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Tongue-tied And Overloaded

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Two weeks, William thinks, peering out of the window, watching Gabe slam his car door shut and walk into the main veterinary building. In two weeks, all stumbling blocks between William and his one true love will be completely gone, and William is jittery inside in ways he hardly ever is. “Soon, Siska.”

“I don’t know,” Siska says. He’s leaning over the animal boarding kennels check-in counter, grinning, when William turns around. “I’m pretty sure there’s more in play here than you being sixteen, Bills. Like the fact that Gabe barely knows you’re alive.”

William makes a face. Siska has a very small point - even if it’s not actually true. A year ago, Gabe very much knew William was alive. He knew this all over the pharmacy closet, because William had been making eyes at New Vet Tech Gabe for days, and William is irresistible.

Too bad William had been shaking so much - because William is awesome, he makes sexy poses in front of his mirror every day, but Gabe’s pretty much the first one outside of his reflection to pick up on this fact. So Gabe’s leer and Gabe’s big hands and lean body and sarcastic, biting mouth, well. William had been so hard it hurt, and so fucking scared.

Gabe had peeled away from him with a frown and a, “Dude,” and a, “I’m not forcing anything here,” and William had stuttered over some protests and assurances that basically had done the exact opposite of what he’d wanted - Gabe had backed up further.

He’d tilted his head and flicked his gaze up and down William’s body and asked, “How old are you?” one eyebrow arched.

If William had been thinking clearly, he might have lied.

Gabe hadn’t freaked, exactly. He’d been angry. So mad William had flinched back into a shelf of bottles when Gabe had shouted, “You can’t even fucking drive yet!”

William had clutched his hands in front of his chest and managed to get out, “I’ll be sixteen in two weeks,” and, oh, had that been the wrong thing to say.

“Got news for you sweetheart,” Gabe had said, smiling in a way that wasn’t really smiling at all, “that’s still illegal in this state. Shit, do you want me to fuck up my life here, can you—” He’d thrust a hand through his hair. “I’d get fired, Beckett. And then someone would tell your mom.”

William, pressed back as far away from Gabe has he could, trying to become one with the pharmacy shelves, very valiantly didn’t cry.

So now. Now he’s going to be seventeen, full and legal, and if he still gets the shakes when he thinks of Gabe’s scowl, and the way he had looked like he’d really wanted to punch him - William isn’t going to let that hold him back.

William is in love.

William falls more in love every day.

*

The first time William had seen Gabe Saporta, fresh off his third year of college, Gabe had been wearing pink scrubs with kittens all over them. William is a dog person, but he’d gone weak in the knees. Gabe had flashed him an unreadable look, but his body language had been all come-and-get-me, and William had melted down onto the front desk, elbows bent, chin propped up by both hands.

“I am going to marry that man,” William had said.

Behind him, Selena had snorted. “Yeah, okay.”

“Mark my words, Miss Gomez.” William’d grinned. “Use a pen.”

Now, of course, Gabe’s unreadable looks are accompanied by stiff posture and smiles that don’t reach his eyes – but what William has increasingly noticed is that Gabe does indeed look. Gabe always searches out William in a room – if he sees William looking back, there’ll be a bite in the curve of his mouth, mocking, smirking, but William eats them all up and plots.

Gabe is not immune to his charms, William knows this – oh, how he knows this. It’s both baffling and gratifying, because William has never had any reason to complain about his looks – he knows he’s pretty and has great hair; once upon a time that would’ve gotten him beaten up, but he’s tall and plays guitar and he’s hilarious, so popularity wins out - but he’s never had a girlfriend or boyfriend. Hook-ups, yeah, but nothing past groping, and no one ever wants to ride that out into a date – to be fair, William hardly ever wants to ride that out into a date, either. So, whatever, William’s young, and nervous – and Gabe kind of scares the shit out of him – but he’s not going to let that stop him from seducing Gabe. Again.

*

“You’re nuts,” Selena tells him.

William doesn’t take offense. The reason everyone thinks he can’t do this – that’s he’s crazy for even trying – is because he’s never told anyone about the pharmacy closet incident. Half because it’s completely embarrassing and half because if it ever got around, he thinks Gabe actually might really kill him, and not just threaten to with his eyes.

William steals her milkshake. “Please refer to my words that you marked down over a year ago, and get out your highlighter.”

“You’re weird, too,” Selena says. She taps her fingernails on the lunchroom table, eyeing him.

“Why are we staring at William?” Demi asks, dropping down into the seat next to her.

William sighs.

Selena says, “Because Bill is planning on seducing Gabe Saporta into asking him out in,” she makes a big show of checking her watch, “nine days, four hours and six minutes.”

It’s slightly endearing that Selena knows the precise time in which William was born, in relation to when he’s working on his birthday. Slightly.

“Oh. Oh,” Demi says, then scrunches her face up. “Really? I thought he was into Dr. Ivarsson.”

“Dr. Ivarsson is dating a girl,” Selena says.

“Really?” Demi looks intrigued. “Huh.”

William sighs louder. “Can we please—”

“Why the girlish swoon, Beckett?”

“Oh, fuck off, Carden,” William says, more in exasperation than any real ire. At this rate, William’s entire school is going to know his business. Really, all he’d wanted was Selena to trade shifts with him – she usually works the desk in the main veterinary building during the week, and William’s stuck down in the kennels.

Mike smirks. Mike is more smirky than normal, now that he’s dating Selena’s friend Kevin – it’s really annoying.

William crosses his arms over his chest and scowls. “I’m not talking about this anymore. You’re going to jinx it.”

“Jinx what?” Mike asks.

“He’s going to marry Gabe Saporta,” Selena says, nodding her head toward him, and William stomps to his feet, nose in the air.

“I hate you all.”

*

William has dreams where Gabe tells him how sexy he is. Murmurs it into his throat, shows him with the press of his fingers over bare hips.

In these dreams, he’s not an overly-confident fifteen-year-old; there’s nothing awkward in his limbs, the ones that occasionally still feel too long and too alien.

He still wakes up with his heart in his throat, though, sweaty and damp, like he can’t breathe and his skin’s too small, and his fingertips are tingling; he realizes he has to change his sheets.

It’s scary and hot and scary, because all of this, he thinks, was almost real - and for all his talk, there are certain secret parts of him that think it never will be.

*

William loves Gabe because of the way he’d hefted a bleeding, snapping border collie – mean on pain and fear – into his arms without any thought to his own safety.

He loves him for the way he’d hugged a fragile-looking elderly woman, crying in relief over a cat with a stubborn hairball, and the way he’d held a little girl’s hand, trying to be brave and tough while they carried her dog back to be put to sleep.

Gabe jokes with Vet Tech Ryland and sings dance songs, sliding around with soft soles, when he has to mop up messes in the waiting room.

William’s seen Gabe grinning with wriggly kittens piled in his arms, laughing while a puppy pisses all over him, cursing and angry over accidentally stepping in shit on the middle of the concrete ramp, and William wants to be able to touch that mouth – with his own, with his fingers, whatever.

He wants hugs. He wants Gabe to look at him the way he’d looked at him over a year ago, like he’s thinking something dirty and awesome.

He wants Gabe to look at him and not see a mistake.

*

William has barely opened his mouth when Gabe says, “No,” without looking up from the chart he’s entering into the computer.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say,” William says.

“That’s a blanket no to everything, Beckett,” Gabe says, one corner of his mouth quirked up, which William finds somewhat heartening. “You’re trouble.”

William leans a palm flat on the counter, hitches a hip so his t-shirt slides up. He hasn’t pulled on his scrub top yet, and he’d knotted the bottoms low on his waist - he knows his strengths. “I’m worth it,” he says. It’s not all bravado.

Gabe flicks a glance his way. “Can I help you with something work related?” he asks, and William can hear the amusement in his voice.

He bites his lip to hide his disappointment. “We need more towels for the kennels,” he says.

Gabe arches an eyebrow at him. “Ask one of the Alexes.”

The Alexes. Right.

William shifts on his feet, hesitating.

Gabe is flipping through papers, tapping one foot on the floor, humming – it sounds like Sexy Back – and William struggles for something, anything else to say.

Selena is giving him big eyes over Gabe’s shoulder, peeking around the doorjamb of the back office.

The longer William stands there, the more he feels like an idiot.

Selena waves at him, gesturing for him to join her with a, “Hey, Bills,” and William gladly takes the out, slipping around Gabe’s chair and practically falling into Selena’s arms.

“Oh my god,” she says, a low hush. “How are you this awkward?”

It’s kind of a compliment. William’s a smooth operator at school now; he avoids hard c’s as much as he can and flirts with anything with a still-beating heart – including Miss Matheson, who holds dominion over the library and is arguably a delicious brain-munching zombie; Siska swears she bit him once. William should be more than this, and considerably less pathetic.

“I’m a hot mess, and Gabe is—Gabe is something better,” William says forlornly, even his fabulous vocabulary is failing him now. This sucks.

Selena clucks her tongue and pats him on the back.

*

The subtle approach is clearly not working. Not using the subtle approach makes William want to throw up - letting Gabe do all the work is so much more appealing, and less likely to end in humiliation - but he figures he should just man up and at least try.

“Do it,” Selena says, grinning around her mug. “Doooooo it.”

“Bill,” Siska says, “you know how I hate to be the voice of reason, but—”

“Shut up,” Selena says, smacking Siska’s arm.

Siska holds up his hands. “Whatever. I just don’t want to see Bill hurt.”

William huffs his hair out of his face, and tries not to let Siska’s words bother him. There’s something there, between him and Gabe, William’s not wrong about this. He’d gotten farther on a few flirty looks before than he’d ever thought he would.

The thing is, though - the thing is, William can think of a lot of reasons to love Gabe, a lot of things to admire about him, but maybe there’s not so much about William - high school Junior, receptionist, pooper scooper extraordinaire - for Gabe to love back.

*

William takes a deep breath and swallows hard and clenches sweaty fingers in the material of his scrub bottoms when he tracks down Gabe to the back hallway.

He says, “I’m going to be seventeen in four days,” dodging around Gabe’s mop.

“Good for you,” Gabe says absently.

William kind of feels like he’s had all the breath kicked out of him. It’s possible that this reaction hurts more than all the rejections before - there was always a chance that Gabe just hadn’t realized. Maybe that’s why the thought of using the direct approach had made him so sick. Because now there’s really nothing left to hope for.

William rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “Thanks,” he says. He holds his elbow up, bent, then lets his arm and shoulders fall. “Okay,” he says. “See you.”

He half expects Gabe to stop him from walking away. His spine tenses up more with every step, anticipation coiling in his belly. When nothing happens, it settles there like a stone.

*

Demi is the sweetest girl William knows, even if she’s almost frightening when she’s in an overly-cheerful mood, and William suspects her smile has the latent capacity for evil, if she were ever so inclined.

On February eleventh, she bakes him a cake. Right before emergency hours start, everyone who’s free accosts William at the cage he’s scrubbing to sing Happy Birthday; it’s a surprise, and William’s cheeks heat despite himself. So there is cake and singing and sodas and candy and they make William wear a silly hat – he tries to feel happy with the attention.

Afterward, Demi sits cross-legged on the floor next to him in the middle of Dog Row. “What’s wrong, William?” she says.

William shrugs, then forces a smile. “Nothing.” It’s truly pathetic that all he could focus on during his little party was the fact that Gabe hadn’t come down - William knows he’s working, and even Dr. Bob had managed to clear a few minutes to celebrate.

“Oh, this is gross,” Selena says, but she collapses onto the floor next to William and hugs an arm around his waist. “What are we doing here?”

William slumps so his head is resting on top of Selena’s. “You’ll need white out,” he says. “Lots and lots of white out.”

“Oh, no,” Selena says, hugging him tighter. She’s sympathetic, because for all the times she’s made fun of him about Gabe, he’s pretty sure all her doubts were in jest - of course he would get his man, this is William; he has these cheekbones and all this hair and long elegant lines and he keeps getting taller, and William might be projecting here, but Selena is one of his closest friends, she must be thinking something similar.

“I think I’m missing something,” Demi says. She’s got her awkward grin on, the one she uses when she’s uncomfortable and has no idea what’s happening.

“I’m officially single,” William says. Never mind the fact that he’s always been single, because there’s also always been Gabe. “On the prowl.” He wishes he could sound more enthusiastic about it.

Selena makes sad noises, and Demi says, “Oh?” nose wrinkled, like she’s still puzzled; it’s kind of adorable, where on normal people – people who are not as unintentionally hilarious as Demi; she does pratfalls and spit-takes, and sometimes William sneaks up on her for just that cheering purpose - it’d be downright annoying. William manages to flash Demi a real smile, and hugs Selena back.

*

Later, Gabe comes up behind him and squeezes his shoulder. William tenses, feels his heart beating in his throat so sudden he shakes with it, and he knows it’s next to impossible that Gabe doesn’t notice the immediate flush of heat that covers him head to toe. William’s mind may have given up, but his body apparently still has hopes and dreams.

“Happy birthday, Beckett,” Gabe says.

William nods, doesn’t trust his voice.

Gabe stares at him, and William can’t read anything in his eyes, and it’s almost like Gabe can’t read anything in William’s either. Half of Gabe’s mouth pulls into an absent frown, and his hand slides from his shoulder across William’s bare neck, and William has to sweep his arm up to break the contact, to move away, and he says, “Don’t.”

He didn’t think Gabe would be cruel. Not interested, fine, but he doesn’t have to act concerned, he doesn’t have to act like maybe they could be friends now, because William is not a masochist, he’s not going to torture himself that way. He’s not going to just take what he can get.

Gabe takes a step back, holds his hands up in surrender. “Sorry,” he says.

William can still feel the phantom weight of Gabe’s palm against his skin. It’s frustrating as fuck, and his eyes prickle a little, this is possibly the worst birthday he’s ever had. He shakes his head and says, “You need to just—back off, okay?” and he manages to say that mostly without a stutter.

Gabe looks a little shocked, so William thinks he manages to make it sound convincing, too.

*

Travis is not William’s best friend. This is mainly because Travis had skipped off to a west coast college last fall and left William behind, and now Adam T. Siska is his best friend, and Travis is a dude who forgets to call - or text or email - and comes home on holidays and vacations and lets William snuggle with him. William will forgive a lot for snuggles. Travis knows this and takes great advantage - curse him.

“I missed your hair,” William says, plastered up against Travis’s side in the front seat of Travis’s car.

“You’re going to be late for work,” Travis says. He lets William stay where he is, though.

William watches a heavyset woman with three teacup yorkies lumber up the ramp. He watches two kids struggle up the stairs with a cat carrier between them. Five more dogs go by before William sighs and shifts away from Travis, pushing his hair off his forehead. “Okay,” he says.

“What’s up with you, dude?” Travis asks. He’s home for spring break, and William knows he probably expected more action than William’s lap-cat impression.

William doesn’t feel like talking about it. He shrugs and says, “Working on my college apps,” because he is, so it’s not a full lie, it’s just that he’s not really stressing about them all that much.

Travis bobs his head, though. He says, “Got it,” and then, “Holy mother of legs,” when Dr. Ivarsson walks by.

William pats his shoulder. “She’s dating Intern Kitty.”

“Bummer,” Travis says, craning his neck out the car window to watch her ass as she saunters up the steps. “Those are the finest stems I’ve seen outside of you.”

William happily takes that compliment, preening a little. “So I’ll see you tonight?” he says, reaching for the door handle.

“Picking you up at eight, man, no worries.” He waves as William bounces out of the car, lighter than he’s felt in days.

He bounces right into Gabe.

Someone up there just doesn’t want him to be happy.

It’s especially bad when Gabe leans into the still-open passenger side door and bumps fists with Travis and says, “McCoy, when the fuck did you get back?”

William shouldn’t be surprised. Travis knows everyone; he gets around. It’s still disconcerting. William slinks off, hands deep in his pockets.

*

When neither Selena nor Siska are working with him, dinner breaks are for studying. William has his laptop open, sitting on the back steps of the building. It’s a little chilly still, so early in the spring, but he needed the fresh air.

“You wear glasses.”

William bites back a groan. Of course, because he never wants to see Gabe again, Gabe is everywhere.

He sits down next to William and starts reading over his shoulder.

William pushes his wireframe glasses up his nose and looks at him. “Yes,” he says.

Gabe keeps careful inches between them, and smiles like it’s an apology.

William wants to punch him in the face.

Well, he wishes he wanted to punch him in the face – that’s something that sounds like it would be satisfying, except, as previously explored, Gabe is pretty wonderful; his rejection of William doesn’t really change that fact.

Selena says it does, but that’s because she’s awesome and loyal.

Gabe makes a hmmm sound and then asks, “How do you know Travis?”

William has an itch in between his shoulder blades. “School,” he says.

“Right.” Gabe nods. “Right, okay, so you’re—” He leans a little closer, placing a hand flat on the step above William’s back. “You and him, now. You’re fast.”

“What are you—” William twists away, frowning over at him. “Fast?”

“I’ve been thinking,” Gabe says, instead of explaining himself. There’s a weird look on his face, like it’s paining him to say whatever he’s trying to say, and his words feel kind of stilted. “I’ve been thinking that maybe fast is okay for me.” He runs fingers up the back of William’s arm, and William is too stunned to react.

Fast. Fast as in—promiscuous? Easy? Does Gabe think he’s a tart? A light-skirt? A person of ill repute? Is that why, before—even after his birthday—? “Gabe,” William says, and very calmly, he thinks, for all the pressure that’s squeezing his heart, pushes Gabe’s hand away, “I think you should leave me alone.”

*

William doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but Siska’s angry voice makes him pause - it takes a lot to draw out Siska’s angry voice - and he’s hovering in the middle of the corridor, just out of view, when Siska says, “You’re fucking jealous of Travis, Gabe, I can’t believe you, you know you basically called him a whore, right?”

William’s face flushes. He’s glad he can’t see Gabe’s reaction to those words, but Gabe’s silence is pretty damning. There’d always been a chance that William had misunderstood him – it’d helped him keep some of his pride.

Now he feels strung too tight, ashamed almost, and of course, of course, while William’s standing there like an idiot, frozen, Gabe rounds the corner. He pauses when he sees William. His hair is poofy in weird places and his eyes look shadowed and there’s something gross on his scrub top.

William nods at him.

Gabe says, “Hey,” like this isn’t uncomfortable. Like parts of William haven’t been shattered – smashed to bits because of a stupid flame he’d been holding for Gabe for months, because all the thoughts he’d had about Gabe were apparently wrong.

“For the record,” William says, and it’s surprising how easily he finds the words, “I really liked you.”

*

It’s weird to realize that the guy you pretty much worshiped, the guy you thought was the best ever, all signs pointing to yes, even after he’d rejected you - the guy who maybe isn’t perfect, but you’d thought was kind of awesome for all his faults; like the way he makes a game of creeping out Dr. Bob, how he sings long and rambling songs about his basement to all the hospitalized pets, and wears neon in his off hours like it’s a precious and hot commodity - is a judgmental asshole.

“He’s not,” Selena says, poking him in the side. They’ve carved out a little people-watching niche at the party, in the corner by Travis’s stereo. “I think he just got mixed up.”

“You’re supposed to support me here,” William says. Good friends help you drown your sorrows in alcohol or junk food - they don’t defend the person who’s clearly mean.

“I am, Bills,” she says, patting his arm. “You should talk to him.”

Why?” Why on earth would he want to do that, after he’d been trying to talk to him for weeks with results like these?

The problem is that Gabe has, for some reason, decided to fuck with William’s head and start stalking him. That’s the only thing William can come up with to explain why Gabe is there, right now, across the room from them, drinking shitty beer from a plastic cup and talking to Travis. William’s Travis.

“Bill—”

“I flirt a lot. I flirt a lot, so apparently that means I’m fucking everyone around me,” William says – not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you’re safe and having fun, but it’s not something William thinks he’d enjoy, and he can’t believe Gabe’s been snubbing him for months because of it. “He’s snubbing me.”

Selena sighs. “Bill, he’s not.”

“I don’t like this,” William says. He starts flipping through Travis’s CDs to give his hands something to do. “I don’t like you taking his side, when I’m the one with the broken heart.”

“Think about it,” Selena says calmly.

William pauses over Travis’s improbable copy of Nerf Herder. He stares at it until everything blurs into a mess of orange. “We made out once, you know,” he says softly. “I was fifteen, and he thought I’d cry statutory rape.”

He sees Selena arch an eyebrow out of the corner of his eye. “A valid concern,” she says.

William nods. “Maybe.” He just can’t reconcile then with now, if the only thing Gabe had been upset about was that William had been underage.

Selena shrugs. “He’s still six years older than you. He’s graduating college. You’re not even a senior in high school yet.”

“Stop trying to make sense of this,” William says. He pushes the stack of CDs back onto the shelf.

“I don’t think he meant fast, Bill. I think he meant young.”

“Stop.” William doesn’t want to hear this. It’s almost as bad as the slut thing, only at least with that William could prove him wrong. Nothing’s going to make him older except time, and William’s sick of waiting.

Selena looks at him. She looks at him for a while, and William tries to dodge her gaze, but she can be eerily patient and persistent. She waits him out, and finally William twists his lips and glares at her and says, “What?”

“Well,” she says, drawing out the word. “It’s just that, if he meant what I think he meant? Maybe you should try again.”

If he meant—William doesn’t see any good coming from that, considering the way Gabe had looked, like he was—oh god, like he’d been reluctant, it suddenly hits William, like he’d been trying to save him from himself, from Travis, how fucked up is that?

Travis is barely three years older than William, and Gabe is a fucking meddling douche.

*

There’s an old cat that lives behind the counter in the main veterinary building. Calamity has her ears snipped almost down to her skull and her tail cropped in an awkward-looking bob because of a bad case of sun poison - she’s pure white with sensitive skin, and she’s an overweight behemoth that regards William with high dislike. This dislike is mutual.

Currently, she’s staring him down, and William takes it, because William freely admits he’s encroaching on her territory. He’s folded up on the floor behind the counter, hiding. Well, technically he’s filing – if anyone asks, he’s trying to undo whatever mess the Alexes made of Miffy and Mitsy Reynolds’ charts – but the reason he’s sitting on the floor, paging through all of the next days’ files, is because he’s hiding from Gabe.

Gabe has been weirdly attentive all week. It’s freaking William out.

Cal lifts up a paw and makes a big show of licking it all over, her eyes still narrowed on William. She flexes her claws.

William says, “You stay where you are, devil cat.”

A whiny growl starts low in her chest.

“I mean it,” William says. The last things he needs are nasty cat scratches – those fuckers get infected.

Cal’s stubby tail flicks back and forth.

William’s thinking he’s just about worn out his welcome when Gabe steps around the edge of the counter and stares curiously down at him. He lounges there, hipshot, arms crossed over his chest. He’s – unfairly – wearing his kitten scrubs. It’s hard for William to remember he’s a judgmental, meddling, douchebag asshole when he looks like that, like he’s ready to save all the world’s baby animals with hugs and kisses.

“I need to talk to you,” Gabe says.

William looks down at his knees. “I don’t think you do.”

Gabe sighs. There’s a rustle of clothes and then Gabe says, “Beckett, Bill. I don’t think you’re—”

William’s head snaps up, and Gabe’s closer than he was before, looming over him, and William says, mainly to Gabe’s kneecaps, “I get that you’re not interested, you made that pretty clear. And I don’t see how Travis is any of your business, but,” he takes a deep breath, “we’re just friends. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself to, whatever. Ease your mind? I’m not fucking anybody, and I’m not your responsibility, anyway.” Where does Gabe get off, thinking he knows what’s best for him?

“Bill—”

“No.” William scrambles to his feet. He likes that Gabe only has about an inch on him. It means he can look him in the eye. Granted, it takes a lot out of William – he uses both hands to tuck his hair behind his ears, then wraps them over his chest, tucking his fingers under his biceps, conscious of the way they’re trembling. He ignores the high color he can feel on his cheeks and says, “I really think you should leave me alone.” He feels like he keeps repeating himself here, but Gabe just can’t seem to understand him.

A glint appears in Gabe’s eyes. William wants to call it stubborn, because Gabe doesn’t move an inch, and the way he settles into his hips, well – it looks like he’s planning on not moving for a good long while.

Which is fine. William will just leave first.

He can feel Gabe watching him as he walks away.

*

“So Gabe’s been asking me and Demi stuff about you,” Selena says, sitting down across from him at their lunch table.

Siska looks up from his sandwich. “He’s been talking to Butcher.”

William groans. “Why?”

“Maybe he feels bad,” Selena says.

“He’s been talking to Butcher,” Siska says again. Meaningfully. And with some eyebrow waggles. They look ridiculous on him.

“Butcher, right,” William says. Butcher has plans. He’s really good at them. He strips down to his short-shorts and breaks out the dry erase board and plans the fuck out of everything. This is pretty much the only reason Mike landed Kevin, and why Michael Guy owns a rooster. “Who told him about Butcher?”

“Dude,” Siska says, kind of smug, because Siska and Butcher are heterosexual life partners, they had a ceremony and everything, “everyone knows about Butcher.”

“Well,” William says, at a loss. Shit.

*

Butcher knows a lot about William. Butcher and Siska together know pretty much everything about him, so William figures he’s essentially screwed. He’s going to be brave, though. He’s not going to let this get to him.

William is expecting Butcher’s very best, and Butcher’s very best, in this instance, most likely means parrots. Parrots are William’s kryptonite. They’re wily and neurotic, they have flare, they fly, they can learn to talk - there is nothing about parrots that isn’t amazingly cool. So William hardens his resolve. No matter what kind of parrot Gabe shows up with - conure, African grey, cockatiel, budgie - William will be like motherfucking ice.

Of course, Gabe saunters into the boarding kennel with Michael Guy’s rooster harnessed on the end of a leash. William actually laughs, he can’t help it. He covers his mouth with his hand. Butcher is truly the master of plans.

“Hey.” Gabe grins at him. “Check out my chicken.”

William tries to frown as his fingers slip off his face, down to his hip. “That’s not a chicken. That’s Salvatore.” He has no idea how Gabe got Michael Guy to give up his rooster; Salvatore’s his little buddy, they do everything together.

Gabe shrugs, slips the leash up his wrist and leans his elbows onto the front counter. His grin slopes into something dirty – dirty and awesome, fuck, William would’ve melted for that just weeks ago - and William takes a step backward, because that’s seriously unfair play.

Gabe levels a dark, sultry gaze on him and says, “C’mere.”

“Uh, no,” William says. He is not that easy. In fact, he isn’t easy at all; it’s past time Gabe learned that lesson well.

He expects an argument, so William’s a little startled with Gabe just nods amiably, says, “All right,” and leaves.

William stares after him, dumbly watches the door swing closed, then scrambles around the desk and heads for the window that looks out across the parking lot. Gabe is—William tilts his head. It looks like Gabe is, uh, rapping? To Salvatore? There’re lots of hand motions, and Sally’s doing this head-bob thing he does when he gets excited – William’s heard that roosters are mean and ornery, but Salvatore’s always been a hoot - and William has to bite his lip to flatten his smile. Gabe points at the boarding kennel door and William squeaks and ducks out of view just as Gabe’s head turns, too.

He doesn’t think Gabe saw him, but just to be safe he low-crawls back to the counter.

*

William doesn’t exactly know why he’s fighting it so hard. It’s just that, after all that’s happened, it doesn’t feel very genuine. More like Gabe’s trying to prove something – to himself, to William, he’s not sure.

Gabe watches him a lot more, now. He watches him and smiles when he catches William’s gaze – these toothy, knowing grins, like he’s sure it’s just a matter of time until William is caught by his dubious wiles.

A traitorous blush always steals across William’s face, and he feels sick to his stomach, because—because he doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t like being jerked around, and he’s tense as fuck all shift, and then he goes home and feels even shittier.

This is worse than before, when he’d thought Gabe had been ready to kill him for the underage thing – like William had meant to trick him into making out in the pharmacy closet. This is so much worse.

William can’t help it – he’s letting himself hope a little again, it’s like he just can’t stay mad at Gabe, Gabe’s too much of everything; too much life and ridiculousness. And William knows—knows all that’s going to get him is hurt. Again.

*

It must get really bad or something, because Dr. Bob comes down from the mountain.

Not only does he come down, though – birthdays will occasionally draw him out, like William’s, but then he’ll just grunt at people and shovel cake in his face and then leave without making much conversation, William doesn’t actually know how he functions as a vet – but he comes down to talk.

“Fuck this shit,” Dr. Bob says.

William has his wide-eyes on. He darts his gaze around the room, but he’s definitely all alone in the kennels with Dr. Bob, yikes. He says, “Okay?”

“You’re turning this practice into a fucking soap opera, Beckett, give it up or get the hell out.”

William opens and closes his mouth, confused. And then he frowns a little and says, “Are you saying that I’m fired unless I do whatever Gabe wants?” That doesn’t sound right. That sounds like sexual harassment, actually. He’s more bewildered than offended, though.

Dr. Bob looks momentarily stunned, too, like that isn’t what he meant to imply at all, but then he asks, “Would that work?”

“No.”

Dr. Bob scratches his beard. He makes a pained face, and then he says, “I’m only going to say this once.”

William nervously plays with the hem of his scrub top. “Um.”

Dr. Bob is shorter than William, but he knows how to throw his weight into an effective loom. “He never fucking shuts up about you.”

“What—”

“Ever. Unless he’s talking about the healing powers of the Cobra.” He pinches the bridge of his nose and mutters something that’s possibly about maiming Vet Tech Ryland.

William says, “It’s something new. He’ll get over it.” Butcher is a tricky bastard; annoy Dr. Bob into talking to him about Gabe, it’s so bizarre it would have to work.

But Dr. Bob is shaking his head and saying, “It’s not something new, Beckett, it’s something old. And it’s getting older, so fucking stop it.” There’s an unspoken or else in his fiery glare.

William holds up his hands and says, “I’ll do my best,” very obviously lying through his teeth.

*

“I’m getting a twitch.”

“A twitch?” Selena asks.

“A stress twitch.” William nods. “In the corner of my eye, it’s highly annoying.” This is what comes from being threatened by Dr. Bob – he needs a vacation from this place. Somewhere warm and tropical and with one hundred percent less Gabe Saporta.

“Here’s a thought,” Selena says. “Why don’t you just talk to Gabe?”

William huffs. “Because I’m being stubborn and contrary.” And also, also because he’s afraid of what Gabe might say.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Selena says.

“It’s my prerogative.” William goes for haughty, but it’s too windy out - his hair is flying all over the place. They’re out in the kennel yard, watching Siska play fetch with a basset hound puppy and a black lab. It’s not a very successful endeavor; the lab keeps eating all the sticks.

Selena sighs and hooks her arm through his, huddling into his side for warmth.

William hunches a little over her, so she’s mostly out of the wind, curling his other arm around her shoulders to pull her toward his chest. He says, “Eye twitches are unsightly,” into her temple.

She says, fairly solemnly, “You know what you must do,” but William can still hear the amusement in her voice, he’s very much attuned to all of Selena’s moods.

William resists the urge to whine at her. Taking a vacation would be so much easier.

*

Gabe has this thing that he does. It’s not actually a new thing, it’s just grown more pronounced, William thinks, and before—before, William might’ve hovered around the back hospital rooms, hoping to catch snippets of Gabe’s affectionate Spanish murmurings, but now it’s like he can’t escape them.

Gabe likes to be reassuring to all the hospital inmates in his mother tongue. There’s a possibility that William’s just imagining it, but it seems like those reassurances are suddenly spilling out into everyday veterinary routines - vaccinations, weight taking, check-ins, accidental waiting room puddles. Even Calamity’s getting the same treatment, and the way William’s mouth and heart go soft when Gabe calls Satan’s Furry Minion querida is just disturbing, that should never happen.

He’s never telling Siska anything ever again, because it’s obviously just going to get back to Butcher, and then Butcher is going to use that information for evil.

Gabe winks at William when William accidentally pauses too long to listen to Gabe croon some español to a sun conure that’s been tearing its feathers out – a double whammy, seriously.

William ignores the pounding of his heart and the way it feels like it’s steadily shifting toward his throat, and chooses to believe that Gabe’s making fun of him and his unsightly eye twitch – never mind the fact that Selena swears it’s not even noticeable.

He needs relaxation exercises, and copious amounts of alcohol.

*

“Talk to Gabe,” Dr. Bob says. He’s blocking William’s way in the middle of the hallway, patient rooms closed and occupied on either side of them – there’s no escape.

“No.” William is not scared of Dr. Bob.

“Talk to Gabe,” Dr. Bob says again, only meaner.

“I don’t want to,” William says, trying very hard to keep any petulance out of his voice. It probably doesn’t work.

With a low growl and painful death written all over his face, Dr. Bob bends, grips William’s hips, and hefts his entire body over his shoulder. William has no idea how to respond, it happens so fast. He’s kind of stunned, and he fists his hands in the back of Dr. Bob’s white coat. He barely gets out a, “Wha—” when all the breath’s jostled out of him, each step Dr. Bob takes making itself known in William’s solar plexus. Fortunately, it’s a short trip down the rest of the corridor to the back; William doesn’t even have time to think about struggling - he’s still not entirely sure this is actually happening - and it’s more thrilling than he will ever admit to anyone, especially not Siska or Butcher, because that way lays epic disaster.

There are some muffled eeps and William glances up through the fall of his hair to see two of the Alexes scurrying out the way they’d come, clearly having been glared from the room by Dr. Bob. And then he’s on his feet again – he fights off vertigo and stumbles, and blushes when Gabe catches hold of his arms to keep him from tipping over. Embarrassed, William pushes him away with both hands and straightens, scowling over at Dr. Bob.

“You’re both adults.” Dr. Bob gives Gabe a look. “Kind of. Work it out.” Dr. Bob is gone before William can even protest all the manhandling, and then—there’s a soft rattle at the door, William lunges for the knob, but he’s too late; Dr. Bob has locked them in.

“There have to be regulations against this,” William says. They’re in the recovery room - Lita, a giant golden retriever, is still knocked out from a tooth cleaning, flat on a blanket in the middle of the floor.

Gabe grins at him, slow and lazy. And then he says, “That door doesn’t lock.”

William darts his gaze between the door and Gabe – he’s right, it’s the recovery room, of course it doesn’t lock. Which means that Dr. Bob is on the other side, holding it closed with the sheer power of his hand. It’s impressive, but William thinks he can probably tire Dr. Bob out.

He reaches for the knob again, only to have his wrist shackled by Gabe’s long fingers.

“How ‘bout we wait on that,” Gabe says.

William wants to say something snappy, but his throat goes dry. He takes a shaky breath and tries to avoid Gabe’s eyes.

“So. Quick and painless,” Gabe says. “I’m sorry.”

William slants him a glance. Anything sly on Gabe’s face is gone, making his smile smaller and sheepish. William swallows. “Yeah.”

“I’m not known for my fucking morals, Bill. Something about you makes me retarded.”

William rubs the side of his free hand under his nose and sniffs. “That’s insensitive.”

Gabe laughs, short. “Yeah, well. Listen.” He palms the back of his neck, finally releasing William’s wrist. “I was letting it go, you know, because you’re a fucking baby, look at you—”

William scowls; he’s shed most of his baby fat, thanks very much, and Selena constantly bemoans the fact that he never had very much to begin with.

“—but I obviously have issues with what’s in your pants. Good issues, don’t get me wrong,” Gabe says, flashing him a leer. “Let’s go with jealousy. I’m claiming amnesty for being an asswipe.”

“You. You were jealous of Travis?”

“Hell, yeah,” Gabe says.

William remembers that Gabe never denied it when he’d overheard Siska accuse him of that before, but it never really fit – not with the way Gabe had been acting up until then, or even the way he’d propositioned him, out on the back steps. “Huh.”

Gabe shrugs a little. “Sue me for trying not to be the creepy older dude who stakes out all the young pussy.”

William makes a disgusted face. “I hope you’re not talking about me,” he says, because then they’d have a problem. A bigger problem than they already have, that is.

“You know what I mean.” He waggles his eyebrows.

William tries not to find that charming, but he’s fucked up where Gabe is concerned. He says, “Fine.”

“Fine, what?” Gabe asks.

“Fine, I forgive you,” William says. “For being an asswipe.”

“Okay.” Gabe nods. “One thing down.”

William eyes him long and hard. He’s got a faux-angelic look on his face, but his hands are in his pockets, and he lets William reach for the doorknob. William does it slow, in case Gabe wants to stop him. There’s white noise in his ears, like he can hear all his blood rushing through his veins; he’s simultaneously terrified that Gabe will stop him, and terrified that he won’t.

William turns the knob, though. It gives easily, so Dr. Bob is gone.

“Oh yeah,” Gabe says, just when William’s got the door open a crack.

William freezes. “What?” His voice is hoarse, it’s embarrassing.

“I forgot something.”

Gabe is up in his space when William turns around, one hand still on the knob, twisted behind his back. “What?” William says again.

Gabe is staring at his mouth. “If you have to ask, I’m not sure you’re old—”

William surges forward and cuts him off with a tragically inexpert kiss – Selena will be so disappointed in him – but Gabe laughs into it, cups William’s hips with his hands, and moves their mouths into closer company with the use of his tongue.

It’s nothing like before. Oh, it’s nearly overwhelming, of course. His heartbeat is tripping over itself, there’s heat building low and fast in his belly, but William isn’t scared out of his mind, and it doesn’t seem like Gabe wants to go anywhere but where they’re going - their bodies aren’t even touching past their mouths and Gabe’s hands on his waist.

“Are you being a gentleman?” William asks against the kiss. He feels the brush of thumbs on his bare skin, up under his scrub top.

Gabe separates their lips more, tips their foreheads together. “I’m being smart, Beckett,” he says, and William is gratified to hear the slight shake of it, like he has to force the words out. “There are lives at stake. Mainly ours, if Dr. Bob thinks we did anything sexy on any polished surface in this room. I’m pretty fucking sure that’s why he put us here.”

“Sneaky,” William murmurs.

Gabe just says, “He’s Doctor motherfucking Bob.”

*

William feels like he should thank Butcher. Send him a fruit basket or something. He tells Siska this, but Siska just pouts and says, “Butcher didn’t actually do anything. His foolproof plan involved a parrot and an ump-ah band. Gabe stole Michael Guy’s rooster.”

William has his doubts about this - although an ump-ah band would’ve been spectacular. He arches an eyebrow. “So you’re saying Gabe made his own plan. That he is, in fact, better at plans than Butcher.”

Siska scowls. “I’m saying Gabe’s a moron and heard ‘parrot’ and ‘ump-ah band’ and went for Salvatore and beatboxing in the vet parking lot.”

William nods gamely, and decides not to mention Dr. Bob. He’ll send Butcher a giant Hickory Farms cheese wheel. As an apology. He’ll sign Gabe’s name.

*

“You seem better,” Selena says.

It’s the first genuinely sunny and warm spring day, but she’d shrugged on William’s windbreaker before braving the dog yard. The sleeves are too long, and they flop over the ends of her hands.

William reaches for one, rolling the hem back until he sees her fingers, palm, wrist, then does the same with the other. He says, “I am. I’m twitch free.”

“And that’s the important part,” she says dryly.

William grins at her. “Of course.” Twitch free means relaxed, and relaxed means William got exactly what he’d wanted, and had there ever really been any doubt? William is just that amazing, yes.

Funnily enough, he’s starting to actually believe that’s true.