Los Angeles annexes half of New York's territory while Gabe's in town hunting down veggie dogs and Starbucks.
"I tried to stop them, I really did," Alex tells him earnestly from his lawn chair. "Asher and Carden are terrifying, I don't think you understand." The beer he's drinking is Nate's preferred brand. Gabe suspects disloyalty.
"Yo, Saporta!" Pete calls across the muddy ground. They've disassembled his tent, what the actual fuck? "Jesus, what are you driving?"
Gabe spins around to defend his car-- he'll make Ryland and Alex put his tent back up later. "It's my ride, asshole."
"No, no, seriously." Pete bounds over, sunglasses shoved on top of his head, wrapped in a hoodie even though it's like eighty degrees out and he's a grown man. "What is this, the official douchemobile? What does that s-- is this a goddamn Porsche? I can't even look at you anymore." It's an SUV that's capable of hauling his horse trailer, Gabe’s got nothing to be ashamed of. He glances over at Pete's fancy combined trailer. Pointedly. Pete flips him off.
Out in the middle of the field Victoria and Naomi are trying to get a fire going and failing impressively. Gabe turns back to his car to fish out roasting sticks.
"You riding today?" Pete asks. Gabe shakes his head.
"Not today. I'm riding Jersey at too-fucking-early-o'clock tomorrow, and Cobra in a couple classes the day after. Going to watch Victoria and Bill in their classes later on this afternoon, though."
He can feel Pete's tension go up without even looking. "Oh yeah? He's here, then? I wasn't sure he'd be coming."
Gabe inhales, exhales, doesn't slam the door of his car. "Yep. And if I have to spend the entire weekend yelling Switzerland and declaring invisible walls I'm gonna cut a bitch."
Pete holds up his hands. "Whoa, whoa. Not pointing fingers, but I'm not the one who rage flounced."
Gabe turns his back and heads towards the not-fire. "And I'm not taking sides. Yo, Vicky-T, are we rubbing two sticks together for this thing? Is that what’s going on here, because I’m kind of hoping to eat sometime before midnight."
He can see Mike and Michael walking back towards them, still just tiny figures against the backdrop of the stables, and there's no way they're still gonna be talking about William by the time they get into earshot. Gabe was in Uruguay when the shit hit the fan between Mike and Bill. All he knows is that their ten-year co-dependent friendship hadn't ended in their typical blow-up fashion, but rather with a brief phone call resulting in nine months of icy radio silence on both ends. And then Pete had gently suggested that, with William being the only one left in Chicago, it might be better for the company if he just let Pete buy him out. Which, Gabe admits in the privacy of his own head, doesn't make a lot of sense; you can design clothing just as easily in Chicago as LA, and the internet and Skype exist for a reason. Gabe's pretty glad he never got sucked in to Clandestine. It sort of seems like one clusterfuck after another, friendships falling like houseflies under the professional strain. And on a purely selfish level Gabe's a little bitter; all of his show clothes are Beckett designs, and now he's going to have to find a new style.
"You think you can do better, Saporta?" Victoria asks, tossing down her armful of kindling to give him a hug.
"Oh my God," Pete shakes his head. "All of you step away from the flammable materials and let a master work."
Gabe stares flatly. "Yeah. We're totally gonna leave you in charge of setting a fire. Okay."
Victoria shakes her head, and turns against Gabe, leaning back into his chest as she shades her eyes. "Carden! Did you kick ass?"
Mike throws a thumbs up, increasing his pace toward them. "Gold, fuckers. Hey, Saporta."
"Cutting it a bit close," Gabe calls back. "What'd you do, pull up and head straight into a class?"
Carden shrugs. "Little bit. Whatever, Santi and I are awesome at this, who needs to prepare? We could do this shit in our sleep."
Gabe rolls his eyes. Victoria brushes off her hands, pushes away from Gabe's chest. "Are you also awesome at gathering wheel-barrows of wood shavings? Because guess what?"
Mike frowns. "Seriously? You guys have had a fucking hour, you haven't set anything up?"
Pete grins, too big. Mike swears under his breath. Gabe's pretty happy that everyone from New York came in the night previous, though his disassembled tent is still lurking on the edge of his vision and consciousness, mocking him. All of his friends are assholes.
"Where did you leave Santi?" Naomi asks.
"There's a paddock," Gabe answers before Mike can.
"Who actually says paddock?" Pete asks, rolling his eyes. Gabe's starting to feel a little abused.
Eventually everyone from LA disappears to go set up their stalls, and Gabe hovers menacingly over Alex until he goes and puts Gabe's tent back up. Gabe actually gets the fire going and cooks veggie dogs while Ryland provides commentary on Alex's tent skills and Travis painstakingly assembles a schedule for the weekend, marking off when everyone has classes on a big piece of posterboard. He includes William and Christine, which makes Gabe feel significantly better about life. Gabe doesn't actually know who's riding from Chicago other than Bill and Christine. Nick, probably, and maybe Walker, because even after the Beckett/Bandy divorce all of Bill's friends still board at Christine's stable. Maybe Courtney, too, now that he thinks about it; she'd been noticeably absent from the LA delegation, and he can't imagine her boarding anywhere but Pete's in LA, because no one in their entire social circle understands the meaning of a clean break.
After lunch, Gabe goes to the stables. He passes a couple Chicago stables before he finds Christine's. They've taken down the wall between a couple stalls and set up some camp chairs and a plastic table, stacked with soda cans and used coffee cups. William's sprawled out on the dirty floor, obediently handing over crayons as Evie demands them. Butcher looks to be asleep in a chair in the corner. Gabe taps on the top of the door. William glances up and grins, rolling to his feet and there's still a part of Gabe that thrills at the open delight that he inspires in the other man simply by being present.
"Hey! When'd you get here?"
Gabe swings the door open. "Last night. I was going to call you but we were busy setting shit up, and then Ryland was riding a couple times this morning."
"We didn't get in until this morning, anyway. We're staying in a hotel."
Gabe sort of wants to ask if Bill and Christine are staying in the same room, because he can't imagine making Evie choose between hotel rooms, but he also can't imagine sleeping in the same room as your ex. There's a fine line between detachment issues and masochism and Chicago-born people inevitably fall on the masochism side. He's sure they're sharing a room, actually.
"I have a tent," Gabe says, shrugging.
"You drove the Porsche, didn't you?" William asks. "I'm not going to be impressed just because you're sleeping in a tent."
"We should do dinner," Gabe says instead of answering. "Travie's here, and Ryland and Alex."
"Everybody's here, huh?"
"They are," Gabe says, carefully casual.
"Yeah." William tugs his fingers through his hair. "I'm riding at three-thirty, but I'm free after that."
"I know," Gabe says, like the creepy stalker he is.
Evie has lost interest in her colouring book and is clambering up to stand on one of the chairs, holding a piece of paper and a roll of scotch tape. Her intently determined expression makes him think of William, back when they'd first met, when William had been a spindly, pretty kid with a spindly, pretty horse, riding in shitty dressage small-town shows with his mom and sister cheering from the stands.
Christine rushes in, pushing past Gabe. "Has anyone seen my wallet? Jesus."
"It was in your jacket," William offers.
"It is no longer in my jacket, and I need to-- Evie, get down from there please."
She rummages through the clutter on the table. William lifts jackets and sweaters from the chairs, shaking them out. Gabe watches Evie carefully tear off a strip of tape and affix one corner of the paper to the wall.
"Hey," Carden says from the doorway at Gabe's shoulder. Gabe takes a couple large steps into the room, trying to get between him and William. "I found this on the ground outside."
He holds out the wallet, not stepping an inch past the doorway. Christine spins and snatches it out of his hands. "Thank you! Shit, thank you so much. Also hello, it's nice to see you, you rode well earlier, I was lurking." And with that, she disappears, half jogging down the isle and away around the corner.
"Hi," William says politely.
"Uncle Mike!" Evie turns quickly, feet scrabbling at the seat of the chair.
"Fuck," Gabe says sharply and lunges forward, but Evie's already hit the ground, collapsible chair in a pile of canvis and metal bars.
"Oh my God," William chokes out, falling to his knees beside her. She's already crying, gasping for air. "Hey, hey, baby girl. It's ok. Did you hit your head?"
"No," she gets out after a moment. And then, more alarmingly, "My arm hurts, I can't move my fingers."
William's eyes widen. Gabe rests a hand on his shoulder, rubbing gently. "You should probably take her to the emergency room, just to be safe. I doubt it's broken, but it could be just a torn nerve or something." This is one of those many times that Gabe wishes he'd paid more attention to his dad's attempts to teach him first aid.
"I have to find Nick, he drove us from the hotel, I don't have a car--"
"I'll drive you, it's fine."
"And I need to pull Checks from the three-thirty class, somebody- can someone please tell whoever needs telling-- no one else can ride him."
"Western Pleasure?" Mike asks quietly.
William looks up at him, surprised and a little lost. "Yeah."
"I can ride him, if you want, he likes me. Or tell the judges you can't ride, sorry, I can do that too."
"No, no. Yeah, no. He likes you, it'd be stupid to-- yeah. Tack’s next door. Thank you." Carden nods, and his eyes drop briefly to where Gabe's hand is still pressed to William's shoulder. Bill scoops Evie up in his arms, stumbling under the weight as he stands. Gabe pushes past Carden where he's still kind of awkwardly frozen in the doorway, trying to remember where he left his keys.
The drive to the hospital is narrated by Evie's steady sobbing, the GPS calmly instructing Gabe where to turn, and William actively trying not to hyperventilate. Christine sits in the back with Evie, the calmest person by far in the car and still clearly shaking. Halfway there William grabs hold of Gabe's free hand and doesn't let go except when he's got to signal. Gabe hangs around the ER while Bill and Christine fill in the forms, folded uncomfortably into a hard plastic chair and texting Travis to let him know what's going on and Victoria to apologize for missing her class. An hour goes by, and finally a nurse takes Evie in. There's a complicated series of glances and raised eyebrows and over-dramatic hand gestures between Bill and Christine, and finally Christine takes Evie's hand and leads her after the nurse and William collapses in the chair beside Gabe, falling against his shoulder. Gabe tucks an arm around him.
"She's gonna be fine," he says, because he is kind of shit at comforting people.
William nods. "Logically I know that. It's just... we've never really experienced anything like this. She's never even got more than a cold. It's kind of... upsetting."
Gabe snorts. "Yeah. I bet."
William glances over at the clock. "Carden and Checks should be riding sometime around now."
"You gonna text him? See how it goes?"
William's eyes drop to study his shoes. "I deleted his number."
Gabe sighs. "It was nice of him to offer."
William's head bobs. "Yeah. It was very nice of him, please don’t guilt trip me about this."
Gabe blinks. "I wasn't trying to."
"Sorry, sorry. I-- Yes. it was a lovely gesture on his part. Amazing how it makes him look like the good guy."
Gabe sighs irritably. Being friends with William Beckett is occasionally a lot of fucking work. "Pretty sure he's not trying to be nice."
"Carden doesn't do nice," William bites out.
"Still don't want to have this conversation, Gabriel. Much like I haven't wanted to have it the last ten times you and various other people have tried."
"Ok, ok. We don't have to. But I just want you to think about the fact that he's made a pretty big move here, and it's a positive one. And you're stuck in the same place for the next four days, so if anything is going to happen, now's probably the time."
William laughs under his breath. "Yeah, believe me. Nothing is 'going to happen.' He's made that abundantly clear."
And Gabe... is not touching that with a thirty-foot pole, holy fuck. He doesn't dig any deeper, because contrary to popular belief he does know when to stop.
Bill's phone vibrates the same time as Christine and Evie come out into the waiting room. Evie's got a bright green cast on her arm. William is out of his seat and on his knees in front of her in a flash, admiring the cast and praising her bravery and only clinging a little bit.
"The doctor says there's a hairline fracture," Christine explains to the spot just over Gabe's left shoulder. "Could you drop us back at the hotel?"
"Yeah, of course."
William checks his texts when they're all back in the car, stuck in traffic just outside of the hospital. His eyes widen a bit. He tucks away the phone hurriedly, and there's a touch of red in his cheeks and seriously, Gabe is starting to think he's misread this entire situation.
"Checks got third," he says, forced casual.
"Did Adam ride him?" Christine asks.
There's a few endless seconds in which it becomes apparent that William doesn't intend to elaborate. Finally Gabe gives in. "Carden offered to ride."
He watches her face intently in the rear view, and catches the wince. "I see. That was kind of him."
"Wasn't it?" William hums, eyes straight forward, hands wrapped around his knee caps, fingers spread evenly against the denim of his jeans.
The fifteen minutes it takes Gabe to get them to the hotel is spent listening to Evie babble excitedly about what she thinks the kids in her play-school program will write on her cast. William and Christine stay silent, leaving Gabe to provide the encouragement to Evie's stories (which is fine, he likes kids, but the silence from the others in the car is sort of distracting). Christine and Bill have another eyebrow conversation outside the front entrance to the hotel, and after a tight hug for Evie, William gets back into the car.
"Not staying?" Gabe asks.
William shakes his head slightly. "Evie's gonna fall asleep pretty soon, and I really don’t need to be trapped in a room with Christine with nothing to do right now."
Gabe shrugs agreeably. "That's fair. You still want to do dinner?"
"Still don't want to talk about Mike?"
"He kept your number."
Gabe gives up, and drags up the little he's picked up from glancing at newspaper headlines about what's been happening in sports to prevent a repeat of the car ride of awkward silence. William disappears for a while when they get back, presumably to feed his horses and let the rest of the Chicago crew know what's happened with Evie. Gabe tracks down Travis to get his opinions on dinner, and finds him sprawled on his back in Pete's camper, high as a kite and half asleep. He stretches out beside him and steals the pipe, repacking and lighting up before he attempts to poke him into full wakefulness.
“Where’d you disappear to?” Travis asks through a yawn, arm flopping over Gabe’s chest. Gabe squirms out of his shirt, leaving just his undershirt because it’s hot as balls in the trailer but he and Travis are both pretty cuddly when they’re stoned and he’s not going to deprive himself.
“Evie fractured her arm. I drove her and Bill and Christine to the hospital.”
“Shit,” Travis says, wincing. “She ok?”
Gabe rolls his eyes. “I just said it’s only a fracture. Christine took her back to the hotel already.”
Gabe shrugs as much as he can in his position. “Off with Checks, probably, and hey, question, bro.”
Travis hums enquiringly.
Gabe takes another hit, holds it, breathes out. He sort of wishes the effects could be a bit more instant. “Am I the last to know that Bill’s pining after Carden?”
Travis shakes against him, chuckles taking a few seconds to emerge vocally. “Oh baby boy, you have no idea.”
Gabe frowns. “Don’t fuck with me.”
“I’m not, I’m not. You were far away when it happened, and you know how Bill can get about you.”
Gabe slumps, because yeah, he knows, has played full witness to the flashes of inadequacy and hero worship (so goddamn outdated now it’s gone past funny into painful) that leave William reticent on what he sees as his own shortcomings for fear that Gabe will stop letting him sit at the cool kids’ table. Eight years ago, it’d been flattering and a little hot, and as much as Gabe doesn’t like focusing on regrets, there are some memories around William at that time that make his conscience squirm uncomfortably. “Christine knows?”
“Oh yeah. As does Carden.”
Gabe jerks up and if not for Travis’s arm pressing him down his head would’ve had a painful meeting with the upper bunk. “Oh for fuck’s sake. William Beckett, what the hell is your life?”
Travis takes the pipe away from him. “That’s the short version. Bill throws that at him out of the blue, Carden tells him ‘thanks but no thanks,' Bill cuts all ties, and he and Christine start a two person anti-Mike-Carden club.”
“And knowing Carden, that’s just how he phrased it, too.” Gabe flops back, rolling his head until he can tuck his face into Travis’s shoulder. “And Christine is on Bill’s side? Don’t answer that, of course she is. Fucking Chicago.”
Travis doesn’t reply. It’s possible Gabe has never actually told anyone about his Chicago-attachment-issues theory. “Carden rode Checks for Bill today,” Gabe says after a few minutes of silence.
“Mmhm. I told Bill it was a nice gesture.”
“And he told you to fuck off.”
Gabe drifts a bit, lulled by the pot and the heat and Travis’s steady breathing. When he wakes up, Pete’s sitting at the kitchen table, on the phone to Bronx and typing furiously on his laptop. Gabe rolls over so he can face him without twisting his neck.
“Hey you,” Travis says from behind him, lifting his arm away. “Pete wants to do a party tonight, you in?”
“Told Bill we’d do dinner,” Gabe replies, tongue thick in his dry mouth.
“Can do that too. I’ll text him.”
“Ry and Alex too,” Gabe says, trying to keep his voice down even though Pete seems pretty engrossed in his wireless communications.
Dinner is actually a damn good time. Butcher and Nick and Butcher’s friend Sierra tag along, and they get a big round table on the patio of a brightly decorated fake Mexican place and a few pitchers of margaritas. Gabe spends the two and a half hours pressed up against Travie and flirting with William, who has gone loose and open after an expensive double scotch on the rocks, head falling back to expose his neck when he laughs, letting his hair fall into his face constantly, hands illustrating his conversations with a lazy sort of grace. He and Courtney play off each other perfectly, conversation and banter bouncing from one side of the table to the other like a tennis match, teaming up to flirt with the pretty young waitress who admits halfway through the meal that she’s drunk anyway, and Gabe remembers a time when they were all younger that Bill or Court or both of them would’ve taken her home. The conversation shifts to horses, naturally, but everyone’s really good about avoiding mention of Clandestine or Carden. At the end of the meal Gabe and Sierra are left in charge of taking everyone’s cash inside to pay the bill, and they somehow wind up getting into a pretty intense debate on Kantian ethics, which takes them into Locke and carries them all the way back to the show grounds and the party that’s already in full swing. Pete and Nate stagger over, leaning on each other, and William vanishes with Courtney and Butcher.
Gabe gets dragged into a game of poker with Pete and Ryland and Travis, betting with a fucking Costco-sized bag of vegan marshmallows of which no one seems to know the origin. He catches a glimpse of William around eleven-thirty, taking a picture of one of the trees which Gabe is almost positive is getting sent to Christine or uploaded to Instagram. From what he can tell, the tree looks exactly the same as every other.
The rain starts about midnight. They’ve given up on poker because Gabe and Pete are both a little ADHD, and they’re working on toasting their way through the entire bag of marshmallows. Alex is draped over the back of Ryland’s lawn chair babbling about his girlfriend while they share a bottle of cheap red. Gabe isn’t quite sure what more he can do for them at this point, because if there’s a level of unsubtle beyond gift wrapped copies of The Ethical Slut (Hanukkah 2009), he has yet to find it.
The rain isn’t gentle and it comes with the distant flash and grumble of approaching lightning and thunder. They toss the melted ice from the coolers on the fire pits, people frantically dashing around, drunkenly stumbling to rescue chairs and playing cards and drinks. Gabe loses track of Pete, but gets dragged into Ryland and Alex’s giant tent with Victoria and Bill and a few others. He sprawls out on the edge of the air mattress and William stumbles over a duffle bag and lands half in his lap. Michael and Naomi are snuggled up on the other side of the mattress, and Victoria is hunched over a plastic grocery bag with Alex, both of them grinning maniacally. Ryland leans a couple battery-operated lanterns up against the corner of the tent, and claps his hands briskly. The zip on the tent slides down and Adam stumbles in, Mike Carden, looking very serious and sober (and therefore, Gabe knows, utterly wasted) scrambling in after him. It takes William a minute to notice, distracted as he is frowning suspiciously at Victoria and Alex. When he does look over he doesn’t tense up, exactly, even offers a bland, empty smile. Siska looks like he’d like nothing better than to crawl into his beer can and never come out. They perch on the end of the mattress by Michael and Naomi’s feet, and Ryland clears his throat pointedly.
“Alright, children. We’re playing Never Have I Ever.”
“I’m sorry, are we back in high school?” William asks, settling himself more comfortably against Gabe, elbow digging briefly into his kidney.
Alex holds up a bottle. “Haters to the left. Anyone need a top-up?”
About fifteen minutes in, Gabe just gives up and rearranges himself and William so William can use both hands (one to drink for practically every challenge, the other to exchange rapid-fire texts with Christine) without permanently damaging Gabe’s inner organs every time he loses his balance. William curls up agreeably, long limbs folding impossibly compact against Gabe’s chest, socked feet tucked under Gabe’s calves.
Never Have I Ever is, as it turns out, a terrible plan. William and Victoria are pretty fucked up by the half hour mark (no one is surprised), William’s head lolling against Gabe’s shoulder, his texting speed down to slow, careful pecking; Victoria sprawled across Carden’s stretched-out legs with her head in Naomi’s lap. Bill and Mike are still doing a good job of politely ignoring each other, though Gabe catches Carden studying Bill thoughtfully when he thinks no one’s looking.
The game degenerates after a few more minutes, conversations creeping in over the last few declarations until Gabe realizes Alex and Siska are arguing over bagels and he has no idea how they got there. William makes grabby hands at Ryland until he tosses over a bottle of water, and Gabe can’t help but watch the bob of his Adam’s apple in the long stretch of his throat and he drains it.
“You gonna throw up?” Gabe asks.
“No, I’ll be fine in a minute. Christ, I haven’t been this drunk in literally years.”
Gabe frowns. “Comes with being a grown-up,” he snipes mildly, ruffling William’s hair. He swats at his hand, clumsy and half-hearted, but when his hand lands on Gabe’s shoulder he leaves it there, fingers tucking into the collar of his shirt and tugging a bit.
“Lot of things I haven’t done in years,” William says. Gabe’s pretty sure he’s trying to be seductive and subtle. It’s kind of cute. He sets his drink aside, hand sliding up William’s back, warm and still so fucking fragile under the soft cotton on his tee-shirt. He guides William around so he can make full eye contact.
“How drunk are you?”
William shakes his head a bit. “I’m no more impaired than you are,” he says honestly. Gabe’s not entirely sure he believes him, but he knows William well enough to recognize when he’ll do more damage by implying Bill’s not able to make his own decisions, and they’ve been flirting around this all evening, and Bill is loose-limbed and confident against him, scrambling around to straddle Gabe’s thighs, hands balanced on his shoulders.
William kisses differently. Four years since they’ve done this, and he’s less demanding, but when Gabe pushes he pushes back with barely any of the chaotically eager ferocity he’d possessed when younger. The muscles of his shoulders under Gabe’s hands are well-defined, his hair softer in Gabe’s fingers. He tastes like whisky and smells like horses and those things, at least, remain the same. He kind of regrets that they ever stopped doing this at all, because there’re parts of him that have forgotten the feel of William under his hands and mouth, the sharp whit and easy banter when he’s having fun, the comfortable reassurance of his body against Gabe during a drunken party. Sometime when Gabe wasn’t looking William has become a voice on the other end of the phone line, pretentiously worded emails sent too late at night, a bundle of feelings marked Handle With Care; he’s a well-tailored frock coat, a grainy YouTube video of a stunning dressage performance, a slideshow of pictures of Evie. Now curled over him, hand cupping the back of his head, eyes wide open and lips kiss-swollen, William is a waterfall of memory and reality, washing away the distances and the years and ok, so Gabe gets a bit fucking poetic when he’s drunk and has his former best friend in his lap.
Carden is watching them. William’s teeth are on Gabe’s collarbone and Gabe’s got one hand tight in his hair and the other on the small of his back and Mike Carden’s not even pretending to look away, hand pressed over his mouth like he’s gonna throw up. ‘This is what you turned down,’ Gabe thinks, viciously protective.
They make out for a bit longer and Mike watches the entire time, but eventually Gabe’s bladder won’t be ignored, and he leaves William a satisfyingly debauched pile of limbs on the mattress, crawling his way to the tent flap and tugging on his shoes. Outside the rain is still coming down in sheets, lightning still flickering intermittently though the thunder has faded away. His shoes and the bottom of his jeans are clotted with mud within a few feet. He stops at his SUV to grab the hand sanitizer from the glove compartment, and slips back into the little grove of trees separating the field from the barns because there will probably never be a level of drunkenness that will make him willingly use an outhouse.
When he comes back to the car, his flashlight picks out William leaning up against the hood, his own flashlight held loose down beside him, pointed at the ground. “Hey,” he calls as soon as Gabe’s within earshot. “I can’t drive back to the hotel. You mind if I stay with you?”
Gabe grins. “I don’t know, that’s a pretty big hardship.” (He is so goddamn proud of his punning abilities.)
William steps forward. “I’m sure there’s something I can do to repay you.”
And Gabe laughs, he can’t help it. They’re ridiculous and this whole situation is simultaneously familiar and new and by now they’re both soaked and drunk and reeking of campfire smoke, and most of their friends are less than a hundred feet away and there is really nothing more he could ask for from this week.
They leave their clothes in a wet pile in the corner of his tent, and William is going to have nothing to wear in the morning because it’s not like there’s anywhere to hang them to dry. Gabe’s only got the one sleeping bag, and they wind up unzipping it into a sort of blanket and lying on the weird fabric covering of the air mattress with the sleeping bag draped over them, trying to share a pillow. William manages to fall off the air mattress when he tries to scramble his way down to blow Gabe, and then Gabe actually thinks about the bare mattress that he’s going to be using for the rest of the week and calls a time out until he can grab a towel from his bag, which somehow leads in to William mocking his really awesome organizational packing system. Gabe tries to kiss him to shut him up but the flashlights are out and he winds up tripping on William’s abandoned shoes and landing half on top of him, face hanging over the edge of the mattress, forehead almost smashing the screen of his phone. After the ten minutes that it takes William to stop laughing hysterically at him they try again. Gabe has a vague memory of eventually getting off, but he falls asleep pretty much concurrently and doesn’t wake up until Pete starts shaking the tent and singing about coffee.
William crawls out of the tent first, disgustingly lacking in a hangover and dressed in Gabe’s clothes. Gabe follows a minute after and Bill’s still just outside, standing perfectly still with a pleased little smile playing around his lips, eyes calmly and deliberately locked with Carden’s. Gabe goes to find coffee.
Ryland and Travis have already fed everybody when Gabe and his coffee get to the barn, so Gabe’s just got to tack up and get changed. He gets Jersey ready and leaves him with Ryland, who is riding in the same class and is already fully prepared. He changes in his tent – pants, neon blue plaid shirt because he can, jacket, boots – and comes back out to find William and Michael Guy leaning close together having a rather heated conversation. William rolls to his feet when he catches sight of Gabe, grinning. He stalks closer, tugs at the jacket a bit, adjust the collar of his shirt.
“You look good,” he says, grin slipping into a dirty little smirk.
Gabe rolls his eyes. “Like me wearing your clothes, Billvy?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Technically they’re all yours, paid for them with your own credit card and everything.”
Gabe shakes his head, flicks Bill’s nose because it’s right there. “You know what I mean. Figure now we’re even. You coming to watch us ride?”
William glances back at Michael briefly, then nods. “Of course.”
Gabe does not win his class. Gabe does not even fucking place, because the judges are blatantly biased, and Jersey’s the only Morgan in the class and Gabe may be a goddamn professional but it doesn’t mean he’s gonna force his horse into the painfully unnatural shape that is apparently passing for appropriately collected these days. He and Jersey come outside and Bill’s there with Evie on his shoulders. She’s fascinated by the bling on Victoria’s shirt, where she’s waiting with Gizmo to head in for the junior horses version of the class that Gabe and Ryland just finished. William’s standing beside Gizmo so Evie can reach Victoria, and Gabe can see the unkind comments he’s restraining about the gaudy nature of the shirt. Personally, Gabe thinks it’s the best thing he’s seen in the last two years, but he’s not about to tell Bill that.
“Hey kid,” Gabe calls to Evie. “How’s the arm?”
She holds up the cast, which is absolutely covered in signatures and drawings. Gabe is not surprised; she is, after all, a Beckett. When he gets closer he can tell that one side is taken up entirely by two pictures of unicorns, and he recognizes Christine and Travis’s unique styles.
“You guys done?” Victoria asks Gabe. He nods. Jersey leans in against his shoulder to nuzzle at Evie’s hair. Victoria rides in and William shifts closer to Gabe. Christine and Nick are headed their way from the barns, and William crouches to let Evie down so she can run to her mother. Gabe remembers a time when Bill could barely lift a bale of hay, let alone a four-year-old. There’s a piece of straw stuck in Bill's hair, and Gabe reaches out to detangle it while Bill’s head is still in easy reach. He leans into it, cheek turning into Gabe’s palm for a brief few seconds before he’s standing back up, brushing mud off his slightly-too-big jeans. Christine is frowning when she walks up, but Nick has a present for Evie which turns out to be a talking action figure of some baseball star (again, Evie is unquestionably a Beckett) and Christine doesn’t get a chance to say anything until Evie’s dragging William away to go show Uncle Adam. Nick’s busy on his phone, but Christine still guides Gabe and Jersey a few feet away before she speaks.
“Do you know why Mike and Bill aren’t speaking to each other?”
Gabe frowns. Christine’s never been his biggest fan, and he can’t really pinpoint where this conversation could be going to necessitate its existence. “Yeah. Travis told me.”
“Okay. I just wanted to warn you, because I’m pretty sure you’re in the process of making the same mistake that I made, and it’s not a particularly life-affirming experience.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“You want Bill. Differently than you used to, I saw the way you were looking at him just now.”
If there’s one conversation Gabe does not want to have with Bill’s ex-wife this is probably it. “And?”
She shoves hair out of her face. “He’d do it. The relationship thing. But there’s going to be a part of him that feels like he’s meant to be with Mike. It’s… hard to explain, and has a lot more to do with the fact that he sees his life in terms of plot elements and storytelling techniques than I’m really comfortable with. There’s a reason he talked to Mike less than three months after we broke up.”
“It’s got to go both ways,” Gabe says. “Mike made it pretty clear he’s not interested, it’s not exactly healthy to let Bill obsess.”
“Mike Carden,” Christine says with deliberate relish, “is an asshole.”
“You have a lot of feelings about this, don’t you?”
“He rejected William because he was scared his precious heterosexuality might be damaged,” she says icily.
Gabe purses his lips. “I still want to punch him in the face, but an orientation is an orientation. Not much you can do about it – though Bill can probably do more than most, I’ll give you that.”
That gets a smile from her, at least. “His orientation is somewhere around fucking coward. It took him about a month to calm down and actually think about it and talk to some people before he realized that he’s not actually opposed to the fact that William’s a guy. It took about three months for him to deal with the terror induced by the idea of the two of them in an actual relationship where they’re expected not to kill each other, and two weeks after that to get my phone number and start texting me for advice.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I kind of wish I was. He’s been planning to apologize and ask for another chance this weekend for a month and a half.”
“And then I… happened.”
She snorts. “As you’re wont to do, yes.”
“I’m going to take that as a compliment.”
She shakes her head. Nick snaps his phone shut –Gabe didn’t know they still made flip phones—and glances questioningly at them. “It’s up to you,” Christine says. “I just wanted to warn you what you’d be in for.”
“Thanks,” Gabe says, and he’s surprised to find he means it.
He takes Jersey back to his stall, puts away the tack, goes back to the tent and gathers up Bill’s still damp clothes and hangs them in Pete’s camper to dry. Nobody’s around, so he goes back to the arena and sits in the stands for the next couple hours, dividing his attention between his phone and the classes going on. He watches Travis place third, then Courtney win, and a bit later Tom Conrad and the Steger siblings take first, second, and third, and he’s really damn glad Bill and Mike aren’t around to witness it. By the time everything breaks for lunch his ass is thoroughly numb and people are going to start unfollowing him if he twitters any more pointless shit. He wanders his way over to the exhibiters’ pavilion and winds up buying a pair of gloves he doesn’t really need, and a bag of homemade chewy snacks made out of carrot for Bill or Christine, whoever he sees first, because their horses are just as hipster as they are. He finds a pair of hot pink sunglasses with frames designed to look like horseshoes that he buys for Victoria. And then he buys a pair for himself. And then he leaves before his bad life choices can get out of hand.
The responsible thing, he’s reasonably sure, is to hunt down Carden and have an actual conversation. That’s probably not going to happen. Gabe doesn’t owe him a damn thing, and it’s hard to have a lot of respect for somebody who rejected Bill because of a big gay freak out. Sexuality crises are only valid until you're twenty-one, okay, and Gabe has spent more than enough nights on the phone with a William pretending to be just fine in a Cardenless world to have any sympathy with said Carden.
After lunch, there’s dressage classes. Bill is riding Friday in the third class. Gabe goes back to his car long enough to drop off his gloves and change out of his boots into runners, then gathers up Travis and Alex and Nate to go watch with him. And yet somehow he still winds up sitting next to Carden in the bleachers. They do not have a conversation. Gabe usually takes every opportunity he can get to watch Bill perform because he’s fucking gorgeous, and Friday may not be Checkmarks but what she lacks in looks she more than makes up for in skill. Bill and Checks have always been just that little bit too long-limbed and awkward together for dressage, and though he never tell Bill he prefers watching Christine ride Checks or Bill on Friday to balance things out. Today though, Gabe can’t help but keep an eye on Carden, on the way he watches Bill move, the way his head nods minutely along with the music. Ninety-five percent of Gabe’s brain is jumping up and down screaming ‘you can’t have him; you don’t deserve him; you’ve already hurt him enough, you asshole!’ The other five percent is calmly calculating what it’ll take to keep Bill away from Mike for the rest of the week and reassuring him that he’s not doing anything wrong, and as far as Bill’s concerned Mike has no interest in him and never will. And that’s why when Bill wins second place and rides out of the arena grinning and doing victory arms, Gabe is shocked when he grabs Carden’s shoulder, hopefully hard enough to leave bruises, and snaps darkly, “If you ever hurt him like that again I will make your life a living hell, you understand?”
Carden stares at him and Gabe stares back because he fucking knows for a fact that his eyes can be just as dead as Carden's. Finally, Mike glances away. “Yeah. I— Look, I wasn’t gonna say anything, I saw you guys last night and this morning. You don’t have to worry about me fucking it up.”
Gabe breathes. In through the nose, out through the mouth. “This had better just be you trying to employ that ‘if you love something set it free’ bullshit, because if you’re not even willing to fight for him, maybe I made the wrong choice here.”
He can actually see the process that goes on between Carden wanting to punch him in the face and resisting the urge at the last minute. It’s kind of cool and kind of terrifying. He gets up and jumps down the bleachers instead, heading rapidly towards the doors where Bill is just leaving. Gabe slumps. “You could at least say thank you,” he yells after him. Carden flips him off.
Evie catches up with Mike just a few feet away from Bill, and Gabe takes a bit of solace in the knowledge that their special moment is going to have to remain G rated. Christine moves over to sit beside him. He hands over the carrot snacks.
“Welcome to the club,” she says with a little grin. “Would you like a button?”
“Do they say, ‘I got my heart broken by William Beckett and still want to cuddle him and fuck him and buy him pretty things?’”
She gives him a thumbs up. “That is exactly what they say, yes.”
He nods. “Yeah, I’m in.”
He avoids Bill for the rest of the day because he does have some self-preservation instincts. He doesn’t tell Pete and Travis what’s happened, but they both stick close nonetheless. When he does see Bill, lunch time the next day, he’s flopping down on the bench Gabe’s sitting on, tucking his chin against Gabe’s shoulder and making hopeful eyes at his fries. “I have been going since six o’clock this morning and I think I’m getting a cold,” he says, going limp against Gabe.
“You can’t have my fries. You don’t eat this shit anymore, remember?”
“I take it all back.”
Carden sits down on Bill’s other side and shoves a bottle of orange juice at him. Gabe tries to shift Bill off his shoulder, but it’s like trying to dislodge a spider. He glances over at Mike, but the other man is busy trying to balance his coffee and unwrap his sandwich and he doesn’t seem concerned by Bill’s position.
“You’re riding today, right?” Bill asks. Gabe nods. William kicks out a leg, hooking his ankle around Mike’s. “We’ll come watch.”
And that, that simple “we”, the casual way they attach themselves to each other, that’s familiar too. He blows out a breath, because it’s right there, has been right there for as long as he’s known them, so common, so obvious that no one bothered to notice. He wants to say he’s happy for them, be the good friend, but he knows their track record with a friendship and he can’t imagine how the additional social expectations of a relationship are going to intensify everything. Their fights are going to be horrific, and it’s not exactly reassuring to know that they’ll keep coming back together, falling into the same patterns.
William makes a grab for Mike’s coffee and is neatly distracted by a kiss while the coffee is nudged out of his reach. And hey, what the hell does Gabe know? Apparently it’s worth it.