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When Franny is three, Debbie and Ian make a pact and go down to the University of Chicago’s administration office and enroll together. Enough people mistake the three of them as a cute little ginger family that Debbie’s eye is twitching and Ian spends the whole El train ride home laughing.

When he gets back from dropping Deb and Franny off at the Gallagher house, Yev is standing on his dinner chair and screaming that they can’t have Ian’s favorite meal without Ian and when Mickey notices Ian hovering in the doorway, Ian makes as if he’s going to leave, just to watch Mick’s eyes widen in indignant fury.

“Yevy,” Ian says theatrically as he steps into the kitchen and swoops the kid off the chair before he falls and breaks an arm. “Thank you so much for waiting for me so nicely.”

Mickey snaps a carrot and Yevgeny asks how big people school was and Ian regales him with vivid descriptions of every interesting person he and Deb had encountered while Mickey goes out to smoke. He gets back in just as Ian is solemnly swearing Yevgeny to a lifetime of helping with Ian’s big people homework.

“Are we ready to eat?” Mickey asks in his practiced calm voice and he doesn’t even clench his jaw when Yev nods agreeably.

“I’m starving,” Yev says, and Ian tries not to laugh.

College is hard, is the main takeaway Ian has in the first few weeks, but he’s fascinated by his classes and he’s riding the high of productivity and he’s talking to everyone he can, meeting people who have such ordinary lives and problems.

He gets home late most nights and Mickey and Lana take turns leaving him portions of dinner warming in the oven and Yev makes him gush during breakfast and he and Debbie get lunch together on campus twice a week and it had been hard as fuck to let go of the army dream, but doing something that works towards a better future, even if it’s not the one he’d originally wanted, makes him feel like there’s fizz behind his collarbones he’s so excited.

Mickey asks him how he is every night, and Ian has to think about it, has to assess his whole day and make sure it’s just plain enthusiasm and he’s not slipping into mania, but when he answers “good, Mick, just good,” one night, after a terrifyingly difficult exam and a not-that-great paper returned, Mickey rolls them over and kisses him hard.

“I can tell,” he says, when they separate. If Mickey were anyone else, he’d say something about the way Ian’s eyes look or the difference in the curve of his grin, but Ian doesn’t need to hear it.

They have sex and Ian’s mumbling about his reading the whole time, and Mickey seriously considers the ramifications of developing a nerdy librarian fantasy.

Ian takes three classes a semester, eager for more but afraid to push the envelope. He’s only working part time again, is no longer being a real contributor to their three-legged stool of bread-winning, but Mickey and Lana have reassured him over and over that his brain and his classes come before his paycheck.

“Imagine how much of a waste it’d be if you flunked because you were too devoted to bagging Mrs. McKinsey’s diet pills,” Mickey says one day at dinner, and that tables that discussion.

So, after talking to Yev about the possibility of him missing a few bedtime story sessions a week, Ian joins a club and two study groups and starts making friends with people who have never had their power shut off or a relative convicted of murder.

Ian starts getting invited to things that aren’t school related, and he’s hesitant about going, doesn’t want to waste what little free time he has not spending it with his little family and his much bigger family three blocks down. Mickey calls him a dumbass, talks some more shit about Gallaghers and how they’re too codependent, wipes down the bar he’s behind and slides Ian a sprite with a lime in it, so no one can tell he’s not drinking.

At the other end of the bar, Kev and Fi are trying to move Frank’s passed out body away from the walkway around the pool table, and Amy and Gemma are screaming JoJo Siwa lyrics, wearing identical birthday princess crowns, taking turns being twirled by Yev.

“So you think I should go bowling and to a slam poetry night and taste local craft beers with Northsiders?” Ian asks skeptically and he grins when Mickey can’t quite hide his disdain.

“If that’s what college folk are doing,” he says. “Gotta get the full experience.”

“The full experience includes my boyfriend coming along,” Ian says cheerfully, watching with glee as Mickey fumbles a glass.

“I’ll check my schedule,” Mickey tells him sourly, doesn’t dispute the label, or say anything too scathing about slam poetry. Ian considers it a win, even if he doubts Mickey’ll ever actually have enough free time to come out.

So Ian starts going to the Northsider events, unearths his old polo shirts, and starts saying the word shindig around Svetlana and Mickey for the sheer pleasure of watching their eyes peel away from their skulls in efforts to not roll them.

Every time he meets up with his friends, they ask with loaded voices where his beau that they’ve heard so much about is, and Ian doesn’t hesitate before giving whatever excuse Mickey had had that day until one day, Mickey agrees to come to Dave and Busters with them.

Ian grins like a crazy person the whole way there, keeps his hand high on Mickey’s thigh, since the weirdo has less of a problem with that than he does with hand-holding, and tugs him into the huge building and up the stairs, finding his group easily, surrounded by wings and pop.

Ian’s got five friends in all, and Gemma’s boyfriend’s here, so the group is sizeable but not too bad, and Mickey’s real subtle when he scoffs at their identical undercut haircuts and colored hair.

“Guys, this is Mickey,” Ian says cheerfully, elbowing him when he keeps shifting his gaze between Carter’s political t-shirt and Hannah’s chain that reads queer. “Mick, this is Gemma, Carter, Mateo, Tony, Hannah, and Gemma’s boyfriend, Jake.”

“How’re the wings here?” Mickey says after waving awkwardly to each person Ian introduced. This causes a five-minute, threeway argument about which sauce is the superior sauce that has Mickey’s eyes swinging back and forth between the participants like he’s watching a tennis match.

“I’m gonna get something to drink,” Ian says to him in a low voice, unwilling to get in the middle of it. “You want anything?”

“Yeah, get me a beer and some of those weird little tacos,” Mickey tells him easily, and when Ian steps away, he motions with one hand, silently asking if he can have a wing or two.

“Totally, bro, go ahead!” Carter tells him, and the group does a very shitty job at not staring at Mickey’s knuckle tattoos as he grabs three hot wings and a mostly-full cup of bleu cheese.

Later, it’s Mickey’s turn to get them refills, and Ian slips him a twenty for them, and, after he’s gone, he turns to his friends to gauge their reactions.

“He’s funny,” Gemma says loyally, when there’s a lingering silence that has Ian raising his eyebrows. “And he’s really, scary good at pool.”

She kicks her foot gently against his under the table as the rest of the group jumps to say nice things about Mickey, and winks at him when he shoots her a grateful look.

Mickey’s much the same way, when they get home that night, unable to or maybe unwilling to say anything too scornful about the first real friends Ian’s made without help from his siblings or his boyfriend since Mandy.

“Kinda lame, but it wasn’t terrible,” he says as they undress in front of their shared closet. “I’ll try to find more day shifts so I can come along more, if you want.”

An opportunity arises the next week, when Carter finds out that both Ian and Mickey had been on his childhood little league rival team.

“A bunch of us do pick-up games every Saturday we can,” he tells Ian during their poetry seminar. “You should come!”

“Mick will be stoked,” Ian says, not paying attention to the weird blip in Carter’s grin. “We have a history at baseball fields.”

Carter agrees to pick them up in his Wrangler that following Saturday, since Lana needs the car. He uses the address Ian gave him to get Mickey from the house first, watching curiously as Lana kisses him on the cheek and he squats down to say something to the kid, before following Mickey's directions to the Jewel where Ian’s finishing a short morning shift.

Baseball is fun, the kind of stupid competitive Mickey and Ian don’t do much of anymore, and Mickey’s almost as good as Ian at bat, despite his sordid history with being on a team. They’re on opposite teams and are not too demonstrative a couple, Ian spending more time shooting the shit with Carter and Jake and only communicating with Mickey through vicious trash talk and weird inside jokes none of the other teammates get.

The weather is good, warm enough that a lot of the guys start whipping their shirts off in the last few innings, warm from running and the sun and too much beer, and Ian and Mateo spend some time in the dugout discussing their anatomy final paper before Ian convinces him to step in closer to the pitcher’s mound the next time Mickey’s up for bat.

It makes a lot of the guys laugh and Mickey scoffs under his helmet from his spot on the plate. “Ay, very funny, Firecrotch,” he hollers across the field, and Ian gives him a smirk, whipping his own shirt off just as Jake pitches the ball.

Mickey bunts by accident, distracted by the sudden appearance of Ian’s abs, and swears up a storm as he’s outed, and he punches Ian hard in the arm when they pass each other during the last inning switch.

The game ends with Ian’s team winning by two runs, and their team do a bunch of bro-hugs and chug the rest of the too-warm beer from the cooler. Mickey bows out pretty early on in the celebration and conciliatory lunch at the sports bar across the street, and as soon as he leaves, Carter falls into the stool next to Ian and orders him another beer.

“Good win,” Ian tells him, before laughing and gesturing to Carter’s face to indicate his over-smudged eye black stripes. Carter mostly just succeeds in spreading it even further around his face and then moans pitifully when Ian laughs harder.

“Get it for me?” He asks, pouting dramatically, and Ian doesn’t even think twice about it. He does Carter’s left cheek first, and when he starts on the right cheek, Carter stops his hand, holding Ian’s hostage hand up against his face.

“Um,” Ian says, laughing a little more, trying not to overthink. “Bro.”

Carter doesn’t even say anything, just uses Ian’s trapped hand as leverage to plunge forward off his stool and try and kiss Ian full on the mouth.

“I think you’ve had enough to drink,” Ian says kindly, gently pulling his hand away and catching him before he can make contact. “You okay?”

“I know you and Mickey have this thing—” Carter starts, a little miserable.

“The thing where we’re in a long-term, committed relationship?”

Carter’s eyes shoot up at that. “Committed?”

“Uh,” Ian says, furrowing his brows. “Yes. For years now, man.”

“I saw him kissing someone else!”

Some of their friends are starting to look over and Ian can feel his face getting hot. He’s hardly embarrassed, mostly just exasperated.

“Ian,” Carter says, seemingly abandoning the other vein of conversation, “I would be so good for you.”

“Carter,” Ian says, gentle but firm. “Mickey is good for me.”

“He never comes to our stuff,” Carter protests, really on a roll now. “And he looks at us like we’re aliens when he does. And he always makes you pay for stuff, and he uses the F-slur, and he was kissing a lady and a kid this morning before the game.”

Ian purses his lips, completely at a loss. A lot of interactions with his friends have just become clearer. “I can tell what kind of picture you’ve built up about this,” he says finally. “And I appreciate you looking out for me. But it’s not how you think, and Mickey’s it for me.”

“You deserve better.” Carter says, plaintively. “I don’t even mean me, just someone.”

Ian takes a sip of his beer and frowns at how high-quality it is. He doesn’t owe anyone an explanation, but the sentiment is nice enough, and he’s sure Carter’s not the only one of his friends with this misinterpretation of Mickey and his’ relationship.

“Mickey never comes to stuff because he’s working two jobs to help support his kid and my college stuff. He’s uncomfortable around you guys because he doesn’t know how to relate to people who grew up in a normal environment and he says the f-slur because that’s how he was raised and he’s working on it. The lady he was kissing this morning was definitely Svetlana, his kid’s mom. Mickey’s a good man,” Ian says, with some level of finality. “He’d be really embarrassed about me saying it, but he is, and I love him.”

Carter’s gaping a little, so Ian slides his mostly-full beer over to him and smirks a little when he chugs it down before embarrassedly raising his eyes to meet Ian’s. “Sorry.”

“You’ve has too much to drink,” Ian says, again, graceful. “Only water after this, bro.” Carter nods, and asks the bartender for one immediately, taking the glass and sliding off his stool, giving Ian an awkward finger gun wave goodbye.

“Good game,” Ian tells him, forgiving, and Carter grins a little, using his free hand to offer another fist bump. Ian pounds it.