Brendon woke to his phone buzzing from beneath the arm cushioning his head from the desk. It took him a second to figure out what the hell had happened and where he was. The library carrel was familiar once he was half-awake. As was the ringtone of his phone. Ryan.
Brendon picked up. "Um."
"Where the fuck are you?" Ryan asked, in a tone that promised dire retribution for making him worry.
Brendon glanced down at his phone and winced. Sure enough, there were four missed calls. "Fell asleep studying, sorry."
Ryan was silent for a second and while, with Ryan, silence could mean all sorts of things, Brendon could mostly read the types. Ryan wasn't entirely sure what to say. Brendon said, "I, uh, guess I slept through dinner, huh?"
"Spence made chicken tacos. We saved some for you."
Brendon glanced at the time. No way he'd make it back to the apartment before he needed to be at his second job. "Thanks. I gotta get over to Dunkin'."
"Get yourself some free coffee," Ryan suggested, but there was something off about his tone.
Ryan just said, "See you when you get home."
Brendon worked a four hour shift six days a week at a twenty-four hour Dunkin'' Donuts located between the school and their apartment. He and the others were basically one hundred percent determined not to be a financial stress on Peter and Elizabeth. Between the three of them, Mikey, Gee and Neal, they were helping out with six kids in school and living in major cities. They helped out a bit with books, transportation and rent, and even that, Brendon and the others had been reluctant to accept.
As such, Brendon brought home day old bagels a lot, since they were good for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Pizza bagels were a dinner thing, in a pinch.
After the first year of school, Spencer and Ryan had been able to establish residency in Massachusetts. Between that, the scholarship Ryan had covering 10 hours a semester plus books, and the education grant Spencer had gotten through a non-profit for kids who had been on the streets for any period of time, the two of them were doing all right. They each had part-time jobs as well, which was enough to keep them afloat.
They'd offered to help Brendon. Even with work study and a scholarship for about 25% of tuition costs, Brendon's school was just more expensive. And the scholarship required he maintain a B+ average. Between that and what was left of his share of rent, picking up the extra job was helping, particularly with food costs, but Brendon was just barely covering everything.
He was going to apply for a federal loan. He'd missed the deadline for this semester, too distracted by how he was going to acquire necessary supplies, but he'd already filled out most of the paperwork for the semester ahead. That would kick in slightly before the next semester, which would help a lot. He knew he could ask Ryan and Spencer for help, or any of the other kids. He just…didn't want to be seen as the baby of the family. He wasn't even the youngest, but he was generally the most willing to ask for love or attention or aid, and he knew it meant that they all worried about him more than they should.
In the meantime, he was barely twenty. He could live on bagels and four hours of sleep a night, no problem. And if sometimes accidental catnaps were necessary, well, he could find time to squeeze in the studying he'd missed in between customers with a late night need for fried and glazed dough. Evidently Peter'd had a job during medical school when his GI funding wasn't enough to cover what the loans wouldn't. Brendon was totally capable of managing.
A little over a week later, Brendon slept through his T stop. He woke two stops later, when someone tripped over one of his feet. He swore, got off the train, went around to the other side and went back two stops, but he was still twenty minutes late to class.
He asked one of the guys he'd chatted with once or twice if he could have notes from those twenty minutes, and the guy emailed him right there on his tablet. Brendon smiled his best smile and promised to hit the guy back at some point. Then he ran to the cafeteria where he had his work study gig for the next three hours.
Brendon slept through his alarm four days later, and was late to his breakfast shift. The manager of the cafeteria gave him extra cleaning duty, which in turn made him late for another class. By the time he got to the Dunkin' that evening, he still hadn't had time to eat, and when he downed a bagel and a cup of coffee, it came back up within half an hour.
He switched over to water after that, and started figuring out how maybe he could fit in a little more sleep that weekend. He just needed to catch up.
Brendon was offered an extra shift at Dunkin' early Sunday morning and snapped it up, intoxicated by the thought of having a little breathing room where money was concerned for the month. Despite his best intentions to get caught up on sleep, he'd ended up staying awake the whole of Saturday night. He'd been working on music theory until three, and after that it seemed dangerous to try and sleep until five.
Spencer and Ryan had been asleep, so Brendon had decided that if he could get some of his biology done he'd be able to go to bed early the next night. He wasn't sure he'd done any of it right, but it was finished. He'd get off work at eleven, at which point he could read the chapters for musical composition and get in another couple of hours of practice, then sleep was all his. Everything else could wait.
Only, while pouring coffee for a customer, he sort of lost time and ended up pouring a considerable amount over his hand. It took a second for him to realize what he'd done. They were busy and he'd been working on muscle memory and the pain didn't connect to anything immediately.
Then Shawna, the on-shift manager, yanked him to the nearest sink and started running cold water over his hand, all the while passing on the order to Janey, who was now alone at the counter. Brendon started to say, "It's okay, it can wait till after the rush," but then the sting of the water set in and he buttoned his lips together.
As soon as the sting downgraded from utter-agony to I'm-not-going-to-pass-out-this-moment, Brendon reached out to turn off the water and said, "Sorry, I'll clean up when the rush is over."
Shawna, though, shook her head. "Like hell you will. That's already starting to blister. If I can't get you to go to urgent care, I'm at least sending you home."
Looking down at his hand made Brendon kind of queasy, so he stopped. "I'm fine, I promise." Brendon had experienced worse during the exorcisms he'd undergone as a kid, but he didn't talk about that, not even with Ryan and Spencer.
"Go be fine somewhere else, Urie. That's not a request."
"You guys are—"
But Shawna was already walking away and Brendon didn't want to get fired, so he put his hand back under running water until the throbbing at least slowed down, and then walked back to the apartment keeping the hand tucked to his stomach.
There was a bodega on the corner of their block. Brendon picked up some gauze and burn ointment and went home. He was glad it was his left hand. Playing the piano was still going to suck for a while, but he was a voice major, so that wasn’t a huge deal, and his right hand was his dominant.
He cleaned the hand with antibacterial soap in the kitchen, dried it, did his best to rub the ointment in, and dressed it. He was glad Ryan and Spencer were either still asleep, or hiding in their room. Ryan might already have been at work. Sometimes he could pick up more hours on Sundays.
Brendon went to his "room," which was actually just a part of the main area they'd curtained off, but it was enough space for a bed and a nightstand, and that was all Brendon really needed. He used the coat closet for his clothes so the other two could share the one closet in their room.
He opened the book on musical composition and began reading. When he'd start to fall asleep, squeezing the burnt hand worked well as a quick wake-up. He forced his way through two hours of singing practice, grateful when Spencer—who had gotten up and made food at some point—didn't come in to lie on Brendon's bed and listen. Normally Brendon loved when Spencer or Ryan did that, but he wasn't feeling up to talking to anyone.
When he was done, Brendon told himself he should go and get himself some food before sleeping, but in the end, it was all he could do to set his alarm for the next day.
He hit snooze three times, and only just made it out the door on time. He felt more awake than he had in a while through class, even if his hand hurt fiercely. He should have cleaned it again that morning, re-wrapped it, but he hadn't had time.
He grabbed some food while working the lunch shift, fit in his practice time, and just managed to stay alert all the way through his afternoon class. He grabbed a coffee when he showed up at Dunkin'.
Terry, the night manager, said, "Shawna left a note about what happened. Careful with the pouring tonight."
He didn't even sound condescending, just concerned—Terry was a genuinely nice guy—but Brendon desperately wanted to snap at him. He made himself breathe. Brendon didn't spend a lot of time being angry, and he didn't enjoy it when he was. He forced a smile on his face. "Ten-four."
By Thursday, it hurt so much to play the piano that Brendon begged a favor off one of the piano majors, in exchange for helping her figure out a decent audition piece for an internship. He nearly dropped cups and bags all evening at Dunkin' when he'd momentarily forget not to pick things up with his left hand. By the time he got home, he was biting his lip to keep from crying. It wasn't working very well.
When he got the aparment door open, Peter and Elizabeth were sitting at the small breakfast table, with Ryan and Spencer standing around with mugs in their hands. Brendon tried his hardest to dig up a smile. He was glad to see them, but it made him want to run to them and cry, just be held for a few minutes. "Hey, hi, I didn't—did we know you were coming?"
"We did," Ryan said.
Spencer gave Ryan a Look. "We called them, B."
Brendon blinked. He wasn't sure what surprised him more: that Spencer and Ryan had gone behind his back, or that they'd actually asked Peter and Elizabeth to come.
Spencer put down his mug with hands that were shaking slightly and said, "You said you burnt your hand on Sunday but you won't let us see it or help you with anything. We haven't seen you in almost two weeks because you're never home. You've kept the curtain to your area closed all the time, haven't come into our room at all, and Ryan and I can't remember seeing you sleep more than a couple of hours in the last month."
Ryan added, "You won't talk to us."
That was kind of rich coming from Ryan, but now that Brendon was paying attention, they both looked terrified. He'd never even noticed. He looked at Elizabeth and Peter. "You didn't need to—I just poured coffee on my hand. It was an accident, that's all. I'm a little overcommitted, but it's not a big thing."
Everyone was silent for a minute, then Peter stood. It took everything Brendon had not to back up. Peter had never hurt him, but Ryan and Spencer were on the other side of Peter and everything felt hard to understand. Peter held up his hands. "I just wanna see the burn, Brendon. I did, at one time, go to medical school, even if I don't see patients."
Brendon cast an instinctive glance in Ryan and Spencer's direction. Ryan was gripping his mug so tightly Brendon was worried it would break in his hands. Spencer mouthed, "Please."
Brendon sighed and unwrapped the bandage. He hadn't had a chance to clean it the day before, having fallen into bed before he even brushed his teeth. He swallowed rapidly in order not to hiss as the bandage stuck to parts of the burn. Peter said, "Stop, stop B."
He herded Brendon to the sink and turned on the cold water slowly over Brendon's hand. Brendon couldn't help the mewl of pain he made, and before he knew what had happened, Elizabeth was standing on his other side. She gasped, "Oh, baby."
Brendon looked at the burn, which was way worse than last time he'd seen it. "I—I put the ointment and the bandage on."
Peter gently worked the bandage free and said, "You did good, but it's still infected. You're gonna need antibiotics. There a 24-hour urgent care around here?"
Ryan and Spencer shared a look. Spencer said, "Yeah, I'll take you guys."
Elizabeth nodded. "We'll be here."
Brendon fell asleep against Spencer on the train ride over, despite his best attempts not to. Peter had been willing to drive, but there was no decent parking near the clinic, and the train would actually involve less walking. He awoke to the sensation of Spencer pulling him upright, promptly falling against Peter. Peter steadied him and said, "Hey there."
Spencer filled out the paperwork once they were in the waiting room. It took about thirty minutes or so to get them in a room, and Brendon fell asleep waiting. He was ushered into the exam room half-awake, but when the doctor asked, "How did this happen?" Brendon felt inexplicably defensive.
He'd long ago learned not to snap at people in a position of power, so he tried to sound calm when he said, "Coffee spill," and, "I took care of it. I cleaned it and put the gauze on."
The doctor made a sound and said, "I'm gonna numb you up a bit before I clean this out. Is that all right?"
Brendon looked at Peter. For a moment, he flashed back to the time Ryan had fallen out of the tree, and Peter had kept them with him, stayed with them so they could get some sleep. Brendon nodded quickly, afraid if he opened his mouth he'd cry. Brendon wasn't a kid anymore. Peter and Elizabeth shouldn't have to drive hundreds of miles to take care of his burnt hand.
The sting of the anesthetic ended quickly. Brendon didn't look down while the doctor worked. After a moment, the man asked, "Have you been eating and sleeping all right?"
Brendon blinked. "Um. I'm a college student?"
"So, no," the doctor said, not without a sense of humor. "Well, for what it's worth from an old fogey like me, your immune system probably could have managed this infection if it weren't so busy trying to just survive."
"Oh," Brendon said. "I was just—" he stopped and shook his head. It didn't matter.
"Just what, B?" Peter asked softly.
Brendon wanted to lie down on the metal exam table and sleep forever. "Just trying to take care of myself."
Brendon only vaguely remembered getting back home and being put to bed. He couldn't feel his hand, and Elizabeth was lightly scratching his scalp, Ryan curled around his back. Brendon would have been too exhausted to stay awake without the extra comfort once horizontal, but with it, he didn't stand a chance.
He came to a couple of times when someone sat him up and made him drink water, eat a little something, and take pills, but even then he wasn't really awake so much as letting the others pull his puppet strings. When he did fully regain consciousness, it was nearly a day and a half later, according to his phone. Spencer was sitting by him on the bed, working. Elizabeth was across the room, sleeping on the couch. Someone had opened the curtain at some point, but Brendon was glad. It meant he could see almost everywhere in the apartment.
Ryan was probably at work. Peter was in the kitchen area, washing dishes. Brendon struggled to a sitting position, noticing then that his hand hurt a lot less than it had when he'd fallen asleep. Spencer put a hand to Brendon's forehead and, evidently pleased with what he felt, said, "We called your work and the school. You're not expected back until next week."
Brendon looked at his phone again. Sure enough, it was Sunday. "Tomorrow?"
"Wednesday," everyone said at once, very firmly.
"The clinic doctor wrote a pretty strongly worded note," Peter said.
Brendon rubbed his good hand over his face. He conjured up his best smile and told Peter and Elizabeth, "You really could have just yelled at me over the phone. Spence and Ry would've taken care of the rest."
Elizabeth, who still had her eyes closed, said, "We don't want to yell, B."
She sounded as tired as Brendon still felt. He winced. Spencer sighed and buried his fingers in Brendon's hair. Brendon moved in closer to him and said, "Sorry," without looking at either Elizabeth or Peter.
Elizabeth said, "Spence?"
Spencer gave Brendon a quick squeeze. "Yeah, I've gotta get ready for work anyway."
And then the traitor left Brendon alone.
Elizabeth sat up on the couch and said, "C'mere, B."
Brendon was more than happy to stay in bed, which seemed relatively safe, but they had come all the way up here for him, so he listened to instruction. Peter came over and sat on his other side, sandwiching him between the two of them. Brendon said, "Didn't mean to make you worry."
"We're your parents. That's our job," Elizabeth told him.
Brendon shrugged. "You kinda got roped into that one."
There was a sudden stillness that shook Brendon, before Elizabeth calmly asked, "Excuse me?"
Brendon frowned at the floor. "Well, y'know. Diana took us to your storage room, and Neal's…he's good at getting us what we need, and I mean, you probably didn't mind a few of us, but it was all or nothing and—"
"Stop," Peter said quietly, but with enough intent that it cut Brendon off immediately. "Are you telling us that for over eight years now, you've believed we adopted you out of societal and peer pressure?"
Brendon wanted to get up, to bounce and pace and wave his hands in a distracting manner, but he wasn't sure he had enough energy to rise from the couch. Instead, he made his voice calm. "I grew up the youngest in a big family—"
"Whoa," Elizabeth interrupted. "Your family left you, so let's leave off of that comparison, if you don't mind."
His family had done worse, but Brendon didn't say that. "I'm just trying to explain that big families have kids who are just part of the package. Leaving those kids is poor parenting skills. Not being able to worry about all the kids at the same level is just…a survival thing."
Elizabeth did stand up at that, laughing, but she wasn't amused. She went to look out the window and said, "You don't remember the first time I saw you, because you were so sick you were seeing biblical demons. You felt like a damn forest fire all contained in one little, too-skinny body, and you didn't know where you were, or who I was, or anything.
"But when I sat down next to you, just to see who you were, part of getting to know these kids who'd tumbled into my life, you rolled into me, hummed a few bars of a hymn I didn't know then and still don't know, and calmed down. And when I picked you up and held you, not only did you not fight, you made these little noises that Spencer called your happy-gurgles."
Wow, eight years later and Brendon was only now learning that he was going to have to kill Spencer.
"I love Neal more than life itself," Elizabeth said softly. "But his charms were only a very small part of why we spent almost two years navigating state bureaucracy to make sure nobody could take any of you away from us, bought a new house, and spend half the time feeling like empty-nesters despite Eliot and Parker still being at home."
Peter drew Brendon in more tightly against his side and said, "Every single one of you is ours, kid. And if anything happened to any of you, I honestly think I'd lose it. It's hard enough not having you guys where we can see you, or at least quickly drive over and pick you up. You not asking for help when you need it makes us feel like we've been benched."
"And it sucks," Elizabeth said emphatically.
Brendon wiggled free of Peter to give himself some room, and got up to pace. He ended up just using the nearby wall to hold himself in a vertical position, breathing. "I never thought of it that way."
Peter nodded. "Ryan and Spencer, they didn't ask us to come. They didn't have to. The minute one of them said they were worried—"
"That was all the excuse we needed," Elizabeth finished.
Brendon looked at the floor and whispered, "I miss you guys. And I—I don't know if I can do this."
"This?" Peter asked.
Brendon bit his cheek. "School, the jobs, just…everything. I'm so tired."
"You can do school, B," Elizabeth said. "But you don't have to. It has to be your decision."
Brendon sniffled. "I like school, but—"
"No buts," Peter said. "It's just a matter of finding a way to tide you over until you can get loans."
"You're already helping—"
"Some of our other kids, yeah," Elizabeth agreed. "All the more reason why we want to help you, too. We'd help all of you, if any of you'd be easy and just let us. But noooo, why would you do that?"
Brendon laughed a little wetly and slid to the floor. Elizabeth came over and sat next to him. "Let us be your mom and dad, okay?"
Brendon leaned against her and closed his eyes. "Okay." He took a deep breath. "Okay."