The Vinyl Umbrella

"…I drove to New York
In a van, with my friend
We slept in parking lots
I don't mind, I don't mind
I was in love with the place
In my mind, in my mind
I made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow
We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go

If I was crying
In the van, with my friend
It was for freedom
From myself and from the land…"

—"Chicago", Sufjan Stevens

Not much to say about this right's going to be my first (though hopefully not my last) multi-chaptered JSRF fanfiction. I hope you guys like seemed like a really interesting idea when I thought it up, so...I'm excited to see what people think, if anything...!

For volian, I suppose, for being a good reviewer...for my friend Heather...and for lolipop-maf on deviantART, who promised me fanart of "Wither". :D

Chapter One

The sky is olive and ebony over Highway Zero, light polluting the air and blocking out the stars that have weakly tried to shine their clean faces through the haze. Deep within the maze of twisted streets, construction sites, and crooked buildings, two young men are settled in an alleyway, frantically spraying a thick tag over the brick wall that envelops them. Above them, a window is open in the building opposite them, where a woman is shining a flashlight out into the alley below, and shrieking to beckon authorities to where the two delinquents are. They ignore her and continue painting as quickly as they can, both of them twisting around each other in a frantic attempt to finish their tag before the police arrive.

The wail of sirens that emanates suddenly through the darkened streets is like a knife digging into the brain, piercing the eardrums of the two teenagers and making them jolt back from their tag in shock. One of them dashes to the end of the alley and stares down the curving street, his yellow eyes wide, watching the dimness as it fades to headlights and a car comes speeding around the bend, red and blue lights flashing atop its chassis. Two operatives in black suits are outlined in the seats, and the juveniles drop their half-empty spray cans, turning heel and tearing down the sidewalk in a mad dash to find safety.

The bigger skater lunges ahead, momentum gained by his own weight plus that of the heavy boom box on his shoulder, and he leaps with surprising grace onto a gutter, showing the lanky other where to go. His companion follows close behind, scaling the gutter with snakelike fluidity. The police car traces their path, hot on their heels, one of the officers leaning out of his window and calling up to the two young men through a megaphone. "Halt or be shot!" he shouts to the two fleeing young men, as they leap onto a rooftop and speed off into the next block. The cop car swerves down an alleyway and keeps the chase up, the driver screaming into the radio for backup as the passenger leans out the window again and takes careful aim at the boys with his pistol.

Bullets ricochet past the teenagers' ears, and the slightly smaller, gangly boy throws his weight forward as he fights to keep pace with his larger companion, who hisses a warning as they approach another curve in the road. The smaller boy narrows his yellow eyes and pulls his goggles down as the road suddenly ends, and he and his friend take a leap of faith off of the end of the street's barricade, not hesitating for a moment for fear of the consequences. The cop car screeches to a halt at the barricade, the passenger jerking forward with inertia and squeezing out several more bullets from his pistol as the boys fall.

A sharp, plastic explosion tears through the night.

Blood oozes thickly from the smaller delinquent's ankle, and he lands hard on one foot with a low cry of pain and falls heavily forward when the street below realizes his weight. His companion skids to a stop, turns, and helps him to his shaking feet, leading him as quickly as possible away from the overpass where the two officers are now staring after them over the barricade, shrieking expletives that echo in the thick night air. The boys stumble down an almost empty side street and disappear as a chorus of police sirens wails angrily in the distance.

It's been six months, he thinks tiredly. Six months since Gouji fell.

That thought has been eating at the back of his brain for nine hours now, and he shoves it back down for the umpteenth time with great valor, grinding his teeth as strands of unwashed hair fall into his face. He doesn't have time to think about that. There are more important things to be worrying about, right now…like where the hell Soda, Clutch, and Combo are.

He relaxes a little when the words fade out of his mind, but he's still nervous, still unsettled.

Corn sighs deeply and tries to concentrate on the magazines spread out on the floor before him, pushing his hair back with one restless, sinewy hand and glancing for the twentieth time in five minutes over at his bed, where Yoyo is sleeping unhappily, drooling on Corn's pillow. The leader of the GG's lets his eyes linger there for a while, a fond, half-smile creeping onto his face. It's such a strange sight: Yoyo in Corn's bed, curled up in dirty sheets like he's been there all his life. Like he belongs there. The blue of Corn's eyes glistens, flares with feeling, and he purses his lips as he shuffles his magazines into a quick pile and pushes them off to the side. Yoyo shivers when Corn inches up beside him, sitting on his knees, brushing strands of rebelling hair gingerly behind Yoyo's ear and looking carefully, tenderly, into the younger boy's sleeping face.

Corn reaches down and presses the bare palm of his hand gently to Yoyo's forehead. He doesn't feel quite as hot now as he did a few hours ago, Corn thinks to himself with a sigh of relief. God, but this kid…he's always getting sick. Corn grabs his sheet and wipes Yoyo's mouth like a father would do for his child, and the youngest GG grimaces and closes his eyes a little tighter, digging his pale face anxiously into the pillow. Corn falls back in surprise when a thick fist suddenly knocks on his bedroom door, and a deep voice whispers his name, layered with urgency. Corn gets to his feet and treads quietly to the door in his bare feet, opening it a crack and staring out at Combo, huge and hulking in the dark. He's sweating and breathing hard, and Corn's eyebrows furrow beneath his bangs in concern.

"What's up, man?" he asks, stepping out of his room and shutting the door gently so as not to wake Yoyo. "Where are Soda and Clutch? What happened?"

Combo rubs his neck anxiously and winces. "…It's pretty bad, Corn…come on out here, you've gotta see it…I…I didn't know what else to do with him…"

Corn follows Combo quickly down the hall and into the TV room, where Soda is settled crudely on the couch with his knees over the armrest, sweating and clenching his teeth in pain. His skates have been carefully removed, and his right foot, Corn can see, is smeared with red, the leg of his pants stained and ripped from his injury. Corn's heart sinks into his stomach as they walk quickly over to Soda and Combo kneels on the floor beside him, touching Soda's arm to let him know that Corn is there, too. Soda's eyes open weakly: his face is pale and he looks absolutely miserable.

"…Those motherfuckers shot me…" Soda mumbles, grimacing when Corn pulls his pant leg up to examine the wound more closely. Corn swears under his breath, but gives Soda an encouraging look.

"Well…from what I can see, the bullet didn't go in…you just got nicked pretty bad," he says. Combo's body loses pounds of tension. "…But your ankle is pretty much exposed…and it looks like pieces of your skate are imbedded in your leg." He hesitates and looks Soda in the face. "…I'm gonna have to stitch you, man. You gonna be okay?"

"So long as you don't have to cut off my leg, I ain't gonna die," Soda says, grinding his teeth when Combo skates off to the bathroom to get the first aid box. Corn is staring at the angry wounds on his friend's leg, his eyes narrowed.

"…So where the hell is Clutch?" Corn asks again. Soda sneers.

"That dickhole ran off somewhere about half an hour after we left the Garage. Said he had other shit to do: that he didn't want to go running errands for you. Idiot. If he'd've been there…! Fucker…it's his fault I'm bleeding…!!!" Soda snaps. Corn clenches his jaw when Combo comes rolling heavily back with the first aid box, reaching in immediately to search for what he needs. Soda looks away when Corn pulls out a curved needle and thick, strong thread. "…How's the brat doing?" the redhead asks, trying to sound nonchalant, but at the same time, watching Corn pour peroxide over a towel out of the corner of his eye and hissing in pain when the cloth touches his skin. Corn wipes the blood up quickly and glances at Combo, who grips one of Soda's arms while Corn forces the other under his patient's body and squints to see where he has to work in the dim light.

"…Yoyo's doing a little better," Corn murmurs, trying to work as quickly as possible with Soda's wounds. "…I think his fever's down…he's asleep right now. Kinda pale, though. Did you guys get what I asked for?"

"Yeah," Combo intones, closely watching Corn stitch up Soda's ankle. "Ibuprofen…and grape pop, though I dunno what that's gonna do for the kid. He's throwin' up, right? Kid shouldn't be drinkin' pop…!"

"He loves it," Corn says, looking for a split-second up at Soda's pained face. "And besides, he's been telling me that he wants some. If he can drink it and keep it down, then good…he needs to keep his energy up."

"The brat's a…a d-dumbass," Soda breathes, shuddering. "If he's d-drinking any pop…he should have ginger ale…!" Corn cuts the thread and wipes Soda's ankle again, looking at where sharp plastic is still jutting out of Soda's lower leg. He frowns.

"…I don't think those cuts are bad enough to need stitches…but…I'll still have to—"

"Just s-shut up and do it, Corn," Soda chokes, swallowing hard. "…P-please…" Corn nods and clenches his teeth, pulling thick bandages and padding out of the medical box. Combo grunts.

"Fuckin' Clutch…I'm gonna tear that little asshole a new one when he gets back here," he says angrily. "…He never does anythin' he says he's gonna…!!!"

"He does what he likes," Corn responds flatly, monitoring Soda for any signs of excessive agony as he removes the pieces of imbedded rollerblade from his friend's calf. Soda grits his teeth, though, and lets Corn work. Combo grunts.

"Well that ain't the GG way, man!" he snarls. "Clutch is the only one you don't seem to mind runnin' around, actin' like he's still a loner!"

"…It's not that," Corn sighs after a moment. "He's just…the only one who acts that way."

There's an odd moment of silence in the room, during which Soda's breathing is oddly heavy and strained. The head of the GG's pulls bandages tight around his friend's leg and ankle, trying his hardest to stop the bleeding. Dark spots slowly fade to pale beige, and Corn tucks the end of the bandage in on itself, giving Soda a very troubled look. "…You have to tell me if it starts to burn, or ache, or anything weird, alright? Right away. Anything other than itching is bad."

"Gotcha," Soda growls, closing his eyes: he's sweating at his temples. Corn looks warily up at Combo for a second before the behemoth GG nods and comes around to the front of the couch, leaning down and picking Soda up in his arms as if the lanky redhead were a ragdoll. Soda groans in embarrassment but slings his arm around Combo's neck, anyway. "God, treating me like I'm fuckin' five years old…"

"I doubt you'd rather walk," Corn says, a sort of affectionate bitterness tingeing his voice that makes Soda's eyes flicker. Even Combo manages to smirk a little as he carries Soda down the hall to his room. Corn dutifully follows suit, turning the light switch so that Combo won't accidentally skate over something important, and watches as the biggest GG sets Soda down on his bed. Combo turns around and lowers his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose, and Corn nods solemnly, earning an unsure look from Combo. But the latter nods and heads out of the room, muttering a somewhat distracted "goodnight" to both present. The door closes behind him and Corn heads over to the bed, pulling up a very rickety wooden chair and sitting in it while Soda jerks out of his jacket and throws it to the floor.

…Corn and Soda have known each other the longest out of all the GG's, save Corn and Gum. Corn still finds Soda difficult to understand, though, even after all they've been through together. The leader of the GG's purses his full lips together, watching his best friend with utmost care. He doesn't really want to have to play doctor for two people at once, but he knows that Soda's condition is serious enough to require as much of his attention as he can provide.

The redhead's yellow eyes meet Corn's stern blue gaze, and they both freeze.

"…You feeling alright, man?" Corn asks softly. Soda shrugs, but his face looks weary.

"I've been worse, I guess," he replies, yet there is honesty in his words. His voice is softer now that Combo is gone: taking on the tone of someone much more relaxed and satisfied with whom he's speaking. "…How are you, bro?"

Corn smiles weakly. "I'm okay. Trying…to be a good leader, you know. It's tough, when you guys get fucked up like this."

Soda looks at Corn for a long, empty time before his mouth trembles and opens again. "…How long am I gonna be out of commission?" The question is full of dread. Corn grunts and frowns deeply.

"I don't know. A few weeks, probably, minimum."

Soda scowls. "Goddamnit, Clutch…!" he spits. "Man…I can't be lying around here for a few fuckin' weeks! I've got shit to do!"

Corn looks at him uncertainly. "You can keep Yoyo company until he gets better…that way I can actually go out and do things for myself instead of sending you out all the time."

"Oh, boy," Soda mumbles sarcastically. "Babysitting the brat with the stomach flu. My greatest wish has come true. Ugh…Corn…" he trails off irritably. Corn blinks, and his friend's eyes narrow hotly. He's quiet for a moment. Soda's jaw is firmly set, but his mouth tightens, then loosens, and finally he opens it again, his eyebrows furrowed and almost puzzled. "…You're not our dad, you know."

Corn is taken aback by this statement, but he nods in acceptance anyway. "Yeah. I know."

"You don't have to take care of us. Any of us."

"Well, if I didn't…who would?"

"I don't know," Soda growls. Corn thinks that there's some kind of concern buried under that mild argument, somewhere, so he nods a little and makes sure that Soda finds a comfortable position in bed before he gets up and heads for the door. Soda watches him as he opens the door and steps out. "Hey…when Clutch gets back in…fuckin' break his ankle for me, okay?" he calls. Corn puckers his lips.

"I'll take care of it," he says, laughing a little as the door closes behind him.

Clutch has a smug smile on his face as he rolls casually down the alley cutting off of Rokkaku-Dai heights that leads back to the Garage, his hair tousled more than usual, blood red lip marks staining the base of his neck under the stretched collar of his shirt. What luck, he thinks to himself, beaming inwardly, that he would run into a stray Love Shocker out in the Heights. He had just wanted to get away from Soda and Combo, Corn's goody-good-guys for the day, but that encounter had been a huge added bonus. He sighs deeply and scratches his chin: he can still smell her weird perfume on his fingers. She hadn't wanted to race, or anything. She was upset. That's what Clutch lives for: finding upset girls, just in time to comfort them…skating…and fast cars. That's his life. And he hadn't had a real upset girl in a long time. The GG girls always run to Corn or their boyfriends for help if they need it, and Corn hadn't really given Clutch an opportunity to get out of the garage on his own in quite a while, now. Clutch thinks that Corn must be trying to tie him down, and the thought of that pisses him off. He isn't ready to be bound to anything, just yet. Especially not by Corn's will.

The sky is dim. It must be late, the redhead thinks lazily. Whatever. A tiny part of him surprises the rest of him by wondering if Yoyo has gotten the medicine that he needed. Corn had acted like that kid was really sick, earlier. It would've been bad, then, if Combo and Soda had been caught. Clutch thinks about that for a second, then mutters damn under his breath. I'll be in big shit if they did get caught. Like he needs that. The last thing he wants is to get nagged at by Gum for disobeying the big-hatted bossman. Clutch rolls to a halt at the threshold of the secret door that leads into the underground complex where they all live beneath the garage, and hesitates. Does he really want to deal with that now, if it's there to be dealt with? He grinds his teeth.

Yeah, he thinks. It's better to just get it overwith.

He opens the door and locks it behind himself, treading heavily on the staircase in his oversized skates as he makes his way down to the main basement level. It's quiet, calm, and smells faintly like rubbing alcohol. The lights are off, and he feels with his hands along a familiar path, trying to get to the stretch of hallway that will lead to his and Yoyo's room. He hopes that no one is in there taking care of the kid. His hopes are oddly answered when the lights snap on, and Combo's hulking form appears in Clutch's confused vision. The much bigger Rudie grabs his companion and swings him around, pressing him against the wall. Clutch tries not to look afraid as Combo presses his nose against Clutch's, his teeth bared and his upper lip trembling.

"We almost got caught, 'cause a' you," Combo snarls. "Soda got shot…fuckin' put outta commission for God knows how long…you're a little bitch, Clutch. If you ever pull shit like this again…I'll make sure that you get kicked outta this gang, got it? 'Cause you sure don't seem to care whether you're a part of it or not." He stops, seeing the trail of lipstick kisses on Clutch's throat. His fists clench inside of Clutch's oversized red turtleneck. "…You're a real dick…you know that, right?" Combo growls. "I thought you would maybe care about Yoyo, even though you were doin' a favor for Corn, too."

"Get out of my face!" Clutch demands, pushing Combo just hard enough to get him to step back. Combo still looks furious, though. "It ain't your business what I do…the important thing is that you and Soda got back, right? So, whatever. It's over with."

"It ain't over," Combo spits, striking the light switch with such a force that Clutch is mildly surprised that it doesn't break off completely. "Corn'll kill you for what happened to Soda."

Combo turns and snakes own the hallway, his heavy fists clenched at his sides. Clutch waits until the heavy sounds of Combo rolling away have disappeared into a door shutting, and he lets out a long, pained exhale, rubbing his chest where Combo's knuckles had dug into his skin. Corn would kill him over Soda getting shot, hmm? What is that big-nosed ape, Corn's boyfriend or some shit? Clutch thinks darkly, trekking uneasily down the dark hall to his room. He's still thinking, his own inner voice a distant buzz in his ears, when he sees a faint light in the crack under Corn's door, and realizes that he can hear the vague sounds of Yoyo being violently ill and Corn comforting him behind that barrier. He swallows hard and feels the most distant pang of guilt as he opens his own door and steps into his and Yoyo's messy-as-hell room.

I'll make it up to the kid, he promises himself. Later. Once he's better. Take him for a ride or something.

It's cool and comfortable, back home, Clutch thinks as he kicks his skates off and peels his sweaty shirt and pullover off. Good to be back in his own room. He flops down on his smelly, unmade bed, wondering if Corn really will have at him tomorrow for what happened to Soda. He hopes not. He's supposed to meet up with that Love Shocker again in a few days…and how is he going to do that if he's dead?

Clutch falls asleep in minutes, like a rock on his mattress…completely oblivious to everything else as the other GG's settle into their own eras of anxious sleep. He dreams about Ferraris and roller coasters, and in the other room, Corn keeps thinking, as Yoyo throws up again and again and again:

Six months…six fucking months…