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Twice As Many Stars

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***



It’s in moments like this that Nolan wishes he still drank alcohol. Getting absolutely wasted right now would feel fucking stellar. It’d mean he could bring himself to go back inside, and do what people usually do at parties. Have fun, dance, all that shit. Nolan used to be pretty fucking good at that. He’s never been the life of the party like Kevin can be when he turns it up, but he’s had his moments, that’s for sure. Not even that long ago. He still remembers being a freshman, getting drunk off his face every weekend, smoking it up every other weeknight, not caring much about the company.

Now the thought of walking back into the crowded, airless apartment, where the music is too loud and people have no sense of personal space, makes Nolan bristle, the back of his throat itching. He’d rather walk in front of a car, or freeze to death in his icy fucking stairway.

Yeah, no. There’s no way he’s going back inside.

He loves Ivan –he’s the only reason Nolan is even here- and his girlfriend Alexis is nice enough, but Nolan just won’t do it. He came here against his better judgment and now he feels like utter fucking shit for it. It’s one thing telling Ivan ‘no’ and having him be disappointed but kind about it, it’s another to buckle up and drag his ass to Alexis’ place only to quit barely an hour in. It’s fucking embarrassing. Pathetic, really, which Nolan is used to, but it still sucks.

He should have just stayed home, worked on his assignment for class, gotten that fucking sketch layer done at least. He’s been fucking around with animation program that makes drawing three point perspective less of a pain in the ass, and it’s been pretty great. It’s going to help him with his thesis project for this semester for sure.

His first year he’d mostly focused on character design but lately he’s gotten more and more into backgrounds, structures, architectural stuff. It’s what he’s grown comfortable with when it comes to his art. He doesn’t like designing characters anymore, designing people. He’s never been good at it, he’s realized and Nolan doesn’t do shit he isn’t good at anymore. You can only fuck up shit you are actually good at so many times before you realize that trying the things you aren’t good at just isn’t worth it.

Another reason why Nolan should have never went to this party. He’s not good at parties. Not good at crawling out of his hole and pretending he’s someone actual capable of social interactions.

He doesn’t even know why Ivan asked him to come. He has Kevin, for fucks sake, and Kevin is so much better than Nolan. At being a friend, at being a person, at not being a black hole of a creature that sucks the fun out of everything.

“Hey, bud,” Ivan’s voice comes from out of nowhere, like a radar in his head went off, alarming him to Nolan’s dreary thoughts.

He’s good at that. Sometimes.

“Hey,” Nolan says, not looking up from where he’s been drawing little stick figures into the dust in the corner of the landing.

He probably shouldn’t hang out on the top level of a staircase while there’s a birthday party going on one story down, but it is what it is. Even up here, through the closed door, he can hear the muffled music. Stupid top 40’s pop. Whatever. At least it’s not country.

“Nols, you good?” Ivan asks, like he doesn’t already know. “You’re shivering.”

“Well, it’s fucking cold, alright?” Nolan half snaps half mumbles, pulling his parka tighter around himself.

It doesn’t matter that it’s only October, that Ivan is wearing a fucking t-shirt for god’s sake. Nolan is just cold, he almost always is these days and Ivan knows that. But he’s drunk, judging from the flush on his cheeks and maybe that’s why he feels like pointing out the obvious.

“Want me to get you my jacket?”

“And look like a complete idiot? No thanks,” Nolan scoffs, shaking his head.

Ivan didn’t bring a damn jacket. He’s talking about getting Kevin’s probably. That nice leather jacket his parents bought him this summer that is going to do nothing to help Nolan feel warmer, only feel too heavy on his shoulders. Besides, there is no way Nolan could pull off wearing that jacket on its own, let alone going for a god damn double jacket-parka combo.

You wouldn’t think it just looking at Kevin’s face but the guy actually has some good style, pulling off some fashionable looks now and then. Nolan never not looks like a mess. Then again, he doesn’t try, unlike Kevin.

“Want to go home?” Ivan asks then, sitting down on the stairs next to Nolan. He’s being all soft and quiet, like you’d never expect from a guy like him, tall and broad shoulders, beard and everything.

But Nolan has known him since forever, knows that there’s more to him than that lumberjack mountain man look he’s got going on at the moment. He’s kind and loyal and the best friend apart from Kevin that Nolan has ever had. A better friend than Nolan could ever deserve.

“Already called myself an Uber.”

Something flashes through Ivan’s eyes and Nolan shrugs. There’s nothing to say. Ivan is upset that Nolan was just going to fuck off without saying bye, without telling him that he wasn’t feeling the party anymore. But that’s for the best. It’s the preferable option to him being upset at himself for having asked Nolan to come.

He’s done that before. It’s why they rarely ever go to parties anymore. It’s not because Kevin or Ivan don’t want to, because they’ve gotten over their party phase. It’s because of Nolan. Nolan the block of cement dragging them down. Fuck.

“Okay,” Ivan eventually says, running a through his beard. “Okay. I’m just gonna say bye to Alexis, and then-”

“Woah,” Nolan, places a hand on Ivan’s arm, keeping him from getting up. “Don’t. I can get home by myself.”

Ivan smiles, unconvincing. “I know. But I’m tired. We can share the Uber.”

The Uber Nolan hasn’t called yet. Great.

“Ivan-”

“Nolan, I really am tired, okay?” Ivan insists, grabbing Nolan’s hand and helping him to his feet.

Nolan grimaces internally at the way his joints ache, the slight dizziness that makes him hold onto to Ivan’s hand a little tighter. Only once he’s standing does his brain have enough capacity to speak, to argue.

“It’s her birthday,” he says, thankful for Ivan’s hand still being in his, helping him keep steady. “If you leave early, she’s gonna be pissed.”

“You’re Patty,” Ivan says, like that means anything. “She’ll understand.”

She won’t. She doesn’t like how close Nolan and Ivan are. Nolan, Ivan, and Kevin, really. She doesn’t get them and Ivan knows that but he’s also stubborn as fuck, unwilling to compromise when it comes to Nolan and Nolan is so goddamn thankful for that. He hates that he needs it, hates that Ivan doesn’t get how pointless it all is, but he also knows that Ivan only means well. Always, every day.

It’s going to stop one day, of course, because that’s how these things go, but it’s hard for Nolan to really think about that when it comes to Ivan because Ivan has always been there. Losing him is going to be hardest hitting blow in fucking years, so when Alexis or some other girl wins one day, gets Ivan to realize that he’s better off without his dead weight best friend Nolan, Nolan isn’t sure how he’s going to make it.

It depends on Kevin probably. If he sticks around Nolan might be able to keep his head above water for a while, but if he doesn’t-

Well. Nolan won’t be surprised.

Ivan helps Nolan down the stairs, gives him an arm to hold onto with the hand that isn’t clinging to the railing so Nolan doesn’t fall.

It’s balance issues, Ivan thinks. Left over from Nolan’s concussions, back when he still played hockey, when he dreamed of going pro, of the NHL, of seeing cities all over North America. And it makes sense, that’s why Nolan likes the excuse so much. It’s easy to explain away the dizziness, the pain in his joints, all of it, with hockey. With the grind he put his body through only to throw it all away on a fucking whim, ruining his life. It’s even better because Ivan gets that Nolan doesn’t want to talk about hockey, about everything that went down back then. It’s a win fucking win, and it’s a million times more appealing than the thought of Ivan knowing the truth.

“Do you want to order in when we get home?” Ivan asks, once they are seated in the back of some dude’s Civic, that Nolan ordered once they were already outside, pretending to just fuck around with his phone. “Some late night takeout? Or we could get some Subway?”

Putting on a smile, Nolan shakes his head, even though his stomach feels like it’s going to rip open with hunger at the thought of a fucking sandwich.

“Nah, I’ve stuffed my face at the party. That guacamole shit Alexis put next to the Nachos? Fucking amazing.”

Nachos. Add that to the thought of the sandwich and you don’t just get Nolan’s insides squirming with hunger pains. You get a fucking itch at the back of his throat because Ivan might be the kind of guy who can stuff his face with nachos at a party and drink beer after beer, but that’s not Nolan anymore.

Neither of them are on the athlete path anymore but while Ivan managed to keep his fit body, Nolan just-

If he actually ate nachos at Alexis’ party, he wouldn’t be able to at his reflection again for at least a week.

That’s why he didn’t. He had an apple this morning. Went back to sleep right after before getting up again to do some warm up sketches, get himself going to work on the thesis project –a good enough excuse to skip lunch- kept himself going with the almonds he snacked on, and then finally to have enough energy to go to the party and not pass out: two egg whites and one slice of extra lean turkey on a piece of toast.

It’s more than enough. Nolan knows that because he owns a fucking mirror and he looks at it, he has eyes to look at himself, hands to touch his body, the thick rolls of his gut, his chubby thighs. So he knows. It’s Nolan’s stomach that doesn’t get it, that screams and cries, and plagues him with cramps half the night so when Nolan wakes up the next morning, he’s exhausted, shivering under his double duvet, despite the sweater and sweatpants, paired with thick socks he’s wearing.

In moments like this, Nolan really wishes his body didn’t hate him so much.

Then again, he hates it right back, so it’s probably what he deserves.

 

***



There are things that Nolan knows now about nutrition, about foods and drinks, the energy they bring, the calories, the fucking sugar, that he didn’t know before, not even when he was still on the trajectory of becoming a professional athlete, getting drafted to the Wheat Kings.

One of those things is how much liquid your average mug holds. Another how many calories there are in what type of coffee filling up said average cup.

Nolan used to drink his coffee with milk. Not even fucking skim milk, just milk, just whatever Kevin brought back from the store. He never used to think about it but now Nolan fills his mug with black coffee, not adding anything, no milk, no sugar.

It tastes bitter, burns on the way down, and sometimes Nolan wonders why he even bothers with it at this point with how little it does with helping how tired he feels but at least it does something. It’s part of his routine. That and if he puts a used coffee mug in the sink, adds a plate with some strategically placed food traces on it next to that, neither Ivan nor Kevin will question Nolan’s claim that he has already had breakfast.

It’s not a lie anyway, not really. He’s had the 2 calories that hide in the 240ml of liquid and he is going to have breakfast. Just later.

So he’s not lying. He’s simply bending the truth a little, making it easier and more comfortable for everyone involved, which-

Jesus, what the fuck!” Nolan half yells, almost dropping his mug when –rounding the couch to sit down and wrap himself in a blanket- he finds the couch already occupied.

By a guy Nolan has never seen before, who blinks at him blearily from underneath the very blanket Nolan was planning to burrito himself in.

“Uh, hi,” the guy says after a beat of silence where Nolan just stares, distantly wondering if his racing, fluttering heart is going to just stop on him one of these days.

Especially if any more strangers surprise him in the comforts of his own living-room -what the hell.

Hi?” Nolan repeats, voice a little high pitched, clutching the handle of his mug like a lifeline. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Oh! Right. Sorry.” The guy’s face brightens up a little as he gets up, almost tangling his feet in Nolan’s blanket, but gracelessly managing to catch his balance. All with a fucking smile. “Sorry. I’m Travis. Hi.”

The guy –Travis, fucking apparently- holds his hand out for Nolan to shake.

Nolan stares at him. Him and his shirtless body, duck tattoo and honest to god abs and everything. This has got to be a nightmare.

Glad for all the layers he’s wearing that hide the fucking embarrassment that is his body –especially compared to someone’s like Travis’-, Nolan wraps one arm around himself, face darkening as he pointedly stares to the side. After the night he’s had, this is the worst possible morning. He already feels unsteady, ungainly, like some creature that shouldn’t have dragged its body out of its cave, and now there’s a stranger standing right in front of him, with a body like one the athletes Nolan idolized (and jerked off to) as a teen. All paired with a sweet hopeful smile that does nothing but irritate Nolan further.

“You were at the party yesterday,” Travis says then, sounding almost cheerful, the hand he was holding out to Nolan a moment earlier, running through his shaggy, dark brown hair. “You hung out by the beanbag for a while and I was meaning to talk to you, but then you were already gone and- Anyway.”

Nolan raises his eyebrows, heart still racing in his chest.

“I’m Travis,” Travis says again, not holding out his hand this time, instead leaning down and fishing a shirt that must be his off the floor. “But you can also call me TK or Teeks. Anything is fine really. Also, I’m not a stalker, I swear. I didn’t know you were living here until now. I didn’t- Not that you think because I noticed you at the party I would come here and- No.”

His eyebrows climbing up a little higher on his face, Nolan feels at an utter loss for words. Unlike Travis obviously. Apparently Travis saw him at the party and wanted to what? Talk to Nolan? Because he- No. Nolan can’t for the life of him think for a reason why. The pants Travis is wearing are caught somewhere between bootleg and skinny jeans, hugging his legs in all the right places and the shirt he’s pulling on just now does little to hide how fucking fit he is.

Guys like Travis don’t want to talk to guys like Nolan at parties. Not in that way anyway, which is- Yeah. Nolan misunderstood. God, if Travis knew that for a second Nolan thought that Travis could be attracted to him-

“So I’m not entirely sure how I got here,” Travis confesses, just barreling on, seemingly unbothered by Nolan just staring at him. “I’m pretty sure me and the tall guy were going to share an Uber but things are pretty blurry to be honest and-”

“You idiot couldn’t remember your address to tell the driver,” Kevin says, interrupting Travis’ flood of words as he emerges from his room, scratching his beard, big blue eyes still a little droopy with sleep. “Couldn’t leave you on the poor dude’s backseat, could I?”

“Oh!” Travis’ face brightens, if that’s even possible. He barely even looks hungover or embarrassed. “Thanks, man. That’s like, super neat of you.”

Neat isn’t the word Nolan would use. He’s glaring at Kevin now, who looks confused for a second than sheepish, giving Nolan an apologetic nudge against the shoulder.

It’s barely even anything at all, but Kevin is a big guy though and sometimes, especially when he’s hungover and tired, he forgets how strong he is and that even though Nolan isn’t exactly short and has more than enough flesh on his bones, he isn’t some 6’5 hunk with the strength of an ox, so a well meant nudge turns into Nolan stumbling and spilling his coffee quicker than any of them would expect.

“Fuck, Kevin,” Nolan curses, having to grab onto the back of the couch for balance.

There’s coffee on the floor and rug, seeping through the wool within seconds.

There’s coffee on Travis’ feet too.

“Ah, that’s hot,” Travis says, tone almost nonchalant despite the grimace. “Okay. Luckily I’m heat resistant.” He fucking winks at Nolan. “Gonna need to use your bathroom though. Running cold water and all that, yeah? Thanks.”

“Down the hall to the left,” Kevin says, giving Travis another one of his apologetic smiles before directing the same at Nolan. “Bro. I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Nolan bites out as he does his best to sit down without spilling more coffee.

His hands get pretty shaky sometimes.

“The coffee and-” Kevin frowns for a moment, looking in the direction Travis disappeared to.

“Travis?” Nolan supplies and he’s pretty sure his eyebrows have disappeared into his hairline by now. “You don’t even know his name. I’ve met him like 2 minutes ago and he’s introduced himself to me twice.”

“Right, Travis. He’s a weird little dude,” Kevin says, planting himself on the couch next to Nolan, wrapping his arm around Nolan’s shoulders. “But he needed a place to stay and you know I can’t say no to strays.”

“You should,” Nolan grumbles, taking a careful sip of his coffee. It’s so bitter it’s probably going to burn a hole right through Nolan’s treacherous stomach.

“Why not? Because they might end up staying four years?”

Kevin says it like a joke, voice all deep and kind and familiar, but Nolan can’t help the pang of guilt that goes through him, has him look up at Kevin in question for a moment, wondering if maybe a part of Kevin really regrets taking Nolan in. Kevin didn’t know shit about Nolan when they met, and it took Nolan for fucking ever to warm up to him, to trust him half as much as he trusts Ivan who’d been the one to make friends with Kevin first, getting their little band of three together and forming what Nolan considers his only family by now.

Kevin didn’t know how messed up Nolan was back then, and it constantly makes Nolan feel like a con artist because the truth is Kevin still doesn’t know. Not the full extent of it anyway. But then again neither does Ivan. One day they’ll find out and that’s the day Nolan will lose them for good, but until then this is what he’s got, and there aren’t a lot of places in the world where Nolan feels less shitty than with Kevin’s strong arm around his shoulders.

“He’s gonna go home though, right?” Nolan asks, looking back down at his coffee. “Like, he’s not gonna stay for lunch?”

Because it’s Sunday and most Sundays Nolan can’t get out of having lunch with the guys. It’s important to Kevin for some reason, like they are some suburban family held together by a stressed mom and Sunday pancakes. It’d be nice really, if it weren’t for the food. Greasy and full of calories that are going to show up on the scale and Nolan’s hips the very same day if he isn’t careful.

So Sunday lunch is awful enough without the extra audience that Travis would be. Him and his fucking fitness model body. Nolan’s throat itches just thinking about eating in front of him.

“I don’t think so,” Kevin says, waving dismissively with the hand that isn’t on Nolan’s shoulder. “He probably remembers his address by now.”

“Who forgets their address anyway?” Nolan mumbles, suppressing a shiver. He still hasn’t gotten around to wrapping himself up in his blanket yet. He must have done a shit job at hiding though because Kevin doesn’t miss a beat, draping the blanket over both their laps, even though someone should probably take care of the spilled coffee at some point.

“I don’t know, bud. I think he said he just moved here like a month ago or something.”

“Why was he at the party then?” Nolan finds himself asking. “Like, is he friends with Alexis?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin answers, a curious frown appearing on his face. “Why?”

Nolan shrugs. He thinks it’s pretty fucking natural that he has some questions when he wakes up to find a stranger on his couch. Sure, Travis seems nice enough, not making a fuss about the spilled coffee, all cheery and kind-eyed despite Nolan’s staring, but what does Nolan know? His people smarts are pretty damn lacking after all.

“He has a duck tattoo,” he says, biting his lip, looking down at his coffee, his own blurred reflection in the dark liquid. “That’s pretty stupid.”

It hadn’t even looked particularly well done. All thick lines on the tan skin of Travis’ biceps. A part of Nolan wants to get a closer look, wants to see if it really isn’t just ducks but also shrubbery or whatever else, which-

Nolan doesn’t do that. He doesn’t look at people that way. Especially not people like Travis.

“What does he do anyway? I mean? He looks like he lives at the gym.” Nolan shrugs again, frowning. “I mean you should have just had the Uber drop him off there, you know, take your chances and all that.”

Kevin snorts, shaking his head, just in time for the sound of Travis’ voice:

“Not even a first degree burn,” he announces happily, walking back into the living-room wearing only one sock. The back of his one bare foot looking painfully red, a little like a sunburn.

“Yo, that’s awesome,” Kevin says, keeping his arm around Nolan’s shoulders. “Dude, we’ve been wondering though, what do you do? Are you a student too? Like us?”

Nolan shoots him a glare, his cheeks heating up within a second. Him wondering out loud about Travis didn’t mean he wanted Kevin to actually ask the guy. This way there’s going to be a conversation which means Travis might stick around and-

“Nah, bro,” Travis says, plopping down on the floor just like that, leaning his back against the side of the couch Ivan bought two years ago at some garage sale. “Never had the bucks or brains for college. I’m a firefighter.”

So Travis doesn’t just have an amazing body, he also rescues people for a living. Fucking great. Whatever tiny, stupid part of Nolan that even considered that the one offhand comment Travis made meant that he could be interested in Nolan deserves a painful death. Nolan wants to go back to bed right the fuck now.

“I’m gonna…” he says, voice trialing from a mumble into nothingness as he gets up, steps around Travis, trying to keep his gaze away from him.

“Bye, Nolan,” Kevin says, a slight tint of worry to his voice.

From the corner of his eye Nolan catches Travis mouth after Kevin, looking a tiny bit thoughtful.

Nolan.

Right. Nolan never said his name back after Travis introduced himself twice. Great. Nolan is really on a roll today in more way than one.

Back in his room Nolan crawls under the covers, glad he hasn’t bothered to raise the blinds yet, keeping the room dimly lit, almost like it isn’t quite day just yet, like there’s still time, still precious hours to be spend asleep where Nolan doesn’t have to think or feel or do anything.

Of course Kevin doesn’t let Nolan doze for too long, slipping into the room after a while, making the mattress dip by Nolan’s back.

He’s quiet at first, waiting for Nolan to do something, turn around maybe, make a noise, give a sign that he’s awake, that he’s listening but Nolan doesn’t. He keeps his eyes stubbornly closed, wishing that Kevin would just go away. Nolan doesn’t need to be mothered. There’s better things that Kevin could be doing with his Sunday.

And yet. And yet Kevin doesn’t let the silence chase him out of the room, instead he lightly taps his fingers against the shell of Nolan’s ear, until Nolan makes an annoyed noise, turning onto his back and glaring at him from underneath his covers.

“What?”

“Hey, cat,” he says, worried crease between his brows. “You good?”

“ ‘course,” Nolan mumbles, even though his heart is fluttering in his chest, feeling both too weak and too slow, like a little bird with broken wings trying to get away. “Is he gone?”

There’s a small pause, a searching, thoughtful look on Kevin’s face, then: “Yeah. Did he make you uncomfortable? He seemed nice, but if he did anything before-”

“He didn’t,” Nolan says quickly, blinking away the dizziness as he sits up too fast. “He was just- He was polite. Nothing. I’m just- You know.”

“I don’t actually,” Kevin says, after yet another moment, voice a low rumble.

He looks at Nolan like he’s hoping for an answer, an explanation, an apology, anything, but when Nolan parts his lips no words, not even a single tone makes it out, because the truth is there is nothing Nolan can say, nothing to make this better, nothing that goes beyond ‘You know, I’m fucked up’ and that’s not something Kevin likes to hear.

He gets mad when Nolan says shit like that, when he’s honest. Says that he doesn’t want Nolan talking about his friend like that so Nolan shuts his mouth, keeps whatever words he does have locked away, so neither Kevin nor Ivan get upset about them. Because that’s the thing, people tell you they want the truth, say they want you to be honest, but they really don’t. Not when the truth is ugly.

And Nolan knows himself well enough that everything about him is ugly. Inside and out.

 

***

Nolan doesn’t expect to ever see Travis again.

They aren’t in the same circle -not with Nolan’s circle consisting of exactly two people and Travis being a fucking firefighter. And Nolan doesn’t go out anywhere with the intent of meeting people or just hanging out with people, really. The party was a one off, an attempt, stupid and futile, Nolan trying to pretend that he could still play the act he consistently put on when he’d first gotten to college. He’s older now though, older and more tired and he barely has enough energy to go to class, let alone go to parties or do extra curriculars and after class shit like Kevin and Ivan do. Ivan has his girlfriend, Kevin does his tutoring thing, and they both play beer league hockey, but Nolan? Nolan has class, Nolan has his art, and that’s it. It’s enough as it is. Sometimes it even feels like too much.

Most days all Nolan does is go to class, get home, go to bed, sleep until Kevin and Ivan get home, claim he has already eaten and then maybe watch a movie with them, play some CoD if he feels up for it. Most of the time he just watches. Sometimes, when he doesn’t even feel up for that, he goes back to bed or back to drawing or not doing anything at all.

It’s a good system. It works. Nolan feels fine.

Then the fire alarm goes off during his ten a.m. lesson on Thursday and Nolan finds himself toddling down the stairs at a much slower pace than all his classmates as they evacuate the building. It’s not as bad as it could be, he’s had breakfast – half a bottle of water to fill his stomach, two celery sticks, half a slice of toast with butter. Butter usually isn’t something Nolan allows himself, and fuck, he still feels a little bit guilty for it, but he’d felt so god damn dizzy with hunger this morning, barely able to drag his body out of bed. So butter on toast it had been, and it’s coming in handy now, even if he still has to be careful with getting up too quickly, so when Nolan is on his feet half the classroom is already empty and then at the stairs he has to hold onto the railing, has to be mindful of each step, one after the other. Nolan doesn’t want a repeat of that fall down the stairs he took last month, or the one before that when his car had been in the repair shop and the walk down to the subway had been too much for him, or-

“Nolan?”

Nolan’s head snaps up from where he’s been looking down at the stairs in concentration, only to settle on fucking Travis in all his glory, firefighter boots, jacket and pants as well as helmet coming up the stairs in front of him. He’s got a fucking axe in his hand.

Nolan stares.

“It’s me, Travis. From the other day?” Travis says then, stopping three steps below Nolan, a hopeful kind of look on his face. “Remember? You spilled your coffee on my foot?”

Nolan wants to die. “I-”

Travis interrupts him before he can get anything else out.

“Look, I’m, like, stoked to see you, but you guys are supposed to wait outside at the meeting point, even though this looks like a false alarm, and as a firefighter I kind of have to tell you that going back in to get your stuff-” He gestures to the laptop Nolan has under his arm. “-is not really something you are supposed to do, sooo.”

He pulls a face, blinking up at Nolan almost sheepishly.

It’s bizarre enough to momentarily override any sense of self-preservation in Nolan’s brain.

“I’m just fucking slow,” he says, the truth tumbling out like it’s nothing, followed by a furious blush coloring Nolan’s cheeks a second later. “I’m like an old man, okay? Bad joints. No balance.”

“Oh!” Travis’ face lightens a little, like Nolan didn’t just embarrass himself.

Nolan should have just gone with the having went back for his laptop idiocy. He’s in college. He’s not supposed to have joint issues, moving like he’s a hundred years old. Travis must realize that. He’s probably just good at controlling his face. Being all friendly and polite instead of showing how weirded out he is.

“Do you like need help getting down or-”

Nolan feels fucking mortified.

“It’s probably a false alarm, right?” he cuts Travis off, pressing his lips together tightly as he waits for Travis to nod. “So it’s fine. I’ll just- And you go do your job. Check the building or whatever it is you do.”

“Right,” Travis says, throwing a glance over his shoulder. “Okay. I’ll- Yeah.” Looking back at Nolan he laughs a little, looking almost –bashful? “Take care, man. Got a job to do, stairs to climb, fires to put out.”

“I thought there was no fire?” Nolan says, like the idiot he is.

Again, Travis laughs. “There isn’t. Probably. But like, you still need to go outside to the meeting point and I still-”

“-have a job to do.”

“Yeah. Exactly.” Again, Travis laughs and then, a smile later, he’s stepped past Nolan, rushing up the stairs, climbing two steps at a time like it’s no big deal.

For a second Nolan can’t help but look after him, brain trying to catch up with what just happened, only to realize that nothing, nothing at all fucking happened.

He’s standing outside, shivering in the cold, teeth clattering, wishing he would have thought to bring his parka not just his laptop, and he feels fucking stupid for even dwelling on it because it was barely even a conversation, what happened between them. A chance meeting, some embarrassing mumbling from Nolan, and Travis moving on to do his job after barely a minute. His saving lives and looking hot while doing said job. Sure he’s not saving anyone right now because apparently it really was a false alarm but Nolan just-

“Aren’t firefighters supposed to be like…sexy?” One of the girls from Nolan class asks her friend who’s standing next to her as a guy with a French looking last name printed on his firefighter jacket walks past them, helmet that says ‘Captain’ in his hand.

“You not liking gingers doesn’t mean he isn’t totally hot,” the girl’s friend says, craning her neck to look after the captain guy who’s talking to one of the professors now, probably about when it’s safe to go back inside.

Which will hopefully be soon before Nolan turns into an icicle. His entire body hurts, he’s shivering so hard. A sweater with a hoodie jacket on top doesn’t seem to be enough to keep him warm, despite the long sleeved shirt he’s wearing underneath it too. If Kevin or Ivan were here, they’d probably pile their jackets on him, or at least wrap their arms around Nolan’s shoulder, but they’ve both got class in a totally different building on campus so there’s nothing left for Nolan to do except wait around in the cold.

And apparently come face to face with Travis again, because after he and two other guys come out of the building and stop for a quick talk with the captain guy, Travis looks around, spotting Nolan easily enough, smile spreading on his face, like he’s actually happy.

Maybe Nolan shouldn’t have kept to the side of the crowd, maybe he should have mingled (maybe that would have helped with the cold too, at least shielding him from the wind), but he hates crowds and he just- He didn’t think. He didn’t think Travis would come find him. He can’t for the life of him think of a reason why he would.

“Ooh, he is hot,” the girl –Ashley? Maybe?- who’s apparently a ginger hater says as Travis walks towards them, helmet no longer on his head.

The other girl makes a confused noise, looking over at her friend. “He’s short.”

“Why’s he coming over here, though?” Maybe-Ashley asks, dropping to a whisper now that Travis is getting into ear shot and yeah, Nolan would like to agree.

Why? And why the hell is he looking at Nolan, why-

“Hey, you made it downstairs,” Travis says, twinkle in his eyes that barely keeps Nolan from stiffening at the jab.

Nolan stares at him, his cheeks probably redder than the firetruck already.

“Yeah,” he says awkwardly after a beat of silence, feeling the girls’ eyes and Travis’ on him. “I did. Thanks.”

“Awesome, I was just-” Travis starts, getting interrupted by ginger captain guy calling, “Konecny!” in a less than pleased voice.

“Shit,” Travis says, pulling what Nolan could only describe as a mix between a yikes and an oops face. “I gotta get back. Got a job to do, like you said, so listen-” He lets out another little laugh, just like he did on the stairs, running hand through his hair. “-would you give me your number?” He barely pauses long enough for Nolan to freeze, eyes widening. “And like- This is only a tiny bit unprofessional, because we can totally just hang out. You seem like a cool guy and I’m new in town so I thought-”

Konecny, get your ass back over here! Now!” Ginger captain guy yells again, his not pleased tone tipping into something akin to pissed off rapidly.

“-I thought it’d be cool. If you gave me your number. Yeah. Plus I owe you a coffee.” Travis grins, sweet and awkward and Nolan just-

He doesn’t know what comes over him but one second he’s staring at Travis, the next he’s scribbling his number on a piece of paper that Ashley of all fucking people hands him, her mouth slightly open as she looks at Nolan, like she too can’t believe what is happening.

Her friend is eyeing Nolan like she’s seeing him for the first time in her life, even though Nolan is pretty sure they’ve been in the same program for three years. Then again, Nolan doesn’t know her name, so he really doesn’t have any legs to stand on.

“Hell yeah,” Travis says, doing an honest to god fist bump, the piece of paper shoved into the side of his jacket. “I’ll call you.”

He looks completely serious. Like Nolan giving him his number made his day. It’s fucking wild.

 

***


The thing is, Travis is not going to call.

So it’s stupid that Nolan thinks about him for the rest of the day. It’s stupid and useless and yet Nolan doesn’t know what to do about it. Travis and his dumb smile, his honest eyes, the duck tattoo Nolan didn’t even get to see this time, it’s all right there in Nolan’s head, just like the sound of Travis’ voice, the surprise when calling Nolan’s name that moment on the stairs and then later again at the meeting point.

It doesn’t make sense why a guy like Travis would ask for Nolan’s number, why he’d want to hang out with him. Nolan doesn’t seem like he’s fun to be around, he knows that because people have told him. Hell, after Travis had walked away Ashley had straight up asked Nolan why Travis would ask for his number. It’s so fucking outlandish, it has to be the reason why Nolan can’t get Travis out of his mind.

He thinks about him for the rest of class that day, about the hopeful look on his face when he’d asked Nolan, talking about coffee like it wasn’t a big deal at all. Like Nolan spilling his coffee on Travis’ feet was something to joke about instead of an embarrassing fuck up that could have caused and actual injury, that could have-

But apparently that’s not the kind of person Travis is, Nolan wonders, watching Kevin and Ivan battle each other for the good controller that evening, while Nolan sits in his corner of the couch, wrapped up in the very blanket Travis had slept under that day after the party.

Apparently, Travis is one of those sunny, happy go lucky people. One of those guys who just go through life, looking like they do, and things just work out for them and that’s why nothing really bothers them, why they don’t get pissed over spilled coffee or snappy responses. One of those guys who have no business asking for Nolan’s number or –fuck- calling him, because Nolan isn’t any good to anyone. He’s a bunch of broken pieces glued together haphazardly, all sharp, jarry edges, and if Travis looks any closer, he’ll realize that. He’ll realize and turn around and walk right back out of Nolan’s life and it’s going to be fine, because Nolan can’t afford any more cracks, any more missing pieces that Travis would inevitably take with him on his way out, and Travis doesn’t deserve the cuts and bruises that come with handling Nolan, that you can see all over Ivan and Kevin if you know where to look.

So Travis is not going to call.

It’s for the best that Travis is not going to call.

It’s what Nolan wants. It’s what he needs, it’s what he thinks about when he lies in bed that night, and it’s almost enough to distract him from the way his stomach hurts with emptiness, from the weak fluttering of his heart, and the familiar burn in his throat.

He couldn’t get around eating dinner tonight with the guys. Kevin cooked –meatloaf and mashed potatoes- and Nolan is a master at making it seem like he ate a lot more than he did, but there always comes a point, when both Ivan and Kevin are mostly done and the conversation is starting to die down that Nolan has to actually start putting food into his mouth.

He purges it all up as soon as he can, as soon as he can excuse himself to the bathroom, turn on the shower, put on some music, get on his knees and get rid of the fullness that makes him feel worse and worse by the second.

At least when he’s empty Nolan can stand to look at himself in the mirror. He can still see all the places where he’s too soft, where there’s too much fat, too much chubbiness, but he knows that he’s doing something about it, that he’s doing his best, and even though it’s not enough, even though Nolan still feels fucking disgusting, he feels a little bit better. These days, that’s all he can hope for.

 

***


Nolan is right. Travis doesn’t call.

He texts.

It’s two days after the false fire alarm, two days that Nolan couldn’t stop thinking about Travis, his mind going in circles, wondering why on earth Travis would want to hang out with Nolan of all people, and then of course who the hell Nolan thought that he was in that moment, actually giving Travis his number? He plays it back again and again in his head, watches himself scribble down his number, his blood pulsing in his ears as Travis looks at him, smile on his lips like he really cared, like Nolan saying no, refusing to give out his number would have genuinely bothered him. Still, Nolan feels so stupid for it, half convinced that Travis was either pranking him, dared by his hot, fit firefighter buddies to ask the ugly college kid for his number, or that the universe was simply playing a cruel joke on Nolan.

Travis had looked so god damn excited though, and that-

Nolan doesn’t get that. He doesn’t get people like Travis, who just wear their hearts on their sleeves, their emotions right there on display for everyone to see. He gets it even less than whatever it is that made Travis ask Nolan in the first place, even less than he’s able to comprehend the fact that Travis hasn’t yet regretted the whole thing, actually having sent a text.

Hi, it’s Travis! from the fire alarm!, it reads on the screen right there under Nolan’s phone asking him if he wants to save the unknown number in his contacts.

Putting down his stylus, Nolan pauses, looking at the tiny icon next to the numbers. It shows Travis –probably- from the back, focus on his backwards snapback that treads ‘You’re neat.’ in blocky –comic-y letter. There’s a lake in the background that Travis is looking at and it’s nice. Even if the snapback seems kind of quirky in that cringy way Nolan usually rolls his eyes at. It fits though. It fits with the abundance of exclamation points in Travis’ message, with the smile that had been on his face when he’d spotted Nolan at the meeting point, and his rambling after Nolan stumbled over him sleeping on the couch. The stupid duck tattoo too.

Nolan wouldn’t be able to draw him even if he tried. Nolan knows how to do sharp angles and harsh lines, deep shadows and rough edges when it comes to people. He doesn’t know how he’d do the softness he feels when he thinks about Travis. Most of all because objectively Travis isn’t soft. Nolan has seen his body, toned muscles, obvious strength. He’d seen it in the way Travis moved too, but the way Travis had talked, how he’d laughed, it’s all… Soft. Smooth lines, round, friendly shapes.

Biting his lip and setting his phone aside again, Nolan looks back at the cintiq, the dark room he’s been working on, the window taking up most of the left part of the canvas. It’s all still in that ugly green color Nolan uses on his sketch layer because he hates it so much, it motivates him to finish shit, to get to inking the actual, definite lines, get them done so he can get rid of the green. He’s been trying to figure out what to put on the outside, what’s supposed to be visible through the broken, dusty glass and he still hasn’t figured it out.

Maybe a winter landscape. A snow storm. Dead trees, bony, scraggy branches. Nothing maybe. Darkness.

Or something else.

Nolan shakes his head at himself. There’s a little fox looking back at him through the window now, drawn in a reddish orange, line work and perspective completely at odds with the rest of the drawing. What the hell is he doing?

His phone buzzes with another text message. It’s from Travis again.

I’ve got tomorrow and the day after off! Let me know if you want to hang out :)

Just one exclamation point plus a smiley.

Lips pressed together he lets his phone screen go from brightly lit to dim to black, then, tearing his eyes away, a small lump in his throat, he selects the lasso tool and quickly gets rid of the little fox and its little curious face. Nothing to see in the room anyway. Just broken floorboards and a tipped over chair, a couple of candles that burned out a long time ago.

 

***

Chapter Text

Nolan doesn’t mean to sleep for as long as he does.

He comes home after class, earlier than both Kevin and Ivan as usual, and as usual he’s tired and hungry. The hunger is not something Nolan can do something about. He’s already eaten more than he meant to, more than his diet allows for breakfast because Ivan had been up early and Nolan hadn’t been able to think of an excuse quickly enough and now he’s paying the price, his empty stomach bitching at him, cramping and clenching harder than it did these past days.

But there’s shit that Nolan still has to do, projects he has to work on, coloring he has to do, inking to get done, so he doesn’t go straight to bed, curls up on the couch instead.

Just 20 minutes he told himself.

Kevin and Ivan don’t like it when Nolan sleeps too much during the day so usually he sets himself an alarm but this time he must have forgotten because he wakes up to muffled talking seeping into his consciousness, the familiar sounds of Kevin and Ivan’s voices, and for a while it’s enough to keep Nolan lulled into a sense of safety, of things being okay, even if it’s just right now and like this, with Nolan buried under two blankets (when he fella sleep with only one) on the couch and his best friends talking quietly in the kitchen.

It doesn’t last though, it never does and as Nolan starts to wake up more and more, realizing that it has to be late enough for them to already be back from their beer league hockey practice, the conversation Ivan and Kevin are having moves from background noise to something Nolan actually registers the actual words that are being said.

“Because of the party?” Kevin says an edge to his voice that has Nolan frown a little wondering what it is that he’s missed, what lead up to this point of Kevin sounding not quite pissed off yet, but definitely not pleased.

“Yeah,” Ivan answers after a pause, a hint of resignation to the way he trails off.

Nolan has known him long enough to picture the face that goes with it. Jaw set tight, gaze a little bit distant. Nolan doesn’t like it. Ivan deserves to be happy, Nolan has always thought that way, even before Ivan started to sleep over at Nolan’s house more often than not when they were kids because his parents had been fighting so much and Ivan couldn’t stand the yelling anymore.

“Fuck that,” Kevin says, rising in volume. “You told her that it was because Patty-”

“She doesn’t want to hear it anymore, man,” Ivan says and for a second Nolan’s frown deepens as he tries to fill in the blanks and figure out what his friends are talking about.

It only takes a second though. They are talking about the party. About something someone doesn’t want to hear anymore. A she. And that has to be Alexis, a conclusion that Ivan confirms barely a moment later.

“She thinks I’m making excuses. Like I’d just ditch her at her birthday party for the fun of it.”

Alexis is angry at Ivan for leaving early. For leaving early with Nolan. Because of Nolan.

And it’s not the first time something like that has happened. Nolan knows it, Ivan knows it, and Alexis knows it too. And she’s tired of it. Tired of Nolan being in the way, tired of Nolan taking up Ivan’s time and attention, tired of Nolan. Period.

“Doesn’t she get that Patty needed you?” Kevin asks, sounding indignant in a way that is awfully familiar.

“Oh, she gets it,” Ivan says, tone shifted, resignation replaced by a hint of anger. “I mean, she doesn’t but she just- I need to sort out my priorities. That’s what she said.”

Right. That’s what Alexis is sick of. Not Nolan alone but the choices Ivan makes because of him.

And really, how could Nolan blame her? He barely knows her but what he’s seen of her, she’s a nice enough girl, nice and pretty, normal. She makes Ivan laugh, makes him happy, except in moments like this. She met Ivan at a bar on campus last year, probably attracted to his whole mountain man vibe. She didn’t sign up to get the weirdo best friend/roommate as part of the package, to have Ivan pick Nolan over her again and again and again.

Ivan thinks that Nolan doesn’t notice, but he’s seen text messages, he’s heard half conversations just like this one, connected dots between careless comments from Kevin and things he’s observed himself. He knows how often Ivan (and Kevin too) put their lives on hold to take care of Nolan, to keep him going, keep him from breaking apart all the way.

Nolan loves them for it, he does, but he also hates himself a little bit more every time it happens because it’s just another step closer to that inevitable breaking point where they’ll decide that he isn’t worth the trouble and then they’ll leave and Nolan- Nolan will deal. Somehow.

“Like, as an ultimatum?” Kevin says, voice trickling through the fog in Nolan’s head, making him wrap his arms a little tighter around himself.

He wishes he was still asleep. It’s selfish, he knows, but Nolan doesn’t want to hear this, he doesn’t want to know about all the damage he’s doing to his friends by virtue of existing.

“I don’t fucking know,” Ivan answers, pausing long enough for Nolan to let out a shaky breath, wiping at his eyes. “She says she doesn’t want to put her life on hold just because my buddy is depressed.”

Right, okay,” Kevin snaps, loud enough to make Nolan flinch. “Because you wouldn’t move in with her after the summer, she’s still on about that?”

“I mean she hasn’t said that in so many words, but-”

“It’s fucking bullshit.”

“Bro, it’s-”

Nolan can’t stand to listen to it any longer.

It’s easy enough sitting up, the momentary head rush and dizziness drowning out whatever it is that Kevin interrupts Ivan with, and then shoving one of Kevin’s half empty Gatorade bottles off the table, the sound of it, causing the conversation to fall silent within the fraction of a heartbeat.

“Hey,” Ivan says a moment later, having appeared in the doorway.

His expression is searching, eyes flickering over Nolan’s face like he’s looking for an answer to the question he hasn’t yet asked out loud. Nolan doesn’t need him to.

“When did you guys get back?” he asks instead, rubbing at his eyes, hoping that Ivan will mistake the redness that is undoubtedly in them as left over sleep and not- “Is it, like, late?”

He squints at the clock for good measure, like he hasn’t already done that, like he hasn’t been awake long enough to follow the conversation happening in the room next to him.

Ivan visibly relaxes a bit.

“Not that late,” he says, walking over and sitting down on the couch next to Nolan and wrapping his arm around his shoulders. “We’ve ordered in for dinner. Kev was feeling like having a fuck ton of chicken nuggets.”

“Kev always feels like chicken nuggets,” Nolan mumbles, letting himself be pulled into Ivan’s side, despite the abyss in his chest, the guilt the self-hatred, the wish that he could just be the bigger person and pack up his shit and walk out of Ivan’s life once and for all, leave him to live it without the burden of having to worry about Nolan. Move in with Alexis maybe, go abroad like he used to talk about when they were younger, maybe-

“We’ve ordered that cheese and bacon wrap for you. The one you used to eat like three days a week when we were freshmen.”

Closing his eyes Nolan is glad that with Ivan kind of talking into Nolan’s greasy hair, he can’t see Nolan’s face where it’s tucked against his shoulder, can’t see the grimace he makes at the thought of eating something as loaded with calories as that wrap. It’s going to make him feel so full, going to sit heavy in his stomach until he can get to the bathroom and make himself empty again, but half of it is going to show up as fat in Nolan’s gut, his hips, his thighs anyway. He’s going to see it on the scale tomorrow, no matter how much his throat already itches, already waiting for him to press his fingers inside.

“Thanks,” he manages to say anyway, putting on a smile, just in time for Kevin to step into the room, crease between his brows. “You guys are- I don’t deserve you guys.”

Ivan laughs a little, pressing a kiss to Nolan’s hair.

Kevin grins too, arms crossed, looking at him and Ivan.

They think that Nolan is joking, they always do.

Nolan likes it better that way.

 

***


Travis’ texts still sit unanswered in Nolan’s phone and that’s the way it should stay, would stay if Nolan was smart, if he’d do what’s best for both him and Travis, but sometimes Nolan isn’t smart. Sometimes he chooses not to be smart, picking heart over brain and it has cost him, has cost him so fucking much before but he still finds himself in moments like this where he knows he’s doing the wrong thing. At least this time he’s not doing it for himself but for Ivan, for his friend. He’s doing the right thing for him and that’s- That’s what matters.

Alexis is right. Ivan should sort out his priorities, and if he can’t do that on his own, without a push from Nolan then Nolan will just have to do that, will have to push but make it feel like it’s Ivan’s decision, his call, his realization.

He’s tried it before, telling both Ivan and Kevin to leave him alone, lock them out of his life, out of his misery because fuck, Nolan doesn’t deserve all the care they put into him, he doesn’t deserve their time and affection, but that’s not something they like to hear so if Nolan wants them to focus on their own lives, be happy, all that crap, then Nolan is going to have to do something about it.

“You know, you should take her out,” Nolan says, making sure to keep his voice casual, bored, like it’s not a big deal. “Alexis, I mean. Take her on a date today.”

Ivan pauses for a second, looking over at Nolan and away from the TV screen where his character promptly dies a spectacular death by driving off a bridge.

Nolan can practically see the gears turning inside his head, trying to figure out what Nolan is angling at, which- Nolan gets it. Nolan hasn’t shown much interest in Ivan’s relationship and he’s practically never the one to suggest to do anything outside of the apartment, so this? It’s a little weird. Nolan is being weird and knowing that makes it harder, but he has to sell this, make Ivan not worry so he can go and be with his girl. Priorities and shit.

“Kev’s Boston buddies are in town, though,” Ivan says then, still looking at Nolan. “He clears his throat. “He’s going to be out all night probably.”

Nolan rolls his eyes, shifting a little, tugging the sleeves of his jumper over his hands. “I know.”

He also knows what Ivan is trying not to say, what he has running through his head right now, looking at Nolan like he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Nolan hates that he continuously puts his friends in this position.

“I’m fine being alone at the apartment for a few hours, you know that,” he says, so Ivan doesn’t have to. “I’m alone here after class, like, all the time. I don’t mind it.”

“Yeah, but-” Again Ivan hesitates, of course he does. They’ve fought about this before. Nolan likes being alone, but Kevin and Ivan don’t like it, they think it’s not good for Nolan.

“I won’t be, though. Today.” Nolan purposefully glances at his phone, the open text conversation with Travis there. “I’m gonna-” Clearing his throat he looks up at Ivan again. “I’m gonna hang out with someone.”

Ivan’s eyebrows shoot up almost instantly, mouth dropping open an inch. It’d be comical if it wasn’t also a testimony to what a sad and antisocial creature Nolan’s friend views him as.

“With who?”

“Just-” Nolan shrugs, glancing down at his phone again at the ‘today?’ he typed there, thumb hovering over the send button. “-someone. Uhm. Travis, actually.”

“Who’s Travis?” Ivan half splutters, eyes still wide, making the blush Nolan feels on his cheeks creep even higher.

“Just this guy. I don’t know.” Again Nolan shrugs, his heartbeat picking up as he presses ‘send’, looking back up at Ivan a second later. “Kev let him sleep on our couch after Alexis’ party. He asked for my number and-”

“You gave it to him?” Ivan looks absolutely dumbfounded, which-

Okay. Nolan gets the initial surprise, because Nolan really doesn’t do this a lot but Ivan is kind of being ridiculous. It’s not like Nolan never crawls out of his black hole and interacts with people other than him and Kevin. Sure most of the time it’s not out of his own volition, but for school or something but still. He could be a little more chill about this.

Especially since technically, Nolan isn’t even doing this because he wants to right now. He’s doing it so Ivan won’t feel like he’s trapped in this apartment because he has to babysit Nolan.

“Yeah,” Nolan says, feeling a little defensive just as his phone buzzes with a new text message from Travis. Cool! it reads. “He uses exclamation points.”

“Okay?” Ivan still sounds a little hysterical, but he’s slowly getting a grip on his facial expressions again, trying to school them into something more neutral. “That’s- That’s great, Patty. Like- Awesome. What are you guys gonna do?”

“I don’t know,” Nolan answers, shooting Ivan a look that is hopefully going to be enough to get him to chill the fuck out a little. “Hang out.”

“Hang out?”

Apparently not. Nolan sighs a little.

“Could you sound a little less like I’ve just told you that I’ve spontaneously grown a second head?”

“I’m just-” Ivan starts, managing to put on a smile. “I’m just interested, you know. In this… New development.”

“Oh my god, it’s just hanging out,” Nolan groans. “Not the moon landing. Stop making it a big deal. Go text your girl and wine and dine her or whatever.”

“I’m not making it a big deal,” Ivan says, tone a thousand miles away from convincing. He’s fishing his phone out of his pocket though, which Nolan counts as a win, even he sees Ivan pull up his text conversation with Kevin, barely three seconds after having fired off a text to Alexis.

Whatever. Nolan will take it.

 

***


Nolan isn’t sure what he expects out of this whole hanging out thing with Travis. He tells Travis beforehand via text that he doesn’t want to do anything extravagant, that he’s already eaten, that really, he doesn’t want to go do any activities like going outside or whatever it is people do when they hang out. He just wants a chill afternoon slash evening and Travis says yes to it all, not with an exclamation mark but one of those old school typed emojis. Parentheses and colon.

It’s a little bizarre if Nolan is being honest, because he knows that he’s being weird and by now Travis probably regrets asking in the first place, is probably racking his brain for a polite way to cancel on Nolan, but somehow he doesn’t.

He texts Nolan his address and when Nolan has finally made it up the stairs (four fucking stories) of his apartment building, he’s already waiting in the door, looking actually excited to see Nolan, open smile and crinkly eyes.

Nolan doesn’t get it. Then again, he’s kind of busy trying to catch his breath, without giving away too much of how exhausted climbing these few stairs has made him.

Unsuccessfully it seems.

“Bud, did you run up here?” Travis says, looking Nolan up and down where he’s standing, still at the landing of the stairs, holding onto the wall with one hand.

“Told you, I’m an old man,” Nolan mumbles, waiting for a wave of dizziness to pass, his heart fluttering so fast it makes his chest ache.

He still manages to muster up something close to a smile for Travis anyway. He’s trying to be polite or something. He just has to make it through this for a couple of hours, get Travis to not to try to get rid of him until tonight, until Ivan has had enough time with Alexis, or something He just- Nolan has to make this work.

“Well, c’mon, grandpa,” Travis says, not missing a beat, stepping up to Nolan and actually offering up his arm. “Let’s get you inside so you can tell me all about killing Nazis and how back in your day everything was so much better.” He grins at Nolan and his incredulous look. “And kids these days. Tell me about who kids these days don’t even know how to write cursive anymore.”

“When’s the last time you’ve used cursive?” Nolan blurts out, putting his hand on Travis’ arm, finding himself dumbfounded by the way Travis just laughs, like Nolan actually made a joke, like what they are doing is playing off of each other and not just Nolan being totally perplexed by Travis talking and going along with Nolan’s little excuse and turning it into something to laugh about. Not meanly but in a way that makes Nolan feel like he’s in on the joke. It’s fucking weird.

Just like Travis’ apartment is weird. Or not weird, just not what Nolan expected. Mainly because it’s mostly boxes.

“You weren’t kidding about being new in town,” Nolan states, letting his gaze wander through the room.

It’s a studio apartment, one wall basically a big window front, a kitchen nook with a breakfast bar that seems to double as Travis’ desk and pretty much only table, a bed –half of which seems to be covered in clothes- and a door that presumably leads to Travis’ bathroom. And not much more. No couch, no armchair, nothing. It’s-

“Charming, eh?” Travis says, closing the apartment door behind them. “I’ve been here three weeks but I’ve pretty much started work on day one and on my off days I’m kind of lazy so I’ve been-”

“-living out of boxes,” Nolan finishes for him, critically eyeing the Ikea closet that –to Travis’ credit- seems to be pretty much assembled, except that he apparently never got around to putting the shelf boards in that are still piled up next to a lone houseplant.

“Yep,” Travis says, popping the ‘p’ like it’s no big deal. “Working on it, though. See, I unpacked this-” he gestures over to a coffeemaker on his crowded kitchen counter. “-right after you texted this morning. Since I still owe you that coffee.”

“You don’t. Actually,” Nolan feels compelled to say, toeing off his shoes.

Because Travis really, really doesn’t, not by any kind of logic.

Except apparently Travis’ own.

“Nah, dude, I do. I do, c’mon,” he says, waving Nolan over as he fishes a mug out of one of his cupboards, giving Nolan a glimpse at what looks like absolute chaos. “Here you go. Black, right?”

“Yes, but-” Nolan starts, reflexively taking hold of the mug Travis thrusts at him, already pouring coffee before Nolan can get anything else out. “Okay.”

Travis shoots him a smile, humming softly, apparently pleased, as he pours himself a cup too.

“I couldn’t do that, man. Go all black,” he says, nodding to Nolan’s mug as he pulls a pack of sugar cubes out of the cabinet, which- Maybe Travis is the old man between the two of them. Nolan is pretty sure he’s only ever seen sugar cubes in quaint little cafes or at his grandma’s. “Sugar and milk all the way.” He grins, dropping a fourth cube into his coffee. Nolan stares. “My mom says it’s cause I’m such a sweet guy.”

“Sweet, huh?” Nolan can’t help it, he lets out a little snort.

His own coffee looks down right sad, compared to the sugary sweet concoction Travis is creating for himself. Even if Nolan was someone who could allow himself unnecessary calories like milk and sugar, he’d never in a million years get himself to drink something that’s basically diabetes in a mug. He likes sweet as much as the next guy but apparently Travis is next level.

“Hell, yeah,” Travis says, putting the milk back into the fridge before ushering Nolan in the direction of the bed, where he sits down, legs crossed. “I’d put sugar on anything if I could. Anything.”

The corner of his mouth twitching a little bit, Nolan eyes him skeptically. “Even fries?”

He hesitates for another moment before sitting down on the edge of the bed, earning himself a small smile from Travis.

Nolan kind of wants to shake his head and call bullshit. Bullshit on Travis and his sugary coffee, because Travis doesn’t have the body of somebody who regularly drinks shit like that. He doesn’t have the body of somebody who eats fries. Period. But the world is fucking unfair and while Nolan barely has to look at a plate of fries to see it on the scale later that day, guys like Travis can eat whatever the hell they want and still have abs and pecs and everything.

It makes Nolan a little bit angry, makes him tug at his sweater, trying to make sure that it doesn’t cling where he knows it’s bound to if he doesn’t make sure to always pick the most loose ones, but Travis smiles at him so happily, looking so relaxed and unbothered that it’s easier to focus on that instead of zeroing in on the fact that maybe Nolan shouldn’t even have the coffee as is and go for water instead.

“Dude,” Travis says, grin wide. “Especially fries.”

Nolan lets out a breathless little laugh, shaking his head. Travis sounds so fucking ridiculous, it makes the anger inside his chest feel –not out of place but- But weird. Travis is making Nolan feel weird, pulling him out of his thoughts again and again with the next weird as fuck shit he says. “Did you move here from fucking Mars? What’s wrong with you?”

“Ontario, actually.” Travis takes a pointed sip from his coffee. “And so much. My brother has a numbered list, he can email it to you.”

“Please.” Nolan snorts, taking a sip from his own coffee. “Ontario, eh?”

So Travis is Canadian, just like Nolan, and really, now that Nolan knows he can hear a slight accent in the way Travis talks, but it’s faint, barely there at all, so he’s probably southern, from close to the border. Not that Nolan knows shit about accents. He’s known enough Ontario kids though. Even if most of them end up in the OHL, there’d been quite a few in the WHL too. On the Wheat Kings there had been only one, but Nolan is never going to fucking forget the sound of his voice, the way he’d spit at Nolan, literally and with words.

Averting his eyes, Nolan takes another sip.

“Best place on earth,” Travis says, oblivious.

Glancing at him over the brim of his mug, Nolan shakes his head. “Absolutely not.”

Travis’ grin widens. “Absolutely yes.”

“Bullshit. Why’d you leave then?” Nolan raises his eyebrows, tapping his fingers against the side of his mug. “If it’s so great?”

Shrugging, Travis puts his mug down on his nightstand. “Needed a change of scenery. Threw darts at a map and here I am.”

“You did not do that,” Nolan says, shaking his head for the millionth time, because no way. Travis has got to be fucking with him. “You’d be nuts.”

“Maybe I am. At least a little,” Travis agrees, simple as that, rolling onto his side and looking up at Nolan where he’s sitting, mug cradled in his lap. “But it’s been good. I like it. The city seems cool, the apartment is nice, and the team at the firehouse is awesome too. I mean, I’m the new guy so I get stuck with the rookie work a lot, but no actual mean shit so that’s a win.”

Nolan can barely raise his eyebrows before Travis is already barreling on.

“I’m obviously still working on the whole making friends thing, but yeah.” His smile softens a little, as he looks away for a moment, before meeting Nolan’s eyes again. “It’s been pretty good.”

There’s something so sincere in the way Travis says it that for a moment, Nolan has to look away again, busying himself with taking another sip from his mug. It’s stupid, he knows. There’s nothing really deep about the whole thing. Just Travis making conversation while Nolan fails to give much input, but there’s still something about it. When Travis had asked Nolan for his number, he’d talked about being new in town, about not knowing anyone and again now, and it’s-

It’s weird. Nolan’s brain can’t help but circling back there. Why on earth would Travis pick Nolan to try to be friends with. Why on earth would meeting him count as a good thing?

“And your way of picking who to make friends with is asking whoever spills coffee over your feet for their number?”

“Yeah.” Travis smiles, apparently unbothered, and it’s a little bit disorienting because Nolan knows he’s not good at this, at conversation, at easy back and forth.

He knows people take things the wrong way more often than not because of Nolan’s tone, because of his face. They get offended, think he’s cold or mean but Travis just- He gives Nolan a smile, like it wouldn’t even occur that Nolan’s remark could have been interpreted in a snide way. He just keeps talking.

“I mean, I was planning to talk to you before the couch and coffee incident, but then you left early and- Well. You know the rest.”

Nolan does. Travis ending up on his couch, is not what he doesn’t get. The part about Travis wanting to talk to him though, that’s what doesn’t make sense to him. It’s something that Travis mentioned before if Nolan remembers correctly but he still can’t for the life of him think of a reason why. Why Travis would want to talk to him at a party filled with pretty, normal people, and why he’d look at Nolan like this now, like he’s happy, like he’s actually interested in the few comments he’s getting out of Nolan, like he likes Nolan mostly listening just as much.

Clearing his throat, Nolan shifts a little, tracing the brim of his mug with one finger –a movement Travis seems to follow with his eyes for a moment, before they flicker back to Nolan’s face.

“How come you were at the party anyway?” he asks, feeling himself blush at the glitter in Travis’ eyes. “Are you and Alexis-” –friends?-acquaintances?

“I met her at the party for the first time, so no,” Travis answers. “Steph –she’s a firefighter too- took me as her plus one. She is friends with Alexis.”

“Oh.”

There’s a small pit opening up in Nolan’s chest, that Nolan knows doesn’t belong there, that he knows should be nothing he should be feeling, should be nothing he’s even thinking about, nothing he’s acknowledging, nothing- Nothing. It’s a pit full of nothing, born from nothing, and it means nothing as well.

Travis went to the party with a girl –of fucking course. Steph. A firefighter, just like Travis. Which probably means she’s fit like him. Probably gorgeous too, nice smile, kind eyes.

She probably doesn’t have to force herself to drink bitter black coffee either.

Maybe she drinks it sugary just like Travis.

Catching himself Nolan looks at Travis again, trying for a neutral expression. “Doesn’t sound like the date went too well, if you ended up in an Uber with Kev and without -Steph.”

“Dude,” Travis says, snorting like Nolan just missed a joke. “She only took me so I’d stop whining about not having met new people yet outside of work. So. Not a date.”

“Oh,” Nolan repeats, dumbly, his stomach twisting. He has no fucking idea what he’s feeling, if it’s good or bad or if it’s anything at all. It’s just- It’s weird. Everything about Travis is weird, throwing Nolan for loop after loop. He glances around the room so he doesn’t have to look at Travis for a moment. “So work keeps you from meeting new people and unpacking your boxes? Rough.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Travis says, gaze following Nolan’s before their eyes meet again, and he wiggles his eyebrows. “But as you can see, I’m a multitasker.”

Nolan blinks; Travis’ smile grows a little wider.

“New people slash hopefully soon to be friends-” he says, gesturing to Nolan. Then, one meaningful pause later, he makes a wide gesture into the room. “-and boxes slash hopefully soon to be unpacked boxes.”

The giggle that escapes Nolan takes him by surprise, almost making him spill his coffee as he’s staring at Travis.

“Is this a scam?” he asks, the corner of his mouth twitching. “Did you invite me over here so I’d help you unpack your shit?”

“Maybe?” Travis doesn’t even have the decency to make himself sound sheepish. “Is it working?”

“Dude.”

“I made you coffee.”

“You said you owed me that,” Nolan shoots back, taking a pointed sip from his mug.

Travis –somehow- looks delighted by it.

“Please?”

Again, Nolan has to fight the urge to smile. “No.”

“Pretty please?”

“Oh my god.” Nolan shakes his head, hiding his smile behind his mug. “You are impossible.”

“Is that a yes?” Travis asks, poking Nolan’s foot with his own. “Say it’s a yes. Say yes. Save me, Nolan. Save me from this hell of my own making.”

He gestures to the room again, but Nolan barely notices. Something about the way Travis said his name, the syllables rolling smooth and soft of his tongue, spoken with care and yet like he’s said it a thousand times already, it feels different, it feels- No, scratch that. It makes Nolan feel.

The “yes” is out of his mouth, before his brain half recovered from it.

Nolan doesn’t think he’s ever done something like this before, unpacking someone else’s life like this. Much less of someone he barely even knows, but Travis doesn’t seem to mind, just chattering away as they work their way through box after box, slowly but surely.

It’s an interesting way of getting to know someone, Nolan finds. Travis jumps from one topic to the next going from talking about his parents’ farm to a book about wildfire firefighting that ‘has to be in one of these boxes somewhere’ only to then somehow end up telling Nolan about his bad habit of watching True Crime shows before going to bed even though they make it hard for him to fall asleep sometimes.

He doesn’t seem to expect Nolan to offer up any anecdotes in return either. Every time Travis is content with Nolan not answering much each time there’s a pause in Travis’ ramblings, Nolan exhales with relief. Somehow Travis doesn’t mind Nolan’s generic if honest ‘wildfires fucking terrify me’ or that he doesn’t have much to say on the topic of family, mumbling about Kevin’s inner conflict about eating chicken nuggets despite finding chickens ‘awesome’ instead.

It’s probably the least stressed Nolan has felt about having a conversation with someone who isn’t Ivan or Kevin, in forever. It’s just- It’s easy and comfortable, the fact that they both have something to do while talking only contributing to it. There’s something soothing about picking box after box and seeing what’s inside before trying to find a place for it. Travis doesn’t seem worried about privacy or something, just telling Nolan to go for whatever box he feels like, not that barely any of them are labeled.

According to Travis he just threw shit in wherever, which is also why some of the boxes are already opened, and half unpacked because Travis needed one or two items from inside. Why Travis didn’t just unpack the whole box once started is beyond Nolan. He’s beginning to understand how Travis rolls though. Apparently, he once managed to lose his shoes in his parents’ car during a road trip to visit his grandparents and it took them half an hour to find them, which- Nolan has no fucking clue how that’s even possible.

“I swear to god,” Travis had said, holding up his crossed fingers.

Nolan had just shook his head, lips twitching into a smile.

One of the last boxes open in front of him, Nolan puts aside a substantial amount of bubble wrap to look at the picture frame that had been inside

“Your family?” he asks, rubbing his thumb against the side of the frame.

It shows two people, a short man and a taller woman with a smile that looks so much like Travis’ it’s a little bit mind blowing. They are sitting on the steps of what looks like a porch, the pillar the woman is leaning against covered in flaking paint.

“Yeah, that’s mom and dad,” Travis says after throwing a quick glance at the picture. “You can put it on the sideboard there. Mom’d kill me if she knew I left it in a box for so long.”

“To be fair, you’ve left pretty much everything in a box,” Nolan says, carefully placing the picture where Travis directed. “They look nice.”

They do, both of them, but Nolan would have said the same thing about his own parents once upon a time, so what does he know? Looking nice doesn’t mean you are. And being nice about one thing, making someone believe you love them and care about them, doesn’t mean you do. Not all of them anyway.

“They are the best,” Travis says, from where he’s sat down on the floor again, sorting through a box of what looks like a mix of socks and t-shirts. “At the moment they are a little upset that I moved so far away, but they get it. And they’ve still got Chase living close so.”

Chase is Travis’ brother, Nolan has learned. Only thirteen months older but according to Travis so much of a big brother it used to piss Travis off a little when they were younger. He’s gotten used to it now, he says. Chase is smart, has gotten a degree in environmental engineering getting through college on scholarships, which is something Travis seems to be proud of, even if Nolan thinks he might have detected a hint of jealousy too.

The next picture Nolan takes out of the box shows Travis with another guy, arms around each other, holding up an impressively sized fish they seem to have caught. The guy is taller than Travis and there’s not much resemblance between the two of them, even if you take away the reddish blonde hair color the taller guy is sporting. Still, family doesn’t always look alike, so-

“Is this Chase?” he asks, showing the picture to Travis.

Glancing up, Travis halts. It’s barely a moment, but for a second there Nolan senses something being different, like Travis has to pull himself together.

“No, that’s Lawson,” he says and not much more, which-

Nolan hasn’t known Travis for very long, but if there’s something he’s learned it’s that he talks. He doesn’t just answer a question with one word or two, or three. He doesn’t just give the bare minimum, he talks. He offers up more than is being asked, fills silence and pauses with extra information about this and that, and Nolan has kind of gotten used to it over the last two hours that they’ve spent together.

Picture still in hand, Nolan nudges Travis’ knee with his foot, looking at him questioningly.

For a moment Travis looks like he’s going to stay quiet, focus back on the silly print socks –cartoon foxes on royal blue- he’s folding together in his lap, but then he smiles, a subdued, quiet, little thing, different to most smiles Nolan has seen from him up until now.

“He was my best friend.”

A caught feeling in his chest, Nolan looks at the picture, at the wide smiles on both Travis’ and Lawson’s face, then back at Travis, and the sadness in the curve of his mouth.

“Was?”

The word almost doesn’t make it out, like a part of Nolan doesn’t want to know, even though he does.

“Uhm, yeah.” Travis clears his throat, finishing folding the pair of socks and placing them on the floor next to him where he’s already built a little pile. Nolan would chirp him for not having his socks folded for the move in the first place, but- “He killed himself a year ago.”

And there is that.

A wave of cold washes through Nolan, forming a lump in his throat.

Travis’ best friend is dead. Happy go lucky, smiling and laughing and kind Travis’ best friend is dead, killed himself, and here Travis is, telling Nolan because Nolan asked, just putting it out there, again more than he’d need to, more than Nolan would have pushed for if he’d known.

“I’m-” Nolan hesitates, eyes flickering to the picture again. Travis doesn’t look much different in the picture than he does now. His hair is shorter and he’s missing the facial hair he’s wearing now, but other than that he can’t have been much younger. “-sorry.”

Travis –to Nolan’s surprise- let’s out a small laugh, quiet but genuine. “He would have chirped me so hard for this. Inviting you over and making you help me with my mess, he would never let me live shit like that down.”

“I don’t-” Nolan starts, faltering again. He’s not good at stuff like this. Hell, he can barely hold a conversation as is, let alone about something as heavy as this, even if Travis doesn’t seem to make the topic heavy. “I don’t mind,” he says, gently placing the picture on the sideboard, right there next to the one of Travis’ parents.

Looking back at Travis’ he finds a slight question mark on his face.

“It’s nice,” Nolan elaborates, giving a small shrug. “This. It’s nice having something to do and not just like-” He gestures awkwardly into the room. “-I don’t know. The pressure of conversation, it’s less, if you do something, you know? Like it’s not just sitting around and looking at each other and talking, it’s doing stuff.”

“I think that’s the most I’ve heard you say in one go,” Travis says, looking up at Nolan, smile a little wider again.

Nolan’s cheeks heat up almost immediately and he shrugs again, looking down at his feet.

“Thanks though,” Travis continues, sounding so fucking genuine again, it’s more than a little confusing for Nolan. He has no clue, if he needs to be embarrassed about what Travis just pointed out or not. Usually the answer is yes, but with Travis- “I’m glad that I’m not making you hate me here. Like, if you didn’t want to do this, then we could also watch a movie or set up the x-box as soon as I find the HDMI cable.”

“No, it’s-” Nolan shakes his head. “Like I’ve said. It’s good. I like this. It’s- I’m having fun.”

Travis’ face lights up. “Yeah?”

Blushing again, Nolan nods. It’s easier busying himself with folding up the now empty box he’d been unpacking than meeting Travis’ eyes. “Yeah.”

 

***

 

“So… how was it?” Kevin asks, as soon as he’s had the first few forks full of the scrambled eggs Nolan made.

He’s still a little hungover it seems, but it’s late enough in the day and he’s hydrated enough with the water bottles Nolan put on his nightstand last night, that he’s online enough to have a conversation that consists of more than just grunting.

“How was what?” Nolan asks, eyes staying on his phone and the text Travis sent him this morning.

Yesterday was fun :) thanks for helping me!

He’s been trying to figure out what to answer for the past twenty minutes, but everything he comes up with seems redundant. Because yeah, it was fun, and no problem, Nolan didn’t mind. But he already told Travis that and he just- It’s weird. He does want to answer, and he does want to answer something that- Fuck, that invites more conversation? It’s a strange fucking feeling, that Nolan doesn’t remember having ever, really. He wants Travis to keep talking to him and that’s not good.

“C’mon,” Kevin says, around the scrambled eggs in his mouth, stretching his legs a little under the kitchen table. “Hanging out with the little firefighter guy. Trevor or something.”

“Travis,” Nolan corrects, shooting Kevin a glare. He let the dude sleep on their couch and now he doesn’t even remember his name.

“Travis,” Kevin repeats, a weird pleased look on his face. “So? How was it with Travis?”

Nolan pointedly looks back at his phone.

“Patty, Patso,” Kevin says, still chewing, wrapping his arm around Nolan’s shoulders. “You know, I love you, right? Like you’re my best bro. But this whole gremlin-hiss-at-strangers-thing you got going on, it means you haven’t exactly been open to meeting new people. Or you know, just doing things in general. So indulge me. Please.”

“I do things all the time,” Nolan mutters, giving Kevin a light shove, just because.

Kevin gets it too, Nolan can tell by the look he gives Nolan as he sits back, the eggs Nolan so lovingly prepared for him momentarily forgotten.

Sighing, Nolan puts down his phone, fiddling with his hoodie string instead.

“It was cool,” he concedes eventually. “Hanging out with Travis. It was- Yeah.”

Kevin’s face lights up. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Making a noise in the back of his throat, Nolan pulls the hood of his hoodie over his head, hiding his face. He doesn’t like this. Kevin is right, Nolan doesn’t do things like this, meeting new people, hanging out with them. He doesn’t like it. It usually takes him too far out of his comfort zone , so he hasn’t really done it in a long fucking while. And he’s fine with that. Nolan knows himself, knows what his energy levels, mental and physical allow him to do, and he’s okay with those limits. That doesn’t mean he likes Kevin pointing it out though.

“Does that mean you are going to see him again?” Kevin pushes, expression hopeful. “You know, hang out or whatever?”

“I don’t know.” Nolan bites his lip, glancing back at his phone. “Maybe.”

“You could invite him over. After class this week,” Kevin goes on, ignoring the glare Nolan shoots him. "You know, play some CoD or Mario kart or something.”

“I know how to hang out with people, thanks,” he mutters, rolling his eyes.

It’s easier that way, being dismissive and annoyed by Kevin’s persistence than thinking too much about what it really means. Not that Nolan doesn’t know. He does. He knows that he’s a lot, that it’s not fair to them, how much he depends on them so of course they are trying to get him to find other people to share the load or whatever. It’s part of the reason why Nolan went to hang out with Travis in the first place. It’s why it feels so unfair that Kevin is being this pushy now. Nolan is already fucking trying, but apparently it’s not enough.

“I’m just saying, Patty,” Kevin starts, concerned crease appearing between his brows. “I think that-”

He gets interrupted by the sound of Ivan’s door opening, closely followed by Ivan himself padding into the kitchen, hair still sleep tousled.

“Hey guys,” he greets them, sitting down on the chair next to Nolan and pressing a kiss to the top of his head –reminiscent of the countless helmet taps they’ve shared back in Brandon, back when Nolan was still dreaming of a completely different future than what he’s living now. “You made breakfast for us? Thanks, Patty.”

“Yeah whatever.”

Ivan hums appreciatively. “You already ate?”

“Yeah,” Nolan lies. “You guys were still sleeping and I was hungry.”

“He was telling me how things went with Travis,” Kevin chimes in, already getting up to fill Ivan’s plate with eggs.

“Oh!” Ivan turns, looking from Nolan to Kevin then back. “How was it?”

“It was cool,” Kevin answers, giving Ivan a meaningful look as he puts the plate down in front of him. “Might happen again.”

Ivan’s eyebrows rise a bit, mouth turning into a smile. “Yeah?”

“Oh my god.” Nolan slumps down in his chair, pulling his hood deeper into his face. He’s not totally inept or something. “Fucking hell.”

“We are just excited for you, bud. That’s all,” Ivan says gently.

“We love you, bro,” Kevin adds, eyes all wide and earnest, causing Nolan to groan again.

“Just-” He rubs a hand over his face. “Whatever. I might- Travis texted again. So I might.”

“That’s great, Patty,” Ivan says, putting the first forkful of eggs into his mouth. “You don’t have to, but like, it’s great that you’re even thinking about it.”

“Mhm.”

“I mean it.”

“Okay,” Nolan grumbles, because he knows if he doesn’t, neither Kevin nor Ivan will let up and his face is already on fire.

 

***

Chapter Text

Nolan gets anxious sometimes.

It’s nothing new, nothing he hasn’t experienced to some degree since he’s been maybe ten years old, and these days there’s always a base level of anxiety coursing through his system that Nolan has just learned to live. It’s been like this since he’s realized that he was never going to be comfortable in his own skin, not like other people apparently are. But sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes Nolan feels like he’s a hundred feet underwater with nothing but darkness around him and no air left in his lungs, and no sense of where the surface is.

He doesn’t always know the reason for getting pulled under, for forgetting how to swim. Sometimes it’s having to eat in front of people, knowing they’ll judge him if he eats –because someone who looks like him really shouldn’t- but also if he doesn’t. Because c’mon, he clearly didn’t turn out the way he is because he didn’t eat –not eating, it’s just him being fake, putting on an act no one believes anyway. Sometimes it’s just having to eat, when he doesn’t know when he’ll have the privacy to purge. Sometimes it’s being in a crowded place, being surrounded by people who are living a life Nolan doesn’t feel part of. Sometimes it’s switching on the TV when the Devils game is on and he catching a glimpse of Nico, living the life Nolan used to dream about.

Sometimes there’s no reason at all.

Sometimes Nolan lies in bed, listens to his heartbeat, the weak, slow flutter of it, and suddenly it picks up, suddenly breathing is hard, not physically but mentally, and no matter how much Nolan tries telling himself that it’s okay, that there’s no danger, that it’s just him alone in his bed, his body doesn’t listen.

Some nights the only thing that helps is to think about dying.

It’s not that Nolan wants to kill himself, it’s not that he’s got a plan in mind, that he’s trying to find a way. He doesn’t want to die. He just thinks that being dead might not be the worst thing that could happen to him. There’s something comforting about the thought of closing his eyes and not having to open them again, not having to wake up again, to go through the motions of his life again and again and again, when he’s so god damn tired.

If Nolan imagines not having to do it, having to wake up again, if he imagines his heart still and quiet, broken wings finally giving up, sometimes he can fall asleep.

There are nights, though, when Nolan’s brain won’t let him have that escape. He’ll think about dying and then there’ll be Kevin’s face, Ivan’s, one of them knocking on his door in the morning because Nolan hasn’t made breakfast yet and it’s almost time to go to class, and then they’d come in and pull back the covers and then they’d find him. They’d see Nolan’s closed eyes and unmoving chest and they wouldn’t get it. They wouldn’t understand that Nolan was okay with this, that he’s better now.

They’d eventually be relieved too, of course, because they wouldn’t have to bother with Nolan anymore, but Nolan isn’t cynical enough to think that they don’t like him at all, that they wouldn’t care or be upset. They’d miss him, for a while.

They would, and that’s what makes Nolan feel more than just a little bit guilty every time he uses thoughts of death to calm himself.

Tuesday night there’s a third face though that flashes through Nolan’s mind when he thinks about not waking up in the morning. A face that makes Nolan feel stupid, on top of everything else, because Travis and him, they don’t really know each other, Travis doesn’t care about Nolan, not in the way Ivan and Kevin do so it’s a fucking self-obsessed, self-important thought, that Travis would be upset by Nolan dying, but-

-but there’s the memory of the sound of Travis’ voice when he’d told Nolan about Lawson, replaying inside of Nolan’s head. There’s the way he had smiled, quiet and sad, and Nolan feels like the worst person on the fucking planet. Travis already lost someone who’d been important to him and now he’s run into Nolan of all people, who doesn’t want to kill himself but isn’t- He isn’t someone anyone should pick to be friends with, let alone someone like Travis.

And yet Nolan asked him to hang out again, invited him to come over on Wednesday after class and Travis had said yes. Yes exclamation point, and Nolan just-

He shouldn’t have. He lies awake, stomach clenching with hunger, knowing that he should cancel, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t pick up his phone, doesn’t reopen the message thread with Travis and doesn’t send the text that he should. He lets morning come, lets Kevin and Ivan smile at him, looking all proud and happy when he tells them that Travis is going to come over, and he doesn’t do it. He doesn’t cancel on Travis.

The fact that Travis looks so fucking happy when Nolan opens the door for him only makes Nolan feel worse, like he’s already knee deep in cold water.

He isn’t just using Travis so Ivan and Kevin get off his back a little, he’s also putting a torch into Travis’ already burned hands.

“Hey,” he still says, managing a smile as he steps aside to let Travis into the apartment.

It falls as soon as he sees the tray and paper bag in Travis is carrying.

“Hi, I brought stuff for us,” Travis says, stating the obvious, handing both the drink carrier with Starbucks coffee and the paper bag over to Nolan so he can toe off his shoes.

It gives Nolan enough time to school his face into a neutral expression, despite the glance he sneaks inside the bag Travis brought. Two doughnuts. One plain, the other with sugar glaze.

The back of Nolan’s throat itches at the sight of it.

“I thought doughnuts were a cop thing, not firefighters,” he comments lamely, as Travis takes the bag back. “Or are you undercover?”

“Never. Can’t lie for shit,” Travis says with a snort, following Nolan into the living-room. “I’ve just had a craving, man. You know how it is.”

“That craving included overpriced coffee?” Nolan mumbles, eyeing the paper bag.

He’s got two options. Either he refuses the doughnut which will probably hurt Travis’ feelings a little or he eats it and suffers the consequences, because there’s no way he can purge with Travis right here in the apartment. The walls are thick enough so that the sound of the running shower and music from Nolan’s phone usually cover any noise he might make kneeling in front of the toilet, but Nolan can’t really go for a shower while Travis is over, not without seeming suspicious.

“Yup,” Travis says oblivious, flopping down on the couch and smiling up at Nolan. “Aw, look at that. It’s where we first met.”

The ridiculous eyebrow wiggle he adds is momentarily enough to distract Nolan, drawing a surprised breathless little laugh from him. “What?”

“Me being hungover, you irritated, any bells ringing?” Travis winks, plucking one of the coffee cups from the tray Nolan is still holding. “Should I be worried about my feet? Damn should I have brought my boots from the station? Just to be safe? What’s the danger here on a scale from 1 to 10? I did put coffee in your hand, which-”

“Does your brain ever slow down?”

Shaking his head a little, Nolan sits down on the couch himself, putting the doughnut bag on the coffee table, hoping that maybe Travis will forget they are there if they just focus on the coffee for now.

Apparently he isn’t in luck though.

“I didn’t know what kind you like,” Travis says, fishing the glazed doughnut out of the bag before holding it out to Nolan. “I figured I couldn’t go wrong with plain.”

Taking the bag, Nolan musters up another smile. “Thanks. You didn’t have to though. It’s-”

“I wanted to,” Travis says, dismissively waving his doughnut around before taking a big bite. “I mean it’s the least I could do-” He grins around his mouth full of doughnut. “-with you agreeing to entertain me today and all that.”

“Not exactly a hardship,” Nolan mumbles, taking a sip from his coffee.

It’s not really. Despite all the doubt and guilt from the night before. Hanging out with Travis had been fun that first time and the only thing making it hard for Nolan now is his own mind and- Well. The doughnut that he didn’t plan for.

“No?” Travis, eyes light up a little. “I’m glad.”

“Yeah. Well.” Nolan shrugs. He doesn’t really know what to say to the honest happiness in Travis’ voice. It’s easier to focus on distracting him instead. “Do you maybe want to play a video game or something?”

“Sure,” Travis says, easy and agreeable as the last time.

Travis is still chewing, but there’s barely any doughnut left in his hand, pretty much mocking Nolan. He knows from experience that people being done with their own food means they’ll be more likely notice what you are doing with yours.

“What do you want to play?”

Again, Nolan shrugs, carefully folding back the paper bag so only half the doughnut is peeking out. “I don’t know. You pick.”

It’s as simple as that. Travis doesn’t see anything wrong with it, just gets off the couch and crouches down in front of the videogame shelf under the TV and while he’s busying looking through the options, Nolan can pick at his doughnut, small little bits that are easy to drop into the bag without it being obvious. When Travis turns back around, it already looks like Nolan has taken a bite.

“Dude, you have Pro Fishing Simulator X? Bro.” He holds up the disk like it’s the holy grail.

“No fucking way,” Nolan blurts out before he can stop himself. “Not playing that.”

“Why not? C’mon!” Travis says with a laugh. “Don’t you like fishing?”

“I do, but-” Nolan shakes his head. “No. Domestic authority, I get to veto. No fishing simulator.”

“Killjoy,” Travis says, not looking bothered in the slightest while Nolan picks another piece from his doughnut. “You choose then, so you don’t have to throw around your fancy law terms.”

“Fancy law t- Okay.” Nolan snorts. “Just- Just pick whatever. Except simulator bullshit.”

“So you can shoot me down again?” Travis quirks an eyebrow. “Nah. C’mon. Your house, your pick.”

Before Nolan can even think of a rebuttal, Travis is already back at the couch, holding his hand out to help Nolan up, like he’s some sort of fair lady and Travis a gentleman or whatever.

“What if it’s fun for me to shoot you down?” Nolan asks, looking up at Travis. “What if that’s why I asked you to pick?”

“Hmm, I don’t think that’s it,” Travis says, confidently.

Nolan raises his eyebrows, placing his half ‘eaten’ doughnut on the couch table. “No? I’m pretty mean.”

Travis actually laughs at that. “I don’t believe that.”

“I’ve been told. Ask anyone,” Nolan shoots back, and hell, he doesn’t even know what he’s arguing for but there’s this glimmer in Travis’ eyes and while it’s making Nolan blush, it also makes him feel warm in his chest and that- Yeah. That’s a feeling he kind of wants more of. “I’m grumpy and mean and-”

“-cute?”

Nolan rolls his eyes. He kind of wants to give Travis a shove. Not a big one that’d actually make him stumble, but a small one. Something to express that Travis can’t be walking around saying stuff like that to Nolan.

“Shut up.”

“I don’t know if you’ve met me, but that’s something I’m kind of really bad at,” Travis says and this time when he holds out his hand, expression all sweet and expectant, Nolan can’t help but take it, even if it’s with an eye roll.

He immediately regrets it.

Travis pulls him to his feet and for a second Nolan’s world is overtaken by grey, buzzing static as he sways, the dizziness that is always looming at the edges of his consciousness too strong all of the sudden.

“Woah, you okay?” Travis says, hands on Nolan’s shoulders in an instant, holding him upright.

“I-” Nolan blinks, the spinning of his head slowing down a little after a couple of moments. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just- Low blood pressure. When I get up too fast it- It just happens sometimes.”

He flushes, embarrassed that Travis got such a front row seat to one of the failings of Nolan’s body. Fuck, Nolan’s hands are wrapped around Travis’ forearms. He must have grabbed them on instinct, trying to hold onto something and now Travis is looking at Nolan all worried, dark grey blue eyes wide and focused on Nolan like he’s the single most important thing Travis could be looking at right now. Which-

“I’m okay,” Nolan repeats, but by the skeptic look in Travis’ eyes he can tell he isn’t doing a great job. “Really. This just happens sometimes.”

“Are you sure?” Travis asks, gaze searching. “Because you know, I’ve got EMT training, and I’ve got a blood pressure cuff in my car if-”

“I’m sure, Trav,” Nolan cuts him off, covering one of Travis’ hands with his own, right where it’s still holding onto his shoulder. He gives it a squeeze, before dropping both his hands. “I promise. Let’s just pick a game, yeah?”

Travis looks at him for another long moment, but eventually he must find what he’s looking for because he nods, stepping aside so Nolan can make the three step journey back to the video game selection. He’s still sneaking concerned glances –Nolan can tell- but he doesn’t start talking about wanting to take Nolan’s blood pressure again, which is good, because while Nolan hasn’t been to a doctor in years he knows that he probably didn’t lie when he told Travis about his blood pressure being too low at times.

What he didn’t –and isn’t going to- tell Travis about is his heartrate.

People who take your blood pressure usually go for your pulse next and Nolan knows that his isn’t normal. Not anymore. Not for the life he’s living now. Back when he was still working out every free minute of the day, when he was on the ice six days a week, it might have been, but now? It should be higher than the 45 beats per minute it usually dances around these days.

So Travis worrying about Nolan, it’s not only unnecessary, it could also get him in trouble, especially because of Travis’ EMT training. He’d probably get all kind of wrong ideas, try to drag Nolan to a doctor or the fucking hospital and that’s not something Nolan can tell happen. At the very least it’d force him to tell more lies, give the same excuses he’s given to Kevin and Ivan to Travis too and that’s just not something Nolan wants to do right now. He'd rather just play a game with him. Have a nice afternoon or whatever, pretend he’s normal for a couple of hours.

Thankfully Travis seems inclined to let Nolan have that, letting himself be wrapped up in a mini argument about what game to play if fishing simulator is off the table. Nolan refuses to agree to farming simulator instead and Travis claims he’s a god at Call of Duty but suspiciously doesn’t want to play it anyway. It’s all kinds of ridiculous and Nolan enjoys it so much, he’s almost sad when Travis pulls a random game off the shelf and he doesn’t immediately have a counter argument ready, which Travis seems to interpret as approval, and before Nolan knows what’s happening, there’s the opening cut scene playing on TV and Travis is chattering away excitedly how he’s heard of this game back when it came out but somehow never got around to playing it. Which makes it doubly strange when after playing the prologue he hands the controller over to Nolan.

“You play,” he says, and as it seems to be so often with Travis, Nolan is too perplexed to refuse.

Travis keeps looking at Nolan, though, and after a while, he finds it hard to ignore.

“What?” Nolan asks eventually without taking his eyes off the TV-screen in front of him.

Like hell he’s going to miss anything because he’s not paying attention to the game. He’s not going to miss any clues that’ll help them piece the story together, or miss any totems that’ll help them keep the rest of their fucking characters alive. Including the whining girl Nolan is controlling right now. She’s pretty annoying but on the other hand, Nolan doesn’t think he’d be the most chill and easy to be around person if he was being hunted by weird monkey demons on some god forsaken mountain. Not that she seemed all that nice even before shit hit the fan. But still.

“What what?” Travis says, and Nolan can hear the fucking cheeky grin in his voice, he doesn’t even have to look.

Travis is pretty predictable like that.

Nolan barely refrains from rolling his eyes, inching the character on screen a little bit forward. “What do you keep looking at?”

“You.”

“Jesus Christ.” Nolan risks a glare at Travis, quickly pulling his hood up in an attempt to shield his face a little. “Weirdo.”

“Don’t,” Travis says, giving Nolan’s hood a slight tug, pulling it back halfway. He sounds delighted. “You look so focused.”

“Of course, I’m focused,” Nolan mumbles, cheeks burning. “I don’t want Emily to get her fucking throat ripped out too.”

“Hey, we don’t know that the blonde chick got anything ripped out,” Travis says, like he’s actually fucking serious. “She might be fine.”

Nolan shoots Travis another glare. The blonde chick definitely isn’t fine. She got dragged through the snow and mines, half-naked while Nolan playing her douche boyfriend tried to catch up with her. Plus it’s been literal hours since they’ve seen her looking pretty dead in that elevator. So Travis has got to be fucking kidding when he’s trying to make Nolan believe that they aren’t already down one character. Or two rather, since Josh got sawed in half. Fuck.

“I’m trying my fucking best here,” he says pointedly.

“I know.” Travis nudges his shoulder. “That’s why I’m looking.”

“You are supposed to look at the screen, asshole,” Nolan grumbles, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks. They’ve been sitting shoulder to shoulder since the prologue but deliberate nudges like this, they just- They are distracting. “Help me not miss shit.”

“I can do both,” Travis says confidently. “Multitasking, bud.”

Nolan kind of wants to tackle him.

“I’m serious,” he says, opening up the menu, just to flick through the butterfly things again. “I usually don’t really- I don’t play. That’s why I suck. So you gotta pay attention.”

“You don’t suck, though,” Travis says, tugging Nolan’s hood all the way down. “But why do you usually not play?”

Biting his lip, Nolan shrugs, looking from the screen to Travis. He actually looks interested. Like he isn’t just blabbering along, just making conversation. Like he actually wants to know.

“I don’t know,” Nolan answers honestly after a moment. “I just- I just don’t. Kev and Ivan play and I-” He shrugs, feeling a little helpless. That’s the thing about Travis’ open, honest interest, it makes Nolan think about something he hasn’t questioned in forever. “I don’t. I don’t have to participate.”

A slight frown appears on Travis’ face. “You like to play though?”

“I-” Nolan hesitates for a moment. “-guess? Yeah.”

He likes it right now, he is having fun. He’s stressed too because he doesn’t want to fuck up and let these unlikeable characters die, but he’s also- It’s nice. It’s nice trying to solve this mystery with Travis and navigating this virtual world. He’d been bemused at first when he’d realized that Travis had picked a game without co-op mode and then even more when he ended up being the one with the controller, but now he’s actually having a good time, strangely enough.

“But you don’t?”

“I usually just watch,” Nolan admits. “Or sleep. Or go to my room.”

Travis tilts his head. “Why?”

“I’m tired a lot.” Nolan shrugs a little, looking down at the controller in his hands. “I just don’t have the energy to, I don’t know. To try. It’s easier to just- to just not.”

He’s trying now. He took a nap after class, but not as long as he would have if Travis hadn’t come over. It’s why he didn’t just eat the whites of his two eggs this morning, but one half of a yolk too. Why he put a splash of milk in his coffee and why he’s actually snuck a bit of the doughnut, so he can keep up with Travis, even if they aren’t doing anything physical.

“I bet the blonde girl is fucking dead,” he says, before Travis can give any reply. “Rules of horror. She’s clearly painted as the slut of the group, so she has to die. Plus I fucked up that one quick time event with the boyfriend and I’m pretty sure that means she’s-”

“Toast? Nah, I don’t think,” Travis says, shaking his head, apparently content with letting Nolan distract him. “I’ve got a feeling.”

“Oh yeah?” Nolan grumbles, exiting the menu and going back to the game. “You’ve been looking at me half the game. What do you know?”

“Not much,” Travis says, audibly smiling again. “I know you look pretty when you’re focused.”

“Oh my god.” Nolan briefly considers walking his character of a cliff. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be a game mechanic. Not that he’s close to any cliffs anyway. That ship has sailed. “Shut up.”

“I mean it.”

“I’m kicking you out.”

“Domestic authority?”

“Domestic fucking authority.”

The way Travis laughs makes Nolan want to die a little with how warm his chest feels. It’s fucking irritating. Travis is making fun of him, Nolan’s brain knows that. It’s just his heart that apparently hasn’t gotten the memo.

“Shut up,” Nolan repeats, clearing his throat and pointedly making himself look at the screen. “You’re distracting me.”

“Oh, we wouldn’t want that,” Travis agrees, not without giving Nolan a gentle nudge. “Let’s save ‘em all, baby.”

Nolan grumbles to himself but it doesn’t get him more than another soft laugh from Travis that makes Nolan’s cheeks feel even hotter.

At least they are getting back to the game now, which is still fucking stressful but also really amazing if Nolan is being honest. The graphics are incredible, the characters actually look like they are talking when they are and the whole setting, the landscape, it’s just breathtaking, making Nolan dream of one day maybe creating concept art for a project like this. Of getting to be the one who’s imagining this world, these sets that later become an entire world, the backdrop to a story someone explores while sitting on their couch with their friends.

As beautiful as the game is though, as suspenseful and enthralling, and as much fun as Nolan is having, it’s also exhausting and eventually Nolan has to hand the controller over to Travis, who takes it after a questioning glance, worried crease between his brows.

“Your turn, don’t let anyone die,” Nolan tells him, trying to sound stern but ending up somewhere between quiet and soft, however the fuck that happened.

“Should I go? Or do you want to stop?” Travis still asks, the game put on pause. “If you aren’t feeling well?”

“I’m just a bit tired, Travis,” Nolan says softly, shaking his head. To his surprise, he really doesn’t want Travis to leave, even if that meant getting to be alone and crawling back into bed. “Slept like shit. Now c’mon. I wanna see how you do. Don’t get Mike eaten. Or Wolfie.” He manages a smile, giving Travis a nudge to the shoulder. “Especially not Wolfie.”

It’s enough to get Travis to start the game back up, even if he doesn’t look entirely convinced and for a while Nolan lets himself lie back and relax. He doesn’t fall asleep, but he dozes a little, while Travis does a pretty good job keeping everyone more or less alive. Nolan still isn’t sure about the blonde girl, but it is what it is. Travis seems confident enough.

Somehow, at some point Nolan ends up shifted into a horizontal position with his feet on Travis’ lap, one of Travis’ arms resting on his ankles, the other occasionally nudging the soles of his feet, as he’s handling the controller. Nolan isn’t quite sure how it happened, except that maybe he is. He’s tall and he takes up more space than he should but he didn’t want to take Travis up on his offer to move to the floor or the armchair so now Nolan’s heart is beating a little fast as he’s trying to get used to the contact, to a casual touch like this that seems to be so perfectly natural to Travis who’d just smiled when Nolan had let him pull his feet into his lap.

At least Nolan’s ankles are a part of his body that he feels comfortable with. No chubby softness there, Just bone under skin that is hidden under the wooly socks Nolan is wearing over his normal ones. As well as the thick sweatpants he stole from Kevin a couple of months ago.

Travis looks good in profile, Nolan notices. Of course Travis has pretty much looked good from every angle Nolan has seen him from so far, but watching him like this, it’s a little bit more obvious. He has taken off his sweater, is just sitting there in his shirt and jeans, backwards snapback with the fire department logo on it on and he looks-

He looks good.

A part of Nolan feels guilty for noticing, and yeah, that’s familiar, takes Nolan right back to this morning, to lying awake, listening to his racing heart, trying to convince himself to pick up the phone and tell Travis not to come because Travis is a good guy. He doesn’t deserve someone like Nolan using him.

“Travis?”

“Hm?” Travis barely glances away from the screen, but Nolan can tell that he’s paying attention, even though the game’s score is ramping up, indicating some sort of important moment coming up.

“Why firefighting?”

“What d’you mean?”

“Just-” Nolan shifts a little, sitting up but keeping his feet in Travis’ lap, soles now planted against his thigh. “Why did you become a firefighter?” He taps his fingers against the brim of Travis’ cap.

“Why did you decide to study art?”

Faltering for a moment, Nolan doesn’t know what to say. Up until now Travis hasn’t really called him out on being so closed off and not really offering up much of himself, but that period of grace seems to be up now. And Nolan would feel uncomfortable –and to a degree he does, but-

But even if Travis is being a tiny bit pushy, he still looks so fucking kind and that- Yeah. That keeps Nolan from curling in on himself in response.

Travis has paused the game, head turned toward Nolan, one hand light on Nolan’s ankle, and fuck, he looks so open and interested again. Not at all like he’s just served Nolan a ‘gotcha’ moment, pointing out his conversational shortcomings. He simply looks like he wants to know.

“It’s illustration, actually,” Nolan mumbles, exhaling through his nose. “And I asked you first.”

Tilting his head, Travis, grins a little. “Did you?”

Nolan’s lip twitches. “I did.”

Travis raises his eyebrows, eyes twinkling. “You sure?”

“Fuck you.” Nolan shakes his head, unable to keep in the small smile that creeps on his face. “C’mon. Firefighting, why?”

“Because I don’t know how to do things halfway,” Travis says, voice a little softer now.

“What do you mean?” Nolan finds himself asking, shifting again, shivering at the warmth he feels from Travis’ palm where it’s resting on his ankle. It’s just his fucking ankle, with layers between them but it still feels intimate somehow.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like saving people. Obviously.” Travis laughs a little, his free hand adjusting his cap slightly. “But the biggest part of what drew me to the job is being all in, you know? Heart, body, soul. When I run into a burning building, I have to give everything. 100%. All of me. I get to give that, and that’s- That’s the best fucking feeling.”

“But-” Nolan hesitates. Looking at Travis he can feel his heartbeat pick up again, a weak, weak echo of last night. “Aren’t you scared of getting hurt?” Of dying?

“Of course,” Travis says, like it’s that simple. Like it’s okay that Nolan is asking like this out of nowhere. “But people die all the time, right? Because they are sick, because there’s an accident, because- But if I die on the job, then it will have been for something, you know?”

“Is that-Does it bother you?” Nolan bites his lip. He can’t really look at Travis, instead focusing on the hand he has on Nolan’s ankle. “When someone’s death is for nothing?”

What about Lawson, he doesn’t say, but judging from the look in Travis’ eyes, the sad smile his lips curve into, he heard it anyway, somewhere between the words that Nolan actually spoke.

“That’s a deep ass question, considering you haven’t told me about why you are studying Illustrating yet,” Travis says quietly a hint of teasing in his voice, that- Nolan doesn’t get it.

If he wanted to scold Nolan for asking without telling, for getting too personal then why does he sound like that? Why is he looking at Nolan like that, like he doesn’t really mind? Like he’s just a little sad and a little curious and something else that Nolan can’t even pinpoint entirely.

“I-” Nolan starts, looking at Travis helplessly, feeling the way he presses his thumb against the bony part of Nolan’s ankle, gentle and almost absent at the same time.

“It’s easier for those left behind,” Travis says after a moment, looking at Nolan, apparently taking mercy on him. “When death means something. Not as hard to come to terms with. At least that’s what I imagine.”

Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Nolan has to look away for a moment before he can meet Travis’ eyes again. When he does, the words just tumble out. “When your friend-”

“Yeah,” Travis says, another soft, sad laugh on his lips. “There’s all this love you have for a person and then suddenly you have no place to put it because they are gone, and it all feels so senseless. You know?”

Nolan doesn’t, is the thing. He’s lost people, each of them leaving a scar that Nolan wishes he could see at least when looking in the mirror, but it was never because of death. It’d always been choices, it’d always been people deciding to leave, deciding to hurt Nolan, deciding that he wasn’t worth sticking around for, wasn’t worth loving anymore. What Travis is talking about is different. Except-

“Aren’t you mad?” Nolan asks, voice cracking a bit. “Aren’t you angry at him?”

For doing this to you? For leaving? For giving you nothing, for doing this senseless, cruel thing, for-

Angry about what?” Travis asks, brows furrowed.

“That he-” Nolan makes a noise in the back of his throat, feeling himself flush. He doesn’t even know what he’s trying to ask anymore, if this is about his own guilt, if it’s about himself, the choices his parents made, the choice Nico made, Nolan’s own, first naïve and hopeful, then bitter and sad. Or if maybe it’s really just about Travis’ dead friend. “About him killing himself? I mean, he- He knew you cared about him and he still chose that. He made it senseless, right?”

“I could never be mad at him,” Travis says, thumb rubbing circle on Nolan’s ankle. He doesn’t seem upset at Nolan for saying what he said, instead he sounds thoughtful, like he’s really thinking about what Nolan is suggesting. “For what he did. I’m sad and I wish he hadn’t. I wish I could have saved him. Helped him, I don’t know, but- But I’m not angry.”

“Maybe you should be,” Nolan says before he can stop himself, chest feeling tight at the questioning look Travis shoots at him, like he can see right through him. “Maybe he didn’t want to be saved. That’s cruel.”

Maybe he didn’t think he deserved to.

“I would have still tried,” he says, and there it is again, that damn smile that is making Nolan feel all kind of things. “I did try.”

Travis would have still tried. He would have tried, would have given 100%. He’s the kind of guy who runs into burning building fucking literally, and Nolan doesn’t know how someone like that exists, how he’s sitting on Nolan’s couch, touching him, looking at him like this is where he wants to be, like the loss he’s suffered hasn’t made him bitter, hasn’t made him cruel and distant but kind. Fucking kind.

Nolan doesn’t get it.

“It was never the plan,” he finds himself saying, voice dry, cracking over the last syllable. “Studying illustrations. Going to college at all. I never- Art, drawing, it was always just a fucking hobby. And then suddenly I had to decide what to do with my life and- I wasn’t supposed to be here.” He shrugs, blowing out a breath. “But I am. Fucking trying or something.”

Travis thumb stills on Nolan’s ankle, but his hand stays there, a solid, steady presence, grounding Nolan. “Where were you supposed to be?”

Air getting caught in Nolan’s throat he looks at Travis, lips parted, words he doesn’t have heavy in his chest.

I was supposed to play in the NHL.

I was supposed to make it.

I was supposed to live my dream.

I was supposed to be stronger, better.

I was supposed to-

“Patty, I’m home!” Nolan almost flinches at the sound of Kevin’s voice, closely followed by footsteps and then a surprised: “Oh.”

Kevin stops right there in the doorway, eyes quickly flickering over the scene in front of him, the paused game on TV, Nolan and Travis on the couch, Nolan’s feet in Travis’ lap, the flush that is undoubtedly coloring Nolan’s cheeks that ugly rosy color that he hates so much.

“Oh, hi,” Kevin says, unfreezing and walking over to the couch, wide smile on his face. “Hey guys. Hi. Travis, right? I didn’t think you were still- I mean, that’s great. Are you guys having fun?”

“Hello,” Travis says giving an awkward little wave while Nolan groans, pulling his feet back and rubbing his hands over his face.

“Hi, mom,” he mutters into his hands as Kevin laughs, ruffling Nolan’s hair in greeting like that’s something you do in front of other people. “I’m sorry about him,” he adds, directed at Travis.

“All good, man,” Travis says, offering Nolan a small smile. “But should I leave? I don’t want to overstay my welcome, if you guys have plans.”

“No, bro, no,” Kevin cuts in before Nolan can even think about getting a word out. “It’s all good. Did you guys have dinner already, though? Cause I’m starving and I was thinking about ordering in.”

“We’ve had doughnuts,” Nolan mumbles, at the same time as Travis with a heartfelt ‘no’, telling Kevin that they haven’t in fact eaten dinner yet, which-

That’s what Nolan had been banking on. If only he hadn’t lost track of time then he could have gotten Travis to leave before Kevin came home and then he would have told Kevin he’d already eaten with Travis and it would have been fine. Now he’s sitting on the couch while Travis and Kevin are discussing possible takeout places, making Nolan’s stomach scream with hunger and his throat itch in anticipation.

He feels fucking sick at the idea of having to eat in front of Travis.

“I’m really fucking tired,” he says, louder than he meant to.

Both Kevin and Travis fall silent, looking over at Nolan.

He shifts, staring grimly at his knees, lips pressed together before adding: “And we can’t order from Stella’s without Ivan.”

“He’s with Alexis, I’m pretty sure he’ll forgive us,” Kevin says slowly, a joking note to his tone, but-

Another beat of awkward silence passes where Nolan feels like he’s going to crumble under the eyes trained on him.

“You know, actually, I should get going,” Travis says then, a beat later, polite smile on his face when Nolan looks up in surprise. “Thanks for the invite, but I promised to call my mom tonight and that always takes for fucking ever, you know how moms are so I’m gonna-” He gestures vaguely in the direction on the hallway. “But thanks for the invite, dude. It’s appreciated.”

“Are you sure?” Kevin asks, eyebrows drawn together.

Travis wasn’t kidding when he said he wasn’t a good liar and Kevin might generally be a pretty gullible guy but he can probably sense that Travis isn’t being entirely truthful, which- Nolan feels awful and relieved at the same time. On the one hand, he wants Travis to stay, on the other, he really doesn’t want him to. Travis being here, it changes the status quo. Nolan has a fucking routine, has a way of navigating life and adding a new person to the mix, it’s disorientating, it makes his chest feel tight, drags him deeper into the water. At least in moments like this.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Travis says, raising his hand in goodbye and then he’s already out of the living-room, footsteps quiet on the apartment’s floorboards.

Kevin’s gaze snap to Nolan, eyebrows raised.

Nolan stares back.

Kevin’s eyes widen imploringly, like he’s trying to tell Nolan something.

Nolan stares back, uncomprehending until-

“At least fucking say goodbye to him, Jesus Christ, Patty,” Kevin, whisper-shouts, gesturing widely.

“I-”           

Dude.”

“Shit,” Nolan mumbles, because fuck, Kevin is right.

Nolan is being a fucking asshole, and maybe that’s okay, because really, Travis should get used to that if he’s going to stick around for a while, but Nolan just-

He pads after Travis as quickly as he can manage without making himself too dizzy, reaching the hallway just as Travis is opening the front door, already dressed in his hoodie and jacket again, shoes on his feet.

“Hey,” Nolan says, heart skipping a beat at the surprised look on Travis’ face that morphs into a cautious smile quickly.

“Hey,” he says back, stepping away from the door and towards Nolan, hands buried in his pockets. “You okay?”

“I- Yeah. I didn’t-” Nolan hesitates, tugging the sleeves of his jumper over his hands. “I didn’t mean to kick you out, I’m just-”

“Hey, no, it’s okay,” Travis says quickly, voice too fucking kind. “I could tell that you weren’t, you know, thrilled at the idea of me staying for dinner with Kevin, so.”

“It’s not- It’s not that,” Nolan says, throwing a quick glance over his shoulder. It’s kind of unbearable, having Travis sound so kind paired with the downwards slope of his shoulders. “I’m just not always good with spontaneity and I- But some other time, maybe?” He swallows, a little irritated with himself for the words that are just spilling out. “If you want to hang out again with me. Or with me and Kevin and Ivan, like, we can do that.”

“Yeah?” A hopeful expression appears on Travis’ face.

“Yeah, sure,” Nolan says, managing a smile. “Just, you know, text me or something.”

“Okay,” Travis says, shoulders a little straighter now, less defeated. “I’ll do that then.”

“Cool.” Nolan smiles, feeling awkward and warm at the same time. “Get home safe.”

“Thanks.” Giving a small little wave, Travis opens the door again, stepping outside into the stairway.

Nolan follows to the door, feeling a little bit silly, but wanting to do it anyway. He’s not going to walk Travis to his car because like hell he’s going to climb these stairs more often than he has to but at least he can do this, can watch Travis walk down the first half flight of stairs before stopping and-

“Oh, and Nolan?” he says, looking up to where Nolan is standing.

Nolan can feel himself blushing. The look in Travis’ eyes is so fucking earnest, it makes him want to pull up his hood again.

“Yeah?” he still says, biting his lip.

“For what it’s worth,” Travis says, words echoing in the staircase. “I’m glad that you are here. Whether you were supposed to be or not.”

His heart skipping a beat, Nolan feels the air getting stuck in his lungs. It’s only for a moment. An impossibly long second that Travis looks at Nolan and Nolan looks back, feeling like just for this blink of an eye the world has stopped turning.

Then Travis smiles, awkward and dorky and sweet, and everything is set back into motion. The pitter-patter of Travis’ feet down the stairs matching the hammering of Nolan’s heart.

When Nolan turns around, steps back into the apartment an eternity later, Kevin is already waiting for him in the doorway to the living room.

“Everything okay?” he asks, mild concern painted on his face.

Nolan doesn’t have an answer for him.

Thankfully, Kevin doesn’t seem to need one. He just wraps Nolan into a hug, warm and familiar and safe, allowing Nolan to exhale and inhale against his chest for as long as he needs to.

“He’s so nice,” he whispers into Kevin’s shirt, throat feeling scratchy and tight. “He’s so fucking nice, Kev.”

“But isn’t that a good thing?” Kevin says, the low rumble of his voice, drawing another shuddery exhale from Nolan.

Kevin doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get that of course the answer is no. It’s not a good thing that Travis is nice. It’s not because Nolan can’t handle shit like that. He can’t let himself believe, can’t be told all the kind things that Travis offers up so readily, even though he doesn’t even know Nolan. Even though he doesn’t know that Nolan doesn’t deserve any of it. Nolan has learned that the hard way and he’s not looking for a repeat, not with someone who seems too good to be true, like Nico used to, forever ago.

“Oh cat,” Kevin hums, soft and gentle. “I’m so happy you’ve made a new friend.”

Nolan doesn’t say anything, just squeezes his eyes shut, wondering what the hell he’s going to do now. He’s just too fucking good at digging his own grave it seems, no matter how many times he’s already ended up buried and unmourned.

 

***

Chapter Text

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Once, when Nolan was ten years old, he passed out on the bench during the second period of his peewee hockey game. Dehydration and exhaustion, he still remembers someone saying back then, although Nolan can’t recall who. He can still hear his dad’s voice in his head, though, can feel the clap he’d given Nolan on his shoulder when he finally came back to it, calling him a tough guy and telling him to get back out there. He still remembers how fucking proud of himself he’d been getting back out in the third, of how he’d even managed to score, almost passing out again when hugging Ivan in celebration.

When Nolan was twelve, he threw a tantrum about not being allowed to go to a birthday party in the neighborhood that he’d been invited to. He’d wanted to go so badly, but it would have meant missing a session at the home gym with his dad. Getting upset about it earned him an icy cold shower and a scolding. After all, if Nolan wasn’t serious about this, he might as well quit so the family could invest their time and money in Madison or Aimee, whoever would prove more grateful.

When Nolan was fourteen years old, he’d gone out on the ice after throwing up twice before and spending both intermissions on the toilet with a bucket in his arms, wondering how there could be anything at all left in him. He’d still gone out there each period and while they hadn’t won, Nolan still scored, still made a good impression on the scouts and that’s what had mattered .

That’s the only thing that had mattered.

Because even back then, Nolan hadn’t been able to remember ever wanting to be anything else than a hockey player. He doesn’t remember there ever being another option in his head. His earliest memories are of sitting on his father’s lap and watching his uncle paly on NHL ice, of his mom showing him the pictures of his own dad proudly wearing a Rangers jersey, while she told him, eyes bright and glistening, that one day that could be him, if he only worked hard enough.

He remembers wanting nothing more than to make his parents proud. He remembers feeling good about Madison and Aimee being jealous of all the attention he was getting, remembers basking in it, in being good, in being the best, telling everyone who’d listen that becoming a hockey player was in his blood, in his fucking DNA.

What Nolan also remembers, though, is when hockey turned from the best to the worst thing that ever happened to him. When becoming a hockey player had still been his dream but the thought of a lifetime of it had seemed like a nightmare at the same time.

If Nolan could go back, he’d still take it. He’d take the nightmare with the daydream and he’d try, he’d make it work. He’d try and keep his head down, his mouth shut, his feelings and urges to himself, and he’d push through. Fuck the pain, fuck the misery. He’d do it. He’d be the tough guy his father used to think he was, and he’d be-

He’d be one of those people that don’t let the terrible things that happen to them define them.

He’d still have a family. Not just Ivan and Kevin. They’d be better off that way too.

And Travis- Nolan wouldn’t even know him and Travis would be getting invited over by someone else. He’d be glad about that other someone being here instead. And that’d be better too, for him. For both of them. Nolan isn’t the kind of person who’s a good friend. He’s had three best friends in his entire life. Two of those are the only friends he has left.

It’s just sanity and reason, common sense, that Nolan isn’t who Travis should be spending his time off with. Especially not when he looks dead on his feet when he shows up on Nolan’s doorstep, tired smile and dark shadows under his eyes.

“Hey,” he says, toeing off his shoes while Nolan patiently waits, eyeing him curiously. “Sorry, I’m late. I meant to call, but my phone ran out of battery and then I thought I might still make it on time but then I kinda had a red streak, and there’s that construction side on Woodland Avenue that I kinda forgot about, which cost me another five minutes, so yeah. I’m sorry.”

Yesterday Travis had asked –after Nolan’s invitation to hang out again- if it’d be okay if he came by at 3 pm, and it’s barely twenty minutes past now, so really, Nolan doesn’t get why Travis is even apologizing, even if it’s with a smile and in his usual rambling way, throwing in more details than Nolan really needs. And the truth is, Nolan didn’t even notice that 3 pm had already passed, too absorbed in the drawing he’s been working on all day.

“It’s fine,” he says distractedly reaching out to tug at a strand of wet hair on Travis’ forehead that caught his eye. “Did you just get out of the shower?”

Nolan knows that Travis usually showers after a call or at the latest at the end of his shift, but Travis’ shift starts and ends at 9 am so things don’t quite add up.

“Yeah, didn’t want to show up smelling like fucking chimney,” Travis answers, smiling, shaking his hair like a dog, getting a few droplets of water on Nolan. Apparently the glare Nolan shoots him makes his smile only widen, even if he still looks dead tired. “We got called to a warehouse fire around 1 am and that’s kinda still going. B shift just took over. Living room?”

“My room,” Nolan says, following Travis with a frown on his face.

Kevin is still occupying the couch on a skype call with two of his cousins which he likes to use the TV for, for some reason. Nolan is sure if he asked Kevin would clear out but it’s not really necessary. He figured he and Travis could hang in his room a bit until resuming their game or something. At least that had been the plan until Travis showed up looking like he might fall asleep while standing up.

“Did you get any sleep at all?” he asks, closing his room door behind himself, indicating for Travis to sit down on the bed. It’s probably the first time in three weeks that Nolan has made it, which he feels a little bit stupid about because who cares what Travis thinks of Nolan being messy, but- But.

It’s made now and Travis lets himself drop on it like a stone.

“Nope,” he says, eyes closed, arms spread out. The bottom of his shirt rides up, revealing a stretch of toned stomach that Nolan pointedly doesn’t look at, instinctively covering his own middle with his arm, to hide as much as he can to add to the loose layers he’s already wearing for that purpose. “I mean, I did get maybe half an hour between 12 and 1, because before that we had that multi-car pileup and just- I don’t know.” Eyes open a slit, he gives Nolan another tired smile. “Just a shitty day. Night. Shift? Whatever.” Glancing at the fairy lights on Nolan’s wall above the bed for a moment, he adds: “These are cool.”

They aren’t, really. They are a relic of when Nolan still cared about shit like how his room looked, about making it feel comfortable and nice. Aesthetics, whatever. Ivan used to tease Nolan about it, and Nolan used to roll his eyes at him. Now Nolan doesn’t remember when he last tried switching them on. All he knows is that when he did, they didn’t work anymore.

“They’re broken,” Nolan mumbles. Shifting from one foot on the other, Nolan hesitates by the door for a moment. “You didn’t have to come, you know? If you’re that tired.”

“I want to spend time with you, though,” Travis says, not missing a beat. “Plus we’ve still got-” He makes a vague gesture. “All those horror stereotype teens to save from the monster things.”

“Wendigos,” Nolan corrects, padding over to the chair by his desk, tugging one foot under him when he sits down. “And I’m pretty sure like half of them don’t deserve to be saved. They are horrible people.”

Travis shrugs, sitting up a little so he’s half propped up against the headboard now, which- Ivan would probably say something, but Nolan is in no position to judge Travis’ posture.

“Everyone deserves to be saved,” Travis says, because of course he does.

Nolan isn’t surprised. Travis just says shit like that all the time, he’s realized over the two times they’ve hung out and all the texting that has happened in between. Travis says it with a face like he means it and Nolan doesn’t get it. It makes him want to ask how Travis’ brain works, how the world hasn’t made him cynical yet. If he didn’t know about Lawson, he’d think that Travis simply never experienced anything horrible, hasn’t learned that the world is awful yet. But Travis has gotten a glimpse at the very least and yet –

Nolan shakes his head. Maybe his best friend killing himself is the only terrible thing that has happened to Travis so far, and as strange as the thought is, Nolan kind of hates the idea of any more bad shit happening to him. If Travis’ optimism and kindness has survived so far, he deserves to keep it, right?

He’s more resilient than Nolan is for sure. All the shit that made Nolan cynical, happened because of his own choices. Self-made fucking misery.

“Kev is still using the TV,” he explains instead of answering Travis’ rebuttal, fiddling with his stylus. “Do you mind if I-” He gestures to the cintiq. “I’m almost done with the base coloring.”

It’s rude, he knows, but he kind of got lost in it while waiting for Travis to show up and now he’s itching to put on the final touches so he can get to shading and figuring out the light sources next.

“Do your thing,” Travis says, waving Nolan off while doing a terrible job at suppressing a yawn. “I promise not to be annoying.”

You aren’t, Nolan thinks, biting his tongue instead, smiling at the wink Travis gives him.

He’s spent at least five texts the day before yesterday recounting gleefully how many of his teachers and classmates called him annoying over the years.

Especially during gym, he’d texted, exclamation point and all. Sore losers!

“Whatcha drawing?” Travis asks, barely a minute later.

Not looking up from the screen, Nolan fights the urge to smile to himself.

In response to Travis’ tales of being annoying Nolan had told him about all the things he used to find annoying during high school. On the top of the list had been people asking him what he was drawing every time they spotted him with his notepad.

“A room,” he says, earning himself a thoughtful hum from Travis.

“What’s in it?”

“Not much,” he answers.

“Cool,” Travis says, voice getting a little bit mumbly, but when Nolan looks over his shoulder, he still has his eyes open, meeting Nolan’s eyes.

He looks like he means it. Which- Maybe that’s what Travis’ classmates used to get annoyed by as well. His stupid honesty and sincerity and the way it makes you feel all weird and warm inside.

“Your teachers told you to draw rooms?” Travis asks then, making Nolan roll his eyes fondly. “Like – Is there a room drawing assignment in art school? Or- I mean the Illustration program? And if there is does that mean there’s also an outdoor assignment? That’d be kinda cool. Drawing like a tree and a river and maybe some corn.”

Corn, Nolan mouths to himself, shaking his head. He knows that Travis’ family grows corn on their farm and that’s probably where he’s coming from but it still sounds a little bit random, so much so that Nolan kind of wishes he had a drawing of a cornfield or something in his portfolio, just to be able to see the surprised delight on Travis’ face that it’d probably conjure up if Nolan whipped it out. Travis seems to be ridiculous and easily pleased like that.

“It’s not a ‘draw a room’ assignment,” Nolan explains, squinting a little at the selection of greys he’s trying to pick from. “It’s- Fourth years have to hand in a thesis project during the fall semester. Four pieces with some sort of cohesion that get showcased in the school during spring semester. So that potential students who think about signing up for the program can see what the program’s about. It’s like, whatever.”

Nolan isn’t exactly thrilled to have a bunch of high school kids looking at his stuff, but it’s probably a good thing to get used to if he wants to make some sort of living doing art, which is still a bizarre thought and if Nolan is being honest, he never really expected he’d get this far. College, graduating college, that shit had always seemed so far away, part of a future Nolan never really thought he’d get to, but now it’s his fucking present and he has no idea what he’s doing.

“What’s, like, the theme though?” Travis asks then, another barely hidden yawn making Nolan shake his head. He still doesn’t get why Travis didn’t just go home. “Art has themes, right?

Letting out a small laugh, Nolan glances back over his shoulder again, Travis is barely even squinting at him through hooded eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, it does.”

“So whatcha drawin’?” Travis yawns, the last syllable barely even audible.

“I’m drawing backgrounds, Travis,” Nolan answers, tapping the back of his stylus against his chin. “Are you sure you don’t want to go home? Get some sleep?”

“ ‘m fine,” Travis mumbles, even giving Nolan a lopsided smile when he looks over his shoulder again. “Backgrounds is not a theme though.” He pauses, squinting again. “Or is it?”

Nolan doesn’t think he’s going to get used to Travis’ genuine interest anytime soon. Especially not if it’s paired with Travis already sounding half asleep, like he’s struggling to stay awake at every word. It’s endearing in a way, Nolan loves and hates at the same time. He wants to hide his face, but he also really wants Travis to keep looking at him like that.

“I like to draw feelings,” he finds himself saying, clearing his throat, looking at the canvas instead of Travis, because he can’t. Telling Travis this feels strangely personal. “And for this project I’m- I’m doing ‘loss’. So that’s the theme, I guess.”

Turning back around after a few moments of silence pass, Nolan half expects Travis to have fallen asleep. He looks like it too, eyes closed, quiet, arms crossed over his chest, but just as Nolan means to turn back to his drawing, he mumbles:

“Tell me about it.”

Blushing, Nolan tugs at his hoodie strings. “About loss? I-” He shrugs uselessly, glancing back at his drawing.

There’s not much to tell, he means to say, but somehow the words don’t make it out.

Ivan and Kevin don’t really ask Nolan what he’s drawing anymore. They used to but Nolan was never really one for explaining much, figuring that people would have their own interpretation of shit anyway and that in the end his thoughts that went into a piece only really mattered to him. But Travis wants to know, wants Nolan to tell him       him. He hasn’t even seen what Nolan is drawing and he still wants to know, wants to hear Nolan talk about it. Like Nolan’s thoughts are what matter to him, more than what ends up on the drawing for everyone to see.

“There’s a lot to it, you know?” Nolan says quietly, picking the stylus back up. “There’s a lot you can fit into loss. Sadness, anger, hurt, fear, it’s- I don’t know, it’s just so big, and I like that in a theme it gives me space to just- To just explore it in a way that makes sense to me.”

There’s probably a better, smarter way to explain it, but Nolan’s never been one for fancy words, always preferred to let other people do the talking, the thinking, putting feelings into words. There’s a reason why Nolan isn’t a songwriter or poet. He doesn’t do words. It’s so much easier to turn what he’s feeling into a drawing than a sentence.

Pressing the back of his cold hand against his heated cheek, Nolan glances back at Travis again, finding him still with his eyes closed, not having moved an inch while Nolan was talking.

“Travis?” he tries quietly.

Travis’ eyelids barely even twitch, despite the “ ‘m listening,” he mumbles, barely any part of it enunciated.

“I don’t think you are,” Nolan mumbles back, tugging one foot up and resting his chin on his knee as he looks at Travis and the way he doesn’t react. “I think you are falling asleep right now.” He waits for a moment, trying another “Travis?” but again Travis doesn’t answer, his chest rising and falling slowly, lips slightly parted.

Nolan can’t help but shake his head. Travis shouldn’t be here. If he only got half an hour of sleep during his entire 24 hour shift and he then dragged his ass over to Nolan’s to hang out with him, thinking that he could stay awake until whenever Travis’ usual bedtime is then he’s got to be at least a little bit delusional. Sure, Nolan knows that people do shit like pull all-nighters for college but Travis worked a fucking car crash and a burning building, he’s been on his feet for hours. And hell, Nolan himself hasn’t gotten through a full day this past year without at least taking a short nap during the day. He doesn’t think he could, at this point.

“I think I drew you, the other day,” he tells the sleeping Travis quietly after a while. “But you really didn’t fit, you know? You are too…”

He sighs a little, feeling the slow flutter of his heart in his chest, wondering how different it would sound to Travis’ if Nolan lied down next to him, ear against his ribcage. He wonders if Travis would let him like he let Nolan put his feet in his lap the other day when Nolan had gotten too tired to keep playing himself, handing over the controller.

“You’re too… bright,” he finishes, thinking back to the little out of place fox he had put in his drawing, right there outside of the room, peeking through the broken window, all sweet and curious, just like Travis seems to be. “And loss isn’t bright, it’s- It’s all dim and dark and gloomy and not at all like you.”

Not at all like you make me feel.

 

Kevin is still engrossed in his conversation with Matty and Brady when Nolan slips into the living room, apologetic expression taking over his face the second he spots Nolan.

“Patty, I’m almost done, give us like five minutes, yeah?” he says.

“Don’t worry about it,” Nolan mumbles, cutting Kevin off before he can get to apologizing or something. “Travis fell asleep anyway.”

Kevin blinks, tilting his head to the side in confusion. “He fell asleep?”

“Yeah,” Nolan says, picking up the blanket he came out here to get. “He barely got any sleep during his shift.”

“Who gets to sleep during their shift?” one of Kevin’s cousins pipes up, earning themselves’ a glare from Nolan while the other promptly chimes in. “I wish I’d get to sleep during work.”

“It’s 24 hour shifts,” he says, maybe a little defensively before turning on his heels.

Travis probably doesn’t get as cold as easily as Nolan, but Nolan shivers just looking at him and his naked arms, the way he’s lying on Nolan’s bed in just jeans and a t-shirt, so he figured a blanket would probably not do any harm. Except maybe that it makes Nolan feel all kinds of things when he carefully puts it over Travis who’s still out like a light, not having moved an inch yet.

It probably means that Nolan has been a crappy friend to Kevin and Ivan if taking care of someone, doing something as small as covering them with a blanket, feels so novel and unfamiliar to him. These days he feels like it’s always him who needs someone to take care of him. He’s always the one who wakes up with blankets piled on him he doesn’t remember crawling under, he’s the one who needs his friends to leave parties early for him, who doesn’t handle being on his own all too well. No one ever needs Nolan.

“I don’t understand why you picked me to be your friend. I’m not good at it,” he whispers, letting himself look at Travis’ sleeping face for another moment before tearing himself away, sitting back down at his desk.

He’s got work to do after all.

He draws another fox, feeling stupid the entire eight minutes he spends on it. He’s going to delete it again anyway, has put it on a different layer for that exact purpose, so really, he shouldn’t have wasted time on it and yet he put it there, the same little fox that he had peek through the window the other day. It still doesn’t fit to the rest of the drawing, looking wrong and out of place where it’s curled up in a corner, little snout resting on its bushy tail, eyes closed, sleeping while Nolan gives the world around it shape and color.

He’s so engrossed in his work that he doesn’t notice the knocking on his door, not until it’s paired with Ivan’s voice, calling Nolan’s name.

“Yeah?” Nolan answers, getting to his feet to meet Ivan at the door just as Travis mumbles a small little “Huh?” the blanket Nolan draped over him pooling in his lap as he blinks around the room drowsily, having sat up in an instant.

“It’s just Ivan,” Nolan says, shuffling over to the door to reveal –in fact- not just Ivan but Ivan and Kevin who curiously peeks into Nolan’s room.

“Yes?” Nolan raises his eyebrows at them.

“We were just wondering about dinner,” Ivan answers after a moment, the look on his face, making Nolan shift a little, crossing his arms. “Haysie was going to make spaghetti with meatballs, but then we weren’t sure if-”

“-if maybe Travis is a vegan,” Kevin chimes in, giving Nolan a smile that’s caught somewhere between supportive and Nolan doesn’t even fucking know what. Delighted?

He just knows it’s making his cheeks heat with embarrassment. It’s fucking clear that Kevin and Ivan are checking on him and Travis. Sometimes they really act like they’ve got to parent him.

“I’m not,” Travis pipes up then, just as Nolan’s brain catches up with what Ivan said, not just his intention.

Spaghetti with fucking meatballs. Loaded with carbs and calories and fuck, Nolan knows the way Kevin cooks, knows he never even buys the lean ground beef but regular, and the pasta and sauce- And Nolan won’t even be able to get away with a small portion size because Kevin was there for lunch, knows that Nolan only ate a small salad, having lied about having had a big breakfast on campus, so now- So now Nolan is fucked. He would be even if Travis wasn’t here and he can’t-

“ ‘m sorry, I fell asleep,” Travis says, having shuffled over to Nolan, sweet, tired smile on his face, his hair looking a little bit ridiculous with how messy it is from the pillow. “Hi guys,” he adds to Kevin and Ivan.

“Hi, Travis,” Ivan says, Kevin even offering his fist for Travis to bump. “Rough day at work?”

“Yeah, too many kittens up trees,” Travis answers, easy and light, stretching a little, making his back crack and his shirt ride up in a way that-

Nolan pointedly looks at the loose button on Ivan’s shirt, fighting the urge to make a run for the bathroom right fucking now. But he’s cornered, there’s no way out, Kevin is smiling, clapping Ivan on the back before turning around, disappearing in the direction of the kitchen -closely followed by Ivan- to be a good fucking friend, a good fucking roommate and cook and Nolan absolutely hates him for it. He loves him, he’s grateful, but he also hates him.

He’s going to have to eat in front of them, in front of Travis, and there’s no way out. No way around it.

The other night Travis at least left before dinner but Nolan can’t kick him out again. Not when Travis is looking at him like that, sweet and soft and hopeful and a little bit apologetic as he repeats:

“I’m sorry that I fell asleep. Not really a quality hang out, eh?”

“It was fine,” Nolan answers, clearing his throat, putting on what he hopes is a convincingly neutral face. “Worth it for all those kittens rescued out of trees, right?”

“Damn right,” Travis says, face lighting up a little, even though all Nolan did was reference Travis’ own joke. “Hold on, I’ve actually-” Holding up his hand for a moment, Travis fishes his phone out of his pocket, following Nolan to his desk, while scrolling through it. “I’ve got this great fucking picture- Ah. Got it. Here.”

He holds his phone out for Nolan to look at.

For a second Nolan’s brain doesn’t know what to do. There’s a picture on Travis’ phone showing himself in full firefighter uniform, just like he wore that day on the stairs, but this time he’s not carrying an ax, he’s carrying a cat that looks like it’d bite Travis’ hand off if it weren’t for the glove covering it.

“Dude,” he finds himself saying, the corner of his mouth curling up a little despite the way his stomach is still twisting. “That cat is definitely the one that set the fire. That face-”

“I know right?” Travis says excitedly. “Everyone always gets those cute, grateful, scared looking animals to carry out of the fire and me? I get this grumpy little asshole.”

He looks absolutely delighted, in the picture, grinning from ear to ear despite smudges of ash on his cheeks, and where he’s standing in front of Nolan.

“No cats last shift though, right?” he asks, sitting down and tugging one foot under himself again, as he picks up his stylus, fiddling with it out of habit.

“No,” Travis says, sitting down on Nolan’s second chair that’s usually covered in clothes but today miraculously empty, bar Nolan’s backpack and a cardigan around the back. “But no casualties either, so as shitty as it was, still a good shift.”

“That’s all it takes, eh?” Nolan bites his lip. He kind of wants Travis to keep talking, wants him to give Nolan something, anything that will keep his mind occupied, that will keep him from thinking about what Kevin is doing right now, only a couple of meters away. “For a shift to be good? No one dying?”

“Sometimes just getting through the day is all we can ask for,” Travis says with a shrug and a smile, that softens a little after a moment and for a second Nolan doesn’t know why, until he follows Travis’ gaze to his cintiq and his own drawing that it’s still displaying. The little fox sleeping in its corner and all the shadows and broken glass around it.

“Did you draw that?” Travis asks, scooting a little bit closer. “That’s the room? With the loss theme?”

“I- Yeah,” Nolan answers after clearing his throat. “I made a bit of progress while you were sleeping, but it’s not-” He gestures vaguely. “It’s not done and like- I know the colors aren’t right yet and that I need to figure out the lighting by the window but I’ll fix that and then-”

“It looks so good, Nolan,” Travis says, eyes wide and wonderous, still looking at the drawing, mouth a little bit open.

Nolan tries not to shiver at the way Travis’ lips curl around the syllables of his name.

“It’s not done yet,” he says awkwardly.

“It’s amazing,” Travis still says, tearing his eyes away from the drawing to look at Nolan. “Like, it’s- It’s so cool. I don’t know anything about art and I can’t talk all smart about it, but it’s- It’s really good. There’s, like, feelings happening and shit.”

Fiddling with a strand of greasy hair, Nolan looks back at his drawing, feeling Travis’ presence next to him like warmth directly touching his bones. It makes him shift, biting his lip again as he steals another glance at Travis.

“What feelings are happening?” he asks, barely able to keep his voice above a mumble.

Travis seems thoughtful for a moment, brows drawn together, fingers running along a slim silver chain he’s wearing around his neck absently. He seems to be making a real effort, which- Nolan wants to tell him that it’s fine, that complimenting the piece was already more than Nolan could handle in the first place and that all Travis really needs to do to answer Nolan’s question it repeat the theme Nolan already told him, but-

But Travis doesn’t.

He turns back to Nolan and before Nolan can get any words out, he’s already answered.

“Hope.”

Nolan blinks. “What?”

“Hope,” Travis repeats dutifully.

“Doesn’t make any more sense the second time,” Nolan blurts out, staring at Travis. “It’s not- It’s not hope. Look at it.

Travis –to his credit and Nolan’s irritation- just shrugs. “I did, and it’s- I get that it’s all dark and gloomy and that the room isn’t home-y, but there’s- Look.” He points to the snow outside of the window Nolan has drawn. “It’s all fucking cold outside, right? But this little guy-” he gestures to the fox Nolan still has to delete. “-he’s found shelter. He’s found this place and he’s sleeping, so he must feel safe and that makes this feel like maybe this isn’t home-y right now, but it could be? One day. And I don’t know, to me that’s hope.”

“But he’s not supposed to be there,” Nolan says, voice cracking the slightest bit as he avoids Travis’ eyes, frowns at the drawing instead, the out of place orange of the fox, the warmth it gives the room. “He’s not- He’s not part of the drawing.”

“Why’s he there then?” Travis asks, and he doesn’t sound upset that Nolan is shooting down his interpretation, simply curious in that way that is so Travis as Nolan is learning. “Why’d you put him in?”

“I don’t-” Nolan shakes his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I’m going to delete him, I just- I don’t fucking know.” He blows out a breath. “Maybe I wanted the company.”

Tilting his head, Travis squints for a moment then: “That’s fair,” Like Nolan didn’t just give the stupidest fucking reason ever.

Nolan so doesn’t get him. Nothing about Travis makes sense. Not his smile, not his laugh, not the way he so easily distracted Nolan, not the way he continues to do so, actually managing to convince Nolan to show him a few of his older drawings, asking Nolan about each and every one of them. Why he made the lighting in that one pink, why he likes drawing windows so much, what the theme is for this and for that and Nolan answers.

Not always fully, giving little half answers, mumbled words and shrugs but Travis just takes it, honest wonder in his eyes at each new file that Nolan opens for him.

“You are so freaking good,” he says, completely unironic, looking almost childlike in the way he leans forward, fingers hovering over the screen like his instinct is to touch.

Nolan can tell he means to say more, his mouth already open, but he gets cut off by Kevin calling them, a fucking sitcom worthy “Dinner’s ready!” making Nolan flinch.

Dread comes flooding back in and Nolan feels sick with it.

The smell that hits him the second he opens his door only intensifies the feeling. He should have found an excuse, he should have tried harder, should have maybe told Kevin and Ivan that he and Travis were going out for a burger and then Travis he could have told- Fuck, maybe that he needed to be back in time for dinner, it’s- It’s stupid. Nolan is stupid. Stupid and nauseous and while he manages to put on a smile, giving Kevin a quick hug, thanking him for cooking, he feels fucking shaky with the need to run.

“It looks really good, Kev,” he says, sitting down in front of his plate, loaded with food that Nolan’s stomach is yearning for, turning itself inside out with how much hunger he feels.

It’s not going to last though, Nolan knows. He knows his body is a liar, knows that the first few bites will feel good, will feel like what he needs but then his stomach will realize that no, this isn’t right, this is too much, he’s too full, and it’ll feel like he’s gagging on it, every single ounce of food he’s ingested weighing in his stomach, clogging up his throat.

He already regrets every bite before even picking up the fork.

The food doesn’t look good, it looks repulsive, because Nolan knows it’s going to make him feel that way, make his skin crawl, every fiber of his being revolting against it.

It’s why he doesn’t fucking deserve this.

Kevin is too good to Nolan, just like Ivan is, like Travis is starting to be with his sweet curiosity and kind smiles, honest compliments. They are all so fucking nice. Yesterday Ivan went to the administration’s office for Nolan, because he knows that Nolan hates it. Today Kevin cooked. Made the sauce Nolan used to love, used to secretly put on his food on cheat days before his father found out and banned his mom from ever making it. And what is Nolan doing? He’s pretending to eat. He’s cutting his spaghetti in smaller and smaller pieces, spreads the sauce on his plate, waves his fork around with a piece of meatball on it like he’s about to put it in his mouth and is just getting distracted by talking to his friends, making gestures and shit.

All three of them are half way done before Nolan forces himself to take the first bite, chewing it until it’s a tasteless pulp in his mouth that feels like it sticks to every inch of his throat as he makes himself swallow.

He’s the worst fucking person on the planet.

He doesn’t just not deserve any of them as friends. He doesn’t deserve this life, this comfortable fucking life. He’s going to college for god’s sake. He’s got a trust fund with enough money in it that if he’s a little frugal, it’s going to be enough to tide him over until he’s done with his education. His education in art, of all things. He’s got two amazing friends, lives in a nice apartment and he still-

It’s a good life and yet Nolan hates himself so much, he almost chokes on it, as he forces down the second bite.

When he’d first started dieting, he’d made the mistake of telling Kevin and Ivan that he wasn’t hungry sometimes, that he wanted a smaller portion, but that had only made them worry, had made them watch and pay attention, trying to make sure that Nolan was actually eating. It’d taught Nolan that the key to getting away with it, with doing what he needs to do, is acting like everything is okay. He can’t talk about dieting anymore, he’s not a girl, he’s not an athlete anymore, but when he does his thing, cuts everything into tiny pieces, moves it around on his plate, only eats little bits and then once he’s done, quickly volunteers to do the dishes, piling everyone else’s empty plates on his still mostly full one, he gets away with it.

“I’m gonna help,” Travis pipes up immediately, taking the pile of plates from Nolan’s hands, like he knows how much Nolan is struggling to carry the weight.

He’s being nice again and Nolan hates him for it like he hates Kevin for cooking.

“No, Trav,” he protests, shuffling after Travis, curling his hand around Travis’ wrist as they reach the sink. “Let me, yeah? Could you-” He clears his throat, trying not to focus on how much it itches, ready for him to get on his knees in the bathroom. “Could you get the glasses? So we can get everything done in one go?”

“Sure,” Travis answers, and it makes Nolan feel even worse because Travis just looks like he’s happy to help and all Nolan wants is for him to leave.

As soon as Travis turns his back, Nolan gets his plate from beneath the others, emptying the food into the trash can.

“Remind me to bring that downstairs, when you leave?” he tells Travis as soon as he’s back, gesturing to the tied close trash bag.

“Oh, I can take that,” Travis says distractedly, not even looking up from his phone as he places the glasses on the counter next to the sink. “The dumpster is in that alley to the left, right?”

“Right, but you don’t-”

“I want to.” Travis shrugs, a weird kind of look on his face as he shoves his phone back into his pocket. “I mean, saving you a trip up and down the stairs? I’m gonna feel like a real hero. Which-” He pauses again, looking up at Nolan. “Look, uhm, I kind of have to go. I know I was pretty bad company today, and I’m sorry for that, but-”

“It’s fine,” Nolan says quickly, his heartbeat picking up with anticipation.

Travis is going to leave. He’s going to leave and this time it doesn’t even seem like he’s doing it because Nolan is being weird but because of some other thing, some text he must have gotten, which means- Which means Nolan will get to purge, will get to get rid of that ugly heavy feeling in his gut, of that itch in his throat, he’ll get to make himself feel empty again and it’s not even at the cost of hurting Travis’ feelings. It’s almost too good to be true.

“Is everything okay, though?” Nolan still makes himself ask, pressing his thumb against the edge of the counter, licking his chapped lips, trying not to seem too relieved.

“Yeah, yeah,” Travis answers, a little too quickly. “It’s just that something happened at the warehouse fire, so it’s no longer under control and this kid from the B shift -Nick- got hurt, so I’ve gotta go.”

For a second, Nolan forgets about the mass of food that sits inside his stomach, getting digested more and more with each second.

“Back to the fire?” he asks, staring at Travis and the shadows that are still there –if not as pronounced under his eyes.

“No, the hospital. Apparently the guy’s family lives in Indiana and until they get here, someone needs to be there for him. So-” He gives Nolan half a smile. “I’m sorry. Thank you for feeding me, though.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Nolan mumbles, feeling a wave of shame wash through him. Travis is thanking him, when all Nolan could think about during dinner was how much he didn’t want Travis there, as funny as he had been, as great it had felt to see him get along with Kevin and Ivan, distracting them so Nolan didn’t have to make too much conversation himself. Nolan still- He still wanted Travis gone. Most of him still does.

“Thanks anyway,” Travis says and then, just like that, he’s gone, leaving Nolan with relief but also no distractions.

 

***

 

The plates are still dirty on the countertop next to the sink when Nolan sinks to his knees in front of the toilet, the cold bathroom tiles digging into his naked knees.

The shower is already running, having fogged up the room enough that Nolan could bring himself to strip out of his clothes, dreading the sight of his reflection in the mirror too much to do it any second earlier. His phone is playing songs, some Spotify playlist Nolan created what feels like ages ago but he barely hears any of the music over the rushing off blood in his ears.

He’s good at this, at purging, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. He fucking hates it actually. Hates how much it makes his throat burn, how sensitive his teeth are afterwards, hates the taste of vomit in his mouth. But it’s all worth it, the end result is worth it. It’s the only thing that matters, and Nolan has always been good at pushing his body, pushing himself for the sake of some goal, ignoring discomfort and whatever.

So it’s easy to put two fingers –index and middle- into his mouth, stroking them against that point he knows will trigger his gag reflex if he lets it. It’s practiced, muscle memory at this point, the way his stomach clenches, the way his chest heaves, his body leaning forward as his hands grip the toilet bowl and the first wave of vomit comes out, thick and chunky with the food Kevin so caringly prepared. It’s all splashing against the white porcelain of the toilet now and it makes Nolan feel like he can breathe again, like his entire torso isn’t too full with food to allow any air in his lungs.

Pressing his fingers back into his mouth, Nolan does it again, tears stinging in his eyes at the way the acid burns his throat. Still, he does it again, and again, three, four, five times, feeling a little bit lighter with each wave.

He just wishes the whole process wasn’t so exhausting, didn’t cost him so much strength.

His legs shake as much as his hands when he gets up and gets himself a cup of water from the sink, Mt Joy playing in the background. There’s saliva dripping from his chin, mixed with a bit of vomit, tears making his cheeks feel sticky. It’s not pretty, but Nolan never is.

He swallows the water, gulps it all down only to make himself throw up yet again, drawing out that last little bit of food that always so stubbornly refuses to go, like Nolan’s stomach is trying to hide it from him.

Nolan needs it gone though, so if this is what it takes, Nolan will do it. It’s all that matters after all.

 

***

 

Later that night, lying in bed and trying to hold back tears, Nolan thinks about Travis again. He thinks about the way he’d been breathing when he’d been asleep in this exact spot, soft and deep. How he hadn’t woken when Nolan had put the blanket on him, how he’d been so fucking exhausted but he’d still showed up at Nolan’s, still wanting to spend time with him.

He thinks about Travis having to leave, about how genuinely sorry he’d looked, how tired, still, and it makes his chest ache in a different way.

He wishes he would have met Travis years ago, when he still felt like a person, not like shards of broken glass, taped together haphazardly, barely functioning. He wishes he would have met Travis before falling apart, before he made all the wrong choices, before loss after loss left their mark on his useless fucking heart.

He thinks about how Travis had said his name and how the sound of it had echoed in Nolan’s chest, filling a bit of the emptiness there.

Nolan didn’t even hug him goodbye.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

Nolan texts Travis the next morning when he’s sitting in his car, waiting for the dizziness to fade enough that he feels steady enough to drive to class. It’s not much, just a quick ‘Everything good?’, but it still makes Nolan feel all kinds of things. Mostly because when Travis texts back an hour later Nolan can’t bring himself to put his phone away again, not until he’s formulated another reply to Travis and that’s- That’s new.

Travis makes Nolan want to text first. Again and again and again. Nolan doesn’t fucking now how it happens, but he does. He texts first. And not just once.

Sometimes when he knows Travis is coming off shift, he texts him and asks him how it was, sometimes when he can’t focus on drawing or struggles to fall asleep, he busies himself by sending Travis obscure song suggestions that he’s learned Travis will answer with some weird old man country music. Sometimes he sits on the couch while Kevin and Ivan play CoD and Travis asks what he’s doing so Nolan ends up giving him a play by play via text that has him smile at his phone while Kevin and Ivan exchange glances over Nolan’s head that make him blush and grumble, telling them to mind their own business.

And it’s a problem. Because Travis is still so fucking nice and it’s not just that. He’s also funny making Nolan laugh, even when he really doesn’t feel like it.

It’s a problem because it means that Nolan is no longer just friends with Travis so Ivan and Kevin can live their own lives more freely without feeling like they have to worry about Nolan. He’s friends with Travis because he likes him, because being friends with Travis feels good, because it sometimes helps distract him from feeling hungry, because Travis makes him think about stuff, just stupid silly stuff that Nolan doesn’t really care about but that occupies his mind anyway.

It’s a problem because Nolan meant it when he told Travis that he isn’t a good friend.

The next time he’s hanging out with Travis at the studio apartment, some shitty sitcom reruns running muted on TV while they are playing poker, he spells it out for Travis.

“It’s a big fucking city,” he says, watching Travis frown at the cards he’s holding, like he’s suddenly going to have an epiphany and understand how to not be abysmally bad at poker. “There are better friends to find.”

It’s enough to make Travis look up, crease between his brows, expression thoughtful and attentive. “Are you saying that because you don’t want to be friends with me?”

Pressing his lips together, Nolan looks at him, hoping that Travis will draw his own conclusions. The wrong ones, preferably. That way, Travis will give up on this all on his own and Nolan won’t have to be the asshole. It’s a role that comes easy to him but he still- He doesn’t want to, which- Again, part of the fucking problem.

Or,” Travis continues, drawing out the word a little, having gone back to frowning at his cards. “Or are you saying that because you think I won’t want to be your friend anymore if I get to know you? Because-” He pauses for a moment, again squinting, before pushing a candy bar into the middle, adding to the pot of sweets that Nolan will never eat, not in a million years even if he wins. “-if it’s the first one then I’ll leave you alone, I swear, but if it’s the second then please just give me a chance? Because I might not know a lot yet, but-” Again he pauses, looking up at Nolan, hopeful little smile playing on his lips. “But I know enough that I know I want to get to know you more. So there’s that.” Tilting his head a little his smile widens. “Your turn.”

Nolan wins the pot, but he also loses spectacularly because he apparently can’t say no to Travis so now when they text, it’s their own version of twenty fucking questions. Travis asks him about his favorite color (pale pink), so in return Nolan asks him about his least favorite animal (dolphins), and it’s all a little bit ridiculous and silly to a fault, but Nolan still likes it.

That is until they are strolling through some ‘electronics/hardware/whatever-you-may-need’ shop that Travis dragged Nolan to and Travis abandons their previous topic of ‘what should be taught in school but isn’t’ and moves on to romance of all things.

“How was your first kiss?” he asks out of fucking nowhere.

Nolan makes himself snort, despite the way he can feel himself tensing, fingers clenching the handle of their cart a little tighter. Talking about kissing with Travis is not something Nolan wants to do. Not when it’s going to make him notice the rose color of Travis’ lips more than he already does, the curve of his upper lips, the way they never look chapped even now that it’s getting colder.

“Bad, obviously,” he answers, pointedly looking at the second smoke detector Travis is intently reading the description of. “Everyone’s was, right?”

“I don’t know, mine was fine, I think,” Travis says easily, putting the smoke detector back on the shelf only to pick up a new one. “Didn’t get any complaints, anyway.”

“Oh, did you hand out a comment card afterwards?” Nolan asks, earning himself a laugh from Travis.

“Yeah.” He grins. “Rank this kiss one to ten, ten being motherfucking mind blowing and one I’d rather be kissing a platypus.”

“Great scoring system,” Nolan comments flatly, feeling himself relax a little against his better judgement. He just has to come up with the next question quickly, one that is far away from anything regarding kissing.

“Why was it bad though?” Travis asks, because of course he does. “Your first kiss.”

“I don’t know, because it was-” Nolan groans a little, plucking the smoke detector out of Travis’ hand and dropping it in the cart. “It just was. It’s not like anyone knows what they are doing the first time.”

“Mh,” Travis hums, fishing the detector back out of the cart. “What about your second kiss then. How was that?”

“Platypus too. Next question. And don’t-”

“Third kiss?”

“Jesus, Travis.”

“C’mon,” Travis pushes with a grin. “Give me something, Nolan.”

“Well, I don’t want to, okay? Shut up,” Nolan mutters, pushing the cart forward so it nudges against Travis, who just keeps standing where he is, curious, open smile painted on his face. Nolan kind of hates him. “Fine, whatever. Maybe they weren’t bad kisses. Maybe they just got bad in hindsight because the stuff afterwards was bad.”

Maybe the kiss itself, that first kiss, clumsily pressing his lips to Nico’s and feeling him kiss back had felt like the best thing in the world back then. Better than hitting the ice again after a long summer, better than having his father smile at him from behind the glass with pride, better than scoring an OT game winner. Better than anything.

Maybe Nolan had felt high with it, giddy and stupid and in love with his best friend. Maybe he’d kissed Nico again, right then and there and maybe he’d lied in bed that night, unable to stop touching his lips because they felt the same as before but also didn’t and when he had seen Nico again the next day on the ice, smiling at him, maybe Nolan had felt like the happiest person on earth.

Not that it had lasted.

Good things never do, and now Nolan can’t stand remembering any of those first kisses, or any that came after.

“The stuff afterwards?” Travis tilts his head a little, bracing himself on the end of the cart. “Do you mean like, they didn’t feel the same or-”

“TK? Teeks, hey!” Someone calls before Travis can finish his question, not that there was much mystery about where he was going with it.

There’s a woman walking down the aisle towards them, smirk on her face, which is- It’s probably objectively gorgeous or something. She is.

She’s shorter than Travis, but not by much, with dark hair curling down to her shoulders, matching the deep warm brown of her eyes. Something about her looks familiar, but Nolan can’t place it, not until Travis turns around, wrapping the woman up in a quick hug.

“Steph, hi!” he says, and right, Alexis’ party. He must have seen her there. She’s the one who brought Travis as her date. “What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for some light fixtures but then I heard your bitch ass voice,” Steph says, bright but teasing smile on her lips. Looking at Nolan, she gives Travis a nudge. “Who’s your friend?”

Glad for the thick parka he’s wearing, Nolan still shifts uncomfortably under her gaze. He clears his throat awkwardly.

“Oh, that’s Nolan,” Travis supplies without missing a beat, smiling at Steph. “We’re getting him CO2 and smoke detectors. There aren’t any at his place and that’s-”

“Against the fucking fire code, damn right,” Steph fills in, the two of them high fiving. “You know it’s the landlord’s job to put them in though, so this-” She gestures to the cart. “You don’t have to do this, Teeks. I mean-” She halts, looking at Nolan for a second before her eyes find Travis’ again, gleaming. “Konecny, are you-”

“Okay, okay, enough small talk,” Travis interrupts, letting out a weird little laugh. “Thanks for saying hi, Steph, but-”

“Oh, c’mon, dude, I can help.” She grins at him, bumping her hip against his. “I swear I’m a great wing-”

“It was so nice running into you, Stephanie. Oh my god, girl,” Travis says, loudly talking over her as he takes her by the shoulders and walks her backwards as she giggles, looking up at him like-

Nolan can’t watch them any longer. He hates this. He hates feeling like this. Travis looks so good with her. They fit. If they were walking through this store together, people would think that they are a couple, one of those –of course they are- couples. Same job, both bright smiled and outgoing, just walking around, talking loudly, laughing together, it’s-

It’s making Nolan feel like turning on his heels and walking away from Travis and his stupid smoke detector quest, but before he can make up his mind, Travis is already coming back towards him, sheepish smile on his face, cheeks red, a hand running through his hair. He looks embarrassed, like maybe Nolan caught him flirting with his crush or something, which Steph might be. It’d make sense. Travis might not have been Steph’s date date to Alexis’ party but maybe Travis wanted to be, maybe-

“Sorry about that,” Travis says. “That was Steph. You know, from the station.”

“She seems cool.” Nolan manages to muster up a neutral expression, grateful for the sudden hunger pains that distract him from the feeling in his chest.

“She is,” Travis simply agrees. “She likes to tease me.”

And Travis probably likes that, judging from how flustered he had seemed. Maybe that’s the dynamic that the two of them have, easy back and forth, chirping each other, just- Just team stuff. Fuck. Crushing on someone on your team, it’s not- It gets messed up so quickly. Which might be why Travis hasn’t made a move on her yet.

“So, how about that stuff?” Travis asks then, apparently finally deciding on a smoke detector and dumping five of it in the cart. “That makes you think of your first kiss as bad?”

Pressing his lips together, Nolan shakes his head, picking up one of the detectors and frowning at it. He doesn’t know what half the shit means that it says on the back. Not that he’s actually trying to understand it, and isn’t just using it as a tool to buy himself time.

“It’s my turn, you know,” he says after a moment, shooting a look at Travis. “To ask a question. That’s how the game works.”

They haven’t really been playing by any rules, but still. Nolan doesn’t want Travis to keep asking about this. He doesn’t want to go and remember all the shit that went down back then just so he can tell Travis a lie anyway. That’s not something Nolan wants to do in the middle of some store, or ever really, if he’s being honest. Hell, not even Ivan knows half of what happened with Nico before everything went so fucking far downhill that Nolan is pretty sure the fall should have killed him.

“What’s your question then?” Travis asks, one hand on the handle of the cart now, right next to Nolan’s, steering them to the other side of the aisle.

Distantly Nolan wonders if Travis can sense how cold Nolan’s fingers are.

“Do you think Steph’s pretty?”

It’s a stupid question. Of course Travis thinks she’s pretty, that’s why he’s frowning at Nolan now, confusion painted on his face.

“Uh, I guess?” He scratches his neck. “Was that your question?”

“No,” Nolan says quickly, smoothly. Travis can be a bit of an idiot. He’s basically just given Nolan a free question. “My question is- Your first kiss. Would you rather kiss that girl again, or her?”

“Who?”

“Steph.”

“I don’t-” Travis laughs a little, awkward. “Do I have to?”

“That’s how the game works.”

“Fine.” Travis makes an over exaggerated noise, throwing out his arms. “If I have to then I guess…. Steph.” He pauses for a moment, looking at Nolan, the hint of a smile on his lips. “If it’s between those two.”

“I bet she’d like that,” Nolan comments, looking away. “Your turn again. And no more kissing stuff. Ask me about my Hogwarts house.”

“Don’t have to, you’re a Slytherin,” Travis answers easily, but he doesn’t push further, lets himself wrapped up in a fucking Harry Potter question (Travis thinks he’s a Gryffindor, but Nolan argues for Hufflepuff, just to keep the topic going) and it’s good, it’s fine, it’s exactly what Nolan needs.

Talking to Travis about stupid shit so he doesn’t think more about him and Steph than he has to, which is- He shouldn’t have asked in the first place, because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if Travis is into his pretty, and funny, and female firefighter friend. It’s just nice that he has another friend other than Nolan, so it doesn’t really make sense that Nolan feels so fucking gloomy having to put more effort than usual into keeping up appearances while they make their way through the store and finally to the line at the cash register, where Travis -the traitor- fucking abandons Nolan with a quick “forgot something, gonna go get it real quick”. Which isn’t a big fucking deal either because Nolan is an adult and he can totally deal with talking to a cashier, it’s just that this was Travis’ stupid idea, going to the store and buying a butt load of smoke detectors and whatnot, and Nolan didn’t even bring his wallet, too perplexed by Travis’ plan for the day.

Which means that the closer Nolan and his smoke detector filled cart get to the front of the line, the more nervous he feels, throwing glance after glance over his shoulder, mentally willing Travis to manifest himself before Nolan is going to have to die of embarrassment by virtue of being a goddamn adult attempting to buy shit without his fucking wallet.

Thankfully Travis reappears at the last second, just as the customer in front of Nolan gets handed his receipt by the unnervingly friendly cashier lady.

“I’m back, I’m back,” Travis says, grinning, cheeks tinted slightly red. “Almost forgot these.”

In his hands, he’s holding a package of fairy lights.

 

***

 

“So let me get this straight-” Kevin starts, staring at the ceiling in their living-room. “-Travis bought and installed smoke detectors for us?”

“Yup,” Ivan answers, giving Kevin a meaningful look from where he’s sitting on the couch, arm around Nolan’s shoulders.

“We didn’t have any,” Nolan mumbles into the pulled up hood of his sweater. “And he says that you should. Like, in any bedrooms and rooms adjacent to bedrooms. Or something.”

“That’s-” Kevin says, blinking at Nolan, then the ceiling and the smoke detector again.

“-nice of him?” Ivan supplies helpfully. “Very nice of him.”

Nolan wants to die maybe a little bit. “Could you guys not make a big deal out of this, please?”

“We aren’t,” Ivan says, nudging Nolan’s knee with his. “I promise. We are just- We think that it’s nice of him. To do that. That’s all.”

“Very nice,” Kevin fucking repeats. “And you went to the store with him?”

Nolan makes a noise back in his throat, slumping down a little further on the couch as he glares at Kevin. “Would’ve been a bit of an asshole move to not go with him.”

“Well, yeah but-”

“I just fucking went with him, okay?” Nolan groans, rubbing a hand over his face. “He said he wanted to go to the store and then we were there and he told me about the fire code thing and I don’t know. We fucking bought the smoke detectors and new fairy lights for my room.”

“New fairy lights for your room?” Ivan’s eyebrows climb up his face.

Nolan glares at him. “Since when do we have an echo?”

“What’s wrong with the ones you had?” Kevin asks, as unbothered as ever by Nolan’s bitchiness. “Over your bed, right?”

“They were broken,” Nolan mumbles, feeling his cheeks flame up at the look Kevin gives him.

“Since when?”

“I don’t know. Like last spring maybe.”

“Last spring?” Kevin furrows his brows. “Why did you wait until now to buy new ones?”

“I just-” Nolan blows out a breath. “I don’t know.”

“That’s really nice of him though,” Ivan says after a beat of silence, pulling Nolan a little bit closer. Like they haven’t called Travis ‘nice’ a million times already. “To get you new ones.”

“Yeah, well.” Nolan frowns, letting Ivan press a kiss to the top of his head, he doesn’t get why they keep riding the same point of Travis being nice. “It’s whatever. He’s weird like that.”

“I don’t think it’s weird,” Kevin says, letting himself plop down on the couch on Nolan’s other side.

“I don’t think it’s weird either,” Ivan agrees.

 

***


Nolan lies in bed, and this time, he doesn’t look at the empty ceiling, he looks at the fairy lights and the warm, gentle light they spread.

He didn’t lie to Kevin, he thinks that the old fairy lights broke sometime in spring but the truth is Nolan doesn’t really remember. He doesn’t know when he’d gotten used to the darkness in his room, when he’d stopped ever really noticing the string of lights above his bed. He doesn’t think he’s thought about them in months before Travis had commented on them while half asleep already, calling them cool.

It feels a little weird thinking about it now, because Nolan does remember when he’d first gotten fairy lights for his room, and he sure as hell remembers the first comment he’d gotten on them.

Nico had frowned at first, then snorted as he’d flopped down on Nolan’s twin bed, hands behind his head, wearing the same Wheat Kings shirt as Nolan.

“Did you buy these?” he’d asked and Nolan had just shrugged because yeah he had, together with Ivan. They’d been hanging at the mall and somehow the display of Christmas lights had just caught Nolan’s eye. “They look pretty fucking gay, dude.”

I think I am, Nolan had thought but not said, swallowing down the words in favor of kissing Nico, letting him push his tongue in his mouth, feeling his hand on his ass.

He’d thought tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going to tell him. But he hadn’t. He’d practiced though. Had locked himself in the bathroom, turned on the shower so no one would hear and had looked at his own reflection in the mirror –rosy cheeks and messy hair- while saying it out loud for the first time. First “I think I’m gay”, then just “I’m gay”.

He’d thought his heart was going to beat out of his chest, shattering his ribs with how fast it was racing. He’d felt like dying a little bit too. Like he’d die if he ever did say it to another person, but also if he didn’t.

The next time Nico had kissed him, Nolan had almost said it again. The next time they had been on the ice and one of their fourth liners –Max- called the ref a cocksucker, Nolan had almost said it. The next time he had gotten down on his knees for Nico, he almost-

But he hadn’t. Not for another month.

Looking back, Nolan should have kept his mouth shut altogether. Looking back, he should have known better.

Rolling onto his side, Nolan reaches for his phone, thumbing open Instagram. It’s not an app he’s really active on anymore. Once upon a time he used to post some art here and there but these days it’s mostly just to follow Kevin and Ivan. And now Steph. Travis doesn’t have any social media, says he doesn’t really get it any of that stuff and never bothered to learn, but Steph –pretty, perfect Steph who Travis would kiss given the choice- she has an Instagram where Travis sometimes makes guest appearances in her stories.

There’s one from yesterday, where Steph is sitting on some porch with a couple of other guys. It’s captioned –after shift day drinking- and it features Travis sitting next to Steph, looking happy and smile-y, with her hand on his knee.

Someone yells something about mermaids –wtf- and Travis throws his head back laughing while Steph, steals his hat, placing it on her own head and throwing a peace sign for the camera. It looks like a good time, like Travis being among friends, it looks-

Nolan makes himself watch the story three times before putting his phone away, then a fourth time when after an hour of lying curled up in bed, he still can’t find sleep. He wonders if maybe this means that Travis will eventually stop wanting to hang out with Nolan every other day. It’d make sense. He started his little ‘befriend Nolan’ quest when he didn’t have anyone else in the city but he very clearly does now and Nolan- Nolan isn’t a good time like the people in that video. He used to be, maybe when he still made an effort, when he still tried, for whatever reason, but these days he just doesn’t have the energy anymore.

It just fucking sucks that Travis actually has become Nolan’s friend, before this happened. It’d been easier to handle then for Nolan. He’s already dreading having to tell Ivan and Kevin. They are still so fucking excited every time Nolan mentions Travis –they’ve actually taken a liking to him as a person too, trying to make four people hang outs happen- and they are going to be so disappointed when it’s going to stop.

-because it will, eventually.

Travis shows up on Steph’s Instagram the next day again, in some weird post about working out and how Steph could bench press him which makes Travis look half offended, half curious. He still messages Nolan, though, asks to hang out despite so clearly having better options available to him by now.

Need to get some drawing done today, Nolan texts him back maybe half an hour later and it’s not even a lie. He does. Time just keeps fucking passing, and day after day it gets colder outside and the eventual deadline of finishing this project gets closer. On top of all the other class work Nolan has to do.

Travis isn’t as easily deterred though, it seems.

I could still come by? He texts, closely followed by a I promise not to be annoying! :)

And the thing is, Nolan is pretty sure Travis wouldn’t take offence if Nolan insisted on not wanting to hang out, but-

But he doesn’t. He types it out twice, almost hits ‘send’ each time, but eventually he deletes it, puts his phone away only to pick it up again a minute later. This way he’s not going to get shit done either. It’s a bit frustrating and the only reason why Nolan gives Travis the okay to come over, at least that’s what he tells Kevin and Ivan when they look at Nolan in confusion when he emerges from his room at the sound of the doorbell ringing. They know he was planning to spend the day drawing, so him changing his plans it’s- It’s weird. But Travis is a little weird –no matter what Ivan and Kevin say- so Nolan feels kind of justified in acting a bit weird too. It’s whatever, anyway.

Travis wears the same crinkly eyed smile he did that first time Nolan came to his place when Nolan opens the door for him and it makes Nolan’s heart tumble a little. It’s all pretty stupid really.

“Thanks for letting me come over,” Travis says, stripping out of his jacket and kicking off his shoes, while Nolan watches, hands buried in the pockets of his sweatpants.

“It’s going to be boring,” Nolan warns him, just like he had via text. This time he gets a real life grin instead of a typed smile-y in answer.

Passing through the living room Kevin and Ivan call their hellos but Nolan quickly pushes Travis along, much to Travis’ amusement it seems.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” he says confidently, making Nolan shake his head once they’ve reached his room. “I’ve brought some stuff to read.” At the surprised noise Nolan lets out, Travis’ giggles a little. “I do read on occasion, I’ll have you know. This one’s a manual on water rescue.”

“So work stuff?” Nolan says, closing the door behind Travis, watching him drop a medium sized paperback onto the bed, closely followed by throwing himself on there, bouncing a little.

Nolan can’t help the smile that sneaks onto his face.

“What can I say, I love being good at my job,” Travis says, rolling onto his stomach and resting his head on his hands. The way he smiles at Nolan-

Nolan has to clear his throat, and look away for a moment.

“The grind is real, eh?” he says lamely.

“All day, all night, baby,” Travis says, like he’s completely oblivious that being called baby even if it’s in such a casual way that doesn’t fucking mean anything, does things to Nolan.

“I’ve gotta-” He starts, gesturing to his desk.

“Oh!” Travis says gaze immediately turning apologetic. “Right. Of course. Sorry, sorry. Please proceed. I’ll behave.”

He even mimics locking his mouth and throwing the key away.

Nolan maybe wants to shove him off the bed. Just a little bit. Just to see if it’d make him giggle like Nolan is imagining.

“The lights look nice,” Travis says, not three minutes after Nolan has turned his back to him.

Stylus in hand, hunched over the cintiq, Nolan tries to focus on the hunger pains instead of the memory Travis’ comment conjures up once again.

“Yeah,” he manages eventually, and thankfully, Travis doesn’t say anything else.

When Nolan looks over his shoulder, he seems completely engrossed in his book.

Somehow Nolan actually manages to make good progress on his work. Once he’s in the zone it’s easy to just keep going and if Nolan sneaks glances at Travis now and then, then no one could blame him. He still flies through the sketch layer like it’s nothing, still manages to translate what he’s got in his head onto the canvas with so much ease, it’s almost scary, especially when the little fox sneaks itself into the drawing again and this time it’s not even sleeping. It’s not even something Nolan thinks he’s going to erase again, even though it doesn’t fit with what he was going for. But it’s there now, scuttling along the bottom of the canvas, head turned towards the top of it. A little like it’s looking at the stars.

Most of the time when Nolan glances over at Travis, Travis is busy reading not noticing.

Sometimes, though, sometimes, he’s already looking at Nolan, catching him, and those times, Nolan always bites his lip, always focuses back on the drawing even harder so he doesn’t get too tangled up in the feeling of getting caught of being incredibly stupid for looking at Travis like this.

Travis is fucking good looking, but so what? Nolan knew that from day one, and it still makes him feel fucking awful sometimes, especially when he remembers the abs Travis has hidden under his tight shirts and oversized sweater, when all Nolan has beneath his layers is his chubby gut, the fat hanging off his thighs, the floppiness of his upper arms where Travis has defined biceps muscles that looked so god damn good in that work out gear Travis was wearing in Steph’s story that Nolan kind of wanted to toss his phone out of the window.

The memory alone makes his throat itch a little bit and-

“Patty?” Nolan frowns, turning away from his drawing as the sound of Kevin’s knocking makes Travis look away from him and towards the door too. “Patty, can I come in?”

“Uh, yeah?” Nolan blinks.

Sure, Kevin usually knocks once or twice but he never actually waits for an okay from Nolan, which- God, Nolan just hopes this won’t be another dinner situation. Kevin and Ivan had both been out most of the first half of the day so he’s gotten away with lying about having had a big lunch, but it’s always a bit of a gamble, trying to get out of dinner too.

“We don’t want to interrupt you guys or anything,” Kevin starts, giving Nolan a look that’s probably supposed to communicate something but only makes Nolan frown harder. “But Ivan and I were going to play some Mario kart and we thought maybe you wanted to join?”

“I’m still working, Kev,” Nolan says, gesturing to his cintiq. “I’m not-”

“Are you sure?” Kevin asks. “Don’t you want to take a break?”

“No, I’m- It’s going really well, Kev,” Nolan answers, giving Kevin a pointed look. “I’m making a lot of progress, but-” He glances over at Travis. “I think Travis might be dying of boredom.”

“Hey,” Travis says, mock exasperated expression on his face. “I’m very entertained, okay?”

Nolan raises his eyebrows. “By what?”

He’s only now noticing that Travis’ water rescue book is lying cover down on the bed next to Travis’ hips.

Tilting his head a little, Travis grins, eyes twinkling. “You.”

Making a noise in the back of his throat Nolan tosses his stylus at Travis. “Shut up.”

Travis catches it easily. “I’m serious.”

“Because watching me draw is so entertaining.”

“It is,” Travis says, all sincere, smile on his lips. “You’re all focused.”

Cheeks immediately flush with heat, Nolan glares at Travis. “Not this again.”

Travis shrugs.

“Not my fault, you’re so pretty when you concentrate. Like-” His grin widens a little and he taps his fingers against the space between his own brows. “You’ve got like this crease here, and your eyes are all, like-”

“Oh my god,” Nolan groans. “Shut up. Go away. Go play Mario kart. I mean it.”

“Am I being banished?” Travis asks with a giggle.

“Yes.” Nolan throws another pen at him. This one hits Travis in the chest. “Domestic authority.”

“Damn it, you sure?”

He gets up though, tossing both the stylus and the pen back at Nolan. The expression on his face is kind of unbearable. Just like the one on Kevin’s when he meets Nolan’s eyes after Travis has strolled out of the room and towards the living-room.

“What?” Nolan bites out, rubbing a hand over his heated cheek. “Shut up.”

“I’m not saying anything, Patty,” Kevin says, his deep voice all low and gentle.

“You are,” Nolan grumbles. “With your face.”

“My face is just happy for you,” Kevin says, but thankfully another glare from Nolan has him finally step away, closing Nolan’s door behind himself after throwing Nolan another smile.

 

***

They eventually finish Until Dawn. It’s an afternoon spent on the couch where Travis and Nolan keep passing each other the controller whenever there’s a small breather between decision making and quick time events. Nolan kind of tries to convince Travis to keep it, to be the one to see this through to the end and do the saving people thing but Travis refuses, grins and bumps Nolan’s shoulder and tells him that Nolan can’t just quit on him and the entire (still somehow alive) cast of characters.

Travis doesn’t know that quitting is something Nolan is pretty fucking good at.

Travis also doesn’t know that Nolan kind of cheated, giving in the night before and googling some shit to figure out how to keep all the characters alive until the end, because Nolan might not really care but Travis is so god damn invested. He’s trying his literal best for these animated assholes, and Nolan doesn’t want him to be upset if it turns out not to be enough.

So when there’s a decision to make between following the voice calling for the character Travis is playing right now and ignoring it to follow the group, Nolan knows that to get Ashley through this alive, they can’t have her go off on her own to investigate the voice, even if the game tries to sell it as a chance to save Jessica –the blonde chick who miraculously turned out to not have gotten eaten by the monsters, proving Nolan’s conviction from early in the game wrong.

But Travis doesn’t know that and no matter how much Nolan argues, even pointing out that they’ve read in the dead guy’s diary that Wendigos can imitate voices, Travis insists that they still have to try, that it might still be real and that the chance of saving Jess should be worth the risk.

Ashley gets her head ripped off, of course, just like the walkthrough Nolan read said.

Travis almost drops the controller, staring at the screen.

“Told you,” Nolan says, and it’s meant to be teasing but somehow his voice trails off into something softer at the look on Travis’ face. It’s not really surprise or shock like Nolan had expected, not entirely anyway. There’s disappointment there too, mixed with defiance and sadness. “You can’t save everyone.”

“I had to try, though,” Travis still says, unmoving for another second before he musters up a smile and presses the controller into Nolan’s hand. “You always gotta try.”

“I think Ashley might disagree,” Nolan says, nodding to the screen. “Being dead and all that.”

He doesn’t have the heart to point out to Travis that his ‘you have to try’ attitude is what cost him their possibly perfect run. If he hadn’t they’d still have a body count of zero. To be fair though, reading the walkthrough Nolan had found the whole thing quite devious from the game developers: making it seem like one character was calling for help only to have it turn out that that character was save and the call for help was nothing but a trap getting one of the already ‘safe’ characters brutally killed.

“She gave it her all,” Travis says, like that matters, wrapping his arms around a pillow, resting his chin on top of it. “Tried her best for someone she cared about. I think she’s okay with it.”

“I’m not sure she cared about Jessica all that much, Travis,” Nolan feels inclined to point out, but Travis just shrugs, giving Nolan a small nudge.

Sighing to himself, Nolan presses start again.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

“Where are the guys anyway?” Travis asks, legs stretched out, feet resting on the coffee table, which Nolan isn’t a fan of but he’s also a little too comfortable and a little too sleepy to make a big fuss about it.

He’s lying on the couch, the top of his head against the outside of Travis’ thigh. They’ve just been lounging around since the credits of the game started rolling through and Travis had finished celebrating the two of them for saving everyone except Ashley and Josh, which- There’s no real way of saving Josh, but Nolan isn’t about to tell Travis that, not when Travis has this unshakeable belief that ‘saving’ someone always should be a possibility.

“You just have to try,” he’d said again, and it had made Nolan think of when they talked about Lawson about Travis saying that he would have tried saving his friend even if Lawson didn’t want him to.

That’s how you get your heart broken, Nolan had almost said but instead he’d pulled up his hood and scooted down on the couch, bringing himself into a horizontal position.

Travis had looked down at him with a questioning little smile on his face and Nolan had just shrugged, pressing his lips shut instead of answering. He doesn’t want to be the person to turn Travis into a cynic. He doesn’t want to be the next terrible thing that happens to him. He’s just going to be his friend, keeping his mouth shut about certain things, and then eventually when Travis realizes that he’s better off spending all his time with Steph, then that’ll be that.

But it’s not time for that yet. Travis looks perfectly content right where he is, sitting on a couch with Nolan, talking about this and that, finally arriving at a question about Nolan’s roommates.

“Uhm, they are probably-” Nolan starts, tilting his head a little to squint at the clock beneath the TV. “-at the rink by now. They’ve got a game today.”

“A game?” Travis repeats, looking down at Nolan with a crease between his brows.

“Yeah. Beer league. You know, hockey?” Nolan says slowly, because Nolan might not ever really talk about hockey these days but Ivan and Kevin still do so he’d just assumed that they mentioned it to Travis at one point. Not that they’ve hung out a lot, but-

“Oh, that’s so cool,” Travis says, genuine wonder painted on his face. “Man, I’ve always wanted to watch hockey live. Can we go?”

Snorting a little, Nolan frowns up at him. “It’s beer league, Trav. It’s not real hockey.”

If Travis wants to go watch a game live, he should go to the arena with his firefighter buddies. Make a nice day out of it with cheap tasting snacks and overpriced beer. Asking Nolan to watch his roommates play beer league with him, it’s kind of ridiculous. Plus, Nolan has been staying away from hockey for years. He’s not going to start changing that now, just because Travis is one of those weird Canadians who’ve lived outside of the hockey cosmos most of their life.

“Why is it not real?” Travis asks, because of course he does.

“ ‘cause it’s amateur,” Nolan says, rolling his eyes. “Kev and Ivan are the only guys on their team who actually understand the game beyond puck plus net equals goal. Ivan being able to skate backwards is considered an asset. That’s a low fucking bar.”

“It’s still gotta be fun though, right?” Travis says, eyebrows slightly raised, eyes twinkling a little. “Why else would Ivan and Kev play?”

“I mean-” Nolan frowns slightly. “I guess.”

“So maybe…” Travis continues, stretching the last syllable as a smile sneaks onto his face. “Maybe it’d still be fun to watch their game? Even if it’s an amateur league?”

It wouldn’t be, Nolan is pretty sure. Not because it’s beer league, but because it’s hockey. Nolan just- He’s kept away from hockey for a reason. Ever since quitting the Wheat Kings, since making the worst decision of his life, Nolan hasn’t set foot into a hockey rink. He’s never even once wanted to, except-

“I’ve never actually watched them play,” he admits, pushing himself into a sitting position, blinking away the lights that pop behind his eyes at the sudden movement. “The team, I mean. And Kevin. I-” Frowning a little at the realization, Nolan feels his heart clench. “I have never seen Kev skate.”

Travis’ eyebrows climb up his face. “Why not?”

“I-”

Because I quit hockey before ever meeting him.

Because Kevin wasn’t there before my fucking world ended.

Because Kevin has only ever known me after I’ve lost my family, but before I knew I’d never get them back.

Because I’m a bad fucking friend.

“I bet they’d love having you there,” Travis says easily, giving Nolan a hopeful smile. “I mean, you three are so close, it’s-”

“Travis,” Nolan interrupts him, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “I’m not- I don’t- He wouldn’t care.”

It’s a lie. It’s a fucking outright lie. Kevin would care. He’d be fucking delighted probably if Nolan showed up at his game and so would Ivan. So Nolan should- He should go. He knows he should. At least once, at least this one time, try because Kevin has been such a good friend to Nolan, recently and over the years and Nolan tried for Ivan. Tried when he went to the party, tried when he decided to meet with Travis so Ivan would have time to see his girlfriend, so Nolan doesn’t have any excuse to not do this.

Especially not when it’d make Travis happy too. If Nolan does this, maybe he’ll be able to keep Travis as a friend a little longer. That’ll only make it hurt more when Travis does eventually drop him, but-

“You really want to go?” Nolan asks, hoping his voice doesn’t sound as pained to Travis’ ears as it does to Nolan’s own.

Travis does want to go, apparently. So Nolan drives them to the rink.

“I can’t believe you’ve never watched any live hockey,” Nolan says once he has turned off the engine and is buying time by fidgeting with his wool toque. “What kind of Canadian are you?”

 “Hey. You’re from Winni-freeze-your-ass-off-peg, and I’ve never seen you not feel cold,” Travis counters, grin on his face, leaned back comfortably in the passenger seat of Nolan’s crappy little car. “What kind of Canadian are you?”

Travis has a point. Nolan is already shivering, and in his reflection in the rearview mirror his lips have a slight purple tint. He always feels cold but at the apartment he can crank up the heating and wrap himself up in blankets if he needs to. He can’t do that at a god damn hockey rink. Especially not with Travis who must be running fucking hot temperature wise to be content with only a regular jacket that isn’t even zipped up all the way.

“That’s why they kicked me out,” Nolan says, tapping his icy fingers against the steering wheel, glancing out of the window at the entrance to the rink. “Took my passport and everything.”

“Oh damn,” Travis says, faking a gasp. “No more maple syrup for you?”

“Nope.” Nolan forces himself to exhale, put on a smile and look back at Travis, the easy smile on his face. If he focuses on that, maybe he can do this. “No more moose porn either. No more poutine.”

“Shit, see, that’s just inhumane,” Travis shoots back. “Revoked your hockey privileges too?”

For a moment, Nolan’s smile freezes, heart skipping a weak little beat as air gets stuck in his throat. They are just joking around, poking fun at Nolan’s inability to generate any body heat himself while listing Canadian stereotypes and of course, of course Travis went to hockey. Hell, Nolan is the one who started it, teasing Travis for never having been to a game, so now-

“Nolan?” Travis asks, frown on his face. “Everything-”

“Yeah,” Nolan says quickly, giving Travis a shove (or the attempt of one, Travis’ body barely moves an inch, solid as a brick wall). “Everything’s okay. I’m all good. C’mon, let’s go in. Not gonna be able to watch the game from the parking lot.”

Travis doesn’t know how fucking close he came to the truth there for a second, even if it was in a twisted kind of way. It’s not fucking Canada privileges or anything that Nolan lost when he quit hockey, when he chose to come out to the wrong person and couldn’t handle the fall out. He lost his future, everything he’s ever dreamed off. Lost his mom, his dad, his sisters. Lost everyone and everything except Ivan who’d been injured at the time already contemplating if choosing a different life might be an option for him.

It had never been for Nolan and yet here he fucking is, living a different life, walking into small community rink with harsh, fluorescent lights flickering in the entrance area, about to watch a beer league hockey game, like there’s any way that makes sense.

“No one’s on the ice yet,” Travis notes once they are inside. “Are we too early?”

Shaking his head, Nolan frowns. They aren’t. There are a couple of people scattered through the stands but the ice in the middle of it all is empty, which- Nolan knows that the game was supposed to start about 5 minutes ago, according to schedule. Nolan has never played beer league though, he has no fucking clue if these things usual start on time or if the schedule is more of a suggestion than an actual schedule when it comes to puck drop times. If he’d ever gone before he might now, but-

“At least we’ve got time enough to say hi to Kev and Ivan like this,” Travis says, giving Nolan a smile. “C’mon, they’ll be so excited.”

Blowing out a breath through his nose, Nolan fixes the brim of his toque again. He doesn’t- He hates this a little bit. He hates how nice and innocent Travis is being, how honest and right. Of course Kev and Ivan would be excited if Nolan showed up at the locker room now, and this –them knowing he’s here- was half the reason Nolan came, but- But he feels so goddamn shaky on his legs already and it’s just- It’s a lot.

For a second Nolan’s gaze flickers to the doors they’ve just passed, the dark of the parking lot that lies behind the glass. For a second he considers running. Then Travis reaches out, eyes questioning, fingers brushing against the back of Nolan’s hand where he’s still fiddling with his toque, and it’s like for a moment the world stands still, still in Travis’ silent question.

“You’re right,” Nolan says, managing to put on a smile. “Let’s find the locker room.”

Not waiting for an answer, Nolan starts walking, not having to wait long before Travis falls into step beside him.

It’s not much of a challenge locating the locker room. There’s not a lot of creativity to be expected when it comes to the layout of small rinks like this one and Nolan has spent so much time navigating them as a kid, as a teen, as an almost adult, he could probably figure this out even without the signs on the walls.

It’s not just finding the locker room though, it’s the room itself. Nolan practically grew up on the ice, in hockey rinks, in locker rooms. It’s been years and the guys filling this one are older than the last time Nolan put on any hockey gear but it’s still practically the same. The talking, the laughing, the smell of old sweat, it’s all-

 Nolan barely has any time to take it all in, he and Travis haven’t even closed the door behind them before being met with a look of utter confusion on Ivan’s face as well as Kevin’s eyes widening comically when he spots them. Or Nolan, rather.

The rest of the team seems mostly disinterested, busy on their phones, or talking –something about the goalie being late because of a flat tire-but Kevin and Ivan stare like they’ve seen a ghost. Scratch that, like they are looking at a ghost right now.

Then the spell breaks and Nolan almost gets crushed by the hug Kevin wraps him up in, yelling “Baby cat!” like that’s an acceptable thing to call Nolan in front of god and the world and some amateur hockey team that now seems marginally more interested in their locker room visitors.

“Jeez, Kev,” Nolan mutters, nuzzling Kevin’s neck for a moment. “Quit making a scene.”

Out of the corner of his eye he catches Travis watching them, one of those curious looks on his face, but tinted with- With something.

“We’re allowed to make a scene, Patty,” Ivan says, interrupting Nolan’s train of thought, voice more subdued but no less excited. God, Nolan really must be an awful friend if this is their reaction to him showing up to a single, unimportant game. “This is huge, you’ve never-”

“Don’t,” Nolan interrupts him, untangling himself from Kevin only to get Ivan’s arm thrown around his shoulders and a kiss pressed to his toque. “Don’t make this a big deal, please.”

“Patty, it’s just that you never even mentioned that you were thinking about- You know.”

Nolan makes a noise in the back of his throat, feeling his cheeks heat.

“It was Travis’ idea, okay?” he mumbles defensively. “He’s never seen a fucking hockey game live so-” He makes a vague gesture, glaring at the ground. “-just be cool.”

“We’re always cool,” Kevin says earnestly, while Ivan looks between Nolan and Travis, a weird smile and curious look on his face that Nolan doesn’t want to think about for one second. “We’re the fucking coolest.”

“Yeah, right.”

“So you two are going to stick around for the game? Whenever the fuck it’s gonna start?” Ivan asks then after a short pause, arm still around Nolan’s shoulders, which Nolan is so fucking glad for.

It shouldn’t be but this, being here, it’s stressful, it makes Nolan feel anxious, and as undeserving Nolan is of Ivan’s friendship, as uncomfortable he is with their teasing right now, having Ivan to hold onto still gives him comfort, makes him feel a little more settled in his skin, enough so to nod at Ivan’s question, even though all he wants is to shake his head and have it be an acceptable answer.

“Hopefully Nolan has a bit of mercy with me and explains some shit,” Travis pipes up, eyes flickering from where he’d been looking at the arm around Nolan’s shoulders to Ivan’s face. “I don’t really know a lot, I’ve always wanted to play when I was a kid, but it never happened.”

“Hold on, you never played? Are you even really Canadian?” Kevin asks, booming laugh and everything.

Travis just shrugs, easy smile on his lips. “My family didn’t have the money, and then in high school all the hockey bros seemed like douchebags, so maybe I kept my distance.”

“Hey,” Ivan says, mock serious. “You’re talking to three former hockey bros here.”

Three.

Nolan swallows thickly, choosing to glare at a spot on the floor by Kevin’s feet.

There’s a sudden commotion behind them, the door having banged open to reveal an out of breath guy –the missing goalie, maybe- but Nolan barely pays attention.

Three.

He doesn’t understand why Ivan would just say something like that, simple and casual, like he’s assuming that Travis already knows about the rich fucking hockey history each of them have, most of all Nolan. Like this isn't going to invite questions, like Nolan isn’t going to have to sit behind the glass, watching hockey happen which is already stressful enough, but now he’s also going to have to either lie to Travis or explain to him that all three of them were pretty fucking close to going pro, that Ivan chose not to because of injuries that Kevin decided he’d rather be a teacher for whatever reason and that Nolan-

That Nolan quit because after working his entire life towards this goal, the idea of being in love, of being himself, seemed more important.

Nolan wishes he didn’t remember how it had felt to be a romantic instead of a cynic. Maybe then he’d not feel this rush of something go through him when Travis holds his hand to give him balance when they walk down the railing-less stairs of the stands. Nolan doesn’t know when Travis’ picked up on his balance issues but he’s grateful for the support somewhere underneath the embarrassment he feels, and more than that, not having to ask for it.

Somehow –and it’s another thing Nolan can’t for the life of him understand- Travis doesn’t ask about hockey once they’ve found their seats, not quite at center ice but right behind the glass anyway.

Weirdly fucking enough, he asks about Kevin, who’d promised he’d score a goal for Nolan just before Ivan had ushered them out of the locker room, because the team was about to hit the ice.

“So, uhm,” Travis starts, left foot tapping a nervous rhythm under his seat. “I’ve been meaning to ask, I haven’t really gotten around to it, but-” He clears his throat, shifting, unzipping his jacket only to zip it up again in the same breath, a movement Nolan follows with his eyes, momentarily distracted from his own nervousness by Travis’ display of it. “So. Look, like I know that you guys, all three of you, you are, like… close and that’s great, that’s awesome. Like really fucking awesome, honestly, but-”

He breaks off, rubbing his hand over his neck, eyes flickering to the ice where the teams are doing a quick warm up.

“What?” Nolan asks, when half a minute passes and Travis doesn’t pick up the thread of whatever the fuck he was trying to ask up again. “Are you having a stroke?”

The words sound harsher to Nolan’s ear than he meant them, but Travis still laughs, even if it’s just a small, surprised thing that does little to overshadow the slight dusting off pink on Travis’ cheeks.

“I don’t think so,” he says, clearing his throat before putting on a smile when Nolan nudges his knee with his knuckles. “I guess I’m just nervous, because I don’t want this to make things weird, but I’ve been wondering if maybe you and Kevin, if there’s something between you and him. Romantically. I know Ivan has Alexis, and close friendships don’t have to imply romance but I just- I’ve been wondering. The way he hugged you just now, and then the other day when-”

“Travis, stop,” Nolan cuts him off, a weird tight feeling coiling in his chest. “There’s nothing between me and Kevin.” He forces a laugh, shaking his head. “I don’t know why you’d think that.”

Why Travis would make such a cruel joke. Why he’d ask something that is so far outside of anything that’s reasonably possible. He’s got to see that Nolan isn’t someone anyone would date, let alone someone as great as Kevin. It doesn’t matter that Nolan has never been interested in Kevin that way, it doesn’t matter that Nolan has never really had a relationship ever, apart from that first dumpster fire with Nico and then a string of fuck buddies and one night stands and-

No.

“Oh,” Travis says, nodding to himself, rubbing his hands over his thighs as he looks back at the ice, where of fucking course Ivan and Kevin skate by right this moment waving at Nolan. “Ok. That’s good.”

“Good?” Nolan repeats, mostly because he has no idea what else to say.

This entire second half of the afternoon has been throwing him for loop after loop. First the anxiety about coming in contact with hockey again, being reminded of what a bad friend he is, Travis being all sweet and excited about getting to see some live hockey. And now it’s all being pushed in the background by this weird ass conversation that Nolan feels like is giving him a stroke the longer it goes on.

“Yeah,” Travis says, adjusting the snapback on his head, before turning a little in his seat, making his knees point more towards Nolan than straight ahead. “Cause, you know, might have been awkward if I called you pretty and all that in front of your boyfriend.”

“Well, he’s not,” Nolan says with a frown, unsure of what to make of the looks Travis gives him, nervousness replaced by a soft kind of excitement that makes Nolan want to look away all bashful and shit. It’s weird. “So. Good.”

Travis bites his lip, nudging his knee against Nolan’s thigh. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, now shut up,” Nolan says, shoving his hands in the pockets of his parka, making himself stare straight ahead at the ice where Kevin and some tall and lanky looking dude from the opposing team line up for the opening faceoff. “You want me to explain shit to you or not?”

 

Nolan never spent much time thinking about how it’d feel to watch hockey again, to be at a rink, to breathe in the smell of ice, to hear the shouts, the sounds of skates scraping over the ice, the puck hitting sticks, hitting the boards.

After ten minutes of game time where Kevin dominates the opposing center each time he’s on the ice, Nolan still isn’t sure how it feels. It’s not bad, not exactly, especially not with Travis asking question after question, squinting at the play on ice like he’s trying to solve a puzzle with Nolan’s help and that’s- That’s something. It makes Nolan try to remember if he’s ever had this wide eyed wonder for the game, if he’s ever been this curious. Hockey had never been something Nolan learned about, though. It’s something he simply grew up with. There are no memories he has of a time where he didn’t know about hockey, about the rules, the life, the culture. He never looked at a rink like Travis does now.

“I still don’t get it,” Travis says, sounding mildly frustrated when Nolan points out that the other team just committed offside but it’s not getting called because it’s fucking beer league and that’s why Ivan is glaring at the ref like he wants him dead.

“It’s really not that complicated,” Nolan says, letting out a small laugh at the exaggerated sigh Travis lets out.

“You must think I’m stupid.”

“I don’t,” Nolan promises and really, it’s the truth.

Travis has actually been following all of Nolan’s explanations quite well and even if he hadn’t, Nolan is so fucking glad that Travis is here with him, giving him this different perspective and distracting him from all these feelings that are still simmering under the surface, all those bad memories inextricably entangled with hockey.

“Ok, c’mon, look,” Nolan starts again, indicating a line on his thigh. “If this is the center line and Ivan is here, but the opposite team-”

Travis’ frown deepens. “Where?”

“Are you fucking with me?” Nolan snorts. “Ok, here-” He grabs Travis’ hand, turning it palm up, so he can trace one of the lines on it with his index finger. “This is the center line, okay?”

Travis’ eyes flicker from his hand to Nolan’s face and back down again. His “Okay,” comes out sounding a little weird, but Nolan ignores it. It’s not even a big deal, Travis held Nolan’s hand earlier when helping him down the stairs, this isn’t any different and if Travis really wants to understand offside then Nolan is going to fucking get him there.

“And this-” Nolan draws his fingertip along the backside of Travis’ knuckles. “-this is the blue line. And if, let’s say Kevin has the puck and he goes over the center line, and at the same time Ivan for example crosses the blue line, then that’s not ok. Because the puck has to go over the blue line first.”

“So-” Travis starts, clearing his throat a little as he flexes his fingers where Nolan is still holding them. “What you are saying is that no one’s allowed over the blue line before the puck?”

“Basically, yeah,” Nolan confirms, giving Travis a smile. “So half your team doesn’t just hang out in the offensive zone waiting for someone to toss the puck in their direction. Makes sense?”

“Makes sense,” Travis says, all weird and soft, hand completely still where Nolan is holding it.

Nolan blushes a little.

The smile he gets in return makes his cheeks heat up even more. For a moment he forgets to let go of Travis’ hand, but when he does, he knocks his knee against Travis’ just because.

“Sorry,” he says. “I know my hands are cold.”

The small, quiet laugh Travis’ lets out at that makes Nolan frown, looking at him in question.

“I don’t mind,” Travis explains after Nolan knocks his knee against his again, questioningly this time. “I really don’t. You can explain offside to me like this any day.”

Nolan makes a noise in the back of his throat, biting the inside of his cheek as he eyes Travis, the genuine glimmer in his eyes. There’s still a pink tint to his cheeks that of course has nothing on how embarrassing Nolan’s own face must look but-

“I think you got it, though,” he says when he finds his voice again. “All hockey smart now. Real sense for the game.”

“Right,” Travis agrees with a grin. “I’m ready to join the team. Put me in, Coach.”

“So you can fall on your ass, because you’ve never skated before?” Nolan snorts. “I’d love to see it.”

“You could,” Travis says, leaning back a little in his seat. The hand that Nolan had been holding only a few moments ago is on the back of Nolan’s seat now, and it’d look like one of those ‘moves’ but Travis doesn’t even seem to notice, too busy smiling at Nolan. “And then you’d hopefully take pity on me and teach me how to skate so I don’t break something.”

And the thing is, Nolan would.

He knows it right that second when his mouth opens before his brain has even caught up, the ‘yes’ already on his lips. He fucking would teach Travis’ how to skate. He can picture it, can see it right there in front of him, the rink empty except for the two of them, Travis on wobbly, unsure legs and Nolan taking him by the hands, being the one to give him support, being the one helping him keep his balance and Travis would smile at him then too, even though he’d trip over his own feet like people who know shit about skating fucking do and Nolan would laugh probably, but he’d also hold Travis’ hands a little tighter and-

Fuck.

Fuck.

Nolan never thought about going to a rink again, let alone getting on the ice and skating again. It never even crossed his mind and then today Travis asked and now Nolan isn’t just watching hockey he’s also thinking about getting on the ice himself. For Travis. Again. Travis who’s kind and sweet and makes Nolan laugh like no one has in fucking years. Who talks about saving people and loves sugar and his family, who for some fucking reason picked Nolan to be his friend, who’s probably already half in love with Steph and her perfect firefighter body, who knows none of the important parts about who Nolan is but knows that he loves fairy lights. Travis who makes Nolan feel like he never has before.

Travis, who Nolan is in love with.

And Nolan isn’t stupid, he knows himself, he’s got enough self-awareness to know that he’s been physically attracted to Travis since day one. How could he not, really, when Travis has the body that he has, when he has so much easy confidence, this goofy kind of swagger Nolan never could never hope to recreate. He’s been- No one with eyes and attraction to men wouldn’t think of Travis that way and it had been fine, Nolan had been fine. Sexual attraction, that’s something Nolan can handle, something he can suppress so well it’s barely ever a thought in the forefront of his mind at this point, but being in love?

Nolan can’t do that.

If there’s one thing Nolan has learned, is that he isn’t made for love. Not loving and certainly not being loved. These feelings now, they are a fucking mess and Nolan hates himself so god damn much for letting them happen, for having this realization now, right here in public, at a hockey rink of all places.

It’s perfect in the most awful, ironic way.

Travis is still smiling, nudging his leg against Nolan but Nolan can’t fucking look at him. The truth is he can’t stand being this close to Travis for another second, not when his heart is skipping beats, when he feels dizzy with regret. He should have never given Travis his number, should have never let himself become his friend, not when he’s so god damn weak.

“I need to use the restroom,” he tells Travis, not waiting for an answer.

Nolan gets to his feet and ignores the dizziness, the taste of nausea already in his mouth. He blindly walks along the glass, blinking until his vision clears again and he finds himself already at the stairs. The fucking stairs where Travis held his hand. Nolan should have never let that happen either.

He doesn’t go to the restroom. He doesn’t even look for it, just keeps walking, pushes open the doors to the parking lot with shaky hands that fumble, almost dropping the keys to his car when he tries to unlock it. It’s the cold, Nolan tells himself, the cold of the wind whipping through the parking lot, the cold that has found a home on Nolan’s bones months ago, only hiding its ugly face during the hot weeks of summer.

Still, Nolan doesn’t switch on the heating, just backs out of the parking spot, forcing himself to breathe. Every meter, every mile he drives he feels worse, but it’s a better kind of worse that Nolan couldn’t put into words even if he tried. He just knows what he has to do, knows what he needs to feel so he can somehow make it out of this alive.

He needs to hurt. He needs to feel real, physical hurt. He needs to make himself hurt. It’s the only way, it’s the only fucking way Nolan can let himself break apart and still have enough pieces left to tape himself back together again.

The apartment greets Nolan with cold, silent darkness. It’s where Nolan lets himself shatter, right there on the bathroom tiles in front of the toilet. He shoves his fingers down his throat, and it’s not pretty, it’s not clean and clinical like he usually does it, as a means to an end, a way to get himself to be empty, to save his body from the food he’s ingested. It’s ugly and it hurts. Tears are streaming down Nolan’s face as he gags and splutters, vomit running down his chin, hitting the toilet bowl, the acid burning his throat.

There’s not much food that comes up. Of course not. He’s had a small portion of egg salad this morning and nothing else since, except five almonds before Travis came over. But Nolan can’t stop. He can’t stop himself from pressing his fingers, coated in spit and bile as they are, back into his throat, stroking them against that spot he knows will make him choke, will make his stomach contract in painful, coiling cramps that have him claw at the fat of his belly, until the outside hurts as much as the inside.

It’s exhausting. It’s fucking exhausting and every cell in Nolan’s body is screaming, most of all his throat, and it’s treacherously thankful when he drags himself to the sink, gulps down two cups of cool, soothing water.

Back on his knees, the next surge of vomit is clear when it hits the bowl, but it’s not enough, it’s never fucking enough, because Nolan has been so stupid. He let himself fall in love with Travis and now he’s lost him and it’s so goddamn unfair.

He can feel his throat constrict, fighting the next wave that Nolan forces up but it’s no use. Nolan doesn’t have control about much when it comes to his body but he knows how to do this.

It’s nothing but water that comes up, but it doesn’t make Nolan feel any less disgusting, less repulsive and it gives him a sick kind of satisfaction imagining how if Kevin and Ivan, if Travis saw him like this, they’d turn on their heels and leave him in a heartbeat. It’d mean he could stop wondering about when they were going to leave, he’d just know. It’d be done, gotten over with, and it’d be for the best.

It makes Nolan wonder why he usually tries to hide this, why he keeps so quiet when he does this, why he does it so quickly, so secretly. Maybe because he has a last shred of hope that he’s been holding onto. Hope for life, for being happy, Nolan doesn’t fucking know. He just knows that it hurts when he shoves his fingers down his throat again and again until the very act of it makes it feel like he’s scraping nails over an open wound.

It ends with him dry heaving, forehead pressed against the cool ceramic of the toilet bowl , as red colored spit and slime drips from his mouth to the tiles underneath him.

His body is shaking so hard it feels like his bones might just crack from nothing more but this.

It feels fucking undignified, wretched, revolting and right because this is who Nolan is, this is the Nolan no one knows but him, no one hates more than him, but he’s the truest, realest version of him too and it feels freeing to just let himself be that, stare at the blood staining his hand when he wipes at this mouth, feel the way his throat hurts just from the air he breathes in and out, how his heart is racing so fast it feels like it might stop any second.

Still, somehow Nolan drags himself under the shower, the warm spray of water doing nothing against the cold inside of him, inside his lungs, his veins, every spare inch of this body that he hates so much. He can’t stand, legs too weak and shaky so he just sits there, hand pressed against his chest, eyes closed and face tilted upwards and it feels like he’s going to die.

But he doesn’t. The water turns from warm to cold to icy and eventually it’s like Nolan’s body moves all on its own, routine taking over.

Turn off the tap, get out of the shower, get dressed, get rid of any signs of what you did. Nolan watches himself go through the motions until he’s curled up under the covers of his bed, unable to keep himself from shivering, teeth clattering but exhaustion being strong enough to swallow him up in sleep anyway.

 

 ***



Nolan is yanked out of the empty blackness his mind dropped into by the sound of someone hammering their fist against the door of his room. At least that’s what Nolan figures out after a couple of seconds of blearily blinking into the darkness surrounding him, unsure of what woke him up or how long he’s been asleep. It feels like it has barely been a second but Nolan feels so fucking disorientated, his head pounding, his throat hurting with every breath, he isn’t particularly sure of anything.

Except that he apparently locked his door, because someone –Kevin?- is yelling for Nolan to unlock it.

“Patty, we know you’re in there!” Kevin calls, the volume making Nolan flinch even though he’s still just sitting in bed, his arms protectively wrapped around himself on instinct. It’s fucking cold too; he must have forgotten to turn on the heating. “Fucking open the door, tell us what happened!”

“Just let us know you’re okay,” Ivan’s voice joins, quieter, but an obvious tone of distress to it that makes Nolan want to hide under the covers again.

He doesn’t have any fucking energy for this. He wants them to leave him alone, leave him to lick his damn wounds and figure himself out in peace, not get all up in his space and demanding explanations. Nolan just wants to not exist for a while and the closest he can get to that is being asleep. Sleep is what Nolan’s body is screaming for too, and for once the two of them agree with each other. It’s too bad that Kevin and Ivan have other plans, refusing to give up.

“Open the door,” Kevin yells, so loud the neighbors are probably getting pissed off. “Talk to us!”

Go away, Nolan thinks, gritting his teeth, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes for a moment. Go away, go away, go away.

“Nolan, please,” Ivan begs, making Nolan grimace. There are lights popping behind his eyes, breaking up the grey static buzzing he caused himself, and it’s all just too much.

He keeps his eyes closed for another second, choking back the tears that are already burning there, ready to fall, and he knows, he fucking knows if Ivan and Kevin just prod a little he won’t be able to keep it together, but he doesn’t want to. He hasn’t even started putting himself back together yet after he let himself shatter and now he’s supposed to rehash it all to his friends who’d- Fuck, who’d been so god damn happy when Nolan had started talking about Travis, started hanging out with him, and now-

Now Nolan went and fucked it all up by catching feelings, getting his stupid, useless heart involved when he should have known better. He should have known better and Kevin and –especially- Ivan know that Nolan should have known so what if this is it? If this is the last straw, and Kevin and Ivan decide that they are finally fed up with Nolan’s bullshit?

It’s another reason for Nolan to crawl back under the covers of his bed, but he’s been a bad enough friend as it is over the years. The least he could do now, if this is really the end, is not drag it out any longer than necessary. He should do the right thing for once, and get this over with.

The thought is enough to get him out of bed, get him to shuffle silently to the door. Still, he hesitates with his hand on the key, muffled voices unintelligible through the door making his heart ache.

Pressing his quivering lips into a thin line, he finally turns the key, the click of the lock as loud as a puck hitting the boards in an empty arena.

Outside Kevin and Ivan fall silent within a heartbeat.

Another second passes with Nolan’s hand hovering over the doorknob, and Nolan means to turn it, he does. He’s going to turn the doorknob, open the door, and he’s going to face the fucking music. He is, he just needs another second, another minute, he needs-

The door gets yanked open and before Nolan has any time to process he’s got Ivan’s arms wrapped around him, the familiar scent of his best friend filling his senses, but the force of the movement knocking the air out of his lungs anyway.

“Fuck, don’t do this to us,” Ivan says, one hand on the back of Nolan’s head, uncaring of his wet hair, the other around Nolan’s shoulders because Ivan knows –even in a moment like this- not to touch Nolan anywhere he isn’t comfortable with. “You scared us. We were so worried.”

“We still fucking are,” Kevin adds, not yet done with the yelling it seems. “We- You just disappeared in the middle of our game, Travis was all freaked out not knowing where you went, and then we find out your car is gone, but you aren’t answering calls or texts and then we get here and all the lights are turned off and you’ve got your fucking door locked? Nolan, what the hell?”

“Kev,” Ivan says, a weird soothing but pleading tone to his voice and Nolan knows, he just knows even though he can’t see Kevin, not with his face pressed into the crook of Ivan’s neck, that Ivan and him are exchanging one of their looks, having this silent conversation over Nolan’s head and Nolan is used to it, but-

But if Kevin wants to leave, if he’s fed up, then Ivan shouldn’t stop him.

Worming his hands between his and Ivan’s body Nolan pushes himself away, first a little and then a lot, stepping back when Ivan lets him, questioning look on his face.

Lips pressed together Nolan stares at them, wrapping his arms around himself.

Go, he means to say. Tries to, anyway.

What comes out is barely even distinguishable as a word. It’s a croaked out, garbled sound, scraped from the back of Nolan’s throat which feels like the word just tore it open, the sensation of speaking making tears shoot into Nolan’s eyes from nothing but pure physical pain.

Kevin’s eyes grow impossibly wider and Ivan himself makes a choked off noise, looking back between Nolan and Kevin, like he’s looking for an answer from Kevin about what the hell is going on.

“G-” Nolan tries again, hand pressed against his throat, but god it hurts, making him grimace, making him whimper. “I-”

It’s fucking pathetic and yet all Nolan can think about for a second is that this never happened before, he never pushed himself to the point of losing his voice and it’s scary. It’s fucking scary and it hurts so much but it’s what he deserves for fucking up so badly. Hurting Kevin and Ivan, and Travis too, who Nolan left all alone at the rink, walking out without a word of warning.

“Jesus, cat, are you sick?” Kevin says, taking a step forward, already reaching out for Nolan. “Why didn’t you say so? Why did you come to the rink if you weren’t feeling well, why-”

“Slow down, Kevin,” Ivan interrupts him, eyes on Nolan. “Patty, what’s going on? Can you breathe properly? Should- Should we take him to the doctor? Or-” -” He looks at Kevin again, then at his watch. “Or the ER?”

“No,” Nolan rasps out, the word like a knife inside his throat, tears wetting his eyelashes.

Kevin winces at the sound while Ivan looks at Nolan like he’s the one in pain. “Patty, your throat suddenly getting so bad, that’s not- That’s not normal. We should-”

No, Nolan thinks again, but this time he can’t bring himself to try to speak it, instead he takes a step back and when Kevin follows, like he wants to reach for Nolan, Nolan just-

He shoves him.

It’s a weak fucking push, it’s got to be, because despite Nolan putting all his strength into it, Kevin doesn’t even stumble, his big hands on Nolan’s shoulders now, like he didn’t even notice, like-

Nolan shoves him again.

This time Kevin reacts. He falters, hands dropping, eyes wide and hurt, questioning as he looks at Nolan.

“No,” Nolan gets out, word more rasp and pain than anything else. It’s enough for the dam to break, tears streaming down his cheeks with no way to stop them now.

No, Nolan thinks again, desperately, pleadingly, staring at Kevin and Ivan and the whole fucking world maybe. No. Go away. Leave me alone. Go away, go away. Go away.

He’s not made for this. He’s not strong enough.

He thought he could do it, could not just let Ivan and Kevin go but actually tell them too, do the brave thing for once and just-

But he can’t. And now he’s fucking crying, ugly tears streaming down his face, pathetic sobs wracking through his chest, making it even harder to breathe than it already was, and Nolan doesn’t know how to make any of it stop.

“God, Nolan, what-” Kevin starts, sounding helpless.

Nolan can’t make out the expression on his face through his blurred visions and he’s glad for it. He doesn’t want to see the fucking pity or whatever there. Just like he doesn’t want Ivan and Kevin to take him to the doctor, to worry about him, to even fucking look at him right now. Nolan doesn’t want any of it, but most of all, he doesn’t want to have fucked up. He wants to go back to this afternoon, to hanging out with Travis on the couch while Nolan had been still in denial of his feelings. He would have said no this time, when Travis had asked about going to the game.

He would have said no and none of this would be happening right now.

“Please, Nols,” Ivan pleads, hands hanging in the air between them, like he wants to reach for Nolan but won’t touch if Nolan doesn’t want him to. “Let us- Just-” He pauses, looking over to Kevin, having another silent conversation. “Okay. We won’t take you to the doctor, we’ll just stay here, okay? Kev is going to make some tea for your throat and we’ll order some food-”

The word alone is enough to almost make Nolan gag.

He shakes his head frantically, wiping at his eyes with the sleeves of his jumper.

“No?” Ivan looks at Nolan, gently but firmly tugging Nolan’s hand away from his face, strong fingers wrapped around Nolan’s wrists. “No to which part?”

Food, Nolan thinks, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, before mouthing it too, gesturing to his throat.

The idea of eating makes him feel like Ivan is pushing his head under water when Nolan’s been barely staying afloat as it was, but Ivan doesn’t need to know that. It’s for the best if he draws his own conclusions. It doesn’t matter that Nolan wouldn’t eat right now even if just swallowing air didn’t feel like torture, even if just doing that didn’t make Nolan’s eyes sting with a new wave of tears.

“Okay, just food for me and Kevin then, yeah?” Ivan concedes, his hand still on Nolan’s wrist, the smile he gives Nolan feels so goddamn condescending but still- Still. Nolan doesn’t know. He can barely breathe, how is he supposed to think? He can’t even hear Ivan properly over the sound of his own rabbiting heartbeat. “Just c’mon, let’s get you back to bed and we’ll figure this out, yeah? We’ll figure this out.”

“He needs to eat though,” Kevin objects somewhere in the distance and again Nolan almost chokes on it, a weak little sound being torn from his throat that has Ivan wrap his arms around him like he has the faintest clue of what any of this means to Nolan.

“Kev, it’s fine. He probably ate lunch with Travis,” Ivan says, rubbing his hand up and down Nolan’s back, letting him hide his face against his chest yet again. “And he can’t right now, he needs-”

“I know, I know,” Kevin says, and Nolan almost wants to laugh because he doesn’t, and neither does Ivan.

They don’t know what Nolan knows, how could they? Nolan barely fucking knows himself, except that the needs peace and quiet and not ever seeing Travis again, or thinking about him because fuck, Travis held Nolan’s hand today, just like Ivan is now when he’s leading Nolan back to his room, except that it’s also so fucking different, because Travis’ hand had be smaller than Ivan’s and more calloused too, and the way he had squeezed Nolan’s, the way-

“It’s okay, Patty,” Ivan says, murmurs really, when he climbs into bed with Nolan, wrapping his arms back around him as soon as they are settled, despite the way Nolan is shaking with sobs yet again. “I promise, it’s going to be okay. I’ve got you, yeah? Me and Kev, we’ve got you. We love you.” He presses a kiss to the top of Nolan’s head, holding Nolan so tightly it makes Nolan wonder if maybe a part of Ivan knows just  how fragile Nolan is. He knows to some extent of course but it’s never- “We love you. So much.”

“We do, cat,” Kevin’s voice joins, deep and gentle and suddenly there’s a second body, warm and familiar pressing against Nolan as Kevin climbs into bed with them and while Nolan doesn’t really believe him, it’s also a little bit hard not to feel loved, when he’s got his two best friends –down to two again, good job, Nolan- with their arms around him, doing their best to hold the broken pieces that Nolan is made of together. Even if there’s no point to it.

“It’s going to be okay,” Ivan repeats, voice barely above a whisper but no less firm, no less gentle than before. “You’re going to be okay.”

I’m not, Nolan thinks, but he keeps his eyes shut, lets the tears fall, wetting the pillow and Ivan’s shirt, lets Kevin run his hand up and down soothingly Nolan’s arm over all the layers he’s wearing, let’s himself cry and cry and exhale. Exhale puffy little breaths, despite the air feeling like sandpaper being scraped over the sore walls of his throat.

It’s how Nolan falls asleep for a second time that evening and this time he doesn’t wake again, not for hours, and when he does Ivan is sound asleep next to him, still wearing his jeans underneath the covers, face lax and breathing quiet.

Kevin is still there too and he’s awake, tablet propped up in his lap. When he notices Nolan blinking at him through clumped lashes he gives him a soft sad smile, before petting his head and then reaching over to the nightstand, pouring what appears to be tea from a thermos into a mug.

It’s warm, Nolan notices which means Kevin must have gotten up again to make new one at some point and that’s- That’s so fucking Kevin, so caring when Nolan doesn’t deserve any of it and it kills Nolan a little bit but his head is throbbing and his throat feels even worse than before so he just accepts the tea Kevin hands him, all careful and gentle, and before he knows it, he’s drifted off again, eyelids just too heavy to stay open for long.

When Nolan wakes up the next morning, Kevin is the one snoring next to him while Ivan appears to be awake. He’s changed into sweatpants now it seems, but when Nolan squints he can spot the clothes Ivan was wearing before on the floor by the door.

“Hey, how’re you feeling?” Ivan asks quietly, giving Nolan a smile. Before Nolan can even open his mouth all the way, Ivan is already shaking his head, holding up a finger. “Don’t speak. Hold on.” Having plucked Kevin’s tablet from the nightstand, he opens the note app, then hands it to Nolan. “Use this.”

Squinting at him suspiciously for a moment Nolan is half inclined to just roll over and hide against the still soundly sleeping Kevin so he doesn’t have to have this conversation, but Ivan won’t let him, Nolan is pretty sure. And it’s not like he doesn’t deserve an explanation, not when Nolan ruined their entire fucking evening and night with his little breakdown.

Throat hurts, he types out gingerly after a moment, wincing as he swallows testingly.

It earns him a sympathetic look from Ivan.

Started feeling shit during the game. Sorry about freaking you out.

Then –catching a glimpse of the clock in the lower right corner of the screen- he adds: Don’t you guys have class?

“We’re skipping, doesn’t matter,” Ivan answers, answering the glare Nolan gives him with quiet sincerity. “You’re sick. Of course we were going to stay home. We weren’t going to leave you alone like this.”

I’m not your kid, Nolan types, pressing his lips together.

“No,” Ivan agrees, holding Nolan’s gaze. “You’re our friend, though. Which is why- Look, something happened, didn’t it? You started feeling sick, okay, but-” He blows out a breath, brows drawn together. “Bud, you just left Travis at the arena. I don’t understand.”

Travis.

Of course Ivan was going to bring up Travis. It’s why Nolan could have never made this work. He was always going to have to offer Ivan at least a part of the truth. If things were different maybe Nolan could have gotten away with blaming everything -his entire behavior of the past night- on being sick, maybe being somewhat delirious, whatever. But Ivan knows Nolan, and he’s seen him at the rink, knew he wasn’t alone there and just dipping without another word, going home and hiding in your dark room, that’s not something a normal person does, even if they’ve suddenly started feeling sick.

Nothing happened, Nolan lies, still, fingers slightly shaking as he taps letter after letter on the screen. Stubbornly he doesn’t look at Ivan, doesn’t want to see the unconvinced look on his face, or whatever follows it when Nolan adds another few words.

What did he say? Is he mad?

God, Nolan hopes he is. It’ll mean that he understands that Nolan is a shitty friend and that’ll make him have an easier time moving on to find a better one, focus all his time and attention on someone who deserves it, someone who isn’t going to get all tangled up in the wrong feelings screwing everything up.

“He’s not mad, Patty,” Ivan says, voice pained. “He was so fucking worried about you. He didn’t even get upset with Kevin for shoving him up against a wall, he-”

He breaks off when Nolan, taps his fingers against his hand, eyes wide, brows raised in question.

“Kev thought he might have done something,” Ivan answers, voice going even softer. “Travis showed up at the locker room all upset talking about who you were having a good time and now he can’t find you and you know, Kev. He thought maybe Travis did something to you. Like pressure you or-”

Again Ivan breaks off when Nolan hastily starts typing. He should wait until Ivan is done talking but Nolan can’t let him or Kevin think that any of what happened last night had been Travis’ fault.

He didn’t do anything, he types and after a second when Ivan just looks at the screen Nolan has turned towards him, eyes unreadable, he adds a fucking exclamation point too, because Ivan needs to understand.

He didn’t do anything! He was sweet and kind

It was me

You know it’s always me

I’m who fucked it up

“What do you mean by that?” Ivan asks, shaking his head a little as Kevin starts to stir next to them. “You fucked up?”

Yes

Nolan wishes they could leave it at that but he can tell by the look in Ivan’s eyes that they won’t.

Pressing his eyes closed for a moment Nolan holds his breath, counts to ten and backward to zero again. Then he swallows, blinking away the tears that immediately start pooling in his eyes.

“Patty?” Kevin says, voice low and gravelly with sleep.

Exhaling, Nolan picks the tablet back up.

I’m in love with him

But he likes girls

A beat of silence passes between them, then:

“But-” Ivan starts, sounding absolutely dumbfounded, as he looks from the tablet to Nolan to Kevin and back. “-that doesn’t mean-”

“-we thought-” Kevin goes on, but breaks off when Nolan shakes his head.

He’s straight. So I can’t be friends with him anymore, he types and he’s so fucking glad that he doesn’t have a voice, that he doesn’t have to say it out loud, hear himself say it. Looking at it written down feels bad enough, like the words are going to swallow Nolan whole, like dark, still water under cracked ice.

He can tell by the look on Kevin’s face that he wants to say more, that he wants to argue, it’s the same expression that Ivan is wearing but there’s also more there, because they get it. They get that Nolan can’t stay friends with someone he has feelings for, they get that Nolan isn’t strong enough for that. That as much as he likes Travis, as important as this friendship has become to him, he can’t do unrequited love. He’s got enough of that in his life already. He loved Nico, and while Nico played along for a while he never loved Nolan back, and that- That had been awful, it’d felt awful and Nolan had felt so stupid but not as stupid, as humiliated and heartbroken as he’d felt when he’d found out that even the people who are supposed to love you unconditionally, whose love you are supposed to be able to trust in, could just stop loving you back from one moment to the next when you turn out to be undeserving of it.

So Nolan can’t do it.

He can’t be friends with Travis anymore.

He can’t ever see him again. And he won’t. He won’t text him again, won’t pick up his calls, won’t listen to him ramble about what happened during shift, won’t laugh at his ridiculous stories, won’t ever hold his hand again, won’t think about skating again and not feel sick at the idea because Travis would be there with him.

He can’t.

“Ah, cat,” Kevin says, quietly, taking the tablet out of Nolan’s hands and pulling him into his chest for a hug. “I’m sorry.”

Yeah, Nolan thinks, pressing his quivering lips together, letting his tears get soaked up by Kevin’s t-shirt. Me too.

 

***

Chapter Text

“Travis texted me,” Ivan says, feigning casualty, chewing on the eggs Nolan made for him. “Last night.”

Nolan doesn’t answer, just takes a sip of his tea.

It’s 21 calories instead of zero like tea usually is because of the added teaspoon of honey. It’s good for his throat, Nolan has found but he’s only allowing himself it because he knows he’s not going to eat anything else today until the 8 baby carrots he has planned for lunch. They’ll amount to about 30 calories, which means he’ll be able to eat the veggie burger he asked Kevin to grab for him after class. He isn’t sure yet how he’s going to get around eating the white bread, but he’ll figure it out. It’s something to occupy his mind anyway, planning what he’s going to eat and when. And that’s good because if Nolan doesn’t have something to focus on since the day at the rink, his mind goes straight to Travis.

Travis and all the messages he’s left on Nolan’s phone, all the messages Nolan hasn’t read yet, but hasn’t deleted either, leaving them as ghosts to haunt his phone which is why he barely picks it up these days for anything other than using the calculator app. He rarely ever has to look up the calorie count of food but he’s not the best at doing math in his head, especially when he already feels lightheaded and dizzy, which is almost always these days-

“Do you want to know what he said?” Ivan pushes, making Nolan swallow, meeting his friend’s eyes.

“Is he angry?” he asks, the words coming out croaky and rough at the edges.

Speaking still hurts to an extent but it has gotten better. It helps that the past week Nolan has been able to avoid any purging, despite either Ivan or Kevin staying home with him pretty much every day. Today is going to be the first day that all three of them are going to go to class again.

“No,” Ivan says after a pause, looking at Nolan. “He’s not.”

He should be, Nolan thinks, pressing his shins against the edge of the table slightly. His mom used to hate him sitting like this, feet on the seat in front of him, legs folded against his chest. It’s comfortable though, makes Nolan feel less exposed, less like he’s taking up too much space. He can rest his forehead on his knees and not have to look at anyone and it barely requires any movement. It’s pretty great.

“He’s asking if you’re okay,” Ivan goes on, unprompted. “Says he hopes that you’re feeling better and that he’s sorry for whatever it is he did.”

Lips pressed together, Nolan shrugs. Yeah, Travis is being kind, respectful and kind and caring and that’s something Ivan wants him to react to, wants him to break over and agree to see Travis again, because ‘c’mon Nolan, you aren’t being fair to either of you’. It’s what Ivan told Nolan that first time Travis texted him asking if Nolan was ignoring him on purpose or if something bad had happened to him.

“Tell him to stop messaging you,” Nolan says roughly to his knees, one hand fiddling with a loose thread at the outer seam of his sweatpants, the other wrapped around his own ankle. “I don’t want him bothering you guys.”

“He’s not- Patty.”

Ivan sounds pained but Nolan stubbornly keeps his eyes down.

The veggie burger should come in at around 100 calories, if Nolan doesn’t just leave the bread but the dressing too. Which he should, if he doesn’t want to see the consequences on the scale tonight. He’d have to tell Kevin to ask for that at the store though and Nolan doesn’t know if he’ll be able to do that without Kevin getting suspicious. He could say that the dressing makes his throat hurt worse, but if that’s not enough to convince Kevin than Nolan is going to be stuck with Kevin and then Ivan watching his eating habits and that’s nothing Nolan can have happen.

He can’t have those 60 to 130 calories –depending how much they slap on there- from the dressing either, though. It’s a shit fucking situation but Nolan has to find a solution, has to find a way out, maybe if-

Maybe he can do it though. If he only eats four baby carrots for lunch during class, or better yet none then the dressing should be fine. Right? Four baby carrots equals 15 calories though and that-

“Patty?”

Nolan looks up, fingers loosening a bit where he’d been digging his nails into the skin of his ankle. Ivan’s plate is empty, cleared of every last bit of breakfast, and Nolan has no idea when that happened. He doesn’t know when Kevin got done showering either, since when he’s been standing there next to Ivan, brows drawn together, worried teddy bear look on his face yet again.

“What,” he says, wincing at how raspy it sounds.

His tea has already gone cold but Nolan takes a big gulp of it anyway. Filling his stomach with fluids staves off the hunger cramps at least a little bit, giving him a feeling of fullness that’s still light enough not to make him feel completely nauseous.

“We just think that-”

Nolan hates this. They’ve been here before, and Nolan knows that he’s an awful, ungrateful person for hating this, hating his friends for pushing because this is them caring, but it’s just too much. He wishes they’d just leave him alone. If they did he wouldn’t have to do mental fucking acrobatics to figure out how he’s going to get through the day without eating so much it’s going to make him want to claw his skin off.

All he wants is some peace and quiet.

We,” Nolan repeats, baring his teeth for a moment in a mean smile. The loose string from the seam of his sweatpants wrapped so tightly around his index finger it hurts, not enough to be distracting, though. “Don’t you think this is getting a bit embarrassing? We this, we that. When’s the fucking wedding?”

“Bud,” Kevin starts, the crease between his brows growing deeper.

“No, really,” Nolan says coldly, glaring at the both of them.

21 in the tea.

15 from the baby carrots.

“It’s totally cute. Like, goals, am I right? I’m sure Alexis loves whatever this-” He gestures between the two of them. “-is.”

100 from the burger, minus the bread.

130 in the dressing, which-

It’s too much.

266.

If Nolan can’t get around dinner then-

“I’m sure Alexis loves dating a guy who won’t move in with her because he’s already playing house with Mr. I’m 27 and still in fucking college,” Nolan spits, throat closing up with panic. “I’m sure she’s going to let herself be strung along for another year or two so hey, you’ve got fucking time, get your rocks off without committing, get-

“Nolan, stop,” Ivan interrupts, anger seeping into his voice. “You are being mean.”

“I’m telling the fucking truth,” Nolan yells, getting out of his chair.

266.

If he doesn’t get out of eating the bun, it’s 130 more, leaving him at almost 400.

400 calories.

“You are being an asshole,” Kevin snaps, jaw set tightly.

He wants more of this though. Nolan wants Ivan to be angry at him, wants him to be fucking pissed, and Kevin too, because god damn it, if Travis isn’t, then someone has to. Someone needs to feel these fucking feelings because otherwise they’ll just hang in the air between them and Nolan can’t- He feels like he’s suffocating on it all, because things didn’t go the way they were supposed to. Ivan and Kevin were supposed to leave after the whole Travis fuck up, but they didn’t and Nolan has been trying to cope but they haven’t been letting him.

They are suffocating him and they keep bringing up Travis, like there’s anything left to talk about. Like there’s an easy fix to this too, like skipping the baby carrots altogether, like making Kevin so mad he won’t bring the veggie burger, giving Nolan the chance to lie that he already ate.

“And the truth is,” Nolan pushes, hands trembling where he’s got them balled into fists at his sides. “You two cling to me and pretend it’s because you care, because know I’ll fall apart without you but actually I’m just an excuse. You-” He points to Ivan, tasting venom in his mouth. “You are fucking terrified of taking this thing with Alexis further because mommy and daddy got a divorce and little Ivan’s still upset about that and you-” He points to Kevin. “You regret ever making friends with me because-”

Kevin slams his hand on the table, making Nolan flinch at the sound, the words getting stuck in his throat.

For a second they just stare at each other.

“You don’t get to do this, Nolan,” Ivan says, voice calm in a way that has Nolan shiver, brittle nails digging into his palms from how hard he’s clenching his fists. “You don’t get to just lash out and expect us to sit here and take it.”

I’m not, Nolan thinks, but his mouth won’t open, lips pressed together so tightly it almost hurts.

He doesn’t want them to just take it is the thing. He wants them to be mad at him, but despite Kevin’s outburst, it’s not anger that Nolan finds on their faces.

It’s just hurt and disappointment.

And pity.

Pity yet again.

 

***

Nolan drives to class and his heart doesn’t clench when he pulls over at the side of the road to let two fire trucks and an ambulance pass. He doesn’t have to keep himself from looking at the firehouse number painted on the red either.

Nolan sits in class and he doesn’t have trouble listening to the professor, doesn’t have every cruel word he said this morning running on repeat through his head, drowning out each word that is spoken.

Nolan gets back home from campus and he doesn’t check Ivan’s and Kevin’s rooms to see if maybe they’ve already cleared out, packed their bags and left because Nolan finally pushed them far enough.

He doesn’t feel relieved when everything’s the same way as it was when he left.

He doesn’t compose three different texts on his phone that he almost sends to Kevin and Ivan. He doesn’t finally open the conversation with Travis and he definitely doesn’t cry about it, about the progression from confusion to worry to panic to apologies and questions and quiet hurt.

Because if he did, if Nolan did any of those things, if he allowed himself to think then he wouldn’t make it out of bed tomorrow. He wouldn’t be able to get up, wouldn’t make it to the shower, wouldn’t manage to drag himself through the day, go through the motions of his every day fucking life. So he can’t. It’s as simple as that.

I miss you, Travis’ last text reads, dated three days ago and it fucking kills Nolan.

He’s still crying when Kevin comes home, even though it’s just weak sobs paired with disgusting sniffles at this point. Kevin still pulls him into his arms and when Nolan croaks out an apology he just nods, just lets Nolan cling to him until his aching bones have stopped shaking.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Kevin asks eventually, soft and gentle, while muted infomercials run on TV.

Shaking his head, Nolan fumbles with his toque. He really doesn’t. There’s nothing to say. He knows that this isn’t normal, that grieving a friendship shouldn’t fuck you up like this but Nolan hadn’t exactly been doing well before Travis had come into his life and this- This is just him readjusting to the status quo when he’d started getting used to the little bit of sunlight Travis brought with himself every time he came over, all smiles and too many words.

“You talk about something,” Nolan says quietly, mumbles into the knitted fabric of Kevin’s sweater that Nolan is definitely going to steal at some point. “Tell me stuff.”

Kevin, of course does.

“So I’ve been messaging this guy on Insta,” he starts, already making Nolan smile a little. He knows who this has to be about, has seen the number of posts of Kevin that the guy recently liked, as well as the two of them interacting in the comments. “He’s living in New York but we’ve been really hitting it off, so I’m thinking of maybe going to meet him at some point, you know?”

“He’s got the same first name as your cousin,” Nolan points out, just because he knows it’ll make Kevin sigh.

“I know, but he’s also really hot.”

“Is he now,” Nolan mumbles, letting his eyes drift shut, one arm already wrapped around himself. If they are going to talk about how hot Kevin’s Insta crush guy from New York is, Nolan is doubly glad that he didn’t eat any baby carrots and that Kevin did in fact not bring the veggie burger.

It doesn’t last of course because when Ivan comes home and asks if they’ve already eaten Kevin answers that no they haven’t and even Nolan claiming that he’s had a big lunch on campus doesn’t get him out of dinner entirely because just one big meal isn’t enough for people like Kevin and Ivan, who’ve never had to diet, never had to watch what they ate, step on a scale once, twice, thrice a day and sometimes even more often than that.

They never had to purge after forcing themselves to eat either, never had a hard time explaining why their throat suddenly got worse again after a week of getting better.

 

***

They all end up on the couch together, and it’s where Nolan mumbles out another apology, that quickly gets shushed away by Ivan.

“It’s fine,” he says, even though they all know that it’s not. “We know you didn’t mean it.”

“I didn’t,” Nolan mumbles, cheeks feeling warm with shame.

He really didn’t, is the thing. He cares about Ivan and Kevin so much, loves them almost as much as he hates himself. He doesn’t deserve them, and they don’t deserve him being cruel to them, having this even uglier part of Nolan lash out at them.

“I’m a bad friend,” he croaks out, face hidden against Ivan’s shoulder.

“You’re in pain,” Ivan answers, while Kevin ruffles Nolan’s hair.

Neither of them deny it though, Nolan tries not to feel like he’s choking on it.

 

***

 

There are certain things that are harder to draw than others. Characters for one, but that’s probably just a personal problem Nolan has, but other things are more or less universal. Reflective surfaces are always difficult and so are translucent ones or iridescent stuff. Water, things that are wet, anything that messes with how light interacts with whatever it is you are trying to draw, it all makes shit harder than it needs to be.

Another thing, Nolan is realizing -despite there not being any reflections or any of that sort- is dust. Ashes to be exact.  

When he had started this drawing, he hadn’t planned to give himself a stupid fucking challenge like this one. He’d just wanted to finish this piece and be done with it, but after a night of being unable to fall asleep he’d scraped his original concept and turned the windowless corridor into a room covered in ashes, grime from fires long burnt out clinging to the walls, a window, barely letting any light filter through, the glass covered in residue.

There’s dust hanging in the air now, particles floating in the scarce rays of grey light that are too light to match the color of Travis’ eyes but-

This drawing isn’t about Travis.

There’s no fox there, no curious little explorer strolling about where he doesn’t belong, where there’s nothing for him to find anyway. It’s better that he moved on to some other, much friendlier space, one where there aren’t traces of some past calamities staining every surface, drowning out every bit of light.

If there are paw prints in the ashes, right there by one of the windows, wanting to tell the story of a maybe, of an if, a could have, might have, then that’s only because Nolan is going to get rid of them soon anyway and no one is going to see them. No one is going to know they were even there. Not that it matters. Gone is gone.

Absently rubbing the splintered end of his thumbnail against his stylus, Nolan squints at the drawing.

It’s late and his eyes are stinging with tiredness but he’s already tried going to bed only for the hunger cramps to not let him fall asleep. So he’s been trying to fix the fucking light situation but the god damn ashes he decided to put on everything don’t exactly make that easy and really, Nolan is half convinced that he maybe should just scrap the entire drawing again and start over, or maybe just quit altogether, when his phone buzzes with an incoming call from Ivan.

“It’s like 1 am,” Nolan mutters into the phone, when he picks up. Then after a small sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose, he asks: “Aren’t you with Alexis?”

They’ve been spending a lot of time together, this past week, a little like they are trying to make up for the days they lost when Ivan was busy trying to put Nolan back together. It’d put tension on their relationship again, Nolan knows that, it’s why he knew his jab at them would hurt Ivan, but- But it’s fine, it worked out for the better. He likes how happy Ivan is most of the time when he’s with her and if he spends a little more time with her to prove a point and that ends up improving the relationship, then what does the ‘why’ matter.

“I am,” Ivan says or rather fucking yells, making Nolan flinch a little, shooting a glare at his phone. “We’re at some party at-” There’s some indistinguishable talking noises followed by a somewhat clearer, “-some friend of hers. I don’t know. It’s great. Dope fucking house.”

“Fun,” Nolan mumbles, frowning as he bites at his nail, trying to get rid of the splintery edge without having to go look for a file. “What’s that got to do with me?”

If Ivan is calling to invite Nolan to this apparently great party then Nolan is going to have to get him tested for drugs because that definitely isn’t going to happen and Ivan should know that. The stairway of Alexis’ place might not have been Nolan’s lowest moment recently but it certainly hadn’t been a good time either and Nolan really isn’t in the mood to go through the ordeal of turning Ivan down. He’s too tired and it’s too late; he doesn’t want to spend the rest of the night as the asshole friend who won’t join his buddy at this lit fucking party or whatever. He is that friend, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys playing the part.

“They have a pool, Patty,” Ivan says nonsensically. “Indoors.”

“Well, jack-fucking-pot, want me to bring you your speedo?” Nolan asks, getting slightly more irritated with each passing minute. “Ivan, it’s like-” He sighs, rubbing his eyes. He kind of wants to point out how late it is again, but it’s not like he’d been asleep, like Ivan chattering on about some awesome house is disrupting anything except him staring at his drawing without making a god damn decision. He’s been doodling more paw prints for god’s sake, not progress. “Why’re you calling?”

“Can you come pick us up?” Ivan half slurs, voice almost drowned out by some excited yelling in the background. “I drank some vanilla vodka and-”

“Bro.” Nolan groans.

“I knoow.”

“You’re gonna puke in my car,” Nolan whines a little, but he’s already pushing himself to his feet.

Ivan –of true Russian descent- can drink vodka like no one else but as soon as you add anything not alcoholic to the mix he seems to experience some sort of rejection reaction and Nolan for the life of him doesn’t get why he still hasn’t learned his lesson. At least once a year Ivan somehow ends up puking his guts out because he let himself be talked into trying yet another vodka mix shit.

There’s a pair a pair of converse Nolan had to throw away because Ivan puked on them and he never quite got the smell out. Nolan really doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his car.

“Bring a bucket?” Ivan suggests, sounding appropriately sorry at least. “Please. I’d call Kev, but you know-”

“I know,” Nolan says, fishing an extra pair of sweatpants out of his closet. If he’s going to go outside in the middle of the night, he’s going to have to layer up. “You puke, he pukes.”

Which –Nolan doesn’t remember how he used to think about that, if it ever seemed weird to him, but these days, it certainly does. Puking because something made you feel sick, having it be your body’s natural reaction to something, be it shitty vodka or some weird sympathy puking, it seems so fucking outlandish to Nolan. Throwing up without it being your choice, without you picking the time and the place, it’s nothing he’s used to anymore.

“Exactly, so-” Ivan starts before breaking off, making a sound like-

“You’re a fucking idiot,” Nolan mumbles, more to himself than Ivan really, who probably can’t hear anything over the sound of his own vomiting.

“Nolan? Are you coming?” Alexis’ voice suddenly comes through the phone, which is probably for the best. Nolan doesn’t want Ivan accidently dropping his phone into whatever container he’s (hopefully) emptying his stomach into.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way,” Nolan says, checking the pocket of his parka for the car keys. “Text me the address?”

“I’ll drop you a pin, okay?”

“Yeah, that’s fine too. Make sure he doesn’t choke, yeah? And make him-”

“Drink water, yes,” Alexis cuts him off, tone a little sharp. “Not my first rodeo.”

“Small sips though,” Nolan still says, because he has to. “If you make him drink a whole glass in one-”

“Bye, Nolan,” Alexis says, before Nolan can even finished.

She has hung up without waiting for a reply.

Nolan’s lip twitches, and his grip tightens around his phone, before he drops it into his pocket.

Whatever. So Alexis is pissed. Maybe because Ivan getting too drunk is ruining her night in her book, or maybe because Nolan isn’t trusting her ability to look after his friend, or maybe, maybe it’s that Nolan being ‘sick’ kept her boyfriend occupied for a week. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter, Nolan doesn’t care. She can think of him what she wants, after all, no matter her reasoning, the end result is one Nolan can hardly disagree with. Nolan is too involved in Ivan’s life, he is in the way of their relationship. On a good day, and even more so when he’s fucked up again like he did with-

Doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. Nolan doesn’t want to think about it, he’s done enough of that over the past two weeks.

It’s fucking freezing outside, despite the extra layers Nolan put on, and the crappy heating of his less than in mediocre shape car doesn’t do much to help that, leaving him to shiver practically the entire ride to the god damn suburbs where this party appears to be happening. By the time he pulls up in front of the house his teeth are aching from how much they’ve been clattering and all Nolan wants to do is drive back home and go the fuck to sleep.

To do that he has to find Ivan and Alexis first –of course- and neither of them are answering his calls, giving him no choice but to climb out of his car and ring the god damn doorbell, which Nolan absolutely loves. It’s a great fucking feeling showing up to a party in a fancy house, uninvited, having some cool guy™ answer the door, beer bottle in hand, looking Nolan up and down in a way that doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.

“I’m just here to pick up a friend,” Nolan says tightly, keeping his hands in his pockets.

The guy’s eyebrows raise slightly.

Nolan really doesn’t need this. He knows he looks like shit, like he belongs anywhere but at a party, let alone one with a pool or whatever. He’s got greasy hair peeking out from underneath his beanie, he’s wearing a parka and several pairs of sweatpants with wooly socks pulled over the ankles. He’s not- He doesn’t belong here, he knows that. So really, he and the guy at the door probably want the same thing, for Nolan to piss off again as quickly as possible.

 Except that-

“Hey, don’t we know each other?” cool guy asks, leaning against the side of the doorframe, half amused expression on his face.

Nolan stares back at him, irritated. “No?”

“I think we do, though,” the guy says, lips stretching into a weird smile. “I remember your-” He gestures to Nolan’s face with the hand that’s holding the beer. “-splotchy cheeks. You blew me at some party during freshman year.”

“I-” Nolan doesn’t know what the fuck to say.

The guy looks at him cockily, like he somehow one-upped Nolan by throwing this out there, like he’s- What? Waiting for Nolan to get embarrassed? Like he’s angling for a repeat performance?

“You let me fuck your face,” the guy adds, smirking, when Nolan just keeps staring at him. “Remember? In that bathroom. Made you gag a couple of-”

“Okay, yeah,” Nolan interrupts, face heating up. “Yeah, whatever, I don’t know. Could I-” He nods to the door, shoulders tense. “I gotta go get my friend, so do you mind?”

Nolan doesn’t remember shit from Freshman year. He’d been high half the time or drunk off his ass. Bathroom face fuck and gagging doesn’t really narrow it in much and Nolan just- He’s not that person anymore who went out every other night, who sought out hook up after hook up almost like he was addicted to the shitty, empty feeling each morning after.

Sometimes it hadn’t even felt good during and sometimes Nolan had liked that better.

“Friend? Or boyfriend?”

Nolan glares at him, hands balled into fists in the pockets of his parka. Apparently the guy is hell bent on mocking Nolan. Of course Nolan doesn’t have a fucking boyfriend. It’s a god damn miracle that he has a friend, two of them even. He isn’t- It’s a joke. A cruel one at that and Nolan has no idea if it’s made worse by the fact that the person it’s coming from is basically a stranger or not. That he’s someone Nolan apparently hooked up with before or not. He just knows that he wants to get out of here as soon as possible.

“Get the fuck out of my way,” Nolan half snaps, some bite getting lost in how he shivers at a sudden gust of wind that hits him. “I don’t fucking remember you or your apparently very forgettable dick so just-”

“You look like shit, by the way,” the guy says, just talking over Nolan, still blocking the door. “I mean, have you been sick? Nothing serious though, right? You-”

“Drew!” Someone yells from somewhere inside the house and the guy –Drew, apparently- turns around, probably to look for whoever has been calling him, not that Nolan gives a fuck.

He shoves past Drew quickly, keeping his head down and jaw clenched. He just has to find Ivan, then he can leave, get back out of this house, back into his car and then finally into bed and all this, Drew and his uncalled for truths will be far away.

Nolan doesn’t even know why it bugs him so much, having Drew call him out on the way he looks. He knows he isn’t someone who attracts positive attention, he owns a fucking mirror, he owns a scale, he knows- He knows what everyone else sees when they look at him, no matter how much he tries to hide the soft and chubby parts of his body under layers and layers of clothes. He’s not fooling anybody, least of all himself.

Drew apparently used to be attracted enough to Nolan to accept a blowjob from him, though, but despite how much Nolan has been trying to do better since then, has started dieting, being stricter and stricter with himself over the past year, he apparently only got worse.

It’s humiliating.

Maybe that’s why Drew decided to mock Nolan, to make himself feel better about having had sex with someone like him.

Pulling out his phone Nolan fires off another text to Ivan, an impatient Where are you?? I’m downstairs, but there’s no immediate read receipt that pops up, making Nolan blow out a frustrated breath, shoving his phone back into his pocket.

He should have told Ivan to wait for him outside. If he had, he wouldn’t have had to go inside, he wouldn’t be here in this house with too many people in it, and he wouldn’t have to look for Ivan. They could already be on their way home, they could- But it’s cold outside, it might even snow, and making Ivan wait outside would have been an asshole move and Nolan has pulled enough of those recently.

Forcing himself to exhale, Nolan heads further inside.

It’s loud and suffocating in the living-room, crowded with people that mostly look Nolan’s age, but he’s never been good at guessing that shit, especially not with less than great lightening and loud fucking music making his head throb and-

And there’s Travis.

For a moment nothing exists in Nolan’s head except that fact. There’s Travis, right there in the same room as Nolan, sitting on some couch, smiling at something the guy next to him must have said and he-

He looks good.

The hand Nolan still remembers holding is wrapped around a can of bud light, the silver of the necklace Travis wears sometimes is peeking out from beneath the collar of his camo shirt and- And there’s Steph sitting on the other side of him a blonde girl in her lap that- Nolan can’t look away from Travis, can’t tear his eyes away from the way his lips move as he says something, too low for Nolan to hear. And maybe the guy Travis is talking to didn’t hear either, because Travis leans in closer, one hand on the guy’s knees and his mouth must be brushing the shell of the guy’s ear, the guy who- He takes the can of beer out of Travis’ hand, uncurling Travis’ fingers.

Nolan’s own fingers twitch, the ghost of how it had felt to touch Travis’ skin tingling in his fingertips.

Fucking offside. Nolan had been explaining offside to him and Travis had looked at him with those eyes, mouth curved into a smile and Nolan had felt as warm as he feels cold now. He’s in a room full of people, he’s here to pick up his friend, his best fucking friend since god damn Kindergarten and yet he feels so god damn lonely because Travis isn’t looking at him. Travis isn’t talking to him. Isn’t tilting his head, listening to whatever bullshit Nolan has to say like he cares, like he actually fucking cares.

He doesn’t even know Nolan is here and that’s good, that’s great, because Nolan didn’t plan on ever seeing him again, but it also feels like the worst thing in the fucking world. Nolan can’t stand it.

More than that, though, he can’t stand that he can’t stand it.

“Patty, there you are,” Ivan’s voice calls from nowhere, but it’s barely enough for Nolan to register, let alone for him to turn around, not until there’s a hand on his shoulder and Ivan pushes himself in front of Nolan, obscuring his view on Travis and the guy who just fucking leaned in and- “You okay?”

Ivan’s breath smells like vomit, but again, it’s barely a thought in Nolan’s brain, all he can think about is-

“Oh.”

Ivan has followed Nolan’s eye line. Ivan has turned around.

Ivan is looking at the same image Nolan is. Travis with some tall guy’s hand cupping his jaw, getting kissed by him, kissing back, moving closer, touching, it’s-

Oh,” Ivan repeats, back turned to Travis again, staring at Nolan intently. The look on his face makes less sense than anything else has tonight. “Patty, he’s kissing a guy.” He nudges Nolan’s shoulder, mouth curving into a smile. “That’s great.”

Great?” Nolan repeats, feeling a crazy little laugh build in his throat that he barely manages to suppress. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Travis not being straight, like you thought,” Ivan says, just like that, like it’s that simple, like it means anything. “And that means your feelings for him-”

“I want to leave,” Nolan talks over him, barely hearing his own words over the sound of his heart racing, as he tears his eyes away from Travis. “Let’s just go.”

“But-”

“Ivan, fuck,” Nolan grits out, tugging at the sleeves of his parka, forcing himself to stare down at the floor so he won’t look over at Travis again. “I want to get out of here. This is- It’s nothing. It’s fucking nothing, okay?”

“It’s not nothing, Patty, c’mon,” Ivan argues, slightly slurring his words because apparently he’s committed to making this whole thing even worse for Nolan. Like it isn’t already unbearable. “I get that it sucks that he’s kissing some frat boy kid, but-”

Nolan doesn’t wait for Ivan to finish, he turns on his heels, almost tripping over someone’s feet but managing to catch himself.

Ivan clearly doesn’t understand anything. It doesn’t matter if Travis is straight or not, if he’s maybe bi or pan or whatever. It doesn’t matter who he does or does not kiss. None of it fucking matters and Nolan doesn’t get how Ivan fails to fathom that. Like he didn’t see it himself. Like he didn’t see Travis surrounded by hot looking people, being normal and fun and everything that Nolan isn’t.

He just wants to get out of here, and he does. He’s through the foyer, out of the door, past cool guy Drew and-

And he’s not fast enough.

“Nolan, wait!” Someone calls and it’s not-

It’s not fucking Ivan.

It’s the sound of too thin ice is cracking under his feet while he’s miles away from the shore.

Nolan freezes on the spot, breath caught in his throat. He made it outside; the curb where he parked is right there, barely five meters away, but it might as well be the other side of town because before Nolan can will himself to move again there’s a hand on his shoulder, turning him around, turning him to face Travis.

“Hey,” Travis says, sounding a little bit out of breath even though Nolan knows, fucking knows that Travis’ stamina is good enough for him to run up twelve flights of stairs with 20 plus pounds of equipment on his back and be fine. “Hey, I- Hi. Are you-” He looks over his shoulders, lips red and shiny with- “I didn’t know you were here, I didn’t see you, I- Are you already leaving?”

Nolan stares at him, the red on his cheeks, the way his lips look the same but different, the way his eyes glisten with something, focused on Nolan like he’s the only fucking person in the world.

“You think I came here to party,” he says roughly after a beat of silence has passed. “Like this?”

He gestures to himself, lips twitching, but he doesn’t have it in himself to fake a smile. Not right now. He’s not joking and there’s no point in making Travis believe that he is.

“No,” Travis answers, honest at least. “I was just- I don’t know, I’m drunk. Look, I-”

He takes a step forward, only stilling when Nolan shakes his head, stepping backwards at the same time. He can’t- He can’t have Travis close to him. Fuck, he can’t even look at him, it’s too much.

“What?” He forces out, aiming for biting, but what comes out is as weak as his legs feel, brittle and useless.

“I just-” Travis starts again, running a hand through his hair as he looks around before his eyes land on Nolan again. “Fuck it. I’m- I missed you, Nolan. I really, really fucking missed you and I’ve- I’ve been trying to respect your privacy and, like, your decision to want nothing to do with me anymore but I- I miss you. And I don’t understand.” He barrels on, voice cracking more and more with each word. “I don’t understand where things went wrong. I don’t understand what I did wrong. So-”

He looks at Nolan, hands pressed to his own chest and suddenly Nolan gets it, gets what the glistening in Travis eyes means, what it is.

It’s tears. Unshed, but there nonetheless.

“Travis,” Nolan says and it feels like the sound is carved out of his throat with a knife. “Travis, you didn’t-”

He looks at Travis helplessly. He never meant for this to happen. He knew of course that Travis had questions, knew he might be upset and hurt but he’d thought- It’s different seeing it in front of him, seeing Travis’ face and the pain and confusion there.

You are supposed to be mad at me, Nolan thinks, pleads inside his head. Make it easy. For both of us. Please. Be mad, be mad. Hate me, just hate me.

But Travis doesn’t. He very obviously fucking doesn’t.

“Can’t you just tell me,” Travis pleads, a single snowflake landing and melting in his dark hair. “Tell me what I did, Nolan.”

Another snowflake falls, dances in the space between them before floating to the ground, followed by another and another, icy cold against the heat of Nolan’s cheeks, barely even there before they disappear again and Nolan wants to look, wants to get lost in the first snow of this winter but he can’t look away from Travis, can’t tear his eyes away, can’t take another step backwards. It’s fucking killing him.

“You didn’t do anything,” Nolan whispers, and it’s the truth, god it’s the truth but he can tell by the look in Travis’ eyes that he doesn’t believe him.

Nolan exhales, inhales, the cold air making his lungs constrict, making it hard to breathe for an impossibly long second that Nolan never wants to end because once it does-

“It’s me, okay?” he says weakly, looking at Travis and the snow dancing around him, visible in the light coming from the windows of the house. “I did something. I’m the one who fucked up, not you, Travis. I like you. And that’s not- That’s not a good thing.”

For a second Travis looks like someone knocked the breath out of him, lips parted, eyes on Nolan, then:

“But-” Travis takes a step closer, a whirlwind of emotions in his eyes. “But how is that not a good thing? Because Nolan, I-” The corner of his mouth curls up, and he’s so close now that he has to tilt his head up to be able to look at Nolan. “I like you too. I’m, like, so into you. You’ve got to know that. I like you.”

“No, you don’t,” Nolan says before anything else can register in his brain. He feels like he’s caught in a fever dream. There’s snow in Travis’ hair, on Nolan’s cheeks, on his hands, and yet he feels like every cell in his body is filled with liquid, shameful heat that makes his voice shake. “You don’t like me, Travis.”

“But I do,” Travis says, argues, voice quiet and sure, as sincere and honest as Nolan has heard it a thousand times, and it doesn’t-

“That doesn’t make any fucking sense,” he snaps, hands trembling. “Just- Just stop. You don’t, Travis. You don’t.

“You don’t get to decide that,” Travis says, taking another step forward.

The sound of gravel crunching underneath his feet makes Nolan flinch. He’s fucking drowning and he has no idea if Travis is the one pulling him under water, or if he’s trying to reach for Nolan’s hand just like he’s doing right now, his skin so warm it must make something inside Nolan’s brain short circuit because he doesn’t pull his hand away. He lets Travis take it, lets him lace their fingers together, like he hasn’t been fighting the memory of Travis doing exactly this for two fucking weeks, thinking about it every time he felt a little bit dizzy, every time he couldn’t quite hold his balance on his own.

“You are straight,” Nolan croaks out, blinking, making himself look away, over his shoulder at the car at the empty street, at the ground beneath their feet, Ivan and Alexis hovering in the doorway. “You and Steph-”

“I’m not,” Travis says, voice so fucking soft it kills Nolan a little bit. “I’m bi, and there’s nothing between me and Steph. There never was, I swear.”

It doesn’t make any sense, none of it. Travis is talking bullshit. He’s fucking with Nolan, playing some cruel joke, hiding behind his mask of honesty like he gets some sick satisfaction out of spewing lies like none of it even matters.

“But-” Nolan starts, but he doesn’t know where to go with it, doesn’t know what to think or feel or do.

“I’m in love with you, Nolan,” Travis says, hand squeezing Nolan’s, eyes wide and honest. Hopeful.

It’s the cruelest lie Nolan could have ever imagined.

He makes a noise, somewhere deep in his throat, the itch there almost unbearable. He shakes his head. “You’re drunk.”

Travis doesn’t even deny it. What comes out of his mouth is worse. “I’m in love with you when I’m sober too.”

“You aren’t. You fucking- You aren’t.” Nolan shakes his head again, yanking his hand out of Travis’.

“I am,” Travis still –fucking still- insists like this is some sort of debate, like he can convince Nolan if he just tries hard enough, puts enough sincerity into his voice, his gaze. It’s all as much bullshit as the words he’s saying. “And I want to be with you. I want- I want you to give me a chance to make you happy.”

Nolan chokes out a laugh, stumbling a step backwards. “I am happy.”

Again Travis looks at Nolan like he doesn’t believe him and Nolan can’t fucking stand it.

“I’ve got to go,” he spits, already turning around, blindly fleeing towards his car.

Travis calls after him, but Nolan barely hears it over the rushing of blood in his ears, the fluttering of his heart in his chest.

Even the sound of the car door opening and closing, a minute or two later when Ivan and Alexis climb into the backseat barely makes it through the fog in Nolan’s head.

Ivan says something, maybe, about driving, about Nolan, about Travis, but Nolan just fumbles the key into the ignition and starts the car, pulls onto the street with jerky motions that make his joints hurts more than they already are. Not that it matters, not that any of it does.

 

***

 

“Did you know?” Nolan asks as soon as the apartment door is closed behind them, his voice trembling. “Did you know he was there?”

“What?” Ivan looks at Nolan through half-lidded eyes, leaning against the wall of their hallway, puke bucket still in his arms.

He looks pretty miserable, the drive –including the detour to drop Alexis off at hers- apparently not having helped his upset stomach, but Nolan can’t be considerate of that right now, he needs to- He needs to know. It’s as simple as that. If Ivan set this up, if he fucking tricked Nolan into this, then-

“Did you know that Travis was at the party?” He pushes, hands balled into fists. “You could have called an Uber but you called me. You called me and then I couldn’t find you anywhere, you weren’t answering your phone, and I run into fucking Travis.”

“Patty, that’s-” Ivan shakes his head, pushing himself away from the wall clumsily. “No. I didn’t know. This wasn’t some trap. I just didn’t want to puke in some poor Uber driver’s car, okay?”

“No,” Nolan snaps, tossing his car keys on the sideboard by the door. “No, nothing is fucking okay. You heard what he said. That he’s in love with me? I mean, what- What kind of fucking bullshit-”

“Okay, Nolan, I- Fuck, bro, that’s-” Ivan looks pained, his face a weird grey-ish, greenish color. “You know I really want to unpack this with you, but-” Ivan breaks off, making a weird gagging sound, lips pressed together, before barely a second later he’s got his head in the bucket again.

“There’s nothing to unpack, Ivan,” Nolan says, taking Ivan by the arm and leading him to the bathroom. “It’s just-”

He halts once inside, looking at himself and Ivan in the mirror. His cheeks are still flushed, splotchy red, just like that Drew guy remembered but somehow underneath it all Nolan still looks paler than Ivan who’s emerged from the bucket again, mumbling something about never drinking again under his breath. Even without stepping closer, Nolan can tell how dry his skin is, especially between his brows and on his chin. His hair looks matte and lifeless, thin and brittle at the ends. His eyes are fucking dull, shadows under them and- And there’s no way Travis looked at him and meant it, all the shit that he said about being into Nolan, being in love with him.

And if he did, then he got it wrong.

He might think that he’s in love with Nolan, but it’s not real.

It’s bullshit. It’s a lie. It’s a mistake.

“It’s a mistake,” he says out loud, watching his reflection say it with dry, chapped lips. He needs to hear it, can’t let himself think anything else. “He’s made a mistake.”

 

***


Chapter Text

“Ivan and I wanted to talk to you,” Kevin says, to the sound of two chairs scraping over the kitchen tiles.

They’ve been up for a while, Nolan knows, but up until now they’d been murmuring to each other in Ivan’s room, probably coming up with a battle plan or whatever. Nolan isn’t stupid or optimistic enough to think that Ivan hasn’t run directly to Kevin with the bullshit he heard last night, the second he was sober enough to do so. And now, after conferring, after deciding on a strategy to deal with the fucking mess that Nolan has made out of his life, they want to talk to Nolan about it. It’s a special kind of hell that Nolan should have escaped by going out or something, except that he doesn’t really do random spontaneous trips outside and he kind of hoped- He doesn’t even know what. Plus it’s Sunday. And Sunday is pancake day and Nolan just-

He’s making fucking pancakes for his friends.

His own plate, strategically smeared with some maple syrup is already placed next to the sink, the image completed by cutlery with a bit of pancake still left on the fork on the counter. The ‘I was so hungry I already ate’ excuse ready and prepared in Nolan’s brain.

He won’t get to use it just yet, though, it seems.

Ivan and I wanted to talk to you. What a fucking joke.

Lips pressed together, Nolan picks up the pan and the spatula, transferring the last pancake onto the plate he’d been preparing for Ivan and Kevin.

“I don’t know what Ivan told you, but there’s nothing to talk about,” Nolan says, stepping aside and nodding to the pile of pancakes.

He’d really prefer it if Kevin carried them to the table. Nolan can do I himself too, no problem, it’s just that his joints already hurt and he’s made a lot of fucking pancakes that weigh heavy on the ceramic plate and he just doesn’t fucking want to. This whole thing is already giving him a headache, adding to the nausea the smell of freshly cooked food always gives him.

“That’s not true,” Ivan says from his spot at the kitchen table, apparently severely unimpressed by the glare Nolan shoots him. “C’mon, sit down. Let’s just-” He gestures between the three of them. “-have a conversation.”

“This is fucking ridiculous,” Nolan half snaps, arms crossed as Kevin does pick up the pancake plate like it’s nothing, carrying it to the table. “Can’t you just leave it?”

“Patty,” Ivan sighs, before giving Nolan a pointed look. “We need to talk about this.”

There’s a patronizing tone to the way he says it, like he’s an exasperated mother talking to a child, trying to remember all the parenting books she’s read about healthy communication with your asshole teenage kid.

Nolan hates it.

“We really don’t, actually,” he snaps, keeping his arms crossed as he drops into his chair, slouching down immediately, brows furrowed. He fucking isn’t a petulant child, he’s an adult. He’s in his second to last semester of college. He’s a grown fucking man and when he doesn’t want to talk about something, his friends should respect that. It’s fucking humiliating being sat down for a conversation™ like this, and it makes Nolan’s skin crawl because he doesn’t want to god damn talk about this.

About Travis.

He doesn’t even want to think about him or the abyss inside his chest is going to swallow him up completely, like a black hole, already a graveyard to too many stars.

“We do,” Kevin insists, sitting down next to Ivan, the two of them facing Nolan.

Nolan slouches down a little more in his chair, pulling up his hood.

He could be mean right now. He could snap at them about how they only focus on him so much because they have no lives of their own, because they need to zero in on trying to fix him because that’s easier than working on figuring out their own bullshit, but he knows that’d be cruel and he still- He still feels bad about what he said the other day when he felt cornered and it’s not- Fuck, it’s not like Nolan likes hurting his friends. He regrets it every time, tries to do better so Nolan can’t do it again. Not like this, not right now.

Instead he shoves his hands in the front pocket of his hoodie, pinching at the fat of his stomach through the fabric. The pain is distracting enough for a moment.

“He was drunk,” Nolan forces himself to say, staring at the wood grain of their table, knuckles hurting with how hard he’s tugging at his own skin. But the moment has passed. It’s not enough. Not enough to keep him from picturing Travis last night, remembering him. The way he’d stood there right there on the gravel path with Nolan, snow dancing in the air around them, little specks of white in the dark surrounding him, eyes wide and glistening, hand so fucking warm in Nolan’s he-

“He was drunk when he said it,” Nolan says, tasting bitterness in his mouth. “And Ivan was drunk when he fucking eavesdropped, so-” He gestures vaguely with one hand, lips pressed together for a moment. So there’s nothing to talk about. “So drop it.”

“He wasn’t drunk every time he hung out with you though,” Kevin says, while Ivan has the decency to look at least a little bit embarrassed by Nolan’s weak fucking callout.

It doesn’t give Nolan much satisfaction though, not when Kevin is talking cryptic bullshit like it means anything.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Forcing himself to take his hand out of his hoodie pocket, Nolan frowns, fumbling with the strings of his hoodie.

“The way he looks at you, baby cat,” Kevin says, ignoring the glare Nolan shoots him. “Ivan and I, we’ve both seen it. He looks at you like you’re the fucking sun, man. He has from the beginning. It’s why we were so confused when you said he was straight. Now we know that he isn’t though, and we know that he likes you. We-”

“We fucking don’t,” Nolan interrupts, wrapping his arms around himself tightly, his jaw is already hurting he’s clenching it so hard. “We know jack fucking shit. Travis knows jack fucking shit. He doesn’t-” Nolan wants to fucking scream, but nothing comes out. It feels like he’s dry heaving, cold bathroom tiles digging into his knees. “He doesn’t like me.”

“Nols-”

“And even-” Nolan looks to the side, foot tapping, fingers clenching where he’s got them clawed into the fabric of his hoodie. “Even if he did, and that’s a big god damn if, you know that shit like that, it doesn’t work for me. So it doesn’t matter. What he thinks he feels for me, what you think he feels-” Nolan shakes his head again, the weak fluttering of his heart making him feel dizzy. “Like I’m the sun? What are you even talking about, it’s all bullshit.”

“Stop saying that,” Ivan cuts in, voice pained. “Someone being into you isn’t bullshit.”

“And why couldn’t it work for you?” Kevin joins, looking at Nolan with wide, almost pleading eyes. “He likes you, and you like him, and bro, he’s been so good for you. Don’t think we haven’t noticed. You do stuff, you actually made an effort to hang out with him, you leave the apartment to meet him, you went to the store with him, you have him over in your room and we can hear you laugh. And you’ve been smiling so much more. You-”

“Am I fucking smiling now?” Nolan hisses, feeling like he’s going to choke on Kevin’s words, like the way he and Ivan are looking at Nolan is going to scrape his skin open, leave him open and bleeding and-

“We get that you’re scared,” Ivan says, reaching over the table like he wants Nolan to take his hand. “We do, I swear, and you are allowed to be scared but don’t let being afraid ruin this for you, don’t let-”

“You don’t get shit!”

This time Nolan yells. He can’t fucking take this interrogation, he can’t stand how pushy they are, how dead set on their narrative that doesn’t make any fucking sense and is so damn patronizing at the same time.

You do stuff? You made an effort?

Nolan knew he was a shitty friend to them, that he doesn’t pull his own weight when it comes to chores at the apartment, to doing groceries and whatnot, but he never thought they’d throw it in his face like this. He never thought they’d use how much he’s struggled against him. That they’d eventually get sick of him and leave, sure but being mean? Cruel even? He never- It feels like a stab in the back, and it hurts. It fucking hurts, even if he deserves the knife.

Apparently Ivan isn’t done though.

“What happened with Nico-” he starts, like it’s an okay fucking thing to bring up.

Nolan is out of his chair so quickly he almost faints, dizziness making him grip the back of his chair so tightly, the skin over his aching knuckles turns white.

Don’t,” he hisses, trying to blink away the lights that popped behind his eyes obscuring his vision. “Ivan.”

“Travis isn’t Nico,” Ivan still says, still pushes, each word feeling like a punch to the gut, making it harder and harder to breathe. Nolan can’t believe this. Ivan knows that Nolan doesn’t talk about what went down with Nico, he barely ever even thinks about it, he can’t- Ivan knows the fucking rules. He knows what he’s doing to Nolan with this and yet-

“Falling in love is scary,” he goes on, fucking pity dripping of each word. “It always is and the last time you were in love Nico happened, so I get it, I do, but-”

“Fuck you,” Nolan snaps.

“Patty-”

“No,” Nolan yells, staring at them. “No. No, fuck you. Just- I’m gonna-”

He turns around without another word, dizziness making his head spin but not stopping him from fleeing the room, stumbling into the hallway where he shoves on his shoes, yanking the door open without even tying them. He just wants to get out and get away from this fucking shit show. He can’t stand it for a single second longer. He can hear Ivan call after him, hurried steps and-

And then there’s Travis.

It’s like Nolan is back at the party except that Travis isn’t lounging on some couch, kissing a fit frat boy kid, he’s walking up the stairs, halting on the landing halfway to Nolan’s floor, lips parted in surprise when he spots Nolan. His mouth curves into a smile that quickly gets replaced by a worried frown, though, which-

Nolan’s head is already fucking spinning, he doesn’t have any brain space left to figure out why Travis’ first reaction to seeing Nolan would be a smile, why he’d even be here after last night, after claiming that he liked Nolan when they both know it’s bullshit.

It takes Nolan another second, another fluttering heartbeat, buzzing in his ears, to unfreeze, hand already tightly gripping the railing.

He means to just push past Travis, pretend he isn’t there, but Travis must reach out, hands no longer in the pockets of his jacket, because a zing of something goes through Nolan from where Travis’ fingers brush against the back of Nolan’s hand and it’s-

“Hey.”

“What are you-” Nolan doesn’t know why he stopped, he shouldn’t have stopped, he shouldn’t even be looking at Travis. He should- “Why are you here, Trav?”

“I wanted to talk,” Travis answers, gaze flickering from Nolan to where both Kevin and Ivan are standing in the apartment’s doorway, watching them, then back to Nolan. “Please.”

“I’m so fucking sick of talking, just-” Nolan shakes his head, the bitter taste of guilt and anger on his tongue. Glancing up at Ivan and Kev too, Nolan can’t even bring himself to exhale. He just wants to be left in peace but again and again, everyone just keeps getting involved, keeps pushing and talking and asking and Nolan is sick of it. It’s like no one wants him to stay afloat.

“Nolan?” Travis asks, and the way he says Nolan’s name, the tone, it’s-

“Let’s just go,” Nolan croaks, before he can stop himself, looking at Travis pleadingly.

Kevin’s and Ivan’s eyes that he can feel on the back of his neck get more and more unbearable by the second.

Please.”

Travis doesn’t ask why, Travis doesn’t ask where, instead he just looks at Nolan, holds his gaze for a heartbeat and fuck, Nolan is so fucked because he never god damn cared about the bluish grey of Travis’ eyes before but it might just be his new favorite color and that’s- That’s the last thing that should go through his mind right now, especially when Travis closes the few steps of distance between them and laces their fingers together, turning right back around and leading Nolan down the stairs just like he had at the rink. Before everything went wrong, before Nolan realized just how fucked he was.

It feels too good to be true.

So of course it doesn’t last. They make it down to ground level but before they can make it past the mailboxes Travis stops Nolan that worried crease still between his brows.

“Nolan-”

“Don’t. Just don’t,” Nolan cuts him off, tugging his hand back, wrapping his arms around himself. “I don’t want to talk about it. We fought, Ivan brought something up he knows he shouldn’t have, so now I have to- I can’t be here right now. That’s fucking all. Okay?”

To Nolan’s surprise, Travis doesn’t even argue, doesn’t even push, even if the worried look on his face stays, the hand that Nolan had been holding a moment ago hanging by his side, empty.

“I was going to say that your shoelaces are untied,” Travis says softly then, a beat of silence passing between them. “And I don’t want you to trip.”

“Oh.” Nolan blinks, gaze flickering down to his beat up sneakers –untied.

“Yeah.” Travis shifts, a look on his face that Nolan couldn’t interpret if his life depended on it, then:

The ‘what are you doing?’ gets stuck in Nolan’s throat when Travis goes down to his knees, head bowed down and-

And starts tying Nolan’s shoe laces.

It’s-

“Travis, what-” Nolan whispers weakly, having to reach out for the wall with one hand for support as he stares down at Travis. “You don’t have to, I could-”

“But you don’t have to. And I want to,” Travis says, like that’s something you say, like what he’s doing is anything you do, like-

Nolan can’t help but swallow, as Travis’ tightens the laces of the first shoe, movements careful but firm, certain. When he moves on to the other shoe, Nolan makes himself exhale, his neck prickling with- With something. Fuck.

Travis gets to his feet again, standing up right there, right in front of Nolan, their bodies only inches apart. They are so close Nolan is sure Travis must be able to hear the quick, erratic fluttering of his heart. Even with how weak it feels, it’s as loud as pouring rain against a window to Nolan’s own ears. So surely, Travis must hear it too, must know what he’s doing to Nolan, what he’s making him feel.

Treacherously, Nolan’s hand twitches, the urge to reach out for Travis new, and wrong, and so strong Nolan feels it like sizzling electricity under his skin, the worst of it in his fingertips. It takes every inch of self-control for Nolan not to give in. On the stairs he could justify it with his balance issues, his dizziness but now, on even ground, he can’t. He can’t let himself have this, not when letting go fucks him up this badly.

But he can’t tell Travis to leave either, not like this, not with Travis looking at him like he’d go but not without Nolan breaking his heart.

“I can’t go back to the apartment,” Nolan says, repeats really, because in some strange fucking turn of events, that’s the part he can actually get out around the lump in his throat. “Not after Ivan-”

“Okay,” Travis says, before Nolan can force himself to spill more. “You don’t have to right now. We can just-” He nods to the door. “Whatever you need.”

He looks like he means it. All fucking sincere, eyes on nothing but Nolan.

God.

“I want to go,” Nolan says, and Travis nods.

“Okay, then let’s go.”

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back?” Travis still asks after barely five minutes, their shoulders brushing as they walk, Travis with his hands in his pockets, Nolan’s fisted into his own sweater in a futile attempt to keep himself from shivering even more than he already is. “Not to the apartment, but we could go sit in my car and turn the heating on or something.”

“No, I’m fine,” Nolan says even though he really isn’t actually. His legs are already a little tired, his heart won’t stop racing, and he’s freezing so much he’s pretty sure Travis can hear his teeth clattering, matching the shiver in his voice when he speaks.

Still, there’s something calming about just walking, about taking step after step, cold air burning in his lungs, cooling his still heated cheeks. It’s soothing in a way Nolan can’t quite explain. He doesn’t think he could stand just sitting in a car with Travis right now, so walking side by side even if it’s fucking freezing, it’s what Nolan needs, what he wants.

“I want to walk,” he makes himself spell out, throwing a glance over at Travis, who’s already looking at Nolan, probably having noticed the way Nolan is drawing up his shoulders even higher as the wind picks up.

Tilting his head to the side, Travis pulls a thoughtful face for a moment, before: “At least take my jacket then,” Travis says, already unbuttoning his lined flannel jacket.

It looks so goddamn cozy with the thick, fuzzy fleece lining, like it’d help more than just a little bit with the cold, but-

“I’m fine.”

“Dude.” Travis lets out a small laugh, shaking his head. “You look like you might turn into an icicle before we reach the next corner, c’mon. Who’re you playing tough guy for? Me?”

“No,” Nolan scoffs, feeling himself flush a little. They are still walking and Travis is fucking stripping out of his jacket like it’s nothing, like the cold really doesn’t bother him one bit. “I’m just. Fine. That’s all. I don’t need-” He waves at Travis’ jacket.

“Mhm, okay,” Travis says, folding the flannel over his arm like-

“What are you doing?” Nolan almost halts, eyes flickering back and forth between Travis and the flannel. “Put it back on.”

“Don’t need it though,” Travis says, eyebrow wiggle and all.

Nolan can’t fucking believe him. “Put it back on, idiot. It’s like the fucking north pole out here.”

“Nah,” Travis says with a grin, doing a little skip step, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. “It’s really not. And since I’m plenty warm and you don’t want it-”

“Oh my god.” Nolan can’t stop himself from, grabbing Travis by the sleeve of his shirt, bringing them both to a halt. “What’s wrong with you?”

So much, I told you,” Travis answers, lips curling into a smile. “Did my brother not send you that numbered list? Shame on him.”

“Shame on you,” Nolan says, a surprised little snort making it past the indignation he feels. That Travis even remembers this stupid little joke he made the first time they hung out at Travis’ place. “You are trying to guilt trip me into wearing your jacket. What the fuck.”

Travis shrugs, head slightly tilted to the side. “I just don’t want you to freeze your ass off, that’s all. But you don’t want to go back to the apartment or my car so-”

“Jesus, fine, just-” Nolan snatches the flannel out of Travis’ hand, slipping it on embarrassingly quickly, as he makes himself start walking again, eyes straight ahead.

God, it’s warm. Thick, and heavy, the sleeves not long enough to cover Nolan’s wrists but it still somehow feels big on Nolan, despite the bulky sweater he’s wearing and the layers underneath, which is- It’s good. If Nolan hadn’t been so busy feeling cold and indignant at Travis’ little scheme he would have worried about the fabric clinging too much, emphasizing just how differently him and Travis are built.

“Ha,” Travis says, smile a little wider now. “Suits you.”

“Shut up,” Nolan grumbles, closing button after button, feeling a little less exposed with each.

Next to him Travis just hums as they round the corner, a stripe of winter pale grass starting to their left, muddy and walked over, but still there, still a little bit green.

“Not really good at that,” Travis says, nudging Nolan with his elbow.

“You managed quite well those first five minutes there,” Nolan points out, but there’s no bite to it, no sharpness or wittiness. Nolan can hear his own voice dip, his usual mumble trailing off into something else, something quieter, something clearer, something he doesn’t really want to think about.

The truth is, Nolan missed this.

He missed talking to Travis, missed seeing him smile, missed his ridiculous, tease worthy antics, missed-

Missed him. Everything about him. Even his smell.

Nolan doesn’t know if it’s obvious but when they stop to let a lady with a baby stroller pass in front of them, he can’t help it but turn his head, sniff at the collar of Travis’ jacket.

“I was giving my best,” Travis says, voice catching on the last word, throaty and honest and so Travis that Nolan feels it resonate in his chest, because he and Nolan might have barely known each other for a month, but this part about Travis, it’s something he’s known from the very beginning, since asking Travis about firefighting, and hearing it again now, it makes Nolan wonder just how long he’s been in love with Travis, just how quickly he fell for him, as stupid and irresponsible as it was.

“Oh, were you?” he says weakly, managing a smile.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing, trying to joke. There’s so much that’s unspoken between them after last night and Nolan isn’t any more equipped to handle it now than he was when he first realized his feelings for Travis. Nothing has changed, it’s still the same fucking shit show, the same awful situation, except that now Travis is right next to Nolan and instead of turning around and walking away from him, they are walking god knows where together, side by fucking side.

There’s a park not far away, with a small pond and a couple of benches and maybe that’s an appropriate place to cut ties again, to make it clear to Travis that whatever he thinks he feels isn’t real. Not that it matters because Nolan doesn’t have anything of himself left to give, not for anyone or anything and certainly not for love, not when that’s something that’s doomed from the start.

“Mhm. 100%, you know it, baby,” Travis says easy and light with a hint of more that Nolan just can’t ignore, not with how it’s making each breath catch in Nolan’s throat.

Hand on Travis’ arm again, Nolan stops him.

“Don’t call me that,” he says, making himself look at Travis, hold his gaze. “I’m not your baby. This-” He exhales, foggy breath mixing with Travis’ in the air between them. “This isn’t anything. You, me, it’s not- It’s not anything.”

Something flashes through Travis’ eyes but Nolan looks away before he can even try deciphering it. Instead he lets go of Travis’ arm, burying both his hands in the pockets of Travis’ flannel jacket. There’s Travis’ phone in there. His keys, a pack of gum, and a pocket knife, because at heart Travis is still a hick country boy even though he’s living in the big city now.

The third time they hung out at Travis’ place, Travis let Nolan carve a wonky little stick figure into his bed post. He’d just grinned and talked about his grandma, about catching bass and trout, about wanting to learn how to shoot a bow, and that time Travis twisted his ankle jumping off tree trunks in the woods and Lawson carried him home on his back, all five miles on the short legs of a ten year old.

Afterwards, when Travis had taken the knife, carving a little coffee mug for whatever fucking reason next to the stick figure, Nolan had told him about going camping with Ivan a million years ago, leaving out the part where Nico had been there too, and how that had been the weekend Nolan had had his first ever kiss, right there where it had smelled like bonfire and pinecones and stupid teenage boys who couldn’t give two fucks about personal hygiene.

Travis had listened, head tilted to the side, tongue between his teeth as he’d carved the knife into the bed post.

It had been a short, stupid story, mumbled without much bravado or enthusiasm but Travis had listened anyway.

“I wanted to tell you again, by the way,” Travis says, eyes tracking Nolan’s hand slipping out of his pocket again. His voice is even and calm, soft in a raw way that has Nolan shiver from something other than the cold for once. “While being sober.”

“Travis-” Nolan starts but Travis shakes his head, looking up at Nolan.

“That I like you,” he says, unwaveringly. “That I’m in love with you. That’s why I came by. I needed to tell you while sober. So you’d know that I meant it.”

Closing his eyes for a moment, Nolan grits his teeth, fingers flexing by his side, cold without any gloves.

There are a million things wrong with what Travis has just said, a million things Nolan could –should- answer to end this as quickly and painlessly as he can, but again, the words get stuck in Nolan’s throat and the only words he gets out when his throat opens up again, when he can make himself look at Travis are a weak, useless:

“You shouldn’t have come.”

Lips pressed together for a moment, Travis runs a hand through his hair, looking at Nolan searchingly, eyes flickering over his face. Whatever he’s looking for, Nolan hopes he doesn’t find it, he hopes this will be enough and Travis will turn around and leave, walk out of Nolan’s life like enough people have before him.

“Why?” Travis asks, though, like a knife to Nolan’s throat.

Nolan wishes he’d just make the cut. “Because you being sober doesn’t change anything.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t,” Travis says, and instead for Nolan’s throat, he goes for his heart, places a hand right there on Nolan’s chest, fingers fumbling with the button of the pocket that’s right there, like it’s just something to do, not a touch that’s far from skin to skin, but has Nolan’s heart skip more than just one beat anyway.

“I was in love with you last night when I was drunk, and I am in love with you now when I’m sober and I’m going to be in love with you tomorrow too, whether you never want to see me again or not,” Travis goes on, looking up at Nolan quietly, softly, his hand stilling, smoothing out over the fabric of his jacket. “I’m in fucking love with you, Nolan, and-”

“Stop saying that,” Nolan half snaps, grabbing Travis’ wrist, heart beating in his throat. “Stop saying you’re in love with me.”

“Why? Because you think I’m not?” Travis’ voice breaks a little, his smile cracking just the slightest bit, like Nolan isn’t just breaking his own heart right now. “Because you think I’m lying? I’m not. And what you think doesn’t’ change how I feel. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. I’m in love with you.”

Nolan’s fingers tighten around Travis’ wrist and he can’t- He means to look away, he wants to, needs to, but-

But Travis is looking at him with so much sincerity in his eyes that Nolan can’t. He can’t look away, he can’t let go of him, he can’t get a single word out, because Travis says that he’s in love with Nolan, repeats it like that’s going to make it make sense, like it’s going to make Nolan understand.

They are standing on the sidewalk of some narrow street near that stupid park Nolan hasn’t been to in ages, and there’s nothing scenic, nothing artistic about any of it. A car passes by, there’s a dog barking somewhere behind them and Nolan barely hears any of it over the fluttering of his own heart and Travis’ words echoing in his head.

He feels like a petulant child, again, wanting to stomp his foot and say no, no you don’t. you are lying. You are, you fucking are, it’s not true. None of it, because-

But Travis isn’t a liar, Travis isn’t cruel. If Nolan had to associate two words with him it’d be honest and kind first. Then soft, and sweet and warm and strong and funny and fuck, Nolan can’t do this. It hurts so bad, knowing that he was wrong about Travis, that all these things were just wishful thinking, that Nolan did this to himself. Again.

“And you know, I’m not, like, an asshole,” Travis goes on, hand wrapping around Nolan’s where he’s still holding Travis’ wrist, an echo of what he did last night. “If I like someone and they don’t like me back, I can handle that, I might need some distance but I’d be cool, I promise you that. I wouldn’t pressure you, I wouldn’t just show up at your place unannounced to try to win you over. But you said that you liked me, Nolan. At the party you said-”

“I remember what I said,” Nolan half snaps, stumbling back a step, hand slipping off Travis’ wrist, before his brain has even registered he’s moving. His hand feels so much fucking colder now with Travis’ warmth gone. “I remember.”

And god, he regrets it. It sounds like what Travis is saying that if Nolan had kept his mouth shut, if he hadn’t tried to make things better by proving to Travis that he didn’t do anything wrong, then things would be okay right now. And if not okay, at least better. Travis would feel free to move on, to not cling to this lie he’s telling the both of them, and Nolan would-

He wouldn’t have to see Travis look at him like this, wouldn’t have to hear him ask:

“Did you mean it?”

He wouldn’t have to find an answer either.

“I-”

“Did you?” Travis pushes, desperation seeping into his voice, lips parted, eyes wide and glistening. There’s no snow in his hair this time, but he doesn’t take Nolan’s breath away any less, emotions playing right there on his face, for god, and the world, and Nolan to see.

Travis doesn’t look like he’s lying, and that’s why Nolan can’t do it either, can’t tell Travis that he didn’t mean it. And Travis, fucking Travis with his hopeful eyes and breaking heart doesn’t do Nolan the favor of drawing the wrong conclusion either. It’s like they were a train wreck waiting to happen from the start.

“Then why don’t you want this?” Travis asks, pleading, shaky breath almost matching Nolan’s heartbeat. “Why don’t you want to give me a chance?”

“I’m not-”

Nolan wants to cry. This is torture. Travis looking at him like this is nothing but pure torture. He thought realizing that he was in love with Travis, having to make the decision to walk away that first time was the most pain he could put himself through because of Travis, but this now, doing it again, it’s worse. It doesn’t feel like drowning anymore, it feels like holding Travis’ head underwater with dead, cold hands.

“I’m just-” He chokes out. “Because, it’s- Travis.”

Because I never learned how to swim.

Because I’m barely breathing.

Because it hurts.

Because I’m already bleeding all over you and me, and I’d rather not be loved at all than losing love yet again.

Because this time I’m not going to make it.

“Tell me to go and I will,” Travis says, voice cracking a little further, leaving him raw and vulnerable, open and hurting and honest. “I won’t call you again, I won’t text, I won’t show up at your door. If that’s what you want I’ll do it, but if it’s not-”

“Go.” Nolan has to close his eyes, taking in a sharp, ragged breath, hands balled into fists.

If Travis was being honest he will. He’ll turn around and leave, and he’ll do it before Nolan’s dam breaks, before the tears that are already pooling in his eyes start falling. If Travis is really as kind as Nolan thought he was, he’ll do that, he’ll leave. He’ll allow Nolan to keep a last shred of his dignity.

“You should go. I want you to go.”

A second passes, then another one. Another and another.

One, two, three, four, five.

Then there’s the sound of steps.

One, two, three, four, five.

Nolan opens his eyes, vision blurry with tears but he can still see Travis, see him walk away, a dejected downwards slope to his shoulder, no spring to his step, no energy, no nothing. Just Travis walking away. Walking away like he said he would, like Nolan asked him to, like Nolan wanted.

So why doesn’t Nolan feel relieved?

Why does watching Travis walking away feel like losing more than just the sweet lie Travis kept repeating.

I’m in love with you.

I’m in love with you.

I want you to give me a chance.

Why won’t you give me a chance.

I want you to give me a chance to make you happy.

“I am happy,” Nolan croaks out, a whispered plea, like there’s anyone left to listen, anyone who’d care. Anyone who’d believe Nolan’s lie. “I am happy,” he still repeats, voice shaky and useless, too quiet, too brittle. “I am- I fucking- I- I want-”

Travis is almost back at the corner. He hasn’t looked back once, but-

“I want to be-”

Nolan can’t say it. Not another word makes it past his lips, not for another endless moment, except:

Travis!”                           

Nolan is running before he even realizes he’s made the decision to.

He doesn’t remember the last time he ran. Stumbled, sure, hurried, yeah, but running, actual running? Even when he fled the apartment, angry and hurt that Ivan would bring up Nico he didn’t run. He’s running now. And it’s not away. It’s towards something. Towards Travis.

Travis, who’s stopped right there at the corner, confused expression painted on his face as he turns around, slowly, like he doesn’t want to quite believe that-

Nolan crashes into him, unable to stop in time, and the only thing that stops them from landing on the ground is Travis just fucking taking Nolan’s weight as it crashes into him, hands coming up to his shoulders, his face, confused, questioning eyes flickering all over Nolan.

“Are you okay?” he asks, as Nolan gulps in air, fingers digging into the fabric of Travis’ shirt, needing something –someone- to hold on. His legs feel like they are going to buckle any second, they are shaking so hard with how much strength it took him to run after Travis, all twenty meters or whatever it was. “Nols, what-”

“I’m not-” Nolan gets out, feeling impossibly dizzy, as his lungs strain for air, his heart beating so fast that for a moment Nolan is convinced that it’s actually going to stop and wouldn’t that be fucking ironic? The one moment Nolan doesn’t want it to. “I just-”

“-you?” Travis stares at him, hands warm, the skin just the right kind of rough where he’s got his palms on Nolan’s jaw, like he’s trying to make Nolan keep looking at him, as if Nolan could look anywhere else but him right now. “What? Nolan, what-”

Nolan kisses him.

It’s breathless and clumsily and barely a kiss at all, but Nolan does it, brushing his mouth against Travis’, feeling his surprised little gasp on his lips before he has to lean back again, still out of breath, his head still spinning.

“I don’t know,” he mumbles on an exhale, Travis’ hands having dropped to his collar, the collar of Travis’ jacket. “I don’t-” He shakes his head, tugging at Travis’ shirt absently. “I don’t know, Trav. I don’t-”

“Okay,” Travis says, quickly, firmly, the tone of his voice grounding Nolan enough to be able to focus on him again, see the wonder in his eyes, that’s mixed with caution with incomprehension but also- Also joy. Happiness and that’s- “That’s okay. It’s okay, Nolan. Just-” Travis hesitates, his thumb brushing over Nolan’s throat, right where Nolan can feel his fluttery heartbeat pulsing. “Is this okay? Can I-”

Travis has to get on his tiptoes, Nolan realizes. If Nolan doesn’t bend down to meet him, then Travis has to-

He gets on his tiptoes and kisses Nolan, right there at the corner of the street, right there where Nolan caught up to him, right there where Nolan was the first one to kiss him and it still feels like this, this now, Travis fitting their lips together is the first time that they kiss.

Their first kiss.

Like there’s going to be a second one.

It’s gentle and careful, at first, their lips barely even touching and then between breaths, Nolan can suddenly taste Travis, can feel his smooth soft lips against his own chapped ones, as Travis’ cradles his jaw, one hand finding the greasy mess that is Nolan’s hair, Travis’ sizzling warmth spreads through Nolan’s entire body making his legs feel like they are going to give in for an entirely different reason than exhaustion.

The way Travis kisses Nolan is impossibly gentle, soft and careful, taking Nolan’s breath away, and when they part again, the look in his eyes what gets Nolan the most. Quiet disbelief and wonder, like he isn’t sure if this is really happening and the truth is, Nolan isn’t either. Travis kisses him and it feels endlessly tender, it feels like a dream, like something that should happen to other people, not to Nolan, not after all the pain he’s already caused Travis. But Travis kisses him. He kisses him and it tastes like summer rain, like Christmas snow, like Travis, and Travis, and Travis.

Travis’ lips ghost over Nolan’s cheek, fingers tightening in Nolan’s hair and Nolan feels like he’s going to burst with how much he’s feeling. All he can do is hold on, fingers still clawed into Travis’ shirt, face finding his neck, holding there as their kiss shifts into this, into Travis holding Nolan, Nolan clinging to him, exhaling puffy little breaths against his neck as his heart tries to beat out of his chest.

“Hey,” Travis murmurs, lips pressing to the shell of Nolan’s ear, half a kiss, half a whisper.

“Hey,” Nolan croaks into the crook of Travis’ neck, squeezing his eyes shut.

 

***

Driving to Travis’ apartment, neither of them says much.

Some kind of country music is playing on low volume from the radio, filling the silence but Nolan doesn’t think they really need it. Travis is quiet, unusually so, but it doesn’t feel off putting, it doesn’t feel like Travis is upset with Nolan, or unsure or anything. Maybe it would under different circumstances but not when Travis glances over at Nolan again and again, a pleased kind of twinkle in his eyes each time, almost like he was looking over to check if Nolan was still there, being weirdly happy that he is.

Like Nolan could have disappeared somehow. They are in a moving vehicle for fuck’s sake and Nolan climbed in on his own accord, followed Travis all the way back to his truck when he offered to take Nolan to his apartment after Nolan had told him that he didn’t just not want to go back to Kevin and Ivan just yet, he also couldn’t.

Travis hadn’t asked why. He’d just nodded and now they are pulling up to Travis’ building and when they reach the stairs Travis holds out his hand for Nolan to take like it’s something they’ve done a million times, like it’s not something that after the last time had Nolan fucked up for weeks, playing in his head over and over again.

It feels a little bit like they are caught in a dream, in a bubble ready to burst, but still there, surrounding them, making everything feel a little bit less real, a little bit less scary. But Nolan knows all too well that moments like this never last, especially not with people like Travis who are just a little too good for people like Nolan.

“C’mon,” Travis says when Nolan hesitates for a little too long, one hand already on the railing, eyeing Travis’ hand, feeling his heartbeat pulse in his own fingertips. “Be romantic, hold my hand.”

Romantic.

Nolan has no idea where Travis got the idea from that Nolan is the kind of guy to be romantic with, but it’s not-

He snorts a little, half a smile slipping onto his face. “You’re weird.”

Which isn’t a new development. Travis had been weird from the very start, since that moment he ended up being way too nice about the coffee Nolan spilled on him and then later on campus when he fucking asked Nolan for his number, when he’d smiled so fucking bright at Nolan giving it to him, when-

“How am I weird?” Travis asks with a laugh, and just like that he reaches out, intertwining his fingers with Nolan’s. He looks ridiculously satisfied, raising their joined hands for Nolan to look at. “I mean, I’m not an expert, but I think it’s pretty normal to want to hold your crush’s hand.”

Crush,” Nolan repeats, color rising on his face. “What are you, twelve?”

He wants to call Travis weird again, wants to tug up his hood and hide his face and never let go of Travis’ hand and never be called his crush again, because he doesn’t fucking know what to do with the swooping in his stomach that has nothing to do with hunger or emptiness or anything except Travis. Travis and his weirdness.

“Don’t think so, but who knows? Wanna go check my birth certificate with me?” He nods to the stairs, squeezing Nolan’s hand once. “You know, to make sure.”

Nolan kind of wants to push him. Just a little.

Because Travis isn’t being funny, he isn’t being charming. He’s goofy and weird and sweet and Nolan just- It might be his kryptonite, Travis looking at him like this, so god damn hopeful and a little bit mischievous like he has no idea if his joke is going to land but is really hoping that it will.

“God, you are lame,” Nolan says, because he has to, but he also keeps holding Travis’ hand, which he doesn’t have to, but.

But.

But Travis smiles and Nolan can still feel the memory of that smile on his lips, can still taste it. The thought is enough to make Nolan feel a little bit breathless, a little bit warm, especially when Travis –apparently having read Nolan’s mind- takes the first step up the stairs and says:

“That’s a bit of a self-own. Since you kissed me and all that.”

“I-” Nolan can’t look at him, letting himself be tugged forward, climbing that first step too, hand gripping Travis' so tightly it probably hurts which Nolan wouldn’t- He wouldn’t hold onto Travis like this, if he had a choice. He’d let go and just hold onto the railing. He’d do that in a heartbeat if he didn’t feel as weak and lightheaded as he does after his little unplanned sprint. That he had done to kiss Travis. Fuck.

“You did,” Travis –the asshole- points out, taking another step and another and before Nolan has managed to stutter out any kind of reply, they’ve reached the first landing and then, step after step, the first apartment floor.

“You kissed me,” Travis says, gorgeous fucking smile on his lips, eyes on Nolan like he’s-

Like he’s happy.

Nolan doesn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense earlier in the car when it’d lulled Nolan into a false sense of security, and it doesn’t make sense now. After everything he’s said, after telling Travis no, after telling him to go, Travis shouldn’t still look at Nolan like this. Only because Nolan kissed him, instead of letting him leave. Instead of doing what would have been the best for the both of them.

Nolan should really let go of Travis’ hand.

But he doesn’t.

He should turn around and leave.

But he doesn’t.

He should be kind to Travis, fair. Remind him of the truth sooner rather than later.

But he doesn’t.

Not until they reach Travis’ floor and Travis is suddenly right in front of Nolan, stepping closer, soft fucking smile playing on his face as he lets go of Nolan’s hand only to reach for the front of Nolan’s jacket pulling him that extra step closer so Travis has to tilt his head upwards to be able to look Nolan in the eyes.

His eyes crinkle and he bites his lip, keeping his gaze locked with Nolan’s as he reaches inside Nolan’s jacket pocket. Or rather his own jacket pocket. Because Nolan is still wearing Travis’ jacket.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have,” Nolan blurts out, belated and weak, just as Travis’ fingers wrap around his keys, a motion Nolan can fucking feel against his stomach, despite the layers in between and it’s making him feel fucking sick but also- “Kissed you. I shouldn’t have.”

“Oh you definitely should have,” Travis says, voice low and only a little bit rough around the edges. He looks up at Nolan and his voice drops even lower, the hand that isn’t in Nolan’s pocket reaching up to cup Nolan’s jaw, all gentle and soft and- “You should do it again too.”

Nolan exhales, eyes fluttering closed for a moment. He can feel tension in every single muscle of his body, but he can also feel Travis’ breath on him, can feel the heat radiating from his palm, can feel his own heart flapping its broken, tattered wings, yearning, wanting.

And Nolan wants too. God, he hates himself for it, because it’s not fair, he’s not being fair, but he can’t not kiss Travis, can’t not bend down, can’t not tilt his neck and fit their lips together.

“I haven’t changed my mind,” he still whispers when they part again, nose brushing against Travis’ cheek, fingers tense where he’s apparently gripping the sleeve of Travis’ shirt. He has to. It wouldn’t be fair to just string Travis along, to let him believe that this, them kissing, means anything at all.

“About giving me a chance?” Travis asks, mumbles really, lips brushing over Nolan’s again, leading them a step backwards until there’s the soft thud of Travis’ back hitting the door of his apartment.

Nolan doesn’t get it. Travis is kissing Nolan back, is pulling him in, pulling him close, even though Nolan just reminded him that this isn’t- It’s not what Travis wants. It can’t be. It’s something. It’s whatever, but it’s not-

It’s not a chance, even if the taste of Travis’ lips makes Nolan want to imagine it. Imagine being the kind of person who could say yes to Travis, who could be who Travis deserves, who he would want, for real, not just because Nolan somehow fooled him into believing that he did.

 “I haven’t changed my mind about wanting one,” Travis says, whispers against Nolan’s lips, breathless, despite their kiss having been tame, innocent almost, chaste. His cheeks are flushed when he speaks, thumb almost absently brushing over Nolan’s jawline. “I could be- We could be good together. I know we could. I could make you happy.”

“Trav,” Nolan mumbles, one hand finding Travis’ hair, stroking through it, feeling shaky and off-kilter.

I don’t want you to, he doesn’t say, instead he presses their lips together again.

You can’t, he doesn’t say, instead he slips his hand into the jacket pocket, wrapping it around Travis’ and the key.

I could still try. I would still try, Travis doesn’t say, but Nolan can still picture it, can hear it in his head, with his eyes closed, with Travis’ hand in his, with Travis’ breath in his lungs.

Travis would say it, he’s almost sure. If Nolan said what he’s thinking then Travis would be kind and sweet and so fucking naïve, and Nolan wouldn’t be able to stand it.

“It doesn’t work like that, Travis,” he says eventually, tugging the keys out of Travis’ hand, fitting the key into Travis’ lock. He can’t look at Travis while turning it. “It just doesn’t.”

His head is spinning, a storm inside his chest, and god he’s so selfish and stupid and all over the fucking place because how could he let this happen? How could he go from doing the right thing, letting Travis walk away, to stopping him, kissing him, feeling a hint of clam and happiness in the car and now this, his mouth saying one thing, his body, his heart another.

He’s being cruel to Travis and cruel to himself, and Nolan wishes he could just focus, but-

“What if it did though?” Travis says as the lock clicks and the door falls open from the weight of Travis pressed against it.

He doesn’t stumble though, goes with it smoothly, looking at Nolan, eyes not once breaking away.

His lips are red and shiny, a little like they were when he ran after Nolan at the party, like they were in some shitty romcom movie, like Nolan was someone to run after when you already have some fit frat boy to make out with.

Nolan looks back at Travis, barely aware of how he brings up his fingers to his lips, the ghost of how Travis kissing him making them tingle still there when Nolan touches them.

I don’t make people happy,” he makes himself say, makes himself be honest. So even if you could- Me- It wouldn’t-” He breaks off, watches Travis step forward, the door falling shut behind him, neither of them paying it any attention. Nolan doesn’t remember if he pulled the key, if Travis remembered to. “I’m not a romantic, Travis. I don’t-” One of them should probably check. Travis’ neighbors might not be good people. Stepping out into the hallway, finding their neighbors apartment keys, it might go over wrong. So Travis should check. Nolan should check, Nolan should-

“I wouldn’t make you happy,” he says, pressing the fingertips he’d had against his lips a moment ago to his palm, digging his nails in, brittle and splintered as they are. “And then you’d realize that you made a mistake, that you aren’t in love with me, that you got it wrong and I’m not- I can’t-”

The clinking of metal against metal, key against key, breaks Nolan off, eyes flickering to Travis’ hand.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Nolan,” Travis says, placing the keys on the sideboard by the door Nolan knows he also keeps all his workout gear and winter clothes like gloves and scarves in, as well as all the random cables and wires Nolan found in one of his boxes and that’s-

 Everyone hurts me.

“You can’t promise that,” he says, unable to keep his voice from cracking.

Travis –taking a step towards Nolan- holds his gaze, expression as honest and open as Nolan has come to expect from him.

“I can.”

Nolan shakes his head. No matter what Travis says, what he believes, he’s wrong and they both need to know that. Nolan can’t forget and Travis needs to learn.

“You can’t.”

Unbuttoning the first button of Nolan’s jacket, Travis looks up at him, the grey blue of his eyes almost the same color as the sky outside. “I can promise to try.”

Nolan exhales, flexing his hands here they hang by his side, useless, as he watches Travis take on the next button and the next until he can strip Nolan out of his jacket, letting it drop to the floor like he doesn’t care.

“That’s not enough,” Nolan says, voice rough, letting Travis take both his hands in his, lacing their fingers together as he steps forward yet again, pressing his lips to Nolan’s yet again, and yet again, Nolan lets him, exhaling a shuddery breath against his mouth before he kisses back, mouth open this time, letting Travis’ tongue slip inside, just a little bit brushing against Nolan’s.

It’s barely anything, barely any less chaste than what they did before but Nolan feels it in every inch of his body, every miserable cell. It’s like light in his veins and fuck, Nolan wants to draw this feeling, he wants to get lost in this, wants to spend hours and hours awake at night trying to chase it, recreate it, make a home in it, make it his own.

“It’s got to be,” Travis says, both his hands cupping Nolan’s face when they part, tilting Nolan’s head so their foreheads are resting against each other. “It’s all I got, and I’m gonna give it. 100%. Heart, body, soul. All of me.” It’s not even a kiss this time, it’s just whispered words, Travis’ breath ghosting over Nolan’s lips, but Nolan still shivers, still holds his breath, heart skipping a beat. “I swear to you, Nolan Patrick, I’m going to try. For you. Let me do that. Let me change your mind.”

“You won’t.” Nolan wishes he had anything else to say, wishes he could give Travis that yes, offer a maybe, but he can’t.

He knows himself. He knows how this is going to end. He knows he’s never made good choices, knows he always ended up paying the price and he knows that he can’t do it again. He wishes he could though, wishes he was strong enough.

Getting his heart broken by Travis, it sounds almost worth the pain.

“Because you don’t want me to?” Travis asks and he doesn’t take a step back, doesn’t stop touching Nolan, but he doesn’t push either, doesn’t kiss Nolan again. “Or does a part of you maybe want me to change your mind? Because I think there might- I’m hoping there might be.”

The answer is no. Of course it is. There was never an option for anything else. Nolan doesn’t want Travis to change his mind because he won’t and if he did it’d be all based on false fucking hope, on trust born to be disappointed, mistakes and lies and more pain than Nolan can bear.

And yet, he can’t say it.

Travis pulls back an inch, eyes open, looking at Nolan, searching, hopeful and Nolan can’t say it. He can’t say no.

Travis doesn’t seem to mind that he can’t say yes either.

“That’s enough,” he says, voice low and rough on the edges, and suddenly he’s on his tiptoes again, lacing his arms around Nolan’s neck. “For me that’s enough.”

Nolan can’t not kiss him.

 

***

 

Rain beats down onto the roof of the car like a thousand hammers, pattering against the windows and roof like fists against a door, like a racing heart against ribs. It sounds like rain, but it like the end of the world, the end of the road.

Nolan can taste it in his mouth, can feel it dripping off his hair, off his chin, mingling with the tears on his cheeks, the taste of salt so much stronger than Nolan remembers.

There’s nothing but darkness ahead, the headlights useless, barely even fucking there and Nolan is shivering, a huge gaping abyss in his chest that makes him want to go back, want to take it back, every word, every choice, every stupid mistake. But he can’t. He knew it then and he knows it now in his dream too. Feels the weight of it pulling him under.

“I’m not going back,” he says -had said- around the lump in his throat and for a second he’d felt-

He’d felt relieved. He’d exhaled, had closed his eyes and he’d thought things would be okay, that the hard part was over, that he’d made the right choice, the kind choice.

But he’d been wrong. He’d been so fucking wrong and Nolan is never not going to regret saying it, telling his father that he wouldn’t go back to Brandon that he wouldn’t play for the Wheat Kings anymore, done with pro hockey, done with the life they’d been working for since he’d been a little kid.

“You know, that makes them right,” Nico says, even though he isn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t. He’s sitting in Ivan’s place, right there with Nolan in the backseat of his dad’s car, pouring rain and nothing but dark highway around them. “Right?”

And he’s not saying it, but Nolan still knows what he means, why he’s smirking this way, why he’s running a hand through his shiny brown hair in that practiced fucking way he thinks makes him look cool and Nolan just-

He’s choking on it. Feels it like water in his lungs, because Nico is telling the truth and Nolan hates him for it. Hates that it’s what his father had said too, his father who’s sitting behind the wheel now, quiet, unmoving, hands on the wheel, his face nothing but a shadow.

“It’s not that I can’t handle it,” he still says, just like he had that night a million years ago, when he didn’t know yet that this was his world ending, only a creeping feeling there beginning to crawl under his skin, dark and scary, but- “I could, I just- Dad, I don’t want to. I don’t- I don’t want to just take it and pretend I’m someone I’m not. I want to be me. I want-”

“I don’t know what you were expecting,” Nico says before Nolan can finish, and Nolan can’t remember how it actually went.

He doesn’t know if his dad interrupted him, doesn’t remember how far he’d gotten in defending himself, in trying to convince his dad that he didn’t just quit hockey because being gay made him too weak, not man enough to be a hockey player. He did of course, but back then Nolan didn’t see it that way. He’d fooled himself into thinking that he was making the brave choice, that he wasn’t being a coward. Now Nolan doesn’t know how he ever believed himself.

But he does know that Nico wasn’t there, wasn’t in the car with him and his dad. He knows that Ivan had been, remembers how he’d looked at him with his brows drawn together, eyes concerned and a little bit scared, because he’d sensed it too, that everything was going wrong.

“Telling him,” Nico continues, nodding to the front seat, then, letting out a cackle, weird and distorted and wrong even though Nolan no longer remembers the actual sound of Nico’s laugh. “Telling me.”

“I thought you loved me,” Nolan says and suddenly he’s running again, running after the car, drowning in rain, in his own fucking stupid tears because he did think that. He thought Nico loved him, he thought telling Nico that he was gay, that he didn’t want to hide it, he’d thought-

He hadn’t thought that Nico was going to turn around and tell the entire team. He hadn’t thought he’d show up to practice the next day with all his gear shoved into a corner of the showers, smelling like urine. He hadn’t thought the day after that he’d find a dildo perched in his locker, the word ‘FAG’ spray painted right over his name tag.

He’d thought his dad loved him, too.

He hadn’t thought his dad would stop the car, still one hour out of Winnipeg, and tell him to get out in the pouring rain.

Not that it matters what Nolan had thought. It only matters what happened. It only matters what Nolan lost.

 

Blinking his eyes open there’s no rain pattering against the tall window by Travis’ bed, and while the sun has barely begun to rise, it’s not complete and utter all engulfing darkness watching from outside. The sound of rain, of running water it’s still there and for a second Nolan can’t place it, his heart beating to his throat, like he’s still caught in his dream somehow but when the water shuts off –shower, shower water, not rain- it’s not Nico that steps into the room, it’s Travis.

Travis smiles, hair dripping wet, like he didn’t even bother toweling off, except that his upper body is dry, bare as it is, because Travis isn’t wearing anything except sweatpants. Grey, worn looking sweatpants, that-

Blowing out a breath Nolan lets himself fall back into the pillows, making himself stare at the ceiling for a second.

So he slept over at Travis’. Yesterday they kissed, more than once, more than twice, more than- More than they ever should have and while Nolan had told Travis that he wouldn’t give him a chance, he still slept over.

He dimly remembers napping right here on this bed for half the afternoon, exhausted mentally and physically and then Travis cooking, Travis smiling and talking, a movie running on TV, and when he’d gotten up to text Kevin and Ivan for Nolan, Nolan had sneakily shoved some of his portion onto Travis’ plate and Travis hadn’t noticed.

He hadn’t noticed Nolan barely eating half of what had been on his plate either, hadn’t noticed him only chewing, never swallowing the second half of the chicken breast before excusing himself to the bathroom and spitting it out.

Nolan had felt guilty, of course, but half a chicken breast still comes in at least 60 to 80 calories and the amount of rice he ate-

“Hey,” Travis says, drawing Nolan’s attention back to him and his very naked, very fucking toned upper body. “Slept well?”

“I-” Nolan considers it for a moment.

He didn’t really on account of his bad dream, but he did sleep. He doesn’t even remember really struggling to fall asleep, and that’s worth a lot in Nolan’s book.

Biting his lip, Nolan shifts a little, tugging at the sleeves of the same hoodie he was wearing yesterday when he ran away from Kevin and Ivan, when he kissed Travis, and when they crawled into bed late last night, Travis telling some insane story about some moth cryptid that his grandma heard from a friend who got it from some cowboy dude and Nolan barely remembers any of it, but he remembers the taste of toothpaste on Travis’ lips when they’d kissed in the dark, Travis whispering a soft fucking ‘good night’ that made Nolan’s heart almost beat out of his chest.

“Still asleep?” Travis suggests then, slightly teasing, sitting down on the edge of the bed, hand gentle on Nolan’s ankle through his duvet. “Earth to Nolan?”

“ ‘m just-” Nolan sighs a little rubbing his eyes before making himself sit up, managing a shrug. “Had a weird dream. Why’re you shirtless?”

“Because I took a shower and forgot to bring a shirt with me,” Travis says, easy and simple, giving Nolan a half grin half smile, that-

Yeah. Nolan gets why hot firefighters calendars are a thing. Someone with Travis’ body and Travis’ smile- Nolan kind of wants to kiss him. He also wants to hide under the covers and never be looked at again because next to Travis he knows he looks like a fucking gremlin.

“What was your dream about?” Travis asks, before Nolan can decide on either course of action. He looks genuinely interested too, which shouldn’t be anything new at this point but it still throws Nolan a little bit.

“Just-”

He shrugs, clearing his throat, looking down at the duvet which is a good plan, considering that it’s a much safer object to squint at that Travis’ fucking abs. Which are pretty fucking amazing, even with Travis sitting, his slouch hiding most of the definition Nolan knows is there because Travis is an idiot and didn’t bring a stupid shirt to the bathroom.

“I don’t know, weird stuff,” he finishes lamely after a moment. “Don’t really remember.”

“Mh,” Travis says easily. “Hate when that happens. It’s like, what the fuck, why does my brain keep secrets from me?”

“Right.”

Snorting a little, Nolan shakes his head. He still feels off but by now he’s awake enough he isn’t sure anymore if it’s because of the dream, the memories that came with it, or of it’s just a combination of everything, of the turmoil of yesterday, of waking up somewhere other than his room, of Travis being all shameless about his shirtlessness, just chatting away while his hair is still wet like Nolan remembers his own was seconds after his father had kicked him out of the car on the side of the road.

“So, I went for a run,” Travis says after a moment of silence, hopping off the bed and walking over to the counter where he picks up a- “And on the way back, I got us breakfast.” He holds up a paper bag from some bakery place Nolan vaguely remembers Travis having talked about before. His heart plummets, as Travis jumps back on the bed, grinning from ear to ear dropping the bag in Nolan’s lap. “I hope you like scones? I meant to ask but then I didn’t want to wake you and then I thought what are the odds of me picking another pastry he doesn’t like and-”

Nolan swallows, managing to put on a hesitant smile after a moment. “I love scones.”

“Yeah?” The way Travis’ face lights up is almost unbearable. “I know you weren’t a fan of the doughnut, so I was little worried but-”

“It’s fine, Trav,” Nolan says, reaching out to tap his fingers against Travis’ thigh, his pulse skyrocketing at the contact, despite Nolan purposefully having chosen a clothed body part. “I’m- Really. Thank you for breakfast.”

A small blush appears on Travis’ cheeks, his smile widens a little as he shrugs, gaze cast down to where Nolan’s hand is still- “I like it when you call me that. Trav.”

He looks almost bashful.

Nolan can feel himself blush in answer and this time his smile isn’t something he struggles with. It’s just there, tugging at the corners of his mouth as he clears his throat, feeling caught somewhere between endeared by Travis and his antics, nauseous at the thought of having 400 calories just for fucking breakfast, and shame for lying.

He doesn’t know how he’s going to get out of eating this time. Travis apparently noticed some of Nolan’s business with the doughnut back when, so he might pay attention again now, more so even because he worried about bringing Nolan something he didn’t like and-

And Travis is already reaching for the bag, probably about to fold it open and hand Nolan his scone and then Nolan is going to have to eat, and Travis will watch and-

Nolan tosses the bag to the side, grabbing Travis by the face and pulls him into a kiss.

It’s clumsy at first, again. Because Travis is surprised and Nolan is still a little unpracticed and this thing –whatever the hell it is- with Travis is still new, but it gives way to something sweeter, something easier quickly. Travis kisses back, soft and curious, and careful, and Nolan can feel the fucking heat from his skin, because one of his hands drifted from Travis’ jaw to his chest, touching naked, smooth skin, still warm from the shower maybe, except that Travis runs hot and Nolan knew that and-

“Fuck, okay,” Travis mumbles, when they part for air right after he opened his mouth for Nolan’s tongue, letting him lick inside for just a moment. “Okay, yeah. This is better than breakfast. Let’s- Yeah.”

“Shut up,” Nolan whispers, and instead of waiting he just kisses Travis again, lets himself have this, all of it. The benefit of distracting Travis from food (and god does a part of him feels ashamed for that) but also the way it makes him feel like there’s fireworks beneath his skin, light tingling in his fingertips.

Travis reacts to him perfectly, turning to meet Nolan better, practically straddling Nolan now, knees on either side of Nolan’s thighs, and it’s different from their kisses before because Travis is the taller one now, but he still lets Nolan take the lead, one hand finding the back of Nolan’s head, tangling in the messy hair there, the other fisted into the sleeve of Nolan’s jumper.

It’s perfect. Nolan never wants to stop kissing Travis.

Like this, with Travis’ lips on his, it’s almost too fucking easy to not think about the horrible mistake Nolan is making, the heartbreak and humiliation he’s setting himself up for. He knows that this, none of it, not the way Travis cradles Nolan’s jaw, not the way his tongue slips into Nolan’s mouth, is real. It’s a fantasy, a fairytale, something Nolan has fooled himself into playing along with.

It’s not going to last, Nolan knows that as certainly as he knows that it was a mistake ever quitting hockey, but for a moment he lets himself imagine.

“Trav,” Nolan mumbles eventually when they part, his hand at the crook of Travis’ neck, thumb brushing over his collarbone. He ignores the way his own stomach swoops, steals another peck from Travis’ lips.

“Mhm?” Travis hums, eyes closed, lips slightly parted, not quite red from kissing yet but not far from it either.

He looks fucking gorgeous and it’s been-

It’s been so long since Nolan felt like this at all, let alone with another person. So long since he kissed someone, without being drunk, without being high, without chasing this feeling of shame and spite and god knows what else. Nolan barely remembers any of the guys he hooked up with after Nico. There’d only ever been Nico who mattered, and now-

“Travis,” Nolan repeats, clearing his throat a little, pushing thoughts of Nico into the back of his mind. “Go put on a shirt.”

Travis giggles in response, eyes flashing open, twinkling, and Nolan can’t not kiss him again, even with the queasiness in his stomach that his memories brought. “Yeah? Want me to get dressed?”

“Yeah,” Nolan says, a little too quickly and it’s not- He presses his lips to Travis’ again, and for a moment it’s enough, but- He gives Travis a hint of a push, no force behind it but enough to be- Whatever, playful or something. Nolan doesn’t fucking know. He doesn’t know how to do any of this.

“Okay,” Travis says, easy and light, cheeks flushed.

He doesn’t seem upset, not in the slightest bit. He doesn’t call Nolan a tease, doesn’t make some passive aggressive comment about blue balls, or being lead on. He just gets off the bed and walks over to the dresser, but not without throwing a glance over his shoulder, weird cheery little smile on his lips like he’s just- Like he’s content, like he’s happy. Nolan kissed him and Travis is happy. Nolan pushed him away and Travis is happy. It’s a bit of a mind fuck.

“I’m- I’m gonna eat this in class, yeah?” Nolan says, eyes falling onto the paper bag as he tries not to focus on the way the muscles of Travis’ back shift when he pulls a shirt over his head. “I’m not really hungry yet.”

“Yeah, sure,” Travis says, fishing a flannel out of his closet. “Do you want me to drive you? I still have like 40 minutes before I have to be at the firehouse.”

“I don’t have any of my stuff with me,” Nolan points out, trying and failing to run a hand through his hair. He really needs to brush it. And wash it. Maybe. Or just- He doesn’t even have his phone, which means-

“Right. So back to the apartment?” Travis says, shamelessly stripping out of his sweatpants, revealing his fucking perfect, toned thighs that make Nolan roll over and press his face into a pillow that smells like Travis. Of course. He groans.

“Mhm.”

How did any of this even happen? Nolan had a fight with his friends about a guy claiming that he’s in love with Nolan and now Nolan spent a night in said guys bed, and while they didn’t have sex they made out and Nolan- Nolan is still Nolan, the same fucked up guy and here Travis is not a care in the world just casually undressing –dressing?- in front of Nolan like he doesn’t have an athlete’s body and Nolan doesn’t look like he crawled out of some hole, it’s- It’s embarrassing for Travis and for Nolan- Nolan doesn’t know.

“You ready for that? You-” Travis says, and suddenly there’s his hand on Nolan’s lower back and that’s-

Nolan tenses.

It’s not okay, what-

Travis can’t-

Not-

Travis can’t touch him there because sure there’s the duvet and a jumper in the way but Nolan’s waist, his hips, it’s all right fucking there and while there’s barely any part of his body Nolan is okay with those zones are the worst, along with his stomach. He can’t-

Travis must be able to tell. Somehow. He breaks off in the middle of his sentence and a moment, a breathless, endless, awful moment later he retreats his hand, leaving Nolan to shiver, fighting the urge to curl in on himself. Instead he inhales, exhales, then rolls onto his back, looking up at Travis and the questioning, thoughtful look on his face.

“I what?” Nolan says, voice a little rough, but he still reaches out, tapping his fingers against the back of Travis’ hand. He needs to keep the conversation going, because if he doesn’t, Travis will ask questions and Nolan can’t have that. Travis has eyes so he knows Nolan isn’t- Knows he isn’t fit like him, knows that he’s on the chubbier side, but having Travis feel the softness of his body, the fat, it’s- “What were you saying?”

“I just-” Travis looks at him, expression lost for a moment, before he shakes his head slightly, seemingly catching himself. “You seemed pretty upset yesterday, that’s all. When you left and-” He gestures between them. “-ran into me. You said something about Ivan bringing something up he shouldn’t have?”

“Right. Yeah.” Nolan clenches his jaw, looking down for a moment.

He shouldn’t have told Travis that, shouldn’t have given anything away, but he’d been upset and Travis had been there, ready to take Nolan’s hand, and Nolan had just- He hadn’t been thinking clearly.

“I’m fine,” he says after a pause, hoping, praying that Travis won’t push. “Me and Ivan, we’ve been friends since forever, we- We fight sometimes, it happens. I overreacted.” He makes himself smile, makes himself lie. “I’m not mad at him anymore. And he’ll forgive me, so.”

“Okay?” Travis says, brows furrowed, weird look in his eyes. “Just- Do you maybe still want to-”

“No,” Nolan says quickly, before Travis can finish. “I don’t want to talk about it. There’s nothing to talk about. And we really need to get going if you want to make it in time for your shift and I can’t be late to class either.”

Travis looks like he wants to argue, like there’s a million things on the tip of the tongue, but his eyes are on Nolan, searching and questioning and something somehow must make him swallow his questions, giving Nolan a nod instead. A nod and a kiss hesitant and just as questioning as his eyes were before Nolan pulls him in, deepening the kiss, even if it’s only for a moment. Even if it feels like the moment right before falling, the moment when you realize you’ve missed a step, misjudged the distance, the steadiness of the ice, but it’s too late to stumble back.

It’s not too late though, that’s what Nolan tells himself all the way back to the apartment, Travis’ in the driver’s seat, the paper bag full of scones in Nolan’s lap. It’s not too late. Not if Nolan reels things back in now, if he gets on damage control right fucking now.

“I haven’t-” he starts, only once Travis’ has pulled up on the side of the road Travis, hazards on, hand brake pulled. He stares straight ahead, hand on the door handle, thumb rubbing over the cool, smooth metal. “I still haven’t changed my mind, about- about us. And I’m pretty sure what we’re doing is a huge fucking mistake so if you want to forget about all this-”

Travis –the asshole- doesn’t let him finish. He lets out a laugh, small and disbelieving but not cruel, not mocking.

“I don’t know what you think made me change my mind over these last 12 plus hours, but I haven’t, okay? I’m still in love with you-” Nolan can’t help but look at him, cheeks flush with heat. How Travis can just say shit like this, looking all honest and calm, it’s fucking beyond him. “-and I still want to try and convince you to give me a chance. I still want to make you happy. I still-”

“Oh my god,” Nolan groans, pulling the handle of the door but letting it snap back again in the same breath. Biting his lip he looks over at Travis. “Just- What is wrong with you? Are you, like, into this? Does rejection get you off or something?”

“Not particularly, no,” Travis says, no hint of annoyance in his tone, despite Nolan’s jab at him. “I’m into you, though. And as far as I’m concerned I’m not being rejected. If that’s what you are going for, then you gotta tell me. Like be clear about it, because I meant it, I still do. Tell me to go and I’m gone.”

Then he fucking smiles, soft and sweet and honest and Nolan is going to have to come up with new adjectives eventually but Travis is just. Like that.

Nolan sort of can’t stand it. He also can’t stand not leaning over to steal a quick kiss before fleeing from the car, face flushed to the tip of his ears.

Travis is going to ruin him, and it’s all Nolan’s stupid heart’s fault. He just had to fall for someone like Travis. Someone so kind and honest and sweet. Someone who doesn’t give Nolan a reason to tell him to go, someone who makes him want to not find a reason even though he does. A part of him wants that reason, wants to tell Travis to go –again- and this time let him.

But he can’t.

Not when he looks over his shoulder when ringing the doorbell to his own apartment and finds Travis still parked, eyes on Nolan, looking like one of these guys in the movies. All fucking gentleman and shit, waiting for the girl to get inside safely. Which is stupid. Because Nolan isn’t a girl and it’s barely a few steps in brought daylight and-

And maybe a part of Nolan wants to find reasons to tell Travis to stay too.

“Hey it’s me,” Nolan croaks out, heart beating to this throat, when a disgruntled sounding Ivan answers through the intercom. “Buzz me in?”

It barely takes a second for Ivan to do just that, allowing Nolan to push the door open. He still hesitates, looks over his shoulder again, feeling silly and embarrassed and weird, because Travis tilts his head, questioning smile and it’s not- It shouldn’t be as endearing as it is. It shouldn’t make Nolan’s stomach swoop like it does.

Go, Nolan mouths, because he’s inside now, Travis can drop this prince charming act and-

Go? Travis mouths back, eyebrows raised the slightest bit, a mischievous little smile on his lips.

Not go go, Nolan starts, after rolling his eyes but before he can get any further, Travis has already rolled down his window.

He actually fucking winks at Nolan. “Can’t hear you, baby.”

Making a noise in the back of his throat at the pet name, Nolan barely refrains from chucking the stupid scone paper bag at him. “I’ll- I’ll fucking text you, okay? Just- Get to work already.”

“Oh, I still have-”

“Will you fucking go, already,” Nolan half yells, half snorts, getting a stare from some old lady walking by and a laugh from Travis in return.

“Go where?”

“I’m going to murder you,” Nolan says, forcing himself to step inside and push the door shut, because he knows if he doesn’t, he’ll go and kiss this stupid cheeky smile of Travis’ lips and how’s that going to help anyone?

Certainly not Nolan and his doomed, barely beating heart.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry, you know,” Ivan says quietly, picking at the scone Nolan convinced him to take, claiming that he already ate and that this –the paper bag’s content- had been meant for Ivan and Kevin all along. “For bringing him up. It just- It kills me, Nolan, when you let him ruin shit for you, it’s- He doesn’t deserve that kind of power over you.”

Nolan blows out a breath, arms wrapped around himself, socked feet pressed against the outer side of Ivan’s thigh. Letting his head fall back against the armrest of the couch, he stares at the ceiling.

He still doesn’t want to talk about Nico, he never does, and Ivan apologizing, it’s- Nolan would have preferred him simply not saying anything. They could have just pretended that their fight didn’t happen, could have ignored the way Nolan reacted as well as whatever reasoning Ivan had for crossing that line. But Ivan is evidently still bothered by the whole thing and Nolan doesn’t have the energy to block him. He’s still exhausted despite the ridiculous amount of sleep he’s gotten yesterday and then tonight. Climbing up the stairs had sent his heart racing so fast it made lights pop behind Nolan’s eyes. He’d had to take a break half way up, sitting down on the cold, stone steps to catch his breath, to keep himself from passing out and now with his head still spinning from everything that happened with Travis, all these conflicting feelings, Ivan is bringing up Nico. Again.

It’s a bit of a nightmare, which-

“I dreamed of him,” Nolan says, the words just slipping out between two hunger cramps that make him clench his fists where they are holding onto the fabric of his jumper. “Of Nico.”

“Last night?”

Nolan nods, a frown finding its way onto his face when Ivan moves, gets off the couch and sits down on the floor instead, right next to Nolan’s head, wearing a curious and guarded expression. That look never means anything good. It means prying and worry and too much conversation for Nolan’s taste.

“What did he do?” Ivan asks then, belatedly adding: “In your dream.”

Nolan shrugs a little, testingly stretching his legs now that he’s got the entire couch to himself. His knees hurt, sore like his ankles and hips, probably from the running and stair climbing he did yesterday. It’s like his legs feel as tired as his mind.

“Nico? He just said some stuff, I don’t know, he- He sat in your place, in the car. You weren’t there at all.”

The crease between Ivan’s brows deepens, but he doesn’t say anything, just keeps looking at Nolan, like he’s waiting for Nolan to give him more.

Shifting onto his side, Nolan pulls his knees closer to his chest, despite the way it makes them ache even more. He wishes Ivan would just understand, would connect the dots Nolan gave him just now but of course, he doesn’t. Nolan does need to give him more, he knows that, it’s just that he’s never been good at talking about this and he isn’t even entirely sure why he’s doing it now. He doesn’t want to, but maybe he’s too tired to know better, and maybe a part of him is hoping that if he only reminds Ivan of some of the things that happened, some of the proof as to why love just doesn’t work for Nolan, then his friend will give him the extra push he needs to make the text he promised Travis a goodbye, an ‘I’m sorry but I don’t want this’, instead of-

Nolan deleted all three attempts he’s made so far. One worse than the other. Asking Travis for his shift schedule, what the hell was he even thinking beginning to type that let alone consider sending it.

“Patty?” Ivan pushes and Nolan sighs, rubbing a hand over his face.

“When my dad picked us up to go home for spring break and I told him about quitting hockey,” he makes himself say after another short pause, focusing on the frayed collar of Ivan’s shirt. It’s an old one, he’s had for years, only wearing it to bed nowadays. “You and I were sitting in the backseat, and it was pouring so hard, I thought I was going to drown when he- Out there. It was-”

“I remember,” Ivan says, a flash of something dark going over his face. He’s not raising his voice, he rarely ever does, but there’s a shift in tone that Nolan recognizes all too well. It’s part of the reason why Nolan doesn’t like to talk to Ivan about Nico or his family. “I wanted to bash his head in back then, I still fucking do. Every time I see him or even just his car when I’m back in Winnipeg, I feel like I’m seventeen again, having to watch your dad kick you out of that car, leaving you on the side of that highway. I should have done something then, but I-”

Nolan knows all that. He knows that Ivan still feels guilty for what happened, a lot of it, more than he ever should, because the truth that Ivan refuses to believe is that none of it is his fault. He’s angry at himself, at Nolan’s family, at the boys of their team, even though it’s all been Nolan’s own doing. What happened with the team and Nico while Ivan was out with his shoulder injury only sort of going to High School and moping around, and then the whole shit show with Nolan’s family. If Nolan had chosen not to come out, if he’d chosen not to quit hockey-

But he did and here they are, Nolan with all that pain, and Ivan with all that anger, neither of them having any right to it.

“Ivan, that’s not- So don’t,” Nolan interrupts him, shifting uncomfortably, barely managing more than a mumble. “I was never mad at you for that and it’s not- It doesn’t matter anyway. Tonight in my dream only me, Nico, and my dad were in the car.”

“Well, that has all the makings of a nightmare,” Ivan comments bitterly. “Fuck them. Both of them.”

“Iv-”

“Don’t defend them, Nolan,” Ivan says, already shaking his head.

He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get how hard this is. Nolan hates Nico, he does, and most days he hates his father, his parents too, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to not defend his father. It’s fucking hard actually. Still is, even after all these years, it’s still hard to accept that Nolan doesn’t have a father who loves him anymore. That he never really did, not the way Nolan thought anyway. Not in a way that couldn’t be lost.

“He didn’t say anything anyway,” Nolan says, clearing his throat. “My dad, I mean. It was- Nico. Nico did the talking and he- He just- It could have been worse, he just-” Pressing his lips together for a moment, Nolan runs his hand through his hair, still a mess, knotty and greasy, but the idea of getting up and doing something about it makes Nolan just tug his hood up, curling in further on himself. “He didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. I mean, what did I expect’? And what-” He shakes his head a little, wrapping the string of his hoodie tightly around his index finger, watching the tip turn a sickly white before blood rushes back in when he lets go of the string. “What am I expecting now? Kissing Travis, it’s- I’m fucking crazy.”

“You aren’t crazy, Patty,” Ivan argues, like he has any fucking clue what he’s talking about, giving Nolan’s arm a nudge with his knuckles. “You weren’t wrong to trust Nico and your dad. And Travis, now, I mean-” He smiles, eyes flickering over Nolan’s face. “I think it’s so fucking great that you kissed him, that you are giving this thing with him a chance.”

“I’m not giving him a chance,” Nolan protests, but it’s weak and quiet, mumbled into his hoodie more than anything else. “Because if I do, it’s- It’s going to end badly. It always fucking does. So I’m not doing it.”

“Bud, you can’t say ‘always’ like it’s some universal truth,” Ivan says after a pause. “Like, yeah relationships are hard and people break up and get divorced and betray your trust, but that doesn’t always happen. And even if you and Travis don’t work out, Kev and I, we’re going to be there for you, you know that, right? We’re here no matter what.”

Ivan looks at Nolan, like it’s the ultimate promise, like what he said is the truth, like there’s no way for Nolan to argue even though there is. Ivan is saying things with this unshakeable belief, but Nolan knows that it’s just that. A belief. And beliefs get proven wrong all the time.

Nolan is sure if he’d asked his parents when he’d been 10, 12, 15, 16, if he’d asked then if they’d ever stop loving him, they would have said no, of course not. Because that’s what parents do. They believe they love their kids unconditionally until suddenly there’s that one condition the kid no longer meets and everything changes. Love no matter what, being there no matter what, that’s not something that really exists. It’s just an idea people fool themselves into believing.

People leave. People claim they love you, that they’ll always be around, be your safe fucking haven or whatever, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ever change their mind and leave anyway. Because sometimes people just stop loving you and there’s nothing you can do except cry and scream and run after a car in the pouring rain even with the tail-lights long swallowed up by darkness.

It’s not going to be any different with Ivan and Kev, no matter what Ivan says now. Nolan knows the truth, feels it’s claws and teeth, cutting into his heart with each labored beat.

“Yeah,” he makes himself say anyway, puts on a smile, bumps his fist against Ivan’s shoulder in answer to his earlier nudge. “I know. I love you guys.”

“We love you too,” Ivan says, expression all cheesy and sweet. “Now tell me about Travis. Kissing him, how was it? How’d it feel?”

“Oh my god,” Nolan groans, tugging his hood further over his face, a futile attempt to hide his blush. “It was good. Whatever. Just- Shut up, creep.”

“I’m not asking for a play by play, I just want to know, man,” Ivan says, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Just give me a vibe. Like… Was it steamy or-”

“Steamy? What, are you forty?” Nolan stares at him incredulously for a moment. “And no. It was- I mean it was hot but it wasn’t going there. Like, we just- It was just-”

Romantic, Nolan’s brain supplies, causing him to let out a mildly horrified noise. There is no way he can say that, because if he does, he’s going to have to die of embarrassment, or at least become a hermit somewhere in the mountains where he’d die of hypothermia in like three seconds anyway.

“-good,” he finishes lamely. “And like. He’s cool about it. I told him that I wasn’t giving him a chance and he still- I don’t know. He talked all this bullshit about how he’d try to convince me to give him a chance anyway, like- I don’t know how his brain works. He’s so weird.”

“Well, is it a good weird?” Ivan asks, voice low and quiet, softer than Nolan can stand. “Because it sounds good.”

Closing his eyes, Nolan lets out a deep breath.

Ivan is right, it does. It was.

“That’s the worst part.”

 

***

 

Nolan barely sleeps that night.

He’s tired but he almost always is. His body hurts, but it almost always does. His heart-

It beats and beats and Nolan lies there, hand pressed to his chest and he counts the beats, counts them again and again and tries not to think about Travis, about how much he fucking misses him, even after spending so much time with each other. Every minute, every hour Nolan spent at Travis’ place he knew that it was a bad idea. Every kiss, every touch, he knew were mistakes, but with Travis there, he’d been able to push these thoughts, that knowledge away, distract himself whenever it came bubbling up, but with Travis at work, too busy to text Nolan back, it’s hard.

It’s hard to think, it’s hard to breathe, it’s hard not to feel like the worst person on the planet.

It’s hard not to go through the list of reasons why in his head over and over again. Reasons why Nolan should have let Travis leave, why he should have never ran after him, why he should have never called his name, should have never ever kissed him. Not at all and not the way he did, like a prayer, like a promise.

It’s still hard when Travis does text him around 2 am, saying that he just got back from a call and will try to catch some sleep now.

Hope you’re sleeping well! <3, Travis’ second message reads and it makes Nolan roll over onto his side, drawing his knees up to his chest, so he has something to hug, a stupid, needy part of him starving for even the illusion of closeness. When they had shared Travis’ bed the previous night, they hadn’t really cuddled but Nolan thinks he might want to. His treacherous, racing heart might want to, despite all those good reasons, all those mistakes he’s already made, playing on repeat in his head.

Eyes closed, picturing Travis there, it almost feels like none of it matters. Not as much as it should anyway.

You know there’s an emoji for that, Nolan types out, putting an actual heart emoji at the end of the message. To prove his point. Demonstrate, all that.

No read receipt pops up immediately though, and not after five minutes either which means that Travis must have pretty much passed out after texting Nolan his stupid typed out heart. And that’s good. Travis needs his sleep and Nolan is kind of jealous of him for getting it but he also-

He would have liked talking to him a bit more. Even if it’s just about stupid stuff like emoji hearts.

 

***



Nolan wakes up to his alarm blaring and a text from Travis with no less than twenty typed out hearts in it. Not a single actual emoji in sight.

You’re weird, Nolan texts back before dragging himself out of bed, the hunger cramps making him almost double over halfway to the kitchen, the floorboards cold under his feet. He’s still dizzy after he’s downed his coffee –bitter as ever-, sitting down at the kitchen table, and it takes him a moment of blinking before the buzzing grey recedes to the edges of his vision enough for him to pick up the knife and start cutting the apple that is going to be his breakfast. Half of it anyway. The rest he’s going to put in an omelet for Kevin probably. Or Ivan, depending who calls dibs first.

It’s a bleak fucking morning and Nolan is about to make it even worse for himself. He used to like apples once upon a time, but nowadays his teeth are so sensitive, just biting in one is hell and even just chewing cut up pieces- Nolan knows that he needs the vitamins, though. Knows that when it comes to fructose levels, calories, acidity and availability even in winter, there aren’t many better fruits he could pick. So apple it is. Apple, and coffee, and texting Travis. Travis, who just answered with another typed out heart, this time with an exclamation point. It’s like he’s trying to kill Nolan, fighting off a bit of the bleakness without even knowing.

 

***

 

Travis comes over after Nolan is back from class and while he doesn’t stay the night, he kisses Nolan goodbye, right there on the doorstep like it’s something they’ve done a million times, and it leaves Nolan feeling all tingly and fuzzy inside for half the night that he spends drifting in and out of sleep, wishing he had asked Travis to stay and being glad that he didn’t, the grave that he’s digging for himself already deep enough.

But Travis comes over again the next day and they spend the day on the couch watching River Monsters because Travis loves it and so does Nolan if he’s being honest and it doesn’t matter that Kevin laughs at them when he comes home after hockey practice because Nolan is kind of sort of spooning Travis and Travis is drawing nonsensical patterns on his hand while Jeremy Wade throws around words like ‘elusive’ and ‘murky waters’ and it feels a lot like something close to happiness and that’s-

That’s something Nolan can’t really think about, not without the fear of it all ending making him choke, stomach twisting in painful coils.

“I still haven’t changed my mind,” Nolan says, because he has to and Travis smiles and nods and kisses him and still says yes when Nolan mumbles into his neck about how Travis could stay if he wanted, drive straight to work tomorrow from the apartment, instead of his own place.

It means that Nolan can’t give the excuse of having already eaten with Travis to Ivan and Kevin because all four of them have dinner together, but Nolan excuses himself to take a shower once he’s taken care of the dishes and Travis doesn’t ask any questions about why Nolan brushes his teeth too, why he went from relaxed to tense to relaxed again. He just seems happy to be there, which makes Nolan feel both better and worse, but he still kisses Travis, still crawls into bed with him, heart skipping a beat at the sight of Travis wearing one of Nolan’s shirt and shorts, because Travis runs hot and with his body warmth next to him under his duvet, Nolan forgets about feeling cold for a few precious hours.

“I gotta go,” Travis whispers, at some ungodly time the next morning, making Nolan groan and bury his face further in his pillow.

Travis strokes a hand over his hair though, the tangled mess that it is, and it’s gentle enough to make Nolan tilt his head a little and blink his eyes open a slit.

“Mh?”

Nolan isn’t 100% sure when Travis usually leaves for shift but it feels too early, making him frown.

“I know,” Travis says, voice low and gentle. “I know it’s still early but it’s snowing pretty heavily, has been for a couple of hours it seems. I couldn’t even go for a run. On the radio they said to be careful as fuck on the roads, so I gotta head out now, I’m sorry. I’d love to stay and have breakfast with you.”

“But-” Nolan barely manages to suppress a yawn, looking up at Travis. Breakfast sounds like a nightmare, but it’s not what his brain gets hung up on. “Snow? ‘s gonna-”

“Yeah, lots of accidents and shit. It’s gonna be a busy shift for me,” Travis confirms, small smile and everything.

“Mh.”

Snaking a hand out from under the blankets, Nolan tugs at Travis’ sleeve, not quite verbal enough yet to actually ask for a kiss with words. Travis gets it though, smiles and leans in, kisses Nolan despite his morning breath, despite his general morning grumpiness. He kisses Nolan and Nolan only distantly thinks about how it’s kind of a little bit upsetting to think that it’s the kind of weather where apparently lots of people have accidents and need to call 911 and yet Travis is heading out, is going to drive around in exactly those conditions and-

“You want me to put snow chains on your car before I leave?” Travis asks then, interlacing his fingers with Nolan’s, only to bring their hands up to his face and press a kiss to Nolan’s knuckles. “Or do you think class will be cancelled?”

“Might be,” Nolan mumbles, sighing a little. “Kev can- If it’s- If it’s not. Just- Be the one doing the saving, not the other way?”

“Of course,” Travis says, and then, with a smile and a kiss, he’s gone, making Nolan’s bed feel emptier and colder than it ever has before.

Nolan barely manages to stand it for twenty minutes before he crawls out of his and into Kevin’s, letting his friend wrap his arm around his shoulders, barely even waking up, mumbling something unintelligible into Nolan’s hair before continuing to snore.

“So Travis slept over, huh?” he says later around a mouthful of the peanut butter oatmeal Nolan made for him.

It’s still snowing outside, and class has in fact been cancelled so him and Kevin are curled up on the couch, prepared for a day indoors. It kind of sucks that Ivan is stuck at Alexis’ and Travis has to work, but it is what it is, and Nolan is glad about not having to go outside. He might have grown up in Winnipeg, used to snow and ice but navigating ice with near constant dizziness and balance issues isn’t the easiest and the last bruise he got from falling on his hip took six weeks to really start fading, longer even to stop hurting.

“Yeah,” Nolan answers belatedly tearing his eyes away from the window, when Kevin nudges him, questioning crease between his brows. “He did.”

“It was good?”

Frowning a little, Nolan eyes him. “Yeah?”

“I’m just asking, cause you know I worry. You ending up in my bed-”

“That’s not-”

For a second Nolan’s first instinct to apologize, to pull back and make sure he didn’t impose on Kevin by climbing into his bed, not even thinking about it, but before any of those words can make it out another thought flashes through his mind, more of a memory actually. That moment after Nolan spilled the coffee over Travis, when Kevin had asked if Travis did something for Nolan to want him to leave, and then later, Ivan mentioning that Kevin was upset with Travis, thought that he did something to make Nolan flee from the rink, and Nolan can’t-

He can’t have Kevin think that Travis did anything wrong. Not again.

“I don’t know what you think, but that wasn’t because-” Nolan starts, groaning as he hides his face behind his hands for a moment. “He just had to go to work and I mis- I-” He tugs at his sleeves, trailing off into a mumble. “-I was cold. He’s really hot, you know.”

Kevin’s eyebrows shoot up the second Nolan realizes his mistake.

“Oh is he?”

“That’s not- I meant- Oh my god.” Nolan gives him a weak shove, paired with a glare. “I meant like, body temperature. It’s like having a heated blanket or something, sleeping with him.”

The corner of Kevin’s mouth twitches and Nolan just-

“Not like that! We just- We just slept. We don’t- We don’t, okay?”

“Okay,” Kevin says, worry replaced by glistening amusement in his eyes. “All good, baby cat. You guys go at your own pace. This is just new to me too. You in a relationship. Looks good on you, though.”

“I’m not in a relationship,” Nolan protests, but Kevin just smiles, puts another spoonful of oatmeal into his mouth and Nolan can’t help but blush, sending a quick text to Ivan ‘complaining’ about Kevin’s nosiness.

 

Nolan spends the day drawing.

He puts a couple of finishing touches on his thesis pieces, doodles around a bit not really trying for anything particular, gets thrown off by some girl from his class emailing him about a piece she’s working on but can’t for the life of her get the perspective to work. For some reason she decided to ask Nolan for help. After somehow managing to give her an apparently satisfying explanation he starts a new piece. He doesn’t have much of a plan, just starts, feet tugged under him on the chair, hunched over the cintiq so much when he finally takes a break when Kevin calls for dinner, his back and neck hurt, but the satisfying feeling of having created without too much struggle makes it all worth it.

It’s a bit of a struggle of course to get back into it after dinner, after purging and showering but suddenly it’s 1 am again and Nolan is looking at a mostly finished drawing that he likes enough to show Travis the next day when he comes back to Nolan’s after dropping by his own place after work and asks if Nolan had a good day yesterday.

“It looks really awesome,” Travis says, when Nolan shows him the drawing on his tablet, the two of them sitting on Nolan’s bed. “It’s like- It’s another room and that should get boring, but you make it so interesting. I don’t know how you came up with this-” He gestures to the drawing, opening and closing his mouth a couple of times.

“Concept?” Nolan supplies, scooting down a little where he’s sitting so he can lean his head on Travis’ shoulder. It’s not a sitting position that makes his neck pain any better but it’s not like anything does really.

“Right, yeah, concept,” Travis says, lips curving into a smile. “Like, a room that’s half underwater? That’s so cool. Really cool. And that’s like, a bad word for it, but I don’t know all those fancy words smart art people use, but-”

“You don’t need to be a smart art person,” Nolan interrupts him, mumbling into the sleeve of Travis’ sweater. It smells like him, and Nolan kind of wants to smush his entire face against the fabric. And Travis’ body warmth. “Cool is good. I like you thinking my stuff is cool.”

Travis lets out a small laugh, pressing a kiss to the top of Nolan’s head, before zooming in on Nolan’s drawing again, a tiny frown between his brows when Nolan looks up at him again.

“I don’t know how you did that, like, the lights look so cool, going from normal to underwater, like, you can tell that it’s underwater, it’s-” He laughs again, meeting Nolan’s gaze. “Cool. That’s all I got. It’s cool.”

“Thanks.” Blushing a little, Nolan glances back at the tablet, biting his lip.

It’s more of a surreal drawing than what Nolan usually goes for. It’s just a room, bare of much interior design, just a front view, slightly from below, enough to see a bit of the underside of the water’s surface, the rain that’s drizzling down on it. And then there’s the fairy lights, trailing down the lines of the corners until they reach the floor, soft, warm glowing line, spreading in the clear but dark water. There’s the hint of a shadow on the right side of the canvas, like maybe there’s something drifting there in the darkness but of course Travis focuses on the lights.

The fairy lights.

“What’s the theme for this one?” Travis asks then, zooming in on the window in the background that shows nothing at all, except a hinted at handprint from the outside that Nolan put there in the very beginning and never quite managed to convince himself to get rid of. “You said you usually draw feelings?”

“I- Yeah.” Nolan clears his throat, reaching over to the tablet and zooming out. “I don’t- I’m not really sure for this one.” Then after a moment of looking at Travis he adds: “What would you say is the theme?”

“Nols, I’m not good at this art stuff, what-” He grins a little, scratching his head. “I don’t know. The light is all warm and nice and I like that. But, like, electricity with water can be quite the recipe for disaster, so. Like, on the one hand I’m not sure, on the other, though-” He looks down at Nolan, eyes crinkling. “-I’m choosing to believe that these are waterproof fairy lights so it’s all good. All safe.”

“You don’t know that they are, though,” Nolan points out. “Maybe your first instinct was right and this room is dangerous. It’s a recipe for disaster, for getting hurt. Plus the water level is rising and-”

“I’ve got water rescue training,” Travis interrupts, tilting Nolan’s face up with a finger under his chin, placing the ghost of a kiss to his lips. “So I think I’m gonna stick with ‘all good’, baby.”

“I thought fire was your element,” Nolan mumbles, hiding his face in Travis’ shoulder again. “And I told you not to call me that.”

“What can I say, I’m versatile.” Nolan snorts and Travis grins, or at least Nolan assumes that he does, judging from the way his voice sounds when he says: “What would you prefer then? Honey? Darling? Angel?”

“Oh god. No. My name,” Nolan half laughs, half whines as Travis cackles. “Just- My name. Call me by my name, and don’t- I swear to god if you make that joke, I’m kicking you out of my bed because that movie is creepy as fuck and-”

Nolan,” Travis says, shifting their positions so he can cup Nolan’s face with both hands. “Nolan. Nolan, my sweet, perfect Nol-”

Nolan kisses him, fingers twisting in the front of Travis’ jumper and pulling him close, letting himself be pushed onto his back as Travis deepens the kiss, fingers trailing along the line of Nolan’s throat, as he braces himself on his other hand and-

“Shut up. Maybe you can call me baby,” Nolan allows, feeling heat coil in his stomach, as Travis shifts, something hard brushing against Nolan’s hip. “Sometimes.”

Travis knows better than to lie down on top of Nolan, and while they haven’t talked about he’s also already learned that Nolan doesn’t like to be touched anywhere below his chest. Nolan had worried about that part, had wracked his brain how he’d explain this to Travis but he hadn’t had to so far. They kiss, they make out and the few times that Travis’ hands had wandered, Nolan had tensed, Nolan had stopped and Travis just- He’d adjusted. Put his hands back to where they were before and Nolan had rewarded him with a smile, a kiss, and it had been enough. Nolan is so fucking glad that it’d been enough.

“Yeah?” Travis asks, a little bit breathy, even though Nolan knows, he knows it’s not because it’s not taking him any kind of effort to keep himself above Nolan like this, because Travis can actually plank for a long fucking time, proven by Steph’s Instagram and Nolan just-

“Yeah,” he says, closing his eyes for a moment, trying to calm his racing heart. “Now get off me, I gotta pee.”

When Nolan comes back to the room, Travis is still on the bed, but now he’s sitting cross legged, Nolan’s tablet back in his lap.

“Any new revelations?” Nolan asks, sitting down at the edge of the bed, earning himself a smile from Travis that makes his stomach swoop.

“Nah, still not an art critic, sorry to disappoint,” Travis says, letting Nolan give him a shove. “But- I did notice, that, like, it looks different from your other stuff that you showed me? Like more painter-ly? Does that make sense?”

Nolan hums a little taking the tablet from Travis’ hand so he can zoom in on one of the corners where it’s the most obvious. “Well, I used mostly brushes not inkers in this one. See?”

“I-” Travis smile widens as he shakes his head, giving Nolan a light shove back. “-have no idea what that means. I thought you used that pen thing.”

“My stylus? Well, yeah, I did, but-” Nolan can’t help but laugh a little, putting the tablet aside so he can take Travis’ hand instead, leading him off the bed and to his desk. “Okay, look, so I use Photoshop to draw obviously and there are tools you can pick and-”

“I thought MS paint is the art program,” Travis says, curious crease between his brows as he looks at Nolan’s screen which-

MS paint?” Nolan can’t not stare at him. “Are you serious?”

“Well, it has like a palette and a brush as the icon,” Travis says like that’s a sufficient excuse. “It looks artsy.”

“I can’t believe you. You are such a hick.”

“A hick who’s in love with you.”

“Oh my god, just-” Nolan lets his cheek be kissed, even the tips of his ears burning with embarrassment as he shoves the stylus at Travis. “Just try it. I selected an inker for you now just-” He gestures vaguely. “-draw.”

Tilting his head Travis frowns. The way he’s holding the stylus is already giving Nolan a bit of an aneurysm. “Draw what?”

“Anything. You just have to start.”

“Well, that’s easy for you to say Mr. Artist-guy.” Travis is actually blushing, frowning at the canvas and that’s-

Nolan can’t help the warmth that spreads in his chest at that. It makes him feel a little bit stupid but with how out of his depth Travis makes him feel so often now –Travis being unsure and a little bit embarrassed, it’s endearing in a way Nolan didn’t really expect. Pressing a kiss to Travis’ shoulder Nolan hums a little.

“Are you nervous? Want me to close my eyes?”

“No,” Travis makes a weird noise in the back of his throat, shooting Nolan a wide eyed look. It’s paired with the hint of a smile though, so Nolan doesn’t feel too bad pushing a little further.

“C’mon, just try it,” he says, biting a little at Travis’ shoulder, feeling strangely wild and playful, because Travis is still holding the stylus, blush high on his cheeks, looking fucking beautiful paired with how his lips are still red from kissing. “Isn’t that your thing? Always trying?”

“I can’t believe you’re using that against me,” Travis says, mock exasperation and shock on his face but his eyes are twinkling and when he looks back at the cintiq, he actually puts the tip of the stylus down on it, drawing a line.

It’s a little bit wonky and clearly unpracticed but it’s there and Nolan is hit by a wave of affection that makes it hard to breathe for a moment because it’s just a line, just a stupid, little, imperfect line but Travis drew it for Nolan. Because Nolan asked. He just has to wrap his arms around Travis, who squeaks a little, awkwardly but affectionately petting Nolan’s head for a moment with his free hand.

“You aren’t making this any easier,” he complains, letting out a giggle when Nolan just rolls his eyes, tightening his embrace.

“Art’s hard sometimes,” he mumbles into the crook of Travis’ neck., which might just be his new favorite place to be.

“Oh, it’s hard, alright,” Travis says, adding another line to his drawing, it looks kind of like a-

Nolan raises his eyebrows. “Are you drawing a coffee mug?”

“Maybe,” Travis says, squinting at the canvas and while Nolan will never believe Travis’ claim that Nolan looks anything but grumpy when he’s focused, Travis does look fucking pretty. Pretty and cute and like he’s trying so hard. It makes Nolan smile so hard his cheeks hurt.

“What’s the theme, though?” Nolan teases.

“The theme is I have no I idea what I’m doing, no artistic talent, and the guy I’m into is hanging all over me, being super cute, giving me kind of a boner.” Travis tries to put on a serious face, but he fails spectacularly, lips drawing into a smile no matter how hard he seems to be trying to hold it back.

“So it’s not art that’s hard, it’s y-”

Travis kisses him, and it’s weird and sloppy because of their positions, because Nolan is hanging half over Travis and Travis is sitting on a chair, trying to draw but it’s still good. It’s so good Nolan almost fucking pouts –like that’s a thing he does- when Travis does pull back again, giving him a stern look.

“You’re gonna have to get at least six feet away from me if you want me to not just leave it at this toddler skill level mug I’ve drawn and kiss your face off instead,” he says, that fake serious look on his face again.

Nolan rolls his eyes, letting out a dramatic sigh but he does get up and plops down on his bed. From there he raises his eyebrows at Travis who followed him with his eyes looking actually kind of wistful. It’s still such a mind fuck and a part of Nolan feels practically drunk on it, but Travis actually seems attracted to Nolan. He likes kissing him, likes being kissed by him, he reacts to it so perfectly each time and then he looks at Nolan like-

It doesn’t make sense, none of it does and Nolan can’t fucking wrap his head around it but as much as Nolan tries to explain it away, as much as he knows it’s all an illusion when he’s alone, when he’s with Travis, it’s a little too easy to just keep dreaming, to imagine that maybe it’s enough. That as long as Nolan keeps him away from the uglier parts of the body, he can keep him around. At least for a little while.

“Go on,” Nolan says, rolling onto his front, bracing his chin in his hands. “Wow me.”

 

Objectively, it’s not a very good drawing.

It’s a 2D mug with wonky proportions that Travis obviously tried to fix, but Nolan never explained how to select the eraser or anything really. He just put the stylus in Travis’ hand and told him to draw. And Travis did. He drew a coffee mug and a fox. A fox looking over the brim of the mug with eyes that are nothing but dots, and yet so oddly expressive, it amazes Nolan a little bit.

“A fox?” he asks, eyes flickering from the drawing to Travis, taking in the almost nervous expression Travis is wearing, complete with biting his lip and rubbing his neck. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Travis says, giving a small shrug. “The first of your drawings that you ever showed me, it had a fox in it, remember? Like, sleeping in the corner? I thought that was cool, so.”

Travis doesn’t know that it’s him. He doesn’t know that the fox only ever started showing up in Nolan’s drawings after Travis came into his life. That first time he’d been looking through the window and Nolan had erased him, deleted him but then Travis had come over, tired and exhausted, falling asleep on Nolan’s bed and Nolan had drawn him again, had drawn a sleeping curled up fox, and Travis had seen it and decided that the little speck of warm color in the dreary world Nolan put him in was enough to get hope from it. Instead of just loss like Nolan had intended.

And now Travis drew the fox. Not that Nolan would be able to identify it as a fox if Travis hadn’t added a scribbled ‘Fox!’ next to it with an arrow pointing to the little guy and his bushy tail.

“I didn’t know how to do color, though,” Travis continues. “Like, the fox needs to be orange, right? And-”

“I think it looks really cool,” Nolan interrupts him once he’s found his voice again, managing a smile. “I like it a lot.”

He isn’t sure what exactly he’s feeling, but he knows that he’s feeling a lot of it and that he needs to nuzzle his face into the crook of Travis’ neck and slip his hands into the sleeves of Travis’ jumper and-

“Your hands are really cold,” Travis says, a small laugh vibrating in his throat as Nolan blushes. He goes to pull his hands back, but Travis stops him, fingers wrapping around his wrists. “Don’t. Let me warm you, baby.”

“Ugh,” Nolan grumbles, but he keeps his hands where they are, despite the way his heart is racing. Glancing back at the cintiq, he smiles a little. “I really do like it,” he mumbles, barely bothering to enunciate any syllable.

Somehow Travis catches it anyway.

“Yeah? I tried.”

Blowing out a breath, Nolan closes his eyes, hoping Travis won’t be able to feel his fluttery pulse from how he’s still holding Nolan’s wrists, palms warm and calloused against Nolan’s skin.

“I can tell.”

 

***

Chapter Text

 

Nolan prints out Travis’ drawing and while the look Ivan and Kevin give him when they spot it taped to his wall makes Nolan feel kind of mortified, it’s also worth it because the next time Travis comes over, upset and tired after an awful shift where a woman died because he couldn’t get to her in time, the sight of the drawing right there beneath the fairy lights draws a small smile onto his face.

“Liked it that much, eh?” he says, softly, quietly, mumbles it into the hug Nolan pulls him into.

Nolan just nods and holds him a little tighter, and doesn’t tell him about his own version of the fox in the coffee cup that he just finished, completely colored and rendered, not until the next time Travis has to leave for shift and Nolan gives it to him as a pick me up.

It earns him a text from Travis later on that day with an attached picture of the drawing being taped to the inside of his locker at the firehouse.

It’s a terrifying fucking sight because it’s just another nail in Nolan’s coffin, another step over the edge and he knows he’s going to fall, it might not be today, or tomorrow because Travis is Travis and he’s still as stubborn and sweet and kind as he was when he asked Nolan for a chance for the first time and Nolan said no, but eventually he’s going to get fed up. He’s going to realize that this, Nolan right now, it’s all he’s going to get, it’s all Nolan has to give and it’s not enough. It can’t be enough, not for long anyway.

This thing between them, it’s been going for almost a month now and all they’ve done is kiss. And that might be fine if they were sixteen but even with Nico things had been-

Nolan is pretty sure he had Nico’s hand on his dick not two hours after they first kissed. With Travis it’s-

Sure, Kevin said that it’s fine if they are going at their own pace, but it’s not- It’s not normal and that moment while Travis was drawing, claiming that Nolan gave him a boner-

Nolan doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He’s too far gone to end this any sooner than he has to as a form of damage control. That ship has fucking sailed, he’s too attached to Travis, too in love, too used to sleeping next to him now. Whatever damage control he thought he could do, they are beyond that point now. When Travis leaves, it’s going to destroy Nolan. He’s going to break and he’ll be shattered into so many pieces he doesn’t think he’ll have enough left to rebuild, and that’s a fact he’s accepted but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t lie awake at night, watching the slow rise and fall of Travis’ chest, terrified of when it’s going to happen.

Because that’s what this is. A when, always has been.

A when that Nolan needs to push back as far as he can. A when that is going to ruin him no matter what, but-

But maybe if he has sex with Travis. Maybe that can buy him a couple of more weeks, maybe even a month or something. Everybody likes orgasms and Nolan knows that Travis almost always gets hard when they make out, so it’s not- But it might be. Maybe it’s just a physical reaction and Nolan doesn’t even have a chance. Maybe Travis has already decided that he isn’t attracted to Nolan that way and that’s why he hasn’t pushed things further, why he never protested when Nolan went freeze or flight when things seemed like they might move in that direction maybe-

Maybe Nolan has been making a fool of himself every time he let himself joke a little, when he blushed and didn’t protest when Travis called him pretty the other day, maybe-

Heart beating to his throat, nausea adding to the dizziness he already feels, Nolan climbs out of bed.

He almost trips over the pile of Travis’ clothes on the floor but manages to catch himself on the wall, before slipping out of the room.

He locks himself in the bathroom, and only once he’s counted to ten in his head, forward and then backwards to zero again, does he exhale, daring to switch on the lights.

The sight of himself in the mirror almost makes him flinch. Just like he did when Travis accidentally touched his waist the other day when they kissed. Travis had looked like a confused puppy at Nolan’s reaction, and he’d apologized too, but Nolan had seen the questions coming up behind that quiet “I’m sorry” so he’d started talking about this assignment he needed to work on and Travis hadn’t pushed, of course he hadn’t, and Nolan had been glad about that, had rewarded Travis with a kiss, but now he can’t stop thinking about why Travis didn’t push.

Why he wouldn’t. Or rather why he would, when Nolan looks the way he does?

He strips out of his sweater (knitted, Kevin’s) first and it’s already bad. He hates how the long sleeved shirt he’s wearing underneath (loose threads on all sleeves, his own) already clings to his middle. It takes every ounce of self-control Nolan has to pull it off too, leaving himself to look at his reflection standing there, wearing only a dark blue t-shirt (fire department, Travis’) that does nothing to hide how much of a gut he has, how fat, how soft, how-

He takes it off too and he hates how the simple sight of his naked upper body makes him choke, makes him bend over the sink and gag, only clear spit and a bit of bile coming up as tears sting in his eyes.

He doesn’t know what the hell he was thinking, imagining, dreaming that Travis might-

He’s just biding time, that’s got to be it. Travis must have already realized that it was a mistake, this thing with Nolan, and now he’s trying to stick it out long enough not to look like an asshole. He’s probably looking for a way to let Nolan down easy too, because that’s how Travis is. He’s kind. He’s fucking kind so he can’t just bail on Nolan, he needs to find the right moment, the right words and Nolan just-

It hurts. Digging his fingers into the meat of his stomach, pinching the fat there, it hurts. It hurts, and it hurts, and it hurts. His throat hurts from the ragged breaths he’s taking, still a little sore from purging the dinner he couldn’t get out of. His knees hurt from the stairs, from going to the store with Travis and buying groceries. And his chest, his heart-

He makes himself take off his sweatpants and boxer shorts anyway, even the single pair of socks he slipped on before crawling into bed hours ago.

His ankles look okay. Nolan doesn’t hate them. He doesn’t hate his calves either. He doesn’t like them, hates how soft and flabby they are just like his arms, nothing like what he used to have when he fucking peaked at sixteen, hockey body through and through. There’s nothing left of that now. His thighs, his ass- Nolan can’t make himself look. He feels sick just thinking about it. The idea of Travis seeing these parts of him- He can’t. If Travis doesn’t want him when he’s only seen Nolan’s face then-

Maybe Nolan should be the one to end it. That way Travis won’t have to do it. He can keep his pride, can save face, and Nolan can- He can try to survive it. He can do it like Travis and try. Try his best, give 100%.

He could just give in.

Because god, Nolan is so tired. He is so fucking tired and all he wants is to not have to look at himself anymore, to crawl back into bed, feel Travis’ warmth, listen to his breathing, watch his brow furrow in his sleep. And then, when it’s morning, then he’ll do it. He’ll pull himself together and he’ll tell Travis that he can’t do it anymore. That it’s done and over, this chance he never meant to give him in the first place. And Travis is going to argue, probably, but he’ll also be relieved even if he won’t show it.

Nolan is going to give him back his shirt, he’ll take the drawing off his wall and he’ll tell Travis that it’s not his fault. That it’s okay to be wrong about things, about thinking you love someone, and that Nolan will be alright. Even if he won’t be.

He feels half a universe away from alright when he slips back under the covers next to Travis, who’s rolled onto his side while Nolan was away, his back now turned towards Nolan.

“Jesus,” he mumbles, though, almost as soon as Nolan has shifted onto his side too, his foot having accidentally brushed against Travis’. “You’re a fucking icicle.”

“I- Sorry,” Nolan manages to get out but before he can pull back Travis has already blindly reached behind himself, wrapping Nolan’s arm around his own middle, unselfconscious, barely even conscious judging from the little noise he makes instead of another comment or protest when Nolan hesitantly rubs his cold feet against his calves. He just lets Nolan spoon him, breathing soft and even again, like he slipped back into sleep that easily.

Pressing his face into the back of Travis’ neck Nolan exhales. Inhales, exhales, breathes in the smell of his own shampoo because Travis hasn’t been home since his last shift and he might have a toothbrush in the bathroom but not his own shampoo and Nolan has no idea if that’s something that’s important to him but maybe Nolan can buy it for him anyway. He can’t make Travis be attracted to him, can’t get him to stay by offering sex, can’t use it like he tried with Nico back when- But he could-

It’s stupid, it’s fucking stupid, but somehow Nolan still falls asleep to thoughts of it.

 

He wakes up to an empty bed and he knows, he god damn knows that the way he chokes on it, the pain he feels in every cell of his body like he’s been pushed into ice water, shouldn’t come as such a surprise, but it does. It paralyzes him, makes him sit there, chest heaving, tears pooling in his eyes, clumping his lashes, heart fluttering like it’s ready to stop. He can’t move. He can’t get himself to move even an inch because Travis is gone. The bed next to him is empty, the mattress cold because Travis is gone, Travis left.

Travis left, left, left and Nolan knew, he knew this would happen but he thought-

He thought he had time. He thought he could still- He thought-

The door cracks open and Nolan barely registers it. Not until there’s a voice too.

Travis’ voice.

“Babe, are you up? I’m sorry but I can’t find my-”

He breaks off the second Nolan blinks, tears rolling down his cheeks as he gets his head to turn, gets himself to look, to see, to-

Travis is standing right there in the door, hand still on the handle. He’s wearing his running clothes. Reflective safety gear and everything, because it’s the early morning. It’s still dark out and Nolan should have known because Travis does this almost every day. He gets up early, gets dressed, goes out, works out and then he comes back. Kisses Nolan, all sweaty and flushed and slips into the shower while Nolan makes breakfast for him and the guys and Nolan should have known that this was what- But he didn’t, and now he can’t, he fucking can’t stop, he can’t breathe, he-

“Nolan, what’s wrong?” Travis says and suddenly he’s right there in front of Nolan kneeling on the bed, cupping Nolan’s face so gently, like he’s holding something fragile, something already broken and bleeding and- “Talk to me, baby.”

“I-”

Nolan opens his mouth but nothing else makes it out. He can taste salt on his lips, can feel the warmth of Travis’ palms like fire against his skin, and he can’t say a word, because he thought Travis left but Travis didn’t. And it doesn’t make any sense.

“Hey, hey, I got you,” Travis says and he sounds freaked out and confused but also certain and calm and-

It’s got to be his firefighter voice, Nolan distantly thinks as Travis wraps his arms around him, around his chests and shoulders just like Nolan trained him to, cradling Nolan’s head, letting him get tears and snot onto his jacket and throat and it’s awful. Nolan feels awful. He can’t stop himself from crying and even worse, he can’t stop himself from clinging to Travis, digging his fingers into the fabric of his clothes, pathetic sobs making his chest heave and his throat hurt.

If Travis wasn’t leaving before, he sure as hell should now.

But he doesn’t. He keeps holding Nolan. Repeats it again and again I got you, I’m here, it’s okay. Just tell me what’s going on. You’re okay. It’s okay.

“It’s not,” Nolan gets out eventually, words brittle and low, raspy like Nolan’s throat is made of sandpaper. It doesn’t hurt, though, even if it feels like it should. “I thought- I-”

“You thought what?” Travis asks, whispers, tugging a strand of hair that is wet with tears behind Nolan’s ear. His brows are furrowed, eyes wide and worried. “What did you think, Nols? You woke up and-” Nolan shakes his head, tries to hide his face against Travis’ chest again, but Travis doesn’t let him, cups his cheek so gently it draws another sob from deep inside Nolan’s chest. “And what? What happened? Please, tell me. Talk to me.”

Closing his eyes, Nolan feels more tears run down his face, drip off his chin, gather in Travis’ palm and he tries. He tries to keep the words in, presses his quivering lips together as hard as he can but somehow the words still make it out.

“I thought you’d left.”

And Travis shouldn’t get it. He shouldn’t get that Nolan means forever, for good, not just to go for a run, but somehow he does, Nolan can tell by the way his breathing stutters for a moment. By how his hand stills where it’s been carding through Nolan’s hair. He can tell that Travis gets that this is more than just a stupid little misunderstanding. And maybe Nolan gave him no choice but to get it. Because Nolan is crying. He’s fucking ugly crying, snot and tears and sobs, everything. He’s freaked out and now in turn Travis is freaked out because he’s realizing that Nolan is a fucking nut job, that he’s more than just a little messed up in the head and that given the chance to leave Travis really, really should.

“I’m here,” Travis says, though, the fierce, gravelly tone in his voice making Nolan look up, blinking through the tears clouding his vision. “I’m here, Nolan. I’m not going anywhere. I love you, you hear me? I like you, I’m in love with you, and I love you. So I’m here. I’m here. I’m not leaving.”

“But-” Nolan croaks out, trembling fingers finding the zipper of Travis’ jacket, fumbling with it. “Why?”

“Because I just do,” Travis says and the smile on his face is directly at odds with the wetness Nolan can see glistening in his eyes. “And I wish you’d believe me. I just do.”

“Why?”

“Because you are smart,” Travis answers, not missing a beat, despite the slight tremble Nolan can feel in the hand that is still cradling his jaw. “And you’re funny, and your smile is my favorite thing in the whole world, and when you laugh you always look so surprised like you’ve forgotten you could do that and I treasure every second of it so much because I think that maybe one day you’ll be used to it again. And maybe I can help with that. And I- Your face when you focus on drawing and your face when Ivan and Kevin eat the food you make, and your face when I say something stupid, and just your face. I love you because of your face.”

Pressing his eyes shut, Nolan exhales. He can’t look at Travis anymore, can hear him talk for another second. And yet all he gets out is a “It’s an awful face” instead of a ‘Stop’ or a ‘Go’ or anything else that might get Travis to leave like Nolan thought he had.

“It’s not, though,” Travis says, his touch so fucking tender when he brushes his fingertips along the line of Nolan’s brows, tracing them almost reverently. “It’s a beautiful face. You-” He moves on, Nolan’s cheeks heating under the touch, as Travis’ fingers ghost over his cheek bones, before finding his lips, tracing them too. “-are beautiful. So fucking beautiful, Nolan.”

Travis is lying.

There are a million reasons, a million tells, so Nolan knows that Travis is lying. Maybe it’s not just to Nolan, maybe it’s to himself too, but he’s lying all the same and it’s unbearable, especially when he touches Nolan so tenderly at the same time, when he looks at Nolan the way he does when Nolan blinks his eyes open, when he kisses the corner of Nolan’s mouth like he doesn’t mind the complete and utter mess that Nolan is.

It’s why Nolan has to say it, why the words tumble out before he can think any better of it and try to preserve whatever shreds of dignity he could still scrape together.

“Then why won’t you have sex with me?”

“What?” For a second Travis sounds and looks so taken aback there’s no room for anything else. He blinks, stares at Nolan, mouth slightly open, hands having frozen where they were touching Nolan. One on his neck, the other cradling the back of his head. “I- Sex? This is about sex?”

“No,” Nolan says, croaks, too quickly, shame immediately flushing his face. “I mean- No. No, it’s- Fuck.”

This is the worst possible way he could have brought this up. It’s bad enough asking the guy who claims to be into you why they won’t sleep with you, it’s another doing it while having a full on, crying and sobbing break down because you woke up to an empty bed. Nolan is really taking pathetic to a whole new level.

“Nols-”

“Just- Just forget it,” Nolan forces out, scrambling to get away from Travis, get out of the bed, to his feet, to the window, wrapping his arms around himself, as much distance between himself and Travis as the room allows. “Forget I said anything. Please.”

“No, I’m not gonna just forget, Nolan, what the hell.” Travis is on his feet now too, rounding the bed quickly so he’s standing in front of Nolan, looking up at him, brows furrowed, gaze searching. “What do you mean I won’t have sex with you?”

“Just-” Nolan grits his teeth, looks up, looks down, arms wrapped around himself, his heart fluttering in his chest, faster than Nolan could ever count, even if he wanted to. “You haven’t tried to have sex with me.”

“Yeah? Because you don’t seem like you want to have sex, Nolan,” Travis says, voice a little shrill, utter incomprehension on his face. “Because you don’t like me touching you outside your safe zones so-”

“But you didn’t even ask me to blow you or jerk you off, you just-”

“Do you want to blow me?” Travis asks, sounding utterly bewildered.

“I- Yes! No? No,” Nolan splutters. “Not if- Not if I fucking have to beg you to, I just- If you like me then why-”

“This is insane, what-” Travis looks like he’s going a little bit crazy, the way he’s staring at Nolan. “Of fucking course I want to have sex with you. Like, on principle, but I thought maybe you don’t like sex in general, or maybe you want to take it slow, or- I don’t know! You need to talk to me. You can’t just assume shit.”

“I didn’t just assume, I-” Nolan gestures helplessly, staring right back at Travis, drying tears making his skin feel pulled too tightly over his cheekbones. “It makes sense. I was just- I-”

It’s obvious, it’s so fucking obvious. Nolan didn’t make all of this up. He owns a mirror, and so does Travis. So Travis knows how he looks, how Nolan looks, he knows that there should be no reason for Travis to be attracted to Nolan, not when he spends day after day surrounded by hot firefighter people, and could probably have his pick from any other pool of people if he just tried. It makes sense, the conclusion Nolan came to. It does, even if Travis looks at him now like he’s talking gibberish.

“Nolan,” Travis says after a pause where Nolan can’t get any more words out and Travis seems to be desperately searching for something to say. Now that he’s found something, he’s stepping closer, gently tugging Nolan’s hand away from his hoodie, taking them in his. “Nolan, look at me, I- this was kind of a lot right now, and there’s probably a better way and time to talk about this, but I- I just need you to understand before I go to work today that I’m like, super attracted to you, okay? But also that I only want to have sex with you if and when you also want to have sex with me. Is that- Does that make sense to you?”

It doesn’t.

There is no way that it could. Because Travis might look at him with that honest fucking expression on his face and he might sound as sincere as he ever has but Nolan has a fucking brain and he knows that the best he could hope for is Travis not minding sex with Nolan or being into sex and using Nolan for it, not- Not this, not what Travis is claiming. Being attracted to Nolan. It’s bullshit.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Travis says, like he’s read Nolan’s mind, and for a moment Nolan is convinced that this is it, that Travis has had enough because he lets go of Nolan’s hand and steps back, cards his fingers through his hair, a million emotions flashing through his eyes.

Then, before Nolan can get a single word out, Travis is kissing him, tugging Nolan down by the collar of Kevin’s sweater, but meeting him on his tiptoes anyway.

He licks into Nolan’s mouth like he’s got something to prove, he bites at his lip like he’s starving for it, and Nolan can’t do anything except kiss back. His eyes flutter closed, air getting stuck in his chest, and he kisses back, lets himself be walked backwards until his legs bump against the bed, and suddenly they are horizontal and Travis’ hands are in Nolan’s hair and he’s got a knee on either side of Nolan’s hips and-

“Oh,” Nolan lets out under his breath, unable to keep himself from reacting, from tilting his head back, giving Travis more room, because Travis is kissing his neck now and that-

It still doesn’t make any sense and there’s a part of Nolan that is screaming about how humiliating this is, Travis only kissing Nolan like this because Nolan fucking cried about it but the rest of him is drunk on the sudden wave of arousal that rushes through him, his own dick twitching in his sweatpants and if Travis wasn’t keeping himself up by the power of his own thighs, thick and strong as they are, he’d feel it, because his body would be pressed right against Nolan’s.

“Do you even know how much I jerk off thinking about you?” Travis says huskily, teeth grazing over the shell of Nolan’s ear, before finding that spot right below it where the sensitive skin of Nolan’s throat begins.

“Oh god.” Nolan exhales, a shudder of heat going down his spine, making him squirm, as Travis sucks what’s probably a pretty impressive mark into his skin. “I- Trav-”

“All the time, baby. All the fucking time,” Travis half whispers, half growls, hands finding Nolan’s interlacing their fingers, as he kisses Nolan again, hot and hungry, leaving Nolan panting when he finally pulls back again, lips red and a little bit shiny with spit. “I was trying to be discreet about it, should I not be? Should I tell you when I-”

“Yes,” Nolan says, before he can stop himself, breathless, head spinning. “Yes. Next time. Tell me next time.”

Travis actually laughs at that, soft and breathless and it tastes like first morning light. “Fuck, that’s hot. God, Nolan I-”

Suddenly Travis’s lips are gone from Nolan’s lips and Nolan’s eyes snap open.

“What?” He asks, the word coming out rushed and hoarse.

“I just- I think-” Travis sits back, practically kneeling above Nolan. Running a hand through his hair he looks at Nolan, breathing going fast, cheeks flushed pink. “Fuck, I don’t think we should do anything right now.”

“What?” Nolan stares at him, everything coming to a screeching halt. For a second the only thing Nolan can hear is the blood rushing through his ears, his heart sinking so fast it makes nausea rise up his throat. “You don’t want-”

“No, I do, I do,” Travis says quickly, hastily interrupting Nolan’s stammering. “But it’d feel like- I don’t know. If we did anything now, it’d feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”

Bracing himself on his elbows Nolan looks up at Travis. He feels- He isn’t exactly sure. There are a million things running through his head, one of which being the fact that he’s hard and that’s not really something that happens a lot or easily because his sex drive has been virtually nonexistent this past year. But also that Travis is hard and that if Travis really wants to prove to Nolan that he wants him then why doesn’t he just do it? Why is he making Nolan ask, “Why?” heart hammering a million beats a minute.

“Cause you were just crying, Nols,” Travis says, almost pleading like it should be obvious. “You were really upset like a moment ago and I don’t want to screw this up. I mean can you honestly tell me that you want sex right now? I mean you are turned on, yeah and that’s like great because you don’t always- And I am, obviously. Like so turned on. But do you want to suck me off right now?”

“I-” Nolan hesitates for a second. The answer should be easy, should be right here on the tip of his tongue, because Travis is turned on, just like Nolan is but- “I’d do it. If you wanted me to.”

“That’s not what I asked, baby,” Travis says, something in his expression having shifted. In one smooth motion, he un-straddles Nolan, letting himself flop down on his belly next to him instead. He looks at Nolan a little bit sheepishly. Blush still on his face. “We’ve got time, you know? There’s no reason for us to rush this, is there?”

You’re going to leave, Nolan almost says but instead he throws his arm over his face, blowing out a breath, wanting nothing more than to go hide somewhere but forcing himself to stick it out anyway.

“I love you, I want to do this right,” Travis adds, and Nolan groans.

“Don’t fucking patronize me,” he mumbles into the sleeve of his sweater.

“I’m not trying to,” Travis says, nudging his nose against the side of Nolan’s arm. “Promise.”

Rolling onto his side facing Travis, Nolan puts on a blank face. “Whatever. I don’t care what you do with your dick.”

“Mhm, my dick does care about you, though,” Travis says, the hint of a smile on his face. “Just like my heart.”

Nolan should really smother him with a pillow or something. Instead he just exhales, grabs the pillow for himself and wraps his arms around it.

“You okay?” Travis asks after a moment, but Nolan doesn’t look at him.

“Yeah,” he just mumbles and before long Travis does leave, whispering a quick goodbye into Nolan’s ear, pressing a kiss to his shoulder.

Nolan doesn’t have it in himself to respond.

 

***

Nolan tries not to think about it. Not about his freak out –both of them-, his lack of sleep, or the mortifying conversation he had with Travis because of it all. Not even the stupid shampoo that pops back into his head the second he steps into the bathroom to brush his teeth, still feeling weak and shaky.

He does well too, until Kevin climbs into the passenger seat of Nolan’s car and immediately makes a noise that's a mix of surprised joy and excitement that has Nolan almost jump out of his skin, it startles him so much.

“Jesus Christ, Kevin, what?” he hisses as soon as he’s got air back in his lungs, glaring at Kevin and the awfully delighted expression he’s wearing. “What’s with you?”

“What’s with me? What’s with you? What’s with that fucking hickey on your neck?” Kevin pretty much hollers, giving Nolan a shove that sends him crashing shoulder first into the door on his side.

“Kev, what the-” Nolan cruses, rubbing his shoulder, straightening in his seat again, before his brain catches up and- “Fucking what on my-” He twists immediately, pulling down the collar of his parka, which he might as well not have because one look in the rearview mirror is enough. There it is, high on his throat, bright and purple. “Fuck.”

Nolan wants to die. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembers thinking that Travis might have left a mark when he was proving his point or whatever, but he didn’t think- Nolan doesn’t even know what he was or wasn’t thinking. He just knows that now Kevin is looking at him like Christmas came early while Nolan’s face is probably five seconds away from combusting into actual flames.

“Bro, get some! High five,” Kevin says, utterly unbothered by Nolan’s embarrassment, actually holding up his hand like-

“Take your fucking hand down or you can walk to campus, I don’t give a fuck,” Nolan bites out, rubbing both his hands over his face. Of course this thing with Travis had to go down on the day Nolan offered to drive Kevin to class since his car was still in the shop. “And don’t. I don’t want to talk about-” He gestures to his neck. “Not one word.”

“Relax, I don’t need details,” Kevin says, still grinning, converting his high five attempt into bumping his knuckles against Nolan’s shoulder. “I’m just, you know, happy for you.”

“There’s not-” Nolan closes his eyes, grimacing. “There’s nothing to be happy about, okay? So just drop it. Jesus.”

When he opens his eyes again, the delighted expression has been wiped from Kevin’s face, instead there’s worry there.

“Cat,” he says, voice all serious all of the sudden. “He didn’t-” He reaches out, gently tilting Nolan’s face to a different angle, so he can look at Nolan’s throat better. “-force himself onto you, did he? Because if-”

“No,” Nolan says quickly, pushing Kevin’s hand away. “No, of course not. That’s not what I meant. Travis has been great.”

Furrowing his bushy brows, Kevin, eyes Nolan. “What did you mean then?”

“Just that-” Nolan shakes his head, averting his gaze to look straight ahead through the windshield, thankfully having already been freed from ice by Travis. Because that’s something Travis does before he drives off. Clearing Nolan’s windshield, the weirdo. “Just that we didn’t. You think that Travis and I- And we didn’t. So.”

Clearing his throat awkwardly, Nolan starts the engine, glad when after the second try it actually works and the car springs to life. In the passenger seat, Kevin is quiet for a moment, then:

“Why though?”

“Why what?”

“Why haven’t you guys fucked yet? I mean, like I said, go at your own pace, that’s perfectly alright. I’m just wondering. You are obviously crazy into each other, so I don’t see why-”

Cause he’s obviously not that into me.

 “We almost did this morning, I think, but-” Nolan shrugs, swallowing around the lump in his throat as he pulls onto the street, snow crunching under the tires. “Just- He didn’t want to. So that’s why.”

“But-” Kevin starts, gesturing to Nolan’s neck once they halt at the next traffic light. “-that doesn’t look like he wasn’t enjoying himself. Like, he wanted something.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Nolan mumbles, adjusting his toque as the light springs from red to green and the car behind them promptly starts honking.

Kevin doesn’t miss a beat, turning around and flipping them off, while Nolan tries not to dislocate his shoulder putting the car back into gear.

Travis did seem into it, into the entire making out thing, but Nolan’s little breakdown ended up being enough of a turn off to end the whole thing and now Nolan is stuck in a car explaining this shit to his roommate who he loves, but who’s a big believer in one night stands and who’s only ever known Nolan as who he is now, someone who just doesn’t meet anyone, and as the guy he used to be the first few years of college, always high, always drunk, always up for casual sex. Never with Kevin, but if he’d asked, Nolan would have probably let him. He doesn’t think they’d still be friends though, if they had. Nolan never liked the guys he slept with. There’d only been Nico and now-

Now still just Nico. Because Travis is at work probably thinking up strategies with Steph on how to let Nolan down easy, how to get out of whatever they agreed to when Nolan asked Travis to tell him next time he’d jerk off. And who the hell did Nolan even think he was in that moment?

“I-” Again Nolan blows out a breath, does a left turn, glances over at Kevin, at the car in front of them, at the group of girls crossing the sidewalk, fucking bare ankles showing over their sneakers. Like it’s not fucking freezing as it is. “I just- Forget it.”

“Forget, what? Patty, is- This thing with Travis is good, yeah? You’re happy?”

“Happy? Kev, I’m-” Nolan lets out a weak laugh, trying to ignore the itch in his throat. “Kev, he’s gonna leave, and it’s gonna fucking kill me. He told me he loved me this morning. He said that. Not just I’m in love with you. Or give me a chance. I love you. That’s what he said.”

“That-” Kevin visibly hesitates, big mouth open for a second before he continues. “-doesn’t sound like he’s planning to leave.”

“I know,” Nolan says, and again, he has to laugh, but this time it comes out more like croaking, a weak brittle sound, Nolan not even managing to end it with a smile.

He knows what it sounds like, he knows what it feels like and he knows, he fucking knows how it’s going to feel like too, precisely because things with Travis are so good and because he doesn’t sound like someone who’s about to leave. It’s why it’s going to hurt so much more when he does.

“I- I thought about buying his shampoo for him,” Nolan hears himself say, fingers clenching around the steering wheel. “We haven’t even fucked and I thought about-”

How fucking pathetic. Nolan feels so god damn pathetic, it’s like ice in his veins.

“Does he not like our shampoo?”

The utter befuddlement in Kevin’s voice doesn’t help.

“Kev, that’s not the point. It’s-”

Nolan shakes his head, pressing his lips together for a moment. The car in front of them comes to a sudden stop, forcing Nolan to slam the brakes, but he barely registers any of it. Not Kevin’s breath of relief when they stop a couple of inches away from the red Sedan in front of them, and not the yelling between some pedestrian and the driver ahead of them.

“I hate it,” Nolan says, looking over at Kevin. “I love you. I hate that he said it. And I- I- I hate that he’s at work now. That I’m not gonna see him again until after fucking class tomorrow and that I- I haven’t had sex with anyone that mattered since fucking high school, Kev. Since I was on the Wheat Kings. I fucking hate it. All of it.”

Kevin stares at him, eyes wide and filled with- With something. Nolan doesn’t fucking know. He’s being an awful friend right now, dumping all of this on Kevin instead of just driving him to class like he said he would, instead of just- Just keeping this shit to himself where it belongs. None of these feelings are supposed to be spoken, put into words. Fucking acknowledged even.

“But you want to, with him? Like, have sex?” Kevin says, a little awkwardly, unsure, like he doesn’t know what to do with all the bullshit that just came out of Nolan’s mouth.

Nolan can’t blame him. If he can’t stand dealing with himself, being around himself, how can he expect other people to.

Still, there’s an answer to Kevin’s question, and maybe Nolan owes it to him, as layered and complicated as it is, because yes, Nolan does want to. In theory he wants to, but sex involves nudity and Nolan just- He can’t do that. He feels sick just thinking about himself naked being looked at by Travis, being touched by him.

Touching Travis though, that’s-

The answer there is so god damn easy, it just spills out.

“Yes.”

“Are you worried that he doesn’t want to, like at all?” Kevin pushes, brows drawn together. “Because he didn’t this morning?”

Nolan shrugs, pressing his lips together. He has to look back at the road, has to start driving again, maneuvering around the car that is still stopped right there in the middle of the lane, and he has to do it all with his heart fluttering in his chest so fast it makes him feel like he might pass out.

“Nolan, that’s-” Kevin starts, just as Nolan sets the turn signal, hand shaking more than it probably should. “No one is in the mood all the time. I know I’m certainly not, so-”

“I know that, I know,” he says, managing to pull back into his lane despite the oncoming traffic. “I just- this-” He gestures to the hickey. “-it’s just fucking pity. I practically had to beg him.”

“Uh.” Kevin makes a weird noise, matching the weird expression on his face that Nolan catches when he glances over. “That doesn’t sound-”

“It’s what fucking happened, Kev, and I really- I really don’t want to talk about this anymore, so just-” Not waiting for an answer Nolan blindly reaches for the radio, turning up the volume of some horrible ‘America first’ rap country song.

 

***

 

“Tell me you haven’t spent the last 24 hours upset about the stuff we talked about before I had to leave,” Travis says the second Nolan opens the apartment door, spatula in hand and a frown on his face because it’s half past eight in the morning and usually Travis goes home to his own place after his shift ends because Nolan is about to leave for class anyway, as soon as he’s done preparing breakfast for the boys, so this, Travis coming by, it’s more than just a little weird.

Nolan stares at him, brain trying to catch up. Apparently he takes a moment too long, because Travis shifts a little, hands in the pockets of his jacket, mouth stretching into a sheepish smile. “Can I come in?”

“I- Yeah.” Swallowing, Nolan steps aside. “But- You know, I’ve gotta-” He gestures vaguely with the spatula as Travis kicks off his shoes and strips out of his jacket. “I thought you’d come by after class.”

“I was gonna,” Travis says, his cheeks a dusty pink which could be from the cold or- “But I just needed to see you. I don’t- Where we left things yesterday morning-”

“Oh god.” Nolan turns around on his heels, making a beeline back to the kitchen and his now probably slightly burned bacon.

“Hey, baby, wait, hold on,” Travis calls after him, which Nolan would roll his eyes at if he didn’t still feel mortified just thinking about pretty much everything that happened that morning.. “Nols, c’mon, can we talk?”

Turning down the heat on the stove, Nolan doesn’t look at Travis. Or Kevin who’s just –with impeccable timing- shuffled out of his room, bleary eyed and evidently just as confused by Travis’ presence as Nolan was a moment ago. He blinks, though, expression clearing up a little and-

Nolan stares at him, warningly. Don’t, he mouths, hoping, praying, that Kevin will have mercy and not make this any worse than it’s already going to be, without Kevin bringing up the hickey or any of the other shit they talked about in the car.

A beat of silence passes where Nolan silently pleads with Kevin, Travis looks back and forth between Kevin and Nolan and Kevin looks caught somewhere between amused, thoughtful, and suspicious, like he can’t quite decide what road to go down with this situation. Or maybe that’s just Nolan overthinking because Kevin rarely ever thinks before he speaks, and-

“Hi, Travis.”

“Hi, Kevin.”

“How was work?” Kevin tilts his head, looking from Travis to Nolan and back. “Fought any fires? Rescued any kittens? Confused any people about your sexu-”

“Okay, no,” Nolan interrupts before Kevin can finish, staring at his friend disbelievingly. Kevin just bringing this up, it’s- It’s killing him. “Kev, just- Just shut up and eat your breakfast. Trav and I are gonna-”

“Talk?” Kevin pipes in, voice a little bit too high pitched for Nolan’s taste.

The asshole even wiggles his eyebrows.

Throwing him a glare, Nolan doesn’t answer, just stalks off towards his room, Travis catching up with him after barely three steps.

“I wasn’t, like, freaking out about it,” Nolan lies, as soon as he’s got his door closed behind himself. “What you and I talked about, it’s- It’s fine. I’m fine. So you didn’t have to rush here after your shift. I mean-” He exhales, looking to the side, tugging the sleeves of his jumper over his hands. “I don’t need you to baby me.”

For a second Travis doesn’t say anything. He’s sat down on the bed, Nolan can see from the corner of his eyes, but he’s being uncharacteristically quiet, the only sound coming from him being his hands smoothing over the bedspread, going back and forth, back and forth next to his thighs.

His brows are furrowed, lips slightly parted, Nolan notes when he dares to actually look at Travis’ face.

He’s not looking at Nolan, not for another five seconds, before his eyes find Nolan’s and a hesitant smile appears on his face.

“What if I need that, though?” he says and suddenly it’s Nolan frowning, taking a step away from the door and towards Travis. Travis waits another second but when Nolan doesn’t say anything he licks his lips, hands still going, back and forth on the duvet. “What if I came here for me, more than for you? Because I was freaking out, these past 24 hours.”

He’s looking at Nolan all honest and sincere, genuine question in his eyes and Nolan can’t-

He can’t make sense of it. Of the expression on Travis’ face or the words that are coming out of his mouth. Tugging his desk chair over, Nolan sits down in front of Travis, placing his feet on Travis’ knees after a moment of hesitation. Almost immediately Travis’ hands wrap around his ankles, warm even through Nolan’s thick socks and sweatpants. Finally they are still.

“You were freaking out?” Nolan asks, gently pressing his toes into the meat right above Travis’ knee, thick, strong muscle.

It’d make sense for Travis to be freaked out because of work, because of some bad fire or accident, trying not being enough again, someone dying, but the way Travis said it, makes it sound like Travis was freaking out about their talk and that- Nolan doesn’t know. The one thing that would make sense is that Travis was upset because the whole thing made him realize that he does in fact want out of this thing with Nolan but the way he’s looking at Nolan, it’s-

“Yeah, I was,” Travis says, his thumbs pressing against the bony knobs on the insides of Nolan’s ankles. “I was really scared actually. The entire time that we weren’t on a call, when I was lying in my bunk, all I could think about was you and that maybe the next time I saw you, you’d tell me that we are over. That I fucked it up with the whole sex thing, that I screwed up my chance, that I- That I’d lost you.”

“Lost me,” Nolan repeats, throat dry, frowning. “What?”

He doesn’t understand. Travis is talking like any of what he’s saying makes sense, but it doesn’t. The thought of losing Nolan freaked him out? Scared him, it’s-

“Babe, I ran into a burning building yesterday and what I was most scared of was having fucked it up with you,” Travis says, voice all raw and honest, fucking doubling down and Nolan can’t-

“I don’t understand,” he croaks out, absently shaking his head, watching the emotions flash through Travis’ eyes.

“I love you, Nolan,” Travis says, like that explains anything. “So I don’t want to lose you.”

“But-”

But Nolan was never going to be the one who’d leave. He thought about it in the beginning, planned to a couple of times, doing damage control, but a part of him always knew that he wasn’t strong enough, that he was too far gone already and he thought Travis knew that, even with him still holding onto that idea of wanting a chance to make Nolan happy. Nolan losing Travis, Nolan being left, Nolan being right, that’s what- That’s how it’s going to go, so why would Travis think-

“You don’t believe me when I say that I love you, I get that,” Travis says, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t get it, because if he did, he wouldn’t see a point in repeating it. “But I do. And I want to be with you, so I need to know if you still want to be with me too and how you- Fuck, how you want to do this sex thing, because I’m fine if you don’t want any sex at all ever, or if you want to wait, or if you don’t know yet and have to think about it, I just- I just want us to be on the same page so I don’t make you think I don’t want you, but also don’t pressure you and-” He breaks off, making an unhappy little noise, letting his head drop forward, pressing the side of his face against Nolan’s shins. “I don’t know. I’m messing this up, aren’t I?”

“You-” Nolan blinks, heart beating to his throat. For a second he falters, looking around the room helplessly, for what, he doesn’t know. But his hands find Travis’ hair, and his eyes settle on the drawing over his bed, the fairy lights on the wall and finally Travis again, his soft hair, the shape of his slumped shoulders, the necklace peeking out from beneath his shirt. “Trav, you aren’t.”

He swallows, carding his fingers through Travis’ hair, still a little damp from his shower.

“You aren’t messing up,” he whispers, closing his eyes for a moment. “I’m- I am. I was- I thought-” It’s hard. It’s fucking harder than Nolan remembers it being, because fuck he hasn’t tried putting his actual feelings into words in a while, either just blurting out shit or not trying at all, and now- Now he’s trying. For Travis. What a fucking joke. “I thought maybe we haven’t had sex yet because you aren’t really attracted to me.”

At that Travis’ head snaps up. He stares at Nolan, hands still on his ankles, like an anchor almost, for the both of them. “But I- I told you how into you I am. Like so fucking into you, Nols. Yesterday, I said-”

“Yeah, I- I know.” Nolan shrugs, swallowing. It feels wrong to accuse Travis of lying, but that’s- He has to be, when he says shit like that, because Travis has eyes, and he hasn’t been living in a bunker where Nolan is the only other humanoid creature around, he’s- “You could do better. Than me,” he mumbles eventually, looking down at his knees. “And then, me begging you for sex, that’s- That’s pathetic, and really not a turn on, so-” Exhaling, Nolan rubs a hand over his flaming face, before making himself look at Travis again. “I pressured you into giving me a hickey for fuck’s sake.”

“Okay, so first of all,” Travis says after a small pause, tongue darting out to wet his lips, which- Nolan really can’t focus on the way that makes him feel right now. “You didn’t pressure me. The idea of you wanting sex with me, which –by the way- not pathetic, turned me on so much that the hickey thing just kind of happened. And second of all, doing better than you? I- Impossible. Just- Just impossible. End of story.”

“So you-” Nolan’s frown deepens, as he tries to wrap his head around the bullshit Travis is trying to make him buy into. “You want- With me? Even though you could fuck someone like Steph or-”

“Well, I couldn’t fuck her because she’s not into me and I’m not into her, but for the sake of the argument, yes. Yes, even if I could have sex with her, I’d pick you.”

“But-” Nolan shakes his head, his heart beating to his throat. “No. Why?”

Why fucking would you?

He knows he’s repeating himself, and Travis looks at him like Nolan should get this, but he doesn’t. He just fucking doesn’t, no matter how often Travis repeats it.

“Because I love you,” Travis says, and then, when Nolan shakes his head, he says it again. “I love you.” And again. “I love you. And I don’t need you to understand why. Not if that’s too difficult right now. I just need you to know that I mean it, when I say it, that this is how I feel. Even if you don’t understand it.”

Nolan doesn’t think that he can do that. Travis looks at him, soft and pleading and fucking hopeful and Nolan can’t give him the answer he wants. He can’t just say yes when everything inside him is bristling against it, against accepting that maybe Travis does love him, against all odds and logic, like some kind of deluded miracle, some twisted magic, an undeserved blessing.

But he can’t say no either because Travis is here and Travis is honest , saying that he was scared. Scared of losing Nolan. Like that’d be an actual loss to him, not just relief. It’s-

“I-” Nolan starts, rubbing the palms of his hands over his thighs, unable to look at Travis for a moment. “I don’t want to believe you. Because then when you do leave, it’s-” He presses a hand against his chest, eyes flickering back to Travis’. “It’s gonna hurt too much.”

“You say ‘when’ like there’s no other option,” Travis says, a raw edge to his voice, a slight quiver, despite how steady he says the words, despite the gentle hold he still has on Nolan’s ankles. “Like it couldn’t be an ‘if’.”

Travis doesn’t understand that if Nolan let himself believe in an ‘if’ it’d pull him under even deeper. He’s already fucking lost, he’s already drowning, and here Travis is wanting to take away that certainty that Nolan has been clinging to like a piece of driftwood, sharp, rotting edges, but still there, still afloat, and Travis just-

I love you.

He wants Nolan to believe that he does and that that fucking love is enough to turn a when into an if and be worth the pain that is going to fucking kill Nolan because there’s only a certain number of times that you can get a dead heart beating again. Travis told him that, chattered about it while flicking through a book on basic life support measures. He’d said something about statistics about how getting a patient back once sometimes isn’t enough, that as a paramedic back home in Ontario he once resuscitated a girl three times, once on the scene and twice on the ride to the hospital and each time it took longer to get her back and the third time he didn’t and how that was his first loss, how he still remembers her name and face, the color of her sweatshirt, the brand of her sneakers.

And Nolan wonders if he’s going to remember Nolan’s name too. If years down the line another person’s arms wrapped around him, Travis will still recall the sound of Nolan’s heart breaking. If when the time comes –when, when, when- he’ll even know what losing him will do to Nolan, if he’ll know what kind of loss it’ll be, what even the thought of believing in his love did to Nolan.

“Travis, I’m not like you,” Nolan chokes out, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes for a moment. “I’m not brave, I don’t run into burning buildings, I don’t- I don’t have this ‘you just gotta try’ strength in me, I’m-” He blinks against the tears in his eyes, hands balled into fists against his stomach. “I’m me, Travis. I’m just fucking me, and I-”

“And you deserve to be happy, you deserve to try, and if you can’t try for yourself, then you deserve someone trying for you,” Travis says, pleading, voice so raw, it makes Nolan shiver. “I could be that someone. I could be. If you let me. I could try for you. I want to.”

Pressing his eyes closed, Nolan rubs his hands over his face, exhaling shakily. “Is this you asking for a chance again?”

“Is this you saying no again?”

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

“No?” Opening his eyes again, Nolan’s vision is blurry, but it clears up quickly enough for him to see the cruel glimmer of hope he put into Travis’ eyes.

“Is it a yes?” Travis asks, and Nolan just-

“No,” he whispers, shaking his head.

It’s the truth. But it also isn’t.

It’s not a yes, it’s not a no, it’s-

It’s a maybe. It’s a fucking maybe and Nolan already regrets it, but he also doesn’t because instead of saying something, Travis moves, lets go of Nolan’s ankles, and pulls him closed instead, until he can press their foreheads together.

Neither of them says anything, but Travis’ hands are on Nolan’s shoulders and Nolan’s are clasped into the front of Travis’ shirt and for a second, a heartbeat, that’s enough.

It’s enough.

Eyes closed, Nolan exhales.

“I’m going to be late for class,” he whispers eventually, half an eternity later, eyes still closed, but Travis’ arms around him, the two of them entangled on the bed, Nolan’s head tucked under Travis’ chin.

“I can drive you,” Travis mumbles, but neither of them move, not for a long time, and when they do, it’s for Nolan to wiggle closer and for Travis to press a kiss to the top of his head.

 

***

 

Travis is doing a terrible job at putting icing on the undoubtedly terrible Christmas cookies they decided to make after Travis’ mom had texted him a picture of the batch she’d just made. The message had included a passive aggressive caption of how Travis could be having some right now if he hadn’t moved so far away. Travis –of course- simply couldn’t let that stand.

“It’s about making a point,” Travis had said, untangling himself from Nolan after Nolan had just grunted at the unappealing suggestion of making cookies. He’d been grinning from ear to ear, because apparently joke-y competitiveness is the kind of relationship Travis has with his mom.

He’s never baked anything he doesn’t think. Ever. He’s a breakfast food kind of guy when it comes to cooking, and cookies- Well. He never really had any as a kid because of the nutrition plan his parents had him on and now- Travis is fucking googling sugar cookie recipes because apparently he’s never baked either and Nolan doesn’t even want to think about the amount of calories, carbs, and fat.

But Travis had smiled, and looked at Nolan questioningly after showing him a picture of Christmas fucking themed cookies and Nolan just couldn’t refuse.

Not after today. Not after yesterday morning, not with all the pleading Travis has done, begging Nolan to believe him and his ‘I love yous’. Nolan couldn’t give him the answer he needed then, but he can- Fuck, he can bake terrible cookies with him and hopefully get out of eating them and maybe that’ll help Nolan stop thinking about sex too.

Because that’s going to be a problem, Nolan can already tell.

When Travis had bent over to put the tray of misshapen cookies into the oven, Nolan hadn’t been able to look away from his ass and then after, when Travis had been sitting on the counter, bowl in his lap and dipping his finger in again and again licking the raw dough of them, it had been- Well.

Nolan doesn’t know what he’s going to do. He still hasn’t decided, when Travis hands him the spoon he’s been using to ungracefully spread green icing on the sort of triangle shaped cookies they decided to call Christmas trees just for the hell of it.

But he does know something else, and he’s going to have to say it, he’s pretty sure, just to make things fair for Travis. He’d said that it was okay if Nolan didn’t understand why Travis loves him, but that he does need for Nolan to accept it. To know it. To believe that Travis loves him, no matter how little sense it makes. It’s the bare minimum or something, and yet Nolan can’t-

He’s tried. He’s thought about it all day, but he can’t make himself just believe, he can’t- He can’t wrap his head around it and it’s killing him because Travis is being sweet and funny, talking about his mom always dumping a bit of extra sugar into her cookie dough, just for him, and Nolan can’t even do what little is asked of him. He can’t make himself believe that the guy who was apparently more scared of losing Nolan than of a burning building, loves him.

Technically, Nolan knows that it’s the smart thing to do, that it’s his brain having learned from past mistakes, that this is him knowing better, but he still-

“Trav?” he says, keeping his eyes focused on the cookies in front of him, as he clears his itching throat awkwardly.

“Mh?”

“I need to say something, but I can’t-” Nolan hesitates, pressing his thumb against the edge of the spoon’s handle, forcing himself to exhale and inhale. Travis doesn’t seem bothered that Nolan interrupted him, not in the least and somehow that stupid little detail is what helps Nolan force himself to go on. “I can’t have you ask questions or like- Like try to convince me or- Or anything. Just, if it’s a deal breaker then please just go and don’t make this any harder than it needs to be, okay?”

Travis does look a little bit bothered now, brows furrowing.

“Nolan-” he starts but Nolan shakes his head quickly, lips pressed into a tight line.

“Okay?” he presses, forcing himself to focus his gaze on the terrible cookies in front of him. They smell so good, it makes him want to lock himself in the bathroom and get on his knees. “Travis. Please.”

Another second passes, then: “Okay.”

“Okay,” Nolan repeats, closing his eyes for a moment, before making himself dip the spoon back into the icing. “Listen. It’s-”

Again he pauses, which is- It’s stupid, because he knows the words, repeated them in his head again and again, the moment after he decided that he had to tell Travis, so him struggling now, it’s stupid. It’s stupid and unnecessary, and yet he can’t help it. To his credit, Travis doesn’t push. Not with words anyway. Instead he places a hand on Nolan’s shoulder from behind, touch gentle and warm, just like his lips are when he presses them to the back of Nolan’s neck that is only bare because of the ridiculous ponytail Nolan fumbled it in when they started their baking misadventure.

“I don’t believe that you love me,” he says, eyes closed, the icing spoon forgotten somewhere, instead Nolan is clasping the edge of the counter. Travis doesn’t say anything. The silence so deafening Nolan has to hold his breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But Travis doesn’t step back, doesn’t stop touching Nolan. He fucking kisses Nolan’s neck again and it’s probably the only reason why Nolan gets out the rest too. “But I believe that you believe that you do. That you love me.”

Travis exhales, his breath warm against Nolan’s skin, just like his hands are when he reaches around Nolan, places them on his, right there on the edge of the counter. Pressed against the line of Nolan’s body, he doesn’t say anything, not for a long, long moment, then:

“Okay.”

Eyes fluttering close, Nolan shifts, turns his hands palms up, letting Travis’ fingers slot between his. “Okay?”

“Yeah,” Travis whispers, squeezing Nolan’s hands. “Okay.”

And a part of Nolan wants to argue, wants to push and prod because there is no way that what little Nolan is offering is enough for Travis, but when he tries, turns around and opens his mouth, he can’t get any words out. He looks at Travis, the expression on his face, the fucking love in his eyes and it’s too much. He can’t argue, he can’t push, he can’t-

He won’t.

He won’t say ‘I love you too’ either, even when Travis tells him again, whispers it into the kiss he gets on his tip toes for.

But he’ll kiss Travis back and he’ll finish decorating the cookies with him and when Travis asks to take a picture with the cookies and Nolan, Nolan does that too, even if he refuses to let Travis send it to his mom, insisting on a separate picture of only Travis with the cookies.

Somehow the cookie picture involving him lands in the group chat Nolan has with Kev and Ivan anyway, earning himself a ‘so that’s what you skip class for these days ;)’ from Kevin and a ‘who’re you & what have you done to my best friend’ message from Ivan.

It doesn’t feel as bad as it should.

If Nolan is being honest, terrifyingly, it doesn’t even feel bad at all.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

Nolan still remembers the first ever pair of skates his parents bought him. Not the actual moment, not really wearing them either, but he knows the skates, has seen them in their spot on the wall above his medals and trophies a million times. He knows the make and the model (Bauer Vapor 2X), knows the size (6), the color (black with purple), and the price (189,99 dollars).

Nolan also remembers never realizing how insane that had been, spending that amount of money on skates for a fucking toddler, who’d only learned to walk without clinging to his mom’s hand like nine months ago, who’d only ever been on the ice with his dad holding both his hands, feet barely even touching the ice.

He doesn’t remember the first time he ever wore the skates, but he’s seen a video of it, and he still has a scar on the inside of his lower lip from falling on his face and one of his baby teeth digging into it.

He does still remember the taste of blood and his father pulling him up by the back of his jacket placing him back on his wobbling feet. That and crying when his mom said they needed to go home and that Nolan needed to take the skates off again. He would have gone to sleep with them on, if they had let him. At least that’s what Nolan’s mom always used to say, looking all proud and endeared, sometimes even pressing a kiss to Nolan’s cheek, which he always pretended to hate, but-

But now he’s at Travis’ place and he’s looking at a run of the mill pair of entry level hockey skates, still in their packaging. 49.99 dollar price point, according to the label. Nolan doesn’t even recognize the brand, not that that matters when Nolan is hung up enough on the fact that Travis apparently owns skates.

Sure, Nolan knows that Travis never played hockey but always had been kind of interested in it –it’s what they talked about that day at the rink anyway- but Nolan didn’t think that Travis would- That he actually-

They had joked about it. About Travis being all hockey smart now after Nolan had explained offside to him, and Nolan had imagined it. Had imagined taking Travis to a rink, and holding his hands and actually fucking getting on the ice again. With Travis. For Travis. And it’s what made him run. He turned around and left, and everything had spiraled from there and now Nolan is staring at a pair of skates that Travis bought for himself apparently –at Target or something- and it’s like his body can’t decide how to feel. Cold and sick at the thought of Travis going skating, period. Or hot and ashamed because what’s bothering him is not just the thought of Travis going skating but Travis going skating alone, or worse, with someone else. Someone who isn’t Nolan, and that-

That makes no fucking sense, but Nolan can’t help it.

He doesn’t want someone else to take Travis by the hands and help him not fall when he steps onto the ice for the first time. He doesn’t want someone else to give him balance, help him back up when he does fall, because he will, because everyone does, because it’s part of what makes it so exciting when you do manage to get your balance right.

Selfishly, Nolan doesn’t fucking want any of that.

The sound of the door opening makes him jump, feeling strangely caught, pulling his hands back from the box, but it’s too late, he can’t push it back under the bed where Travis stores a bunch of shit he apparently has no other room for. Nolan’s pencil had rolled off the bed while he’d been doodling on the corner of next month’s shift schedule, and while trying to retrieve it he’d spotted the skates.

And now Travis is back from his trip to the mailbox, and Nolan is sitting on the floor like an idiot, unopened box with cheap as shit skates in front of him.

“Oh, I bought these the other day,” Travis says, just closing the door and planting himself onto the floor next to Nolan, legs crossed. “They were on sale. Cool, eh?”

Nolan can’t quite suppress the noise he makes in the back of his throat, eyeing the box critically before looking back at Travis. “I mean- Sure.”

“Yeah, I thought, you know, borrowed skates at like a public rink are kinda gross and then I saw these so I thought ‘why not?’,” Travis just babbles on, and before Nolan can reply anything, he’s got his pocketknife in his hand and is cutting open the packaging, like it’s no big deal.

Because it isn’t. Not to Travis anyway.

“Kevin said he’d go with me,” Travis continues, knife snapping shut again, taking the first of the skates out with a smile. “You know, so I don’t have to make an ass out of myself without an audience who can mock me later and spread word of my failure.”

Nolan is supposed to laugh at that, he can tell by the way Travis looks at him, but-

“You asked Kev to go with you?” Nolan says, unable to keep the frown off his face, sinking feeling in his stomach.

Lips pressed together tightly, he plucks the second skate out of its packaging. It’s as basic as Nolan expected. The boot material soft, offering little to no support and probably doing barely anything to help with control and transfer of power. The padding is there but Nolan can’t imagine that it gives much comfort if you skate for any duration longer than half an hour to an hour maybe. The insole, the steel of the blade, the outsole, it’s all-

“You are so judgy,” Travis says with a laugh, taking the skate out of Nolan’s hands. “You should see your face. I’m not training for the Olympics I just want to try skating, so this-” He gestures to the skates. “-is fine, yeah? Perfectly fine. And Kevin said-”

“If a puck hits your ankle with only these protecting you, then-”

“Well, then you better tell Kevin not to shoot pucks at my ankle,” Travis interrupts, leaning over to press a kiss to Nolan’s temple.

And that should be it. End of discussion, except that Nolan can’t let it go. He can’t stop thinking about the skates, can’t stop squinting at Kevin when he sees him the next day, and he can’t stop himself from knocking at Ivan’s door at half past one am that night when his brain won’t let him sleep and Travis is at the firehouse and his heart just keeps on racing no matter how much he tosses and turns and tries to think of anything else, even the fact that him and Travis still haven’t had sex yet, a week after the whole freak out Nolan had about it.

To Nolan’s surprise, Ivan isn’t just still awake, he’s also not alone.

“Oh,” Nolan says eloquently when he finds Ivan leaning against his dresser, arms crossed, expression stormy, and Alexis by the window, completely dressed, winter coat over her arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

Ivan had said ‘come in’ so Nolan figured-

“It’s fine, I was about to leave anyway,” Alexis says before Nolan can even finish. She doesn’t move, though, instead stares at Ivan who just stares back, lip barely twitching, jaw set tight. Neither of them say anything, neither of them take a step.

Nolan hovers in the doorway, the tension in the air practically suffocating even for him, uninvolved in whatever’s going on as he is.

“Fine, have a good night then,” Alexis says after yet another minute of tense silence passes without Ivan or Alexis even moving an inch, and with that she’s gone, rushes past Nolan and out of the room, the sound of the apartment door slamming shut quieter than Nolan expected and yet loud enough to make Ivan pull a face.

Another moment where neither of them say anything goes by, then:

“So, what’s up?”

“Ivan, do you-” Nolan starts awkwardly, throwing a glance over his shoulder, rubbing the inside of his ankle with one socked foot while holding onto the doorway for balance. “You and Alexis, maybe-”

“I really, don’t want to talk about it, Patty,” Ivan interjects, shaking his head, but uncrossing his arms and walking over to Nolan. “I need to just- Just think about some stuff. It’s all good. What did you need, is everything okay?”

“I’m-” Nolan hesitates for a moment, but he’s been battling versions of that question since finding the skates under Travis’ bed, and he has yet to find an answer. “Yes? I think, I don’t-”

Pulling a face, he runs a hand through his hair, feeling himself flush under Ivan’s gaze, which- Nolan gets that Ivan’s first reaction to Nolan knocking at his door in the middle of the night is worry, but it still doesn’t feel great, having that be his friend’s default emotion when it comes to him.

“Does Travis snore, is that it?” Ivan says then, after a moment of Nolan just staring at his feet, and it’s enough to make Nolan roll his eyes, bumping his knuckles against Ivan’s shoulder in mild protest.

“He doesn’t. Also he’s on shift.”

“Ah, I see.” Quiet for yet another moment, Ivan’s brows furrows. “So is there something you need to talk about? Or do you just need some company, because I can do either. Or both. Whatever you need.”

“No, it’s-” Nolan shakes his head. “Thanks, but I- I just wanted to ask, if you knew if- Did I-” Focusing on his breathing for a moment, Nolan steels himself. “Did I bring any of my hockey stuff with me? When you and I moved here, did I bring anything, or-”

He trails off, feeling his face heat up even more at the look Ivan gives him, full of surprise, and hesitance, as well as wonder and caution. It’s like he can’t decide how to feel either and the uncertainty kills Nolan a little bit because god, why is he even asking Ivan this, why couldn’t he wait until the morning, and why is there a part of him that is hoping for Ivan’s answer to be a ‘yes’?

“You didn’t, Nols,” Ivan answers, though, quiet and careful, brows drawn together as he looks at Nolan. “Your billet family from Brandon mailed your stuff to your parents’ and you never wanted me or my mom to go get it for you. Why do you ask? Are you thinking about maybe-”

“No.” Nolan shakes his head reflexively, wrapping his arms around himself. “No, I’m not- I’m- I was just wondering. That’s all.”

He shrugs, the quick fluttering of his heart making him feel dizzy.

The thing is, he doesn’t remember, that’s why he asked. That time, quitting hockey, losing his parents, somehow making it through the rest of his school year, graduating, leaving for college with Ivan, it’s all a blur, only certain moments clear and poignant in his mind.

“You know, if you wanted to skate again, you could borrow an old pair of mine,” Ivan says slowly, after Nolan doesn’t continue, focusing on a spot on the floor instead. “But, Patty, is really everything okay?” He reaches out, placing a hand on Nolan’s shoulder. “-where is this coming from?”

“It’s not-” Nolan shrugs again, clearing his throat. “It’s not coming from anywhere, I just- Travis bought skates, really cheap, bullshit skates, and he says that Kevin is going to take him skating. Did you- Did you know that Kev offered to? That they-”

“Well.” Ivan pauses for a second, rubbing his neck. “Yeah. I did. Both Kevin and I thought that it’d be fun, you know? We like him and since you seem to want him to stick around-”

“But what about me?” Nolan asks, before he can stop himself, immediately regretting the words the second they are out of his mouth.

Ivan blinks, confusion flashing over his face and when Nolan turns on his heel, his hand is there on Nolan’s shoulder again stopping him, mouth already open with a question that Nolan already feels sick about. Not because it isn’t warranted but because it makes him feel so stupid and childish and out of his fucking depth because this, feeling excluded, it’s nothing that has bothered Nolan in so long. He usually feels relieved when Kevin and Ivan decide to do stuff without him, when they don’t invite him so he doesn’t have to say no and disappoint him, it’s-

But this is different, and Nolan feels like he’s flailing his arms, barely able to hold his balance.

“It should be me,” he says, throat dry and raspy. “I should be the one to take Travis skating, I should-”

“Patty, it’s not about should, you-”

“Well, what if I want to?” Taking a step back Nolan clenches his fists. “What if I want to be there, what if I- But I don’t even have skates, and I don’t- I’m- This is stupid. I don’t- I don’t know what I’m-”

Breaking off, Nolan turns on his heels and flees to his room, this time without Ivan stopping him.

Ivan does come after him though, even if it takes a moment. He stays in the doorway too, just waiting patiently until Nolan has twisted around to half glare at him, throat still feeling tight and embarrassment simmering under his skin.

“You know that if you wanted to come, even if it wasn’t to skate, just to hang out, we’d love that, right?” he says eventually, meeting Nolan’s eyes calmly. “All of us. But especially Travis.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Nolan mumbles, shrugging again. “It’s not a big deal.”

Ivan, of course, doesn’t let him get away with it. “It kind of is though. You know it is.”

Groaning, Nolan lets his head fall back into the pillows. He gives Ivan a dismissive wave and it’s followed by the sound of the door closing but instead of silence there’s the sound of footsteps immediately after. Then the mattress dips and-

“Wanna have a sleepover?” Ivan whispers, causing Nolan to let out an exaggerated sigh while pulling back the covers for Ivan to climb in.

“Wanna talk about Alexis?”

“Wanna talk about skating?”

“Sleep. That’s what I want,” Nolan says after a pause, causing Ivan to let out a quiet laugh.

“Alright. Sweet dreams, Patty.”

 

***

 

Nolan is busy folding laundry when the sounds of the apartment door getting unlocked followed by footsteps reach him. A moment later Travis’ arms wrap around his shoulders from behind and a kiss gets planted to the top of his head, while Nolan reaches for his phone, turning off the video he’d been mindlessly watching while sorting through the laundry basket.

“Hey,” Travis says, giving Nolan a peck on the lips  as well before pulling back a chair and sitting down next to Nolan, a tired but soft smile on his face. “Whatcha doing?”

Raising his eyebrows slightly, Nolan glances at the t-shirt he’s just finished folding, then back at Travis. “I‘m sure you can figure it out if you scrape a couple of brain cells together.”

“Nah, Steph, JVR, Raff, Beezer and I spent like the last two hours brainstorming baby gift ideas for G and his wife,” Travis says, hooking his foot around Nolan’s ankle under the table while fishing a piece of clothing from the pile and beginning to fold it himself. “Any brain cells I might have had are dead. Dead and gone.”

Watching him for a moment, Nolan just hums before putting the folded shirt aside, and grabbing a new one as well.

“How’d you get in by the way?” he asks after a small pause. Travis is kind of doing a terrible job at folding, but after Nolan reaches over, straightening out a couple of edges he actually manages, and the smile he gives Nolan in return- Well. “Didn’t do the whole firefighter kicks in door thing, did you?”

 “Kevin gave me his keys. I ran into him in front of the house, but kinda lost him on the second floor. To one of your neighbors. Like, blonde lady with…a big personality?”

“Mrs. Baker, yeah,” Nolan says with a snort. “Kev has a thing for her, I don’t know. Must be the-”

“Big personality?” Travis says, giggling a little.

Nolan makes an affronted noise, giving him a slight elbow jab. Both because Travis is being sweet and funny, but also- Nolan isn’t entirely comfortable with this, joking about the attractiveness of one of his neighbors, something that Travis evidently noticed and-

“This isn’t one of yours,” Travis says, squinting at a band shirt that definitely isn’t Nolan’s. “You do laundry for all of you guys?”

Throwing Travis a glance, Nolan shrugs. He does, yeah, because why wouldn’t he. He’s home most between the three of them, only throwing his own shit in would feel like a dick move, even without all the ungratefulness that would come with it. And it’s not like doing laundry is hard. All Nolan has to do is put stuff in and take it out again, then fold it and sort it between the three of them. Or well. Four because for the second time now Nolan finds one of Travis’ shirts in the mix, which doesn’t mean anything.

When after picking, spreading out, and folding one of Kevin’s sweaters Travis is still looking at Nolan, Nolan sighs, turning to look at him.

“What?” he asks, eyeing Travis.

Travis looks –unsure? Thoughtful? Nolan can’t quite pinpoint it but there’s something going on in Travis’ head and Nolan can’t help the way his heartbeat picks up, nervous despite not really having a reason for it. So what if he does the guys’ laundry too? He’s gotta make up for himself somehow, for being so high maintenance.

“Nothing,” Travis answers unconvincingly. “It’s just- You do a lot around the apartment. Like making breakfast pretty much every day, and you always take care of the dishes after dinner, at least when I’m here and the plant in the living-room, Ivan told me the only reason that thing is still alive is because you water it and-”

“That plant is still alive because it’s indestructible,” Nolan says absently, frowning at Travis. He once forgot to water it for four weeks straight and that thing still somehow came back to life; saying that Nolan takes care of it is a massive fucking overstatement, but it’s also not at the core of what Travis seems to be saying. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Travis says quickly, knocking his knee against Nolan’s gently. “Of course not. It’s just something I noticed, that’s all.”

“Well, it’s the least I can do, so-” Nolan shrugs, averting his eyes when Travis furrows his brows, mouth already opening like he wants to argue. “And I like doing it. Laundry is easy. I hate cleaning, makes my knees hurt and shit. This-” He glares at the laundry. “It’s fun.”

Nolan pointedly doesn’t look at Travis again for a while, just continues folding laundry while Travis does the same, probably contemplating whatever it is that had him frowning so weirdly. It’s still kind of nice, somehow, though. Sitting at the kitchen table with Travis, doing what’s essentially a household chore, it’s- Domestic? And Jesus when the hell did Nolan turn 80 years old, where sitting with the guy he likes to make out with and folding laundry is what he considers nice. And fun. He really did say fun, like a lunatic.

Eventually they get interrupted by Kevin knocking at the door, and while Nolan goes and lets him in, Travis finishes up the last two pieces of laundry, placing them on the Ivan pile even though one of the items is Kevin’s.

“Thanks, Patty,” Kevin says anyway, giving Nolan a quick half hug.

Nolan just hums in response, grabbing the Nolan (and Travis) pile. Travis follows him without being asked, snorting a little when Nolan just drops the clothes onto his chair, not really feeling in the mood to put them into the dresser right now. Instead he lets himself fall onto the bed, looking up at the fairy lights.

Travis looks at them too and for a moment they are just quiet together. That is until Travis rolls onto his side and taps Nolan’s shoulder until he does the same facing him.

“So I wasn’t actually planning for us to talk about household chores today,” he says, sheepish little smile on his face.

“No?” Nolan says flatly, raising his eyebrows. The giggle he gets from Travis in return almost makes him smile too. “It’s such an interesting topic, though.”

It’s not really a good joke, and Nolan knows that, despite Travis’ reaction but it’s all Nolan has got to keep himself from tipping into nervousness at the implications of Travis’ comment. There’s something else that he wanted to talk about and Nolan isn’t really feeling thrilled at that prospect. They’ve done enough talking about feelings and other mortifying stuff recently, Nolan really, really just wants to close his eyes and pretend that he’s normal, that they are normal. Just a normal cou- Just two guys, spending time together, no hard conversations, no freak outs, no-

“Ivan said that you might be coming with us,” Travis says. “When the guys take me skating. He said that you are thinking about it, and I just wanted to, you know, let you know, that I’d like that. If you were there.”

Closing his eyes for a moment, Nolan presses his lips together, trying to swallow down the reflexive nausea that he can feel spread immediately.

“Ivan shouldn’t have said that. I’m not- I won’t, probably. It was just a stupid thought.”

“That’s okay,” Travis says, causing Nolan to frown at him. “I just want you to know that I’d be happy if you did. That’s all. Not like, to pressure you, but just so you know. You know?”

Nolan doesn’t really, is the thing. Travis says it like it’s simple, obvious but Nolan can’t really wrap his head around it. He expected –he isn’t exactly sure what, but something bad. Something that’d make him freak out, instead he gets this and sure there’s his instant reaction of discomfort at Ivan having talked about him behind his back and the whole skating thing but what Travis is saying-

“You’re better off with Kev and Ivan,” he says, because it’s the truth, averting his eyes, looking down between their bodies instead, to where they’ve got their feet tangled together, Travis wearing his silly socks and Nolan his thick wooly ones. “They can teach you and shit. I haven’t skated since I was seventeen, so I wouldn’t be- I’d be useless.”

“I don’t believe that,” Travis argues, like he has any idea what he’s talking about. “Plus it wouldn’t be about your skills or whatever. It’d just be nice to spend more time with you.”

“You’re here like all the time,” Nolan mumbles, looking back up at Travis and the sincerity on his face. It’s enough to make him blush, heart skipping a beat.

He can tell that Travis means it, that he’d actually just be excited to have Nolan around and that’s- Even if Nolan reminds himself that Travis does believe that he loves Nolan, it’s still a little bit of a shock whenever he just says shit like this.

“Sick of me yet?” Travis asks, voice cheeky and low, and Nolan can’t help but shake his head and lean in, pressing a kiss to Travis’ lips.

They are smooth and perfect, and not for the first time Nolan wonders if Tavis is bothered by how chapped Nolan’s almost always are, even though he’s been trying the whole chapstick thing recently. Travis just kisses him back though, soft and gentle and first and then a little more open, more daring, tongue sliding against Nolan’s, sparking a low thrumming heat in Nolan’s stomach that makes his breathing come out all shaky when they part, Travis nipping at Nolan’s bottom lip, trailing a kiss to his jaw, to his neck, to the spot where you can still see the hickey if you know to look for it and for a moment Nolan just lets himself feel it, hands on Travis’ biceps, eyes closed, arching into the kiss.

Only for a moment though, because there’s a fucking knock on the door and Kevin’s muffled voice asking something about co-op COD, and Nolan can’t-

He groans, giving Travis a slight push back.

“No, thanks, Kev,” he half yells half mumbles, voice a little bit husky, arm thrown over his eyes.

He keeps it there until his heartbeat has somewhat slowed down again, and he can safely let himself glimpse at Travis and the stupid, goofy smile on his face.

“Not in the mood for some-” Travis asks, mimicking the shooting of a gun with his hand, complete with mouthing ‘pew pew’ like the idiot he is. Nolan kind of hates how endearing it is.

“No,” Nolan says, shifting a little. “You?”

“Nope,” Travis says, popping the ‘p’, like he does sometimes.

Nolan kisses him again, short and sweet, leaving himself a little bit breathless, nonetheless.

“I used to fantasize about getting kissed at center ice,” he says, randomly, foolishly, the blush that spreads on his face immediately, making his cheeks and ears feel so hot, he’s sure Travis must be able to tell, even with the inches of space between them. “When I was- As a- As a kid. Like- Stupid, right?”

“Doesn’t sound stupid,” Travis says, like Nolan didn’t just stammer around embarrassingly. “I mean, you were a hockey kid, right?”

“I-” Nolan swallows, averting his gaze for a moment. “Yeah. I just-” He exhales heavily, looking at Travis again. “Like, you know how every hockey kid imagines scoring like an important goal, OT game winner, Stanley Cup, shit like that? I always- I mean once I knew that I was- That I was gay, ever since then I had this stupid fantasy of scoring that important goal and then- Well. I don’t know.”

Travis hums softly, reaching out and stroking a strand of hair away from Nolan’s forehead, tugging it behind his ear, touch so soft it almost makes Nolan shiver. “Sounds romantic.”

“Yeah, if you find stupidity romantic.”

The crease appearing between Travis’ brows make Nolan sigh a little, pressing his thumb there to smooth it out.

“Homophobia, Trav,” he says lowly, trying and failing to keep the edge out of it. It’s too familiar, too covered with dried up blood. “Hockey isn’t exactly gay friendly. If I’d ever-”

Nolan can’t even really imagine it. Things had been bad enough with just Nico’s word out there about Nolan’s sexuality, he doesn’t even want to imagine what would have happened if he’d been stupid enough to kiss someone –kiss Nico- in front of others, let alone on the ice it’s- They would have probably beat him up more than they already did and they wouldn’t have left it at locking him naked in the bus bathroom for a nine hour bus ride, they would have-

It would have been bad, and judging from the look on Travis’ face, he might not know how bad but he can at least imagine it a little bit. Not that Nolan wants him to. God, he wants Travis to stay as far away as possible from this part of him.

“The first guy I ever kissed was one of my brother’s buddies,” Travis says then, out of the blue, gaze soft and kind, hand still in Nolan’s hair, playing with the ends where they curl by his collarbones. “I was fifteen and he was sixteen and he laughed at me and immediately told his other friends. Including Chase. I cried.”

“No. What an asshole.

Nolan can’t help but gasp a little, feeling a pang of sympathy for fifteen year old Travis and how humiliated he must have felt. Looking at Travis now and how self-confident and resilient he seems, it’s hard to imagine Travis actually crying and being rejected by some dumbass jerk who didn’t deserve him anyway, but Nolan knows all too well how much of a difference a couple of years can make.

“It’s okay,” Travis says though, pressing a chaste kiss to Nolan’s lips. “Chase punched him for making fun of me.”

“He did?” Nolan’s eyebrows rise a little, a hint of jealousy bleeding into his voice. It’s not that he isn’t glad that teenage Travis had someone to defend him, but-

“Yeah,” Travis says, a proud little smile on his face. “I mean, he did laugh at me too. Still claims that he just couldn’t help it. He simply finds other guys so gross he can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss one.”

“So he’d be really laughing at us now, eh?” Nolan says, voice trailing off into a mumble, as he tugs at one of the strings of Travis’ hoodie, pulling at it until the strings are even and then a little further, while Travis hums quietly.

“Probably,” he answers, the low, warm tone of his voice making Nolan shift a little closer. “He’s also really going to laugh at the video Kev is going to take of me falling on my ass tomorrow. Not that Chase would do any better.”

“I’m gonna laugh at you too,” Nolan whispers, biting his lip, focusing on the hoodie string and its one end that is about to be lost in Travis’ hood because Nolan pulled a little too far and Travis didn’t stop him. “Tomorrow.”

A heartbeat of silence passes, then –under his breath: “Yeah?”

And Nolan could say that he meant the video. That he phrased it wrong, that Travis misunderstood, but-

But he doesn’t. Like so often with Travis, he doesn’t. He lets his eyes flutter closed and he breathes, inhales, exhales, let’s Travis kiss him, touch so tender and soft, and he lets himself imagine it again. The two of them on the ice, just them and no one else and Travis kissing him right there at center ice, their fingers intertwined and it’s so fucking romantic it knocks the air out of Nolan’s lungs, makes him kiss back Travis a little harder, because somehow it’s been never easier to breathe than with Travis’ lips on his.

 

***

 

“Let me,” Travis says and gets on his knees in front of Nolan before Nolan can even think about an answer.

He has just pushed his feet into the pair of ratty skates that Ivan dug up for him somewhere in the depth of their basement section. They are old and worn and don’t quite fit like Nolan’s own would, but they are proper skates, top tier, expensive too, or they were, once upon a time at least. It feels weird putting them on, especially since Nolan isn’t wearing any other hockey equipment. No pads, no jersey, no shin guards, nothing. Just the skates because this isn’t actually about playing hockey, it’s about Travis getting to skate for the first time in his life and maybe shooting a puck or two, and really, that’s the only reason Nolan is still here, is still sitting next to Travis on this bench and hasn’t run yet.

Because it’s not hockey. And because it is Travis.

Still, he almost did. He almost ran at least four times throughout the day. He woke up and he wanted to quit, wanted to tell Travis that he was sorry, but that he changed his mind and that he’d have to have fun with just Kev and Ivan.

Then again after making himself eat breakfast, after making himself eat a little bit of lunch too, after spending twenty minutes kneeling in front of the toilet and fighting with himself, wanting to give in to the itch at the back of his throat and get rid of this sickening fullness he’s feeling. He knows that he needs the calories. If he wants to skate and not pass out he needs them and –

And it’s fine because skating means burning calories too so it should be fine right?

They should balance each other out or- Or something. Or Nolan will just have to be stricter with himself tomorrow, will just have to- Have to compensate tomorrow. Has to make it work. Somehow.

He knew that kneeling there in the bathroom and he knows it now, knew it when he almost left again the moment Travis pushed the doors to the rink open for the two of them.

But he didn’t and now he’s here and Travis is looking at him, small smile playing on his lips as he looks up at Nolan while pulling the laces of his skates tight, tying them for Nolan. There’s the sound of hockey practice wrapping up as backdrop and it’s-

It’s something.

It’s certainly fucking something, making Nolan swallow, feeling a little bit breathless, making him want to look around and see if anyone else is seeing this.

“Trav,” Nolan says weakly, licking his lips as Travis tugs again, the sound of skate laces being pulled tight so fucking familiar it puts Nolan right back to being twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, to a part of his life that has been over for so long and yet- “You don’t have to, I can-”

“I want to, though,” Travis says, moving on to the second skate, eyes twinkling. “You know, love to be on my knees for my-”

“Oh my god, shut up,” Nolan rushes out, heat surging up inside him so quickly it makes him feel dizzy in a way he hasn’t felt in- Ever? Fuck he doesn’t know. “Travis.”

Nolan,” Travis says, mimicking Nolan’s tone, mischievous little smirk on his face, as his hands keep going, trying the laces of Nolan’s second skate like it’s something he’s done a million times, which- It’s not hard. It’s like tying normal shoes, Nolan knows that, but- “Don’t worry, if this is the only way you ever want me to kneel for you, then that’s cool too. Like I said-”

“Will you fucking shut up, you’re killing me,” Nolan cuts him off, face probably as red as a firetruck as he reaches out to fiddle with the collar of Travis’ vest, just so his fingers have something to do. “Just- You should put on your own skates. We’re almost- The guys are done, so.”

“Roger that, babe,” Travis says, getting back to his feet after a moment where he fucking presses a kiss to Nolan’s knuckles, like that’s something that’s not fucking weird as hell, like that’s something anyone actually does outside cheesy period dramas, but Travis does, in the real fucking world, and when Nolan calls him out on it, he just shakes his head, still smiling.

“You know, the thing about being embarrassing on purpose is that if you do it on purpose it’s actually not that embarrassing anymore,” he says, shoving his feet into his skates. “It’s just me being me and doing what I want.”

“And what you want is to- Okay. You’re crazy.”

Now it’s Nolan’s turn to shake his head. His cheeks are still flaming and even though he doesn’t think anyone paid attention, the idea of it makes Nolan feel a million different things, mostly disbelief because how can Travis act this sappy and romantic with Nolan and not care if someone else sees, because Nolan isn’t- He’s not the kind of person someone like Travis should be with so being seen with Nolan like this, it’s got to be embarrassing for Travis, no matter what he says, but-

But Travis takes Nolan’s hand and before he knows it there’s only one more step to take before it’s ice instead of rubber floor and that-

“I’m not crazy,” Travis says, just as Ivan and Kevin skate up to them, still in full hockey gear. “I’m in love.”

The gleeful look that spreads on Kevin’s face is fucking mortifying and Nolan can’t even look at Ivan or Travis, because who does that? Who just says shit like Travis does in general and especially in front of people? It’s not just Travis being weird. It’s Travis being absolutely bat shit, because if he isn’t and still just- Then nothing in the world makes sense and Nolan needs a little bit of logic to not lose his mind.

“You are fucking insane, oh my god,” he says, fumbling open the gate and before Travis can reply Nolan has ice beneath his skates, and fuck.

For a second his breath gets stuck in his lungs, because with a single heartbeat, a stride of his legs, the sound of skates scraping over ice, he’s a kid again. He’s nine years old cackling while gliding over the uneven ice of a frozen over pond because he convinced Ivan to skip school and go skating instead and it’s the most free he’s ever felt.

Another heartbeat and he’s eleven years old and Aimee and Madison are there with him because it’s his birthday and this is what he wished for and for an hour, maybe two they aren’t mad, they aren’t upset, they aren’t jealous. They are just his sisters, and Nolan gets to show them how to skate backwards and maybe that makes Madison a little angry but Aimee loves it and Nolan still remembers her excited yelling when she finally got it right.

A heartbeat and he’s seventeen again feeling so fucking relieved and content knowing that he’d made his choice, that he’d tell his dad as soon as he’d come to pick him up. Tell him that he was quitting hockey, that he still loved it, but that he just didn’t want it to be everything.

I want to be in love, dad, he’d thought he’d say. I want to fall in love and then be with that person and not have to hide, not have to be scared, just because of hockey.

And he’d been heartbroken, he’d been so fucking hurt because of Nico, because of his betrayal, because of the way he’d dropped Nolan and helped made his life a living hell, but he’d still been relieved. He’d been happy.

He hadn’t thought it’d take him more than four years to ever skate again.

To ever be in love again.

He’d thought the hard part was over.

Spreading out his arms like wings for a moment, Nolan closes his eyes, inhaling deeply with his eyes closed, as another stride pushes him forward, lets him glide over center ice, a wave of euphoria rushing through him that he didn’t expect, didn’t see coming but now it’s there and he can feel it tingle in every last cell of his body, making him feel almost weightless, like for once he doesn’t have to fight for each second of keeping his head above water, like for once there’s no rain filling his lungs.

And it’s all because of Travis, because he bought those stupid, cheap skates. And because of Ivan, because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut and blabbed to Travis about Nolan asking him about going skating. And because of Kevin too, because he’s here and because he told Travis he’d go with him, and-

And maybe a little bit Nolan too.

Because Nolan chose to come. He didn’t quit, he didn’t run, even though he wanted to a million times just today and now-

“C’mon, Trav,” he says, skating a quick turn that makes his joints protest but fuck, fuck if it doesn’t also feel good because now Nolan is skating towards them all, his friends, Ivan looking proud, Kevin delighted, and his b- His Travis. And Travis is smiling, eyes wide and full of wonder and he laughs when Nolan comes to a stop in front of him, snowing his legs and- “C’mon, what are you waiting for. C’mon.”

“Babe, I never-” Travis says, letting Nolan tug at his hand, but still staying right there in the open gate, skates firmly planted on the rubber floor surrounding the rink. “Give me a sec. I don’t actually want to fall.”

“I won’t let you fall,” Nolan says, a breathless little laugh escaping his lips because Travis looks at him with so much wonder and surprise, it’s making him blush but for once Nolan doesn’t mind. He just wants Travis to feel this too, this excitement, this feeling of freedom that comes with being on the ice. He wants this. He wants more.

He wants to not just have skating back, he also wants-

“I won’t let you fall,” he repeats, and somehow Travis actually listens, actually pries his own hand away from the boards and reaches for Nolan’s other hand. Nolan grins at him. “Just try to keep your ankles straight. Hold onto me and-Yeah, yeah, like that, just let me-”

He takes a stride backwards and Travis’ grip on his hands goes iron tight within a heartbeat but he holds on and he keeps standing and while his legs seem shaky as fuck, he doesn’t fall, let’s himself be pulled by Nolan.

“Oh god, oh god,” he still blabbers, eyes darting back and forth between the ice and Nolan. “Oh god. If I fall and break something G is gonna kill me, he’s gonna kill me and hack me to pieces and Ryanne is gonna make stew and-”

“Don’t look at your feet, look at me,” Nolan interrupts, grinning, giving Travis’ hands a squeeze. “Look at me, all you gotta do is stay upright and let me do the rest.”

“You got this Teeks!” Ivan yells from the other end of the ice, Kevin obnoxiously whooping in a way that makes Nolan’s grin even wider and-

Travis stumbles.

Travis stumbles and for a second it feels like they are going to fall, because Travis is clasping Nolan’s hands so tightly and Travis lost his balance and Nolan is supposed to hold him, supposed to be the one to keep them upright, but he doesn’t seem to have the strength. His body does what it’s supposed to, reflexes kicking in, but it’s not enough, it’s not enough, for a split second, half a heartbeat, it’s not enough and Nolan is convinced they are going to fall or crash into the boards.

But they don’t. Somehow Travis catches his footing again or Nolan’s muscles decide to work after all, listening to his brain and doing their work, and somehow he and Travis come to a rocky stop, right there by the blue line.

Breathless, Nolan’s arms wrap around Travis, completely on their own accord, an apology already on his lips, but Travis is laughing, breathless and a little bit shaken too, but he’s laughing, right into the crook of Nolan’s neck and the feeling of it is almost better than the ice under Nolan’s skates.

“You’re supposed to help him, not trip him, Patrick!” Kevin calls, delighted judging by the sound of his voice.

Ivan just cackles, be it at Nolan flipping them off or Kevin’s comment, Nolan has no clue. All he cares about is Travis looking up at him, cheeks flushed and eyes glistening.

“I think I tripped you,” he says, tongue darting out, wetting his lips, a movement that Nolan feels as a tug in his own stomach, breath stuttering a little. “Sorry ‘bout that. I got distracted, didn’t really expect the curve.”

“Distracted by what?” Nolan asks and again Travis laughs, looking both bashful and daring at the same.

Letting go of Nolan’s hands he takes a gawky, stalk-y step backwards.

“I think you know,” he says, spreading out his arms, like he needs them for balance, which- Judging by the way his ankles wobble, he probably really does.

Closing the distance between them with a smooth stride, Nolan wraps his arms around Travis’ shoulders, heart jumping at the way Travis’ hands reach out, fingers hooking into the pockets of Nolan’s jacket.

“I don’t.”

“You do, though,” Travis says, voice dipping a little lower as he looks up, one hand coming up to cup the back of Nolan’s neck and- Right. Travis can’t get on his tip toes. Not in skates, not with his feet somehow drifting to the sides again and again and him having to correct, him needing Nolan to hold onto so-

So Nolan bends down and kisses him, short and sweet because fuck, Ivan and Kevin are still there, Nolan can hear the sounds of their skates, the familiar sound of a puck being passed back and forth but it’s all just background noise, static almost, because Travis’ lips are soft and willing against Nolan’s and his palm is so warm, and the way he opens up for Nolan’s tongue-

“You smiling,” Travis breathes, when they part, eyes on Nolan and only Nolan. “You laughing. That’s what-”

“Shut up,” Nolan says, his face on fire from his cheeks to the tips of his ears, but his lips still curve into a smile even though he has to look away, hands fumbling a little until he finds Travis’ to hold again. “Focus.”

“I am,” Travis says, and Nolan can hear the fucking cheeky grin in his voice alone.

“On skating,” he says pointedly.

At that, Travis just laughs, and promptly almost trips again, flailing to keep his balance.

He manages, but it’s a close call, earning them some more chirping from both Ivan and Kevin.

It’s good.

It’s good because Travis holds onto Nolan’s hands and while he stumbles again only a few strides later, Nolan manages to keep them skating anyway, and eventually Travis’ stance gets a little more secure and his grip a little less cramped, but his smile stays the same and while Nolan can feel his body protesting by the time they do their third lap around the rink, he can push it back, can push it away and push through and it’s all worth it because by round four Travis manages to do strides himself and then suddenly, he’s the one pushing Nolan and that’s better, that’s easier, because it’s Travis’ strength, Travis moving them and Nolan is just there to give him balance, and it feels so fucking magical Nolan is almost drunk with it.

“I can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner,” he whispers, breathless, more to himself than Travis, but Travis hears it anyway, and instead of asking questions, instead of jumping on this little piece of information that Nolan just accidentally revealed, he just smiles.

“You’re doing it now,” he says, like it’s that simple, like that’s what matters, all that matters.

And it’s so different from what Nolan knows is already brooding in the back of his mind, ready to pounce as soon as the magic of skating, of Travis’ hands in his fades. Nolan likes Travis’ version so much better, it makes him feel dizzy in a way that is so much more pleasant than the other kind Nolan’s body can’t really keep at bay.

“I can’t believe I am,” he still says, and somehow they come to a stop right there at center ice and Travis still can’t get stops right because Nolan hasn’t shown him yet, but they manage, and if it’s by Travis sort of kind of crashing into Nolan then that’s fine. That’s more than fine with Nolan. Because Travis looks up at him, presses his cheek into Nolan’s hand that cups his face and it’s perfect.

It’s a little too perfect to be real, to let Nolan believe that it’s real.

That it’s going to last.

“But you are,” Travis says, voice quiet and a little bit gravelly, sending a warm shiver down Nolan’s spine. “And I know that this- That it’s a big deal. For you. I mean, I don’t know. Not how and why, but that’s fine, cause I know you don’t like to talk about some things and I don’t want to pry but I-” He halts for a moment, licking his lips, looking up at Nolan, almost breathless. “-I want you to know that I know that this is important. So thank you. Thank you for being here and doing this.”

“I’m just here to laugh at you when you fall on your ass,” Nolan says, somehow gets out over the fluttering of his heart, quick and stumbling right there in its chest, like it doesn’t know whether to flee or beg to get closer. “Nothing big. Nothing important.”

Humming a little, Travis tilts his head pressing a kiss to Nolan’s palm. Distantly Nolan wonders if Travis knows that the only reason it’s warm is him, him holding it, warming Nolan’s always cold fingers with his own body heat.

“Well, I love making you laugh,” Travis says then, and fuck. Fuck if Nolan can suppress the smile that puts on his face. “So if I fall –if you let me fall, then it’s gonna be worth it too, and-”

Nolan kisses him before he can finish whatever other corny, overly romantic shit was going to come out of his mouth. Nolan couldn’t stand it. Just like he can’t stand Travis. Travis and his sweet smile, and tender sincerity, and warm hands and perfect lips and Nolan still can’t believe it.

He can’t believe that he’s doing this, any of it. That he’s standing at center ice of some shitty community rink in some city that only marginally cares about hockey and that he’s kissing a guy. A wonderful, goofy, honest guy who talks too much and touches Nolan too tenderly and kisses him back in a way that makes it impossible for Nolan to not realize that it’s too late already.

No matter if he doesn’t believe in this being real, in this ever having a chance to last, in Travis loving him, or just believing that he does, if he knows that this is going to ruin him, shatter his heart into pieces so small and sharp that he’ll end up with cut open hands and a hole in his chest with no chance of ever healing, he’s already in too deep.

He’s already giving Travis that chance he never even meant to offer. That chance Travis told him he’d fight for, try to earn, try to convince Nolan to give him. He already has it.

And maybe, maybe Travis already knows that, because when Nolan pulls back, Travis leans in, kisses him again, and he still does, even when Ivan and Kevin laugh, and yell, pretend to call penalties on them for making out, for unsportsmanlike conduct and a million other things, that make Travis laugh into the kiss but still kiss him. Kiss him like he can’t get enough either.

“I love you,” he whispers, and while Nolan doesn’t say it back, he presses his forehead against Travis’ and it’s enough.

For them, in this moment, it’s enough.

It’s enough for Nolan to feel like it’s worth it.

When over four years ago Nolan had skated for the last time, he hadn’t known that he was about to lose everything. He’d felt good, felt relieved and a little bit excited too. Now he’s on the ice again and unlike the kid he used to be, he knows that there’s no happy end waiting for him, he knows there’s going to be pain and loss and heartbreak, but he still feels good, still feels excited.

There’s something comforting about it, something strangely defiant and rebellious almost. Choosing the chance of love again, while knowing the price this time.

Kissing Travis right there at center ice, Nolan almost feels brave. He almost feels happy.

It’s an almost. Just an almost. But it’s an almost that feels like everything, and that’s more than Nolan knows he could ever deserve.

 

Travis does end up falling on his ass eventually and Nolan does laugh at him, but he also kisses him once Kevin has helped him up and because Travis is Travis and he’s all about trying, he doesn’t just call it quits, he takes wobbly strides around the rink all on his own while Ivan, Kevin, and Nolan fuck around with a puck, he even cheers for Nolan when he manages a trick shot he hasn’t tried in forever on his second try.

“It’s a pretty easy one,” Nolan tells him, stick still in hand when he skates over to Travis who doesn’t quite manage to turn towards him, but is already holding out his hand for Nolan to take. “I’m just really rusty. Could have done it with my eyes closed back when I was still playing.”

“So that’s a new side of you,” Travis says, sounding half distracted, like skating is taking up most of his focus. “I like it.”

“What side?”

“Arrogance,” Travis says, grin on his face, until a nick in the ice makes him trip and curse. “Shit.” He manages to catch himself though, one hand against the boards, the other gripping Nolan’s tightly. “ ‘s not a bad look on you.”

“It’s- I-” Nolan flushes, spluttering as his brain tries to connect the look on Travis’ face with his words. “Being arrogant is-”

“-is a nice change,” Travis interrupts him, giving a small smile and even smaller shrug. “Confidence isn’t a bad thing. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But-” Arrogance isn’t the same as confidence.

“Quit flirting and get your asses over here,” Kevin calls, cutting Nolan off mid embarrassing fumbling for words. “Teeks has gotta shoot some pucks before we gotta get out of here. C’mon.”

Apparently Teeks is a nickname that Kevin and Ivan have given Travis while Nolan wasn’t paying attention. And apparently Travis isn’t half bad at hitting and aiming the puck, despite the stick that is way too big for him and his unsteady stance. Apparently Nolan is also really fucking into the guy he likes looking at him excitedly every time he manages to do something half decent with the puck, it’s-

It’s so fucking different from when Nolan had been on the ice with Nico. Nico had been good, brilliant, as talented if not more than Nolan when it came to everything hockey and while Travis shows some talent for chirping too and some competitiveness, he also seems to really fucking care about what Nolan thinks and Nico never-

Nico didn’t. Or he did but differently. It’s what Nolan’s brain keeps going back to. Things being different. And of course they are, everything is different but it still makes Nolan’s head spin a little.

When Nico did something great, scored an unlikely goal, stickhandled his way around a defenseman, pulled off some video game move in real life, he always looked at Nolan like ‘your turn’ or ‘beat this’ or ‘still think you might go first overall instead of me’.

When Travis looks at Nolan its just-

It’s just Travis. And it’s just Travis who Nolan wants to kiss when they finally get off the ice, Travis who gets on his knees again to untie Nolan’s skate laces, Travis who catches Nolan when he slips right outside the building, because the steps are frozen over and Nolan’s balance is shit and he’s dizzy from exertion.

Travis who kisses him first, right there in front of his truck, pulling Nolan in, mouth open and pliant, letting Nolan slip his tongue inside, the wet heat of his mouth making Nolan crowd in closer, until Travis’ back hits the side of the car, drawing a breathy little laugh from his lips.

“Yeah?” he says, nonsensically, and yeah, Nolan thinks, kisses him again and again, and it’s too fucking cold, and Nolan is too fucking tired but he still-

He wants.

He wants more.

He wants this.

And it would be the smart, sensible thing to get into the car, drive home, do this there in the privacy and comfort of Nolan’s room. Or in the car at least. But Nolan wants and fuck, he hasn’t let himself want in so long. He hasn’t felt like this in forever, and Travis doesn’t protest when Nolan lets one hand trail down his body, the front of his jacket, following the line of the zipper down to the waistband of his jeans, that Travis isn’t wearing any leggings under because he isn’t always freezing like Nolan is.

He gasps a little when Nolan mouths at his throat, licks and kisses with one hand in his hair while the other is slipping inside Travis’ pants and-

“Oh fuck,” Travis groans, head falling back against the car, fingers digging into the material of Nolan’s winter coat, and he looks absolutely beautiful with his lips parted, eyes closed, foggy breath coming hard and quick as Nolan wraps his hand around Travis’ cock, squeezes and then strokes. “Oh fuck, oh god, oh-”

Nolan doesn’t feel cold. It’s night, it’s starting to snow, they are in a fucking parking lot but all Nolan feels is heat, heat and hunger that he gets to satisfy by catching Travis’ mouth in a kiss, teeth and tongue and his hand getting Travis harder and harder by the second. Each stroke, each movement of his hand making Travis respond so perfectly, melting into Nolan’s touch like it’s all that exists for him. Like Nolan pressing his thumb against the head, when he twists his hand while stroking up, when he makes Travis throb by squeezing, when he makes him moan into the kiss, is all that matters.

“Nolan,” he groans, the way he kisses Nolan back almost biting, almost too much, almost perfect, because a second later, his fingers are in Nolan’s hair, his toque somewhere forgotten on the ground- and there are snowflakes in his hair, melting on his cheeks, and he’s the most beautiful thing Nolan has ever seen.

“Nolan, I-”

“Yeah,” Nolan says, pants really, his breathing matching Travis. “Yeah, I know, I know, I-”

“Please.”

“Fuck, Trav, you-”

Travis comes, spills in his pants and Nolan’s hand, and no matter how they end, no matter when, no matter how many pieces Nolan’s heart is going to break into, no matter how irrevocable the damage, he’s never going to forget this. The way Travis looked, the way his mouth tasted, and the sound he made, the way he clung to Nolan, tension suddenly breaking.

He kisses Nolan, breathless and a little bit shaky and Nolan doesn’t care that he has to wipe his hand on his own pants or that he’s hard.

He cares that Travis smiles, that he looks up at Nolan, cheeks flushed and lips red and wet from kissing and says “I love you” like he means it. Like it’s not just him believing that he does, but like he actually-

“Do you want me to-” Travis starts, when he’s found his words again, gesturing to Nolan’s crotch while he’s trying to tuck himself back in with the other hand. “I could-”

“I’m good,” Nolan says, just as breathless as Travis looks. He shakes his head. “I’m- I’m good. Let’s just-”

“ ‘kay, yeah- Sure. I’m-” Travis says, running a hand through his hair, voice all gravelly and rough. “Driving. Right. Keys.”

Nolan can’t help but let out a small laugh. “Do orgasms always short-circuit your brain?”

“Only when they involve super hot, super pretty guys or girls, who I just happen to be super in love with,” Travis says, apparently having regained his ability to speak in full sentences.

Now it’s Nolan’s turn to flush, biting back a smile.

“Shut up and open the car before I freeze to death.”

“Hey, you’re the one who decided to jump me out here, I-”

“Are you complaining?”

Grin wide, Travis gets on his tiptoes, planning a kiss to the corner of Nolan’s mouth. “Nope. Not at all. You could rail me in Antarctica or an active volcano and I’d be up for it, honestly. I’m fucking game, Nols, for whatever you-”

“Okay, okay,” Nolan gives him a slight shove. Just because. “Shut up. Keys. Now.”

“Ughh, so bossy,” Travis says, eyebrow wiggle and everything. “Be careful or you’re gonna make me nut again.”

“Oh my god.”

 

***