sparsenicjade
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Thank you to Luc, for alphaing and betaing the fic, particularly when it meant dealing with me being a child. Untappedbeauty, for her thorough, awesome grammar beta. Finally, Rossetti, for making sure the sign language in this was actually informed by reality, and really helping me to rework the story in more interesting ways around that.

The gorgeous, GORGEOUS cover was done for me by Untappedbeauty, because she loves me.

There was very little research that went into this, Aphasia doesn't work precisely like this and the type of injuries Ryan occurs are probably unlikely to happen in concert.

Title comes from a Sam Rayburn quote: "No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut."

***


afinercommand

***


The morning of the accident, Ryan looked at Brendon as he stumbled out of the bunks and said, "Your slippers are on the wrong feet." As last words, he would have chosen others.

Brendon was sitting at the table, checking his email. He glanced down under the table and said, "Huh," but made no move to fix the situation. Ryan reached up to open the cabinet with the oatmeal bars in it, and the world lurched. Ryan didn't even feel himself go anywhere. He just thought, "Ouch, shit," and "Brendon," because he couldn't see him. Later, he would console himself with the fact that that had been a totally noble thing to think in the midst of almost dying.

*


Pete was not supposed to be on the bus. Pete was supposed to be... Somewhere. Ryan remembered, they had talked recently, but he couldn't quite figure out where Pete had said he was going to be. A charity cruise? Maybe. Wherever it was, Pete was not supposed to be on Ryan's bus, saying, "Guys. Guys. I think he--"

Ryan tried to say, "Finish your sentences, Wentz," but his throat was completely dry and his head hurt at even the thought of forming the words. Mentally, Ryan frowned.

Spencer was above him then--above? What the hell?--looking scared out of his mind. He had a gigantic bruise on the side of his face, and his arm was in a sling. Ryan was going to put a fucking hit out on whoever had touched Spencer. What the hell was Pete thinking, allowing that shit?

Spencer asked, "Hey, Ry. Hey, can you hear me?"

Last Ryan checked, he wasn't deaf. Of course he could fucking hear Spencer. He tried saying that, but his lips would barely open. Spencer said, "Bren, can I have that water?"

Spencer reached over Ryan, who turned to look at Brendon. Brendon was looking pretty fucked up, too. He had a gash above one eye and he was on crutches. Ryan closed his eyes for a second and considered the whiteness of their surroundings, the fact that he was clearly lying down and that Pete, who was supposed to be in Aruba or something, was right there. Internally, Ryan sighed. He fucking hated hospitals. Then he opened his eyes and searched desperately for Jon, because he hadn't seen him yet. Jon was at the foot of his bed, and he looked a lot like Spencer, except without the sling. He was holding himself carefully, though, so Ryan was pretty sure his injuries just weren't as obvious. Pete, at least, looked totally fine.

Spencer said, "Hey, c'mon."

Ryan felt the bed move under him, and yeah, he had to be on some pretty serious shit, because all he could feel was the shift in pressure. He was afraid to look at himself. Spencer held the cup with the straw to Ryan's mouth with his good hand and said, "Drink, Ry."

Ryan took a small sip, remembering every time his dad had vomited water on him after binging. It went down all right, so he took another, and when that proved a success, another after that. It took him a while to get his fill, but Spencer just stood there, letting him take his time.

When Spencer set the cup down, Ryan tried to ask, "What happened?" but what came out was a garbled mess of syllables and sounds that not even Ryan understood. He tried again, but the words just wouldn't form. He tried a third time, and when all that happened was that he sounded--even to himself--like a dying creature of bovine origin, he panicked. He tried saying, "Spencer," because he'd been able to say the word "Spencer" from the time he was six, and that was reaching the outer limits of where Ryan's memory could venture.

The syllables broke into incorrect, slippery sounds that Ryan couldn't catch before they slid right off his tongue. He could hear himself keening in sheer, utter terror, but he couldn't stop, not even with Spencer saying, "Ryan, Ryan, it's all right, it's all right."

Brendon looked scared out of his fucking mind, so Ryan was pretty sure that was a complete lie. Spencer was always trying to protect him. Spencer pressed his good hand against Ryan's chest and said, "Ryan, stop. Stop."

Ryan made himself listen to Spencer. Spencer said, "Can you understand me? If you can, nod your head yes."

Ryan tried, and sure enough, that worked. Ryan took a breath. It was something. Spencer said, "All right, you need to listen."

Ryan nodded again to let Spencer know he was. Spencer said, "A car jumped the railing on the highway and hit us nearly dead on. Jon and I were in the bunks and Brendon was at the table, but you were standing in the middle of the bus, okay? None of us are really sure what happened, but you--" Spencer took a deep breath and Ryan could tell he was trying to just hold it together. Ryan wanted to tell Spencer he was sorry for standing up, but that was stupid, they stood up on the bus all the time, they had to. Spencer said, "You were in surgery for over twenty-four hours, Ry. There was internal bleeding and all kinds of shit. They warned us that there might be other problems, if you even woke up. Which you did, so I say fuck the other problems, okay? Fuck that."

Spencer's voice was considerably less full of bravado than his words. Ryan found his hand, made it go up to Spencer's, made it squeeze. At least that was working. At least he would probably be able to play his guitar. The thought loosened Ryan's chest up the tiniest bit.

He had a million questions, like if their driver was okay, and what they had done about the tour and how they were going to fix him, but listening for that long had taken more effort than Ryan could really quantify, and for the moment, he really needed to just sleep some more.

*


The second time he woke up, Jon was sitting by his bed. Jon grinned at him and said, "Hey. Morning."

Ryan wanted to ask if it was really morning, but the minute he opened his mouth, he knew nothing was going to come out but random noises, so he shut it and did his best to smile back at Jon. Jon stood carefully and asked, "You want some water?"

Ryan reached out--moving was a huge deal--and touched Jon's chest lightly. What's wrong? He willed Jon to understand. Jon said, "No water?"

Ryan shook his head. Jon frowned. He said, "Take a sip for me, and then if you still don't want it, you don't have to have anymore."

Ryan went along with that. He was extremely thirsty. Like before, he finished off the whole cup. Jon looked relieved, but all he said was, "Okay, clearly I didn't understand you before. Let's see if we can do better."

Ryan tried to think up another way to ask, but nothing came to mind. He shook his head, Don't worry about it. Jon seemed to get that he'd given up, if nothing else, because he said, "No, hey, just let me go through it again, okay?"

Ryan tried shrugging, but that hurt too much. Clearly they were weaning him off the painkillers. Jon seemed to get the point. "I asked if you wanted water."

Ryan lifted his hand a little, palm up. You stood up. Jon mimicked the action twice before he tilted his head and said, "Oh, wait. I got up. I got up to give you the water."

Ryan nodded, feeling like he'd just run a marathon or something equally daunting. Jon said, "Okay, so I got up, and you put your hand to my chest. To tell me to sit down?"

Ryan shook his head. Jon said, "No, okay. Um. Does your chest hurt?"

Ryan would scream in frustration if he trusted the sound to actually come out right. It might, but it might not, and Ryan didn't want to hear some sort of muted, choked pretense at a scream. Jon seemed to understand, and he ran a soothing hand through Ryan's hair. "Sorry I'm bad at this, Ry."

Ryan bit his lip. Sorry I'm fucking retarded.

Jon petted at him for a little bit longer before he said, "You put your hand to my chest. Jesus, I'm an idiot, you were asking what was wrong." Ryan couldn't even help the grin that found its way to his face. It hurt--he was clearly banged up there, too--but it felt good, actually wanting it to be there.

Jon said, "See, you just had to give me a little bit. Not all of Panic can be baby geniuses. What would all the other bands do?" Ryan kept smiling at him. Jon said, "I'm okay, Ry. I broke a few ribs. Of all of us, I got off easiest."

Looking at Jon's face, that news did not make Ryan feel much better. He struggled to get his other hand above the covers. Jon figured out what he was doing a few seconds in and helped out. Ryan clenched both hands into fists and did his best to mime driving a car. He couldn't lift his arms very high. Jon watched for a little while and said, "Driving... Driving, driving-- Oh," he said softly. "You're asking about Gabby," he said, calling their driver by her first name.

Ryan nodded. Jon put his hands over both of Ryan's until they relaxed and said, "Ry."

Ryan already knew, he did, but he needed Jon to say it, because he had evidently been thrown pretty much the entirety of the bus and still made it, however many parts he was in. He looked straight at Jon and waited for him to go on. "Ry, it was an SUV that hit us. Some big Ford-type thing. It slammed right into where she was sitting."

Ryan could feel his eyes stinging, and it was stupid, because they hadn't been that close to Gabby. She was a new driver, but she had been easygoing and kind and more than willing to drag them right back onto the bus if needed. She had been the kind of older sister figure that Ryan loved to pretend really belonged to him, and she had been, if nothing else, alive. Jon said, "I know. I know. Spence and I are working on a college fund for her kid--"

Ryan retched at that. He didn't even know he was going to. He'd forgotten about the kid. He'd met him once. He was four or five, lived at home with his grandparents. The dad had fucked off pretty early on, if there had even been a father. Jon said, "I'm gonna get a nurse, Ry--" but Ryan held on for all he was worth. He needed Jon more than he needed a nurse. This would pass; he just had to keep breathing. Jon, thankfully, didn't fight too hard to get free. He just held on and, once he figured out what Ryan was doing, breathed in time with him. He was still there when Ryan gave in to his exhaustion.

*


Ryan had absolutely no way to measure the passage of time. Asking things was a complex and harrowing process filled with a lot of guesswork, and not to be wasted on simple questions like, "How long did I pass out for this time?" Especially not when all he could really keep his eyes open for was one or two, at best three, questions. All he knew was that there was a day when, instead of waking by himself, he was woken by a man in a lab coat who said, "Hi, Ryan."

Ryan opened his mouth to say hi but stopped before anything embarrassing came out. Instead he held his hand out to the man, who shook it.

"I'm your doctor, Dr. Beckerman. You fought pretty hard to stay with us."

Spencer was standing behind the doctor. Ryan didn't point, but it was all he could do to stop himself. He nodded. Dr. Beckerman said, "Spencer tells me you're having trouble speaking."

Ryan's nod was tight. The doctor said, "I'm sorry to have to ask, but can you try and say something? Hello would be fine."

There was a flash of intense pain in Ryan's jaw, and he realized he was clenching it. He loosened up and made himself say, "Hello." It came out low and twisted and unrecognizable, like he'd somehow gotten the letters confused. He looked away from the doctor, away from Spencer. Spencer made a noise in his throat, but even that couldn't make Ryan look back.

The doctor said, "All right, Ryan, thank you. I'm going to wait a few days, see if this clears up on its own. If not, we're going to do some tests, see what we can see. I'm going to be upfront with you: what we know about the human brain is minute compared to what we don't know, and you took a fair amount of blunt force trauma directly to your head. It really is a miracle you're alive and you can feel all your limbs. But we'll do the tests and do our best to fix you up, okay?"

Ryan nodded. There wasn't anything else to do, really. It wasn't like he could ask questions. If they were important, Spencer would figure them out and ask them. Ryan knew that much for sure.

The doctor smiled and said, "Okay, I'm going to let you have some time with Spencer. Rest up."

Ryan almost laughed. That was what Spencer's mom had always said when he came down with a cold or a flu. "Rest up, young man." Ryan missed Spencer's mom. Spencer moved closer to the bed and Ryan realized that it was unlikely she wasn't here, her and Spencer's dad. Spencer had been in a bus accident; they would be here. Ryan tried to figure out how to ask. There were a million things Spencer and he had identified with Spencer's mom over the years, but none that were useful to him at this moment. Finally it struck him that she had really curly hair. Ryan put a finger parallel to his face and made a corkscrew motion. Spencer tilted his head. He copied the motion and then said, "Oh, curls. My mom?"

Spencer was awesome at this. Ryan smiled for him. Spencer said, "She's been here every day, you're just always asleep. Her and my dad and both my sisters. My family's convinced you're avoiding them. Jon's parents are here, too. Brendon's were for a little bit, but they left when they saw we had the situation under control."

Ryan wanted to know where "here" was; he couldn't remember the last show they had played or where they had been heading, but he couldn't figure out any way to ask. Instead Ryan just made the corkscrew motion again. Spencer said, "Mom."

Ryan touched his fingers to his lips. Spencer tried, "Mouth?" Ryan shook his head. Spencer tried, "Sound," to another shake. Spencer stopped and thought for a moment. "Mouths eat and speak. Speak?" Ryan made a pushing motion with his hands, almost. Spencer moved his lips but didn't say anything, until he said, "Speak to? Speak to my mom?"

Ryan nodded, that was close enough. Spencer asked, "What do I tell her, Ry?"

Ryan put a hand to his chest. Spencer said, "You." Ryan pointed to his eyes. Spencer said, "Eyes. Eyes see. See?" Ryan made the corkscrew again in affirmation. Spencer said, "Mom. You see mom." It took a couple of seconds but he said, "Oh, tell her you want to see her."

Ryan wanted to cry, but he couldn't even tell if it was from the relief of having gotten across the message, or the frustration that it had taken so much effort. Spencer just said, "I will. She wants to see you too, Ry. She was so worried."

Sometimes Spencer told Ryan that other people felt a certain way when he wanted to tell Ryan how he was feeling. Ryan was pretty certain this was one of those times. Not that he didn't believe that Spencer's mom had been worried. But Spencer had been here nearly every time he'd woken up, and the few times when he hadn't, one of the others had been able to tell him exactly where Spencer was--usually getting food or sleep. Spencer's arm had broken in two places when he'd been thrown from his bunk. Neither were compound fractures, which was a blessing, but it was still going to be a while and a crap load of physical therapy before Spencer could play the drums again with any level of comfort, assuming he could at all. The thought made Ryan sick to his stomach, so mostly he avoided it. Ryan reached out and took Spencer's hand, the one attached to his uninjured arm, and tugged a little.

Spencer laughed. "Ry, we're not both going to fit." But Ryan just looked at him stubbornly. Ryan could out-stubborn anyone, even Spencer Smith. That might not have been true if Spencer had ever much wanted to hold out against Ryan, but so far they hadn't run into that problem. Spencer sighed and said, "Fine," before climbing up carefully, taking his time making sure that he wasn't pressing into any of the places where Ryan was still healing, and his arm was resting safely. Ryan fisted his hand in Spencer's sweatshirt and fell asleep.

*


It didn't clear up on its own. For the first few days, Ryan kept hoping, because, honestly, he'd been able to speak since he was eight months, this had to clear up on its own. After the first week, he simply refused to think about it, because to think about it was to give up hope, and Ryan was trying not to be too pessimistic, not when Brendon and Spencer and Jon were trying so fucking hard to keep things positive for him.

After ten days, the doctor said, "We're gonna do an MRI, Ryan, see if we can figure out what's going on in there," and Ryan just nodded, because once they knew what the problem was, of course they'd be able to fix it, of course they would. How could they not? People didn't just lose the ability to form words.

It was inside the MRI machine that Ryan discovered his newfound claustrophobia. He held it together for as long as he could before he started screaming for Spencer. Or, well, it should have been screams for Spencer, but fear didn't make Ryan any more verbal than otherwise, so instead it was just unconnected sounds of sheer terror. Luckily, they must have understood, because they got him out of the machine in time for him to vomit all over the floor. Spencer was at his side, talking him through it, saying, "Okay, okay, no more for right now, okay."

Things went a little vague after that, and when he came to, he was back in his hospital bed, all three guys waiting for him to wake up. Pete had left a couple of days earlier with a promise to be back soon. Spencer said he, Jon and Brendon were receiving texts about once every hour to check up on the situation. Spencer said, "Hey," when he noticed Ryan waking up.

Ryan saluted a little in the motion that they'd worked out for "hey." Then he spread his palms for "what." They didn't have a motion for "happened," and Ryan really had no idea of how to get that across. Spencer just said, "You freaked out a little."

Ryan remembered that part. He nodded. He tilted his head and tried to figure out a good way to ask why. Brendon said, "Here, here, let's try this." He gave Ryan a pad and a pen. Ryan smiled at him. Brendon smiled back, and it was sad, but it was also real. Brendon was pretty good about not lying to them with his smiles.

Ryan looked at the pad and willed himself to right "why?" He didn't even care about his handwriting, just so long as the message got itself across. He pressed the pen to the paper and started to write a "w", but even he could see that it wasn't. It was just a random assortment of lines, which didn't help Ryan at all. He transferred the pen to his other hand, shook his writing hand out, and tried again. This time the lines were curvier, but they were still just random, patternless entities. Ryan glanced up to the top of the pad. There was something, some sort of symbol at the top. He couldn't really parse it, and he hoped like hell that it wasn't a word, because if it was, there was a whole new problem they hadn't even considered. Ryan tried again, closed his eyes this time and just tried to let the pen go. He'd been able to do that before, would sometimes write before having woken entirely or right before he went to sleep, when his eyes were closing of their own accord.


When he opened his eyes, there was nothing that made sense, absolutely nothing. Ryan threw the pen across the room, chucking the pad in its wake. He wanted to yell at them to get out, but there was no way to say it, no way to say, "Leave me alone, leave me alone" again and again like he wanted to.

Spencer said, "Ryan--" and Ryan just started screaming with all the force he had in his lungs, just letting the sound do the work for him. And just like he had almost every time, Spencer got the message, said, "Okay, Ry, okay," and ushered the others out.

Ryan couldn't stop screaming for a bit, the inertia carrying him forward as if he were running or flying or playing his fucking guitar. Once he had started, it wasn't easy to stop. He wasn't sure he wanted to. He made himself, though, because if he didn't, Spencer wouldn't be able to keep the nurses out, and he didn't want them here, didn't want anybody here, didn't want himself here with this person who wasn't him, this person who couldn't talk or write or do anything that defined Ryan as Ryan.

He needed his guitar. He needed to touch it, to know he could still do that, to know the notes would still make sense, still come out all right. He needed to know there was some part of him that was still part of this band that had been the only thing that had ever meant something to Ryan. Ryan put his hands to his face and screamed quietly, as quietly as he could. He screamed into his hands until his throat hurt, his back ached, until he realized that it was painful to breathe that hard. He wanted to say, "Ow," to give into self-pity for just a little bit, just a while, but he knew he wasn't going to be able to form that syllable more readily than any other.

He could cry, though, that part of him still worked, so he let himself. He turned his face as much into the pillow as he could manage and cried until the emotion of it wore him down into sleep.

*


When he woke up, Brendon was sleeping with his head right next to Ryan's hand, and Jon and Spencer were sitting up, talking quietly. Ryan fluttered his fingers and thought, "Sorry."

Spencer said, "Hey. Hey, you want some water?"

Ryan nodded. He wanted to say "please," he wanted to say "sorry" again. He wanted to say anything. Instead he just took the water from Spencer and drank it. Spencer took it back when he was done and said, "I figured out what you were trying to ask."

Ryan looked at him. He'd been trying to ask something? Spencer said, "You wanted to know why. You wanted to know why you freaked out in the machine."

Oh, right, he had. It was a good thing he had Spencer around to remember these things for him. Ryan smiled vaguely by way of agreement and apology all at once. Spencer said, "They're not sure. Jon and I asked, but the best anyone could come up with is that you were evidently stuck in between where the kitchen kinda caved into the front for a while, until the rescue crews got to us. They think that might have something to do with it."

Ryan frowned and pillowed his head on his hands. Spencer said, "Sleep? You want to sleep? That's okay--"

Ryan shook his head. He made a crumpling motion with one fist. Spencer said, "Crumple."

Ryan made a driving motion. Spencer said, "Drive." Jon asked, "Bus? The bus crumpled, Spence."

Ryan nodded. He made the sleeping motion again. Jon and Spencer both looked at him, clearly concentrating. Finally Spencer said, "You were asleep when the bus crumpled?"

"Oh," Jon said.

"Oh?" Spencer asked.

"He passed out. He means he was passed out. He doesn't understand how he could have passed out and he can still be afraid in the MRI."

Ryan pointed at Jon. He was getting better at this. Spencer said, "Oh."

Brendon said softly, without raising his head, "He has a point. I mean, how does he remember?"

Jon and Spencer looked at each other. Then Jon shrugged. "Fuck if I know. We'll ask."

Ryan reached out his hand. Jon took it. Ryan squeezed by way of thanks. Jon smiled but didn't say, "you're welcome," so Ryan couldn't tell if he had missed the meaning or if he was just skipping on the social niceties. They did that all the time with each other.

Brendon brought his hand up to the bed and took Ryan's other hand with it. Ryan squeezed for him, too. Brendon said, "Sorry 'bout the writing." Ryan squeezed a second time for extra emphasis. He could hear the hitch in Brendon's breathing, but he let it be. It wasn't like Ryan could tell him it would be all right. It wasn't like Ryan believed that it would be.

Spencer walked around the bed and pulled a chair up next to Brendon, rubbing at his back with his good arm. He said, "We'll find an answer to Ryan's question, and then we'll find a way to fix Ryan."

Ryan rolled his eyes, but he also smiled, because Spencer did believe, and Ryan wasn't going to be the one to take that from him. Jon said, "Damn skippy," and Ryan laughed. It sounded like an actual laugh.

*


"Your unconscious mind knows things," the doctor told him when Jon asked about how Ryan could be scared of something he didn't even remember. Then he said, "We're going to need to sedate you, we really need to get a look inside your brain."

Ryan nodded. He hadn't tried to bring the subject up, but he was pretty sure that had been words in the corner of that pad. Before he hadn't been paying much attention, hadn't thought about it, but as far as he could tell, everything that was in a place where words might logically have been--the pocket of the doctor's coat, the top of the tissue box next to his bed, the fronts of the guys' shirts--were just odd-looking symbols. He needed them to get a look inside his brain as badly as they seemed to feel they needed it.

Brendon said, "We'll be right there, Ry. If you um--" He clearly didn't have an end to that sentence, so he just repeated, "We'll be right there."

Ryan really needed to come up with a signal for "thanks." Instead he gave Brendon his best working smile. Brendon took it.

It was easy after that, though. The sedative burned a little going in the IV, but then he just closed his eyes and let it take him. When he woke up, Brendon and Spencer were sleeping in chairs, and Jon was the first to notice. He said, "Water?"

Ryan nodded. Then he touched his wrist, which was their understood symbol for asking what time it was. Jon said, "Little after nine. But neither of them slept much last night."

Ryan took the water and sipped at it. His head was still pretty hazy. When he was done, he gave the water back to Jon and put his fingers gently to Jon's chest. Jon asked, "How're my ribs?"

Ryan put his finger to his nose. Well, he tried. He missed the first time, but then he got it. Jon was kind enough not to laugh at him. Ryan laughed. There wasn't anything else to do, not really. Jon grinned. He said, "They're better. I don't know how soon I'm gonna be strapping a bass on, but I can do things like breathe at this point, so there's that."

Breathing was good. Ryan looked at the shirt covering the ribs in question. He squinted at it, tried to make sense of the colors on it, but it was all just a jumble of shapes that had no meaning. Ryan touched Jon's chest again. Jon said, "Okay, you've already asked about the ribs, and you're kinda dopey, but I don't think it's that bad, so, um, me? Are you asking something about me?"

Ryan shook his head. He tugged on the hem of Jon's shirt. Jon said, "Something about my shirt?"

Ryan nodded, then pointed very specifically at the first symbol and dragged his finger across. Jon said, "Something about The Academy Is...? You wanna know if they know?"

Ryan blinked. He'd seen that shirt a million times. He'd read those words a million times. He narrowed his eyes, tried his hardest to focus, but there was nothing there, just random, meaningless lines and circles. Jon said, "Ryan. Ryan, stop. Ryan, breathe," and it was only then that Ryan realized he wasn't. He made himself close his eyes, made himself count until the repetitiveness of it calmed him, opened his chest.

Jon said, softly, "Ryan." Ryan opened his eyes. Jon asked, "You can't read it, can you?"

Ryan just closed his eyes again. He fisted his hands in the blankets to keep himself from doing something irrational, from throwing things or scratching at his skin until he fucking bled or pushing at Jon, who wasn't to blame, who was hurt, too. Jon said, "Okay, Ryan, okay." He maneuvered himself until he was on the bed, his arm carefully draped around Ryan, and in the back of his mind, Ryan knew that had to hurt, and the part of him that was still left, the part that could still at least understand words, wanted to say, "No," but everything else in him was just a little vindictively glad. Somebody else should fucking hurt. They all should.

Jon was saying, "Shh, shh," even though Ryan knew he wasn't making any noise. If Ryan could have made noises that made sense, he would have told Jon to shush himself, he wasn't the one who was fucking brain damaged. Instead he just bit his lip until it bled and ignored Jon and his stupid fucking promises that they would find a way to fix this.

*


Ryan's pelvis had been crushed underneath what had been the kitchen counter, and the doctors had had to piece it back together while staunching the internal bleeding throughout most of his torso, putting him in order one organ at a time. They'd had to remove one kidney and his appendix. That said, he was relatively whole and not paralyzed. It was going to take a fair amount of physical therapy to get him walking once more, and the doctors had told him that he was probably never going to want to walk long distances again. But then, neither was Brendon, so Ryan figured if they were holding Jon and Spencer back, at least they were doing it together.

The first time they put him in a wheelchair, sitting up straight was so painful that Ryan actually cried. He looked away, because as of yet, neither Spencer nor Brendon had cried over their broken bones in front of him. Brendon just put a light hand to his neck and said, "I accidentally hit my leg the first time I used the crutches then screamed and passed out."

Ryan laughed a little, through the pain, and slid his hand over Brendon's. He made himself lengthen his breathing until it didn't hurt as much anymore, or he was at least able to think through the pain. Then he took his hand back, reached down to the wheels with both, and tried an experimental push. It hurt like hell, but to his surprise, the majority of his upper body strength seemed to have survived. He made it down the hall before falling asleep from sheer exhaustion. When he woke back up, he was in bed again. Jon was playing cards with Brendon in one corner of the room. Spencer was sleeping, curled up on a chair.

Brendon said, "Hey, sleepyhead."

Jon gestured at Spencer. "We tried to get him to go back to the hotel. Even his mom insisted."

Ryan chucked the nearest empty plastic cup at Spencer. He woke up with a snarl. Then he rubbed his eyes and said, "Oh, hey, you're awake."

Ryan pointed at Spencer and then imperiously at the door. Spencer said, "I'm not going, Ryan." Ryan just kept his pointer finger trained on the door. It took two minutes for Spencer to say, "Fine," and walk out with a surprising amount of dignity. Brendon put his head down on the table between Jon and him and convulsed with laughter.

When he came up for air, Jon looked at him and said, "Hey, Bren."

Brendon said, "Yeah, sure," and maneuvered himself up--he was getting pretty good at the crutches--and out of the room. Jon moved to the bed and carefully seated himself to the side of Ryan's legs. Ryan waved, a little, "hello."

Jon smiled and waved back. Ryan tilted his head. Jon said, "I need to ask you something. And if you say no, it's fine, I can take care of myself and all, but just-- This is how I'd prefer it, okay?"

Ryan nodded slowly. Jon said, "Our plan is to get back to Vegas at the beginning of next week. Despite today's adventure, we talked to the doctor, and he thinks you'll be ready by then."

Ryan thought about how he felt about that. It took him a bit, but he decided it was good. He nodded for Jon to go on. Jon said, "Obviously I could rent an apartment for a while, but then I'd have to look, or I'd have to have Spence's mom look or something, and one way or another, someone's going to have to help you, whether it's one of us or someone we hire, so I thought, I mean, I'm not trying to invite myself or anything--"

Ryan put a hand on Jon's. Jon looked at him and Ryan nodded. He didn't want some stranger in his house, seeing him like this. If he couldn't have Spencer, then Jon or Brendon was the next best thing, and there really wasn't that much of a difference. Jon broke into a smile. "Yeah?" Ryan smiled back.

Jon said, "Good, I'm glad, because I kinda thought you were gonna be a stubborn ass about it and I was going to have to buy a condo in your building and just come over all the time until you gave in."

Ryan snorted. It was good to know Jon respected his decisions like that. Jon said, "It's Wednesday. You know what that means." Ryan curled his hand into a fist, held it vertically and swirled it a little bit. Jon bumped fists with him. "That is right, my man. Soft-serve sundae day at the caf!"

Jon held up ten fingers, told Ryan which toppings each one corresponded to, and waited for Ryan to tick off which toppings he wanted, before going off to get them their creamy concoctions.

*



Zack had been in the tech bus, traveling behind them. They hadn't seen much; they had been too busy swerving to avoid making the situation worse, driving off the highway and into a ditch. Most of the techs had some form of whiplash, and one had a broken wrist, but for the most part, they were fine. Zack, however, was acting like he somehow could have intervened with fate, protected them from this, too. Nobody was saying anything, because Ryan couldn't, and the others wouldn't. They just let him coddle them, and figured there were worse things.

On the day they had arranged for flying back, Zack put himself in charge of pushing Ryan's wheelchair, and then carried both Ryan and Brendon up onto the private jet Pete had insisted on. He did it separately, even though Brendon had tried taunting him into doing it all at once. Brendon acted the part of damsel-in-distress perfectly, and as everyone would expect of him, but Ryan could see underneath, to where there was the need to act normal, act Like Brendon. Ryan would never have admitted, ever, that he could tell Brendon was tired, that the strain of the crutches was getting to him.

Zack settled Ryan so that he was lying on the couch, and between him and Spencer, they set him up with water and juice and a soda, just in case. Ryan drank from each one, because they looked so concerned, but then he did what he really needed to do, and passed out from the sheer exhaustion of having been awake and not in bed for over an hour. Healing, as it turned out, was an interminably slow process. Ryan wished he had more patience for it.

He woke up somewhere between takeoff and landing. Spencer was sleeping on the couch across from him, and Zack and Brendon were clearly engaged in a winner-take-all game of something that seemed suspiciously like Old Maid to Ryan. Jon was sitting with a pad in his lap, but he didn't seem to actually be writing. He looked up and saw Ryan looking at him. "Hey."

Ryan waved, then pointed to the pad. Jon came over to sit on the floor, facing Ryan. "Just, there's been music in my head, and I thought maybe if I-- But I think I need my bass."

As far as Ryan could determine, their instruments, having been on the tech bus, were fine and had been shipped home by Pete early on. Ryan nodded. He was pretty anxious to get back to his guitar as well. Ryan glanced down at the pad, not really expecting anything, but found to his surprise that Jon's loose system of musical notation made a certain amount of sense to him. He tugged at the pad and Jon gave it up easily. Ryan looked and looked, and sure enough, a melody came to him. Ryan thought about how his brain could still interpret pictures and wondered if maybe that was how his brain read notes. He didn't care, not at all, that didn't matter. What mattered was that he knew what Jon was trying to say here.

Eagerly, he took the pen from Jon's fingers and added a couple of things. He could tell that his notations weren't right immediately and nearly threw the pen across the room in a repeat of his earlier frustration, but Jon said, "Wait, wait, do you understand? Do you understand the notations?"

Ryan nodded. Jon grinned. "Ryan. Ryan, that's awesome."

Ryan made a squiggly line on the paper. Jon looked. "Okay, well, yeah, that's a problem, but not really. Once we have our instruments you can show me what you want. Or, after you learn to sign, you can tell me and I can write it down. But you can still read music. That's--" This time Jon was the one to throw aside the pad and pen in his efforts to get to Ryan, to safely hug him.

Spencer, Brendon and Zack were all paying attention by this time, Brendon grinning wildly and Spencer moving over to look at the paper, see what Ryan had seen. Ryan hugged Jon back, because okay, at least he could still participate in the writing of music, at least he could still give them that much. That was something, even if it was something they could all do. Something was more than Ryan had had to go on recently.

Over Jon's shoulder, Ryan watched as Spencer smiled down at the pad, hopeful and terrified all at once. Ryan sympathized.

*



"You're a boy," Brendon said, when Spencer brought the ASL tutor he had found for them into the living room. Once the doctors had diagnosed Ryan's speech problems as an unusual-acting type of Aphasia, they had recommended speech therapy, but told him that sign language was probably going to be his best shot at having full conversations again.

"Astute," Jon said.

Brendon scowled at Jon and then Spencer, accusing, "You told me his name was Darcy."

"It is," Darcy said. He held out his hand. "Darcy Carrington. I'd like to say it's a family name, but my mom just has a really big hard-on for Jane Austen."

"Wow, okay," Brendon said. "I'm Brendon, but you can totally call me Brenda for being a presumptuous asshole." He turned quickly. "That only applies to him, dickfaces."

Ryan snickered silently. Brendon was screwed. Spencer said, "Yeah, okay. So, you met me at the door, and you've now been summarily introduced to our pet monkey. This is Jon--" he waited for Jon to hold out a hand and murmur a, "hey, nice to meet you," before continuing, "and this is Ryan."

Ryan held out his hand and smiled tightly for Darcy. Darcy's handshake was firm without being painful, and his eyes were an even, assessing sort of gray, set in a face of soft features--a rounded nose, cheeks that looked ready to smile, a forehead overshadowed by a mess of black curls. He was taller than Ryan, and he would have been even had Ryan been able to stand. He was taller than any of them, but he didn't use his body in a way that made that evident or important. Essentially, in Ryan's first-glance checklist, he came off as a decent guy. When he reclaimed his hand, Darcy said, "In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I'm a casual sort of fan. I have all your stuff on my iPod, and I went to your last tour."

"We'll break you of that," Jon reassured him.

Darcy laughed. "Okay, sounds good. Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about how we're going to do this. I've never worked with an aphasic student before, so I'm about as versed as any of you, and you have the benefit of knowing yourselves better. The suggestion I had was that we start the way I would start with any student, deaf or otherwise, which is with the alphabet. If that ends up not being useful, we'll just move on to other basic lessons, like directions, important questions, that kind of thing. Learning sign language is pretty much like learning any other language, you just get to look a lot cooler doing it."

"Cooler, huh?" Spencer asked, with a telling raise of his eyebrow.

Darcy grinned and moved his hands. Spencer said, "I don't actually know any sign-language yet."

Darcy translated. "I said, 'you tell me.'"

Brendon mimicked the actions. "Yup, yeah, Spencer's theory holds. We're not gonna look as good doing this."

"Speak for yourself," Spencer said, turning on Brendon as was tradition.

"How do I say 'I do' with my hands?" Brendon asked Darcy.

Darcy said, "Maybe a little later," with his mouth and his hands. Brendon watched, totally mesmerized. Ryan knew that look. He was going to have to make Spencer have a talk with Brendon about not molesting his sign language teacher until Ryan at least had a basic dictionary of words.

Darcy continued, "For now, let's start here." He held up his right hand, curling the fingers in a fist, his thumb flush against his fingers. "A." He looked at them expectantly. "Well, everyone repeat after me." His hands flew as he spoke. Ryan had to admit, it did look pretty awesome. Darcy uncurled his fingers, holding them straight up and tight against each other, his thumb turned in slightly to rest against his palm. "B." This time, Ryan held up his hand without having to be told to repeat. The others followed suit.

*


Ryan practiced the alphabet until long after his fingers were sore, until he could call up any letter he wanted to without even really having to think. And then, when he was ready, he tried to spell his name. He had all the tools he needed, the letters and the ability to "say" them. He couldn't remember what order they went in. Or even which letters he needed to create the name. He tried Spencer's, since it was almost as familiar as his own, and found the same thing. The world went a little dark at its edges, and it wasn't until Jon wandered in the room and said, "Holy shit, Ryan, breathe," that he realized he wasn't.

He tried to breathe, because Jon sounded really scared. It shouldn't have even been this big a deal. He couldn't speak, read or write. His ability to spell really wasn't of great consequence. Ryan couldn't breathe. The thought freaked him out less than the spelling thing; he couldn't be bothered to try too hard, not even with Jon sitting there, rubbing his back and saying, "It's all right, Ry, it's all right."

It wasn't. His temples pounded at the loss of oxygen, but his lungs didn't want to open up. Ryan nudged himself a little toward the dark and let it take him. When he woke up, he was lying down. He looked over to see Jon sitting on the floor, legs tucked into a pretzel, staring at Ryan with intense concentration. Ryan waved at him, just enough to let him know that other than being a brain-damaged defect, he was fine.

Jon said, "Hey. Okay, we should make a plan to have that not happen again, because it probably scared me more than the bus accident itself. Granted, I was pretty much unconscious for most of that, but you get my point. You scared the fucking crap out of me."

Sorry, Ryan thought, but didn't have the energy to come up with a way to convey his apology. Jon took a breath. "Sorry. I didn't mean to get all--" He shook his head. "What happened?"

Ryan didn't really want to try and explain that without words, either, but Jon still looked a little terrified, so he found energy in himself somewhere and started signing through the alphabet, just like they had learned. Jon nodded. "Alphabet, right."

Ryan made a dash with his hand. Jon frowned. "No alphabet?" Ryan sighed. Jon said, "Okay, okay, I can keep guessing. Um. You feel like you're bad at it and you're worried that you will be with the rest of the signs?" Ryan shook his head. Jon sat for a bit. "Oh. Oh. Wait. Ry. If you can't read..." He tilted his head. "Spell 'Jon' for me."

Ryan held out his hands uselessly. Jon nodded. "Okay. Well. We're just going to have to come up with customized signs for each of our names. I read online that people do that for the most part anyway, as a short cut. And the rest of the stuff, we'll figure out as we go along."

That was eminently logical, but all Ryan could do was blink at Jon, who was acting like this wasn't a big deal, like this wasn't one more thing that made Ryan completely fucking useless. Jon helped himself to his feet and said, "I'll be right back, don't go anywhere."

Since getting to as far as the bathroom was still a slow and agonizing process, Ryan didn't really see that happening. Jon came back after a while with two guitars in hand, one of them the one Ryan used when he just wanted to hole up in his house and write by himself. Despite his yearning, Ryan hadn't so much as attempted to touch his guitars since getting home, for fear of finding that was lost to him, too. He didn't particularly want that knowledge any more now than he had yesterday. Jon held out the guitar, but Ryan didn't reach up to take it. Jon just kept holding it until his arm shook with the effort and Ryan could tell it was hurting his still-healing ribs. Regretfully, Ryan took it from him, but he didn't put it in the position to play.

Jon, on the other hand, held his gingerly against his torso. It occurred to Ryan that he hadn't heard Jon playing at all, which was odd, since Jon had to know he could. Unless he just didn't want to hurt Ryan's feelings. Jon was like that. Then again, it probably wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world just yet to have the guitar rest against him. John plucked out a couple of notes. He asked, "Can you... Did you know which ones--"

Oh. Ryan held up his hand and signed out, "A, G, F."

Jon grinned so hard Ryan was a little surprised it could fit on his face. Ryan thought about what he had done for a couple of seconds and then slowly, hesitantly, arranged the guitar on his lap. It fit against him, in his fingers, just like it always had, and Ryan strummed at it a little, just to see if that was still familiar, too. It was. He picked out the melody for "7 Minutes in Heaven" because it had been stuck in his head for the better part of three days no matter what he did and because if he couldn't play one of Pete's songs, it wouldn't be as bad as finding out he couldn't play one of his own.

But he could play it. The notes came to him without even having to think of them, one after another, his fingers at the right places before he even considered where they needed to be. Jon was still grinning, filling out the sound as much as he could. "I should go grab my bass."

Ryan nodded in agreement, but he couldn't really be bothered by only having the guitars, not at this moment. For the first time since he'd woken up not knowing what the hell was going on, Ryan felt like he could actually catch his breath, actually have each inhalation bottom out. When he finished the song, Ryan went to the next that popped into his head and then the next and the next. His fingers were bleeding by the time Jon tugged the guitar from him, but he couldn't even feel it. Jon brought a washcloth and some bandages and cleaned him up. While he was sitting in front of Ryan, he said, "Honestly, what's a little spelling in the face of that?"

It was still everything, but at least everything had stopped seeming quite so large.

*


Jon told Spencer about the blip on the "make Ryan functional again" radar, and Spencer told Darcy at some time when Ryan wouldn't have to hear him. On the one hand, Ryan was kind of glad he didn't have to see or hear Darcy's reaction to the fact that Ryan was even stupider than he'd evidently been told. On the other, he didn't want Spencer thinking he couldn't handle hearing it. Ryan was nothing if not able to face up to the negative facts of reality.

In any case, Darcy didn't seem to think it was that big a deal. He said, "Yeah, my friend who does a lot of work with Aphasics told me that might be a problem." He shrugged. "Weird Aphasia or no, I'm not surprised."

That made sense. It didn't really make Ryan feel that much better about being completely illiterate, but it made sense. Darcy dove into teaching them all the major interrogatives, simple greetings, and directions. Ryan wasn't sure how talking this way was ever going to feel natural. He hadn't even been the kind of person who used his hands to illustrate his point before all this. It felt cumbersome, and Ryan wasn't all that positive there would ever be a day where he wouldn't have to think forever and ever to remember which sign he needed.

Brendon, unsurprisingly, was enthusiastic about the whole project. He kept asking Darcy to teach them entirely useless words like "bumblebee" or "anti-establishment." And, okay, maybe that last one wasn't so useless, but it was one of those things Ryan could wait to know until he could say, "I need to go to the bathroom again."

Admittedly, when Brendon said, "Oh no, you really can't leave without teaching him a couple of dirty words. He needs it, man," Ryan remembered why he'd been completely in love with Brendon for a year and a half before he grew out of it and into the friendship they had.

Darcy hesitated for a second, then he said, "Yeah, he totally does," and went to town, teaching Ryan more swear words than he'd probably known when he could verbally express them. Ryan signed the one thing he knew that Darcy hadn't taught him, which was, "I love you."

Darcy laughed. "Tell it to my mom. She was the one who was in the Navy."

If he ever met her, Ryan totally would. Jon laughed and got up to let Darcy out. Ryan was already going over "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" by the time he heard the door open and Jon's amiable goodbye. Jon came back and flopped down on the couch, laying his head carefully in Ryan's lap. He looked over at Spencer, his eyes focusing in on the cast. "You get that thing off in two weeks, right?"

"He's not the only one," Brendon said, with a real sense of anticipation. They'd both had to keep the casts on for a full two months, on top of the metal pins that had been put in initially to hold the bones in place.

"You start physical therapy immediately?" Jon asked.

"Couple of days after," Spencer nodded. Then he looked at Ryan. "You too."

Ryan knew. He wasn't looking forward to it. It would be awesome to have his own freedom of movement back, but he had a feeling the process was going to be excruciatingly painful, especially given that he'd weaned himself off the painkillers against the advice of his doctors.

"You're going to talk to them about how long it'll be before you can play again, right?"

Spencer hedged. "Jon. I told you. They didn't sound--"

"You'll talk to them, Spence, right?" Jon said it evenly, as though Spencer had completely ignored his first question, not denied its validity.

"We'll talk to them, Jon," Brendon said softly, sounding a little unsure of himself. Ryan understood. It was usually Jon and Spencer who held things together. But Ryan was pretty sure the time for proscribed roles had flown out the window, along with half their possessions, on a highway somewhere in the middle of America.

Jon nodded approvingly. "Good. Because it's time we got back to playing."

Ryan didn't know what it was time for at all anymore, but Ryan was willing to trust Jon's judgment. At the very least, assuming Spencer could still play, music was the one thing they all had left between them. If Spencer couldn't-- Ryan's mind pulled back in panic from the thought. Jon was right. He was. Spencer could still play. It would just take some time. Everything was going to take time.

*


Jon drove them to the hospital for the first day of physical therapy. Pete had made sure that there would be security crawling over the facility. Pete had controlled what information was released to the media as best he could, but the media was its own creature, as always. Getting to and from Ryan's place had become something of an ordeal as the press outlets figured out where they were holing up. Ryan, in particular, was an issue, given that walking was still a serious feat that had to be performed with the aid of another person, or not at all. For the most part, Ryan used the chair. He didn't want to hurt the others in an attempt to salvage his pride.

When they got to the hospital and were ushered safely inside, it was to the sight of Haley sitting in the waiting room, looking somewhat shaken up. Ryan blinked. He knew she'd called Spencer upon learning about the accident and that they'd been talking again, but Spencer was with him almost all the time. When they would have gotten to the stage where Haley was coming to meet him at first physical therapy appointments was a mystery to Ryan. Then again, she appeared nervous, like Spencer maybe hadn't given her permission to be there. She was clutching a stuffed dog that looked a lot like Boba. Spencer blinked and said, "Hey, um. Hi?"

"Um," she said, squeezing the dog to her chest, "there might be-- I didn't think-- They took my picture."

Spencer's eyes narrowed. "Did they hurt you?"

"No, no, I just. I didn't mean to start rumors. I just wanted to wish you good luck." She held the dog out steadily, a parcel of good intent. He took it with his stronger arm. He still kept the weaker one tucked to him most of the time. Haley canted her head to the side and smiled. "Um. Hi." Ryan had forgotten how pretty her smile was.

She said, "Um, so, I mean, I should probably just--"

Spencer said, "You're not gonna say hi to the guys?"

Haley looked over and it was like she was seeing them for the first time. Ryan understood. Spencer could be blinding like that, as could Jon and Brendon, given the right circumstances. Ryan spent a whole six months having to forcibly pay attention to other things in the room when Jon first saved their asses. He was better about it now, but the feeling had never completely faded. Haley said, "Hi guys," soft and sincere.

Jon said, "Good to see you."

Brendon said, "What, I don't get any puppies?"

Ryan touched his hand to his temple and brought it down and outward, the way Darcy had taught him. Haley cupped her hands so that her thumbs were touching, her knuckles facing Ryan. Then she brought them around in a circle so that her palms were upward. She brought her pointer finger and her middle finger to her lips and then brought them downward in and arc before pointing to Ryan. She said, "Um, I think that's right. I'm learning from a book, so I think I get things wrong sometimes. 'How are you,' right?"

Ryan grinned. He formed the letter "I" with his pinky, which he could evidently remember in its word form or free of the other letters, but not in concert with them. He curled his hand into a fist and brought it outward from touching his lips and then brought his open hand parallel to his chest. He was still a little weirded out by the lack of tense in sign language, but he was learning to work with it, beginning to find a rhythm that wasn't interrupted by the new syntax.

"He says he's fine," Spencer interpreted.

"I know," she said, "I got it."

Ryan wasn't fine, not really, he just didn't have a large number of adjectives or moods that he could sign yet. The fact that she had understood him, though, that he hadn't needed any of them to read his pidgin sign and explain him to the rest of the world, made him pretty happy. Not that he minded the guys being the only people on the planet who understood him, but he preferred that to be metaphorical, rather than literal.

Ryan tugged at Spencer's elbow. Spencer looked down and Ryan concentrated to find the sign for "ask" only to realize he didn't know the sign for "stay". He shook his head in frustration, but Spencer relaxed his arm and put his free hand to the back of Ryan's neck. "Um, Hay?"

She looked at him, clearly unsure of what to do next or what his next move would be. He said, "You wanna stay? Maybe have lunch with us after?"

She bounced a little on the heels of her feet before settling. "Yeah, I'd-- That would be awesome."

Ryan felt another hand, this one on his shoulder, and looked over to see Jon giving him a squeeze and looking like Ryan was awesome. Ryan had missed the part where he had been, but he was willing to take Jon's word for it.

*


By the time Jon and Ryan got home that night, it was pretty much all Ryan could do not to throw up--or something else melodramatic and unnecessary--from the pain. He wheeled himself into the kitchen, where they had taken to keeping a couple of glasses on the counter so that Ryan could reach them. He tried to pour himself some water, but the effort of leaning forward and straining upward was just too much, and he made a cut off sound of frustration in his throat. Jon took the glass from him. It was a smooth action, as though he had been watching, waiting; waiting for Ryan to fail. He poured the water and asked, "You want some ice?"

Ryan wanted to throw something. Instead he nodded, and when Jon handed him the glass, he downed four ibuprofen at once. When he had them down, he looked over to see Jon staring at him with an assessing look. Jon asked, "Want a bath?"

Ryan considered the process of getting into the bath with some trepidation, but in the end he nodded. Ryan followed Jon down the hall, pushing the chair more slowly than usual. Jon was good about not helping Ryan with things unless he really needed the help, or unless Jon had asked if he could. He started the water running for Ryan, but then he left him alone, closing the door behind him. He called, "Want me to set out some sweats?"

Ryan struggled for a moment with having Jon do anything more than he was already doing and the fact that he was in pain and exhausted. Jon peeked his head back in the door. Ryan hesitated for a second and then nodded. Jon said, "Hey. Um. Tell me with your hands?"

Jon looked like he felt so bad about asking that Ryan didn't have the heart to sneer at him. Jon was right; he was supposed to be saying as much in sign as he could. He tucked his hand into a fist and raised and lowered it at the wrist. Jon grinned at him and then used both his hands to fan at his neck. Ryan frowned and struck his index finger down his palm--he was getting good at the questions; the guys were always doing shit that made him go, "Huh?"

Jon laughed. "Yeah, I looked up 'cool' on the internet. I'm willing to bet it's different in slang, but it was the best I had."

Ryan imitated the fanning motion and raised an eyebrow. It was early, but he was already figuring out that a significant portion of speaking with his hands was also in his expression, that his face affected his "tone". It was just one more thing to think about, something he never had needed to concentrate on before, and at times even harder than remembering all the things his hands were supposed to do.

Jon must have gotten the implication, though, because he flipped Ryan off. "You try coming up with sign slang, jerk." Then he closed the door again, and left Ryan in peace with the hot water.

Getting himself out of his clothes was a long and agonizing process, but Ryan managed and all but pulled himself into the tub. He hit the button for the jets and sat carefully in between two of them, where the movement of the water would be soothing, but wouldn't hit him directly. Ryan rested his head against the back of the tub and closed his eyes.

He woke to Jon pounding on the door. He tried to say, "I'm here, I'm fine," out of pure instinct and instead opened his mouth to a jumbled bunch of syllables. Jon said, "I'm coming in," and opened the door. He said, "Sorry, sorry, but you've been in here for forty-five minutes and you weren't making any sound and--"

As though Jon telling him how long it had been jogged something in Ryan's sensory perceptions, he noticed how cold the water was and started to shiver. Jon said, "Fuck. Okay, I know usually I let you take care of things yourself, but I'm just going to--" He grabbed one of the towels that they'd taken to keeping right by the tub and opened it up, setting it down so that he could carefully pull Ryan to his feet. Then he wrapped Ryan in the towel, reached in and pulled Ryan out, into his arms. Ryan splashed water onto the floor, onto Jon, but he didn't seem to notice.

Some of the worst of the tension had seeped from the muscles in the soaking, so instead of the pain being sharp, it had receded to an ever-present throb. Jon was extremely careful not to jostle him any more than he had to. He laid Ryan on the bed and got him into his pajamas as quickly as he could without hurting Ryan any more than necessary. He towel-dried Ryan's hair before tucking him under the covers. As he was soothing over the covers, Ryan noticed how badly his hands were shaking.

Ryan made a "j" with his pinky--like "i" he could figure out what it meant if he thought of it as a word. Then he splayed his thumb, pointer finger and middle finger on each of his hands, tucking the other two in and moved his hands back and forth in counterpoint. They had agreed on the combined symbols for "J" and "walk" being Jon's name. Ryan hadn't quite learned how to infuse their names with intonation through his fingers, but he figured his confused face was enough. Jon put his face to Ryan's chest and breathed, in and out, for long moments. Ryan brought a hesitant hand up to the back of Jon's head, soothed it down to the back of his neck. He wasn't sure what Jon wanted, what he needed. It sucked, when Jon had been doing nothing but those things for Ryan for weeks and weeks now.

Jon turned his face so that he was still lying on Ryan's chest, but his mouth wasn't muffled by it. "Ry. You can't-- I know you can't call for me if there's a problem, and that fucks me up enough, but you can't just-- What if you'd fucking slipped under the water? I-- Fuck. Fuck."

All of Jon was shaking by that point, and Ryan tugged at him, made him crawl into the bed where Ryan could curl into him, let Jon know that he hadn't slipped under the water, he hadn't. If an SUV going the wrong way at eighty miles an hour hadn't killed Ryan, no stupid bathtub was going to. But he took the point. No more scaring the shit out of Jon. Clearly, the SUV had left Jon with marks that just weren't as apparent as everybody else's. Ryan suspected they all had them, but they were just too busy concentrating on other things. Jon had been able to access the damage more quickly. Ryan didn't envy him.

It hurt when Jon squeezed a little too hard, but that was okay. Ryan could take it.

*


Ryan fucking hated speech therapy. Physical therapy was beyond painful, and the sign lessons could be frustrating in how long it was taking Ryan to learn enough words that he could actually say what he wanted to say, but speech therapy was simply humiliating and entirely useless all at once.

Because Ryan's Aphasia didn't affect his ability to put together thoughts, many of the normal aspects of speech therapy--such as putting pictures together to convey thoughts--weren't really useful. Or, they were useful in the sense that they allowed Ryan to "speak" but not in the sense of actually getting him to talk. Instead they did a lot of facial exercises and sound exercises. But Ryan's face worked just fine; he hadn't had a stroke, and the sounds never came out the way they were supposed to.

All in all, Jon had gotten used to the fact that Ryan was generally a complete bitch when he finished speech therapy. Most of the time, Jon just plunked Ryan's guitar into his arms and said, "Get it out," and then left Ryan to his demons. They were beginning to have a code made up of keys and notes, and when Ryan felt like he could be human enough to be in Jon's company, he would play the series of notes that would let Jon know. Ryan wasn't even sure how it had developed, since they'd definitely never discussed it, but it was there. Jon could ask Ryan how he was feeling with a series of strums, and Ryan could give a variety of answers with his responding chord.

They didn't do it in front of the others. Ryan was pretty sure Brendon would catch on fairly quickly, which was nice, but it would mean leaving Spencer out, and no way was that going to happen. Ryan would sit Spencer down and teach him the guitar without aid of words before that happened. Still, when it was just the two of them, it was easier than Ryan having to remember exactly how to position his hands, Jon having to try and think about what he was saying with them.

Ryan would try sometimes, when he could focus enough, to teach himself to play new things. It was a slow process. He could still understand written music to some extent, the same way he could understand pictures, but it took him a lot longer to puzzle it out than it had before. Brendon, the fucker, could play just about anything by ear, and Ryan felt, honestly and truly, that if he was going to have developed this handicap that that ability should have sprung up in its wake. After all, he always heard about blind people hearing better or deaf people being more perceptive to physical cues.

Ryan evidently wasn't the kind of guy who developed super powers just because his brain had become a twisted knot of uselessness. He couldn't say that he was horribly surprised.

He managed, slowly, to teach himself things that he'd never thought to try before--a mariachi song, "The Flight of the Bumblebee," a gospel song that he found stuck in one of the music books. He thought it might have been Brendon's. He wasn't going to ask. Brendon could still be a little bit touchy about the parts of G-d he'd chosen to keep for himself, and Ryan, as a recovering Catholic, respected that.

Jon followed his paper trail, learning the stuff in turn, and before Ryan knew exactly what was happening, between their new forays into music, their code made of strings and sound and Ryan's general desire to bury himself in something that he still could do, they were writing songs. Well, Jon was writing them. Ryan would come at him with ideas, and between the two of them, they would fiddle around until they had something--a solid melody, a haunting harmony, whatever--and then Jon would record the notes. Ryan could see how neatly he kept them. Ryan knew that Jon hadn't done that before, but it was as though now that he was writing for both of them, he just couldn't take the chance that the notes would somehow be obscured or misunderstood.

They needed Spencer to write the drums and Brendon to write the central orchestrations, or at least to brainstorm on them, but they were the beginnings of songs. They didn't show the others. Spencer was still fighting his way to having some ease of movement with his arm. More often than not, he came away from physical therapy with tear tracks down his face. Ryan wasn't even sure Spencer knew they were there. They were at odds with the fierceness in Spencer's eyes. On the days when Haley showed--which was becoming more often than not--she never said anything to him.

Somehow it was more than just that Ryan didn't want to shove the fact that he could still play in Spencer's face, though. Ryan didn't know exactly how to explain it, but the unfinished music felt like part of Jon's and his code, like they were saying something and the sentence hadn't come to a stopping point yet. Until it reached the period, Ryan wasn't really ready to show it to anyone.

It was also just music. Ryan had never done that before--written the music entirely without the words. He had words--oh, he had plenty and plenty of words--just no way of getting them out, no way of putting them on paper for the others to see. Ryan had a feeling that was the period he was waiting for. He wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't be waiting forever.

*


Darcy said, "Look, it's none of my business, but can I make a suggestion?"

Ryan put his index finger to his mouth and then moved it straight outward and down. "Sure."

"Hobo, I've noticed that she's pretty well trained, like, when the others say 'sit' and stuff."

Ryan nodded with his head and his fist. It wasn't that one wouldn't have conveyed the sentiment, but he was trying to make himself talk with his hands as much as possible, get used to the feeling of it, make it muscle memory the same way playing the guitar evidently was for him.

"You should try and train her to respond to sign commands as well. And to come for sounds other than her name, like, a whistle, if you can, or clapping, that sort of thing."

"Can you whistle?" Brendon asked slowly, not so much because the question warranted it, but because Brendon was also trying to speak with his hands, even as he spoke aloud--in this case, he had to stop to look at Darcy for the word for "whistle." Ryan thought that Brendon's compulsion to learn quickly was more out of the desire to impress Darcy than anything else, but whatever. Brendon had always sang his words for him before. He would work quite well as a translator.

"I don't know," Ryan said--fairly fluidly--with his hands. Ryan actually sort of liked the way each motion could flow into the next, pointing to himself, striking his hands flatly over each other, bringing the fingers of his right hand to his temple. Ryan trusted his hands, as ungainly as they were.

Brendon said, "Try," forming the "a" shape with both fists and pushing them in a curving shape forward. Ryan had noticed that Brendon was ten times more emphatic when speaking with his hands, which, honestly, was a little scary. Spencer leaned forward on his knees, carefully crossing his arms atop them and settling his chin there. Bending his arm was getting much easier with the help of the therapy, and Ryan refused to say anything, but privately he thought it was giving them all hope.

Jon said, "Could you whistle before?" and like Brendon it was a slow process, because he had to remember each word with his hands as well. Jon, though, Ryan was pretty sure, was doing that all for him. The thought was a little overwhelming, so he tended to steer clear of it as much as possible.

Ryan wanted to say, "Badly," but ASL didn't have adverbs, so he settled for, "bad," and hoped they would follow the thought. They usually could, but signs were limiting and Ryan hadn't quite gotten to proficiency at using his expressions and body language. He was lucky the guys knew him as well as they did. He was lucky Spencer could all but read his mind.

He put his lips together and tried blowing. It took a couple of attempts, but it always had. Right when he was about to give up, a sound emerged, wispy and thin, but definitely a whistle. Brendon gave his own responding whistle of victory. It, of course, came out perfectly.

"Wow," Darcy said. "Those are some serious whistling skills you've got there, Urie." He used the sign they'd made up for Brendon to represent "Urie," putting his hand into the formation for a letter B to make the swishing sign for music, rather than leaving his thumb out to the side.

For the first time in a while, Spencer spoke up. "He's good with his mouth." Spencer's signing was slightly hampered by the soreness in his arm, but otherwise he managed to somehow make it as quick and sharp as his tone was.

Brendon flipped him off, but he was totally blushing. Ryan turned to Spencer and made the sign for "mean." He'd had to learn that one quickly. Spencer smiled unrepentantly. Darcy, who had figured out that the best way to deal with the four of them was mostly to ignore them, said, "I'd noticed."

Ryan, who was beginning to understand that Darcy often put more inflection in his fingers than in his voice, noticed the way Darcy's hands canted slightly toward Brendon, the way his own cheeks weren't entirely pale. He thought, "huh," but unlike Spencer, he wasn't willing to get involved, not even if just to help out. Brendon could handle things on his own. Or, well, Brendon could handle things as long as Spencer was there to make sure they got handled. Ryan had every faith that Jon was waiting in the wings as well. Brendon didn't need Ryan for that. Brendon needed him for his words, so really, Brendon didn't need him.
Brendon turned entirely to them and very clearly signed, "assholes," the strength of the sign symbolizing his emphasis. Spencer laughed. Jon said, "Hey, I didn't do anything," forgetting to sign entirely. Ryan chose solidarity with Spencer and smiled a little. Brendon pouted at both of them before turning back and saying, "I apologize for my asshole friends," with his hands and his--evidently coveted--mouth.

Darcy looked over his shoulder at the three of them. Ryan imagined they appeared a bit like naughty schoolboys, caught out on the schoolyard after recess had been declared over. Darcy grinned and said, "Don't."

*


The videophone by Ryan's bed woke him up, ringing and lighting up all at once. Ryan looked at the clock with hands that Brendon had gotten him, glowing on his nightstand. Brendon had been the one to figure out that even if Ryan couldn't read digital clocks, he could figure out the time from where the hands on traditional ones. It was definitely after two, creeping on to three. Spencer's picture was flashing on the screen with each ring. Ryan hit the green button. Green meant go.
"Spencer?" Ryan tucked both his hands into the "s" position and twirled them in circles a few inches from each other. Ryan had chosen that symbol for Spencer, a modification on the word for "brotherhood." Spencer had looked at Ryan a long time and then just pressed his forehead to Ryan's and whispered, "Okay," his hand forming the symbol between their bodies.
Spencer was shaking clearly enough that Ryan could see it. He was sweaty and his skin was pale. He said, "I tried," his fingers making the words--well, "I try," but Ryan was almost as good at reading Spencer's mind as Spencer was at reading his. "I-- I talked to Bryar." He tucked his thumb in to create a B and made a motion like he was hitting the bongos. Ryan thought that was as good a choice for Bob Bryar as any. "He said," Spencer paused, clearly thinking about which signs he needed, "it was like riding a bike." Spencer looked at him questioningly. Ryan shrugged. Why the fuck would he know the sign for "bike"? Spencer shook his head and continued. "I just had to get back on."
"Did you?" One thing Ryan had gotten excellent at was keeping his statements and questions to the bare minimum of what they needed to be.
"I--" Spencer stopped, nodded. Ryan just waited. Spencer said, "I don't know. I-- It hurts. But it hurts not to, too. And I think my rhythm is off."
Ryan was glad they'd made Darcy do an entire lesson on musical terms. Ryan said, "That will come back."
"I have to hit with different force, move my body at a different...angle," he finished, his hands dropping to his side at a loss on the last word.
Ryan showed him the word. Not that that was the point; it just gave Ryan some time to think. Finally he asked, "Is it wrong?"
Spencer was slow to shake his head, slow to answer, "No. Just different."
Ryan signed out, "I think," and then stopped, as though moving his fingers in the correct formation would change more than had already been changed. In the end he made himself finish. "I think everything is."
Spencer tilted his head. "You and Jon. You've been writing?"
"Music."
Spencer nodded, didn't ask about how they were going to get lyrics. "Maybe. Maybe we should start over. Whole new record."

It had been less than a year since they'd released their last. It was still on its third single. Ryan signed, "I think we have to."

"Brendon's been writing, too."

Ryan knew. "He always does when--" Ryan had no idea what the sign for "crushing" was. He tried not to let frustration overwhelm him, as that wouldn't help him say what he wanted to say, but sometimes he couldn't help it, it just overrode anything else, clogged his throat and his eyes and even his ears. Which was why it took him a while to hear Spencer saying, "Ryan. Ryan. Ryan Ross."

Ryan blinked a couple of times and made himself breathe. He signed, "Here. Sorry."

Spencer said, "When he has a crush," his hands at his side.

Ryan nodded. Spencer said, "He does when he's worried, too." He signed that. It was conjugated incorrectly, Ryan could see, but whatever, he could hear just fine. He could understand just fine. It was the one part of him that wasn't completely, heinously, unforgivably stupid.

"I know," Ryan said, his fingers wilted, as helpless as the rest of him. Usually Brendon let them hear. Usually Brendon wouldn't stop bugging them until they fucking listened. Ryan wondered if anyone was listening to him. They'd have to figure that out. One more thing to think about. At least it wasn't him. One thing that wasn't him.

"Ryan."

Ryan looked straight at Spencer. Spencer smiled a little. "I can play."

Ryan couldn't help grinning at that. He had known he was scared, but he hadn't realized just how much until he'd heard Spencer say that he could and had his heart pound so hard it was all he could do not to rub his chest. Spencer took a bit, but he grinned back. "Yeah. Yeah. We could do a fucking instrumental album if we wanted, okay? Whatever. Whatever. This is ours to do. To start over again."

It wasn't that easy at all, and new beginnings were only possible with the ending of something that had come before, something that had been all Ryan had ever wanted, really, well, except-- All Ryan had ever wanted. Ryan tried not to ask for too much. He said, "Start over again," keeping his fingers as straight and his actions as clean as he could.

*


Jon usually drove them to physical therapy and stayed, mostly, Ryan had surmised, so that he could know exactly what exercises Ryan was supposed to be doing and get on Ryan's ass about it as much as humanly possible. Ryan was a bit surprised, then, when Jon dropped them off at the door one Tuesday and said, "I'll see you guys in a couple of hours."

Ryan frowned. "Not coming?" He was getting fairly fluent at inflecting tone by way of facial expression, if not in the actual movement of his hands.

Jon took his hands off the wheel to say, "Sorry. I have some errands." His hands said "things to do."

They had their groceries delivered, and ordered pretty much everything they needed online, so Ryan couldn't really imagine what the hell Jon had to do, but he shrugged. Spencer said, "See ya," Brendon waved, and they went on their not-so-merry way. Ryan could actually walk short distances now without wanting to curl up into a ball and die. This sign of progress didn't keep him from glaring at his physical therapist, a lot. Alternatively, Ryan still couldn't so much as say the word "cat" coherently. He tried not to blame his speech therapist. Realistically, he knew it wasn't her fault.

Jon still wasn't there when they were done. Brendon tried his best to cajole Ryan to come get a snack in the cafeteria, but Ryan really didn't like being around a lot of people he didn't know at the moment. He stayed in the waiting area and looked at the pictures in the society magazines. Jon came running in about fifteen minutes late and said, "Sorry, sorry, I suck," flustered enough that he didn't use his hands at all.

Ryan said, "Yes," and then forgave him. He was weak when it came to Jon Walker, terribly, terribly weak.

Spencer and Brendon returned with coffee and bagels, and Ryan forgave them for abandoning him, too. It was possible that one of these days, Ryan was going to have to face the fact that he was easy for his entire band.

They filed into the car, Spencer sitting in the back with Ryan. Purely with his hands, he asked, "Okay if I go to Haley?" He stroked the "H" formation of fingers along the line of his jaw to form her name. It always made Ryan think of it as "haygirl" in his mind. But he knew what it meant, all the same.

Ryan assumed he meant Haley's place. He nodded his head. "Good, then?"

Spencer nodded a little. He signed, "Afraid to push my luck."

Ryan didn't think he was going to. Spencer, whether he ignored the ability at times or no, was good at reading people. He knew just when to stay and when to go. Shit, he knew it for Ryan, and really, once you conquered that human obstacle, there wasn't much left in a guy's way. Haley was easier. Ryan was glad for that; Spencer deserved easy occasionally. Ryan smiled at Spencer. "Invite her, some time."

"Yeah?"

Ryan nodded. It was hard giving Spencer to someone outside of them, even Haley, but if he was going to do it, then she was damn well going to remember how to play nice with them. Ryan wasn't worried. Haley had never had a problem sharing Spencer, understanding the need to share. Whatever else their issues had been, that hadn't been on the list.

"Okay." Spencer said it softly, along with the sign.

Brendon asked, "You fucktards having a secret conversation back there?"

"If we were, would we tell you?" Spencer asked reasonably. "Hey Jon, drop me off at Haley's? Please?" Ryan was amazed at how Spencer would keep signing even when it would have been much faster to just ask, just say, and the recipient of the question or statement couldn't even see his hands. Ryan had to admit, though, it did seem to be becoming more and more habitual for all of them. Ryan thought it was becoming most so for him, but then, he was forced to do it.

"Yeah, Spence, that's fine." Jon took a hand off the wheel to muss Brendon's hair. Brendon muttered something that Ryan didn't catch. Jon said, "You wanna come back with us?"

Brendon thought for a moment, but then shook his head. "Nah, I'm gonna try and do some writing."

Brendon had been doing a lot of writing on his own, which wasn't unusual, exactly, but normally--or, well, before the accident--he always liked sharing his stuff, getting feedback, even when Ryan was bitchy about it. Ryan watched Spencer's face cloud over a little and could tell he was thinking the same thing. Jon said, "Sure?"

Brendon said, "Yeah. It seems to go easiest when I'm in enough pain to saw my leg off and call it even."

"Nice visual," Jon told him.

"Ryan's not the only one of us who can paint a picture with words."

There was no sign for "could"--tense didn't work the same way in ASL as it did in spoken language, but evidently Ryan was getting really good at saying what he needed to with his face, because Spencer smacked his arm. Ryan just shrugged. Spencer sighed. Brendon asked, "Something I said?"

"No," Spencer said, and kept on glaring at Ryan. Ryan pretended to ignore him. They both knew better.

*


After Jon dropped Spencer and Brendon off, Ryan moved into the front seat with him. He fiddled with the radio controls until he found something he knew Jon would like, then sat back and closed his eyes. He wouldn't fall asleep. Ryan's car had excellent shocks, but he was just too sore after physical therapy, even now that he was healing up, to fall asleep while the surface he was sitting on moved beneath him. Jon said, "You take some Tylenol, Ry?"

Ryan nodded. He had taken some before and after therapy. He signed, "Good day?" without opening his eyes.

"It was?" Jon asked.

Ryan shook his head. He opened his eyes and turned his gaze on Jon, pointing toward him. Jon said, "Oh, was my day good?"

Ryan confirmed and let his eyes droop again. Jon said, "Dunno. It was okay. I got the shit I needed to get done done. I missed being around you guys."

"Really?" Ryan's hands flew before he even knew what they were going to ask. His mouth had done that a few times, back when he could speak, but he hadn't known that he knew the signs inimically enough to be Freudian in that way. Evidently so. It would have been heartening if it hadn't been completely fucking mortifying. "I meant--" and of course now that he needed signs to fix the problem, he couldn't seem to remember any. He went slowly. "You spend a lot of time with us. Me."

Jon lived with Ryan, to be precise. And not on a bus, where there was Spencer and Brendon to temper things with their own types of insanity. Just Ryan with his damage, brain and otherwise. Ryan looked out the window, instinctively curling up on himself until he remembered how much doing that hurt and bit back a moan. Jon pulled the car over into a parking lot and said, "Whoa, hey."

Ryan stayed where he was. Jon said, "Ryan, play fair. Look at me."


Ryan turned around. Jon signed, "What does that mean?" He didn't even say it, just let his hands do all the talking. Ryan wondered if maybe Jon practiced when Ryan wasn't looking, if he spent even more time devoted to Ryan's care and well-being than Ryan had already noticed. That had to stop, it had to. He would get tired of it, any rational human being would. Even Spencer got tired sometimes he was just good about letting Ryan know gently, about taking time off without leaving Ryan for too long.

Ryan didn't even know he was hyperventilating until Jon said, "Okay, okay," and gently pushed Ryan's head down between his legs. Ryan cried involuntarily from the pain of it, but that got him to breathe a little more regularly, so he considered it something of a win. It was indicative, he was pretty sure, of how fucked up his life was that he could think that. When he had calmed down enough to satisfy Jon, Jon helped Ryan back up into a sitting position and said, "Sorry," taking his hands back to talk. "I didn't know what else to do." His fingers stumbled and skittered over the words in the last sentence, but Ryan got it.

Ryan said, "Thanks."

Jon returned to rubbing Ryan's back, his neck, and now that he could actually feel that, rather than the panic, the pain, it uncoiled something in Ryan. He leaned into the touch. Jon didn't take his hands away to say, "I like spending time with you, Ry."

"Time," Ryan signed and nodded. "But not all the time."

"We've toured together--"

Ryan shook his head. "Days off. Breaks. Different hotel rooms. Time."

Jon frowned. "You know I could go out for a day if I wanted to? Or shit, visit home for a bit. I'm not your prisoner, not last I checked."

The problem with that logic, Ryan knew, what that Jon Walker was far too conscientious for his own good. "You would worry."

"No, I'd drop you off at Spence's and expect him and his family to help you out until I got back. Which they would, and you would be fine, but it would suck because wherever the fuck I was, I'd want to be here, being your helper monkey."

"Monkey," Ryan said, mostly because he liked the sign--mimicking a monkey scratching itself--but also to process everything Jon had just told him.

"Which makes you the monkey king," Jon clarified.

"Obviously." Sometimes Ryan really did throw things out more out of habit than intention. He wondered how his fingers knew what to do, but they just did, and Ryan wondered if that was what it had felt like as a child, learning to speak, if all of a sudden there were just more and more words at his disposal until he had so many that he hadn't known what to do with them except give them to other people, reams and reams of them in song form.

"Ryan."

Ryan looked over Jon. Jon said, "Lemme take you the rest of the way home and show you what I did with my 'day off,' okay? Then you can decide whether to worry or not. Deal?"

Jon held out his hand, and even though Ryan knew he would probably worry regardless, he did Jon the kindness of shaking on it.

*


After Jon's declaration that Ryan would see what he had done while Ryan was Suffering the Torments of Hell--or, as Spencer called it, physical therapy--Ryan was almost a little disappointed to return home and not see anything particularly out of place. Jon grabbed his hand and led him through to the room that Ryan had begun thinking of as Jon's, rather than the guest room. Jon's computer was sitting on his bed, surrounded by about a million pamphlets with pictures and what Ryan knew were words, even if he couldn't read them. Jon pulled Ryan down on the bed beside him and booted up the computer. When it was fully on, he clicked on a couple of icons, opening what Ryan knew was Word, and something else.

Jon said, "Okay, sign something, anything."

Ryan thought for a second and said, "I'm worried about Brendon."

"I'm worried about Brendon," Jon said aloud and pointed to the screen. Ryan could see shapes filling the previously blank Word doc.

He blinked. "Voice--" He didn't know the words for "recognition" or "software."

"Voice recognition software, yeah," Jon said, more shapes appearing as he spoke. "And," Jon clicked another icon at the bottom of the screen. A different program popped up, one Ryan didn't recognize, and Jon clicked on words, one to another to another until a video of a man signing a word came up. "Okay," Jon said, "that's recognition." He signed it by himself four or five times, as did Ryan, trying to cement it in his memory. Jon said, "Gimme a second." A few more clicks, and they had "software" down, too.

Feeling the way he didn't know all the right words, the way his "speech" was a slow process of stop-and-start, Ryan struggled to convey, "This is awesome, but I can't speak. That software--"

Jon cut him off with two words, both signed. "I can." Then after a second, when Ryan still hadn't caught on, "I can speak. You just have to tell me what to say. You show me, with your hands, and I say it and then it's recorded. And we have lyrics."

Ryan froze. Jon said, "They're still inside your head, Ryan. We just had to find a way to get them out."

And Ryan, Ryan of all people knew that. But Ryan also knew his writing process. He knew that he hid the words away until the fifth or sixth or even seventh draft, when they were starting to have a sort of polish, when they weren't quite so jagged. He knew that he read them over and over and over to himself, figuring out where the worst offenders were, refitting and reworking and reimagining until he had something reasonable to bring to them.

In the silence, Jon withdrew a little, bodily. He said, "Or, I mean. I could put the software on Spencer's computer. He could--"

And to a certain extent, that would have been easier, to let Spencer hear this part of him, let Spencer read it back to him. Spencer already knew. They'd never talked about it, not really, but Ryan wasn't a fool. Spencer knew all of Ryan's hidden parts the same way--probably better--that Ryan knew all of Spencer's. It was the rule of being them. But Spencer hadn't gone out and gotten the software, hadn't stayed in Ryan's home when he could have gone, and Spencer wasn't sitting on Ryan's extra bed, looking like if Ryan nodded his head that would shatter him into a million pieces. Jon had never done one thing to deserve that from Ryan, not one, and Ryan could be horrendously, viciously selfish, but he tried his best to avoid cruelty. He shook his head. He said, "No, you."

If the snap of the no wasn't quite as decisive as Ryan usually made it, Jon didn't seem to notice. He said, "No, I didn't think--"

Ryan put a hand to Jon's mouth, and said with the free one, "You."

Jon was still for a second before nodding. Once he had received Jon's submission to his choice, Ryan released his hand. Just the touch of Jon's lips to his palm had him shifting so that Jon wouldn't notice that Ryan had become a desperate sexual freak sometime in the past months. Instead Ryan drew attention to his hands, saying, "It really is awesome. I never would have thought of it."

Jon laughed a little, but it wasn't exactly amused laughter. "Yeah, well, for all you depend on Spencer, you've got this thing about doing everything on your own."

Ryan started to apologize, and then stopped. Being independent had kept him sane for considerable periods of his life. Jon smiled and curled his hands over Ryan's, which had stopped mid-sign. "No, no apologizing. I'm just saying you don't. You can use us for things. Use me."

Ryan closed his eyes against the images that brought to mind, but the dark only encouraged them, so he opened his eyes up again, focused on Jon. Jon said, "What say we play for a bit? Just freestyle? You, me, a couple of guitars, no words?"

It was amazing to Ryan, how Jon always seemed to know the way to fix the world, even when it was broken beyond repair.

*


After a particularly brutal PT session, Ryan would take about five ibuprofen, pass out for an hour or two, and then plunk himself into a bath until the pain passed from "I want to shoot myself" to "cutting off the lower half my body would be acceptable." Then he would come out and use Jon to practice his signing on. That process was becoming suspiciously more and more like having a conversation, but Ryan didn't want to acknowledge that, for fear that his newfound "verbal" abilities would once again escape his hold on them.

It was during one of these practicing hours that Ryan admitted, "I've never shown anyone a first draft of my stuff." He used the word "try" for "draft," lacking anything closer. If Jon figured it out, he would write it on the list of words that he kept around the house, looked up and taught Ryan every morning before Darcy came, so they could ask questions if they needed to. "Not even Spencer."

Jon said, "Yeah. I sort of guessed." His hands left out the "sort of."

"I used to-- I read the stuff to myself again and again and again and fixed it all those times before showing you guys. I don't know if I can 'write' this way." Doing airquotes was a little weirder when signing the words inside of them.

Jon didn't even hesitate. "You can. I'll read it to you as many times as you need. And maybe that will help, hearing it aloud. Maybe your lyrics will sound different, but that's okay. Things change. We have changed. We were in a fucking bus accident. If we didn't change, I'd worry about us."

Valid points all. "I just. I don't want you to be disappointed." In me. "Or angry." At me.

"I won't be disappointed." Jon looked thoughtful. "As for angry-- Let's make a deal. Either of us can stop working on something at any time."

Ryan wasn't sure about that. "I might never get anything done."

"You will. I've seen you push yourself." Jon sounded so unconcerned it was hard for Ryan to hold on to his own worries.

Ryan acknowledged the point with an inclination of his head. He had been waiting weeks, though, weeks and weeks, for his need to write to overwhelm his fear of the new process, and as of yet, that hadn't occurred. After a few moments, Jon said, "Ryan. Brendon won't show us any of what he's working on, Spencer won't work on anything. It's not like you're what's holding us back. We're holding ourselves back. And maybe that just means we're not ready. Or maybe it means we need someone else to kick our asses. I don't know. But you aren't the problem here. I know that."

Ryan said, "We should-- Maybe we should try and write together. The four of us. Make a deal that we don't care if it's actually usable or not."

"I could probably convince Brendon, but Spence--"

"Leave Spencer to me." Ryan and Brendon had been keeping tabs on Spencer's PT. His therapist was very optimistic that he would play like he had before again, and had in fact started in on a series of exercises designed specifically to help Spencer have that range of motion. Ryan knew Spencer was probably trying more often than he should, probably setting himself back, but Ryan couldn't say anything. If Ryan discovered he could play the guitar again after thinking he had lost that, it would probably become surgically attached to him at some point.

"In general, I kinda do," Jon admitted.

Ryan smiled a little. He asked, "Think you can talk Brendon into asking Darcy out at the same time?"

Jon shook his head. "I don't think so, but I've thought about this, and I think I can get Darcy to ask him out."

Ryan chewed at his bottom lip. That felt a little like betraying Brendon, telling Darcy about his crush. Ryan was about 99.3% positive Darcy returned the feeling--he was always teaching Brendon extra words that he'd thought up just for him, and silly things like that that were utterly perfect for Brendon--but there was still that .7%, and Ryan wasn't sure how on board he was with possibly getting Brendon's feelings hurt at this moment. Not that he was usually up for things like that, but Brendon was currently clearly worried about his ability to perform in the way he had, about letting the band down, so the last thing he needed was some unnecessary rejection.

Jon reached out and tugged Ryan's lip free. Then he took his hand back to say, "Trust me, okay?"

It was all too easy to nod.

*


The first time they tried to set down some lyrics, Ryan got so frustrated with his hands and his vocabulary and their inadequacy at saying the things he still knew how to say, if only in his head, that he cried. They weren't big tears, and he shut them down immediately, but Jon definitely noticed. He didn't say anything other than, "I think that's enough for the day."

Ryan almost argued, but his eyes were stinging perilously, and he decided the better part of valor was not tempting fate. Instead, when Jon took his hand and tugged, Ryan followed. He wanted to ask what they were doing, but Jon had his back to him, and one of Ryan's hands was still claimed hostage. Jon led him to the kitchen, herded him to the counter, where he put Ryan's palms flat against the surface, gripped Ryan's hips lightly and said, "Jump."

Ryan took a second and then helped Jon get him up on the counter. It hurt, but not as much as he would have expected, and Jon stayed there, his hands warm and solid through the material of Ryan's sweats. Ryan looked down at him. Jon smiled up for a second and then went to go dismantle Ryan's stove. Ryan kicked a foot against the cabinet behind it to get Jon's attention and signed, "The fuck?"

Jon laughed, but ignored the question. Instead he came over and pushed Ryan's legs to either side of him, once again taking almost instinctive care not to hurt him. He grabbed some stuff out of the cabinets. Ryan asked, "I have--" or, well, started to ask, since he had no idea what the word for "graham" was. He knew, "crackers," though.

Jon grinned. "Graham crackers," he said, with the accompanying sign. Ryan repeated the action several times. Jon said, "And yes, I bought them. For s'mores."

Ryan copied that word, too. Then, with an inquisitive tilt to his head, asked, "S'mores?"

"Spence said you used to ask for them every time you came over as a kid."

Ryan blinked. "He did?" Ryan wasn't entirely sure what was more surprising: that Spencer remembered a detail like that or that he had told Jon.

"It took me about three months of badgering him for tiny secrets about you that I could use in my plans to cheer you up, but yeah, he finally did."

Ryan gave Jon an apologetic look. He wasn't apologizing for Spencer's behavior, rather for having instilled that sort of behavior in Spencer. Jon said, "I can put a little work in to know your secrets, Ryan Ross."

When Jon put it that way, Ryan had to wonder if Spencer had been testing Jon, just a little, since the s'mores thing wasn't such a big deal. And if Spencer was testing Jon, then why. Jon had put a year of his life into fixing them and never looked back, never asked for the time he was owed. Jon crossed the room and grabbed a Villars bar, which was Ryan's absolute favorite type of milk chocolate. That wasn't a secret or even a semi-forgotten fact, though; Ryan had never let them pass a Trader Joe's if he could stop them. Jon pulled a bag of marshmallows from a grocery bag still sitting out on the table. He also removed a couple of skewer sticks from it. He handed one to Ryan and put the marshmallow bag in between them. "Load'er on up."

"What," Ryan asked, "no signs?"

Jon just poked him in the side with his skewer. Ryan giggled. He was still a little surprised that laughter came out sounding right, but glad when it did. Jon grinned, clearly proud of himself. Ryan didn't laugh a lot these day, maybe even less than when Jon had first come along. Then Ryan piled four marshmallows on his skewer and gave Jon a look that dared him to say anything. All Jon said was, "Sure that's all you want?"

Ryan said, "For now."

"Want to toast them or want me to?" Jon's hands asked if Ryan wanted to burn them, but he got the point.

Ryan said, "I like mine black on the outside." He wanted to say "crispy black," but he didn't know the sign for "crispy." The description lacked something, but it would do. Then, because he couldn't help himself for some reason, "Please."

Ryan watched Jon turn the gas stove on and light the marshmallows aflame, one by one. He let them all catch and then quickly, neatly, blew them out while flipping the burner off. He had two graham crackers out and ready, and he neatly broke one, placed half the Villars bar atop it and used the other one to scrape the marshmallows atop the chocolate and compress the whole thing together. Ryan had known Jon for a while now--a little over six years, by his count--and he'd never known that he had mad s'mores-making fu. It seemed like the sort of thing that should have come up in conversation, especially given the two years they'd spent being high a fair amount of the time.

Jon handed Ryan his s'more. Ryan thanked him with his free hand and bit down. He made a noise when the mix of perfect Swiss chocolate-gooey marshmallow-just a hint of sweet graham mixture hit his tongue. He couldn't help it. He'd forgotten how good this was, how simple and rich and sublime the flavors were together. He realized he'd closed his eyes somewhere on the third bite and opened them to see Jon watching him, his own eyes heavy, intent. Ryan stopped with the graham cracker resting on his lips. Jon startled and said, "Sorry, sorry," forgetting to sign in his shock. Ryan reached a hand out, the one that was less sticky. It still caught Jon's arm, sugar connecting them. Jon stopped in his aborted attempt to move away. Ryan took another bite, this time watching Jon watch him, watching Jon's eyes stray to Ryan's lips, his breath catch just a little when Ryan swallowed. Three slow bites, and Ryan was finished. Jon didn't stop looking.

With shaky hands, in complete silence, Jon said, "You're sticky. Let me--" Jon stepped forward, against Ryan's legs. Ryan spread them slightly to let him in, and then Jon's tongue was making its way over Ryan's lower lip, swabbing at where the marshmallow had caught, sometimes using his teeth to work at a particularly stubborn spot. When Ryan was "clean," Jon backed away just slightly to look at Ryan. He said, "Ryan," his lips barely moving, his hands at Ryan's knees.

Ryan wondered, looking at Jon, if he'd wanted this nearly as long as Ryan had. Jon Walker wasn't the type to fuck Ryan because he deserved compensation for services rendered, and Ryan had grown out of being the kind of asshole who would accuse him of that roughly four years earlier. Still, it bore saying, so Ryan pushed Jon back a little, just enough to get his hands between them and say, "I will probably always be broken. And I don't--" His hands froze on him and he had to start over again. "I don't want you to think you have to stay."

Jon took Ryan's hands in his and said, "You're not broken. You're you. And if that was the case, maybe you should have said something six years ago."

Ryan knew he must look slightly blindsided. He'd still been head over heels for Brendon at that time, which Jon probably knew. Their crushes were something that rarely ever stayed secret from one another, and they had the grace to act like they didn't know, or it just wasn't a big deal. Except that evidently Ryan was the most oblivious person on the planet, or Jon was trained in ninja emotional warfare, which, okay, was possible. Jon smiled. "You can ask Spencer. He'll tell you."

Suddenly Spencer being hesitant about the s'mores thing made sense. Ryan pulled his hands free. "You told him to get stories."

"It took me a while to realize he was afraid I'd break your heart. Then it took me a while to figure out why he'd have that fear. I can be a little thick."

Evidently Ryan could too, so he wasn't going to throw stones. Instead he said, "Kiss me again?" He wanted more, he wanted everything, but he'd been sitting on the counter for half an hour, and he was pretty sore. Plus, if Jon was telling the truth, he didn't have to have everything this moment. He added, "Please?" but Jon was already moving in, too close to see the circle Ryan was making over his heart.

*


Brendon came over a couple of days after and announced, "I come bearing ice cream, and a song."

There was a pause, and then Spencer and Ryan both signed, "Give me the ice cream," and went for it at once. Ryan ended up letting Spencer have it, but only because Jon was looking at the paper with Brendon's song, humming softly, and Ryan got distracted. Brendon was looking at him, watching him in his distraction, nervous and hopeful at once. Spencer was heading into the kitchen for spoons, but Ryan could tell he was listening, too.

The song was low and melancholy, more classical than folk, more rock than pop. Ryan had never really heard anything like it, nothing of theirs, nor anybody else's. Jon finished humming, and Brendon's gaze darted between Jon and Ryan, then over to where Spencer was prying the lid off the ice cream. Jon gave Brendon back the paper so that he could say, "That's--" His fingers froze in midair. He finished with a resigned, "Amazing." Ryan understood. It wasn't a good enough word.

Brendon looked shyly to Ryan, who nodded dumbly. The stuff he and Jon had was starting to sound good, finally, decent, but it wasn't anything like this. Nothing so evocative, subtly provocative. Spencer stuck a spoonful of ice cream in his mouth, held it there with his lips, and asked, "This is what you've been hiding from us?"

Brendon shrugged. "It wasn't done."

Ryan wondered for a moment if Brendon thought they would have fucked up his writing, but then he went over what he'd just heard in his head and realized that no, Brendon just had something whole he'd wanted to give them, and nothing else would do. Ryan almost said, "You're enough, Brendon," but luckily his hands normally didn't work as quickly as his mouth, so generally there was very little danger of him blurting shit out.

Jon hummed at the chorus a little again. He looked at Ryan. Ryan didn't need him to sign to know what he was thinking. This was backwards, the way they were doing this. Ryan always found his words first, or at least, at the very least, apace with the music. He didn't have to open up a conversation to know that Jon was wondering if Ryan even could write that way, or if they would all have to stop in their tracks, waiting for Ryan to give them something, anything. Jon was wondering if they were going to have to put away this gorgeous, resplendent thing Brendon had because Ryan couldn't find a story for it, at least not a story he could tell the others. There was also the option of Brendon taking lyrics on this album, but he knew nobody was going to bring that up until all other options had been exhausted.

Ryan said, "Fuck that," which occasioned three very confused looks in his direction. He realized, belatedly, that most of that conversation had been going on in his head.

"Ryan?" Spencer asked. Brendon moved over to where Spencer was to take a hit off the ice cream. He never once stopped watching Ryan.

Ryan said, "I've been thinking about doing some of the songs--" Ryan had no idea what the word for "instrumentally" was. He settled for, "Without words."

Jon's eyes narrowed in the exact same way Spencer's did. It was kind of freaky. Jon asked, "Why?"

Ryan had thought and thought about how to explain this. It was doubly hard without tone of voice. He said, "Because sometimes writing lyrics is about knowing when to shut up." Ryan felt that the universe had picked a particularly harsh way to teach him that lesson, but it was valid, all the same.

Brendon gave the spoon back over to Spencer, who held it absently out to Jon. Brendon said, "So it's not--"

They all waited. Finally Ryan said, "Brendon?"

"It's not because you don't want to hear me saying your words?" Brendon didn't look at him as he asked the question.

Ryan could feel a growl in his throat, but knew it would sound different and most likely stupid if he allowed it to verbalize. Instead he said, "No," the snap of his fingers so sharp it cracked. There was a beat of silence after the loudness of Ryan's response, and Jon said, "He wants to hear his words, Brendon. He wants to hear you sing them. They're just not ready."

Brendon nodded. As already proven, he understood the concept of readiness. Spencer, for his part, looked between Ryan and Jon, his eyes flashing comprehension before he stole the spoon back and dug in for himself again. Ryan moved closer to where they were huddled over the pint and coaxed the scoop from Spencer's hand. Spencer gave over fairly easy. He said, "So I guess maybe I should start working on the drum arrangements, huh?"

"That might help, yeah," Jon said casually.

Hesitantly, Brendon said, "I had some ideas about that."

Spencer took the spoon back for himself, planted a ginormous scoop of ice cream in his mouth and told Brendon, "I'm all ears."

*


Ryan didn't really want anyone in the world other than Brendon singing his words, but he liked the way they sounded when Jon was telling them to the computer, saying them aloud like they were a puzzle that needed fitting together. They were more sparse than he had ever chosen to go previously. It wasn't that he didn't have plenty of words at the ready, that he couldn't have figured out how to say them, that Jon wouldn't have taken the time to translate. It was that Ryan was getting used to his own silences, to the newer, trickier syntaxes of signing, and that he wanted to find a way to make that part of his music. He could get the surplus of words out in other ways, he could learn how to do that. They weren't needed on the album.

Most days it could take them three or four hours to get a single stanza done, between the translation process and Ryan's need to refine. It was weird, the way he would be repeating a line over and over to himself and come out of his head to realize Jon was doing the same thing, only aloud. Weird, but comfortable, almost a necessary part of the process at this moment.

At one point, no matter how many times he repeated it to himself, he couldn't hear what was wrong, couldn't figure out what was bugging him, so he said, "What would you do?"

Jon said, "What would-- Oh." He pressed at a button on the keyboard and Ryan saw the symbols disappearing. There was a beep, then, which Ryan knew was the voice recognition software being deactivated. "Hm. Maybe break up the stanza?"

Ryan shook his head. He'd already thought of that. It worked for the first three words, but made the last four clumsy. Ryan explained and Jon tried it out, saying, "Yeah, I see what you mean," before he even finished. Jon tapped his fingers lightly against the arm of the sofa in the measured beat of the stanzas and said, "Are there any synonyms you could fit in for some of the two syllable words that are only one syllable? Because then we could shift the balance of the words and it would probably work."

Ryan sifted through the words, thinking of other words that could possibly fit without losing the rhythmic value of the words themselves. If it was the right number of syllables, it wasn't sharp enough, shaped enough, for the verse. If it popped the right way in Ryan's head, it wouldn't fit. Ryan dug his fingernails into his pants in frustration, only to find Jon pulling his hands away, coaxing them to loosen. Jon said, "Enough, enough for right now."

Ryan thought about arguing, but Jon had his hands. It wasn't exactly a fair way to fight. When Jon covered Ryan's mouth with his own, he got over his ethical issues. Jon kissed him with intent, but without force. Ryan leaned into it, trusting that Jon wouldn't push too hard, wouldn't hurt him. Jon let go of Ryan's hand to hook his own behind Ryan's neck, but by that time Ryan didn't feel the need to say anything, to fight. Jon said, "Hey, hey, you have to help," and Ryan realized that Jon's other hand had slipped beneath the hem of Ryan's t-shirt, was rucking it up his chest. Ryan reached down and pulled it over his head, catching himself in it momentarily until Jon fought to free him. Ryan emerged laughing, and Jon said, "Mmm," and went in for a taste.

Jon rested his hands lightly over Ryan's stomach, questing over his sides to his back and then forward again, fingers finding and exploring Ryan's nipples. Ryan buried his own hands under Jon's shirt, making small sounds of distress when he couldn't have what he wanted. Jon nipped at the corner of his mouth, "Sh, okay." He leaned back enough to allow Ryan to get his shirt off, have what he was interested in. Ryan sighed in relief and pressed his palms gently to where Jon had healed. Jon was fine, but for a moment there, he'd broken. Ryan was glad, for the first time, that he couldn't talk, couldn't say the, "Waited, waited, wanted this," that was lodged, heavy, right out of reach.

Jon's hands found their way to the waist of Ryan's sweats and he said, "Okay, careful, careful," when Ryan worked to rise up a little. Jon worked as quickly as he could to slip Ryan's pants past his hips so that Ryan could settle again. He stroked gently over the crest of Ryan's hipbone and asked, "All right?"

Ryan nodded. It was more dull pain than anything else these days unless Ryan walked too much, or hit up against something, or turned too quickly, or it rained, or Ryan just had a bad day. But it was bearable, moreso than it had been at first, certainly. Jon pulled his pants the rest of the way down, over his ankles, and settled on the floor between Ryan's barely-spread legs. He didn't try to open Ryan up anymore--flexibility was a thing of the past. Jon looked up at Ryan, smiling, and mouthed, "Ryan." Then he leaned in and swallowed Ryan slowly, like he was getting used to Ryan, taking his time, establishing familiarity. Ryan moaned, and that, at least, sounded like it was supposed to. He threaded his fingers in Jon's hair, not to force anything, just because it was Jon's hair, soft and perfectly brown, and Ryan had wanted to lose his fingers in it for so, so fucking long.

Jon established a rhythm that was easy on both of them, one that made Ryan boneless rather than taut, one that Jon had full control of. Ryan bit his lips, because if he tried to say, "Jon" it would come out wrong, ugly, and he couldn't have that, he couldn't. Instead he thought it, thought the name and the chords that they'd been playing together, over and over, their fingers in time with each other. Jon took him in deeper, deeper, and when Ryan couldn't help himself anymore, he closed his eyes and let Jon have him, have whatever he would take.

Jon pulled off when he was finished and rose up on his knees, shoving at his jeans and boxers. He gasped when his cock came in contact with Ryan's leg. Ryan signed, "Jon, Jon," but Jon just captured Ryan's right hand and sucked on his fingers, frantic in a way he hadn't been until now. Ryan watched, his breath caught in his chest, as Jon came apart without Ryan doing so much as flexing the muscles of his leg. Jon panted, "Ryan, fuck. Ryan," around Ryan's fingers, and came. He slumped over Ryan, but even in the aftermath of orgasm was careful not to lay his head too far up Ryan's thigh. Instead he perched it gently on Ryan's knee.

Ryan took his fingers back and tapped Jon's shoulder. Jon looked up, somewhat hazily. Ryan said, "I know what's wrong. With the lyrics."

Jon blinked. "You think a lot during sex, huh?"

"I feel a lot during sex," Ryan corrected. "I think a lot the rest of the time."

"Okay," Jon agreed.

Ryan said, "The lyrics are--" He didn't know the word he needed. "Dishonest." It would have to do.

"Dishonest?" Jon cocked his head. "I don't know. I think they're pretty fucking honest, Ry."

Ryan shook his head. Then he came up with an idea. He signed, "Sounds like."

Jon frowned for a second and then brightened. "Oh, hey, I rock at charades."

He didn't, but none of them ever wanted to tell him that. Ryan signed, "Miss."

"Miss."

"In."

"In."

"Genius."

"Genius."

Ryan looked at him expectantly. Jon looked perplexed. Ryan said, "Push the words together."

"Miss-in-genius." He muttered it a few times. "Oh! Dishonest, disingenuous."

Ryan grinned. Jon said, "Yeah, we'll look that one up for next time." Then, "Why do you think that?"

"Because when I stop thinking, I hear different ones."

"Oh," Jon said. Ryan laughed a little. Jon looked at him. "So, basically, for the good of this album, we're going to need to have sex a lot."

Ryan thought for a moment. Then he nodded solemnly. "For the album."

*


Resolutions to have sex for The Good of the Album and the Band aside, the actual carrying out of said resolution was a bit harder than Ryan had intended it to be. For one thing, on the days when Ryan had physical therapy--which was still most days--if they didn't have sex in the morning, Ryan was generally too worn out and sore to do it afterward, unless he slept for most of the afternoon and they stayed up and wrote through the night. They had tried that a few times, but it meant being even more tired for his next session of PT, which wasn't helpful to anyone.

Another, even more pertinent obstacle was that there were very few positions that were comfortable for Ryan to be in beside lying prone. He couldn't take Jon's weight, though, which was a) inconvenient for the purposes of having sex and b) made him feel like a complete pussy. Lying on his side started out uncomfortable and escalated slowly into agonizing, the same for being on his hands and knees, bending over anything at the waist--this position tended to reach excruciating before most of the others--and sitting on his knees.

Jon seemed completely untroubled by all of this, perfectly happy to settle Ryan on his lap and have them jerk each other at their own pace, dependent entirely on their respective moods. And that was great except for the part where Ryan had kind of waited a really long time to have lots and lots of sex with Jon Walker, and he just wasn't sated by--admittedly hot--mutual jerking off sessions. He was watching Jon's ass as Jon made himself a snack one day when he said, "Fuck. We're both idiots." Of course, Jon wasn't watching him, he was intent on spreading his peanut butter on his apples, so he didn't get the sentiment. Ryan frowned. That was problematic to his idea, but at this point, it was between mildly problematic positions and being a functional eunuch, so far as Ryan was concerned. He knew which one he was going to choose.

He came up behind Jon and draped himself over Jon, his chin on Jon's shoulder, his arms over Jon's arms. He did his best to say, "I have an idea." It was a little hard with his hands effectively separated from his body. Jon seemed to catch on. He asked, "Yeah?"

Ryan took back his arms and looped them under Jon's to undo the button on his jeans. Jon's reaction was immediate. "Oh. Oh. Fuck, you have condoms?"

Ryan had stolen some from Spencer when it became clear he might have need of them. And by stolen, he meant he'd said, "Spence, can I have some of your stash?" and Spencer thought to say, "Don't break up the band," a few minutes after handing Ryan an entire box. Spencer was a Costco shopper.

Ryan told Jon , "Night stand and medicine cabinet," and undid his jeans, waiting impatiently while Jon ran for the bedroom. Ryan wasn't sure he'd ever seen Jon move with such haste. He was back in seconds, condoms and lube in hand. He threw the stuff on the counter and pushed impatiently at his jeans. Ryan helped him, laughing. It wasn't mocking laughter; Ryan agreed completely. He barely managed to form the signs for, "We'll have to try this slow sometime."

"Later," Jon bit out and turned to the counter. Ryan grabbed the lube and poured it quickly onto his palm, sliding in and slicking Jon up. He'd barely gotten two fingers in when Jon said, "Enough, enough, just--"

It was hard enough for Ryan to talk from this position that he wasn't going to argue. He rolled the condom on and pressed in. He took it a bit slowly, just because he was pretty sure Jon hadn't done this in a while, not to Ryan's knowledge, anyway, and those sorts of things were hard to hide. Jon made a sound, half pleased, half something that made Ryan wish he could see his face, or say, "Jon," or communicate at all. Jon said, "Yes," then, and Ryan was a little reassured, pushed as far as he could, settling gently against Jon.


Ryan kissed at the back of Jon's neck, sucked a little violently in the place of saying, "Jesus, so fucking good." He couldn't move as quick or as hard as he really wanted to, had to keep things relatively gentle for his own sake, the sake of his hips, but if he bent Jon forward just a little, he was able to go deep, able to grind long and slow. He found a rhythm and then just let himself go, get lost in the back forth, up down. Jon was panting, making hot, low little sounds that Ryan wanted to swallow, wanted to write, wanted to let everyone hear, just so that they could know it was his and only his, wanted to keep it entirely for himself.

He bit into Jon's neck, just a nip, just a hold, and Jon said, "Ryan, Ryan, touch me."

Ryan reached down, his hand still slick with lube, and wrapped his fingers at the base of Jon's cock, just holding for a bit, holding him back, holding him with Ryan. Then he slid his hand all the way down to the head, his grip tight, tight as he could manage. Jon said, "Fuck, yes," and bucked into Ryan's hand, coming back a little too hard. Pain sparked behind Ryan's eyes at the impact against his hips, and he gasped, more at the paradoxical nature of the two sensations than anything. They were both so intense, maybe too intense, and Ryan came, squeezing his hand, shaking.

He worked to keep breathing, to keep himself on his feet. Falling would hurt like a bitch, and Jon wasn't done yet. Ryan stayed in him, every nerve on edge but wanting to be there, wanting to be in this until the end. He worked Jon's cock steadily, a litany of "Jon," and "like this, come on," playing in his head, no way to get out, to transmit itself. Ryan kissed at Jon's ear as a proxy for the things he wanted to say, a trade-off for telling Jon that he was fucking everything Ryan had ever wanted. Jon seemed to get it, since his breath caught at the sensation and he came, spilling onto Ryan's fingers.

Ryan extricated himself then, and tried not to have his first thought be, "Tylenol." It was. It was also really, completely worth it. Jon pulled them over to the sink and cleaned them up with water and papers towels before grabbing the bottle of Tylenol closest and shaking four out for Ryan. Ryan smiled at him and dry swallowed. Jon said, "Writing and then nap, or nap and then writing?"

Ryan bit his lip. Jon grinned. "Yeah, my thoughts on the subject, too."

*


When they shared the basic melodies, harmonies and lyrics with Brendon, Ryan said, "It needs a touch of..." he tilted his head and changed the word "polish" to "you," at the last moment.

Brendon was still looking at the page as he signed, "And Spencer," without even moving his mouth.

Ryan waited until Brendon looked up to say, "Obviously." There were some things that Ryan was beginning to feel really could go unsaid.

Brendon went over to the piano and plucked out the chorus. "I don't-- I don't want to mess with this too much. It's pretty fucking rich."

Ryan was deeply glad that Brendon was still paying attention to the music, the keys, when the, "Yeah?" erupted from his hands. Jon smiled, but he kept Ryan's need for approval-by-Brendon a secret. Ryan really, really needed some blackmail material on Jon. Just to assure mutual destruction if Jon ever decided-- Well, blackmail material was always a practical thing to acquire.

Ryan heard the lock turn, and a second later Spencer was there, his hands already moving. "Sorry, traffic was crazy in the city."

Brendon continued to play. "Always is this time of year."

"What was it you wanted to talk about?" Ryan asked. It wasn't as though they probably wouldn't have seen each other anyway--they still did most days, even with Spencer only being in physical therapy two days a week and Brendon being down to one--but Spencer had called this meeting, said there was something he needed to discuss with them.

Spencer said, "I'm gonna grab a water. Anybody want anything?"

Brendon just motioned at the ginormous Slurpees the other three of them had. Spencer glared. "You couldn't be bothered to pick one up for me, dickface?"

All three said, "Fridge," at the same time.

Spencer said, "Oh," but didn't have the grace to blush or otherwise show remorse. Instead he went and got his and then came back to find the three of them on the couch, a spot between Ryan and Brendon waiting for him. Spencer fit himself in easily. He put his drink on the coffee table, signed, "Ow, brain freeze." Ryan wondered idly if there was an actual sign for that, or just the two words as Spencer had signed them. When Spencer had recovered, he said, "Haley's been kinda...bugging me, I guess, the way Pete's been bugging you." The sign for the last word made it clear he was talking about Ryan, as if Ryan might be unsure about whose ass Pete Wentz had been riding lately.

Brendon frowned. "She wants to see us? She sees us."

"She wants us to get out a little. And she thinks we should be trying out the new stuff, rough as it is, on ears that aren't our own."

Ryan pressed his shoulder into Jon. Jon said, "And you think it's a good idea?"

Spencer scratched at the back of his neck for a long moment. "I think-- I think it's been really easy for us to get lost in each other since the accident. Even more than before. And I think that if we want these songs we've been piecing together to ever be an album, ever be performed, that we're going to have to get out there sooner or later. I'd sort of like it to be on our own terms."

"True," Brendon said after a second. He was looking at Ryan, but Ryan wasn't ready to chime in on this conversation, not yet.

Jon asked, "What were you imagining?"

"I was thinking maybe a birthday party for the three of us, right in the middle. September ninth or so--"

"Allow me to reiterate my hatred for your freakishly close birthdays," Brendon interrupted.

Spencer patted his knee. "Don't worry, you're invited."

Brendon flipped him off, but Spencer was already on his next thought. "Close friends, significant others, family, nothing big. I'm thinking not even the whole label like we usually feel we have to. Just who we want. And we say maybe we'll play. Maybe. If we don't feel like it, we can always punk out. The people we invite aren't gonna say shit, not even Pete, not in that venue. He'll wait for it as long as he thinks we're actually trying to get there."

Spencer looked straight at Ryan while saying this last bit. Ryan knew. For all that Pete could be obnoxious and in his face and push so hard it hurt, in the end, Pete would--always had--allow Ryan, allow them, to go at their own pace. It was why they'd never left the label, not even when the better offers had started coming and failed to stop. Finally, finally Ryan said, "I could use a good, old-fashioned party."

"You just want to dress up," Brendon accused without any real accusation to his tone.

"I think he wants to see me dressed up," Jon said dryly. Ryan nodded fervently. Spencer and Brendon signed, "Pervs," in perfect unison.

*


It was halfway though August when Pete called and asked, "Hey, I know the invite was for me and the guys, but can I bring Mikey?"

Ryan didn't have a sign for Mikey, so instead he asked, "From My Chemical Romance?"

"How many Mikeys do you know?"

Ryan found that somewhat irrelevant, since he wasn't the one asking to bring Mikey to the party, but okay. He looked over at Jon, who shrugged and signed, "What's one more person?"

"Is Jon Walker saying something about me behind my back?" Pete asked, pressing his face closer to the lens of his camera, like that might allow him to see around the corner of Ryan's screen.

"Yes," Ryan told him, and then asked, "Why?"

"Why?"

"Why do you want to bring him?"

"Well, for one thing, because his birthday's the next day and he deserves some party shenanigans. My Chem's got a show the night of his birthday. For another, because we, uh." Pete's head dropped down for a second and he scratched at the back of his ear. "You know. Again." He looked up at Ryan a bit sheepishly.

"Brendon so owes me twenty bucks."

"You bet on him taking me back at some point?" Pete looked disproportionately pleased.

Ryan rolled his eyes. "You're a convincing guy. And yes."

"Yes?"

"He can come."

"You're my favorite ever, Ryan Ross."

Ryan gave Pete his best unimpressed look, since it was nearly impossible to sign, "Mhm," and relay the amount of blase-ness that Ryan felt was necessary in this case. Pete said, "No, for reals," laughing even as he said it.

Jon called from the side, "You making moves on my boyfriend, Wentz? Don't think we can't find another label."

"He may be my favorite, but he's just not as pretty as Mikeyway," Pete told Jon sincerely.

Jon laughed. "Um, okay." He cut the call. "Our boss is crazy, Ryan, we should get out while we can."

Ryan spared a half-hearted smile for him. Jon said, "Whoa, hey, you are so prettier than Mikeyway."

Ryan rolled his eyes. "He can be prettier than me."

"Then what's going on?" Jon tapped a finger at Ryan's forehead gently.

"Just-- Before it was just people that we know, really know."

Jon nodded.

"Now we have less than a month and four songs that are at best rough drafts to play for a member of My Chemical Romance."

"We need to come up with a sign for him, huh?" Jon said, but Ryan could tell he was thinking about what Ryan had said. Finally Jon sat down and said, "Maybe that's a good thing."

Ryan raised an eyebrow. Jon shrugged. "We've always been so worried about the level of polish on our stuff, but maybe this is like everything else. Maybe it's time for something completely new, in every way. Not that we leave the stuff the way it is now, just-- I dunno, stop thinking of it as less because it's not ready for public consumption."

Ryan considered the suggestion, the way it was human nature to actually start hearing once a person stopped judging. It didn't necessarily make him feel comfortable, but writing good music wasn't always about that. He'd had it be, and he'd had it not be. In this case, he told Jon, "You're right."

Jon smirked. "Always."

Ryan smiled, in spite of his intention not to. Jon said, "Hey, how about this?" and made the signs for "pretty" and "way," right in a row.

"Perfect," Ryan told him.

*


Oddly enough, once Ryan accepted that they were probably going to be presenting themselves guts first and smiles second, the songs started to come along in their own right. Brendon began letting them in on more of the process, and Ryan forced the issue of Spencer working with them instead of taking what they gave him and going from there. Ryan still wouldn't work on the lyrics with anybody but Jon in the room, but nobody seemed to expect it. At one point Ryan asked Spencer if it bothered him, and Spencer said, "I sort of like that there's still some mystery to you."

Spencer had said it in that droll way that usually indicated he was kidding, but Ryan knew Spencer, through and through. There was some part of Spencer, no matter how small, that really meant it. Spencer knew how to allow Ryan his space, even when there wasn't enough of it physically.

Writing meant what it had almost always meant between them, which was a lot of hanging out and eating ice cream and paying no attention to personal hygiene. So when Tom called and said, "Hey, look, we're playing our last show for this round in LA three days before your party, then we were just gonna head out there and hang for a bit," Ryan said to Jon, "Maybe I should shower, huh?"

Jon said, "Hey, Tom, can I call you back?" and Tom hung up on him without acknowledging the question. Jon asked Ryan, "You think you could sit in a car for long enough to get down to LA?"

Ryan was finally down to one PT session a week, but it was still brutal. And the thought of being in a club, with crowds of people who would recognize him, was a little beyond terrifying. Jon wasn't looking at him with any expectation in his eyes, but he also hadn't seen his best friend since Tom had come to see them in the hospital, right after the crash. He said, "Why don't you go by yourself? Fly down, drive back with him?"

"Ryan, I don't have to--"

Ryan knocked Jon's hands aside, which got him to stop speaking as well. "Seriously. Go have a good time. I'm not ready, but I'll be fine here. I can call Brendon or Spencer if I need anything."

Jon was quiet for a second before asking, "You're sure?"

"Jon." Ryan rolled his eyes.

Jon grinned. "Okay, okay. But next time I'm dragging you with."

Ryan figured that gave him at least another few months to remember how to socialize with people who didn't share his brain. "If you say so."

"Mm," Jon said, because he could actually use his mouth to make himself sound highly doubtful. Ryan wasn't going to pretend that he wasn't jealous. Then Jon said, "Tom'll be sad. You'll have to make it up to him."

"If you're suggesting a threesome--"

This time it was Jon who knocked Ryan's hands away, laughing. He kissed Ryan long and hard and when he pulled away said, "I don't share."

That was a total lie--Jon shared all the time--but Ryan didn't call him on it, as he sensed Jon probably knew that and was trying to make a point. Ryan could catch on, given enough time. Ryan said, "Me neither," and that was much, much closer to the truth, but Ryan only took what he actually wanted, so it didn't lessen the power of the statement, he felt.

"Not even with Spencer?" Jon asked, his tone light. He was kidding.

Ryan said, with as much solemnity as he could inject into his fingers, "Not in this case."

Jon said, "I love you," casual and easy and true, and Ryan was amazed at how the one sentence he'd known in sign language since third grade looked utterly new.

*


Spencer spent a lot of the time that Jon wasn't there making Ryan listen to what he was doing with the drums in the songs. Ryan appreciated the insight, even if he got the sense he was being babysat. Then Brendon asked, "How does it sound? Spencer's stuff," and Ryan realized that Spencer had just been trying to get some time alone with him.

He asked Spencer, "Why didn't you just say you wanted to spend some time with me?"

Spencer rolled his eyes. "Brendon has a big mouth."

"He didn't say anything. I figured it out. I'm slow, not dead."

"Not funny," Spencer snapped, verbally as well as with his hands. Ryan blinked. Spencer rubbed at the back of his neck. "Sorry."

Ryan shook his head. "Spencer."

"You guys have got your systems, your codes and shit. It relaxes you. I don't want to have to ask you not to have that. I just figured as long as he was out of town..."

Ryan frowned. "Next time, fucking say something. I have it on pinky swear authority that we were never going to let a girl come between us."

"You tell Jon you think of him as the girlfriend?"

"What he doesn't know can't hurt him."

Spencer snorted and went back to playing out his ideas. Ryan closed his eyes and listened. It was harder to give feedback than it used to be, because unless Spencer was keeping a watch on Ryan's hands, he couldn't interrupt Spencer. Spencer tried being more aware, and Ryan tried to hold on to everything until Spencer was done, and between the two of them, they made slow, unsteady progress. When they had the basics, they would call Brendon, who would come over and work with them to fit the parts together, give it all some flair.

Most days they ended up working until late in the night and then collapsing, sleeping until one of them woke the other two up and provided them with coffee. So it was that when Jon got back around noon on the fourth day after he'd been gone, he woke Ryan up with a soft, "Ryan," whispered to his ear, and when Ryan opened his eyes and smiled, asked, "Have I been replaced?"

Ryan glanced over his shoulder, where Spencer was on his back and Brendon had managed to squirm completely atop him. Brendon had accidentally done that to Ryan a couple of nights before, and Ryan had had to ice for the better half the day, so Spencer had declared himself a human barrier after that. He just laughed a little and asked, "Tom here?"

"In the kitchen."

"Be right there," Ryan said, and got up to brush his teeth and shower. It wasn't that he really felt the need to look good for Tom, but he hadn't showered since Jon had left, so he sensed there might be a level of etiquette involved in the situation. He put on a fresh pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt, since he knew that the scarring from the crash and the subsequent operations was a little unsettling to people who hadn't had time to get used to it. Ryan still wasn't particularly used to it.

When there weren't any other reasons to delay, Ryan took a deep breath and followed the scent of the coffee. It led him to the kitchen, where Jon and Tom were sitting at the table. Tom's face lit up in a grin when Ryan walked in. He said, "Ryan fucking Ross," and got up to wrap Ryan in a hug. Despite his exuberance, it did not pass Ryan's attention that he was extremely careful not to crush Ryan, not to hit up against him too hard. Ryan squeezed back a little and then pulled back to tell Jon, "I'm glad to see him."

"Ryan says he missed you too."

Ryan thought it would have bothered him more that he couldn't have his own words, couldn't convey them to anyone he needed to, but the reality was, Jon knew what Ryan was saying even when Ryan didn't say it. And if Ryan really needed to correct him, he could always insist.

Tom said, "I've been trying to learn a few words here and there, but I pretty much suck."

"So does Jon," Ryan told him earnestly.

Jon flipped Ryan off. Brendon chose that moment to stumble blearily in the kitchen and ask, "Do I smell coff--" He spotted Tom and grinned. "Aw, Jon brought us a present." Then he attacked.

*


Jon stole Ryan and tucked them into a bathroom while Tom was regaling Spencer and Brendon with touring stories. Touring stories were, on average, funnier than any other kind of story known to man. Ryan signed, "What if I was listening?" but he was already leaning in for a kiss.

Jon said, "I'll tell you later, with my spot-on Tom imitation."

Ryan brought up a hand between them to say, "Deal," before commencing the make out session. Jon slid his hands under Ryan's shirt, palms to his back. Jon was a fantastic kisser; he kissed with all of himself, didn't hold anything back from Ryan. At first Ryan had been a little overwhelmed by it, unsure of how to process it. Now it just contained Ryan, wrapped him up in ways that nothing had ever been able to before. When Ryan was on the cusp of desperation for friction, but not quite there, Jon stopped. He said, "Ryan, Ryan."

Ryan made an inarticulate, plaintive noise. He would have been embarrassed, except that that's exactly how it would have sounded even before the accident. Jon said, "Missed you."

Ryan should have rolled his eyes. It had only been four days. Instead he shakily managed to get his fingers to tell Jon, "Me too."

"I-- I was thinking of you while I was there. In LA."

Ryan tried to force himself to pay attention. Jon was clearly trying to tell him something. He nodded. Jon took a breath. He slid his hands down to Ryan's hips and let them rest gently there. "Okay?"

Ryan frowned, tilted his head. He'd been able to handle touch for a good while. At this point, they could at times actually put pressure on his hips. Jon whispered, "I went to this place, a store."

Ryan thought for a second, then his eyes widened slightly. Oh. Jon nodded. "I just-- I'd really like to fuck you?"

Ryan nodded in response. He would very much like that, too, thanks. Jon said, "Right, well, I figured, if I could find a way to take the pressure off your hips, you know? It could be good."

Ryan's smile was a slow, curious thing. Jon leaned in and kissed him, licking at his lips. He kissed his way up Ryan's cheek and told him, "There's a box on your bed. Sneaked it in there while you were talking to Tom."

Ryan couldn't help that he loved presents. Surprises were a hit or miss sort of thing, but presents, particularly from one of the guys who knew him front to back, were almost always a good thing in Ryan's mind, even when he wasn't sure what the hell he would use the actual present for. He grabbed Jon's hand and slipped from the bathroom. From the living room, Spencer called, "It's bad hosting to leave your guests while you have sex!"

"Ryan would like me to tell you to blow him," Jon said, even though Ryan had said nothing of the sort. Ryan probably should have chastised Jon for taking shameless advantage of his muteness, but instead he laughed.

"Oh fine, leave me out. I'll just sit in here and molest your best friend, Jon Walker. You think on that," Brendon said.

"Tom?" Jon asked.

There was a beat. "Is the sign language teacher going to kick my ass if I tell you to leave me to be molested?"

"Yeah, probably. Worth it? Not?"

"Go have sex with your best friend, Spencer Smith."

Ryan signed hastily, "I want to point out that I at no point encouraged this."

"Ryan says you're going to have to have a threesome. He's sorry to have completely punked out on you."

Ryan just sighed. Spencer said, "Some best friend."


Brendon said, "Not to be a stick-in-the-mud, but I think Darcy might object."

Ryan knew, knew Brendon was holding up his hand and looking completely fucking earnest about it, too. How Brendon had managed to find a boyfriend that actually fulfilled the necessary cuteness quotient for his partner was beyond Ryan. Tom said, "Seriously, who says stick-in-the-mud?"

Ryan laughed softly and pulled Jon the rest of the way into the bedroom, where a box with a pretty arousing picture was waiting on his bed. Ryan blinked and took his hand back to say, "Wow."

"The lady at the store helped me, so I have everything we need if we want to try it. She said it would take the pressure off of you entirely, pretty much do all the work for you. But only if you want."

Ryan took a deep breath before asking, "Think we can pawn Tom off on Brendon and Spencer?"

"Probably. He gave me the name of the store."

*


While Ryan was attempting to shoo people out of his house, Jon called, "Um, I think I might need some help back here."

Which was how installing a sex sling in Ryan's bedroom became a Panic Group Project. Tom mostly just sat back and laughed at them. Ryan warned him, "Your time will come," but it was largely ineffective, because nobody translated.

Ryan didn't have a lot of the nifty tools that nobody mentioned needing in the box, but clearly would have been useful, such as the Thing That Beeped at Crossbeams, as Ryan thought of it. He didn't know the word for crossbeams, and the only word for beams he knew was the one that meant "to light up," but luckily, Spencer caught on at "thing that beeps."

So instead they had to call Jon's dad, who had to walk them through the process of finding one manually. Then they had to lie as much as humanly possible about hanging a big potted plant. Ryan was pretty sure he was suspicious, since Ryan blew at keeping plants alive and everyone knew it, but it was the best they'd been able to come up with. When they'd finally accomplished that step, Spencer read the directions while Brendon tried to hold things in place and Jon did the actual putting things together part. Ryan held things when Jon told him to hold them.

An hour and a half later, Jon and Ryan had their sling. Spencer wiped his hair out of his eyes, gazed at the structure for a moment and said, "Well, now that I'm going to be wholly scarred for life, I'll just head on out to lunch. If Ryan falls and dies, I don't want to hear about it, you understand me?"

Both Jon and Ryan nodded, duly warned. Then they waited impatiently for everyone to leave them alone with their new toy. Once by themselves, Jon looked at the apparatus carefully and said, "I think we're gonna need a chair to get you comfortably into it."

Ryan signaled his agreement. Jon went and brought a chair in from the kitchen. Ryan had managed to get most of the way undressed by the time he came back. It would have been all the way, only bending at the waist was something he still had to be careful about, so that slowed things down a little. Jon helped him with the last of it, mostly his shirt. His fingers skimmed over the jagged scar from where the counter crashing into him, crushing him to the driver's partition, had very nearly killed him. It was an angry thing, rising out of his skin across almost the entire length of his lower torso.

Jon kissed him, indulgent and slow, and asked, "Okay if I tell my friends that Ryan Ross totally wants to sleep with me?"

Ryan smiled and pushed Jon back a little to say, "I think most of them know."

"I was thinking more like the friends I meet in the grocery store, or on the street."

Ryan just kissed him some more at that. He wanted to brag about Jon, too. He kind of could, though, since not many people understood what his hands were telling them. Jon murmured, "C'mon," and took Ryan's hand, guiding him up onto the chair. Once Ryan was there, Jon took advantage of the situation to gaze up at him for a bit, go down on him for a minute or two. Ryan fisted his hands carefully in Jon's hair, letting Jon be his balance. Jon pulled back when it was still just pleasurable, not intense to any degree.

Jon said, "Okay, I think--" He hooked the top strap so that it rested behind Ryan's shoulder blades, and then the lower one along Ryan's lower back, but high enough that none of the healing areas would be resting on it. "Okay?" He asked. Ryan nodded and looped his wrists into the cuffs clearly meant for them. Jon put a hand to Ryan's back and Ryan lifted one leg. Jon let go long enough to hook Ryan's thigh into the strap, and they repeated the process with the other leg. Jon asked, "Okay?" again, and at Ryan's nod, moved the chair.

It was actually a little bit awesome, being held above ground. And none of the pressure was on places that hurt. Jon figured out the only problem pretty quickly, looking a little panicked when he said, "Fuck, you can't talk."

Ryan did his best to reassure him with a smile. It would be okay. If he really needed to say something, he could always make noise, or struggle until Jon figured it out. It wasn't ideal, and not for the first time, Ryan wished he could just say "Jon," just "Jon," even if nothing else. Jon pushed Ryan's legs gently apart and stepped inside them to kiss him. He said, "Bite my lower lip is this is okay."

Ryan nipped. Jon kissed him more deeply before pulling back and throwing his clothes off. Ryan laughed at his haste, not at the fact that he tripped on his own pants and nearly face-planted, but Jon said, "Oh, sure, be that way."

Ryan couldn't stop smiling, not even to let him know it wasn't like that. Jon kissed him anyway. He pulled Ryan into him, working the strap across his upper back tighter so that Ryan tilted up slightly, not enough to put pressure on his hips, but enough that their cocks could brush together. Ryan made an appreciative noise. He could do that. Jon said, "Yeah," and kept rocking Ryan gently so that they would come into contact for a moment and fall apart another. Jon walked away for long enough to grab the lube from the bed. He poured some on his fingers and slid one in, laughing evilly when Ryan gasped at the cold. Ryan tried to frown at him, but his face wasn't cooperating. By two fingers, the lube was more than warm enough, Jon's fingers thick and perfect inside Ryan, and it had been a while since he'd done this with anyone, a long while, but Jon was taking his time and all Ryan could think was, "Yes, please."

He let his head fall back, and Jon leaned over, sucking along the line of Ryan's throat. He gave Ryan a third finger and Ryan made sounds and wriggled on the fingers, he couldn't help it. If he could have only ever said one more word, it would have been, "Jon," hard and insistent, pleading. Jon was talking against Ryan's skin, babbling about how good it felt, "Jesus, Ryan, so fucking tight," even as he pulled his fingers out. Ryan wasn't sure when he'd managed to take care of the logistical aspects of the situation, but Jon pressed his cock to Ryan, condomed and lubed, and pushed in, neither fast nor slow, just steady, holding carefully at Ryan's hips with his hands, settling in. Ryan made a sound that he wanted to be, "Jon, Jon." It wasn't.

Jon said, "Fucking Ryan fucking Ross," and moved. He threw his head back, and Ryan had to concentrate to watch, but he wanted to, he wanted this in his mind, watching. As of yet he hadn't been able to look at Jon in these moments. They'd have to trade positions next time, so Ryan could see him like this. But Ryan was three hundred percent sure he was going to insist on doing this again, just like this. Just like this.

Jon hit right up against his prostate and dragged, and Ryan couldn't think about the next minute, let alone next time. Jon's hand wrapped around Ryan's cock, almost like he knew, knew Ryan could only take so much more of this. Ryan whimpered, arched up into Jon, his touch. It hurt a little to move like that, but just enough to sharpen the edge of pleasure Jon was bringing him to. Jon said, "C'mon, c'mon," and Ryan thought, "Coming," and followed Jon's directions.

When his mind cleared of the brilliant, muddling, yesyesyes of orgasm, Jon was still rocking, and Ryan could let himself fall even further into the straps, appreciate the starkness of having nothing beneath him really, just skin and Jon. He thought, "Jon," and as if Jon had heard him, he said, "Yes," and gave into his need.

*


The four of them spent a lot of the next five days practicing, Tom watching, telling them when he thought things sounded good, when they sort of sucked. They sort of sucked a lot. It wasn't surprising. Despite all the writing they'd been doing, Spencer was still getting his rhythm and ease of movement back, and Ryan had to stop playing if he wanted to make a point about anything that was happening. Brendon kept getting excited and moving around too much until he had to sit because his leg was threatening to fall off in a spectacular and painful manner. Jon was actually fully functional, but after the second time Brendon nearly fell over, he said, "I can't-- Let's just--" and all but threw his bass to the side, pulling Brendon down on the couch and doing his best to release some of the tension that had built up in Brendon's muscles.

Brendon panted and his eyes became wet, but he didn't move away. He said, "Ow, Jon Walker, what'd I ever do to you?"

"I don't have an extra hand, can somebody muss his hair for me?"

Tom and Ryan made it at the same time, and Brendon ducked away, shouting, "Mean, mean!" but notably made sure that his leg was still in Jon's hands.

Spencer came over from behind his kit and draped himself over Ryan. He said, "Okay, it's possible we blow."

"Good thing we're only gonna be playing for people we know," Jon said calmly.

"And Mikey Way," Ryan reminded him.

"Technically, we know him, too," Brendon said with a faux-brightness that Ryan could feel like the worst kind of damp weather seeping into his injured bones. That technicality was a spread of maybe a dozen times they'd hung out with him at Angels & Kings, or seen him around at awards shows.

Tom, who was only getting parts of the conversation, jumped in anyway, "You guys were almost all killed. I think there's gonna be some, y'know, fucking leeway."

The problem was, Ryan didn't want there to be. He looked at the others and could practically hear them thinking the same thing. Brendon said, "Maybe we should try some of the old stuff, the stuff we're comfortable with, could play in our sleep. Just to get our bearings back."

Ryan nodded. It was a good idea. They'd always done that before. He couldn't imagine why they hadn't started there to begin with, except that none of them was exactly at his best. Spencer tilted his head against Ryan's and said, "Okay, so, Nine."

Jon said, "Dust," which Ryan knew was just because he loved it. They all loved Nine, had never stopped. It was too much about them to ever feel differently.

"Mad As--" Brendon stopped.

Ryan said, "It's okay, we should."

Brendon shook his head vehemently. "No."

"Brendon," Ryan said, despite the fact that Brendon wasn't even looking at him; he was too busy putting down his own idea. Ryan clapped once, sharply. He had learned from Hobo that it was a good way to get attention when he needed it. Sure enough, Brendon's eyes snapped to him. Ryan said, "I want to play the fucking song. And it's not like you don't know the words."

Brendon got a look on his face, and Ryan was a little worried he was going to decide to dig in on this subject, but instead he just said, "Fine, but we're never fucking performing 'Behind the Sea' or 'Serendipitous' ever again." Ryan had sung the latter on their third album.

Jon winced a little. Ryan knew he loved both those songs. Ryan said, "We'll talk about those later."

"Ryan," Brendon said warningly, his fingers vibrating with frustration.

"Later," Ryan said, and he wasn't sure his fingers were much more stable.

For a second Brendon seemed like he was going to push, but then he leaned back against the sofa cushions. "Fine."

When the danger was past, Spencer said, "So, Nine?"

Ryan went back to pick up his guitar.

*


They had the party at The Palms. They tried to imagine having it somewhere else, but they all agreed that there were some things you didn't fuck with, and tradition was one of them. Not that they'd ever had a party at The Palms, but it was the spirit of the principle, not the letter, that mattered. They chose the Pink Suite over the Celebrity Suite because Brendon and Spencer both enjoyed pink and Ryan had a passing fondness for it. Jon wasn't morally opposed, so it was fairly unanimous. Also, at a fifty person capacity, it was just about the perfect size for their party, without seeming like they didn't have very many friends or making things claustrophobic.

Ryan had gone along for the initial planning meetings wherein catering and other major decisions were made, but mostly he'd let the guys handle it. He still didn't much like signing in front of other people, no matter that Brendon, Jon and Spencer had each, in turn, proven that when it mattered they would translate Ryan's words carefully and with intent to uphold what he was trying to get across. But other people would do this thing where they stopped looking at him, like he wasn't the one saying things, like it was all them, and he hated that. Ryan was still inside himself.

He stopped going the day the caterer responded to Spencer translating Ryan's suggestion of an organic theme by saying, "Well, that might be a little on the expensive side." It wasn't the words--it was her job to tell them things like that--it was the fact that she said them at about three times her normal speaking volume and enunciated each syllable.

Jon snapped, "He's mute, not stupid. He can hear and understand you just fine."

Ryan wasn't exactly mute, and being illiterate never allowed him to feel exactly not stupid, but it was nice that Jon had stuck up for him. After that, he let the others deal face to face with the party planners. They could always call the house to get his opinion.

When he showed at the suite the night of the party, he got to be a little more surprised than the others, which was nice. Price tag notwithstanding, they had decided to go with Ryan's organic idea, because Brendon loved it and it would make most of Pete's band pretty happy. The decorations were subtle, which was necessary, what with the suite's pink overtones, and the area where they would play was set up nicely, everything in place.

Ryan said, "We should get used to the acoustics."

Spencer nodded. "Yeah, I did a little fucking around while I was helping with set up yesterday. They're a little unusual."

They settled in and just warmed up a bit. Brendon always got a little excited before first performances after a long break, and it gave him less control until he could get it in hand. It took them a couple of hours of Ryan fucking up chord progressions and Spencer missing beats and Jon just plain losing track of what the hell they were doing while laughing at Brendon, but they finally found their sound, adjusted it to the space and even managed to get some of the new songs sounding the way they wanted them to.

Jon drove Ryan back to the apartment after that. Jon said, "Wanna lemme fuck you in the tub?" They had figured out that the application of heat and water to their sexual activities meant that the strain on Ryan was less, both in terms of pressure and his muscles. Jon could sit back against the wall of the tub and hold Ryan to him. They had to take a shower afterward, but it was worth it, completely worth it, and between the sex and the shower, it was the best way to get both of them as unwound as humanly possible.

Ryan had a new outfit for the party. He'd actually let Spencer take him out shopping. He'd made Spencer deal with the salespeople and buy the outfits, but he'd gone and tried things on and walked out with new slacks and a shirt that didn't match in the least. Ryan liked mismatching outfits not for the novelty, but because it always felt like he was wearing two of his favorite outfits, instead of just one. Jon said, "Mm, looking good," and Hobo barked, which Ryan took as agreement. Jon was in jeans and a Christmas sweater, despite the heat. Ryan said, "Aw, did your grandma send you a birthday present?"

Jon flipped him off. Ryan grinned and kissed him. Then he pulled back and said, "Christmas mice? Really?"

"Made me think of Dylan."

Dylan, who had moved down there about three weeks into Jon's stay, was nowhere to be seen, but Clover was hanging over his shoulder. Clover was seemingly totally uninterested in the mice. Ryan went and got a belt to put on. He was still careful with belts. The first time he had put one on, he'd tightened it too hard and nearly dropped himself from the pain. That really wasn't a risk anymore, but Ryan's brain refused to accept that, especially when he was nervous.

Jon came over and finished the buckling process for him. He said, "No, really, Ryan. Hot."

Ryan smiled. "I kinda like yours too." The sad part was, he did.

Jon combed his fingers through Ryan's hair, which probably fucked up the styling Ryan had managed, but he didn't say anything. Jon asked, "You ready?"

The thought of a room full of people who would need a third person just to understand Ryan's actual vocabulary--people who had been able to understand him at least marginally for the better part of his adult life--mostly just made him want to hide, but he said, "Happy birthday," and smiled for Jon.

Jon said, "You're not fooling anyone," but he smiled back and held out his arm for Ryan. Ryan took it.

*


Pete arrived early, to nobody's surprise. Mikey was there with him, wearing an early Panic shirt that was even more painfully ugly than Ryan remembered them being and had probably been manufactured for a fifteen year old girl. Mikey was totally working it. Of course. Pete came right up to Ryan and hugged him just tight enough that Ryan couldn't get away. It hurt a little, but Ryan was okay with that. He was glad Pete was there.

Finally Brendon said, "Stop hogging Pete," like it was Ryan's fault, and took his turn.

Ryan turned to Mikey and said, "Thanks for coming." Spencer, who was nearby, translated.

Mikey said, "You're welcome," his hands forming the words with his mouth. "Thanks for inviting me."

Ryan grinned. "You speak?"

Mikey looked to Spencer. Then he shook his head. "No, no. Just a few words. I'm trying to learn."

"Mikeyway for the win," Spencer said, which, yeah, was pretty much what Ryan would have said anyway.

Ryan made sure to stick with at least one of the other guys, or, if that failed, Haley or Darcy, as the rest of the guests began to arrive. He could tell that a lot of them were nervous about talking to him, but then, that was fair enough, since Ryan was pretty fucking nervous just being in a room with a whole bunch of people who could talk without having to resort to hand-formed symbols. He discovered that a fair number of the people they'd invited had learned a few signs here and there, enough to greet Ryan, thank him in turn. Ryan appreciated the effort, even if he sort of had trouble saying that, mostly just had to reach out and grab people's hands, give them a squeeze. Ryan couldn't remember touching this many people in one evening in a long, long time.

Jon sidled up to him early in the evening and mumbled, "Want some wine?" low in his ear.

Ryan answered, "Just a glass. Chardonnay." He didn't know that word so he said, "The white stuff I like." When Jon came back he said, "Chardonnay" and signed it out once he'd handed the drink to Ryan. Ryan figured he'd stopped and asked Darcy.

Ryan had made himself go slow, aware that it was easier to lose track when he was nervous, when he wanted the wine for something beyond the taste. It worked, flooding into him slowly, making things just a little less tense. He had a second glass after the hors d'oeuvres, but then went back to Coke through dinner. He wanted to be sharp enough to play well.

They took to the "stage" after dinner, Brendon welcoming people, thanking them for being there. They started with "Nine," because it wasn't contentious and it sort of said everything that needed saying. Plus, it relaxed them. They moved into "Dust" and a reworked version of one of the b-sides off their fourth album, the one that none of them had wanted to get rid of, but all of them had agreed simply didn't fit. Then they delved into the new stuff, playing the song Brendon had brought to them first, moving into a song that had actually made it onto the fourth album, then one of the songs Ryan and Jon had started, Mad As Rabbits, and finally the third song they had, the one all of them had sat around and hammered out, oftentimes yelling with exaggerated signs that, sooner or later, made them all laugh, no matter how tense things were.

There was a lot of applause when they were done, Gabe shouting--possibly "take it off," but Ryan wasn't wholly sure--Pete saying, "Shit yeah," Mikey giggling. They were good responses, positive, before they had time to get self-critical. There would be plenty of time for that later, time to pick things apart and find the problems and decide which problems were meant to be, and which would have to be fixed.

Pete made them all get drinks--juice or soda if alcohol was a bad idea-- and set his on a table so that he could sign even as he talked, as he said, "To you guys. To having fucking survived."

Ryan raised his glass and clinked it against Jon's, Spencer's, Brendon's. He took a few sips and then set it down again to ask, "Which one of you taught him the swear words?"

They all looked earnestly perplexed at the question. After a minute, Haley raised her hand. "But," she said, "Spencer taught me, so it was totally like he taught Pete, too."

"There's a flaw in that logic somewhere," Spencer said.

"Good luck finding it," Brendon told him, and patted him on the back.

Jon pressed his hands to Ryan's shoulders and asked, "How you doing?"

Ryan twisted enough so that Jon would be able to see him say, "I'm doing."

Jon laughed, but they both knew it was the best description Ryan could possibly come up with.

*


Pete and Mikey stayed in the suite with them late into the night, long past when everyone but Darcy and Haley had shuffled off to their respective beds, or, at least, someone's bed. Most of the guests were staying at the hotel, so it hadn't been a long shuffle, regardless. The eight of them splayed out on the couches, draped over each other, near to one another. Ryan was mostly asleep when he admitted, "I don't know if I can get on a bus again."

There was a silence after the admission, different from the somnolent pauses that had become more and more frequent and Ryan opened his eyes to find Pete's gaze on him, assessing and yet knowing. Pete said, "Yeah, I sorta-- I thought you might say that."

"I want to." Ryan thought maybe that was important. "I just freak out when I think about it." Freak out was sort of a mild description. There had been one or two times when Jon had found Ryan struggling to breathe past the terror at the thought. Pete didn't need to know that.

"I've had my doubts, too," Brendon admitted. Brendon, at least, had gotten himself together enough to see someone about his issues, most of which involved having seen Ryan thrown fully down the length of the bus. Ryan hadn't yet gotten up the nerve to spend an hour or more a week trying to explain himself with his hands and nothing else to someone he didn't know. The thought had been overwhelming enough back when he trusted words to describe him, to clarify who he was.

Jon and Spencer stayed silent, both of them watching Pete. Finally Pete said, "I had an idea about that. You don't have to say yes."

Ryan, who had always watched people's body language, had learned from his father how the tensing of muscles could give better warning than anything that involved sound, had become even more attuned to it since learning to sign. Next to Pete, Mikey was too still, waiting for Pete to talk. Waiting for them to answer. Ryan wondered how many times Pete had rehearsed whatever he was about to ask in front of Mikey. Pete said, "We're doing a 35 date starting in the new year. Gives you some time to work on this stuff you've got coming along, whatever you need to do, you know. I thought-- Maybe you'd open for ten or so of them? Later on in the tour? I know it's-- I'm not, like, trying to demote you or anything. I just figured it would be a way to try, and if it doesn't work, I can always call in a baby band. I've got like eight that would eat you like fucking piranhas if they so much as smelled the chance."

"Nice metaphor," Ryan told him. Pete, despite everything, beamed.

Spencer said, "I wake up four times a week and have to call Ryan to make sure he's alive. At least."

It was true. Spencer was also in therapy, as was Jon, but they all had new tics, like the fact that Jon had a tendency to screech to a stop at the mere hint of a yellow light, or the way Brendon made Darcy call him pretty much every time Darcy had to drive somewhere. They weren't the world's most highly functioning foursome at the moment, and none of them was unclear about this fact. Mikey said, "Jesus," and looked a little green around the gills. Ryan wondered if he was thinking of Gerard.

Jon took a deep breath and said, "That would be almost six months from now."

Pete didn't say a word. His gaze was floating over the four of them, allowing it to be their decision. Ryan looked at Spencer. The set of his shoulders told Ryan that Spencer would give, that he would try again, because Spencer had been doing the impossible for Ryan since two weeks after they met, when he totally charmed Ryan's father and found a way to become part of the Ross household like nobody else could ever manage. Which was why Ryan signed, "Tell me no. It's my turn to listen."

Spencer didn't speak as he used his hands to tell Ryan, slowly, "I think, sooner or later, it will call to us. That we're still the same people we were before, just afraid."

Ryan nodded. He didn't disagree. "Fear used to be easier to ignore."

"No shit," Brendon breathed softly, his fingers still. Haley laughed, but it wasn't in amusement.

Ryan looked over at Brendon, who was watching them. He tilted his head. Brendon said, "Spencer's right. All of us. Sooner or later it will start to itch under our skin. And maybe by then the fear will be so bad that--"

He stopped. Ryan acknowledged the truth of the statement. From behind him, Jon said, "Besides, we can fucking do this. That's sort of the important part, right?"

Ryan twisted to ask, "How do you know?"

"Um, because--" Jon looked at the others for help.

"Because you're sitting here having a conversation with us," Spencer finished. "And I'll stop the two a.m. phone calls at some point, I'm sure. At least on a bus I can just look over at your bunk."


Brendon laughed a little wetly. Ryan turned to Pete. "Ten cities?"

"Even eight. Whatever you want."

Ryan said, "Let's aim high."

*


Ryan was listening to Emilia Fox read to him, trying to come down from the excitement of the weekend, the party, Pete's visit. Her British lilt was flowing over the words, "He talked to her of all his serious schemes, and she listened in a kind of wonder, and let him talk. Then the flow ceased, and he turned on the loudspeaker, and became a blank, while apparently his schemes coiled on inside him like a kind of dream."

Jon came in to the room smelling of peanut butter. Ryan signed, "Cookies?" unable to keep the upward tilt that indicated hope out of his fingers.

"Pretzels dipped in peanut butter," Jon said, pausing the mp3. "Want some?"

Ryan shook his head. Jon got on the bed and laid out beside him. He asked, "You have this book? An actual copy?"

Ryan said, "No, but it's free online. Why?"

"Want me to read to you? I can't do the voices and stuff, but--"

"Don't care about the voices," Ryan said, looking at Jon.

"No?" Jon asked.

Ryan thought for a second of how to explain. "They get in the way. I miss-- I miss when it was just me and the words. When I could pretend they belonged to me or I belonged to them or something, just for a little while." Ryan breathed heavily, like he'd actually been saying the words, hadn't paused for breath. "I miss it."

Jon reached over Ryan and replayed the last sentence. He pulled the computer to himself, Googled Lady Chatterley's Lover and opened the free edition, searching for the phrase. When he found it, he began reading: "And every night now he played pontoon, that game of the Tommies, with Mrs Bolton, gambling with sixpences. And again, in the gambling he was gone in a kind of unconsciousness, or blank intoxication, or intoxication of blankness, whatever it was."

Ryan closed his eyes. If anything had to come between him and the text, he supposed it was all right, having it be Jon. As it was, with Jon's voice tripping soft and carefree over the words, Ryan could get pretty damn close. Jon read and read, through to the end of the chapter, on to the next one. When he stopped, his voice was wearing at its own edges.

Ryan kept his eyes closed so that he wouldn't know if Jon saw him say, "You make me whole," wouldn't have to know if Jon just didn't want to respond. Jon probably thought the sentiment was crazy, illiterate Ryan who had to tap someone on the shoulder just to say hi to them. But there were different types of whole, Ryan was pretty sure.

Jon's lips touched at his. Ryan opened his eyes to see Jon swirling his right hand while keeping it flat and bringing it to rest against his other hand. With his eyes open, for the first time Ryan saw how the motion seemed to say the word "whole" so much more fully than just letting the word pass off a tongue, into the air.

*


Ryan was trying to play "Serendipitous" on the piano when Brendon came in. Ryan could hear him, even over the clunky sounds of his own playing. He had found himself listening more, to everything. He had no idea how he even knew what Brendon's walk had sounded like before--maybe it had resounded on the floorboards of stages, Ryan couldn't remember--but it was different now, not as even. It was always, always quicker than Spencer's. Jon said, "Hey, Bren."

Brendon slid on the bench next to Ryan and said, "You're fucking it up."

Ryan nodded. He knew. He'd helped write the song. Brendon sighed. "Here, let me--" Ryan started to get up, but Brendon just pulled him back down. "Like this." He slid his hands over Ryan's, taking them where they needed to go. It was slow and clumsy, and Ryan knew it didn't sound any better than before. Brendon took him all the way through the melody and said, "Now try."

Ryan played it again, his fingers falling into place by the strength of muscle memory, of knowing how Brendon had placed them. On the second run through, Brendon took up the harmony, playing around Ryan, next to him. Spencer came back from the kitchen and set two waters on the upright, settling his hands on Ryan's shoulders. Jon got up from the couch to join them all. As the last notes rounded out, Ryan lifted his hands. He said, "Sing it, Brendon."

"Ryan--"

"Be my voice. You've never said no before."

"That was different, and you know it."

It was, but the pertinent difference to Ryan was, "I didn't need it as badly. I need you--I need the three of you to be that for me. Not just speaking. I-- We've never been just about speaking."

"It won't sound right," Brendon said softly.

"Brend--"

Brendon pushed Ryan's hands down on the keys, and there was the echo of the clash for a moment. "You used to say that it was about me sounding confident, matching your lyrics. But you match these lyrics, that's why we had you sing them. And if you don't anymore, then-- If you don't--" Brendon's breath caught. Ryan watched Jon pull him slightly back, into Jon's chest.

Jon said, "Bren. Do-- D'you think, when I tell people what Ryan's saying, that it isn't Ryan's anymore?"

Brendon was still for a moment before shaking his head. "No, of course not. Ryan's words are Ryan's words."

All of them just looked at Brendon. Brendon sighed. "It's different. I can't explain how, and I suspect all you assholes know, but it's different."

There was a beat before Spencer said, "I'll sing backup." Ryan craned his neck back to look at Spencer, Spencer who had often had to be given copious amounts of pot and convinced that it was for the greater good that he sing before even considering it. Spencer ran a finger over Ryan's nose, smiling down at him. He looked at Brendon. "Together I think we know a little something about Ryan Ross, yeah?"

Brendon tilted his head to glance at Jon. "You in?"

"I like singing," Jon agreed easily.

Brendon took a deep breath. Ryan nudged him. "The three of you were always..." Ryan was at a loss, wasn't sure how to explain. Finally he just put his hands to his stomach, hoping Brendon would understand. He tried, "Always where the words came from. Who they were for. The words, just--"

Brendon nodded. He placed Ryan's hands back on the keys. Ryan played.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile