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here we are, with burnin skin

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Bitty had never in his life claimed to have time management skills. His momma always told him that everyone in the world had some faults, and procrastination, he figured, wasn’t so bad a flaw to have.

Which is why, when he got sick of moving his boxes to the Haus for the summer, he didn’t put that much effort into convincing himself he should really keep at it before he plugged his phone into his speakers and took a dance break. Might as well get the other Haus residents used to their new reality, with Johnson gone and Bitty in his place.

The opening bars of Feelin’ Myself were a special kind of magic and as Bitty gyrated around his new room, he let his eyes fall closed and dropped low, just starting to really get into it-

“Uh, Bits?”

With a squeak he’d deny to the end of his days, Bitty leapt to his feet, tripped, and almost fell headlong across his desk. Pausing his music, he turned owl-eyed to see Holster, red-faced from all the heavy lifting he’d been doing today, leaning on the doorframe with the biggest shit-eating grin Bitty had ever seen.

“Didn’t know Nicki was moving in.”

Bitty blushed and paused the song. “What do you want, Holster.”

Holster frowned and straightened, the top of his head almost brushing the doorframe. “Bitty! Bits. Eric. You wound me with your tone. And here I came to offer you the most ‘swawesome summer you could imagine. My heart” - he clutched at his chest and wilted against the doorframe - “you’ve broken it. I’ll have to call my mo-”

“Holster,” Bitty interrupted, folding his arms across his chest and fighting the smile quirking at the corners of his mouth. “What’s up?”

“That’s more like it.” Holster’s grin was back, impossibly wider this time, and - was he bouncing on his toes? Bitty refused to find a literal giant cute. “Anyway. Like I was saying before you shattered my vulnerable soul. You don’t have any plans this summer, do you?”

Bitty leaned back against the desk. “Uh, not really? I was going to be a counselor at the old summer camp like usual, but they’ve hired too many newbies this year so I figured I’d take the year off. Concussion and all. Why do you ask?”

Holster was definitely bouncing and it was definitely not the cutest thing Bitty had seen since his neighbor’s Labrador tripped over its own ears as a puppy. “I don’t have any plans either. But Rans does. And Jack, and Shitty, and - look, basically everyone else is busy. And they’re all over the country, scattered to the cruel winds without anyone to comfort them when they convince themselves there’s a ghost in the Haus -”

“And?”

“Interrupting is rude, Bits,” Holster scolded with a frown. “Anyway. As I was saying. Everyone else is busy, and they’re all over the place. They’re bound to get lonely without a little taste of home. So.” He spread his hands. “Road trip.”

Bitty choked on a surprised laugh. “Wait, seriously?”

“Hells yeah! Just think of it, Bits. We take, like, a couple weeks at home first, since I know your parents probably wanna see you and my sisters haven’t been properly messed with since spring break. Get packed, bake some shit, then you and me will hit the fuckin’ road, brah. It’ll be fuckin’ sick.”

Despite himself, Bitty felt a grin stretching across his face to match Holster’s. His enthusiasm really was infectious. “So we’d just drive around, visiting people?”

“People, places….yo, Bits, you ever seen the world’s tallest thermometer? In California? Or - ooh, ooh, dude, I heard about this cathedral in Texas that’s made, like, entirely of garbage.”

“Of course that’s in Texas.”

Holster laughed, loud and booming, and the answering bloom in Bitty’s chest - this feeling of belonging, of knowing Holster was asking because he wanted Bitty around, and had Bitty ever had that before? - really answered the question for him.

“Yeah,” Bitty said finally.

“Yeah?” Holster looked hopeful. “You’ll come with?”

Bitty straightened up, pushing away from the desk. “Of course. On one condition.”

“Whatever you want, broski!”

“I get to pick the music.”

 

The afternoon Bitty needed to get to the airport to meet Holster in Buffalo, his mother appeared to finally understand the implications of sending her baby off on a cross-country road trip with someone she’d never met and no set schedule. Tearfully, she followed him from room to room as he checked to make sure he had everything he needed.

“Momma,” Bitty said finally, setting his duffle bag by the door. “Are you sure you want to drive me to the airport? I’m sure Coach can-”

“It’s okay, Dickey,” she sniffled. “I’m just - my baby boy is all grown up, going on grown-up adventures with his adult friends. Just - be safe, okay, sweetheart?”

“It’s just Holster, Momma,” Bitty reminded her as she folded him into a hug. “It’s not like I’m going on a road trip with some stranger.”

“I know, I know.” She stepped back and swiped at her eyes with the back of one hand, and Bitty tactfully didn’t mention the mascara smudge under her left eye. “Can you really blame a mother for getting emotional when her baby goes away? Come on, Dickey. Let’s get a move on.”

Thankfully there were no more waterworks on the way to the airport, and Bitty read the conversation from the group chat out to his mother while the whole team discussed Bitty And Holster’s Epic Cross-Country Adventure at length.

“Are you sure you have your passport?” Suzanne asked again, glancing at Bitty’s phone screen out of the corner of her eye. “I mean, since Jack is Canadian. Or will he be at training camp?”

Bitty huffed a laugh. “I can go visit his dad if you want. Get you a signed photo.”

“Eric Richard Bittle,” she laughed, swatting at his shoulder with one hand. “You watch that smart mouth, young man.”

“Yes, momma,” he chuckled. “And I have my passport. Don’t worry about us. I’ll send you lots of pictures.”

“You’re absolutely right, you will.”

It wasn’t until Bitty was standing on the curb at the airport watching his mom drive away that the trip started to feel real. Weeks - months, maybe - in a car with Holster, pooling any cash they had for gas money, probably sleeping in Holster’s Subaru to save on motels, only each other and the occasional teammate for company...for a moment Bitty felt overwhelmed. He clutched his phone, debating texting Holster to cancel, calling his momma to come pick him up again and take him home.

But he remembered how it felt to know Holster just wanted him around, had come to him with an idea for something fun to do when neither of them had plans, and even if Bitty had thought Holster had given him a pity invite, the idea would have been thoroughly put to pasture by the sheer amount of time involved in a cross-country road trip. Smiling to himself, Bitty picked up his duffle and marched into the airport.

The hour and a half-long flight seemed to stretch on and streak by at the same time. Bitty leaned against the window and stared at the clouds below, remembering days stretched out on Lake Quad with the team listening to Holster and Shitty point out clouds that looked like teammates’ asses. They never agreed, and Bitty and Lardo had spent the afternoon more focused on watching the faces of the passersby as they realized what the hockey team was yelling about that particular day.

As soon as he landed, Bitty had his phone out to text Holster. The bustle to get off the plane was almost worse than the entire TSA process, but as soon as Bitty made it out of baggage claim he spotted Holster waving a sign with his name on it and grinning like it was his damn birthday.

Bitty headed over to him with a self-conscious grin. “Hey, Holster.”

“Bits!” the reach on this boy was absurd, Bitty reflected as Holster slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him in for a hug. “My man, my intrepid fellow adventurer, it has been far too long.” Towing Bitty alongside him as he continued, Holster either didn’t notice the weird looks he was getting for his sheer volume or chose to ignore them. “Listen, my mom is so pumped to meet you. My sisters, too. Just remember that Hailey is a little shit who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, ever at any point, and you should be good. Oh - and Veronica is making dinner tonight, it’s probably gonna be that Kraft mac n cheese shit with sliced up hot dogs in it or something but you’re not allowed to make faces about it, she almost cried last time Ransom visited-”

“Holster!” Bitty finally cut in, laughing. “I would never. You oughta know better, I’m a Georgia boy and I know my manners.”

“Bro. That is the most disgustingly southern I’ve ever heard you. Here, lemme get your bag. Smile!” Bitty barely had time to catch up to whatever Holster was saying before the larger boy had his phone out, taking bursts of photos of his smiling face smashed against Bitty’s. He could see the excited flush on Holster’s face as he talked more than he breathed, and his own poorly-disguised confusion, and the crowded airport background, each photo slightly different as Holster didn’t bother to stop walking between shots. “I’m sending, like, all of these to the group chat.”

“Jack’s gonna yell at you,” Bitty laughed, already feeling his phone starting to buzz in his hands.

“Cap’s gotta learn to pull the stick out of his ass. The hockey stick, ayoooo! I’m def sending that to Ransom.” Holster finally let go of Bitty and turned back to his phone, straightening up so Bitty couldn’t see the screen, just his fingers flying across it. “Alright, bro, let’s get home to dinner.”

The drive back to Holster’s house, where Bitty would spend the night on an air mattress before they set out early the next morning, was full of Holster’s booming, excited voice running back over the plans they’d spent weeks hatching over text. He had a Buzzfeed list of the best roadside attractions to visit, and his own heavily-annotated list of must sees across both the US and Canada. “I’m not sure I’ll fit on this octopus slide,” he said pensively about a roadside playground in British Columbia, “but you def will. Man. We should go to that and get pictures and then, like, Lardo can paint a portrait of you and the Canadian octopus, and - oh, shit! We should send that photo to the group chat and be, like, ‘we finally found Jack!’ That would be so sick, bro.”

Bitty had long since learned that when Holster was in a mood like this it was best to let him go. He settled back into his seat and offered the occasional comment or opinion when asked, but mostly he was content to watch Holster fidget in his seat, so excited he could barely focus on the road. Holster’s Subaru was more spacious than Bitty imagined, with Holster’s seat situated as far back from the wheel as it could to accommodate his massive height and the back seats folded down to make room for what looked like enough road snacks to feed the whole team, plus some pillows and blankets for “road naps, dude. It’s gonna be peaceful as fuck.”

Holster’s house was in the suburbs of Buffalo, the building itself small to accommodate three kids as big and active as Holster and his sisters. Bitty had heard plenty of stories about Veronica’s trials as her high school softball captain, and he knew that Holster had been the one to spend hours with her in the backyard perfecting her pitching technique. Hailey, on the other hand, was the quieter older sister, and Holster talked about her national soccer goalie ranking with the kind of glowing pride Bitty would have expected out of an overzealous parent.

Holster insisted on taking Bitty’s bag again, and when he opened the door he barely had time to shout that they were home before a muscular blonde girl was swinging around a corner and bounding up the hallway in a handful of long steps. “Adam! Introduce me!”

“Veronica,” Holster sighed, sounding every inch the long-suffering big brother, “this is Bits - Eric. Bitty, this is my baby sister Veronica.”

“Baby,” she snorted before extending a hand to Bitty. “I’m seventeen, I’m not an infant anymore. Anyway. Nice to finally meet you, Eric.”

Bitty smiled and shook her hand. “It’s nice to meet you too! I hear a lot about you from Holster.”

Veronica’s answering grin was freakishly identical to the look Holster always got when he was patiently waiting for Jack to finish with a fan so he could ask him to sign his left nipple. “Oh, same,” she said, her voice airy. She cut a sideways look at Holster for a split second that Bitty couldn’t decipher. “We’ve heard plenty about-”

“So is dinner on soon?” Holster cut in, face red. “I swear, if you’re feeding another one of my friends that hellish mac n cheese, especially, Bitty, he cooks-”

“I thought he bakes,” came a softer voice from behind Veronica. Squeaking a little, Veronica jumped to the side to reveal what appeared to be smaller version of herself with a more hooked nose and a gap between her front teeth. “I’m Hailey,” she added, catching sight of Bitty.

Bitty shot a nervous look at Holster, but he was caught in some indecipherable staring contest with Veronica full of meaningful looks Bitty couldn’t understand. “Um, hi, yeah, I mostly bake, but. I do cook sometimes.”

Hailey rolled her eyes, which scared Bitty for a second until she clapped one hand on each of her siblings’ shoulders. “Adam. Veronica. You’re scaring Eric.”

“Oh, sorry, Bits, come on, let’s, uh - we can head upstairs and you can put your stuff down if you want?” Holster seemed flustered, scratching at the back of his neck, but Veronica was still shooting him sly glances and giggling. Bitty figured it was a sibling thing and decided not to worry about it.

“Sure. Lead the way?” Resisting the urge to shrink into himself, Bitty followed close behind as Holster thundered up the stairs to his own room. One six-four giant had always seemed like enough to Bitty, but two more six-foot giants, these ones strangers, was a bit overwhelming, especially given how easy it was to see where Holster had gotten his effusive friendliness.

Holster’s room was the second door on the left, between Veronica and Hailey’s shared room and the bathroom. “I got lucky, being the only guy in the family,” he said by way of explanation. “My sisters were always pissy about having to share a room, but my mom just wouldn’t have it. You’ll meet her later, by the way. She’s at work right now.”

“Oh.” Still feeling a bit off-kilter after meeting Holster’s sisters, Bitty couldn’t formulate much more of a response. “Your sisters seem pretty…”

“Loud?” Holster chuckled and dropped onto his bed while Bitty pulled his sleep clothes out of the duffel and left them at the foot of Holster’s air mattress. “Yeah, the whole family’s like that. I don’t know how my mom deals with us. She’ll be home in about an hour. Uh, we can, like, play FIFA or something until dinner if you want? You don’t have to deal with Veronica and Hailey. They’re...well. Any Birkholtz can be a lot.”

“Let’s do that,” Bitty laughed, swiveling toward the small TV on Holster’s desk. “What version of FIFA do you have?”

The hour and change before Holster’s mom got home passed quickly, and Bitty finally felt himself relaxing in Holster’s house. By some miracle, he was winning - even though he could never beat Ransom at any version of FIFA, and Holster usually beat or tied Ransom. But a streak of luck wouldn’t be that out of place - everyone had them sometimes. Or maybe Holster felt weird having Bitty in his house? That would explain the weird staring contest he’d had with Veronica when they first got home. Either way, Bitty insisted to himself, it wouldn’t have to be weird in the car.

After yet another win for Bitty, Holster was about to start another match when they heard the front door open and Holster’s mom yell for him and Bitty. Seeming much more at ease after the FIFA matches, Holster grinned and shut the TV off. “Coming, Mom!”

Holster’s mother, to Bitty’s surprise, wasn’t particularly tall - she was, in fact, almost exactly his height, with kind eyes and deep smile lines and honey-blonde hair swept up into a messy bun behind her head. “You must be Eric. I’m Amy,” she said, extending a hand.

Bitty shook it. “It’s nice to meet you, ma’am. Thank you for having me.”

Amy grinned and cut yet another indecipherable look at Holster before focusing back on Bitty. “It’s no trouble. Veronica should have dinner together pretty soon. You’re lucky - you caught her and Hailey both on days they both have off.”

“Lucky,” Holster echoed, rolling his eyes. “We’ll see. It just means they’ve had all day cooking up questions.”

“Questions?” Bitty felt discomfort creeping back up his shoulders. “What do you mean?”

“Sisters suck” was all Holster said by way of explanation, rolling his eyes.

“Mom, Adam, Eric, dinner’s ready!” Veronica called from the kitchen. “Hailey, set the table right, the forks go on the other side!”

“Do it yourself if it’s such a big deal,” Hailey retorted as Bitty, Holster, and Amy arranged themselves around the table. Bitty found himself ushered into the seat next to Holster, across from Hailey, while Amy settled herself at the head of the table. Hailey was arranging silverware apparently at random, going so far as to put Veronica’s fork in her empty glass while Veronica squealed indignantly and flicked bits of spinach at her.

When they were all finally sitting with their food, Bitty waited until Holster started eating to dig in, just to make sure he didn’t accidentally start eating ahead of grace or anything. Holster didn’t seem the type to pray before a meal, but Bitty learned the hard way in Georgia that you never know, and the last thing he wanted was to somehow insult Holster’s family, especially since he was already getting weird looks from both of Holster’s sisters.

“So, Eric,” Hailey said, leaning forward with both hands cupped around her glass of wine. “Tell us about yourself. You’re from Georgia, yeah? What’s that like?”

Bitty shot Holster a look that he hoped conveyed help, but Holster was locked in another staring contest with Veronica and didn’t seem to notice. “Um, well, you know. It’s the south. Lots of, uh, heat.”

“Heat, huh?” Veronica broke in, not looking away from Holster. She had a twist to the corner of her mouth that Eric couldn’t interpret. “You must be used to that, since you grew up there and all. Being hot.”

“Veronica,” Amy interrupted over her own glass of wine. “Maybe dial it back a bit.”

Bitty felt totally lost. Momma Bittle and Coach could usually talk through looks like this, but he’d never seen the kind of whole-family connection the Birkholtzes had. Maybe it was a sibling thing?

“Um,” Bitty tried, “it was weird, winter at Samwell, I mean. It gets so cold so early, and the boys were just the worst about it.”

Holster snorted. “You’re the one who slipped. On ice. Walking back from Faber.”

“Lord, don’t you bring that up again!”

“How exactly do you put up with him all the time?” Bitty could interpret this look from Hailey, at least - the gleam in her eye was the exact kind of mischief he was used to seeing from Holster.

“Hailey,” Holster warned.

“Adam,” Veronica parroted back.

“He's mostly alright, when he's not being rude,” Eric said, kind of lost. “He’s a great friend - he and Ransom are always lookin’ out for me, you know.”

“He’s always been like that,” Amy told him warmly. “Such a gentleman.”

Veronica snorted and clapped a hand over her mouth, shoulders shaking even as she tried to hide her face. Hailey rolled her eyes and stole a bite of chicken off Veronica’s plate.

The rest of dinner passed much the same way, with Holster’s sisters firing off question after question that Bitty couldn’t fully interpret with Holster or Amy occasionally cutting in when the girls seemed to be getting too carried away. Bitty offered to help clear the plates when they were done, but Amy shot him down immediately, recruiting Holster to clear and wash the plates with her in the kitchen while leaving Bitty alone with Veronica and Hailey. Sourly, Bitty reflected back on all the people in his life who had betrayed him as Amy and Holster cleared the plates in silence, both of Holster’s sisters staring fixedly at Bitty with naked glee on their faces.

On the last trip from the dining room to the kitchen, Holster stopped and placed one big hand on Bitty’s shoulder. Red-faced, he said simply, “Hailey’s a little shit and Veronica is literally seventeen years old. All they want to do is ruin my life. You’ll be fine,” and disappeared into the kitchen after his mother.

“Sooooooo,” Veronica said after a few beats of awkward silence. “Does Adam still keep an entire cabinet of Sriracha?”

“He did when I moved in,” Bitty responded with a roll of his eyes. “And finding it was literally the worst thing that ever happened to me. I cannot believe anyone ever let him do that."

Hailey laughed. “It’s not that mom let him, it’s that he started sneaking it into the house and hiding it in his room. Anyway, hey - Adam never tells us any of the good stories from college - something about being a good role model, which is bullshit because he’s not even the oldest. Give us a story.”

“I’m afraid I’m not usually part of the worst stories, and I’m sure y’all have already binge watched reality TV with him,” Bitty demurred. “There was one time, at this Haus party…”

“Eric.” Veronica leaned forward, eyes wide and face perfectly still. “I’m dead serious. Tell us everything. Is Adam a bad dancer? Oh, is he a good dancer? One time at our cousin’s wedding he kinda got into it, but he and Justin use freakin’ spreadsheets to plan parties, he has to be better than us, come on-”

“To sum up Veronica’s question,” Hailey laughed, seeing Bitty’s saucer eyes, “how often have you partied with Adam, and what’s that like?”

“Holster - uh, Adam, is a large boy with a large amount of emotion,” Bitty said dutifully. “It comes out when he’s drunk.”

Veronica’s grin was sharklike. “That sounds like the best thing that has ever happened to anyone. Have you seen him get, like, angry drunk?”

Bitty frowned. “I don’t normally think of him as an angry guy, to be honest.”

“I’ve seen it,” Veronica continued as if Bitty hadn’t spoken, leaning back with a far-off look in her eye. “This one time, I got tendonitis from pitching, and he got sooooo upset about me missing a game some college scout was gonna be at, you shoulda seen him. He was plastered, so he could barely string a sentence about it together, and he was literally crying.”

Bitty laughed. “I've never seen him angry drunk, but actually, every now and then he and R - uh, Justin decide that they need to find me a boyfriend, and they’ll just pull up Facebook and start listing off names for hours unless somebody stops them.”

“Try being his sister,” Hailey said with a grin. “It’s like that, but worse, because - God, have you ever seen my brother with a crush?”

Veronica let out the kind of cackle Bitty wasn’t used to hearing until the second round of tub juice came out. “God, no kidding!”

“Alright, girls,” Holster boomed, emerging from the kitchen with a flush on his face and a towel twisted around his hands. “Hot seat’s over. Bits, we should probably get to bed, we’re gonna wanna get a head start tomorrow.”

“Sleepover,” Veronica giggled a bit nonsensically. Bitty tried to hide his confused frown as he followed Holster upstairs again, but must not have done that great a job, because Hailey and Veronica were already giggling as soon as the boys were out the door.

“Sorry about them,” Holster said, his back to Bitty. “They’re - I mean, you know sisters. Well. You don’t know sisters, but like. Uh.”

“I know the concept of sisters,” Bitty offered with a small smile. “It’s okay. They just wanted dirt on your college stories - like, if you dance like shit or whatever. I thought you would have told them all your best ones, you’re not usually shy like that.”

Holster laughed, sounding a bit nervous. “Yeah, uh, well, you know. Don’t want anything getting back to my mom, she’d flip if she knew about, like, what goes into tub juice.”

“Do you even know what goes into tub juice?” Bitty asked curiously. “I don’t. I didn’t think Shitty and Lardo told anyone about that. Supposed to be a big secret or whatever.”

“Hard to keep that a secret from the people buying supplies,” Holster chuckled, flopping backwards onto his bed. “Anyway. You wanna play more FIFA, or we can just chill, or. I mean I know it’s like six but if you really wanna go to bed we can do that.”

Bitty laughed. “No worries. Tell me more about your sisters. You talk about them at school but it’s different being able to place names with the faces.”

Holster talking about his sisters seemed almost like a totally different person from the loud, attic-dwelling jock Bitty knew. He had the same kind of energy, but a softness in his eyes Bitty didn’t think he’d seen before. Holster, Bitty discovered, could talk about his family for hours, and didn’t even seem to notice the time passing. Halfway through the third story about Veronica threatening boys off from her softball teammates with a bat, Bitty felt his eyes slip closed. Holster’s voice was low and deep and scratchy from talking for so long, and as Bitty drifted, the words started to run together. He couldn’t put his finger on when he stopped listening, but before Bitty knew it he had slipped into sleep.

 

Bitty woke to Holster poking his shoulder cautiously. “Bits, bro, it’s morning. We gotta get goin’, we told Shitty we’d have dinner with him and Cambridge is, like, seven hours away.”

Groaning, Bitty rolled over and sat up, mussing a hand through his hair. “‘M up, ‘m up. Lemme….fuckin….teeth.”

“Alright, I’ll pack up the car while you fuckin teeth,” Holster chirped, chuckling. Before Bitty could formulate a response, Holster was already up and out the door.

The morning passed in something of a blur, which Bitty attributed to the fact that he was still mostly asleep. Quickly brushing his teeth and shoving the toiletries he’d taken out last night back into his duffel bag, Bitty was surprised by how quickly Holster had rolled up the air mattress and stowed it in the back of his Subaru. By the time Bitty was dressed and ready to go, Holster already had the car loaded. He couldn’t help but wonder when Holster had gotten up, and how he had managed to go through his entire routine without waking Bitty.

Holster’s mother was also awake, and seemed to be packing their entire kitchen into Tupperware containers she handed off to Holster to be added to the pile of their stuff in the back of the car. Much of it was baked goods, Bitty noted with approval, but there were also a couple of sandwiches and sodas in a cooler so they wouldn’t have to stop for lunch for the first few days. Hailey and Veronica had both been dragged out of bed to see Holster and Bitty off, and sat grumbling on the couch looking more like piles of pajamas than human beings.

Once everything was finally packed and ready to go, Holster’s mother and sisters hugged both the boys in turn. “Have a great trip, you two. Text often so we know you’re not dead,” Amy said brightly, patting Holster’s cheek.

Hailey would only grumble what vaguely sounded like words, but Veronica was awake enough to whisper something to Holster that made him turn bright red. When she turned to Bitty, he steeled himself for something weird, but all she whispered to him was “Look after my idiot brother, will you?”

Still heavy with sleep, Bitty bundled himself into the passenger seat as Holster slid neatly behind the wheel. “You still look beat, bro,” he laughed. “I didn’t think we stayed up that late.”

“Not all of us are morning people, Adam Birkholtz,” Bitty grumbled, and promptly fell back asleep.

He woke about three hours later feeling much more rested in time to catch Holster shooting him a fond look. “Wha’s up? Where are we?”

“Good morning at last, sleeping beauty,” Holster chirped. “We’re almost halfway there. You wanna switch in about an hour?”

“Sure,” Bitty said, sitting up and stretching. He could feel some congealed drool at the corner of his mouth and he wrinkled his nose at the taste of his own tongue and the sound of his spine popping laboriously back into alignment. “Ugh, Holster, car naps are the worst.”

Holster rolled his eyes. “Says the guy who’s almost a foot shorter than me. You don’t know the half of it, Itty Bitty.”

Bitty frowned and plugged the aux cord into his phone. “I’m not that small.”

 

The rest of the drive passed without much conversation, and before they knew it, Bitty and Holster were pulling up to a corner of Cambridge on which stood Shitty, his flow pulled up into a bun to keep it off his neck in the early summer Massachusetts humidity. True to form, Shitty wore a pair of denim shorts painted like the American flag that left so little to the imagination that Bitty could just about see the low edge of his ass peeking out from under the cuff of the shorts.

“What a man,” Holster laughed. “Get in the car, Shits!”

Shitty opened the back door, shoved Holster and Bitty’s duffel bags out of the way, and crawled into the little nest Holster had made in the back with an old comforter and a pile of mismatched pillows.

“Brah,” Shitty said, clear admiration in his tone. “You’re joking, man, this is, like, the snuggle zone back here. Why even have this if you’re both up there all the time?”

“Gas is expensive,” Holster explained with a shrug. “It’s cheaper if we only stay in a motel every couple of days, like, when we start really needing a shower. Other nights we can just crash in the back of the car.”

Shitty nodded sagely. “Saving money and ensuring snuggles. I like the way you two think. What a way to live. Anyway, yo, dinner. I’m paying, by the way - don’t make that face at me, Bits, I’m good for dinner for three. How do you two feel about pho?”

The pho place Shitty took them to turned out to be a hole in the wall Lardo had shown him her frog year, and though it was far from fancy, Bitty could taste the quality in the ingredients. For the first few minutes of the meal, there was no conversation at all as all three of them stuffed themselves as quickly as possible. Holster, for all he could only fit a couple of hard boiled eggs in his mouth, seemed much more capable when it came to pho.

Finally, Shitty took a deep breath and a drink from his water and slowed down a bit. “So what’s the plan, you two? Got a route planned out an’ shit?”

Holster shrugged and made a noncommittal noise, his mouth too full to actually reply. Bitty rolled his eyes and leaned forward. “Well, we’ve got a basic route down? We’re gonna follow the coast down, loop around through California, and cross back up the country diagonally.”

“Hell,” Shitty echoed with a whistle. “That’s a hell of a road trip.”

“We might hit Canada, too,” Holster added once he finally managed to swallow. “Visit Rans and Jack, y’know?”

Shitty gave them both an even look. “Godspeed to you both,” he said after a pause. “I dunno if there’s many people I could spend that much time in the car with, my bros. Not that I don’t love every motherfucker on this team, but I spend enough time in a vehicle with you fuckers on roadies.”

“It’s not like either of us has anything better to do,” Bitty said with another shrug. “Worst case, we cut it a little short, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”

“Snuggles will solve any problems that crop up,” Shitty said with a sage nod. “That said, I’m totes staying in the Subes with you two tonight.”

“What.” Holster’s voice was flat with disbelief.

Shitty threw his hands up, narrowly avoiding knocking his water over. “Are you joking?! My mom is being, like, a huge weirdo lately, about law school apps n’ shit. Come on, dudes. Let a bro have a night off. We can kick off your road trip right. With a spoon train.”

Bitty was still staring at Shitty in disbelief, but Holster’s shoulders were already shaking with laughter. “Dude. You’ve got a point. Nothin’ like a spoon train.” Both Holster and Shitty turned to Bitty, who found himself pinned with twin puppy dog gazes.

Feeling distinctly surreal, Bitty rolled his eyes and gave into the grin quirking at the sides of his mouth. “Fine, but I get to be the biggest spoon.”

“I call middle!” Shitty crowed immediately, again barely missing his water glass with his celebratory fist pumping.

Holster laughed. “Guess I’m the little spoon. Bros, this is gonna be a night to remember.”

After Shitty paid for the meal, they returned to the Subaru. Shitty and Bitty climbed into the pillow nest in the back, trying to renegotiate baggage to allow for an extra Shitty-sized person to curl up in the back while Holster drove them out of the city to an anonymous cul de sac in the suburbs.

“I hope we don’t make any of the people here uncomfortable,” Bitty fretted as Shitty hung extra sheets over the windows. “I’d hate to think we’re being creepy.”

“It’s fine, brah,” Shitty said, waving a hand. “If anybody knocks on the car or asks us to move, we will, but this here’s city property. We’ve all got a right to sleep on the street if we damn well please.”

“Listen to the lawyer man, Bits,” Holster said, climbing over the center console into the back and kicking off his shoes. “Shits, you got anything to sleep in? Those shorts don’t exactly look like pajama material.”

“I’ll thank you not to blaspheme against my shorts,” Shitty sniffed. “I have you know they’re the most comfortable item in my wardrobe. Well, despite that flannel I stole from Jack, but as far as you two know I don’t have that and he must have left it at the Haus by accident. What a tragedy.”

Holster laughed. “Sure, man. Your secret’s safe with us.”

“So seriously, do you two have more of a plan than a general area? Any specific landmarks you wanna hit?” Shitty asked, lying back on top of the comforter and patting his chest. Holster nestled into his side immediately, but Bitty hung back for a bit, leaning against one of the sheet covered windows.

“Bits, I dunno if I told you this, but we are def stopping in New Mexico,” Holster said seriously, peering at Bitty over the curve of Shitty’s chest. “There’s this place called Pie Town. It’s, like, meant to be!”

Bitty rolled his eyes. “Fine, you big lug. But I wanna stop in North Carolina. There are some beaches we can spend a day at, get some sun so we don’t spend the rest of our lives in the car.”

“Fine,” Holster agreed airily. “But we’re also stopping in Booger Hole.”

Shitty burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, where?”

“Real town, brah! Booger Hole, West Virginia,” Holster laughed, a crooked grin splitting his face. “Apparently there was a string of murders there in, like, 1912?”
Bitty sighed, considering. “Fine, we’ll go to Booger Hole. You are the worst.”

“I can’t believe -” Shitty broke into another round of giggles and wiped his eyes, “that this is what you two are doing with your summer. I fully expect you to find all the weirdest towns between here and California.”

“Challenge accepted,” Holster said proudly. “And knowing Bits, we’ll have selfies at every location to commemorate the trip. We’ll do the gentlemanly thing and text them all to the group chat.”

“Ridiculous,” Bitty scoffed. “You are ridiculous, Holster.”

“You’re the one who agreed to come on a road trip with me,” Holster said, hiding a yawn behind one hand. “Now get over here, Bits, there’s a weak link in this spoon train and its middle name is Richard.”

“When in the hell did you learn my middle name?” Bitty wondered, obediently slotting into place behind Shitty, who had already turned onto his side and wound one arm around Holster’s waist.

Conversation continued drowsily long after the moon rose over the cul de sac, voices fading low to the same tone of scratchy tiredness Bitty had heard in Holster’s voice the previous night in New York. Gradually, even Shitty fell silent, save for a hoarse snuffling noise Bitty recognized from the times Holster fell asleep on the bus on the way home from roadies. Strangely, he found the noise comforting; something familiar in the unfamiliar smallness of Holster’s car, along with the bony planes of Shitty’s back. The sounds of his sleeping teammates, and the way Bitty could feel them both breathe against the hand Shitty had taken and shoved between his chest and Holster’s back in the name of “true spooning,” lulled him to sleep, reminded again that he was on this trip because he had friends who wanted him around for weeks.

Not bad people to share a Haus with, he thought drowsily before he drifted off.

 

The morning started way too early with someone knocking on the window from the outside of the Subaru. Bitty scrubbed at his eyes and pried them open, only to find himself with a faceful of Shitty’s hair after he had apparently rolled onto his back in the night and Shitty had decided to cuddle right back up. Shitty hadn’t budged, but Holster was sitting up with a groan as the knocking intensified.

“Hello?” Holster called groggily, retrieving his glasses from the cup holder and shoving them onto his face with all the grace of a twenty year old man just dragged out of a deep sleep in the back of a car.

“Police,” came a stern feminine voice from outside the Subaru. “We got a call about an unidentified vehicle in a residential neighborhood. That would be you?”

“Just a minute,” Holster called, using the car key to pop the trunk and rolling out. He almost fell straight onto the asphalt, but managed to get a foot under him at the last second.
Bitty shoved at Shitty, but Shitty seemed determined to stay on top of Bitty until he was damn well ready to wake up, and Bitty eventually gave up.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Holster was saying. “We were just crashing here for the night. We left the car here for, uh, dinner, but we got a little too drunk, so we just stayed put. I hope it’s not a problem.”

The officer sighed and folded her arms across her chest. “It’s not a problem, young man, but the families who live here would prefer you left.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Holster nodded, barely smothering a yawn. “We’ll get moving. Thank you.”

“Have a good day.” The officer retreated to her squad car and drove off, Holster still awkwardly waving in the cul de sac. Sighing, he turned and paced back to the Subaru, poking his head in just in time to see Bitty finally shove a sleepy Shitty off his chest and sit up.

“You heard that, I assume?” Holster asked, a quirk at the corner of his mouth.

Bitty nodded, yawning so wide he felt his jaw crack. “Yeah. We gotta move. We gonna drop Shitty at his house or?”

“Nah,” Shitty grumbled, rolling over again. “Leave me at the corner where I met you, I can walk from there.”

Holster frowned. “Do you have, like, a thing against us seeing your house or whatever?”

“No, s’ just in this pretentious gated community shit,” Shitty explained. “It’s annoying to get in with a car that isn’t registered. At least the dudes up front know me.”

“Suit yourself.” Holster stretched, and Bitty could hear his spine pop from where he was climbing out of the back of the Subaru. “Bits, you can go back to sleep if you want.”

Yawning, Bitty bent forward and planted his hands on his feet before straightening and rolling his shoulders. “No, Holster. Someone ought to keep you company. Or you could fall asleep behind the wheel or somethin’.”

Holster’s grin was fond as he looped around Bitty to open the passenger side door for him. “If you insist, Bits.”

“Such a gentleman,” Bitty tutted as he clambered into the car and propped his feet up on the dashboard to let his legs keep stretching out. Holster closed the door behind him, wound back around the front of the car, and slipped into the driver’s seat.

“Shits,” Holster said, turning to face the lump of blankets that had Shitty somewhere inside. “You gotta direct us back, my dude. I don’t remember how to get to the corner where we found you.”

With Shitty directing, the drive back into Cambridge only took a few minutes. Shitty hopped out of the back passenger side door, leaned in through Bitty’s open window, and planted a smacking kiss on his cheek. “You boys have fun,” he said seriously. “And text the group chat! We’re all having mad road trip envy, you know. We gotta live through you two.”
“Will do.” Bitty laughed and swiped at his cheek with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “Have a good summer, Shits.”

“Good to see you, man,” Holster echoed.

With a jaunty wave and a little salute, Shitty turned and disappeared into the crowd on the sidewalk.

 

Holster set the GPS on Bitty’s phone to Clearfield, Pennsylvania before he pulled away from the curb.

“What’s in Clearfield?” Bitty asked before he plugged the aux cord into his phone.

“Oh, nothing much, just the world’s largest burgers,” Holster replied, not looking at Bitty but not trying to hide the massive shit-eating grin on his face. “We’re gonna get one hell of a lunch.”

Bitty settled back into his seat and rolled his eyes. “Of course the first stop you picked is a burger joint.”

“Not just any burger joint!” Holster protested. “The world’s largest burgers, Bits! Think of it. What a world. A whole world, and the biggest burgers are in Clearfield, Pennsylvania!”
Laughing, Bitty let it drop and thumbed through his music. Only the second day of road tripping with Holster, and already he was left speechless by this boy. What a world, indeed.

 

The first hour of the trip to Clearfield passed in relative quiet but for a quick stop to brush their teeth at a gas station (Bitty taking every opportunity to lament the situation along the way) and Holster occasionally asking Bitty to pass him one of the cookies from one of the Tupperware containers his mother packed. Bitty asked him how he could possibly plan to eat one of the world’s largest burgers after stuffing himself with cookies all morning, but Holster didn’t seem too concerned about it.

After swallowing his fifth cookie and taking a long drink from his water bottle, Holster wiggled in his seat to get more comfortable. “So, Bits,” he started after a pause.

“Yes?”

“What’s your family like?”

Bitty glanced over at Holster, confused, but Holster just seemed genuinely curious. “Why do you ask?”

“I mean, I’ve never been an only child or really been to the south,” Holster said with a shrug, drumming his fingers a bit nervously on the steering wheel. “I mean, you got to meet my sisters and my mom and all. I’m just curious. You don’t gotta answer me, bro.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. I was just surprised is all. Let’s see, where to start…..oh! One time, I was working at the summer camp where I’ve been a counselor for a few years now-”
“The one you’re not working at this summer?”

Bitty shrugged. “Yeah, they had some extra hands last summer and I didn’t get my official job application in fast enough this year. Procrastination and all that.”

“Sorry you missed out on the job, bro, but hey, now you get to come on the mother of all road trips.” Holster was smiling again, less of a grin this time, a bit fonder with a touch of something Bitty couldn’t place.

Bitty couldn’t help smiling back. “Of course. Wouldn’t trade this in for that crappy camp job. Like I was saying, there was a year where this little boy got so scared on the zipline that he peed himself, and you could see it from the ground. Wasn’t too bad since he was over the lake anyway, but you know how kids are.”

“Kids can be rough,” Holster agreed. “I mean, I didn’t really have much of a problem, but Veronica got a bit of crap in middle school, early high school. Kids find a difference and latch onto it, yeah?”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Bitty instantly wished he’d kept his mouth shut; Holster cut a sharp glance at him, mouth twisting like he’d tasted something sour.

When he spoke after a long pause, Holster’s voice was carefully neutral. “What do you mean?”

“It’s nothing,” Bitty said with a shrug, staring resolutely out of the windshield. “I just - it’s the south. I was a figure skater. It was what it was.”

Holster let that one lie for so long that Bitty almost thought he was going to let it drop for good, but of course he had no such luck. “You know, Shitty told me once that you weren’t sure how the team was going to take you coming out.” When Bitty didn’t reply, he continued. “I asked for details, but Shitty wouldn’t tell. How bad did you think it was going to be?”

“I…” Bitty stopped. He’d been about to try and brush it off, but even though Holster never took his eyes off the road, Bitty could see his pinched expression. Clearly Holster wasn’t going to let this drop, and apparently if Bitty tried to play it off it’d only worry him more. “I didn’t think it’d be too bad. I mean, I have a phone now, and a couple friends from classes. I coulda called one of them if I ended up in another utility closet situation, but-”

“What do you mean, utility closet situation?” Holster’s voice had taken a dangerous edge.
Bitty shrank back into his seat, suddenly freshly aware that Holster was very large, and no matter where you are, a jock is a jock. “Um, I. It’s - It was nothing, really. I just, I couldn’t call anyone, that’s the only reason it took so long for anyone to find me.”

Holster was quiet for a very long time, white-knuckled around the steering wheel. When he finally spoke, his voice was softer, less aggressive. “Bitty. What happened?”

“I, uh. I got locked in a utility closet at the football stadium overnight,” Bitty confessed quietly. “I couldn’t call anyone since I left my phone outside - I’m not, you know, that careless anymore. Anyway. It’s not a big deal, you know how kids are. And we moved back to Madison pretty soon after that anyway.”

Bitty could almost mistake Holster for calm and relaxed, but the tension in his shoulders gave him away. The car was silent for an unbearably long time, Bitty’s tinny pop music turned down low, and he felt the urge to babble rising in his throat. With effort, Bitty forced it back down. Holster didn’t seem like he’d appreciate it, and having never seen Holster this angry, Bitty was too nervous to push it.

“So you were worried we’d do something like that?” Holster asked, finally. He still hadn’t raised his voice, and Bitty could see the effort it was costing him.

“Not...specifically.” Bitty shifted in his seat. “I don’t know. Look, I knew in my head that it would probably be okay. I mean, that’s part of why I came to Samwell in the first place? But you’re not always rational when you’re scared. I was just nervous is all. I’d never come out to anyone before Shitty.”

Holster seemed to finally relax. “Okay. That’s good to hear. I’m glad you trust us, Bits - it can’t have been easy to come out after everything that happened in Georgia.”
Bitty smiled a little, sinking back into his seat once Holster’s tension had drained off. “That’s sweet of you to say. But it’s alright. Like I said, I knew in my head it would be okay. It’s hardly like I’m the only gay person at Samwell.”

“It’s not even like you’re the only dude who likes dudes on the team,” Holster snorted. “I mean, Ollie and Wicky, and then I know Johnson was dating that girl from high school the whole time he was at Samwell, but I also know they had a few experiments, and then there’s me.”

“Guess we gotta stick together, huh?” Bitty shot Holster a sideways smile.

“As if we’d ever not stick together.” Holster rolled his eyes. “C’mon, we’re on a team. Anyway, it’s your turn to drive, so I’m pulling over.”

 

They pulled into the parking lot of Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub a few hours later, Bitty still behind the wheel and Holster narrating his lively debate with Jack and Ransom about the various positive qualities of Carly Rae Jepsen. The restaurant itself was swarmed, which made sense considering it was apparently one of Pennsylvania’s biggest roadside attractions, and it took Bitty a couple of rounds through the parking lot to find a space to park.

Walking into the pub was like walking straight into the kind of reality show Holster liked to rope Bitty into watching on the disgusting Haus couch he was going to burn the second he got the chance. Over to the left, Bitty could see a team of four waiters carrying a burger that looked like it weighed more than Bitty himself to a table full of grinning, red-faced Midwesterners.

As soon as he spotted the four-person burger, Holster clapped a hand onto Bitty’s shoulder so hard he jumped. “Bits. We’re getting it.”

“We most certainly are not,” Bitty insisted hotly. “You can get a stupidly large burger if you want, but I’m getting something normal, and you should remember that we barely have enough room in the car for the two of us to sleep without adding that kind of leftovers.”

“Fine,” Holster whined, pouting like an infant. Whipping out his phone, Bitty took a Snap of it before Holster could react and sent it to the whole team. “Hey! Bii-iiits!”

Before their bickering could escalate any farther, they were seated by a harried-looking hostess. Despite the clear dinner rush, they placed their orders pretty quickly, and before long Bitty was sipping at a Diet Coke and raising an eyebrow at Holster for ordering a large glass of milk.

“Don’t give me that look,” Holster snorted imperiously. “Milk is good for you. And besides, I’m ordering a spicy burger. It’ll be great.”

Bitty leaned forward and let his forehead rest on the counter. “I have to share the back of the Subaru with you tonight. Ugh.”

“Bitty,” Holster said seriously, “you cannot possibly be implying you’ve never spent the night with a gross dude.”

Bitty rolled his eyes. “Excuse me, Adam Birkholtz, I am a gentleman of taste.”

Holster choked on a mouthful of milk, swallowed, and coughed, waving off Bitty’s concerned look. “How have we not heard about this? Bits. Tell me everything. And I mean everything. How many deets have we missed out on?!”

Bitty gave into the smirk quirking at the corners of his mouth. “Aw, Holster, aren’t you nosy. And here I thought you plugged everyone for deets.” Holster’s answering grin was clear. “I didn’t have any experience when I came to Samwell, but I haven’t actually been living at the Haus, you know. I’ve, um, had some dates over the past school year.”

“Hell yeah, Bits!” Holster’s grin had stretched and taken on the same kind of sharpness his sisters’ faces had had at dinner at the Birholtzes’. “You can’t not tell me now.”

Bitty scoffed. “Adam Birkholtz. A gentleman does not kiss and tell. All I will say to you is that I have been on many dates with several gentlemen, and they were all very sweet to me, and we went various distances, and that I am not currently seeing anyone. That enough deets for you?”

“Oh, look, the burgers!” Holster’s eyes lit up the second he spotted their waiter over Bitty’s shoulder, clutching his milk in both hands like a little kid. Bitty couldn’t help but smile at the look on his face as the waiter set a spicy burger the size of Holster’s head down in front of him. The meal certainly promised to be an adventure.

And an adventure it was. Bitty had ordered a fairly standard cheeseburger, so he was free to watch Holster try to cram as much of the spicy monstrosity he had ordered into his mouth at once as he could possibly fit. Giggling, Bitty videotaped the entire ten-minute ordeal of Holster cramming his mouth so full of burger he’d gag before trying to chew while barely being able to move his jaw any more and follow it with a huge gulp of milk. It was kind of disgusting, if Bitty was entirely honest, but he still laughed so hard he sent his soda shooting out of his nose and onto his (thankfully empty) plate. Coughing and mopping it up, Bitty almost missed the moment Holster opened his mouth to start chirping.

“One word and I send that video to the group chat,” Bitty warned. Holster’s mouth immediately snapped shut. He motioned for the waiter to pack the rest of his destroyed burger into a to go box “for lunch tomorrow” and then, to Bitty’s annoyance, insisted on hogging the check, too.

“You can pay for the next meal,” Holster sad breezily when Bitty tried to protest. “But this diner was my idea, so I’m paying.”

Rolling his eyes, Bitty settled back into his seat with a huff. “Fine. You animal.”

Leaving the restaurant, Bitty was surprised by how fresh the outside air smelled. It must have really been disgusting in the pub if he was marveling at the clarity of the air just off a Pennsylvania highway. Maybe it was time to get some time outside of the car.

They hadn’t planned on snagging a motel for another couple of nights, though, and with the degree of care Holster had put into the budget, Bitty knew it would throw a real thorn in the proceedings to bring it up now. Spooning in the back of the subaru it was, after another stop at a gas station bathroom to brush their teeth and wash their faces. As they retreated to the car, Bitty wondered if Holster would still want to snuggle when they got into the pillow nest in the back. He knew Holster was tactile, but Shitty was often the instigator in that kind of thing. Frowning, Bitty shook his head as if to clear it. Why was he getting so fixated on whether Holster wanted to spoon?

The question was answered for him once he caught back up to Holster, whose absurdly long stride had already carried him into the back of the Subaru. He was curled on his side, but as Bitty approached he motioned toward his back. “I know you like to be the big spoon, Bits. Let’s do this. We’re jetpacking.”

“Jetpacking?” Bitty laughed, obediently slotting himself behind Holster and pressing in close.

Holster let out a yawn, and Bitty could hear his jaw pop. “Yeah, bro. It’s like spooning, but you’re so much littler than me you’re more like a jetpack than a big spoon. It’s, like, a whole thing. I’m shocked you don’t know about it.”

“Whatever you say,” Bitty said, rolling his eyes. “Go to sleep.”

“Yes, mom.”

 

The next day dawned bright and, unfortunately, early. The sheets on the window were the thinnest of the bunch Holster had crammed into the back of the car, and when the corner of one flopped off the window sometime before dawn, it added up to a nice bright ray of sunshine directly in Bitty’s face once Holster had grumbled and moved.

Bitty rolled onto his back and groaned, stretching till his back popped loudly. “How much longer till we sleep in a bed, Holster?”

“Just another couple days,” Holster sighed, sitting up and almost hitting his head on the car roof. “C’mon. We should get going.”

Once they were changed and as non-disgusting as they could manage in a gas station bathroom, they hit the road again with Bitty behind the wheel. Holster came back from the gas station with two large coffees, his own black and Bitty’s full of “as much artificial sweetener as they could cram into it, brah. Oh, and some milk.”

Bitty sipped appreciatively, more thankful for the warmth and caffeine than the taste, and shot Holster a confused look as he popped the top off his coffee and pulled out what looked
like a flavor packet. “What’s that?”

“This is a sludgie.” To Bitty’s horror, Holster’s flavor packet turned out to be a pack of Starbucks instant coffee, which he opened and poured directly into the gas station coffee he’d just bought.

“What the hell.” Bitty didn’t bother to conceal the horror in his voice.

Holster cackled at the look on Bitty’s face. “It’s, like, the ultimate pick me up, bro. You gotta try it sometime.” He settled back in the passenger seat, sipped his hypercaffeinated abomination, and plugged the aux cord into his phone. “Now, since it’s my turn to pick the music, and Jack had the audacity to besmirch the name of Carly Rae Jepsen, I hope you’re ready for me to put Kiss on repeat.”

“I am still not past the sludgie thing,” Bitty said faintly, but the opening notes of Tiny Little Bows were already starting to drown him out.

He didn’t get another word in edgewise over the bubbly strains of Carly Rae until Holster’s phone finally kicked into gear on the GPS. “Starting route to Booger Hole, West Virginia,” came Siri’s tinny voice over the music.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Bitty yelped and turned down the volume. “Booger Hole?!”

Holster was already laughing, low and deep and full. “Just drive, Bits. Enjoy yourself. You can’t not go to Booger Hole. We’d be passing through West Virginia anyway.”

After Holster turned the music back up, he retreated straight back into his phone. Bitty thought it strange, as usually he was getting chirped for his incessant texting, but when his own phone buzzed and a quick glance at the screen while at a red light showed a text from Holster’s little sister, he figured Holster must be updating his family. Which, Bitty thought, a tad embarrassed, he should probably be a little bit more diligent about doing himself.

The first three hours out of the five hour drive to Booger Hole passed in relative quiet between Bitty and Holster, who turned out not to have been kidding about putting Carly Rae’s latest album on repeat. Bitty, frankly, wasn’t complaining - he loved a good summer pop jam, and if nothing else, Call Me Maybe was exactly that.

When he pulled over for gas and to switch spots with Holster shortly before noon, Bitty took the opportunity to finally open the text Veronica had sent him. It was short and to the point: don’t let my brother do that sludgie shit with the double coffee.

Grinning a little, Bitty shot back, Too late. He did that before we even started driving.

Veronica started typing almost immediately, before Bitty even exited the chat window. Surprised, Bitty waited for her message to deliver: god damn it. He’s gonna get a heart attack. What an idiot.

“Your sister called you an idiot,” Bitty informed Holster as he passed on his way to the bathroom.

Holster started. “Which sister? What did I do?”

“Veronica. It was about that sludgie double coffee shit.” Bitty grinned. “I told you that was dumb. She doesn’t want you to get a heart attack. Whatever would your sisters do without their favorite brother?”

“Bother each other for once,” Holster replied instantly. “Tell her I said to shove off, and that she’s a brat.”

Thoughtful, Bitty watched Holster’s retreating back as he continued on his way to the bathroom. He’d never considered what it would be like to have siblings - if anything, he’d thought it was like having an especially close friend you were entirely stuck with - but seeing Holster interact with Hailey and Veronica made him wonder if maybe that wasn’t a good way to think of it. He definitely acted differently with his sisters - not like a totally different person, but definitely a different side of him. Bitty decided he liked getting to see it. Holster was...gentler, with his sisters, even though Hailey was the oldest. Softer, somehow. Bitty got the sneaking suspicion that wasn’t the kind of thing Holster showed friends.

Bitty thought suddenly of the tiny, gentle smiles Holster sometimes shot him in the car. Before he could think too hard about it, though, he was broken out of his reverie by the loud, obnoxious text alert Holster had set for Ransom in his phone. Curiously, he snuck a glance at Holster’s screen.

Ransom had apparently texted a group chat called Adam Needs Help, which, judging by the other text icons on Holster’s phone, also included both Hailey and Veronica.

Bitty suddenly felt like he’d overstepped. Who texted Holster, and when, and how much, was none of his business. Blushing and yelling at himself internally, Bitty finished with the gas, waited for Holster to get back, and took his own turn in the bathroom.

For the rest of the drive, Bitty spent his time googling around for fun things to do in areas that weren’t Booger Hole, West Virginia. To his dismay, all he could find were sketchy casinos neither of them had good enough fakes to get into anyway.

After about ten minutes of fruitless googling, Bitty stumbled across a headline that caught his eye. “You’re kidding. Bloodletting in Deep, Dark Booger Hole?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Holster laughed, flipping on the directional and changing lanes smoothly. “There were, like, a dozen murders in Booger Hole way back in the early 1900s. Place is apparently haunted as shit.”

“You are not taking me to a haunted town called Booger Hole!” Bitty squeaked, outraged. “How did you even find this place, Holster?!”

“Google is a magical place. Don’t worry about the ghosts, Bits. I’ll save you,” Holster teased.

Bitty rolled his eyes. “I cannot believe this is the life I live. I signed up for this! I signed up for a weird road trip with a weird boy.”

Holster just smiled sunnily.

Booger Hole, as it turned out, wasn’t even a real town, legally speaking - they had to navigate to Ivydale, a city nearby, and then follow the signs. Bitty couldn’t help but shiver a little as they descended a steep road into the valley that constituted Booger Hole, thinking of the murders Holster had dug up. Sure, they were almost a century old, but how haunted would a place like Booger Hole turn out to be? Bitty resisted physically knocking on the fake wood on Holster’s dashboard. Famous last words.

Holster pulled over and parked in the lot outside a small, old-fashioned-looking general store. Bitty hesitated for a moment before following Holster inside, figuring it was worse to stay in the car alone than to go into a potentially murderous general store with Holster at his side.

To Bitty’s simultaneous relief and mild disappointment, the clerk behind the counter seemed like a totally normal blonde girl excited to see some fresh faces for once. Holster bought them a quick lunch and asked if there was anything particularly interesting to do in Booger Hole, somehow managing to keep a straight face while saying the town name for the first time to Bitty’s knowledge.

The girl behind the counter quirked an eyebrow and looked Holster up and down in a way Bitty wasn’t sure he liked before shrugging. “It’s a tiny town, man. Your best bet is to take a walk. We sure as hell don’t have anything else to do around here.”

Holster smiled, thanked her, and led Bitty out of the store with an arm casually slung around his shoulders. Bitty glanced back once, caught the girl’s appraising look at Holster’s ass, and quickly turned back around, trying not to pull a face. Trust Holster to get some random weird girl in a haunted hole in the wall town checking him out.

Plopping their sandwiches down on a picnic table, Holster gestured for Bitty to sit across from him. “I’m down for a walk if you are. God knows we could both use the chance to stretch our legs.”

“Fine by me,” Bitty said with a shrug. “I’ll do literally anything to get out of the car for a while. That said, if some ghost shit happens to me while we’re here, it’s entirely your fault, Adam Birkholtz.”

“I promise I’ll protect you from the scary long-dead murder victims, Bits.” Holster’s smirk was insufferable. Bitty just rolled his eyes and took another bite from his sandwich.
He had to admit that walking for a little bit after so long in the car felt great. He and Holster were easily identifiable as new faces in a town as tiny as Booger Hole, and though Bitty wasn’t usually comfortable with undue attention from strangers, it was kind of fun to be a novelty. Maybe the people who lived here would even talk about “those tourists that came through” for a couple weeks before something else managed to snag their attention.

About halfway through their walk, Holster and Bitty were accosted by a big, fluffy Bernese mountain dog left off-leash by its owner, a young-looking guy at the other end of the block. Laughing, Holster dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around the dog, ruffling the hair along its back and grinning into the enthusiastic kisses he got in return. Bitty snapped a couple of surreptitious photos for the group chat, privately sure that it was the cutest thing he’d ever seen when Holster finally got completely bowled over by his enthusiastic new friend.

Cute? Bitty frowned a bit, pausing his photoshoot. Not usually the word you’d think of with a dude that massive.

“Oh my god - Lucy! I’m so sorry,” the guy who’d been standing up jogged up to them, leash clutched in one hand. “Lucy, come here, girl, give the guy some space.”

Holster sat up, glasses knocked crooked on his face and a beaming smile lighting him up. “Don’t worry about it. She’s the sweetest.”

“She really is,” Bitty agreed, offering a hand for Lucy to sniff and receiving an enthusiastic lick in response.

“I’m glad she didn’t bother you too much,” the guy said apologetically, clipping the leash back onto Lucy’s collar. “She loves making friends, but she doesn’t really understand that not everybody loves big dogs.”

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t love her,” Holster said seriously, clambering back to his feet. “She’s a lovely lady.”

“Thanks. Have a good day.” With a smile and a tiny wave, the guy took off again, Lucy trotting amicably at his side, ready to meet her next new friend.

Still chuckling, Holster took off his glasses and started cleaning them on his shirt. “I haven’t gotten kissed that much by such a lovely lady in a very long time.”

“Oh hush, you,” Bitty laughed, swatting at his arm. “I’m just glad she went for you. Dogs are great, but I’m not really into getting tackled.”

“She could see which of us would appreciate her more,” Holster sniffed. “C’mon, let’s get moving.”

They spent the rest of their walk making up ghost stories for every landmark they passed, including a little old lady quietly watering the plants on her front porch who Holster insisted was a witch whose spell was what kept Booger Hole a small community that seemed like it would always be about ten years behind the rest of the world. Bitty laughed until his stomach hurt and smiled until his cheeks ached, too, but he couldn’t completely ditch the image of Holster playing with the dog. He’d sent the photos to the group chat with the requisite chirp about Holster finally finding a girl who would kiss him, but he still felt stuck in the moment, somehow.

Bitty shook his head and sped up a little to catch back up with Holster, whose longer stride had carried him a couple feet farther while Bitty was lost in thought. He was probably just in a bit of a brain fog from spending so much time in the car.

 

They pulled into Rocky Mount, North Carolina mid-afternoon the next day, Bitty behind the wheel and Holster mostly asleep in the passenger seat. They were there for one of Holster’s weirder ideas of what constituted a “fun stop”: the Bunyan Muffler Man, which was the tallest fiberglass statue of a lumberjack Bitty had ever seen, accompanied by a proportionate fiberglass cow. A surprisingly decent-sized crowd of tourists piling out of cars like theirs swarmed busily around the base of the giant statue, where several small restaurants and pop-up carts hawked cheap eats.

Holster took off immediately, already grinning. Startled, Bitty hurried to keep up with Holster’s longer stride. “Hey - Holster, wait up! You are too tall, I swear!”

“Bits, tell me this is not the most beautiful fiberglass lumberjack you’ve ever seen in your life.” Holster held his arms wide like he was going to try to hug the statue. “Look at the soft twinkle in his eye. It’s like Santa.”

Bitty frowned at the statue and then at Holster. “I don’t think you and I are looking at the same statue. I mean - it’s certainly a statue of a lumberjack.”

“Bits!” Holster whirled on him, his eyes alight. “Look at the muscles on him! The Bunyan Muffler Man is a monument to the strength and ambition of man. He’s beautiful. He’s the best.”

“What are you talking about?” Bitty laughed.

“I’m gonna be as strong as that Muffler Man one day. Look, c’mere, Bits, help me build muscle!” Bitty shrieked with laughter as Holster scooped him up, spun back to the statue, and hoisted him above his head with a hand on his ribs and another under his hips.

“HolsterIsweartogod - if you drop me -” Bitty broke off again, squealing and clutching at Holster’s arms as the Holster slowly raised and lowered him, making a big show of grunting on every lift. “Adam Birkholtz put me down!”

“I gotta be as strong as the Muffler Man, Bits!” Holster yelled. “I gotta be the strongest!”

Finally, just as Bitty started to wobble, Holster fake-dropped him, laughing at Bitty’s high-pitched squeak and catching him easily around the waist. Holster let him down, laughing and red-faced at Bitty’s indignant expression.

“I cannot believe you just used me as a lifting weight,” Bitty laughed, pummeling Holster’s chest with both fists. “You whack job!”

“You two are the cutest couple.” Bitty started and turned to see a kind-faced middle-aged woman pushing a stroller. “When my wife and I were your age, we would always goof off, too. It’s good to see young people happy these days.”

Bitty flushed and stole a glance back at Holster, who was beet red and scratching at the back of his neck. “We’re, uh, we’re not-”

“It’s okay, boys,” the woman said, winking at them. “Like I said. You two are cute.”

Holster sputtered at her retreating back, trying to explain that he and Bitty weren’t together, but if she heard him she didn’t acknowledge him. Bitty’s face felt hotter than a Georgia summer, and Holster looked like his head might actually explode. As the woman crossed out of earshot, an awkward silence fell over the two of them.

After a long pause, Holster scratched at the back of his neck again and kicked at a rock. “So, uh…..selfies with the Muffler Man?”

“You had me at selfies,” Bitty sighed, relieved to let the tense atmosphere fall away. “I’m telling the boys you used me as a lifting weight.”

Despite Bitty’s hopes for support from the rest of the team, the group chat was full of (mostly Shitty and Ransom) praising Holster’s resourcefulness with finding ways to keep up with his athletic training while on a road trip. The closest Bitty came to salvation was a text from Jack: If only you were this dedicated to lifting during the season, eh?

“What happened to got your back?” Bitty whined.

Holster laughed and rustled his hair. “The boys know a genius new workout routine when they see one, Itty Bitty. Hey, you should try lifting me!”

Bitty’s shrieks filled the picnic area as he struggled to get out from under Holster’s increasing weight until Holster grabbed him around the shoulders and slowly collapsed to the ground, dragging Bitty with him. Bitty thought he saw the woman from before, and flushed head to toe all over again as she shot him a smile.

We’re not dating, he mouthed at her desperately, but she had already turned back to her family.

 

After dinner, Holster convinced Bitty to take the two-hour drive to Kitty Hawk on the same night. “It’s not that far away, and if we get there tonight it just means we can have more beach time tomorrow,” he wheedled. “C’mon, Bits. I’ll drive, even.”

“You most certainly will not,” Bitty sniffed, holding the keys away from him. “You drove most of the way here from West Virginia. I’ll drive to Kitty Hawk, thank you.”

Grinning widely, Holster slipped back into the passenger seat and plugged the aux cord back into his phone. “Great. I know it’s a little late and driving is tiring, so here’s what we’ll do to keep you up: karaoke competition.”

“You’re joking. Holster, the a Capella groups actually wanted you. I can’t sing!” Bitty protested, but there was a smile quirking at the corners of his mouth as he backed out of the parking lot.

“And I’ve heard you singing in the shower. You’ve got pipes. C’mon, Bits, karaoke with me.” Bitty risked a glance at Holster just in time to catch one of the most impressive sets of puppy dog eyes he’d ever seen on a giant hockey player.

Feeling himself cave, Bitty tried to play it off with an eye roll, but he could still feel the grin on his face. “Fine, you big baby. You go first.”

Holster whooped and, almost immediately, the opening notes of Get Lucky started blasting from the speakers.

Bitty had to struggle to keep focus on the road as Holster didn’t just sing along to Get Lucky but downright performed it. If he didn’t know better, Bitty would have thought Holster had been practicing his routine for days. Laughing, Bitty shook his head and fought to keep his eye on the road while Holster pitched himself sideways to drag one leg out from under the dashboard to try and stick it up in the air. Bitty couldn’t tell if he was limited more by the roof of the car or his own lack of flexibility.

“Chowder would be ashamed of you!” Bitty laughed as Holster struggled to negotiate his leg back into a reasonable position.

“Not everyone can do splits on command,” Holster grumbled as he finally wedged his leg back into place. “Stupid tiny cars. You’ve been sitting in this passenger seat too long. Anyway! Your turn.”

The two hour drive passed quickly with Bitty and Holster going back and forth in an increasingly intense competition that Bitty knew he couldn’t win - especially not while still keeping the car on the road - but he refused to give up anyway.

Even though, he reflected as they finally pulled into a public parking lot in Kitty Hawk for the night, Holster did have a nice voice. It wasn’t that surprising that the a Capella groups he tried out for his freshman year wanted him so bad.

Holster was already yawning and climbing over the center console into the back of the Subaru like a barbarian. Bitty rolled his eyes and got out of the car to walk around like an adult with a plan, still thinking about Holster’s singing voice. Abruptly he remembered the woman by the Muffler Man statue - you two are the cutest couple. Shaking his head sharply, Bitty stopped and gave himself a mental slap on the wrist. Keep it together, Eric, he thought firmly. A complete stranger getting the wrong idea doesn’t mean you’re actually dating Holster.

He couldn’t help a little giggle at the idea.

 

“Bitty! Bits! Eric! Wake up!”

Bitty groaned and shoved at Holster, trying to get him to stop shaking his shoulder. “Holster, it’s too early.”

“It’s never too early for the beach. Come on, we gotta hit a gas station to brush our teeth and stuff before we can claim a spot, and at this time of year I bet the public beach is swamped.”

Sighing, Bitty conceded that Holster had a point, and walked with him to the gas station next door to the public lot they’d parked in for the night. After days in the car - Bitty had already just about lost track of exactly how many - they had their gas station morning routines down pat, complete with avoiding setting any of their stuff like toothbrushes and washcloths directly on the no doubt disgusting counter. Changing into his swimsuit in one of the stalls, Bitty risked a sniff of his shirt and recoiled, frowning. He’d only been wearing this one for this drive and the night before, but it was rank. He figured it was a good thing they’d be swimming a bit today - and a better thing that, in Holster’s mind, salt water necessitated a shower, so they had a reservation at a cheap motel for the night. Showers and a chance to do laundry sounded fantastic to Bitty.

Holster was waiting for him outside the bathroom, his toiletry bag in one hand and his clothes tucked under one arm. “Ready to hit the beach?!”

“Hell yeah,” Bitty said with a smile.

Just like Holster predicted, there was already a decent-sized crowd at the beach even though it was only about 9 AM. They found a spot about halfway down the beach, a little ways from a family with two little kids, and Bitty busied himself with sunscreen while Holster googled around to see what the laws about openly drinking on the beach were before eventually setting his phone down and saying they’d just use coozies and claim the cans were soda.

“Holster, would you mind getting my back?” Bitty asked, handing over the sunscreen.

“Sure thing.” Holster was a little slow to start applying sunscreen, and Bitty wasn’t sure he recognized the way Holster was rubbing it in as a full coverage application, but whatever. It was nice, Bitty reflected, the soft touches as Holster applied his sunscreen. Holster was touchy, but rarely was he tactile in such a low-key way. Bitty could get used to it.
Pronouncing himself done, Holster turned around and presented his back to Bitty. Laughing, Bitty applied a thick layer of sunscreen to Holster’s back, lingering near his sides just to make him squirm. When he was done, Bitty stretched and pulled out a tabloid Holster had bought with their gas station breakfast.

After about an hour of lying on his stomach and basking in the feeling of the sun on his back, Bitty allowed Holster to coax him into swimming. When Bitty’s feet first hit the water, he let out an undignified squeak and danced backwards on the sand. “Holster, that is freezing!”

Holster, meanwhile, was already crouched in the water and splashing some on his face. “Oh, come on, you big baby. It’s fine! You’ll get used to it really fast. Come on in!”

“Absolutely not! I’m cold just looking at you. I’ll just go read some more.” But before Bitty could take more than a step backward, Holster had launched himself from the water and toward Bitty. Squealing, Bitty turned and ran for the towels, but Holster caught up quickly with his longer stride and scooped Bitty up in a fireman’s carry effortlessly.

“Holster no!” Bitty shrieked, laughing and pummeling whatever part of Holster he could reach, but it was no use. Bitty could see the sand streaming past them as Holster ran back for the water with Bitty swung from his shoulder, and he could feel the chilly water wherever Holster’s skin touched his. “Holster it’s so cold I’m gonna die -” Bitty broke off with a shrill scream as Holster reached knee-deep water, braced himself, and threw Bitty with all his strength into the ocean.

The few seconds when Bitty flew reminded him sickeningly of the check where he’d gotten concussed - the concussion he was still recovering from, he remembered a bit belatedly - but he hit the water belly-first and was distracted by the overwhelming sting of his involuntary bellyflop.

Bitty popped up like a cork, feet planted and standing in chest-deep water already. “Holster you are so in for it!”

Holster laughed and dove for deeper water, but what Bitty lacked in physical strength he made up for with speed and scrappiness. Snagging Holster’s wrist, Bitty hauled himself up onto his shoulders, splashing water directly into his face and hair.

Giggling and spitting, Holster grabbed Bitty around the waist and dunked him again. Squealing at the chill, Bitty grabbed for Holster’s neck and pulled him under, too, flipping himself over to latch onto Holster’s back like a monkey.

Holster stood and pantomimed looking around, his laughter rumbling through his torso and into Bitty’s chest. “Where’d Bits go? Are you drowning? Hold on, little dude, I’ll save you!”

Holster dove into the water, taking Bitty with him. Bitty tightened his arms and legs around Holster’s neck and waist and held his breath, unwilling to get shaken off and thrown back into a full-on wrestling match.

After a few underwater passes, Bitty finally let go and returned to shallower water, where he could sit and have the water lap at his chest. Tipping his head back in the water so his hair could float, Bitty closed his eyes and hummed, enjoying the cool water on his body and the hot sun on his face. Maybe swimming wasn’t such a bad idea.

Panting, Holster joined him. “You’re quite the spider monkey when you wanna be, Bits,” he said, running a hand through his hair and splashing some more water on his face.

“I try,” Bitty hummed, not opening his eyes. “Gotta win wrestling matches somehow.”

“If you say so,” Holster huffed, amused.

Bitty let the moment sit, whole and still and oddly perfect, anonymous at a beach with the sand and the sea and Holster, before allowing himself a delicate little shiver and standing up. “I’m gonna go back to the towels - once you stop moving around, it really is cold.”

“I’ll join you in another few minutes,” Holster said.

Bitty glanced at him, then frowned. “You might wanna reapply sunscreen on your face in a little bit. You’re getting a bit pink.”

“Um, okay. I will. Thanks.” Holster looked away, at a boat thrumming by with a pair of paragliders in tow. Bitty shrugged and made the walk back to the towels by himself.

He had every intention of actually reading the articles in the tabloid he’d flipped through before (despite knowing they were nonsense, they did have their entertainment value) or playing around on his phone, but when Bitty flopped facedown on his towel, he found the warm sun and still air coupled with this being the first time in days he could have all the space he wanted to stretch out irresistable. Without even meaning to, Bitty dropped off to sleep.

 

Hours later, Bitty woke grumbling a little, groggy and confused about why his mouth tasted so bad. Blinking back to awareness, Bitty jolted upright and hissed at the sudden sting on his back. Oh, lord - he’d been asleep for at least a few hours, and Holster was asleep with the magazine on his face close by, and they had both forgotten to reapply their sunscreen.
Bitty couldn’t help a huff of annoyance. He was usually better at this! Though his back did largely seem to be the problem. The backs of his legs and arms were too pink and sensitive to the touch, but Bitty could feel the skin of his back like it was pulled tight across the muscle, stiff and sensitive and radiating warmth and pain, and he knew he’d really had it there. Figures; he must’ve reapplied at some point but forgotten to ask Holster to help him with his back. Sighing, Bitty poked at the skin on his back to assess the damage and pulled back, hissing, at the instant sting.

Bitty reached over and shoved at Holster’s shoulder. “Holster. Holster. It’s been like, hours. I’ve gotten really burned, we gotta get out of the sun.”

When he sat up and let the magazine drop off his face, Holster’s eyes were still hazy with sleep. “Wha?”

“We’re getting off the beach now,” Bitty repeated slowly. “I’ve got a sunburn, and you’re starting to get one. Come on.”

“Oh, shit,” Holster blinked fully awake when Bitty turned his back to gather up his stuff. “Uh - yeah, that’s. That’s a burn.” There was a hysterical edge to Holster’s voice, and Bitty could hear the barely restrained laughter.

“What did you do?” Bitty asked, narrowing his eyes at Holster, whose shoulders were shaking even as he covered his mouth to try and hide his giggling.

“I’ll - I’ll go to the gas station and grab some aloe before we hit the hotel.” Before Bitty could get another word in, Holster was hurriedly packing his towel into his bag and shoving his flip flops back on his feet. Sighing, Bitty followed, heading straight to the car and sitting in the passenger seat carefully so as not to let his stinging back touch the fake leather seat.
Holster was back within a few minutes, carrying a bottle of aloe gel and two Clif bars, one of which he handed to Bitty. “The motel’s not far,” he said apologetically. “Once we’re in there I can put aloe on your back. Oh, also, I hope you don’t mind bed-sharing, because rooms with one queen bed are way cheaper.”

“It’s still more space than the back of the Subaru,” Bitty pointed out. “It’s fine.”

Bitty spent the drive to the motel focusing mostly on not letting his back touch anything, though once they pulled past a cheery sign welcoming them to the Owens Motel he figured he should at least put on a shirt.

He tried to do it gingerly, but the sting from both the cloth of the shirt and the salt still on his skin, Bitty was about ready to cry. “This is going to peel and it’s gonna be so gross.”

“Sorry, Bits. This is, um. Kinda my fault.” Holster looked sheepish as he killed the engine. At Bitty’s questioning look, he just grabbed his duffel and the aloe and said, “I’ll explain when we get to the room. Just hang on a bit.”

Once they made it back to the room, Bitty stripped off his shirt and threw himself facedown on the bed. Holster sat next to him, hesitating a bit. “Hurry up and aloe me,” Bitty complained, scooting farther up on the bed.

“All right, all right.” Holster knee-walked to Bitty and slung one leg across Bitty’s hips, settling his weight across Bitty’s ass. Bitty heard the soft snick of the aloe bottle opening, and then Holster’s hands were on him again, his touch gentle and the gel cool. Bitty sighed, melting into the stiff motel duvet and enjoying the instant relief to the sting. The areas Holster had already finished applying grew uncomfortably chilly in seconds, but the feeling of Holster putting the gel on his skin was the sweetest relief Bitty had felt in recent memory.

When Holster shifted back further to get at Bitty’s lower body, he tapped at Bitty’s arm to get him to wiggle up further. With one hand, Holster was able to smear the aloe over most of Bitty’s lower back, his big hand stretching almost the width of Bitty’s waist. Holster didn’t speak, just focused on rubbing what felt like at least half of the bottle into the skin of Bitty’s back.

Finally, Holster dropped the aloe bottle on the duvet near Bitty’s head. “Hold still for a sec,” he said, and Bitty felt him lean sideways - probably to pick up his phone, which he had left on the nightstand. Bitty heard the camera on Holster’s phone go off before Holster rolled off of him and plopped beside him on the bed.

“What’d you take a picture of?” Bitty asked, reaching for his shirt and shivering a little bit as the aloe cooled his skin more than was strictly comfortable.

Bitty’s text tone went off, and Holster smirked. “Check the group chat.”

Curiously, Bitty swiped to the group text with the rest of the boys where Holster had sent the photo. The picture was of the bright red expanse of his back, but instead of the uniform burn he expected, the words RIP Eddie Murphy were scrawled across his upper back in unburned skin.

“Holster.” Bitty’s voice was even, but Holster already had his face buried in the comforter, shoulders shaking as he tried to muffle his laughter. “Did you write RIP Eddie Murphy on my back in sunscreen.”

Holster gasped, trying to stop laughing long enough to talk. “In my defense - Bits, you gotta admit, this is - fucking - hilarious.”

Bitty stared at him drily, unsure of whether he wanted to laugh or strangle Holster or maybe both. “I cannot believe you. This burn hurts!”

“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” Holster said, his laughter fading a bit. “Honestly. I didn’t think we were both gonna fall asleep. If we’d stayed awake long enough for you to remember to reapply, I would have really put the sunscreen all over that time.”

Bitty’s group text alert chimed six times in quick succession, but he ignored them in favor of planting his face in the comforter and groaning. With the gel on, his back didn’t hurt as bad, but he knew he was in for it for a couple days - not to mention the peeling. “Fine, but you are going to help me put aloe on this twice a day, and you’re not going to complain when my back starts peeling, because I know that’s gross but you did this to me, Adam Birkholtz.”

“Of course,” Holster said solemnly. “Got your - hah - got your back, Bits.”

“You are the worst.”

 

 

The next morning, after a shower and another aloe gel application, Bitty pulls the sunburn card to insist on seeing the famous topiary garden his Moo-Maw never stopped talking about from the time she visited. Holster, appearing appropriately contrite but still snickering at the group text (which had of course been renamed RIP Eddie Murphy) when he didn’t think Bitty was paying attention, agreed readily.

Bitty spent the first three hours of the drive behind the wheel, rolling his eyes through Holster’s insistence on reading the conversation in the group text out loud and “doing all the voices” (his impression of Jack, who only sent one reaction text to the mess that was Bitty’s back, was the worst of the lot) to hide his amusement. By the time the drive was halfway through, both boys were starving, so Bitty pulled off the highway and into a McDonald’s drive-thru.

“What are you in the mood for? I think I’m just gonna go with, like, a quarter-pounder or something,” Bitty asked absentmindedly, craning his neck to see the menu around the car in front of them.

Holster shot him an affronted look. “Bitty. Bits. My dude, there is only one proper thing to happen when two bros take place in the time-honored tradition of the McDonald’s drive-thru lunch stop.”

“That’s - you know what, I don’t want to argue about whether that’s a tradition,” Bitty said, shaking his head. “Fine, go ahead and tell me what the proper thing is.”

“The proper thing,” Holster replied imperiously, “is that we get, like, forty chicken nuggets and have a contest to see which one of us can fit the most in his mouth.”

Startled, Bitty barked out a short laugh. “You’re joking, right? No, wait, of course not. Holster, this is hardly a fair contest. Everyone knows your mouth is abnormally large.”

“You wound me, sir.” Holster clutched at his chest for emphasis. “Maybe it won’t be fair, but you gotta admit: it’ll be funny.”

“That’s what you said about my back,” Bitty pointed out, but when they finally rolled up to order he got two 20-piece orders of nuggets anyway.

As it turned out, forty chicken nuggets is kind of an absurd number of nuggets. Bitty and Holster stared at each other and then at the nuggets, and after a pause, Holster said solemnly, “No going back now, bro. We got ourselves forty nuggets and two mouths. Let’s do this.”

Without further ado, Holster scooped up three nuggets and shoved them into his right cheek. Choking on his own laughter, Bitty hurried to follow. Bitty didn’t dare look at Holster for fear of laughing and choking on his mouthful as he crammed as many nuggets as he could into his cheeks. Just before he finally hit his limit, Bitty heard a questioning noise from Holster, and finally turned to look in time for Holster to snap a selfie with the both of them facing the camera, cheeks bulging out and mouths barely able to close.

Snorting, Bitty bent forward almost in half, trying desperately not to choke on his mouthful. Holster seemed to be in similar trouble, if the sounds he was making were any indication. Finally, Bitty reached for the car handle, stumbling over to the nearest trash can and spitting the eleven nuggets he’d managed to fit in his mouth into the trash.
Holster wasn’t far behind, and after he straightened up from the trash can, he turned back to Bitty. “How many’d you get? I got thirteen!”

“You beat me, but only by two nuggets,” Bitty admitted with a crooked grin. “Come on, we can eat the rest of them for real on the rest of the drive. Your turn to drive, by the way.”

 

The Pearl Fryer Topiary Garden in Bishopville, South Carolina was two acres of sprawling, intensely detailed and meticulously maintained artistic gardening interspersed with junk art sculptures, all created and maintained by the man who started the garden in the first place. Bitty had heard all about it from his Moo-Maw, who had visited back in the mid-80s when the garden was still new and fallen in love with the concept of garbage and plants rescued from compost heaps becoming art that could attract visitors from all over the world. Moo-Maw didn’t have a cell phone, but Bitty’s momma did, and he spent most of their visit snapping photos of the various sculptures and sending them to his momma to show Moo-Maw.

“Bits, hey,” Holster said, elbowing him to get his attention. When Bitty glanced over at him, Holster pointed at one of the junk art sculptures, a tree covered in old, painted pots. “That one’s me.”

Bitty snorted and shook his head. Pointing at a bush cut to look like a short, squat donut, he said, “Then that one’s me.”

Holster seemed to take this as a challenge, and spent the rest of the visit finding a junk sculpture or plant to represent each member of the team and texting frequent updates and photos to the group chat. Bitty rolled his eyes as the rest of the team chimed in with corrections, opinions, and general editorializing, but he was glad that at least Holster wasn’t too bored with what Bitty wanted to see. Though, he reflected as his shirt dragged across the still-red skin of his back, it wasn’t like Holster didn’t deserve it.

After the topiary garden, they caught dinner at a local barbeque joint, where Bitty had to talk Holster out of a contest to see how many chicken wings they could fit in their mouths, and headed back to the car for the night.

Crawling back into the Subaru for another night wasn’t Bitty’s favorite feeling - he had enjoyed a night in an actual bed, damn it - but he had to admit that it was kinda nice to have such an...intimate little space to curl up in, even if Holster took up the vast majority of it.

“Can you believe the amount of work that has to go into that garden?” Bitty asked Holster for what must have been the fifth time that day. “And it’s all done by that one guy. That’s crazy.”

Holster, for his part, didn’t seem annoyed that Bitty kept talking about the garden. Grinning crookedly, he answered, “I can’t believe how many tools he has to have. I mean, my sisters do most of the landscaping around my house, and that takes them forever and they need tons of shit to do it - and they’re just, like, mowing the lawn and doing routine gardening and shit.”

“I wonder what it’s like to make something that can attract so many people like that,” Bitty said wonderingly, rolling onto his back.

“I wouldn’t think it’s such a foreign concept to you.” At Bitty’s questioning look, Holster shrugged. “I’ve heard about the kind of crowd your baking draws at the Georgia state fair or whatever. Plus, you’ve like, kinda got a reputation on campus for it with people who have had classes with you.”

Bitty snorted. “I appreciate it, but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing.”

“I don’t really see the difference. He does what he does because he’s passionate about it, and so do you. Just because you think of it as stress baking, or just a hobby or whatever, doesn’t mean it’s that big a difference. Besides, aren’t you majoring in food?” Holster’s voice was soft, pitched for the private atmosphere of the blanket nest in the back of the car, and his face matched it, a gentleness in his expression that betrayed affection Bitty wasn’t prepared to see when he glanced in Holster’s direction.

Bitty blushed and glanced away again. “Um. I guess. Goodnight, Holster.”

“Night, Bits.” Unperturbed by Bitty’s sudden dismissal, Holster just rolled onto his front and dropped off to sleep like someone hit a switch.

 

On the drive to Georgia to see the world’s largest peanut in Ashburn, Holster horrified Bitty by pulling over, buying another gas station coffee, and pouring another Starbucks flavor packet in it. “Sludgies aren’t that bad for you, Bits,” he said serenely, ignoring Bitty’s horrified look.

“This is insane. You are insane. Gimme your phone, I’m texting your sisters.” Bitty made to swipe for it, but Holster snatched it before he could even start the motion and shoved it into the picked on the inside of the car door.

Holster shot Bitty a hard look completely different from the dopey look on his face the night before. “You are absolutely not texting my sisters. That group chat is private.”

Bitty stared at him for a second, blinking. He hadn’t seen Holster get this genuinely defensive in….well, ever. “Um, okay, sorry,” he said lamely, letting his hand drop back into his lap.

“Oh, I…” Holster seemed to realize his tone, and flushed deeply, glancing guiltily at Bitty and scratching at the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Bits, I shouldn’t have snapped.”

“It’s okay, I get it,” Bitty hastened to reassure him, waving his hands in what he hoped was a reassuring motion. “Siblings, are, like, sacred territory….or something.”

Holster’s flush didn’t fade for a long time, and the silence that followed was awkward. Eventually Bitty gave up on pursuing any kind of conversation and curled into the corner between his seat and the passenger side door, staring out the window and wondering what he did that was wrong enough to make Holster that mad at him. For his part, Holster seemed worried and guilty, opening his mouth multiple times as if to speak but never actually saying anything. Bitty leaned his head against the seat and let himself drift into a nap.

He woke to Holster’s gentle hand on his shoulder. Blinking back to awareness, he stared at the gas station around them with a frown, trying to place the location before he remembered they were probably just in the middle of nowhere.

“Your turn to drive, Bits,” Holster said. His voice - his whole demeanor, really - was soft, and he seemed a bit hesitant to crowd into Bitty’s space from where he stood in the open passenger doorway.

Slowly, Bitty remembered how Holster had snapped at him earlier. He still felt a little wary, but Holster was clearly not in the mood to yell at him, so he certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. Nodding sleepily, Bitty switched seats with Holster, taking ample time to stretch before sliding back behind the wheel. By the time they were pulling out of the gas station and back on the road to Ashburn, the atmosphere in the car was mostly back to normal, with Holster’s music on and Bitty drumming his fingers against the steering wheel to the beat. With relief, Bitty let the last of the tension drain out of his shoulders as he reflected on how apparently napping could solve his problems after all.

They pulled into Ashburn a couple of hours later. The world’s largest peanut, not unlike the Muffler Man statue in North Carolina, had a healthy crowd of tourists piled out of RVs milling around, taking photos and buying tchotchkes. In the weird headspace instilled by almost a week of straight road tripping, Bitty and Holster stood at the foot of the peanut, staring upward in total silence, for an instant that seemed to stretch into hours.

“That sure is a peanut,” Holster said softly, and cracked up at the same time Bitty lost it.

Still giggling, they took a beaming smile with the peanut and sent it to the group chat. While they milled around with the other tourists and bought hot dogs from a stand for dinner, they chatted about what the rest of the team might be doing then. To their surprise, the first text they got in response to their selfie was from Jack.

Why are you two doing this, he’d written with zero inflection.

Grinning, Holster typed back a response: We’re nutty!

Bitty watched the screen, giggling, as Jack’s typing bubble appeared and disappeared several times. Finally, after a couple minutes of Jack apparently trying to formulate a response, they got one: That one was worse. Is Bittle’s concussion okay?

“As if I would ever not look after Bits,” Holster scoffed out loud as he typed back.

Bitty raised an eyebrow at him. “I’ll remind you that you’ll be putting more aloe on my back tonight. By tomorrow it should be peeling. That’ll be fun.”

“You’re never letting that go, are you?”

“You wrote RIP Eddie Murphy on my back!” Bitty swatted at Holster’s shoulder when he laughed. “If this is looking after me, I don’t want to find out what you’re like when you don’t
actually care.”

Holster pouted. “All you do is hurt me, Bitty.”

 

The next day, Bitty and Holster started early on a seven-hour drive from Ashburn to New Orleans, where they planned to spend a night on the town and cut loose a little. With the music turned on low, Bitty spent most of the drive reading or napping to keep his energy up for the night ahead. The Georgia heat radiated in from the window even with the air conditioning blasting, and it wasn’t hard to curl up squarely in a ray of sunshine with Senor Bun and snooze for a couple hours. As much time as he and Holster spent trying to sleep, Bitty was never able to drop off for more than an hour at a time in the back of the Subaru, and after a week of this with only the one night in Kitty Hawk in a real bed, he found his eyelids drooping almost as soon as they hit the road.

Several times as he floated in and out of sleep, Bitty cracked his eyelids open to get his bearings and caught Holster staring at him fondly while at a red light or when they were stopped up in city traffic. Part of him wanted to ask what was up, but Bitty was reluctant to disturb the quiet of the car. Besides, he found he didn’t really mind Holster’s attention. Sniffing a little, Bitty shifted and buried his nose deeper in the thin fuzz of Senor Bun’s head. The corner of Holster’s mouth quirked up in a tiny smile as he watched. Bitty let himself drop back into sleep.

After a few hours of intermittent dozing, Bitty finally woke up fully when Holster pulled them through a drive thru Starbucks and bought him a green tea frappucino. Bitty yawned as he accepted it and stretched, feeling his back pop loudly back into place.

“Morning, Sleeping Beauty. You wanna switch off now or in another hour or so?” Holster asked.

Bitty shrugged. “Might as well do it now. We’re already off the highway.”

After they switched seats and merged back onto the interstate, Holster started to look thoughtful. “What all do you wanna do in New Orleans?”

“I heard there’s a lot of psychics there,” Bitty suggested. “We could get like, a tarot reading done or something.”

Holster grinned. “Oh man, if we do that we gotta send Ransom a text. He totally buys all that ghost shit.”

“Seriously? Ransom?” Bitty asked, frowning.

“Yeah, he seriously thinks the Haus is haunted and shit. Totally convinced, never wants to hear about reasonable explanations like shitty plumbing or the fact that the Haus is totally falling apart. It’s kinda hilarious, honestly.”

“Weird,” Bitty said absently as he checked his blind spot over one shoulder and merged to the right. “But anyway, is there anything you wanna do?”

Holster shrugged. “Well obviously we’re gonna get schwasted, since apparently nobody in Louisiana cares about the drinking age.”

Bitty laughed. “Of course. Oh - obviously, this isn’t gonna happen in New Orleans because I refuse to get a haircut while I’m drunk, but I’ve been thinking about an undercut. What do you think?”

“Seriously?” Holster blinked, then grinned widely. “Bro. You would look so hot with an undercut. We gotta make it happen.”

“Not tonight,” Bitty repeated firmly.

Holster clearly wasn’t listening. “Seriously though, you’d look so tight. Best summer makeover in the NCAA. Holy shit. Hold on, I gotta text Rans, he’ll back me up.”

“Adam.” When Holster gave no indication that he’d heard Bitty at all, texting madly and continuing to ramble about how well an undercut would suit him, Bitty just rolled his eyes and focused on driving. His phone stayed silent, so he guessed Holster must be texting Ransom directly anyway, and there was no point getting in the middle of a conversation between those two.

Holster passed out about thirty minutes later, so Bitty had the rest of the drive to himself, and in he found it relaxing to just focus on the road and let everything else fall away. The second half of the drive passed more quickly than Bitty would have expected, with Holster’s soft snoring and the music turned low, and before he knew it he was shaking Holster awake with one hand while guiding the car through the beginnings of New Orleans traffic with the other.

“We’re here already?” Holster asked sleepily, shifting and popping his back.

“Sure are. We should probably get a hotel tonight, since we’re gonna be drinking and all. Safety first.” Bitty pulled Google maps up on his phone and handed it off to Holster to search
around for a decent place to stay.

It only took a second. “Looks like there’s a Country Inn in the French quarter for under a hundred bucks. Sound good?”

“Sure.”

Just like Kitty Hawk, rooms with one bed were significantly cheaper, so Bitty and Holster agreed to share. Once they put their luggage in the room, Holster called first shower, so Bitty busied himself looking for bars that wouldn’t card them. Holster wasn’t kidding, Bitty reflected as he scrolled through Yelp. It looks like there isn’t a bar in the entire city that gives a shit about the drinking age. He sighed. Getting drunk alone with Holster in a strange city probably wasn’t the best idea, and his momma would tan his hide if she found out he’d even considered it, but at least they were staying in an actual hotel rather than passing out in the back of Holster’s car in the middle of New Orleans. Momma Bittle would just have to take what she could get.

After Holster was done in the bathroom, he took both their dirty clothes and disappeared to find the nearest laundromat. Bitty took his time in the shower, scrubbing what felt like years of nasty road sweat off his skin and finally letting his limbs loosen up in the warm water. The hotel soap was unscented, which wasn’t Bitty’s preference, but at that point he figured anything was better than smelling like the inside of Holster’s Subaru. Air freshener or no. He even used most of the tiny bottle of hand and body lotion left on the sink, which Holster hadn’t touched.

Holster was already dressed and ready to go when Bitty emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist. He glanced up when he heard the door opened, and Bitty thought he saw him flush before he turned his attention back to his phone, but that had to be - not wishful thinking, Bitty scolded himself. Paranoia, maybe. Whatever. He was seeing things that weren’t there. Not that he wanted them to be there, of course, but - Bitty cut himself off firmly. Focus on getting dressed.

By the time Bitty managed to look back at him, Holster was grinning triumphantly. “Found a place walking distance from here,” he said, holding up the phone to show Bitty. “Reviews say they never card, happy hour starts in like fifteen, and even once it ends the drinks are dirt cheap.”

Bitty grinned. “Lead the way. Hopefully there’s music.”

The club Holster found seemed like the type of place to make most of its money on barely-legal college students passing through on vacation, and Bitty could hear the music halfway down the block even over the regular New Orleans din as the sun started to dip lower in the sky. Just like the reviews said, nobody bothered to ask for their IDs, and Bitty grinned into his first rum and Coke of the night as the group texts rolled in warning them to be careful but also encouraging them to “get their drank on, brahs.”

After his second drink, Bitty was feeling loose enough to drag Holster to an open spot to dance. The music was heavy on the bass, and Bitty could feel it deep in his sternum. Dancing with Holster at a club was different from the kegsters Bitty had gotten used to at Samwell, and he was glad for Holster’s reassurance at his back. Bitty was aware of the heavy, heated looks he got from other dancers, but few got too close with Holster nearby, and Bitty was free to dance without strangers in his space.

At some point after Bitty’s third drink, he lost track of time. His lips were pleasantly numb, the rest of his face tingly, and he found he was full of new energy. He could barely discern between one song and the next, they all sounded so similar, and when he wasn’t at the bar sipping at another drink and taking selfies with Holster, he was on the dance floor. He knew he was sweating, could feel the heavy humidity of the air on the dance floor and the collective heat of so many dancers, but feeling the weight of each breath in his lungs just made it feel wilder, more real and immediate.

After a total of seven drinks and what only felt like an hour or two of dancing, Holster pulled Bitty out of the crowd by one arm and waved his phone in his face. “Bro, s’like, almost two, we gotta go if we wanna get our, like, auras read.”

“S’already two?” Bitty frowned. “But s’been like…..an hour.”

Holster giggled, high and clear even over the club music. “Bitty, s’been, like, so long.”

“Okay, okay, less go.” Bitty started walking, dragging Holster behind him. “We’re on a mission now, Mr. Birkholtz. We gotta...we’re gonna find a psychic.”

They burst out of the bar with a flurry of sound and stumbled halfway down the block, laughing, before they realized they were going the wrong way. Laughing and leaning on each other, Bitty and Holster meandered through the streets until they finally managed to find a young black woman set up next to a small table with a tarot deck and the least-convincing crystal ball Bitty had ever seen.

“Scuze me,” Bitty said with the politest smile he could muster, pulling Holster to a stop. “D’you….are you a psychic?”

The woman smiled. “Certainly. Would you like a tarot reading?” At Bitty’s nod, she started shuffling her deck with practiced ease. She was dressed in black robes that looked old, but she seemed perfectly normal to Bitty, with her hair tied back in a sensible ponytail and wine-red lipstick, her nails painted to match. After she had shuffled the cards a few times, she handed the deck to Holster. “Shuffle these a couple of times, please.”

Holster frowned at the deck of cards in his hands like he’d never seen one before. “I….don’t think that’s a very good idea right now.” Shifting his gaze back to the psychic, who looked like she was fighting laughter, he added seriously, “I am drunk.”

“Even better. Your aura won’t hold anything back.” She was definitely laughing, her shoulders shaking under her robes. Bitty frowned. That was rude.

Nonetheless, Holster shrugged and tried to shuffle the cards. He dropped several of them, mashed them back into the deck at random, tried again, and dropped more. After two more rounds of this, he bashfully handed the cards back to the psychic, who had gotten her giggles back under control.

She arranged the cards in a three-by-three grid and flipped them over one by one. “This is a small tableau spread,” she explained as she worked. “The columns, from left to right, represent your past, present, and future. The rows are all about what’s in your control, what’s out of your control, and which direction the situation is moving in.”

“Am I gonna live?” Holster asked seriously, leaning on the table.

The psychic laughed again, clapping a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry, that’s very unprofessional - yes, sir, you’re going to live. It looks like you’ve got some relationship developments coming up soon, actually - see, you’ve got the Lovers upright in your future, which is all about building relationships. Your commitment might be tested, but the Hanged Man is upright there too, which is a good sign.” She winked at Holster and Bitty. “You two look like you’re headed for a good place. I guess taking a vacation together wasn’t a bad idea.”

Bitty opened his mouth to correct her, but she had already moved on to Holster’s present, warning him about recklessness, and he’d hate to interrupt her. Besides, Holster looked like he was enjoying his reading - he was leaning on Bitty instead of the table now, chattering happily with the psychic as he continued. Once she was done, she offered to read for Bitty, but Holster was fading fast and Bitty knew from experience that they didn’t have time for another reading before Holster sat down where he was and refused to be moved any farther.

“Thank you sooooo much,” Holster called over his shoulder as Bitty towed him away.

The psychic waved. “You’re very welcome. Have a good night. You two are adorable.”

“You are too!” Holster crowed, and the psychic broke into peals of laughter again, clear as a bell. Bitty rolled his eyes. He had no idea how he managed to be the responsible drunk one out of the two of them - he was smaller than Holster, and here Holster was acting like a sixteen year old debutante at her first grownup party.

Thankfully they hadn’t strayed too far from the hotel, and Bitty managed to get Holster back to the room before he ran out of energy. Holster collapsed on the bed while Bitty got water for both of them.

“Bits, I gotta - I’m gonna text Jack,” Holster announced, patting distractedly at his pockets for his phone. “We’re, like, in the French quarter. We’re in the Jack quarter.”

Bitty dissolved into giggles and sat heavily on the bed, spilling half the water on his own lap. Cursing, he handed a cup to Holster, set the other on the nightstand, and stripped to his briefs, then rooted around in his bag for his pajama pants. Finally, yawning, he crawled under the covers next to Holster, who was still giggling into his phone.

“M’sisters say hi,” Holster confided, his hand landing heavily on Bitty’s head in what was probably intended to be a friendly pat. “V’ronica ‘specially. She says she feels bad you gotta deal wi’ me for so long, but she doesn’ mean it. V’ronica loooooves me, she’s my sister.”

Bitty mumbled what he hoped was an encouraging response. Being freshly showered and in a real bed for the first time in days was his new favorite feeling. He didn’t have the energy to tell Holster this in words, but he wanted Holster to know he was having fun. Bitty settled for wriggling as close as he could and dropping his head in Holster’s lap. “I’m sure you’re a great brother.”

“Thanks, Bits.” Bitty could feel Holster’s fingers in his hair. He sighed deeply, snuggling even closer as Holster skritched lightly along his scalp. Holster said something else, but Bitty didn’t quite catch the first half. All he heard was “....important to me.”

Bitty hummed, already mostly asleep. “The team’s really important to me too, Holster.”

Holster’s fingers hesitated in his hair before drawing back. Bitty wanted to complain, but it was so much easier to just let himself drift the rest of the way back to sleep.

 

Bitty woke the next day to Holster’s groans and a deep nausea. Groaning, he buried his head under the pillow, wishing to God he could get headache hangovers instead of nausea - at least headaches could be fixed with Advil.

Holster was already awake, and from what Bitty could hear he was in the bathroom. “Bitty, get up. ‘M so hungover. What if we just never go anywhere again? We can live in the Country Inn. It’ll be great.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Bitty sighed. He forced himself into an upright position. “I’m vertical. C’mon, I know you get shitty headaches. Lemme shower and we can get some food. I’ll drive first.”

Holster emerged from the bathroom. He leaned on the doorframe, managing a grin despite the tightness around his eyes. “Good idea. We got a really long drive today, Bits. There’s nothing good in Texas because Texas is for assholes, but it’s also huge, so we’re gonna drive through it as fast as we can so we can get to Pie Town.”

“Sounds fine to me. I don’t think either of us would be up to doing much touristy shit today anyway.” Smothering a yawn, Bitty trudged to take his turn in the bathroom. His mouth tasted like ass and he was pretty sure he’d need to boil his own skin to get the smell of the club they’d gone too last night off him, but at least he had a pretty low-key day ahead of him.

Another low-key day in the car. Bitty groaned and knocked his head against the mirror. The novelty of the car was really starting to wear off. Sighing, he started the shower.

 

After the continental breakfast the hotel served, Bitty and Holster got back on the road. Holster was far more hungover than Bitty, so he passed out in the passenger seat for the first few hours of the drive. They had two days of driving ahead of them to get through Texas if they wanted to have a decent amount of time to sleep, and as tired as he was of Holster’s car, Bitty had to admit that the calm atmosphere in the car was kinda nice, especially after the club.

The group chat was full of selfies Bitty didn’t remember sending as well as Jack’s horrified reaction to their French quarter joke - according to him, if Bitty and Holster were drunk enough to make a joke that bad, then they were drunk enough to need serious medical attention. Ransom and Shitty, on the other hand, were too entertained by the selfies to pay the joke any mind. There was even a photo with the psychic. Bitty had no idea when he had taken it, but she was smiling and holding up a peace sign, so at least he didn’t snap the poor woman’s picture without her permission.

Bitty and Holster settled in for a long, mostly featureless drive, entertaining themselves with the radio, Beyonce’s entire discography, and a game to see who could spot the most cows. The two days of driving passed slowly, but it wasn’t too terrible.

Even if it wasn’t the best two days Bitty had ever spent, he could think of quite a few people who would have made it unbearable. Reflecting on this, he glanced to Holster, who was driving, and allowed himself a small smile. Yeah, it could have been a lot worse.

 

After eighteen long hours on the road, they finally pulled into Pie Town, New Mexico. Holster pulled over as soon as they caught sight of the sign proclaiming city limits and, ignoring the fact that they were being weird at eleven o’clock in the morning on the side of the highway, pulled Bitty close for a selfie with the sign. Chuckling, Bitty let himself be pulled and molded himself against Holster’s side. Just, you know, so Holster could get as much of the sign as possible in the photo.

They ate lunch sitting on a picnic bench outside a local diner. Bitty had no idea where Holster kept finding enormous burgers, but at least this one wasn’t as huge as the ones in Pennsylvania. At least Holster seemed to be enjoying it, if the rate of his frenzied fry eating meant anything. Bitty just tried not to laugh too hard and choke on his omelette.

Dessert was, of course, pie. Holster insisted they find an actual bakery rather than just getting dessert from the diner, so with directions from their waitress they walked to a family-owned place that specialised in mini pies to capitalize on the tourists passing through a town with a funny name. To Bitty’s horror, Holster bought more than either of them could carry alone.

“Holster, we’re never gonna be able to eat all of these!” Bitty protested as Holster found a park bench outside. “We can’t afford an inn every night, but we can drop however much we want on thirty mini pies?”

Holster sat heavily and started rooting through his bag of mini pies to find a raspberry one. “Bits. We don’t stay in hotels every night so that we can drop however much we want on thirty mini pies. It’s wisdom.”

Bitty rolled his eyes and sat beside him. “These better be worth it.”

They were. Bitty savored the notes of cinnamon in the crust of his peach mini pie with approval - he’d have to try that next time. Holster, the barbarian, shoved half a pie in his mouth and inhaled the whole thing in two huge bites. Bitty stared at him, wondering how in the world he could like a literal actual caveman as much as he liked Holster. He had made pies for this madman. No wonder Holster bought thirty mini pies - any less and there’d be none less for Bitty.

“Eat up, Itty Bitty,” Holster said around a mouthful of pie, clapping Bitty on the shoulder. “You can’t jus’ watch a man enjoy this buttery goodness and not want in on it.”

“I’m savouring.” Bitty turned his nose up, pretending not to notice how Holster burst into laughter.

As soon as Holster swallowed his latest mouthful, Bitty snatched his blueberry mini pie out of his hand and shoved the whole thing onto Holster’s face. Holster let out an undignified squeal and started batting at Bitty’s wrist with both hands. “Bitty - Bitty noooo, Bits -” his protests dissolved into laughter as Bitty smeared the pie across Holster’s cheek, grinning.

“If you’re gonna eat like a pig, you oughta look like a pig!” Bitty crowed as he finally pulled the pie off Holster. Holster pouted at him, but his shoulders were shaking, and he looked so ridiculous with purple filling all over his face that Bitty couldn’t help doubling over. Holster finally joined in, and Bitty was hit with a sudden urge to kiss filling off the far corner of Holster’s mouth, where a couple of crumbs from the crust still hung.

Wait, what?

Bitty felt the smile slip off his face as he stared at Holster like he was seeing him for the first time. Holster’s glasses were sitting askew on the end of his nose, and Bitty thought wildly that he’d never seen anything as endearing as this mess of a boy, smelly from days in the car and relying on deodorant to stretch them a couple more days until Nevada. He thought suddenly of Holster’s presence in the club in New Orleans, how he’d flushed when that woman by the Muffler Man thought they were dating, how he was always looking out for Bitty, how he’d asked Bitty to come along with him on a weeks-long road trip, how he’d always gone well out of his way to make sure Bitty was happy and comfortable and felt included with the team.

Fuck.

Belatedly, Bitty realized Holster was staring at him with a concerned frown on his face. “You alright, Bits?”

“I, uh.” Bitty took a breath. Come on, Eric, he scolded himself. Don’t make it weird. “Yeah, sorry, I’m fine - thought I was gonna sneeze.”

Holster looked skeptical, but to Bitty’s eternal relief and gratitude, let it go. Bitty kept to himself for the next few minutes, trying to concentrate on the pie rather than Holster’s attempts to get all the blueberry filling off his face.

Bitty ran over the past week in the car in his head, searching for a place he might have overstepped or made Holster uncomfortable. He was pretty sure he’d been alright - except maybe the night in New Orleans, when he hadn’t corrected the psychic about the two of them, and then - oh Lord, he’d put his head in Holster’s lap and demanded a scalp rub. Holster must have felt so awkward, just trying to text and then Bitty’s all over him like that - oh, Lord.

It would be okay, Bitty reasoned. He’d just have to - stop being like that. As long as he kept himself to himself for the rest of the trip, maintained a respectful distance between himself and Holster, Holster might not even figure out Bitty’s big, stupid, inconvenient crush. No reason to let something silly like his get between them. Bitty would be fine with just being Holster’s friend. He’d have to be; anything would be better than stilted awkwardness that could affect the team, let alone Holster himself.

Appetite gone, Bitty forced himself to finish the rest of the mini pie in his hand. He could taste the craftsmanship in it, but as much as he wanted to appreciate it, it felt heavy and unpleasant in his mouth. He could tell right then that he wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the rest of the mini pies in the bag. Great. Bitty had managed to let his stupid heart get ahead of himself, and now he couldn’t even enjoy the mini pies Holster bought.

“Bits?” Holster put a gentle hand on Bitty’s shoulder, and Bitty fought not to jerk away or tense up too much. “Bitty, seriously, are you alright? I’ve never seen you look so much like you’re about to get executed while eating a pie.”

Bitty swallowed again, took a minute to make sure his voice would be steady. “I’m fine, Holster, really! Just a little tired.” He almost winced at the sound of his own voice, which had never sounded so blatantly falsely chipper in his life.

Holster didn’t look so willing to let it go again. Bitty didn’t know what he did to get himself into this situation, alone on a road trip with an unattainable boy who was also his teammate at least a week’s drive from anywhere worth going. For a second, Bitty considered finding the nearest airport and fleeing, but then Holster would know for sure, or worse, think he’d done something wrong when it was really all on Bitty.

Nothing else for it, then. Bitty would just have to suck it up, stick out the rest of this road trip, and then lock himself in his room back home in Georgia for at least another century until he could somehow manage to live this down.

“Seriously, Holster. I’m alright. A bit of a headache, but nothing major.” At least Bitty managed to make his voice sound closer to normal this time. He could tell Holster saw right through him, but apparently three times refusing to talk about it was the magic number, because he backed off and gave Bitty his space.

They took more selfies in Pie Town, holding up tiny pies for the group chat and making sure Bitty got in some ridiculous pose in front of every sign with the town name on it they could find, but Bitty’s heart wasn’t in it anymore. Holster seemed confused about the sudden turn in his mood, but left it alone. By the time they found a fast food place for dinner and a spot to park for the night, Bitty was well and truly in a funk.

The worst part was settling into the back of the Subaru to sleep. Holster was, of course, a naturally cuddly person, and the car was small enough to necessitate some level of contact between them, but Bitty couldn’t just ignore Holster’s proximity anymore. He could feel the way Holster gave off heat like an absurdly large radiator, could smell the Febreze he’d sprayed in the car before they’d eaten out on the hood so it would have time to work its magic by the time they went to sleep and the detergent Holster had used on the fresh T-shirt he was wearing to sleep. By the time Holster rolled over and, snuffling in his sleep, threw an arm across Bitty’s waist, Bitty was well and truly miserable.

Burying his face in Senor Bun, Bitty fought the tears pressing on the back of his eyes. If he cried in front of Holster, he’d never be able to just play it off, and there’s no way he could avoid waking Holster up in the back of the car like this, either.

Bitty took a deep, shaky breath. Fuck.

 

If Bitty thought the two-day marathon drive across Texas was long, then the drive from Pie Town to Yucca, Arizona was never-ending. Holster, damn him, was clearly trying to be a gentleman, offering to drive first when it was clear Bitty’s mood hadn’t cleared and letting Bitty pick the music even after they’d switched.

Holster tried a couple of times to start a conversation, but Bitty was still in full crisis mode, and after the fourth stilted attempt, Holster finally fell silent. Bitty was simultaneously sickly grateful and incredibly guilty. He had known going into this road trip that they were unlikely to get along the whole time with no bumps, especially when they were sleeping in the car most nights, but it had all been going so well until Bitty had to go and get ideas about Holster. Despite his best attempts to keep from thinking about it, Bitty couldn’t keep images of what it would be like to be with Holster out of his head. They already spent a lot of time together, and Bitty was living in the Haus now - they could spend so much time alone together, this road trip wouldn’t have to be the most one-on-one time in their entire college careers, maybe next time someone told them they were cute together Holster would pull Bitty to him, fold Bitty under his arm and against his side like he had in Pie Town, and Bitty could blush and they could thank the stranger, and Bitty could smash a pie into Holster’s face and kiss off the crumbs and laugh into the contact.

The whole drive was torture. What Bitty really needed was some time alone with Senor Bun and Beyonce, maybe a good cry, but of course he had to get these ideas while on a road trip, with nowhere to go to get space. Bitty couldn’t help simultaneously savoring every moment alone with Holster and wishing desperately for the trip to be over.

Holster was frowning into the silence, not looking at Bitty anymore, something defeated in the set of his shoulders. Bitty felt even worse, somehow, and sank further down in the passenger seat, hugging Bun as close as he could. Of course he’d manage to ruin even Holster’s good mood. Miserably, Bitty wished he’d gotten his application to camp in sooner. Then maybe this crush could have passed without Bitty ever even noticing it.

But he knew better than to think he’d ever just get over something like this. Bitty knew himself, and he knew he’d pine and pine until he managed to do serious damage to one of the closest friendships he had at Samwell, and then the team really would turn on him like he’d always feared, and then he guess he’d just have to fake his death, change his name, and transfer to a different school across the country. Maybe they’d even let him play a different sport.

Bitty knew he was being ridiculous, but he couldn’t muster up the energy not to stew in his mood. About halfway through the drive, Holster pulled into Proper, a deli in Flagstaff. The mood was still weird, but Bitty at least managed to muster up some conversation and a smile.

After lunch, Bitty finally gave into Holster’s urging to get his haircut right then and found a barber shop on Yelp. The cut itself only took a few minutes, which felt bizarre to Bitty - he’d spent so long going back and forth on whether to get it, but after a trim on the top and a quick razor along the sides, he was out of the chair almost before he sat down.

Holster chatted with the barber the whole time, which he claimed was “to make sure he gets the undercut you deserve, Bits,” but Bitty was sure he just didn’t want to wait in the car. Once the cut was done and Bitty was admiring himself in the mirror, Holster let out a low whistle.

“Bro,” he said, voice low and appreciative. “I was totally right. You look smokin’. Seriously, Bits, damn.”

Bitty flushed almost purple and reminded himself fiercely that Holster didn’t mean it like that. “I - thanks, Holster.”

Holster slung an arm around Bitty’s shoulders and towed him back to the car, chattering about how hot Bitty looked the whole way. Bitty could feel his blush working its way down his neck and wished fervently that Holster would stop. Every word just added to the flutter of wild, directionless hope somewhere under Bitty’s sternum, and it made him miserable to have to work so hard to quash the stereotypical butterflies in his stomach. Bitty posed for the selfie Holster wanted to send to the group chat to show off Bitty’s new haircut, but for the rest of the drive to Yucca, he couldn’t help glancing at it in the group chat and feeling sick. Not even the flood of congratulatory texts from the boys helped.

 

They spotted the world’s largest golf ball in Yucca just a few hours post-haircut, before Bitty got tired of running his fingertips over the soft bristles of his new shaved sides. Holster wasn’t tired of it yet, either, and Bitty had long since given up on pulling his wild heart back under control as long as Holster was going to run his blunt nails over the scalp just behind Bitty’s ear whenever he felt like it. For the first time, Bitty wished Holster treated him a little differently from the rest of the boys - all this touching was the worst kind of torture Bitty had ever had to deal with, even including the time he had a crush on one of his hockey coaches in high school. At least then his crush hadn’t had free reign to spoon him.

Nonetheless, Bitty threw himself into the roadside attraction atmosphere. It did help a bit, to be surrounded by total strangers he’d never see again and beyond them, just desert as far as the eye could see. Bitty snapped a photo of the golf ball and sent it to the group chat, unwittingly setting off an avalanche of chirps directed at Jack and Ransom for their weird golf hobby. Ransom retorted that Holster’s head had to be at least as big as the golf ball, and finally Bitty got a few minutes out of the laser focus of Holster’s concerned attention as they ended up FaceTiming to chirp each other about golf and Holster’s head respectively.

Bitty leaned against one of the picnic benches and snapped a surreptitious photo of Holster in profile, the Arizona sun catching on his hair and the rims of his glasses. The corners of Holster’s eyes were turned up even as he tried to fake a disgruntled frown at his phone, one hand on his hip and the other holding it at arm’s length so Ransom could see Holster’s head at scale with the golf ball. Maybe it was a creeper shot. Bitty briefly considered deleting it, but at the last minute, just locked his phone and watched Holster have fun.

 

Their next stop was less than five hours away. Normally Bitty would have wanted to drive longer - they didn’t want to be on this road trip for the rest of their lives, after all - but there was no stopping Holster once he figured out they could stay somewhere so close to Area 51.

“It’s not like they let you tour the military complex, Holster,” Bitty groused.

Holster’s grin didn’t falter. “Of course they don’t, Bits. Then we’d find out about the aliens.”

“There’s nothing to do in this town!” Bitty wasn’t wrong; the most he could see on Google is that they would get to stay at an inn with a funny name and maybe see a gate, and they couldn’t even take pictures because the military officers guarding the place wouldn’t let them.

But Holster was adamant about Area 51, and Bitty had to admit that seeing Holster so genuinely pumped about something wasn’t really helping his resolve. Sure, Holster was naturally enthusiastic, but Bitty didn’t often see him doing something purely for himself. Far be it from Bitty to deny Holster something that would make him happy.

Bitty was totally fucked.

The atmosphere between them was still a bit weird and tense. Bitty had managed to come out of his reverie for the most part, but Holster still looked concerned now and then, and Bitty wasn’t the best at faking conversation when he was really too busy daydreaming about going to Annie’s hand in hand with Holster. But it hadn’t come up again, even as Bitty tried to keep his distance in the Subaru rather than snuggling back up with Holster. Hopefully it would blow over eventually and everything would end up fine.

Google turned out to be right; the back gate to Area 51 was rather underwhelming, just a gate in a chain link fence guarded by a couple of armed military personnel. To Bitty’s horror, Holster walked straight up to one and tried to strike up a conversation.

“So how cool are the aliens?”

The guard cracked a smile and Bitty let out a relieved sigh. “You wouldn’t believe how often we get that question here, sir.”

“That wasn’t an answer,” Holster pointed out, clearly fighting the twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“Those are state secrets,” the guard said with a wink. “Can’t say anything about the aliens we definitely do not have.”

Cackling, Holster thanked the guard for his time and returned to the car. “A little underwhelming,” he admitted, “but I don’t mind. Now we can tell everyone we went to Area 51. You wanna go to the hotel and binge watch alien movies?”

The motel they stopped at was, to Holster’s endless amusement, called The Little A’Le’Inn. When Bitty saw the name, he groaned and knocked his head against the steering wheel.

“Seriously? This is where you wanted to stay so bad?”

“Hell yeah!” Holster’s smile was infectious, and despite himself Bitty started grinning along as he pulled into the parking lot. “I can’t believe you don’t appreciate puns more than you do, Bits. It’s crazy.”

Bitty just rolled his eyes and grabbed his overnight bag.

Their room was small but homey, again with a single bed (Bitty despaired internally when he saw it). Holster ignored the TV in favor of pulling his laptop out of his backpack for the first time the whole trip, plugging it in, and pulling up Netflix.

Sighing, Bitty flopped onto the bed next to Holster. Nothing else for it; he’d have to snuggle up and watch Predator.

Holster tried to throw his arm around Bitty’s side, but Bitty dodged it, pretending to reach for his phone. Frowning, Holster slid closer; Bitty scooted slightly farther away. The look Holster shot Bitty was fit to break his heart, full of concern and confusion. Bitty knew he had been acting weird the past couple of days, brushing off Holster’s concern and rebuking his attempts to reach out, but he didn’t know what else to do. He couldn’t exactly just explain to Holster what his issue was.

45 minutes into the movie, Holster paused it and turned to face Bitty, his face set with determination. Bitty eyed him warily, barely noticing the way he gathered his body underneath him as if to prepare to run. The look on Holster’s face didn’t brook much argument, and Bitty had no idea what was going to come out of Holster’s mouth. He must have figured out Bitty’s crush for real - real smooth, of course Bitty had managed to fuck this up somehow -

“I’m sorry I’ve made you uncomfortable,” Holster said, his voice almost desperate. “I really didn’t mean to let my stupid crush get in the way of our friendship, and I’m sorry I wasn’t subtle enough about it and weirded you out. Can we please just try to put it behind us?”

Bitty stared, stunned, for a long moment. “I - what?”

Holster’s face fell. He looked like he was about to cry. “My crush on you. I promise I didn’t invite you on this road trip just to make a move on you or anything. I just thought it would be fun, but I clearly stepped over a line at some point, because these past couple of days you’ve been so uncomfortable around me, and -”

“Wait, wait.” Bitty held up his hand. “I don’t - what? You have a crush on me?”

“I - oh, fuck, did you not figure that out? Is that - not what’s been going on? Oh, shit.” Holster blushed so hard Bitty abstractly worried about his blood pressure. “Oh, god damn it, I just made it worse, didn’t I. Fuck!”

“No, Holster, hold on-” Bitty started, raising his voice to be heard over Holster’s nervous rambling. “Holster - Adam! Will you listen to me?” Holster finally fell silent, eyes wide and breath coming a little fast, when Bitty leaned forward and planted his hands on Holster’s shoulders. “I’ve been acting weird because I have a crush on you,” Bitty explained slowly, staring directly into Holster’s eyes to try and get him to get it. “I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, and I thought you figured me out, so I was trying to give you space.”

Holster stared back, dumbstruck for a long moment. “You…like me back?”

“Yeah,” Bitty said breathlessly, noting with fierce joy the way Holster’s eyes dropped to his mouth. “Yeah. I do. I didn’t want to fuck up our friendship.”

“We are idiots,” Holster breathed, and leaned in to kiss him.

Holster’s laptop stayed forgotten at the foot of the bed as Bitty leaned into Holster and slid his arms up from Holster’s shoulders to wrap his arms around his neck. Holster moved fully into Bitty’s space, tucking a knee under himself for leverage and wrapping his huge hands around Bitty’s waist. Bitty thrilled internally at how far around his waist Holster’s fingers reached, the way he could fill his arms with Holster’s broad shoulders, even the way Holster’s glasses pressed weirdly into his nose.

After a long moment just sighing openmouthed into Bitty, Holster pulled back, blinked, and burst into laughter, pulling Bitty close and burying his face in Bitty’s neck. Bitty slid a hand into Holster’s hair and laughed, too, enjoying the way he could feel Holster’s giggles rumble deep in his chest and puff against the side of Bitty’s neck.

“I can’t believe we both did the same stupid thing,” Holster mumbled into Bitty’s neck.

Bitty giggled again at the tickly feel of it. “I can’t either. Lord, Holster, back in New Mexico when I smashed that pie into your face I wanted to kiss you so bad.”

“Really?” Holster picked his head up again and Bitty melted at the joy on his face. “Oh man, Bits. You should have seen the state I was in before I asked you to come on this road trip. I was so nervous. Ransom had to psych me up for it. I’ve been texting my sisters about how gone I am over you this whole time.”

“Oh my god,” Bitty laughed, clapping a hand over his mouth. “Is that why your sisters were so weird when I visited?”

Holster nodded, beside himself with laughter. “I told them not to put you in the hot seat, but sisters are the worst!”

The simple, happy smile on Holster’s face was casually devastating, and Bitty had to kiss him again. He kind of wished they’d had this conversation after they’d had a chance to take showers, but Bitty had to admit that the feel of Holster’s day-two stubble across his face was delicious. Bitty thrilled at the size of Holster, felt privately gleeful at the way Holster casually shifting his weight could change their whole position. This boy, he thought as Holster mouthed at his jaw.

They spent the rest of the night smashed close together, breaking only to take turns showering and order some food. The rest of Predator, as well as the other shitty alien movies Holster pulled out of the dregs of Netflix, was much better when Bitty knew he was allowed to curl as close as he wanted and steal kisses during the slow bits.

Sharing the bed with Holster, too, had taken on a different feel. When they finally turned off Holster’s laptop and curled back up together to sleep, Holster didn’t bother giving Bitty a side of the bed, instead pulling Bitty directly on top of him and wrapping his arms around him like a teddy bear. Bitty hid his smile in the juncture between Holster’s neck and his shoulder and let himself drift off to sleep.

 

Holster reached for Bitty’s hand about an hour into the next day’s drive. “So Bits,” he said conversationally. “We never, uh, talked about last night.”

“What do you mean?” Bitty turned Holster’s hand over and ran the tip of his free index finger along Holster’s knuckles, not looking at him. He’d woken up so simply, uncomplicatedly happy, indulging in good-morning kisses over breakfast and while navigating the process of getting ready in the tiny room and finding a laundromat in town. But he wasn’t sure what Holster wanted to talk about. What if last night was a fluke? What if Bitty was a bad kisser?

“I just mean that, like, we didn’t really. Talk about us, I guess.” Holster was quiet for a long moment. “I mean. What I’m trying to say is that if you’re okay with it, I want you to be my boyfriend. And, I mean, it’s fine if you don’t want that, but like, we probably shouldn’t keep making out and stuff if that’s the case.”

Bitty blinked, then broke into a wide grin. “Holster. I’d love to be your boyfriend.”

“Oh.” Holster glanced over at him, winked, and smiled, turning back to the road. “Alright then. You wanna tell the boys?”

“Maybe in a couple days,” Bitty mused. “I’d like to keep it just us, at least for a little bit. I like having a secret.”

“Works for me. We can tell them in a bit.”

Holster kept driving.

 

The next day, they stopped at a reptile park in Colorado. To Bitty’s horror, Holster made another of his disgusting coffee sludgies on the drive over, despite Bitty’s wild protests. A text from Veronica directed to Bitty warned him that nobody had ever gotten Holster to stop doing “that gross shit,” but he couldn’t help it - even though he didn’t actually protest when Holster leaned in for a kiss after a long drink from his mug.

The reptile park itself was great - Bitty spent most of the time taking photos and sending them directly to Lardo, who replied each time with a new name and a proclamation that each new lizard was her new soulmate and one true love of her life. Holster never let go of Bitty’s hand the whole time, resting his chin on the top of Bitty’s head to see Lardo’s replies and murmuring name suggestions for Bitty to relate back to her.

Bitty couldn’t help being a little on edge, looking for someone to have a problem with two men being so openly together in public, but if anybody had an issue they kept it to themselves. Gradually Bitty relaxed, finally leaning back into Holster later in the afternoon and letting Holster hook his chin over Bitty’s shoulder rather than the top of his head.

At Holster’s suggestion, the boys decided to splurge a bit and spring for hotels on nights so close together. Bitty had to admit his back would thank him for it - the night before, he’d found that sleeping in the back of Holster’s ancient car was getting really old, and that making out in a car was another one of those vastly overrated relationship things Bitty had spent his life hearing about. At least Holster was a good kisser.

They didn’t need to do laundry this time, so Bitty took the opportunity to get a nice deep stretch in instead of googling around for a laundromat. Holster whistled lowly, grinning, and Bitty tried to shoot him a dirty look but couldn’t quite get the smile out of it.

“Bits, you wanna, uh.” Holster paused, licked his lips. Looked uncertain.

Bitty glanced over at him from where he was stretching one of his hamstrings at the table. “What’s up?”

“We can, um. Shower together. If you want. No funny business,” Holster said quickly, red as the tacky curtains.

“Oh, uh, sure.” Bitty could feel his face heat, and he knew he wasn’t really up for any shower sex, but he knew Holster wouldn’t be weirded out or disappointed by that. The least they could do, he figured, was try to conserve water and be a little environmentally friendly, after the kind of carbon footprint they were making on the road trip.

They stripped in the bathroom quietly. Bitty had seen Holster naked before dozens of times in the locker room, and while it felt a little different to be naked together now that they were dating, there was still a familiarity to it. There was a familiarity to most of this, Bitty reflected as Holster adjusted the water temperature. Maybe that was what made it all feel so….right. Being so familiar with Holster already.

Bitty had to stand close to Holster to get them both under the spray, and at first they were both blushing furiously, but it got easier when Holster offered to wash Bitty’s back. “At least this time you can’t write anything stupid on it,” Bitty chirped as Holster reached for the soap.

“I’m just glad your back is done peeling,” Holster replied. “That was gross. Now hold still.”

Having Holster wash his back reminded Bitty of the aloe so much earlier in the trip. Again, he felt himself melting back into Holster’s touch, relaxing as Holster dug his knuckles into the knots of muscle between Bitty’s shoulder blades and skimming his callous-rough palms over Bitty’s sides. Holster slipped in one tiny pinch to Bitty’s ass, laughing at the resulting yelp, but otherwise kept true to his promise and stuck to actually washing Bitty’s back.

“Your turn.” Bitty had to reach up to wash Holster’s shoulders, but it was worth it to feel the muscle under his palms. Trying to emulate the mini back massage Holster had given him, Bitty pressed harder with his fingers and ran them down the sides of Holster’s spine. He found knots at the small of Holster’s back, twin lumps in the muscle, and rubbed his thumbs over them in firm, slow circles. Holster’s appreciative groan was definitely a turn-on, but Bitty ignored it, focusing on working the tension out of Holster’s muscles.
Once Bitty was done, Holster stretched, grunting again. “Thanks, Bits. That was great.”

Bitty felt flushed with warmth, like the praise went deeper than just a back rub. Holster dipped to kiss him, and while at first they couldn’t breathe around the spray, on a second attempt Bitty leaned back, scratching his nails over Holster’s hair where it clung wetly to his scalp.

Holster pulled back and smiled, running his fingertips over Bitty’s shaved sides again. Bitty leaned into the contact, willing himself not to literally purr. “I wasn’t joking,” Holster said seriously. “This haircut is so hot on you.”

Bitty blushed and giggled like a ridiculous rom com character. “Thanks, Holster.”

Planting one last kiss on the tip of Bitty’s nose, Holster twisted the water off and stepped out of the shower. “Come on, Bits. Bedtime.”

 

In the morning, they crossed from Colorado into Nebraska, on the hunt for the world’s largest ball of stamps in Boy’s Town. By this point in the trip, Bitty and Holster were more than used to the strange atmosphere surrounding the kind of tourists visiting roadside attractions, and after a couple of normal selfies with the ball of stamps, Holster turned Bitty’s head with three fingertips on his jaw and kissed him. Distantly, Bitty heard the shutter noise on the phone.

“You alright sending this to the guys?” Holster asked, a breath away from Bitty’s lips.

Bitty stole another kiss and nodded. “Yeah. Thanks for asking.”

Holster scoffed and wrapped the arm that wasn’t holding the phone around Bitty’s shoulders. “As if I ever wouldn’t.”

For about thirty seconds after Holster sent the photo to the group chat, Bitty waited in slightly anxious silence before the text alert chimed with a notification from Jack.

Bittle’s concussion must be worse than we thought, eh?

Holster stared at the notification for a moment, then burst out laughing. “That asshole! God, I bet the others are gonna be so pissed they didn’t think of that first!”

Bitty hid his laugh in Holster’s side as more texts poured in from the rest of the boys and Holster got a FaceTime call from Veronica.

He picked up immediately, and Bitty caught sight of both of Holster’s sisters beaming at the phone. “Adam! Eric is wearing your shirt!”’

“That he is,” Holster said proudly. Bitty hoped he was hiding his blush well enough.

Hailey crowed with laughter. “I knew it! I knew this road trip would work. Nobody agrees to platonically spend multiple weeks on a road trip with a smelly college boy, Adam. Especially not with you.”

“Hey,” Bitty protested. “I happen to like him.”

“Gross!” Veronica laughed. “Ew, gross, Adam, you’re so weird!”

Holster stuck his tongue out at her. “You’re just jealous because I have a boyfriend and you don’t.”

Veronica’s annoyed huff alone would have been worth all the endless hours in the car.

 

 

The drive from Nebraska back to Holster’s house in Buffalo took about three days, with the boys spending the last leg of the trip sleeping back in the Subaru again. As old as it was, Bitty couldn’t help but appreciate the chance to spend so much time curled so close to Holster. He couldn’t think of a better way he could have spent the first chunk of his summer than right here in his car with this boy.

Halfway home, playing with Holster’s fingers where they rested on Bitty’s waist, he voiced the thought. “I’m really glad we came on this trip, Holster. Best decision I’ve made in years.”
Holster didn’t speak, just squeezed his hand, but Bitty could see the dopey, smitten grin on his face. What a dweeb, Bitty thought with utmost fondness.

The day before they got back to Buffalo, Bitty and Holster stopped for one last feast on shitty gas station food before they were back to real, home-cooked meals and something resembling a diet plan. Holster made another sludgie - despite Bitty and his sisters reminding him about caffeine overdose and heart failure - and halfway through a packet of Hostess cupcakes, Bitty got an idea.

“Hey, Holster.” When Holster turned to look at him with a questioning hm? around a mouthful of shitty coffee, Bitty cupped the cake in his hand and smashed it into Holster’s face, smearing it along his chin with a delighted crow of victory.

“Bits!” Holster shrieked, lunging away. “Bits! Betrayal!” But he was laughing again, smile stretching wide even with chocolate all over his mouth.

Still laughing, Bitty grabbed the front of Holster’s T-shirt and pulled him in, kissing the crumbs from the corner of his mouth. When he leaned back, he could feel the remains of the cake all over his own face as well as Holster’s, but Holster just smiled and pulled him in again.