A Different Beat
"Two things," Ryan told the kid--Brendon--who Brent had brought with him to Spencer's garage. "First, we practice five days a week, every week. We're never going to improve if we don't play." He shot a sharp look at Brendon--everyone else they'd talked to had bailed at that point--but Brendon just nodded agreeably, so he continued:
"Second, I don't know what Brent told you," with a glare for Brent, this time, "but this band already has two guitarists. What we need is someone on drums. You still interested?"
The eager expression on Brendon's face turned regretful, and Spencer felt a familiar sinking feeling in his stomach. "I don't know how to play the drums," Brendon said.
"Brent says you can play pretty much any instrument you lay your hands on," Ryan said dismissively. "We'll be patient with you while you're catching up."
Spencer just managed not to snort in amusement. Ryan didn't do patient; either he was fussy and demanding, or he resigned himself to what he viewed as an inevitable disappointment. A glance at Brent showed him hiding his own smile.
Brendon chewed his lower lip. "I don't have a drum set."
"We've got one you can use," Spencer said, stomping down on a lingering sense of guilt. His family wasn't rich, but his parents hadn't even blinked when he'd asked for a guitar less than a year after they'd bought him a drum set.
("You need to be up here with me," Ryan had insisted. "Not ten feet behind me playing backup."
Reality felt a bit different than how Ryan had framed the situation, but that was the danger in constantly thinking in metaphors.
"I like the drums," Spencer had said mildly. Ryan'd just looked at him with such a fierce, determined expression that he hadn't argued further. And, as it turned out, Spencer liked the guitar, too.)
"I don't know," Brendon said. Spencer could see Ryan getting frustrated with the lengthy negotiations, and he tried to telegraph assurance to him with his eyes. Brendon wasn't saying "no." More to the point, Spencer didn't think he wanted to say "no."
"What don't you know about?" Spencer asked.
"I'm interested--I'm definitely interested--but it's not like I'm some kind of musical prodigy. There's no way I could get good enough on the drums without practicing a lot. And, I mean, the drums aren't all that portable. It's not like I could take them home with me between our practices."
The expression on Ryan's face was by now a priceless combination of residual annoyance and grudging approval that Brendon's main objection was that he wanted to play more than five times a week. Being serious about music was the easiest way to Ryan's heart. Spencer was increasingly convinced that Brendon was just what the band needed.
Fortunately, he had a solution to their problem. "You can come over and practice the drums whenever you want," he said.
Brendon blinked at him. "Your parents won't mind?"
"Not unless you're here after 10 p.m. or before 7 a.m."
Brendon hesitated another moment, and then he flashed a smile that was brilliant enough to make Spencer do a double take. "Okay, then. I'm in."
"Honey, do you want to take your friend a snack? He's been out there for a couple of hours now."
Spencer raised his head from his chemistry textbook, just now fully registering the muffled drumbeats that had been a sort of subconscious accompaniment to his homework. "Yeah, sure," he said. It wasn't as though oxidation and reduction equations were making much sense to him, anyway. He could use a break, try to get a fresh perspective.
He poked around in the kitchen for something that didn't contain sugar, since they had band practice later that day. He wasn't particularly averse to sending Brendon home on a sugar high--he'd never even met Brendon's family; they were nothing more than an abstraction to him--but he did have a fairly healthy sense of self-preservation. Finally he scrounged up some crackers and set them on a plate and spread a third of them with peanut butter, a third of them with cream cheese, and sliced some cheddar for the remaining third. Then he poured a big glass of apple juice, since it got pretty hot out in the garage, and did his best to not spill anything while taking it out to Brendon.
"Hey," Brendon said when Spencer opened the door, and then, "Oh, hey!" when he caught sight of the crackers and juice. He clambered off his seat and rushed over to help.
"My mom thought you might be hungry," Spencer said.
"That's really nice of her. And you. Thanks," Brendon said, grinning. He put the glass of apple juice to his lips and drained half of it in several long gulps.
"Thirsty?" Spencer asked. Brendon's face was flushed with heat, and his hair was damp with sweat at the edges of his forehead.
"Yeah, kinda. Usually I bring a water bottle with me, but I forgot today."
"Well, if you finish your juice, I can get you some more."
"This is fine," Brendon said. He looked at his full hands, then leaned down to place the glass of apple juice on the ground so that he had a free hand to eat. "These are really good," he said ten seconds later through a mouthful of cream cheese and Ritz crackers.
Spencer shrugged; it wasn't like they took any skill to make. "Thanks."
"My mom always mixes olives into cream cheese when she's making appetizers, and I think it's gross."
"Ew," Spencer agreed. He was fine with olives on pizza, but that was about the extent of it.
"You want any?" Brendon said, waving the plate at Spencer, a vaguely hopeful look on his face.
Spencer blinked at him, surprised, and then wondered why it should be such a shock that Brendon might want some company. He was spending hours each day practicing the drums alone in the garage of someone who was still a virtual stranger; that had to be lonely, as well as a bit weird.
"Yeah, sure," he said and took a peanut butter cracker, then sat cross-legged on the floor, joined by Brendon a heartbeat later.
It took them a ridiculously long time to discover that Brendon could sing, considering the amount of time they spent together. In the end, it was Brent who said out of the blue one day, "Brendon's been holding out on us."
"What do you mean?" Ryan asked.
Spencer looked at Brendon, who looked at least as confused as Spencer felt.
"Brendon, sing 'Amazing Grace,'" Brent said, and Brendon turned a little red but did it.
"Wow," Spencer said after Brendon had finished. "Brent's right. Why didn't you tell us you could sing like that?"
Brendon shook his head. "It's not like it matters. You needed a drummer, not a vocalist."
Spencer turned to Ryan for backup, only Ryan was staring at the ground, his lips pressed together in a thin line. There was an awkward silence. And then Ryan said, softly, "We need whatever's going to take this band to the top. You want to give us your voice, too, Brendon?"
"I guess," Brendon said. "I mean, if that's what you want."
"It is," Spencer said, and Ryan and Brent nodded agreement.
"Hey," Spencer called, almost reluctant to interrupt Brendon's playing. Disclaimors of not being a prodigy aside, he'd gotten better at the drums in three months than Spencer had in a year.
Brendon stilled his hands, and the last reverberations echoed a moment in the garage and then went silent. "Hey. Am I being too loud?"
"You're fine. My mom just wanted me to check if you'd like to eat dinner with us."
"You sure?" Brendon asked, already sliding out from behind the drum set.
"I think we can spare a plate or two of tuna noodle casserole," Spencer said dryly.
Brendon's face lit up a little more. "I love tuna noodle casserole."
"Well, we've got plenty."
Spencer grabbed a plate and silverware for Brendon and put him in the empty spot beside his seat. There was a brief, awkward pause as everyone waited to see if there would be any praying before the meal. Then Spencer's dad chuckled a little and took Brendon's plate to serve him some casserole, while Brendon beamed indiscriminately at everyone.
"You look like you're in a good mood," Spencer's mom said.
"Tuna noodle casserole and dinner with the Smiths are two of my favorite things," Brendon told her.
Crystal and Jackie giggled, and Spencer restrained the urge to kick them under the table. Brendon got oddly enthusiastic about stuff, but he was an okay kid. At the same time, Spencer couldn't help but point out, "You've never eaten dinner with my family before."
"I extrapolated," Brendon said. "If lunch here is good, then dinner must be even better."
"You've never eaten lunch with my family, either."
Jackie nodded. "Yes, he has. Brendon had grilled cheese with us last Saturday when you were visiting Ryan."
"And tomato soup," Brendon added.
"I see," Spencer said brilliantly, wondering if his mother was intent on adopting all of his friends, or just the ones who were as cute as Ryan and Brendon were.
Nine o'clock on a Saturday morning was way too early for a heart attack, Spencer was certain, especially when he was engaged in nothing more hazardous than searching his garage for a missing cellphone. He scanned the floor quickly, not seeing it, and was about to go back into the house when he realized that there were somebody's legs sticking out from behind the drum set in the corner. He lived in a decent neighborhood, but obviously not decent enough, since some homeless person was asleep in his garage. Or dead in his garage, Spencer's brain added helpfully, which was really not what he needed to be thinking about right then.
The best thing to do would be to get his dad to deal with it, but somehow that didn't keep him from stepping forward softly, his heart pounding a furious rhythm in his chest, until he was close enough to see that the legs belonged to...
Brendon stirred at the sound of his voice, rubbing a hand over his face and then blinking up at him. "Spencer," he said muzzily.
"What are you doing?" Spencer demanded, adrenaline making him sharper than usual. "I thought some homeless guy had snuck in here when I first saw you."
Brendon's face crumpled, and Spencer paused, thrown off guard. Then he replayed what he'd just said, and Brendon's red eyes made a sudden horrible sense.
"Oh, shit," Spencer said. He pulled Brendon to his feet and dragged him inside, ignoring his half-hearted protests, until Brendon was seated at Spencer's kitchen table with the twins staring at him curiously.
Spencer's mom frowned a little, and Brendon hunched his shoulders up in embarrassment or misery or both. At which point she quickly shook her head and smoothed a hand over his hair. "Do you want your eggs scrambled or sunny side up, Brendon?" she asked, and didn't even blink when Brendon responded by burying his head in his arms and bursting into tears.
"He likes them scrambled," Spencer said, glaring at the twins in case they were about to say something stupid. They just made faces back at him; Jackie rolled her eyes pointedly.
"So, Mom, Dad, is it okay if Brendon stays here a few days?" Spencer asked, already certain of his parents' answer.
Brendon seemed less certain; his shoulders tensed, looking suddenly thin and brittle beneath his tee shirt.
His parents just exchanged looks, and then his mom said, "Sure, honey."
Brendon sniffled, and Spencer put a hand on his arm, not quite willing to go for a hug at the breakfast table, but unable to ignore him, either.
By the third time Ryan snapped at him for a fumbled chord in the span of half an hour, Spencer was half-inclined to call an end to practice and send Brent and Ryan home. He could feel Brendon's big, dark eyes focused on them. Brent's deliberate avoidance of their gaze was equally blatant, as he concentrated on the bass under his fingers and stared in the general direction of Spencer's washing machine. They were obviously uncomfortable as hell, and Spencer was getting pissed, and neither of those was conducive to a good practice.
This had been building for weeks, though; ignoring it further would only make things worse next time.
"Can we take ten?" he asked, stopping right in the middle of the song.
Ryan opened his mouth, no doubt to object, only to shut up as Brent and Brendon both mumbled agreement and made a dash for it. Which conveniently left Spencer as the sole outlet for Ryan's wrath. "What the hell, Spencer?" he demanded.
"I could say the same thing to you," Spencer said. "You do realize that you're picking on me for not having memorized a song you just gave us two days ago, right?"
Ryan set his jaw stubbornly and started plucking out notes on his guitar.
"Not to mention that you've been in a shitty mood for the past month. What's going on with you?"
"Nothing," Ryan said snidely.
"I'm just the same as I always was."
"And I'm not?"
"I didn't say that."
Spencer rolled his eyes. "You didn't have to."
Ryan didn't respond, which was fine by Spencer. Ryan might be a riddle half the time, but Spencer had gotten used to putting the clues together. In this particular instance, a month of pissiness and an accusation that Spencer had changed probably meant that "You're jealous of Brendon, aren't you?"
Ryan strummed his guitar a little more pointedly.
"Ryan," Spencer said, risking life and limb a tiny bit to place his hand on the tense line of Ryan's shoulder.
Ryan shrugged him off, but a moment later he asked, his voice even flatter than usual, "Are you two dating now?"
One last, vicious chord and then Ryan lifted his hands to tick off points one by one. "Brendon's gay; Brendon gets kicked out of his house by his Mormon family; Brendon comes to live with you indefinitely. What does that look like to you?"
"Something very different than what you're seeing. He wasn't kicked out for being gay, he was kicked out because of the band. I didn't even know he was gay until five seconds ago."
Ryan scoffed at that. "He's been living with you for a month."
"So? That doesn't mean we stay up all night trading secrets."
"You couldn't figure it out anyway?"
Spencer didn't want to admit that he couldn't, so he said, "I try not to make assumptions about my friends' sexuality, thanks."
"How P.C. of you."
"Yeah, speaking of which, what's your damage? Even if we were dating--which we aren't--why would it matter to you?"
"Are you accusing me of having some sort of homophobic freakout?" Ryan demanded.
"Sometimes I think you may actually be the stupidest friend I have," Ryan said, and Spencer was about to get offended when Ryan took a step closer and brushed a kiss over his cheek. It wasn't that much more intimate than they'd been together before--hugs and sharing beds and late night cuddles that neither of them had really grown out of--but the implications were totally different.
"Okay, just checking, but that wasn't you trying to make a point about how openminded you are, right?" Spencer asked when his voice worked again, despite the fact that Ryan was holding himself in so tightly that he looked as though he was about to break either himself or the guitar that he held in a death grip.
Ryan glared at him.
"In that case, you're right. I'm a complete moron," Spencer said, and leaned in, the guitar pressing uncomfortably into the pit of his stomach, to kiss Ryan on the mouth.
"Your drummer is your lead singer," Pete Wentz said, his eyebrows raised.
"Yeah," Ryan said.
"It works for us," Spencer added. Ryan had been reduced mostly to monosyllables after he'd given Pete his carefully rehearsed introduction and they'd performed three songs for him.
"I can see that," Pete admitted. "Which I'm guessing is due to...Brendon, right?" Brendon nodded. "Brendon having more energy and lung capacity than an opera singer on speed."
Brendon looked half-flattered and half-annoyed by the comparison, but he didn't comment on it.
"Still, from a marketing standpoint, it's a mistake to stick your most charismatic performer in the back."
"I'm not charismatic," Brendon protested. "I'm just hyper."
Ryan didn't say anything, which was either a sign of admirable restraint or a sign that he was still intimidated as hell by Pete Wentz sitting less than ten feet away from him in the armchair they'd dragged into Spencer's garage for that very purpose. Which meant that it was up to Spencer to say, "I know how to play the drums a bit."
He could feel Ryan practically vibrating with the need to object, but he didn't, and Spencer was grateful for it. He took Ryan's hand--Pete's eyes flicked downward, but the expression on his face never changed--and tried to communicate just how okay this newest development was with a quick squeeze of his fingers. It had never been about standing beside Ryan on stage, for him, when what really mattered was standing beside him everywhere else.
"Brendon, do you play the guitar at all?" Pete asked.
Brent snorted. "He plays a little of everything. He's good at the guitar, though."
"Okay." Pete nodded, grinning. "So, if that's settled, then I'm thinking contracts."
Ryan's fingers twitched in Spencer's grasp, an excess of emotion that he couldn't let show on his face. "Yeah, okay. We can do that," he said, and Spencer let Ryan's words speak for him, for all of them, and didn't add the "Motherfucking yes," that was on the tip of his tongue.