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almost there and nowhere near it

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"We're almost there and nowhere near it. All that matters is that we're going."
(Lorelai Gilmore)

 

 

At six-thirty on any given weekday morning in the small town of Samwell, Connecticut, several things are guaranteed to be happening, reliable as clockwork. Eric Bittle is pulling a tray of scones out of the oven and easing them onto cooling racks. Adam Birkholtz is teaching yoga to the fifty-five and over Sensational Stretch class. Jack Zimmermann is taking the Samwell High track crew on a run.

 

And Will Poindexter and Derek Nurse are in a standoff over a third cup of coffee.

 

“No,” Will says flatly, holding the carafe out of Derek’s reach. Logically, this shouldn’t be possible--they’re the same height--but Will is awake and coordinated, and Derek, at least at this time of day, is not. “I’m cutting you off.”

 

“This violates the Geneva Convention,” Derek says. “Seriously, this is torture. Something is wrong with you.”

 

“I’m not contributing to you having an ulcer by thirty-five,” Will says. “And you’re setting a terrible example.”

 

Derek waves a dismissive hand at Ford, who’s watching the exchange with raised eyebrows and her usual amusement over her own mug. “She’s past saving,” he says, half a lament. “Caffeine addiction has a genetic component. You can check the DSM.”

 

“That’s true,” Ford agrees. She finishes her last sip and holds up her cup, giving Will her widest, most innocent eyes. “Top me off, Will?”

 

“No,” Will growls. He stomps back behind the counter, and comes back a moment later with a to-go cup and a scone. He gives the scone to Ford and shoves the cup at Derek. “Enjoy your ulcer,” he snaps, and stomps away again.

 

“My hero!” Derek calls after him. Will doesn’t turn around. Derek grins, taking the lid off his cup and inhaling the steam. “Hello, sweet elixir,” he coos. “I love you so much.”

 

Ford nudges him under the table. “Dad,” she says. He glances up at her. “Share?”

 

Derek purses his lips. “I don’t know, kiddo,” he says. “Maybe Will was onto something about the whole corrupting the youth thing, you know?”

 

“It’s not my fault,” she says, faking a pout. “I’m predisposed.”

 

Will stomps back to the table and puts a to-go cup in front of Ford. “It’s half-caf,” he says stiffly. He scowls. “And eat your scone.”

 

Ford picks it up and takes a bite. Will grunts approvingly and shuffles away. Ford puts the scone down, watching him fondly. “It’s kind of cute how he does this every day,” she says.

 

Derek grins. “Definition of insanity, baby girl,” he says. “Drink up.”

 

The bell above the door rings, and Kent Parson walks into the diner in a whirl of fall leaves and chilly air. He walks straight up to the counter and pulls out a stack of papers. “Will,” he begins.


“No,” Will says, without looking up from wiping down the counter.

 

“It’s just a few missing posters--”

 

“She goes missing every other week,” Will says, tossing the rag over his shoulder. Derek allows himself one (1) glance at his forearms where his flannel is rolled up to just below his elbows. Will has great arms. “I’m not cluttering up the announcement board with posters.”

 

Kent draws himself up to his full height--which, at five-foot-nine, is considerably shorter than Will’s six-two. “You know,” he begins, “you never want to be helpful to the community--”

 

“I think that’s our cue,” Derek tells Ford. She nods emphatically, stuffing the rest of her scone into her mouth and pulling her coat on. They pick up their coffees, and Derek tosses a twenty onto the table. It’s more than they owe, but it’s probably a good idea to tip today, if the vein in Will’s forehead is any indication.

 

“I don’t know why Kent bothers,” Ford says as the door swings shut behind them. Derek hums, sipping his coffee. “Will’s never going to put up those posters.”

 

“I think he just likes to watch Will make that face,” Derek says thoughtfully. “You know the one--where he gets all red and his freckles stand out?”

 

Ford shakes her head. “You and freckles, Dad, honestly.”


“I have made exactly three comments about freckles,” Derek says, defensive. Ford fixes him with a Look that she must have absorbed from Lardo via osmosis, because Derek’s never had side-eye that good in his life, and god knows she didn’t get it from her father.

 

“Three comments this week,” Ford says, flashing a wicked grin that borders on a leer, and yeah, that she got from her father. “Come on, you haven’t been on a date in months.”

 

Derek actually stops walking. “You want me to go on a date,” he repeats. She gives a firm nod. “With Will Poindexter.”

 

Ford shrugs. “Well, with anyone,” she says. “But you can’t deny you guys have chemistry.”

 

“Baking soda and vinegar have chemistry,” Derek says dryly. “It doesn’t mean they should date.” He takes a sip of coffee. “Hey, you know what you don’t see a lot of these days? Baking soda volcanoes. What happened to baking soda volcanoes?”

 

“I left sixth grade, Daddy,” Ford says.

 

Derek makes an excited sound. “Oh, or dioramas! What’s wrong with our education system that you stop making dioramas after middle school?”

 

Ford shrugs. “I think it’s the ingrained institution of crushing our sparks of creativity in order to ensure that we grow up to be cogs in the corporate machine.” She pauses. “Also, everybody knows about the whole baking soda thing, so I think most science teachers are raising the bar a little bit.”

 

“Mm. I hear you.” He snaps his fingers. “Potato clocks.”

 

“Also a little overdone.”

 

“Mentos and soda!”

 

Ford grins. “Running out of science facts, aren’t you?”

 

Derek sighs. “Dragged through the mud by my own child.” He sips his coffee. “The point is: butt out of the dating life, kid. I don’t drop hints to you about Tony, do I?”

 

Ford makes a face. “Dad, gross,” she says. “Tony’s like my brother.”

 

Derek snorts. “You look at his tush too much for that to be true,” he says.

 

They turn the corner, and Ford nearly trips over a blur of fluff as it streaks across the sidewalk. She yelps, and nearly drops her coffee. Derek catches it for her, and peers after the blur. “Huh,” he says. “There’s Kit.”

 

Ford looks thoughtful. “Think we should go back and tell Kent?”

 

Derek shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “Let her enjoy her morning. Being the biggest instagram star in Samwell must be exhausting.” He slings an arm around her shoulders. “Now. About Tony.”

 

 

This is Samwell, Connecticut, population 8,476 (not including cats). Established 1789 by George Samwell, the town is forty minutes from Hartford by bus, thirty by car. It’s a point of pride that the nearest Starbucks is a twenty minute drive away.

 

People in Samwell either spend their entire lives there and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, or leave the minute they’re old enough to strike out on their own. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone, which is either a blessing or a curse.

 

In Samwell,  everybody knows that Eric “Bitty” Bittle’s bakery is the only place to get a decent pie. Everybody knows that if you want to teach your kid to dance or sing you send them to Adam Birkholtz. Everybody has participated in at least three searches for Kent Parson’s adorable but absurd cat, Kit Purrson.

 

And just about everybody in town has a bet on when single dad Derek Nurse and diner owner and purveyor of Samwell’s best coffee Will Poindexter are going to finally get their act together and start dating.

 

(The pot is up to $643. It would have been $650, but everyone agreed that Derek’s daughter Ford has too much insider information, and it wasn’t fair for her to bet.)

 

 

“There’s a message for you,” Johnson says when Derek gets to the Inn.

 

Derek raises his eyebrows, shrugging out of his jacket. “Something you couldn’t handle?”

 

Johnson waves a hand. “It wasn’t relevant to my strain of the plot. I let the machine get it.”

 

He takes Derek’s coat and wanders off toward the staff wing, greeting a few patrons as he goes. Derek watches him, amused and a little bewildered, which is how he usually feels around him. Johnson’s great at his job, the guests at the Inn love him and he’s something of a character around Samwell, but he’s definitely an oddball.

 

Flipping the overnight ledger open, he dials into the office voicemail with one hand, reaching for his mostly-empty coffee with the other.

 

Justin’s voice comes through the speaker, and Derek nearly drops his coffee.

 

“Hey,” he says, his familiar voice slightly stiff in the way it often is in voicemails, missing its usual easy confidence. “This is Justin Oluransi, I’m calling for Derek Nurse? Uh--Hi, bud. I had a--” Justin’s laugh, self-deprecating and honest, comes through the line. “Kind of a phone incident, and I haven’t gotten a new one yet, but I wanted to let you know that I’m--well, I don’t wanna spoil it, but I’m heading down to your neck of the woods. I’m gonna try to get a new phone today, but in the meantime you can leave me a message at the Goodwin in Hartford--room 211. I’ll call you soon--love to Ford.”

 

The machine clicks off. Derek frowns at the receiver. Weird, he thinks; what the hell is Justin doing in Hartford? He’s supposed to be job hunting in Toronto after wrapping up his residency. He looks up the number for the Goodwin Hotel and asks for room 211. “Hey, it’s Derek,” he says, when the automated voice tells him to leave a message. “Just calling you back--hope everything’s okay.”

 

He rattles off his cell number and Ford’s, because there’s no guaranteeing Justin will be able to get his contacts transferred over if his phone is properly screwed, then hangs up. Collecting his coffee, he heads down to the kitchen to check on Lardo and Chris.

 

The clanging reaches him before he gets there, and he winces.

 

It’s too early for this.

 

Lardo’s a genius in the kitchen, but her style of cooking is loud to say the least, pans slamming and lids clattering to the stainless steel prep tables when she’s tired of using them. Chris, who came to the Inn to do his CIA internship a year ago, declared Lardo his mentor, and refused to leave, tends to hover around her like a cautious bumblebee. “You want to be close enough to learn,” he’d told Nursey once, “but not so close that you get hit in the crossfire.”

 

After twelve years working with Lardo, Derek knows to approach the kitchen entrance with caution. He sticks his hand through the doorway, then, when nothing hits it, he pokes his head through. “Yo,” he says.

 

Lardo flings a tasting spoon over her shoulder--it bounces off the edge of the sink (which is what, in a world where Lardo aims for things, she might have been aiming for) and clatters to the floor--and glances around at him. “Oh, hi,” she says. “How’s it going?”

 

“Well, it was going quietly,” he says dryly, stepping around something red and sticky on the floor and heading hesitantly over to the stove. He peers into the pot she’s stirring. “It’s not really jam season anymore, is it?”

 

Lardo scowls. “As long as Eric Bittle’s still making fresh jam, so am I,” she says, raising her chin. Derek snorts and shakes his head. Eric’s one of Lardo’s best friends--the culinary community in Samwell isn’t huge, and she needs someone to gossip with--but they like to pretend they maintain a rivalry.

 

(Which is absurd, because everyone in town knows that the only real jam rivalry in Samwell is between Eric Bittle’s mother and aunt. Summer in Samwell is spontaneously the best and most terrifying time to be a jam fan.)

 

“I actually think she’s on to something with this one,” Chris says, minding a pan of--what is that, bacon?

 

Derek braces himself. “Oh?”

 

“Yeah, the test batch was great. Caramel bourbon bacon.”

 

Derek groans. “Please tell me you didn’t expense the bourbon,” he tells Lardo.

 

She waves her new spoon at him dismissively. Boiling jam splatters from the end of it, and he dodges with the tired ease of long practice. “Of course not, it’s Shitty’s.” Her cheeks pink a little, and Derek grins despite himself. Lardo constantly denies that her flirtation with the lawyer-turned-organic-farmer who provides most of the Inn’s produce is leading anywhere, but it takes a lot to make her blush.

 

Something in her eye is telling him not to tease her about it, though, so he just drains the rest of the coffee from Will’s and tosses the cup in the trash, reaching for a mug with his other hand to pour himself another cup from the pot on the counter. “How’s it been here this morning?”

 

“Breakfast went really well,” Chris says, flipping his bacon. He tosses his hair out of his eyes with a practiced jerk of his head. Derek resists the urge to dig one of Ford’s bobby pins out of his pocket and clip them back for him. “People are really loving the frittata. I wasn’t sure how the sun-dried tomatoes were going to play, but apparently? Awesome.”

 

“Great,” Derek says, a little absently. He leans against the wall, tapping his fingers against his mug and inhaling the steam. Chris makes good coffee, but not as good as Will’s.

 

Lardo straightens up from peering over the pot on the stove. “You’re being weird,” she says. “What’s going on?”

 

Derek glances up. “What? Nothing.”

 

“Bullshit,” she says. “Something’s up. You have the Face.”

 

“What face?”

 

“The Stressed Forehead Crinkle of Anxiety Face,” she says.

 

“I do not have that face,” Derek protests.

 

“You do,” Chris says. “You’re wearing it right now.”

 

Derek gasps. “Traitor,” he says, and Chris grins, apologetic.

 

“Sorry,” he says, pointing at Lardo. “She pays me.”

 

I pay you!”

 

“Well, technically, but she, like...owns me.”

 

Lardo sniffs. “I’m educating you,” she tells him tartly, and then whirls back to Derek. If she weren’t the same height as his daughter, it would probably be more intimidating, but as it is, she’s pretty scary. “Now. What’s with the face?”

 

He sighs. No point in trying to hide things from her, she knows him too well. “I got a weird message from Justin, that’s all. He said he’s going to be in town”

 

Chris blinks. “Justin?”

 

“Ford’s dad,” Derek tells him.

 

Chris looks confused. “I thought you were Ford’s--” Derek gives him an expectant look, and Chris flushes. “Right. Sorry. I forget sometimes, ’cause you’re all--” He motions to his chin, clearly indicating Derek’s very visible stubble, and Derek snorts.

 

“One beard doesn’t cancel out twenty hours of labor, so I’m not as forgetful,” he says, amused. Chris looks sheepish, and Derek shakes his head. “It’s fine, C.”

 

“Anyway, Justin,” Lardo says, pointed. “Wasn’t he just here?”

 

Chris frowns. “I didn’t meet him!”

 

“He came down to Hartford for Parents’ Night at Chilton,” Derek says, cringing a little at the memory. Ford loves her school, which is great, but it’s rough enough having his own history there without Justin next to him as a reminder to anyone smart enough to put two and two together.

 

Still, he’s not dumb enough to be upset about having a co-parent who’ll grab an international flight to see his kid on a school night. 

 

“I don’t know, he’s just a pretty scheduled sort of guy,” Derek says, trying to get Lardo to stop looking at him Like That. “It kind of caught me off-guard.” He shrugs. “It’s fine. I’m sure Ford’ll be happy to see him.”

 

“Are they close?” Chris asks, curiously. “You don’t talk about him.”

 

“We’re not together, but he’s one of my best friends. And Ford loves him, obviously.” He sips his coffee. “I’m just not used to spontaneity from him, it’s weird. He likes structure.”

 

Chris brightens. “Maybe he’s gonna try to win you back!”

 

Derek chokes on his next sip. “I don’t think so,” he wheezes.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because we broke up when we were sixteen,” Derek says dryly, taking the paper towel Lardo offers him and wiping droplets of coffee off his blazer before they can set. “And it’s probably the best decision we’ve ever made for our relationship.” They’d been good together, and Justin’s still probably the most gorgeous person he’s ever been with (or ever will be with, probably; Derek thinks that if he had to get knocked up in high school, at least it was someone with great genes), but they weren’t going to last. It had been a mutual decision to end things while they were still friends rather than let themselves fizzle out or get frustrated with each other.

 

Chris sighs. “I just think you deserve a good romance, Derek,” he says, taking his pan of bacon off the stove.

 

Not looking up from her pot, Lardo snorts a laugh. Derek scowls at her.

 

“Do not even start with me, Larissa,” he says. “I get enough from Ford.”

 

Chris looks back and forth between them. “Of what?”

 

“Derek has a longstanding flirtation with Will Poindexter,” she tells him, watching critically as he drains the bacon grease into a mason jar and then tips the bacon onto a cutting board.

 

“It is not a flirtation,” he protests. “We’re friends. If that. Mostly he just lectures me about my caffeine intake and childrearing practices.”

 

“He fixes things in your house for free,” Lardo says. “All the time. He even makes Bittle pay him for that kind of thing.”

 

“Eric pays him in pies,” Derek says.

 

She brandishes her spoon at him. “The point stands, Nurse,” she says. “He’s into you. And you’re into him.”

 

Derek makes a face at her. “I am not.”

 

“You should get in on the pot,” Lardo tells Chris, as if Derek’s not even there anymore. “It’s getting pretty good.”

 

Chris looks interested. “Yeah?”

 

“I’ve got them getting together between next Christmas and Ford’s junior prom,” she continues, pointedly ignoring Derek’s sputtering objections. “I think Johnson has them down for like, sometime this year? He was weirdly specific. Don’t pay attention to him.”

 

Hey,” Derek protests. “Do I get a say in this?”

 

“No,” Lardo says.

 

“No,” Chris agrees. “Who do I talk to? I’m gonna bet on a midnight home repair.”

 

“I hate you both,” Derek announces, topping off his coffee, and heads back to the desk while Lardo gives Chris Kent’s phone number to get him into the pool.

 

 

This is Derek Nurse, age thirty-two, single father and general manager of the Samwell Inn. He moved to Samwell sixteen years ago, fresh-faced and nervous with a beat-up Jeep and a baby too young to be anyone’s but his. He grew up behind the desk of the Inn, baby Ford in a rocking car seat at his feet, and fell in love with the way the town accepted him without question, the way no one commented on his name or his pronouns or the growth spurt he had at seventeen when he got back on T and it kicked in through his system.

 

Derek has a Bachelor’s in business management earned through night classes, bookshelves overflowing with old literature and poetry, an easy laugh. He moves like someone who never quite expected to get as tall as he is, and avoids Lardo’s mother’s antiques shop after the third time he had to pay for a broken vase. He drinks coffee like normal people drink water. People tend to express concern about this.

 

He likes French wine and Spanish poetry and cheap Chinese food. He can cook exactly seven dishes, eight if you count “pasta any which way,” which he does. He is prouder of his kid than he is of anything else in the world. “She’s the coolest thing I’ve ever made,” he likes to say, while Ford makes faces and shoves at him and secretly delights in how much he loves her.

 

He doesn’t date, and he’s never really had a problem with that. “It’s not a priority,” he says, when people ask. People have set him up a few times, but it’s never really worked out.

 

“No connection,” he’ll say, and shrug.

 

If you ask Ford, she has a different opinion. “He deserves the best in the world,” she tells her best friend Tony when the topic comes up, and she means it. “But God, does he need to get laid.”

 

 

Will leans across the diner counter, staring at his nephew and trying to figure out when, exactly, this morning took such a weird turn.

 

Connor, sixteen and the spitting image of Will’s sister, with his auburn hair and strong jaw, stares impassively back at him. He’s clearly trying to project an image of Too Cool For This, which Will is already tired of, and it’s only been fifteen minutes.

 

“Okay,” Will says. He picks up his dishrag and starts drying mugs, just to have something to do. “Walk me through this again.”

 

“Mom said I needed some ‘time away from the city,’” Connor says, flipping his hair with a huff. He’s got it cut into one of those trendy undercuts that the kids are wearing these days; Will’s mom never would have let him buzz half his hair and leave the rest floppy like that. “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her.”

 

Will exhales slowly through his nose. It’s just like Maggie not to call ahead. He loves her, he really does, but what the fuck. “Okay,” he says. He eyes Connor’s tight jeans and leather jacket, and decides he’ll fight that battle another day. “Did she enroll you in school, or did she think you were just gonna...hang out here?”

 

“School,” Connor says. “But you have to sign me in and stuff.”

 

Will looks at the ceiling. He so doesn’t have time for this. “Okay,” he says again. “I gotta…” He looks around the diner. There are a few people left from the breakfast rush, and he sighs. “Yo,” he calls. A couple people look up at him, but most of them just keep eating. Will rolls his eyes and raises his voice. “Hey,” he says.

 

With a few small clatters of silverware, the rest of the room looks guiltily at him. “I need this place cleared out in ten minutes,” he says firmly. “Finish your eggs.”

 

Alexei Mashkov, Kent Parson’s long-suffering neighbor (and maybe boyfriend, Will’s never quite been able to figure them out), raises his coffee mug with a hopeful look. “You top off before I go?”

 

“You can have it in a takeaway cup,” Will says firmly. Alexei pouts, which shouldn’t be endearing on a giant Russian and yet somehow manages to be, and Will rolls his eyes, picking up an empty to-go cup and tossing it at him. Alexei plucks it effortlessly out of the air, huffs, and takes off the lid to dump his coffee into it.

 

Connor looks impressed. “Is everyone in this town an athlete?”

 

Will shakes his head. “No. People are just weirdly large.” He eyes Connor’s motorcycle gloves, remembering the roar of the bike that had pulled up outside the diner just minutes after Derek and Ford had left. “You’re not riding that thing to school, by the way.”

 

“It’s mine,” Connor says, almost defensively.

 

“Good for you,” Will says. “This is a tiny-ass town with two stoplights in the whole place. You’re not riding it to school.” Connor looks frustrated, and Will sighs. “You can leave it parked behind my place.”

 

Connor’s face twists, so much Maggie’s expression of annoyance that Will’s lips quirk up without him noticing, and then he huffs. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll walk, I guess.”

 

“There’s a bus.”

 

Connor’s frown deepens. “I don’t really do buses.”

 

Will rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he says. “It’s twenty minutes from my apartment to the high school.” He nods at Connor’s boots. “So you’ll probably want some shoes that are good for walking in, not just looking cool.” Connor scoffs, and Will resists the urge to put the kid on the first bus back to New York. “Did you even eat breakfast?”

 

“I had some coffee.” Will scowls. He reaches into the baked goods display and pulls out a muffin, one of the blueberry ones baked with protein powder that he slips to half the high school kids who come in for coffee but never eat real food.

 

He drops it onto a plate and shoves it at Connor along with a napkin. Connor looks a little surprised, but for the first time, an almost real smile tugs at his mouth. “You’re pretty much exactly how mom described you,” he says. “I thought she was exaggerating.”

 

Will raises his eyebrows. He and Maggie were never close, even less so since she moved to New York for college and never really looked back--which is why it was all the more surprising that she chose him to send her kid to when he started acting up. “Yeah?” he asks. He pours himself a cup of coffee, pointedly ignores the longing look Connor gives the pot, and dumps some milk into it. He takes a sip. “What’d she say I was like?”

 

“Grumpy,” Connor says immediately. “And sarcastic. But that you take care of people. It’s kind of your thing.”

 

Will snorts. He doesn’t think about how he knows which kids at the school are allergic to gluten, and which old people have switched to decaf coffee but still forget and ask for regular, about his habit of slipping vegetables into anything he makes for Derek fucking Nurse, who’d probably have died from scurvy now otherwise.

 

“Your mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he says, and he pours the kid a cup of coffee.

 

 

This is Will Poindexter, age thirty-nine, owner and operator of Will’s Diner, formerly Liam’s Diner, back when his dad owned the place and Will waited tables and worked the kitchen. Will’s worked at the diner since he was fifteen, and took over from his dad at twenty-five after his ma had her cancer and Dad decided there were more important things in life than working five-to-eleven shifts. Will got his dad’s blessing to change the name ten years ago, but doesn’t dare stop using his ma’s recipes.

 

Will has an apartment above the diner, a lazy golden retriever named Cat with fur the same orangish-brown as his own hair, a binder full of well-loved family recipes. He has a bag of hockey gear in his closet that he breaks out every winter, when the local guys get together to play shinny on the frozen-over lake. There’s a jersey with his name on it in his college colors, but he was never meant to go pro, and he’s fine with that. He’s never married, but he has pictures of all his cousins’ kids on his phone, and that’s always kind of been enough.

 

Will was the only person working in the diner the night that Derek Nurse came to town sixteen  years ago, a scrap of a kid with a tiny baby in his arms, circles under his eyes but a proud set to his chin. He’d told Will his name like he expected to be challenged on it, and Will gave him a cup of coffee and a loaded omelette.

 

Two hours later, Derek dozing into his third cup of coffee and the baby asleep in the crook of Will’s arm, Will had thought, oh, shit.

 

(That wasn’t the night he fell for Derek Nurse, because he’s not a fucking creeper and the age difference was too obvious, then. But he thinks of his life in terms of Before Nurse and After Nurse, and he can’t quite make himself stop.)

 

 

Ford’s already at the diner when Derek gets there after work, sitting at the counter with Tony and sharing a piece of pie. Their heads are pressed close together, whispering, and Derek lingers at the doorway for a moment, watching Ford’s bright eyes and gesturing hands, and thinks, not for the first time, when did she get so big?

 

(Big, of course, being a relative term. She’ll be lucky if she breaks five-foot-three. She gets that from Derek’s mom’s side of the family. Poor kid.)

 

And then she looks up and sees him, and her face breaks into a grin. “Dad!” she calls, waving him over.

 

Derek lets himself relax, heads to the counter and puts his bag down, kissing the top of her head. “Hey, kiddo,” he says. He nods at her best friend. “Tango.”

 

Tony makes a face. “No one calls me that anymore.”

 

He’d gotten the nickname when he and Ford were in eighth grade, and Tony had been obsessed with Moulin Rouge, had watched the Tango de Roxanne scene over and over on repeat. Ford had started it, and it had caught on immediately. He’d gone back to Tony by the start of high school, but Derek’s known this kid since he was in diapers and he’s never not going to fuck with him a little. Privilege of being his best friend’s dad.

 

“Sure they don’t,” he says. He sits down on the stool next to Ford. “How was school, baby girl?”

 

“Good,” she says. “I got my paper on Emily Dickinson back.” Derek raises a brow, and she grins. “Got an A. Mr. Medina was super into my lesbian theory.”

 

“Good girl,” Derek says. Ford doesn’t love poetry like he does, where he’ll read something and shape the words out loud and feel them in his veins, but she loves to read, will devour anything she can get her hands on.

 

I did that, he thinks sometimes, remembering all the nights of one more story, Daddy, please? He’d lost his voice for three days, once, and Ford had cried the first day when he couldn’t read to her. By the third, she was sounding out the words herself.

 

“Tony was telling me there’s a new kid at the high school,” Ford continues, her voice a little wistful. Derek knows she loves Chilton, likes actually being challenged by her work, but he knows she misses the kids she grew up at school with sometimes, too.

 

“Yeah?” he says, glancing at Tony.

 

“He’s cool,” Tony says fervently. “But like, in kind of a jerk way? He wasn’t rude or anything, he just, like--a couple of the popular kids seemed like they picked him out as being like them, and he just told them to screw off. Like he didn’t care.” He flushes suddenly, looking down at the pie. “He, um. Helped me with my books.”

 

Derek feels his eyebrows drift higher, and he glances at Ford to try to gauge her reaction. He’s suspected she’s been nursing a small crush on Tony since she left Samwell High for Chilton and realized how much she was used to having him with her all the time, and as far as he knows, Tony’s never expressed any kind of interest in someone else, regardless of gender.

 

There’s a small furrow in Ford’s brow, but she doesn’t say anything, just pokes at the pie a little more aggressively than usual. Derek puts a hand on her shoulder. “That was nice of him,” he says, carefully.

 

Tony’s blush gets, if anything, darker. “I guess,” he says. “Anyway, he said he wasn’t sure how much catching up he’d have to do, since he didn’t take chem at his old school. I said he should meet Ford, since she’s the best student I know.”

 

Ford ducks her head. “I don’t even go to Samwell High anymore, Tony,” she says.

 

“Doesn’t matter,” he says, decisive. “You’re smarter than anyone there, anyway.”

 

Will comes out from the kitchen and sighs when he sees Derek, turning to pour him a mug of coffee before Derek can even open his mouth. “Here,” he says, and goes back to the kitchen.

 

Derek watches him go, then shakes his head. “Weird man,” he mumbles, and takes a sip of his coffee. He chokes. “William,” he sputters.

 

Will pokes his head back out of the kitchen. He has a mixing bowl in his hands. “What?”

 

“What is this?” Derek gestures at his cup.

 

“Decaf,” Will says flatly.

 

Decaf?” Derek sputters. Next to him, Ford looks like she can’t decide whether to be amused or alarmed. “Will, what the hell?”

 

Will puts the bowl down and crosses his arms. “How many cups of caffeine have you had today?”

 

Derek shrugs. “I don’t know. Seven? Eight?” Ford makes an affronted noise, and Derek winces. “It was a really long day!”

 

“It’s six p.m.,” Will deadpans. “And you’re going to get stomach cancer. Drink your damn decaf and be glad I’m not taking away your morning cups, too.” He nods at Ford and Tony, then picks up his bowl and goes back to the kitchen.


Derek glowers after him, but reluctantly picks up his mug again. Decaf or not, it’s still Will-brewed coffee, which means it’s delicious, smooth and just the right amount of bitter. “Jerk,” he mutters.

 

Ford and Tony exchange a significant look. Derek frowns at them. “What?”

 

“Nothing,” Ford says, all innocence. “Hey, what’s our plan for dinner tonight?”

 

Derek winces. He’d picked up life skills at an accelerated rate when Ford was born, but cooking well has never been in his purview. “Uh, how’s brinner sound?”

 

Fortunately, his kid has inherited his palate, so Ford just grins. “Sounds good,” she says. “Can we do cheesy eggs?”

 

“You got it, babe.”

 

 

This is Ford D. Nurse, age sixteen. The smartest girl in her grade until her sophomore year of high school, when she transferred from Samwell High to Chilton Academy, and suddenly found herself in the middle of the food chain, not at the top. She kind of likes it better that way.

 

Ford has her papa’s brown eyes and her dad’s wide smile. She’s named for Ford Prefect, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because that’s what her dad read while he was pregnant with her, and he told her, when she was small, how much he wanted her to grow up and see everything she ever wants to see, go everywhere she ever wants to go.

 

Her middle name is her dad’s birth name. “Cis men name their kids after themselves all the time,” he told her, when she asked. “Why shouldn’t I?” When she points out that he gave her his birth name and not the name he chose, he’d just kissed her head and held her close. “Being born the way I was made you possible,” he says. “That’s worth remembering.”

 

She grows up at the Samwell Inn, charming guests with her bright eyes and easy laugh. She grows up at Will’s Diner, watching Will and her dad jump away from each other and flush every time they accidentally touched. She grows up with a herd of informal aunts and uncles, and sees both sets of her grandparents on her birthday and on holidays.

 

“They love you,” her dad tells her, his eyes soft and sad. “But they had different stories planned for us.”

 

Ford loves English literature and Caribbean poetry and Yoruba folk stories. She inherited her dad’s collection of fantasy literature when she was old enough to stay up too late reading under her covers with a flashlight, and her papa’s first telescope the first time she watched Star Wars and asked him to tell her all about space. Her bedroom is a mosaic of books and photographs, pictures of her and her dad and her papa and her friends. She has never once, in her entire life, felt unloved.

 

And sometimes, she watches her dad and Will Poindexter, and now that she’s old enough to know what she’s seeing every time Will takes away her dad’s caffeine and her dad makes fun of Will’s freckles and they jerk away from each other like they’ve been burned, she starts to plan.

 

 

There’s an unfamiliar car in their driveway when they get home.

 

“Huh,” Derek says, frowning. He pulls in behind it, a newish SUV with Connecticut plates. “Who do you think that is?”

 

“I don’t know,” Ford says, craning her neck. “Maybe Kent’s having people over and they got confused about the driveway?”

 

They get out of the car. Ford slings her backpack over her shoulder with a thump that makes Derek wince. How many books are they giving kids these days, anyway? He walks around the car, flipping through the house keys, and then Ford makes a delighted sound, and Derek snaps his head up.

 

He freezes.

 

Justin is sitting on the steps of the house.

 

He doesn’t look any different than the last time Derek saw him, which--of course he doesn’t, it was just a month ago. Justin looks the way he always does, tall and confident and devastatingly gorgeous.

 

(Derek will probably always think of him as tall, even though they’ve been the same height since Derek shot up almost six new inches when he was seventeen).

 

His whole face lights up when he sees them, and Derek can’t help but be happy to see him. They were best friends long before they were co-parents, and Justin’s not there every day but he’s always been there, has always been an active and loving part of Ford’s life.

 

It’s not his fault that a small part of Derek has always still been a little bit in love with him.

 

“Papa!” Ford shrieks, delighted, and Justin stands up just in time to catch her up in a hug, scooping her up off the ground. He tucks his head into her hair, and Derek knows that feeling so well, of just wanting to pull her close. The older she gets, the more he wants to be reassured that she’s still there, still theirs.

 

Justin’s beaming when he puts her back on the ground. “How’s my best girl?” he asks, tweaking the end of one of her twists gently.

 

“I’m so good!” she says brightly. “What are you even doing here? I thought you weren’t visiting til the end of the month!”

 

“Same,” Derek says, stepping forward. Justin turns towards him and pulls him into a hug, and Derek lets himself melt into it for a moment, inhaling the familiar smell of his cologne, settling into the strength of his arms. For all his hard-won independence, it’s nice to be held by someone. “What’s up, man?”

 

Justin looks a little sheepish. “I meant to call, but my phone got--” He shakes his head. “Well, I got a new one this morning, so that’s not that important, but--So, you know how I’ve been job hunting?”

 

The only time Justin ever stammers is when he’s feeling anxious, and the only time he feels anxious is when he has a big test coming up or if he’s done something he’s not sure was the right call. Derek raises his eyebrows. “Yes,” he says.

 

“Well, it turns out--Children’s was hiring?”

 

Derek blinks. “The hospital?” Justin nods. “In Hartford?” He nods again. Derek’s knees feel weak.

 

“Wait,” Ford says. She looks delighted. “Wait, you’re going to be working in Hartford? You’re going to be around all the time again?” Justin hasn’t been a constant fixture since he was at Yale in New Haven, six years ago. “Are you going to live here, in Samwell?” Her face lights up. “Are you going to stay with us?”

 

Panic flares briefly in Derek’s chest, but Justin shakes his head. “No, baby, I’m gonna be looking for my own place. Maybe in Samwell, maybe not, your dad and I need to talk about it.” Derek feels himself relax a bit, and then more so when Justin gives him an apologetic look.

 

“But you’re gonna be here? We can see you all the time?” Ford is nearly bouncing. Her delight is contagious, and Derek can’t help his smile. He wraps an arm around her shoulders, and she smiles happily up at him. “Papa, that’s awesome!”

 

Justin smiles. “I hoped you’d think so,” he says. He rocks back and forth on his heels, and glances at Derek. “Sorry I didn’t call.”

 

Derek shakes his head. “You’re getting in on my territory,” he says. Justin looks briefly alarmed, but Derek just smiles. “Breaking a phone, dude? Come on. You know that’s peak Nurse.”

 

“Hey,” Ford says. “I’m a Nurse, and I haven’t ever broken a phone.”

 

“You get your reflexes from me,” Justin tells her, eyes warm. She grins at him.

 

Derek clears his throat. “I know you’ve got a hotel,” he says, a little uncertain. “But, uh--do you want to maybe stay for dinner?”

 

Justin hesitates. “Is that okay with you?”

 

“Sure. Of course.” Derek smiles, then gives Ford a nudge. “Hey. Can you go pick what you want to put in the eggs?”

 

Ford eyes him for a moment, and then shrugs. She hugs Justin again. “I’m really glad you’re here,” she says. He kisses the top of her head, and she takes Derek’s keys from him and lets herself into the house.

 

They stand together quietly for a moment, and Derek sighs. “Rans,” he says, the high school nickname slipping out without him meaning it.

 

“I know.” Justin rubs the back of his neck. “I know, okay? I meant to tell you that I was looking at Hartford, but it was such a stretch and I didn’t think they’d hire me, and then when they did it was so fast, they called me yesterday and said they wanted me to start Monday--bro, I barely had time to pack up my apartment. I left a key with my landlady so she can let the movers in tomorrow.”

 

“I’m not upset, I just…” Derek looks past him, into the kitchen window. He can see Ford bustling, digging into the fridge. “This is gonna be a big shift for her, you know?”

 

“I know that. And I’m not gonna mess up what we’ve got, Derek, you know that. I’ve never wanted to fuck with this. We’ve been good, we’ve been good for years.” He says it with confidence, but he hesitates, and looks at Derek like maybe he’s not sure, after all. “Right?”

 

Stupid, attractive, wonderful man. Derek puts a hand on his arm. “We’re good,” he says, and Justin relaxes under his touch.

 

It would be easier, Derek thinks sometimes, if Justin was one of those deadbeats who didn’t want his kid, who fucked off to the other side of the country and visited on the occasional birthday. But that’s never been who he is. Derek’s been a functionally single parent for most of Ford’s life, but it’s never once been because Justin didn’t want to be there, or because he didn’t care. Even when Justin went to Toronto for med school, it was never going to be permanent.

 

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go feed your kid. She gets cranky when she’s hungry these days.”

 

“She gets that from you,” Justin says. He slings an arm around his shoulders. Derek leans against him.

 

They go inside, and Justin drops his arm. Ford pokes her head out of the kitchen. “We have frozen spinach and tomatoes and cheese and onions,” she says. “Does that work?”

 

“Sounds good,” Derek says. He nudges Justin’s ankle with his foot. “Hey. If you’re here, you’re gonna work. Do you still have your mama’s pancake recipe memorized?”

 

“Sure do,” Justin says. “That’ll need you to have a bag of milk on hand that hasn’t gone off, though.”

 

Ford’s entire face splits into a grin. “Dollar in the Canada jar,” she says.

 

Justin groans. “You still have that?”

 

“I’m saving for a new laptop,” Ford tells him. Justin rolls his eyes, and fishes his wallet out of his pocket.

 

Someone knocks at the door. “I’ll get it,” Derek says. He leaves Ford and Justin in the kitchen and goes back to the front door.

 

Will Poindexter is standing on the porch, Derek’s bag slung over his shoulder. “Oh, shit,” Derek says. “Did I leave that at yours?”

 

“Right on the stool.” Will passes it to him.

 

“You’re a lifesaver,” Derek says, and means it. He’s got vendor contracts he needs to go over before a meeting first thing tomorrow. “Thank you so much.”

 

“Yeah. Well.” Will steps back. He nods at the other car in Derek’s driveway. “Didn’t realize you had company.”

 

“What? Oh, I...No, not really. Ford’s dad’s in town.”

 

Will raises his eyebrows. “Oh.”

 

“Not like--” Derek doesn’t know why he’s stumbling. It’s not like Will has...No. “He got a job in Hartford, but he’s--he’s here for Ford. We’re not…”

 

“Hey, it’s not my business.” Will shoves his hands in his pockets. “I’m, uh. Glad he’s here. Ford must be happy.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They look at each other. Derek hadn’t realized how much he’s gotten used to having a cup of coffee in his hands when he’s around Will, something to distract him from how antsy he gets, how much he sometimes wants to see if those stupid flannels are as soft and warm as they look.

 

“Dad?” Ford calls, coming out of the kitchen. “I’m trying to find the--” Her face lights up. “Oh hi, Will!”

 

“Hey, Ford.” Will clears his throat. “I just came by to drop off your dad’s stuff, he left it at the diner.” He gives Ford a mock-stern look. “Aren’t you supposed to be keeping an eye on him?”

 

She giggles. “Sorry.” She loops her arm through Derek’s. “I’ll keep a closer watch, promise.”

 

“Good kid.” He smiles at her, crow’s feet crinkling in the corners of his eyes. Stupid face, Derek thinks. “Anyway, I’m gonna…” He gestures at his truck, parked on the street.

 

“Right,” Derek says. “Uh--thanks again.”

 

“Sure.” Will hesitates, then lifts a hand in an awkward half-wave and heads down the porch steps. Derek closes the door.

 

“Wow,” Ford says.

 

Derek puts his bag down. “Shush,” he tells her.

 

“No, really, Dad. That was rough.”

 

“I will bring up Tony,” he threatens.

 

She makes a face at him. He makes one back.

 

“Hey,” Justin says. He steps out of the kitchen, stirring a bowl of what must be pancake batter. There’s a smear of flour on his cheek. “Who was that?”

 

“Just a friend,” Derek says. Ford snorts, and Derek slings an arm around her. “Come on,” he tells her. “We’ve got eggs to make.”

 

Ford rolls her eyes at him, but lets him pull her into the kitchen. Justin hands her the mixing bowl and tells her to whisk until the batter’s smooth.

 

Derek glances out the window just in time to see Will’s truck disappear around the corner. He wants to reach out and put a hand on the glass.

 

Justin puts a hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” he says. “You good?”

 

“Yeah,” Derek says. He watches the corner for a moment more. “I’m good.”

 

...

 

These are the things that Derek Nurse doesn’t see:

 

The thoughtful look Ford gives him as he looks out the kitchen window.

 

The way Justin lingers on the steps of the porch when he leaves that night, a long moment’s hesitation before he goes home to his hotel.

 

The moment Will had spent sitting in his truck in front of Derek’s house before he pulls away from the curb, debating and thinking, before he’d put the car in gear and gone home.

 

Will, looking into his rearview mirror for longer than was properly safe, watching Derek disappear.

 

 

This is Samwell, Connecticut, population now 8,477, not including cats. Samwell is a place of habit, where people are set in their routines, in their ways, in their relationships.

 

Until, sometimes, something stirs things up.

 

Ford Nurse watches her father watch Will Poindexter, and watches the new, stumbling way he talks to him when her Papa is suddenly in the next room. She watches, and she sees.

 

She takes out her phone and texts her best friend.

 

Hey, she tells Tony. I need you to place a bet.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Derek opens the door of Will’s Diner at six-thirty in the morning as usual. “Hey,” he says to Will.

 

Will ‘hmph’s at him, waving him toward an empty table. Derek points to the coffee maker, giving Will his most hopeful expression, and Will snorts and nods. Derek grins, shrugging off his coat and draping it over the back of the chair as he sits down.

 

They’ve gotten non-verbal communication down to a science by now.

 

“Where’s Ford?” Will asks a few minutes later, coming over with two mugs and the coffee pot. He puts the mugs down one-handed and pours a generous amount into both of them, then pushes the larger one toward Derek. “She go straight to school or something?”

 

Derek picks up the mug, inhaling the steam. Best part of his day. “You know I’d never send her to school without one of your breakfasts,” he says, which is mostly true. They get an alarming amount of their nutrition from Will. “She’s on her way in; I left her by the car.”

 

Will frowns. “You drove here?” They usually walk.

 

“No, she--”

 

He’s cut off by the bell above the door, and he and Will look up together as Ford comes in, Justin behind her. She waves to Derek, grins at Will, and then drags Justin over. “Morning, Will!”

 

“Hey, kiddo,” he says. He glances at Justin and narrows his eyes.

 

Derek clears his throat. “Will, you remember Justin. Ford’s dad?”

 

Justin holds out a hand. “Hey, man,” he says.

 

Will grunts something that’s probably supposed to be a greeting, ignoring Justin’s outstretched hand and turning back for the kitchen.

 

“He’d probably like a coffee!” Derek yells after him. Will ignores him, heading behind the counter. Derek rolls his eyes. “Sorry,” he says, as Ford sits down next to him, Justin taking the seat across from her. “He’s...like that sometimes.”

 

Justin shrugs. “Not everyone’s a morning person, I guess,” he says.

 

“I mean, he opens this place at four-thirty. He’s just kind of a dick.” Derek sips his coffee. Ford creeps her hands towards the other mug, and Derek nods an approval. She looks relieved and picks it up. “How’s the apartment hunt going?”

 

“Really good,” Justin says. He’s still at the Goodwin, but he crashed on Derek’s couch last night after he came over for dinner. “There’s a guy in town who’s got a place open--uh, Adam something?”

 

Ford brightens. “Birkholtz?”

 

Justin snaps his fingers. “Yes.”

 

“Oh my God,” she says, looking delighted. “You’ll love Mister Adam! He’s so great. He does all the music and dance lessons in town.”

 

“I think he’s more interested in the apartment, baby,” Derek says, vaguely entertained.

 

She waves a dismissive hand. “Whatever,” she says. “He should like his landlord, Dad.”

 

Derek gives Justin an amused look. “This is your child,” he says.

 

“Oh, sure,” Justin says. “When she’s weird, she’s my child.”

 

“I don’t make the rules,” Derek agrees.

 

Will comes back with a cup of coffee for Justin and a breakfast sandwich, unordered, that he sets down in front of Ford. “Thanks,” she says, beaming at him.

 

“There’s vegetables on it,” he tells her. “Eat them this time. If you leave them on the plate, I’m following you out of here.”

 

She makes a face at him. “Fine, Will,” she says.

 

Will narrows his eyes at her, then gives a short nod and turns away.

 

“Hey, uh,” Justin says. “Do you think we could--” Will’s already gone, halfway back to the kitchen, and Justin blinks. “Order? Or not. Okay.” He looks at Derek. “Uh...is he always like that?”

 

Derek hums into his coffee. “Kind of,” he says. “You get used to it.”

 

“I mean, yeah, but…” Justin glances at Ford, and then seems to come to a decision. “I mean, is it…”

 

He makes a vague hand gesture, and Derek squints at him, still not quite caffeinated enough to decipher subtlety, and then it clicks. “Oh, shit,” he says. “No, bro, it’s not a race thing, it’s, uh--” He cringes a little, but there’s only so much he can get away with. “I think it’s kind of personal.”

 

Justin looks like he can’t decide whether to be relieved or offended. “I’ve barely met the guy!”

 

Derek winces. “I know, but…” He pauses, then glances at Ford. “Baby, why don’t you tell your dad about your chem class? I think he could probably help you with your lab notes.”

 

He gets to his feet, and Justin frowns at him. “You okay?”

 

“I’m gonna see what muffins Will has today,” Derek says, picking up his coffee. He nudges Ford. “Lab notes, kid.”

 

“Subtle, Daddy,” she says dryly, but she leans over the side of her chair to rummage in her backpack.

 

Derek bends to kiss the top of her head before heading up to the counter. There’s a tall, wiry kid standing out the register, punching in numbers from a bill with a sullen expression. He’s wearing an apron, which is weird, because Will only has two employees and Derek knows both of them. “Hey,” he says.

 

The kid looks up at him. “Hi,” he says warily.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“I’m Connor,” the kid says. “Will’s nephew.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows. “I didn’t know Will had a nephew.”

 

Connor shrugs. “We don’t hang out much.”

 

Derek eyes him for a moment, then decides he’s too tired to be nosy. “Chill,” he says. “Where’s Will?”

 

“In the back.”

 

“No kidding,” Derek says. “Can you get him for me?”

 

Connor huffs and rolls his eyes--Jesus, Derek thinks, please let Ford never meet this kid--and turns around to yell into the kitchen. “Uncle Will!”

 

Derek resists the urge to give a parental “I could have done that” as Will comes out of the back, drying his hands on a towel. “Go keep an eye on the scones,” Will tells him, and Connor gives another huff and hands Will the check he was ringing up, shuffling back into the kitchen.

 

“I can see he got your sunny disposition,” Derek says.

 

“Runs in the family,” Will grunts. He finishes the check and shoves it into the drawer of the register. “What’s up?”

 

“I think I should be asking you that,” Derek says. Will looks at him blankly, and Derek aims a pointed look at his table.

 

Will follows his gaze. “What? I brought you coffee.”

 

“Right,” Derek says. “And the blatant ignoring of Justin was…”

 

“I didn’t ignore him,” Will says, crossing his arms. “I was giving him time to look at the menu.” Derek gives him his flattest look, and Will sighs. “Alright, fine, maybe I was brusque.”

 

Derek doesn’t comment on the SAT word. “Will,” he says. Will looks at him a little guiltily. “You can’t be a dick to my kid’s dad.”


Will mutters something. Derek raises his eyebrows. “What was that?”

 

“I said, if he wants the folks in town to be nice to him, he should have been around more,” Will says, sounding somehow both caught out and exasperated. “I mean, you basically raised Ford on your own--”

 

“Okay,” Derek interrupts. “I’m gonna need you to jump right off that high horse, buddy.”

 

Will opens his mouth like he wants to protest. Derek scowls at him, and Will actually looks so surprised--fair, honestly, Derek rarely actually gets irritated or angry enough to properly glare--that he snaps his mouth shut firmly enough that Derek hears his teeth click together.

 

“Thank you,” Derek says. “Now, listen. Justin is an amazing dad. He went to med school in Toronto so that he could get his degree without going into American-level debt, so that he can use the money he would have used for school to give Ford a college fund. And he is smart, Will, he is so damn smart, Ford gets all her brains from him, and there was no way in hell I was going to let him hang around here when I knew that if he went to school he could probably end up curing some kind of cancer.”

 

He takes a breath. “And even if he wasn’t a genius, I wanted Ford growing up knowing that she didn’t stop either of us--either of us--from doing what we wanted in life. So yes, Justin went away to college, and then he went to med school. And any time Ford had a school event, he came home. Any time she did something important, he came home. Any time she just needed her dad, he came home. So don’t tell me he’s a shit dad just because you didn’t see everything he was doing. Okay?”

 

Will looks more than a little taken aback, but he nods. “Okay,” he says. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

 

“Good,” Derek says, still bristling slightly. “And I swear to God, Will, if this is some kind of race thing--”

 

“It’s not,” Will says immediately. “It’s a--”

 

He breaks off, flushing all the way to the tips of his ears. Derek raises his eyebrows, intrigued. “What?”

 

Will huffs. “It’s a you and Ford thing, okay? It’s not just me, the whole town is--well, you know how people are about Ford, everyone loves her, and you’re…”

 

“I’m,” Derek prompts, anger gone, mostly just enjoying himself now. He puts his mug down and inches it across the counter, and Will, probably moving on autopilot, refills it. “I’m what?”

 

Will catches himself pouring and scowls. “You’re a pain in the ass,” he says, but there’s no heat in it, and Derek grins. “Go back to your table, I’ll bring Justin a menu.”

 

“Thank you,” Derek said, picking up his refilled coffee and heading back, dropping into his seat just as Ford wrapped up what looked like a very long story about her chemistry teacher.

 

“Hey,” Justin says. “Everything okay up there? Looked a little heated.”

 

“All good,” Derek says.

 

Will doesn’t bring them a check when they’re getting ready to go. “It’s on the house,” he says, for once handing Derek a full to-go cup without being a fuss. He nods to Justin. “Welcome to Samwell.”

 

Justin looks surprised. “Thanks,” he says. “Uh--great coffee, by the way. Derek tells me he lives off it.”

 

Will cracks a smile. “He does,” he says. “You should keep an eye on that.”

 

Justin chuckles. “I’ll do my best,” he says, pulling his coat on. “Ford, you ready to head to school?”

 

He slings an arm around her as they walk out of the diner. Derek picks up his messenger bag and moves to follow them, and Will catches his arm. “Hey,” he says.

 

Derek turns, looking curiously at him. Will licks his bottom lip, looking conflicted, and then he sighs. “She didn’t get all her brains from him,” he says, after a long moment. “I hope you know that.”

 

It’s not at all the kind of thing Will usually says to him, and Derek has to process for a moment before he can answer. He takes a breath. “I know,” he says. “But it’s nice to hear.”

 

Will shrugs. “People should say it more often, then,” he says, and drops his hand.

 

“What’s up,” Justin asks as Derek slides into the passenger seat of his car. “Something good happen?”

 

Derek fastens his seatbelt. Ford usually takes the bus to school, but with both of them in town, they’re treating her. “Nothing in particular,” he says. “Why?”

 

Justin shrugs. “You’re just smiling, that’s all.”

 

“Oh.” Derek looks down at his coffee, thinks about how he didn’t have to ask for it, how Will, despite all his whining about Derek’s caffeine intake, still adds a sprinkle of cinnamon to every cup for him. “Yeah. I guess I am.”

 

 

This is Will’s Diner, formerly Liam’s Diner, established 1965 by Will’s grandfather. It’s been a Samwell staple for two generations now, but everyone privately agrees--well out of earshot of old Murph Poindexter, who still has ears like a hawk, despite the cane and the arthritis--that it’s stepped up a bit since Will took it over. He’d pinned down the contract with Shitty Knight (“Mister Crappy,” he tells scandalized parents of small children) when he’d started the organic farm, and Samwell’s breakfast connoisseurs claim that the fresher vegetables and chicken-fresh eggs make all the difference.

 

More than the food, though, Will’s is a Samwell institution. Will had known, vaguely, that when he took over the diner he’d also be taking on his dad’s job as combination drug dealer (“Caffeine’s a drug too, William,” his dad likes to say), therapist, dietician, and surrogate parent, but he hadn’t quite grasped the extent of it.

 

(“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Will’s dad tells him, when Will comes over for dinner on his rare nights off and collapses onto the well-loved family couch. “Half the old guard still thinks you’re too young to hear the real crazy stuff. They still come to me.”

 

Will, at these times, usually says something like, “when do they find the time? They never leave the damn diner.”

 

“That’s what Bingo’s for, son,” his dad says, and brings him another beer.)

 

The diner’s a meeting place for the Samwell bridge club, the poker club, and the informal Samwell Bitch Club, a bi-weekly gathering of former Samwell athletes (gender inclusive) who get together to (to quote one Adam Birkholtz, Club President), “bitch about sports.”

 

(“Why not call it the Samwell Sports Club?” Will had made the mistake of asking, exactly one time, and had been treated to a ten-minute diatribe about institutionalized sexism, racism, gender essentialism, and heterosexism in college and professional sports.

 

He hadn’t asked again.)

 

At the end of the day, Will’s is more than a restaurant. It’s a community space.

 

Which is why, when Will Poindexter catches Derek Nurse’s arm as Derek leaves the diner with his kid and his ex, and their eye contact lingers for long enough for people to notice, the rumor mill ignites.

 

 

“I’m telling you,” Tony says as they make their way to Will’s after school, “he’s actually kind of nice. He just has, like, resting cranky face, I guess.”

 

Ford adjusts the strap of her backpack. “It’s not that I don’t believe that he’s nice,” she says.

 

“You have that face on,” he says.

 

Ford raises her eyebrows. “What face?”

 

They reach the diner, and Tony holds the door open. Ford gives him a fond nod as she slips past him. “The ‘Tony’s about to start up some kind of nonsense’ face.”

 

“I didn’t know I had that face.”

 

“You have a lot of different faces,” he says. “I just have a lot of practice keeping track of them.”

 

They sit down at one of the few four-person tables. Ford frowns. “Where is he?”

 

Tony cranes his head, looking around the diner. “He said he’d be here.”

 

A familiar-looking pale kid with brown hair shaved close on the sides and floppy on top sits down in the chair next to Tony. “I’m here,” he says. “Sorry.”

 

Ford frowns, trying to place his face. “I know you,” she says. “Why do you look familiar?”

 

“I’m Will’s nephew,” Connor says.

 

“I didn’t know Will had a nephew.”

 

“I get that a lot,” he says dryly. His brow furrows as he looks at her. “Your name’s Ford?”

 

She nods. “Ford Nurse.”

 

“Ford Nurse,” he repeats, and then understanding blooms on his face. “Like Derek Nurse? The guy everyone keeps telling me my uncle’s in love with?”

 

Ford decides she likes him. “That’s my dad,” she says. “Who told you?”

 

“Only everyone,” he says. He holds out his hand, oddly polite, and Ford shakes it, a little amused. “Tony says you’re a chemistry genius.”

 

“I just have a good memory,” she says. “Do you have your book with you?”

 

He digs his chemistry textbook out of his backpack, along with a slightly rumpled folder. “I was taking Bio at my old school,” he explains, setting the book down on the table. “I guess they do that freshman year here? They didn’t want to put me in the class.”

 

“You’re a sophomore?” He nods. “Cool.”

 

She finds the chapter they’re stuck on pretty easily. It’s one she’s already covered at Chilton, which is kind of a relief; Tony talks about her like she’s a genius, but science isn’t her strongest suit. “Okay, great,” she says. “This is no problem.”

 

Connor turns out to be pretty smart, despite his “don’t give a crap” attitude and disinterested expression. He catches on quickly, once she explains the concepts a few times. It takes Tony a little longer, but he’s always learned best by asking questions, finding his own way around different ideas and problems. She likes that about him, always has.

 

What she’s not sure she likes is the way he watches Connor while they work. He keeps giving him little glances, flushing pink and ducking his head away any time Connor looks back. Connor doesn’t seem to notice, but he gives Tony the occasional small, almost indulgent smile, like he’s finding himself becoming fond without meaning to.

 

Ford knows the feeling.

 

“So,” she says, when they take a break, shoving down her jealousy. Stupid feeling, anyway. “You’re from New York, right? What brought you down here?”

 

Connor puts down the coffee mugs he’d gone to get from the kitchen, having pointedly ignored Will’s frown as he filled them. “My mom sent me,” he said. “She was sick of me fighting with my stepdad.”

 

Ford picks up her cup, inhaling the steam as she props her cheek on her hand. “You don’t get along with him?”

 

He shrugs. “He’s just kind of an asshole. We fight a lot.” Her face must twitch, or something, because he shakes his head. “Not like--We just don’t get along. He was all…” He pitches his voice. “‘It’s not just you and your mother anymore, son, you need to learn how to take some responsibility.’ That kind of thing.”

 

Her face definitely does something, and Tony snorts out a laugh. Ford glances at him. “What?”

 

“That was my favorite face,” he says. “Your ‘that is some white nonsense but I don’t know that person well enough to call them on it’ face.”

 

Ford lets out a startled giggle of her own. “I knew I had that face,” she snickers out, “but I didn’t know you named it.” She looks back at Connor, who looks amused rather than offended, which is a relief. If Tony’s going to have a sudden crush on someone other than her, at least he chose someone who isn’t the worst kind of white guy. “Sorry,” she tells Connor anyway.

 

He shrugs. “Nah, it’s okay.” He cracks a smile, and it is a nice smile, when it’s real, crinkling his eyes at the corners instead of just his face twitching in wry amusement. “I know I can get entitled.” His lips twitch. “Funnily enough, that’s one of the things my mom and stepdad liked to call me on the most.”

 

“So she thought sending you out to the middle of nowhere would help?”

 

“More likely she thought Uncle Will wouldn’t tolerate my bullshit,” he says, leaning back in his chair.

 

“That’s exactly what she thought,” Will says, appearing over Tony’s shoulder, coffee pot in hand. Connor flushes slightly under Will’s gaze, and Ford muffles a giggle into her cup. Will smirks. “I thought you kids had homework.”

 

“We’re taking a coffee break,” Tony says.

 

Will snorts, then hands Connor a dish towel. “If you can take a coffee break, you can bus some tables.”

 

Connor makes a face, but he drains his mug and gets up.

 

“We can help,” Tony says, getting to his feet. “Do you want help?”

 

Connor shakes his head, but the smile he gives Tony is the softest Ford’s seen from him yet. “Nah, it’s okay. I think we could pack up, actually. I feel a lot better about everything now.”

 

And then he looks at Ford, and smiles, and oh, hell, she thinks, he is really cute. “Thanks, Ford,” he says, and shoulders his backpack, heading back behind the counter to drop off his stuff.

 

Ford waits until he disappears behind the swinging doors to the kitchen before she clears her throat, looking across the table at Tony. He looks back, his cheeks faintly pink.

 

“So,” she says. “Um.”

 

Tony sighs. “That’s what I thought, too,” he says, and puts his head down on the table.

 

 

This is Anthony Tangredi, aged sixteen, usually known as Tony. He’s still Tango, to a few people, though almost always with fondness. People sometimes say that he’s not the sharpest kid (“But bless his heart,” Eric Bittle always adds) but it’s not that Tony’s dumb, not even a little. He’s just not book smart, not the way people talk about people being book smart. Tony likes learning, he likes finding out new things, it’s just that he has a lot of trouble learning things out of books, or just absorbing things from a teacher.

 

Tony Tangredi meets Ford Nurse in the first grade, when they’re assigned to be desk partners. He asks her about her name (“I’ve never met someone named Ford before! Is it like the car?”) her family (“How come both your parents are dads?”) her hair (“How do you get it to twist like that?”) and her sweater (“Do you like foxes? I like dogs best, but foxes are kind of like dogs, right?”) before she even has a chance to ask his name.

 

Chad Walters, the next table over and established as the class bully since kindergarten, throws an eraser at Tony. “Leave her alone,” he says. “No one cares about your dumb questions, Tony.”

 

Ford snaps her head up, snatches the eraser off the table where it had bounced off of Tony’s shoulder, and flings it back at Chad. It hits him square in the forehead. “I care,” she snaps, with all the righteous fury of a wronged six-year-old, and Tony’s stomach erupts into butterflies.

 

(It’s not until eighth grade, when Ford passes him a pen and an electric shock goes through him when their fingers brush, that he realizes that he’s been in love with Ford since before he knew what that even meant.

 

And it’s not until tenth grade, when Connor Whisk hands him a textbook from the floor and those same butterflies make a brand-new appearance, that Tony realizes that he might not have asked all the questions about himself that maybe he should have.)

 

 

Derek’s mother calls when he’s on his way home from work, stressed from hotel guest nonsense and already running late to meet Ford for dinner, which is about par for the course these days. He answers the call, puts his phone on speaker, and tosses it onto his dashboard. “Hi, Mom.”

 

“Derek, hello,” his mom says, in the overly formal tones she only ever uses when his paternal grandmother is in hearing distance. “I wanted to check in about dinner this Friday.”

 

He checks his blind spots and turns onto Samwell’s main street. “What about it? We’ll show up at seven, Grandma will passively shame me for most of my life choices, Ford will be a delight, Dad will be Dad, and you and I will make a lot of significant eye contact across the table.”

 

She makes the slightly strangled noise that he’s learned to recognize as the muffling of a laugh, and then clears her throat. “Your grandmother was wondering if Justin would be coming with you.”

 

Derek groans. “How does she even know he’s in town?”

 

“Never underestimate your grandmother’s gossip mill,” she says. “Is that a yes?”

 

“It sounds like it has to be,” he says tiredly. “Is she going to do the thing again?”

 

“Which thing?”

 

“You know what thing, Mom. The--” He raises his voice in what he knows is a terrible and not particularly kind imitation of his dad’s mother. “Oh, Derek dear, you know that I’ve always adored Justin, and he comes from such a good family, and did you know his professors at Yale still just rave about him, and--”

 

“Alright, dear, I get the point,” his mother says, a little tartly, and Derek stops talking. To her credit, though, her voice is understanding when she continues. “I’ll have a talk with her. But you know it’s all from a place of love, don’t you? She wants you to be taken care of.”

 

Derek resists the urge to bang his head on his steering wheel, focusing on finding parking instead. “I’m taking care of myself, Mom. I’ve been taking care of myself since I was sixteen.”

 

The line goes quiet, and Derek feels a pang of guilt. He pulls into a spot he’s pretty sure is legal and turns off his car, then sighs. “Mom, I didn’t mean--”

 

“I know.” It’s sad, and a little resigned, but not bitter. “We all want you and Ford to be happy. It’s just...a little hard for us to remember that your definition of happy doesn’t necessarily look like ours.”

 

Derek said about the same thing to Ford yesterday. He rubs his eyes. “I’ll ask Justin if he’ll come on Friday,” he says. “I’m not going to drag him.”

 

“Good enough for me,” his mom says. “And I’ll get a bottle of that Orvieto you like.”

 

His mom is a goddamn gem. “Thanks,” he says.

 

“I love you, sweetheart.”

 

“I know, Mom,” he says, and means it. “I love you too.”

 

 

This is the Nurse family, six generations in Hartford, Connecticut. They’re old money--read: White Money--and Very Traditional, which is why Michael Nurse, the family heir, caused such a stir through the Hartford gossip circuit when he came home from Harvard Business School with Amal Hassan on his arm.

 

With Michael’s great-grandmother’s diamond ring sparkling on her finger.

 

They’re an opposites attract match, and always have been. Michael comes from six generations of Hartford high society; Amal grew up in Casablanca (“Yes, that Casablanca,” she says, at just about every function she attends) and came to the US for college and graduate school. Amal is whip-smart and fast-thinking and fierce in her work and her affections; Michael has a quieter intelligence, a softer voice, a drier sense of humor.

 

They work.

 

“The trick,” Michael told a six-year-old Derek, in the days when Derek still went by another name, “is knowing that your mother is much, much smarter than I am. Hopefully, your future husband will know that, too.”

 

When Derek comes out, three months into his first year at Chilton, his parents tell them they love him, ask him what he wants to do next, and hug him close before they send him up to bed.

 

In Michael’s study that night, they open a new bottle of the Macallan and collapse onto the leather sofa. Lancelot, one of their two aging Irish Setters, rests his head on Amal’s knee and thumps his tail on the floor. Galahad, his brother, went to bed with Derek (Derek, Amal tells herself firmly, scratching Lancelot’s ears, Derek, Derek now.)

 

Finally, Michael says, “My mother is going to throw a damn fit.”

 

Amal sips her drink. “Your mother,” she says, in the voice that Michael knows means I put up with quite enough Nonsense from Your Family, dear, “is not the point here.”

 

Michael rubs his forehead. “I mean, you read about these things all the time these days. Maybe it’s a phase? I mean, if we talk to her--”

 

“Him,” Amal says.

 

Michael pauses, and then, “Him,” he amends. “If we talk to him, maybe slow him down a little--”

 

“Michael,” Amal says. “Think about this.”

 

For a moment, Michael is quiet. “Alright,” he says. Not resigned, not quite, but not yet accepting, either. “We’ll figure it out.”

 

Two and a half years later, Derek leaves town with only Ford’s car seat and diaper bag and the cash he’d pulled out of his checking account, and Amal sits her husband down.

 

“‘We’ll figure it out,’” she says, her eyes still red-rimmed with the tears that had started with Derek’s phone call, “was the wrong thing to say.”

 

(For his eighteenth birthday, they pay for his top surgery.)

 

 

“Okay,” Justin says, collapsing onto the floor of his new apartment. “That’s the last of it.” He props himself up on his elbows. “I really appreciate the help, man. You didn’t have to take the time.”

 

His new landlord, Adam Birkholtz, plops down next to him. “Happy to do it,” he says cheerfully, wiping the sweat from his brow and mussing his hair in the process. “Consider it a welcome-to-Samwell gift.”

 

Justin snorts. “It’s a warmer welcome than I’ve been getting so far,” he says, sitting up so that he can get to his water bottle. His old landlady in Toronto had coordinated movers for him, getting things out of his old apartment and finding a driver for the truck, but he hadn’t wanted to spend the money on movers for this end; had figured he’d just pay the driver and then unload stuff himself.

 

He’d forgotten to count on furniture, though, and the fact that he’s not quite as good at lifting as he was in college. Adam’s offer to help had been a welcome surprise.

 

Now, Adam frowns. “Are people giving you trouble?”

 

Justin shrugs. “I think there’s some misconceptions about me and Derek,” he says. “And about why I went off to school instead of being here.”

 

“Ah.” Adam makes grabby hands for Justin’s water, and, unthinking, Justin passes it over. Something about Adam just makes him feel comfortable, easy. For someone with his anxiety, it’s a rare feeling. He likes it. “Well, everyone really loves Ford. The whole town basically aunts and uncles her.”

 

“It’s not like I was never around,” Justin protests.

 

Adam hums. “No,” he agrees. “You were definitely here. But you never, you know, spent time getting to know the rest of us. When we saw you it was always at Ford’s birthday parties, and you’d be there for Ford, but it was always you and Ford and Derek. None of us really got the feeling that you wanted to be here.” He sips some of the water and passes the bottle back to Justin. “Plus we knew that most of the times you saw her was out in Hartford, for school and stuff, or when they’d go see you in New Haven.”

 

“Yeah,” Justin admits.

 

It’s true, he knows. Large crowds are fine for him when he knows to expect them; he’d planned some pretty great parties in college and he’s an extrovert at heart. But the gatherings that he’d sometimes run into at Samwell had always made him feel a little out of place, and he’d withdrawn more than was probably fair to the folks in town or to Ford, who loved all of them so much he could see it on her face.

 

He drains the water bottle and gets to his feet to refill it at the sink, then turns back to Adam. “Okay,” he says. “So, how do I fix it? I’m planning to be around for awhile.”

 

Adam looks thoughtful. “Well, there’s a town meeting on Tuesday,” he says. “You could come to that.”

 

Justin frowns. “What, like a town hall? Is there something being voted on that I should read up on?”

 

Adam snorts. “Not exactly. They’re more like town gossip sessions, honestly, but it’s a good place to go if you want people to know you’re, y’know, here to be here.”

 

“Right.” This place is so weird. Justin finds himself longing for the anonymity of the city, and pulls himself back. Here’s here to be around for Derek and Ford, properly. No matter how many times Derek assures him that he never felt like Justin wasn’t there for them, he knows that Derek sacrificed a lot for Justin to get his degree.

 

No more of that.

 

“I think the town meeting sounds good,” he says, firmly. Adam grins at him, and something flip-flops in Justin’s stomach. “Uh--do you go to those?”

 

“Sure do,” Adam says. He gives Justin a smile that could have looked mocking on someone else, but on him, it’s just kind of comforting. “Need a buddy?”

 

“A buddy would be great,” Justin says, relief going through him in a rush.

 

“Awesome,” Adam beams. “It’s a date.”

 

His eyes sparkle when the light through the window hits them. Oh, hell, Justin thinks. That’s just what I need.

 

 

This is Justin Oluransi, age thirty-three, still “Ransom” to a few friends from high school in college. He describes himself as a nerd trapped in an athlete’s body, which got more laughs in college than it did in med school, when most people were too tired and strung-out to laugh at just about anything.

 

Justin came to Chilton’s boarding school program from his parents’ place in Toronto with a life plan already mapped out for him, only some of it with his input. Finish Chilton in the top one percent of the class (“Valedictorian would be ideal,” his father tells him, sophomore year, “but we know there’s some stiff competition.”). An Ivy for undergrad, summa cum laude, English honors if they have them. Medical school and residency, a fellowship if he can get one. Marry a nice Nigerian girl once he’s settled at his practice.

 

It would probably have been a pretty good life, really.

 

Derek Nurse was a bit of a surprise. Ford, for obvious reasons, was a bigger one.

 

But they make it work. Justin goes to Yale like he planned, but he’s in Samwell with Derek once or twice a month. They’re quiet weekends, usually, Derek catching up on much-needed sleep and Justin working through his homework between long periods of soaking in every minute he can get with Ford. He misses her first word (“It was ‘dada,’” Derek tells him over the phone, “but come on, it could be either of us”) but he’s there for her first steps, her first day of preschool, of kindergarten.

 

He’s there for every first day of school, picks up every phone call, puts money in her college fund every week. When Derek comes down with a nasty flu when Ford’s six, Justin takes three weeks off from school to stay with them. He teaches Ford the Yoruba stories that his grandmother taught him when he was little, about finding constellations and mapping stars, about what makes the sky blue and plants green and the planets go around the sun.

 

She’s bright and beautiful and brilliant, and every time he leaves it breaks his heart.

 

(He tells himself that at the end of all of it, he’ll be able to pay for anything she could possibly want. He tells himself it’s worth it, but he never quite believes that it’s true.)

 

Derek and Ford come to his Yale graduation, Ford in galaxy-patterned leggings under her purple dress, Yale-blue elastics at the ends of her braids. As soon as the hats have been thrown and the recessional complete, Justin heads down into the crowd, and Ford leaps up into his arms.

 

“You did it,” she says, planting a sticky-mouthed kiss on his cheek, and Justin tucks his face into her hair.

 

She wasn’t part of the plan, but he wouldn’t trade her for the world.

 

 

“It looks really good!” Ford exclaims, looking at the pictures of Justin’s new apartment above Adam’s dance studio as they walk down the sidewalk together. He’d surprised her by picking her up at the bus stop. “You did a lot really fast!”

 

“I had some help,” Justin admits, scrolling to a picture of the kitchen. It’s small, with bright blue cabinets and old, but still working, appliances. “That guy from the bakery--Eric?--I went down there for coffee and told him I was moving in, and he lit up like Christmas and asked if he could help me decorate.”


Ford giggles. “He does that,” she says. “He helped us with our living room.” Eric watches more HGTV than anyone she’s ever met, and he’s recruited her dad and Will and Coach Zimmermann to help him rearrange the furniture in his house more times than Ford can count.

 

Then the rest of what he said catches up with her, and she snaps her head up. “Wait,” she says. “You went to Bitty’s for coffee?”

 

Justin blinks. “Yes? It was closer.”

 

Ford winces. “Okay,” she says. “Rule one? We are a Will’s Diner coffee family. Never let Daddy know that you went to Bitty’s.”

 

“He said the pastries were good!” Justin protests.

 

“Oh the pastries are delicious,” Ford says. “But we don’t go there for coffee. It’s the rules.”

 

“It wasn’t bad coffee,” Justin says, frowning.

 

“Seriously,” Ford says. “Go to Will’s for your coffee. It will make your life a lot easier.”

 

“Seems complicated,” Justin mutters, as they turn the corner.

 

She shrugs. “Most people here do it,” she says. “It’s a silent agreement. Oh, here we go.”


They’re back at Will’s, and Ford laughs at her dad’s eye-roll as he opens the door for her. “Should I be worried that this is basically your second home?” he asks, as they head for the counter.

 

“Will’s been giving us crap for it for years,” she says. “Joke’s on him, though, we pretty much pay half his bills. Hi, Connor!”

 

The kid behind the counter looks up in surprise as they sit down, his bored expression dissolving into something a little bit flushed along the edges of his cheeks. “Oh, hi, Ford,” he says. “What can I get you?”

 

“Coffee, please.” She peers into the pastry cases. “Oh! Do you still have the white chocolate muffins?”

 

“I think there are some in the back,” Connor says. “I’ll check for you.” He hands her a mug and pours her a cup, smiling when she beams at him, and then startles a little and glances at Justin like he’s just remembered he’s there. “And for you, uh, sir?”

 

Justin looks like he’s trying to project Dad as strongly as he can. “I’ll take a coffee. Decaf, if you’ve got it.”

 

“Coming up.” He replaces the carafe in his hand for one with an orange handle, pouring Justin a cup and then putting the carafe away. “I’m gonna check on muffins for you, Ford.”

 

“Thanks!” She waits until he disappears into the back, and then rounds on her dad. “Dad,” she says. “Don’t you even.”

 

He’s frowning after Connor. “He was blushing at you.”

 

She sniffs. “First of all, no he wasn’t.” He was, a little, and she’s kind of delighted about even though she’s definitely going to have to tell Tony. But she doesn’t need her dad to know that. “And second of all, if he was, it’s because I’m adorable, not because he’s like, into me.”

 

Justin narrows his eyes at her. She changes the subject. “So, you like the new apartment?”

 

He gives her a look like he knows exactly what she’s doing, but he lets her get away with it. “I do,” he says. “I think it’ll be a good place.” He hesitates. “I have something, for you and your dad.” He slips a hand into his coat pocket and comes up with two sets of keys, holding them out to her.

 

She takes them, looking curiously at the shiny new keys. “Are these to your place?”

 

“One of them goes to the main studio door. The other’s to the apartment.” He shows her, then leans back, looking uncertain. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want them, but...your dad gave me a key to your house when you two moved in. It just seemed right to return the favor.”

 

Ford puts the keys down on the counter and leans across the gap between their stools to hug him. “Thank you,” she says.

 

He hugs her back. “I love you, kiddo.”

 

“I know you do, Dad.” She presses a smacking kiss to his cheek, the way both her dads always do to her when they want her to laugh. He does, and she smiles, pulling away.

 

Connor comes out of the kitchen with a muffin on a plate. “Found one,” he says, his usual nonchalant expression back on his face. He puts it down in front of Ford. “I wanted to thank you for the help with the chemistry stuff yesterday. I actually figured out my homework last night.”

 

Ford smiles at him. “Glad I could help,” she says.

 

His cheeks go a bit pink again, and he mutters something about needing to bring coffee to other tables and shuffles away.

 

Justin watches him go, eyes narrowed over the rim of his coffee mug. “Does your dad know about that kid?”

 

Ford rolls her eyes. “Yes,” she says. “And he’s already given me plenty of nonsense about it.” She waggles her eyebrows. “You could be good cop, if you want.”

 

“Nice try, kiddo.”

 

“Worth a shot,” Ford says. She picks up her muffin and takes a bite.

 

It’s still warm, fresh from the oven.

 

Ford looks across the counter at Connor, leaning over Alexei’s shoulder to pour him a fresh cup of coffee, and she smiles.

 

 

This is Connor Whisk, age sixteen. He shares his surname with a father he doesn’t talk to anymore. His mom had taken his step-dad’s name. “It’s a little weird to have my ex-husband’s name, baby,” she’d said, when he’d frowned at her about it. “It doesn’t make us any less family.”

 

When Connor is seven, his mom takes him to see a counselor. She’s worried, the counselor tells him, because Connor doesn’t really seem...interested in things, the way other kids do. He doesn’t get excited, or jump up and down when he sees something cool. He smiles, and he laughs sometimes, but he’s quiet about it.

 

“Your mom just wants to make sure that there’s nothing you’re sad or worried about,” she says, gently. “Is there anything you’re sad or worried about, Connor?”

 

Connor had frowned. He worries about lots of things. He worries that he won’t win his next peewee hockey game. He worries that Becky Simmons won’t want to sit with him in the cafeteria. He worries that if he’s sleepy at the end of the school day, he’ll fall asleep on the bus and miss his stop.

 

He can tell from her face, though, that that’s not the kind of stuff she means. “No,” he tells her. “I think this is just what I’m like.”

 

She tilts her head to the side, regards himself for a moment, and then she nods. “Fair enough,” she says. “Do you want to tell your mom that?”

 

Connor shrugs.

 

Connor shrugs about a lot of things, and he thinks that’s just how he is. He doesn’t get excited about things because not that much excites him. He likes things--he likes Yankees games with his moms, he likes playing hockey, he likes the weird Russian-lit-inspired books his middle school librarian introduces him to.

 

He likes lots of things. But it’s hard to find things that really catch his interest.

 

Until he moves to Samwell, and then all bets are off.

 

 

“You look like crap,” Lardo says, putting a plate with a still-warm scone and a steaming mug onto the reception desk.

 

Derek bypasses the plate in favor of the coffee mug. “You’re a god among women,” he says, sipping at it. The familiarity of the flavor makes his eyebrows shoot up. “That’s Will’s coffee,” he says, looking at her in confusion.

 

Lardo gives him an amused look, taking Johnson’s abandoned stool with a little hop. “He stopped by to take a look at the heating element in the left oven,” she said. “Brought a box with him.” She grins. “Made me promise to make sure you got a cup.”

 

Derek returns the smirk. He knew Will was protesting too much every time he gave Derek shit about his coffee habit. “He’s a good guy.”

 

“Mm,” Lardo says, in that knowing tone that always makes Derek want to hide under something. “Isn’t he just.”

 

He tries to aim a kick at her ankle without removing his face from his mug, and misses spectacularly. She snickers at him and aims her own kick at him, which connects. He winces. “So,” she says. “Why do you look like someone cancelled your Netflix subscription the day before a new Queer Eye season?”

 

“Oddly specific example,” he says dryly. He puts the mug down and breaks off a piece of the scone. “It’s just family stuff.”

 

Lardo raises her eyebrows. “What kind of family stuff?”

 

“My mom wants me to bring Justin to Friday dinner.”

 

“Ah.” She doesn’t say anything more, and Derek kind of loves that about her. She never makes him elaborate. “What are you going to do about it?”

 

Derek shrugs, taking another piece of scone and popping it into his mouth. “Bring Justin to Friday dinner,” he says, chewing.

 

Lardo ignores his full mouth. She’s seen grosser things. “Okay,” she says.

 

He sighs, rubbing at his forehead. “I thought you were going to talk me out of it.”

 

“How’s that going to help?” Lardo steals half the remaining scone. “Your parents are going to be your parents.”

 

“It’s my grandmother more than anything,” Derek says glumly, sipping his coffee. God bless Will Poindexter. “My mom’s actually pretty chill.”

 

“Your grandma’s a big fan?”

 

Derek puts the mug down. “He’s gorgeous, wealthy, a genius, and the father of my kid. What’s not to like?”

 

Lardo raises an eyebrow. “Some grandparents would say the ‘fathered your kid’ thing might put him on the shitlist.”

 

“You don’t know my grandmother,” Derek says dryly. “Also, in her circles, it’s better to marry the guy who knocked you up in high school than to do the whole…” He waves a hand. “Unwed teenager thing.”

 

“That ship has sailed,” she points out. “You’re both over thirty.”

 

“She’s a very stubborn woman,” Derek sighs. He pokes at the scone, then shakes his head and nudges it toward Lardo. She frowns and pushes it back to him. He shrugs and picks it up, taking a bite. “I guess it’d just be nice to have her approve of someone else, y’know?”

 

Lardo’s eyebrows, which had settled back into a neutral position, fly up again. “Oh?” she says, all faux innocence layered over deadly aim. “Like who?”

 

Derek knows a trap when he hears one, and he washes the scone down with coffee. “None of your business, Larissa,” he says.

 

Lardo smirks. “I’m just saying,” she says, idly. “If there was someone in particular you were interested in...Maybe a tall, handsome redhead with great arms who gets you your coffee fix…”

 

“Look at the time,” he interrupts. “Don’t you have a dinner rush to prep for?”

 

Lardo snickers at him, hopping off the stool and picking up the empty scone plate. “For the record,” she says, “if that first date happened to be right around Ford’s prom next year, I could win quite a lot of--”

 

“Out,” he tells her, and she heads off to the kitchen, still laughing.

 

All his friends are assholes. Derek can’t help smiling into his coffee anyway.

 

 

This is the Samwell betting pool, informally coordinated by Kent Parson, who took over from John Johnson ten years ago when Johnson started claiming he had “information from beyond the fourth wall.” Kent doesn’t ask questions, just accepts the well-loved notepad with a confused nod.

 

Technically speaking, it’s a whole network of pools, covering everything from “what will the spring musical be at Samwell High?” to “who’s going to cave and stop making Jam first, Suzanne Bittle or Judy Phelps?”; from “over/under on how many times Kit Purrson makes a run for it this week” (Kent hates that one) to “when will Shitty Knight cut his hair?”

 

It’s a small town. People have a lot of time on their hands.

 

The Derek Nurse and Will Poindexter pool started seven years back, when Caity Farmer caught them bickering over whether or not Derek would let Will come insulate the windows of Derek’s house before the frost set in. “You always waited too long in that damn pool house,” Will says, aggressively drying a mug. “And then you got a cold and spent the next week stressing that Ford would get a cold, and that new house is draft central, Derek, you’re both gonna get pneumonia.”

 

“So lend me a hair dryer and I’ll do it myself,” Derek retorts, crossing his arms. “I’m not helpless, Will, I’ve been on my own since--”

 

“It’s not about you being helpless, it’s about--”

 

They are standing, Caity thinks, very close together. If the diner counter hadn’t been between them, they’d be close enough to kiss.

 

Caitlin tells her friend April, who tells her mom Alice, who mentions it to Eric Bittle, who mentions it to his mother, who tells Adam Birkholtz, and by the time Kent even starts writing things down, the pot’s already up to a hundred and fifty dollars. Most people have already struck out and had to re-enter with a new time guess.

 

(“I really thought I was gonna have it when Will came and changed the tire on Derek’s Jeep in that storm,” Pacer Wicks said glumly a year ago, handing Kent a new twenty-dollar bill. “Can you put me in for the Harvest festival, or is that taken?”

 

Kent consulted his list. “Depends,” he says. “Before or after nine p.m., and on or off the hay ride?”)

 

Derek and Will know about the pool, because neither of them are idiots. They’re in silent agreement never to bring it up to each other, and will fervently deny any kind of attraction between them any time someone asks.

 

“You know,” Ford tells her dad, “there’s such a thing as protesting too much.”

 

“You’re grounded,” he says, with absolutely no heat, and she cackles all the way up to her room.

 

(If Pacer Wicks had known just how close he’d come to winning the pot that stormy night, with Will kneeling in the snow and Derek peering curiously over his shoulder holding the flashlight, when Will had turned and found their faces just inches apart, Derek’s green eyes wide and surprised and flickering, just for an instant, down to his lips--

 

--well. No one needs to know.)

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Justin can’t quite hold back a yawn as Derek turns the car onto his parents’ street, and Derek glances at him. “You really didn’t have to come,” he says. “You’re exhausted, Rans.”

 

“I’m fine,” Justin says. Well, tries to. The words come out around another yawn, and Ford giggles in the back seat. Justin makes a face at her in the rear-view mirror.

 

He is exhausted. His first week at the hospital just ended, and sure, he’s an attending now, but he’s still the new guy, and that means long shifts and a pack of baby residents who are still getting their footing. He scrubs a hand over his face and takes a sip from the Will’s Diner takeaway cup that Derek, bless him, had handed him when he got in the car. “It’s fine,” he says, without yawning through it this time. “I wasn’t gonna abandon you to the wolves.”

 

“That’s a terrible thing to say about the people who could have been your in-laws,” Derek says, but he shoots Justin a sidelong grin as they pull into the driveway.

 

“Fair,” Justin says. “Your grandma loves me, anyway.”

 

Derek rolls his eyes. “Don’t remind me.”

 

“Daddy,” Ford says, opening her door. “You promised.”

 

“Best behavior, baby,” Derek says. “I know.”

 

Justin snorts and drains his coffee, leaving the paper cup in the car and following Ford and Derek up to the front door.

 

Derek’s grandmother opens the door for them, which she does every time Justin. He’s not sure if it’s because she really does like him best or if it’s some kind of power move she likes to do to throw Derek’s mom off her game--knowing her, it could go either way. Justin squeezes Derek’s shoulder in solidarity and puts on his most winning smile. “Mrs. Nurse,” he says.

 

“Emily, dear,” she says, tilting her cheek up so that he can kiss it. “I tell you every time.”

 

Over Emily’s shoulder, Derek rolls his eyes again. Justin tries to hide a grin.

 

Derek’s parents appear in the foyer, and Derek slips past his grandmother to hug his mom, his tense smile relaxing into something genuine. Justin lets Ford step up to hug Emily and holds out a hand to Derek’s dad. “Sir.”

 

Michael chuckles, clasping his palm. “Still?”

 

“Every time,” Justin says, with honest cheerfulness. Amal’s had a softening effect on Michael over the years and he’s actually a pretty chill guy, if a little boring.

 

“How’s the hospital?”

 

“Sterile,” Justin says, because he knows it’s the kind of response that’ll make Michael laugh again, and it does.

 

Emily clears her throat. “Dinner’s on the table,” she says pointedly, and Justin slings an arm around Ford as they head down the hall to the dining room.

 

It’s not always formal here, and Justin knows that, but it always feels formal, in a way that’s never quite felt familiar to Justin. He grew up in a huge, loud family, where no one differentiated between aunties by blood and aunties by anything else, and even when he was a teenager he found it a little weird that his funny, expressive best friend came from such a stiff, formal house. It’s Emily’s influence, he knows. She moved in when Derek was ten, after Derek’s grandpa passed away, and for all that it’s Michael and Amal’s house, technically, her touches are everywhere. And not always for the better.

 

(He’s kind of always a little surprised that Derek’s mom puts up with it. He’d asked, once, when he and Derek were in their early twenties, and Amal had sighed, giving him an expression caught somewhere between amusement and exasperation. It’s a familiar look; Derek wears it all the time.

 

“You would be amazed, dear,” she’d said, “the things you can tolerate for the sake of your spouse.”)

 

Dinner is...okay. It’s a little stilted, the way it always is, and Justin knows he’s taking a lot of heat off Derek by being there as a distraction. Emily asks about the hospital, his coworkers, his new apartment--she frowns when he tells her he’s renting a space above the dance studio instead of buying, and he deliberately doesn’t apologize--and when Amal finally interrupts to tell her to let Justin eat, she turns the grill on Ford to ask about school. Ford answers with good-natured practice, and Justin nudges Derek’s foot gently under the table, gives him a reassuring smile.


Derek returns it, a little thinly.

 

“So, Ford,” Emily says, when the dinner dishes have been cleared away and replaced with small bowls of poached pears in custard. “I was reading the Chilton newsletter--”

 

The reaction around the table is so seamless that Justin has to muffle a laugh into his bite of custard. Ford hides an eyeroll behind her napkin under the guise of dabbing at her lips, Michael reaches over to take a folded newspaper from the sidebar, and Derek, without looking up from his dessert, pushes his wine glass toward his mother, who’s closest to the wine. Without missing a beat, Amal refills his glass with a rather more generous portion than she’s been pouring throughout the rest of the night.

 

“--and I saw that the Winter Formal is just a few weeks away,” Emily continues, as if she hasn’t noticed a thing. For all Justin knows, she hasn’t. “Have you given any thought as to who you might bring?”

 

Derek takes a sip of his wine and raises an eyebrow at his grandmother. “She doesn’t have to bring anyone,” he says.

 

His tone is calm but firm. Ford’s dating life is, Justin knows, one of the few things that Derek doesn’t tolerate his grandmother voicing many opinions on. Justin’s on board with that; he’d be the worst kind of hypocrite if he said his sixteen-year-old kid was too young to date, but he can sure as hell not want her dating the kind of stiff-necked conservative white boys Emily would try to set her up with.

 

Emily either doesn’t notice the potential minefield, or doesn’t care. “Of course she doesn’t have to bring anyone,” she says, waving a hand. “But she’s a sophomore now, and people start paying attention. Not that she needs to have a formal debut, or anything old-fashioned like that--”

 

Derek snorts into his wine glass.

 

“--but you are quite the catch, Ford dear.” Emily looks thoughtful. “My friend Harriet from bridge club has a grandson in your grade--Chadwick Brown?”

 

Justin chokes on his wine, and Derek sputters a laugh into his. Ford bites back an obvious giggle.

 

Amal looks amused, arching a perfect eyebrow at them. “I’m missing something.”

 

“We have a family rule,” Derek says, exchanging a grin with Justin--the first real smile he’s cracked in an hour. “No one dates anyone named Chad.”

 

Emily blinks. “Why not?”

 

Justin bites back a snicker. “When we were in school, about half the guys on the lacrosse team were named Chad.” Out of the corner of his eye, he literally sees Derek open his mouth and then snap it closed, and he knows, knows, that Derek was about to say “fuckkkk the LAS bros,” the way the Chilton hockey team had drilled into them to freshman year. That conditioning shit is hard to break. “They were all basically awful, so, you know. We passed it down to Ford.”

 

“It’s really to protect her,” Derek says, all faux solemnity. Ford breaks out in a laugh, pointedly ignoring her great-grandmother’s frown.

 

Emily clicks her tongue. “Well, I’m sure there are some other boys who could be suitable,” she says. “Who’s that young man you’re always talking about, Ford? Anthony?”

 

“Tony,” Ford says, her exasperation far gentler than Derek’s, though no less obvious if you know to look for it. “But I told you, Grandma, he doesn’t go to Chilton. He’s my friend from Samwell.”

 

“Ah, of course.” Emily looks thoughtful. “I suppose you don’t have to bring a Chilton boy. Is Anthony from a good family? Does he do well in school?”

 

Ford looks a little helplessly at Justin and Derek. “Um--”

 

“He’s a great kid,” Amal says firmly, sparing all of them, because for all Ford calls Emily Grandma, Amal is her actual grandmother, and takes the authority when she wants it. “And anyway, I don’t believe Ford’s even decided if she’d like to go. Right, honey?”

 

Ford’s face dissolves in relief. “Right,” she says. “I mean--you know me, Grandma, I don’t really like dances.”

 

“And you don’t have to,” Amal says, before Emily can open her mouth, and then she looks at her husband. “Michael,” she says, raising her voice slightly, and Michael startles slightly, looking guiltily up from the newspaper. “Weren’t you going to show Ford that new translation of the Odyssey?”

 

Michael gives her a blank look and Amal widens her eyes pointedly, and then Michael clears his throat. “Yes, I absolutely was,” he says, folding the paper and putting it onto the table. “Ford, why don’t you come along to my office?”

 

Ford’s sneaky about it, but Justin still catches the “thank you, Jadda!” she whispers to Amal before she follows Michael out of the room.

 

Amal turns her cocktail party smile back onto the dining room, and it’s a little creepy, sometimes, how many of her facial expressions Justin can sometimes see on Derek. “There we are, then,” she says. “Who’d like coffee?”

 

Wordlessly, Derek refills his wine glass.

 

They say their goodbyes an hour later, trooping back to the car. Tired as he is, Justin takes the keys by silent agreement--Derek’s nowhere near drunk, barely even tipsy, but he’s had Coping With Emily wine tonight, which means that even at his tolerance he shouldn’t be driving. Ford climbs into the back seat and drops her head back against the rest with a huffing sigh that Derek echoes from the passenger seat.

 

For a few moments, they sit in the Jeep in silence.

 

Derek breaks it. “Okay,” he says, and Justin glances at him, a little nervously. It’s been awhile since he’s done this, he’s not sure if they’re going to need a family debrief or something. But Derek just lifts up his head and says, “Does anyone else want to get Wendy’s?”

 

“Oh my God, Dad, I love you,” Ford says emphatically, and Justin laughs and turns on the car.

 

 

This is Emily Nurse, de facto matriarch of the Nurse family. She is eighty-three but looks much closer to sixty-five, the lines on her face making her look distinguished, rather than crumpled. She credits her graceful aging to good genes and clean living. Her daughter-in-law, Amal, says she has stock in Estée Lauder.

 

(“Two things can be true,” Emily says with surprising good humor, whenever Amal makes that joke. They’ve learned to tolerate each other’s little pokes over the years.)

 

Her life is a story of expectations. She has her debut at fifteen at the Hartford Golf Club (membership by member sponsorship only), graduates from Chilton at a respectable thirteenth in her class, graduates magna cum laude from Smith College with a major in History. She marries Phillip Nurse (Yale class of 1956) when she’s twenty-two, has her children at twenty-three and twenty-five.

 

She’s never held a full-time job--she’s never had to. Once her children were in school she volunteered thirty hours a week, spent the rest of her time organizing charity functions and keeping the house in order. She travels, she manages the home accounts, she raises record-breaking amounts of money for nonprofits. It’s a comfortable life, if not always an exciting one.

 

She’s never lived alone and can’t imagine the idea, so moving in with her oldest son and his wife when Phillip dies seems a natural fit. She has her suspicions that Amal kicked up a fuss to Michael behind closed doors, but she’s perfectly civil to Emily otherwise.

 

Living with Michael and Amal is an exercise in learning curves. Emily learns to eat Moroccan food, to remember the fast days on the Hijri calendar that Amal still keeps, to double-check before she uses the dining room for a charity dinner.

 

The hardest adjustment is the day that Amal and Michael sit her down and inform her that her granddaughter is now her grandson. “I’m sorry,” she says, taken aback. She’s heard about this sort of thing, but always with adults. “Are you...quite sure about this?”

 

Amal looks at Michael, her expression pointed. “We’re sure,” Michael says. “This isn’t optional, Mother.”

 

Emily thinks about objecting, but she looks at her son, at the set of his jaw and the intensity in his eyes. She remembers the first moment she held him in her arms, the immediate thought of I would do anything for you. She remembers the first moment she held her grandchild, of that exact same thought.

 

“All right,” she says, clasping her hands in her lap. “What do I need to do?”

 

 

“Huh,” Tony says, when Ford tells him about the dance and Grandma’s reaction to hearing about it. “That’s kind of surprising.”

 

Ford raises her eyebrows. “You think?” She sips at her hot chocolate, which was totally worth braving the Saturday afternoon line at Eric Bittle’s bakery. Will makes the best coffee in town, but Eric’s hot chocolate is a masterpiece of marshmallow, cream, and deliciousness.  

 

“I guess I kind of thought Chilton would be the sort of place that’s too stuck-up for dances,” he says. “You know. Like, a leave-room-for-Jesus kind of thing.”

 

He winces as he says it, looking up at the sky and mouthing a sorry, and Ford bites back a smile. Tony’s not all that religious personally, but his mom and grandma are as Italian Catholic as they come. Ford nudges him with her foot under the picnic table, and he blushes and grins sheepishly at her. “I don’t think it’s a sexy kind of dance anyway,” she says. “I suspect it’s a lot of stodginess and firm rules about hemlines.”

 

“That’s sexist,” he says immediately, and Ford grins at him. He’s a good dude, her Tony. Well, not her Tony, but--

 

She clears her throat. “Anyway,” she says. “Grandma keeps texting me with names of guys from school she thinks I should take as a date. My dad says she used to do the same thing to him and that I should just put her on mute and be thankful I live in the days of texting since he literally lived with her when she did it to him, but…”

 

“Still annoying,” Tony offers, and she nods.

 

“Hugely.”

 

“That sucks. I’m sorry.” He rests his chin in his hand. “I think my mom would probably try to set me up with a nice girl from youth group.” He grins at her. “Want to go to your dance with a nice girl from my youth group?”

 

She makes a face. “I don’t think so. I’ve met the nice girls in your youth group.”

 

Tony laughs, taking the lid off his hot chocolate so that he can pick out a marshmallow and pop it into his mouth. Ford nudges one of the plastic spoons she’d grabbed towards him, and he pointedly ignores it, like he’s been doing every time they’ve gotten hot chocolate together since they were about twelve. She doesn’t know why she still bothers.

 

They’re sitting in the park near town square, watching the setup for the Winter Festival. The Festival doesn’t start until next week, but there are already volunteers building booths, mapping out paths, climbing on ladders to string lights into the trees. They go to watch the setup every year, making a plan for what parts of the festival they’ll visit once it starts. It’s a little cold for sitting outside, but it’s been a mild fall and a milder transition into early winter, and in their gloves and coats they’re content to sit for a few hours, replenishing hot chocolate as needed.

 

“Anyway,” Ford says, cupping her hands around her cup, “I’m not even sure I want to go at all. I don’t really like most of the kids in my class, and it’ll just be a night of pretending I do. Especially if I’m there with some guy I don’t even know.”

 

Tony hums his agreement. “That’s fair, I guess.” He looks into his cup for a moment, and then looking more nervous than she thinks he ever has around her, says, “Do you have to take someone from Chilton?”

 

Ford frowns. “I don’t know, actually,” she says. “I think--”

 

Movement catches her eye and she straightens on the bench automatically. “Oh hey, it’s Connor.”

 

Tony’s shoulders slump a little, but his expression perks up. “Really?” He twists around to follow her pointing finger, to where Connor is crossing the street with a bag from Bittle’s Bakes in one hand. He cups a hand around his mouth. “Connor!”

 

Connor looks up, and even from this far away Ford sees the smile blossom over his face. Shit, she thinks. It’s a really nice smile. He looks both ways and then crosses over to the park, half-jogging across the grass over to them. “Hey,” he says, swinging a leg over the picnic bench and sitting down next to Tony. “How’s it going?”

 

“Pretty good,” Tony says, cheeks pinking as Connor’s arm brushes against his. “Ford was talking about a dance at her school.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Connor raises his eyebrows. “Do they party hard at Chilton?”

 

“Not exactly,” Ford says dryly. She nods towards his bag. “You hit Bittle’s?”

 

“I wanted something I didn’t help Uncle Will bake,” Connor says, grinning and pulling out a paper danish box. He flips the cover open and pushes into the middle of the table. He breaks off a piece of the raspberry one and pops it in his mouth, gesturing around the park. “So,” he says, swallowing his mouthful. “What’s going on around here?”

 

“Winter festival,” Ford says, taking a piece of the apple one. “They do it every year. Just a fun thing. They have booths and food and music and then on the first night they light the whole square up and do the town Christmas tree. It’s super pretty.”

 

Connor nods thoughtfully. “Cool,” he says. “Are you guys gonna go?”

 

Tony eats another marshmallow out of his hot chocolate. “We go every year,” he says. “Ford likes to watch the tree.”

 

“Oh, like you don’t like to watch the tree,” Ford teases, and Tony grins, sticking his tongue out at her. She takes another piece of apple danish and looks at Connor. “Would you want to come with us, maybe?”

 

Tony chokes on a sip of hot cocoa, his cheeks flushing darker. Connor glances at him. “You okay?”

 

“I’m good,” Tony sputters, voice a croak. “Totally fine.”

 

Connor arches an eyebrow. “Okay,” he says. He looks down at the box of danish, and then at Ford.

 

Is she imagining it, or is there a slight pink tinge to his cheeks? “And, uh. It’d be cool to go with you. To the festival.”

 

Ford blinks. Somehow, she wasn’t really expecting a yes. “Oh,” she says. “That would--that would be cool.”

 

“Cool,” Connor says.

 

“Cool,” Tony echoes. Ford looks at him. He looks back. He’s definitely red. Ford raises her eyebrows at him, and he clears his throat. “Um,” he says. “Does anyone mind if I finish the apple danish?”

 

 

This is the Samwell Winter Festival, first held in 1926 in an effort by the Town Council to reinvigorate community relationships. It began as a town potluck, and evolved over the years to be a week-long event of food, music, and, of course, romance.

 

No one’s quite sure how the Winter Festival turned into the town’s most romantic event of the year. It’s the lights in the trees, maybe, reflecting the snow and making it glitter. Or maybe it’s the cold, that makes people walk a little closer together, that prompts them to link their arms or their hands, to share a scarf or a hat. Maybe it’s the music, that always skews towards the sweet and warm and soft, that makes folks feel like they’re strolling through the climax of a romance movie, waiting for the cue to lock eyes and kiss.

 

There have been a record-breaking seventy-four engagements in the Winter Festival’s history, and another sixteen weddings. Eric Bittle and Jack Zimmermann had three not-dates to the Winter Festival three years in a row before Jack finally kissed Eric under the shimmering lights of the Christmas tree. Shitty Knight and Lardo Duan had their first makeout session tucked behind the Samwell Inn’s food booth, not that they’d tell anyone. Ollie and Pacer O’Meara-Wicks had their wedding in the gazebo, two winters back, commemorating the third anniversary of their first kiss, right in the same spot.

 

Derek Nurse and Will Poindexter have never gone to the Festival together, but somehow, they always end up running into each other. They’ve never met under any of the mistletoe strung in random, sneaky places throughout the Town Square, though there have been some close calls over the years.

 

Six close calls, to be specific. People are counting.

 

 

“Alright, I think this is the last of the stuff that needs to go up to storage,” Derek says, scribbling a label onto the last box and adding it to the stack. He caps his marker and looks at Johnson. “Can you watch the desk for a bit while I take these up?”

 

Johnson taps the box, his expression thoughtful. “I can watch the desk,” he says. “But you’re not going to have time to take these upstairs once your dad gets here.”

 

Derek frowns. “What?” Sometimes Johnson just says things, and half the time they never make sense, until all of a sudden they randomly do, like he’s keyed into some kind of hidden preview of the universe. He’s a weird guy. Derek shakes his head and picks up the box. “My dad never comes here, man, I think we’re going to be okay.”

 

The door to the Inn opens, bringing in the sound of windchimes from outside, and Derek hitches the box onto his hip, turning to greet whoever it is. “Welcome to the Samwell--” He breaks off, blinking at his father, currently brushing a few snowflakes off the sleeve of his coat, and then looks at Johnson, who blinks innocently back. Derek huffs a sigh. “--Inn,” he finishes, and hands the box to Johnson. “Hi, Dad.”

 

“Derek,” his father says. He looks around the Inn’s cozy entrance room. “This place hasn’t changed.”

 

“Not since the last time you were here, no,” Derek says. That had been two years ago. The Samwell Inn is far less plush than his parents’ usual style. “Speaking of, what brings you around?”

 

“I was hoping for a few minutes of your time, if you can spare them.”

 

Derek raises an eyebrow. “You couldn’t have called first?”

 

His father gives him a pointed look, which Derek knows is in place of saying if I’d called, you’d have made sure you didn’t have the time. Which is true. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says mildly. “Can’t a father surprise his son?”

 

“Of course he can,” Johnson says, before Derek can respond, clapping Derek on the shoulder “And Derek has some time because I told him that I wanted to watch the desk.” Derek makes a face at him, but Johnson grins. “It’s good for your storyline,” he says firmly.

 

He’s never going to understand Johnson. Derek sighs. “Come on, Dad,” he says. “We can grab some coffee and talk in the office.”

 

He leads the way down the hall to the kitchen, absent-mindedly taking his dad’s coat from him and hanging it on the rack in the staff lounge. His father follows him without a word, and makes a surprised noise when Derek throws a hand out to stop him before they go into the kitchen.

 

“Sorry,” Derek says. “Practice.” He looks in cautiously, but both Lardo and Chris are in prep mode, chopping vegetables together at the counter, and they look curiously at him as he leads his father in. “Hey, kids.”

 

“Hey,” Chris says, and then straightens up when he sees Derek’s dad. “Are we being inspected?” he asks, looking alarmed.

 

Derek snorts. “No. This is my father, Michael Nurse. Dad, this is Chris Chow, he’s apprenticing with Lards this year. And you remember Lardo.”

 

“Good to meet you,” his dad says. “And Larissa, good to see you again.”

 

“Nice to see you as well, Mr. Nurse.” Lardo waves a hand. “I’d shake your hand, but I’m covered in jalapeno, so you probably don’t want to risk it.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows. “What are you making with jalapeno, Lardo?”

 

“Spicy bloody mary mix,” Lardo says, grinning.

 

He resists the urge to sigh. “Lards, remember the clientele,” he says, which is their code for we run this Inn in Connecticut, all our guests are middle-aged white people.

 

Lardo waves a dismissive hand. “It’s for that rehearsal dinner,” she says. “They requested spicy, I’m delivering spicy.” She levels the point of her paring knife at him. “Don’t question my methods.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, amused, because he’s technically her boss, but only in name. Lardo is absolutely in charge. “We’re just grabbing some coffee and I’ll get out of your hair.”

 

“You may pass,” Lardo says loftily, but she shoots him a small smile as he passes her, leaning off her stool to nudge her shoulder against his. He squeezes her arm and pours two mugs of coffee, then nods to his dad. “Back up the stairs, then down the hall. It’s gonna be the second door on the right.”

 

They leave the kitchen and head down the hall to Derek’s office. His dad opens the door and then holds it for Derek to slip past him with the coffee, then closes the door behind him.

 

Derek likes his office. He’d gotten his own when Hall and Murray had promoted him to General Manager of the inn six years ago, and he still smiles to think of how proud he’d been, twenty-six and in charge of just about everything that happened at the Samwell Inn. Looking back now he cringes slightly at how much he hadn’t known, but still--learning experiences. The office has matured as he has, going from a scattered, youthful space to something quieter and more organized, soft green paint on the walls and plants on the bookshelves and window sills, the vendor files stacked on his desk actually fitting into a system. Textbooks from his management degree line the low bookshelves, along with the books Hall had left for him.

 

The messiest part of his office now is the random assortment of mugs he tends to hoard until Lardo gets fed up with him and cleans them out. He’s never claimed not to be a packrat.

 

Setting their current coffees down on his desk, he waves his dad to one of the chairs in front of his desk and plops down in his own chair. (He loves this chair. It’s soft and ergonomic and comfy as hell). “So,” he says. “You were ‘in the neighborhood?’ Seems unlikely.”

 

His dad gives him a slightly apologetic smile, picking up his cup. He takes a sip and looks briefly, guiltily delighted, and Derek remembers a little belatedly that his mom made his dad switch to decaf after two p.m., and it’s just after three now. Oops, he thinks. Sorry, Mom. “I was in the neighborhood in the sense that I was passing your exit,” his dad admits. “But I needed to talk to you.”

 

Derek sighs. “About?” He can only guess.

 

“Your grandmother’s upset.”

 

Derek lets his sip of coffee cover his exasperated groan. “What did I do now?”

 

Michael leans back in his seat. “She didn’t really appreciate the way you discussed the Chilton dance.”

 

“Oh, for the love of God.” Derek rubs his forehead. “Dad, Ford doesn’t want to go with any of those guys. She used to do this to me, too, and it drove me up a damn wall.”

 

“She’s just trying to be helpful, Derek,” his dad says. “You know she just wants Ford to be successful.”

 

“First of all,” Derek says, putting his coffee down, “I’d like to get us right the hell off the notion that Ford needs to go to a school dance with a certain kind of boy,” he gives his father a pointed look, and, to his credit, his dad winces, “in order to be successful. Ford’s going to be successful because she’s smart, passionate, and doesn’t give up on anything, not because Remington Hunter the seventeenth thought she looked pretty in a dress.”

 

Michael opens his mouth to respond, but Derek cuts him off. “Second of all, if this was the first time she’d done this it would be one thing, but Dad, you know she’s been doing this since before Ford was born. It’s not about her being successful, it’s about all the shit she thinks I’ve done wrong, and we both know it.”

 

“Derek,” his dad begins, and then he sighs, running a hand through his hair. “I get that you’re frustrated, I do, but she’s--”

 

“So help me,” Derek says, “if you pull that different generation line--”

 

“I’m not,” Michael says, and to his credit, Derek’s pretty sure he means it. “But Derek, you know she tries. This is a whole different frame of reference for her. She’s trying to be helpful in the only way she can.”


Derek sighs. They’ve had this conversation about twenty times. “When I’ve set a boundary a dozen times and she keeps bulldozing over it, it’s really hard to believe that she still thinks she’s helping.”

 

His dad looks more than a little exhausted. “So I take it you’re not interested in apologizing to her for telling her to leave Ford alone about this.”

 

And, sorry, what? Derek stares at him. “You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s what she’s expecting?” Michael nods, and Derek scoffs in disbelief. “No. Absolutely not. If anything, she should be apologizing for trying to parent my kid for me.”

 

“You weren’t exactly polite when you asked her to stop,” his dad points out.

 

Derek scowls. Maybe it’s petulant, but this is far from the first time this has happened, and he’s tired of his dad being sent in to clean up his grandmother’s mess. “We left ‘polite’ behind about six rounds of this ago.” He takes a sip of his coffee, firm, like it’s the period on his sentence. It’s a little hot for that, but it’s the gesture that matters. “What’s the chance that you’ve tried telling her to back off and respect it when I draw a line?”

 

His dad’s silence tells him everything he needs to know. Derek sighs, rubbing at the tension headache starting behind his eyes. “Dad,” he says. “I can’t...I can’t be the only one trying here.”

 

That actually gets a reaction. Michael sits up, narrowing his eyes. “Derek, we’ve been trying with you for years. You just refuse to let us. Everything always has to be on your terms, you don’t give us an option to try to compromise--Ever since Ford was born you’ve always had to do everything yourself, and forget what anyone else thinks--”

 

“Enough,” Derek says.

 

He says it before he realizes he’s going to, the word coming out quiet and tired, and that’s infuriating in its own way, how being around his dad--his dad’s whole side of the family, if he’s honest--can make him feel so fucking small. “Enough, Dad.”

 

His father is quiet, and then he sighs and gets to his feet. “Maybe you should take a few weeks off from family dinners,” he says. “Give you and your grandmother some time to cool your heads.”

 

Derek exhales a humorless laugh. “Right. Sure.”

 

“Alright.” His father picks up his briefcase, then pauses by the door. “We’ll still see Ford on Friday,” he says.

 

It’s not a question. Weekly dinners with Ford were part of the agreement Derek made when his parents said they’d pay her Chilton tuition. He’s always thought it was probably his grandmother’s influence. His mom, he knows, would have done it without strings. “Yes,” he says.

 

His father nods. “I’ll tell your mother you say hello,” he says, and leaves.

 

He leaves the door open, and Derek doesn’t bother to close it. He picks up his coffee and holds it under his nose, closing his eyes and grounding himself in the smell of the steam, trying to pick out all of the hidden scents, the buried fruitiness and sweetness and bitterness.

 

He doesn’t realize he’s shaking until Lardo comes into the room, makes a soft sound of surprise, and wraps him, wordlessly, in a hug.

 

 

This is the relationship between Michael and Derek Nurse, played in the photographs framed on Michael’s dresser.

 

This is Michael at twenty-five, his arm around Amal in their hospital room. Amal weary-faced and smiling, a dark-haired bundle in her arms. Michael’s expression caught between awe and joy.

 

This is Derek at four, sitting on Michael’s knee, his lips pursed into a pout. His curls are braided back from his face, his legs sprawled under his dress. Michael in a three-piece suit, a glass of wine in one hand, his other arm holding Derek in place. Despite the pout, Derek’s arms are locked around Michael’s neck, his cheek pressed to his father’s. His body language is trust and safety and comfort in, if nothing else, the knowledge that Michael won’t let him fall.

 

This is Michael at thirty-three, in rolled khakis and a button-down, his hair tousled in the seaside breeze. Derek at eight, hair cropped short, one strap of his overalls hanging loose, clinging to his father’s back. Derek aiming a gap-toothed smile at the camera; Michael’s head twisted, his grin flashing--for once easy, relaxed.

 

This is Derek at twelve, standing between his parents at a charity function, his smile strained and tight. His dress is flattering and age-appropriate and, judging by the tension in his shoulders, supremely disliked. Michael behind him, a hand on his shoulder. Comforting or steeling, it’s not clear--Michael looks back at that picture, sometimes, and isn’t sure.

 

This is Michael at the first Parent Night of Derek’s sophomore year at Chilton, a much gentler hand on Derek’s shoulder, his posture relaxed. Derek in the boy’s uniform now, his tie loosened and his hair short again, his grin easy and honest as he looks up at his father, Michael laughing back. It’s informal and candid, taken from several feet away.

 

This is another hospital room. This is Derek at sixteen, his smile exhausted but bright, Ford little more than a tiny face swaddled in blankets. This is Amal and Michael framing him on either side, faces mirrors of overwhelming emotion; Amal’s eyes wet and her smile a beam of pride, Michael the same stunned mix of surprise and love he wears in the photo all the way at the other end of the dresser. Amal and Michael’s arms draped over Derek’s shoulders, and Derek’s eyes focused solely on Ford.

 

It’s the last picture of the four of them together before Derek packed Ford up and left. Sometimes, Michael will go through the pictures and just look, wondering how many tiny words and tense expressions he missed, how many times he pushed too hard, how many times he tried to put his child into the wrong shaped box for his own convenience.

 

There are other family pictures of the house, but this one, of the hospital and the day Derek left the last semblance of childhood behind him, is the one that Michael holds most often--the one he holds in his hands, and traces with his fingers, and thinks, what if, what if, what if.

 

 

Derek Nurse comes into the diner just as Will finishes packing up the last takeout order from the dinner rush. He gives Will a tired wave as he comes in and pretty much melts into a stool at the end of the counter, letting his bag rest on the floor and dropping his head into his folded arms. Will frowns, stapling the receipt to the bag.

 

Connor pokes his head out of the kitchen. “Uncle Will? Who had the chicken parm and lasagna?”

 

“Georgia and Jack,” Will says, a little absently, still frowning at Derek. “Table four. Bring it over and then watch the counter for a few, will you?”

 

Connor blinks, looking startled and a little confused--which, fair, Will hasn’t let him actually carry plates yet because he’s not sure he trusts him not to drop stuff; he’d been an uncoordinated mess when he was Connor’s age--but nods and pops back into the kitchen. Will makes a mental note to text Maggie to tell her that her kid’s attitude is improving by the day, and then pours a mug of coffee.

 

Derek picks his head up when Will sets the mug quietly down on the counter in front of him. “Oh,” he says, surprise flickering over his tired features. “I didn’t…”

 

“On the house,” Will says, leaning down to rest his weight on his elbows. Derek looks drawn, his eyes tense around the corners, like he’s spent the day frowning. “What’s going on? You look...not like yourself.”

 

“It’s nothing.” Derek picks up the mug in both hands, bringing it to his face and inhaling the steam before he closes his eyes and takes a sip. It’s a deeply familiar motion; Will’s seen him do it for sixteen years, and it always makes him look younger, just for that instant. “Just family stuff.”

 

Will narrows his eyes. “Ford okay?”

 

That gets him a smile. Mentioning Ford usually does. “No, Ford’s fine. Talking kind of a lot about your nephew, actually.”

 

Okay, he wasn’t expecting that. “Really?”

 

Derek hums into his coffee cup. “Mmhm.” His eyes glint as he looks up at Will, mischief sparkling into his tired face. “They’ve been hanging out quite a bit. If they didn’t have Tony along as a third wheel I’d wonder if something was going on.”

 

Will snorts at that. He’s seen the way Tony looks at Connor when he thinks no one’s looking; if anyone’s playing third wheel, it might just be Ford. But then again, Tony’s been making eyes at Ford for years, and anyway, Connor goes awkward around the two of them in a way that Will never sees any other time, so really, who knows. “I don’t know,” he says. “We might be surprised at who’s the real third wheel.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows. “Tony and Ford?” His brows climb a bit higher. “Or Tony and Connor?”

 

“Who knows?” Will makes a show of looking thoughtful. “Odds could go any way.”

 

Derek blinks, and then he smiles, broad and real, his eyes crinkling at the corners. There you are, Will thinks. “William,” Derek says, faux-scandalized. “You wouldn’t be placing bets on someone else’s love life, would you?”

 

Will grins at him. “Thought it would be nice to be on the other side of the pool,” he says, and Derek laughs, the last of the tension leaving his face.

 

“You’re awful.”

 

“This from the guy who’s tried five different times to get into the bet about us,” Will says, and Derek has the grace to look sheepish.

 

“I just thought we should stand to make a little money, if they were going to be gossiping,” Derek says. He sips his coffee. “And anyway, I would’ve cut you in. It’d be messed up otherwise.”

 

Will chuckles, shaking his head. Derek glances up from his cup, and their eyes meet. Will finds himself holding Derek’s gaze longer than he means to, almost distracted by the flecks of grey through the green of Derek’s eyes.

 

Derek’s lips part, like he might say something, and then he swallows, looking away. “Anyway,” he says. “I, uh--I actually came in to--I think Ford called in an order.”

 

“Right,” Will says quickly, straightening up. When had he leaned over the counter, gotten so much closer. He clears his throat, crossing the counter to check over the receipts stapled to the bags on the far side. He quickly finds the one labeled NURSE, and picks it up, then pauses, glancing back at Derek. He’s got his eyes trained back on his coffee cup, and Will takes advantage of that to dip a hand into the baked good display case, grabbing a pre-packaged slice of red velvet cake and dropping it into the bag, re-stapling the receipt before carrying it back over to Derek.

 

“Looks like Ford paid over the phone,” he says, setting the bag down. Derek glances up, and Will taps the receipt. “You’re all set.”

 

“Great, thanks.” Derek drains the rest of his mug and stands up. “Thank you,” he says. “For the coffee. And for not…”

 

He trails off, and Will shakes his head, picking up the empty mug. “I’m not going to fight you on your coffee when you look ready to fall asleep on your feet,” he says, deliberately giving him an out.

 

Derek smiles at him, like he knows exactly what he’s doing and isn’t going to call him on it. “Course you wouldn’t,” he says.

 

And yeah, Will’s totally caught; he gives Derek shit on drinking caffeine after five p.m. on a regular basis. Derek’s smile isn’t teasing, though, it’s soft and genuine, and Will returns it as honestly as he can, which means it probably looks tight and strained and a little awkward, because that’s Will’s personality summed up in one face. “I’ll see you for breakfast?”

 

He’s not sure why he says it, and Derek must not expect it either, because he pauses with his bag pulled halfway onto his shoulder, his eyes a little surprised. There’s never been any kind of plan in place—Derek and Ford just show up practically every morning, order their usual of coffee and pastries that Will’s been swapping out for something with protein ever since he realized that it was easier to make the switch himself than to argue with a half-asleep Derek. It’s just been part of his morning routine for years, as taken for granted as Cat’s morning walk and brushing his teeth.

 

Derek recovers first, fixes Will with the kind of smile that must make the guests at the Inn melt. “Wouldn’t miss it, Poindexter,” he says, and Will--

 

Well, he’s not immune to the melting, either.

 

 

This is Will Poindexter’s dating history: awkward, truncated, and, ultimately, sparse.

 

It’s never been about the gay thing, which isn’t so much a thing as a phrase he drawls out at family dinners when he wants to make his mother roll her eyes and cuff the back of his head. He’d come out his junior year of high school with relatively little fanfare--he’d just said “actually, I’m more into Han” when his brother had made a passing comment about Princess Leia during a family Star Wars marathon, and that, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, had been that--he’d taken a boy to his senior prom, had brought a few guys home to meet his parents. He’s never gotten anything other than support, even from the older generations.

 

(“It’s New England, Billy,” his great-aunt Nora had told him, when he’d expressed a little surprise about all that after Easter dinner his freshman year of college. “Your grandma and I grew up on the Cape. We’ve been to Provincetown. We’re hip.”

 

“Sure you are, Aunt Nora,” Will had said, because the last time he’d tried to argue with Aunt Nora about her hipness, she’d made him sit with her to watch three episodes of Will & Grace.)

 

The big thing, really, is that he’s a serial monogamist. He’s never been good at dating, in the traditional sense--he’s bad at small talk, bad at figuring out other people’s signals, exceptionally bad at romance. All of his long-term relationships (Kyle in college, Jared from the beer hockey league in Hartford, Sean from the wharf where he’d spent summers helping Uncle Mark fish, end of list) started as friendships first, and that had done half the legwork for him.

 

It was only two or three years in, when they’d start talking about rings and houses and kids, that things would start to fall apart. With Kyle it was Will insisting they were too young to be thinking about marriage. With Jared it was a job opportunity in New York, and Will shaking his head at the idea of leaving the family business.

 

Sean had been the hardest. They break up after four years together, two of those sharing the apartment above the diner. There hadn’t been any signs that things were going wrong, not that Will had spotted, but the day he’d packed his bags, Sean had said, a little sadly, “It’s not that I think you don’t love me. It’s just that I don’t think I’m the person you’re waiting for.”

 

He’d kissed Will goodbye before he’d left, and Will had given himself an hour to feel sorry for himself, sitting on the couch and snuggling into Cat’s soft yellow fur, and then he’d gone downstairs to handle the breakfast rush. Nine-year-old Ford Nurse was already there, holding her dad’s hand, and Derek had lit up like the sun when Will handed him a coffee, and for a moment, Will’d forgotten why he’d been frowning at all.

 

(Derek’s never really bothered going out of his way to look for dates. “Life happens when it happens,” he says if someone asks.

 

There have been a few almosts, when people in town have thought, oh, there it is, that’s his person--Chantelle, the brilliant girl from Yale; Max, the soft-spoken academic. The whole time he’s with them, people shoot Will sympathetic glances, no matter what Will’s relationship status was at the time, and that was probably something he should have paid attention to, but he never had.

 

But Chantelle had gotten into CalTech’s PhD program, and Max had turned out to be Ford’s English teacher, and there hadn’t been anyone else who mattered, really.

 

“Life happens when it happens,” Derek says, more than once, and sometimes he makes eye contact with Will when he says it, and it’s never a sure bet who will look away first.)

 

 

It’s rare that Derek has the house to himself for a night. Ford is a bit of a homebody, for all she’s a social kid, and while she’s frequently out late--especially during theatre productions at school, where she’s almost always stage managing--she’s usually home to sleep in her own bed. Still, every now and then she gets tired of hanging out with guys all the time (between her dad and Tony, it’s pretty constant) and plans a sleepover with one of the few girls she was friends with at Samwell high.

 

“So Jenny’s mom says she’ll drive me home after breakfast tomorrow,” Ford says, hitching her backpack up on her shoulders. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

 

Derek gives her an amused look, leaning against the bannister. “I think I’ll be fine,” he says, unable to keep from smiling. “Which of us is the parent, again?”

 

“Which of us set the stove on fire boiling water?” Ford teases back, and Derek winces.

 

“Alright, in my defense,” he says, “it had a lot of starch in it, and you, my love, were running around like a hyena on a sugar high.”

 

“I was four,” Ford retorts, but she meets his grin. A car horn sounds outside, and she perks up. “That’ll be Mandy.” She gives him a hug. “Love you, Daddy.”

 

“Love you too. Call if you need anything.”

 

He walks her to the door so he can wave to Mandy’s mom, and watches her drive away, smiling when he sees Ford twist around in the back seat to wave back at him.

 

She’s a good girl, that kid of his.

 

Still, it’s always a little weird to get re-accustomed to a quiet house. Derek plugs his phone in and throws on a playlist of instrumental covers of old R&B classics and makes himself a cup of tea, then--since it’s not like he has to look good for anyone--puts on his comfiest sweatpants and the Yale sweatshirt he stole from Justin, the one that’s been worn to softness and hangs a little loose on his shoulders. He’s just snuggling into the couch when the doorbell rings.

 

Every time, Derek thinks. He marks his page and heads toward the door. “What’d you forget, bab--oh.” He blinks at Justin, who’s standing on his porch, still in his work clothes. “Hey, man. Thought you were Ford.”

 

“Nope.” Justin raises an eyebrow. “Is she missing?”

 

Derek shakes her head. “Slumber party,” he says, stepping aside so Justin can come in, shivering a little in the December air that sweeps inside after him. “Get you something to drink?”

 

Justin sets his messenger bag down and takes his shoes off, nodding at the mug still in Derek’s hand. “Water still hot?”

 

“It can be.” He leads the way into the kitchen, trusting Justin to follow. He holds a hand near the side of the kettle, deciding it’s hot enough and reaching to grab a mug from the cabinet. “Tension Tamer okay?”

 

“God yes,” Justin says, slumping against the counter.

 

Derek hums, taking out a teabag and dropping it into the mug. “Long day?”

 

Justin shakes his head. “A couple hard patients.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Derek says, and means it. A hard day at his job means he might yell at Johnson or run out of towels. A hard day at Justin’s job might mean a kid dies.

 

Justin must see something on his face, because he smiles gently. “Everyone lives to fight another day,” he says. “Just some rough spots.” He accepts the mug Derek hands him, takes a careful sip. “So,” he says. “Speaking of rough spots.”

 

And there it is. Derek knew this wasn’t a spontaneous visit. He sighs, picking up his own tea and motioning for Justin to come to the table with him. “What did Ford tell you?”

 

“Just that you got into it with your dad,” Justin says. “And that you’re not going to dinner with her next week.”

 

Derek snorts, dropping into a chair. “‘Not going’ is a delicate way to put it.”

 

Justin frowns. “He told you not to come?”

 

“As good as.”

 

Justin curses quietly under his breath. “I’m sorry, man.”

 

Derek shakes his head. “We were due for it. You know how we are.” He leans back. “A couple good months, then back on the cool glances and lowkey passive-aggression.”

 

“Your mom must love that,” Justin says dryly.

 

Derek feels his lips twitch. “I’ve gotten some very expressive texts.”

 

Justin sips his tea. “And she didn’t un-uninvite you?”

 

“She said I deserved a break from my grandmother anyway,” Derek says with a shrug. “And that she’ll come up for lunch sometime so that she doesn’t miss seeing me. It’s not a bad compromise.” He rubs his forehead. “I don’t know. I guess I hoped we’d be past this by now, y’know?”

 

“I know.” Justin purses his lips. “Do you want me to take Ford next week? So at least she’s not on her own?”

 

“She’ll be okay, but I’m sure she’d love the company.” Derek sighs, slumping down onto the table. “I just need to sleep for about a month. I feel like I haven’t turned my brain off in--God. Who even knows how long.”

 

Justin nods, looking thoughtful. “You know,” he says. “I might be able to help you on the brain thing.”

 

Derek blinks at him, confused, and Justin holds up a finger, setting his tea down on the table and disappearing into the living room. He comes back a moment later with his bag, flipping it open and rummaging around, pulling out a slim white roll, and Derek’s eyebrows shoot up.

 

“What the actual hell,” he says. “Did you take that off a patient?”

 

Justin chuckles. “No,” he says. “I ran into that guy who sells the organic produce--Shitty?--and he told me I looked ‘mad stressed’ and wouldn’t leave me alone until I took it.”

 

Derek shakes his head. “Jesus, Shitty,” he says, exasperated.

 

“Oh, so that’s just...a thing he does?”

 

“Lardo keeps telling him not to,” Derek say, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fortunately, his dad basically owns Harvard Law, so we’re pretty sure he’s not going to prison.”

 

“That and he’s white,” Justin says dryly, and Derek can’t help his snort.

 

“That, too.”

 

“So.” Justin wags the joint at him. “Old time’s sake?”

 

Derek thinks about it. Ford’s not coming back tonight, and they’re not exactly a high-traffic street. “Yeah, why not,” he says, getting to his feet. “Let me get some shoes.”

 

They head out to the porch together, bringing their tea along. Derek stops to grab the lighter he usually just uses for incense, as well as the fuzzy blanket off the back of the sofa.

 

“That’s gonna smell like smoke,” Justin warns him, holding the door open for him.

 

Derek shrugs, settling himself down on the porch swing. “It’s machine washable,” he says, because he’s a boring adult and that’s the kind of thing he thinks about when buying blankets these days. He pats the seat next to him and Justin zips up his coat and joins him on the swing, taking the half of the blanket Derek offers him. Derek sets his tea on the table next to the swing and pushes off slightly against the porch railing, setting them off on a gentle rocking motion.

 

“It’s nice out here,” Justin remarks, handing Derek the joint.

 

“It’s half the reason I bought the house,” Derek admits, cupping his hands around it to block the wind and lighting it. He inhales and coughs slightly, his lungs readjusting to breathing in smoke. He gets his breathing under control and takes another drag, then hands it back to Justin. “The view here’s gorgeous,” he says, exhaling. “Especially in the spring.”

 

“I bet.” Justin takes a much more careful drag than Derek had, breathing out slow and tilting his head back against the swing. “God. I forgot how many stars you get.”

 

Derek smiles, reaching to pick up his tea again. “Remember teaching Ford constellations?”

 

Justin laughs softly. “You made up all those stories to go with them.”

 

“My feminist retelling of the Pleiades was great,” Derek insists, and gets another laugh.

 

His tolerance must be shot to hell, because it doesn’t take long for him to feel loose and warm, despite the cold air. The tension he’s been carrying for what feels like months slips away--it’s not that he’s less stressed, but he feels like he can let go of it, at least a little bit. He’s happy to just be here, relaxed and comfortable, next to someone he trusts.

 

Beside him, Justin must be thinking the same thing. “God,” he says, exhaling smoke with a sigh. He turns his head to look at Derek. “You good, bro?”

 

Derek hums his agreement, closing his eyes. “Yeah.”

 

The swing rocks gently as Justin adjusts the blanket and sips his tea. “I don’t even remember the last time we did this.”

 

Derek sputters a laugh. “I do,” he says, opening his eyes and rounding on him. “Ford nearly ended up with a sibling!”

 

Justin chokes on smoke. “Oh my God,” he says. “That was that night?”

 

“Yes!” Derek levels an exaggerated and completely fake glare at him. “So you just--stay over there. With your bits.”

 

“Oh, sure, now you hate my bits,” Justin teases. He takes a drag, his eyes going a little distant, and Derek’s sure he’s remembering the same thing Derek is--a warm, sweet-scented night in June, the two of them getting high and silly and probably a little stupid, falling into bed together because it was easy and comfortable.

 

It had been all well in good until they’d woken up naked in Derek’s bed the next morning with only half-formed memories of the night before. They’d had twenty minutes of shared panic until Justin found the condom in the bathroom trash, carefully buried under a handful of tissues--presumably to keep Ford from finding it and asking questions.

 

Now, Derek shakes his head, amused. “Well, we were young and stupid. We can blame that.”

 

Justin pauses with the joint halfway back to his lips, his expression turning thoughtful. “I don’t think so,” he says.

 

Derek looks at him. He can feel the smile fading from his face at the sudden intensity in Justin’s eyes, and something tightens in his chest. “No?”

 

“Derek.” Justin puts the joint down and reaches up to cup Derek’s jaw in one hand. His hands are as broad and warm as ever, the pad of his thumb gentle as it brushes Derek’s cheek. “It’s never been about that.”

 

Derek swallows. “Rans,” he says.

 

He’s not sure which of them moves first.

 

The first time they ever kissed was the summer before their sophomore year of high school. Justin had come down from Toronto and they’d played a one-on-one game of street hockey in Derek’s driveway, and Justin had checked Derek down onto the grass and promptly gotten tangled up after him. They’d sprawled out on the lawn, Justin half on top of Derek’s torso, and their eyes had locked, and it had been like every movie Derek had ever seen, fireworks and sparks and butterflies.

 

This is--

 

It’s a good kiss. It’s sweet and practiced, warm and soft and familiar. Justin’s hand slips to the back of Derek’s neck, and Derek lifts a hand to Justin’s collarbone to keep him in place. Derek knows this kiss, has leaned into it a thousand times, has let it take him apart and put him back together. It is, objectively, a very good kiss.

 

And that’s all it is.

 

He pulls back and opens his eyes. Justin blinks a few times before he seems to come back to himself, and then takes a breath, letting his hand fall away from Derek’s neck.

 

“That was,” he says, and hesitates, looking at Derek almost nervously, and Derek just knows. He bursts out laughing, relief coursing through him in a wave.

 

“Absolutely nothing,” he says. “There was absolutely nothing there.”

 

Justin’s entire body slumps with relief. “Oh thank God,” he says, dropping his head forward onto Derek’s shoulder. “I was worried it was just me.”

 

Derek laughs, wrapping his arms around him, and feels Justin return the hug. “Not just you,” he says. “Jesus. You’re such a doofus.”

 

“You kissed back,” Justin accuses, but there’s no heat in it. He sits up, ruffling Derek’s hair as he goes, and picks up the joint.

 

Derek takes it from him, breathes in deep. “Guess we’re doomed to just be friends forever,” he says, and Justin chuckles.

 

“Fate worse than death,” Justin says, but he’s smiling. He takes the last drag and stubs the joint out. “I should head out.”

 

Derek shakes his head. “Just stay over,” he says. “We’ve got no leg to stand on with Ford if you drive now.”

 

Justin snorts. “Point,” he says. He gathers up his tea and gets to his feet, then holds out a hand to pull Derek up. “Thanks.”

 

“Don’t mention it.” Derek feels a million times better than he had an hour ago. “I love you, you know.”

 

Justin’s eyes go soft and fond. “I love you too, dork,” he says, and something slots into place in Derek’s chest, a feeling of right that’s been just out of reach for longer than he thinks he realized.

 

“Come on,” Derek says. “I’ll fix up the couch for you, and we can binge some Parks and Rec before bed.”

 

“Sounds great,” Justin says, and follows him inside.

 

 

This is how rumors spread in Samwell:

 

Kent Parson is putting his recycling out when he happens to glance across the street to see Derek Nurse on his porch swing, leaning over to kiss someone. He blinks, thinks wow, people are going to lose a lot of money, and goes back inside.

 

Alexei Mashkov is on Kent’s couch, over for their third not-date in the last week. Kent says, “Hey, has Derek Nurse been seeing someone? He’s making out with a really hot dude on his porch.”

 

Alexei blinks and peers out Kent’s window. “Is his ex,” he says. “I recognize him from diner.”

 

Kent snorts. “Not his ex anymore, I don’t think.”

 

“Huh,” Alexei says. “Okay.”

 

And Alexei doesn’t think much of it, until he’s heading home later that night. He passes Jack Zimmermann on the street, out walking his dog. Jack asks if he’s done anything exciting tonight, and Alexei shrugs, says, “Not much, hung out with Kenny, saw people kissing, pulled Kit out of a tree.”

 

Jack squints at him, and okay, Alexei gets that a lot. “You saw people kissing?”

 

“Derek Nurse,” Alexei says. “And, what is his name, Justin? Ford’s other dad.”

 

“I think it is Justin,” Jack says, and sighs. “Eric’s going to throw a fit, he had a whole bunch of money on that bet about Derek and Will.” Alexei shrugs, a what can you do, and Jack chuckles. “Yeah, pretty much. Have a good night.”

 

And Jack goes home and tells Eric, and he doesn’t throw a fit, thank-you-very-much-Mister-Zimmermann, but he does pout for a good hour and crankily throw together a batch of cookies. “Bits,” Jack says, trying to be placating. “I think it was a little weird of you to be placing bets on that sort of thing anyway.”

 

“Never you mind,” Eric says tartly, and aggressively stirs in chocolate chips, and does not share.

 

And Eric is still grumpy about it the next morning. “You’ll never guess what Jack told me last night,” he says when Shitty Knight comes in to drop off the week’s supply of winter fruits.

 

“Something good?” Shitty asks, rubbing his hands together and happily accepting the hot chocolate Eric offers him.

 

“Depends on who you ask,” Eric grumbles. “Apparently Kent Parson saw Derek Nurse hooking up with that new doctor living above Adam’s place.”


Shitty looks surprised, whipped cream in his moustache. “Ford’s dad? I thought they weren’t together.”

 

“Well, apparently not,” Eric sniffs, clearly in no mood to be chatty, and Shitty says, “rough, buddy,” and claps him on the shoulder.

 

And Shitty’s next stop is Will’s Diner, where he takes a crate of eggs and vegetables out of his truck. Will calls a hello from the kitchen and asks why he’s making that weird face, and Shitty doesn’t quite think before he says, “Hey, did you hear Derek Nurse got back with his ex?”

 

And Will drops a bowl of pancake batter on the floor.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Will has a business to run, and just about no time for stupid fits of emotions. So he pays Shitty for the delivery, and then gets his shit together and yells for Connor to come clean up the spilled pancake batter while he goes to put together a fresh batch.

 

Still, he’s not made of stone. He allows himself a deeper frown than usual as he pulls the baking powder off the shelf to dump it into the bowl of flour. Even though it’s stupid, he can’t help but feel--well. Not angry. He doesn’t have any right to be angry. He  doesn’t have a right to feel anything, really, it’s not like he and Derek were--

 

Flour puffs up over the side of the bowl and dusts over his hand, and he huffs a sigh and slows down his whisk. Pull it together, Poindexter, he tells himself firmly, and goes to find the sugar.

 

By the time the breakfast rush gets into full swing, most of his irritation has dissipated, leaving behind just a dull sort of ache. People keep looking at him with vague sympathy, though, and he grits his teeth and serves up coffee and eggs and very carefully doesn’t threaten anyone with violence or a pot of coffee poured over their heads.

 

Jesus, he thinks, after the fifth slightly pitying expression. How fast does news travel in this town?

 

Derek and Ford show up right on schedule, grabbing their usual table. Will’s not surprised when Justin comes in with them, and Will sets his jaw when he sees that Justin’s wearing a button-down that Will recognizes as Derek’s.

 

Connor slips behind the counter with a stack of empty plates, and Will catches him by the shoulder. “Hey,” he says. “Handle the Nurse table for me.”

 

“What?” Connor blinks at him, brow furrowed. “You hate me waiting tables.”

 

“You’re getting promoted,” Will says. “Go.”

 

Connor looks suspicious, but he hands Will the plates and grabs an order pad from the counter, heading over to the table. Will watches just long enough to see Ford’s face light up and Derek’s eyes narrow in confusion, then he turns around and heads into the kitchen.

 

He puts a few orders together and washes a few dishes, which manages to be both soothing and aggressive. Unfortunately, he can’t hide in the kitchen forever, so he squares his shoulders and heads back out. He drops off an omelet and a plate of pancakes to table four (Alice Atley and Suzanne Bittle, who both smile at him like they want to ask if he’s okay, and Jesus Christ he’s moving to Siberia where none of these people can ever find him), then heads back behind the counter to ring up Chad S. and Chad R. at table seven.

 

“Hey.”

 

Will full-body flinches at the sound of Derek’s voice, looking up from the register to see Derek standing in front of the counter, coffee mug in his hand. “What,” Will says, even as he moves on autopilot to grab a carafe from the heating plate behind him to refill Derek’s mug.

 

Derek frowns at him. “Are you okay? You usually come over to say hi.”

 

Will scowls, putting the carafe back a little harder than necessary. “I’m fine,” he says. “I’m busy. I’m running a business.”

 

“Okay,” Derek says slowly, drawing the word out like he’s weighing it. “Are you pissed at me about something?”

 

“No. Why would I be pissed at you.”

 

It’s not a question, and Will’s fully aware that he’s being a sullen idiot. Derek can clearly tell, because his eyes narrow. “What the hell, man? You’re clearly--”

 

“I have no reason to be angry at you,” Will says, crossing his arms. “Not everything’s about you, Derek.”

 

Derek looks taken aback, his knuckles paling slightly around his mug, and Will almost feels bad.

 

Almost.

 

Finally, Derek scoffs and shakes his head. “Whatever, Poindexter,” he says. “Come find me when you’re ready to talk about whatever’s going on with you, but don’t avoid Ford like that. She misses you when she doesn’t get her Poindexter good morning.”

 

He turns on his heel and goes back to his table, which is good, because he doesn’t see Will’s wince. Using Ford like that is a dick move and Derek almost certainly knows it. Will huffs and grabs a pastry bag, finding the nicest white chocolate cranberry scone in the case and dropping it in. “Hey,” he says to Connor, when Connor comes over to drop off the a check. “Bring this over to Ford. Tell her it’s on the house.”

 

Connor’s cheeks flare pink and he does a brief impression of a gaping fish, and Will snorts. “From me, kid,” he says.

 

“Oh,” Connor stammers. “Right. Because--okay.”

 

Will grins. “I mean, you can tell her it’s from you if you’d like. Win a few points.”

 

“That’s okay,” Connor says quickly, grabbing the bag and scurrying off.

 

Will shakes his head, watching him go. He accidentally catches Derek’s eyes as Connor gets to the table. Derek’s tense expression, bordering on hurt, makes Will’s chest feel tight, and Will looks away first.

 

 

This is how Derek Nurse and Will Poindexter have historically dealt with conflict: very, very poorly.

 

Just about everyone in Samwell has seen them fighting at one time or another. From the quiet bickering over op eds in the Stars Hollow Gazette to an all-out yelling match in the street over--well, no one could really figure out what that was about; the shouting seemed to cover everything from Stars Hollow property taxes to the importance of home repair to someone messing with someone else’s ex’s tires. It had all been very loud and dramatic.

 

“They do burn hot, don’t they,” Eric Bittle comments to Lardo Duan once, watching the two of them have a fierce, whispered argument over whether or not Derek’s Jeep needed winter tires yet.

 

“It’s the sexual tension,” Lardo says dryly, as Will throws up his hands and yells about how Derek can go crash into a guardrail if he thinks he knows so much, and see if Will cares, etcetera. She shakes her head. “It has to go somewhere.”

 

It’s not that they aren’t genuinely friends, is the thing. It’s not a traditional friendship by any means--they don’t hang out, or call each other just to talk, or things like that. Instead, it’s Will helping Derek fix up the old house he buys when Ford’s eleven so that they can move out of the tiny cramped studio they’ve been renting since Ford got too big for the Samwell Inn pool house, or showing up to Ford’s birthday party with extra ice since he knows Derek never buys enough, or pulling over in a snowstorm to help Derek change a tire. It’s Derek helping Will organize the piles of paperwork he deals with for the diner, or coaching Will on how to walk and talk and carry himself every time he has to go to the bank about his loans, or setting a soothing hand on Will’s shoulder and all but melting the tension out of him every time Will hits his breaking point with Kent Parson.

 

“You know what your problem is,” Lardo tells Derek, when he storms into the Inn after an argument that had very nearly turned into a brawl. (They’ve never actually come to blows, though they’ve gotten close a few times.)

 

“By all means,” Derek snaps. “Tell me.”

 

Lardo shrugs. “You’re too similar,” she says. Derek looks blankly at her, and Lardo rolls her eyes. “I don’t mean in the obvious ways, but in the things that make you fight. You’re both too concerned with your pride and your independence, and then when you feel like you’re threatened, you both get snappy and defensive and angry. That’s why you throw a fit every time Will implies you don’t know how to take care of yourself and Will turns into a raging asshole every time you say you know more about something than he does.”

 

Derek thinks about that. “No,” he says. “I think he’s just a dick.”

 

(Lardo’s right, obviously.)

 

(Not that either Derek or Will would ever admit it.)

 

 

“Thanks again for helping me set up,” Adam says, adding another chair to the row he’s working on.

 

“Hey, no problem.” Justin ducks under the podium to squint at the AV set up. It’s pretty old, but also pretty basic. He finds the port for the microphone cable and plugs it in. Feedback blares, and he winces, scrambling for the mic and turning it off. “Sorry.”

 

Adam snorts. “It’s fine, I’ve done worse.” He checks his watch. “I think we’re actually good! That’s fantastic, I’m usually still setting up when people get here.” He beams, and Justin’s stomach flip-flops. Adam has giant teeth and his grin should be doofy, but somehow it’s just bright and genuine.

 

Instead of acknowledging any kind of stomach-flipping nonsense, Justin drops down into a folding chair. It creaks ominous under the new pressure, but holds up. “So,” he says. “What’s on the agenda for this meeting, anyway?”

 

“Uh…” Adam sits down next to him, taking his phone out of his pocket and scrolling briefly. “Some kind of debate about the food vendors at the Winter Festival and adding a second vendor that can distribute liquor—the Festival Committee already has two liquor licenses so that’s not a problem, Taylor’s just the only one with a stall now so he’s being a dick about it—Kent wants to add missing pet alerts to the town phone tree, and…” He squints, then shakes his head. “Town vote over fault in a fender-bender.”

 

Justin raises his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

 

“Seriously,” Adam confirms.

 

“And that’s gonna take…” Justin glances at his watch. “Three hours?”

 

Adam snorts. “Bro,” he says, “I cancelled all my evening classes. We schedule for three hours, but plan for...more than that.”

 

Justin winces. Do it for the family, he reminds himself. You are being an Involved Part of the Community. “Please tell me there’s coffee.”

 

Adam nods. “Will brings a couple urns, and Eric brings a bunch of baked goods. You do not want to see these people when they are off their caffeine and low on blood sugar.”

 

“Yikes,” Justin says, and for once, unironically, he means it.

 

People start trickling into the barn in twos and threes and fours, grabbing seats and talking around the coffee station. Justin’s actually a little surprised about the turnout--sure, there are a bunch of retirees, but there are also families with middle-school-aged kids, and even a handful of high schoolers who show up without their parents.

 

Derek and Ford come in with Tony a few minutes before the meeting is set to start. Justin raises a hand in a wave from where he’s sitting with Adam. Derek shoots him a smile, Ford giving an emphatic wave back. Derek points to a few seats in the back of the room, and Ford nods, heading over to where Will’s standing by the coffee. Justin watches, a little curious, as the sour frown Will’s aiming toward Derek dissolves into a gentler expression as Ford reaches him.

 

“Huh,” Justin says. “That’s weird.”

 

“What?” Adam asks, twisting around to see what Justin’s looking at, draping an arm over the back of Justin’s chair.

 

Justin nods over at Ford and Will, who are talking quietly while Ford fills two paper cups of coffee. “Will,” he says. “He’s been giving Derek the stink-eye. He didn’t say hi the other day at the diner, either. Derek went up to talk to him and Will just blew him off.”

 

Adam shrugs, turning back around. He leaves his arm around Justin’s chair, though. “They get into it all the time,” he says. “It’s a whole hot-and-cold thing.” He pauses, and then says, “You were at breakfast with them?”

 

“I crashed at Derek’s,” Justin says absently, eyeing Will for another moment before turning to face front and leaning back against Adam’s arm. Adam goes tense, and Justin leans forward for a moment, thinking maybe he messed up, before he glances at Adam’s face and sees that his expression has gone totally blank. It only takes a second for it to click.

 

“Not like--”Justin breaks off and shakes his head, trying to figure out why he feels so nervous. “We’re not like, a thing. It just got late and I fell asleep on the couch.”

 

Adam’s arm relaxes behind him. “Oh,” he says. “Cool. I mean...Cool.”

 

Justin raises an eyebrow. “Cool?” he asks, cautiously.

 

“Cool,” Adam confirms. He grins, teeth out in full force, and Justin can’t help but return it.

 

The meeting gets started, with Marty St. Martin (Adam whispers that his real name is Sebastian, but only his wife is allowed to call him that) raising the question about the Winter Festival food and liquor thing. Most people seem to be in favor of adding a second stop for beer and wine and hot toddies and hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps (“You’ve gotta get some,” Adam says under his breath. “Eric Bittle makes it, it’s legendary.”), but there are a few outliers talking about having enough people to watch out for teenagers with fake IDs or keep an eye on potential public intoxication.

 

Justin makes a face at that--he can’t imagine Samwell kids acting out like that, the town barely has stoplights, he doesn’t think they’re getting wasted on hot chocolate. Next to him, Adam snorts out a laugh.

 

As the conversation keeps moving--some guy named Nate objects really strongly to the amount of “absolute junk” for sale--Justin can’t help but notice that every time he looks around the room to get a sense of how the room is steering on the Great Food Debate, he sees people jerking their heads, like they were staring at him and didn’t want him to notice. He frowns, making his next glance a little sneakier, and this time he catches three different people looking his way with various degrees of Unhappy written on their faces.

 

He nudges Adam in the ribs as subtly as he can. “Hey,” he whispers. “Is it me, or are people glaring at me?”

 

Adam blinks, then--with remarkably little subtlety, but then, given how huge Adam is, it’s not really surprising--looks around. “Uh,” he says. “Maybe a little bit.” He taps his fingers on the back of Justin’s chair, and, out of the corner of his eye, Justin catches another scowl. What the hell? “Did you piss somebody off?”

 

No,” Justin hisses. “I thought people had a thing about me because of Derek, but I’ve been here all the time. I’m at this meeting! Is there something else I should be worrying about making up for?”

 

“I don’t think so!” Adam chances another look around, winces, and ducks his head down.  “Damn it. Now people are glaring at me.”

 

In the row in front of them, Eric Bittle twists around with a glare. “Because y’all keep talking during the meeting,” he snaps in a whisper. “Shush.”

 

Then he pauses, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully at Justin. “Why aren’t you sitting with Derek?”

 

Justin blinks. “Because...I’m sitting over here?”

 

Eric peers at him for another moment. “Hm,” he says finally, and then twists back around.

 

Justin stares at the back of his head, then whips around to look at Adam. What the hell, he mouths, and Adam looks helplessly back.

 

These Samwell people, Justin thinks, leaning back in his chair and forcing himself to face front and listen to Nate argue with Suzanne Bittle about fried dough balls in bourbon syrup. There’s just no pleasing them.

 

 

These are Samwell Town Meetings, not to be confused with Samwell Town Halls.

 

The Town Halls are official events, run by the Samwell Town Council. They’re for Official Town Business, capital letters required, and they’re for things like opening new parks or changing an intersection from a stop sign to a traffic light or things that would require an actual vote on Election Day rather than a show of hands. Sometimes the mayor shows up.

 

Town Meetings got started when the Council got sick of people bringing up things like “so-and-so has too many chickens” and “you don’t get to tell me how many chickens I get to have!” and “well how many chickens is too many chickens anyway?” at Town Hall after Town Hall, and finally told Pierre St. Martin (great-great-grandfather of Sebastian St. Martin, known to everyone in town as Marty) that if people were so determined to get together and be absurd, they could have their own meetings, and just let the Council know what happened afterwards if anything important came out of it.

 

And so Town Meetings were born.

 

They’ve evolved, over the years, from castoff events of agenda items rejected from Town Halls to community gatherings that genuinely impact the town, keeping people informed and connected. There’s no denying Samwell’s web of gossipers, but the Town Halls play their role, acting as people’s court, local news, and informal government.

 

Derek Nurse brings Ford to her first Town Meeting when she’s four years old, judging the lateness of the night against how important it is for him to show up at a meeting where one of the topics of discussion is a potential expansion of the Samwell Inn. Ford is giddy and excited at the idea of staying up late surrounded by grown-ups, and he reminds her about being on her best behavior, about not running around while people are talking, and about only having two cookies, max.

 

She spends the first ten minutes of the meeting patiently sitting on his lap, just like he asked. And then she’s up: fifteen minutes following Will Poindexter around with her thumb in her mouth while he tends to the coffee and hot water, twenty minutes sitting on Eric Bittle’s lap while he tells her all the ingredients in his chocolate chip cookies, an hour sitting on Adam Birkholtz’s shoulders while he wanders around the barn and lets her touch the different textures of the beams and wires and marvels at how tall she is.

 

The Samwell Inn expansion vote passes by a wide margin, and eight different people tell Derek that his daughter is a delight on their way out of the barn.

 

People tend to either love Town Meetings or hate them. They’re loud and rambunctious, people talking over each other and at each other instead of to each other. People who aren’t particularly invested in the outcome of anything being discussed come just for the entertainment. Samwell Town Hall Bingo is a thing that exists. Derek has won three times. Ford has won four, but she’s always been lucky, and anyway, “Kent Parson’s Cat Is A Problem” is always the free space.

 

If you ask Will Poindexter, he’ll tell you he hates Town Meetings. But he does sell a lot of coffee there, and it’s always funny to watch people tell Kent Parson to shut up about his cat. So you take what you can get.

 

 

The snow has kicked up into a whirlwind when Derek bustles his way into Will’s Diner, brushing snowflakes off his shoulders as he lets the door shut behind him. He taps slush off the toes of his boots on the mat and rubs his gloved hands together, wishing he’d taken Justin up on the offer to make the extra trip to drive Ford to dinner with his parents. He hates the idea of her driving herself to Hartford in this weather, even if she is New England born and bred.

 

More than that, since she took the car, he’d had to walk to Will’s to get dinner when he’d realized that the only food he had in the house was pizza bites and tortillas. Even he has standards.

 

Also, yikes. He really needs to go grocery shopping.

 

He shuffles into the warmth and warily takes a seat at the counter, shoving his gloves into his coat pocket and then draping his coat over the stool next to him. He wouldn’t risk the counter, not with the way Will’s been shooting him glares all week for some reason, but it’s a Friday night and there aren’t any free tables, so beggars can’t be choosers.

 

Connor comes out of the kitchen and gives him a nervous smile, cheeks tinging pink. “Hi, Mr. Nurse,” he says, grabbing a mug and a carafe of coffee from the heating plate. Ah, Derek thinks. Well-trained, Will. “We don’t usually see you on Fridays.”

 

“They let me off the leash,” Derek says dryly, accepting the mug. “Thank you. Where’s your uncle? Still avoiding me?”

 

“Trying to,” Connor says.

 

Derek snorts. “Did you never learn how to lie, or you just don’t like to?”

 

Connor shrugs. “Uncle Will doesn’t pay me enough to handle his problems for him,” he says.

 

Will appears over his shoulder. “I could pay you less,” he says sharply. “Go turn some tables, I want people off the roads.” Connor scurries off, looking more chastised than Derek’s ever seen him, and Derek has half a moment to be amused before he realizes that now the full force of Will’s frown is turned on him. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Free country,” Derek says, what little good mood he’d managed to recover with the heat and coffee souring under Will’s scowl. “I’m drinking coffee.”

 

Will’s expression softens somewhat. “I didn’t…” He sighs. “I mean, it’s Friday. Don’t you have your dinner thing?”

 

Derek blinks, surprised. “You know about family dinner?”

 

Will rolls his eyes. “It’s a small town, Derek,” he says. “Everyone knows about your family dinner.”

 

“Oh.” Derek cups his hands around his mug. His fingers are still cold. “I got uninvited.”

 

“From your own family dinner?” Will frowns, leaning against the counter. “That’s rude.”

 

Derek shrugs. “Yeah, well. Family’s complicated.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Can I order?”

 

“No. What’s going on with your parents, Derek?”

 

Derek scowls at him, but Will stares him down, and Derek sighs. “It’s not my parents,” he says. “It’s my grandmother. And my dad, caving to my grandmother, which he does because she’s his mom and also she’s just generally the embodiment of Satan on earth.”

 

Will raises his eyebrows. “Doesn’t she volunteer, like, twenty hours a week?”

 

“Thirty,” Derek says. “That’s not the point.” He rests his chin in his hand. “Whatever. Let’s talk about you. And your nephew calling me ‘Mister Nurse’ like it’s 1800 and he wants to take my daughter to the governor’s ball.”

 

“Colorful image,” Will days dryly. “And fine, keep your secrets. I’ll bring you your usual.”

 

“I don’t get to see a menu?”

 

Will crosses his arms. “You’ve been eating here for sixteen years and all of a sudden you want a menu?”

 

Derek gives a half-hearted shrug. “I’m a man of many depths.”

 

Will regards him impassively for a moment, then huffs a sigh. “I’ll make you something different,” he says. “Just...sit there.”

 

He tops off Derek’s coffee--without Derek even asking, which, weird--and disappears into the kitchen. Derek watches him go, feeling vaguely whiplashed. This morning, Will was barely speaking to him, and now he’s getting special dinner?

 

In any other situation he’d check his phone to see if there’s a planet or two in retrograde, but Will, because he apparently lives in 1950, has a No Phones rule that he actually enforces, so that’s a no on that. Instead, Derek chalks it up to some kind of weird Poindexter mood swing and pulls his book out of his bag. His copy of Orlando is pretty much falling apart by this point, the pages creased and loose and yellowed at the edges, the spine cracked.

 

It’s his mother’s copy, really. He’d taken it from her shelf when he was thirteen and had been reading over her shoulder, captivated by the idea of a man falling asleep and waking up as a woman. He’d been convinced he dreamed it and had snuck into her office to take it, reading it under the covers in his own room. It had been a spiral from there, caught between the knowledge that this was fiction, just a story, but also the feeling of truth in it--that Orlando’s story was his, but backwards. It had taken another year for him to put words to the thoughts and feelings, to realize that there was language for this, a community and a history. But the book--the book is as the first thing to make it real.

 

He re-reads it every time he feels unanchored, and god knows he feels unanchored tonight.

 

Will sets a dish down in front of him, startling him out of his thoughts, and Derek looks up. The bowl is full of an orange-gold creamy rice, and smells amazing. “Oh my god,” Derek says, leaning in. “What is that?”

 

“Butternut squash risotto,” Will says. Derek stares at him, and Will’s cheeks turn red. “Whatever, it’s basically just a really fancy mac and cheese, but good for you, and the squash is seasonal. I figured you’d want something that tasted like comfort food.”

 

Derek does...not know what to say. He’s pretty sure that his jaw has stopped working. He is completely sure that this is not on the menu. He forces himself to close his mouth. “Thank you,” he says. “Seriously, Will, this is--this is really really nice of you.”

 

Will’s ears go, if possible, an even darker red than his face. “It’s nothing,” he says. “I had to use up the cheese anyway. So--whatever. It’s nothing. I’m gonna--Okay. I have other orders. I’m gonna go.”

 

He bustles away, barking at Connor to bus some dishes, and Derek can’t help but smile. He dips his spoon in the risotto, and has to bite down a moan that is in no way appropriate for public company,

 

Holy god, that is the tastiest thing he has ever eaten in his life.

 

He digs in with gusto, flipping his book back open while he eats, and, at least for a little while, he lets all the thoughts of his family slip to the back of his mind and just enjoys himself. He lets himself enjoy the flavors of the risotto, the texture of the rice, the creaminess of the cheese, the rich familiarity of the story.

 

For a little while, it’s just a quiet night out, a great dinner, and a well-loved book.

 

And then, of course, his phone rings.

 

Will’s on him like a bloodhound before he’s even dug it out of his bag, where he always drops it when he walks into Will’s. “Hey,” he snaps. “Phone rule.”

 

“I can’t believe you’re pulling that no phones crap on me in twenty-gayteen,” Derek grumbles, finally wriggling it out of the bottomless pit that is his bag. “This is homophobic.”

 

“I’m gay,” Will counters. “Take it outside.”

 

“Are you kidding me?” Derek says. “It’s a blizzard out there!” He glances at the screen. “And it’s Ford! My kid could be dead in a ditch!”

 

“If she’s dead in a ditch, she wouldn’t be calling you,” Will says, and Derek takes back every nice thing he said about the risotto; Will is clearly a monster. “Shoo.”

 

“This is going to the next town meeting,” Derek grumbles, but he shoves another bite of the--still delicious, dammit--risotto in his mouth and hurries out the door, picking up the call just before the phone sends it to voicemail. “Baby?”

 

“Daddy!” Ford sounds panicked. “Oh my god, I’m so glad you picked up!”

 

She actually sounds like she might be crying, and holy shit if she actually is in a ditch, Derek is going to murder Will. He freezes, still in the threshold of the restaurant, which might actually be breaking the rule, and is probably pissing some people off if some of the shouts of annoyance about the cold air is any indication, but he barely hears them. “Honey, are you okay?”

 

“It’s Grandpa, Daddy. He just--he collapsed at dinner. We had to call an ambulance, they--the paramedics think that maybe it was a heart attack, but I don’t--”

 

“Okay, baby, okay, it’s okay. Take a deep breath, honey.” He waits until she takes a shaky inhale, and then another. “Good girl. Where are you now?”

 

“I’m in the car with Papa and Grandma. Jadda went in the ambulance with Grandpa.”

 

Derek takes a deep breath of his own. It’s surprisingly difficult. “Okay. Ask your dad what hospital they’re going to.”

 

He hears a muffled conversation, and then, “Hartford.”

 

“Okay. I’ll meet you there in half an hour, alright?”

 

“Daddy, you don’t have the car.”

 

“I’ll--I’ll figure something out, baby. I’m very smart. Don’t worry about anything, okay? Everything’s going to be fine. Grandpa’s going to be fine.”

 

“Okay.” Her voice sounds very small and very young, and she must be so scared, and he hates that he’s not with her, and he hates that ten minutes ago he was so happy with his book and his dinner while she was probably terrified that her grandfather was going to die in his soup. “Do you want to talk to Papa?”

 

“No, baby, it’s okay, I want him to focus on driving. I love you and I’ll see you soon, okay?”

 

“Okay. I love you too, Daddy.”

 

Derek closes his eyes. “I know, honey. I’ll see you in a bit.” He hangs up and exhales hard, then forces himself to take a few extra breaths for good measure, just to keep his heart rate under control. He absolutely, one hundred percent, can not have a panic attack right now. He hasn’t had one in years, and right now, when he needs to get in a car and drive half an hour in a blizzard and then go be an adult while his father probably has heart surgery, is not the best time for his anxiety issues to make a reappearance.

 

A hand lands on his shoulder, and he nearly jumps out of his skin, but it’s just Will. “Hey,” Will says, his eyes concerned. “What the hell was that all about?”

 

“I…” Derek stares at him, trying to get his head together, and then squeezes his eyes shut, shaking his head. “My dad’s in the hospital.”

 

Will looks startled. “What?”

 

“He--he collapsed or something, at dinner, I don’t--I need to call a cab, Ford has the car. Do you have the number?” Derek knows he’s spiralling, and tries to take a breath, and totally fails. “We have it at the Inn, why don’t I have it in my cell? That’s so stupid, I should have it in my cell, what if a guest needed it and I wasn’t at the Inn--”

 

Derek.” Will squeezes his arm, and Derek cuts himself off. Will’s face is worried, but surprisingly gentle. “I’ll drive you.”

 

Derek blinks, trying to make sense of it. “But it’s Friday. And the dinner rush. And you made risotto. You already did a nice thing.”

 

Will’s lips twitch. “I can do more than one nice thing, and we can box up your risotto for you to eat later.” He raises his voice. “Alright! Everybody out of here in the next fifteen minutes! Your food’s on me. Happy Friday.” He goes back to the counter, says something quickly to Connor, and then grabs his coat and Derek’s, along with Derek’s book and bag.

 

“Okay,” he says to Derek, taking his arm. “Let’s go.”

 

 

Samwell doesn’t have a hospital of its own. Thirty minutes from Hartford and just under an hour and fifteen from New Haven, most emergencies can be handled at Middlesex Hospital, fifteen minutes away, and for specialties, folks drive to Hartford, or, to be really fancy, out to New Haven to see the doctors at Yale.

 

Derek gets a dislike of hospitals, growing up. He’s a clumsy kid, and by the time he’s ten has broken an arm, a foot, a wrist, and three fingers. He’s there when his grandfather dies, at the Smilow Cancer Care Center, and when he breaks his wrist a month later (falling out of the oak tree in his backyard), he screams all the way to the ER--not out of pain, but sure that he’s going to die, too.

 

There are other hospitals, later. There’s the Gender Clinic at Yale, when he comes out, with hours upon hours of questions and tests and so many needles (but worth it, he tells his mom in the car, every time they drive away, so worth it). And then, of course, there’s the night Ford makes her way screaming into the world at Hartford Hospital.

 

(Less said about that, the better. Justin likes to joke that his fingers still haven’t recovered from Derek’s grip. Derek likes to say that Justin doesn’t get to joke about anything until he’s tried one of those machines that simulates contractions. Justin usually stops joking after that.)

 

Compared to her dads, Ford’s never had much to do with hospitals. She’s always been a healthy kid, and her trips to hospitals have pretty much just been the few and far between occasions when she and Derek have been up in Toronto and they’ve gone to see Justin at work.

 

To Justin, hospitals are just another office--louder, and more emotional, and certainly with a much higher likelihood of someone vomiting on you than most. He tries to remind himself that for most people, being in a hospital means it’s either one of the best or worst days of their lives. With his particular field, it’s usually one of the worst.

 

Will’s thoughts on hospitals are mixed, between the slow fear of his mom’s cancer and the sporadic joy of his niece and nephews’ births. It makes it easier to get past the memories of his mom with in the chemo suite, tiny and pale, her hair gone and her eyes sallow, when he remembers her bright and healthy, getting brighter and healthier as the years went on and each new baby was put in her arms, got old enough to learn how to call her Grandma.

 

Still, he remembers how awful it feels, driving alone to sit by someone’s bedside, even if you know someone else will be there when you walk into the room. And that makes it easy, when Derek Nurse stares at him with wide, anxious eyes, to take his arm and say, calmly, “Let’s go.”

 

 

Derek is quiet in the car, which makes Will nervous. Not that Derek is chatty by nature--he’s not Bitty, who will talk a mile a minute just to fill a silence, or Tony Tangredi, who has turned chatter into an art form. But he isn’t usually silent, and when they drive together he usually talks some kind of shit about the state of Will’s truck (which, is, to be fair, cared-for but still a shitshow), his fashion sense (unchanged for the sixteen years they’ve known each other), his hair (ditto), and his taste in books.

 

(“Novels about World War II and Vietnam, seriously, could you be more of a stereotype?”

 

“I’ve also read most of the books in the Star Wars extended universe.”

 

“Oh, be still my beating heart.”)

 

Will gives it exactly seven minutes before he can’t take it anymore. “Hey,” he says. “It’s gonna be okay.”

 

Derek huffs and burrows deeper into his coat. Will winces. The heater is on its last legs; he’s been meaning to get it fixed since November. With Connor in the house he bumped it higher on the to-do list, but apparently not high enough. “You don’t know that,” Derek says.

 

“I do,” Will says, even though he obviously doesn’t, and he usually hates this kind of irrationality, but he actually just can’t handle the idea of Derek being sad right now. “Don’t you have to get your stubbornness from somewhere?”


Derek snorts. “I get it from my mother,” he says. “But nice try.”


Will can’t help a surprised sound. “Really?” He’s always known, from passing comments, that Derek’s closer to his mom than his dad, but they’ve never really talked about it.

 

“Mm.” Derek shifts in his seat. Will rolls his eyes and reaches into the back seats, digging around for the blanket that he usually lets Cat lie on and shaking off some of the dog fur before tossing it at Derek. Derek coughs a little but gives him a small, grateful smile, tucking it around himself. “Yeah, my mom’s the powerhouse in the family. My dad’s the…” He looks thoughtful. “He’s what my mom stands on while she gets shit done.”

 

“Floor?” Will guesses. “Doormat?”

 

Derek shakes his head. “No, not like that. He’s...He’s the foundation. If you want to build a skyscraper, you need a base that isn’t going to shift. You want to go off-road, you need wheels that can handle any kind of terrain. That kind of thing. My mom’s the one with the fire and the willpower, but my dad’s the one who’s like, ‘okay, Amal, what do you need to make it happen?’”

 

“It sounds like he loves her.”

 

“He does.”

 

Derek goes silent again. Will gives him a few moments, but when it’s clear that he’s not saying anything else, Will sighs and turns back to the road. The snow’s still coming down badly, and he shifts down to second, despite the dirty look he catches Derek give him out of the corner of his eye.

 

(Derek has always told him he drives like an eighty-year-old, but Connecticut roads are horrible even in the best of conditions, and one person in the hospital tonight is quite enough, thanks very much.)

 

“Are you close with your dad?” Derek asks suddenly.

 

Will jumps a little, startled by the question. They’ve never talked about something like that before--even their deepest conversations have stopped short of what Will likes to think of as “therapy couch” questions, which this absolutely is, and normally he’d balk at the idea of answering.

 

It’s kind of special circumstances, though, so he flexes his fingers on the wheel and takes advantage of the fact that they’re in a car so that he doesn’t have to look Derek in the eye while he responds.

 

“I guess it depends on what you mean by close,” he says slowly. “He was always working, but we were always working with him, so there was this--I don’t know, sense of the whole family being all in this weird ridiculous situation together. He worked the longest hours at the diner and Ma worked the longest with me and Dan and Maggie, but we were always together. And it wasn’t, like fun, it was always school or work, but there was a lot of laughing even when it was work. I never felt like he didn’t love us.

 

“And he taught me to cook,” he adds, warming slightly the more he thinks about it. “Like, I studied culinary science and business management in college, so that’s what really gave me the head for everything I do day to day at work, but Dad taught me to put the love in it. I…” He shrugs. “I don’t know. We don’t have a lot of emotional heart to hearts, or anything, but yeah. I’d say we’re close.”

 

He chances a sidelong glance away from the road and toward Derek, and finds him looking resolutely out the passenger side window. Will licks his bottom lip and says, “Why do you ask?”

 

Derek is quiet for a moment. “My dad was so happy to have a daughter,” he says finally. “His father--my grandpa--was so old-fashioned. Only wanted sons, and he got them, my dad and my uncle. He had massive expectations, and my dad didn’t have any choice but to meet them. All that old-money white guy stuff—private high school, Ivy League college, top ten business school for an MBA. The most rebellious thing he ever did was marry my mom.”

 

He takes a shaky breath, and Will stays silent, just focuses on the road. He gets the sense that he doesn’t need to talk right now, just listen.

 

“I think my dad knew that my grandfather would have the same kind of expectations if I was going to be…” Out of the corner of his eye, Will sees Derek make a vague hand gesture that makes absolutely no sense. “The heir to the Nurse name, or whatever, because it’s 1912 and women don’t keep their names, or--whatever, that’s not the point. But when I was born, all of a sudden, those expectations were just--gone.”

 

“Seems sexist,” Will says, because he’s had a steep learning curve over sixteen years of friendship with Derek Nurse, but he’s not an idiot.

 

“No kidding,” Derek says dryly. “But it was this huge weight off his shoulders, and instead of grooming me for business school from the minute I could hold a pencil, he got to be...all the things his dad wasn’t for him. He built sandcastles with me at the beach, and played dolls with me, and let me paint his fingernails...all this stuff.”

 

Will asks, because he can’t not. “So you were--still into that stuff, even though you were--”

 

Derek shoots him an amused look. “Not every trans dude throws away their dolls growing up, William,” he says. “Gender is a multifaceted beast.”

 

Will feels himself flush, and looks back at the road. A moment later, Derek puts a hand on his arm, and Will glances back at him.

 

“Sorry,” Derek says. “I’m--it’s not a great night. And it’s not an unreasonable question.”

 

“No, you’re…” Will struggles to find the way to phrase it. “It’s not your job to tell me your life story.”

 

“I’m literally sitting here telling you my life story,” Derek says, the smile creeping back into his voice, and he squeezes Will’s arm gently before sitting back. Will can still feel the pressure of his touch.

 

Despite the smile, his voice is wearier when he speaks again. “It changed when I came out, though. Having a daughter was one thing, because pretty much all I had to do to make him happy was get into a good college and not get knocked up in high school. As soon as I was transitioning, he--didn’t know how to treat me anymore. He’d spent all those years being soft and loving, and all of a sudden I was His Son--” Will can hear the capital letters, and they make him wince. “--and there was all this extra pressure. It wasn’t just do well, it was do perfectly. Suddenly studying poetry and languages was a waste of my time, when six months earlier it was a gift. And then--”


He breaks off. Will glances at him. “And then what?”

 

Derek glances back, expression wry. “And then Ford.”

 

Will winces again. “Oh.”

 

“Yeah.” Derek pulls Cat’s blanket up around him from where it had slipped down. “So I’d fucked up in the worst way I could have fucked up as his daughter, and then I went on to drop out of high school and not get what the Nurse family would consider to be a ‘real business job’ for years, which is pretty much the worst way I could fuck up as his son. Hooray for Derek.”

 

“Derek,” Will begins, trying to come up with something placating to say, but Derek just shakes his head and waves it off.

 

“He loves me,” Derek says. “I know he loves me, because I’m his kid and if parenthood has taught me anything it’s that it would take some kind of mountain-moving ridiculousness to make you stop loving your kid. But I’m pretty sure I’ve been a disappointment to him since I was sixteen.”

 

Will startles. “You’re not a disappointment,” he says sharply. “To anyone.”

 

Derek gives him a flat look. “Right,” he says. “Sure.”

 

Will takes his eyes off the road long enough to frown at him, and then huffs a sigh. “Alright,” he says, and shifts into first gear. “Enough of this.”

 

Blizzard or no blizzard, he’s beaten the estimated arrival time on his GPS before, and he can sure as hell do it again.

 

Sure enough, they reach the hospital in, for Will, record time. It’s after valet parking hours, so Derek points them towards the visitor parking garage. Will finds a spot--it takes longer than he wants, which is kind of annoying, but he manages--and then turns off the car. Without the engine, the sudden silence feels deafening.

 

“Hey,” he says. Derek looks at him, his face tense and worried, and Will puts a hand on his shoulder. “You ready to do this?”

 

Derek takes a deep breath. “Yeah.” He gives Will a faint smile. “Thanks for driving me, man. I really appreciate it.”

 

Will shakes his head. “No problem.” He squeezes his shoulder. “Come on. I’ll walk you in.”

 

The hospital lobby is bright and almost welcoming, not the gross emergency room energy Will expected. Derek gives his father’s name to the woman at the front desk, and they’re given directions up to the cardiac ward. “That’s not a good sign, right?” Derek asks, his voice tight with anxiety as they head to the elevators. “It means they already admitted him?”

 

“Don’t jump to any conclusions,” Will says, trying to keep his tone optimistic. “It probably just means they knew right away what he needed.”

 

The elevator doors open onto the cardiac floor, revealing Ford curled up into a ball in a set of chairs by the nurse’s station. She lifts her head at the soft chime of the elevator, and then springs to her feet. “Daddy!”

 

“Hi, baby girl.” Derek catches her in a tight hug as she all but flings herself into his arms, burying his face in her hair. He holds her close for a moment, and then pulls away, holding her at arm’s length and studying her face. “How are you doing? Are you okay?”

 

“I’m okay. It’s just been kind of scary.” She gives him a watery smile, then looks past him. “Will, what are you doing here?”

 

“Poindexter Taxi Service,” he says, giving her a thumbs-up. She laughs, a little weakly, and then, to his surprise, leaves Derek’s side to hug him, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in his chest. He folds his arms around her shoulders and gives Derek a bewildered look over her head, and Derek smiles faintly back, stepping closer and resting a hand on Ford’s head where it’s still pressed to Will’s sternum.

 

“I’m going to go check on my dad,” he says quietly. “I know you’ve already done a ton for us tonight, but would you mind staying with her?”

 

Will hesitates. He’d left the diner in Connor’s  hands, and it’s not that he doesn’t trust the kid to lock up and handle things, but he’s never done it on his own before.

 

But this is Ford, who Will has known since she was small enough to fit in the crook of his elbow. He could no more walk away from her than cut off his own arm.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll stay.”

 

...

 

This is Will Poindexter and Ford Nurse: longtime neighbors, strange friends, unofficial family.

 

Will meets Ford--though meets is a very strong word--when she is six weeks old and little more than a bundle of blankets and a tuft of dark hair, sleeping in a car seat when Derek wanders into the diner just before Will turns the “open” sign to “closed.” He’s usually a stickler about closing times, but something about the the weary-eyed exhaustion on Derek’s face, the slump to his shoulders, the carseat in his arms--made him open the door.

 

(Every now and then he thinks about that moment, about what might have gone differently in his life if he hadn’t let Derek in. His diner was the only place open in Samwell that late--would Derek have gotten back into the car, driven on to the next town? He thinks about what his life would look like with a Derek-and-Ford-shaped hole, and it makes his stomach flip.)

 

Will builds Ford her first Samwell crib, assembling the pieces on the floor of the Samwell Inn pool house after Derek admits that he had her sleeping in a drawer because he’d been too exhausted to read the crib instructions properly. Will answers Derek’s frantic phone call the night before Ford’s first birthday, when Derek confesses he’s burned two cakes and either something’s wrong with the oven or he’s just incompetent and help, please?, and then shows up half an hour later with the ingredients for Birthday Cake, Attempt 3.

 

He helps Derek with every birthday cake from that year on, and when Ford turns six, she turns it around and asks Will to help her make a cake for Derek’s birthday, too.

 

“It should be chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate chips and chocolate icing with his name on it,” she tells him.

 

“Ford,” he says, trying to hold back a laugh, “how did you get your dad’s phone?”

 

“He’s napping,” she says solemnly. “Are you gonna help, or not?”

 

(He helps.)

 

Will learns how to hide vegetables in muffins when Ford goes on a beige-food-only strike at age four, learns how to cook tofu when she decides she’s a vegetarian at age eight. He helps her with her math homework when she hits algebra and Derek’s words-oriented brain flails at the combination of letters and numbers. He doesn’t teach her how to drive, but he does teach her how to change a tire when he realizes that Derek didn’t.

 

Will Poindexter doesn’t love easily, and most people in Samwell would tell you they’ve never even seen him smile.

 

Ford adores him, grumpiness and all.

 

 

“Here you go, kiddo,” Will says, handing her a paper cup.

 

Trained from childhood to accept pretty much anything Will gives her, Ford takes it. “What is it?”

 

Will sits down next to her. “Vending machine hot chocolate. It’s no Eric Bittle masterpiece, unfortunately, but there are marshmallows, and I figured you could use something.” He nudges her gently. “How you holding up?”

 

She shrugs, swinging her feet back and forth. She feels very small and young in the hospital chair, waiting around for an adult to come tell her anything about what’s going on. It’s not a feeling she’s used to. “I’m okay, I guess. I feel out of the loop.”

 

He makes a sympathetic sound. “That’s tough.”

 

Ford rolls her eyes. “Thanks,” she says dryly.

 

Will winces in that way he often does when he’s trying to have a heart-to-heart but can’t quite make words work properly. He takes off his hat and runs a hand through his hair, a familiar fidget, then crams the hat back on. “Sorry,” he says. He hesitates, then offers, “You know, when my mom had cancer--”

 

Ford puts a hand on his arm. “Will. It’s okay. You don’t have to feelings with me. The hot chocolate’s enough.”

 

His whole body slumps in palpable relief. “Thank god.” He gives her a wry smile. “It’s not really our thing, huh?”

 

She giggles a little, despite herself. “Food is our love language,” she agrees.

 

Will snorts. “Food is my love language,” he says. “Your love language is…” He squints at her. “I don’t know. Sarcasm and callouts?”

 

“It’s called words of endearment,” she says tartly, bumping him fondly with her shoulder, and he chuckles, bumping her back.

 

Sitting with Will makes things feel a little less overwhelming, safer. He smells like coffee and syrup and and a little bit like frying oil, and it’s a comforting scent, warm and familiar. Ford sighs, resting her head on his shoulder.

 

Something occurs to her, though, and she frowns, picking her head up. “Hey,” she says. “How come you’ve been mad at my dad all week?”

 

Will goes stiff. “I’m not mad at your dad,” he says.

 

Ford draws back, leveling him with the boy, please look that she knows for a fact is identical to her dad’s at her age. Will, somewhat predictably, wilts.

 

“I’m not...mad,” he repeats, but with less force and more protest, almost like he’s trying to convince himself more than her. She just raises her eyebrow higher, and he sighs. “It’s complicated, okay?”

 

Ford crosses her arms. “Uncomplicate it, then.” He frowns at her, and she nudges him with her foot. “I’m very smart, Will. I promise that your adult drama isn’t more confusing than the last season of Pretty Little Liars, so try me.”

 

He looks blankly at her, mouthing Pretty Little Liars like she’s speaking a foreign language--sometimes those few years between her dad and Will really make themselves obvious in the generational divide of old millennial and young Gen X, and it is hilarious--and then he huffs and shakes his head. “It’s--alright, fine. Your dad and I, we just...I thought we had an...an understanding.”

 

“An understanding,” Ford repeats, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And just to be clear, that’s code for ‘spend years giving each other significant glances and dancing around being attracted to each other but not really acting on it but mutually knowing you’re kind of into each other,’ right?”

 

Color flares into Will’s cheeks. “Ford!”

 

She throws her hands up. “What? Everyone knows!”

 

His face goes a darker red. “Yeah, but they have the sense not to--” He exhales, hard, and takes off his hat so that he can muss a hand through his hair. “Jesus.”

 

Ford gives him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. The scowl he sends her way is half-hearted, and she can’t help a smile. “So what’s the problem, exactly?”

 

“Well, obviously it’s…” He trails off, then clears his throat. “It just turned out we weren’t as much on the same page as I thought we were.”

 

And that’s...what? Ford stares at him. “Um,” she says, because she knows her dad, and she knows her dad’s totally unsubtle crush on Will Poindexter, and what? “Sorry, what?”

 

Will shrugs his shoulders. “It happens, Ford,” he says gently, and what the hell is going on, is he trying to comfort her? “And come on, it’s good having your--having Justin around, right?”

 

The subject change catches her off-guard. “Um, yes?” She frowns. “I mean, we’ve always been close, but it’s nice to have him basically down the street.”

 

“So, there you go.” Will gives her a lopsided smile. “No harm done, y’know?”

 

“What?” Now she’s really bewildered. “Will, what are you talking about?”

 

Will shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it, Ford.” He nudges her gently with his elbow. “Enough about me anyway, huh? Why don’t you fill me in on what’s going on with you and my nephew?”

 

Oh, he did not. “Low blow, William,” she hisses, sitting up straight in her chair.

 

He grins at her, and adult or not, she’s about to tell him exactly where he can stick that grin when her papa and great-grandmother come around the corner, talking quietly with a tall, pale doctor with a sweep of salt-and-pepper hair caught into a braid over her shoulder. She straightens up. “Papa!”

 

His head comes up from where he’s looking at the chart in the other doctor’s hands, clearly looking for the source of her voice, and then his eyes soften. “Hey, baby girl,” he calls, putting a brief hand on Grandma’s shoulder and leaving her with the doctor, coming over to Ford and Will with his usual long, unhurried stride. “You doing okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” she says, getting up to her feet. It’s instinct to lean into his side when he holds out an arm for her, and she barely notices him reaching out to Will with his other hand, or Will getting up to shake it.

 

“Will. Thanks for coming.”

 

“I just drove Derek,” Will says, looking a little uncomfortable. He lets go of her dad’s hand. “Any news?”

 

“Yeah, actually.” Ford tenses, and Justin tightens his arm around her, dropping a kiss to the top of her head. “He’s going to be fine. It was a coronary spasm, just angina. The doctor’s gonna go talk to your Jadda and your dad about treatment tonight and some preventative steps to keep his heart healthy, but he should be okay.” His lips quirk up. “He’s gonna have to cut down on the red meat and whiskey, though.”

 

Ford’s so relieved her knees feel a little weak, and she wraps her arms around her papa’s waist, pressing her face into his chest. “He’s gonna hate that,” she says against his sternum, she says, and feels the vibration of his laugh.

 

“Probably, baby, but you know Jadda will make him stick to it.” He strokes her hair gently, then tugs playfully at one of her twists. “Come on. Let’s go find your dad and tell him the good news, okay?”

 

She nods and picks her head up, wiping her eyes. She hadn’t realized she’d teared up, but she feels a little silly about it. She’s never really been a crier, even though both her dads had made it a point to teach her that there’s nothing wrong with crying if she needs to.

 

Will clears his throat. “I’m going to head out,” he says.


Ford turns to look at him, surprised. “Now?”

 

He shoves his hands in his pockets. “I was really just here to keep you company,” he says, a little awkwardly. “It seems like your grandpa’s gonna be okay, so I don’t think you really need me, do you?”

 

“Yeah, but…” This is so not how Ford wanted to get to the bottom of this, but she’s played dirty before, and she will do it again. “Without saying goodbye to my dad?”

 

Will narrows his eyes at her like he knows exactly what she’s doing, but Justin nods.

 

“Derek would hate to miss you, and I’m sure he’d want to thank you again for the ride,” he says. “Hell, I want to thank you for driving him--that was way out of your way, man. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”

 

Will startles slightly, his eyes snapping to Justin’s like he clearly wasn’t expecting that, and Ford raises her eyebrows. That’s interesting. “It was nothing,” he says. “Derek’s--he’s an old friend.”

 

Now Justin raises his eyebrows. Ford hopes they don’t look identical. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “Are you okay, man?”

 

Will flushes. “I’m fine,” he says. “I’m--” He clears his throat slightly. “I’m just, it’s good that you’re here. It’s probably helpful that you’re around to, you know, translate all the medical stuff. And I’m sure Derek’s really grateful you’re here.”

 

“Right,” Justin says slowly, and he sounds as confused as Ford feels, but he’s interrupted by the doctor and Grandma reaching them. Grandma pulls Ford into a hug that smells like peppermint perfume and coffee.

 

“Dr. Reynolds wants to head in to see your grandfather,” she tells the top of Ford’s head, giving her a last squeeze before seeming to notice Will. “Oh. I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced?”

 

Will is starting to look seriously overwhelmed, and Ford almost feels bad for him. “Will Poindexter, ma’am. I’m a friend of Derek’s, I gave him a ride out here.”

 

“I see.” She studies him for a long moment, her eyes sharp, long enough that Ford really does feel bad--she knows exactly what that microscopic look feels like, and Will’s over six feet tall but right now he looks like he feels shorter than Ford. “A...friend of my grandson’s, you said?”


“Yes ma’am.” He nods nervously. “Just a friend,” he adds, with a significant glance in Justin’s direction.

 

One and one click together to make two in Ford’s head, and oh. Oh no, she thinks. Something has gone very, very wrong.

 

“Will,” she begins, but Grandma cuts her off before she can say anything more.

 

“Come along, dear,” she says. “Let’s go give your father and grandparents the good news.”

 

 

In all of Derek’s memories of his mother, she seems seven feet tall. He closes his eyes, and in his head she’s a powerhouse--brilliant mind, bold laugh, flashing smile. She lights up a room, she’s ever-confident, she’s never, ever seemed scared.

 

Sitting in the chair in his father’s hospital room, her high heels abandoned on the floor and her feet tucked under her knees and her eyes red-rimmed, Derek’s first thought is that she looks very, very small.

 

“Ammi,” he says quietly, letting the door click softly shut behind him.

 

Her head snaps up from where her eyes have been fixed on his father’s silent face. “Derek!” She wipes at her cheeks, a hurried motion as if to catch any places where her makeup might have run--as if she would wear anything other than something perfectly waterproof--and gives him a weak smile, getting to her feet. “You made it, thank goodness.”

 

“Of course I did.” He wraps his arms around her, returning her tight hug and breathing in the long-familiar smell of her perfume. It’s childish, maybe, but he can’t help ducking his head down against her hair, holding on tight while she makes a soft comforting sound and presses a kiss to his temple, her hands combing through his curls. Eyes prickling, he pulls back with a sniffle. “Sorry it took me so long.”

 

She shakes her head. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She cups his face in her hands, looking at him for a long moment, and then pats his cheeks and lets him go. “Come sit, sweetheart.”

 

Derek hesitates, but his mom gives him a firm push towards the bed. She takes her abandoned chair back, slipping her hands back around one of his father’s, and, nervously, Derek lowers himself into the room’s other chair. “How’s...how’s he doing?”

 

“He’s all right.” Amal reaches up to brush a few strands of his father’s hair back. He doesn’t stir under her touch, and her eyelashes flicker slightly in concern. She takes his hand again in both of hers. “They ran some tests, and then they gave him something to help him sleep.”

 

“Okay.” Derek rubs his hands together. He feels anxious and unsteady, and can’t quite bring himself to look at his father, his suit traded for a hospital gown, his calm control exchanged for external wires and monitors. He shivers, and looks at his mom instead. “How are you doing?”

 

“Oh, I’m all right.” She smiles faintly at him. “I’ll feel better once we hear something more from the doctors. Justin and your grandmother went to go track them down.”

 

Derek squints at her. “Is that a nice way of saying you threw Grandma out because you couldn’t deal with her yelling at the nurses?”

 

Her smile goes a bit sheepish, which doesn’t really surprise him. She’d done the same thing when she gave birth to him, and when he’d had Ford. If nothing else, his mom’s a creature of habit. “Justin was nice enough to suggest that they try to find someone to ask. I think he saw my eyes start twitching.”

 

“He’s clever like that.” Absently, Derek smooths his dad’s blankets slightly. “How’d Ford end up by herself in the hallway?”

 

“She said she was going to see if someone might lend her a phone charger.” Amal rubs her forehead. “I usually have one in my purse, but we were in such a scramble to get out of the house--”

 

“I don’t think she blames you, Ammi,” Derek says dryly, and she gives a faint, self-deprecating laugh.

 

“I know. I’m a bit--out of my element.” She shakes her head. “You know, it’s so...When we got married, and we were setting up all of this paperwork with our lawyer--wills, and health care proxies, and power of attorney and all of those things--they had us answer so many different questions. I’m sure they thought it would be helpful, you know, just so that if we ever--God forbid--got into some terrible situation, we would know what the other person would have wanted.”

 

Derek snorts before he can stop himself. “That doesn’t sound anxiety-inducing at all.”

 

Amal echoes his laugh. “You’d think,” she agrees. “In its own way, though, it was--not helpful, exactly, but...useful. I played out all these different scenarios, you know, do this thing if I’m just very ill, do this thing if I’m this many months pregnant, do this thing if I’m horribly injured, do this thing if we have very small children and there’s a small chance I’ll recover…” She shakes her head. “And the entire time, your father just smiled, and nodded, and didn’t give me a single damn thing. It was just, I’m not worried, Amal. You’ll know what to do.”

 

She looks down at her hands clasped around his father’s, his skin much paler than hers, her hands much smaller. “And now here we are,” she says quietly, “and I find that I don’t really know what to do at all. And it would be really nice to be allowed to be mad about that, but I…”

 

Voice trailing off, she lets out a small, shaking breath, her eyes shining. Derek swallows, getting out of his chair and walking around the bed to fold himself over her side, wrapping her in a hug. “I got you, Mom,” he says, and she laughs softly, reaching up to squeeze his arm. “It’s gonna be okay.”

 

Her breath hitches and she sniffles, reaching further to twine her fingers into his hair, scratching gently the way she had when he was younger. He hugs her tighter.

 

The blankets on the bed rustle slightly, and then, voice tired but amused, Derek’s dad says, “That’s a sweet picture.”

 

Derek snaps his head up. “Dad?”

 

His father’s face is pale behind the cannula, but the smile is genuine, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Hey, munchkin.”

 

Derek lets go of his mom, who immediately reaches for his dad’s hand again with both of hers. “You haven’t called me that in years.”

 

Michael squints up at him. “Well, who’d have thought you’d get so tall, huh?”

 

A laugh catches in Derek’s throat, his eyes stinging. Don’t you dare cry, he tells himself firmly, and puts a hand on top of his dad’s, squeezing. “Always the comedian,” he says, trying to smile.

 

What he wants to do is pour out half an hour of apologies--for the years of distance, for the miles he’s put between them, for the walls he’s built up that he knows, knows, have broken his parents’ hearts; for all the little for the thousands of tiny ways they’ve hurt each other over the years. It’s not all his fault, he knows that, but in this hospital room, full of wires and machines, with his mom looking so small and his dad so weak and so many things he can’t fix--

 

It would be nice to fix something. Anything.

 

The door opens, and Justin pokes his head into the room. He catches sight of Derek and gives him a quick smile, then steps in, followed by Derek’s grandmother, Ford, and a doctor Derek doesn’t recognize, who introduces herself as Dr. Reynolds.

 

“We have some good news for you, even though you gave your family a scare,” she says, smiling at Derek’s parents. “It looks like it was just a touch of angina, so you’re going to be sticking around with us for quite awhile longer.”

 

Derek stares at her. After the rush and anxiety of the night, anything starting with just doesn’t seem to make sense. “He’s going to be okay?”

 

“He’ll be just fine.” Dr. Reynolds glances at his monitors, and then nods, as if to herself, before looking back at him. She has a broad, friendly face, deep laugh lines at her eyes and mouth, which seems surprising in a doctor. “We’ll keep him overnight for observation, and he’ll meet with someone before discharge to talk about a medication regimen, as well as some changes he’ll have to make to his diet and exercise routine.”

 

“But he’s...fine,” Derek repeats. He feels a little dumb. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches Ford glancing at Justin, her eyes worried, and Justin tucking an arm around her shoulders.

 

“Absolutely,” Dr. Reynolds says. She turns to his mom. “Mrs. Nurse, your mother-in-law was telling me that you had some questions about--”

 

Her voice seems to fade into white noise, and Derek shakes his head a few times to try to clear it. When he realizes he can’t, he takes a breath and starts inching his way out of the room, brushing past Justin with a murmured gonna get some air and managing to slip out--at least, he thinks--without anyone noticing that his brain is slowly shutting down.

 

He makes it around the corner before he slumps against the wall of the hallway, shaking hard. He presses the heels of his palms against his eyes, feeling the threatening sting of tears, and tries to keep it together, taking careful breaths. He’s made it this long without a panic attack; he just has to keep breathing, keep reminding himself that everything’s fine, and--

 

“Derek?” Will’s voice catches him by surprise. Derek takes a deep breath and lowers his hands, looking up to see Will a few feet away, watching him with a mix of wariness and concern. “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, I’m…” Derek swallows. “I just. It’s kind of.”

 

Will takes a step closer to him, cautiously, like he’s worried Derek’s going to make a run for it. “I heard everything’s going to be okay.”

 

Derek nods. “Yeah,” he says. “They want to keep him overnight, just to--”

 

His voice breaks, finally, and he doesn’t even have time to try to hide his face before Will’s pulling him into a hug. It’s probably the first real hug they’ve shared in sixteen years of knowing each other, firm and tight, Will’s arms around his waist and Derek’s tight around his shoulders, his face tucked into the crook of Will’s neck while Will makes slightly awkward soothing noises and pats his back with one hand. Derek’s not sobbing, or anything, he’s just taking harsh, shaking breaths, tears leaking out of his eyes in a steady pour.

 

“Sorry,” he says, more than once. “Fuck. Sorry.”

 

“Shut up. It’s fine.” Will rubs his back. “This was a rough night. Sorry I don’t have...I don’t know, tissues or something. A handkerchief.”

 

Derek laughs wetly, pulling away and wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “A handkerchief? Are you Mr. Darcy?”

 

Will grins at him. “You would love for me to be Mr. Darcy,” he says.

 

Derek takes him in, flannel shirt and backwards baseball cap and wet spot on his shoulder from Derek’s tears, and can’t tell him he’s wrong. He settles for wiping at his eyes instead. “I’m overreacting, right? He’s fine.”

 

Will shakes his head. “There was a lot of build-up. I don’t blame you for crashing.”

 

“Yeah.” Derek takes a breath, then another. He’s starting to feel a little calmer, his head a little clearer. Maybe crying it out helped; it usually does, even though he’s stupidly resistant to it. Now that he can actually get his thoughts in order, he realizes how late it is, and that Will is still here. “Oh my God,” he says. “Have I--did I even say thank you, yet? For everything you’ve done tonight?”

 

Will’s cheeks flare red. “You’re welcome,” he says. “Please don’t do a speech.”

 

Derek presses his lips together against a smile. He totally had a speech. It’s possible Will knows him too well. “Okay. No speech.”

 

“Anything else I can do?”

 

It almost feels wrong to ask, but since he’s going back to Samwell anyway-- “Could you drive Ford home?”

 

Will looks surprised, but he nods. “Of course. What about you?”

 

Derek motions to the hallway. “I’m going to stay here, make sure my mom’s okay and that Grandma doesn’t bulldoze her too much when she’s off her game.”

 

“Makes sense.” Will grimaces. “Your Grandma’s a...formidable lady.” He looks thoughtful. “Hey, question? How come Ford calls your parents Grandpa and Jadda but your grandma is also Grandma to her?”

 

Derek covers his face with his hands. “Because she wanted to be ‘Grandma’, and my mom speaks Arabic and wanted to have that honored but my dad is the whitest of white guys, and my family is a clusterfuck, William.”

 

Will chuckles, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. “You seem to manage them okay,” he says.

 

“Years of practice,” Derek says mournfully, but he musters a smile, leaning into Will’s hand. Will’s grip is always firm and warm, and even though they don’t touch much, something in him always flares at it. His first instinct is usually to try to shove that flare down, now, tired and sick of fighting himself, he lets himself lean.

 

Familiar footsteps sound in the hallway behind him. “There you are,” Justin says, and Will drops his hand from Derek’s arm like he’s been burned. “I was getting worried.”

 

“I’m okay,” Derek says, turning to look at him. Justin gives him a slight smile, a reassuring touch between the shoulder blades--it’s a familiar contact, just a platonic I’m here, I got you, and Derek leans into it automatically. “Will’s gonna drive Ford home.”

 

Will clears his throat. “Yeah.” He smiles faintly at Justin, though it doesn’t reach all the way to his eyes, and something about it makes Derek frown. “I was a little worried about the Grandma bulldozer effect, but it seems like you’re in good hands.”

 

Justin grins. “I got his back, don’t worry.”

 

“Right. Good.” Will nods, then glances at Derek. “Ford’s still with your dad?”

 

The shift in his tone from his earlier warmth to this almost businesslike brusqueness takes Derek off-guard. “Um, yeah. I’ll go with you, I want to give her a hug goodbye.” He nudges Justin. “Coming?”

 

“You bet.”

 

They head off down the hall together. Will walks a careful arm’s length away from Derek the entire way. Derek notices, and it stings.

 

 

This is what it looks like, when Will Poindexter leaves the hospital:

 

The nurses at the station on the cardiac floor catch snippets of the conversation outside Michael Nurse’s room, Derek hugging Ford tight to his chest while Will looks on, his eyes soft but his jaw tight. “Now there’s something complicated,” one nurse mentions to her CNA. “What do you suppose that’s about?”

 

“Don’t know,” the CNA says, but she does glance up, and catches something like longing in the way Derek watches Will walk away with one arm over Ford’s shoulders. “Custody thing, maybe?”

 

The nurse chuckles. “Usually is,” she says, and picks up her coffee.

 

To Dr. Reynolds, filling out paperwork at the corner of the station, with a sharper eye and more information, it looks like a miscommunication in progress, or maybe a bit of a lover’s quarrel--she sees the tension in Will’s eyes when Justin puts a hand on Derek’s shoulder, at the furrow in Ford’s brow when she glances between the three men. She sees, too, Derek focusing on Will more than anything else, his face open and grateful, the way his hand lingers on his arm when they say goodbye. She shakes her head at the inability of men to speak to each other, signs off on Michael Nurse’s file, and goes to check on another patient.

 

To Ford Nurse, it looks like the beginning of a disaster. It looks like her parents, totally unaware, interacting the way they always do--Daddy, warm and clumsy and overwhelmed when there’s too much emotion; Papa, stepping in to support him, calm and steady. Physical the way they always have been, which wouldn’t be weird or strange or anything--

 

Unless you think they’re dating. Which Will, for some reason, does.

 

So she sees her dad looking at Will the way he always does, like he thinks Will hung the moon and the stars but he doesn’t want Will to know he thinks that, and she sees Will looking at her dad like he just wants to keep looking at him forever but he doesn’t want anyone to know that, least of all Ford’s papa, who’s standing next to both of them, totally oblivious.

 

She kisses her dads goodbye and lets Will walk her out to the elevator bay, and takes out her phone.

 

“Who you texting?” Will asks, peering over her shoulder.

 

“Nobody,” she says, opening her text thread with Tony and Connor. She’s been texting them all night and they’ve been keeping her sane, which is great, but this is a whole different boat. New 911, she writes. Dad drama. HELP. She hits send, and looks up at Will. “Can we listen to Ariana Grande on the ride home?”

 

He looks at her blankly. “I don’t know who that is,” he says, and she manages not to roll her eyes.

 

Derek doesn’t see any of that. He gives Ford a hug goodbye, and squeezes Will’s arm in thanks, and then, while Justin and his mom and his grandmother head down to the hospital cafe to find some much-needed coffee, he slips back into his father’s hospital room. His dad is asleep again, most of the monitors cleared away, and Derek takes his mother’s abandoned chair, dropping into it with a tired sigh.

 

Once he’s sitting, the emotion and exhaustion seems to catch up with him, his limbs feeling heavy and thick. He sighs, running a hand through his hair, and then rubs his eyes.

 

His father stirs, and Derek reaches out to take his hand. As if on instinct, his father’s fingers curl around his, and Derek swallows the lump in his throat.

 

“Hi, Dad,” he whispers.

 

His father opens his eyes. It takes a moment for him to focus, but when he sees Derek, he smiles, and his hand tightens around Derek’s.

 

“Hey, munchkin,” he says, and Derek smiles.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

When Ford gets off the bus from Hartford on Monday afternoon, Tony and Connor are waiting for her.

 

Her whole heart flutters when she sees them. Despite the flurry of activity in their group chat--and their individual text threads; whatever, she’s never pretended not to be glued to her phone--she hasn’t seen them all weekend. She and her dads had spent Saturday at the hospital with her grandfather, and then Sunday at the house in Hartford helping him get settled after he was discharged.

 

Hi,” she breathes, stepping away from the bus and letting Tony fold her into a hug. She wraps her arms around his neck and snuggles into him, breathing in at the familiarity of it. For all the ways that the butterflies she’s been getting around him lately are new, this, at least, she’s used to.

 

“Hi,” he says back, muffled slightly against the top of her head. He holds her tight for a moment, and then steps back, his cheeks flushed. Connor doesn’t hug her, but he does reach out and take her hand, squeezing briefly. Ford returns the pressure, giving him a quick smile. She gets the feeling that for him, that much is as good as an embrace. “I’m really sorry about your grandpa. How’s he doing?”

 

“He’s a lot better,” she says, letting his hand go. It’s the truth, too. By the time they’d left last night, he’d been grumping to Jadda about wanting a real dinner while she threatened him with a permanent vegan diet. She slips her arm through Tony’s. “Can we get something to eat? I’m starving.”

 

Connor gives her a pained look. “Please not Uncle Will’s. He’ll put me to work early and I don’t have a real shift until five.”

 

Ford laughs. “No, I want something sweet. Bitty’s?”

 

“Ooh, yes,” Tony says instantly. “I want a macadamia nut cookie.”

 

“You never finish them,” Ford reminds him. “They’re the size of your head.”

 

He rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “All the more reason,” he says. “You get to finish them. Come on.”

 

They start walking. Ford keeps her arm through Tony’s, but she reaches back to grab Connor’s sleeve, pulling him forward when he tries to trail behind them, until he’s walking on her other side. He lets her, keeping pace with them. Samwell has fairly wide sidewalks, and it’s a quiet enough time of day that they can walk three across without bothering anyone.

 

“So,” she says. “Did either of you find anything out about why everyone thinks my dads are dating each other?”

 

Connor makes a face. “I was hoping you’d forgotten about that,” he says.

 

She looks up at him. “Why?”

 

“Uh, because it’s super weird to meddle in my uncle’s love life?”

 

Connor,” she sighs. “Don’t you want him to be happy?”

 

“Sure,” he says. “I just don’t think it’s my job to make that happen. Because, again, it is super weird to meddle in my uncle’s love life.” He squints at her. “How is this not weird for you? It’s your dad.”

 

She shrugs. “If I didn’t meddle in my dad’s love life, he’d spend the rest of his life staring wistfully at your uncle while attractive people trip over themselves asking him out, while he just never notices and dies alone because he’s an oblivious idiot.”

 

Connor raises his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

 

“Seriously,” she says firmly. “Look. They’ve been pining over each other for years, Connor. I’m not going to let some dumb rumor ruin something that’s been building up since I was like a month old.” She huffs. “I don’t get why you couldn’t just tell Will they aren’t together.”

 

“Because then he’d know that I know he cares about whether or not they’re together in the first place,” Connor says, wincing. “I’ll help you out with this, but I’m not messing with the Poindexter pride streak. No way in hell.”

 

Ford grimaces. “Fair enough.” She nudges Tony. “You’ve been quiet.”

 

He gives a slight jump, and then looks at her with a sheepish smile. “Sorry. Just thinking.”

 

“What about?”

 

He shrugs. “Meddling,” he says, and she laughs.

 

“Okay.”

 

Bitty’s Bakes caters to a sweeter-toothed crowd than Will’s Diner, and the vibe of the place is always apparent from the first step through the door. Ford always feels a little smacked in the face by the scent of sugar and fresh-baked sweetness that hits her when she steps inside--it’s never unpleasant, but always startling. It’s a smaller shop, more designed for taking things to go than sitting and eating, but there are a few little tables tucked around the walls, and the displays always gleam, their contents all but sparkling with dusted sugar.

 

“Every time I walk in here I think I get a step closer to diabetes,” Connor mutters.

 

Ford smacks his arm. “Don’t say that.”

 

He winces, rubbing his arm. She doesn’t pull her punches. “Sorry. But like.” He gestures. “Come on.”

 

“Use different phrasing, then. Come on, I want my brownie.” She grabs his sleeve and hauls him up towards the counter.

 

Eric comes out from the back just as they get to the register, drying his hands on a towel. He raises his eyebrows at the sight of her dragging Connor, but his lips quirk up in a smile when he sees Tony behind them. “Ford,” he greets, looking like he’s trying to suppress a laugh. “I didn’t realize you were getting yourself an entourage.”

 

“A lady should always travel with a full retinue,” she says immediately, grinning at him. She likes Eric, for all his Southern postures and occasional passive-aggressive gossiping. He’s a transplant to Samwell, too, though he’s been here longer than she’s been alive. “Do you have peanut butter brownies today?”

 

“Just got a batch out, honey, you’re in luck.” He takes a piece of wax paper and then pauses. “Staying or going?”

 

She glances at Connor and Tony, and gets an identical pair of shrugs. Boys, she thinks, exasperated. “Staying,” she says decisively.

 

Eric chuckles, and reaches behind him for a plate. He puts a brownie on it--she can smell the peanut butter, and her mouth waters--and hands it to her. “Are y’all ordering together, or separate?”

 

Ford opens her mouth to say they’ll be separate, but Connor interrupts her. “Together,” he says, slipping closer to her. He nudges Tony. “You wanted a macadamia nut cookie, right?”

 

Tony looks as surprised as Ford feels, and then his face flushes with color. It would be adorable, Ford thinks, if he didn’t look like a deer in the headlights. “Um,” he says. “Yes.”

 

“One macadamia nut cookie,” Connor tells Eric, putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder and nudging him gently but firmly out of the way so he can step up to the register. “Uh--and a lemon bar, please.”

 

Eric’s eyebrows have drifted up to his hairline, but he nods and picks up another plate. “How are you settling into Samwell, Connor? Is your uncle treating you okay?”

 

Connor looks like he wants to cringe, but he shrugs. “It’s been fine. It’s really quiet here, which is pretty cool, I guess. I like the all the trees.” He takes out his wallet. “It’s been cool working for Uncle Will. He knows a lot.”

 

Eric hums, handing the plates with the cookie and lemon bar to Tony and punching a few buttons on the register. “You’re not much for small talk, are you?”

 

Ford tries to bite back her laugh, but half a giggle squeaks past her lips anyway. Connor rolls his eyes at her, then looks at Eric. “What do I owe you?” he asks, which probably answers the question anyway.

 

“Seven ninety-five,” Eric says, his voice tinged with amusement. “I can take a hint.”

 

Trying to stifle the rest of her laughter, Ford takes Tony by the arm and leads him over to one of the little tables, setting her plate down. She steals a chair from another table for Connor--they’re all two-seaters--and sits down, taking off her jacket and draping it over the back of her chair. By the time she’s settled, Connor joins them, his face still set in the I can’t believe I have to deal with these people expression she’s come to be almost fond of.

 

“You’ve done it now,” she tells him. “He’s going to be telling all sorts of stories about your cold, bitter city attitude.”

 

“Good,” he says emphatically, dropping into his seat. “Ugh. Why does everyone want to talk here? It’s so weird. Do you know who talks to you in New York? Literally no one. It’s amazing.”

 

“Poor baby,” she teases, nudging him gently with her foot. “Thanks for buying. You didn’t have to.”

 

Connor’s cheeks go slightly pink, and he ducks his head. “You’ve had a rough few days. I figured you deserved something nice.”

 

She raises her eyebrows at him, resting her chin in one hand. “So what’s your excuse for buying for Tony?”

 

His flush darkens, and she laughs. “You and your fake mean shell,” she says, brushing her foot against his again. This time, he nudges back. “You’re all squishy and sweet on the inside.”

 

“Yeah, well.” He breaks off a piece of his lemon bar and offers it to her. She takes it. “Don’t tell anyone.”

 

“I would never,” she promises, grinning despite herself. She never meant to like Connor, but here she is. The lemon bar explodes in flavor on her tongue, sweet and sharp, and that’s her boys in a nutshell, she thinks; Tony’s unending capacity for sweetness and Connor’s...well. Connor-ness.

 

She’s got no clue how she got here. Ford shakes her head, pulling her mind back to what somehow feels more like a solvable problem. “Okay,” she says out loud. “Operation Matchmaker. What the heck are we doing with them?”

 

Tony swallows his bite of cookie. “I was thinking,” he says. “What if we got them to go to the Winter Festival together?”

 

Ford blinks at him. “Like a date? They’d never do it. Not with Will thinking my dads are together.”

 

“No, not a date, just…” He waves a distracted hand. Ford ducks a few cookie crumbs and gently reaches out to guide his wrist back to the plate. He gives her a sheepish look. “They always run into each other anyway, but I was thinking, you know, if we made it so that they run into each other somewhere super romantic…”

 

“Huh.” Ford considers that. The Winter Festival is absurdly romantic. “We’d have to figure out how to get them there.”

 

“Spite,” Connor says.

 

Ford startles. “What?”

 

Connor puts his piece of lemon bar down. “It’s basically the biggest thing they have in common,” he says. Ford stares at him blankly, and he furrows his brow. “Wait. Seriously? You haven’t noticed?”

 

She shakes her head slowly. “No?”

 

“Uncle Will will pretty much do anything if someone implies that he wouldn’t,” Connor says. “Or doesn’t have the--” He catches himself. “Uh, metaphorical balls to do. Your dad seems like the same way. So if you make it seem like my uncle’s avoiding him because he thinks your dad doesn’t have the guts to talk to him about something, and I do the same thing to Uncle Will--”

 

It all starts to click together. Ford stares at him in blooming delight. “Oh my god,” she says. “Connor. You evil genius.” Before she can stop herself, she leans over and kisses his cheek. “That’s exactly what’s going to work! How did I not think of that?”

 

“You’re too nice a person,” he says, smirking through his blush and popping his bite of lemon bar into his mouth.

 

“Hey,” Tony says, nudging her and pushing his cheek out pointedly. “It was my idea, too!”

 

Ford laughs, tugging him down to kiss him, too. She feels a little exposed, knowing Eric’s still at the counter, arranging trays in the display cases and probably filing every move they make away for whatever gossip train he’s about to start next, but--

 

Well, whatever, she thinks, letting go of Tony and stealing a piece of his cookie. For once, she doesn’t mind if people talk.

 

“Okay,” she says, scooting her chair so that she can be closer to both of them. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”

 

 

This is Ford Nurse’s history with boys and boyfriends--

 

Well. There really isn’t one.

 

Ford likes boys (and girls, maybe?) in theory. She likes them in novels, occasionally, when they don’t act like jerks just to move a plot along. Same thing in movies. She doesn’t like them very often on TV, but she thinks that’s probably because she gets her taste in television from her father, whose taste in TV shows is either “strong female character”, “queer as all hell”, “childhood nostalgia”, or “SportsCenter”, with only occasional overlap. But she likes reading about romance--the soaring ones, the sweet ones, the blushing ones, the musical-inspiring ones.

 

(Not so much the ship-launching ones, but she always thought Helen of Troy got the crap end of that deal. Agamemnon was always going to go to war, that whole “stolen sister-in-law” thing was just an excuse.)

 

In practice, though, boys have only ever really either been friends or nuisances. The boys at Chilton are mostly nuisances--old money legacies who swagger through the hallways with entitlement and attitude, always willing to make her feel even smaller than she physically is. She’s learned to ignore them--knows from her dad’s stories and her own experience that it’s mostly their own insecurity, privilege covering up a lack of real ability or strength.

 

With Tony, it’s always been friendship. Things have always been easy with him. And sure, she’s had the occasional butterflies around him from time to time, but who hasn’t had a crush on their best friend? Until now, she’s always thought it was normal.

 

(Only now he’s all bright, bright blue eyes, and there are Connor’s, too, that strange sparkling gold, not brown but really gold, and--)

 

Well. Like she said. Until now.

 

“Wait,” Ford says, frowning at him. “You’re not coming tonight?”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows at her, leaning against the counter and sipping a mug of coffee. “I told you I wasn’t sure I would,” he says. “I was thinking I’d drive out and check on Grandpa again, and you could get a ride home with Tony or Connor.”

 

“Yeah, but…” She chews her bottom lip, crossing her arms. “I just thought you were going to come with me, that’s all.”

 

She looks nervous, almost uncertain, and Derek frowns. He usually does go to the Festival, and sure, this year is different, what with her having a date of sorts, but he wasn’t expecting this kind of reaction. “Is something wrong, baby?”

 

“No,” she says quickly, and then hesitates. “Well. I guess…” She trails off, and then sighs. “Daddy, you’d tell me if you and Papa were getting back together, right?”

 

Derek doesn’t spit out his coffee, but he comes damn close. Whatever he was expecting from her, that was not it. He forces himself to swallow, and chokes out, “What?”

 

Ford hops up to sit on the kitchen counter, swinging her feet. She’s gotten more dressed up for this year’s Festival than she has in past years, he notes, wearing a sweater dress he’s pretty sure she must have borrowed from someone else and a pair of fleece-lined tights, her hair twisted back from her face. “Well,” she says, the slightest hint of a challenge in her voice. “You would, right?”

 

“Jesus, Ford--of course I would!” Derek puts his coffee down, gaping at her. “Where is this coming from?”

 

“It’s just…” Ford taps her toes together, a nervous habit she’s had since she was little, and then looks up at him. “There’s...kind of a rumor going around town that you two are…you know.”

 

Derek opens his mouth to deny it, then remembers that brief, sweet kiss on the porch, and smacks himself in the face. “Oh, for the love of God,” he says into his hand.

 

“Oh my God,” Ford says, and there’s actual alarm in her voice for the first time. “Wait. Daddy. Are you together?”

 

No!” He forces his face up. She looks caught between horror, alarm, and something that almost looks like delight, and Jesus fuck he’s a terrible parent. “No,” he repeats, more gently this time. “I--there was a kiss, honey, but it was just a kiss. We’re not getting back together. Someone must have seen it and--come to their own conclusions, I guess.” He sighs. “My money’s on Kent Parson.”

 

“It’s always Kent Parson,” Ford says, and gives him a slight smile. Derek relaxes. Not traumatized, then, thank God. “So you weren’t making out with Papa on the porch?”

 

No, I was not making out with your father on the porch,” he says firmly. He rubs his eyes. “God, sometimes I hate this town.” A thought occurs to him, then, and he snaps his face up. “Wait. Did you say this rumor is actually--people are talking about this?”

 

Ford straightens up, nodding. “It’s all over town,” she says, with the matter-of-fact surety of someone who spends more time plugged into the Samwell gossip chains than Derek does. “And, you know, I wouldn’t normally believe that kind of thing, but I heard it from Connor, and he heard it from Will, and if Will believed it, then…”

 

“Oh my God,” he mutters, slumping back against the fridge. “This is why he’s being such a dick to me.”

 

Ford blinks. “What do you mean?”

 

There’s something in her expression that would normally put Derek on edge--an over-wide innocence to her eyes that should be a little suspicious, but he’s too distracted by the idea that Will Poindexter thinks he’s hooking up with his ex to pay too much attention.

 

“Nothing,” he says, because he does at least try to keep his sixteen-year-old kid out of his drama. Ford makes an irritated sound that she definitely picked up from Lardo at some point, kicking a foot out to nudge at him, and he sighs. “He’s been--there’s been some, I don’t know, tension, for the last week or so. I wasn’t sure why, and he wouldn’t tell me, he was just acting like an ass.”

 

“Oh,” Ford says. She gives him a thoughtful look.

 

Derek narrows his eyes at her. “What?”

 

“Well,” she says slowly, and okay, now he’s suspicious. “Maybe he he’s upset because he thought you guys had like...a thing? And now he thinks you got back together with Papa without telling him, so…”

 

She trails off with a meaningful look, and Derek crosses his arms. “What?” he repeats.

 

Ford raises her eyebrows at him. “Are you going to make me say it?”

 

Derek picks up his abandoned coffee. Now that he’s over the initial shock, he wants it back. “Apparently,” he says, hoping he doesn’t sound as sulky as he feels.

 

Ford sighs. “Daddy,” she says patiently. “Why do you think he’d be mad about you getting back together with Papa and not telling him?”

 

The only reason he doesn’t throw up his hands is because he’d never sacrifice precious coffee like that. “I don’t know, because he’s--”

 

The pins click together in his head, and he nearly drops his mug. He stares at Ford. “No,” he says.

 

“Yup,” she says.

 

This is a situation that calls for excessive gesturing. He puts his mug back on the counter so he can fling his hands around, because he’s never claimed not to have inherited his mother’s flair for the dramatic. “You have got to be kidding me,” he says. “He cannot possibly be that hard-headed that he wouldn’t just talk to me if he thought--”

 

“It’s Will,” Ford says, sounding far more amused than is even remotely fair. She reaches out and slides his coffee cup away from his flailing limbs. “He is absolutely that hard-headed.”

 

“Oh, my actual God.” Derek stares at the ceiling like it might give him some guidance. All it does is remind him that he needs to dust. Since that’s not going to happen, he settles for heaving a sigh and turning to Ford. “Alright, fine,” he says. “I’ll take you to the Festival.”

 

She perks up. “Really?”

 

“Yes.” He makes a grabbing motion at her, and she gives him his mug back. He drains it in two sips and puts it in the sink. “Mostly because I need to stop by Will’s stall to tell him he’s being a jackass.”

 

Ford gives an exasperated sigh. “Daddy,” she says. “When I said you should talk to him, I didn’t mean--”

 

“Go find your shoes, baby,” Derek interrupts firmly.

 

Ford rolls her eyes and hops off the counter, and then pauses. “Um,” she says. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

 

Derek frowns, looking down at his jeans and sweater. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

 

“Nothing!” She says quickly. “I just thought, you know, if you’re gonna go give him a piece of your mind, I thought you might want to really show him what he’s missing by acting like a--”

 

Derek groans. “I let you watch too many romantic comedies at an impressionable age,” he says, and turns to head up the stairs to change.

 

Ford follows him to the stairwell. “They’re all impressionable,” she says, and leans around the bannister, shouting after him, “Take my green scarf, it makes your eyes pop!”

 

He’s a mature enough parent that he doesn’t flip her the bird, but damn, it is tempting.

 

 

This is Derek Nurse and Will Poindexter’s long, convoluted history of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and straight-up arguments.

 

They get off on a strange foot, meeting the way they do, in that strange liminal space that only seems to exist in the early hours between midnight and three a.m. Derek needs a safe harbor and Will happens to be the person to give it to him, and maybe part of Will had thought that there’d be some kind of deference or gratitude for that, the next time they ran into each other.

 

It’s nothing like that. Derek comes into the Diner a week later, Ford in a carrier on his chest, orders a coffee and a danish, and promptly asks Will why the hell there are still Bush/Cheney stickers on the bulletin board. Will tells him it’s because he doesn’t pay attention to the bulletin board, and anyway, that’s the president. Derek asks him where else in town he can find a good breakfast, if Will’s place is apparently pro-homophobe. Will tells him he doesn’t need to take political advice from a teenager.

 

That pretty much sets their foundation.

 

(Though Will does take the sticker down that afternoon. Derek must hear about it through the Samwell grapevine, because the next day, he’s in the diner at seven in the morning, ordering eggs and coffee, the barest hint of a smirk on his lips.)

 

“They don’t really make sense, do they,” Eric Bittle remarks to Jack Zimmermann, not for the first time, watching the two of them whisper fight over Will’s counter over whether or not Derek should be allowed a fourth cup of coffee at seven thirty in the morning before he’s even left for work, three-year-old Ford propped on Derek’s hip and happily distracted by the spatula Will had handed her when she’d started fussing for attention.

 

Jack snorts, watching--with a complete lack of surprise--as Will caves to Derek’s sleep-deprived pleas and pours him a to-go cup. “I don’t know,” he says. “I think I kind of see it.”

 

They don’t look for things to fight about so much as their personalities just--clash like that. From politics to entertainment to interior design (somehow, that fight was one of their worst), they manage to push each other’s buttons more than just about anyone else in town. Will’s stubborn pride butts up hard against Derek’s sharp self-righteous streak, both of them too well-matched in ego and intelligence for their own good.

 

But for all the bickering, there’s an underlying current of affection that neither of them can deny--though they would, if anyone asked. The arguments are tinged with sarcasm, the insults softened with teasing tones. Will has turned up at Derek’s house for more “home emergency” calls than Derek would ever admit to, and while Derek would never tell someone that his mornings at Will’s fighting over coffee and breakfast are probably the best part of his day, he’s honest enough to admit it to himself.

 

“You know you could just talk to each other,” Lardo tells Derek once as they leave the diner, to-go cups in hand, Derek still fuming over Will’s last comment about how his caffeine intake is gonna age him faster than stress and insomnia combined.

 

“Talk to each other,” Derek repeats, deadpan.

 

Lardo rolls her eyes. “Yes. Like the friends you obviously are, instead of this fake fighting thing you do to show affection. It’s getting exhausting for all of us.”

 

Derek stops walking. Lardo raises her eyebrows, challenging. Derek takes a thoughtful sip of coffee.

 

“No, sounds fake,” Derek says decisively, and Lardo sighs.

 

 

Justin has to hand it to the Winter Festival committee, or whoever it is that puts the Festival on: they’ve done an amazing job.

 

The Town Square has been transformed, the usual simple park replaced by a sparkling wonderland of light and music and activity. Wooden booths decorated with string lights and garlands are arranged along a path, and Justin can smell chestnuts and chocolate and peppermint, can hear live music coming from the center of the square, closer to the large Christmas tree that he knows will be lit up in a ceremony later that night.

 

“Dad!”

 

Ford’s voice catches his attention, and Justin turns towards the street in time to see her bounding towards him, the ends of her scarf bouncing over her shoulders. Derek follows behind her at a more sedate pace, a grey beanie tugged over his curls, looking decidedly grumpy. “Hey,” Justin says, heading over to greet them. He wraps an arm around Ford’s shoulders and raises an eyebrow at Derek. “Thought you were gonna just drop Ford off and head to your parents’ place?”

 

“Change of plans,” Derek says. “I have to do damage control instead.”

 

Justin blinks. “You--what?”

 

Derek huffs. “Apparently,” he says, “there’s a rumor going around that we’re dating.”

 

Us?” The laugh startles out of him without his permission. That sets Ford off into a fit of giggles, and Justin starts snickering before he can stop himself.

 

Derek watches them, arms crossed over his chest. He looks like he’s trying to frown, but there’s a wry smile tugging on his lips. “Are you done?”

 

Justin pulls it together. “Yeah. Sorry.” He wipes his eyes. “How did that happen, exactly?”

 

“Daddy’s theory is that Kent Parson saw you guys kissing,” Ford says, wiggling out from under Justin’s arm so that she can loop herself through Derek’s instead. “Which, bee-tee-dubs, I definitely want to hear about at some point, because what?”

 

“Mind your beeswax, munchkin,” Derek says. He adjusts to put his arm around her shoulders, though, the movement so natural Justin knows it’s a long-honed habit. “So anyway, we’re going to deal with. That.”

 

Justin makes a face at him. “Need my help?”

 

Derek shakes his head. “I think I can handle it.” He looks down at Ford. “Where are those boys of yours meeting you?”

 

“They’re not my boys,” Ford says, but she shuffles her feet in the dusting of snow on the ground in the way she only ever does when she’s embarrassed and trying not to show it, and Justin bites back his grin. Derek had called him and given him a stern lecture about Absolutely Not Giving Ford Shit about her date(s), because they’ve worked hard to be the kind of dads who don’t give their kid shit about her social life. Not that she’s confirmed that this is a date, but we’re meeting up to go to the Festival and watch the tree lighting seems pretty date-ish to Justin. “And we were gonna meet up over by the ice carvers.”

 

Justin startles. “Ice carvers?” he repeats, skeptical.

 

Derek laughs. “What, you thought it was all twinkle lights and cookies? This is a Samwell institution, dude!” He takes Justin’s arm. “Come on, let’s go.”

 

Ford sighs. “You know,” she says tartly, gesturing at their linked arms, “that kind of thing isn’t going to make people think you’re not dating. And you don’t have to walk me over.”

 

Justin glances at Derek, but Derek just shrugs a shoulder. “Men should be able to have physical contact without people assuming a sexual relationship,” he says. “I’m not going to change how I interact with your dad just because other people are ignorant.” He looks at Justin. “As long as that’s fine with you.”

 

It’s only half a question, but it makes Justin smile anyway. Derek’s always been the kind of person who will do something out of spite, but he’s pretty sure he does this kind of thing because it’s just who he is. “Of course it’s fine with me,” he says. “Never change, bro.”

 

Ford rolls her eyes. “You two are so gross,” she says, but her lips twitch into a smile, and Justin reaches out to drag her closer, looping an arm around her shoulders.

 

“And you’ve got our DNA,” he says cheerfully. “So by the time you’re our age, just imagine how gross you’ll be!”

 

She makes a half-hearted attempt to wriggle out from under his arm, but the over-exaggerated sigh lets him know the whole thing is faked, and he exchanges a wink with Derek when she finally snuggles against his side. Both Ford and Derek seem to know where they’re going, and Justin wonders if the Festival is laid out about the same way each year, or if there are just certain stalls that come back annually.

 

Ice carving seems impressive enough to be an annual thing. There’s always an ice carving competition back in Toronto at Icefest, and while Justin’s pretty sure Samwell’s not going to get anywhere near as outlandish as the sculptures he’s seen at Yorkville, it’ll be cool to see what they come up with.

 

Then again, he thinks, Samwell does keep surprising him. Maybe there’ll be a ten-foot-tall ice penguin, or something.

 

The mental picture makes him snort. Ford looks up at him. “What are you laughing at?”

 

“Nothing,” he says, and leans down to kiss her nose. She wrinkles it at him.

 

There’s no ten-foot penguin, but there is a fairly intense contest going on between Marty St. Martin and Randy Robinson, both men chiseling at blocks of ice with looks of deep concentration on their faces. A small crowd has gathered around them, murmuring oohs and ahhs as shapes appear out of the ice--Marty’s is starting to turn into a fish, and Justin’s pretty sure that Randy’s is going to be an ice skate, which, alright, pretty cool.

 

He catches sight of Connor and Tony hovering at the edge of the crowd, standing just slightly too close together, and squeezes his arm around Ford before letting her go. “Date night, twelve o’clock,” he stage-whispers.

 

She makes a face at him. “It’s not a date,” she says, but she stands on her tiptoes and waves until Connor glances their direction and waves back, taking Tony by the arm and heading toward them.

 

“Hi,” he says, face flushing slightly under his hat. Justin’s willing to bet it’s not from the cold. “I, uh. Didn’t realize your dads were coming.”

 

“They’re just here to drop me off,” Ford says quickly, taking an extra step away from Justin. He watches, amused. Next to him, Derek raises an eyebrow. “And, now they have. You can leave now!”

 

“Wow,” Derek says. “Subtle, kid. Really feeling the love.” He eyes Tony, who goes a startling shade of pink, and Connor, who manages to hold his gaze for an entire three seconds before clearing his throat awkwardly and dropping his eyes to his shoes. Justin can’t help a grin; Derek might play nice most of the time, but that just makes him all the more intimidating when he needs to be.

 

Whatever inspection Derek’s going for, the boys must pass it, because he relaxes into a smile. “Chill, dudes, I’m not reading you a shovel talk. You’re good kids, have fun. Tony, your mom’s picking you up, right?”

 

Tony nods. “Yeah.”

 

“Okay.” He glances at Ford. “Home by ten-thirty.”

 

Ford makes a face. “Daddy,” she protests.

 

He raises his brows at her, and she slumps her shoulders. “Ten-thirty,” she agrees. “You got it.”

 

“Good girl.” Derek pats her shoulder. “Have a good time, munchkin.”

 

She stands on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, then Justin’s, and then rushes over to Tony and Connor with a hiss of “Let’s go,” grabbing their hands and tugging them off into the ice carving crowd.

 

Justin watches them go, shaking his head in a mix of confusion and amusement. “So like,” he says. “The thing about youth culture is…”

 

Derek snorts. “Yeah, I’ve got no idea what’s going on there, either.”

 

Something about knowing that Derek is also totally in the dark makes him feel a lot better. “Okay, but, like...is it a three-way date? Is she finally admitting she’s into Tony but Tony’s got a crush on that Connor kid? Or is she also crushing on Connor? What the actual hell, man?”

 

Derek pats his shoulder. “Like I said,” he says. “No idea. She’ll tell us when she’s ready.”

 

Justin groans. “Why is this the one thing you’re being chill about?”

 

“Probably because I’ve run out of meltdown energy,” Derek admits, giving him a sheepish shrug. He looks thoughtful for a moment, then shrugs again. “Also, she’s been on the Pill since she was fourteen, and I trust her not to do anything stupid.”

 

What the fuck, Justin hadn’t even thought of that. “Derek!”

 

Derek laughs. “She’ll be fine, Rans. I promise. She’s a smart kid.” He snorts. “Smarter than us, that’s for sure.” Justin groans again, burying his face in his hands, and Derek rubs his back for a moment before giving him a firm smack on the shoulder and dropping his hand. “Alright. I gotta go yell some sense into Will. You gonna hang around?”

 

With a sigh, Justin picks his head up. “I guess so. Might as well be here to pick you up off the floor if this goes bad for you.”

 

“The truest bro,” Derek cooes, and kicks at his ankle. Justin moves out of the way with the ease of long practice. “Alright. You can head home if you get bored, though. I’m a big kid.”

 

“I know.” Justin squints off in the direction Ford had gone, thoughtful.

 

“Don’t do it,” Derek says firmly.

 

“I wasn’t going to.”

 

“You were,” Derek says, fond. “But it’s okay.” He squeezes Justin’s arm. “I’ll text you later. Enjoy the Festival.”

 

“You, too.” Justin waves him off, smiling when Derek squares his shoulders and straightens his spine before striding away down the path. He knows--probably better than most people--that for all he’s willing to stand up for himself and can hold his own in just about any argument, Derek really hates confrontation with people he cares about, and Justin’s willing to bet that Derek cares about Will Poindexter more than he’d like to admit. Good luck, bud, he thinks, watching him go. He thinks about the stubborn streak he’s come to expect from Will, and winces. You’re gonna need it.

 

Now that he’s by himself, he’s not really sure what to do. The Festival seems more like a date or group thing, not a solo activity, and he wonders if it’s weird to wander around alone. Maybe it’d be better for him to just head out. He’s got a few journals he’s been meaning to read through, not to mention a novel that Derek recommended, in the fantasy world where he gets to actually read for fun.

 

A cold gust of wind makes the decision for him. Toronto born and bred or not, he doesn’t love winter, and he’d rather be inside than outside and shivering.

 

He’s heard good things about Eric Bittle’s hot chocolate, though, and hell, he’s earned a treat. He asks directions to his stall, gets lost twice in the maze of booths, and is about to give up when someone calls his name.

 

“Justin?”

 

The familiar voice relaxes him so quickly it’s almost alarming. “Hey, Adam,” he says, turning.

 

Adam Birkholtz grins at him, his cheeks pink from the cold. He’s wearing a blue knit hat with a pom-pom on the top, and seems entirely unconcerned with how absurd that is on a man in his mid-thirties. “Haven’t seen you in a few days,” he says. “How’s it going?”

 

“It’s been okay,” Justin says. “Busy. You heard about Derek’s dad?”

 

Adam’s smile fades slightly. “Yeah, I heard. How’s he doing?”

 

“A lot better.” Justin puts his hands in his pockets. He kind of wishes he’d worn gloves. “I was actually looking for Eric Bittle’s stall--his hot chocolate is pretty famous? But I got lost.”

 

“I can help you find it,” Adam offers. “He’s in the same spot every year. And it is pretty famous. And delicious. You gotta be pretty careful with it.”

 

Justin laughs. “I’ll take my chances.”

 

They fall into step together, the conversation falling away. It’s an easy, companionable kind of silence, though, and Justin can’t help relaxing into it.

 

Still, something keeps tugging at the back of his mind. “Hey,” he says. “Uh--Can I ask you something?”

 

Adam glances at him. Glances down at him. Jesus, Justin is not used to that. It makes his stomach flutter. “Sure, dude,” he says. “What’s up?”

 

“It’s just.” Justin clears his throat. “Uh, after the Town Meeting thing, I thought we kind of had this. Thing. Between us. And then you...didn’t call. Or text. Or anything.”

 

“Oh.” Adam’s cold-pink cheeks go a little darker. “I, uh. Yeah. I was going to, but.” He looks down. “There’s this--I mean, I try not to listen to gossip, but there’s kind of this rumor going around that--and I guess on the off-chance that--”

 

Ugh, Justin hates small towns sometimes. He stops walking and takes Adam’s arm. “I’m not dating Derek,” he says firmly.

 

Adam opens his mouth, and then closes it. “You’re not dating Derek,” he repeats.

 

“No.” Justin gives him a wry smile. “And I’m not sleeping with him, either. Except occasionally in the very literal sense, if we pass out in the same place watching stupid movies.” Adam’s brow furrows, and Justin squeezes his arm. “He’s my best friend, man. He’s my kid’s father. But we’re not--there’s nothing romantic there, not anymore. There hasn’t been for a long time.”

 

Adam still looks a little uncertain. “Someone said they saw you making out on Derek’s porch,” he says, but he sounds almost apologetic about it.

 

Justin winces. “That part was true, sort of. I mean--we weren’t making out, but there was a kiss. It was one of those…‘just to see’ things, you know?”

 

“And?” Adam’s face is open and starting to look hopeful, his eyes big and blue behind his glasses.

 

Justin puts his hands in his pockets and shrugs. “And there wasn’t.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Yeah.” Justin grins at him. “So. Will you come get some hot chocolate with me?”

 

Adam raises an eyebrow at him, but he smiles as he does it. “I’m already coming to get hot chocolate with you, because you were lost trying to get it on your own.”

 

“You know what I mean,” Justin laughs. “Will you come get some hot chocolate with me?”

 

Adam’s grin is bright and warm. “I’d love to,” he says, and he takes Justin’s hand.

 

 

This is Adam Birkholtz, thirty-eight years old, something of a Samwell local legend. Born and bred in town, he’d split his time between hockey and dance all the way through high school before finally giving up hockey (the rumor, which he happily encourages, is that he’d decided via coin flip, but honestly it was the sports homophobia that made the call for him) to do a BFA in Dance at Julliard.

 

After college, he does ten years on the professional circuit--Berkshires, Chicago, LA, and about ten minutes back in New York (“Good bagels, horrendously bitchy pro dancers, not a fucking chance, I’m going back to LA” he tells his Bubbe in her Brooklyn apartment at Shabbas lunch)--before deciding he misses teaching and heading back to Samwell to open a studio.

 

In the years he’s been back in Samwell, he’s gone from well-missed local son to small-town celebrity. Aside from taking a crumbling old barn and turning it from eyesore to all-purpose community space (he uses the downstairs for the dance school and rents the upstairs apartment, but lets pretty much any community group book the open downstairs space when the school’s not open), Adam just always seems to be in the middle of things: there with a joke, there with a spontaneous burst into song, there with an anecdote from his wild dancing days--or, in quieter moments, there with a gentle hand on a shoulder, with a ride to wherever you needed to go, there with a place to stay or a warm meal or a comforting word.

 

Everyone knows Adam Birkholtz, and everyone loves him. His mother has tried to set him up with every Nice Jewish Girl (and Boy) in a fifty-mile radius, and his grandmother has tried harder than that (Adam’s pretty sure she’s looked through the full tri-state area). It’s not that Adam’s picky, necessarily--his college days would Beg to Differ--but he likes his life. He likes the kids he teaches, he likes being plugged into the Samwell gossip scene, he likes his friends, he likes the way things are.

 

But he’s never been afraid of change, and as much as he likes the way things are, he likes Justin Oluransi, too.

 

He thinks he might like Justin more.

 

 

It’s been a good night so far, Will thinks, putting another lid on a to-go cup and passing it over the counter of his stall. The Festival always makes a good chunk of money, even though it all goes to charity and not to the Diner, and he’s happy enough to help out, even if it does mean more mingling than he usually likes.

 

“We’re running low on nutmeg,” he tells Bully, his tall, gangly part-time waiter. “I’m gonna go check our stock.

 

“Sure thing, boss,” Bully says, giving him an agreeable nod. Will has no clue where the kid’s nickname comes from; he’s one of the least confrontational people Will knows, and he’s a great employee.

 

Will claps him on the shoulder and ducks under the counter, slipping around to the back of the stall, where he’s stacked his extra crates of coffee, pastries, and other supplies under the back awning. He takes the top off one of the airtight plastic containers and is rummaging around in the extra spice bottles when Bully clears his throat.

 

“Uh, Will?”

 

Will looks up, smacking his head on the lid of the container. It’s not really hard, but the corner is sharp, and he swears. “Ow,” he says. “What is it? Did you break the espresso machine again?”

 

“No,” Bully says. He looks nervous, which is weird. Bully’s expression is usually about as flat as Connor’s, which is saying something. “But, Derek Nurse wants to talk to you?”

 

“Why the--” Will catches himself before he swears again. Not that his language is usually clean, but he tries to keep it that way around his high school-aged waiters. “Why?”

 

Bully shrugs. “Didn’t say. Just asked if you were around, and if I’d get you.”

 

Will scowls. “Great.” He gets to his feet and pushes the nutmeg into Bully’s hand. “Here.” Blowing on his hands to warm them, he walks back into the stall.

 

Sure enough, Derek Nurse is standing by the counter, grey beanie hiding most of his curls, and his coat buttoned up against the cold. His scarf makes his eyes look greener than usual, Will notices, and that’s just unfair. He straightens slightly when he sees Will. “Hey,” he says.

 

“Hi,” Will says shortly. Derek’s lips thin, and Will softens despite himself, remembering the last time he’d seen Derek. “How’s your dad?”

 

“Doing better. Thank you.” Derek drums his fingers on the counter. He’s not wearing gloves, Will notices, and bites back a comment about it. “Can we talk?”

 

Will crosses his arms. “What do we have to talk about?”

 

Derek rolls his eyes. “For the love of God, Will, will you just--” He huffs out a sharp breath. “Please just...Give me ten minutes?”

 

“I’m working,” Will says. It’s petty and stupid, he knows, but something in Derek’s face is just open enough to be scary, and Will’s not sure he wants to mess with that.

 

But Derek doesn’t move. “Five minutes, then,” he says. “Please?”

 

His eyes are soft, and hopeful, and so, so green. Stupid scarf, Will thinks. “Fine.” He looks at Bully. “I’m going to head out for a few--”

 

“Go,” Bully says immediately.

 

Will blinks. “What?”

 

Bully flushes a little, but shrugs a shoulder. “You’ve kind of been moping,” he says. “So. Y’know.”

 

Will eyes him for a moment, then decides to let it go. It’s not like he’s wrong. He looks at Derek. “You want a coffee?” he asks, resigned.

 

Derek shakes his head. “I’m okay.”

 

Will drops the cup he’d already reached to. “Jesus,” he says, alarmed. “Are you dying? Is that what you need to talk about?”

 

Derek snorts. “No.” He eyes the coffee urn, and, amused, Will picks up a new cup before Derek even opens his mouth to say, “Alright, maybe just a small--ha. Thanks.”

 

“You’re welcome.” He presses it into Derek’s hand, then takes his coat off the hook at the back of the stall and slips under the counter. “Alright,” he says, shrugging his coat on and zipping it up to his throat. “Let’s go.”

 

For all that they’ve been--ostensibly, anyway--fighting for the past week (for lack of a better term, anyway;, Will wouldn’t call it a fight, but Derek seems to have taken it as one), it’s all too easy to fall into step together, following the string lights that line the Festival path. A few people send sidelong looks their way, and Will can just hear the gossip he knows will be going around tomorrow--probably that Will went out and tried to steal Derek from his nice doctor boyfriend, and broke up his nice family, and--

 

“Will,” Derek says, touching his arm.

 

Will startles, realizing he’d been staring off into space. “What?”

 

Derek tugs his sleeve slightly, nodding to a space between two stalls, where the Festival path breaks away and the regular sidewalk picks up. “This way.”

 

They walk a little further, away from the Festival proper and out into the open air, the sounds of activity and music dimming. As soon as it seems like they’re out of the worst of earshot, Will stops. “Alright,” he says, making a half-hearted effort to keep his voice down. “What’s so important?”

 

Derek narrows his eyes, but sips his coffee, like he’s making a deliberate choice not to frown. “I thought we could talk about why you’ve been avoiding me.”

 

Will crosses his arms. “I’m not avoiding you,” he retorts.

 

“You have been,” Derek says, almost smugly, and oh, that’s infuriating. Will hates it when he gets like this. “But it’s fine. I know why.”

 

A pit opens up in Will’s stomach. “You...know.”

 

“Yeah.” Derek takes another drink of his coffee, then sets the cup down on the nearby picnic table. “You heard about me and Justin.”

 

Will’s cheeks flame, and he looks away, his gut twisting. He hadn’t expected this. Derek can be petty sometimes, but Will’s never known him to be cruel. “You don’t have to--” He takes a steadying breath. “I get that--”

 

And then the embarrassment kicks into frustration, and from frustration into anger, and he changes tracks. “No, you know what? I just--I know we never talked about whatever this--thing was between us, and that’s fine, okay, Derek? That’s fine. But we’ve been--this has been going on for years, and maybe it wasn’t going to go anywhere, but I would have at least given you the courtesy of a heads up if I was gonna--”

 

He breaks off. Derek is grinning, slow and wide and strangely bright. “What?” Will snaps.

 

“I didn’t,” Derek says.

 

Will frowns. “Didn’t what?”

 

“Whatever you were going to say I should have given you a heads up before doing,” Derek says, his voice touched with amusement. “I didn’t.”

 

“You…” Will falters, his head spinning. “What?”

 

“We’re not together.” Derek reaches out, as if to touch Will’s arm, then seems to think better of it and slips his hands into his pockets. “Me and Justin. We’re not together.”

 

Will stares at him, processing, as his emotions try to catch up to Derek’s words. “What?”

 

Derek shrugs, a self-deprecating what can you do. “It was a rumor that got out of hand,” he says. “We kissed. Once. Someone saw it, drew their own conclusions. You know how gossip spreads around here.”

 

“But--” Will stammers. “But Shitty said--everyone said--”

 

Derek rolls his eyes. “I know what they were saying. I’m telling you it’s not true.” He takes a step forward, into Will’s space. “Okay?”

 

Other than feeling like he’s been an asshole, and his mouth feeling very, very dry? “Okay,” Will agrees weakly, and then, despite himself, he laughs, shaking his head. “You must think I’m an idiot.”

 

“Well.” Derek’s lips curve in a slow, sweet smile. “Maybe just a little.”

 

And he’s--so close, all of a sudden, close enough that Will can smell his cologne, can see the green of his eyes. Close enough that Will can see his laugh-lines, can see the flicker in his eyelashes as he meets Will’s gaze.

 

Close enough to kiss.

 

He swallows. “Derek,” he says, barely more than an exhale, and Derek looks at him, lips parting, and--

 

Will’s phone rings. Derek flinches back. Will closes his eyes, breathes out through his nose, and answers without looking at the caller ID. “What.”

 

“Hey, it’s me,” Bully says. “Sorry, I didn’t want to interrupt, uh--whatever you’re doing, but we kind of got a rush and I--”


“No, it’s--it’s fine. I’ll come back. I’ll be there in a minute.” He hangs up and tries to suppress a sigh, slipping his phone back into his pocket as he looks back at Derek. “I, uh. I have to go.”

 

“I heard.” Derek has stepped back again. The foot of space between them feels like a mile.

 

Will hesitates. “I…”

 

His nerve fails him, and he clenches his hands inside his coat pockets. “Thanks for telling me. About you and Justin.”

 

“Yeah. Well.” Derek gives him a thin smile. “Had to, otherwise I was pretty sure you’d freeze me out of the Diner, and then Ford and I would starve to death.”

 

“Couldn’t have that,” Will says, recognizing the out for what it is and taking it gratefully. Derek’s smile softens, and Will nudges his arm. “I’ll, uh. See you for breakfast tomorrow?”

 

“Lunch, probably.” Derek picks up his coffee. It’s probably lost it’s heat by now. Will nods to it.

 

“Want another one?”

 

Derek raises an eyebrow. “And give me an ulcer?” he teases.

 

And just like that, things are okay again. Will snorts. “I’ll risk it,” he says, jerking his head in the direction of his stall. “C’mon.”

 

 

This is a series of “almosts” between Derek Nurse and William Poindexter:

 

Derek coming down the stairs of the Samwell Inn, very nearly tripping over his own feet;, Will, there to fix a broken bannister, lunging to catch him. Their eyes meeting over the stack of ledgers Derek had managed not to drop. Will remembering, suddenly and like a shock of cold water, that Derek is only barely eighteen, flinching back like he’s been burned.

 

Will’s mother insisting that Derek and Ford come for a Sunday dinner, and then stealing Ford away to play with her in the living room, leaving Derek and Will to do the dishes. The two of them side-by-side at the sink, their shoulders brushing. Will’s fingers lingering on Derek’s when he hands him a plate to dry. Derek whispering, “Will, I--” and Ford bursting into tears in the living room, startling Derek into dropping the plate.

 

The night of Ford’s twelfth birthday party, when Derek comes down from carrying a sleeping Ford up to bed to find Will in his kitchen, putting leftovers into Tupperware. Derek telling Will he doesn’t need to clean up, that he can handle it; Will brushing him off, saying that Derek doesn’t need to do everything by himself all the time. Something about the way Will says that making Derek catch his breath; Derek’s sudden inhale making Will flush. Larissa Duan breaking the moment when she pokes her head into the room to ask Derek if he has any more trash bags so that she can finish cleaning up the living room.

 

Will, changing the tire on Derek’s car in a snowstorm, Derek holding a flashlight so Will can see. Standing close enough to keep each other warm, Derek’s hand on Will’s shoulder. Will turning to catch Derek’s eyes, Derek’s gaze flickering to Will’s mouth, and then the tow truck finally coming around the corner.

 

Derek and Will, at the Winter Festival, close enough to touch. And then a phone call.

 

Almost.

 

 

Ford’s never been on a date before, but she thinks that so far, this has been a good one.

 

Not, she reminds herself for the third time (or fourth, or fifth, or maybe sixth? She’s lost count), that this is necessarily a date. They hadn’t really defined it any which way when they’d planned to meet tonight.

 

But it’s been good. Connor had won her a teddy bear at one of those ring-toss games that she’d always been sure were rigged (never mind that her dads have always been great at those kinds of things, she still thinks they’re all fake), and then, when Tony had given him the barest hint of a pout, had turned around and immediately won him a stuffed frog. Ford had bought them all caramel hot chocolates from Eric Bittle--and then, icing on the cake, had giddily spotted her dad getting cozy with Adam Birkholtz, which was even more delightful when she realized that he hadn’t seen her, so she would definitely be able to tease him about it later.

 

They’ve been looking around for something they can win for Connor, since he’s the only one who doesn’t have a prize yet--“Please don’t win me carnival junk,” he deadpans, but his eyes are sparkling, and Ford doesn’t buy his attitude at all--when Tony suddenly makes an aborted squeaking sound and grabs Ford’s arm, almost spilling her hot chocolate.

 

“Tony!” she manages not to drop it, but it’s mostly thanks to Connor’s reflexes, his hand coming up to curl around hers on the cup, rather than hers. “What on earth--”

 

“Look!” he hisses excitedly, pointing.

 

Ford follows his pointing finger. Through a gap in two stalls, she can see two figures standing together a little ways from the Festival. She creeps a little closer, leaning around the side of one of the stalls, and then gasps. She’d know the set of those shoulders anywhere, and wow, those two people are very close together, and--

 

Will leans forward. She muffles a squeak of delight into her hot chocolate.

 

“Guys,” Connor says, sounding pained. “We don’t really have to stay here and watch them make out, do we?”

 

“Oh, fine,” Ford huffs, letting him pull her away from the stall and toward the center of the square, where people are starting to gather for the Tree Lighting. “Spoilsport.”

 

He makes a face at her. “There’s something wrong with you,” he says.

 

She bumps his arm. “You like me anyway,” she says.

 

Connor flushes a little, looking away. “Maybe,” he says.

 

Ford raises her eyebrows, and then bumps him again. “Only maybe?” she asks, putting a bit of challenge in it.

 

Connor stumbles over his feet, and it’s her turn to rescue his hot chocolate. “Dude,” she admonishes. “Really?”

 

“I just,” he stammers, and Ford blinks. He looks like he’s about ready to choke on his own tongue, and she’s never seen him so flustered. “I mean, I--”

 

“Oh,” Tony says, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Wait, are we actually talking about this?”

 

Ford gives Connor back his hot chocolate. “Talking about what?”

 

Tony blushes, but doesn’t drop his eyes. “You know,” he says. “The triangle-shaped elephant in the room.”

 

Ford looks at him in surprise. It’s not that she didn’t want them to talk about whatever’s going on between them--because she’s not dumb, she does know something’s going on between them--it’s just that she didn’t expect Tony (shy, sweet, questioning, wonderful Tony) to be the one to bring it up.

 

He goes another shade pinker under her gaze. “I mean,” he says. “I just, um--” He breaks off, looks over his shoulder at the other groups of people mulling around them, families with little kids and couples and teenagers from Samwell High, and cringes. “Can we just--”

 

“Here,” Connor says, almost gently, and takes his hand, tugging him away from the crowd. Tony shoots a meaningful look back at Ford, reaching back for her, and then looks embarrassed when he seems to realize that he can’t take her hand too because he’s still holding his hot chocolate. Ford shakes her head, amused, and slips her hand into the crook of his elbow.

 

“How’s that,” she says.

 

Tony ducks his head. “Good,” he says.

 

Connor pulls them past the crowd that’s gathered for the Tree Lighting, away from the worst of the volume and bustling. Ford doesn’t mind big groups, but she can’t help her sigh of relief when they come out on the other side of the center of the Square, the night air opening up around them again.

 

They walk a little further, until the noise of the crowd has dimmed to a murmur. Ford lets go of Tony’s arm to hop up onto the nearest picnic table, propping her feet onto the bench and pulling her dress over her knees against the chill, wishing her coat was a little longer. Tony looks briefly conflicted, and then drops Connor’s hand to climb up next to her, putting his cup down on his other side. Connor hesitates for a moment, then sits down on the bench, his shoulders just close enough to brush Tony’s knees.

 

For a few moments, they sit in silence, sipping hot chocolate. It would be nice--relaxing, even--if it wasn’t for the impatience flitting around her stomach like a flock of butterflies.

 

She manages the quiet for about five minutes before she cracks. “Okay,” she says, giving up. “So, if we’re going to talk about this, then we should--”

 

Tony plucks her hot chocolate out of her hands, puts it on the bench between his feet, and then, with a calm smoothness she never would have thought him capable of, leans over and kisses her.

 

Ford has kissed boys before. She kissed Henry Shin in middle school, before he decided that he had a bigger crush on her friend Mandy and asked Ford for her number instead. She kissed Raj Pudi in ninth grade at a Chilton mixer, because he hadn’t had a first kiss and he was shy and sweet and it seemed like a nice thing to do. The point is--she’s kissed boys before.

 

It’s never been like this.

 

This is soft, and so sweet it makes her heart flutter, and even though Tony isn’t touching her anywhere other than her lips, it still sends a rush of heat all the way from her stomach to her cheeks and then back down again. She kisses back, leaning into him, and the pressure of his lips gets firmer, warmer.

 

“Um,” Connor says.

 

Ford jerks back, face heating. Connor’s entire face is a mix of uncertainty and something very much like hurt, and Ford’s heart, which a moment ago was soaring, drops like a stone. “Connor,” she starts, reaching out for him.

 

“It’s okay,” he says, cutting her off. “I can go, it’s fine, I--”

 

Connor,” Tony interrupts. “Don’t be dumb.”

 

Connor looks bewildered. “What--”

 

Tony reaches out, takes Connor’s face between both his hands, and kisses him, too.

 

Ford can’t help wondering what she looked like when Tony kissed her, because Connor looks like a deer caught in headlights, his eyes widening and his limbs flailing briefly in the most awkward display Ford’s ever seen from him, a muffled sound of surprise half-lost under Tony’s lips, his takeaway cup nearly falling from his hand. And then--

 

And then he settles. He closes his eyes, the arm with his cup dropping slowly to his side, his other hand coming up to settle gently on Tony’s waist. Tony makes a soft sound and presses closer to him, and Connor lets him, his fingers curling into Tony’s jacket.

 

Ford looks for the place inside her where she thinks she should find jealousy, and finds...nothing. Just warmth, and the lingering tingle of pressure where Tony’s lips had touched hers, and the smile she can’t get off her face.

 

Tony pulls away from Connor slowly, but not so slowly that Connor doesn’t lean after him. Tony laughs a little when it takes Connor a moment to open his eyes. “Okay?” he says.

 

“O--” Connor clears his throat. “Okay,” he says.

 

Tony smiles, and looks at Ford. “Okay?”

 

She’s not entirely sure what he’s asking, but if that kiss--well, she supposes, those kisses--were the foundation, she’s willing to find out. “Okay,” she says. She glances at Connor.

 

“Um,” she says, feeling suddenly shy. She doesn’t know him as well as she knows Tony, and she does like him, she knows that, but she’s not as comfortable with him as Tony is, and she’s not entirely sure she’s ready to--

 

Connor seems to read her mind, though, and just smiles. “It’s cool,” he says. He leans down, giving her plenty of time to pull away, and places a feather-light kiss on her cheek. It’s enough of a promise that it makes her skin feel warm and the rest of her shiver, but it’s utterly chaste, and he straightens up right away. “We can get there, maybe?”

 

Ford smiles at him, torn between relief and something that she’s a little bit worried is longing and something she’s very sure is happiness. Tony, for his part, looks overjoyed, his face absolutely beaming over Connor’s shoulder. She catches the end of Connor’s scarf, pulls him gently back down, and kisses his nose.

 

“We can get there,” she says, and the blush that blooms across his cheeks makes her smile.

 

 

This is this year’s Winter Festival: bright, cheerful, warm (despite the cold), and, as always, more than a little romantic.

 

The music is as sweet as it is every year, the string lights that line the trees and booths sparkle as always. Parents with small children in strollers take a break from their exhaustion to exchange a smile. New lovers, shushing each other and laughing, duck into the darkened spaces between stalls to kiss.

 

(For the third year in a row, Larissa Duan and Shitty Knight nearly get thrown out of the Festival for public indecency. Shitty pulls himself up with great dignity--impressive, given his state of undress--puffs out his chest, and says, “You wait till my father hears about this,” before dissolving into a cackling fit, letting Lardo roll her eyes and drag him off to her car.)

 

Adam Birkholtz and Justin Oluransi watch the Tree Lighting together, far enough from the front of the crowd that they’re not blocking anyone’s view with their height. When Mayor Hall hits the button that lights up the tree, Adam leans over and presses his lips to the line of Justin’s jaw at the same time as he slides his hand into Justin’s, lacing their fingers together.

 

Justin catches his breath, and then laughs, soft and smiling. “Smooth,” he whispers, trying not to interrupt the ceremony.

 

Adam grins, teeth flashing in the dim lighting. “You know it,” he says.

 

Ford, Tony, and Connor go to the Tree Lighting, too, on the other side of the Square from Adam and Justin. They stand just close enough together that people might gossip, if anyone was paying attention to anything other than the tree and the speeches and the live music, but fortunately, for once, the people of Samwell are too distracted to gossip.

 

Tony shifts a fraction closer to Ford and leans his head on her shoulder. “Hey,” he says softly.

 

She tilts her head towards him. “Hi,” she says, unable to keep from smiling. “Are you happy?”

 

“I’m really happy,” he says. His eyes flicker to hers, warm and searching, the clear blue she’s known since childhood. “Are you?”

 

On Tony’s other side, Connor looks at her, like he’s nervous about her answer. Ford reaches around Tony’s back for Connor’s hand, and, relief curving his lips in a smile, he threads his fingers through hers. “Yeah,” she says. “I am.”

 

Derek Nurse doesn’t go to the Tree Lighting, and neither does Will Poindexter. Will’s the only one working his booth--he’d told Bully to go hang out with his friends, since someone ought to go have a life--and there are a few stragglers at the Festival who would rather get some decent coffee and food than do music and lights. Derek’s not loitering around Will’s stall, not technically--technically he’s sitting at a picnic table, reading a book and drinking the second coffee Will had made him. Will keeps pretending he’s not looking at Derek, and Derek keeps pretending he’s not looking at Will. The status quo restored.

 

But their eyes keep meeting, in long, lingering glances that take too long to break, neither of them willing to be the first to look away.

 

Above them, it begins to snow.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ford can’t sleep.

 

It’s not like her. Usually she drops off right away--both her dads, she knows, have had their own issues with sleep since they were little kids, and they’ve made sure she’s had a good bedtime routine since she was too young to know what they were teaching her. Sleepless nights are few and far between for her, and she knows how lucky she is for it.

 

But tonight, sleep’s just not coming. She sighs, curling around her body pillow and chewing anxiously on her thumbnail, trying to resist picking up her phone. The sweet, fluttery lightness she’d gone to bed with after the Festival, the touch of Tony and Connor’s lips still lingering on her skin, is long gone, replaced by an anxious, fidgeting discomfort she can’t shake away. Ford rolls onto her back, taking her pillow with her.

 

Under the lights of the Festival, everything had made so much sense, but now, in the dark of her bedroom, all she can see are the cracks. What are they supposed to tell people? How is everything supposed to work? How is everything supposed to stay fair when Tony and Connor see each other all day in school and she only sees them in the afternoons and weekends?

 

And what about her and Connor, anyway--they like each other, she thinks they even like like each other (and she makes a face even as she thinks it, because that’s so middle school, God, come on) but she’s not sure she likes him like she likes Tony, she couldn’t even kiss him tonight. What happens if they decide they both want to date Tony but they don’t want to date each other? What if Tony has to choose between them?

 

Except she does kind of like Connor, she thinks, rolling over again and sticking the edge of her nail back in her mouth to worry at it again. She likes his deadpan humor and the way she feels when she earns one of his rare smiles and the way she can make him blush and how carefully he hands out little facts about himself like he’s trying to protect them. She likes how quickly he’s obviously fallen for Tony, so clearly helpless in the face of Tony’s easy laughs and open questions and gentle affection. There’s nothing cruel in Tony, none of the performative awfulness that so many teenage boys play at for points or status or whatever else, and Ford has always loved him for it. It’s impossible not to love Tony.

 

Poor Connor, she thinks; even with all his walls, he never stood a chance.

 

But she doesn’t know how he feels about her, is the thing. She knows she can catch him off-guard with a joke or a comment, that she can make him laugh and blush more than most other people she’s seen. But that’s not data, really, not in the way she’s used to thinking of it, and--

 

She bites down too hard, her nail worried down to the quick, and catches her skin in her teeth. A soft squeak of pain slips out before she can muffle it and she jerks her thumb out of her mouth with a swear.

 

Screw this, she thinks, and gets out of bed.

 

Wrapping herself in the afghan from the foot of her bed, she leaves her room, shuffling down the hall and padding down the stairs to her dad’s room. His door is slightly ajar, as it almost always is. He rarely closes it, usually only if he has someone staying over with him, and she can’t remember the last time someone had done that other than Papa.

 

And even Papa has been crashing on the couch lately.

 

Still, she notes, his open door means Will Poindexter is not currently in bed with him. On one hand, good, because gross, she doesn’t need to see that. On the other hand, she can’t help but be a little disappointed. After sixteen years, she’d kind of been hoping they’d have sealed the deal.

 

Well, maybe Dad’s just a little classier than that. She shrugs and nudges his door open, her blanket dragging behind her as she tiptoes in and climbs into the bed.

 

Light sleeper as always, her dad picks his head up immediately, blinking blearily at her in the darkness. “Ford?”

 

She wriggles under the blankets, not discarding her afghan until she decides she’s warm enough. “Hi Daddy.”

 

He twists around to look at the clock on his bedside table, but it’s analog and probably too dark for him to read the numbers. The hood of his sweatshirt is caught halfway up his head, and his hair is a tangled mess. “Are you okay, baby? What time is it?”

 

“Late,” she says, putting her head down on the pillow. “I couldn’t sleep.”

 

Derek rubs his eyes. “Okay,” he says. “You want me to make you some tea, honey?”

 

“No, I just…” She chews her bottom lip. “I wanted to talk to you?”

 

“Do you want me to turn the light on?” There’s a hint of concern in his voice now.

 

She shakes her head.


“Okay,” he says again, concern giving way to softness. “Come here, kiddo.”

 

Ford scoots over until she can put her head on his shoulder, and he wraps an arm around her back, kissing her hair through her wrap. She tucks her knees up against his side, and sense memory kicked. For a brief, delightful moment, she could be ten or eight or four years old, and the most complicated thing she had to worry about was what game she’d play at recess or who she’d sit with at lunch tomorrow.

 

She sighs. Derek rubs her back. “What’s going on, baby girl?”

 

Ford starts to put her thumbnail in her mouth. Gently but firmly, her dad takes her hand and moves it away from her face. She sighs again. “It’s kind of,” she begins, and then she swallows, and decides to spit it out. “It’s a boy thing.”

 

Her dad doesn’t say anything for a moment. She suspects his face is doing something, but she can’t see. “Okay,” he says after a long silence. “Want to elaborate?”

 

No, she thinks. I want you to psychically intuit all my thoughts and feelings. Words are awful and I hate them. She pushes her face into his shoulder. Maybe he’ll get the jist of everything via osmosis.

 

“Kiddo,” he says gently. “I haven’t been able to read your mind since you were a fetus, and I wasn’t even great at it then. You’re gonna have to talk to me if you want me to help.”

 

Ford wrinkles her nose. She was afraid of that. “I maybe,” she says. “Have a boyfriend.”

 

Derek misses a beat in the the circles he’s been rubbing into her back, and then seems to catch himself and resumes them. “Congratulations?” he offers. “Right?”

 

“Well, um.” She tries to bring her thumb back up to her mouth. Derek clears his throat pointedly. She shoves her whole hand under her side to remove temptation. At least it’s warm under there. “It’s kind of.”

 

Why is this so hard? She’s always been so good at talking to her dad, he’s the best dad in the world, and she trusts him so much, but--

 

Her throat feels tight, and she sniffles.

 

“Oh, hey, honey.” Her dad touches her cheek, and she realizes that her eyes are damp. He still doesn’t turn the lamp on, but he pulls her into a hug. “Whatever’s going on, you can tell me, okay? I promise I’m not going to be upset with you, or angry, or anything like that. I love you no matter what.”

 

He punctuates it with a firm kiss to the top of her head, and she sobs out a wet laugh, not even sure why she feels emotional. “What if I’m dating a serial killer or something?”

 

“Well, we’ll have a big talk about that,” he says. “But I’d still love you.”

 

“Yikes, Daddy.”

 

“What can I say, my love is unconditional.”

 

“You should have some conditions!”

 

“Okay, well, maybe if you started helping with the serial killing, I’d have to do some soul-searching,” he says, teasing, and she laughs, wiping her eyes. “But that’s probably the line.” She giggles again, and he drops another kiss to her head, careful not to move her scarf around. “Come on, kiddo. What’s going on.”

 

“Okay, okay.” She sits up, wiping her nose on the back of her hand and reaching over the side of the bed for her abandoned afghan, pulling it around her head and shoulders like a cloak. “What if I had, um. Two boyfriends?”

 

Her dad makes a little “huh” of surprise, pulling one of his own extra blankets up to make his own blanket wrap to match hers. “Is that something you’re likely to say?”

 

“Um.” Ford tugs her blanket cowl up a little higher over her face. She’s not hiding, exactly, but she’s not not hiding. “Kind of.”

 

“Oh.” Her eyes have adjusted well enough to the dark that she can see him tilt his head to the side and look at her. She can’t really see his face, but she knows exactly what look he’s giving her, thoughtful and considering. “Okay,” he says after a moment. “That sounds complicated, but as long as you’re happy, and safe, I don’t see why it’s something I should have a problem with.”

 

Ford stares at him, her heart flipping in her chest. “Really?”

 

“Of course not.” He reaches out and taps her nose with one finger. She’s a little surprised by his accuracy. “Baby girl. I just want you to be happy. And I want you to be able to feel like you can talk to me, and trust me. Even if I don’t quite understand something or I wouldn’t want it for myself, that doesn’t mean I’d make you feel wrong for it. I don’t ever want to make you feel like you can’t trust me with something going on in your life.”

 

She swallows the lump in her throat, teary-eyed again but for a whole different reason. Her dad is the best. “Thanks, Daddy,” she whispers, leaning over to hug him, blanket cloak and all. He chuckles, wrapping his arms around her.

 

“Any time, munchkin.” He hugs her close. “Was that what you worrying about? That I’d be upset with you?”

 

“Um--no.” She pulls away from him, feeling oddly silly. With all the emotion that had come with telling him, she’d almost forgotten what she’d actually been feeling anxious about. “I didn’t even--it sounds so weird but I kind of forgot that it was a weird thing until I was telling you?”

 

He laughs. “Too many queers in your life,” he says sagely. “My fault, probably. Raised you surrounded by deviants. Sorry, munchkin.”

 

She punches his arm half-heartedly. “Daddy.”

 

“Sorry, sorry.” He flops back down. “Okay, baby girl, tell me your feels. What’s going on with your boys?”

 

“Well. It’s. Kind of like this?”

 

She tells him about the Festival, about Tony kissing her, and then Tony kissing Connor, about her and Connor’s strange state of limbo. About how it feels good but uncertain, like they’re on the edge of something but not quite ready for it to be that something, but they’ve declared it anyway, and she’s not sure how to feel about it.

 

“I feel like that Parks and Rec thing,” she says finally, curled on her side again, poking her fingers through the knitted pattern of her afghan. “Like, this is my boyfriend Tony and this is Tony’s boyfriend Connor and Connor and I are...I don’t know. Only Connor is kind of also my boyfriend but is he?”

 

Her dad hums thoughtfully. “I don’t know, baby girl,” he says. “I don’t think this is one you can solve overnight. But you gotta remember, you haven’t even known each other that long. Maybe you should spend some time together without Tony. See what your dynamic feels like one on one.”

 

“Maybe.” Ford chews her bottom lip. “There’s another thing?”

 

“Mm?”

 

“I’m scared of what Grandpa and Jadda will say.”

 

It hurt to admit that. She loves her grandparents, she does, but they’re not like her dad. As new as this thing with Tony and Connor is, she knows that if it goes anywhere--and she can’t help hoping that it does--she’ll have to tell them about it eventually. And she knows, deep down, that they’re not likely to give her the same immediate, unconditional acceptance she got tonight.

 

Her dad is quiet, and she wonders if he’s thinking about what it was like when he was her age, and he had to tell them something so much bigger than this. He has a nervous tick she notices sometimes, when he’s arguing with them on the phone, of one hand drifting towards his lower abdomen before he’ll catch himself and jerk it back.

 

Ford makes it a point to hug him extra hard afterwards.

 

After a moment, he sighs. “How about we deal with that when we get there,” he says. “And if it seems like there’s going to be a problem, you let me handle it. Okay?”

 

Relief goes through her in a warm wave, relaxing the tension she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding in her muscles. “Okay,” she says, and means it. “Thanks, Daddy.”

 

She feels suddenly exhausted, and can’t stop the yawn that cracks her jaw on its way out. “Can I stay here the rest of the night?”

 

Her dad chuckles. “All five minutes of it? Sure, baby.” He holds out an arm for her, and Ford smiles, snuggling up against his side. She’s too old for it, maybe, but it’s not like her family has ever been traditional.

 

As she’s drifting off, a thought occurs to her, and she rouses herself enough to lift her head off her dad’s shoulder. “Hey,” she says sleepily. “How’d it go with Will?”

 

“Huh?” He sounds just as sleepy, confused and a little bleary. “What’d’y’mean, honey?”

 

“I just thought he might be here, that’s all.”

 

“What?” He picks his head up off the pillow, his voice alert now. “Why would he be here?”

 

“Um.” Ford tries to think of a good answer, but her brain seems to have finally realized what time it is, and has officially checked out on her. “I thought I saw you two, um, at the Festival. Standing very close together. I thought a thing was happening.”

 

“Oh.” Derek gives a soft laugh. “No, baby. We were just--talking. There’s nothing like that going on between us.”

 

False, Ford thinks, a little grumpily. So much for operation Not The Parent Trap. Well, whatever. She’s too sleepy to try and debrief. “Oh,” she says. “Okay.” She snuggles closer. “I love you, Daddy.”

 

“Love you, too, kiddo.”

 

Ford closes her eyes.

 

She’ll deal with this whole Will Poindexter nonsense, she thinks, tomorrow.

 

 

This is Derek and Ford Nurse, and a lifetime--Ford’s, at least--of late-night conversations.

 

It starts when Ford is a baby, because for all that she remembers growing up a good sleeper, that didn’t kick in until she was about two years old. Before that, Derek spent his nights awake with her, first walking back and forth across his little room in the Samwell Inn pool house with her squalling in his arms, refusing to settle unless he was moving, and then, later, curled on his side in bed with Ford stretched out on her back beside him, the blankets kicked down around his feet to keep them away from her face. He’d talk to her about whatever came to his mind--usually something pointless and rambling, given the amount of sleep deprivation.

 

When Ford is four, she watches Fantasia at a friend’s house, and has nightmares about the Night on Bald Mountain scene for weeks, running crying into Derek’s bed every night. He bundles her in blankets and kisses her head and tells her stories he makes up on the spot. They’re generally absurd enough to make her laugh, and she adds her own details to make them even more ridiculous, and she’ll fall back asleep smiling.

 

At eight, she declares herself much too old to come crawling to her dad when she can’t sleep. That’s the year that Derek dates Chantelle, who’s getting her M.S. in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science from Yale, and she doesn’t know what that is, but people make impressed faces whenever Chantelle talks about it. Chantelle stays over sometimes, so Ford decides it’s fine that she’s too old to sleep in her dad’s room if she wakes up in the middle of the night and wants someone to talk to.

 

But then Chantelle moves to California to get a PhD, and Ford decides that maybe eight isn’t too old, after all.

 

(As far as Derek’s concerned, there’s no such thing as Ford being too old to wake him up in the middle of the night.

 

He’s just glad they’re past the walk around all night and never stop moving stage. That was a pain in the ass. At least now he gets to lie down.)

 

 

“You’re in a good mood today,” Connor says, coming into the kitchen with a tub of bussed dishes.

 

Will flips an omelette. “I’m in a normal mood,” he says, which gets him an eyeroll from Connor. He ignores it. “Anyway, you’re one to talk.”

 

Connor flushes, and it’s almost endearing, Will thinks, when he drops the Too Cool For You routine and actually acts like the teenager he is. “Yeah, well. I told you why.”

 

He’d come home from the Festival last night blushing and all but floating on air, refusing to meet Will’s eyes. Will had been content to let him keep his secrets, but when he’d gotten back from taking Cat for her bedtime walk, Connor had ambushed him in the living room and blurted out that Tony Tangredi had kissed him at the Festival. Not only that, but Tony had kissed Ford Nurse, too, and apparently they were all wrapped up in some kind of multiple dating triangle...thing.

 

Will still doesn’t really understand it, but Connor seems happy, and that’s good enough for him.

 

(He’d made Will promise not to tell his mom, which had broken Will’s heart a little bit, but he’d been there. He’d ruffled Connor’s hair, made the promise, and told him to go the hell to bed.)

 

“Yes, you did,” Will says now, trying not to roll his eyes. It’s all very cute, but he caters to enough high schoolers that the infatuation stage of young love lost its shine a long time ago. “You still have work to do, though, so don’t let the heart-eyes get too distracting, okay?”

 

“I won’t, I won’t.” Connor leans against the counter. “That still doesn’t explain your mood,” he says, needling.

 

Will slides the omelette onto a plate and dips some toast in butter. “I’m not in a mood.”

 

“Uncle Will,” Connor says, rolling his eyes again. “You’re smiling while you cook. You never smile in the kitchen.”

 

Will pauses. He doesn’t touch his face or anything to verify, because that would be admitting defeat, but he does carefully pull his mouth around until it feels more like his normal default expression. “It must just be the smell of bacon,” he says. “Artificial mood enhancer.”

 

“Oh, come on!” Connor exclaims, throwing up his hands. Will blinks, a little startled. What the hell kind of kiss did Tony give this kid? “I saw you with Mr. Nurse at the Festival last night, I know something happened, so just--”

 

“Whoa, hey,” Will interrupted. “What do you mean, you saw me and Derek at the Festival?”

 

Connor ducked his head, looking a little shame-faced. “It was only for a minute,” he said. “When Tony and Ford and I were walking around. We saw you two walking off together, and then just standing, uh--really close? And it kind of seemed like you were about to kiss, so I said we shouldn’t watch, but I guess I kind of assumed you…”

 

He trails off, giving Will a significant glance, and the back of Will’s neck heats up. “Well, whatever you think happened,” Will grits out, telling himself firmly that the embarrassment is over his nephew’s spying, not the loss of any potential--anything that might have happened last night. “It didn’t. There’s nothing going on between me and Derek. There never has been.”

 

“Seriously?” Connor scrunches up his face, skeptical. “You can’t expect me to believe that. There’s a betting pool, Uncle Will.”

 

Will sighs. “There’s a betting pool about when we’re going to get a stoplight at the intersection down on Water Street, that doesn’t mean it’s ever going to happen.” He rubs his forehead. “I thought you weren’t getting involved in any of this small town bullshit, Connor.”

 

Connor shrugs. “It kind of pulls you in.”

 

“Yeah, no kidding.” Will checks the pancakes on the griddle, decides they’re done, and slides them onto a plate. “I’m taking these guys out.” He raises his voice. “Carter, you good to take over?” His line cook raises a hand in confirmation from where he’s chopping extra veggies, and Will picks up the plates to head out.

 

The diner is decently full for the breakfast rush, which as a business owner is always kind of a relief to see. He drops the plates off at table six for Suzanne Bittle and Alice Atley and heads back behind the counter to pick up the coffee pots to do a round of refills, just as the door opens and Justin Oluransi walks in, hand-in-hand with Adam Birkholtz, and huh, Will thinks. That’s interesting.

 

Apparently he’s not the only person who thinks so. There’s a momentary hush as they come in, followed by an immediate resuming of conversation that’s just a bit louder than it was before. Justin and Adam exchange the exasperated glances Will recognizes from years of exchanging almost the exact same one with Derek--and that’s a little concerning--and Will takes pity, nodding them to a free table. “Morning, guys,” he says, heading over. “Coffee?”

 

“Please God,” Justin says fervently.

 

Will snorts. “Long day already?”

 

“You have no idea,” Justin says, holding out his mug with both hands.

 

Adam snorts. “Oh, try him,” he says.


Will pours their coffee. “I’m guessing congratulations are in order?”

 

Adam goes a more entertaining shade of pink than his reputation would suggest, and Justin ducks his head. “I mean,” he says. “We’re just dating. I don’t get why people are making such a big thing.”

 

“Well, you are a young, hot doctor,” Adam teases. He takes a sip of coffee and shoots Will a grateful look. Will’s just glad he’s finally stopped with the pornographic moans he used to do with the first sips. “I think the bigger gossip is that I swept in and broke up you and Derek.”

 

Justin groans, dropping his head onto the table. “Derek and I were never dating in the first place!”

 

“Not according to the Samwell Gossip Chain,” Will says dryly.

 

“So much for staying on the down-low,” Justin says, sighing.

 

Adam shoots him a look of exaggerated guilt. “Wait, were we doing that? Should I not have already told my mom about my new boyfriend, the doctor? She was so happy!”

 

Will snorts. “I’ll let you two work that out,” he said. “Give a yell when you’re ready to order.”

 

Derek and Ford come in just as Justin and Adam head out, and Will catches their brief interaction out of the corner of his eye from the counter, Derek bursting into laughter and Ford’s giggles reaching all the way across the diner.

 

Well, Will thinks. At least that worked out. He tries not to feel a pang of envy for the easy adaptability of it, for the complete lack of any tension or jealousy between Derek and Justin. He doesn’t know how they do it, especially sharing a kid together. Derek had said it was just friendship between them now, but it’s just friendship between Derek and Will, too, and--

 

The smell of smoke reaches him and he winces, realizing he’d let his thoughts wander, and had burned the bottom of an omelette in the process. He scrapes the griddle and tosses the eggs, starting over with a sigh. If Derek could be just friends with Justin and be fine, then obviously whatever was going on with them was about Will. And that...yeah. Well. That tracks out. He huffs, and flips some eggs onto a plate.

 

Connor comes back into the kitchen, his cheeks flushed. “Hey, Uncle Will,” he says. “So--Ford’s here.”

 

Will slides the food onto plates and hands them to Connor. “I saw,” he says. “Take these out.”

 

“Well I was wondering if I could--”

 

“Not a chance.” Will grabs an order pad. “Your break’s in fifteen minutes, you can do the puppy love routine then. Table three. Go.”


The look Connor gives him is the closest thing to a pout Will has seen on him since the kid was about seven years old. Will rolls his eyes and gives him a firm nudge, then follows him out.

 

Derek and Ford are at the counter, and Will determinately ignores the heat building on the back of his neck as Derek glances up to meet his eyes as he comes out of the kitchen. “My hero,” Derek says immediately, zeroing in on the coffee pot Will lifts off the burner.

 

Will rolls his eyes. “What happened to ‘not coming in until lunch,’ then?” he says, taking down a pair of mugs and bringing them over. He nods a hello to Ford, who seems to be pretending she’s not watching Connor deliver food out of the corner of her eye. “Ford. I hear some kind of congratulations are in order, if the way Connor’s been tripping over himself all day is any indication.”


Ford gives a high, quick giggle and ducks her head, as if she’s suddenly decided she actually needs to look at the menu she hasn’t read in about eight years. Will grins and pours her a cup of coffee, realizing that’s probably about the closest he’ll get to a blush from her.

 

He wonders if she’s ever grateful for having Justin’s coloring on that front--Will turns bright red at the drop of a hat; he’s even seen Derek’s cheeks darken under the occasional extreme circumstance. Ford, on the other hand, could be flushing like crazy, and Will would have no idea.

 

A little voice in the back of his head that sounds alarmingly like Derek’s points out that it’s probably not worth the racism trade-off. He winces internally and makes sure to hand her the first mug of coffee.

 

“What am I, chopped liver?” Derek complains.

 

Will snorts and pours him a cup, passing it over. “Four second wait,” he drawls. “I’m sure you suffered.” Their hands brush as Derek takes the mug, and there’s Will’s blush again, creeping up the back of his neck and over his ears. He clears his throat. “You two let me know when you’re ready to order.”

 

Derek raises his mug--and is Will imagining it, or does he duck his eyelashes just like Ford does, when she’s embarrassed?--in his usual you got it salute, and Will heads back to the kitchen, stopping to bus a few plates on his way.

 

Connor’s leaning against the counter. “You’re such a hypocrite, Uncle Will,” he announces when Will comes in.

 

Will puts the dishes in a tub. “Oh, really?”

 

Connor raises one eyebrow, his face such a perfect mirror of Will’s sister’s you’ve gotta be bullshitting me expression that Will nearly laughs. “I’m just saying, it seems pretty weird that you were making fun of me for being embarrassing when you can’t be around Derek Nurse for more than thirty seconds without going up like a tomato.”

 

“Uh…” Will tries to come up with an explanation that isn’t going to make Connor smirk at him in a way that just reminds him of Maggie even more, and comes up short. He sighs.

 

“Go take your break,” he says. “I’m sure Ford would love you to sit with her.”

 

Connor grins. “Thanks, Uncle Will.”

 

He pulls his apron off and all but scampers out the door, and Will glances back through the doorway after him to see Ford’s face light up as Conner, pink to the roots of his hair, leans down to kiss her cheek. Derek looks on, his face soft and fond and a little amused, the rim of his cup just a handbreadth away from his lips.

 

Will feels a sudden, strange, and deeply embarrassing kinship with--and worse somehow, jealousy of--that coffee mug.

 

As if drawn by a magnet, Derek’s gaze shifts to meet his. He smiles, lifting the cup and taking a sip. Will’s ears haven’t even had time to cool down, but they heat up again. He ducks his head.

 

His phone chirps from its usual spot on the baking shelf. Will picks it up, glad for a reason to look at anything other than Derek Nurse’s face.

 

The text is from Eric Bittle. Just saw Adam Holster and Justin Oluransi holding hands!! Said they just came from breakfast @ urs. WHAT DO U KNOW?

 

Will looks at the ceiling, says a brief prayer for strength, and types back, I don’t know anything, and you know I don’t participate in this kind of thing.

 

Typing bubbles pop up immediately. R U D E, WILLIAM. Will snorts, but another set of messages follow in quick succession:

 

I would think you’d be happier

 

Since this means a certain innkeeper is back on the market????

 

Just saying.

 

Will groans, puts his phone on silent, and gets back to work. He loves Samwell, he does, but sometimes he really, really hates it.

 

 

This is the gossip mill in Samwell, which concerns itself, for better or worst, primarily with romance.

 

In the defense of the gossipers in question, it’s more due to a lack of other news than to a particular town interest in their neighbors’ love lives. Samwell’s population numbers put it firmly into the town category--though there are still people in town whose grandparents were alive when Samwell graduated from village status--but in terms of actual activity, the number of properly newsworthy events is barely enough to justify the existence of the Samwell Gazette.

 

The slim daily paper mostly covers national and state news, with barely a page or two devoted to the town, and most of that doubles as the PTA newsletter.

 

All that together makes for a small town without much built-in entertainment and a high population of elderly women and queer folks, a combination of people that loves few things more than other people’s business and with a war-honed knack for smelling blood in the water. So the elaborate rumor mill is born, evolving rapidly into a network of text threads, Facebook groups, book club meetings, and--though it hasn’t been proven--spies.

 

Will Poindexter is convinced that somehow Kent Parson has trained the town cats.

 

(Paranoid? Maybe. But he’s never seen Kent deny it, either.)

 

 

“So, Ford,” Emily says, sipping her wine delicately. “Have you put any more thought into the Chilton Formal?”

 

Ford drops her fork, and Derek winces. His grandmother has that Look in her eye, and that’s never a good sign. “Um,” Ford says slowly, hesitation drawing out the word. “Not really? I’ve been a little distracted. You know. Worried about Grandpa, and everything. And then I was looking forward to the Festival, in Samwell.”

 

Emily waves a hand. “Your grandfather’s doing much better,” she says, nodding to the end of the table, where Michael is poking sadly at his baked chicken. Derek meets his mom’s eyes and has to hide his smile in his wine glass; he knows his dad’s rocketing back to full health, but his mom’s keeping him on a strict “heart health” diet, and dad, apparently, is one sodium alternative from making a steak-themed Pinterest board. “And I’ve never understood why you get so excited about those little carnivals.”

 

“Because they’re fun,” Derek says, draping a pointed arm over the back of Ford’s chair. “And besides, we’ve been going since Ford was a baby. It’s part of our family tradition.”

 

He’s just petty enough to hold his grandmother’s eyes when he says our family. She arches an eyebrow at him, but doesn’t seem inclined to challenge him, instead turning back to Ford. “Anyway, dear,” she says, “these formal occasions are important. It’s never too young to think about networking.”

 

Michael clears his throat, putting down his fork. “Mother,” he says. “We spoke about this.”

 

Derek glances at him in vague surprise. After the fight they’d had about his grandmother’s meddling, the last thing he expected was for his dad to actually push back on it, especially with Michael’s recent health.

 

Maybe Derek’s been underestimating him, he thinks, taking in his dad’s unwavering expression. Old dogs, new tricks, all that.

 

“I wasn’t just referring to her romantic prospects,” Emily says tartly, sitting back in her chair, wine in hand. “Between the students and the faculty, it’s a representation of most of Hartford’s best families. Ford hardly ever socializes with them outside of her classes; it’s good for her to build relationships with them outside of school hours.” She gives Derek a meaningful look. “You never know when those connections could be useful.”

 

Derek doesn’t flinch when she looks at him, but it’s close. He knows it was his dad’s connections through a Chilton classmate that helped him jump the waitlist to see a specialist at Yale’s Gender Clinic. It’s a bitter, secret shame to know that as many games of social justice bingo he plays, he still used his privilege when push came to shove.

 

(Lardo tends to smack him when he starts going down that hole. “Save those guilt trips for white feminists voting Republican,” she’s told him, more than once, “not fifteen-year-old black trans kids drowning in dysphoria letting their parents use their connections to get medical care.”

 

Sometimes he tries to argue further, but she just hits him again, and he usually gives up out of self-preservation. Lardo doesn’t pull her punches ever, and he’s had the bruises to prove it.)

 

Ford must see something on his face, because she sets her own into an expression of determination, leaning forward and cupping both hands around her cup of tea. “I don’t mind the idea of going,” she says firmly. “I just wouldn’t want to go with a boy from Chilton, that’s all.”

 

Emily raises her eyebrows. “Well, it’s not unusual to attend with a date from another academy,” she says, though her tone implies otherwise. “Or…” She clears her throat, discomfort written all over her face. “Not with a boy at all. If that’s your preference. Your fathers made quite a stir when they decided to attend together their sophomore year, if I recall--”

 

“Oh,” Ford says, blinking, and Derek has to exhale a soft, surprised laugh of his own. Tonight’s full of surprises, apparently. “No, um, that’s not what I meant, Grandma. But, thank you? For saying that.” She glances at Derek. “I didn’t know you and Papa went to dances together.”

 

Derek spares her a grin, catching his mother’s faint snort of laughter across the table. “It was mostly to make a statement,” he says. “We never stayed long.”

 

“Please tell me there are pictures,” Ford begs.

 

“Of course there are pictures,” Amal says, exchanging a sly smile with Michael. “What kind of mother do you take me for?” Ford punches the air in victory. Derek groans and make a mental note to text Justin to warn him about the incoming flood of chirping they’re going to have to endure. They were cute in high school, sure, but fifteen wasn’t the most attractive age on either of them. Ford has no idea how much she lucked out on the genetics lottery.

 

Conversation shifts, then, to a more nostalgic review of the ways that Chilton has changed in the years since Michael attended, and Derek sees the relief on Ford’s face at the dodging of the metaphorical bullet. Derek can’t blame her. Emily’s single-minded focus is terrifying when it comes to things like this, to the point of steamrolling any kind of comfort zone. It’s why Derek was willing to get himself banned from family dinners to get her off Ford’s back over it--he put up with it enough when he was a kid; he’s not interested in making Ford have the same experience.

 

Rookie mistake, he’ll tell himself later, thinking his grandmother would just drop something like that.

 

The relative peace lasts until they’re gathered in the sitting room after dinner with tea and coffee--decaf for everyone except Derek, who could have a shot of espresso at eleven p.m. and still pass out at midnight--when Emily strikes again.

 

“So, Ford dear,” she says, delicately laying her spoon on her tea saucer. “If you aren’t interested in attending the formal with a young lady, or with any of the gentlemen from your class, may I ask who you are expecting to go with?” She raises an eyebrow. “You aren’t thinking of going without an escort, I hope. Making a statement only goes so far. This family does still have something of a reputation to uphold.”

 

Ford nearly spits out her tea. “Thanks, Grandma,” she says, and Derek hides a grin behind the rim of his coffee cup. He knows what she sounds like when she’s trying to stifle a laugh. “That’s, um. Really nice of you to say.”

 

Emily just lifts her cup to her lips and takes a delicate sip. Derek has seen that expression wither multi-millionaires, but Ford just looks at Derek, scrunches her nose, and sighs, putting her cup and saucer on the coffee table.

 

“Actually, Grandma,” she says. “I’m sort of...seeing someone from Samwell.”

 

It’s only thanks to years of practice that Derek can recognize the look on Emily’s face as startled and not just mildly interested. “Really,” she says.

 

Amal crosses her legs at the ankles, leaning just her shoulder against Michael’s. In Emily’s presence, Derek knows, it’s practically a full-on cuddle. “This wouldn’t be your friend Tony, would it?” she asks. Her tone is teasing, but only gently. “I remember you mentioning him the last time we talked about this.”

 

Ford straightens up in her chair--not that she has much choice; the sitting room furniture wasn’t exactly designed for comfort--and raises her chin. “Yes, actually.”

 

“Easy, dear,” Michael says mildly. “No one’s staging an inquisition.”

 

“No one would expect it anyway,” Derek mutters, unable to resist. His father gives him a wink. “Tony’s a great kid, and I don’t think he’d be intimidated by the Chilton crowd. You should ask him if you want to.” Ford gives him a grateful smile. “Besides, you know Louise will hate it.”

 

Amal frowns. “Louise?”

 

Ford rolls her eyes. “She’s this girl from school,” she says. “She thinks we have this--I don’t know, rivalry, I guess? But I’m not interested in it. I just want to do my work and live my life.”

 

“Academic rivalries can be very fruitful,” Emily says mildly. “You’d be surprised at how remarkably motivating it can be for your grades when you bring the spirit of competition into things. Even if you aren’t trying to win, it can be enough to ensure that no one is going around telling others that you’ve lost.”

 

Derek snorts. “Grandma,” he says. “It almost sounds like you’re advocating doing something out of spite.”


Emily arches her eyebrows, but a spark comes into her eyes. “Where do you think you get it, dear?”

 

Ford muffles a giggle into her tea. “Oh my gosh,” she says. “You and Connor can never meet.”

 

Michael frowns. “Connor?” he asks. “I thought your...friend’s name was Tony.”

 

“It is,” Ford says, but she shoots Derek a deer in the headlights look, and he knows a plea for rescue when he sees one.

 

“Connor’s one of Ford and Tony’s friends,” he says smoothly, setting his coffee cup down on his saucer. “He only moved to town recently, though. I don’t know if Ford’s mentioned him.”

 

Amal smiles. “I think any opportunity to be making new friends is a good one, love,” she tells Ford, and Ford’s shoulders lose a fraction of their tension.

 

“Thanks, Jadda.” Ford gives her a small smile. “Connor’s--he’s great. I like him a lot. He’s just, um, a lot pricklier than Tony is.”

 

Emily looks vaguely affronted. “I’m not sure why that would mean I shouldn’t meet him,” she says, but a hint of amusement slips into her voice, and Derek picks up his coffee again, exchanging a glance with Ford, and he catches the relief on her face.

 

“I hope that was okay,” he says to her later, when they’re in the car on their way home. “I know we talked about me taking over for you when it came to telling them about Connor and Tony, but it didn’t seem like you really wanted…”

 

“No,” she says quickly. “No, that was right. I didn’t, um. I didn’t want to tell them yet.”

 

He glances at her. She’s leaning her head against the passenger side window, her phone held loosely in her lap, a text thread visible on the screen. Connor or Tony, he’s willing to bet, if not a group chat. He turns his eyes back to the road. “You don’t have to tell them until you’re ready,” he says. “And not even then, if you don’t want. We can write them a strongly worded text. Send an ecard. Something like that.”

 

Ford snorts. “Really?”

 

“Mmhm. You know Jadda’s on Instagram now. She’s very hip.” Ford laughs, and Derek grins. Ten good parenting points to him. “And this whole dance thing, Ford--you know you don’t need to go if you don’t want to, right?”

 

“I know.” He catches her tapping at her phone out of the corner of his eye before she twists in her seat to look at him. “Do you think I could bring two dates?” Derek startles hard enough that he jerks the wheel, and Ford yelps as the car swerves slightly. “Oh my god, Dad!”

 

“Sorry!” Derek thanks his lucky stars for the relatively empty highway and eases up on the gas, getting them back into the center of their lane. “I was just--startled. Sorry.”

 

“We’re going to die,” Ford says. “I’m going to die a virgin.”

 

“Good,” Derek deadpans. She smacks his arm. “Ow!”

 

“You are such a hypocrite!”

 

“I never claimed not to be!” She hits him again. “Munchkin, if you don’t want me to drive us off the road, you will quit with the smacking.” Ford slumps back in her seat, tapping at her phone again. Derek rolls his eyes. “Tell Tony and Connor I say hi.”

 

She sticks her tongue out, then sighs. “Daddy?” He hums. “Do you think I could bring them both to the dance?”

 

Derek drums his fingers on the steering wheel, considering. “I don’t know,” he says. “There probably isn’t a rule against it, but that’s likely only because no one’s ever thought of trying. You could certainly give it a shot. It’s just a matter of buying three tickets instead of two, isn’t it?”

 

“I guess so. And asking if they’d go with me.” Ford sounds suddenly doubtful.

 

“Why wouldn’t they?” Derek glances at her. She’s looking out the window again, her brow furrowed. “They think you’re great, Ford. I know an evening of dealing with Chilton kids is a lot to ask of anyone, but I’m sure they’d do it for you.”

 

“You think?”

 

“I know,” he says firmly, because he doesn’t know Connor very well, but he’s watched Tony fall head over heels for Ford over the past ten years, and he’s willing to bet everything he owns that there’s very little Tony wouldn’t do to make Ford happy. Connor might be new to the game, but if the few interactions Derek has seen are any indication, Ford’s well on her way to having him just as wrapped around her little finger.

 

They drive in silence for a few minutes.

 

“Daddy?” Ford says finally.

 

“Yeah, baby?”

 

“If I go to the dance, will you help me make my dress?”

 

Derek can’t even remember the last time Ford asked his help on a sewing project. Probably not since she started high school. “Kiddo,” he says, absolutely not tearing up. “I’d love to.”

 

“Oh my god,” she says. “Are you crying?”

 

“No,” he says quickly.

 

“You are,” she crows. “Daddy, you’re so cute. No, look at me, I wanna get this on Snapchat!”

 

“I take it back,” Derek says, flipping on his blinker and getting into the exit lane.

 

“Hashtag too cute for words. Do you have a filter preference? I’m asking for a friend.”

 

“You can walk home.”

 

 

This is Chilton Academy, established 1803, co-educational preparatory school catering to students from kindergarten through twelfth grade. It boasts a well-deserved prestigious reputation, with over eighty percent of alumni attending an Ivy for either undergraduate or graduate school. Class sizes are small, faculty attention to individual students is high. According to a number of coded messages hidden in back issues of The Franklin, Chilton’s premiere student newspaper, there have been anywhere between six and nine secret societies on campus at any given time.

 

Derek Nurse likes to joke that the school radiates old white money from every glittering chandelier and marble floor tile. His father and grandmother roll their eyes at him when he makes those comments. His mother, who took the measure of the PTA within the first thirty seconds of her first meeting and realized she could count the other parents of color on one hand, tends to snort and kiss the top of his head in solidarity, murmuring fondly to him in Arabic just to spite his grandmother.

 

Chilton markets itself as a school where students can get a competitive education with traditional values. From the ivy crawling over the sides of the buildings to the furniture in the faculty and staff offices to the cracked spines of the tomes in the (admittedly expansive) library, the school is steeped in the sense of the old: legacy, and history, and long years of it’s always been done this way, so why on earth would we change it now?

 

It’s not that none of the staff is progressive, or that there are no attempts at change. The curriculum changes every year, the textbooks are always new, the technology is always cutting edge. The faculty, in many ways, are at the forefront of putting the students first when it comes to progression over tradition, championing the causes of student organizations for diversity, activism, engagement, self-care.

 

The headmaster, though, is a traditionalist, and a hardass, and always has been.

 

So when Derek Nurse sees two lines on a stick of plastic in the third stall of the bathroom of the science wing, his first thought isn’t to tell the school nurse to call his parents.

 

It’s about how to hide a secret like this at a school that believes failure is part of life--but not a part of Chilton.

 

 

“Here,” Justin says, sliding into his seat and handing Derek a bottle of Sam Adams. “On me. After this week, I feel like I should treat you.”

 

Derek takes it, slipping his phone into his pocket. “Thanks.” He gives Justin a grateful, if slightly wry, smile. “What do we drink to?”

 

“Milestones?” Justin suggests, only half-serious. Derek snorts, though, and clinks the neck of his bottle against Justin’s. They drink, and Justin rubs his forehead. “God. When Ford kept saying she wasn’t interested in dealing with boys because she wanted to focus on school, I kind of started to think it was going to be a roundabout way of saying she was queer, you know? I wasn’t really expecting her to go from zero to--”

 

“Surprise, I’m going to have two boyfriends instead?” Derek quips dryly.

 

“Yeah.” Justin takes another sip of his beer, eyeing Derek across the table. He looks tired, more than his usual brand of overworked-and-undersleeping, and Justin frowns. “You okay with it? You look stressed.”

 

Derek shakes his head. “I’m fine.”

 

Justin raises his eyebrows. “Nursey.”

 

Derek makes a face at him, which he does every time Justin breaks out the years-old nickname, but fortunately doesn’t kick him under the table. “I’m worried about her, that’s all,” he admits, dropping his eyes down to his beer bottle. He rubs a finger through the condensation until the label starts to peel, then starts plucking at the edge. “She’s already stressed about telling my parents, never mind about being public in general, and right after they got together she woke me up in the middle of the night because she wasn’t sure where things stood with her and Connor, and I’m just…” He sighs. “She’s such a smart kid, Rans, and she loves so much, and I just don’t want her to get hurt, you know?”

 

“I get it,” Justin says. Ford hasn’t so much as mentioned telling his parents about this thing with her and Connor and Tony yet, and he doesn’t need to ask her why--his family’s amazing, but they can be conservative, and it takes them some time to warm up to new things. “I didn’t know about the Connor thing. What’s going on there?”

 

Derek presses his lips together. “I didn’t know she hadn’t told you,” he says slowly. “Shit.”

 

Justin nudges him with his foot. “Derek,” he says, letting a bit of a whine slip into his voice. “Come on. Parenting. Loop. You don’t have to betray confidences, but come on.”

 

“Alright, alright.” Derek still looks guilty, but he rubs the back of his neck and sighs. “She feels closer to Tony than Connor, and she told me she was worried that Connor and Tony were in the same situation.”


Justin frowns, putting his beer down. “So she thinks Tony’s going to ditch her for Connor?”

 

“No,” Derek says slowly, drawing out the word like he’s uncertain. “I think it’s more that she likes Connor but she doesn’t like him as much as she likes Tony, and she’s worried that it makes things unbalanced.”

 

“She’s known Tony since they were six,” Justin points out.

 

Derek shrugs. “She knows that. I don’t think it’s the kind of logic she’s taking into account right now.” He props his chin in his hand. “I don’t know. It’s just a lot, for a first relationship, you know?”

 

Justin snorts, nudging him under the table again. “Runs in the family, don’t you think?” Derek scrunches his nose at him. It shouldn’t be cute, but then, Derek happens to be one of the more attractive people Justin knows. He certainly could have chosen worse people to knock up in high school.

 

“So, anyway, speaking of relationships,” Derek says, and Justin swallows his planned chirp in favor of letting Derek talk. “You and Adam, huh?”

 

Justin’s cheeks warm. “We’re trying it out,” he says.

 

It’s an understatement, and from the look on Derek’s face, he knows it. He and Adam had clicked from the moment they’d met--to tell the truth, Justin hasn’t clicked so perfectly with another person since Derek, and this thing with Adam, honestly, blows that out of the water. It’s drift compatibility on a totally visceral level, a sense of being known that he’s never really felt before.

 

Not in a shared experience sort of way--Derek will always have Adam beat when it comes to that--but in the sense that Justin can say something and know, somehow, that he won’t be judged, and more than that, that Adam will have his back.

 

“Wow,” Derek says, and Justin pulls himself back to the present, meets Derek’s eyes, which are thoughtful and amused and fond. “That’s quite a look, buddy.”

 

“I--yeah. I mean.” Justin ducks his head, clearing his throat. “I really like him.”

 

“I can tell.” The audible grin in Derek’s voice makes Justin look up again, and he knows what’s coming even before Derek says anything. “The sex must be amazing, if you’re already in stammer mode.”

 

“I’m not,” Justin starts, and then thinks better of it. Derek knows him too well, and honestly, the sex is amazing. “Yeah, okay. But it’s not just that.”

 

Derek’s face softens. “I figured,” he says. He picks up his beer and gently taps Justin’s. “I’m happy for you, babe.”

 

Justin smiles. He’s been smiling so much lately his face hurts a little. “Thanks.”

 

A flash of color catches his eye. He turns in time to see Will Poindexter take a seat at the bar, and raises his eyebrows. “Huh,” he says. “Didn’t expect to see that.” Derek makes a questioning noise, and Justin gestures. “Will’s here.”

 

Derek leans around him to follow his gaze. Justin leaves off looking at Will so he can look at Derek instead, and is rewarded with the absolute treat of watching several emotions flash across Derek’s face--surprise, affection, uncertainty, longing, and then, finally, firm resignation as he sits back in his chair. “I mean, it’s not so surprising,” he says. “The only places in Samwell that really have a liquor license are here and Antonioli's, and they usually make you order food.”

 

Justin hums and twists around to look again. The lounge at the Samwell Inn isn’t a bar so much as it’s a quiet place to have a drink, but as Samwell doesn’t have a proper bar in town, the Inn is about the closest folks can get without driving out to Woodbridge. It makes sense that Will would be here if he wanted to get a drink somewhere other than his own apartment, but it still feels a little weird to run into him. “How are things between you guys, anyway?”

 

He doesn’t need to look at Derek to sense his full-body flail, and turns back around in his seat in time to catch Derek scrambling to get hold of his beer before it spills. “What do you mean?” he says quickly. “We’re fine! Everything’s fine. He’s an asshole. I’m an asshole. Status quo, situation normal.”

 

“Wow,” Justin says, genuinely torn between taking pity or chirping him forever. “You want to actually convince me?”

 

Derek flips him off, then sighs, putting his beer down so he can drop his head into his hands. “Remember how I told you Ford woke me up the other night?”

 

“Yeah.”


“She told me she was surprised not to find Will Poindexter. In my bed.”

 

Justin can’t help it. He bursts out laughing. Derek scowls at him.

 

“You’re not helping.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Justin says, trying to get his shit together. He’s not sorry. He loves his kid so much. He’s texting her a digital high-five later. “Oh my god. Do you think she thought you had crazy game, or that you were just easy as fuck?”

 

Derek looks embarrassed. “Probably the latter,” he admits. Justin loses it laughing again. “Shut up, dude, you’re such a dick.”

 

“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Justin sniffs and picks up his beer, trying to wash away the laughter. He’s almost due for another round. “Dude. Why did she think she was going to walk in on you boning Will?”

 

Derek makes a face at the term, then sighs. “She said she thought she saw us kissing at the Festival.”

 

Justin nearly drops his beer. “Were you?”

 

No,” Derek says. A little too quickly, Justin thinks. He raises his eyebrows, leans forward, and waits. Derek huffs. “We--almost. Maybe almost. It--I don’t know.” He looks away, his eyes shadowed. “I never know with him, Rans.”

 

Justin frowns. He hates that look. That’s the I don’t deserve nice things look, the It’s fine, I’ll deal with it look, the It’s just me so it doesn’t matter anyway look. That look tends to make Justin want to grab Derek by the shoulders and shake him until he learns that ego is not the same thing as self-esteem, and holy shit does he need to work on the latter. “I’m gonna go ask him to sit with us,” he decides.

 

Derek snaps his head up. “What?” he says, alarmed.

 

“Yup,” Justin says, getting to his feet. “He looks lonely. Besides, we might be in-laws someday. You know, through some weird-ass polyamorous handfasting situation, I don’t know. Hey, Will!” He raises his voice, and Will’s head jerks up, his brow furrowing as he looks around. Justin waves a hand, and Will blinks as he catches sight of him. Justin beckons him over, then beckons more firmly when Will looks confused.

 

“Uh, hi,” Will says, approaching them uncertainly. “How’s it going?”

 

“Great,” Justin says, channeling his inner frat bro. Come on, inner extrovert, he tells himself, you did this shit all through college, turn it the fuck back on. Why is this so much harder in his thirties than it was when he was eighteen? “You looked lonely, figured you might want some company. Pull up a chair.”

 

He pats the table next to him pointedly. Will looks nervously at Derek, who smiles faintly back, and Will seems to go through a brief internal battle, choreographed mostly through a series of splotchy blushes, before he shrugs and grabs a chair from the next table over. “Thanks,” he says. “Hey, Derek.”

 

“Will,” Derek says. “So, uh--how are you feeling about this whole--Ford and Connor and Tony thing?”

 

Will exhales in a rush, his entire body seeming to collapse into the chair. “Oh my god,” he groans, folding his hands around his beer bottle. “I forgot you guys knew. I haven’t been able to say anything--Connor told me not to tell his mom, and obviously Tony hasn’t told his mother--not that we talk to her anyway--”

 

Justin blinks. “We don’t?”

 

Derek shakes his head. “She’s fifty-something, kind of a homophobe, and Italian Catholic as fuck. She’s deeply invested in saving Ford’s soul.”

 

Justin snorts. “Okay.”

 

“Yeah. So I’m mostly going crazy.” Will drains half his beer. Out of friendship, Justin pretends he doesn’t see Derek’s eyes glue themselves to the movement of Will’s throat as he swallows. “Like, what the hell is up with these kids? Do you know what I was doing when I was sixteen? Pretending I wasn’t totally into Joey on Friends and trying to teach my mother how Windows worked. Buffy didn’t even start until I was in college, for God’s sake.”

 

“Aw,” Derek teases. “I forget that you’re so much older than us.”

 

Will scowls at him. “You get what I mean! It’s not like there was a ton of this going around in whatever year you were in high school, either. Where did they even figure out that this kind of thing was an option?”

 

“Internet,” Derek and Justin say together. Justin glances at Derek, and gets a grin and a wink in return. Eighteen years of friendship and sixteen years of coparenting do give them their occasional moments. Justin winks at Derek and leans back in his chair, grinning at Will. “Where is Connor tonight, anyway? Home alone like Ford?”

 

“Uh, no, actually.” Will looks sheepish. “You’re going to think I’m an awful uncle, but he’s actually sleeping over Tony’s tonight.”

 

Derek nearly chokes on his beer. Justin can’t really blame him. “Seriously?”

 

“Well!” Will looks dangerously close to throwing up his hands. “I figured--I mean, I know sixteen-year-olds are precocious as hell these days, but it’s only been, what, a week? So they’re almost definitely not having sex yet, right? Especially not if Mrs. Tangredi’s around.”

 

It’s only thanks to years of ingrained Canadian politeness that Justin doesn’t oh, buddy him, but still, he can’t quite help sneaking a glance back at Derek. He finds Derek looking back at him, his face set like he’s clearly trying not to laugh, and oh, good, Derek will say it for him.

 

Sure enough, Derek’s face cracks into a smile a second later. “Will,” he says. “Just how long has it been since you’ve been a teenager, again?”

 

Alarm slowly descends across Will’s face. “Oh, shit,” he groans, picking up his beer. “Maggie’s gonna kill me.” He takes a long sip and slumps back in his seat with a sigh. “Well,” he says glumly, “they’re boys, at least. No one’s getting pregnant.”

 

This time, Justin does spit out his sip of beer. Derek bursts out laughing.

 

“Yeah,” he wheezes, handing Justin a napkin while Justin sputters and coughs. “That’s what Justin’s parents thought, too. Hey, bud, remind me how that worked out for them?”

 

Justin wipes beer off his face. “They love their granddaughter very much,” he deadpans.

 

Will looks horrified, his eyes flickering back and forth between them. “Oh my god,” he says. “Wait. I’ve literally changed Connor’s diapers, but is Tony--”

 

Derek’s expression sharpens. “I have no idea,” he says. “And if I did, I wouldn’t out him. I’m just reminding you not to make assumptions.” He gets to his feet. “Next round’s on me. Will, Sam’s Seasonal, yeah?”

 

Will blinks. “Uh, yeah.” Derek nods, heading for the counter. Will watches him go, his expression tight, and Justin raises his eyebrows.

 

“Yikes,” he says. “How’s that going?”

 

“What?” Will snaps his head back around. “How’s what going?” Justin leans back in his chair, crossing his arms, and Will scowls. “Nothing’s going, obviously. Since half the time we can barely have a conversation without one of us messing it up.”

 

“One of you?” Justin says, faux-innocent. He gives a few exaggerated blinks, in case he wasn’t obvious enough.

 

Will’s scowl deepens. “It’s not always me, okay? Whatever he says about it.” He huffs out a sharp exhale, not long enough to be a sigh. “Are you angling to help or give me a shovel talk? I genuinely can’t tell.”

 

Justin grins. “I like to keep you guessing,” he says. That, and he knows where Adam’s money is in the infamous Derek/Will get-together Samwell betting pool.

 

Cheating? Maybe, but he’s got a new boyfriend that he wants to keep happy.

 

Still, he thinks, as Will twists around to cast another look at Derek, talking to the bartender--and Justin can’t help but wonder if it’s weird, drinking in a place where you work during the day because there’s no other option in town--sixteen years is a long time to pine.

 

“Look,” he says, taking pity. “Derek’s--I’m not going to talk to him like you don’t know him, because I know you do. And I’m not going to tell you how to treat him, because I think you know. But he’s...his first instinct is to protect himself, you know?”

 

Will furrows his brow, lips thinning, and then he sighs, pulling off his snapback to run a hand through his hair. “I just wish he’d stop jumping to assume the worst of me,” he says. “I wish he’d just let me...be there.” He gives Justin a wry half-smile. “Like you are.”

 

Justin snorts. “Kind of helps that he’s stuck with me,” he points out. “We’ve got an eighteen year contract. Minimum.” Will looks unconvinced, and Justin concedes the point. “And we were friends first, which helps. But…” He sighs. “Derek hates being pushed, okay? He hates it. But sometimes, it’s what he needs.”

 

“So do something he hates,” Will says skeptically. “That’s your advice.”

 

Justin shrugs. “Take it or leave it, buddy.”

 

Will opens his mouth, then snaps it shut with a Nurse-worthy full-body flinch when Derek sets their beers on the table.

 

“Sorry for the wait,” he says, dropping back into his seat. “He had to grab another case from the back.” He leans back in his seat. “Did I miss any good gossip about the kids?”

 

Justin glances at Will. Will looks back. His face is casual, except for the slight widening around the eyes, and Justin knows the tiny signs of panic when he sees them.

 

“Nah,” he says, picking up his beer. “Just hanging out.”

 

 

This is Samwell’s reputation, as written in the Connecticut: Still Revolutionary! Visitor’s guide (available in PDF and convenient booklet at any tourism office and most gas stations):

 

Located in Hartford County, Samwell is the perfect representation of the classic small Connecticut town experience, frozen in time. No Starbucks or McDonald’s here--Samwell is where the ma-and-pop stores still shine. Grab a bite to eat at one of its family-run restaurants, and stay the night in the historic Samwell Inn, where you’ll receive individualized, attentive service from locals who truly take the time to meet every guest who comes to town.

 

Samwell is at its best during seasonal peaks when you can check out historic town traditions such as their Winter Festival, the annual reenactment of the Battle of Samwell (a little-known turning point of the Revolutionary War), the Firelight Festival, and for the art buffs among you, the Night of Living Art.

 

Samwell’s Yelp reviews, alternatively--while they glow over the history, the quaint atmosphere, the nature paths, and the food--are a bit more candid. One comment, written in 2015 by Fry G., says it best:

 

“Go for a day trip, but if you’re looking for any kind of night life, stay somewhere else. Only place to get a decent drink is the Inn, and it’s not exactly a party vibe. General vacation advice is to stay in Hartford, drink there, then come to Samwell for your hangover brunch. I hear Will’s Diner is pretty good for that.”

 

(A search of the reviews of Will’s Diner are generally good, except for one by the same Fry G., which gives it only two stars. “Came for brunch. Full of really, REALLY loud people for some reason? One guy threw a home fry at my head, and the guy who owned the place told me it was just like that here. Good food, but terrible service. Probably wouldn’t come back.”)

 

 

It’s not that she means to leave it to the last minute, it’s just that the ticket deadline kind of creeps up on her.

 

In her defense, Ford thinks, looking at the email from the event committee and chewing her lip, she hadn’t really been paying attention to the other alerts. Honestly, she’d sort of forgotten about the dance in general before Grandma had brought it up at dinner. And then the past two weeks of spending her free time with Tony and Connor and getting a feel for this new thing between them has been so nice that she just hasn’t wanted to ruin it by asking for something new and public.

 

Not that there hasn’t already been newness, she thinks, tapping her fingers against her phone and biting back a smile, feeling her cheeks warm. They’ve snuck kisses at the bus stop, in nooks and crannies in the chaos of Tony’s mom’s antique store, behind the Diner, on Ford’s porch.

 

(Nothing’s gone further than that, even though Tony and Connor had the opportunity. She’d asked, a little awkwardly, the morning after Connor stayed the night at Tony’s, over breakfast at the Diner. Their faces covered most of the shades of red she could think of before Tony stammered out they hadn’t done more than kissing-- “It’s only been like a week--and my parents were next door, Ford!”--though Connor’s grin suggested that kissing was quite enough to turn Tony into the babbling mess Ford was looking at over her coffee cup.)

 

“Hey,” Connor says, dropping down next to her on the bench.


Ford startles so hard she nearly drops her phone, and he catches it smoothly, handing it back to her. “Thanks,” she says. He kisses her cheek and hands her a cup from Bittle’s Bakes. “Where’s Tony?”

 

“His mom called, and he decided he might as well convince her that hanging out with friends after school wasn’t going to turn him into a delinquent.” Connor rolls his eyes, putting the cardboard try with the two other cups down on the picnic table. He plucks one cup out, checks the label, and takes a sip. “Then Eric told him he might as well stick around and wait on the batch of cookies that just came out of the oven, since they’d be the freshest. So he’ll make up for being late.”

 

“Oh, nice.” Ford sips her hot chocolate, settling against Connor’s side. He shifts to wrap an arm around her, and she hums. It’s a sunny day, warm for December, but she’s glad for the extra heat.

 

It occurs to her, not for the first time, that it would probably be good for her to spend more time one-on-one with Connor. They’re good at this, sitting in companionable silence, and that’s not something she gets much of with Tony--he’s not an anxious talker so much as it’s just not in his nature to be quiet--but she wonders if maybe the weird unspoken barrier that she can just sense between them would feel a little less solid if they hung out together more.

 

Maybe they could go skating together, she muses, thinking about the hobbies she knows he has. There’s no way in hell she’s getting on the back of the motorcycle she’s seen parked behind Will’s. Or she could try to convince him to come to Hartford and go to a museum with her, but she doesn’t really think that it’s up his alley--

 

“Hey,” he says. “Can I talk to you about something?”

 

She pulls her thoughts back and looks up at him. Connor’s gaze is fixed on the lid of his cup, his eyes locked on a drop of hot chocolate caught on it like it’s personally offended him. “Um,” she says, shifting away from him. Her heart flutters in her chest, and she tamps down the twist of uncertainty in her stomach.

 

Just because he looks that intense doesn’t mean something’s wrong, she tells herself firmly. “Sure. Of course.”

 

Connor puts down his coffee and takes a breath. He doesn’t look at her. “You’re my first girlfriend,” he says.

 

Ford frowns. “Okay,” she says. “You and Tony are my first boyfriends.”

 

“No, I mean…” Connor picks up his cup again, picks at the cardboard sleeve, puts it down. He swallows visibly. “I’ve never dated a girl before.” He hesitates, closing his hands into fists in his lap. “I’ve never wanted to date a girl before.”

 

It only takes her a moment to realize what he’s saying, to understand why he’s clenching his fists so hard the bones of his knuckles look ready to break through his skin, to figure out why he won’t look at her. Oh, she thinks. That’s what it was. At least it hasn’t been personal. “So you’re…”

 

Connor shrugs a shoulder. “I don’t know, I never put, like, a label on it. I just--it was always guys.”

 

Ford swallows the lump in her throat. “We can tell Tony,” she says. “You and me don’t have to be--I mean, if you’re still okay with me dating him too--”

 

Connor picks his head up, finally looking at her with a furrowed brow. “No--Ford, that’s not what I’m saying.” He uncurls one hand--it looks like it hurts--and reaches for one of hers. She lets him take it, a little uncertain. “I’m trying to tell you I do like you.”

 

Ford shakes her head. “I’m confused,” she admits.

 

His lip twitches. “Yeah, well, you and me both. I thought I finished with my sexual identity crisis in eighth grade.”

 

He squeezes her hand as he says it, though, and from anyone else it might not be much, but from him, she knows it’s an attempt at softening the words. She squeezes back. “I like you too,” she says, cautiously. “A lot, honestly? But I just...I’ve sort of felt like you were more into Tony this whole time, so I’ve sort of been…”

 

Connor nods, looking down at their clasped hands. “It’s easier with Tony,” he says, not meeting her eyes. “I know what I’m doing. With you…” He shrugs. “I’ve never liked a girl before. I didn’t even think I liked girls, and…” He takes a deep breath, and, to her alarm, his hand trembles slightly in hers. “It’s different. I mean, I don’t--it doesn’t feel the same. And I don’t know if this is...I know it’s more than just friendship, but beyond that, I just…”

 

His voice trails away. Ford waits a few seconds, but he doesn’t say anything else. “You know, there are...I know you said labels weren’t important, there’s a whole spectrum of...you’re allowed to define your identity however you want to. And you can break things down between your romantic attraction and your sexual attraction, or...or define them differently, or not, if that’s important to you, I guess?”

 

She wishes her dad was here. He’d be so much better at this.

 

“Sorry,” she says, sighing. “I don’t know what--I care about you, and I’m happy that you trust me, and I just...I want us to be okay.”

 

Connor looks at her, his eyes softening. “We are okay,” he says, squeezing her hand. “I--Ford, I only wanted to tell you because I didn’t want you to think that I didn’t--that there was something wrong between us, or that I didn’t want to be with you, or that I was only with you because of Tony, or--”

 

Her expression must do something, because he breaks off, his face all but crumpling. “Oh, shit,” he says, straightening up. “Did you already think that? Ford, I’m sorry--”

 

“It’s not your fault,” she says, mustering a smile and hoping she sounds like she means it. “I mean--I was a little worried, but it’s more--You guys just see each other so much more often than I do, and you and I barely ever do things together one on one, so I guess I was just a little...insecure.”

 

It sounds small and embarrassing to say it out loud, and she feels a little dumb about it, especially after everything Connor just told her. Her dads would be disappointed, she thinks, getting worked up over boys like this.

 

“No,” Connor says firmly. She blinks, looking up at him, and finds him looking at her with a set, determined expression. “We should hang out more, just the two of us. It’ll be good.” He pauses, then offers, in a small, hesitant voice, “Maybe we could go on one of those library scavenger hunts you and Tony used to do?”

 

Ford blinks, taken-aback. “He told you about those?” They used to find them online and go on late nights to the Hartford library, but they hadn’t gone in months.

 

Connor ducks his head, cheeks flushing. “They sound really fun,” he admits, a grin pulling at his lips. “And it’s the kind of thing I never could have done with my friends back in New York.”

 

Ford’s cheeks hurt, and it takes her a moment to realize she’s beaming. “Sounds like a date,” she says, squeezing his hand. He returns her smile, then, giving her plenty of time to pull away, leans over and gently touches his lips to hers, soft and sweet.

 

“Aw,” someone says, and Ford startles away, face heating, as Tony puts a Bittle’s Bakes bag on the table and sits down across from them with a wide-mouthed grin. “You guys are so cute! I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture. Would have been a new phone background for sure.”

 

“Back off, creeper,” Ford complains, but she’s grinning despite herself. Connor just rolls his eyes, cheeks flushed a sweet shade of red as he hands Tony the remaining cup of hot chocolate. “At least you brought me cookies.”

 

“I did,” Tony confirms. “And a tub of fresh buttercream to put on them.” He reaches into the bag, waggling the tub in question.

 

Ford considers that. “I retract any and all statements of creepiness,” she decides. “You are a delight, and I adore you.”

 

Tony grins. “I thought so,” he says, handing it to her. “There’s spoons in here, too, but I figured you might at least think about putting it on the cookies.”


She shrugs. “I’ll consider it.” Connor laughs, and she smiles to see him finally relaxing, the tension visibly easing out of his shoulders.

 

Tony smiles, too, and Ford can’t help wondering if maybe she hadn’t been as subtle as she thought in her worrying about things between her and Connor, especially if Connor was worried, too. He doesn’t say anything, though, just takes a paper box out of the bag and opens it, revealing chocolate chip cookies still steaming gently from the oven, and nudges them across the table. “So,” he says. “Next weekend. Any plans yet, or should we all try to do something together? Maybe have a real date night?”

 

Connor shakes his head. “I don’t have any plans yet,” he says. “Ford?”

 

“No,” she says, opening the jar of frosting and picking up a cookie. “Except maybe eating so many of these cookies that I go into a sugar coma and--”

 

She breaks off, remembering the email she’d seen just before Connor met her at the park, Last Chance for Winter Formal Tickets! detailing the Wednesday deadline, and nearly drops her cookie. “Oh,” she says. “Except, um--do you remember I was telling you about that dance at my school?”

 

“The fancy one with the leave room for Jesus vibes?” Tony says, taking a cookie. He makes a grab for the frosting. She yanks it out of the way and attempts to cradle it protectively in the crook of her arm; Connor leans over and kisses her cheek, then takes advantage of her squeak of surprise to reach past her guard and pluck the frosting from her hand and put it back in the middle of the table.

 

Traitor,” she exclaims, giving Connor a wide-eyed look.

 

He shrugs, clearly unfazed by his flagrant betrayal. “Relationships are a delicate balancing act, Ford.” His eyes glint like he’s trying not to grin, though, and across the table, Tony blows him a kiss. Ford rolls her eyes.

 

“I’ll balance you,” she says, sticking the spoon into the frosting and smearing a generous dollop on top of her cookie. “Anyway, yes, this is the fancy one. It’s next Saturday night.”

 

Tony props his chin in his hand. “And you want one of us to go with you?”

 

“Well, actually…” Ford hesitates, butterflies flitting around in her belly again.

 

Don’t be dumb, she tells herself firmly. Tony loves you, and Connor just told you he likes you, so just be cool.

 

She goes for it.

 

“I was kind of wondering if both of you might want to come,” she says. “As my dates. To the dance.”

 

Tony looks surprised. “To a Chilton dance?”

 

Connor frowns. “Wait, what’s the big deal about a Chilton dance?”

 

“Chilton’s preppy and full of,” Tony straightens up, pitching his voice into a fake British accent. “Hartford High Society.”

 

Ford makes a face. “It’s not that bad.” Tony gives her a skeptical look. Connor seems like he can’t decide whether to be amused, intrigued, alarmed, or some combination of the three. “Alright, sometimes it’s that bad,” she admits. “But--I just, um. I thought it might be fun to go with you guys. We don’t have to stay the whole time, but it could be cool to, you know, get dressed up, make fun of everyone trying to act super fancy and snooty…”

 

She trails off, trying to gauge their reactions, but Connor’s raising an eyebrow the way he does when he’s trying not to look excited, and Tony has the beginnings of a delighted grin.

 

“Ford,” he says, reaching across the table to take her hand. “That sounds like the best date ever.” He looks hopefully at Connor. “What do you think? You in?”

 

Connor sighs. “I’ll rent a suit,” he says, and Ford crows out a victory, reaching over to hug him.

 

 

This is the Franklin, Chilton’s founding and most well-established student newspaper. While always supervised by a faculty member, the paper itself is primarily student-run, and prides itself on being competitive, ethical, and prestigious, holding student journalists to the high standards.

 

“If you want to write for a gossip rag,” generations of student editors have been known to say at pitch meetings, “go write for the Jefferson.”

 

(The Jefferson, of course, being the second newspaper founded at Chilton, whose writers are mostly students who weren’t accepted onto the Franklin’s staff. The faculty members assure the PTA that the rivalry is “friendly and competitive.” The faculty are very, very good at lying to the PTA.)

 

That’s not to say, of course, that no gossip ever makes it into the Franklin. On the contrary: the paper has a weekly column devoted entirely to “anonymous reports, relevant to student interest,” which is as close to printing school rumors as the paper can get while walking the fine line between “staying legitimate” and “not just reprinting best of ‘overheard in the girl’s locker room.’”

 

The faculty editor always does their best to skim things before the paper goes to print, just to make sure nothing truly damaging gets out, but kids will be kids, as they say, and so truly damaging has come to mean doubling down on protecting a particular group of legacy student athletes, and best of luck to most everyone else. So the Franklin’s Student News Anonymous column has reported some of Chilton’s biggest scandals: from the head cheerleader cheating on the captain of the lacrosse team with the captain of the dance team, to an outbreak of hotwired Porsches going missing from the school parking lot being traced back to one of the richest students on campus (whose parents happened to be “new money” enough that the faculty editors hadn’t screened the story out), to Chilton’s very first male pregnancy, courtesy of Derek Nurse and international student Justin Oluransi.

 

It’s a thankless job, reporting on your fellow students, reason the Franklin staff, but hey. Someone has to do it.

 

Which is why, when someone texts in an anonymous report that Ford Nurse just bought not one, not two, but three tickets to the upcoming Winter Formal, Louise Geller, editor-in-chief, doesn’t have to think twice before she adds the story to her weekly column.

 

It’s a free newspaper, after all, but scandal sells just the same.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Oh my God,” Justin says, coming into the house and surveying the chaos of the living room. “It looks like Fabricland threw up in here.”

 

Ford looks up from her sewing machine long enough to throw him a vaguely manic scowl. Derek, kneeling at the base of a dress form, glances up and grins around the pins held between his teeth. “I’m going to guess that’s a Canadian equivalent of JoAnn’s,” he says, slightly muffled around the pins, and Justin grimaces.

 

“Please take those out of your mouth before you swallow one,” he says, because he’s worked too many ER shifts and knows Derek way too well. Derek winks at him and takes the pins out of his mouth, nodding at the tray in Justin’s hands.

 

“Please say that’s coffee.”

 

“Sure is.” Justin puts the cardboard tray down on the coffee table. “Take a break and give me a hug, Ford.”

 

“I can’t,” she says, resuming her sewing. “I’m working on the backup dress.”

 

Justin frowns at her, handing Derek one of the coffees. “Why do you need a backup dress?” He gestures at the dress form. It’s not like he knows much about dresses--he’s great with men’s fashion, but this has always been Derek’s hobby, and then Ford’s--but the long violet number draping the form is certainly pretty, and looks well-made. “This looks great.”


Because,” she says. “It has to be perfect.”

 

“She’s been like this for the last three days,” Derek says, sitting down on the arm of the couch. He looks tired, and Justin notes the band-aids on three of his fingers. “I don’t know what’s going on with her.”

 

Ford finishes off a backstitch and looks up with a glare. “She is right in the room,” she snaps.

 

Justin raises an eyebrow. “And she knows better than to take that kind of tone,” he says calmly, “when she knows that everyone in the room would love to help her with whatever’s going on, and can’t do that if she won’t talk to them.” Ford pulls her bottom lip between her teeth, such a Derek gesture it almost makes Justin smile, but he holds the line. “Even if you’re just in a bad mood, Ford, you know we don’t take it out on each other like that. We ask for space.”

 

She bites her lip so hard the skin goes a bit lighter around the edges of her teeth, and then her shoulders slump and she slumps back in her chair, folding down over the small sewing table and putting her head on her arms. A moment later, she gives a loud sniff.

 

“Woah,” Derek says, putting his coffee down. He shoots Justin an alarmed look--Justin returns it, because not what he was intending, okay, he thought this was just a teenager thing--and gets up, circling the sofa to crouch down next to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, baby girl. What’s going on?”

 

Ford mumbles something, so muffled Justin can’t catch it.

 

Derek must not be able to, either, because he frowns and leans closer. “I can’t hear you, kiddo,” he says. “Can you pick your head up and try again?”

 

Ford sniffles and lifts her face. Her eyes are wet, her mascara smeared slightly at the corners. “Everyone at school is talking about me,” she says. She wipes her eyes and nose with the back of her hand.

 

Something about the movement makes her seem younger, and Justin feels a pang, makes him want to wrap his arms around her like he could when she was little and he could fix all her problems by pulling the dad card and telling her it would all be okay. “Someone found out I bought three tickets to the dance, and they put it in the anonymous part of the paper, and now everyone’s talking about--about who I’m dating, about how I’m bringing two people at once, and how I act all like a good girl but I must be such a--”

 

She breaks off, putting her face down again, but Justin gets the idea of what she was going to say. He meets Derek’s eyes, and sees his own mounting anger, hot and boiling in his chest, reflected in Derek’s face.

 

“Ford,” he begins, careful to keep his voice calm, but she snaps her face up.

 

“I’m not,” she says, new tears spilling over her cheeks. “I’m not--I haven’t, Daddy,” she says, talking directly to Derek. “I know they’re saying it, but I haven’t, we haven’t done anything, and I--”

 

Derek looks stricken. “Baby, I know,” he says. “And--sweetheart, even if you had, it would be okay. It’s your body. As long as you’re safe, you--I just want you to be safe, baby girl.”

 

Ford pulls in a hiccuping breath and looks at Justin. It takes him a moment to realize what she’s asking for.

 

“Oh,” he says. “Yeah--baby, of course. I wouldn’t be mad at you. You don’t need me to--everything your dad said is true for me, too. We just want you to be safe and happy. The kids at Chilton are…” He looks at Derek, gets a pinched expression back, and sighs. “They’ve always been awful, baby. I’m so sorry that they’re talking about you like this. They’re just looking for things to say so that they don’t have to deal with their own shit.”

 

“Language,” Derek chides, half a smile tugging at his lips.

 

Ford gives a wet laugh. “I’ve heard that word before,” she says, but she’s smiling, and that’s enough to loosen the knot in Justin’s chest. Derek reaches for the tissues on the side table next to the sofa and gently wipes at Ford’s cheeks, and she gives him a watery smile. “They’ve really always been like this?” she asks, her voice small. “It’s not...it isn’t me?”

 

“Always,” Justin confirms. “God, you should have heard the kind of stuff they said about me and Derek.”

 

Derek snorts. “Those were the days.” He grins at Justin. “Remember the stir we caused when we went to our first dance together?”

 

Justin grins back. “Legendary,” he says. “I still can’t believe you found that suit.”

 

“Thrifting is a skill that I honed from a young age,” Derek says, winking.

 

“Wait,” Ford says, leaning forward, her eyes brightening. “What suit? How have I never heard about this?”

 

“Your dad,” Justin says, latching on to any opportunity to drag Derek’s high school fashion sense, which wavered by the day between amazing and ludicrous, “managed to find a magenta suit in a thrift store in Manhattan two weeks before formal his sophomore year.”

 

What,” Ford breathes, snapping her gaze to Derek. “What.

 

Derek laughs and gets to his feet. “I’m sure I have a picture somewhere. I’ll go find it.”

 

He disappears up the stairs. Justin sits back on the couch, pulling the coffee he’d brought for Ford out of the carrier and waving it enticingly at her. “Hey,” he says, pitching his voice as gently as he can. “Come on. Take a break.”

 

She eyes him like she knows exactly what he’s doing, but gets to her feet and comes to join him on the couch, taking the coffee and curling into his side. “Do I have to go to the dance tonight?” she mumbles into the lid of the cup.

 

“Of course not,” Justin says. He winces as soon as he says it, because maybe he should push her a little, or at least wait on Derek to give her an out, but then, this isn’t the sort of place where Derek would usually shove Ford out of her comfort zone, anyway. “Not if you really don’t want to.” He pauses, taking in the chaos of the room, and hazards a guess. “You did spend all that time working on your dress, though. Es. Dresses.”

 

Ford gives a sniffling huff. “Dress and a half, really,” she mutters, but sits up. “There’s no way I would really have finished the other one.”

 

Justin puts his arm around her shoulders. “Well, the first one’s amazing,” he says, nodding to the dress form. “That color’s gonna look great on you.”

 

She ducks her head. “Really?”

 

“Yeah, girl!” He nudges her. “Come on, you got my mama’s complexion, and you know she’s a goddamn amazon.”

 

“I just wish I got her height,” Ford says mournfully.

 

Justin bites back a grin. The poor kid got her stature from Derek’s mom. “You could wear heels?” he offers.

 

Ford sniffs, pure drama now, and he knows they’re okay. “Spoken like a tool of the patriarchy,” she says, and he laughs, leaning back against the couch cushions.

 

Derek comes back down the stairs, a few photos in his hands--actual photos, Justin notes with surprise, not just his laptop, where Justin assumes most of the pictures of their teenage years live, digitized and terrible and on the internet to haunt them forever. He plops down on Ford’s other side, picking up his abandoned coffee and taking a long sip before passing the photos over. “Told you I’d find them,” he says. “Don’t say I never got you anything.”

 

“Oh my God,” Ford breathes, looking at the first picture in delight. “Oh my God, Daddy. This is amazing.”

 

Justin leans over her shoulder to look. Sure enough, it’s a picture of him and Derek from Winter Formal Derek’s sophomore year. There’s Derek, in that ridiculous magenta suit, grinning ear-to-ear, Justin just behind him, arms around his waist in a prom-like pose one of their parents must have teased them into. It blows Justin’s mind how young they look--Derek would still be two months from sixteen, Justin three months from seventeen.

 

They’d thought they were so grown-up, he thinks, looking at the sparkle of Derek’s eyes in the picture and then glancing over the top of Ford’s head to the Derek on the couch, sixteen years older but no less his best friend. He’s not shocked at all to find Derek already looking back at him, his smile soft and easy.

 

Ford puts the picture aside to look at the one behind it. It’s another posed photo, this one from the Spring Formal, that same year. Derek hadn’t managed to find another vintage suit, but he’d compromised with a crushed velvet jacket in sapphire blue, paired with an orange tie in a combination that should have looked horrible but only that he’d somehow managed to pull off. Next to him, Justin looks almost conservative in his grey pinstripes. “You guys were ridiculous,” Ford says.

 

“What were,” Justin says, genuinely affronted, but Derek laughs.

 

“That’s only half of why I brought this one,” he says, reaching over Ford to give Justin a fond punch to the shoulder. Justin raises an eyebrow and looks a little closer, trying to see if there’s something he might have missed. They’re definitely at Chilton, he recognizes the marble staircase visible behind them. It’s definitely junior year, because Derek only wore that jacket once.

 

He frowns, glancing up at Derek, and Derek smiles. “No?” Justin shakes his head. Derek taps the photo, right where photo-Justin’s arms are wrapped around photo-Derek’s waist. “I’m pretty sure that this,” he says, “is our first family picture.”

 

“Wait,” Ford says, leaning closer, her eyes lighting up. “Really?”

 

Justin blinks, and then laughs as he does the math. The Spring Formal was in May and Ford was born in November--Ford would have been barely a positive pregnancy test, but Derek’s right.

 

(He gives himself a mental smack in the face for the thought; of course Derek’s right. If anyone would know, it’s Derek.)

 

“Really,” Derek confirms, wrapping an arm around Ford’s shoulders and leaning down to kiss the top of her head. “There’s you, a lil clump of cells already making me sick every day between algebra and English. Look, you can almost see the circles under my eyes.”

 

“I bet you were radiant,” Ford says, grinning up at him. Derek snorts.

 

“I don’t think I was radiant at any point at age sixteen, and definitely not while throwing up in the haunted bathroom in the math wing.”

 

Justin winces. He’s only back at Chilton for parent events these days, but he still won’t set foot in there. “Why would you throw up in the haunted bathroom?”

 

“Believe me,” Derek says flatly, leveling him with the look that used to send Justin running for the nearest source of ginger candy, “it was not optional.”

 

Ford laughs, looking back down at the picture. “Did people talk?” she asks. “I mean, there couldn’t have been that many queer students at Chilton.”

 

“There weren’t,” Justin says. “And they definitely talked. But like I said, Ford, people spreading rumors, it’s--it’s more about them, than about whatever they’re talking about, you know?”

 

Ford nods. She traces a careful fingertip over the place Derek had touched earlier, Justin’s hands wrapped over Derek’s torso, and then looks up at Derek. “But you left,” she says. Quiet, not a challenge. “Chilton, your home, all of it. You left.”

 

Derek shakes his head. “I left because I wanted to make a life that was mine, and that felt real to me,” he says. “It had nothing to do with gossip at school.” He nudges her, pointedly. “And trust me, the gossip we got when you were in the picture? Made school dances look like small potatoes.”

 

The memory is enough to make Justin wince. Spring hadn’t been too bad, but people had found out over the summer, and when they’d come back to school in the fall, there’d been no hiding it. School-branded sweater-vests couldn’t work miracles, not on a kid who’d always been slim--Derek hadn’t gone broad in the shoulders and chest until he hit twenty. “So long story short,” Justin says, before any of them can get caught up in the gloomier parts of memory lane, “this family doesn’t put up with any of that Mean Girls bullshit. Okay? You’re gonna go live your best life and kick some metaphorical ass.”

 

Ford gives him a look that says she knows exactly what he’s doing, but she smiles. “Okay,” she says.

 

Justin leans down to knock his forehead into hers, just to be pointed about it. “You sure?”

 

She laughs, putting the pictures on the coffee table. “I’m sure, I’m sure!”

 

“Good girl,” he says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders in a half-hug and sneaking a wink at Derek over her head. Derek returns it, setting his coffee on the side table again.

 

“Good girl for sure,” he agrees, getting to his feet. “But we should definitely get you into this dress, my munchkin, if you’re officially ready to give up on the backup. I want to make sure it doesn’t need any other alterations after the last round we did to the hem.”

 

“Okay,” Ford says. “Oh, Daddy, wait, watch out for--”

 

Justin sees it right as Ford does, and cringes as Derek’s foot catches on one of the (many) boxes of sewing supplies strewn across the floor. He flails briefly and then goes down in a twisting heap, landing on the floor with a grunt of pain, and Justin sighs, putting his coffee down and getting up.

“Don’t move,” he says, walking around the sofa and crouching down next to him with the ease of long practice. Being Derek’s best friend has given him nearly as much experience with handling spontaneous injuries as his medical degree, which is both sad and a little impressive.

 

Derek’s already grimacing up at him, and clearly bracing for some kind of sarcastic comment, which is a good sign--it means he hasn’t done so much damage that he can’t be snarky. Justin cuts him off before he can say anything. “Fingers and toes,” he says.

 

“Bro, I’m fine.”

 

“Fingers and toes, Derek,” Justin says firmly. The one time he hadn’t made Derek go through this, he’d turned out to have a dislocated shoulder, and Derek’s mother had nearly skinned him alive.

 

Derek rolls his eyes and wiggles his fingers at him, and then, when Justin looks, wiggles his toes in his raccoon-printed socks. “Thank you,” Justin says. “Did you hit your head?”

 

“No,” Derek says.

 

“Who’s the president?”

 

Derek looks nauseous. “Don’t make me say it.”

 

Justin snorts. “Alright, you’re fine.” He holds out a hand. “Come on, up you get.”

 

Derek takes his hand and starts to let Justin pull himself up, but then, to Justin’s alarm, suddenly stiffens and winces. Justin tightens his grip on him. “Woah,” he says. “What was that?”

 

“Nothing,” Derek says immediately, and then winces again, shutting his eyes. “Maybe. I--Shit.”

 

“Ford,” Justin calls.

 

She’s at his side in an instant. “What did he do?” she demands, and then, to Derek. “Daddy, what did you do?”

 

Derek opens his eyes. “I didn’t do anything,” he protested. “I think I twisted something in my back. Or pulled something. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I just need to sit down. Or lie down.” He gives Justin a hopeful look. “Couch?”

 

Justin sighs. He loves Derek so much, he does, but sometimes he can’t believe he’s alive. “Couch,” he confirms, and helps him back to it, gently but firmly pouring him down onto the cushions. “Ford, there’s still a heating pad somewhere in this house, right?”

 

Ford raises a skeptical eyebrow at him. “A heating pad? As in, one? Are you serious?”” she says. “As if we don’t have like seventeen stashed strategically around the place?”

 

Justin snorts. “Fair,” he says. “Can you bring one over, please?”

 

Ford doesn’t move. “Daddy, you okay?”

 

Derek lifts an arm and gives her a thumbs up. “I’m fine, baby. Your dad worries too much.”

 

Justin flicks his ear. “Do you want your back to feel better or not?”

 

Derek looks suitably chastised. “Yes.”

 

“Then shut up.” Justin looks over at Ford. “Heating pad, baby.” She echoes Derek’s thumbs up and heads for the kitchen. He glances back at Derek. “Alright, really. Scale of one to ten?”

 

Derek shrugs a shoulder. “Five? It hurts if I move, but I don’t think I’m like, actually injured.”

 

Justin raises his eyebrows. “You gonna be okay when your mom and grandma are here?”

 

“Oh my God.” Derek groans. “I forgot they were coming to take pictures.” He closes his eyes briefly, then opens them. “Please tell me you’re staying.”

 

Justin laughs. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna leave you to the wolves.” He sits down on the edge of the couch, careful not to jostle Derek too much--even if he’s not really hurt, he doesn’t want to make anything worse--and surveys the living room. “I’ll even help you clean up this shitshow before they get here, since you’ve gone and gotten yourself conveniently laid up.”

 

“I’ll trade you,” Derek says, but he puts a hand on Justin’s neck, a warm, familiar gesture, scratching at the edges of his hairline. “Thanks, man.”

 

“Yeah, well.” Justin glances back at him with a grin as Ford comes back into the room, an electric heating pad in hand. “Got your back, bud.”

 

 

This is Derek and Ford’s house, a small but comfortable Queen Anne with a wraparound porch. Derek buys it the year Ford turns twelve, after skimping and saving all of his wages from the Inn and talking the seller down on the price through bright eyes and a sweetly-worded letter about his love for the Samwell community and how excited he was to raise his daughter there.

 

(“I honestly did not think that would work,” Derek tells Shitty Knight, when the seller’s email comes back, agreeing to Derek’s counter-offer and giving a glowing response to Derek’s letter.

 

“I told you, bro,” Shitty says. “You gotta make that personal connection, you know?”)

 

Most of the furniture in the house is secondhand, picked up from the Inn or thrift stores or generous friends. After years of fitting everything he and Ford owns into a tiny apartment, Derek finds that with space to spread out, he becomes a bit of a magpie: he picks up mugs and knick-knacks and books and weird lamps and strange pieces of art, creating an eclectic aesthetic that settles somewhere between artsy and bohemian and vintage. Every space is colorful and textured, throw pillows and blankets on every chair or couch, always in easy reach.

 

(“Do you ever think we have like...too many pillows?” he asks Ford once, coming home from a Target run and helping her remake her bed.

 

Ford stares blankly at him. “Is there such a thing as too many throw pillows?”

 

They look at each other.

 

“Nope,” Ford decides. “No such thing.”)

 

The house has what might be kindly described as a lived-in vibe (or is what Will Poindexter calls a death-trap waiting to happen): a creaky rail on the side of the porch and a few crumbling bricks on the chimney and what Will keeps insisting is termite damage. The oven thermostat is ten degrees off, so you have to remember to account for it when you set the temperature; the upstairs shower handle turns backwards so cold is hot and hot is cold; Ford insists that the attic is haunted.

 

They love it.

 

It’s home.

 

 

By the time his mother is supposed to arrive, Derek has mostly managed to get Justin to stop fussing over him. “I swear to God, I’m fine,” he says, biting back a grimace as he puts the lid on the last box of sewing supplies and his back twinges at the motion. “Will you cut it out?”

 

“You winced,” Justin says, taking the box from him with an accusing scowl before Derek can even try to lift it. Derek rolls his eyes and lets him; if Justin wants to cart boxes of fabric and bobbins back up to the hall closet, he’s welcome to it. “You shouldn’t still be wincing, it’s been over an hour. And I thought I told you to sit down and let me do this.””

 

“And I’m telling you, I just pulled something!” Derek gives him a shove towards the stairs. “Or, I don’t know, twisted something wrong. I’m in my thirties, isn’t everything supposed to be broken now?”

 

“No,” Justin says. “That’s just a lie millennial Americans tell themselves because your healthcare system is broken and you’re all trying to convince yourselves it’s normal to be in pain all the time.”

 

Derek winces, and it has nothing to do with his back. “Yikes, bro.”

 

Justin shrugs his obnoxious Canadian shoulders. “You asked.”

 

“Go put the box away,” Derek says. “I don’t want to look at your face anymore.” Justin snorts and heads up the stairs, and Derek waits until he’s gone before collapsing onto the couch with a groan. “Ouch,” he mumbles, trying to stretch out his legs in a way that doesn’t make whatever’s going on in his back worse.

 

Maybe if he pops his hip somehow--?

 

The doorbell rings and he bites back a groan. Figures, he thinks, just when he got comfortable. “I got it,” he calls up the stairs, but Justin flies back into view before he can even start to sit up, pointing a firm finger at him.

 

“Don’t even move,” he says, in what Derek’s come to think of over the years as his Medical Professional Voice. Derek sticks out his tongue but sits back, and Justin opens the door. “Hi, Dr. Hassan! Mrs. Nurse.”

 

“I tell you every time to call me Amal, Justin,” Derek’s mother says, her voice warm. “And what a pleasant surprise, sweetheart, I didn’t know you’d be here.”

 

“Like I’d miss seeing Ford off to her first real dance.”

 

Amal chuckles. “I suppose that makes sense.” Her heels click on the tile of the entryway. “Where’s that wayward son of mine?”

 

“Hi, Mom,” Derek calls, craning his neck back against the arm of the couch. It makes his back twinge. He winces.

 

His mother’s face appears in his vision, her brow furrowed in concern. “Why are you lying down? Are you alright?”

 

“I’m fine.” Derek leans up to kiss her cheek. “Justin’s an idiot.” Over her shoulder, Justin sticks his tongue out at Derek, just out of Derek’s grandmother’s line of sight. Something must be going on with Derek’s face, though, because his expression softens, and he finishes hanging the coats in the little entry closet and comes to stand behind Derek’s grandmother.

 

Emily looks more than a little out of place in Derek’s living room, her crisp blouse and cardigan at odds with the cozy clutter spread out around her. She holds onto her pocketbook in what Derek’s sure must be an unconscious gesture, surveying the room with an unreadable look on her lined, perfectly made-up face.

 

Derek can count the times she’s been here since he bought the house on one hand, and he can only imagine what she must be thinking, or trying not to say. He swallows down anything snarky or sarcastic--it’s Ford’s night, he reminds himself firmly, and pushes himself up. “Hi, Grandma,” he says. “How are you?”

 

She snaps her gaze to him, eyes zeroing in on him where he’s still on the couch instead of standing up to greet her, and he sees the millisecond it registers that he must be sitting for a reason, because for all they’ve had their differences over the years, he was raised too well to do anything else. “Derek Nurse,” she says, narrowing her eyes. “What on earth did you do?”

 

“Why does everyone assume I did something?” he complains.

 

His mother frowns at him. “Because you usually did,” she says, crossing her arms. “What happened?”

 

“Nothing!” he protests.

 

Amal clicks her tongue and turns to Justin. “What did he do?”

 

“Messed up his back somehow,” Justin says immediately. Traitor, Derek mouths at him. Justin gives him an unrepentant look back. “And now he can’t move.”

 

“I can so move,” Derek says. “Justin’s overreacting.”

 

“Habibi,” Amal says, sighing. She sets her bag down, walking around the couch to peer at him, as if she can assess the state of his spine with her eyes. “What am I going to do with you?”

 

Justin follows her, hands in his pockets. “I keep thinking about one of those human-sized hamster balls,” he says. “That way he could just bounce off everything.”

 

Amal chuckles, seating herself delicately down on the coffee table. She picks up the heating pad Derek had abandoned on the floor when he’d dragged himself up to help Justin clean up the living room, smoothing it out over her lap. “And where’s my darling grandchild?”

 

“Upstairs getting ready,” Derek says, trying to decide if he should lie back down again. “She wanted to do a whole entrance and surprise you.” He glances over his shoulder at his grandmother. It feels weird to be lying down when she’s standing. “Grandma, do you want me to move so you can sit down?”

 

Emily gives him a look that suggests she thinks he’s absolutely out of his mind. “On that couch?” she says. “I don’t think so.”

 

Derek bites back a sigh. That didn’t take long. “It’s actually a great couch, Grandma,” he says.

 

“It really is, Mrs. Nurse,” Justin says. “Seriously, I sleep on it all the time.”

 

She raises an eyebrow at him. “You went to medical school,” she says. “I expect you can sleep on barbed wire.”

 

Justin scrunches up his nose, an unconscious gesture that Derek knows means she hit a nerve--God knows why, since it’s not only true but also not like it’s such a bad thing that Justin can sleep on anything; Justin’s anxiety keeps him up sometimes, but surfaces? Not an issue--and shoots Derek an apologetic look. Derek shrugs back, then shifts carefully to look back at her. “Well, we can get you a chair from the kitchen, but you’re weirding me out with the standing--”

 

He catches a garment-shaped bag hanging on the novelty giraffe-shaped hat rack, just over Emily’s shoulder, and breaks off. “Grandma,” he says, careful to keep his tone calm. “What is that?”

 

Emily follows his gaze. When she looks back at him, her expression is utterly blank. “It’s a dress, dear.”

 

“I can see that,” Derek says. “I’m just a little confused about why it’s a dress, because I’m very sure Ford and I told you at least four or five that we were going to make her dress.”

 

“I understand that, dear,” Emily says. “I just thought it seemed like a practical idea to bring her a more traditional option.”

 

Derek absolutely does not roll his eyes, because he doesn’t want to be murdered. He does take a very careful before he speaks. “Ford didn’t want a traditional option, Grandma,” he says. “She wanted to make her dress. This is something she’s really good at. It’s important to her.”

 

“It’s important to you, you mean,” Emily says.

 

He can see the instant realized what she’s said and wishes she hadn’t said it—tension or not, they’ve managed to keep a relative peace between them for weeks, but she’s just as good as thrown down a gauntlet, and he knows she knows it.

 

His mother sighs. “I’m going to go warm this heating pad up,” she says, getting to her feet.

 

Derek looks at her. “It’s electric,” he says, narrowing his eyes at her. She knows that, since she’s holding it, and can obviously see the cord, so her escape attempt isn’t subtle.

 

Amal gives him the pointed if you’re going to get into it with your grandmother, I’m not going to deal with it look she’s been giving him since he was twelve and hands him the pad. “Then I’m going to go find some wine. Justin, why don’t you come help me with that?”

 

“Yes ma’am,” Justin says, with the prompt agreeability of years of experience with Derek’s family. He does shoot Derek a quick apologetic look as he follows Amal out of the room, and Derek returns it with a shrug; it’s not like there’s any point in all of them awkwardly sitting here while Derek and his grandmother scowl at each other.

 

Amal’s footsteps fade away into the kitchen, and Derek and Emily are left in silence. Derek’s back twinges again, and he bites back a wince. Maybe it’s psychological, he thinks, and tries to shift to get more comfortable. It doesn’t work, and he grits his teeth, reaching for the heating pad.

 

“Let me,” Emily says, the faintest hint of a huff in her voice.

 

“I can get it,” Derek says.

 

“I know you can,” she snaps, and the sharpness in her voice makes him jump hard enough to grimace. “Let me do it for you anyway.”

 

Cowed into silence and a little bit terrified, Derek bites his lip and nods. He watches in mild fascination as she stomps her way into the living room in her stockinged feet--he’s amazed she actually took her shoes off; his mom must have drilled the lecture into her on the car ride over--and picks up one of the throw pillows from the other end of the couch, giving it a sour look and then fluffing it expertly. At her curt gesture, he leans forward, and she tucks the pillow between him and the arm of the couch he’d been leaning against, then carefully nudges the heating pad in between the pillow and his back.

 

“There,” she says, with a hint of self-satisfaction. “That should be better. You should be in bed if you did something to your back; God knows all that twisting can’t be good for you.” She sniffs, then, to his shock, gently reaches down and adjusts the collar of his sweater where it’s gotten bunched up.

 

“There,” she repeats, quieter now. Derek doesn’t move, too stunned by the sudden gesture of affection and not totally sure if it actually happened or if he maybe just imagined it, and after a moment, Emily steps away, glancing around the room and then settling herself primly in the overstuffed velvet armchair they’d picked up from Tony’s mom’s antique store.

 

They sit in silence for a few seconds before Derek manages to speak. “Thanks,” he says. His voice feels a little strangled. He swallows. “The heat helps.”

 

It only helps a little, honestly, what he really thinks he needs is a Valium and a hardcore yoga session. But it breaks the silence.

 

“You’re welcome,” Emily says. She looks around the room. “I always forget how much...personality this place has.”

 

Derek bristles, and then chooses to give her the benefit of the doubt. “We wanted it to feel like both of us,” he says. “And, you know. It’s a little bit messy sometimes, but we like it.”

 

She nods slowly. “It’s a three bedroom?”

 

“Two.”

 

She raises her eyebrows. “Where do you put guests?”

 

Derek sighs. Two minutes, he thinks. Well, it was nice while it lasted. “The couch folds out,” he says. “We don’t have a real guest room.”

 

Emily purses her lips. “You know that if you had asked, we could have helped you to afford something larger.”

 

Now, he thinks, would be a great time for Ford to come down. “I know that,” he said. “But I didn’t want to ask you. I wanted to do it on my own. It was important. I’ve told you that.”

 

“Of course,” she says, with the inflection he’s heard for years, the one that managed to be loving but dismissive at once, and he makes himself breathe. “Just like it was important for Ford to make her own dress tonight?”

 

“Yes,” he says, careful to keep his voice even, his expression calm. “Just like that.”

 

Emily looks back at him, her face impassive.

 

And then, quite suddenly, the facade cracks, and she closes her eyes. Her brow furrows, and her shoulders slump. She puts her fingertips to the sides of her neck, a self-soothing gesture he’s only ever seen her use when someone’s been in a hospital or dead. The diamonds on her engagement and wedding bands glitter in the living room lamp light, the weighted luxury a sharp contrast to the messy comfort Derek and Ford have created around them. Emily sighs.

 

“I wish you would tell me,” she says, opening her eyes, “just what it is I did so terribly wrong that made you run so far away from me.”

 

Derek stares at her. “I,” he says, and finds his voice catching in his throat. It’s not that he doesn’t have an answer, it’s just that he never expected to be asked. “Grandma, I…”

 

“You can tell me,” she says. She hesitates, and Derek nearly gapes, because who is she, Emily Nurse never hesitates, and then lifts her chin, a hint of her usual dignity returning to her face. “I’d like for you to tell me.”

 

“I’m…” Derek swallows. He doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to dredge up years-old history on what should be Ford’s night. The last thing he wants is to make this about him.

 

But he can’t remember the last time his grandmother extended something resembling an olive branch.

 

He takes it.

 

“I’ve never been good enough for you,” he says. “And I’ve always known it. And instead of trying to be good enough for you, I decided to be good enough for me. To make a life I would be happy with. And that could never be enough, either.” He looks down at his hands, carefully relaxing his fingers where they’ve curled themselves into fists. His whole body feels stiff.

 

“From the moment I was born, you wanted my life to look like yours, and it never could. As much as you loved me--love me,” he corrects, when she makes a small, hurt sound, because she does love him, he knows that, as hard as it is sometimes for him to see it, “You couldn’t see that. You spent the first part of my life trying to put me into boxes that were never made for people like me to fit into, and never looking at the reasons why I couldn’t fit there. And when I was old enough to tell you why, you didn’t listen.”

 

“That’s not true,” Emily says. It’s not petulant, it’s honest, real hurt, and when he looks at her the indignation is written across her face. “I supported you from the moment you came out, even though I didn’t understand it, I read all the books your parents gave me, I--”

 

“Yes, you did,” he interrupts, and she shuts her mouth, eyes wide. He can count the number of times he’s actually cut her off on one hand. “But that’s not what I’m talking about.”

 

Emily opens her mouth, clearly ready to speak, and then stops. She puts her fingers to her lips. The diamonds on rings glitter, opulent, worth more on her finger than everything else in the room combined. He sees it on her face, the connecting of all the conversations she wrote off over the years, the stares or whispered comments or tiny piling slights.

 

“I didn’t think,” she says, quietly. “I didn’t think of that.”

 

Derek shrugs a shoulder. He regrets it, but he doesn’t let it show.

 

She puts her hands in her lap, turns her rings around her finger. Derek’s mother does the same thing, when she’s anxious. He wonders, a little absently, which of them picked it up from the other. “No one ever told me.” She looks in the direction of the kitchen, and then shakes her head. “I was raised to--we didn’t talk about it.”

 

Derek knows she means well, but it’s been too many years of this, and he’s tired. “Not talking about race gets people killed,” Derek says, gentle but honest. She pales, and he sighs. “Grandma, look, I--even if living a Hartford society life was what I wanted, which I don’t think it ever could have been, I would have been fighting an uphill battle, every day of my life, to be there. Mom helped me prepare for that, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard, and when you treated me like it was my fault for not fitting in, for not being accepted, for not being the perfect socialite, I felt--”

 

He breaks off, lump in his throat, but to his shock, Emily’s on her feet and crossing the room, wrapping him in the hugest hug she’s given him since he was probably ten years old. “I’m so sorry,” she says, into his cheek. Stunned, he puts his arms around her, patting her back gently. “I’m an old, privileged idiot, and I hurt you, and I never learned any better, and I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”

 

“Um,” Derek says. He thinks maybe he has whiplash. “Grandma, I…” She hugs him tighter. He sighs, closing his eyes and tilting his head against hers. She still wears the same perfume he had when he was little, and the familiar smell is comforting, like a return to a safer time. “Thank you for apologizing. It means a lot.”

 

He’s careful not to say it’s okay, or I forgive you. He wants her to learn more first, to understand. But he’ll start here.

 

Emily pulls back, her eyes set and fierce in her lined face. “How do I get better?”

 

He blinks. “What?” Now he definitely has whiplash. Maybe he brained himself on the coffee table after all, and this is all a strange concussion dream.

 

“There are books on this, aren’t there? Or online classes?” She looks determined. “Should I go to a protest?”

 

Derek bites back a laugh. “Don’t go to a protest,” he says. “Books are a good place to start. I’ll give you a list, okay?” She nods, and he realizes, a little belatedly, that she’s still clutching his hands. He squeezes hers gently, and she loosens her grip. He takes a breath.

 

“Listen,” he says. “I know that you see Ford as...as sort of the second chance that you didn’t get with me. But I need you to let her be herself, too, okay? She’s an amazing kid, and she’s smart and funny and resilient, and she’s going to do great things. I know that the opportunities at Chilton can help her, but they’re not going to just come to her like they did for you and Dad. She needs a different skill set, and that means standing out in her own way.” He pauses, then decides to just go with it. “That means you can’t try to push her into the same things that worked for you. You can offer them, but if she says no, if I say no, we’re not just being stubborn. There’s a reason for it.”

 

Emily looks ready to object, but presses her lips together and nods. “What about the dress?” she asks, uncertain.

 

Derek snorts, and lets go of her hands. “The dress,” he says, “is about her liking fashion, and being a damn good amateur designer. Which you would know, if you listened to her when she talked about her hobbies.”

 

“Oh.” Emily looks down. “I suppose I have more than one thing to work on.” She twists her rings again, and then looks at him. “I would like to work on all of them,” she says. “If you’d give me a chance.”

 

Two olive branches in one night, Derek thinks, only this one makes his eyes sting and his throat feel thick. He swallows hard. “That would be good,” he says.

 

Emily smiles, and is it just him, or are her eyes a little bright, too? “She’s a wonderful girl, Derek,” she says. “You should be proud.”

 

“He is,” Ford says from the bottom of the stairwell. “He tells me all the time.”

 

Derek twists around on the couch to look at her.

 

For all he’s a pretty emotional guy, he’s not really a crier--he tears up easily enough at great books, and those commercials about animal shelters get him every time, but he’s not really a weepy sort of person. He thinks that if he hadn’t already been tearful over this whole thing with his grandmother, he’d be fine.

 

But Ford’s homemade dress has turned out perfectly, the violet fabric draping just the way the designs they’d made together had intended, swirling around her feet, the gold detailing sewn into the neckline complementing the earrings she’d picked up from a thrift store in New Haven.

 

“Baby,” he says, putting a hand to his chest, his throat choked up. “You look fantastic.”

 

She beams at him. “I know,” she says, and then looks closer at him. “Daddy, are you crying?”

 

Derek sniffs. “No,” he says, because sometimes it’s okay to shamelessly lie to one’s children. He cranes his neck toward the kitchen. “Justin!” he shouts. “Justin, come look at our baby! She looks like a person! A grown up beautiful person!”

 

Daddy,” Ford whines, which kind of ruins the effect, but his mother and Justin come back in--wine in hand, no surprise there--and Justin actually stops in his tracks.

 

“Oh, sweetheart,” Amal says, putting a hand to her lips. “You look just--” She casts a glance at Derek, her eyes bright. “You look beautiful.”

 

Ford ducks her head, smiling shyly. “You think?”

 

“Absolutely, kiddo,” Justin says, putting a hand on Derek’s shoulder. Derek recognizes the check-in for what it is and reaches back to squeeze it, grounding, confirming he’s fine. “I told you you didn’t need a backup.”

 

Ford bites back the beginnings of a grin, looking nervously at Emily. “What do you think, Grandma?”

 

Derek holds his breath, following Ford’s gaze. Emily regards Ford impassively, surveying her from head to toe, tapping her lips with one finger. “You made the dress?” she asks.

 

With an uncertain glance at Derek, Ford nods. “Me and Daddy.”

 

Emily hums, her face thoughtful. And then she smiles. “It’s lovely,” she says.

 

Ford’s face lights up. “Really?”

 

“Really.” Emily says. She looks at Derek, and her eyes are warmer than he’s seen them in years. “You did a wonderful job.”

 

She doesn’t just mean the dress, he knows, and he finds himself returning her smile, his eyes stinging at the corners. “Thank you,” he says.

 

He knows a beginning when he feels one.

 

“Okay,” Amal says, her voice bright and just faintly choked. She’s a smart woman, Derek thinks; there’s no way she’s missed the shift in the room. “Let’s take some pictures before those boys get here, shall we?”

 

 

This is Derek and Emily Nurse’s relationship: a long, complicated series of unspoken words, tense glances, and stiff shoulders.

 

It’s not, of course, that Emily Nurse doesn’t love her grandchild. From the moment he’s placed in her arms, a tiny dark-haired bundle in a little pink cap she’d knitted herself, she’s overwhelmed with the same sense of immediate adoration she’d felt when her own sons were born.

 

But Derek, from the moment he can walk and talk, is different from her children, who for all their occasional boyhood antics were generally obedient and respectful at heart. He squirms away from the dresses she buys him, pouts when she talks to him about how to be ladylike, instigates impromptu games of hide-and-seek whenever she announces it’s time for etiquette lessons.

 

When Derek comes out, it only gets harder. It’s not that Emily doesn’t try--she does, because her son and daughter-in-law have made it clear in no uncertain terms that if she doesn’t try, they will choose Derek, and it is not even a question. But this is new, newer than what all of the other things she has had to learn, and she doesn’t understand so many pieces of it, like why Derek can’t wait until he’s older, and why they have to tell so many people, and how she’s supposed to explain all of this to her friends.

 

And then there’s Ford, and it’s nearly the last straw. “You need to control that child,” Emily snaps when Derek tells them, the closest she comes to properly losing her temper with Michael. She tells them that this should never have happened, that as parents they should decide what happens next since Derek has clearly shown he can’t make responsible choices, that by the end of the week Derek should either have a ring on his finger, contract for adoption, or a ride to a clinic.

 

She doesn’t know it, but Derek, lingering outside of his father’s study and holding his breath, hears every word.

 

(He’s never told his parents that she’s the largest reason he left home in the dead of night, barely two months after Ford was born.

 

Emily, deep down, has always known.

 

She has never forgiven herself.)

 

 

The camera flash goes off, close enough to her eyes that she yelps and nearly trips over the hem of her dress, and Ford calls it a day. “Okay!” she declares loudly. “That’s enough pictures!”

 

Amal lowers her phone, looking disappointed. “Are you sure?” she says. “I wanted a few of you with your dads.”

 

Derek, sprawled on the couch while Justin tries to bully another pillow behind his back, squints at her. “Seriously, Mom?”

 

“Oh, all right.” She sets her phone down and shoos Justin away so that she can fuss with the pillow herself. Justin rolls his eyes, then seems to catch Ford watching and throws her a guilty look. Ford laughs and winks at him, turning to check her hair and makeup in the mirror by the stairs to make sure none of the picture-taking shenanigans had mussed them.

 

Mostly good, she thinks, but her lipstick needs a touchup. She takes the tube out of her clutch and leans over to reapply.

 

“Ford,” Amal calls, and Ford looks over her shoulder at her. “Shouldn’t your date be here soon?”

 

Ford drops her lipstick. It clatters to the floor, fortunately still unopened, as it occurs to her that her date will be here soon.

 

Right along with his date.

 

“Um,” she says, just as the doorbell rings. She turns to her parents, certain she looks like a deer in the headlights. “Um--”

 

“I’ll get it,” Justin says quickly.

 

“Oh, no, let me,” Emily says, sounding delighted in the way that usually means she’s about to terrify someone on wait staff. “I love putting the fear of God into a young man, it keeps me young.”

 

Alarm bells go off in Ford’s head. “Grandma,” Ford begins, panicked, but Emily is already moving towards the door, far faster than would seem reasonable for someone her age, though Ford knows better than to comment.

 

She reaches the entryway, leans up to look through the peephole, and then stills, turning back to the rest of the room, her expression gone carefully blank. “Ford, dear,” she says. “Why are there two young gentlemen standing on your porch? Have you been participating in one of those reality shows I keep hearing about?”

 

Ford laughs nervously. She wishes she’d just told them to text her when they got here so she could have made a run for the car. “Actually,” she says, nervously.

 

Emily raises an expectant eyebrow. Past her, though, Derek gives her an encouraging smile, even if he’s twisted around on the couch to do it, and Justin flashes a subtle thumbs-up. Ford squares her shoulders.

 

“They’re both my dates,” she says. Emily’s eyes go wide, and she drops her hand from the doorknob. Ford’s heart pounds in her chest, but the words have come out, and the world hasn’t ended. She takes a deep breath, and stands up a little straighter. “Could you let them in, please?”

 

Emily stares at her, eyes wide. Ford doesn’t think she’s ever seen her look so shocked.

 

The doorbell rings again. A moment later, there’s a decidedly nervous-sounding knock.

 

On the couch, her dad clears his throat. “Grandma,” he says.

 

His tone is warning, but not in the way Ford is used to hearing it towards her great-grandmother, and that makes her pause. She tears her eyes from the door to look more closely at the way they’re staring at each other. Something passes between them, something fragile and careful that Ford can just sense but wouldn’t have been able to place if she wasn’t looking for it, and then Emily clears her throat, and gives a small smile.

 

“Alright then,” she says, just a bit too loudly, a bit too forced. She’s trying, Ford realizes, can see it at a glance. “Let’s not keep them waiting.”

 

In her own home in Hartford, Ford’s sure she’d make a production of this, shoo Ford back up the stairs so that she could make a proper entrance as Emily welcomed the boys in with some kind of flourish or ceremony. It’s a clear sign that she’s off her game when all she does is straighten her cardigan with a little tug and then pull the door open without fanfare. “Alright, gentlemen!” she declares. “Let’s take a look at you!”

 

Ford winces. Okay, she thinks. Maybe a little too far the other way, Grandma.

 

And then Tony and Connor step inside, and for a moment, she forgets how thoughts work.

 

Well, not really--it’s not a movie, and she’s too practical for that kind of thing, honestly. But she’s so used to seeing them in their street clothes, just running around being boys, jeans and t-shirts and wrinkled button-downs and flannels and hoodies and sneakers. Even Connor, with his New York skinny jeans and leather jackets and motorcycle boots, sometimes has an air of this was the first thing I pulled out of my drawer, not in the affected way some boys try to cultivate, but in the genuine, got-dressed-in-the-dark-before-a-diner-shift sort of way.

 

But they’ve both clearly made such an effort tonight. Tony’s wearing a proper suit--she hadn’t even known he owned a proper suit, and she hopes he hadn’t bought one just for this--crisp and dark grey, with a white and purple checkered shirt and a purple pocket square. She’d been worried about Connor, but now she realized she shouldn’t have--he’d either made a trip home to his New York closet or gone shopping, because he’d found a pair of black slacks, a white shirt, a gold tie that nearly matched the detailing along her dress, and a grey blazer.

 

They look so great she could cry, and she can’t even find the words to say anything.

 

The two of them don’t say anything either. Tony has a bundle of flowers in his hands, but he seems to be grasping them limply, frozen in place, cheeks red. Connor just looks slightly shell-shocked, staring at her.

 

Her dad breaks the silence. “Oh my God,” he says from the couch. “This is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

 

Ford jumps, her face heating, and Connor and Tony break into awkward laughter. “You look so beautiful,” Tony says, shyly, and she smiles at him. “The dress looks even more amazing than in the pictures.”

 

“Thank you.” Her face feels warm and she wants to press her hands to her cheeks to try to cool them. She usually hates compliments on her looks--which works out well because she rarely gets them, and when she does they’re usually about how cute she is--but from Tony it makes her feel warm and soft. “You two look so great. I’m actually like...really impressed.”

 

Tony goes red. “We had help,” he admits, glancing at Connor, who flushes.

 

“Fine,” he admits. “I asked my uncle, and he said to ask Eric Bittle.” He makes a face. “He shrieked.”

 

Ford giggles. “He does that.”

 

“I don’t like him,” Connor says. “He’s very loud.”

 

Ford pats his arm. “I know.”


Emily clears her throat. “Ford, dear,” she says pointedly. “Aren’t you going to introduce us to your gentlemen callers?”

 

“Oh! Right.” Ford drops her hand from Connor’s arm. “Yes. Sorry, Grandma. Um, guys, this is my great-grandmother, Emily Nurse, and my grandmother, Amal Hassan, and obviously you know my dads. Grandma, Jadda, this is Tony Tangredi and Connor Whisk,” she gestures to each of them in turn, “my, um…”

 

She trails off, hesitant, not quite sure how to refer to them in front of her family. Connor gives her an encouraging nod, and Tony a small smile. She swallows, and goes for the safe answer. “Dates,” she says.

 

It’s a cop-out, and she knows it, but from the mood in the room between her great-grandma and her dad when she’d come downstairs, there’s already been one big Family Talk tonight, and she doesn’t know if they can handle another. She gives the boys an apologetic glance, but they don’t look upset. Tony’s already moving forward, towards Emily, like he’s--correctly--zeroed in on her as the one to please.

 

“It’s great to meet you,” he says. “We brought flowers! I was thinking I’d give them to Ford, but that doesn’t make so much sense since she’s going to come out with us. Would you like them instead?”

 

Emily raises her eyebrows. “How modern,” she says, casting a glance at Amal. Jadda gives her a pointed look back over her wine glass.

 

“Very,” she says. “It’s lovely to meet you boys. Tony, I think we’ve met a few times before, at Ford’s birthday parties? But Connor, I believe this is the first time.”

 

Connor straightens. “Yes ma’am.”

 

“And you’re driving tonight?”

 

“No ma’am, Tony is.” Ford bites back a laugh at the relief in Connor’s voice as he answers.

 

Amal nods. “Tony,” she says pleasantly. “I recall hearing a story about you hitting a few mailboxes when you were getting your license. Is that still an issue?”

 

Tony pales. “Um. No?”

 

Derek rolls his eyes. “Mom,” he says. “Give the kids a break. Tony’s a great driver these days, and they’ll be fine.” He props himself up on the couch, wincing as he does it, and Ford frowns at him. She doesn’t like that at all. He catches her look and shakes his head at her, waving off the concern and glancing at Jadda. “Do you want to get a few pictures of the kids before they head out? Please get the same embarrassing ones you got of me and Justin.”

 

Ford groans. “Daddy,” she says, but Amal is already jumping to her feet.

 

True to form, Jadda makes them take more pictures than can possibly be necessary, posing them by the stairs, on the porch, by the wall of bookcases--”the lighting is different and I like the backdrops!”--until Ford finally catches a glance at a clock and puts her foot down.

 

“Okay, enough!” she announces, firmly. “We have to go, or we’re going to be late.”

 

Jadda sighs, flipping through her phone. “We got some good ones,” she says. “Okay. Come take just one more of you and your dads, and then you can go.” She pauses. “Derek, can you get up?”

 

“Of course I can get up,” he grumbles. Ford narrows her eyes at him, but he drags himself up off the couch. He does grimace, though, and her papa huffs, grabbing him firmly by the arm to steady him. “I’m fine, I’m good,” Derek says. “Ford, c’mere.”

 

Amal arranges them into a little triangle, Ford centered between her dads. At the last moment, just before the flash goes off, someone leans down and drops a firm kiss to the top of her head, and she bursts out giggling, knowing without looking who it was. “Daddy!”

 

“Derek,” Amal sighs.

 

“Oh, come on, you know it made a cuter picture,” he says, slinging an arm around Ford’s shoulders. “Go ahead, take the good one.”

 

They pose. She takes ‘the good one.’ “All right,” she says, a little grudgingly. “You’re right, it’s adorable.”

 

Derek laughs. “Told you,” he says. Ford looks up at him. His face is tense at the edges, and she can tell he’s hurting. She leans into his side, and he glances down at her, then drops a kiss to her forehead. “You ready to go?”

 

“All set,” she says. “Will you not be dumb about your back, please, Daddy?”

 

“I will consider it,” he promises, and pokes her nose with one finger. She winkles her face. “Don’t do that, you’ll ruin your makeup.” She un-scrunches. Behind her, Tony laughs, and Derek looks towards them. “Boys, we’re not going to do a shovel talk because it’s 2018 and we’re better than that, but I’m sure you know all the terrible things that will happen to you if Ford’s not back by curfew in the same condition that she is now.”

 

Connor looks nervous, but Tony, who’s known Ford’s dad for years, just gives a salute. “Yes, sir! What time is curfew?”


Derek glances at Justin, who shrugs. Derek makes a face at him, then looks back at Tony. “When does your mom want you home?”

 

“Ten thirty,” he admits.

 

“Then ten twenty,” Derek says. “You live two minutes from here, that gives you eight to stand on the porch making googly eyes at each other. You’re welcome.” He gives Ford a gentle nudge. “Have fun, okay?”

 

“We will.” She stands on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, then her papa’s, then makes the rounds to Jadda and Grandma. Tony, ever the gentleman and who also knows where everything is in her house, holds out her coat for her, and she laughs and slides into it.

 

It’s colder outside than it was earlier in the day, the porch a little slippery where the earlier rain has frozen into ice, and she’s careful on the stairs. Connor holds her arm, and she smiles at him. “Sorry my family’s bonkers,” she says, as they make it down to the driveway and troop over to Tony’s mom’s Honda.

 

“Your grandma’s terrifying,” Connor says, holding the passenger side door open for her. She raises her eyebrows at him--she’d have thought he’d want shotgun, with his height, but he gives her a pointed look and she shrugs and slides in. “I honestly thought she was going to give us some kind of screening test.”

 

“My grandma or great-grandma?”

 

“The older one,” Connor says, climbing into the back seat.

 

Ford shivers, turning the heat up as soon as Tony turns on the car. “Yeah, she can be like that. I think it’s well meaning? Honestly, I’m a little shocked she didn’t freak the second there were two of you. She almost did, but I think she and my dad had some kind of come-to-Jesus talk earlier.”

 

Tony checks the mirrors, and then backs carefully out of the driveway. Tony is the most careful driver she knows. It’s adorable. Too bad so many mailboxes had to give their lives for him to get to this point. “That’s good, though, right?” he says, looking both ways and then turning onto the street. “Also, can you GPS us to Chilton?”

 

“We’re not going to Chilton, it’s at a country club.” She makes a face, but punches the address into her phone and props it on the dashboard for him. “And yeah, it’s good. Maybe they’ll even get along better. It would be nice.”

 

“Less stress for you,” Tony agrees. “Hey, is your dad okay, by the way? He seemed like, super wincey.”

 

“Oh my God, no,” Ford says, exasperated, slumping back against the seat. Then she panics that she might mess up the back of her hair and sits up a little straighter. “He messed up his back and he’s in a bunch of pain and he’s not going to let anyone do anything about it, and I’m sure he’s going to make everyone leave the house and not take care of himself at all.” She huffs, crossing her arms. “I love him, but guys, he is so dumb.”

 

Connor makes a thoughtful sound from the back seat. “What if,” he says slowly. “We sent someone to check up on him?”

 

Ford blinks, and then turns to look at him. “What?”

 

He holds up his phone. “Well, if you’re worried,” he says, a hint of conspiracy in his usually deadpan voice. “I’m just saying. I think we all know someone who could make it his business to run over and make sure he’s okay.”

 

She stares for a moment before the penny drops, and then her heart bursts with delight. “Connor!” she squeals. “I knew I’d get you on board!”

 

Connor rolls his eyes, but she can tell he’s pleased. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Don’t make it, like, a thing. Do you want to text him, or not?”

 

“Gimme!” She makes grabby hands for his phone, and he passes it up. She scrolls through his phone--Will’s just listed under Will Poindexter, nothing fun at all, ugh she needs to teach him how to emoji--and opens the text thread, tapping out a message. She keeps it simple--her dad hurt his back, he’s being a stubborn dummy about it, she’s just a little worried because he’s home all by himself, could Will please please go check on him tonight?--and hits send.

 

“You’re the best,” she tells Connor, passing the phone back.

 

“Yeah, well,” he says. They drive under a streetlight, and she catches the pink flush on his cheeks. “Whatever.”

 

Ford beams at him and turns back around in her seat.

 

The Hartford Golf Club is the kind of place her great-grandmother adores and Grandpa occasionally convinces Jadda to go for dinner, after which she drags Daddy out for a wine-and-complain-about-rich-white-people night (which Daddy, because he loves drama more than he’ll ever admit to anyone, always relays back to Ford, to her delight). Ford’s gone a few times, usually for Grandma’s birthday, and usually comes away knowing exactly why Amal can’t stand it.

 

(Although considering the clientele, the food is actually great. Especially the deserts. She still occasionally dreams about the tiramisu ice cream cake at Grandpa’s last birthday dinner.)

 

“So, this is it, huh?” Connor asks as they get out of the car, Tony handing his keys to the valet with a look of vague confusion. “Fancy.”

 

“This is it,” she confirms. Tony walks around to her side and offers her his arm, exaggerating the chivalry in the way he always does when he knows she’s nervous, and she takes it with a small smile. “Okay. Best behavior, guys, okay? We’re all gonna play nice with the other kids.”

 

Connor narrows his eyes. “Didn’t the other kids start spreading rumors about you?”

 

Ford flinches, then rounds on Tony. “You told him?”

 

He cringes and drops her arm. “I didn’t think we should keep secrets!”

 

“It was a friend secret, not a boyfriend secret!”

 

“I didn’t know that!”

 

She glares at him. Connor touches her shoulder gently, and she realizes that they’re up by her ears, tense and quivering. She forces herself to relax and turns to face him. “I’m sorry he told me without you knowing,” he says, and he does look contrite, his eyes solemn. “But Ford, if you’re already upset, you know, we don’t all have to go. I could have just stayed home.”

 

“That’s not what I want,” she says, a little weakly. Connor furrows his brow at her, and she sighs. “I just wanted it to be easy,” she says.

 

Connor shrugs his shoulders. “Okay,” he says. “So we’ll make it easy.”

 

Ford blinks. “What?”

 

“Yup,” he says. He takes her hand, lacing his fingers firmly through her unprotesting ones. “You trust us, right?”

 

His grip is warm and firm, and it makes her feel a little steadier on her feet. Ford swallows. “I trust you,” she says. “I just don’t understand how it can be easy when we don’t even know what we’re doing.”

 

Connor studies her for a moment, his face thoughtful. Then, giving her plenty of time to move away, he leans over and kisses her, very gently, on the mouth. The hand not holding hers brushes her waist, and she finds herself holding onto his arm with her free hand.

 

It’s the first time he’s ever kissed her properly. It’s light and chaste and sweet and completely unexpected. It leaves her head spinning.

 

Connor pulls away. He blinks several times. Ford blinks back. “Um,” she says. Connor’s lip twitches up at the corner, the telltale sign of a smirk, and she gapes at him. “Um?

 

He grins, then leans around her to drop a kiss to Tony’s cheek. Light, casual. Like it’s nothing. “What is happening right now,” she says, directing the question more to

the world at large than to either of them.

 

“Connor’s right,” Tony says. “This can be easy, Ford. We just have to make it easy. If people act like something’s weird, we’ll just make them feel like they’re weird. Like, why did they only bring one date? What a dumb idea. Hashtag boring.”

 

“But--” Ford gapes at them, trying to figure out when she became the most confused person in this relationship. They look at her, her boys, and her heart swells with affection.

 

Screw Louise, she thinks. Screw the Franklin, and Chilton gossip, and everything else. With a sudden surge of confidence, she stands up on tiptoe, kissing Connor’s cheek and then Tony’s, firm enough that she knows she leaves a lipstick print behind. “Let’s do this,” she says, and takes Connor’s hand again.

 

Just to cover her bases, though, she does give one last warning before they reach the main doors. “They might not buy the whole playing it cool thing,” she says. “We might still get a lot of crap.”

 

Connor shrugs again. “Then we play weird rich people bingo behind their back,” he says, “and loser buys everyone else Wendy’s on the way home.”

 

Ford considers that. “I can work with that.”

 

“Great,” Tony says. He takes Ford’s clutch, tucking it under his arm so that he can hold her other hand. She squeezes his fingers, and he squeezes back, his smile bright. “Let’s go mess with some rich people.”

 

Ford smiles back. On her other side, Connor snorts like he’s over it already, but she knows he’s ready to go put on a show.

 

Hand in hand, they go to face the wolves.

 

 

This is the Chilton Winter Formal, not to be confused with the Chilton Spring Formal, or the Chilton Midsummer Gala & Auction (open to alumni, parents, and benefactors, as well as current and incoming students).

 

Organized by a committee of faculty, students, and parent chaperones, the Formal always manages to just barely straddle the line between sophisticated upper-class function and typical teenage dance. The dress code is always strictly set (cocktail dress at an absolute minimum, semi-formal at the absolute dressiest), with either sneakers or a prom dress grounds for not just removal but also weeks of gossip and taunting. Girls have been known to distribute pictures of their dresses--once through paper clippings, now through a series of carefully shared Google spreadsheets--to ensure that no two people show up in the same one, an unspeakable offense that has, through the aforementioned measures, only happened four times in the school’s history.

 

(The less said about those, the better.)

 

Boys, for their part, attend in a wave of black and navy and dark grey, whether due to fear of breaking the norms or simply to a lack of general creativity. It’s not until Derek Nurse shows up his sophomore year on junior Justin Oluransi’s arm, wearing a fitted magenta suit and a come at me grin, fully aware that he’s already making enough of a splash by showing up queer and brown and trans and a pink suit isn’t going to make a difference, that boys start daring to take risks.

 

At the Spring Formal that year, there are no other magenta suits, but there are more patterned suits, more colored ties, more interesting pocket squares. And at the Winter Formal the next year, Derek’s bright absence noticeably felt, there is almost a palpable feeling of color in the room.

 

(Justin doesn’t go either, out of solidarity, but their hockey teammates report back on their post-dance visit to Derek’s parents house, where Derek is four weeks postpartum, still trying to figure out what he’s going to do next. Derek keeps a brave face until they leave, then bursts into tears of genuine shock. He hadn’t realized anyone at school actually cared.)

 

It’s been a long time since then, all of those students long since graduated, and with the exception of a few spots of pattern or color, the usual black and grey and navy have taken hold of the Formal again--and their general sense of conservatism with them. There are murmurs and whispers and even a few hisses when Ford and Tony and Connor come in, hand-in-hand and heads held high, and Ford has to remind herself that her dads would never back down from these people, and that she can’t either.

 

So the dance proceeds, in typical Chilton fashion. There’s a sit-down dinner--table, service, not buffet, obviously--which is actually quite good, even if there’s no tiramisu ice cream cake, much to Ford’s disappointment; the music ranges from Obviously Chosen By Chaperones to Obviously Chosen by Students, with the presence of students on the dance floor ebbing and flowing in immediate response; four different chaperones ask after Ford’s grandparents and great-grandmother but deliberately gloss over asking about her dads; two others ask about Tony and Connor, and say, in the exact same tone as Emily had earlier, “Oh goodness, how modern.”

 

And when she eventually comes face-to-face with Louise Geller on the dance floor, Louise holding a boy who looks eerily like her by the hand and Ford with one arm looped through Tony’s and Connor’s arm around her waist, she doesn’t even mind when Louise sweeps her eyes over them, clearly looking for something to insult but obviously not finding anything in Tony or Connor and instead going with, “Cute dress, Ford. Homemade?”

 

(She does mind when Connor, before Ford can grin and retort that it is homemade, actually, and she even has an Etsy shop, cackles and says, “Ha! Bingo!”

 

“Oh, boo!” Tony says, sounding genuinely disappointed. “I was so close!”

 

Louise looks outraged, and then bewildered, and then outraged again. Ford dissolves into laughter.

 

“Enjoy the dance, Louise,” she manages, meaning it, even, and lets the boys pull her back onto the floor.)

 

 

It takes more wrangling than Derek thinks can possibly be reasonable, but he manages to convince everyone to get out of the house once Ford and the boys leave. He’d almost considered caving and letting Justin stick around, but then he’d heard him whispering to his mom about convincing Derek to get an x-ray, and that was the end of that.

 

And sure, his back is still killing him, but his house is quiet and peaceful and blessedly empty. Derek sighs, stretching out on the couch with what he’s decided is a well-deserved glass of whiskey. Something twinges as he arranges himself and he winces, reaching back to adjust the heating pad and regretting every movement--okay, fine, maybe he could have let Justin or his mom do a few more things before they left--and then rolls his neck back against the pillow.

 

Absently, he reaches down and feels around on the floor until he finds his phone, which he remembers falling out of his pocket at some point but isn’t quite sure when. His fingertips catch the edge of it, just barely within reach, and he scrunches up his face.

 

“C’mon,” he mutters, and stretches a little further until he can scoot it into his hand. “Ha. Gotcha.” Take that, moving, he thinks, and picks it up, firing a text off to Chris asking him to swing by with food--he’d told Justin he’s fine, and he is, but like hell is he going to be walking all the way to Will’s to go find dinner, and the Inn always has extras after the dinner rush--and then switching over to Spotify and throwing on a reading playlist.

 

Slow, heavy bass fills the room, gone tinny from the phone speakers, and he gives a satisfied nod, reaching to put the phone on the coffee table and picking up his book. “Hello, Ms. Ward,” he says, snuggling into the couch and flipping Sing, Unburied, Sing open to his bookmark, sipping his drink and preparing to settle in for a quiet night.

 

The doorbell rings.

 

Derek sighs. He picks up his phone and looks at the time. Not even twenty minutes since he got everyone out the door. “I don’t know what I expected,” he tells his glass of whiskey, takes a large gulp of it, and calls, “It’s open!” in the direction of the entryway.

 

The door clicks open, and Derek turns the music off. “What’d you forget?”

 

“Nothing,” Will Poindexter says. Derek yelps and nearly drops his phone and his book, and sloshes half his drink over his hand as he flails, twisting around to see Will standing in the doorway, holding a takeaway bag from the Diner and giving him a disapproving look. “You just leave your door unlocked like that?”

 

Derek sits up the rest of the way, winces, and licks whiskey off the side of his hand to distract himself from the spasm of pain going up his spine. “It’s Samwell,” he says, by way of explanation. “And what the hell are you doing here?”

 

Will shrugs. “Ford texted me on Connor’s phone,” he says, putting the bag down and bending down to untie his work boots. “She said you were hurt and she was worried, and you needed someone to keep an eye on you.”

 

“What?” Derek stares at him. “I don’t need someone to keep an eye on me, I’m fine!”

 

Will raises his eyebrows. “Does Ford know you’re fine?”

 

“Of course she knows I’m fine,” Derek says. “She wasn’t even worried about me, she was excited to go to the dance, she wanted to just get out the door with Tony and Connor and just--”

 

He breaks off, remembering a very different conversation with Ford. About Connor and Tony, sure, but also about Derek and Will. And where she had expected to find them.

 

“Oh, that little meddling brat,” he says. It comes out much more fondly than he thinks he should, but he’s got to hand it to the little shit, she’s crafty.

 

Will frowns, crossing his arms. “What did she do?”

 

“She--” Derek stops, biting the inside of his cheek. This night, he decides, has been long enough already. He gives Ford credit for her little Parent Trap scheme, he does, but he’s already done two rounds of feelings tonight. He doesn’t think he can handle another.

 

“Nothing,” he said. “Just--teenage stuff, I think. Inside joke that’s gone too far. I’m sorry you got caught up in it. You didn’t have to come.”

 

Will narrows his eyes, and Derek tenses automatically. After sixteen years, he knows Will’s tells, knows when he’s gearing up for a fight. “Well, I’m here anyway,” he says, a little stiffly. “So you might as well let me help you out.”

 

“I told you, I’m fine.” Derek puts his drink down and sits up, gritting his teeth to keep his expression blank as his back flares up. “I twisted something, that’s all, everyone’s making a big deal.”

 

“Right,” Will says. He puts his hands on his hips. “If you can stand up without looking like you’re gonna die, maybe I’ll believe you.”

 

Derek scowls at him. “Fine,” he says, and gets to his feet.

 

Well, he tries to, anyway. As soon as he pushes himself upright, something goes wrong in his back, and his knees buckle. He winces, preparing for the night’s second impromptu meeting with the floor, but the impact doesn’t come.

 

“Idiot,” Will sighs, much closer than he was a moment ago, one arm wrapped around Derek’s waist and the other steadying his shoulders. His voice is exasperated, tinged with frustration. “Could you try to be something other than stubborn, for like thirty seconds of your life?”

 

“No,” Derek says automatically. He puts a hand on Will’s chest to balance himself. Will’s heartbeat pounds against his palm, rapid even through the fabric of his flannel, like Will was scared or startled, but when Derek searches his face, there’s only the irritated frown.

 

“I thought not,” Will mutters. “Come on, sit down.”

 

Despite the roughness of his voice, he’s oddly gentle as he nudges Derek back onto the couch, propping him back against the pillow he was lying against earlier. He even gets another throw pillow and pushes it under his knees--“The angle’ll help,” he mutters, not meeting Derek’s eyes--before sitting down on the coffee table with a huff, crossing his arms and glaring.

 

When it becomes clear he’s not going to speak, Derek rolls his eyes. “Are you waiting for me to apologize for something?”

 

“You could, for being a moron who won’t just admit when you need something,” Will snaps.

 

Derek throws up his hands. “For the love of--I’m not wounded, Will! I threw my back out and it hurts. This is a thing! It happens to people! I’ll limp around for a few days and take a bunch of Advil, but this is not a crisis! I don’t get why people are making a big deal!”

 

“No one is making a big deal,” Will retorts, “people are making a normal amount of deal, the way they do when someone they care about is having a rough time and they want to help, Jesus! If Ford hurt her back like this you’d be waiting on her hand and foot!”

 

“Ford’s my kid!” Derek protests. “It’s not the same thing!”

 

“That’s not what I’m--God!” Will throws up his hands. “I do not understand you! Why the hell do you feel like you can’t let people help you?”

 

“Because I--” The words catch in his throat, and Derek breaks off.

 

How is he supposed to put this into words to Will, someone who has always seemed so easily independent, who has always seemed to know what to do and how to do it, that Derek has always known help to come with conditions, with if I do this for you, I get a say in what comes next. The teachers who had mentored him at Chilton had made no secret that as much as they loved his writing and wanted to elevate his voice, they also wanted his face as a representation of the school’s new image; raising Ford in his parents’ house would have meant oversight, commentary, the absolute knowledge that he would never have been the real adult in her life; accepting their help with Chilton tuition had come with the rule of weekly dinners.

 

His entire life has been about teaching himself to get by on his own so that he doesn’t need to rely on anyone, because as long as that’s true, he can create the life that’s right for him, that will let Ford flourish and grow without anyone putting limitations on her the way they did him.

 

And it’s more important with Will than with anyone, because Will, of all people, needs to see him as someone who can do this, who can get his shit together and do this on his on and be okay. It’s not that he doesn’t want to let people in, that he doesn’t know his life would be fuller and sweeter if he could, he just--

 

He’s been quiet too long, he realizes, and Will is looking at him, only now the frustration on his face is gone, replaced by a hesitant sort of uncertainty, like he’s worried Derek’s going to spook and run.

 

Not that he even could, but whatever this look is, concern bordering dangerously close to pity, is worse than the glaring. Derek sighs. “Stop looking at me like that,” he says sullenly, slumping back. “I’m not a skittish horse, Will, I’m not gonna bolt.”

 

“You wouldn’t get past the couch,” Will snaps back, but there’s no fire in it. He huffs, shaking his head, then gets up. Derek tenses.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“I brought you dinner,” Will says firmly. “You’re going to eat it.”

 

Derek turns his eyes to the ceiling. “Will,” he begins.

 

“No, shut up.” Will sits down on the coffee table again, takeout bag in hand. “I don’t know what your issue is with letting people help you, and I don’t care anymore. I’m here, I brought food, and I’m not letting it go to waste.”

 

He holds out a box and some plastic cutlery, his face leaving no room for argument. Derek hesitates, and Will narrows his eyes. Derek sighs. “Okay,” he says, and because he’s stubborn but his mother did raise him with some manners and he can hear her voice screaming in the back of his head, adds, “thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Will says. He pauses, then nods to the glass of whiskey Derek had half-spilled and then abandoned when Will had walked in. “Got any more of that?”

 

Derek snorts. Now he’s talking. “Sideboard,” he says, pointing.

 

Will gets to his feet and picks up Derek’s glass.

 

It’s...surprisingly nice. Will had brought simple, filling food, two servings of pasta primavera in a light tomato sauce--“Someone has to make sure you eat a vegetable, Nurse”--and it’s not exactly the kind of thing Derek would choose to pair with whiskey, but hey, here they are.

 

Something about having food around Will makes the situation feel more comfortable, more familiar. Will makes fun of him for how clearly used to eating lying down on the couch Derek is, and Derek makes fun of Will for trying to fit a piece of broccoli the size of a small tree in his mouth, and it’s good, easy, the kind of gentle chirping they’re used to every day.

 

What’s not familiar is how close they are. Perched on the coffee table, his own box of food balanced on his knees, Will is barely a foot away from him, and Derek finds himself deeply conscious of the lack of a counter between them. Will’s cheeks are a little flushed from the whiskey, his freckles standing out against the pink of his skin; he gestures more, laughs more easily.

 

Ford, you crafty little brat, Derek thinks. He wants to reach across the gap between them, take Will by the collar, and kiss him senseless; he wants to run up the stairs and hide under his bed until Will goes home; he wants to put this stupid crush back in the box where he’s managed to keep it for the past sixteen years and put it on a shelf and never have to look at it again.

 

He puts down his fork. “Will,” he says.

 

Will looks at up at him. “Yeah?”

 

Derek takes a breath.

 

The door slams open. “Hey!” Chris says brightly, stomping inside with a plastic bag in one hand, giving them a cheerful wave. “Sorry it took me so long to get here, Derek! The dinner rush took forever, and then I couldn’t find matching lids for the tupperware. But I brought you some leftover salmon, and the mushroom barley risotto we started this week. And Lardo had a couple Percocet left from her wisdom teeth surgery, I guess, so she sent those over, too, and--” He breaks off, like he’s noticing Will for the first time. “Oh, hey, Will!”

 

Will doesn’t answer, just stares at him, his mouth gaping slightly. His fingers tighten around his plastic cutlery, and then he shuts his mouth with an audible click, turning to Derek. “Are you kidding me right now?”

 

Derek returns his stare, bewildered. “What?”

 

“What, what, are you--” Will huffs out a laugh, but it’s short and humorless. “You know what, forget it. I give up.” He puts his food down and gets to his feet.

 

“Will, what the hell?” Confused, Derek puts his own food container on the end of the couch, twisting with a wince as Will storms out of the living room and pushes past a shocked-looking Chris to start shoving his feet back into his boots. “What’s your problem?”

 

“What’s my problem?” Will doesn’t bother tying his laces properly, just picks up his coat and faces Derek with a glare. “My problem is--” He gives that bitter half-laugh again, and pulls on his coat. “Actually, Derek, I don’t think I have to tell you what my problem is, since you’re so happy not telling me any of yours.”

 

Derek pushes himself up to his feet, steadying himself with a hand on the back of the couch. “Will,” he protests.

 

“Save it,” Will says shortly. “I’m out of here.” He nods at Chris. “He’s all yours, man. Good luck.”

 

“Um, thanks?” Chris says, looking back and forth between them in absolute confusion, but Will ignores him, slamming his way out the front door and letting it bang shut behind him. Chris winces at the sound.

 

He’s such a fucking drama queen, Derek thinks, furious, slamming the door like that, god, after all those lectures about how Derek needs to pay attention to the way the door frames are structured in a house like this.

 

Frames that Will helped straighten when Derek bought the place, to make sure they were safe and secure. And that was before he’d shown up with new locks for the doors, because what was Derek thinking, keeping the old owner’s keys, anyone could just show up and walk in. He’d grumbled the whole time, installing the locks, but he’d done it, all the while telling Derek why he’d chosen those locks in particular--they were drill-proof and multi-cylinder, which didn’t mean anything to Derek, but seemed to mean something to Will; and while he was there, he’d said, he was going to replace the one-inch screws in the strike plate with three-inch ones so someone couldn’t just kick the door in.

 

And then he’d left. No requests, no demands, no pushing or pressure or anything, just--

 

Derek makes up his mind.

 

“Sorry, C,” he says. “I need to--”

 

Chris steps back. “Go,” he says.

 

It’s more of a staggering, lurching kind of hobble than a dramatic chase, but Derek goes. In socked feet and a sweater, he rushes out the front door and down the porch steps, slipping on a patch of ice and grabbing onto the railing to keep from braining himself on the floor. He mutters a curse and pulls himself up, glancing up and swearing again as he catches sight of Will about to step into his truck. “Will!” he yells, pulling himself up to his feet. “Wait!”

 

Will stops, and looks back at him. His expression goes from fury to indignation to the resigned frustration Derek is more used to, and his shoulders slump. He slams the door of his truck closed and stomps back down the driveway. “What,” he snaps, but his hands are gentle as he reaches for Derek’s waist, manhandling him gently but firmly back up to his feet. “And what the hell is wrong with you, you couldn’t stop to get shoes?”

 

“I was worried I’d miss you,” Derek says, hating how breathless he sounds. He swallows. “I’m sorry, about Chris.”

 

Will’s hands tighten on his waist, and then he lets go, stepping back. Derek’s body feels cold at the places where Will’s touch used to be. “Yeah, well,” he says, shoving his hands in his pockets and giving Derek a thin-lipped smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “I mean, I can’t…”

 

He shakes his head, gives that weird half-laugh again--Derek’s really starting to hate it--and then looks Derek full in the face. And oh, Derek thinks, a little dizzy, suddenly, because they so rarely really look at each other, and Will’s eyes are so very, very intense. “I really thought we were on the same page, after the Festival, you know? Like, sure, we don’t talk about it, but I thought we--”

 

“We do,” Derek says, heart pounding. “I mean--we are.”

 

It’s half-sentences and unformed thoughts and in any other situation, with any other person, Derek would second-guess, but right here, with Will, Derek isn’t worried about being misunderstood.

 

“Well, you could have fooled me,” Will snaps, “because I thought I’ve been pretty clear here, Derek. You can’t tell me you didn’t know what I was doing all these years.”

 

“I didn’t,” Derek says, and clears his throat, trying to stand up straighter without hurting his back or slipping anywhere. “I mean, not officially, at least, I just--” He huffs out a breath of is own, wrapping his arms around himself. “You never said anything!”

 

“Well--no, but--” Will literally throws his hands up, gives an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know! I was doing the whole--actions speak louder than words thing! I didn’t want to push you, but you went along with it half the time, it always felt like the fighting was just for show, and I could never figure it out anyway I just--”

 

He breaks off, dropping his hands and shaking his head. “I don’t know, Derek, seriously. I thought we were going somewhere, and then Chris shows up tonight like you asked him to be there, not even a fight, and I just--what am I even doing?”

 

“Will,” Derek protests. “Chris is different, he’s a friend.”

 

Will chokes. “And I’m what?” Derek opens his mouth and feels his voice catch in his throat, and Will’s face falls. “Wow,” he says, and turns away.

 

Derek lurches forward and grabs his sleeve. “Will, wait, come on.”

 

Why?” Will lets Derek pull him back towards him, but his expression is set and scowling. “Honestly, Derek, why? Because I don’t even know where we stand now. I’ve been trying to do everything right here, I mean--I made you my mom’s risotto, do you know the last time I made someone my mom’s risotto? Never.”

 

“I loved the risotto,” Derek says weakly.

 

“And the Festival,” Will continues, as if Derek had never said anything, gathering steam. “I get that we were in the middle of--a fight, or a misunderstanding, or whatever, but once that was over, it really felt like we had some kind of--some kind of moment--”

 

“There was a moment!” Derek says, tightening his grip on Will’s sleeve. Don’t leave, he thinks. Don’t leave, please.

 

“Then talk to me,” Will says. “Explain what’s going on to me, Derek, because we’ve had sixteen years of not talking and I just don’t--”

 

“I needed you to think I could do this,” Derek blurts out.

 

Will stops talking. The anger drains away from his face. He swallows, his throat moving visibly, and he says, “You needed me to think you could do what?”

 

Derek takes a shaking breath. He can feel his hands shaking. He flexes his grip around Will’s coat, and wishes he was holding Will’s hand instead. “All of this,” he says. “Will, you--you were the first person I met in Samwell, and I was sixteen and still strung-out on hormones and exhausted out of my mind, and you gave me a place to sit and some coffee, and I just thought, I have to hold it together in front of this guy, I can’t be a scared kid, I have to be a real person. And I--”

 

He swallows hard, takes another breath to steady himself. “You were Samwell to me, Will,” he says, and his voice comes out hoarse. Will stares at him, eyes wide. “I needed Samwell to see me like a person, to know I wouldn’t be sent home. And somehow in my head, that turned into needing you to think that I could--that I could do everything on my own. That I wasn’t going to fall apart. Which I know is--” He laughs wetly, gesturing at himself, outside in the gathering snow in socks and a sweater, not even a jacket, snowflakes melting in his hair. Will doesn’t smile, and Derek’s throat feels thick. He sighs.

 

“I didn’t even realize I was pushing you away, Will,” he says, afraid to meet Will’s gaze. “I just. I needed you to know I could do this.”

 

“Derek, I always--” Will sighs, and Derek dares a glance up at him. Will’s face is scrunched, expression torn the way he so often sees it, caught now between exasperation and fondness and something else, something sweet and soft that Derek can’t place. He sighs again, and then moves closer.

 

Derek tenses. “What are you doing?”

 

Will fixes him with the same look he does in the Diner when Derek forgets the Rules and accidentally takes out his cell phone. “Will you just stand still?”

 

He says it the same way he’s said will you just let me and followed it with half a million offers over the years, half a demand and half a plea. Derek meets his eyes and knows, at the cellular level, that Will doesn’t need to ask him not to run. He nods. Will steps closer, slips an arm around his waist. His hand is warm through the fabric of Derek’s sweater.

 

After sixteen years of buildup, it’s a soft, simple kiss, brief and surprisingly chaste. Derek brings a hand up on instinct, touches Will’s chest and feels the flutter of his heart, real.

 

They pull apart. Will’s face is flushed, his eyes wide. Derek takes a shaking breath, then leans forward again.

 

Will jumps. “What are you--”

 

“Hey,” Derek says. He puts a hand to Will’s cheek, winces when Will startles at the cold and then smiles when Will turns his face into the contact, covering Derek’s hand with his own. He bites his lip, then says, “Will you just stay still?”

 

Will’s eyes go wide, and then he smiles.

 

Derek moves first, but Will is only an instant behind him. It’s a coming together, seamless. Will hooks an arm around Derek’s waist, pulling him in close, and Derek curls his fingers into the collar of Will’s coat, just enough to brush the warmth of Will’s skin and make him shiver into his touch.

 

Sixteen years, Derek thinks, and Will must think it too, because he backs Derek up against the porch railing. He makes a soft sound of protest when Will pulls away from him to kiss his jaw and mutter, “Your back okay?” into his ear.

 

“It’s fine,” Derek says. It hurts a lot, actually, all the standing isn’t great and being pressed into the railing isn’t helping, but having all of Will’s weight against him is great and he’ll take the good with the bad.

 

Will shakes his head and turns them, leaning back against the railing himself and taking some of Derek’s weight, and that’s...oh, okay, Derek thinks, letting Will pull him into another kiss, that’s very okay, he could get used to this, this is--

 

There’s a crash from inside the house, and they jerk apart in time for Chris to all but topple out the front door.

 

“Sorry!” He yelps, flushed and mortified. “Sorry sorry sorry! I was trying to be sneaky, when you started kissing, and then there was, uh, a lot of kissing--congrats, by the way, I guess?--but then I tripped, and--”

 

Derek clears his throat. “We’re cool, Chris.”

 

Chris looks relieved. “Oh. Good. Okay.” He looks at Will. “Uh--sorry to you, too.”

 

Red to the ears, Will gives him a vague salute. “It’s fine. Sorry for--” He coughs slightly. “Being kind of a dick to you. That was a misunderstanding.”

 

Chris raises his eyebrows, looking between Derek and Will, and then he smirks. “I bet,” he says. “Well, like I said. I’m gonna go.” He nods at Derek. “See you at work!”

 

“See you,” Derek echoes, a little weakly. It strikes him suddenly that one of Will’s hands is inside his sweater, and he hasn’t removed it.

 

They stand there in an uncertain tableau until Chris’s tail lights turn out of the driveway, and then Derek exhales. “Okay,” he says. “So, uh.” He reaches back and, cheeks warm, taps gently at the hand that’s under his shirt. Will flushes and removes it. “That. Escalated quickly.”

 

“Depends on how you look at it,” Will says, but he separates their bodies enough that Derek’s head can clear properly. He’s grinning a little, though, like he knows exactly how Derek’s feeling, overheated and a little light-headed, as if his own lips aren’t still swollen, the bottom one especially red from Derek’s teeth.

 

“Oh, yeah?” Derek wraps his arms around himself, trying to hold onto whatever body heat Will left behind. It’s tempting to step back into the circle of Will’s arms. Very tempting.

 

Will shrugs. “I mean.” He smiles, but there’s a softness in it that Derek sees so rarely, warmth that has nothing to do with his touch. “It’s been sixteen years, Derek.”

 

It hasn’t, really, and Derek knows they both know it. The early years were fighting and uncertainty and wary circling, Will wildly unsure how to handle someone so vastly different from himself and Derek clawing his way to adulthood and fiercely defensive of every accomplishment. Every glance between them was fraught with so many layers, and Will, Derek suspected, probably wouldn’t have let himself even look Derek’s way until Derek’s eighteenth birthday, which, honestly? Good.

 

Not sixteen years of attraction, then. But sixteen years of something more than that. Sixteen years of knowing that no matter how much he hates needing anyone but himself, hates the idea of asking, that if he ever does pick up the phone to call, Will will answer. Sixteen years of coaxing Will to smirk, then to smile, and then to laugh. Sixteen years of breakfast and dinner, of arguing over coffee and hockey and auto maintenance. Sixteen years of Will coming to Ford’s birthday parties. Of Will knowing Derek’s moods by the type of books he brings to the Diner and Derek knowing Will’s by the color of his flannels.

 

Of Will lecturing about his caffeine but still adding a touch of cinnamon to Derek coffee, just like he secretly likes it, even though Derek orders it black.

 

“Hey,” Derek says. “Do you want to come back inside?”

 

Will’s face breaks out into a smile. “Yeah,” he says. “I really would.”

 

 

This is how Samwell finds out:

 

Chris Chow gets into his car, drives around the corner, and parks in the first clean spot he can before firing of a text to Caity Farmer. OMG, he writes. DEREK AND WILL POINDEXTER JUST HOOKED UP!!!!!!

 

It takes less than a second for her to text back. The first message is just a string of exclamation points. It’s immediately followed by, ARE U SURE???????

 

YES I WAS STANDING RIGHT THERE! IT WAS IN DEREK’S DRIVEWAY!!!!!

 

!!!!!!!!!!, Caitlin texts back, from the couch of the apartment she shares with her friends April and March. She puts her phone down. “Guys!” she shouts. “Guess what?”

 

April texts her mom, because she tells her mom everything. Alice, who happens to be at dinner with Eric Bittle, gasps loudly enough to startle Eric into dropping a cupcake pan into the sink to come read the message. He shrieks and yells for Jack, who comes running, because that kind of yelling usually means someone’s bleeding.

 

Jack texts Alexei, who yelps, flails, and calls for Kent. Kent cackles and texts Adam, who falls off the couch, startling Justin into nearly dropping his beer, and holds up his phone to show him the message. Justin bursts out laughing and texts Ford, telling her to plan to spend the night at his apartment. Then he texts Derek, because he can’t not.

 

“You are awful,” Adam says, looking over his shoulder as Justin browses for the perfect reaction gif to add to his message. “Oooh, no, use that one.”

 

Ford finds out in the parking lot at Wendy’s, sitting on the hood of Tony’s car and dipping french fries into her milkshake. She glances at her phone when it buzzes, barely paying attention, and then gives an ear-curling shriek that sends Tony toppling off the hood next to her.

 

“It worked!” she yells. “It worked, it worked, it worked!”

 

“Duh,” Connor says, rubbing his ear with a wince, and then, “what worked?”

 

Fairly bouncing, she shoves her phone in his face.

 

“Oh,” Connor says, pretending to be unaffected, but secretly deeply, deeply pleased, “Cool.”

 

The second person to text Derek, after Justin, of course, is Larissa, who finds out from Shitty, who finds out from Jack. She sends a string of eggplant emojis, three kissy faces, and GET IT, BITCH in sparkling rainbow text. The first person to text Will is Connor, who writes, Please don’t ground me I promise I’ll walk Cat every day for the next two weeks, followed by Congrats tho?

 

After that, it’s a free-for-all.

 

In all honesty, even though they eventually turn off the sound on their phones, they barely notice the noise.

 

(John Johnson gets a text, too, telling him he’s just won a rather significant sum of money.

 

He’s not surprised, though.

 

He’d known it was coming.)

 

 

Will wakes up warm, and comfortable, and wrapped around Derek Nurse.

 

He’s a morning person with a good memory, so he doesn’t need to wait for the memories of last night to rush back for him. He knows immediately where he is, and what he’s doing there. He’s not a particularly sentimental person, either, so there’s no sudden rush of emotion, no comparison to what this feels like in reality and what it had felt like in the few moments he’d allowed himself to imagine, and no few dreams.

 

Instead, he smiles before he can stop himself, shifting closer and tucking his face against the back of Derek’s neck, breathing in and keeping his eyes closed. Derek’s skin still smells like the sandalwood soap from the shower they’d shared before collapsing back into bed last night, a familiar scent he’s been breathing in for years but so much closer now, and something softer and subtler, clean and tempting, like freshly changed sheets or a fresh-brewed cup of coffee.

 

Coffee, he thinks. That’s a thought. He opens his eyes.

 

Derek’s bedroom windows face east. The early morning sunlight hasn’t yet warmed the room, but the light is enough to fall across the bed through the open curtains. Will gently eases his arm out from under Derek’s neck--Derek makes a softly protesting sound but lets him, apparently content not to wake. Will sits up, careful not to jostle him, and peers past him to look at the clock.

 

It’s just barely eight o’clock, which is hardly late, but Will hasn’t slept past five for about twenty years, so he’s actually a little bit stunned. Not that Derek’s bed isn’t comfortable--and not that he hadn’t, he thinks, flushing slightly at the memory, been very, very tired by the time they’d finally crashed--but he honestly didn’t even think he was capable of sleeping this long.

 

Then he remembers why he’s usually up at five, and panics. As slowly as he can without flailing, he leans over the side of the bed to hunt around for his jeans where they’d been unceremoniously dropped last night, digging his phone out of the back pocket. There’s a text from Carter, his line cook, on the screen waiting for him.

 

Heard about you and Derek ;) ;) ;), it says. I’ll open tomorrow. Enjoy sleeping in, boss-man.

 

Will gapes at his phone. He’d known word was spreading fast--neither of their phones had been particularly quiet last night, and they’d eventually turned the sound off--but this was...something else.

 

Then again, he thinks, when was the last time he actually got to lie around in bed?

 

He actually can’t remember, which means it’s probably been too long. He types out a reply, firmly ignoring the emojis and focusing on thanking his very generous employee for covering his unexpected absence, then hits send and puts his phone down on the nightstand.

 

And then, for all he’s not a sentimentalist, he turns back to Derek and gives himself a moment to just look, because he never thought he’d actually get this, never really let himself believe it would actually happen. Derek looks softer asleep, relaxed and calm, as if the chill he projects from day-to-day has actually properly settled into his limbs. His long lashes cast faint shadows on his cheekbones, a gentle smile curves over his lips.

 

Will wonders, briefly and in a way that’s totally unlike him, what he’s dreaming about, and if maybe it’s about him. The thought makes his cheeks heat, and he’s not sure if it’s embarrassment or something else.

 

Coffee, he thinks, much more firmly now.

 

He climbs out of bed, goes on a hunt for his boxers (he finds them scrunched at the foot of the bed, half-hidden under the comforter), and then finds himself with a dilemma. Romcoms aren’t his genre of choice, but he’s seen enough of them to know that letting Derek wake up alone could have disastrous consequences.

 

Standing by the bed in his boxers and feeling like an idiot about it, he contemplates waking Derek up, dismisses that idea--he just looks so peaceful, okay--then spots a pad of paper and a pen on Derek’s nightstand, just under his phone.

 

Bingo.

 

Will pulls on his jeans and last night’s undershirt, tiptoes back over to the bed and scrawls a quick gone to make breakfast, don’t panic!, then, just for good measure, leaves his flannel on the bed, draped over his abandoned pillow and puts his baseball hat on the nightstand on his side of the bed.

 

The side of the bed he’d slept on, not his side, that would be presumptuous, it’s just--

 

Mentally smacking himself in the face, Will leaves the room before he has any other embarrassing thoughts, or tries to do anything else ridiculous, like attempt to kiss Derek’s cheek without waking him up, just because he’s pretty sure that’s a thing he’s allowed to do now.

 

He’s cooked in Derek’s kitchen a few times over the years. It’s always been with ingredients he’s bought himself, and as he rummages through the fridge and cupboards, browsing to see if he can possibly make breakfast for the two of them, he remembers why.

 

“Literally how do you not have scurvy,” he mutters under his breath, looking at the assortment of premade frozen food. He knows Derek can cook, at least to some extent, because he and Ford don’t eat all their meals at the Diner and they haven’t starved yet, but this does not inspire confidence.

 

He does find coffee, though, and surprisingly good-quality whole bean coffee, not even in a bag but poured into an airtight jar. Although, he thinks, bringing the jar over to the grinder on the counter and measuring out scoops, maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. Someone who likes--read: requires--coffee as much as Derek probably doesn’t skimp on quality.

 

The sound of the grinder doesn’t seem to bring Derek running, and neither does the smell of coffee that slowly fills the room as the pot brews. He wonders if Derek’s a heavy sleeper in general, or--he allows himself a grin, pouring water into the coffee machine’s reservoir--if this is a special occasion. He’s just beginning to think he might stick to his original plan of bringing mugs of coffee upstairs and waking Derek up with them when he hears a soft laugh behind him.

 

“Well,” Derek says, his voice sleep-warm and amused. “This is something I could get used to.”

 

Will turns, and nearly drops the mug of coffee he just poured at the sight of Derek leaning against the kitchen doorway in a pair of low-slung sweatpants, Will’s flannel half-unbuttoned over his bare chest, his curls rumpled and messy. Will’s never had a thing for seeing his partners in his clothes before, but that might be about to change.

 

He realizes he’s staring, and clears his throat. “Good morning to you, too,” he says. “How’s your back?”

 

“You ought to know,” Derek says, his smile tipping into a smirk. “Don’t you think?”

 

“Uh.” Will flushes, not really sure how to respond to that, and holds out the mug of coffee instead. “You know, if you’d waited another two minutes, you could have had room service.”

 

Derek grins, accepting the cup from him and taking an immediate sip, not seeming to care about the temperature. “And miss seeing you all sleepy-rumpled in my kitchen? Perish the thought.” Will snorts and starts to turn back to the carafe to pour himself a mug, but Derek reaches out and catches him by the belt loop. “Hey.”

 

Will pauses. “What?”

 

Derek sets his mug on the counter. “Come here.”

 

He tugs on Will’s belt. Unprotesting, Will goes. Derek slips a hand around the back of his neck, and Will finds his shoulders relaxing even before their lips meet, Derek wordlessly answering a question Will hadn’t even realized had been curling at the back of his mind since he’d woken.

 

The kiss is gentle, sweet, already easy in a way that takes Will by surprise. After all these years of feeling like he’s been running uphill in a tailwind, this--Derek warm and soft and comfortable in his arms, shaping himself against Will’s body like he already knows how to make himself fit there--feels too simple to be real.

 

They pull apart. Derek runs the pad of his thumb against Will’s bottom lip, his smile lazy and content. “Okay,” he says, his voice tinged with satisfaction, just slightly teasing. “What were you saying about room service? That if I went and got back into bed I could get breakfast?”

 

Will snorts. “Nice try,” he says, dropping his arm from around Derek’s waist and going to pour his cup of coffee. “I actually thought about it, but even if I wanted to, you missed your shot by getting up, and you don’t have any food in your kitchen.”

 

“I have eggs,” Derek protests. “And things you could put in eggs.”

 

“You have three eggs,” Will corrects, “And an onion and half a bag of shredded cheese.”

 

“That’s scrambled eggs!”

 

“That’s very, very sad scrambled eggs,” Will says, leaning against the counter. This is familiar ground, half-banter and half-needling, and something about that eases something in his chest.

 

Derek gives him a pathetic look over the rim of his mug, and Will huffs out a laugh, reaching out to pull him closer by the waist. It’s almost alarming, how easy it feels to touch him now. “How have you not starved to death?”

 

“You feed me breakfast every day,” Derek says, rearranging his grip on his cup so that it rests lightly against Will’s sternum. “And then I usually just don’t eat again until dinner.”

 

Will makes a face. “Don’t tell me that, oh my God. Don’t you literally work in a place with a restaurant?”

 

“Technically, but that’s customer food. Also I forget.”

 

“I would like to reiterate my how have you not starved to death.”

 

Derek grins and pats his cheek. “Don’t worry about it.”

 

“I think we’ve established,” Will says dryly, “that worrying about you is not something I’m likely to stop doing any time soon.”

 

He winces after he says it, not quite sure if it was the right thing to say, but Derek’s face softens.

 

“That might take some getting used to,” he says, sounding nervous for the first time that morning.

 

Will senses, suddenly and with a clarity that he rarely has when dealing with Derek, that this is a delicate moment, to be handled with care. He takes his hand off Derek’s waist and slips it around to the small of Derek’s back, firm, gentle pressure. “I’ll work at it if you will,” he says.

 

Derek looks at him, eyes searching Will’s face. Will doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but he hopes he finds it. “Yeah?”

 

Will nods. “Yeah.”

 

Derek’s fingers flex around his coffee mug where they’re pressed to Will’s chest, and then he smiles. It breaks over his face like sunshine, warm and bright, and Will might really need to rethink his opinion of himself as an unsentimental person.

 

“Okay,” Derek says. “Then what’s next?”

 

Will drops his hand back to Derek’s waist, nudging him gently back a few inches before he does something extremely irresponsible in answer to that question. “Well,” he says. He picks up his coffee, just to have something safer to do with his hands, and tries to think of a good answer. “I, uh.”

 

He can feel himself floundering. Derek’s lips twitch into a grin. “You’ve never been shy with me a minute in your life,” he says. “Are you starting now?”

 

“I don’t want to rush things,” Will grumbles.

 

Derek snorts. “It’s a little late late for that,” he says, and then bites his lip, his cheeks darkening just slightly. Will remembers, his own face heating, the beeping of Derek’s phone interrupting them last night, a text from Justin with a congrats on the sex gif, immediately followed by lol don’t worry i told ford to crash with me. USE A CONDOM!!!!

 

(Will may murder Chris Chow the next time he sees him.

 

Although the empty house had been pretty great.

 

...Very great, even.)

 

Derek coughs, breaking the silence. “I mean. I think the take it slow ship has sailed.”

 

Will’s flush spreads around to his ears, but he can’t say Derek’s wrong. He’s got several bite marks barely hidden under by collar of his t-shirt to attest to that, and Derek doesn’t look much better. “We took it slow for almost sixteen years,” he says, which isn’t exactly the truth, but it’s close enough. “I think we paid our dues.”

 

Derek’s eyes crinkle around the corners. “I can get on board with that,” he says. “Well--how about breakfast, then?”

 

Will rolls his eyes. “Did you miss the part where your kitchen is empty?”

 

“I didn’t, actually,” Derek says, poking the center of his chest. His eyes are sparkling, though. “Fortunately, though, I know this great little diner.”

 

“Cute,” Will says. Still, they do need to eat, and there is literally no real food in this kitchen. Well, there probably could be, if he put his mind to it, but he knows himself well enough that he’s not going to be able to concentrate on creative cooking with Derek lounging around wearing his clothing.

 

(After ten minutes of looking at him, he can admit that that’s definitely going to be a thing.)

 

“You know, I’ll do you one better,” he says, draining his coffee mug and putting it down on the counter. “I happen to know the guy who owns that diner, and his apartment is right upstairs. We can head over there, you go get into that bed, and I can arrange for you to get your room service after all.”

 

Derek grins. “Oh, yeah?”

 

“Yup.”

 

That’s a plan I can get behind.” Derek steps away. “Let me go get dressed.”

 

Will nods, moving to bring his empty mug to the sink, and then pauses. “Derek?”

 

Derek glances over his shoulder at him.

 

Ears red, Will says, “Keep the flannel on.”

 

Derek’s eyebrows shoot up, and then his face breaks out into a delighted smile, just this side of wicked. He puts his coffee cup down on the kitchen table, crosses the room to Will, and pulls him into a kiss.

 

Will feels it down to his toes. Derek tastes like coffee, his hands warm at the sides of Will’s neck. Someone makes a small, wanting sound, and Will realizes with vague alarm that it was him.

 

Derek pulls back, grinning, and pats Will’s cheek. “Flannel on,” he says, breezily, picking up his cup again like he hasn’t left Will wobbling on his feet. “You got it.”

 

He leaves the kitchen. Will takes a few deep, steadying breath, and then makes himself pour the remaining coffee into a pitcher and wash out the machine to keep himself from following Derek up the stairs.

 

By some miracle, they make it out the door without getting sidetracked. They take Will’s truck, even though the Diner is easily in walking distance, Derek scrolling through his phone and looking increasingly alarmed.

 

“How bad is it?” Will asks.

 

“It’s not...terrible,” Derek says, sipping coffee from the travel mug Will had poured for him.

 

(He can’t say he’s not still concerned about Derek’s caffeine habits and that he’s not going to at least try to get him to cut down, but Derek’s surprised, delighted smile when Will had handed it to him when he came back down to the kitchen had been worth it.)

 

Will glances at him. “Not terrible by your standards, as a person who isn’t an extravert but doesn’t mind people,” he clarifies, “or not terrible by my standards, as a person who wants people out of my business, one hundred percent of the time?”

 

“Oh, terrible, then,” Derek says immediately. “Very, very bad.”

 

Will groans. He should have figured as much between the text from Justin last night and Carter this morning, plus whatever else has come in that he hasn’t bothered looking at since they silenced their phones. “Who do you think knows?”

 

“Better question is probably who doesn’t,” Derek says, clicking his phone off and slipping it into his pocket.

 

“I’m going to kill Chris,” Will says, revising his earlier opinion again. Derek doesn’t respond. They come to a stop sign, and Will looks at him, finds his expression uncertain, a little nervous. “Derek?”

 

“Is it that bad, really?” Derek asks. It’s a simple question, but Will can sense that there’s something under it. “People knowing?”

 

Will doesn’t know what he’s really asking, but he knows that whatever he says will matter. “No,” he says, carefully. The streets are empty enough that he doesn’t mind staying stopped at the intersection, putting the car in park so that he can look at Derek while he speaks. “I just...it would have been nice to have it to ourselves for a little while, that’s all.”

 

Derek regards him for a long moment, and then his lips tick up into a small smile. “So it’s about sharing?”

 

The tension in the air softens. Will relaxes. “You got me,” he agrees, shifting back into drive. “Middle child. I’m very possessive.”

 

Derek hums. “I’m sure we can find a way to work with that.”

 

Will swerves, then swears as he pulls himself back into the center of the lane. Derek laughs.

 

The Diner is bustling when they pull into the small staff parking lot around back, the usual weekend breakfast crowd probably made even fuller by whatever gossip’s going around about the two of them. Will doesn’t give himself permission to get nervous, just takes Derek’s hand and leads the way around to the side door that leads straight up to his apartment.

 

“I want to just go in to make sure things are running okay without me,” he says, wishing he his dad hadn’t worked quite so hard to make sure he inherited the Poindexter Work Ethic. “You can go right up, though, if you don’t want to get mobbed.”

 

Derek cocks an eyebrow. “And leave you to face the wolves alone?” he says. “Come on, Will, what kind of guy do you think I am?” He brings their joined hands up, waving them pointedly. “Come on. Let’s do it.”

 

Caught somewhere between overwhelming affection and a sense of impending doom, Will lets Derek nudge him towards the main entrance. He steals a glance inside as they pass the front window and winces, catching sight of Eric Bittle and Jack Zimmermann; Kent Parson with Alexei Mashkov tucked into a two-person table in the corner; Suzanne Bittle, Judy Phelps, and Alice Atley sharing by the wall.

 

Ford and Tony are there, too, but without Connor; he spares half a moment to worry about that before realizing it’s probably because Connor’s waiting tables. Sure enough, a moment later, Connor appears with a coffee pot in hand, topping off their mugs with a blushing grin.

 

It’s probably pure chance that makes him look up at the window as Will and Derek pass, and then luck and good reflexes that keep him from dropping the pot. Will gives him a wince and a half-wave, and Connor smirks, saying something to Ford, who whips around to stare at him. Her face breaks out into a grin that’s far too close to Derek’s for Will’s comfort.

 

“Your kid’s here,” Will says, out of the corner of his mouth. Derek follows his gaze, jumps, and then sighs.

 

“Oh, God, here we go,” he says. “She’s never going to let me hear the end of this one.”

 

“Not too late to bail,” Will offers. “I hear California’s nice.”

 

He’s only half-kidding, but Derek squeezes his hand. “I was promised breakfast,” he says.

 

It shouldn’t sound like a reassurance, but somehow it does. “You were,” Will agrees, and pushes the door open.

 

Predictably, a hush goes over the room as they step inside. Will freezes, probably doing a very unattractive impression of a deer in headlights, but Derek just squeezes his hand, kisses his cheek, and then pulls him along over through the silent room to Ford and Tony’s table. He lets go of Will’s hand and plops down in the chair next to Ford.

 

“Okay, kid,” he says, draping an arm over the back of his chair. “Get it out of your system.”

 

Daddy,” Ford says, looking a bit like the cat who caught the canary. “I don’t even know where to start.” She looks past him at Will, then widens her eyes and snaps her gaze back to Derek. “Are you wearing Will’s shirt?”

 

“Yup,” Derek says, shameless. She gapes at him, clearly trying to decide how to make fun of him first, and picks up her coffee while she’s distracted. “And you should know I’m not staying, I’m just here to say hi while Will checks in on the kitchen, then we’re going upstairs and Will’s making me breakfast in bed.”

 

“Uh, TMI,” Connor says.

 

“I think it’s cute,” Tony says, propping his chin on his hands.

 

“No, I think I’m with Connor,” Ford says. “TMI.” She seems to notice that Derek’s taken her coffee. “Hey!”

 

Derek takes an unapologetic sip. “Well, you should have thought of that before you went behind my back and sent him to the house last night,” he says. “After what you tried to pull at the Winter Festival, what did you think was going to happen, munchkin?”

 

His tone has gone suddenly sly. Ford sputters, turning to Tony and Connor for help. They look blankly back at her while Derek sits smugly back with his coffee, and Will realizes that this is why he came over here, and feels a sudden rush of fondness so strong he doesn’t even know what to do with it. “Hey,” he says, finally unfreezing his limbs and setting a hand on Derek’s shoulder. “I’m gonna go check the kitchen, and then we’ll head up. You gonna be okay terrorizing the kids for a few more minutes?”

 

Derek’s eyes crinkle. “I think I can manage it, yeah.”

 

Will grins, and then, before he can stop himself--because now, he realizes, he doesn’t have to stop himself--he leans in and kisses him, long and slow and lingering, one hand on the side of Derek’s neck to hold him close. He’s vaguely aware of the sudden swell of conversation around him, the “oh, come on,” from one of the kids, but it’s all background noise, far less important than the feeling of Derek’s mouth under his.

 

Derek’s grinning when Will pulls away. “You know,” he says, “if you didn’t want to share this with the whole town, I think you just blew your last chance at keeping it quiet.” He nods at the rest of the Diner, and Will catches several people none-too-subtly tuck their phones away--the other people on staff aren’t nearly as picky about the phone rule as he is. “I’m pretty sure half the worst gossips in town will have seen that.”

 

Will considers that. He’s keenly, deeply aware of eyes on him, in a way that would normally make him want to run for the hills. The kids are staring at the two of them, looking like they can’t decide whether to make fun or form a barricade.

 

Derek’s skin is still warm under his hand. He’s smiling.

 

“Let ‘em talk,” Will says, and leans down to kiss him again.

 

 

This is Samwell, Massachusetts, population now 8,478, not including cats. It’s a town where there’s only one streetlight, where people don’t always bother locking their doors, where everyone knows everyone else.

 

In Samwell, everybody knows that Will Poindexter’s Diner has the best coffee, but Eric “Bitty” Bittle’s bakery has the best cakes, pies, and cookies in town. Everybody knows that Larissa Duan at the Samwell Inn makes the best bacon bourbon jam within town limits, but you don’t say that within Suzanne Bittle’s hearing if you want to escape unscathed. Everybody knows that Richard Bittle is the director of athletics at Samwell High, but if you really want your kid to hone a particular skill, you send them to Caitlin Farmer.

 

And within a day, thanks to a very public kiss--and then one more for good measure--everybody in town knows that Derek Nurse and Will Poindexter have finally gotten together.

 

“Well, that’s that,” Eric Bittle says with a sigh, picking up his coffee as Will pulls Derek none-too-subtly out the door. He’d known already, of course, but there’s knowing and then there’s seeing. “So much for my new oven.” He’d had his money on Ford’s junior prom.

 

“Hey,” Pacer Wicks says, leaning over to his table. “I’ll bet you twenty bucks that Will proposes before the end of the year.”

 

Ollie O’Meara, sitting across from Pacer and sharing a stack of pancakes with him, sputters. “Oh, come on,” he says. “No way. Derek’s gonna propose. And after this long, I bet they seal the deal before Memorial Day.”

 

Eric considers that. “Yeah, okay,” he says, taking out his wallet. Next to him, Jack gives a long-suffering sigh. “I hear you on Memorial Day, but I’m with Pacer, I say Will proposes.” He twists in his chair. “Kent, are you getting this?”

 

Kent Parson holds up his phone, Google Sheets already open to a new document. “On it,” he says. “Who else?”

 

In the end, no one wins that bet.

 

Will does propose, on a rainy morning ten months after their first kiss. They’re taking Cat for a walk, and the third time Derek nearly slips and faceplants onto the rain-slicked sidewalk, as Will catches him with a well-trained arm around the waist, he thinks I’m going to be doing this forever, you loveable idiot, and the words just slip out.

 

“Marry me,” he says.

 

Derek uses Will’s arm to get his feet under him properly, and then seems to actually process what Will said and nearly falls all over again. Will, used to this kind of thing, just holds onto him. “What?”

 

Will takes a breath, and then, because accident or not, it’s not as though he doesn’t mean it, repeats, “Marry me.”

 

Derek stares for a moment. Then he reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls out a very distinctive velvet box. “You marry me first,” he says.

 

If he were anyone else, Will would consider letting Cat eat him. Because it’s Derek, it just makes him grin. “You are so fucking difficult,” he says, and pulls him into a kiss.

 

(So, no one wins the proposal bet.

 

But that’s all right, the people of Samwell reason.

 

There’s always the wedding.)