Awlright, guys, this is about as far as I got before halting production on this story. I am not planning on finishing this, ever, so here's essentially what happens:

Everett meets a girl in high school named Kennedy, who is her band's drum major. They fall in love and get together once she turns eighteen and Everett ages out of the corps. Eventually, they marry and have kids. Everett goes to school to be a music teacher and Kennedy marches with the Blue Devils for a few years.

Brandon finds out that Alicia, the woman he loved and lost, joined up with the Blue Devils as a snare drum player so she could be closer to him. The pair get back together after much fanfare and conflict. When Brandon ages out, he kicks smoking and drinking and enrolls in a twelve-step program to beat his addictions. He and Alicia get engaged.

Ryan becomes sexually involved with Shane, who takes videos of them having sex and doing very racy things to each other, assuring Ryan that it's for "reference." When Ryan rejects him as par to Everett's request (as Everett believes that their relationship is abusive), Shane shows their videos to the whole corps. Ryan, devastated and shamed, commits suicide right before the DCI championships.

Shane, after Ryan's death, disappears. He is never found.

()()()

"Hey, Everett. What's the difference between a mellophone and a band director? Two measures." Brandon started cracking up hysterically, like that musically derogatory joke was the funniest thing ever conceived. He gave me a ribald grin with impishness of a future bridegroom who was trying to convince his fiancée that he hadn't gone to a strip club for his bachelor party. I noticed a patent corn flake stuck between his front teeth, but in order to exact some measure of revenge for that horrible joke, I didn't tell him about it. Besides, he seemed to be having too much fun at my expense, anyhow.

I frowned and shoveled a spoonful of cereal into my mouth, unaware until this morning about how famished I really was. The spaghetti last night had been remarkable to a starving soul like mine, but it seemed the food had completely evaporated and escaped my body via vapor with the way I was devouring breakfast. Pointing at him from across the long cafeteria table with the sudsy spoon, I said mid-chew, "You're more of a racist musician than you let on."

With an offhand shrug, Brandon bit into the slippery, shimmering red skin of his apple. Crunch. Chew, chew, chew. He sounded like a metal-shaping machine. "I'm a trumpet player," he said. "And you know what they say about us."

"That you use your personalities for birth control?"

"Oh, man. I was going to say that we think the world revolves around us, but that's pretty good. I don't think I've heard that one."

"Here's a good wisecrack," I stated, scooping the rest of my cereal out of my bowl and into my hungry muzzle. "Why is the mellophone a divine instrument? Because man blows into it, but only God knows what comes out of it."

"Here's another good wisecrack," Brandon said, polishing off the meat around the sickly core of the apple. "My ass."

"Ha, ha."

"Nice one, huh?"

"Not really. Kinda amusing. Just more juvenile than anything."

"Damn, bro, that hurts," Brandon said with a mock grimace. "Hey, speaking of juvenile, what was last night to you, a sleepover? I heard you whispering to someone who came in. The guy sort of woke me up getting in. Ninja sly, he's not. What the hell was that, anyway? Getting buddy-buddy with a rifle line kid. Pillow talk?"

"You're such a dick," I mumbled through a mouthful of banana. I'm not a raging fan of apples. I'll eat them when deemed necessary, but otherwise, it's always bananas. Or grapefruit. "He took the only unoccupied spot, and that was between you and me. Quit bitching. There's ain't nothing gay about it. I was just being friendly and open, unlike you, creepy barfly."

Brandon, who was sandwiched between a pair of beefy guys who looked like they would be suited to play bass drum in the Cavaliers' lionized drumline, stood up and haughtily thumped his chest with the pride of a king. "Damn skippy, you mellophone-playing man whore from chicken fried steak country!" he bellowed. "I drink, curse, have debauched language and actions, woo women, and basically live up to the stereotypes of my yuppiedom. Sue me for being of the penis genus, for God's sake!" Swinging his arms exaggeratedly, he gave vent to an Indian war whoop. This caused the guys on either side of him to scowl—and the rest of the cafeteria to temporarily halt their conversations to stare at him and I.

"Sit down, you idiot!" I hissed. "You're making yourself look like the court fool!"

"I am the court fool," Brandon said, suddenly sober. "I'm comic relief. I'm the bozo. Always have been, and always will. Now, 'court fool' is kind of an outdated phrase. You could replace it with 'fucking retard.' Or 'clown,' at least."

I pinched the bridge of my nose in aggravation. "Whatever. I don't give a fuck. Sit down. Just do it, okay? I want one peaceful meal. One."

"Okay, I'll grant you one said 'peaceful meal,'" Brandon said as he sat back down and dug into the rangy scraps and remnants of his breakfast, inhaling what else he could. "Just keep in mind that you're oppressing my personality like a ruler with a rapier stuck up his ass. This is a democracy, not a despotic tyranny. And besides, you'd better get used to lively spreads. There's no snack in the Cavaliers that is a quiet one."

"I don't even know if I'll get in. I told you the same thing last night."

"You'll get in."

"Fine, if you say so."

Brandon leaned in with the curious, crafty glint of a cunning fox. He'd long since demolished his meal, so there was nothing more to keep his mouth full. Therefore, he would be shooting his mouth uncontrollably, even though I'd told him seconds ago to button his yap. But somehow, he was just fucking with me, because he sat there and stared at me, as if he was going to give me candy and try to entice me into a dark closet somewhere like some A-list pedophile. I instantly lost my appetite, watching the rapacious grin butter his face beneath his unruly ringlets of dark chocolate brown.

His gleaming Stygian eyes made me raise and eyebrow and push my tray off to the side. "Humor this Southern reject, Brandon," I drawled, looking at him skeptically. "Are you always like this whenever you're sober?"

"Yeah, I'm annoying if I haven't had a drink in the morning," Brandon said. "Alicia told me the same thing."

That jarred me, forcing me to blink in surprise. Alicia? All right, that got me going. "Who's Alicia?" I inquired.

When I asked, for the briefest of seconds, Brandon's playful demeanor switched. Hurt reflected in his eyes, twin ebony mirrors, shielding past memories that I don't think he wanted me to hear. Alicia's name must've slipped out accidentally. Although I was still inquisitive, I didn't pursue the subject any more after seeing his silent reaction to her name. Damn, what happened to this guy?

Brandon sidestepped around the question like it hadn't even existed, but I let the suspicious change go. "Okay, dude, spill," he said, leaning forward. "So who were you talking to, anyway? I was too busy sleeping to catch any introductions between Faggot #1 and the other guy, anyhow. I'd like to know. He sounded halfway decent. Not a lech like Shane. Or me, God forbid."

"So I'm Faggot #1, then?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

"Thanks," I said with acerbic sarcasm in my voice. "His name is Ryan Cox. He's from Tucson, Arizona, and he's auditioning for the rifle subdivision of guard today. Sixteen, so he's a small fry. Don't give him shit about that, okay? Ryan's farouche and has the silence of someone walking on their tiptoes. Antisocial? Not really. I'd just say a bit bashful, some uneasiness opening up to folks. Now, you, on the other hand, can make a grass whistle sound like relaxing song, you motormouthed wino. So if he wants to talk to me, be friendly and not the stupid idiot you so perfectly embody."

Brandon grinned, flashing me his toothpaste-ad smile. Those teeth were well-brushed. Well, with the exception of the odd corn flake that was still between his front choppers. Damn, that was really starting to get irksome. I might have to tell him about that eventually. "You know something, Everett?" He said. "You've known me for probably a grand total of twelve hours, and somehow you know me better than my own bitchy mother."

"You said your bitchy mother paid more attention to money than she did to you," I pointed out from our conversation last night. "As mine probably loved meth more than her own son, too."

"Yeah, the whole concept of 'family' is serious botched," Brandon distantly agreed. Then, in an abrupt shift in discussion, as before with the unspeakable subject of Alicia the mystery woman, he added some completely random interjection. "You know that Asian guy who's auditioning for pit?"

"No," I admitted. "You and Shane are the only guys that stand out, frankly. Ryan too, a little bit."

"Well, his girlfriend is working the food line as a volunteer, and she is super hot," he said. "She is like this Zulu princess with skin the color of cocoa, chocolate you could nosh on all night long and still not satisfy your voracious, insatiable need for African sweets." Wantonly, Brandon licked his lips in the midst of his imagination. "She's gotta be from somewhere exotic, like the Ivory Coast or Ghana or somewhere. I heard her cooing to her orange duck sweetheart in the breakfast line, and all I have to say is—I wish I were that fop, time and again. And her accent is so thick it would be like honey on this white boy's bread."

"You're a sick bastard," I opined. "She's someone else's lover. Concentrate on your music and not your second head, dude."

"Okay, yeah, I know that," Brandon said peevishly. "I'm not that flat. My skull is thick, but not everything ricochets off its surface. I was merely thinking they're kind of a weird pair. I mean, African queen and Asian dweeb? How did that work out? Even in America, that's barely feasible."

"When people are in love," the world's tiniest voice—but one I had become au fait with—cracked meekly behind me, "then race, age, or gender don't matter. That's what I think, anyway."

I whirled around to see Ryan's pale, timid form shuddering behind me with a plastic crimson tray outstretched before him, possessing a bowl of Fruit Loops that jumped out like a double rainbow, an orange, and a carton of plain skim milk. He looked bone-tired, and seeing as Brandon and I had already disposed of our breakfasts, he'd probably been one of the last guys in line. I was pretty sure his fatigue was out of clamoring in the free-for-all for chow instead of a poor night's sleep. When Brandon and I rose with a few other early birds this morning, Ryan was out cold—and leisurely so, it seemed.

But now his sunny parade seemed to have been rained upon by the wild, starving mass of young adult males, stampeding like zebras streaking away from predators. It was amazing what the notion of food could do an empty masculine stomach, really. I succumbed to random cravings all the time myself.

He stared at me with his anxious baby-blue eyes, pleading for a space and the tiniest corner of nurture and acceptance, almost seemingly waiting for me to greet him, for he was too afraid to speak up after his bijou homily. Brandon, nosy as always, craned his neck around me to see the intruder into our originally racist dialogue that had suddenly transformed into something much more unbigoted.

I turned around in my seat, slipping a true half-smile from my pocket and sticking it to my face, glad to see him again. "Hey there, Ryan," I welcomed. "How are you? Did ya sleep well last night?"

"Um…" Reticently, a furious blush at being recognized covered Ryan's cheeks with the texture of an apple and he turned his face down at his tray in a feeble attempt to hide his insecurity. "I did, thank you. Uh, talking to you… really helped… It felt good, having someone be so neighborly."

Loudly, Brandon scoffed at the use of his adjective. "Neighborly?" he remarked scornfully, playing the part of critical sports announcer. "Dude, we aren't sleeping in houses or anything. Everett isn't your neighbor. Use 'friendly' or something less specific than that."

I shot a glare at Brandon from across the table. "Shut up, you're a real wiseass," I snapped.

"Better than being a dumbass," Brandon retorted wittily. "Lord knows that if there's anything worse than a smart donkey, it's a stupid one."

"You alternate between the two," I returned.

Brandon smirked. "You're getting adroit at the whole caustic witticism battles, man."

"I'm learning from the best, that's why."

"Yeah, I'm a pretty good teacher. One day I've known you, and you already know how to shit out of your own ass."

Ryan's eyes bounced between us as Brandon and I engaged in this rapid-fire squabble, following each zinger from one's mouth by letting his eyes travel to the other. His eyebrows rumpled in great confusion, really not able to intellectually grasp our talents in switching between flattering comments and slapping each other in the face. Brandon was right—I'd barely been his ally for more than twelve hours, and we were already volleying jibes like world-class Ping-Pong players. And it didn't surprise me that Ryan was puzzled, listening to us. I wasn't expecting anyone to get our tirades against each other. I myself was going to take a while getting adjusted to them.

Still glaring at Brandon (who looked as smug as a little kid who'd succeeded using sister as a scapegoat for breaking a priceless vase), I spoke indirectly to Ryan. "Do you want to sit down? You can't eat standing up. It'll all go to your thighs." Shimmying over to my right, I made just enough seat room for Ryan to squeeze in, threw a glance over my shoulder, and patted the empty section of bench beside me. Shooting me a thankful look, Ryan settled between auditionee for the snare line and me, digging into his meal with the hunger of twenty-K homeless men.

"Whatever, bro," Brandon jeered once Ryan was plunked down and eating. "That eating-and-standing-up thing is just an old wives' tale. In truth, it doesn't matter what you're doing when you eat. You're going to have elephant thighs anyway. Damn, I sound like a woman."

"Nice going on the Anglo-Saxon expletives," I said. "You're full of them."

Brandon raised his paper cup of orange juice in mock toast. "I'm surrounded by a bunch of young men in the prime of their loss of language, gaining of sexual concern, and profound decline in hygiene," he said. "You know what they say. When in Rome, do what the Romans do."

"You've been here to Rome multiple times. Ryan and I are the ones that are new here. You're used to Cavaliers customs."

"Well, still, it wasn't built in a day, believe me."

Bored with having another commonplace repartee with Brandon, I gave up this battle and turned my attention to Ryan, who was scooping his Fruit Loops into his mouth and staring ahead blankly, a man possessed. "So, Ryan. When are you penciled in for auditions today?"

Ryan jolted, as if he'd been lost deep in the recesses of thought (and possibly his cereal; food can really lapse a guy into a coma). Giving me a sidelong glance, the full sway of my question sank in, and he gave me a wan but intent smile. "This afternoon at two-thirty," he reported. "A veteran told me it was a prime time to audition. The guy mentioned something in the mess line about how the vets have to begin auditioning right following breakfast…"

"Yeah, they squeeze the old warhorses coming back for second and third helpings in barely after our morning meal settles," Brandon complained. "I miss last year's auditions, man. I went in right before dinner. What a treat. I had the whole day to while away doing zilch."

"You were a novice then," I stated.

"You are now," Brandon returned. "When are you going in, by the way, Everett?"

"I saw the bulletin list before getting in line for breakfast," I said. "I'm at one. Not bad, I guess. I would've rather filled a later or earlier slot, since I might heave up my lunch in nervousness."

"It's not that bad," Brandon reassured. "Most nail-biting part of the whole trial involves some marching basics. I doubt it'll be anything novel to you. Plausibly, you covered simple drum corps techniques in high school. Marching step really isn't that different—unless you're trying out for Phantom Regiment, whereas they have an entirely new field step strategy, but this is the Cavaliers we're talking about here—and you know stuff like about-faces, thirty-sixty-ninety degree turns, the proper set position and so forth. I almost guarantee you, the audition itself is about as daunting as playing with a docile little kitten. Now, if you get into the corps, actual performances are what you have to watch out for. Those aren't exactly tranquilizers, you know." He turned to Ryan with a look of inquisitiveness painted on his angular face. "Which vet were you talking to, anyway? I'm only a one-year veteran, and I can't think of any guys off the top of my head who are that friendly to a newbie. Usually you people have to prove yourselves."

Suddenly, as if the question was a nod for him to impinge onto our privacy, a hulking and thewy form materialized behind Ryan, built with as much sinew as oxen might have on their bones. The dusty, shorn hair strewed his scalp like peach fuzz, the military-style buzzcut apparently a very popular fashion statement throughout the male population of any drum and bugle corps. His powdery blue eyes—staring at us with emptiness, devoid of a soul—smiled creepily at us as he clapped his hands on Ryan's shoulders. Applying pressure to the teenage guardsman's muscles, he started to massage them with a dirty smirk playing on his lips.

"Hey there, company," he said. His eyes skirted over Brandon and me, evaluating us with not nearly as much hospitality, but certainly familiarity. Finally, he grinned, showing off a huge gap in his front teeth I hadn't noticed the night before. "I see you've met my freshman. He's a nice one, isn't he?"

Shane.

"Ooh," Brandon hissed under his breath so only I could hear. "You fucking would, Shane."

I frowned and stole a glance—or maybe more of a glare—at Shane's unsolicited hands on Ryan's shoulders, rubbing with about as much encouragement as a pedophile could give a riled young victim. Instantly, I was catapulted back to what Brandon had told me about Shane last night: Probably why he's never been that popular with the Cavaliers, aside from the occasional rare teenage musician or guard that's confused about his sexuality and can be easy prey. Even if Shane's intentions with this touching were innocent (which I doubted they were, from what I'd heard him say last night), Ryan didn't seem to shy from it. Instead, he seemed even more disturbed, fidgeting mildly and blushing a little, really unsure of what to think.

God, Brandon wasn't kidding. Shane's a real asshole.

"As a matter of fact, I met him before you even knew he existed," I said, leveling my gaze with Shane's. I wasn't about to be one-upped by this tart, even if he was twice my size and probably had fifty or sixty pounds on me. Dammit, I was from the South. We were only afraid of gators and overeating. "Ryan and I had a conversation very late last night. He came in around midnight. His plane was delayed. And you noticed him in the breakfast line? You're a little tardy, man."

This didn't stop Shane, obviously—that guy would need the president's coddling in order to get him to step down from being an utter sex-deprived knucklehead. Nope, he only grinned wider at my comment, kneading Ryan's shoulders with increased momentum. I twitched. God, I hate looking at that tooth gap. "I forgot how plucky you were, Okie," Shane snickered. "You're a rookie. You shouldn't talk back to your superiors like that, kid. I've got three years' drum corps over your cute little Southern ass, plus two years in age, give or take, so don't be so cheeky, capiche?" He chuckled at his own dopey joke, and Ryan smiled weakly, unsure of whose side to take.

"I'm from Georgia, you stupid Yank," I hissed.

"Funny. You sound like you're a sooner to me," Shane said with a mock twang, mimicking and mutilating my Southern accent so unfavorably that I was tempted to get up and slug him in that philistine mouth of his. Tapping the side of Ryan's shoulder as means of winning his attention, Shane continued, ruthless as a high school bully. "Listen to this, cutie pie! You think I gonna make me a good Southern boy? I can get pretty good at this impersonation business, ain't that right? You be able to tell me from a possum from the Bronx."

Steam poured from my ears, trying my hardest to shunt the hot rage of an approaching train. "Shut the fuck up, Shane," I snapped through gritted teeth, baring them out of genuine fury. "None of us speak Moron down in Georgia, and especially not in Indianapolis. We got a drawl, and you clearly got a problem." My muscles ached to thrash and clobber this guy's euphonium-playing lips into a bloody, meatless pulp. It was all I could do to keep myself bolstered into my seat, unmoving, and cool my jets.

Shane did a palms-up, making a pretense of innocence. "I was just playing around, man," he said. "Relax. Don't get so upset over a little joke."

God, this guy made me sick to my stomach with outrage. Curling my lip over my teeth in a bitter sneer, I hissed, "Shitting around with my kinship ain't a kind thing to do, Ball. You're an twit, and I wouldn't hesitate to take your eyes out with my goddamned plastic fork."

Brandon reached over and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Everett," he warned.

I shook his concerned hand away. "Don't, Brandon," I said brusquely.

"Yeah, stay out of this one, Newton," Shane heckled. "This isn't your fight, you shrimp."

"Look, neither of you should be getting into cockfights anyhow," Brandon mediated, playing the part of democratic diplomat in this quarrel. "Battles between people ruin meals for everyone else. You're going to get blood on Ryan's breakfast if you duke it out. He's skin and bone, so it's no use torpedoing his cereal. If you two have to grapple, do it on your own time."

"Fuck you," Shane barked. "Everett's pissing me the hell off, and I can't stand it when newbies get cocky toward me." He shifted his glare to me, flaring his nostrils, his strapping form fearsome and sinister enough to take on the guise of an agitated wild boar. Still, I wasn't disquieted. I was riding on too much of an adrenaline high from being the proverbial matador challenging the infuriated bull.

I noticed Brandon smile in spite of the irascible situation at hand. "Yeah, I know that," he said. "You prefer them appealing to another type of cocky."

"You're a real smart ass, Brandon," Shane growled.

"And Everett called me a dumbass earlier," he harassed. "Isn't that something? Intelligent ass to one person, inane ass to another. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

"Guys?" Ryan's tiny voice descended upon the tension that tied Shane, Brandon and myself like a twenty-ton weight, and we all went silent. It was like we were almost staggered that Ryan could actually talk—despite the fact that all three of us had heard his speaking at one point in the past twelve hours. Brandon and I shifted our lines of sight to him, gaping like he had green skin and distended eyes. Shane quit massaging Ryan's shoulders and looked down in wonder, his irritated expression toward me fading instantly. I think he was just as amazed as me that Ryan had the ability to intervene in someone else's argument.

"Uh, yeah?" Shane spoke for all of us and sounded just as thunderstruck as Brandon and me.

Ryan shifted uncomfortably and stared down the table, his hands folded in his lap and shying from the unanticipated attention. "Fighting won't solve anything. It's no good to get in a brawl in front of the whole sort of corps, you know? Plus, everyone is already staring."

I glanced around. Sure enough, Ryan was right on the money—every single Cavaliers auditionee was peering at us with flabbergasted looks, either gazing with mouths agape or jaws latched in mid-chew. A few had opened wide while chewing a lovely, pulpy mouthful of bran flakes and had enlarged pupils like the dentist was coming at them with a needle longer than their forearm. Their countenances held mixed expectations about where mine and Shane's disagreement would go—about half looked fearful, probably worried that we'd start savaging each other from across the long breakfast and paint its dull, gray plastic surface with our blood. Inversely, the other part seemed thrilled with the fact that we might tear each other to pieces. Dinner theater for them, I quipped privately.

When I averted my eyes from our audience back to my opponent, I saw him nodding very slowly, coming to a gradual accord with Ryan's words. "Okay," he said eventually, following a very drawn-out pause of consideration. "You're right, kid. You're right. Bad decision on my part. I shouldn't have pulled Everett's leg like that." He reached up and touched Ryan on the cheek softheartedly. "I didn't mean to be a jackass, Ryan. Keep eating your breakfast." Taking his hands away, Shane gave me an equable dip of his head, turned around, and walked off.

With the caution of a group of men standing on the edge of a cliff, deciding whether or not to jump, a gentle lull of conversation spread throughout the other auditionees, realizing that with the surrender of Shane, the show was basically over. People went back to eating their breakfasts and complaining about how they didn't get any sleep last night because so-and-so was sawing logs louder than a lumberyard. Shane's and my clash was already beginning to become old news.

Brandon gave me a sidelong glance, his bronze-toned eyes blinking with displeasure. "Dude, was it really necessary to lock horns with Shane?" He asked, cross. "That guy is beefcake compared to your limber muscles. He could rub you out with his eyelashes."

"I don't like it when people mock my lineage, Brandon," I said in defense.

"Yeah, but still. Shane is one veteran you don't want to get on the bad side of," Brandon advised. "I didn't tell you that last night because you two seemed to… uh, hit it off, kind of, but Shane can have a serious attitude problem aside from his nonrestrictive sexual tastes. He once threatened to rip off a volunteer's head last year because he bumped into him with a tray of hamburgers by accident." Brandon lifted his eyebrows in forewarning. "And that's putting what he said nicely."

"I don't see him leaping for your balls every time you throw a jibe at him," I said angrily. "As it happens, Shane really seems to like you taunting him. If he doesn't lay one finger on you, why the fuck would he do that to me?"

"Because," Brandon said darkly, "Shane likes to tamper with people's minds. Not only does he like carnal, fleshen fucking, Everett, but mind-fucking as well. He's the type to pick people he is partial to and make enemies out of those who don't fit his mold of goodliness. I just happen to be someone whose rapport he can't shake because I'm too much fun to banter with. But he hates everyone else—and if you're not careful, he's going to hate you too." Break in speech and a hesitation. I exchanged a glance with Ryan, knowing Brandon was probably going to add something else equally sinister. "Another thing. He despises greenhorns like you the most. Thinks rookies are inferior creatures, objects to be kicked around for his amusement. That's how it was last year, too. Next to impossible to get in Shane's good graces enough for him not to want to hack you to shreds."

I was appalled. "How do they let him get away with that behavior?" I demanded. "Why don't they expel him from the corps? Better yet, why the hell do they keep accepting him?"

"Remember what Shane said last night about him being some miracle euphonium player or some shit like that?" Brandon inquired. I nodded. "He wasn't joking. Shane is the most proficient baritone player in the Cavaliers. The directors know of his… corrupt—in lieu of a better word—actions, but they're too admiring of his skill to let him go. His personality is one reason why he isn't section leader."

Brandon broke from me and acknowledged Ryan. "That goes for you too, Ryan. You stay away from Shane. I don't care how nice or courteous he acts toward you—he loves baiting people and then throwing them into a traitorous frenzy. He can be like a brutal puppeteer. You're fresh meat to him, and to a shark such as Shane, that's dangerous."

Ryan swallowed and pushed the remainder of his cereal around with his plastic spoon. "But he was nice to me," he muttered, not meeting Brandon's eyes.

"Doesn't matter. Shane is a bastard," Brandon said. "I'm serious, Ryan. You probably deducted this from the way he was treating you, but Shane isn't a huge fan of women. He's much more partial to naïve, overtrusting young men. They're easier to trick and exploitable, on top of it. He's not trying to be your friend for personality, Ryan." Brandon frowned, looking him straight in the eye. "He wants to get into your pants. Disgusting, I know. But that's just how Shane is. You'd do better to just avoid him altogether."

Abruptly—and without maintaining eye contact with either Brandon or I—Ryan got up with such sheepish rapidness that Brandon jerked and blinked quickly, startled. Reaching out before him, Ryan snatched up his tray, his measly breakfast only half-eaten. The encounter with Shane had probably taken a hearty blow to his appetite. Keeping his eyes locked on his cereal bowl, as if it were the most awe-inspiring piece of matter the world had ever made, he mumbled, "I'm going to go dump my tray. I'll be back in a little while." Before Brandon or I could raise a finger to stop him, Ryan dashed away, his lithe and graceful form dancing into the crowd and diminishing, blending in with the colors of people like rain to a freshly painted canvas. He was gone before either of us could even draw a significant breath.

"Hey, man, don't judge my observation," Brandon said after a long pause was unsheathed between us, a sword from an undisturbed scabbard, "but I think Ryan is one of the windier paths I've seen."

I ground my teeth, but said not a word in reply. I didn't want to admit it, but after watching the contact between Ryan and Shane, it was difficult to think otherwise. Initially, I had believed Ryan might've had a girlfriend back in Tucson, but now, I wasn't so sure he did. Or if it was even a girlfriend.

I hated to say so, but just this once, Brandon may have been right.