William doesn’t actually remember the first time he meets Gabe. In his defence, it’s Freshers’ week at a British university and he and Carden spend most of their time drunkenly introducing themselves to other equally drunk students and answering the same subsequent questions about their American accents. William remembers no one’s name and he’s fairly sure they don’t remember his. He knows at one point he’d staggered into Gabe’s group of friends on the campus-wide bar crawl his third night, declaring that he’d found his kin and all the short people could fuck right off, but he’s not sure if Gabe was there at that point.
William does know the names of his flatmates – a fact that he enjoys holding over Carden’s head every time Mike has to refer to the people he lives with as ‘the dark haired girl’ or ‘the slutty guy’. William is on the top floor, which makes up for being in the Ghetto a little bit. In his hall there is Ryan Ross (pretty and the sort of shy that is only adorable for the first five minutes), Spencer (Ryan’s bitchy shadow), and Ryan J (constantly drunk, knows everyone, and a good person to make friends with). He barely sees Ryan and Spencer except for occasionally in passing when they’re both in the kitchen, but Ryan J will always knock on William’s door if he’s going out and ask if he wants to come along, and he even goes into town with Mike and William when they go for the first time to buy their lives for the next ten months and gets them free sandwitches at the café where he works.
William sort of ignores the other side of his flat because he assumes from the way that the four people living there seem to already be friends they’re probably not interested in hanging about with first years or international students. It’s not until he has a conversation with Michael Guy (Australia) while they’re taking out the recycling that he learns that far from being too cool to hang out with them, the other side of the flat is filled with shy international music students who don’t consider getting drunk an awesome or affordable pastime. From that point on William decides that he clearly needs to adopt Michael guy, Brendon, Greta, and Patrick. He makes a point of leaving a poster for Pendle Live sitting on the kitchen table, and lurks in his room until he’s almost certain that they’re all in the kitchen before he wanders casually in and very subtly encourages the four of them that an open-mic night is exactly the way to get out and have some fun. Let it never be said that he is not a caring person.
When he tells Carden this story later over their second or third pint in Bowland bar Mike laughs so hard at him that he snorts beer out of his nose and all over the table. William leaves, because Carden is an ass hole (one word?) and he really hopes he’s making lots and lots of Manly Mcmanface friends in stupid Bowland, because William is seriously considering revoking his best friend licence.
It’s when he’s heading back to Pendle, thinking about stopping by Spar to pick up a bottle of vodka and waiting for a text back from Pete or Ashley (who tend to be the people to ask in his block if you want to know where the party is) that he runs into Gabe for the possibly second time. Literally. William’s just walking along, minding his own business and then suddenly there’s a tall dude in a hideous green pair of trousers and a bright purple hoodie stumbling out from behind a pillar and right into William’s path. They collide (William has the foresight to tip his head back out of the way) and the guy’s arms come up and wrap around William’s shoulders for… balance? William isn’t quite sure if the amount of physical contact the guy is maintaining is entirely necessary, but he’ll give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s decently hot and he’s pretty sure he’s seen him around southwest campus – or at least his hoodie.
“We’re not friends anymore, Victoria,” the guy says loudly, pointing at a girl cackling hysterically and leaning against an even taller guy whom William is almost certain he should know.
“I’m not sorry,” she gets out between snorts.
“Hey, William, right?” the guy supporting Victoria asks, holding out a hand. William nods.
“Yes. And you… sorry, I’m terrible with names.”
“Ryland. This is Victoria, that’s Gabe.”
“I am really, really sorry, bro,” Gabe says, finally pulling away and straightening the collar of William’s sweater.
“It’s fine,” William says, bemused. No one says anything for an awkward minute, and William starts inching around Gabe to continue on his way.
“Where are you headed?” Victoria asks. William blinks.
“Great. We’re going to Lonsdale, we’ll walk with you.”
“That’s where I know you from,” says Ryland. “You’re international, yeah? I think I was meant to be one of your Freshers’ reps, but I didn’t make it past the first introductory meeting because Gabe is an asshole and I was high for the rest of the day. Which doesn’t go over well with the higher ups, apparently.”
“What can I say,” Gabe shrugs, falling into step with William. “You’ve been in London all summer and I’ve been in New York. We needed to bond.”
“I wasn’t invited to the bonding party,” Victoria says.
“You were busy with your other friends,” Ryland replies, smirking.
“Victoria’s an international student, too,” Gabe explains. “And she’s made some very special friends during the summer programme.”
“Maja and Nate are not *special* friends, fuck you,” she says.
“Like Alex and Ryland aren’t special friends?” Gabe asks innocently. “Because I don’t think that counts.”
“I haven’t seen him in six years, fuck off,” Ryland mutters.
William trails along with them all the way back to Southwest campus, and when Gabe grabs his hand and tells him he’s coming to a party in Lonsdale (William had just sort of assumed that Lonsdale was one giant party all the time) he goes along agreeably.
Which is how he finds himself at one of the clubs in town at two in the morning sitting on Gabe’s lap in the midst of a vicious drinking contest with Victoria and with no idea how he’s getting home or, for that matter, how he got into town in the first place. One of Gabe’s hands has found its way under his shirt, resting warm and solid at the small of his back and every time he reaches around William for his drink he leans in close against William’s back, breath that reeks of shitty beer ruffling William’s hair over his neck. He makes a point of having his head tilted in the most convenient direction every time this happens, and he’s licking his lips enough that they’re probably just going to get chapped, but Gabe doesn’t show even the slightest bit of interest in awesome drunken makeout time. Which is more disappointing than William thinks it has any right to be.
This continues when they leave the club and pile into a booth at the nearest takeaway. William snuggles up to Gabe’s side and Gabe wraps an arm around him. And that is all. William doesn’t think he ordered food, but a container of chips appears between him and Gabe anyway, and he makes the sacrifice of eating a few (with the amount of alcohol he’s been drinking the last thing he needs is starch fried in oil) because chips are kind of phallic shaped and he can totally make eating them look seductive. Gabe leers at him and then gets distracted by the tall black guy from Geneva with whom William had spent a lot of his night dancing. William isn’t sure of his name, but he knows he’s in “Furness. The best college” and he doesn’t think his accent sounds particularly French, so there’s a possibility he was lying when he said Geneva. He frowns a bit at the side of Gabe’s head, and pushes the chips away sadly.
“I don’t understand,” he tells the boy with all the pretty tattoos on his other side. “Everyone wants to sleep with me.”
“Maybe it’s a sign,” he says slowly. “The universe is telling you something. You’ve just got to pay attention, embrace the beauty of being a molecule in the great machine.”
“Your night has been far more fun than mine,” William says sadly. “The beauty of nature isn’t going to help me fuck Gabe.”
“We can work on that plan tomorrow,” tattoo guy says magnanimously after a minute. He takes a big bite of pizza and makes grabby motions at William with his free hand. William frowns.
“Oh, sure.” Obediently, William digs in his pocket and pulls out his phone, handing it over. Gabe pets at him absently, squeezing him close but not actually looking at him. Tattoo guy hands back his phone and he’s programmed himself in as The Butcher, which is kind of creepy and kind of awesome, and William sort of wishes he had thought to exchange numbers first so that he could’ve given himself an awesome and mysterious name in Butcher’s phone.
He sits quietly and watches Butcher finish his pizza. Eventually they all leave and Gabe spends the taxi ride back with his head on William’s shoulder and then William and Ryland get out at Pendle and Gabe waves a tired goodbye and that is the end of the night. Ryland walks him back to his block –residual failed Freshers’ Rep guilt, he explains—and William spends the walk on the verge of asking what Gabe’s deal is, but never gets up the courage to do so. He goes to bed feeling alone and unsatisfied and when the fire alarm goes off at six AM he’s barely slept more than five minutes at a time and he’s still drunk.
William wakes up the third Monday of term to someone pounding on his door. He stumbles up and tugs a shirt on over his boxers, swearing steadily under his breath. He forces a smile when he opens the door in case it is one of his tiny adorable music students having a crisis and in need of help, but it’s just Carden grinning like a fucking serial killer and holding two giant paper cups.
“Do you know what time it is?” William demands. And then, “Who the fuck let you in?”
“Ryan,” Mike grins and pushes past William into the room, setting the cups on the desk and straddling the desk chair backwards. “And I do know what time it is and it is not a sleeping time.” He reaches over and swings the curtains open and burning fire floods into the room. William launches himself back onto the bed, yanking at the pillow and blanket until his head is covered.
“Get out get out get the fuck out and take your sunshine with you, Jesus Christ.” Mike laughs at him. “I can’t believe Ryan let you in.”
Which is a lie, Ryan J has started making William’s life hell in the most passive aggressive way possible after William had been his friend Tom’s gay experiment and funnily enough hadn’t been interested in planning the wedding the next morning. He kind of understands guys who have a ‘no virgins’ policy now, because Tom is nice and all but William’s not, like, relationship interested. With Ryan and Spencer still being in their own little world, it’s made life in the flat very quiet –not counting the morning he’d walked past the kitchen to hear Spencer on the verge of screaming “Is there a rule somewhere that says every person named Ryan has no practical life skills?!”-- and William’s really glad he’s got Pete and Ashley and everyone down stairs, especially because Pete seems to have a giant soft spot for Patrick, and Patrick belongs to William. He’d also introduced Mike to his music students and he’s pretty sure Michael Guy and Mike are in the process of turning each other gay one jam session at a time, which is pretty adorable.
“It’s one-thirty, you have to be up for seminar anyway,” Mike says, poking his foot where it’s sticking out from under the blanket pile.
“I’m skipping,” William says petulantly.
“No you’re not, don’t lie. You wouldn’t dare miss an opportunity to hang out with Gabe.”
William shakes his head even though Carden can’t see him. “Don’t care. I can go hang out at his flat when I’m not dying and he’ll even give me the notes from class, because we’re at that point in our friendship now where I can just go knock on his door, it’s awesome.”
“I brought you tea,” Mike says after a minute. William unwillingly sticks a hand out, wiggling his fingers. The cup is pressed into his hand and he retreats back under the blankets with it. A moment later Mike pushes aside the blankets to offer a couple different pills on his palm and William swallows them without question. Ok, so maybe he can live after all.
Mike sits around and they bitch about their classes and William gives him some lyrics he’s written because sometimes it’s really convenient having a best friend whose music-writing hobby fits so well with one’s own writing hobby, even if the songs themselves will never be heard by anyone but the two of them. Eventually William’s dressed and mostly human and poking aimlessly around his room and Carden waves his phone in the air and there’s a text from Gabe asking ‘Bill coming to seminar? Tell him I might die if he doesn’t.’ and so William goes to his stupid fucking philosophy class and hates everyone extra hard all the way there.
On Halloween, William comes back from lectures sopping wet from the rain and shivering and ready to punch the next person to cheerily inform him that “it’s grim up North”. All he wants to do is get out of his clothes and huddle in front of the radiator under all the blankets he can find. Which, of course, means that he’s barely stepped into the foyer of the block before Pete, with a pair of plastic devil horns perched on his head, has pounced on him. “William! Billy, Billiam, Bills. I am very drunk, William, and you are not and we need to remedy this right away.”
“Let me get changed, Pete,” William says, hoping that out of sight will equal out of mind and he can sneak his way out of the party without being that loser who sits in his room watching American baseball on the internet while there’s a party going on, even though tonight that is exactly the person he wants to be.
“Ok, but if you’re not back in ten minutes I’m sending somebody after you,” Pete warns, and lets William go with a pat on his ass. He passes Patrick on the stairs, and arches an eyebrow because he’s carrying a six-pack, wearing a pointy black hat, and sending off Little Engine That Could vibes like crazy.
“Are you giving in to peer pressure?” William asks.
Patrick rolls his eyes. “I do drink sometimes, you know. And…” he tugs his hat down over his face. “It’s pretty much a ‘make Pete’s brain shut up’ party, which I am all in favour of. So.” He looks a bit defiant, and William would offer a reassuring hug if he wasn’t steadily dripping all over the tile.
“Well, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he says, trying for an encouraging smile. Patrick snorts and continues on downstairs.
William has his pyjamas on, a cup of tea brewed and his laptop starting up before there’s a knock on his door. He freezes, not even breathing, thinking ‘I’m not here’ as loudly as he can at the door.
“I know you’re in there, you’re too energy-conscious to leave the light on when you’re gone,” Gabe calls.
William focuses on being invisible. His phone rings. Loudly. He can hear Gabe laughing at him through the door.
He opens the door a crack, trying to look as pathetic as possible. “Hey.”
“I’ve been sent to fetch you,” Gabe says. William frowns.
“Should I even ask how you got in? Or who sent you?”
“Pete sent me. And Michael guy gave me his keys.”
“How do you know Pete?”
Gabe shrugs. “He’s in the management programme with me, you didn’t know that?”
William blinks. “Pete Wentz is doing management?”
Gabe nods. “He’s really good at it, too. If we were on the curve the rest of us would be fucked.”
“But he’s got a Creative Writing seminar with me,” William objects.
“And I’ve got Philosophy with you,” Gabe says like he’s talking to a five-year-old. “Minors, Billiam.”
“Oh,” William says, wittily.
“Anyway, I’m supposed to fetch you.”
“I’m not coming,” William says firmly. “I’m feeling really shitty, I’ve got a headache and I think I’m finally catching Freshers’ flu. Tell Pete I’m sorry.”
“Liar,” Gabe says cheerfully.
“When you get headaches you can’t go ten seconds without biting your lip. And there’s no way you’ve got Freshers’ flu, I’ve seen the twenty fucking vitamin tablets you take every day.”
“I—You are such a freak, who notices that sort of thing?” William demands. He does not blush because by the end of Freshers’ week he’d figured out that, all extensive evidence to the contrary, Gabe is straight and William will never have any luck no matter how many poorly-thought-out seduction plans he and The Butcher come up with. And he’s glad of it, really, because as he gets to know Gabe he knows that he wouldn’t be happy with just sex, and William’s leaving in June and Gabe is doing his entire degree and probably his grad work here as well. And yet Gabe still has this irritating habit, buried deep under the layers of ridiculous asshole Gabeness,, of knowing exactly what to say or do to make William feel better or coax a smile out of him or calm him down when he’s angry and it’s just… not okay. Not okay at all.
“If you don’t want to come that’s cool,” Gabe tells him. And he sounds like he actually means it.
“I’m just… not in the mood,” William says, feeling stupid and young. “I’ve had a long day and I’m tired and cold and I’m just not up to dealing with people.”
“Conveniently,” Gabe says, “I’m a singular person. Not people at all.” He swings the door the rest of the way open and strolls inside, toeing off his shoes and tossing his borrowed keys on top of the wardrobe. He scoops up William’s perfectly constructed blanket pile on the floor and drops it back on the bed, moving his laptop and teacup to the floor beside the bed. William makes a little noise of rage, hands coming up to… shove Gabe out with his latent telekinetic abilities or something.
“The radiator is down there!” he gets out finally.
“Yes, but we’re snuggling. So you won’t need the radiator. What’re we watching?”
“But—“ William tries again. Gabe pulls off his hoodie and leaves it draped over the chair in the corner.
“If it’s a romantic comedy I might fall asleep, I warn you.”
“Baseball,” William says finally.
“Still applies,” Gabe says cheerfully, and stretches out on the bed against the wall, patting the space beside him. “It’s a good thing we’re both skinny, these beds aren’t exactly designed for two-person activities.”
William lays down just so he has an excuse to turn away from Gabe so the other man can’t see the way his cheeks are burning. Or… other things that are happening on the front of his body. Gabe drags the blankets up over them and tucks an arm around William’s chest, face pressed into the back of his head and one leg coming over top of both of his. William reaches down and manages to snag the laptop from the floor, propping it on their hips.
“This is going to end badly,” Gabe says, frowning at it. The laptop wobbles. “Ok, hang on. I love the extra-long beds, that’s one thing they’ve got going for them.” Once he’s done arranging them to his satisfaction William’s head is on Gabe’s chest and Gabe’s got both arms around him and the laptop is resting on William’s stomach, far more secure and easier to see. William is basically going to die, because being manhandled by Gabe in a bed and not reacting is really asking a lot of him.
That being said, Gabe is warm and surprisingly comfortable and even more surprisingly quiet, and before he realizes what’s happening William’s dozed off, cheek pressed against the soft fabric of Gabe’s tee-shirt. Some time later when it’s dark outside and Gabe is doing something on his laptop (probably William should be more concerned about this than he is) the door swings open and Michael Guy comes in, tailed by The Butcher. They’re talking, and Gabe is replying, but William isn’t really awake enough to understand what’s going on.
“Sorry,” he says to Michael Guy. “Your keys—can you get in? Shit.”
“Shh, it’s fine, we’ve got it, Bills ,” Gabe strokes his hair. “Go back to sleep.”
So he does, because being awake seems like far more effort than he ever wants to expend on anything ever. The Butcher says something just before they leave, more serious than the conversation had previously been, and Gabe laughs, the reverberations buzzing against William’s ear. And then he drifts off.
“There is a party going on in my kitchen,” William tells Victoria as soon as she answers the door. He doesn’t like coming to Lonsdale when he’s not drunk because all the partying aside he’s pretty sure that ghetto Lonny is more posh than Posh Pendle, and he always feels a bit out of place if he’s sober. This, however, is an emergency.
“What, did Pete and Ashley finally destroy their respective kitchens and engage in a hostile takeover?”
“No! That’s the thing! It’s Ryan Ross. He’s got a bunch of hipster girls and a sketchy guy with dirty hair and one of Tom’s friends and Spencer, of course and they’re all… talking. And laughing. And I think Brendon and Greta went in their (there) by accident and they haven’t come out, I don’t know what to do.”
Victoria shrugs. “Ryan seems cool, why is this weird?”
William freezes. “You’ve spoken with him? Like, in full sentences where he didn’t try to kill you with his eyes?”
“You’re aware you’re still-not-dating the guy with the deadest eyes in the world, right? People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
“Not important,” William snaps, even if he does wince a bit internally at the ‘still-not-dating’ because it’s at the point where it’s a thing now with all of their friends and acquaintances, and he thinks it’d be a lot funnier if he wasn’t fucking… in love with Gabe or whatever.
“Yeah, I’ve talked to Ryan a few times when I’m over at your flat. We’re not bosom buddies or anything, but he seems nice.”
“I don’t understand,” William repeats. “He’s never spoken to me. He runs away when I come into the kitchen. I think Spencer Smith has a plan to kill me in my sleep if I ever step out of line!”
“Hey,” Gabe calls from inside the flat. “Is that my snuggle buddy you’re monopolizing, Victoria?”
“He’s having a crisis, I’m helping,” Victoria calls over her shoulder. Gabe comes up behind her, draping his arms over her and resting his chin on her shoulder.
“What’s up, tell uncle Gabe all about it.”
“You are such a fucking creep,” William informs him, wrinkling his nose. “And Ryan Ross is what’s up. He’s having a social life in our kitchen and it’s doing terrible things to my worldview.”
“Poor baby,” Gabe coos. “I know just the thing.”
“Is it your dick?” Victoria asks sweetly.
“Well now that you mention it,” Gabe smirks. William glares.
“Ha ha, you’re hilarious.”
“No, but actually. Alex is cooking, it’s going to be amazing.”
William shrugs. “Ok, sure. Home cooking would be pretty awesome. Though I’d like to state for the record that my worldview is still not doing okay.”
“You have no idea,” Victoria promises. “This is so much more than home cooking.”
Travis is already in their kitchen when William walks in, and more startlingly, so is Carden. William sits down beside him on the deep freeze and pokes his thigh. “What’re you doing here?”
“Mike and Victoria were fucking,” Gabe says chipperly. William’s eyebrows shoot up to his forehead.
“As you do,” Alex says, amused.
“I feel as if I’ve missed some really vital information,” William says pointedly, glaring at Mike. “You didn’t tell me you were courting Victoria.”
Mike thunks his head back against the cupboards. “Because I’m not. It’s just sex, Bill.”
William purses his lips and glances over at Victoria, but she just nods confirmation as she uncorks a bottle of wine.
“What we really need to do,” says Travis thoughtfully, “Is take the relationship that Bill and Gabe are having and combine it with the sex that Mike and Victoria are having, and then we can take over the world.”
“Fuck off,” William says politely. Gabe frowns and opens his mouth but the bell rings at that point and William runs to let Ryland and Nate in.
Brendon has set up a mini whiteboard in their kitchen with the heading ‘The Staying Over Christmas Par-tay’ and goes around demanding names and assigning dishes for the potluck with an enthusiasm of which William is frankly a little bit afraid. He obediently fills in his name (and Mike’s, because suffering is better if done together) right under Brendon and Patrick and Ryan and Spencer. By the next week there’s also Victoria and Nate, and someone’s put a giant capital Z below Nate, but he’s not sure if that’s supposed to be a person or just someone’s bored doodling.
Brendon’s Christmas party plans involve the aforementioned potluck on Christmas day, a Secret Santa with a five pound limit, and more trips to the Christmas market than William can afford financially and more trips to various churches to hear various musical performances than he can afford emotionally. At one point he’d heard rumblings of a carolling trip, but they faded quickly and he’s just glad he didn’t have to be the one to quash Brendon’s hopes and dreams. December isn’t any colder than November, and he and Carden spend more time than he’s okay admitting taking pictures of the snow-free ground and emailing them to Siska and Courtney with various witty captions. They also go into town to find the most ridiculous Christmas postcards to mail back to their friends, and then William goes and sits in Starbucks while Mike shops for his parents because he’d stayed up the night before writing a paper and he was on the verge of falling asleep in the middle of the street.
Brendon’s also taken it upon himself to decorate the flat, and when William and Gabe come bustling into the kitchen, arms full of groceries and cheeks flushed from the cold, Ryan J is there pointing at them with a soup spoon and smirking. Gabe gets it first, of course, which is why William is understandably surprised when he turns and leans in over the bag of frozen items and plants a warm, affectionate kiss right on his lips. Ryan J does the slow clap from where he’s slumped at the table, poking at a bowl of noodles.
“Mistletoe,” Gabe says with a cheerfully lecherous grin, and drops the groceries on the counter. “Fuck, Billvy, I hope I get to eat some of this food after hauling it around for you.”
“Um. Yeah,” William says slowly. His eyes track inexorably up to where there is indeed a charmingly bright piece of greenery taped up above the door, because apparently his life has actually turned into a romantic comedy. Ryan J is watching him, and when William meets his gaze he tips an imaginary hat and winks once, slow and deliberate. William… actually has no fucking idea what that’s supposed to indicate, but he arches a challenging eyebrow nonetheless. Ryan J smirks a little and shakes his head, looking back down despondently at his bowl.
Gabe is not staying on campus for Christmas. He and Alex have been invited along to Ryland’s parents’ place in London for the holidays, and apparently there are also vague plans to hit Spain the week after Christmas. William’s not bothered. At all. He’s got awesome plans that include his best friend and making Patrick sing for them and trying to get Spencer Smith to wear reindeer antlers. His Christmas is going to be fucking great. He also makes plans with Victoria, Mike, and Nate to go to London after Christmas, because obviously Gabe isn’t interested in showing him the city.
Gabe doesn’t actually celebrate Christmas, which William feels he should have known before now. He wanders into Gabe’s room late Thursday night because he’s been in search of his glasses all week and this is the absolute last place they could possibly be, so they’ve got to be here. Gabe is hunched over something on the window sill, head bent in concentration. The window itself is open, letting in gusts of chilly air and the occasional raindrop. William comes up behind him, pressing up against his back and resting his chin on Gabe’s shoulder. Gabe automatically shifts to accommodate him, the tiny, fluid shift of stance and muscle that lets William fit against him like, well, more like a perfectly tailored jacket, actually, because William’s never been able to get the little bits of cardboard in those fucking thousand-piece puzzles to fit together properly and he’s never going to stop being frustrated by this fact. Sometimes William marvels at how well he does fit against Gabe, though. Gabe's not much bigger than he is, really, shoulders a bit broader, an inch or two taller, maybe a bit more definition in his muscles. For all intents and purposes they should wind up a collection of sharp bits and overly-long limbs in unwanted places, but ever since that first night when Gabe had been nothing more than attractive potential hook-up, William’s found it disturbingly easy to slip into all the spaces where he isn’t, to settle himself against Gabe and just fit. He shivers a bit. The cold and the dark of the room and the way Gabe’s all quiet and focused leave him quietly introspective, and he’s inexplicably loath to break the silence. Gabe does it for him, as if he can read his thoughts.
“We’re not actually allowed to have open flames in the rooms, but I figure if I do it by the window and away from the smoke detector I’m ok.” William glances incredulously at the giant curtains where they’re wafting right up against Gabe’s arms, and doesn’t comment. “I can’t actually leave the candles lit, but I figure… it’s the thought that counts, right?”
William doesn’t know what to say, but he wraps his arms around Gabe and digs his chin more firmly into his shoulder. One of Gabe’s hands comes down to press over William’s forearm briefly, and then he returns to trying to keep the lighter aflame long enough in the wind to light the candle on the menorah.
When he’s done he turns and bumps his forehead against William’s, and his smile is that open, real one that so rarely appears. “It sounds totally cliché,” he says, untangling himself from William’s arms. William wraps his arms around himself and stands in the middle of the room, feeling unreasonably cold and abandoned. “Like, everybody’s got the stupid childhood memories of the holidays that they’ve idealized, right?” Gabe continues, grabbing a hoodie from the back of the door. “But that’s the one thing that really stands out in my memories of being a kid before we left Uruguay. My dad would light the candles each night, and we’d all sit around and sing these stupid songs, I don’t even remember the words, and my mum made this hot chocolate, but it had like, nutmeg and cinnamon or something in it, I don’t know, but as a little kid it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I don’t really remember it being such a big deal after we moved to the US. I mean, sure, we still celebrated and did the candles and everything, but I guess I’d grown out of the magical warm fuzzies by then.”
“That’s… it’s really good that you’ve got those memories though,” William says. He wants to say more but he’s not going to be able to get the words out without stuttering and Gabe is already looking twitchy, like he’s hit his quota on serious discussions about feelings for the day.
“So what do you say, Billiam? Want to come get hot chocolate with me?”
William doesn’t even like hot chocolate, and he’s spent the day taste testing Brendon’s various attempts at Christmas cookies (which he is never admitting to Gabe is a concern because William is not actually a girl, these are just things he can’t help but consider) but the way Gabe is looking at him, a little like he’s ready to brush the last five minutes off as a big joke if William reacts the wrong way has him tucking his hand into Gabe’s hoodie pocket and grinning. “Absolutely.”
It’s not until they’re passing the doors to the management school that William remembers. “Fuck,” he says with feeling. “I did actually have a reason for coming to see you.”
Gabe laughs and rifles through his messenger bag. “I was wondering how long it was gonna take you,” he says, and reaches over to slide William’s glasses onto his nose.
William texts Carden while they’re waiting for their drinks. ‘Do you think Gabe’s biromantic, at least? Am at the point where I would settle for no sex.’
Mike texts him back a string of ‘ahahahaha’ that overflows into three text messages. William is so fucked.
Going longer than a couple days without seeing Gabe is, upsettingly, one of the stranger experiences of William’s life. Carden mocks him, naturally, and William gives himself a little bit of leeway because he and Gabe are a tiny bit co-dependent not sure) and William’s non-platonic feelings are still not going anywhere, but that really does not justify the way he constantly feels off-balance and aimless without the knowledge that Gabe is no more than fifteen minutes away at any given time.
Other people comment on it, too, which is more just insulting than unsettling. When Maja becomes the third person (after Spencer and Ryan J’s friend Al) to exclaim something along the lines of “Wait, you exist as a separate person?” or “But where’s your other half?” he decides that things have gotten inexcusably out of hand.
He has an excellent time in London and sets himself a limit of five texts to Gabe per day. When winter holidays are over he makes a point of going to at least two parties that Gabe is not at each week, and even gets up the nerve to sign up to play a spot on one of the open mic nights. Mike finds out about this last, of course, and shakes his head despairingly as he adds his name beside William’s on the sign-up sheet.
“It’s really cute how you think you can play guitar,” Mike reassures him, like an asshole. “It’s just not a thing that other people need to witness. This is me being a good friend.”
This whole ‘remind people that he is an independent entity’ plan is, originally, also supposed to help William get over Gabe and prepare himself for June when he’ll probably never see him again. This part doesn’t work, so much. William has never appreciated the whole ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ trope as much as he does now. Gabe is also not helping with the plan, because he still ignores any personal boundaries around William and still barges into his room at all hours of the day and night and drags him to parties and makes sure he shows up for Make Alex Cook Wednesdays and is just in general kind of a perfect boyfriend. Just… without the boyfriend part. It doesn’t help that Mike and Victoria are still doing… whatever it is they’re doing, so even when William is trying to have Gabe-separate time with Mike he winds up showing up nine times out of ten anyway.
The thing where he wants to be seen as more than Gabe’s other half is fifty percent a joke, if he’s being honest. The part where June is six months away and he will likely be half a world away from Gabe for the rest of their lives is not a joke, and it’s an issue that’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore as the days fly past. Some days he flat out lies to Gabe just so that he doesn’t have to see him, doesn’t have to be reminded vividly of what he’s going to lose. He starts spending more time with Travis, because he’s laid back and makes William feel like letting life go by and rolling with it is actually an acceptable life philosophy. He also starts intruding on Mike and Michael Guy’s guitar bonding time, and finds out that Michael Guy is planning to transfer to a university in the states after his year here ends. He’d been thinking LA but Mike’s working to convince him of Chicago, and William privately thinks it won’t take much convincing.
It isn’t until late January that he puts two and two together and comes up with whacky brain chemistry funtimes. He’s been going out, being productive, smiling and drinking and still having feelings about Gabe, so the signs are harder to recognize. Which is possibly why it isn’t until he’s standing in the hall outside of his bedroom, staring at the B+ on his philosophy paper and not actually able to make his lungs work that he realizes maybe he should be paying a bit more attention. It’s just, a B+ is going to do horrific things to his GPA, and it’s in a class that he took as an elective and a little bit because Gabe was taking it and it’s written in stone, he’s never going to be able to fully make up for this. And he needs the scholarship money to stay in school and if he drops out he’ll just be proving his parents right that liberal arts degrees get one nowhere and he also needs to stay in school so he’s got somewhere to live because he sure as fuck can’t move back in with his parents, not that they’d have him, and there’s just a spiral from that point, outwards and downwards until the B+ is representative of all the ways that he is a failure as a human being and all the ways that he will inevitably fail in the future and he doesn’t actually notice Spencer Smith standing beside him until the other boy taps his shoulder, uncertainly.
“Hey, are you okay?”
William shakes his head mutely and waves the paper in Spencer’s face, retracting it just as quickly because other people don’t need to see how much he’s fucked up, it’s embarrassing enough as it is. He tries to pull air in and manages half a breath, choked off and thick in his throat. He pushes at the handle of his door, needing to get away from anywhere he might be visible to others, but it won’t open. Locked. He fumbles for his keys but his fingers are clumsy and shaking and he almost drops them, and then he can’t actually make the key go into the keyhole because even at this, he is a failure.
Spencer’s hand covers his over the keys. “Um, seriously. You don’t seem ok. Do you want a cup of tea? Or to talk about it? Should I go get Gabe?”
That last basically makes William want to punch Spencer Smith in the face and then give up on life entirely, in that order.
“No. No, I don’t want any of that. Can’t you just let me fail at life in peace? Don’t worry, I’ll probably drop out and go live on the streets soon enough, you won’t have to concern yourself.”
“Whoa. Uh, seriously. What happened?”
He still can’t make the fucking key work, but he’s breathing again and making actual words, so that’s an improvement. “I fucked up on a paper, ok? Not… a big deal.”
“Um, except it obviously is?” Spencer says, a little dryly. This is, William is almost certain, the most interaction they have ever had. Which is just perfect.
“Oh… no. It’s just going to drag my GPA down to a 3.85, no worries.” William suspects he may be laying the sarcasm on a bit thick, but he’s working hard enough to control his voice so he doesn’t come across hysterical. “But it’s ok. Who needs a post-secondary education. I’m sure McDonald’s is hiring.”
Spencer makes a sort of choked noise and William glances over to make sure he isn’t dying on a piece of chewing gum or something. “You,” says Spencer carefully. “You’re freaking out because your GPA might drop to a 3.85.”
“Wow,” says William, pressing his lips together. “I’m so glad your listening and comprehension skills are working properly.”
Spencer shakes his head. “Ok, wow. That’s… wow. Look, I’m sure everything will be fine.” He reaches out, maybe to offer a manly pat on the back or a brohug, but William’s keyed up just enough that the mental check he’s got in place that keeps him from flinching when people move to suddenly touch him fails and he jerks away before he can stop himself. Spencer’s hand drops immediately, and he takes a step back. “Sorry, sorry.”
William shakes his head. “No, no. Sorry, that was… all me, don’t worry. I’m just… it has been a long day and—“ the words get stuck at the back of his throat and his vocal chords stumble over a sound for what feels like hours. “I make bad life choices, which is partly responsible for my inability to deal with other bad life choices.” He gets the key in the door, finally, and half falls against the solid wood to push it open. Spencer is still standing, looking at William like he’s never seen him before. William flutters his fingers in a wave and lets the door slam behind him.
He lies on his bed for a few hours, facedown in the pillow, trying to rationalize his panic out of the way. It works, to a degree, but once his brain has calmed down it’s like his body is sick of idling at high energy, and he lies around for another five or six hours, trying to talk himself into getting up and doing *something* productive. Finally he texts Mike ‘Protip: going off your anti-depressants for four months so you can get consistently wasted is not actually an awesome plan’ and then he falls asleep, and doesn’t wake up until someone sits on his legs.
“I was about to start singing that ‘Good morning, good morning!’ song,” Gabe says. “But then all I could think about was that Viagra commercial. So no.”
“I might have actually killed you,” William admits. Gabe bounces a little.
“So I’m on a mission from Carden. Apparently I’m supposed to provide snuggles and make you check and reply to your email? I don’t know, he was on his way to the Football, so he didn’t have time to tell me more than that.”
William downgrades Carden’s death to a maiming, and rolls over onto his side, pulling his legs out from under Gabe. “Mike knows me way too well,” he says irritably. And then he’s hit hard with the memory of practically having a goddamn breakdown in front of Spencer Smith, of all people, and he buries his head under his pillow in mortification.
“So,” he says before he can stop himself and while the memory of that shameful moment is still fresh in his mind. “Want to come on an adventure with me to the Student Union so I can book a counselling appointment?”
Gabe, to his credit, doesn’t even hesitate. “Can we go to Gregg's after?”
“What could you possibly eat there?” William asks, frowning.
“The cheese and onion thing. And the doughnuts,” Gabe says promptly.
“The doughnuts—Gabriel, those doughnuts look like they’re made out of plastic. Seriously, Butcher and I did an experiment, two weeks and it looked the same.”
Gabe licks his lips. “Mmm, chemicals.”
He doesn’t start taking medication again because he honestly doesn’t think he’s at a point where things are that bad and ok, yes, he likes drinking. So sue him. He does stop avoiding things, including Gabe. He did, in fact, have a lot of unanswered emails in his inbox because, yes, shut up, Carden, his email communication is usually one of the first things to be pushed aside. He also talks to the student counsellor he sees every other week about his fears and frustration around never seeing Gabe again and how attached he’s become. He even has a really weird conversation with Pete wherein Pete talks in metaphors a lot and earnestly tells William that ending it all is never the right choice, and he looks so fierce when he says it that William doesn’t really have the heart to explain that suicide isn’t an option that he’s ever seriously considered for more than an hour at a time. It’s a little surreal and a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but it’s sweet of Gabe (because who else would tell Pete?) and Pete to try and help. And William’s not really sure how to explain how being happy can slip so easily into *acting* happy that sometimes he doesn’t’ even know it’s happened, and how so much of his life is about perfection, about being able to be the best at everything, handle everything right, and it’s just not the easiest thing to deal with when he fails and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Spencer Smith actually talks to him now, which is a whole other level of weird. One night Brendon admits, looking a bit embarrassed, “I think Spencer kind of thought of you as just, like, a party guy, you know? Like, pretty and Gabe’s arm candy and a social butterfly with no real problems. I kind of told him about your parents, too, I’m really sorry. We were just talking about mine and it came up, but I think he respects you a lot more now. I mean, now that he knows you’re like, super smart and a real person with real problems and I may have also mentioned how you basically adopted like, everyone on my side of the flat when he and Ryan wouldn’t even talk to us.” William’s in a pretty good mood, so he finds Brendon’s tactlessness more amusing than anything.
And then comes February ninth, when Victoria texts him early in the morning to inform him that Gabe isn’t allowed to see or talk to him for the next two days. He gets dressed and walks all the way up to Bowland so he can bang on Mike’s door until he lets him in and explains. Except Mike’s version of an explanation consists of him dropping his face into his palms and groaning but refusing to actually explain anything.
William spends the next two days in the library and hanging out with people he’s met through the campus newspaper. On the evening of the eleventh, when Michael Guy knocks on his door and says “I think we’re supposed to be downstairs in Ashley’s kitchen for some kind of meeting?” William just smiles and goes along with it.
He’s pretty impressed that everyone manages to yell “Surprise!” in unison, and Alex has made a cake to which William is seriously considering proposing marriage. Gabe loops an arm around him and tucks his fingers into William’s belt loops. “Blow out the fucking candles before the smoke detector goes off,” he says, and when William’s done so (in three breaths, because he apparently sucks at this) Gabe turns him and wraps his other arm around him in a tight, warm hug that lasts far longer than would be considered normal. William tucks his nose against Gabe’s collar where he smells of soap and expensive cologne and, weirdly, red wine, and lets himself cling a little bit. When they pull apart and Gabe bounds across the kitchen to steal Victoria’s drink William’s hit with a sense of finality so strong that he crumples into the nearest chair, pressing his hands against his face in an attempt not to panic. No one notices, thank Christ, because it only takes a few seconds for him to feel ridiculous and over-dramatic, but the sense of inevitable endings remains, hovering around him the rest of the evening.
“I really like how no one trusted you to keep a secret from me,” he tells Gabe later, resting his hands on the back of Gabe’s chair.
“I totally could’ve kept a secret, they have no faith.”
“Don’t even front, Saporta, you’re like a five-year-old,” Pete calls.
“That’s not what your mum said last night,” Gabe calls back cheerfully.
“It’s ok, William’s an old man, you balance out,” Mike says, smirking.
“I am not,” William responds automatically.
Mike just looks at him. “You tried out for the high school golf team, Beckett.”
“Holy shit,” Gabe says, turning to look up at William, eyes wide. “Really?”
“Shut up,” William mutters. “It’s a perfectly valid sport.”
Gabe cackles, because he’s a jerk. “How are you even real?” he demands, poking William in the stomach. William grabs his hand before he can retract it, linking their fingers together.
“I’m not. I’m actually just a figment of your imagination.”
Gabe’s smirk is slow and deliberate, and so is the way he drags his gaze blatantly over William’s entire body. “I can work with that.”
“Jesus Christ,” Mike snaps, slamming his cup down on the countertop. Everyone goes quiet. William freezes, eyes darting first to Mike, who looks frustrated and a little amused, to Travis who looks worried and finally to Ryland, who looks surprisingly angry.
“By which he means you guys need to get married already,” Victoria says after a few seconds of awkward silence.
“Gosh, I don’t know if white’s really my colour,” Gabe tries, but it falls flat. William pulls away and crosses to the door. He hears the clatter of chairs being shoved back behind him, but he ignores it and gets out and upstairs and into his room before anyone can catch up. No one knocks on his door, and he falls asleep still drunk and trying not to cry, because he’s pretty certain that whatever just happened has just neatly broken apart the carefully platonic relationship he’s got going with Gabe and he can’t even tell what makes tonight so special, only that it is and everyone sort of knew that the jokes were a little more serious than they were played, but everyone has, until now, been careful not to push.
The morning after the party William turns off his phone, takes his notebook and a cup of coffee and sits on the steps in Alex Square and waits for someone to come find him. He’s a bit surprised that it’s Gabe right off the bat, but there’s something to be said for getting the worst over with. He doesn’t actually sit beside William like a normal person, settling behind him so that his legs bracket William’s torso and his hands rest on his shoulders. William consciously tells himself not to relax into him, but his body ignores his brain, settling naturally back. His stomach churns with anticipation of what he’s not sure and he can already feel his cheeks flushing.
“How’re you doing, baby boy?” Gabe asks quietly.
William shrugs under his hands. “Fine.”
“Yeah? Because nobody would blame you if you weren’t.”
William doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say. He takes a sip of coffee to fill the silence where his part of the conversation should be.
“I talked to Carden last night after you left,” Gabe continues. “I guess I’ve kind of been an asshole.”
William shakes his head fiercely. “No, no. Gabe, it’s really, really not your fault. And you shouldn’t trust Carden on these things, he wouldn’t know what to do with a feeling if it came up and punched him in the face.”
Gabe snorts. “I noticed that, yeah. But Victoria and Ryland were there, and they sort of cleared things up for me when Mike wouldn’t.”
“So you should know it’s not your fault. I’ve got a stupid crush, it’s not a big deal. And hey, I’ll be gone in June, anyway.”
“It’s not—fuck. Ok, first of all, you get that I’m not, like, grossed out by this, right?”
William coughs and actually laughs a bit. “You walk around wearing bright purple and groping Travis and Pete and me whenever the opportunity presents itself. Somehow the idea that you’re homophobic hadn’t crossed my mind, no.”
“Ok, ok, I was just checking.”
“You’re also straight, Gabe,” William points out.
Gabe doesn’t respond for a moment. “I… Ok, I’m totally about to sound like some stupidly twee gender studies textbook, but labels are for vodka bottles.”
“So you’re bicurious now?” William snipes, hunching in on himself. “You like girls, Gabe, I’m not going to be your experiment.”
“Ok, wow, remind me never to suggest you as someone’s first time coming out,” Gabe snaps, hands tightening on his shoulders. “Yeah, I do like girls, William. And I’m pretty sure I also like guys. I… I like you, at the very least. And I’m gonna be honest right now, ok, don’t run away. One of the biggest reasons I haven’t done anything about it is because I’ve spent the year listening to you and Ryland and Alex and Brendon and whoever else having your little gay boys only chats about how bisexuality is just gay guys in denial, etc. So I’m really fucking sorry if I didn’t feel all that comfortable telling you I love you.”
William has to wait for his brain to sort out the fifty different reactions it needs to have to the content of Gabe’s little speech before he can verbalize anything. “You—Fuck, Gabe, we never meant—You? Ok, just, that last, say that last again.”
“I love you, William Beckett,” Gabe says like the cheesy attention whore he is. William maybe melts a little tiny bit inside.
“But I’m leaving,” he objects, the practical side of his brain screaming frantically for his attention.
“I—may have been doing some research,” Gabe says slowly. “Into grad schools near Chicago. And job opportunities, honestly, because I don’t really know if I can take two more years of academia and its bullshit.”
William makes a noise that is absolutely not a squeak. “Gabriel, you’ve known me five months, you can’t move continents for—“
“Yes I fucking can,” Gabe says forcefully. “You can be really frustrating sometimes, you know? I love you, ok, and I think that you are worth this. There’s not a lot holding me in the UK. Ryland’s moving to New York with Alex, Victoria and Nate are going back to LA. Sure, my brother’s in Belfast, but my dad moved back to the states last summer. So don’t fucking tell me I can’t make this choice, William. Life’s short, I’ve got no regrets about living it.”
William can feel the blood rushing to his head, the way that his hands are trembling and his chest is numb. “You—“
“If you could tell me,” Gabe says, quiet again, and a little amused, “that you’ve got more than a crush on me, that’d be good. Just so I haven’t like, bared my fucking soul for nothing.”
“Um, yeah. No, yeah, definitely more,” William babbles, twisting around to press his hands against Gabe’s thighs. “You’re the only person I’ve ever really wanted to, um, with whom I’ve ever felt… domesticity might be an option? Like, I want to see where things go, for real. With you. I am really terrible at this, Jesus.”
But Gabe is grinning and he folds himself practically in half to kiss William. It’s not their first kiss, which is a little disappointing for the narrative’s sake, William thinks, but it’s also a hell of a lot more intense than anything previous. Gabe kisses with the same sort of assumed entitlement that he does most things, tongue sweeping into William’s mouth like he’s assuring a prior claim. His hand presses against William’s shoulder blades, fingertips dipping into the back of his shirt and it’s like he’s always had this right, and is simply choosing now to exercise it. William is pretty sure he should have some very strong feelings about this, and not necessarily good feelings, but he’s strangely pleased by the idea of belonging to Gabe. He figures as long as he never actually lets Gabe know, it’s fine.
Everyone who piles onto the train the Saturday morning after the end of the school year is terribly, disgustingly hung-over. William makes a half-hearted effort to shove his giant suitcase out of the way and collapses into a window seat, tucking his arms around his stomach and his forehead against the cool glass. Gabe sits beside him, rubbing his back in slow gentle strokes. Across from them Mike and Michael are sharing the earbuds from one iPod and trying to act as if they’re not going to have separation anxiety for the next three weeks that they’re on separate continents. Travis is with Brendon across the isle, and they both look on the verge of falling asleep. They’ve already said goodbye to everyone else, Ryan and Spencer who are waiting for Spencer’s parents to arrive for a biking trip around the countryside, Pete, Patrick, Ashley, and Greta who are headed to France because they’ve got parents with money, Victoria and Nate and Maja whose flights had left the day before, Alex and Ryland, headed down to Ryland’s parents’ on a different train. It all feels a bit surreal, the knowledge that he’s never going to see most of these people again, after sharing the last nine months of his life with them so closely. The Butcher rushes onto the train, out of breath and stumbling under the weight of his suitcase and his portfolio which, William knows from Travis, is going to be a bitch to store.
“Sisky says ‘hi’,” The Butcher tells William and Mike casually. William twitches because that is seriously the weirdest friendship he’s ever seen develop, right from the start when Butcher had wandered into his room while he’d been Skyping with Siska and they’d proceeded to have an hour long conversation over William’s head.
“So, everybody ready to be homeward bound?” Gabe asks.
“If you fall into a river I’m not saving you,” Mike tells him.
William groans. “This moment would be far more touching and memorable if I didn’t feel like I’m going to throw up as soon as the train starts moving.”
“Wow,” Butcher shakes his head. “Way to ruin the mood.”
Brendon lets out a snore. William arches an eyebrow, point made.
William glances over at Mike. Michael’s head has migrated to his shoulder. “Hey, can I be the one to tell your mom you brought home an Australian as a souvenir?”
Mike shrugs. “I already told your sister you’re bringing home your soul mate, so go ahead.”
“You did what?”
“She’s really happy for you. She wants to meet him, maybe share some embarrassing baby photos.”
“I hope your plane crashes,” William says mildly.
“You’re also gonna be on that plane, genius,” Mike points out.
William inclines his head. “I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”
Mike makes a big show of unfolding the newspaper and reading it very intently. William squirms around until he’s comfortable –or at least as comfortable as someone of his height can ever be in any sort of vehicle—and lets his head settle against Gabe’s shoulder. Gabe’s arm comes around him automatically.
“You want me to wake you up if they come past with coffee and tea?” Gabe asks.
William lifts his head a bit. “I’m not falling asleep. I’m just… savouring the moment.”
“If you barf on me I may never forgive you,” Gabe warns him. William rolls his eyes.
“I’m not going to barf on you, Jesus Christ. And I can never sleep in vehicles, it’s shitty.”
“Sucks,” Gabe acknowledges. “I used to be like that.”
William lets his head fall back again, and the train starts moving. A few minutes later, through the quiet fog that seems to have invaded his brain, he hears Mike say “Wake him up for the coffee, he won’t sleep through the entire train ride and then he’ll get bitchy that he doesn’t have anything to drink.” William wants to object, but he falls asleep before he can come up with anything.
When he’s blurrily stirring milk into his coffee with the cheap little plastic stick and Gabe’s left to use the washroom he kicks at Mike’s ankles. “How’d you know I would fall asleep? I’ve never done that before.”
Mike lifts his cup to his lips and says from behind the steam “You can always get to sleep if Gabe’s around.”
He blinks. “Oh,” he says, softly. Mike nods. Slowly, William smiles.