fics_by_maple: (Jon)
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Like Vines and Noodle Salad

Part 1

~^~

Jon banged his elbow on the doorjamb and then stubbed his toe on the leg of the entryway table.

"Goddamn," he grumbled, trying to keep the potted ivy that was perched on top of the box he was holding from toppling over.

Moving, in the dark of night while wearing flip-flops into a house he hadn't been in since he was fourteen years old was not his wisest decision of late. But he hadn't been too stellar with the wise decision-making skills lately, and the road between Chicago and Bisbee, Arizona had been pretty damn long. He just wanted to get it over with and go to bed.

Something furry curled around his ankle.

"Wha-what the – shit!" he swore, stumbling. "Cat!" he hissed, once more catching his plant before it fell while the feline gave him a smug meow, its tail twitching in the air.

The sudden thought of cats having been loose in his grandma's house in the weeks since her death made him stiffen with revulsion, but a quick and cautious sniff of the air assured him that there must be a cat door someplace.

And also, the cats weren't starved to death. So.

Relaxing his shoulders, Jon turned in search of a clear surface to put everything down on, when a shadow fell across him. He collided with an oomph! against another body coming around the wall of the kitchen.

A surge of panic spiked his adrenaline at the impact. His vision went dark for a fraction of a second while blood-chilling phrases from the evening news like Home Invasion panned through his mind in slow motion like a mental headline ticker. Everything in his arms smashed to the ground and he felt the potting soil spill between his toes. It was only a moment before Jon's vision recovered and he saw a slim, dark form backed against the wall near the open door.

The intruder might have been more threatening if the weapon he was brandishing hadn't been a rainbow Pride umbrella, or if Jon's ears weren't still ringing with the sound of a high-pitched scream.

"Y-you get out of here! There's nothing here! Go away!"

Jon blinked. The intruder's voice was actually deep and chesty, but Jon would have bet anything it was inflated like someone doing a 'radio announcer' impersonation.

"Uh," Jon cleared his throat, putting a hand to his chest feeling his heart pounding. His underarms were already sticky with perspiration. "Thing is, I'm pretty sure you are the one who isn't supposed to be here."

The young man's eyes went wide and indignant and the rainbow umbrella lowered slightly. "Fuck off! I have a key!" As if that explained everything.

"Yeah, see…" Jon flexed his hand open and to the side in a non-threatening gesture, only just then realizing that his key ring was still looped around his middle finger. "I have a key, too."

The intruder's mouth opened and shut a few times, while they both looked at the keys dangling from Jon's fingers. The umbrella lowered another inch.

"I'm Jon. –Walker. This was my grandmother's house?" He didn't mean for it to come out with a question mark, but the frightened face in front of him held such conviction in his eyes that Jon was almost willing to be convinced that he was in the wrong place.

"You're Jon?"

Jon nodded and gasped when he found himself being rushed again.

"Oh, my god! I'm so sorry about Olivia!" He threw his arms around Jon and squeezed like they were best friends. "I loved her so much, she was amazing!"

"Yeah. Uh, yeah, thanks." Jon was further flustered by the subtle scent of the young man's hair. "She was. I …"

"I'm Brendon. Hi." Brendon pulled away and held out his hand. "Your grandmother totally saved my life. Seriously. We're all so sad she's gone."

"Thanks." Jon shook hands with him. "… Thanks. Nice to meet you." They both let out a tense laugh and stepped apart. "Sorry about the whole, um..."

"No! No, that's okay. All my bad. I knew you were coming. Sort of. I mean, we knew someone was coming, but didn't know – oh! I feed the cats. That's why I'm here. I feed the cats. And water the plants. Oh, shit, your plant!"

Jon's mind ran a few paces slower than Brendon's mouth, a mouth, incidentally, with full lips and just a hint of stubble. Jon couldn't help noticing. His wide, dark eyes reflected all the enthusiasm he voiced, and Jon was just catching up with what he had said.

Brendon cocked one eyebrow upwards, giving Jon a piercing look. He almost chuckled at the animated quality of it until he realized Brendon was waiting for him to say something.

"What? Oh – my plant. Yeah. … Damn."

"Wait! Maybe we can save it." And with that, Brendon was gone back through the kitchen. Jon knelt down and picked up the dislodged mess, shaking soil from each item and tossing it aside. "Damn," he said under his breath again. He tried to take good care of his plants ordinarily and this one wasn't even dying.

Hearing a clatter, he looked up to see Brendon returning with a broom and a dustpan clutched awkwardly in one arm and an empty plant pot in his hand.

"Here –fuck me." Brendon tripped over the head of the broom in his haste, stumbling to his knees in heap right in front of Jon. "Heh. Wow. Sorry. I mean."

"Nah, it's cool," Jon said, smiling as he took the clay pot and sunk to his knees next to Brendon. "Thanks." The only light was from a lamp on the far side of the living room and the whole house had a dark golden-red glow, but Jon thought Brendon might have blushed when he shook his head.

"Here, I'll –"

"No, that's all right. I can –"

They stuttered awkward instructions, fumbling around each other's hands as they repotted the battered plant, scooping up the spilled dirt and pouring it together out of their cupped hands around the exposed roots. There seemed to be a notable excess of knees and elbows – and lips and eyes – between them.

Brendon never implied there might be something odd about putting such care into the well-being of a plant, he just helped with earnest enthusiasm. When they were finished and holding the small clay pot together, their eyes met over top of the wilted leaves and Brendon beamed a bright smile, before ducking his head away.

"Thanks. For the help." Jon moved to the sink to wash his hands while Brendon began sweeping up the mess. "I think I'll just go get the rest of my stuff." Jon indicated, pointing out the door.

"Yeah, sure. I've got this. And I'll finish feeding the cats."

"Cool." Jon turned, and walked directly into the wall.

Aside from a breathless, humiliating grunt, he silently shuffled aside the three feet needed to clear the wall and heard Brendon trying to stifle a laugh as he walked out of the house.

Good Christ, he hadn't been expecting that.

Jon opened the passenger door to his Jeep and crossed his arms on the top of the doorframe, taking a deep breath and blowing it out with a slow 'whoo'. Brendon looked young – but maybe not too young?

"Too young for what?" he asked himself.

He slung two massive duffle bags over his shoulders and gathered an armful of random things from the cab, all the while not thinking of Brendon's low-cut jeans or of his pink hoodie or his artfully styled hair.

And not at all about how nice it smelled.

"Um, I'm coming in now!" he called out in playful warning as he entered. "It's just me. Jon. No need to attack."

Brendon peeked around the wall, his clenched fist futilely hiding his smile. "Sorry." He laughed, scrunching his shoulders and scratching at the back of his neck. "I'm all done here. With the cats. I'm done. So I'll go, and let you..."

Brendon put a messenger bag over his head, letting it hang across his body and clutched an iPod in his hands. Jon thought of offering him a ride, it was a little chilly for a night this late in May but not too bad.

"Right. Thanks for that. With the cats. Not the …"

"Okay." Brendon giggled again, kind of horsey and ridiculous, but Jon found it impossible not to mirror it.

"Okay. Uh, good night."

"'Night. Bye."

"Bye."

Jon shut the door slowly, watching through the opening as Brendon walked away. It was too dark to tell for sure, but he almost thought he saw Brendon skip once or twice before he disappeared completely into the darkness. When the door latched, Jon rested his head against polished oak and closed his eyes.

And then banged his forehead once, for good measure. He could still smell Brendon's hair.

~^~

Jon woke up early in spite of the road fatigue. There were no fewer than three cats on the bed with him, on top of his grandma's quilt. He'd debated whether or not it was weird for him to sleep there, but a more childish inclination had won out in the end. It was the closest he was ever going to get to her now.

He tried to return a scowl at the cats, who all peeked annoyance at him through slit eyes, but the way they had curled up behind his knees and at his front and back had kept him warm and given him company. And he was definitely in need of the company.

The only time he'd stopped during the drive from Chicago was to get gas. He'd eaten convenience store food and slept in the Jeep in Walmart parking lots. Not because he didn't have the money to get a hotel. He just didn't want to sleep or eat alone. Not just yet. Mostly he'd just been compelled by the absolute need to hurry up and get here.

Also in desperate need of a shower, he went back downstairs to retrieve his bag. There was a finite sense of relief at having finally made it, though it was tinted with sadness. But now that he was here, he wasn't sure what else to expect.

He opened the curtain in the living room window and peered out. The sun was already up but the shadow of the mountain kept the street in muted morning gray. The neighbor was walking out to his minivan, and was in the middle of a fantastic yawn that distorted his round face. He had a thin beard and wore medical scrubs, and when he opened the door of the van, he noticed Jon standing in the window. Jon felt stupid and was embarrassed for having stared, but the man just gave him a quick nod of acknowledgment and then glanced up at his own house as he climbed into the driver's seat. Jon followed the glance upwards and thought he saw a curtain twitch in an upstairs window.

"Way to make an impression with the neighbors, Walker," he sighed, heading back upstairs. "Become the creepy fuck who stares at them out the window. Good."

His Grandma's house was comfortable and just as interesting as he'd remembered it. He walked around looking at things, but not touching, trying to hear his Grandma's laugh and see her smile in everything. She'd collected antiques that reflected her time as a dancer during the last of the old studio days of film. Much of the art and sculptures had a vaguely erotic quality to them, which made Jon chuckle into the quiet of the big house missing its mistress. Jon had talked to her on the phone every Christmas and birthday since he'd last seen her when he was fourteen and he had just always thought there would be time for more talks.

As familiar as this place was, he still felt like a guest and couldn't bring himself to walk around in his underwear. He'd put on clean jeans and a t-shirt and was glad for it when there was a knock on the door.

"Morning!" Brendon said, bouncing on toes and swinging his arms before clapping his hands together.

"Hey." Jon leaned against the door, noting the tightness of Brendon's jeans without looking at them. He might have had entertained a small hope that he'd run into Brendon again, but the way his insides were twisting into happy little knots indicated a greater hope than he'd realized.

"Hi, heh. Um, so, a few things?" Brendon started, and he held up a key. "Your key." Jon accepted it, feeling oddly guilty. "Also, I thought I should tell you the cats' names and show you where the food is. I mean, 'cause you're here and I don't need to come over and bother you with it."

"You're not a bother –"

"– And then, I thought," Brendon's chest and shoulders raised and his voice got tight, "that you might want to go get some breakfast – because I know there's nothing here – and then show you where you can get groceries?"

"Yeah. Yes. That'd be great, actually. But if you don't mind …" Jon spoke quickly because of the way the way Brendon's face looked suddenly apprehensive, "can we can get the breakfast first?"

Brendon's shoulders relaxed and he bounced on his toes again. "Yes! Totally, yes."

Jon slid on his flip-flops, glancing at Brendon tugging on the hem of his t-shirt, which barely met the waist of his jeans, giving him a glimpse of yellow underwear. Jon felt a blush creep over his face. Seriously, why? There was no good reason underwear should make him blush. He faked a yawn and scrubbed his hands over his face to hide it.

"Should I drive?" Jon offered, reaching for his keys and wallet.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. Do. 'Cause I don't. I do have a license, just not a car."

"You're saving my life. I'm starving. I haven't eaten real food since …" Jon remembered the last nice meal he'd had and shrugged off the memory. "It's been awhile."

Jon dropped the extra key Brendon had given him into the little ceramic bowl on the table. It had an old-fashioned, reel-to-reel movie camera hand painted on it, which prompted him to remember to grab his digital from the other duffle on the couch. It had been ages since Jon had gone anywhere without a camera slung over his shoulder and he laughed at himself for forgetting. One breakfast invite from a dude with ridiculously tight pants, who he didn't even know, had thrown him completely off his game.

"Nice," Brendon said, buckling his seat belt, when Jon nestled the camera on the Jeep's floor between them. "Looks expensive."

Jon let out a quiet laugh. "Uh, you know. It's a hobby." It had been awhile since Jon had been around someone that reminded him of his family's money. It was awkward to have such a nice camera when Brendon didn't even have a car. But then Brendon was already opening Jon's case logic and rifling through his CDs like they were friends, so maybe he hadn't been trying to make commentary on the money at all. Then he wondered if it made him an arrogant prick to assume his money would matter to anyone?

"It's not very far." Brendon's voice sounded apologetic. "Just down the hill, onto the main road, follow the highway around the corner. Then it's right there."

"Nah, I don't mind. It's cool. After driving from Chicago, this is nothing."

"Oh, no way!" Brendon exclaimed, pulling the soundtrack of Aladdin out of its sleeve and stuffing it into the CD player.

Jon couldn't figure out which was more intriguing, the fact that Brendon didn't give him shit about having the soundtrack of Aladdin and actually liked it himself or the fact that Jon realized he wasn't put off by how Brendon took the liberty to look through his CDs and made a selection without asking.

They sang together from the very first word, Brendon's chin jutting out to the rhythm of Arabian Nights and, simultaneously, they deviated from the new version's lyrics to sing the original Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face; it's barbaric, but hey, it's home! Brendon held up a high five hand and shouted over the lyrics, nodding with gusto, "Right on, man! Fuck Disney's P.C. bullshit. Gotta go with the original."

"Fuck yeah, the original!" Jon returned the high five and together they bellowed the rest of the song with overblown vibrato.

"Bisbee Breakfast Club." Jon read the sign, grinning as he turned off the engine, having parked on the tiny street behind a pair of Harleys. "This is great."

The buildings here, like much of Bisbee, looked like something out of It's A Wonderful Life. They had a thin layer of renovation and restoration, but everything was historic. The restaurant was an eclectic diner with a 1950's contemporary vibe with high glass walls and an open beam ceiling.

Brendon waved to a few people on their way to being seated at a small table in front of the window.

"And who've you got here, Brendon?" They both looked up at the young waitress already pouring Brendon coffee. She had a kind face and such an obviously pregnant belly that Jon deliberately tried not to look at it. He noted a disparaging thought about her serving skills when she only filled Brendon's mug half way but he smiled and took breath to introduce himself.

"This is Jon. He's Olivia's grandson."

"Yep. That's me." He extended his hand, chuckling at Brendon's preemptive introduction.

"Oh, hi!" She beamed and shook his hand with the one not holding the coffee pot. Her blonde hair was tied in a knot behind her head but frizzed curls had escaped and she tucked them behind her ear. "Your grandma was …" she pressed her hand to her chest let out a lamenting gasp. "She was amazing. I miss her so much."

"Thanks. I know. She was. I'm sorry, too." Jon tripped over his tongue-tied response to her greeting-slash-condolence and pulled on his hair. He did feel a flame of pride for his grandma, though. She'd obviously made a positive impact on people here, but that feeling was closely tied to regret, which he didn't want to deal with yet.

He still needed breakfast.

"Sorry – I'm Greta. Coffee?"

"Please, god, yes. Thanks."

She turned to Brendon. "Did you remember to lock the door?"

Jon knew his eyes opened in surprise at this as he looked between them. Brendon was chewing on his lip and bobbling his eyebrows in exaggerated thought.

"Ehm, I think so?"

"Brendon!"

"Sorry!" he whined. "I forgot. I was all … distracted, this morning." His eyes skittered towards Jon, and Jon dropped his eyes to the table, raising his coffee mug to hide behind.

It meant nothing. Brendon could have been distracted by anything. He was probably just worried about the cats.

And yet, Jon kind of wanted to be Brendon's distraction. Did that make him an arrogant prick, too? He really had to work on that.

Greta's knowing smirk as she looked between Brendon and himself made Jon shift uncomfortably in his seat.

"I'll take your order in a minute, guys. It's getting busy in here." Then she was off serving coffee to another table. Jon really wanted to ask what her story was, but he didn't want to be rude.

"Greta's my room-mate," Brendon said, sparing Jon's curiosity. "Sort of."

Sort-of roommate! Jon decided however neurotically that this made him feel a ton better and he watched patiently while Brendon poured many, many packets of sugar and tiny containers of french vanilla Coffee Mate into his coffee.

"We rent an attic apartment together. I mean, there's a wall dividing it, a thin one, so we each have our own place, kind of, but it's really just a studio."

Jon watched with amusement as Brendon's coffee faded to a light tan and repented his negative opinion of Greta's skills as a server. Clearly, she knew he only needed a little coffee to compliment his sugar.

"And Greta, she's obviously …" Jon attempted to be delicate about her condition.

"Totally knocked up, yeah," Brendon confirmed. So much for delicacy. "No idea who the baby-daddy is, either. But," he cupped his mug with both hands and sipped, "there are a lot of guys in this town who want the job."

"Yeah?"

"Uh, huh. She is pretty, don't you think?"

Jon watched her move carefully through the crowded diner, pushing her curls behind her ear while chatting with customers. He knew nothing about pregnant women, aside from the fact that they sort of embarrassed him and freaked him out at the same time, but she really was very pretty in a wholesome sort of way. And did pregnant women actually glow? Because Greta glowed a little. "Yeah, I guess she is."

Brendon beamed with obvious pride. "Yep. She's really nice, too. I look after her. You know." He affected a deep, Soprano-esque gangster voice, "so anyone wants to get wit' her, gotta go through me." He laughed and shook his head at himself and Jon had to give in and laugh with him.

"I'm sure she's great."

~

Jon watched the people around them during the brief quiet while they were both eating. There were a few families with kids, a biker couple who must have owned the Harleys out front, hung-over looking college students, and several groups of women and if he was any judge of women, which he wasn't, he'd guess many were lesbians.

But it was back onto Brendon that Jon's eyes kept returning. His hair was growing out from a short-styled cut, and he seemed to thrum from an internal energy source. Jon had often felt drained by being around high-energy people, but noticed that Brendon's energy didn't sap him and actually gave him a charge.

"So your coffee, is it okay?"

"Mmm…" Brendon purred, taking a sip. "Wait, hang on. Dude, are you mocking my coffee?"

"I would never mock a man's coffee." Jon held up his palms solemnly and then smirked.

Brendon grinned and Jon decided his smile might be the best the thing this town had to offer.

~^~

Breakfast was, at Brendon's recommendation, a breakfast burrito thing that was better than the last meal he'd had in a five star restaurant, which was something he apparently said out loud.

"You eat in five-star places a lot?" Brendon asked, wiping the corner of his mouth with the pad of his thumb.

"No. Sometimes. The last time, my ex took me there to soften me up before dumping me later. And then, the next day, I found out my grandma had died. Wasn't a good weekend."

Jon didn't realize he'd spoken with that tone that sometimes pissed people off until Brendon shrunk a little in his seat, his eyes going wide like Shrek's Puss In Boots, making Jon feel like a supreme dick.

"Sorry," he apologized, softening his voice. "Not your fault I have drama. I'm usually completely drama-free, I swear. It's just like everything converged this last month. And now my Grandma's gone and I feel like a complete shit about that, and I just left my whole life in Chicago to start a new one here. But then I wonder if maybe I'm not actually just running away? And here I am in Bisbee, Arizona, and I don't know what the hell."

Jon sat in stunned silence for a moment, boggling at how he'd just vomited his mental baggage out there like that and now he couldn't bring himself to look at Brendon, who was still sitting quietly across from him.

"Wow. Sorry. Again." He took a big bite of his burrito and mumbled through a mouthful. "Didn't know all of that was going to come out."

He thought of taking a second shot at that apology but he didn't want risk talking again.

"You know," Brendon took a bite of tortilla and continued talking, "I've been told lots of times that I have no filter on my mouth. It's just Brain-Mouth. No filter. I'm getting better, I think, but usually it's just like, blagh! and it's out there."

Jon gave a quiet snorting chuckle and finally chanced looking at Brendon, who gave him a reassuring smile.

"And tell me about drama!" Brendon continued, gesturing with restless hands. "I came to this town a total freaking mess – not like the polished and put together guy before you now," he added with sarcasm and a quirked eyebrow. "And your Grandma Olivia helped me through all of it. I'm so lucky she found me. She gave me a place to live. She fed me. She introduced me to people. And there are lots of people with the same kind of story here. Bisbee's pretty good for starting a new life."

"Cool," Jon said softly, rubbing at his eyebrows and still feeling like an ass. "Thanks, man." He felt just a little bit jealous of Brendon's relationship with his Grandma.

"So the one who dumped you over five-star food?" Brendon asked. "Does the ex have a name?"

Jon let out a breathy chuckle. That was the question to clarify all the unspoken questions between them. Brendon's oh-so-casual phrasing revealed more forethought than he let on.

Jon steeled himself and nodded.

"Yeah," he finally said, licking his bottom lip before continuing. "His name was Bill."

There. Saying it was less scary than he thought it'd be. He was starting a new life after all, might as well be honest about it.

Brendon bobbed his head and his lips puckered in lieu of a smile. "Okay, okay. I can totally hate a dude named Bill." Then he plucked the thin slice of orange garnishing Jon's plate and ate the pulp.

"So, Jon?" Greta asked, putting the check face down on the table. "You gonna be around town for awhile?"

"Yeah. I planned to at least stay for the summer so I could get my grandma's estate straightened out. Then I'll just," he had to force himself not to glance at Brendon, "see how it goes, I guess."

"All right. Good! I'll see you around then." She smiled at Jon, and he was pulling out his debit card from his wallet when she put her hand on Brendon's shoulder and whispered into his ear.

Brendon kept his eyes down and blushed.

Awesome.

~^~

The food co-op was right next door and Jon got stuff for sandwiches, a few cans of chili, and frozen pizzas. He laughed at all the food because everything was organic, but he knew there wasn't anything like a Jewel in town, so he didn't bother complaining.

The wall of produce somehow prompted Brendon to start singing the Super Mario Brothers theme song. They juggled apples and oranges while they whistled, and dropped apples and oranges, until the lady behind the check-out counter glared at them. They sniggered like teenagers while he paid and Jon actually forgot for a while that he was supposed to be depressed.

Once back in the Jeep, he asked, "So, you coming back up to the house? You're gonna introduce me to the cats, right?"

"Yeah. I can do that."

"You know, I slept with them last night and I didn't even ask them their names."

"You're such a user, Jon Walker!" Brendon laughed and turned down the stereo when Robin Williams Genie started singing again. "Those poor pussies. You sleep with them and don't even ask their name …"

Jon snorted. "Oh hey, I don't know your last name."

Brendon barked a laugh.

"I didn't mean because … sorry." Jon shook his head, feeling his face heat up. "I keep doing that."

"I love that your mouth is as unfiltered as mine," Brendon mused. "Um, it's Urie."

Jon bit his lip and grinned, hiding it as he turned to watch traffic before pulling onto the road. Brendon Urie. Okay.

"Ooh, and you can meet Ryan and Spencer, too!"

"Are they cats?"

"No!" Brendon laughed again. "They live next door to you. They're awesome. You'll love them as much I do. They've been best friends since they were kids and they totally have drama too. Or, rather, Ryan has drama. Spencer just has Ryan. You'll fit right in!"

"Okay, then. So; Brendon Urie. Ryan-Spencer, neighbors, have drama but are not cats. This is a lot to keep track of."

"You can do it. I have faith in you, Jon Walker."

~^~

The rest of the morning was spent meeting Dylan, Clover, Garfunkle, and Richard the III, which Brendon quizzed Jon repeatedly on until he got it right. They sat on the floor throwing balls of crunched up paper for Clover, who fetched them like a dog, and he learned that Garfunkle would chew (and get sick on) plastic bags.

"Now, Dylan here is my baby, aren't you, sweetheart?" Brendon said, scratching the white and tabby-striped cat curled in his lap. "He always slept on my neck when I stayed here. Sounds kinda creepy I guess, my mom used to talk about cats stealing your breath at night, but Dylan wouldn't do that, would you, baby?"

"When did you sleep here?" Jon finally seized on the opportunity to ask. He'd wondered how Brendon knew his way around the kitchen so well when he helped put away the groceries, but it seemed confrontational to mention it.

"Last year. I was, um, on a mission. I was raised LDS, you know?"

Jon nodded, but he really didn't know. He could barely remember which one was LDS.

"And I was a shit missionary. Knew I would be. I totally did not want to go. Come. Whatever. I only lasted a couple weeks anyway. 'Cause, god, I hated it. Hated."

"Shit, yeah. I don't blame you." Jon still had really no idea and visualized Brendon in the shirt and tie with the bicycle and wondered how big a sin it was to find that a turn on.

"Yep." Brendon had quit looking at Jon altogether and was focusing on Dylan in his lap, occasionally throwing the paper ball for Clover to fetch. It was the first time all morning that Jon had seen Brendon look uncomfortable. He was in perpetual motion most of the time but was now very still. "I'd already met a few people here and I loved them. Olivia, for starters. My second day here, we met in front of the Copper Queen, the hotel, you know? We talked all afternoon. At first, I told myself I was fulfilling my obligation by talking to her. She was like, the first person her age I'd ever met that wasn't obviously full of shit."

Jon leaned back onto his elbows, his legs stretched out on the floor. "I know exactly what you mean. 'Never trust anyone over thirty,' dude."

"Exactly! But she made things okay. And like, maybe I wasn't wrong or bad, or just fucking crazy, you know? So when I finally left my unit, she brought me home. I mean, just like that. Like I was her own grand-"

Brendon bit his lip. He was about to say 'grandson', Jon was sure, but had stopped himself.

"It's cool, man. I'm glad she did that." Jon assured him. "Sounds like it was good for you to get away from that."

"Yeah." Brendon was nodding agreement but his slightly far-off gaze made Jon wonder how much confidence he had in his decision to leave. He watched Brendon scratch Dylan behind the ears, unconcerned with whether or not he was staring now. He admired Brendon for standing up for himself and what he believed in. He'd known a lot of guys back home who hadn't been that strong.

Sensing he was being watched, Brendon raised his eyes to look at Jon through his lashes.

The poignant silence was only accented by the rumble of appreciative purrs from the cats when Brendon's phone twinkled with – was it Backstreet Boys? Brendon read the text and grinned before schooling his face into nonchalance. Jon threw a paper ball for Clover, pretending not to be interested while Brendon punched in a short text in return before sticking the phone back into his pocket.

Jon wasn't going to ask about it but Brendon's smirk left him wondering if the text was related to him somehow.

"Sorry. Ryan's working on a paper today. He texts me when English words stop cooperating for him."

"That makes sense," he lied and then changed the topic. "Hey, that reminds me, I need to get a new phone plan here. And a wireless router, too, I guess. Grandma sure wasn't hooked up."

"You gotta see Ray, then," Brendon stated with confidence.

"Ray?"

"Totally. He's the man. He'll set you up with everything for internet. He's the only competition for the cable company here."

"Okay, I'll take your word for it. … You wanna show me where to find him?"

~^~

They walked this time because Brendon said it that wasn't very far, which was fine going down the mountain, but Jon knew he was going to regret the return climb. Brendon talked the whole way, pointing out houses and businesses and the names of their inhabitants. Jon wouldn't remember any of them, but he didn't try to stop him. He just smiled, enjoying the lyrical rise and fall of Brendon's voice. It was a smooth baritone that would spike with playful falsetto and suddenly drop into bass when he wanted Jon to laugh.

He found himself laughing a lot, too.

Ray turned out to be even better than Brendon had proclaimed. He was fucking brilliant. Jon had never gone into a cell phone store and not come out with a headache from dealing with an ignorant dick that couldn't comprehend rolling over minute plans or what was necessary to be Mac compatible.

While there, Jon went ahead and checked his email at the Internet café at the back of the store. He answered one from his brother saying that Mom was nagging him and that he'd better call her and another from Tom.

Wtf jwalk?! You bugged out of Chitown?? Dude, I ran into Bill. Get back to me!

Jon backspaced several times before he decided on something simple. First, to his brother;

Tell mom and dad I made it, ok? Dont want to deal with them yet. Thanks bro. –jon

And second;

Sorry man. Things came up and I just had to bail.
Did you run into Bill with your car? Because I'd be cool with that. –jwalk


He might be an adult now, but it didn't mean he wasn't passive aggressive.

He was logging out of Gmail when Brendon's laugh made him look up. He was moving and talking and filling the room with energy, and his and Ray's hair were in silhouette from the light of the side window. Jon just stopped, sat back, and watched for a minute. He almost forgot to take a picture, but then remembered and looked through the lens before Brendon shifted out of the light.

~^~

They geeked out on game talk all the way back up the hill, where they told of the Christmases their families got Nintendo 64 and shared their best little brother strategies to get a turn … neither were too ashamed to admit that crying to mom was tried and true method, though it always came with pay back.

As they rounded the sloping hill in front of a Jon's house, they were passed by the neighbors' mini-van pulling into the driveway ahead of them.

"Ooh – Spencer's home early," Brendon noted.

A thin, brown haired guy came out of the neighbor's house, meeting them near the van as the engine turned off.

"Ryan!" Brendon launched himself across the driveway. For such a skinny dude, he held up remarkably well to Brendon's assault, just bending forward so that Brendon was raised off his feet as he clung to Ryan's back.

Jon snapped a picture of them and laughed a little. The guy who'd caught Jon watching through the window that morning climbed out of the driver's side, and with Brendon tangled up with Ryan, there was no one to introduce them.

He was just taking in breath to say hello when the other man spoke first.

"Hi. Um …Spencer."

"Jon Walker. Nice to meet you." Spencer just nodded, expressionless, and opened the sliding door, revealing bags of groceries. Jon wasn't sure if he should offer to help or not.

Brendon was back on his feet but still had his arms around Ryan's shoulders with his mouth to Ryan's ear and Ryan was reaching his hand back around Brendon's head, his face tilted, listening with concentration. They were completely rapt up in each other and completely at ease.

The warming interest that had been building in Jon's gut all day began to go flat as he watched them together. He wondered if he'd been misreading the vibes he'd been picking up on.

"So, are, are they…?" Jon started, without really meaning to ask it. "Are they together?"

"Brendon and Ryan?" Spencer's head snapped up at Jon and then looked at them again. "No." He still bore an unreadable expression but he possibly smirked as he picked up the groceries. "They are definitely not together."

Jon wanted to be convinced by Spencer's assessment.

"Hi, Spence!" Brendon shouted.

"Hey, Brendon," Spencer said quietly.

"That's Jon!" Brendon shouted, holding onto Ryan who was trying to escape, looking like a spider caught in a Sleeper hold.

"Yeah, I worked that out."

"And, Jon, this is Spencer. See, he's not a cat!"

Spencer frowned, giving Brendon a pinched-up look that made Jon fidget.

"It's, ah, sorry. Brendon's been introducing me to people. And to my grandma's cats, and..."

Spencer raised his eyebrows slid the van door shut. "Sure."

Jon couldn't figure out if he was pissed or not. "Hey, I'm sorry if I looked like creep this morning, uh, looking out the window?"

"What?" Spencer asked, glancing at Brendon and Ryan who were still squawking and whispering. "Oh, that. I shouldn't have parked so close to your driveway. Sorry. I guess I got used to the house being empty."

"No, that's..." Jon cleared his throat, annoyed. If it weren't for the fact that he didn't want to leave Brendon playing Twister with Ryan, he'd just go home. As it was, he thought Brendon might be worth one more effort with the bitchy neighbor. Observing the medical scrubs Spencer was wearing, he asked, "So, what do you do?"

"Spencer's a vet! Isn't that cool?" Brendon said, now shoving Ryan up to the front of the house. "I mean, some of it's totally gross, too, you should hear him talk! But cool."

Spencer turned around, and with one hand on his hip and a weary huff said, "I'm a veterinary technician, Brendon. We've been through this."

"But yeah, still cool," Jon agreed, then nodded at the pattern on Spencer's scrub top of puppies with bandages on their heads and added, "cute puppies."

Spencer raised a singular disapproving eyebrow and turned away.

Jon felt himself begin to redden with frustration.

"Uh, I'm Ryan." The introduction was delivered with a gentle voice, but there was caution in his expression.

"Hi." Jon held out his hand and Ryan paused a beat before taking it, while Brendon beamed at them both. "Jon."

"I'm sorry about your Grandma. Olivia was a special lady and a first-class neighbor. I liked her."

"Yeah. Thanks." Jon was started to get the hang of this.

"And I apologize for Spencer, too," Ryan added in a lower voice, for only he and Brendon to hear. "He called me earlier. Didn't have a very good day."

"Oh, no." Brendon put one hand over his mouth. "He didn't lose something, did he?"

"Yeah, I think so. He called Animal Control on the owners and everything …" Ryan waved vaguely, and he and Brendon exchanged scrunched-nosed expressions that Jon interpreted as some long standing practice between them regarding Spencer's work.

They followed Spencer into the house and Jon waffled, dragging his feet, lurking in the doorway. He didn't feel invited or even particularly welcome. Brendon was already comforting Spencer with a fierce hug, his eyes closed and face pressed into Spencer's neck while he genuinely held him. Spencer, for his part, returned the embrace in equal measure and didn't seem to have the same embarrassed, long suffering air that Ryan had about Brendon's affections. They were pressed bodily against each other and oddly enough, Jon didn't have any nagging concern about it. He was starting to get that Brendon was just like this with his friends.

Ryan ignored them while he put the groceries away.

Spencer cleared his throat when he broke apart from Brendon, and he turned immediately to Jon. "I'm sorry. Please, come in. It was a shit day at the clinic. These three dogs … and the stupid people – I mean, water. They think we don't know dehydration when we see it? It's so fucking obvious! This is the desert. How hard is it to leave water out? And just … anyway." Spencer let his head loll forward, hunched tightly with his eyebrows furrowed.

"I'm sure you did everything you could." Ryan rubbed Spencer's shoulders and gave them a little shake.

"Yeah." Spencer gave him a sad little smile. They tilted their heads together for only a second before Ryan gave him a firm pat on the back and began putting produce on the counter.

"Spaghetti and salad sound good?" Ryan asked.

"Yum!!" Brendon said, grabbing Jon by the arm and pulling him further into the kitchen.

"Oh, uh, I don't wanna intrude or anything," Jon said, not wanting to be the neighbor who never leaves, but he was unwilling to resist Brendon's grasp.

"No way. You're Olivia's family. You're our neighbor and you're Brendon's …" Spencer paused, glancing at Ryan.

"…guest." Ryan supplied.

~^~

Oddly enough, there was little pretense among them in spite of having just met. Jon assumed it was due to his grandma's good graces that he was welcomed. He was given a beer and the task of making the salad while Ryan took Brendon off to read his paper and to presumably talk about Jon some more. Once Spencer had played on the floor with the dogs for several minutes, he changed into jeans and a faded black shirt, and his mood lightened considerably. He was younger and slimmer than the boxy medical clothes had let on.

"So tell me how you got into the vet business," Jon asked.

"Mm, well. Ryan and I worked at a vet clinic in high school and I liked it. Well, no, our job was shit – literally." Spencer laughed and Jon felt himself relax and smile too. "But anyway. My Mom is old friends with Dr. Cohen here in town and he offered me the job." He shrugged and looked down, petting one of the dogs. "It helped that Ryan wanted to come."

"Oh, whatever. You begged me to come." Ryan sounded hostile as he walked in, but Jon realized it was a layer of sarcasm. Spencer's mildly pinking cheeks were evident through his beard. "I didn't care where I went to school," Ryan continued, almost sounding bored. "Leaving Vegas suited me just fine. Why not come with my best friend, right?"

"Right," Brendon agreed on Spencer's behalf.

"Okay, tell us more about you," Spencer said, clearly deflecting attention from himself.

"Oh, ah …" he hemmed. He wasn't accustomed to sharing much personal about himself with strangers, but then these guys already felt like friends. His grandmother had trusted them.

"Well," Brendon's voice dragged with implied scandal, "we know he recently broke up with Bill, and we all hate him now."

Jon took a hard drink of beer, coughed and laughed. He had kind of assumed they were all on the same page about liking men, remembering what he did about a large part of the population of Bisbee, but he wasn't accustomed to being outed before he was ready.

"Oooh – I like a good break up story. Tell." Ryan's long fingers rapidly pressed and released the tip of the ink pen in his hand, looking like he wanted to take notes on the subject.

"Bill." Jon cleared his throat. "Okay. Yeah, Bill. He was …pretty."

"Pretty? Like, pretty?" Brendon said, his voice a little high. "How do you mean?"

Jon could see Ryan reach under the table and put a hand on Brendon's leg.

"Just, that. He's got one of those faces that everyone loves. I kinda thought I loved it, too. But he played mind games, like … and I'm just not down with that. And I'm…" He looked at Brendon and couldn't figure out how to convey what he wanted to say. "'Pretty' doesn't mean anything if you can't just have fun with a person all day."

"…Yeah?" Brendon looked him in the eye, his small smile but showing a row of white teeth. "Yeah." He nodded. "I think that's important, too."

It was one of those slowed down moments that Jon thought might be a moment, but then he didn't have much faith in his judgment in such matters.

They talked throughout dinner and Jon gave the polite version of his college experience while learning about Ryan completing his degree in creative writing and how he and Spencer had been friends for years. There were stories about Halloween costumes and kittens and swimming lessons, which from anyone else would have made Jon groan and roll his eyes, but he found them pretty fucking adorable.

Brendon, for his part, seemed desperately proud of Ryan and Spencer's very existence, though in random moments got very quiet as he watched them. Jon could see why; when one started talking, the other's face lit up, already knowing the story and bouncing to hurry up and get to the funny part.

"We've got time for Scrabble," Spencer said, looking at his watch, passing Jon and Brendon their third beers of the night.

"You guys are mad partiers, aren't you?" Jon laughed, twisting the cap off the bottle.

"You just wait until Friday night, Jon Walker," Brendon said, putting on a face. "You will see some serious partying!"

"Friday? What's going on?"

"Live music at Hall's," Ryan said in his careful voice, sounding disinterested. "I know Bisbee looks quaint during the day, but the night life gets crazy."

"Night life? No way." Jon was a little incredulous. "I figured this town was dead after eight."

"For the retirees and hippies, maybe," Spencer said. "But Zack somehow always gets good live bands in his place. Brings out the freaks and geeks – which Bisbee has lots of."

"Yeah and the university students drive over from Sierra Vista," Ryan added.

"And soldiers from the Army post come, too," Brendon said, quieter than usual.

"Right," Ryan grumbled with a glare at Brendon. "Let's not forget about the Army boys."

Brendon returned a silent STFU glare back at Ryan, and then his eyes skittered to Jon's before looking down. It wasn't the first time that Jon felt he missed the point of an in-joke of some kind.

Spencer audibly huffed at the both of them, looking ashamed for Jon's sake. "Yeah, there are always a few soldiers who come over to toy with the boundaries of Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"I call Scrabble teams!" Brendon announced, now smiling in some sort of defiance at Ryan. "And I get Ryan!"

"I hope you're good," Spencer sighed, lifting the lid off the box. "Ryan always wins."

Brendon set up the game, while telling Jon that Ryan's mission in life was to get the highest possible Scrabble score by using the word 'oxyphenbutazone', which Ryan hotly denied. Jon found himself truly laughing harder than he'd done in weeks at Ryan's fierce finger-pointing denial of what he said were Brendon's false and libel Scrabble accusations.

Jon wiped the corners of his eyes as Spencer shook his head. He was apparently used to this particular exchange, and he reached out and put his hand around the back of Ryan's neck. His middle finger slid along the crease of Ryan's neck and collarbone, stroking very lightly and remained intimately in place. Ryan glanced at Spencer, face full of committed denial of Brendon's allegation, but he gave Spencer a playful grin, before taking up his argument again. As he did so, Ryan subconsciously leaned back against Spencer, and Jon immediately saw what he hadn't seen before. It was so obvious now.

"Oh, my god," Jon muttered to himself, face warming as he remembered asking Spencer earlier about Ryan and Brendon being involved and what Spencer's reaction had been. He was almost nauseous with the humiliation of it and swilled the rest of his beer.

"What is it?" Brendon asked.

Jon didn't say anything, and neither did Spencer, but he did chuckle and kissed the back of Ryan's head, who then turned and scowled at him.

"What? What are you two laughing at?" Ryan demanded.

"Nothing," Spencer said, smiling.

Jon gave Spencer a sheepish look with what he hoped was an apologetic expression and Spencer raised an eyebrow before winking at him.

"Okay, Jon." Brendon held out the maroon plastic bag. "Pick seven tiles and no peeking."

He did as he was told and maintained eye contact with Brendon as he fished the small wooden squares out. He'd only just realized what everyone else in the room had known all night: that this was a double date.

~^~

Jon spent the next day quietly unpacking his things and doing laundry. Quietly, that is, until he began having full-length conversations with the cats, because for all he responded to their silent glares, they might have been talking back to him. He asked them for everything they knew about Brendon, but whatever secrets they knew, they kept the good stuff to themselves. They had no opinion as to whether Ryan had intentionally derailed Jon's goodnight and goodbye with Brendon the night before, but Clover seemed to perk up at the sound of Brendon's name, so Jon continued to talk about him. … For Clover's sake.

He had offered to take Brendon home after Scrabble but Ryan had insisted on doing it. Nothing overt but with a quiet persistence that left Jon feeling disoriented and then slightly bereft by Brendon's absence. Not even beating off in bed later had improved the feeling, which left him guilt-ridden for thinking of Brendon's small hands on him. He didn't even know how he knew that Brendon had small hands!

The four felines watched him intently as he worked around the house, meow-barking around his feet whenever he ventured near the pantry and yowling their disapproval when he put clean sheets on the bed.

"Come, on, guys. We couldn't sleep on that dusty bedspread another night, could we?"

Afterwards, he flopped onto the fresh bedding with his MacBook, connecting the new wireless and uploading his pictures. The cats surrounded him, giving their begrudging approval since they curled into him and purred in their sleep.

Late in the day, after watering all the plants in the sun porch, he climbed the broken stone steps that meandered up the hill behind the house, remembering how he'd worked the various terraced flower beds when he was there years before. Everything was wild and overgrown now, which made for interesting photos, but he felt some remorse knowing that it was once well kempt.

The acoustics of the hills brought him the sound of a car door slamming from below and he peered down at the house in hopes that he had visitors. Spencer's van was in the driveway again, and he raised his camera and took a few shots of the lights flicking on inside. Jon wondered if he and Ryan were going to eat left over spaghetti and salad for dinner. He wondered if they'd hold hands on the couch while watching that night's teen drama on the CW. Truth be told, he really wanted to be invited over again, but he couldn't contrive of any way to manage it.

As he went back below, wild vines tripped him in the twilight, and he decided that he'd get his Grandma's hillside garden in order again.

That, and he was going to find Brendon tomorrow. It was a small town and Brendon was a stand out, he was sure of it.

~^~

Part 2
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