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Previous.

Ryan didn’t want to wake Brendon. He felt stupid and childish to wake Brendon again for a nightmare. He always woke him up for nightmares and even if he knew that Brendon wouldn’t mind, he wanted to deal with this by himself.

Careful not to make any noise, he slipped out of bed and left the room. He knew he wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. He never could when the nightmares showed up. The house was pitch dark as he made his way to the kitchen, and the only thing that saved him from walking into a wall or tripping down the stairs was that he now knew the place by heart – or at least, the path from his room to the kitchen. He was still getting lost sometimes.

It was always the same nightmare he was having. The night Brent was killed would come haunting him most nights and would sometimes even evolve into Brendon or Spencer being tortured in front of his eyes and those times were when he was unable to go back to sleep for the rest of the night. Tonight was no exception. He had seen Brendon be tortured to death and it seemed that even now that he was awake he could still hear his cries for help.

He served himself a bowl of cereal and jumped when William greeted him.

“You can’t sleep either?” he asked the older man, propping himself up to sit on the counter.

“No. Nothing serious. Just insomnia, you know?”

Ryan knew he had gotten in a fight with Gabe earlier. He had heard them yelling. It was all they seemed to be doing; fuck and fight. Whatever worked for them, he guessed. Maybe that’s what it would be like between he and Brendon if Brendon would stop being so overprotective with him.

“You’re not talkative, I always forget. Everyone around here never seems to be able to shut it but I don’t remember ever conversing with you,” William commented after a while in silence, filled only by the clicking of Ryan’s spoon against the bowl in his hands.

“I don’t have anything to say.”

“I’m sure you’re wrong. I’m sure you have a lot to say but you’re afraid people won’t listen to you.”

Ryan looked up at what he could make out of William’s face in the dark to find him staring right back at him.

“Stop staring at me like that,” Ryan muttered, looking down at the soaked cereal he wasn’t even hungry for.

“Well, if you ever need to talk to someone, I’m there, alright? I’m going back to bed before Gabe realizes I’m gone. Goodnight, Ryan.”

Ryan watched him walk out of the room, confused as to why William had talked to him for the first time since he arrived, two months ago. They usually avoided him, out of respect, Spencer would say. He knew better than that, he knew they feared them more than anything else. People were always afraid of them, not because of what they were doing, but of the way they were doing it.

He wouldn’t be able to say how long he spent sitting on the kitchen counter, staring out the windows. He saw the color of the sky changing as the sun rose and washed the night away, the anxious feeling of insomnia knotting his guts and making him feel feverish.

“Ryan?”

He tore his eyes from the window to look at Greta. She was dressed but that was probably the only thing she bothered to do. Her long, wavy curls were tangled and it was really weird, Ryan thought, to see her with her hair down instead of the usual bun she always wore.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, rubbing her eye and crossing the kitchen to start making breakfast.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he replied, not moving from the counter. “What are you doing up this early?” he asked her after finally glancing at the clock and seeing that it was a little past six.

“Travie needs to go to New York for a few days and he’s leaving early this morning. He has to have something to eat.”

She smiled softly at Ryan and began taking out eggs and pans.

“I’ll go try to sleep,” he said after a while.

He knew he wouldn’t be able to do so. He could feel that Greta was about to ask him why he was there, but he didn’t want to have to answer any questions about his nightmares or even have to talk with anyone.

His side of the bed was cold when he slipped back in it, so he scooted closer to Brendon’s warm body. He wrapped an arm around his waist and buried his face against his shoulder. Brendon mumbled something as he took Ryan’s hand in his to squeeze it.

As the house awoke, more and more noises could be heard, and after two hours of restlessly rolling around the bed, Ryan gave up on sleep all together and got up, ignoring his undead look as he headed for the bathroom to try to wash away some of the tiredness he felt clinging to him.

After a quick breakfast that he ate out of habit, he settled in the library, the loud noises of the always full house making his head throb with pain. There were always people transiting through the building, always conversations buzzing from everywhere in the house and it was tiring Ryan, who by far preferred silence and loneliness.

It seemed that more and more people visited since Gabe showed up. There were always new guests, tens of names to match to faces that blurred together in Ryan’s sleep-deprived mind. He knew Brendon was curious to know what all these people could have to do with Pete but Ryan had other concerns, far more important because they kept him up at night and were making him slowly lose his mind.

The nightmares were really starting to bother him because the images he could see in them would sometimes haunt him when he was awake. Some things in his surroundings would trigger a reaction in his head and he would begin to panic without even knowing why or what about. He would feel the waves of anxiety and fears fill him and would not know what to do, or how to stop it from making him want to cry. He was getting good at hiding it. He knew when it was coming and would leave the room before anyone could notice anything – well except Brendon and Spencer.

They were both really worried about him. Spencer was angry, because Ryan refused to tell him what was wrong. Brendon had a better ideabecause he knew about the nightmares, but Ryan could tell he was getting angry too at Ryan’s refusal to speak about it. He probably saw it as a lack of trust and Ryan didn’t have the energy to prove him otherwise.

Ryan was getting angry too. Angry at people who couldn’t understand that talking about his problems makes them more real, and that the last thing he wanted was to dwell on them; angry that he had said problems and didn’t know how to get rid of them. Angry that he couldn’t sleep anymore, angry that his best friends were drifting away from him, angry that Pete always had a stupid smirk on his face whenever he talked to them, angry that people around him were always so frightened and angry to feel so much anger for reasons that are ridiculous.

Shaking, he left the room, bumping into one of Pete’s toddlers on his way down the stairs. He rudely snapped at them and continued on his way to the only place where he knew he would be able to get rid of some of the wrath boiling inside of him without hurting anyone.

The basement was dark and humid, the smell of mildew always making him feel sick. Ryan crossed it without putting on any lights, knowing the path to the shooting practice room by heart. He yanked the heavy door open and stormed inside, sure enough finding Zack there.

“Hey, Ross, how you doing?” the man asked him, not looking up from the revolver he was slowly cleaning.

“Whatever. Just give me a fucking gun,” he snapped, crossing his arms over his chest and tapping his foot on the ground as he waited for the man to give him what he wanted.

“To practice or to -”

“Seriously?” Ryan sighed with exasperation and reached for the revolver he was handed.

Without another word, he stalked into the practice area, grabbing a pair of ear protectors and closing the door behind him. The silence thatalways followed used to startle him, the absolute absence of any sound now relaxing him, when it used to make him uneasy. When he added the ear protectors, the only thing he could hear was the beating of his heart and he smiled softly. He loved the feeling of being wrapped in a bubble of solitude it brought him. He watched his hands as he cocked the revolver in complete silence before aiming for the target at the other side of the room.

The vibrations in his arm from the detonation were the only thing that felt real in all he had lived that day. He hated the dream-like haze that seemed to fall over the world when he had and insomnia-filled night.

Closing his eyes, he shook his head and breathed in deeply to push away every thought that bothered him and focused on his shooting. He didn’t need practice; he was already by all means an elite shooter, but he liked the adrenaline that filled his veins when he had a gun in his hands. He felt powerful and in control – two things he never felt in every other aspect of his life. The more he shot, the faster he heard his heart beating in his ears, which reinforced the feelings he relished in. His worries seemed far away and unimportant as he emptied the cartridge.

The lights over him flashed and he sighed, putting the security setting of his gun back on and lowering it. He took off the ear protectors and turned to see Brendon standing in the doorway. The younger boy made a tiny smile and shrugged as Ryan approached.

“Sorry to disturb you,” he began, putting his hand on the small of Ryan’s back as he exited the practice room and gave the gun to Zack. “Pete wants to see you. He says it’s important, that you need to go to his study right now.”

Ryan sighed again, feeling all of his exhaustion and stress weighing back on him as he followed Brendon through the house.

“Alright. I’ll wait for you in our room, yeah? We’ll try to put you to sleep a bit. You’re looking scarier every day.”

Ryan walked into the study, his eyes scanning the room he had only visited once before. In the middle was a massive wooden desk, behind which Patrick was seated, concentrated on reading a letter, a frown on his face. To the right was a slightly smaller one behind which Pete was waiting with a large smile on his face. In front of Pete’s desk was Tom’s, who had the unfocused expression that was so characteristic of him.

“Hi Ryan, take a seat,” Pete said solemnly. Patrick looked up and waved his hand at Ryan who slowly walked to the armchair nearest Pete’s desk. “We have something serious to discuss.”

Ryan frowned, his face mirroring the expression that was still on Patrick’s as he looked at the two other men. It was much unexpected of Pete to directly talk about something. He was famous for dragging out conversations for hours before going to the main subject. Ryan shifted on his seat and waited.

“What we’re about to tell you is confidential. We know you’ll tell Brendon because, well. Don’t tell anyone else. It’s a matter of life and death - your life or your death. Have you ever heard of the Ways?”

When Ryan shook his head, Pete nodded and crossed his hands over his desk.

“They’re two brothers, Gerard and Michael – Mikey. They’re us, but in New York. They’re much worse, though. They have no morals, no dos and don’ts. They are motivated only by vengeance and anger. They would kill their own mother if it served them right. We’ve been enemies for years now. They -" he stopped, biting his lip. From the corner of his eyes, Ryan saw Patrick shift. He could feel the tension in the air.

“Gabe came back here to tell us that they have information on us. Information they shouldn’t have; crucial information. This means they have a spy of some sort. We cannot trust anyone anymore.”

“You don’t think -" Ryan let out sharply.

“No. The information they have goes beyond what you or your friends could know. No, we never suspected you. But everyone else is a suspect.William and his men, Travie, Jon, Greta -”

“Greta?”

“Yes, Greta. But nothing of this concerns you. You are here because we have something to offer you. If they think they are the only ones who can have spies, they’re wrong. We want to offer you to infiltrate them for us. You would join them as a new recruit and communicate us everything you can.”

Ryan stared at Pete for a long moment, trying to see if he was being made fun of or not. One glance at Patrick’s face made him realize that this was serious.

“Why me?” he finally asked, deciding that laughing nervously and leaving was not a good idea.

“I have the feeling you can bring secrets to your grave. You also look like someone who needs a change of scenery.”

Ryan frowned but stayed silent. He couldn’t find any valid argument to show Pete he was wrong.

“We understand that you need time to think this through. This is a really big decision,” Patrick began. “If you to decide to do it, you will have to cut every communication with us, apart from the mandatory ones. No letters, no phone calls, nothing. It will have to be like we never existed. I want you to fully understand what it implies.”

Ryan knew very well what it implied, if the heavy weight in his stomach was any indication. The two men thanked him and he left stiffly. It seemed that his mind was too focused on the proposition he had been offered to correctly control his body. His movements were hesitant and uncoordinated and had someone appeared in front of him, he would have walked straight into them.

He silently entered in his room, forcing a smile to mirror Brendon’s. He saw from the frown on his lover’s face that he would once again be questioned about his problems. That was all Brendon seemed to be able to talk about lately. He was getting tired of always being asked if he were fine.

“What?” Ryan asked after a minute of being stared at silently.

“You’re not really thinking about accepting their proposition, are you?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t really taken the time to think about it, yet.”

“You can’t accept, though.”

Ryan cocked his eyebrow and it was his turn to stare wordlessly at Brendon. The younger boy was fidgeting under the look and stubbornly looking away.

“Why can’t I?” Ryan finally asked, slowly, cautiously.

“Because it’s wrong, that’s why!”

Ryan blinked a few times, repeating the words in his head to make sure he had understood them well.

“It’s wrong? What’s wrong in working to bring dangerous enemies down?”

“Not - it’s not only this spying thing that is wrong! All we do is wrong! We kill people, innocent people -”

“Hey, hold on, they’re not innocent! We kill murderers and drug dealers! What’s with the suddenly new found morals? You suddenly woke up after two years of lack of emotions?”

“That’s not it, don’t mix up things -”

“You’re the one who said what we do is wrong. Brendon, it’s either kill or be killed. We live in a dichotomous world; there’s no safe ‘in between’.”

“But spying on the enemies is worse!”

“In what way? No one will die. All I’d do is gather information and pass them on to Patrick so he can prevent anymore death on our side.”

“But it’s dangerous, you could be killed.”

“I knew it! Once again, you let your feelings for me overtake your reason. Brendon, we swore we wouldn’t let this happen.”

“Yes, ‘cause it’s so easy not to worry about you.” Brendon sighed loudly, his shoulders slumping and the frown on his face disappearing.“Alright, forget it. Let’s have you sleep for a while, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Ryan mumbled. “We’re working tonight.”

“Don’t worry about that. If you finally sleep we’ll get along just fine without you. Just relax, now, okay?”

“Don’t give me that look. It’s nothing. I’ve always had insomnia,” Ryan protested as Brendon made him lie down on their bed and rubbed soothing circles on his hip.

“And night terrors? Ryan. You’re not well -”

“Stop it!” Ryan snapped. “Stop bothering me with this. I don’t need this stress. I don’t fucking need you to act like a mother. If there were something, I would tell you. Leave me alone.”

Ryan turned on his side and closed his eyes. He didn’t see Brendon’s face as he left the room quietly, nonetheless slamming the door on his way out. Feeling a wave of guilt overcoming him, Ryan bit his bottom lip and groaned.

-

The detonation caused a deadly silence in the alleyway. Ryan lowered the gun and looked at the lifeless body at his feet. Spencer’s gasp broke the ice.

“Ryan,” he hissed angrily. “For fuck’s sake, what is wrong with you? We always said ‘no passerby’s’! It was the only rule we ever had and you fucking broke it! Are you out of your fucking mind? What had this man done to you?”

“He saw us. What other choice did I have? He was an eye-witness. He saw our faces, Spence; he fucking knew our names because Mr. Bright over there couldn’t shut his fucking mouth and called after us!”

Brendon told him off angrily and began cleaning up, helped by a silent Jon.

“Ryan, for fuck’s sake, shut up. Just fucking shut up. You’ve already said too much.”

The tension was palpable on their way back. Brendon had traded his place on the backseat with Spencer’s to stay away from Ryan but having Spencer sit next to him wasn’t a better idea. He could feel his disapproving look the whole time, which only fueled his anger.

They parted in silence, Jon and Spencer leaving for William’s speakeasy and Brendon disappearing down the hallway. Ryan was trying to feel bad for what he said but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had meant it every word of it. When months ago the look of pain in Brendon’s eyes would have made him beg on his knees to be forgiven, now it left him cold and slightly annoyed.

“Shit,” he muttered, pressing his hand against the wall to steady his balance. “I’ve become a monster.”

“When do you want to leave?” came Pete’s voice from the dark living room.

He spent the night with Pete and Patrick, planning and scheduling and going over everything he was allowed to talk about and all the other stuff he needed to forget forever.

“The thing you need to understand about the Ways,” Pete said with a rough voice. It was past three in the morning; Patrick was asleep on his desk, his glasses pushed up by his hand holding his head up. “Is that they are merciless. We used to be friends, very close friends, Mikey and I.”

Ryan had heard the rumors whispered behind Pete’s back, stories told by William, Joe and Andy when they had had too much to drink and Patrick wasn’t around; tales of a friendship that was more than one, of jealousy, rejection and of revenge. Ryan had always taken them with a pinch of salt, knowing well that the years and the alcohol had exaggerated, romanced and turned that story into a near legend.

Another hour of briefing and Ryan was allowed to go pack. He slowly padded into his room and heard Brendon’s soft breaths. He felt his heart clench as he silently took his suitcase out and began filling it. He left as quietly as he came in, without awakening Brendon or kissing him one last time. In that instant, he understood Gabe more than he ever would in his life.

The ride to the train station was silent, too. He was sitting next to Gabe, who had offered to go to New York with him and let him live with them for the time it took before the Ways accepted him. Ryan had a hard time believing it, but Pete had said it wouldn’t take long before the Ways found interest in him.

“Nervous?” Gabe asked him once they were seated in the train, the pale early morning glow the only light they had.

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t be. The Ways aren’t that bad. Pete hates them passionately, that’s why they sound so bad. I think you’ll feel more at home with them. They’re more quiet and composed than Pete’s crew.”

“I thought you didn’t work with them.”

“That doesn’t stop me from being their friend. I’m neutral, Ross. I always was. Moreover, I was friends with Mikey way before I met William and Pete. If anything, my allegiance should be with them. But you know how it is, you have Brendon.”

“But you’re cheating their trust to get me in. You’re not neutral; you’re on Pete’s side.”

“William. He changed everything.”

Gabe had a lopsided smile before being serious again.

“My men won’t be happy to see you. They don’t like strangers. Chances are they won’t talk to you. Avoid Ryland. I’ll tell you which one he is. The only one that’ll probably be nice to you is Alex. He’ll try to feed you. Ignore him. Ignore them all. Do your own thing and you’ll be fine. Stay in your room when you can.”

Ryan felt the knots in his stomach tightening. It was his first time working on his own. He had always had Spencer by his side to support him and remind him when he was acting stupidly. Furthermore, he had agreed to walk straight into the enemy’s hands and put his life on jeopardy, as well as the lives of his friends. He handled pain terribly and just knew that it wouldn’t take a lot of torture to have him spill everything he knew. All in all, he was regretting his choice.

This feeling didn’t disappear when he entered the Cobras’ headquarters. It was silent but he knew that there were people in there.

“Hey, I’m back,” Gabe called through the house, not getting any answers. “I brought someone with me. His name is Ryan. He’ll stay with us for a while. He’s friends with Pete, so he’s safe.”

A woman appeared from a door to their right and looked at them coldly. She reminded Ryan of the girls he knew, except that there was something stronger and darker about her that Greta and Hayley didn’t have. They were girls; she was a woman.

“Ryan, meet Victoria. Don’t trust her looks; she’s fiercer than what you could be led to think. You know black widow spiders?”

Ryan gulped and saw Victoria smirk.

“I’ll call the others in. Briefing in ten, Gabe. Don’t bring him along.”

Ryan took a step back, unconsciously trying to hide behind Gabe. The older man put a hand on his arm while they waited for Victoria to leave. It was like the air was lighter and warmer the second she was gone.

“Come on, I’ll show you your room.”

As he had expected, that was where he spent the two weeks he stayed with the Cobras. He had met the others and had put all of his efforts into not seeing them again. He had talked a few times with Alex, who indeed tried to feed him, reminding him of Spencer’s mother more than anything. The one called Nate wasn’t bad, but he was rarely there anyway. It was Ryland and Victoria he was scared of. The weirdest part, though, was the sleep he was getting. He was having the best nights he had had since Brent’s death. It was as Pete had foretold; the change of scenery was doing wonders on him.

Gabe took him to the Way’s speakeasy on his second night in New York. Ryan barely had the time to take in everything that was going on around him, until he was sitting at a table with a small man with a fierce look on his face.

“What is it this time, Saporta?”

“Frankie! Long time no see, huh? This has nothing to do with me, today. Don’t worry. This is all about my good friend Ryan over here.” Gabe patted him on the back and Ryan forced a smile that he hoped looked natural.

“What about him?”

“I think they would like him.”

“They have nothing to do with small smugglers or clumsy murderers. You know it. That’s why they’re not working with you. They tolerate you only because you’ve been friends with Mikey since before the prohibition.”

“I killed my own father,” Ryan deadpanned.

He knew that would be the appropriate bomb to drop. Only Brendon knew about that; he hadn’t even told Spencer or Pete or anyone.

“…why?” the two men asked him simultaneously.

“He was useless,” Ryan simply answered, staring right back into the hazel eyes of the man in front of him.

He guessed more than saw the shiver than ran up his spine and smirked. He was back into his old skin, the one he felt more comfortable in, the one that scared people and made him feel powerful and in control.

“I’ll go get them,” ‘Frankie’ said hurriedly.

“Good invention, you’re clever,” Gabe commented lightly.

“It’s true. What kind of monster would invent that?”

“You -”

“- choked him in his sleep. I couldn’t afford a gun. I never liked guns, but I had to adapt. I never needed guns.”

Ryan smirked in front of Gabe’s look.

“That was Frank, by the way,” Gabe said, switching topics. “He’s their right arm. He’s Pat - he’s Pete’s Patrick.”

Frank came back, followed by a tall man with light brown hair and glasses. He sat down in front of Ryan and raised his eyebrows.

“Is that true? You’re a nutcase?”

“I didn’t say nutcase, Mikes. I said -”

“Emotionless freak. I know. Nutcase is shorter.”

Ryan immediately liked the man. His monotone and cold demeanor reminded him of his own and he knew they would understand each other quickly. There seemed to be no fussing or overcomplicated plans with him. Straight to the point; everything Pete was not.

“You could say that,” he replied slowly.

“Alright. Dom, get us drinks,” Mikey called over his shoulder. “Hi Gabe,” he continued once a blond man had brought them their drinks. “I thought you were dead.”

“You wish.”

Mikey laughed and clicked his glass against Gabe’s.

“We missed you, Saporta.”

“Where’s your brother?”

“The kid’s sick.”

Ryan listened to the two old friends small talking, trying to absorb as much information as he could.

“So, Ryan, right? I’m Michael. How did you meet Gabe?”

They had decided to say they had met through mutual friends. He had been told that in that world, no more questions would be asked. They trusted Gabe and would therefore trust whoever he brought along.

The interrogation continued for so long that the place was empty by the time Mikey was done.

“This will be my last question, but it’s an important one. Have you ever heard of Pete Wentz?”

“Should I have?”

“No, it’s a good thing you haven’t, actually,” Mikey replied dismissively, a smile on his face, all of his guards down.

Ryan could hardly believe the importance Gabe had in this. The only fact that he was friends with him would apparently get him away with lies.

“I don’t understand,” Ryan told Gabe once they had left, Ryan with an appointment to meet the other brother the next morning. “Here, you’re heaven sent. Why don’t you work for them?”

“When they start treating you like you are heaven sent – and it will happen, trust me – you’ll see why you don’t switch sides. I can already tell you that the one thing that will stop you has big brown eyes and is called Brendon. I’m doing it for William.”

-

One month. It took Ryan one month to become their favorite. He moved after two weeks, getting – he could easily see it – one of the best roomsof the place. He would always get the best contracts, the ones that required him to spend the night in expensive hotels or to travel in first class wagons. He had a notoriety he never could have dreamed of when with Pete. He was even more feared than with Panic. He felt at the top of the world.

With their entire trust, it was easy to give Pete the information he wanted. He would go for a walk and call from a public telephone. It was mainly their purchases, their contacts, things that could be related to them in any way. It was always Patrick who spoke to him and it was fine, seriously. Patrick was easier to deal with than Pete.

It was quiet, too. Pete’s place was always filled with those young kids – he was only two years older than them but he didn’t care, that was ages - that were annoying and loud and so very there.

In New York, on the other hand, it was peaceful. He could spend entire days without meeting anyone if he wanted to, or he could just spend it in the library and listen to Matthew – one of the British men Ryan wasn’t quite sure why they were there – play the piano and actually hear him, when at Pete’s he could barely hear Brendon play over the constant chaos of the house.

Brendon. He was happy to always be so busy that he couldn’t think of him. Whenever he wasn’t occupied for too long he began thinking about him and it was hard. Gerard loved that he was always so willing to do anything he asked him, which surely had helped him reached his status of favorite.

He liked the people, too. He immediately got along with Mikey, especially. In their non-talkative, reserved and monotone ways, they could relate and it still surprised Ryan. It was also very helpful to be basically best friends with one of the two leaders he had to spy on. Gerard was weirder, but not in a negative way. It was more in a ‘never quite there’ kind of way. Ryan was never sure whether Gerard knew his name at all. He always asked Ryan to keep an eye on his daughter when he was discussing with his brother and that was the worse part of the whole New York experience. Ryan was useless with children. They were scary and unknown territory.

The job, too, was more exhilarating with the Ways. Working solo was more enjoyable than with a team. He liked the powerful feeling of walking into a room and sensing fear rising in his victims, knowing that they could not escape. He didn’t have to talk, only look at the men and it was enough to create the apparition of the spark of panic in their eyes. Following them down the hotel hallways, seeing their steps quicken as he realized what was going on. Ryan always laughed when they thought that locking their room door would be enough. The rest was just too fun, breaking the lock, entering the room smirking as he tightened those long fingers of his around the tender flesh of their throats, the fear in their eyes; all of that was what Ryan thrived on. It was the best way to release his regrets and remorse, channeling all of his negative feelings in the vice-like grip he kept on the neck until the body beneath him became limp. He lived for those moments.

He was pondering all of this as he quickly walked down the street to his favorite telephone box. It had been a week since he last called Patrick to update him. He crossed a few people he knew, swiftly raising his hat in salutation. He hated stopping to discuss. It was always the same conversation, over and over again and it bore him. He was quite happy to know that most people weren’t at ease with disturbing him when he looked busy. It saved him the hassle of being impolite; or worse, being polite and hearing about whatever they thought could interest him.

“Hey, it’s me,” he said when Patrick answered the telephone.

“Ryan.”

It wasn’t Patrick.

“Bren,” Ryan deadpanned, clinging to the telephone. “Where’s Patrick?”

“I bribed him out of the room. Where the fuck are you?”

“New York. I can’t tell you anymore, I’m sorry.”

“You’re acting stupid again, right? Like that one time you had me drive all the way to your dad’s and -”

“Have you picked up this telephone only to argue with me? If so, hand it over to Patrick, I have better things to do.”

“Oh, right, sorry to be an inconvenience in your important life. I guess you have people to kill and friends to betray.”

“You haven’t been lazy either, or so I’ve heard,” Ryan snapped, once again letting Brendon get at him in ways no one else was able to.

“I’m not betraying anyone.”

“Neither am I.”

“No, that’s why you didn’t do anything to try to stop the people who nearly killed Hayley last week, or the ones who were after us, for that matter. Don’t worry, it’s healing well. I’ll only have a huge scar on my arm, nothing bad.”

“I didn’t know! You really think I would have let someone attempt anything against you? Brendon, for fuck’s sake! I’m doing this so you’ll be safe! It’s not easy. I have to watch my mouth and make sure I don’t say something I’m not supposed to know.”

“Yes, it sounds so bad. I’ve heard you’re acting so miserable. It’s a hard life being the favorite of two of the most feared people on the East coast. Really hard. I pity you.”

“One word slips out of my mouth and we’re all dead. One.”

“You never talk anyway, it mustn’t be hard.”

Ryan sighed deeply, resting his head against the window in front of him.

“I miss you,” he finally said, surrendering to his racing heart.

There was silence at the other end of the line, and he couldn’t decide if it was a good or a bad sign.

“Why did you leave me?” Brendon whispered.

“I couldn’t say no. It was an honor that Pete was doing me. Someone had to do it to keep you safe. I would have felt so guilty to decline the offer.”

“What about me? And Spencer, and even Jon. You abandoned us. You’re our leader. You always said we had to stick together, Pete or not.”

“I’m making sure we can. I feel like I’m protecting you more by being here than if I’d stayed behind. I’m in the middle of all the action, here. I can stop them before they act, or at least try. I’m not running away, I’m walking head first into the enemies’ hands. Hell, I’m sleeping in their house. I’m sick of running away from everything. I want to feel like I’m in control for once.”

“How are you sleeping?”

“Well, better than I’ve had in months. No more nightmares.”

“I was the cause of them, then. That’s great.”

“Brendon, I really don’t want to fight. I don’t know why I’m not having insomnia anymore. I don’t know. To be honest, I wish I didn’t have them with you sleeping next to me because I miss this.”

“You’re so sappy, Ross, you’d think I’m talking to a girl.”

“What do you expect? I’ve been engaged in a same sex relationship for the better part of the past three years. Do you really think I still qualify as a man?”

“Last time I checked, you were very much a man, Ryan,” Brendon said through a chuckle. The sound of it untied many things in Ryan and released the tension he could feel weighing on him. “I miss you, too.”

Ryan stopped smiling and held the receiver tighter.

“I’m sorry that I left like that.”

“Don’t worry about it. I would have given you hell if you had woken me up.”

They stayed silent for a while. Ryan didn’t know what else to say. If they had been in front of each other, they would be hugging like they always did when it got awkward and uneasy.

“Oh, can you tell Pete that the Ways and I will be visiting next week and to make sure everyone knows they’re not supposed to know me?” Ryan said quickly, snapping back to reality and remembering why he was calling.

“Why would I tell Pete? It’d be quicker to tell Patrick.”

“He’s into one of his megalomaniac phases when no one is allowed near him except for Patrick?”

“You don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?” Ryan asked, slightly annoyed. He hated being the only one not to know something.

“They’ve been lying to us all along. It’s Patrick who’s in charge. Pete’s covering for him for his safety, or something like that. William told me the other day when he was drunk.”

Everything began making sense, suddenly. The reason why Patrick was the one who picked them up at the station, why he had the larger desk, why he was the one answering Ryan’s call and why Pete always seemed to wait for Patrick’s approval before acting. It also comforted Ryan to know that no one was insane enough to let Pete in charge of something this big.

“That makes sense. So can you tell Patrick that for me?”

“Will I get to see you?” Brendon asked softly, his voice barely audible over the sounds of the street coming to Ryan through the glass windows of the booth.

“I hope so. I’ll try. I have to go or they’ll ask me questions,” Ryan paused for a second. “I love you.”

“I love you, too. Bye, Ryan.”

He hung up and smiled to himself. He never realized how much it stressed him to not know if Brendon was angry at him or not. He felt lighter as he walked back to the Ways’.

-

“Alright, Ryan, let’s go over what you have to do again,” Mikey said as they sat in their private train compartment.

“I have to look bored and not talk to anyone,” Ryan answered, smirking.

“Yes, very good. We have a reputation of being snobby and I want to make sure we keep it. Let us discuss with Pete and his pets, all you have to do is sit there and look pretty.”

“I think I can do that,” Ryan deadpanned.

“Ryan, don’t take it like that,” Gerard chimed in, looking away from the window. “We’re not saying you’re stupid or only a pretty thing we carry around with us. Everyone over there thinks we’re snobby, like Mikey said, and if they see us being nice to you – and yes, that includes letting you talk or intervene in our conversations – that’ll destroy our image. This is half of why we’re so successful, we cannot risk losing it.”

“I know, Mikey told me all about it already.”

“Oh, he did, didn’t he?”

Gerard was convinced Mikey and he were having an affair. He was subtle about his questions, at first, but eventually he was hinting really obnoxiously at it.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. It had happened once – okay, twice – and they were both drunk. It had been rough and desperate; Ryan’s guilt meeting the raw need Mikey seemed to have for physical contact. The first time, Ryan told himself it was all for the purpose of his mission. Maybe Pete would disapprove of his technique, but the results were good, he became the man’s favorite and was let into his secrets.

The second time, though, he had to admit that he had not a single thought to why he had been sent to New York. He abandoned himself in the older man’s arms, acting pliant and letting him do what he wanted and he truly enjoyed it. The shift from being the one in control with Brendon to being directed had been the best part of it. He wouldn’t have said no if Mikey had hinted at doing it again.

Ryan shrugged to answer Gerard and closed in on himself. He was terrified of going back to Chicago. There were so many things that could go wrong that thinking about it made his head spin.

“You look nervous,” Gerard commented, an hour into the trip. Mikey looked up from his book and patted Ryan’s thigh a few times, squeezing it before going back to his reading. Ryan felt the blush creeping on his cheeks when he saw Gerard’s' knowing smile.

“I’ve heard you talk about them so much that I am a bit scared of what to expect,” he mumbled, staring at the open book lying in his lap.

“Don’t be. You’ve met people way more dangerous than them before. The Leto brothers and their friends, for example. Or, you know, those British men we keep home, Bellamy, Howard and Wolstenholme. You should be scared of them, not of Pete’s pets. They talk the talk, but they nearly always don’t walk the walk.”

“You’ll meet Travie, too,” Gerard continued. “I’m sure you’ll get along well with him. He’s our spy, as he enjoys calling himself. I don’t think we ever told you about him?”

Ryan felt as though someone had dropped a bucket of icy cold water over him. Of course it was Travie. He was always in Pe - Patrick’s study, taking care of Tom and getting every bit of information he wanted without raising anyone’s suspicion.

“Why do you have him there? Do you really need that information?”

“Wentz is a sneaky bastard. We prefer knowing what he does all the time. He’s the kind of guy who’s not afraid to stab people in the back,” Mikey snapped.

“And you say I shouldn’t be afraid to go spend a few days there?”

“I said he stabs backs. He won’t do anything while we’re there. You won’t believe we’re enemies.”

It was as Mikey said. They stepped out of the train and found Pete and Patrick waiting for them with polite smiles and warm handshakes. Ryan was introduced as their little prodigy and they all packed in their most luxurious car, driven by Zack who winked at Ryan as he crossed his eyes in the rearview mirror. The sight of the man sent shivers down Ryan’s spine and his level of anxiety rose unexplainably. He suddenly needed to get out of the car as fast as possible.

Walking into the house as a guest felt really weird. He could feel everyone eyes on him and how they were all acting like they didn’t know him; better, they acted like they hated him without even knowing him. Ryan had to applaud their efforts, even if it made him feel really terrible.

For his part, he worked hard on keeping a straight face and to look bored of everything and everyone. It wasn’t very complicated, seeing as he spent the day in Pe - Patrick’s study, listening to the no more than polite conversations going on. He spaced out after a few minutes, letting his mind wonder about where Spencer, Jon and Brendon were. He was a bit worried about seeing Spencer. He was sure his friend would communicate how much he was angry and disapproving of Ryan’s choice with his eyes.

Ryan had his confirmation when they all sat at the dining room table. He was sitting between the Way brothers and could feel Spencer’s piercing blue eyes boring holes into him from the other end of the table. The atmosphere was already cold but that added factor was making Ryan feel sick.

The feeling only went away when his eyes met Brendon’s. The sight of the big brown eyes he loved so much made him blush like a schoolgirl and he caught a glimpse of Brendon’s smirk before he looked down at his plate. When he looked back up, he found Gerard looking at him with a knowing smile. Ryan frowned, which only made the older man smile wider.

“So, you like that brown-eyed boy, don’t you?” he asked him as they left the dining room. “We never said you were not allowed to have some fun, if you get my drift.”

“I’m not -”

“Oh, don’t try to lie to me. I had to live for years with Mikey and Pete looking at each other the way you were looking at that boy. I know it when I see it. Go have some fun; we’re leaving tomorrow in the afternoon. You have all night. Mikey and I are down at a hotel nearby, here’s your room key, in case you need it. See you tomorrow.”

Ryan didn’t know whether to be mortified or ecstatic. He chose the second and bit back his smile as he went looking for Brendon. As for learning about Pete and Mikey, he wasn’t even half surprised. Not with what he’d been doing with the man.

“Ross!”

He froze and turned on his heels, only to see Travie stalking towards him. He only had the time to think ’oh shit’ before he was pulled into the closet under the stairs and the door was roughly shut behind them. He heard the clicking noise from the light bulb chain and a yellow glow filled the claustrophobic space.

“We need to talk,” the older man began. Ryan stayed silent, dead set on not saying anything to the traitor sitting in front of him. “You’re a sneaky little backstabber.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“I never told them about you. They don’t know you work here. I’m hoping you’ll do the same for me.”

“I should, though.”

“If you tell Pete, I’ll tell Mikey and you’re dead. You won’t survive very long.”

“You won’t either.”

“I’m bigger, I can fight back.”

“I don’t think Pete would send Spencer after you. I’d be more like Zack. Even you can’t fight back against an angry Zack.”

They stared at each other in the semi-darkness for a very long time. Ryan was suffocating and could feel his black shirt clinging to his skin.

“I can’t keep it a secret,” Ryan finally said. “They asked me to do this job to find out who made it mandatory in the first place. I cannot lie to them.”

“You know I’ll tell them about you if you do.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Don’t you enjoy being with them? I’ve heard you are so happy. They keep telling me how good you are and how perfectly at ease you seem.Mikey only has praise for you. He really likes you. You’ll miss it.”

“And won’t you miss being here? I can hardly believe you were faking your friendship with Tom.”

“I’ll miss it, yeah. I’m not afraid to say it.”

“Well then, yes, I’ll miss it. I’ll miss it a lot but my allegiance remains with Pete.”

“And mine with Mikey. Well, Ryan, it was a pleasure meeting you. I’m sorry you’ll have to die because of a ridiculous murder story.”

“What do you mean?”

Ryan had tried asking Mikey and Gerard why they hated Pete so much several times. They never answered. He had asked Patrick why, over the phone, but got no answer either. He couldn’t believe he was about to find out through a man who was about to sign his death warrant.

“They never told you? I see they trust you. Pete and Mikey had an affair a few years ago and then their wives were murdered. They’ve been accusing each other ever since. No one knows who is to blame. Gerard and Patrick have been trying to tell them that maybe it was an outsider trying to draw them apart who did it, or even the women themselves who wanted to eliminate the competition. I told you it was ridiculous.”

Ryan rolled his eyes and chuckled. It was all there was to do. He could not believe that so many people had died for something as stupid as that. He had expected century old family fights or the murdering of each others parents, not that.

Astounded, he left the closet and climbed the stairs slowly. At the top, he hesitated for a moment. If he turned right, he would be walking into Patrick’s study and telling him about Travie’s betrayal, with his only hope the one that they could protect him when the Ways would find out. If he turned left, he would be joining Brendon in their room and act as though nothing had happened. He would leave the next day and nothing would change but his job would be rendered useless. He was at a crossroad - and for the first time of his life - he was feeling indecisive.

When he knocked on the door, he was sure of his choice. He had spent half an hour standing in the hallway, hesitating and doubting but now, he was sure of what he had to do.

“Ryan?” Patrick asked as he opened the door.

Ryan quickly walked in and sat down in the chair he had occupied all that time ago. He began telling them all he knew, watching as their faces changed and the atmosphere of the room got darker, the temperature slowly decreasing.

“You have to protect me,” he finally said.

“Of course. Thank you, Ryan. I’m glad to see you’re still on our side. It’ll shut up everyone who said you would fall in love with them and betray us. I knew I could trust you,” Pete began saying quickly. “You go have some sleep, first thing tomorrow we’re acting.”

“Why not now?”

“We’re giving them the chance to leave during the night without making any fuss. If they’re still there tomorrow morning, though…”

Ryan left the study in a daze. It was Brendon’s arms around his frame that grounded him. He let him undress him and lay him down before cuddling him. That was when Ryan began talking. He told Brendon everything that had happened since the last time they saw each other. Brendon listened, keeping Ryan close and kissing him whenever he stopped for more than two seconds.

Ryan thought of everything he had made a cross on and everything he had gained back.

“I can hear you thinking,” Brendon whispered against his ear, his breath warm and his lips soft.

“I’m scared.”

“Ry, let’s not think about it for now.”

“You don’t know what they’re capable of. I’ve met their allies. We’re a joke next to them.”

Brendon shrugged and moved in closer. Ryan mirrored his action and sighed, burying his face in Brendon’s soft hair.

“If so, there’s nothing more we can do. You did the right thing. I’m proud of you.”

“Good, because I’m not.”

Next.

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