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It was official. Hospitals looked and smelled the same no matter what city, what state, what coast you were on. Gross and sterile and alcohol-y. And not the good (bad) kind of alcohol. Luke tapped his foot harder on the floor, pulling the hoodie around him a little tighter, subtly trying to block out the smell. The hoodie smelled like Noah. Much better.

He hated going to a hospital. He hated being in one. But most of all, he hated the waiting rooms. Because it meant someone  else  was in the hospital, and he was stuck helpless and pointless in an ugly plastic chair.

Luke tilted his head back with a sigh, staring up at the ceiling for a moment. Yes, he was being overdramatic at the moment. And no, he didn’t particularly care. Logically, he knew Noah was fine. This was just a therapy appointment, it wasn’t a surgery or a CT-scan or any neuro-whatever-thing.

It wasn’t even like Noah needed therapy anymore, not really. Right? They were finally doing so well. Both of them had projects going on, they were living together and in love and things were fine. Noah had seriously been about as perfect a boyfriend as someone could be. Every day he was doing something for Luke, taking care of everything around the apartment, supporting every decision Luke made. Hell, he even let Luke pick where they ate dinner whenever they went out.

They hadn’t had a fight in... Luke couldn’t even remember. Noah was in his corner one hundred percent, they weren’t-

Okay, so maybe Noah going to therapy made him nervous. Because, because they were happy. They were together. So why did Noah need to go see this woman once a week? He switched his tapping over to the other foot, eyeing the other two guys in the waiting room self-consciously. They were sitting together, not paying him any attention. Looking way more relaxed than he was. The one guy was even-

“Hey.”

He looked up with a start, throwing a smile on his face as Noah approached. “Hey. Everything okay?” He looked past Noah’s shoulder towards Dr. Faulkner’s office, wanting to glare.  Leave my boyfriend alone.

“Yeah, yeah,” Noah gave him a smile, putting his hand on the small of Luke’s back, fingers instinctively rubbing into the warmth of his skin. Luke wanted to purr for a second (but he didn’t). “Ready to go?”

“Please,” he said in a rush. At Noah’s questioning look, he shrugged. “I don’t like hospitals.”

Noah winced, paling. “Yeah, sorry.”

“Hey, it’s not your fault,” Luke assured, touching Noah’s arm. Noah was also quick to apologize for anything. It was almost kinda crazy, but hey- they weren’t fighting anymore. Luke counted it as a good thing. “It’s just weird, right? Like no matter where we are, we can’t escape them.”

Noah’s smile was weak, but still there. “Kinda like your family, right?”

He laughed, smacked Noah lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t be a smartass, Mayer.” Threading his arm through Noah’s, he led him towards the exit. “Let’s go, I’m hungry.”

One of the two other guys in the waiting room was staring at them as they started out. Luke frowned, wanting to say something or stick his tongue out or something. Why would he stare at them? It couldn’t have been a ‘gay’ thing, he was sitting pretty damn close to other guy. Maybe-

“Noah.” The guy moved forward, and Luke was startled to realize he was in a wheelchair, a full-powered one, controlled by a few turns of his hand. He headed straight for Noah, stopping almost in front of him. “Is that you?”

Noah unconsciously took a step back, pulling Luke with him. He eyed the stranger, confused. “Sorry?”

The guy started smiling, “Lord in heaven,” his eyes were popping wide. “What are you doing in California?”

He had an accent, Luke realized. A little bit of a brogue. British. Something. How the hell did he know Noah? “Who are you?” he asked, a little bluntly. The wheelchair guy’s companion bristled at the tone, coming to stand next to the chair, glaring. Luke glared right back.

Oblivious, the guy kept smiling. “You look... like you’re  looking . Literally. Noah, can you see? Your eyes- you got fixed?”

Noah is still studying him, quizzical, but less confused. More searching, like he’s trying to remember the answer to a test question. Then, tentative, “Jackson?”

Luke turned to Noah now, the questions stuck in his throat. He searched his brain for the name, coming up blank. “Noah?” unsettled, a little worried, his voice came out sharper than he meant.

Noah jumped a little, shaking free of his haze. “Luke, this is Jackson, he was my- my roommate from rehab.”

More staring, more stillness. Then generations of Snyder-hospitality kicked him in the ass. “Hi,” he threw on a smile, almost reached a hand out before realizing how stupid that was. Jackson was the quadriplegic from a car accident (or something, Noah had never really told him much of the details).

Jackson just smiled, the friendliness on his face infectious. “It’s okay, check this out-” Slowly, unsteady but determined, his arm stretched out towards them. “Nice to meet you, Luke. I’ve heard loads about you.”

Luke shook his hand, but his attention was all on Noah, who was grinning the widest grin he’d seen in... Luke couldn’t even remember. Wow. “That’s incredible!” Noah moved closer, wariness forgotten. “But I thought, with your spine-”

Jackson shared a warm look with the guy standing next to him- who was still distant, but at least not glaring- and turned back to Noah. “A few more surgeries this year, loads of therapy, and I’m kissing that ‘quadriplegic’ rubbish goodbye.” He waved away the attention, looking up at Noah, sharing that grin. “Apparently, life’s been fairly good to you too since you left.”

There it was, that hesitation, that flinch that was so internal Luke could  feel  it in his gut but couldn’t ever see. Then Noah’s smile was back, his arm light around Luke’s back. “Can’t complain, I guess.”

“Should say not,” Jackson smirked, then looked back at his stranger. “Sorry, sorry. This is Aaron, my boyfriend and bodyguard. Say hi to the nice people, Mr. Livesy.”

“Hey,” Aaron finally smiled, and it was shockingly sweet for such an intimidating stance the guy had just had. “Heard a lot about you too, Noah.”

Noah blushed a little, and Luke mentally frowned at that too- when was the last time he had made Noah blush? It was always one of his favorite looks on him, especially because teasing Noah had always been one of the best things in the world. “You too,” Noah smiled at him, shaking his hand.

“Ah, shit, I’m going to be late,” Jackson’s hand went shakily back to the controls on his chair. He maneuvered the chair easily around Noah and Luke, stopping on the other side of them. “Listen, we’re throwing a Christmas party tomorrow night at our flat, if you two are free, you should...” he trailed off with a shrug, smiling again. “It’d be really nice to catch up, Noah.”

Noah opened his mouth, about to answer, when he stopped quickly. “Luke? Is that- do you want to?”

Luke shook his head with a smile. “Of course!” he fished a Luke Snyder Foundation card out of his wallet, handing it to Aaron. “Call me later, we’d love to come.”

Noah nodded next to him, enthusiastic, grinning that wide puppy-grin at Jackson again. “Yeah, definitely.” He sounded relieved. Did he think Luke wouldn’t want to go?

They said their goodbyes, watching as Aaron walked in time with Jackson’s wheelchair, hand on his shoulder ( déjà vu much? ). His eyes on the two Brits, he had to smile when he felt Noah’s hand slip into his. Squeezing, he turned and led Noah out of the hospital.

***

So. Of all the surprises life randomly threw at him, running into Jackson- running into a Jackson who was improving with his injury and was with his boyfriend and still so calm and happy and sure- wasn’t one Noah had ever expected. He sat on the couch while Luke took a shower, looking down at his sneakers. They were new; he’d held out as long as he could with the old pair, until Luke finally forced him to throw them out last week. The new pair was fine, sure, but he wasn’t used to them yet. They were still stiff, still squeaked on tiled floors. Awkward, like he walking in someone else’s shoes.

He thought back to that first week in rehab. He had been angry, scared, and still in pain- headaches and dizzy spells. Very, very sad. Uncertain of  everything  and barely able to breathe normally. Sitting in the dark and listening to Luke’s and Lily’s footsteps get farther and farther away until they were gone. At that moment, it had felt like they’d never be coming back.

And then, this new sound. A whir of electronic wheels, a soft, accented voice asking Noah if he was ‘one of those prats who left their towels on the bathroom floor.’ His roommate. It took a few more days, but pretty soon that voice was his one anchor- the first voice to pull him out of a nightmare, a bout of depression, a temper tantrum.

There had never been talks of ‘keeping in touch’ when Noah left. Everyone in that center was pretty much of the same mind- what happens here, stays here. No one wanted to remember how they were during rehab. When Noah left, it had been with the same things he arrived with.

No, that wasn’t true. He had left more confident, at least physically. More capable. Sufficient. But in the weeks (and months) that followed, the voice in his brain that talked him down had been soft, steady.

And yet, Noah had forgotten about Jackson.

He had never even wondered what Jackson looked like. Never wondered how much longer he spent in rehab, where he would be going next, whether he was still with Aaron. He had never...

God, he was kind of a terrible person, wasn’t he? How the hell did-

“Hey.” The cushion on the couch next to him dipped down, and then Luke was leaning into his shoulder, the smell of shampoo and conditioner (and probably more conditioner) wafting over.

He looked up quickly, trying to get a smile on his face as fast as possible. He’d been emo and depressing for the last three years of his life, Luke was probably sick of it. “Hey,” he twisted around enough to put his arm around Luke, drawing him in close. He studied Luke’s face, the wary expression on it. “What’s wrong?”

“With me? Nothing.” Luke shook his head and moved in close until Noah could wrap both arms around him. He dug his chin into Noah’s shoulder. “Are you okay, though?”

Luke could tell? That wasn’t good. “Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked with a light shrug, not wanting to dislodge Luke from his shoulder.

No such luck. Luke lifted his head anyway, bringing it in line with Noah’s. “I...” he hesitated, ratcheting up the dread in Noah’s chest. “Just, therapy, and then running into your rehab roommate right after? It’s a lot, Noah.”

No it wasn’t. He’d been through a lot. This was nothing. “I’m fine, Luke. It’s okay.” He fought against pulling his arm away. No, that’s what he would’ve done before. He doesn’t run away anymore, he had promised himself.

“Is it?” Luke wasn’t letting ago either, pulling Noah’s hand off his shoulder so he could hold it, twine their fingers together. “All that- it didn’t bring up bad memories? Anything?”

Noah swallowed hard, ducking his head a little as he did. Shit, this was getting too close to Luke having to take care of him. He wasn’t supposed to anymore. “You don’t need to worry about me,” he tried.

Luke just shook his head. “That doesn’t really answer my question.”

He tried not to show how freaked out he was kind of getting. Why wasn’t Luke letting this go? Why was he starting to look defensive? “It... it brings back memories, yeah, but it’s okay. I’m fine. I don’t want you to worry,” he repeated, hopefully making it clear this time. He pulled one arm away reluctantly, reaching for his phone, matter resolved. “What do you want for dinner? We can get that Thai place you like, if you want. Or I can-”

“Oh my God, Noah, come on.” Luke let go of Noah’s hand, propelling himself off the couch and into an agitated pacing in front of him.

Noah was frozen on the couch. “Come on? What?”

Luke stopped and started a few times. “You’re deflecting. You don’t want to tell me how you’re really feeling. Sound familiar?”

Noah didn’t know if it sounded familiar, but this was sure  feeling  familiar. Panic. Frustration. Darkness. “I’m telling you the truth, Luke. It’s nothing to worry about. Okay?”

“No!” he was almost shouting. “Not okay. Do you think ‘worry’ and ‘care’ are the same thing or something? Because I care about you. And you’re shutting me out, I know it.”

“Luke, no,” Noah reached for him, fighting back his own fear. “I’m not, I swear I’m not. I just-” his heart stopped beating for a second when Luke stepped out of his reach.  Shit. No. You’re losing him.  “I’m trying to take care of you. I’m trying to be better.”

“Better than what?” Luke looked like he wanted to throw his hands up in a fit. “Or, maybe should I ask, better than  who ?”

It hit him like a punch in the stomach. And chest. And everywhere. All this time, he’d been trying to compete with himself, not be who he had been. And all this time, he’d actually been in competition with another man? Luke was comparing him to Reid? It was on the tip of his tongue to ask that, to find out just how he was stacking up. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t. He had never tried so hard to be perfect in all his life, not even with his dad, and it didn’t seem to matter.

He was failing.

***

Happy fucking holidays. Luke kept quiet, but he wanted to grumble it at every string of lights, every candy cane, every Star of David and fake snowflake. He was so not in a celebratory mood.

After their... fight-thing yesterday, he and Noah were barely speaking. After he had blurted out that question, Noah had pretty much shut down. He had apologized quietly for upsetting Luke, gone out for a run, and had come back to the apartment in just enough time to take a shower and go to bed, spooning up behind Luke and holding him tightly. Luke never even saw his face. And was kind of afraid to.

Casey used to always tease him (okay, still did) that he was a brat and a princess. Luke would roll his eyes and groan and bitch about it, knew it was a joke, but part of him was always worried, too. Was he really that bad? Was he nothing more than some stupid damsel who demanded being catered to? Noah’s insistence yesterday that he wanted to take care of him only fueled that insecurity. And he lashed out because of it.

He just wanted Noah to be happy. He wanted to be the one who made Noah happy. But Noah seemed so hell-bent on being perfect that Luke couldn’t figure out  how  to do it. It was like Noah didn’t need him. And he kinda hated himself for it.

So here they were, in one of those awkward-silent-car-rides Luke would’ve thought they were too young to be a part of. He wanted nothing more than to reach over and take Noah’s hand, hold it tight, kiss it, something, anything to make this go away.

But instead he fiddled with the radio, cleared his throat just to make noise, and stared balefully out at the street decorations.  Oh, bite me, Frosty.

He was actually relieved when they pulled into the driveway of the small bungalow house where Jackson and Aaron lived. He snuck a glance at Noah as they walked towards the front door, trying to gauge his... everything. Noah was biting the side of his lower lip, fiddling with the zipper of his jacket. His eyes looked heavy, shadowed. And then, when the door opened slowly with Jackson on the other side, it melted away into a smile, polite and plain. Not a real Noah smile.

He needed to get some air. Or a drink of water. Or a time machine. After a bit of mingling and standing by the snacks table, Luke lost track of Noah in the living room and headed to the kitchen in search of an elusive bottle of water.

“Excuse me,” a voice approached him from behind, following him into the kitchen. Luke turned to see a guy- a little older, maybe late thirties- make his way close. “Are you Luke Snyder?”

Luke narrowed his eyes, confused, maybe suspicious. “Yeah?”

The man nodded, grinning. “I thought so. I recognized your picture from the article.” He reached past Luke, got a bottle of his own. “Your foundation built that neurology wing for Oliver, right? And you’re funding one out here too.”

“Oliv- did you know Reid?” he asked.

“Did a few rotations together after med school,” the guy was still smiling, teeth ridiculously white. It was L.A. after all. He stuck out his hand. “Tom McDonald. I’m one of Jackson’s doctors.”

“Nice to meet you,” Luke shook his hand. He fumbled with the bottle for a moment, giving him time to get his bearings. Whoa. Of all the things to happen, someone who knew Reid wasn’t really...

“I was surprised to see something being made in his honor, to be honest,” the guy still had that politician smile. “He was a great doctor, but kind of a...”

“A dick?” Luke finished for him, smiling a little. He was at a place now, finally, peacefully, where he could look back at Reid without feeling all the negatives.

Tom laughed. “You could say that. I was sad, though, to hear of his passing.” He leaned in closer to Luke. “You were with him, right? You two were together?” Luke just nodded. He nodded back. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” he shrugged.

Tom shook his head. “Man, when I heard he was actually dating someone, I’ll admit- I had a few scenes from  Taming of the Shrew  flash through my head.”

Luke couldn’t help but join in the laugh this time. “You’re saying you can’t believe I tamed The Reid Oliver?”

“It’s an amazing feat,” the guy settled at the counter next to him, shoulder to shoulder. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks, I’m pretty proud,” he snarked back, a little uncomfortable.

“Seriously, how do you go back to regular guys after that?” Tom grinned. He thought he was being funny and charming, obviously, but Luke shifted his feet, more than a little uncomfortable now.

“He was one of a kind,” Luke hedged, smiling politely now. Tom was still laughing when Luke glanced back at the doorway... and saw Noah staring back at him.

***

He tore through the house, knowing- even now, even like this- Noah would never drive off without him. Because Noah loved him. And he loved Noah, and they just sucked at figuring this shit out. He found Aaron in a hallway, nursing a bottle of beer with some friends. “Aaron,” he rushed up quickly, “have you seen-”

“Down the hall, second door on the left,” Aaron smiled that small smile, almost gentle. “You two need to talk, yeah? Jackson’s calming him down. Don’t worry.”

I always worry.  He threw out a quick thanks and started running again, skidding to a halt outside of that second door. The door was slightly ajar, and he could see Noah sitting hunched over at the edge of a bed, head in his hands.

Jackson’s chair was close by, and he leaned as much as he could towards Noah. “Just breathe, man. You’re panicking over nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Noah’s voice was muffled, miserable. “I’m gonna lose him again, aren’t I?”

“No,” Jackson answered immediately, intently. “No, you’re not. You’re panicking, Noah. You two love each other so much. You always have, I know it.”

Noah shook his head. “How can you know it? I- I’m so fucking scared, Jackson.” He finally looked up at Jackson, but Luke still couldn’t really see his face. “He could leave me, if he wants to. He could.”

“Noah-”

“I’m not crazy. He’s with me, he loves me, but what if it’s... what if there's a reason...?”

“You think he doesn’t love you like he used to,” Jackson guessed. It burned through Luke’s stomach, the fact that Noah might think that.

He didn’t answer right away. “He hates coming with me to the hospital. It reminds him of Reid. And I’m trying, I am, to help him. To be better. To not fight with him, not let him worry about me. It just doesn’t feel like enough.”

“I’m going to skip past the ‘Reid’ thing because I don’t know who that is,” Jackson maneuvered his chair closer. “But I do think you're being a bit daft. Do you not remember how madly in love you two were when you and I met? He was all you talked about, when someone actually got you to talk. And he called you or sent you something, like, every day. An annoying, envious amount, to be honest.”

“Your point?” Noah’s voice sounded so faint. Empty.

“That doesn’t go away,” he said simply. “It can get muddied, it can get lost, it can get angry and confused and can hurt like mad, but it doesn’t go away.”

“But is it enough?”

Luke realized how much of an idiot he was being right now, hanging outside the doorway. Blinking hard, composing himself, he moved into the doorway, not really trusting himself to speak. Jackson spotted him first, looking equal parts frustrated and worried and relieved to see him. He squeezed Noah’s shoulder as best he could, then wheeled himself out of the room, wishing Luke luck with a silent nod.

Only then did Noah turn his head and see Luke. And maybe Luke finally saw Noah, really saw him. Saw his tired, red-rimmed eyes and the lines to his face. And also saw the way he still looked at Luke- after all this time, after everything- like he was the greatest thing in the world.

“Hey,” he said softly, daring to take a few steps closer.

“Hey,” Noah’s was a whisper, somewhere between tired and afraid. “I’m-”

Luke waved a hand, quieting him. “Noah?” he leaned in, cupped his face and kissed him gently. “Let’s go home, okay?” He reached down and tugged on Noah’s sleeve, sliding his palm down to link their fingers together. “I want to go home with you.”

***

It was a few minutes before they could get settled to talk. Both had worn nice outfits for the party, Noah in that ubiquitous tie, and by unspoken agreement they decided to change into comfier clothes before diving in. Luke stopped to pull on a sweatshirt- the one from yesterday, the one that was actually Noah’s- before following Noah back out into the living room.

As for Noah, he pulled nervously at the hem of his t-shirt, looking around like he didn’t know where to sit or who should sit first or how they should start or who should start. To tell the truth, Luke didn’t either. But it wasn’t like that ever stopped him before.

He picked up the blanket off the back of the couch, unfolded it, and stood up on his toes to drape it around Noah’s shoulders. “Come here.” He held both ends of the blanket and pulled, leading Noah over to the floor in front of their crappy little fireplace. He gestured, “Sit.”

Noah quirked an eyebrow for just a second, but didn’t argue.  Of course.  He dropped to the carpet, legs pulled up in front of him protectively. Luke sighed, somewhere between a real sigh and an affectionate one.

He crouched in front of Noah, pulled Noah’s legs out until they stretched straight and long in front of him. Then he sat down close, facing Noah, his own legs on top, wrapped lightly around Noah’s hips. “So.” He picked up both ends of the blanket again, tangled his fingers in it. “I don’t think I’ve been a very good boyfriend lately.”

“Luke-”

“Hush.” He laid his whole hand flat over Noah’s mouth. “In a few minutes I’m going to want you to talk. A lot. A lot, a lot. But for right now I think I need to say some stuff.” Noah nodded under Luke’s hand. Keeping it there, Luke leaned in, almost nose-to-nose. “I like when you argue with me.” He waited for that to sink in. “I like when you call me on my crap, when you try to stop me from doing stupid stuff. Because I trust you, and I know you do it for the right reasons, and- okay, maybe- you’re hot when you get all worked up about stuff.”

He felt a little of Noah’s improbable blush through his hand, and something in his chest loosened. “I don’t need you to be a perfect boyfriend, Noah. I don’t want you to be. I didn’t...” he had no idea how to say this right. “I didn’t come back to you six months ago because I missed having a boyfriend, or missed kissing someone, or having sex, or missed getting attention. I came to LA because I missed  you . You, specific and dorky and rinses-his-dishes-right-after-dinner, you.”

He pulled his hand away when Noah ducked his head and butted his forehead gently instead. “I love you. So fucking much. You shouldn’t be killing yourself to, I don’t know, keep me happy or whatever you’re doing. Because being with you is what makes me happy.”

“I’m just trying not to make the same mistakes,” Noah’s voice came out cracked, directed down towards their laps. “You gave me a second chance, I don’t want to screw things up again.”

“Oh my God, Noah,” he grabbed both sides of his face, pulling it up so they were looking at each other. “No, I gave  us  a second chance. We both fucked things up before. And we’re both gonna mess up in the future. You can’t...” he ran his fingers through Noah’s hair, keeping his focus. “You can’t force things to never go wrong. They will anyway. I mean, have you met us?”

Noah smiled a little, but his eyes still looked so tired. “That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be a better boyfriend than I was.”

Luke kept one hand in Noah’s hair, weaving his fingers against the back of his head, and let his other hand drift down, resting it at his waist. Squeezing. Holding him there. “I’m sorry.”

“What?” Noah shook his head, his own hands finally coming unclasped, tentatively holding onto Luke’s knee. “Why?”

“For that! For this!” Luke frowned. “I messed things up too, Noah. Don’t act like you’re the only one at fault or the only one who has to work in this relationship. I’m sorry for letting you think otherwise. And I’m so, so sorry for letting you think you were a bad boyfriend.” Noah flinched a little, but Luke pushed on. “Listen to me. You were a great boyfriend. You were sweet, and supportive, and you got my whole family to love you, and you loved them, and- best of all- you were  you . Baby, you were the best boyfriend a guy could ask for.”

“It wasn’t enough,” Noah argued weakly.

And for a second Luke was at a loss. “Things happen,” he tried. “Sometimes just because, for no reason. Did you mess up? Yeah. So did I. But I never stopped loving you, Noah. And you’re still the best boyfriend I could ever hope for. But this whole Stepford-thing isn’t going to work out.”

He smiled a little more. “You haven’t called me that in a long time.”

“Called you what?”

“Baby.” Noah shrugged, cheeks pink again. “You haven’t called me that since we got back together.”

And he kinda wanted to find that time machine again. “I haven’t?” At Noah’s head shake, he scooted closer, both of his hands linking behind Noah’s lower back. “What else? What else am I doing wrong?” He laughed at Noah’s skeptical expression. “Come on. I need to hear you say it.”

“This,” he burst out with, motioning to Luke’s arms, wrapping his own around Luke’s middle.

Luke frowned again. “I don’t hug you?”

“No, no, you do, but...” Noah shrugged. “Not, like- I mean, you usually do after I-”

“You usually hug me first,” Luke realized. “You’re the first one to... you are, aren’t you?”

He shrugged again. “I want to make sure you know I always want you,” he mumbled. “Not like before.”

“Shit,” he said back, just as quietly. “And I’ve been letting you, haven’t I?” Louder, “You don’t have to prove anything like that to me, understand? You waited for me. For nine months. No complaints, no pressure. You waited. And the way you look at me?” He traced Noah’s jaw, played with his hair again. “Nobody has ever looked at me like that. Nobody has ever loved me like this. I know that, and you need to know that too.” He patted Noah’s cheek playfully. “What else?”

“I hate that sushi place you like,” Noah said in a rush. “You want to order from there all the time, and it’s so gross. There has to be a better one out there.”

He grinned. “We’ll find a place we both like, then.” He pressed forward a little bit, a little bit more, until Noah was on his back on the floor. He draped himself on top, elbows caging in Noah’s sides, hands and chin propped up across the center of Noah’s chest. “Anything else?”

Noah snaked his arms around Luke’s back, hands resting at the small of his back, a few fingers managing to get under his shirt. “I’m sorry for freaking out earlier.”

“Why did you?” he asked softly. If he had learned anything tonight, it was that way too much went on in Noah’s head that he knew nothing about.

“We had that fight yesterday, and then I walked into the kitchen tonight, and you’re talking with this guy, and- and he’s older. And a doctor. And he’s making you laugh.” Noah’s face turned farther and farther away from Luke as he spoke. “And talking about Reid, and I...” he trailed off, eyes squeezing shut. “I’m lame, okay? And Jackson said I was just panicking, and maybe he’s right- again- but, I don’t know, it scared me. I've been trying to everything right and you still...”

Luke stayed quiet for a moment, studying him. “I don’t compare you to Reid. Never have.”

“Luke-” he sounded doubtful. Too doubtful.

“I’m serious, Noah. Never.” He did one of his favorite things ever, sliding a hand under Noah’s t-shirt to his stomach, rubbing gently. He still remembered the first time he ever did this.

Noah had been living on the farm for maybe two months when he got sick, some nasty flu that wouldn’t go away. Every night after dinner, Emma would shoo Noah back to his bed, and Luke would join him (door open, of course), doting just enough to get Noah all flustered, then stay with him until he fell asleep. And one night, trying to get restless and feverish Noah to relax, Luke had started, well, petting him. Two minutes of rubbing his stomach, and Noah was fast asleep.

He thought of that now, Noah passed out in Natalie’s old room, Emma’s quilt over him, all the flu medicine Lily could buy next to him, and he had to say it again. “Never. Yeah, I loved him, in my own way. But the only reason I know what love is, how it feels, is because of you. Got it? I love you just as much,  more , than I ever have.”

Noah left one hand on Luke’s back, but brought the other up to his hair, playing with the spikes, twisting a few strands between his fingers. “I thought you hated coming to the hospital with me because it reminded you of Reid.”

He wanted to shake his head, but didn’t want to lose Noah’s hand. “Nope. I hate going because I hate you being in hospitals, for any reason, for any amount of time. Also, they smell.”

Noah’s chest shook with a soft laugh. “You smell.”

“Do not!” Luke dug himself in further, pushing up until his head was almost level with Noah’s. If that caused him to ‘accidentally’ drag Noah’s t-shirt up his chest a little... oops? He rested against Noah’s shoulder, watching his face again. “We’re gonna be okay, you know that, right?”

Noah’s smile turned soft, contemplative, almost embarrassed. “Yeah.” Then he turned serious. “And you know I was just freaking out because I- I want to spend the rest of my life with you, right?”

He waited for a second, gathering himself, then leaned in, pressing his lips to Noah’s. Not insistent, not fiery, but full-mouthed and breathtaking and perfect in its easiness. It was almost like reacquainting themselves, and almost like sealing an unspoken deal. “Good,” he spoke without pulling back, so their lips were still connected, so it was almost like Noah had to say the words with him. “Because you’re stuck with me.”

When he did pull back this time, Noah gave him one of those crinkly grins that erupted from his whole face, bright and happy. He leaned up just enough to kiss Luke again, a few times, quick little ones that smacked and spread across Luke’s face from chin to forehead.

They laid together for awhile longer, Noah’s arms going tight around him, his head and hand finding their way back to Noah’s chest, when Noah spoke up again. “I feel like I need to make it up to Jackson.”

He wanted to move to look at Noah, he did, but that damn chest was too warm and comfy. “For leaving the party early?”

“That, and for, I don’t know, everything he did for me. Before.” He felt Noah's chin drop onto the top of his head, and hands started running slowly, unconsciously, up and down his back.

Taking it as an invitation to snuggle in closer, he shifted a little more, half on his side and half on his stomach, one leg finding its way between Noah's. He nudged his knee into Noah's thigh, giggling ( not  giggling) when Noah's legs closed around his, trapping him. "I had an idea about that, actually," he said tentatively.

"Yeah?" One of Noah's hands slid down his back, over his side, resting on his hip. His finger hooked into Luke's belt loop and tugged idly.

"Yeah." He fiddled with the hem of Noah's shirt. "The foundation board is trying to plan our next project. Maybe, I don't know, maybe there's a rehab place out here like the one you went to. That needs money, or help in some way. And maybe Jackson would like to be a consultant or a, a counselor or something. We could hire him." He shrugged into Noah's chest. "Give him really good medical benefits and health insurance and stuff."

Noah was entirely still under him, for about three seconds. Then he tightened his grip on Luke, pulling him up and around until they were face-to-face, and Luke almost forgot to breathe at the look on his face. It was that 'nobody-looks-at-me-like-you-do' look Luke loved. He leaned in, rubbed his nose against Noah's, reveling in the smile and blush it brought out. "Love you," Noah said, low and warm and wonderful.

He leaned in again, kissed him again, tasted first his lips then his tongue, wanting it all. He felt Noah’s smile, felt Noah’s arms wrap and wrap around him, hugging him close. He felt Noah’s heartbeat against his chest, and he felt his trying to escape. And it all felt kinda perfect. And maybe they still had stuff to talk about, and maybe they'd always have stuff to work on and fix, but for right now? For forever? This was enough.