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The First Time Around

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Ryan wakes up shivering cold and sick to his stomach. He scrambles out of bed, tripping over the tangle of sheets and blankets, and barely makes it to the wastebasket by the door before he’s heaving up the remnants of his last meal. When he shoves his tangled hair out of his face and blinks open his eyes, it’s almost entirely liquid, and he grimaces, confused and still queasy.

It isn’t until he sits back on his heels and stands on wobbly legs that Ryan notices anything out of the ordinary. He’s not in his bedroom, or Spencer’s, or any bedroom he recognises. There’s a mattress lying directly on the floor, surrounded in a gauzy, romantic looking net, and the furniture all looks second-hand and is cluttered with knick-knacks and scraps of paper, and brightly coloured scarves.

He wracks his brain, trying to remember where he is and how he got here. Every random snatch of memory that he tries to seize onto flits away like a hazy, half-realised dream. He’s playing with a band, but it isn’t Panic, and they’re in some dingy venue with shitty acoustics, and Ryan is at the microphone. There’s a guy several years older than Ryan clapping him on the back as he Ryan tosses back shot after shot of vile-tasting liquor. Something about a girl in a mini-skirt strumming on a guitar, but he can’t see her face behind a curtain of dirty blonde hair. The harder he tries to remember it, the more distant the dreams become, until he can’t really remember any more than a vague impression of how it made him feel.

No, the last real thing he remembers is falling asleep in his bunk with his earbuds playing to drown out the sound of Spencer and Brent fighting in the lounge. He should still be there; they have a gig in Houston tonight, and aren’t supposed to arrive until after noon. A quick glance at the digital clock on the nightstand tells him it’s a quarter to ten.

He can’t stop the initial surge of panic that spurs him into action. There’s a cell phone on the nightstand and Ryan grabs it up and flips it open. He thumbs through the first dozen contacts or so without seeing a familiar name and throws it on the bed. He needs…he just needs to figure this out, and get back to the bus.

There are clothes scattered all over the floor, but none of them are his—lots of jeans two sizes too big and paisley button-downs, and a lot of items that look like they could have come straight from his grandfather’s closet. He finally tugs on a pair of the jeans and frowns, fussing with the waistline for several moments when they stay on his hips instead of falling back to the floor. They’re not as tight as he’d normally wear, but they fit him. Confused and disoriented he tugs the nearest plain white t-shirt over his head and goes for the door.

From the hall outside the bedroom, Ryan can hear voices downstairs, bright and happy. The house is very open from here, lots of light and hardwood flooring and seriously eccentric decorative choices. Ryan makes it down the first couple steps before he catches sight of himself in a mirror and just freezes.

There’s something wrong with his face, is his most immediate and striking realisation. It’s nothing obvious, no cuts or bruises or anything like that, but Ryan knows his face—spends a lot of time staring at his reflection every day as he applies his makeup, and this—this is not it. His cheeks are fuller and there are deep bags under his eyes. He raises a hand to cup his cheek, meets his own terrified bloodshot gaze. He looks sick, like he’s having an allergic reaction to something.

It’s only as he’s scrutinising his reflection in disbelief that he notices the smaller things—the way his hair falls heavy and greasy around his face, curls at the back his neck. He tugs at the ends absently, and it’s disconcerting, the way it runs between his fingers for longer than he’d expect, or is used to. There’s stubble on his chin and along his jaw, and out of the corner of his eye, he sees the dark smudge on his inner wrist, stares in absolute disbelief at the words that he finds there.

And it isn’t as if Ryan’s opposed to tattoos, and normally he’d be thrilled at this much facial hair growth over night, but seriously, what happened to him last night?

“Hey, sleepy-head,” a soft, affectionate voice says, and Ryan almost falls down the stairs, he turns around so quickly. She’s strikingly pretty, with dark-lined eyes, bright blonde hair tucked behind her ears, and a sharp smile curling her lips.

There are so many things Ryan wants to ask, but all that comes out of his mouth is, “Have you seen my phone?”

The woman purses her lips and looks upward in thought, then gives him a shrug. “I could call it,” she offers, already producing a phone from the pocket of the over-sized knit jacket she’s wearing.

From upstairs, an unfamiliar song begins to play and Ryan follows it back into the bedroom, to the phone discarded on the sheets. He picks it up and goes back into the hallway, holding it out for her to see. “You called the wrong phone,” he says.

She shoots him a vaguely patronising half-smile and says, “Oh, I’m sorry, was I supposed to be dialling your top secret spy phone,” before wandering into the next room shaking her head.

Ryan frowns down at the phone in his hand. He goes through the contacts again, but it really can’t be his phone. There’s no Spencer, no Brendon, no Brent, no Pete. His dad’s name isn’t there either, nor is Spencer’s family’s. The most familiar name is Zack, but that could be any Zack, not necessarily his Zack.

Then, frustrated and still more than a little disconcerted, he just types in his home number, one of the few he knows from memory. It’s Sunday, and late enough his father should be awake and drinking already. Ryan doesn’t particularly want to deal with that, but at least his father will be able to give him Spencer’s cell number.

The line rings six times, and Ryan’s just about to hang up when the answering machine picks up. An unfamiliar female voice picks up, informing him he’s reached Sara Parker, and to please leave a message. He hits the end button and pays closer attention when he enters the number the second time. Again, after six rings, Sara Parker’s pre-recorded voice answers.

It’s been a few months since they’ve spoken, and with George Ross, just about anything is possible. He could have forgotten to pay a bill, or switched his number to get rid of crazy stalker Panic! fans.

“Look,” Ryan calls, following after the woman, “I really need to—“ he trails off at the collection of people at the kitchen table. There’s Jon Walker and Alex Greenwald with the blonde perched on one of his knees, and a man with birdlike features who’s got his cheek pressed against the wood of the table and looks worse than Ryan feels, which is saying something.

“Hair of the dog?” Alex asks, and holds out a mug that smells like tequila.

That unsettled sensation from early surges up in him again, and Ryan’s stomach immediately rebels against everything. He gets most of the vomit in the sink this time, and no one’s looking at him like this is out of the ordinary, and Ryan’s head feels like it’s splitting down the centre.

Jon is smoking a joint, Ryan realises distantly. Jon never smokes around Ryan. It’s something Ryan’s been silently grateful for on this tour, and for some reason he can’t name, the sight of it now makes him want to curl into a ball and fucking cry.

“I need to call Spence.”

They all give him strange looks, varying from disbelief to slightly anxious. Ryan’s stomach roils and cold fear creeps up his spine and all he can think is no, no, nothing’s happened to Spencer. Then Jon exchanges looks with the girl and says, “I think I have Ginger’s number.”

“I know Ginger’s number,” Ryan snaps back. “How did I—where did you—” They’re all giving him those terrible looks, and Ryan suddenly doesn’t want to ask the questions. He doesn’t want to make himself that vulnerable to them. Instead, he turns his back and storms out of the room.

Ginger answers on the second ring and sounds concerned when she says his name. “I’m sorry for bothering you,” Ryan tells her, hates when he makes her worry about him. “I can’t find my phone and I need to call Spencer, and I tried calling my father, but something’s wrong with the number.”

There’s a long, meaningful silence that follows his statement and it makes Ryan feel tiny. “Oh Ryan,” Ginger says at last, and it sounds like she’s choking back tears.

“Ginger, what’s—”

“It’s alright, baby, I’ll call Spencer, he’ll be right there.”

“But I don’t even know wh—”

“He’ll be there soon, just sit tight, don’t go anywhere,” Ginger interrupts, and hangs up.

“Go anywhere?” Ryan echoes. “I don’t even know where I am.”

He trudges back upstairs. His skin feels weirdly tingly and there’s a sharp, painful throb behind his eyes, and something about the room he woke in is comforting. Back inside, he starts to notice things he hadn’t before: the scraps of paper covering every surface and scribbled on in his own hand-writing—lyrics and half-formed thoughts he doesn’t remember thinking up—the photos tucked into the frame of the mirror are of him with people he doesn’t know, and a few he does—Jon, the Cobras, but all of the situations strange and unfamiliar. There’s one in particular, him blowing out the numbers 2 and 3 on an Elmo birthday cake, holding a beer bottle casually in one hand, that he just stares at for what feels like decades.

A knock on the door stirs jerks him out of it. Before he can answer, the door opens, and Spencer’s standing there, beautiful in a sort of unreal way. The sight of him confirms the nebulous thoughts that all the words and pictures littering the room had stirred in Ryan. Spencer’s taller and delicately thin, and his hair is darker and shiny, falling into his eyes. His face has lost a lot of its roundness, and that with the stubble on his face makes him look older.

Ryan feels so fucking young and lonely and terrified he just wants to throw himself into Spencer’s arms, but Spencer’s voice stops him, roots him to the spot. His tone is coldly furious, matching the unreadable look in his eyes. “How dare you bring my mother into this shit?” he demands. His hands flex at his side and ball into fists.

“Spence,” Ryan says, voice so faint he can barely hear it. He swallows and opens his mouth to try again, but Spencer comes the rest of the way in the room and slams the door behind him.

“Don’t. Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on in your fucked up mind, all the stupid, self-destructive bullshit you’re pulling, and I get that you’re running out of bridges to burn, but my parents have never been anything other than wonderful to you, and they don’t deserve this!”

Spencer’s never shouted at Ryan before, not like this, where every word cuts at Ryan’s skin, leaves him feeling flayed open and stinging. He knows now, knows, but all those images that came to mind upon first waking are entirely gone now, and he doesn’t think he could remember no matter how hard he might try. He thinks of what he said on the phone to Ginger, really thinks about each individual word, and how it might be taken as him trying to hurt her.

“I needed to call you, and my dad,” Ryan babbles, and it’s no sort of explanation.

The look on Spencer’s face is mingled heart-break and hatred. “What are you on?”

“On?” Ryan says, though a second after the word leaves his mouth, he knows what Spencer’s asking and it makes him feel queasy all over again. This body he’s in—he doesn’t know if a real, physical thing, or just psychological, knowing what he’s been drinking and smoking, but it feels dirty and toxic, like he could scrub until his skin was raw, and purge everything in his system, and never, ever be clean again. And none of that is as bad as the way Spencer’s eyes feel on him.

“My dad. It's my dad. Is he…is he dead?” Ryan asks, but something tells him he already knows the answer. His body is larger all over, but he feels small. Spencer doesn’t say anything, just shifts his weight from foot to foot and chews on his lip, and that just confirms it. Ryan shakes his head miserably, and then he’s crying, so suddenly and so violently that it shocks even himself.

It’s so fucking stupid, because an hour ago he would have been fine with the idea of never talking to his father again, and anyway Spencer apparently hates him, and maybe it’s a combination of the two, and everything else, but he’s choking on an overwhelming feeling of loss and when he leans over the trash can, nothing but bile comes up. He sniffles and rubs at his nose with the back of his hand, and just sobs.

Spencer lays a hand on his shoulder and then it slides down Ryan’s spine when Spencer drops to the floor behind him. It’s all the invitation Ryan needs. He turns and launches himself at Spencer, wraps his arms tight around Spencer’s middle and buries his face in Spencer’s chest. It’s all wrong—Spencer’s nothing but hard planes and sharp angles, and he even smells different, like coconut and ylang-ylang, and it just makes Ryan cry harder.

Slowly, Spencer’s arms come up around him and his cheek presses to the top of Ryan’s head. “Jesus Christ, Ryan, what are you doing to yourself?” he says, but it’s full of honest, high-pitched distress. Ryan’s used to Spencer worrying about him, but this. Spencer doesn’t deserve this.

Ryan wants to tell him, but every time he opens his mouth to speak, he’s wracked with a fresh round of tears, until Spencer’s shirt is soaked with it under his cheek. When Ryan finally draws back and Spencer lifts his head, their gazes meeting, Ryan is exhausted and his eyes burn, and he can’t stop shaking.

“Listen,” Ryan says, low and pleading. “The last thing I remember is doing a show in Albuquerque, fighting with Brendon over who got first shower, eating cold subway, and falling asleep to you and Brent arguing in the next room.”

Spencer’s gaze goes from hesitant understanding to completely shuttered in an instant, and he starts to pull away. Ryan holds fast, fisting his hands in Spencer’s shirt. “I know you have no reason to believe me, I know, but Spencer, please, I need you. I need you. I woke up so scared and sick, and those people downstairs, they’re complete strangers to me, and my dad’s dead, and I hated him, and you hate me, and I can’t—I can’t—”

The tears come again completely against his will, Spencer’s face blurring, and Ryan closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see that awful, blank look. He hears Spencer sigh and then Spencer says, “I don’t hate you, Ryan, I—” he trails off and when he hugs Ryan again, it’s awkward, like being hugged by a stranger.

“Spencer, I’m not lying and I’m not crazy, or drunk and I need to get away from here. Please, Spencer, get me out of here.”

*

Spencer keeps dialling the same number on his cell phone, looks annoyed, and hangs up without speaking, so Ryan assumes he’s getting an answering machine. It’s hot and humid in the car, and while Ryan’s never been a huge fan of Las Vegas, he can’t imagine what possessed him to move to Los Angeles.

He says as much out loud and Spencer cranks the a/c up high and pulls into traffic. “A lot’s changed,” is all he says.

Ryan snorts. “Well, obviously, Spence,” he says, and Spencer visibly flinches. “Sorry. Are we going to your place? You live here, too, right?”

“Yeah, I live here. So does Brendon,” Spencer says. They pull onto the freeway and the traffic is insane, but Spencer weaves between the other cars with a deft hand.

“What happened to us?” Ryan asks.

Spencer grips the wheel tightly, mouth set in a grim line. “We shouldn’t—look, I don’t want to get into this right now. You’ll feel better in a day or two. Until then, you can crash with us.”

“Us?” Ryan repeats. Is Spencer married? Could he possibly have children?

Ryan’s all set to start hyperventilating when Spencer answers, “Me and Brendon.”

For some reason, that doesn’t make Ryan feel particularly better about the situation. Spencer is Ryan’s best friend, he isn’t supposed to be moving in with Brendon. Brendon annoys the shit out of Spencer on a good day.

Spencer’s house is only about twenty minutes away from Ryan’s, but it’s in a nicer looking neighbourhood, and it’s a far more modern design. The lawn is neat and even, and the drive and house are lined in flowers.

Ryan is tired, his eyes sting and his muscles feel heavy and useless. He just wants to curl up in bed for a day or two, and then he’s sure he’ll wake up back in his bunk and things will be fine. Spencer takes his arm on the walk to the door to keep him steady, but there’s nothing familiar about the gesture.

They’re greeted by three eager dogs when they step inside, all pressing against their knees in search of attention. Spencer pats at their heads and steers Ryan on a path between them and into the open family room and dining area that all screams Spencer more than Brendon, except for the hoodie left on the couch and the bowl and half glass of juice on the coffee table.

Spencer has a cautious look on his face as his eyes scan the room. “Brendon?” he calls.

“Hey, where the hell were you?” Brendon shouts back.

“Where were you? Would it seriously kill you to pick up your goddamn phone?” Spencer asks.

There are footsteps above them, and then coming down the stairs. “I went for a run,” Brendon says, “I didn’t have my phone on me, what the fuck?” It’s a pleasant enough tone of voice, though. He comes into sight from the down the hall and the smile on his face freezes when he sees Ryan. His gaze goes to Spencer and he does something with his eyebrows.

Spencer sighs and gives him a strange look, and it’s then that Ryan realises that they’re talking like this, with their expressions, like he and Spencer always have done. “I tried to call you,” Spencer says, and drops Ryan’s arm to go to Brendon. They go into the next room, whispering urgently, and Ryan stands there in the middle of the room, shivering cold and alone.

Ryan steps further into the room and gets a good look around. There are a lot of pictures of Brendon and Spencer with two other guys who appear to be their band, and some of them with Pete and a girl with red hair who looks really familiar, and some with a guy with dark eyes and a pretty blonde with a sweet smile.

“Come on,” Spencer says, coming back into the room. He puts a hand under Ryan’s arm and propels him roughly towards the stairs. Ryan keeps stumbling but Spencer doesn’t slow down. The room they end up in is generically decorated enough to tell Ryan it’s a guest room, the bed linens crisp and untouched.

“I guess we do well for ourselves,” Ryan murmurs, because even the guest room looks as though it’s been decorated by a professional, and there’s a huge television mounted on the wall, and expensive looking art, and plush carpet underfoot.

“We do alright,” Spencer agrees. “Get in bed.” He jerks the covers back and gets down to help unlace Ryan’s shoes.

Ryan would protest, but he’s dead tired. He slips out of his ill-fitting jeans and climbs in between the sheets. Brendon comes in with a glass of water and a pitcher and doesn’t look at Ryan as he places them on the nightstand. For some reason, it makes Ryan want to apologise again and again, guilt so powerful and overwhelming he can’t breathe.

“Just get some rest,” Spencer says. He puts a wastebasket by the bedside and he and Brendon go to the door. “I’ll check on you in a bit.”

He wants to stay awake, demand answers to all the dozens and dozens of questions he has. But he’s so fucking tired, like he didn’t just wake up a little over an hour ago, and his eyes burn, it’s an effort just keeping them open. It’ll be alright when I wake up.

*

Brendon stares at Spencer, arms crossed over his chest, expression nearly unreadable. “I know,” Spencer says.

“No, you really don’t,” Brendon says. “You didn’t have to watch yourself last time, Spencer. Whether he means to or not, he’s fucking with you. You should have just let him sleep it off at his place.”

“You didn’t see him,” Spencer snaps. “He was terrified, he honestly thought he was nineteen again, he was crying about his father.”

“And that doesn’t tell you anything?” Brendon asks. “He didn’t cry about his father when it happened!”

“It’s just for the night, Brendon,” Spencer says, tired and Brendon must see something in his face, because he gives Spencer a hug and leaves it alone.

*

It isn’t just for the night. Ryan wakes in the middle of the night and Spencer’s there, at his bedside, sees the confusion in his gaze as he tries to remember and can’t. “I thought it was a dream,” Ryan says, after he’s gulped down an entire glass of water, and then he gets sick. Spencer rubs his back and pushes his hair back from his face, and gets him a damp washcloth when he’s finished.

Brendon drives them to the hospital after another argument. Spencer’s worried about Ryan getting in trouble for the drugs in his system, and Brendon frankly doesn’t care, and anyway, they both know it’s too big for them to handle on their own because Ryan is shaking and keeps throwing up, and when he is coherent enough, he keeps demanding to know what happened to them.

Brendon holds Spencer’s hand while the doctors take Ryan to a CT and an MRI, and whispers that maybe it was a good thing that Spencer brought Ryan home, after all. It’s five in the morning when the doctors finally come out to see them in the waiting room, saying the worst they can find is a bump on the back of Ryan’s head. There’s some mild swelling and they want to keep him overnight for observation.

The memory loss is only temporary, they say. It’ll all come back to him in a day or two, though he probably won’t ever remember what happened the night before. The doctor looks Spencer right in the eye, and Spencer doesn’t believe a word he’s saying.

Ryan is quiet and reserved when they arrive back at Spencer and Brendon’s house after a little over 24 hours in the hospital. Jon, Z, and Alex came to visit, and it was difficult for Spencer to watch, biting his tongue, while they tried to make conversation with him. Ryan’s expression was so familiar and foreign at the same time, a look that Spencer hasn’t seen in years, vulnerable and frightened, and he kept his arms crossed over his chest, withdrew a little more every time one of them touched him, or made a joke.

Jon and Brendon got into a fight in the parking lot that ended in bloody noses and split lips. After, Jon left in a huff, giving up on insisting that he’ll take care of Ryan.

“You didn’t have to,” Spencer told him and Brendon shrugged. “I swore I’d never forgive him,” Spencer added.

Brendon stared out across the rows of cars baking in the sun, his jaw set. There was a bruise forming on his cheek and blood drying on his nose and lip. He didn’t say anything at all, and Spencer was so, so grateful to have Brendon as his best friend.

“Are you going to tell me now,” Ryan says, when they’re back at his house. He swirls his spoon around in the soup Spencer made. “What happened, what’s up with Jon and those guys.”

Spencer’s been thinking about, since yesterday, coming up with a hundred different ways to begin this conversation and discarding each and every one. What happened to us, Ryan asked, and the honest answer, as far as Spencer is concerned, is I don’t know.

He can list several moments that, in retrospect, were completely different from how they seemed at the time, where he and Ryan were apparently having two entirely different conversations at the same time, right up until the last decent one they ever had, over lunch, and when Ryan said this doesn’t affect our friendship, Spencer believed him.

Brendon says something in response, the same line they’ve been giving for almost two years now, about going in two different directions musically. Spencer can tell by Ryan’s face that he isn’t buying it.

Later, Ryan’s watching the news on the television in the guest room with a hunted, overwhelmed sort of air about him. Brendon sits on Spencer’s bed, back against the headboard, and watches him pace. “This doesn’t change who he is, Spence. He’s still fundamentally the same person.”

“It doesn’t mean he’ll make the same choices,” Spencer says. He knows Brendon’s worried about him.

“We can’t just go back to how things were,” Brendon says. It’s weird, hearing him be the voice of reason, makes Spencer want to smile in spite of everything else. “He’s got a band and we’ve got ours—even if I trusted him, believed this was for real and for good, even if I did, the label isn’t going to buy it. And so what if they were to give him a second chance? What about Ian? He was the one who was there for us when Ryan screwed us over. We just kick him to the curb?”

Spencer hasn’t said anything about Ryan wanting back in Panic! Brendon knows him too well. “We’re not kicking Ian to the curb,” Spencer says. He knows that much.

*

Ryan spends most of the third day on the internet, playing catch-up, before it all gets to be too much and he has to stop looking. He doesn’t look up anything about himself or his band. He wants to hear it from his band.

Spencer’s been on the phone since he got up—with Pete, with Jon, with record executives, and with his parents. Brendon was gone before Ryan woke, but later in the day Ryan hears the piano and follows it to the music room.

The room is gorgeous, ceiling dotted with twinkle lights that cast a warm glow over the back of the baby grand, over Spencer’s kit, the guitars hanging on the wall. There are several black and white photos decorating the walls. Some have Ryan in them, and some have Jon in Brent’s place, but most have two strangers filling in guitar and bass.

“Who are they?” Ryan asks.

Brendon doesn’t pause in playing. Maybe the scariest and most disturbing thing about this whole fucked up situation is Brendon. He’s so different from Ryan’s last memory, when Brendon’s every emotion was easy to read on his face. Ryan went to sleep three days ago to a Brendon who attacked him with hugs, and told inappropriate jokes. This Brendon is too serious and blank-faced, in a way he never was before, even after his parents kicked him out.

“That’s Ian on guitar and Dallon on bass,” Brendon answers, with no intonation at all. “They helped us out after you guys left.”

“But it still says Panic! at the Disco,” Ryan says. He can’t look away from the framed photograph. Brendon’s got that familiar, blissful look on his face that he gets sometimes when he sings, and Spencer. Spencer is a fucking revelation, mouth hung open, eyes closed, head tipped back and hair shining under the lights. Ryan feels like he could reach out and touch and feel the texture under his fingers.

“You and Jon didn’t leave us a lot of options, no matter what might have been said to the press,” Brendon says. “We had a fucking contract, a set number of records to be completed under said contract, and a bunch of sold out concert dates under the name Panic! at the Disco.”

“So you just—you just took the name. And our songs?” Ryan asks, incredulous.

Brendon finally pauses in playing and looks up at Ryan. There’s something different in his eyes. “Sometimes I forget that you used to think of Panic! as our band rather than as exclusively yours.”

Ryan doesn’t know what to say to that, doesn’t know how he could have changed so dramatically that he could forget sitting with Spencer and Brent and Brendon in that stuffy garage, pouring everything they had into the music.

It’s so fucking unfair Ryan wants to scream. It’s like he’s been in a coma for the past five years while evil!Ryan fucked up everything good going in Ryan’s life, then woke him up to deal with the fallout. That’s their band. His with Brendon and Spencer.

“Well I’m okay now. I can play now. With you.”

Brendon snorts and says, “Yeah, and then when you get your memory back it’s the same thing all over again. No thanks.”

“It’s our band. I fucking broke my back to get us where we are. I got Pete to notice us. Why would I leave?”

“I don’t know,” Brendon says, venomously, “dangerous combination of lots of drugs and a massive ego.”

Ryan maybe deserves that. And yet, “That’s not who I am anymore. I don’t want to be that person, I never want to be that person. Do you think I’m lying to you?”

“What I think,” Brendon says, and stands up so quickly he almost knocks over the stool, “is that it’s really convenient, your miraculous amnesia when your band is fading into anonymity and your money from Panic! is running out, and even if you’re not just putting on a really good show, you’re still fucking with Spencer’s head. He loves you. He’s never stopped loving you, but he’s been so happy lately, so healthy and just…he’s just comfortable with himself for the first time in his life, not in your shadow, not there to scramble around after you taking care of you and picking up the pieces, and now you’re back.”

“I wouldn’t,” Ryan says, “he’s my best friend, I’m not trying to fuck him over.”

“He’s my best friend,” Brendon says, “and no matter what you think or say or remember, you already did fuck him over.”

“What are you guys, five years old?”

Brendon looks fierce and guilty all at once, and shoots Spencer an apologetic look. “But I am your best friend,” Brendon says, and Spencer gives him a look that Ryan knows well, full of love and exasperation that says well, yeah. It’s a punch to the stomach, and Ryan can’t breathe.

*

Spencer keeps forgetting himself. He swears he isn’t going to, reminds himself of all the reasons he can’t trust Ryan. Then Ryan sits too close on the sofa and rambles on about something he’s read on the internet, or a new song he’s heard. He tucks his feet under Spencer’s thigh and steals the remote from him and bitches about how reality television has gone down hill, and isn’t that seriously sad, and he makes Spencer laugh and it’s like the last five years are nothing but a bad dream.

Brendon watches them warily. His eyes warn Spencer not to do something stupid. It’s embarrassing how well Brendon can read him. And it doesn’t stop Spencer from laying his arm across Ryan’s shoulders and drawing him close. Spencer’s always been drawn to Ryan’s vulnerability—a great deal of their friendship was built of Spencer’s need to care for and protect him.

Probably the biggest problems here is the fact that Brendon was right when he said Spencer never stopped loving Ryan, even after all the bullshit that followed. Spencer hated Ryan, but he never stopped loving him. And this Ryan, who is both younger and somehow more mature than the one whose place he’s taken, loves Spencer back.

How is Spencer supposed to resist that?

On the fifth night, Brendon goes to stay at Sarah’s a few nights. Though Brendon doesn’t explicitly say so, Spencer knows it’s difficult for Brendon to watch Spencer being so easy with Ryan. After Brendon’s gone, Ryan spends hours in the music room playing, and Spencer stays in his room and feels like his heart’s being cut out of his chest.

*

There are too many changes that Ryan can’t keep track of them all, and wishes he could forget about a lot of them. The changes he can’t forget are the ones right in front of his eyes. Spencer is still undeniably his Spencer, but with dozens of little differences that make Ryan’s gaze linger.

Ryan would be completely happy if they never leave the house again. The two of them had their own little world growing up, and it feels so easy to just slip back into that, even though Ryan’s recently grown used to touring. Here, safe in Spencer and Brendon’s house, the rest of the world can go on being alien and strange, and Ryan doesn’t have to deal with fans or people who think he owes them something.

Jon, Z, and Alex leave a bunch of messages and send texts to Ryan’s cell phone, and he does a manful job of ignoring them for the first few days. It isn’t until a week after Ryan woke up in this unfamiliar place that he finally picks up when Jon calls.

Spencer went to bed a few hours before, and Ryan’s channel surfing. He used to like finding late night reruns, but now even the reruns are way ahead of him, and it just makes him feel a little lost and a lot melancholy, which is the only reason he can really give for answering when the phone rings.

“Ryan,” Jon says, voice full of relief. “Man, I thought maybe Spencer wasn’t letting you have your phone.”

“He’s not my dad, what the fuck?” Ryan says, and realises a second later what he’s just said, remembers that his dad is dead, and it’s difficult to breath for a second. That keeps hitting him over and over, and it never quite seems real. “Anyway, he wouldn’t stop me if I wanted to talk to you.”

There’s a long silence and Jon lets out a breath. “Ryan…why don’t you want to talk to us? We miss you, we want to help you.”

“Spencer’s helping me,” Ryan says.

Jon makes an annoyed sound. “Spencer doesn’t know you.”

“Fuck you,” Ryan hisses, and Jon is quick to continue.

“I just mean, he doesn’t know you anymore. Alex was looking up about amnesia, ways to help you remember. Just come home, we’ll make sure you’re back to yourself—”

“I don’t want to be back to myself. I don’t want to be that person,” Ryan says. “I hate that person who everyone says I’ve become. I’m not going to turn into that again.”

“Ryan—”

“No, I’m sorry, but just. I can’t do this,” Ryan says, and he feels bad, he really does, because Jon’s always seemed like a nice guy on tour, but he isn’t what Ryan wants or needs for a best friend.

“What about our band?” Jon asks.

“That isn’t my band. Panic! is my band.” Even if he never gets to play in it again.

“They’re assholes, Ryan,” Jon says, “they aren’t your friends, I am.” Like if he says it enough, Ryan will suddenly remember.

Ryan hangs up and when the phone starts to ring in his hand, he turns it off. He’s shaking, he realises belatedly, and has to take a deep breath. It’s too much, thinking about his father, and a day when Spencer isn’t is friend, and what he must have done to make Brendon look at him like he does—and Ryan’s done some pretty shitty stuff in his recollection that never drove the two of them away before.

Spencer’s door is closed, and Ryan thinks about knocking, but just opens it instead. It’s dark and Ryan waits just inside as his eyes adjust, until he can make out the furniture, and Spencer’s shape on the bed. Spencer stirs when Ryan sits on the edge of the mattress and reaches out a hand, murmurs, Brendon?

Ryan still can’t help the fierce jealousy that he feels at all the little ways Spencer and Brendon keep throwing their friendship in his face, intentional or not. “Spence,” he murmurs, and burrows close.

“Ryan?” Spencer asks sleepily. He doesn’t open his eyes, but he slings an arm over Ryan’s waist and puts his face in Ryan’s neck. Ryan wonders if Spencer knows what he’s doing, or if he’s asleep enough to have forgotten that this Ryan isn’t his Ryan. “Okay?”

“I don’t want to be him, Spence,” Ryan whispers.

It strikes Ryan, then, that he’s said the same thing to Spencer millions of times over their friendship, and always before, he’s meant his father, and now it’s him, it’s Ryan. Spencer’s hold tightens and he breathes Ryan in. It makes Ryan’s stomach tighten in a strange anticipation. “You’re not,” Spencer says.

“No, I mean,” Ryan shakes his head and his eyes burn with unshed tears, not because he’s sad but because he’s so helplessly angry. “No, I mean me. I don’t want to be me, not that me that you and Brendon know now. I don’t want to be him, never.”

Spencer doesn’t say anything. There isn’t anything to say to that.

“I don’t want you to stop loving me again,” Ryan whispers.

Spencer draws away enough to meet Ryan’s gaze; his eyes are almost black in the dark of the room. “I don’t think it’s actually possible for me to stop,” Spencer says, a little ruefully. “And believe me, you’ve tried you hardest.”

Ryan sags miserably, and Spencer leans forward, closes that last little distance between them, brushes his mouth lightly against Ryan’s. They’ve kissed like this before, closed mouth to closed mouth in the dark. This time Spencer’s mouth lingers, fits more neatly against Ryan’s. When he leans back, there’s something new in his eyes, like he can’t quite believe he’s done it, and Ryan knows it means something different than it ever has in the past.

“I don’t want to go away again,” Ryan says. He’s unused to this sort of vulnerable desperation, but if anyone has to see it, it makes sense for it to be Spencer.

“I won’t let you,” Spencer says, and when Ryan gives him a searching look, Spencer laces their hands together.

This Spencer isn’t his Spencer anymore. He’s not as co-dependent on Ryan, far surer of himself. When they were younger, all those (seems like days) years ago, Spencer was the one to back Ryan up, a silent wall of support. If one of them had the power in the relationship, it was Ryan.

Things shouldn’t have changed so much, so quickly, but Ryan’s felt the shift. Now Ryan’s clinging to Spencer like a life-raft. He feels as though he’d defer to Spencer no matter what, as long as Spencer steers him away from what he’s become. It’s not equal, and Ryan knows it’s not healthy, but that’s never stopped him in relationships, before.

*

The neurologist calls it dissociative amnesia, says the tests don’t show any damage that can explain the memory loss, and schedules Ryan an appointment with a psychiatrist.

“Despite what television and movies tell us, this sort of thing is fairly common and doesn’t usually last very long. With treatment and therapy, you should be able to recover your memories in time,” Doctor Miles tells Ryan, and gives him the business card of the psychiatrist along with a packet of information on the condition.

Ryan reads the packet several times, and does his own research online, and then makes a conscious effort not to do any of the things suggested.

Spencer offers to go with Ryan to his house to get some of his things—clothes, computer, car—but Ryan keeps putting it off. He doesn’t really want that stuff around him anyway; it’s like a physical representation of a personality and lifestyle Ryan really wants to avoid. Besides, the clothing is sort of hideous, and Brendon has grudgingly allowed Ryan to borrow his clothes, which works well enough for the time being. And this way, Ryan can’t accidentally run into Jon or the others.

So, on Tuesday Spencer drives Ryan to the psychiatrist’s office and tells him he’ll be back for him in an hour. Ryan’s careful about what he says to the doctor, sometimes lying through his teeth. He’s read enough to know what he should be doing, and he tells her what she wants to hear when she asks what he’s been trying to regain his memories. He doesn’t tell her about things with Spencer and Brendon, about picking up right where he feels that things have left off.

She doesn’t look like she’s buying what he’s saying and gives him some assignments to complete before they meet again. She mentions hypnosis and drugs, but Ryan knows she can’t make him do it. By the time he leaves, Ryan’s already planning on ditching these appointments as soon as he can get away with it.

Spencer’s waiting in the reception area, going through emails on his phone, taking care of things with publicists and executives, making it possible for Ryan to stay hidden away from the world for as long as possible. It should annoy Ryan; he’s never liked being pampered or protected. This isn’t who he is. But who he is doesn’t fit into the world where he wants it, and he finds it enticingly easy to play this role. So easy that even after fewer than two weeks, it doesn’t even feel like he’s playing anymore.

It still takes Ryan’s breath away when he sees Spencer after being away from him for a while. He’s staring all the way to the car and Spencer catches his eye as he’s adjusting his mirrors, turning on the ignition. The corner of his mouth turns up in a soft smile and he leans across the gearshift to kiss Ryan.

This is still new enough to make Ryan’s heart pound, his heart thrill in his chest, the bottom of his stomach drop out. There’s been nothing more than these slow, searching kisses that steal Ryan’s breath, leave him aching for more. Spencer’s kisses promise so much more, and it’s intimidating and strange, and so exciting to think that Spencer might be the more experienced one of the two of them, now.

“We never did this?” Ryan asks, each word a delicate kiss shaped against Spencer’s bottom lip.

“We never did this,” Spencer assures him. He sinks his hand in Ryan’s newly shorn hair (the long messy curls have been discarded in the wastebasket in Spencer’s bathroom) and tugs Ryan close, angles him just how he wants him and kisses him until Ryan’s panting for breath.

Ryan kisses him back with all the things that are too dangerous to say—that he will build a whole new life, an entire world, from the things he’s never done with Spencer, until there’s no space left for those things he did do, the first time around.