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Patrick breaks up with him on a Saturday night, in the middle of the sidewalk between the Cafe Tropical and the town hall, and it hits David like a punch in the gut because he didn’t see it coming, and he should have. He always has before.

They’ve been dating a month and a half, which is plenty of time to see the signs, surely. David wishes he’d even caught just one, just so he wouldn’t feel so blindsided right now. But when he scans through their time together, his brain only wants to show him the good things: Patrick thanking him for their first kiss, the desperate, giddy fumblings in the stock room and getting carried away, calling Patrick his boyfriend and watching him repeat it over and over, like he couldn’t get enough of the way it tasted in his mouth.

“I thought about it a lot, and I feel like we just rushed it, you know, with the store and everything. It’s a lot of pressure,” Patrick says, scrubbing a hand over his face, and his eyes are filled with tears, which is nice. It’s nice that he cares. David has had a lot of bad breakups, and no one’s ever cried over him before. He wouldn’t expect anything less from Patrick, he guesses, who has been nothing but kind and patient and sweet and… well, clearly too perfect to last. “And if we don’t, if we can’t—David, I don’t know what I would do—”

“It’s okay,” David says, voice breaking embarrassingly on the middle of the word. “I get it.”

Patrick looks at him like it’s breaking his heart that David is accepting this so easily. But what does he want him to do, cry and scream and throw a fit? That’s never been his style.

“I just… I just like you so much,” Patrick says, half a laugh, and David wants to ask then why are you breaking up with me desperately.

He doesn’t. He just wipes the tears from his cheeks that have now spilled over, and nods, says, “Yeah,” a little broken noise of agreement that makes Patrick’s eyes shine.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, looking down at his feet.

David shakes his head. “Not your fault!” he says, going for a weird kind of chipper, trying for a smile, starting to walk away, head home. He feels like he’s in a daze, can’t process the street beside him or the crickets chirping or any of it. He can’t be there anymore, he needs somewhere he can turn off the lights to go breathe, needs to go process the fact that if Patrick can’t love him he’s probably beyond saving.

He folds his arms across his chest and only looks back once, which he counts as a win. Patrick is watching at him like it’s breaking his heart too, and somehow, it’s like looking into the sun.

***

He can’t go home. He can’t face his parents or Alexis and tell them all that he doesn’t know what the fuck is going to happen now, to his store or to his life or to Patrick, so he goes to Stevie’s.

He ends up spending two days on her couch, bundled in blankets and watching hours upon hours of shitty reality TV without actually comprehending any of it.

He spends a lot of time thinking about the day they’d met a new vendor, and how Patrick had stuttered, not known how to introduce them. David had thought it was just because neither of them had said the word “boyfriend” yet, but now he’s not so certain. He thinks of the way Patrick had looked when they fooled around: a little wild, a little overwhelmed when David would ask him what he wanted, like maybe he wanted everything and nothing and his mind was on overload. The way he would shake. David wonders if these are signs, and he wonders if he’ll ever know for certain. The words rushed it echo around and around and around in his head, and he thinks of how he should have known, really. He had tried so hard to be soft, to be gentle, but maybe that’s just not something he’s capable of. Maybe he’s too broken.

Halfway through the third bottle of wine Monday night, Stevie says, “You know you’re in love with him.”

David is staring at the ceiling. He doesn’t think he’s ever been in love with someone before, not really, so he can’t confirm or deny, and makes a noncommittal noise. Stevie scoffs, unconvinced. “Why didn’t you say it?”

He shrugs. He knows the answer, which is that he fell in love with Patrick disturbingly quickly, but who wouldn’t; it came as naturally as breathing. That wasn’t the hard part—the hard part was letting himself be loved back.

“I want him to be happy,” he says simply, feeling helpless. It’s so true it rings like a bell inside him, shaking his bones and echoing through his ribcage. Stevie must be able to tell, because she lays down on the floor next to him, puts an arm around his waist and kisses his cheek, and lets him cry.

***

David is back in the store for their normal hours on Tuesday at 8:30, sweeping the floors and cleaning the windows and pointedly not thinking about how he doesn’t expect to see Patrick today, because it makes sense for them to have space. Patrick seems like the kind of guy who gets that implicitly without having to be told.

He doesn’t know how the news spread all over town already, but by lunch he’s already so worn down by everyone’s sad smiles and knowing looks that he almost considers closing the store for the rest of the day and calling Alexis. He knows he’d be choking back tears on the phone, and desperate enough to beg her to come get him.

Instead he tightens his smile, straightens his spine, and asks the next customer if they found everything okay.

Still, he can’t weather it by himself for long. By Wednesday afternoon he texts Patrick, pleading can you come back to the store? please just come back.

And Thursday, Patrick is there when David opens the door, steady and dependable and perfect. David almost sighs just at the sight of him.

“Hey,” he says with a slightly sad smile, holding out his arms for a hug. David goes, lets himself be folded up, tries not to sink into it too much and pulls away after counting to six, because if he doesn’t set himself a limit he might never leave Patrick’s arms. “Everything been okay here?” Patrick asks, voice upbeat in a way that doesn’t quite feel honest.

In the short time they’ve known each other (and the shorter time they dated), he’s seen the pressure Patrick puts on himself. The high expectations, the standards he holds himself to, the way he beats himself up after making a mistake. He can see it happening now; Patrick trying his damndest to be normal even when this situation is anything but.

Even with everything he’s feeling, he hopes that Patrick’s not beating himself up about David. He doesn’t deserve that, not when he already got so much farther—loved him so much better—than anyone else.

David forces himself to nod. “I’m glad you’re back,” he admits, in lieu of explaining how horrible the last couple days have been. “It hasn’t been the same without you here.”

It didn’t feel right without you, he means. It’s yours too, the store, you’re part of what makes it great. He can’t express it.

Still, Patrick looks kind of touched by the inadequate words he could offer and nods, doesn’t ask for more, and gets to work.

***

People seem to be on their best behavior once Patrick’s back: either they’ve satisfied their curiosity already or they don’t feel like they can openly pity him the way they do David. He doesn’t know which to think.

Still, the two of them make as great a team as they ever did. David had kind of worried something would change, that all they had between them was chemistry and heat, or that he wouldn’t be able to look at Patrick without seeing the memory of his smile across the pillows, or something.

But it works, it continues to work. They bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm when things go wrong and balance each other out, same as ever, and David is glad.

He starts to wonder if wanting more had been asking for too much after all.

***

“He probably just needs space, you’re the only guy he’s ever dated!” Alexis repeats over and over. “That’s exactly what happened with me and Megan Fox,” she adds, and yes, David remembers the tabloids.

Patrick meets Kevin. He plays baseball for a rival team and writes about politics for the Elmdale Times. He’s tall, clean-cut, All-American—the picture of what David would expect in a boyfriend for Patrick. They make sense together.

“It’s just a fling!” Alexis insists when they’ve been dating two weeks.

But time soldiers on, and then it’s a month, and Kevin swings by the store one morning before his way back to Elmdale and brings Patrick a coffee. He says hi to David, shakes his hand, introduces himself, and kisses Patrick’s cheek on the way out. Patrick looks frozen, like he’s as stunned as David is at these two worlds colliding, and stutters out an apology.

David shrugs but can’t look at him. “This is where you work, you shouldn’t have to tiptoe around,” he says, and he means it, but he also can’t stop thinking about how Patrick doesn’t really drink coffee, and how David learned his tea order and even bought a box of his favorite brand to keep in the back, for when he had a headache or was having a bad day. Remembers the way Patrick had smiled at him softly and intimately when he’d handed him the styrofoam cup.

He keeps hoping those little flashbacks will go away, or at least stop feeling quite so sharp. He wishes he could cut them out, Eternal Sunshine style, because it feels especially unfair to be replaying them when Patrick is seeing someone else.

“Do you want this?” Patrick says, holding up the coffee. He’s blushing slightly. “I, uh. Had coffee on our first date and I haven’t told him yet that I don’t usually like it.” He looks a little guilty, but also a little bit laughing and amused, and David twists his mouth to the side as he takes it with careful hands.

“Thank you,” he says softly, and turns away before he can do something embarrassing.

When he takes a sip, it’s surprisingly sweet.

***

He keeps counting the weeks Patrick and Kevin have been together, even when he starts seeing Aidan.

Aidan reminds him of Mutt or Jake—muscular, rugged—but with a polish they both lacked. David notices immediately he’s wearing $300 Coach Chelsea boots. He comes into the store one Thursday evening to buy handknit socks, because apparently he’s a hiker and needs something to really keep his feet warm and dry once the snow starts coming down. He flirts with David so obviously that he honestly doesn’t know how to react, just keeps stumbling through selling points while this guy laughs at him, not unkindly. He leaves his number on the merchant copy of his receipt, and David stares at it behind the counter after he leaves.

“Don’t you think that’s a little… brazen?” Patrick says, from where he’s arranging the new window display. His face is doing something distasteful, like the word he’s really looking for is trashy or sleazy. David stops that idea in its tracks, tries to wheel it back, not project his own insecurities onto Patrick.

“Maybe I like brazen,” he says kind of softly, tearing at the edge of the paper and looking down.

When he chances a glance at Patrick, he’s making a kind of thoughtful face… quietly frustrated, even. He doesn’t say anything else.

“Are you going to call him?” Patrick asks a few minutes later, his voice straining for casual, face carefully neutral.

David nods, small. “I think so.”

The date with Aidan later in the week is pretty uneventful: they go to a nice Italian place in Elmdale and drink good wine, split a fancy pizza. They make small talk about Aidan’s job as a programmer and laugh awkwardly, and at the end Aidan says, “I’d like to see you again—you know, if I passed the first date test.”

He smiles wolfishly, and it’s a joke, David knows that. There’s an edge of teasing in it, but it’s missing something. He thinks about how Patrick would have said those same words: self-deprecatingly and full of warmth, and misses him so fiercely in that moment that his chest hurts. He swallows hard.

“Look, I just want to be upfront with you that I’m—kind of getting over someone,” he manages, squeezing his eyes shut in the middle. This is mortifying, this is embarrassing, this is why he never dated anyone seriously. It turns you into a broken thing.

Aidan blinks, then nods. “Um, okay,” he says, reaching forward gently to hold David’s hand across the table. “That’s fine,” he says, and his voice is warm, and reassuring, and he says with a sort of wink, “I’m a good person to get over someone with,” and David can’t help but laugh a little at that.

Still, he drops him off at the motel and kisses David like a gentleman. When Alexis peppers him with questions, David tells her what a nice night it was, what an objectively good date. The food was excellent, the wine was delicious, the atmosphere was elevated.

For some reason he still can’t fall asleep that night, trying to figure out why it felt so inferior to a spontaneous birthday dinner at the Cafe Tropicale with subpar food, raisins in champagne glasses, and George hollering behind the grill.

***

Everything settles into a quiet sort of routine. Patrick continues to see Kevin, who continues to embody the perfect boyfriend David could never be, and David keeps seeing Aidan.

It sounds horrible, but after Patrick, dating Aidan is feels a little bit like playacting. They do the things couples are supposed to do: try new restaurants, get drinks, recite their lines. Aidan invited him on what he described as “the easiest” hike (David went and did not find it easy); David invited Aidan to an antiques market to help look for pieces he could get for the store (Aidan didn’t seem to care too much about the antiques, but made pleasant, interesting conversation throughout, and treated David to ice cream after). He doesn’t have that same feeling of butterflies, of buzzing chemistry that he did with Patrick. Like he was always racing to say something smart, something funny. But he keeps on anyway, because Aidan is nice enough, and seemingly well-adjusted and good for him. Even if he is just the tiniest bit boring.

“It is unfortunate you couldn’t work things out with Patrick,” his mom says on an unseasonably warm day in autumn, because for some reason his dad has decided to throw a barbeque in front of the motel. David reels that she remembered his name correctly. “He came by the town hall today to get some papers signed, and I couldn’t help but think what a tremendous young man he is.”

Aidan had been invited to the barbeque but couldn’t make it, understandably, all the way from Elmdale on a weekday night for just a couple hours and what are sure to be hockey puck burgers, if his dad is grilling them.

“Mm,” David hums, noncommittal. “It was just so much pressure, you know, with the store and everything.” He keeps saying that because that was the only explanation Patrick had offered, even though David feels like it’s not the full story, that there must be something else lingering there. Maybe it’s that uncertainty that makes it the hardest to move on.

She looks at him sympathetically and gives his arm a gentle squeeze.

The next day Patrick calls him at work in a panic that he can’t come in, something’s come up, and it takes everything in David not to ask him what’s wrong, to try and storm in and fix it for him. But then, that’s silly. That’s not the kind of person David ever was or will be.

Patrick comes in the next day tired, eyes bloodshot, dark circles under his eyes, and fuck it, David breaks out the box of tea he’d been keeping in the back. He lets Patrick tell him all of it slowly, working out the words and processing it all in starts and stops, trying to work it out. Eventually David gathers that Patrick’s ex-fiancée Rachel is in town, that she didn’t know he’s gay, and that Kevin didn’t know anything about her.

“He’s been really good about it, though,” he explains, eyes flicking hesitantly up towards David. He’s thumbing at his baseball calluses the way he does when he’s anxious or upset, like he did on their second date when he told David that he was a little bit worried, mixing the two of them and the business. At the time, David had pressed his lips together, nodded, and pulled Patrick’s hands into his own and told him they’d figure it out. He wants to do that again so badly, clenches his fists to fight the impulse.

Patrick clears his throat before he continues, and it jerks David back to the present. “Just really understanding.”

The words don’t sound as sure as they should, but David still nods. “That’s good.” He’s leaning in, arms on the counter, watching Patrick, and he can’t help but wonder what his reaction to all this would have been, if they were still together. He thinks that realistically, it’s probably for the best that they aren’t—he’s not steady like Kevin, he thinks it would have dredged up his own insecurities, pushed him to sabotage it. Maybe their ending was always inevitable.

“Yeah,” Patrick agrees, sounding hollow, full of something David can’t fix.

Patrick’s stressed and fragile for the rest of the week, not fully himself, so David makes a point to come in early, stay late, take care of some of the things that are usually on Patrick’s to-do list before he can get to them to try and help him out. He may not have been able to love Patrick right, but maybe he’s learning to be his friend, and maybe that’s enough.

Of course, Patrick notices, always shoots him a grateful smile, and David tries not to let it make him ache.

***

Winter comes. He and Patrick work their asses off trying to make Rose Apothecary the Schitt’s Creek holiday shopping destination, and one night, Aidan forces them all out.

“You’ve all been working so hard, come on, there’s a new brewery in Elmdale and I’m sure Patrick and Kevin would love it too. Just one night off,” he pleads, which is actually very thoughtful. He knows David and Patrick are friends, that they get along well, though he doesn’t know that Patrick’s the person he’s trying to get over. Sometimes David will bring him up, tell a story about him, and Aidan says, “He sounds like a great guy, I’d love to meet him,” without a hint of suspicion.

David bites his cheek and presses the phone closer to his ear, watching Patrick charm an older lady looking for the perfect candle. “Fine, I’ll ask, I’ll text you,” he promises, and brings it up with Patrick when the store settles down an hour or so later.

He looks surprised, and David immediately feels stupid, to extend an invitation from his current boyfriend to his ex and his current boyfriend. “No pressure,” he says immediately. “It’s fine—”

“No, we’d love to come,” Patrick says, still looking stunned, staring at David just a little bit like he can’t figure him out. Then reality snaps in and he fumbles in his back pocket for his phone. “Let me just text Kevin—”

Kevin agrees, which is how David finds himself trooping into Patrick’s car and settling in for an hour’s drive to Elmdale after work.

They talk about the store for a bit, but before long that peters out. There’s only a few minutes of awkward silence before Patrick’s asking him about his sister, his mom, his dad, Stevie, and David finds himself telling story after story, updating him on all the little things he’s missed. These stories always seem too trivial to tell during the day at the store, especially when Patrick doesn’t see them so often, is no longer up to date on the latest gossip or shenanigans. But David feels like he should tell them more, because they make Patrick really laugh, eyes scrunched closed and head thrown back, long column of his neck exposed. He looks beautiful, as ever.

The brewery is cute, with little fire pits to sit around and blankets draped over chairs. Cozy. Aidan takes his hand, squeezes it as he leads him over to the bar. David watches Kevin kiss Patrick hello out of the corner of his eye as he orders a sour. He knows without having to watch or listen that Patrick will order the stout.

They all make halting conversation for a bit about work, about Elmdale vs. Schitt’s Creek, and when things slow down a little they realize there’s a shelf of board games. Patrick goes over and picks Codenames, a natural fit. David quickly learns that he, Patrick, and Kevin are all fiercely competitive, and that Aidan’s the only one who truly doesn’t seem to care if he wins or loses. It’s kind of sweet, in a way. David should probably find it more endearing than he does, but it’s hard when Patrick is right there, going all huffy and frustrated when he loses a point that seems obvious in retrospect.

They play as couples at first and then switch up the combinations. When he and Patrick are a team, they rack up the most points easily, and David watches Kevin’s face go kind of pinched. He tries and fails not to enjoy it, so he mostly just settles on hiding his enjoyment.

He’s starting to get the feeling Kevin doesn’t like him very much. He doesn’t seem exactly thrilled to be there, with occasional subtle eyerolls. David knows he himself can be bitchy, but he’d always tried to be the best version of himself for Patrick. Kevin has always been nice to him before, but that’s been in short, controlled bursts where they barely have to interact. Meanwhile, Aidan and Patrick are hitting it off like gangbusters, talking excitedly about some local musician Patrick has been wanting to invite to the store’s open mic night, who apparently Aidan knows.

“Compliments on the store,” Kevin says, sitting back in his chair. David’s heard this enough times—from vendors, from customers, from people in town—that he can tell when it’s genuine and when it’s just lip service. Right now, it’s the latter.

“Thank you,” he says a little stiffly.

“I mean, it’s certainly better than a Christmas World,” Kevin says with a kind of edge, followed by a short, somewhat mean laugh. “Though that isn’t a high bar.”

“Mm,” David agrees noncommittally, leaning back to mirror Kevin’s posture. He feels that same sort of energy he would get when artists at his galleries used to hit on him, like somehow they all read the same dumb article online about how backhanded compliments are irresistable. He doesn’t like it.

“I mean, it’s nice that you’ve refined your tastes slightly. My aunt used to shop at the Blouse Barn, I heard rumors of its’… dramatic transformation,” he finishes, taking a sip of beer, mouth pursed into a judgemental smirk.

“Well, someone must have thought it had value. To sell as high as it did,” David says. It was about the name, truthfully, but no one knows that, and he’s certainly not going to admit that to Kevin of all people. Not even Patrick knows that history, and he knows about the galleries, the way his parents treated his dreams like a plaything, a toy. His voice is edging toward challenging now but he doesn’t care; it doesn’t even bother him that Patrick and Aidan’s conversation has slowed and gone silent, both of them clearly feeling the tension, listening in.

Kevin laughs, a dark edge to it. “Doesn’t really matter though, does it? When your mom is on town council, I guess you were always guaranteed a second shot.”

Patrick winces from across the table. David doesn’t know how to feel—he doesn’t want to make a scene here, with all of them together, especially when this conversation is starting to feel like an outlet for some unknown thing Kevin feels about him. But he doesn’t want to get defensive either, doesn’t want to reveal some of his deepest insecurities and wounds to someone who barely knows him, and apparently doesn’t like what they see.

“Hmmm,” David says, brows furrowing together. “Sorry, did I miss something? I thought you sat at a desk and thought about politics for a living. Please, tell me about your extensive background in tastemaking and retail.”

Kevin looks like he’s gearing up for a response, but Aidan rests a hand on David’s knee. “Okay,” he says reasonably, voice low and measured. “Maybe we should—”

“You know what, I think I need some air,” Kevin says, pushing out of his chair and heading towards the door.

David watches Patrick linger a second, jaw tight, looking frustrated. He breathes out harshly and doesn’t look at David. David hopes he hasn’t upset Patrick, but honestly couldn’t care less at this moment about making Kevin storm off. He doesn’t care if Kevin’s perfect in every other way; right now, he doesn’t care if he makes Patrick love better or come harder or whatever. David doesn’t like him.

“Sorry,” Patrick mutters eventually, getting up but still looking a little bit lost. “Excuse me.”

He heads towards the doors too, and David feels like shit, watching him go.

***

The drive home is tense. They don’t last much longer at the brewery, obviously: Kevin had apologized and claimed a migraine, heading home. Aidan had kissed David’s cheeks and told him to come over tomorrow, and then Patrick had given him a look David couldn’t decipher, and they’d walked to the car.

“I’m sorry about Kevin,” Patrick says eventually, breaking a long stretch of silence. His hands are tight on the wheel, ten and two, and he’s clenching his jaw so hard David feels sympathy for his teeth, but then he lets out a frustrated sigh. “He’s got a lot of pressure on him at the paper, and—”

“It’s okay,” David says, because he truly doesn’t want to hear explanations. He doesn’t want to think about it. Kevin’s always been perfectly nice and polite to him before, and he refuses to spiral down a well of what could have changed. Maybe Patrick told him something, shared something about when they were dating or maybe it was just the competitiveness getting out of control… he doesn’t know, but he’s not going to let it take up space in his brain.

“He should have been nicer to you,” Patrick replies, the words bursting out of him like he’s defensive of David here, instead of his boyfriend, and David’s mouth drops open a little and he sits there, stunned. The meaning underneath the words screams he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and David doesn’t know how to feel about that, because neither does Patrick. But the fact that he believes in him anyway is… something else.

He manages to close it before Patrick flicks his eyes over at him, looking helpless. David nods, settles back into his seat, and breathes out.

He’s a little drunker than he thought. He had to be, probably, to needle Kevin that way, but he can’t stop thinking about how Kevin and Patrick have been dating longer than he dated David. He doesn’t know why that’s the thought circling his brain, but it won’t leave. He wonders what it is they have that he and Patrick didn’t.

“Can I ask you something?” he tries finally, and Patrick says “sure” so quickly that David almost chickens out.

“When we… broke up. Was there anything I could have—should have—done differently? With us?”

He hopes the words sound steady, but he’s not sure they do. Patrick turns for a second, looks at him in disbelief. “No, David,” he says, so fierce and convinced. “No, you—you were perfect.”

That can’t be true. It can’t—no one is perfect, obviously, but especially not David, who accidentally propositioned Patrick on their second day of dating, who came so fast the first time Patrick touched him that he couldn’t speak, could barely breathe. Who unthinkingly insulted Patrick when he accidentally called him his boyfriend for the first time, all while throwing a temper tantrum about breath mints. He can’t think of a person farther from perfect.

“You were—the best first boyfriend I could ask for,” Patrick continues, and David feels his eyes sting.

“Okay,” he says, meaning please stop, and he knows it sounds weak but he can’t care right now, can’t take one more second of Patrick’s kindness.

“Like I said, it was mostly about the store,” he goes on anyway. “I don’t know, I guess I was just… scared we were asking for too much. Throwing ourselves together too fast, too quickly.” He pauses, clearing his throat. His eyes are steady on the dark road ahead of him, and David loves his careful nature, his steadiness, his dependability. All things he never thought he would love in someone.

“I also—” Patrick tries, then making a frustrated noise, stopping himself. “David, I was about this close to falling in love with you,” he says, and his voice is hoarse, and David can’t breathe. “But you didn’t seem—I didn’t know if you were ready for that, and I didn’t want you to think I was—you know, that guy, the one who’s engaged for two years and then figures out he’s gay and falls so hard for the first guy he’s ever with? For myself, I… I wanted to be different than that.”

David swallows hard. “Oh,” he says, and his voice is all clogged up, it’s obvious he’s all teary. His vision is blurry and he wipes at his face, making it painfully obvious, but what can he do? Patrick’s telling him he was halfway in love with him, and they’re not together, and he missed it.

He knows that’s not what he should be focusing on, that Patrick feeling comfortable and confident in himself, in his journey, is much more important. He needs to articulate that.

“I’m glad you have Kevin, then,” is what he manages, voice thick with tears.

Patrick gives him a grim, sad smile. “Thanks,” he replies, the word empty.

They’re quiet the rest of the drive home.

***

“Jesus, David, fuck,” Aidan gasps as he fucks into him, voice desperate. His hands are hard on David’s hips, motion relentless, and David turns his face, pressing it deeper into the pillow, squeezing his eyes shut so hard they tear up.

There isn’t much between them but sex, now. They seem to have missed the window for that to happen, though David doesn’t know how or why. They get coffee and go on dates, dinners and drinks. They even went to an art museum in Pine Ridge, one Sunday, though it had mostly just been an excuse to flirt in public.

Before Patrick, David thought this was just what dating was. Seeing the same person again and again, doing things, going out together. Staying over some nights, having sex.

But it’s missing something.

With Patrick, David felt like each date built upon the last—like they were learning more about each other every day, growing more and more into a couple. In comparison, he and Aidan are just people who eat and sleep together a couple times a week. Aidan doesn’t act like anything is wrong or subpar, which of course gets David guessing if it’s all in his head or what.

Regardless, he can’t bring himself to break it off. It feels good to be held, to be kissed, to be fucked. He still thinks of Patrick too much. And it’s getting worse; it’s even more than before since Patrick’s confession in the car. He has to dig his nails into his palms sometimes, in an effort not to see his face behind his eyes when Aidan kisses him. But still, it’s better than nothing, better than lonely nights at the motel where his brain refuses to stop whirring around.

Aidan jerks him off in time with his own thrusts, and David tries to drag himself back to the present. Aidan is a good fuck, and as long as David breathes out, concentrates on what his body—their bodies—are doing together, he can come.

“This good, you good?” Aidan pants, flicking his thumb over the head of David’s cock, making him gasp.

“Yeah, yeah,” he agrees, breathy and soft. “Keep going.”

“Don’t need more?” Aidan asks with a smirk, voice winded with effort. “Could eat you out after I come, make you scream for it—”

“No,” David says immediately, his brain automatically flashing with images of the first time Patrick had done that. He’d held him with firm hands on his hips and got his mouth on him, so hesitant at first and then growing with confidence as David squirmed, cried out, begged. There was this wondrous and slightly awed look on his face afterward that had made David’s own expression melt into a smile—like he couldn’t believe he could make David sound like that, come like that.

Aidan raises an eyebrow at him, and David rushes to smooth the weird reaction over. “Do me just like this, I wanna come, make me come,” he says, and Aidan gets that wolfish grin of his, fucks him faster and snaps his hips and David closes his eyes, feels it, lets himself come after Aidan tumbles over the edge.

They untangle afterward, sweaty and gasping. Aidan grabs a washcloth from the bathroom, cleaning himself up and offering it to David, who takes it and does the same. It feels like a transaction, like they are two separate pieces.

The first night with Patrick, David had so wanted to be good for him. He’d had visions of himself kissing Patrick’s hairline or his shoulder as his breathing slowly evened out. But he’d been unable to anticipate the way he’d come apart just due to the fact it was Patrick touching him, the way he’d trembled. Patrick had cleaned him up with gentle hands and David had felt a tightness in his throat, his chest, and he wondered if this was the way other people felt all the time, this… cared for.

“Are you seeing other people?” David asks, back in the present. He doesn’t know the words are going to come out of him until they’re there, floating in the air between them, and he feels Aidan physically start next to him.

“What?”

“I’m just—” David turns on his side to face him. “Will you tell me first? If you want to?”

Aidan still looks stunned, like he’s still trying to process how the conversation got here. “I—David, I’m not.”

“But you’ll tell me if—”

“I’ll tell you,” Aidan reassures him, still looking a little bit lost but pressing forward, wrapping him in his arms. He kisses his hairline. “If I will, I promise I’ll tell you.”

It’s nice. Aidan is nice. He is perfectly fine, and when David’s with him, he feels perfectly fine too.

He waits for him to fall asleep before he extricates himself from his arms.

***

The holidays come and go, with really exciting success at the store. They throw a cozy winter Open Mic Night, the last one of the year. The carols and holiday-themed performances are Patrick’s idea; the hot cocoa/hot toddy bar and abundance of candles throughout the store are David’s. They nearly sell out of scarves and slippers.

Patrick sings a slow, romantic arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that, frankly, David can only bear to half-watch. Still, he does catch the way Kevin laughs proudly and pulls Patrick into his arms after, the way they smile against each other’s lips when they kiss. Patrick looks warm and happy there.

Aidan’s already gone for Christmas by then, but David doesn’t mind, doesn’t really think about it much. His dad throws a big last minute Christmas party and invites half the town, which is plenty of distraction.

Ted throws a party for New Year’s, and of course, invites everyone. David doesn’t really want to go since he knows Patrick and Kevin will be there, but Alexis drags him along anyway.

“You can’t just stay at home because your boyfriend’s gone, David,” she says, as if that was the problem at all.

His solid plan was to drink the night away with Stevie, but when they get there, she hasn’t arrived yet. He decides to hover in the kitchen, far away from Patrick and Kevin in the living room. In theory, it’s to help Ted make sure the snacks stay stocked; in reality, it’s just to be near the snacks. He texts Stevie on and off to bug her, drinks a little, eats, and makes small talk with people wandering in and out.

Even though he knows Patrick’s here, he still feels surprised when he wanders in.

“Hey!” he says easily, face melting into a smile as he grabs another beer out of the fridge. “I haven’t seen you around much tonight.”

David nods too fast, trying to think of a good explanation. “Oh, you know! Just… on pretzel duty.” He cringes immediately, but Patrick laughs, like it was a good joke instead of a nervous reflex.

Patrick uncaps his beer and leans back against the counter, taking a long pull from the bottle and looking out through the window. “God, I hate New Year’s Eve,” he says, and David just about collapses with relief.

“Oh god, me too,” he agrees immediately, and Patrick looks at him, laughs like they’re in on a secret.

“It’s just like, everyone’s so antsy from being cooped up over the holidays and spending too much time with their families, you know?”

“And it’s boring,” David adds. “It’s just waiting around! It’s just small talk and loud music; it’s pointless.”

Patrick’s eyes are doing that thing where they seem to glow with warmth, and David has drank enough that he wants to thumb over the smile lines at the corners of his eyes. “So you’re saying we’re not missing anything here? The parties aren’t any better on a yacht or in a big skyscraper?”

David shakes his head insistently. “God no. In fact, a few years ago…” and proceeds to tell the story of a party when he lived in New York where he’d actually fallen asleep while Katy Perry was there, performing live. It gets Patrick laughing, so he tells another, one from when he was a teenager and Alexis almost burnt down the Olsen twins apartment, which makes him double over, which obviously leads to the one where she “wasted” her New Year’s kiss on a Morrocan prince to expedite her way out of the country. Then Patrick’s sharing too, telling David about one in a field when he was in school where he nearly gravely injured himself with some fireworks, and one in university where a friend had punctured his scrotum dancing. Time ticks away: Stevie ducks in to get a drink and then back out again quickly, and other people drop in and out but mostly they’re in their own little world, and suddenly the night isn’t so bad anymore.

They don’t even hear the people shouting from the living room, counting down.

Then there’s cheering and it’s like they’re snapped out of dream: Kevin wanders in with a “There you are! I need my New Year’s kiss.” He takes his boyfriend by the hand and pulls him out of the room without acknowledging David.

Patrick glances back at him like his brain is still catching up, shooting David a kind of dazed look. David gives him a soft smile, a little shrug, and then drifts out the back door for some air.

He can hear the music and the laughter inside, and finds himself sitting in Ted’s frosted grass, leaning back on his hands to look up at the stars. The night air is cool on his skin, refreshing, and it feels like a safe space where he can think about how gorgeous Patrick was laughing so hard he cried, the way his hands moved when he told a story he was excited about. He lets himself imagine what it would be like to kiss him at midnight and how he would feel the swell of possibility, their potential future unfurling in front of them. Lets his brain wonder if Kevin’s kissing Patrick the way they did at the open mic: with comfort and familiarity and something deeper than fondness, than affection. Something that—from the outside, at least—looked a lot like love.

Alexis finds him after a bit, sits down next to him without a word, primly arranging her dress around her. She should be shivering but of course she isn’t, she’s teflon.

“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” she asks, the same thing he had asked her, months ago now. The same thing Stevie had asked him too. It’s all the same tone: a little sad, a little proud.

David nods, eyes fixed on a bright cluster of stars, staring at them until his eyes blur. “Yes,” he says softly, and she nods, leaning forward to wrap her arms around her legs, quiet but present and perfect.

“Are you going to get over him?”

David doesn’t know. He’s felt so much for Patrick for so long by now that he doesn’t know if it’s just always going to be apart of him, always a weight inside him.

“Maybe I should make it my New Year’s resolution,” he murmurs instead, and Alexis lets out a soft huff of sympathetic laughter.

***

It snows on Valentine’s Day. David wakes up feeling colder than usual, the world outside his window brighter, and very, very tempted to go back to bed.

The feeling intensifies when he’s at the store in the morning—it’s Patrick’s day to come in late—and who walks in, but Kevin.

“Hi,” he says, looking a little bit shy as the bell chimes, like maybe he’s embarrassed about their interaction at the brewery too.

David can’t hide the surprised look on his face and he knows it. “Um, hi.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Kevin says, even though they opened ten minutes ago and there is clearly no one else in the store. David chooses not to take that as a slight. “I was wondering if you could help me with a real quick favor.”

David’s stomach lurches as he remembers what day it is, but his mouth runs on autopilot. “Um, sure.” Fuck, he wishes he could stop saying um, he sounds like an idiot.

Kevin pulls an envelope out of his pocket. “So I’m doing this like, dorky scavenger hunt thing for Patrick today,” he says, extending it towards David, and his first thought is I don’t want to touch it, followed quickly by taking it will make this all stop happening the fastest, so he does that instead. “Can you hide it somewhere Patrick will find, but not like, immediately? Like a medium-hard place.”

He smiles, and it’s genuine, and David’s brain is still buffering, he doesn’t know what to say. Kevin’s smile dims slightly.

He clears his throat. “Your store is really nice. I—I know you and Patrick put a lot of work into it.”

He looks David in the eye then, and it’s not an apology but it’s something, at least. Maybe a kind of olive branch.

And the thing is, if he wants to be Patrick’s friend for real, he has to take it. Because he knows Patrick deserves this: a boyfriend who will do silly grand gestures on the world’s most annoying holiday, things that will make him happy.

He holds the envelope carefully by the edges. “In his accordian file,” he says, nodding, and Kevin grins.

Later, David watches Patrick hunt around the store, flushed and smiling, with three torn open envelopes stashed hastily in his back pocket, and he doesn’t know if he has a right to, but he smiles too. Patrick exclaims when he finds it, like a little kid, and then blushes harder when he sees David’s eyes on him.

“This was a good idea for you,” David says, gesturing generously at Patrick, who is ripping into the envelope. “You’re very into it.”

Kevin must get you, he thinks, only a little bit wistful thinking about that coffee Patrick hadn’t drank, all that time ago.

Patrick shrugs, doesn’t meet David’s eyes. “I know it’s silly, but it’s fun.”

David meets Aidan for dinner that night at a very nice restaurant, where they eat off a very overpriced and under-portioned tasting menu and things like edible gold leaf appear on the plate. They joke about running through a drive-through after, but don’t, and instead go back to Aidan’s and have sex that is objectively good, by David’s standards.

He falls asleep wondering what was at the end of Patrick’s scavenger hunt, then trying to shake away the thought, in hopes that if he does it quickly enough, it won’t hurt him.

***

Spring thaws the town out. Snow slowly melts, green buds return, and the days get sunnier, less dark, warmer. Stevie and Dad seem to get busier and busier with the motel so David doesn’t see as much of her, Mom’s in Bosnia, and it’s Aidan’s busy season at work, which often leaves David feeling at loose ends.

But since New Year’s, Alexis seems to have made it her mission to prevent him from having the time to wallow. He doesn’t quite know how, with her work and Ted and everything else, but they’re spending a lot of time together, and David feels quietly grateful.

She signs them up for a double date at a ropes course. “Trust exercises never hurt a relationship, David,” she says loftily, manicured finger pointed at him. He doesn’t think that’s true, but he tells Aidan, and says they’ll go anyway.

It’s about two that Friday when Aidan calls and says something’s come up, he has to stay late at work, he can’t come. David assures him it’s fine, it’s just a silly ropes course, not to worry about it, but he thumbs over the end call button and curses a little too loudly in the stock room. Playing the pity third wheel to Ted and Alexis’ happy couple wasn’t exactly how he was hoping to kick off his weekend.

Patrick peeks his head in the curtain. “Everything okay?”

David jumps a little, waving him off. “No, yeah, fine, sorry. It’s stupid, nothing to do with the store, don’t worry about it. Get back out there.”

Patrick rolls his eyes, scoffs. “David, there’s literally no one else in the store right now.” He slips through the curtain, makes his way over toward one of the shelves, pretending to check over a supply David knows he checked over this morning. “If you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen,” he says casually, and David feels his fondness for him warm in his chest over the fact that Patrick thinks there must be some emergency, that he wants to be there for him.

“It’s nothing,” he says, smiling, because Patrick caring has kind of lifted his spirits, stupidly. “Aidan and I were supposed to go on this double date with Ted and Alexis—this ropes course thing—and now he can’t come, so—”

“Let me go with you,” Patrick says immediately, not even pretending to check their inventory anymore, facing David fully.

David stutters a little. “Oh.”

“It’s a team building type thing, right? And who needs team building more than business partners?”

He says it all so easily, like of course it’s the right thing, it makes perfect sense. And he’s not wrong, either.

David tries to quickly do the mental math on if he can handle it, but he’s quickly overwhelmed by the eagerness in Patrick’s face, his apparent happiness at being able to fix this problem for David, getting to be the one to save the day.

“Okay,” he murmurs. “If you’re sure.”

“Of course I’m sure,” Patrick says, looking at him like he’s silly for even thinking twice.

So that’s how David ends up in a stupid helmet that makes him look like a turtle, next to Patrick, on a ropes course, in the early evening sunlight. All things he could not have predicted for himself.

“First off, we’re gonna start with some trust falls,” the guy leading them says, and David nearly rolls his eyes at how on the nose that is. Alexis catches the movement and smirks knowingly.

It’s cliche, but it’s harder than he expected. He feels himself tense up as soon as his eyes close, and it’s hard to let go, takes him a little longer than Ted or Alexis, but Patrick is right there when he manages to, moving with him and keeping him safe. When their roles are reversed, it’s the easiest thing in the world to catch Patrick when he falls.

It’s much less easy when he’s fifty feet in the air trying to steady himself on a rope and walk between the tops of some trees. He doesn’t know how he ever let Alexis talk him into this, not when his fear of heights is a well-known facet of his personality.

“I feel like this was a bad idea,” he says—no, yells—down to where the three of them are standing on the other side.

“Ugh, David! If you don’t wanna do it, just turn around!” Alexis yells back.

“I’m in the exact goddamn middle, Alexis, tell me how that would be helpful—”

“Okay, David?” Patrick cuts in, taking over and stepping toward the edge of the platform. “Stop looking down. Look at me.”

He swallows hard. “Uh, okay.”

Patrick takes a deep breath, and David mirrors him without thinking. “You’re doing great. Keep looking at me, put one foot in front of the other, and just make your way over.”

It’s slow going. He feels like he’s taking baby steps, but Patrick keeps talking, and David keeps moving, a slow shuffle towards him. He just keeps looking at his face, knows he must be doing okay because of the way Patrick’s expression is slowly lighting up more and more, until he’s coaxing David over with a full-fledged grin, and then David is falling into his arms.

He didn’t mean to go for an immediate hug but Patrick laughs and sinks into it too, hand rubbing up and down his back like he knows David needs to be soothed. They’re sweaty and gross but David couldn’t care less right now.

“You did it,” Patrick says softly when they pull away, like he’s… proud. Or something. Something else David can’t name.

“Thank you,” he says softly back, and then Alexis clears her throat slightly, and the moment is broken. Which is good, probably, because David doesn’t know what dumb thing he would do next if it wasn’t.

She gives his shoulder a friendly little pinch on their way to the next obstacle, though.

***

Stevie takes care of him too. She tells him frankly she won’t get him crossfaded because “you do actually have a boyfriend, you know” and she has her own tentative thing going with Emir, so apparently it isn’t that desperate. Still, they go for drinks or to the movie theater in Elmdale or just chill in the hotel lobby, talking shit and gossiping and making fun of each other.

“If you’re really this in love with him, you should probably break up with Aidan,” she informs him, eyes on the road as she drives them home from a romantic comedy which David has spent the last 20 minutes sniffling over. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but… it’s the right thing to do.”

David winces. “I know,” he says, and Stevie nods, like now that it’s out they can change the subject. He grins. “Sorry, was that difficult for you to admit? Are you going to catch on fire or something?”

“Let’s not call attention to it,” she jokes wryly, throwing on her blinker and changing the station decisively.

The next week they go for Thai food. There’s a fancy place in Pine Ridge that looks like a total dump on the outside but is practically gleaming on the inside, and everyone knows it’s the best kept secret this side of Elmdale. David’s excited, because he and Aidan have been meaning to go but haven’t, and as they walk through the doors everything in his stomach drops because there is Aidan, sitting side by side in a booth with some guy David’s never seen before in his life. They’re cuddly, obviously romantic, obviously together, and he can practically feel the color drain out of his face to see it.

He can’t count how many times this has happened to him. It even happened to him with Jake, kind of, though that was more of a misunderstanding than actual malice. Still, he’d forgotten how it leaves him feeling cold more than anything: no white hot rage, just completely sick to his stomach, utterly deflated, like he wants to run home and go back to bed and preferably start today over, avoid this at all costs.

“Oh god,” Stevie whispers, but it’s already background noise, David is already moving, going to stand by the edge of their table, and Aidan looks up at him smiling and then with shock when he realizes who it is.

“David—”

“I only ever asked you one thing,” he says, voice trembling with rage or with emotion, he isn’t sure which. “Did you just think it would be more fun to lie to me, did you want to waste your own time and energy—”

“David,” Aidan says again, scrambling to stand up, hands out in front of him like he’s trying to calm David down. “Look, we both know it wasn’t working—”

“No shit,” David spits out, and then turns on his heel and walks straight out of the restaurant. He doesn’t want to hear his excuses, because he can’t think of a single one he hasn’t heard before. He doesn’t care one bit. Stevie scrambles out after him, unlocks the car, and they peel out of the parking lot with a squeal.

He’s not sure if she expects him to cry on the way home, but he doesn’t. David sits with his arms folded across his chest, jaw tight, and tries to focus on breathing.

“Well,” she finally says, after a good stretch of complete silence. “I guess it is desperate times after all.”

David feels himself soften, laughs a little despite himself, and she ends up driving them to the eponymous creek, which he used to run himself in circles to avoid thinking about. They park on the fresh spring grass, grab her “emergency stash” hidden somewhere in her bursting, messy trunk, and plop themselves down by the water and smoke up. It actually ends up being kind of a nice day: the weather is perfect, warm but with a light breeze, and the sound of the water helps his breathing even out, somehow.

“You’re not missing anything without him,” Stevie admits. “He was boring as shit anyway.”

“Mm,” David agrees, head lolled back against the trunk of a tree.

“Was he at least a good lay?”

“Eh,” he says, wiggles his hand to indicate so-so, and Stevie snorts.

“Rate him. Zero to Jake, where does he fall?”

Even in his inebriated state, David’s brain amends the statement to “zero to Patrick,” with Jake about where the eight would normally be and Patrick probably at a twelve. He doesn’t say all that. It’s a nice afternoon, and he doesn’t have to think like that. Today’s been enough, no need to poke at the bruise.

“Maybe a six?” he offers, and Stevie lets out an “oof,” and then they’re giggling stupidly, and David can pretend that the last hour didn’t even happen.

***

That’s not the case at work the next day, where Patrick somehow already knows. David thinks it’s probably a pretty direct train of Stevie to Alexis, Alexis to Patrick, but honestly, he’s too exhausted to be mad at anyone, especially when he knows they’re just trying to protect and take care of him. He opens the door and Patrick’s already looking at him with stricken, sympathetic eyes, rushing out from behind the counter.

“Oh my god, are you sure you want to be here?” he asks, right out of the gate, and David shoots him a furrowed brow, sets his bag on the table.

“Um, yes? There is absolutely nowhere I’d rather be than at work today?”

Patrick shifts guiltily from foot to foot, looking helpless. “Is there… anything I can do?”

David’s heart aches. He looks so truly sorry, and it so isn’t his fault. It is all so far from being his fault.

“No,” he says softly, with a small smile down at the counter. “Just being here, with you, having a normal day in the store… that’s exactly what you can do for me.”

And they do.

David must have been right about the information chain, because the rest of the town doesn’t seem to know yet. Still, Patrick is clearly keeping an eye on him all day. David doesn’t feel hovered over but cared for, looked after… the way he keeps catching Patrick’s gaze reminds him a little of before they started dating. Which feels so very long ago now, but all the same.

He remembers Patrick’s crooked smile when David would play along with his jokes, tease him back. He remembers the electricity simmering in the store, and the butterflies in his stomach, and the way they were both trying so hard, tiptoeing around this thing they wanted so badly, but also didn’t want to break. Even though they eventually did break, it still makes him feel warm and soft to think of, and he thinks maybe these memories will just slowly become a part of him, coalesce into a solid, unnegotiable reminder that there are good people out there. People who will treat him with kindness and make him laugh and cry when they break up with him because it hurts them too.

They make it through the day. They’re running through their closing routine chores when Patrick says, “Let me take you out for drinks.”

David stands up straight, looking at him with reproach, leaning the broom against the wall and crossing his arms. “You don’t have to do that,” he says, and god, he remembers saying those words to him on his birthday and feeling like it might be the start of everything. He has to add something, has to make this different. “Patrick, I told you, you don’t have to do anything—”

“I want to,” he says, cutting him off, and David curses déjà vu because his heart picks up tempo again, the exact same way. “It’s what friends do, David,” he says firmly, walking past him and clapping him on the back on his way, like it’s decided, and soon they’re at a little wine bar in downtown Elmdale, because Patrick thought he deserved to go somewhere nice.

“You have to be gentle with yourself about breakups,” he says, eyes on the ground, fiddling with his keys as they walk towards the door. “Everyone deserves a little pampering after something like that.”

His voice is soft, almost shy, and David can’t think of a single thing to say in response, especially when Patrick looks like that. He’s smiling that smile that breaks David’s heart, the one that reminds him that he is pathetic for still feeling this way. He can barely stand himself in that moment, for feeling heartsick not over Aidan but for over Patrick going out of his way for him, being there for him and trying to make him feel better. For being more hung up on Patrick than he has any right to be.

Patrick has one glass of pinot grigio, and makes distracting, funny conversation, waiting until David’s on his third glass of cabernet sauvignon to ask hesitantly, thumbing at the stem of his empty glass, “Do you wanna talk about it?”

David kneads his lip between his teeth, shrugs. “He was seeing someone else. I’d even asked him to tell me if he got that impulse but… he didn’t.” He takes another sip, eyes unfocused behind the bar. “It’s boring. It’s the same thing that always happens.”

“Not with me,” Patrick says immediately, without a second of hesitation. His eyes are blazing when David catches them, like he’s fierce on David’s behalf.

He gives a small, bittersweet smile. “No, not with you,” he admits.

Patrick shifts in his seat, looking frustrated. “I just don’t know why he lied to you.”

David laughs. It comes out sounding almost fond. “People lie, Patrick. It happens.”

He nods, glaring down at the bar, and David can’t figure him out. He’s proud of how far they’ve come, that they can be friends like this, talk about big things without it getting too awkward, but there’s something… angry, almost, in Patrick. Stevie had been angry, Alexis was probably angry, but this feels different.

“I don’t ever want to lie to you,” Patrick finally says, looking up at him, helpless. The words are hoarse with conviction, and there’s so much emotion in his face that David could drown just looking at him. He wants to reach out, wants to touch him so badly in that moment that he has to swallow hard, let out a steadying breath.

“Okay,” he murmurs, not knowing quite how to handle or take that, but it seems important to Patrick, and so he lets it in.

***

Summer approaches.

His mom wiggles her way into the town’s production of Cabaret, and Patrick auditions, gets the part. Stevie’s thing with Emir crashes and burns, so his mom wrangles her into the show, too. Stevie comes by the store sometimes to pick up Patrick on her way to rehearsal, even coming early to hang out a little bit. It feels like old times: the two of them teaming up to tease David senseless, and David doesn’t even mind. It’s worth it to see her smile, to see her shyly trying something, instead of sinking into herself and pulling away. He wonders if it would have been different if he and Patrick had stayed together, if the friendship between Patrick and Stevie would be even closer now, if he’s cost them all that too. He shakes the thought out of him, tries to get his brain back on the right track.

He is doing fine. Maybe even better than before, actually. He realizes how little the thing with Aidan meant to him, because he doesn’t feel the way he did after breaking up with Patrick. He doesn’t even miss being touched, or going out and doing things with him. He feels pretty great, honestly: he has his store, he has his friends, he has his family. He really doesn’t have anything to complain about.

He thinks he’s doing better about the situation with Patrick, too. David watches him practice his lines for the show when the store is slow, he arranges to distract his mother so he and Stevie can have some covert dance rehearsals, and he feels nothing but a swell of pride to be his friend. He thinks less and less of their time together when they were dating (giggly, frantic makeouts in the stock room, the affectionate teasing, the way David felt simultaneously lucky and unworthy every time he looked at him), because right now is just as good. Having Patrick in his life at all is meaningful. He’s watched him grow so much: certainly from when they first met and even from when they were dating. He’s coming into himself here, the way they all have, and David even musters up the thought that if Kevin is part of that, then he’s thankful.

He feels like he knows how to be Patrick’s friend now, in a way that doesn’t make him want to cry. He’d still do anything for him—he teases Patrick gently when some guy named Ken hits on him in the store and it doesn’t even feel weird, he feels genuinely happy for him, buoyed by Patrick’s obvious pleasure about the whole thing. He helps him amusedly through his spat with Ronnie about renovating the store bathroom, and the fact that he’s kind of adorable when he’s frustrated is little more than a passing thought.

He subs in for Patrick’s baseball game, because Gwen bailed at the last minute and Kevin can’t make it in, but to not have a substitute player would mean Ronnie chalks up another win in their silly, stupid feud. Most of all, he does it because Patrick asks him, and sure, he whines and complains a little, but he would never actually say no.

It’s weird the way it all comes together—like it’s meant to be. His dad fills in on the other team and shouts him distracting but well-meaning encouragement the whole time. Patrick gets even more competitive than David thought he was capable of. He gives him a hard time but secretly doesn’t really mind, because it’s nice to see him so into something, having so much fun.

It only gets better when David hits the winning home run. He ends up being hit by the ball in a way that causes him to half-fall, half slide into home plate, which gets him dirty and gross, but it’s worth it for the way Patrick says “you did it,” with a happy, exhausted laugh, his smile so earnest, backlit by the sun, all of it feeling impossibly perfect.

Everyone gathers around him, cheers, and Patrick pulls him into a close hug. David wants to remember all of it.

Afterwards, Patrick offers him an ice pack and some barbeque, looking a little bit sheepish. He’s squinting from the sun and his face is flushed, dumb little warpaint slightly smeary on his cheeks.

“Peace offering?” he says, with what David considers his most charming, charismatic smile.

“Mm, yes, accepted,” he says quickly, reaching out for the plate. He takes the ice pack too, sets it down beside him on the table to melt. Patrick laughs.

He sits next to David, close enough that their shoulders brush. He’s smiling down at his shoes as David eats. “Thank you for helping me out today.”

David’s stomach swoops. He reaches for a joke to combat it. “Well, anything for barbeque this good.”

“And I’m sorry I was so competitive,” he continues, wincing a little.

David twists his mouth to the side, trying not to smile. He sets his plate down and brushes the crumbs off his fingers, turning to face him. “That’s okay. It was… kind of funny to see that side of you.”

Patrick grins impossibly wider. His voice is teasing, bright, gorgeous. “You know, part of me wonders, would you have hit a home run if I hadn't lit that fire in you?”

“Hmm,” David hums, pretending to consider it, nodding. “Still, I’m the one who hit it, so I think that makes me the VIP.”

“You mean the MVP?”

“Exactly.”

It’s a golden, perfect moment. Just the two of them together, teasing each other, trying not to be the first one to break and start laughing.

David loves him. It’s different than the way he did before—deeper. It was infatuation, once upon a time, and even now he can’t claim it’s completely platonic, but that’s okay. He loves him with a fuller, more intimate knowledge of who Patrick is. And David would pick that every time.

***

Patrick opens the store on Wednesdays, so it’s David’s day to come in late. Today there aren’t any customers when he gets there, but as he peers through the door he can see Patrick moving energetically in the back, facing the wall. He opens it intentionally, so as not to set off the bell, stepping slowly inside.

In here he can hear Patrick reciting the opening number under his breath, interspersed with counting, obviously trying very hard to hit every movement. David presses his fingers to his mouth, trying to contain his smile even if he knows it’s a losing battle. And then, Patrick turns, seeing David and jumping a mile, pressing a hand to his chest.

“Oh my god, why didn’t you say something!” he exclaims, face going red hot, and in this moment, David feels so happy he could burst.

“You were doing great!” he protests, waving his hand at Patrick. “Keep going, don’t mind me.”

Patrick shakes his head, moving behind the counter, groaning and hiding his head in his hands.

“Come on, if you can’t do it for me, how are you going to perform in front of a whole auditorium of friends and strangers?”

His eyes peek out between his fingers. “Trust me, I know it’s an issue,” he says good-humoredly, and David walks over, drumming his fingers on the other side of the counter.

“Are you nervous?”

Patrick sighs, standing up straight. “Yeah, but lately more just… stressed.”

David knows the show is a big time commitment, but he has a feeling it doesn’t fully explain the dark circles under Patrick’s eyes. “Well, I’m here if you need to talk about it. The show or… anything,” he offers quietly, eyes flicking up and then back down again. He still catches the way Patrick’s face goes soft and indulgent.

“Thank you, David,” he says back, and David nods, feels proud of himself for meaning it.

***

Of course, his performance is wonderful. The whole production is great—David’s bursting with pride for Stevie, in particular, and brings her roses as the cast emerges into the lobby after the show.

“You were brilliant,” he tells her, and she blushes.

“Thanks. There’s still time, I could manage to embarrass myself in the next couple shows.”

“Nonsense.” He would hug her, that’s how proud she is, but she does look overwhelmed and he doesn’t want to push it.

She rolls her eyes at the moment. “Anyway, the afterparty is at The Park, if you wanna come. Twyla and Alexis and Ted and—everyone—is going.”

The Park is the single, solitary gay bar in Elmdale. David’s only been once: with Stevie, of course, the first couple months they lived here. They don’t often feel ambitious enough to venture out to Elmdale for drinks, and Stevie doesn’t usually like it anyway. When there’s only one gay bar, it becomes a magnet for drama, she’d told him.

The “everyone” goes unsaid. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Kevin, arm looped through Patrick’s. Patrick is still wearing his show makeup, holding a bouquet of flowers, and looking kind of exhausted. Not as happy post-show as David would have liked to have seen him.

“Yeah, I’ll come,” he agrees, despite the tension with Kevin in the past and the way Patrick’s looking like he’d like to just lie down forever, maybe. The energy in the room is too infectious to turn down—everyone is excited, glowing with happiness, and for one night, David’s not going to overthink it and let himself be apart of it instead.

***

Everyone pours into The Park with high, giddy energy. The cast is still in makeup and hair for the most part, still riding the adrenaline of the standing ovation. Drinks flow, and the music is good, and it seems like it’s going to be easy, fun.

David keeps his distance from Patrick and Kevin for a bit. He wants to go say something to Patrick at some point, but he also knows his history with Kevin isn’t the greatest, and he doesn’t want to do anything to spoil Patrick’s night.

However, things kind of decide themselves when Patrick climbs up onto the stage to give a speech.

Stevie tenses a little beside David, like she’s braced for something; David doesn’t know what, and his mind starts whirring a little anxiously. Most of them are three or four drinks in by now, and he hopes simultaneously that Patrick doesn’t embarrass himself and that David isn’t looking at him too adoringly.

“Sorry, everyone, I just wanted to take a moment to congratulate the cast of Cabaret tonight!” he says, and they all cheer. “Seriously, doing this show… not only was it a great time, but I got to meet so many of you, and together I really think we learned a lot from this show. I know I certainly learned a lot about myself,” he says, pausing to clear his throat, and David swears he’s looking right at him for a second, but then it’s gone.

“And a lot about choreography, obviously!” he finishes, bright and joking, and everyone else laughs at that, starts to clap again. “Okay, anyway, let’s all raise our glasses to a fantastic opening night, and to what I’m sure will be a very successful run!” Cheering again, this time with hands and cocktails in the air, and Patrick hops offstage as the music starts up again.

For some reason, David feels like it’s now or never. Kevin’s over there talking to one of the Kit Kat dancers, looking deep in conversation, so David takes a fortifying breath and slips through the crowd toward Patrick. Stevie sends him an encouraging look on his way.

Patrick sees him coming, smiles, waves a little. David waves back, a little shyly, feeling kind of stupid. He’s going to have to practically yell over the music to be heard.

“Hi,” Patrick says, looking a little looser and drunker than he did on stage just now.

“Hi,” David replies, trying to keep his smile small and contained, normal. “That was nice of you to give a speech.”

Patrick shrugs. “Everyone worked really hard! They deserve to hear it. And to let go a little bit tonight.”

David nods, lets a beat of silence fall, and then says, “You were great in the show. I was—I was really proud of you.”

It’s hard for him to say things like that, sometimes. Straightforward and earnest. It leaves him feeling exposed and vulnerable, which is something he can muster up for Stevie, or Alexis on occasion. He can do it for Patrick too, but it’s harder. Patrick knows him too well, has seen too much.

Right now he’s looking at David like the words mean something, like he gets that it’s difficult, and he’s working up to say something of his own when Kevin approaches, slings an arm around Patrick’s neck.

“David!” he says, exuberant and false-feeling. “Good to see you!”

David schools his face into something polite, neutral. “You too! I just wanted to congratulate Patrick on his performance.”

Kevin smiles, and David actually feels a little flash of common ground with him, just for a second. “Yeah, he was great, wasn’t he?” He leans in to press a kiss to Patrick’s cheek. “I’m ready for it to be over though, he’s been working himself so hard.”

“I’m sure,” David says, feeling needled, not quite knowing why. He can’t look at Patrick. He feels like if he looks at Patrick everything will show on his face, transparent.

“And hey, congrats to your mom, too! At first I felt like she might be a little too into it, you know, but she pulled off a good show.” He takes a sip of his cocktail. He’s had some drinks, it doesn’t mean anything, probably, but David can’t help but feel like he needs to defend her.

He crosses his arms. “Well, you know. She’s an actress, she knows how to commit.”

“Kevin,” Patrick says warningly, and Kevin scoffs in response, rolls his eyes, removes his arm from around Patrick’s neck.

“What, I wasn’t even saying anything! Just, you know, people like your family roll in places, expecting to find small town rubes impressed by your celebrity and connections, and don’t always have the skills to back it up! You’re lucky your mom does.” He crosses his arms too, a mirror of David.

David barely knows this guy, has had nothing but plenty of perfectly fine, small, distanced interactions and a couple of awkward, bad interactions. He knows the chip on Kevin’s shoulder surely did not originate with his family’s move to Schitt’s Creek, and there are other issues there, most likely perfectly valid ones. But suddenly this guy is a stand-in for everyone who doesn’t know the work his family has put in here, how much they care about this place.

“You know, if you have an issue with me, you can just tell me like an adult,” he says, voice sharp, louder than before. “You don’t have to hide behind passive aggressive comments about my family or my past or whatever.” His vision feels narrowed in on Kevin, he couldn’t look at Patrick if he wanted to.

“I don’t have an issue with you!” Kevin says, almost yelling.

“Well, good,” David shoots back. “Because I promise you, I haven’t thought about you enough to even consider whether you’re impressed by me or not.”

Guys,” Patrick says, stepping between them, voice firm and face tense with frustration. “Enough.”

Kevin stumbles back at being pushed aside slightly, face shocked. David glances behind him, just long enough to catch a glance of Stevie, Alexis, and Ted close behind, looking worried, but it seems like Kevin’s focused in on Patrick now, poking him in the chest. “You’re seriously going to let him talk to me that way?”

“You’ve had too much to drink,” Patrick says firmly.

“You’re taking his side!”

“I’m not taking anybody’s side! Tonight isn’t about either of you, it’s about the show, and we really don’t need to make a scene!”

“You always do this,” Kevin says, pushing past Patrick, pushing past David, past Stevie and the others before turning to look back. “You have this weird loyalty to him, to all of them, but he wouldn’t have given you to the time of day if he hadn’t lost everything!” he shouts. Patrick looks wounded at the words, and that lights a fire in David.

“You have no idea who I was before,” he says, stepping forward. “You don’t even know who I am now, and frankly, there are so many people in this town who I respect, who impress me every day, and I’m sorry, but you haven’t given me a single reason to believe you’re one of them.”

Kevin waves him off. “I’m done, I’m leaving.”

He stalks forward, towards the doors, but then stops, turns back around. Patrick is still standing there frozen, stricken, and David hears Kevin’s words—a desperate “You’re not gonna come, are you?”—but can’t take his eyes off Patrick.

Patrick’s looking at him too, something complicated and unreadable, and for a second David is terrified that he will stay, because he doesn’t know what that looks like. He doesn’t know what that means.

But the moment stretches out and then it bursts, Patrick pushing frantically through the crowd, following after Kevin as he storms off.

The others swarm around him as soon as they’re gone, everyone talking at once. David can’t stop saying fuck, over and over and over, heels of his hands pressed to his eyelids, hard enough to see stars for a second.

“It’s okay,” Alexis is saying every time, as if in response, her hand moving up and down on his shoulder soothingly.

“Yeah, he’s a massive, colossal dick,” Stevie chimes in vehemently.

“Why is everyone looking over here?” David asks, because suddenly it feels like the whole bar is looking at them and pretending not to, and it makes him feel like he wants to rip his skin off.

“Nosy bastards,” Stevie mutters.

“Everyone can see there’s something between you guys,” Ted says casually, and David freezes, looks at him with his mouth agape. Stevie and Alexis seem similarly shocked that he said that—Stevie’s jaw is basically on the floor and Alexis is shaking her head no back and forth, small but fast.

“There’s nothing between us anymore,” David says, voice feeling stripped, threatening to break, with more conviction than he feels. “We don’t have anything, and yet I have managed to fuck things up for him again!”

Ted raises his hands. “Okay, I’m sorry, David. With Kevin, it just seemed like—”

David squeezes his eyes shut, shakes his head wildly, hands thrown out. “Can we not talk about this anymore? Let’s not, let me just get a drink, and let’s dance, okay?”

Stevie nods, jumping into action and heading for the bar. Twyla swings by as if on cue, grabbing David’s hand and pulling him out onto the dance floor. He follows, and slowly, so does everyone else, even if they do maybe tiptoe around David a little bit, shooting him slightly anxious looks. But it’s fine—he dances with Stevie and Twyla and some of the guys on the cast until a slow song comes on a little while later. He steps back.

“Come on, dance with me!” Stevie protests, trying to pull him in as he walks in the other direction, waving her away.

“Go! Shoo!” he says instead, because there’s been a guy at the bar eyeing her up all night and they both know it. She shoots him a grateful look and David settles against the wall, against a mirror, and watches everyone swaying gently all around him: people kissing, holding hands, smiling softly. Close and intimate and in love.

He tries not to think about it all, about the look Patrick had shot him when he left, like he was torn. He tries not to think about Patrick period: about the fierce pride he had felt seeing him onstage, about the way they had laughed after his mom discovered about the covert rehearsals with Stevie, about watching him be so capable and brilliant and kind every single fucking day in the store they run together.

He’s in love with him. God, all this fucking time and he’s still in love with him.

He did this all wrong. He’s never going to get over him at this rate, seeing him every day, watching him become more confident and more comfortable in this town and settle into his life. David feels like he needs to run away, he needs to get out of here; he suddenly feels like if he can’t be with Patrick he needs to put as many miles between them as possible or else he’ll never move on. Maybe Stevie will come with him.

Patrick can have the store. He can have everything: David’s best ideas and everything they built together and his heart, too. He wants him so much he’s seeing things, his eyes are turning that random guy across that room into Patrick, the one just coming around the corner—

David stands up straighter. That is Patrick, that is Patrick slowly walking over to him, and David feels his face soften. Patrick looks so tired but he keeps coming, stops close enough that David could reach out and touch him, but he doesn’t. The music’s still playing but David couldn’t tell you what song it is if his life depended on it; he feels like he’s going crazy, like the moment is swelling around them, and all he can hear is the blood rushing in his ears. He lets his eyes flick to Patrick’s lips, and then back up to his eyes, and he leans in before he can overthink another minute.

Patrick goes, kisses him back so easily that David has to get a hand on his neck, pull him in closer, just to make sure this is real. He kisses him again and again, unable to stop himself, running a thumb over the soft skin of Patrick’s cheek. He has to keep touching him, won’t let him go.

When Patrick pulls away, he’s smiling. It’s soft and uncertain but it’s there, and David could cry. He still might, actually, his eyes are stinging and there’s so much they need to talk about, so much David needs to say, but—

“Dance with me,” Patrick says, threading his fingers with David’s and pulling him onto the dance floor. David bites down on his smile, watches his feet follow Patrick’s on the floor, and then lets Patrick pull him in.

Their bodies fold together easily, like it took no practice at all. They fall into each other like the most natural thing in the world: David’s arms around Patrick’s neck, Patrick’s hands on his hips.

“I’m glad you came back,” David whispers. He doesn’t know if the honesty is coming from the bubbly, giddy happiness inside him or the drinks, but he can’t stop the words from coming out.

“Me too,” Patrick says softly, smiling, and god, he looks so tired. David thinks he probably would be too, if he just spent the last half hour breaking up with Kevin, and there’s a pretty big part of him that wants to drag him off the dance floor right now, take him home, tuck him into bed. Take care of Patrick all the ways he’s dreamt about and missed since they broke up. Do all the things he used to lose time thinking about Kevin doing with him instead: running his fingers through his hair, holding him close, kissing him goodnight. But he also wants this moment to last—it feels so clear and perfect, and even as he’s in it he knows he’s going to remember it. He can’t even bring himself to mind the way everyone they know here is currently staring at them.

Patrick takes a shuddery breath in his arms, and David can feel every tremble in it. His mouth moves but his voice is too soft to hear, and David has to move in so that Patrick’s lips are by his ear.

He presses a quick kiss to David’s neck and he feels his knees go a little weak at the casualness of that touch; like they can just pick up right where they left off, like every touch and moment isn’t another first, but builds off their time before, even the time when they weren’t together. All of that matters, David realizes. All of it pushed them right here.

“I’m just sorry it took me so long,” Patrick repeats, loud enough for David to hear this time, and David pulls back, shakes his head, kisses Patrick’s temple.

He pets the short hairs at the back of his neck. “You came just in time,” he says, and feels Patrick’s smile against his skin.

***

They only dance for one song before deciding they need some air and some privacy. Patrick’s hands are shoved in his pockets, and David folds his arms across his body, sleeves pulled over his knuckles for warmth. They shoot each other sidelong glances and conspiratorial smiles for the first few minutes as they meandering along Elmdale’s downtown sidewalks, shoulders bumping together every few steps. Neither of them seems to want to break the silence, and David doesn’t know what to say. He would walk in circles with Patrick all night and be happy.

“I’m sorry I fought with your boyfriend,” he finally settles on, wincing a little, and Patrick laughs, nearly doubles over there on the street, surprised and exhausted and relieved.

“It’s okay,” he says, shaking his head as he pulls himself together. “He was being an ass. He’s always had a thing about you… you know, your family.”

“Yeah,” David agrees. Plenty of people do, and it doesn’t usually bother him, but something about the way Kevin always tried to hide it but also couldn’t resist any opportunity to make a snide comment at him really got under his skin. He thinks it would have bothered him even if Patrick wasn’t dating him, though he knows that didn’t help either.

Patrick scrubs a hand over the back of his neck. “He also always thought that there were still—feelings. He didn’t know where you stood, but he always—he accused me, sometimes, of still being in love with you.” He pauses, turns to look at David, smiling small and slightly shy, but his voice is casual. “I guess he was smarter than I thought.”

They stop on the sidewalk, looking at each other. David takes a shaky breath and suddenly it feels overwhelming, all of this. The last time they were here, standing on a sidewalk like this much too late, Patrick was breaking up with him and his heart was breaking. He feels himself choke up.

“It was so fucking hard to get over you, Patrick,” he says, eyes filling up. “You have—you have no idea, I was a mess—”

“Me too,” Patrick says, taking his hand so fast it feels like intuition, like he didn’t think even about it. “I didn’t want you to know, but I was… I was heartbroken, David. I knew it was the wrong decision as soon as I did it, but I couldn’t—I couldn’t control my feelings about you. They felt so big, and so scary, and I fell into this thing with Kevin and it wasn’t that way, I felt less… wild,” he says. He’s playing with David’s fingers, focused on them, but then looks up at him. His gaze is searing. “Because I wasn’t in love with him,” he says all in a rush.

All the tension sort of deflates from him then and he tips forward, resting his forehead on David’s shoulder. David smoothes his hand down Patrick’s neck, settling gently on his shoulder. “What are we gonna do?” David whispers, feeling excited but overwhelmed, giddy but exhausted, sure of himself and his feelings but uncertain of the future.

Patrick laughs, the sound echoing all the same feelings. “God, I don’t know, David,” he says, standing up again. David cups his face in one hand, keeping him close. “I just broke up with Kevin half an hour ago. I was in a long-term relationship with a guy I wasn’t in love with. What if I just need to be alone?”

His eyes are so honest, and David feels kind of invincible in that moment, despite the question hanging in the night air. Because they’re working through everything together.

David nods. “I get that—um. Desire to be alone? That’s what I’ve just been doing,” he says, and Patrick sighs heavily, but David’s not done. “At the same time though, being alone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wouldn’t you like to be with someone while you work through your shit? Someone who understands you, someone who cares about you?”

Patrick looks so fragile. It’s not a look David’s seen on him before, not like this. It feels like Patrick’s trusting him with something: the most vulnerable parts of himself, the late night worries he lets keep him up at night. “I’m still a mess,” he admits, tears filling his eyes, mouth set in a petulant frown. “What if I can’t take care of you the way you need because I’m—”

“I don’t need you to take care of me, Patrick,” David says, soft but firm. His thumbs wipe at the tears that brim over, onto his lashes and cheeks. “I don’t. I just—I wanna be with you. While you figure out whatever it is you need to figure out.”

All he wants to do is say the right thing, find the words to wrap up what he felt before and what he feels now, how to show Patrick how much he believes in them together, how much he wants this. He takes a deep breath, eyes stinging with his own tears now as he gets ready to say what he needs.

“You told me once that you were this close to falling in love with me. I was in love with you back then. I’m in love with you now. Except—I was afraid of that feeling… I’m not afraid anymore.”

A small smile fights its way onto Patrick’s face. It’s fond and tender and maybe a little bit proud, and the butterflies in David’s stomach kick up again, full of hope.

“What happens if it doesn’t work out?” Patrick asks, and David feels like he’s already won. He’s seen this look on Patrick’s face when he makes sure that the doors at the store are locked, that he’s filled out the correct paperwork, even when he knows he has. This is Patrick double-checking, following up, being responsible even after he’s made up his mind. David loves him. He loves him, he loves him, he loves him. “What do we do then?”

David can’t help but smile too. “Well, if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but… at least we tried.” He takes a breath. “Do you wanna try?”

Patrick doesn’t answer. Instead, he uses his hands on David’s hips to push him back a few steps, against the building behind him, his body on the bricks, and kiss him so soundly that all David can think is yes.

And yes and yes and yes and yes, over and over and over again.

***

Eventually they break apart, giddy and laughing and so happy it’s spilling out of them, falling into each other on the sidewalk. They get an Uber, and Patrick gives his address and plays with David’s rings on his fingers most of the way there, a delicious anticipation thrilling between them.

David doesn’t know what to expect when they get there, but he knows he doesn’t want to leave Patrick yet. He doesn’t care what they do—if they put on a movie and make out on the couch instead, if they stay up all night talking, if they pass out on Patrick’s bed without even getting up to change clothes—all of those options sound great, perfect.

He thinks maybe that isn’t the plan when Patrick drags him out of the car, bounds up the stairs, tugging on David’s hand the whole time. He presses him up against the wall at the beginning of his floor, before they can even make any headway down the hall. David indulges him for a minute, laughing into his mouth and kissing him back, desperate and sloppy and happy. “Mm,” he finally manages between kisses, “you have to lead the way, here.” He’s been to Patrick’s apartment a couple times, but not enough to remember or navigate in the middle of a very long night.

Patrick groans, kisses him one more time, like a compromise, before walking down the hall and to his door, retrieving his keys from his jacket pocket. David trails behind him, close, quiet, a little bit in awe of the hush around them after the noise all night: the show, the bar, the cars rushing by on the Elmdale streets. He presses his mouth to Patrick’s skin, wanting to consume him, wanting to burrow inside this moment and live there. Patrick fumbles the key into the lock and opens the door to his apartment. David twists his mouth to the side and hooks a finger through Patrick’s belt loop, letting himself be pulled in. He can feel Patrick’s warmth from how close they’re standing, feels the way his body keens when Patrick steps away to turn on a small table lamp. It makes the place low-lit, shadowy but flooded with warm yellow light, and Patrick turns around to face him. The moment hangs suspended, as if in amber. Everything is silent and thrumming with possibility.

“We don’t have to…” Patrick says, trailing off, as if David hadn’t just bitten gently at the back of his neck while they were pressed together against the doorframe.

David nods immediately, jerky. He’s so happy he just wants to go along with whatever Patrick wants, because this night is already everything he wanted for so long. “Yeah,” he agrees, fiddling with the rings on his fingers. “It’s fine if you don’t want to, obviously.”

Patrick smiles slowly, tenderly, and David feels his body light up immediately just looking at it. “I think the problem is actually that I want it too much, probably,” he replies, voice soft.

David feels his expression melt into a slightly giddy smile at the words. “Oh,” he says, watching Patrick’s grin widen. “We can—”

Sleep is how he’d been planning on finishing that sentence, but Patrick is hauling him in for a searing, desperate kiss, and it’s all David can do to grab his upper arms and try to steady himself as Patrick walks them back towards the bed. He laughs into Patrick’s mouth a little bit and god, he’s missed that so much. Patrick is clinging to him like he’s afraid David might disappear, and the thought makes a lump form in his throat because he can’t even count how often he’s felt the same way, like Patrick might just slip through his fingers, as if he was never even there.

“David,” he gasps as he knees knock against the bed, pulling back and stopping. His eyes are flicking all over David, like he wants to take him in all at once but can’t. He thumbs over the ridge of David’s cheekbone, down and over his lips. David feels himself breathing heavily and they haven’t even done anything yet, hopes that Patrick can’t hear the thundering of his heart.

Patrick spins them so David’s back against the bed, and David goes, lets himself fall back against the mattress, spread out for Patrick. Patrick lets out a noise like a whine, needy, and then covers David’s body with his own, fumbling with kisses and hands underneath his sweater and at the button of his jeans.

“What do you want?” David murmurs, breathless. His hands are cupping Patrick’s face, fingers in the short hair at the back of his neck. His fingernails scratch there tentatively, and Patrick makes the most gorgeous noise. “Patrick.”

Patrick pulls away, hiding his face in the shoulder of David’s sweater. He can still see the flush coloring his cheeks and ears, fierce and pink. “I wanna fuck you,” he whispers into the fabric.

David runs his fingers back and forth in long, soothing strokes. “Yeah,” he says, “yeah, fuck me.”

David half expects them to shed clothes quickly then, but Patrick uncovers every inch of David’s skin with a slow reverence, kissing over every part of it he can reach until David is trembling, shaking in his bed. “Can you—” he asks, plucking at Patrick’s button down, and Patrick takes it off and over his head like it’s nothing, stands to step out of his pants. “God,” David groans as he climbs on top of him again, running his hands over Patrick’s stomach, his abs. “Patrick, you’re—”

“I missed you,” he breathes, reaching toward the bedside table for lube and a condom. “David, I missed you so much.”

The words knock the wind out of him, just the thought that they were feeling the same things for so long: missing each other and trying to power through it, trying to choke down the feeling. “I missed you too,” he replies, voice cracking as Patrick’s finger circles him slowly, slick and careful. Then Patrick works him open, kissing his inner thigh and biting his hip, going so slow and teasing that David wants to beg. Instead, he arches his back, stretches out, groans. He bites his lip hard, trying to contain himself, trying to memorize every little bit of Patrick’s touch.

Finally, after what feels like an eternity, Patrick slides on a condom and lines himself up. His chest is already heaving, like he’s worked up just from touching David, and that's incredible. David wants all his soft exhalations, his quiet sounds, these intimate, half-forgotten noises. They sound so right, they sound like a dream. “I might not last,” he pants, face coloring slightly, eyes steady on David’s. “It’s—it’s been a while, with Kevin, and with you—”

“Me too,” David says, cutting him off. He’s not possessive but he doesn’t want to think about Patrick and Kevin here together, moving through these similar motions. He especially doesn’t want to think about his last time with Aidan, when he’d had to bite his lip so hard to keep Patrick’s name from spilling from his lips. He just wants here, he just wants now. “Me too, just, Patrick, I need you, c’mon.”

Patrick goes slowly and David lets out needy little whimpers until Patrick’s fully inside him, gasps, groans. “Oh my god,” he says and Patrick gives him this grin—a little bit smug, a little bit teasing, and it just looks so right on his face that David laughs.

“What?” Patrick asks, breathless with amusement, but David can’t speak for laughing. He knows he’s delirious from the night, which has felt about ten hours long at this point, all of that adrenaline.

He shakes his head, takes a deep breath, composes himself. Patrick’s face goes soft, indulgent, like he loves him, and David feels so full of emotion he doesn’t know what to say, if he’s going to cry or laugh again or what.

David never really laughed in bed with anyone else. He used to with Patrick, and he is now, and he will again, and that thought feels simple and natural and more than he could have wished for. That he gets to have someone that makes him so happy all the time is almost overwhelming.

“It’s so much better with you,” he murmurs, reverent, as Patrick moves to tangle their fingers together. “Everything, Patrick, everything.”

He’s not making sense. He’s too giddy and tired to make sense, but he doesn’t care. Patrick groans at the words, rolling his hips faster.

“David, fuck, you—you too, you don’t even know—” he says, and David gasps. His whole body feels like it’s glowing, sparking under Patrick’s touch, his words. He doesn’t feel like a means to an end, or part of a transaction, he feels… whole. Like he can be all of himself here, and that Patrick finds that beautiful. The same way he finds Patrick beautiful: from the hollow of his throat to the curve of his back to his thighs, to his laugh, to his smile and the sounds he makes, his touch.

They move together with increasing desperation, because as much as they both want to savor this they can’t stop how intense it is, how all-consuming. Their bodies roll into each other like crashing waves: a gorgeous, addictive push-pull, and it’s like a different plane of existence, with Patrick. David’s almost glad he forgot how good it was, because how would he have done anything? Even when Patrick’s going slow, teasing them both, keeping it close and heavy, David feels like he’s so good he could live in this forever. But of course, Patrick reaches for the lube eventually, long after David’s begged for it, and touches him. Jerks him off, murmurs, “Please, please, come for me, David, yes,” and David does, arches his body and comes so hard his vision goes starry, and Patrick comes too, shaking and gorgeous.

He collapses onto David and it’s a welcome relief: Patrick’s weight on him, Patrick’s face pressed into his neck. Their breathing slows down and David pets his hair, moves to kiss his temple. He strokes his fingers gently down Patrick’s side and whispers in his ear, “You gotta get up, sweetheart.”

“Mmmph,” Patrick says eloquently, and David’s body rattles with laughter.

“C’mon, before we’re stuck together forever,” he murmurs, nudging him slightly, and Patrick goes, rolls next to him.

“Wouldn’t be that bad,” he grumbles, but David pads to the bathroom to get a washcloth.

He finds one on the top right shelf of the bathroom linen closet, because Patrick keeps his closets organized the same way he did at Ray’s, and David feels a rush of fondness for him. He cleans himself up and then goes back to the bed, wiping down Patrick’s stomach and chest delicately until Patrick makes a noise of protest, tosses the washcloth onto the floor and pulls David down into him, cuddling them together and pulling the sheet up over them. He sighs contentedly.

David could fall asleep right now if he wanted. He’s so tired and so happy that he thinks wildly his dreams might carry him away, buoy him off into the sky.

“I like your place,” David says softly, head pillowed on Patrick’s chest.

Patrick turns a little, looking at him quizzically. “David, you’ve been here plenty of times. You were at my housewarming party.”

He was, and remembers it vividly. It was high school themed and they’d all played spin the bottle. Kevin had fumed in the corner for half an hour after David’s spin landed on Patrick, but it was just a game, and everyone was drunk. Maybe there was a little bit of tongue but so what, wouldn’t it have been weirder if he pretended he’d never kissed Patrick before? Or made a scene and refused to?

Okay, maybe it was a bit of a dick move in retrospect, but it’s hard for David to feel anything but smug about it now, when Patrick’s smiling at him.

“Yeah, but when we were together you were still at—”

“Ray’s, that’s right, oh my god!”

David grins, snuggles closer. “How could you forget the middle of the night blowjobs! The sneaking around during his poker nights and open houses!”

Patrick laughs, thumb moving up and down on David’s shoulder slowly, just like he used to. Like nothing has changed. “God, that seems like so long ago.” He trails off, and David wonders if he’s comparing, thinking it all through. His nights with Kevin, David’s with Aidan.

He kisses David’s temple. “It was kind of ridiculously fun though, right?”

David nods, hums in agreement. It was genuinely frustrating at the time not to have privacy, for sure, but shushing each other and trying to be quiet and rushing giggling out of the house was… special. Even the silly, slightly dangerous feeling makeout sessions in David’s bed at the motel, knowing they’d get interrupted but being unable to keep their hands off each other anyway. He’d never had that teenage giddiness before, and he’s kind of stupidly glad Patrick seems to never have had it with Kevin.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “You made everything fun.”

Patrick lets out a soft little sound and turns to kiss him soundly. His hands encircle David’s wrists, pinning them over his head on the mattress, and David can’t help but gasp a little against his lips. “We should still take advantage of this privacy,” he says, voice low, and David has to bite his lip to keep from laughing.

“Mm,” he agrees, nodding seriously even though his tone is light and teasing. “Maybe in the morning, though.”

Patrick grins again, surges up to kiss him, slow and tender and full of heat, and then dropping light kisses to his cheeks, the corner of his eye, his ear before moving, snuggling back in, this time ready for sleep. “In the morning,” he agrees, and they turn off the light.

***

The next morning he wakes up and Patrick is there. It feels like a dream for a minute, or maybe a memory, until he sees Patrick’s eyes flutter open. His smile is different than before. It warms David from the inside because in some ways it’s still so familiar, but now it also feels careful, and most of all, it feels earned. Like neither of them are taking this for granted for one second, after all they’ve gone through for it.

“Let me make you eggs,” Patrick says, voice croaky with sleep.

“Mm,” David hums, sliding an arm around Patrick’s waist. He tugs him close and kisses him softly, slowly, staying close when he pulls away to speak again. Patrick’s lashes are gold and incandescent on his cheeks, and David never wants to leave this morning, doesn’t want to get out of bed. “I don’t think I’m ready to get up yet,” he says, voice low, and Patrick laughs, groans, and kisses him quiet.

It’s Saturday, and they have to rush to get ready but they open the store just on time. It’s a close thing. Breakfast at Patrick’s didn’t happen, obviously, so he rushes out to the Cafe and returns with pancakes, coffee, and tea, kissing David casually as he sends him to the back. “You’re going to be cranky before the lunch rush if you don’t eat something as soon as possible,” he says, and David rolls his eyes but goes. He’d forgotten this part of it: the way Patrick knows him, uses that knowledge to take care of him so effortlessly. He marvels a little bit about how easy and domestic and lived-in it feels already.

He looks over his shoulder on the way, and sees Ray pretending to browse the skincare but obviously slack-jawed, eyes lit up. David hears hushed, excited conversation as he sits down to eat, and smiles to himself to think that the news will be all over town before lunch.

***

It’s a perfect day at the store. People come by just to gawk, of course, but they’re all happy and smiling and winking knowingly and they mostly buy things, so that’s good too.

David hadn’t intended to go to Cabaret again tonight, but Patrick asks him to in the afternoon and David wouldn’t miss it for him. They close up the shop in record time, hit a drive-through on the way for dinner, and make it to Elmdale so Patrick can be there for warm-ups and costumes and makeup. He drops him off with a kiss and then wanders downtown a little bit, shopping and browsing.

He had thought Patrick’s Emcee been great the first night, but it just… doesn’t compare. The confidence tonight is just unmatched, and David thinks that maybe he’s never seen him having this much fun, so carefree and easy up there.

Tonight, David’s the one waiting for him after the show, gets to give him flowers just to watch Patrick’s face go pink and pleased, kiss his cheek. Patrick pulls him in for a better, deeper kiss, just to make David blush too, he thinks, and it feels so fucking revelatory to be this way in front of what feels like the whole town. To have all these feelings he suppressed for so long on the outside, and to not be scared.

Stevie and Alexis and the others are going to a late night diner tonight (David thinks fondly of Stevie, who never did this in high school, getting the full theater kid experience), but they beg off and drive back to Patrick’s. They don’t even have sex—the plan had been to unwind, rest up, fall asleep early, but in reality they wind up talking until 3 AM, going over all the little things they were feeling and the miscommunications and everything they kept inside. David tells him about sitting outside with Alexis at New Year’s, Patrick tells him he dreamt about him after his housewarming party and could barely look him in the eye at the store for a week. He tells him he’d cancelled a date with Kevin to make it to the ropes course; that he’d felt like a liar after David had broken up with Aidan, pretending to be a good friend but wanting him so bad; that he realized he loved him too much to keep dating Kevin after the baseball game.

He runs his thumb over David’s cheek, their eyelids heavy, yawns coming closer and closer together now.

“It’s just crazy,” David whispers into the darkness. “That we were feeling all these things at the same time. The whole time.”

“I know,” Patrick murmurs back, words colored by his soft smile. “One of us should have said something sooner, put us out of our misery.”

David shakes his head. Much like losing everything and moving here, he wishes it could have been smoother, that he could have been quicker to learn in many ways, but he wouldn’t change the bones of it. “It worked out,” he insists, closing his eyes for just a minute, and before long he feels Patrick kissing his forehead, tucking him in, and David means to protest but is too tired, lets himself fall.

***

He expects some things to be hard. He watches Patrick box up some of Kevin’s things he’d left here, leave them by the door, and feels an itchy kind of uncomfortableness, a guilt. He wonders sometimes, when Patrick calls him baby, if that’s something he said to Kevin too, the way it slips out of his mouth so casually, like maybe he’s had practice. He has to swallow hard against a sick feeling in his throat when Patrick asks if they want to try that Thai food in Elmdale one day and he has to explain why not.

But they work through them. Two days later, Patrick’s in the kitchen when David comes in from a vendor run, the apartment smelling amazing, familiar.

“What’s gotten into you?” David asks as he kisses the top of his head, peers into the pan to see Patrick valiantly attempting massaman curry, David’s favorite.

“I thought we could work around it,” Patrick says a little shyly, and David nods, lips pressed together against the biggest smile.

It’s dozens of intimate moments like that, but it’s open and public and wonderful too. Last time, Patrick had initiated their second kiss in the store, in front of the bright, clear windows, and now he holds his hand in the grocery store, kisses him when he picks him up from the motel in front of his family, sits in David’s lap at the end of the game night party he throws, when everyone has devolved into drinking and small talk.

“I don’t remember you being this affectionate in public before,” David teases lightly, between kisses once everyone is gone. He’s beyond thrilled that he is, that he feels comfortable; he just doesn’t know what’s different.

Patrick frowns a little. “I just—I got so tired of shoving it down every time I wanted to touch you,” he says. “Sorry, I can chill out—”

“No,” David interrupts, voice soft. “I want you to do it—whenever you want. I don’t want you to ever hide it.”

Patrick smiles, kisses him again, sighs into it.

And then there’s the open mic night.

They’ve become a staple of the store at this point. They’ve cultivated a small but dedicated group who show up to every one, who sing or read poetry and have built a little community around it. Patrick’s performed at all of them—usually acoustic versions of hits, crowd-pleasers—and David has no clue to expect anything different this time.

But then he’s up there, saying “I wanna dedicate this song to someone very special in my life—” and David holds his breath inexplicably, “—David Rose.”

He chuckles, smiles at David as he waves awkwardly across the room. “There he is,” he says softly into the mic, “Can’t miss him.”

At first, David feels a little exposed and overcome by the spotlight, by Patrick singing to him intimately in front of all these people. But slowly, surely, he sinks into the familiarity of Patrick’s voice and the warm look in his eyes and he feels… safe. Loved.

The words echo in his head: just as long as I’m here in your arms I can be in no better place, and David can’t even express how much that means, after everything. Better than all the rest.

Goddamn.

He manages to avoid crying in front of everyone, though he does choke up as he claps along with the crowd. He’s so awed by Patrick, moved by him, and it’s all he can do to drag him into the stockroom after he introduces the next act, to back him up against the wall, kiss him before he can say anything.

“Thank you,” David finally says when they catch their breath, and Patrick smiles, casts his eyes down at the floor even as he squeezes David’s hand.

“I’ve been working on that for a long time,” he admits, voice quiet, like he’s sharing a secret. “I could have sung it before now, but… I couldn’t have pretended it was about anyone but you.”

David thinks of all the things he hid away, words he thought of, but held back, the times his nails bit into his palms with the effort of not touching Patrick. It’s almost too much to think of Patrick doing the same, picturing him alone in his apartment, fiddling around with a song he wanted to sing for David. Only for David, even as he dated someone else.

“I love you,” David says softly. It still doesn’t feel easy to say after everything, but it’s getting better every time, and right now, no other words seem adequate. His eyes dart all over Patrick’s face, the little bit of amazement that always comes over him when he hears those words, wanting to drink as much of it in as he can.

Patrick arches up a little to kiss him, a little bit lingering, before pulling away to whisper “I love you too,” against his lips, and then slipping out and back into the fray. David watches him go with a small, satisfied smile.

***

Time starts to slip by again, but David hardly notices it now. Leaves start to fall, heavier coats make their way out of the backs of closets, night comes sooner, but David doesn’t mind.

He starts to see Patrick in sweaters and scarves. They spend cozy nights in at his place, they start decorating the store with an autumnal color palette, they go for a weekend away at a nice hotel and spa. His family is happy for them and close to Patrick, invite him to family dinners at the Cafe whenever possible. They also spend nights out with Stevie, which are fun and relaxing and nice. David’s starting to like the people he loves fitting together this way, makes him feel a tight fondness in his chest.

David thinks to himself that he could see this going on and on and on into the future, cycling through time. The two of them learning more about each other and tackling their lives together, and he would be so happy. He has everything he needs.

“I want to invite my parents to visit,” Patrick says one Sunday morning. David is cuddled up with a book across from him on the couch.

“Oh,” David says, slightly startled, sitting up a bit. “Yes, of course, you should.” He knows Patrick had gone to visit them a few times when he was dating Kevin, but they’ve never been to Schitt’s Creek.

“They—um. They don’t know I’m gay,” Patrick admits, voice kind of wobbly, and David freezes.

“Oh,” he repeats again, feeling kind of blindsided.

Patrick tears up a little, rolling his eyes at himself. “I kept meaning to do it. When I was dating Kevin I kept thinking there was no reason for me not to: I was dating someone, I wasn’t brand new at this—but.” He swallows hard and David folds himself into his side, takes his hand. “It just didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to introduce them to someone that I… that I was with purely out of inertia. It would just feel like Rachel all over again,” he says.

David nods as Patrick sniffles hard. He runs his thumb between Patrick’s thumb and forefinger, soothing. “You don’t have to do anything you’re not ready for,” he says softly, voice small. “I don’t want you to feel any pressure.”

He’s been with people who weren’t out before, all over the spectrum: people who just couldn’t get there yet, people who used him to get off and probably didn’t even see themselves as queer, some who would probably never come out for a variety of reasons—their jobs or their safety or their families. It’s something he really used to think about with them, and if he were a few years younger and who he had been when he moved here, this would probably be a fight. It would make him feel like he wasn’t good enough, or Patrick didn’t take them seriously enough, or that it was a lie he needed to call out. He doesn’t feel any of that now.

He’s learned so much here, about how moving to a new place can make you feel like a new person. The way it helps you reinvent yourself into who you want to be instead of feeling shackled to who you’ve always been. He’d never begrudge Patrick that same experience, and wants him to take as much time to merge the two lives as he needs to.

He wants the same thing he always wanted for Patrick, from the moment they became friends to when they broke up to now—he wants him to be happy. And to go about finding that however feels best. David knows that it isn’t always a straightforward path.

“No,” Patrick says after a moment. “I want to tell them. I want them to know—about, about how happy I am with you. About our life together.”

He looks at David like he’s a raft in a churning sea, something solid to cling to, and so David nods, kisses his temple, and holds on back.

***

Patrick’s parents come near the end of October. As much as David loves spring and summer, he truly thinks this is the season where the town is at its finest: golden sunlight, rich reds and vibrant oranges, pale blue-white skies.

They arrive mid-morning: get checked in at the motel, meet up with Patick, and then head to the store. David’s there, and he’s been gently checking in with Patick via text all morning: how are you feeling and i believe in you and i love you. He’s seemed a little nervous, and he still gives off that energy when they enter, but David doesn’t have time to think about it because Marcy is coming over and pulling him into an excited hug.

“So great to finally meet you, David!” she says, and she has one of those smiles like Patrick does, the infectious kind. “We’ve heard so many lovely things about you.”

“The store is even better than we imagined,” Clint says approvingly, giving him a firm handshake.

“Thank you,” David says, feeling bashful, weirdly formal. “Please let me know if there’s anything I can get you—on the house, of course.”

“Nonsense!” Clint says, waving off David’s words. “We’re supporting a local business, just like everyone else.” It’s sweet, and he and Patrick wander off in the corner by the fragrances.

“Seriously, David,” Marcy says, voice low and serious, taking his hand. “I’m a worrier, and it’s sounded like Patrick was taking on so much here, for not knowing anyone, and the store… But every time we talked to him he would sing your praises, talk about how great you were, and it helped me feel like he was in good hands. I can’t help but feel like you’re family already.”

David tries not to get teary in the middle of his store on a Friday afternoon. “He’s been—the best. Even when things were hard,” he says, voice cracking a little. He hopes he pulls it off without her noticing, but she just smiles at him even softer and more knowing, that mom kind of look he’s helpless to. “I don’t know what I would have done if I never met him.”

“Thank you for taking care of him,” she says simply, and before David can totally lose it she says, all business, “Now, tell me about this body milk.” And he can’t help but laugh, compose himself, and do as she’s told.

The three of them head off for lunch after a bit. This had been the plan: tell them at lunch. David mouths “love you” to Patrick as he leaves, hoping to send him a little strength.

The hour they’re gone, David rearranges both window displays. Twice.

When they come back, Marcy makes a beeline straight for him and wraps him up in a misty hug. Patrick’s eyes are a little red but he’s smiling, tired but happy. They all talk a little, but his parents go back to the motel after a bit, so David flips the sign on the door to “closed,” and holds him in the back room, let Patrick bury his face in his neck and breathe.

“Proud of you,” he murmurs over and over again, meaning it impossibly more every time. “Patrick, I’m so, so proud of you.”

***

Patrick invites David on a hike with him in mid-November.

David complains about the cold and the walking, but it’s mostly teasing, lacking heat. It’s almost refreshing in a way, to get out in the bracing chill, where the only sounds are their quiet conversation and the leaves crunching under their feet, the occasional birdsong. He starts to wonder how they could do something nature-inspired at the store: maybe some kind of mindfulness walk or a monthly hike led by Patrick, or something. He says as much.

Patrick smiles. “Were you this into the hike Aidan took you on?” he asks, grinning sideways, pulling a leaf off a branch casually as they pass.

David stops short, caught by the memory, and he’s sure the surprise shows on his face. Patrick laughs.

It’s like this, lately. Sometimes it really doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since they got back together, but David’s slowly starting to forget things. They ate at that Thai place a few weeks ago and it was totally normal, if you don’t count the fact that Patrick very pointedly sat beside him in the booth and held his hand for most of the meal. One of Kevin’s friends came into the store last month and he and Patrick made easy conversation, not at all awkward. There’s a girl Stevie has a crush on in Elmdale and she’s talking about dragging them all to The Park to hang out, and David feels zero anxiety about it, surprisingly.

“I forgot about that,” he says a little sheepishly, because he feels a little shallow.

Patrick tangles their fingers together, presses a quick kiss to his cheek as they walk on. “I remember you said he took you on a hike and I got so stupidly worked up about it,” he says, smiling, laughing at himself. “In my brain I was like, well, if he doesn’t take him on Abbott’s Trail, he doesn’t know David.” He puts on a snarky voice for the last part, and David laughs.

“And what’s so special about Abbott’s Trail, again?”

Patrick rolls his eyes. “I told you, it’s a surprise.” He ducks his head down, concentrating on where he’s stepping, only a little bit of a shy blush creeping up his neck. “It’s not my favorite hike, I’m saving that, but. I thought you’d probably like this one best.”

David nods, trying to contain his smile. He squeezes Patrick’s hand. “Mm, okay. I trust you.”

They walk in silence for a little bit, and David’s brain ambles along slowly, turning things over and over. He feels so safe with Patrick. He always has, really, but it’s different now. There’s a permanence to it, a trust. Something he never thought he would have with someone who’d broken his heart before.

He clears his throat. “Before I moved here, I didn’t really believe in getting back together with people,” he says, and Patrick turns his attention to him even as they continue to walk, face going thoughtful. David smiles at him for a second, mouth closed but unable to help it, watching his boyfriend patiently wait for him to find the words, before his eyes are self-consciously back on the trail. “Like, I did it, but I never really had any hope for it. In my brain the relationship was already over, I was just doing whatever I could not to be completely alone.”

Patrick hums, a considering noise. “Getting back together was pretty much all I did,” he admits. “I was the opposite, I always thought this is the time it’s gonna work, if I can just be a better version of myself this time.”

David’s heart pangs at that, at the way Patrick is so hard on himself, mercilessly tearing at anything less than perfection that he can offer other people. Though he’s getting better at it, David thinks. “How do you feel now?” he asks.

He shrugs. “I think this time the problem was, I was trying to be a different version of myself when we broke up, actually,” he admits. “So getting back together was like… coming home. Not just to familiarity, or comfort, or whatever it was with Rachel sometimes, but like. Realizing it was okay to be scared sometimes. That I didn’t have to run away from the big things I felt. That I felt more right with you than with anyone.”

It all comes out so honestly, so easily, that David thinks if they were looking at each other in bed or in the store or whatever, he’d have to take a deep breath and look away. Sometimes Patrick’s bravery is too much to face head-on, and David’s pride is an all-consuming thing.

“And yes, I do think it’s gonna work this time, if you’re asking,” Patrick finishes, turning back to grin at him quickly. “What about you?”

David wants to tell him everything, about all the things Patrick has taught him, the way their winding path forced him to grow and learn and change so much about himself for the better, that this is just one change among hundreds. That he has a sort of faith now, a confidence in them, that even when he’s afraid there’s no one he trusts more, no one else he’d rather fight with, make up with, work on things with.

But there’s time. There’s still so much time for all of that.

“Yeah,” he says easily, quietly. “Yeah, I think it’s gonna work.”

It isn’t long after that until they’re out of the woods, at the base of a hill. There’s a house at the top, surrounded by picturesque trees and fields, like something that could be on a greeting card. It’s beautiful, but David turns to Patrick with a question in his eyes.

“It’s a historic house, turned into a family-style restaurant,” he says, looking slightly amused as David’s eyes light up. “All-you-can-eat buffet, actually. People do this hike just to come here, they wait hours for a table, it’s very popular.”

David shakes his head, all false exasperation. “Why didn’t you say when you were pitching the hike?”

“I wanted you to have the full experience. If I told you, you’d say we should just drive here, because you don’t believe in delayed gratification, ” he replies, pulling David forward, up the rather steep hill. And that’s true, that is probably exactly what David would say.

“Okay, but I do if it’s about waiting for a table,” he says, indignant.

Patrick grins. “I actually called before we left. Estimated how long the hike would take us, got us a reservation.”

He’s so ridiculous. David doesn’t even know how he handles him. He pulls out his phone, checking the time. “For when?”

Patrick’s eyebrows shoot up playfully, shrugging quickly before turning to sprint up the hill. David laughs, loud and bright and open, and follows suit, racing him there.

***

The holidays are just as busy as last year and even more successful. It feels nice, right to have Patrick with his family, putting up decorations and shoveling snow in front of the motel and exchanging gifts. But David’s looking forward to New Year’s even more: they’d decided to spend the night in at Patrick’s, just the two of them.

Snow is falling gently outside and David’s feet are tucked under Patrick’s thighs. He’s pretending to read his book, but mostly watching Patrick flip through the channels instead, admiring him.

He feels so far from the person he was last year. He hopes he is. They’d FaceTimed Patrick’s parents earlier in the evening, waving hi and chatting happily, catching up. “You’ll have to come visit in the spring, David,” Clint had insisted. “We’re throwing a big anniversary party in March, and we wouldn’t want the two of you to miss it.” Patrick’s face had gone soft and fond at that—David didn’t know if it was at his parents including his boyfriend or just the happiness at the thought of the two of them there in few months, celebrating his parent’s marriage.

Patrick’s hair is a little longer now. His mom had commented, telling him how nice it looks. David had noticed a few weeks ago, running his fingers through it one lazy Sunday morning.

“It’s getting kind of wavy,” he’d said, combing through it gently, tugging a little just to see Patrick’s breath catch.

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed. His voice was soft and honest in the glow of morning, David’s favorite way for it to be. “I’ve been feeling good in it.”

David nodded, twisting his mouth to the side. Sometimes he just feels too much, like his love for Patrick is overwhelming, and if he lets it shine out of him it might never stop. He can tell Patrick has been feeling good, has seen the way he’s moved these last few weeks, like a weight has been lifted off him that he wasn’t even aware he was carrying. Like he’s comfortable. “That’s good.”

Patrick nodded back, eyes going off in the distance. “I just feel like I don’t need to control everything, you know? My life is… my life is really good, right now.” He’d turned to face David, to watch the smile bloom over his face fully, like somehow he knew David wouldn’t be able to keep it in.

“Mine too,” David had whispered back, and Patrick had kissed him soundly, and then they didn’t speak for a while.

Now, it’s starting to fall into his face just a little. He’s in a soft henley, sleeves rolled up around his elbows, glaring at the TV. David doesn’t know why but he can’t help but find it a little bit cute, the way his boyfriend gets when he’s frustrated about something silly. So quietly dramatic.

“Hey,” he says, nudging him with his toes, grinning. “What’s wrong with you?”

Patrick turns to him quickly, caught out, face surprised. “What do you mean?”

David rolls his eyes, closes his book, puts it on the coffee table. “You’re clearly stewing over something,” he says, scooting closer, close enough so he can lean his head on Patrick’s shoulder. “It’s probably best if you just get it out, you know. Not good to go into the new year with all that…” he gestures vaguely “...negative energy.”

Patrick huffs out a laugh, then takes a steadying breath. “Okay,” he says, shifting so he’s facing him. David smiles, fond and encouraging, legs crossed on the couch.

“Move in with me.”

David gasps quietly, on instinct. He didn’t know what it would be but he wasn’t expecting that, somehow. “Patrick—”

“I want to start the new year right,” he plows on, looking determined. “I want to start building a life with you. I want to fall asleep next to you, I don’t want to wake up without you. I’ve never—my life has never been better than when you’re in it, and I want you in it for the rest, David.”

David laughs in surprise, presses his lips together. Patrick’s looking at him so hopefully, as if David would really say no. “Yes, of course,” he says, and Patrick leans in to kiss him, knocking them both horizontal on the couch. David kisses him back giddily, laughing into his touch. Finally, he pulls away to look at Patrick, take him in, brush the hair back out of his face. “That was quite a little speech,” he teases, is both intrigued and pleased to make Patrick blush.

“Yeah,” he says, scrubbing over the back of his neck, also pink. “I might have, um. Borrowed part of it. From another speech I was planning.”

His grin goes wide and affectionate, looking more and more certain as David slowly wraps his brain around the words, gaping at him when he processes what Patrick’s implying.

“Are you—”

“I don’t know,” Patrick teases, shrugging, leaning down to press a kiss to David’s neck, right over his pulse. “Guess you’ll have to stick around to find out, David Rose.”

He’s so—David doesn’t even know what to do with him sometimes. He can be so stubborn but so funny, so ridiculous, so warm and caring and thoughtful. He was that way when they were together the first time, and when they weren’t, and is again now. He’s learned how to take care of David, and David has done everything he can to do the same. They’ve grown up together a little bit: made mistakes and hurt themselves and fallen apart, only to come back together.

He loves Patrick. Patrick loves him. And it hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been straightforward, but they’re here now.

“I have no intention of going anywhere,” he murmurs, and Patrick smiles against his skin.

David smiles too.

***