Chapter 1: we'll shock my folks
“You’d think we’d be done with them,” Bonnie huffs indignantly, after years have passed and things have been set right. She squints quizzically at her phone and rolls over on the carpet so she’s lying on her back, phone raised above her with the screen facing down. Mitch doesn’t react at all, just keeps trailing feather-light kisses across the back of Stu’s neck, his shoulders, his arms. “I’ve changed my number three—“ (she bites back a curse more out of habit than a sense of decorum) “—times, I really thought I’d escaped last time.”
Now Mitch pauses, eliciting a petulant whine from his lapful of husband, and looks over at her, curiosity mixed with faint aggravation. “Block the number.”
“Seems kind-of rude. Now shut up and let me complain.” She rolls back onto her stomach, fending away the dog with one hand to reread the text, and promptly throws her phone across the room for her to fetch. “…They’re inviting us for dinner.”
Mitch raises his eyebrows, grunts his disinterest, and returns to his husband, but Stu has gone stiff in his lap.
“Both of you?” He presses. “Hey— here, girl! Fetch? Thank you! Good girl…”
“No, all three of us,” Bonnie says too-casually, and reaches out to Stu with childish grabbing hands for her phone. “It’s fine, I’ll tell them no. Like I’d want to see them again.”
“Good. Block the number,” Mitch repeats, and tilts Stu’s chin up towards him for a kiss. Stu’s response is half-hearted at best. “...What.”
Stu shifts closer to sitting upright, far more awake now that he had been a couple of minutes ago, frowning and chewing thoughtfully on his lip as he reads through the text and starts scrolling up through the chat history. “They seem pretty keen on seeing you. Maybe,” his tone is careful, hesitant, very aware of the minefield his words are venturing into, “maybe you should go. Maybe we should go.”
“No way.” Bonnie grabs for her phone in earnest this time and shoves it back into her pocket, looking to Mitch for support. “And that’s not funny. I don’t want to go back, and Mitch doesn’t want to go back, and they’ll just be assholes to you, and-- Mitch?”
“I’m just saying,” Stu presses on hastily, before Bonnie can list any more reasons why this is the worst idea she’s ever heard, or Mitch can explode out of his silence, “what have you got to lose? In the worst case scenario you get to shout at them for all the awful things they’ve done and leave them with a last memory of you both as strong and brave and proud.” His expression on his next glance at Mitch is immeasurably soft. “Loved.”
He’s so optimistic, she kind of wants to hit him.
She tries to catch Mitch’s eye, but Mitch is watching Stu’s face intently, probably memorising his his expression, the determined look in his eyes, the set of his lips, the curve of his jawline. Not listening. So instead she says, “It’s not like that. You don’t get it. I’m not going.”
It always sounds so good in theory, thinking of all the things she’d say and do and how she would put her parents in their place for all the things they’ve done but it’s not like that in practise, sitting at that beautiful polished table with the words clumsy and heavy and easily batted back because she’s spoilt and selfish and cruel and Mitch knows this, must know this, it doesn’t matter how much Stu coaxes and pleads and begs, it’s not happening--
“You know it’s not as easy as that.” Mitch says eventually, and she should be relieved that he’s on her side but it’s hard to really believe it when he’s like this, voice low and soft, attention focused so completely on his husband that she might as well not be in the room.
“I know.” Stu murmurs (and she hates him, just a little bit, in the moments like this when he knows exactly how to steady Mitch, how to win these arguments without even raising his voice). “I know. They don’t deserve you, and you don’t owe them anything, I just...I don’t want you to regret that you never had another chance with them. I’ll be right there with you.” He adds, so quietly she can barely hear it. “I won’t leave your side the whole visit if you don’t want me to, I promise.”
The rest of the exchange is too quiet for her to catch (which is very definitely and very rudely not an accident), snatches of whispered conversation pressed between kisses the way wildflowers are pressed between stacks of books: to preserve something delicate, keep it safe and treasured. Then Stu is disentangling himself from the couch, stretching, making up some terrible excuse about getting an early night. There’s his footsteps on the stairs, the slight creak of the bathroom door, and it’s only her and Mitch left. Suddenly she feels like screaming. All this time and she’s still on the outside, still watching as Stu gets to make decisions on things he knows nothing about.
Mitch catches her expression as he turns back from watching his boyfriend go, and his warm smile slides off his face like pus. He makes a sharp, frustrated noise in the back of his throat. “Bonnie...”
“No. Let me guess.” Now she’s smiling, wide and tight and bitter. “You caved. Same as always.”
“Don’t be a brat,” he says tiredly. It’s almost funny. And she shouldn’t have said anything.
“Right. I’m so sorry,” she simpers, and goes back to staring moodily at the carpet. “What was I thinking, not wanting to go see the people who disowned you because you got a boyfriend?”
It was stupid to think he’d listen to her, just once, just because she knew them. Stupid to think he’d talk to her. So she’s stupid. What else is new.
“He’s got a point, Bon...”
“Didn’t realise he was an expert,” she snaps.
“You don’t have to go.” Anger bites at his words. She finds she doesn’t care. When has Mitch ever cared about what she needs, anyway? It’s not her problem if he freaks out every time he doesn’t get everything he wants just the way he wants it. She’s not playing happy families with them just to make his boyfriend happy.
“Good.” She gets up, texts a friend to come get her, because she refuses to be a target when Mitch explodes. “I won’t.”
She does, though. Someone has to pick up the pieces.
Chapter 2: the battles (we lived through)
(okay this is the one with the Big Homophobia uhh “queer” is used as a slur in it right towards the end so watch out for that ig)
The street looks the same from every angle: long, squat, pointed houses painted a pale, rosy cream, manicured front lawns in front of every one, spindly little trees interspersed at regular intervals with their soft orange leaves aglow in the evening light. After just a few minutes on this perfectly straight street, he’s lost all sense of time and space.
Mitch doesn’t hesitate for a second. He doesn’t even check the house number.
He ignores the doorbell, too, just brings his fist down on the door hard, face set in what might be trepidation. On him it just looks angry.
“She’s making him get rid of the empty bottles,” Bonnie pipes up from behind her brother. Stu hadn’t been sure she’d come; she’d seemed so… and anyway, she’d left in such agitated fury, left Mitch in such an awful mood. He’d said she would, though, once he’d calmed down.
A moment later, there comes a low growl from behind the prim wooden door. Bonnie rakes a hand through her curls, fingers catching and worrying at the end of one bouncy strand, and if she means to look relaxed, Stu has known Mitch and his mannerisms too long for her to succeed.
“She’ll be on her way now,” she intones dully. Mitch shoots a sharp glare in her direction, and then the door opens, and Stu tries to rearrange himself into pleasantness with a faint smile and a greeting that comes out a little too high, a little too fast.
The woman in front of him raises perfectly sculpted eyebrows, cold blue eyes lined and lidded, her lips pressed together and nose turned slightly upwards. Her hair barely brushes her shoulders, flicks out at the ends in spidery tendrils, and despite being perfectly arranged -- not a hair out of place -- she reaches to brush out her bangs before she speaks -- speaks, not replies, because her gaze drifts from him to her children in moments.
“Mitch,” she says, and her voice is soft and glossy as satin. The slight upward curve of her lips barely touches her eyes. “Bonnie. And this must be your friend Stuart.”
Friend. He hopes desperately that his expression hasn’t slipped too far, that the knot her words leave in his stomach doesn’t look as uncomfortable, as obvious as it feels. It’s stupid, they haven’t even made it through the front door and he hates this already (he hates most of all how the distance between himself and his husband suddenly feels like miles, all uncharted territory, a game where the board isn’t his and someone else is hoarding the handwritten rule book. He doesn’t know how to give comfort, here, if or how he’s allowed to seek it. He doesn’t know, doesn’t know, doesn’t know—)
“Husband,” Mitch snarls through gritted teeth, at the same time as Bonnie mutters,
“Forgot how much I hate you.”
But there’s distance between them, every inch ringing with the helpless growl in Mitch’s voice, and when Mrs Adams smiles he knows, whatever game they’re playing, she’s winning. He reaches unthinkingly for Mitch’s hand for strength and goes ice cold when Mitch pulls away, like he’s nineteen again trying to hold his boyfriend’s hand in a crowded park, like all their progress and their marriage and their work have all been for nothing.
“Nice to meet you?” He offers weakly with a smile that feels more like a grimace, holds out a hand because he wants — needs — this to go well.
“I’m hurt, Bonnie,” Mrs Adams teases, as if he hadn’t spoken. She ignores his outstretched hand until he lets it sink back to his side, flushed and unbearably small. Bonnie, pressed tightly to his side, glances at him with a small, apologetic shrug. “You have so little love for your mother. Come inside, you three, we don’t lurk at the door.”
She hurries the boys in first, and her smile seems strained, tight around the eyes. It’s fitting, somehow, a reminder that this perfectly made-up face is a mask worn by a monster, a monster who has caused so much pain to the people he loves. He takes a second, as they step through this beautiful empty shell of a house (it’s not a home. Home is a place where love nests, home is messy calendars and handwritten notes and jumbles of shoes and coats in the closet, signs of life and lives intertwined like fingers. Home is where they will return at the end of this, where he will be able to hold his husband and apologise to his sister in law and no matter what game this woman thinks she’s winning, she’s not, because she can’t lay a finger on that). So he takes a second, readjusts his own mask and sets his jaw and braces himself against whatever storm is to come.
“And Bonnie?” Mrs Adams turns to her daughter with steel in her smile as Bonnie links her arm tightly through his, and Bonnie furrows her eyebrows sullenly in response. “Not so close, it’s inappropriate.”
“You say that about everything,” Bonnie mutters, but pulls away anyway. “Hey, Dad.”
Mr Adams grunts in acknowledgement, attention mostly focused on some sports game playing through the radio. Stu’s first thought is that this man could be Mitch, in some awful future, and he recoils from the idea immediately. He may not know Mr Adams, but he knows how hard Mitch has worked to avoid becoming him. “What are you drinking, Mitch?” He asks it without so much as looking up, as if this is an average weekday evening, as if it hasn’t been years.
“I’m not.” Mitch grits out.
“You’re not?” Mr Adams echoes, attention finally caught as he twists around in his seat, tone incredulous, light-hearted in a way that only runs surface-deep. “What are you, a girl?” (And Stu knows exactly what Mr Adams is implying when his gaze flickers briefly to him as he says it, knows exactly what he isn’t and can’t be implying and yet)
The trickle of unease in his gut only further fuels the hot coals of anger burning there, slowly but steadily, because Mitch is strong and beautiful and so much more of a man than his father could ever hope to be.
“Screams like one,” Bonnie says, and it comes out almost cruel. ( “Bonnie,” comes the mild reproach from her mother) She softens her tone a little, straightens her spine. “I’ll drink for him.”
“You won’t.” Mitch and his father reply immediately, in well-worn synchronisation. Mr Adams looks like a proud parent at the end of a school sports game, smug on victory. Mitch is twenty-two again, bitter and difficult and fiercely private and Stu aches for him, has to stuff his hands into his pockets to keep them to himself because this is not a place for comfort.
Mrs Adams cuts in, smiling fondly, before Bonnie has a chance to snap back, manicured fingers gliding smoothly across her daughter’s shoulders. “ Boys , she’s not a child! Would you fetch us the white wine while you’re up, dear?”
And she sounds so gentle, so perfectly content, but Bonnie has gone stiff under her touch. “I meant…” she trails off with a roll of her eyes that might be intended to signal apathy. “Whatever. Forget it.”
“Smart kid.” Mr Adams nods approvingly at Bonnie as he gets to his feet. “It’s not right for girls your age to be drinking. The white, was that, sugar?”
Mrs Adams inclines her head graciously in response, makes some lighthearted quip about how of course it’s the white with their meal, and leads them to a polished wooden table straight from the set of a murder mystery. Five places are set at one end of the table, marked by deep red placemats, gleaming silver cutlery.
Mitch takes a seat immediately, with all the bitter resignation of a teenager dragged to a family meal with unwelcome guests (and he can’t help but wonder, with a touch of unease, if that makes him the unwelcome guest. It’s ridiculous, regardless of how much Mr and Mrs Adams might wish that he didn’t exist that’s his husband, but he’s very aware that he’s only fumbling around the edges of the set of rules in this house).
“Are you going to sit, sweetheart?” Bonnie slides into her seat sullenly, with a glance he can’t read, her movements cast with a shade of feminine grace that only looks uncomfortable on her. Years ago it seemed as natural as breathing.
Three pairs of eyes snap to him as he moves to take the chair on the other side of Mitch, two apologetic and one utterly impassive. Mitch catches his eye and shakes his head, the subtlety of the motion belying the urgency etched in his face, and Stu hastens to take the other empty seat, almost tripping over the legs of Mrs Adams’ chair in the process (because of course he can’t even manage to embarrass himself elegantly), and sits down quietly. The whole situation reminds him, wildly, of middle school gym lessons and being picked last for every team, a shy ball of nerves and awkward, skinny limbs. At least here no-one’s expecting him to run laps in a skirt.
“You have a lovely house, Mrs Adams.” He tries, and if it comes out a little awkward he figures that’s at least better than it sounding like a blatant lie. She responds with a slow blink and a curling smile, and Mitch looks -- for the first time since their arrival -- almost good-humoured in his exasperation at the exchange.
“Thank you, dear.”
“Y’know,” Bonnie pipes up, “I could swap with you, if you--”
“It’s alright, Bonnie. Stuart doesn’t mind, does he?” Mrs Adams turns the full force of her benevolent authority on him, and Mitch makes a short, irritated noise in the back of his throat.
“Leave him alone, will you?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.” Still, there’s no room for argument, that much is clear. Mrs Adams turns away to call out to her husband: “Are you quite alright in there, Mister Adams?”
“Fine, darling.” Mr Adams reappears with a bottle of expensive-looking wine and a handful of glasses gathered by the stems (four, of course, although Stu counts them twice to be sure. He wishes he was close enough to Mitch to nudge him with his foot or hold his hand under the table). “Water for you, right, Bonnie?”
“I’ll get it.” Bonnie slips out of her seat and off into the kitchen, returns clad in oven gloves and managing a careful balancing act between a glass of water and a heavy-looking dish. She looks like a perfect young housewife.
Then she sets the dish down a little too hard with a grin that falls just short of impish, sits back down, and the spell is broken. She’s just Bonnie, young and vulnerable, staring at the table between them with enough intensity to set it alight. At Mr Adams’ signal, the meal begins.
Silence descends, stretches tight over the table like the skin of a drum, tense and waiting to be disturbed. Seconds pass -- Stu counts them out in his head and with every one wants more to melt between the floorboards, until Mr Adams sucks in a short breath and Bonnie’s head snaps up, damage-control smile painted on her lips like her father’s just embarrassing.
“Stu, you’re in a room with the three people who saw every terrible thing Mitch has ever done, I can’t believe you’re not taking advantage.” Her words crash into each other as she speaks, too quickly, and she shoots a meaningful glance at her parents. Mitch’s eyes widen in alarm.
“If you dare…”
“D’you know Mitch nearly dashed his brains out on this table?” She continues, ignoring her brother completely. “And-- oh, back when he was like… eight…? He really wanted a little brother, and I was, like, the most obnoxiously fairies-and-princesses two-year-old of all times…”
“You were darling,” Mrs Adams defends. Bonnie and Mitch snort in unison.
“It was like a unicorn puked on me.”
“That rings a bell.”
“Not like you were much better,” Bonnie gripes. A second later, Mitch yelps, and Bonnie leans back in satisfaction. “God, you still scream like a girl. I didn’t even kick you that hard. Anyway, Mitch wanted a little brother, so one day when Mom and Dad were out, he sat me down on the white couch and--”
“You’re not even telling it right.” Mitch complains, but it’s good-natured, the most relaxed he’s been since they got here.
“You just don’t want your-- ...Stu knowing you cut off all my hair with a pair of safety scissors because you thought it’d magically turn me into a little boy.” Bonnie turns back to Stu with a rather wicked grin. Her parents exchange a fond look. “Only it didn’t work, and instead of turning me into a little boy he could wrestle with he just cut off my cute little pigtails and made me cry, so Mom and Dad came home like an hour later and found him sitting on the floor bawling his eyes out. I looked like a troll doll for weeks.”
“I didn’t cry for an hour--”
“Yeah, you did. And the year after that he bit a chunk out of my arm.”
“You were being a brat,” Mitch protests.
“I was three. And you cried after that as well.”
“You were such funny kids.” Mr Adams shakes his head, amused but pleased, a king reviewing his castle.
Bonnie raises her eyebrows, looking pleased and almost her age again, and Mitch grins. It’s almost like a normal family meal, almost like something that could work. Whatever it is, it’s enough to spark hope warm and deep in his chest.
“I mean…” Bonnie twirls her fork vaguely in the direction of her parents, expression wry. “He’s an idiot, but he wasn’t exactly wrong.”
“Don’t gesture with the cutlery, Bonnie,” Mrs Adams says absently. “What do you mean?”
“With his stupid haircut.” Rolling her eyes, Bonnie puts the fork down again. “He was like… years early, and he was a bad hairdresser, but. It’s short again now, isn’t it?”
“It’s nice.” Stu says, the words out of his mouth before he can think to shape them into something less vague, something more clever. He shouldn’t even care about the opinions of these people, after all they’ve done, but he can’t help rushing to clarify himself, stumbling a little over the words in his haste. “The short hair, I mean. It suits you.”
“Mitch knows his fashion,” Bonnie quips, and Mitch grimaces in response -- and if his eyes drift to his parents, his trepidation is miles away from the fear of just minutes ago. “Hey, remember when--”
“Yes, he did get up to the strangest things.” Mrs Adams’ airy tone is pleasant enough, but there’s a forced quality to her smile. “I do wish you’d grow it out again, Bon, you have such lovely hair…”
Bonnie’s eyebrows furrow with a disbelieving laugh. “Uh, thanks.”
“She’s right, you know.” Mr Adams nods approvingly at his wife but there’s something a little wrong about the gesture, something that makes it look more like a master rewarding an obedient dog than a person supporting their lover. “Ladies shouldn’t have short hair, it’s not proper.” There’s a moment’s pause, but there’s enough in the way his gaze flickers over Mitch to make Stu’s blood run cold before he even opens his mouth again. “God knows there’s already enough of that in this family.”
A hush falls over the table, then--
Stu’s stomach still drops like he’s on a rollercoaster at that tone of voice, no matter how familiar he is with his husband’s explosive temper, no matter how well-deserved it is here of all places (and part of it, part of it will always be because he knows what comes next, knows the hurt that lies under the explosion). Mitch looks on the verge of breaking the table with the strength of his grip, looks about ready to start a fight or set the world on fire.
“Mitch…” Mrs Adams starts placatingly, and Mitch rounds on her, lightning flashing in his eyes, thunder growling in his throat. Bonnie’s fingers curl into her palm and she reaches out tentatively -- pulls away -- locks eyes helplessly with Stu.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Please don’t get testy,” and he’s so far beyond testy it hurts, his rage slamming visibly, impotently against the words she’s chosen to define it, but she continues as if he were just a tired child: “All your father is saying is that we’re concerned for you. This… rebellion… has been going on so long, and now it’s affecting Bonnie, and--”
“It’s doing what now?”
“Don’t bring her into this,” Mitch snaps, because of course he does, throwing up his defences far too late and far too close to his heart and Stu aches for him, his brave husband, trying to hold together his family under a shelter made of paper in the face of the storm.
“I’m just saying, this all isn’t like her. And it’s not like you, either.” Mrs Adams smooths her corner of the tablecloth with soft hands and gleaming manicured nails. She isn’t smiling now. She isn’t fond, or amused, or feigning contentment, and all that’s left is ice. “We want our children back, Mitch. And this… Bonnie drinking, you and him… this isn’t it.”
Mitch recoils as if he’s been slapped.
“Your mother’s right.” Mr Adams agrees, and all the masks must be coming off now because even Stu can read the disgust in his expression. “This is nothing but a fucking disgrace.”
“Excuse me?” He’s tried, he really has, to hold his tongue and smile and make this work, but he’s watched Bonnie and Mitch bearing these comments and expectations all evening, and the scars of them for every evening for the last several years . He didn’t come all this way to witness this, to watch his husband being torn apart, and he can’t help the white-hot burn searing through his veins and pouring into his words. It’s only when he opens his mouth that he realises how deep it runs, how scalding it is as it tumbles past his lips. “How dare you talk like that to him, to either of them?”
“Stu. It’s fine.” Bonnie shakes her head sharply and her expression is mirrored on Mitch’s face, angry, urgent terror. He knows they mean to deter him, but their expressions only spur him on. This has gone on long enough.
“But it’s not.” He insists, takes a moment to catch her eye because he needs her to understand this, before he turns the full force of his attention back against her parents. “You have two of the bravest, the most incredible kids I’ve ever met, and you can’t even respect them enough to ask them how their day was before you start trying to break them? You know it’s been years? You don’t even know what they’re doing with their lives, you don’t know where your daughter wants to take her career, or what your son’s home looks like, christ, you probably wouldn’t even recognise his expression when he actually, really smiles, because you haven’t been there! You don’t care enough, you have never cared enough, you don’t even deserve the chance to learn how to!” He takes a second, a pause the space of a breath, to vow to himself that he will make up for the love that these people should have provided. “This is who your children are. They are fighters, and they are beautiful, and they will have every bit of love and happiness that you monsters have tried to deny them.”
He’s not entirely sure what he’s expecting — for Mr Adams to throw a punch, a dish, a knife, for Mrs Adams to claw out his throat with that satin-smooth smile — but it certainly isn’t this, the stunned silence as they struggle to process his speech. His family can only stare, and his stomach turns at their shock, and how is it possible for them to think any less of themselves than this?
Mrs Adams recovers first.
“Mitch, won’t you…”
“You creepy little queer.” Mr Adams’ fists crash deafeningly against the table, and his cool, collected wife snaps her jaw shut, sheet white. There’s a terrifying moment where he’s sure that this is how he dies, that this man is going to beat him to death and hide his body and there’s nothing he can do to prevent it (but at the very least it will have been for a good cause, at the very least if it has to be him it’s not Bonnie or Mitch). “You’re out of your goddamn mind coming into my home and lecturing me on my kids like you didn’t put all this sick shit in their heads to begin with.”
Mitch’s adam’s apple bobs in his throat as he swallows, and even with his teeth gritted to choke back emotion he’s beautiful. “C’mon, sweetheart,” he says, low and raw and steeped in tender awe. “Let’s go. Let’s go home.”
And he’s so preoccupied with the way Mitch says sweetheart (like they’re miles away in their own home with the cat and the dog and Bonnie curled up in front of the TV and his head in Mitch’s lap and everything is alright) that it takes a moment and a swift kick under the table from Bonnie before he scrambles to his feet, almost knocking the chair over as he does (and even though he’s resolved not to care what these people think of him it’s a relief that he doesn’t, that he can walk away from this with some semblance of dignity intact). Mitch grins, eyes glistening, and reaches for his hand as they leave and he’s not really aware of the rest of the walk out to the car, not really aware of anything beyond the tight grip of his (strong beautiful perfect) husband’s hand in his own like he plans on never letting go, right there in front of his parents, in front of the ghosts who have haunted him for years over this, over them. He’s so proud and so in love that he could cry.
Stu realises he’s almost walked into the car door only when Mitch’s hand on his shoulder stops him and the word echoes in his mind, sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart, making up for every touch, every glance, every warm word they have had to bite down. And Mitch is smiling , really smiling through the tears he’ll almost certainly deny having to hold back (he’s always so proud for his sister) and the house behind them can’t possibly be real when Mitch is like this.
“Oh my god,” Bonnie drawls, opening the door to the back seats to make herself heard. He’s never been so relieved to hear her so confidently, so deliberately aggravating even despite her wet cheeks and quavering voice. “Can you save the gay for when we’re out of here?”
So he climbs in with her through the open door, and it’s not until Mitch has shut the door behind him that he realises that with all of them in the back, they aren’t driving anywhere. Here, nestled between the two people he loves most in the world, it’s a little hard to care.
Chapter 3: in my hometown
“Not to say I told you so,” Bonnie announces for the tenth time that night as they stumble into their hotel room, clutching tightly onto Stu’s arm, and Mitch keeps from killing her only because of the vague notion that his husband is (irrationally) attached to her, “but I told you so. Oh my god, I thought she was going to gouge your eyes out.”
“Don’t remind me.” Stu says the words with a shudder, even as he continues to look unreasonably fond of Bonnie. “I’m sorry for bringing you both back there.” He adds, also for the tenth time that evening. His lovely, apologetic eyes stay fixed on her (not that she deserves it), but he squeezes Mitch’s hand all the same. “I should have realised how evil they are. Christ, just thinking about it makes me feel sick.”
Bonnie opens her mouth to comment and Mitch catches her eye, for just a fraction of a second, reading the thought written clearly across her face. He raises his eyebrows infinitesimally, and she pulls a face at him but thinks better of it. Instead, she continues:
“No, I’m serious. Nobody talks to Dad like that. How are you alive?”
She doesn’t even get a coherent response to that - Stu mumbles something unintelligible through a yawn and untangles his hand from Mitch’s to wrap his arms around her (he almost, almost regrets bringing her on this trip in the first place).
“It shouldn’t have to be like that.” Stu murmurs, burrowing sleepily into her shoulder, a little unsteady on his feet and yeah, ok, bringing Bonnie was definitely a terrible idea.
“You should get some rest, sweetheart, you look exhausted.” His words are as gentle as the hand he runs up his husband’s spine, as tender as the glare he shoots his sister is bitter when Stu hums in agreement and cuddles closer to her. Still, the familiarity of her smug smirk is irresistibly warm, a home miles away from what they’ve left behind, and he has to look away before his glare melts and she knows she’s got to him.
“He’s got a point.”
Stu sighs in agreement and shuffles obediently forwards with her and Mitch is seriously considering kicking her out when she unwinds his arms from around her and nudges him carefully into Mitch’s chest. That’s… unexpected.
“So I’m gonna give you two time to make out while you still can. See you in five!”
He’s still cursing her as the door shuts behind her, but Stu only smiles sleepily and wraps himself around Mitch with a soft, pleased sound, and Bonnie being her usual brattish self suddenly seems far less important.
“Hey there, sweetheart.” He murmurs, kisses his husband’s hair, takes a moment to just breathe. “C’mon, before you fall asleep on your feet.”
Getting changed for bed is nothing short of home, domesticity built up across years of looks and touches and memory. It’s teamwork built of gentle kisses and familiar hands and knowing one another’s bodies as well as their own, teamwork even if Stu’s so out of it that he does actually fall asleep standing upright at least twice before they’re both reasonably dressed for sharing a bed with Bonnie (it’s inevitable, really, and right now it’s a comforting enough idea that he can’t even bring himself to complain about it) and Mitch can finally herd his husband into bed.
“I love you,” Stu murmurs, reaches for him without hesitation from the depths of endless pristine hotel sheets and fluffy pillows.
“I love you too.” It’s routine, in the same way as curling himself around his husband and wrapping him up close in his arms - not insignificant, but unthinkable to end a day without it.
They’re not making out when Bonnie gets back. Making out would be something more active, something with more purpose than this easy, sleepy give and take of lips, of fingertips brushed over bare skin.
“Oh, gross.” Mitch barely reacts to her, doesn’t look over (he can see her expression crystal-clear in his head anyway, nose wrinkled, lips quirked slightly upward), but moments later her knees dig into his back as she clambers gracelessly over him to Stu’s other side, and she could easily have just climbed into the other side of the bed to begin with. It’s not important. Killing her can wait. “Move, you’re not that big.”
“That so?” But before he can fire back she’s burrowed into the blankets and her hand is curled against his arm, cocooning his beautiful brave husband between them, and his response dies on his lips. Stu’s breath washes warm over his bare chest as he squirms contentedly up against it, and a dull ache settles in Mitch’s chest. This, this is his family.
(His family, which he just walked recklessly into pain and fear and shame, his family, which Stu had to protect because he couldn’t, because he took one step into that house and froze. Tears prick at his eyes.)
He swallows roughly at his sister’s voice. Why is it always her? “Yeah?”
His voice is hoarse and fragile even to his own ears. Bonnie shakes off her drowsiness immediately, raises her head slightly so he can see the exasperation on her face.
“God. Again with the crying?” She complains. He doesn’t trust himself to answer, and she lays back down, and moments pass in silence before she says, so softly he’s not sure he’s heard right, “...you know. You’re not the worst brother in the world.”
There’s no way that’s what she actually said, and even if it was he’d have no idea how to begin to respond to it, so instead Mitch swallows back his tears and clears his throat. “Go to sleep, kid.”
He wakes up to Stu retching in the bathroom. It’s (still, always, beyond doubt unpleasant enough to make his heart lurch a little in his chest but) familiar enough that he’s rolled out of bed and padded halfway to the bathroom before he’s even awake enough to properly open his eyes.
“‘M fine,” Stu insists as Mitch nudges open the door, offering up his best unconvincing smile. He probably means to be reassuring, but he really hasn’t got a hope in hell of that while he’s sat practically hugging the toilet, pale as the cheap hotel sheets apart from the hot flush of fever in his cheeks and visibly shaking. “It’s nothing, really.”
There’s not even time for him to draw breath to reply before Stu freezes, expression gone funny, and then hunches back over the toilet. This is routine, too - settling next to him on the floor, rubbing his husband’s back until the retching stops and Stu relaxes a little beneath his hand, shifts to burrow miserably against his chest (and it’s crazy, unbelievable how easily he can make the bathroom floor of a hotel feel like home. Mitch suspects, in moments like this, that home might be more a person than a place).
“Hey, sweetheart.” And it’s so easy to kiss his husband’s sweat-dampened hair, to rest his chin on top of his head and pretend, just for a moment, that he can protect him. “How long you been up for?”
“Not long.” There’s the inevitable pause which he’s learned to wait out. “On and off for a couple of hours.”
Mitch drags a hand down his face, heart going out to his husband, suffering alone so many long miles away from home. “Christ. Why didn’t you wake me?”
“You looked too peaceful!” It’s a weak protest and a lame excuse, but Stu wriggles closer until Mitch finds himself with a lapful of feverish, trembling husband and it’s impossible to feel anything other than concern for him. “I didn’t want to disturb you just so that you could be tired and worried in the middle of the night.”
“You should have.” It’s very, very difficult to sound anything other than gentle as he tucks Stu closer against himself, brushes back the hair sticking to his forehead and frowns. “Jesus, kid, you’re burning up.”
Stu makes a soft, contented sound, clearly more focused on his voice than his words, and Mitch resigns himself to the idea of spending the next hour (or day or week or eternity, if it comes to it) sat on this faux-tiled floor while his (gorgeous, perfect, brave, his) husband naps.
Then, of course, because where trouble lurks she’s not far behind, his sister’s shadow sprawls out into the small bathroom.
“What’s this about burning up?” She stifles a yawn into the back of her hand, her hair a mess of gnarled curls, eyes half-closed, and really, how is she not still in high school?
Stu mumbles some incoherent platitude into his chest. It takes her only moments to shake herself awake.
“Oh, god, it’s started.” She rushes to kneel at his side and presses light, cool fingers to Stu’s forehead. “Okay, well, he’s been worse, at least. How long’s he been like this?”
“Hours, apparently.” Now that he’s not addressing Stu directly, frustration creeps back into Mitch’s tone, and his poor shaking husband curls piteously into himself. He slips back into a soothing murmur, kisses the top of his head tenderly, holds him as tightly as he dares in this state. “Hey now, sweetheart. You’re fine. I’ve got you.”
“Unbelievable.” Bonnie scoffs under her breath, but the kant of her eyebrows and set of her lips betray her worry. “I mean, I get not waking you, you’re completely useless… I could’ve helped. Stu?”
She takes his soft exhale as an answer while Mitch ignores her and runs a hand down his back.
“Do you think you’re done for now, or do you need to be sick again?” (He shakes his head weakly, looking far from finished. His skin is tinged green) “Can you drink a little water for me? Then let’s get Mitch to clean you up, alright?”
Stu makes a quiet sound of agreement, and Mitch is totally unconvinced that he’ll be able to keep down even a bit of water in this state. He wishes, uselessly, that he knew how to keep him safe from his hopeless immune system.
“You sure?” Mitch presses gently. He kisses his husband’s forehead, the tip of his nose, and takes quiet delight in the small but genuine smile he’s rewarded with.
“Yes.” The stubborn insistence lasts only an instant before Stu abruptly shuts his mouth tight and pales impossibly further. Then, the moment passes, and he slumps back against Mitch’s chest with a miserable little sigh, mumbling something that might be “maybe not…”
Bonnie and Mitch exchange a wry glance, then she wets a towel and passes it to him, mimicking Stu’s sigh as she lays a hand gently on his shoulder. “Mitch, can you help him clean up? And-- get the taste of puke out of his mouth, it’ll just make him sick again. Hey, Stu? I’ll go get you some new clothes, does that sound good?”
Mitch doesn’t resist the urge to roll his eyes at her, bossing them around like she’s the one who’s been handling these situations every other week for years. He does, however, bite his tongue as Stu nods feebly, and then Bonnie’s hurried off (probably to fuss over something else like an overexcited child playing house).
It only takes a few minutes of quiet, tender work to get Stu cleaned up and changed with his teeth brushed (the last part is Mitch’s favourite by far - with Bonnie out of the room there’s absolutely nothing to stop him stealing kisses from his husband every few seconds) until finally, he’s carrying his husband to bed, foreheads pressed together, breathing in tandem.
“Ew.” Bonnie wrinkles her nose. “I get why you’d be confused, but this isn’t your honeymoon.”
“Get lost.” He tells her, but pleasantly. Even her uninvited commentary can’t upset how right this is.
“I wasn’t sick on our honeymoon.” Stu murmurs, just quiet enough that it’s difficult to tell whether or not the words are supposed to be private. Mitch shifts, fractionally, so that their noses brush together, so that he can kiss his husband before he climbs (carefully, so carefully) into bed.
It’s not quite true, but he really doesn’t have the heart to point that out.
“When did New Jersey get so cold?” Stu complains, like he’s not as hot as a furnace where he’s burrowed against Mitch. Mitch tilts his head up with his thumb to kiss him again in response, wraps his poor husband up in his arms, tries the only way he can to comfort him. Right on cue, because if she weren’t a living nightmare she wouldn’t be his sister, Bonnie squirms her way between them.
“You’re enough of a pain already,” she says primly, but if she thinks he’s missed the way she cuddles up against both of them she’s sadly mistaken. “If you get sick I’m locking you in the other room and leaving you to die.”
Stu makes a dismayed sound and she hurries to appease him while Mitch imagines her slow, painful death: “No, Stu, you’ll be okay… I’m not going anywhere, I’ll keep you warm. And you’re so cool…” She’s lying through her teeth, but Stu’s answering sigh is tired and pleased, sweet even when it’s not for him.
Stu mumbles something which makes Bonnie laugh, and Mitch may or may not accidentally stick his elbow in her ribs, just a little bit.
“No, I won’t tell him.” She reassures Stu, shooting Mitch a smug glance because she’s a brat. “Promise.”
It’s a real shame that Stu is mostly asleep where he’s curled up into her side (and really needs the rest, poor thing, if he’s been up half the night), making it impossible to kick her out of the hotel room.
“Tell me what?” The words come out softer than he meant them, mostly because Stu reaches blindly for his hand and looks ridiculously pleased with himself when he finds it.
“Nothing.” Of course, only Bonnie could manage to fit so much self-satisfaction into such a quietly-spoken word (it’s difficult, somehow, to find the space to be annoyed between his husband’s knuckles under the brush of his thumb). “It’s a secret.”
Mitch rolls his eyes and drops his head to the pillows, because he can’t bring himself to pick an argument with Bonnie while Stu’s falling asleep on her even if she is being absolutely impossible. If he curls himself around her a little as he gets comfortable, well. She is still his baby sister even when she’s being a brat.
He doesn’t register falling asleep, only waking up to an empty bed and a closed bathroom door (because of course Stu wouldn’t want to wake him up, of course Bonnie thinks she’s qualified to handle this by herself). Before he even tries the door handle, Bonnie’s voice cuts across it:
“It’s locked, get lost.”
“Open the fucking door.” He runs an agitated hand through his hair, slams his weight against the door with a heavy thud. Stu murmurs something so low as to be indistinguishable, then, running water. “If you don’t--”
“You’ll get us some food?” Bonnie says, her words lifted slightly by a grin. God, he can just see her face, wicked and exhausted at once, convinced as always that she knows best. She’s a fucking child. “I’m starving, and your gay doesn’t want me to starve.”
“You mean my husband?” He kicks the door for good measure, because he knows there’s no chance of it opening from the other side, because it shouldn’t even be locked in the first place, christ.
“That’s what I said. And I’ll have a pasta salad.” Bonnie calls cheerfully. “Or a sandwich with bacon in. Whatever. There has to be a convenience store or something somewhere near here.”
There’s some quiet conversation from the other side of the door, but he can’t quite make out what either of them are saying and it twists a bit at his heart as well as his nerves.
“I’ll let you in when you have food!” Bonnie chirps. He hates her.
So that’s how Mitch finds out that there are in fact no convenience stores, no somethings, in fact what feels like literally fucking nothing even remotely nearby because New Jersey is a fucking nightmare and Christ, did he really used to think he’d spend his whole life here?
It takes him almost 20 minutes of driving around to find anywhere that sells sandwiches, and they look disgusting and cost far too much but he’s too wound up to care. The drive back is somehow even worse, seems to go on forever and he gets lost at least three times and when he’s finally back at the hotel he finds Bonnie in the car park, leaning against the hotel wall and he’s kind of tempted to stamp on the accelerator and steer right at her. He doesn’t.
Instead, Mitch winds down the window as he pulls up, glares at her like she’s the sole cause of all his problems because right now she is. “What are you doing out here?”
Uncrossing her arms (because of course she had her arms folded across her chest), Bonnie kicks off from the wall and leans through his window, eyebrows raised like she thinks she’s cool. “Stu fell asleep,” she says. “And I figured I’d meet you out here so we can eat. You took so much longer than I thought!”
“I had to drive to the next town to find a shop.” He snaps, tosses the keys at her as he moves to get out the car. “You can eat in here, I’m not hungry.”
“Mitch.” Quick and light as a hummingbird, Bonnie darts into his path. Can’t she ever just leave him alone? The relief of having her with him fades faster every time he has to see her. “Mitch, stop! Why are you avoiding me?”
“I’m not.” He stops, drags an agitated hand through his hair. “It’s just—” it’s just that the last couple of days have been horrific, just that he misses home and Stu is sick and he needs to see him and he has no idea how to say any of this and he hates all of it.
“They sucked,” Bonnie says bluntly, and doesn’t step aside. “And this place sucks and right now, you kind of suck. We were trying to have a good time since we’re stuck here and all and now you’re all… weird and angry again.”
“What, you want me to be happy that I’m still gay and our parents still hate us and my husband is sick and New Jersey is still a dump and there’s nothing I can do about any of it? You’re right, kid, everything sucks and I hate it too and we should never have come back here.” Mitch means to sound bitter and he does , but there’s more to it too - he sounds worn down even to his own ears, weary and pathetic and he hates it, hates that this is the impression of himself that he’s giving to his kid sister, especially here and now. He imagines himself, briefly, the way he’d meant to be, standing tall and strong with one hundred acrid quips about this shithole at the ready, with his sister falling boneless against him for support.
“Yeah, that’s what I said, and you called me a brat,” she says instead, as bitter as he wanted to be. “And yeah, we’re all still gay and our parents still hate us, and I get that you can’t handle it because they usually fall all over themselves every time you open your stupid mouth, but you know what, for me, it’s like, what else is new. ‘Cuz I’m not… y’know what, go. Eat your stupid sandwich, your gay probably wants to see you again anyway.” Her voice teeters on a cliff’s edge and she slams the car door shut behind her, starts rolling up the windows, because she is a brat and he’s helpless to stop her, helpless to fix yet another mess he couldn’t stop himself from walking right into. Christ, she’s so difficult.
There really is nothing else for him to do other than go back to the hotel room now, and it’s a fine idea in theory, a great idea right up until he gets there and the door is locked, because of course it is. The door is locked and Stu is asleep and Mitch would bet anything he knows exactly where the key card is, so there’s nothing for him to do except sit up next to it and pick moodily at his sandwiches, which for the record are exactly as disgusting as he’d expected.
When Bonnie finally reappears, she’s smiling, but he knows even before she tosses the car keys at him and saunters right past him towards her room that she’s not done being bratty.
“Give me the key card,” he bites out, and she pauses in unlocking her room to turn that syrupy smile on him. Sometimes, she looks so much like her mother.
She’d hate that, he thinks, and the satisfaction almost outweighs the stirrings of unease.
“Oh, did I make you angry? How will I survive knowing someone doesn’t like me?” She pushes her door open.
“I don’t care, just give me the fucking key.”
Bonnie wrinkles her nose consideringly, then fishes around in her pocket to do as he asks. “Fine. But you’re a dick,” she says, in the same unbearably arch tone Marcia does when she wants to let him know what she thinks of him.
He doesn’t even dignify that with a response as he takes the key from her, because she’s being an unbearable brat and honestly, it’ll be a relief just to shut her out for a little while.
It is a relief when he shuts the door and locks her out behind him, and the hotel room might be cheap and impersonal but it’s a moment’s fucking peace. Most importantly, there’s Stu curled up under the blankets, fast asleep and flushed with fever and so perfect that it hurts. Everything wrong still crowds in close and heavy on his shoulders, a weight that’s there even after he’s shed his clothes, deep beneath his skin as he crawls into bed and it’s still awful but less so here. Less so when his husband shifts, mostly still asleep, presses up against him with a pleased murmur.