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________________________

 

Ransom moves out on a breathlessly dry day in the middle of June.

It’s the exact opposite of the movie clichés. Holster kind of hates it, that the sun should be so bright and intense when the sun of his life is packing up to go away.

In the living room Holster turns the volume up on the remote, staring at the TV they’d bought at Samwell like he isn’t hearing the subtle sighs and creaks of Ransom splitting their lives apart. He knows Ransom has a system — living with someone as long as they have, loving someone for even longer, you realize these things — knows he’s getting close to done by the way his footsteps have started toward the family room where Holster’s currently buried underneath as many blankets as he could find. Ransom probably wants to say something, and Holster, right now, just wants this done. They’ve built up to this for so long; his heart hurts from holding onto him. He’s leaving. They’re done. Holster wishes they could let it be done.

He feels rather than sees Ransom lean against the doorway. Even now, with everything they’ve said hanging in the air between them, Holster’s still so very aware of Ransom’s body and how near they are to each other.

He would be lying if he said he doesn’t want to hold him right now. That he doesn’t want to pull Ransom into his lap and look at him like he’s stupid in love with him, hands on his hips until Rans rolls his eyes and tilts his head the way he does when he’s about to lean down and kiss him. That the thought of fucking this problem away didn’t cross his mind.

It did, and they tried, and they’re here anyway. Holster tries to hold a throw pillow casually, like he isn’t falling apart at the edges.

Ransom knocks uncertainly against the archway. “I’m, ah. I’ll be heading out now.”

“Okay,” Holster says, tugging at the beading on the pillow. He wipes his eyes furtively. “Go, then.”

“Won’t you,” Ransom starts. He sounds the saddest Holster’s ever heard him and this makes him angry now because this was his idea, Holster never fucking wanted to hear him like this, there’s a ring in his underwear drawer saying he planned on making him happy every goddamn day of their lives, and Holster needs him to leave before he starts yelling and crying. “Won’t you look at me?”

Holster whispers, “I can’t,” and the door closes softly moments afterward.

A car starts outside. Pulls away.

Holster locks the door and collapses in their bed in their bedroom, which is his bed in his bedroom now, isn’t it, now that everything’s done. When he wakes up he’ll change the sheets. Ransom’s deodorant has always perfumed their blankets, but he can’t — if they’re really, truly over, he can’t do that to himself.

He burrows into the blankets, closing his eyes. He’s nearly off to sleep when he thinks that, maybe, he would’ve liked to see Ransom one last time in this house before he left.

____________

 

Shitty picks up on the first ring. “Holtzy? How — how’re you doing?”

“Ransom told you, didn’t he.” Holster moves the laundry from the washer to the dryer.

He hears Shitty’s hesitation through the phone. “Not any details, just you mutually decided to—”

“Mutual,” Holster says bitterly. “Is that what he’s saying?”

Shitty asks, “Did you ever ask him to stay?” and it’s like getting checked into the boards.

“He didn’t want me to, Shits, you should’ve heard him.”

Shitty sighs. Holster rests his head against the dryer, closes his eyes a second.

“You don’t have to — believe me I know this is rough personal shit you’re dealing with — but, Holster, what happened?”

But he wants to say it. He hadn’t realized how much he needed to say it, how he hadn’t told any of their friends they were going through a hard time when they started. Some things, his grandma has told him, you speak into existence. He hadn’t wanted to make this true.

Holster tells him about the stressful late nights at their consulting job, how they started coming home and just wanting to be alone in separate places to destress, how this grew to early mornings and late nights and poor sleep because Ransom steals blankets and Holster steals mattress space, how eventually they started sleeping on the edges of the mattress so they wouldn’t have to touch each other until Holster finally moved to the couch.

And then the smaller things, the tiny details he didn’t know to look for. When they stopped making breakfast for each other in the morning. How, when they kissed, it was almost clinical how short it was. The way they just didn’t fit in each other’s arms anymore when they used to be so close it didn't matter if maybe Holster’s shoulders were too solid to be comfortable or the fact that Ransom’s chin was too pointy.

He tells Shitty how they talked about it, how they realized they had a problem. He tells him about the later nights on top of the late ones and how cranky they’d be in the morning from lack of sleep. About how they started looking at their relationship from two different perspectives, how Holster thought they could just get through the rough patch and how Ransom started thinking they weren’t going to make it. How much worse it felt when they both gave up, quietly, in their separate rooms in their house.

He even tells him about how they’d had sex two nights ago with the hopes it would help things, and how afterward, Holster still inside him, Ransom’s fingers pressing so hard into his thighs that Holster still found bruises just this morning, Ransom had started crying and said this isn’t working, we aren’t working anymore. He doesn’t tell him how much that shattered him. It’s Shitty, though, so Holster thinks he probably knows anyway.

“I guess we just,” Holster says, still leaning against the dryer. It’s nice to have something else in charge of supporting his body weight. “We fell apart in the little ways. It was sort of inevitable, eventually.”

Shitty’s voice, when it comes, is gentler than he’s ever heard it. “Do you want us to come over? Lardo and I — and Bits and Jack too, I bet they’d — we’d be happy to, if you want.”

And Holster’s thought about this, he has. When he woke up from his nap the house seemed too big to be alone in, and he’d been so close to texting the SMH group chat they still keep up with even these four years after his own graduation. Then he realized Ransom was in that group, and he’d have to make another group chat, and how he’d never wanted to be the guy who forced his friends to chose him over their other friend, even if that friend is Holster’s ex who just broke his heart.

Holster rubs his eyes. “Not right now,” he says. Shitty, because he’s a good friend, doesn’t comment on how Holster’s voice breaks. “I think I need to be alone in this house. Make it mine, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

There’s a pause. Holster realizes he hadn’t started the dryer so he does that now, watching the way the clothes spin around and around until Shitty’s saying something in his ear.

“What’s that?”

“I was saying I’ve gotta go,” and his voice sounds so apologetic. “Lardo’s parents are here, we’re going over wedding things today.”

Of course, of course today’s wedding prep day. He’d forgotten in the midst of everything that Shitty and Lardo were finalizing colors and cakes and tables today. Their wedding’s in six months, and he’s a terrible friend for having forgot. He says this and Shitty all but shouts him down.

“You fucking kidding me?” Shitty sounds mad, and it’s almost reassuring. He always gets like this when his friends are down on themselves. “Are you actually kidding me right now, Adam Birkholtz? We know you love us. We know you’re going through some shit, you’re not a terrible friend for focusing on yourself for one goddamn minute.”

“Okay,” Holster whispers.

They hang up after Shitty makes him promise to believe it. Holster tries.

It echoes in the silence around him. The house is still too goddamn big.

He queues up one of his favorite musicals and doesn’t have the heart to sing along.

____________

 

It hits him again at night. He was going to propose, had gotten the ring months before all of this happened. He’s watching SNL and thinking about how things could be different if he’d found the right time earlier when they were still happy together.

There’s an empty space on the wall where a picture of them, happy and smiling on the ice, used to be. Holster isn’t sure where it is now. Ransom may have taken it, he himself may have hidden it somewhere, but all that matters right now is that he was going to propose and now he’s left with a house full of holes.

____________

 

Holster goes to work the next day. Gayle and Evan from his department whisper to each other in the break room when he walks in, but cut off when he closes the refrigerator door a little too hard.

“You’ve got something to say?” Holster asks. His hands clench around the handle. They’ve always liked Ransom more, were overjoyed when they finally got together because it made Ransom so happy.

He’s going to have to do this now, have to deal with this at work. He and Ransom were on some of the same projects before — before all of this, knew the same hiding spots and the same people. They were electric here, when things were going well. Most of that was Ransom’s charisma. Holster’s not foolish enough to imagine everyone here who liked them liked them because of him, he knows he’s too loud and too big and too into really detailed pop culture references to be fun to be around all the time. On the ice being bigger than life was fine; it’s why he and Ransom were such a powerhouse when they played together. At work it’s always been different.

Then Gayle says, “We’re saying we wanted to be there for you, too,” and Holster turns to face the wall so he doesn’t start crying. A sob makes him shake regardless.

They come up behind him and hug him until he can sort of breathe again, short, rough breaths that tear at his throat and lungs on the exhale. Someone rubs his back soothingly.

“Thanks,” he rasps out. The hands squeeze his shoulder reassuringly.

He’s going to have to do this now. There must be new spaces to breathe in this building, another office with the same view they love to look at during lunch, and he’s going to have to find them on his own this time.

Maybe not entirely alone, he thinks, as Gayle squeezes him again and asks Evan about his wife and children. Maybe there’s something here.

____________

 

A week after Ransom moves out, Holster’s sister comes over with an armful of plastic bags and dumps them on the kitchen counter. “There’s more in the car,” Brianna says, and suddenly it’s like they’re kids again helping Mom take in the groceries. Holster says this and Brianna laughs, but it’s a nice laugh. It fills the kitchen.

They spend a few minutes moving around each other, opening drawers in the fridge and the pantry, carefully putting away all the food she brought. He opens one of the bags and tears fill his vision when he realizes she’s bought all the junk food he secretly loves but won’t admit. Milk Duds. Cool Ranch Doritos. Those really terrible, weird tasting off brand Twizzlers that are objectively disgusting but work so well with a warm beer. Holster pulls his sister in for a hug, and she holds him tight.

“Thanks,” he mumbles against her hair.

Brianna says, “I got you, bro,” and asks him to pull down cookie baking sheets.

They spend the afternoon baking some premade dough — Holster says a silent apology to Bitty, who can never know about this — with the living room TV on in the background. He thinks it’s an NCIS marathon and he’d change it, but it’s Brianna’s favorite show. Maybe remembering that will ease the fact that it was Ransom’s, too.

As if she hears him thinking about it, she asks, “How’re you doing? Like actually doing, you know I know if you’re lying.”

“I’m trying to stop thinking about him,” he says. He spatulas a cookie off the sheet and sets it on a cooling rack. “It’s hard.”

“Understatement of the year,” she notes. When Holster raises his eyebrows, she says, “Your friends keep texting me.”

This rubs him the wrong way. The next cookie he moves cracks because he sets it down too hard. “They don’t think I can take care of myself? Did they tell you to babysit me?”

Brianna rolls her eyes. “No, dumbass, they said you’re having a hard time and thought I might wanna know.”

It hits him as soon as she says it. Oh. “I didn’t tell you.”

“You did not,” she says, elbowing him out of the way of stove. She takes the spatula and peels off another cookie. “You didn’t tell Mom or Dad either, did you.”

Brianna doesn’t say it as a question. They both already know the answer. She crosses her arms, looking up at him, and it strikes him how old she is now. It feels like the last time he really saw her she was still in sophomore year of high school and he was just out of juniors, knee fucked and feeling sorry for himself. They’re four years apart and sometimes it feels bigger, but less so recently, especially right now that she’s clearly disappointed in him.

“I’ll call them later,” he says quietly. “I just. I didn’t wanna worry you, with all of this. I should be able to handle it.”

“That’s bullshit,” Brianna says flatly. “Hand me the milk and a glass, I can’t reach anything in your cupboard.”

He does. “Why?”

“Because you’re a giant, and I’m not as tall as you.”

“No I mean,” Holster says. He takes a bite of one of the misshapen cookies. “These are great by the way, thanks Bri— I mean, why is it bullshit?”

She stares at him. “We’re your family? We’re going to worry worse when you don’t tell us things?” She knocks on his forehead; he brushes her off, annoyed. “Anyone home in there? Do you really think I wanted to hear about all of this from Shitty?”

“I didn’t think—”

“I know you didn’t, you never do,” Brianna says exasperatedly. “Especially when it’s about Rans.”

The nickname feels like a slap. They had been together, officially together, three years after months of dancing around the fact that they still woke up cuddling the shit out of other after kegsters their senior year and well into the Haus they rented with Shitty and Lardo; it makes sense, then, that Brianna would call him Rans. His family has known them as best friends and then as boyfriends for at least seven years. Ransom was as much of their family as Holster himself, and he knows it’s the same sort of thing for Ransom’s family, too. Hearing his nickname now feels wrong. It almost makes him expect Ransom to walk through the door and smile at him the way he would when they’d just bought this house, the way he’d frame Holster’s face in his hands and Holster would hold his hips and they’d just. They’d just fit.

Ransom’s nickname fits into the dust free spots where he used to keep his favorite mug in the cupboard or in the fridge where his protein shakes used to be or in the bedroom where—

Brianna wraps him in a hug again and he realizes he’s crying, big, gulping sobs.

“I want to hate him,” he gasps. “This is so, so hard, I don’t — I don’t think I can do this, without hating him.”

“But you don’t,” Brianna says softy. He thinks she’s crying now too. “You don’t, do you? You don’t really want to hate him.”

He shakes his head and holds her tight until they’re both breathing easier again.

“I can’t keep loving him,” Holster whispers. “He’s gone and I can’t keep loving the spaces he left.”

Brianna says, “Maybe you shouldn’t,” and Holster cries against her shoulder.

____________

 

He goes to work. He comes home. Weekends he thinks about moving or getting a dog, anything to make this place his. Shitty and Lardo come by one Thursday with a pile of Parks and Rec and 30Rock posters that they hang up in his bedroom, hallways, and living room. Holster thanks them with beer and Chinese takeout and Jack’s hockey game on the TV.

During the intermission report, he clears his throat and asks, “How’s he doing?”

They don’t pretend to misunderstand. “He’s in Toronto,” Lardo says. “With his parents.”

That makes sense, then; Holster hasn’t run into him around the office yet, which makes him both breathe easier and hold his breath turning corners.

Holster just says “That’s a lot of vacation days” and then changes the subject to Jack and Bitty and whether or not they’ll elope after Jack’s next game against the Aces.

This turns into marriage talk once Shitty remembers they haven’t decided for sure on flowers yet. He pulls some pictures up on his phone and shows them to Holster and it’s nice, to be allowed to have an opinion on this. They go back and forth on pale flowers versus a more vibrant variety before Holster reminds him he’s getting married in December, and maybe that would influence the colors they wanted to use, and what about the color scheme? Isn’t it soft reds and creams and golds? And so on.

Shitty goes to get another beer from the fridge, going on and on about whether or not it’s cliché to have mistletoe at a wedding around the holidays. Holster smiles at Lardo, who’s listening to Shitty with a fond expression on her face. It’s so good to see them like this.

He wonders a moment if this is how it was for them to see him and Ransom, and then he quietly tucks that thought away.

Jack scores the game winner four minutes before the third period ends. As soon as the buzzer goes off, Shitty blows up the group chat with sexually implicit metaphors and Bitty sends a <3 and Holster’s about to chirp them both about it a text from Ransom pops up. fanfuckingtastic game jack!!!

His thumbs hover over his phone, and he knows Lardo and Shitty are looking at him very, very softly.

The thing is he can imagine Ransom’s face as he sent that. Eyebrows drawn a little, biting his bottom lip a little, but his eyes wide and excited and thrilled because he’s right, it was a fanfuckingtastic game, Jack, and Jack should know it, which is probably why Ransom decided to send it. Holster knows him better than anyone here and maybe better than himself and he knows , in an instant, that Ransom’s been telling them all to check in on him, knows without them telling him he’s trying, in some small way, to have Holster’s back. Lardo punches him gently on the bicep and he asks her wordlessly, and she shrugs in a way that means yes.

“You guys are — you’re checking on him too, right?” Holster asks, five minutes after Ransom’s text. “I don’t want him to be alone right now.”

It surprises him that he means it.

Lardo says, earnest as anything, “We’re not leaving either of you,” and Holster nods.

“Good,” he says. “That’s … that’s good.”

“Have you talked to him at all?” Shitty asks gently.

Holster shakes his head and laughs a little. “Shits, you know I’m not ready for that.”

Shitty and Lardo seem to have a conversation without words. Holster spares a second to be jealous of that easiness.

“We just wanted to check,” Lardo says carefully. “He’s going to the wedding. Are you, you know. Gonna be okay?”

The save the date he’d gotten had been addressed to him and Ransom both. Holster aims for breeziness when he answers. “I’ll be fine.”

For a few minutes he believes it. When they leave, he’s less sure. He goes into the kitchen after walking them out and studies the invitation hung on the fridge, taking in the careful, swooping calligraphy of Larissa Duan & B. Knight. It had taken her weeks to do all of them and she’d written several of them in this kitchen, swearing up a storm whenever she accidentally blotted the ink. Ransom had always kissed her on the top of her head when this happened and Holster had gotten those terrible veggie puffed chips she loves and together they talked her through frustration tears.

Lardo had given them theirs at the very end. “Something special in there,” she had said, handing it to them with the instruction that they should open it when she left. “Thanks for letting me crash, when I get stressed Shits gets stressed and he keeps saying he’d marry me at city hall, if I don’t wanna do this like this.”

Ransom had said, “Does that mean we get a special shoutout in the toasts,” and they’d all laughed.

Now, Holster flips the invite open. For our fave D-men, she’s written. You two and Jack & Bits are the reason I think we can do this. Thanks for letting us share in your love for each other.

____________

 

Gayle knocks on his cubicle one Wednesday, looking stressed, and before he can ask what’s going on she says, “He’s back.”

He processes her words ridiculously slowly, as if she’s talking to him through the boards at the rink. When they register, he goes cold all over.

“He’s — Justin’s—?”

Gayle starts nodding before he finishes his question, which is good; he has no idea what he was about to say.

“He’d taken some sort of lifestyle break or something, Jason and all them approved it,” she’s saying now. “Worked from home a while apparently. But he’s back now, transferred to a new team and got a new desk on the seventh floor, so don’t worry about running into him.”

Holster considers this for a moment. Then he says, very deliberately, “That’s good.” At the skeptical, concerned look on Gayle’s face he adds, “I’m trying so hard not to hate him, Gayle. I just. I want to get to the point where I want him to be happy.”

Gayle is older than him with a kid in her early teens. She looks every inch a mom right now, studying him through her glasses like she’s considering calling him on some bullshit. The problem is Holster isn’t sure she’s wrong.

“If you say so,” Gayle says finally. “Thought you’d want a head’s up.”

“I’m doing better about it,” Holster says sincerely. “I am. I think. And I really do appreciate the warning.”

Gayle smiles at him now and it makes him feel like he’s twenty again, having just been told by the doctor he needs to take it easy on himself or he’ll never play hockey again. It’s a look that says, rest. One that says, be kind to yourself and it’s okay that you’re still feeling this. He’s not sure how to respond to it, so he just nods awkwardly until she taps her knuckles lightly on his head and then he laughs for real.

____________

 

He doesn’t run into Ransom.

Holster spends a little longer in the morning getting ready, picking shirts he knows make his eyes look even more blue, his shoulders even wider, his biceps bigger. Bitty had given him some gel for his birthday two years ago and Ransom had told him how good it smelled whenever he wore it, so Holster lightly spreads some in his hair just in case. Evan wolf whistles at him whenever he passes him in on his way to the water cooler and Holster winks at him and he doesn’t run into Ransom.

He tells himself it’s for him, that he’s proud of his body and he wants, maybe, to start going out more. He’d gone out with Jack, Bitty, Lardo, and Shitty and it had been fun but it’s different being on the town with couples, even when they’re your friends and they’re actively including you. It feels like missing an arm. He’d downloaded Tinder as soon as he’d gotten home.

Part of him worries about coming across Ransom’s profile, but he tells himself the odds of that are slim. It’s a big city. They even work in the same building and they haven’t seen each other yet, so. Not something to worry about.

Part of him hopes he does, though. In a bizarre, twisted way, he thinks it’d give him some closure. The knowledge that they’re both moving on at the same rate, even now, even separate, going the same speed.

____________

 

He runs into Ransom in late August.

Holster’s wearing his best pants and he’s unbuttoned his shirt enough to show off some skin and Ransom’s at the bar laughing with the bartender like he didn’t used to laugh with Holster like that.

Bitty follows his gaze and mumbles, “Shit.”

It’d be funny coming from him if Ransom wasn’t making eyes at the guy behind the bar, wasn’t wearing the shirt Holster bought him for his birthday last year when they still had something. He knows without looking that the bartender’s interested.

There’s no reason to be jealous. Holster takes several deep breaths and reminds himself this, tells himself he’s drunk and can’t do anything about it anyway, that they both deserve to have lives apart from each other. He watches Ransom stir his drink before looking at it and taking a sip. Holster knows that move. Ransom always uses it to give whomever he’s wheeling time to appreciate what he looks like, and the way his lips are pursed, and what that might look like in another setting. It’s worked on Holster more times than he’d like to think about.

He dimly realizes Bitty’s been tugging on his sleeve for the past — he doesn’t know how long. Bending down, he catches the tail end of “didn’t realize he’d be here, d’you wanna leave?”

Holster’s responding before he thinks about what he’s saying. “He looks good, doesn’t he?”

“I — well, yes, I suppose,” Bitty replies, sounding startled. “Holster let’s go, there’re so many other good clubs we can go to, you have that look you get when you’re about to do something dumb as fuck.”

This is funny coming from Bitty, so Holster laughs. Some sober part of his brain recognizes the fact that Bitty probably has a point. He’s never been great at staying away from Ransom, though, and even the sober part of his brain isn’t surprised when he starts heading toward the bar.

Then Ransom leans over and kisses the bartender.

Holster stops dead.

Someone bumps into him. He barely feels it.

From around his chest, a voice says, “Okay, Holster, we’re leaving,” and small hands push him until he starts walking again.

The voice turns into Bitty’s when Holster’s out of the club. It started sprinkling in the last hour or so; he tilts his head up and the rain feels like a thousand tiny kisses on his face. He wants to bottle this feeling. Anything to get that image out of his head.

When they’d moved out of the Haus into Haus 2.0, Ransom had had a boyfriend for a little bit. When they’d broken up, Holster had hoped he’d never have to watch Ransom kiss anyone else. This isn’t something he wants to dwell on. It’s one thing thinking abstractly about him moving on and it’s another thing completely to see it in front of his face the first time he’s gone out since their breakup.

Bitty bundles them both into a cab, typing furiously on his phone. Holster’s too grateful for the silence to ask him about it. He doesn’t want to hear apologies or reactions right now.

After a few miles, though, he realizes he has no idea where they’re going, so he asks about it.

“Jack’s and my place,” Bitty says, glancing up at him. He’s illuminated in the faint blue light from his phone and Holster’s tipsy enough to tell him he looks beautiful like this. Bitty rolls his eyes. “You’re proving my point, you’re too drunk to be alone right now.”

Holster thinks he isn’t drunk enough, and he tells Bitty this too. Bitty fixes him with something close to a death glare and says sternly, “You’re drinking nothin’ but water when we get there, Mr. Birkholtz.”

____________

 

Jack has a glass of water waiting when they step out onto the curb. Holster’s feeling a little dizzy, so he says, “I’m gonna vomit,” and Jack says, “Don’t miss the toilet this time.” He doesn’t. Jack takes an unopened toothbrush out of the bathroom closet while Holster rinses out his mouth. He’s an angel, so Holster tells him.

Jack laughs under his breath. “You’re still drunk,” he says gently. “Come on Holtzy, let’s get you into bed.”

Holster moves through their house in a bit of a haze. Jack has to remind him to turn, to watch out for the lamp everyone always runs into when they go down the hallway. Eventually Jack just slings Holster’s arm over his shoulder and leads him into the guest room and Holster’s not at all sure he isn’t pretending to be drunker than he is just to lean on someone. He thinks he might be.

Jack walks him to the bed and Holster plops onto the mattress, eyes suddenly very heavy. He watches Jack set the water on the bedside table, then rummage through the dresser before pulling out some pajama pants and a soft-looking Samwell Men’s Hockey shirt. He takes them with a “thank you” he’s not sure he actually says out loud, but Jack looks like he understands anyway.

Jack pretends to dick around on his phone while Holster changes, clearly not trusting him not to injure himself somehow. Which, okay. That’s fair. Once his junior year, he’d fallen down at least six steps in the Haus after a kegsters and had to get stitches in his chin. Hall and Murray had not been impressed.

He still has that scar. Ransom used to like running his finger over it in the morning.

“’M good now,” Holster mumbles. Jack turns at that, gesturing like Holster should get under the covers.

“Let me tuck you in,” Jack says quietly. “You — it’ll make me feel better.”

It hits him then that Jack’s worried about him. Now that he’s aware of it, he can see it in his face: Jack always worries his bottom lip with his thumb when he’s concerned, and he’s been doing that at least since Holster and Bitty got in the house. He feels bad about that. He never meant to worry anyone.

“I’m sorry,” Holster whispers, getting under the blankets.

Jack pauses, hands reaching for the covers. He’s actually going to tuck him in, the dork. Holster keeps this thought to himself.

“Sorry? What for?”

And even though he’s Québécois and Ransom’s just Canadian, there’s enough similarity in the way they say “Sorry?” that’s got Holster’s breath stuttering. He swallows a sip of water.

He says, “I didn’t wanna make you worry,” and Jack’s face clears.

“Too bad,” Jack says, smiling slightly. He tucks the blankets firmly around Holster’s shoulders and Holster almost wants to cry at how good it feels. “I love you, I’m always gonna worry.”

Holster doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t respond. He thinks Jack knows what he’s feeling.

Jack says, voice quiet, “Good night,” and Holster asks, “Jack?”

Jack makes a noise like hmm?

He says, “What would you feel like, if Bitty left you?” He doesn’t know why he wants to know. Maybe there’s some need for something like absolution here. Some reassurance that what he’s feeling is okay, that it’s good he’s feeling what he is.

Jack says, “Something like this,” and Holster burrows a little deeper under the covers. Jack takes a deep breath like he’s considering his next words. He says, “I don’t think I’d know how not to love him,” and he looks like he’s aching in his bones for them.

Holster hadn’t cried over this in two weeks but he wants to now, looking at Jack imagining losing the love of his life, and he wonders if this is how he’s looked for the last two and a half months. This sort of shattered and crushed.

He says, “Oh,” and his voice is very small.

Jack seems to hesitate and then he’s walking back toward the bed and kissing Holster’s forehead. It’s kind of awkward; Jack’s never done that to any of them before, at least to his knowledge. But it’s kind of sweet, too, like something Holster would do for Brianna if her heart was breaking over and over again, so he smiled sleepily and says, “Thanks, Jack. For everything,” and Jack nods in a way that’s familiar from years of understanding each other on the ice.

“I got your back,” Jack says, exactly how Holster knew he would. He raps his knuckles against the doorframe. “You know where we sleep, we’re just down the hall if you need us.”

“Night,” Holster says sleepily. Jack says it back and then he’s off, padding quietly down the hall to his bed and Bitty. Holster’s asleep before his door closes.

____________

 

He gets a dog. Brianna takes him to a rescue shelter and he finds a Schnauzer that somehow reminds him of his neighbors growing up in Buffalo and he knows with immediate certainty that this is the dog coming home with him.

“It’s the eyebrows,” he tells Brianna on the drive home. “He and Mr. Matthews have the same eyebrows.”

As soon as they get home, the dog — he’s decided to name him Ron Dogson for the same reason, his incredibly impressive eyebrows — jumps up and licks his face over and over again and he’s laughing like he hasn’t in ages. It doesn’t escape his notice how delighted she is that he’s laughing, but it doesn’t hurt like it might have a few months back. He’s trying to be better about the fact that people want to look out for him.

“Y’know,” Brianna says, kneeling to pet Ron herself. “I can see it. He always looked so grouchy.”

Holster scratches Ron’s stomach and the dog goes crazy, amped up on being adopted and being in a new place. He watches as he wiggles around in the grass like he’s never felt it before. He thinks a moment on how he might not have, and feels a deep rush of affection for this dog.

He strides over to Ron and wrestles him a little while as Brianna watches, snapping some pictures on her phone. Eventually they stop and just lie by each other, both — or Holster, at least, looking up at the sky. He turns after a heartbeat, filled with a sudden need to say something as deep and wide as he’s feeling.

He whispers, “I’m gonna love you so good,” and Ron barks like he understands what he’s saying.

Brianna sends him the pictures when they’re inside. She plays with Ron as he scrolls through them, deciding to Instagram a closeup of him and Ron snuggling in the grass with a bunch of dandelions framing their faces. He looks genuinely happy here. It’s kind of blurry, and his eyes are shut, but he’s smiling so wide.

He posts it with the caption Me & my #1 .

When he checks his phone before bed, one hand petting Ron, he’s got a notification that Ransom liked his picture. He puts his phone aside and tries to ignore it.

____________

 

Lardo comes over with a binder full of wedding things and paint all over her arms.

“You look like you just fought the color wheel and lost,” Holster observes. She glares at him as Ron comes dancing up to her, and she scratches behind his ears.

“I have seating charts to do,” she tells them both briskly. She pulls out a bag of popsicle sticks with names on them. “Shitty’s family is being a bag of dicks and haven’t responded to our RSVP and I know he isn’t upset about it, because obvious reasons, but they’re fucking up my seating plan.”

“Tell then they have until Saturday,” Holster suggests. “Otherwise they’re either not coming or bringing their own chairs.”

Lardo says, “That’s not a bad plan, Rans said something like that too.” He must make a noise, because her eyes widen like she’s started panicking. “God, I’m sorry.”

Holster says, “It’s okay,” like he’s testing it out himself.

“No I just — I saw he liked your post, I thought maybe, you know.” She shrugs helplessly. “Maybe you guys talked about it. I’m sorry, I really am.”

“It’s okay, Lards,” Holster says again. This time he tries to sound firm enough that she knows he means it, because he does. Maybe it was the shock of seeing him with that bartender that did it, but he doesn’t hate hearing his name anymore. It stings slightly but he knew it would.

Lardo looks like she doesn’t believe him, but she takes the out. “Anyway, I came to the best for help. No one plans parties like the Samwell Kegster God, long did he reign.”

Holster laughs and says, “You’re gonna inflate my ego so much I won’t fit in the church.”

She spreads her binder out on the table. “We’re getting married at Faber,” she says seriously. “Did you not read the RSVP?”

He bolts to the fridge and almost takes himself out by sliding on the kitchen floor and he’s saying, “Wait I swear it said—” before he realizes she’s laughing so hard her forehead’s on the table.

Holster crosses his arms and taps his foot, projecting annoyance. Ron tries to nibble on his toes.

“Shitty said,” she says finally, trying to suppress giggles. “He thought we’d get someone. Bitty wasn’t having it at all when we tried it on him.”

Holster says, “This wedding planning stuff is really getting to you, huh,” and she throws a swatch of fabrics at him, still laughing. He catches it and tosses it back.

“That’s your suit by the way,” she says, once she can breathe again. She wipes her eyes. “Shitty figured out the colors he wants his groomsmen in.”

“Oh! Throw it back?”

This time when he catches it he studies the bundle closer. It’s a nice dark blue fabric with a creamy colored accent he thinks must be the ties they’ll all be wearing. Holster mentally pulls up a picture of the groomsmen, and texts a :) to Shitty.

“This is gonna look so good on all of us,” Holster says. “Your boy did good.”

Lardo smiles smugly. “I know.”

They sit and chat idly while Holster alternates between playing tug of war with Ron and helping her move people around the seating chart. He’d be the first to admit he’s not very helpful with the issue of Shitty’s parents; he keeps saying “Put them by the bathroom” when she brings it up.

Half an hour later she says, “Where do you wanna be? You’re at the head table with us, duh, but do you have a preference? I already figured not, y’know—”

“Not next to Rans, yeah,” Holster says, getting up from the floor. He leans over her shoulder at the chart. “Any of your cousins single?”

She slaps at his chest and he’s thankful it’s more of a joking slap than a real one. “You will not be hooking up with my cousins at my wedding, Adam Birkholtz.”

He heaves a sigh so loud Ron barks at him. “I suppose that’s fine,” he tells her, crouching to give his dog some TLC. “The bride gets what she wants.”

“Good,” Lardo says, pointing a popsicle stick at him. “Don’t you forget it.”

He promises her he won’t. He still tells her to put Shitty’s family by the bathroom when she asks, though, and Ron chews up the popsicle stick she throws at Holster. They don’t get it back until Holster offers his second least favorite shoes for him to chew on instead.

____________

 

In October, Jack and Bitty send out their annual Halloween invitations. Bitty promises in the group chat that the pies will be as excellent as ever and that yes, Ransom, Tater will be there, please keep your cool this time, which leads to a flood of chirps from everyone, Nursey and Dex especially.

Holster types out bet we can get Mashkov to wear a thong and sends it before he can think about it. Ransom replies almost immediately with a slew of sweating emojis.

And it’s … it’s the first time they’ve interacted, purposefully, since that night they had sex and Ransom called it off. Holster pets Ron while he considers what he’s feeling and is relieved to find he’s feeling nothing. Some tinge of unease mixed with curiosity at what this might mean, but for the most part, nothing good or bad. It’s kind of lightening.

Holster blasts Disney songs all afternoon while he cleans his house. It’s one of the best afternoons he’s had lately.

____________

 

He and Ransom had always coordinated couples costumes, so it’s weird looking through his closet with the knowledge that he only has to worry about his own costume this year. Holster hangs up several options on his closet door and goes to the thrift shop with Shitty and Lardo to find some key pieces. Lardo leaves with a pair of overalls she says she wouldn’t feel guilty about getting dirty and Shitty chirps her for the fact that she’s already wearing a paint stained pair of overalls.

The group chat is blowing up with ideas and questions and trying to trick everyone else into giving up their plans. The only one who’s fallen for it so far has been Chowder, who’s going as Katy Perry’s left shark from the Super Bowl, but privately Holster had kind of seen it coming; he’s been Sharkie, Jaws, and, memorably, the shark from The Little Mermaid. They still give him grief for that.

Gayle and Evan chime in with costume ideas now and then in the break room and Holster has a whole page full of notes.

“If you’re going sexy,” Evan says, “make sure you bring a jacket, it’s going to be cold. And less is more, you don’t have to put absolutely everything out there for it to be hot.”

Holster says, “Thanks, Dad,” and Gayle laughs. It’s a good note though, so he writes it down.

____________

 

The morning before the party, someone knocks on his cubicle.

“Evan’s already told me,” Holster says, turning in his chair. He about drops his coffee mug.

Ransom says, “Evan said what?”

“Um.” He takes a sip of coffee to combat how unfair this is, that Ransom’s here, leaning again his cubicle the way he did when they were together. He’s always known how well Ransom dresses, but it’s another thing completely to have him well dressed and in his face when the last time he saw him in person he was making out with a bartender. Holster has still not gone out since then.

He says, “I uh. I thought you were Gayle. She and Evan have been helping me with my costume.”

Ransom has the decency to look a little uncomfortable. “About that,” he says. “Can we talk?”

“Sure,” he says. He hopes he sounds as nonchalant as he absolutely does not feel.

Ransom leads him past the break room and Holster feels their coworkers staring at them. They pass conference room now, Holster trying dearly not to stare at Ransom’s ass. Sneaking around the office with him feels too familiar. He half expects Ransom to yank him inside one of the rooms, pin him against the door, and kiss him until both of them look too wrecked to have been doing anything else.

They end up in front of a window instead. Holster refuses to be disappointed by this.

“What do we need to talk about?” he asks neutrally. He crosses his arms and looks out the window.

Ransom sighs. “Are you still not looking at me?”

This needles. Holster raises his eyebrows and flattens his mouth into a thin line and looks at him. “Better?”

“No, actually,” he replies. His words are clipped. “I wanted to talk about the party.”

He shouldn’t be happy about getting under his skin like this, he knows that, but — “What about the party?”

Ransom leans against the window and this isn’t the time but Holster’s kinda, really okay with the way the sun’s shining through his shirt.

He shouldn’t be reacting to him like this. Holster takes a deep breath in through his nose, holds it, and exhales through his mouth. He thinks Ransom’s watching him. On impulse he loosens his tie, sucks his bottom lip, and glances over at him. Ransom’s lips are slightly parted, and the look on his face looks like one he’d seen a lot of in college.

Guess he’s not the only one reacting inappropriately.

It shouldn’t make him feel better. Holster’s kind of being an asshole right now and he knows it; it isn’t fun to be the one whose emotions are being played with. Sometimes you need to know for sure, he tells himself, before releasing his lip with a sharp popping sound.

The noise seems to bring Ransom back to himself. “I thought — maybe we should at least be in the same room before tonight. A trial run, I guess.”

“We’re in the same room,” Holster notes. “You said you wanted to talk. So.” He makes an expansive sweeping gesture with his hands. “Talk.”

Ransom crosses his arms and he’s starting to look like pre-presentation Ransom, a little pale and edging toward jittery. He opens his mouth like he wants to say something and then seems to think better of it.

Holster wants to know what he was going to say. That, more than anything, is probably the hardest thing he could ask of Ransom, and after everything, he wants to ask it.

He does. Ransom takes a shuddering breath.

“I don’t know how to talk to you,” Ransom says quietly. Holster looks at him sharply, surprised; this is not at all what he expected. “I miss having my best friend. I hate knowing I can’t just — just text you when Dunkin’s has coffee for under a dollar, or the best places for gas, or ask if my pants look okay.”

Holster starts speaking somewhere around the middle of the last phrase. “You don’t get to,” he says, shaking his head. He stares out the window again, not even bothering to be looking at something in particular. “You don’t get to miss that, you’re the one who left.”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Rans says evenly. Holster kind of hates him for how calm he sounds. “I wanted to tell you I’m okay missing you. I don’t know how to talk to you and I want us to be friends but I’m okay missing you, if you don’t want to — well. I don’t want anything from you, I promise, Holtzy, I just. I needed to feel that for a minute.”

Because he knows him — knows him, how inadequate a term that is, when you’ve seen every side and every inch of a person — because he used to love him, Holster hears something like doubt undermining Ransom’s words. Something like he’s saying things he wants to be true. Holster’s said these things to himself nearly every night for three months.

He pretends to look at a billboard advertising Keller & Keller. “Why are you telling me this,” he says.

Ransom makes an irritated noise. “Because we aren’t going to ruin this party.” The dumbass goes unsaid. Holster hears it anyway.

“Who said anything about—?”

“We both know,” Ransom interrupts, “this is still less than ideal, and we aren’t going to take this out on Bitty, or Jack, or anyone else. We’re going to go and be polite and when Lards and Shits get married we’ll be perfectly fucking civil, okay?”

Holster refuses to think about how many ways he can interpret the phrase “perfectly fucking civil.”

“Okay,” he says instead, before striding off to his cubicle. He doesn’t have anything else to say.

He takes some savage joy in imagining Ransom looking at his ass as he leaves.

____________

 

As per Evan’s advice, Holster brings a fake leather jacket to keep himself warm. Sheer, fishnet shirts may make his chest look fine as hell but they do fuck all to retain body heat, and he makes a mental note to tell Evan thanks for the tip on Monday. He scratches Ron behind the ear before he leaves.

The party’s in full swing by the time he arrives. For a second it feels just like Samwell after winning a hard fought game; Bitty and Jack are dressed as Princess Aurora and Prince Philip, whispering to each other against the wall; Nursey’s egging Dex into doing body shots, both wearing some sort of lumberjack outfit; and Chowder’s doing a kegstand with Farmer holding his ankles. Farmer’s wearing something that looks like a TV cut out with the words SHARK WEEK on it. Holster spares a second to appreciate Chowder’s onesie, then wanders further into the living room. He spots Lardo and Tater absolutely dominating Marty and Snowy at beer pong and there’s a crush of people around him but he’s still peering into corners, unwilling to name the reason why.

Shitty does for him. “He’s on the balcony!”

Holster startles, taking a step back. Shitty’s wearing something that looks like a canvas with a smiling tree on it. “I’m not drunk enough for your costume, brah,” he says, and Shitty pulls a half full bottle of Jack Daniels from somewhere. Holster takes a swig, then another. It burns so beautifully down his throat.

“Lards is Bob Ross,” Shitty says happily. He flings his arm over Holster’s shoulder and plants a wet smack of a kiss to his cheek. “She’s the best, Holtzy, I’m so goddamn lucky.”

“You’re goddamn right you are,” Holster says, practically shouting over the music.

It’s so loud in here. NHL stars and his own former teammates and other people from Bitty’s and Jack’s lives jostle him and Shitty where they stand and Holster decides on the spot that he needs to be way drunker than he is. He downs the rest of the bottle, wincing, and Shitty ruffles his hair fondly.

“Good thing you showed up,” he mumbles. “Ransy’s looking for you.”

And suddenly Holster’s furious with himself at how this makes him feel, furious that a not so small part of himself wants Ransom to have been looking for him to say something like I was lying, I do want something from you, furious at how even now, after what he’s gone through and their talk just hours earlier, he still wants to give him everything if he’d let him. He chokes on the urge to ask Shitty what he’s talking about and Shitty pats him absently on the back, offering a beer this time when Holster stops coughing. Holster takes it, decides he’ll switch to water after this cup, and chugs it.

“You’re still so good at that,” Shitty says, sounding impressed.

Holster waves off the praise. “Looking for me why?”

“Who is?”

“Ransom?”

Shitty whacks himself in the forehead so hard Holster can already see the beginning of a red mark. Or, he thinks he can. The Jack Daniels is starting to hit him all at once.

Shitty says, “He didn’t tell me,” and now he sounds like he’s about to cry. “He said he wanted you to find him.”

Holster rubs his temples. “He said that?”

Something like apprehension settles heavy in his stomach. He spent a lot of time after work analyzing their conversation, and he’s pretty positive he acted pretty terribly, and some of that has to do with the fact that he’s still not over this yet, but mostly it’s because he wanted to act terribly. There’s some cruel satisfaction in hurting someone who’s hurt you.

The thing is, Holster kind of misses Ransom too. He doesn’t want to. But it means he does, despite everything, understand where he’s coming from.

“Sure did, bucko,” Shitty says. He tips so wildly Holster instinctively reaches to steady him, and Shitty pats him clumsily on the arm. “So strong.”

“Shits, I don’t — do you think I should? Find him, I mean.”

Shitty claps him on the shoulder at that, staring like he’s trying to impart wisdom but actually looking like he’s passing gas. “You gotta listen to you, brah. That’s a you question.”

This is hugely unhelpful, and he says so. Shitty sighs. “He’s upstairs,” he says. “On the balcony, I think.”

“Okay,” Holster says.

There are too many thoughts in his head.

“Look, if you go up?” Shits pauses a moment to adjust his canvas. “Be good to him, okay? I know he fucked you up, but you fucked him up, too. Just. No more fucking each other up, okay? Please?”

Holster starts to say “I’ll try, but” and Shitty shakes his head so rapidly Holster’s own neck hurts just watching him.

“None of that,” he says firmly, and he seems significantly more sober in this instance than he’s seemed all night. “Playing my groom card. No fucking each other up.”

“Okay,” Holster says. “I won’t, Shits. I don’t want that.”

Shitty says, “Good,” and kisses him on the cheek before bouncing across the room and draping himself across Lardo’s back. Holster takes a deep breath, holds it until it makes his lungs hurt, and goes upstairs.

____________

 

Upstairs feels like a completely different place. The music still bumps along his skin and he feels the bass underfoot but it’s quieter, and there aren’t any other people up here as far as he can see. He runs a hand along the walls. Jack hung some of the photos he’d taken at Samwell and at his first Cup celebration and there are a few pictures of all of them together. Even here, standing with his hand shading his eyes from the sun, Jack’s already angling himself toward Bitty. Holster fuzzily remembers seeing this in person. He wonders if he and Ransom were like that too, if it was clear enough to everyone but them that they’d end up together. Even for as short a time as they were.

He finds Ransom on the balcony outside the main second floor living area. Back when Jack and Bits had bought this house, Holster and Ransom had given them grief for having two different balconies. Jack had just said, “Can’t have the same view for window sex every time, gotta keep the spark alive,” and Bitty had gone so red they’d immediately chirped him instead. Seeing Ransom backlit from the backyard lights, Holster has to admit he sees the appeal. The light shimmers delicately on his shorts. Holster wouldn’t mind seeing the light shimmer on his bare skin.

Ransom looks like he’s deep in thought. Holster slides the door open quietly and joins him at the railing, resting on his forearms. Ransom shifts his weight, almost in acknowledgement, and Holster looks at him.

If he was holding a cup he would’ve dropped it.

“Are you,” he starts. Hi voice has suddenly gone very, very hoarse. Ransom waits for him to finish, distinctly amused. “A mermaid?”

It’s a dumb question. Ransom’s shorts, now that he sees them up close, are patterned to look like scales and he’s not wearing a shirt and his torso looks like its been dusted with gold, green, and blue glitter. The effect of it on his skin is almost overwhelming. Ransom shifts his weight then, leaning forward into the light, and Holster nearly can’t breathe at the realization that he’s wearing gold eyeliner too.

He looks … god. He looks like something straight out of one of Holster’s wet dreams.

Holster can’t take his eyes off him.

“Like what you see?” Rans asks softly. Uncertainty bleeds through every inch of his face. He sounds like he’s really asking, like he’s not just trying to get under Holster’s skin.

Holster says, honest, “Yeah,” and Ransom lets out a breath in a slow hiss of air. Holster lets himself drag his eyes up and down Ransom’s body, lingering here and there the way he used to when he wanted to tell Ransom this is where I’ll be kissing you later. “You look really, really good, Rans.”

He has no idea what he’s doing. Ransom ducks his head, seemingly shy, and this feels somehow fragile. He doesn’t know what to do here with Rans looking like this. The list of things I can do and things I want does not line up. For all he knows, Ransom’s actually dating that bartender. And they promised not to ruin the party, and he said he wouldn’t fuck them up.

“You do too,” Ransom says. He adjusts Holster’s jacket and his hand lingers on his shoulder, playing with the material of his shirt. “Sexy Han Solo?”

Holster says, “That’s the idea,” and Ransom hums. It vibrates with the music on Holster’s skin.

Ransom flattens his palm on Holster’s chest.

Holster covers Ransom’s hand with his own.

There’s a too-long, honey-full moment where they look at each other.

Holster says “Rans” at the same time Ransom closes his eyes and says “Can we just” and Holster’s adamant Ransom should go first, so he opens his eyes and gently cards through Holster’s hair with his free hand. He looks terrified and hopeful at once and Holster—

Holster doesn’t want to let himself hope.

“Can we just, tonight,” Ransom says hesitantly. His fingers hook through the fabric of Holster’s shirt. “Can we just pretend? For once.” And then, in a whisper, spoken like it’s an ache and a terror but an exhale too, like it’s something he can only say here in the dark in the upheaval of a party: “I miss you.”

And, oh.

They really, really shouldn’t. Holster has too many reasons to say no, that they need to be broken up if they’re going to be broken up, that it’s unfair for Ransom to ask this of him. At the end of tonight he still has to go home to a house that’s just now beginning to fill up again and if they do this tonight he’s going to gome home with Ransom’s cologne on his body like a ghost.

Holster’s about to say this when Ransom bites his lip and meets his eyes, and the force of this look and the way he said I miss you like his heart would break if he didn’t, the way it sounds so different now than when he’d said it hours earlier — it’s all too hard to fight against, and Holster’s tired of fighting.

He doesn’t say anything.

He leans down, closing his eyes, and Ransom kisses him back.

____________

 

“You still with that bartender?” Holster whispers into his ear. Ransom gasps and tilts his head back, an invitation, and Holster kisses the column of his neck, sucking a hickey at the point where his neck meets his jaw.

“No, that — one time thing,” Ransom says breathily. He starts to ask “How did you—?” when Holster scrapes his teeth against his skin, a little less gentle than usual, but Rans outright moans at that and he sounds so destroyed already that Holster doesn’t know if either of them are gonna last long. Ransom tugs on Holster’s shirt until Holster rips it off himself, leaning over him until he’s bracketing Rans with his arms.

Holster wants. This entire night — those booty shorts, the whiskey, Ransom on the balcony in the moonlight — all of it set his nerves on fire and here in Ransom’s bed he’s ready to turn into flame with him in his hands. He’s so hungry for it he’s surprised Ransom hasn’t said anything, but then again, he thinks, Ransom’s fingers digging into his thighs, heels pressing into right above his ass, and those moans — Ransom’s hungry for it too.

The beauty of his costume is that he’s already shirtless. Holster kisses a hot and filthy line up his stomach, making him hold tightly onto Holster’s hair. Holster shudders, grinds down, and Ransom swears at him.

“Did you just say ‘fuck you’? Because I’m trying to fu—”

“Did you always talk so much,” Ransom whispers, sliding one of his hands around the back of Holster’s neck, “when we were doing this,” and now he’s pulling him toward him and they’re kissing, a needy, breathless thing that deepens the second it starts. Holster thrills at the shock of Ransom’s tongue in his mouth. He tastes familiar and new all at once, and Holster’s drunk on it.

He fumbles at the top of Ransom’s shorts and Rans arches off the bed so beautifully Holster almost comes right then. Holster takes his shorts off with his teeth, pausing now and then to press kisses to the inside of his thighs and knees and calves. Ransom’s legs shake. He wants to make them shake more.

“Is this okay?” he whispers huskily. Ransom’s eyes are already squeezed shut. He nods frantically, covering his mouth with his hand. Holster takes his hand and threads their fingers together the way they used to. “Don’t hide,” he says softly. “Rans I — I want to hear you.”

Rans makes a strangled sound at that. Holster swallows him down, slowly at first, then building to the rhythm he knows Ransom likes. His hand in Holster’s hair contracts and relaxes and contracts again as he edges and backs off, coaxing sound after gorgeous, wrecked sound from him. Holster thinks he himself could come from just this, Rans’ dick in his mouth and knowing all these moans and gasps are because of him and his tongue and his lips. He glances up and Ransom’s looking at him, trembling, pupils blown wide and almost desperate. Holster closes his eyes and licks him up.

Ransom catches his chin with a shaking hand. “Look at me,” he says. He sounds like it’s costing him everything to say this. Like he’s been carrying it around with him awhile. “I’m so — Holtzy, god, you’re just, you’re so — I’m so close, and I need you to look at me.”

Holster looks at him. Ransom comes, crying out Holster’s name in something that sounds close to a sob, and Holster swallows him down.

When he’s done, Ransom’s still got his hand in his hair. He’s flat on his back and he looks gorgeous like this and Holster tells him, because even if this is for one night and that’s it, this is one of those things he’d regret not saying now that he can. Ransom palms the front of Holster’s pants at that, and Holster’s so hard the pressure alone nearly does it for him.

“Want me to take care of that?” Ransom murmurs. He teases Holster’s zipper and Holster’s saying god, yes, before he realizes he’s said anything, and Rans peels off his pants and kisses Holster’s dick through his underwear. Holster holds onto Ransom’s shoulders, tight, as Ransom takes off his underwear and begins in earnest and he just — he oh, he feels so fucking good, his lips should be illegal for this alone, Holster’s making so many embarrassing noises and they’re both breathing hard and even this isn’t everything, because — oh, Ransom’s mouth on his balls is too much, it’s just — just so much of everything, and he thinks he’s probably leaving fingernail marks on Ransom’s shoulders, and he spared a moment to fervently hope they stay long enough for someone else to notice before he comes on Ransom’s chest and collapses onto the bed next to him.

They’re both breathing so, so fucking hard.

Ransom reaches for his hand and he grasps it without hesitation. Ransom kisses his fingers.

This just makes him want to kiss Ransom again, and he’s about to go brush his teeth before Rans rolls his eyes and straddles him. Holster’s dick twitches, and Ransom’s smirk tells him he definitely felt it. He runs a finger up Holster’s chest. Now his dick definitely twitches, which shouldn’t be allowed because they’d just gotten each other off, and yet.

“What a tease,” Holster whispers. “Just kiss me already.”

Ransom’s kissing him before he finishes his last word. His come is tacky and slightly uncomfortable where they’re pressing together, but Holster runs his hands up Rans’ back to try and get them closer. If this is one night — Ransom bites his lip, tugs, almost makes him completely hard again — if this is their last night, he wants them as close as possible. He digs his fingers into the sides of Rans’ ass and Rans makes a noise like unngh , rolling his hips like he knows Holster’s opinion on their closeness and he agrees.

After a little while their kisses even out, their grinding less desperate. Holster is the one who leans back first. For a few seconds, Ransom’s eyelashes flutter even though his eyes are closed. Holster wishes he had something other than his memory to capture this moment.

For a brief second he wishes he could wake up to Ransom like this every morning, and then he remembers the ring and just how badly things imploded last time. Just for tonight, they’d said. He can’t afford to want that anymore.

Ransom slides off him and stumbles to what Holster thinks is the bathroom; he hadn’t exactly gotten the full tour, just the highlights. He studies his hands as Ransom runs some water, feeling awkward and planning his exit strategy. He both wants and doesn’t want Ransom to ask him to stay. That realization sends a shock through his body.

From the bathroom, Ransom calls: “Aren’t you coming?”

Holster swallows his amazement and all but runs to him. Ransom’s half in, half out of the shower mirking like he knows Holster wasn’t expecting this. Holster nearly doesn’t care that he’s so easy to read. It’s hard to be worried about his pride or some shit when Rans is pulling him into the shower and then pressing him up against the wall in order to kiss him harder.

The water’s gone most of the way to cold by the time they get out. Ransom hands him a spare t-shirt and boxers and Holster takes them after a brief, awkward exchange.

“Stay,” Ransom says, holding the clothes toward him.

“But you said—”

“It’s not tomorrow yet,” he whispers. “It’s still tonight. Please stay.”

Holster whispers back, “If you’re sure,” and takes the clothes.

They take their usual sides of the bed without talking about it.

For the first time in nearly a year, Ransom fits comfortably against Holster’s shoulder. Holster holds him gently, carefully, and Ransom falls asleep in his arms.

____________

 

Holster quietly slips out of bed at 12:01 AM. Slowly, he takes off the clothes Ransom lent him and dresses in his costume. He zips up his jacket, thinking he’d really better text Evan for the reminder, and pauses on his way out of the bedroom.

This is really, truly it. Sleeping with Ransom this one last time, it helped, he hopes; he doesn’t want to be hung up on him anymore. They’ve both got to move on. For real this time.

Holster whispers a goodnight, Rans, and this time he’s the one who leaves first.

____________

 

He goes to work. He comes home. In the mornings he wakes up alone aside from Ron’s tail in his face. Afternoons when he’s free, he and Lardo bring Ron to the dog park nearby and they work on fetching sticks and frisbees and, once, a woman’s purse. That had been accidental and he’d apologized for it, but she’d just laughed after the initial shock and asked him out for lunch.

“Sorry,” he’d told her. “I’m seeing someone.”

The woman looked disappointed. Holster doesn’t dwell on why that was his first response. Lardo looks like she’s going to ask about it, but the look on his face must stop her.

Evenings he eats takeout or makes small portions of pasta or chicken or tacos. He has Brianna over every other day; they’re working on nailing Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” routine, because she swears they had it memorized when they were younger. Ron wags his tail whenever they clear out the living room floor and constantly gets in the way underfoot, but Brianna crouches down so she can hold his paws. She moves them in time with the beat. Ron licks her face.

____________

 

He comes across Ransom’s tinder profile. Holster sets his phone down and forces himself to put his hands on top of his head, opening his airways, and takes several gulping breaths. He taps through Ransom’s bio with shaking fingers and then deletes the app.

____________

 

Jack takes him running Sunday mornings. He doesn’t make him talk about anything, which Holster appreciates; he still hasn’t told them he and Rans slept together, and he’s not looking forward to how any of them are gonna react. From the way Shitty hasn’t called to confront him he assumes Rans hasn’t told them either.

Running helps him get out of his head. When he mentions this to Jack three weeks after Halloween, Jack says something about the rhythm of it all, how your thinking turns into planning your route and how the billboard you see every day has changed and whether or not this certain cat in this certain apartment has finally knocked over the plant in the window.

“The immediacy of the moment,” Jack says finally. They’re waiting for a stoplight to turn so they can continue onward, stretching against each other’s shoulders. “That’s what helps me. Everything demanding you look at them, making you feel present.”

Holster considers this, looking around for the last time he felt that present. An image of Ransom, naked, on his back and making those sounds—

“I slept with him,” he blurts. Jack stares at him in alarm. Holster thinks there’s something like shock there, too. “At your party. I’m sorry, Jack, we said we wouldn’t ruin it and Shits told me to promise not to fuck him up and we slept together anyway.”

Holster concentrates on the orange glow of the crosswalk sign to avoid looking at Jack’s face. He’s gone stiff beside him the way he does when he isn’t sure what to say or think, and Holster is not going to cry about this on the corner of 1st and Douglass. The crosswalk turns white and starts counting down, but Jack catches Holster’s hand before he can take more than a couple steps.

“How’d this happen,” Jack asks levelly. There’s a hint of his captaincy slipping in now, asking and not asking at once. Holster doesn’t mind it.

He says, “He asked to pretend. Just for once,” and Jack sighs. Holster digs his nails into his palms for five seconds, then relaxes his hands.

“I think we’re done running today,” Jack says. He searches something on his phone and adds, “There’s a café nearby, you wanna get some food?”

Holster nods, afraid to blurt anything else out. Jack glances at him now and then as they go, expression soft, but there’s something hidden in his face that Holster can’t read.

The café must be one Jack’s stopped at multiple times, because everyone inside seems to recognize him in a way that’s different from recognizing him as the Falconers’ leading scorer and alternate captain. Jack leads Holster to the register, smiling and making small talk with everyone, and it’s so unexpected that Holster kind of just stares at him and orders without really seeing the menu.

He nabs them a table and plays with the sat and pepper shakers while Jack waits for their meal at the counter. There’s no need for that, Holster’s almost positive they’ll bring the food out to them, but he’s grateful for the chance to breathe and gather his thoughts. He has a sneaking suspicion Jack’s using it to do the same thing.

Jack brings their food over a few minutes later and drops into his seat like he’s exhausted. Holster takes a bite of his sandwich, trying not to feel guilty about unloading. He definitely feels guilty about nearly everything else.

“So,” Jack says eventually. Holster watches as he pinches off pieces of his napkin. “Walk me through this? I know what you said, but I know how you’ve been during all of this, I think, and I think there’s something more to it than Rans just asking and you just agreeing.”

Holster considers this. Jack gives him room to think by reading the fine print on their table’s hot sauce selections, humming now and then at an interesting fact.

He’s not wrong, exactly. That’s the problem. These past few months, there’s been too many emotions swirling through Holster’s mind for this to be a cut and dry answer. Parts of him are apathetic, half of him doesn’t want to care at all, bits and pieces here and there are still in love with Ransom and now, looking back on that night, Holster isn’t sure how small those bits and pieces are.

“It’s like you said, I don’t know how not to be in love with him.” His voice cracks on the last three words. Jack looks like he wants to say something, but he pauses. Holster starts moving the salt and pepper shakers across the table again. “I just. I was doing so well, this whole time. Burying things and moving on, making the house mine. And then, hearing that from him … Jack,” he says, looking at him pleadingly. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing if it was Bitty.”

Jack smiles slightly. “I can’t.”

They’re quiet a moment. Outside, a pigeon tries to pick up a hotdog and fly away with it. Holster watches as it hops around the hotdog and then, tentative even from this distance, flap its wings carefully. The hot dog slips from its grasp and lands on a baby carriage. Holster huffs a laugh.

“What do I do, Jack?” he asks. He winces at the tremor in his voice.

Jack gathers up his napkin pieces. “I’m not the right person to ask,” he says, and Holster flicks a tomato at him. Jack clutches his chest like he’s mortally offended.

“But I’m asking you,” Holster says. He needs Jack to understand this, that he needs permission to wallow from someone like Jack. He isn’t sure why. “Please. Just tell me what to do.”

Jack sighs again and Holster thinks this must be a record for them. Most Times Holster’s Made Jack Sigh Since The Settlers of Catan Debacle.

“I think you need to feel it,” he says finally. “Let it be immediate, whatever you’ve been holding in, and then let it go. But you gotta let yourself feel it first.”

____________

 

You gotta let yourself feel it first.

Holster goes home. He changes into his softest clothing and runs his fingers over the spaces where their picture frames used to be and he mourns . There is still the laundry detergent that Ransom likes in the laundry room. There is a sock wedged between the mattress and the wall that he must’ve worn to sleep his last night in their bed. Holster walks through his home and when he cries over Ransom’s missing mug in the kitchen, Ron starts licking his calf.

“It’s okay,” Holster says, his breath hitching. Ron barks like he doesn’t believe him. “It will be, anyhow. It will be.”

He calls his parents and says, “Rans and I broke up.” When they say they knew and ask if they’d gotten back together, he tells them, “No, but I think I just realized what it meant to say that.”

He lets himself feel it. The Hallmark channel starts playing a slew of Hanukkah and Christmas movies and he watches as many of them as he can that night. He calls sick into work and finishes up the marathon with Ron warm and sleepy in his lap. When it ends, he goes through his Netflix account for more romcoms and watches a ton of those, too.

Sometime around 4:35 PM he texts Shitty rans and i had sex at the party . Shitty calls him immediately.

“I know what you’re gonna say,” Holster says when he picks up. “I know I promised not to—”

“He already told me,” Shitty cuts in. “Made me swear not to say anything until you did, didn’t want me to freak out on you.”

Holster fiddles with the beading on one of his throw pillows. “Do you want to?”

“When I found out, yeah,” Shitty says. “I, uh. Kinda went off on him.”

Holster searches his tone for any unspoken accusations. There aren’t any.

“And now?”

“Now I think,” Shitty says, pausing like he does when he’s trying to pick the right words. “I think, maybe, it’s you holding you back.”

Holster freezes. “What d’you mean?”

Another pause. Holster tugs so hard on the beading that the string breaks, sending all the beads tumbling over the couch. It seems fitting, somehow.

“I’ve heard a lot of this from his perspective,” Shitty says now. “Maybe more than from yours. That entire time he was in Toronto, he was Skyping me saying he thinks he made a huge mistake, that he didn’t try enough when you were giving him the space you thought he needed. And then when he came back to work and you seemed to be doing well without him … he thought he was the only one still feeling it.”

This is … this is too much. He has no idea what to say to this.

“When he talked to me about the party,” Holster says quietly, “he told me he missed me, but he didn’t want anything from me.”

Shitty laughs and it’s so unexpected Holster accidentally rips another strand of beads. He tosses the pillow onto the other section of the couch. Ron jumps on it.

“Holtzy of course he’s gonna say that, you didn’t even look at him when he left. He thought you hated him. He wanted to show you he’s fine on his own.”

He hears it again, the uncertainty in Ransom’s voice when he said I needed to feel that for a moment . He hadn’t wanted to let himself care enough to call him on it the way he used to when they were together. “He wasn’t, though.”

“You say that like you were,” Shitty tells him, not unkindly. “But anyway, then you slept together, and you left while he was asleep after he’d asked you to stay. Humor me a sec and imagine how that would feel.”

Holster doesn’t even have to imagine. They’d had several nights when they were together when Rans would slip out before he woke up to watch TV on the couch. When Holster had asked, he’d said he couldn’t fall asleep, that his back hurt too much from how little room he had. That’s mostly why Holster had taken the couch when they’d started splitting up, so he could spread out.

“It’s shitty as fuck,” he says.

“Yeah. So. You’re still in love with your ex boyfriend. You try to clear the air before a party, and he’s not giving you anything. You’re looking for him at the party but trying not to look like you’re looking for him. You ask him to pretend, just this once, he agrees, he asks you about a random hookup from months ago, he leaves before you wake up without a word. Doesn’t say anything for, what, it’s been three weeks? Let’s say three weeks. How would you be feeling?”

Hearing it all laid out like that — he’s spent so, so much time up his own ass that he figured Ransom at the club was Ransom all the time. But at the same time he’d tried, hadn’t he? Tried to make this work between them? It wasn’t his idea to pretend again, he doesn’t deserve all this guilt Shitty’s giving him. He feels like he’s been boarded by an entire defensive line.

Holster says, “Shitty as fuck. But Shits, it was his idea.” He thinks he probably sounds like a child but it hardly registers enough for him to care.

“I’m not saying it wasn’t,” Shitty says. “Just wanted you to know what’s going through his head.”

He suddenly realizes Ron’s been head butting his knee, apparently bored with the pillow he’d been chewing on. Holster clears off a space to his right and Ron, panting happily, makes several small circles on the cushion before plopping down, resting his jaw on Holster’s thigh. Holster rubs behind Ron’s ear.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says.

Shitty replies, “I guess you’ve just got to figure out how you feel about him, get some indecision out of the way,” and Holster wants to laugh because he knows already, knows he’s still in love with Ransom, he has been since they were freshmen and probably will for the rest of his life. He’s trying to love himself again, though, and neither of them deserve half spoken truths whispered during a one night stand that wasn’t supposed to happen.

He tells Shitty all of this. Shitty makes a noise that says he agrees. Then, because he’s been wondering: “When did he tell you?”

Shitty snorts. “I went with him when he got his suit fitted. You left finger marks all over his shoulders and when he took his pants off, Jesus, Holtzy, I know you have a thing for his ass but—”

“Okay,” Holster interrupts. His ears are on fire. “I’ll figure it out.”

____________

 

Holster spends the week trying to figure out what to do. At work, Evan and Gayle talk in vague circles that glance at the issue at hand in a way that tells him Ransom probably talked with them, too, and he wants to ask them what they discussed before remembering Rans is allowed is own space apart from him. It’s enough that they stuck with him all this time.

Ron becomes his official confidant. He talks to Ron like he would when he sees Ransom, and Ron always wags his tail no matter what he says. It does wonders for his confidence, but Holster tries to tell him to bark angrily now and then. It hasn’t worked yet.

Thursday Bitty comes over with bags full of fruit and dough and he takes over the kitchen while Holster cleans the living room and bathroom. They don’t talk too much, each engrossed in his own work, but it’s enough to have another person in his space. Holster persuades Bitty to critique his “Single Ladies” performance and Bitty laughs so hard he has tears in his eyes.

“Oh sweetie,” Bitty says, wiping his cheeks with his sleeve. “It could use a little work.”

Holster pouts. “Show me then.”

Bitty does, which devolves into Holster protesting that’s exactly what he was doing, and Bitty defending his dancing. They end up spending the night baking pies and looking up the music video on YouTube.

It’s nice. It reminds him of nights in Haus 2.0 when they’d all come back from work hyped up on terrible bosses and low quality coffee. He and Ransom used to get together in the kitchen, drag Shitty and Lardo off their butts, and have a mandatory dance party. They used to teach themselves routines “just in case we need it,” Rans would say. Holster was in love in a different way back then, holding onto small glances and soft, seemingly accidental touches.

He spends an hour after Bitty hugs him goodbye debating whether he misses Ransom or is just ridiculously touch starved. Even before they started they used to hang on each other all the time. It because more purposeful afterward.

It strikes him that he misses being able to reach out and find Ransom within arm’s reach. He spends another hour trying to figure out what to do with that. He calls Brianna. She’s laughably unhelpful in her advice.

“I dunno what you expected,” she says. It sounds like she’s eating something crunchy, and when he comments she crunches down extra hard. “You know me.” Her crunches turn thoughtful now, and she adds, “Whatever you do, make it good, or I’m disowning you.”

He says, “I will,” and she makes him promise again before talking about their parents. Apparently they’re getting a pool.

____________

 

There’s a difference between knowing and feeling and sometime exactly two weeks before the rehearsal dinner Holster feels the fact that he’s still in love. It hurts worse than anything he’s ever felt, even more painful than splitting open his knee and worse still than Ransom packing his things and closing the door behind him.

Holster sobs. There’s no other word for it. He turns inward and sobs and sobs. Ron wails next to the bed, nudges his toes, and they cry together.

____________

 

The dinner is on a Thursday in mid December in an art gallery that’s housing Lardo’s current collection. The Wednesday before, Holster takes the elevator at work to the seventh floor and wanders through the cubicle maze until someone takes pity on him and points toward Ransom’s desk. “Just around the corner,” they say. Holster thanks them.

He had come up with a short speech  in the elevator, a simple, clumsy thing to say he missed him too, that he hoped Ransom missed him too. That maybe they could work on not missing each other together. The words are on the tip of his tongue when he rounds the corner.

The windows in this building are huge. They let in so, so much sunlight.

Ransom glows in it.

Everything he’s prepared flies straight out of his head.

“Hey, sorry, one sec,” Ransom says absently. He types something in an Excel sheet and Holster gasps aloud at how familiar this is. Ransom turns at the sound.

His eyes go wide.

“Hey,” Holster says weakly. “Can we talk?”

____________

 

Ransom has a presentation before lunch, so they arrange to meet at a little café down the street during their hour break. Holster doesn’t even pretend to work on his projects. Evan and Gayle run interference for him whenever Jason comes down to supervise, and Holster swears to himself he’s going to make it up to them.

Holster arrives at the café first. He doesn’t bother ordering food; he’s so nervous he can’t imagine eating right now. He asks for a lemonade instead. He drinks half of it before Ransom shows up.

He doesn’t know what to say to him. He’s mostly hoping at this point that the right words will show up when he needs them, but he’s not sure they will. His track record with these things is not great.

The bell above the door rings. Holster looks up, and Ransom pauses with his hand on the door.

He says, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” and is running away before Holster can blink.

“Rans, wait!” Holster shoves a few dollars onto the table and takes off after him.

____________

 

He finds him in an alley next to their building. Ransom’s crouching with his back against the wall, shaking, and Holster’s heart is breaking all over again. He kneels next to him. Ransom hardly seems to register his presence.

He’s having a panic attack. Holster recognizes his symptoms like he’d recognize his own face in the mirror. When they were together, Holster used to hold him on his lap on their couch until he stopped trembling. He’s not sure if touching him now will make it better or worse, though, so he talks about random things in a low voice. How Ron hates to be inside so long, to the extent that he’s bitten so many of Holster’s best shoes. How his parents are getting a pool. How no one knows if Shitty’s parents are coming to the wedding and how Lardo and Shitty have finally given in and decided to put them by the bathroom no matter what. How Jack, when he’s uncertain of something, will look at Bitty like Bitty’s the surest thing in the world.

Then he’s telling him about himself these last six months, how he wanted to hate him so badly. All the little things he tried to get over him: the remodeling, Ron, all those talks with Shitty and Brianna, going to the club with Bitty and then seeing him kissing someone else. He doesn’t tell him about the ring. He does tell him he misses him.

Holster keeps talking until Ransom reaches out for him. He falters to a stop.

He takes Ransom’s hand.

“Did you always,” Ransom says, his voice hoarse, “talk so much?”

He looks exhausted, strained, and like he doesn’t quite believe Holster’s here, kneeling in the alley next to him. But he’s smiling.

____________

 

Holster drives them to Ransom’s apartment. They don’t talk on the way there — Ransom’s tired as fuck, Holster doesn’t know what to say even if they both were in a talking mood — but their arms are touching on the center console. Holster clings to that desperately.

When they get inside, he tucks Ransom into bed. He tries not to think about the last time he was here. His ears are already turning red, he can tell, and remembering it in more detail is only gonna make him look as toasty as if he’d gotten sunburnt.

Ransom looks like he’s remembering. He snuggles into his pillow and blankets and whispers, “Stay with me.”

It’s as much a request as a wish. Both together in one breath.

He climbs into bed next to him, softly saying, “Okay,” and Ransom takes a sharp breath. Holster carefully puts his arms around his shoulders, moving slow enough that Ransom can push him away if he wants to. Holster hopes he doesn’t want to.

Ransom slides his arms around Holster’s waist. Holster holds him tenderly, trying to put all his unspoken I love yous into this touch, and he kisses Ransom’s cheek before he thinks about it.

He freezes.

Then, slow enough Holster almost thinks he’s imagining it, Ransom kisses his hip bone.

“Rans,” Holster says. He clears his throat and tries again. “Rans, can we pretend. Just this once.”

Ransom exhales like it’s a breath he’s been holding since June. “I didn’t think you’d ever ask.”

This time, Ransom leans up and meets him halfway.

There’re things they need to talk about. Holster knows this, but tonight, with him warm in his arms, their hands almost chaste on each other like they were when they just started dating, Ransom kissing him like he’s something that’s impossible—

They can have this tonight.

____________

 

He wakes up first.

For a wild moment he wants to leave before Rans wakes up. It’d be easier in some ways. He wouldn’t have to explain himself, for one, and he wouldn’t have to say he’s still in love without knowing if Ransom feels the same way, for another. He wouldn’t be in a position where it mattered whether or not they talked about anything.

He’s never been good at not caring.

When Ransom starts waking up, Holster kisses him the way he used to whenever he woke up first when they were dating. It’s his way of starting the morning off on the best foot possible.

Ransom smiles sleepily up at him. “You’re still here.”

“I am,” Holster says, sudden butterflies in his stomach. “Is that okay?”

“More than okay,” Ransom mumbles. “Thought you were gonna leave.”

Holster traces a line up and down Rans’ arm, presses a kiss to his shoulder. “I wanted to wake up with you. At least one more time.”

Ransom’s face shutters. “Oh.” He pulls away, hands holding his head like he’s just gotten hit in the face. “One more for the road, eh?”

“Rans, what—?” Holster wants to hold him again. This is so very not how he thought this would go.

“It’s okay,” Ransom says, tone sounding like it’s very much not okay. He throws his hands up and gets out of bed and starts pacing back and forth. “I get it, here when you want me but no other time.” He stops in front of his dresser, lips drawn in a thin line. He isn’t looking at Holster. “I think you should leave.”

Holster gapes. “That’s not—”

He says, “Please,” and he sounds angry and hurt and like it’s killing him to say it.

Holster gets out of bed and is about to say something when Ransom holds up a finger. “No, this is — I’m still in love with you, and I — I need to get past you. For real this time.”

It feels like a punch to the gut. “Please, Rans, you don’t understand—”

“I understand enough. You have to go.” Ransom’s tone is final. If he would just — just look at him, Holster’s sure he’d see what he’s trying to say, he’s never been able to hide how he feels for him.

He lingers in the doorway, hoping beyond hope that Ransom will see how much he loves him in his eyes, but he doesn’t look up.

Holster leaves. This time, leaving first hurts worse.

____________

 

He makes it through the rehearsal in a haze. Bitty definitely notices; during dinner, Holster keeps getting concerned glances sent across the table his way, and now and then Jack comes up with an excuse to pat him on the back or shoulder or arm. Silent support. He feels the absence when Jack goes up to give his best man toast.

Hearing it, you wouldn’t think Jack had ever been uncomfortable with verbal declarations of affection. It’s funny and full of memories from Samwell and the mornings Shitty had gotten under the covers with Jack and Jack says, “I’d almost be jealous, Lards, but I’ve got someone pretty special too or I’d fight you for Shitty’s love,” and Bitty and Jack look so in love Holster pretends to need something from his suit jacket so he doesn’t have to see it. Lardo’s saying something in response, but she and Shitty are in the middle of the table and if he looks there’s Ransom, and his own heart has just been newly broken, and he definitely doesn’t want to see him, either. He keeps trying to find an exit plan on his suit jacket until he finally stands up in the middle of Lardo’s cousin’s toast and slips out of the room.

Air. He needs air.

The venue has a huge wall of glass windows looking out onto the river. If he remembers correctly, the art curator had mentioned a little walkway running along the banks that you can access through this giant wall of windows. Holster clings to this idea, borderline frantic now. He needs to go back inside to support his friends but he needs, more than ever, room to breathe.

He bursts through the doors and the breeze off the river is better than he could’ve hoped for, cool and soothing at once. Rolling up his sleeves, he leans against the railing. Flecks of water hop up now and then to land on his skin. He breathes.

The door opens and shuts quietly behind him.

Holster says, “I’m fine, I’ll be right back,” and Lardo says, “You don’t have to lie to me.”

She says it kindly, gentle. When Holster turns, she smiles at him sadly. She steps beside him; she either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that the river’s getting her dress wet. He mentions this. She shrugs.

“There’re more important things,” Lardo says. He watches her scan the landscape in front of them, her eyes bright, like she’s memorizing it for a painting later. Her gaze flicks to him now. She slowly slugs him in the shoulder, giving him time to move out of the way if he wants. He doesn’t want. It feels familiar; he hadn’t realized how much he missed her. “‘M talking about you, just so we’re clear.”

“I got that,” he says, because it’s too much to say how good and painful it feels to hear that. “I didn’t mean to take you away, d’you need to get back?”

Lardo hip checks him and Holster pretends to stumble to get her to laugh. “I’m playing the bride card, Shits has it under control.” A loud clattering, shattering bang from inside reaches them. “Or. He said he did.”

There’s so much love when she says his name. Holster clears his throat, trying to figure out how to word his next question. Lardo slips her arms around his waist while he thinks. He closes his eyes. It’s so, so nice to be held like this, without someone wanting something from him.

“Lards,” he starts. She hums in acknowledgement. “Did I — did you ever think I could’ve been in love with him? I mean. Was it obvious? How I felt?”

She says, “How you felt, past tense, or how you feel, present tense?” and it’s almost like jumping into cold water. He breathes around the sting.

“Either. Both.”

Sometimes you need to know for sure.

“I thought you were dating during school,” Lardo says. He glances down at her and she’s still looking out toward the water, but she starts rubbing a soothing circle against his lower back. “Thought it was a me and Shits kinda thing, you’d tell people when you were ready. So I thought, then, that you were in love with him. If it helps I thought he was in love with you too.”

Here she pauses, which is good because Holster can’t tell if he’s crying or if it’s the mist from the river. He hugs her closer. She squeezes him around the waist briefly, then relaxes her hold.

“Now … now I don’t know. I know most of it, Shitty told me, but. It seems different now. A little more selfish.” She flattens her hand against his back now as if to remove herself slightly from what she just said, adding, “Just from what I’ve heard. And what I saw tonight. And my general understanding of both of you as human beings.”

Selfish. He turns it over in his head, thinking. The late nights spent trying to fix this when they both knew they were broken. Sleeping with each other after the Halloween party, both of them just wanting sweat and mouths and the feel of someone else’s weight on top of them, someone familiar even though it would feel worse in the morning. All the times they tried to talk to each other for “closure” and a game plan as if hurting around each other was better than leaving well enough alone.

Maybe they wanted it too much. At the start, when it was just lingering looks and the touches during kegsters that lasted too long to be innocent, the way Holster started craving goals during his final seasons so he’d have an excuse to bury his face against Ransom’s neck in front of everyone — maybe it built up too much, felt like they’d done too much longing for these feelings to go away so quickly. Maybe it’s selfish to keep doing this to himself, to keep holding on even now.

“Why is it so hard to stop being in love with someone,” he asks. His voice breaks. “I don’t understand why I’m still feeling it.”

“Do you want my honest answer?” He nods. Lardo sighs. “You have one of the biggest hearts out of everyone I know. You feel a lot and you feel it intensely and you were in love for years and of course that’s going to hurt, when you care about someone you really care about them. Those feelings don’t just go away.”

There’s a moment where Holster watches the lights shimmer on the water.

He says, “I wish I could turn that off. Caring so much.”

He’d said at the start he wished they could let it be done. Maybe it’s time to really, truly, let go. Throw it in the river and let the water take it away.

“No, you don’t,” Lardo says firmly.

Holster’s not so sure.

“Did you ever figure out if Shitty’s parents are coming?” he asks after a few beats, in a needful attempt to change the subject.

Lardo pokes him to say she knows what he’s doing, but she allows the shift. “No idea. They think we’re getting married because I’m pregnant, too, so if they ask tell them it’s triplets.”

He blinks. “Are you—?”

“No. Do you really think Shitty would be able to keep something like that secret from you guys?”

“Well—”

“Holster.” Lardo sounds amused. “He wouldn’t. Not unless I really wanted him to, which I wouldn’t, because I like you guys. Most of the time.”

“I like you too,” Holster says back. He hugs her tighter, caught up in an immediate realization that she’s here, she’s here supporting him when her rehearsal dinner’s happening just inside. “Thanks for coming after me. I don’t deserve you, Lards.”

“It’s okay to feel it,” she says, her voice muffled by his shirt. She leans back enough to make eye contact, her gaze serious and meaningful. “It is. Don’t be upset with yourself about that, you’ve both done enough shit to each other that you don’t just walk away from.”

They talk about lighter things, like how her cousins Insta-stalked her friends and found the one post of Jack’s ass Bitty has on his feed and are overly impressed. She goes inside a little bit after that. Holster stays out on the walkway a while longer, listening to the waves.

________________________

Chapter Text

________________________

 

The wedding is loud and colorful and there’s a faint weed smell from some of the guests and it’s exactly what Holster expected from them. Lardo walks down the aisle in a beautiful, flowing, gold embroidered red dress and she’s glowing so much she illuminates the whole room. Next to her, Shitty’s wiping his eyes on his sleeve. Lardo laughs tearfully, taking out a handkerchief from a hidden pocket, and Shitty just looks at her like she’d handed him the whole goddamn sun.

Holster stands behind Jack during the ceremony. Ransom’s next to Bitty next to Holster and it’s torture, standing this close to him after everything that’s happened between them. The entire time Holster fights the urge not to reach around Bitty to hold his hand, to interrupt the officiant and say what he needs to say. That’s selfish though, and he’s trying so hard not to be selfish about Ransom anymore.

He watches his best friends get married. Lardo’s laughing when they finally kiss and Shitty looks at her like she’s everything and there’s so, so much love in this room. Holster cries. For the first time in months it’s tears of joy. Lardo jumps onto Shitty’s back for a piggyback ride back down the aisle and all of their friends wipe their eyes from laughter and this overwhelming sense of joy.

It’s difficult to be here, in this place for this purpose, without thinking about the ring box still tucked away in his drawer at home. But then he sees how Lardo and Shitty can’t keep their hands off each other during dinner, how happy they are during their first dance, the little smiles meant just for them throughout the entire evening, and he breathes easy. He and Rans wouldn’t have been like this. Not how they were then.

Bitty pulls him out of his chair when, singing along and dancing the way he does when he’s just this side of tipsy. Holster closes his eyes, letting the beat sweep him away. When the song ends “Single Ladies” blares upbeat and happy over the speakers and Bitty’s eyes go wide, his speech instantly more Southern than it’s been in awhile.

“Oh lord, it’s your song!”

Holster shakes his head, laughing the kind of fake laugh that would make Bitty frown if he weren’t borderline drunk. As it is, Bitty gives him such an earnest, pleading expression that it’s impossible for him to say no, mostly because Bitty won’t take no right now.

So they dance. Holster sort of bops through the first verse reluctantly. He keeps eyeing his seat at the table and the last sips of champagne in his cup.

And then—

Then he spots Ransom talking with Jack and Nursey, and the way Rans is watching him with the same look he had on his face two years ago when Holster had accidentally made the water ice cold one morning when they were showering together. Ransom crosses his arms, looking shocked.

Holster kind of wants to rub it in now. They had their shot. They tried, it didn’t work, they tried some more, they only hurt each other. There’s some angry attempt at lightness bursting under his skin.

“Holtzy, been holding out on me!” Bitty says. Holster shakes his hips playfully, and Bitty laughs. It’s such a happy sound that it clears Holster’s head somewhat.

He wants to let go.

He makes eye contact with Rans as the Queen sings what it really feels like to miss me . He’s being an ass again but the music swells in his chest, and Bitty’s laughing so happy next to him, and he wants to let go.

Holster closes his eyes and sings at the top of his lungs. Bitty joins in, and they dance until the song ends.

____________

 

He slips out the reception hall a few songs afterward, having helped Bitty find Jack so he could wrangle Jack into a dance. As Holster waves a soft goodbye, Bitty’s trying to teach Jack a little three step sequence and Jack’s so focused you’d think he was facing off in game seven of the Cup Finals.

It’s such a full night. The stars look like they’ve been splatter painted onto the night sky in the most beautiful way and there’s a breeze coming off the water. For a good three minutes in the parking lot Holster just looks up at the sky and breathes, imagining these stars and that breeze combining in his lungs and flooding through his blood. For a good three minutes, he feels larger than he is.

Footsteps sound behind him. He reluctantly turns around. It’s completely unsurprising to him when he sees Ransom pause under a streetlamp about thirty feet away.

They don’t say anything at first. Holster folds his arms and waits, noting the internal war playing out just behind Rans’ eyes. They’ve almost never been anything but transparent to each other.

After two minutes of this, Holster says, “Just say it,” and Rans says, “Are you just gonna walk away, then.”

It’s a question and it’s not at the same time and this — after everything — this stings.

“What the hell d’you want me to say?” Holster says. He’s nearly yelling and he should care — everyone else is still dancing inside, the music’s leaking underneath the door — but he doesn’t give a flying fucking damn. “That I’m still in love with you? That I want to talk this out?  You don’t get to ask me those things anymore Rans, you left. ” Holster breaks off here, furious that he’s near tears when he’s decided to be stronger about this, when Rans doesn’t deserve to see them.

Rans sighs, and a not so small part of Holster is savagely happy that he sounds miserable. “I never wanted,” he says softly, “to hurt you like this.”

Holster’s heart feels like it’s ripping to pieces over and over again. “Then why did you leave,” he asks, on the verge of crying out for real at how unfair this is. “How can you say that when you left like that, when you made me leave like that. I can’t — I just can’t, that’s it, I can’t do this anymore.”

Ransom’s face changes, crumpling the way it does when he’s about to start crying himself, and Holster tells himself he doesn’t want to hold him. It’s a lie, but he’s trying.

“I can’t tell you that.” Ransom shakes his head, pressing his fingertips to the corner of his eyes to stop the tears. Some of them leak out anyway. “We need to be done.”

“Okay,” Holster says. His nails dig into his arms. “You can’t keep doing this then, running after me like this. You have to let me go.”

Ransom says, “Okay,” and there’s a heartbeat where Holster almost says no, I didn’t mean it, I want to be with you. He bites down, hard, on the thought. He thinks he can see the same sort of urge on Ransom’s tongue but Rans just nods, exhaling a long, shaking breath.

What is there to say? Standing here six months later, it feels like they’ve finally broken up.

Holster can’t look at him now. He jerks his head in a nod back and tries to walk calmly to his car. If he fumbles his key because his hands are shaking, that’s no one’s business but his own.

____________

 

In any other universe, that would’ve been their Moment. Their moment where the music swells and they both run to each other, still kind of furious, kind of crying, and just hold each other. He imagines the slow lean in, camera focused on the way Ransom’s hand cradles Holster’s face, how he’d lean in so slowly that Holster could lean away if he wanted to, how Holster wouldn’t want to. He thinks about this on the drive home.

____________

 

The next few days go by in a blur worse than the ones after Ransom left the first time. Holster essentially lives on the couch now, and the living room looks it; he’s got takeout containers stacked up on the coffee table, cups stuck here and there on the couch’s arms, and there’s a bit of a smell even he picks up on.

He sleepwalks around the house. When he surfaces on New Year’s Eve, the mess of the place sends him right back to the haze he’s been living in. The worst part is he can’t even say why, exactly, he’s reacting like this. It was his call this time. Both of them need time and space apart. It still hurts.

Ron Dogson whines at him now and then from his spot in Holster’s arms, mostly reminders for food and walks and the bathroom. It’s one of few things that gets him off his ass. His dog doesn’t deserve this.

“I’m sorry,” Holster whispers, hugging Ron tight. “I’ll do better for you, I promise.” Ron whimpers and Holster’s been lying before, this is the sound that really breaks him. He holds Ron even tighter.

Holster takes them both running. By the end of it Ron’s looking at him the way he always does, bouncing around like they’re back on track, that everything else was just a detour Holster couldn’t have avoided but they’re on the main road now. He desperately hopes it’s true.

____________

 

He emails his boss about the breakup and Jason kindly gives him two weeks off to focus on himself. Holster has a sneaking suspicion Gayle and Evan had something to do with that. Jason’s never really been his biggest fan.

Highs and lows, he emails. Gayle’s been asking for updates like she’s his mom and he kind of loves it. He misses his parents.

Then he sits up. Ron jumps off the couch, excited at the sudden movement, and Holster leans down to kiss his forehead. Ron licks his chin.

He could go back to Buffalo. He has — he checks the calendar on his phone — twelve more days before he has to be at work, and it’s not like it’s an awful drive. Five hours will be hard without someone singing show tunes with him and then arguing about them but he’s got Ron, and he has twelve whole days.

Ron wags his tail, panting happily, as Holster gathers the food-related debris scattered around the room. He washes them quickly. He packs just as quick, throwing clothes and his toiletries and a large bag of Ron’s food into a suitcase. An incredible feeling of lightness works its way through his body. As soon as he realizes it, he asks himself why he hadn’t gone home earlier.

The drive’s easy as anything. He perfected his “bflow —> samwell” playlist his freshman year, updating it all the while, and now it’s the best thing he’s ever made. Once, when he had a contact high from Shitty and Lardo, they’d tried to get a patent for it. They never heard back. Lardo’s still kind of bitter about it.

He can measure the distance by how easy his breaths are coming. He should’ve done this ages ago, put space between himself and that house. It’s turned into a stranger to him again.

They turn off the highway thirty minutes before they reach his childhood neighborhood. It feels better than a game winning goal, being back. He’s smiling so wide as he pulls into the driveway.

He hadn’t told his parents he’s coming. He carefully gets the suitcase out of the trunk as Ron inspects his mom’s potted plants, then Holster eases the spare key out from behind a garden gnome wearing sunglasses and lets them both inside.

His mom has a game on in the den and the entire hall smells like his dad’s cooking something, something warm and hearty mixing with hockey chatter in the background, and all he can think is it’s been too long.

“Hello?”

“Hello!” his mom calls back, dragging out the O. “We’re in the den!”

Ron heads off in search of her voice immediately. Holster follows more slowly, noting the subtle differences in decor. They’ve added some of Lardo’s paintings to the walls, bumping a massively tacky “Home Sweet Home” sign his mom always hated but was from one of his uncles for their housewarming. He thinks they’ve repainted too; it’s closer to an eggshell blue than a robin’s egg blue. Brianna had texted him non-stop while they were picking out the colors.

“Why don’t they bother you about this,” she’d complained.

He’d told her, “They’re still pretty sure Ransy single-handedly decorated our house,” and Brianna had sent a scowling emoji back.

His dad says, “And who is this fantastic creature?” and Holster hurriedly toes off his shoes and heads into the den.

Ron’s jumping up everywhere, barking, as his dad tries to calm him down enough to pet. Holster whistles and Ron settles down aside from his tail, which is wapping the couch behind him in a way Holster can’t imagine is comfortable. His mom presses kisses to Ron’s head as his dad crosses the room in four steps.

“Adam,” he says. He bundles him in the biggest hug Holster’s ever gotten from him. It nearly shocks him into crying again; he hadn’t realized how much he needed that. “You need to visit us more, we miss you.”

His mom cuts in now, saying, “Scooch over David, let me see my boy.” She holds him at arm’s length initially, searching his face. Holster tries to project surety and confidence and everything she needs to see. She must find something about Ransom, though, because her face twists into concern.

All she says is, “Hmm.” He isn’t surprised. His parents start almost everything like this, an initial impression and then a debrief before moving forward to address things. “Have you eaten? Dad made mac and cheese.”

“Gram’s recipe,” his dad says, eyebrows arched significantly.

Holster says, “I’ll take a bowl,” and his parents beam at him.

Their talk is familiar and he listens like he’s starving for it. He asks about the pool and they roll their eyes, saying, “Brianna’s still not for it, is she,” and when he shrugs his mom says something about making sure they both get their vitamin D, and that Brianna can chillax. Holster stares at her when she says this. His dad says something like see what I have to deal with and his mom pokes him in the stomach.

They dance around bringing up Ransom. Holster eats his mac and cheese and imagines he can taste how much they want to bring it up. He almost wants to ask if Brianna’s talked to them — he’d left her a voicemail after the wedding, and never replied to her texts about it — but he doesn’t.

Not tonight. Right now, full and happy in this living room, his mom already cooing to Ron and finding his favorite spots to be scratched, the Sabres - Rangers game on the TV … right now he doesn’t want to think about him. He’ll have to at some point, if only to ease the corners of his parents’ eyes where they keep their worry.

The Sabres win. Holster takes an obnoxious Snapchat of the scoreboard and posts it to his story, immediately getting a whatevs from Dex, a chill from Nursey, and a we’re playing them next week you’d better be rooting for us from Chowder. He promises him he’ll bust out his Sharks gear, then yawns.

“I didn’t make your bed,” his dad says. “Didn’t know you were coming.”

Holster yawns again. “It’s okay, I’m ready to pass out here.”

His mom gets off the couch and pulls him up into another hug. “You will not,” she tells him firmly. “Imagine your knee in the morning.”

“Tell him, Cath,” his dad says, petting Ron.

“True,” Holster says. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her he’s fallen asleep on the couch every night for the past two weeks.

They exchange good nights. His dad tells him to text what he wants for breakfast and apparently can’t hear him say he can fix his own food in the morning. Holster shakes his head, smiling, and heads upstairs as they go to their own room on the main floor.

His is the last door on the left. Ron goes ahead of him, probably smelling traces of Holster on his furniture. Like before, Holster pauses, taking in the sense of being home. The last time he was here was last year for Hanukkah and Ransom had been with him, so he prods at the feeling of being back without him. A numb sort of nothing surfaces. He’s not sure if that’s good or not.

But then Ron’s making scuffing noises inside so he takes a deep breath and goes in to stop his dog from eating his old hockey sticks. He laughs when, instead, he finds Ron cuddling up with an old stuffed animal from his hospital stay after juniors. He takes a picture.

Dog’s best friend, Holster captions it. He turns off his phone and climbs into bed.

____________

 

He turns his phone on in the middle of the night, opens Instagram, and unfollows Ransom. Then he takes him off his Snap, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Just in case.

In case of what, he’s not sure. It both eases and aggravates something in his heart.

____________

 

His time at home flies too quickly. They spend time calling Brianna on FaceTime so she doesn’t feel left too left out — though he does make sure to tell her he’s definitely the favorite now — and he cooks meals with his dad, singing Hamilton and Heathers as they dance around the kitchen in their socks. His mom leans against the island with a glass of wine, analyzing whatever game’s playing on TV, and absently mumbles a few lyrics at the exact wrong time. He and his dad chirp her about this. She makes a face back at them.

Chowder plays spectacularly on Monday. Holster and his parents sit on the edge of their seats during all three periods and Chowder has not one but four incredible saves all game. The NHL Twitter account is already going wild with gifs and reaction images. Holster saves a couple of them to his phone.

He takes a picture of himself and his parents decked out in Sharks gear. You crushed it! he sends Chowder. Chowder sends back a blushing shark emoji that Holster thinks they probably had to make especially for him. Holster smiles at it.

The Wednesday before he’s driving back, his mom takes him to the goals they have set up on the driveway. They practice some idle stickhandling, talking about her plans for the pool. As always when he practices with her, he’s only half focusing on the conversation. His mom used to play for the women’s Olympic team. He and Brianna grew up with a silver medal apiece designated for show and tell purposes.

“Your dad wants an above ground,” she says, casually passing right to the toe of his stick. She’s been working his toe control for nineteen years at least by now. He catches it, barely, and sends it back. “I’ve always wanted an in ground, though. It doesn’t bunch up the yard.”

Holster says, “Halfsies?” and she laughs. She flips the next pass up at him and he knocks it down easily. “Watch it, you’ll break a window.”

“Think I deserve to break a window,” she says. “It’s my turn, everyone else has.”

He laughs at this. “At least wait til it looks like an accident.”

His mom says, laughing, “I have plans.”

They spend a few minutes passing and commenting on the other’s technique. Here in this familiar moment, it creeps up on him again. That he should tell them what happened. He’s trying to get better at saying things, so he does. Some things he keeps to himself; he doesn’t think she needs to know about Halloween, for example, or the night before the wedding. But he does tell her Lardo’s theory of them being selfish and too sharp for each other. At some point while he’s talking they silently agree to stop passing the puck, instead leaning on their sticks. His mom asks a clarifying question now and then, but otherwise she doesn’t interrupt.

She doesn’t say anything immediately when he stops. He waits nervously, watching her for some hint of judgement. He can’t find any.

“Did I ever tell you about the night before I married your dad?” she asks finally.

It’s so random he nearly drops his stick. “The thing about Aunt Maggie throwing up on your veil?”

“No,” she says, smiling slightly. “The thing about how I nearly called it off.”

He says, “You did not.” He’s not sure what else to say.

“I panicked.” She sits on the concrete and starts peeling off the tape on her stick. After a heartbeat, Holster sits opposite her. He’s always admired her taping job; when he was younger she used to re-tape his sticks before games, and he always liked how steady her hands were. That’s what he thinks of when he thinks of his mother. Hands steady and sure, getting him ready for a game.

She continues, “I wasn’t sure where the line between ‘in love’ and ‘love’ was. You know, when you say ‘I’m in love with you’ and when you say ‘I love you.’ I couldn’t tell if I loved him or was in love.” His mom looks at him now. “Do you understand the difference?”

He shakes his head. It feels like a solution floating just out of reach, that if he got it it’d clear up everything.

“It’s sort of what Lards was saying,” she tells him. She starts re-taping her stick now. “Selfish versus not. If you’re in love with someone, you don’t always see them. It feels like a one sided agreement, that you’re in this with just this particular person at this particular moment. Selfish. If you love them, though, then you’re loving all of them. No matter what. Unselfish.”

“You’re saying I wasn’t loving all of him,” Holster says. That numbness is starting to come back a little bit.

Maybe she sees this, because she says, “I’m not in your relationship. Don’t forget that this is definitely coming from your mom too, so I do have a vested interest in seeing your side of things. But from what you’ve told me, what Bri’s said, that’s what it looks like to me.”

“That’s more or less what I realized, too,” he says. He needs her to say he’s done okay in this, that in the last talk he had with Rans, he was right. “I think we’ve been so close these last seven years that people sort of — thought we grew into each other, as one person, and I think we sort of did, too.”

His mom finishes her tape job, eyeing it critically. “That’s definitely possible. How do you feel about it now?”

“I think it’s for the best, splitting for real,” Holster says. The sentence gets sort of stuck in his throat. He pushes past it. “I can’t breathe around him. I’m not happy this is how we got here, but. We’re here now. All we can really do is live with it.”

She holds a hand out. Holster takes it, and they pull each other up at the same time. His mom doesn’t let go though, instead wrapping him in a hug. He closes his eyes and focuses on breathing as he hugs her back.

“I’m sorry you’re going through this,” she whispers. “I wish your dad and I could shoulder this for you.”

Holster shakes his head. “Nah, I think I gotta take this one for myself. This is something I have to face head on.”

“You can tell us things, you know,” she says, and her voice is a kind of fragile he’s alarmed by. “I know you’re busy, Adam. I do. And your dad and I are here for you whenever you need us, okay? We’re here to listen to you guys.”

Another little sliver of a crack in his heart. “I didn’t want to worry you,” he says. She pokes him in the side at that. He fakes a wince.

She says, “Get used to us worrying, kiddo,” and squeezes him reassuringly before letting him go. “Between you and your sister, it’s practically a full time job.”

“What’s up with Bri?”

“Nothing,” his mom says, sighing. “She just really fucking hates the pool idea.”

____________

 

His parents say goodbye with a “Tell your sister you’re both always welcome at home, we’ve keeping your rooms for you” and it gets him thinking on the way back about this house he’s returning to, how it would still be so easy for Ransom to fit into the structure of the place if they fixed things. He’s still keeping to his side of the bed. There’s still space in the closet for Ransom’s clothing if he moved back in that afternoon.

Holster pulls up a real estate agency online later that night. Ron snores lightly from his spot on the couch and Holster sits hunched over his computer in the kitchen, scrolling and scrolling. He and Rans had done this together the first time with a host of Excel sheets. It’s a little overwhelming on his own.

Empty space stretches so wide around him that he thinks he could get lost in it.

He texts Jack. got any real estate ppl you could send me way?

His reply is almost immediate, which is impressive. Bitty used to complain that Jack was about as tech savvy as a baked potato.

My dad has a guy. What kind of property are you looking for?

Something small? Apartment?

Holster watches the (…) appear as Jack types. He waits, mentally picking out the things he wants to take with him. Lardo’s artsy painting of the jockstrap that haunted the locker room. The framed photo of his first major deal at work, the one Brianna had clipped out of the newspaper and gave him as a gift. The matching silverware and plates and bowls — no more plastic pizza cups he just hasn’t gotten around to throwing out.

It’s probably a good time to go through his closet, too. There’re a lot of things he hasn’t worn in ages.

He thinks about the ring box in his drawer.

His phone buzzes with Jack’s response: There’s some nice apartment buildings a little closer downtown than you are now. Bits and I considered some of them, I’ll pass on the addresses and real estate agents. Head’s up, though: apparently their kitchens aren’t “up to scratch,” so consider yourself warned.

Holster pictures Bitty’s face when he saw the kitchens and laughs. I’ll keep a weather eye out.

____________

 

He goes to work. He comes home. In the evenings he packs up the pieces of his life into the cardboard boxes they’d unpacked three years ago. It’s a satisfying sort of symmetry, that he’s moving out the same way he moved in.

Jack sends him real estate agents and after a month Holster finally finds one he vibes with, one who isn’t judging him too much for being twenty-eight with a house he bought with his ex-boyfriend.

His name’s Charlie. Holster tries not to look at him too closely over the course of their interviews and showings; he has really beautiful cheekbones.

“Something a little smaller,” he says, when Charlie asks what he’s after in their first meeting. “It’s just me and Ron, I don’t need all this space.”

What he means is, I don’t want to look at the holes Ransom left, but he doesn’t say it.

Charlie shows him apartment after apartment over the span of two months. All of them are a little pricey, so they’ve written up a renter’s agreement for the house so he’ll make some additional income without having to sell it.

Brianna occasionally shows up to these trips. She’s here today, talking with Charlie about the neighbors in the living room while Holster looks up at the crown moulding in the rooms, the light coming in clear through the kitchen windows.

It’s a little smaller than the other apartments Charlie’s been showing him. Third floor, small elevator, nice walkway to the door. The little entryway is painted a soft buttery yellow that reminds him of sunrises on his way to Faber, his hockey bag a comfortable weight on his shoulders.

His parents gave him a table that would look nice here underneath the ceiling light. The cabinets have clear doors that would show off his dinnerware in a very nice way. In the living room, there’s a blank stretch of wall that’s just waiting for a TV set.

Ron would love the park down the street. He’s about a ten minute drive from work, which is so much better than the forty-five to sixty minutes he’s spending in the car now. Bitty and Jack are five minutes north of here, Shitty and Lardo now fifteen minutes east on a good day, and—

Charlie leans into the kitchen and asks, “What’re we thinking about this one?”

“I like it,” he says. He does a slow turn where he’s standing, taking it in. It’s not as large a kitchen as Bitty would probably want, but it’ll work for him. “I’ve got some ideas for this one.”

Brianna calls, “Did he finally pick one?” and Charlie laughs.

“I think so,” Charlie says. He raises his eyebrows at Holster, excitement written all over his face. “Right?”

“Yeah,” Holster says. He clears his throat; he’s gotten unexpectedly emotional all of a sudden. “Yeah, it’s — this’ll work.”

Charlie grins at him. “He picked one,” he calls back, pitching his voice louder so Brianna can hear him.

She comes into the room then and they start talking business, like how soon he can move in, any logistical things he needs to know about parking, another double check that the building is pet friendly. Holster’s heart is beating so fast throughout the entire conversation.

This feels like — this feels like something selfish, but in an okay way. Something more healing.

“You’re so smiley,” Brianna says during a lull. She’s pretty smiley herself, Holster thinks, but she keeps talking before he can point this out. “This is gonna be a good one for you, I can feel it.”

It settles over him like a quiet exhale. He smiles at her. “I think you’re right.”

____________

 

That night he sends just got a place to their new group chat. Shitty sends a flurry of exclamation points interspersed with a few swear words while Bitty asks if he can bless his new oven with a blueberry crumble pie.

You only like me for my kitchen appliances :( Holster sends.

Bitty’s reply is swift and brutal. Oh honey you be grateful that’s not true. A cupboard full of hot sauce doesn’t exactly give me a friendship boner.

ya BURNT, Lardo sends.

____________

 

He moves into his new apartment on a chilly rainy day at the beginning of April.

It’s probably kind of cliché, and he loves it; surrounded by his friends, all of them carrying stacks and stacks of boxes, it feels like the fresh slate he needs. April showers and all that.

“Where do you want this?” Dex asks. He’s got that strained expression Holster recognizes, the one that means there’s too much noisy nonsense going on around him and not enough organizing.

Holster can’t blame him. Nursey, Bitty, and Shitty are blasting Taylor Swift, singing at the top of their lungs, and every time Lardo sets down a box she does so with an exaggerated, self satisfied “What do we have here.” Ron keeps digging into all the boxes, so they have to unpack immediately or risk them being torn into. Bri’s loudly debating Jack about the respective skills of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky with all the confidence of someone who doesn’t know she’s arguing with someone who considers them both uncles. Jack, on the other hand, is smiling the quiet sort of smile of someone who’s waiting to reveal this fact at a very key moment.

Holster examines the box Dex is holding. “Bedroom?”

“You got it,” Dex says shortly. Ron chooses that moment to jump up on him and Holster reacts too late to stop it. Dex’s face pinches.

“Sorry dude,” Holster says, wincing. He wraps his arms around Ron’s neck and Ron licks his ear.

Dex mutters something like “It’s chill” and Holster doesn’t have time to wonder at the way Dex’s eyes flit to Nursey, because Bitty accidentally trips over and unplugs his speaker from its outlet.

Holster uses the pause in music to ask everyone to make one last trip to the moving van and grab as much as they can, which they do, and then they’re all surrounded by a bunch of cardboard boxes.

It’s kind of intimidating. There’s so much to do.

A sharp popping sound from behind him makes him turn and almost fall.

“Sorry,” Bri says sheepishly, holding a newly opened champagne bottle. “Thought we could get this unpacking party started.”

Holster pretends to debate this, looking at all of them in his kitchen. Bitty has a red bruise popping up on his forehead from a photo that hadn’t been properly secured to the wall. Jack and Shitty are whispering loudly about pizza and breadsticks while Lardo mumbles suggestions under her breath, and Nursey and Dex are leaning against each other like the other person is the only thing keeping them upright. Everyone is drenched.

Holster loves them all so much he thinks his heart might burst from it.

“Brief time out?” he suggests. “Pizza and dry clothing?”

“Already on it,” Jack says with a wink. “Bits taught me to text without looking at my phone.”

Nursey says, “Fuck yeah,” and Dex rolls his eyes. Holster notices that Dex doesn’t move away from him.

“We should at least unpack some of this while we wait,” Dex says now, gesturing at the abundance of boxes. “Many hands and all that.”

“Aw, Dexy,” Nursey says. His tone is undeniably flirtatious; Holster shares a questioning look with Jack, Bitty, Lardo, and Shitty. “So hot when you talk like a ninety year old grandma.”

Dex mumbles something like “Don’t try to tell me you don’t like it” and Nursey kisses his cheek and Shitty, thank god, is the one who calls them on it.

“Hold on,” Shitty says. He motions back and forth between them. Nursey and Dex wear matching unimpressed expressions. “Is this — are you—”

“Dating?” Nursey offers. Shitty nods. “Chyeah.”

“I’m so happy for you!” Bitty says, beaming. He pulls them both into a hug that seems a little small to Holster, so he snags everyone else to mob them in a celly that puts their past cellies to shame.

Holster focuses on the fact of Jack’s shoulder poking uncomfortably into his bicep in order to ignore the memory of when this was him and Rans at the center of this group hug.

Dex pulls Nursey into a kiss when the group disbands. Everyone cheers them on; Shitty’s working on a tearful timeline of their relationship and now Holster takes a sip of wine, because they’d gotten together, officially together, at Halloween. Bri meets his eyes at this revelation. Holster’s not sure what she sees in them, but she congratulates them and then gently reminds everyone they have to unpack.

In this moment, he’s so grateful for her. It feels so good to be known so well that he doesn’t even have to say what’s wrong.

They get him mostly unpacked before the food comes. Dex sets up the TV so they can watch Chowder play as they eat, and Shitty’s commentary somehow sounds even more sexual than usual with a mouthful of pizza.

Now he knows, he wonders how he didn’t see it before. Nursey and Dex move in each other’s space like it’s familiar ground, even when they’re arguing with each other. Which is often. Nursey’s more tactile than Dex — Holster knows this from so many drunk hugs during Nursey Patrol, even more road trips when he’d cuddle whomever he was sitting next to — and he’s constantly touching Dex’s bicep, or shoulder, or tugging on his shirt. And Dex is — he’s melting into it, that’s the only way Holster can think to describe it. He knows Dex as prickly and irritated and constantly on edge even when he’s relaxed, but somehow he’s at ease with Nursey. Right now they’re debating the contents of a box marked “bathroom” and even doing that Dex looks chill, unstressed.

Holster doesn’t want to compare the two of them to him and Ransom, doesn’t want to think about how, if they could communicate even when arguing, maybe they would’ve gotten through all their shit and become an even stronger couple. He doesn’t want to think about if he’d just loved Rans a little less selfishly things would be okay, so he concentrates on setting up his kitchen.

Bitty and Lardo pop in and out with some smaller things. Napkins for the pantry. A new set of curtains reminiscent of the ones Bitty put up in the Haus. A smaller version of one of Lardo’s hockey-inspired pieces. She hangs this, self-satisfied, dead center on the wall behind the table.

“What do we have here,” she says, admiring her work with her hands on her hips.

Holster says, “A damn fine piece of art,” and she smirks at him.

“You’re damn right I am.”

He rolls his eyes, reluctantly amused. She laughs at him.

Bitty elbows him out of the way when it comes time to move in his spices and mixing bowls and pots and pans. “Lord, this is sad,” he comments, looking at the cupboards. “You have no room.”

“I have no kitchen stuff either, so.”

“‘Kitchen stuff,’ he says,” Bitty says, tutting. He fits Holster’s things away so quickly Holster secretly thinks he’d been planning this moment since coming inside.

He lets him at it. Bitty hums quietly, happily, and it eases something tense in Holster’s chest.

“You okay, sweetheart?” Bitty asks suddenly, stretching up to put away three bags of chips Holster forgot about. “You looked a little stunned, earlier.”

Holster considers the question. “A little bit, yeah. Just, you know. Halloween.”

“Ah.” Bitty turns to face him. He’s got that look about him that means he’s not sure what exactly to say but knows he wants to say something. “Gotcha.”

“Yeah,” Holster says, at a loss. “It’ll be fine, I’m trying to. You know. Move on better this time around.”

Bitty’s mouth quirks into a smile. “Y’know, I picked up on that when you asked us to help you move.”

“What can I say,” Holster says with a shrug. “I’m a literal kinda guy.”

____________

 

Everyone but Brianna files out around midnight. Jack lingers a moment before nudging Holster on the shoulder with a fist, at which point Holster says, “Bri, Lemieux and Gretzky — Jack grew up calling them Uncle Mario and Uncle Wayne.”

Bri gasps. Jack tries and fails to hold in a smile.

“You let me argue stats — Uncle Mario and Wayne—”

Holster spreads his hands defensively and Jack laughing, says, “I would’ve said it earlier, they’d think it was so funny and flattering you were so passionate about it, how could I butt in on—”

“Are you going to tell them?” Bri asks, before covering her face with both hands. “Oh my god please don’t tell me, actually, I don’t want to know.”

Jack says, “I’ll see if they’ll sign something for you,” and Brianna looks like she’s going to faint. She throws her hands up and leaves the room, shaking her head and muttering under her breath.

“Sorry for ruining your plan,” Holster says after a minute. Jack’s worrying his bottom lip absently, like he’s not even aware he’s doing it. “Is everything okay?”

That seems to snap him out of something. “Yeah, sorry. Just wanted to say, uh. Don’t be a stranger, eh? You’re welcome at ours any time.”

There’s a moment where Holster thinks he might cry at that, so he stares at the kitchen light while trying to ignore how Jack’s still looking at him like he might break if he looks away, or like he might break if he keeps looking. It’s a difficult expression to parse out.

Finally he says, “Thanks, Jack.” Jack nods and smiles softly before offering him a fist bump. Holster taps his fist with his own, and this time he sees when Jack relaxes. It makes him look younger, makes his eyes and mouth relax. Holster spares a second to swear to himself that he’ll be better about this from now on, if only to keep Jack and everyone else from looking so worried.

“I got your back, Holtzy,” Jack says, and then he joins Bitty in the hallway.

The second the door shuts Brianna’s yelling “He knows Lemieux and Gretzky?!” and Holster’s laughing, which means Ron’s barking to join in, and they’re probably pissing off his neighbors but Holster doesn’t care, this is too good a moment to be quiet right now. They laugh until all of them are draped over the couch, exhausted and still giggling, and the sound fills the entire fucking house.

____________

 

At work, Gayle insists upon seeing all his unpacking progress pictures. He doesn’t tell her he’s only taking them for her; it’s a quiet warmth in his stomach when he sets up another room because he knows she’s interested. It’s a good reminder to send them to his parents, too, and it’s a nice distraction from the fact that he’s living alone.

“Just got the bedroom completely set up,” he says on Tuesday, followed by “Kitchen too, finally,” the week after and then “D’you think these curtains work in the living room? All my friends are being unhelpful” the Friday following. Gayle double taps the pictures to enlarge them, seriously considering them through her glasses.

Gayle hands back his phone, saying, “I think the curtains look great.”

And he should be happy about that, that he got it right the first time. A not so small part of him was hoping it’d be an excuse to go out to the store to get some more options. It means he can talk to people without making up a reason for it, at least one less made up than needing new curtains. The nice thing about the Haus and Haus 2.0 and living with Rans was that he had human company when he needed it. He still loves Ron — he’s spend some sleepless nights thinking about where he’d be without Ron — but it’s different having someone to shoot the shit with at any time. He’s taken Jack up on his offer now and then, but. Being the odd man out around what’s probably the most perfect couple on Earth is a little isolating, even when they’re not being super affectionate, because then he just feels like a dick for making them tone down their PDA.

It strikes him that he’s lonely. The realization of it, he thinks, makes it worse.

Then he realizes Gayle’s been studying him as intently as she’d been studying the curtains, and he clears his throat and frantically searches for something to say.

“How big is it?” she asks.

“Eight hundred square feet,” he says thankfully. “Not too big, not too small. Just right.”

Gayle twists her lip. “Sounds comfortable.”

Holster says, “It is. What’s that face?”

She doesn’t pretend not to understand. “Your face did a thing when I said the curtains were fine,” she says, looking at him steadily. “What’s that about?”

“Do I seem lonely?”

He hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that. It sounds — he doesn’t even know how it sounds. Desperate? Needy?

Gayle asks, “Do you think you’re lonely?” and Holster laughs kind of breathlessly.

“You sound like my mom,” he says, considering the question. “I think I … uh. A little. We found out two of our friends were dating when I moved in, and it got me thinking how the last time—” He trails off.

“The last time you moved in, you had Justin,” she finishes. She doesn’t sound judgmental, just thoughtful. Holster kind of loves her a little for that. “Have you thought about dating again?”

He says, “I got Tinder after we broke up the first time,” and she makes a noise like hmm. “I don’t like it much.”

Holster needs something tangible. Something he can point to and say this is real when he’s doubting. It’s part of the reason why he and Rans imploded that first time, because Holster didn’t have something real to put his hands on and keep in mind when things got worse.

Gayle taps her fingers on her chin. “You youths and your Tinder,” she says, eyes crinkling in a smile.

“I don’t know how to do this anymore,” he says. It feels like there’s a lump growing in his throat; he tries to swallow around it. “In the beginning it was so easy with him. Now I’ve had that I don’t know how to start from scratch again.”

“Maybe you need to be set up?” she says thoughtfully. She keeps tapping her chin as she continues. “Some of your friends from college could help with that, or I know people.”

Holster jumps on that, blurting, “Would you really,” and Gayle’s already nodding before he finishes.

“I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it,” she says, poking him gently. “I’ll get back to you on that, okay? But you know you could come out with us all, right? I know some of us are ancient and whatever, but we could use a sports guy on our trivia team.”

“Okay,” he says. He pulls her into an awkward hug; he’s not sure they’ve ever hugged before and it’s slightly uncomfortable, but he thinks she knows how much he means it. “I’ll think about it, that sounds like a good time. Thank you.”

She rubs his back before stepping away. “Any time.”

____________

 

Holster joins Gayle for trivia one Wednesday after work. They meet up with Evan, Susan from sales, and Vince from R&D, and although he doesn’t know Susan or Vince all that well, it’s immediately clear Gayle’s the one running the show.

“Okay,” she says, businesslike as she uncaps the dry erase marker they’ve been given. “Everyone know your areas?” Everyone nods; Holster kind of stares at them all before hastily nodding too. Gayle gives him a look that’s at once a check in and an assessment, like she’s hoping she didn’t shoot them all in the foot. She writes Never Gonna Quiz You Up on their mini whiteboard.

The bar’s full of people. Holster doesn’t think everyone’s playing, but those who are seem to be intensely into it. There’s a sizeable prize for first place, which kind of explains it. The air’s tense with excitement and murmuring over the categories, and it sort of feels like the five minutes before the puck drops, or just before a really important presentation. He hadn’t realized how much he missed that kind of energy.

They order a pitcher of beer and Holster’s on the edge of his seat, anticipation thrumming through him, when it finally begins.

____________

 

Trivia with Gayle is fucking wild.

She designates herself the official answer writer and it’s the most competitive Holster’s ever seen her, shouting out their answers to be heard over everyone else and getting louder as everyone gets slightly drunk. She accidentally spills Evan’s beer all over Susan and somehow manages to help clean them up while negotiating a half point for their last answer.

About half of the way through Holster realizes he’s really, really enjoying himself. Susan and Vince are as quick on the draw as Gayle herself and he’s having a good time making faces at Evan, who’s tipsy enough that he’s quietly making bracelets out of their straw wrappers. Holster chimes in now and then, enough to feel like he’s participating. He does figure out some of the answers before the others, but they have enough of a pre-established dynamic that he doesn’t want to butt in on anyone’s specialty.

“We’re moving into a lightning round,” the host says then. “Would each team please send a representative to the front of the room.”

Immediately Gayle says, “Adam,” and Holster gapes at her. She rolls her eyes. “Don’t act like I haven’t seen you recognizing all the answers before we say them. Go.”

She shoos him as she says this. So he goes.

There are nine other teams playing. He stands in between someone with an embroidered jacket with the name Show Me the Monet and someone else with a Parks & Rec shirt, and Parks and Rec shirt noticeably looks him up and down as he approaches. Holster swallows and looks away.

“Alright everyone,” the host says, checking his notes. “Time to get happy, because these next questions are about the show Cheers.”

Oh, man.

Holster grins.

____________

 

He crushes it.

Gayle taps the marker against her chin when he sits down and Holster and Vince try and fail to stifle giggles when she draws on herself. She ignores them. “Told you so,” she says, sounding pleased. “Didn’t know you were such a nerd.”

“I had a lot of free time junior and senior year,” Holster says sheepishly. “And it was  family tradition, so.” He taps the side of his head. “I got a lot of TV up here.”

Gayle says, “Good to know.” She sounds like she’s planning a heist, especially combined with the way she’s narrowing her eyes at him. Holster would be more concerned if he hadn’t heard her try and fail to pronounce “anemone” in the break room last week.

____________

 

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin. Holster goes to work and comes home and goes to trivia on Wednesdays — they have a winning streak three weeks deep, due mostly to Gayle’s bomb ass handwriting — and when Jack’s playing, he’s watching the game with Bitty and the rest of their friends while Ron explores Bitty’s house.

“Not again,” Holster groans, as Ron knocks into that one lamp in the hallway for the third time. He calls fives on his seat on the couch before standing it back up. “Why the fuck do you have this thing? How hasn’t it broken yet?”

“Jack thinks it’s funny,” Bitty says absently. Jack’s on the ice, so Holster doesn’t really expect much of a response.

Lardo says, “Bro’s got an eye for interior decorating,” and she’s so deadpan it takes them all a moment to register that she’s chirping him.

Bitty snorts. They’re all quiet after that, enthralled in the game. Holster’s not super worried; the Falconers are up by two, it’s the third period of the fourth game, and they’ve already won the other three before this. Shitty breaks the silence now and then to comment on a particularly spectacular play but for the most part everyone seems content to just be together.

Holster spares a second to recognize that it’s a little weird being here with them without Ransom. It’s comfortable and familiar with just the four of them, but Rans added something to the dynamic that feels starkly absent now that he’s aware of it.

“Do any of you talk to him?” Holster asks. It’s somehow urgent all at once to say this, to make sure. Sure of what, he can’t say.

It doesn’t miss him how shifty they are immediately after he asks, how they aren’t looking at him directly. It makes him feel off center somehow.

He stares at Shitty steadily until Shitty sighs and says, “We are, we have a group chat. We don’t — we love both of you, Holtzy, we don’t want to, like—”

“I’m never gonna ask you to choose between us,” Holster says quickly. It’s so not what he meant that he feels almost sick. Or — that could be the meatballs Shitty and Lardo brought, actually. “I don’t want to be a dick about all of this, it’s just been awhile and he needs you guys too, so. Just wanted to check, I guess. It’s hitting me that it’s weird he isn’t here.”

He pretends not to see that they all share a look at that.

“Do you — d’you want him to be?” Bitty asks delicately.

There’s a very full moment where Holster considers this. It’s been six months, realistically they could both be civil to each other again, or at least not bite each other’s heads off on sight. A tiny selfish part of Holster wants him there so he can see him again, see whether or not he’s moved on, and this is what finally clues him in.

It feels like he’s standing on the edge of a tipping point

“No,” Holster says. It has an edge of finality to it, he thinks. “No, I don’t.”

Bitty nods. Lardo reaches over to gently squeeze his arm.

Then Shitty says, “Holy fuck, Jackabee, slather that sauce all over my body and call me baby,” and that’s so much to process that they chirp him well past when the Falconers win the game.

____________

 

He doesn’t want Ransom around.

Holster tells himself this later that night as Ron’s snores fill his room, starfished in a bed that could easily fit two people, in an apartment that’s only set up for one.

He sends Gayle an email. this is random but have you found my future spouse?

That’s too much pressure for me, she writes back. Then: How much do you like picnics?

____________

 

Gayle sends him Lucy’s contact information the morning before they’re supposed to picnic in the park.

“Don’t stress it,” she tells him, smoothing down his blazer.

Evan chimes in with an “Adam, you’re a goddamn catch,” and Holster laughs at that. His laugh sounds pretty nervous to his ears, but with any luck he can figure it out before lunch.

That had been one of his few requirements. Very public space, no cigarette smokers, lunch dates so there’s a set time limit. It’s been awhile since he’s actually gone on a date with anyone other than Ransom. A real date, not just a quick hookup in Haus 2.0 to try and stave off how he felt about his best friend.

He does the math quickly. Esther S., he thinks. His last official date before Ransom.

Then he swears to himself he’ll take that to the grave. He’s already gone through enough chirping over her.

Lunchtime rolls around. Gayle and Evan both give him thumbs up that Vince and Susan mirror, and Holster returns them weakly.

He’s about to head out when Vince says, “Wait,” and eases off his tie. Holster starts at the unexpected contact. Vince blushes. “Sorry,” he says. “You look more casual this way. More relaxed.”

“Do I?” He checks himself out in one of the giant windows. Vince is right; it makes him seem more approachable when he’s just wearing his button up and khakis. Holster unbuttons his shirt a little, then turns for inspection.

Vince nods, still blushing. “Yeah, that’s better.”

And it — it feels like there could be something here, if he wanted it to be. Vince is cute. He’s smart too, Holster knows that from trivia, and he’s definitely driven; Holster has a hard time following him in conversation sometimes when he’s talking about projects he’s working on, because he ends up talking a mile a minute because he’s so excited about his research.

Vince hands Holster his tie back after a heartbeat and their fingers graze and Holster can see it in his face, that Vince is down if he is. He nearly says something about it before remembering he’s headed to a date right now, and that dating in the company made things awkward enough last time. He and Vince aren’t in the same department, but still.

“Thanks,” Holster says. He loops the tie over his neck, planning on leaving it in his car, and the way Vince’s eyes follow the movement makes him consider trying to talk him out of whatever he’s feeling. He’s not good at being crushed on

“Any time,” Vince tells him, and Holster nods and walks away before he can say something insulting or dumb by accident.

____________

 

Lucy’s in a beautiful yellow sundress that sets off her brown hair beautifully. He tells her this and she thanks him, smiling like he’s handed her something she already possesses, and it makes him feel like a dick pretty much right away.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t know — my friend, he always talks about — he’d kill me,” Holster finishes awkwardly.

Lucy waves it off. “It’s fine, I know you meant,” she says. “And I mean, I do appreciate it. Friend says she can set you up with a cute trivia god, you want to dress up.”

She hands him a blanket and he spreads it out underneath a very climbable tree, turning red over the compliment, while she takes Ziplocs out of the picnic basket. Gayle had moved the basket between them in the week previous, making sure they each could pack something they liked without making either of them have to cook both meals. Holster takes some of the containers and sets them around the blanket carefully, then offers her a hand to sit down. She takes it.

Once, senior year, everyone on the team had gotten an AirBnb to stay the weekend by a late a few hours’ drive away. Chowder and Tango had convinced everyone fishing was a good idea, and it was; they caught so many fish Rans had looked up the size allowance for keeping fish to eat. Holster had been in charge of unhooking Nursey’s fish because he was drunk, and even sloshed Nursey somehow managed to catch more than anyone else. He’d taken a lot of pictures for his Tinder account on the boat.

Holster has a very intimate knowledge of how fish feel in your hand. Lucy’s hand feels like a fish, cold and moist, and it’s not like he’d been expecting fireworks on his first ever blind date but he had not expected to hold hands with a woman who’s apparently got fish at the ends of her arms.

He wipes his hands in the grass as subtly as he can, trying to focus on the conversation enough to show her Gayle has good taste in men when she’s setting people up, which apparently can’t be said for him.

Lucy packed a tuna fish sandwich and frankly Holster thinks he deserves a medal for not asking her about how she’s cannibalizing it.

They argue a few times, mostly over how to pronounce Enjolras from Les Misérables, and then Holster’s lunch break is over. She hugs like a fish on land too, limp and unpleasant. Holster fakes a smile when they part.

“It was nice to meet you,” Lucy says. He doesn’t know her well enough to tell if she’s being serious or not.

“You, too,” he tells her, and he tries not to run away when he collects his Ziplocs.

It’s a short drive back. He refuses to think about how easy it was with Ransom, how his hands never felt fishy unless he was very sick, and when Gayle asks he just tells her “Your friend is part aquatic animal” and doesn’t clarify when she questions him. He does thank her though.

“No fish, got it,” Gayle says dryly.

He winces. “She seemed nice enough,” he offers, but Gayle pokes him.

“It’s okay. It didn’t go as planned, we move on. Your person’s out there,” she says. “Nothing wrong about not falling in love with the first person you see. Not that it would’ve been a problem if you had, but still.”

“Thanks, Gayle.”

She says, “I got you,” and he smiles.

____________

 

The Falcs lose in the conference finals. Holster takes Jack running on the same day Ransom had packed and left a year earlier. Ron joins them. Holster thinks he adds at least five minutes to their mile time, because he keeps wanting to bark at squirrels and smell bushes, but it’s a nice distraction.

They pass the spot where Holster told Jack everything. It doesn’t mean anything to him anymore, and he wonders how that can be before Ron drags him off to inspect an overgrown flower bed.

____________

 

Holster moves the ring from his underwear drawer to his bedside table to the closet to a bookshelf filled with all the seasons of all his favorite shows. He probably should’ve returned it; it would have paid for a few months of rent with enough leftover that he could spoil Ron with a new collar and pet bed. It’s hard to let go of things all at once. Now and then he regrets taking Ransom off all of his social media, but it’s an ache that’s been dulled by time.

Bitty invites him dancing now and then and Holster nearly always wants to text Rans when he gets drunk. He kept his number saved in his phone, just in case something unthinkable happens and he needs to get a hold of him. He tells himself it’s okay for him to take up this space in his life because it makes him feel calmer, like he’s got everything covered, has a plan.

He has the ring and he has the number and when he gets drunk now and then he thinks about why he’s holding onto both when he’s said they need to let go of each other and he knows — has promised, to many people — he said he’d talk about things more. But he doesn’t even know how to voice it to himself, so he doesn’t talk about it.

He slides the ring box under the bed in August and dusts it off again in September before finally sticking it the kitchen in a cabinet he never uses.

____________

 

Jason calls him into his office in mid October. It’s always kind of weird being here; it’s dark and dusty, not bright and airy the way his office would be if he had the chance to decorate. Or, y’know. If he had an office. It feels like being in Hall and Murray’s coaches’ room before a big game when he and Ransom had the A.

“Adam,” Jason says, shuffling his papers. “Sit down.”

Holster does. “What’s going on?” He has a sudden, irrational worry he’s about to get fired.

“We’re waiting on one more, then we can get started.”

This doesn’t help. Holster hasn’t done anything, unless Evan and Susan finally acted on their threat to report how many pop culture references he makes on a daily basis. But even that doesn’t make sense, that’s definitely not a fireable offense because if it were he would have been fired when he first started, and he goes round and round in this vein until the door opens and Ransom walks in.

It has been exactly ten months, thirteen days since they’ve last seen each other. Holster can’t do anything but stare.

Ransom looks good. He will be the first to admit that Ransom always looks incredible in sea foam blazers and white, slightly green tinged shirts and a faint shadow of a five o’clock shadow. A sort of effortless charm radiates off him in a way that tells you straight up if you hold his hand it will not feel like fish. Holster wishes he’d dressed better today, worn something other than his usual blue shirt and khakis. The shirt has a faint checked pattern to it that turns into solid blue at the cuffs. He pretends a need to adjust them to avoid staring any longer while Rans sits down.

Ransom’s gaze on him is a tangible thing. It always has been. He feels it slide down his neck to his biceps before turning to Jason.

“Thank you both for joining me,” Jason says finally. He sets down his papers. “This may be awkward, so I’m going to say it so we can deal with any issues or problems either of you have with it. We have an important potential foreign investor coming on the twenty-ninth and you two will be giving the company tour. We need people who have charisma and energy, and are capable of working well together, and the higher ups and myself have agreed it should be you two.”

He places a delicate stress on the word capable, which is wise, because it makes Holster check himself before he responds.

“Jason,” he says, trying not to sound like he’s on the verge of calling his boss an idiot. “I don’t know that this is the best idea.”

“Your disagreement is noted,” Jason says crisply. He steeples his fingers. “Before all of this nonsense, you two had the best chemistry of anyone here. Your joint presentations were — inspired, I think, is the word my boss used. This investor is going to bring in an extraordinary amount of money. We need this tour to go well, which means we need you two to get your asses in gear and knock this out.”

Ransom makes a noise that sounds like he just barely stopped himself from directly contradicting all the shit Jason just said. Holster glances at him, and they share a moment of our boss is an idiot. It doesn’t make being this close to him any more normal, but it makes it easier.

There’s no point in arguing with Jason right now. He’s got the steely eyebrows going, the kind that mean someone’s going to lose overtime pay if they say anything other than “On it boss,” so that’s what Holster says.

He and Ransom stand up in unison and Holster would laugh at that, if the fact of what Jason was making them do didn’t just hit him head on. They’re at the door when Rans speaks.

“When’s the tour?”

Jason doesn’t look up from his papers. “Next Friday. Day before Halloween.”

Holster has Jack and Bitty’s Halloween party invitation taped to his fridge. Jack has a game on Halloween. The party’s next Friday.

Because of fucking course it is.

Ransom lets the door ease shut. He presses his fingers to his temples, exhales shakily, and starts laughing under his breath. Holster joins in after a long, stunned moment.

“What the fuck,” Ransom says. He glances at Holster and apprehension is so clearly written in all the panes of his face. And then — more hidden, more guarded, so slight Holster would miss it completely if he wasn’t so well versed in reading Ransom, this: a tightness around his mouth, eyes open wide, the expression he wears when he’s cautiously hopeful.

“I’ve got trivia tonight,” Holster blurts. Anything to stop him looking like that.

It works. Ransom’s face shutters even more, pulling away. “Yeah, I should — we can work something out later.”

And Holster doesn’t miss him. He doesn’t. He tells himself this even as he says, “Do you — would you want to come with? I mean. If our job presentation’s on the line.”

It’s a hollow excuse. The truth of it is this: Ransom now looks the way he did when things started going wrong, and Holster is better now at recognizing these signs. The ones saying this could be a moment that changes things.

He doesn’t miss him. But maybe what it is, is that he doesn’t miss dating him. He realizes this in the bar as Gayle and Susan and Vince whisper-yell over each other, then when he sees how Ransom’s trying to hold in a laugh the entire time, and then again when Rans casually chimes in to answer some question about biology that makes Gayle nod at him in approval like she’s adding him to whatever her master plan is. Holster observes and joins in and something settles.

Maybe it’s that he misses being friends with Ransom. The second he thinks this it feels like removing a pebble from his shoe. Instant relief.

The host asks something about ancient castles in France. Holster barely pays attention, too busy with the way Ransom’s chirping Gayle’s handwriting. It means he has no excuse when Ransom hands her the dry erase marker and catches his gaze. He startles, flushing red like he’s been caught doing something obscene.

Then Ransom nods at him, smiling slightly like he understands what Holster has just realized. Holster nods back.

It’s a small thing. An almost imperceptible movement from both of them.

It feels like the ground underneath his feet has shifted back into place.

____________

 

After that, he breathes a little easier.

There’s less of a weight pressing down on his sternum now that he can mutter about Jason when he passes Ransom in the hallway and now that, on Tuesday morning, Ransom texts him about whether his socks match his outfit. Things don’t go immediately back to normal in the days leading up to their presentation, but Holster does breathe. He takes Ron on walks and Wednesday he texts Rans a picture of his dog lying in a bunch of leaves, heart hammering in his chest, and Rans replies what a good boy.

It’s weird. It’s odd knowing he can do this now, just text and Ransom will respond. In a way it feels like none of the last four years happened, that they went from Samwell to this as natural as anything.

There are hiccups. Holster suggests they meet up somewhere to go over things for Friday and Rans agrees, saying, “I wouldn’t mind seeing the ol’ place again, I guess,” and Holster fumbles over how to tell him he’d rented it out to a queer family who wanted their kids to play on real grass.

“Oh,” Rans says awkwardly. He slides his hands into his pockets.

“Yeah, I just — there wasn’t, you know, a good time to bring it up.”

“Yeah.”

They’re rescued by Vince, who comes into the break room and asks Holster to open a jar of pickles for him. Holster’s only too glad to comply.

It’s to be expected, he tells himself later. It’s illogical to expect them to go back to who they were before everything, at least not in every way. There’s too much history hanging in the air between them for that.

After some deliberation, he texts Ransom a GIF of Leslie Knope making a ridiculous face. Rans sends back the laugh-crying emoji, paired with his own GIF, and they have a conversation entirely in GIFs for the rest of the evening.

____________

 

On Friday, Holster picks out his nicest buttery-yellow shirt and best blue khakis and uses that gel Bitty bought and he looks pretty damn good, if he says so himself. He still doesn’t have a Halloween costume, but at least he’ll look good enough for this tour.

His phone chirps. what’re you wearing? we gotta coordinate this ish.

Holster starts typing, then hesitates. It’d be much easier to just send him a picture, but he can’t remember if that’s what they did before they started dating. He doesn’t want to seem like he’s fishing for compliments.

He sends, clothes. He can almost see the eye roll Rans would be giving him if they were in person.

what colors, Birker, is what I meant.

Holster narrows his eyes at the nickname. Thought we agreed you wouldn’t call me that.

Ah, right, privileges revoked at the 2014 kegster. My b .

There’s a pause in which Holster holds his phone up to take a selfie, then puts his phone down, then holds it up again. The cycle repeats itself a few times and he’s actually about to just fuck it and pose when Ransom’s face pops up on his phone screen with the words Ransom would like FaceTime .

It’s a picture Jack took of them the first Thanksgiving they were together. Seeing it’s like a sucker punch to the gut. He’d forgotten to change the contact photo when they broke up.

He swipes to allow the call, holding his breath.

“C’mon, lemme see the look, we gotta rock this,” Ransom says without preamble. He’s somehow still lying in bed, which makes no sense. They have to be at work in an hour, and Holster knows from years of first hand experience that Ransom’s morning routine takes at least thirty-five minutes. Unless he lives closer than Holster does, there’s no way he’s going to make it.

Holster says, “One sec.”

He frantically finger combs his hair and adjusts his tie before flipping the camera so Rans can see his outfit. Ransom’s eyes widen.

“Is this your Halloween costume?”

Holster’s brow knits. “No?”

Ransom sucks in his lips the way he does when he’s trying not to smile too wide. A hint of his smile peeks out at the corners anyway.

“Holtzy,” Rans says, voice gentle. Something in Holster’s stomach twists at the nickname. “The glasses? The white undershirt? You look like that fucking Arthur meme.”

“Fuck off,” Holster says.

He doesn’t quite give it the right inflection for it to land as a joke. On the screen, Ransom clears his throat, eyes downcast.

Holster sighs. “I didn’t mean—”

Ransom interrupts before he finishes. “I know you didn’t. I’m sorry.”

“What? No, you’re right, I do. It didn’t come out right. And I mean, I don’t have a costume yet. So I guess now I do?”

Ransom smiles weakly. “It’s a good look,” he says. He moves out of the screen briefly to get out of bed. When he reappears he’s upside down, seemingly leaning over the top of his phone. “I have to go, I need to get dressed.”

“Okay,” Holster says, and they hang up. He’s left with an unsettled feeling in his gut.

He changes Ransom’s contact picture to the generic one.

____________

 

The foreign investor is a woman and her group from Sweden who seem genuinely interested in and charmed by their repartee. He and Rans had managed to exchange a brief “Everything okay?” before meeting them, which had helped; things weren’t okay, not really, but it’s not something Holster can explain, so they move forward and charm to shit out of everyone present. Even Jason cracks a smile when he pops in to see how they’re doing. Holster gives Ransom a subtle low five when their tour group can’t see.

Vince stops by to give them a rundown on what he’s been working on in R&D and Holster takes that time to do a real check in.

“How’re you doing?” he asks in a low undertone.

Ransom steps back until they’re side by side, turning his head so he can hear what Vince is saying and still whisper back. “How long have you and Vince been together?”

Holster blinks. “What?”

“It’s none of my business, so like. Don’t feel like you have to answer, or anything,” Ransom says. He doesn’t sound upset, but it’s there in how tightly he’s holding his jaw. “Just wondering.”

“Are you jealous?” Holster asks without thinking. Ransom’s jaw clenches even tighter. “Sorry, that’s not what I meant to say.”

Ransom shakes his head, whispering, “It’s nothing, really. Forget I said anything. I’m happy for you, he’s a great guy.”

Holster wants to contradict him. This is not how he was hoping today would go; he’d wanted them to be as charismatic as they used to be. Tag teaming just like playing on the same line, two people so in sync they know exactly where each joke and comment is going to land and how to maximize its impact.

They should be friends again. This whole week, he thinks, as Ransom claps his hands and thanks Vince for joining them, really felt like they were about to be friends again.

____________

 

The investors leave after praising them handsomely to Jason. Jason clasps them both on the shoulder and, shaking them slightly, says, “I told you. You two work so well together when you can leave personal shit behind you,” and Holster hides you’re an idiot with a cough. Ransom snorts.

He’d been thinking about offering to drive tonight, had figured it would make sense for them both to show up to the party together. Less of an environmental burden, and, if he’s being honest, maybe a way for them to talk out some of this tension between them. But then Ransom’s saying “See you at the party” without meeting his eyes and walking past him to the parking garage and Holster can’t decide if he wants to see him at the party.

Right now he wants to get drunk. Jack and Bitty’s place is big enough that they can hide from each other, easy, if they want to. Maybe this time he’ll stake out the balcony for himself.

____________

 

Holster stakes out the balcony for himself.

He’d come twenty minutes late so he could ease into everything, party already full swing, and escape to the second floor after saying a quick hello to his friends. Jack had been worrying at his bottom lip in a way that tells Holster Ransom had probably said something to him, but Jack hadn’t asked about anything, and Holster loves him for that. Sitting on the balcony with his feet dangling off the ledge, he has no idea what he would have said. He should probably fill Jack in soon.

Right now he’s too busy with his drink to figure out any plan for bringing it up. It’s a nice night for this. The perfect amount of stars are out, the bass thrums faintly in the tiles beneath him, and there’s such a nice breeze flowing over him. He imagines it taking all his stress and annoyance and whisking it away. He closes his eyes.

Footsteps behind him, and the breeze picks up a subtle tinge of cologne. This time he doesn’t turn around.

“Is this seat taken?” Ransom asks quietly. Holster shakes his head, still with his eyes closed. He’s vaguely aware of Ransom sitting next to him. “I, uh. I need to apologize to you.”

Holster is petty enough to agree. He doesn’t say this out loud. “What for?”

“Today, for starters.” Rans pauses. Holster imagines him breathing in the fresh air too, letting it soothe him. Then he realizes he could just open his eyes and see for himself, which starts an internal war over whether or not he wants to see Ransom’s costume; the mermaid shorts are still ingrained in his memory.

Something scrapes against the tiles and it takes Holster too long to figure out Ransom was setting down his own drink. He clears his throat. “For starters?”

“Yeah,” Ransom says. “And, you know. The last year or so too, I think.”

This makes him open his eyes. He stares at Rans in surprise, tries to ignore how he’s really only wearing a loose mesh shirt and incredibly short shorts, and says, “The last year?”

“I’ve been talking a lot with Shitty lately,” Ransom says as a way of explaining. Holster nods, somewhat clued in. He has a decent idea of what he’s about to say. “He opened my eyes a lot, especially when I told him what happened after the wedding. What we said to each other. And then I told him about this last week, and Lards was there, and they both kind of metaphorically kicked my ass and said something like, ‘You’re too selfish with him, this could be a moment for you to be friends again,’ right?” Holster nods. Ransom runs his hand over his hair self-consciously. “Yeah. So. I kinda fucked that up earlier, like pretty bad, and I want to apologize for that.”

“I appreciate your apology,” Holster says after a beat. “It hurt. I was hoping the same thing, y’know? That we could be friends again. And I didn’t know how to respond when you asked about Vince, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, that’s—”

“You don’t have to! It’s okay, I shouldn’t have — gotten jealous like that, it’s just that on top of hearing you rented out the house, it’s a lot to process at once.”

He could leave it here, let Rans keep thinking what he’s thinking and change the topic to something like how much of a dick Jason can be. It’s so tempting a thing to do. Ransom’s sitting next to him and he thinks he’s dating someone and he looks — okay with it, mostly, and they’re in the same place they were a year ago.

It’s funny how much can change in a year. It’s funny it took them this long to actually sit down and talk to each other like they aren’t furious with each other.

He doesn’t want to ruin that.

He says, “Vince and I aren’t dating. I think he has a crush, maybe, but he’s never acted on it, and I don’t feel the same way.”

Ransom nods slowly, and Holster can almost see him processing this. He wonders what he’s thinking.

“But I mean, there’s got to be someone,” Ransom says. He gestures up and down Holster’s body. “You’re wonderful, don’t tell me no one’s chasing you.”

It’s an awkward transition, but they’re just tipsy enough for it to work. So Holster plays along. He talks about the dates Gayle had set up for him, how all of them were off in one way or another or didn’t know any of his references or hated on Liz Lemon and then spilled wine all over his pants. Ransom interjects with questions at the exact right moments and it makes something hopeful bloom in Holster’s chest, that they can fold themselves into conversation like this again.

Ransom tells him about his adventures on the seventh floor and how his team members are a bunch of former lacrosse players who are so annoying they make him wish he could bust out some of the pranks they pulled in college. He talks about how one of them ate tuna fish that made the floor stink for a week, which reminds Holster of fish hands girl, so he goes off on a tangent trying to explain the exact texture and feeling of her hands. He’s not even three-fourths of the way through the story when Ransom starts laughing so hard he can barely breathe and it’s wonderful, the knowledge he can still make him laugh like this.

It feels like things are snapping into place again, for real this time. Holster finally finishes comparing Lucy’s hands to soaked wheat bread when Ransom’s alarm goes off on his phone.

“Sorry,” he says, tapping on his phone. The alarm fades out. “I’m calling my grandparents in the morning, I need to start heading.”

Holster yawns and stands, stretching, then offers to help Rans to his feet. Ransom’s hands do not feel like fish. When they hug, Holster turns his face into Rans’ neck on instinct before remembering they’re broken up and friends don’t hug like that. Ransom squeezes him comfortingly, though, so he doesn’t think he minds much.

“Good night,” Holster whispers. When he speaks, his lips just graze Ransom’s skin. He draws back to avoid thinking about that too much. Ransom’s hands linger on his waist before he lets go.

Ransom absently rubs his neck right over the spot Holster’s mouth was. Holster studies his hands. “Night,” Rans says then, sliding open the door to step back inside, and at once the light from below illuminates his face and makes the door glow bright.

It tugs on a feeling he doesn’t want to name.

Ransom’s nearly closed the door completely before Holster finds his voice again.

“Rans?”

Ransom pauses. “Yeah?”

“What — what are you dressed as?” Holster asks. He doesn’t let himself think about how that question might have ended.

Rans makes a face. “You’re gonna chirp me until I’m eighty-five,” he says ruefully. “I’m a hockey goal.”

Holster has no immediate response to that. “Um,” he says.

“Don’t stress it,” Ransom says, smiling. He starts easing the door shut again. “You’ll come up with something. Good night.”

Holster says, “Good night,” and it comes out in a whisper. He doesn’t think he imagines the way Ransom’s face softens.

He hopes he doesn’t.

____________

 

finally got it: makes sense, you always liked catching than shooting.

Ransom replies with O_O and a tasteful fuck you, Holster.

Holster sends his message before stopping to think about it. you mean that the other way around, right?

He gets a slew of middle finger emojis in response. Holster climbs into bed, smiling, and Ron snuggles up to him right away. Ron licks his chin sleepily. Holster kisses his forehead, and they fall asleep.

____________

 

He was going to ask this: what do I do if I think I still have feelings for you?

He texts it to the group chat a week later instead.

Bitty promises pie within the next hour.

____________

 

“Hold up,” Bitty says. He’s got flour all over his clothes and Holster watches as some of it sifts onto his kitchen floor. Jack quietly gets up to grab a beer from the six pack Shitty and Lardo brought over, bringing one back to Lardo without her verbally asking. Holster still doesn’t really understand how they communicate. He’s learned by now to both respect and fear it.

Holster says, “Holding,” and Bitty gently slaps his arm.

“You still have feelings for him?”

He fiddles with the salt and pepper shakers. “I guess, yeah.”

“When did you figure that out?” Lardo asks levelly. She almost unconsciously reaches for Shitty’s hand and he threads their fingers together, pressing a kiss to the inside of her wrist.

“Last night,” Holster says. “I don’t know what it was, I thought I just missed being friends, not missed dating him. And then he hugged me and it just — it felt like, maybe, he could still, you know. Love me. But I don’t want, y’know. We’re barely a day in to being friends again. I can’t fuck that up.”

Shitty slides the blueberry crumble over to him. Holster thanks him through a huge mouthful of pie.

“What do you want to do about this,” Jack says, like this is something they can plan out in diagrams on whiteboards and make happen as easily as drawing hockey plays. “It feels like you’ve got a few options here.”

It feels like too many options. He says, “I don’t know,” and Jack nods like he expected this from him. Holster doesn’t know whether to be happy or exasperated at himself that he’s so obvious.

“We can brainstorm,” Shitty says. “Okay. So. Option one. You don’t say anything. You pine until you can’t pine anymore, eventually leading to a more traumatic ghosting on your part.”

They go around the table offering ideas. Option two, you don’t say anything, you stay friends, you suffer in silence while he dates other people and maybe gets married. Option three, you tell him and it blows up in your face. Option four, you tell him and it doesn’t blow up in your face because he doesn’t feel the same way you do but he still wants to be friends. Option five, you tell him and he feels the same way and it’s wonderful. Option six, you tell him and he feels the same way and it’s the same as last time. Option seven, he tells you first and it’s incredible.

Shitty, Lardo, and Bitty contribute the most options. Sometime around 3:45 PM Jack starts chopping something he and Bitty had brought with them. A delicious smell fills the room fifteen minutes later when he starts sizzling something in a saucepan, and Holster’s too overwhelmed by the possible outcomes to offer to help. Jack doesn’t seem to mind, though. Holster snags his hand at some point and squeezes his gently to say thank you. Jack lightly taps his wrist to say don’t worry about it.

“What about option fifteen,” Holster says thirty minutes later, two gigantic tacos on the plate before him.

“What’s option fifteen,” Lardo asks through a mouthful of food.

Holster says, “I ask my friend Gayle to set me up and I get over him,” and they all pause.

“You could definitely do that,” Bitty says carefully. “Are you sure that’s gonna help?”

He shrugs. “It’s better than half of the things you all mentioned. I could maybe get over him faster with someone else.”

Now that he’s thinking about it he probably doesn’t need Gayle to set him up. Vince would probably be up for a date, and he already thinks Vince’s work is fascinating, even if he doesn’t understand it. They would have enough to talk about.

A strain of guilt creeps up at this thought, though. It’s not fair to use Vince like this.

“We support you, no matter what,” Lardo says then. “You know that, right? If this is what you want to do, we support you.”

It sounds like she’s trying to avoid saying a but. Holster eats his taco and waits for someone to chime in.

Shitty drops his head into his hands the way he does when he’s incredibly frustrated with something. “No, brah, you know that’s not what you want to do.”

It stings, hearing this. “Isn’t it?” Holster says.

“Tell him! You know you want to tell him. We know you want to tell him. Goddammit, Holster, just fucking communicate with him for once, maybe it’ll turn out better than you expect.”

“Yeah, and maybe it’ll be worse! What if this is how I lose him again, I’m not ready for that. I wasn’t ready last time. I can’t—” He trails off, trying to find his train of thought. He’s suddenly aware that both Jack and Bitty are rubbing his back. “I don’t want him not in my life. I can’t risk him not feeling the same way, Shits, can’t you see that?”

He takes a deep breath.

It’s funny to think about how far along he thought he was when he’s been in the same place this whole fucking time.

“I don’t know,” Holster says quietly, making eye contact with all of them in turn. “How not to love him. I thought I did and I don’t. I just — I just don’t want to lose him, and not losing him right now means not loving him like this.”

“Okay,” Shitty whispers. He sounds hoarse; Holster sneaks a peek at him and is shocked to see him wiping away tears. “Okay. How can we help?”

Holster says, “I don’t know that you can.”

They’re quiet after that.

____________

 

He and Ransom hang out now and then after work. It’s always kind of short — having a dog is a great excuse to get out of social events, he’s found — but it’s always nice, too. Holster tries to focus on the conversation instead of the way Ransom looks in whatever outfit he’s put together and for a few hours he can almost believe what he’s feeling is just friendship and nothing else.

They roam around to new bars and new spots in the parks, searching without saying it outright for places they’ve never been before and especially spots they never went to as a couple. A problem arises in November when Holster realizes these outings look like dates if you squint, and he heads back to Buffalo with the excuse that Hanukkah’s just around the corner. Rans doesn’t question it. He spends the eight days listening to Brianna and his mom argue over the pool and helping his dad make latkes and roasted chicken and matzo ball soup. His dad slips him extra sufganiyot in the kitchen when they aren’t looking.

He pulls Gayle aside after trivia in mid December to tell her about his problem and she responds with so much enthusiasm it makes him wonder why he hadn’t mentioned it earlier. When he brings it up, Jack suggests that he hadn’t wanted to make it real yet. Holster just kind of nods and ducks his head to avoid facing the truth of it head on.

“Lunch break isn’t gonna cut it this time,” Gayle says a few days later. “Is that okay? He’s on a busy schedule, it’ll have to be dinner.”

Hope crashes through him. “You found someone?” Holster says eagerly.

“I did,” she says. “I expect to be invited to the wedding, okay?”

“As if I’d leave my trivia captain off the guest list,” he teases, and she elbows him playfully.

He goes home that day feeling strangely light. “Things are happening,” he says, scratching Ron behind the ears. Ron wags his tail like he understands what he’s saying. “This could be really, really good.”

Of course, it could be really, really bad too. He doesn’t dwell on that; he can’t. He texts his group chat instead and tries about five different ways to bring it up with Rans before giving up.

____________

 

Gayle had told him to wear his nicest shirt and slacks and then named a restaurant only just within his budget. When he’d said this, she told him, “Have I ever steered you wrong?”

“I told you about your friend with the fish hands, right?”

She had gently whacked his chest, sighing her why do I try sigh. He had smiles at her sheepishly.

“You’re lucky I know you’re a sweetheart,” she has said, eyes narrowed playfully, “or I’d say you were being a complete dick.”

He’d said, “I can be both at the same time,” and she’d wagged her finger at him.

Holster stands now in front of his closet mirror and adjusts his tie. He doesn’t have Bitty’s eye for colors and patterns, but he thinks he’s done a decent job. White shirt with pink checks, sky blue suit jacket, light khaki dress pants. He checks himself over, runs a hand self consciously through his hair, and, after scratching Ron on the head a few times, heads out.

The radio station plays several songs in a row that he knows enough to sing to. This is a good ass sign, he tells himself, even though he hits traffic a few miles from downtown proper. Hopefully he can still get there early enough to pick out a table and settle his nerves.

He’d told Gayle to tell her friend not to get his hopes up, that he hasn’t done much in the last year and what he has done hasn’t been anything he really considers “dating.” He doesn’t want this to be a letdown for either of them.

Gayle had looked at him over the rim of her glasses and said, “Adam, you’re a goddamn catch, remember? You’ve got to remember everything you’ve been through and how you came out of it, maybe with some dings and scratches, but you survived it. You’re doing so much better now. You’re allowed to be nervous and you’re allowed to want things.”

Her voice plays in his head as he pulls into the parking lot. He shoots off a quick text to tell her he made it and then another to Jack, Bitty, Shitty, and Lardo, who all send a flurry of good lucks and you got this back. Jack sends a separate message seconds afterward, and Holster takes a second before replying so he doesn’t cry all over his nice clothes.  

It says, Deep breaths. I believe in you.

Sometimes it’s little things like this that set him off. It shouldn’t be too much of a thing; it’s a blind date, he hasn’t dated in awhile, his friends want it to go well. But it’s Jack, and Jack believes in him, and somehow that means more than the others. He hadn’t realized how much he needed someone to say that.

Holster writes, Thanks, Jack, and maybe he sniffles a little, but that’s no one’s business but his own. He takes a deep breath and goes inside.

____________

 

She’s picked a damn nice place. Holster makes a note to tell her as he’s seated. It’s got the same sort of vibe he gets from “The Room Where It Happens” off the Hamilton soundtrack, the same sort of feeling that this could be used as a backdrop for politics machinations at night while masquerading as a fine dining establishment in the early evening. It feels like there should be chandeliers. He’s kind of disappointed there aren’t.

He sits for five minutes before texting Gayle about the chandeliers when he gets a text from her that his date is coming inside right now.

He’s on the verge getting up so he can meet his date — do they shake hands? Hug? Kiss on the cheek? — when the doors open.

Holster drops back into his chair.

Ransom’s wearing a glorious sunset yellow suit and he’s looking right at Holster and his gaze has always felt tangible, but right now it’s a whole other thing entirely. It feels as if he’s piercing into his very sense of being, like he’s peeling back every layer searching for an answer to a question he can’t voice just yet. Holster can’t move. It’s like sitting in front of the full force of the sun.

He makes his way over, lips moving, and Holster dazedly tunes in to hear him say “don’t be mad with Gayle, it was my idea, I just — there are still some things I need to say to you, and it’s okay if you don’t feel the same way, but I thought we could both get some closure. If nothing else.” He sits down, placing his napkin in his lap out of what Holster knows to be habit.

This burst of familiarity bursts him out of his trance. “What’re you doing here,” he says. It doesn’t come out right; it sounds like he’s telling him he loves him without actually saying it. It’s something to do with the way his voice caresses the word you, something about how he lingers on here like he can’t quite believe Rans is really sitting across the table from him.

He thinks maybe he’s tired of not saying it. He thinks Rans can hear it. A part of him hopes so.

Ransom slowly, deliberately slides his hand across the table palm up, and Holster slowly, deliberately threads their fingers together.

He’s almost always been able to read Rans without even trying, knows him like he knows anything and everything and is in tune to every move he makes, even before they started dating. They’ve held hands platonically; this could be nothing but a desire to be closer to him the way they were before everything fell to pieces. Holster would let himself believe this if not for the fact that Ransom’s sucking in his bottom lip like he’s nervous, giving Holster eyes that say he wants something from him if he’s willing to give it.

Then Rans says, quietly, “I wanted to talk about why we broke up. The real reason, not whatever excuses we told ourselves.” Holster steadily meets his gaze as he asks, “Is that okay?”

“Why?” Holster whispers. Rans starts playing with his fingers and it’s soothing, mostly. “Why do we need to talk about this.”

He has some ideas. It would be good to finally know. They’ve hurt each other enough times before without talking about the real cause behind it, because they’re Ransom and Holster and they should be better at talking than they are. And — a tiny, selfish part of him thinks if they can talk about it now, maybe they can move forward together afterward. Maybe it’ll clear this space between them and they can start over again. Breathe easier.

But mostly he wants to know because he has no idea, hasn’t considered there’d be any underlying main reason before just now. He takes a sip of water and he feels Rans’ eyes on him as he swallows.

“Because I found the ring,” Rans says.

Holster’s hands still.

He says it quietly, softly. It still feels like a bomb has gone off around them. There’s a strange ringing noise in Holster’s ears.

“When?” he whispers, at the same time a waiter appears to talk them through the dinner specials. Holster leaves navigating the waiter’s conversation to Ransom, trying desperately to focus on the feeling of their hands intertwined and the condensation at the base of his water glass.

He found the ring. He found the ring and this is why they fell apart, Ransom didn’t love him enough to want a life with him. Didn’t love him enough to say so. Holster’s mind flashes to the cabinet in the kitchen where he hid the ring box and almost angrily wishes he’d returned it when he had the chance.

No, not angrily. Tearfully. He isn’t crying right now but he could be.

The waiter asks about any special drinks for them. Ransom orders them both a whiskey on the rocks. Holster nods agreement in a haze.

“Holtzy?” Rans says, gentle and apprehensive at once. “You still with me?”

Holster shuts his eyes. Massages his temple with his free hand. “Why didn’t you tell me,” he says. He feels Ransom’s fingers continue playing with his own and can’t stop from imagining a ring on both their hands. He pulls his hand back. “If you didn’t feel the same. We could have talked about it, worked through it.”

“Yeah, we were great at communicating,” Rans says with a little laugh. The sound is a little hollow. Holster opens his eyes to see Rans taking a big gulp of whiskey and wincing at the burn. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to disappoint you, I wasn’t ready to get married.”

Holster says, “Neither was I,” and Rans gives him a look . Eyebrows raised and everything. “No, listen. I wanted to. We never talked about getting married, at least seriously, but I knew it would be you if we ever did. I just — wanted to be ready, I guess. I had no timeline in mind.” He fluffs up his hair self consciously. “When we broke up I thought about how things would be different if I’d already proposed, whether or not we’d be better at talking and could have gotten through the rough patch with work. But I was worrying about the wrong thing, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Rans whispers, sounding miserable. He clears his throat. “I didn’t want you on your knee knowing I couldn’t make you happy.”

Holster starts fiddling with his cuffs, then realizes what he’s doing and stops. Rans offers his hand again without comment and Holster takes it gratefully.

“Can I ask you something,” Holster says after they order. He hadn’t looked at the menu at all, just pointed to something random on the first page. Hopeful it’ll turn out okay.

Ransom says, “Anything.”

“Do you still,” he starts, then stops. If this was a movie, this pause would be another moment that could change everything. He needs to get the wording right. “Do you have any feelings for me?”

Rans’ lips part and immediately Holster wants to rewind the film, cut out the part where he asked so he could ask something better. Something that wouldn’t make him look like he missed a step on the way down the stairs. Holster’s about to say never mind, you don’t have to answer that, when Rans speaks.

“Please don’t ask me that,” he whispers, sliding his hand out of Holster’s. “Please don’t ask me that if you’re just doing it to be selfish, to know I’m still here if you want me to be. I — I don’t think I could handle that, if you did.”

Holster takes a shuddering breath. This is it.

“In some other universe,” he says quietly, “there’s a better way we’re meant to do this. It’s supposed to be beautiful and aching and everything at once. I don’t know how to say this besides just saying it.”

He peeks at Ransom. He’s crossed his arms over his chest and he’s picking at nonexistent lint on his elbow and his face is still crumpled like a crushed soda can but he’s still here, he’s still listening, he still loves Holster.

Helplessly, Holster says, “I wanted to tell you. I’m in love with you, Rans. I love you. I tried not to be and I was fine and then you walked in tonight, and … I don’t know how, or why, and I’ve sort of decided to stop trying not to. I think you’re sort of it for me.”

It feels like ages as Ransom processes what he’s saying. Holster wills him to understand so intently he nearly gives himself a headache. He sees the exact moment Rans hears him, really, truly hears him; it dawns over him like a sunrise.

“You love me,” he whispers, face full of wonder. “What you said at the wedding — I didn’t think that was something I could hope for anymore.”

“It surprised me too,” Holster says, “if that helps.”

Ransom rolls his eyes, but he’s beaming. “You always know what to say.”

“I won’t,” Holster says quietly. It’s suddenly very important for Rans to understand this, that he won’t be perfect if they’re going to do this. “I’m gonna fuck up, maybe even often. But I want to have the opportunity to fuck up and work through it with you.”

“Are you asking me out?” Ransom asks. There’s a smile waiting at the corners of his lips.

Holster shrugs in an if you want to sort of way. His heart is beating so fast it’s a wonder Ransom can’t hear it. Rans’ index and middle finger settle in the hollow of his wrist.

“Are you taking my fucking pulse right now,” Holster says when it clicks.

Rans’ eyes crinkle when he finally smiles. “Wanted to see what would happen when I said yes.”

Relief floods through him. Holster relaxes, and Rans says something about his heart rate slowing and Holster calls him a nerd and there’s a long, full moment where they eat and just look at each other, Holster seeing Rans and being seen by him right back.

His gaze dips to Rans’ mouth and throat, the dip of his collarbone, where his neck and shoulders meet. Marking a route. Not for today, maybe, but they’ve got enough tomorrows stretching before them. He meets Rans’ eyes again. Rans winks at him.

____________

 

They leave a good tip. Rans helps him back into his coat and he returns the favor, and when they go out onto the street, Holster twines their fingers together.

It’s still early. Gayle had arranged their dinner for 6 PM and it’s only 8:24 PM now. There’s so much they could do out in the town, so much they could do if they went back to one of their places. Possibility hangs thick in the air between them. Holster wants to kiss him.

He looks so bright surrounded by all the snow. Holster takes a picture of him looking up into the sky as snowflakes dust his shoulders and eyelashes and his hands are shaking from the fact of him here, lovely in the winter and warm when he takes Holster’s hand again, even if his nose is cold when he kisses Holster’s cheek. Holster snaps a photo of this too.

“Are you posting that?” Rans murmurs against his neck.

“I was sort of thinking about keeping it for myself, if that’s okay.”

Ransom pretends to consider this, sliding his hands to frame Holster’s face, holding him like he’s something precious. “Only if you’re planning on keeping me for yourself too,” he says. His pupils are so wide.

Instead of saying anything, Holster kisses him. Ransom kisses him back, wrapping his arms around his neck to bring him closer, Holster holding him by the waist to do the same. His lips are as soft and gentle as a fresh snowfall.

“Hey,” Holster whispers when they part.

Ransom whispers, “Hey,” back, kissing him again before taking him by the hand and leading him down the street.

“Where’re we going?”

Rans shrugs and the movement is as light as air. “Not sure yet. Somewhere. Nowhere. It’s a nice night out. Think it wants to be enjoyed.”

____________

 

They wander around Providence until they’re both too cold to keep going. Ransom had taken an Uber. Holster drives him home, his hand stroking Holster’s thigh, and Holster kisses him before he gets out of the car. And then again saying good night at the door, and many times inside in Rans’ bed, and then again in the morning.

“Look at me,” Ransom whispers. Holster props himself up on his elbows, tucking a pillow under his chin. He looks at him. Rans’ face relaxes. “Hey.” He runs his fingers over the scar on Holster’s chin and Holster kisses his fingers, then draws him into a lazy kiss that sends sparks through his entire body.

There are maybe some more things they should talk about. Rans should meet Ron, for starters, and Holster needs to figure out another spot for the ring box, and someone needs to figure out a way to tell their friends what’s happening. He should tell his parents, and Bri, and quickly catch Rans up on the pool drama before he says anything to set them off again. He wants to show Rans his apartment.

Ransom moves Holster’s hand to his ass and Holster rolls so Rans is on top of him. Holster runs his hands over his waist, his thighs, his shoulder blades. He takes his time relearning how Ransom feels under his fingers. It feels like they have so much of it ahead of them.

“I love you,” Holster says. Ransom looks at him and he says it again and Rans smooths his hair back, presses their foreheads together.

“I love you, too,” he whispers. “I think I always have. Meant to say that earlier.”

“S’okay,” Holster tells him. He’s so warm he’s making him sleepy again; he yawns, and Rans chirps him softly.

“Late night?”

Holster kisses him again, savoring the fact that he can do this. That he woke up and both of them were still here. “Yeah,” he says, trailing his fingertips up Rans’ back to make him shiver. “Someone kept me up.”

Ransom hums. Holster feels it against his chest. “I’m sleepy too,” he yawns. “Think we should stay in bed a little while longer?”

“Unless you’ve got a better place to be.”

“I like being next to you,” Rans says, pulling the blankets around them. Holster laughs quietly. “On top of you, I mean. Both.”

Holster says, “I like having you here,” and Rans hums again.

Everything else can wait, he thinks. All those things they should do can wait. Right now — Ransom’s lips brushing the soft skin under Holster’s jaw, Holster tangling their legs together and holding him to his chest as if he were something impossible — Holster wants to live in this as long as he can. He closes his eyes.

____________

 

He breathes easy when he wakes up. When Ransom sleepily says, “You’re still here,” Holster tells him, “I’m planning on waking up next to you as much as I can.”

“Okay,” Rans says. He smiles. “I’ll allow it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Outside the window the day spreads out, sprawling and lazy, wanting to be enjoyed. Holster yawns and stretches and says, “Wanna go out for brunch?”

Ransom slides out of bed. “Bits always has good recommendations, we can ask him.”

Asking Bitty necessitates a new group chat, which leads to some ecstatic swearing from Shitty and chirps aplenty from Jack and Lardo for just getting out of bed at 1:32 PM. Holster reads out some of their cleverer ones while they shower, Ransom curling around him to read over his shoulder as he carefully holds his phone out of the water.

He sends them the picture he took of Ransom kissing his cheek the night before and mutes his notifications so he kiss Rans against the wall of his shower.

“Do I look like I’m doing a walk of shame,” Holster says as he gets dressed. His shirt and pants are both conspicuously wrinkled, and his hair just kind of droops down over his forehead. He tries to style it back with water. It droops right back.

“Little bit.” Ransom’s clothing has no wrinkles on it. Holster considers walking him backward to the bed to change that but Rans takes his hand before he can, whispering all kinds of things he wants to do later, and Holster’s too distracted to realize they’re on their way out the door until Rans locks it behind him.

“Sneaky,” Holster says. Rans wraps his arm around Holster’s waist. He slides his hand into Rans’ back pocket.

He never thought they’d be here again. He lets himself feel the moment, how far they are from who they were before this. All the things he wants to do better. The way Ransom’s looking at him, Holster thinks he’s thinking the same thing. There’s a promise of longer than forever in his eyes.

Rans kisses him, saying, “I’ll make it up to you later,” and they step out into the world.

________________________