Will is trying very hard not to scowl at his computer screen when Ford stomps into the kitchen and throws open the fridge. The noise is jolting enough to pull him out of his code and back to the real world, blinking as his eyes re-adjust. He rubs a hand over his face.
“Ford?” He asks, worried by the angry, incoherent mumbles he can barely make out. “Everything ok?”
She makes a sound of triumph and pulls out the last slice of cherry crumble. Will watches, concerned, as she digs around in the dish drainer for a fork, sits down, and begins to eat, her face drawn down in a scowl that barely lightens even after the first bite. Will’s eyebrows go up. Cherry crumble is Ford’s favorite.
“I,” she says once the pie is completely gone, “Somehow agreed to stage manage A Christmas Carol.”
“Um.” Will starts, “Didn’t they ask you to do that weeks ago and you turned them down?”
“Yes.” Ford practically growls and Will puts his hands up and leans back. They learned better than to mess with Ford when she’s angry after the Shoe Check Incident.
“I’m…confused?” He tries.
She sighs, and the anger leaves as she slumps onto the table, leaving a resigned exasperation tinged with weariness. “Janet came up to me in the dining hall and practically begged. The person who has been stage managing injured her shoulder, which was bad enough, but then she realized she’s almost failing Astronomy and so dropped out. They’re desperate. And we just got back from the last roadie before break – “
Literally just got back. They’d gotten stuck in traffic last night and an already late night became a very, very late night, and while everyone had at least napped on the bus, it wasn’t the same as time spent in an actual bed, even if you didn’t have long legs and a broad-shouldered seatmate. And Ford had help unload all the extra equipment. If Will, who’s used to late nights and early mornings, is this exhausted, Ford must be reeling.
“ – so technically I’m free except for practice, and it’s dead week, so we’re not supposed to have homework – “ Will snorts his disbelief of that statement, and Ford gives him a sardonic look back, “ – so obviously I have plenty of time.” She sighs. “It’s just this week, they close Sunday afternoon, and Janet insists everything’s already ready, I’d just be there to call cues.”
“You believe that?” Will asks, skeptical on her behalf.
“No.” She mutters into the table where she’d dropped her head.
“But you’re doing it anyway.”
“But I’m doing it anyway.” She sits up, tries for a smile. “How bad can it be?”
Will privately thinks the answer is pretty fucking bad, but he knows nothing about theatre, so with any luck he’s wrong. “Let us know if you need anything? Like coffee, or something?”
“Thanks.” Ford says with a sigh, readjusting her glasses from where they’ve gone all crooked from being smushed against the table. “What are you working on?”
He throws a glare at his computer screen. “Programming final project.”
“Not going well?” She asks, sympathetic.
“Nope.” He closes the computer, deciding he’s done, at least for now.
Ford grins and gets up to wash her fork and the pie tin. Will pulls out his phone and checks the group chat, which is shockingly quiet. He guesses most people are in afternoon classes, not that that’s stopped them before. Ford puts her dishes in the drying rack and comes back to stand in front of the table. “Hey. Slightly odd question. What kind of candy does Chowder like?”
Will looks up at her. “Mars Bars. Why?”
She shrugs. “No reason.”
It takes a second before it clicks. “Secret Santa?”
He can see her debate whether or not to deny it before deciding there’s no point. “Yes. And really, he shouldn’t be this hard. There’s not a lot he doesn’t get excited about.”
Will gets it. His Secret Santa is Nursey. “Presents are hard. Just, in general.”
“Any ideas?” She asks, hopeful, before realizing she’s still standing and sitting back down at the table. “I mean, you’re one of his best friends and you’re generally thoughtful and pretty thrifty.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been described as ‘thoughtful’ in my life.” He tells her dryly, ducking his head to hide his blush and ignoring the curl of warmth in his gut. Thrifty, yes, and good at fixing things, but never thoughtful.
Ford rolls her eyes. “Present for Chowder. Help. Please.”
“Um…” Will thinks for a second, trying to remember if Chowder’s recently mentioned anything he might need. “Socks? Everyone needs a good pair of socks, right?”
Ford just stares at him. “Socks.” She says flatly. “The best you’ve got is socks. I think you might be worse at this than me.”
He groans and buries his face in his hands. “You’ve got no idea.”
“Well, if you think of anything let me know? Or if you need any help with yours?” She offers, sounding doubtful.
“Thanks.” He tells her, grateful for the offer but very aware he’s not going to take her up on it. The whole thing’s complicated and confusing enough that he’s been avoiding even thinking about it, since the gift needs to be perfect, because it’s Nursey. Who he keeps wanting to kiss. Which is it’s own sort of problem that he’s firmly ignoring, for lack of any better ideas.
It’s not the kissing so much that’s the issue, it’s kissing Nursey, his roommate and teammate and friend, whose company he increasingly seeks out, who’s just there, all the time, something solid to lean on.
“Hey,” Ford says, interrupting his train of thought. “Any chance you could help me study for calculus?”
She’s flipping through one of his programming language books with a puzzled expression on her face.
“First lesson,” He starts, taking it away from her. “This isn’t calculus, it’s Python.”
Ford sighs. “It’s going to be a very long week.”
Ford knew, knew that Janet’s assurances that everything was under control were blatant lies, but this was even more of a shit show than she was expecting. For one, Janet had neglected to mention that Robert was directing.
“No, no, no. The carolers move stage right. Stage right. On a three count. Not a four! Three! Please, at least pretend you can count!” She hears Robert shout from the direction of the house.
She sighs and hurries to finish taping up the sign in sheet, one elbow holding it against the cinderblock while she tries to convince the gaff tape to tear already. Tech starts tomorrow and she’s determined to make sure Robert doesn’t get a mic. Ed, the sound guy, will help her out. Absolutely no one wants a repeat of the Sweeney Todd tech disaster. Actually, she’s a little unsure why anyone would ever put Robert in charge again after that fun little interlude.
Amy, one of the crewmembers, skids to a stop next to her. “Ford! Have you –“
“Hold this, please.” She interrupts, gesturing toward the piece of paper. Amy does, and Ford finally gets the tape to tear and attaches the stupid sheet to the wall. “Ok, what do you need?”
“Um, we can’t find Brad, and Simone needs him for a costume fitting?” She gets out all in a rush. “Any chance you’ve seen him?”
This time, Ford hides the sigh. Brad is an obnoxious brat with an overly large ego who believes he deserves special treatment. He’s also playing Bob Cratchit, much to Ford’s personal chagrin. “I’m assuming you’ve tried the dressing rooms and green room?”
Amy nods. “And the loading dock, even though the techs usually chase the actors off of it, and backstage.”
“Including The Closet?” Ford asks, hoping against hope. No one ever remembers to check The Closet.
“No?” Amy shrugs. “Isn’t it supposed to be locked?”
Officially, yes it is, but it is never, ever locked and on the rare occasions when someone (usually Ford or Emily, who does lights and has actual sense) does there are enough keys floating around that it is unlocked again within twenty-four hours. Second semester freshman year Ford made it her personal mission to get the locks changed, only giving up when an older stage manager had sat her down and explained that it had been that way for years and no one had ever managed to do anything about it. Still, there’s a core of defiance that sometimes suggests that she just do it anyway and not tell anyone until after. Right now, the benefits are outweighing the costs of any of the school staff getting angry.
“Go tell Simone he’ll be there in a minute.” She tells Amy before marching off to find Brad and drag him to the costume shop.
He is, of course, in The Closet, thankfully still fully clothed but heavily making out with Janet. They both jump when she bangs open the door.
“Brad, Simone needs you in the costume shop. Now.” She can see him open his mouth to argue and glares. He gives her a smarmy smile and a condescending pat on the shoulder as he passes.
“Thanks, Ford. So glad I get to work with you again.” He calls over his shoulder, trying for sincere, like he thinks she can’t see through his bullshit. Once he’s gone, she turns her glare on Janet, who shrugs and grins uncertainly.
“Dammit, Janet! Brad? In The Closet? Really?” She asks, exasperated.
“He’s pretty!” She protests. “It’s not like it’s serious.”
Ford restrains herself from rolling her eyes, motions Janet out, and very deliberately locks The Closet door. It’s mostly pointless, but she still feels better when she tests the doorknob and it doesn’t open.
“Can no one remember the lyrics to Wenceslas?” Robert screams in the distance. She takes a deep breath and walks back to the house, trying to project calm the whole way.
Onstage, the carolers are looking mutinous, while Robert paces in front of the apron, muttering. She checks her watch and decides that it’s close enough to time for a break. “All right everybody. Take ten! We’ll be back at 8:47.”
The cast gets offstage fast, and she steels herself to deal with Robert, who’s now tugging on his hair in addition to the muttering. She pastes on a smile and taps him on the shoulder. “Hey. Just a reminder, we need to be done by eleven, so if you want to get a run in tonight, we should start it once we get back from this break.”
Robert stares at her. She refuses to let her smile waver. He moans, overly despairing, and collapses into a seat in the front row. She raises her eyebrows. He slumps lower and closes his eyes. She waits.
“Fine.” He grits out.
“Great, I’ll let everyone know.” She says, as upbeat as she can before turning on her heel and walking away. She’s forgotten how tiring all the manufactured drama is. Not that her hockey boys don’t also manufacture drama sometimes, but that’s usually just for fun and it rarely affects her job. And if it gets too bad she has back-up, in Bitty and Dex and Chowder and even Whiskey. Here, she’s basically alone.
She sits down at the wobbly desk balanced over a couple theatre seats and flips her script to the front, ready to watch and feed people lines if necessary. (She hopes it’s not, but considering how the night’s gone so far, it’s better to be prepared.) She’s writing notes on her clipboard about the earlier stage manager’s blocking shorthand when Sam comes up and stands next to her table.
She likes Sam, who’s generally quieter and kind and always on time, who works hard whether he’s cast as a lead or in the chorus. He’s playing Scrooge this time, and as far as Ford’s concerned, he deserves it. He’s been known to stop by just say hello and chat, but now he looks worried.
“What do you need Sam?” She asks, with actual sincerity.
He hesitates, before blurting out, “Are you doing ok? I know this is a lot all at once.”
She blinks at him, surprised. “Yes? I’m…I’m ok. Why?”
He smiles, a little crooked. “Just thought it would be good to check in.”
“Well…thank you.” She says, pleased and a little confused. For lack of anything better to do, she looks down at her watch and winces when she sees the time. “Cover your ears.” He does, familiar with the procedure, and she breathes in and bellows, “We’re back! Everyone, we are back! Full cast onstage, please!”
“That’s still impressive.” Sam tells her, pulling his hands away from his ears.
“Full cast includes you.” She reminds him, but with a smile and a hint of teasing.
“Yes, ma’am.” He throws a half-hearted salute as he walks down to the stage, and Ford gathers herself for the rest of the night, feeling a little better than she did before.
Will contemplates exactly how bad the chirping would be if anyone saw him in the kitchen talking to a rubber duck. He then considers how likely it is that he’ll finish this project without his rubber duck, and the odds, unfortunately, do not come out in his favor. Normally it’s not an issue – part of the reason he does so much work in the kitchen these days is that Bitty is even better than a rubber duck. After assuring him that Will didn’t care if he listened, didn’t even really need him to listen, Bitty was perfectly happy to let Will sit in the kitchen and mutter in his direction while he baked, throwing in the occasional interrogatory noise for politeness’s sake. But right now, Bitty’s in the library working on some kind of group presentation.
He would go up to his room, but Nursey’s been in there for the last few days working on a final paper, and it’s better for everyone if he’s left alone. Not that he’d necessarily notice if anyone was up there with him, if he’s deep enough into it, but he tends to bite his lip and tap on things when he’s really concentrating, and while the first is reluctantly adorable, the second is insanely annoying. Which, if Will really thinks about, describes most things about Nursey – half adorable, half annoying. Since they’ve moved in together, the adorable has started winning out, which is a problem.
Speaking of Nursey, he still hasn’t figured out what to get him for Secret Santa, which is soon. He switches his laptop over to Amazon to look for ideas, giving up on his project for the moment.
He’s trying to decide if just getting Nursey a scarf is some kind of cop-out when Chowder wanders in and comes around to peer over his shoulder.
“Trying to figure out gifts for your family?” He asks.
“Secret Santa.” Will admits, closing the laptop with a sigh. “I’m stuck.”
“You’ve got Nursey, right?” Chowder says. “Just get him a book.”
Will turns around and squints at him. “Ok, one, how did you know that? I haven’t told anyone. Two, what book? There are lots of books and I’m pretty sure Nursey owns at least half of them.”
Chowder shrugs and cheerfully sits down on the edge of the table. “You wouldn’t be freaking out this much for anyone else.”
“Don’t let Bitty catch you sitting on his kitchen table.” Will warns him, trying to deflect.
Chowder just rolls his eyes. “Are you ever going to tell him?”
“Tell him what? That you sit on the table when he’s not around?” Will asks, playing dumb and hoping Chowder will take the hint and back off.
He doesn’t. “Are you ever going to tell Nursey that you’re interested. In dating.”
Will scowls. Chowder just smiles at him, unfazed. “Never. The answer is never. Because I’m not. Interested, that is.”
“Uh-huh.” Chowder gives him a knowing look. “Let me know when you change your mind.”
“I’m not.” Will insists.
Chowder sighs, reaches out and puts his hand on Will’s arm. “Look, I just – I just want my two best friends to be happy, ok?” He pauses, tilts his head and really looks at Will, a moment of unblinking focus that sort of makes Will want to hide. “You don’t have to be scared.”
Will turns away, clears his throat, hoping his voice comes out even. “Who says I’m scared?”
Chowder opens his mouth to respond, but is – thank god – interrupted by Nursey wandering in half-dazed. His face lights up when he sees the two of them and Will ignores the surge of warmth he feels at the sight.
“Frogs! Y’all hanging out without me?”
Will and Chowder exchange an amused glance. “Y’all? Seriously? Are you Bitty now?” Will chirps.
“You’ll be dropping ‘honey’s’ next!” Chowder chimes in.
Nursey just grins at them, still in yesterday’s pajamas and definitely riding that manic edge of exhaustion. “No sneering at the gender neutral plural you! The word’s got endless uses, bros.”
“Sure, Nurse.” Will says, getting up to go to the fridge. Nursey sinks into his vacated seat. “When’s the last time you’ve eaten? Hell, when’s the last time you’ve slept?”
“Sleep’s for the weak and those not studying literature.” Nursey informs him. “And I bought a muffin with my coffee this morning before class.”
“Nursey, it’s almost nine.” Chowder says, worry in his voice.
“Really?” Nursey pulls out his phone. “Huh. Guess it is.”
“I’ll make food.” Will says, rolling his eyes. “Grilled cheese work for everyone?”
Chowder beams and nods. Nursey just gives him a thumbs up, busy scrolling through either twitter or the group chat if Will had to guess. He turns back to the counter, but he’s pretty sure he’s not quick enough to stop Chowder seeing his fond smile.
So far, almost anything that can go wrong has. It’s the second day of tech, final dress is tomorrow, the set is still missing half its doors and a coat of paint, and Brad’s fake muttonchops keep falling off. Which, Ford admits to herself, would actually be sort of hilarious except for the fact that every time it happens Robert starts screaming and Simone, who’s sitting next to her, looks like she’s about to give up on everything.
“Hold, please.” She says into the god mic as Jess runs into the table getting moved on stage. “Let’s try that transition one more time. Jess, remember to exit upstage of the table.”
“Sorry!” Jess calls as everyone resets.
“Ok, guys, one more time. Standby light cues 103 through 108, and sound cue 27.” Ford tells her board ops, before calling up to the stage. “Cast, feel free to start.”
She lets the dialogue wash over her, head in her book, waiting. “And lights 103…go. Sound 27, go.” A moment, as the scene changes. No one runs into anything and she silently cheers. “Lights 104… go. Lights 105, go. Lights 106…”
And the muttonchops fall off again.
“Hold, please.” Robert starts screaming. Ford sighs and turns to Simone. “Is there any way we can just… forget about the muttonchops until tomorrow? We really need to get through this.”
“Yeah.” Simone says, voice muffled by her hands. “I’ll figure out something tonight. Hopefully.”
“Thanks.” Ford gets up and goes to corral Robert. Again.
Will peers around the door to the theatre, wary. He has yet to see anyone actually in the building, and it’s sort of creepy. The lights are on at least, if still sort of dim, putting the stage in a weird spotlight. Ford had texted him half an hour ago, asking if she could cash in the offer to provide coffee, and if he would mind if he helped her with her calculus studying at the theatre, since she was stuck there for the foreseeable future. He creeps up the aisle toward the stage, finally spotting Ford, who’s sitting on in front of a fallen down door with the most defeated look he’s ever seen. He hurries towards her because that’s just wrong, Ford doesn’t get defeated by anything, not overbooked hotels or lost equipment, which means the world might be ending.
“Ford? Are you – is everything ok?” He asks once he close enough that he doesn’t have to yell.
“I don’t know how to hang doors.” She says, sounding near tears, and Will tries not to panic. “Why do I have to hang the doors?”
Will carefully puts the coffee down on the lip of the stage and scrambles up so he can get to Ford. “I – I brought coffee? Also I can hang doors, if you need help?”
Ford’s breathless, “Really? Thank you,” is heartbreaking, and Will picks up the coffee and thrusts it at her before she does something really horrible like actually start crying.
She drains half the cup in one long drink and Will pulls out his phone to text a subtle SOS to the rest of the team, because he is not equipped to deal with this alone. Thankfully, the coffee seems to have restored some of Ford’s equilibrium, because while she still looks exhausted and frazzled, she no longer looks moments away from a breakdown.
It’s enough improvement that Will dares to cautiously ask, “What happened?”
Ford sighs, deep and tired, and takes another sip of the coffee. “Everyone left. Except me. Because apparently no one actually cares about this show, and I shouldn’t either but I do, because it’s part of the job and I’m going to do my job even when I didn’t ask for it.”
“O…kay?” Will tries, still confused. “And part of your job is hanging doors?”
“No, my job is to organize company labor to finish building the set, which could have been done an hour ago if anyone else had bothered to stay.” Ford growls. “There are twenty-four people in this cast and when I asked people to come back once they were out of costume they didn’t.” She pauses. “Well, Sam did, he helped me finish painting Scrooge’s office, but he’s got an early exam tomorrow, so I told him to go home. And Simone’s down in the costume shop trying to finish up the costumes, and Emily would be here except that she’s coming in early tomorrow morning to finish all the light cues. But still, twenty-four people and only one came to help.”
Will feels a surge of anger at the resigned way that last sentence came out. How dare these people leave Ford – their Ford, their manager, who once faced down an entire squad of lax bros with nothing but the power of her too-sharp smile and won – to finish everything all alone? He knows the team can sometimes be inconsiderate and obnoxious and too loud and that they frequently drive Ford a little crazy, but they would never, ever leave her after she asked for help.
“What needs to happen?” Will asks, because while he knows next to nothing about theatre he can build and paint things, and there is no way in hell he’s going home until Ford does.
Ford blinks at him. He tries to hide the scowl, he’s not mad at her, but he’s not sure how well he succeeds. “Um. Hang doors? Scrooge’s office needs one, and the house set needs two.”
“Got it.” He says, rolling up the sleeves of his flannel. “Tools?”
“Backstage.” He’s halfway there when she calls after him. “Thank you, Dex. Really. You don’t have to do this.”
“It’s not a problem!” He calls back, determined to be the best door-hanger this theatre’s ever seen.
Ford’s downstairs in the costume shop asking Simone about the stupid muttonchops when Bitty – Bitty – pokes his head around the door.
He smiles when he sees her and comes all the way inside. “Ford! Dex said you’d be down here. I brought some cookies.”
Ford stares at him and his bag full of cookies, gob smacked. “Bitty? What are you doing here?”
Bitty shrugs and offers her the bag. “Dex said you needed some help, and wanted to know if I had any baked goods I could drop by. Luckily for y’all, I’d just finished up a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip.”
“Oh.” She takes the cookies, at a loss until Simone pokes her in the side. “Oh! Sorry. Simone, this is Bitty, the captain of the hockey team. Bitty this is Simone, she’s in charge of costumes.”
“Pleasure to meet you.” Bitty says, sticking out a hand and playing up the Southern charm. Simone grins at him and takes it.
“You too. Thanks for the cookies. Sugar’s always appreciated when we have to pull all-nighters.”
Bitty frowns at that. “All-nighters? Is one of your professors holding an early exam?”
Simone laughs at that. “No, it’s just going to take me forever to get all these costumes finished.”
“Need any help?” He asks. “I’m rusty, but I’m sure I could still do some of the basic stuff.”
“Wait, you sew?” Ford blurts out, still reeling from the fact that Bitty came and brought her cookies. That Dex asked him to bring her cookies. That any of this is even happening.
“Me and my mama sewed all my figure skating costumes, back in the day.” He tells her, glancing over at Simone, who seems to be calculating what projects she could pass on. “I still do buttons pretty frequently. The boys are hard on clothes.”
Ford takes this in as Simone’s eyes light up. “I’ve got a whole stack of buttons that need to be re-attached, if you’re up for it.”
Bitty smiles and climbs up onto one of the stools next to the cutting table. “Pass me a needle and some thread and show me where to start.”
Ford leaves the two chatting as she flees back upstairs, feeling sort of shy and cared for, which is new. Usually, she’s the one doing the caring.
Only to freeze at what she sees onstage.
Dex is still hanging doors, now with Nursey’s help, or at least attempt at help, while Chowder and Farmer are painting the back of a set piece black and Whiskey is very carefully painting the house set’s molding. Ford blinks, swallows, and determinedly does not burst into happy tears.
“Hey Ford!” Chowder calls, almost waving the hand with the paintbrush before Farmer grabs his wrist. “Are we doing this right? Dex said to just paint everything black. The sharpie labels too? What does DS mean anyway?”
Ford beams at him, because he’s here, he came to help her when he really didn’t have to, and he’s still invested in doing a good job. “Downstage. And paint around the labels, please!”
“Ok!” He goes back to his painting. Farmer shakes her head fondly and shares a look with Ford, one of their don’t-you-love-these-ridiculous-boys looks.
And oh, how Ford does, especially right now, as they turn what was going to be a night of frustration and exhaustion where she never quite got enough done to something more hopeful. She walks around, checking that Whiskey is using the right color brown and trying not to laugh at the way his tongue sticks out of the side of his mouth when he’s concentrating, responding to his small, wry grin with one of her own. Giving Caitlin and Chowder quick hugs and muttered thank yous and making sure they’ve got a drop cloth and enough paint.
She ends the circuit near Dex and Nursey, listening for a moment to their familiar bickering before walking up next to Dex and wrapping him in a hug. He freezes for a moment before settling his free arm around her shoulders, careful not to hit her with the chisel he’s still holding.
“Thank you.” She murmurs into his side.
“No need.” He says, blushing bright red and giving her a quick squeeze. She lets him go, and turns to Nursey, who’s smirking at Dex from behind the door he’s holding in place.
“You too.” She says. “Really, it means a lot.”
The smirk turns into a genuine smile, and he shrugs, nonchalant. “Needed a break from the latest paper anyway. Besides, you should have seen Bitty. He got that text and suddenly everyone in the Haus found themselves here with strict instructions to help out. His captainly powers are terrifying.”
Dex snorts. “No, that’s just Bitty.”
Ford starts giggling and can’t quite seem to stop. She hasn’t gotten more than five hours of sleep any night this week, and generally less than that, and tonight wasn’t going to be the exception, not to mention this whole production’s been crazy stressful. She’s pretty sure the only reason she hasn’t broken down before now is that she literally didn’t have the time. At least as far as breakdowns go, a little uncontrollable giggling is mild.
“Ford? You ok?” Dex asks, worried.
She manages, finally, to get herself under control. “I don’t think I’ve ever been better.”
“Hey.” He hears and Will freezes, just back from his morning run, two cups of coffee in his hand.
“Hi.” He says, turning back around to see Bitty leaned up against the doorway. “What are you doing up this early?”
Bitty brushes past him on his way to get his own cup of coffee. “Trying to get an early start. How was your run?”
Will starts inching towards the door. “Good. Listen, I’d better –“
“Dex.” Bitty says, stopping him. There’s a moment, just long enough to have weight, before Bitty sighs and keeps talking. “Chowder was talking to me the other day. He said that… that y’all were talking and… well, the point is that we – the team’s – got your back. We’ll keep whatever secrets you need. He seemed to think you needed to hear that.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Will says, swallowing around the way his whole body wants to clench.
Bitty glances down at the two cups of coffee in his hand. “We’re not trying to pressure you, sweetheart. Just – just want you to know that it’s ok. Here, if nowhere else. And… we’ll listen, if you need it.”
Will closes his eyes, not sure how – or if he wants to – explain that it’s not being attracted to a man that scares him, at least not anymore. It’s being attracted to Nursey, who’s brilliant and infuriating and beautiful and ridiculous, and already too far inside Will’s carefully constructed walls.
“It’s not what you think, Bits.” He finally decides on, unsure if he’ll be believed. “But thanks.”
Bitty nods and he escapes up the stairs to his room, leaving the extra cup of coffee on the desk near Nursey’s head, letting the smell wake him up. He drinks his own as he searches one handed through their shared laundry basket, looking for a pair of jeans.
The clinking noise his cup makes when he leaves it on the windowsill is what finally causes Nursey to poke his head out of his bundle of blankets, letting out a sleepy “Hey.”
“Coffee on the desk for you.” Will says, quiet. “I’m taking first shower.”
“Thanks, man.” Nursey says, smiling at him, before sitting up and snagging the mug.
Will looks away from his messy hair and half-lidded eyes and flees into the bathroom. He turns on the shower and lets it heat up, wondering, once again, if maybe, just maybe it would be worth it to keep this forever.
So far, their final dress rehearsal is going surprisingly well. Brad had shown up late with some bullshit excuse, but that was par for the course, The Closet had remained firmly locked for night, and no facial hair had fallen off of anyone. After the intervention of the hockey team, the set (and costumes – Simone and Bitty had gotten along scarily well, and Ford was pretty sure they had some sort of coffee date planned for after the break to exchange gossip) was finished and, since they hadn’t had practice, Ford had gotten almost a full night of sleep.
She’s actually worried it’s going too well. She realizes that makes her paranoid, but she isn’t sure she cares. They’re well into the second act and she hasn’t needed to hold once, and no one’s called line.
Which, of course, is when the screaming starts.
At first, Ford ignores it. It isn’t a scream of pain or fear, just two raised voices shouting at each other. At least she ignores it until the entire Cratchit family misses their entrance.
“Hold, please.” She calls, and sighs when Amy scrambles out from backstage. This is why she’d wanted someone on headset back there. “What happened?”
“Jacob caught Janet kissing Brad and now they’re fighting!” Amy says as soon as she’s reached Ford’s table.
She’s working with middle schoolers. That’s the only logical explanation. “Emily, Ed, I’ve got to go break up a lover’s spat.” She says over headset. “We’ll start from the end of that last transition as soon as I get back.”
“Good luck.” Emily replies, wry.
Ford sighs and pulls her headset off before trudging backstage.
Jacob is doing most of the yelling. Janet looks embarrassed, and Brad seems simply annoyed. The rest of the cast is watching with wide, interested eyes.
“Everyone!” Ford snaps. “What exactly is going on here?”
The cast and Janet look sheepish, Brad puts on his most wounded look, and Jacob turns towards her, still enraged.
“That – that – Janet’s been cheating on me! With him!” He yells, pointing at Brad.
“And that affects this show how?” Ford asks, as icy as she can make it.
Jacob splutters. “The show? Who cares about the fucking show?”
“I’m going to take that as it doesn’t, so I strongly suggest we get back to work.” She crosses her arms. “You can do this on your own time.”
“On my own –“ Jacob starts, face darkening.
Which, of course, is when Robert butts in.
“Ford! What the hell is taking so long? We’re supposed to be…” He trails off once he gets backstage, looking in confusion at the gathered cast, a few of whom are trying to slip away. “What happened?”
“Jacob just started yelling at me!” Brad quickly claims. Ford stares at him. “For no good reason!”
“What?” Jacob says, shocked, just before Robert rounds on him.
“Jacob, I know you don’t particularly like Brad, but that is no excuse to start yelling at him.” Robert begins in his normal condescending tone. “We try to be professionals here, and if you can’t act like an adult….”
“You know what? Fuck this. I quit.” Jacob says before storming off.
“Well good riddance!” Robert calls after him. Ford sees Sam bury his face in his hands and resists the urge to do the same. This is a disaster.
“Everybody, take fifteen.” She says, before grabbing Robert’s arm and dragging him over into the corner. “Are you a complete idiot? We open tomorrow, and our Tiny Tim just quit!”
Robert draws himself up in a show of righteous indignation. “If he feels the need to be rude to other cast members –“
“His girlfriend was cheating on him with Brad!” Ford takes a deep breath, trying to get her irritation under control. Robert’s gone white, finally realizing what he’s done. Ford wishes that was more satisfying than it is. “Now, go sit in the house and be quiet while I figure out how to fix this.”
“I’m sorry –“ He starts, but Ford does not have time for his apologies or his dramatics.
“Go. Now.” He does, and Ford pulls out her phone and starts scrolling through her contacts, trying to think if there’s anyone she can call on such late notice. It would be great if he looked even a little like Jacob, who was small and blonde…
She dials Bitty. “Hey Ford, what’s up? Everything ok?”
“Bitty, I need a huge favor. An I-will-buy-you-coffee-for-a-month type of favor.”
“What is it?” Bitty asks, sounding mostly concerned.
Ford closes her eyes and hopes. “I need you to play Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.”
There’s utter silence on the other end of the line for several seconds before Bitty lets out a breathy “What?”
“Please?” Ford all but begs. “Ours just quit, and your presentation was this afternoon, and you don’t have an exam until Wednesday.”
“Ford, honey, I don’t know the part.” Bitty says frantically.
“Can you say ‘God bless us, every one?’ Because that’s basically your only line and the blocking is just following Mr. Cratchit around and then sitting at a table pretending to eat soup.” She sees Simone hurrying towards her and holds up a hand, asking her to wait. “Seriously, I will owe you so much.”
She can almost hear Bitty thinking about it. Finally, he sighs. “Ok, I’ll do it.”
Ford does not let out a loud whoop of victory, because that would be undignified, but she really, really, wants to. “Thank you thank you thank you, you’re the best, how soon can you get here?”
“Give me twenty minutes.” He says on a sigh, and hangs up.
“What happened?” Simone demands as soon as she’s off the phone. “Jacob quit?”
“Yes, long story, I’ll tell you later, but Bitty just agreed to replace him, he’ll be here in twenty minutes.” Simone gapes at her. “Do you think Jacob’s costume will fit him?”
“Yes.” Simone smiles, slow and wicked. “Oh, this is gonna be so good. I can’t wait.”
“Why?” Ford asks, wary.
“Because I spent last night telling him all the gossip. He knows exactly who to hate.” Ford’s not sure if she’s excited or horrified by that thought. “Send him to me when he gets here. I’ll give him a refresher.”
Then she walks away. Ford decides she doesn’t care any more and goes to tell everybody else the new plan. They’ll finish the act, then do a quick put-in just for Bitty, and then an early call tomorrow to run through it again….
She can do this. She has to.
Will is about thirty seconds away from pulling out that rubber duck. He growls at his laptop instead, typing a few more lines of code, deleting most of it, trying again. Bitty’d rushed out a while ago, something about Ford needing his help. Will had looked up long enough to confirm that she just needed Bitty before burying himself back in his computer. He fixes what he thinks is the problem, and tries to run the program, which fails. He groans and collapses onto the table.
“Whoa, dude. What’s up?” Nursey asks, standing in the doorway.
Will closes his eyes, resigned to his fate. He feels something poke at him, and flails away, opening his eyes and scowling at a grinning Nursey who is far too close to his face. “Got you.”
“Asshole.” Will tells him flatly. Nursey boops him on the nose. Will bats at his hand and glares.
Nursey backs off, sitting down in one of the empty chairs. “Seriously, everything ok?”
Will sighs. “Yeah, just a final project that I can’t seem to finish.
“Anything I can do to help?” Nursey offers, one hand fiddling with his shirt cuff.
He opens his mouth to tell him no, but stops. Nursey seems weirdly sincere about the offer, and it’s not like it’ll hurt. And they’re good enough friends now that the chirping will be minimal and stop if Will really asks.
He decides to go for it. “How would you feel about being my rubber duck?”
Nursey looks at him, opens and closes his mouth a few times, and goes with, “Is that something dirty?”
“No!” Will can feel himself turning red. “It’s… when you’re stuck, it helps sometimes to explain the code out loud to someone. Makes it easier to spot the errors. A lot of people use a rubber duck.”
“Ooohhh. Makes sense.” Nursey pauses, grins. “Do you have a rubber duck?”
“Maybe.” Will mutters, rubbing the back of his neck.
Nursey looks far too delighted by this information. “Does it have a name? Please say it has a name.”
Will debates with himself for a moment, but he knows Nursey will just keep pushing until he tells him. “Gordon.”
“From the Mighty Ducks.” Nursey starts laughing. “Hey! It’s a good movie!”
“Of course. Of course you would name your rubber duck after a character in a kids movie.” Will scowls. Nursey, breathless from laughter, grins in response. “So what do you need me to do? Since I’m the duck now?”
Will takes a deep breath. This is probably a terrible idea. “Just – just listen while I talk it through? You don’t have to understand, or even respond really, but if you want to ask questions you can.”
“Ok.” Nursey settles himself more firmly in his chair. “I can do that.”
The Closet door is open. Ford suppresses a sigh and walks over to close it, stopping when she hears a familiar voice.
“Now you listen here. No one, and I mean no one, has time for your ego. Especially Ford. Don’t give me that innocent look, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve already thrown everybody into a panic once because you couldn’t stand to be wrong, and it is not happening again. I don’t care if you think you look ridiculous, you will march on down to Simone, apologize for messing up her work, and spend the rest of this evening as a model of kindness and humility, or I will not be responsible for my actions.”
Bitty strides out of The Closet, nose in the air, and Ford has to put a hand over her mouth to hide her giggles. Bitty stops when he sees her, face vacillating between sheepish and defiant. She can’t resist hugging him.
“Thanks. I’m not completely sure what’s going on, but thanks.”
Bitty pats her on the arm. “Of course, honey. Now, watch this.” He raises his voice. “Y’all better come out!”
And shuffling out of The Closet comes possibly the best sight Ford’s ever seen, Brad and Janet stuck together cheek to cheek by one of the muttonchops, looking about as miserable as two people could be. She glances over at Bitty’s smug smile and gives up on holding in her laughter.
“Let me know if y’all need any help navigating the stairs!” Bitty calls after them as they leave as quickly as possible. Ford’s nearly bent double, one hand on her glasses to keep them from sliding off.
“What happened?” She hears from behind her, and turns around to see Sam, hair powdered white, make-up half done, looking both confused and concerned. “Ford?”
She shakes her head, still not able to speak, but thankfully Bitty’s there to back her up.
“Sam, right? We like you. You should come to a kegster sometime.” Bitty takes his arm and starts leading him away. “But for now, let’s go finish up that make-up, and I’ll tell you all the new gossip.”
Ford catches her breath and locks The Closet, grinning wider than she has in days. Simone, she thinks, was right. Having Bitty here is brilliant.
They all wait to see the show until Sunday afternoon, when Jack can come down with Tater, and oddly, Poots, for whom seeing a showing of A Christmas Carol is some kind of yearly tradition. Lardo also makes her way down, with Holster in tow, who has sworn on the tub juice recipe not to make a scene. Will’s doubtful even that will be enough, and is secretly glad Shitty’s so deep into studying that he can’t make it. They’ve got enough loud hockey bros as it is.
The entire team shows up, of course. It’s not every day that they get to watch their captain play a child in a Christmas play, and Chowder’s practically bouncing from excitement. Farmer’s eyes are dancing as she chirps him. They get there early so the whole group can claim seats right in the center, and Will spends extra the time cataloging everyone else’s judgmental looks and chirping Nursey, who dressed up for the occasion.
(“It’s the theatre, Dex! You always dress up for the theatre!”)
The lights go down and Will rolls his eyes at Holster’s muffled whoop, settling down to watch the show, which he’s fully expecting to be entertaining in an entirely different way than the theatre department intends.
Giggles break out the first time Bitty appears onstage, looking adorably small and earnest with extra-rosy cheeks, his voice pitched much higher than normal. But the guy playing Scrooge is really good, even if his make-up is sort of ridiculous, and Will gets distracted from laughing at Bitty by watching him. He ends up much more invested than he was planning to be, so much so that he jumps when Nursey grabs his hand right before the Ghost of Christmas Future appears.
“Sorry.” He whispers. “This part always freaks me out.”
Will nods, staring straight ahead and not looking at Nursey, except for glances out of the corner of his eye, trying his best not to freak out that they’re holding hands. This is beyond bro territory, right? He’s pretty sure holding hands in a theatre is way beyond bro territory, even the somewhat more lax definition of bro territory practiced by SMH.
He decides to deal with it later and does his best to focus back in on the play, with mixed results. When Nursey finally pulls away to applaud, he remembers very little of what happened with the notable exception of Bitty’s final line, at which Poots – Poots – had cheered. He gets up in a daze – he and Nursey were holding hands – and follows everyone out into the lobby, where they all congratulate Ford and whoop and holler for Bits, before leaving en masse to get lunch somewhere.
The show is done and Ford is free and sitting in the living room of the Haus laughing at everyone’s Secret Santa gifts. Everyone’s politely ignoring the way Bitty is practically in Jack’s lap, and she makes a mental note to go talk to Poots who’s lingering a little awkwardly in the corner, but otherwise everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. So far, the most ridiculous gift is the large stuffed pink Wellie Wicks found for Ollie, but Whiskey’s never-ending scarf just might beat it.
“Why.” He asks as he pulls another foot of multi-colored scarf out of the box.
Ollie, clutching his stuffed toy in one arm, leans over and slaps him on the shoulder. “This way, you can’t ever complain about your neck being cold.”
Whiskey sighs, but there’s a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and he reaches out and affectionately shoves at Ollie.
“Ok, who’s next?” Bitty asks, leaning further into Jack, his hair still combed back from the show. “Dex?”
Dex hands a surprisingly well-wrapped box (so far, most things have been in gift bags or covered in newspaper) over to Nursey, ears already starting to redden. Nursey tears at the paper, revealing a long, skinny box with…a screwdriver? Ford squints at it, but it’s definitely a screwdriver.
“Um.” Nursey stares at it before pasting a smile on his face. “Thanks?”
“It’s to install the bookshelves I’m making you.” Dex mumbles, head down. “Over break.”
“You’re… you’re making me bookshelves?” Nursey squeaks, clutching at the tool.
Dex continues to stare fixedly at the floor. “Well, shelves. I just figured you’d want to put books on them.”
Nursey makes an excited noise before scrambling over Chowder and Farmer to hug Dex. “Thank you! That’s so cool! No one’s ever made anything for me before.”
“Yeah, well.” Dex shrugs, finally looking up at Nursey with a tiny smile. “You deserve nice things.”
Nursey kisses him. The entire team draws in a shocked breath as Dex freezes, before wrapping his arms around Nursey and kissing back hard. Holster lets out a wolf whistle and Lardo punches him in the arm.
“Finally.” Ford hears Farmer mutter as Chowder, beaming, throws himself on top of his two best friends, who have pulled apart and look rather surprised at themselves.
“They’re going to be the best shelves ever.” Dex asserts, eyes wide and one hand still clutching the back of Nursey’s shirt.
“Well, Merry Christmas to me.” Nursey says, pulling Dex in for another kiss.
Ford and Farmer exchange a glance before bursting into giggles.
Merry Christmas to us all, Ford thinks, seeing Dex’s pleased expression as Nursey drapes himself over his lap, and taking in everyone else’s grins. This week turned out ok.