If JT had thought about it before everything happened, he probably would've guessed that he wouldn't survive the apocalypse.
In the movies, there's always something to fight. It's zombies or it's aliens or it's giant monsters; there are sharks in tornadoes for some reason, or there are bad guys approaching from all directions. JT would've thought he'd go down fighting, hopefully saving someone. A bus full of schoolkids, maybe. That would be kind of heroic, at least.
The end of the world doesn't happen like that, though. It starts with someone coughing in an airport, and then the next day fifteen thousand people are dead. The day after that it's almost three million, and it just keeps spreading, too fast for anyone to do anything about it, too quickly to even try to treat it.
"Hey," Jesse says, pulling JT out of his thoughts as she pokes at his arm. "Are you sure we're going the right way?"
JT rolls his eyes. "I'm as sure as I can be."
"And how sure is that?" Morgan calls from behind Jesse.
"The same amount of sure I've been since you started asking me that question," JT replies. "So, like, pretty sure, but not totally sure."
Jesse snorts. "I'm so glad we're trusting you on this."
JT bites his tongue, doesn't say the first thing that comes to his mind, or the second: the things about how he'd tried to convince them to stay, tried to tell them that walking from Chicago to Denver was going to be all kinds of awful. It hadn't been easy on the way up, and he's sure that time has taken its toll on everything since. Three and a half years is a long time to not be able to do road maintenance.
"I miss cars," Morgan says with a sigh.
JT points; they're walking beside the highway, more or less, and they're close enough to see the deserted cars that break up the landscape every so often. "Found one."
"Asshole," Jesse says, and he can almost hear her rolling her eyes. "Whatever. Go back to daydreaming, and we'll amuse ourselves."
"Sounds good to me," he says, adjusting his pack, and Morgan coughs to cover what he's sure is a laugh. He glances over his shoulder to see Jesse fall back to Morgan, and she gives him a little nod before picking up the discussion they'd been having earlier about something one of Morgan's professors said before the sickness.
JT sighs and turns back around. They're going the right way and he knows it; just because the world has kind of crumbled doesn't mean he doesn't remember driving the distance between Denver and Northbrook in the past. He knows the way, but it's not the way that he's worried about.
After everything, after the scramble to not risk exposure and the scientists working as quickly as they could to develop something, anything, to treat the sickness, after watching society fall to pieces as quickly as the people supporting it were dying off, JT found himself in Denver with most of his team intact. They were young, said the doctor who gave JT what they cobbled together and called a vaccine. They were in great shape; they were tough.
They were probably just more lucky than most, is the conclusion JT had come to.
Denver and the surrounding cities had been home to about three million people before the sickness swept through. There was no survival rate; nobody recovered if they got the sickness. They'd searched, after; the combined total number of survivors hadn't filled half of the Pepsi Center. They hadn't even filled half of the lower bowl.
They'd broken into groups and scavenged what they could; JT remembers how creepy it had been, the doors of the Safeway sliding open without a sound for him, the overhead lights flickering weirdly as he and Kerfy and Josty pushed carts through it, filling them up with non-perishables and medicine and lighters. The silence had been almost too much to listen to, and after about three aisles Josty had started singing, loudly and badly, but it had helped.
Josty had helped… a lot of things.
The thing about life more or less coming to a standstill is that you don't always think about how enormous that actually is, though. They'd gotten canned vegetables but they ran out of protein quickly; they stored all the clothing they could find in plastic bags to keep it from rotting, but Walmart still had summer clothing in stock, so it wouldn't be much help once the weather started getting cold. The gas pumps stopped working when the electricity finally cut out, and that's when shit got real. Realer.
"I think," JT had said, about two months after the sickness. Some of the guys were considering leaving; a few had already left. A lot of the guys left at that point were younger, the ones without wives and kids and stuff. "I think I need to go home."
Josty had fallen right the hell out of his chair. "You what? To Chicago?"
"JT," Kerfy had said, much more cautiously. "Your family—"
"They were fine," JT had said. "They survived, and they're at home, and I just—I need to go."
And he had.
He'd promised, of course, that he'd be back. A year, tops, he'd told Josty, who had gripped his shirt so tightly when he'd hugged JT goodbye that the wrinkles stayed there until it rained, somewhere over the Kansas state line, after he'd had to ditch the car because it ran out of gas. He'd figured taking the car as far as he could would save him two or three weeks of walking, and he'd carefully kept track of the days after that, getting as far as he could each day before sleeping and getting up to walk more.
It had taken him twenty-seven days of nearly nonstop walking before he trudged up his parents' driveway.
"Hey," he hears, and this time it's Morgan, somehow right next to him even though he definitely should've heard her approaching. She's frowning up at him. "Stop with the face. You're on your way back."
JT tries to make whatever expression is on his face go away, but Morgan just frowns harder. "I know," he says, glancing down the road. They've been walking for about a month and a half; JT can only estimate, but given how fast they're going, how much ground there is to cover, he's betting they have about a week left. It's easier now than it had been when they first set out; they're all more used to it, which helps, and they're farther away from Mom and Dad, so the urge to go a little slower in case they changed their minds and decided to come too has completely worn off.
"JT," Morgan says, and her voice is a little sad. "They're gonna understand."
"I told them a year, and it's been more than three," JT says. "I just hope they haven't left the area." It's his second-biggest fear: arriving back in Denver only to find that every reason he had to return has moved on without him. His biggest fear is that he turns up and it's been too long; they're all still there, but it's like walking through a city of strangers, people with faces he knows and stories he never can.
Morgan grabs his hand and stops walking, forcing him to stop or drag her over. "Hey," she says, and then she pulls him down into a hug. Jesse's there a second later, throwing her arms around both of them, and JT bets they'd make quite a sight if there was anybody left to see them, three redheads on the side of the road clinging to each other like—
Like it's the end of the world.
"Hey," Jesse says. She's in the lead for now, and JT's lost in his thoughts again, trying to figure out how far out they are, how much longer they have to go. It can't be more than a day or two, by his best estimate. They'd left Limon about three and a half days ago, which means they're probably almost to Aurora, and from there it's probably only half a day to the Pepsi Center. Probably. He misses GPS.
"Oh my god," Morgan says, and it's the excitement in her voice that really gets JT to focus, and he glances to where she's pointing. "Look! A sign for the airport!"
"The airport," JT says, breathing out. "Holy shit. We made it."
Morgan laughs. "Civilisation," she says, throwing her arms out. "Or, like. The wreckage of where civilisation used to be. Close enough."
"We made it," Jesse says, louder than JT had. "You guys, we made it!"
"Do we head for the planes?" Morgan asks. "I've kind of always wanted to see a cockpit up close."
"Eh," JT says, shifting his pack. "We can come back, unless you want to head over there and see if there's anything worth foraging."
Jssse hums. "There probably isn't," she says. "They would've kept pretty but functionally useless plants there. Anything else that would've been useful is probably long gone. Morgan, we can come back and poke around some other time. Let's push through and get settled."
Morgan shrugs. "Sure," she says. "I somehow doubt the planes are going anywhere soon."
"You're probably right," Jesse says. She throws a glance JT's way; she can probably feel the butterflies that are starting to congregate in his chest at the thought of how close he is to being home. "How much farther?"
"We can make it there in a few hours," JT says. "Once we pass the airport exit, it's only about ten miles."
"Hell yes," Morgan says, pumping her fist in the air. "We can see other people tonight! We won't have to sleep in shifts!"
JT laughs. "They might be sleeping in shifts," he points out. "If they are, I'm signing up for a watch."
Jesse snorts. "Yeah, sure. You can start tomorrow, though."
"Jesse," JT starts.
Jesse jabs a finger in his direction. "Morgan, back me up."
"You can take a night off," Morgan says firmly. "We'll tell Gabe how much you haven't been sleeping, and I'm sure he'll agree with us."
JT rolls his eyes even as his chest tightens. God, he's gonna get to see Gabe soon. And Colin, and EJ, and…
His chest does something even worse the more he thinks about it, so he firmly shuts down that train of thought and adjusts his pack. "Let's get going," he says. "It's still, like, three hours, maybe four."
"We're off to see the wizard," Morgan sings, off-key and not caring, and JT's chest eases a little as he starts walking again.
The stretch of 70 between the airport and 25 is more of a mess than JT was anticipating; a few of the bridges have crumbled, so they spend some extra time walking down the exit ramps and back up the entrances. The sun is just starting to go down over the mountains as they finally walk up the exit ramp for the Pepsi Center, and JT stops to grin as Morgan races up the last part of the incline.
"Hey," she says, turning back to face him and Jesse. "I can't believe it only took us—"
"Stop talking," someone orders, and JT whips his head around. He can't believe he didn't think about it, the likelihood that someone would be guarding the area so close to the Pepsi Center. There had been a few thousand people there when he'd left; of course they'd want to protect it, and the guy staring at Morgan, holding a long, scary-looking knife, definitely looks like he'll protect it with his life if he has to.
"Hey," Jesse snaps. She's too far to get between the guy and Morgan before the guy could get to Morgan, but JT can see her shifting on her feet. She doesn't glance in his direction, and that's when JT realises that from this angle, the guy probably hasn't noticed him yet. Jesse's making herself the secondary focus of his attention, which means that JT can try to sneak around, maybe disarm the guy or something. He backs away slowly, trying to ease his way down the ramp, but he doesn't get very far before he bumps into something.
Someone, he realises, because a strong arm wraps around him, pinning one arm to his side and grabbing the other one tightly. "Don't move," the person says, and JT's heart seizes in his chest, because—
"Nate?" he chokes out. "MacKinnon? It's me, it's Comphs—"
"Wait, wait," the guy says, and then JT's arms is free and he's being spun around, and Nate looks rough under the mountain man beard he's got going on, but it's definitely him. "Holy shit. JT?"
"Nate," JT says, feeling his shoulders sag as he tips forward. "Oh my god, oh my god."
"Oh my god," Nate echoes, almost crushing JT in a bear hug. "Aaron, stand down, we're good here."
There's some noise from behind JT but he stays where he is; it mostly sounds like Jesse mouthing off at whoever Aaron is, and he's gonna let her have that. It's hard to inhale properly with how hard Nate's holding him, anyway, but somehow JT feels like this is the easiest he's breathed in years.
"Oh my god," Nate says again, finally loosening his grip and taking a small step back. "Do you have any idea how long you've been gone?"
"Three years, four months, and nine days," JT says, voice a little hoarse. He's blinking back tears, he recognises almost distantly. "Unless I fucked up counting at some point. I wouldn't be super shocked."
Nate laughs, a short, dry thing. "I—don't actually know the exact count," he says. "Sounds about right, though."
JT bites at his lip. "Is everyone…"
"Almost everyone who was here when you left still is," Nate says. "I don't think you knew the few we lost. Nobody from the team."
"Oh, thank god," JT says. He feels like he's almost floating, the relief warring with the exhaustion of almost two months spent walking that he's only now giving himself permission to feel. "Can we—is there room for—"
"Hey," Morgan says, right beside JT again. "Nate, right? I'm Morgan. We met a few times, I think."
"Morgan," Nate says, looking at her with dawning recognition on his face. "JT's sister. And Jesse," he says, nodding to where Jesse must be standing, behind JT and to the right a bit. "Welcome to Denver. Come with me and let's get you situated."
Nate leads them into the Pepsi Center. Morgan and Jesse both hear that they've set up a way to shower and immediately decide that's more important than anything else, but JT shrugs. He'll get clean later, but for now he's more interested in seeing everyone again. Nate just grins at him and walks him down the hallway that once upon a time had led to the locker room, stopping outside what JT vaguely remembers as one of the trainers' offices. He knocks sharply on the door, then pushes it open with a grin. "Hey, guess what I found!"
"If it's more lentils, I swear to god," JT hears EJ grumble, and he can't stop the smile that spreads across his face.
"I think we still have some, if you're craving them," JT offers, stepping up beside Nate, and he sees the identical looks of shock pass across EJ, Gabe, and Barrie's faces at the same time. He lifts a hand and waves. "Uh, better late than never, I hope?"
"Jesus fucking christ," EJ says, and then he barrels into JT, hugging him tightly. "Where the fuck have you been, kid?"
JT laughs. "Illinois," he says, hugging EJ back. "Sorry."
"You'd better be," Barrie says, but he's yanking on the back of EJ's shirt. "Stop hogging him, EJ, the rest of us would like a turn, too."
"I'm cutting you in line," Gabe says, shouldering his way in front of Barrie, and JT laughs at the look on his face. Suddenly it's four years ago and his team is just fucking around, the older guys jostling each other around to put the younger guys at ease. JT knew that coming back here was the right call, but it's nice to be reminded of that so soon after getting here.
"Nope," Barrie says loudly, and then JT's got both of them wrapped around him.
"Guys," he says, and he's laughing, but he can feel himself trembling, everything about being back here a little overwhelming after dreaming about it for so long.
"Holy shit," Barrie says, tucked firmly up against JT's front. "Dude. We were sure you were dead."
JT closes his eyes. "I'm sorry. I meant to come back sooner, but once I was home…"
Gabe lets out a breath right against JT's ear. "Yeah," he says. "You had your family there. Of course you'd want to stay for a while."
"About that," JT says, and when he drops his arms both Gabe and Barrie let go of him immediately. He doesn't make a face or anything, but it's something he files away for later; nobody on this team ever had a single clue what personal space was. He's sure there'll be plenty of changes to keep track of, but this one seems important.
"He brought family," Nate pipes up.
"My sisters," JT clarifies. "Jesse and Morgan. They're taking advantage of the first chance they've had in a while to get clean."
"Your parents?" EJ asks, and there's a careful look on his face, like he's afraid of what the answer will be.
JT shakes his head. "They just—they said they'd be fine. And they are, or they were when we left, at least." He shrugs, a bitter twist to his lips. "Mom didn't think she'd make the trip, and Dad would never leave her. We told them we'd make it work, but they decided to stay."
"We're glad to have you," Gabe says. "And if we ever figure out a way to get your parents here, we'll help you, okay? We'll help."
"Are you guys doing okay with resources?" JT asks. It's one of the things he worried about when deciding to return. He figured they probably thought he wasn't coming back, at the very least, and there was only ever so much food to go around. Bringing two extra people with him when they'd probably already allocated his share elsewhere weighed on his mind, but Jesse and Morgan can help. They can contribute, just like he can, so he figured it was worth keeping his family together.
"We are, actually," Gabe says, smiling at him. "We've had… a lot of stuff happen. There's a lot for you to catch up on, man."
"Like finding you a place to stay," Barrie says. He grabs a binder marked POWER PLAY off of a shelf and opens it, flipping through a few pages before nodding. "There's a free apartment a few blocks from here, if your sisters can bunk together for a while. Unless you want separate places, in which case—"
"No," JT says hurriedly. "No, they'll—we'll make it work. Keep us together, please."
"Sure, yeah," Barrie says. There's something sympathetic in his smile. "That's what I figured. We've got a few apartment buildings around here cleaned out and secured, and there's a two-bedroom free. We're working on getting houses and stuff, bigger places, but it hasn't been a priority."
"We're working on it," Gabe repeats. "We're not going to take you away from each other, JT. It's okay."
JT lets out a shaky breath. "That obvious?"
"We've, uh," Nate says. "All of us have had to learn some stuff about trauma."
There's silence after that; JT looks at Gabe, who isn't quite meeting his eyes, then Barrie, who definitely doesn't have that issue. "Look," Barrie starts, but he's cut off by a shriek from down the hall.
JT spins and drops his left foot back, because if there's one thing he's learned, it's that sounds like that are almost always followed by a problem. Nate's grinning by the door, though, and nobody else seems like they're worried as JT glances around. He's about to ask what's going on when a small blonde blur whips into the office.
"Pappa," the little girl announces, putting her hands on Gabe's knees. "I maked a art!"
"You made art?" Gabe asks, swinging her up into his arms. "That's awesome! Maia, can you say hi to Uncle JT?"
The little girl grins, and—holy shit, JT thinks, that's Gabe's kid. She's old enough to walk and talk, and make art, apparently, and he's been gone for so long.
"Hi, Uncle JT," she says, waving at him. "My name is Maia Lannaskog!"
"We're working on it," Gabe says, clearly amused. "JT, this is Maia. She's about to turn three."
"Wow," JT says, stunned. "I—hi, Maia. It's nice to meet you."
She holds her hand out and grins. "We gotta shake hi!"
It startles JT out of his stupour, at least, as he grins and gently shakes her hand. "You're right. I forgot, and I'm sorry."
"Maia," someone says from the doorway, and JT turns to find Mel Landeskog standing there, another very small Landeskog sitting on her hip.
"And that's Theo," Gabe says. "Mel, JT's back."
"I see that, yes," Mel says, voice dry even though she's beaming at JT and holding her free arm out. "It's so good to see you. Come hug me."
"Mel," JT says, smiling as he steps forward and leans down to hug her. "Hi. Nice, uh. Baby."
Mel snorts, and there are a few laughs around the room. "Thanks," she says, and he's missed this, someone outside his family gently teasing him. "I tried."
"Good results," he says, nodding as he pulls back. "I'm—it's good to see you."
Her face softens. "You too, sweetie," she says, gripping his arm. "We all thought… it's just really good to see you."
JT swallows; he feels like he's going to be apologising a lot, over and over again. Choosing to come back—to leave his parents behind knowing that there's every chance he's not going to see them again—it had been awful, but choosing to stay there in the first place hadn't been easy, either. The bullshit thing about the world ending is that it didn't have the common decency to just end, and now they all have to live with whatever's left.
"Yeah," he says, because he doesn't have to explain that to anyone here. They already know. "You, too."
"So we don't have electricity yet," Nate says, leading them into an apartment building. "But there's running water at the Pepsi Center, and we'll help you bring it to your apartment to have there. The place is clean, and the doors lock. It's a good community here, but everyone's…"
"Concerned," Jesse fils in. "I mean, I don't blame them."
Nate smiles. "Yeah, that's pretty much what everyone says."
"So how many people are in this building?" Morgan asks as they walk up the stairs. "Families? Adults? Older people?"
"Not too many older people in this building," Nate says. "Gary—Harris, JT, from the Nuggets? He's still around here. He suggested that anyone older stay closer to the Pepsi Center, because that's more or less our base of operations. There are a few people in wheelchairs down there, too, and anyone with a medical condition. We have a couple of doctors around, and they're all over that way. If something happens, it's closer, easier for us to get help to them."
"Oh, that's great," Morgan says, smiling. "So, like, I didn't have the chance to get my doctorate like I planned to, but I was gonna be a therapist. I'd love to talk to the doctors and see if there's some way I can help out in that regard."
"She did it back in Northbrook," JT volunteers. "I'd say she's got references, but it'll take you half a year to verify that."
Nate snorts. "I'll hook you up with Brenda," he says. "Dr. Saunders. We don't really do the formality last-name thing here anymore. You'll get used to it."
JT sees Jesse shoot him a glance, and he stifles a grin. Hockey players and their nicknames being what they are, it'll probably take them a little while to adjust, but he's got faith in them.
"There are families in the building across the street," Nate continues. "Gary's idea again, grouping people together. The kids have friends, the parents have other parents to rely on and ask for help, that kind of thing."
Morgan hums. "I want to meet Gary, too," she says. "Anyone thinking about people like that is someone I want to get to know."
"He loves people, so he'll be thrilled to meet someone new," Nate says. "He was coming in to talk to Gabe today, something about restoring a playground nearby for the families to use. Once you're settled, I can take you back over."
"Great, thanks," Morgan says. She's got that look on her face like she's thinking of the beginnings of a plan, and JT's happy to see that she's taking to Denver so quickly, that she's already trying to make it better. It's not like he thought she'd be miserable here, but part of him settles a little to realise that she actually isn't.
"This building is mostly single adults," Nate goes on. "A few couples, but you're more or less with your peers here. I live on the fourth floor, and—"
A door opens a little further down the hall, and JT's face breaks into a grin when a guy pokes his head out. "Nate, am I getting new neighbours?"
"I'm here to bring down your property value," JT says, stepping out from behind Nate. "Colin, hey."
"JT," Colin says, face going from generically cheery to overjoyed in an instant. "Oh my god, you're back!"
"I'm back," he says, laughing as Colin jogs down the hall to engulf him in a hug. "It's good to see you, man."
"You too," Colin says, leaning back. He's thinner than JT remembers, has more lines around his eyes, but he's still got a perma-smile on his face. It's nicer than JT thought it might be, having that as one of the things that stayed the same.
"And yeah, the Comphers are your new neighbours," Nate says. "JT brought his sisters. We're having them bunk in 304 until we can find a place with three bedrooms."
Colin nods. "If you need anything," he says, gesturing to his doorway.
"Thanks," JT says. "We probably will."
"Yeah, well, we all do," Colin says, shrugging slightly. "If nothing else, it'll be nice to have a new face around here. New stories are like gold, so prepare to be the popular kids on the block for a while."
"We can tell everyone all about our very exciting two-month walk across the plains," Jesse says. "Not to be mean or whatever, but I get why they called it flyover country before."
Colin laughs. "Even that will seem exciting," he promises. "Anyway, I'm gonna head out to the garden, see if Alicia and Ron need any help."
"Alicia said something about the tomatoes yesterday," Nate says. "Good luck with that."
"Oh, yikes," Colin says, wincing slightly. "Yeah, thanks, I'm gonna need it." He claps JT on the shoulder, then turns to go back and lock his apartment door. "I'll be back in a few hours. I'm serious about coming over if you need anything, okay?"
"Thanks, Colin," Morgan says. "I'm sure we'll take you up on that."
"Often," Jesse adds, laughing. "Good luck with the tomatoes."
"I'm definitely gonna need it," Colin says, back to smiling as he walks past them towards the stairs.
Nate snorts as the stairwell door closes behind Colin. "Ron and Alicia are in charge of one of the garden plots, and Colin's been helping," he says as he walks to the door beside Colin's and fishes a key from his pocket. "All I know is that the tomatoes are bending over, and I'm letting them handle it past that."
Jesse frowns. "Don't they have the cage things? Or stakes?"
Nate holds both hands up. "Take it up with Colin. I have no idea."
"Got it," Jesse says. She gestures at the door. "So are you going to show us our new place, or..."
"Your palace awaits," Nate says, pushing the door open and gesturing inside. "Welcome home, guys."
The apartment is furnished; it's not fancy or anything, but it seems to be pretty functional. Nate promises to bring them a grill ("the Home Depot still has, like, a decade's worth of charcoal") and some food ("mostly veggies until we go fishing again") soon and tells them to head back to the Pepsi Center when they're hungry, and then he smiles and waves at them and leaves.
"Well," Morgan says briskly, looking around. "JT, no offense, but Jesse and I are taking the master bedroom. If we have to share, we're sharing the bigger bed."
"Yeah, of course," JT says. "You guys get set up in there. I'm gonna unpack my stuff in the other room."
Morgan nods and heads towards the master bedroom, so JT takes that as his cue to walk to his new room. It's not like he has a lot to unpack; he's got two changes of clothes, a few mementos from home, a photo of his parents. There's a worn copy of Moby Dick in the very bottom of his pack, and he barely glances at it, just takes it out and sticks it in the bedstand drawer. He's had it since before he left Denver; he sure doesn't need to look at it to know what it is, so he doesn't.
It's maybe five minutes' worth of work to empty the pack, and then he's pretty much alone with his thoughts. He doesn't want to sit on the bed; it looks cleaner than he currently is by a long shot, and part of him is afraid that if he sits on it as dirty as he is right now, they'll never be able to get the marks out. There's a desk in the room, though, so he pulls the chair out and sits there.
He's back, and it's really only just starting to sink in now. He's in Denver, he's where he belongs, and he's got Morgan and Jesse with him. He's seen a handful of the guys already and none of them had mentioned anything awful happening while he was gone. There are still a bunch of guys he definitely wants to find, and he feels something stir in his chest that might be excitement at the thought of catching up with them, seeing how big Soda's kids are or if Sven and his girlfriend got married. Mikko is around somewhere, too, and so are Sammy and Cale, probably Gravy. Kerfy.
JT's breath rattles a little as he lets it out. The feeling in his chest at the thought of seeing Josty again is almost painful; he's spent most of the last three and a half years beating himself up over the fact that he was too much of a coward to ever make his move before the sickness and then again before he headed to Illinois, and he left Josty with a promise that he ended up breaking in a pretty major way. He's hoping that he still has a shot, that he can figure out a way to make it up to Josty and let him know that JT's been carrying a torch for almost a decade now.
Hopefully, he thinks a little ruefully, he can come across as convincing, not as pathetic as he sounds in his own head.
He's gotta find them first, though, so he stands up and heads back into the living room. "Hey," he calls into the master bedroom. "How's it going in there?"
"Oh my god, there are so many towels," Jesse yells, clearly excited. "And conditioner! We're gonna bring it down to the showers. Oh my god, I might be able to untangle the worst of my hair!"
JT grins and leans on the doorway, looking in. "You'll be knocking 'em dead again in no time."
Jesse scoffs. "I just want to be able to put it up without wanting to cry about how much of a ratty mess it is."
"Your hair is great," JT says, because he tries to be a good big brother. He doesn't always manage it, but he tries.
Jesse laughs. "You're a liar, but thanks."
"Your hair is gonna be great again," Morgan says. "Conditioner. Brushes. A mirror."
"We weren't on the road for that long," Jesse says, laughing a little. "You've seen mirrors."
Morgan rolls her eyes. "Whatever. Not all of us can put lipstick on without one, okay, even if I haven't had lipstick in ages."
JT clears his throat. "Uh," he says. "I'm gonna see if I can find anyone else around. Is that okay? I can wait here until you guys are ready and then walk back to the Pepsi Center with you if you want."
Jesse and Morgan meet each others' eyes in the mirror. It's some sort of sister telepathy, JT's pretty convinced, because he's never understood it, has never been able to figure out what it was they were communicating when they did it. Morgan sighs after a moment and turns, walking the length of the bedroom to tuck herself against his chest.
"We're gonna be fine now, JT," she says, hugging him tightly. "We came all this way because Denver was a better place to stay than Northbrook, right? More opportunity, more people."
"Yeah," JT says, hugging her back. "But I can still—"
"We're good," Jesse says. She's as no-nonsense as ever, but there's sympathy in her voice, too. "Go find people. We've got stuff to do, too."
JT swallows the lump in his throat. "Okay. Yeah, okay."
Morgan squeezes him once more before letting go and stepping back. "We'll meet you at the Pepsi Center for dinner," she promises.
JT nods and forces himself to step back; he knows the part of his brain that's telling him not to let them out of his sight is overreacting, that it's just a byproduct of the trip they'd taken and all the stress he's been under, but it's still difficult. "Okay."
"Now go," Jesse says, grinning at him.
It makes JT laugh and breaks the tension all at once, so he shakes his head and grabs one of the keys Nate had left on the table, heading for the door. He doesn't let himself dawdle as he opens the front door and steps out, turning to pull it shut and lock it behind him. There's the sound of another door opening down the hallway as he does it, and he makes sure his door is locked before looking up.
Josty's staring back at him, eyes wide and face pale, hand on the doorknob of the apartment across from Colin's.
JT takes a step forward, smile starting to crack open across his face, but he only gets a step closer before Josty makes a high, wild noise, throws the door of the apartment open, and disappears inside, letting it slam behind him.
JT has no idea how they got the locker room showers at the Pepsi Center working, but he decides that he doesn't care at all, not when it comes down to it. The water is lukewarm at best, but it's running water, and that's kind of a miracle. Nate had given him a clean towel and told him to take his time, so JT does; he hasn't been able to do more than take a dip in the river since leaving Northbrook, and they hadn't had running water there, either. He hasn't showered since the utilities stopped working, probably a month or two after the sickness, and he had no idea how much he missed it until the minute he steps under the spray.
It's about half an hour of getting clean and trying not to think about Josty's reaction to him before JT turns the tap off and grabs for his towel. Nate had promised to find him something else to wear so his old clothes could be washed, and JT thinks Nate's pretty proud of the fact that they overtook the Amazon warehouse just north of Denver and have it pretty much completely organised at this point. There's a pile of clothes sitting on the bench for him when he walks into the locker room, towel around his hips, and sitting next to the clothing is Kerfy.
"Oh my god," Kerfy says, voice a little unsteady as he stands. "I—Tyson said he saw you, and Colin told me it was true, but—"
"Hey," JT says, taking a step towards him.
"JT, oh my god," Kerfy chokes out, and then he launches himself at JT, wrapping his arms around JT's shoulders and clinging tightly to him.
"Hey, hey," JT says, hugging him back. Kerfy's breathing kind of roughly, not loosening his grip on him at all. "I'm back. I'm sorry it took me so long."
Kerfy laughs; at least, JT's pretty sure that's what it was meant to be. "You're back," he says. He still has his face tucked into JT's shoulder. "I thought we were never gonna see you again."
"I'm sorry," JT repeats. He has the feeling he's going to be saying it a lot.
Kerfy finally loosens his grip and takes a step back, wiping at his eyes. "You should, uh," he says, gesturing at the clothes. "There's some stuff I need to tell you, I think, but you should get dressed first."
Something in JT's stomach turns. "Is everyone okay? Is Josty—"
"Get dressed," Kerfy cuts in, gentle but firm. "Nothing new has gone wrong since you got in the shower."
JT nods and grabs the boxers from the pile, dropping his towel and dressing as quickly as he can manage. Being a hockey player means he never really did have much in the way of modesty, and a handful of years spent only getting clean if he waded into a lake sure as hell cured him of any he might've had left after that. Kerfy waits him out, not making a noise until JT pulls his pants on and turns to hang the towel in one of the stalls—it used to be Nemo's, JT's pretty sure, but he's not positive, not anymore—and then he suddenly lets out a gasp.
"Your back," Kerfy says, leaning forward and reaching out. He doesn't touch, but JT stiffens a little anyway, twisting back around and grabbing the shirt from the bench and pulling it on, covering the jagged eight-inch scar that he completely forgot digs its way across his back now.
"It's fine," he says, not meeting Kerfy's eyes. "It was a long time ago. Don't worry about it."
The only sound for a minute is their breathing echoing off the walls of the locker room, but finally Kerfy sighs. "Okay," he says softly. "You don't have to talk about it. If you change your mind, let me know."
"I will, "JT says. He finally looks up. "You said you had some stuff to tell me?"
Kerfy nods slowly, then pats the bench beside where he's sitting. He waits for JT to sit down, then looks at the centre of the room, where the Avs logo had once been woven into the carpet. It's been pulled up now; there's no effective way to clean carpet, not without a working vacuum, but JT doesn't want to think about having to make that particular decision.
"So after you left," Kerfy starts, "Tyson started counting."
JT inhales sharply. "He what?"
Kerfy smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes, and he's still not looking at JT. "You said a year, right? So he was keeping track of how long you were gone, how long until you'd be back."
JT sits with that for a moment, but it keeps hitting him, striking at where he's vulnerable. He's vulnerable all over when it comes to Josty. "Oh," he says after a moment.
"And then the year passed," Kerfy goes on, "and you weren't back, so he decided you needed another month for something. You'd be back in a month, he swore, so he added thirty days, and then when that was up he added another thirty, and then another."
JT swallows. "For how long?"
"Six months," Kerfy says. "All through us making plans, cleaning and fixing things around here so we could create a community out of everyone who was left, and then moving out of the house." He finally looks up at JT. "The day we went in to pack up the stuff in your room…"
The look on Kerfy's face is terrible, pain and fear lost in a place JT can't reach. "Bad?"
"He laid down in your bed and cried," Kerfy says quietly. "I—nothing I did could get him to stop. I crawled in with him, hugged him, talked to him, but he just cried until he fell asleep."
If JT thought Kerfy's words had struck him before, it's nothing compared to now. He curls his fingers hard around the edge of the bench. He doesn't want to know this, but he needs to. He has to clear his throat a few times so he can speak past the lump in it. "And then?"
"We stayed there for the night," Kerfy says. "We weren't supposed to. There was a schedule, and Sammy's pretty strict about keeping it, but I couldn't face waking him up, making him face the fact that you weren't coming back again."
"I was," JT says helplessly.
"No," Kerfy says, shaking his head. "You—you have to understand, JT. You were dead. He was the last one to accept it, but we all knew it."
There's a much, much longer silence this time. JT knew they probably thought he wasn't coming back, not after so long, but knowing it and hearing that they all thought he died are two completely different things.
"He sort of… clung to me, I guess," Kerfy says after a while. "It was like a switch got flipped. One day he was talking about how much he was going to kick your ass for being so late coming back, and the next, he just shadowed me everywhere, and he didn't stop."
"Because you didn't leave," JT says, and he can hear how scratchy his voice is. "You were still there, and he wanted to make sure you weren't going anywhere."
"Yeah basically," Kerfy agrees. "It was… we have someone who's more or less a therapist for the community. He spent a lot of time talking to her, after he realised you were dead, and she says he probably has PTSD."
JT swallows hard again. "And then he just… saw me in a hallway."
Kerfy gives him the ghost of a smile. "He's doing a lot better these days, so when he thought he was suddenly hallucinating…"
"He's not alone right now, right?" JT asks.
"He's with Colin," Kerfy says. "I'd never leave him alone like that."
JT lets out a breath. "Okay," he mutters. "Sorry, I just…"
Kerfy's smile is strained. "You're in love with him," he says, like that's common knowledge, like that's anything JT ever admitted to himself before driving away from Denver. JT has to look away, because hearing it from someone else when he's never actually said it out loud himself is way, way more than he can handle. "That's, uh. The other thing I have to tell you about, actually."
JT's gaze snaps back to Kerfy now. "What?"
"I'm in love with him," Kerfy says softly. "We've been together for almost a year now."
"Oh," JT says when the silence stretches on too long. "That's… oh."
"You were dead," Kerfy says, and this time it's gentle, like an explanation. "I mean, obviously you weren't, but we all knew that you were, JT. Why else wouldn't you have come back?"
"Kerfy," JT starts.
"Alexander," Kerfy corrects. "It's—please, JT. I know it's weird, and trust me, it took everyone a while, but it's important."
"Alexander," JT says, closing his eyes. "It was—I didn't want to break my promise."
"None of us ever thought you did," Alexander says. "Whatever else we thought, we knew you wouldn't just not come back because you didn't want to anymore."
JT has to take a few deep, even breaths, because he's not sure how else he's supposed to deal with this, all the emotions going on in his heart and his chest, the feeling that he knows is the beginning of tears starting to build in his head. "I," he says, then falters.
"Hey," Alexander says. He scoots across the few inches separating them on the bench and throws an arm around JT's shoulders. "You're back now."
He is, JT thinks. Whatever that means, whatever that looks like going forward... he's back in Denver now, and he's not going anywhere.
JT remembers the power going out when he was a kid, all of the lights cutting at once when a storm swept through his neighbourhood. It's been almost four years since the power grid flickered out and failed, but he still sometimes thinks about his mom gathering up all of the candles and lighting them when he pulls his lighter out and starts walking around the apartment at dusk.
"Hey, "Jesse says, carrying the candle out of her bedroom and holding it out for JT to light. "Cuddle time?"
JT shrugs a shoulder. "I'm okay."
"You very much are not," Morgan contradicts. "Cuddle time. I'm not asking."
It makes JT smile for a moment, and he shrugs again. "If you say so," he replies.
"I do, and Jesse backs me up on this," Morgan says, walking to the sofa and dropping down on it. "Tonight we get to take care of you for a change, so get your ass over here already."
"Okay, okay," JT says, and when he laughs, it feels like it shakes some of the tightness out of his chest. "I'll submit to the cuddling, but don't expect this to be an all-the-time thing."
"I'll take it," Morgan says, holding a hand out. "We can negotiate further—"
There's a knock at the door, and they all fall silent instantly.
JT glances at Jesse, but she shakes her head; Morgan does the same, so neither of them knows who it is. There's no peephole in the door, so there's no way to check who it is without opening it. JT signals to his sisters to get back into the bedroom, but he's not surprised when they give him identical scowls. Jesse grabs a knife from the knife block and moves quietly to the space behind the door, and Morgan produces a bat from beneath the sofa and tucks herself into the corner of the living room. JT considers trying to argue with them, but he's met less stubborn boulders in his lifetime, and it's not like they don't know how to defend themselves at this point.
He takes a deep breath and pats his pocket, refusing to think about how long it's been since the small pocket knife there started feeling more like a security blanket. He makes sure the privacy chain is secured, then unlocks the door and pulls it open.
Josty is standing there, arms wrapped tightly around himself.
JT shuts the door quickly and unlocks the chain, then pulls the door back open. "Hi," he says, and he has to curl his hand around his thigh to keep from reaching out.
"You're really here," Josty—Tyson, JT amends in his head, he's gotta get used to calling him Tyson—says. His voice is uneven, but he's here, real and solid and not running in the other direction.
"I'm really here," JT says quietly. "I am so, so sorry that it took me so long to come home."
Tyson makes a noise that's half-laugh and half-sob, and he reaches out slowly, fingers pausing a few inches from JT's face. "Can I," he asks, halting and unsure like JT never remembers him being. PTSD, Alexander had said, and JT can only nod and breathe through all the feelings twisting him up right now.
Tyson's fingers touch his cheek and trail back to his ear, than down his jaw. His eyes follow where he's touching, and JT doesn't know if he's ever stood this still in his entire life, but nothing in the world could make him move right now, not if it would make Tyson stop touching him.
"JT," Tyson says, and then JT's stumbling back, raising his arms to hug Tyson back as tightly as he's being hugged. "I thought—I'm so sorry, I thought—"
"I know," JT says, closing his eyes. "I talked with—with Alexander today. He told me. I'm so sorry, Tyson."
"You didn't come back," Tyson says, and it sounds like a confession but hits JT like an accusation anyway. "You said a year, JT."
"I know," JT says. "I—there were reasons. I'm sorry it ended up being a lie. I didn't mean for it to be one."
"Hey," Morgan says quietly, and abruptly JT remembers that she and Jesse are here, that they're watching all of this. Morgan puts her hand gently on JT's forearm. "We'll go hang out with Colin for a little while, okay? Let us know when you're good."
Tyson steps back and wipes at his eyes, and he gives Morgan a shaky smile. "I—oh my god, I'm sorry. I'm, like, nine messes in a trenchcoat. I'm so glad that you're okay, Morgan." He turns slightly. "And you too, Jesse."
"We're glad to get back here," Jesse says, smiling at Tyson. "And we're still gonna give you guys some time, okay? We can all catch up later."
"Thanks," JT says. He wants to reach back out for Tyson, but he doesn't know what's okay, what's allowed, so he waits until his sisters leave and then turns back to Tyson. "Sofa?"
"Sofa," Tyson agrees. He waits until JT sits, then sits down next to him, no space between them at all. He leans his head on JT's shoulder, and it's like the start of every Netflix night they've ever had until reality snaps back in.
JT takes a deep breath, holding it for a moment before letting it back out slowly. "I don't even know where to start apologising," he finally says. "For everything."
"Right now, I don't even want you to," Tyson says. "Just… sit here with me? I need to get used to this." He laughs, and it sounds rusty in a way, like he's not used to doing it anymore. "You're here."
JT leans his head cautiously against Tyson's, and when Tyson doesn't move away, he puts his hand on his thigh, palm up. It doesn't take long for Tyson to reach over and lace their fingers together, and JT closes his eyes and holds on. That much he can do.
Sleeping in a bed again after so long on the road is weirder than he thought it would be; it's too soft, too springy, and JT spends more time tossing and turning than he does actually sleeping. It was the same when he first got back to Northbrook, but somehow he'd forgotten exactly how weird it is. He gives up when the sun starts creeping in through the window, climbing out of bed and getting dressed for whatever he's going to end up doing today. He heads into the kitchen and isn't surprised to find Jesse sitting at the table, scowling at an empty coffee mug.
"I'm gonna ask Nate about the grill today," she says when she notices him standing there. "Even if there's no coffee left, I still want hot water in the mornings."
JT grunts. "Better than nothing," he agrees. "Any other plans for today?"
"Morgan wants to track Gary Harris down," she says, shrugging. "I'll probably stick with her, see what she says."
It's nothing as set in stone as an arrangement, but JT knows that's Jesse's on the same wavelength as him: Morgan can take care of herself, sure, but she's the one who never played hockey, who didn't have the physical build to protect herself when everything went to hell. She's stronger now, knows how to hold herself and what to do in a fight if push comes to shove, but Jesse and JT have made sure she hasn't had to.
JT nods and doesn't reach back to thumb at the edge of the scar on his back. "Okay," he says. "I'm gonna…"
Jesse snorts after a moment. "You have no idea, do you?"
JT shrugs. "I might bother Colin," he says. "See if he can tell me about where some of the other guys are, what they're up to."
"He definitely knows," Jesse says immediately. "He was telling us about Cale and Sam yesterday. Apparently they got Cale's mom and brother down here after the sickness, and Laura immediately adopted Sam. They live in a set of townhomes across the river, not too far out."
"Huh," JT says. He doesn't ask about Cale's dad; he's learned that if someone doesn't get mentioned, there's a reason for it. The sickness took far more people than it spared, and it's hardly been easy since then. "I'm glad they've got some family."
Jesse's smile is tired, and not just because of the hour. "Yeah, we might know something about that."
JT knows his smile probably isn't any better. "We just might."
Jesse gestures at one of the other kitchen chairs, and JT sits. "You want to talk about Josty?"
"Tyson," JT corrects. "We're all gonna fuck it up and I know it, but apparently it's important."
"Tyson," Jesse says. "Now that we're done deflecting, do you want to talk?"
JT very much does not, but Jesse's like a dog with a bone sometimes, and he does actually know that talking about it will help him come to grips with everything. "Apparently me not coming back on time really fucked him up," he says slowly. "Like, from what I've heard, he was… he was waiting for me."
Jesse winces. "Oh."
"Yeah," JT says, laughing hollowly. "Everybody thought I died, which I get, but when he saw me…"
"That's why he freaked out," Jesse translates. "You were a ghost, standing right in front of him."
"Pretty much," JT says. He lets that sit for a moment, then sighs. "Also, he and Kerfy got together after…. after."
"Alex," Jesse says.
"Alexander, actually," JT says. "Shit. This is going to be tough."
"The names thing, or seeing Tyson with someone who isn't you?" Jesse asks.
"Both," JT says flatly. "I—he deserves to be happy. He always did, and he thought I was dead. I'm glad he has someone who loves him."
"He's got more than one of those around," Jesse says. JT makes a face at her, and she makes one right back. "I'm not saying break them up, calm down."
"Right," JT says. "Then what are you saying?"
"That it doesn't hurt to ask," Jesse says bluntly. "You love him, Alexander loves him. He clearly doesn't hate you, and people in general are a lot more open to things now than they ever were before."
JT blinks at her. "You think I should ask for a threesome," he clarifies.
She makes another face at him. "I think you should ask to date him, JT, jesus."
JT feels his face go a dull red. "Right," he says. "That's—"
Jesse reaches out and slaps a hand over his mouth. "Take a day and think about it before you tell me it's insane," she says. "And, like, take several days before you do anything about it, because you just sat here and told me about how you dying traumatised the shit out of him, so maybe give him a chance to get used to you being around before you make any big moves."
JT sits still for a moment, but Jesse doesn't move her hand until he slowly nods his head.
"I'll think about it," he says. He doesn't know how he's going to come to any conclusion that isn't what the fuck, but he's never had any illusions about being smarter than his sisters. If Jesse thinks it's a good idea to think about it, he can at least do that.
"Good," she says. "In that case, you should go find Colin. I think he said he was going to visit Philipp today, so you can probably get in on that trip."
JT blinks. "Grubi," he says. "Right, okay. That sounds like a good idea."
Jesse smiles at him. "Think about it," she advises. "And talk to Colin about it, too. I'm sure he'll have some insight."
"He usually does," JT agrees, standing. Jesse stands, too, and she gives him a hug before gently shooing him towards the door.
No time like the present to find out what advice Colin has for him now.
One of JT's favourite things about Colin has always been that he's the most even-keeled guy in every situation. He'd kept his head when the sickness had swept through just as well as he had in the locker room, and he's the kind of steady presence that JT thinks will probably be good for him to hang around more now that he's back.
Or, JT revises, it'll be good for him if he doesn't die from bicycle-related trauma first.
"Come on, JT," Colin calls, steadily pedaling up the hill. "It's only another mile once we get to the top."
JT grunts and keeps pedaling. He can feel the sweat pouring down his back, and even though he's still in pretty good shape, this is exhausting. He does his best to focus and keep pushing, and he's glad that Colin's paused at the top of the hill, because it gives him a chance to rest for a moment, too.
"It really is just a little farther," Colin says. He nods down the road, and JT can just barely make out a house in the distance. "He and Elaina needed space for all the animals. We found the closest safe place to the city, but it's not exactly next door."
"I'll say," JT mutters, wiping at his face. "When you said it was an hour away, I didn't expect part of that to be biking up a hill for fifteen minutes."
Colin laughs. "Well, that makes it less than an hour back, I can tell you that much."
JT glances back down the hill and rolls his eyes a little. "Yeah, I bet."
"So," Colin says, leaning on the handlebars of his bike. "How are you? I caught up with your sisters yesterday, but I haven't talked to you yet."
JT's glance around them is more pointed this time. "Uh," he says. "I'm… good? I mean, I'm back, and that's been my goal for a while now, so I guess I feel a little weird now that I don't have a plan."
"We can help with that," Colin says, grinning. "There's always something to do."
"Yeah, I bet," JT says. There had been in Northbrook, too, and there were fewer people to care for there. "I'll do whatever needs to be done. I'm good at, like, picking shit up and putting it down in other places."
Colin laughs. "I'm not in charge of assigning people to jobs," he says. "Nate and Gary will take care of that, probably."
"What's your job?" JT asks, curious. He's been here two days total, so it's not like he actually has a clue, but yesterday Colin had gone and done something with the gardens, and today he's biking out to check on Philipp and the woman he shares animal duties with.
Colin's smile doesn't falter. "People."
"People," JT echoes.
"Everybody needs someone to talk to," Colin says, shrugging. "I'm good at making people feel at ease in bad situations. I'm not a therapist or anything, but I'm… I guess you could think of me as the HR department for the community."
JT laughs. "I can actually see that, yeah."
Colin beams. "So, as your HR director, tell me how you're actually doing."
The situation with Tyson is complicated and has a lot of layers, but JT's pretty sure Colin knows about Tyson's part of those issues, so it's probably safe to bring it up. He opens his mouth to explain, maybe get into some of the background of what's going on or at the very least say least something quasi-normal, but what comes out is, "Jesse thinks I should ask Tyson out even though he's with Alexander now."
To his eternal credit, Colin just hums. "And what do you think?"
JT stares. "That that's kind of nuts?"
"Why?" Colin asks. He's still leaning on his handlebars, and they could be talking about the cloudless sky above them for all he seems to be reacting.
"You know, the whole thing where he's dating Alexander now," JT says, gesturing at nothing. "People don't just, like, date more than one person."
"I'm dating EJ and Tys," Colin says easily, like that's not a huge fucking bombshell to drop on a guy. "If that's your only objection—"
"Hold on, wait," JT says. "Since when?"
"About six months after you left," Colin says. "They live in the unit below me, and I'm down there a few nights a week. If you ever need me and can't find me, just walk downstairs. Tys still really likes entertaining."
"Okay, that's," JT says, shaking his head. "I'm happy for you, but this is different."
"Okay," Colin says. "How?"
"Well, he has PTSD because of me, so there's that," JT says, then shuts his mouth hard. He needs to—god, he's too used to just being around his family, where his brain-to-mouth filter isn't really needed.
Colin hums again. "I'm not saying you should jump into anything," he says. "And I'm not saying that Tyson and Alexander would want that, whether you were thinking about just dating Tyson or about dating both of them. All I'm saying is that it's not something you should rule out just because you automatically think it's out of reach."
"I fucked him up," JT says, because he'd already said it, so pointing it out again isn't gonna make it worse. Probably.
"Again, I'm not a therapist," Colin says. "But unless you deliberately chose to stay away, knowing it would hurt him like it did, then you're less at fault here than you seem to think you are."
"I would never," JT says. His voice is shaking, and he thinks it's with anger until he tries to take a breath and realises that his throat is clogged with tears. "Colin."
"Hey," Colin says gently. He puts the kickstand on his bike down and climbs off, walking over to wrap his arms around JT. "That was kind of my point, JT. Shit happens, and yeah, Tyson… he's a little messed up over what happened, and I'm not going to lie to you about that. But—and correct me if I'm wrong here—you're a little messed up over what happened too."
JT nods, not really trusting himself to talk. He can keep the tears from spilling over, but not if he opens his mouth right now.
"Then you sit down and talk with him," Colin says. "You ask if he wants to hear what happened, and you answer his questions if he has them. You talk with Alexander, too, and you keep clear, honest lines of communication open." He pulls back a little and smiles. "I know talking was never really a hockey strong point, but it's got its uses."
"Sure," JT chokes out. "So they can tell me to go fuck myself."
"Trust me on this, even if you don't trust me about any of the rest of what I said here," Colin says. "Neither of them has any interest in you going anywhere. They might not want you like you want, but they won't ever tell you to go away for good."
JT nods again, closing his eyes and leaning back into Colin, who wraps him back up in a hug. "Okay," he mutters after a little while, when he feels a little less like he's going to shake apart if he lets go. "Okay. Thanks."
"You're welcome," Colin says. "Are you ready to get to Philipp's? One of the dogs had puppies about a month ago, and I think you could probably benefit from a puppy cuddle right about now."
"You're probably right," JT agrees, taking one last deep breath before leaning away from Colin again. "Okay. Let's go."
JT takes a deep breath before knocking on the door.
It's not Tyson who answers, and JT isn't sure if he's glad about that or a little disappointed. "Hey," Alexander says, stepping back like it's automatic that JT would be allowed into his space, his home. It isn't, not anymore, but JT swallows down the disconnected feeling and walks in.
"Hey," he says. "I, um."
Alexander's smile is tired, but it's not just there for show. "He's sleeping," he says. "He, uh. He has bad days sometimes, and it's better for him to just sleep."
"Bad days," JT echoes. "Because I'm—because I freaked him out."
"You did," Alexander says, and it's not accusatory, but it still hurts. "He's glad you're back, JT. Don't think he isn't. His brain just has trouble processing things like you and I do now."
JT nods and glances at the sofa. It's not the one they'd had in their house; he has no idea why he sort of thought it would be, but his chest aches with the difference. "I wish I'd known it was gonna freak him out so much. I would've…"
"None of us knew," Alexander says, shrugging. He crosses the room and sits, apparently not noticing JT's reaction to his new sofa. "None of us really had a reason to try to guess what his reaction would be in this situation."
"Because you thought I was dead," JT says.
Alexander sighs and pats the sofa beside him. He waits until JT crosses the room and sits, then looks down the hallway in the apartment. Towards the bedroom, JT suspects. Towards Tyson.
"It's hard to explain," Alexander says slowly. "It's not—we didn't just think you were dead, JT. We knew it, like we knew that Z and his family made it back to Russia, or that Cale's mom was going to love Sammy." He glances back at JT and smiles briefly. "Like we knew hockey."
JT shrugs. "I don't think I get the difference, Alexander."
"There's hope, I think," Alexander says, not looking away. "If we think you're dead, there's a possibility that we're wrong, because it's just what we're thinking, right? But if you know something, that makes it a fact. That means there's no other option."
"Oh," JT says. "That's—oh."
"Yeah," Alexander agrees. "It would've been just as shocking if it had been Borque, except he was never in love with Borque."
JT sucks in a sharp breath. "He—what?"
This time the look Alexander gives him is confused. "You had to know that."
"I didn't," JT says, feeling like the floor just opened up beneath him. "I hoped, but I thought it might've just been in my head."
Alexander sighs, closing his eyes and tipping his head back against the sofa. "I was so mad at you when you left," he says. "I thought you knew and went anyway."
"I had to go," JT says. He's got a lot of regrets, things he wishes had gone differently, and that list is growing more and more the longer he's here. Leaving, though, going back to make sure his family was okay, helping them get on their feet, being there for—everything, he doesn't regret that.
Alexander smiles without opening his eyes. "He would've gone with you and never looked back if you'd even hinted that you wanted him to."
There's really no way for JT to respond to that, so he falls quiet. His mind is racing, though, suddenly filled with images of Tyson walking with him by the side of the road, Tyson making his mom laugh when JT couldn't figure out how, Tyson curled up next to him in the queen bed that he'd felt like he was drowning in most of the time.
Tyson there when—
"I didn't know," JT whispers. Anything louder and he's going to break something, probably his own heart or something like that. "I didn't—I had no idea."
"Yeah, I get that now," Alexander says. his voice is quiet, too, and when JT looks at him, he's smiling kind of sadly. "I'm sorry for being mad at you, even if you didn't know I was at the time."
JT tries to laugh, but he feels like he's choking on it. "I'm sorry for fucking everything up so badly."
"You didn't mean to, and that means more than you think it does," Alexander says. He shifts towards JT. "Are you—can I hug you? Right now?"
"Yeah, yes," JT says, holding his arm up. Alexander slides across the sofa and tucks himself against JT's side, and it's less of a hug and more JT clinging while Alexander murmurs nonsense at him, but it's close enough. It gives JT room to focus on his breathing, to pull in air and let it out again, even and steady. Morgan had taught him how to handle the panic, how to put his head down between his knees and force his body to obey him; he doesn't need to do it much, not anymore, but he also remembers the little tricks she taught him about how to stave it off when he feels it settling around his shoulders.
"Hey," JT hears, and he looks up sharply. Tyson's standing in the hallway, watching them with a soft smile on his face. "Cuddle party?"
Alexander laughs before JT can say anything. "Something like it."
Tyson's already walking towards them. "Is there room for me?"
"Always," JT says, heart leaping out of his mouth without stopping for input from his brain, but Tyson's smile doesn't falter, and Alexander doesn't try to shove him off the sofa. They rearrange themselves instead, Alexander tucked under one of JT's arms and Tyson sitting with his legs thrown across both of their laps, and JT finally, finally lets himself relax.
The thing about surviving the apocalypse is that time gets… weird.
JT isn't sure how else to put it. Before the sickness, everything had been on a schedule at all times. Get up, morning skate, nap, game, sleep; get up, practice, review tape, sleep. Even the offseason had a schedule, and everything had always been counting down to the next thing on the list, even as he was working his way through the current things.
It would be impossible to keep that kind of structure now, even if it wouldn't also be completely pointless. There's no such thing as 2:15 PM, not really, and there's no longer a reason to think there should be. It had freaked everyone out at first, because change is always weird, and time is one of those things that you learn about before you learn anything else, when it comes down to it.
JT doesn't love thinking about it, because there's still a weird disconnect in his brain when it comes to certain things, but he can't always avoid it.
"So," Nate says, looking carefully at him. "Is noon tomorrow not a good time, or…"
"I'm sure it's fine," JT says, spreading his hands. "Do you have some secret supply of watch batteries nobody's told me about, or am I just supposed to know?"
"Noon is relative," Nate says, grinning. "The sun'll be up. Don't worry about it, man. Noon just means 'not breakfast but not dinner yet.'"
"Time," JT mutters. "Why are you coming over?"
Nate's face goes red in a heartbeat. "Uh," he says. "Jesse said something about how the grill was acting weird?"
JT opens his mouth, then closes it sharply. "Okay," he says carefully. "Is it just the grill?"
"No," Nate says. "I'm—look, I'm not asking your permission here, JT. I just also don't want to try to keep it a secret, because that would be shitty."
"If you tried to ask my permission, I'd say no," JT says bluntly. "Because I'm not in charge of her, and anyone who thinks they need my permission to date my sister doesn't deserve the honour."
Nate's grin is slow, but it's there. "Okay, cool," he says. "I'm guessing there's actually something wrong with the grill, because she seems like the kind of person who wouldn't bullshit about that."
"She'd know, not me," JT says. "I'm in charge of lighting it, and if I try cooking, Morgan pokes me with a grill fork until I stop trying."
"That good, eh?" Nate asks, laughing.
"I've learned a lot of things I figured I'd never have to do in the past few years," JT says, shaking his head. "Cooking has not been one of them."
"Got it," Nate replies. He's still smiling. "I promise to be careful, okay?"
"Promise her that," JT says. "She's in charge of herself. Like, I will absolutely break you if you fuck up, but she's actually way scarier than me and will also get first dibs."
"I'll keep that in mind," Nate says. "So, like. How are you guys settling in?"
It's been a week since they'd arrived; time is weird, but days still work like they always did. It's easy enough to keep track of those still. "Fine," JT says. "Morgan and Gary are talking about something having to do with a kids' program, I think, so she's happy, and you can ask Jesse yourself." He grins. "I'm not giving you any insider info, buddy. Sorry."
Nate laughs. "And you?"
JT glances away. "I'm sleeping," he says. "That's new and exciting."
"Yeah," Nate says. "I feel you on that one." He hesitates, and JT looks back at him after a moment. "How are you, like… doing?"
Nate pushing like this is new, but he's always been the kind of guy who cares in all the right places. Just because he's not talking JT down from starting a needless fight against the Coyotes anymore doesn't mean he's not still the kind of guy who wants to make sure JT's doing okay.
"I'm dealing," JT finally settles on. "Like. Being back is weird. I'll get there."
"Yeah, you will," Nate says confidently. "Have you thought about what you want to do? I'm not pushing you, man, so if you need more time, you can have it."
"I'm not great at sitting still," JT says. "Occupational hazard, I think."
"I get that," Nate says. "Do you want to deal more with people or more with your hands?"
JT gives him the flattest look he can manage. "My people skills are still on par with my cooking skills."
"So you don't want babysitting duty, got it," Nate says, nodding. "We're working on clearing out the convention centre. There are a bunch of kids around, and we figured we can at least try to get them together and get a school going, teach them some of the basics, but we need a place to do it. You want to pitch in with that?"
Clearing out, JT knows, is a euphemism: after this long, there's a bunch of debris that will need to be taken out of the building, but it's more than likely that there are bodies in there, people who thought they'd be safe if they stayed put only to find out that it just wasn't true. "Yeah," he says. "I did some of that in Illinois. I can handle it."
Nate's face flickers with sympathy, but he nods. "Cool, great," he says. "Paul Millsap is in charge of the cleanup crews. I'll let him know he's got another volunteer, and I'm sure he'll be glad to have someone who's done it before giving him a hand."
JT nods. "Yeah, just tell me where to show up and when," he says. "I'll help however I can."
"Tomorrow morning, here," Nate says. "I'd give you a better time, but I just got yelled at for that, so—"
"Glad to know you're still kind of insufferable," JT says, grinning when it makes Nate laugh. It's kind of nice to figure out that he can still do that.
"So, uh," Tyson says. He's standing in the hallway, and he looks nervous, like he has something to say but isn't sure how JT's going to take it. "Are you… are you busy? This afternoon? We…"
JT's chest constricts a little. "Nah," he says. "Paul doesn't want us in the building when the heat's this bad, so I'm free." The building itself is in pretty good shape, all told, but there's a lot to be cleared out, and there's nothing even close to ventilation running. JT's pretty glad that Paul had given them the afternoon off, honestly.
Tyson nods and shifts on his feet. "So I don't really…" he says, gesturing as he trails off. "I float around and help where I'm needed instead of having one thing I do. They told me it's because I'm good at a lot of stuff, but it's actually because some days I need to, like, stick with Alexander so I don't lose my shit."
JT blinks. "It is?"
"Yeah," Tyson says, shrugging. "They're not actually good at lying about anything, and I'm not as much of a space case as I seem."
"You're not a space case," JT says, words leaping out of his mouth.
Tyson laughs, eyes crinkling in a way that's easy, familiar, before he sighs. "Thanks, but I sort of am. I'm just not a complete space case, that's all."
JT opens his mouth to argue again, but changes his mind at the last minute. "So what did you want to do this afternoon?"
Tyson's eyes are bright. "Want to see what Alexander does around here?"
"I mean, sure," JT says. "Is it far?"
"No," Tyson says. "He's over on the college campus. It's only a few blocks."
"Okay," JT says. "Let me leave a note for Morgan."
"Not for Jesse?" Tyson asks, following JT into the apartment.
JT snorts, but he's grinning. "Jesse won't be back before Morgan," he says, grabbing the pencil next to the notepad and drawing a line beneath Jesse's last note. He writes out with Tyson neatly beneath it and puts the pencil back down. "She's started maybe dating someone, and they're out together today."
"Oh, really?" Tyson asks, and there's a spark of his familiar curiosity in it.
JT turns and heads for the door, laughing. "She and Nate are seeing each other, and they went out to visit Elaina and Philipp and the puppies."
"No way," Tyson says, laughing as he follows JT out the door. He pauses as JT turns to lock in, then leads him down the hallway. "Good for them."
"Yeah, so far, so good," JT says, smile softening a little on his face. "We'll see how it goes, but they could be great for each other. I'm crossing my fingers."
"That's awesome," Tyson says as they make their way down the stairs.
It's bright enough out that JT squints when they walk outside, but Tyson starts walking down the street, and JT walks quickly to keep up with him. "So do I get to know what Alexander does, or is it a surprise?"
Tyson grins and sticks his hands in his pockets. "He's more or less the preschool teacher for the kids here."
JT trips over his own feet. "He's what?"
"Yeah," Tyson says, laughing. "Do you remember before, some of the events we did where there were kids? He was always really good with them, and once he started babysitting Maia…"
"A preschool teacher," JT repeats, but it's not actually hard to see, not now that he's past the initial shock of it. "How many kids?"
"There are a few dozen around that age," Tyson says. "Not everybody shows up every day, but between Alexander and a couple of other adults, they usually have twenty or so."
"Twenty kids," JT says. "He teaches twenty kids."
"I'm gonna tell you something," Tyson says, and there's something about the tone of his voice, something soft and fond that makes every part of JT ache. "It's cute as shit. Sometimes he just lays on the ground and lets them all curl up with him at naptime."
JT smiles a little. "That sounds cute, yeah."
Tyson glances at him, but looks back ahead of him as they walk. "I can... not talk about him," he says, voice hesitant. "I know… I know I wasn't the only one who wanted to say something, before everything."
JT swallows. "Yeah," he says, and his voice is only a little rough. "I—something in me thought I'd be able to ask when I got back, but then…"
"But then," Tyson agrees, shoulders hunching. "I want to talk to you about it, but not now. Not today."
"Yeah, not now," JT agrees immediately. He hesitates a little, then bumps lightly into Tyson's side. "You're happy? With him?"
"I am," Tyson says after a moment, tension draining from his shoulders. "It's—I feel weird, being happy after everything that happened."
"Yeah," JT says. He's had his own versions of that moment. "I said something kind of like that to my mom, and she made a good point, if you want some Valerie Compher wisdom."
"I could use some of that," Tyson says. "If you're willing to share it."
"Don't feel guilty about still being around," JT says firmly. "You're allowed to be happy. Everybody who isn't here, it's not like they'd want you to be miserable, right? So if you're happy, just be happy. There's nothing wrong with that."
"That's what Alexander says," Tyson says quietly. "And I am happy. It's just weird sometimes."
"Happy looks good on you," JT says, because the honesty might kill him but he's pretty sure it'll make Tyson smile, and he's also pretty sure that'll be worth it.
Sure enough, Tyson grins and glances away, the tips of his ears going pink, and JT can and absolutely will deal with the way his chest feels like it's going to cave in if it means Tyson's smiling.
"Hey, JT," Gabe says.
JT wipes at his forehead and looks up. They're more than halfway through clearing out the convention centre; it's slow going, but it's pretty steady. There aren't any surprises in this kind of work, but some days JT thinks that's kind of a blessing.
"Hey," JT replies. "What brings you over?"
Gabe smiles at him. "I've been told to collect you."
JT raises an eyebrow. "Oh yeah?"
"Your presence is requested," Gabe replies. "Maia is really, really sure that she can't decide what to wear to her birthday party unless Uncle JT tells her it's okay."
"Seriously?" JT asks, but he can feel the grin stretching across his face. Maia had been there the day he and Tyson visited Alexander's preschool kids, and he'd sat with her because he'd already known her. Her colouring book was mostly scribbled in, but there had been a few carefully coloured pages, Cinderella and Belle and Snow White's dresses preserved for posterity. JT had commented that Maia would look like Cinderella in a blue dress like that, and ever since, she's asked him about her clothes every time they've crossed paths.
"You're a fashion icon now," Gabe says cheerily. "All the three-year-olds want your stamp of approval. It's a heavy title to bear, but something tells me you've got this."
JT laughs. "I mean, whatever she wants, she can have." He's not too proud to admit that he's wrapped around a three-year-old's little finger.
"Pretty much," Gabe agrees. "Which is why I'm here. She wants you and nobody else."
"Okay," JT says, shrugging. "Let me tell Paul I'm heading out."
Everybody calls what they do a job because nobody has a better word for it, but there are no set hours, no bad bosses, no fights over roles or pay or anything. People give what they can give in whatever way they can give it, and in return, everybody gets a share of what there is to have. JT doesn't know if this is socialism or communism or some other -ism entirely, but it works for them, and that's all he really cares about in the end. JT doesn't actually have to report to Paul, but everyone's got an awareness now about knowing where people are, making sure they're safe. JT doesn't want to just disappear and worry Paul over nothing.
"I saw him on the way in," Gabe says. "We can wave at him on the way through, but I already explained that there are serious fashion implications at play here."
JT grins and follows Gabe out of the building. Paul gives him a thumbs-up when JT waves, and then they're walking towards the building where Gabe and Mel live with the kids.
"So," Gabe says when they've walked a block. "How're you doing?"
JT rolls his eyes. "So this is about toddler fashion and being nosy."
"I'm always nosy," Gabe says, which isn't a lie. "I heard you're talking to Tyson and Alexander more, and I just wanted to check in with you around the whole situation."
"It's good, it's fine," JT says. It makes his heart want to curl up and cry, but he's hoping exposing himself to his two best friends and the quiet happiness they've built together will help immunize him to its effects. "They're good for each other."
"They are," Gabe agrees. He's quiet for a little while, half a block or so, before he sighs. "Look, I don't want to poke my nose where it doesn't belong—"
"Really?" JT asks dryly. "Since when?"
"—but I don't think you're as happy as you could be," Gabe finishes as if JT hadn't butted in.
JT snorts. "Who said anything about me being happy?"
"JT," Gabe says, coming to a stop. He reaches out and grabs JT's elbow, and his face is open, concerned. "We all want you to be happy. As happy as you can be."
"Yeah, well," JT says. He doesn't wrench his arm out of Gabe's grasp, which he thinks he should probably be proud of himself for, but instead he just feels kind of sick. "That ship sailed, okay? I'm as happy here as I'd be anywhere else."
"That's not," Gabe starts, but this time JT does take a step back. Gabe lets go of him instantly.
"You all gave Tyson time to grieve when you thought I was dead," JT says quietly. "This isn't the same, but I need that kind of space too, okay? Let me figure out how to deal with it. I promise I'm trying."
Gabe nods and doesn't say anything for a moment, and then he sighs. "We'll back off," he promises. "We just—nobody wants you to be miserable."
"I don't really want to be miserable, either," JT says, turning and starting to walk towards Gabe's again. "Like I said, I'm working on it."
"Okay," Gabe says quietly. JT can hear him start walking, but he doesn't look back.
"Did Maia actually ask for me, or was this just an intervention?" JT asks.
"Maia absolutely asked for you, and I just took the opportunity to talk to you," Gabe replies. "She's very convinced that you'll have some sort of opinion on whether she should wear the green dress or the purple dress. I think she's sold on the star leggings either way."
JT can't help the small grin on his face. "That's because she has taste, and the star leggings are awesome."
"This is why she asks for you," Gabe says, clearly amused. He walks past JT to the door of his apartment, pulling his keys out and opening the door.
"Uncle JT," Maia shouts, barrelling towards him with both arms outstretched. JT sweeps her up easily, settling her onto his hip and smiling down at her. "I need help!"
"Yeah, your pappa told me," JT says. "The green dress or the purple one, right?"
"And my leggings," she says seriously, sticking her leg out. "Mamma says I can wear the stars ones for my birthday."
"Good call," JT says, nodding as he navigates towards where he knows her bedroom is. "Show me the options and we'll pick one together, okay?"
"Okay," Maia says, leaning into him and launching into a story about Theo and a bird, and JT takes a deep breath and lets himself sink into it.
There are more people than JT really knows what to do with at Maia's birthday party; he mingles with a few of the guys he sees less and nods to some of the other people in his building who he knows, but he hits his interaction wall pretty quickly and walks a few rows up into the seats of the Pepsi Center so he can watch instead.
Maia and a few of her friends are riding tricycles around where the ice should be, and JT smiles faintly at them, laughing as they dodge more or less successfully around the adults clustered in groups around the room. She's happy, he thinks, happy without any kind of asterisk or reservation, and there's really no reason she shouldn't be. He wishes he had that kind of freedom, but he's had three days in a row where being near Alexander and Tyson didn't make it feel like he was breathing in glass shards, so that's probably close to the same thing.
"Hey," JT hears, and he startles a little and glances up. EJ's grinning at him, holding a sleeping Theo in his arms. "Want to watch this one for a little while? He fell asleep on me, I can't find Mel or Gabe, and I really have to use the bathroom."
"Yeah, here," JT says, reaching out. EJ transfers Theo to him easily, and Theo doesn't even stir, just snuffles against JT's neck and grabs at his shirt.
EJ grins at him. "Thanks," he says. "Also, Gabe told me not to give you a big speech, so this is me not giving you a big speech. Got it?"
"Message received," JT says, rolling his eyes. Honestly, it might've been better if Gabe hadn't said anything, but he's mostly gritting his teeth and bearing it, because they all mean well. "Go use the bathroom. Theo and I are just gonna chill here."
"Have fun," EJ says, turning and heading back down the stairs.
Theo's a comforting, easy weight against his chest, and JT half-wonders if maybe he should ask Alexander if they need someone else to watch the kids once his thing with Paul wraps up. There's something really calming about kids when they're not screaming and running around, and JT feels better when he's holding Theo or Maia.
Then again, he thinks as Maia's friends tear past on their tricycles, shrieking with laughter, maybe not.
"Uncle JT," Maia calls, and JT looks to the bottom of the stairs. "Can I come sit with you?"
"Sure thing, kiddo," JT says. "Gotta be quiet, though. Theo's sleeping."
"I'll be quiet," she whisper-yells, and then she starts doing the little-kid stairs thing, where she leans over and puts her hands on the step above her so she doesn't fall as she climbs. It's only a few rows, so JT just watches instead of walking down to get her, and before long she's shimmying past him and pulling herself into the seat on his right.
"How's your birthday so far?" JT asks, adjusting Theo against his chest. He scans the crowd and finds Mel looking at him, a soft smile on her face. She nods when she notices him looking; she knows where her kids are, so JT figures all is well, and he turns to look at Maia.
"I love my new trike," she says, beaming at him. She'd wanted one with stars on it to match her favourite leggings, so Gabe had found an orange trike in the Amazon warehouse and put it together, and Mel had painted stars all over it. It's honestly startling how much shit is in that warehouse, but JT knows it's at least half the reason they've been able to last so long here, so he's never going to complain.
"I'm glad," he says, smiling at Maia. "It's pretty cool. I don't have a trike that cool."
"Maybe for your birthday you can get one," she offers, and he laughs.
"Maybe," he agrees.
She smiles at him and starts humming, looking around at the people in the arena. JT leaves her to it, because if there's one thing he knows about little kids it's to leave them alone when they're amusing themselves, and he takes the time to watch the crowd, too. He's not searching for them, but he finds Alexander and Tyson almost instantly; they're standing together, Tyson's hand in Alexander's back pocket while Alexander has his arm around Tyson's waist, and JT's heart thuds dully in his chest. Tyson turns to brush an absentminded kiss against Alexander's forehead, and JT just… keeps looking.
"Hey, Uncle JT?" Maia asks.
It's a little difficult to turn his head, but JT manages it. "What's up?"
"Are you gonna kiss Uncle Tyson?" she asks curiously.
JT coughs hard enough that Theo whines, and JT settles quickly. Theo is not a morning person, and JT doesn't want to deal with him waking up before he's well and ready to. "Uh," he says, rubbing at Theo's back. "No? Why?"
"Because you keep looking at him with a heart face," Maia says promptly.
"A… heart face," JT echoes slowly. "What's a heart face?"
"Like Uncle EJ looks at Uncle Colin," Maia replies. "Mamma says it's a heart face."
Logically, JT knows that Maia has no clue what a smartphone is, no idea what the heart eyes emoji looked like. It's weird, the cultural remnants that have made it through into this post-technology world. "Uh," he manages. "That's… I don't have that face."
"You do," she insists, giggling. "You just were making it!"
"I was not," he argues. Not his finest moment, arguing with a three-year-old, but this is JT's life now, apparently.
"You should kiss Uncle Tyson," Maia says.
JT closes his eyes, inhales and exhales, and opens them back up to find Maia still looking at him expectantly. "He kisses Uncle Alexander," JT reminds her. "Would you want your Mamma to kiss somebody who isn't Pappa?"
"Sometimes she kisses Auntie Elaina and Uncle Philipp," Maia says, which is—fucking news to JT, what the hell, but also not something he's going to grill Maia about. "An' Uncle Colin kisses Uncle EJ and Uncle T-Bear all the time."
JT manages not to laugh at Uncle T-Bear this time, but it's still closer than he'd like to admit. "Okay," he says. "But that doesn't mean Uncle Tyson wants to kiss me."
"He makes a heart face at you, too," Maia says, and the thing is—the thing is that JT believes her, partly because he wants to but partly because he knows there's still something between him and Tyson. It's something he's never going to make a move on, though, because Tyson loves Alexander just as much as JT loves Tyson, and there's no way he's going to fuck with that, with either of them, not in a million years.
"Maia," he says gently, not sure how he's going to explain any of that to her.
"An' so does Uncle Alexander," she says, and she's not even looking at him anymore. She's looking back out at the crowd of people. "You should kiss both of them. Can I go find Mamma?"
"Uh," JT says. How a three-year-old keeps dropping these emotional bombs on him is beyond JT, but he glances away from her, right at Tyson and Alexander, and—she's right on that, too. Alexander's smiling softly in his direction, leaning into Tyson's side as Tyson talks to Mikko, and it's all just—
"Uncle JT," Maia says, poking him. He jerks his gaze back down to her. "I gotta pee. Can I go find Mamma?"
"Oh, yeah, go for it," JT says, watching as Maia makes her way past him and back down the stairs, running into the crowd of people in Mel's general direction.
JT glances down and finds Theo awake, blinking wide, serious eyes at him.
"What the hell was that, buddy?" JT asks.
Theo sticks his entire fist in his mouth and thunks his head against JT's chest, and yeah, that's pretty much how JT's feeling at the moment, too.
Deep breaths, JT repeats in his head, and he manages two in and out before reaching out and knocking on Tyson and Alexander's door.
Tyson pulls it open, and he smiles almost immediately. "Hey, JT."
"Hey," JT says, pushing a hand through his hair. It's getting kind of long again; maybe he'll ask Jesse to cut it for him, if they can find a pair of scissors. "Can I—are you both home?"
"Yeah, we're here," Tyson says, stepping back and pulling the door open wide. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay," JT says. He forces a small smile as he walks inside, but Tyson just looks more worried, so he drops it. "I wanted to talk to you guys, that's all."
Tyson nods and shuts the door. "Well, we weren't doing much," he says. "All you're interrupting is another night of us trying to remember more songs that Alexander can teach the kids."
JT's smile is much more genuine this time. "I'm sure Morgan would be thrilled to help with that some time," he offers. "She taught summer camp for a few years, so I bet she's got a few."
"That'd be great," Alexander says, smiling at JT from the sofa. "You wanted to talk to us?"
"Yeah, I," JT says, faltering now that he's here. This is a conversation he needs to have, but he's not sure where to start, what the most important parts are. "I wanted to talk to you guys about, uh. About why I didn't come back for so long."
He hears Tyson suck in a breath, but he can't look away from Alexander's face. He looks—sympathetic, maybe, and JT has to remind himself that just because Alexander doesn't know the details doesn't mean he has no idea. He'd seen JT the day he got here, after all, right after his shower. He knows about the scar that JT isn't scratching at right now, even though thinking about it is making his whole back itch.
"So I don't really know what it's been like here," JT starts. "Like, I know the basics, and I know how things work now, but I don't have any idea if the experience here is anything like it was for me."
Tyson sits next to Alexander on the sofa. "Tell us," he says, voice soft.
"A lot of the smaller towns," JT says. "Not all of them, but a lot of them—they don't have the resources we have here, or the community. Sometimes entire towns were wiped out, and that was awful, but sometimes there were, like, one or two people left, and that—I think that was worse."
He doesn't know how to explain it, the towns he'd come across as he walked his way to Illinois, the people who came at him swinging just because he might have a bit of food, some water, anything that they could have used. It's something he really, really doesn't like thinking about, the things he did to survive the trip.
"I thought it would be better in Northbrook," he goes on. "And it was, sort of. It's a day's walk from Chicago, so the resources weren't that far, but it's also far enough out that everyone was always on high alert."
"High alert," Alexander says, and there's dread in his voice. "For what?"
JT shrugs and fingers the hem of his shirt. "People get desperate," he says. "It was obvious that we had enough to get by, and we were willing to share what we could, but…"
He pulls his shirt up over his head and grips it tightly in one hand as he turns. The wounded noise is most likely Tyson; Alexander probably figured out where the story was going already. The scar isn't neat, isn't clean; his mother had stitched it up, and there hadn't been much in the way of painkillers. He's just glad he doesn't remember much of it, if he's being honest with himself.
"I was getting ready to leave," he says, staring out the apartment window. He's not sure he'll be able to get the words out if he sees how hard they land. "We got word that there was a group heading south towards Northbrook, and I figured I could just delay for a week or two, make sure they had an extra set of hands when they arrived. Sometimes it was enough, just seeing that there were people willing to defend what was there."
"It wasn't enough this time," Tyson says, and his voice is strange, choked up. "You got hurt."
"I did," JT says. There's no reason to get into it—the fight, the injury, the infection. The last of the antibiotics. The months of rehabilitation, of getting himself back into the kind of shape that would be able to make the trip back. "By the time I was ready to really start thinking about making the trip again, Jesse had decided to come with me. Two would be better than one, and then Morgan decided to come, too."
He pulls his shirt back on and takes a deep breath before turning back around. "We tried to convince our parents to come, too," he says, glancing between Tyson and Alexander before letting his gaze fall to a spot on the sofa that neither of them are touching. "Mom's—her hip is bad. She knew she'd slow us down, maybe put us in danger, and Dad wouldn't leave her. It took us a while to figure out how to say goodbye, how to leave them behind when we all knew—knew it'd probably be for the last time."
JT has to take another deep breath to ease the tightness in his chest, and then another. "I never meant to be gone for so long," he says. "I really thought I'd be back in a year, and I'm just—fuck, I'm going to be saying I'm sorry for the rest of my life, but it's true."
"JT," Tyson says. JT can't help but look at him, and he's—god, fuck, he's crying, tears rolling down his face. He's gripping Alexander's hand so, so tightly. "I—we knew. We always knew you'd try to get back here."
JT nods, hand going to his back pocket. He pulls out the book that he kept on his person the entire walk to Northbrook and back, the one that he leafed through every single time he'd ached too hard to put it off anymore. "I had this," he says, looking down at it. It's Alexander's copy of Moby Dick, one he'd read in college, and there are careful, cramped notes in the margins of almost every page.
"So that's where that went," Alexander says. "Why'd you take it?"
"Because," JT says, swallowing hard. He opens it up and flips a few pages, glancing at Alexander's underlined words quickly before gently taking the photo tucked between the pages out. It's from Tyson's twenty-first birthday, him raising an eyebrow at the camera as he holds up the big stuffed rabbit Colin had gotten him.
Tyson inhales shakily. "Photos," he says quietly.
JT nods and puts it back in its place, flipping a few more pages to the next one, then to the next. "It was..." he starts. "I needed reminders. I put all the photos I could find in here, so I had those, and I had Alexander yelling at Melville, and I—I kept it with me, the whole time."
"JT," Alexander says, and now his voice is rough.
"It took me so long," JT says. His throat aches. "And I—god, I hurt you. Both of you."
"And you're here now," Alexander says. He sounds like he's barely holding it together. "You're here now."
JT nods, because his other option is bawling. He hates crying, hates the way it makes him feel, but when Tyson stands and pulls Alexander up with him, when they take a step towards him, he feels his breath shudder.
"I really want to hug you right now," Tyson says, "but if you don't want us to touch you—"
"Please," JT says, reaching out, and then they're both wrapped around him, Tyson's arms around his waist and Alexander pressing into his side. He's crying, they're all crying, and physically it's the worst he's felt since leaving Northbrook, but there's something calm beneath the surface feelings, something steadying.
Home, he realises with a start. It finally feels like he's home.
"So," Jesse starts. She's running her fingers through his hair and it's calming, soothing. JT has his eyes closed as he sits at the kitchen table, face tilted down, waiting for her to cut his hair and also fix his life for him, probably. Jesse's good like that.
"So," JT echoes.
"So," Morgan says from her spot across the table. "How was your day?"
JT snorts. "Great. Yours?"
"Gary and I have a plan for setting up the school you guys are clearing space for at the convention centre, so mine went pretty well. Jesse?" Morgan says smoothly.
"I made plans with Nate to visit the reservoir in a few days," Jesse says. "We're gonna have a picnic lunch and then check to see how the fishing is. He thinks it might be time to get another fishing group together."
"That would be great," Morgan says. "I'd love some fish in my diet." She taps her fingernails on the table, and JT can picture the look on her face clearly even though his eyes are still closed. "So that just leaves you, JT."
JT sighs as Jesse tugs lightly at his hair, apparently finally ready to get down to it. He angles his head up and opens his eyes, looking over at Morgan as Jesse starts snipping. "I talked to them."
"And?" Morgan asks. She tilts her head to the side slightly, and JT's overcome with the image of their mom doing the same thing. There's no cocoa on the table in front of either of them, but JT has to swallow hard anyway. Apparently today's just the day of all the feelings.
"It sucked," he says, voice a little distant. "I don't—I've never had to tell anyone who didn't know about what happened before."
"Yeah," Jesse says. She pushes gently at his left cheek and he turns his head for her. "I bet that did suck."
JT wants to nod, but he also wants this haircut to be decent, so he just sighs instead. "They were… I think they understood, in the end."
"They better have," Morgan says. "I can pick locks now, and I will break in just to yell at them if they were dicks."
JT laughs a little, surprised. "When did you learn to pick locks?"
"Gary taught me," Morgan says, a note of pride in her voice.
Jesse hums. "Gary, huh."
Morgan's got the same skin tone as the rest of them, which means it's easy to see that she's suddenly blushing. "Nope, today we're talking about JT's problems," she says.
"We don't have to," JT says quickly. "Tell us about—"
"No, she's right," Jesse interjects. "Turn to the other side and tell us about your boys."
JT turns his head, but he doesn't really know what else to say. "Tyson was crying," he says, glad that he's looking at the wall for this. "I think Alexander added it all up beforehand. He saw my back when we first got here."
"Then he probably did, yeah," Jesse says. "No offense, JT, but he's the smart cookie around here."
"He knows it, too," JT says, smiling briefly before it slides off his face. "He didn't tell Tyson about the scar. I thought… I figured he would've."
"You didn't tell him he could," Morgan says, voice gentle. "You know how far trust gets you now, JT."
"Yeah," JT says. His eyes are stinging again. "He could've told Tyson. I didn't mean to keep it from him."
"And you can have that talk with both of them," Jesse says. "What's the plan moving forward?"
JT shrugs one shoulder as Jesse tilts his head this way and that. "There isn't one, I don't think."
"You just told them and bolted?" Morgan asks. JT gets a view of her raised eyebrow as Jesse turns his head for him. "I kind of doubt that's how it went down."
"No, we hugged it out," JT says. "And they told me that they were there for me if I wanted to talk about anything else, and then I bolted."
Morgan snorts. "Of course."
"Hey, he talked to them," Jesse points out. "That's progress."
Morgan sighs. "You're right," she says. "Okay. I'm gonna ask you a question you don't want to answer, and I need you to think about it for, like, three seconds minimum before answering. Got it?"
JT's stomach tightens. He and Jesse have always had hockey to connect over, but he's always felt like Morgan knew him better somehow. That combined with her degree mean that she knows just how to dig into his issues, and it has just as much of a chance of tripping him up as it does helping him out. "Okay," he says cautiously.
"You know you're allowed to forgive yourself, right?" she says gently.
JT opens his mouth, but Jesse squeezes his shoulder. "Think about it," she says, voice quiet.
"I," JT says. His hand is on the table and he's gripping the edge tight enough for it to dig into his palm a little. "I don't need to forgive myself. I fucked it up for Tyson, for both of them. I need them to forgive me."
"Okay," Morgan says, and her voice is still so patient, so soft. "And what if they never blamed you in the first place? What if you were already forgiven for everything before we stepped foot out of Northbrook?"
"But," JT says, frowning. "That doesn't—why wouldn't they blame me?"
Morgan's face crumples a little before she recovers. "Because there's nothing to blame you for," she says. "Before we came back, they figured you died trying to keep your promise, and once we got here, they figured that something had held you up. Nobody thought you chose to stay away."
JT remembers Colin saying shit happens, remembers Alexander's soft voice in the locker room, we knew you wouldn't just not come back because you didn't want to anymore. He inhales deeply and closes his eyes. "Morgan," he says a little helplessly.
He hears Jesse set the scissors on the table, and then she's leaning down, wrapping her arms around his shoulders from behind. "If you hadn't stayed, Mom and Dad wouldn't have survived," she says quietly, and he can feel himself trembling in her arms. "You saved them, and then you had to heal, and then you had to make sure they'd be okay if you left again. Nobody blames you for that."
"But I hurt them," JT says, voice shaking. "I hurt everyone."
"Sometimes things happen," Morgan says, reaching across the table and holding her hand out. JT takes it, and she holds on tightly. "Bad things happen to good people all the time, JT. You're here now."
"You're here now," Jesse echoes. "So stop beating yourself up over what happened and start believing that you deserve a future, okay?"
JT closes his eyes and pulls in breath after shuddering breath. He doesn't believe it, not really, not yet. but he feels like he might get there, and that's—
That feels monumental.
Paul and one of the other guys clearing out the convention centre came across an area that's not safe to enter, so the whole crew is on hold for a few days until they figure it out. JT hopes it's soon, because after two days of inactivity, he thinks he's going to start climbing the walls out of boredom. He'd give almost anything for Fortnite to still work, he thinks a little wryly. If nothing else, he'd known how to kill time before the sickness.
He's startled when someone knocks on the door, but he stands and walks over quickly. He pulls it open and isn't entirely surprised to find Tyson and Alexander on the other side, both smiling hesitantly at him. "Hey," Alexander says. "We heard you had a few days off."
JT groans and steps back, gesturing inside. "I'm ready to start scouting other buildings for us to clear just so I have something to do."
"Huh," Alexander says as he and Tyson walk past him. "That might not be a bad idea, actually. Things might move faster if there are a few projects lined up."
"I'll talk to Paul about it," JT says. "What's up?"
There's a moment of silence as Tyson and Alexander look at each other, and then Alexander smiles at Tyson, a tiny movement of his mouth. It gets Tyson to turn and look back at JT, and he takes a deep breath and blurts out, "So I'm in love with you."
Alexander groans. "Tyson."
"What?" Tyson asks, turning to frown at him. "It's not like I wasn't gonna get there eventually!"
"I didn't think you were going to start there, though," Alexander exclaims. "You were supposed to—"
"Hold the fuck on," JT says, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "You what?"
Tyson smiles a little and steps forward. "I'm in love with you," he says, clear and calmer than JT's seen him since he got back. "I was before everything, before the sickness, and I was the whole time you were gone, and Alexander knew I always would be when we talked our shit out."
"You," JT says, but he doesn't know how to process anything past that. He looks at Alexander, then back to Tyson. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I wasn't," Alexander says, and JT turns back to face him. "Before everything, I mean. I wasn't in love with you then, and I'm not sure I am right now, but I know that I could be. Really, really easily."
"What," JT says. He hadn't really let himself anticipate what would happen, how they'd move on from him finally telling them about what had gone on in Illinois, but this is more than he would've let himself imagine.
Tyson laughs. "Is that okay?"
"Is that okay?" JT asks, incredulous. "I—holy shit, I've been in love with you for years."
Alexander shifts on his feet. "We talked it out," he says, and there's something careful in his tone. "Tyson loves you, and you're one of my best friends. If you don't want to try making it work with the three of us, if you just want to be with Tyson, we'll work with that. We're not a package deal. You don't have to want me, too."
"You're really serious," JT says, looking at Alexander. "Like, you're—both of you. You're serious right now."
"I had these daydreams," Tyson says, voice quieter. "When you got back, I was gonna run up to you and kiss you right in front of everyone. Really rom-com stuff."
JT sucks in a breath. "And then when I finally made it back…"
Tyson's smile is a little lopsided. "I'm not gonna lie to you, bud. I'm a little bit damaged goods."
"Don't say that," JT says as Alexander says, "Tyson, no."
Tyson laughs a little unsteadily. "You're both very nice, but I've met me. And I'm working on it, but facts are facts."
Alexander sighs. "Even if you don't want this with either of us, JT, at least back me up on telling Tyson he's not broken."
"Always," JT says instantly. "Tyson, c'mon."
"You'll just have to keep telling me, I guess," he replies, half-smiling like it's part of an old joke JT's never heard but should still know the punchline to anyway.
Well, fuck the joke, JT decides, stepping forward to lean in and kiss Tyson, soft and short.
Tyson's eyes are wide when JT pulls back and looks at him. "Oh."
JT laughs, a little giddy. "Yeah, oh."
"I can go," Alexander says, and when JT turns, he's smiling softly at them. "We'll all need to talk through how it's going to work with you guys, because that's the only way this is going to work, but I can—"
JT leans forward and kisses him mid-ramble. It's a little longer, a little less sweet, a little more surprised. He pulls back hesitantly, and Alexander blinks his eyes open and stares at him.
"Oh," he says faintly. "Or… that."
"If that's not okay," JT starts.
"No, that's very okay," Alexander says hastily. "Like, super okay."
"Definitely okay," Tyson adds. "Very, very okay. More than okay, even."
"I don't know how any of this is going to work," JT says, looking between them. "I don't know if this is going to work. But I left you once, Tyson, and I'm not letting go if you're giving me a second chance." He holds eye contact until Tyson nods, a smile on his face, and then he turns. "And Alexander, I don't—I'm right there with you. I'm not in love with you, but I could be, and I want to see where that gets us."
"As long as you're willing to try," Alexander says.
"And talk," Tyson adds. "Like, dude, I know you hate it, but between all of our issues and the fact that there's three of us? There's so much talking in our future."
JT laughs. "What does it say about me that I'm not scared off by the thought of that?"
"It says that this has a good chance of working," Alexander says, reaching out and taking JT's hand. He winds their fingers together effortlessly, and it's easy, JT thinks, easy in a way he wasn't anticipating to squeeze Alexander's hand and reach for Tyson with the other.
Easy to smile as Tyson presses a kiss to his cheek. Easy to laugh as Alexander stumbles into his side when he tugs. Easy to breathe, and to look to the future with something like hope.
JT closes his eyes and smiles.
"Hey," Tyson says, dropping down to sit beside JT. "Guess what?"
JT's gaze snaps to him immediately. "They're here?"
"They're coming," Tyson clarifies. "EJ and MacWinnon just got back from Limon. He says they're probably only a few hours behind him."
"They're coming," JT says, smile stretching wide across his face. "They're almost here."
"They're almost here," Tyson says, smiling back at him. He turns and looks around the room. "Do your parents know you made them a house?"
JT laughs and stands. "It's not like I built it," he protests. "I just cleaned it."
"And painted it, and furnished it," Tyson rattles off. "And made sure it was close to the doctors, and—"
"I'm excited, sue me," JT says, but he can't stop smiling.
"I know you are," Tyson says, and his smile goes soft as he leans in to kiss JT, brief but sure. "C'mon. Let's find your sisters and get a whole welcoming committee together."
"Let's go get Alexander," JT suggests. "Because he'll be with the kids, and Jesse and Morgan are probably already heading that way."
Tyson grins. "I like the way you think."
"First time for everything," JT says as they walk out of the house. It's nothing like the place they'd had when he was growing up; it's much smaller, for one thing, and it's not nearly as fancy. It's sturdy, though, and it's clean, and it's only about a block from where JT lives with Tyson and Alexander, and close to where Jesse and Morgan and their families are, too.
Tyson takes his hand as they walk towards the school building. Alexander's got his own room there now, and they've got kids' books and a bunch of toddler toys. It's a good thing, too, because he's handling probably a dozen toddlers a day. Time heals all wounds, apparently, and slowly but surely, the population in Denver is growing.
"Hey," Alexander says when they walk in. He's smiling, Kenzie in his arms, and she immediately reaches out for Tyson when they walk in. Alexander laughs and hands her over. "She's been clingy all day. I told her that Uncle Tyson would be here soon, and it got her to calm down, but she still wouldn't walk on her own two feet." He punctuates it by poking at Kenzie's feet as he says it, and she giggles and hides her face in Tyson's neck.
"I'm the favourite," Tyson says, grinning. "At least until Gary gets here, and then—"
"Where's my princess?" Gary's voice booms down the hallway, and Kenzie squawks and kicks Tyson's arm as she twists around, looking for her dad's voice.
"Down," she yells, and Tyson snickers and bends over to put her on the ground so she can toddle in the direction of the door.
"Always second best," JT says, patting Tyson's shoulder.
He shrugs. "She still likes me better than she likes you, so I'm going with it."
"Rough," Alexander says, laughing. He leans in and brushes a kiss against JT's cheek, then against Tyson's. "Hi."
"Hi," JT says, smiling at him. "Is Jesse here yet?"
"She walked past a few minutes ago, probably heading to grab Micah," Alexander says. He turns and nods to his co-teacher. "I'm good to go, right, Katie?"
"Go, get out of here," Katie replies, smiling at them. "I'm happy for you guys. I'll talk to you later."
Alexander nods and grabs Tyson's hand. "Come on, let's walk down to the bridge," he says. "We'll be able to see them coming."
JT smiles and follows them out, tracing the familiar route through the Denver streets towards the highway. Everything's a little more run down now, a little more in disrepair than it had been when he and Morgan and Jesse had made their way back here five years ago. It's home, though, and they're building more than a life here. They're building a future.
There had been someone heading east about two years ago; JT had written a letter to send along mostly on a whim, and had asked her to deliver it if she ended up in the Chicago area. It had been him finally letting go, more or less, telling his parents that he was happy, that Jesse and Nate had settled down, that Morgan and Gary were getting ready to. He promised that he'd make a place for them, if they ever changed their minds and could make it west.
He hadn't really expected them to get it, but he'd been expecting a reply even less. One had come, though, about a year later, with a group heading through on their way to California, and JT won't ever forget opening it with shaking fingers, reading his mother's handwriting as she explained that they'd be coming, packing up their things and more or less taking a horse-drawn carriage across the plains once summer rolled around again.
"Grandma," Marin says, tugging on JT's shorts. He smiles down at her, pulled out of his thoughts.
"She's coming, kiddo," JT replies. Jesse's oldest has been obsessed with the idea of her mom having a mom since the news broke, and JT's going to guess that his mom feels the same way about knowing she has a granddaughter. He can't wait to see if he's right, even though he's already sure he is.
"Marin, c'mon, come wait with me and Mommy," Nate calls, holding his hand out. He points out towards the horizon line with his other hand. "Grandma will be on the road soon. I can pick you up and you can help me look."
"Yeah," Marin shouts, abandoning JT for her dad in a heartbeat.
Tyson laughs, reaching out to take JT's hand. "Now who's second best?"
"I'm still the oldest, that has to count for something," JT says.
Alexander snorts and winds an arm around JT's waist, leaning into him. "Bad knees, probably."
"You're the worst," JT grumbles, pressing a kiss to his forehead even as he puts his arm over Alexander's shoulders. "No idea why I love you."
"You do, though," Tyson says, and JT can hear the smile in his voice.
"I do," JT agrees, squeezing Tyson's hand and keeping Alexander held close as he turns towards the road and waits.