to call me Candy." She snorted. "Candy, Susie, whatever. I hope the water's nice here, it gets so obnoxious when there's that layer of dust on it by the time they put it out. Ugh. Am I right?"
"Erm," said Ryan.
"I don't 'spect I'll be here long," Susie continued. "These rooms never last more than a month, right? This one's bigger than any I've been in, what about you?"
Ryan looked around at his cage. "Uh," he said.
"There'll be kids coming for me soon, there always are. I wonder how long it'll be this time before they bring out that thing that makes a bang and all the lights go all bright. It's a lot of fun, until it hurts. I heard one of them call it fire-something, like, crackers or something. Hey, do you think there'll be crackers here? I like crumbs."
"Er," said Ryan.
"So," she regarded him, "what's your name?"
"Ryan? I thought it was Buddy. I only asked to be nice." She sniffed. "You smell weird," she said, and Ryan gave up.
Susie left a few days later, with a tough-looking guy covered in tattoos who smelled surprisingly of kindness (and axle grease) and Ryan's ears rang with the silence for an hour.
Voices made their way towards him, but Ryan was still half asleep and didn't pay all that much attention to them. "I don't know, Mom," some kid was saying, deepish voice. Ryan could smell Sharpie ink and ice cream and two-day-old shirts and fresh sweat and something achingly familiar, something – guitar strings. He sat up, shaking the sleep out of his eyes and lumbering slowly to sit at the front of the cage.
"Oh, Brendon. What's wrong with this one? Isn't she adorable?" Ryan peered through the bars and saw Holly with a woman and a boy. The woman was holding a setter puppy who had arrived the week before. Ryan thumped his tail against the floor once, twice, three times.
The boy looked over. He was about Ryan's age – or rather, the age Ryan-the-human had been a month ago, before he'd turned into Ryan-the-dog – and he wore jeans and a red hoodie that had, at some point in history, suffered a slight burn to the pocket. Ryan cocked his head to the side and sniffed.
"Hey, Mom," the boy – Brendon, his mother had said – beckoned her over. "What about this one?"
Ryan stood up, wagging his tail. He liked the smell of this kid. The setter glared at him from over Brendon's mother's arm, but he ignored her. He lifted himself onto his hind legs, front paws against the bars of the cage, and put his nose out as far as it would go. Brendon laughed, crouched down, and put his hand out.
"Careful!" Holly began, but stopped as Ryan gave Brendon's hand a lick. His tail wagged harder. Brendon tasted like melodies. Ryan barked, once, joyous.
Brendon grinned at his mother. "I think he likes me," he said.
"He's so cute," she replied, handing the setter back to Holly. "Can we have a look at this one?" she asked her. Holly placed the setter back in her cage and came around to unlock Ryan's.
"We've had Buddy for about a month," she said. "No one knows where he came from, he was found outside, but he was in perfect health when he arrived." She picked Ryan up, and for once, he let her. "Normally he isn't as perky as this," she said as she handed him to Brendon, and Ryan refrained from biting her for that one. Instead, he went limp and let Brendon hold him.
"Must be my animal magnetism," Brendon winked at Holly, and Ryan looked up at the curve of his neck and licked it. His tail started wagging again, and he wriggled up until he was at a better angle so he could lick at Brendon's chin. He couldn't get enough of that taste, it had been so long since he'd even smelled the keys of a piano and oh, this boy was a musician and he had to go home with him, he just had to. If not right now, then he'd find a way out of the shelter and follow his smell home.
I have spent far too fucking long on my own in this place, he thought, a strange sort of relief making him giddy.
Brendon laughed, and rearranged his arms around Ryan's body. "Hey now," he said, "calm down, okay? I'm flattered you like me and all, but puppy tongue is not an attractive look when there's a cute girl present." He tipped his head towards Holly and Ryan wanted to tell him Too late, she already has a boyfriend. Trust me, I tried. Instead, he went still, except for his tail still wagging.
"Um, wow," Holly said, and gave an apologetic look. "Sorry, it's just, he never obeys orders. This is, wow, this is the most animated I've ever seen him."
Brendon looked down at Ryan, who looked back and wagged his whole hindquarters. "You really do like me, huh?" Brendon said, softly, reaching one hand to pat Ryan's head. Ryan did the only thing he could think of to affirm; he nuzzled his head against Brendon's chin when he was done patting. Brendon turned to his mother. "Please, Mom," he said. She was already nodding.
"Alright, alright. I know love when I see it," she said, and her smile was fond. "Just keep in mind who'll be cleaning up after him, okay?"
"Okay," Brendon agreed.
"He's actually really clean," Holly piped up, and Ryan forgave her for everything she had ever said (including "Yeah, like I'd date you"). "He must have been well trained before he came here."
"You just get better and better, don't you?" Brendon smiled down at him. Ryan wagged his tail in agreement.
The advantage of having soft floppy ears, Ryan discovered on the way back to Brendon's, is that if you stick your head up against the open window of a moving car, it feels awesome. He barked, and Brendon laughed. "I don't think he's ever done that before," he said, scritching a point on Ryan's back. Ryan hung his tongue out of his mouth and felt, for the first time in a month, actually happy.
He bounded out of the car when they pulled up in a driveway and Brendon opened the door. The grass felt soft under his paws and there were a million smells. He ran in a circle, trying to breathe them all in, while Brendon and his mother piled their arms with things from the car – a basket, some blankets, a ceramic bowl or two, and Ryan figured they must have already bought the food because he couldn't see any tins. He hoped they'd bought rabbit, that was his favourite flavour.
The fact that he even had a favourite flavour disconcerted him for a moment, until Brendon said, "Come on, puppy," and opened the door. Ryan followed him inside, and oh wow, this house was nicer than his own place. And the smells! He ran to the nearest wall and sniffed along it, picking up Christmas a year ago and last September's back-to-school fight and at least one kid moving out. He looked up at Brendon and wagged his tail.
"Nice place," he yapped, and Brendon chuckled. Ryan followed him into the kitchen, pricking his ears and his nose.
"I," Brendon began, looking at him. "I … could show you around? I guess?" He scratched his nose. "I feel kind of dumb talking to a dog, but – you seem like an okay kind of a guy. I like you." Ryan wagged his tail. "Alright then." Brendon paused, and cracked a smile. "Two barks for yes, three for no. Okay?"
Ryan barked twice.
"There you go!" Brendon beamed. "Okay. Do you want me to give you the tour?"
Ryan barked twice.
Brendon laughed. "Are Tootsie Rolls better than Twinkies?" he asked.
Ryan barked three times.
Brendon blinked. "Seriously, you like Twinkies better than Tootsie Rolls?"
Ryan barked twice and looked at him hard. Brendon looked back.
"Wow," he muttered. "You really are a clever dog, huh?" He shook himself, as if derailing a thought, and motioned to the open back door. "The garden," he said, grandiosely. He led Ryan to a room just off the kitchen. "The dining room, where we all … eat. Except for you, you'll eat in the kitchen," he added, and Ryan felt for a second like kicking something. "Then there's the TV room, and the den," Brendon took him from room to room, barely leaving time for Ryan to breathe in before moving to the next one. "Now upstairs," he said, taking them two at a time, "we haaaave, the bathroom. Don't drink from the toilet, okay?" Ryan wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Exactly." Brendon paused. "You really are … anyway. Mom and Dad's room, whatever you do, don't get hairs on the bed. They'd kill me and send you back to the animal shelter and I'd rather neither of those things happened, so." He pointed at the closed doors as they passed. "My sister's room, my brother's room, my other brother's room, and, my other brother's room. They're all at college or doing their service for the church or moved out now. I'm the only one left. And this," he stopped at the last door, "is my room."
Ryan nudged the door open with his nose, and oh, yes. This room smelled like Brendon, all over. The whole house had his scent running through it like a thread, but here, this smelled like his domain. Ryan ran in and straight to the guitar leaning against the desk. His tail wagged so hard the entire back half of his body moved with it. "Music!" he barked, beside himself. "Brendon, I could hug you!"
"You like the guitar, huh?" Brendon sat on the bed and took the guitar, settling it in his lap. He tuned it and played a few chords. Ryan quivered. Had it really been a month since he'd heard music that wasn't the whistling or humming of the volunteers at the shelter? He sat, expectant, and Brendon considered him. "Alright," he said, thoughtful, "let's try you out with this one."
He started playing a few notes, and Ryan instantly recognised the pattern. When Brendon began singing, Ryan almost joined in before he remembered his previous attempts at making his new vocal cords work (it always ended in howling and being told to quiet the hell down, some of us are trying to sleep) – so he just listened, and hey, this kid was good.
"Summer time and the wind is blowing outside in lower Chelsea and I don't know what I'm doing in the city," Brendon sang, soft. "The sun is always in my eyes." Ryan jumped up onto the bed next to him and lay out, propping his head on his paws and watching Brendon's fingering. He nudged the boy's hand when he got a note wrong.
Brendon looked at him when he finished singing. He put the guitar back down, and Ryan crawled further forward until the front of his body was in Brendon's lap. He missed playing his guitar, he missed singing, he missed just listening to music. He heaved a sigh.
Brendon threaded his fingers into Ryan's fur and stroked his head. "You noticed when I went wrong," he said, almost to himself. "You – I swear you can understand me." Ryan looked up at him and made a movement that was, without doubt, a nod. Brendon stared. "Who are you?" he asked, voice breathless.
Ryan's only answer was to move closer. He was shaking, and Brendon noticed, and pulled him half into his arms. Ryan closed his eyes and wondered when he'd be turning back because really, surely, he wouldn't stay a dog forever. Surely.
"I don't know who you are," Brendon whispered into his fur, "but I'm glad you're my dog."
And right then, Ryan figured that, well, if he did have to be a dog, he could do worse than be Brendon's.
Ryan was bored. He'd tried to go with Brendon to school that morning, but had instead been shut in the house with an apologetic look and a point to the puppy-door leading to the (closed in) back garden. He sat in the grass and went over chord progressions in his head. Every now and then he'd try and work out another way of turning back into a human, or how he'd even turned into a dog in the first place, but he was still coming up with nothing. He refused to think about the many ways in which he had become puppy-like, because it only served to depress him.
He heard a car pull into the drive and listlessly cocked an ear. "I don't think my parents are home yet," came Brendon's voice.
"Are you sure it's okay for me to come over?"
Ryan jumped up. That was – that was Spencer's voice. What was Spencer doing here? He took a deep breath, and yes, yes, he could smell him, and he leaped to the door, crashing through the puppy-door and landing in the kitchen, barking, "Spencer! Spencer!"
"Woah." Spencer stepped back and raised his hands when he saw Ryan running towards them. Brendon abruptly halted his movement by scooping him up.
"Hey, it's okay. This is Spencer. He's alright. Awesome on the drums." Spencer ducked behind his hair, and Ryan knew that, he'd been playing with Spencer since they were kids and how did Brendon know him and oh my God he had never been so glad to see him. He wriggled out of Brendon's arms and put his front paws on Spencer's knees, looking up at him.
"Spence," he yapped. "It's me, Ryan."
"Hey," Spencer smiled, and crouched to pat Ryan's head awkwardly. "This the puppy you were telling me about?"
"Yeah." Brendon shut the front door and shrugged his jacket off. "I don't really want to leave him alone for too long yet, we only got him a couple of days ago."
"He's cute," Spencer said. "What's his name?"
"Atticus," Brendon replied, and Ryan still hadn't decided whether he would forgive Brendon for naming him that. He'd tried barking at Brendon's sister's David Schwimmer posters and made it sound like "Ross! Ross!" but Brendon hadn't taken the hint. Still, Atticus wasn't so bad. At least it wasn't Buddy. He'd bitten nearly everyone at the shelter who had called him that, and the behaviour training afterwards had not been pleasant. (Not that that had stopped him, because seriously, Buddy? No. Just, no.)
"Cool name," Spencer smiled. Ryan put his head on one side and tried to send brainwaves directly into Spencer's mind -- I'm Ryan, it's me, find some way to change me back, please. Spencer just patted his head again. "I think he likes me. Either that, or he's trying to get into my brain with his thought waves. Does he always look this intently at strangers?"
"Erm. Not usually," Brendon said, dragging Ryan away from Spencer. "Come on, boy, I've got to talk to Spence here. Will you stop freaking the poor guy out?"
"I'm not freaked out," Spencer protested, but Ryan could see he was lying. He sagged against Brendon and barked twice, apologetically.
"Thank you." Brendon petted his ears, which kind of tickled, in a nice way. "D'you want anything to eat?" he asked Spencer.
"No, I'm good, thanks."
"Okay, well, Atticus? Want something to eat?" Ryan barked twice. "Alright. Spence, I have to feed him, so …"
"Did he just – answer your question?" Spencer peered at Ryan.
"Yeah. He's, uh. He's a pretty amazing dog." Ryan glowed with pride. Brendon led them both into the kitchen and opened a cupboard next to the sink. "Okay, boy, show me what you want."
Ryan considered the tins in front of him. Chicken or beef, that was the question. He paused, then touched his nose to the beef-flavour tin, and sat back.
"That's," Spencer said, eyes round. "Wow. Where did you find him?"
Brendon grinned as he opened the tin. "The animal shelter a couple of miles from your place. And I have never met a dog quite like Atticus." He spooned out the meat into the bowl, and filled the water bowl next to it. "There you go," he said, and Ryan began attacking his food.
"Huh. That's where Ryan volunteered." Spencer traced patterns on the counter with his fingertip, examining the grain of the fake granite. Ryan looked up and barked twice.
Brendon stared at him. "Atticus, did you – did you know a kid, Ryan Ross – Spence, what does he look like?"
"Uh, kind of my height, brown hair, brown eyes. A little skinny, I guess." He wasn't looking at Ryan. Ryan looked carefully at Spencer and barked twice.
"Um," Brendon said, "that means yes."
Spencer slid to the floor, and Ryan walked forward, putting his head on Spencer's knee. "I haven't seen him in a month," Spencer told him. "Have you seen him since then?"
Ryan barked twice, quietly. He put his paw on Spencer's leg, and willed him to just know.
"I don't – I don't think two can mean yes," Spencer said. His voice was unsteady.
"Hey, look, I'm – is there any word?" Brendon sank down next to Spencer and, after hesitating for a few seconds, put his arm around Spencer's shoulders. Ryan crawled forward until he was lying across both their laps, his nose re-settling on Spencer's knee.
"Nothing," Spencer sighed. "His dad isn't exactly helping. Thinks he just took off like he'd said he would. But that was years ago and he would have – he'd have told me if he was going anywhere, Brendon. We were – we're best friends, we – is he okay?" He looked at Ryan. "Is Ryan okay? When you saw him, was he okay?"
Ryan looked at Spencer. He wasn't okay. He was miles from okay, he was a fucking puppy. But he looked at Spencer, and he barked twice, slowly. Spencer let his breath out and looked at the ceiling.
"Is it bad that I want to believe a dog?" he asked Brendon, quiet.
"No," Brendon replied, and pulled him closer.
Ryan whined softly at the back of his throat and licked Spencer's hand. He still. He tasted like Spencer. He tasted like … like that Halloween when they were kids and Spencer had been convinced there was a monster under his bed, and his mom had let him sleep over at Ryan's and they'd stayed up late whispering under the blankets about ways to keep monsters at bay. This was … Spencer was afraid and Ryan needed to turn back into himself right now so he could hug him and tell him he wasn't lying in some gutter somewhere, that he was alright, that he was. He just, he. Ryan shifted closer and did his best to cover what he could of Spencer and keep him warm, because Spencer was shivering.
"Hey," Brendon murmured. "Are you okay?"
"I just fucking miss my best friend," Spencer whispered, voice tight. "I want to know that he's not – that he's – that he's still alive at least."
Brendon hugged him, and Ryan was caught between their bodies and did his best to add to the hug. For a moment, he wished he'd turned into a cat instead of a dog, so he could purr or something.
"He'll be okay," Brendon said into Spencer's bangs. "He'll be alright."
"Yeah. Sorry." Spencer tried to clear his throat and sound normal, but Brendon still had hold of him, and Spencer didn't pull away.
Ryan crawled into bed with Brendon that night and wished he had some kind of objects he could spell out 'I AM RYAN' with. Brendon was warm, and slung his arm around him, and it dawned on Ryan that he was getting used to sleeping like this. That there would be something he'd miss when he finally did turn back. The thought made him tuck his nose under his paw and move an inch closer to Brendon, who smiled and scritched behind his ears.
Ryan knocked over Brendon's CD tower the next day, and nosed through to see what he had. He pushed the ones he liked, or hadn't heard but wanted to listen to, aside and – with an effort that took a surprising amount of strength – tilted the tower back to upright. Brendon found them when he came home from school, Ryan with his paw over the second Third Eye Blind album. "Can I play these?" he barked in greeting.
"Atticus, what did you do?" Brendon dropped his bag and looked at the mess. Ryan sighed, an exasperated exhale.
"What is it?" Brendon's father's head appeared around the door.
"Atticus, he – um." Brendon examined the CDs that Ryan had managed to put back in the tower. "It looks like he knocked over my CD tower and then … put it back. Including, um, most of the CDs." He pointed. "I think there's slobber on this one."
Ryan huffed. "You try carrying things in your mouth and not getting a little on them," he growled, sprawling against the side of the bed.
"Well." Brendon's father adjusted his glasses on his nose. "You'd better clean them up, then." His head disappeared, and they heard his study door close.
Brendon looked at Ryan. "If I didn't know any better," he started, but then he stopped, and shrugged, and grabbed some tissues from the windowsill. He seemed to be almost about to say something, and kept opening his mouth but shutting it before any sound came out.
"What?" Ryan snapped, watching him.
"Do you … want to play any of these?" He pointed to the CDs still on the floor.
"Yes, please," Ryan barked.
"Yeah. Kinda thought so," Brendon muttered, and set three up on his stereo. "Here," he said, sitting on the floor next to him and tilting the remote control so they could both see it, "the red button is the on-off, this one's CD one, this one's for two, and this one's for three. This button is play all. That's repeat, and that's shuffle. Okay?"
Ryan barked twice. He carefully pressed the play all button with the side of one paw. Brendon stared at him as the music started.
"Seriously, dude, you can understand every word I say, can't you?"
"Yes," Ryan barked.
"Fuck." He paused. "You know, if anyone but me knew about this – and I kind of guess Spencer does, but he's okay, so – but if anyone else knew, they'd like, want to do experiments and shit on you. I mean, there's intelligent animals, and then there's you."
Ryan puffed out his chest. Of course he was an intelligent animal. Brendon laughed.
"Yeah, you're kind of full of yourself, you know that?"
"Hey!" Ryan growled, making as if to nip at Brendon's arm, but the boy was too fast. Ryan pounced on him, tail starting to wag, and Brendon laughed.
"Think you can beat me, huh? Think you can beat me?" He scritched just behind Ryan's ears and pretended to fight him off. Ryan ended up headbutting his chin. He stopped, collapsing against Brendon's chest, and nosed affectionately at the patch of skin between neck and collar bone, the two of them sprawled on the floor as Green Day played on the stereo.
Ryan settled his head against Brendon's shoulder. He felt like humming. Palms stroked down his back, and it was just, kind of nice. He let his breath out and closed his eyes.
"Ow, my back," Brendon protested, sitting up carefully. Ryan slithered into a heap in his lap. "You're heavy, Atticus."
Ryan poked him with his paw.
Brendon showed him how to use the TV remote after dinner, then tried to get him to help with his homework, but Ryan had never liked history and wasn't about to start being good at it now, so Brendon soon gave up. "You may be intelligent, but you know jack about the Civil War," Brendon laughed.
"Shut up," Ryan protested, and went back to the hardback copy of A Clockwork Orange Brendon had propped open after Ryan had dragged it off the shelf and tried to open it himself. He managed, with concentration, not to tear any of the pages as he turned them. He missed his thumbs, but he'd become pretty good with his paws in the last month.
"I have a dog that reads," Brendon said to himself, trying out the words. He laughed, in that oh-my-God-what-the-fuck way, and called over, "So, let me know what else you like when you're done with that one, okay?" Ryan yipped twice, not looking up from the book. Brendon shook his head and went back to his essay. He made a mental note to leave the history book out when they were done with it in class.
At the end of their walk that Saturday morning, Brendon said, "So hey, I've got practice now. Do you want to come with me or stay here?" Ryan ran to the car door and looked back at him. "Coming with me it is," Brendon grinned. "I'll just go get my stuff, okay? Wait here."
Ryan sat by the car, watching a couple of people walk past. One was walking a dalmation, who sniffed suspiciously in his direction. Ryan crept further up the driveway, and the dalmation was pulled away. Brendon appeared, carrying his guitar case.
"You okay, Atticus?" he asked, and Ryan barked twice. "Good. Let's go."
Brendon rolled the passenger window down a little, and Ryan let his ears blow back, grinning. They stopped once for gas, and eventually pulled up in front of … Spencer's grandmother's house.
"Here?" Ryan barked. "Practice is here?"
"I … wish I knew what you were saying," Brendon sighed, opening the door for him to jump out. "Come on, I'll introduce you – well, you've already met Spencer. I'm kind of filling in for their singer, when he gets back I'll just play guitar and stuff." Brendon knocked on the door, and it was opened by Brent.
"Hey Brendon," Brent greeted him. "You – brought your dog."
"Yep. Brent, this is Atticus. Atticus, Brent. He plays bass."
"I know," Ryan yipped, and looked up at Brendon. So. This was … kind of weird. He gave Brent's knee an affectionate headbutt as they went inside.
Spencer was sitting at his drum kit in the living room, and Ryan bounded up to him and barked a greeting. "Hey, Atticus." Spencer leaned down and patted his head. "Brendon brought you for practice?"
Ryan barked twice.
"Awesome. You get to hear how hard we suck." He flashed Ryan a grin.
They did some tuning up, and Ryan settled himself comfortably on the floor in the spot with the best acoustics. After a short discussion on which song to practice first, they settled on one and started to play. Ryan listened, head tilted to the side, and stopped them with a bark half way through. He went up to Brendon, nudging his fingers on the guitar gently, trying to indicate the change he'd thought of. Brendon caught on, and petted his ears, then tried out the new notes and nodded. Ryan went back to his place on the floor.
"Um," Brent boggled. "What the fuck."
"My dog," Brendon grinned at him, "is not like any other dog."
Spencer laughed. "No kidding. I mean, I knew he was special, but I didn't think he was, like, a musician," he said, idly tapping on his snare.
"Atticus is many things," Brendon said, loftily. Ryan laughed.
"D'you guys want to stay and hang out?" Spencer asked later that afternoon, when they all agreed nothing more could be done on their songs that day. They were unwilling to work too much on them without Ryan, which had made him bark at them, "But I am Ryan!" Spencer had glanced at Brendon, who'd just shrugged and said, "If it isn't yes or no, I have no idea what he's saying."
"I have to go, I'm meeting Lily in an hour," Brent said, looking at his watch.
"I don't have anywhere to be," Brendon said, looking up from the playing-card tower he was constructing. "Not all of us have hot dates," he winked at Brent. "Atticus, do you mind hanging here with Spence for a while?" Ryan barked three times. "Excellent."
"See you guys tomorrow," called Brent as he pulled on his jacket.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Brendon called back. Brent grinned at them and left.
"Want to play a video game or something?" Spencer asked, waving his hand in the direction of the console.
"Maybe. Or we could watch TV, or – what do you want to do?"
Spencer thought for a minute. "TV sounds good." Ryan, who had been examining the remote control he'd found tucked between the couch cushions, leaned on the 'on' button and searched carefully through the channels until he found one with cartoons. "Does he, uh," Spencer asked, watching him, "do that a lot?"
"I think he does when I'm at school," Brendon said, settling on one side of Ryan. Spencer sat on the other side of him. "He must get bored, I guess. He lets me know what CDs he wants in the player, he can work that too. And he – uh, he reads, when I can like, when the book will stay open without him holding it."
"He reads?" Spencer stared at Ryan, who shifted uncomfortably. It had never been a big deal before he was a dog.
"Yeah." Brendon grinned sheepishly.
"Are you sure he's not just like, looking at the book?"
"No, he turns pages. Most of the time he doesn't even rip them."
"Brendon, you –"
"Don't tell anyone, okay? I mean, I don't want him like, put in a zoo or a lab or anything." He looked at Ryan, and back to Spencer. "He's … kind of special, and I don't want to – you know."
"It's kind of like –" He stopped, and tugged a hand through his hair. "This might sound kind of crazy, but it's more like having another person around than a pet."
"Like a little brother?" Spencer suggested.
"No, not a brother. He hasn't tried to wedgie me yet," Brendon grinned, and Ryan made a mental note to do so the next time Brendon trapped his paw in a door. He amended the note to 'Wedgie Brendon in his sleep', because, hey, that would be funny. "No, it's kind of more like … just, having a friend over all the time. Hanging out, you know?"
"With your book-reading dog who watches Spongebob Squarepants."
Ryan changed the channel.
He was sprawled on Brendon's bed reading Fight Club and half-listening to Fall Out Boy the night that Brendon walked in and said, "Can we put something else on? I've just been dumped, and – wait, no, play track four, okay?" Ryan hit the '4' button, and the vocal broke out of the speakers. He made room on the bed as Brendon flung his bag to land under his desk and flopped down next to him.
They listened in silence until the first chorus. Ryan nudged the book further away.
"Atticus," Brendon said, "I know you didn't like her. I know I said it's a good job you're not the one dating her, then. I know I said you were wrong about her." He stared at his lap. "Yeah, well, you were right and I'm sorry. She's been seeing someone else all this time, and I – kind of feel like a dick for sticking up for her." He squinted at Ryan out of one eye. "D'you forgive me?"
"Yes," Ryan yapped, and leaned against his leg.
"I can always count on you, right? 'S what friends are for. Right?" Brendon tried to pull Ryan into his lap, but received the edges of sharp tiny teeth. "Hey, man, broken heart here. A hug from my dog would not go amiss, okay? I swear, you get less like a puppy all the time." Ryan sighed and crawled into Brendon's lap. "My little boy's growing up," Brendon continued, and Ryan got up to leave his lap again in disgust. Brendon scooped him up. "Oh, I was just kidding, Atticus." Ryan stopped struggling. "You'll never grow up," Brendon grinned.
"Screw you," Ryan growled, extracting himself and going to sit near his book. He turned his back on Brendon and started reading again.
"Two more weeks, my foot is in the door," sang the CD player.
Brendon shifted to lie down, feet going under his pillow and his head practically on top of Ryan's book. Ryan shifted slightly away from him.
"Look," Brendon said, hovering one hand near Ryan's back, "I know you didn't like her. But." He paused. "I did," he said, voice small, and Ryan looked up at him. He sighed, and abandoned the book, settling into the curve of Brendon's body. Brendon fondled his ears and buried his nose for a moment in Ryan's fur.
"Screw you," Ryan muttered, quietly.
Brendon spent the next five days listening to a lot of jazz. Ryan usually ended up feeling sorry for him and climbing into his lap by nine thirty, and Brendon would scritch his ears absently and stare into space. By the fifth day, Ryan was determined to cheer Brendon up somehow, so when Mrs Urie called upstairs that Spencer was on the phone and was he in, Ryan barked twice and fetched the cordless handset, dropping it onto Brendon's knee.
"Subtle," Brendon sighed, picking it up. "Hi."
Ryan heard Spencer's voice, and climbed into Brendon's lap to eavesdrop. "Hey. I was just wondering if you're still on for practice this weekend. Brent says you've been kind of … out of it," he concluded after a pause. "Are you okay?"
Brendon gusted a hollow laugh. "I got dumped," was all he said.
"Yeah." He paused. "But, yeah, great, still on for practice."
"You going to bring Atticus?" Spencer was grinning, that much was obvious.
Brendon's mouth broke into half a smile. "Yeah. I'm kind of expecting him to start writing songs any day now." He patted Ryan's back affectionately.
"Give me opposable thumbs and I will," Ryan said from his vantage point on Brendon's thighs.
"Is that him?" Spencer asked.
"No, it's my other genius dog," Brendon said, and Ryan, for one, was glad to hear him sounding normal again.
Practice that week saw the birth of another song, when Brendon started just playing some notes and Ryan worked with him on them, nudging his fingering gently in any new direction he felt was worth trying. Spencer started tapping out a beat, and Brent joined in, and before long a theme was emerging. Brendon grabbed some paper and started scribbling it down, and by the end of the day they had some potentially good stuff to work with.
"It needs lyrics," Brendon said, looking at the pages.
Spencer and Brent looked at each other. "We need Ryan," they concluded in unison, and Ryan barked his agreement.
Brendon laughed. "Atticus should officially join the band, he puts in as much work as anyone." Ryan wanted to tell them he was already in the band, assholes, or would be as soon as he turned back, but instead he just barked yes.
"We'll be the first band with our own dog," Brent grinned. "Can you imagine taking him, like, on tour with us?"
"Can you imagine going on tour?" Brendon sighed.
"That would be so awesome," Ryan chipped in.
"I'm … guessing that was agreement," Brendon hazarded after a second's silence.
Spencer came over one day just as Brendon was getting home. Ryan was on the couch, dozing off in front of some cowboy movie, but woke up when Brendon clicked the TV off. "Hi, you guys," he yawned.
"Okay," Spencer said, pointing, "that was adorable."
"Thank you!" Brendon looked pointedly at Ryan, who turned his back on them both. "He hates it when I call him cute. But Atticus, Atticus," he crept towards the couch and scooped Ryan up quickly, "you are cute. Hazards of being a small fuzzy little puppy, my friend."
Ryan tried to bite him, but Brendon was practiced at dodging his teeth. He settled just for growling, "Shut up, I am not cute."
"Pish and tosh, I know you're protesting," Brendon told him, setting him down again. Ryan made to bite his ankles, but he moved away fast enough. "Don't sulk, Atticus dear," he added as Ryan tried to crawl under the couch but remembered half way through that it was really, really gross under there. He wriggled back out again, which, okay, must have looked weird from above because Spencer started laughing.
Ryan wished he could flip them both off. Instead, he caught Brendon's ankle as he passed, the smallest of nips, and raced up to find his place on the bed, beside the open history book. (Which he was pointedly ignoring and considering chewing the cover of. The fact that this act of subtle protest would involve chewing a book was the only thing that stopped him. Because seriously, who chews books, besides puppies and toddlers?)
Brendon and Spencer appeared ten minutes later with matching bowls of ice cream scoops, though Brendon's was piled higher with chocolate syrup and Spencer's had more sprinkles. "Okay," Spencer was saying, licking his spoon, "what's the worst kiss you've ever had?"
"Oh God." Brendon thought for a minute. Ryan took the opportunity to put his nose as close to Brendon's bowl as possible. Brendon held it away from him. "It was, I think, my third ever kiss. There was this girl, and she was like, future groupie material, always hanging around wanting to talk to me and stuff, and one day, I was just like, hey, why not, and so I kissed her. And it was awful. She was chewing gum and it kind of … got stuck on my lip, it was so gross. And it was all awkward, and ugh."
"Oh man." Spencer winced in sympathy.
"Yeah. So what about you? Worst ever kiss?"
Spencer laughed. "Okay, but promise not to judge me on this one, because I was like, thirteen."
"I swear on my puppy's life, I will not judge you."
("Hey!" Ryan protested.)
"Alright. So there was this girl at school, and she was like, the one girl every guy wants. She was gorgeous, she was popular, she had everything. And she had this … best friend. Who wasn't totally gorgeous or popular, but they were like, inseparable. And I kind of, um, asked this best friend out because I was not about to ask out her gorgeous friend, right?" Brendon nodded. "So this best friend says she'll go on a date with me if I pay for everything. And it was just the worst date in the history of dates. I came out of it so broke, and so bored, she was just, we did not click. But then the end of the date comes, and I walk her home, and she says 'Are you going to kiss me then?' and I think, fine, okay, maybe she'll tell her best friend how great a kisser I am and I can get a date with her instead. Then I go to kiss her, and right in the middle of it, she burps."
"Oh, gross!" Brendon cried. Ryan laughed; not only had he heard the story before, Spencer had called him as soon as he'd got in the door that night.
"And I'm standing there like, you just burped at my mouth, oh ew. And she says, maybe we could do this again some time, and I just say to her, um, no thanks, and I run home and call Ryan." Spencer smiled. "He laughed so hard."
"And then she told her best friend that I'd been the one who burped and I couldn't get a date for, like, a year."
"Oh, man. High school is hell," Brendon observed, the corners of his mouth still twitching.
"Definitely is," Spencer agreed, slurping up some half-melted ice cream. Ryan watched him, thinking about nosing the bowl and trying to get some laps in, but stopping himself. He whined slightly at the back of his throat, but they just shook their heads at him. "I don't think you'd like it," Spencer said, looking from Ryan to the ice cream and back. Ryan huffed.
"Of course I like it, asshole," he growled.
"The answer's no, Atticus," Brendon said, and Ryan made an exasperated noise in his throat and turned his back on them.
"Sorry," Spencer offered. Ryan said nothing.
"Alright, so what about your best ever kiss?" Brendon asked after a few seconds of quiet.
Spencer blushed. "You first."
Brendon looked at him and whooped. "You're blushing. You have to tell me. Tell me tell me tell me!" He poked his arm.
Spencer swatted at his hand. "You first," he repeated.
"Okay. But you have to tell me afterwards. Deal?"
"Deal. Now tell me yours."
"Alright. It was my last girlfriend, who turned out to be cheating on me, but she was one hell of a kisser. This one time, we were watching this movie over at her place, and her sister was there so we couldn't do more than like, just sit and watch it, but about an hour in the sister left and Tina just grabs me and we start making out and oh man, it was so awesome."
"Cool." Spencer licked at his spoon.
"Now your turn," Brendon said, poking him.
"I – no. I mean, it's – no."
"What? Those are the rules, Spence, you have to answer. Come on, it can't be that bad if it's your best ever kiss, right?"
"Okay, answer me one question first. What do you think of Freddie Mercury?"
"I think he was awesome and made some great rock music, why?"
"He was the first one I could think of to – kind of test a reaction. My best ever kiss was, um, it was a." He mumbled something, and Brendon shifted closer.
"A what? A Queen fan?"
"A guy," Spencer said, louder.
Ryan wondered for a second whether he was going to stay unable to move forever or never be able to stay still again. "What," he barked, turning around abruptly to face them.
"I – think Atticus is more surprised than I am. Is that all? Is that why you were –"
"Um, that's not everything. See, I don't … think he even knows it, um."
"Okay," Brendon said, frowning, "now you have to tell me." Ryan moved closer, staring.
"I like girls!" Spencer protested, suddenly. "I just, I have this thing for this one guy, I'm not. I'm not gay."
"It's okay," Brendon said. "The way I look at it is, you don't fall for one part of a person, you fall for them, right? I mean, when I like someone, I like them, not – not whether they have boobs or not. Do you see what I'm saying?"
"Yeah. That makes sense. Have you ever had a crush on a guy?"
"Sucks, doesn't it?"
Three heads bobbed in unison. Brendon and Spencer looked at Ryan.
"Seriously? Even dogs have this problem?" Brendon asked him. Ryan just sighed. "I'll take that as a yes, then." He gave a half-laugh. "You know, this conversation would probably go a lot better if we had alcohol."
"I don't drink," Spencer said. "I just – my friend's dad, it's this whole big thing, it never goes anywhere good, so. I don't."
"Oh. Doesn't matter anyway, my parents don't have any in the house, so. I'm just saying, you know. And hey, if you don't want to talk about the kiss thing, that's cool."
"No, it – you asked, you told me about yours, I said I'd tell you about mine. I just got sidetracked." Spencer smiled, and it almost wasn't awkward. "And um, how about after this we play some Halo or something?"
"Yeah, okay. So."
"Right. So." Spencer took a deep breath. "I – promise me you won't judge me for this one, either."
"I promise. And one day, Spence, you've really got to start having kiss stories that don't need you to say that."
"I know," Spencer smiled, sheepish. "But um. Okay, so there's this – neighbour of mine, and we've known each other for, like, years, and I don't really know when it happened but at some point I kind of started getting a crush on him." He took a deep breath. "And uh, about six months ago he was sleeping over at my house and we'd stayed up late talking and you know how sometimes you'll fall asleep and you won't realise you're asleep until you wake up?" Brendon nodded. "Well, we did that, and when I woke up he was still asleep and, uh." Spencer blushed and seemed to find his lap fascinating. "And I kind of thought he'd woken up for a minute because he sort of smiled and I."
Ryan had, by that point, gone still. He could remember that night. He – pieces of half-asleep memory slotted into place as Spencer spoke.
"I, um, I kissed him. And he kissed me back, I swear he did, and it was so good, and it was just – I wasn't really awake and it was like a dream but real and it was." He stopped, and shifted. "And then we fell asleep again and he never said a word about it, so I figured maybe he didn't remember, or thought it was a dream or something. I guess he wasn't really awake."
Holy fuck, Ryan whined, silently.
"Wow," Brendon breathed.
"So, yeah. That's it. Best kiss ever, and he never even … I mean, he's not into guys, I don't think. So." Spencer shrugged. "It sucks, but that's it."
"I'm sorry," Brendon said. Spencer tipped him a half-smile that said It's okay. Thanks.
Ryan almost bit into his own paw.
They moved to the floor to play the game, and Ryan just stared at the back of Spencer's head at first. So that's what – he had thought that was a dream. Really vivid, but. And it had – Spencer had – Holy fuck, he thought, again.
And now I'm a fucking puppy and can't do anything about this, he silently added. He decided to hell with it and started ripping up the cover of the history book with his teeth, growling a string of profanities at it.
"Atticus, what the fuck?" Brendon paused the game and wrestled the book from him. "What's got into you today?"
"Fuck you," Ryan snarled at him, leaping off the bed and landing in Spencer's lap. He refrained – with difficulty – from nipping Spencer's arm as he passed, practically running out of the room and down the stairs and out through the puppy-door into the back garden. The stars were out, and he yelled up at them, "What the fuck did I do to deserve this? What the fuck did I do?" He sagged against the fish pond, listening to the hum of the pump's motor and the soft sound of oxygen bubbles hitting the surface of the water.
He heard Spencer leave some time later, and Brendon come to the kitchen door. "Atticus?" he called, and Ryan sighed, moving further into the shadows. Brendon grabbed a torch from the counter and flashed it across the lawn, stepping down the stone path and calling softly. He found Ryan half hidden by a large flower pot, and scooped him up. Ryan tried to bite his arm, but found part way through that he just couldn't be bothered. He flopped back against the inside of Brendon's elbow. "Atticus, are you alright? Come on, you'd better come inside. Okay? Want to come inside?"
Ryan nodded listlessly and let himself be carried up to Brendon's room. He curled against the boy's ribs that night, wishing he knew how to turn back. Brendon gently fondled his ears, and Ryan closed his eyes, gradually falling asleep with the soft movement.
He went with Brendon to practice three days later, and Spencer greeted Ryan by pretending to wrestle with him. Ryan growled playfully at him, and stole one of his drumsticks, making Spencer chase him up the stairs to retrieve it, and really, it was kind of just like always.
"Um," Spencer said, and he smelled like he was a bundle of nerves. Ryan nudged the back of his hand with his nose. Spencer absently petted him. "I, uh, kind of wrote some lyrics for that song we came up with."
"You did?" Brendon and Ryan said in unison. "That's awesome!" Brendon continued. Ryan stared at them both.
Spencer blushed. "I mean, they're not – uh, they're not like Ryan's, but um. What do you think?" He showed a notebook to Brendon, and Ryan lifted himself to try and read it. Brendon held the notebook lower, and Ryan read over his wrists.
"Hey yeah, these work! They're good, Spence," Brendon said, and Spencer looked pleased. Ryan had to agree; they weren't what he'd have written, but, okay, they were good. "Brent, have you seen them? What do you think?"
Brent was sitting on the floor trying to fix the Xbox. He looked over his shoulder at the three of them on the couch. "I think they're great."
"Do you think we – I mean," Brendon paused, stepping over his words carefully, "should we maybe work on it some more? And um, the others as well?"
"I – I don't know," Spencer said. He looked intently at his hands. "I mean, Ryan –"
"We still haven't heard anything," Brent reminded him, gentle, walking across the floor on his knees. "It's been three months, Spence. You'd think we'd – I –"
"I know," Spencer muttered, wincing, "I just."
"How about we agree, there is no question that when Ryan gets back, he has a place in this band," Brendon spoke up. "But until that happens, we're a band without him. But when he comes back, we will be a band with him," he added quickly, seeing the look on Spencer's face.
"Agreed," Brent nodded.
Spencer breathed steadily a few times, in and then out. Ryan watched him. "Agreed," he said at last. "Atticus?"
"Oh. Agreed," Ryan yapped.
"So, okay." Spencer took a deep breath, and looked around at them all. "We've got some songs to work on," he said. Brendon smiled and picked up his guitar.
They ended up almost finishing the four songs they'd been working on when Ryan was human within three practices. Spencer brought his laptop and they recorded the demos. Brent said he'd edit them and put them up on purevolume, and Spencer hugged him and said, "We're going to have our songs, like, out there," and Brent nodded into his shoulder. Ryan sat next to Brendon in the car on the way home and felt like singing along with the radio. It wasn't exactly what he'd hoped, but still, it was better than nothing. At least he knew for sure he had a band to return to when he changed back.
Brendon went over the chords of the songs on his guitar that night, while Ryan sprawled next to him reading the last of the hardback books. Brendon looked over at him as he turned the pages.
"Atticus," he said, and Ryan looked up, "I've, um. I've had a couple of ideas that could maybe become songs, and I wondered if you'd want to help me with them?" He looked down at his guitar, tapping against the wood with one fingernail.
"Sure," Ryan barked, sitting up. "Fire away."
"Okay. See, there's this one that starts like this," and he began playing. Ryan listened carefully and nodded along. There was a good hook or two, and his tail began to wag. "You like it?" Brendon asked, and he barked his assent. "Great! I'll take it to the guys next week, maybe, but I was just thinking, what if I tried this," and he played the bridge differently. Ryan cocked his head to the side.
"Play it all together," he said, and Brendon looked blankly at him for a second. Ryan sighed, and nudged Brendon's fingers into the starting position.
"Oh, you want to hear it from the top with the new bit?"
"Oh, okay." Brendon played, and Ryan listened intently. "So, what do you think? Is it better the second way?"
"Yes," Ryan nodded, "but the chorus needs to change a bit to fit in."
Brendon stared at him. "Seriously, you need to get me some kind of dog dictionary."
Ryan sighed. He put his paw on the neck of the guitar and tried to angle it to show Brendon what he meant.
"So you're … oh, oh, I see what you're saying! You're at the end of the bridge, and the – hey, yeah, you're right! The chorus has to change to fit in with the bridge, right?"
"Yes!" Ryan yapped. He wagged his tail, and Brendon patted his head.
"Good genius puppy," he said, feeling out the new notes of the chorus. He tried humming a few bars, and singing some words to the tune, and grinned at him. "You know, we should work out some kind of pattern thing like the two-for-yes so we can write songs together." He stopped, and huffed some of a laugh out. "I'm writing songs with my dog, do you realise how bizarre this is?"
"I hate being a dog," Ryan observed.
"I … guess you do realise how bizarre this is. Because, pretty kooky stuff right here." Brendon looked at him. "Though really, you're more like a person than anything. Hell, you're more like a person than some people I know."
"That's because I am one," Ryan told him. (For about the nine billionth time.)
Brendon played a few more chords on his guitar, and set it aside. "For what it's worth," he said, "if you were human you'd probably be my best friend."
"For what it's worth," Ryan replied, "if I were human you'd be my best friend, too. I mean, as well as Spencer."
Brendon picked him up and hugged him. Ryan squinted up at him from the vantage point of his chest, but just ended up nuzzling. "I knew you loved me too," Brendon grinned, and Ryan was kind of glad dogs can't blush – or at least, if he did happen to be blushing, his fur covered it. "You are, after all, Man's Best Friend, right?"
"More like Man's Worst Enemy At Three In The Morning When Man Tries To Get Up To Pee In Peace," Ryan shot back, grinning, and Brendon ruffled his fur as if he'd understood every word.
"Whatever you just said, I object," Brendon told him, and Ryan laughed. "Dude. It's kind of weird to hear a dog laugh, you know. Weird in a cool way," Brendon added as Ryan started to protest. Well. In a cool way wasn't so bad. Ryan settled. "But then, pretty much everything you do is in a cool way." Brendon's fingertips began massaging just behind Ryan's ears, and oh, that always felt so nice. Ryan moved closer. "You like that, huh?" Brendon smiled. "You know, Spencer said the other day that you kind of remind him of Ryan. I mean, I never met – I haven't met him – and I kind of. It's going to be weird, when he does come back. Because he has to come back, Atticus, for Spencer's sake if no one else's. But, I mean. I've never met the guy and I'm going to be in a band with him and I just, it's – it's odd, to hear Spencer and Brent talk about this great guy, and I try to be there for them because it must be so tough, not knowing what happened or anything, but, dude, what do I do when he gets back? I mean, what if they decide Ryan's enough for a singer and a guitarist, what if they don't want me any more?" Brendon breathed, a deep breath in, and carried on. "They miss him so much. And I don't even know him, and I kind of miss him. It's so – I mean, just hearing about him, is it – is it weird to miss someone you've never even met?" He stopped. "I'm … I'm asking my dog if something's weird. But, okay. I guess, I mean, I just wish I could meet him, or talk to him or something." He sighed. "In a way, I kind of want to punch the guy for disappearing like this. I mean, you've seen Spence, when he talks about Ryan. How could he just take off? Where is he? He has to be okay, Atticus, he just has to be okay, and he'll come back, I. Is this making any sense?"
"Yes," Ryan muttered, and hugged him as best he could. "Yes. I wish I was me again. I wish I … and don't punch me when I turn back, or I'll tell the entire world about that morning when I came back from the garden and you were busy. And I'll tell them what you were muttering, so hah."
"Why do I get the feeling what you just said was a kind of threat?" Brendon looked at him. He laughed, something falling away. "If you're the spirit of Ryan possessing my dog, and you come back, I promise not to punch you."
"Good," Ryan said, and Brendon chuckled.
"Yeah, because that's possible," he rolled his eyes. Ryan wanted to kick him.
At the next practice, Spencer announced, "Have you been to the website? People are listening to our songs."
"I know," Ryan yapped, "isn't it awesome?"
"I, uh, think he said it's awesome," Brendon supplied. "Or something like that, anyway."
"Atticus is right," Brent grinned.
"Of course he is," Brendon nodded. Ryan preened. "And um, I have something for you guys. I – me and Atticus kind of worked on this thing."
"What?" Spencer asked, settling behind his drum kit. Brendon put his guitar on his lap and looked nervously at Ryan, who nodded to him.
"A new song," Brendon said, and started playing it. They'd tweaked the verses a little, too, and the chorus some more, and Brendon had started adding some lyrics. Brent and Spencer listened, Spencer finding a soft beat to accompany it.
"I like it," Brent said, breaking out into a wide smile. Spencer nodded his agreement, and Ryan's tail wagged. "What's the bass part?"
"Well, we can work that out, but I was thinking …" Brendon held his hand out for Brent's guitar, and Brent handed it over. Brendon played a sequence of notes on it and said, "I was thinking maybe this for the first part," he changed the sequence, "and then this for the next part," and he played the next part. Brent watched his fingering. "What do you think?"
"Yeah, that's cool," Brent nodded, and took the guitar back to try it out. "So it's – this to start, and then this, right?"
"Yeah," Brendon smiled. "I mean, we can change stuff if you want, that's just the basic idea I had."
"No, I like it," Brent said.
"We can expand on it and stuff," Spencer said, excited. "Like, that bit in the bridge, I guess it'd be the fourth bar? I could do a snare roll, and for the verses –" He began to play, and Brendon listened, a grin spreading. Ryan was nodding. "Yeah?" Spencer finished.
"Yeah!" Ryan agreed.
"Bandmate tested, Atticus approved," Brendon laughed. "Let's put it all together and see how it sounds."
By the end of that practice, Ryan had yapped himself hoarse and they'd worked on the first few bars, fleshing out the sound. Brendon had scribbled down some of the lyrics he'd come up with, and when they got home he immediately took the paper out again and wrote more, Ryan looking over his shoulder and trying not to say anything until Brendon sat back and looked at him, saying, "Okay then, Atticus, what do you think?"
"I think it needs a couple less syllables in the second line," Ryan told him, putting his paw over the words. "Like, just go for a simpler word here." He tapped the paper.
Brendon read the line over, smushing his lips to one side in thought. "You're right, that doesn't scan. Let me think." He ran the syllables over his teeth, carefully. "I've got it!" He crossed out a few words and wrote some more above them. "How about now?"
Ryan read them back and ran them through with the tune in his head. "Yeah, that works," he nodded. "This is good," he added, looking up at Brendon.
"I … okay, that was weird. Kind of like – Atticus, did you just say 'Yeah, that works. This is good.'?" Brendon peered at him.
"Yes! Yes I did! You can understand me! Oh, Brendon, I – I'm Ryan, I've been a dog for months, you can –"
"Woah, slow down, I have no idea what you're saying. Just. Just that once, I had this feeling … yes or no, Atticus, was it what you said?"
"Yes," Ryan barked, deflating.
"Sorry," Brendon petted just behind his ears. "Must be annoying, I mean – you can understand us, but we can't understand you. I wish I could."
"I wish you could, too," Ryan sighed.
"Sometimes I can guess," Brendon added. "Like, just then I think you said something like you wish I could understand you too. But I mean, tone of – bark, or whatever, or body language, or just, sometimes it's obvious, you know? I guess it's a start."
"Yeah, I guess." Ryan put his chin on Brendon's arm. "It's a start."
Brendon scritched at his ears, and Ryan didn't move away. They sat like that for a minute, until Ryan shifted and his eyes slid closed. He half-woke to find he was being carried, then the next time he opened his eyes he heard the soft breathing of Brendon asleep. He moved a fraction closer, gusted out his breath, and fell asleep again.
"Okay," Brendon said, folding his arms as soon as he had closed the door, "what now?"
Ryan just looked at him. "I don't like her," he said, and went back into the den.
"Hey, hey, wait a second, this conversation is not over." Brendon followed him. "Out of the four girlfriends I've had since I got you, you have not liked a single one. And okay, granted, you were right about Tina, but the others? Ashly, Liz? Okay, so, those didn't work out, but they were alright! Seriously, Atticus, what is your problem?"
"Okay, one," Ryan snarled, "Ashly did not smell of candyfloss and sunshine, okay? She smelled like tequila, and I don't care, it was just gross. Two, Liz was not right for you in any way, come on. And three," he added, counting on his paws, "Kat may be hot, but she's just, I mean, did you hear the way she laughed? I wouldn't trust anyone who laughed like that. And don't even get me started on Tina." He finished, spreading his paws out and staring defiantly at Brendon.
"Okay," Brendon said, slowly, breathing in and out, "I think I'm glad I couldn't understand that little speech." He turned on his heel and left, thumping up the stairs. Ryan heard him go into his room and start up his CD player.
"Fuck," he muttered, slumping onto his paws. He stared at a point on the floor, just thinking, until he realised the album upstairs had changed, and then he got up and looked for a magazine, or something. He'd read all of the hardback books in the house, but sometimes there would be something lying around he could get open. He located a copy of Brendon's dad's geology magazine, and settled down with it. At least rocks were better than thinking about Brendon and his stupid girlfriend and his stupid taste in women.
Brendon appeared after the third album had finished. "Look," he said, sitting beside Ryan, "you don't like her. I get that. Could you maybe accept the fact that I do? She's going to be around a bit, and it would be nice if you could at least be … nice to her. Or just, don't bite her or anything, please?"
Ryan sighed. "Okay, I guess," he said, and Brendon patted his head. He jerked away a little, but not all the way.
"Thanks, man," Brendon said, and got up again. Ryan went back to his magazine and tried not to hear the sounds of Brendon grabbing the phone on his way back upstairs and calling Kat.
Brendon came home a few days later and dropped a bag in front of Ryan. "Here you go," he said, grinning, and Ryan sniffed at it. It smelled like … books? He tried to open it, but Brendon grabbed the plastic and pulled – and onto the bed spilled three hardback books, one of which was a Chuck Palahniuk he hadn't read before.
"Oh – oh Brendon," he barked, jumping up to hug him. "Oh, thank you!" His tail whacked rhythmically against Brendon's arm.
"You're welcome, Atticus," Brendon laughed, ruffling the fur on his head. "Now maybe you'll stop sulking."
"Hey!" Ryan made as if to bite Brendon's arm, but Brendon moved quickly and Ryan just grinned at him. "I do not sulk."
"You do too," Brendon replied. "Anyway. Now you can sulk all you want, but read at the same time."
"Shut up," Ryan yapped, affectionately. He jumped down onto the bed again and tapped at the cover of the first book. Brendon flipped it open, and Ryan settled down with the first page. "You're the best," he called as Brendon left the room.
He came back a minute later. "Okay, I only just realised I understood you earlier, when you said you don't sulk? That's what you said, right?"
"Yes," Ryan said, trying not to get too excited.
Brendon nodded. "Good. Just, wanted to make sure." He paused. "Anything else you … wanted to say?"
"Yes, I'm Ryan and I want to turn back into a human, please," he said, automatic.
"Damn," Brendon sighed. "Maybe I'll get better at this."
"Yeah, maybe." Ryan looked despondently at his book.
"Hey," Brendon sat beside him, "I was thinking of inviting some friends over tomorrow to hang out, and uh. Kat'll be here too. Just, to let you know."
"Okay," Ryan said, careful to keep the sound even.
Brendon opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could start, his phone rang. "Just be nice, alright?" he said, tugging it out of his pocket and looking at the display.
"I am nice," Ryan snapped, but Brendon was grinning as he pressed a button on his phone and put it to his ear.
"Hey Spence, what's up?"
Ryan couldn't hear what Spencer was saying, and was about to go back to his book when he saw Brendon's face fall. He made room on the bed, and Brendon sat down heavily.
"Fuck. Are you – I mean, do – fuck, Spence, I'm so – yeah." He tugged one hand through his hair absently, and Ryan shifted closer. "God, I hope so. Do you nee- do you want me to come with you, or – okay, yeah, that's – of course, absolutely, no question. Hey man, stay as long as you want, okay?" He paused, listening. "No problem, seriously. Anything I can do, just – yeah. Of course, absolutely. I'll see you tomorrow. And – Spence? It might not be – yeah. Just, I'll – yes." The last word was quiet. "I'll do that, of course. Hey Spence, I'm. – You know. Okay. Yeah." He hung up, and stared down at his hands.
"What? What is it?" Ryan asked, crawling until his head was on Brendon's knee.
Brendon's hand automatically went to pet him. "Uhm," he said. "I have to go – I have to talk to my parents. Is it okay if – look, I know you don't like being picked up and stuff, but could I just, please? This once?"
"O-okay," Ryan nodded, and stayed limp as Brendon slid his arms underneath him and hugged him slowly to his chest. Brendon's hands were shaking, and Ryan shifted into a more comfortable position, nosing at Brendon's neck. "What's wrong, what is it?"
Brendon took a deep breath. "Okay. Come on, I have to go find them." He stood up, careful to keep his arms loose around Ryan. He pushed open the door of his father's study, and said, "Uh, Dad? Where's Mom? I kind of need to talk to you both."
They located his mother in the den, and Brendon and his father sat down. Ryan looked at Brendon. His hands were still shaking.
"Um," he said. "I just, uh, got a phone call from Spencer. You remember his friend Ryan, the one who disappeared a few months back?"
His parents nodded. "What is it, Brendon?" his mother asked.
"Well, uh. The cops, they – found a body, and it matches Ryan's description, so, they're getting his dad to identify it tomorrow. Spencer's going with him, and Spencer's mom, but I – don't think Spencer's going to have to identi-" He stopped. "He, um, he wanted me to ask you to – to pray for him. Ryan. I mean, he doesn't believe in – I guess they're all kind of desperate right now." Brendon's arms tightened around Ryan just a fraction, and he licked once at the boy's neck, reassuringly.
"Of course we will," Mr Urie said, unconsciously gripping his wife's hand. "We'll pray for all of Ryan's family, of course."
Brendon nodded. "It's – it's okay if Spencer and Brent come over tomorrow, right? Spencer said he probably wouldn't want to go home after –"
"Of course it's alright," his mother filled in the silence.
"Okay. Thanks." Brendon got up, hugging Ryan closer to his chest, and walked back up the stairs and into his room. He stretched out on his bed, moving the books to the foot of it, keeping one arm around Ryan.
"It's – it won't be me," Ryan huddled closer. I don't know what happened to my body, though, he suddenly thought, and shivered. What if I'm – what if it is me they found, and I'm stuck like this? He whined softly, and Brendon buried his nose in Ryan's fur, pulling him flush with his chest.
"Atticus, what if –" He stopped, and shook his head. "It can't be him, it won't be him. Right?"
"Right," Ryan said, but he was still shaking. "Right."
Neither of them slept much that night. Brendon spent the morning pacing; Ryan spent it watching him nervously.
"You're making me dizzy," he said at last. Brendon sighed, and perched on the edge of the bed.
"When do you think they'll get here?" He disappeared onto the landing to look through one of the windows facing the front of the house. It was the fifth time that hour he'd gone to look.
"I don't know," Ryan said, wishing he had something to chew.
"Atticus!" Brendon dashed back into the room. "Atticus, he's here! Spencer, his car's pulled up, he's here."
They ran down the stairs, and Brendon pulled the front door open just as Spencer was walking up the path. Spencer broke into a run, and Brendon pulled him inside, hugging him instantly. Ryan put his paws on Spencer's legs and tried to get close.
"It wasn't him," Spencer said into Brendon's shoulder, with an explosion like a sob. "It wasn't him. It wasn't him."
Brendon hugged him tighter. Ryan slithered to the floor in relief.
"Oh, God," Spencer said at last, pulling away a little. "Oh God, that was fucking – oh, God."
"That was scary," Brendon said, one arm still around Spencer's shoulders.
"God yes. Oh – Brent went home, by the way. He said he might come over later. He stayed at my house last night. He's kind of upset, I think."
"No kidding," Brendon nodded. "Come on, let's – Atticus, lead the way." Ryan jumped up, and led them back up to Brendon's room, where he waited until Spencer had settled himself on the bed before climbing into his lap and licking at his chin, wagging his tail.
"It wasn't him, Brendon," Spencer said, petting Ryan. "It wasn't Ry. It – I mean, it kind of looked like him, but – when his dad said it wasn't him, I had to go see for myself, I had to – Mom didn't want me to, but I did, and it – it wasn't Ryan. Thank fuck, it wasn't him." He collapsed against Brendon's shoulder, Ryan in his lap thumping his tail against Spencer's thigh.
Brendon and Spencer sat, playing music and talking about everything except Ryan, until Brent turned up a few hours later. "Hey, so," he said, sitting on the bed next to Spencer. Ryan stretched out across their laps, feeling sleepy and relieved. "I was just. Y'know, thinking about Ryan. We're kind of back to square one now, huh?"
"Yeah," Spencer sighed. "We still have no idea where he is."
"But at least he's not – you know," Brendon finished.
I'm right in front of you, Ryan tried to transmit to them silently. I'm Ryan and I'm right in front of you.
Brendon scritched at his ears. He sighed, and closed his eyes.
"Don't you think he'd, like – I mean, if he'd gone somewhere, if he could, wouldn't he have called us?" Brent stared at his hands.
"Don't," Spencer silenced him.
"I'm sorry, okay?" Brent exploded, knocking Ryan out of his half-asleep repose. "I just, I hate not knowing. I hate waiting around for him to show up again. I hate him for leaving, I hate –"
"Just stop," Spencer yelled. Brendon jumped, and Ryan crawled further into his lap. "Just fucking stop, Brent. I'm having nightmares nearly every night that my best fucking friend is dead somewhere and I don't even know what –" He stopped, clenching and unclenching his fists. "I don't need this from you too," he said, breathing through his nose, carefully.
"I'm not dead," Ryan spoke up into the silence.
"I, um, I have to go, uh, Atticus needs feeding," Brendon said, sliding off the bed and carrying Ryan with him. He put him down when they reached the stairs, and when they got to the bottom Brendon dropped onto the last step. Ryan sat next to him.
"Shit," he said.
"Atticus," Brendon's voice wasn't the steadiest he'd ever heard it, and Ryan peered at him, "just now, when we were up there, did you say 'I'm not dead'?"
"Yes," Ryan barked, his tail thumping once.
"What did you," Brendon began. "I mean, what – seriously, Atticus. What the fuck?"
"I'm Ryan," he answered.
"I can only – shit." Brendon let his breath out, stretching his legs over the floor. "I can only understand you in little bits, you know? But I. I mean, I couldn't say what I thought I'd heard in front of them, right? Because." He squinted at Ryan. "We were talking about Ryan. Who disappeared at about the time you turned up at that shelter, right?"
"Yes." Ryan watched him intently. Brendon returned the look.
"It's – this is so fucking crazy," he stopped. Looked at Ryan again. "Okay. It's not something that hasn't crossed my mind, you know. That you're Ryan somehow. I guess, I mean, you just being so … honestly, if it were possible, I'd have thought – Atticus, seriously. You read. You know shit. About music, and. You said you'd seen Ryan since he disappeared, did you – okay, okay, fine, I am just going to ask this. And just so you know, if you don't tell me the absolute truth I will take away your food. Promise me you'll tell the absolute truth?"
"I promise." Ryan watched him, tail thumping.
"Okay." Brendon took a deep breath. "Are you Ryan, somehow, in there?"
"YES," Ryan yelled, once, shaking with relief.
"You swear, absolutely, on your life, you swear you are Ryan Ross and you somehow became a puppy, what, five months ago?"
"Yes," Ryan barked. "Yes, I swear it."
"Did you just – say 'Yes, yes I swear it'?"
"Yes!" Ryan was standing on Brendon's lap now, wagging his tail and looking eagerly at him.
"Shit," Brendon summed it up neatly. He threw a glance back up the stairs. "Do you think they'll believe me?"
"Have them ask me questions, I can prove it," Ryan told him, hoping against hope he'd understand.
"Hey, good point. You've known Spencer practically your whole lives, right? He can ask you something only Ryan would know."
"Brendon. You understood me!"
"Hey! I just – I knew what you said before!"
"That's what I said, dumbass."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever you just said was very witty, I'm sure. Come on, we have to go tell them."
"So," Spencer said when they sat back on the bed, "what was all the barking about?"
"Ask him something only Ryan would know," Brendon indicated Ryan.
"Why?" Brent asked, with a look that suggested maybe Brendon could do with a nice walk in a tight jacket.
"Just do it," Brendon told him. "But make it a yes-or-no question. Two for yes, three for no."
"Two what?" Brent asked, eyeing Ryan.
"Barks, what else?"
"Oh. Right." Brent paused. "Um," he said, "I guess only Ryan would know this one. Freshman year I wanted to cheat on a math test, and I had the answers in an envelope. Did I look at them?"
"No," Ryan barked.
"Well," Brent shifted uncomfortably, "he had a fifty-fifty chance of getting that right."
"Did he pass?" Spencer asked, looking intently at Ryan.
"No," Ryan said, looking back.
"Fifty-fifty chance," Brent muttered.
"Alright," Spencer said, thoughtfully, not taking his eyes off Ryan. "Make it two barks and a growl for true, three short whines for false, and one bark and raise your paw for you've got to be fucking kidding me, Spence." Ryan started to speak, but Spencer held up his hand. "I know you don't whine, I'm talking about the sound, Ry." Ryan settled back. "When I was seven and that girl moved in next door, we were sitting outside your house watching her move in and I turned to you and said she looked like an angel. She was nine. True or false?"
"True," Ryan said.
"She moved away last year and she still emails you sometimes."
"False," Ryan answered. "It was two years ago."
"I don't –" Spencer looked at Brendon.
"Um. I mean, don't quote me on this, I wouldn't swear to it in a court of law, but I think he said it was two years ago. I can um," Brendon ducked his head, "kind of tell what he's saying sometimes."
Spencer nodded. He looked at Ryan. "What the fuck happened to you, Ry?" he whispered.
"I don't know," Ryan replied, moving until he was in Spencer's lap, staring eye to eye. "I woke up one morning like this. I have no idea how to turn back, but I really fucking want to. I miss toilets, and my guitar, and writing, I even fucking miss school once in a while." He broke eye contact. "I miss you," he added, soft.
"I –" Spencer looked at Brendon, who cleared his throat.
"I don't – I don't know what he just said."
"I kind of," Spencer looked back at Ryan. "Got the gist, I guess. I don't think he knows what happened, what – this is fucked up."
Brent stood up, sudden. "I'm sorry," he said, "but are you telling me Ryan is that dog?"
"Yes," Brendon replied, "I am."
Brent stared at him hard. "No," he said, and he left, pulling his phone out of his pocket as he went. "I'm calling my mom," he threw over his shoulder. "I'll see you on Saturday."
Brendon, Spencer and Ryan stared at each other as they heard the front door open and close, not before Brent had called out, "Thanks for having me over, Mr Urie, Mrs Urie."
"Well." Brendon sighed. "That could have gone better." He looked at Spencer. "Are you okay? I mean, you kind of just … accepted it."
"I had a hunch," Spencer shrugged. "But I mean, it's impossible, right? How does a person turn into a dog, just out of nowhere?"
"I have no clue," Brendon and Ryan sighed in unison. They looked at each other, and a half smile played across Brendon's jaw.
"I guess this is, I mean." Brendon stopped. "We have to start trying to find ways to change him back. I mean, I – this happened somehow! That's definitely Ryan in there?"
"Ry, how old was I when my sister put ants in my lunch box?"
Ryan barked eight times.
"Did I eat any by accident?"
Ryan barked four times and nodded.
"Dude, that's gross," Brendon observed.
"I know. I kicked her ass for it later."
"Yeah, after I stole her skipping rope and didn't give it back for six months," Ryan grinned.
Brendon laughed. "Awesome," he said, and only stopped chuckling when he saw the look Spencer was giving him. "What?"
"Uh, what's awesome?"
"Ryan said he – oh. I, uh, thought Ryan said he stole her skipping rope for six months."
"He did," Spencer grinned. "Hid it in his garage, she never would have looked in there."
"Awesome," Brendon repeated, and Ryan flopped onto their laps.
They were silent for a minute, Spencer absently stroking his fingertips down Ryan's ears. Ryan closed his eyes. They'd figure something out, and he'd turn back again, and this felt nice, and he could just sleep like this.
"Want to stay over? I mean," Brendon blushed, Ryan could hear it in his voice and looked up in surprise, "you haven't talked to Ryan in months, d'you want to – hey, if you wanted to take him back with you, I –"
"No, that – Ry? Do you want to come back with me?"
Ryan thought for a minute. "I," he began. "I want to, I just. I'd miss Brendon," he said, almost inaudible.
"I think he, uh," Brendon was blushing harder now.
"I heard," Spencer stopped him. "I – it's happened before, just, once or twice, where I – you think you know exactly what he just said, even though all you heard was barking, but maybe you could kind of almost swear –" He broke off.
"That you'd heard him talk," Brendon finished. "I know, that's how it is with me. I mean, only sometimes, and it's kind of been getting stronger over time. I don't realise I'm doing it, mostly. Then I'll think, hey, I just understood that."
"Yeah," Spencer exhaled, looking down at Ryan.
"What are we going to –"
"My best friend's a puppy," Spencer cut him off, suddenly. "He's a … ohshit." He sat up straight, turning to Brendon, eyes wide. "He was here the day I told you about – ohfuckohfuckoh. Uh, Ryan, I didn't – I –"
"Spence," Ryan said, because he knew, because he couldn't say anything else.
"What are you –"
"That neighbour friend of mine! The kiss I told you about! That was Ryan." Spencer looked at him, bewildered. "And he heard it, and I – fuck."
"Oh." Brendon paused. "Um, shit."
"Yeah." Spencer kept looking at Ryan. Ryan kept looking back. He thought fast, and pressed his body against Spencer's chest, tilting his chin up with his nose and flicking the edge of his tongue out at the skin just under Spencer's ear.
Spencer's toes and fingers curled. "Ryan –" he choked off. "Oh. You – er. Oh. This – I – Ry, what the fuck."
"I know," Ryan whined, and settled across his thighs, head on his paws.
"Well, um," Brendon coughed. "I'll start looking for some kind of a way to change him back, I guess." He got up, sitting at his desk and starting up his computer. "I don't know if I can – what I'll be able to find," he continued, not looking at them, Spencer's fingers stroking Ryan's ears again, "but I guess the internet would be a good place to start, right?"
Ryan watched him type as many permutations of the phrase 'overnight transformation human puppy' as could possibly exist into search engine after search engine. Spencer's fingertips were light on his fur, and the boy whispered, "Is this okay?"
"Yes," Ryan whispered back, shifting closer.
Spencer went home late that night, promising to try his own searches and see if anything at all came up. Brendon got changed in the bathroom, and slid into bed next to Ryan, who was already half asleep. He automatically huddled closer to Brendon, whose arm found its place slung over him.
"I know you're Ryan," he whispered into Ryan's ear, "and I know we'll find a way to change you back, but I'm. I just, I'm going to miss this." He buried his nose in Ryan's fur and breathed in for a moment. "I guess when you're human again, I can't – I guess Spencer'll be the one doing – I don't mean I – fuck." Brendon paused, and Ryan nosed his chin gently.
"I'll miss this too," he whispered, and from the way Brendon relaxed and nodded and didn't say anything else, Ryan knew he'd heard it.
"I'm sorry," were the first words out of Brent's mouth when he turned up at the next practice, "I just, I can't do this."
"What? Can't do what?" Spencer asked. Ryan's heart was suddenly beating against his throat.
"I can't pretend that that dog is – I can't, any of it, okay? I quit. I fucking quit the band, Spencer, alright?"
"But. But you can't quit," Brendon protested. "You just. We're on purevolume! We could send that link to, to anyone, like – we talked about commenting on Pete's livejournal, right? We could do that, I mean, it's worth a shot, you – you can't quit the band, Brent."
Brent hadn't taken his eyes off Spencer. "Spence?" he said. It sounded like he was pleading.
"Brent – what do you want?" Spencer asked, quiet.
"I want my best friends back," was the answer.
"You've got that," Spencer reminded him, voice even and calm.
Brent stared at him. "No I haven't," he said. He picked up his guitar, called, "See you next semester, Brendon," and shut the door behind him.
Brendon looked at Spencer, eyes wide. "Shit," he said.
"I guess it's, I mean, it is a lot to deal with," Spencer reasoned. "He's been taking it kind of hard, and. I don't know." He glanced at Ryan. "It's pretty incredible, right? Your best friend turns into a dog? Pretty hard to believe."
"I know, I mean – if I hadn't seen him do stuff like read and answer questions and shit, and then heard him talk – kinda – I wouldn't believe it." He looked at Ryan. "No offence, man, but you've got to admit it's fucked up."
"Hell yes," Ryan agreed.
"And um," Spencer spoke up. "I commented on Pete's livejournal last night, with the link to our site. So, uh." He fiddled with his drumsticks. "What do we do now?"
"We … carry on, I guess," Brendon replied. "Maybe Brent'll come back when he's cooled off."
"Yeah, maybe," Spencer nodded.
"And if he doesn't, we'll start looking for a new bass player. Or, okay, maybe I could do it when we've changed Ryan back."
Spencer tabbed absently at one of his cymbals. "Ry? What do you think?"
"I say we wait for Brent," he answered slowly, thinking hard. "We should keep sending the link to people, see what comes of it, and if anything does we can tell him and ask him to come back. In the meantime, and if he doesn't, if Brendon wants to play bass, that's cool with me."
Spencer and Brendon looked at each other. "Did you get that?" Brendon asked.
"Uh, kind of. Wait for Brent, right? Ask him back later? If not, Brendon's cool for it?"
"Yes," Ryan confirmed. This will be so much easier when I'm human again and don't have to repeat everything, he thought.
"Okay. I'm agreed on that. Brendon, what about you?"
"Yeah, me too. So we carry on with just us until he gets back, and, okay, we really need to find a way of changing Ryan back."
"Yes, but how? I can't find anything online, I tried the library but all I got was weird looks from the archivist and a whole load of books on dog breeding, and we don't even know how it happened."
"True. But there has to be a way. This didn't just – it happened, so there must be a reason for it, and we can reverse it if there is." He paused. "We have to try, at least."
"We are trying," Spencer snapped, and Ryan jumped onto the couch and barked.
"Guys, guys, come on. This isn't helping," he said.
"Okay. Okay." Brendon sat next to him. "What do you remember, from the day before it – hey, Spence, I just had a thought. Did you bring your laptop?"
"Maybe Ryan could type on it. He can work remotes and stuff, and the keys are kind of small, but at least he can reach, right? Want to try it?"
"Okay," Ryan nodded. Spencer fetched it, powering it up. Ryan balanced on Brendon's knees as they pulled the coffee table closer, until he could reach.
With concentration and a lot of use of the backspace key, Ryan wrote i woke up one morning with dr crawford examining me. and i had paws. i was normal the day before that, nothing really happened, i don't think. i didn't have school, it was a couple of days after i finished. we hung out, spencer, remember? that was pretty much it.
"Can you think of anything weird that happened that day?" Brendon asked them both. "When you were hanging out, maybe?"
Spencer and Ryan thought for a minute, then locked eyes. "Well, there was this one girl, I think she was an animal rights activist or something," Spencer said, thoughtful. "She came up to us at the pizza place and starting saying she'd seen Ryan at the shelter and she thought it was awful how the animals were in cages and how would … Ryan like it if …" He trailed off. "You don't think –"
"To be honest, Spence, I'm looking at my dog, who is actually your best friend, and at this point, I do think."
"Shit. We have to find her, we – what the fuck has she done?" Ryan yapped.
"Calm down, Ry, we'll find her." Spencer got up and started pacing. "She didn't tell us her name, but she could have followed us home. I – hey, I think Sandy was working at the pizza place that day, I'll ask her if she remembers the girl."
"Okay. Good idea. Anyone else you know who was there?"
"Uh, let me think." Spencer paused. "Ry? Do you remember if Duncan was there? Was it that day?"
"Yes," Ryan said, slowly, and typed carefully didn't he come up to us when the girl left and said she was hot? and we said yeah but she was kinda crazy?
"You're right," Spencer nodded. "I'll ask him about her, too. Okay. Anyone else?"
"I can't think of anyone," Ryan shook his head.
"Me either. Okay. Let me …" Spencer pulled his cell from his pocket and scrolled through the numbers. He clicked a few buttons, and left a message on Duncan's voice mail, then got Sandy on the third ring. She said she guessed she remembered the girl, but she hadn't seen her before and hadn't noticed her since and no, she didn't know her name. Spencer said thanks and hung up.
They waited anxiously for an hour in silence, half watching a slapstick movie, until Spencer's phone rang. Duncan said that he did remember the girl, and he'd tried to find her but all he'd found out was that someone had met her outside and called her Moonshine.
"What are the odds we'll find out her real name?" Brendon asked the room at large when Spencer had hung up.
"About the same as getting hit by lightning thirteen times in one year, probably," Spencer sighed. "He didn't know who the person who called her that was, either, but he did say the guy had a cool tattoo of an eagle on his arm, so that's something."
"We could check out the tattoo places, see if anyone had that done," Brendon suggested. Spencer laughed, a sudden hollow sound.
"How many tattoo places are there in this town? And who's to say he even got it done here? And what if," he continued, gathering steam, "what if we find one who got a bald eagle and it was a golden eagle and it's the wrong guy? And how is it even going to help because why would he give up this friend Moonshine and seriously, I don't even think she'd be sorry and reasoning doesn't work because we tried talking to her but she was just batshit and."
"Woah." Brendon circled Spencer's wrists with his fingers for a moment, steadying. "Slow down, Spence."
"I just. Want to fucking, put her in the hospital. Seriously, Brendon, who goes around turning people into puppies?"
Ryan jumped into Spencer's lap and looked him in the eye. "Chill, Spence," he yapped.
"She turned you into a fucking puppy," Spencer repeated.
"Yeah, but chill. I think I might know how to find her."
Brendon turned to Spencer. "Did he just say what I think I heard him say?"
"That he knows how to find her?"
"Yes, that's what I said," he snapped at them. "And I will really like it when you guys don't have to ask me what I just said, Jesus." He leaped down and looked over his shoulder when he got to the door. "What are you waiting for, come on," he yipped. They glanced at each other, shrugged, got up and followed him.
Ryan went to the front door and looked expectantly at it. Brendon opened it, and Ryan led them to Spencer's car. "Take us home, Spence," he said, one paw on the passenger's door.
He sat on Brendon's lap on the way, ears whipping back. Spencer pulled up outside his house, and Ryan got out, sniffing the air.
"Give me a minute," he said, and ran down to his house. He breathed in at the crack where the back door met the wall, sat for a second, and ran back to Spencer. "What the fuck happened to my dad?" he asked, sharp.
"Uh. Ry, your dad's been. Not taking things very – very well," Spencer said, crouching down. "He's uh, he's in the hospital right now, he'll be – Mom's visited him, and so have some of the others on the street. I should have told you before, it just didn't – he'll be okay, though. He's coming home tomorrow, he only went in yesterday."
"Oh." Ryan sat, gazing over at his house, and nodded. "I – thanks." He gave one more nod, decisive, and stood up again. "Alright, Moonshine," he muttered, nose to the ground, "show yourself." He walked forward a little way, then back again, then zagged off to the left.
Brendon leaned over to Spencer and murmured, "So, what's he doing?"
"I think he's figuring that she followed us home," Spencer whispered back. "He's trying to smell her out, I guess."
Ryan zigged to the right. He could smell grass grass grass family grass next family grass grass car ball sunshine slug caterpillar grass water cat grass grass candy floss grass tree dog older tree van grass – ah. Something … he stopped dead, nostrils flaring and sucking in as much air as he could. Light-headed, he sat, pressing his body to the pavement, breathing in and out. The edges of the scent snatched in and out of his range until the air moved, and there. He caught it, quivering in the second before the first and second whiff, and then there it was. Metal tang and paper and ink, warm, candle wax, wood brick stone dirt boots, imitation leather coat, faint hint of blood, lipstick eyeliner cotton.
In his mind, he associated the smell with pizza and awkwardness, and he was certain it was her. He raised his head and barked triumphantly.
"What, what, what is it?" Brendon spun around from where he'd been leaning against the car.
"I found it, I found her scent," Ryan called. "She did follow us home." He tracked the smell past his house, down the street, to where it mingled with oil and metal and car. "She drove, she must live outside the neighbourhood," he muttered to himself. "Or else she was on her way somewhere, or. Wait, did she take me to the shelter? She must have, she. Fucking bitch," he burst out, sudden. "She took me from my fucking house," he yelled to Spencer, who gave him the I-don't-know-what-you-just-said look. He sighed, and continued trying to find the scent. He found it in flower pots, collected in leaves, somewhere up a lamp post, underneath a car. He ran in circles all over the street, and sat back at Spencer's feet at last, panting.
"I don't," he gasped out, "I don't know where she went." He slumped, head hitting Spencer's shoes.
Brendon picked him up. "Come on, let's go," he said. "Maybe if we keep the window open, Ryan can smell her from the road."
They drove in every direction, and twice Ryan caught the scent, only to lose it a few blocks later. "It isn't –" He paused. "I can't find it fresh anywhere," he sighed.
"How about we go back to mine?" Brendon suggested after another half an hour of fruitless driving.
"Okay," Spencer agreed, and turned the wheel. Ryan breathed in, hard, but still couldn't catch more than the edges of the scent.
i think she left town, he typed, once they'd started up the computer back in Brendon's room. i just can't find any fresh scent.
"Shit. Are you sure?" Spencer asked.
pretty sure, yes, Ryan typed.
"Fuck. Now what do we do?" Brendon slumped against the wall.
Spencer bit his lip. "I guess we try asking around, see if anyone knew her, maybe knows where she's gone."
"Okay. Okay, yeah. I'll do some asking, I know – some friends of my girlfriend, they're kind of hippies and all that shit, they might know someone. I'll ask her."
"Good. I'll ask around too." Spencer sighed. "We'll find her, Ry," he said, petting Ryan's ears. "We'll make her turn you back."
Ryan just nodded and exhaled.
Brendon and Ryan were at Spencer's house when Spencer's phone rang. The displayed name was greeted with wide eyes, and Spencer answered. "Hi?"
Ryan heard a voice, though he couldn't make out the words. He moved closer and picked up, "tomorrow?"
"Yeah, great! Cool, we'll see you then. Okay. 'Bye." Spencer hung up, let out a wordless shout, and gripped Brendon's hand. "Pete's in town, he's coming to practice tomorrow, oh my fucking God, Brendon."
Brendon squeezed his hand, and they moved simultaneously to hug. Spencer's shoulder bumped against Brendon's, and Ryan could have sworn for a second that Brendon's mouth had pressed against Spencer's. Then they were just hugging, and Ryan's tail was wagging, and if they were both maybe blushing when they pulled away, well, there were reasons, like Pete Wentz being in town and coming to see them. Ryan wriggled in between them, and they laughed breathlessly, hugging him at the same time. He was warm with one of his best friends either side of him, and they would meet Pete, and he really did seem interested in their music, and what if this really did go somewhere?
They waited nervously the next day, Brendon plucking at his guitar, Ryan flipping channels on the TV, Spencer tapping a beat on his knees with his knuckles. At the sound of the car pulling up, all three raced to the window, and then Pete Wentz was getting out of a car and they were answering the door and he was right there and grinning at them.
"Hey, whose is the dog?" Pete asked, crouching down to pet Ryan's head. Ryan wagged his tail vigorously.
"Uh, mine," Brendon answered. "He's kind of our lucky charm," he added, glancing at Spencer.
"What's his name?" Pete looked up at them both, and Ryan's eyes connected with Brendon's.
Ryan nodded at him. "Cool name," Pete said. He settled on the couch, pulling Ryan into his lap and scritching behind his ears. "Okay, show me what you can do."
"Well, uh, our bassist said he didn't want to come back, and we haven't found a new one yet," Brendon explained in a rush. "We're, um, expecting our friend Ryan to get back from vacation soon, he'll take over guitars and I'll play bass, but in the meantime, we use keyboards."
Pete nodded. "So play me your acoustic stuff." Ryan, sitting on his lap, sent Spencer a look that said I am getting petted by Pete Wentz. Spencer shot one back that said Shut up. Make sure he likes us.
Whether it was just the songs, or the addition of the cute puppy – who forgot himself once and pressed a couple of buttons on the keyboard to start up the next song, which thankfully Pete thought was a coincidence (and totally hilarious) – but Pete told them he wanted to sign them.
"You mean like a – a record contract?" Brendon asked, trying very hard to stop his chin from acting like it was made of elastic.
"Yes, I mean a record contract," Pete patted him on the shoulder. "And if you're still short of a bassist, I know a guy who could help you out with some studio work."
"Yeah, a friend of mine from Chicago. I'll talk to some people and see what I can do."
"Has anyone ever told you you're the best?" Spencer grinned.
"Maybe, but I like hearing it," Pete answered.
Ryan spent the next few weeks mostly listening to music and sitting on Brendon's desk, staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor, until an idea struck him, and then another, and then another. He wrote three songs in a row and showed them to Brendon when he got home from school.
"Hey, these are good," Brendon told him, looking them over. He ran them around his teeth, sounding out the syllables, and began humming. Ryan listened, head to one side, and when Brendon noticed, he hummed louder. "What do you think?"
"I like it," Ryan nodded.
"Some of these lyrics," Brendon waved a hand at the screen. "You really want me to sing those?"
Ryan looked squarely at him. "Yes," he barked.
"Right. Okay then." Brendon ran a few lines over quietly and shook his head. "Don't get me wrong, I mean, they're good, it's. I just hope I can pull them off without sounding kinda – I don't know."
"You can," Ryan threw out absently, jumping onto the bed. Brendon looked at the screen and back at him.
"Well. Thanks." He read them over again, closed the file, and pulled a book out of his bag. "Ryan, how are you with math homework?"
"The only good thing about being a dog is not having to do math," Ryan answered, eyeballing him shrewdly. "I'm not doing yours, Urie."
"That's a no, right? Damn. I've got work tonight, and Kat's meeting me after. This stupid assignment is due tomorrow." He dropped the book on his desk. "Guess I'm looking at an F."
"I guess so," Ryan nodded.
"Thanks. You're so much help. What will you do when my mom murders me and buries me in the back yard, huh?"
"Dig you up and say something really profound at your funeral," Ryan answered.
"Such compassion, Ry."
"Hey, it'd be poetry, and all the girls would cry."
"They'd already be crying, because I'd be dead," Brendon grinned at him.
"Yeah, you're such a stud, Brendon."
"What? Come on," he said, spreading his arms out, "I'm hot. Admit it."
"If I didn't have paws I'd be flipping you off right now," Ryan told him.
Brendon just kept grinning. "You totally think I'm hot, Ryan."
"Shut the fuck up, I don't."
"Don- oh, this is stupid."
Brendon shook his head, turning back to his homework, throwing a glance back at Ryan. "You totally do," he smirked. Ryan rolled his eyes.
Brendon was at work a few weeks later when Ryan – who was pretending not to watch the documentary Brendon's parents had on the TV – heard ringing.
"Phone," he barked automatically. Mrs Urie clicked the sound off and went to answer it.
"Good boy, Atticus," she patted his head as she passed. He heard her muttering, "Always hears it first," and then, "Hello?"
He watched the soundless images on the screen. Mr Urie was half asleep, his glasses low on his nose. Ryan could hear Mrs Urie's voice coming through the open doorway.
"No, he's at work right now, who's calling? Oh, Mr Wentz. Can I give him a message? Yes. Yes. Oh! Well, as long as it doesn't interfere with his school work … thank you. Yes. That should be fine, then. Okay, I'll tell him. Thank you."
Ryan looked expectantly at her as she came back and turned on the sound on the TV again. "Whu-" Mr Urie started.
"That was Pete Wentz," she told him. "They want Brendon to sing on their album, up in LA."
"Oh," he mumbled.
"Seriously? Really?" Ryan yapped. Mrs Urie looked at him.
"What is it, Atticus?" she asked. Ryan deflated, but only a little, because Pete had just called to ask Brendon to sing on a Fall Out Boy album and how long was it until Brendon would get home because he had to tell him right now.
He abandoned the TV and dashed up the stairs. Brendon had been at work for about two hours, so he should be home in another couple. Had he said anything about after? He'd been hanging out with Kat a lot lately. Ryan paced back and forth, tripping over a CD case and a magazine before he took to pacing on the bed.
An hour passed. Ryan sat down. He stood up again. He wished he could play some music, or switch the computer on, or something, but they'd agreed that wasn't a good idea when Brendon wasn't home. It would be hard to explain to his parents why his dog could work the CD player.
Ryan sat down again and thought about maybe going with Brendon to LA and meeting Patrick and Andy and Joe and stood up again and paced back and forth. Another half an hour passed. Ryan sat down, thought about what he might say when Brendon got home, and stood up again and paced.
When Brendon snuck in at two in the morning, he found Ryan lying in a pool of tangled sheets and duvet, fast asleep. "Oh Ry, what did you do?" he sighed, inaudible, and carefully began to straighten it out.
Ryan smelled Brendon in his sleep, but – there were other smells on him and he twitched. "Brendon?" he mumbled, turning over.
"Hey, shh, go back to sleep. You got all caught up here," Brendon whispered. Ryan opened one eye.
"You – where've you been?" He sniffed, and that was Kat he smelled, and – chlorine? And something else, it – Ryan jumped back, full awake, when he realised. "Oh," he breathed.
"What? What? What is it?" Brendon looked at him, a slight frown and Ryan looked away.
"I can smell, uh." He dropped down from the bed to the floor, and said, "I might sleep um, downstairs tonight."
"What? Why? Ryan, wait – what?"
"Oh, um – Pete called. He wants you to sing on their album, Fall Out Boy's … album, look I'm just going to, I'll see you in the morning." Ryan tried to beat a hasty retreat, but Brendon was already at the door and sitting in front of it.
"Are you serious? Did I just hear what I think I just heard, or am I still kind of delirious?"
"I had a good night."
"So I can smell," Ryan muttered. "Yeah, you heard me right," he added, louder.
"Wait, what's that supposed to mean? What can you smell?"
"Where you've been tonight, Brendon," Ryan yapped, finally looking him in the eye.
"What? I was just with Kat, at her house, her parents are out of town, we – hold on, you can't smell that, can y- oh God. Uhm."
"Yeah. So I'm just going to go, where it smells less," he trailed off. Like sex, he finished, silent.
"Oh. Okay." Brendon paused. "Did you say Pete wants me to sing on his album?"
"Yes," Ryan sighed. "Goodnight, Brendon."
Ryan lay down on the couch. The whole ground floor of the house was silent. It seemed kind of cold without the covers and the extra body heat to share. He heard footsteps on the stairs when he'd been there for half an hour, staring at the arm of it. Brendon's voice whispered above him, "I would just like it pointed out that I understood every single word you said up there." Ryan looked at him. "I mean, uh, my Ryan-sense is getting better. That's all."
"Good." Ryan went back to staring at the couch. "Maybe I won't have to repeat everything soon, then."
"Yeah," Brendon nodded. "Hey, does it – does it really smell that bad?"
"Goodnight, Brendon," Ryan said, pointedly, and turned over to face the upright cushions.
He heard Brendon hesitate, then go back upstairs. He fell asleep an hour later, head on his paws.
LA was warm, and smelled like ocean and sand and people and fear and hope and something artificial. Ryan drank it in through the open window of Pete's car, sitting on Spencer's lap and grinning over at Brendon.
Pete drove them to the house they were recording in. He called out, "Hey! I'm back, and I brought the boys!" as he walked in.
"We're in the kitchen," came a voice, and Ryan followed the sound. He wanted to stop and breathe in all the scents, but he knew that voice, that was Patrick Stump and he rounded the corner to see Patrick talking to a guy with brown hair, who smiled at him.
"Hi," said the guy as Ryan walked up to stand at his ankles, looking back and forth between him and Patrick. The guy crouched, and cautiously petted Ryan's head.
He smelled like he'd been around music since birth; cramped buses and guitar strings and paper and hope and something, a tang right on the back of Ryan's tongue that didn't connect to anything but the simple need to create that perfect sound. He wagged his tail.
"That's Atticus," Pete said, walking around the table to put an arm around Patrick's shoulders. "Brendon, Spencer, this is Patrick. Trick, this is Panic! At The Disco. And their mascot," he added, pointing at Ryan. "He's Brendon's. Um, and boys, this is that bassist friend of mine I talked about, Jon Walker." He indicated the guy who was still petting Ryan's head.
"I like him," Ryan said to Brendon, who gave him the tiniest of nods in return.
"I think he likes you," Spencer smiled at Jon, who stood up and came over to stand nearer them. Ryan took the opportunity to sneak closer to Patrick.
They ended up just hanging out that day, crammed onto and spilling out of a huge couch. Patrick said that Ryan was adorable, and Jon grabbed him and proclaimed, "Back off, Stump, he's mine! Brendon, I am stealing your puppy, okay?" he called over to where Brendon and Spencer were examining the DVD collection.
"You'd better not, I kind of love that dog," Brendon called back. Ryan wriggled comfortably in Jon's lap and grinned up at him.
Patrick told Brendon it would probably be a couple of days before they'd be recording his parts on the song, and Jon offered to drive Brendon and Spencer around if they wanted. Spencer asked if they could go to the mall. Brendon asked if Ryan could come with them. Jon said of course to both. Pete and Patrick got into an argument over who was the best X-Man (Pete insisted it was Wolverine, but Patrick stuck up for Gambit, and Pete accused him of having a thing for him because come on, man, Wolverine was way better, and Patrick said no way, Gambit was the best, and Pete said "You just want him to gam your bit" and Patrick looked at him incredulously and cried "That doesn't even make any sense, Pete!") while Spencer and Jon got into a discussion of the albums that had changed the way they'd looked at music and life. Ryan was lying in Brendon's lap, warm and full and sleepy and surrounded by some of his favourite people. Brendon scritched behind his ears, and Ryan sighed happily.
"You okay there?" Brendon whispered to him.
"Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz were fighting over who got to pet me earlier," Ryan whispered back. "Yeah, I'm pretty okay."
"Wiseass," Brendon chuckled.
"Shut up. You kind of love me," Ryan grinned up at him.
"Yeah," Brendon said, and his smile was soft as he fondled Ryan's ears. "I kinda do."
Ryan looked away and swallowed. "You can still understand me, then," he said, voice careful and even.
Brendon nodded. "It's nearly all the time now."
"What?" Jon looked over, catching the tail end of Brendon's murmuring. "What's nearly all of the time now?"
"Uh." Brendon looked up. "That Atticus does something cute," he stumbled, talking fast. "You know, I'm talking to my dog. I think I need some sleep."
Spencer spontaneously started yawning. "Yeah. We had to get up really early this morning for our flight." He stretched as he spoke, the last syllable breaking half way through and ending on an exhale.
Brendon and Spencer were sharing a room; they tossed a coin, and Brendon got the bed that night. Ryan jumped onto it while Brendon was in the bathroom.
"Uh, Ry, do you want to – I mean, I know you normally sleep wi- are you still sleeping in his bed?" Spencer asked.
"It's warm," Ryan replied, shifting uncomfortably. "I mean, it's – I get kind of lonely, Spence."
"No, that's, I mean. Okay." Spencer nodded. "Want to, um – I don't mean I – um." He blushed, and looked down at his hands. "You could um, sleep in my bed if you wanted," he said, quiet.
"Oh!" Ryan paused, looking at the door and back to Spencer. "I – yeah, okay."
"You don't have to, I mean, if it'd be weird, or –"
"It's okay. I'd – yeah." He jumped down, and Spencer opened the blankets for Ryan to crawl under. He was warm, and put his arm hesitantly around Ryan, and it was going to be weird waking up not being surrounded by the smell of Brendon (because that was always weird now) but Spencer shifted closer and Ryan let his breath out.
"Goodnight," Spencer whispered into his ear. He placed a very light kiss on the fur just above it. Ryan's eyes slid shut and for a second he forgot how to breathe.
"Right. 'Night," he muttered, when his voice returned.
Brendon opened the door and stumbled into bed. "…Ry?" he called, softly.
"He's sleeping with me tonight," Spencer said. "I don't mean – I – you know what I mean," he ended. Ryan could feel him blushing.
"Oh." Brendon pulled the blankets around himself. "Okay. 'Night, Ryan, Spence."
"'Night," they answered in unison.
Ryan dreamed. He was back at the animal shelter, and faceless person after faceless person stopped at his cage. He stood on his hind legs and jumped through hoops and when he opened his mouth to speak, his human voice came out, startling him – "I'm Ryan! Look at the puppy wonder, I used to be a boy!" Brendon and Spencer and Pete gathered around the cage, and then Ryan saw Moonshine behind them raising her hand, and he tried to yell but the sound wouldn't make it out of his throat, and she hit all three of them in the back of the head and gave Ryan a triumphant smile that made his skin crawl. He struggled, suddenly unable to move, and she was holding him, and he twisted and tried to bite her, but Spencer lifted his head and said, "Calm down, Ryan," and then Ryan was at the house in LA with Spencer's arms around him. There was a bruise blooming just above his elbow. Ryan wondered if he'd done that, and stilled.
"Um. Sorry." He looked up at Brendon, who was kneeling next to Spencer with one hand on the back of Ryan's neck.
"Jesus, does he normally kick that much?" Spencer asked, relaxing his hold on Ryan and examining his elbow.
"Not usually," Brendon replied, taking Ryan from the circle of Spencer's arms and setting him in his lap. "You okay now, Ry?"
"Yeah, it was just a bad dream." Ryan yawned, trying hard to wake up properly. "Sorry about the bruise, Spence."
"Spencer? Ryan said sorry about the bruise."
"It's alright," Spencer told Ryan. "It'll heal. I hope you don't kick that much when you turn back," he added, and Ryan flushed.
"I don't," he muttered. He drank in the scent of Brendon, whose fingertips were unconsciously stroking in little circles on Ryan's back, and felt himself waking up a little more.
Andy and Joe showed up at some point during breakfast, while Ryan was outside in the bushes. He came back in to find Spencer and Andy having an intent-for-this-hour-of-the-day conversation about drum kits, while Joe and Pete teased Jon about something Ryan could only gather was called "your little puppy love crush" and Brendon and Patrick talked about the vocals for the song they'd be recording. Ryan sat himself between Pete and Jon, which, for some reason, made Pete and Joe laugh.
"So this is Atticus," Joe peered down at him. Ryan puffed his chest out.
"Hi," he yapped. Joe reached down and patted him.
"He's cute. Hey Andy, come meet Atticus," Joe called over. Andy declared him cool, and Ryan beamed at him.
When the album's producer showed up, the others disappeared into the studio and Jon turned to Brendon. "Want to go out somewhere?"
"How about the beach?" Ryan suggested.
"Sure. Let's go to the beach," Brendon said to Jon, whose eyes flicked to Ryan and back.
"Okay," he said, and went to grab his keys from his room.
Brendon rolled down the window in the car, and Ryan let the wind whip his ears back. He drank in the smells of the city, the salt tang and the tinge of smog and all the people. He breathed in and in and then suddenly – he jumped, and leaned further out of the window, and breathed in again, sharp.
"Shit," he barked. "Brendon! Spencer! I smell Moonshine, and it's fresh. She's here."
"Are you sure?" Brendon asked.
"I'm positive. We have to go back, she went east." He put his nose as far out of the window as he could safely reach.
Jon was glancing over at Brendon. "Am I sure what?"
"Um, nothing. Look, can we go back that way and east? Atticus smelled something."
"Is it – her?" Spencer asked from the back seat, leaning forwards.
"Yes," Brendon nodded.
"Her?" Jon asked.
"Long story," Spencer told him. "Just, trust us, okay?"
"Well." Jon found a place to turn around and began spinning the wheel, twisting and checking mirrors. "Alright."
"Get ready to turn off when I say," Brendon said to him, keeping a loose hold on Ryan, who was trying to hang out of the window. "Careful, Ry," he muttered.
"I'm fine, just get us closer," Ryan replied.
He searched, searched for that scent again, and when he caught it, he barked, "Left!" Brendon relayed the instruction, and Jon turned the wheel. Ryan could smell her, stronger and stronger as they went, mixed with fresh sweat and – "I think she goes jogging here," he called over his shoulder and the sound of the rushing air. "She must live nearby." He sniffed again. "Turn right!"
The trail ended outside a large, light blue house, with seashells painted over the door. Ryan jumped down from the car and snuffled all over the pavement and the garden and the drive, and up and down the street a little way.
"She lives here," he called to Brendon, running up the driveway to the blue house.
"You're definitely sure?" Brendon called back, following, Spencer close on his heels and Jon bringing up the rear, looking thoroughly confused.
"Okay, so what are we doing here?"
"We think someone we know lives here," Spencer told him. Ryan was sniffing at the front door. "Let's find out."
Spencer looked at the row of buttons with names next to them, some faded, and rang the first bell. Ryan heard someone coming, and he could smell her, and it was her. The door opened, and there stood Moonshine. "Yes?" she said, looking curiously at them all.
"Do you remember me?" Spencer asked, looking her in the eye. She looked back.
"No, I don't … you look kinda familiar. I think. Why, do I know you?"
Ryan looked up at Spencer, whose hands were softly curling into fists. "Las Vegas. Nine months ago. I was with my friend in a pizza place, he volunteered at the animal shelter."
Her face changed and she nodded. "Oh yeah, that was my animal rights phase. And – what, you came looking for me?"
Brendon broke in. "What's your name? Your real name, I mean?"
She looked him up and down. "Mary. What's yours?"
"Listen, Mary," Spencer leaned toward her, putting one arm across the door frame, "I want to know what you did to Ryan. And you are going to change him back, right the fuck now."
"Look," Mary said, folding her arms, "I don't know what you're talking about, and if you're threatening me, I'll call the cops."
"Hey, hey," Jon spoke up, "nobody is threatening anybody, okay?"
"Change me back," Ryan growled at her. "Change me back now."
"Stay, Atticus," Jon warned. "Come on, guys, I don't know what's going on but I think we'd better leave."
"Yes," Mary agreed, motioning for Spencer to move his hand from the door frame, "I think you better had." She closed the door, narrowly missing hitting Spencer's wrist with it.
"She's lying," Spencer muttered, shooting a glare at the closed door.
"Come on," Jon pulled them away, "let's go."
They climbed into the car again, Ryan silent. He sat on Brendon's lap, looking out of the window, subdued.
"You okay?" Brendon asked him.
"Yeah," Ryan sighed. "I just, I don't know." He locked eyes with him. "She didn't smell like she was lying."
"You can smell that, too?"
"Smell what?" Jon asked.
"Nothing," Brendon replied. "Just uh, the ocean, is all."
"Okay." Jon paused. "You know, you don't have to tell me what's going on. I know we only just met, but I would like it pointed out that you guys are acting really weird."
"Noted," Spencer nodded. "And we're sorry. We're not normally like this, honest."
Ryan looked out of the window and sighed.
Brendon took him for a walk late in the afternoon, down by the beaches, while Jon and Spencer hit the mall. They strolled, side by side, Brendon nodding to the other people out walking dogs, the other dogs sniffing at Ryan and growling.
"They don't seem to like you," Brendon observed after the fourth one had passed.
"No, well, they can smell that I'm human. Or, that I was, or whatever I am."
"Oh." They walked in silence for a minute before Brendon spoke again. "You know what you said earlier, about Moonsh- about Mary?"
"Do you really think she wasn't lying? I mean, it was her, right? Who did this to you?"
"I don't know," Ryan sighed. "I mean, I know she's the one who did it but I just, I don't know if she – I can't remember how it happened, exactly, but there's a sort of … impression, or, just this kind of vague thing that's kind of like a memory, only it's." Ryan stopped, and turned to face him. Brendon swung around and looked down. "I can't remember how it happened," Ryan said, carefully, "but I can sort of remember what it felt like. And I could definitely smell her. I'm sure she did it, I just don't – it's almost like she doesn't know she did it, or something."
"Wow," Brendon observed.
"That's kind of – I mean, I guess this is all fucked up. But if she doesn't even know she did it … how are we going to get her to change you back?"
"Exactly," Ryan sighed.
Brendon leaned down, picked him up, and hugged him. "We'll find a way," he murmured. "Me and Spence, we'll work something out."
Ryan squeezed his eyes shut and hoped, hard.
Andy, Joe, Pete, Patrick, Jon, Brendon and Spencer ate takeout for dinner, Brendon slipping Ryan some when Patrick wasn't looking. "You know," Pete said, swallowing his mouthful, "we have a hot tub here. I bet it could fit all of us in."
Spencer and Brendon glanced at each other. "All of us in one hot tub?" Spencer asked.
"Pete calls it man soup," Andy flicked a small chunk of vegetable at Pete's head. Pete ducked.
"You can keep your underwear on, if you want," Pete offered.
Joe leaned over to Spencer and muttered, "Pete never does." Spencer tried not to giggle.
"We usually don't have seven of us in it," Jon pointed out. "Eight, if you count the dog."
Ryan would have raised an eyebrow if he could.
"No, remember that time we had all us five and William and Adam and Tom and Butcher? That was nine," Pete pointed out.
"And we all fit," Patrick added through his food.
"It's cool if you don't want to," Jon said to Brendon and Spencer.
"No, it sounds okay. I'm up for it," Spencer glanced at Brendon.
"Me too," he said.
"I'll watch," Ryan laughed.
"You'll join in," Brendon winked at him, quiet enough so nobody else could hear.
Ryan wished he could have had a camera, or hands to work one, when later, he found himself sitting on the edge of a hot tub containing all of Fall Out Boy, plus his best friends, plus Jon, all mostly if not entirely naked, splashing each other and talking endlessly about music and comics. Brendon managed to get one arm around him and pull him into the water; Ryan barked in protest, but ended up just treading water and being passed around from boy to boy, play fighting and getting wet hugs. "I should get a dog," Pete said wistfully, bunching Ryan's damp fur in one hand and scritching.
"Well you can't have mine," Brendon laughed, taking Ryan and making as if to duck him under the surface. Ryan escaped and swam over to Spencer.
Jon agreed to drive them back to Mary's neighbourhood the next morning, "As long as you're not stalking her." They promised they weren't.
"Honestly, if we can't talk to her again today, we'll leave her alone," Brendon told him.
"We just want to talk to her," Spencer repeated.
Jon looked apprehensive, but it was he who spotted her, jogging down the road. He slowed down and beeped his horn until she looked over at them.
"You know, harrassment is illegal," she called over. Spencer rolled his window down and beckoned her nearer; she stopped, and so did Jon. She walked closer. "Okay, what is it?"
"I wanted to apologise for yesterday," Spencer said. "My friend Ryan went missing the day after you saw us, and there hasn't been a sign of him since. I'm just trying to find him, okay?"
Mary looked at them squarely. "I'm sorry about your friend. But if you're accusing me of having anything to do with that, I'm leaving. I don't even know you."
"I'm not accusing you," he told her. "Really, I'm just trying to find him. Look, were you there with anyone? Animal rights group, weird cult, anything?"
"What are you asking me?" She stepped back. "Weird cult, what are you talking about?"
"Just, please, can you think of anything weird that happened to you the night or the day after you talked to us in the pizza place?"
"Well, I – I guess," she replied, hesitantly.
"Yeah? What is it?"
"I – look, I have a really good memory, okay? It's not, like, perfect or photographic or anything, but I can remember stuff. And I don't remember that night, and I wasn't drinking or doing drugs, I swear, but I woke up the next morning in this motel room and I have no idea how I got there. It smelled of wet dog, it was gross." She breathed out. "That was pretty weird. That's the only time it happened, and it freaked me out."
"What was the last thing you remember?" Spencer asked.
"I was – I was driving, I guess, I was thinking about going to watch a movie. That's all, and then nothing until the morning. Mom said I must have taken something, she kicked me out after that."
"Sorry," Spencer offered. She shrugged.
"I hope you find your friend. But next time, don't go around accusing people, okay?" She stretched a few times and set off jogging again.
"Thanks," Jon called after her.
"Fuck," Ryan muttered.
Brendon started recording his vocals on the album that afternoon, while Spencer and Ryan hung out upstairs with Jon. "I'm sorry about your friend," Jon said, "and I'm sorry I said you were acting weird. It must be tough. Were you close?"
"Yeah." Spencer automatically reached to scritch just behind Ryan's ears. "He's my best friend. And I kind of, uh, have a crush on him. I found out after he'd disappeared that he had a crush on me too, so."
"Ouch," Jon winced. "I hope he turns up."
"Yeah. Me too."
"So," Brendon started, "Ryan. What do you think about the whole … Mary, Moonshine, whatever. Thing?"
"I think," Ryan said, from his vantage point on the bed next to Spencer, "she was telling the truth. She doesn't know what happened. And neither do I, except that it was definitely her. She – like I said, I don't really remember that night, just that it really hurt and I could smell her, but there was definitely something weird about her scent. Like it, I don't know. Just a – a different tang to it than it's been at any other time. You know how," he continued, sitting up, "I said to you about other dogs smelling that I'm not really one of them?"
"Yeah?" Brendon said, slowly.
"Well, she didn't really smell … completely human. Not that night. She does normally, she did today, just not that night."
Brendon brought his knees up to his chin. "This is really fucked up. What, you think she was possessed or something?"
"That shit doesn't happen in real life," Ryan shook his head. "All I know is what I smelled. Something happened, and I don't know what, but I figure it'd be impossible to find out."
"Impossible to find out?" Brendon repeated, his face falling.
"We have to try, though," Spencer spoke up. His eyes were shut, but he wasn't asleep yet.
"I know, but – she has no idea, neither do I, and no one else was there. I'm sure of that."
Spencer opened one eye. "I don't know what you just said, but I got the message, and we have to try, right? Do something? Because I want my Ryan back, okay?" His hand was warm on the back of Ryan's neck. Ryan flushed. Brendon looked away and cleared his throat.
"Yeah, and I want to meet him as a human," he said to the blankets. "I just don't. Ryan's right, Spencer, we don't know where to go next. Our only lead turned into a dead end."
"Ry," Spencer said, turning to him, "can't you do something? I mean, remember something, anything? Maybe we could talk to her again, find out who she'd seen before, who could have maybe done something to her. Maybe she was drugged, or something."
"Yeah, maybe," Brendon nodded, thoughtfully. "It's worth a shot."
"We could go find her again tomorrow," Spencer suggested to Ryan, who nodded. "I'm not giving up on you," he added, quiet enough so that only Ryan could hear. He traced his fingertips above Ryan's ears, and Ryan closed his eyes and shifted closer. For the nth time, he decided it really fucking sucked being a dog.
Spencer fell asleep with his arm around Ryan, who closed his eyes and listened to the soft breathing in the room. He could tell that Brendon was still awake, and it seemed like he was waiting for something – at Spencer's first soft snore, Brendon whispered across the room, "I'm going to miss my dog, Ryan. I want you to change back, and I know I said it before, I just – I'll miss you, is all."
"I'll miss you too," Ryan whispered, careful not to wake Spencer with the sound, feeling content and frustrated and like the smell of Brendon was too far away, all at once. He sighed, and nuzzled Spencer's cheek, and fell asleep.
When Spencer asked Jon, the next morning, if he'd take them to find Mary again, he just put his hand on Spencer's shoulder and said, "If you think it'll help." Spencer nodded, and Jon jangled his car keys on the way out.
She wasn't out jogging, or at least not on her usual route, but she answered the door to Spencer's knock.
"Oh," she said when she saw who it was. "I told you everything yesterday, okay? I'd like for you to leave me alone, now." She made to close the door, but Spencer put his hand on it gently.
"Please?" he said, and she looked at him and sighed. "I just hoped you could tell me about that night, before – what you can remember of that night. Did you see anyone? Did anyone give you anything, anything at all?"
"What? What is this?" The door was wide open again, but she crossed her arms over her chest. "No, not as far as I remember," she replied to his imploring look.
"Do you think maybe you could have been drugged?" Spencer asked, throwing caution to the wind.
"I – I don't know. I guess it's possible, I mean, I remember nothing after like, eight o'clock until eight the next morning. Twelve hours, just gone. Believe me, I've tried thinking of everything. But I don't remember anyone giving me anything, not even my friends. And I've put all that behind me now and I'm getting on with my life and I really do hope you can find your friend but I had nothing to do with him going missing, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't come here again."
"Okay," Spencer nodded, stepping back. "Thank you. I – I'm sorry. You're definitely sure?"
"Yes. Now goodbye."
"And, um – good luck. He was a good guy, I'm sorry about those things I said."
Spencer nodded. "'S okay. Thanks."
She closed the door, and Spencer looked at Ryan.
"Well?" he asked. "What do you think?"
"I think this is a dead end," Ryan replied. "And I think I'd like to fucking change back, but it's been nine months, Spence, and I don't fucking know how it happened and I don't fucking want to be stuck like this forever but I don't fucking see how I won't be." He slumped onto the driveway, and Spencer picked him up to take him back to the car.
"Is Atticus okay?" Jon asked as Spencer slid into the passenger seat, balancing Ryan on his thighs.
"Yeah, he's just. I think he's just tired," Spencer sighed, and leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "So am I, actually. Think we could head back to the house?"
"Sure," Jon said, starting the engine. "You look like you two could do with some sleep."
"Amen to that," Spencer muttered, working his fingertips in Ryan's fur. It was meant to be consoling, but Ryan just wished he didn't have fucking fur any more.
Ryan woke up later, Spencer's nose still buried in his neck. He didn't want to move, but still, he wanted to get up, and he kind of had to pee. He nuzzled Spencer and wriggled carefully away, muttering, "I'll be back."
He passed the games room and peeked in; Pete and Joe were concentrating hard on a video game Ryan couldn't see, and Brendon, Andy and Jon were playing pool at the small-scaled table. Brendon was lining up a shot, and Ryan watched as Jon got behind him, correcting the angle of his elbow a little, pressed up against him maybe for a second longer than need be. Ryan stopped, and saw Andy glance over at Patrick, who was watching Jon and Brendon with raised eyebrows.
Ryan shook his head and barked, "Hey Brendon, I don't want to interrupt, but could you open the back door for me?"
Jon looked around at the sound, moving away a little from Brendon, who put his pool cue down and led Ryan to the door.
"Thanks," he called as he headed for the garden.
Spencer was still asleep when Ryan got back and wriggled under his arm again. He moved closer, and Ryan let out a sigh.
Brendon had his suitcase handle in one hand and held Ryan with the other when he weaved through the crowds at the airport, looking for his parents. His mother took one look at Ryan, after one-arm hugging Brendon, and said, "What did you do to Atticus?"
"Nothing, he's just tired," Brendon told her, kissing her cheek. "Did you miss me?"
Ryan sprawled listlessly on Brendon's bed when they got home. Brendon looked anxiously at him, sitting as far from his suitcase as possible so he didn't have to unpack it yet.
"Hey, Ry," he said, and poked him in the leg. "It'll be alright, man. We won't give up, we'll keep looking for something."
"Yeah, but what? What if I'm stuck like this, Brendon?"
Brendon shook his head. "We're not going to let that happen." He gusted a laugh. "Spencer definitely won't."
"Spencer – yeah," Ryan sighed.
"Do you miss him?" Brendon asked, his voice changing. Softer.
"Yes." It was barely audible, but Brendon caught it all the same. "It's weird," Ryan continued, only slightly louder. "I mean, I didn't know he – and now we can't – I mean, I'm a fucking dog, Brendon, and it – it's just, fucked up."
"Oh, I know," Brendon nodded effusively. "I know."
Ryan nodded in unison. "You have unpacking to do," he reminded him, turning away a little. Brendon took the hint.
"So what did you think of Jon?" Brendon asked, when his suitcase was half empty and his floor was entirely covered.
"He's a great guy," Ryan replied.
"Yeah. Yeah, he is, isn't he?"
Ryan shot a look over at him, and the first grin in days made its way across his mouth. "You like him," he accused.
"Of course I do. Like you said, he's a great guy," Brendon said, absently, staring at the shirts in his hands. "Swear I went with less than this," he muttered.
Ryan jumped down to stand in front of him. "No, I mean, you like him," he repeated, staring pointedly until Brendon looked up.
"What? Oh. What? No, I don't, not like – no, Ry."
"Your ears are pink," Ryan pointed out with glee. "Oh ho, Brendon has a cru-ush." He danced away out of Brendon's grasp as the boy tried to lunge for him.
"Shut up, I do not. Besides, I have a girlfriend, remember?"
"Doesn't mean you can't have a crush." Ryan was almost giggling.
"Yeah, but I don't have a crush on Jon, okay?" Brendon sat back, eyeing Ryan.
"Hell, I don't blame you," he grinned. "He liked you too. Besides, he's hot."
"You're just saying that because he petted you, like, every second he was near you and tried to take you home with him," Brendon pouted. "He probably had a crush on you," he added. Ryan laughed.
It was three weeks until the band had a proper practice again; Spencer was graduating and every time Brendon called he said he had a ton of work to finish for his last classes. Some nights, Brendon would drive Ryan over on his way to work, and Ryan would sit with him, trying his best to be a silent support system while Spencer flipped pages in books and scribbled on sheet after sheet of paper.
The day he graduated, he turned up at Brendon's and hugged Ryan. "I am done, school is over," he chanted, "now it's just the band. I am done, Ry! School! It's over!"
"Put me down," Ryan laughed, wriggling free. "You're insane, Spence."
"Yeah, whatever, I love you too," Spencer grinned. Ryan froze, but Spencer didn't. "Brendon? You busy tonight? I want to celebrate."
"Uh, Spencer, you just said you love Ryan, and I'm free tonight, yeah," Brendon answered.
"Oh." Spencer looked at Ryan, who looked back. "Well, I do."
"I really fucking wish I was still human right now," Ryan said to him.
A blush was creeping over Spencer's neck. "Yeah," he said, rubbing the back of it, "so do I."
"Oh – and um, Iloveyoutoo," Ryan muttered in a rush, deciding to go find a spot in the garden he hadn't used for a toilet yet and dig it up so he could.
"What did he say?" he heard Spencer ask Brendon as he left.
"He loves you too," Brendon's voice reached his ears, and that was all. He got to the bottom of the stairs and made for the kitchen.
Three days later, at their first practice since LA, Brendon broached the subject of Jon. "So, what do you think?" he asked Spencer.
"I like him."
"Me too. So does Ryan. So, uh, I was thinking," Brendon took a deep breath, "maybe we could ask him to join the band. I mean, I know we've only played with him a couple of times, and it was just messing around, but it was really – it was great. Right?"
"Yeah," Spencer nodded slowly, "it really was great. It felt – good, right, you know?"
"Yeah," Ryan agreed, two seconds before Brendon chimed in with the same.
"What about when Ryan changes back?" Spencer continued. "I mean, if Jon's playing bass and Ryan's on guitar –"
"I'll just sing," Brendon interrupted him. "And maybe play piano on some stuff, or, anything else the song needs, you know?"
"Would you be okay with that?" Spencer asked, watching him carefully.
"Yeah, sure," Brendon nodded, and he meant it.
"We still don't know that I even will change back," Ryan pointed out.
"You will," Spencer insisted. "I told you, I'm not giving up, Ry. I've been looking up what could cause a memory blackout like that. I haven't found anything so far that she could have taken without definitely knowing about it, but I am not giving up. Okay?"
"Good. So, we should call Jon, ask him about joining the band, right?" Spencer turned to Brendon.
"Right. He, uh, gave me his number," Brendon replied, deliberately not looking at Ryan, who whistled.
"What the hell was that noise, Ry?" Spencer laughed.
"A wolf whistle, shut up," Ryan answered. "Brendon has a crush," he grinned.
"I do not, stop saying that."
"You are blushing, Brendon," Spencer joined in. "I think Ryan's right. You do have a crush."
Brendon covered his face with a hand and groaned. "Not you as well, Spence. I have a girlfriend."
"You know," Spencer said thoughtfully, "I've always wondered what a threesome would be like."
There was silence for a minute as Brendon and Ryan looked at him.
"You did not just say that," Brendon said at last. Spencer looked away.
"Screw off," he muttered, and the smile that had started up behind Ryan's lips died down again. Oh? he thought.
He looked at Brendon. Oh, he thought.
There were several moments where everybody in the room examined their feet, and then Brendon pulled his phone out of his pocket. "Okay," he said, clearing his throat, "I'm going to call him."
Spencer shook his hair out of his eyes and Ryan's ears perked up. He sat in Brendon's lap, the better to hear both ends of the call, and Brendon dialled, the previous few minutes dissolving like seconds in the air.
Jon sounded pretty enthusiastic about joining the band. He flew down to stay for a couple of weeks, and they practiced together every spare moment that Brendon wasn't at school. Ryan wrote some more lyrics and showed them to Brendon, who took them to Spencer first to say, "Ryan wrote these, but I can't say that in front of Jon. I don't want to take Ryan's credit for them, though."
"Ry?" Spencer turned to him. Ryan considered for a minute.
"Just say they're something we were working on before," he concluded, and the other two glanced at each other and shrugged.
"If you're sure," Brendon said.
"Yes," Ryan replied.
After the first week, Spencer said his parents had invited them all to dinner. Ryan sat at Spencer's feet as Brendon held court about the music they were working on, Jon chipping in from time to time and Spencer nodding along, his parents listening attentively as they ate.
Jon offered to do the dishes afterwards, waving down the protests, and he and Spencer carried the plates into the kitchen. "You don't have to do this," Spencer reminded him as Jon turned the taps on.
"I know. But I want to make a good impression," Jon said, looking studiously at the running water. Ryan, who had paused at the door to the kitchen, cocked his head and sniffed. Jon was definitely suddenly nervous.
Ryan watched as Spencer handed him a plate and Jon took it with a smile, then turned and went to find Brendon.
"So, Kat didn't want to come?" he whispered, once he'd jumped onto Brendon's lap. Brendon shook his head. Ryan eyed him. "She stood you up, didn't she?"
"Brendon, that's the third time in a row," Ryan pointed out. Brendon just put a hand on his back and shook his head, meaning We'll talk about this at home. Ryan started to say something else, then stopped and went back to the kitchen to watch Spencer flicking water at Jon.
It felt weird having to stop himself doing too many un-dog-like things during practice, but even when he forgot and worked with Brendon on a chord or sequence, Jon didn't seem to really notice. "Either that, or he did notice and didn't say anything," Brendon pointed out when Ryan said as much to him. "I mean, he hung out with us in LA, he must have noticed you're … special."
"True, I guess."
"It'll be fine, Ry." Brendon put his chemistry book down and fondled Ryan's ears gently. "I mean, he already knows you're like, super-intelligent for a dog. Maybe you don't even have to hold back. At practice, anyways."
"Yeah, maybe," Ryan said, thoughtful.
Pete called to tell them the exact dates of their studio time a month later. "That's, like, a week after I graduate," Brendon told him, blinking rapidly.
"Good job this is the earliest we could get you," Pete replied, and he was definitely smiling.
Ryan sat up with Brendon several nights in a row as the end of the semester loomed. "I'll never pass all my classes," he moaned, flopping next to Ryan and wriggling closer for a hug.
"You will," Ryan told him, obliging.
"What if I don't, and Mom and Dad make me go to summer school? Or repeat the grade? Or try again to force me to do the church service thing if I don't? I can't be in the band and school."
"So pass this semester," Ryan said, nudging him towards the desk again.
When Brendon did pass, and graduate, Jon flew to Vegas again for the party. Brendon and Ryan met him at the airport, and Ryan watched, smiling, as Jon folded Brendon into a hug that looked like the two boys were adhering their entire bodies together.
"So how's life as a graduated student look?" Jon asked, in the car. Ryan was sitting on his lap, enjoying the wind rushing past his ears and Jon's hands bunching in his fur.
"You mean aside from being dumped for a college guy?"
"You're kidding. She dumped you?"
Brendon made a dismissive gesture. "Kinda saw it coming. Really sucky timing though, my last day of school and everything. But hey, tonight I can forget about it and party, right?"
"Right," Jon agreed, and Ryan watched the lights go past in the distance.
The next morning, Jon asked, after breakfast, "Hey, can I borrow your dog for a while? I wanted to go for a walk and I figured, why not take Atticus out for you?"
Brendon, who was already late for work, just said, "Sure." He waved at them both, closed the door behind him, and Ryan looked up at Jon.
Jon looked back down at Ryan. "Want to hang?" he asked.
"Yeah." Ryan followed, curious, as Jon grabbed his jacket and headed out of the door.
"I uh," Jon stopped at the end of the driveway, "I don't know my way around here, so if you wanted to like, show me where you like walking with Brendon?"
Ryan glanced up, suspicious, but Jon was examining his shoes. Oh, Ryan thought. Okay. He barked, and headed off in the direction of the nearest park.
It was good, being outside, just running around. He and Brendon usually found a place to sit in the grass, when the weather was this good, and sat, talking, sometimes not saying anything. Jon found a place under a tree and settled, back against its trunk, pulling Ryan onto his lap.
Alright then, Ryan thought up at him as if he could hear it, let it rip.
Jon hesitated, one hand stroking softly down Ryan's back. "Atticus," he began, "do you think Brendon's – um." He paused, absently petting Ryan's head, scritching behind his ears. It felt nice. A warm breeze stirred the leaves above them and Ryan closed his eyes. "Atticus, I – don't know why I'm telling you this." Ryan heard him sigh. His voice was low, a murmur above him mixing with the rushes of air. "I guess, because you'll listen, and you're – I don't know. You have this kind of presence, you know, like you're – like you really can understand what I'm saying. And maybe you can." His fingertips scritched a pattern. Ryan shifted comfortably. "I kind of, uh. I like Brendon. I don't just mean he's a great guy and he's a friend, but I mean, he is, it's just. I like him."
It took a lot of concentration not to say, "I knew it!" out loud.
"But I kind of, um. I like Spencer as well."
Ryan snapped his eyes open. Really? he thought, loudly.
"And I know Brendon's just broken up with that girlfriend of his, and Spencer's still carrying a torch for that guy who disappeared, and it's pretty obvious they kind of like each other, but I just." Jon sighed, heavily. "When Pete said there was this great band, and all they need is a bass player, and he thought maybe I'd be perfect for them, I didn't think it was – shit, did he know?" Jon sat up suddenly, jerking Ryan down his thighs a few inches. He pulled him back up. "If he did, I'll kill him," Jon continued.
Ryan was trying hard to keep up. "Wait, wait, Brendon and Spencer like each other? Well, I kind of – but, you like them both? Is that what you're saying?"
Jon blinked at him a few times. "Are you okay? Do you want to leave?"
Ryan settled reassuringly, and tried to convey through his body language, No, we're fine here, carry on. Jon seemed to get the hint. His hands went back to stroking gently down Ryan's back.
"I just don't know what to do about this. I mean, none of it's a good idea, right? Because I've only just got into the band, and I'd like to stay that way, and I'm having fun hanging out with you and Brendon and Spencer, and we – when we're playing, it's like we can do anything, like, like everything's perfect." He smiled sheepishly. "I am so glad you can't talk back, I was just about to say it feels like I've found my groove, and that's just – lame, right?"
"Kinda," Ryan tipped a smile at him in the form of a head-tilt.
"Yeah, well. Either way, I like this band, I like what we're doing, and I don't want to screw things up by trying to date one of them. Or," and he hesitated before going on, as if it were an effort to force the words out, "or both of them."
Ryan twisted to look up at him. "What?" he asked.
Jon blushed. "I don't mean I'd cheat on them, either one of them, no way," he backpedalled. "I just mean like, I don't know. Like a, a three-way thing."
Ryan blinked at him, once, slowly. "A three-way thing," he repeated, wondering if this was normal in Chicago and concluding that it probably wasn't.
"Um, or not, can we forget I ever said that?" If Jon's face were any redder, it might have become reflective. Ryan nodded and settled his head back onto his paws. "Anyway," Jon cleared his throat and made a valiant attempt at getting past the moment, "it's all pointless anyway because I'm not going to screw this up, right? And if I freaked them out or dated either one of them, it'd be bad for the band, right?"
"Right, I guess," Ryan replied, thoughtfully.
After a week of intense rehearsals, which Ryan spent most of watching Jon talking to Spencer and Spencer talking to Brendon and Brendon talking to Jon and developed a couple of headaches from thinking too hard, the four of them flew to Maryland to record their album.
Ryan slept through the flight. He didn't like the dark and cramped space he was in, and wished he could be up in the seats with the others – but at least, he thought, he didn't get airsick. He was pulled out when they landed, and blinked up at the light, waiting for Brendon to claim him.
The apartment they were staying in had one bedroom, a leaking tap in the kitchen, and a toilet that flushed with a loud knocking and banging of the pipes. After a ceremonial straw drawing and coin tossing, it was decided that for the first week, Brendon and Ryan would take the bed, and Spencer and Ryan would have it the next week. When the question of why Ryan got the bed two weeks in a row was raised by Jon, Spencer and Brendon locked eyes and said, "He's kind of owed one." Jon shrugged.
"He can have it the third week with me, if he wants," he said, patting Ryan's head. Brendon grinned at Ryan, who rolled his eyes at him.
The sun slanted in at an angle the next morning. Ryan woke slowly, piece by piece, not opening his eyes just yet. He felt … strange. He thought about the meeting they would have with their producer that afternoon, and what they'd do that morning – probably just hang out – and no, he definitely felt weird somehow. He frowned.
Things … smelled odd. It's probably just because I'm in a new place, he thought, and opened his eyes.
Brendon was on his front next to him, face partly hidden in the pillow, fast asleep. The light hit him in bars, shadows where the blinds halted it, and it was kind of perfect. Ryan reached to put his chin on Brendon's back, to feel the points of light on his nose, when he realised – he was moving oddly.
He stopped. Brendon's eyelids fluttered, and he stretched. "Ryan?" he yawned, cracking one eye open.
Brendon flattened himself instantly against the edge of the bed. "Um?" he said, eyes wide, most assuredly totally and utterly awake.
Ryan looked down at himself; at the expanse of pale, milky skin, at his hands, at his stomach. "Holy shit," he said. "Brendon, I – I turned back! I'm human again."
"You – Ry?" Brendon peered at him, and his face changed. "It is you. Spencer showed me pictures, I – Spence!" he shouted. "Spencer, wake up and get your ass in here, right now."
There was a thud and a curse from the next room, and after a few more thuds and some muttering, the door opened. "What?" Spencer asked, hair awry, wearing only pyjama pants, two and a quarter seconds away from yawning. Then he saw Ryan, and he froze.
Ryan was up and closing the distance in three strides before he realised that he was, in fact, not only human again but completely naked. He had a fleeting moment of actually caring, before he was grabbing at Spencer, one hand on his waist, the other in his hair, and hesitating for two beats with his mouth centimetres away from Spencer's.
"I've been wanting to do this," Ryan breathed, "for fucking months, Spence." And he kissed him, and Spencer pulled him closer and made a sound against his lower lip, and Ryan shut his eyes and opened his mouth and there was Spencer's tongue. Ryan teased it into his mouth with his own, and Spencer groaned, and Brendon coughed as he made his way past them and shut the door behind him.
"What happened?" Spencer asked, breathless, after he didn't know how long.
"I don't know. I woke up this morning," Ryan murmured into his mouth, "and I'm human again."
"It was a year ago," Spencer breathed, walking him backwards until their knees hit the bed and they sank onto it. "You were a dog for a year, Ry."
He pulled him, momentum, moving back so his head was on the pillow, and began pushing Spencer's pyjama pants down. "I don't care," he whispered. "I just care that it's over, and that I get to, oh Spencer," he hissed as Spencer's hand connected. Mouth on his neck and oh fuck it felt good, so fucking good. "Spencer," he breathed, chanted, rocked their hips together, "Spencer."
"So," Jon said, when the two of them emerged, Ryan wearing one of Brendon's shirts and a pair of his jeans. "You're Ryan, who Spencer's been looking for, and you turned up today?"
"Yeah," Ryan said, and smiled at him. "Hi."
"Okay," Jon continued, looking closely at him, "feel free to call me crazy and if I am, I blame it on the hour of the day, but you weren't, um, Atticus, by any chance, were you?"
Ryan stared at him. "How did you –"
"Well, for one, there's no sign of a dog, and the door's still locked from the inside so you can't have come in this morning while we were all asleep. There's also the fact that dogs don't usually write songs, and yesterday I kind of heard you talk once. I think."
Brendon blinked. "Really? It took me a while to start hearing him talk."
Jon paused and looked around at them. "You're fucking kidding me, I was right? Ryan was Atticus? How is that even possible?"
"We have no idea," Spencer sat down. "That girl in LA, she was the one who did – whatever it was, but you heard her, she didn't know she was doing it."
"Oh." Jon thought about that for a minute. "Wow."
"Yeah." Brendon nodded.
"Uh, could you maybe not tell anyone about this?" Ryan asked him. "I was hoping we could just say that I turned up out of the blue and I can't remember the last year," he added to the others.
Brendon nodded. "Yeah, sounds – yeah, okay."
Spencer laced his fingers with Ryan's under the table. "We've got our band," he murmured, eyes on Ryan's, and it was like the last year had never happened, like –
Brendon cleared his throat. "You know, we should practice, we're meeting the producer this afternoon, so –"
"Yeah, good idea," Jon agreed.
"I, um, brought Ryan's guitar," Spencer spoke up. "His dad gave it to me a couple of months ago. I brought it just in case."
"Thanks, Spence," Ryan curled a smile at him, and leaned over to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
It took him a couple of minutes to get used to the feel of a guitar against his body, on his lap, under his fingers again, but then he found the grooves in his fingerprints where the strings go and he played five songs straight through, just him and the guitar and it was only when he looked up that he even remembered there were other people in the room. He grinned at them, and they grinned back, and he was back, he was fucking home.
They rehearsed hard until lunch, and after it ("Real food again, oh God," Ryan moaned, his eyes rolling back in his head as he bit into a towering sandwich, Spencer biting his lip as he watched) it was time to find the studio and their producer.
"Uh, I thought there were three of you," Matt "Call me Squiz. Or Matt." said when they'd introduced themselves.
"Our guitarist got back recently, he's been … away for a while," Brendon told him.
"Okay, well. Let's start on your album. Tell me what you want, and we'll take it from there."
Working with Matt turned out to be both hilarious and productive. Ryan didn't notice the time going by until Matt stood up, stretched, and said, "Okay, that's me for today. See you guys here tomorrow morning, we can get started with the instruments then. We know what we're doing now, right?"
"Right," Brendon nodded, voicing the chorus.
Jon pulled Ryan aside as everyone was leaving. "So, if you were Atticus," he whispered, "and you heard me talking, um, in the park –"
"I didn't tell them," Ryan assured him. "I won't tell them," he added.
"Okay. Good. Thanks." Jon looked almost disappointed for a second, then just relieved. "Thanks."
Ryan patted him on the arm. "No problem. Your secret's safe with me."
Jon made an absent gesture with his head that might have become a nod with a little more concentration. "Thanks," he repeated.
Ryan thought about it, though, as he and Spencer stopped to get him some clothes on the way back to the apartment. After dinner, Jon said he wanted to check out a bar they'd passed, and Brendon said that sounded like fun, but Ryan's hand was tracing circles on Spencer's back and Spencer stammered out, "Me and Ry, we'll – we'll stay here tonight," and Ryan had tried not to knock anything over on the way to the bedroom.
"Fuck," Spencer breathed, as Ryan pushed him against the closed bedroom door, pressing close, hands working to undo the buttons on his shirt, "that was a long day."
Ryan's lip curled in a smile. "Spence," he said, voice appraising, "you mean to say this," he palmed the crotch of Spencer's jeans, and Spencer arched his neck, "has been like that for long?"
"Since lunchtime," Spencer whispered. "Fuck, kiss me, Ryan."
Ryan, who had been waiting for him to ask, obeyed.
"I tried to kiss Brendon last night."
Jon had pulled him away from the others when they got to the studio. Ryan's eyes widened and he moved them both further away. "Really?"
"Yeah." Jon bit his lip. "At the bar, we were having a great time, and, you know how good he looks in that shirt he was wearing yesterday, and with the lights on him?" Ryan nodded. "So yeah, he was kind of drunk, and I kissed him, and at first he seemed okay with it." Jon sighed. "After a minute, though, he stopped and said he couldn't."
"Oh." Ryan paused. "Maybe it's too soon, you know, after Kat –"
Jon laughed. "Come on Ry, you know he got over her weeks ago. Before they broke up, even."
He had to concede that. "Okay, maybe. But. He likes you, Jon."
"He does?" Jon's eyes had lit up, and Ryan had the sudden impulse to hug him. So he did, and pressed a quick kiss to his temple.
"He does," he confirmed.
"Then why would he –"
"I don't know," Ryan sighed.
"Uh, Jon?" Spencer's voice came from up ahead. "Can I have my boyfriend back? We've got to get started."
Ryan squeezed Jon briefly, and they followed the others to a room filled with instruments, Ryan taking Spencer's hand as they entered. Spencer asked what that had all been about, but Ryan just shook his head. Tell you later, he telegraphed with his fingertips slipping underneath Spencer's shirt.
"Okay, any more of that and you won't get the album finished in time," Matt glanced over at them. Ryan blushed and moved a few inches away from Spencer.
"You know what," Brendon announced when they'd finished for the day, "I think I'll go back to that bar again tonight. Jon, you want to come with?"
"Uh, sure." Jon shot a glance to Ryan, who shrugged concisely. He pulled Brendon aside, while Jon and Spencer looked at each other and then at their shoes.
"Brendon," Ryan whispered, "what's going on? Jon says you were drunk last night, and he – told me about what happened. Are you okay?"
Brendon fixed his eyes on Ryan's arm. "I'm fine," he said.
"Are you sure?" Ryan tried to catch his eye, but Brendon wasn't looking.
"Yeah, I'm sure." Brendon walked away, and slung an arm around Jon's shoulder. "Come on, let's leave the lovebirds to their nest and go find a good time," he said, and now he was grinning.
Spencer brushed his hand up and down Ryan's arm. "He's acting weird," he observed. Ryan sighed.
"Yeah," he agreed. "But he did have one good idea." He caught Spencer's eye and smiled. "We have the apartment to ourselves tonight."
Spencer bit his lip and leaned in for a kiss. "So we do."
In the middle of the night, as Ryan was half-dreaming about Jon and Spencer dancing in the studio, a loud bang from the next room woke him up with a start. Spencer made a sleepy noise at his back and rearranged his arm across Ryan's stomach. Ryan had almost slipped back into the dream when the bedroom door was flung open.
"Ryan," Brendon hissed, loudly enough to wake both of them up, "Spencer."
"What is it, Brendon?" Spencer asked, voice thick for the first few syllables.
"Jon's passed out in the bathroom," Brendon informed them, then stopped. His eyes tried to focus. "You're spooning," he said.
"You can see," Ryan replied, tone dry. "Is Jon okay?"
"We kind of had a lot to drink." Brendon was slurring. Ryan wished he would go be anywhere but in that doorway right now, so he could go back to sleep with Spencer's chest pressed against his back.
"Obviously." Ryan reluctantly pushed himself up into a sitting position. "Is," he asked slowly, "Jon," Spencer palming cirlces on his back to try and calm him down, "okay?"
Brendon paused for a minute, sorting out the words and their intent. "Oh," he said. "I don't know. He passed out."
Spencer put one hand on Ryan's arm. "Brendon, go drink some water and go to bed. I'll check on Jon, Ry." He kissed him, a quick peck, and pulled his boxers on as he stood up.
Brendon looked at Ryan as Spencer passed him. "I didn't," was all he said, and then he was gone. Ryan heard the kitchen tap clunk and water hiss out, and the sounds of Spencer murmuring in the bathroom.
"Is Jon okay?" Ryan asked him when he returned.
"Yeah, he was only out for a minute. They've gone to bed now."
"Good." Ryan turned onto his side again, and felt Spencer slide up against him. Spencer's hand flat-palmed over Ryan's back, along his side, over his stomach. Dipped lower.
"Relax," Spencer breathed against his ear, and Ryan found it hard not to, with Spencer brushing his palm and his fingertips in circles and swoops over his skin, whispering, "relax, Ry."
Ryan turned over onto his back and kissed him, and they lay there, running their hands over each other's skin. I could do this, I could just. Learn all your contours, I could. Ryan kissed him, deeper, and hooked a leg over his hip, brushed their noses together, kissed him again.
Neither Brendon nor Jon said much the next morning at breakfast. They sat with identical green tinges to their faces, looking up gratefully when aspirin and Alka Seltzer were put in front of them, gulping them down and wincing in unison. Ryan said nothing to either of them until they'd been in the studio for half an hour. Both of them looked so pale, even Matt started to feel sorry for them.
"We can't afford to take a day off, boys," he reminded them. "Okay, Spencer, let's work on your bits of this song," he relented, seeing the look on Brendon's face. "You two, bed. You'd better be back by this afternoon," he called after them.
Ryan caught Jon on the way out. "What did you –"
"Later," Jon cut him off, wincing apologetically.
"Alright." Ryan watched them go, then went back inside to listen to Spencer's drumming and work on his guitar parts.
Brendon and Jon turned up that afternoon, looking a lot better, and didn't wince when they walked in on one of Spencer's drum rolls. They worked hard, and though Jon met Ryan's eyes and smiled, Brendon didn't.
They finished late that night, and Brendon offered to go out and get pizza, meet them back at the apartment. He scribbled down what toppings they all wanted, flashed a smile at them, and left.
"So," Ryan started, on their way home, "what happened last night, Jon?"
Jon groaned. "I don't remember much. But I do remember him kissing me. Along with half the bar. It's a miracle he didn't get punched."
"Jesus," Spencer winced. "He's losing it."
"I just don't know what I can --" Jon paused to unlock the apartment door. Brendon was already inside, two large pizza boxes next to him on the table.
"I took a short cut," he said.
"Brendon," Ryan left Spencer and Jon to deal with the pizzas, taking Brendon's arm and leading him to the other room, "are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Look, I'm sorry about last night. I just kind of, had too much to drink, I guess. Sorry." He squinted at Ryan out of one eye, sideways, and Ryan felt the anger that had been brewing dissipate. "D'you forgive me?"
Ryan pulled him into a hug. "That look only works on me when I'm a dog," he said, the beginnings of a smile against Brendon's neck. Brendon's arms went around him, tight.
They watched a movie that night, the four of them crammed onto the couch. Spencer was mostly sitting in Ryan's lap, and they laced their hands together, fingers playing and brushing and circling palms constantly. It was comfortable, and four voices laughed and groaned in unison.
Ryan woke up with the shadows playing across the ceiling. Spencer was breathing deeply beside him, close but not touching, the backs of their hands the only contact as they brushed together. Ryan watched him sleep for a minute, watched his eyelashes and the exact angle of his nose in the moonlight.
Spencer exhaled, and Ryan rolled carefully away and stood up. He padded across the floor, barefoot and silent, closing the door quietly after him.
He was surprised to find Brendon in the kitchen, sitting at the table and staring into a glass of water. "Can't sleep either?" he asked, and Brendon looked up.
"Oh – no." He shifted, and Ryan sat next to him.
"Are you okay?" Ryan asked, again.
"Fine. This – it's just the album, we're all kind of working hard, you know? Not much time to get it done," and he looked down again.
"Is it just the album, really?" Ryan didn't take his eyes off the curve of Brendon's jaw.
"Yes." Brendon deflated. "No. Fuck." He glanced up at Ryan, then quickly at his lap again. "I just, I miss you, is all." He rubbed at his nose with the palm of one hand. "Told you I would," he added, whispered.
Ryan wanted to touch, reached for Brendon's hand, caught his sleeve. "I miss you too," and the sound made shapes in the air. Brendon looked up, looked at him.
"I got used to you, just, you being there."
"I know. Me too."
Brendon breathed out. "No, but, that's not it, I – I miss you," and he looked away again. "I don't."
"Hey," and that was Spencer's voice, and they sprang apart. He sat next to Ryan. "What are you doing up?"
"Can't sleep," Ryan said, heart pounding.
Spencer yawned. "It's cold in the bed without you," he murmured into Ryan's neck, practically falling asleep against it. Brendon locked eyes with Ryan and looked away again, and Ryan couldn't be sure in the dim light, but it looked like Brendon was blushing. He took a deep breath.
"Spencer, I – Spence."
"Hmf?" Spencer's eyes opened. "What's'matter, Ry?" he asked, sleep running through every syllable.
"I want," Ryan stopped. "I, I want Brendon to come with us. To sleep."
"Okay," Spencer said, and he was smiling against Ryan's skin. "Sounds g-g-good," he said through another yawn.
"Are – are you sure?" Brendon asked him, blinking fast.
Spencer held out one hand and widened his smile to include both of them. "Was waiting for one of you to ask, say something." He moved over to Brendon's side of the table and kissed his cheek.
It was warm, the three of them, and not as cramped as Ryan had thought it might be. Spencer kissed Brendon, this time the corner of his mouth, and Brendon turned his head and pressed their mouths together, hungry. Spencer responded, small sound in his mouth, and reached for Ryan with one hand.
Brendon pulled away from Spencer and looked down at Ryan, biting his lip. "I've wanted – Ryan, I've." Ryan yanked his head down, hand on the back of Brendon's neck, and kissed him, and Spencer was kissing his neck as Brendon moaned deep in his throat and pressed closer like he'd been waiting for them both.
Three hands pawed the air to their left, and they broke apart. Looked at each other, blushed and looked away.
It was Spencer who put it into words. "We're missing someone."
"He's, um. He's asleep," Brendon whispered. "I guess I'll – maybe I'll sleep out there tonight, and we can. Talk in the morning."
Ryan nodded, mute, and Spencer kissed Brendon above him. He watched their jaws, their lips working and pushing, the tips of tongues. "Okay," Spencer said, when the kiss was over.
Spencer and Ryan turned onto their sides after Brendon went back to the other room, moving to the spaces tucked against each other almost unconsciously.
"This isn't going to be weird, is it?" Spencer whispered.
"I don't think so. I mean," Ryan twisted to look at him, "it isn't for me. And we're still," he breathed in as Spencer's mouth trailed soft kisses over his shoulder, "I still have you, we just."
"We have them too," Spencer finished, and Ryan nodded, and Spencer kissed him, lips curved in a smile.
"So uh," Brendon whispered to them in the kitchen the next morning, "are you still okay about –"
Ryan pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Yes."
"Okay. Good." Brendon exhaled. "Which one of us is going to talk to Jon?"
"What about Jon?" came his voice from the doorway. He looked at the three of them, and blinked. "Um."
Ryan broke away from the other two and went over to Jon. "We talked last night," he said, "and, do you remember that day in the park?"
"You didn't tell them, right?" Jon's eyes darted to Brendon, who looked puzzled.
"No, I didn't," Ryan told him. "But you were right. And I, uh, I like both of them too. And they like you. And," he looked at him, "and I like you."
"Oh," Jon said, and backed him against the counter. "So what you're saying is," he raised one fingertip to rest almost against the skin above Ryan's cheekbone, "nobody would mind if I did this?" And he leaned down and pressed his mouth to Ryan's.
Ryan kissed him, eager, running his hands up and down Jon's arms, until he felt Spencer's hands join his, and Brendon's lips on his neck, the four of them a tight knot, breaking apart and reforming until skin was just skin and it didn't matter which of them was kissing him, because all of them were right.
"I hope you're all ready to work your asses off today," Matt greeted them with at the studio. "We're already behind schedule, we only have a few weeks here. Let's get moving."
They woke the next morning when the alarm rang out next to Brendon's ear, and he jumped. Ryan slowly stretched and untangled his legs from Spencer's and Jon's, and Jon unwrapped his arm from Brendon's waist. They showered, first Ryan and Spencer, then Brendon and Jon, and Spencer said something about them looking into getting a huge bath some time, and Jon said something about this band not being quite what he'd imagined, and Ryan asked him, asked them all, if they were okay with this, and Jon said he'd meant that it was very likely and so far the best thing that had ever happened to him. Brendon just nodded.
On their last day in the studio, they stayed until after midnight. Their flights were booked back to Vegas for the next day, and they slept late. Ryan woke to the sounds of Spencer and Jon kissing sleepily, and smiled over at Brendon, shifting to press their mouths together.
"I'm glad I," Brendon murmured into the kiss. "I'm glad we."
"So am I," Ryan murmured back, as he felt Spencer's hand reach for his.
Ryan sat in the window seat as they waited for the plane to take off, looking out over the airport and the scattered clouds stained pink and orange and blue and purple by the sinking sun. "Hey," Spencer said, in the seat beside him. "You okay?"
"Just wondering what I'm going to tell my dad about where I've been this year," Ryan replied. Spencer inched closer, closer, until their noses were touching. Brendon was asleep in the seat behind, and Jon sat beside him, thumbing through a magazine. Ryan and Spencer breathed into the spaces between them, Spencer's fingertips slowly splaying on Ryan's cheek, Ryan's hand on Spencer's wrist, touching his eyebrows, brushing his hair back.
They kissed, and Brendon curled up in his sleep against Jon's shoulder, while outside the window the sunset made a paint box of the sky.