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Caramel Mocha Lattes & Nicely Pressed Suits

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The Amnesty Cafe was a charming, cozy place, nestled in the equally cozy town of Kepler, West Virginia. It was popular with tourists during the leaf-watching and skiing seasons, and --situated just far enough away from the Green Bank telescope to be allowed to have Wi-Fi-- it was a well-loved respite for the locals as well. The little cafe did well for itself, though it wasn’t just the internet access that people came for. The food was lovely, the staff were kind, and the coffee was legendary.

The latter was mostly in part due to the head barista and assistant manager; anyone who entered the shop could instantly tell put every ounce of care into his craft. All the locals knew him only by Barclay. What his last name was, no one could really say. He’d never provided it in introductions, but most found it didn’t particularly matter.

He was tall and scruffy, with big hands and shoulder-length hair generally pulled into a messy bun, and he had a way of making everyone who ordered a drink from him feel like they’d just received something truly special. His lattes were immaculate, his chai was divine, and he made everything with the utmost care. No one in recent memory had received a drink from Barclay that they didn’t enjoy.

He wasn’t the only one behind the magic, of course. The shop was owned and managed by one Madaline Cobb. Most were baffled that she was so rough around the edges for how charming her shop was, but no one could deny she did it well. She was, after all, an old mountain girl. She was the sort who could give you love and support just as quickly as a kick in the ass depending on what you needed. She looked out for her employees and didn’t hesitate to boot troublemakers out. The customer might always be right in some places, but not Amnesty Cafe. If you wanted to eat there, you had to earn it by being civil.

As such, it was also no surprise that Amnesty had become something of a safe haven for folks who might have it rough in the rural mountains of West Virginia. Kepler was a little more open-minded, what with its frequent ski tourism and the type of folks who came with it, but you only had to drive out of town ten minutes to find yourself amidst cow pastures, backroads, and rednecks.

So Ms. Cobb, who many affectionately called Mama, had a habit of taking in strays. Many of her employees were folks who had nowhere else to go, who struggled with fitting in with the surrounding rural community. She paid everyone well enough to get by on their own, frequently made sure they were fed and had what they needed, and worked to make sure they knew they had a social network they could count on.

Because of this, there was something of a rumor that Amnesty Cafe was more of a charity than a business. Many speculated that the shop didn’t make enough to fully fund the cost of a living wage and that Mama was getting income from somewhere else to support them. Of course, no one dared talk about it within earshot of her, but there would always be rumors.

And while Barclay might have been the star of the show, it took much more than just him to make the cafe tick. The rest of the staff were just as much what made Amnesty Cafe feel like home. Many were trained in multiple areas, but they definitely had tasks they succeeded best at.

Their newest addition, a young woman by the name of Aubrey Little, seemed to settle best at the register, always bouncy and excitable. However Barclay couldn’t deny, she was learning quickly how to make drinks with a certain flare under his tutelage. Apparently, she also had a magic act that she worked on the side, so she picked up fewer hours than the rest to pursue her dream, but she was always a joy to be around. And if the pictures she showed them on her phone were anything to go by, her pet rabbit was adorable.

Dani could do a little bit of everything and was frequently willing to slide into whatever role was needed of her, something Barclay always appreciated. However, she did her best work baking, frequently finding new recipes to make for their baked goods case. Barclay was fairly sure she was the only one in town who knew how to make vegan cookies, which many of the tourists appreciated.

Where Aubrey was perky and bright-eyed, Dani was laid back and easy to get along with. They balanced each other well and Barclay suspected there might be something between them, but he wasn’t about to bring it up in case they hadn’t realized it yet. Better to let crushes figure themselves out.

The back of house was Jake’s domain. He’d started as a busboy and dishwasher, but had very quickly become enamored with the brewing processes and bean roasting, which--after being taught under Barclay’s skilled hand--they’d let him take over just this last spring. He was also good to fill in on register, if a little overexcitable. Apparently, he into extreme sports in his off time, often coming to work on his skateboard. The kid had somehow managed to adopt old-school skater lingo that he used on a regular basis despite it being 2019.

Moira handled financials and orders, frequently holed up in the back office, but she readily slipped in to help when she had a minute, or if there was a heavy rush. She was definitely the more quiet sort, but charming and had a love for music, always encouraging young artists to put up flyers for their shows on their community corkboard. She played the piano for the local choir and community theatre in her off-time. Barclay had been to a few of the performances.

They all had their reasons for finding their way to Amnesty Cafe, but no one could deny that they were right where they belonged.

To Barclay, this was home. Sure, not everything was perfect; but then, nothing ever was. But it was good enough, and he was content here. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if being a barista was really his true passion, but he enjoyed it immensely and doing it right felt good, so he wasn’t going to complain. He hadn’t really had any goals before settling here so it was the best he had.

He’d traveled a lot before settling in Kepler. After getting top surgery, the final piece of his personal transitional puzzle, he’d found himself aimless and unsure of what to do with himself. For so long his goal had just been to feel like he belonged in his own skin and he hadn’t planned beyond that.

So he’d taken to the open road, living out of a camper van and roughing it, taking gigs where he’d found them. It hadn’t been the worst, he’d seen a lot of interesting things and had a lot of stories to share, but after a while, a body got tired of sleeping in a different bed every night, or not in one at all.

He’d drifted into Kepler about seven years ago, where he’d had the misfortune (though looking back, he wasn’t sure if he could actually call it that anymore) of having his van break down. He’d been bumming around for gigs to pay the repair costs when he’d first met Mama.

Barclay still remembered it like yesterday, coming into the cafe after helping an elderly man haul off the old, rusty tractor parts that had been entrenched in his yard for years. Barclay been sitting at the table with a modest cup of coffee, counting his earnings and idly trying to remember when the last time he’d had a tetanus shot was, when yelling could be heard from the back of house, a man angrily stalking out, followed by an even angrier woman.

“Yeah, you better run, Gyrel! I gave you a chance, and you bring that shit in my establishment, I don’t want ya!” The man pushed out the door, the woman grabbing a coffee cup and throwing it after him. She missed, but only barely, the cup shattering in the parking lot as the man scrambled away. She took aim with another but seemed to think better of it as he disappeared out of sight before she turned her attention to Barclay. He was presently the only one in the shop, having no idea what to think of what he’d just witnessed. The woman smiled at him apologetically.

“Sorry about that, hun. Just takin’ out the trash. Asshole gets a job here, thinks he owns the place. I don’t care who you are, you start coppin’ feels of my other employees, you get the boot, the further up your ass the better.” Barclay snorted and the woman grinned, standing at his table and nodding at his cup. “Want me to refresh ya there? On the house.”

“Oh, uh... Sure, thanks.” He smiled, going back to counting his money and trying to figure out how much he had left before he could get his van fixed. Plus he still had to factor in money for the motel and food, so it seemed like he’d be here at least another month. The man groaned, rubbing his face.

“Money troubles?” He looked up again at the woman as she brought him his coffee, sighing. “Not that it’s any of my business, you jus’ seem very perplexed.”

“Naw, it’s fine. And yeah, I guess you could say that. I’ve been traveling, but my van broke down, so it’s looking like I’m going to be stuck here in Kepler for a little while until I can get it fixed. Been helping around town with odd jobs, but it can only get you so much.” He shrugged, leaning back in his chair and accepting the cup, the woman sitting nearby.

“Bit of bad luck then? Well, if there’s someone you could call, I’d be more than happy to let ya use the shop phone. I know National Radio Quiet Zone makes smartphones about as useful as a calculator out here,” She offered, Barclay shaking his head as he took a sip of his coffee. The roast was a little dark for his taste, but coffee was coffee.

“Appreciate it, but there isn’t really anyone for me to call. I’ll be fine, I’m used to this sort of thing on the road.”

“So traveling, huh? How long you been going?” The woman asked, wiping her hands on her half apron and getting comfortable. Usually, he’d assume she’d have better things to do than chat with him, but in her defense, he was the only one in the store.

“Uh.. going on a year now, I think. I’m from Washington, but I’ve been kinda all over.” He supplied, cradling the cup and hoping he didn’t smudge it. He’d washed his hands of course, but the rust clung under his nails despite his best efforts.

“Wow, long way then, good for you, getting out there and seeing the world. I traveled a good bit when I was younger myself, though on a motorcycle instead of a van. Gotta say, you’re probably a smarter man to have something you can sleep in. I’ve had to camp in some places I’m surprised I didn’t get robbed or killed or both. But, there’s just something about the wind rushing by you as you roar down the roads that just feels right.”

She chuckled, rubbing her knee. Barclay would later learn about the accident she’d been in, but at that moment he’d thought nothing of it. “Though eventually, I realized I couldn’t keep doin’ that forever... So, how’d you find your way to our little town? Kepler isn’t exactly right near the highway.”

“I was actually driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Was hanging around Asheville down in North Carolina for a little while before deciding it might be fun to take the Parkway up to Roanoke. It was nice, lotta pretty hiking spots along that stretch, relatively quiet. I was planning on heading all the way up to Shenandoah and then head to DC for a little while because it’s pretty easy to pick up some work there, but I thought I’d make a detour out of Lexington to see the big fancy resort in Hot Springs and then the telescope in Green Bank since I hadn’t before. Engine gave up on me about two miles from here, had to get towed in.” It was bad luck, but he’d dealt with bad luck before.

“Whatcha think of Hot Springs? Last I checked, it was the resort and a whole lotta nothing else,” She chuckled, leaning on the table as Barclay nodded in affirmation.

“Yeah, for some reason I was under the impression there would be more there. The hotel was nice, it has a decent little cafe that I’m still not entirely sure wasn’t just for guests only, but I paid for my food and nobody asked, so who knows. Other than that, there was a tavern, a general store, and two golf courses. And a Subway.”

“Can’t forget the Subway. Yeah, we actually have hot springs here in Kepler, but they’re not that big and the public pools are currently under renovation. They can’t really be expanded because a lot’ve the spring’s source in on national land. Forest Service is real adamant that we keep the water source untampered with, which is fair. That said, we still get a fair bit’ve tourism for the spings, along with skiing and snowboarding on Mount Kepler in the winter.”

“And lemme guess, quite a few leafers in the fall.” Barclay mused, enjoying a little friendly conversation. It was always nice to sit down with someone and shoot the breeze after a long day, especially when you weren’t expecting it.

“You can say that again. Whole gaggle of little old ladies and men pour out of their RVs to take pictures when the leaves start to change. That’s almost upon us, but we’ve still got a little green left to go. Fall and Winter tend to be our busiest time ‘round here so enjoy the peace and quiet while you can,” The woman hummed, eyeing Barclay thoughtfully as he sipped his coffee, the man getting the impression that she was mulling something over. “So, how’s the coffee?”

“Oh, it’s good! I like it.” He smiled with his rather generic compliment. There were things he’d probably do differently, but he wasn’t about to say that aloud. The woman pursed her lips.

“Mmhmm. You like it, but you don’t love it. I’m sure you’ve had worse, but it’s not the best you’ve had either, right?” Barclay blinked, a little baffled by the line of questioning and trying to figure out what the woman was going for here.

“Oh uh.. I mean.. It’s perfectly decent coffee, especially after a long day. I don’t really need anything fancy.” He supplied, sinking in his chair a little, trying to be honest without being insulting.

“But if you could do something different, what would you do? Don’t worry yourself, I won’t take offense. I’m always just lookin’ for ways to improve and you seem like a man who’s probably had a lot of coffees to compare it to.”

“Yeah, I guess I have. Well...” He pondered his cup, taking another sip and this time actually mulling over the flavor palette rather than just bolting it down. “I think you’re roasting it too hot. You really need to take the beans off the heat somewhere between the first and second crack, or just before the first depending on how dark you want the roast. I also wouldn’t use this particular variety for some of the other drinks I saw you have, but it’s fine for an americano like this.”

The woman raised an eyebrow at him, leaning back in her seat. “You seem to know your stuff.”

“Suppose I do. I worked as a barista for a while before I started traveling to pay for.. Uh.. some medical stuff, so I know my way around a good coffee.” He shrugged as the woman nodded, a look in her eyes that he couldn’t quite place.

“I gotcha. So, you got a name, hun?”

“Oh, uh. It’s Barclay.”

“Just Barclay?”

“Yeah, if that’s alright.”

“Don’t bother me none.” She grinned widely, standing up. “Well, Barclay, I have an offer for you. It seems we just so happen to have a job opening for a new barista and you seem like a decent enough fella, how’d you like to work here at Amnesty Cafe? Pay’s good and we could use the help. It’d give you a chance to make some money to fix your van.”

“What.. wait, really? Just like that?” He stood up as well. He was taller than the woman, but she was still very much the biggest presence in the room from the way she held herself.

“Yeah, don’t see why not. We could use someone who knows what they’re doing ‘round here, least till we can get someone full-time again. What do you say, Barclay?” She offered her hand to him, the man considering it. This could just be what he needed to get everything fixed up so he could head out again, and it would be better than living off odd jobs. After a moment, he took her hand and shook it with a nod.

“When do I start?”

“I’ll give ya a day to get yourself together and then I’ll see you Wednesday morning at 7am. Opening shift is earlier than that, but I’ll let ya sleep in while we get you trained. Dress code is casual, but not sloppy. Closed-toed shoes, non-slip if you have ‘em. And long hair needs to be pulled back or in a hat. No offensive writing on clothing, tattoos, or otherwise, but everything else is fair game. Sound good?”

“Absolutely. I’ll be here.” He was beaming now, feeling his luck turn around for once. He then remembered something rather important. “Oh yeah, I don’t think I caught your name?”

The woman smirked. “For paperwork purposes, it’s Madaline Cobb, but-” She grinned, crossing her arms. “You can just call me Mama.”


He’d stayed for a week, and then two, and then after the third, he’d made enough money to fix his van, but it was settling into fall and tourists were starting to come into town and he hadn’t wanted to leave the cafe hanging right in the middle of being so busy. And then winter came after that so he figured he might as well stay for the rest of the winter season so he didn’t have to deal with holiday traffic on the roads and could enjoy the slopes. His motel room eventually was swapped out for a short-term lease apartment and when winter was over, well..

He realized he didn’t want to leave.

He’d fallen in love with the little town and the cafe and its staff and regulars. He’d met Dani his first day of work and the two had hit it off really well, jiving about hikes and coffee as they worked. Dani was younger back then of course, barely into adulthood. She had been going through something of a witchy phase, which she’d sort of grown out of since, but still had a fondness for foraging out in the woods, and still thought graveyards were fun and spooky to hang around at night.

They’d sometimes go on day hikes together if they both had the same day off and were feeling particularly woodsy. The young woman had taught him quite a lot about what you could and couldn’t eat out in the forest. They hung out on the roof of the parking deck and shared a joint from time to time too, just talking and enjoying a little solidarity together.

Barclay remembered when Dani had come out to him; he’d vowed from then on to look out for her, and all the other queer kids who found their way to Kepler. That had been a rough night for her and he was glad he could be there, despite the circumstances.

She had been so nervous and excited one afternoon he was working with her, preening far more than she ever did. Hell, she was even wearing makeup which she never did. Barclay watched with amusement, gently nudging her with his elbow when they had a quiet moment.

“Got a hot date tonight?” He mused, teasing her gently as she blushed and fidgeted. He’d never seen her show interest in anyone before, so maybe he was just making assumptions, but the way she’d been acting the last few weeks, he could tell she was smitten, getting lost in thought all too frequently. She tried to play it cool with her response, but he could tell she was flustered.

“I mean.. It’s not a date, but... It’s not not a date either, you know?” She was scrubbing out a frothing pitcher a little with more force than was strictly necessary to try to distract herself, Barclay chuckling in good humor. “It’s been more of a crush, but I’ve decided I’m gonna be honest with my feelings, which I’m pretty sure are mutual. At least I hope they are.”

Barclay realized she hadn’t use pronouns to describe this person, something he’d only noticed because he’d done it so many times himself. However, he wasn’t going to point it out. If that was something she wanted to tell him, she’d do it when she was ready. Dani tucked a strand of blond hair that had escaped her ponytail behind her ear, still blushing.

“Well, that’s exciting. Lemme know how it goes.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. Dani still had about fifteen minutes on her shift, but Barclay wanted her to have this. “Hey, if you wanna get out of here a little early, I can cover for you. I doubt a massive crowd is gonna come rushing in, in the next quarter of an hour.”

“Wait, really? Are you sure?” She beamed at him, already moving to take off her apron and grab her stuff.

“Absolutely. Now get a move on.” He watched with amusement as she whirled out the door, calling after her. “Be safe! Have a good evening! I’ll see you tomorrow!”

“Thanks Barclay! Bye!” He shook his head, chuckling as he got to work finishing the dishes she’d been doing. Oh, to be that young and caught up in a crush. It’d been a while since he’d fallen for anyone. He wasn’t bitter about it by any means, but dating had always felt treacherous and risky. He’d say he was pretty good at telling when someone might be receptive to being with him, he just hadn’t had that kind of spark in a long time. But, he was content where he was and wasn’t even really sure he wanted a relationship.

That night, he’d been mopping up after shop hours in the back when he’d heard the bell above the door jingle, realizing he hadn’t locked it. Most folks around here were good about honoring a closed sign. Barclay popped his head out to let them know. “Hey, sorry we’re clos- Dani? What- Hey, are you alright? What’s wrong?”

The girl stood in the middle of the cafe, her eyes puffy and red, makeup streaked from crying. She was shaking in her green hoodie and just looked so helplessly hurt and lost, it made Barclay’s heart break. He left the mop where it was, hurrying over to her and putting his hands on her shoulders, brushing some hair out of her face. “Hey, look at me, what’s going on, Dani? Are you hurt?”

“I... She... She didn’t...” She hiccupped, shaking badly before Barclay pulled her into a big, comforting hug. Dani broke into sobs, clutching the man like he was her only anchor on a stormy sea. Barclay held onto her, letting her cry as he rocked ever so slightly to comfort her, stroking her hair until she eventually calmed down some. Gently leading her over to a table, he had her sit.

“I’m gonna make you some tea, you sit tight, okay?” He murmured, heading back over to the bar and fixing her something warm and soothing with a good amount of honey, deciding to fix himself one as well. He had a feeling they were gonna be here a while. Bringing it back over, he handed her one of the cups, which she gingerly took, before sitting with his own. “Do you wanna tell me what happened? You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’m just as happy to sit here with you quietly if that’s what you need.”

The girl sniffed, wiping her nose on her hoodie sleeve as she clung to her cup of tea. She averted her eyes, voice hoarse and soft when she spoke. “I.. I wanna tell you, but I’m scared... I don’t want you to hate me too.”

“I’m not gonna hate you, Dani. I promise. If you’re in trouble, I can help you. If it’s a dead body though, you’ll have to let me get a shovel first.” Dani smiled a little through the tears, shaking her head as she wiped her eyes.

“Not in trouble.” Barclay had a feeling she wasn’t, and this was about the date she’d left on, but he wasn’t going to jump to any conclusions. Dani took another sip of her tea, collecting herself. “At least I don’t think I am. I was.. I was with a friend tonight and I thought.. I thought we both felt the same way and I tried to say how I was feeling and.. And it... turns out sh..she didn’t feel the same way.”

She shrunk down into her hoodie, watching Barclay to gauge his reaction. The man just gave her a sad smile and a nod. “I’m so sorry, I know how rough that can be. I remember the first time a boy I had a crush on rejected me. Of course, they uh.. didn’t really start doing that until after I’d started transitioning, but I still know the feeling.”

“Wait, you..” Dani blink, unfurling a little before she let out a choked chuckle, covering her eyes. “God, how did I not see that. Of course, you’re gay, you check out guys your age way too often. I just thought it was a dominance thing and you were sizing them up. Talk about being a useless lesbian, can’t even spot a gay guy three feet in front of her.”

Barclay snorted, reaching out to take and squeeze her hand. “Hey, to be fair, gay men are probably on your radar the least in terms of your interests, but you’re not useless, Dani.”

“But I mean, I apparently am, seeing how I couldn’t even tell if this girl I’ve had a crush on since middle school doesn’t like girls.” She sniffled, starting to cry again. “...I think... I just saw what I wanted to believe. She’s always been so funny and kind. It just.. It just really hurts. She... she looked so horrified when I told her...”

“Hey, hey it’s gonna be okay. You’re a beautiful young woman and any girl would be lucky to have you, straight people just don’t know what they’re missing..” Barclay felt for her. He knew that exact look far too well, be it from guys who weren’t gay, or from guys who were, but were repulsed by his being trans. Either way, it always made him feel sick.

He got up, rounding the table and giving her another hug. It was probably going to be a hugging kind of night, and he was perfectly ok with that. He talked it through with her about how this wasn’t her fault, and that she had a friend if she needed it. They drank their tea and when they were done, while Barclay could tell Dani was still hurting, she was better than if she’d try to handle this alone.

He drove her to her apartment after he finished cleaning up shop; they’d taken the other girl’s car for their outing together and the other girl had just left Dani behind after things went south. Dani had walked all the way to the cafe to get a ride since it was closer.

Barclay walked her to the door, told her to try to sleep, and gave her his home number if she needed him. She’d given him a half-hearted smile and told him she’d try, which he knew was better than nothing.

The next day, he wore his rainbow pin on his apron, just for her. It would take her time to heal, and eventually, she did. But in the meantime, it was important for her to know she wasn’t alone.


Of course, while his little found family at the shop played the biggest role in his continued happiness, the regulars and the shenanigans of the town meant quite a bit to him as well. Kepler was a unique place, having seen the rise and fall of several trends to try to boost tourism. There was a plethora of abandoned waterparks, which was just crazy to Barclay, but not as crazy as just what they’d try to name the places. One of them was even still open, bringing in some much-needed summer revenue for the town.

What’s more, the town was surrounded by the Monongahela National Forest, which entrenched itself into the culture of the town. No kid grew up here not knowing what to do if they saw a bear or how to prevent a forest fire. Now whether they followed those teachings was a different story. Bored teens did dumb things. Thankfully to make up for it, Kepler’s ranger station was at the top of their game. Most folks could recognize their local rangers even off duty, and the more responsible adults respected the work they did to keep their forests safe.

One such ranger was one of Amnesty’s regulars; a hefty, rather unassuming man who Barclay wouldn’t exactly call friendly, but he was easy to talk to. Everyone called him Duck, though he frequently made it clear that that was a nickname, without ever offering an alternative or how he got the nickname in the first place. Barclay could only assume that just meant he liked the nickname enough not to bother.

When he came in depended on his shift at the station, but he almost always came in on the days he had work. On his early morning shifts, he’d get a pastry, and coffee for himself and whoever the poor schmuck who’d taken the overnight shift. Meanwhile, when he had the overnight shift, he’d come in in the evening and order the strongest thing they had with two extra espresso shots. It was these evenings before Duck had to go to work, but the cafe traffic was dying down, that Barclay really got to talk with the man.

Duck had lived here in Kepler all his life with his parents and little sister, Jane. He’d joined the Forest Service as a young man with little other prospects and continued his line of work for the next twenty years. Barclay didn’t know how anyone could do the same thing for twenty years, but had eventually come to the conclusion that Duck had just gotten lucky and stumbled across his passion early in life. He wasn’t the most emotive fellow, but he could tell that Duck felt strongly about what he did, protecting people from the dangers of the forest, and protecting the forest from the dangers of people.

“It only takes one young dumbass with too much time and a lighter out there in a drought like this to take out miles of forest.” Duck huffed one evening, savoring his intensely strong coffee. Barclay had taken night shifts before when he’d traveled, but he’d never needed enough caffeine to keep him awake for a week like Duck seemed to. The ranger still managed to seem perpetually weary despite this.

“Y’know, I have it on good authority from one Miss Juno Divine that you used to be one of those young dumbasses.” Barclay mused as he wiped down the tables for the evening. Duck usually hung around before he had to go in, more often than not complaining about the most recent shenanigans he’d experienced out in the woods. The ranger almost choked on coffee, looking vaguely put off.

“What? No, I was a great.. sturdy person, not... not dumbass kid with... grades that couldn’t be matched by.. fuck.. Jimmy Buffet? Little known fact about Jimmy was that he had.. just perfect grades all the time, and never did dumb things with fireworks in the woods, just like me. I was the model... uh- Okay, fine, I was kind of a high school burnout. Fuck me, I guess.”

“Did you just describe yourself as being like a sturdy Jimmy Buffet as a kid?” Barclay snorted, shaking his head. Anyone who knew him knew Duck was by far the worst liar in all of Kepler. The man couldn’t tell a tall tale to save his life. Duck’s face was red from embarrassment, as he studied a potted plant that hung in the window.

“Shuttup, I tried.”

“Dude, it’s fine. Everyone’s a dumbass at some point in their life. And look, you did alright didn’t you? Now you’re out there protecting the forest from more young idiots like you,” Barclay pointed out, pausing to stretch and glance at the clock. About an hour and a half to go.

“Well, I guess you could say that’s my secret weapon to keep those dumbasses out of trouble. Takes one to know one. ” Barclay nodded as Duck gave him a lazy, if exasperated, smile. Aubrey poked her head out of the backroom, a grin on her face. Barclay knew she wasn’t anywhere near being done with the dishes when she came over, but he wasn’t going to rag on her about it.

“Ooooh, Duck did you used to be a bad boy in high school? Was it like a punk phase or were you one of those emo kids? I bet you had piercings.” The ranger flushed even deeper, holding his hat over his face as Aubrey teased him.

“Y’all are lucky I like the coffee here, or I wouldn’t stand for this kind of harassment,” Duck harrumphed. Barclay could tell he didn’t mean it seriously though, Duck barely containing a small smile. The barista clutched his chest like he’d been shot in the heart, feigning injury.

“Oh, you foul fiend, how could you? I knew you only liked me for my coffee. And here I thought our friendship meant something,” He bemoaned sorrowfully, carrying his performance over the top. Aubrey doubled over with laughter, grinning ear to ear. Duck meanwhile just rolled his eyes but smiled nonetheless.

“Okay, okay, I might like y’all a bit too. But just a little. You can quit the theatrics.” Duck settled back in his chair, checking his watch, but apparently not in any hurry to go anywhere yet. Barclay moved to wiping down the counters while Aubrey sat at Duck’s table, kicking her feet under her chair. She rested her chin in her hands, watching the other man raptly.

“Sooooo, how’s your big, buff neighbor doing?” She mused, Duck leaning his head back with a groan. Barclay rolled his eyes. When Duck wasn’t bemoaning the stupid things teens did in the forest, he was complaining about his new neighbor, Minerva. According to him, she was a personal trainer who was built like a freight train and had no sense of personal space or volume control. And, apparently, she had taken it upon herself to impart her training onto Duck. Aubrey found the whole affair deeply entertaining.

“Aaaagh! Don’t even get me started.” Duck scrubbed his hands over his face, sticking out his tongue. “Get this, this morning she came over at six in the morning and insisted I come for a jog with her, all like ‘Duck Newton! It is a new day! You should join me on a light jog up Mount Kepler! It will be invigorating!’. Like... who talks like that? She insists she’s from Minnesota, but talks like she isn’t even from Earth.

“Maybe she’s an alien.” Aubrey mused, still swinging her feet. “A big, buff alien obsessed with physical fitness and yelling.”

“Or maybe she just likes you. Did you go with her?” Barclay asked, trying to seem less invested in the gossip than he actually was. It was always interesting to hear what the townsfolk got up to. Small towns always had the most amusing gossip.

“God no. I don’t doubt a jog up Mount Kepler is a light morning warm-up for her, but if I did that, I’d die.” Duck fidgeted with the brim of his hat in his lap, shrugging. “It’s not that I dislike her, she’s cool and I wouldn’t mind getting to know her. She’s just a LOT, you know? I feel like if I actually tried interacting with her, she’d realize I’m just some guy and not a very impressive one at that.”

“She’s a personal trainer, Duck. I think she knows a lot of people who are just guys. Maybe just like... tell her you’re not that physically active, but you’d like to hang out sometime and just go for a walk or something.” Aubrey suggested, standing up. “And don’t try to make excuses, because we all know you’re shit at that. Just be honest.”

“Yeah, yeah, rub it in, why don’tcha.” The ranger checked his watch again, draining the last dregs of his coffee before getting up as well. “Alright y’all, I gotta get to work. It’s been good chattin’ with ya.”

“Aw, okay. Have a good night, Duck. Lemme know if you see any bears.” Aubrey started back toward the back room, waving goodbye to her friend.

“Thanks Aubrey, lord knows it’s gonna be a long one.” Duck pulled his jacket on, leaving a tip on the table and waving at the other man at the counter as he went to leave. “Night to you too Barclay, thanks for the joe. Don’t know how I’d get through the night without ya.”

“Night Duck, see you tomorrow. Let us know if Minerva suggests using you as a bench press or something, because that’s something I wanna see and possibly film.” Barclay grinned, nodding to the ranger as he started out the door. Duck rolled his eyes, but smiled as he disappeared into the night.


So yeah, Barclay would say he was comfortable and happy with where he’d ended up. He had good friends and conversations, and a job he found fulfilling. He’d sold his van for more practical pickup after working at the cafe for a year and his lease was now long-term. Somehow, Kepler had been right where he needed to be.

So, of course, there was always going to be something that came crashing into his life and changed everything. Well, perhaps crashing wasn’t initially the right word, but it did come into his life with an order of a caramel mocha latte. The crashing came later.

“Hey Barclay, I’m gonna head on break if that’s alright,” Aubrey told him after they’d crushed the lunch rush, taking off her apron. Barclay nodded, giving her the go-head as he slipped in front of the register in her stead. They had a few sandwiches along with drinks that brought people in for midday business, keeping them busy throughout the day. But, once the lunch rush was cleared, it was generally pretty quiet until the evening, when those who didn’t enjoy the bar environment met up for drinks and dates after work.

It was in this lull that Barclay first met the mysterious man.

He was tall, with dark, slicked-back hair and an immaculate suit. The cafe got a lot of interesting folks, and even a fair number of professionals visiting the resorts for conferences and holidays, but none of them had ever looked so well put together than this man.

His clothing fit him well to the point that Barclay suspected they might be tailored or possibly bespoke, the glimmer of cufflinks at his wrists. His face was clean-shaven, and his eyes were sharp, taking in every little detail as he stood in line behind the elderly gentleman Barclay was currently serving. And he was handsome. God, was he handsome.

Barclay wet his lips, hastily finishing up the current transaction, and telling the old man that his drink would be right out, eyes flicking back to his newest patron.

“Hey there, welcome to Amnesty Cafe, what can I get for you today?” He was grateful that his script was so ingrained that he could say it without thinking, because if Barclay had had to think in front of such a captivating man, he wasn’t sure he would have made any sense.

The man pondered the board only for a fraction of a moment before speaking. His tone was smooth and easy, not as sharp as Barclay had been expecting from a man dressed so well.

“Yes, I’ll have a medium caramel mocha latte for here, please.”

“Alright, one medium caramel mocha latte. Is 2% milk alright?” He’d honestly expected a black americano or an earl grey or something similar, not one of the sweetest drinks they had on the board. Guess that’s what he got for making assumptions.

“Yes, that’s fine, thank you.” Barclay rung him up with deft precision, but he was almost completely running on muscle memory. It had been a while since he’d seen someone so objectively attractive to his tastes, much less one so perfectly groomed and dressed and equally mysterious. Barclay wasn’t sure how to feel. What he did notice while trying not to ogle the man and failing was the glimmer of a badge of some sort on the inside of his jacket as he fished out his wallet.

“Name?”

“Pardon?”

“I need your name? For the drink?” He explained, giving his pen a little wiggle between his fingers as he watched a pensive look cross the other man’s face.

“Stern. It’s Stern.”

“Alright, Stern, I’ll have this out for you in a sec as soon as I get the fella in front of you. I’ll call your name when it’s up on the bar.” There was no way that was his first name, right? It had to be his last name, and he was just the kind of person to go by it. Because of course he was. Man looked like he’d stepped out of a James Bond movie.

“Of course, thank you.”

Barclay made his drink with no fuss, though maybe he put a little extra care into the latte art than he usually did, adding a few extra flourishes. When Stern got it from the bar, the man, while rather hard to read, looked pleasantly surprised at the presentation, going to take a sip. His eyebrows shot up and Barclay had to hold back a grin. Yet another pleased customer.

Stern had thanked him politely and tucked a few dollars into the tip jar on his way to sit down, even though Barclay was fairly sure he’d already written in a tip when he’d paid with his card. He wasn’t going to complain, however.

He’d spent the rest of the afternoon seated in one of their comfier chairs, working on his laptop. Barclay couldn’t deny that being one of the few places with Wi-Fi in town brought in all sorts, but he liked to think the drinks and atmosphere helped as well.

Then for the rest of the day, nothing else happened. Stern sat in his chair until it got dark, tucked his computer back into his briefcase and left, and Barclay thought that would be the end of that.

But then he came back the next day, around the same time, ordering the same thing, and having the same exchange at the register (sans asking his name). It continued for a week before Barclay realized that Stern wasn’t some executive just in town for a conference at the resort, he’d be gone by now if he had been. Barclay knew to start his order when he came in at this point, yet they’d still only shared a handful of short, order-related words.

He found himself more and more preoccupied with trying to figure out just who Stern was, not that he had much to work with. Stern never wore anything that indicated a company logo or any other insignia, his wallet was nondescript and he seemed to be using a company card, so Barclay could never get his first name off it. His laptop was black, bulky, and perhaps most bafflingly, --as Barclay had found out while glancing over while clearing a table one afternoon-- had one of those screens that distorted the image if you looked at it from anywhere other than head-on.

Stern was an enigma that only got more interesting as time went on. And of course, while Stern seemed to be a master of subtlety, Barclay sure wasn’t. While the man in question had never made any comment on Barclay’s snooping, the same couldn’t be said for the rest of the staff of Amnesty Cafe.

“You know checking him out all the time isn’t gonna make him spill his secrets, right?” Dani mused, Aubrey snorting behind them. They’d started teasing him without mercy after Dani had noticed just how much time Barclay spent watching Stern. The barista scrunched up his nose at her, cheeks pink.

“He’s just interesting to look at, okay?”

“Suuure he is. And the fact that he’s your type has nothing to do with it at all..” Dani looked deeply amused and Barclay knew he this was going to be the source of a great deal of teasing into the future. Meanwhile, Aubrey rolled up on her tiptoes, peering over the bean grinder at Stern.

“And you gotta admit, he is pretty weird,” She commented, dropping back down. “He’s so buttoned up and professional, and he just showed up one day. I’ve never seen him get in a car, so I guess he walks, but from where?”

“Oh yeah, Mrs. Pearson mentioned she saw a sleek black car, new model, down at Four Pines that’s been there for about a week. Maybe he’s staying there, it’s within walking distance,” Dani hummed thoughtfully, steaming the milk for the order she was working on. That seemed plausible to Barclay. Mrs. Pearson was as sharp as they came; if she said the car had been there a week, she meant it. She hadn’t been the Chief of Police for all those years for nothing.

“Huh, maybe.”

“Who’s staying down at Four Pines?” Jake came out of the back, a bottle of Gatorade in hand. His shift had just ended, but he tended to linger when he could.

Knowing a bit about his home life, Barclay could understand why. He’d graduated from high school last year and was living with his mother. She’d raised him by herself and was always busy with multiple jobs. Plus, apparently, things had been rather tense since Jake had told her he was a boy.

“The secret agent Barclay thinks is hot.” Dani chuckled, putting a drink on the bar. Jake’s eyes widened to the size of dinner plates as Barclay covered his face with his hand.

“Dude, really? That’s sick as hell, he’s a secret agent? Who is he?” Jake peered around the cafe with all the discretion he didn’t possess, Aubrey pointing Stern out.

“He’s not a secret agent, Jake, we don’t know who he is. He just dresses up nice.” Barclay grumbled, hoping that Stern hadn’t overheard them. The last thing they needed was for a new regular customer to learn they were making up stories about them.

“Oh yeah, I see him. I dunno, dude, he definitely looks like a secret agent. I bet he has like, rad spy gear and stuff.” Jake ducked out of sight when Stern looked up, grinning widely. “Hey, we should talk to him. I think there’s some rule that they have to tell you if they’re undercover if you ask.”

Jake darted out again, Barclay cursing the kid’s impulsiveness. “Jake, it doesn’t work like that, don’t bother him. JaKE WATCH WHERE YOU’RE-”

The young man had turned back when Barclay had called after him, not watching where he was going. He ran right into Stern, who’d gotten up to clear his dishes. Blue gatorade went everywhere, Stern’s cup crashing to the floor.

The whole cafe went silent, as people tended to do in these situations. The only thing Barclay could feel was a rising sense of horror.

Stern looked stunned, blue liquid soaking into his suit while Jake looked equally shocked, before floundering with embarrassment. “Dude, I am so sorry. Shit. I shoulda been watching where I was going, that was super uncool of me. Um.. shoot.. uh..”

Barclay could see Jake was struggling with what he should do, between the mess and the broken china on the floor and the man who’s suit he’d just ruined. The barista rushed over to help.

“Hey Jake, how about you and Dani go to the back and go grab the broom and mop, okay? I’ll take care of our guest here.” Jake nodded, eyes wide as he hurried into the back, Dani following while Barclay remained with Stern. He grabbed a big handful of napkins from the bar, bringing them to Stern. The other man quietly took them with a nod, patting himself down.

“I am.. so sorry about that. He’s a good kid, I promise, he’s just a little scatterbrained.” Barclay nudged the broken shards of mug out of the walkway with his shoe, grimacing as Stern had little success in soaking up the liquid on his clothing. There had to be something he could do. “I uh.. I have a sweater in the back if you wanna borrow it.”

“It’s.. alright, it happens.” Stern blinked at him for a moment, and Barclay had the distinct sense he’d just overstepped, but much to his surprise, the man just looked down to the stain on his shirt again and sighed before nodding. “If you’re sure it wouldn’t be too much trouble, that would be appreciated.”

Barclay was dumbfounded that the man had actually said yes, but nodded nonetheless, heading to the back to grab his sweater. He passed Dani and a shamefaced Jake, armed with a broom and mop, on the way.

The sweater had been presented without many words, the dark-haired man retreating to the bathroom to change while Jake and Dani cleaned up. Barclay told Jake he could leave, since he was off the clock, but the kid insisted on sticking around so he could apologize properly once Stern had changed.

When Stren came back out, Barclay had to admit, it was strange seeing the man he’d only ever seen in pristine suits wrapped is his warm, frumpy sweater, his shirt, tie and jacket draped over his arm. The barista would even dare hazard to say that he looked just like a normal guy. The sleeves had obviously been a bit too long, Stern having rolled them to his elbows, and his face was pink from having washed it.

If Barclay had thought he was attractive with his suits and mystery, seeing him disheveled and swimming in his own oversized sweater, well... Barclay knew he was doomed. He swallowed thickly before giving Stern a lopsided grin.

“Looks good on you.” He chuckled, Stern smiling back, much to his surprise.

“Thank you, again, it’s.. much appreciated. I’ll be sure to return it to you freshly washed tomorrow.” He tugged at the knit fabric, clearing his throat.

“Oh, uh.. Don’t worry about washing it, it’s all good.” Barclay rubbed the back of his neck, trying somehow to not be as awkward as he knew he was being. Jake came up beside them just in time to offer a distraction, which Barclay couldn’t be more grateful for.

“Hey uh, I’m really sorry about that Mister. I hope you can get the stain out, and I really should have been watching where I was going.” Jake shuffled his feet, ears still red with embarrassment. Stern just smiled, waving the worry off.

“It’s no issue, really. Accidents happen all the time. And I imagine I can salvage the garment with a proper dry-cleaning, so don’t you worry.” Stern’s expression was warm and understanding, something Barclay hadn’t expected. Sure, Stern was always polite in the shop, but he supposed he’d assumed a man like Stern would be more, well... stern.

Jake nodded, relieved, before thanking Stern and telling Barclay goodbye for the day. Barclay turned back to the man, an awkward silence between them before Barclay offered his hand. Because at this point, why not.

“I’m Barclay by the way. I’m the assistant manager and head barista here.”

“I uh.. I know, it’s on your nametag.”

“Oh, right.” Barclay blushed, feeling stupid for forgetting something like that. However, Stern took his hand, shaking it carefully.

“But, it’s good to meet you officially, nonetheless. Agent Stern, FBI. I’m doing some work in the area for a little while.”

Barclay’s jaw almost hit the floor. He had been a secret agent. Holy Shit.

“Well damn. Jake’s gonna flip when he finds out he spilled gatorade on an FBI Agent.” Stern smiled again with amusement and Barclay felt his heart jump just a little. Stern had a great smile.

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be a story for the ages.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “Well, I should be going, especially if I want to get this to the dry-cleaners. It was a pleasure meeting you, Barclay and thank you for the sweater.”

“Uh.. yeah, you too. No problem.” Barclay wiped his hands on his apron idly as Stern started for the door, giving him one last smile before he left, leaving the Barista standing in the middle of the cafe. God, what was he doing? Stern was practically a stranger and here he was, dizzy like a teen with a crush.

In his defense, Stern was pretty cute.

So caught up in his idle fantasy for the rest of his shift, it wasn’t until Barclay got home that he realized he hadn’t told Stern tomorrow was his day off.

Chapter Text

On his day off, Barclay had struggled with whether he should go into the shop or not to see Stern, because the other man had told him he’d be there today. But eventually, he’d talked himself out of it. He had errands he really needed to run, and didn’t want to be seen as falling over himself for a guy he didn’t even know. Plus he’d never hear the end of it from his coworkers if he did.

So instead, he spent his day off like how he usually did, taking care of everything he didn’t get to do during the rest of the week. First thing in the morning, this was mostly laundry and making himself a coffee.

You’d think he’d get a little tired of coffee, working with it regularly, but he rarely actually had a drink himself when he was working, except for when he had to close one night and open the next morning (something they not-so-affectionately called clopening). Which, as he now was remembering, he was going to be doing tomorrow and the next day. Great.

He’d agreed to take Jake’s shift when the kid had had to go on a family trip with his mom. Considering how his family life had been going lately, Barclay had taken it without hesitation. The less the kid needed to worry about the better.

All the more reason for him to take it easy and focus on himself rather than worry about Stern. He worked his espresso machine with deft motions --because he wasn’t not going to have an espresso machine when he had the skills to use and enjoy it-- before sitting back with his coffee and a bowl of cereal, reading his latest book. 

Once the washer was finished and he could switch the load over to dry, he got dressed and headed out to get started with his day, the sun high by then. It was cooler by now here in Kepler, even with the drought, and the townsfolk could be seen dressed in jackets and sweaters on the streets. Barclay had opted for a light jacket himself, seeing as someone had his sweater.

He’d driven over to a barbecue joint for some lunch, passing the Hornet’s Nest in the process, their bikes out front glimmering in the sunlight.

Barclay had conflicted feelings about the Hornets, as he was sure most folks did around town. They were a rather rough and tumble group with a history of being troublemakers. They were a gang, but mostly in the sense that they were a large group. Sure they caused trouble from time to time, getting into bar fights and hanging out in places they probably shouldn’t be for the sake of sick stunts, but actual gang violence was never their M.O.

Jake had hung with them while he’d still been in high school, drawn to the cool stunts and good ol’ teenage rebellion, until they’d gotten too rowdy for him to feel comfortable.

“It used to be great, you know? We’d be chillin’, carving down the mountain on our bikes or shredding the slopes, just enjoying the adrenaline rush. It was pretty rad.” Jake had told him one day after they’d seen a group of Hornets roar around the turn in front of the shop on their bikes. The young man started up the bean grinder, waiting for it to stop before speaking again. 

“It was also just like.. they were all really chill about my gender and I was still really in the closet like.. everywhere else. Their leader’s enby so everyone was already really chill, and knew if they fucked up, they’d have to deal with Hollis chewing them out. It was really awesome to know everyone had my back when I didn’t really have another outlet. Hollis even helped me get my first binder.” He shrugged, sighing softly. Barclay could tell Jake still missed the group, but considering how rough they’d gotten, it was probably for the best.

“It was only until they started doing some really dangerous stuff that I knew I had to leave. It sucked because I didn’t really have anywhere else, but safety is like, the most important thing when you’re out there doin’ sweet flips, y’know? You gotta keep yourself from getting messed up so you can keep on havin’ fun.”

“You were smart to leave when you got uncomfortable, Jake. And I know we’re not as prolific as the Hornets, but I hope you know you can always be yourself here too.” 

“Yeah, I know. Thanks Barclay. You’re like.. a really rad dude, y’know that?” Jake smiled, gently punching Barclay’s arm. He faltered, idly rubbing his chest. “Hey uh, there was actually something I wanted to ask you.”

“Yeah? What’s that?” Barclay paused what he was doing, giving Jake his full attention, just based on the teen’s tone.

“My binder’s actually kinda starting to fall apart and I need to get a new one, and I can’t get it shipped to my house yet. I’ve been thinking about telling my mom, but I think I’m gonna wait until I turn eighteen just in case. Do you think I could... get it shipped to you and have you bring it to me at work?”

“Of course, dude. That wouldn’t be a problem at all.” Jake had brightened and they’d set out planning getting his new binder mailed to Barclay, the young man excited over all the new colors the store had since he’d gotten his last one. It always made Barclay happy to help out another trans kid. Maybe they all could make the three hour drive out to West Virginia Pride next year when June rolled around.

After he finished his lunch, he went down to Leo’s general store to pick up some groceries. The man had greeted him when he’d entered with a friendly wave, chatting when Barclay went to check out.

“So how’s business goin’, Barclay? Amnesty always seems ta be buzzin’ whenever I’m over there. Youse guys really seem ta have things together, it’s real good to see. Local businesses are what make this town tick, ya know? It’s nothin’ like New York; gotta Starbucks on every corner an’ not a ounce of soul in any of ‘em.” Leo was always something of a talker, he had an opinion on everything, but he was a well-liked member of the community.

“We’re doing pretty well! Business has been picking up now that we’re moving into our peak season.” Tourists had begun to descend into the town now that autumn was here. It had taken a little longer for the colors to start coming through this year, probably because of how hot it had been. But now that it was cooling down, the influx of RVs and campers into the surrounding national parks had begun.

“You can say that again. It’s always fun to see new faces come through; not that I don’ like seenin’ the lovely mugs of you locals. It’s jus’ nice ta change it up, you feel me?” Leo chuckled, finishing bagging up Barclay’s groceries.

“Yeah, no, I totally get it. Adds a little variance to the workday.” Barclay nodded, counting out his cash to pay. “Hey, you live in Duck’s apartment block, right? How’s he been doing lately? We haven’t seen much of him at the cafe.”

“Oh, yeah, guy’s been workin’ a whole lotta midshifts lately. They’re awful busy down there at the station with all the new campers I imagine. Did you hear about that burn ban they’re talkin’ about? You gotta know all those people campin’ are gonna hate that. What’s camping without a campfire and marshmallows, ya know?”

“Yeah, I did hear about that. Juno mentioned it when she stopped in the other day. Hopefully we get some rain soon.” The river had been a lot lower the last time he’d been out hiking with Dani, it would be better for everyone if this drought broke soon.  

“You can say that again, my houseplants can’t take much more of this.”  

“Actually, I wanted to ask-” Barclay hung around to chat after he’d been handed his bags while there was no one else in line, leaning in. “How’s uh.. your other neighbor been doing? Duck said she’s kind’ve a handful, and I know Aubrey gets a kick out of finding out what they’ve been up to.” 

“Who, Minerva? Oh yeah, she’s a hoot. I actually knew her from before she moved here; we met at a fencing tournament in Milwaukee. She’s a funny gal, dunno where she gets her energy.” Barclay balked, not sure how to unpack all that. 

“You used to fence? No shit, that’s awesome. And I guess it doesn’t surprise me that she knows how to. Duck says she’s good at just about anything fitness. I wish she’d actually come into the cafe, I wanna see this beast of a woman with my own two eyes.” 

“Well, you’ll know her when you see her. Real big lady, almost seven feet tall, bald with some kinda tribal tattoos on her scalp. Looks like she could throw you across a room, and ya know what? She prolly could. I wouldn’t put it past her.” Barclay snickered, trying to imagine this woman. He really needed to see her now.  

“She and Duck were actually sparring in the backyard the other day.” 

What? No way. Really? She got Duck to spar with her? Man, I hope he comes in soon, because I have got to ask him about how that went. Aubrey’s gonna flip.” Barclay could already imagine the look on the girl’s face when he told her. She was never gonna leave Duck alone about it, he just knew it. Leo shook his head with a grin.

“I know! Surprised me too. Duck’s really not the sparring sort, but I was actually pretty surprised how good his form was; for someone who has no idea what they’re doing anyway. I guess the guy just has good instincts.” Leo shrugged.

“Who’d have thought. Anyway, I gotta get going before my groceries warm up too much. Good chatting with you Leo.” Barclay gave the man an awkward half-wave, half-gesture with his grocery laden hand.

“Alright, always good to see ya, Barclay. I’ll see youse guys with your order Monday morning.” Barclay took his leave, taking his groceries back to his apartment.

He spent the rest of the day doing another load of laundry and reading, before he made himself dinner. He’d then messed around on the internet until it was time for him to go to bed. As he lay there, Stern crossed his mind once more. He still felt like maybe he should have gone in to see if Stern had his sweater, but it was too late to worry about it now. He’d see the man tomorrow anyway.


 

However, when he came in the next afternoon, Stern was notably absent from the shop. Barclay again found himself a little guilty that he hadn't stopped by, the nagging feeling he’d messed up somewhere curling in his chest.

Who he did happen to see however was Ned Chicane, owner and proprietor of the Cryptonomica, the man schmoozing up to a group of tourists who were listening to him intently. Of course.

The Cryptonomica was a museum of cryptids and the supernatural, and it was a downright tourist trap. Most of the displays were about as cheesy as what you’d see at the state fair curiosity tents (all of which could be sold for a price). Well, they were a bit better than that; Barclay had to give Kirby, Ned’s assistant, credit where credit was due for his artistic work. And while most of the locals thought the little curio shop was downright tacky, in recent years tourists seemed to love that sort of thing. Most of them knew it was fake, they just enjoyed the novelty of it.

The “Museum” was something of a divisive topic among the townsfolk. On one hand, it brought in tourism, but on the other, it was just so weird. But, even Barclay had to admit, the longer Ned had been in charge of the shop, the less people were adamantly opposed, even if they still rolled their eyes.

What’s more, Ned had actually started becoming something of a local celebrity in the last year or so, convincing the local public TV station to host his program for showing old, hokey monster movies which he’d aptly named “Saturday Night Dead”. And small towns, with what little they had to do in the area, had latched right onto it with a ravenous enjoyment. It was good fun and Barclay had to admit that he’d definitely turned it on on more than one occasion when he had Saturday off. They didn’t make movies that cheesy anymore, and it was always fun for a laugh.

Ned himself was something of an odd fellow. For one, no one knew where the hell he’d come from. One day he’d just been there, working for Victoria at the shop. No one had even seen him come into town. And after she’d passed on, the Cryptonomica had become his.

Ned was also a showman. He was loud and jovial and had all the charm of a used car salesman. Barclay had yet to be convinced that Ned wasn’t trying to sell him something every time they spoke. But he supposed it fit the kind of business Ned was trying to run perfectly.

With the popularity of the cafe having grown in the past few years, Ned had reached out for a little cross promotional advertising. Mama had been hesitant about the idea, but eventually they worked out a simple deal that if you showed your ticket from the Cryptonomica at the cafe you’d get a size upgrade, and if you showed your Amnesty Cafe receipt at Ned’s shop, you’d get $2 off entry. Ned had been pushing for them to work together more, but nothing had come of it yet. It hadn’t been all that long ago since Ned had last been in here, trying to butter her up.

“Oh, come on now, Mama, think of how much fun it could be! If your cafe supplied the refreshments and food for the live showing of Saturday Night Dead, think of how many customers you’d get! And I’d, of course, give a glowing endorsement on the show as well.” Ned gestured with his paper cup at the woman, the two sitting across from each other at a table. Mama didn’t look particularly impressed.

“Ned, we’re the only cafe in town, I think everyone who watches your little show already comes here.” She tapped her foot, staring Ned down. To the man’s credit, he didn’t even falter in his sales pitch. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’re always happy to cater, but somehow I get the feeling that isn’t what you mean.”

“Well, I mean, of course I’d pay for your services, but maybe we could agree on a discount, seeing as I’m going to be providing your business with some publicity, don’t you think?” Mama squinted at Ned, while Barclay had been trying to act like he wasn’t watching the conversation intently from over the top of the espresso machine.

“Mhm, and just how much of a discount are we talking about here, Ned Chicane?” Ned didn’t miss a beat, which Barclay had to imagine took some balls considering what he was just about to propose.

“Oh, y’know, I was thinking about 30% off, 40% if you’re feeling generous.” 

“Holy shit, did he just ask for a 40% discount?” Dani whispered, Barclay jumping a little. He’d been so engrossed in their conversation, he hadn’t noticed her sneak up next to him so she could watch as well.

“Right? There’s no way she’d give him that. But you gotta admit, guy isn’t the least bit intimidated. I dunno how he does it,” Barclay pondered as they watched. He went to deliver a customer’s drink to the bar before slinking back, doing his best to not be noticed eavesdropping on “important business”. Mama pursed her lips.

“Mhm, yeah, that ain’t gonna happen Ned. You’re charmin’, but not as charmin’ as you think you are. You start making some real money with that little sideshow of yours, and we’ll talk about actual catering. But in the meantime, just sit and drink your coffee.” She got up, patting Ned’s shoulder in a kind of condescending way. That wasn’t to say they all didn’t like Ned, he could just be a bit over the top.

“I’ll get you to work with me one day, Mama, you’ll see.” Ned mused, spirits not the least bit broken as he settled back in his chair to drink his coffee and read the newspaper. Mama snorted, walking back towards the kitchen, though she paused next to the bar where Barclay and Dani were pretending they’d been working the whole time and not paying attention.

“You earwigs havin’ fun back there?” She chuckled, the pair knowing they’d been caught red-handed, looking at each other guiltily. The older woman leaned against the bar with a smirk. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Nosy . But yeah, he might be a pain in my ass, but I ain’t got a damn good reason to kick Ned Fuckin’ Chicane out. He’s a good guy, for all his showboating. Maybe keep an eye on him though, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s come in here to bug the customers to come to his shop.”

Despite “keeping an eye on him”, Ned always managed to worm his way in when they weren’t looking to chat up the customers. He always claimed he’d come in to get a cup of coffee and just ended up getting in a friendly conversation, but the staff knew better. Ned always had a reason for being somewhere he shouldn’t. Today seemed no different.

Barclay came over to the group as he bussed dishes that had been abandoned, crossing his arms. “Havin’ a good day, Ned?”

“Hm? Ah! Hello friend Barclay! It’s so good to see you. I was just chatting with these lovely people here. Apparently they came all the way up from Florida to see the fall colors and enjoy the cooler weather, isn’t that wonderful?” Ned grinned with a cheshire grin, Barclay smiling at the group, shooting Ned a look.

“Well, we’re happy to have you here at Amnesty Cafe. How long you folks gonna be here for? The Pocahontas County Autumn Harvest Festival is down it Marlinton this weekend if you’re planning on sticking around. Only about a thirty-minute drive from here.” One thing Barclay had learned about deterring Ned was that you couldn’t fight him or intimidate him, but you could steal his thunder.

The tourists all murmured excitedly, getting out their phones and looking up the festival in question, completely forgetting Ned was there. Barclay flashed the con man a smile, which Ned sarcastically returned. The man made a show of checking his watch.

“Well folks, I’ve gotta run, but like I said, please do come by and visit the Cryptonomica! If you bring your receipt from the cafe, it’s $2 off at admission!” He pulled a card from his pocket and handed it to them before giving Barclay a little mock salute and heading out the door, the barista letting out a long suffering sigh. Some things never changed.

Heading back behind the bar, he was intercepted by Aubrey. “Hey, did you see Ned?”

“Oh, yeah, he just left.” Barclay slid the plates into the dish tub as she peered over the counter to see if she could still see Ned in the parking lot to no avail.

“Man, I wanted to talk to him about my next performance on Saturday Night Dead. I have some new tricks I wanted to run by him.” The young woman sighed, settling back at the register. 

“I’m sure you’ll catch him next time.” As much of a hoser as Ned could be, he and Aubrey seemed to get along well, the young magician even appearing on his show. Barclay kinda doubted Ned was paying her much of anything, if at all, but it got her enough publicity make fairly frequent gigs around Kepler and the surrounding communities, so Barclay wasn’t going to make a fuss about it.

When she first came to Kepler, Aubrey hadn’t been having all that much luck with her stage magic career. From the sound of it, she had set out when she turned twenty-one to follow her dream and had been woefully unprepared for the chaos of gig life, ending up in Kepler about half a year ago. And if what he’d been told was to be believed, she’d set the curtains of the Mt. Kepler Ski Resort on fire her first night here, Mama bailing her out.

So it was a surprise to exactly no one that Aubrey started working at Amnesty Cafe not a week after her arrival. She and Dani got on like a forest on fire (Sorry, Duck), everyone else quick to warm up to her as well. Barclay had even seen she and Moira having chats about performing and music from time to time. She might have been their newest addition, but after a month, no one could imagine the cafe without her.

“So you’ve been here for like.. Forever, right?” She’d asked fairly soon after she’d started, Barclay showing her the ropes on how to use the machines. She was clumsy with it and kept burning her fingers, but she didn’t seem dismayed, keeping at it.

“I mean, guess you could say that, but I’ve certainly not been here the longest. Dani and Moira already worked here when I started. So about... six years? Six and a half? Damn, time flies. But yeah, not forever, but a while. Of course, I’d been a barista before I started here, back in Washington. Did that for about four years and then traveled for about a year in between. Van broke down here and I just never left.”

Aubrey nodded, watching Barclay intently as he showed her how to do some basic latte art designs. “Yeah? I’ve heard Washington is really nice. What was it like? Any family back home?”

“It was fine.” Barclay shrugged, a bittersweet feeling twisting in his chest. “I had a really good network of friends that I still call sometimes, but uh.. I’m not really in contact with my folks anymore, or my little brother. They were never too keen on.. a lotta things about me.”

Aubrey picked up on his tone, eyes softening as she nodded in understanding. She’d no doubt seen his little rainbow pin, and Barclay had definitely seen her collection of queer and punky pins and patches on her denim jacket. She was proud of her bisexual identity and not afraid to call out anyone who gave her looks.

“My family were generally pretty cool with whoever I wanted to date. It was actually wanting to be a magician that they struggled more with, but some of my other relatives weren’t great about it, so I understand the feeling.” She shrugged, likely not particularly wanting to talk about her own family issues either. Everyone here had a little bit of baggage and sometimes it wasn’t the best to rummage around in it.

“So, what’s Washington like? I’ve never been up that way before. Closest I’ve been is Nevada, which I’m sure is just.. entirely different. My parents took me to see Ariann Black in Vegas after I’d expressed interest in magic and it was honestly the best. She was so cool, and I still really look up to her as a magician, and all she does to promote women magicians.” Barclay let her go on her tangent, loving how passionate she was about her work and role models.

“Well, Washington’s pretty different depending on where you go. Closer to the coast on the Seattle side, things are pretty liberal, but the more east you go, you run into a lot more rural communities similar to this area.” 

Not that Kepler was bad, it was better than some of the surrounding communities, but it wasn’t perfect. “I grew up on Port Townsend, so I got some of the benefits of being closer to Seattle. Like I said I had a pretty good network of friends, though I uh.. had been going through a rough patch with a lot of them when I left. I’ve made up with a few of them since, but at this point, I’m pretty well settled here.”

“Port Townsend, huh? Yeah, I have no idea where that is other than I’m assuming on a coastline.” 

“Yep, that’s about right. It was nice. Whole bunch of old Victorian style houses, dry summers and mild, wet winters. If you wanted to actually see snow and go skiing like you can here, you’d have to drive about two or three hours to either Snoqualmie or Crystal Mountain. My family always preferred to go to Snoqualmie because Crystal Mountain was always so crowded, probably because it was so close to Mt. Rainer. The tourism we get here is nothing like how crazy it can get on the west coast.”

“Well..” Aubrey smiled, nudging him with her arm. “I know I haven’t been here that long, but I’m glad you are here. I can tell everyone here really likes and counts on you. You’re a big piece of the puzzle that makes Amnesty Amnesty, and I’m really grateful for how much you’re willing to teach me.”

“Aw. Thank you, Aubrey. We’re glad to have you here.” Barclay nodded, the feeling in his chest slipping away as he finished the latte and moved to the side to let her have access. “Okay, now I want you to try again. And this time turn the knob on the steamer gently.

She’d only progressed rapidly from there. And what’s more, Barclay truly could call her a good friend, just as much as the rest of the staff. 

At other places he’d worked, you didn’t generally hang out with your coworkers after hours, but with the folks who worked here, he’d found he genuinely wanted to. Sometimes they all went out for drinks together (Jake would get soda), and there was talk of arranging a ski trip together one of these days when it finally got cold enough. It was just a matter of convincing Mama to close the shop for the day so they could.

“So uh, have you seen Stern today?” He scratched his ear, trying to be nonchalant about it, knowing full well he probably wasn’t succeeding.

“Hm, I don’t think so. He would be in by now, wouldn’t he?” Aubrey grinned, surveying the shop before her for their well-dressed friend but coming up short. She hummed softly. “It’s still so like.. completely wild to me that he’s a government agent . Like we were only joking about that, I didn’t expect it to be, y’know, true . Are you sure he didn’t overhear us and was just trying to pull your leg? Because if I overheard someone wondering if I was an international spy, I would totally just roll with it to fuck with them.”

“I mean, I don’t think so. And he’s not a spy , he just said he was FBI,” Barclay pointed out, one eye still on the door as they talked just in case Stern was just running late.

“Same thing, isn’t it? Even if he is just a federal agent, that’s still wild. What’s he even doing in Kepler? There’s not much out here, just.. Woods.” She poked her head in the pastry case, readjusting what they still had so it wouldn’t look so decimated.

“Maybe he’s looking for bigfoot,” Barclay snorted, eyeing up what they had left, hoping no one bought the last slice of Dani’s pumpkin bread before they closed so he could take it home with him. “Duck’s a federal agent too you know.”

“Yeah, but Duck is Duck . Stern’s like the textbook picture of an FBI government agent, while Duck would probably swoon if you told him he’d get to meet Smokey the Bear.” Barclay had to admit she was right. Agent Stern and Duck Newton couldn’t be the furthest apart as individuals. Not to say Duck didn’t have his charms, he just wasn’t the buttoned up, mysterious agent Stern seemed to be. 

Aubrey groaned, pressing her forehead to the counter. “Man, why has he been getting so many midday shifts lately. I like.. never see him. Doesn’t he know I need that hot, hot goss on what his giant, buff neighbor is doing? My quota for pictures of cute wildlife isn’t even close to being full either, Barclay.”

“They’ve all been busy with the drought that’s been going on. I’ve heard they’re talking about putting down a burn ban if we don’t get rain soon, which I’m sure is gonna be chaos for them.” Barclay pointed out, but he had to admit, he’d kind of been missing Duck too. “Though I will give you a juicy little tidbit that I learned from Leo Tarkesian yesterday. Apparently Duck and Minerva have taken up sparring .”

“Sparring? Holy Shit, Barclay, that’s amazing. I bet he looked ridiculous. I wonder how she even convinced him to do it.” Aubrey giggled, obviously imagining Duck sparring with a woman twice his size and twelve times as muscular.

“I dunno, Leo said he wasn’t doing that bad. Maybe he’s been secretly wrestling bears out in the woods in his spare time.” Barclay snorted, glancing back up to the door yet again, Aubrey raising an eyebrow.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re more worried about Stern than you are about your sweater.”

“Hey, it’s my favorite sweater, okay. But.. I might just wanna make sure he got his suit cleaned too. Plus, he kinda implied he would be here yesterday to give it to me, but I forgot to mention I wouldn’t be here.” Barclay made a face at her, the girl snorting and shaking her head. “I’ll have to ask Dani tomorrow if she saw him yesterday.”

“You can ask her tonight if you want. She’s picking me up from work to see a movie when I get off.” 

“Oh, a movie, huh? That’s fun.” He didn’t say it, but Aubrey seemed to catch what his tone implied, her face flushing. 

“We’re just hanging out. You know, as friends .” She threatened Barclay with the pastry tongs, the barista holding his hands up in surrender.

Barclay honestly didn’t really understand why they didn’t just fess up and admit they liked each other. He would get it if either had been unsure that the other liked girls, but they both knew and they both were so obviously into each other. It made his head spin that they were still doing this dance. But he supposed relationships were more complicated than just sexuality. 

His own last relationship had been a while ago, when he was still back in Washington. It had actually been pretty good for the most part, which was what made him feel so guilty for how it had ended. Thomas had wanted to get a lot more serious and Barclay, with a shaky grasp on anything he wanted in his life at the time, --much less a committed long-term relationship-- just hadn’t been ready and broke it off. Sometimes he wondered how Thomas was doing and had come very close to facebook stalking him several times, but always thought better of it.

The afternoon came and went with no sign of Stern, Dani coming to pick Aubrey up for their not-date after her shift ended. Barclay pulled her to the side while Aubrey got her stuff, feeling a little silly now that he actually had to ask.

“Hey, just out of curiosity, did Stern come by yesterday? He said he was gonna bring me my sweater, but I completely forgot to tell him I was off. I’m kinda worried I pissed him off by not being here.” He fidgeted, Dani snorting but surprisingly shaking her head.

“Naw, dude. He wasn’t in at all yesterday. Part of me kinda wondered if he didn’t wanna come back after he got gatorade spilled on him, but the dude offered to wash your sweater before he gave it back, so I feel like he wouldn’t just ditch. If he wasn’t here today either, he was probably super busy or something.” That actually made Barclay feel a little better. He’d been anxious all day about not telling Stern he was off, but apparently the agent hadn’t even been there.

“Okay, I’m ready!” Aubrey jogged out of the backroom with her backpack, hurrying up to Dani with a grin. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, just vibrating with energy. Barclay envied how much life she had in her sometimes. He wasn’t middle aged yet , but his mid-thirties wouldn’t last forever.

“Alright, we’re gonna go. Night Barclay, have fun with clopening.” Dani stuck her tongue out at the man as he made a face, but waved as the pair walked to Dani’s truck.

“You kids have fun! Try not to stay out too late!”

“Thanks Dad!

Again, he wasn’t that old.

Watching the two drive off to catch their movie, Barclay went back to the rest of the evening shift. It was the middle of the week, so they didn’t really get many customers in the evening. Usually, it would just be him and Duck hanging around, but Duck wasn’t here. If it went long enough, he might have to track down the man’s phone number and call him up for drinks or something.


 

He finished up his shift without too much hassle, yawning as he locked up the shop for the night. He knew he should get home and get to bed. He didn’t regret agreeing to open tomorrow in Jake’s stead, Jake had enough going on in his life, but certainly would run him a little ragged.

It might be time to talk with Mama about hiring more people again. They were a small cafe in a small town so they didn’t really need all that many people, even with the tourism. Still, Barclay thought they could use a little more padding for when things like this happened. But, Mama was notoriously picky about who she hired, which he initially wouldn’t have guessed with how quickly she’d picked him up off the street.

But then, it had been pretty dire when he’d first been hired. The head barista had just been fired for harassing another employee, another girl that Barclay couldn’t quite remember the name of. She’d quit to go to college very soon after Barclay had joined and never came back.

It had then been just himself, Moira, Dani and Mama, Dani being part-time back then. Oh yeah, and Thacker

Arlo Thacker was an interesting fellow to say the least. He’d run a nature adventure service known as KepEx, which as far as Barclay had heard, had done decently enough. He did wildflower tours in the spring, and rock climbing and kayaking groups in the summer, and leaf tours in the fall among other things.

But as much as Thacker tried to sell folks on his Winter Wonderland tours, no one really bought into trudging around in the snow in the dead of winter, so Thacker picked up work at Amnesty in the meantime. Apparently he and Mama were old friends.

Thacker mostly stuck to the back of house, not really the most social sort. It wasn’t that he was a complete dud out behind the bar, he was decent enough at making drinks, but was always very mechanical in his technique. God forbid you let him behind the register though. He was a nice guy, but he had all the charisma of a wet sock.

But, he was good at writing things down and keeping track of them, that was for sure. Thacker had developed an ordering and labeling system that they still used today. Barclay was fairly sure in another life, Thacker would have been a great researcher. The man had a hunger for learning new things and had always been scrawling something in his journal during his break. He had a new one every couple of weeks so Barclay could only assume he just kept filling them up.

But after two winters of Thacker working at Amnesty, he’d left. Barclay remembered hearing a snippet of his and Mama’s conversation from the cracked door of the back office not long before he’d departed.

“I jus’ gotta do this, Maddie. I ain’t gettin’ any younger, and I feel like I could actually do somethin’ to help out there in the big wide world if I jus’ went for it. I’ve been sittin’ on my ass here, twiddlin’ my thumbs and teachin’ kids about woodland insects.”

“Which is still a pretty noble pursuit y’know, Arlo. I think ya’ve changed more kids lives than ya think out here. I know Miss Juno will miss ya somethin’ fierce.” He’d heard Thacker sigh.

“Yeah, but if I didn’ teach those kids, someone else woulda. I could be out somewhere, teachin’ kids who wouldn’ have anybody , y’know? I wanna leave somethin’ good on this Earth before I leave it, Maddie.” It was Mama’s turn to sigh, Barclay hearing the bittersweet tone in her voice when she spoke.

“Well, if that’s what you gotta do, I ain’t gonna stop ya, Arlo. I wish ya the best to ya out there. And you better keep in touch, ya hear me? If you drop off the face of the planet on us, I will hunt your sorry behind down to make sure you didn’t die in a ditch somewhere.”

“Yeah, yeah, I promise. And Maddie? Thank you.”

Barclay had slipped away before he’d be caught eavesdropping and would later find out pretty much the same thing from Mama when she’d told everyone Thacker was leaving. They’d talked about having a going away party for him, but he’d slipped away to wherever he was going before they could.

Mama had never said if he’d kept in touch, but Barclay hoped so. He’d have to ask one of these days.

The barista was just thinking about maybe putting on some ambient music to help him sleep when he got home. He wasn’t sure if it actually helped him sleep , but it did relax him. He didn’t generally have a hard time sleeping, but every ounce of rest he could get would be much appreciated for his opening shift tomorrow.  

Humming to himself as he finished locking up, he turned towards his truck and almost ran straight into someone behind him.

“Oh shoot! Sorry- Agent Stern?” Barclay blinked when he found the agent standing before him. The man looked rather tired, a lot more rough than the barista had ever seen him in the shop. He was still dressed to the nines however, Stern clutching what appeared to be a brown paper shopping bag.

“Ah, Barclay. Yes, sorry about that, hello. How are you this evening?” He even sounded tired. Wherever he’d been the past two days, it looked like he hadn’t gotten much sleep in the process. Admittedly, he had no idea what being an FBI agent entailed, so all he could do was make wild and likely inaccurate guesses for why that could be.

“Oh, I’m fine. Thanks for asking. How about yourself? We missed you at the shop today.” It seemed it was Stern’s turn to be surprised, like he didn’t quite believe that he’d been missed. And in all honesty, Barclay couldn’t really speak for everyone else, but he had definitely noticed the man’s absence.

“Oh I’m as well as I can be, I suppose. I actually wanted to apologize for yesterday. I know I said I’d be by to drop off your sweater, but I got caught up in my work and wasn’t able to make it. Looks like I barely even made it today, I’m glad I caught you.” He gingerly gestured to the bag, which the other man could only assume contained his sweater.

“Oh uh... actually it’s fine. I wasn’t even here yesterday, I totally forgot to tell you I was off. I thought maybe you were, I dunno, mad or something.” Barclay admitted sheepishly, shifting awkwardly under the harsh light of the street lamps overhead, moths fluttering lazily above them. 

“You..” 

Stren stared at him for a moment, before --and Barclay chalked it up to how exhausted the man look, because it seemed so unprofessional for Stern-- honest to god bursting out laughing. And it was the kind of laugh that was contagious, Barclay also chuckling at the absurdity of the situation as well. Here they both were; worried about the other being upset about not showing up when in actuality neither of them had. 

It felt good to laugh, and it felt even better to see a man like Stern laughing with him.

Stern finally remembered himself, shaking his head with a smile as he rubbed an eye with the heel of his hand. “Oh, goodness. I do apologize. I admit I am thoroughly exhausted, and was just caught off guard I suppose.”

“Hey, no need to explain yourself. I get it.” Barclay returned the smile, the ball of anxiety that had been sitting in his chest all day finally releasing. Stern stifled a yawn with the back of his hand, eyes bleary. But he seemed to be in better spirits, so there was that.

“Oh my. Again, I do apologize. I really should go get some sleep, I’ve had a long couple of nights. Here, I do believe this belongs to you, freshly washed just as I promised.” He held out the bag for Barclay, the barista gladly accepting it.

“Aw man, I said you didn’t gotta. But thanks. Did you get that stain out?” He eyed the man’s suit, which seemed pristine as always, if presently a bit rumpled. Seeming to notice Barclay’s gaze, Stern straightened his lapels.

“This is a different suit, the other is still at the dry-cleaners. Once I get it back, I’ll let you know.” Barclay nodded, chewing the inside of his cheek. They could just end the conversation here, Stern very obviously needed sleep, but Barclay was compelled to keep chatting. Maybe he could get to know the man just a little bit more. 

“Well, good news is, I think blue coloring is a lot easier to get out than most. I remember I dyed my hair purple once as a teen. After like maybe two weeks, all the blue had faded out, but the rest of the dye hadn’t, so my hair was just pink for the next six months. If it had been red gatorade, you coulda kissed that suit goodbye.”

Not that he’d particularly minded it being pink, but he’d been teased about it by his friends at the time. Harmless jesting, to be sure, but it made it stick in his mind. Once the pastel pink had faded, he’d gone and gotten it dyed a vibrant hot pink just to stick it to them. 

Maybe he should dye his hair again. He wondered if Aubrey did hers herself or got it done somewhere.

“Mh, yes, you only need to spill tomato sauce on a freshly starched shirt once to never make that mistake again.” Stern mused, smiling easily. Again, Barclay was taken by how warm the man was. It was nice. The Barista rubbed the back of his head.

“Well, I’ll let you go get some shut-eye. I need to be getting some myself, got an early shift tomorrow. Will uh.. Will I see you tomorrow then?”

Stern pursed his lips with a tired hum. “Hm, no. No offense to you and all the lovely people who work here, but I think not even the best cup of coffee could tempt me from my bed tomorrow. However, I imagine I should be back the day after tomorrow. And I suppose this time, I should actually ask if you’ll be working then.”

Barclay blushed. That was a little bit his own fault too for not mentioning it. “Yeah, I’ll definitely be in day after tomorrow too. So I guess I’ll see you then?”

Man, why did this sound like he was setting up a date? He was only going to be at work, nothing special. But then, he supposed it was nice to know that Stern would be there too. He felt like the man was starting to warm up to him now, so maybe they could have more conversations when the two of them weren’t so dog tired.

The agent yawned again, checking his watch. “I really should be escaping to the warm embrace of sleep right about now, so I’ll have to bid you goodbye, Barclay. But yes, I’ll see you in two days barring any sort of incident. Have a good rest of your night.”

“Yeah, you too Agent Stern.” Once again he found himself standing around watching the man leave, looking down into the bag once he was out of sight. His sweater was neatly folded within, a little sticky note that just said “Thank You Again” attached to it. With a soft chuckle, Barclay pulled it out, lifting it to his nose. Stern really had washed it, with some sort of nice floral scent no less. 

Tucking the sweater back in the bag, he got into his truck and headed home. As Stern had put it, the “warm embrace of sleep” sounded pretty good right about now.

As he drove, it crossed his mind that he should really try to find out what Stern’s first name was.

Chapter Text

Two weeks had passed since the incident with the gatorade and Barclay’s sweater, and Barclay hadn’t made much headway in finding out Stern’s first name. He knew he could just ask the guy, but at this point it had almost become a game among the staff to try to get Stern to say his name without asking, and he didn’t want to ruin the fun. They even had a pool going guessing what the first letter of his name was, which obviously had a large chance of no one winning, but it was amusing.

“I think he looks like an S name,” Aubrey had announced when it had first come up when they’d all gone to the bar together early last week, sipping a drink that almost matched her hair. She nudged Barclay with her elbow. “What do you think, Barclay? He totally looks like an S name, right?”

While the topic itself had come up with the friendly teasing that Barclay had a thing for Stern, his cheeks still pink, it was an interesting question to think about. The man sipped his beer thoughtfully, leaning back against the booth that rounded their large table. “S. Stern? Naw, too harsh, makes you sound like a snake when you say it. I think he looks more like a Richard or Randell or something so my bet’s on R.”

“Are you saying you think his name is Dick or Randy Stern? Sounds like someone has some wishful thinking on the brain.” Dani snorted as Barclay almost choked on his drink. Mama thumped him on the back as he sputtered, the woman giving Dani a firm look. Dani just looked pleased with herself as she casually leaned on the table. “I think he looks like a K name. Mostly because I can totally see him as a Kenneth or Kingsly or something equally pretentious.”

“Gimme a break here y’all, talk about no mercy.” Barclay made a face at her once he’d caught his breath, earning a giggle from Aubrey and Dani’s side of the table. “You know the way he acts and dresses has nothing to do with how his parents named him, right?”

“You guys aren’t thinking big enough. I’m calling it, his name starts with a Z.” Jake chimed in, sipping an RC Cola. A Z name? Barclay supposed he could see that. Something like Zander or Zachary. Jake looked to the woman next to him. “What do you think, Mama?”

Stern had become such a regular that everyone knew him on sight at this point. The next time the agent had come in after returning Barclay’s sweater (the day after next, just as he’d promised), Barclay had given him his drink on the house to make up for the suit. Stern had insisted that wasn’t necessary but, no matter how hard he’d tried, Barclay hadn’t let him pay for it. 

They’d chatted some since, but not as much as Barclay would have liked. They both only saw each other while they were working after all, and Stern always left before the rest of the cafe cleared out and got quiet. But the agent addressed him by name whenever he ordered his drink, sometimes ordering a pastry or sandwich as well, which was nice. Now if only they could get on a first name basis both ways.

Mama pondered the question for a moment as she took a swig of her beer, obviously trying to decide if this was even something she wanted to get in on before conceding. “D. He could be a David, maybe a Daniel.”

He could see it. They were about to ask Moira when they heard a voice from nearby. “If y’all are talkin’ about that FBI Agent, my bet’s on C. It’s just statistically more likely.” They all turned to the familiar voice to see Duck coming up to their table, freshly showered and out of uniform. He had a beer in hand and an easy, if tired, smile on his face. Everyone was happy to see him, but Aubrey brightened the most.

“Duck, you made it!” She beamed as the ranger pulled up a chair, sitting with a groan.

“Almost didn’t, but one of the rookies needed a shift change that benefited me for once. Shit’s been wild with the burn ban in effect. You don’t know how many times I’ve almost been clocked this week for taking away someone’s lighter. Really though, you can thank this one for inviting me.” He jabbed his thumb towards where Barclay was sitting next to him. After a decent stretch of the man’s presence being missed at the cafe, Barclay had finally caved and gotten Duck’s home number from Leo, inviting the ranger to their next little gathering. 

“Barclay saves the day, once again.” Dani chuckled, the barista noticing that she and Aubrey were sitting closer than they usually did. Not that that was saying much, they tended to sit close together regardless. Still, he wondered if something had changed. They’d come together, but Aubrey didn’t have a vehicle and they’d both been working at the same time today, so that wasn’t too much of a stretch.

“Oh, it’s nothin’, I just talk to folks.” He rubbed the back of his neck with a grin.

“Important skill to have in this day and age,” Duck pointed out, leaning over the table to grab a handful of pub mix that was in a bowl in the middle. He popped a pretzel in his mouth. “World’s gettin’ bigger by the day, it’s important to be able to make connections. Anyway, yeah, so y’all were talking about guessin’ Suits first name? His last name was like... Serious or something, right?”

“Stern. And yeah, I didn’t know you’d met him.” Barclay raised an eyebrow, curious how they’d gotten acquainted already.

“Yeah, he came by the station about a month back. Dunno if I should be tellin’ y’all this, but he told us he was trying to track someone who’d come through, but lost the trail here. Wouldn’ give us details on who he was lookin’ for, but told us to report to him if we saw anything weird . Dunno what he means by weird. I see a lotta weird shit out there in the woods, but I’m guessing he doesn’t mean some drunk, naked idiot trying to ride a deer.”

“Woah, that’s wild. I wonder why he’s keeping quiet about what he’s doing. You’d think if he gave the townsfolk a description or something, we could keep a lookout for who he’s looking for.” Aubrey grabbed a pretzel, wiggling it between her teeth thoughtfully before pulling it into her mouth. “Also, don’t think you’re going to mention a naked guy trying to ride a deer and not tell me about it, because you’re are. I want deets on that later.”

“I kinda got the impression he doesn’t really know who he’s looking for, just following some kind of criminal activity. --Agent Stern, not the drunk guy.-- He’s prolly tryin’ to keep it on the down-low so he doesn’t spook his quarry.” Duck scratched his cheek with a shrug. “But I’m just speculatin’.”

Barclay wasn’t really sure what to make of that, but he supposed he knew Stern was here for a reason. There weren't any places in the area that an FBI agent could be working full-time as far as he knew, so it made sense that he was here for a case. But it made him a little sad that Stern would be leaving eventually. He’d just gotten used to him being a regular.

“Anyway, so what name letters do y’all have already for him?”

“R, S, D, K and Z. You still want to stick with C?” Dani had made a little chart on a napkin of what everyone’s picks were, jotting down Duck before waiting for the ranger to answer. The man looked pensive for a moment.

“Yeah, I reckon so. As good a letter as any.” Everyone nodded as Dani wrote down Duck’s letter.

Finally, the question was turned on the last of them, everyone looking to Moira. She might be the quietest of them, but she never turned down drink night and always seemed to have fun listening. They were always happy to have her. She was good company. “What do you think, Moira?”

“Hm. He seems like a nice young man from what I’ve heard.” She swirled her glass of wine thoughtfully, mulling over her options. After a moment, she smiled. “I’m going to say J. There’s a lot of Johns out in the world after all.”

“Damn, that’s good,” Duck grumbled like he wished he’d thought of it first, Dani jotting down the last bet, grinning widely.

“Alright, that’s everyone. What do we say, $10 a person in the pot? Seven guesses, when we find out Stern’s first name, if anyone wins, that’s $70 they get to take home. If we’re all wrong, we all get our $10 back. Sound good to everyone?” There was a murmur all around as everyone voiced their agreement, getting out their wallets. After everyone had contributed their money through varying amounts of change and breaking of bigger bills among themselves, Dani gathered it up. “Great now we just need somewhere to put-”

Aubrey instantly had an envelope between her fingers, no one seeing how it had gotten there, the young woman grinning at their bewilderment. “What? Envelopes are part of a new set I’m working on.”

With their bets tucked away to be left at the shop tomorrow, they settled into friendly chatter amongst themselves until it was time to leave for the night. Dani stopped Barclay at the door as they were putting on their jackets and paying up their tabs.

“We still good to hike Beech Flat Knob on Tuesday?” She asked, zipping up her hoodie. They’d been planning the hike for about a week now, wanting to get all the hikes they could in before it got too cold. Barclay nodded.

“Yeah, of course. I think my hiking shoes are finally broken in enough so I won’t have blisters by the end of it this time. I’ll pick you up at 9:30.”

“Your shoes should never do that in the first place Barclay, and you know it.” She tsked at him, the man rolling his eyes. 

“If I could actually try them on first like everyone else, it wouldn’t be a problem, but you know how big my feet are. They never have my size in the store,” He huffed, pulling on his sweater. 

Despite his complaining, he actually kind of loved his size. He’d been a tall, sturdy human being long before his transition, and had actually been pretty awkward back when everyone thought he was a girl. After figuring out he was trans however, between his size and how readily he grew facial hair on testosterone, it was like he’d hit the genetic lottery. He knew not everyone got the chance he did though, so he didn’t have a habit of bringing it up.

“Yeah, yeah. See you and your giant feet then. Pack lunch, it’s definitely not just a granola bar and you’re good kind of trail.” She held her fist out for a fist-bump, which Barclay accepted.

“Will do. See ya, Dani.”

 


 

“So be real with me, do you actually like Stern? I know we tease you about him, but this is me like.. genuinely asking as your friend. And I guess you don’t gotta tell me if you don’t want to, I just wanna know what’s going on in your life.” Barclay kinda figured they’d end up at this topic eventually, considering how much Dani had gone out of her way to avoid it until now, like she’d been holding back. They had about half a mile before they reached the knob, trudging slowly at the sheer incline of the trail. The man sighed, readjusting his straps on his day-pack.

“I mean...” Barclay chewed on his words, watching his feet more than he probably strictly needed to. That was a question he’d been trying to figure out himself since he’d met the man. They still hadn’t gotten a first name out of him, despite attempts to get him to tell them for his order, or use a different credit card. 

Aubrey had even made up a raffle for a free pastry that required your full name and number to win along with your purchase, but had unfortunately drawn way too much attention to it and half the town had entered. After going through every scrap of paper, they’d realized Stern hadn’t even made a submission. But it had boosted sales, so they’d actually decided they were gonna keep doing a monthly raffle going forward.

But back to the question at hand. 

”I.. honestly don’t know. He’s attractive, like insanely handsome. There’s just something about how he smiles, and the way he chews his lip when he’s thinking that gets me. He’s got nice hands, and a smooth voice, and his lips look really soft too.” Barclay stopped himself before he went too far down that particular rabbit hole. “But when it comes down to it, I don’t actually know much about the guy. When he’s at the cafe, he’s obviously working and I’m working too and we never see each other anywhere else.”

“So. Here’s a thought. And it’s just a suggestion but-” Dani turned around to face him, walking slowly backwards, giving Barclay a grin that made him sure he wasn’t going to like where this was going. “Have you considered actually asking him on, y’know.. an Actual Date.”

“Aaagh. I mean, you know it’s so much harder than that. I don’t even know if he likes guys, much less trans guys. Also did you just trademark Actual Dates.”

“Maybe, shut up, that’s beside the point.” She stuck her tongue out at him before turning back around. “The point is, you should ask him before you catch real feelings for him. That way if he turns you down, you can just cut your losses early.”

Barclay knew all too well that she was talking from experience. Meanwhile, he hadn’t really dated since he broke it off with Thomas, and they’d met at a queer community dinner, so his being gay and trans had been out in the open. In fact. most of his dating experiences had been from within the local queer communities back in Washington. This was the first time in a long while that he’d been interested in someone who he had no idea where they were in terms of sexuality.

That said, Dani had a point. Better to find out sooner than later. Still..

“Yeah, that’s the thing. I’m not sure if it’s even something I wanna pursue. You heard Duck the other night, the guy’s here on a case. He works for the FBI . Eventually he’s gonna leave, so any sort of relationship between us would either be short lived, super complicated, or both.” Barclay sighed, wiping some sweat from his eyes. 

There was a rustle in the bushes and they both stood stock still, glancing at each other. If it was a bear, they knew they should be making as much noise as possible, but maybe they wanted to see what it was first before scaring it off. They waited with baited breath until a white-tailed doe and her two spotted fawns emerged from the brush. The deer paused, watching them both warily and stamping her hoof, but when they didn’t move for a good minute, she moved on, the fawns trailing behind.

The pair glanced at each other, grinning at just how close they’d been. Deer might be a dime a dozen in these parts, but it was always cool to see one so close, and the babies were adorable.

“They were so small and spindly.” Barclay breathed, watching the last fawn disappear into the trees.

“I know, right? They’ll have their spots until the end of fall. They were so cute.” She paused, realizing something and cursing. “Aw damn it, I should have tried to get a picture to show Aubrey. She would have loved to see those fawns. Oh well. What were we talking about? Oh, right. Stern.”

“Mhm. Though I don’t think there’s really anything else to say.”

“I mean, there kinda is though. Sure, getting in deep with this guy is probably gonna be messy and complicated, but like.. do you even want a long-term relationship right now? You’ve never really shown much interest in getting serious and settling down with anyone.” Dani pointed out, the two of them starting back up the trail once more.

Now that was a beast of a question right there. What did he want out of a relationship? Honestly, he had no idea. He hadn’t really thought about it since he came to Kepler, preoccupying himself with his job and friends and just living life. But while he hadn’t been seeking out a relationship, he didn’t really know if his bachelor status was because he was uninterested in a long-term relationship, or if the opportunity had just never presented itself so he’d shoved it to the back of his mind with everything else he didn’t think about.

“Honestly? I have no fucking clue, Dani. I’ve been filling my life with all these other things, I dunno if there’s a place for a committed relationship.” He sniffed, rubbing his nose. The combination of the chill and how dry it had been had started drying his sinuses out lately.

“Well, then why not have fun with it then? Ask him out for drinks or lunch or something and see what happens. If he says no, then you don’t have to worry about it anymore, and if he says yes, then it’s good company and maybe you hold hands and kiss sometimes. And you figure out what happens from there. But nothing’s going to happen if you don’t do anything.” Barclay couldn’t see her face, but somehow he got the feeling that this was coming from something more personal than just general advice.

“Is that what you and Aubrey are doing?” He asked quietly, finally breaching the topic. The girls had been a lot closer in the last few weeks and he might as well as while they were on the topic of relationships. Dani faltered in front of him before continuing, not speaking for a heavy moment. Finally, she sighed.

“I mean. Yes. Okay, we’ve kinda been on a few dates, but we haven’t really like.. talked about us yet? We’ve just.. held hands a few times at the movies and sometimes we kiss and, fuck Barclay, kissing her is just the best, okay?” Dani brushed her hair behind her ear with a small, nervous laugh. “But we haven’t really talked about it at all, we just kinda go for it. And I’m scared that actually talking about it will make it like.. Official. And I don’t know if she wants it to be Official. What we have right now is just so nice and I like.. I don’t want it to stop. So I’m just.. having fun with it while I can.”

“It’s not like you guys have a time-limit you know, you can take this as slowly as you want.” Barclay mentioned, the young woman stopping and letting Barclay walk up beside her. She looked.. Conflicted, but smiled at Barclay nonetheless.

“I guess you’re right. We don’t really have plans to go anywhere right now. We’ll probably talk about it eventually, but I just wanna have this for a little bit longer.”

“Never said you couldn’t.”

They walked in silence until they got to the mountain’s overlook, a rocky knob jutting out over the edge of the mountain. On a cold, clear day such as this, you could see for miles. It was spectacular seeing all the colors from this high up. Beech Flat Knob was a rather wild trail, its upkeep minimal to preserve the natural surrounding forest. As such, they’d only seen one other hiker all day. It was a site to behold.

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

They’d sat and had their lunch and chatted about less emotionally charged topics while enjoying the view, before starting their way back down.

Driving back into town, they’d spotted Ned’s beloved Lincoln parked down in the edge of the woods off an access road. Dani and Barclay glanced at each other, wordlessly pulling off to see what was going on, parking just out of sight of the Lincoln.

The two snuck through the brush, until they spotted a large furry shape lumbering through the woods with snowshoes strapped to its feet, strutting in front of a tripod camera.

“What.. the hell..” Barclay whispered, watching the creature stop suddenly, pulling off it’s own head to reveal none other than Ned Chicane himself. The man waddled over to his camera, grumbling, none the wiser to his onlookers. Dani leaned in.

“Do you think this is what Stern meant when he said to tell him about anything weird in the woods?” 

The pair watched Ned scratch his ass through the suit as he messed with the camera, before pulling the head back on and starting to make weird guttural noises.

“I’m gonna guess no.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“So we’re done here?”

“Definitely.”



The incoming cold weather had another effect on the town of Kepler that was far less appreciated by its citizens and tourists alike. It was the beginning of cold and flu season, which began to rear its ugly head soon after the daily temperatures dropped below a high of 70°. Barclay really hoped they wouldn’t get hit hard at the cafe this year like they had last year. No one needed another Flu-mageddon.

However, it was inevitable that at least one of them get sick with the turn of the seasons and it seemed Aubrey was the one to succumb to this fate first.

“I can’t come in this afternoon, I’m too busy just trying to breathe.” Aubrey called in one morning, the sheer amount of congestion she had practically dripping out of the receiver. Barclay grimaced, feeling for the young woman. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess you don’t want me dripping into the drinks.”

“Yeah, no stay home. Rest. Drink lots of fluids. I’ll call around and see if anyone can take your shift.” Barclay glanced out to the bar where Jake was running register while he took the call. It’d been a fairly busy morning, and he imagined it would continue that way, so it’d be important to get someone to cover at least for a few hours where they didn’t have any overlap otherwise. He looked to the schedule, sighing. Mama would probably be the best bet, seeing as Dani was opening tomorrow. It was that or take the extra shift himself. They really needed to bring on some new hires. “I can ask Mama to come in. If she’s not busy, I might be able to swing by after I get off and bring you some lunch.”

“Aw... that’s so sweet. Thanks Barclay. Now, I’m gonna go.. pass out I guess.” She sniffled with a groan. Barclay did not envy her. After she’d hung up, the barista went about calling up Mama. It went to voicemail, but she picked up right as he started leaving a message. He couldn’t say for certain, but Barclay was fairly sure that’s how she screened her calls, because she never picked up before it went to voicemail.

“Shush Riley, I’m on the phone. Barclay, sorry hun. What was that you were sayin’ about Aubrey?” Barclay heard a jingle and a soft whine over the phone, no doubt one of Mama’s three giant dogs. The other theory of why she never picked up the phone while it was still ringing was because she had to wade through 400lbs of dog to get to it. Barclay had met them a few times. One was an old golden retriever, while the other two were pit mixes of some sort.

“Yeah, sounds like she caught the crud that’s started going around.” They’d seen plenty of customers in the last week with watery eyes and red, runny noses. It was only a matter of time before it had spread to one of their own, on the front lines of customer service. Next chance he got, he was going to put a bottle of sanitizer next to the register.

“Aw, poor thing. I’m guessin’ this is a call ta see if I can come in this afternoon, then.” He heard a ruffle of papers, the woman muttering something to herself, or possibly her dogs.

“If you think you can swing it.” Mama hadn’t worked in the cafe as much since they’d gotten more staff. She still worked about four days a week, though the rest of her time was dedicated to her artistic work.

“I should be able to. I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume she won’t be in tomorrow either, but I think you, Moira and Dani should have it pretty well covered.” Barclay nodded, looking at the schedule again.

“Yeah, I think we’ll be good.” He paused, worrying his lip with his teeth. “Mama... I really do think we should be considering hiring some new folks if we can though. We’re already a lot busier than we were last year, and the tourist season has barely started. If one of us gets sick or something in the middle of the season, it could mean bad news for us.”

Mama let out a gruff sigh on the other side of the phone, Barclay hearing another whine from the dogs. “Mh... Yeah, I reckon I should. I pride that place as something folks who need it end up at, but it ain’t fair to y’all to stretch ya so thin. I’ll get a move on hirin’ more help. If you or anyone else has someone in mind, let me know.”

“Will do, Mama. I’ll be gone before you get here, but have a good afternoon. I’m probably gonna stop by Aubrey’s with a sandwich and a can of soup after I get off.” He couldn’t think of anyone off the top of his head who they might want to hire, but hopefully they’d get some much needed applicants soon enough.

“Tell her I hope she gets to feeling better.” They ended their phone call, Barclay returning to the front. He finished up his shift, heading out to go check on Aubrey, but not before grabbing a sandwich from the case and stopping at Leo’s store to get her some soup.

He’d rolled up to her apartment, which really wasn’t all that far off from the cafe. Aubrey could walk there in probably about fifteen minutes, which was necessary when she didn’t have a car. Rent in Kepler here was fairly cheap, so Mama paying living wage was more than enough for most of the staff to live in their own space. Jake had been talking about moving himself lately, but he seemed hesitant to leave his mom on her own.

“Aubrey, you alive in there?” Barclay called out, knocking on the door. He heard a thump and a groan, followed by plodding footsteps. Aubrey opened it, almost completely wrapped in her duvet.

“Define alive.” She grumbled, snorting with little avail. “I feel like I have cotton balls shoved in my brain.”

“Yeah, no offense, but you look like shit.” He teased, ushering the woman away from the door so he could come in. Aubrey moved aside, letting him enter without a fuss. Barclay held up the plastic bag he was carrying. “I brought you lunch. Hope chicken noodle soup and a ham and cheese sandwich sound good.”

“God, anything warm sounds good right about now.” She plopped down in a chair in her kitchen as Barclay leaned over to give Dr. Harris Bonkers, PhD a scritch between the ears. Before meeting Aubrey, Barclay had no idea you could let rabbits free-roam a house like a cat or dog as long as the rabbit had their own space too. That said, Dr. Harris Bonkers was a pretty large rabbit, Aubrey telling him that smaller rabbits sometimes prefer smaller spaces.

“Here’s your sandwich, I’ll heat up the soup.” He handed her half her lunch, getting started on the soup as she ate. He sort of wanted to ask about how she and Dani were doing from her perspective, but that was something she and the other girl were going to have to figure out themselves. Obviously, she wasn’t really going to be one for conversation when she was sick anyway, so Barclay kept quiet.

“I appreciate you being here. This is still so..” Aubrey paused to sniffle, the man turning when she spoke. She had her blanket clutched around her, Bonkers now in her lap as she stroked the rabbit. “This is still so different to me. I’m not used to working and being friends with people who’d actually wanna come over to see if I’m ok, and make me soup when I’m sick.”

“Yeah, it took me a little while to get used to that aspect of mountain life, but I like the principles behind it. We have farm stands with an honor system and neighbors who bring you cookies because they made too many. You can leave your door unlocked without having to worry that someone will break in. I don’t, it’s a force of habit, but it’s nice to know that I could.”

“I didn’t expect to like it here as much as I do...” Aubrey murmured quietly as Barclay poured her a bowl of soup, bringing it over before sitting with her. “I.. This was just supposed to be another gig before I moved on, y’know? But then I got into a little trouble and Mama was there to help and then she offered me a job and next thing I knew I was getting an apartment here.”

Barclay nodded, smiling gently. “Yep, same thing happened to me. I thought I wouldn’t really like life out here, just from how conservative a lot of folks are, but Kepler’s weird. Sure we get rednecks sometimes, but we’ve got good work and a great friend network. The forest is beautiful and it’s just..”

“Home.” Aubrey was looking down at her soup, her eyes starting to get wet. She swiped at them, sniffling quietly. “Being here is the first time I’ve really felt like I’ve been home in almost five years. It’s been really nice to feel like I actually belong here. So... Thank you. I really owe you and Mama and Dani and everyone.”

Barclay’s heart clenched. He knew vaguely that she’d been through some rough stuff in her past, but as was his policy, it wasn’t something he was going to go dredging up out of curiosity. He nodded quietly. “You don’t owe us anything, Aubrey. We love having you here.”

She nodded with a little smile, eating the rest of her meal quietly. Barclay cleaned up after her, sending her back to bed with a water bottle and a decongestant. Hopefully she’d be back on her feet soon.

“Dani said she’d stop by this evening, so I’ll be fine. Thanks for coming, Barclay.” She’d given him a wobbly smile as she headed back to her room, the man leaving her be to get some much needed rest.

Which left him the rest of his afternoon to do what he pleased. It was a pleasant enough day, so he parked at the town farmer’s market (which was community parking when it wasn’t open), going for a walk around town. The air was crisp and cool, and leaves fluttered onto the streets. He was trying to decide what he wanted to get for lunch himself when he spotted a familiar sharply-dressed individual ahead of him. 

“Stern, hey!” He grinned as the man’s head shot up. He’d been apparently lost in thought and nibbling his lip as Barclay had noticed he had a habit of doing. Stern smiled when he saw just who had called his name, walking up to the taller man, briefcase slung over his shoulder.

“Ah, Barclay. Hello. Good to see you. I was about to head to the cafe, are you on break?” His gaze flicked up and down Barclay’s form like he could obtain the answer just by looking at him. And maybe he could, who knows. Barclay had no idea what they taught you in the FBI.

“Oh naw, I’m off now. I had the opening shift. I was about to get some lunch.” He rubbed the back of his neck, Stern humming with a nod that indicated Barclay’s answer had been satisfactory, though there was a flash of something in his eyes that the other man couldn’t read.

“Ah, I see.” Stern shifted, but hadn’t yet made a move past Barclay towards the cafe when Dani’s words from their hike returned to him. He bit the inside of his cheek, feeling a heat come to his face. Aw, what the hell. He didn’t have anything to lose here, right?

“Would uh.. Would you like to join me? If you’re not too busy that is.” Stern blinked at him twice in quick succession, seemingly caught off guard. Barclay internally cursed himself, already feeling like he’d messed up. Why would Stern want to have lunch with him? The man probably had better things to do.

“I would love to. What did you have in mind?” Stern smiled at him and it was Barclay’s turn to be thrown for a loop, so sure he’d be turned down.

“Wait- Really? I mean, great! Cool. Coolcoolcool.” He cleared his throat, trying his best to get a grasp back on the situation. He’d just asked Stern to lunch and Stern had actually said yes . God, why was he so bad at this. He ran a hand through his hair, shrugging awkwardly. “There’s a pretty great little diner just down the block if that sounds good to you.”

“I will take your word for it, seeing as you’re the local between the two of us.” Stern nodded, following beside Barclay as they started back down the sidewalk. Barclay tucked his hands into his pockets as they went.

“I’m not a local actually. Well, I guess it depends on what you call a local. I’ve lived here for about seven years, but I spent most of my life in Washington. The state, not DC.” 

“Really? I wouldn’t have guessed, you fit in so well here. How does someone from Washington end up all the way in Kepler, West Virginia working at a cafe, if you don’t mind my asking?” Stern seemed more at ease than he did when they chatted at the cafe, more akin to how he’d been when he’d returned Barclay’s sweater, but less tired. The barista supposed it was because the cafe was still a professional setting, if a relaxed one.

“Oh, I just traveled for a bit. Wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life so I tried to figure it out on the road. The road kinda made the decision for me, turns out.” Barclay chuckled, letting out a warm sigh. “My van broke down here in Kepler and I guess I just kinda.. got attached. It’s a great little town. What about you, where are you from?”

“I’m from Ohio myself. Moved to DC for the job and never really did much beyond that. Of course, I travel quite a bit for my work, so at this point it’s not really like I see much of home .” Stern’s lips tightened, Barclay catching a wistfulness to his words.

“So, I’m guessing no pets then?”

“No, goodness no. I would never leave an animal to a sitter for that long, that’s just not fair to a pet. I can’t even keep houseplants. But, my work lends itself to an interesting existence.” They finally got to the diner, Barclay holding the door for Stern. The hostess raised an eyebrow at the pair, no doubt recognizing Barclay and curious just who this mysterious stranger was with him, but seated them nonetheless.

“Oh yeah? How so? Barclay shrugged off his jacket, hanging it on the back of his chair before sitting. He already knew what he wanted, they had the best bacon pimento cheese burger in town, so he didn’t bother with looking at the menu.

“I travel enough to keep things interesting. No real need for a pet when you’ve got something else to occupy the time.” To Barclay’s surprise, Stern also removed his jacket, carefully folding up his sleeves before picking up his menu. He looked good a little more casual. Barclay wet his lips. “Though, I suppose it’s the companionship that’s missing. Maybe one day. Do you have any pets?”

“Naw, been kinda thinking about it though. One of my coworkers has this giant rabbit who’s the sweetest critter I’ve ever met. It’s gotten me thinking about maybe getting some kind of animal of my own. Dunno if I’m up for the commitment of a pet when I’m working full-time at varying times of day though.”

“There’s always reptiles. They’re fairly content to be on their own for long stretches of time, though I suppose if you wanted something to cuddle with, a snake wouldn’t exactly be the best choice. Cats are fairly self-sufficient as well, though I’ve heard it’s better to have more than one if you’re going to be leaving them alone for long stretches.”

“Huh, I guess I never really thought about it. Friend of mine has just one cat, but he says she’s kind of a lump anyway so maybe she doesn’t mind when he’s down at the station.” He’d not met Missy yet, but Duck had shown him pictures. She was a cute calico, who apparently had a habit of draping herself across Duck’s face when he was trying to sleep. The waitress came up to their table, asking for their drink orders.

"Station? Oh yes, I’ll have a sweet tea, thank you.”

“Coke’d be great, Helen. Thanks.” He gave the woman a smile before addressing Stern once more. “Uh, Duck Newton, he works down at the ranger station. He’s a regular at the cafe. We sit around and chat before he has to go on overnight shifts.” 

He didn’t mention knowing of Duck and Stern’s previous meeting, not wanting to get Duck in trouble for suspicion of telling them what Stern was doing.

“Ah yes, I believe I’ve met Ranger Newton. He seems to be the upstanding sort.” Maybe now Duck was, but according to Juno, Duck had once been a skateboarding stoner kid. Barclay wondered if Jake and Duck had ever made the skateboarding connection. “Though, I have to ask, is his name really Duck?”

“Naw. I mean, he says it’s a nickname, but no one knows what his first name really is .” He tried to make it obvious that he was aiming those last words at Stern, but they apparently just went right over the agent’s head.

“Hm, how interesting. I wonder what the story is behind the nickname. But nonetheless, it’s good to know we have people like Newton out here protecting our forests.” Welp, so much for that attempt. And at this point, it was almost embarrassing to have gone so long without asking. Might as well just keep the conversation going.

“Yeah, he’s got a knack for it. And as nonplussed as he can look about everything, I know he really cares about what he does.” Their drinks came out, stopping their conversation momentarily as Helen got their orders. Barclay grinned at the woman. “Pretty sure you know what I want.”

“Sure do. And for you sir?”

“Oh yes, I will have the Bearpaw Burger --medium well, hold the onion-- and home fries as the side, thank you.” Stern replied. Something Barclay had noticed the agent always did was have as many of the variables ready when he ordered something. It was kinda cute, like he didn’t want to worry the waitstaff with having to ask too many questions. He looked at Barclay, raising an eyebrow after the waitress took their menus and left. “What did you get?”

“Wagonwheel Burger. It’s got bacon, lettuce, tomato and pimento cheese and is probably the best burger I’ve ever had. Never get tired of it. The folks here know me well enough to just know it’s what I’m getting.”

“I see, I’ll have to try it the next time I eat here then.” Stern nodded, getting out a little notebook and jotting down what Barclay could only assume was a reminder to try the burger. He’d noticed the man had his notebook out frequently at the cafe, always wondering just what was in there. It couldn’t all just be food he wanted to try, though it would be pretty amusing if it was.

“So uh.. think you’re gonna be here a while then? What with making a list of foods you want to try.” It was probably a risky line of questioning, but an honest one. Barclay wanted to know just how much longer Stern was going to be around. The agent pursed his lips.

“Possibly. I’m on a case looking for someone, but they’re proving to be fairly elusive. I have reason to believe they’ve taken to the forest in the area, which takes a great deal of time to comb through.” Barclay nodded, trying to not give away that this wasn’t new information to him. “So I supposed I could be here for quite a while. I’ve already been here for a month and discovered very little, so I don’t imagine things will proceed any quicker.”

“Yeah, whole lotta forest out there.” So Stern might be here much longer than anticipated. Barclay wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not for his emotional state. “So, how did you become an FBI agent? Or why did you want to, I guess. I’m not asking for federal secrets or anything.”

Stern hummed thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair. “I wanted to help people, and protect them from threats they might not be able to protect themselves from by virtue of not knowing about them. Of course, I suppose there’s some family influence as well. My uncle was a CIA agent, and I was always so enamoured by his quote unquote “Cool Spy Job” as a child.”

“Did it end up being as cool as you thought it would be?” Barclay asked, sipping his coke. He rather imagined most jobs were never as glamorous as what you thought they’d be like as a child.

“Hmm, no, I suppose not. It’s certainly not as James Bond-esque as I’d imagined. There’s a lot of long hours and sleepless nights and learning far more about people’s personal lives than anyone wants to know. But it has its rewards. I’ve helped people, and I get to see all sorts of places. Though after a while, they do tend to all sort of..”

“Blend together?” Barclay supplied, remembering the feeling when he’d been traveling. “Yeah, eventually you realize all motels look the same. I actually started preferring camping when it was nice because at least it would be different scenery. Hostels are also nice for when you get too wrapped up in your own head, makes you interact with people. They’re really starting to catch on in the US.”

“The Waffle Houses look the same too, but they’re good for late night coffee and breakfast.” Stern chuckled softly, relaxing in his chair. Barclay nodded, thinking of the times he’d spent in some late-night breakfast chains in his travels.

“Yeah, I didn’t actually expect Waffle House to be so prolific out here. I’d always heard southerners were nuts about their Waffle Houses, but I didn’t really believe the extent until I saw it. Back in Washington, The Original Pancake House was the go-to chain. Granted, here in West Virginia, they’re all few and far between, but if you’re really desperate for that family breakfast chain feel, there’s a Bob Evans about forty-five minutes away in Elkin.” Barclay had been there once and hadn’t been particularly impressed. “But if you want my opinion, it’s well worth the hour drive to Snowshoe to get a waffle at Waffle Cabin. It’s less of a restaurant and more of a food stand, but damn they make a good waffle.”

“Yes, we certainly love our Waffle Houses out here. Some people even use it as a litmus test for how severe the weather is. If the Waffle House is closed, you know it’s bad out.” The agent made another note before unrolling his silverware and putting his napkin in his lap. “It’s not even particularly good food. My theory is that, due to the circumstances of how late they stay open and their general fare, everyone’s got an interesting story to share involving a Waffle House or knows someone who does. It’s basically free advertising. Ah. It seems our lunch is here.”

The arrival of their food interrupted them, Barclay eyeing his burger hungrily as it was set before him. The Wagonwheel always made his mouth water. Putting his own napkin in his lap, the man dug in, but kept an eye on Stern. The agent ate with a lot less relish, taking careful, measured bites, but he seemed to be enjoying it.

“I’m sure your Wagonwheel is just as good, but this fantastic. I wish I’d known about this place sooner.” Stern praised, supplementing his mouthfuls by forking up home fries in between.

It was so strange so see buttoned-up, professional Stern chatting and eating so casually with him. Not that Barclay was complaining, he was enjoying it immensely, but it was really the first chance he’d gotten to see the human side of Stern under the suit. And he had theories about Waffle Houses and liked cheeseburgers.

They’d spent the rest of lunch chatting about the drought and the hikes Barclay had been on in the area and life on the road. It was pleasant and comfortable and by the end of it, Barclay found himself wishing they had longer.

The checks were brought out, Barclay looking over when Stern went to sign his. He hadn’t even been thinking about it, but was struck when he saw Stern signing his full name on the receipt. His signature was elegant and fluid, but still very readable, unlike Barclay’s unintelligible scrawlings. There it was, clear as day.

Joseph Stern .

He’d been a little too stunned processing that to mention it while they were still sitting, remaining quiet as they pulled their jackets on and headed out the door. 

“Well, I-”

“So, Joseph huh?” Barclay winced at realizing he’d just spoken over the other man.

“Pardon?”

“Your first name, it’s Joseph.”

“Well, yes I- Oh goodness , I never said, didn’t I?” Joseph turned pink in a way Barclay thought he’d never see, covering his mouth with his hand in embarrassment. “Oh Barclay, I do apologize, I suppose it just completely slipped my mind. That’s a bit ridiculous isn’t it?”

“Naw, I do shit like that all the time. Happens to the best of us.” He waved it off, pretending it wasn’t as big of a deal as it had actually been made out to be. Everyone at work was gonna flip. “ So uh.. can I call you Joseph, or would you rather I stick to Agent Stern?”

“Oh I.. you know, I don’t see the problem if you want to call me Joseph. If you’d like.” Stern cleared his throat, smiling up at Barclay (though it wasn’t much of a distance, Stern was fairly tall himself). “Well, I really should be going, I have some reports to send in. But I’ll see you tomorrow, I’m guessing?”

“Yeah, I’ll be working around the time you come in.” Barclay nodded, sticking his hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t be caught nervously fidgeting as Stern adjusted his briefcase shoulder strap. “Oh, hey St-.. Joseph?”

“Hm? Yes?” Stern looked back up, their eyes meeting in a way that made Barclay’s heart jump into his throat, his mouth going dry. 

“We should do this again sometime.”

Stern blinked at him, before a careful, pleased smile crept across his face. “Yes, we should. This was.. very nice.”

They said their goodbyes, Barclay feeling warm flutters in his chest as he walked back to his car. That had gone so much better than he’d expected, and Stern had even agreed to do it again. He still had no idea how long it would take for Stern to find who he was looking for, but maybe Dani was right. Maybe he should just go for it and enjoy Joseph’s presence while he could.

It was as he was unlocking his truck that he realized something. Stern’s first name started with a J. 

Moira had won the pot.

Chapter Text

 

Autumn was in full swing in Kepler, the trees in full blown shades of reds and oranges and golds. October was an exciting time of year for most of the local businesses. Not only did it mean a boost in tourism in general, the third weekend of October was also the Kepler Pumpkin Festival, where, alongside the sale of vast swaths of pumpkins, many businesses could peddle their wares at booths lining the street.

This would be the fifth year in a row that Amnesty Cafe ran a booth, selling as many pumpkin-flavored drinks as they could cram onto a menu. Dani had also gone all-in this year on the pumpkin bread and cute little jack-o-lantern shaped cookies, Barclay finding himself helping her in the kitchen a couple of days before the festival with Aubrey.

“Hey Babe? You got frosting like all over... here. ” Dani made a gesture to her entire forearm while addressing Aubrey, Barclay looking up from where he was decorating the orange cookies. Sure enough, the Lady Flame had managed to get a huge orange smear almost all the way from her elbow to her wrist, Aubrey twisting her arm to see it.

“Aw dip, where’s the paper towels?” 

“Hold still, I’ll get it.” Dani rolled her eyes with a warm grin, getting the other girl a wet cloth and helping her wipe it off. Barclay wasn’t sure if they’d talked about them since his talk with Dani in the woods, but they had been making their relationship more out in the open as of late.

It’d started as holding hands in public, progressed to pet names and stolen kisses, Dani picking Aubrey up way more frequently from work even though Aubrey’s apartment was only a fifteen minute walk. It had gotten to the point that, earlier in the week, Mama had taken them aside and gently suggested that, while them being together was all fine and good, public displays of affection should be kept to a minimum at work, much to their mutual embarrassment.

Still, it was sweet, and Barclay was pleased to see them so happy. He wasn’t so far removed from his last romantic relationship that he didn’t remember how great young love could be.

“Y’all are cute.” He mused, carefully piping a variety of different jack-o-lantern faces onto the desserts with black icing. He had a few smudges of black on his fingers, but his work was pristine. The pair blushed and giggled, Barclay raising an eyebrow at them with a snort. “But you can be cute and work at the same time. These cookies aren’t gonna finish themselves.”

Barclay enjoyed cooking and baking. He wasn’t going to dig up new and wild recipes like Dani was prone to, but he found it cathartic, putting just as much care into it as he did the drinks he made. Decorating the vast amount of cookies they’d made for the festival was making his wrist hurt at this point, however.

Of course the festival was going to be much more hectic, but drink making he could handle. It was always a flurry of chaos, but it was fun. All hands would be on deck in shifts for the event, including their newest member-

“If the kitchen isn’t too full, I’ve been advised I should be bagging slices of pumpkin bread in here.” The door swung open, a thin man far too young for his white hair stepping through. His red glasses glinted in the light overhead, a mild smile on his face.

Indrid Cold was.. Odd . He knew he used that term a lot for people like Ned and Thacker, but Indrid probably fit it the best. Barclay couldn’t say he knew a whole lot about Indrid. He’d infrequently seen him around town in his time living here (he was rather hard to miss), but they’d only exchanged a handful of words before the man had been hired a couple of days ago.

“But you are hiring, correct?” Barclay had been rather bewildered, still processing what had just happened. They hadn’t even put the hiring sign up yet, and yet here this man was, asking if they had a job for him. No, not asking. Knowing they had a position available. He assured himself that word had just gotten around; it was a small town after all. Still, it was.. rather uncanny. “Aubrey told Duck, Duck told Leo, and Leo told me, if you must know.”

“What?”

“That’s what you wanted to know, yes? How I knew there was a position open? People talk, yourself included, don’t act so surprised.” Indrid smiled lightly, adjusting his loose sweater that was almost falling off his shoulders like a frumpy k-pop singer, peering at Barclay over the top of his red glasses with strikingly pale blue eyes. “An application would be much appreciated, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh. Right.” Indrid had filled it out in the shop over a mug of spiced eggnog and brought it back to Barclay within the hour. They’d never really been one for resumes, Mama preferring to take stock of potential employees herself, so he’d told Indrid to come back in a few days for an interview.

Indrid had done surprisingly well. He didn’t have any formal experience working in a cafe or food service, but he knew his way around a cash register and made drinks well enough to pass Barclay’s and Mama’s personal taste test. After the man had left, they’d sat down to discuss his potentially joining the team.

“Well, he goes above an’ beyond what we could hope for in a new hire, Barclay. I know I was hesitant about hirin’ on someone new, but he’s exactly what we’re lookin’ for right when we need him.” Mama crossed her arms as they were sitting in her back office, going over Indrid’s paperwork. Barclay shrugged, Mama raising an eyebrow. “Yet you’re not sold on him, are ya.”

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s practically perfect for this. And that’s just the thing that rubs me weird.” Barclay threaded his hand through his hair, eyebrows knit together. “He waltzes in here before we even post the job anywhere, with the perfect set of skills for doing exactly what we need. You don’t think that’s... I dunno, odd?”

“Barclay, we’re makin’ coffee, not solving a murder mystery. Weird coincidences don’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Worst he can do is rob us blind or set the place on fire, and that’s what insurance is for.” Mama pinned him with a look that told him she thought he was being stubborn. “Plus, if I didn’t hire anyone who I thought was a little bit odd, no one would work here.”

Barclay sighed. She had a fair point. He supposed he felt strangely about Indrid because they didn’t click instantly as he had with everyone else who worked here. But, that wasn’t fair of him to be basing a hiring decision on, so eventually he nodded. “Yeah, alright. Let’s bring him on and get him trained. We’ve got the festival to prepare for and we can’t afford to drag our feet on this.”

So they’d brought Indrid on, and Barclay had to admit, he was doing well. He was polite and efficient with customers, and made their drinks without fuss, finally giving Amnesty a little more headspace in the scheduling. It wasn’t even that he wasn’t social, he would chat whenever he thought he could add something to a conversation. He just had an air about him that always made Barclay uneasy and he couldn’t even place why.

“Oh yeah, the bags are over there. Just get started with packing the slices and we’ll give you a hand once we finish with the cookies.” Barclay instructed, Indrid nodding and doing as he was told. Aubrey cleared her throat.

“So uh, how big was the turnout for the festival last year?” 

“Pretty big. I remember the first year we participated, it was really quiet, but some news outlet did a story on it. Because of that we only expected about five thousand people to show up the next year, but something like twenty thousand showed instead. It’s only gotten bigger since.” Barclay smiled, remembering how crazy it had been when tourists had shown up in droves for the festival for the first time. They had been woefully unprepared that year.

“Hm yes, I believe that about forty thousand were in attendance last year. The RV park was crammed to the gills with people.” Indrid added, carefully folding a bag of pumpkin bread on itself and taping it shut. “We can be fortunate that there’s a plethora of campgrounds in the Monongahela, or we wouldn’t have the space for them all.”

“Yeah, I remember Duck having a fit about it last year. I’m sure he and the other rangers will be having a great time this year keeping campers from having campfires.” They’d gotten a little rain since the beginning of October, but not enough to lift the ban yet. The rangers would have their hands full trying to keep tens of thousands of people from burning the forest down, other divisions even having been called in to help.

“So, Indrid. Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?” Barclay smiled awkwardly, just trying to make conversation as Aubrey and Dani got back to work with the orange frosting, chatting amongst themselves.

“I’m from right here in West Virginia, actually; Point Pleasant to be precise. Yes, like where Mothman is from.” Barclay was left a little slack jawed. He hadn’t necessarily been about to bring up Mothman, but.. he’d thought about it. “But I suppose, much like yourself, I’ve been a little bit all over the country.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve traveled a good bit myself. What- Wait.” Barclay squinted at Indrid, who just gave him a blasé smile in return, eyes hidden behind his thick, red lenses. Had he met Indrid on his travels somewhere? No, he’d for sure remember someone like him, right?

“Please, Barclay, don’t scour your memory for my sake. I can reassure you without a doubt that we’ve never met before your arrival to Kepler. I just know a fellow wanderer when I see one; I do live in a Winnebago after all.” Indrid gave him a knowing, almost teasing look, Barclay not really sure what to say.

“Really?”

Indrid rolled his eyes. “Hm, yes, you just have a worldly look about you. No, as much as I would like to claim to be that insightful on just appearance alone, you sold your camper van to the shop I take my Winnebago for repairs. I asked Whistles about it last time I was there and he told me you’d traded it after you settled. I’m not a mindreader, Barclay, I just ask the right questions.”

Right. Maybe the reason he struggled to make conversation with Indrid Cold was that Indrid seemed to always be one step ahead of him, driving a wedge into how he usually talked to people. He felt like he couldn’t say anything without the other man already knowing what it was going to be. He let out a sigh, just deciding to stay quiet after that. 

It wasn’t a big deal, he was probably just adjusting to having a new person around.



But apparently his interactions with Indrid got under his skin more than he’d thought, the man finding himself on the topic during his next lunch with Stern the day before the festival. They’d had a good handful of lunches since their first one, Joseph warming up to him more and more. Today they were at Barclay’s favorite barbecue joint.

“He just, I dunno, he rubs me so weird, like he just knows something the rest of us don’t. And maybe I’m being too harsh, Indrid’s a nice enough guy-”

“Wait, his name is Indrid? ” Joseph interrupted him; something that was odd for the agent. But apparently Indrid’s name had caught his attention. 

Barclay blinked, using the moment to suck a drop of sauce off his thumb, Stern catching his gaze and lingering. Man, what was with these looks lately? He wished he could say for certain that they meant something, but he also had learned that Joseph just made a lot of eye contact. One of these days Barclay would have to fess up and tell him he usually looked at his nose or mouth instead. Eye contact wasn’t his thing, but there were good ways to fake it.

“Uh... yeah. Indrid Cold. He’s the new hire; real skinny white-haired guy. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen him, he started last Tuesday.” 

“Yes, I noticed him, the fellow with the red glasses. But I didn’t know his name was Indrid Cold. He wouldn’t happen to be from Point Pleasant, would he?” Joseph had gone from looking bewildered to amused, popping a hush puppy into his mouth.

“Uh, yeah actually. Why, should I be worried? He’s not a criminal is he?” Barclay was now cursing himself for not looking into Indrid more in depth. They were a little local business however, they didn’t exactly have the means to do a background check on their hires.

“Oh goodness, no. At least I rather doubt your Indrid is. What’s more likely is that his parents are just cryptid superfans. I’m sure they thought they were being clever naming their son after The Grinning Man, certainly doesn’t help that he’s obviously albino as well. Poor man was probably bullied quite a bit as a child.” 

“Huh?” Barclay took a bite of his sandwich, trying to figure out just what Stern was talking about. Who was the Grinning Man? Indrid being albino made sense however, with how pale he was in all regards. Now that Barclay thought about it, he had mentioned having a light sensitivity when he’d been asked about his glasses.

“You live in West Virginia and you’ve never heard of The Grinning Man? Please at least tell me you’ve heard of Mothman.”

“Pretty sure it’s a legal requirement to know who Mothman is to live in the state.” Barclay teased with a little snort, Stern grinning back in amusement as he sipped his drink.

“Yes, I suppose so. The Grinning Man is a similar such story, sightings dating all the way back to 1966. Supposedly he’s some sort of extraterrestrial or demon with a titular grin. Unlike the state cryptid, however, reported encounters involve actual conversations and he introduced himself as none other than Indrid Cold. However, unless you’re new barista is over the age of 53 and communicates telepathically, I rather doubt you have anything to worry about.”

“I dunno, he might. I mean, obviously he talks verbally, but I feel like sometimes he just knows stuff that he shouldn’t. He’s scary good at guessing what you’re thinking about at any given time. Maybe he is a telepathic alien.” Barclay shrugged, Stern humming.

“Well, he could just be very observant, but not particularly aware of how off putting it is to others to tell them what you know about them.” There was a sharp glint in Joseph’s eye that made Barclay wonder if maybe the agent knew something about that first hand, but he didn’t question it. Frankly, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know just how much the FBI Agent knew about him.

“So, you know a lot about that sort of thing then? Mothmen and Bigfeets and all of them?”

“Okay, so first of all, there’s only one Mothman, but there are potentially multiple sasquatch. Secondly, yes, I suppose you could say I am. It’s only something of a fascination and a hobby, but I would say I’m an enthusiast nonetheless.” Stern bit his lip, glancing around the restaurant before leaning in. “Can you keep a secret?”

Barclay’s eyes widened, but nodded, preparing to accept whatever secret a government agent could tell him. “Of course.”

“So, while it’s true that my uncle’s career in the CIA is partially what inspired me to become an agent, that’s... not the only reason.” Joseph lowered his voice, shifting nervously. “You see I was um... something of an X-Files fan, and the show may have... influenced me somewhat.”

That was hardly the earth shattering secret Barclay had assumed it would be, the barista grinning widely as he put the pieces together. “You joined the FBI because you thought you were gonna find aliens?”

“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds silly.” Joseph huffed, his cheeks taking on a dusting of pink. “But.. to put it shortly, yes. I thought I would get to finally see the world I was so sure was hidden right under my nose with the right access.”

“Well, did you?”

Stern sighed, eyes sliding into a vacant, middle-distance gaze. “Not so much, no. At least, not in the way I’d expected. I’ve seen a side of the world hidden to the public eye that frankly I hope most people never have to know about, but it’s... completely human all the way down. Sometimes, there are things I wish I could just forget, too.”

Barclay nodded quietly, the mood sobering. Sometimes he forgot Stern’s job involved the man having to deal with some of the worst humanity had to offer. “Then why don’t you quit?” was on the tip of his tongue, but he refrained. This wasn’t a rabbit hole he particularly wanted to go further down over lunch.

Usually, Barclay held some distrust for the government, --the country was presently not particularly kind to people like him-- but he honestly believed Stern had followed his path because he truly wanted to help people. It hadn’t taken long into their friendship for Barclay to realize the work was taking its toll on Joseph. He could only imagine what the horrors of humanity could do to a good person who was just trying to make the world a better place.

“So, uh.. will you be at the festival tomorrow?” Time to bring this to a more comfortable subject for both of them.

“Hm? Oh, I imagine so. Will the cafe be open, or are you all committed to your booth?” 

“Yeah, we’re all gonna be running the booth. It just works better than letting all those people try to cram themselves into the cafe. Plus, the town cleans the streets after the festival, but any mess in the shop would be our problem.” Barclay shuddered when he remembered what had happened after their second year participating in the festival. The cafe had been so trashed, they’d had to close the next day just to clean it all up.

“Then I suppose I can take part in the festivities, seeing as my favorite shop to work in will be closed. I’ve heard it’s going to be quite the turnout.” Joseph chuckled, Barclay’s heart flipping like it did every time Stern laughed now.

He’d thought getting to know the man might dull his interest somewhat, thinking maybe his attraction was purely physical, but instead had found quite the opposite. Underneath the veneer of professionalism and protocol, Joseph Stern was a genuinely easy to get along with, funny, and kind man. If he’d been doomed seeing Stern in his sweater, now he was fully and truly fucked.

“Yeah, it’s really taken on quite a following. Apparently it used to just be a group of farmers who’d specifically made a tradition of bringing their biggest pumpkin crop to the farmer’s market the third weekend of October so folks could get their pumpkins for Halloween. But then it became this whole big thing of seeing who could bring the most pumpkins or the biggest pumpkins or the best-looking pumpkins. Now there’s something like twenty different categories and folks come from all over the state to participate.”

This last week, Kepler had been swarmed with people flooding into town with trailers and pickup trucks stuffed with pumpkins of all varieties. Decorations were put up, and shop windows painted with fun designs. It was kind of funny that a festival that had traditionally been preparing for Halloween had become, for Kepler, bigger than the holiday itself.

“And from the looks of it, there’s quite a bit more to it than that now. The “Chainsaw Pumpkin Carving” event comes to mind.” Barclay could tell Stern was trying to envision just what that might look like from his perplexed expression.

“That one’s just supposed to be funny. No one actually does it well, and it’s kind of a mess. If you stand in the front row, wear a poncho.” He snickered. Jake always tried to be up in front for that particular event. It just wasn’t a Kepler Pumpkin Festival if the kid didn’t go home covered in pumpkin guts.

“Noted.” Joseph looked horrified.

“But if you really wanna see something neat, go to the actual pumpkin carving contest. These guys can do all sorts of wild and crazy things with pumpkins far surpassing your average jack-o-lantern.” The agent nodded, looking far more interested in that particular event. He bit his lip, glancing to the side for a moment before clearing his throat.

“Will you be working the entire festival, then?”

“Naw, we work in shifts. That way we can all enjoy the festival in some capacity. I’m gonna be doing morning setup and be working until probably about 1pm. After that, I’m free to do as I please.” He cocked his head at Joseph, raising an eyebrow curiously. Stern nodded with a smile.

“I see, well I suppose I will see you there then. Perhaps you can better direct me on what events are worth attending.”

“Yeah, no problem. Just meet me at the booth when I’m done with my shift.”

“Excellent. It’s a date.”


 

It’s a date. It’s a date?!  

God, that had to just be a turn of the phrase, right? Barclay was just ascribing meaning to words that just wasn’t there, he had to be. He wasn’t going on a date with Joseph, they were just going to hang around the festival, right? Right?

The festival was upon them and, despite not really having the time to worry about such things, Barclay was still caught up on the conversation he’d had with Stern at lunch yesterday. He’d not slept particularly well, trying desperately to think about anything but Agent Joseph Stern and failing spectacularly.

So now, hopped up on enough caffeine that he could feel it on a spiritual level, he was slinging drinks for eager festival-goers and trying not to look at his watch every fifteen minutes.

“Dude, are you ok? You look like you’re about to bolt or throw up or both.” Barclay jumped when Dani put her hand on his shoulder, not really helping to disprove her statement. The concern on her face was palpable. “Seriously, you’ve been a nervous wreck all morning.”

“I’m fine. I just didn’t sleep great.” He tried reassuring her, but he could tell she didn’t buy it. She pinned him with a suspicious look, her lips pursed, Barclay shifting uncomfortably as he tried to ignore it. He just couldn’t manage it, however, finally sighing. “Alright, fine. Damn, your glare is starting to rival Mama’s. Stern might’ve.. asked me to spend the festival with him after I get off.”

“Oh, shit, really? Like a date?” Her expression immediately changed to one of excited shock, gripping Barclay’s arm. The man squirmed internally.

“I don’t know! I don’t know. That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. Maybe? Like, he said “ It’s a date” , but I don’t know if he meant like a date date, or just like.. It’s the date today that he’ll meet me here. He probably meant the latter, right? This is Joseph we’re talking about, he wouldn’t just be so casual about that.” He’d just said date so many times, it was starting to no longer sound like a real word. Barclay squirted a dollop of whipped cream into the drink he was working on, handing it to the customer waiting at the side of the booth.

“I mean, yeah, that’s probably what he meant. But he wouldn’t just say that without understanding the connotations either and like.. he does know you’re gay. And maybe I’m not being super forward-thinking, and he’s all about bucking homophobia and toxic masculinity, but I feel like he wouldn’t be going this hard to spend time with you if he wasn’t into you.”

“I- Wait, he knows I’m gay?”

“I mean, I’m pretty sure most people do at this point.” She gestured down at his apron, the man looking down to see where she was pointing. Amid a few vendor pins from the coffee brands they served at the cafe, his rainbow pin stood out. It had just become such a fixture on his outfit since he’d first worn it, he hadn’t even thought about it, or that Stern had likely seen it every day since they’d met.

“Oh yeah.”

“And who knows, maybe I’m wrong, but like.. either way, don’t stress about it. I know that’s easier said than done but think of it this way. Either it is a date, and you get to spend the afternoon with a cute guy you like, and if it’s not, you get to spend it with a friend. If he’s into you, there’ll be signs.”

“Well, aren’t you wise.”

“Or don’t. Whatever. But you can’t get so caught up in your head, Barclay. You’re just gonna be questioning it the entire time he’s here, and then he’ll be gone without you having ever done anything.” 

He had to admit she had a point. She’d gone for telling her former friend her feelings way back when, even at the risk of having her heartbroken, and even though she’d been hurt, it’d given her the chance to move on to better things.

They focused on finishing up their shift, kept busy by the swath of customers and had little time for more conversation until it was time for them to swap with Aubrey and Indrid. 

The girls stepped to the side to have a moment, no doubt making plans for the evening after Aubrey got off. This left Barclay working with Indrid until they finished up, Barclay taking the register while Indrid did drinks.

“You’ll be fine,” Indrid spoke up out of nowhere, startling the other man. Indrid peered at him through his red lenses under his mop of pale hair.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I said, you’ll be fine. You’re obviously worried about something, but you’re resourceful and generally good at most things, so I’m sure you’ll get a handle on it.”

Barclay didn’t have time to address that, with customers in front of him and Dani and Aubrey finishing up. Dani gave Aubrey a quick kiss on the lips goodbye before Aubrey took his spot, Barclay about to go see if he could find Stern.

“Oh, you might want this. Just in case.” He was stopped short by Indrid once again, who had picked up the umbrella that was resting in one corner of the booth, the man offering him the handle. Barclay stared at it for a moment. It was a clear, cool fall day, he doubted he’d need an umbrella.

But, Indrid was looking at him expectantly and he knew Joseph was waiting, so he took it.


 

“So, why do you have an umbrella?” Joseph finally asked, eyeing the object that Barclay had been carrying around since Indrid had given it to him.

Barclay had found Joseph easily enough, and had been immediately stricken down by the fact that Stern was dressed in a comfy sweater and jeans. Jeans . His brain didn’t even know how to grasp that. It was just so beyond his comprehension the man even owned a pair, much less wore them in public.

But revelations that Stern could dress like a normal human being aside, he and Joseph had been having a really good time. They wandered around, eating festival food and commenting on the different exhibits and contests. Barclay couldn’t help but notice that Joseph’s affinity for sweet things translated beyond his caramel mocha lattes. There was something charming about a stoic FBI agent having a sweet tooth.

Not that Barclay really saw Stern as the mysterious man in the cafe anymore. Yeah, he was an agent, but he was also just a guy. A big, goofy dork with a love for cryptids and trying new foods, and he made Barclay’s heart beat faster whenever he was around. There was no denying it anymore that Barclay had caught it bad. 

He was still on the fence about acknowledging anything though, his anxiety about all the complications that could happen still in the fore of his mind. He’d never been one to just jump into a relationship, despite Dani’s encouragement, but overthinking things also tended to be an issue he had. Jobs and living situations and travel were all easier to just go all in because at the end of the day, if it went south, the only one he really had to worry about was himself.

But relationships didn’t work like that.

He looked down at the umbrella as well, shrugging. “Honestly, I have no idea. Indrid handed it to me when my shift ended and I just took it. He said it was for “just in case”, but hell if I know what he meant by that. Maybe I can use it like some sort of bat to smack away wayward flying pumpkins.”

“Is that something we should be worried about?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“You’re joking, right?” Joseph raised an eyebrow as they walked into the pumpkin carving contest tent amid throngs of people. Barclay shook his head with a chuckle.

“Nope, third time I’ve ever had a concussion and it was via flying pumpkin. Between that and the sheer amount of sprained ankles, they don’t do pumpkin soccer as an event anymore.” The barista rubbed the back of his head, remembering the goose egg he’d had for days after that. The overnight in the medical center had also been an experience.

“Oh goodness. I’m glad you were alright in the long term. Head trauma is no laughing matter.” Joseph craned his neck to get a good look at some of the more intricate finished carvings displayed for viewing. They only had two real categories, one for traditional carvings and one for the pumpkin sculptures.

“I dunno, I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but like I said- Concussion . Dani kept trying to make sure I didn’t fall asleep the whole way to the medical center since she was there when it happened. Pretty sure she almost slapped me a couple of times. Which looking back, she was probably pretty scared, I don’t blame her, but I thought it was hilarious.” 

“Not to mention, that’s something of a myth. As long as someone isn’t immediately struggling to stay conscious and is able to walk and talk after sustaining a concussion, it’s perfectly fine and even recommended that they rest. That’s how the body heals after all.”

“Good to know.” He really had to admire the craftsmanship here. It was unconventional, sure, but he couldn’t deny these carvers did an excellent job. 

His and Joseph’s shoulders bumped together as they observed a particularly delicate carving of a dragon, pushed by the crowd. It was a fleeting moment of closeness that sent shivers up Barclay’s spine, their fingers brushing in the process.

They both murmured apologies, shifting away from each other as Barclay hastily stuck his hand in his pocket, umbrella in the other. Stern seemed to be purposefully looking away from him and Barclay had no idea if that was a good or bad sign. They didn’t say anything else as they wandered through the rest of the tent.

“So, what would you like to do next?” Joseph finally spoke up once they were out on the other side, taking stock of the crowd before them. 

“Hm... There’s a hayride over there. Might be nice to sit down for a little and just enjoy the scenery.”

“Sounds good to-” Joseph stopped mid-sentence, his attention caught by something in another direction. It took a moment for Barclay to see what he was looking at; a young woman was frantically looking through the crowd, calling someone’s name and yelling to come back to mommy. 

“Kid must of wandered off.” Barclay craned his neck around to see if he could see an unsupervised child anywhere in the crowd, several others in the crowd having noticed and started looking around too. “Let’s see if we can help.”

They approached the frantic woman, Barclay getting her attention. She looked up at the two of them with fear in her eyes. “Have you seen a little boy with blond hair? He’s two. One minute I was right here holding his hand and the next he was gone.”

“I haven’t, but we’ll help you look. I can see over the crowd a bit better. Joseph, do you think you can head over to the announcements tent to let the guys know to put out a search for a missing kid- Joseph?”

He felt the umbrella pulled from his hand, turning to see Joseph running as fast as he could move through the thick crowd. It only took a moment for Barclay to see what he was running for and he felt his heart drop in his stomach in panic.

A little blond boy ambled towards the edge of the crowd, seeming to be following something that had caught his attention. What’s more, he was dangerously close to the path that the hayride was on, the tractor rolling up the hill. Joseph was making a beeline for the boy as best he could through the throngs of people as the child stepped out into the pathway as he chased a very scared squirrel.

Once he realized what was happening, Barclay took off after Stern, the woman following as he bellowed for people to move, to get the tractor to stop, anything. The barista was a big man, and when he was loud, people parted for him like the red sea.

Still it didn’t feel like enough time. The child had wandered out in front of the tractor at a vantage point that he might be hard to see from high up where the driver sat. 

Barclay saw Stern get to the edge of the crowd and watched the agent practically dive for the child even though he was still some distance away, umbrella outstretched. It all happened so quickly, yet it felt like the moment played in slow motion.

Joseph landed on his knees and hand, but caught the hook of the umbrella’s handle under the waistband of the boy’s pants, the agent tugging the child away as people shouted all around him for the tractor to stop. The driver hit the breaks and came to a hard stop, Stern sitting on the ground next to it with the boy in his arms.

Concerned festival go-ers circled them, choking the walkway and making it harder for Barclay and the boy’s mother to get to them. He pushed and shoved but couldn’t get through, hearing crying. Ok, that was it.

MOVE!!” People around him startled, breaking away at the sight of the big, bearded man rushing towards them. He and the young mother made it to Stern and the boy, Barclay letting the mom through.

The little boy was in tears, and his elbow was scraped, and from his point of view being grabbed by a strange man probably made it all the scarier. But that aside, he seemed relatively unharmed, Joseph giving them a frazzled smile.

“Seems he thought he could make friends with Mr. Squirrel.” The boy was passed off to his mother as Barclay offered Stern a hand to help him off the ground, help that Stern gratefully accepted. The woman was crying relieved tears, kissing her son on the forehead and rocking him quietly, whispering “Thank you” over and over against the boy’s hair.

“You alright?” Barclay murmured, gripping Joseph’s shoulder to steady him.

“Just a bit banged up, but well worth it.” One knee of his jeans was shredded from hitting the pavement, the man turning his left hand over to reveal a nasty scrape on the heel of his palm. “Nothing a little basic first-aid can’t handle.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m fine, I promise.” He looked up, meeting Barclay’s eyes with his own. Eye contact might not be Barclay’s thing, but in that moment, he couldn’t look away. Stern’s eyes were dark and soft and kind and full of a warmth Barclay hadn’t expected, his chest feeling full and tight. Joseph reached up and touched the other man where Barclay still had his hand on his shoulder, fingers soft against his arm as the agent gave it a little squeeze. 

“Thank you both so much.” Their little moment was interrupted by the mother thanking them both profusely, reminding them that they were surrounded by people.

Joseph handled the situation smoothly with a practiced confidence that Barclay could only assume came with being an FBI Agent. The man had to defuse tension and handle scared people all the time in his line of work. 

Once the crowd was reassured and the proper people were informed of what had happened, the mother went on her way with her son, leaving Barclay and Joseph once again to themselves.

“So, to the first aid tent, then?”

“Yes, I think that would be ideal.” Stern handed Barclay the umbrella back with a smile. “You should thank your new hire, this came in far more handy than we thought.”

Barclay just stared down at the umbrella, having no idea what to make of that.


 

After finishing up at the first aid tent, Stern’s knee and hand bandaged up, the pair enjoyed the rest of the festival together. It was nothing earth-shattering or romantic, it was just... nice. They talked and laughed and even shared a funnel cake after arguing over what was truly the best topping for one.

Soon it got dark, the booths breaking down for the end of the day. They’d spotted Aubrey and Dani walking around earlier, hand-in-hand, but had left the girls be, letting them just enjoy themselves.

“Are they together, then?” Joseph asked later when Barclay was walking with him back to his motel, having parked at the cafe himself. “I was fairly sure I saw them making eyes at each other in the cafe not that long ago, but I wasn’t certain.”

“Yeah, it’s a pretty new thing, I think. They’re just kinda doing their own thing, so I haven’t really asked them about it yet. They’ll talk to me about it when they want to.” Barclay smiled, hands in his pockets, the umbrella under his armpit.

“I see. Good for them, it’s nice to them so happy together out in public.” Joseph nodded with a small smile, but Barclay saw a glint of sadness in his eyes under the glow of street lamps. Barclay’s heart caught in his throat. He knew that expression.

“Kepler’s like that. Luxury of being a tourist town, I guess. Have to be more open-minded when you have folks of all sorts coming through.” Barclay heard a rumble from the sky above them, heavy clouds having rolled in over the mountains as it had cooled down for the evening.

“I’ve noticed that. I’ve been surveying the surrounding towns for my case, and unfortunately they don’t seem to afford many of their citizens the same opportunity as far as I can tell.” He turned his gaze to Barclay, expression soft and wistful. “I’m lucky that Kepler’s the town I chose to stay in.”

The Agent blinked up above them as fat drops began to fall. Barclay pulled out the umbrella, unfolding it as the sky opened up above them. Stern huddling in close to not get wet. They were quiet for a moment, the rain pelting the umbrella until something dawned on the barista, the man began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Stern mused, eyeing his companion curiously.

“Indrid and the umbrella!” Barclay snorted, rubbing his eye as he shook his head. “I’ve been spending this whole time thinking that he somehow knew what was gonna happen with the kid. But from the looks of it-”

He gestured to the rain around them, Stern seeming to catch onto what he was talking about and also grinning. “It seems Mr. Cold likely just watched the weather report this morning.”

They both chuckled about it as they walked up to the Four Pines motel, Joseph turning to face Barclay as they stood at his door under the umbrella.

“Thank you for spending the day with me, Barclay. It’s been a long while since I’ve attended something like that just for the fun of it.”

“And did you? Have fun that is.” Barclay gave him a lopsided grin.

“Yes, the sheer panic of saving a small child from getting hit by a tractor aside, I did.” Joseph returned the smile, the two of them shifting awkwardly, unsure what to do. Should he say something? The wistful look Stern had given him when talking about Dani and Aubrey made him so sure he’d had a chance. Was now the right time?

A crack of lightning followed by a boom of thunder startled them both, Barclay almost dropping the umbrella. Stern cursed, nearly jumping out of his skin, which he had to say was a new one for the man. The agent cleared his throat. “Well, I should head in, otherwise we’ll just stand here getting more soaked and cold, but, urm... I will see you tomorrow, yes?”

“Yeah, I’ll be at the cafe.” Stern nodded, unlocking his motel door and giving Barclay one last look, his cheeks ruddy from the chill. Their gazes met once again and lingered just one moment longer.

“Goodnight Barclay.”

“Night, Joseph.”

Barclay walked back to his truck like he was floating on air, unbothered by the pouring rain around him. He might have not taken that next step yet, but he was feeling more confident that he could when the time was right.

Hopefully, that would be soon enough.

Chapter Text

Barclay awoke, not with a start, but with a sigh, like one does when they wake up from a dream they were enjoying only to realize it wasn’t real. It had been a really nice dream, too. He rubbed the string of drool from his lips onto his pillow with a grunt, before rolling onto his back and staring at the ceiling.

He could hear the patter of rain against his window and the whirr of the fan overhead, his eyes adjusting enough to pick out the spinning blades. After the storm during the festival, the rains had finally returned to Kepler, the town expecting the drought to be over by the middle of November. But for now, it was simply a comfortable background to an otherwise quiet night.

Flashes of the dream were still fresh, thoughts of Stern’s touches warm against his skin and his lips soft against his throat still lingering in his mind’s eye. It wasn’t the first time he’d dreamt of intimacy with Joseph, but it was definitely the most vivid, having brought a ruddy flush to the man’s cheeks, his heart pounding.

It had been only about a week since the festival and Joseph had been occupying his mind all too frequently, now to the point that the man even graced his dreams. Barclay was still trying to find a good moment to ask Stern on an actual, real, honest-to-god date, but he’d had no such luck. Stern had been “out in the field” more lately, and not at the shop as much. 

If anything, this had made his pining for the man even worse, missing his presence. He knew he needed to be patient, though. It hadn’t been all that long since the festival and he’d been busy as well preparing for Halloween. 

Aubrey had roped him into helping with Ned’s Saturday Night Dead Halloween Spectacular, nevermind that the holiday was on a Thursday this year. But she’d said there’d be a big party afterwards and everyone was invited, so he’d begrudgingly agreed, but only because Aubrey had asked him. If Ned had been the one to try to get him involved, he probably would have said no.

Barclay huffed through his nose, finally turning his head to look at the digital clock settled on his nightstand. 3:47am. Great. It was far too early for him to just get up yet, but he was too warm and riled to get back to sleep quickly.

He could just lay there until he dozed off again, or... Well.. it wasn’t like he had to be in early tomorrow.

After a moment of pondering whether it was worth the effort, he finally conceded to his urges and shucked off his boxers, groping around in his nightstand drawer for the best medicine he had for a steamy dream he hadn’t wanted to end.

It had been a long time since he’d done something like this while imagining a real person, but tonight he got the feeling one of his personal collection of fictional men he fancied while going solo just wasn’t going to cut it. 

Barclay wasn’t necessarily someone who jacked off daily, but his sex-drive had definitely increased back when he’d started testosterone from “maybe once or twice a month” to “at least four times a week”, assisted all the more by his favorite toy. It was one of those magic-wand type toys, with heavy vibrations that he couldn’t get enough of. 

Making sure it was charged enough to get him through his session, Barclay leaned back and got to work, focusing the toy on his clit with a soft groan. Closing his eyes, he thought back to where his dream had left off, taking inspiration from what he could remember.

Joseph had been down between his legs, Barclay’s hand threaded in his hair as the agent kissed his bare thighs. Barclay gasped as the man nipped the tender skin, gripping his hair a little more tightly, Joseph humming agreeably.

The agent used a thumb to spread Barclay open, wetting his lips as he looked up to meet the man’s eyes. They were warm and hungry with want, the barista whining as Stern teased him, until the man finally leaned over and pressed his mouth to Barclay’s wet opening.

He’d focused on sucking Barclay’s clit while Barclay shook with pleasure and that had been where he’d woken up. But this was his fantasy now, and he had the reigns. Teasing the intensity up on his vibrator, Barclay leaned into the imagery, imagining Stern taking it further.

After a few moments of Joseph sucking him off, he slid two fingers into Barclay’s hole, the man moaning as Stern expertly crooked his fingers in the perfect spot. His tongue swirled against Barclay’s enlarged clit, beginning to thrust his fingers inside him.

Barclay knew that not every trans guy enjoyed penetration, but he didn’t mind it. He didn’t have as much vaginal sensitivity as some people seemed to have, vastly preferring clit stimulation and anal, but it was still nice, especially in the right (if fictional) hands.

He murmured slurred praise to the man, tilting his head back. He wondered if Stern was this deft with his fingers in real life. He was neat and careful with everything else he did, so maybe it translated. 

Not that Barclay really would expect perfection from anyone. 

Sex was messy and hilarious and weird and rarely perfect, but he personally thought that was part of what made it so enjoyable. He’d never been much for porn-- it just was too manufactured for his tastes. He craved intimacy in his fantasies, not a game of who could moan the loudest while making questionable o-faces.

Still, he wasn’t getting anywhere close outside his fantasy and was starting to feel less keen on only receiving, so he switched it up with idly wondering if Stern liked to bottom. Now instead of Stern eating him out, the man was splayed below him, Barclay’s cock thrusting deep into his hole.

Barclay wasn’t actually all that interested in having a dick beyond the size testosterone had given his clit-- at least, not with the techniques that were currently available. His chest dysphoria had been brutal, but he’d never had much issue regarding his lower half. 

But this was his fantasy, so he could have a cock if he wanted. He could have just as easily imagined himself in his strap, but it was fun to shake it up.

He focused in on imagining Joseph’s breathy gasps as he fucked him, kissing the hollow of Stern’s soft throat. Was Joseph quiet or loud during sex? He could easily see him holding back moans by biting his lip the way he did, but it would also be amusing and adorable if Joseph had a mouth on him.

Barclay splayed his hand on Joseph’s chest, wondering if his imaginary lover would have chest hair or not. Barclay was a hairy dude from head to toe, but Stern was so neat and clean shaven that he had to imagine that everything else was tidy as well.

The barista embraced the fantasy, thrusting faster --and cranking up the dial on his vibe-- as he pictured Stern digging his fingers into his back, legs wrapped around his thighs. The comedic thought of Joseph still wearing socks and sock-garters while having sex crossed his mind, Barclay snorting. That seemed like something the agent would do.

Barclay envisioned brushing his fingers down Joseph’s sternum to his belly, sliding to the man’s hips and squeezing enough to leave red imprints on Stern’s skin. Even if Stern was quiet in bed, in fantasy Barclay imagined he could get his lover to make some noise for him. He nipped at the other man’s collar before latching onto a nipple, lathing his tongue over the nub. He bet that would be the sort of thing to get Joseph to squirm underneath him.

His thrusts became longer and harder in his fantasy, his actual hips rocking into his toy in tempo with the rhythm as he moaned into his pillow. He could just now picture Joseph leaning his head back, face flushed and mouth open, gripping Barclay for dear life.

What kind of face would Joseph make on the cusp of orgasm? Would his lips part in shaky gasps of praise? Would he bury his face into Barclay’s shoulder in barely contained pleasure? Regardless, the thought was enough to get Barclay where he was going.

Unlike erotica he’d read before, Barclay had never “felt the heat coiling in his gut” or really been able to tell if he was close at all until the sensation was upon him. If he was lucky, it’d line up with a fantasy like this, but usually he was just there and there was no going back.

His cheeks flushed with heat as a familiar clench of pleasure washed through him, Barclay struggling to keep the toy on his clit as it throbbed in pulses. The waves gripped him for a moment longer, the man groaning quietly, until a comfortable bliss spread through his limbs. He flopped back on his bed, skin sweat-damp and heartbeat still pounding in his chest.

Awesome.

Stashing his vibrator, he didn’t bother putting his boxers on, letting his body breathe as he sighed contentedly. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he ever got to experience the actual thing with Joseph, but it was nice to fantasize.

Now thoroughly tuckered out and relaxed in the afterglow, Barclay got comfortable under his covers, slipping back to sleep once more.

 


Barclay was a big dude and he could handle carrying around a lot of weight, no stranger to hard labor, but helping Ned and Aubrey set up for the Halloween Spectacular had left him sore all over. Why he had agreed to help all day on his day off was beyond him. 

“Because it made Aubrey happy” he reminded himself. That said, a day hauling around magic props and glued-together animal parts at the Cryptonomica had been an experience in and of itself. They were truly going all out for this show, so if Barclay was going to help out, he was going to do the best job he could.

And it seemed he wasn’t the only one who Aubrey had convinced to help. Dani was at the cafe today, but it seemed a certain ranger had committed himself to helping with setup as well. To be fair, Duck did do a short forest safety segment on the show, so it made more sense for him to be there than it did for Barclay. But he was here nonetheless.

And, what’s more, it seemed Duck had brought someone along. Someone Barclay and Aubrey had both been keen to meet for quite a while.

“So these are your friends from the cafe, are they, Duck Newton?” Aubrey and Barclay had to do their best not to stare when Duck introduced them, finding themselves in front of the biggest woman Barclay had ever seen. She was grinning broadly down at them, Duck dwarfed next to her, but smiling all the same. It was the first time in a long while that Barclay had found himself having to look up to see someone’s face.

“Barclay, Aubrey. I forget, have you met Minerva?”

“I have not, but I’ve heard a lot about you. It’s a pleasure.” He offered his hand, which she shook with a terrifying amount of force and a hearty chuckle. Man, she had a hell of a grip.

“No, no I don’t think I have either. My name’s Aubrey Little, but you can just call me The Lady Flame. I’m going to be doing a magic set in the show tomorrow night. Oh yeah, and I work at the cafe with Barclay, but you already knew that.” Aubrey shook Minerva’s hand as well, still looking fairly awe-struck.

“And I’ve heard a great deal about you both. You will have to excuse my never having visited the cafe, I do not drink caffeine.” She was certainly jovial, that was for sure. Barclay could see how Duck might be overwhelmed by her personality.

“Fair enough, I know it’s not for some people.” 

“They have pastries and sandwiches and stuff too, you know, Minnie.” Duck pointed out, Barclay noting that he seemed a lot more at ease around the woman than he would have expected. The nickname was something of note as well. Barclay tried to remember if Duck had ever called her that in his recent encounters.

In fact, now that he thought about it, he hadn’t heard Duck complain about his neighbor in a long while. He mentioned her from time to time, giving them details on what she’d been up to, but it was never in the exasperated tone he’d had previously. It was almost as if Duck was warming up to the woman, or perhaps more than that?

He decided he’d have to ask Duck about it whenever they got a moment alone, but he wasn’t about to put Duck in a situation where he might have to lie around the woman he might have feelings for. Because he knew Duck wouldn’t be able to, and he didn’t want to push his friend into a conversation he might not be ready to have.

“Well, now that we have met, it would be impolite for me to not visit the shop, so I will have to stop by.” She chuckled, eyeing the things they’d been asked to move around for the show before dropping into stretches. “Now! Let us ready ourselves for the task at hand. I have been told there is much to do. Everybody remember to stay hydrated, and lift with your knees, not your back!”

They’d worked through much of the afternoon, Minerva and Barclay handling much of the heavier lifting, while Kirby, Aubrey, Ned and Duck focused on decorating and (on Duck’s insistence) safety planning throughout the building. Not only did the set for the show have to be assembled, they also had to prepare for the afterparty in the Cryptonomica proper. 

They’d stopped for lunch around midday, Aubrey chatting with Minerva and Duck, still in awe of Duck’s neighbor. It looked like they’d gotten onto the topic of her magic act because Aubrey had started excitedly pulling out playing cards, showing off some slight of hand.

“Minerva’s certainly somethin’, huh?” Kirby chuckled beside him, where he, Ned, and Barclay were hanging around and eating their lunches. 

“Now, I might be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure Duck’s already got his eye on her, my friend.” Ned mused, Kirby making his face at the older man, rolling his eyes.

“Not like that, I’m just admiring her physique. You don’t see people built like her around here and her tattoos are neat.” Kirby replied earnestly, sipping his cola. 

Kirby was a good dude. He’d lived in Kepler longer than Barclay or Ned, a young artist who had apparently started as a painter, but was decidedly multimedia at this point. He’d done a job for Ned back when Ned had gotten the Cryptonomica up and running again and, as far as Barclay could tell, Ned had convinced him to work there.

Now that he thought about it, Kirby’s artwork was probably sold at a more regular rate than most artists could hope for, even if that artwork was usually in the form of “relics of the arcane and supernatural”. At this point though, Barclay figured most people who bought something from the Cryptonomica knew what they were buying wasn’t genuine, so really it was more of a supernatural themed artist gallery than anything else.

“Her tattoos are pretty nice. I wonder what their significance is, if there is any.” Barclay added between mouthfuls of his tuna sandwich. The intricate blue design curved around her scalp, and all the way down her neck until they disappeared under the collar of her shirt. "You don’t get something like that if it doesn’t mean something."

“Dunno, I don’t recognize them at all, not that that means much.” Kirby shrugged, grinning at the two of them. “Speaking of tattoos, I’ve actually finally saved up enough to get my sleeve finished in a couple of weeks, so that’s exciting.”

The young man pulled an arm out of his jacket, showing off a fun and colorful design that started somewhere under his t-shirt sleeve and spanned all the way down to his elbow. It was a mix of pop-culture references and things Barclay couldn’t recognize, but Kirby seemed pleased with it. “I’m thinking about getting some like... cool old-school movie monster designs. I’ve got some sketches if anyone wants to see them later.”

“Yeah, sure.” Barclay nodded as Kirby pulled his jacket back on, obviously thrilled to be talking about his work in that context. He tilted his head at Barclay curiously. “I know Ned probably has some embarrassing tattoos I hope never see the light of day,--

“Hey!”

“ --but what about you, dude? Got any ink?”

“Yeah! A little. Nothing so intricate as a sleeve like yours though.” Barclay hiked up the right leg of his jeans to flash them the simple dark silhouette of a spruce forest that banded his ankle, a mountain peak gracing the top of the treeline. “I also have a design of crows flying away on my hip and a potted plant on my ribs, but you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t really feel like stripping. ...Wait, actually I think I might have pictures of the crows on my phone.”

He got out the device, opening up his album. Many of the citizens had smartphones even if they couldn’t use them for their main purpose. Even without cell service, no one could really deny the use of having a machine that could take pictures, listen to music, play games, and connect to the internet when wi-fi was available was still useful to have. Plus, you never had to pay for a phone plan. 

Dredging up the photos, he let the others see.

“The crows are cool, but why a potted plant?” Kirby raised an eyebrow, giving him a bemused look. Barclay blushed, shrugging sheepishly. The tattoo in question was simple linework of a maidenhair fern in a pot that he had on his left ribs under his top surgery scars. With a sigh, he carefully lifted his shirt just below his scars to show them.

“It’s kinda dumb. I had just turned eighteen and a bunch of my friends and I were out and decided, spur of the moment, that we should all get tattoos now that we were all old enough to get them. Y’know, as dumb teenagers do.” 

He lowered his shirt once Ned and Kirby had gotten a good look. “Some of them knew exactly what they wanted, but I had no idea . But we’d all already hyped each other up about it, and I knew I would get shit if I didn’t, so I went for it. Of course, when the artist finally asked me what I wanted, I panicked and just picked the first thing I saw in the shop. Which was a potted fern. Even made up some cheesy story about it being my favorite plant, when really it was just all I could think of.”

“And they didn’t think to stop you?” Kirby was cracking up, Ned looking equally amused as Barclay flushed, shrugging again.

“Oh, they definitely tried to. But I was so caught up in impressing my friends that I made them do it anyway. We were all dumbasses.”

“Aw, come now, I think it has character!” Ned chuckled, grinning widely. “Though if you wanted to mix it up, you could always say you were knocked out and woke up with a mysterious plant tattoo. What does it mean? Who knows, it’s a mystery but you’ve spent the rest of your life tracking down this tattooing plant bandit.”

Barclay had to laugh as Ned delivered the little story, complete with hand gestures. He finished his sandwich. “Plant Bandits, huh? I’ll have to remember that one. So hey, Kirby, where do you even get your ink done around here? There’s certainly not a shop in Kepler.”

“I go up to Elkin. Yeah, it’s a bit of a drive, but let’s be real, anything interesting out here takes an hour to get to.” That sounded about right. “There’s a couple shops in Elkin, but I go to Infiniti. They’re chill and do good work and are always super willing to work with my own designs. It’s fun to jam with them over what’s possible to get tattooed. They’re good for piercings too.” 

Barclay would have to keep that in mind. He’d been thinking about getting more ink lately, but hadn’t really known where to look. The man checked his watch once the others had finished their lunches.

“Welp, guess we should get back to work. Where did y’all want that two-headed mummy again?”


 

After a long day of work, Barclay was sore and tired , and it was the kind of deep body ache that he knew a hot shower just couldn’t remedy. The hot springs would still be open for a few hours, and hopefully not too busy, so he’d grabbed his trunks and rash guard from his apartment and head out for the springs.

In the locker rooms, the barista changed in the privacy of a stall before padding out into the main building containing the hot springs, the warm humidity beading on his skin as he entered. Seems like it was a quiet night after all, folks having better things to do the day before Halloween. 

Two elderly men soaked in the shallow end together, chatting quietly while a small group of teens kicked around in the deeper waters, but none of them paid Barclay any mind as he slipped into the heated springs. The man let out a soft groan as the warmth enveloped him.

God, that felt fantastic. Barclay couldn’t say he went to the springs regularly, but when he did, damn did it feel good. He probably would go more if he weren’t so anxious about swimming, a holdover from when he had a harder time passing.

The man idly rubbed his chest, able to feel the faint ridges of his scars under his shirt. He knew many folks in Kepler probably wouldn’t even know what his scars meant, and if they did, he doubted they would care. As Dani had pointed out, most of them already knew he was gay (or just didn’t pay attention to things like his pin), but he’d always had a harder time talking about his gender identity.

He’d come out to most of the Amnesty crew already with the exception of Indrid, though he wouldn’t put it past the man if he somehow knew anyway. He’d also accidentally come out to Duck not too long ago when they’d been talking about Duck overseeing a scout troop during a wilderness trip and Barclay had mentioned being in the Girl Scouts as a kid without thinking about it.

Dani never made a big deal about it, and Aubrey had just hugged him a bunch and thanked him for feeling comfortable enough to tell her. Jake had been ecstatic to find out he was working with another trans guy and Duck had admitted that, while he didn’t know a whole lot about that stuff, he supported Barclay wholeheartedly and to definitely correct him if he ever fucked something up.

And Mama, well. Mama had been the first one he’d told, back when he’d only just been thinking about not leaving Kepler after all, finally resolving that Mama’s reaction to his coming out would be the deciding factor of if he stayed or not.

“Mama, could we talk?” Barclay had knocked on her office door one afternoon, his heart in his throat as the woman looked up at him. He must have looked a right nervous mess, because her brows furrowed and she quickly got up to shut the door behind him, ushering him into the other chair in the room.

“What’s wrong, hun? Are you alright?” He swallowed thickly at the worry in her eyes, rubbing his hands on his jeans. Maybe this had been a bad idea. But he was here, so he might as well say something.

“I’m fine. I just..” He chewed on the inside of his cheek, all the words he’d prepared for this being suddenly very hard to grasp. “Recently I’ve come to really like it here in Kepler and I’m thinking about staying.”

“Barclay, I'm not gonna fire ya because you ended up not being temporary, if that's what you're worried about. You’re the best damn barista this place has seen in a long while, I’d be thrilled to have you on as a full-time employee.” Her expression softened, her words making his chest clench even tighter. He really liked Mama and it was dawning on him that he didn’t know what he’d do if she wasn’t keen on him being trans.

“I appreciate it, Mama, I really do. You’ve been so kind to have me here and I love the job, I just..” He clasped his hands together, digging his fingers into his skin. “If I’m gonna stay here, I need to know I’m gonna have support and that this is a safe place for me to be. Not everyone is so accepting of who I am and I don’t wanna be somewhere that I can’t be myself.”

When he looked up at the woman again,  her face was patient and kind, Mama nodding. “What is it you wanna tell me, Barclay?”

“I’m.. I’m a gay transgender man. And I don’t think I can stay here if I don’t have your support.” He couldn’t make himself look at her, be he heard her chair scoot closer to his, Mama putting her hands around vice grip he had in his lap.

“Barclay, honey, you have my support from the moon and back. It don’t make a lick of difference to me what sexuality or gender or race or religion or whatever you are, as long as ya ain’t hurtin’ no one else. You’re a sweet man, and I want you to be happy here.” 

She gave his hands a squeeze, and Barclay felt tears come to his eyes as he squeeze them back. “And if anyone ever gives you even a second of shit about it, you come right to me and I’ll send ‘em packing. I don’t care who they are.”

Barclay felt the big ball of stress he’d been carrying over this unravel in his chest, letting out a choked laugh. He looked up to her, wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Thank you.”

“Don’t think anything of it, now. You belong here just as much as the rest of us.” She gave his hands a little pat. “Now, if you’re planning on officially moving to town, we gotta find you an apartment.”

He smiled softly at the memory, sinking deeper into the warm waters of the springs. Mama had kept that promise and he was lucky to now have such a good network of friends.

Barclay relaxed for a time, leaning against the edge of the pools, his eyes half closed, when he heard the padding of feet. He expected them to pass, but instead they stopped just behind him. Before he could bother to move to see who it was, he heard a familiar voice.

“Careful now, falling asleep in a pool or bath can be quite dangerous.” Barclay tilted his head to the side to see a pair of feet, their owners leaning over to set a pair of red tinted glasses on the edge of the pool before stepping into the waters. Indrid seemed to be wearing swim trunks and a cotton t-shirt, which bubbled up around him as he sunk down next to the other man, keeping his head above the water. He blinked at Barclay, the barista realizing this was the first time he’d seen the man without his glasses. His eyes really were an almost purple blue.

“I was just relaxing. Been a long day helping set up for Ned’s Halloween thing.” He replied with a shrug, Indrid nodding quietly.

“I heard about that. I’d go, but I don’t particularly like crowds. Or parties. They tend to be too loud and have a great deal of flashing lights.” He made a face and sunk down to his nose in the water, blowing bubbles.

“So, do you come to the hot springs often?”

“That sounds like a bad pick up line, and I’m not the one you should be using those on, now am I?” Indrid glanced at Barclay from the corner of his eyes, Barclay grateful that the heat from the springs was already making his face warm and pink. “They’re rather wasted on me I’m afraid. But yes, I come fairly often. I don’t like being cold.”

“Right.” Barclay sat quietly next to the other man, not really sure what to say or do. Indrid just sat beside him, seeming to be lost in thought, a notable silence between then until Indrid spoke.

“...I know I can be difficult to talk to.” He was quiet, his words barely a whisper. The man pulled his knees up in the water, wrapping his arms around them. “I can’t really help it.”

Joseph’s comments regarding Indrid perhaps just having a hard time understanding how to connect with people came to mind, Barclay feeling a little guilty that he probably wasn’t doing Indrid any favors in that department either. He sighed, giving the white-haired man a small smile.

“I think I just don’t know you well enough yet, but that can change. If you want it to.” Indrid glanced at him again before carefully pushing his way out of the water a little more so he and Barclay could see eye to eye.

“...I wouldn’t mind that.” He rubbed his arm, eyes flicking out over the water like he was looking at something else. “Did the umbrella come in handy? It rained later than the report said, so I didn’t know if you and your friend had gotten caught out in it or not.”

“Actually yeah. For more than just the rain, too.” He wasn’t sure how much he wanted to regale Indrid with tales of Joseph saving a child with an umbrella, especially when the man just seemed to want to have a quiet chat. Indrid nodded carefully.

“That’s good.” He paused, again the silence between them palpable. “I like to draw.”

“Pardon?”

“You said you just didn’t know much about me yet, so I’m telling you I like to draw. It’s a hobby of mine.” Indrid looked away from Barclay, the bigger man realizing more and more that Indrid really did just struggle to connect, but that didn’t mean he didn’t try.

“That’s cool. What do you like to draw? I can’t say I’m much of an artist myself, but I like hearing about what other folks like doing.” 

“You are, your craft is just different. The care and thought you put into what you make is much the same as one might put into drawing, and you invoke an emotional response from those who experience it, much like any art.” Indrid smiled a little, Barclay blinking. “As for what I draw, it depends on what I’m inspired by. Usually people and places.”

“Are you talking about my coffee?” He’d never really thought about his job as particularly artistic, but he supposed there was an element of imagination to it. He supposed learning to make drinks was something like learning an instrument. He’d learned to play guitar as a kid and had actually stuck to doing it through his teen years, but had fallen out since. He could probably pick it up again if he felt so inclined though.

“Yes, you care about what you do. It seems like everyone working there does. Quite surprising to see in a simple cafe. I was also quite surprised it offers health insurance.” Indrid hummed.

“Yeah, we had to fight to get small business coverage around when I first started, but it was really important to Mama to be able to provide for the folks who work there. It’s not the cheapest, but it’s better than nothing. I know I’m grateful.” Barclay still remembered all the tense phone calls Mama had in those early days.

“Mh. Yes, I am too, especially in regards to the vision coverage. I’ve had problems with my eyes all my life, so it’ll be good to have once I’ve been working 60 days.” 

“Is it because of the urm...” He gestured awkwardly at Indrid, the man blinking at him again before nodding.

“Albinism, yes, if that’s what you meant by pointing at all of me.” Well, that kinda made him feel like an ass. He tried to be careful about that sort of thing, but had definitely beefed it on that one. “You can ask about it, it’s not like being albino is a taboo thing to talk to me about. I suppose some people might be sensitive about it, but I’ve never really been bothered by it. Many people have vision problems and sunburn easily, I just have a condition that makes it more likely.”

“So the red glasses, you mentioned they help with light sensitivity.”

“Yes, though they also just help me see.” The other man smiled at Barclay with more warmth than he’d seen before. “I picked the design myself though, it’s fun to see people react to a white-haired man with daunting red lenses. Also they’re just nice for when I don’t wanna make eye contact.”

“Dude, I feel that! I can’t do eye contact either. I always look at some other part of the person’s face and most people don’t notice I’m actually looking at their forehead or nose or something.” Barclay nodded. Nevermind that lately there was one person that he had been making a good deal of eye contact with. But Joseph was different. 

Indrid grinned. “I look at their left ear or something behind them.”

Now that they actually got into the rhythm of a conversation, Indrid was pretty interesting to talk to. They chatted quietly about art and traveling until it was time to leave, the pools closing for the night. After they’d changed, Barclay went to his truck and returned the other man’s umbrella.

Indrid might be odd, but he was pretty cool once you started to get to know him.




“Remind me why I’m wearing this again.” Barclay stared down at the large rubber feet he’d been coerced into, complete with brown, hairy leg warmers crammed up under his jeans. Halloween was upon them and after he’d gotten off his shift, he’d headed over to the Cryptonomica in the late afternoon, only to be ambushed by Ned and a costume.

“Because! It’s Halloween and if you’re going to be at a Halloween party, you gotta dress up! And besides, I need someone to really bring home my newest feature here at the museum; surely you’ve seen my newest exhibit!” Ned grinned as Barclay walked around experimentally.

“Yes, I’ve heard about your new Bigfoot exhibit, Ned. Just don’t see what it’s got to do with me.” Nevermind that the “exhibit” was the video that he and Dani had caught Ned making in the woods. He’d decided he just wasn’t gonna bring it up.

“Because, you’re perfect for it! You’re a big, hairy guy already, all you needed was the giant feet! I even have some fangs if you really wanna sell it.” Ned grinned at him, getting out and snapping a pair of plastic teeth together between his fingers. Barclay look nonplussed.

“Like my feet aren’t big enough already. And I think I’ll pass on the teeth. I don’t like wearing things in my mouth.” Braces had been bad enough as a teen and the retainer had been even worse. Technically, he was supposed to still be wearing the damn thing after all these years, but that sure as hell wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t even know where it was.

“Aw c’mon, you look great!” Barclay sighed. Well, he supposed it was better than not having any costume. He’d been so busy he hadn’t really had the chance to put one together this year.

“Yeah, you’re definitely rocking the feet, Barclay.” Aubrey stepped out from the backroom, dressed in a spooky version of the classic magician’s outfit, with a bat shaped bow tie and spider-web patterned jacket. To crank the effect up to eleven, she’d even put in glowing orange contacts. She looked great.

“Yeah, yeah alright. But I’m not posing for pictures, got it Ned?” 

The crew of the show were starting to arrive, as were the “live studio audience”. Barclay had to admit, Saturday Night Dead seemed to be more popular than he had imagined, fans excitedly filling into the seats they’d set out for the show. Kirby was hovering around, making sure everything was where it needed to be.

He saw a few familiar faces from town, but perked up when he spotted Dani and Mama in the crowd. Aubrey had insisted all the Amnesty crew be invited to the screening. Indrid had declined, and Jake was spending time with some friends for Halloween but had said he’d be there for the party, but everyone else had agreed to come.

Dani and Mama made their way over to Barclay, not seeming to be wearing anything that he could recognize. But when Dani got close, she flashed him a grin to reveal a row of very sharp teeth and seemed to be wearing a few witchy accessories.

“Hey dude, Ned got you into the feet I see.” She snickered at the sight of what he was wearing.

“Wait, you knew about this?”

Dunno what you’re talking about.” She stuck her tongue out at him between her teeth, wiggling her eyebrows. Barclay could only shake his head, smiling fondly before turning his attention to Mama. She was actually wearing a bandoleer of wooden stakes under her open trench coat, her wide-brimmed hat perched on her head.

“Dani said I’d make a great vampire hunter if I just added a bit’ve garnish, so here I am.” She shrugged with a smile. She did look the part, considering that, save for the bandoleer, that was just how Mama dressed.

“It suits you.” He nodded, noticing the crowd was starting to get settled. “We should probably get to our seats, I think things are about to get started.”

The show was a lot of fun. As much as Barclay ragged on Ned, the man knew how to be entertaining. Duck’s segment was quick and practical to the surprise of no one. When it was Aubrey’s turn to come on stage, Dani popped out her sharp teeth, sticking her fingers between her lips and letting out a shrill whistle as people clapped around them, Barclay giving a whoop of encouragement as Aubrey bowed with a flourish and began her act.

The girl had a lot of talent, captivating her audience with both her charm and talent alike. He’d seen her perform before, but she was definitely going all out for this show. Barclay found himself engrossed with her performance, on the edge of his seat for what she’d do next. When it was over, he, Dani and Mama stood, clapping and cheering their hearts out for her as she bowed, out of breath and grinning on the stage.

As for the movie, they showed the classic Re-Animator, a movie Barclay had always found amusing. Sure, the first time he’d watched it had been with an ex, but he hadn’t let that detract from his enjoyment of the movie. Aubrey and Duck came to sit with them, all of them quietly poking fun at the movie as they watched.

Once it was over, it was time for the party, the audience flooding in and around the Cryptonomica as the other party-goers started to arrive. The music was cranked up, and food set out on plastic tables. And, of course, booze. But Ned, not wanting to get a bad reputation for encouraging underage drinking, had apparently convinced the baristas from the local tavern to tend bar and check licenses. Good on him.

Barclay got himself a mixed drink and leaned against the bar, surveying the crowd as people arrived. There were a variety of costumes and outfits to look at, the man admiring the creativity of some of them. He’d never really been a big partier, but he liked to be around folks and make conversation.

Dani slid up next to him at the bar, watching Aubrey chat with Ned and Duck as she got drinks for herself and her girlfriend. “Her show was awesome, wasn’t it? I know she worked super hard on it.”

“Yeah, she did great. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. You can tell she really has a passion for what she does.” He grinned, well aware just how hard Aubrey had been working on her new set. You couldn’t go a day at the cafe without finding playing cards, poker chips, and bits of string tucked away somewhere.

“Yeah, she was really great..” A flash of something Barclay couldn’t read in the dim room crossed Dani’s face, but it was gone as quickly as he’d noticed it. “So, think you’re gonna dance?”

“You know I have two left feet, and these rubber things are definitely not gonna do me any favors.” He chuckled, lifting a foot awkwardly. “Plus, it’s not like I have anyone to dance with.”

“You don’t have to have a partner to dance to this kind of music, dude.” She snorted, glancing around the room as she was handed the drinks she’d ordered, suddenly elbowing Barclay when she spotted something. “But you may not have to go partnerless anyway. Check out who just walked in. Holy shit, what is he wearing.”

The man looked up to see a familiar face walk through the entrance, barely able to believe what he was seeing. Agent Joseph Stern, at a Halloween party, dressed in the loudest, gaudiest Hawaiian shirt he had ever seen. Not only that, he seemed to have an old school polaroid camera hanging around his neck, and cargo shorts. Apparently Joseph was just full of surprises.

The agent glanced around, catching sight of Barclay and smiling, wading through the crowd towards him. Dani wiggled her eyebrows at Barclay. “Well, I gotta get this drink to the Lady Flame herself. I’ll leave you two to chat. Good luck, loverboy.”

“Dani, we haven’t even- And there she goes.” He watched the young woman saunter away as Joseph approached, glancing at Dani as she left.

“Oh, she didn’t have to leave if you two were having a conversation... Nice feet.” Now that Stern was up close, Barclay could get a good look at what the man was wearing. Not only did the man seem to be wearing socks with sandals, his Hawaiian shirt had several depictions of bigfoot worked into the pattern.

“Seems like we’re unintentionally matching.” Barclay chuckled, his cheeks a little pink. Man, how could this man get cuter in something so cheesy? “So what’s the story on your costume?”

“Well, I thought it would be funny if I dressed as a tourist, considering I’m usually traveling for work rather than pleasure.” Joseph adjusted his camera sheepishly, perhaps realizing it might sound silly. It was, but it was a charming kind of silly that was just so Stern.

“Please tell me this is a shirt you owned before you came to Kepler.” 

“Oh it.. definitely is. My sister got it for me several years ago for Hanukkah. My love for cryptids was cultivated early in my teens, and Hanna has never let me live it down.” He chuckled, Barclay blinking.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish. Shit, I recommended you try food with bacon on it and everything.” Barcley flushed in embarrassment, rubbing his face, but Joseph just waved him off.

“Oh, no, don’t worry about it, I don’t practice Kashrut. My family is considerably more Orthodox, but I’d say I ascribe to Reform Judaism more than anything, and I'm not exactly actively practicing.” Joseph shrugged. “I try to visit for holidays when I can, and I still frequently keep in touch with my sister, but I don’t particularly see eye to eye with a number of my relatives.”

“Ah, I know how that can be... I uh.. had a pretty nasty falling out with my family a while back. We don’t really talk anymore. I was fortunate to have a really good support group when it happened.” Barclay shifted uncomfortably, before clearing his throat. Ok, new topic. “Urm, how about you let me buy you a drink.”

“Oh, um. Very well. I admit I don’t drink a great deal, so I’ll let you order something for me.” Stern nodded, masking his reaction regarding whatever he thought about what Barclay had just told him behind a mild expression. Barclay nodded, grateful that Stern was just willing to move on. They were here to have fun. At least, that’s why he was, realizing he didn’t really know why Joseph was here.

“Alright. So, what exactly brings you to the party? Not that I’m not happy to have you here, I just would have thought this wouldn’t be your sort of thing.” He ordered Stern the sweetest drink they had available, by now all too familiar with the agent’s sweet tooth. He handed it to Stern, who sipped it carefully. Joseph’s eyebrows shot up with surprised delight, telling Barclay he’d made the right choice.

“You would be right, I wouldn’t likely have come without a little persuasion. But I heard Miss Little was doing an act for the show tonight, and Indrid mentioned you’d been helping to get everything set up, and I thought it would be a shame if I didn’t show up when everyone had worked so hard to put it together.” Stern supplied, looking away with a shrug. 

What that told Barclay was that Stern had come to see him. Joseph had been getting easier and easier to read the more he got to know him, and likely the more the man relaxed around him as well. And once he’d realized that, he had started noticing the little signs that Joseph might just like him back. Stern glanced around.

“Admittedly, it’s been a long while since I’ve been to a party like this. Not since college. Party music was a lot different back then.” He smiled fondly, leaning against the bar next to Barclay. “Can you believe Dragostea Din Tei came out sixteen years ago?”

“Oh, god, really? Damn, that makes me feel old. How is it almost 2020? 2003 feels like it was just a few years ago.” Barclay groaned. Thirty-six was by no means old, but the passage of time always baffled him when he thought too hard about it.

“Doesn’t it just?” Joseph mused, the pair of them having a laugh about it. It was only after they’d finished their first drinks that Joseph turned in front of Barclay, a faint flush to his cheeks.

“We should dance.”

“Huh?”

“I mean, we don’t have to if you don’t want to, but it would be a shame to let the opportunity go to waste, don’t you think?” Barclay was about to object, but he met Joseph’s eyes again in that dark, loud, warm room and his mouth went dry.

“I can try. I can’t promise I won’t be shit at it though.” He followed Joseph out onto the floor where everyone was just bouncing and jiving to the music. 

“I’m going to be honest with, you I have no idea what to do either, I just wanted to. I’m trying to be a little more impulsive for once.” Barclay wasn’t sure that was a particularly good trait in an FBI agent, but he wasn’t going to question it. Joseph deserved to get to do the things he wanted to.

Looking around for any kind of insight on where to start, he spotted Duck, Minerva, Aubrey and Dani dancing and having fun on the left side of the floor, ushering Joseph in their direction. He shouted to ask if they could join, but couldn’t make out a verbal answer above the music. But Aubrey was nodding enthusiastically and waved them to come as Duck started doing the most ridiculous moves he’d ever seen, swinging around a foam sword he’d apparently brought as his “costume”.

They were all pretty hilariously bad dancers and Barclay was pretty sure he stepped on a few toes, but it was fun, the man working up a sweat. He and Joseph brushed together a few times and this time they didn’t pull away, grinning through all of it. Finally, Aubrey and Dani stepped away to have a dance to themselves and Minerva insisted Duck rehydrate, so Barclay and Joseph slipped away outside to the back deck of the building for some fresh air.

“Oh goodness, that was... something.” Stern was grinning, his face flushed and sweaty as he leaned against the railing. Barclay took in a few deep breaths of the night air, filling his lungs and willing his heart rate to go back down.

“Yeah, you can say that again. Sorry if I crushed any toes.” He glanced down at Stern’s feet with an apologetic grimace.

“No, no, you were.. Perfect.” Joseph caught his eyes again and all of Barclay’s feelings caught in his throat. Here Joseph was, looking at him with such warmth and they were having such a good time. If he wanted to say anything, now would be the perfect time. He swallowed.

“Joseph, I..”

“Barclay- Oh, sorry. Go ahead.” They fumbled when they both spoke at the same time, Barclay rubbing the back of his neck.

“No, no you go first. I don’t actually know what I was gonna say anyway.”

“Really, I didn’t mean to speak over you.”

“Naw, it’s fine I promise.”

“Well, okay.”

They both stared at each other awkwardly. Well, this was going great. Barclay cleared his throat again, struggling to find the words he’d just been about to say. “Well, I...”

He took a step closer, finding himself lost again in the way Joseph was looking at him. Frazzled and curious and perfect, the man biting his lip the way he did when he was thinking. What was he even supposed to say here? Go on a date with me? I have feelings for you? He had a lot whirling around in his head right now, and it was difficult to pin anything meaningful down.

But it turned out, he didn’t have to say anything at all. Before he could force out another word, Joseph closed the gap between them, his hand on Barclay’s chest.

And then he was kissing him.

For the first second Barclay was surprised, but after he realized what was happening, he certainly wasn’t going to stop. Sighing against Joseph’s lips, he rested his big hands on the man’s hips, pulling him in closer. It was like the bubble of tension that had been between them for so long had finally popped and it felt even better than he thought.

They parted out of necessity, their breaths warm and visible on the cool mountain air. After a moment of processing what had just happened, Joseph still in Barclay’s arms, they both broke into sappy grins, Stern pressing his forehead against Barclay’s shoulder with a chuckle.

“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.” He mused, a hand resting on Barclay’s arm.

“Excuse me, how long you’ve wanted to do that?” Barclay snorted, reaching up to rest a hand on Joseph’s cheek and bring his gaze back to his own. “And here I thought I was crazy for thinking about how hot you were from day one.”

They both broke down into bubbly laughter again, before Barclay took the initiative this time, kissing Joseph once more.  God, those lips were just as soft as he’d imagined.

Before they could get too deeply into anything, Duck walked out, catching them mid embrace. 

“...Oh, hey Duck.”

“Oh. Hey Barclay. Stern.” He nodded at both of them like he’d just run into them at the supermarket, before turning around to go back inside, shutting the door behind him. Joseph and Barclay watched him before falling into another fit of laughter, giddy on the bliss they now shared between them.

“That’s probably our cue to head back in.”

“Yes, I think so, least Ranger Newton gets the drop on us by telling the rest of your friends before we can.” 

“Shit, you’re right. We’d better hurry. Duck can’t tell a lie to save his life.” Barclay snickered as Joseph kissed the underside of his throat before carefully pulling away, the pair heading back inside. They spent the rest of the party sharing warm glances, fingers brushing regularly as they sipped drinks and chatted contentedly.

Barclay didn’t know what came next for them, but that was another problem for a less amazing night.

Chapter Text

“So uh.. you and Stern, huh?”

“Oh uh. Yeah, I guess.”

“You guess? Pretty sure making out with the dude on Ned’s deck isn’t just an ' I guess ', Barclay.” 

“I dunno, we haven’t really talked about it since. He’s been really busy.” 

Duck and Barclay were out in the forest today, walking side by side along one of this section of the Monongahela forest’s many trails. A couple of weeks had passed since the party, and they were now well into November, the warm tones of fall being replaced by greys and browns as winter began its approach. 

Barclay had thought things would be different between himself and Joseph after their intimate moment at the party, but Stern had been fairly absent from the cafe since then. The barista knew it wasn’t him or the kiss they’d shared, Stern had assured him of that much. A recent string of break-ins starting Halloween night had left Joseph scrambling to investigate and leaving him little time to come in or join Barclay for lunch.

In the few, short, private moments they did have, they spent much of it swapping spit in a fevered attempt to make up for the time they weren’t getting otherwise. It hadn’t really gone beyond that, which Barclay felt guilty about, usually being the one to stop before Joseph could go below the belt. He still hadn’t told his lover he was transgender, and wanted to sit down and have an actual conversation about it instead of Joseph accidentally finding out from a wayward hand.

He was hoping to ask Joseph to dinner at his home soon so they could sit down and talk about everything next time he saw the man, because this was getting silly. If he didn’t show up at the cafe soon, Barclay might have to walk down and check on him at the motel himself.

But presently, Barclay had just been out for a walk in the woods when he’d bumped into Duck, and the man he was apparently chaperoning. The other man in question --apparently a visiting botanist from Europe-- was further ahead of them on the trail, hunkered down in front of a tree while he and Duck chatted.

“I guess it’s hard to schedule when you’re an FBI agent.”

“Yeah. I know handling those break-ins are important, especially when they might have to do with his case, but I miss seeing him at the shop.” Barclay sighed, brushing away a leaf that had fluttered down onto his shoulder, readjusting his scarf. 

“If you don’t mind my askin’, um.. what exactly are you two gonna do when he finishes this case of his anyway? Y’all ain’t very serious yet I’m guessin’, do you really see either of you moving when it’s over?”

“Gonna be real with you, Duck, I have no fucking clue. I dunno how serious I want us to be, I just know I like him. So, I guess we’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it. Maybe we can be long distance for a while or something.” Barclay shrugged, hands in his pockets. “What about you and Minerva? Because you can’t tell me there’s not something there.”

 While they were on the topic of relationships, he might as well ask. Duck blushed and shrugged, a small smile on his lips. 

“Oh, well... I respect her a lot, y’know? I know I fussed a lot about her early on, but we actually got to talking, --and it’s not really my place to talk specifics-- and she’s been through some real hard shit. She’s had to make some really tough decisions in her life, and it’s taken her a long time to heal. It’s really made me see her in a different light.”

“So, you just respect her a whole bunch, do you?” Barclay teased, Duck’s face deepening in shade all the way to his ears as the barista nudged him with his elbow.

“Y’know, I’m not even gonna try to tell you otherwise, because you know how well that’s gonna go.” Duck adjusted his jacket as a stiff breeze blew around them. “Yeah, I like her. She’s an awesome human being and her enthusiasm grows on you. We’ve had a couple of dinners together, it’s been really nice. I mean, it’s nothin’ serious yet, but can’t stop a guy from hoping.”

“I hope it works out for you, dude, she seems like a cool lady.” He nodded, deciding to lay off his friend, least Duck get any redder. Instead, he turned his attention to the man they were accompanying, the fellow in question now putting samples into a bag he’d brought with him. “So who is this guy again, and what is he doing to that tree?”

“His name is William Ziegenfuss, though I’ve kinda taken to calling him Billy. He’s a botanist out of Germany studying cankers in Eastern Cottonwoods to help better fight the disease in Black Poplars back in Europe. I’ve been putting him up for about a week at my place. He’s been chill.” Duck nodded as they watched Billy take notes, still squatting in front of his bag.

“I bet you’re loving having someone around you can talk about trees with.”

“I mean, I would if we actually... talked. I think he understands a good amount of English, but he only speaks like two words of it. He’s got this app that he uses to translate, but it doesn’t work half the time without signal. Still, he’s pretty polite, and actually wicked good at video games. We bond over him beating my ass at Mario Kart.”

“And he just happens to look like Ryan Gosling.” 

“And he looks like Ryan Gosling, yeah.”

“Any relation there, or...”

“Not that I know of.”

“Huh. Weird.”

“Duck!” Billy came trotting over, grinning widely as he clutched his bag, the man practically bouncing on his toes.

“Hey Billy, did you get what you were looking for today?” The other man nodded, glancing at Barclay curiously, the barista smiling back. “Awesome. Well, just let me finish my patrol and we can get your samples back to the apartment and then have some dinner. Sound good?”

The man nodded again, falling into step behind Barclay and Duck. The ranger looked to Barclay. “Don’t let me hold you up on your walk if you had somewhere to be, dude.”

“Naw, I was just meandering. I like walking and chatting with someone better than being by myself anyway.” Duck nodded, satisfied that he wasn’t inconveniencing his friend.

They continued into the forest with little interruption, chatting about the weather lately and how it would be skiing season soon. That would be less of Duck’s problem, since few tourists wanted to be camping when it snowed, but he did have to keep an eye out for the hunters now that buck season was approaching. 

Almost to the end of Duck’s patrol, they overheard voices in the distance, the ranger sighing. 

“Hold up, I gotta go check this out. We’ve been havin’ some issues with troublemakers out here lately. Y’all stay back a ways.” Barclay and Billy held back, following Duck as he tramped out towards a clearing in the woods. Once they were close enough, Barclay could make out a group of dirt bikes propped against a cluster of trees, their owners not far off.

The five of them were laughing and tossing a bag of chips between them, their leather jackets bearing a distinctive insignia of the Hornets on the back. They looked up when they heard the ranger and company approach.

“Aw shit, it’s the park narc. Let’s pack it in, y’all.” Barclay recognized a few of the closer members, namely their leader Hollis, who’s face twisted into a grimace as they spotted Duck.

“Hey, y’all can’t be riding those out here! This area isn’t cleared for motorized vehicle use due to erosion!” Duck started jogging towards the gang as they quickly hurried to their bikes. “Hey, stop!”

Barclay came up behind Duck as the ranger ran faster, but it was too late. The Hornets jumped on their bikes, bringing them to life and tearing out of the clearing and into the woods. 

One of them looked over his shoulder just as Barclay got close enough to make out the rest of their faces, he and Duck still running after them. Who he saw made him stumble, their eyes meeting for just a split second of mutual recognition.

Duck stopped just ahead of him once the Hornets disappeared deeper into the woods, out of breath, his hands on his knees.

“Man, I dunno why I thought chasing them was a good idea,” Duck wheezed, doubling back to Barclay. Billy finally caught up with them, cradling his bag and looking unsure of what was going on. Duck looked to the barista, his expression grim. “Hey Barclay, was that...”

“Yeah...” Barclay’s heart was in his stomach as he nodded, swallowing thickly. “That was Jake.”


 

“Hey bud, do you think we could talk in the back office for a sec before you head out?” 

It had been a couple of days since Barclay had seen Jake riding with the Hornets in the woods, their work schedules only now coming together. Jake had been quiet and uncomfortable their entire shift together, hastily grabbing his stuff when he got off, but Barclay caught him before he could get out the door. He looked like he wanted to bolt anyway and the assistant manager wasn’t going to stop him if he did, but he’d been worried about the young man.

Jake gripped his bag, not meeting Barclay’s eyes, seeming to be weighing his options on what to do. Barclay didn’t want to make him feel trapped, but they needed to talk about this.  After a moment, his jaw clenched, Jake nodded. “...‘Kay.”

With a small nod, Barclay led Jake to the back office, offering him the opposing chair as he sat at Mama’s desk. Jake dropped his bag by the door and flopped into the chair, hands shoved into the front pocket on his hoodie. It was so strange not to see him his usual bubbly self. 

“You gonna fire me for what you saw in the woods?” The kid mumbled, staring down at the floor. Barclay sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. It was always a little difficult being an authority figure, but he’d finagled it through being friendly but firm.

“No one’s firing you, Jake, I’m just worried. What’s going on? I thought you didn’t ride with the Hornets anymore. What happened to being safe?” He wanted to reach the young man, but Jake very obviously didn’t want to be having this conversation, scuffing his shoe on the floor.

“I’m being careful.” The way he almost pouted reminded that while Jake was technically an adult now, he was still very much a teenager as well.

“Jake, you were riding a dirt bike out in the woods when it was starting to get dark, in an area that specifically prohibits motorbikes. You can’t tell me that’s safe. What’s next, not wearing a helmet, or binding during strenuous exercise?”

“No! I’m not dumb. I can take care of myself.” Jake grit his teeth, fists scrunching his pants. He huffed softly. “You sound like my mom.”

Barclay sighed again, expression softening. Maybe he was going about this all wrong. Jake was his coworker and his friend, he shouldn’t be treating him like a kid. Getting up and pulling his chair around the desk, he sat closer to Jake in a way that was less authoritative and more just them having a conversation.

“I’m sorry, you’re right. You can take care of yourself. And you’ve been doing such a good job working here full-time and being so responsible at your age.” He’d seen Jake do his own shopping at Leo’s, and he had opted to go on the cafe’s health policy so it would be less of a burden on his mother. Jake was a good kid. “I just want to know what’s going on. I thought you were against the kind of trouble the Hornets get into.”

Jake shifted uncomfortably in his chair, eventually looking up to Barclay. He looked tired and sad, a look that didn’t fit his usually vital spirit. “I am.. But lately I feel like they’re all I have. All my other friends from high school are leaving for stuff like college, or other gigs. It sucks. Between that and the fact that my mom still doesn’t want to understand my gender, I just needed someone I knew would look out for me.”

“Jake, you know you can always talk with us here at the cafe.”

The young man shook his head. “...Everyone’s got other stuff going on, I feel like I’d just be butting in, talking about my problems. Aubrey and Dani are together and busy all the time, and now you have a boyfriend you’re focused on, and Mama never seems to have the same shift as me and I miss her. And I dunno how to talk to Indrid.”

“Yeah, he can take some getting used to.. But just because Dani and Aubrey and I have relationships doesn’t mean we don’t have time for our other friends, Jake. You’re an important part of this little family too. But...” Barclay sighed again, leaning back in his chair. “I can see why you’d want to have a social circle that isn’t at your job that’s more your own age too.”

Jake’s shoulders slumped, the young man nodding quietly. “Stuff’s been hard at home.”

“Do you wanna tell me about it?”

Jake fidgeted, rubbing his chest idly. “...My mom still doesn’t wanna acknowledge I’m a boy. She says she loves me and stuff, but she won’t call me by my right name or pronouns and always gets mad when I correct her. It hurts. She never acted like this when I told her I was pan.”

Barclay nodded, remembering how well being trans had gone over with his own family. Granted, Jake’s case was less explosive. His own experience had been the worst case scenario as far as coming out to family went, but he’d found that most people ended up somewhere in the middle of best and worst. “Yeah, that can be rough.”

“And what’s almost worse is that I know she does still love me and cares about me, she just thinks I’ll regret it and doesn’t want me to mess up my life. She doesn’t get that any life where I have to live as a girl is never gonna be a happy one.” Jake hunched up, sinking in his seat. “If she was mean and horrible and didn’t still love me, it would be awful, but I feel like it would be so much easier to not care what she thinks. But she’s not and I still love her too.”

“She’s your family and you know that she cares, it just hurts that she doesn’t understand how important this is to you and your mental health.” 

“Yeah... I wanna start T. I can without her consent now that I’m eighteen, but I’m scared of how she’ll react. What if she only still loves me because I’m not actually doing anything other than cutting my hair and binding. Once I start testosterone, there’s no going back. I dunno if it’s worth losing the only family I have.”

Barclay leaned back, looking up at the ceiling as he tried to recall what some of his other trans friends had said about this. For him, Jake was right; in a lot of ways it had been easier to transition knowing his family’s approval didn’t matter. All he’d had was himself and his friends, so doing what felt right for him was just easier to give priority. 

“I don’t talk about it a whole lot, but my family didn’t support me at all when I came out. It was really rough, but I kinda expected it and went in knowing it could be a possibility. My parents never really approved of anything I did with my life, so I already knew that this was going to be one more thing they could use to sign me off as a failure. But, your mom loves you and supports you and wants you to be happy, even if she doesn’t understand it. She probably doesn’t get it because she hasn’t been able to see how happy you are as yourself for long enough. It might just take time.”

Jake nodded, pulling his feet up into the chair and hugging his knees. “That makes sense I guess. If she really hated that I’m trans, she probably would have kicked me out by now. It’s just hard to be around all the time.”

“You were talking about moving out not too long ago, right? That still might be a good idea to give you both some space to do what you need to. She’s gotta process this and it’s probably not gonna be good for you to be around her while she does it.”

“I dunno. I’ve been thinking about it, but I don’t think I could handle living on my own super great. I get too wrapped up in my head on my own.” He glanced at Barclay again, squeezing his legs more tightly. “I can’t drive either, so I’d always have to rely on someone to take me places. Hollis offered to teach me so I can get my license and I think I’m gonna take them up on the offer.”

“Anyone here at the shop would be more than happy to spend time teaching you as well, Jake. Maybe we can trade off on giving you lessons.” Jack sat quietly for a long moment, Barclay letting him think.

“That’d be cool. I think I’m still gonna hang with the Hornets. I need people I can spend time with and just have fun, but I promise I’ll be careful. Make it clear that I'm not gonna participate in doing dangerous stuff.”

“Okay. You’re an adult, you can make that decision for yourself, Jake.” The barista glanced at the clock on the wall, getting up and patting Jake on the shoulder. “I’m gonna let you go, but just know we’re here if you need us, ok? You have my home number and the shop number, if you ever need to talk or need me to come get you, just call me and I’ll be there.”

“Okay. Thanks Barclay.” Jake gave him a small smile, unfolding from his chair and grabbing his bag. 

Barclay knew there wasn’t going to be any easy or perfect solution. This was life, and sometimes it was just hard like this. The younger man felt like he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, with choices that he felt could have consequences regardless of what he did. He watched Jake head out, putting his apron back on and getting back to work.

This wasn’t something he could just fix and have it be all better. Sometimes all he could do was offer his support and hope it worked out for the best.




Barclay spent his next day off at the library to distract from the many anxieties his life was taking on lately. It was always nice to just sit down and enjoy a book sometimes. Though admittedly, perhaps he had a bit of an ulterior motive as well. Joseph had stopped by the cafe as he was closing up a few days ago, finally letting him ask the man to dinner at his place, and Barclay wanted to make him something nice.

“I hope I’m not too late to engage in a little friendly chatter from the handsome barista closing tonight, am I?” Barclay had grinned at the sound of the man’s voice as the little bell above the door chimed. They were already closed, but Joseph had figured out at this point that Barclay didn’t lock up until he left, and was taking full advantage of that.

“Dunno, just how distracting do you think you’re gonna be?” Barclay mused, turning to face the man as he finished up for the night, wiping down counters. He set the rag down as Joseph approached, rounding the bar to greet his lover.

“Lover” sounded daring and risque, but it was the best thing he could currently think of to call them while they were at this stage in whatever they had going on. So far it involved a lot of kissing and not much talk about what exactly they were supposed to be, so lover it would stay until they had longer than a moment.

Stern slid his hands on Barclay’s hips as he approached, leaning up for a kiss. Barclay obliged, cupping the man’s cheek as their lips met. It had been a couple weeks since their first kiss and it still never got old. It wasn’t the sparks flying that it had been in that first moment, but they’d evolved as they learned each other’s touch. Barclay smiled softly, rubbing a thumb against Joseph’s jaw when they parted.

“You look tired.” He observed, noting the bags that were clinging under the man’s eyes with concern. Stern pulled a face, sighing.

“I am. This case is going about as smoothly as the roads into town.”

“Becoming familiar with the Route 250 Crater Pit, are you?” Barclay chuckled. One of these days the town would have to address the cluster of potholes coming into town, but they seemed to constantly be dragging their feet on it. “Sorry about the case though. Still no good witnesses for those break-ins?”

“Unfortunately. Other than a few shadowy glimpses through windows, the perpetrator has yet to even be seen. Whoever is doing this is very good at what they do.” 

Barclay stole another kiss from Joseph before returning to the cleaning. “Do you think it’s your guy, then?”

“Quite possibly. I feel like in such a small town, it would probably have to be someone people didn’t know, otherwise someone would see something suspicious among their neighbors a lot sooner.” Stern sighed, leaning against the bar as he waited for Barclay to finish up.

“Makes sense to me. Hopefully something will come up.” Now that the break-ins were the biggest thing anyone was talking about, Joseph’s presence in town was no longer the subtle influence it had been. The citizens wanted answers and it was running the agent ragged.

Once Barclay was done, he grabbed his coat, turning off the lights behind him and locking up as they left together. After turning the last key, Joseph cozied up to him in front of the shop, their breath easy to see in the chill. “Hey, lemme drive you to the motel. I know it’s not that far, but it’s cold.”

“I suppose I can’t argue with that.” Stern had followed him out to his truck, getting into the passenger side as Barclay cranked up the heat. They both shivered as the vehicle warmed up, Barclay wetting his lips as he pulled out of the parking lot.

“Hey um. Do you think you’ll have an evening sometime soon that you’re sure you won’t have to be working for?”

“I can make time if I really need to, why?”

“Well I was hoping I could maybe have you over for dinner sometime next week if you think you can make it. Figured you might appreciate a nice, home-cooked meal for once.” He pulled up to the motel, parking again in front of Stern’s door.

“Oh. I do admit that sounds lovely.” Joseph smiled, blushing as he got out, Barclay following behind. The pair walked in front of Joseph’s door, the agent taking Barclay’s hands. “Is this a date then?”

“I mean. Yeah. If you want it to be.” Barclay chuckled, giving Stern’s fingers a little squeeze.

“I’d like that very much.” And they were kissing again, Barclay leaning into it. Stern nipped his lip, earning a little gasp from the bigger man as he pushed deeper into the embrace. Once they parted, they were both rosy cheeked, and not just from the cold. Joseph met his eyes. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come in?”

Barclay’s throat tightened. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to. He very much did, but.. “Not.. not yet, if that’s okay. I want to, I do, but I don’t think I’m ready.”

“Of course.” Stern nodded quietly, smiling. 

Joseph had never shown any disappointment to Barclay turning him down, but the other man couldn’t help but still feel guilty about it. Hopefully, he’d be able to get more intimate with Joseph once they talked over dinner. He didn’t have any reason to believe that the man would react poorly to his being trans, but the nerves were still there and he wanted to come out to Stern in a controlled environment.

But, in the meantime, he still had to put a dinner together. He was thinking about trying to make something fancier than his usual fair, which was why he found himself in the cookbook section of the library, thumbing through the pages for something that might catch his interest.

“You know you can just find recipes online, right?” He was interrupted in the middle of reading some intricate form of chicken preparation by a bored looking teen staring at him from a chair, a book in her lap. He recognized her vaguely from around town, but couldn’t put a name to her face. The man shrugged.

“I prefer to have my recipe in the kitchen with me and I don’t have a printer. I’d have to go down to Jefferson Printing just to have the recipe, which costs money. Library’s free.”

“Just bring your laptop into the kitchen with you, duh.”

“I don’t have a laptop. Not enough places around town with open Wi-Fi to merit being able to have my computer with me.” The girl grimaced, scrunching up her nose.

“God, I hate this town.”

“Alexandra, you’re not bothering our guests, are you?” The awkward situation was adjourned by the librarian, the small woman peering at the two of them over her glasses. The teen scoffed.

“I was just talking to him, Janelle. Chill.” The librarian pursed her lips, apologizing to Barclay before walking over to the teen and talking to her in a calm, but firm tone.

Oh, that was right. If he remembered correctly, Janelle was Alexandra’s godmother. He’d heard about the girl’s unfortunate loss of her parents, but didn’t really know the details, just that she was from out of state and their local librarian had taken her in. It made sense that she’d have to hang around the library on occasion.

Once Janelle and Alexandra finished talking, the teen going back to her book, the librarian came back over to Barclay. “She’s still adjusting, is all. Were you looking for anything in particular today?”

“Oh, naw. Just browsing recipes. I’ve uh.. actually got a date tomorrow night that I want to cook something special for.” He grinned sheepishly. It felt a little silly how good it felt to say that, but spending time with Joseph just did that to him.

“Oh, well isn’t that fun. She must be a very special woman.” She patted his arm, the man hearing Alexandra snort behind them. The librarian left before he could correct her, and honestly he wasn’t sure he particularly wanted to open that can of worms anyway. He shot a glance at Alexandra, who just shrugged at him.

Picking out a few cookbooks he wanted to take with him, he sat for a while and cracked open a new novel from the recommended table, trying to decide if it was something he wanted to read. It ended up being a bit too rigidly cishet for his tastes, so he just put it back when he got ready to leave. 

On his way out, he spotted Aubrey chatting with Janelle, hearing a snippet of their conversation.

“But yeah, just let me know if she ever wants to talk. Because I’ve been there, you know? I know how devastating that can be.” 

Barclay had never gotten the full story of Aubrey’s life and frankly, he wasn’t about to pry. That was Aubrey’s business, even if he was curious. There were things in his own life he wasn’t particularly keen on talking about either, especially now that he felt like he’d turned over a page and much of that was behind him.

“I appreciate it, Aubrey. I’m not entirely sure she’s open to help just yet, but I’ll let her know she has the option.” Janelle nodded, glancing up at Barclay as he approached. “Are you ready to check out?”

“Yep! Hey Aubrey.” He grinned at his coworker as he put his cookbooks up on the counter, the young woman grinning back.

“Heeey Barclay. Whatcha checking out?” She peered at the booked he’d gotten, only to see the cookbooks and shooting him a curious look. “Getting reading for Thanksgiving early, or are you feeding a small army sometime soon.”

“FBI actually.” Barclay chuckled, tucking his books in a backpack he’d brought with him. 

“Oooooh, someone’s got a date?” Aubrey waved goodbye to Janelle, following Barclay out. “It’s still so wild to me that you guys made that happen. I mean, not that I doubted your ability or anything, it’s just so spy movie-esque. Handsome FBI agent comes into a sleepy town chasing an elusive criminal, and falls in love with the cute barista at a cafe there.”

“Well, I hope it doesn’t turn out exactly like a spy movie since most of the time the love interest gets kidnapped or killed to get at the agent. Besides, we never did the sauve one-liners on a dusky moonlit night thing. I think if we did, we wouldn't be able to stop laughing; it’s so cliche.” 

“From what you’ve told me, it sounds like he’s actually a total dork.”

 Surprisingly enough, --or perhaps not, the guy was pretty respectful-- Duck hadn’t been the one to share the news about Barclay and Joseph getting together with the rest of his friends. It wasn’t like Barclay was even planning on hiding it, but he’d thought he was subtle enough to play it cool after the party. Apparently he’d just been so smitten though, everyone knew something was up immediately when he went to work the next day.

“He is. I wouldn’t have expected it from my first impression of him, but he’s fun and easy to get along with.” They walked down the street side by side, without any particular destination in mind.

“I’m glad you guys are hitting it off so well.” There was a hitch in Aubrey’s voice that caught his attention, the young woman rubbing her own arm. Barclay frowned.

“Something up?” He hadn’t really talked much with Dani about her and Aubrey’s relationship lately, admittedly somewhat caught up in his own fledgling romance, but he had thought they were doing fine. They didn’t seem to be acting any different at the shop; had he possibly missed something?

“I mean. No, not really? Well... actually I dunno. Dani’s just been kinda distant lately. Not all the time, but enough to make me worry, y’know? Sometimes life can just be like that and I know relationships aren’t always gonna be rose-colored. But whenever I ask, she says she’s fine, even though I know she’s not. I dunno if she’s told you anything, or if she like.. has a history of seasonal depression, which in that case I will definitely be getting her a sun lamp, but.. Yeah..”

“She’s not talked to me about anything regarding y’all lately..” Now that he thought about it though, there had been a few flashes of melancholy he’d caught from her the last couple of weeks. “And I don’t think she has seasonal depression, but she might.”

“Do you think you could like.. talk to her? I want her to be comfortable talking to me if something’s upsetting her, but if it’s about me, I’d get why she might not want to. I’m not even asking that you tell me what she says, I just want her to be okay. I know you guys are good friends.”

“I’ll see what I can do, Aubrey. When Dani doesn’t feel like talking about something, she won’t until she’s ready, for better or for worse. But it’s about time we hung out anyway, so I’ll see if I can find out what’s up.” He nodded, Aubrey giving him a grateful little smile

“Thanks Barclay. Soooo, back to your date with Stern. What are you thinking about making? Are you gonna dress up? Because you know he’s gonna dress up all fancy. Wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls out a tux.”

“Excuse me, Joseph is perfectly capable of dressing casually.” Barclay tutted in mock indignation for his lover. If he was being honest though, she probably wasn’t too far off with that assessment. While Stern could dress down, he didn’t think he would for their first official romantic date.

“Yeah, but it’s a date . You know Mr. Buttoned-Up is gonna be all formal about it. Ten bucks he brings you chocolate and flowers.”

“I dunno, do you think I look like the kind of date you’d bring flowers?”

“Are you saying you don’t want flowers?”

“Not at all, I love flowers. It’s just that no one I’ve ever been in a relationship with has thought to get them for me, so I figured it’s that they assume I’ll see it as a feminine gesture and they’d be insulting me.” Barclay shrugged.

“Well, if he does bring you something like that, I’m sure that’s not how he means it. He just seems sweet and kinda traditional.”

“He uh...” Barclay adjusted his scarf, clearing his throat. “He doesn’t know I’m trans yet.”

“Wait, really? Huh. I figured that cat was already out of the bag. The way you guys act around each other, I thought you were already, y’know.” She made a crude gesture with her hand, Barclay blushing, which she took notice of. “Not that your sex life is any of my business, of course.”

“No, I haven’t told him. I’m planning to at dinner tomorrow. I think it should go pretty well, I have no reason to believe he’d be against my being trans, but I’ve been wrong before.”

“I mean, he’s respectful of Jake when they’re both at the cafe. Calls him Mr. Coolice and everything. I think you’ll probably be fine.” She nudged him reassuringly, Barclay appreciating the thought. He nodded.

“Hope so.” They walked in companionable silence until they made it to the intersection that would lead them in different directions back to their apartments.

“Well, I gotta get home to feed Dr. Harris Bonkers, PhD, but I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Alright, see you Aubrey.”

Now, he had some cookbooks to go read. He was going to do his best to make a good meal for his date, no matter how the rest of the evening went.


 

Joseph didn’t bring flowers or chocolate, but he did bring wine, something that Barclay was grateful for, considering a wine had completely slipped his mind. Barclay turned the bottle in his hands to read the label as the agent hung up his long coat. It had a sunflower leaning on a corkscrew on the front.

“I hope that’s alright. I actually picked the bottle up on my way into town when I first got here from a charming little vineyard in Renick. Apparently it’s very similar to a Beaujolais, made with the Maréchal Foch breed of grapes. I believe they said it was a French hybrid.”

“I’m gonna be real with you, I don’t know anything about wine beyond the basic pairings.” Barclay chuckled, his gaze catching just what Stern was wearing. It wasn’t a tuxedo like Aubrey had joked about, but did look very similar to what he wore for work, but without the tie. He’d even ventured to pop the top button open, exposing the hollow of his throat. He looked really nice.

After much deliberation, Barclay had decided to wear his best red plaid flannel, substituting his usual jeans with a pair of much nicer khakis. He’d still felt a little underdressed, but his actual formalwear he’d only ever worn to weddings and funerals, and felt like it was too much for a dinner date at home. Seeing Joseph wasn’t dressed to the nines either helped put him at ease.

“It’s all a bit pretentious anyway, but good to know for formal events.” Joseph mused, sliding up to Barclay after he set the bottle down and pressing a kiss to his lips. “Thank you for having me.”

“Glad to have you, you seemed like you could use a break.” Barclay chuckled, stealing another kiss before he returned to what he was working on over the stove. “I’m making a pumpkin and goat cheese risotto, with cranberry spinach salad on the side, and rolls if that sounds good to you.”

“Oh, that sounds fantastic. Smells fantastic as well. Is there anything I can do to help with the meal? I know I’m a little early.” He approached the kitchen hesitantly, like he wasn’t sure he was allowed in Barclay’s realm, but the bigger man waved him in.

“Never turn down help. I’ve gotta keep an eye on this, but if you wanna pour us some glasses of wine and toss the salad, that would be great.” Barclay had never understood the mentality of making someone wait for a meal while doing all the work yourself. He’d always found cooking with someone else far more intimate than a partner awkwardly waiting around on the sofa while he cooked.

“Alright, that sounds doable.” Joseph nodded, pulling off his blazer as well, draping over the back of a chair and rolling up his sleeves, getting to work. He got them both a glass of wine, handing Barclay his, and taking a moment to have a contemplative swig. Apparently, it was to his liking because he nodded as he got to tossing the salad. “It’s nice. Has a nice medium body with berry tones.”

Barclay had a sip of his own glass as well, trying to see if he could figure out what Joseph was talking about. To him, it just tasted like a nice red and that’s really all he needed. “Yeah, I’ve always loved supporting local. I stopped at all sorts of vineyards and breweries when I traveled. The culture surrounding them is always really neat and homegrown.”

“Yes, I’ve been to a number as well, when time allowed. Fancy French wines are all fine and good, but some of these little wineries you wouldn’t get to taste their product anywhere else.”

“I actually stopped at this really cool little meadery out of Floyd, Virginia not long before I ended up here. Black Snake Meadery I think it was. They sold their stuff in the surrounding area, but the meadery itself was only open on Saturdays and I got kinda lucky to have the days line up right. They were all really good, I didn’t expect to like mead so much, it’s very sweet.” 

Barclay recalled, remembering chatting with the woman who had run the business on her porch over the tasting. “She actually advised me to go on one of the best hikes I’ve been on in a while on Buffalo Mountain. Real rough trail, but worth the full 360° view. You could see all the way to Pilot Mountain in North Carolina on a clear day.”

“Wow, that sounds lovely. I’m not the most adept hiker, but I’ve certainly had to for cases. Especially this one. There’s quite a bit of ground to cover out here. I suspect my calves will be twice as thick by the end of it.” Joseph chuckled, putting the salad to the side as Barclay finished the risotto, pulling the rolls out of the oven.

“Yeah..” When the case was over. He wasn’t sure if that was a topic he was ready to bring up tonight. He already had nerves about coming out to the agent, and wasn’t sure he could stomach the future of their relationship on top of that. One step at a time.

They plated up and had a seat at the little table Barclay had in his kitchen with their food and glasses of wine. It wasn’t the biggest, but it was cozy and had good lighting, so that’s really all he could ask for in a home. He gestured at Stern when he noticed the man eyeing his food hungrily but patiently waiting for his host. 

“By all means, tuck in.” 

They ate and chatted for almost an hour, Barclay feeling a flush of pride over how much his partner enjoyed his cooking. They talked more about their travels and the things they’d experienced out on the road. It was amazing how similar some of it could be from restaurants yo locals.

He’d been living when he’d traveled. It had felt so freeing when he’s started, though now he slowly had recognized he was doing some running away too. He’d been fresh off his break up with Thomas, and unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, and the allure of a van and the open road had spoken to him. He thought he would be able to keep doing that indefinitely, and if he hadn’t broken down in Kepler, he suspected he actually would have until something far more serious stopped him.

Still, his travels were fond memories, with the occasional bad ones. He’d had a lot of experiences and conversations and encounters that he would likely carry with him for the rest of his life, and he lived his life more fully because of them.

As they neared the end of dinner, their plates cleaned, Barclay felt the anxiety of what was to come next settle in. He needed to do it. Trying to hide his identity would likely end poorly if he tried to keep at it, and it just felt wrong on top of that. This wasn’t a part of himself he wanted to hide from Joseph. The barista swallowed thickly.

“Hey, Joseph. There’s um.. actually something I wanted to talk with you about.”

“Oh?” Stern blinked at him owlishly, his brows coming together with worry. “Nothing bad I hope?”

“No, no, I mean.. I hope not. But um.. It’s something that I maybe should have told you sooner, but I didn’t even know if you liked guys and then the party happened and I just didn’t even know how to bring it up and-” He was getting a little wrapped around his own tongue, but was pulled out from it when he felt Joseph’s hand on his own on the table. Looking up, he saw nothing but compassion from Stern.

“Deep breaths, Barclay. It’s okay. You can tell me.” 

Barclay nodded, considering his words carefully as he rubbed his thumb against Stern’s hand and mentally preparing for this to go a number of ways all at once. His stomach was in knots.

And then the phone rang. Because of course it did.

“Shit.” They both blinked, looking to the adjoining room where it was ringing. The barista moved to get up to answer it.

“Can you let it go to voicemail?”

“Probably not. Jake’s been going through some rough stuff at home and I told him to call me if he needed anything, so I need to make sure everything’s fine. We aren’t done with this conversation though.”

“I understand completely. Take your time.”

Barclay hastily walked into his bedroom, hoping that it was just a telemarketer and he could get back to what he and Stern were talking about. His nerves were already frayed enough without an interruption. He picked up the phone.

“Hello?”

Several minutes later, he practically sprinted from the bedroom to the coat rack, grabbing his jacket, eyes wide and heart pounding. Joseph looked startled, standing quickly and rushing over. He grabbed Barclay’s arms while the other man was already halfway into his coat, getting Barclay to look at him. All he found was fear and panic.

“Barclay, who was it? What’s going on?”

Barclay’s head was spinning, and his mouth was dry, only able to anchor himself in Joseph’s eyes. He took a shuddering breath.

“Someone broke into Mama’s house and attacked her. She’s in the hospital.”

Chapter Text

The trip to the hospital was a blur.

Joseph had driven him to the St. Francis Medical Center after deeming Barclay too panicked to drive, which was probably a good call. The whole time all he could think about was what kind of state they’d find Mama in. Over the phone, all they’d been able to tell him was that she was unstable.

He’d thought he’d understood what it would mean to be one of Mama’s emergency contacts. Mama didn’t have family in the area, so she’d asked him a few years back to be one of her contacts if something ever happened to her. But he’d always expected it would be getting called if she’d been in a fender-bender, or someone broke into the shop; never something like this.

He was grateful for Joseph’s presence. When they got to the hospital, Barclay was still in full on panic-mode, having a hard time articulating who he was there to see and who he was. Stern was by his side the entire time, helping to clarify what they were here for with little fuss. 

They were told Mama was in surgery, were brought to a waiting room, and left there. He was still terrified, but it gave him a moment to breathe, Joseph gently rubbing slow circles on his back.

“Can’t they tell us what’s happening?” Barclay rubbed his eyes, trying to calm himself down. He hated this. He hated not knowing what was going on with someone so important in his life and if she was okay.

“They’ll tell us when they know something, Barclay. Mama’s a hardy woman, she’ll pull through this.” Stern kept glancing up to the door, but Barclay wasn’t really in the presence of mind to wonder why until more familiar faces came rushing into the waiting room.

“What’s her status?” Aubrey and Dani hurried in, haphazardly bundled up for the cold, noticing the other couple quickly and making a beeline for them. Dani looked as worried and scared as he felt, while Aubrey just looked shell-shocked.

“We don’t know yet, she’s in surgery and they won’t give us many details.” Joseph answered calmly, gesturing for the girls to sit near them. He stood once Dani had a seat on Barclay’s other side, Aubrey beside her. “Actually, now that you’re here, I’m going to go meet up with the police and see what I can find out. I’ll be back later, though I can’t say how long.”

“I don’t plan on going anywhere until I know she’s gonna be okay.” Barclay replied quietly, Joseph squeezing his shoulder. In the back of his mind, he realized that Stern had been waiting for someone else to get here to be with Barclay before he left, something he would appreciate later when he was able to process it.

“She’s going to be alright, Barclay. I’ll try to be back soon.” He kissed the top of the barista’s head, leaving him with Dani and Aubrey. Dani watched him go, looking back at Barclay as a look of realization crossed her face. No doubt she’d just figured out why Stern was there in the first place.

“Shit dude, you were on your date, weren’t you.”

“....Yeah. It’s fine. I’m honestly glad he was there,” He sighed, holding his head in his hands. How had such a nice night done a complete 180° like this? “I was freaking out, so he drove. If we need to go somewhere else, I might need a ride. Not that I plan on leaving.”

“Of course, dude. I don’t plan on leaving either.” She nodded quietly, looking up at the clock on the wall. “How long has she been in there?”

“They said it’d been about an hour when I got here, and that was thirty minutes ago.” He wished he knew what they were even doing, but he supposed he’d rather have the doctor in there helping her rather than out here talking to them.

“Aubrey? Heyheyhey, it’s okay, babe. She’s gonna be okay.” Barclay looked over at the sound of Dani’s voice, seeing her holding her girlfriend comfortingly and petting her hair. Aubrey had started to cry, the shock apparently finally wearing off.

“It’s happening again. W-why does this keep happening?” She stuttered, pressing her face into Dani’s shoulder. It made Barclay's chest clench. He got up, moving so he could sit on her other side and wrapping them both in a big hug, not sure what else to do. “I.. I can’t lose someone else..”

“We’re not gonna lose her. You know Mama. Even if death came a knocking, she’d just punch him in the face for even thinking about it.” Dani murmured, Barclay nodding in agreement. Aubrey didn’t seem able to respond beyond choked tears, but that was okay.

They stayed like that for a long while, wrapped up in each other’s arms, murmuring comfort and support. It had been originally to help Aubrey, but Barclay found he needed it just as much. They all did.

After about an hour more, Aubrey had fallen asleep against Dani, so Barclay unfurled, his body starting to ache. He glanced up at the clock, seeing it was about 2am. “I’m gonna go get some air and see if I can find a vending machine or something. Do you want anything if I do?”

“Okay, I’ll let you know if the doctor comes out while you’re gone. Just a coke or something is fine,” Dani replied quietly, not wanting to wake Aubrey. Barclay nodded, wandering down the halls. 

He found a soda machine, but all it did was eat his money, much to his frustration. He felt the urge to kick the damn thing, but thought better of it. Last thing they needed was having him admitted for a broken foot right now. So, defeated, he headed out the entrance to get some of the cool night air in his lungs. Upon stepping outside, he discovered he wasn’t alone.

Duck was leaning against a pillar, a Taco Bell bag at his feet, as well as a cardboard drink carrier filled with coffee cups. A cigarette hung between his lips, the man straightening when he saw Barclay come out.

“Hey dude. I heard about what happened over the radio; how she’s doing? I was about to head in to find you.”

“We dunno yet, she’s still in the OR.” He raised an eyebrow at the ranger’s cigarette. “I thought you quit.”

“Please, like everyone couldn’t use a smoke after a night like tonight. It’s not like I bought a pack, I just bummed one off a guy at Taco Bell.” Duck huffed, flicking the ashes off it and exhaling away from Barclay. “Like you don’t partake in a little combustible herbargy yourself sometimes.”

“Eh, fair enough. Tobacco's way worse for you though.”

“Dude, don’t. Not tonight, okay?” 

“Okay, okay. Sorry.” Duck shot him a glare, Barclay putting up his hands in surrender before sticking them in his pockets. 

After a minute, the ranger finished his smoke, stubbing out his cigarette butt on the bottom of his shoe and picking up the bag and tray, holding them out to Barclay. “These are for y’all. Figured you could use it. Obviously, the drinks aren’t as nice as you could make at the cafe, but coffee’s coffee.”

“Aw Duck, you’re a lifesaver. Here, lemme-” Barclay went for his wallet, but Duck stopped him.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on me.” The ranger checked his watch with a sigh once he was relieved of his gifts. “I gotta get back to the station. I’m still on my shift, but it’s been a quiet enough night that I don’t think anyone’s gonna badger me for steppin’ away for a little. I’ll try to be back to visit when the sun’s out. Hopefully, she’ll be in recovery by then.”

“Alright Duck. Thanks again. If we miss you, I’ll give you a call to let you know what’s up. Have a good rest of your night.” He nodded goodbye as Duck waved and crossed the dark and quiet parking lot back to his vehicle. Coffee and food in tow, Barclay headed back inside.

“Is that coffee?” Dani sat up when he came back, Aubrey blinking sleepily beside her, Dani’s hoodie draped on top of her like a blanket.

“Yeah, Duck brought them by. He’s still on his shift, so he had to run, but he said he’ll be back later.” Barclay nodded, nudging aside some magazines on a table to put the carrier down before rifling through the bag.

“Looks like he got us a bunch of those those value beef and cheese burritos, a couple bags of doritos, and a veggie power bowl. Who wants what?”

They split the food among themselves, eating quietly and drinking their coffee. After she’d finished her food, Aubrey sighed, her shoulder’s sagging. It looked like she wanted to say something, clutching her paper cup. She took a breath.

“I lost my mom several years ago. Someone broke into our house on the night of my eighteenth birthday. There was a fire and she didn’t make it out.” Aubrey’s voice wobbling as she spoke. “I blamed myself so much for that night. I always felt like if I’d done something differently, it might have not happened.”

This was news to him. Barclay looked up to Dani, her expression telling him this wasn’t new information to her, just taking her girlfriend’s hand instead.

“Aubrey, that wasn’t your fault, and this isn’t either.” He replied quietly, rubbing her shoulder comfortingly.

“I know. It took a lot of therapy for me to accept that, but I do okay with it now.” She nodded, putting her cup down. “I know there’s not anything I could have done to make sure this didn’t happen to Mama either. It just feels like bad things follow me sometimes.”

Before Barclay could say anything on that, he heard someone step into the waiting room, looking up to find that Joseph had returned. Considering how suddenly he’d entered, Barclay wondered if he’d maybe overheard some of their conversation.

“Sorry if I was interrupting something. I’ve just finished up with the police, at least for now.” 

“No, we’re good.” Aubrey piped up, making it clear she was done talking. Stern nodded and walked over, eyeing the last cup of coffee on the table curiously. Barclay made an inviting gesture towards the drink indicating Joseph could take it.

“Duck brought them. You’re free to have the last one, if you don’t mind Taco Bell coffee.” Joseph accepted gratefully, taking the cup and a ludicrous number of sugars and creamer from the middle of the carrier. 

Popping the lid, he had a seat and systematically dump them all into the dark fluid. There was something comforting about seeing Joseph still had a specific way he liked his coffee, even in troubled times. The agent took a sip of his doctored drink, scrunching his nose despite his additions.

“I don’t know if any amount of sugar can save that. I think I’ve been spoiled by your delicious handywork.” He straightened, aware that everyone was looking to him for answers now. “I’m sure you all want the news.”

Joseph looked so tired, like how Barclay often saw him when the topic of the grim work he had to do for his job came up, his lips a tight line. 

“It looks like it was a B&E gone very bad. If this is the person responsible for the other recent break-ins, this time they were more desperate than they have been before. Usually, they’re very careful to make sure no one is home. I don’t know if they thought Ms. Cobb was elsewhere or just didn’t care, but they definitely got more than they bargained for. There was evidence that Ms. Cobb fought back tooth and claw and did a good deal of damage to the perp.”

“Damn right she did.” Dani hissed softly. It was no surprise to them that Mama had done a fair share of damage to her attacker. Mama was many things, but an easy victim was not one of them.

“She probably could have taken the invader without much issue if her dogs hadn’t been crated for the night. Her left wrist was shattered, and she also sustained two punctures to the abdomen with what we’re assuming was a knife. Her attacker definitely didn’t get off easy though, considering two severed fingers were found in her home that very clearly didn’t belong to her. They will be sent to a lab for processing, so hopefully we’ll be getting some kind of information soon. Only thing better than a fingerprint in cases like these is getting the entire finger.” Stern looked bitterly impressed, while Barclay could only feel a mixture of horrified and proud. 

“Holy shit.” 

“Indeed. And still after all that, she managed to get to a phone, call emergency services, and coherently inform them what happened before she lost consciousness. Between that and the fact that gut wounds don’t tend to be immediately fatal as long as an artery isn’t severed gives me hope that she’s pull through. That said, they probably have a lot of work to do.”

He was still worried, of course he was, but having answers was a relief. Barclay rubbed his face, feeling exhaustion beginning to set in despite the coffee. Between the stress and the late hour, his energy was flagging. Joseph rested his hand on his, Barclay carefully intertwining their fingers. The agent gave him a little squeeze and a tired smile.

“Are you even supposed to be telling this stuff, dude?” Dani asked, stifling a yawn. Everyone looked wiped out, to no one’s surprise.

“Hm. No, I suppose not, considering you’re not next of kin. But you’re close enough, I felt you were owed something in the way of answers.”

“What about Mama’s dogs?” Aubrey asked, having somehow managed to wrap Dani’s jacket around the both of them now that they were settling in for the long haul.

“They’ve been taken to the local vet. I made the call myself and they were kind enough to hold them free for a couple of days after they heard what had happened. It’s probably a good idea to get them checked over anyway. I doubt they were harmed from within their crates, but it’s better safe than sorry.”

“Gonna have to bring those folks a gift basket or something when I go and pick them up.” Barclay mumbled, trying to figure out just what he was supposed to do with Mama’s three big dogs in his little apartment. Eventually, they’d probably bring them back to Mama’s home and rotate on housesitting until Mama was back on her feet, but he imagined it was something of an active crime scene right now. 

“Well, don’t worry about them too much right now. They’re in capable hands.” Joseph assured him, reaching out and brushing a strand of hair that had escaped his hair tie behind his ear. “You look tired. You should try to sleep.”

He was tired and had something of a headache, but it didn’t feel right sleeping when Mama’s status was still unknown. “But Mama-”

“It won’t do her any good if you run yourself ragged. I’ll be right here to wake you if the doctor comes in. Okay?” Joseph brushed a thumb against Barclay’s cheek, Barclay turning to kiss his palm.

“Yeah.. Okay.”

Getting comfortable, he yawned, sinking in his chair and leaning against Stern. Aubrey and Dani were already dozing off beside them, and soon all he could think about in his exhaustion was the tick of the clock on the wall and Joseph’s fingers gently brushing through his hair as he let sleep take hold.



She was alive. At least there was that.

He’d gotten a few hours of sleep when the doctor finally came in, Joseph nudging him awake, to inform them that Mama was now in recovery. She wasn’t awake and likely wouldn’t be for a while, but she was stable and that was really all that mattered at the moment.

The sleepy crew had shuffled into Mama’s room, though as they’d been warned, Mama was indeed unconscious. She had a gown on so they couldn’t really see what state she was in, other than the splint on her wrist where they’d presumably set her broken bones after sewing her up. 

They were informed that she was on a cocktail of antibiotics and while she was stable, the risk for infection was high as one of the stab wounds had punctured her intestines. It was grim news to hear, but it was better than what it could be. 

It would be a while before she woke up, so, after giving them some time with her, he’d suggested that Aubrey and Dani head home and get some sleep. They’d fussed about it, but had eventually given in, leaving just him and Joseph at Mama’s bedside.

“Let me take you home, you need rest too. They’ll call you when she wakes up.” Joseph urged him, squeezing Barclay’s shoulder. As much as he wanted to stay by her side, Barclay knew it was for the best to go home, at least for now. Joseph had driven after all, and he needed to make some phone calls. 

He was making the executive decision now to close the shop for a couple of days, and everyone would need to be informed. They had an emergency fund for times like these to ensure the employees got paid when the shop closed for unforeseen circumstances, so that was one less thing to worry about, but there was still much to do.

“Alright.”

He’d let Joseph take him home, the agent corralling him to take a shower instead of just falling asleep in his clothes, while Stern cleaned up from their date the night before. Barclay knew the man was probably just as tired as he was, if not more, yet here he was, looking out for Barclay.

While Barclay was in the shower, he couldn’t help but idly rub his scars on his chest. All the time in the hospital in the past twelve hours reminded him of the last time he’d spent a reasonable amount of time in one, concussion and a broken finger aside. 

His top surgery hadn’t been the most exciting affair, Thomas told him it took them four hours tops, and he’d woken up about thirty minutes after he’d been rolled out of the OR and groggily demanded to be taken home.

Barclay admittedly didn’t remember a whole lot of the first few days of his recovery, much of the memory blurred by the anaesthesia, especially that first day. He vaguely remembered being fed pudding, and making a dumb joke about being glad to get that off his chest, but little else. Thomas had driven him home, taken his phone and put him to bed.

The recovery had been nothing like he’d imagined, as he was sure no one really imagined surgery to be like until they had experienced. He certainly hadn’t expected to be so helpless in that first week, barely able to lift anything, walk without wobbling, or even pull his pants down without help.

Despite how they’d ended, Barclay was grateful Thomas had been there to take care of him in that time of need. It certainly wasn’t something he could have done alone.

“Man, this looks so nasty.” Barclay remembered grumbling as he looked at his still fresh scars in his bathroom mirror, Thomas helping him clear his drains. His skin was a mess of stitches and glue and purple marker, the flesh creased and puffy. He probably would be picking at it if he could actually move his arms well enough to do so. Small blessings that he couldn’t.

“Babe, you just got your chest flayed open and stitched back together, you’re gonna look nasty for a while.” Thomas chuckled, Barclay making a point to not watch his partner empty the bulbs that were filled with all manner of gross drainage.

“I see a bunch of guys online who have way better early scarring, are we sure it’s supposed to look like this?” He scrunched up his nose, admittedly not too keen on the rest of him as well. His belly was bloated from the painkillers, and he hadn’t been able to have a proper shower in several days.

“People who only have the best outcome post their early stuff online, Barclay. Don’t base your recovery on other people.” The shorter man tutted, raising an eyebrow at him. “And don’t act like you’re not happy to have your chest flat, your opinion on how you should be healing aside.”

“Mh. Yeah, ok fine. I do really like that I’m flat now, though I think it’s gonna take not having to wear the compression vest anymore for it to really sink it. Because it just kinda feels like a binder right now.” He mumbled, but was smiling nonetheless.

“Well, you’ve only got a month, and then you’ll be free to flaunt your flat chest in style. And by that, I mean you’ll hide it under a pile of flannel shirts never to be seen again.” Thomas snorted when Barclay stuck his tongue out at him.

“God, you’re gonna have to entertain me, I’m gonna be so bored sitting around and doing nothing for so long,” He grunted as his boyfriend finished recording his fluid output and began to help him back into his vest with the requisite padding. 

Once they’d stuffed his shirt, he zipped the man up, earning a yelp from Barclay as the zipper caught his stomach hair. “Oop, sorry babe. C’mon, let's get you back in bed.”

Barclay touched the scars once again in front of the mirror once he’d washed, sighing at the memory. He wasn’t sure how to feel about his relationship with Thomas anymore. They’d gotten on amazingly and if he’d actually been ready for such a commitment, he had little doubt he’d be Thomas’s husband by now.

He felt a not-insignificant amount of guilt over that. He’d matured a great deal in his travels and time in Kepler, no longer scared to settle and make a content life for himself, but he hadn’t done it soon enough to make Thomas happy. In all honesty, he wasn’t sure he would ever have if he had stayed in Washington.

His pondering brought his thoughts back to the man currently tidying his kitchen. What did he want with Joseph now that he’d found peace with living a settled life? There was always the ideal many had pictured when daydreaming about the future of their relationship, but somehow he got the feeling that that wouldn’t be possible with Joseph.

The man lived a life on the road; what they had now was on borrowed time until Joseph’s case came to an end, and then he would be moving onto the next one. Maybe they could make a long distance relationship work, but for how long without knowing when Joseph would finally come back to him for good?

But.. perhaps it was too early to even be considering such things. He hadn’t even managed to tell Stern about his nature yet, their conversation stowed in favor of dealing with the chaos of Mama’s attack. He supposed he could just go out and tell the man now, get it over with, but he was tired and didn’t trust himself to convey what he wanted to say properly.

It would have to wait for another day.

Slipping a shirt and boxers on, he returned to the kitchen to find Joseph finishing doing the last of the washing in the sink, his sleeves rolled. There was a domesticity to the scene, that yearning in his chest swelling for just a moment more. He came up behind the man, sliding his hands around Joseph’s waist and kissing his neck. Joseph stilled, humming appreciatively. 

“Do you wanna... I dunno, come take a nap with me? Bed’s plenty big and I don’t mind sharing.” He murmured, Joseph leaning his head back and looking at him with longing in his eyes.

"I'd love to, but I'm afraid I can't. I have to reconvene with the police soon and there are reports to be done." He kissed the underside of Barclay’s jaw, the barista grumbling into his shoulder, miffed that he couldn’t keep the man to himself.

“If you take too long to pull yourself away, I’ll come find you myself.”

“Duly noted.” Joseph chuckled, finishing the last plate and putting it on the rack before turning in Barclay’s arms. “Also, I wanted to thank you for dinner. I know the events of last night soured it somewhat, but I still had a lovely time.”

“Yeah, we’ll have to do it again when things aren’t so hectic.”

“I’d like that very much.”

After sharing another kiss, Joseph sent Barclay to bed, but only with the promise that he would try to get some sleep within the next twenty-four hours as well before taking his leave. Barclay slept restlessly, never having been one to nap during the day, but it was needed nonetheless.

When he’d awoken, he’d called his coworkers to tell them what had happened and that the cafe would be closed for at least a couple of days. He and Moira set up a time to work out the financials later, and then he found himself unsure of what else he was supposed to do. Sit and wait for a call he supposed.

He shuffled around his apartment for the rest of the day, doing some laundry and prepping a bag for when Mama did wake up. That way, he could stay with her longer, and not suffer from sleeping in his clothes in a waiting room overnight like he had the night before.

He found himself wishing he’d actually gotten himself a book for reading at the library, knowing he’d just be scrolling aimlessly and google medical information on Mama’s situation that would only make his anxiety worse if he got online. Had he really only been at the library two days ago? It seemed so far away now.

He eventually resigned himself to a few hours of daytime television before he finally got a call, the man scrambling to the phone. However, when he picked up, it was not a nurse like he had expected, but a far more familiar voice.

“Barclay, I know I’m probably not the one you were hoping to hear from, but I have news.” Joseph had an edge to his voice, but it wasn’t something he could assess without seeing the man.

“Oh?”

“It turns out there was another break-in last night, but this one was very different from the attack on Ms. Cobb. For one, it wasn’t a home, but the local pharmacy. Bandages and painkillers were stolen.”

“You think it’s our guy trying to patch himself up?” Barclay swallowed, shifting his grip on the phone.

“No, actually I don’t. This theft was clean and skilled, with no sign of forced entry or exit. The pharmacy didn’t even notice they’d been burgled until they took inventory.” He heard Joseph pause a moment for a breath. “Considering I doubt the perp would be in any state to carry out such a smooth and careful B&E without leaving DNA evidence everywhere, this can only leave me with one conclusion.”

“What’s that?”

“Ms. Cobb’s attacker isn’t working alone.”



“So you think that someone in town is helping this guy? Couldn’t he just have a partner who he came into town with?” Barclay watched Joseph pace the floor of his motel room, the barista sitting on one of the beds. He’d brought the agent one of his favorite mocha lattes, something the man seemed to need right now, and had gotten sucked into helping his lover talk through the newest information of the case.

It had been a couple of days since the break-in at the pharmacy and Barclay had barely seen hide nor hair of Joseph in that time, between all the chaos of Mama’s attack and Joseph being glued to the case now that he had something more to work with. The agent looked wired and drawn, his usual professionalism scattered in the face of what Barclay guessed had been several sleepless nights of work. Not that he’d been fairing much better.

“Potentially, but all the eyewitnesses accounts up until now, lacking as they are, only ever reported seeing a single male figure of the same height and build fleeing the scenes. If it had always been two, one would think they would be working together. Even if one of them was the thief and the other a getaway driver, someone would have noticed an out of place vehicle by now.” Joseph gestured with his paper cup as he talked, Barclay a little worried it would end up all over the floor if he wasn’t careful.

“Got me there, everyone noticed your car after you’d only been staying here a week.” Barclay nodded, sipping his own drink thoughtfully, as he glanced around the motel room. This wasn’t exactly what he’d thought he’d be doing the first time they were in Joseph’s motel room, but he was glad he could be helpful. It had obviously been draining the man as of late, the agent appearing progressively more stressed the deeper into the case he got.

“Exactly. This is such a tightly knit community, a car idling near any of the previous break-ins would have been noticed. So either the thief has been working alone up until recently, or has had a partner for a while, but regardless he’s likely with someone who’s lived in town long enough to not raise any suspicion.”

“I mean, I guess that makes sense.” Barclay frowned, trying to think of who that could even be. He rather doubted anyone in town would harbor someone who’d hurt Mama, but perhaps that was just wishful thinking. Mama was well-loved by most, but she had her fair share of folks who had caught her pointed tongue and temper through the years. Maybe someone held more of a grudge than he’d thought.

“What’s more, I have reason to believe that whoever’s working with the attacker has worked with him before, but at some point broke off from him until recently.” Joseph chewed his lip, Barclay eyes widening with surprise.

“Wait, really?” 

“Yes. There were always theories that the perp had a partner before I was ever put on the case. His modus operandi changed for about a year that suggested he might not have been working alone in that period. He may even have specifically sought out Kepler because he knew his old partner was here.”

The fact that the person helping the man who had attacked Mama might be someone he may have known for years made Barclay feel ill. He swallowed thickly, putting his coffee to the side. “So what does that mean now? You gotta get profiles on everyone or something?”

“Not so, we’ve actually had tabs on quite a few individuals who could potentially be involved for quite a while. Back when it was suspected that the perp was someone who might be living in the area, we pulled the backgrounds of anyone in Kepler with a criminal past or otherwise had suspicious history on their record. The agency had it pared down to about five, but now that we potentially have a more specific time frame, we’ve managed to get it down to two who matched the criteria. Granted, this is just one data alone.”

“Oh yeah? Anyone I know?” 

“Well...” Joseph expression faltered, giving himself away as a discomforted look crossed his face. Shit. The nausea grew in his throat, Barclay’s fingers curling in the blankets of the bed as he tried to think who it could be. 

“Can you tell me? Please? I need to know who’d willingly help someone who hurt Mama.”

“I can, but Barclay, you have to promise me you won’t do anything rash by my revealing this to you. This is still only speculation.” 

“Okay. I promise.” Barclay nodded, meeting Joseph’s eyes so he could see he was telling the truth. As much as he’d love to give whoever had hurt Mama what-for, he’d much rather see them rot in prison for the rest of his life. Joseph sighed, putting down his cup and finally stopping his pacing to lean against the wall.

“Well, our most likely suspect is Edmund Chicane.”

“Ned?” Barclay blinked in disbelief, his brows furrowed. “Really? I know he’s kinda kooky, but he’s pretty harmless. Pretty sure selling people stitched-together animal parts, while kinda gross, isn’t a crime.”

“Oh, there’s much more behind the curtain when it comes to Ned Chicane.” Joseph let out a bitter chuckle. “For all intended purposes, he didn’t exist before he came to Kepler. According to the locals, he just showed up one day at the Cryptonomica and began working there. Many speculated that he was family of the previous owner, but I found no such relation.”

“So the guy has a different name and showed up in town one day out of nowhere. So what?” He knew he should be handling this better, but he’d grown to like Ned and found it hard to believe the guy would be helping someone who had hurt Mama. Barclay grimaced. “So did I, and I’m not a suspect.”

He expected an immediate reassurance from Joseph but looked up when he heard none. The agent was pointedly looking away from him, his lips tight and body tense. Barclay felt his heart drop in his stomach. 

“Joseph? I’m.. I’m not, right?” He stood, pulse racing as he stood and approached the other man. Joseph still wouldn’t look at him, instead closing his eyes. This time Barclay really did feel like he was going to be sick.

“You.. are the other main candidate. I know it’s not you, but your background raises a lot of suspicion in the eyes of the FBI.” Joseph hissed through gritted teeth.

“...What are you talking about?” Barclay managed, taking a step back from Stern.

“Well, the year you traveled matches dates when it was estimated that the original thief had a partner. And what’s more, between what we’ve found through our own means and my conversations with you, you’ve been in two different cities coinciding with two separate crimes we believe to be perpetrated by this man.”

The color drained from Barclay’s face, having trouble with what he was hearing. “But.. you gotta know that was just coincidence, right? I would never do something like that, or help someone who did.”

“Of course I know that Barclay, I wouldn't be telling you if I thought otherwise. But my superiors don’t know you like I do.” Stern’s voice was soft, the man looking haggard as he clutched his arms tightly. “It doesn’t help that before your travels, you did your damnedest to erase every aspect of who you were before you were Barclay. Not that I can blame you in your particular circumstance.”

The words hit him like a punch in the gut, his mind reeling at the implication there. “You.. you know then.”

“About your transition? Yes, I know. I... have for quite a while.” Joseph managed a tight smile, his eyes soft and pleading for Barclay to understand. “And before you worry too much, it’s never been something I factored in how I feel about you. I never brought it up because I wanted you to be able to tell me when you were comfortable enough to.”

“Right.” Barclay sat back on the bed, a hand clasped over his mouth as he tried to process. The idea that Joseph never would have judged him for coming out was good to know, but it was a revelation that was dulled somewhat by the fact he hadn’t given that information willingly. It sat sour in his stomach, feeling like he’d been robbed of his choice, even if it was something he’d been so anxious to talk to Joseph about in the first place.

He could only wonder just what else Joseph knew about him. Probably far more than he’d care to admit, between the file and all the time they’d spent together. Actually, now that he thought about it, he didn’t have to wonder what Stern knew. A file could only hold so much from a cursory sweep and Joseph was a shrewd man. If he had really wanted to obtain information from Barclay, he would have done it first hand.

  And that’s exactly what he’d done. 

Barclay had told him about his life willingly without even thinking about it in their time together.

The haunting notion weighed heavily upon Barclay’s thoughts, the dawning horror quickly spreading. He recalled all the times Joseph had had his notebook out during their lunches together under the pretense of writing down dining recommendations, and how often they’d talked of his travels. How quickly he’d accepted invitations to get to know Barclay better... and how little Barclay actually knew about Joseph in return.

What could he even say he really knew about Joseph? That he was friendly, that he was Jewish, that he thought bigfoot was cool, that he had a sweet tooth, and that he traveled a lot for his work. Beyond that, Barclay knew nothing. He didn’t even know his age, or what his favorite food was.

Meanwhile, he’d shared so much of himself, all because Joseph had given him a friendly smile while wearing Barclay’s sweater and he’d been smitten beyond reason. 

“Barclay?” Barclay's eyes shot up to where Joseph was approaching the bed with a look of worry, the barista realizing he had begun to shake.

“How much of it was real?” He choked out, unable to calm the tremors as a flame of rage and heartbreak sparked in his chest.

“...Pardon?” Joseph looked taken aback, stopping where he stood in front of Barclay, fear creeping into his eyes. That made Barclay’s chest hurt, his words taking on a bitter tone.

“How much of us was real, Joseph? I was a suspect before you even knew me, apparently. So just how much of it was real, and how much of it was just to get information out of me?” He stood to his full height, staring down at the agent, hoping to find anything that might suggest his train of thought was wrong. What he found was that Joseph couldn’t even meet his eyes.

“I admit, I have regrets about my methods regarding how we got to know each other, Barclay. It was originally just to get information, but I... It was never.. It was never supposed to go as far as it did.” 

Barclay could barely contain the rising anger and sadness he felt shaking through his body. He wanted to scream and yell and cry, but he would be better than that. Still, a cold rage simmered just below his skin.

“So you regret our relationship.”

“I-”

“Actually, you know what? I don’t wanna know the answer to that,” Barclay interrupted, feeling like he’d break, one way or another, if Joseph said anything else. He was already so tired and stressed from everything else that was happening in his life, and this was just icing on the cake. “I need to go.”

Turning on his heel, he started towards the door at a quick and deliberate pace, not daring to look at Joseph when the man called out for him to stop. The agent didn’t make any move to detain him however, so Barclay just walked out, and kept walking, slamming the door behind him.

He didn’t stop until he’d gotten to the safety of his apartment, his anger having melted away only to leave the heartbreak. Falling into a kitchen chair, he stared at the bottle of wine that had been left on the table for his and Stern’s date the other night, forgotten. Sharing it together felt like a distant memory.

It was then that the brunt of what had just happened came down on him in full force. His throat tight and tears welling up behind his eyes, Barclay put his head in his hands and cried.

Chapter Text

“Dude, you look like shit.” Dani smiled at him sympathetically from the open door as Barclay tried to hold back three enthusiastic dogs behind him. He gave her a small smile in return, but his heart wasn’t really in it. It was nearing the end of the day and he’d had perhaps a little too much time to himself for most of it.

“Hey Dani.”

“Hey.. What’s wrong?” Dani’s smile faltered, her brows knitting together when she realized it wasn’t just exhaustion that had left him looking so drained, worry in her eyes. It had been about three days since his falling out with Joseph, and he was still hurting.

Fortunately, there had been much to distract himself with in the wake of Mama’s attack. He’d worked through the financials with Moira yesterday, likely to re-open the shop by the end of the week. All of their regulars had been understanding, many stopping Barclay when they saw him to ask how Mama was fairing.

Mama still hadn’t woken up beyond restless moments that lacked lucidity, but the doctors said that was to be expected with how much healing she had to do to recover from her trauma. Nonetheless, Barclay had been spending a great deal of time at the hospital with her, handling visitors and being her primary proxy for medical decisions in the meantime.

He’d also finally gone and picked up Mama’s dogs, who had been a handful in and of themselves. Cooper was pretty mellow, an old golden retriever in his twilight years, but Riley and Lacy were filled with boundless energy and it was only due to his size that he didn’t get bowled over daily by the rambunctious pit mixes. They would discuss the dogs’ future placement later once Mama had woken up and was able to give her input, but for now, Barclay was the best one to handle them.

With everything he was doing, he hadn’t had much time to spend with his friends, or really unpack what had happened between him and Joseph. Despite his attempts to push it to the back of his mind, he’s heart still felt raw from the events that had come to pass. It was good to see Dani though; he hadn’t been able to touch base with her since the first night at the hospital.

“Oh um..” He didn’t want to talk about it, but he also knew that he couldn’t just keep ignoring it either. He rubbed his jaw tiredly. “...Stern and I broke up, if you can even call it that. Apparently, we might not even have had a relationship to begin with.”

“Shit. Barclay, I’m so sorry.” Dani gave him a hug, which he returned quietly. It felt good to find comfort in a close friend. The young woman gave him a little squeeze before letting him go, eyeing the dogs who were whining at them from behind Barclay’s legs. “If you think you can leave the pups alone for a bit, I thought maybe we could go hang out on top of the car parking deck. Sounds like you could use it.”

“Yeah, that does sound pretty good right about now. I’ve been keyed up for days just thinking about Mama, much less... everything else. Lemme just grab my shoes and jacket.” Barclay nodded, pushing back through the dogs crowding his door and shutting it behind him. He did get what he said he was going to, but also slipped into his bedroom, fishing around in his underwear drawer until he extracted a plastic baggy, cramming it into his pocket. 

Ready to go, he waded through the dogs once more to join Dani. The woman saw his hands shoved in his pockets and raised an eyebrow at him, a cheeky smile on her lips. “You know I brought some, right? Nothing as fancy as the stuff you can get your hands on admittedly, so I’m not complaining, but still.”

“What? It’s a top-shelf kind of night. I’ve been saving this stuff for a rainy day and after everything we’ve been through, I think we deserve it.”

“Can’t argue with that.” 

They walked quietly to the car park, the evening air bracingly cold. They were quickly approaching December, and, while snow had yet to fall --it had been a dry year-- it would no doubt be on their doorstep soon enough. 

The peak of Mount Kepler was already white with the chemical snow of the machines, the skiing season having just begun. It was part of why, while Barclay would like to give everyone more time off, the cafe needed to open sooner than later. This was their busiest time of year and the first winter tourists were beginning to flood in.

After making sure they weren’t noticed by anyone, the pair headed up to the roof and, finagling their way to a spot where they wouldn’t be seen, before Barclay turned out his pockets. He took a moment to admire the bud, shaking it out of the bag, while Dani got out the rolling papers she’d brought, handing them to him. Getting high wasn’t something he particularly liked doing alone, so he generally saved it for good company. Rolling a joint and lighting it, he took a puff before passing it to Dani.

They sat for a few companionable minutes, appreciating the quality of the weed and letting the mellowing effects wash over them. It wasn’t enough to whip away all his worries, but it did aid in relaxing the tension he’d been carrying all week. He let out a sigh of smoke, getting comfortable against the cold concrete. 

“Probably gonna snow soon.” He commented, looking up to where the moon was rising, just barely a sliver of a waning crescent.

“Yeah, probably, though it’s definitely been late this year. This whole year has been weird weather wise. It was hot as fuck all summer and then suddenly it wasn’t.” Dani stretched her legs out, wiggling her feet in her boots. “Hey, we should start planning for our Christmas camping trip soon. December’s gonna be here before we know it, and you know we won’t have a whole lot of time to get that together once the tourists come in force.”

“Yeah, the year’s really bolted by all of a sudden. Do you have any spots in mind for this year?” 

Dani and Barclay had started a tradition about five years back to escape for the holidays, since neither of them had family they really wanted to spend time with. It was always cold as balls, but it was fun and winter camping allowed for them to enjoy the snowy scenery without the crush of other campers. They’d made the trek out to Blackwater Falls for their trip last year and it had been gorgeous, the falls frozen into massive ice structures.

“I’ve been thinking maybe Watoga State Park. It’s nothing as cool as the falls, but they have a bunch of nice trails that are supposed to be really pretty in the winter. It’s a little closer to home, but that might be for the best considering how we got stuck in that snowstorm last year. That way Mama won’t have to drive two hours to rescue our sorry asses-”

Dani caught herself, no doubt realizing that Mama wouldn’t be in any state this year to get them regardless. She frowned, tapping the blunt idly between her fingers.

“She’ll be okay, Dani.”

“I know. It’s just hard. Mama’s like family, y’know? She’s like if my mom actually gave a shit about me, and it’s scary to remember that bad things can happen to the people I care about. You always hear about it on the news and always associate those things with something that happens to other people. It’s easy to forget that sometimes you are other people. It’s no wonder Aubrey feels like she’s unlucky and scared of hurting people. Bad stuff keeps happening to her. Like.. fuck, Barclay.. Her mom died in a fire . That’s the shit people have nightmares about.”

“Yeah...”

“Seems like a lot of bad stuff has been happening lately. And I know it doesn’t directly involve me, but I’m counting what happened with you and Stern too. That’s gotta be rough on you. Did you wanna talk about that or...” Dani looked to him, taking in lungful of smoke before handing the joint back to him. 

“No, but it’s probably gonna fester if I don’t.” He leaned his head back, thinking back to that conversation in Joseph’s motel room. “I found out he only ever started to get to know me because he was profiling me. Between my legal transition and some dumb coincidences from when I was traveling, they pegged me as a suspect for the case.”

“Shit dude.” Dani grimaced, pressing her shoulder against his comfortingly. “That’s five different kinds of awful. Stern only getting to know you for information bad enough, but also that they think you’re a suspect for all this shit is really not good. Should we be worried?”

“I honestly don’t know. Maybe. I guess we’ll find out. Joseph said he knew that I wasn’t involved, but it sounded like his bosses might not feel the same way.” The possibility that he might be held accountable for Mama’s attack made him feel sick, and he didn’t even want to think about what that might mean for him. “Hopefully I didn’t fuck myself by giving Stern a peice of my mind about the shit he pulled. I’d like to think he’s not that cruel, but honestly, I’m not sure how much I actually knew him.”

“And here I thought the like.. ‘Spy seduces the love interest for information’ thing was just a dramatic movie trope. Didn’t know secret agents actually did that shit.” Dani scrunched up her nose, pulling her coat around herself a little more tightly as Barclay took a hit.

“I’m not actually sure his original intentions were to seduce me, just get to know me. He said he never meant to go as far as he did and that he regretted his methods, whatever the hell that means.” Barclay groaned, rubbing his face. “I’m just.. I’m mad. I’m mad that I didn’t see it. In retrospect, it’s kinda obvious. What I thought we had felt like something out of a romance novel, nothing ever actually works out that well for me.”

“Don’t talk like that, dude, you’re definitely worthy of love and affection. You’re one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met.” She nudged his foot with her own, giving him a soft smile. “Just because Stern turned out to be an ass doesn’t mean you should give up hope. Any guy would be lucky to have you.”

Barclay smirked a little, her words an echo from the past. “Now why does that sound familiar?”

“Because I learned my comforting skills from the best.” Dani mused, poking him teasingly, earning a small laugh from the man. “Seriously Barclay. You deserve all the happiness in the world, with someone who will treat you right. The reason you didn’t see Stern’s motives is because you’re kind and trusting and assumed you were getting the same in return. Those are good traits that you shouldn’t feel bad for having. Stern’s the one who fucked this up.”

“Yeah, I guess so. It just still hurts, but I guess that’s par for the course. I really liked him, y’know? Like fuck, I even imagined what a serious commited relationship could be like between us.” Barclay sighed again, grinding out the butt of their joint on the concrete. It wasn’t mellowing him out as much as he’d hoped, but it did make it feel less like he had a rock lodged in his chest. “Dunno who I’m kidding, it was never gonna work out anyway. He’s an FBI agent here on a case and when it’s over, he’ll be gone.”

“Mmh, yeah...” Dani’s gaze drifted to somewhere distant, catching Barclay’s attention. He recalled what Aubrey had brought up with him at the library before everything had gone to hell, remembering how concerned she’d been for her girlfriend.

“So, how are things with you and Aubrey lately? Aside from everything that’s been happening?”

“Fine, I guess.” Dani shrugged, looking down at her feet. 

“You guess?” He raised an eyebrow. Maybe there was something going on with her relationship.

“I mean...” She shrugged again, pulling her knees up and tugging her hoodie over them. “Just dealing with the fact that our relationship probably isn’t gonna last either.”

“What? Have y’all been having problems? Maybe I am just oblivious, I thought you guys were doing well.” His concern was palpable, mind racing to try to think of any sign he might have missed.

“No, we’re doing great. Aubrey is awesome, and honestly the best girlfriend I could ask for. She’s talented and goofy and affectionate and understanding and... I love her, Barclay. She makes my entire world so much brighter.” The young woman rested her chin on her knees. Barclay just blinked, confused.

“...Then what’s the problem? Because as far as I can tell, she’s just as crazy about you, Dani.”

“The fact that she is all those things, is the problem. She’s got a bright future ahead of her as a magician. It might just be gigs and public tv now, but she’s already catching the notice of more influential people. I want her to follow her dreams, and she’s not gonna be able to do that if she stays in Kepler. I don’t wanna be one more bad thing in her life.”

“I mean, I’d hate to see you leave, but you could always go with her, you know. You don’t have to stay in Kepler,” He pointed out, but Dani just shook her head.

“She would probably be traveling a lot, and it’s not like I have a job I can do on the go. I’d have to be dependant on her, and I don’t think I can be okay with that-- I’d feel like a burden to her. Besides.. I’ve lived here since I was five, Barclay. I don’t even know if I could handle life on the road, away from all the other people I care about. I just don’t want her to settle either.”

“Hm. Honestly, I think you need to talk to Aubrey about this. I know communication about this kind of stuff can be rocky, but I have faith that y’all can figure something out if you actually talk it through. There’s almost definitely a middle-ground somewhere that isn’t relationship or career ending.” It was something he’d pondered for himself and Joseph as well, but now knowing what he knew, Dani and Aubrey had a loving, trusting foundation that he and Stern had apparently never had. The girls could make it work.

“I guess. I know we should, but it’s hard. It feels like it’ll just speed up what feels like the inevitable end.” Dani looked up at the sky and the expanse of stars they could see on that cold November night. “When I’m around her, she feels like home. I don’t wanna lose her.”

“Then that’s a decision you gotta work out for yourselves. But, regardless of where you guys end up, you have my support. Even if you end up halfway across the world. Just remember to send me postcards.”

Dani chuckled, rubbing her eyes as she leaned her head on her friend’s shoulder. “...You promise?”

He wrapped an arm around her, giving her a little squeeze. 

“With all my heart.”

 


 

“Did something happen?”

“Hm?” Barclay blinked, having been lost in thought. It was the first day of the cafe reopening and, despite his best efforts, Barclay’s head was still elsewhere. He looked over to Indrid, who was observing him curiously as he made someone’s cappuccino.

“I asked if something happened. You’ve been distant today,” Indrid replied, finishing the drink and setting it on the bar. Barclay frowned; he thought he’d been doing better at keeping his hardship from his face better than that.

“I guess I’m just worried about Mama,” He mumbled, not sure how much he wanted to get into it at work. He busied himself with tidying up, putting away what had been left on the counter from the rush now that they had a moment of quiet.

“She’ll wake up soon,” The other man replied matter-of-factly, giving the machine a wipedown now that he was done using it. He’d progressed rapidly since he’d started working at the cafe, Barclay noticing he’d started adding more artistic touches to his work. He was glad some of Indrid’s creativity could be exercised here.

“Hope so. Doctor says it should be any day now.” Barclay nodded, thinking it would just be left at that, the two working quietly until Indrid spoke again. 

“Did you and the agent have a falling out?” 

Barclay flinched, almost dropping a bottle of vanilla syrup. So much for being subtle. Was he really that obvious? He cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry, what?” He gave Indrid a tight smile, who just offered a benign one in return with a shrug, apparently oblivious to Barclay’s tone.

“One would think that Stern would be here on the day of the cafe reopening, especially if he had a relationship with the head barista. But he is strangely absent and you seem sad,” He explained, Barclay giving him a deadpan stare. It baffled him that Indrid could be so observant, yet so completely tone-deaf sometimes.

“Yeah, we broke up. Turned out he was just using me for information, so that was a thing.” That still didn’t really explain why Joseph had gone as far as he had, but Barclay didn’t want to consider that too deeply. The thought that Stern might have just been toying with him in his free time soured his stomach immensely.

“Ah, I see. I’m sorry to hear that.” 

“Yeah. It’s fine.”

The awkward moment that ensued made Barclay uncomfortable. He was warming up to Indrid, but they still didn’t jive one-hundred percent. He shook it off, taking a customer’s order only to find the other man watching him again when he got started on it.

“I’m sorry, that was intrusive.”

Barclay sighed. “Yeah, a bit. But like I said, it’s fine. I’m working through it, and it’s not like it needs to be a secret. We were together and now we’re not and people tend to notice that sort of thing regardless. Sometimes relationships just don’t work, y’know?”

“Hm. Not really. I’ve never been in one.” 

“Oh.” Well that went over like a lead balloon. But Indrid didn’t seem particularly bothered by that statement either.

“It’s alright. It’s not like I’ve been actively seeking a partner and failing. I’ve just never particularly seen the allure,” He hummed. “I’m sure it’s all fine and good for most people, but I’ve never really had the desire to be in a romantic or sexual relationship.”

Oh, so Indrid was asexual aromantic. The more you know. “That’s cool. Gonna be real, I kinda imagine that’s way less complicated than dealing with a relationship.”

“If it was too complicated, no one would have them, so there must be something that draws most people in,” Indrid pointed out. He wasn’t wrong. Before Joseph, he hadn’t been actively looking for a relationship, but the thought of one had always been nice once he’d gotten over his commitment issues.

“Eh, if they’re not your thing, they’re not your thing. Everyone has stuff they need in life to feel fulfilled, and being with someone just isn’t on that list for you.”

“That’s a good way to put it.” The white-haired man looked pensive, taking off his glasses a moment to wipe a smudge from the lenses.”And it’s not like I’m incapable of love. I love Kepler and the people here. Working here, making friends, and learning new things gives my life more meaning than kissing someone ever could.”

“If you’re happy, that’s really what matters, right?” Barclay nodded. He’d seen a few of Indrid’s sketches since they’d talked at the hot springs. The man’s drawings usually involved the townsfolk or various buildings and landscapes in Kepler. There was little doubt that Indrid loved this little town, through and through, even if the other citizens thought him a little odd. “Why Kepler?”

Indrid tapped his finger to his lips with a hum, only to remember himself and go wash his hands after touching his face. “I don’t know. It just.. spoke to me, I guess you could say. I drove through when I first started my travels and it caught my attention. Even though I travelled the country for five years, Kepler just stayed with me. So when I finally decided to come home, I made the choice to stay here instead of going back to Point Pleasant.”

“Wow, five years. I was pretty road weary after one . That said, I was living out of my van. You have a whole Winnabego. How did you even fund that?”

“I don’t particularly like bringing it up, I don’t want to be associated with wealth, but my family was eccentric and very well-off. They did name me Indrid and have their last names changed to Cold after all. I wanted to see some of the world, but I’ve never handled planes very well, so I convinced them I was going to go out in the world to cryptid hunt and they funded my little endeavor.” Indrid shrugged. “Once I settled here for a year or so, I found that I didn’t want to keep the charade up anymore and wanted to be able to support myself, so here I am.”

“So you are.” Barclay smiled. Indrid was odd and they stepped on each other’s toes sometimes, but he fit better here than Barclay would have ever thought. 

Because Indrid loved Kepler just as much as the rest of them.

 


 

Mama was awake.

Barclay had gotten the call in the afternoon just after he had gotten back from taking Riley and Lacy on a walk --Cooper got his own separate walk so the other two didn’t rush him-- the man practically throwing the phone as he raced out the door. It wasn’t even until he got to the hospital that he realized he probably should have called the cafe to let the others know Mama had finally come to, but he could after he talked to her. He’d been and out of the medical center enough at this point that the staff recognized him when he came in, waving him through when he excitedly hurried past the nurse’s station to Mama’s room. 

All he could feel was a mix of joy and nervousness, and he wasn’t sure where the latter came from. He guessed maybe because this was the first time he’d be able to assess that Mama was really okay. It took all of his willpower not run to into her room when he got close. Walking in, the burden of the stress of the past week and a half washed away, leaving only relief. 

Mama was sitting up in her hospital bed, talking with a nurse who was checking her IV. She looked tired and drawn, that was to be expected after her ordeal, but the fact that she was awake was a vast improvement. The woman looked up when he came in, smiling when she saw Barclay, eyes twinkling.

“Hey hun. They’ve been telling me I’ve been sleepin’ for a while. Hope I didn’ worry ya too much.” She chuckled as Barclay hurried to sit next to her, taking her hand. The nurse finished what she was doing, leaving to give them some privacy.

“Nonono, of course not! I mean... okay, yes, you did. But you were stabbed , I think we’re allowed to be a little worried.” Barclay smiled, fighting away relieved tears as Mama squeezed his hand. Her expression faltered at the mention of her stabbing, gingerly putting a hand to her abdomen.

“Well, I’m doin’ well enough now. They catch that son of a bitch yet?”

“No. Apparently, he’s the guy Stern’s been hunting for his case, but they haven’t found him yet. We think someone in town is helping him.” He wanted to tell her more, but thought better of it. Mama was still healing and had just woken up, he didn’t want to overload her with everything that had happened between him and Stern.

“Bastard got the drop on me. If I’d had my shotgun on hand, he’d be a splatter on my wall and I wouldn’t be sittin’ here,” She grumbled, shifting in an attempt to get comfortable, Barclay helping her adjust the pillows behind her back.

“Well, for what it’s worth, you did do quite a bit of damage. You got two of the guy’s fingers, for one.”

“I remember doin’ it. Slammed the fucker’s hand in the door as he tried to leave. Don’t think he was expectin’ me to get back up after he knifed me. And lemme tell ya, I’ve never heard a man scream like that before. Pretty sure I fucked up his foot pretty bad too, enough that he was limpin’. Surprised he managed to get away.” She looked pleased with herself, Barclay smirking as he patted her hand.

“You did good, Mama. I’m sure they’ll catch him soon.”

“They’d better. If they don’t before I get back on my feet again, I’ll go out there and find him myself,” She groused, glancing around her room. “So, did the whole town show up while I was out or somethin’?”

Mama’s room was filled with flowers and trinkets and get well cards from many of the townsfolk, to the point that they hadn't had room for them all. “Yeah, there was so many flowers, I had the nurses bring some of them to other patients. I hope that was alright.”

“Naw, that’s perfect. If they’d like, they can take the rest of ‘em to other folks too. Not that I don’t think they’re nice lookin’, I just reckon someone else would feel better gettin’ them.” She leaned back against her pillows, patting his hand where he had it on the edge of the bed. “So tell me how everyone’s doin’. How are the dogs and the cafe?”

“Everyone’s doing fine, Mama. And I know they’ll be happy to see you.”

They’d talked for a while until she dozed off again, Barclay using the hospital payphone to make the calls around that Mama had finally returned to them. Dani and Aubrey and Jake showed up after Aubrey had finished her evening shift and closed the shop, Dani driving everyone down to see their boss and close friend. 

Everyone got careful hugs in, spending much of the evening chatting with her. Thanksgiving was going to be in several days, and in the past they’d all gotten together for a potluck as Mama’s house, but no one put anything together this year after Mama had been hospitalized. She was convinced they’d be able to wheelchair her out for the holiday, but they’d have to see how she was healing. They made plans until it got late enough that they all had to leave, Mama’s energy waning. 

Barclay would be off tomorrow, so he promised he’d be back to keep her company and help deal with visitors, not mentioning that his main motivation was because he suspected Stern would be coming to see her as well. Now that the woman was awake, she possessed vital information on Joseph’s case, and Barclay found he didn’t want to leave her alone with the man.

Biding her goodnight, Barclay went home as well.

 


 

“Ms. Cobb? I don’t mean to intrude, but if you’re feeling well enough, I have a couple of questions for you involving the attack.” Joseph was pointedly not looking at Barclay as he walked into Mama’s room, not that Barclay was doing much better.

It had been a flurry of activity today now that word that Mama was awake had gotten around town. Barclay had always known the woman was a pillar of the community, but it was quickly becoming apparent that he hadn’t fully comprehended the scope of her influence until now. She’d had a steady flow of visitors stopping by to see how she was doing until the attending nurse had finally begun to chase them off on account of Mama needing her rest.

But he supposed Stern didn’t follow the same visitation restrictions. He was an agent working a federal case after all.

Mama glanced between the two of them, raising an eyebrow, but didn’t comment, instead gesturing at the other chair next to her. “Have a seat, Agent.”

“Thank you. I appreciate you giving me your time.” Joseph got out his notebook as he sat beside her, finally glancing at Barclay, expression guarded. “Although, it... might be prudent for this to be a private conversation, if it’s not too much of an inconvenience.”

“Yeah, I’m not going anywhere, Joseph,” Barclay sneered, crossing his arms; Stern could ask his questions while Barclay was present. The agent just sighed, clicking his pen.

“Very well.” His tone was passive, a resigned look in his eyes as he turned his attention back to Mama. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

Mama had watched the entire exchange with scrutiny, squinting at the two of them much to their shared discomfort. “Hm. O...kay. So I’m guessin’ you want me to tell you what happened that night?”

“If it’s not too distressing for you, that would be greatly appreciated.” He nodded, waiting patiently for Mama to begin. She took her time before speaking again, likely trying to pull all the details together.

“Lemme see. So, I was gettin’ ready for bed when I heard a thump downstairs. Didn’t really think much of it ‘cause Lacy has a habit of getting out of her crate somehow, so I just figured she’d done it again. If I’d known someone was breakin’ in, I woulda grabbed my gun.” 

She huffed, shifting in her bed. “It was only when I’d gotten down there that they started barking at something, and I see this fella in a ski mask rounding the corner. At that point, I couldn’t go back upstairs, because he sees me and starts cussin’ and going for something at his hip. I had to think fast, so I grabbed the fire poker from the fireplace. He comes runnin’ after me and trips me, which I go down easy on account of my bad knee. So I impaled his ankle with the poker.”

She scrunched up her face, Barclay gently reaching to take her hand. As much as he didn’t want her to have to recount this, to Stern no less, it was important if they wanted her attacker to be caught. She smiled at him, giving his fingers a squeeze before addressing Joseph again, the agent busy writing her statement down.

“He stomped on my wrist, hard enough to break it from the looks of things, but I pulled him over regardless. We tussled on the floor and I got in a few good punches in, even after he stabbed me the first time, though he managed to get me off him when he did it again. He scrambled to his feet and started limping to the door, but I managed to follow him and caught up right as he was leaving. Couldn’t grab him or anything, but I did slam the door on his hand. Been told I got two of his fingers that way, but by then I was gettin’ pretty dizzy so I can’t say I remember that exactly, I just remember him screaming. Lucky I was able to get to the phone before passin’ out.”

“Very lucky indeed. I’m glad emergency services were able to get to you in time.” Stern smiled, but his lips were tight and he carried a hollow expression in his eyes. Barclay wished he hadn’t seen just how emotionally exhausted Joseph looked right then-- it wasn’t doing his heart any favors. “Now, I know you said he was wearing a ski mask, but could you identify any distinguishing characteristics of this man?”

“Hm.” Mama rubbed her chin, tapping her lips as she thought. “Well, he was a real big fella, very muscular, prolly about six foot and then some. Got the sense he was a bit older, maybe early to mid forties.”

Stern nodded, but looked rather disappointed. From what he’d told Barclay, that wasn’t really new information, they had the man’s height and build already. He chewed on his lip, the barista prying his eyes away. It was cruel that, despite their falling out, Stern wasn’t any less attractive. “Is there anything else you can remember that might make him easier to identify? Any scars or hair that slipped under his mask?”

“Joseph, it was dark and she was under attack. She probably wasn’t looking to see the guy’s hairstyle,” Barclay snapped, Stern setting his jaw across from him. 

“Now you hush.” Mama shot Barclay a withering glare, his indignation catching in his throat. Tamping down his temper, he settled back into his chair, looking away from Stern again. Mama pursed her lips, letting out a little huff. “....Now that you mention it, even though it was kinda hard to tell since he was mostly doin’ a whole lotta shouting, I’m pretty sure he had some sorta accent. Sounded British maybe, if you think that helps.”

Stern’s eyes widened, the man quickly scribbling something down. “That actually helps immensely. Being able to pinpoint his nationality will help us find him in our foreign databases and possibly get a DNA match from the copious samples he left in your home.”

Barclay snorted a little at that. As much as he didn’t want to agree with Stern right now, he was still pretty proud of Mama for giving her attacker hell in return. Joseph finished up with his notes, clicking his pen absently. 

“Well, that’s enough for today. I’ll leave you to your rest and wish you a speedy recovery, Ms. Cobb.” He glanced at Barclay, their eyes meeting again unintentionally. Barclay quickly looked away, the pain in Stern’s eyes making his chest hurt. “I’ll be in touch in case you remember anything else.”

And with that, he walked out, Mama and Barclay watching him go. The woman turned her attention to the other man, raising an eyebrow at him with dismay. He tried to ignore the look, but squirmed after a few seconds.

“...What.”

“You wanna tell me just what the hell that was about? Last time I saw y’all together, you could barely keep your hands off him, and now ya won’ even look at each other. Somethin’ happen while I was out?”

Barclay scowled, scuffing his shoe on the floor. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“You wanna tell me what that somethin’ is?”

Barclay sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. He was getting pretty tired of explaining to people that he and Stern’s relationship had ended, but this was Mama and she didn’t deserve to be left in the dark. Steeling himself once more, he took the time to tell her about what had happened in Joseph’s motel room, Mama nodding quietly as she listened. Once he finished, she patted his knee.

“Now, I’m not someone who can dictate how you should feel about this, hun. You’ve been hurt, and it’s reasonable that you’re angry about it, as is your right. But Stern doesn’t strike me as the type’ve fella to get all touchy-feely with someone just so they’ll run their mouth. Sure, that mighta been his original motivations, but he was doin’ his job. He thought you might be a suspect, of course he wasn’t gonna tell you what he was doing.”

The man frowned, gritting his teeth. She had a point, but he was still raw about it and wasn’t sure he particularly wanted to confront that right now. Mama took his hand again, keeping his attention on her. 

“I’m not sayin’ you need to forgive him, or not be hurt by what he did. Even if it’s his job, it’s still an invasion of your privacy and that can make him feel hard to trust. But I think he mighta just... fallen for ya in the process. Probably without him meaning to, but then, do we ever mean to fall in love?”

“I mean.. Hm..” Barclay chewed the inside of his cheek, his guts feeling all twisted up inside. Had what they had really been love? He just didn’t know. “I-”

He was interrupted when there was a knock on the doorframe of Mama’s door, a nurse standing in the threshold, someone standing behind her where he couldn’t see. “Sorry to interrupt, y’all but someone’s here to see you despite that I’ve told him visitor hours were over.”

“Oh, it’s alright, it’s not like I don’t have nothin’ but time anyway.” Mama chuckled, trying to see behind the woman.

“I wasn’ ‘bout ta be chased off when I just spent eight hours on a plane and an hour drivin’ jus’ ta see ya, Maddie.” The figure stepped from behind the nurse and through the door, grinning sheepishly. It took a moment for Barclay to recognize him with how shaggy his beard had gotten. 

“Well I’ll be damned.” Mama cracked a broad grin. “If it ain’t Arlo Thacker.”

Chapter Text

Ned Chicane had gone missing.

His beloved Lincoln had disappeared from in front of the Cryptonomica not long after Mama had woken up, but no one else in town thought it strange until someone asked Kirby where the man had gotten to, only for it to be revealed that Ned had packed up in the middle of the night. Knowing what he did, Barclay had an idea why he left however.

Barclay had been out treating Jake to lunch after they’d had a successful driving lesson when he got to ask Kirby first hand.

“Kirby! Hey, how’s it going dude. Haven’t seen you for a bit.” He waved the man down to where he and Jake were sitting in the diner, Kirby smiling and coming to join them. He looked troubled but, with the rumors that had been buzzing around, Barclay wasn’t surprised.

“Hey Barclay. Hey Jake. What have y’all been up to?”

“Barclay’s been teaching me how to drive.” Jake grinned, taking a bite of his sandwich. After some discussion, they’d agreed to start on lessons, though Jake insisted that he and Hollis alternate teaching him. The thought of Jake interacting with the gang leader still made Barclay uncomfortable, but there wasn’t really all that much he could do about it, especially with how supportive they were of Jake.

“Rad dude. It’s a good thing to learn.” Kirby offered his fist across the table, which Jake bumped enthusiastically. The waitress came over, getting Kirby’s drink order before leaving them be. Barclay tapped his fork against his tray idly.

“So uh.. We heard about Ned. How you been holding up?”

“Oh, fine as I can be I guess. As much as I wanna say I’m surprised he left me in the lurch, I’m not. Ned was always hiding something, I just figured it wasn’t my problem. Cept now he’s kinda gone and made it my problem. Dunno if I’m gonna be able to keep the Cryptonomica open between the rumors and having to run it by myself.” Kirby sighed, leaning back in his chair and pinching the bridge of his nose. “He was acting really weird before he left, but I thought he was just having a bad week... Of course, he ran off with all the cash in the register and safe too. We already had an eviction notice scare a couple of months back, so I can’t see this ending well.”

“Shit dude, I’m sorry to hear that. I thought Ned was better than that.”

“Yeah... I did too. I suspected he might have a criminal past-- he kept a lot of secrets, even had a whole room no one else was allowed into. Called it the Chicanery and claimed it was his super secret very important artifact stash. But even with the weird stuff, I thought he was finally turning over a new leaf and wanted to give him the chance to do so. Shame on me I guess for believing in him. If the Cryptonomica shuts down, I’ll still have my art, but I actually liked working there, y’know?”

“Naw, dude, he pulled one over on all of us.” Barclay patted Kirby’s shoulder. “If you need anything, let us know, alright? Mama’s an artist, so she might have some connections for you.”

“Hey, maybe you could paint a mural for the cafe or something. That’d be wicked. Have like bigfoot and mothman and some other cryptids in it standing around drinking coffee.” Jake piped up, having finished his sandwich.

“That would actually be pretty awesome. I’ll have to run it by Mama, but if you’re interested, dude, we could totally hit you up for that.” 

“Really? Well, let me figure out what’s gonna happen with the Cryptonomica first and see if I can salvage what Ned left me, but if it ends up a bust, I’ll let you guys know.” He adjusted his glasses with a nod, smiling at them before they turned the topic to other things.

But Ned wasn’t the only one who was noticeably absent from Kepler. Around the same time, Joseph’s sleek black car had vanished from the Four Pines motel parking lot. Barclay didn’t know what this meant for Stern, but for him, it was a conflicting realization. 

They hadn’t spoken since Joseph had visited Mama, save for a few words over the phone when Stern had called her back a few days later to see if she’d remembered anything else. Now that he’d had time to reflect, he’d started to feel like maybe he’d judged Joseph too harshly without hearing what he had to say. Joseph still had violated his trust, but Barclay had started to get the nagging feeling that that was what the agent regretted, and not their relationship.

But he wouldn’t get the chance to talk with him about it anymore, seeing as it seemed like Joseph had finally left town. At the end of the day, he supposed it was for the best. This way he could just move on.

He had better things to occupy his thoughts anyway. Thanksgiving was on their doorstep and, having managed to get Mama temporarily released from the hospital, everyone was in a rush to prepare for having their annual potluck at her home. Now that Mama’s home was no longer a crime scene and properly cleaned, it was just a matter of making everything feel homey again. 

He hoped that Mama wouldn’t struggle with her return; being attacked in your own home could do things to your ability to feel safe, no doubt. But she hadn’t shown any signs of struggling with what had happened to her beyond the physical, never seeming particularly distressed when she discussed it. Some people could handle certain traumas better than others.

He’d gotten her a new rug, the old one in front of the fireplace having had to be scrapped for obvious reasons, and brought the dogs back. They were glad to be out of his little apartment, running around in Mama’s backyard. It would be better for them to stay at the house and have everyone rotate on pet sitting duty, but Barclay actually found himself missing coming home to them. Maybe he should get a dog.

Thacker’s return had also meant for some interesting changes among the Amnesty crew. He’d come back when he’d gotten news of Mama’s hospitalization --apparently Indrid had found his number in the shop somewhere and called him about it despite not knowing who he was-- but much to everyone’s surprise, he hadn’t come alone. 

He’d brought with him a young woman named Quella, who he seemed to have a sort of father-daughter relationship with. Barclay had only met her briefly when Thacker brought her to visit Mama one time. She was quiet and mostly hung back while everyone else talked, so Barclay hadn’t really gotten the chance to get to know her.

That is until the day of Thanksgiving was upon them. While it was a potluck, Mama and Barclay had always put together the main course at her house, preparing the turkey and some other essentials in her kitchen. This year, since Mama wouldn’t be able to help, Barclay had recruited whoever was willing, but since many had their own preparations already planned, he’d ended up with Thacker and Quella.

Thacker had been quickly been exiled from the kitchen on account of suggesting they put corn chips in the sweet potatoes, banished to keeping Mama company where they’d gotten her comfortable in her big recliner chair in the living room. This left him working with Quella, who seemed much more adept at making good food choices.

“So, how did you and Thacker meet?” Barclay asked after about half an hour of working in silence, save for the words necessary for the recipes. She was cubing bread for the stuffing, getting ready to bake it. She glanced at him, assessing him carefully, before speaking. Barclay found that, while articulate, she had an accent he couldn’t quite place.

“I lived in one of the towns he was teaching in. I was... in a dark place and Arlo helped pull me out. Because I didn’t have any other place to go, I decided to travel with him instead,” She told him, measuring her words carefully. He could tell she was hesitant to say much and wasn’t about to press, nodding in return.

“He’s a good dude; definitely quirky, but he has a heart of gold. I’m glad he could help you.” He was in the middle of preparing the turkey, carefully peeling the skin away from the bird so it would brown better and give it more of a crispy texture. The fifteen pounds of poultry had just spent the last four days thawing in his fridge and he wasn’t about to half-ass cooking it.

“You’ve worked with him before, yes?” She swept her bread cubes onto a baking sheet, moving around Barclay to put them in the preheated oven. Barclay had traditionally always let the bread dry naturally for his stuffing, but that took forty-eight hours sitting out and, unlike the refrigerator, the counter wasn’t strictly free from hungry dog snouts no matter how hard he tried, so the quick and dirty way would suffice.

“Yeah, for about two years on and off at the cafe when he needed some income during the offseason. Mama’s known him way longer though.”

“He’s talked a great deal about Ms. Cobb and the others he worked with. I can tell he likes you all very much.” Quella offered him a small smiled. “It’s been interesting to see the town he grew up in. In some ways, it’s very similar to where I’m from, but it’s also very different.”

“I’m guessing you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving where you’re from?”

She chuckled, shaking her head. “No, we don’t. But it’s important to Arlo, and a fun opportunity for me to make and try new foods.”

“Have you had his awful interpretation of gorp yet?” He smirked, beginning to stuff the turkey with aromatics. Any good cook could tell you that you never cook your stuffing in the turkey, instead filling the bird with things like onions, apples, and herbs to infuse it with flavor.

“Yes, though I didn’t think it was that bad. I suppose I’m not picky however.” She hummed, looking at the recipe for what she’d need to put in the stuffing once the bread was out of the oven. 

“Bleh. I guess if you pick around the pepperoni it’s okay.” Barclay stuck out his tongue, still remembering when he’d actually eaten some of Thacker’s creation on accident because he hadn’t been paying attention when the older man had offered him some all those years ago. He’d had to run to the general store to buy himself a toothbrush and toothpaste on his break, it had been so bad. Quella giggled, moving to the fridge to get her ingredients.

“What I never understood was those weird shoes with the toes. He swears by them, but they’re just so silly.”

“Oh god, does he still wear those things? He got them when they were first popular, but I thought he’d be tired of them by now.” Barclay snickered, imagining Thacker globetrotting in toe shoes. Between those and crocs, the man seemed to have an affinity for ridiculous footwear that he liked unironically.

“Y’all know I can hear ya in there, right?” Thacker called out from the living room, sounding indigent. Barclay and Quella looked at each other, caught red-handed, before grinning and laughing.

He might not know Quella well yet but, knowing she had a rough past that she still seemed to be healing from, it was good to see her laughing.



“Hey y’all! Happy Thanksgiving. I brought pie that... I totally made. This pumpkin pie, I made it.. fresh?..” Duck fumbled when Barclay and Dani opened the door to greet him, Minerva and Billy standing behind the ranger. “Okay, that’s a lie. I tried to make a pie, but I burned it, so this is store-bought. I hope that’s fine.”

“He set off the smoke alarm and everything, it was quite the spectacle!” Minerva exclaimed behind him with a grin, thumping the man on the back so hard he almost dropped the pie.

“Yeah, that’s fine Duck, no worries. Y’all come on in.” Barclay ushered them through the door, internally cursing that he’d forgotten to account for Billy. The scientist was still rooming with Duck for his research and, while Minerva he’d expected, he hadn’t anticipated the German coming along with them as well. They should have enough turkey though-- he followed the one and a half pound per person rule for a reason.

“Here, I’ll take that.” Dani swooped in to rescue the pastry, trotting away to the kitchen, least it get tossed from Duck’s hands from another wayward thump. Shrugging out of their coats and hanging them up, Duck waved Minerva and Billy into the living room.

“Hey, y’all head in and introduce yourselves, I need to talk with Barclay here for a sec.”

“Very well. Come, Billy! Let us go greet our host and fellow guests.” Minerva nodded at Duck, an unspoken understanding between them that Barclay picked up on, watching the other two go. He brought his attention back to Duck, raising an eyebrow.

“So um... What’s up? Anything I should be worried about?”

“Naw. I mean. I dunno. Maybe.” Duck fidgeted with his shirt, which was nicer than his usual uniform, but not too fancy. The ranger made a bit of a face. “Y’know, now that I think about it, I’m not even sure I should tell ya. You seem like you’re doin’ better, and I don’t wanna make you feel weird about it.”

“Duck, you know you can’t go pulling that on me. Now it’s just gonna bug me until you tell me.” Barclay huffed, crossing his arms. Well now he was worried.

“Sorry, sorry. Alright, so um...” Duck sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Agent Stern has been staying at the park the last few days. He claimed a campsite up at Little River and I think he’s living out of his car up there.”

“What?” That took Barclay off guard. He had thought Joseph had left town already to wherever the next part of the case took him. Why was he staying at the campgrounds and not the motel? “Why?”

“Hell if I know, dude. He keeps to himself. I just saw his car at the campsite while I was on patrol and did some snooping, it’s definitely him. Not like I can do anything about him being there either, seeing as he’s a federal agent and he outranks me.” Duck shrugged, looking perplexed. “I just wanted to warn you that he’s still around in case you run into him, so at least you’ll be able to prepare. Y’know, emotionally and all that.”

It seemed like he wouldn’t get to just move on from Joseph after all, despite his best efforts. He wondered if he’d see the man around, or if Joseph would go out of his way to avoid him. He’d already done a pretty good job of it so far, seeing as Barclay hadn’t even known the man was still in Kepler until now.

“Right. Thanks for letting me know, Duck.”

“Sure thing, bud. Now c’mon, let’s get in there. You got better things to worry about.” He patted Barclay on the back as they both walked to the living room to join the rest of their friends.

“Ah! Wayne Newton, I see you’ve finished talking with Barclay. We were just telling everyone about the bear you saw yesterday!” Minerva beamed at them, almost everyone stopping in the middle of their conversations. Dani put a hand over her mouth while Aubrey looked like her eyes were about to fall out of her skull with how wide they were.

“Did she say Wayne ?!”

“Holy shit.”

“I can see it.”

“...Y’all shuddup.”


 Dinner was a success and everyone was resoundingly stuffed by the end of it. It was good to see everyone together, having such a good time. Everyone lazed around in Mama’s living room, chatting and enjoying their beverages of choice. It felt good to have his little found family all together.

Indrid and Billy were sitting on the sofa, both with their sketchbooks out, showing each other their drawings. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he could make out Indrid speaking rough German to the other man. 

Jake was catching up with Mama, while Moira and Quella were hanging around Mama’s piano while Moira played. Aubrey, Dani, Duck, and Minerva seemed to be having a lively discussion about something in front of the fireplace, Minerva gesturing wildly and Aubrey laughing.

Over dinner, Duck had fessed up and admitted that he and Minerva were now together, blushing madly the whole time. Barclay was glad, they seemed really happy together. He couldn’t deny their dynamic was amusing, but he rather thought they balanced each other out like that. Good for them. 

It was good to be around such amazing friends.

And yet, he couldn’t help but think about Stern again. While Barclay had enjoyed the holiday with his friends and was grateful to have them, Joseph would no doubt be spending it alone out in the Monongahela. Being an FBI agent likely didn’t afford him much time for holidays, but it was still a thought that made him a little sad. 

His initial anger having sputtered out, he found he actually missed Joseph. The invasion of privacy still made it hard for him to feel completely comfortable with what they’d had, but it had definitely had its points.

“Something troublin’ ya, son?” Thacker sidled up next to Barclay, a glass of bourbon in hand. The other man blinked as he was brought back to the present, smiling at Thacker.

“Dunno. Lot’s happened since you’ve been gone. Though admittedly, what’s on my mind is a bit more recent. It’s nothing to worry about though.”

“Yeah, it sure has changed, not that I’m complainin’. It’s good to see all these new faces. And old ones. Duck’s sure found himself a helleva gal; Dani too from the looks of it.” He chuckled, taking a sip of his drink. “Did I hear correctly that you’re assistant manager now?”

“Mhm. Mama promoted me about two years ago. She asked Dani first of course, but Dani said she didn’t want a management position. Which is fair; it can be hard having to tell other people what to do sometimes.” Barclay had a beer bottle in hand, which he took a swig from. “It can be a little difficult sometimes, it feels like I’m always busy with something, but it’s rewarding.”

“Ah. Glad ya’ve taken a shine to it...” Thacker nodded, eyeing the two men over on the sofa. “So, one of them your fella then? Don’t mean to pry none, it’s just the last I heard from Maddie, she said you’d got yourself a guy. Been tryin’ to figure out which one all night, but my bet’s on the white-haired one.”

Barclay almost choked, shaking his head. “Neither of them. Indrid’s just a friend, and I don’t really know Billy. I was dating someone briefly before Mama’s attack, but we broke it off after we.. Well, it’s kinda complicated.”

Thacker nodded. “Guessin’ that’s what’s botherin’ ya, then?”

“Yeah. It’s kinda dumb though. Here I am, enjoying a wonderful Thanksgiving with all my closest friends, and all I can think about is him and how he’s probably spending it alone.” Barclay sighed, scuffing his foot on the rug absently.

“Hm, when’s the last time you talked to him?”

“At the hospital, and he was there to see Mama. He’s the FBI agent presiding over the case that’s open on the guy who attacked her. He’s been in town for several months now and we hit it off. Or I thought we did.” Barclay supplied, Thacker raising an eyebrow.

“That is complicated. Was he that nicely dressed fella I passed when I first came to visit Maddie? Tall, dark hair, looked real tired.”

“Yeah, that would be him.”

“Hm.” Thacker looked pensive, stroking his beard. “Did you love him?”

“Thacker! Dude, c’mon. You can’t just ask shit like that,” Barclay sputtered, setting his drink down so he’d stop almost choking on it every time Thacker asked him something inappropriate out of the blue. He blushed with frustration and embarrassment, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Thacker just shrugged, tilting his head. “Well, did you?”

That was the question, wasn’t it? The one he didn’t want to think about. Because even if the answer was yes, it felt like it was a moot point anyway. Joseph probably didn’t want to talk to him anymore after how he’d been treated, and Barclay’s trust was still wounded. Barclay sighed, rubbing his arm. “...Maybe. I dunno. We weren’t together for very long.”

“How long you were together ain’t got nothin’ to do with it, Barclay.” Thacker chided, swirling the ice in his glass. “Now, I may not know the whole situation or who this man is, but.. It sounds like to me that y’all need to sit yourselves down and have a talk rather than just standing around and lettin’ this fester. At best y’all can work something out, and at worst, you get closure, right?”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Thacker was right.


 “This is a bad idea, why am I out here.” Barclay grumbled, glancing at the plate of leftovers in the passenger seat of his truck. He didn’t know what had possessed him to drive out into the Monongahela at night after they’d finished the potluck at Mama’s, yet here he was.

Thacker had agreed to look after Mama for the evening with Quella, they could take her back to the hospital in the morning. Barclay had helped clean up, wrapped up his copious amounts of leftovers, and said goodnight to everyone. Then, instead of going home like a rational person, had gotten it into his head that he try to find Stern.

Talking to Thacker about him had definitely gotten under his skin. Why couldn’t this wait until morning? “ Because then the leftovers will be kinda soggy” he tried to tell himself, but knew it was only an excuse. In truth, he wanted to talk to Joseph again, even if it was one last time to get closure once and for all. He at least had a better chance to catch Stern at night since he didn’t know his schedule during the day.

He pulled into the Little River Campgrounds, trying to figure out where Stern was staying. There weren’t exactly all that many campers now that it had gotten colder, especially on Thanksgiving, so the agent probably wouldn’t be too hard to find. He eventually spotted the man’s sleek black car parked at one of the sites, Barclay turning off the engine before he’d be noticed.

Grabbing the plate of food, he got out and started walking towards the campsite, trying to figure out what he was going to say. The closer he got, the more nervous he became, second-guessing himself with every step. He stopped when he got close enough to see Stern at his campsite, taking in the scene.

There was a campfire going (the ban had ended a few weeks ago), Joseph lounging in a folding chair. He looked like he had freshly showered, his dark hair tousled, and he was wrapped up in a warm sweater and jeans, a pair of glasses on his nose. Barclay had seen him wear them once or twice, but it seemed the man generally wore contacts most of the time. He had his legs pulled up and was sipping a mug of something as he read what looked like a file.

The sight of him like that reminded Barclay of when they had first met, Joseph in his sweater, his face pink from washing it after getting gatorade spilled on him. Originally, that memory had been tarnished upon learning Joseph had only gotten to know him for information, but now that he thought of it, that had been a much more natural happenstance, brought together by a sports drink fueled accident.

It still stung, but he had to admit, even though many of their interactions were for Joseph’s work, quite a few had been just wonderfully happy moments with no intention to them. Looking down at the plate of food, tinfoil crimped over the top of it, Barclay let out one last long breath and walked into the campsite.

Stern sat upright, on alert when he heard the crunching of Barclay’s boots, eyes darting to Barclay’s direction. The barista watched him slowly put the file and mug down on the picnic table next to him, reaching for his flashlight at his feet. He didn’t turn it on immediately, just listening and watching the direction Barclay was coming from. He stood as Barclay got close enough to see his shape in the dark, about to point his light at the man only to stop short when the barista came into the campfire’s light.

“Barclay..”

“Hey Joseph.”

The agent gingerly put the flashlight down next to the file on the table, walking over to the other man, but not getting too close. He looked about as strained as he had last Barclay had seen him, one hand clenched in his sweater as he looked Barclay over. He definitely noticed the plate but didn’t comment. “What are you doing here? I’m guessing Ranger Newton told you of my whereabouts.”

“Yeah, he did. He came for Thanksgiving today. Everyone at the cafe and a few friends have a tradition to get together every year.” He rubbed the back of his neck, holding out the plate. “So I uh.. brought you some leftovers since I figured you probably didn’t do anything for Thanksgiving, thought we could talk. What are you doing here?”

“I see. That’s... very kind of you.” He hesitantly took the plate, peeling back the foil to see what he’d been brought, letting out a tired breath. “It’s.. I’m surprised you actually don’t know. I figured you were the one behind it.”

“Huh? Behind what? All I know is that you were staying at Four Pines and then you were gone. I figured you’d left town to follow Ned or whatever your next step was. Only found out today you were staying here instead.” Barclay frowned, trying to remember if he’d heard anything amid the town gossip.

“Ah. Well, then I suppose it was merely an unintentional chain reaction. Would you um.. Would you like to have a seat while I get something to eat this with?” He gestured at the picnic table while he started for his car, plate still in hand.

“Oh shoot, I forgot to bring utensils. Sorry about that.” Barclay sat in the space he’d been offered, watching the campfire flicker and hiss while he waited for Joseph to return. It only took a moment, Stern trotting back with a utility spork and sitting back in his folding chair.

“No worries, I came prepared.”

They sat in silence for a while, obviously not sure where to start while Joseph tucked into the plate of cold leftovers. Barclay cleared his throat. “So, what happened with the motel then?”

“Oh yes. So, I think it was perhaps a day or two before Ms. Cobb woke up, I went to the cafe while you weren’t there to send in some reports with the Wi-Fi and was.. shall we say, poorly received. Quite publicly I might add. It took a couple of days for word to spread, but one day I came back to the motel only to have the owners tell me that they were ‘no longer comfortable rooming an FBI Agent’. Of course, that is their right to refuse service as a private business, so I didn’t really have a say in the matter. At least on federal land, no one can give me the boot.”

“Oof. Sorry about that. I never meant for our whole... thing.. to disrupt your work life. Mountain folk look out for their own, that’s for sure.” Barclay rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. “So I’m guessing Dani put you on blast at the shop?”

“No, actually. Mr. Cold did.”

“Indrid? Really?” Barclay gaped, trying to imagine just what that would be like. He couldn’t particularly imagine the man raising his voice, much less telling someone off.

“He didn’t yell if that’s what you’re thinking, but he was very pointed in what he had to say. I’m sure if any of your other employees had been working upfront, I would have had something thrown at me instead. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a good idea to go there when I knew how close you are with everyone.” Joseph grimaced while Barclay tried and failed to hold back a snort. Stern shot him a look, Barclay pretending to clear his throat.

“Sorry. I know it probably wasn’t great for you, but the idea of Indrid giving anyone hell is kinda funny. Oh, to be a fly on that wall.” 

Joseph let a small smirk slip before schooling his face. “Say what you will, but it wasn’t particularly pleasant being told I was responsible for breaking your heart and had the gall to show my face in the cafe again, least I hurt someone else. On top of that, he replaced my drink with normal, unsweetened black coffee.”

“Yeesh, remind me to never get on Indrid’s bad side.” 

“Yes, not an experience I recommend.”

They sat quietly, watching the fire crackle and pop while Joseph ate. Despite the tension between them, it was peaceful. The wind brushed through the pines and you could just make out the babble of the river not far off if you listened close enough.

“Did I?”

“Hm? Did you what?” Barclay blinked over at Stern, who had put his mostly empty plate on the picnic table. The man looked careworn and distant, finally looking up to meet Barclay’s eyes in the flicker of the firelight.

“Break your heart?”

Now that was a loaded question, but loaded questions seemed to be the theme of the night. Might as well keep the trend of answering them going before he started overthinking himself in circles. He rubbed his arm, shrugging. “A little. I thought you genuinely wanted to get to know me up to that point and it hurt knowing what we had was built on false pretense. I don’t even super care you knew I was trans for a long time without telling me, though that still stung a little too.”

“Barclay I...” Joseph couldn’t seem to find the words, but this time, Barclay was willing to give him the time to talk. The agent picked up the file that he’d left on the table, handing it to Barclay. “Here.”

The barista took it with a surprised look, but carefully flipped it open to find that the file was his own. He thumbed through it, reading over everything from his background check, to all the many, many notes Stern had taken on him and his habits and travels and what little he’d mentioned about his family back in Washington. Joseph was quiet as he did, watching the fire instead.

“Why are you showing me this?” Was all he could think to ask, handing it back to the man, who opened it back up for a moment to the page with Barclay’s picture. 

“Because.. While my superiors have your basic background check, I haven’t sent them my notes or what I found about your location coinciding with the criminal’s yet. I have months of notes on you here that they know nothing about.” He closed the file, standing up from his chair and walking over to the campfire. 

And then, before Barclay could really comprehend what he was doing, Joseph threw his file into the flames, watching it burn. He turned, smiling at the barista. 

“And as far as I’m concerned, they’re never going to.”

Barclay just stared as the papers curl and blacken in the fire, completely dumbfounded. He blinked a few times, eventually realizing his mouth was hanging open before straightening up and looking to Joseph. “That was months of work, won’t that get you in trouble?”

Joseph looked down at the burning file and then back at Barclay, shrugging. “Frankly, I don’t care. I’ll just tell them I spilled my coffee on it and send them a summary that there was nothing to note in my months of profiling.”

“...Why?”

“Because Barclay...” He walked over to the picnic table, sitting next to the other man. “You mean more to me than your information ever could. The night we fought, you asked me if I regretted our relationship, and right then I probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate what I was feeling anyway. It’s probably better that we can talk now that we’re both in a more levelheaded state of mind.”

“Well, do you regret it?” The question made him feel like he had a pit in his stomach, but Joseph just shook his head.

“The only thing I regret is that my work was how I ended up meeting and getting to know you. I would have much rather we’d met without my job dictating my reason for doing so. But the fact of the matter is, regardless of my initial reason, I ended up developing feelings for you. I love your mannerisms, the way you move your hands when you talk, and how easy you are to converse with. You were always happy to see me, and soon I started to feel something flutter in my chest every time I saw you as well.”

Stern blushed, adjusting his glasses. “It started as getting to know you on a lead, but soon it became about proving to myself that you innocent rather than looking for guilt because I Iiked you so much. And once I’d done that, I didn’t have an excuse, but I just kept spending time with you anyway.” 

"It was at the Pumpkin Festival that I realized I was completely head over heels for you and there was no going back. I was struggling with feeling like I shouldn’t have let this happen for a time, that I was taking advantage of you. And I was very much in that mindset when we fought, especially seeing how hurt you were that I’d been using you. But... being apart and realizing how keenly I’ve been feeling your absence has proven to me that I probably would have fallen for you regardless of how we’d met. So here we are.”

They watched as the last of the file burned away, carrying the ashes above the pines. That was a lot to take in for Barclay. He wanted to take Joseph back in an instant, tell him that all was forgiven and that he felt the same way, but he held himself back. He still had some pain involving what happened, heart still bruised and healing. But at least now, it felt some hope too.

“I’m still kinda upset about it, and it’s probably gonna take me a while to trust you again,” He murmured, Joseph nodding solemnly. “But I’m willing to let you back in. ‘Cause honestly? I’ve been kind of a mess with missing you. It’s gonna take some work, you’ve gotta start being honest with me about everything unless it’s confidential for your job, but I want to learn who you actually are under all your secrets. No more tactfully redirecting the conversation when I ask about you, okay?”

“Okay.” Stern nodded again, his eyes wide. He obviously hadn’t been expecting Barclay to be willing to try again. “Whatever you need from me, I’ll do my best to provide. You’ll have to remind me though, old habits are hard to break.”

“I can do that.” Barclay rubbed his hands on his pants, his fingers getting cold. Another pressing question came to mind, Barclay chewing the inside of his cheek. “But first, you gotta tell me if this relationship has a future. Because if it doesn’t, it might be better if we just part amicably now. I don’t want to invest in this if you’re just going to leave when this case is over.”

Joseph grew still, fingers clasped together in his lap, the man biting his lip. 

“I wish I could promise you that, but I don’t know if I can, Barclay. But.. I’m willing to try to do everything I can to make that happen if you’re willing to understand that it very well might not, but not because I want it to. You mentioned you’ve heard, but my primary suspect has vanished from Kepler, confirming my suspicions and no doubt taking my perp with him. I’ve been given three months to stay here in Kepler and try to find if he’s staying in the surrounding area or will return, while one of my fellow agents is looking for any sign of a trail elsewhere.”

He reached down, grabbing a stick from a pile nearby and pitching into the campfire. “In those three months, I’m willing to explore any possibility that might allow me to stay here with you, just short of giving up my entire career. If I can’t find one though, we could either try to function as a long-distance relationship or just move on, as much as I don’t want that to happen. It’s all up to you though.”

Barclay mulled it over. Three months? Did he really want to commit himself to Stern for three months, only for the chance he could be ripped away from him by the end of it? He looked Joseph over, heart filled with longing. It might not be the wisest decision, but with how much he’d be missing the man, maybe he could at least afford them three months of happiness rather than none at all.

“Okay.” He looked up at the stars, the Milky way vast and beautiful and twinkling above them. “As long as you promise you’ll do your damnedest to try to let me keep you around.”

Again, Joseph looked astounded that Barclay was agreeing to try, his expression serious. Hesitantly, he reached out and put his hand on Barclay’s knee. His eyes were sad, but hopeful. “That I can promise, Barclay. You’ve been the best thing to happen to me in a long, long time and I certainly don’t want it to end.”

Barclay gently put his hand on Stern’s, running a thumb over his long fingers before, perhaps against his better judgment, he leaned in, cupping Joseph’s cheek and kissing the man. 

It was a careful kiss, reserved from the heavy nature of their conversation. There was a lot they had to work on, but it felt good to kiss him again, warming Barclay’s face in defiance of the cold. Joseph shivered against him, Barclay finally pulling away and giving him a soft smile. The agent raised Barclay’s hands to his lips, kissing his knuckles. “Thank you.”

“I’m glad we could talk.” He slid closer, beginning to feel the chill more keenly now that the fire was beginning to dwindle, pressing his thigh against Stern’s. “Are you really gonna be staying out here in this? This kinda cold will freeze your nuts off, and that’s coming from a guy who doesn’t even have any.”

Stern snorted, sticking his hands in his armpits for warmth. “Oh, I do alright in my car. It doesn’t get too cold, though admittedly it’s not the most comfortable.”

Barclay steeled himself, wondering if he’d regret this or not. “Come stay with me then.”

“What?” Joseph blinked owlishly at him. “Really? I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Yeah, I mean, I just have my sofa to offer, but it’s probably better than sleeping in your car. Besides, it’s kinda my fault you got kicked out of your motel anyway. If it makes you uncomfortable, it can just be for the night and we can try to smooth things out with the Four Pines folks in the morning.”

Stern looked like he wanted to decline, but a stiff breeze blew between them, making him shudder before nodding. “Okay. Maybe just for the night. If you’re sure it’s alright.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Let me just pack up my things.”

“Of course.”

Once they’d packed up Stern’s campsite, Barclay pulled out in his truck, Joseph following behind as they drove to his apartment. They were silent as they walked to his door, Joseph’s bag slung over his shoulder.

Barclay got some linens out for the man and dug up a spare pillow, setting him up on the sofa while Joseph got ready for bed in his bathroom. He came out in sweatpants and a t-shirt depicting bigfoot on a milk carton like a missing person's notice. For some reason, Barclay had been expecting a posh pajama set or something, but he supposed real people didn’t actually dress like that. Or maybe they did, but he’d never met one. He smiled at the shirt.

“Cute.”

“Thank you. This one I picked out myself.” He plucked at it proudly, looking back up at Barclay. “Again, thank you for letting me stay.”

“Wasn’t about to let you freeze out there.” Barclay shrugged. “Well.. I’m gonna head back. Just knock on the door if you need anything, okay?”

“Okay, I will. Goodnight, Barclay.” He could tell Joseph wanted to kiss him again, but he wanted this to go a little more slowly this time, not just rushing into things. If Stern wanted to get closer, he’d have to earn his trust back. But, it was still hard to ignore the wanting in the man’s eyes, so he indulged him a chaste kiss on the cheek, squeezing his fingers.

“Goodnight, Joseph. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Chapter Text

“I’m thirty-four, my birthday is on March 17th, and I tell people my favorite genre of music is smooth jazz, but listen to pop more than anything else because of how often it’s on the radio.”

“Huh?” Barclay blinked at Stern from across the table where they were eating breakfast the next morning. Joseph was already dressed in his nice slacks and shirt, his tie hanging over the back of the chair while he dug into a plate of eggs and toast. Meanwhile, Barclay was in his pajama pants and a t-shirt, still just starting his day. 

Joseph had woken up around five in the morning as far as Barclay could tell, but only because he’d been briefly roused around that time to the sound of the other man using the conjoined bathroom. He’d fallen back asleep shortly after, staying in bed until around ten. He could be up earlier when he needed to, but he let himself sleep in when he had an afternoon or evening shift.

When he’d finally gotten up, Stern was waiting patiently for him, reading the local newspaper that had been no doubt left on Barclay’s doormat that morning. Apparently, he’d wanted to get Barclay’s permission before rooting through the other man’s fridge which, while Barclay appreciated Joseph wanting to respect his living space, he felt a little bad that he’d made the agent go without breakfast for five hours.

He invited Joseph to help himself to whatever was in his fridge and cupboards, while started making them coffee. Much to his surprise, Stern got out the eggs and bread and a little bit of salsa, insisting on making them breakfast if Barclay was making drinks. Barclay would have taken him for a “grab a yogurt and apple and be done with it” kind of guy. 

He made Joseph’s coffee as close as he could get it to the caramel mocha lattes Joseph loved so much at the shop, at least to the best of his ability with the limited resources he had in his kitchen. He then completed his own drink, a basic cappuccino, just as Stern was finishing cooking breakfast. They’d sat with their food and ate in awkward silence until Joseph’s rather odd statement, catching Barclay off-guard. The agent blushed at Barclay’s confusion, putting his fork down.

“You said last night you wanted to know more about me. Up til now, I’ve generally kept details about myself to a minimum, mostly just out of habit, but you were right. If I’m really going to commit myself to making this right and giving our relationship a future, I have to work on being open with you.” Barclay could tell he was serious, the barista nodding.

“Okay. Well that’s a good start. I’m thirty-six and my birthday is in July-.... but you already knew that, huh.” He propped his ankle on his other knee and took a sip of his coffee, Joseph looking away with clear discomfort on his face. Barclay didn’t mean to be catty about it, he knew Joseph was trying to make things right. But the hurt still lingered, needing time to heal, and it made it just a little harder to stay his tongue on the matter. He sighed.

“Sorry, I know you’re trying. I guess I’m still a little sore, but I’ll try not to be an ass about it moving forward.” He put his mug down, scooping a bit of salsa onto the eggs Stern had made him. “As for music, I don’t think we ever really discussed that before. Secret pop fan, huh?”

“Yes, well, like I said, it’s on the radio quite frequently, and I do quite a lot of driving for my work. Rather hard not to amass some affection for it after a while.” Joseph chuckled, returning to eating his breakfast as well. “What about yourself?”

“Oh, I’ll listen to just about anything really, though I gotta admit I have a soft spot for indie folk and rock, or anything with a decent acoustic guitar. Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, Fleet Foxes. Dani got me into Hozier’s music lately. It doesn’t resonate with me as much as it seems to for her, but he’s easy to listen to. Turns out he’s a really good ally too, so that’s awesome. Of course, I try to support queer indie artists too. Better known folks like Wrabel for sure, but also some of the smaller artists as well. I have a particular fondness for Jake Edwards, his music is awesome and he’s got some great songs reflecting the transmasc experience.”

“I can’t say I recognize any of those artists, but they certainly sound interesting. I’ll have to-” Joseph reached for his pocket, a motion Barclay had seen him do many times before during their conversations together.

“ Don’t, ” Barclay warned with a soft growl. 

Joseph stopped dead, his notebook halfway pulled out of his pocket as he seemingly realized what he was doing. A look of consternation crossed his face, the man wincing as he carefully slid it back into his pocket. He regarded Barclay sheepishly “Sorry. Force of habit.”

Barclay sighed, leaning back in his chair. They had never said working through this would be easy. “I’ll make you a list myself if you wanna listen to them. Most of them can be found on Spotify.”

“Alright.” Stern nodded, pushing away his empty plate and picking up his cup of coffee, wrapping both hands around the warm mug. He took a tentative sip, frowning softly. “I don’t mean to step on toes. It seems like there’s still a good deal I have to unlearn.”

“It’s that you’re willing to change that matters, Joseph. And I appreciate it. I do. I know it can be difficult.” He pushed his last bit of egg around with his toast, looking back at Joseph. “But I need you to prove to me that I’m not just some interesting side project of yours. You taking notes on me makes me feel like I’m being profiled again. If you want to be reminded of something about me, just ask.”

“I can do that. Any other guidelines I should be aware of?”

“Hm.” Barclay bounced his foot thoughtfully, finishing off his coffee and really taking into consideration what he was going to need if they were going to make this work. 

“Talk to me. Not just about yourself, but how you’re feeling too. I want to know when you’re upset or uncomfortable, even if it involves me. Hiding something because you’re worried you’re gonna hurt me again is only gonna make matters worse. While I appreciate you respecting my privacy now, you don’t have to walk around on eggshells around me either. You don’t gotta sit around and wait for me to wake up just to make yourself breakfast for instance.”

“Ah. It wasn’t that much of an issue, I assure you. Eating too early can upset my stomach sometimes. But, I will take that into consideration nonetheless.” Joseph settled back in his chair, his tie sliding off the back. He watched it fall, carefully scooping it up and laying it across his lap. Smoothing it carefully, he sighed. “..I don’t like the idea of my struggles being a burden to you.”

“Joseph, it’s gonna be more of a problem if you just clam up about everything all the time. We’re gonna make mistakes and hurt each other’s feelings sometimes. It’s a relationship, not a fairytale where everything’s perfect. And that’s okay. I’d rather be upset about something and talk through it, instead of hiding everything until it all explodes like whatever the hell happened that night in your motel.”

“And that wasn’t entirely on me, now was it? If we’re being honest with each other. I’m willing to claim fault for most of it, but there were definitely some harsh words leveled at me as well.” Joseph looked uncomfortable, but Barclay felt a pang of pride that the man was speaking his mind despite having a hard time with it. Barclay grimaced, thinking back to how he’d conducted himself that night.

“Yeaaah... I’m not gonna deny I fucked up too. If I had just cooled my jets and let you talk, and not just jumped to conclusions, it might have not been such a mess. And I’m sorry for that.”

“I’m sorry too,” Stern sighed, swirling the dregs of his coffee in his mug. “Though as I said, I’m not sure I would have done myself any favors if you had let me speak. I still blamed myself for falling for you and actually engaging when I felt like I shouldn’t have under the circumstances. So I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t have tried to sabotage the entire relationship once the truth of my original motives were revealed, out of feeling like you deserved better.”

Barclay’s brows came together, his throat feeling tight. Something deep inside him ached at the thought that Stern had been feeling that way about their relationship and he’d kept it hidden the whole time. “So you don’t feel that way now?”

“Hm. I want to say no, but I think it’s more complicated than that. I’ve mostly come to accept that, given the proper proximity, I likely would have fallen for you regardless of my intentions. And considering that you didn’t know my intentions, like to think you would have felt the same way about me if we’d met under casual circumstances.” He smiled a little, fingers digging into his shirt at his elbows as he continued. 

“Now that we’ve worked out a potential deadline and it’s understood that I might have to leave when my three months are up, regardless of how hard I try to change that, it’s... it’s not a happy thought, but it does bring me some relief that you’ll be more emotionally prepared should that be the case. I felt like I was using you by actually letting myself engage my feelings for once.”

“For once?” Joseph's words settled strangely in his chest, but he understood it. Stern had felt like he had been leading Barclay on by letting himself admit his feelings. But from the sounds of it, this might have not even been the first time he’d had to repress himself.

“You’re not the first person I’ve developed feelings for on a case. They’re all affairs long past of course, nor were they a regular occurrence by any means. You are the first I’ve let my romantic interest get the better of me, however. Perhaps it was because you weren’t particularly keen on the idea of sex early into our relationship, and I couldn’t turn it into something purely physical. Or perhaps it was because you’re the first to really return those feelings.”

“So all the other people.. If you developed feelings for them, you’d just make it a fling because you knew you couldn’t have them? Would.. Would you have done something like that to me too?”

“Possibly, but I suspect it wouldn’t have worked if I’d tried. Most people are enamored by the allure of having a spy lover to enjoy a few nights of passion with. You never seemed to have such fantasies.”

“Yeah, because you’re actually a giant, bigfoot loving dweeb with a sweet tooth half a mile wide.” Barclay chuckled, finally bringing a smile back to Joseph’s face.

“Yes well... only goes to show that I’ve shown you far more of myself than I do for most people already. And I want to give you more of that too.” He stood quietly, clearing their dishes. “None of the men I slept with before ever expected much else out of me, regardless of how I felt about them in return, which the same certainly couldn’t be said about you. None of them ever asked me to join them for a home-cooked meal at their apartment, that’s for certain.”

“Well, did you ever make any of them breakfast?” Barclay mused, Joseph looking down at the plates in his hand and smiling, realizing the significance.

“No. No, I didn’t.”


 

“Barclay. Barclay! ” Aubrey hissed from the backroom when he walked into the cafe at the beginning of his shift, waving him to come back quickly. Uh oh, that was never a good sign. Pulling off his coat, he hurried into the back, concern on his face.

“Don’t tell me we have another leak, we just got that last one fixed.” 

Now that it was regularly getting into freezing temperatures, they’d been having a few issues with the pipes leaking and cracking already. If the plumber was to be believed (and Barclay had no reason not to), they’d likely have to get much of the piping replaced sooner than later. Barclay didn’t know when they’d be able to close for renovations, maybe in the spring.

“What? No, I need to talk to you.” She gave Jake a thumbs up to make sure he was good at the register before ushering Barclay into Mama’s office, closing the door behind them. Before he could even get a word in, she grimaced, looking nervous. “So don’t freak out but... I think Agent Stern broke into your apartment. I think I saw him leaving it the other day when you weren’t home, looking around all sketchily and trying to not be noticed.”

Shit. 

Joseph had been staying at his apartment for the better part of a week, the pair of them working on navigating their relationship and feelings. Joseph was better at opening up some days, while others not so much, and Barclay was still struggling to completely trust his partner, but they were doing better.

They’d discussed the future of Stern’s living arrangements at length, weighing the pros and cons.

“I really wouldn’t want to impose, Barclay. This is your home and considering we’re not exactly at an optimal place in our relationship, I wouldn’t want you to feel like you can’t have your own space if you need it.” Joseph sighed, the pair sitting and talking in the living room over dinner after Barclay had gotten home that first day. The morning had gotten away from them and they hadn’t had the chance to go down to the motel to explain things to the owners, so Barclay had suggested they talk about it when he got back from work.

He was still mulling it over, but after returning from a long day of work only to find that Joseph had gotten groceries and made dinner for them as well, he had to admit-- the thought of having someone to come home to was... nice. Joseph wasn’t the most extravagant chef, but not having to think about what he was gonna have to cook when he got home was a godsend.

That said, he did make a good point. Barclay popped a piece of broccoli into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. There would almost definitely be times he would feel the need for some privacy. He swallowed his food before speaking.

“I mean. My bedroom has a door for a reason. If I need to have some time to myself, I can just close it ,” Barclay pointed out, gesturing at Joseph with his fork. “What about you though? I’d want you to be able to have your own space if you need it too. My living room isn’t exactly private.”

“I’ve had to tolerate an astounding lack of privacy working for the FBI, Barclay. I assure you I can handle sharing space with one person. A person I like very much, I might add, as opposed to some of the other types of people I’ve had to endure.” Stern scrunched up his nose, jostling his glasses as he apparently remembered something unpleasant. “Worse comes to worst, I can escape to my vehicle for a while. Having tinted windows has its perks.”

“Yeah, but you shouldn’t have to,” Barclay grumbled, idly pushing some of his food around on his plate.

“Would it not make sense for me to return to the motel then? I have to admit, Barclay, I can’t tell if you actually want me staying here or not.” Joseph looked perplexed, putting his empty plate on Barclay’s coffee table.

“I haven’t decided yet. This is kinda nice, and it’ll give us a chance to talk stuff out and see each other more. If we might only have three months, I don’t wanna spend the whole time being awkward about it because we never get to see each other. Our schedules don’t always line up great and I’m sure you’re gonna be out in the field a lot now trying to find Ned and this guy. This way, we’ll be able to put the time we need into working through this.”

“Hm. You do have a fair point. I barely saw you the weeks leading up to our fight, save for the night of our date and Ms. Cobb’s attack.” The agent pulled his legs up into his chair, getting more comfortable. “I don’t particularly like the idea of returning to that. I missed you greatly.” 

“You would have internet access here. I still gotta get stuff smoothed over at the shop, so you’d be able to work on your computer from here.” 

“Another pro to my staying here. I was finally able to get my reports in today, which was very much needed, so I appreciate you letting me use it. I didn’t realize that working in the National Radio Quiet Zone would be such a nightmare to operate in on a communicative level.” Joseph shook his head, eyeing Barclay carefully.

“So, how do you intend to explain this to your coworkers and friends? I can’t imagine they’ll be particularly thrilled that you went from not even talking to me to me potentially living in your apartment. They’re very protective.”

“I dunno, I’ll just figure something out I guess. They’ll be weird about it at first, and I can’t promise you won’t get cornered and given the shovel talk, but they care about me and if they see that you’re making me happy, they’ll accept it.” Barclay nodded, finishing his own dinner and stacking his plate on Stern’s. The other man smiled tightly.

“Then I’d better not hurt you again, lest they run me out of town.” He replied ruefully. Joseph then stood, clearing up they’re plates. Barclay got up too, following him to the kitchen to help with the washing up. Joseph had cooked, it was only fair. “Not that I’d ever want that to happen again.”

“Yeah, I’m probably gonna be hurt by stuff sometimes though. And you probably are too. Once they get used to it, my friends will understand that it’s gonna be like any other relationship, and that we’ll have our ups and downs. Joseph just nodded quietly, getting a dishrag and waiting for Barclay to hand the wet dishes off to him.

“If I do stay here, I’d pay rent of course, and contribute to the utilities and food costs.”

“Oh, yeah sure, of course. Rent’s already pretty cheap, so splitting it will basically make it pocket change, but hey, having a little cash left for savings is never gonna be something I complain about.” Barclay chuckled, scrubbing down the pan Joseph had cooked in after he’d finished the plates.

“Hm, that is another perk I suppose.” Stern nodded, a pensive expression creasing his brow. “You know, unless you intend for me to never leave,--which I would be rather opposed to, mind-- there will be talk. It’s such a small town, someone’s bound to see me leaving at some point and you know there will be rumors.”

“Let ‘em. An important thing about small towns like this is that you can’t let hearsay dictate what you do and don’t do. People will always talk; it’s something to do. If they wanna whisper about me living with my new lover, they can go for it. It’s not like they’re wrong, even though they don’t know the full story. If someone brings it up, we’ll deal with it then.”

Joseph blushed, but seemed satisfied with Barclay’s answer. “Lovers? Is that what we are?”

“I mean. I dunno. There’s all kinds of things we could be called. Lovers, partners, boyfriends. Significant others, though that one’s always been kind of a mouthful to me.”

“And.. you’re alright with using one of those with the current state of our relationship?” Stern leaned against the counter now that they’d finished up the dishes, hope in his eyes.

“I mean... we’ve got a hell of a lot of stuff to work on, but.. Yeah. I guess I am.” He crossed over to Stern, putting a hand on his arm. “Sure we’re ‘ working on our relationship’ but that still means we’re in one, right? And it’s not like I don’t have feelings for you anymore, Joseph. I wouldn’t be doing any of this otherwise. If you think I’m acting out of pity, you can get that out of your head right now.”

“No, of course not! I didn’t mean it that way at all. If I suspected you pitied me, I don’t think this would be something I’d bother pursuing further either. I’ve had enough one-sided flings in my life, I’d rather not stomach another.”

“Complicated, but not one-sided. Promise.” He offered the man a soft smile as he gave his bicep a little squeeze. 

“Well, if we must pick a word, I’m rather fond of boyfriend. Lover seems too salacious, and partner just reminds me of work.”

“I can get behind boyfriend.” Barclay nodded with a grin. “So, I guess that leaves one question for this conversation.”

“What’s that?”

“Do you want to stay here?”

Joseph bit his lip, but nodded, his body tense. “Yes. I do.”

“Okay. Then you can stay.” 

He pulled Joseph in closer, kissing his newly christened boyfriend gently. Joseph relaxed against his lips, letting out a relieved breath through his nose. They’d spent the rest of the night quietly cuddled on the sofa, watching TV before it was time to get some sleep. 

He’d told himself he’d inform everyone at the shop of his new living arrangements soon, when he could just get them all together, but that had proved harder than he’d thought and then that pipe had burst and it had all gotten pushed to the wayside. 

So, he shouldn’t have been surprised that he would get the option of telling them himself taken from him as a penalty for taking too long. Aubrey had no doubt spotted Joseph when the man was trying to be subtle about his staying there. He had a habit of being careful even if Barclay had told him he didn’t care what others thought. But in hindsight, Stern might have had the right idea at least until he’d gotten the chance to tell the Amnesty crew.

“Ah. Yeah.. About that.” He grimaced, shifting uncomfortably under Aubrey’s gaze. Obviously, that wasn’t the reaction she’d been expecting, because her displeasure with Stern quickly shifted to confusion, followed just as quickly by stark realization. Her eyes widened.

“You already knew. Barclay, what the hell is going on? Why was Stern in your apartment?” 

“Because...” He shuffled awkwardly, really wishing he’d done this sooner. Curse the distracting nature of everyday life. “He’s kinda.. Living there.. With me.”

Aubrey blinked a few times at him, before a grin crossed her face and she pulled him in for a hug, knocking the wind out of him. “Barclayyyyyy, you could have just said so. I’m guessing you guys got back together then?”

“-Oof. Uh, yeah actually.” He tentatively hugged her back until she let go, this being not at all how he was expecting her to react. “I kinda thought you’d be more worried or upset.”

“I mean, I am a little, but you were so miserable when you guys broke up. And I trust your ability to make good decisions. If Stern wasn’t bending over backwards to make things right, which I’m assuming he is-”

“He is.”

“-then I know you probably wouldn’t be getting back together with him. Dani on the other hand.. I’ll try to keep her away from anything pointy around him.”

“If you could let me talk to her myself, I’d appreciate it. I kinda fucked up by leaving it so long anyway. Gotta tell Mama too, next time I go over and see her.”

Mama was finally back home recuperating, released from the hospital a few days after Thanksgiving. Thacker had volunteered to look after her for the rest of her recovery with Quella’s help, so Barclay could focus his time on running and managing the cafe in her stead. It was definitely a load off his mind.

“And everyone else too, or you know they’re gonna start asking questions.” Aubrey sat on Mama’s desk, swinging her feet. She was lucky Barclay had tidied up in Mama’s absence, because who knows what she’d be sitting on if he hadn’t. “Maybe you can bring him to our pub night on Friday, just rip the bandage off once and for all. Mama said she might even come if she’s feeling well enough.”

“Do you think that would work?” It would admittedly be easier than telling everyone one on one and dealing with all the fallout each time.

“Yeah! I mean, I’d think so. It would also give us all a chance to talk to the guy and pick his brain. You gotta remember that we like... don’t really know him, Barclay. We know what you tell us and we’ve had a few conversations with the guy, but we’ve never sat down and gotten to know him like you did.” She idly fidgeted with a pencil as she spoke. “This would be a good opportunity to change that.”

“Hm. Maybe.” Barclay rubbed his bearded jaw, mulling it over. “I’ll have to talk with him about it.”


 

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea anymore.” Joseph eyed the pub hesitantly from Barclay’s passenger window as they pulled into the parking lot. He rubbed his hands on his jeans anxiously, glancing down at his outfit. 

Barclay had suggested he wear something comfortable for this, Stern’s “Bigfoot Saw Me, But Nobody Believes Him” sweatshirt peeking out from under his coat. Somehow Barclay had the feeling that the gang wouldn’t be particularly keen to see him, so him dressing casually might help soften the blow a bit.

“I have no idea, I’m kinda worried about it myself. If you’re really not comfortable with this, I can just go by myself and explain what’s going on to everyone.” He put a hand on Joseph’s knee after they parked. The agent sighed and shook his head.

“..No, what Ms. Little told you was right. None of your friends actually know me, and I doubt they’ll have an easy time accepting me into your life as is, much less if they only know what you’ve told them. Not saying they don’t trust your judgement, but they need to make their own impressions beyond what little they know of me through you. I want to do this right for you, Barclay.”

“Okay. And I’ll be right here too. I don’t think anyone is gonna be particularly harsh with you; it’s probably just gonna be awkward at most.” Barclay nodded, getting out of the car and joining with Joseph in front of the pub. He took the man’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze as they walked toward the door, both of them equally nervous. “Okay, I’m gonna poke my head inside and see if I can see them, one sec.”

“Alright.” Joseph let go of his hand, hunching in his coat as Barclay peered in to survey the scene. It seemed like everyone else had arrived, Barclay specifically making sure they showed up a little late so everyone had a chance to get there before them. It looked like Duck had even brought Minerva along, which made him feel a little better.

Aubrey spotted him in the doorway, everyone seated at their favorite table. He gave her a small smile and she gave him a thumbs up and a grin, Dani and a few others looking to see what she was looking at until they spotted Barclay as well, giving him a wave. He smiled awkwardly back, gesturing for them to give him a moment before slipping back outside.

“Yeah, everyone’s here. You ready?” He offered a gloved hand again, which Joseph took, nodding as he wove his fingers between Barclay’s.

“I suppose as ready as I’ll ever be.”

Taking one last breath of cold night air, Barclay pushed through the door, Joseph trailing behind. Everyone stared, the barista waving sheepishly as he felt Joseph grip his hand tighter. Aubrey was giving them an encouraging smile and Thacker just seemed pleased, but confusion seemed to be the prevalent emotion around the table.

“Hey y’all. I uh... brought someone along as you can see.”

“Hello.” Joseph waved awkwardly next to him, the tension palpable. Dani’s eyes were flicking between him, Stern, and their clasped hands, her expression grim. Never a good sign. Mama raised an eyebrow at the pair of them, but didn’t say anything, but the rest of them just looked puzzled. He’d only discussed at length his and Stern’s break up with Mama, Dani and Indrid, and to some extent Thacker, though it had become common knowledge among them all.

“Um. Before you say anything, I wanted to tell you guys. In case you haven’t guessed, Joseph and I are... back together. We needed to work some stuff out, and we still kinda are but, we’re cool now, right?” He glanced at Joseph, who blushed and nodded. 

“Yes. We wanted to figure ourselves out a bit before we told anyone, so I apologize that this hasn’t come up sooner. But Barclay wanted all of you to know and I wanted the chance to sit down and maybe get to know some of his friends. So I hope my being here isn’t too much of a hassle.”

Mama glanced around, since no one seemed to have a response. She shrugged, gesturing at the empty spots at the table. “Well then, have a seat.”

The pair nodded, stripping off their coats and tucking them away before having a seat. Duck raised an eyebrow at what Joseph was wearing, chuckling softly.

“Nice shirt. dude. Bigfoot fan?”

“Thank you, and yes, I have a fondness for cryptids. Bigfoot in particular.” Joseph replied, smiling awkwardly and rubbing his arm. Barclay could already tell that Joseph felt very out of his element amongst his friends. He was usually great with people, but he supposed it was probably easier when you were just doing your job, verses trying to convince your boyfriend’s found family that you weren’t an asshole.

“Cool, cool.” Duck nodded, taking a swig of his beer. Barclay sunk in his seat when he realized that no one else was saying anything, Joseph looking very uncomfortable next to him. He gently put his hand on the agent’s knee as he pleadingly looked to Aubrey and Thacker for help. Thacker didn’t seem to pick up on what he was trying to convey, but Aubrey did after a moment, sitting upright.

“Right! So we were just talking about getting a ski trip together now that ski season is getting into full swing. I know we’re probably gonna be busy for most of the season, but I figured we could close maybe sometime in the middle of a week so we could get together and have some fun. Mama, you said you’d be okay with it, right?”

“Don’t see why not. What do you think, Barclay? You’ve been runnin’ things while I’ve been out of commission, you think we could get by takin’ a day?”

“I mean, we closed the shop for a few days after you went in the hospital and the world didn’t implode, so I don’t see why not.” Barclay nodded, rubbing soothing circles on Joseph's leg. The agent was still ramrod in his seat, and it wasn’t hard to see why. 

While most of the crew slowly eased into the conversation once more, Dani was still staring daggers at Stern. It was a situation that, while frustrating, he could understand where the discomfort was coming from on both ends.

They chatted for a while, making plans for the trip, though Joseph stayed mostly quiet, as did Dani. Finally, during a lull in the conversation, Joseph put a hand on Barclay’s shoulder, leaning in to talk to him.

“I’m going to go get us some drinks; what do you want?” He whispered, his voice strained.

“Oh, I’m good with anything. Just get me whatever you get,” Barclay replied, giving his hand a squeeze as he watched him go. The others watched as well until Stern was out of earshot, Dani leaning in, a scowl on her face.

“Barclay, what the hell? You’re back with Stern? When did this happen?” She hissed, obviously upset. 

“Dani, don’t-” Aubrey pulled at Dani’s arm, trying to get her girlfriend to calm down, but the other woman didn’t seem to be having any of it.

“Don’t what? Don’t be upset that my best friend got back with a guy that only got to know him to study him, and invaded his privacy? Barclay, I thought you had better sense than that, I remember how fucked up you were about it.”

“Hey now, no need to be like that.” Mama interjected, frowning at her outburst. Dani grimaced, but flopped back into her seat, crossing her arms. Everyone else was just watching the exchange, unsure of what to say. Minerva whispered something to Duck out of the corner of his eye, the ranger whispering back.

“I just don’t want to see you hurt again, dude. How do you know he isn’t gonna do the same shit and you’ll end up heartbroken again?” Barclay understood where she was coming from, he really did, and it had been something he’d seriously considered before letting Joseph back into his life.

“I don’t know. He very well might. But we’ve been talking through it, and he’s making efforts to change. I’m not just going into this blindly, Dani. I’ve been setting boundaries and guidelines that I’ve made clear he needs to follow. And he still has a little trouble with it, but he’s been doing really well. I can tell he really wants to make this right. Hell, I could have just told y’all this myself, but he wanted to come with me so we could tell you and he could actually properly meet you guys. He’s trying and I want to give him that second chance.”

“Mh... Fine.” Dani still didn’t look happy about it, but her shoulders slumped. He could tell she was still conflicted about the whole thing, but maybe she’d give Joseph more of a chance. “We’re gonna talk about this more later, okay? I’ll stop by tomorrow after I get off.”

“Okay. Um.. maybe now would be a good time to mention that he’s also currently living with me.” That got a response out of everyone else, though it was mostly shocked chuckles and gasps.

“What?! Seriously, dude?” Dani was back up in arms again, Barclay groaning.

“Yes, okay, I know it’s sudden and probably kinda rushed, but he got kicked out of his motel because word got around that we broke up, and I wasn’t about to let him sleep at the campgrounds in thirty-degree weather.”

“Ah. That one’s on me. Sorry.” Indrid piped up from where he’d been sitting quietly at the end of the table, just listening to their conversation. Barclay was glad he’d agreed to start joining them at their pub nights, it was good to have him. “In my defense, I was just trying to get him out of the cafe. I didn’t know we’d been overheard.”

“It’s fine, Indrid. I appreciate you standing up for me.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do here too, Barclay. If Stern hurts you again-” 

“Excuse me?” Dani was interrupted when one of the bartenders came over, carrying a pint of craft beer, which he handed to Barclay. “Some guy came over, paid for this and said to give it to you. He said he was sorry, but he had to go, and then he left.”

“Shit.” Barclay’s heart dropped, taking the glass and leaving it on the table as he got up and started pulling his coat on, grabbing Stern’s coat where it hung over his chair. “He must have overheard us talking.”

“Didn’t you guys come together?” Jake asked, looking concerned as he glanced at the door. “It’s supposed to snow tonight.”

“Oooh, that’s not good.” Thacker echoed. Most of them looked worried, while Dani just looked a little guilty, hugging her arms. Barclay nodded, starting for the door.

“Yeah, he did, which means he can’t have gotten far. I’m gonna go see if I can find him.” He’d have to talk with Dani later, but first he needed to go make sure his upset boyfriend didn’t catch hypothermia. Shaking his head, he hurried out the door.


 

“There you are.” Joseph looked up, his hands stuffed in his armpits, giving Barclay a tired smile. Barclay had found the man not far from the pub, sitting on a bench near city hall, the streetlight above illuminating his face as the barista approached. He could tell Joseph was doing his best to keep his expression neutral, but could see the hurt in his eyes.

“Ah, you brought my coat, thank you. I didn’t really think about it until I’d gotten a block away.” Barclay nodded, wrapping Joseph’s coat around his shoulders before sitting next to him. The agent pulled it around himself as Barclay rubbed his back.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fi-” Stern stopped, his voice catching. He took a deep breath and tried again. “No. No, I’m not. It seems I have better hearing than your friend anticipated, and I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

“Yeah, I figured.” Barclay was proud that Joseph was being open with him about it, but understood he was hurting. “Dani means well, she’s just very protective of me. She’s like the little sister I never had, and god forbid someone mess with her big brother.”

“Yes, sisters can be like that.” Joseph smirked softly, nodding a little as he pulled his gloves out of his coat pocket and put them on. He then leaned his head on Barclay’s shoulder, the bigger man wrapping his arm around the agent. “I worry I’ll never be truly accepted by them, and I could live with that, but I don’t want to be the force that drives your friends apart from you, Dani in particular.”

“It’s just gonna take them time I guess. I don’t think this is gonna be something that could hurt my friendship with her. We’re adults and we can talk this out, she’s just worried and had to air out her concerns.” He rubbed Stern’s arm, the other man letting out a long breath.

“I suppose so. I understand why they don’t trust me. I wouldn’t trust me if I’d hurt someone I cared about like I did either.” He paused, looking vexed. “That last sentence sounded better in my head.”

“I know what you meant, though.” Barclay kissed his temple, running his fingers over the man’s dark hair. “So did you have a plan on where you were going to go when you walked out, knowing you didn’t have a car? Or..”

"I did not," He replied, staring off into the middle distance, a mortified flush to his cheeks. “That’s a bit silly, isn’t it.”

“Naw, you were upset about it, we all do stupid stuff when we’re upset. It’s okay.” Barclay chuckled, touseling the other man’s hair. “You don’t have to be the pinnacle of perfection, y’know.”

“Feels like it sometimes. But you make me want to be less perfect.” He scrunched up his nose. “Is that a weird thing to say? I feel like it is.”

“Nobody’s perfect, Joseph, and trying to be isn’t gonna get you anywhere. I just want you to be yourself. Your big, goofy, bigfoot-loving, sweet-tooth-having, listens-to-pop-music-in-secret, completely adorable self.” Barclay grinned, Joseph chuckling as he shook his head, cheeks rosy. 

“I’ll do what I can, then.” He leaned forward, kissing Barclay gratefully, a gloved hand on Barclay’s beard. They embraced until they were distracted by something cold and wet on their skin, looking up to see snow beginning to flutter down in the light of the street lamp.

“We should prolly head back.”

“If you think I’ll be accepted there.”

“Worth a shot.”

Joseph nodded, the pair of them getting up from the bench and walking hand in hand back to the pub, watching the snow drift down around them. When they got back, Barclay spotted Dani and Aubrey standing outside waiting for them worriedly, Aubrey hopping from foot to foot to stay warm. 

When she saw them returning, Dani approached, her hands stuffed into her coat pockets. Snow caught in her hair as it fell around them, the young woman seeming to be collecting her words. She finally looked to Stern, letting out a long breath.

“Um.. I wanted to say I’m sorry. I said some shit without giving you a chance, and that wasn’t fair of me,” She apologized, hunching her shoulders. “You’re important to Barclay, and I gotta have some faith that he’s doing what’s right for himself.”

“It’s alright. I’m sorry as well. I should have been more communicative with him from the beginning about my intentions. I almost lost him for my mistake, so it’s something I’d rather make sure never happens again.” He squeezed Barclay’s fingers, smiling gently. “Or at the very least, do better with expressing myself. Both to him and to his friends. You’re all very much an important part of his life too, I don’t ever want to get in the way of that, and would like it very much if I could get to know you all as well.”

“...Yeah, alright.” Dani smiled a little. “But if you break his heart again, you better watch your back, Stern."

“I have no doubt, and deserve that fate should I ever do something like that a second time.” Joseph replied solemnly.

“Cool.” She nodded, seemingly content with his answer before tilting her head back towards Aubrey and the door. “You wanna come back in? It’s cold as fuck out here.”

“Thank you. I’d like that very much.”

Barclay and Stern still hand in hand, they all walked back inside to rejoin their friends in the warmth of the pub as the little town of Kepler was blanketed with snow.

Chapter Text

“Holy shit ,” Joseph cursed under his breath from where he was settled on the sofa, his computer on his lap. Barclay looked up from his book, blinking at the exclamation. His boyfriend clasped a hand over his mouth before straightening, scrolling quickly through whatever he was looking at on the screen. Stern didn’t make a habit of swearing, so it must be something particularly alarming.

“What’s up? Anything I can see?” Stern’s eyes flicked quickly behind his glasses, obviously engrossed. Barclay leaned in, but not too close until Joseph distractedly waved him over. He scooted over to have a look, what seemed to be a file appearing once the distortion of the screen dissipated with his closer proximity. The mugshot of a grizzled looking man stood out to him. “Who’s that?”

“His name is Boyd Mosche.” Joseph bit his lip, hurriedly pouring over the information before him. “They just found a match with the DNA sample, as well as a partial print found at a previous scene. It took awhile to get because he’s British, working with international paperwork is a pain, but he’s our guy.”

“Holy shit, ” Barclay echoed, scooting closer so he was flush against Joseph’s side, watching the other man go over the perp’s information. He caught bits and pieces, but it was obvious that Joseph read way faster than he did, so Barclay just waited for his boyfriend to summarize like he knew he would.

“He’s currently forty-seven, born and raised in West Yorkshire. He had a few arrests back in England, but they were rather minor B&Es with no injuries and he got off light. He came to visit the US legally from the looks of it several years ago, but at some point, he just dropped out of the public eye, the dates lining up with when we suspected his crimes on US soil to begin.” 

Joseph trailed off, mumbling what he was reading under his breath as he picked up a pen next to him, and began to idly click it. Barclay just nodded as he listened, a hand slowly petting Joseph’s hair. Barclay knew if he wasn’t, Stern would probably get up and start pacing. The man tended to get a little wound up when he got new information on the case, which was one of the many new things Barclay had learned about him in the last two and a half weeks of them living together.

It had been a learning experience for both of them. Joseph was definitely getting better at letting development between them happen naturally as well as being more open with his feelings, but Barclay had found he’d had things to learn too. Joseph had boundaries just as much as he did.

For instance, he’d found out that Joseph reacted rather strongly to Barclay putting his hand on the back of his neck, and not in a way Barclay considered good. The agent had frozen up the first time he’d ever done it, body tense under the bigger man’s touch. 

Barclay had, of course, pulled away instantly and asked what was wrong. Apparently, Joseph’s father had had a habit of pressuring the back of Joseph’s neck with his hand when he was a child, often when he thought his son was being too overexcited or rambunctious, to try to get him to stand still. Joseph had never thought of it in a particularly negative light, he’d just said he still reacted that way from being conditioned to it for so long. 

Still, it was a touch Barclay has made an effort to avoid from then on. Stern had other touch-spots that helped him calm down when he was anxious that weren’t so forceful or direct. Joseph seemed to like his hair petted, and a hand on his knee, the most.

He’d also found out that Joseph had a near-debilitating phobia of needles.

This particular fact had come up about a week and a half ago when Barclay was doing his testosterone shot. He’d forgotten to lock the bathroom doors while he was doing it, and, well..

“Why is this light on- O-ohhh...” Stern’s words died in his throat when he opened the door and saw just what Barclay was doing. Barclay blinked up at him, the needle still buried halfway into his thigh, glad he hadn’t jostled it from being startled. He hadn’t expected Joseph to be home yet, and apparently Joseph hadn’t thought he was home either.

“Oh, hey, sorry. You’re back early today. I’ll be done in just a- Hey, are you alright?” Stern had turned completely pallid, watching with horror before he managed to pry his eyes away from the scene. 

“Y..yes, I’m just going to-” Joseph couldn’t finish his sentence as his chest lurched, the man clamping a hand over his mouth and turning tail as fast as his legs could carry him. A few seconds later, Barclay heard the sound of Joseph retching in the kitchen. Barclay grimaced, quickly finishing up his shot and sticking a bandaid over it, before following his boyfriend. 

Stern was hunkered over the sink, his breathing ragged and hoarse as he shakily turned the water on to wash away the mess he’d made. Barclay padded over, not looking too closely at the sink as he made sure Joseph knew he was there before putting his hand on the man’s back. 

Beads of sweat clung to Joseph’s pale skin, the agent still looking like he might pass out. Barclay stayed by his side, rubbing circles between his shoulder-blades and steadying him so he wouldn’t fall over.

“Gonna guess the answer to that was actually no, then.” He murmured, Joseph swallowing thickly as he nodded.

“...More or less.” He coughed, spitting into the sink before grabbing the closest hand towel and wetting it down. He dabbed it on his mouth and face, trying to regain his composure, but Barclay still thought he looked pale. Once he was finally convinced Joseph wouldn’t end up on the floor, he pulled away and got the man a glass for water, which the agent graciously took and filled.

“You wanna go sit down?”

“That might be wise.” 

“Okay.” Barclay walked with him over to the sofa, a hand still on Joseph’s arm until he got the man seated, plopping down beside him. Joseph sipped his water, looking more mortified than anything. He was looking anywhere but his boyfriend, color finally coming back to his face in the form of embarrassment. 

“I apologize for walking in. I didn’t realize you were home already; your truck wasn’t in the parking lot.” He shifted uncomfortably, taking another sip of water before setting the glass down.

“Yeah, it’s supposed to snow pretty heavy tonight, so I parked up the hill so my truck wouldn’t get stuck. Tire chains can only do so much good. You probably should too when you’re feeling up to it.” Barclay rubbed Joseph’s arm reassuringly, giving him a small smile.  “...It’s okay, y’know. A lot of people don’t like needles.”

“It feels so silly , though. I don’t even know why. It’s just this visceral reaction I have almost no control over.” Stern grumbled, clearing his throat as he leaned against Barclay. “I’ve seen injuries, and medical procedures, and all manner of other unpleasant things in my line of work and yet I’m only bothered when needles get involved. It makes me feel ridiculous and weak-minded.”

“Yeah, but you can’t help that. It just happens, you can’t beat yourself up about it. Phobias usually don’t make sense.”

“I suppose not, but it’s more serious than you might think. I technically shouldn’t even have my job with such a drastic phobia. We’re not supposed to have anything that could be used to extract information from us, and having crippling trypanophobia could definitely make me a security risk. I desperately wanted the position however, and was convinced helping people outweighed whatever information someone could get from me.” 

He kicked off his shoes and pulled his legs up, settling into the crook of Barclay’s arm, his expression grim. “I managed to get it past the screening through rigorous self-discipline, but I can only hold it together when I’m expecting it, like for bloodwork and vaccinations. Unprepared, however... well, you saw what happened.”

“Well, your secret’s safe with me. And we can set up a system to make sure you’re not gonna see my shot stuff. I keep it in a metal lunchbox in my underwear drawer, so as long as you don’t root around in there, you’ll be good on that front.” He gave Joseph a little squeeze before continuing. 

“As for my actual shots, I have a schedule I do them on. Or.. well, a schedule I try to do them on. Sometimes I just forget or it gets away from me, admittedly. I’ve been on T for so long it feels like it’s just maintenance at this point. I’ll try tell you when I’m gonna do them and also make sure I lock the doors regardless of if you’re home or not.”

“I appreciate it.” Joseph leaned his head on Barclay’s shoulder, the barista’s hand finding its way into his dark hair again. “You’re so good to me, you know that? If I have a problem, you’re understanding and don’t expect me to just suck it up, or change how I’m feeling. It’s.. admittedly different from what I’m used to.”

“I would hope so. This is a relationship, it’s about working stuff out when something’s wrong, not making sacrifices.” He kissed the top of Joseph’s head, the other man smiling gently. “You’re really good to me too; you’ve been really caring and thoughtful. Yeah, you were conditioned into some unhealthy relationship practices, but you’ve acknowledged that they were a problem and you’re willing to learn and change. And you’ve been doing really well! I know it’s hard to let go of that stuff.”

“Once I saw and felt the difference, it only made sense. Not having to hide everything about myself is rather freeing, especially knowing you’re not going to judge me. I still get a bit anxious about telling you things sometimes, but you’re patient with me.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.” Barclay nodded, getting comfortable with his partner. 

That night had been special, as it was the first time he’d invited Joseph into his bed. It had been just to sleep and they hadn’t been sure how to position themselves at first, but he had thought it was high time Joseph be relieved from sleeping on the sofa. 

They’d since gotten more comfortable, learning each other’s sleeping habits and preferences. They liked to be touching, but Joseph got cold easily and preferred to be cozy all the way under the blankets, while Barclay just radiated warmth and overheated easily. This often meant they had to position the blankets mostly over Stern, while leaving Barclay’s back exposed to the air whenever they curled up together. This more often than not made Barclay the big spoon, but it didn’t seem to be a hardship for his boyfriend.

Being in such close proximity had also lead to some more intimate moments as well, but nothing overtly sexual yet. Interestingly enough, their hesitations seemed to be switched after everything that had happened. Barclay was now out to Joseph as trans, which had been the leading factor in his sexual anxiety, but his boyfriend seemed more unsure now. 

They’d talked about it a little and it became clear that now that Joseph had accepted that they were more than just a fling, he was nervous about doing things properly. Barclay had assured him that he had no expectations and that he was comfortable with whatever they wanted to try whenever Joseph was ready, and it had been left at that. At least for now.

Barclay refocused to the present, feeling Stern’s body tense against him with restless energy. Joseph was obviously keyed up and it probably didn’t help matters that they were snowed in today. 

“You know you can’t just run out there and look for him when there’s a foot of snow on the ground, right? The plow will get everything cleared out tomorrow, you just gotta sit tight, babe.” Barclay chuckled, Joseph letting out a huff through his nose as he pushed up his glasses.

“Yes, I know. I couldn’t get my car out of the lot, even if I wanted to. It’s just frustrating to have a new lead and not be able to do much with it. I suppose I could make some calls...”

“Yeah, if you want to, but look at me and tell me that wouldn’t get you more wound up because you wouldn’t be able to follow up on them.” Barclay asked, Joseph looking up at his boyfriend’s face with a sigh. 

“You know me so well already.” He snorted, leaning in to give Barclay a kiss. Barclay hummed against his lips, sneakily shutting Stern’s laptop on his lap while the man was otherwise engaged with kissing him. Joseph made an indignant noise, pulling away, but he was still smiling. “Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be, is it?”

“I mean, we’re already snowed in, no need for you to get yourself more agitated over not being able to do anything.” Barclay mused, stealing another kiss and this time not so subtly putting Joseph’s computer on the coffee table so it wouldn’t be between them anymore. The agent rolled his eyes, but draped his arms around Barclay’s neck.

“So you have a better idea of what we could be doing, do you?” He chuckled, cheeks pink. Barclay flushed as well, pressing kisses to the other man’s throat. It was a little scratchy with a hint of stubble, Stern having not bothered shaving this morning when he’d seen he wouldn’t be able to leave the apartment today anyway. 

“I might,” Barclay purred, Joseph tilting his head back to accept his onslaught of kisses as Barclay gently slid hand along the side of Joseph’s thigh. His partner’s breath hitched at the touch, but he didn’t seem uncomfortable. Quite the opposite if anything. 

“Do you now?” Joseph smirked.

Barclay slid his hand under Joseph’s sweatshirt, shifting their position so they weren’t so cramped. Joseph readily leaned back onto the sofa’s armrest, giving Barclay more access. The bigger man pressed his fingers into Joseph’s hips as he kissed him, their mouths open and wet. This was about as far as they’d gotten so far, but man, if it didn’t do something to Barclay to see his beloved laid out before him like that.

“Only if you want to though.” Barclay kissed the curve of the man’s jaw once more before he pulled away to make sure that this was okay with his boyfriend. Joseph bit his lip, a deeper hue coming to his cheeks as he thought it over, before meeting Barclay’s eyes and nodding.

“Yes. If you’re sure you are, I am too.”

“Yeah. Definitely. We can take it slow if that helps.” Barclay nodded, sliding Joseph’s shirt up so he could kiss the man’s belly. Joseph was rather sparse on body hair, but he did have a faint happy trail that disappeared into his pants that Barclay just adored. The agent let out a soft huff.

“I’m hardly a blushing virgin, Barclay. I just.. you know.”

“You’re not using me, Joseph. I want this. Hell, I’ve wanted this since we started dating the first time, I just didn’t know if you would be cool with me being trans. You’re fuckin’ hot, dude.” He chuckled, Joseph further warming up to his words and touches. Barclay lips started dipping lower with each kiss, feeling Joseph shudder under him in apprehension.

“The same could be said for yourself. I will never deny that my physical attraction to you was near instantaneous.” Joseph teased, letting out a breathy gasp as Barclay pressed his mouth to the edge of his beltline. Feeling bold, he ventured a hand between his boyfriend’s legs. 

He found the reaction he’d been hoping for there, but as soon as he pressed, Joseph made a muffled sound and his body went still. When Barclay looked up to the other man’s face in confusion, he immediately pulled away with concern for Stern’s expression. 

Joseph’s face looked tight, eyes shut, and he was biting his lip so hard he looked like he might peirce into it if he tried any harder. It was like his body had gone into lockdown.

“What’s wrong? We can stop.”

“Hm? Why? Nothing’s wrong.” Joseph blinked in confusion, his face smoothing out into a dazed expression. He was flushed but didn’t seem particularly distressed, much to Barclay’s relief.

“I dunno. You just kinda shut down and I was worried I did something.” He sat up in front of Joseph on the sofa to give him a little space if he needed it.

“Oh. No, I’m fine. And I do mean that really and truly.” Barclay wasn’t entirely sure he believed him, but he seemed to be being earnest about it, if a little befuddled. “I suppose it was just a.. force of habit, but I was enjoying where you were going, I promise.”

“Force of habit? For what, shutting down during sex?” That didn’t seem healthy, but Joseph just shrugged, looking a little self-conscious. 

“I’ve always been told I’m a bit... loud and clingy. Which wasn’t particularly what most of my previous partners were interested in. Most preferred the persona of a sauve and mysterious secret agent, and being noisy in bed ruined their perception of that somewhat. I’m better at keeping together when I’m the one doing the um... servicing .” He rubbed his arm awkwardly, looking away before continuing.

“I suppose it’s easier to keep your composure when you’re the one leading the situation. Not that I want to take charge here, I... quite like everything you’re doing. It’s always just been easier to hold everything back and enjoy what I can, while I can. My flings never lasted anyway, so I might as well give my lovers what they wanted out of it and not embarrass myself, you know?”

Barclay frowned, but knowing that Stern struggled with opening up and being himself, he couldn’t say it surprised him. He sighed with an understanding smile, gently kissing Joseph’s embarrassment from his cheeks. 

“Well, you don’t gotta do that with me if it doesn’t feel right. I wanna hear all your noises. Hell, I don’t even care if the neighbors hear you. Just means they get to know I treat you right.”

“Oh goodness,” Joseph laughed, putting a hand over his mouth at the thought. If Barclay didn’t know any better, he’d say Joseph was actually enjoying the idea, a flush coming to the man’s cheeks once more. Who was he kidding? Joseph was definitely enjoying the idea and he looked positively flustered by it. “Okay, I’ll try.” 

“Okay. Let me know if you need me to stop though.” 

“I will. As long as you do the same.” Joseph nodded, leaning up to kiss his boyfriend again. Barclay returned it with gusto, his hand sliding back down to pick up where he had stopped moments before.

He was pleased to find that their little aside hadn’t waned Joseph’s interest much, feeling his length still hard in his trousers. Barclay gave it a squeeze through the fabric, earning a soft moan against his lips from his partner. Stern crooked his knee up, pressing it against the barista’s groin, which Barclay happily rubbed himself on, the seam of his jeans pressuring his clit just right.

After a few minutes of kissing and heavy petting, Barclay felt cheeky enough to go for Stern’s belt buckle, fumbling with it for a moment. Unfortunately, he did not succeed without being able to see it, as he was still kissing the man, Joseph snickering as he reached down to assist until they got it open in a joint effort. 

Free to proceed once more, Barclay unbuttoned Joseph’s pants and released him from his fly, his cock visibly straining against his underwear. He gave it another squeeze before sliding his fingers under the waistband of his boxer-briefs, tugging them down as he went, finally freeing Joseph from his last layer of clothing. 

The man didn’t have the biggest cock he’d ever seen, but that certainly wasn’t something he was going to complain about. Big dicks tended to be less comfortable for him and Joseph was a much more manageable size. He was cut and had a slight left curve to his penis, a bead of precum perched at the slit. 

Barclay looked up to Stern to gauge his reaction as he grasped his length, thumb swirling the head. What he saw only made him hotter and wetter for the man.

Joseph was watching him, his lips parted and his face a dusty pink, glasses askew. Every time Barclay stroked him, his breath shuddered, the agent canting his hips into the other man’s touch. Barclay wet his lips, wondering if he could further encourage Joseph to let himself go and make some noise. 

“Hey, I wanna do some stuff with my mouth if that’s cool.” He murmured, leaning up and kissing Joseph one last time, giving him another tug in his warm, broad hand.

“Ah! By all means... please do..” Stern mumbled with a nod, sucking a breath through his teeth. Barclay grinned, shimming lower to position his face in Joseph’s lap. It had been a while since he’d sucked a dick, but he thought he remembered the gist of it. Steadying the man’s prick, he lathed his tongue across the head, getting his first taste of Stern. 

Joseph was definitely one of the more pleasant tasting people he’d had in his mouth. Stern was fastidious with his hygiene and grooming, so only the mild salt of fresh sweat clung to his skin, his precum having a lightly sweet flavor. Unsurprising, considering the amount of fruit Joseph ate to sate his sweet tooth when he was home. Careful with his teeth, Barclay popped his lips around the head, watching his boyfriend intently as he slid down the man’s shaft.

Joseph gripped the sofa, Barclay feeling him tense up again. He gently patted the man’s thigh to get his attention, Stern relaxing a little when he realized what he was doing, Barclay awkwardly grabbing for his hand while still preoccupied with his cock. Joseph got the idea though and gave it to him, which Barclay placed on his head, Joseph threading his fingers into Barclay’s long hair once he realized what his partner wanted him to do. 

The handhold seemed to ground Joseph a little, helping him feel more comfortable. As Barclay swallowed his length, Joseph was able to let a few breathy moans slip. Barclay had never really been able to do the whole deep-throating thing very well, so he kept most of his ministrations to his lips and tongue, but Stern didn’t seem to be complaining.

Upping the ante a little, the barista hummed against his shaft and that finally pulled a long and pleasured whine from the man, pleasing Barclay deeply. He took a deep breath through his nose, lest he forget to and choke, before reaching down and cradling the other man’s balls between his fingers. Joseph jolted, practically slamming his cock into Barclay’s mouth without meaning to, but the bigger man took it in stride, fighting off the gag reflex.

Fuck!... Sorry .” Joseph was quickly falling apart under Barclay’s touches, panting as he rocked his hips. It wasn’t long until he was mumbling “ Fuck” over and over under his breath, any other words seeming to have left him. His moans began filling the room as he squirmed and gripped Barclay’s hair more tightly, Barclay picking up his pace. 

After what had to have only have been moments, though Barclay was too involved to really be paying attention, Stern’s body tensed again, but this time in a way the other man recognized. Joseph groaned and he knew that this was probably his last chance to pull away if he didn’t want cum in his mouth. 

But, he decided he didn’t particularly care to. The texture was never his favorite, but Joseph tasted good enough that he could handle it. Leaning into it, he hummed one last time, sending his boyfriend over the edge of climax. Joseph let out a strangled groan, his feet curling into the sofa as he came.

Barclay’s mouth was filled with the sweet tang of the man’s spunk, swallowing as Stern came in spurts so he didn’t have to consider the consistency of the fluid for too long. He caught a glimpse of Joseph’s face, the man’s head tilted back in ecstasy as he rode through his orgasm, the sight of which made his clit throb with want.

His cock going soft in Barclay’s mouth, Joseph flopped back, taking off his glasses and pressing his arm over his eyes as he tried to catch his breath.

“...Sorry..” He mumbled apologetically, Barclay pulling off of him with a wet pop and licking his lips, raising an eyebrow.

“For what?”

“Dunno, I felt like I tugged your hair too hard or almost choked you.” He shrugged lazily, pulling his arm away to tuck himself back into his underwear. The barista just chuckled and shook his head, rocking back to give Stern space to collect himself in the afterglow.

“Naw, you were fine. I like getting my hair pulled, wouldn’t have put your hand there if I didn’t. And there's always the possibility of choking when you give a blowjob. Call it an occupational hazard.” He snickered, kissing the man when Stern sat up. His words brought a small smile to Joseph’s face, so he kissed him again and again until it grew, the agent laughing. “You make the best faces by the way. Anyone who’s told you you need to emote less can take my foot up their ass because you’re fuckin’ gorgeous.” 

“Oh goodness, you flatter me, Barclay,” Stern chuckled, nuzzling Barclay’s throat.

“It’s not flattery if it’s true,” Barclay pointed out. Joseph looked like he’d be blushing even harder if the flush of his face had actually receded yet.

“Let me return the favor. Please.” He pressed his hands against Barclay’s chest, gently pushing the man back against the other end of the sofa. Barclay let him, already reaching for his own belt so Joseph wouldn’t have to bother. The agent was kissing him, rubbing his crotch through his jeans as he let Barclay undo his own pants. Unlike Stern, Barclay couldn’t very well pull anything out, so it would take some finagling.

“Back up a sec, I gotta-” Joseph backed off him, Barclay lifting his butt off the couch so he could shimmy his jeans and boxers down to his thighs before plopping back down. Joseph reengaged eagerly with the kisses, but when he moved down to Barclay’s nethers, he stopped short. Barclay raised an eyebrow.

“What’s up?”

“Well, um..” Joseph bit his lip, looking at the other man sheepishly. “You might have to instruct me on just what I should be doing here. I’ve interacted with a vagina all of one time, and it was about as vanilla as you can get.”

Barclay snorted, smiling easily. “High school girlfriend?”

“Something like that. She was my nextdoor neighbor who I’d grown up with and it was the summer before I went to college. She wanted to be with me before I left, and being so very deep in the closet, I agreed. I ended up imagining my old high school’s quarterback the whole time.”

“Oof. Well, okay. So I’m gonna be a little different than a cis woman, because testosterone does stuff to your junk. For instance-” He grinned, spreading his labia with his fingers to give Joseph a better view. His enlarged clit was swollen to about the size of his thumb, very much looking like a small cock. Joseph raised his eyebrows, obviously not expecting that. 

“I’ve got some size to me. Obviously nothing you’ll ever choke on, but I imagine it feels pretty similar. I’m not the biggest fan of vaginal anyway, so don’t even worry about that. Like, it’s fine, but I don’t make a whole lot of natural lube, so penetration’s kinda rough and mostly just feels like someone’s poking around in there with a stick without something to help with the friction.”

“That sounds highly unpleasant.” Joseph made a face, but reached down, hovering just in front of Barclay’s groin. He looked unsure, and Barclay couldn’t blame him. This was a situation he knew nothing about and also their first sexual encounter, no doubt he was nervous.

“Hey, it’s okay if you’re not comfortable with this right now.  It’ll take me a really long time to get off manually or orally and I don’t want you to have to go that long for this,” He offered, idly rubbing his clit. Joseph’s sighed, his face pinched.

“I’m not just going to leave you unattended, but I’m worried I’ll do something wrong here.” He kissed Barclay again, putting his hand on his boyfriend’s thigh. “Just.. tell me what you need to cum. I want to give that to you. How do you usually mastrubate for instance?”

“What? Oh, uh... Well... alright, but you’re gonna have to get up first.” Barclay flushed as Joseph got off of him, clearing his throat. “And then I’m gonna need you to go into the drawer of my nightstand.”

“Okay.” Joseph nodded, heading to their shared room, now a man on a mission. After a few minutes of thumping around, he heard Stern call out to him. “So what exactly am I looking for in here?”

“You’ll know it when you see-”

“Oh! Ah. I see.” Barclay stopped mid-sentence to laugh when he heard his vibrator come on in the other room, much to Joseph's apparent amusement. It was quickly turned off, Joseph returning with it, an pleased smile on his face.

“It’s no wonder it takes you a long time any other way, you’ve probably desensitized yourself with this beast.” He teasingly shook the wand at Barclay as he dropped back onto the sofa, crawling back over to Barclay and kissing him again.

“Eh, maybe. It gets the job done pretty well though.” He chuckled, nipping Joseph’s lip and spreading his legs as best to his ability. “I’m guessing this is more doable for now?”

“Yes, definitely. A vibrator is a vibrator no matter how you cut it, and its uses are pretty straightforward.” Stern nodded with a smile, flicking the toy on. It sprang to life in his hands, the man getting a better grip on it, and hovering just a moment longer in front of Barclay’s sex. “Ready?”

“Yeah, go for it.” Barclay moved his hand, letting Joseph press the head of the toy to his clit. Pleasure jolted up through him, the man letting out a shuddering gasp. “Yeah, fuck, right there.”

“There? Okay.” Joseph nodded again, getting more comfortable and working the toy against his partner’s clit. Barclay leaned his head to the side as he grunted, his loose hair hanging in front of his face. He rocked his hips into the vibration, soft, panting moans on his tongue. 

Stern quickly picked up what movements did and didn’t earn him little noises of pleasure from Barclay’s lips, honing in on a rhythm that Barclay never wanted to stop. “Fuck, turn it up. Please. Faster. Fuck.

“I can do that.” Joseph cooed, kissing Barclay’s throat. He contentedly started working a mark there, nipping at the skin as Barclay shuddered, his nerves alight with want and pleasure. Between the buildup of watching Joseph cum earlier and how quickly the other man had figured just how he liked to be stimulated with his toy, he knew he wouldn’t have long.

“Ah. Shit, Joseph. Right there, right there .” He certainly wasn’t the most eloquent human being when he was horny, now was he? Joseph didn’t seem to particularly mind, popping open a button on Barclay’s flannel and nibbling his collar bone. 

After a while, Barclay didn’t even have to ask him to crank the intensity up, Joseph figuring it out himself, Barclay getting lost in rocking into the toy while he was attended to by his lover. His body quivered and clenched in reaction to a particular angle, Barclay moaning. 

Sometimes he did crave something to be inside him when he was in the middle of a heated moment, but that could be something they tried at a later date. Right now he didn’t want anything to distract him, his legs shaking. He gripped Joseph’s hip at another jolt of pleasure, whining softly.

“You’re doing great, love. I’ve got you,” Joseph murmured, running his free hand over Barclay’s beard and kissing the gasps from his lips. Barclay indulged him, thrusting into the toy and Joseph meeting those thrusts in time until a familiar warmth was upon him.

Fuck .” Barclay’s orgasm came rolling through him, the man holding onto Stern for dear life as waves of pleasure claimed him, the heat of his climax rushing up to his face. He pressed his nose into Joseph’s shoulder, moaning into his shirt as he clamped his thighs around the toy and Joseph’s hand to hold them there in his ecstasy.

It lasted a lot longer than it usually did when he was going solo, racked by the throbs until they finally released him. He groaned softly, slumping against Joseph in the flush of euphoria, the warmth of the afterglow claiming him.

“I guessing you just-?” Joseph gandered with amusement, rubbing his back.

“Mhm...” Was all Barclay could really muster, his face still happily nestled against his boyfriend’s shoulder.

“Good.” Joseph kissed his hair sweetly, pulling the toy away so he didn’t overstimulate the other man’s now tender clit. 

Ever since he’d started testosterone way back when, Barclay had found he tended to be a little more hazy after he came. It took him a good minute to regain his senses.

“That was.. Mmmmnn so nice. Like super nice.” He mumbled, rubbing his face affectionately against Joseph’s neck. “Man, you always smell good. Mmmm... Sorry, kinda got... post-cum brain, gimme a sec...”

“Take your time, love,” Joseph snorted, turning the toy off and setting it to the side while Barclay collected himself. He finally let go of Stern, the other man giving him some space to pull himself back together.

Barclay shimmied his pants back up before sitting back on the sofa, Joseph snuggling up against him, the pair now both sweaty, exhausted, and thoroughly satisfied.

“Well that was... yeah.. We should definitely do that again sometime soon.” Barclay mused, rubbing his throat where Joseph had been nibbling his skin earlier. “...Did you give me a hickey?”

Joseph looked where Barclay was rubbing, a flash of amused embarrassment crossing his face, putting a hand over his mouth like he couldn’t believe he’d done that. “Possibly.”

“You’re cute. Did you know that? Because you should.” Barclay chuckled, kissing Stern’s blushing cheek. “I don’t mind. I like that you got so into it. And hey, if anyone in town had any doubts that we’re romantically involved, they certainly won’t now.”

“Oh god. Maybe wear a scarf.” Joseph looked perturbed, but Barclay eased his worries with more kisses, rubbing a thumb against his jaw.

“Let them know. Our relationship is nothing I’m ashamed of.”

“Okay. I will admit, I am a little proud of it.”

“As you should be. I’m proud to have it.” They had a good chuckle about it before settling against each other as exhaustion washed over them. Relaxing in their shared bliss, they dozed off together, curled up around each other in the groove of Barclay’s worn, and well-loved sofa.


 

“Barclay, wake up.” 

When Barclay awoke, he was cold. Unusually cold. Joseph was gently nudging him awake, a look of concern on his face. It took him a moment to rouse himself, blinking sleepily around the apartment. It was dark, save for the grey sunlight coming through his kitchen window and took him a moment to realize that the power was out, the digital clock next to his lamp off. Considering all the snow, he wouldn’t be surprised if a tree had felled some power lines somewhere.

“Mmmn, great. Power’s out, huh? Not super uncommon when it snows like this around here.” He pulled himself from the sofa, rubbing his face to wipe the rest of the sleep from his eyes.

“I figured as much, but the temperature is dropping rather quickly in here, so I thought it best to wake you.” Joseph nodded, rubbing his arms. Barclay was always less bothered by the chill, but he knew Stern was more sensitive to it, so it would be a good idea to get him warmed up.

“Yeah, best we can do is dress warm and pile up the blankets until things get running again. We’re still insulated, so it won’t get much colder. You wanna grab my duvet off the bed? I’ll pull out some quilts.” 

He carefully picked his way through the apartment to his linen closet as Stern disappeared into their bedroom, both returning with as much bedding as they could muster. They decided to change into their pajamas, for the warmth and also so they smelled less like sex. 

Making a little nest for themselves in the living room, they got comfortable, Joseph pressing himself as close as he could to Barclay.

“I am so glad you’re just a giant space heater.” The agent mused, Barclay chuckling as he held his boyfriend close.

“So you just like me for my hot bod, huh?” He teased, Joseph snorting. 

“That, and so much more,” He replied with a grin, practically sitting in Barclay’s lap. 

Buried under their blankets, they chatted quietly, basking in each other’s body warmth until there was a knock at the door. They looked at each other, raising an eyebrow curiously before Joseph peeled himself off of Barclay to go answer it. 

“I wonder who could be out in this? Maybe it’s someone from the power company.” Joseph pondered, peering through the peephole on the door. “Oh, it’s Ms. Li-... It’s Aubrey.”

Stern had been trying to get better about calling Barclay’s friends by their first names after Barclay had pointed out how formal and stiff addressing them by their last names sounded. The agent opened the door as Barclay got up with a grunt, padding up behind his boyfriend.

“Hey Joseph, did you guys lose power too? Oh, hey Barclay.” Aubrey was dressed in her thickest coat, combat boots and a woolen hat that was pulled down over her hair and ears. She still looked cold, shifting from foot to foot and shivering, but she was smiling nonetheless.

“Hey Aubrey.”

“Yes, we did. We just dragged all the blankets into the living room, would you like to come in?” Joseph smiled in return, shuddering as they let the cold air in. Barclay pressed himself against Joseph’s back to warm him, grinning at Aubrey from over the man’s shoulder where he’d propped his chin.

“I’d love to, but I’m actually here on a mission. If you guys think you’re willing to pry yourself away from your cozy lovenest, Mama got her generator running at her house and has invited the Amnesty folks to come stay until the power comes back on. I understand if you want this time for yourself though.” She was eyeing Barclay’s throat with an amused look, the two men blushing brightly.

“Well, what do you think? Should we go or do you think we can wait it out here?” Joseph asked, tilting his head to look at Barclay as the bigger man wrapped his arms around his waist.

“We should go. It’ll be warmer and probably more interesting. Otherwise, we were just gonna nap, right?” Barclay pointed out, Aubrey snorting.

“Mhm, you guys were just gonna nap, I’m sure,” She teased, Barclay sticking his tongue out at her as Joseph just turned a brighter red. A honk could be heard from the parking lot, Aubrey looking to the sound and waving at something. “Anyway, so you know how I said I’m on a mission? Mama and Dani are out waiting in Mama’s truck if you guys need a ride. Where even are your cars anyway?”

“Up the hill. Works great for a few inches of snow, but we’d be be digging them out for hours in this. Joseph, you good to go to Mama’s for a bit?”

“I am going to listen to how cold I am and say yes. Let us get our coats and boots, and we’ll be right out, Aubrey.”

“Alright, sweet. Try not to get too distracted, okay?” She snickered, waving as she trudged back to Mama’s truck. The couple got their things together, opting to just stay in their pajamas under their coats. Barclay grabbed his pillow and book, while Joseph grabbed a quilt that he wrapped around himself, before they waded out into the snow after Aubrey. 

The stairs were a bit treacherous, but they made it to the parking lot where Mama’s behemoth of a truck was idling. The woman rolled down her window, Dani and Aubrey fussing about the cold being let in as she stuck her head out. “Well, don’t you boys look all bundled up. C’mon then, get your rears in here. I got a fire going back at the house.”

The men shuffled into the back of her truck next to Aubrey, Dani up in the passenger side. Dani faced them as they got in and settled, her knees in her seat to peer at them over the back of it. 

“Hey you two. You guys ready for a snowday sleepover? We already got Jake, and Indrid managed to fit his winnebago into Mama’s driveway, so they’re already there with Thacker and Quella. Duck’s working and last I saw, Minerva is running around town helping people get their cars unstuck. Moira still has power so she’s staying put. You guys were the last ones.”

“Glad to know y’all thought of us. Brought my pillow and everything.” Barclay chuckled, snuggling up against his boyfriend who spread part of the quilt over the bigger man’s lap, offering the other end to Aubrey, who happily obliged as well. 

“Dani, sit down hun. I ain’t goin’ anywhere until you got your seatbelt on,” Mama fussed, Dani rolling her eyes but doing as she was told. 

The drive back was relatively uneventful, all of them rolling up into Mama’s drive and slogging through the snow to her porch where the generator chugged away. Kicking off their boots, they ambled inside, greeted by a much appreciated warmth. 

There was indeed a fire going in the fireplace, as well as a few space heaters littered around Mama’s living room. Indrid was curled in a chair by the window, sketching the landscape outside, while Thacker, Quella, and Jake chatted by the fire. There were pillows and blankets strewn about, pushed into piles on the sofa and floor as Mama’s dogs lazed amid them.

“Cozy. Are the space heaters new?” Barclay asked, peeling away his coat to hang it up, Joseph following suit.

“Naw, they’re Indrid’s. Apparently, he has a whole hoard of ‘em in his winnebago. He insisted we haul a few of ‘em in here to warm things up better. They’re certainly easier on the generator than heating the whole house.” Mama chuckled, stretching as she got out of her own winter clothing. She still seemed to ache a little, but she’d healed very well, all things considered.

“Thank you for inviting us. The warmth and hospitality is definitely much appreciated.” Joseph addressed the woman, wrapping the quilt back around himself now that he was only in his pajamas once more. Mama just smirked and nodded.

“Happy to have ya. Like the glasses by the way. Those new?”

“Oh goodness no. I’ve needed corrective lenses since I was in the fourth grade. I just usually wear contacts.” Joseph adjusted his glasses now that he was thinking about them, shrugging idly.

“Well, they suit you-”

“Holy shit dude, is that a hickey?” Mama was interrupted by Dani’s exclamation, the young woman noticing Joseph’s little claiming mark on Barclay’s skin when he took his scarf off. Joseph’s face flushed as Barclay rubbed his throat with a cough, Dani seemed rather pleased, playfully nudging them both. “Don’t look so frazzled, guys. It’s cute. Even if one of you obviously makes out like you’re fifteen again.”

“Dani, you’re embarrassing them,” Aubrey snickered, like she hadn’t already ribbed them about it earlier.

After their night at the pub, Barclay’s friends had started to warm up to Joseph once more. Just last week he’d finally dared to return to the cafe, and was welcomed back. He’d been taking the time to chat with everyone when he had the time, often staying later than he used to. 

Aubrey had taken to showing him her newer tricks, testing him to see if he could figure out how she’d done it. If it got past him, she knew it was a good one, while what he did pick up on helped her figure out what she needed to tweak. It turned out, he even had a few tricks of his own, but nothing so complex as Aubrey’s work. His sleight of hand was decent however, which somehow didn’t surprise Barclay.

He and Duck chatted frequently when the ranger came in in the evenings for his coffee, shooting the breeze about weather conditions and odd happenings in the woods. Barclay could tell part of it was him just trying to get information on where his perp could be, but he made sure Joseph was upfront with Duck about why he was asking this time. And when they got to discussing cryptids, the barista knew that was all Joseph’s passion talking.

Joseph and Dani took a little longer and they were still warming up to each other, but they were getting friendlier, especially when she saw how well he and Joseph got on together now that they were communicating. Soon enough, her affable teasing that she reserved for the people she was comfortable with had spread to Joseph as well.

Once everyone had gotten out of their snow-damp coats and gloves, they all retreated to the living room, settling in with books and quiet conversation. Lacy seemed to take a liking to Joseph, eventually trapping the man in a pillow pile under the mass of her body. The agent took it in stride, scratching the dog behind her ears while he leaned against the sofa and chatted with Aubrey. 

Quella made hot chocolate and passed it around as Thacker began to regale the group with stories of his travels, Barclay, Joseph, Indrid, and Mama joining in about the strange things they’d seen during their time out on the road as well. Jake and Aubrey asked a lot of questions, not all of which they were able to answer, but they were often able to get a good laugh.

It was a sight that did Barclay’s heart good. Curled up next to Joseph and surrounded by his close friends, drinking hot cocoa as it snowed outside, he found he couldn’t want for anything more. This was where he belonged.

It quickly grew late with how engrossed they’d been in storytelling, everyone winding down and figuring out who was going to sleep where. Jake curled up in Mama’s big recliner, while Dani and Aubrey sprawled out on the sofa, Indrid disappearing to.. Somewhere. 

They’d probably find him in the morning. 

Mama, Quella and Thacker wished them all a good night and retreated to their rooms, leaving Joseph and Barclay to assemble a cushy nest of pillows and blankets on the floor next to the couch. Lacy insisted on snuggling with them, so it worked out.

Once everyone was situated, Barclay half-dozed for a while, but found he wasn’t tired after his impromptu post-coitus nap earlier that day. Joseph on the other hand was out like a light, resting against his chest, Barclay’s arm around the man.

“Hey dude, you still awake?” Dani murmured next to him after about an hour, Barclay carefully turning his head to look at her without disturbing Joseph. Aubrey was draped on top of her fast asleep. One of her arms hung limply off the side of the sofa, Dani gently petting her red-dyed hair.

“Yeah.. not super tired.” He whispered back, Dani nodding carefully.

“Same. Hey, so-” She paused, shifting Aubrey just enough to get her to stop pinning her other arm to the sofa. The other woman mumbled in her sleep, but wasn’t roused. “I wanted to talk with you about something.”

“Oh? What’s up?” Barclay could just make out a conflicted expression on her face in the flicker of the firelight. 

“Well, we haven’t really gotten to plan much for our Christmas trip yet. and that’s getting pretty close. I know it’s tradition, but do you think we could maybe like.. postpone it a little this year?” She sighed, looking down at her girlfriend with a loving smile. “Aubrey’s dad invited us to come spend the holidays with him and.. I really wanna go with her.”

“Yeah, of course, Dani. Like I’d make you go on a camping trip with me when you’ve been invited to meet your girlfriend’s dad.” Barclay huffed fondly, his fingers idling in Stern’s hair. “I’ve been kinda thinking about doing Hanukkah with Joseph this year anyway, if he wants to include me.”

“He’s Jewish? That’s cool. I know you’re kinda agnostic, right?”

“Yeah, but we talked about it and we’re kinda.. chill with where the other is at? I respect him and his culture, and he’s cool with me not being particularly attached to any faith. And I wanna be supportive of him since I don’t really have anything going for me anyway, you know? Even though I don’t know a whole lot about it.” He murmured, Joseph snuggling closer as he slept.

“Yeah. I feel that.” Dani nodded, letting out a long breath. “So you’re really cool if we do a rain-check?”

“Absolutely. We always did the trip because we had no one else to be with for the holidays, but this year we do. Maybe we can roll it out to February. With all the snow on the ground this year, we might not even be able to make it out sooner anyway.”

“Yeah, guess so. I still feel a little bad about it, but if you’ve got plans too...” She fussed with a tassel on the blanket that hung over the back of the sofa, still not looking convinced.

“Dani, it’s fine. Go be with your girlfriend for Christmas. I’ll still be here when you get back.” Barclay rolled his eyes, smiling at her. 

“Okay, okay. Just.. I want to make sure you know you’re still my best friend, okay? You having a boyfriend and me having a girlfriend is never gonna change that, and I don’t want you to think I’m like.. choosing her over you. I love you both, just, y’know, different .”

“I know. I never thought that. Our lives were always gonna change, by nature of this being life, and we gotta adapt. Having new people in our lives makes things different sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped caring about each other.” 

“Yeah...” They lay there quietly, thinking about all the changes that had happened in the past year for them. Dani glanced over at Stern, and Barclay's arm around him. “And he really makes you happy?”

“Yeah. He really, really does. He’s such an amazing person and he’s worked so hard to make this right. I...” He swallowed thickly, looking down at Joseph’s sleeping face as the light of the fire flickered across his skin. He looked so peaceful in his rest. “I think.. I love him, Dani. Like really, actually love him.”

“Yeah.. Kind of a wild realization, isn’t it?” Dani nodded softly, her attention back on Aubrey. Barclay could see just how much love she held for the other women, even in the darkened room. The young woman stifled a yawn, leaning back against the cushion under her neck. “Well, I think I’m gonna try to get some sleep, dude. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Alright. Sleep well.” Barclay got comfortable again, resting his head against Joseph’s shoulder. 

It didn’t take long for Dani to doze off, leaving Barclay in silence. Looking to his face one last time before he tried to get some shuteye, he realized that Joseph’s eyes were just barely open, a faint smile on his lips. The man pressed his nose against Barclay’s cheek, letting out a soft and happy sigh.

“Just so you know... I love you too.”

Chapter Text

“Man, I’ve got like.. mad jitters. Good jitters, but also very, very scared jitters.” Jake bounced his leg where they all sat in the waiting area of the medical center, fidgeting restlessly.

“Dude, it’ll be alright. Vincent’s chill. So much so that he tells everyone to call him Vincent rather than Dr. Cabral. He’s been prescribing my testosterone for most of the time I’ve lived here and he’ll get you what you need.” Barclay reassured the young man, carefully eyeing the person sitting on Jake’s other side. Hollis regarded him back just as carefully, but smiled at their nervous friend.

“Yeah, he knows what he’s doing. He’s had me on a low dose of estrogen for a few years, like I was telling you earlier, and I’ve never had any problems with him. He’s cool.” Hollis nodded, rubbing Jake’s shoulder comfortingly. They weren’t decked out in their usual Hornet gear Barclay had only ever seen them in, instead having opted for a soft sweatshirt and skinny jeans. Barclay supposed even gang leaders dressed down sometimes.

It had been almost a month since the power outage in December, and life had been quietly marching on for the little town of Kepler. 

Barclay had celebrated Hanukkah with Joseph and had learned quite a bit in the process. It apparently wasn’t as major a holiday as some of the other Jewish holidays, despite how commercialism tried to sell it as being the “Jewish Christmas”. But it was still a nice winter gift-giving celebration, Barclay having fun staggering his gifts out over eight days and deciding what order to give them in. 

Joseph had gotten a menorah to put in the window, telling Barclay the story behind the holiday. He’d always heard bits and pieces growing up from various sources, but it was interesting to hear it from someone who knew the whole thing fully. 

They’d done a lot of cooking together, Joseph getting him recipes for the traditional dishes and fried foods. He’d known about Joseph’s infamous sweet tooth of course, but the man managing to devour almost an entire batch of sufganiyot in one night really brought it home. 

He’d sprawled himself on the sofa for the rest of the evening and tried to pretend his belly wasn’t hurting. Barclay had teased him about it, but gotten him something for his stomach all the same. It wasn’t like he hadn’t done his own fair share of overeating before.

They’d settled into a comfortable routine together and soon Barclay found it hard to imagine his apartment without his boyfriend living there. They were happy, but it still weighed heavily on them both that Stern’s time in Kepler was running out. 

Joseph had been working to find a way he could stay, but it sounded like he would at least have to finish this case first. If he didn’t find Boyd and Ned soon he would be facing relocation at the end of their remaining, and would either need to catch them or be taken off the case by his supervisor before he could try to get some kind of reassignment. 

It had been an easier truth to swallow back when they’d first talked about it and had been still unsure about their relationship as a whole, but now that Barclay knew he loved the man, it didn’t feel that way anymore. He didn’t want to let Joseph go. They’d just have to see what happened, and tried not to think about it in the meantime, as it hurt too much to dwell on.

New Year’s Eve had arrived and the Amnesty staff and friends came together for an end of the year celebration. They had a tradition to celebrate the arrival of the new year, but it was definitely different from what many were likely doing in their homes that night.

“Man, I don’t know why I’m letting y’all do this. I guess ‘cause it’s better to have a ranger on site for a bonfire to supervise, which I’m glad ya asked, though this begs the question of how many times y’all did this without my bein’ here.” Duck rubbed his nose with a sniff, Barclay grinning.

“I would advise that you don’t answer that.” Joseph was quick to butt in, eyeing his boyfriend and Duck with amusement. Barclay held his hands up in mock ignorance.

“I dunno what you guys are talking about, I’m just having a nice night.” 

Every year they headed out to a clearing in the Monongahela and set up a roaring bonfire on the night of the new year. Despite Duck’s protests, the clearing was big enough and out of the way enough that there was never much of a risk of it spreading. Even Duck had to admit they practiced good fire safety, and when they told him why they were doing it, he’d agreed it was fine as long as he could come along.

Instead of watching a ball drop or having a countdown, the folks of Amnesty had a much more thoughtful New Year. Not to say it wasn’t still a party, but it meant a lot more to them than that. To get things started they would get their fire going, set up blankets and chairs, and heat up hot cider and eggnog on a camping stove.

Then, when it got close to midnight, they passed around scraps of paper and pencils. They would take the time to write down any regrets or other things they wanted to leave behind them in the new year. Once they did, they would throw them into the fire and let them burn away before the new year began, symbolic to leaving those things behind. Then, once midnight had passed, they celebrated and wrote down new things they wanted to do in the year to come to take back with them.

“You good, babe? I know this might seem a little somber, but I’ve found it’s a cathartic way to reflect. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to though.” Barclay looked over to see Joseph considering the paper he’d been given, a pensive look in his eyes. Joseph nodded slowly, smiling carefully over at his boyfriend.

“I’m fine, it’s actually a very familiar concept for me. Yom Kippur follows a similar principal as a day of atonement and reflection. That was back in October, but it never hurts to contemplate how you can better yourself.” Joseph nodded, biting his lip with a sigh. “Though, I might need a bigger piece of paper. I feel like I’ve made a good number of mistakes this past year.”

“Hey now...” Barclay took Stern’s gloved hand, giving it a squeeze. “We’ve all made mistakes this last year. I’ve definitely fucked up too. But that’s how we learn, right?”

Stern turned to face him, still holding Barclay’s hand as he pushed his glasses up. He’d been wearing them more lately for social gatherings, and when he was just spending time with Barclay. They hadn’t talked about it yet, but Barclay suspected it was because he was feeling more comfortable to do so around him. The agent smiled at him softly. 

“I suppose you’re right. And it’s not like I haven’t been doing everything in my power to right those wrongs already.”

“Mhm. So you gotta not beat yourself up about it when you’re already doing so well. It’s gonna be a new year. It’s a good chance for everyone to start over fresh.” Barclay smiled, leaning in to gently kiss Joseph. The man sighed against Barclay’s lips, the couple lingering for a moment longer. Joseph nestled into the bigger man’s arms, rubbing his thumb against Barclay’s bearded jaw.

“But maybe not start everything over, yes?”

“Yeah, no. Definitely not everything,” Barclay agreed, stealing another kiss. “I definitely want us to keep doing what we’re doing for as long as we can.”

At that Stern’s smile faltered, a soft sadness in his eyes. Barclay realized he’d maybe hit a little too close to the topic they were both pointedly avoiding, his chest feeling tight. 

“Barclay, I’ve.. I’ve been thinking a lot lately and I-”

“Alright everyone, ya got ‘bout fifteen minutes until midnight, so best get what you wanna throw into the fire written down.” Mama notified them all, whatever Joseph was going to say dying on his lips. He looked down at his blank page, pulling away from his boyfriend.

“We can talk about it later, I should probably fill this out.” He tapped his pencil on the paper thoughtfully. 

“Okay, right.” Barclay let the man do that privately. This part had always felt very personal for him, and he generally didn’t share what he wrote with others. This year, he had a few things he wanted to get off his chest.

He regretted jumping to conclusions with Joseph during their fight and had been working on making less assumptions when he was upset. There had been times where he’d felt the urge to just hear what he wanted to hear, often when they struggled with more tense moments. It’d be good to try to let that go.

He’d been feeling kinda sad about not playing the guitar anymore and wished he’d picked it up again. Maybe he could do that in the new year? He hadn’t played in so long, he wasn’t sure he still remembered how to, but he wasn’t going to find out if he didn’t try.

He’d also been thinking about the friends he’d left behind in Washington now that he’d been talking about them more with Joseph lately, Thomas in particular, and had been feeling rather guilt-ridden about it. 

He didn’t know if it’d be worth trying to contact Thomas again. His ex-boyfriend might just want to move on, especially considering Barclay was the one who had ended their relationship. It seemed a little mean-spirited to rehash all that after all these years. 

In the meantime, into the fire that guilt would go. If Thomas wanted to contact him, he could, but there was little use for Barclay to be carrying around that burden on his heart. He hadn’t been ready for that commitment then and had done what was best for himself at the time. He couldn’t blame himself for doing what his heart needed.

Finishing up his paper, he folded it up and started towards the bonfire, everyone else gathering around and huddling together in the cold. Joseph returned to his side, his face calm in the glow of the flames. 

“Figure out what you wanted to write down?” Barclay asked, Joseph nodding quietly.

“Yes. All things I think it will be good for me to leave behind with the year.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

Barclay’s gaze drifted around to all his friends surrounding the bonfire, all cold and rosy-cheeked. Dani and Aubrey were holding hands, whispering amongst themselves. Minerva had herself almost completely wrapped around the much shorter Duck, her chin on his head; Duck himself looked deeply content to be in such a position.

Jake was bouncing in the cold and constantly checking his watch, Indrid standing quietly beside him and bundle in an absurd amount of layers, only his glasses visible between his hat and coat. Thacker, Quella, and Moira chatted together while Mama threw a few more sticks onto the fire to build it up. 

Once again, as he had many times over the last year, and the years before that, Barclay found himself so lucky to have his found family. It was a peace he never thought he would have when he was younger.

They’d tossed their papers into the flames at midnight, watching their regrets curl and blacken as they burned away. It reminded Barclay of the night he’d gotten back together with Joseph, the agent throwing his file into the flames to keep him safe and prove that he cared.

Barclay squeezed Joseph’s hand again, their fingers entangled. His boyfriend let out a long, soft breath of relief, a small smile on his lips as he watched his paper be devoured by the blaze.

“To new beginnings.” He murmured, looking up to Barclay once more. Their eyes met and Barclay’s heart felt tender and full in his chest at the love he found there. Barclay nodded, his smile mirroring the other man’s. He raised Joseph’s hand to his lips, kissing his knuckles.

“Yeah. To new beginnings.”

After the last remorse of the old year had burned away, and the new year was upon them, the group set to work writing goals for the days to come. It was a less somber affair, and more readily shared.

“I think I’d like to pick up the guitar again.” Barclay mused, getting himself a mug of hot cider now that they were chatting amongst themselves again. Joseph raised an eyebrow at him, entwining their arms after he’d gotten himself some eggnog.

“I didn’t know you played.”

“Yeah, it’s just been a while. I’ll have to get a new one, since I gave my old one away when I left Washington. I could have brought it on my trip, but I didn’t want to risk damaging it, so I gave it to a neighbor’s kid.” Barclay nodded. He could see the gears turning in Joseph’s head, chuckling softly and leaning in. “You don’t gotta get me one, you know. I can tell you’re thinking it.”

“Is it really that obvious?” Joseph scrunched up his nose, Barclay shaking his head fondly. 

“Yeah, but it’s cute.” 

Joseph fussed, but Barclay really was able to read Joseph more readily the longer they were together. And it wasn’t just that he was getting better at reading the agent’s facial expressions, but also that the other man was getting better at not masking his emotions from Barclay either. 

More and more each day, the sweet, funny man that Joseph was emerged from his years of conditioning and hiding, and Barclay loved him all the more for it.

“I’ve decided I’m gonna start testosterone this year! And my legal name and gender marker changed too, but I know that takes longer.” Jake added, getting Barclay’s attention. “Um, actually.. I know you said you have a doctor at the medical center who does your T. Do you think.. maybe you could help me set up an appointment with him? I think Hollis sees him too, so I can also ask them.”

“Of course, Jake.” Barclay beamed. He could tell the young man was nervous, but glad he felt ready to take the next step for what he wanted to do with his transition. It had taken Barclay almost a year of waffling before he’d decided to go on testosterone, so he understood and he was ecstatic to be able to help the young trans man start this journey.

Which was how Barclay found himself sitting in the medical center waiting room with Jake and Hollis, trying to calm their friend down. He remembered how big of a deal it had felt like when he’d had his own first appointment. He’d been a nervous mess, but he’d had friends to go with him and was glad he could provide Jake the same. As conflicted as he felt about being around the leader of the Hornets, he was grateful Jake had support from someone in his own age group as well.

After a good half an hour of waiting, Vincent came out, smiling like his usual jovial self. Upon spotting who had come with his newest patient his grin widened, eyes twinkling.

“Ah, Barclay, Hollis, good to see you both. And I’m guessing this young man here must be one Jake Coolice.” The doctor approached, offering a hand as they all stood to greet him. “Dr. Vincent Cabral, but please, just call me Vincent."

“Um. Yep, that’s me.” Jake nodded, shaking his hand. Barclay gently patted Jake’s shoulder reassuringly, the young man obviously anxious. Vincent picked up on it as well, his expression softening.

“I understand this is a big step for you, Jake, and I’m happy you’ve come to see me. You’re lucky to have two of my best patients in your corner.”

Vincent was one of the two endocrinologists at the St. Francis Medical Center, and probably the only one in a hundred mile radius who readily prescribed hormone replacement therapy for his trans patients. He hadn’t when Barclay had first gotten in contact with him, but Vincent had been willing to learn just how he should proceed.

Barclay remembered first meeting the man and how much it was a relief to know Vincent was on his side. 

He’d finally had to bite the bullet after the last of his testosterone refills had run out and his old doctor in Washington was unwilling to prescribe more without bloodwork. After much anxiety, he’d called up the medical center and made an appointment with one of their endocrinologists to hopefully be able to talk with them about getting a new prescription.

He’d been directed first to Dr. Woodbridge, who had not been a fun experience to interact with. The crotchety old bastard had told him in no uncertain terms that HRT was not something he did or ever planned on doing. He didn’t say anything else on the matter, but Barclay keenly felt what had been left unsaid. Woodbridge had no intention of treating someone like him.

He’d gone home disheartened and upset, only to get a call several days later from the other endocrinologist at the center. He’d read Barclay’s medical file while going over a few of Woodbridge’s and had stated that while he didn’t know a whole lot about transgender care, he was willing to learn and hoped Barclay would make an appointment with him.

Having to educate your doctor and not the other way around was a daunting experience, but Vincent at least had a foundation in his existing education, and reached out to other doctors who did prescribe hormones for trans patients to find out how he should proceed. Barclay was an easier person for him to learn on, seeing as he’d already been on testosterone for so long. 

These days, Barclay had heard he even saw trans folks from surrounding towns, making him a valuable resource for the small trans community that resided in the area. Before Vincent had started that aspect of his practice, the closest doctor who handled HRT had been a two and a half hour drive away in Morgantown. 

Barclay hadn’t known Hollis was also one of his patients until New Years, but it made sense, all things considered.

“Thank you for seeing me.” Jake nodded again, bouncing on his toes nervously. 

“Of course! Now, we can come back to my office so I can talk you through what you should expect, get you to sign the informed consent documents, and then I’ll send you down to get your bloodwork done. How does that sound?” Vincent replied in the soft, bleating manner he carried. Barclay figured it might be something he was be sensitive about, so he’d obviously never brought it up, but he found the way the man spoke to be charming.

“Okay.” Jake swallowed, looking between Barclay and Hollis. “Can they come too?”

“I don’t think our phlebotomist would be particularly fond of two other people crowding her workspace for the blood draw, but they both can sit in my office with us while we chat if you’d like.” The doctor replied encouragingly, gesturing them to follow him.

Hollis leaned over to whisper to Jake as they followed him, but Barclay was close enough to hear them regardless. “Do you want someone with you for the bloodwork? Because I’ll go with you regardless of what they say, I’d like to see them try to stop me.”

“I can handle the blood stuff on my own, Hollis. It’s okay. I just want you two there when I talk to him because I’m not sure I can remember all the questions I’m supposed to ask.” He blushed with a little shrug. “And y’know.. support and stuff.”

“We’ll be right here, bud. Plus, I’ve been through this side of things, so you know you can always ask me questions too.” Barclay added, Jake nodding.

They all sat in Vincent’s office, listening as the doctor outlined what being on testosterone would be like for Jake and the side effects it could have. Hollis and Barclay commented whenever they saw fit and, between the three of them, got all the questions Jake had answered as best they could. 

By the end, Jake looked a lot less nervous, going over the consent forms Vincent gave him. He signed them with an excited grin, all of them exiting the office so Jake could go get his labs done and leaving Barclay and Hollis back in the waiting room together.

“So um.. how are things then?” Barclay asked carefully, eyeing Hollis once more. They tucked their hands into their sweatshirt pockets with a shrug.

“Fine, I suppose. Yourself?”

“Good! Pretty good.”

“Cool, cool.” 

“Yeah.” Barclay made a face at just how awkward that was, fidgeting with his jacket zipper. Hollis was just not someone he had any idea how to converse with. He heard a long breath from beside him, looking back up to them.

“I know you aren’t particularly fond of me and my involvement with Jake, you don’t have to try to be pleasant with me.” They sighed, pulling a leg into their seat. “I know Jake really wanted you here though.”

“I’m not just gonna be rude either, though.” Barclay sighed, rubbing his jaw. “I’m gonna be real, I don’t know what to think about the Hornets in general, and you being their leader obviously kinda makes you an extension of that. It’s nothing personal. But I know Jake cares a lot about you and your crew, so I’ve been shelving those feelings because hanging with y’all makes him happy. I know it was important to him for you to be here too though.”

Hollis nodded quietly, a meditative expression on their face. “Tell me Barclay, how long have you lived here in Kepler?”

“Oh, dunno, going on eight years I think? Why?”

“Because. I’ve lived here all my life. Jake has too.” Their words were clipped on their tongue. “And a lot of us who didn’t fit into this community struggled to find a place they belonged. Mama’s little business is nice, but it can only do so much and it’s still work . The Hornets exist because it’s a group we can all be ourselves and do shit together and not have to think about how this world is falling apart beneath our feet.”

“I can respect that. And I’m all for that sort of thing too, I definitely had groups I hung with back where I’m from that were all about just being ourselves and having fun.” He nodded, before his expression changed to a more serious one, his tone firm. “But it’s when people start getting hurt that it becomes a problem. And it might not even have happened to y’all yet, but engaging in that risk means it might. It’s fun until someone ends up like Rick Dannon.”

Hollis crossed their arms, their displeasure clear on their face. “Dannon’s death was a pure accident, and you know that as well as I do. They determined that a gatorade bottle got wedged under his break pedal.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Rick was always safe and careful and he still ended up in a wreck he never walked away from. Imagine how much worse it could be if you’re actively trying to be reckless?”

Rick’s death had rocked the little community over the holidays, as a death like that tended to in a small town. It wasn’t that a lot of folks particularly liked or even knew Rick that well, but it was a dark reminder that that sort of thing could happen to anyone. Road accidents were unfortunately frequent on the tight curves of the mountain roads and it had snowed the night of the crash too.

Duck had been rather upset about it when they’d talked about it last.

“You just.. don’t expect it, y’know? Especially a guy like that. He was like.. the guy who taught me how to drive in rough weather. He always had snow chains and everything.” Duck rubbed his face, looking more tired than usual. He was at the shop that evening for his usual cup of joe for the late shift. 

“Yeah, that’s always rough. I know you worked with him pretty closely sometimes.” Barclay nodded quietly, sitting with the ranger now that they had a quiet moment.

“Yeah, though we weren’t on the best of terms at the end of it. Danimal could be kind of a stickler, and we just rubbed each other wrong half the time. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great arborist, I had a real respect for what he did. He was just always on my case.” Duck wrapped his hands around his cup, leaning back in his seat with a sigh. “It just kinda fucks me up that we weren’t doing great before all this happened. I shoulda invited him for drinks, or brought him coffee or... I dunno.. Something .”

Barclay patted Duck’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You can’t beat yourself up for stuff you can’t change, dude. Rick’s death is jarring and I know this isn’t easy, but it’s not like we can see the future. You didn’t know this was gonna happen.”

“Yeah.. guess so.” The ranger shrugged, taking a sip of his coffee. Barclay sighed, trying to find what else to say. 

“Hey, you’re gonna be spending time with your family for the holidays, right?” He felt like it would be good for Duck to be surrounded by folks he could be supported by right now.

“Naw, I mean.. I usually spend ‘em with Jane, but she’s over in Honduras doing missionary work right now. I’ll probably hang with a few friends I know are gonna be coming back to visit for Christmas, have a pint or something, y’know? Other than that, not really doing much. Minerva and I are gonna have dinner and do presents. What about you? You have that trip every year with Dani, right?”

“Yeah, but we’re postponing it this year. She got invited to Aubrey’s dad’s place for Christmas, so I encouraged her to do that instead. Besides, I kinda got plans with Joseph anyway.” He shrugged, an idea forming, though he knew it was a risk, considering Duck was a ranger. “Actually... the Amnesty folks have an annual New Year’s get together to usher in the new year. It’s actually really cool if you’re interested, though it’s a little different from your typical celebration. You could bring Minerva too.”

“Oh yeah? What do y’all do?”

“Well....”

For all his fussing about it, it had been nice to have Duck there. Being around people seemed to help. But still, a loss in the community was keenly felt by everyone, even Hollis.

They shifted in the hard, plastic waiting room chair, looking uncomfortable. No doubt this wasn’t the first time they’d heard about how dangerous the strunts the Hornets pulled were, but maybe it was starting to get through to them. They gave Barclay a side-eye, letting a soft huff through their nose.

“..Jake won’t get hurt, if that’s what you’re worried about. He’s the safest of all of us. Keith used to give him shit about it, but I’ve made it clear that he needs to respect Jake’s choices.”

“I’m not just talking about Jake, y’know. Y’all need to stay safe too. Too many queer kids are dying out there for far worse reasons.” He knew it was grim, but it needed to be said.

“Right.” Hollis’s expression was dark and thoughtful, and Barclay got the sense that that was the end of this conversation, the two of them sitting in silence until Jake came bounding back.

“Alright, they said I should hear back from Vincent in about three days to get my first shot as long as there’s nothing to worry about in my blood!” Jake was beaming and despite their terse conversation, both Hollis and Barclay smiled at his excitement. They stood to greet him, starting for the door.

“Well I gotta head on. Jake, I’ll see you tomorrow at work, okay?” 

“Yeah, see you Barclay!” Jake and Hollis started in their own direction, but Hollis and Barclay glanced at each other again before they left, giving each other a slight nod of understanding. 

Barclay wasn’t sure he had made an impact, but he found he believed that Hollis would keep Jake safe. They seemed to care about the young man a great deal, and Barclay had faith in that at least.


Pulling into his apartment parking lot, he immediately noticed something out of place. A bright red convertible he’d never seen before was parked directly next to Joseph’s sleek black car, in the spot he usually parked in. They didn’t have assigned spots, but everyone had a place they preferred, so seeing a car in his usual space threw him off.

He parked on the other side of his boyfriend’s vehicle, getting out and circling the little red sports car, frozen-over slush crunching under his boots. Someone must have a guest at his apartment complex, though he wasn’t sure who would be out here in a car like that in the middle of January. Shrugging, he pocketed his keys and headed for the apartment.

The door wasn’t locked, but that wasn’t a surprise, --Joseph was home after all-- but when he opened the door, he heard Joseph talking to someone. At first he thought his boyfriend was on the phone, but he was quickly proved wrong when he heard the sound of a woman’s voice in the living room as well. They were both laughing, however whatever they were talking about stopped when the door creaked when he opened it.

“Barclay? Is that you?” Joseph called out, Barclay stepping inside.

“Yeah. it’s me. Do we have a guest?” He walked into the other room to see just who it could be. Joseph sat with his legs pulled up onto the sofa, a mug of something hot in hand. He smiled broadly at Barclay when he came in, putting the mug down, but Barclay’s attention was mostly on the woman who sat in the armchair next to him.

She was a thin woman probably in her early forties, with dark hair streaked with grey at her temples. She wore glasses and, while dressed comfortably, absolutely held the presence of the room.There was something familiar about her in a way that Barclay couldn’t quite place. 

She looked Barclay over as he walked into the living room, an amused smirk on her face as she took him in with darkly astute eyes.

“We do.” Joseph stood, gesturing at the woman as she stood up beside him. She wasn’t as tall as Joseph, but she was close. “Barclay, this is Dr. Richardson. She’s one of the leading cardiothoracic surgeons in the country.”

“What? Is everything alright?” Barclay stared, not sure how else to reply. A surgeon? Why was one of the leading surgeons in America in his tiny apartment, chatting with his boyfriend? He looked between the two of them for clarification, Joseph looking rather pleased while the woman snorted and rolled her eyes. She pushed past the agent and offered her hand to shake, which he took hesitantly, still unsure what was going on.

“Dr. Hanna Richardson, née Stern . I’m this dingus’s sister. And you must be the boyfriend.” She chuckled, her answer finally making it click all into place. Barclay let out a sigh of relief, shaking her hand more wholeheartedly. That’s why she looked familiar. Now that he had  context, he could definitely see the resemblance. He smiled warmly in return.

“Indeed I am. The name’s Barclay, though it sounds like Joseph’s probably told you as much. Nice to meet you.”

“Do you always introduce yourself without a last name?”

“When I can.” He still had his family’s last name and was never particularly fond of being associated with it, but avoiding it made for some interesting conversations.

“Fair enough.” 

“That your little sportster out in the parking lot next to Joseph’s car?”

“Might be. What, did I park in your spot?”

“Maybe. Can’t imagine how a little car like that must drive on these rugged mountain roads.”

“Oh, it does just fine. I love peeling around the curves, makes me feel alive.”

“Careful there, Dr. Strange, magic ain’t real in this universe.”

“And I am way more good looking than Benedict Cumberbund or whatever his name is.”

“I dunno, I always thought Cumberbatch was kinda hot. He was cute in Sherlock before that show went south.”

“Hm, have a thing for smart, tall, dark-haired guys, do you?”

“Maybe. But unlike a famous actor, I’m also attracted to gigantic dorks, so your brother has all the bases covered.”

“Oh, I like you.” Her eyes twinkled, Barclay chuckling sheepishly at their exchange as Joseph rolled his eyes. 

“So, what brings you to Kepler? Well, okay that’s kind of a silly question, obviously you’re here to see Joseph. I guess the question is more what brings you here now?” 

“How perceptive of you,” She teased, gesturing back at the sofa and chair. “I just hadn’t heard from my baby brother in a while and thought I should check up on him. Imagine my surprise to find out he’s got himself a big, scruffy boyfriend that he’s living with. Now come, sit. I want to pick the brains of the man Jo’s fallen in love with.”

Barclay glanced at Joseph, raising an eyebrow. “Should I be worried?”

“That depends,” Joseph mused, taking Barclay’s hand and pulling them both to the sofa while Hanna had a seat back in the chair she’d been in when he’d arrived. “I’d say probably not though. The only one to have anything to fear from her is apparently my supervisor.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t help much.” Barclay got comfortable, now trying to take in what he could about the woman upon knowing she was Joseph’s family.

“Oh, don’t let Jojo get you worried, Barclay. I don’t bite, I just want to get to know you. It’s been a while since my little brother has been interested in someone. Which, by the way Jo, it wouldn’t kill you to pick up the phone and call sometimes and let me know what’s going on in your life. I shouldn’t have to heckle Haynes for your location.”

“You know he only tells you because your husband outranks him, right?” Joseph huffed.

“I like to think it’s because he’s so tired of me calling him, he’ll do anything to get me out of his hair.”

“Jojo? Do I get to call you that?” Barclay smirked, Joseph blushing deeply. God, he was so cute. Barclay nudged him playfully with his elbow, just wishing he could kiss the color from his cheeks, but deciding against it in the present company.

“Please no, it’s bad enough that she does it.” Joseph sunk into the sofa, rubbing his eyes under his glasses in an attempt to hide his face from further embarrassment. Barclay and Hanna both laughed as Joseph groaned, Barclay ruffling his hair.

“I think it’s cute.” He wrapped an arm around his boyfriend’s shoulder, returning his attention to Hanna, who was just regarding them fondly.

“So Barclay, Joseph was just telling me how you guys met when you walked in. Something about a mishap with some gatorade?”

“Yeah! I work down at the local cafe downtown as the assistant manager-”

“And head barista,” Joseph interjected smugly.

“- and head barista, yes.” Barclay snorted, teasingly flicking Joseph’s glasses to off-balance them so he’d have to fix them, the man blushing, before he continued. “And one of our other employees, Jake --sweet guy, but really easily overexcited-- ran right into Joseph with an open bottle of gatorade. Got it all over him. Poor kid was horrified. Anyway, I lent Joseph my sweater, and that’s kinda how we started talking- Hey, by the way, I just realized I never asked. Did you ever get that stain out?”

“I did not,” Joseph stated matter-of-factly, clearing his throat. “I never said because I didn’t want to worry you or Jake. Speaking of which, how did his appointment go?”

“He did great, I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Of course, that’s good to hear.”

“Anyway, we kinda started having lunches after that, and then we went to the local fall festival together, then kissed at a Halloween party, and things just kinda fell together after that. Had a bit of a rough patch not too long ago, but we worked it out, right?”

“Yes.. we did.” Joseph nodded, idly rubbing Barclay’s hand. Hanna cocked her head, but seemed to sense this was something she shouldn’t bring up presently. Barclay wouldn’t be surprised if they talked about it later. He was fine if they did, but it wasn’t something he and Joseph needed to rehash, not when they’d been spending so much time bettering themselves from it already.

“What about you, Hanna? Joseph’s mentioned a little about you, but not as much as I wish he had. What do you do? I guess as a surgeon, but also just in general.”

“I was getting around to it,” Joseph pouted. It was kind of funny how he acted around his sister. Barclay supposed you never really stopped being the baby brother when your older sister was around. Not that he knew first-hand. He’d been the older one between him and his brother.

The thought settled sour in his stomach, but he tried to keep it from his face. He hadn’t seen or heard from his brother going on fifteen years, or any of his family for that matter. Joseph glanced at him with concern, telling him he might have not hid it from his face as well as he hoped. 

He gently patted his boyfriend’s hand reassuringly. Another thing to talk about later.

Hanna watched the whole exchange curiously, her regard just as sharp as her brother’s. However, she didn’t comment, instead humming thoughtfully at Barclay’s question. 

“Well, I’m a cardiothoracic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, in, as you may have guessed, Cleveland . I’m married; I’ve been with my husband Arnold going on twenty years this April, and we have four kids. Arnold is a retired marine and works for the Department of Justice, which is... admittedly the main reason why I can get Joseph’s location out of his supervisor. Though I won’t lie, I enjoy annoying the shit out of Haynes. He’s so easy to get a rise out of.”

“I wish you wouldn’t, he fusses at me about how inappropriate it is every time you do it.” Joseph scrunched up his nose, still holding Barclay’s hand. “Though speaking of the kids, how are things with them? If I remember correctly, Julia just started at the University of Michigan this fall, didn’t she? How’s that going for her so far?”

“Oh, about as well as any freshman. She’s nervous about everything, and a little overwhelmed by college life, but she’s doing really well. She’s made some new friends already.”

“That’s good to hear! Going to college can always be intimidating at first. I remember how nervous was when I started at UMD.” Barclay had already known Joseph had attended the University of Maryland and had graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice, unsurprisingly top of his class, but Joseph had never said much on what the experience was actually like for him. College hadn’t worked out for Barclay, but he’d come to terms with that.

“Oh please, you loved college, Mister Party Boy. I couldn’t go a week without getting a drunk phone call about your newest crush and whatever the latest drama was. No offense Jo, but I’m kinda glad Julia isn’t on the club scene like her uncle was,” Hanna chuckled, embarrassing her little brother further.

“What? Really? How come I haven’t gotten to hear about this?” Barclay’s eyebrows shot up, Joseph just looking mortified. It wasn’t as big a surprise as he made it out to be, there had been little hints here and there that Joseph had had a clubbing phase once upon a time. He reached out, brushing his thumb against Joseph’s earlobe. “Is that when you got your ears pierced?”

They were easy to miss and Barclay hadn’t noticed them for the longest time, but Joseph definitely had old lobe piercings that he obviously didn’t wear anything in anymore. Barclay hadn’t brought them up, what Joseph did with his body was his business, but it was a little clue that Joseph might not always have been so disciplined. He would have been shocked it he’d been told that when he first met the agent, but knowing his boyfriend’s personality now, he could see it.

“Yep. He had a nose ring too,” Hanna chimed in, Joseph groaning and burying himself against Barclay’s side.

“Hannaaaaa, those years of my life were so embarrassing. He doesn’t need to know about them.” He whined. Barclay shook his head, petting Joseph’s hair as the other man squirmed.

“I think it’s cute. I bet you were a cute party animal.” The barista mused, Joseph’s sister nodding in agreement. Joseph huffed, but pull his face away from Barclay’s shoulder, still flustered. 

“I should have known you two would gang up on me.” He stuck his tongue out, readjusting his glasses.

“We’re just teasing, Jo. I know that was kind of a transitional time in your life for you, and it was probably really good that you had those experiences. I know mom and dad are weird about it, but I’m glad you figured out what, and who , makes you happy. Now look at you. Besides, it looks like Barclay gets it.” Hanna smiled fondly, Barclay nodded in agreement as he kissed the top of Joseph’s head.

“I do. You don’t need to be embarrassed for going through explorative phases, babe. Just means you’re human. We’re always changing as people.” 

“I suppose the experience was integral to figuring out what I wanted for myself,” Joseph admitted, squeezing Barclay’s hand gratefully. 

They sat and chatted into the evening, ordering takeout for dinner once they started getting hungry. Barclay got to learn a great deal about Joseph’s childhood that he hadn’t known before. Not because Joseph had hidden it from him, but rather just that it had yet to come up.

Joseph and Hanna had grown up in a very conservative Orthodox Jewish home, and had been a part of a very tightly knit community. He’d talked to Joseph a little about Jewish culture, and while his boyfriend had dismissed the older, more traditional teachings for his personal faith, Barclay could tell from how they talked about it that he’d very much been raised by those ideals.

Between what he was learning and what they had already talked about, it seemed like more traditional Jewish culture had a great deal of emphasis on the male and female body becoming whole in marriage and honoring your parents, and Joseph had battled with his sexuality throughout much of his teen years.

Finally escaping the rigidness of his home life, but also finding himself without the community he’d grown accustomed to, it sounded like he’d thrown everything out the window in college and gone hard on the party gay lifestyle with his newfound freedom. 

Once he’d graduated and matured some, he’d had to reassess his identity, rebuilding his personal faith to what suited him best as a gay Jewish man.

It was starting to become apparent that Joseph still struggled with feelings of guilt that he’d never completely be what his parents had wanted for him, even after he’d become more confident in his identity. 

He’d pushed himself to be the best he could and be the perfect son as a way to make up for the fact he would never be straight and never bring home a nice girl like they wanted. And it sounded like they begrudgingly tolerated (or ignored) his sexuality because, at the end of the day, they still loved their son.

Barclay knew not all queer backstories were like his own. Most of them had a middle ground somewhere that, while not perfect, wasn’t as drastic as being kicked out. Sometimes he felt regret that he hadn’t tried harder to communicate with his family, help them see that he wasn’t a bad person just because he was trans and that he was still their child, just their son instead of their daughter. 

But he knew his transness had been another excuse to act the way they did more than anything. It never would have been a battle he’d have won.


That night, after Hanna had left for her motel, and he and Joseph were snuggled in bed, Barclay decided it was time Joseph knew his own story. 

“My home life wasn’t.. it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. At least not at first. My dad worked in city planning and was like.. always stressed and frustrated about something. He had an appearance to keep up, and didn’t want to appear less than perfect in the public eye, when really he was an anxious mess. My mom was a receptionist at a law firm and was always very uptight. She disapproved of everything if it wasn’t done perfectly.”

Barclay stared up at the ceiling, Joseph propped up on his side as he listened. “I’m not even sure why they got married, because they never seemed to get along well. It was never like.. screaming and hitting eachother that you hear about, but they just seemed to constantly bicker and not in a fun, teasing kind of way. I asked my dad once why they were still together and he jokingly said it was because they were the only people on the planet who could tolerate each other anymore, except in a way that people do when they’re not actually joking.”

“That sounds awful. My parents might be rather traditional, but at least I know they still love each other,” Joseph murmured, Barclay making out his furrowed brows in the shadows of the room.

“I think they must have loved each other at some point, because when I looked at their old wedding photos, they looked so genuinely happy. It’s kinda scary to think about that sometimes you can love someone so much, only for that love to turn to bitterness over the years. I can’t imagine us ever being like that, but I also just.. don’t know , y’know? I can’t imagine they ever thought they’d be like that either.” He sighed, turning on his side to face Joseph. 

The other man reached out, comfortingly stroking Barclay’s shoulder. “I don’t think we’ll ever be like that, Barclay. I think if I’d continued to shut you out, we might have, but I’ve been finding just how much open communication can make for a healthy relationship as of late, and it’s a habit I intend to keep. It could just be that your parents didn’t know how to talk to each other and didn’t realize it until they felt like they couldn’t turn back.”

“Hm.. maybe.” He leaned into Joseph’s touch, closing his eyes. “But yeah, my brother Darren and I both really struggled with it. His struggle sorta manifested as anger a lot. He was kind of a bully and a loner who eventually drifted into some pretty nasty friend groups because he felt like he wasn’t respected by anyone. The sort you would call the alt-right today. I never knew what to do or how to get it across that these were bad people and my folks just kinda ignored it.”

“Ah..” Joseph took a sharp breath through his nose, obviously uncomfortable with the thought. Barclay didn’t blame him. “As far as I’ve been able to tell, those sorts only change when they see what they’re doing is wrong themselves, and some never do.”

“Yeah. I dunno if he ever grew out of it, I haven’t seen him in almost fifteen years. Of course, I wasn’t exactly in a place that I could have helped him anyway. My teen years were really rough. I developed chest dysphoria around puberty, and just started to feel like something was off about me in general, and it led to a lot of turmoil. I thought I was just unattractive and unhappy with my looks, so I dated a lot of trashy guys to try to feel good about myself. Also, I think a lot of it was because I craved their masculine features more than I actually wanted to be with them.”

“You’ll have to excuse me for having a hard time believing you were ever unattractive, perceived or otherwise.” Joseph mused, pressing his forehead to Barclay’s. Barclay smiled a little, indulging him in a kiss.  “As far as I can tell, you’re the most attractive man in town. I’m surprised someone else didn’t snap you up before I arrived.”

“Yeah, well, testosterone was really good to me. I was really tall and awkward, with big thighs and bigger feet, and limbs that never seemed proportionate to the rest of me. Plus, I was super mannish even before I started T and even naturally had some chin hairs. My folks put me on the pill to try to tone down my natural testosterone levels when I was sixteen, which was a living hell all on its own.” He made a face, Joseph’s fingers soothingly rubbing against his neck as he continued.

“I didn’t figure out I was a guy until I was nineteen, but kinda lived in the closet for two more years after that. Tried to go to college at the community college for a bit in that time. That fell through, but I did make some cool queer friends who introduced me to the local LGBT community. I came out to my family, if you can really call it that, when I was twenty-one. Really, it was more my mom going through all my stuff while I was on a camping trip and laid out my binders and a book I’d gotten on being trans for me to explain myself in front of the whole family when I got back.”

“I’m guessing that didn’t... go particularly well.” Joseph inquired softly, entwining their legs. Barclay’s throat felt tight. He hadn’t really confronted what had happened there in a long time. He’d healed over the years, but his eyes still felt wet nonetheless.

“Yeah.. it really didn’t.”

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, love.”

“I don't think I should right now..” He pressed his face to Joseph’s shoulder, his boyfriend running his fingers through his hair. As much as he’d healed, it still hurt and sometimes it was okay to be vulnerable when he knew he was safe. Joseph’s arms were warm and strong around him as he let out a few soft hiccups. Crying was harder than it used to be, but he felt the tremble in his chest, and was glad he could have Joseph here. The tremble grew to a sense of sadness as he realized he might not even get to keep this, clutching the other man tightly. “I don’t want to let you go anymore.”

Joseph sighed, pressing his lips to the crown of Barclay’s head. They were quiet for a moment before the other man spoke. 

“Barclay, I’ve.. been thinking and.. I think after this case is over.. I may resign from the FBI.”

Barclay grew still at his words. That was a hell of a thing for Joseph to say. And as much as he knew what his heart wanted, he knew he couldn’t let it cloud his judgment or Joseph’s.

“No.”

“...Pardon?” Stern blinked in confusion, Barclay carefully pulling himself away from Joseph so he could look at the man again, smiling sadly and cupping his cheek. 

“I said no. Not if you’re only doing it for me. I appreciate it, I do, but I’m not going to let you throw your career down the drain just for me, Joseph. If you can tell me it’s for any other reason than just to be with me, I’ll retract my statement and we can figure out what that means for you, but I’m not gonna let you sacrifice your life’s work for a guy you haven’t even been with for a year... Even if that guy is me.”

“I...” Joseph bit his lip, letting out a long sigh. Barclay had to admit, he’d been hoping the man had a reason, anything to convince him to agree with Stern quitting, but his hesitance spoke volumes. “I don’t know. I.. I love what I do, even when it gets hard. Even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be. But when I think about having us split apart, possibly on opposite sides of the country at times, where I can’t even call you on a case, it just... it feels like getting my heart ripped out.”

“I know. And fuck if I don’t want to keep you here. But we have to do what’s right for us as individuals, or we’ll grow to resent each other, just like my parents did. I’d rather we end on a happy note, knowing we love each other, than devolve into bitterness and regret. We’ve still got another month. Let’s make the most of it.”

Joseph was quiet, the two quivering in each other’s arms. After a while, the agent took a long, deep breath, curling closer to Barclay’s chest. Barclay threaded his fingers into his hair as Joseph gripped him in a firm and sorrowful hug.

“Okay.”

In those quiet moments of night, it felt like they were the only ones on the planet, everything around them dark and still. And to each other, so full of love and sorrow, they might as well have been.

Chapter Text

“Your water’s overflowing.”

“Oh, shit.” Barclay quickly turned the faucet off as the pitcher he was filling to top off the espresso machine’s tank overflowed, having gotten lost in thought. He poured some of the excess off as Indrid watched him curiously.

“Is something on your mind?” The white-haired man asked carefully, returning to the drink he was making, Barclay sighing as he set the pitcher on the counter.

“Yeah, I guess you could say that.” And by that he meant he had a lot on his mind. More than he cared to think about really, but it was obvious he didn’t really get to decide what was bothering him at any given moment.

The days had been slipping by faster than he’d thought possible and with them, Joseph’s last day with him loomed closer and closer as February approached. They’d been doing everything they could to try to get Joseph something he could do with his job while still living in Kepler, but so far they’d come up with nothing.

Barclay had seen the man looking at job applications in the area a few times, despite what they’d talked about, but Barclay made sure to curb that line of thinking before Joseph got in too deep. There was nothing around here Joseph could do that would be as rewarding to him as the work he did for the FBI, and they both knew it.

“What about the Cryptonomica? Kirby’s still looking for help with Ned having left him in the lurch,” Joseph suggested one evening, the two of them curled up against each other under a blanket while idly watching some sort of sitcom.

“What?” Barclay blinked, turning down the TV volume before returning his attention to his boyfriend. “Jo, we talked about this. You’re not quitting.”

He might have picked up one of Joseph’s sister’s nicknames for him and Joseph had accepted it without much fuss, as long as it wasn’t Jojo . She’d spent a few days in Kepler getting to know Barclay and enjoying the charming town before heading back home in her little red convertible.

“Out of all the things I could do, working there doesn’t seem that bad. I was down there yesterday talking with Kirby and going over what Ned had left behind again and couldn’t help but think how much hectic charm the space has. I wouldn’t want to see it go under, we had our first kiss there, and it would certainly engage my love for cryptids.”

Admittedly, Joseph actually had a point, but Barclay knew it would probably end up being a passion project for his boyfriend more than anything, not a stable job. 

“Would you actually be happy doing that though? Go from working for the FBI for the last decade of your life to working at a tourist trap that barely gets visitors because the owner went rogue and is aiding a criminal? Not that I doubt your ability, you could probably turn that place around with the stuff you know, but, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I never got the sense that retail would be satisfying for you.”

Joseph sighed, leaning his head against Barclay’s shoulder, the other man gently rubbing his bicep. “I suppose not. I’d love to help out there, but you know how anxious I get if I’m not doing something. Sitting behind a register in an empty store would drive me up the wall.”

“Yeah, I figured.” Barclay shifted, offering Joseph the chance to put his head in his lap, an opportunity his boyfriend readily took. Barclay soothingly carded his fingers through Joseph’s dark hair, the other man readjusting their blankets around them.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could get you to move to DC?” Joseph asked, looking up at his partner with a reluctant hope.

“I mean. Mh. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as tempted to, but everything else I care about is here in Kepler. My friends, my job, everything I’ve built for myself. If I did move to DC, would you even be there most of the time?” He hated to turn Joseph down, but this went both ways. He had to do what was right for himself too.

“Hm.. no. My work tends to take me all over the country. You’d have me for a handful of weeks between cases at best, and as you can see, my cases can take a great deal of time. That wouldn’t be fair to you to relocate to a new place only for you to never see me.”

“Yeah..”

“...I hate this. I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t actually know if my job is worth this much strain.” The man scrubbed his face with his hands, pressing the heels of palms against his eyes. He pulled them away, gazing up at Barclay’s face with a miserable expression. “This is the first relationship I’ve had that’s ever felt this right. You understand me in a way that no one else really has and we fit together so well. I love you, Barclay, and having two parts of my life be so at odds is heart-wrenching. I don’t want this to end after I leave.”

Barclay sighed, still stroking Joseph’s hair. “Well.. how about we make a plan then? If you can’t find a way to stay here and keep your job, we can make a Plan B. We can try the long distance thing, you visit as much as possible and call me when you can. Figure out what our next steps are.”

“Well, I suppose we could try. I’ve heard it’s not an easy endeavor, especially with you living in the Quiet Zone.”

“My phone still works on Wi-Fi, which I’ll have at the shop and I’ll be able to get online here. Plus I’ll have my home phone,” Barclay pointed out, resting a hand on Joseph’s chest.

“That’s true. On the short-term we could make something work, but there will definitely be times we won’t be able to contact each other and I can’t imagine that will be easy. Long-term...” Joseph idly brushed his fingers along the hair on Barclay’s arm, staring up at the ceiling. “FBI have to retire after twenty years of service and I’ve already been doing this for almost ten, but I could see retiring sooner. Maybe five years. Would you be able to wait for me for five years?”

“I dunno. I’d like to think so. I’d be forty-one by then, if you don’t mind starting our life together when I’m an old man.” He chuckled, Joseph smiling and sitting up in Barclay’s lap instead so they could be face to face. He cupped his boyfriend’s cheek, rubbing his beard fondly.

“Forty-one is hardly old. Besides, I’m only two years younger than you, so if you’re old, than I’d be old too. We could become grey, old men together.”

“Something tells me you’ll be grey before then. Already getting a little there, Jo,” Barclay teased, brushing his thumb against Stern’s temple. There were already a few grey hairs there, though less than Joseph’s sister, the agent scrunching up his nose at Barclay’s touch. 

“Don’t be mean, almost everyone in my family with my hair-color goes grey early.”

“Aw babe, I like it. You’re gonna make one hell of a silver fox,” Barclay mused, kissing Joseph’s throat, the man blushing. 

“You’re too sweet to me..” Joseph murmured, kissing him deeply in return. 

They shared a few heated kisses with Joseph seated in Barclay’s lap until, feeling cheeky, Barclay wrapped his arms around his boyfriend and stood, carrying him bridal style. Joseph yelped and hung on for dear life, but Barclay lifted him easily, even if the man was all leg.

“I think it’s about time we head back to bed, don’t you?” He suggested, face flushed. Joseph bit his lip, nodding in agreement.

“That certainly seems like a suitable course of action,” The agent replied, arms draped around Barclay’s neck to hold on. In a joint effort, they managed to turn off the TV without Barclay having to put Joseph down and then the bigger man carried his boyfriend to bed, shutting the door behind them.

Barclay blushed, blinking a few times. He didn’t need to be thinking about those sort of things at work if he wanted to get through the day. The barista cleared his throat, realizing Indrid was still looking at him.

“So, many different kinds of things are on your mind then,” Indrid observed, tilting his head with an amused smirk. Barclay blushed more deeply, moving to pour the pitcher of water into the machine’s tank now that Indrid was done with it.

“I mean. Yeah? Yeah. It’s relationship stuff.” Barclay shrugged, wiping down the spigots of the machine.

“I’m guessing it has to do with Stern’s time in Kepler coming to an end?” Indrid inquired, moving to the register to take an order while the head barista finished his task. Barclay waited for him to be done before responding, his shoulders sagging.

“Yeah, it’s all kinds of difficult. We aren’t gonna know if he’s gonna be able to find something he can do that will let him keep his job, and also live here until he finishes this case, which might involve him leaving first anyway.”

“Are you going to attempt something long distance? For any other situation, I’d suggest traveling with him, but I suppose you can’t very well do that with his job.” Indrid hummed, pondering the situation thoughtfully.

“I don’t even know if I’d want to. All my friends are here.” 

“Yes, but that’s always going to be subject to change. As nice of a thought that it is, people can and will move on from Kepler. Aubrey is making a name for herself and Dani, though she struggles, is likely to eventually go with her when she makes it big. Jake has spent his entire life here so far and he’s growing up. Everyone wants to explore away from home eventually. And Thacker will likely be back out in the world before long, he doesn’t seem like the kind of man to sit still either. Friendships and relationships are always changing, as do the people involved in them. That’s life, Barclay.”

Barclay paused, taking in Indrids words. He knew that was true; there was always an ebb and flow to the people you had in your life. Back when he’d been with his friend group in Washington, he’d never thought he’d be anywhere else, but now he only occasionally chatted with them on facebook. It wasn’t that he cared about them any less, they’d all just had changes in their lives and moved onto different things.

As he’d gotten older, he’d found that Kepler was where he probably wanted to settle, but maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe one day it wouldn’t have the charm it once had, or the people he cared about would move to better things, and he’d move on as well. But right now, this was the place his heart belonged, and he wasn’t about to let his found family go when things were so good.

“What about you? Do you think you’ll stay in Kepler?”

“Honestly, I don’t know yet. I live in a winnebago however, so I’m free to change my plans however I see fit. I’m just letting what happens happen. I love Kepler and that’s a love that has yet to wane, but you never know.”

“Yeah...” Barclay found that this conversation just left him with more to think about and he wasn’t sure what else to say. 

Fortunately, he was saved from getting in too deep by the shop phone ringing. Making sure Indrid was good up front, he headed to the back to pick it up, keeping an eye on the front of house through the porthole window.

“Amnesty Cafe, this is Barclay speaking, how can I help you?”

“Barclay, it’s Joseph.”

“Hay, babe. Is something wrong? You never call me at work.” 

Barclay frowned at the sound of his boyfriend’s voice on the other line. It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy to hear from the man, even if it was while he was working, but something didn’t seem right. If Joseph wanted to see him during the day, he’d usually just walk down to the shop. Not only that, but there was a clipped tone to Joseph’s greeting.

“I apologize, I know you’re working, but there’s something I need you to do. It’s.. rather urgent.”

“I mean I can probably get away for a little while. What’s going on, babe?” Worry bloomed in his chest, trying to think of what could be going on that Joseph would consider urgent enough to call him at work.

“Well, I need you to come down to the police station and pick up Aubrey. I couldn’t get a hold of Dani and I don’t think Aubrey’s in any state to get herself home right now. Unfortunately, I can’t do much for her as my hands are very full at the moment.”

What?! What’s happened? Why is she at the police station?

Joseph let out a soft sigh, Barclay able to hear him shift whatever phone he was using against his ear.

“Ned Chicane returned, and he came to her first.”

“...Shit.”


He’d called Mama to tell her what was going on, the woman insisting that Aubrey be brought to her house if she didn’t want to go to her apartment, which Barclay was grateful for. Making sure Indrid was good for the rest of the shift, he drove down to the Kepler police station, his mind going a mile a minute.

Ned had come back? Why? And why had he gone to Aubrey first? Barclay knew they had been friends before Ned had gone rogue, but he didn’t think they’d been close enough for a criminal on the run to go to her for help. It sounded like Aubrey had been the one to insist they go to the station and Ned had gone willingly, so what was even going on?

What’s more, he was also reeling from the implications for what this could mean for him and Stern. This proved that Boyd was still in the area, so did that mean they had more time? Joseph would probably be on a lot more vigorous hunt for Boyd now. Would they be bringing more FBI agents in?

There were so many questions he found that he had no particular answer to yet, and frankly, it was all a little overwhelming. He was fortunate that he was being propelled on sheer will alone to make sure his friend was okay.

 Pulling up to the station, he got out and half-jogged into the building. He knew there probably wasn’t the biggest rush, but he was anxious and the sooner he could face this the better, lest he start overthinking himself into a rut. The clerk looked up at him when he entered, waving him in with a small smile.

“The FBI guy said you’d be coming.”

“Right. Thanks.” He nodded, pushing through the doors into the main station. For some reason he’d expected chaos in the wake of Ned’s return, though he supposed that was something of a ridiculous notion. It wasn’t like a building was on fire, just one man under police custody and the girl who had brought him in. 

Barclay spotted Aubrey hunkered in a plastic chair in one corner, her knees drawn up, clutching something tightly in her hands Detective Maygen was sitting beside her, talking to her quietly, though it looked like Aubrey wasn’t really listening, focused on what she was holding. 

Barclay’s first instinct was to make a beeline for her, but he was intercepted by Sheriff Zeke Owens, who had been talking quietly with Deputy Dewey at his desk.

“Hey, Barclay right? You work down at Amnesty.” Owens stood between him and where Aubrey was sitting, which irked Barclay, but he understood it. You couldn’t just have anyone wandering in here. 

“Yeah, that’s me.” He and the Sheriff didn’t cross paths much, as it was usually Dewey or Maygen who came to the shop when the station splurged on drinks. He’d fortunately not crossed Owens for legal reasons either, which was saying something considering he and Dani liked to partake from time to time. They’d just gotten lucky.

He realized for a moment that he didn’t know if his government agent boyfriend knew he smoked weed. Hm. Different problem for a different time.

“Alright, Agent Stern said you’d be in to pick Miss Little up.” Owen’s nodded, Barclay glancing around when he realized he hadn’t seen the agent yet.

“Is Joseph here? I figured he would be.”

“Who?” Owen’s raised an eyebrow in confusion, crossing his arms.

“Oh, sorry, Agent Stern. His first name is Joseph.”

“Oh. Huh. Alright.” The Sheriff didn’t seem to particularly know what to make of Barclay being on a first name basis with an FBI agent, but he didn’t question it, instead pointing a thumb back at the door behind him. “He’s in there with Ned, interrogating him I guess. We don’t have one of those fancy one-way windows, so I dunno what they’re talking about. Sounds like it’s above my jurisdiction regardless.”

Barclay nodded, looking to the door. No doubt Joseph had a lot of questions for Ned and would be a while. He looked back to Zeke, glancing to Aubrey over his shoulder. “Alright. Well, I’m gonna go check on my friend now, if that’s okay?

“Oh yeah, sure, go right on ahead.” The Sheriff moved out of the way, going back to talk with Dewey. Barclay gave the Deputy a little nod in greeting, which the other man returned, before heading over to where Aubrey and Maygen sat. The Detective glanced up at him, giving him a small smile.

“She’s had a rough day as you might imagine,” She murmured as she stood, letting Barclay by so he could sit with her. The barista nodded, carefully sitting next to the young woman and gingerly putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey Aubrey, how you holding up?” He asked quietly, finally getting a look at what she was holding. Her fingers were wrapped tightly around a necklace with a beautiful orange crystal for the pendant, her eyes trained on the reflective surface of the stone. 

His touch seemed to break her from her trance, Aubrey glancing up to his face. It looked like she’d been crying, her eyes puffy and her makeup streaked. She looked so tired and lost that it took everything in him to not just wrap her in a hug. She seemed fragile right now and he wasn’t sure if that’s what she needed.

However, she made that decision for him, because after a moment of trying to find words to say, she simply gave up and hugged him, pressing her face against his shoulder. He took that as permission to hug her back, holding her close as she quivered in his arms. She was quiet in that moment, but Barclay imagined she had a lot of emotions going on, though he didn’t know the exact details of what just yet.

“What do you need right now?” He asked carefully, the young woman letting out a long, tired breath.

“Can we just... go somewhere not here? Go see Mama maybe?”

“Sure, of course. I already called her, and she said we could go to her house if you needed it.” Aubrey nodded as Barclay rubbed her back. “Dani’s on that solo hike she was talking about, right? Do you know what time she’s supposed to be back?”

“...She said probably around four. She’s down at the lake.” Aubrey confirmed quietly. As much as Barclay wanted to go find Dani for her, he knew Aubrey’s girlfriend had a tendency to roam and would be nigh impossible to find until she was ready to go home. He and Mama could keep Aubrey company until she got back.

“I’m gonna give Mama a call to let her know we’re going to her house, are you gonna be okay for a minute?” He said loud enough for the other employees of the station to hear him, Detective Maygen nodding and pushing her phone cradle across her desk as an indication that he could use it. He smiled gratefully before returning his attention to the young woman. 

“Yeah. Okay.” She was looking down at the pendant in her hands, running a thumb across one of its facets absently. Barclay hated to leave her to it, but it would only be for a moment.

Getting up, he gave Mama a call, letting her know they would be on their way.

“Barclay, what’s goin’ on, hun? Is she alright?” Mama asked, worry in her voice. Barclay glanced back at Aubrey again and the necklace she was holding.

“I dunno yet. No one’s really told me anything, but it doesn’t seem like she’s in trouble. She’s obviously really upset about Ned, but I don’t really know to what capacity or what he said to her. Maybe you can talk to her, but I don’t wanna push while we’re still at the station.” 

Barclay glanced up when he heard the door behind him open, Joseph exiting the interrogation room. The barista caught a glimpse of Ned handcuffed to the bolt attached to the table inside, sitting quietly as the agent closed the door behind him. He made eye contact with his boyfriend who acknowledged he was on the phone, and that they could talk in a minute when Barclay was done, with a nod.

“Alright. You just get her here, hun. I’ll put water on for hot chocolate. Sounds like she’ll need it.” 

“Thanks Mama. I’m just gonna connect with Joseph here, see if I can learn something, and then I’ll bring her right over.” He said his goodbyes, hanging up before crossing over to Stern.

Joseph was in his distinctive, nicely pressed and pristine, suit, the man adjusting his cufflinks. It was almost strange to see him like this anymore, Barclay so used to the comfy clothes he wore in their downtime together at home. He almost looked like a different person without his glasses, but when he met Barclay’s eyes, the fondness there was still unmistakeable.

“Hey.” Barclay approached, sticking his hands in his pockets to he wouldn’t be tempted to touch his boyfriend. He didn’t mind public displays of affection, but Joseph needed to be professional here and it just didn’t seem like the time or place.

“Hello, Barclay.” Joseph looked worn out already, but a small smile graced his lips as he looked up at the barista. Barclay could tell he was trying just as hard not to touch Barclay’s arm, starting to do so but realizing what he was doing and stopping himself. They could find comfort in a less tense and public environment later. In the meantime, it would just have to be the private looks of understanding they shared.

“So what do we know? That you can tell me of course.” He inquired, Joseph sighing. That haunted look that Barclay had seen before when he had to deal with the worst of his job crossing his face.

“Ned was, in fact, working with Boyd. He confirmed that they used to work together for a year, but had a falling out when Boyd started getting too violent. Apparently Boyd sought him out after finding out he was living here from his TV show, and tried to get Ned to help him escape the country. Ned denied him, but didn’t turn him in out of a sense of loyalty until Boyd attacked Miss Cobb in an attempt to steal some of her artwork.” Joseph swallowed, keeping his face calm and professional, but Barclay could see the unease in Joseph’s eyes as the agent continued.

“Boyd came to him in the way Mama left him and Ned said he knew he couldn’t just leave Boyd like that, but also knew he couldn’t let Boyd have the chance to hurt any more of his friends, so he left town with him. However, it seems like once Boyd was healed, he betrayed Ned, stole his car, and left him on the side of the road. Which is how we ended up here. Ned’s agreed to help us find Boyd any way he can.” 

Joseph rubbed his face as Barclay took all that in. He frankly wasn’t sure how to feel about any of that yet, but admittedly there was something with a higher priority on his mind.

“Do you know what he said to Aubrey? I feel like there’s something going on there that I’m missing.” They both glanced to the young woman, Aubrey’s arm pressed to her eyes. The expression on Joseph’s face told Barclay that whatever he knew, it was what was affecting him the most about this situation.

“Ned and Boyd were responsible for the fire that caused Aubrey’s mother’s death. She just found out.”

“....Oh... Fuck.” Barclay clasped hand over his mouth, looking at Aubrey again, his heart going out to her. She must be going through so much right now. He grit his teeth, a curl of rage in his chest as he clenched his hands into a fist, his nails digging into his palm.  “Is it bad that I kinda wanna kill him?”

Barclay. ” Stern’s tone was sharp, startling Barclay from his anger as Joseph gave his boyfriend a hard and warning look. “Careful. That’s not a train of thought you want to follow. Trust me, I know how dark that path is and I’ve seen many people go down it. If you were anyone else, I would be reporting that you just said that.”

“I wasn’t actually... Sorry, Jo.” He mumbled, unclenching his hands. He was still mad, but he took a deep breath and willed it away as best he could. Joseph’s eyes softened, moving closer to Barclay, but again realizing it wasn’t the place for tender, loving moments.

“We can talk about this later. Right now, I need you to take care of Aubrey. She needs support in this time, not anger.”

“Right. Fuck, this is so messed up, Jo.” Barclay rubbed his eyes, shaking his head. “But you’re right, I gotta get her in a safe place first. Gonna shelve all this for later.”

“Okay. Good. I’ll deal with Ned here and find out what comes next. Hopefully I won’t be back to the apartment too late. We can talk then.”

“Yeah. Okay. I’ll see you at home.” He leaned down to kiss Joseph without thinking about it, but quickly pulled away before he could when he realized what he was doing. Joseph coughed and glanced at the station employees, who were watching them out of the corners of their eyes while they chatted amongst themselves, making a face.

“Later, love. Promise,” He murmured, quiet enough so they wouldn’t hear, discreetly giving Barclay’s hand a squeeze before going to talk with the station personnel. 

Barclay let out a long breath through his nose, calming himself as best he could before approaching Aubrey again and offering his hand to her. “Hey, we’re gonna get out of here now and go to Mama’s, okay?”

She looked up to him, expression distant, but she nodded her head and unfurled, taking Barclay’s hand. Her pendant still clasped tightly in the other, Barclay led her out of the station to his truck to take her anywhere but here.


“That sonova bitch.” Mama cursed once Barclay had explained to her what had happened, having to set her mug down. 

Aubrey had opted to lay down for a little bit soon after they’d arrived, Mama’s dogs accompanying her on the sofa, while Mama and Barclay talked in the kitchen. “Shoulda figured Boyd was after some of my artwork, but that’s beside the point. Ned was always a whackjob, but burnin’ someone’s house down while people were still inside? I didn’ think he was that kinda man.”

“From the way Joseph phrased it, it sounded like it was mostly Boyd’s fault, Ned parted ways from him because he was getting too violent. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the incident that made Ned leave. Not that I endorse that kind of behavior in the first place, but I never got the sense that Ned wanted to hurt anyone. He did what he thought would stop Boyd from hurting more people and did turn himself in after Boyd left him too.”

“Yeah, well if he really wanted to stop more people from getting hurt, he shoulda turned Boyd in after that bastard broke inta my damn house and tried ta gut me.” She spat, crossing her arms as she leaned against her counter.

“I’m not disagreeing with you, there’s a lot of things Ned Chicane should have done differently. But I do think that he was trying to be a better person though, he just.. couldn’t get away from his past at the end of the day.” Barclay brushed a stray strand of hair out of his face for the third time in the last thirty minutes, before giving up and finally letting his hair down to pull it up again neatly. “I guess loyalty does funny things to people.”

“Mh. You’ll have to excuse me if I can’t find much sympathy in my heart for th’ man who helped the fucker who stabbed me get away.” Mama grumbled, picking her mug back up and taking a sip before gesturing at the man with it. “Especially not if he was involved in taking Aubrey’s mother from her. That girl deserves so much better than what she got.”

“Yeah,” He sighed, finishing tying his hair back up. That part he couldn’t argue with at all, but he was trying to keep in mind what Joseph had said. “I’m just as mad as you are, Mama, but I’m just.. trying to rationalize, I guess. Aubrey needs support right now, not anger. She probably has enough of that all on her own already.”

The woman made a face, but reluctantly nodded. The two were quiet for a moment, not really sure what else to say. There was a lot going on to think about.

“So um.. If ya don’t mind my askin’, what exactly does this mean for you and your beau?”

“I have no idea, Mama. We didn’t have a great idea of what was gonna happen to us even before all this. It looks like something we’re just gonna have to wait and see what happens. I hate this limbo of not knowing, but we can’t really afford to think about it right now anyway. Joseph needs to focus on the case with Ned’s return.” Barclay sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Y’know... this might be crossing a line a bit, but I thought I’d bring it up. A friend of mine back in the day used to work for the CIA, and maybe it’s different for the FBI, but...” She paused, taking a sip of her cocoa. “There’s a pretty good chance Joseph is sent on such long and scattered cases because he’s a single bachelor in the eyes of the law. Married folks apparently get more precedent to be allowed to stay put because they have a family. But I know that’s prolly somethin’ y’all haven’t been considering yet neither.”

“What, getting married? Yeah, not sure we’re ready for that one, Mama. Marriage is a big commitment and we still have a lot to work out.” Barclay blinked, not even sure how to wrap his head around that. Still.. He pressed his thumb to his lip, nibbling the nail absently. “Do you think he’d even want to marry me?”

“Who’s getting married?” A voice asked from the door, Aubrey walking into the kitchen, the dogs padding in behind her. She looked a little less worn out, but her expression was still hollow as she rubbed her eyes.

“Nobody. Mama and I were just chatting.” Barclay assured her. Usually she wouldn’t have taken that for an answer, but this time she just nodded. She looked between the two of them, holding her arms tiredly.

“Mama, you said there was hot cocoa?”

“Yeah, sure thing hun, it’s over on the stove.” The older woman nodded, gesturing over at the pot. Aubrey helped herself to a mug before crossing the kitchen to sit at the table. The other two followed her over, having a seat with her, concerned but not completely sure what to say.

“We left Dani a voicemail, so she should hear it when she gets back.” Barclay told her, Aubrey sipping her drink. The pendant was around her neck now, its crystal peeking out from under the collar of her shirt.

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Hun, if you don’t wanna talk about this, you don’t gotta, but you know you can if you need to,” Mama offered, Aubrey staring down at the floor. A few expressions flitted across her face, the young woman sighing softly.

“I’m angry. And I’m hurt.” She replied quietly, putting her mug down and holding her hands between her legs. “I went through years of therapy to deal with what happened to me and my family, but.. it didn’t fix it by any means. It doesn’t ever completely go away. I learned a lot of good ways to deal with the pain, but it feels like I’m having to pull out all the stops for this. I thought Ned was... my friend. Yet, all this time, he hid something so big and so awful from me. He caused-”

Aubrey stopped, closing her eyes, her jaw tight. She took a few deep breaths through her nose until she was a little more centered again. Barclay had never seen her like this before, usually she always wore her heart on her sleeve and he’d thought she’d be more of a mess. He was proud ovf her for proving him wrong and handling it so well. He supposed these were the kind of coping methods you learned in the wake of a tragedy.

“I’m working through it,” She eventually continued. “It’s a lot to process and right now I’m just struggling to hold on. I want to say I’ll be glad when this is over, but I don’t even know what this being over means .”

Barclay glanced at Mama before saying anything, the other woman nodding for him to go ahead. “Well... Ned’s agreed to help Joseph and the police find Boyd, so hopefully he’ll be caught soon regardless. Boyd will be behind bars and that’s one less thing for all of us to worry about.”

Old Cooper had plopped his head in Aubrey’s lap, looking up at her dolefully, the woman absently petting the dog. She looked up to Barclay with a forlorn expression, though conflict flickered in her eyes. 

“What’s gonna happen to Ned then?”

Yeesh, that was a tough one. Barclay grimaced with a small shrug. “I’ll be honest with you, Aubrey, I have no idea. I didn’t think to ask Joseph. My best guess is that he’ll go to prison for a couple of years for aiding and abetting after they catch Boyd, but that really depends on what he gets pinned for. He’s apparently got a pretty shady past that might come under fire.”

Aubrey nodded carefully, but didn’t say anything about it, focusing on stroking Cooper’s golden fur. She picked her hot chocolate up again, clutching the mug’s warmth. “Do you think we could talk about something else until Dani gets here?”

“Sure. Whatever you need, hun.” Mama patted the girl’s knee, pulling her into a sideways hug. Aubrey leaned against her, Barclay scooting his chair so it felt less like they had all their attention on her.

They chatted idly about anything that didn’t involve Ned until Dani got there, worried and frantic, but she calmed down when she realized her girlfriend just needed comfort right now. After what had happened had been explained, Dani held Aubrey close and Barclay saw a familiar spark of anger in the other woman’s eyes, feeling a curl of resolve in his stomach.

There was something he needed to do.


“I want to talk to him.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Barclay.” 

Barclay frowned, trying not to be swayed by the pleading in his boyfriend’s eyes.

After making sure Dani and Aubrey had gotten home safe, Barclay had swung by the shop to help close up, and then headed back to the apartment to wait for Joseph. He’d decided he wanted to talk to Ned himself, at least to get some clarification to help him process this so he could provide some stability to the others, but he’d wanted to talk with the agent first.

However, as it started to near midnight, Barclay realized Joseph might be home much later tonight, if he even came home at all. Too riled up to sleep, Barclay had pulled his coat back on and headed down to the station once more. Joseph’s car was still out front, so at least they could talk about it first.

The clerk eyed him hesitantly, but let him through, Barclay finding Joseph bent over Detective Maygen’s desk, the pair of them going over notes that were strewn across its surface. Joseph had been surprised to see him, but less so when he actually looked at the time, pulling Barclay into a private room so they could talk. 

He obviously didn’t expect what Barclay wanted to ask him, however.

“I just... want some clarity, Jo. Aubrey’s hurting so much right now, and I can’t stop thinking about what the hell is even going through Ned Chicane’s head. I want an explanation and I want it from him .”

“Barclay..” Joseph sighed, cupping his partner’s cheek. Now that they were alone, they could get away with being a little more touchy-feely. “You know talking to him could just make things worse, right? You might find what he has to say isn’t what you want to hear.”

“I don’t want to hear anything, babe. I just need.. I dunno. Answers. It’s not like I’m gonna do anything to him and I assume he’s locked up, so it’s not like he’s gonna do anything to me either. If he starts causing trouble, I can just walk out.” Barclay pointed out, Joseph sighing.

“Well. Alright. But only because I know it’ll keep you awake if you don’t. Oh, and Barclay?” He gave Barclay’s hand another squeeze, meeting the barista’s eyes again.

“Hm?” Rather than saying anything, Joseph tugged the man down to kiss him. It was soft and careful and helped Barclay to release some of the tension he’d been holding. He wrapped his arms around the man and lingered for a moment, taking solace in the comfort of their embrace.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t do that earlier. Appearances and all that.” He murmured, kissing the corner of Barclay’s mouth again, a faint flush to his cheeks.

“It’s okay, Jo, I understand.” Barclay nodded, kissing the man’s brow. 

The two took a few minutes longer to themselves before pulling apart, straightening any wrinkles in their clothes before leaving the room together. Detective Maygen squinted at them, but Joseph just gave her a pleasant smile with an undertone of it’s none of your business , Barclay’s awkward half-smile backing up the sentiment until the woman begrudgingly returned to her work.

“Alright, follow me. He’s currently in a cell. You can pull up a chair and I’ll leave you two to talk for a bit.” He gestured for Barclay to accompany him, leading the man through a door back to the holding cells. Kepler didn’t really have a proper jail, but what they did have was usually populated by the occasional drunk idiot and young rebel who would spend the night before someone came and picked them up. 

Tonight however, it seemed like it was just Ned.

The man looked rough, his pants and shoes splattered with mud, likely from having to walk back into town. He was wearing a plain and very rumpled sweater, Barclay finding he kind of hoped that Ned had had a coat somewhere too. He was sitting on a bench in the cell, his elbows on his knees, staring down at the floor.

“Ned? Someone’s here to see you.” Joseph got his attention, the older man looking up at the two of them. He seemed confused at Barclay’s presence, raising an eyebrow. He seemed more drained than Barclay had ever seen him, the rings under his eyes dark.

“Barclay? What can I do for you, my friend? Assuming I can still call you that.”

“I dunno yet.” He grabbed a chair that was against the wall, pulling it in front of the cell and having a seat. He and Stern exchanged one last look before Joseph left them be, though Barclay was sure he wouldn’t be far. “I thought we could have a chat.”

“Don’t see why not, though I dunno why it’s you who’s come to see me. I’m sure everyone has a piece of their mind ready for me though.”

“I think I’m just the one who’s available right now, and also the least likely to want to take your head off.” Barclay leaned back, crossing his arms. “I wanted answers. Aubrey’s really upset right now and everyone’s pretty shaken up, so I wanted to pick your brain on just what the hell you were thinking, if only so I can get some sleep at night.”

“That’s as good a reason as any, I guess.” Ned nodded sullenly, taking a long breath and adjusting his thick glasses. “So what do you want to know?”

“Whatever there is to tell me. I just want to know what the hell is going on Ned, and a summary just isn’t enough.”

“Well, alright. Then you best get comfortable. It’s.. kind of a long story.”

“Alright.” Barclay nodded, stretching his legs out as a signifier that he wasn’t going anywhere, Ned shaking his head.

“Okay, where to start..” Ned took a moment to think, lacing his fingers together idly. “So, I’m a thief. I’d like to think that that’s in the past tense, but when it comes down to it, I don’t think that’s something you ever stop being once you get into it. I came from a background of not having a whole lot, but you don’t need that whole sob story, I’m sure you get the idea. Times were scarce and I learned how to take a five-finger discount earlier than anyone really should.”

Ned chuckled bitterly before continuing. “As I got older, I learned how to make money other ways, hustling at pool, gambling, y’know that whole rigmarole. Sorta got used to only having myself to look after. B&Es were easy if you planned them right and at some point, it became this whole kind of lifestyle instead of just a means to get by. I would challenge myself to snag increasingly unique and bizarre items, just because it gave me a bit of a thrill to see if I could.”

He rubbed a scar on the back of his hand thoughtfully, shifting on the bench. “I got into a couple of scrapes, but I always managed to get myself out. Moved from state to state a lot. New name, new identity, and all that. I met Boyd when we accidentally cased the same joint and just kinda fell into working together.”

Barclay listened carefully while Ned laid it all out for him, still not really sure what to think. “You worked with him for about a year, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, and at first it was great! It was nice knowing someone had my back. We were both pretty good at it too, made some good haul. Him being around made my world a little less.. I dunno.. lonely.” 

Barclay didn’t agree with most of what Ned had done, but his last statement made his heart ache a little for the man. He could see how Ned might have fallen into such a lifestyle, and no doubt, it was something that was hard to break out of. Still, he wanted the full story before he made any real judgements.

“What happened with Aubrey, Ned?”

Ned leaned back, looking the most weary and crestfallen Barclay had ever seen the usually jovial man. He rubbed his face tiredly, shaking his head. 

“I never wanted to hurt anyone. Sure I used people to get by, but it was never things they actually needed. I was never a killer .” He pressed the pads of his fingers against his eyes. “Boyd wanted to do a heist on this house, he’d heard they were loaded and thought we’d be set for life. We thought it was unoccupied.”

“But it wasn’t.”

“No, it wasn’t. The entire family was home. Aubrey’s entire family was home. We started to do our heist but it went awry when the father came down the stairs. We got into a tussle in the kitchen and Aubrey must have heard the noise, because she came down too.” Ned let his hands drop into his lap, his gaze distant. 

“I don’t really remember how the fire started, I think maybe a toaster got knocked into a sink of dishwater, but the next thing I knew was that the drapes were on fire and it was spreading. I knocked her dad’s head against the counter and he was out, and I guess Boyd must have hit Aubrey with something, because they were suddenly both on the floor and flames were everywhere.”

Barclay grit his teeth, holding back his judgement. He knew that if he started talking now, he’d escalate into yelling quickly. Instead, he gripped the plastic of his chair so hard it made his nails hurt, but let Ned finish.

“Boyd grabbed our bag of loot and just ran for it, while I dragged Aubrey and her father outside. I didn’t know her mother was still in there and at that point. At that point, I knew everything was fucked anyway and I wasn’t going to run with Boyd any longer. He’d been getting more and more risky and aggressive and I knew after that that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I called emergency services on Aubrey’s cell phone, told them there was a fire, and then I just.. Ran. Boyd took off without me after he realized I’d betrayed him, so I just hoofed it into the woods and didn’t look back. Couple hundred miles of hitchhiking later, I ended up in Kepler.”

Barclay hated that he still felt for Ned in some way, despite knowing the extent of what he’d done. He’d played a part in damaging Aubrey’s life and left her with a tragedy she’d never completely heal from. Ned Chicane had fucked up monumentally in a way Barclay doubted he’d ever be able to forgive, but.. he’d saved Aubrey’s life too. In an accident he’d caused, but he could have just left her and he didn’t.

“So what? You’ve spent all this time with her when she came to Kepler, and you didn’t feel any sense of guilt knowing you ruined her family?” He asked, tone clipped. Ned shook his head.

“I didn’t know it was her at first, that night was all a bit of a blur. I always knew she felt familiar, but I didn’t know from where until I overheard her talking with that teenager about how she lost her mother in the shop. That girl who lost her parents and moved in with Janelle.”

“Who, Alexandra?” 

“Yeah, that’s her. Apparently Aubrey had been helping her cope with the loss.” Ned nodded, laying back on the bench with a grunt. “Anyway, I did feel guilty. Still do. If I could go back and fix it all, I would in a heartbeat. Aubrey didn’t deserve to lose her mother like that.”

“But you can’t, Ned.”

“No, I know.” He stared up at the ceiling of his cell before turning his head to look at Barclay again. “That’s why I’m doing this now. I want to make this right, even if I end up in prison by the end of it. I’m done running. Once I help y’all find Boyd, I’ll gladly take my sentence.”

“What about when Boyd came to you the first time? Why didn’t you turn him in then? He attacked Mama, Ned, and you still ran off with him. Stole bandages to patch him up and everything.” Barclay crossed his arms again, his expression hard as he bounced his heel.

“Part of it was a certain sense of.. devotion. You run with someone long enough, go through thick and thin with them and you kinda feel like you at least owe them the courtesy of a second chance.” Ned rubbed his wrists where he’d likely been wearing handcuffs all day. “But that’s not all of it. Truth of the matter is.. I was scared. Scared of what might happen to me and scared he’d hurt someone else. I thought if I could get him away from Kepler, I could keep him from hurting other people.”

Barclay let out a soft sigh, deflating a little. “Are you scared now?”

“No. The only thing that scares me anymore is what he might do. I thought maybe we could run again, but I realized I would never be able to stop him, no matter what I did, so I decided to turn him in instead. Unfortunately for me, he’s a big fella and wasn’t too happy when he figured out what I was doing. I’m lucky he didn’t leave me dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Barclay nodded, checking the clock on the wall. It was getting pretty late and Joseph was probably going to be finishing up soon. “So, you’re alright that Stern and the rest are going to be putting him away for a long time once they catch him then? You’ll be likely getting a sentence as well. How do we know you’re not going to run us around to give him time to escape?”

“Because,” Ned sat up again, looking at Barclay head on. His eyes were dark and cold and serious as he spoke.

“This is what I have to do.”

Chapter Text

“So the pendant was her mom’s, right? I didn’t want to ask because I didn’t want to bring up anything that might be hard for her. She’s having a tough enough time already.” Barclay asked as he and Dani went over all their gear again, making sure they had everything packed for their trip.

“Yeah, apparently it’s been handed down on the maternal side of her family for generations. Ned stole it that night he broke into her house, but gave it back to her when he came back.” Dani confirmed with a nod, unrolling her sleeping bag on the floor to double check it for any wear or damage.

They’d been piling everything in Dani’s apartment as it got closer for their postponed winter camping trip and now it was on their doorstep, so they were doing their last minute checks and making a list of things they would need to run and get before they left.

“Ah, bet that’s not the easiest reminder for her, but I’m glad she has it back.” Barclay went through the food they had already, ticking off a checklist. “We don’t have any maple syrup. What do you think, should we get some?”

“Hell yeah, dude. You know that’s like.. my tea sweetener of choice,” Dani replied, Barclay making a note of it and chewing on the end of his pencil thoughtfully. His friend looked up at him from where she was sitting on the floor, her brows coming together.

“Hey, so like.. are you sure you wanna go on this trip, Barclay? I know you and Joseph probably don’t have a whole lot of time left if you would rather spend it with him. I don’t mind postponing again.”

“Naw, it’s fine. He’s had his hands so full lately, he’s barely been home anyway. This is our thing and I don’t want to put it off again. He understands I need time with my friends too. Besides, our timeline has kinda changed with Ned in the picture.” Barclay shook his head, finishing up the shopping list so he could start putting everything back in their food bin. He glanced over at Dani. “What about you ? Are you sure you want to be away while Aubrey is dealing with this stuff?”

Dani sighed, making a face. 

“I didn’t want to at first, but she insisted. She said she’d feel bad if she was the reason we didn’t go again, but I think she might just want some space too. We don’t need to be together 24/7, you know? She’s gotta process this in her own way, and she’s got a bunch of support in Mama and everyone if she needs it.”

It had been a couple of weeks since Ned’s return, now well into the middle of February. The weather was still pretty frosty, but he and Dani had camped out in worse. Complaining about the cold was part of the fun of it as they cozied up around a campfire and drank warm drinks. What’s more, they got to take in some of the beautiful winter scenery that most people passed up on due to the frigid temperatures. They’d gotten some beautiful pictures on their last trip.

As for the Ned situation, Joseph had been busier than he ever had been. Ned knew Boyd’s habits better than anyone and had been providing helpful insights on tracking him, Joseph getting wrapped up in doing just that. The agent usually didn’t get back home until the wee small hours of morning, usually after Barclay was already fast asleep. 

He would try to stay for breakfast and wish Barclay a good morning, but often they would just miss each other, the only signs that the man had been home at all being a divet in the mattress and the vague sense of Joseph having been curled up next to him while he slept.

When they did have a few spare hours together, it was often spent amid tender moments and heated, hungry intimacy. 

Just the other night, Barclay had actually waited up for Joseph, the next day’s exhaustion be damned, and when the agent had gotten home they’d fallen into bed together like it was their last night on earth. He remembered laying there, trying to catch his breath, the sweat on their bodies cooling as Joseph draped himself across Barclay’s chest.

“Are you alright?” Joseph murmured with a soft smile, fingers in Barclay’s hair. The barista had to blink the post-coital haze from his brain before nodding, wrapping an arm around Joseph.

“..Yeah. Especially after that. Hooboy .” Barclay grinned, gently kissing Joseph’s throat. “I’m glad I waited up. Was just getting tired of not seeing you.”

“Well, the sentiment is mutual,” The agent hummed, shifting so they wouldn’t be so stuck together. He ran his fingers along one of Barclay’s chest scars, tracing the raised skin idly. “So you really can’t feel this?”

“Naw, not the scars anyway. Or my nipples. But to be fair, they did have to slice those off and stitch them back on.” He chuckled as he felt Joseph shudder in his arms at the thought. “The rest just feels like skin, but there are still some numb patches. I can feel pressure there, but not any surface sensation. There’s a patch right here like that.”

He touched the spot in question with his index and middle fingers, Joseph mirroring the gesture, pressing the flesh gently. “So you can’t feel that?”

“Yes and no. I think pressure is registered by your muscles underneath or something, so I can feel it when you press down, but if you just lightly brush your fingers across the surface, it doesn’t feel like anything.”

Joseph nodded, carefully dragging a nail across the skin. Barclay just shrugged as an indication that he couldn’t feel it. Joseph nodded. “And you don’t seem particularly bothered by my touching you here.”

“Naw. I mean I probably would have back before I’d had my surgery, I hated my chest because I was pretty busty, but now it’s kinda nice. I like that you wanna touch me there, it’s validating.”

Joseph chuckled, settling back down against Barclay’s side. Barclay idly tousled his boyfriend’s dark hair as they lounged before turning his head to look at the man. “Are you alright?”

“Mmmmh, yes. That was wonderful,” Joseph replied lazily, nestling his chin on the barista’s shoulder. Barclay smiled, but shook his head.

“That’s good, but also isn’t what I meant.” He gently rubbed Stern’s cheek, noting the bags under the man’s eyes. Joseph sighed, leaning into Barclay’s touch.

“I’m... I’m as well as I can be, I think. I’m tired and strained and stressed, but that’s not anything new about this job. I never expected my line of work to be easy. You make it easier though.” He shifted the covers around himself, no doubt starting to get cold. Barclay moved with him, enveloping him in his own natural warmth.

“You know, out of everything we’ve talked about, that’s the most legitimate reason for potentially quitting, but you never bring it up.” Barclay pointed out, Joseph shaking his head.

“That’s because it’s a reason that I personally don’t accept,” He murmured, tucking himself close. “I don’t.. My ability to help people outweighs the burdens I carry to achieve it. I’m not worth.. Mh.”

Joseph bit his lip, taking a deep breath through his nose. He didn’t continue, but Barclay got the idea and it made his heart ache. He wrapped his arms around the man and held him tightly, pressing his lips to his brow. “You’re worth so much more, Joseph. You are.”

He didn’t know what else to say, feeling newly conflicted about his initial argument of not letting Joseph quit once the case was over, and if that was actually the right thing for him to impose.

 What if the man’s lack of self-worth was keeping him in a job that was hurting him, and finding any other reason to leave was what he felt like was his only way out? Barclay didn’t know and Joseph seemed to be still working through all this, so he didn’t have a good answer for them either.

Barclay wished they had more time to talk about it, but Joseph didn’t have that time to spare right now. The agent had begrudgingly admitted that this wasn’t something his mental state could handle going into more in depth while he was this close to catching Boyd, so they’d shelved it for later. 

However, it still lingered in Barclay’s mind, getting under his skin, so it definitely would be good to spend some time with Dani and do something else to distract himself. 

Of course, he definitely wasn’t the only one with heavy thoughts these days either. 

Aubrey was doing better, but Barclay could tell she was still struggling. No doubt it was hard knowing Ned was just a stone’s throw away. She’d taken a few days off of work, but had returned once she felt ready. There wasn’t quite as much pep in her step, but she said it helped her to keep a routine.

He was still worried about her of course, but in the meantime it seemed like they all just had to settle into a new and uneasy schedule until the case got resolved.

He and Dani took their time to make sure they had everything and nothing was torn or broken, making their final trip down to the grocery store to get their final food items. Everything neatly stacked and ready to be loaded into Dani’s truck tomorrow, they were ready to go.

“So I guess I’ll see you back here bright and early tomorrow, dude.”

“Yep. Eat a good breakfast.”

“You too Barclay, and try not to get too caught up in sappy goodbyes, okay? I know you guys linger .” She teased as he got his coat back on.

“Like you and Aubrey don’t. But okay, we’ll try .”

“Dork.”


“You should take two cars, it’s supposed to snow tomorrow.” Joseph suggested the next morning over breakfast, having waited to see Barclay off this time. “The weather said it’s likely going to be the last snow of the season.”

“Oh yeah? That’s probably not that bad of an idea now that you mention it, in case one of us breaks down. I think Dani’s been having some issues with a gasket in her truck.” Barclay nodded, finishing off his eggs. 

“And remember we have the roadblocks up, so be prepared to stop and get your license out. We’re fairly sure Boyd is still in a fifty mile radius, especially since Ned’s Lincoln is a rather unique car and easily spotted. We think he’s had to move slowly to avoid being noticed, or otherwise on foot. Ned said he has a habit of camping out in abandoned barns when he needs to, so we’ve been combing through abandoned buildings to see if we can get him to turn up. But, I don’t imagine you and Dani will be held up too long at the checks.”

“Right, I’ll keep that in mind.” Barclay stood, grabbing their empty plates and taking them over to the sink. Joseph had cooked this morning, so it was his turn to do the dishes.

“All the surrounding police in the area are on the lookout for Ned’s car and have his photograph. With luck, we should have Boyd in a matter of days. Possibly even by the time you both get back.” Joseph grabbed his tie from where it hung over the back of his chair, skillfully putting it on. Barclay could tell he was keeping his expression careful and measured, and frankly, he couldn’t blame him. 

This case finally coming to an end meant that when it was over, they’d finally have to face what came next. And neither of them were ready for it.

“If you do, you’ll... be here when I get back, right? I’m not gonna just return to an empty apartment?” He finished up the dishes, drying off his hands before facing his boyfriend again.

“No, of course not.” Joseph’s eyes softened as that tender love peeked through his professional mask. He walked over, taking the barista’s still-damp fingers in his own. “There might have been an allure to doing that once upon a time, but I’m... I think you’re rather stuck with me, Barclay, as long as you’re willing to put up with all the complications that come with me and my job.”

Yeah, I think you’re probably pretty stuck with me too...” Barclay smiled, looking down at their hands. He brushed a thumb over Joseph’s ring finger, a lump forming in his throat as he recalled Mama’s words. “As long as you’ll be here when I come home and once Boyd is caught, we should definitely talk about some stuff. I might have an idea to make things easier for us, but it’s kinda big and I don’t want to distract you right now.”

“Well, now you have me worried, but I trust your judgement that it’s something I shouldn’t be stressing about right now and respect that,” Joseph chuckled softly. Their gaze met and lingered, Barclay leaning down to kiss his boyfriend. He could feel Joseph grip his shirt just a little too tightly as they did and it made Barclay wish he never had to let go. Joseph patted his chest once they parted. “I’ll let you get going. I have to leave soon too. Be safe out there, okay?”

“Yeah, I will. I love you, Jo.”

“I love you too, Barclay.”


“So is that everything?” Dani leaned over the lip of Barclay’s truck bed to inspect what was in it, their gear divided up between the two of their vehicles. Barclay nodded, strapping the last of the lighter goods down.

“Should be. I might have to stop for gas before we leave town since I didn’t think we were gonna be taking my truck too, but that should be fine. You got your GPS working?”

“Yep, yours works too just in case we get separated, right?” Dani asked, starting for her own truck.

“Yeah, I put new batteries in it and everything. Oh, and Joseph reminded me they have roadblocks up and are doing checks, so you don’t have um.. y’know, anything on you right now, right?” Dani made a face but shook her head. They might enjoy getting a little high on their annual trips when the nights were slow and long, but he’d rather not risk it.

“I figured it’d be better safe than sorry, which sucks, because that’s always a good time, but I think we’ll get by.”

“Okay, good. Let’s hit the road then.”

The pair of them hopping into their respective vehicles, they pulled out of the parking lot to get their trip started. As he’d predicted however, he would have to stop to get gas --it would be an hour long drive-- so he pulled off at the Marathon before they left town. Dani idled her truck at the station to wait for him.

As he was filling up, a ranger vehicle awkwardly wobbled into the parking lot, clearly driving on one flat tire. Duck got out, grumbling and heading over to survey the damage.

“Aw shit.” Duck’s shoulders sagged with a groan, lightly kicking the tire as if that would do anything.

“Yeesh dude, crater pit claim another victim?” Barclay finished filling up, walking over to see if he could help. 

“Yeah, the town really needs to do something about those pot holes. If they get any bigger, folks are just gonna start falling in.”

“Tell me about it, they’re getting pretty rough.” Barclay nodded, watching the ranger go around the back of his truck to retrieve his spare, only for the man to groan again, swearing under his breath. He poked his head back around the side of the vehicle, an apologetic grimace on his face.

“Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have a spare tire in your truck, would you? Apparently, I got the dud car today.” He circled the car again, grumbling darkly. “Why don’t these things get outfitted properly, I swear. What if I’d been in the middle of nowhere? I’d have been fucked.”

“Yeah, I do. Hold on a sec.” He trotted over to Dani’s car, knocking on the window until she rolled it down. He gave her a sheepish smile, pointing a thumb back at Duck. “Hey, Duck’s got a flat, so I’m gonna give him a hand. Why don’t you head on ahead and get our campsite claimed, and I’ll catch up with you?”

“Okay, sure.” She glanced up at Duck, who was swearing like a sailor while he got out a winch to hoist the car up, rolling her eyes with a smirk. She cupped her hands around her mouth, yelling over at the ranger. “Cussing at it isn’t gonna make it any better, dude!”

“Yeah, well it makes me feel better, so shut it.” Duck yelled back, Dani snorting. She returned her attention back to Barclay with a nod. “Alright, I’ll meet you there and start getting set up. Don’t take too long, okay? Or I’ll start drinking all the hot chocolate without you.”

“I should only be about thirty minutes behind.”

“Okay, cool. Have fun.” She stuck out her tongue and rolled her window back up, pulling out of the parking lot and starting down the road. Barclay watched her go before plodding back over to give Duck a hand.

“What was that about?” Duck asked, craning his neck as the back of Dani’s truck disappeared, Barclay extracting the spare tire from his own.

“We’re going on our camping trip today, so I told her to get a head start while I help you.”

“Aw man, you didn’t have to stop and help me if you had somewhere to be. This is the trip y’all postponed, isn’t it?” Duck made a face, but Barclay waved him off.

“It’s fine, Duck. I don’t mind and we’ll have all weekend to enjoy ourselves. Thirty minutes helping you out is no skin off my nose.”

“Well, if you’re sure.”

The two men set about getting Duck’s tire changed, it ending up being good that Barclay had stayed to help since the tire had gotten stuck on the rim and needed to be forcibly kicked off. 

“So how have you been doing, Duck?” Barclay asked as he helped the man get his spare onto the vehicle.

“Oh, y’know, pretty good, pretty good.” Duck nodded, though Barclay couldn’t help but notice a faint blush to his cheeks. “And hopefully better by the end of the week, flat tires aside.”

“Oh yeah? How so?”

“Well..” Duck cleared his throat and Barclay could tell that he was weighing if he wanted to say anything. After a moment, he shrugged, looking away from the other man. “So don’t tell anyone, okay? But I’m um.. I’m actually planning on proposing to Minerva this weekend.”

“Holy shit! Dude, really?” Barclay beamed, gently punching Duck’s arm. The ranger turned a darker shade of red, but was smiling nonetheless. “Congrats! You’ll have to tell me how that goes.”

Duck and Minerva had definitely been close in the past few months, so Barclay couldn’t say he was surprised. It was kind of wild how quickly Duck had gone from exasperated with his neighbor, to friendly, to crushing on the woman, to a full fledged relationship. They seemed good for each other.

“What, no fussing at me about how I’ve only been dating Minerva for a few months?” Duck raised an eyebrow, Barclay snorting.

“Naw, dude. You two gotta do what makes you happy. If you feel like she’s the one for you, you should go for it. Why, did someone give you trouble about it?”

“Eh, a little. I told Leo and he razzed me about it, but I figure that might also just be because he’s known Minnie longer than me.” Duck shrugged, handing Barclay a tire iron. “We’re just not getting any younger, y’know? I turned forty-five this year. Sue me if I want to get our life together started sooner than later.”

“I think it’s great, Duck. I’m really happy for you.” He really was happy for his friend, though this new information also sat strangely in his chest, once again finding himself thinking about marriage. He blinked when Duck nudged him.

“What’s that look for?”

“Huh?”

“You were making a weird face.”

“Oh, sorry, I guess I just got... kinda distracted. Is there anything else we need to do here, or do you think you’re good to get the car to Whistles’?”

Duck raised an eyebrow at Barclay, but decided not to comment with a nod, patting the barista’s shoulder. “Yeah, thanks for the help, Barclay. I’ll get the spare back to you when you get back from your trip, alright? Now you get a move on.”

“Yeah, sure thing dude. I’ll see you around. Good luck with your proposal.”

“Thanks Barclay.”

Once he’d gotten everything packed away again, Barclay got back on the road with a full tank of gas and a particular idea to occupy his time.


Marriage? Was that really what he wanted with Joseph? It was certainly a hell of a question, but one he’d started considering more seriously since Mama had brought it up. She was right that it would let them have more time together and Joseph would probably be moved around less for cases, but Barclay knew he wouldn’t want to if it was just a means to an end.

No, if getting married was going to be on the table, it would have to be because he actually, really and truly wanted to marry the man. But... he wasn’t sure that that was actually out of the realm of possibility either. 

He and Joseph had been doing amazingly at working through the issues they’d had and now their communication was strong. They handled living together swimmingly, their habits meshing well in most ways and the couple finding ways to work with those that didn’t. 

They were both fairly neat, and had good overlap in the foods they liked and their sense of humor. Joseph was an early riser, but he was considerate of Barclay sleeping a little later. They both made fun of whatever they were watching on TV and Joseph had a hilarious habit of picking apart any crime dramas they watched.

And perhaps, most importantly, he loved Joseph. 

What they shared wasn’t bright and intense and desperate like many of the relationships he’d had before, it was something else. It was warm and comfortable. They could be heated and romantic certainly, but just as easily just have a quiet night on the sofa doing their own separate things and still happy to have each other’s company.

Perhaps he should give it more time so they could really learn each other well enough, but he could honestly see himself spending the rest of his years with the man. It was a little intimidating, but not in a way that scared him off of the idea. He’d come a long way from running from the commitment Thomas had offered him once upon a time.

He still remembered the day he’d broken up with Thomas, though it wasn’t a day he particularly liked remembering. He still felt a great deal of guilt about what had happened, but he supposed he couldn’t change the past.

“Thomas I.. I can’t .”

“...What?” Thomas stared at him blankly, his hand slipping from Barclay’s. 

He hadn’t done anything fancy when he’d proposed, they’d just had a nice dinner together, stopping on a bridge overlooking the bay in their way home. He’d taken his boyfriend’s hand and just asked Barclay to marry him, eyes hopeful and kind.

But in that moment, Barclay hadn’t felt like he could say yes. He loved the man, but the thought of being stuck to one person when he’d felt like he’d only just begun his life made him squirm.

“I’m sorry..” He swallowed, pulling further away from the other man, gripping the railing of the bridge tightly. “I appreciate all the love and support you’ve given me, but I... I feel like I’ve only just started living as myself. I’ve spent the last seven years of my life just trying to be me and feel right with myself and I don’t... want to be attached like that when I’m just figuring out how to live like the man I’ve always wanted to be.”

“Barclay, I’m not gonna hold you back from doing whatever it is you want to do. I just.. thought we could do it together.”

“What if I want to travel? See the world? You’ve got a job and a life here, Thomas. And I don’t want to rip all that up because I’m not ready to settle down.” He looked away from the man, not able to meet Thomas’s warm brown eyes. The shorter man sighed, his expression smoothing into something soft and sad.

“...Alright. I get it. It hurts like hell, but I understand. I always knew you struggled with this, I guess I was just hopeful.” He walked over to Barclay, gently patting his arm. Barclay spared him a look, realizing there were tears in his eyes, which felt like a punch in the gut. Thomas wiped his eyes with his other hand, giving his now-former partner a small, pained smile. “You do what you need to do, Barclay. Maybe we can look back and think fondly about our time together someday.”

“I am sorry.”

“I know. It’s okay.”

He supposed as far as breakups went, it had been rather anticlimactic. But in some ways, that was harder. When you were upset and mad and heartbroken, it was easier to part ways while blaming your ex for everything that went wrong. Instead they’d just had to admit that even though they loved each other, their lives just didn’t line up properly.

Their friends had been less understanding however, rallying against Barclay for turning Thomas away, despite his ex’s protests. To avoid the turmoil, Barclay had collected his things, put most of them in storage, and taken to the open road in his van.

And now he was a little scared that the same thing might happen with him and Joseph. But it seemed this time, they were both willing to fight for their continued relationship, apparently to the point that Barclay was actually considering marrying Joseph.

His GPS blipped, alerting him that he was almost to the campsite. 

Maybe he could talk about the whole marriage idea over with Dani. She was protective of him, so maybe she could provide a good counterbalance on if it was really good idea yet or not. She was never one to mince words about his love life, which he’d come to find he appreciated her honestly, even if she could get a little fierce about it sometimes.

Barclay glanced out his car window, watching the mountains roll by, covered in frost, with old barns and farmhouses dotting the landscape.That was one thing he loved so much about these mountains. No matter the time of year, they were always beautiful. 

Time ran slow here, and while that wasn’t necessarily always a good thing, it could be breathtaking too. It made the mountains feel vast and primal, and something about them called him in a way he couldn’t explain. His heart felt right in these mountains and it was a big part of why he didn’t want to leave.

Rounding the bend, the sign for Watoga State Park finally appeared, Barclay pulling into the entrance.

The park ran on a minimal crew for the winter season and didn’t charge camping fees for the cold months, which was honestly perfect for Dani and Barclay’s needs. They enjoyed the solitude and could look out for each other on their hikes when they weren’t hanging around a campfire.

The barista carefully drove down to the campsites, noting that there was still snow on the ground here from the last storm and it was a little icy. He supposed that was a price to pay for not having the park tended to as much in the winter. 

However, as he made the loop around, he felt an inkling of worry spark in his chest as he realized he didn’t see Dani’s truck at any of the sites yet. She drove a red Ford and it usually stood out, especially against the white of the snow. He drove past a dark car tucked away at a different campsite, but her truck was nowhere to be seen. 

Frowning, Barclay made the loop again, this time noticing some gear spread out on a picnic table at one of the sites. 

“What the...” He pulled over, getting out to walk around. Sure enough, about half of their gear that had been in Dani’s truck was unloaded out on the table, bootpints about her size pressed into the snow around it. Maybe she’d realized they’d forgotten something and run to the store? He’d seen a little general store a few miles back, maybe she had stopped there.

He followed her footprints back a ways, but they were quickly muddled by what looked liked snow being kicked everywhere. Had she slipped? His brows furrowed, he followed them further until he realized a different set of prints could also be seen. They were bigger than hers with different treads. A ranger maybe?

There was a lot of messy, strewn-about snow right up next to where her truck had obviously been parked and soon Barclay realized that the bigger prints looked like they had never walked away from the scene, but there was only one set of tire tracks. His heart jumping into his throat, he followed the bigger prints from where they had entered the campsite, backtracking them to a few campsites over where he had seen the other car.

“Dani?” He called out, getting no reply. Now half-jogging, dread filling his stomach, he approached the other site, heading towards the car. The man stopped dead when he realized just what he was looking at, the last of his calm deserting him and leaving only panic. 

There in the snow sat a Lincoln Continental Mark III --now likely abandoned-- and Dani was nowhere to be found.

Chapter Text

“Joseph, Dani’s been kidnapped. It’s Boyd. Boyd has Dani.” It took all of Barclay’s willpower not to yell over the phone, knowing that if Joseph didn’t understand him it could lose Dani precious time. Still, he was shaking badly, trying to ignore the alarmed shopkeeper who’d let him use the phone at the general store. His mind was spinning and frantic, waiting for Joseph to respond.

“Fuck. Barclay, I need you to tell me exactly what happened. Deep breaths, love. You and Dani were on your way to your camping trip, correct?” Joseph kept his tone calm, but there was definitely a sharp urgency to it. Barclay tried his best to pull all his thoughts together and not just dump information down the phone, as he knew he was liable to do with the fear that gripped him.

“Okay. Duck had a flat tire, so I told Dani to go ahead to the campsite without me so I could help him. I was about thirty minutes behind her. When I got here, her truck was gone and I found a Lincoln left at one of the other campsites. Her footprints were accompanied by a larger set and it looked like there had been a struggle. I’m currently using a phone at a general store.”

“Alright. And you were at Watoga State Park, which is....” Barclay could hear a rustling of papers on the other end, Joseph shouting something to whoever was in proximity to him at the police station. “..about forty-five miles away. Okay. We have a roadblock at Seebert to check any traffic trying to get on Interstate 219, so if he went that way, he’d have to turn around. No doubt he knows this if he was staying in that region, or else he’d be a lot further, which means... There’s roadblocks at access points here and here going that direction..”

Apparently Joseph had a map he was looking at, continuing. “Which means he has no choice but to.. He’s heading back towards Kepler, probably on route 28.”

“Okay, what do you need me to do? Because I’m not going to just sit here, Joseph. He has Dani.” Barclay clenched his fingers around the phone, almost able to picture Joseph’s grimace on the other end.

“Barclay, this man is a criminal. Ned’s told me there’s a good chance he has a firearm, I don’t want you at risk.”

“That’s even more reason for me to follow him if he has a gun, like fuck Joseph! I don’t remember if you heard, but he has Dani! ” He knew he was being snappish, but he was scared out of his wits and he wasn’t about to let Boyd hurt his friend. “If I can head him off from behind, it could give everyone a chance to surround him. We need everyone we can get right now.”

“Barclay..”

“Besides-” Barclay grit his teeth in a bitterly appalled smile. “Everyone around here has a gun. Myself included.”

Barclay had a shotgun stashed in his truck just in case. He had a license for it of course, and while he wasn’t particularly fond of the state of gun laws in America, as a gay trans man living in a heavily redneck populated area where everyone else also had a gun, he’d found it was better safe than sorry.

“Barclay, I need you to consider Dani’s safety as well. Boyd likely has her as a hostage to try to ensure his own escape, but given his violent tendencies, I wouldn’t put it against him to do something rash if he feels threatened-”

Joseph was cut short by a yell on the other end of the phone, Aubrey’s voice coming into range. Barclay could tell she was freaking out, no doubt having heard what Joseph just said, though it sort of begged the question of why she was there in the first place.

“Aubrey please calm down, we’re doing what we can in pursuit of Boyd. We’ll get Dani back.”

Barclay heard Joseph set the phone down, likely on a desk, not able to pick up just what they were yelling about other than a few snippets. He got the idea that Aubrey had come to talk to Ned and had overheard the commotion.

“Joseph? What’s going on?” Barclay tried to get someone’s attention, hearing more arguing before the sound of a door opened and another voice entered the conversation. Barclay frowned when he recognized this one too, everyone getting closer to the desk allowing him to hear better. Joseph sounded deeply vexed.

“Ned, how did you-”

“Bad locks. Now, are we going to go catch Boyd or not?” 

“No, you’re not- You are in police custody, Ned Chicane, we’re not- Aubrey, where are you going- Hey!” Barclay heard more indistinguishable bickering before Joseph picked up the phone again, his frustration palpable. “Barclay, I’ve got my hands full here, apparently. You’re a grown man, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but whatever you decide, please, please be safe.”

And then he yelled something to someone else on his end and hung up.

Barclay was left holding the receiver of a phone in the middle of the general store, the shopkeep’s eyes wide. 

“Sorry about that.” He carefully handed the phone back to the man before sprinting out the door.


He didn’t know why he’d thought he’d catch up with Boyd when the other man had such a head start on him, but that didn’t stop Barclay from driving like a madman his entire way back to Kepler. 

The hour drive was tense and harrowing, Barclay whipping around the curves of the road at a speed that would usually make him grab the bar above the window if he’d been a passenger. But right now, he was only fueled by adrenaline.

The closer he got to Kepler, the more it became apparent that the police were out as well, and eventually, he got flagged down by a cop car, the vehicle racing after him. He should have expected as much, but was still irate that he was being stopped when Dani had so little time. But if they were pursuing him, that meant they were after Boyd as well. Grumbling, he pulled to the side of the road.

“Out of the car immediately!” The cop ordered, looking a little spooked. No doubt, this was crazy for these small-town cops. Most of the time they had to deal with drunk idiots and speeding cars, not an FBI hunted criminal and a hostage situation. As riled up as he was, the urge to drive away in pursuit of Boyd was tempered by remembering Joseph’s words to be safe. A spooked cop was a dangerous cop. 

Getting out with his hands raised to show he was unarmed, he stood in front of his vehicle as the policeman approached. The man seemed to deflate with relief, likely realizing Barclay didn’t match the description of Boyd, though he still looked wary.

“Sir, are you aware of how fast you were going?”

Barclay needed to figure out how he should approach this. Dani didn’t have much time and he couldn’t afford to be held up. Maybe he could angle this in his favor if he threw some names around.

“Yeah. I’m currently following the criminal Boyd Mosche. He has a hostage and I was present at the site of the kidnapping. I’ve been authorized by FBI Agent Joseph Stern to pursue him and I really need to go. Please.” He felt a little guilty about saying Joseph had authorized him, hopefully that wouldn’t get his boyfriend in trouble, but he needed to go and now . The cop frowned.

“I’m gonna have to call this in real quick, you stay put.” Keeping his eye on Barclay, the other man hurried back to his cop car, getting on his radio. 

They were fortunate that the Quiet Zone wasn’t so strict as to disallow the use of radio in emergency services; Barclay imagined it would be disastrous if they didn’t. He hopped from foot to foot, getting increasingly more anxious as he waited. He knew there was a very real chance that this would backfire depending on who picked up that dispatch.

Just as he was starting to shiver, the cop exited his car again, looking perplexed. “...I dunno exactly what’s going on, but you’ve been given the go-ahead, despite the fact that it seems like you’re a civilian.”

“Thank you.” Barclay got back in his car, but before he could get on the road again, something occurred to him. 

He wasn’t going to do much good on his own, and sure the police were out, but out here the force was small and likely mostly focused on chasing Boyd. If they were going to catch this man, they needed everyone they could get on hand. The barista got back out, waving down the policeman before he could drive away. The cop frowned at him, rolling down his window.

“Something else I can help you with, sir?”

Barclay leaned in, pointing at the man’s radio.

“Any chance you can get the forest service on that thing?”


Barclay roared into Kepler, and what he saw had him frankly impressed. It seemed like, as small towns tended to, word had gotten around, though probably with quite a lot of help from the local forest service. The townsfolk had been nervous about what had been going on with Boyd just based off of what little anyone knew, but it seemed their spirits had changed. Word had gotten out that the man had a hostage. One of their own

And if mountain folk did anything, they looked after their own .

Brigades of cars had formed, blocking off the roads, not giving Boyd any chance of escape. Barclay slowed on the main street and rolled down his window when he saw Duck and Juno’s trucks pull up on either side of him, Duck rolling down his as well so they could talk, their engines idling. 

“Barclay, I wish I was seeing you again under better circumstances. Guess everything’s kinda gone to shit, huh?”

“You can say that again. What’s the word? Have they caught him yet?”

“Not yet. I just heard they’ve gotten him up Topside and are trying to corner him up there. He’s still in Dani’s truck and we’re pretty sure he’s still got her. We’ve got folks to cut him off on all sides if he tries to come back down. Last I checked, the police and Stern were in pursuit. Pretty sure I also saw Mama’s truck too, which should surprise exactly no one. Whatever you want to do, you’ve got backup from all sides. We’re not gonna let him take her, Barclay.” Duck’s expression was grim, Barclay nodding.

“I’m gonna follow behind, see if I can catch up. I’ve followed him this far, I’m not gonna stop now.”

“Of course, thanks for giving us a call. We’re gonna catch this son of a bitch if it’s the last thing we do. Heaven help anyone who decides to fuck with Kepler.”

“Trust me,” Barclay grit his teeth, revving his engine. “Boyd doesn’t deserve help.”

And then he was off, up towards Topside. The blockades he met on his way up moved out of the way, recognizing his car and the no fucks given of a man on a mission. The last blockade he passed was Indrid, the man firmly planting his winnebago in the middle of the last road out of Topside, cutting off everyone who might try to escape. Barclay gave him a wave, grateful for the help, before really putting the pedal to the metal.

Barclay had always considered himself something of a gentle soul. He had his moments of temper, sure, but he always thought he was more of the sort to talk things out first. Now though? Now there wasn’t a whisper of gentle in him, rage and conviction and raw adrenaline willing him forward as he charged up the mountain, his tires squealing as he hugged the road. 

He passed a cop car that had crashed into a tree, Deputy Dewey having pulled himself from the wreck and yelling down his radio. Barclay had to pull a hard right to avoid running into the fender. The man yelled something as him as he fishtailed, but regained control, and was out of sight before the deputy could try to stop him.

Soon, he caught up with the chase, having to brake hard as Dani’s red Ford screamed through an intersection. Barclay caught a glimpse of a grizzled man behind the wheel and a booted foot pressed against the window in the back. Joseph’s sleek black car was hot on their tail, though Barclay couldn’t see through the windows because of the tint. In a different situation, he might have stopped and been impressed with Joseph’s driving.

Sheriff Owens blew by next, lights and sirens blaring before he too disappeared down the road. It was after that Barclay spotted a familiar truck across from him at the intersection, engine growling. He locked eyes with Mama and she pointed at him and gestured behind her with a nod before turning and roaring down away from the other cars.

Barclay got the idea. Some of the roads looped, so if he and Mama coordinated, they might be able to cut Boyd off. After a series of sharp turns, he caught up with the chase again, this time in the front. Grimacing, he stopped hard and skidded so his truck blocked the road in front of Dani’s truck. This had the potential to end very badly, but it was a risk he was willing to take.

Boyd’s tires screeched as he pulled a hard turn, the left side of the wheels momentarily leaving the ground as he barreled down a side road. Stern’s car followed him with practiced ease, while Zeke wasn’t so lucky. Barclay hit the gas and drove halfway into a ditch to avoid the sheriff’s car from sliding into him. 

The man glared at him from his vehicle, but Barclay didn’t have time for that right now. He gestured for Zeke to follow the same road he’d just blocked while taking off in the opposite direction. If they were lucky, Mama would have gotten in position to block Boyd further down, and he and Owens would be able to cut the man off on the last road he would have an option to turn on.

Getting to the end of the road, he wheeled his truck around to block off the street Boyd would be coming from, Sheriff Owens cutting off the other road beside him. Boyd and his procession of Stern and Mama came tearing down the road past Resort Row, but Boyd swerved when saw he was cut off. 

Without any other options, the man veered down a gravel driveway leading into the woods at the last moment. Stern’s car was still practically glued to the fender of Dani’s truck the whole time, while Mama didn’t quite manage it. She rolled into the treeline, dinging her bumper on an unfortunately placed spruce. She gave Owens and Barclay the thumbs up that she was fine, the two men pulling around to follow Boyd down the drive while she backed up out of the ditch.

It was a particularly long driveway, gravel kicking around them as they were shaken half to death from the speeds they were going. They caught up with the other two cars just as they reached the end of the drive, an old chateau looming at the end. 

Boyd seemed to realize he wouldn’t be able to turn around, instead stopping with a skid into the pine-needle covered driveway. He scrambled from the truck, wrenching open the back and grabbing Dani before Stern’s car could stop, Stern’s car grinding sideways into the front porch of the chateau.

Dani was squirming and screaming the whole time, her wrists and ankles bound in what Barclay recognized as nylon rope from their camping gear. But Boyd was a big guy, throwing the young woman over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, the silhouette of a gun in his other hand as he ran out into the woods.

Barclay and Owens came to a halt, clamoring from their vehicles. Barclay rushed over to the passenger side of Stern’s car since the driver’s side was blocked, pulling open the door to find-

Joseph practically fell out of the passenger's seat into Barclay’s arms, looking harried and disheveled from the airbag deploying. He blinked up at Barclay, the barista looking a little dumbstruck.

“Barclay.”

“Joseph... Wait, if you were in the passenger seat then who-”

“Hey, someone mind giving me a little help here?” Ned Chicane barked from the driver’s side, trying to desperately get the airbag out of his face with his elbows.

“Move your face, Ned.” A hand reached from the back, armed with a knife that speared the bag, deflating it so Ned could get himself out of his seatbelt and clamber over the divider between the seats, pulling himself out of the passenger side. He had a friction burn on his cheek, but otherwise seemed fine. 

The owner of the hand opened the back door, Aubrey rolling from the vehicle and collecting herself.

“Hey, Barclay.”

“Why-”

“Don’t. Just don’t ask.” Joseph cut him off, looking deeply frustrated as he drew his gun, checking the ammo. Mama rolled up behind them, getting out and jogging up. She didn’t look particularly pleased that Aubrey and Ned were there either, her shotgun in hand.

“Didn’t know we were having a party. We gonna all stand around, or are we gonna go catch this sonova bitch?”

“Right, we’ll try to surround him. Barclay, you come with me from behind, Sheriff Owens, you head right, Mama and Aubrey, you try to cut him off from the left.” Joseph informed them, Barclay quickly grabbing his own shotgun from his truck.

“What about me?” Ned frowned, Stern striding over to him and grabbing Ned’s wrist.

You , Ned Chicane, while I appreciate your driving skills, are a criminal under police custody,” Joseph slapped a handcuff around Ned’s wrist, hooking the other one around the car door handle. “And will be staying right here.”

“Hey! Boyd knows me! If anyone’s going to get through to him, it’s going to be me!” Ned argued, pulling at the cuff angrily.

“I think we’re done with talking, Ned,” Barclay growled, sliding two rounds into the barrel of his shotgun. Everyone set to go, Ned yelling behind them the whole time, they set out into the woods at a sprint, following the sound of Dani’s shouts.

Branches whipped around his and Joseph’s face, Barclay taking the lead so he could use his bulk to knock them out of the way. He and Joseph were likely to catch up first, having the longest legs of the bunch.

Barclay’s heart was pounding, it hadn’t stopped when he’d first realized Dani was missing, the man running on pure adrenaline. Though now, with Joseph by his side, it felt a lot less wild and more controlled. They glanced at each other as the sounds of Dani’s voice closer, Boyd’s loud and angry as well.

“Stop biting ME, YOU LITTLE BITCH!” Boyd roared ahead of them, Barclay feeling a spark of pride amid his frantic nerves. 

“FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE!” Dani screamed back, the man yelling in pain again soon after. You keep biting him, Dani. Do as much damage as you can; slow him down. 

Barclay stumbled, a branch lashing him across the nose and leaving a nasty cut, but Joseph caught him, keeping him upright as they ran. There was a moment of heated acknowledgment in their touch, their intentions clear. I love you and I’ve got your back.

Soon Boyd was in sight, he and Joseph glancing at each other again. Stern gestured to the right, Barclay nodding as they split and tried to get on either side of the man. Barclay vaulted over a log, his toes catching, but he managed to stay upright, keeping an eye on both Joseph and Boyde. 

To his right ahead of them, Zeke charged through the brush, curving his trajectory so he could try to cut Boyd off. Boyd spotted him, becoming aware of Stern and Barclay hot on his trail as well. He ran to the left, Joseph getting close before Boyd pulled his gun in his direction, Joseph jumping out of the way as the man fired aimlessly into a tree behind him in an attempt to hit Stern.

Joseph raised his own gun, but from his expression, Barclay got the feeling that he couldn’t take the shot while Dani was still slung over Boyd's shoulder. In this particular case, his own shotgun would only be worse than Joseph’s issued handgun. All they could do was still give chase.

Mama and Aubrey appeared through the trees, trying to get in the way of Boyd on his other side. Boyd swung his gun at them menacingly, Mama pulling Aubrey behind a thick oak and out of his line of fire before he could shoot, before doubling around and continuing their pursuit.

The chase continued until Barclay started noticing Boyd getting tired, no doubt trying to escape five other people while carrying a struggling girl taking its toll. Boyd was a large and athletic man, but no one could run forever.

Barclay and Joseph closed in as they approached a clearing, Barclay recognizing it as the spot the Amnesty crew had spent New Years. Owens flanked Boyd from the right, while Barclay and Joseph forced him out into the clearing, their guns raised. Mama and Aubrey got on his other side, Mama leveling her shotgun at the man.

“Boyd Moshe, we have you surrounded. Release the hostage and drop your weapon and nobody has to get hurt!” Joseph called out, Boyd snarling at them.

“I don’t think you understand! I’m the one in control here!” He growled, dragging Dani back around so she was in front of him, the young woman trying to whack his jaw with her head as Boyd manhandled her. 

“Let me go, you sick fuck-” However, she went still and silent with a squeak as she felt Boyd press his gun up against her throat. Boyd wildly met the eyes of his pursuers, baring his teeth at them. 

“If you lot don’t let me leave here peacefully, you can be certain this bird will have her brains painting the forest floor.” Barclay was suddenly struck by the memory of just what this man could do, no doubt Mama remembering far more keenly. Dani might be his insurance, but she was still very much in danger.

“No!” Aubrey screamed, Mama having to hold her back. Dani’s eyes were wide and scared and Barclay realized he had no idea what they were going to do. Boyd didn’t seem the sort of man who could be reasoned with easily. 

Joseph grit his teeth, obviously coming to the same conclusion, conflict in his eyes. His gun was still raised, trained on Boyd. Barclay had no idea if the agent was a good enough shot to get Boyd without Dani getting hurt, but Joseph definitely seemed to be weighing his options.

The scene was quiet and tense, nobody moving from their spots, guns cocked, eyes flicking madly, trying to figure out who was going to make a move first.

“Boyd, stop! Don’t hurt her, please.” A voice called from behind them, Barclay recognizing Ned’s timber. Joseph’s eyes widened next to him, no doubt realizing that, of course, Ned would escape his handcuffs. The man had broken out of a holding cell, cuffs were likely no match for him.

“Ned, stay back,” Stern warned, his tone low and firm. He didn’t take his eyes off Boyd as Ned walked up to their circle, stopping between Barclay and Joseph.

“It’s okay,” He murmured softly, Barclay glancing down at him.

“Ned, what do you think you’re doing?” He hissed quietly. Ned looked back up at him, the same look that had been in his eyes that he’d had in his cell. He was smiling, but his eyes were dark and deep and serious as he gently patted Barclay’s arm.

“I told you, my friend..” He sighed softly, stepping past Joseph and Barclay. “I’m doing what I need to do.”

“Ned, don’t you take a step closer!” Boyd growled, Ned holding out his hands to show he wasn’t armed as he edged closer. Boyd pressed the gun closer to Dani’s throat, the girl whimpering as she began to shake.

“Boyd, I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to see all my friends safe.” He made a calming gesture, his steps careful and slow. “And that includes you. I don’t want you to get hurt either, Boyd. If you just put the gun down, we can all just... walk away from this place. No one has to get hurt. 'Cause if you shoot Dani, you’re probably not going to leave this clearing either.”

“No. I’m not.. I’m not going to fall for your pretty words, Ned Chicane.” Boyd grit his teeth, readjusting his grip on the gun. His eyes were flicking between Ned and Joseph, hands beginning to shake from adrenaline and exhaustion.

“I’m telling the truth, Boyd. We can all leave here peacefully if you just let Dani go and put the gun down.” Ned made a motion to try to get Boyd to lower the gun, Boyd taking a step back. “Aren’t you getting tired, Boyd? Aren’t you tired of running?”

“I’m- Don’t get any closer, Ned!” Ned took a step too close and Boyd whipped his gun away from Dani’s throat towards the other man, the woman leaning away from him as far as she could in an attempt to get away. 

“I just... want you to put the gun down, Boyd. I’m not going to hurt you.” He took a few steps closer, able to put his hand out and place it on top of Boyd’s outstretched weapon. He and Boyd’s eyes met and the whole clearing was holding their breath, Dani shivering in Boyd’s hold. 

It felt like the longest silence of Barclay's life.

Then, the tension was broken as Ned suddenly sprung forward, pushing Dani away from them as he grabbed ahold of his former partner, Boyd yelling as he did,  a flurry of motion Barclay couldn’t comprehend playing out.

Time seemed to slow down in that moment, shock and horror rippling through everyone present. Boyd and Ned were in a deadly, swirling dance, Ned pinning his arms and holding Boyd close until Boyd managed to discharge his gun right into Ned’s torso.

The shot rang out, echoing through the pines. 

“No!”

Shouts went up as Ned pulled Boyd around so the other man couldn’t point his gun at anyone else, Dani scrambling away into Aubrey’s waiting arms. Ned was holding Boyd as tightly as he could, the man in obvious pain as blood clung to his lips, Boyd struggling against him.

Ned looked up over Boyd’s shoulder, regarding Aubrey first, his expression soft and sad. The young woman could only return his gaze with tears in her eyes, clutching her girlfriend as close as she could. 

Seemingly content that they were safe, Ned then looked to Joseph. There was a pleading pain on his face, the man nodding quietly. 

Barclay glanced over to his partner, Joseph gritting his teeth, his skin pale and damp as he raised his gun. 

He had the look of a man who knew what he needed to do, knew it was the only thing he could do, but wished the situation was literally anything else. Ned could only hold on so long, this might be the only chance they had to stop Boyd before he pulled the gun on them again. Joseph’s finger rested on the trigger.

Regarding them all one last time, Ned closed his eyes and smiled, Boyd still held close in his embrace.

Then, his expression blank, Joseph took a deep breath as he aimed his weapon at the back of Boyd’s head and fired.

Chapter Text

Death is rarely fair.

So often when we lose someone dear, we’re angry. The world hurts and seems so deeply uncaring for the life that was taken. There’s a gap left that once contained a living, breathing person, only now it’s vacant and our hearts know there will never be anything that can truly fill that space.

There will always be new people in our lives, but no one can replace that life.

So we rally against the world in a desperate attempt to grasp onto anything that might help us make sense of this hole we’ll never fill. We get angry at fate and find sorrow in wondering what we could have done differently. We seek comfort in the arms of others as we struggle with what was left behind, and cry until our eyes are red and raw.

At the end of the day, death doesn’t care. 

It doesn’t care that a man, who always drove as safely as he could all his life, died in a wreck in the middle of a cold winter’s night.

It doesn’t care that it took a mother from her family far too soon, leaving heartbreak and trauma in its wake.

It doesn’t care that a violent criminal died in the arms of the only man who cared about him.

It doesn’t care that a brave man was finally on the path of doing what was right, and just trying to protect his friends.

Death never cares if it’s just or fair. It can just as soon be senseless and cruel, and all we can do is come together and hold onto each other tightly, taking solace that we’re all hurting together, and honor those who have left us by living on. 

Death may not care, but for those who remember, caring and loving and healing and moving forward is everything. In the end, death is the only thing in this world that leaves us all as equals, but for those left living, all we can do is strive to make the world a better place in their stead.

And strive on we will. Make them proud. Let them know we won’t forget.


“Happy Birthday, Jo.”

“Thank you, Barclay... I wish I could be with you for it.”

Barclay lay back on his bed, phone pressed to his ear as he stared at the ceiling, Joseph’s voice filtering through the receiver.

It’d been about a month since the incident at the clearing and much of Kepler was still recovering, the folks at Amnesty especially so. The shop had closed for a while, the staff scattered from grieving, many other businesses closing in solidarity a few days after the incident as well.

Life had been slow to get back into, trying to find a routine again feeling aimless. Joseph had stuck around to help with the aftermath, stayed for Ned’s funeral, and then had been summoned back to DC.

They’d expected it, but it was still hard to stomach, especially coming away from such tragedy. They did their best to keep in touch over the phone, but it was difficult to be apart from the man who he wanted nothing more than to be in his arms right now.

He and his beloved had spent their last night together in a rush of emotion and pleasure, unsure when they’ve be able to touch each other again. They’d spent the whole night awake together and were exhausted in the morning, but it had been worth it.

They had yet to find out if Joseph would be able to come back. Barclay had originally been planning on talking about the possibility of marriage, but in the wake of Ned’s death, it no longer felt like the time. Their hearts were too heavy and he didn’t want a proposal to be tinged with death for the rest of their lives.

He’d talked with Duck about it, knowing the man had intended to propose to Minerva as well before everything happened.

“Yeah, I’m holding off, at least for now.” Duck shrugged as they chatted quietly at Ned’s funeral, the other attendees milling about. 

It had been a somber event, most of the town coming out to the memorial. Ned’s story had gotten around about the sacrifice that he’d made and it showed. In death, he was no longer a criminal, but a hero, and those who knew him wanted to pay their respects.

“Yeah.. Probably wise. I know she’ll say yes when you do get around to it though.” Barclay nodded, his hands in his pockets as he looked over where Joseph was standing. 

Once upon a time, his nice, black suit set him apart from the masses, making him stand out in the cafe when Barclay had first laid eyes on him. But now he was just one of many dark suits here today. The agent was talking with Kirby, his expression soft and tired.

“..Do you think Ned would have wanted this?” Duck asked quietly, gazing out over all the people huddled together, adorned in the black color of grieving. It was certainly not the sort of gathering one associated with Ned Chicane.

“Hm.. No, I think he’d prefer if this was a party. Ned was always looking for an excuse to have fun with things.” Barclay sighed, rubbing his neck. “But.. I think this is a little bit for everyone else too. It’s all too raw to really think about trying to be happy again. We’ll have to put something together when everyone’s ready, to celebrate the kooky man Ned Chicane was.”

“Yeah, I think he’d like that.” Duck shuffled quietly, looking down at his feet. “He was a really good guy, y’know? Wasn’t perfect by any means, but he had a good heart. I suppose you heard he left Aubrey, Kirby, and me letters?”

“I did, though obviously I’m not gonna pry. I know Aubrey was torn up by what he left her.” Barclay nodded, gazing back out over the crowd. He didn’t see Dani and Aubrey, but wouldn’t be surprised if they needed to slip away for a little while. It has been a rough couple of days for everyone.

“...They were nice. I have no doubt in my mind that he was just a good guy who got off on the wrong foot somewhere.” Duck grit his teeth, shaking his head. “He didn’t deserve this.”

“I know.” Barclay put a hand on Duck’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “I... I saw that last look in his eyes, Duck. He might not have deserved this, but he was at peace with his decision. He.. just didn’t want anyone else getting hurt anymore.”

“Yeah..” Duck leaned against his hand, Barclay giving in and hugging the ranger fully. There had been a lot of hugging and crying the past few days, but it was what they all needed right now. Duck hugged him back, chuckling softly as he thumped the barista on the back, before pulling away and wiping his eyes. “You give good hugs, dude.”

Barclay’s own eyes were wet as he smiled quietly, rubbing his nose. “So I’ve been told. How about we head back to the others, yeah?”

“Okay.”

Even if it wasn’t exactly what Ned would have wanted, the service and wake were touching. Many folks had fun stories and kind words to tell about the man. Duck told a particularly funny story about how he’d met Ned out in the Monogahela doing sort of shenanigans with a jug of something foul smelling. It brought a little joy back to their hearts, even though they all cried through it. By the end, Barclay’s eyes were red and puffy, Joseph offering him some eye-drops on their way home.

Funerals were more for the living than the dead, and this was their first step to feeling whole again.

Barclay sighed, readjusting the phone against his ear. “Thirty-five is an odd one for sure. Get yourself some cake, I’ll wire you some money and we can pretend it’s from me.”

“Bold of you to assume cake wasn’t the first thing I ate this morning. Goodness knows I needed something sweet.” Joseph chuckled, making Barclay smile. “So, how are things going there? Are the girls alright? You said they were planning on going on a trip.” 

Barclay nodded like the other man could see him, resting his hand on Joseph’s old pillow.

“Yeah, they both want to get out of Kepler for a while. I can’t say I blame them. There’s too much emotion and bad memories here right now. It’ll leave us short handed at the cafe, but we’ll get by. This is more important than the shop. I think it’ll be good for them to distract themselves out on the road. They’re actually talking about buying my old van down at Whistles, it’s wild that it’s still even down there.”

“Oh really? I can.. see why they wouldn’t want to take Dani’s truck.” Joseph replied, Barclay hearing him shift on the other line.

“So where are you right now?”

“I’m at my old apartment presently. It’s so... bare , Barclay, I can’t believe I used to live like this. Though I guess I never actually spent much time here.” He hummed, making a sound that Barclay guessed was him tapping his nail against the phone. “I miss Kepler. I didn’t realize how much I’d gotten used to small town life until I got back to the city. Everything is so loud and fast-paced here now. I kind of hate it.”

“Well, Kepler misses you too, Jo... So do I.” Barclay leaned against his pillow, phone clasped to his ear. “Any word on if you’ll be able to transfer back here soon? I know you’ve been busy with paperwork and stuff.”

“Well...” Joseph sighed softly, quiet for a time. “There’s.. actually been talk. I um.. I had a psych eval a few days ago in regards to having to.. discharge my firearm with deadly results.”

“What? Jo, why didn’t you tell me that was happening?” Barclay frowned, listening to Joseph make a little noise of displeasure. 

He and Joseph had been talking when they could about how the agent was handling Ned’s death and having to shoot Boyd. The man had been dealing with quite a lot of guilt, last week ashamedly admitting he’d started having nightmares. Barclay had assured him there was nothing to be ashamed of, but it made his heart ache knowing that couldn’t be there for his boyfriend.

“Well, I didn’t really know it was happening or what was going to come from it.” Joseph mumbled, Barclay wondering if he was laying on his bed too. “It ended up being a rather involved session. We talked at length on how I was doing and what I was feeling. The guilt and stress were discussed. The nightmares came up too.”

“Ah.. So, what exactly does that mean for you?” 

“Hm. I don’t know for certain yet but, as I said, there’s been talk.” Joseph went quiet again, Barclay wishing he could cross the distance between them in a heartbeat. “They’re considering taking me off active field duty.”

“What? What does that mean, Jo. Are they like.. firing you?” Barclay scowled at the thought of Joseph being fired because of the burdens his job had left him with were getting to be too much for him, but the other man made a soft, reassuring noise.

“No. I’ve provided years of good service to the FBI, they won’t just let me go because I’ve potentially developed- Well, it’s not an official diagnosis either.” 

Barclay knew Joseph didn’t want to say PTSD, it was hard for him to accept that his job might be hurting him more than he was able to help others. It was something Barclay hoped they could work through together, but at their current distance it was difficult.

“It’s okay, Jo. So what does being off active duty mean then?”

“A counselatory position probably. I have valuable insight from my years of experience that I could offer to consult on future cases.” He heard Joseph wet his lips. “I would likely have to visit DC occasionally, but for the most part it’s.. something I could do at home from a computer.”

“Oh. Oh . Shit, Jo, you mean like.. something you could do from here in Kepler?” Barclay tried to hide the excitement in his voice, considering the circumstances, but a spark of hope grew in his chest nonetheless.

“Potentially, yes. Again, I don’t know for sure if that’s the course of action my supervisors will choose to take. I still have the last remnants of the reports to undertake, but I assume I’ll know once I finish.” There was a soft chuckle on his lips, though it was tinged with disappointment.

“Okay. You’ll let me know when you know something, right?”

“Of course, love.”

Barclay turned to look at his clock, noting the time with a frown. “Okay. Well, I gotta get going soon. I have the evening shift tonight. Call me when you can, Joseph.”

“I will. I’m sorry about the restricted number, it’s standard protocol.”

“I know, babe. It’s okay. I love you.”

“I love you too, Barclay.”


“You’re sure you have everything?” Barclay rifled nervously through the gear Dani and Aubrey had packed for their trip, remembering just how unprepared he’d actually been when he’d first gone out on the road. Granted, it wasn’t anything he hadn’t been able to get after he realized he’d needed it, but still. He wanted them to be ready for this.

“Barclay, we got it. It’s fine.” Dani reassured him as they loaded up his old van, Dani having traded in her truck for it. Whistles had fixed it up pretty well and Barclay knew that, breakdown in Kepler aside, the old thing would take you to hell and back if you needed it to.

The past month had been hard on the young couple in particular, in between Aubrey’s past trauma and Dani’s fresher experiences. Dani was now jumpier and he’d quickly learned to not come up behind her and make sure she knew he was there before touching her. It was hard when he wanted nothing more to wrap her in a hug most of the time, but he understood.

Aubrey’s guidance through it was more valuable to Dani than Barclay could provide, having experience in some of what Dani would need to feel safe again. He knew it would probably take his best friend time, but he still felt so helpless to do anything other than be supportive in whatever way he could.

Aubrey was struggling too, in her own way. Ned’s death had been especially hard on her, the girl dealing with the guilt that she’d been so harsh with Ned before the incident. Barclay had done his best to reassure her that she was allowed to have the feelings she’d had at the time and that those feelings could always change.

Regardless, they both felt like they needed to get away for awhile, and while Barclay would miss them dearly, he understood, perhaps more than most. It wasn’t like he hadn’t done the same thing once upon a time, in the same van, no less.

It did make him feel better that they would have each other too instead of being alone. A companion would have likely made his trip so much better, but at the time, companionship was what he’d been trying to get away from.

“I’m just making sure. This van also has some weird quirks. If the air filter starts smelling funny, that means something died in it. I’ve found an entire mouse in there before. Whistles also probably fixed it, but I know this beast used to try to drift to the left a little if you weren’t paying attention, so be on the lookout for that. Also don’t sleep at truck stops if you can help it, motels are always safer. And call if you-”

“Barclay, calm down. We’re gonna be okay.” Dani took his hands and pulled him away from their gear to look at her. She smiled a tired smile at him and he had to take a deep breath to calm his nerves.

“I know. Y’all have each other’s backs and have good common sense. I trust you, I’m just gonna worry regardless. I remember when I did this.”

“And it was a rewarding experience, right? You made it here in one piece and even found something better for yourself, right?” She pointed out, Barclay sighing and nodding quietly.

“Yeah, I guess I did.” He gently squeezed her fingers, trying to let his anxiety go, for Dani’s sake more than anything. She didn’t need more fear in her life. 

“Any word from Joseph?”

“We don’t know yet, but we think he might be taking a position that he can do from home. Hoping for it anyway. DC seems to be stressing him out right now.” 

He didn’t mention why Joseph might be getting the new position, but he figured it was something better left unsaid. They all had baggage from that night, the last thing they needed was for it to spiral into something worse.

“I hope he’s able to. Y’all deserve each other, dude. Hell, settle down with him, have a couple of kids or something. You guys would be great dads. Or dog dads. Whatever you guys decide to do. Just invite us to the wedding first.” Dani punched his arm, Barclay blushing brightly.

“One step at a time, Dani, jeeze,” He chuckled sheepishly, Dani sticking her tongue out at him. He cleared his throat, his smile faltering a little. “Do you... really think you’ll be gone so long that you won’t be here for that sort of stuff?”

“I dunno, dude. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Aubrey and I might end up somewhere else completely different. I don’t know yet. I just know I.. I can’t be here right now and neither can she. We need this... Are you really gonna be okay with that?”

“Yeah. I promised, didn’t I? I’ll find something to do with myself.” He smiled sadly. “Just remember to send postcards, okay?”

“I’ll send you the dumbest, cheesiest postcards, dude. And that’s a promise. You’ll get so many you’ll have to start papering the walls with them.”

“You better.”

“Hey, a little help?” Aubrey came down the stairs from her apartment with the last of their boxes balanced precariously in her arms, Barclay and Dani hurrying to help her with them and load them into the van. Once Barclay was convinced they had everything to get them started, he closed the trunk, smiling down at the girls.

“Alright, come on you two, bring it in.” He opened his arms wide, the young women hugging him tightly. He wrapped his long arms around the pair, hugging them fiercely, doing whatever he could to remember this feeling for when he found himself missing them down the road.

“Y’all better call, you hear me? I want to know you’re safe and tell me what sort of stuff you’re seeing! There’s so much to see and do out there. And take pictures. I want pictures.” Dani rolled her eyes as Aubrey leaned up and kissed Barclay’s cheek. 

“We will, Barclay. You take care of Kepler for us while we’re gone, okay?” Aubrey smiled as they both finally pulled away from him.

“It’ll be here whenever y’all decide to come back. No rush of course.” He nodded, watching the girls start towards the driver and passenger side of the van. Dani got up behind the wheel, Aubrey up next to her. Giving Barclay one last look, Dani fired up the engine, pulling out of the parking spot. She and Aubrey rolled down their windows as they passed him.

“Bye, Barclay!” 

They waved as they pulled away, Barclay waving to them in return until his old van and some of his best friends inside it disappeared down the road.


“So, what do you think you’re going to do with it?”

Barclay walked through the front lobby of the Cryptonomica, Kirby beside him. The museum was now dingy from disuse, a layer of dust covering the display cases. 

“I have no idea, dude,” Kirby sighed, flicking the lightswitch only to find that there wasn’t any power, instead moving to open the shutters to let some light in. Barclay crossed the room to help him, letting the warm light of spring in through the grimy panes. 

After Ned’s passing, Joseph had been able to dig up a recent will and testament the man had left behind. He’d left a few odds and ends to his various friends, but most of it had gone to Kirby to do with as he pleased. It wasn’t much; an emergency fund, the treasures he’d stolen through the years, and the Cryptonomica itself. Unfortunately much of what he’d stolen had to be confiscated, but the money and the museum were all Kirby’s.

“Are you thinking about selling it?” Barclay asked, rubbing some dust off a case with his sleeve and leaning in to see what it was. Some sort of monkey-cat hybrid that had been glued together.

“Yes and no.” Kirby shrugged, slowly walking behind the register as he looked around. “Part of me just kinda wants to be done with it, y’know? It’s gonna be rough handling this place by myself. But at the same time, I think about what Ned would have wanted and I know he’d want this place to live on. He took over when the previous owner passed away, and it feels like I’d be doing him an injustice by not doing the same.”

“Yeah...” Barclay looked down at the floor, trying to figure out some kind of way they could keep the place running without running Kirby ragged. Walking through the building, he headed out back to the porch, remembering that chilly October evening when he and Joseph had shared their first kiss here.

The brush of Joseph’s hand on his chest, their lips desperately pressing together in a kiss they’d both hungered so long for. It was so strange to remember how little he’d known about Joseph then, the fact that he’d been a suspect in the case still unknown to him. 

He and Joseph had been through a lot together since and Barclay finally felt like he truly knew the man he loved. He let out a soft breath, leaning his elbows on the railing and enjoying what lay before him. The view from the porch was gorgeous, something he hadn’t been able to see in the dark, the mountains sloping majestically. 

Despite everything that had happened, these mountains still felt like home, new buds of green just barely peeking out among the trees. The leaves would unfurl further time went on, the progression of the seasons marching forward, uncaring of all that happened among the ridges of the Appalachian mountains. 

There was peace in that. It was reassuring to remember that, no matter what happened, there would be another spring. The summer would be hot and lush, Kepler filled with campers. Autumn would bring fall colors and the leaf watchers that came with them. The snows of winter would be cold and deep, with many a tourist crowding to the slopes.

Time moved on, and they would too.

Kirby followed him out, his hands crammed in his hoodie. “Hell of a view, right? I always thought we could maybe set up some tables or something out here, but there was never really any reason to. It’s not like we serve food here.”

Barclay blinked, an idea forming in his head. He turned back to Kirby, a smile growing on his lips.

“Well, why not?”

“Huh?”

“Why not serve food? Or drinks for that matter. Ned was always trying to get Amnesty and the Cryptonomica to collaborate, maybe that isn’t such a bad idea after all. People love the cryptid stuff, but you don’t make a whole lot from supernatural abominations alone I’d imagine. But you know what could work?”

“...Cryptid-themed drinks. Cookies that look like mothman that people eat while they look at weird exhibits! Dude, holy shit, you’re right!” Kirby’s eyes widened, a smile creeping on his face, but he still looked a little unsure. “This would be a complete merger, do you really think Mama would go for that?”

“Maybe. I’ll have to talk with her about it. Our location is better down on main, but we’ve been getting kinda crowded lately and also been having issues with the piping in the winter. We’ve been talking about renovations, so I don’t see why we couldn’t just move locations instead. I think she might agree though. It’s a really neat concept and we both already have enough influence that we wouldn’t have to worry as much about a dip in our customers.”

“I mean, we have piping issues here too, this isn’t exactly the newest building, but if we’re gonna be putting in a kitchen anyway, I imagine the pipes are gonna need an overhaul regardless.” Kirby was beaming now, hurrying back inside. Barclay followed him, watching the man flit around the shop, trying to figure out where everything would go. There would certainly be more space here than there would at the shop.

“We’re a little understaffed right now with Dani and Aubrey gone anyway, so it would be the perfect time for a transition. Opening at a new location would let us hire some new folks, plus we’d have you with us too. Moira’s really good with the finances, I bet she could get everything in order.” He grinned as Kirby got out his sketchbook, quickly drawing up a rough idea of what a cafe in the space would look like.

“Yeah, no, that would be perfect.” Kirby nodded distractedly, a bit of his tongue sticking out as he sketched.

“So what do you think? Do you think we can make it work?”

“Yeah! Dude, this could be really awesome.” He paused, a twinkle in his eye for the first time Barclay had seen in awhile. “Please talk to Mama about it, this could be game changing if we could roll this out.”

“You don’t have to ask me twice.”


“Combine Amnesty Cafe and the Cryptonomica, huh?” Mama hummed thoughtfully as she and Barclay walked Lacy and Riley down the road near her house, the dogs happily snuffling away at whatever it was that dogs snuffled at.

“Yeah, Kirby and I thought it would be a cool idea. We’ve been wanting to expand anyway, and the Cryptonomica does have a lot more space. Kirby wants to keep it going, but he’s just one guy and that’s a lot for one person. I think this could be a neat way to honor Ned’s memory.”

“He always was tryin’ ta get us to do business with him, wasn’t he.” She nodded, glancing at Barclay. “If you think it’s a good idea, I reckon we should go for it. The brunt of our season is over, spring’s a good a time as any to try somethin’ new. And I reckon... it’d be good for you to have something to focus on right now too.”

“I mean.. Yeah.” Barclay shrugged, his expression falling.

“How are you doin’, hun? It seems like you’re tryin’ to hold everyone else up right now. Which, don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly admirable, but I wanna check in on you too. You don’t gotta be the big, strong man for everyone else in a time like this.”

“I’m not- Mn.” Barclay sighed. If he thought about everything that had happened too hard, it made his chest ache, but Mama was right. He couldn’t just let it sit in there while he focused on everyone else’s problems. “I don’t think anyone is really okay right now, Mama. We’re all just groping around in the dark and hoping to find something that makes us feel like we’re living again.”

“Barclay, I didn’t ask about everyone else. I’m asking about you.”

“Right.” The man rubbed the back of his neck, sorting through his thoughts. “What happened there that day, it just.. keeps playing over and over in my head. Whenever I hear a loud noise, half the time I’ll find myself back in those woods, staring at Ned’s face as Boyd put a bullet into him. I know there was nothing else I could have done in that moment, but I feel like I should have done something.

His voice cracked, the man putting a hand over his mouth, feeling tears threaten the edge of his eyes as they often did if he thought too long about it. Mama sidled up to him, pressing her arm against his comfortingly. Knowing he wasn’t going to be judged, Barclay let himself cry.

“Barclay, what happened happened. There’s nothin’ you, or Aubrey, or me, or Joseph, or Zeke could have done differently to change what happened there. And if there was, we didn’t know what that was, so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Ned... he was a fool, but he was a kind fool, and I’ll always be grateful that he saved Dani’s life. He did us proud.”

“Yeah...” Barclay hiccupped, wiping his eyes, not that it did much good. His throat felt tight and it was hard to talk. “I know. I know. I just... I miss Joseph so much too.”

They stopped at a small park, Mama gesturing for Barclay to come sit with her on a bench there. Lacy put her paws on Barclay’s lap, trying to lick his tear-wet face. The man smiled a little, leaning in to let her tongue in range. Dogs always made for the best therapy. Before he could try to stop her, the pit-mix pulled herself up into Barclay’s lap, squashing him in the best kind of way. Mama made no move to try to get her off him.

“Lacy your breath stinks , what has Mama been feeding you, you big lump.” He pressed his face into the dog’s fur, holding her firmly in his lap. Mama reached out and scritched Lacy’s head while Riley settled at their feet.

“Nothin’ special, though who knows what she eats out in the yard.” She chuckled.

“Great.” Barclay murmured into the dog, the tightness in his chest loosening enough that he could speak again.

“I miss Joseph so much, Mama. I’ve never wanted anyone in my life more than I want him, and not having him here is so difficult. He’s been having these nightmares and I hate that I can’t be there for him.” He rested his chin on Lacy’s neck, the dog leaning against him. “I... I hate that he can’t be here for me either. I want his arms around me, but instead I just get to go to bed each night alone.”

“I have faith he’ll be back, hun. Joseph’s nothin’ if not persistent and you’re as stubborn as they get. If y’all want it enough, you’ll make it happen.”

Barclay nodded.

“I’ve been thinking about marrying him.”

“Good. You should, he’s a good man and he treats you right.”

“I thought you’d be more surprised.”

“Barclay, there ain’t nothin’ that surprises me anymore. You love him and he loves you and as far as I’m concerned, as long as y’all are happy, then I’m happy for you.” She stood, Barclay carefully rolling Lacy off of his lap, muddy footprints left behind on his jeans.

“Thanks Mama.”

“Never a problem, Barclay.”


He didn’t hear from Joseph for almost a week since their last phone call, Barclay steadily becoming more and more uneasy. He knew the agent was no doubt busy, but he thought he would have heard from him by now.

Mama was right, having something to plan and focus on was good, lest he start spiraling into anxious worry. He and Kirby started drawing up plans for what a combo museum- cafe would look like and what sort of aesthetic they wanted to go with. Something cozy, but fascinating and not too creepy. Some of the more disturbing displays could go in the back for folks who didn’t want to see them while trying to eat.

He found he was actually having fun with it, though he was stretched a bit thin between doing it and working at the actual shop. It kept him occupied though, and right now, that was what mattered.

Dani and Aubrey called to tell him about their newest adventure and where they’d just recently gone on a hike. Barclay loved to hear about it, but felt a little guilty that he’d been hoping it was Joseph when he picked up the phone. It was good to know they were already enjoying themselves however.

Life in Kepler started moving on again, and Barclay began to worry maybe Joseph had just decided it was easier to forget about the whole thing. He’d been having such a hard time coping with the aftermath of the case and Ned’s death, maybe he’d realized it would be better for him to move on from everything .

The thought made Barclay a little sick, but Joseph would call if he was going to and he just had to be patient.

The end of March approached without Barclay hearing anything more from his boyfriend, the barista throwing himself that much harder into his work instead.

“You’re going to burn out if you keep doing this, you know.” Indrid smiled at him, Barclay realizing he was scrubbing the sink a little too vigorously. 

It was the end of the evening shift and he and Indrid were closing up. Lately Barclay had been approaching everything with a determined enthusiasm, not sure where else to put his pent up stress. The man groaned.

“I mean, what else am I supposed to do? We’re short-staffed again, I’m trying to see if we can even get this idea with Kirby to even work , and on top of that, my boyfriend has gone completely AWOL.” He snapped, throwing the sponge into the sink with excessive force.

“Mh, yes, but overworking yourself isn’t actually going to make any of those things better, Barclay.” Indrid pointed out, the bigger man sighing. He leaned against the counter, rubbing his face.

“I just... thought once we all got past this fucking tragedy, at least I could have my friends and the love of my life to support me, but Joseph won’t even call now, and Aubrey and Dani are gone...” He leaned his head back, gritting his teeth.

“I can’t speak for Stern, but you do still have friends here. Whatever you need, you can always let us know.” Indrid leaned against the counter next to him, wiping his hands on his apron. “For what it’s worth, I think merging with the Cryptonomica is a fantastic idea. Hopefully, my unfortunately large knowledge of cryptids might be of some use. My parents were always very keen that I know.”

“It’s less the what and more of the how. The Cryptonomica has a lot of space, but it doesn’t have an industrial kitchen like we do. It’s gonna take some work.” Barclay huffed, rubbing his beard. “I really want to try to get it going, I feel like I owe Ned this much, I just don’t know how we’re gonna pull it off.”

“Ned would understand if you couldn’t either, you know. I think at the end of the day, he just wanted us to be safe and happy. If he could have some fun along the way, then so be it. But he wouldn’t want you to beat yourself up if it ends up a bust.”

“Agh, I guess so. I know you’re right, I’m just so tired , Indrid. It feels like I don’t have much to ground myself anymore.”

“Hm.” Indrid didn’t seem to have a good answer to that, the two of them sitting quietly until they heard the jingle of the bell above the door out front.

“Hey, could you get that? I gotta finish up here.”

“Sure.”

Indrid walked back out front to greet their customer, leaving Barclay to do the rest of the cleaning up. He knew he shouldn’t have snapped, but lately he just felt so drained. Maybe he should go for a hike soon, enjoy some of the warmer weather.

The door behind him opened again, Indrid stepping back inside, Barclay glancing up at him. “That was fast.”

“Yes, well.” Indrid tilted his head with a smile. “I think you should get this customer instead.”

Barclay frowned, wondering if someone had just given Indrid trouble. If so, he definitely would have words. He was not in a place to be messed with right now. 

Wiping off his hands, Barclay pushed his way out the door.

A tall man with dark hair stood in the middle of the cafe, a tired smile on his face. His glasses were perched on his nose, and he wore a messenger bag slung over a sweatshirt with a bigfoot pun on it. And when he saw Barclay, his eyes brightened, his smile growing.

Barclay stopped and stared, his breath catching. And then, before he could think to say or do anything else, he practically vaulted himself over the bar, sliding across its surface and running to the man in the middle of the room.

Joseph closed the distance between them, Barclay pulling him into the biggest, strongest, happiest hug. He spun the other man around in his arms before putting him down, cupping his boyfriend’s face.

“You’re here .”

“Yes. I’m here.” Joseph murmured. He still looked so tired, Barclay wishing he could smooth away all the pain and exhaustion behind the other man’s eyes. But for now, just having him in his arms was enough.

“Do... Do I get to keep you this time?”

“As far as I know, yes. For the far and foreseeable future. I’ve been given a position as an official consult with the FBI and can do my work where I please.”

Barclay realized he’d started crying again, but this time it was relieved and happy tears. It didn’t matter that they were in the middle of the cafe, it was empty now anyway. Right now, all that mattered was that Joseph was back and this time.. This time he didn’t have to leave.

Joseph reached up and wiped Barclay’s wet cheeks before leaning in to kiss him. 

It was as sweet as their first, and wouldn’t be the last for many, many years to come.

Barclay pressed his forehead against Joseph’s, the two not willing to let go just yet, Barclay smiling softly as he spoke.

“Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

The Cryptid Heart Cafe --formerly known as Amnesty Cafe and the Cryptonomica-- was a charming, cozy place, nestled in the equally cozy town of Kepler, West Virginia. 

It was popular with tourists during the leaf-watching and skiing seasons, though it had its fair share of cryptid enthusiasts as well. The little cafe and museum did well for itself, though it wasn’t just the quirky theme and wifi access that people came for. The food was lovely, the staff was kind, and the coffee was legendary.

The latter was mostly in part due to the manager and co-owner, who anyone who entered the shop could instantly tell the man put every ounce of care into his craft. All the locals knew him by name of course; he’d been Barclay Stern for a while now, having married his husband Joseph about four years ago. What his last name had been before then didn’t particularly matter.

He was tall and scruffy, with big hands and shoulder-length hair generally pulled into a messy bun, and he had a way of making everyone who ordered a drink from him feel like they’d just received something truly special. His lattes were immaculate, his chai was divine, he made everything with the utmost care. No one in recent memory had received a drink from Barclay that they didn’t enjoy.

He wasn’t the only one behind the magic, of course. The staff was just as much a part of the cafe and really made the business tick. Not long after the merger between the Cryptonomica and the cafe, Mama had passed her portion of the ownership to Barclay. She was still a fixture of the space, but had chosen to focus on her artwork as she got older. The cafe had become the space she had always dreamed of and it had been time to pass on the torch.

Kirby played a big role as well as the other owner, managing the cryptid side of the business. He was constantly coming up with new ideas for displays and exhibits that people could enjoy while they had their drinks and pastries, even making a few sales for the right price. 

He’d painted a beautiful and hilarious mural on the large wall at the back of the cafe, featuring many well-known cryptids such as bigfoot and mothman, each creature enjoying a hot beverage. Amid the gathering of supernatural creatures stood Ned Chicane, enjoying a coffee and laughing as if he’d just been told the best joke. Whenever someone new asked who he was, they were told the tale of his heroism and his place in the hearts of those who’d known him as a beloved friend. 

He would be proud.

Kirby wasn’t the only one who worked on the cryptid and supernatural side of the bar, however. Barclay’s husband Joseph, as well as long-time barista Indrid Cold, were all too frequently hunkered down with the artist, coming up with new ideas. Joseph and Indrid had a wealth of knowledge on such things, bringing in new and exciting exhibits to the Cryptid Heart Cafe.

Anyone who was new in town often would overhear talk about how Joseph either was, or used to be, an FBI agent who’d come to Kepler on a case, but after a torrid romance with Barclay, had chosen to live the quiet mountain life instead. It seemed a little far fetched that the charming family man with a love for cryptids used to be a calculated government agent, but anything was possible. 

He and Barclay had an adorable three-year-old little girl named Nessa, though the details of where she had come from were fuzzy at best for anyone who weren’t apart of Barclay and Joseph’s immediate friend circle. The more prevalent theory was a surrogate, though that didn’t really explain how the child looked so much like both of them.

Staff had come and go at the cafe through the years as time went by, but they all added something to the space.

Jake Coolice still came by from time to time, but these days he was mostly focused on the project he and the Hornets had been working on. They’d rallied together to buy one of the old, abandoned water parks and were working together to turn it into an action park instead, giving the youth of Kepler more to do year-round. 

One of their biggest supporters was Forest Ranger Duck Newton, but that wasn’t a surprise to those who actually knew him.

Duck and his wife Minerva had started traveling soon after they’d gotten married, going to countries that were struggling with deforestation to help them regrow. He and Minerva weren’t always gone, however, coming back to Kepler usually for a year or so before heading to their next destination. Barclay thought it was admirable what they were doing and they always came back with such interesting stories to tell.

Dani and Aubrey Little had spent about as long as Barclay had on the road, but perhaps with more success than he’d had. With more experience under her belt, and Dani to keep her centered, Aubrey had a lot more success in jumpstarting her magic career. The young woman now had quite a following as the Lady Flame, Dani finding a place in managing her shows. 

Instead of basing themselves somewhere like Las Vegas, they’d started doing tours around the country, which let them come back to Kepler when they finished their season. Barclay missed them when they were gone, but he was so proud of them both, all the postcards he’d gotten through the years gladly hung on a wall of his and Joseph’s living room.

They’d gotten married a few years ago, about a half a year after Joseph and Barclay had. He and Dani and been each other’s best people at their weddings, both events beautiful and something they would all remember for the rest of their days.

Just this last year, Aubrey and Dani had announced that they would be lightening up on the tours and would likely be in Kepler more often, though the reason was even more exciting. After an unfortunately long fight for her, they’d successfully adopted a nine-year-old girl.

Sylvain was the sweetest kid Barclay had ever met, and Barclay had been initially furious about her treatment in the foster system as a young trans girl. But now that she was in Dani and Aubrey’s loving arms, she was thriving and full of curiosity. She had a love for nature and all things that lived and grew, and her moms’ nurtured her inquisitive mind every step of the way. Barclay was never more thrilled to be an uncle to her.

He was even more thrilled to be a father, of course. 

Learning how to raise a child was constantly a learning experience, but he and Joseph made a good team and it was so rewarding to watch Nessa grow from the tiny, squalling bundle she had been when she’d first been handed to him into the bouncing ball of energy she was now. She was the light of his life, just as much as her other father was.

Barclay could only think about how grateful he was for the family he’d made here in Kepler the next time they were all together. Thanksgiving had rolled around once again, and Mama’s home was crammed with guests, new faces and old alike gracing her halls.

Duck and Minerva had been in Africa helping with the Sahara Forest Project, but had returned for the holidays, the older couple happily chatting with Thacker.

Thacker and Quella had decided to stick around in Kepler after Mama had healed, Thacker taking up his adventure service again, but mostly working at the cafe. He was getting a little too old to be out traveling the world, even though Barclay could tell he still wished he could be sometimes. But Quella was proof enough that he had helped other people, so it seemed like he’d made his peace with it.

Quella herself had taken quite a shine to working at the cafe, now the head baker for their pastries. Dani had passed along her recipes and Quella had many of her own to offer as well. So much of the reserved nervousness she’d carried had peeled away over the years, though she still was careful and thoughtful with her words. She could be a calm in a storm and Barclay was glad to have her as a friend.

One of their newest employees, Pigeon Wilson, was chatting with Kirby and Indrid over by the fireplace. She’d been such a help to the cafe, charming and great on the register, she definitely added some much-needed pluck that Aubrey had once provided behind the counter.

Alexandra had just recently started with them too, working to save up for college. She had a little bit of a hard time socializing with everyone else, but she was warming up to them slowly, already showing promise on the espresso machines. Currently, she was talking with Aubrey and Dani, smiling softly. It was good to see her smiling again. For so long it had been hard for her.

  Moira had retired two years ago, but she was here all the same, always part of their big happy family. She was currently holed up in the kitchen with Mama, somewhere Barclay knew he should probably be helping too, but he’d gotten a little distracted.

Sylvain was playfully chasing Nessa through the living room, the younger girl squealing happily as she ducked behind Joseph’s legs. She wrapped herself around one of his ankles and stuck her tongue out at Sylva.

“Can’t get me! Daddy’s safe.” Ness grinned wildly, Joseph shaking his head, the other girl looking up at the man with a raised eyebrow.

“Hey, don’t look at me, I don’t make the rules of tag.” He mused, scooping up his daughter, who shrieked gleefully and clung to him like the little monkey she was. “Sylvain, I think I heard Mama needs help peeling potatoes in the kitchen, if you want to go help her with that. I bet Nessa would love if you played with her again later though.”

“Okay!” The nine-year-old nodded, hurrying off into the kitchen to see what she could do to help. Joseph chuckled, carrying their daughter back over to Barclay.

“I thought you were supposed to be helping in the kitchen too.” His husband chuckled, Barclay shrugging.

“Sounds like they’ll be getting all the help they can manage with Sylvain at the helm.” He replied, reaching out to take the girl from Joseph’s arms. She held out her arms and wrapped them around Barclay’s neck as he set her in his embrace.

“Papa! Sylva played with me!” She beamed, Barclay kissing her forehead. She’d gotten his brown hair and his nose, but Joseph’s dark eyes and dimples, all of them wrapped up into a perfectly adorable package. She giggled when he kissed her, flapping her hands.

“I saw! You were such a fast runner, kiddo,” He praised, the little girl giggling again. “Now what do you say, do you wanna go see what Sylvain, Mama and Moira are up to in the kitchen?”

“Yeah!”

“You two have fun.” Joseph leaned in to kiss Barclay, though perhaps not quite as long as they would have liked with a squirmy child between them. Grinning, Barclay then carried his daughter into the kitchen to see just what everyone was doing until everything was ready to bring out.

They had a lovely dinner, the table packed with good friends and family. They’d had to pull up a chair when Jake arrived late, but nobody held it against him. The guy was still only a few weeks healed from his top surgery. 

The food was fantastic and the companionship was even better. 

Barclay realized not for the first time that he was so glad he’d broken down in Kepler all those years ago. He was in his forties now, but life still felt so vibrant and full, with new and interesting things always ahead of them.

After dinner, stuffed to the brim, they all settled into the living room after Barclay and Joseph had put Nessa down for a nap. Sylvain had a sketchbook she was doodling in on the floor while all the adults settled around with something to drink and a little comfortable conversation.

“So Nessa’s starting preschool soon, right? How are you guys feeling about that?” Dani asked, Joseph and Barclay nodding and glancing at each other.

“Oh, you know. Nervous. It’s such a big milestone in her life.” Joseph replied, Barclay wrapping an arm around his husband’s shoulder.

“She’ll be fine, babe. She’s such a confident kid, she’ll fit right in.” Barclay reassured him. They’d had the same conversation a couple of times, but it was something they needed to reiterate the closer it got to her first day of school. He knew Jo was anxious about it, and he wasn’t going to dismiss that. He had nerves about it himself, but was doing his best not to dwell on them.

“Besides, y’all will have more time to yourselves again I’d imagine.” Duck pointed out from where he was settled up against his buff wife. If Barclay had to guess between the two of them, Minerva was probably the big spoon in the relationship. Among other things. 

He and Joseph blushed faintly, his husband clearing his throat.

“You do have a point.” 

“Given that all that alone time , y’all think you’ll be giving Nessa a sibling?” Duck asked cheekily, Aubrey gently slapping his shoulder with the back of her hand from where she sat on the other side of him.

“Dude, c’mon.” She made a face, nodding in Sylvain’s direction as a reminder to watch how he talked. However, the little girl seemed to be completely absorbed in her drawing, not paying attention to them as she hummed to herself.

“Oof, uh.. I think Jo and I are good with just Ness, at least doing it the old fashioned way. Between my age and the complications I had with her, I think my baby-having days are over. Not that I really minded, it was an interesting experience for sure, but uh..” He absently rubbed his belly, feeling the ridge of his cesarean scar under his shirt. “..not one I’m really keen on repeating.”

"Oh shi-ooot. Shoot. I said shoot." Duck quickly corrected himself before Aubrey could whack him again, wincing apologetically. "I forgot y'all had so many problems having her. I can definitely see why you wouldn't wanna go through that again. There's always other ways though, if ya wanted to."

"Yes, adoption might still be an option and we've considered it, but we have had our hands quite full already." Joseph nodded, a look to Barclay asking if he as okay. Barclay reassured him with a returning glance. His pregnancy with Nessa had been rough in ways more than one and they were all just lucky everyone had made it out on the other side.

“Dunno how you handled that, dude.” Jake piped up, shifting awkwardly. He was no doubt still in his compression vest this early, Barclay remembering how uncomfortable they were. Like a binder, but stiffer and itchier. “I definitely never wanna get pregnant, that sounds like hell, no offense. Once I get the money together, I’m getting the whole package out, that’s for sure. Props to you guys though, Nessa’s a rad kid.”

“I mean, not everyone is gonna have the complications I did, and the fact that I was pushing forty too certainly wasn't doing me any favors, but I respect that it's not for everyone. I’ve been thinking about getting the whole kit and kaboodle out too, it’s more trouble than it’s worth anymore.” Barclay scrunched up his nose, Joseph giving his shoulder a squeeze. He looked over at Duck and Minerva again.

“What about you guys? Any plans for kids on the table?”

“Naw. We thought about it, but I think we’re a little old for that, and kinda have a lifestyle works for us anyway, right honey?”

“Yes! With how much we travel, I really do not think it would be fair to a child. We’ve been enjoying our world-trotting a great deal.” Minerva nodded, her fingers in her husband’s hair.

“Yeah, but we’re more than happy to be an Aunt and Uncle to y’all’s cuties though.”

“I like it when Minerva picks me up!” Sylvain chimed in, grinning at them from the floor. Apparently she had been listening after all. Minerva grinned right back at her, Duck sharing the smile.

“You know what, kid? I like it when she picks me up too,” He snickered, his wife letting out a deep belly laugh that got everyone else laughing as well.

They all settled back into quiet conversation, catching up with those they hadn’t seen in a while, and getting to know newer faces better. By the end of the evening, everyone left with full bellies and fuller hearts. 

As Joseph and Barclay were bundling up and getting ready to leave, Mama was holding a passed out Nessa while they donned their coats.

“Y’know, I never thought, bein’ a single woman most of my life, that I’d ever end up with grandkids, yet here I am with not one, but two’ve ‘em.” She chuckled, gently rocking Nessa before passing her sleeping form back to Barclay. “I’m a lucky woman to have a family like this one.”

“It’s all thanks to you, y’know. I don’t think any of us would have ever met without Amnesty.” Barclay smiled as Joseph pulled Nessa’s hat on her head, the two men carefully trying to get her in her coat without waking her.

“And thank you for having my favorite drink on your menu as well, it gave me a reason to keep coming back. Well, besides the wifi and insanely attractive head barista.” 

They’d renamed the caramel mocha latte “The Bigfoot” on their new menu, Joseph liking to joke that it was because it had been what he’d been looking for all these years.

“I guess I did, huh? Well, lemme just tell ya, all you kids have made an old woman very happy. You better bring this little one back around soon, tell me how her first day of preschool went.”

“We will, Mama.” Barclay chuckled, leaning in and kissing her cheek before the two men said their goodbyes and carried their daughter out to their car.

The moon hung full overhead, shining down over everyone who left that night, witnessing all the friendships and relationships they shared. Through all their hardships, and trials, and distances between them at times, they all still had each other at the end of the day. 

It was a love they’d share for the rest of their lives.

As everyone went home, the mountains grew deep and dark over the lush green of the pines, the cool wind swaying through the valley. Barclay and Joseph got settled in, curled together in their bed, basking in each other’s warmth and love as their daughter slept in the other room. 

"Barclay?"

"Hm?"

"This is at risk of sounding sappy, but.. thank you. I feel like I've realized more and more recently just how much I never expected my life to end up like this, and how grateful I am that it did. Even if it does feel like a dream sometimes." Joseph cupped Barclay's cheek, his smile soft as he brushed a thumb against Barclay's beard.

"Don't think it's a dream. At least I hope not. If it is, I definitely don't wanna wake up." He chuckled, kissing his husband soundly. "Feels pretty real to me."

"Yes, you're right. It does." Joseph kissed him again before resting his head back on his pillow, taking in the love of his life once more before closing his eyes. "I love you, Barclay."

"I love you too, Joseph."

Barclay closed his eyes as well, relaxing to the sound of his husband's breathing slowing. Wrapped in each other's arms, they soon found sleep on that chilly November night, a long and happy future ahead of them.

And another day ended in Kepler, West Virginia.