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The only reason that anyone even finds out about Holster going on secret dates is because he sees Lardo one Wednesday night in late January, while he’s at the cafe behind the student art center, sitting with a guy named Travis that he matched with on Tinder. One minute Holster is asking Travis about his tattoos, taking the opportunity to lightly trace his forearm, and the next Lardo is standing right there saying, “Oh hey, Holster.”

Holster goes very still before stumbling his way through awkward introductions.

He hangs back after practice the next morning, waiting until everyone else has cleared out. Lardo is moving through the locker room, collecting the worn practice jerseys, pushing the wheeled laundry cart as she goes.

“Sup?” she says, like she doesn’t know why he needs to talk to her.

“Okay, so like,” Holster begins, pinching briefly at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t necessarily want to talk about it or anything. There’s really nothing to say. It’s just that I’m twenty-three, and so far, I’ve never been in an actual relationship, so.”

Lardo’s brow twitches slightly, like she’s about to challenge him on that. It’s incredibly unnerving. Holster’s entire face goes hot before she finally speaks again. “And?”

“And my little sister has had a boyfriend for two entire years,” Holster says, gesturing with his hands.

Lardo blinks. “So... you’re dating someone?”

“No!” Holster replies. “Not-- yet. Look. I’m trying to-- I just want to meet some people. Okay?”

Lardo raises one sculpted eyebrow. “Okay?”

“Right. So we never discuss this again, deal?”

Lardo shrugs. “Fine by me, Holtzy.”

It is fine, Holster thinks. It’s totally fine. Until Travis stops responding to his texts, and three days later he’s already on his way to the movie theater when this other dude Brad cancels on him. Holster walks back to the Haus in a huff, and goes right up to the attic. Ransom is sitting at their shared desk, scrolling through pages of data charts on his laptop. He’s in a white t-shirt and red basketball shorts and a backwards ball cap, his socked feet tucked under the chair. Holster exhales hard, a good amount of his tension going with it.

“Sup?” Ransom asks, taking a moment to look away from the screen and lean back a little, rolling his shoulders back to stretch. Holster’s gaze lingers a long moment on Ransom’s chest, the way the fabric of his t-shirt pulls across his muscles. “Where’ve you been?”

“Nowhere,” Holster says, a little too fast, and drops down onto his bed in the lower bunk, bouncing slightly as he lands. “When you’re done with that do you wanna watch a movie or something?”

“Uh, yeah, man,” Ransom says, and closes the screen on his laptop. “Let’s watch a movie right now.”

“Really?”

Ransom shrugs and nods, nudging his foot against the floor to spin the chair around slowly, grinning in the way he does when he’s about to ask Holster to do him a favor. “Only if you go make the popcorn though.”

Holster pulls his shoes off one by one before standing up again. “Yeah, sure. Butter?”

“Extra butter, bro.”

“Done,” Holster says, and Ransom holds his fist out for a fistbump.

Ransom picks Hitch, and Holster doesn’t even try to argue. They’ve seen it enough that Holster knows which parts make Ransom laugh; his low, dumb chuckle completely unraveling the jumble of frustration tangled up in Holster’s chest. If everyone else in the world is garbage, Holster thinks, at least Ransom is never not awesome.

A week later he goes to coffee with a cute, quiet girl named Marie, and even though he’s pretty sure he talks too much, she agrees to meet him for dinner the next night. He makes an effort to listen a little more, to ask her stuff, to try to get to know her and not just ramble. It goes pretty well, he thinks, all things considered. He walks her back to her dorm and they stand there at the front of the building a little awkwardly for a moment.

“So can I text you sometime, or?” Holster says.

“Yeah,” Marie replies, but it comes out kind of like a sigh, like she isn’t entirely sure. She’s not making any quick moves to flee, though.

“Or call,” Holster corrects himself. “Telegram? Carrier pigeon. Oh, I know. Smoke signals,” he grins.

Marie’s tiny little huff of a laugh is entirely forced. “Um.”

“Or not,” Holster says, tucking his hands into his pockets, ignoring the sudden, weighty pang of disappointment in his chest. “It’s cool.”

“I had a fun time?” Marie says, but it sounds like a guess, and Holster wishes she hadn’t said it at all. “I’m just. I’m kind of busy with a lot of school projects right now, you know?”

“Yeah me too,” Holster counters quickly, his own politeness and his grin a little strained. “So I’m gonna go now, and uh,” he pauses, glancing away, throwing her one last opportunity to say something, but she stays quiet. “See ya, Marie,” he says, and tries to retreat casually, instead of as fast as his feet want to take him.

They lose a home game to Rensselaer that Saturday afternoon, 4-1. Holster finds Lardo alone in the coaches’ office after he’s showered and changed; she’s compiling some reports or something, tabbing through a bunch of spreadsheets.

“Hey,” she says, glancing at him quickly before continuing to type. “C’mon in, what’s going on?”

Holster sits heavily into a chair across from her, letting his bag drop to the floor with a thud. “So basically,” he declares, “everyone at this school is the worst.”

Lardo looks up, tilting her head. “Huh?”

Holster nudges at the door, pushing it mostly shut. “This whole, like, going out and meeting people thing? It’s been a complete disaster.”

Lardo abandons her typing. “What happened?” she asks.

“Uh, nothing?” Holster complains. “Like I’ll meet up with someone and think things are pretty cool, right? But then inevitably, boom. It all falls apart. I just don’t get it.”

“Just so I know,” Lardo says tentatively, “am I listening or am I fixing, here?”

Holster slouches with a sigh, resting his elbow on the arm of the chair, propping his head in his hand. “I don’t even know.”

Lardo reaches toward him. “Give me your phone.”

“Why?”

“So I can look at your dating profiles. Duh.”

Holster hands it over, and Lardo pokes through it for a few moments before making a confused face.

“Your default photo in every app is of you and Ransom.”

Holster shrugs. “Yeah, so?”

She just blinks at him a couple of times, and Holster shifts in his chair, folding his arms.

“It’s our second annual Niagara Falls selfie, and it’s a great picture of me.”

“Mm-hmm,” she hums, pressing her lips together.

“It is!” Holster argues. “I never take good photos, okay? But my smile actually looks good there.”

“Wonder why that is,” Lardo says, handing the phone back.

Holster frowns. “Well, I’m not cropping him out.”

“Not suggesting you do.”

“Then what should I do?”

“Dunno, Holtzy,” Lardo says, tapping at her keyboard again. “Maybe just chill? These things take time.”

Holster thinks about her words as he walks back across campus to the Haus. She’s probably right, not just because she usually is, but because he’s really only been trying the dating thing for a few weeks. It’s probably reasonable that it’ll just take a bit longer for him to find someone he really clicks with.

When he gets in, the whole team is there, and there are columns of pizza boxes three- and four-high lined up on the kitchen counter and on top of the stove. Holster pokes through them until he finds the one labeled pepperoni and green pepper, which is the only kind he really likes, but the box is already empty. He checks again, but that was the only one.

“Well, fuck,” he mutters, making his way to the stairs so he can put his bag away in the attic.

“Yo, there you are,” Ransom says. He’s coming down the steps, a pizza box in his hands. “The hell, bro? I thought you went with Shitty to pick up the food, are you just getting back or something? Here you go.”

Ransom hands him the box, which contains a complete and untouched pepperoni and green pepper pizza.

“Bro,” Holster says fondly, and Rans claps him once on the shoulder.

“Got your back, bro. I’ll grab us some beers, Mario Kart tourney is on. Unless you’re planning to head out or something?”

Holster shakes his head. “Nah, I’m in.”

“Sweet,” Ransom smiles.

Holster’s stomach flutters wildly, warm affection spreading through his chest.

Ransom ends up kicking his ass at Mario Kart all night, despite Holster’s best efforts to thwart him with strategic elbow-nudging, shoulder leans, and one desperate, aggressive headlock. His losses mean he ends up being stuck with Ransom’s Haus chores for the next week, but Holster’s too buzzed and sated to care.

Valentine’s Day is categorically stupid. Shitty says it first, but Holster could not agree more. At least it’s Nursey’s birthday, so there’s something else to think about, something to do that isn’t pathetic and painfully solitary. Holster has been charged with buying Nursey’s birthday card, meaning he was last to say “not it” when Lardo asked for a volunteer. He’s standing in the card aisle at the Stop n’ Shop, and after picking a “Birthday from Group” with very little effort, he can’t resist poking at the scarce remnants of the Valentine’s Day selections.

Most of them are so flowery and overwrought that he can’t even finish the pages of printed script. The “suggestive” ones are just dumb, but not even dumb enough to be funny. He can’t believe anyone actually thinks these cards are a good idea. He’s just about to leave when one at the bottom row catches his eye, and he reaches down to pick it up. The front image is a movie still from Pacific Rim; an action shot of a Jaeger. The text reads You and me… and Holster opens it up. ... we’re drift compatible.

It takes him a little bit of hunting to find an envelope that isn’t pink. He settles for red, and goes to the check out. While he waits his turn he picks up two king-size packages of Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Ransom doesn’t find the card and the candy in his bunk until much, much later, when the birthday party is over and he’s crawling into bed. Holster still has his reading light on and he bites his lower lip listening to Ransom open the envelope, breathing through the brief silence that follows.

“Aw, bro, come on,” Ransom says, and hangs over the edge of the bed. “Now I look like an ass for not getting you anything.”

Holster smiles wildly at Ransom’s upside-down face. “It’s no big,” he says.

“Okay, well, pause. I’m coming down to hug you, then.”

Ransom drops to the floor feet first, all practiced and agile like a cat, his socks hitting with a dull thud. He’s shirtless, his blue boxer briefs stretched low across his sharp hips, snug around the swell of his quads. Holster barely has a chance to take in the sight of him before Ransom crawls right in, sprawling all over, warm and heavy.

Holster laughs, elated, squirming to get his arms around Ransom’s middle, to hug him tight. Rans tucks his face against Holster’s shoulder, nuzzling right in where it meets his neck.

“Thanks, bro,” Ransom says, sincere and fond and muffled. He settles a little, relaxing into the embrace, the short fade of his hair above his ear sliding against Holster’s cheek.

Holster breathes in slow, chasing the faint warm scent of Ransom’s expensive cologne, picking up the sharp mint of toothpaste under it. He stays very still, feeling Ransom’s chest expand and contract against his own, and swallows lightly against the hard, rapid thud of his own pulse.

He meets Seth just after spring break, just after a four game winning streak that has everyone buzzing with excitement for the impending conclusion to the regular season, their position in the rankings. It’s still miserably cold and wintery, and Holster’s been so busy with hockey and midterms and getting Ransom through midterms that he hasn’t had much time to even think about dating.

Seth has a cute smile and a quiff of dark hair, and he’s outgoing and quick witted and charming, and the first time they meet up Holster feels nervous in an entirely new way. They end up talking for hours on what was meant to be a quick coffee date, and Seth doesn’t know much about hockey but he asks Holster a bunch of questions and seems genuinely interested. Seth’s a third year creative writing major minoring in film, and he’s already working on the screenplay that will be his senior thesis, and when they finally leave Annie’s it’s dark and drizzling, something between snow and rain. They huddle together under the awning and make plans for another date, the white clouds of their breath mingling in the air. Seth has long eyelashes and Holster kind of wants to kiss him, but they hug instead, a little tentative at first but long-lingering, full of possibility.

Holster glides back to the Haus on icy sidewalks, ducking in and out of the yellow glow of the streetlights, his glasses fogging over.

“You’re happy today,” Ransom declares skeptically while Holster spots him at the bench press the next morning.

Holster looks down at his face as Ransom presses the barbell up, his arms straining with the effort. “Maybe, yeah,” he replies vaguely.

Ransom does another couple of reps in silence, his face drawn tight in concentration. “You get your midterm grades back?”

“Oh, yeah,” Holster says. He holds his hands out, ready, in case Ransom needs it. “All A’s, but one B-plus.”

“Nice,” Ransom says on his exhale, his voice straining.

“How’d yours go?” Holster asks.

Ransom does one more press, lifting the barbell up and up until he finally gets it onto the rack, the metal clanging a bit. “Still waiting,” he says, pushing himself up to sitting, glancing back over his shoulder at Holster. “Your turn.”

“I’m sure you aced it all, bro,” Holster says as they switch off. “You always do.”

“Dunno,” Ransom says, sounding doubtful. Holster lies down on the bench, planting his feet on the floor. His gaze wanders the length of Ransom’s torso as he curls his hands around the grips of the bar. “Sometimes you think you know what you’re getting into, how to prepare for it,” Ransom continues. “But then once you’re in there, it’s not at all what you expected.”

Holster takes the full weight of the barbell in his hands, and lowers it to his chest to start his reps, shifting his gaze to the ceiling. “Is that what happened? Which exam was this?”

Ransom just shakes his head. “I dunno,” he says, dismissive. “Nevermind. We should get omelettes after this, yeah?”

“Bro,” Holster says, grunting a little on his next lift. “Why do you always have the best ideas?”

Holster glaces back just far enough to see the flash of Ransom’s grin.

It turns out Seth is a great kisser. Holster learns this halfway through their second date, between the pizza place where they go for dinner and Seth’s apartment, tucked in the doorway of a closed hardware store. Seth’s a little shorter than Holster but still pushes him against the brick alcove and grabs at his jacket and it’s sudden and wild and thrilling, Seth’s mouth fitting against his own, Seth’s body pressing closer. Holster goes home with him, lets Seth lead the way to his room, and fumbles through the newness of getting naked together for the first time, the second-guessing, the self-conscious huffs of laughter. Seth gets Holster on his back and hovers over him, soft hand stroking him quick, his warm mouth muffling the sounds Holster makes. Holster holds on to Seth’s hips, squeezing them hard when he shudders, coming into Seth’s palm and onto his own belly. When he reaches in to reciprocate, Seth seems to forget that they’re kissing, drawing back with his mouth slack, his eyes closed. Holster watches his face, the flutter of his eyelashes, watches the pleasure spread over his features when he pulses in Holster’s hand with a groan.

Samwell keeps winning, the post-season inches closer and closer, and adding Seth time into his schedule becomes a weird balancing act for Holster. It’s delicate; they text a lot but struggle to find regular opportunities to meet up. He skips out on parties to hang out with Seth sometimes, but other times he cuts it short with Seth just to go back to the Haus. Either way is a compromise that doesn’t quite sit right.

Seth has a tattoo of words on his left side, high on his ribs that Holster notices one night while they’re putting their clothes back on.

“Is this new?” he asks, brushing his fingers against it, and Seth shakes his head.

“I’ve had it for a few years.” He holds his arm up, out of the way for Holster to look.

The script is simple, bold lines, all caps. If not now, when?

“I like it,” Holster says softly. The quiet stretches out between them.

“Adam,” Seth says eventually, and Holster can already hear the apology in his voice.

“Yeah,” Holster sighs, and it’s not a question, because he knows.

When he gets back to the Haus, Lardo is doing her laundry in the basement, pulling items one by one from the dryer to fold and stack them. Holster hefts himself up to sit on top of the washer.

“So I’ve reached the conclusion that maybe I’m just not a relationship person.”

“Please,” Lardo says in protest, shaking out a tank top before folding it carefully in half. “That is empirically untrue.”

Holster frowns. “It’s okay. I’d rather know that, and accept it, than keep trying to make something happen that’s never going to happen.”

Lardo hands him a purple bath towel, and Holster takes his time to line up the corners and the edges as he folds it for her.

“You’re a great boyfriend, Holster.”

“Or the opposite of that.”

“You just don’t realize it,” Lardo adds, passing him another towel. “But it’ll happen. What are you getting Rans for his birthday?”

“No idea yet,” Holster replies, rolling with her topic change. “But I want it to be good, you know? Something really cool. Something nobody else would even think about.”

Lardo doesn’t respond, just grins small as she pairs up her socks.

“Why, what do you think I should get him?”

“Dunno,” Lardo shrugs. “Maybe think about what might make him happy.”

There’s a thousand things that already make Ransom happy, Holster realizes once he starts to think about it. There’s the little stuff, like when he finishes the cereal and the milk carton at the same time, or finally clears all his notifications from his phone. Ransom likes being the first one on the group chat to share a funny video or dumb news story. He likes golfing with Jack and frisbee with Shitty and doing squats with Bitty. Laughing at practice until they get in trouble and Coach Murray makes them do push-ups. Chicken tenders and curly fries in the dining hall, and stealing extra ketchup. His expensive cologne and his cheap three-in-a-package undershirts.

Road trips, camping, taking selfies, gossiping, secret handshakes, staying up all night arguing about the universe, scaring himself with dumb horror movies and then pretending afterward that he’s just bored and lonely so he can stay in Holster’s bed until he falls asleep.

It’s not until the day before Ransom’s birthday that Holster finally figures it out. Ransom’s in a good mood at practice despite the weighted expectation of the next day’s game; he keeps bumping up against Holster, poking him playfully, cheap little jabs just to get his attention. They’re supposed to be setting up for the next drill but Ransom won’t quit, just keeps tapping his stick into the backs of Holster’s knees, crowding in close as Holster tries to nudge him away. They turn in slow circles, in fits and starts as they push and chase.

“What’re you gonna get me for my birthday, eh?” Ransom asks. His grin is so devious and Holster’s seen it hundreds of times, the way it sits on the verge of laughter, the way his eyes light up.

Holster grins back, and steadies himself when Ransom tries to push him off-balance again. Ransom bites his lower lip, and Holster’s pulse kicks up all of a sudden, hard and fast and insistent; he stares at Ransom’s mouth and a whole avalanche of ideas fall over him unbidden. Ideas that have always lived in the periphery when he thinks about or talks to or hangs out with Ransom; vague notions that he’s never allowed to take shape. Suddenly there’s nothing nebulous about them anymore. He wants to give Ransom everything.

If it weren’t for their helmets in the way, Holster is sure he would kiss Ransom right then and there.

“Bro,” Holster manages, sounding far more serious than he intends. There’s a warm flush creeping up the back of his neck, and he can’t stop gazing at Ransom’s face. He blurts out the first thing he can think of that isn’t about kissing. “I’m gonna get you a goal tomorrow, bro.”

“Aw, bro,” Ransom says, smiling genuinely. “You’re the best.”

Coach shouts at them to get going on the drill, and it’s easy for Holster to tell himself that’s why his heart is hammering so hard in his chest. Ransom hurries away to the other side of the ice, and Holster follows, struggling to catch his breath.

It takes him almost the entire game-- all the way to the last five minutes of the third period-- but he does it, puts one in the back of the net, a neat little wrister from the top of the circle off a slick pass from Jack. They’re already in the lead but it’s nice to have the insurance, and Ransom is the first to crash into him with a bone-crushing hug, wide-eyed and shouting along with the airhorn.

Ransom stays glued to his side all night. They celebrate his birthday and the victory back at the Haus by dominating the beer pong table, doing shots in the kitchen, and having a frosting fight with the last half of Ransom’s cake. Holster’s hands are covered in buttercream, and he won't dare touch his phone to take a photo, so he makes sure he gets a good long look at Ransom like this, laughing so hard he’s about to cry, frosting all over his clothes, in his hair, smeared onto his face.

At no point does Holster stop wanting to kiss him.

Holster swallows, a dull, empty ache opening up deep in his stomach. When Ransom tugs him toward the stairs, hand folded firmly around Holster’s wrist, Holster lets him.

They duck into the bathroom, the overhead lights harsh in contrast to the dimness of the party. Holster closes the door and the noise cuts abruptly in half. With both of them in there, it’s hard to maneuver; Ransom is still giddy, erupting into light bursts of chuckles, running a washcloth under the tap, ringing it out.

“Look at you,” he says, and starts laughing again.

Holster smiles, fond, and has to turn his head to catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror. There’s frosting in his hair. His adrenaline kicks up again; Ransom is so close and they’re finally alone and Holster can’t hold all of this in much longer.

“Rans,” he says quietly, watching Ransom start to swipe at his own face, cleaning himself up.

“It’s everywhere!” Ransom laughs. “I think it’s in my ear.”

“Ransom,” Holster tries again. “Justin, hey.”

That gets his attention; Ransom turns his face to look at him. There’s still a smudge of frosting under his left eye, but it doesn’t matter. Holster draws in a quick breath, his stomach fluttering with excitement.

Ransom’s brow furrows a little in confusion. “What?”

Holster’s suddenly at a complete loss for what to say, or how to explain. “Happy birthday,” he says in a rush.

Ransom smiles. “Thanks, bro.”

“There’s something else,” Holster adds quickly. “That I want to give you.”

“Huh? No way,” Ransom says. “What is it?”

It’s simple but terrifying to swiftly close the space between them, to duck his head and fit his mouth to Ransom’s, their lips pressing together warm and sweet. Holster keeps it brief, pulls back almost as fast as he went in. Ransom’s eyes are wide and his grin is gone, his lips parted in surprise, and Holster’s apology is poised and ready until Ransom pulls him right back in again.

There’s no unspoken question in their second kiss; it’s all answers. Holster’s heart lurches wildly in excitement, and Ransom presses him up against the door, and the way he kisses is exactly how Holster imagined it, but a thousand times better. Ransom’s big hands find Holster’s waist, and Holster holds on to the back of Ransom’s arms, and they don’t let up until they’re both short on air, gasping hard.

“Damn, Holtzy,” Ransom says, staying close, his voice low and quiet.

Holster’s having trouble doing much beyond breathing. Ransom’s nose nudges against his, and Holster can’t focus, can’t find the capacity to do anything except tilt his head and kiss Ransom again and again.

“When we go upstairs,” Holster finally manages, pausing for the interruption of Ransom’s lips one more time, “I’m gonna suck your cock, okay?”

“Holy shit, yeah,” Ransom replies. “Okay. Let’s go.”

There’s nothing at all graceful about the way they extract themselves from the bathroom and cross the hall to get through the door that leads to the attic. Every nerve in Holster’s body is turned up to eleven, and he’s simultaneously scared out of his mind and more excited than he’s ever been. They climb the stairs in short bursts, trying to hurry but hindered by attempts to keep kissing, to grab at each other, laughing through the press of their mouths.

When they finally reach the top of the steps, Holster considers his options. Trying to get up into Ransom’s bunk seems like too much work; cramming both of them into his own seems less than ideal. It’s dark and they’re still stumbling together, trying to keep touching and kissing, trying not to fall.

Holster uses his height advantage to steer Ransom toward the wall, pushing him up against it, and quickly drops to his knees.

Ransom groans, shifting his weight, spreading his feet a little while Holster works his jeans open. Holster gets them down to Ransom’s thighs, tugging his boxer briefs down too. He holds Ransom’s shirt up with one hand while he strokes Ransom’s cock with the other, grasping it loosely in his folded fingers, thumbing the underside. Ransom is breathing hard, his face tipped downward to watch, and Holster swiftly licks his lips before taking Ransom into his mouth.

Ransom’s knees actually quiver, and he makes an obscene sound of pleasure, and Holster has a little moment of smug pride before he suddenly remembers he’s got Ransom’s cock in his mouth, warm and heavy against his tongue. He groans a little around it, closing his eyes, moving his hand to see how much of it he can take. He pulls off slow with soft suction, using his hand for a couple of strokes before fitting his lips around him again.

Holster thought it would be weirder. But there’s no awkwardness, no second-guessing, no uncertainty. He works his tongue over the head and listens to Ransom’s breathing get wilder, his composure unraveling, until he’s saying “Holtzy, Holtzy--” with his voice drawn tight. Holster doesn’t try to pause or draw it out, just keeps his steady pace until Ransom comes, pulsing over and over into the back of Holster’s mouth.

Holster sits back on his heels, trying to take pressure off his knees, and Ransom slides down the wall to sit on the floor. It only takes him a couple of seconds to catch his breath, and then he pushes Holster onto his back, crawling over him with a playful grin, tugging at his belt to work it open.

When they eventually curl up together in Holster’s bed, Ransom picks bits of dried frosting out of Holster’s hair, and Holster finds a bright smudge of it in the curve of Ransom’s ear.

“So,” Holster says. “Question.”

“Hm?” Ransom hums, nuzzling a little at Holster’s bare chest.

“Okay two questions,” Holster amends. “First, how gross are we, and then secondly, what are your thoughts on, like, dating?”

“Yes,” Ransom says. “And very.”

“Very dating?” Holster asks, frowning in confusion.

“Very gross,” Ransom clarifies. “And yes, dating.”

“Right, okay,” Holster says. He breathes out, settling. “Okay. Good.”