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It should be a typical Thursday morning at work, but instead Patrick is miles away, listening to the sounds of his parents getting ready from the bedroom next to theirs. From what he can parse through the walls, it appears that his dad can’t find his gray tie and his mom thinks the coffee maker might be on the fritz and there’s a possibility of rain, so can you grab the umbrellas, Clint?

He sits on the bed, rolls his head on his neck, and closes his eyes, exhaustion settling into his skin like snowflakes.

“Can I help?” David asks quietly, breaking Patrick out of the liminal space where he’s been existing since he woke up. When Patrick opens his eyes, David is kneeling before him on the carpet, sitting back on his heels, and he’s sliding Patrick’s bare feet onto the tops of his suited thighs.

When did David get dressed?

Patrick glances down at the black wool dress sock that’s been in his hand for—oh shit—the last ten minutes. Thanks to David’s recent shower, his parents' guest room is filled with the heady, familiar scents of David’s shampoo, his soap, his aftershave, and Patrick is grateful for how enveloping it feels.

“Oh,” he replies, shaking himself out of his own head. Clearly staring at that same spot of carpet didn’t do much to improve his sense of numbness at this Thursday morning displacement. “Sure, thanks.”

David’s hair is still a little damp from the shower, but Patrick’s focus automatically goes to the top of his husband’s head, to the streaks of wiry silver hairs that keep springing up, completely unresponsive to his protests. Patrick loves them, loves that he gets to traverse the other side of forty with someone this beautiful, this well-disposed, who will literally sit at his feet, if that is what Patrick needs.

“You have the weirdest feet,” David says off-handedly, tracing along the flattened arch and causing Patrick to squirm. “They’re so long, and I have to say, proportionally—” he deftly plucks the sock from Patrick’s grasp and eases it over the toes he’s critiquing, working it carefully up over the length of Patrick’s foot. His skin tickles where David skims it. “If I didn’t know you, and someone showed me a thousand pairs of feet, I’d never pick these as yours, not even with nine hundred and ninety-nine guesses. Nothing else about you is long except—” he tilts his head, and if Patrick had the mental energy to put on his own shoes and socks, he’d definitely make a dick joke now. “Well, okay, maybe they should belong to you.”

“Glad we cleared that up,” Patrick says, but it’s soft, gravel-filled. Even though he’s sitting stably, he reaches out to steady himself on David’s closest available shoulder.

David notices with a brief eyebrow twitch but doesn’t comment. Instead he concentrates more fully on his task, easing Patrick’s now-socked right foot into his stiff black oxfords, looping the laces and neatly tying them into a bow. David sets that foot down, then starts the process anew with the left. Patrick’s bare toes look forlorn and they fold themselves involuntarily, flexing against the straight line of David’s thigh. “I wonder what it says about me that I go sock-shoe, sock-shoe, instead of sock-sock, shoe-shoe.”

“You like to take care of one thing at a time, I guess,” Patrick offers with a loose shrug of his shoulders. He certainly appreciates that now as he watches his husband maneuver the second sock over his other very pale, too long, too flat foot. One thing at a time is about all he can handle.

“Maybe after this weekend, we can go on a trip. Find a nice Airbnb. Get away, just the two of us.”

Patrick sucks in a breath, nods. The second shoe is tied; Patrick never saw it go on. David is still clasping the backs of his ankles, fingers running over tendons, watching his face carefully. “I’m okay, David. We don’t need to take a trip. This is a trip.”

“It’s not a trip, honey.” David’s voice is so soft, it’s almost painful. Patrick scrubs at his itchy eyes. “You want to talk about last night?”

David knows the answer to that question, which is likely why he asked it, but Patrick also knows David heard him get up in the middle of the night, that he probably felt the ensuing restlessness. “Not really.” Patrick shakes his head.

“Okay.” David stands then, knees popping, making that old man noise he doesn’t actually need to make, but likes to because he enjoys the drama of it. Instead of sitting next to Patrick on the end of the bed, he drapes himself over Patrick’s lap first, then across his shoulders, putting himself very purposefully in Patrick’s eye line. “I love you, and I’m here.”

“I can see that,” Patrick says, choking out the words like David is cutting off his air, which he is a little, even if it’s well-meaning. David readjusts, moving bony elbows, kissing Patrick’s throat above the tie David tied in hopes of moving Patrick out of the bathroom mirror they’d been sharing. Patrick seemed to have gotten stuck there too, thinking about getting ready with Nate on the first day of grade 12, tying school ties and promising each other a memorable year. At that point, Patrick should have known the socks and shoes were a lost cause, but he’s stubborn; maybe he’s too stubborn.

David allows him the silence, allows him to breathe against the skin of his neck, to cast about aimlessly in his own head while he tries to decide if he has words, let alone something to tell him. To talk about. David didn’t know Nate, and it turns out Nate didn’t ever really know Patrick, and what’s there to say now that Nate is gone?

This is probably the first time Patrick has been still since he got the call and the stillness is apparently a mistake. It gives too much opportunity for creeping doubts, for lingering guilt, for overwhelming loss, to make themselves truly known. He stretches and sighs and gently pushes his husband off his lap, smoothing out the wrinkles in his dress shirt and suit pants. “I should iron these again,” he tells David, who hums and tsks and bites back what is likely, are we sure about that? Because that means the fucking shoes have to come off again and Patrick isn’t sure how many more times David is willing to go to the floor for him today. Through wordless negotiation, they compromise with just the shirt; Patrick irons, David supervises.

“Adelina used to use vodka instead of spray starch,” he remarks, fiddling with a hanger in the Brewer family laundry room. All these years later and it still smells exactly the same. Patrick’s parents are moving around in the kitchen now talking about pastries, having located the requisite number of umbrellas. “Did she have a drinking problem or a life hack? I’ll never know.”

“I think that’s a real thing, David, so I don’t think you need to worry. Maybe it works better.” Patrick’s hand follows the heat of the warm iron over his shirt fabric, watching as it pulls and catches against the board. He’s avoiding looking at the tiny nick on the wall just at his eyeline, the one he and Nate caused with a raucous game of two-man Keep Away and an errant throw. They were ten, maybe?

David leans in. “Or maybe my mother liked to find new places to hide her vodka. In any case, it was highly effective.”

“The Seven Laundry Habits of Highly Effective People,” Patrick quips, and for some reason, it makes David look at him with sympathetic eyes. Okay, it wasn’t his best material, but geez, tough room.

David’s warm palm finds a home on the back of his neck then, soothing at the short hairs past due for a trim and threatening to curl. David loves twisting his fingers in those curls when they’re allowed to exist, loves tugging and pulling and caressing. Patrick wishes he had them now; it would be nice to be touched everywhere, soothing.

It’s okay if he needs to be soothed, he reminds himself. Someone his own age died suddenly, without warning. It’s not usual or expected or okay. He doesn’t have to be okay. David has spent every night of the past four telling him that. It’s time he heard it. Internalized it. Processed it.

You don’t have to be okay.

He would really like to be, though.

David’s thumb sweeps under his ear and Patrick shivers against it. Finished with the iron, Patrick gets his shirt over his shoulders, tie into its place, tucks everything back in, and the next thing he knows, he’s crushing his lips against David’s, pressing against his sternum, backing him into the washing machine. It’s a hungry kiss, a needful one, sliding his tongue across David’s teeth, fingers clutching at David’s neck, pulling him closer. His chest heaves with unspent words and held-in breaths, and David is the one to break the kiss, to pull back and examine Patrick’s face.

“Hey.” David pecks at his lips, a reassurance before a direct command. “I need you to talk to me.”

“I need you to kiss me,” Patrick all but demands, then sulks when David doesn’t.

“I promise you all the kissing you can handle pre-memorial, and even some you can’t, but after you give me just a morsel of what’s happening inside your head right now.”

“Where’s that laundry vodka again?” Patrick jokes half-heartedly and David frowns at him, concerned.

Patrick breathes, dipping his forehead so he’s leaning against David’s collarbone.

“Nate was in my dream last night. I think…I don’t think it’s the first time I’ve dreamt about him.” He pauses, looking up and waiting for David to react. He doesn’t, standing with his arms around Patrick, his beautiful, expressive face placid. “I think…I had another dream about Nate, in high school. About kissing him or touching him or wanting…more. I didn’t feel like that when I was awake. I didn’t even think about it when I was awake. But it was my fault we stopped hanging out, stopped being close. It was me.”

It comes out in a rush, more words than Patrick has put together at once in days, and David just nods and kisses Patrick on the temple, pulling him closer. “Oh honey,” he says and it feels just as intimate as any kiss. “You don’t have to carry all that,” David starts to say, and that’s when his mom and dad interrupt with golf umbrellas and weather reports and travel mugs of strong black coffee.

“You two look so handsome,” his mother remarks, thrusting a danish wrapped up in a napkin under David’s nose with one hand and fussing at Patrick’s crooked tie with the other. “The service is all the way out at Our Lady of Lourdes, and it’s a bit of a drive,” she recounts for David’s benefit, along with a reminder to gather travel refreshments, as if David requires a reason. “I hope you two don’t mind if we all ride out together?”

David catches Patrick’s eye, a question. Privacy would likely be welcome at the moment, but Patrick shakes his head and surprises himself. “No, of course not. It’s silly to take two cars.”

Silly is a relative term, it turns out, as Patrick and David spend the next three-quarters of an hour squished thigh-to-thigh into the backseat of his parents' new compact hybrid, tandem golf umbrellas laying across their laps like safety bars on a roller coaster.

“I’m sorry,” Patrick whispers into David’s ear after he accidentally kicks David in the shin for the fifth time, crossing and uncrossing his leg. “I thought we’d take the SUV.”

David’s elbow digs into his ribcage. “Hmm, it’s cozy.” Even after six years, David is still on his absolute most tolerant behavior in the presence of his in-laws. Patrick always tells him he doesn’t need to be; they’ll love him regardless. But then David reminds him what kinds of expectations Patrick has placed on himself in their presence, in their name, and then Patrick doesn’t argue.

“Gosh Patrick, seeing you two in the rearview mirror is bringing back all kinds of memories of driving you and your friends around before you got your driver’s license,” his dad remarks.

His mom glances over her shoulder as if she also wants to test the memory, try it on for size. “Did the backseat used to be bigger?”

“No,” Patrick says tightly. “I think I used to be smaller.”

His dad pats the slight paunch that sits behind the steering wheel. “Didn’t we all?”

Next to him, David squeezes his hand. “Where were you taking Patrick, pre-driver’s license?” David is still excavating Patrick’s childhood for embarrassing stories, not that his parents don’t regularly deliver, but he thinks maybe this time David is just trying to fill the air with something that isn’t Patrick’s tension.

“Oh, the movies, baseball games, the ice cream shop, anywhere he and Nate—” his mom pauses. “Anywhere he and Nate wanted to go. They were pretty inseparable.”

Patrick clears his throat. Until recently, he hasn’t really thought about any of this. Now it’s all he can think about. “Yeah we were.”

David rubs at his leg and Patrick lets himself temporarily melt against his husband.

They were inseparable until he and Nate had a fight. It was stupid, because it was about Rachel, and Patrick seeming unhappy, and in hindsight, Nate was absolutely right, even though Patrick couldn’t admit that to himself until years afterward. Except. That argument about Rachel wasn’t the end. The end came a few weeks later, when Nate started dating Sydney, a sweet sophomore who came to all their baseball games and knew as much about the Blue Jays as either of the two of them did. Patrick was so angry with Nate then; it hasn’t occurred to him until now that he may have pushed Nate away for fear of what else about Patrick he might see.

In the front seat, his dad asks, “Remember all those drawings he used to make for us, Marce?”

David gives Patrick a side eye, like he’s been shamefully hiding artistic ability this whole time, and Patrick shakes his head. “No, they mean Nate.”

“Ah.” David nods.

“I probably still have some with Patrick’s school work somewhere,” his mom muses.

“Excuse me? Are there also report cards? Science fair projects?” David starts to lean up between the two front seats.

“I can probably find you a sad and dusty volcano in the basement, if you’re interested.” His dad sounds puzzled that David is so excited.

David catches Patrick’s eye and leans back again, wedging himself against Patrick. “No, that...I think the idea that it still exists somewhere in the world is enough for me.”

His mom turns in her seat, making eye contact with Patrick. “You know, I still saw Nate around town quite a bit. At the grocery, on the walking trails. At the high school, since his dad is still coaching. He always asked about you, sweetie.”

“That’s...nice,” Patrick says quietly, eyes trained on the atlas his parents insist on keeping in the back seat pocket for emergencies, the nature of which eludes him. Sudden onset directional emergencies, in a town they’ve lived in for over sixty years? “He wasn’t a big social media person, so I couldn’t really...keep up.”

“He was always very sweet, but so slyly funny. He was thrilled when I told him you and David got married.”

Patrick touches his wedding band, worrying it with the pad of his thumb. David slides his hand inside Patrick’s, his own gold rings warm against his skin.

“I’m glad.” It’s also strange to think that his mom knows—knew—the adult Nate better than Patrick did. His chest pings with a familiar ache, the same one he gets thinking of the life he might have lived here if he’d known who he was sooner.

His mom keeps talking, staring out her own window. “It just felt like everything in our house was ‘Nate this, Nate that’ for so long; he was part of the family. This is a hard day.”

“Yeah,” Patrick says under his breath, letting David pull him closer, closing his eyes.

The only sound in the car then is the insistent pumping of the windshield wipers, the ambient splash of rainwater under the tires, David’s even breathing next to his ear.

++

After the service, the car ride seems even longer, which doesn’t seem possible, but it is; it’s fucking interminable. Patrick is restless. He doesn’t know what to do with any of what he’s thinking or feeling. He isn’t sure he’s thinking or feeling anything worth doing something with.

He tells David that as they’re changing out of their suits into their everyday clothes. David, who seems to be allowing Patrick to ignore their previously interrupted conversation, unbuttons his shirt for him while he talks.

“I can undress myself, David,” Patrick snaps, batting away hands then feeling guilty. He knows he’s not himself right now. “I’m sorry, I just—”

“What if you rest?” David is using his edge of patience tone; it’s a thin margin of error before he slides into full impatience, and that’s Patrick’s fault for not being cooperative. “You didn’t sleep.”

“I slept.” Patrick lies. He can still hear Dream Nate’s laughter. He has a sudden flashback to pre-calc, grade 11, sitting behind Nate and passing up a quiz, fingers brushing, and being viscerally reminded of the dream he’d had then, of laying with Nate in his bed, pressed close, talking about baseball like they always did. Here, in the guest room, David touches his chest lightly, extracting the truth. “I didn’t sleep. But I can’t—let’s go out. Let’s go to that karaoke bar you wanted to check out last time.”

“It is noon on a Thursday, sweetie. I don’t know how you do things in Blind River but I’m guessing noontime weekday karaoke isn’t it.”

No, it isn’t. They could go golfing, or cut down a tree. Go visit the uranium refinery. Those are noontime weekday activities in Blind River, besides the obvious. “We can go get lunch.”

They’d skipped the post-service gathering with Nate’s family and friends, even though it would have been a high school reunion of sorts for Patrick, and he’d have been proud to introduce David to everyone, show him off. There was enough time before the service for Patrick to mingle with people he truly couldn’t miss—Rachel and Brendan and Andrew—and anyway, David hated the little egg salad sandwiches they always served at those kinds of things. He said they made everyone's breath stink and his hands look gigantic, and really, David deserved not to have to deal with that on top of having to manage Patrick.

“Your mom said there was leftover chicken piccata in the fridge,” David tells him, straightening his own sweater. Patrick looks down to see that he’s pulled on a soft henley, but maybe David did that for him, too. “I can heat some up and we can turn on that Bob Ross documentary. It’s highly litigious, I’ve heard.”

He’s learned his lesson now about slowing down, so he refuses that offer. “Actually, can we go for a drive?”

David makes a low noise under his breath. “Can I please grab a snack before we go?”

And that’s how they end up on an impromptu tour of Patrick’s hometown, visiting any old haunt Patrick can think of to show David. The Rose Video is gone, but the Open Mic coffee shop remains, and so does the outdoor amphitheater where he used to do summer stock productions. They stop by the old-fashioned candy store, mostly because David insists, and then the drugstore for bottles of water. It takes them longer than it should to find the bandshell in the park where he and his more musical friends used to hold impromptu acoustic shows, shouting the lyrics to Long May You Run at the tops of their lungs. After that, he drives David up to the Lookout, a bluff everyone used to go to in the summer to drink or to party or to make out, because living in Blind River in the early 2000s was not entirely unlike living in the 1950s. Patrick never really came up here much with Rachel because they always thought it was beneath them—they didn’t need a designated spot to make out, they were rebels, they could make out anywhere! The irony isn’t lost on Patrick, or on David when he recounts this to him. Nothing Patrick has said today about Nate or his childhood seems to be much of a revelation to David, who is detail oriented in all aspects of life, and especially where Patrick is concerned.

Now, in fading daylight, the Lookout is a bit overgrown from the changing of seasons. There isn’t much to see, but maybe there never was to begin with. As a non-rebel adult, with no one else around, Patrick gets his hand under his husband’s sweater and kisses him sweetly, then with more intent, and for a minute, he feels a sense of ease, peace.

Driving around has made him realize how much time he spent trying to remake his life, but better. Maybe proposing at the highest point he could find in Schitt’s Creek was trying to remake this top-of-the-world experience, too. At first, David kisses him back, petting at his head and neck and shoulders, but after a few minutes, David halts him, resting a flat palm on Patrick’s chest.

“You’re crying.” It’s not an accusation, more an observation.

“No I’m not,” Patrick says and sniffs. He didn’t think he was. He certainly didn’t mean to be. “I’m just very grateful to have this opportunity to get to second base with you, here at the Lookout. A dream come true.”

David frowns. He shouldn’t have used the word dream.

“David, I’m okay.”

David splays his hands out wide, examining his long fingers, choosing words. Patrick can’t remember the last time they ever needed to be careful with each other, if this is David being careful. They can just say things. David can say anything to him. “What if—what if we go to the baseball field, instead?”

“Do you want me to get to second base with you while literally on second base? I didn’t know you were that dedicated to sports authenticity. I’m so proud. To be honest, it’s making me a little teary.” He swipes at his eyes again for good measure. They’re still wet.

“Patrick.” Usually David doesn’t use his name as a warning, but now, that’s exactly what it is. “I had a therapist once—I think it was when Alexis was with the Somali pirates, or maybe it was the Yakuza, it all gets so jumbled now. One of the times I thought I wasn’t ever going to, you know, see her again,” he makes a gesture with his hand, voice pinched even in the hypothetical, and Patrick reaches for him, squeezing the fingers he can catch. “Anyway, we did this exercise where I went somewhere I felt close to Alexis—I think it ended up being the fitting room at Reformation because I could only ever pin her down if I was treating her to—anyway. I went, and I imagined she was there and told her all the things I wanted to tell her—the things I thought she needed to hear and to know, to you know…move on, if she was debating haunting me or whatever. It was mostly selfish but. I felt better afterwards.”

“I feel better. I'm with you. I’m kissing you.” Patrick sits back, tipping his head against the car seat with a groan. “I was kissing you.”

“You’re struggling.”

“It’s been four days! He’s barely—I’m not…I can’t snap my fingers and get over someone dying. That…that could have been you. Or me.”

“I know,” David says softly. “I hate that.”

“I hate it, too.” He says to the roof of the car, still miserable. He turns his head slightly; David is watching him, dark eyes full of warmth. A touch of pity. Sadness maybe. Poor Patrick who can’t get in touch with his feelings and couldn’t put on his own shoes fast enough this morning. “So what do I do?”

“Talk to him.” David leans over then, kissing the corner of Patrick’s mouth, then his chin, then his cheek. Gently. And then his voice is gentle when he says, “And it’s still okay not to be okay. Even after this.”

Patrick nods. He reaches for David’s hand, kisses it. “Thank you. For this. For not—anyway. Thank you.”

He starts the car.

++

It’s the off-season, so the high school baseball diamond isn’t crisply lined in white chalk; they don’t even have the outfield mowed. The ground is still soggy from the morning rain and even though David remains both encouraging and supportive, he isn’t thrilled with the prospect of mud on his new Rick Owens.

“I’ll wait in the car, I think,” he says definitively, but Patrick knows it’s mostly so he can have the space. Space and clean sneakers.

Patrick holds on a bit tighter as he reaches across the front seat to hug him. “I really love you, David.”

“I really love you. And if this doesn’t feel helpful, it’s just not the right thing for you right now. That’s it.”

“Okay.”

“And I’ll do whatever I can to help you work through it. Or it can never be resolved and that is perfectly okay, too.”

“You say that now, but I don’t think you want to have to dress me for the rest of our days.”

David purses his lips. “I mean, I’d prefer undressing you, but if I get more input into the selection—I love you. Please go talk to your friend.”

For a split second, he can picture himself in high school, his hot boyfriend dropping him off at practice. He still has trouble picturing what his teammates might say; they might not have said anything. There’s a part of him that wants to go back and bring David along, just tell him what he’s thinking, if he’s even thinking anything.

It’s a bit of a walk to the field from where they’ve parked; it’s enough time to change his mind about the utility of this exercise about seventy-five times. Stepping over divots and clumps of dead grass, Patrick arrives at the infield and heads toward the Home dugout. Inside, he kicks at the cinderblock with the toe of his boot.

If he expected whispers of the past, or spirits brushing against his skin, he doesn’t get it. There’s wind and dirt and a worn in bench, but the pine he rode has long since been replaced. Gravel covers what used to be sunflower seed-littered dirt. There’s an enormous knight painted on the back wall, another new addition, and a gigantic puddle at home plate, but the view of the scoreboard is exactly the same: KNIGHTS, VISITORS.

He readjusts on the bench, squeezing his eyes closed, trying to picture the last time he sat here, if Nate was next to him, if he ever moved closer or put his hand out further, in hopes they accidentally touched. He knows he didn’t; he didn’t think that way, ever, about anyone, until David. Putting himself in someone’s space and staying there until he’s noticed, that was an acquired skill, later.

This feels ridiculous. Is he just going to start talking to the knight? Maybe he should run back out to the car and ask David for a script. What if none of this even works?

Maybe it doesn’t have to work.

He is technically on the grounds of St. Mary’s. It’s been a very Catholicism-forward day. Maybe he’ll think of it like a prayer, another thing he hasn’t done since he was in high school. Maybe not even then.

“So.” Patrick tests out his own voice as it reverberates against cinderblock. It’s loud. A little unsteady. Prayer can be said internally, but that’s not quite the assignment. “Ughhhhhhh.”

That feels good, letting something out, but it doesn’t feel better.

Patrick isn’t good at this and he doesn’t make a practice of doing things he isn’t good at. He takes another breath, both hands in his hair, elbows on his knees. He looks back out at the scoreboard, at VISITORS.

He starts with that caveat: he isn’t good at this. He’s not even sure why he’s here, except he thinks he needs to be.

“I’m worried this is more about me than it is about you, so for that, and a lot of other things, I’m really sorry.”

He takes another breath, releasing his hair.

“The service was very...it was good. Hard, but good. People had a lot of nice things to say about you. Your parents look good, you know, under the circumstances.”

Awkward chit-chat, really, Patrick? Jesus.

In the distance, the scoreboard remains stalwart, unchanged. Patrick settles back against the dugout wall. He’s in this now. Maybe if he just spends a few more minutes, long enough to feel like he tried, like he’s accomplishing something. Might as well talk; there’s no one else out here to hear him.

“They showed a movie; my husband had a really hard time not cooing his whole way through it, because it was basically every embarrassing picture we ever appeared in together.” It was a compendium of Hugh Grant-inspired hair parts and acne and enormous Adam’s apples on skinny, growing boys, and David had to pinch Patrick’s leg not to make undignified noises out loud. Patrick never could have sat through it without David there, keeping him tethered. He barely recognized himself. “It was a lot of good times, you know?”

The memories he’s been pushing away for the past twenty years swarm him like yellow jackets then, a mix of familiar scenes and the smell of pine and the gray fog that is starting to settle over the day, and everything starts pouring out. He talks about what had been shown in the movie, the dissonance of knowing that the person in those photographs is both the person he is today and not him at all. He names the guilt and the shame, the initial harshness of his reaction, all the signs he wishes he would have recognized then but didn’t. How much he idolized Nate, and wanted to be like him, and didn’t know what he didn’t know.

He apologizes. He cries. He thinks, at one point, he may have yelled. He cries some more.

When he and Nate were younger, really young, in primary school, if they argued over game rules or He-Man figures or whose turn it was to shag balls during batting practice, they used to call, “Freeze!” And no matter how disgruntled they were, both of them would stop moving, freezing in place. Whoever budged first lost the argument, and immediately afterward, they’d move on.

Patrick can vividly remember those moments, his foot dangling mid-air, his face screwed up in his patented pout, breath held deep in his lungs. After about twenty seconds, he’d tremble a little, get a tickle in his throat, his nose might start to itch. After thirty, he was usually a goner, laughing because Nate’s position was even more ridiculous, his lanky frame contorted into something pretzel-like and silly, his eyes crossed, his tongue out. He doesn’t know what he thought then, only that he liked how Nate made him laugh, and feel heard. Even at six, at ten, at fifteen, when Patrick was with him, he felt good.

Other times Patrick found he was more stubborn, or sullen, or angry. Other times Patrick felt himself leaning into the freeze, refusing to give an inch, refusing to relinquish whatever it was he wanted to hold onto; most of those times, Nate gave in, laughed, got them both to move again. Maybe that is what Nate was doing by talking to his mom, inching his way back to a thaw.

Freeze! He tries it now, his fingernails digging into his palms where he’s been clenching them for days, eyes wide open and singly-focused on VISITORS, breath stilled in his lungs. There is no one else there to laugh at, no one playing Air Twister in the other dugout, chirping at him.

It hurts. Holding so still like this, holding everything taut, not letting himself go. Saying goodbye.

He isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to stay frozen, but he knows he doesn’t want to be. He’d like to move on.

Patrick budges first.

++

He isn’t sure how much time has passed before he makes his way back to the car to find David pretending to scroll through his phone, as evidenced by the lightning fast manner in which he holds said phone up when he notices Patrick in the distance. He’s backlit by the nearly setting sun, haloed, almost golden. Knowing that David has been watching out for him makes Patrick feel good. He never would have done this on his own.

He still has a long way to go, more proverbial rivers to ford, but he feels like he’s back in his own body again.

He opens David’s door, unbuckling his seat belt, taking his hand and inviting him out of the car. David looks around, uncertain, but complies, unfolding himself from the bucket seat.

“Is everything okay? It’s very woodsy out here. You aren’t going to abandon me in the forest because I made you do a dumb exercise, are you?”

“Yes, David, I hope you brought your breadcrumbs. No, of course not. It was good. Not good, but cathartic, I think. Is there a word for the beginning of catharsis?”

“Feeling?” David ventures, fitting himself around Patrick tentatively, and Patrick floods with warmth. He brushes his lips over Patrick’s forehead, leaning into him. “My mom told me once while I was in rehab that, ‘habit is habit. It isn’t meant to be thrown out the window, it’s meant to be coaxed downstairs one step at a time,’ and later I found out Mark Twain said it, which I should have known because she played him in that one-woman show after Val Kilmer dropped out, but—” he waves a hand. “The point is, one step at a time. Which I just could have said.”

Patrick laughs. It rumbles in his chest, helping him slowly unfurl. “Nah, I liked it.” He nestles his face into David’s collarbone, inhaling everything that feels like home. “It felt nice to spend some time with Nate again. Even if it was just in my head.”

“I’m glad.”

They stand there, holding each other, sinking a little into the softened earth, until David finally says, “Okay, but what am I doing out of the car now? There’s still mud.”

“There’s something I want to show you,” Patrick says, mysterious, delighting in the suspicion as it develops behind David’s eyes. David hates surprises, he claims, but he loves an experience, and that’s what Patrick hopes he can give him, now.

David holds him by the shoulders. “That look on your face makes me no less frightened.”

“Don’t be.”

It’s a sprawling campus, which now that he’s leading David across it on foot feels much larger than it used to, and much more built up over the years. But it’s for a good cause; the science wing of the main building has always been the highest point here, thanks to an affluent donor who insisted they needed an overlook for their astronomy lab.

When they arrive at the building, David stops short, crossing his arms. His sneakers miraculously remained unscathed, thank everything. “I’m not taking your physics test for you or climbing the rope in gym class.”

“Okay, but do you really think those are the two tasks I’d choose for you, were I choosing tasks?”

“This also isn’t an opportunity for you to impugn my athletic skills.”

“Baby, there’s nothing to impugn. You’re…deceptively athletic,” Patrick smirks, still clasping David’s hand, despite the full-body twist he’s doing mid-tease. “But I do need you to get up these stairs.”

The steps leading up are as rickety as Patrick remembers, but David bravely climbs them, probably solely to disprove Patrick’s earlier hypothesis.

Patrick has never been a rule breaker; he actually used to make rules where there were none previously, making order out of things that felt too big or too overwhelming. Partializing, compartmentalizing. But climbing up here was one rule he completely disregarded. As an only child, he was on his own a lot. He got used to it; he had his parents, had Nate, had Rachel, had his cousins and a million acquaintances; he never really remembers feeling lonely. Maybe he did that on purpose, so he didn’t have to be alone with his thoughts. But sometimes, in high school, when the house felt too small, after practice, he’d sneak up here. Being up on the roof meant it felt like he could rise above whatever he thought was holding him back; if he just kept climbing, he’d be okay.

“Ahhh,” David says, never easily impressed. Patrick longs for that sound, that feeling he gets when he impresses David. He’s never going to stop trying, not if it means he stops hearing that sound. “I get it now.”

Patrick squeezes his favorite spot at David’s hip. “Good.”

“Are we going to get arrested for being up here?”

“Oh probably.” Patrick jokes. “But it’ll be worth it.”

At the top, they have a full view of campus, but also beyond it, almost to the river. When Patrick lived here, it never felt like a big town, and it isn’t, but up here, it always felt vast and full and beautiful. And in hindsight, maybe part of the beauty was that from here, Patrick could see the way out.

“Why didn’t they call this the Lookout? Far more representative of the view,” David remarks from his side. “Plus it’s less exhausting than hiking, and you still get the same effect.”

“I mean, I could have proposed to you on top of Bob’s Garage, but would it have meant as much?”

David tucks his hand into Patrick’s back pocket as Patrick leans his head against David’s shoulder. “You know I would have said yes anywhere.”

They stand looking out over Patrick’s hometown, where he was born and stayed for too long, not realizing it was one of any number of alternatives open to him, contemplating the day.

Patrick points to the baseball field. “I think that’s still the original scoreboard from when I was playing. See that splash of yellow paint? St. Joseph’s, after we beat them in the playoffs, turned over every trash can and defaced our sign. And they’ve somehow managed to update everything else except that.”

“Well, you know, the more things change…” David catches his eye. “What? What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking we should sponsor it being refurbished, in Nate’s name. To remember him, to say thank you. I know he loved it here.”

“I think that sounds wonderful.” He smiles at Patrick softly. “Does it involve me on a ladder at any juncture?”

“No, you’re safe.”

“Oh I like it even more now,” David says, slipping his arm all the way around Patrick’s waist and kissing his temple firmly. “I’m glad he was a good friend to you.”

“I just wish I could have been a better friend to him.” His voice wavers and he thinks about shaking it off, but this is David, and he knows he doesn’t have to. It’s grounding him, to let it out. “I hope he’ll forgive me.”

David is quiet. In the distance, there’s a low din of life going on below them. Everyone is moving on. “I hope you’ll start to forgive yourself.”

This time Patrick does have to shake it off. He’s never been very good at forgiving, especially himself, but he’s trying. “First Rachel, now Nate. I wonder how many other people I’ve hurt along the way.”

“Probably thousands,” David says, not budging when Patrick throws him a plaintive look. “Patrick, you don’t know what you don’t know. We are all doing our best with the information we have at the time.”

Patrick gives him a sad smile. “How did you get so wise?”

“Oprah. But also, I think you’re forgetting that I haven’t always been the world’s greatest friend.”

“But you have that mug!” He pretends to be scandalized, bumping David’s shoulder with his own. Putting himself in David’s space. Staying there.

“A recent purchase,” David volleys back. This is why they work, because they can cry and joke in the very same moment, because it always feels like breathing instead of gasping for air. “For what it’s worth, you were one of the first real friends I ever had.”

“Obviously I love being your friend. However, it didn’t take me long to realize I would also love to get in your pants.”

“And I, in yours. But first I wanted to get to know your pants. And what I knew, pre-pants, I liked. So much.” David cups his face in his hands, drawing Patrick’s lips to his. “I love you, and I’m very glad you’re feeling…you know, feelings, but Patrick Brewer, if you don’t feed me soon, I’m going to start to act the fuck out.”

Patrick laughs, even though David is far from joking. “There’s a dumpling place not far from here. We can have a dumpling date.”

“Am I your first dumpling date?”

He can’t remember if he ever took Rachel there. There were limited options, after all. Also, he went on limited dates. “David, you’re my only dumpling date.” Patrick kisses his cheek and pulls back, yawning. “But afterward, can we put on Bob Ross, and fall asleep at 8:30?”

David approves this with another kiss and they climb down from the roof. The evening air still smells loamy, like rain, and David kisses Patrick against an ivy-covered enclosure to celebrate a safe landing, he says. There are so many places Patrick wants to take him and not even for the first time: down to the harbor, up on the trails, to the timber village museum just to see the appalled look on his face. Blind River is actually an incredible place. Nestled against Lake Huron, it’s a vacation destination; people leave their regular lives and pay to stay here. But truly, Patrick never thought of it that way. It was mud he was stuck in, a place he was mired. He only ever felt like he needed to keep moving, to stay busy. He didn’t see it for what it was, for what it can be now: a place he can rest.