Gabe paid for the house—was paying, Ryan supposed. He wasn’t sure. Mikey, who could handle things like saying, “Uh, maybe an apartment would be cheaper, since we can’t, y’know—“ had been the one to fight that battle, but clearly, he’d lost. Or, well, Ryan wasn’t sure. It hadn’t felt exactly like loss in Mikey’s head, and since Nate and Brendon had fixed them the best they could, Mikey, Spencer and Gerard were the only people whose thoughts Ryan could hear anymore. So Gabe was a mystery.
The house was tucked away in the dense landscaping of New City. Ryan was fairly certain there were other houses around, but the bushes were doing a good job of giving lie to that notion. Spencer had spent the whole first day sitting with his feet in the pool, even though Ryan had been a little worried about the temperature. It was late spring, but still a little chilly.
Spencer had shrugged off Ryan’s unvoiced (but not unheard) concerns and asked, aloud, “Doesn’t this kind of remind you of Disney?”
Ryan could remember that Spencer’s family had taken him to Disneyland when they were kids, but when he tried to search for anything concrete in the memory, it slipped away. When he was halfway to panic trying to find something, Spencer said, “It does, Ry. It looks like it.”
Gerard used Google and showed Ryan pictures later. He still couldn’t remember, but at least he knew what Spencer was talking about.
There were five bedrooms—one for each of them and one for a study or place for guests to stay. Gerard found his way into Spencer’s room before they even went to sleep the first night, and Ryan held out for all of an hour once the nightlights came on before scuttling into Mikey’s. The beds were all queens, easily big enough for two, especially when neither of them particularly felt like having their space.
After a month, and several discussions, Gabe took away the beds in what had been Gerard and Ryan’s rooms and made them into studio spaces, one for art, another for music. The original guest room stayed that way. Gabe found people to convert the walls of the room into library shelves, though, entire with a sliding ladder, for hard-to-reach books. The living room was so technologically forward that Ryan was sometimes afraid it was smarter than him, but Gerard and Mikey loved it. It did anything and everything they asked it to.
The library room had a windowseat that Ryan liked to curl up on, in the sun, and read from. He fell asleep there more times than not, but he almost always woke up in bed, Mikey at his side.
In Gabe’s research center—it was called Developing the Future, but Ryan kind of hated that, even after Pete had very earnestly explained the whole business model of his and Gabe’s joint venture—Ryan could find his way around fairly easily. He didn’t wander out in the halls all that much, because they were generally stark or covered with tech, and either way, made him uneasy. And Gabe had fixed their room up to be a haven of soft places and music.
The house was hardly huge, or anything, but the shifting nature of it—there was rarely the same song on the stereo when he woke, and Gerard was forever putting different things on the wall—made it so that Ryan found himself taking a tour of it each morning, remembering what was what.
Mikey worried that there was something damaged in Ryan’s memory, Ryan could hear, even though Mikey tried to hide those thoughts. Ryan didn’t think it was his memory. He was pretty sure it was a kind of systematic craziness, except that he wasn’t certain he would be able to diagnose that in himself. He asked Brendon at one point, and Brendon said, “I’m a neurology researcher, Ry, I-- That’s not really my area of expertise.”
Nate was a neurosurgeon, which wasn’t much more useful, as it turned out, but he found Ryland, who was an honest-to-G-d therapist. Ryland said, “There are certain kinds of mental imbalance that can’t be detected in the person experiencing them. I’m not persuaded this is one of them.”
“So I’m crazy?” Ryan asked, and really, it wasn’t a surprise, just mildly devastating.
“I hate that word.”
“I suspect, in your case, permanently traumatized is more on track.”
“Permanently.” The word hurt going down Ryan’s throat.
Ryland raised an eyebrow. “Were you expecting to wake up fine one day?”
“I can’t always remember where the stairs are. Or how to tell time. How many days there are in a week. My own name.” Other stuff that Ryan wasn’t going to talk about.
“There’s a difference between healing, and being fine. You don’t remember where the stairs are most likely because you had the right of movement, choice of where to go, taken from you. Our brains cope with a loss of self-government in different ways. Telling time would have only told you how long they’d had you, it wouldn’t have let you know when it was going to be all over, even if you’d had some way of figuring out the passage of hours, days. Same for the days in the week.”
“My name?” Ryan asked.
“Bet you never forget Spencer’s, or Mikey’s, or Gerard’s.”
Ryan didn’t. “Mine seems kind of important.”
“It is. Now. Was it really then? Weren’t there other things that were more important? What did knowing your name get you?”
Ryan flinched from the question, shying away from the voices talking to him through the experiments, they way they cooed his name, asked him questions he couldn’t possibly answer. “Yeah. Okay.”
“It’s been slightly less than a year. Your body has hardly fully healed. And we know, relatively, how to treat bodies.”
“But not the crazy,” Ryan said.
Ryland said, “Don’t make me kick your ass,” quite formally. “I’m taller than you. I could do it.”
Gerard started working for Gabe from the house, as an artist in his pamphlets department. Saporta, Inc., printed a ton of information for volunteer medical aids on how to get clean water, keep insects out of beds, and other basic health steps to take when in their assigned communities. Gabe had evidently come up with the idea for the company—a mid-sized pharma outfit that turned the profits back on developing countries—when he’d gone to visit Uruguay with his family in his teens. Gabe had found Pete in his dorm room at college, and the two of them had been kind of unstoppable.
Mikey pitched in with basic admin stuff that didn’t involve going into any of the offices, and Spencer started taking classes from an online university in non-profit organization. Ryan would sit in on Spencer’s classes, but more often than not his head would start pounding half way through and if he didn’t medicate quickly and take a nap, there was a hellish migraine to pay. The medtech company that had been illegally testing on human subjects—them—had had him longer and integrated more undeveloped tech into him than the others. Brendon ad Nate had done their best, over the year, to slowly remove as much of it as they could, but it had left him with a significant amount of scar tissue.
The others had symptoms as well. Gerard was all-but blind in the sunlight, which he seemed to be taking well. Mikey had explained, “I think it makes him feel closer to his vampire roots.”
Spencer still dragged Gerard outside during the day, but he’d let Gerard lie on the poolchairs with his eyes closed, just so long as he got some fresh air. They would swim at night, both of them uncoordinated and still too-white in the water, but it was getting better.
Spencer had lost pretty much all sense of touch to his shoulders and upper back. Ryan could hit him with a two-by-four and he’d feel the impact knocking him forward, but nothing else.
Mikey’s voice went in and out. One moment he could talk just fine, and the next it was days before he could say anything vocally. The first time it had happened, once they’d figured out what was going on, and gotten him calmed down, Mikey had taken up residence in Ryan’s mind and refused to leave. Ryan hadn’t wanted to kick him out, or anything, so it was fine.
None of those things debilitated the others. Ryan, though, he couldn’t do anything that meant serious concentration for over thirty minutes—not even read. He had to stop, then, rest, and hope that he could remember whatever the fuck it was he’d been reading when he was ready to go again.
He knew Gabe would give him something to do if he asked, would find something, but the whole point was to actually be useful, like the others, not more of a burden just to boost his own self-esteem.
Ryan was pretty good at hiding his feelings from the others when he wanted, but he slept almost inside Mikey’s skin each night, so bleed-through was inevitable. Mikey thought, I need you. That’s all Gabe has to know. Even if you weren’t enough on your own, there’d be that.
Ryan said, “Okay,” aloud, and forced himself to go to sleep.
It took Ryan a while to do all the research. Computer screens tended to make his head hurt faster than print books, and he wasn’t going to print this stuff out for just anyone to find. While he was biding his time, he figured out little ways he could help—cutting veggies in short doses, setting the table, doing laundry, finite tasks.
He figured out how to get himself into the city, and to an organization that helped people like him. Well, not people like him, but people with mental illnesses. It helped to get them jobs, set them up in apartments. Ryan saw the numbers that Pete talked about with Spencer over dinners, or just afternoons on the deck. He knew that Gabe and Pete were using their money to help stop things like malaria and smallpox. They didn’t need to be supporting a freeloader with it.
The walk from the house to the bus station took a long time. The surgeons Gabe had brought in to work on Ryan’s body had been the best of the best, but it had taken much longer than anyone had hoped to convince Ryan to let them do their work, and the damage just hadn’t been wholly fixable. For walking around the house, or the yard, it was fine, and swimming was the best, his body weightless and somewhat capable in the water. Anything more was a struggle, but Ryan could do it. He just had to put his mind to it and be patient. (The latter of which was not really one of his strengths, but he liked to pretend.)
By the time he’d gotten to the bus station, all he wanted to do was call someone to pick him up—Mikey and Spencer could both drive—and go home, but he’d left his phone at the house specifically for that reason. Instead he dragged himself to the ticket window, bought a ticket and climbed on the bus.
He slept the whole of the way into the city. Navigating inside the city was rougher than he’d expected. He’d grown up in suburbia, and Vegas proper wasn’t really like Manhattan, not in the way where people just bumped into you walking past and barely paused to say “excuse me.”
Ryan found his way to a bathroom stall, where nobody could touch him and worked on breathing. When he could, he got out and continued his journey. One more bus, and then a three block walk, and he was at the center.
They were kind, but they talked to him really slowly, and yes, Ryan was brain-damaged, but not in that way. He could understand speech at full tempo, thanks. After a while, he started talking bizarrely fast, just to counter it in his own head. The receptionist seemed startled. He wanted to tell Mikey about it, Mikey would laugh—sometimes the people at the office treated Mikey the same way. Generally they ended up fired, but still, Ryan had seen it before.
Ryan made himself focus. Mikey wasn’t here. He was, he was here, and this was his life, and he could do this. No problem.
They found him within two days. It kind of pissed him off because he was doing fine, okay? The apartment was more of a room with a toilet and a bed and a sink, and his job involved sorting paper clips into different-sized piles, but it was a job, and he wasn’t just sitting around, leeching off of other people. He felt like an adult, or as much of like one as he ever was probably going to. Sometimes he could remember the things he’d wanted to do before. He’d been seventeen, at least, he was pretty sure. There had been college plans, other stuff, maybe even a band. It wasn’t this. But this would do. This was life, and Ryan could handle it.
Brendon showed up at his front door with an unsure smile. “Um. Evidently I was the one least likely to hit you.”
Ryan crossed his arms over his chest. “Was I a prisoner?”
Brendon looked so horrified that Ryan kind of felt bad for asking it that way, but only kind of. Brendon said, “No, of course, not,” and then started babbling. Ryan let him for a bit before pulling him inside.
Brendon looked around, as if unsure what to do and then sat down miserably on the bed and said, “Mikey’s… Gerard won’t leave his side.”
Ryan thought about cracking a snide remark, but he couldn’t, not about Mikey. “I left a note.”
“You left a note saying you were going to the city to actually support yourself.” Brendon produced said note from his pocket and waved it around. “And not to worry!”
“It was straightforward.”
“You’re seriously such an asshole.”
Ryan blinked at Brendon, who looked almost as surprised by the assertion as Ryan was. After a moment, Ryan said, “Well, yeah.”
Brendon got up then, in Ryan’s space and Ryan had to fight not to back away, even if he knew Brendon wouldn’t hurt him, not really. Brendon snapped, “Spencer tried so hard to find you he vomited from the strain.”
Ryan had felt something, later in the first day, but he’d thought it was just his imagination. They didn’t have that kind of range. “I—“
“Shut up,” Brendon said softly, not even mad, just exhausted sounding. “Gee won’t even fucking sketch, Mikey won’t let anyone turn on the damn stereo, they’re freaking the fuck out, Ryan.”
“I can’t stay there because it makes us all more comfortable, Brendon.”
“Why not, Ry? What makes that such a bad idea?”
Ryan’s head was hurting, and he knew he was going to regret this conversation later, for one reason or another. “Because-- Because for nearly three years, I was just a body. And I don’t want to be that, anymore.”
“You think-- I. What? The others, they could care less—“
“I don’t mean like that. I mean, that when I’m there, that’s all I am. I’m just space being taken up. I don’t even have the functionality of being an instrument of experimentation. I’m just…” Ryan shrugged.
“You’re just the only person who knows how to get Spencer to talk to his family at all anymore, and the only person who will actually listen to Gerard talk about his design ideas for hours and respond, and the only person in the world who can bring Mikey out of a nightmare and actually keep him out of it. You’re just the only one in the house who makes sure that Mikey eats, because Gee forgets, and the only one who notices if Spencer is doing too much work, because the others have their own, and the only one who can get Gerard to focus on things like if he’s cold or if he needs his hair cut. Yeah, that’s all you are.”
“They don’t need a babysitter,” Ryan hissed.
Brendon fidgeted, but said, “They kinda do, Ry. How could they not? How could any of you not need each other after-- I read those files a million times trying to undo the damage and I still don’t have any idea, can’t have any idea, what it was like. Only that the four of you do, and you have each other, and seriously, you think something like money’s more important than that?”
Ryan was having a hard time concentrating, but he said, “I think money’s pretty important to people who don’t have it.”
“I lived on Ramen and crackers for most of my undergraduate and graduate years. Trust me, not this important.”
Ryan rubbed at his eyes. “Are they mad?”
“They just want you back.”
Ryan said, “Okay,” before curling up on the bed, head in his hands, and giving into the pain.
Ryan woke up in the middle of a human puppy-pile. Mikey murmured, “Brendon gave you some stuff. For the pain.”
Yeah. Ryan didn’t feel up to talking.
Mikey answered, Do that again, and I will kill you myself. Slowly. I’ve been taught lots of tricks.
“Sorry,” seemed kind of lame, so Ryan just curled himself deeper into Mikey. Spencer came with him, but that didn’t surprise Ryan. He’d been able to feel him listening. He was still sounding kind of sluggish, but Ryan imagined that if he’d tried to mentally reach someone that far away, his brain might have actually exploded.
Gerard chimed in with, We’re getting a dog. To bark. If you try again.
Mikey mentally rolled his eyes. We’re getting a dog because Gee’s allergic to cats and I want something that’s nicer to me than you fuckers.
Ryan mouthed at Mikey’s neck, the closest area of skin to him. Spencer sighed. Ew.
Ryan ignored him. Mikey relented. Maybe I just really like dogs.
Ryan smiled against Mikey’s skin. I can take care of him.
Good. Gee forgets to feed things.
Gerard’s Hey! was not as impassioned as it might have been. Spencer snickered. Ryan said, softly, “I’ve noticed.”
Mikey didn’t speak for the better part of 72 hours after Gabe deposited Ryan back inside their house—Ryan had kind of wondered how Brendon, of all people had managed that feat. Ryan was fairly certain Mikey actually couldn’t speak, but nonetheless, it accomplished its goal of making Ryan feel like a dickface.
When he finally did speak, Mikey’s first words were, “Are you fucking crazy?”
“According to the shrink, possibly.”
“Fuck you,” Mikey said, in the same way some people asked what was for breakfast, or whether they should wear a sweater.
Which was fine, Ryan could feel the intent. “We all remember the Lemon Pine-Sol incident.”
Mikey shuddered. Lemon Pine-Sol had been the golden gateway into Ryan’s advanced stage but as-of-yet unnoted PTSD. Ryan had opened a bottle to clean off the kitchen counter and spent the next six hours in a state of utter panic. Evidently, it smelled like disinfectant to him. The only things they could use in the house were non-chemical based cleaners. It was a pain in the ass.
“PTSD isn’t crazy.”
“I feel like there’s an entire world of not-crazy people out there who would probably feel differently if they’d seen that go down.”
“There’s an entire world of assholes too, that doesn’t mean I consult them when I want to know what to think.”
Ryan thought about that for a while. Finally he said, softly, “I feel crazy.”
Mikey looked at him, and Ryan hugged himself, not knowing how to explain if Mikey didn’t just know. It had been so long since he’d had to. Eventually he tried, “Half the time I don’t even know if this is real, if I didn’t just create it. Then I tell myself that I couldn’t remember any of the songs, and I didn’t even know some of them, so it must be real, but it doesn’t feel like it.”
“It’s nothing you’ve ever known of the world. At least-- At least for me and Gee, the city looked familiar. You were taken off a bus. You probably never even saw it. No wonder.”
“It’s not fair, for you guys to be the only thing real in my head. Not for you.”
“Maybe,” Mikey admitted. “But you don’t get to make that decision, Ry. That’s not fair, either.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryan told him, and he was, but it didn’t change the way he felt.
Mikey rubbed a thumb lightly along a scar that curved over the back of Ryan’s neck. After a long while he said, “One of Gabe’s mailings got totally fucked and I need to hand feed the envelopes through the stamp machine. Wanna hand me envelopes?”
“Maybe you are crazy.”
Ryan laughed. It hurt, but not enough to make him cry, nowhere near enough. “Yeah, maybe.”