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Tied Like Kites

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“I’m terrible at this,” Kevin wails, twisting his hands in the bottom of his totally awesome crimson cable-knit sweater with really adorable reindeer on it. “I’m horrible and awful and I’m going to die and my family will stay ashamed of me forever and Frankie will kill Nick and Joe so he can become the oldest son and—“

Selena claps a hand over his mouth and narrows her eyes. “Jonas, I think I’m pretty understanding about the fact that you are obviously a functional retard. Allowances have to be made for the fact that you are one of four people alive who can rock white jeans, and there’s that poor wounded baby thing where your parents don’t love you, and that’s totally sad and everything. However, if you don’t stop whining like a three year old, I’m going to strangle you with your ugly Christmas scarf.”

Kevin looks down at his cheery green scarf, stylishly patterned with bells and holly, and gives Selena his best puppy eyes over her dainty, surprisingly iron-like hand.

Her eyes are little slits of irritated death now. “It is finals week. It is finals week, and I have four thousand and a half things to do, none of which include babying you because you have no self-confidence.” She uses her other dainty, iron hand to jab him in the sternum with a finger. “I’m going to take my hand off your mouth now. You are by no account allowed to start your self-pitying moaning when I do, understand?” Cautiously, she takes her hand away from Kevin’s face.

“But if I fail, okay, Nick is going to go on one of his terrifying rants about obligation and Professor Iero is going to try to light me on fire again and my parents are already not talking to me, I can’t afford to make the school think badly of me—“

Selena’s hand is way tighter over his mouth this time, tiny lime green fingernails digging into the side of his cheek sort of painfully. “I swear to god, Jonas,” she says, completely straight-faced, “if you continue to prevent me from studying, I will end you and every single thing you have ever loved on this planet.”

Kevin pouts at her palm. “Mmmrrrr?” he tries, widening the puppy eyes again. He tries to convey his misery and despair through telepathy and big, wet blinks of his lashes alone, but Selena’s entire power is centered around being mostly immune to mental invasion. (Joe always insists that it’s not a power, and Selena’s just cold and heartless, but Kevin is pretty sure that’s just because she wouldn’t go out with him.) It’s the only reason Kevin gets a female roommate—she’s the only one in the school who can block out the nightmares, the only one with walls strong enough to sleep through the night when Kevin lets go of his powers enough to sleep. (Joe also insists that Selena just sleeps like a dead log, but Kevin is beginning to suspect that Joe is just sad and bitter.)

Selena is just as  entirely unfazed by the non-psychic aspect of Kevin’s woe as she is the telepathic part. “I, okay, I am getting my books and going out to fill myself with caffeine and possibly bacon. You are going to go find someone else to screech your sadness at so that I don’t have to hear it. Okay?”

Kevin nods obediently, but doesn’t let up on the pout. Whatever Joe says, Kevin knows that there’s something alive and potentially humanoid and possibly caring somewhere in the depths of Selena’s existence.

She looks at him and sighs. “Stop being so freaking pitiful, god.” She ruffles his hair, though, and kisses his cheek before grabbing her books and banging her way out of the room, leaving Kevin, festively dressed and full of horrible, horrible despair in the middle of the dorm.

Sighing, he digs his cell out of his pocket and texts Demi.

--

Demi is apparently dating some fourth year named Bill, who is, in turn, soulbonded to some dude named Gabe, who is unequivocally the most terrifying being Kevin has ever encountered in his life.

“Oh, you are sweet,” Gabe purrs, tipping Kevin’s chin up with his finger while Kevin shifts nervously. “It’s almost disgusting. The Cobra is pleased, tiny curly one.”

Bill, who is almost as terrifying as Gabe—and he might be even more terrifying, if Kevin understood even half of the words he uses—flops down onto the couch, draping all nine zillion of his freakishly long limbs over Demi and beaming up at Kevin. “He’s like a poodle,” he says, sounding unnecessarily thrilled about it. “It’s just darling. Can we keep him?”

Demi flicks Bill’s ear and grabs Gabe’s back pocket, dragging him onto the couch and away from Kevin. “No,” she says sternly, like someone disciplining a dog. “There will be no keeping of Kevin. Kevin is a fragile and delicate virginal flower, and he does not need your creepiness.”

Gabe kisses her nose. “You like our creepiness.”

Demi’s smile is huge and bright, and Kevin is a tiny bit envious, just for a moment, that she has something to smile that big about. “I do, you sleazy freak, you.”

Kevin just buries his face in his hands and makes pitiful noises until everyone pays attention to him again. Then, he looks up from his palms and says, sniffling, “I’m going to fail everything.”

Demi makes a sympathetic clucking noise and disentangles herself from Bill and Gabe’s net of spider limbs and stands up to give Kevin a hug, rubbing a soothing hand over his back. Demi is Kevin’s only friend in the psychics department. She’s barely even a real telepath; if anything, she’s an empath, but there isn’t a separate division for that, so she’s been lumped into more than one class with Kevin. The awesome thing, though, about her power, is that she is absolutely awesome at making people feel better. Demi’s hugs are like being wrapped in sunshine and kittens, and if she didn’t have scary, scary lady boobs, Kevin would marry her just so he could hug her all the time. “Is it cause Selena is singing Kanye West and Celine Dion mashups while you’re studying again? Cause I talked to her about that, and she promised she’d stop.”

Selena has definitely not stopped doing that, not even a little bit at all, but Kevin is mostly used to hearing about her heart will go on despite gold diggers, so that’s not really the issue. “Professor Way is having a baby, so he’s leaving for the rest of the semester,” he mumbles into her shoulder. Just saying it makes him want to cry. “Which means that, for the final—“

Demi’s shoulders stiffen, just a little. “Wentz is taking over his class, isn’t he?”

Kevin doesn’t say anything, just bites his lip so he won’t make an embarrassing noise.

Demi squeezes him a little. “He’s not a bad guy, Kevin. He’s actually really cool, just—“ She stops herself, though, and leaves the sentence there.

Kevin isn’t sure what goes after that, whether it’s, He’s a complete crazy person, or, He has no sympathy for people who have the problems he had, or, He doesn’t knock before he jumps headlong into your brain, or, He’s the one who accidentally outed you to your parents and doesn’t feel even a little bit bad about it, but all of them are part of the problem, and Kevin doesn’t really need to hear Demi say them to know they’re there. He just buries his face in her shoulder and mumbles, “Everything is bad.”

Demi nods, and someone—Gabe or Bill, Kevin can’t tell—grabs his butt in what is obviously intended to be a supportive way. “It is,” she says understandingly. “Everything is probably bad. Can I do anything?”

Kevin shakes his head miserably. On second thought, “Kill me?” he suggests hopefully.

Demi smacks the back of his head, then hugs him tighter to take the sting out. “I think the closest I’ll get is taking your mind off it.” She steps back, holding him at arm’s length, looking him over.

“Ooh, ooh,” Bill says, raising his hand and grinning in a way that is definitely not at all reassuring, “I have an idea.” He pointedly doesn’t look at Gabe, but Kevin can feel the crackle of his thoughts rolling into Gabe’s head.

Gabe looks sidelong at Bill, raising one dark eyebrow. Gabe has really dead-looking eyes, actually, which doesn’t help with that thing where he’s really scary. “The Cobra approves of your plan, Billiam.” He waggles his eyebrows at Demi, sending Bill’s thoughts along to her. Kevin could look at them, if he really wanted to, but he’s not sure he wants to know what Bill’s thoughts feel like, and besides, Biscuit is always telling him that it’s rude. “Two against one, sunshine.”  

Demi narrows her eyes. “Kevin is going to hate this,” she points out. “Which,” she adds, slow and considering, “will definitely get his mind off his problem.”

Kevin shifts a little, and he can feel his eye start to twitch. “You do realize that I have to study extra, right? Like, a lot. Like, I have to go home now and study until my eyes bleed, I can’t—“

Demi loops her arm through his and shakes her head, beaming cheerfully at him. “You can take a break,” she says sweetly, leading him down the hallway to her room with an iron grip. “Now, how do you feel about glitter?”

Kevin likes glitter. Glitter is shiny. He’s pretty sure he’s not going to like wherever this is going, however. “Um,” he says.

Demi nods decisively. “Good, good.”

Everything is definitely bad.

--

Bill’s clothes are even tighter on Kevin than they are on Bill, which is saying something, because Kevin is pretty sure that Bill’s jeans are painted on. Fortunately, Demi didn’t make Kevin try to wear Bill’s pants, just one of his—as Gabe says, sniggering—blouses. It’s pretty, it is, and Kevin is totally a fan of pretty things, really, but it keeps riding up to show the bottom of his stomach, and the little sparkly pieces are sort of itchy, and three-quarter sleeves are not something he’s used to. He’s not sure if he wants to roll them up, so they’re out of the way, or tug them down, so his glittery arms don’t feel quite so naked. His collar definitely feels naked, totally exposed by the weird, definitely feminine scoop neck.

“Come on,” Demi says, grabbing Kevin’s arm and yanking him away from the wall, where he was perfectly comfortable, thank you, into the undulating throng of mostly-naked people that are all way, way more attractive and coordinated than Kevin is.

He lands between Demi and Bill, shoved up with his backside against Demi, and his poor, poor front side up against Bill and his spidery limbs, which he immediately wraps around Kevin like tentacles of snuggly death as he starts to dance. “Hello, precious,” he says, winking lasciviously and waggling his eyebrows in a fair imitation of Gabe.

Kevin can’t help flinching back, which doesn’t really help much, because behind him are Demi’s jiggly girl boobs and her hips are moving all weird and they’re touching his butt, and mostly Kevin just wants to die. The crowd is loud enough, just talking and yelling and singing along with the music, but Kevin can feel the hum of their thoughts crawling along his skin, looking for a way in. He’s terrible at shielding against other people’s thoughts, and everyone in here is thinking in loud colors and chaotic jumbles of want and fear and anger and exaltation and it’s horrible. If he takes the energy to try to block it all out, he’ll have to let go of the doors he keeps shut in his head, and that’s not an option, so he’s stuck standing there, shifting awkwardly, drowning in a thousand clamoring thoughts. He clenches his eyes shut as Bill starts to dance for real, hips bumping up against his, and just wishes, as hard as he can, that he were anywhere, anywhere else.

A hand wraps around his wrist and tugs, yanking him out from between Bill and Demi, who don’t seem at all perturbed by having less mass between their weird mating dance. Kevin can’t see who the arm belongs to, just a lean, probably male forearm that’s dragging him through the crowd. It’s dragging him away from the main crush of people, though, towards the wall, so Kevin follows.

The owner of the hand turns him, getting Kevin’s back to the wall, and Kevin doesn’t love that, because the crowd goes right up to the wall, and he’s even more boxed in than before. The guy, though—and it is a guy, Kevin sees, with shaggy dark hair falling over his face, and he kind of looks like he’s maybe a serial killer or something—angles himself in front of Kevin, between Kevin and the crowd. The fingers he has around Kevin’s wrist tighten a little, and he shoves at his hair with his other hand, looking Kevin dead in the eyes.

His eyes aren’t the same sort of creepy as Gabe’s, but there’s something weird about them, like maybe there’s nothing behind them. That’s sort of comforting, though, like Kevin could drop his shields right this second and nothing would come crawling out of this guy’s head to try to get into his. Kevin leans a little closer without meaning to, peering at the guy’s pupils, dark and huge in the dim light of the club.

And just like that, the creeping sensation of a thousand too many stray thoughts on his skin just drops away.

“Hey,” the guy says, one side of his mouth tilting up in what might be a smile. “You looked—“ he shrugs, like the shrug is supposed to represent whatever word is supposed to come next.

Kevin swallows. “I was, that, yeah.” Kevin can’t quite manage to wrench away from the guy’s gaze—something that tastes like early morning silence flickers through his head every time the guy blinks, and his skin feels like it’s maybe just a size too small. “How, uh. How did you get rid of the noise?” 

The quirk at the corner of the guy’s mouth twitches up a little higher, and he ignores Kevin’s question completely in favor of saying, “You’re like Bambi, kid, jesus.” He cocks his head, just a little, and Kevin’s horizon line tilts with it, making him sway. The guy’s free hand steadies him by the shoulder, and then he’s smoothing the pads of his fingers up the side of Kevin’s throat, stroking over his pulse point in a way that would probably be soothing if the person doing it weren’t a stranger with baby-killer eyes.

“I, uh,” Kevin says, biting his lip against the urge to bolt, “I don’t know you, do I?”

The guy’s mouth flattens for a second before twitching up higher than before, into something that might actually be called a smile. It makes him less creepy—his eyes crinkle up, and the silence in them is a comfortable one, not so stark and lonely. “Mike,” he says, like it’s a joke Kevin isn’t getting.

Kevin opens his mouth to introduce himself and politely ask Mike to stop petting him like some sort of animal, but before he gets the chance to make a sound, Mike’s mouth is slanted over his, teeth nipping at Kevin’s lower lip, tongue sweeping over the seam of his lips, and, in the wake of Kevin’s startled noise, into his mouth.

It’s not Kevin’s first kiss—that went to Selena, in the tenth grade, when she punched him in the face and then bit his mouth like an angry dog because he told her that the boy she liked played for the other team—but it might as well be, because every single thing going on in Kevin’s head flickers out and goes dark, one by one.

Kevin holds himself stiff for a minute, okay, because this is a stranger, and Kevin is not a slut, but then Mike’s hands are on his hips, thumbs sweeping under the waist of his jeans and his mouth is opening a little wider and he’s pressing Kevin back against the wall, hips to hips, and, as startlingly awesome as that actually is, the part where every single door in Kevin’s head pops open at once is a heck of a lot more distracting.

Mike makes an approving noise into Kevin’s mouth and pushes closer, both against the wall and in Kevin’s head.

All telepaths have hallways. Every single one learns, in their first year of school, to take all the thoughts they never wanted to have, all the thoughts they never meant to hear, and lock them behind a dozen different doors, separating them from their consciousness so they don’t go insane.

Kevin doesn’t have a hallway. Kevin has a sprawling mansion of hallways, with a dark basement full of nightmares that like to wait until he’s asleep to break down their doors and run down the hallways of every other human being in range of Kevin’s thoughts.

Kevin hasn’t seen them get out while he was awake since he was fourteen years old.

Mike doesn’t just pop all Kevin’s locks; he swings every single door wide open. Kevin is sedated with soft thoughts, sweet murmurs of, You’re safe, and, I’ve got you now, don’t worry, and, Let me see, come on.

Kevin’s hands are fisted in the front of Mike’s shirt, fabric clenched too hard in his palms, and soft thoughts or not, there’s a reason Selena’s his roommate, a reason he doesn’t want Wentz calling the shots on his final, a reason he doesn’t let people touch him. Really, he tells Mike’s mind, you really don’t want to do that.

Mike’s mouth slips off his, and he says, out loud, against Kevin’s lips, “Quit fighting me, kid.”

“I don’t even know you,” Kevin says despairingly, eyes still squeezed shut. “What were you expecting, exactly?”

Mike huffs a laugh, tipping his forehead against Kevin’s, and says, silent this time, but gently commanding all the same, You’ve always known me.

Mike’s hands are still on Kevin’s hips, thumbs still smoothing over Kevin’s skin. It’s distracting in a way Kevin’s not really used to. Kevin pulls back a little—as far as he can go, with his back to the wall—when Mike tries to kiss him again. “I don’t,” he argues, mulish. “I’ve never met you.”

Mike pulls back, too, far enough to look Kevin in the eye. “Doesn’t mean you don’t know me,” he says, in this tone like he thinks what he’s saying is perfectly reasonable. Softer, almost awkwardly, he says in Kevin’s head, I could taste your fear a mile away. He presses his lips to Kevin’s forehead, adding, If you let me in, the nightmares can go away.

Kevin swallows. “I don’t just let strangers—That’s not something people are allowed to see.” He says it out loud, refuses to take the invitation into Mike’s head. He doesn’t like being behind other people’s eyes, and he likes it even less when they’re other telepaths, hates the feeling that they can flip through him like a picture book and study his insides.

Mike’s hands tighten over his hips, fingertips digging into Kevin’s skin. “I’m not a telepath,” he says sharply, mouth barely a millimeter from Kevin’s forehead. “I’m—this wouldn’t work with anybody else. Seriously, kid, can you really not tell?” He sounds a little bitter. He sighs a little and nudges at Kevin’s nose with his. “I’m not a telepath, dumbass, I’m just yours.”

Kevin blinks at him. “What?”

Mike snorts, rolling his eyes. Kevin, for one, doesn’t appreciate the long-suffering exasperation in his voice when he says, “I’m your bond, kid, are you that dumb?” He mutters something that may or may not be, “great, I get a retard,” under his breath, but Kevin chooses to pretend that it’s drowned out by the noise of the club.

Kevin resents the number of times he’s been referred to as developmentally challenged today. He would just like to mark down, on the giant pages of the universe, that he is not thrilled with how often that’s used as a descriptor for him. “You can’t be my bond,” Kevin says, instead of arguing about his retardation or lack thereof. “I had one already.”

Mike shifts a little, leaning into Kevin, pinning him to the wall with his weight, and says, just in Kevin’s head, I was just in your head, kid. I know that.

Kevin doesn’t really know what the appropriate response is to that, but, “People only get one bond.” Dani was absolutely not anything Kevin ever wanted—she was a girl, for starters, and even as a child, Kevin knew that wasn’t what he liked, and she was just as shy as he was, and just as awkward, and she was driven by things that never seemed anything like important to Kevin at all—but he loved her, all the same, and they’d bonded when Kevin was four years old. Kevin’s parents had explained it to him, had explained that whether he could tell or not, Dani was his other half, and they’d grow into each other’s thoughts in time. “I had mine.” Kevin had heard hers, like bells in his head, louder than anyone else’s, but Dani still hadn’t heard his by the time she died. Kevin isn’t what he’d call bitter, he just doesn’t have the personality for it, but he’s more than a little bit sad. 

Mike shrugs, completely unconcerned. “Your head has paisley carpet.”

It does. “So?”

“So,” Mike says, like he’s talking to a three year old, “I’m still not a telepath.”

Kevin clenches his eyes shut. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

Mike leans back in, mouth softer against Kevin’s this time, and says gently, Check.

--

Mike’s hallway is alien and disconcerting, all sparsely decorated walls and gray carpet, with closed doors and no windows to be seen. Kevin keeps his hands jammed into his pockets and says, “You don’t really have a sense of interior design, do you?” Despite being painfully unfamiliar in design, something about the hallway is familiar, like the echo of a dream Kevin has maybe had once or twice and then forgotten.

Mike’s mouth quirks up a little, and he shrugs. “My powers don’t have anything to do with telepathy. I’m not really used to having anyone else in here.”

Kevin bites his lip and doesn’t comment. He picks a door at random and tries the knob, half expecting it to be locked. It isn’t, turning easily and swinging open without a sound.

There’s a little boy who must be Mike, shaggy hair flopping over eyes that still look like they belong to a hawk. He’s sitting on the floor, gnawing on a cracker with one hand, poking at a stack of blocks with the other. The walls of the room are almost as bare as those in the hallway, and there’s a TV in the corner, buzzing quietly.

“I was alone a lot, as a kid,” Mike explains from behind Kevin, like it’s not a big deal, like the boy in the room doesn’t look lonelier than Kevin has ever been in his life. “No siblings or anything. My mom raised me alone, and she kind of had to work a lot.”

Kevin pretends that he isn’t sad for him at all, and shuts the door, stepping back into the hallway and trying another.

The walls in this one are still pretty dark, with only a couple of ragged band posters here and there. Punk bands, mostly, from the looks of them; pretty much all people that Kevin has never heard of, and probably wouldn’t listen to. Mike, who looks maybe fourteen, is sprawled out on the bed on his stomach, headphones on. It’s sad, and it’s gray, and there’s a tug of regret in Kevin’s stomach, a tug that says if he’d been there, he could have done something, could have made things a little bit less lonely.

“You don’t look like you had much more company when you got older, either,” Kevin says softly, turning and shutting the door on Mike’s memory.

Mike just shrugs again. “It got better.”

“When?” Kevin asks, jerking his head toward the next door. “Here?”

Mike shakes his head, and his eyes are laughing a little. “Today.”

Kevin fights a smile. “Quit it. You’re supposed to be showing me stuff.”

Mike’s eyebrow quirks up, but he doesn’t argue. “I think the next one has my mom finding out about my powers, if you want to see how not-a-telepath I am.” He sounds kind of like he’s trying not to laugh.

Kevin sniffs delicately. He’s dignified, okay, he’s just making sure that this stranger from this, this, this club, okay, isn’t secretly here to, like, rape his mind and make Kevin his brainslave forever. He’s being responsible. “Yes, please.”

Mike’s smile widens, and he opens the door, gesturing Kevin in ahead of him. “After you, kid.”

The room is on fire. Like, literally, on fire. The ugly venetian blinds are completely consumed by flames, the dresser is burning, and the bed sheets are smoldering ominously. Mike—he looks older, now, but definitely still a teenager—is standing in the middle of the room, looking belligerent, arms crossed over his chest.

Another boy, who looks weirdly like Demi’s boyfriend, Bill, all long spider limbs and lady hair, is standing in front of him, matching his pose perfectly, chin jutting out. There’s a plump, dark haired woman standing between them, hands on her hips, looking incredibly displeased.

“What happened?” Kevin asks, blinking against the smoke. “Is that Bill Beckett? Why is your room on fire?”

Mike snorts. “Yeah. Bill wasn’t very good at staying out of other people’s heads. He pushed, and I’m pyrokinetic. My mom was kind of pissed about the carpet, though.”

Kevin blinks. “You’re not a telepath.” His brain is moving kind of slow, like maybe everything is underwater. “You’re not a telepath?”

“I’m pretty sure I mentioned that before, kid.” Mike hooks his chin over Kevin’s shoulder, settling his hands on Kevin’s hips, and they watch the room burn for a minute or two. Kevin isn’t really sure if it’s the smoke from the room or just the whole situation, but he’s feeling a little bit lightheaded.

“I should probably, uh.” He clears his throat, suddenly a lot more uncomfortable than he had been. “Should probably get out of your head. People are going to wonder why we’re standing so still for so long. I mean. It’s a club.”

Mike’s hands tighten over his hips. “Jonas. Come get coffee with me?”

Kevin hesitates, but after a moment, decides that, “It would probably be a good idea, yeah. This kind of doesn’t make any sense.”

Mike smiles against the side of Kevin’s neck, making Kevin’s skin spangle. “Cool.”

--

Kevin inhales the steam from his coffee, holding the chipped ceramic mug between his hands and using the steam as an excuse to keep his eyes closed for as long as possible.

“So you see how I’m not a telepath,” Mike says.

Kevin squeezes his eyes shut a little tighter. “I do, okay, yes, but I’ve still—I already had my bond. I don’t see how this is possible.” Mike’s foot nudges his under the table, and Kevin feels a spark of warmth jump from his foot up to his chest. Mike’s mind is nudging at his, too, a soft, constant pressure, like someone waiting at the door without ringing the bell. Most bizarrely, Kevin wants to let him in. “It’s not possible.”

Mike looks at him for a long moment, eyes serious over his coffee mug. “Jonas,” he says, voice gentle but firm, “you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that she wasn’t your bond.”

Kevin bites the inside of his cheek and inhales sharply. “She was,” he says, and it sounds emptier coming from his mouth than it did when his parents reassured him, over and over, that it was true, that his mind would open up to Dani’s in time, the way everyone’s mind was open to Kevin—but better, louder, so much closer. “She was,” he says again, smaller, aching.

Mike stops waiting at the door to Kevin’s head, just pushes inside and drags Kevin out again with him, into the warmth of Mike’s thoughts, curling around him like blankets. You know they lied to you, kid, come on, he says, not unkindly.

Kevin shakes his head stubbornly. They would never do that to me, he argues. They love me.

Mike looks at him blankly. “So where are they now, exactly?” He knows, he’s been in Kevin’s head, flipped through Kevin’s memories like a comic book.

Kevin sets his jaw. “That’s different. They still love me, they’re just—they’re disappointed.”

“And you think that they wouldn’t have lied to you to keep from having to be disappointed?” Mike asks, still hanging onto Kevin tightly in his mind. “Because they’re not above that, Jonas, and they lied. This, here, this is what it’s like. This is how it goes. It’s exactly this easy.” His face softens a little, and he reaches out, wraps his hand over Kevin’s fingers on the coffee mug. “Let it be this easy.”

Kevin looks at him, really lets himself look. Mike is hard-edged and a little bit scary, with bright, bright eyes, and a sharp refusal to be vulnerable in the set of his jaw. His mind is uncomfortable and fiercely lonely, and despite that, it feels like it would be so easy for Kevin to curl up in it and call it home. He is, inexplicably, totally unafraid of the nightmares roaring in Kevin’s dark places, is totally unabashed about calling Kevin his, even this soon. It makes his chest ache in a way that’s totally different than the ache of regret he gets when he thinks about Dani, makes him think that maybe, secretly, it could be exactly this easy.

Mike pokes a little at Kevin’s own thoughts, a carefully localized disturbance, and says, I don’t normally let people get away with staring at me for this long, kid.

Kevin swallows back a nervous laugh and does his best to channel Selena’s impulsive bravery, says, I’m not people.

Mike’s eyes crinkle up, and he bites his lip over a smile. Yeah?

Kevin closes his eyes and swallows back the fear, says out loud, “Yeah.”

--

Kevin doesn’t hate Professor Wentz. He just doesn’t want to be around him. Or, like, on the same planet as him. Or even the same galaxy. Mostly, Kevin just doesn’t want to be in range of Professor Wentz’s telepathy. Mostly because, the last time they were in a room together, Professor Wentz managed to out Kevin to his parents within five seconds of meeting him.

It had gone, basically, like this: Professor was the leader of Kevin’s orientation tour on his first day at the Academy, as he was the head of the Psych department, not to mention one of the most powerful telepaths currently alive. He’s dressed all business casual—a rare phenomenon, Kevin had learned later, since Professor Wentz believed in a strict dress code of girl jeans and hoodies—and had his hair slicked back in a way that manages to be both sleazy and charming.

He shakes Kevin’s hand, and those of his parents, and says, “HI! I’m Professor Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III, head of our psychics department—“ and then he rounds on Kevin, delighted smile on his face and says, “Oh, awesome, it’s gonna be so cool to teach another gay telepath, dude, we’re totally gonna pick on Patrick—“ and then he stops, face falling, as he takes in the horrified look on Kevin’s face, and the twin stunned looks of fury on his parents’ faces.

“Excuse me?” Paul Jonas says, clearing his throat. “What did you say?”

Professor Wentz shifts a little, plastering a fake smile back on. “Well! I mean, it’s orientation, right? Perfect time to learn your son’s, uh, orientation…” he trails off, smiling sort of apologetically at Kevin, and that, then and there, was the moment that Kevin’s life was ruined forever.

So, okay, the idea of finishing out the semester—not to mention taking a final with—the man responsible for Kevin’s parents disowning and disavowing him is not exactly on the top of Kevin’s things-that-are-awesome list. Which is definitely not a list that he actually keeps. Nope.

--

Pete prides himself on how tragically in love with Professor Patrick Stump he is. His love is epic and all-consuming; it’s desperate and passionate and intense and a lot of other words that he’s found on the backs of the romance novels that his assistant, Ryan, keeps hidden in his desk.

“No,” Patrick says firmly, not looking up from the papers he’s pretending to be grading—there’s no way he’s actually grading them; the force of Pete’s epic love is way too strong for him to be paying attention to something as trivial as grading papers. “No, Pete, that’s imbecilic.”

Pete pulls out his best pout and pokes Patrick in the brain. “Patrick. Pattycakes. Trick. You’re my bond, stop ignoring me.”

Patrick gives a long-suffering sigh. “Pete. Just because we’re bonded, that doesn’t mean that I have to like you.” The corner of his mouth twitches, though, the ghost of the smile Pete knows is hiding in there somewhere. That’s true, of course, but Patrick does like him, he just hasn’t noticed yet. “And I’m not letting you use my mind as a class demonstration. That’s final.”

Pete leans down, across Patrick’s desk, and looks up at his adorable gingerness with pleading eyes. “Come onnnn,” he wheedles, doing his best to look devastated with Patrick’s coldness. “Your brain is the perfect illustration of the walls I’m trying to teach the kids how to build.” Something occurs to him, and he adds, a little slyly, “You know, if that Jonas kid had had walls like yours, that thing would never have happened with his parents, and we wouldn’t be paying for him with scholarship money, we’d be rolling in donations to the department. And if he had walls like yours, we wouldn’t have to make an exception and give him a coed room with the crazy Gomez chick, and—“

Patrick’s eyes are sort of dead, like he’s spent a thousand years too long listening to Pete talk. “I really, really hate you,” he says blandly. “But if it will stop you torturing your students and ruining their personal lives with your nosiness—“ he lets out another old-person sigh, “—then fine, okay, fine, I will let you violate my sense of personal space and privacy in front of a roomful of unnaturally curious coeds for the purpose of education. Fine.”

Pete claps his hands with glee and pecks Patrick on the cheek. “Thaaaank you, Trick.” He pecks Patrick’s other cheek and ignores Patrick’s irritated swatting at him. “You know you’re my favorite.”

“I hate you.”

Pete beams at him. “My favoritest favorite, even.”

Patrick hits his head against the desk a couple times—doubtlessly to clear his mind of the clouds of epic lust he feels for Pete. “Just go away,” he pleads, forehead pressed to the fake wood of the desktop. “Please.”

--

“Okay, guys,” Professor Wentz says, rubbing his hands together in this excited way that just screams danger for anyone remotely sane in the vicinity. “I have with me today, as you can probably see, the accomplished and most definitely smokin’ hot Professor Stump.” He gestures, all Vana White style, at Professor Stump, who looks violently uncomfortable with his entire existence at the moment. “He’s here as an educational aide—basically, I’m going to try to poke into his brain with my brain, and you guys are going to see what happens and why. Okay?” He claps his hands cheerfully. “Let’s get started.”

“Um,” Kevin says, a little bit unsettled. “What are we supposed to be learning from this, exactly?”

Professor Wentz grins at him, looking slightly demented. “Just watch, okay, you need this lesson like, ten times more than the rest of the class, Jonas.” He gestures at Professor Stump. “Pattycakes, have a seat, if you please.”

Professor Stump gives Professor Wentz a look of pure, unadulterated death and loathing, which, considering, Kevin thinks is pretty fair. “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that, Pete, dear god,” Professor Stump mutters irritably, hopping up onto Professor Wentz’s desk nonetheless.

Professor Wentz beams at him guilelessly. “A few more, I guess,” he says sunnily, circling around to stand behind the desk. “Okay, class. Pay close attention, now.”

Professor Wentz puts his index fingers on Professor Stump’s temples, sending a mental push through them, hard enough that Kevin can feel it, like a backlash of not-quite-there sound and pressure. It’s strong enough that half the doors in Kevin’s head pop their locks just from proximity.

Professor Stump is sitting, unperturbed, looking something akin to bored.

Professor Wentz sends another push, even stronger, a blast of not-sound so loud that Kevin’s head hurts.

Professor Stump’s mouth curls up, just slightly, in the ghost of a smirk, and he starts to pick casually at his nails. “Done yet?”

Professor Wentz’s mouth twitches a little, too, but he doesn’t say anything, just sends a third push—really, it’s more of a shove, direct and almost violent.

Professor Stump’s smirk flickers, just a little, but then resettles, sharper than before.

Professor Wentz is sweating a little when he takes his hands away from Professor Stump’s temples. “See, class?” he says, sounding a little winded. “Professor Stump has really annoyingly awesome mental walls.”

Kevin is more than a little impressed. Professor Wentz doesn’t normally have to poke into people’s minds—his power is so strong that he just has to look at them to know everything, as evidenced by his blurting out of Kevin’s orientation in front of his family. Professor Stump isn’t even a telepath.

“How does he do it?” Professor Wentz asks the class, hopping up to sit beside Professor Stump on the desk.

Greta, the cute blonde girl who sits beside Kevin, says, “I’m kind of thinking he’s just spent a really long time rejecting your unwanted sexual advances, Professor Wentz.”

The class titters, and Professor Stump’s smirk widens a little.

“That’s actually sort of true,” Professor Wentz allows. “As some of you know firsthand—“ he glances at Kevin, then away, “—I tend to accidentally glean a lot of knowledge that I don’t quite mean to. Pattycakes, here, was around me starting in the fifth grade, and he had to learn pretty early on how to shut me out if he didn’t want me blackmailing him into providing me with his sweet, sweet kisses.”

Kevin wonders if it’s ever occurred to Professor Wentz that he’s more than a little bit creepy. He maybe wonders it a little too loudly, actually, because Professor Wentz looks right at him and winks in this totally sketch way.

“It has,” Professor Wentz says, grinning. “But come on, Jonas, look at him. Everyone with eyes wants sweet, sweet kisses from that angel mouth.” He waggles his eyebrows at Professor Stump, who just shuts his eyes and makes a face like he’s in pain. “But anyways, seriously, guys, the best way to learn to set up really good walls for yourself is to have someone constantly trying to get into your head. Sooooo—“ he jumps down off the desk, rubbing his hands together again, “—you guys get to partner up and try to molest each other’s brains. Okay? Good.”

Kevin is pretty sure he is more sorry for Professor Stump than he has ever been for anyone in his life, because Professor Stump has to deal with Professor Wentz’s insanity every single day for pretty much the rest of his life. But in this moment—and in the subsequent moment, in which Professor Wentz pairs him up with Spencer, who is terrifying in every conceivable way and who looks sort of like a very, very angry lesbian with a beard—he feels even sorrier for himself. There’s no way he’s going to be able to keep Spencer, who is a way stronger telepath than he is, from seeing that Kevin thinks he looks like an angry lesbian with a beard, which means that he will pull off Kevin’s arms and eat his gooey insides like cheap gas station candy.

Kevin’s fears are completely irrelevant to Professor Wentz, however, who tells them to pair up and start practicing.

“Uh,” he says to Spencer, waving a hand in an awkward little wave, “Hi.”

Spencer doesn’t smile, just sort of contorts his mouth into a truly impressive bitchface. “Hi.” And then he’s sending a mental push, before Kevin can even gather his walls around himself properly, slamming into Kevin’s head like a wave.

Except that it only barely brushes Kevin’s consciousness before Spencer is reeling back, looking shocked and a little impressed, and Kevin has no idea what just happened. “Damn, Jonas,” Spencer says, blinking. “You’re like a baby Stump.”

“What’s this?” Professor Wentz asks, bouncing over to hover between them, looking skeptical. “What’s going on?”

Kevin shrugs, still more than a little confused.

“He has serious shielding going on, Professor,” Spencer says, brow knit. “Like. It was like plowing face-first into glass.”

Professor Wentz eyes Kevin. “This guy?” he asks, eyebrows climbing his forehead. “Jonas?”

Kevin shrugs. “I don’t—maybe he did it wrong? I didn’t even have time to shield before he jumped in.”

Professor Wentz narrows his eyes thoughtfully, hands jammed into the pockets of his hoodie, and sends a quick mental jab at Kevin’s mind, fast enough that Kevin wouldn’t be able to shield it if he tried—not that it does a lot of good to try to shield against Professor Wentz.

It just bounces back, though, harder than Spencer’s did, and Kevin’s mind stays unmolested.

“How are you doing that?” Professor Wentz asks, looking really horrifyingly curious.

Kevin cringes. “I’m…not.”

Professor Wentz looks like someone just told him that Christmas is coming early and all the presents are for him and him alone. He looks like someone just gave him a puppy. “Hey,” he shouts to the class without looking away from Kevin. “Guys, guys, come here. We’re going to try a group effort of cracking Jonas’s walls down, okay?”

Kevin just groans and buries his head in his hands. “Do I not get a say in this?” he mumbles to his palms, not really expecting an answer.

Professor Wentz snorts. “Yeah, right.”

--

It turns out that Kevin can still project just fine—if he has a really loud thought, or if he’s trying to get into someone else’s head, everything is pretty much normal. But not even the entire class can break through the mental shields he doesn’t mean to have up, and it takes Kevin about two hours of his entire Psychic Interactions class trying to gnaw their way into his brain before he realizes what it must be.

“Mike,” he blurts out, when he realizes that that’s the only thing that’s changed since the last time Professor Wentz tried to get into his head.

Professor Wentz is sweating and still grinning like a psychopath while he tries to drill his way into Kevin’s thoughts. It’s Professor Stump, still sitting on the desk, looking bored, that says, “Mike?”

Kevin nods, trying to think of how to explain. “He’s my—I met him the other—he’s my bond.” He bites his lip, studying his hands so he doesn’t have to look at Professor Wentz, who has suddenly stopped trying to shove his way into Kevin’s head. “He—he makes things quiet.”

Professor Stump’s brow is furrowed. “Is he a telepath?”

Kevin shakes his head. “No—he should be on your roster, actually, Professor. He’s pyrokinetic, he’s in your department.”

Professor Stump’s eyebrows go up to his hairline then. “Wait, you mean Carden? Mike Carden?”

Kevin nods dumbly. “He’s—he shouldn’t be able to do this, though, right? I mean. He shouldn’t have the psychic ability to keep everyone else out.”

Professor Stump looks thoughtful. “No,” he says slowly. “Probably not. But I think we’d better talk to him.”

Professor Wentz looks a little put out. “No more trying to crack him?” he pouts, looking at Professor Stump like he’s just had his candy taken away.

Professor Stump just looks at him, all level and completely unimpressed. “No, Pete, no more .” He says it like he’s talking to a dog that’s misbehaving, all stern and too-patient and totally long-suffering. “Come on, Jonas, before Pete decides to do something more insane.”

Kevin follows him obediently, trying not to look at Professor Wentz’s forlorn expression.

--

“Yep,” Mike says, sitting back in the other uncomfortable chair in Professor Stump’s office, kicking his feet up on the desk next to Professor Wentz’s butt and flicking his hair out of his eyes. He’s the picture of insolence, totally different than he was with Kevin the other night. His attitude seems a whole lot more in line with his dead-person, baby-killer eyes.

Professor Wentz looks kind of annoyed. “Well, you have to take them down. Jonas has work he needs to be doing, and he can’t do it if he’s got someone else’s walls in the way.”

Mike shrugs. “Not really my problem.”

Kevin shifts a little in his chair, uncomfortable under Professor Wentz’s accusatory gaze. “Mike—“ he starts, reaching out to put a hand on Mike’s arm.

Mike’s other hand comes up and squeezes it, but he doesn’t look at Kevin, just keeps staring Professor Wentz down. “You do realize, right, that he’s got all of this stuff in there that isn’t your business?”

Professor Wentz blinks like Mike bit him on the nose. “He’s a telepath,” he says dumbly, still blinking rapidly.

Mike rolls his eyes. “That doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to a sense of privacy.”

Professor Wentz opens and closes his mouth a couple times before he manages to get out, “That’s not… that’s kind of not how it works.”

“Don’t bother trying to explain personal space to him,” Professor Stump says, sounding tired. “I’ve tried a million times, it doesn’t work. He doesn’t believe in boundaries.”

Mike’s jaw is set. “Well, I do. And Jonas has a whole lot of things that aren’t a damn bit of anyone else’s business living in his head, and he’s never going to be able to deal with them if you’re looking at them before he gets the chance to.”

“You mean the nightmares,” Professor Stump says, realization dawning on his face. Kevin feels small, wants to hide away from the pity in Professor Stump’s eyes.

“You think that’s something he’s going to be able to deal with alone?” Professor Wentz says, incredulous.

It’s not. Kevin has spent the last several years totally failing to deal with it at all, locking the memories down deep enough that he doesn’t have to look at them while he’s awake. He hasn’t been able to do anything about them coming out while he’s asleep; hasn’t been able to keep them from creeping into the heads of everyone around him and wreaking havoc, either. It might be why he’s always been so bad at shielding—he’s so busy keeping it all locked away that he doesn’t have the energy leftover to keep anyone else out.

That’s what I’m here for, Mike says softly, barely a breath in Kevin’s mind. Either you let me deal with the nightmares while you keep everyone out, like I offered before, or I keep everyone else out while you deal with them. You can’t go on like this.

Kevin stiffens. I’ve been fine for years without you.

Mike shakes his head, squeezes the hand that’s still on top of Kevin’s. Jonas. You’re not anything at all like fine.

Professor Stump and Professor Wentz are watching them curiously. “Are you quite finished?” Professor Stump asks, eyebrow up. “Because this really can’t continue.”

Mike has the gall to look bored. “I’m not taking the shields down until the nightmares are dealt with. They’re his business, not yours, and the more you dig through his head like a closet, the less he’s going to feel like he can deal with it himself. You’re making a traumatic incident into a persistent disease, and he’s letting you.”

Kevin kind of wishes he could be affronted by that, but Mike’s been in his head, Mike’s seen it, has watched Kevin’s nightmare—memory, really—play out on a big screen, and knows how Kevin feels about it.

“If it were something he could deal with,” Professor Wentz says, “he would have already.”

Kevin is offended by that, but before he can say anything, Professor Stump is clamping a hand over Professor Wentz’s shoulder. “Forgive Pete,” he says to Kevin, not unkindly. “He isn’t good at cutting people slack, especially when they’re having problems with something he dealt with.” His hand tightens on Professor Wentz’s shoulder to keep him quiet, and he goes on, “Pete had nightmares during his entire childhood. They were bad enough that I could hear them, two streets away. He’s an unsympathetic douchebag because he thinks that because he got rid of them on his own, everyone else can do the same.”

Professor Wentz’s mouth is a thin line, and he’s got his teeth dug into his lower lip. Eventually he grits out, “Patrick may have a point.”

Mike shrugs again. “Still not taking down my shields.”

“Leaving that aside for the time being,” Professor Stump says, cutting off Professor Wentz before he can speak again, “how are you even creating them? You’re not a telepath, you shouldn’t be able to shield that strongly against one, let alone for someone other than yourself.”

Mike does look at Kevin, then, and his face softens a little, the sharpness in his eyes  melting into something that makes Kevin’s pulse speed up a little. “He needs me to,” Mike says simply, not looking away.

Kevin tries really, really hard not to find that charming, and does his very best not to smile. He doesn’t really succeed.

Professor Stump looks a little grossed out.  

--

When Kevin falls asleep that night, he isn’t submerged in nightmares like he usually is. Always is. Instead, he’s jerked away from the end of his hallway just as the door to the basement creaks open, just as the first shadow flickers its way up from the darkness below. 

Kevin blinks at the warm brown walls and the soft red couch and the intricate carpets, all flooded in light from a huge window, and says, “Where even am I?” There are even a couple mostly-failed attempts at Christmas decorations—a string of multicolored lights drooping above the window and a mostly naked wreath hanging on the door.

Mike shrugs. “Your room.”

Kevin’s brow furrows. “This is not my room. My room is tiny and ugly and I share it with Selena, who decorates like a very manly man.”

“It’s your room in my head,” Mike corrects, mouth twisted up wryly.

“The inside of your head is possibly even uglier and more poorly decorated than my room with Selena,” Kevin points out, skeptical.

Mike makes a face and says, “Gee, thanks,” but doesn’t argue with that—probably because Kevin is completely right, and Mike’s head is a festering pit of gray sadness and boring decorative choices. “I just—I thought you should have somewhere to go. In case.”

Kevin’s forehead is going to end up being hideous and wrinkly at this rate. “In case of what, exactly?”

Mike raises an eyebrow. “This? You’re not—Jonas, you’re like the least comfortable person ever in their own head. It just seemed like maybe there should be somewhere you could go if you couldn’t handle being in yours anymore.”

“I can stand my head just fine,” Kevin says, mulish. “Well, when Professor Wentz isn’t in it,” he amends, sticking his chin out. “I don’t need to be, like, looked after.”

Mike’s mouth twitches up into what might be an actual smile, and he comes forward, caging Kevin’s face in his hands. “You need looking after more than anyone I have ever met, Jonas, and my best friend is Beckett.”

Kevin sticks his lower lip out. “Do not,” he grumbles, pout deepening.

Mike presses a kiss to Kevin’s forehead and doesn’t let go, just leans into him, lips to skin, and murmurs, “Let me help? Please?”

A little bit of the tension in Kevin’s shoulders trickles away without him even really meaning for it to, and he sighs. “I don’t need help.”

Mike leans back, just a little, enough that he can look Kevin in the eyes. “Let me help, anyways?”

--

“They aren’t even really nightmares,” Kevin explains, almost an hour later. They’re curled up together on the red leather couch in Mike’s head, and Kevin has his chin propped on Mike’s shoulder, has his eyes closed. “They’re more like memories. They’re, like—you know how when something bad  happens, you kind of… imagine all the ways you could have fixed it?”

Mike nods, carding callused fingers through the hair at the back of Kevin’s neck.

“Well, it’s like that. But it’s me, coming in and finding her, and everyone telling me how I could have stopped her, could have kept her safe. Or it’s me, going after her, after—and seeing it happen. Or it’s me, saving her just in time, and then having her die, anyways.” He opens his eyes so he won’t have to see it, won’t have to have Dani’s body flashing up behind his eyes, won’t have to hear his parents and Joe and Nick telling him that if he’d loved her, if he’d done things better, then she wouldn’t have gone out that night.

Mike’s hand stops on the back of Kevin’s neck and squeezes a little, reassuring. “It’s not your fault that you weren’t in love with her.”

Kevin lets his eyes flutter shut. “But it’s kind of my fault that I didn’t let her love me.” Dani had been the sweetest girl Kevin had ever met, had wanted to fall in love with him and let it be her fairytale forever-and-always. They’d been betrothed since she was seven and Kevin was five. She’d had the smallest glimmer of magic, just enough to make things glitter, to make all her food taste better, to make her prettier on days when she was feeling down, but not quite enough to manifest into anything strong or focused like Kevin’s powers. She’d been just smart enough to learn quickly without being so smart that she asked all the awkward, embarrassing questions that Nick had asked, even as a baby; had been just pretty enough to be called pretty, without being so attractive as to cause problems, like Joe. She’d been the perfect young lady.

Kevin, on the other hand, had been smitten with his next door neighbor, Sterling, and was too young to understand that that was a problem. When he’d told Dani, because his mother had always told him that it was important to be honest, she had looked at him with big, sad eyes, and had said, “I need to go for a walk, Kevin, I’ll be back.”

Except that she never came back, and Kevin, only twelve at the time, two years younger than Dani was, sat at home, hands in his lap, and watched the minutes tick by on the big clock in his living room. It was almost two in the morning when he heard the squeal of tires, felt a wave of fear and panic before the impact of hard metal on soft skin, and then a quiet buzzing, like static heard from a long way away.

When his mother came in to ask what he was doing, why he hadn’t gone to bed, he told her that Dani had promised she’d be back.

His mother had taken a deep breath and said, resigned and so, so tired, “Kevin, no matter what happened, it’s not your fault, okay, sweetie?”

Except that it had been, and when his mother finally sent him to bed while they waited for a phone call, Kevin dreamed about it for the first time. He hasn’t gone a single night without seeing it since.

Mike presses a kiss to Kevin’s forehead, starts rubbing his hands in gentle circles over Kevin’s back. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he murmurs against Kevin’s skin.

Kevin shrugs, swallowing against the uncomfortable lump in his throat. “I didn’t do anything right, either.” Softer, a little closer to helpless than he’d like, he adds, “I was supposed to be in love with her. If I had been, she’d be alive right now.”

Mike squeezes him closer, a protective circle of arms pushing Kevin’s doubts back. “I wouldn’t ever gotten to have you,” he says, and Kevin isn’t sure that that’s a fair trade, but it’s true, either way. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s your parents, and her parents, for lying to you in the first place.” He smoothes Kevin’s hair back from his face in a weirdly familiar gesture, looking him in the eye. “It’s not your fault that you couldn’t make yourself feel something that wasn’t real.”

Kevin shrugs again. “If you say so.” It’s not anything he hasn’t heard before, from all the people who he’s accidentally pushed his nightmares on. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s the reason that she went out in the first place, the reason that she died at all.

Mike’s mouth tightens a little, and he presses another, slightly sharper kiss to Kevin’s brow. “Maybe,” he says, thoughtfully, “what you need is to hear her say it.”

Kevin snorts without anything like amusement. “She’s dead, Mike, that’s kind of the problem here.”

Mike huffs against Kevin’s cheek. “You go to a school for magical people, dumbass. You don’t think there’s even one person there who can talk to the dead?”

--

There isn’t anyone at the Academy who can talk to the dead. However, there is a recent graduate who can, and, in a horrible and slightly traumatizing twist of fate, that person is Gabe.

“Seriously?” Kevin says, a little nauseous. “There isn’t anyone else?”

Headmistress Asher arches one perfectly waxed eyebrow at him. “No,” she says plainly. “There seriously isn’t.”

Mike pats Kevin consolingly on the shoulder. “Saporta isn’t that bad. I mean, Bill’s with him, and Bill’s kind of a douche, but—“

Kevin just makes a noise like a dying animal. “He thinks I’m a poodle. He wants me to be a virgin sacrifice to his cobra, and I’m not even sure if that’s a metaphor.”

Headmistress Asher shakes her head, mouth curled up on one side like pure evil. “It’s not.”

--

“Come on,” Kevin says, pleadingly. “It’s Christmas. Time for miracles and giving and stuff.”

Gabe looks unimpressed. “I’m totally happy to oblige you, tiny poodle man. But like I said, I have my price.”

Kevin cringes. “I don’t want to sit in your lap and call you Santa, okay, it’s weird.”

Gabe waggles his eyebrows. “No, no, that’s not weird. It’d be weird if I made you do it naked.”

“Hey,” Demi says, pouting, “you made me do it naked. Jerk.”

Gabe’s eyebrow waggle only gets stronger. Kevin is sure, in the deepest parts of his soul, that Gabe has some sort of share in the word “waggle,” and that anytime anyone waggles anything, or even says “waggle” in the right tone of voice, Gabe will be summoned up from whatever darkness he normally lives in and will float by and snatch their waggle from them. Kevin knows this to be true. “You liked it,” he says airily, waving his hand.

Bill nods. “She did. This is truth.”

Demi is red as a tomato, sinking lower in her seat on the couch, arms crossed. “I hate you both.”

“So, uh,” Kevin says, hating to interrupt and attract Gabe’s terrifying gaze again, “can we get back to this thing where I need you to talk to my dead fiancé?”

--

Kevin gets away with not sitting in Gabe’s lap and calling him Santa, but only because Mike steps in with his terrifying serial-killer eyes and his sexy growly voice and tells Gabe to shove it. Kevin is sort of starting to like the thing where Mike is horrible and terrifying to everyone but him. He even wonders if maybe that’s how it is with Gabe and Bill and Demi—where maybe they’re scary to everyone but each other. But then he remembers that it’s Demi, and it’s really a lot more likely that she just likes how weird they are.

Gabe says, though, that they can’t do it right away, that they have to wait for the Solstice—“The veil between the worlds is thinner on the big magic days, poodle,”—and so Kevin is left with a week and a half to remember why having Gabe do weird sort-of-necromancy for him is a terrible, terrible idea.

“There is no way this is going to end well,” Kevin tells Mike reasonably when they leave Gabe and Bill’s apartment.

“Bill won’t let him do anything too horrible,” Mike says, in a way that’s probably meant to be reassuring. And for Mike, okay, maybe it is, because he’s apparently really good friends with Bill and has been for years, but for Kevin, Bill is the weird dude with freaky long arms and freaky long legs who considers ass-groping to be a normal greeting. Mike apparently catches wind of that thought, and laughs. “He’s seriously not that bad, Jonas, he’s just—you have to set boundaries.”

Mike’s version of boundaries involved setting his room on fire when Bill tried to look in his head, so Kevin isn’t entirely sure what Mike expects people who aren’t willing to commit arson to do, and says so. “Also,” he adds, “I don’t think I’m a really big boundary-setter. I think it’s possible that having brothers prevents me from doing that. Like, physically renders me incapable of drawing boundaries.” He’s spent almost his entire life with at least one other mind just a breath away from his, and it wasn’t until Dani’s death that he kept his thoughts separate from his brothers at all. They’d argued about it, even then, but since Kevin was the only telepath among them, there wasn’t a lot they could do about it when he put his foot down.

Mike bumps Kevin’s shoulder with his own. “Okay,” he allows, still laughing a little, “I won’t let him do anything too horrible.”

The fact that that’s actually reassuring is a little weird, but it is, so Kevin sighs and lets it go for now.

--

“So,” Kevin says, a little abruptly, while he and Selena are studying for finals—she’s flipping through her Social Ramifications of Magic text, and he’s supposed to be writing a ten page paper for Professor Wentz on why letting Mike shield his mind instead of doing it himself is a terrible idea— “it’s almost Christmas.”

Selena doesn’t deign to look up from her textbook. “That’s why I’m wearing a Santa hat, yep.” She gestures vaguely in the direction of her head, where she is, indeed, wearing a Santa hat at a charmingly jaunty angle. “Is this going somewhere?”

Kevin purses his lips. “It’s almost Christmas. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to, like, do.” It’s his first Christmas here, his first away from home—and his parents aren’t speaking to him. Nick and Joe are, of course, and Frankie, when he bothers to communicate with anyone human, but they all carefully fail to bring up Kevin’s parents, or plans for the holiday. Kevin is kind of at a loss.

Selena looks up, then, the bobble of her Santa hat falling over one eye. “Oh,” she says, brow knit delicately with what might be a flicker of concern. “Well, I’d let you come home with me, but I think I’m just spending the entire break having a bunch of sex with my girlfriend, and you’re afraid of boobs.”

Kevin shudders. Boobs are sort of horrifying, and Jennifer, Selena’s girlfriend, fills his soul with fear, despite her love of 1950’s fashion and tendency to wear scarves almost as awesome as his own. It could be the weird gleam she gets in her eye anytime she’s within a hundred yards of craft supplies. “Uh, I’m okay,” he says, as politely as he can, “but thanks.”

Selena snorts. “Why don’t you just go home with Mike?”

See, Kevin has thought of that, but the thing is, Kevin doesn’t really know Mike. They’re bonded, and Kevin supposes that means that they’re dating, or something, even though the closest thing they’ve had to a date was three hours on an imaginary couch in Mike’s head while Kevin explained his worst memory. But Kevin doesn’t actually know anything about Mike, not really, other than his lonely childhood and his fierce protectiveness of Kevin and his total lack of willingness to pay any attention to Professor Wentz and Professor Stump’s authority and the fact that he’s friends with Bill. “I think that would be weird, kind of.” He’s not even sure where Mike lives when he’s not staying in the Academy dorms, isn’t sure if he has anywhere to go, either. He doesn’t know if Mike even celebrates Christmas. For all he knows, Mike could be Jewish. Oh god, what if Mike is Jewish, and really Jewish, and hates Kevin for being raised Christian and believing in Santa and not knowing how a menorah works?

Kevin may be panicking. It doesn’t help that when he relates all of this to Selena, she just laughs hysterically and throws her Santa hat at him.

--

“I’m not Jewish,” Mike says, after he spends about ten minutes cracking up, which Kevin doesn’t appreciate, because Kevin is trying to be open and relate his fears and concerns to the guy who is supposed to be his soulmate, and Mike is laughing at him.

“I am,” Gabe says helpfully from where he’s sprawled with Bill in the corner of Mike’s dorm. “Jewish.”

Mike rolls his eyes. “You are not. You worship a giant purple cobra from space, jackass.”

Gabe sniffs haughtily. “The Cobra might be Jewish. He could totally be down with Jewish stuff. You don’t know. He speaks only to his followers. For all you know, he could be doing it in Hebrew. He might have a whole menorah made of snakes. He could wear a big old Star of David on his flappy Cobra neck-hood.”

Mike pinches the bridge of his nose. “Fine. Whatever. I’m not Jewish, Jonas. Not that there’s anything wrong with Jews. Or Space Jews.” He still can’t quite keep a straight face. “And when I don’t live here, I live in my mom’s house in Chicago. I don’t really celebrate Christmas, but it’s mostly because I’m lazy, not because I have some sort of deep emotional resentment towards Santa.”

Kevin thinks that if Mike had to live with Selena and her violent use of Santa hats, he might develop a deep emotional resentment towards Santa, but that’s something else entirely. “So—“

“So you should go home with him for Christmas, you adorably dumb child,” Bill says, rolling his eyes.

Kevin shifts a little awkwardly. “I don’t—that wasn’t me fishing for an invitation.“ He bites his lip, feeling more awkward than ever. “I just. I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing for Christmas, and then I realized that I didn’t know what you were doing for Christmas, and then I realized that I didn’t know, like, anything about you at all, and I felt sort of horrible, so—“

Mike cuts him off with his mouth, just a gentle, silencing press of lips to lips, and Kevin’s mind fuzzes out into sweet, soft static. Bill or Gabe—Kevin can’t tell, honestly, and he doesn’t really care—wolf-whistles. When Mike steps back, just a little, holding Kevin close with his hands fisted in Kevin’s bright green wreath sweater, he says in Kevin’s head, What do you want to know?

Kevin swallows back the tiny flood of panic he feels when he realizes that he kind of just wants to know—“Everything.”

--

Apparently, “everything” includes Bill telling Kevin hilarious—but probably embarrassing for Mike—stories about Mike in middle school and high school. It also includes Mike denying almost everything that comes out of Bill’s mouth, but he does most of it with a blush high on his cheeks, so Kevin is kind of more inclined to believe Bill.

“And, okay, at prom, I was elected Prom Queen—“

“—as a joke on the part of the football team,” Mike interjects, rolling his eyes. “He wasn’t supposed to like it—“

Bill ignores him, gesturing at his head in a way clearly intended to indicate a crown. “And so I called Michael, here, out to dance the first dance with me, as the Prom King was an utterly detestable fellow with hairy hams for arms and breath like a dead animal—“

“—and of course, I wasn’t going to dance with Bill, he was wearing a ballgown—“

“—It was an evening gown, Carden, don’t be ridiculous, it was slinky—“

“—whatever you want to call it, Bill, it was a dress, and the entire school was watching—“

Bill flaps an unconcerned hand. “Whatever. Anyways—“

Kevin tries to muffle his laughter into his hands. It doesn’t really work.

Mike glares at him, but it’s in this sort of way like he thinks Kevin laughing at him is kind of endearing, so Kevin stops trying to hold it in and just laughs harder.

--

“So,” Mike says, when Bill and Gabe have gone out for the evening—back to Gabe’s apartment, probably, where they apparently spend most of their time, which means Mike ends up getting the dorm to himself a lot—and it’s just him and Kevin, curled up on Mike’s bed, with Kevin’s head on Mike’s chest, tucked under his chin. “Christmas.”

Kevin makes a soft noise of assent and snuggles closer to Mike’s chest. “Christmas,” he agrees, not really sure what he’s agreeing to about Christmas exactly, and, “I miss my brothers.”

“I could probably talk Bill and Gabe into throwing them into a big sack and bringing them to my mom’s house in a sleigh, if you want,” Mike offers, totally deadpan.

Kevin giggles, maybe a little wetly, and snuffles for a moment before he says, not entirely joking, “That would be nice.”

Mike presses a kiss to the top of his head. “I’ll see what I can do. But you’ll come home with me?”

Kevin bites his lip and sucks in a breath. “Yeah,” he says, voice a little unsteady as he thinks of home, of Nick and Joe and Frankie and his parents in their pajamas, all the presents under the tree, the big breakfast after they’ve stuffed themselves with too many pieces of candy from their stockings. “Yeah, I will.”

Mike tightens the arm he has around Kevin’s side, tugging him closer, and Kevin can feel him smiling against his hair. “Good.”

The idea of spending the holidays with Mike, like this, curled up and warm and so easily comfortable—it’s not the same as the idea of spending them like he’s always spent them, but there’s a gentle buzz of sweet warmth under Kevin’s skin at the thought of it, nonetheless. “Thank you,” he murmurs into the worn fabric of Mike’s shirt.

Mike snorts softly. “For what, kid?”

Kevin lets himself smile, really smile, where Mike can’t see. “Just. This.”

Mike tips Kevin’s chin up with a finger, just enough that he can brush a not-quite-kiss over Kevin’s lips, and says, silent and almost achingly sincere, Always.

--

“How many ugly Christmas sweaters do you own?” Selena asks, eyeing Kevin’s suitcase with something verging on horror. “Oh my god, are those mittens?”

Kevin shuts the lid of his suitcase defensively. He’s packing today because he knows he won’t have the brain for it at the end of next week, after finals—specifically, after Professor Wentz’s final, which is probably going to end with Professor Wentz and Mike having some sort of shouting match while Kevin hides in a corner somewhere or something. “I like mittens. Mittens are like the more practical version of gloves.”

“They are not,” Selena protests, yanking one of Kevin’s snowflake mittens out of his jacket pocket. “They have no fingers, they’re less practical.”

They’re more practical for making a zillion snowballs to fire off at your brothers, especially when one of them is hydrokinetic and can make snowballs with magic, but Kevin has found that there’s almost no point to arguing with Selena. “Whatever, Mike likes my Christmas sweaters.” Kevin’s not actually sure that’s true, but Mike had said, “Nice sweater, Jonas,” yesterday, and Kevin’s going to pretend until his deathbed that it was sincere, and not an unkind jab at his poor, poor elf sweater.

“What’s this?” Selena asks, squinting at the corner of the red envelope sticking out of Kevin’s pocket. Kevin cringes when she makes a grab for it, but doesn’t even try to fight her grasping lady-claws of death. “Is this—oh my god, Jonas, is this a letter to Santa?”

Kevin closes his eyes and tries not to wince. Selena is a beast. Selena can smell fear. “No?” he tries hopefully. It is, of course, a letter to Santa, identical in form to the ones he’s been writing, with his brothers, since he was a little kid. He doesn’t actually believe in Santa, of course, but it’s always been an important family ritual, and doing it had sort of let him feel, just for a minute, like everything was normal.

“It is,” she crows, gleeful. “Can I read it?”

“No,” Kevin grouses, snatching it back. “It’s to Santa. Are you Santa?”

She waggles her eyebrows in a way that’s creepily reminiscent of Gabe. “I’ll be anything you want me to be, babe,” she says, leering.

Kevin just shoves the envelope into the bottom of his suitcase and zips it shut. “We shall never speak of this again,” he says, as dignified as possible.

Selena just cackles.

--

It takes Kevin a while to work up the nerve to do it, but eventually he manages to type out on his phone, I met someone. It takes him another little while to make himself send it to Nick and Joe. He can write as many letters to Santa as he wants, but really, really, what he wants is to be home with his brothers, trying to decorate the house in spite of Frankie terrorizing them all, and this is as close as he’s going to get.

Joe texts back first. he hot? pics bro come on

Nick’s response comes in almost immediately after, and makes it clear that they’re somewhere together. Ignore Joe, he’s a Neanderthal. What’s he like?

Kevin digs his teeth into his lower lip so he doesn’t smile, doesn’t cry. It takes him a minute to even figure out what to say. He’s like a part of me I hadn’t met yet.

Joe, predictably, says, A hot part?

Nick doesn’t text back, he calls. When Kevin picks up, he says, “It’s both of us. Come on, you can’t say something like that and leave it there.”

“Yeah, dude, spill,” Joe says, a little tinnier, like Nick has the phone and Joe is talking over his shoulder.

Kevin swallows down the regret that they can’t be having this conversation in person, that he can’t take Mike home for Christmas and introduce him to his family, that Nick is probably hiding in his bathroom so he can call, and says, “His name is Mike.”

It all goes a little more easily from there.

--

The upside to Mike being in his head all the time is obvious—Mike keeps the nightmares back, keeps Professor Wentz from popping into Kevin’s head without warning, keeps Kevin company when no one else is there.

The downside is that Mike is in Kevin’s head all the time, which means that Mike, if he’s paying attention, can catch all the things that Kevin doesn’t mean to think—all the things that he can shield from all the other telepaths in the world, the embarrassing little things that everyone keeps under a shield in their head, but that there’s no way for him to hide from Mike.

Kevin, unfortunately, has a lot of those kinds of thoughts when he’s faced with things like Mike’s arms.

Seriously? Mike teases, amused, when he catches Kevin at it while they’re studying.

Kevin blushes and ignores him, and that time, Mike lets it go.

When Kevin finds an image of Mike pinning Kevin to a wall, kissing him, one forearm braced over Kevin’s chest, the other holding Kevin’s wrists to the wall above his head, it takes him a solid minute to realize that it’s not his own thought, it’s Mike’s.

Not fair, he says, trying to pay attention to Professor Toro instead of Mike’s thoughts.

Mike isn’t really thinking, though, it’s just this one scene—of Mike holding Kevin in place, licking into his mouth, pressing close enough to grind their hips together—fuzzing in and out lazily.

What are you doing? Kevin asks, suddenly uncomfortably aware of exactly what Mike  is doing.

Mike doesn’t answer him, just turns the image up louder, stronger, until Kevin can feel Mike’s mouth on his, Mike’s hand stroking over his hip, Mike’s fingers popping the button on his jeans. Skip out of class, Mike says, mind sliding languorously around Kevin’s.

No, Kevin tells him firmly, doing his best to tune Mike out and listen to Professor Toro’s very important lecture on the effect of telepathy on the field of psychology.

Kevin is apparently bonded to a really terrible listener, because Mike completely ignores him and only responds with an image of himself, kneeling on the floor at Kevin’s feet, mouthing over the skin below Kevin’s navel, tugging Kevin’s jeans down off his hips.

“Professor Toro?” Kevin asks, raising his hand, voice a little higher than usual. “Can I please be excused? I’m not feeling well.”

--

Mike’s mouth is on his the second Kevin makes it through the door to Mike’s apartment. His hands make quick work of Kevin’s jacket and shirt, are already scrabbling at his jeans by the time they make it to the bedroom.

That lecture was probably really important, Kevin chides him, or tries to. Especially this close to finals.

Mike laughs a little, into Kevin’s mouth, and drags him onto the bed, rolling Kevin over on top of him. He spreads his knees so Kevin is between them, hips to hips, and threads his fingers through Kevin’s hair, tugging him down to deepen the kiss. Not as important as this. He pushes his hips up, grinding up against Kevin’s, and Kevin makes a startled noise into his mouth at the jolt of sensation.

Sorry, he says, blushing.

Mike catches Kevin’s lower lip between his teeth, tugs a little. Don’t be. His hands slide down, smoothing over Kevin’s back, until his fingers can slip under the waist of Kevin’s jeans. Can I? he asks, sending Kevin the image from before, of Mike on his knees, mouth hovering just below Kevin’s navel. Please? Anything?

Kevin is easy. Kevin is a complete and total whore for Mike and Mike’s wonderful everything, so he closes his eyes so he can see the image better and says, Yes, please.

Kevin lets all his breath out in a sweet sigh against Mike’s mouth and arches his hips up, helping Mike get him out of his jeans. Mike doesn’t bother to get them all the way off, just yanks them halfway down Kevin’s thighs and then drags his hand back up, pressing down against Kevin’s length with the heel of his hand. Kevin’s hips twitch up to meet him, and then Mike is tugging Kevin’s briefs down, too, and wrapping his hand around him. Kevin’s mind is a rolling litany of fuckyesgood, and he’s not sure if it’s coming from him or Mike, but he is definitely, absolutely in agreement.

Mike takes his hand away, just for a moment, leaning back and holding it in front of Kevin’s mouth. Kevin blinks at it, momentarily disoriented, before he tentatively opens his mouth, dragging his tongue over Mike’s palm.

Mike’s eyelids flutter to half-mast and his breathing goes ragged. Kevin can feel the ghost of a caress on his own palm, the echo of sensation. There’s a moment of stillness, of Mike watching Kevin’s face with heavy-lidded eyes, of Kevin feeling the breath catching in both their lungs, and then Mike is pressing Kevin back into the bed, one hand on his chest, the other reaching back down to wrap around Kevin’s cock, wrist flicking back and forth almost too fast, fist tight and spit-slick, and Kevin can barely take one breath, two, before he’s crying out and bucking up, coming across the front of Mike’s jeans and his own stomach, brain shorting out.

Mike groans in the rebound of the sensation, hunching over Kevin, hips jerking. “Fuck,” he mumbles into the sweaty skin of Kevin’s throat. “That was—“

Kevin can’t even see through the feedback of Mike’s orgasm, blinking up through a haze of blurred stars. “Can we do that again, but, like—“

“—Slower?” Mike suggests, still panting.

Kevin laughs a little, giddy and helpless. “Yeah. That.”

--

Winter Solstice is on the twenty first of December, a little less than a week after Kevin’s final with Professor Wentz is scheduled for. Which, of course, is sort of a problem, because Kevin can’t participate in the final unless Mike stops shielding him, and Mike is adamant that he won’t stop shielding him until Kevin’s dealt with his nightmares, and Kevin isn’t going to get anywhere with the guilt that’s causing them until Gabe does his magic thing.

Which is how Kevin ends up in Professor Stump’s office, sitting in one of the really uncomfortable chairs while Professor Stump sits crosslegged on his desk, straightening his bright green bowtie and eyeing Kevin expectantly.

“I’m not sure what you’re expecting me to do here,” Professor Stump says, after the silence has stretched on for a few minutes. “Pete doesn’t listen to me. At all.”

Kevin gnaws on his lip. It’s starting to taste like blood instead of Selena’s cherry lip gloss. “I think I could talk Mike into letting his shields down on me for the practical part of the exam—I mean, I think I’m going to do fine on the written part, we’re just supposed to know stuff like the rituals for intense shielding and the history of telepathic interaction—if Professor Wentz will agree to only stay in the outer levels of my consciousness.” Kevin hesitates. “If he’ll—if he won’t go into the problematic parts.”

Professor Stump opens his mouth, starts to say, “Jonas, I don’t think—“ but Kevin cuts him off.

“And we’re—Mike and I are working on something, on a thing to deal with those parts, but it’s not going to happen til after finals, and I know that’s not normally how it works, but I’m trying to take care of it on my own, and I feel like—I mean, I feel like, if you can help me convince Professor Wentz that I’m pushing myself, maybe he won’t, you know, feel like he has to push me?” Kevin stops himself, catching his breath a little, and studies his hands while Professor Stump considers.

Finally, Professor Stump sighs. “I’ll try,” he agrees, sounding resigned.

Kevin can’t help but beam at him.

Professor Stump shakes his head. “Don’t look that happy, Jonas, he’s going to make me do horrible, horrible things if he agrees to this. You owe me. I’m going to have to cuddle.”

Kevin tries very, very hard not to picture that.

--

“No,” Mike says immediately. “No, because Professor Wentz is definitely insane and has no respect for personal space.”

“Hey,” Professor Wentz says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m right here.”

Mike ignores him. “Seriously, you want me to just…let him in to play around in your head?” He looks at Kevin seriously. “Because if you want it to be his business, that’s different, and I’m not going to, what, fucking hold your head hostage or something, but—“

Kevin shakes his head. “No, no,” he protests, putting a quelling hand on Mike’s shoulder. “But I don’t—Mike, it’s still a class, and I’m here on scholarship money, I can’t just, like, opt out of the final.”

Mike looks conflicted. “If—“

“Can I just interject something here?” Professor Wentz says, sounding more than a little irked at having been left out of the conversation for this long. “You know, as the teacher, here?”

Mike makes a face, but gestures for Professor Wentz to go on.

“You could just, you know, block the way, if there’s something you don’t want me to see,” he says, rolling his eyes. “If you don’t trust me to do my job, which, okay, is kind of insulting—“ he catches Professor Stump’s glare, though, and clears his throat, “—but potentially understandable, considering the incident with your parents, I guess, but I mean. You could just keep the parts you don’t want me to see blocked off.”

Mike opens his mouth, then closes it again. Finally, he says, “He doesn’t want me to.” He doesn’t look at Kevin, just swallows visibly and stares at a patch of the ugly carpet of Professor Wentz’s office.

Professor Wentz squints at Kevin. “Why not?”

Kevin bites his lip for a moment, trying to think of how to explain it. “They’re not—they don’t just stay down, under shields, like everything else does. They only stay down now because, since Mike is doing the rest of my shielding, I can hold them down. They aren’t his, he can’t just lock the door on them.” He shifts a little in his seat, twisting his hands a little. “It just—it doesn’t work like that.”

“I see. Sort of.” Professor Wentz frowns. “The issue here is that the point of the final is for you to put up shields. You’re graded on how well you can keep your partner’s mind out of yours. If Mike is shielding you, it’s going to have to count as cheating, for obvious reasons. It just isn’t fair, otherwise.”

Kevin scrubs his hands over his face, stalling and wracking his brain. “I’m not—this just means we can’t wait for Gabe, I guess.”

Mike looks at him, eyebrows up, searching. What does that mean, exactly? he asks, looking more than a little worried.

It means that I need to stop avoiding this, I guess, Kevin says, his consciousness immediately retreating to the little red couch in Mike’s mind.

Mike joins him without hesitation, curling both arms around him and tugging him into the vee of his legs, tucking his chin over the top of Kevin’s head. And how is that going to happen? He doesn’t say that Kevin can’t do it, but his skepticism is clear.

Kevin curls his hands up in the ends of his Santa scarf and tugs on them a little, worrying at the soft, knitted material. I’m gonna go into the basement, he says, finally, with a sense of decisiveness he doesn’t quite feel.

Mike arches an eyebrow. Like hell you are.

Kevin sets his jaw. I am. And I’m going to deal with this, one way or the other. Softer, less sure, he adds, I’d feel better if you came with me.

The tenseness in Mike’s shoulders relaxes minutely. I was kind of afraid I’d have to fight you to get you to let me.

Kevin shakes his head, and gives them another moment, just another breath of the certainty of the decision, before he lets himself fall back into Professor Wentz’s office.

Professor Wentz and Professor Stump are just sitting awkwardly on Professor Wentz’s desk, looking sort of drowsy and vaguely expectant.

“Yes?” Professor Wentz prompts, gesturing at Kevin.

Kevin takes a breath. “We’ll handle it. I’ll be ready for the final.”

Professor Wentz looks like he wants to ask further questions, but Professor Stump just nods decisively and says, “Good, then,” and drags Professor Wentz out of the room by the pocket of his hoodie before he can say anything else.

Kevin looks at Mike, who is examining him with sharp, worried eyes. I can do this, he promises, more sure than he actually feels.

Mike reaches out and pushes a curl off Kevin’s forehead. Damn straight you can, Jonas. He smiles, a little crooked, and Kevin lets himself believe it.

--

“So, okay, how are we doing this, exactly?” Mike asks, sitting on the edge of his bed.

Kevin, sitting on the middle of the raggedy quilt, shrugs. “I don’t really know.” His brain isn’t exactly working right; he’s kind of sleep deprived from studying for finals, and his hands are shaky from too much caffeine—a problem he’s going to blame on Demi, for coming over to his dorm and handing him a massive jar of instant coffee and saying, “Gabe on caffeine is like a rabid pit bull on crack, it needs to stop, he’s eating this straight out of the jar. Keep it secret, keep it safe.”

Mike is looking him over critically. “You’re tired,” he says, not asking—he’s in Kevin’s head; Kevin is pretty sure that Mike can feel Kevin’s hands trembling like they’re his own. Kevin is tuned in to all of Mike’s tiny details—the too-fast tattoo of his heart out of worry, the slight headache building between his eyes, the urge to take a shower, the constant flicker of concern—so Mike must be able to sense Kevin’s.

Kevin nods. “Finals. Professor Wentz isn’t the only thing I have to deal with, and—“

Mike cages Kevin’s face between his hands, careful, thumbs stroking over the line of Kevin’s jaw. Kevin lets his eyes flutter shut in the wake of the buzz of Mike’s skin on his. You’re allowed to just be scared, you know.

Kevin’s breath just sort of whooshes out of him in one go. I don’t think I can let myself be, he admits. I think then I won’t have any chance at all.

Mike nudges Kevin’s nose with his, catching his mouth in a one quick kiss, then another. His mouth sends shocks of bright glitter through Kevin’s veins, and there are champagne bubbles going off behind his lids like soft fireworks. I’m not going to let anything hurt you, kid. Including other parts of yourself. I’ve got you.

Something that might be related to a sob bubbles up out of Kevin’s throat, entirely unbidden. I’m not really used to letting people take care of me, he says, clenching his eyes shut tighter so no tears can slip out.

Mike’s hands tighten, just a little, on Kevin’s jaw, and one thumb flickers over Kevin’s pulse point, a half-beat of reassurance, and he tilts his head a fraction to deepen the kiss, licking into Kevin’s mouth. Kevin opens up under it, exhaling roughly, letting Mike ease him back onto the bed, until Mike is hovering above him, knees to either side of Kevin’s thighs. I’ve got you, he tells Kevin again. I’ve fucking got you, just trust me?

Kevin pulls back just a half inch, just far enough to see, and, looking up at Mike’s bright, unsettling eyes, Kevin thinks they’re probably the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. More than anything, Kevin promises, leaning up to catch Mike’s mouth in another kiss. He basks in the more-than-tangible sensation of Mike’s thoughts, of the blurred edges of arousal and worry and adoration and totally unbridled faith and says again, More than anything.

Mike makes a noise into Kevin’s mouth, incoherent but pleased. His mouth is harder, more demanding, and he tastes like want and a little bit of fear. Kevin slides his hands up Mike’s sides, under the back of his shirt to find skin, and gives back as good as Mike gives him, feeding him his own fear, his hope and exhaustion, his absolute, raw joy in this small moment of quiet closeness. Mike’s hand wanders down Kevin’s side, smoothing over his hip and dragging his fingernails lightly over the skin, and Kevin is struck, forcefully and suddenly, with the utter familiarity of it, and he’s completely, awesomely sure that they’ve done this a thousand times before, in a thousand different skins, in a thousand different moments. I’ve always known you, he says, without really meaning to, struck with the force of the realization of it, and Mike laughs like bells chiming in Kevin’s head.

No shit, kid, he says, smiling into the kiss, and thumbs open the button on Kevin’s jeans like he’s done it a million times before.

--

“Cuddle me, Patrick.”

Patrick glowers at him. “Why do you do this to me?”

Pete beams unabashedly. “’Cause you’re sexy?”

Patrick’s eyes narrow in that totally hot and slightly scary way that means that Pete gave the wrong answer. “Wrong answer,” Patrick stays. Pete loves it when Patrick says that.

“Yeah?” Pete asks, goading, adding in an eyebrow waggle for good measure. “Whatcha gonna do about it, Trick?”

Patrick’s eyes narrow even further. “No. You like it too much.”

Pete tries not to pout, but it’s hard. If Patrick’s caught onto his game, Pete will never get super hot, rage-filled makeouts that are nothing at all like cuddling ever again. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Pete says, as innocently as he can manage.

Patrick scrubs his hands over his face. “You are a plague on my existence.”

Pete sidles up to him, knocking their shoulders together. “You looooove me, Patrick.”

Patrick looks up from his hands and glares at Pete. “I know,” he wails, looking absolutely heartbroken about it. “It’s horrible.

Pete bites his lip and tries really hard not to laugh at Patrick’s pain. It’s hard. Patrick is really fucking cute when he’s miserable.

--

They don’t get up and mentally prepare themselves for some sort of battle with Kevin’s nightmares. There’s no meditation or pep talks or frazzled nerves, no encouragements or climactic anxiety before they move forward.

Instead, they don’t move from Mike’s bed. Kevin keeps his head resting on Mike’s shoulder, skin still sticky with cooling sweat, and lets his eyes slip closed.

Mike’s arm is wrapped around Kevin’s back, fingers beating out an arrhythmic beat on Kevin’s ribs, and his other hand smoothes a curl behind Kevin’s ear, over and over. He lets out a breath, and then he’s just there, standing beside Kevin on the red paisley carpet of Kevin’s hallway, looking at the door to the basement.

Thoughts still loose and languorous, not quite coherent, still caught up in Mike’s quiet, solid reassurance, Kevin puts his hand on the doorknob and turns.

Mike’s hand finds its way to the small of Kevin’s back, a steady pressure, a firm reminder of his presence, and Kevin swings the door wide.

Cold, lonely darkness curls up from below, winding its way up the steps towards Kevin’s feet. Kevin closes his eyes and wraps himself up in the sensation of Mike’s skin on his, of the smile lingering in Mike’s eyes whenever they meet Kevin’s, of the hum of constant presence Mike is inside Kevin’s mind, even when he’s asleep. Warm, and safe, and silent, Kevin starts down the stairs without fear. Mike is barely a step behind him.

Dani’s body is at the bottom, sprawled gracelessly, surrounded by Kevin’s family, blood still dripping off the corner of her mouth. Kevin’s heart aches for her, and when he takes the last step, off the stairs and onto the cool asphalt of a nighttime road, he kneels down beside her.

Kevin brushes a lock of hair off of her face, tucks it behind her ear, and Kevin’s father says, “It was your fault, you know.”

Kevin feels Mike jerk around behind him, ready to defend him, but Kevin looks at Dani’s slack face and says, “I know.” She’s still fourteen, small and broken, and whose fault it is just seems so, so small in the face of her being gone. Kevin is older now, has lived on, guilt or not, and, looking at her, making his life anything less than as incredible as it can be seems so, so selfish. In the face of the life she could have lived, he’s spent so long making his own so painfully small.

“Let’s go,” Kevin says to Mike, easing Dani’s arm around his neck, her legs over his arm.

“Just like that?” Mike asks, looking around at the faces of Kevin’s family, wary.

Kevin hefts Dani’s body, cradling her close to his chest. “Just like that,” he confirms, and takes the stairs without looking back.

--

Kevin buries her properly this time, not in a basement memory, but in a grave behind a normal door on his hallway, with an elegant marble headstone and a cluster of bright flowers. He kneels, when he and Mike are done, when they’ve set the shovels aside and set the flowers at the base of the headstone. Tracing a finger over her name, he says, “I hope you don’t blame me, but I’m not going to have Gabe talk to you.”

The memory of her as a child flickers up, touching tiny fingertips to his through the marble, and she says, barely an echo of a whisper, “From what I’ve seen, I think I’m grateful to be spared his company.”

Kevin laughs wetly. “Yeah, he’s pretty weird.” Squeezing his eyes shut as a tear slips down his cheek, he murmurs, “I’m so, so sorry.”

Mike’s hand squeezes his shoulder, and the ephemeral brush of Dani’s hand tightens on Kevin’s for a brief moment. “I’m happy for you,” her memory tells him, without anything like bitterness.

Kevin puts his other hand over Mike’s, squeezes back, and says honestly, “I really think you would be.”

--

Kevin drifts back out of his own head a few hours later to find his face pressed into the crook of Mike’s neck, with Mike wrapped protectively around him, Kevin’s cheek stuck to Mike’s skin with what is probably, embarrassingly, traces of drool.

“You left,” he says, a little accusingly, detaching his face as gracefully as he can.

Mike nods, pulling back and running a thumb over Kevin’s lower lip. “You seemed like you could use a little while alone. I would’ve come back if you needed me.” He smiles a little, biting his lip. “You did good, kid.”

Kevin huffs a slightly wet laugh against Mike’s hand. “You think so?”

Mike leans down to press a gentle, chaste kiss to Kevin’s mouth and says, I really do.

--

Professor Wentz’s final isn’t exactly easy after that, but it isn’t anything like hard, either. Kevin knows the answers to the written, and when it comes to be his turn for the practical, he approaches Professor Wentz’s desk, and Spencer, with only a little trepidation.

“Ready, Jonas?” Professor Wentz asks, rubbing his hands together excitedly.

Kevin steels himself, gathering his shields up, a little surprised at how much more substantial they feel, now that he’s not using so much of them to keep parts of himself locked away. “Go for it.”

Professor Wentz grins, nodding to Spencer, who immediately slams up against Kevin’s shields and keeps pushing. Awesomely, they hold, absorbing the blow like rubber, and Kevin smiles back, suddenly understanding Professor Stump’s weird complacency with the way Professor Wentz is always trying to get into his head. It’s not so bad, really, if he doesn’t let himself be quite so vulnerable.

Spencer just looks annoyed. “When can I stop?” he asks, rolling his eyes. “I have stuff to do.”

Professor Wentz rolls his own right back. “Fine, fine, Jonas, you pass. Your turn.”

Kevin breathes a quiet, mental sigh of relief and lets his shields go as Spencer lets up, and in turn, smiles at Spencer and says, “Ready?”

Spencer shrugs. “Sure.”

Kevin pushes. He means for it to be a little push, a nudge, really, but apparently, keeping his nightmares at bay has been taking up more of him than he’s realized, and a little push turns into a big shove, and suddenly, Kevin is standing in Spencer’s green-carpeted hallway, looking at a boy with big brown eyes and a lavender hoodie, who waves at him awkwardly and says, “Hey.”

Kevin blinks at him. “I didn’t mean to do that.” He’s not sure he sounds appropriately apologetic; he’s a little bit surprised.

The boy shrugs. “It’s cool. I’m Brendon. Spencer is really bad at shielding. Mostly because he’s lazy.”

Spencer appears, arms crossed, bitchface firmly in place, and says, “I am not lazy.”

Professor Wentz pops in beside him, eyebrows up, and says, “Damn, Jonas, your telepathy dick might be bigger than mine.”

Kevin pinches the bridge of his nose and says pleadingly, “Can I go now?”

--

Mike is waiting outside Kevin’s last final—his grueling, mostly-essay-based exam with Professor Toro, which was mostly only as bad as it was because Professor Toro and his giant hair kept leaning over Kevin’s desk and peering at him curiously—with a candy cane and a thermos of hot chocolate.

“How’d it go?” he asks, handing Kevin the hot chocolate, which, because Mike is awesome and wonderful, is filled with about a million tiny marshmallows and tastes slightly like peppermint. “Stump’s final was a cakewalk.”

Kevin takes a long, long sip of his hot chocolate and says blissfully, “I don’t even care how it went, it is over and we are free. I found my Christmas spirit, it was hiding under all the sleep I’ve been missing while I studied.”

Mike laughs and tugs Kevin in so he can wrap an arm around his shoulders and drag him down the hallway. “Come on, Jonas, we have a lot to do if we’re going to get out of here before Bill starts caroling.”

“To be fair,” Kevin interjects, nonetheless letting himself be led towards the dorms, “I’m sure Bill has a very pretty voice.”

--

They don’t actually manage to escape Bill’s ruthless caroling regime. The second they make it back to Mike’s dorm, Bill is slinging an arm around Kevin’s shoulders and bursting into a very loud rendition of Deck the Halls and elbowing Kevin in the ribs until he joins in. Demi squirms up between Kevin and Mike on the other side and sings along, and Gabe sort of half-sings, half-warbles from the bed, drinking straight out of a carton of eggnog.

Mike resists Bill’s elbows, and even Demi’s sunny smile and insistence that, “It’ll be fun, come on!” on the grounds that he has to pack, but Kevin has been packed for days now, and has no such excuse.

“I kind of wanted to just, you know, sleep for a while—“ Kevin tries, knowing it’s absolutely fruitless in the face of Bill’s manic grin.  

“No, no, my dear poodle,” Bill says, shaking his head seriously. “We have an annual duty to fill Professor Stump with despair. And since he’s apparently immune to our glorious telepathic powers—“

“We’re going to sing to him while he tries to grade final papers,” Demi submits, bouncing in place a little. “Until he agrees to give us all A’s or starts to cry with rage.”

Kevin looks at Gabe, waiting for his interjection, but Gabe just says, “Don’t look at me, Jonas, I’m drunk, I’m not going anywhere.” He winks lewdly, though, and adds, “But I’ll stay here and keep an eye on your Prince Charming for you, how’s that?”

Mike glowers at Gabe so that Kevin doesn’t have to. Mike is good like that.

--

Mike and Kevin aren’t actually ready to go until almost midnight, and as they heft their suitcases into the back of Mike’s beat up old Civic, it just barely starts to snow.

“Oh man,” Kevin says, looking wistfully up at the thick clouds, “we’re going to miss it.”

“There is so much snow in Chicago, Jonas, do not even think you’re going to escape that shit.” He glares up at the sky from under the fuzzy brim of the hat he stole from Bill’s dresser on the way out.

Kevin feels Mike’s irritation seeping through their bond, little grumpy crackles along the wire. “You don’t like snow?” Kevin asks, a little tentatively.

Mike glances at him, and his annoyance melts instantly, replaced with a rueful smile. “You don’t really end up seeing a lot of my power, I guess,” he says, in lieu of a real answer.

Kevin shakes his head silently, reaching out one mitten-clad hand to take one of Mike’s bare ones.

Mike squeezes his hand gently and shrugs. “Snow is—it’s cold and wet. We don’t really mesh.”

Kevin thinks of Nick, making a dozen snowballs at once with his mind, and of Joe, making multiples of himself to gang up against the others. “Snow’s been a big part of my life,” Kevin says slowly, turning over the image of Frankie talking to all of his spare pairs of mittens, convincing them to fire snowballs at Kevin and Joe and Nick while Frankie sat inside with their mom and drank hot cocoa. Rather than trying to explain, Kevin steps back a little and gives Mike room to slip into his head a little further, lets him see the memories for himself. “I miss that,” he admits, a pang in his chest.

Mike’s fingers tighten around his. When we get to Chicago, he says silently, my mom is going to love you. And she’s going to bake a fuckton of cookies and make you eat them all. And I’ll let you try to convince me of the awesomeness of snow, okay?

Kevin digs his teeth into his lip so he doesn’t smile too widely. Yeah? he asks, letting Mike see the snowman he built last Christmas with his brothers, the one that Nick carefully, carefully carved away at with his power until it looked just like their neighbor, Taylor, and then pretended, blushing, that he had no idea how it ended up like that. He follows that with Joe stealing Kevin’s stocking and wearing it on his head like a hat. After that, it’s Kevin’s mother sitting at their piano, surrounded by her children, singing hymns on Christmas eve.

It looks nice, Mike tells him softly. But this one will be better. He backs up, out of Kevin’s head, and looks Kevin in the eyes, back in front of the Civic again. “Come on, kid,” he says, kissing Kevin’s cold nose. “We have a long drive.”

Kevin clamps down on the memories of Nick and Joe and Frankie and his parents and focuses on Mike’s face, the way his hair falls messily into his eyes—which have started to look less like serial killer eyes and more like sexily mysterious eyes, the more often Kevin looks at them—and the way he’s smiling, the way his total, stupid-for-Kevin adoration is humming through their bond, bright as sunshine. “Yeah,” he says, letting the regret slip away for now. “Yeah, we’d better go.”

Mike’s smile widens, and he fists his hands in the front of Kevin’s probably-as-ugly-as-Selena-says-it-is Christmas tree sweater and reels him in until Kevin is pulled tight against him. Nose to nose, he says, “I swear, Jonas,” he presses a kiss to Kevin’s mouth, “you are going to have,” and another, “the most ridiculously awesome,” and another, “Christmas you have ever fucking had.”

Kevin grins against Mike’s mouth. I believe you, he tells him, so he doesn’t have to pull away.

Mike’s mind just hums with sweet satisfaction.

--

It does end up being kinda the most ridiculously awesome Christmas Kevin has ever had. It’s not the same, not by a long, long way, but it’s pretty incredible in its own ways. Kevin meets Mike’s friends, who, apparently, all have ridiculous code names, like “Sisky Biz,” and, “the Butcher,” and, “Chiz,” and, “Butch.” During the car ride, while Mike is explaining all this, Kevin thinks that the Butcher and Butch are the same person, and Mike is just messing with them, but then he actually meets them, and it turns out that the Butcher is heavily tattooed and almost always half naked despite the cold weather, and Butch is basically married to Chiz, has a horrible mustache, and likes to play dirty Christmas songs on the banjo.

Sisky and Kevin manage to organize—though “organize” isn’t really as apt as “incite”—a massive snowball war, which ends up with Mike melting all the snow within thirty feet of himself, Chiz making all his snowballs invisible, and Butch refusing to participate, instead sitting on Mike’s front steps with Mike’s mom and a bottle of Scotch, teaching her to sing filthy songs about people named after different months of the year.

On Christmas eve, Mike’s mom—who does, in fact, love Kevin, and likes to pet his hair and call him “darling”—makes approximately eight zillion and a half incredibly delicious sugar cookies and lets Kevin and Mike and all of Mike’s—and now Kevin’s, he supposes—friends decorate them in weird and mostly inappropriate ways. Kevin gets a text from Selena that says, Having loads of lesbo sex, thinking of you, Jonas, and one from Bill and/or Gabe from Demi’s phone that reads, Merry Christmas, poodle!

At almost a quarter to midnight, Kevin’s phone starts to ring, and before he even wipes all the icing off his fingers and answers it, he can tell that it’s his brothers.

“Hi,” he says, stomach sinking a little as he remembers all the things they’re doing without him tonight.

Joe and Nick and Frankie all shout back a chorus of hellos that half-deafen Kevin, and then there’s a scuffle that Kevin suspects is for control of the actual handset, which ends with a panting but triumphant Joe saying, “How’s it going?”

“It’s—“ Kevin looks around the kitchen. Sisky is sitting in the Butcher’s lap, feeding him bits of sugar cookie with icing-stained fingertips, Chiz is trying to fend off Butch, who is warbling something off-key about Chiz being his baby-mama, and Mike is leaning against the counter, covered in flour and smeared with icing, looking at Kevin with a soft expression. “It’s good, actually,” he admits, smiling despite himself. “It’s really, really good.”

“Are you having more fun than us?” Joe teases. Kevin can almost hear the eyebrow waggle, and yep, “Dirty fun?”

Over Nick’s protests of, “Eww, Joe, god, be polite,” and Frankie’s, “Gross, cooties,” Kevin laughs and says, “It’s a little messy, but not so much dirty.”

Joe sobers a little, and he says, with this foreign solemnity that Kevin has heard from Nick, but never, never from Joe, “We really miss you, Kev.”

Kevin closes his eyes, taking a breath, and reaches out to nudge Mike with his mind. Immediately, Mike is there, flour-dusted arms wrapping around him. I’ve got you, he says, lips against Kevin’s neck. Kevin takes another breath, and another, until he can say without his voice breaking, “Yeah, I really miss you guys, too.” 

Joe, or maybe Nick, clears his throat and then Nick says, “We sent you something. Your soulless and terrifying roommate told us where you were heading, so it’s on its way.”

“Also,” Joe adds, “she still won’t go out with me.”

Kevin can’t help the smile that crosses his face. “Thanks,” he says softly, leaning into Mike’s solid warmth. “I can’t wait.”

--

The note on the package from his brothers reads, Merry Christmas, Kev! One of these is for Mike, you can let him pick whichever he thinks is less awful. The other thing is because Frankie is insisting that you’re going to have babies or something, it’s never worth arguing with him, you know how he is. Love you.  XOXO Nick and Joe.

Inside are two really, really awesome (or, Selena, would say, totally obnoxious) Christmas sweaters—one with a cheerful snowman, the other with a bunch of penguins on sleds, the latter of which Kevin immediately claims for his own, Mike can fight him for it if he wants to wear penguins, okay, they’re cute—and a tiny, tiny Santa hat. Kevin and Mike spend about five minutes squinting at it before Butch steals it out of Kevin’s hands and presents it to Chiz with a flourish, insisting that it’s for “Our future lovespawn, baby, come on.”

Kevin looks up at Mike, beaming, and says, “You’re gonna look so cute in the snowman.”

Mike rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t argue when Kevin yanks the sweater over his head, either, just blows the hair out of his eyes afterwards and tries to look wounded even though he’s grinning.

--

Mike’s room is small, and grayish, just like in his memories, but Kevin has hung a string of Christmas lights around the edges of the ceiling, and it seems cozy rather than drab when the two of them are in it, huddled in Mike’s small bed, bundled up in too many covers.

“This is nice,” Kevin says, snuggling down into the crook of Mike’s arm.

Mike makes a soft, contented noise, and nudges his way down until he and Kevin are nose to nose. “You okay?” he asks, eyes searching Kevin’s face like he’s checking for actual physical injuries.

Kevin chews his lip for a minute, thinking about it, and then lets Mike all the way into his head, letting him feel the thin, constant pang of missing his brothers, and, more importantly, the suffused glow of warmth from being here, like this, right now. Kevin lets himself curl up in his own happiness, lets it blot the rest out, and says, “More than okay.”

Mike moves in slowly, covers Kevin’s mouth with his own, kissing him carefully, and then a little less carefully, and if the pile of blankets gets totally messed up in the process of what happens after that, well, neither of them cares. Kevin can’t stop smiling.

--

EPILOGUE:

It’s a week after Christmas when the doorbell rings. Kevin answers it without thinking—it’s been ringing all the time lately, with both late Christmas packages and well-wishing neighbors trying to be friendly by bringing Mike’s mom some awful variations on the theme of fruitcake. This, however, is neither of those things.

Instead, this is Gabe, dead-eyed and terrifying as usual, dressed up in a full Santa suit, beard and hat and giant coat and all. Over his shoulder is a gigantic burlap sack, which is squirming in a really unnerving way.

“Ho ho ho!” Gabe booms, facial expression utterly failing to change from his usual look of evil undead.

Kevin blinks at him.

“Ho!” Gabe tries again, gesturing expansively.

“Uh,” Kevin says, and, “hi,” and, “Christmas was last week,” and, “do you have a puppy in there?” 

Gabe narrows his eyes at Kevin. “Dude,” he says, shouldering past Kevin into the house, “just fucking go with it.” He throws the sack down onto Mike’s mom’s couch, where its contents make noises of rage and consternation. Immediately following him into the house are Demi and Selena, who are dressed in cute, matching elf costumes, down to the bell-toed shoes, and Bill, who is wearing antlers and a big clown nose. Demi and Bill wave cheerfully, and Selena flips him an ironic salute.

“Poodle,” Bill says, beaming, “how we’ve missed your sweet, sweet face.” 

“Uh,” Kevin says again. “This is—um. Nice?” He’s saved from having to say anything else by Mike entering the room, still in his pajama pants and a ratty old Neil Diamond shirt, which Kevin reminds himself to make fun of him for later.

“Uh,” Mike says, eyebrows climbing his face. “Gabe, what the fuck. Also hi.”

Gabe tips his Santa hat in acknowledgement and gestures to the wriggling sack on the couch, which is still making unhappy noises. “I brought puppies,” he says, grinning in this manic way that immediately sends alarm bells off in Kevin’s head. “Poodle puppies,” Gabe amends, waggling his eyebrows at Kevin.

And then Kevin realizes what’s in the sack, and pretty much plows right through Demi and Selena to get to Nick and Joe.

“Dude,” Joe gasps when Kevin gets him out of the sack and rips the duct tape off his mouth, “dude, seriously, Santa-dude, that was most definitely uncool.”

Nick, tousled and disgruntled, rips the tape off his own mouth and glowers at Gabe, but doesn’t bother to say anything to him. Kevin is pretty sure that’s because Nick has realized, after several hours in a sack, that Gabe is a crazy person who absolutely cannot be reasoned with at all. “Hi, Kev,” he says instead.

After that, it’s pretty much just Kevin hugging them both until they can’t breathe.

--

By the time the sun has gone down, Sisky and the Butcher and Chiz and Butch have all invaded the house again, Joe has tried to kill Gabe exactly eight times, Bill has squeezed Nick’s butt and called him, “precious, so precious,” at least five times, Mike’s mom has force-fed them all a thousand cookies, and Butch has taken out his banjo and written a  version of Twelve Days of Christmas based on it.

You actually did tell Gabe to put them in a sack and kidnap them, Kevin says wonderingly to Mike, watching Joe try to steal Chiz’s hair off his head and make it his own.

Mike snorts. No, I just mentioned that you wanted to see them. Gabe is just actually that crazy.

Oh. Kevin kisses Mike’s jaw, anyways, hiding a smile against his skin. Thank you, either way.

Mike turns his head enough to catch Kevin’s mouth in a real kiss. Any time, kid.

--

END