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1

Lukas mutters and instantly Philip straightens from his slump on the bed.

"Here, here let me." He eases the thin blanket up and around Lukas' shoulders.

"Hurts," Lukas breathes out, finally starting to wake up.

Philip glances around and then kisses Lukas, soft and light. "I'll call the nurse." He reaches for the button but Lukas catches his hand and squeezes it.

"S'k. Better already." Lukas doesn't seem to remember any reason to check around first, just stares at Philip's mouth and lifts his chin enough for Philip to read his desires.

Philip smiles, kisses Lukas again.

"Did you dream?" Philip runs his fingertips from Lukas' forehead, the sharpness of Lukas' cheeks, the fine skin of Lukas' neck, and then down both Lukas' arms. He pauses over the new bandage on Lukas' chest and then flattens his palm over it, lets his warmth spread through them both.

"Not really. I think I was too knocked out by whatever the doctors gave me." Lukas scowls at the chair Philip is folded into and scoots over. "Sit here instead." He lifts his arm and waits, then draws Philip close beside him. "Bet you're tired."

"I'm okay."

"Yeah, sure." Lukas huffs but kisses Philip's temple. He frowns and looks around the hospital room. "I hate it here. Like, a lot." Anxiety flows off him in waves.

Philip doesn't ask about it. "Good thing they're letting you leave later today."

"Yeah, good thing." Lukas closes his eyes and threads their fingers together. After a minute his eyes fly open and he strains to sit up. "You're coming with me, right?"

"Duh." Philip keeps his tone light and his movements casual guiding Lukas to lay back down and tucks his head in Lukas' shoulder. He doesn't want to lie by promising anything.

Going home with Lukas, just to make sure Lukas is safe and settled if nothing else, is what he wants to do. But he has no idea what they'll be allowed after getting out of this room. He wants for a lot, and glancing out the observation window seeing Helen, Gabe, and Bo talking without looking agitated makes him think that could be possible.

"How did you kiss me? I mean, before." Lukas fiddles with Philip's fingers and circles his thumb in Philip's palm. "Here before."

Philip looks up—to Lukas blushing—and laughs. "Like this."

He stops laughing as soon as their eyes meet, and Lukas tracks his movements as he levers up and kisses Lukas' forehead. Lukas catches his face, smiles in that crooked-then-widening way that never fails to flutter his heart, and guides him back down.

Philip doesn't share the rest. He's not sure Lukas wants to hear it and he's not ready to say it again. But he closes his eyes, sighs along with Lukas' satisfaction, and for once hope feels like something real.

2

Helen sits with Philip, who is waiting on Lukas to be done with therapy.

Physical therapy.

For a gunshot wound still soft, puckered, the scar angry and pink, the bump of a bandage under Lukas' thin shirts everyone glances at when no one else is looking. Tied up and riding in the trunk hadn't helped, but it hadn't done worse than reopen the wound. Helen had breathed out in a long, long exhale when Bo told her that outside Lukas' room late last night, after she'd cleared the last procedure and got to the hospital.

Only Lukas has to rebuild muscle and physical strength, but they're all in other therapy—joint, individual, talk about their feelings and issues kind—because an audiobook and eating meals together to bond isn't enough anymore.

She doesn't mind. Hers is already almost finished, by regulations and her own measure. Her appointed therapist seemed more impressed than disturbed that she calmly, buntly said she's at peace with having shot and killed a bad man, circumstances of the shooting included. Back on the water, back to having trust and balance with Gabe, and back to a place where she thinks just maybe she can be a not-really-mom-but-kinda-sorta-mother to Philip is good enough for her.

Yesterday she followed Gabe's truck away from the hospital, driving the boys to Bo's place, Bo bringing up the rear of their broken caravan, waving as she peeled off to park at the station to check in on Tony. Philip had lingered and got Lukas settled, ever the caretaker, and Bo apparently went to the store and got six gallons of ice cream for lack of better to do or offer.

She watches Philip trying not to watch every movement in the hall leading to the waiting room. She shifts in her chair, subtly toward Philip, and then outright closes her hand over Philip's gripping the arm attaching their chairs together.

Philip huffs a short laugh and nods, loosens his grip. But when he smiles at her it's deeper than an acknowledgement he's more worried than he needs to be and he doesn't pull his hand away. It warms something in Helen, that kinda-sorta place she's carved out for Philip and continues to chip away at, and she hopes what she can offer will be enough. It feels good to offer, grounding and full in a way even Gabe and the water doesn't provide, and after stumbling she's found her stride again.

Gabe will pick up the slack regardless—but she doesn't see that as a failing in her or Philip's acceptance of her attempts. It's simply how the three of them are built to function.

She doesn't mind. They're getting somewhere, she and this kid.

The door at the far end of the hall opens and Philip springs from the seat, already halfway to Lukas as Lukas steps out. They drink in the sight of each other, as if it's been days instead of forty-five minutes, and Helen rises and rests her arms on her belt. Lukas reaches for Philip, catches his fingers in Philip's and then releases quicker than anyone's supposed to notice.

"Do we need to sign you out or anything?" Helen didn't drop them off and no one told her the process.

"Nah." Lukas blinks and then flushes, tearing his gaze from Philip before giving her a careful smile. "I mean no, thank you."

"Well then, come on." Helen is normal about it, because nothing about picking up a kid who's been through a personal crisis, terrorized and then shot is normal, but nothing about a teenager too besotted to really listen or remember manners is unusual. She tilts her head toward the beam of sunlight slanting into the corridor behind her and turns on her heel. They don't immediately follow but after a hasty-sounding rustle they fall in a few steps behind.

The boys get into the backseat, talking quick and quietly in a language Helen doesn't fully understand. Lukas apparently finds her company and the confines of the Jeep safe enough to take hold of Philip's hand and not let go. Either that or he's not quite aware he's doing it. Probably both.

"So Lukas, when are you going to be cleared to ride?"

Lukas doesn't seem to have heard her and Philip gives no response.

Helen cranks the engine and starts driving toward the City—headed for an outskirt bedroom community and a decent Chinese place she researched to take the boys—and plays something folksy and contemplative. She smiles at them in the rearview mirror and shakes her head, taps the steering wheel, and they continue to have no idea she exists.

She doesn't mind.

3

"It's dumb. You think it's dumb." Lukas grits his teeth and embarrassment slices his guts.

His dad's still tight with money and he spent a lot on this after getting the idea and searching for the perfect one online. Not that he minds spending a lot on Philip; he'd have spent more if the perfect one was more expensive. But somehow that makes the rejection even worse, because asking Dad for the money and then explaining why without lying about the reason was hard, but he did it and was glad he did, and he just wanted to make Philip happy.

"Damnit." Lukas rubs the back of his neck and then huffs. He jerks the plug out of the wall and turns away when Philip climbs over the bed to where he's standing.

Lukas resists when Philip cups his cheek and tries to turn his head back, but he swallows hard and blinks back stupid tears, and winds up glaring at a spot past Philip's shoulder.

Philip scans Lukas' face. He doesn't mention the tears but they both know Lukas is crying, and it's about this rejection but so much more. He's cried in the past few days—not a lot and he tries not to do it around Philip—but he's not gonna be a bitch about this. He doesn't want to be a drag and he wants to be the strong one. Philip lost his mom and his whole life, and that's way worse, even if Lukas' life doesn't make a whole lot more sense to him right now.

"It's the furthest thing from dumb. I'm so sorry." Philip circles his thumbs at the corners of Lukas' eyes. "But hey, give me a second to react first, okay?"

Lukas is nodding before he knows what he's agreeing with, and he grabs hold of Philip's hips when Philip moves to step away. Philip shushes lowly, leans down for the cord, and plugs it back in. Then he wraps his arms around Lukas and tucks himself under Lukas' chin. Lukas is powerless not to pull Philip closer or take a deep inhale of Philip's hair, soft and smelling good.

He rests his cheek on Philip's head and watches the fountain on Philip's dresser he's just set up and filled. It's bronze colored and kinda abstract, with rounded tiers that have offset spouts so the water flows in an s-pattern. Two tiny frogs sit together on a leaf in the middle tier, made from the same bronze colored resin stuff. Lukas will never admit that's why he picked this one but he hopes Philip gets it.

"I really like it. No, I love it." Philip leans back and smiles. "Especially the frogs."

"Yeah? Well, I thought this way you get the water sound you like, in your room, all the time—you know?" Lukas' heart unknots and his stomach loosens, and the look in Philip's eyes makes him want to kiss Philip, so he does.

Philip hums as they pull apart and that little noise of happy pleasure makes Lukas' toes curl.

"Thank you so much. It's probably one of the best things anyone's ever given me."

That does something to Lukas. Tears him apart and puts him back together again. Humbled, proud, fucking hell yeah. He starts scheming what to get Philip next because he wants them both to feel that again. Soon.

"I'm just glad you like it." Lukas licks his lips and leans in. "Love it."

Color darkens Philip's cheeks and his mouth opens. He blinks and nods. "I do."

Lukas dives in for another kiss but Philip breaks away too soon, grabbing a hoodie and his flannel, and tugs him into the hall.

"I want to go find some cool rocks to put in it." Philip throws Lukas' flannel behind him as he skips downstairs.

Lukas fights his way free of the shirt, hears the front door bang and Philip's laugh, and gives chase.

4

They meet at The Tree. They've been granted a month off—therapists plus doctors plus Gabe pressuring everyone to give them space and time to heal—and Philip has already read three books and reorganized his new bedroom. Otherwise they're together as much as possible, making out, talking about nothing, and doing their best to process all the crap that happened.

Today Lukas is jumpy and sallow and it worries Philip but he doesn't ask about anything. He just lets Lukas pull him in for a long hug, lets them sink to the ground, lets Lukas claim a long kiss.

Lukas once admitted he wasn't used to contact. As in touching. No one has really hugged him or anything since his mom died.

Philip wants to make up for all that lost time. For all the lost comfort, touching, everything. His mom got a lot wrong but that was one thing she did right—he always knew her affection came without a price and her praise always came with a kiss or a hug or a pat on the cheek. He knows how to show affection because she taught him and he wants to give that to Lukas. He's always been almost desperate to.

Lukas soaks it all in, touching, seeking comfort, everything, in kind. He's started to generously give it back. Better, has become brave enough to share in it between them.

Philip's phone buzzes and he's reluctant to pull away, but Lukas is already moving, so he gives in and checks. Lukas leans against him, hands on his arms and nose bumping his forehead as he reads the message from Gabe.

"I gotta go in like, a minute." Philip pockets his phone. "Gabe's taking me to the station."

Lukas rears back and his sleepy expression shocks whitely. "What? Are you okay? Did something else happen like, with everything?"

"Shit, no. No, sorry—I'm totally fine." Philip shakes his head. "It's pizza and poker day, and they want me to join them, that's all. I told you about that, right?"

"Oh yeah. Right." Lukas closes his eyes and his brows furrow, then he swallows and seems to will something away. "Cool, so you gotta go. I understand."

They get to their feet and Philip grabs Lukas' wrist. "Wanna come with?"

"Nah—I mean, Helen and Gabe didn't invite me." Lukas smiles. It's tight and small and hurts Philip's heart.

"Well I did. And they won't mind." He pulls them to his bike and starts walking, pushing it alongside. "Come on, it'll be almost fun and the pizza isn't terrible."

Lukas stands in place watching him. "Really?"

"Yeah, really." Philip holds out his other hand and waits, and when Lukas nods, runs to meet him and grabs it, his heart explodes into fireworks.

5

Bo wrenches from sleep. His first instinct, always, is to check the bed for what's been missing for so long. She's still gone, and it still hurts, but he buries that deep. Like always. The hurt is different anyway, muted with time and newfound perspective, because he finally sees what he's had all along and neglected out of stubbornness and ingrained inabilities he can't begin to name.

For that, he's not so stubborn and ingrained he's just going to keep failing.

The blankets tangle and trip him all the way into the hall where he finds Lukas, shivering and vulnerable and breaking his heart. He leans down and gives the blanket around his ankle a vicious tug, wraps Lukas in it, and walks them back to Lukas' room.

"Where's Philip? Is he okay? Is Philip okay?" Lukas asks on a whispered, distracted refrain.

So quiet, but enough to wake him. They're all on edge these days even though it's all over. Bo navigates them through the mess of Lukas' room, snags Lukas' phone, and settles his boy on the bed.

"Is he okay? I didn't get there in time did I, I couldn't stop it I didn't stop it."

Lukas is urgent, lost in misery and something Bo doesn't understand, but at least he's no longer a blind cuss without any sense of what to do about it. Bo holds Lukas to the bed and tries to say soothing nonsense he was never any good at even when Lukas was newborn, sweet and small. He calls Gabe and the phone rings, rings, rings. He hangs up on Gabe's voicemail and calls again.

"'lo?" Gabe's voice is thick.

It's three in the morning and Bo tries to think of how to explain.

"Lukas? Son? Is everything all right?"

Gabe's worried questions jumpstart Bo's brain.

"Gabe, it's Bo. I'm hoping that… well. It's… well." He gazes down at Lukas—red-rimmed eyes bruised dark with fatigue, restless and searching and confused, haunted with barely-contained anxiety—and sucks in a resolute breath. "Can you see to bring Philip over? Lukas needs him."

"Be there soon as I can."

Bo's gratitude at not having to say more allows him to relax and he lets Lukas' phone slip to the floor, dozes, hand still on Lukas' bad shoulder, listening to Lukas breathe.

"Bo?"

He's not startled by Gabe's sudden presence, too tired for surprise to connect. Instead he nods, stands, but doesn't move or approach Philip, who even bleary-eyed is still wary of him. Bo opens his hands in a nonthreatening gesture and motions to the bed.

Philip's gaze darts from Bo to Lukas and something kicks in. Philip's expression changes from muzzy to afraid to something charged and unnamed Bo has a hard time seeing—he knows that feeling and it left him a long time ago. He never thought, even considered, he'd see that given to his boy from another.

Philip slips quickly past both men and settles on the bed. "I'm here, right here. I'm here. I'm okay." He runs his hands up and down Lukas' arms.

Lukas' eyes widen and search Philip's face, hands scattershot through Philip's messy hair and over mismatched clothes, and a small helpless noise escapes his throat. Bo wants to step in—not to stop Philip touching his son—but he doesn't because this isn't his comfort to give.

"It's okay. We're okay. We're safe."

 "Safe?" Lukas sounds so young.

"Yeah, yes. And I'm here, we're right here." Philip starts to smile and lowers his head, rests their foreheads together, has Lukas' hand pressed to his chest.

Bo turns away, leads Gabe downstairs, to the long and wide comfortable couch he sleeps on as often as bed, because the empty bed is so hard.

"Here," he mutters through pulling the afghan off the back of the couch and tossing it onto the cushions, and he's terrible at this but can't apologize for that. He considers tugging Gabe's shoes off and wonders if that's kind of gay, and how that led to Lukas, and then scoffs at his fool thoughts. "Thanks for bringing him."

Gabe says something that might be sure or no problem and he's asleep as he's laying down.

Bo makes coffee and walks to the rise behind the barn and watches the sunrise. A bit after dawn he goes back in—more coffee and finding his phone—and settles on the porch.

"Something wrong, Bo?"

"No, no, Helen. Just letting you know both your boys are here, and fast asleep." Bo lets the awkward silence hang and doesn't have anything more to say.

After a processing silence Helen clears her throat. "Is Lukas all right?"

"He is now." Bo's glance darts toward Lukas' room window, and he doesn't go into imagining how they're in there asleep, just lets himself be glad they are. "Helen, I'm thinking…"

He goes quiet too long and Helen prompts, "You're thinking?"

"We should work out so the boys stay together for a while. Overnights, whatever makes sense. Something—I don't really know—but."

He shakes his head. He can't figure out to explain it any better, and stops from saying there'll be some no hanky-panky rules laid down. That'll happen anyway—already has—and he knows well enough from being a kid himself rules don't stop hormones. Plus, according to the therapist, he can't offer solutions to support Lukas' mental wellbeing and sense of security and then set limits enforced by distrust.

"Yeah, okay. I think we can manage that." Helen sighs. "Philip isn't sleeping either."

"They can be here, or with you, whatever they like." Bo almost laughs at how bad they both are at this. "After Gabe wakes we'll put him on it."

Helen does laugh. "Yes, do that. Good idea."

"Great." Bo thinks through having to feed the boys, if Philip will just stay the day and through the night, if he should get out extra towels or anything. He shakes his head. "The boys can sleep for however long and we'll go from there."

"Okay, sounds good. Thanks for calling."

Bo decides thanking Helen for letting Philip come over—did she even know? did Gabe just rouse and head over?—to settle Lukas in a way no one else can is past his ability to tackle for the whole outreach, understand, and communication thing they're all trying.

"Talk to you soon, then." Bo nods. He's used to talking in person.

He swears he hears Helen nod back.

He pockets his phone, looks in on Gabe still asleep. It's only past six and there's no reason to be in any hurry. He doesn't want to but he makes himself climb the stairs. Philip is asleep half-sitting, cheek on Lukas' head, Lukas deep asleep in his arms, both bundled in a haphazard grab of blankets including the one from Bo's bed.

It's fine—that's just fine with him. Has to be and that's fine too. At least they are safe. It still confuses him and he still worries about Lukas' future, about what it all means, but he is accepting that's his burden, not Lukas' fault. He creeps back downstairs and loads a fresh round of coffee in the maker, sets the timer for an hour, and then goes to the shed where he's working on sorting—claiming and acknowledging—everything he'd banished there back into their lives.

A song comes to him and he hums as he works without realizing it. His heart aches but it's not as bad anymore. Not from losing her, or the distance the years created between him and Lukas, or grappling with Lukas being gay. He closes his fist around the neck of a vase and wonders if Helen would like it, want it, sets it aside just in case.

6

Philip winces and tilts his hips, keeps stroking himself, and this was a bad idea because hay is poking into him everywhere it shouldn't, but it's too late to stop.

Lukas is jerking off too, watching him, and he's watching Lukas. He sighs raggedly and Lukas pushes close for awkwardly angled kisses.

They were talking, and then listening to his playlist, and that led to making out. Making out led to more, a driving need that wouldn't be denied, and next Philip knew he'd tugged his button and zipper wide and helped Lukas do the same—and they couldn't even wait to fit together and do something more than this—this which is mind-blowing and sparking cascades of fire along his nerves and building incredible heat at his core.

Philip comes first when Lukas bites his neck. He pants and shudders and muffles the noises he desperately wants to make against his shoulder.

Lukas' legs strain and his hips punch. He pushes his mouth to Philip's cheek and his breath shortens, hitches, then releases on a long moan.

They catch their breath, laugh and ick over the mess, clean up using Lukas' flannel. Then they're kissing again, sloppy and wet and satisfied, and Philip slides heavily into Lukas' lap. He shifts and finds a comfortable fit their bodies slotted close warding off the chill in the barn—yeah I'm good it was good are you good—and Lukas' hands run down his back then settle on his ass.

7

"Here."

"What's this?"

"Just take them." Lukas' nerves almost give out but he shoves his earbuds in and waits for Philip to do the same.

Philip's questioning look and curious pout is so adorable Lukas forgets his worries. He chews his lip in anticipation—of kissing Philip, of listening together, of watching the barn darken around them as the sun sets—and pushes play.

He kisses Philip to the opening strains of Unsteady, chasing Philip's tongue and the feel of that pout, and it doesn't bother him that the song is sappy and slow. Philip won't make fun, and the next song is rocking anyway, classic metal, so it's all good.

Therapy was bullshit today, and he resents he has to be beaten on for an hour by a trainer and then go have a shrink hammer at his head. But he can tell it's helping—Philip too—so he takes it seriously and does his best. He might not get another sponsorship offer anytime soon, but he's found a lot more important reasons to be serious and try and improve everything he can in every way.

Dad took them to dinner after therapy, and just the three of them together is damn awkward, but he appreciates it. He'd thought he'd imagined Dad telling him I love you so much, thought pain and passing out or some combination had him making it up. But it was real, just like the bad guys being dead, and him and Philip are here and really for real safe. His head is still kind of fucked up but he has help now, and Philip always listens to whatever he needs to say.

If they're together they'll be okay. He knew that from the first moment he saw Philip. Something just told him, promised to him in a way he never felt before and proven during the past weeks of hell, and part of why he couldn't stay away despite everything.

Now he's damn determined never to leave.

Philip tilts Lukas' hand, reads the name of the playlist. Savage LP—get it? Lukas asks by waggling his eyebrows. LP like an old record, LP because that's who they are. Philip rolls his eyes and shoves him, but he's also grinning open-mouthed, too irresistible to ignore. They kiss until Lukas is dizzy and he swears he can hear Philip's breath above the music. He falls back against the hay bales, tugging Philip into his lap to straddle his legs and be held to his heart.

He runs his fingers through Philip's hair, settles them splayed at the small of Philip's back, and Philip does that melting into him thing he… loves. Lukas swallows but doesn't take the thought back, and he kisses Philip's forehead and drifts comfortably. The music swells and his bad memories fade, and the only shadows he sees are from the lengthening embrace of twilight.

8

Philip takes his plate to the sink and the pancakes are heavy in his gut. He stands in place after passing his dishes to Gabe and stares into space.

"Philip? Son, are you all right?" Gabe turns from the sink and suds run down his arms to soak his rolled-up sleeves.

"Yeah, I'm." Philip rubs his eyes and focuses on Gabe's knowing expression. "Uh, actually I'm really beat. I just woke up but I'm still really tired."

"So go back to bed. Have a long nap. Sleep until dinner, even." Gabe smiles. "Victories are allowed to be small—sometimes the best we can do in a day is being willing to get up and face it." He takes Lukas' plate. "I'm sure you're really beat too, Lukas. You boys have been through a lot."

Lukas blushes from his neck up and showing down along his arms, a fine, light pink contrasting with how pale he is. Philip bites his lip and thinks not for the first time how beautiful Lukas is, how Lukas would probably deck him for being called beautiful.

"We should finish helping you clean up from breakfast," Philip offers, but it's half-hearted. He's swaying on his feet and his brain is foggy.

"Go on, both of you. There are plenty of other dishes in your future." Gabe nods at them and turns the water back on.

Philip doesn't put up any more resistance, not even a token gesture of grabbing a last thing from the table before heading to his room. He snags Lukas' shirt and they go back upstairs, stepping from their shoes and peeling layers, then fall into his unmade bed. As soon as Lukas is settled he rolls close, lays his cheek on Lukas' shoulder, and Lukas' arms surround him, all as natural and instinctive as breathing.

"You're beautiful," Philip murmurs. He's so sleepy it makes him braver than usual.

"What?" Lukas sounds out of it already.

"Nothing. It's nothing."

Lukas' hand stills from rubbing Philip's arm. "No, tell me."

"I said you're beautiful." Philip waits a beat, two, and then shakes his head at Lukas' silence and considers rolling over and hiding. Or rolling onto the floor, out the door, down the stairs and far away.

"Yeah?" Lukas squirms and pushes up so he can look at Philip. His grin is ridiculous. "About time you said something. I mean, I know you noticed—it's kind of impossible to miss—but you know."

"Oh my god." Philip snorts and rolls his eyes but he can't hide his own ridiculous grin. He's relieved and elated, and almost disbelieving that taking risks has started to reward, not punish, him. "Shut up."

"You're just jealous," Lukas says airily. He lays back down and draws Philip in close again, kisses Philip's hair, rests his head on the spot after. There's a long silence, then he whispers, "So are you. But like, for real."

"Then we have to agree both, for real." Philip taps Lukas' chest meaningfully, because he is serious, and this is important.

"Okay, fair." Lukas scratches Philip's scalp rhythmically, and Philip yawns so hugely he squeaks, and Lukas makes this low aww noise and laughs. But his laugh pulls into a bigger yawn, and Philip gets to be smug about it.

He snuggles even closer, and Lukas welcomes him in. His breathing slows and Lukas' matches his descent. The water is still running downstairs, blending with the fountain trickling on his dresser. The thought of Gabe down there doing the dishes is better than the water sound, even, but Philip likes both.

9

Lukas catches movement down the path. They're walking along the river and he kinda forgot until just now that other people might do the same.

God—what if it's someone from school? Someone he knows?

Maybe it's a deer. Maybe it's nothing.

Philip is talking and he's making agreeing sounds, nodding, but his pulse has started to race and he's trying not to freak.

It's more than that, though. Way more more than meeting someone he knows is getting to him. Shadows from the past weeks always seem to find him—the nightmares are almost gone, thanks to Philip and probably the therapy even though it's kinda stupid—and his biggest fear is Philip will still be stolen away from him somehow.

The movement is not deer or nothing, but definitely people. As they get nearer he tries to stay cool, wants to prove something, but at the last minute he pulls his hand from Philip's and moves a step apart.

The other people don't even really notice them, some stupid hikers with huge backpacks and binoculars, who say a passing hello and keep going.

Lukas' throat burns and he hates himself. They don't slow down either, but Philip doesn't reach to take his hand back, and he feels really overdramatic but desperately unsure about that.

At the bend in the river he stops, and stops Philip.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything and I tried not to, and sorry…" he doesn't know where to look or what else to say, so he chews on his lips and then scowls at the bridge soaring overhead.

"For what? Being honest?" Philip actually laughs—not bitter or short but light—and bumps into Lukas. "It's okay. We're cool."

After a moment when it all sinks in Lukas figures out how to breathe again. He grabs Philip's hand—and Philip smiles and laces their fingers together—and they keep walking.

10

Philip checks the recipe and measures flour. He mostly remembers because he used to make chocolate chip cookies all the time, but it's been a while.

Gabe sits at the dining table sorting paperwork. Lukas is leaned against the counter watching him.

"Where'd you learn to bake?"

"My mom." The words pang in Philip's chest but it's already easier to think about, easier to say. "She wasn't the best cook but her cookies were always good. I got to where mine are better."

"Sweet." Lukas grins and nods and then whaps the underside of the measuring cup Philip holds.

"Yeah, real sweet." Philip is arch and he waits until Lukas' hand retreats, then he turns into his shoulder to hide a smile, and listens to Lukas' knowing laugh.

He woke up with the idea and the itch to putter around the kitchen and bake stuff. It's partly to remember doing this with her, but he also likes to bake and he wants to make something he can share with Helen and Gabe. Then there's the anticipated pleasure of having concocted something delicious to appease Lukas' sweet tooth, presented and shared, that came only from him.

"They're not ready yet?" Gabe stands, slumps next to Lukas and raises both hands. "What kind of establishment is Philip running, here?"

"I know, man, right?" Lukas tsks and shakes his head. "I shouldn't put up with it but I kinda like it here." He swallows and fidgets, but looks at Philip through his lashes. "And the cook."

"That's chef, thank you." Philip almost sings it out on a giddy, triumphant chord, wants to grab Lukas for a long kiss. He settles for dropping several chocolate chips by Lukas' hand.

Lukas beams, and then after Gabe steals one, stuffs all them into his mouth at once. Philip sighs—so put-upon—and sets a pile by each of them, then goes to soften the butter in the microwave.

11

Lukas decides out-with-it is the best approach. If he stops to think he'll never say it. They're cleaning his room—one of his Dad-assigned tasks to finish this month since he doesn't have to go to school—and he can't stand not saying it anymore. He drops the stack of motocross magazines he gathered onto the bed, and Philip stills then turns to look at him, so he must have made some kind of noise.

"I'm just really sorry, okay? I want you to know that."

Philip tilts his head. "Okay." He frowns. "What for?"

"Um, everything?" He holds up a hand to cut Philip off—knows Philip will say it's nothing, not a big deal, and now behind them, but he can't leave it there. "I've said it before—once when you couldn't even hear me and then that other time by The Tree—but it doesn't seem like enough." Lukas flattens his hand over his heart and turns to stare out the window so he can fight back tears before looking at Philip again. "I'm sorry for being such a shithead and I don't know if I deserve you and how you stuck by me and agreed to everything, no matter how shitheaded it was, but I'm glad you did and I want you to know that I'm glad, really glad, and also that I'm so sorry."

The room goes silent with uncertainty and Lukas huffs, scrubs at his face and the tears still threatening to escape, and thinks great real great, that didn't even make sense you're such a jerk you can't even apologize right.

"Apology accepted. If…"

Lukas straightens and opens his eyes and Philip is right in front of him. "If?" He's ready to do whatever groveling or favors Philip has in mind until his jerkfacedness is made up for.

"If you accept that I accept and we move on. And also if you never pull any of that shit on me again."

Lukas' heart speeds up and relief washes over him in a strange, too-fast clash. He worries he's going to swoon. "Okay, sure. I can do that. I will do that." He blinks and suddenly doesn't mind the show of tears wetting the rim of his eyes.

He grins and Philip grins. Then Philip hands him the stack of magazines. He takes them but frowns.

"I don't know where they go."

"Oh—here." It clicks for him that Philip isn't dissing his apology—Philip is doing that moving on thing. Which is good. He can do that too. He wants to. "I'll show you."

12

Lukas carries the ice cream cones he got—both chocolate and vanilla twist—to the bench and sits down. Philip takes one with a grin and sucks about half off the top then licks his lips with slow swipes.

"Jerk." Lukas punches Philip and clears his throat, trying to ignore the twitch in his hands and lips and dick seeing that.

They watch the sparse traffic through town and nothing's going on at the sheriff's station several blocks down. They're waiting on Helen to take them to Philip's place and Lukas got restless and discovered the ten in his back pocket and got the great idea for ice cream.

It's still a great idea even if he can't look at Philip again until the cone is gone. If he looks again he'll want to chase the taste of ice cream on Philip's lips—into Philip's mouth—and yeah, he'd like to but just not gonna happen here.

Lukas slumps, stretches in the classic maneuver, and sprawls his legs. He grips the top of the bench just behind Philip's back and brushes his knee to Philip's and scooches a bit closer.

Cars keep driving by and he finishes his ice cream, crumples the paper from around the cone and throws it at Philip. Philip fires back, hits him with his and Philip's discarded papers. Lukas shoves at Philip—Philip laughs, shoves him—and he turns and grins and can't tear his gaze from Philip's wide smile.

"Jerk," he repeats, but there's no zing. Instead it's low and quiet and intimate and it makes Philip flush.

Lukas considers it a victory.

He fetches the paper balls and tucks them under a leg to throw away later, then slides just a little closer. He dares to caress circles over Philip's nape with his thumb, and he presses his knee fully to Philip's. He holds his breath and his heart is stuck in his throat.

The cars don't stop and the sun doesn't dim. Someone going by waves—no yelling or outrage just a wave—and Lukas instinctively waves back. No one notices them sitting here any more sharply than they would have a month ago, minutes ago.

"Was that good?"

Philip rolls his head toward him and glances at their knees, shifts a bit nearer, smiles slow and lazy.

"Real good." Philip presses his knuckles to Lukas' thigh, low between them, out of sight. "Thanks."

Lukas smiles but ducks his head. He likes how Philip looks at him and how it makes him feel but he's still not quite used to it—not used to being good enough and wanted as-is—but he bounces his leg because he wants Philip to feel good enough, wanted.

He relaxes and sets a rhythm rubbing Philip's nape and Philip's eyes close. His heart opens a bit more and the echoing fear he's carried since kissing Philip in the cabin—and every day after with everything that happened—continues to get quieter and quieter. When Philip tips heavily against his shoulder, loose-limbed and dozing, he just draws Philip fully under his arm and watches for Helen to leave the station on her way to get them.

13

Philip drops the armload of lumber and sorts them by length then adds the bits to the neat stacks he's made. He catches Lukas straighten from the corner of his eye and turns to find Bo, standing in the big light-blinding doorway of the barn, hands on hips and shifting without looking anywhere.

"You're making a good job of that."

Lukas hops to his feet from a pile of overturned crates. "Philip is—I'm just sitting here watching."

Bo steps forward a pace.

"His shoulder hurts, that's all. I don't mind." Philip says it to appease. It's the truth and he doesn't mind. Soon after they'd started today's chore, Lukas' sharp intakes of breath and unending grimacing had him insisting. They'd been in the barn all morning, since breakfast of waffles he made from Gabe's recipe after waking entwined in Lukas' bed.

All of it is strange, and wonderful, and he tries not to overthink it. Philip accepts it all as it arrives, one thing at a time, not questioning but prepared for it to end just in case. That's how he'd survived mostly intact this long. But ever since Gabe woke him late the other night and brought him here—because Lukas needed him, freaking out running with the same trauma that squirmed inside Philip, because Lukas' dad freaking asked—his layers and walls were starting to fall. For once he wasn't afraid of that happening.

Bo scans the results of Philip's morning and then gives him an appraising look.

"I like organizing things." Philip shrugs uncomfortably and a literal shock snaps his skin when Lukas' fingertips drag from his nape and down his back from behind.

Lukas nudges him and smiles.

"Like I said, you're making a good job of it." Bo has his hands on his hips again but it's comfortable, satisfied. "You could learn a thing or two from Philip, Lukas. I should have you take notes."

Lukas rolls his eyes and Philip bites his lip so he doesn't grin.

"Well anyway, wanted to say you boys have been at it long enough. I've got lunch on, and then, well, you just take your afternoon to yourself. You're headed to Philip's tonight, so you'll need to pack for a few days, Lukas." Bo kicked one toe into the dirt an inch in front of him and cleared his throat.

It wasn't easy for any of them but it wasn't impossible anymore. Philip had also survived on taking whatever he could get, and he wasn't about to change that approach either.

"Yeah okay, Dad. We'll be right in." Lukas moves in a busy-without-doing-anything way until Bo nods and strides away. Then he turns, grinning hugely, and draws Philip to him. He nibbles at Philip's collarbone, licks the sweat from Philip's neck, and then kisses Philip. He's still grinning when he pulls back.

"What?"

"Nothing." Lukas shrugs. "Everything."

Philip nods and smiles. He knows the feeling.

Lukas cocks his head and squints, listening. "Coming!" he yells, and then under his breath, "Geeze." He shifts hold, one arm around Philip's shoulders, and leads them to the house where Bo stands on the porch, sees them and waves, and goes inside ahead of them.

14

u almost done
whats goin on
omg text me back idiot

Lukas tosses his phone on the bed and flops around without being able to get comfortable. He had therapy today—with his dad—and that was pretty much the worst thing ever. The therapist made them look at each other and say shit about rebuilding trust and accepting differences and he'd tried to mentally list all the things he'd rather be doing.

Pulling bent nails from old boards. Filing rust off scrapped motorcycle parts. Mucking the turkey pen.

Yeah—worst.

At least they don't have to do that again. He doesn't think so anyway.

Philip still hasn't answered and he mopes for a bit then grabs his phone and heads outside. He wanders around the property, wishing he could practice, but the doctors don't want him doing anything too hard yet. He winds up in the shed and draws up short.

Neat piles of sorted items sit on the workbench and several broken down boxes have been bundled to take to the burn pit. Lukas runs his fingers over knickknacks he almost remembers and framed pictures of him and mom and dad from when he was little that he definitely does. Everything is clean, placed on towels rather than the oily wood, and he never realized how much had been banished here.

The floor creaks and his dad's shadow fills the doorway.

"Oh, Dad. Sorry." He flinches and puts down the porcelain figure of an elephant he can't remember ever seeing and backs away from the neat pile.

His dad raises both hands and looks upset.

Lukas feels compelled to add, "I'm not—I mean, I'm not looking for anything."

"I know, it's okay." His dad shifts from foot to foot and stares at the floor. "I decided it was high time I sorted all this, see what should be brought back inside, maybe donate the rest—we can talk about that and decide after I've gone through it all."

Lukas blinks, stunned Dad would include him in any part of the process. "Yeah, sure. That sounds good." He means it—it does.

His phone buzzes and he turns away because he's already grinning like an idiot, and they might have done the therapy thing and now this, but he's still too gunshy and uncertain to be totally open and vulnerable about Philip around his dad.

done
waitin on u is whats going on
omg u get over here u idiot

Lukas taps a quick reply and turns back to his dad studying him intently. Nothing threatening but definitely some confusion. He shakes his head because it's beyond explaining, and he can't make his dad understand and come to terms with it anyway—that's on his dad. It's one of the things he learned from therapy he'll accept.

"Can I go to Philip's? He's done and I can get us back here for dinner."

His dad is silent, long enough Lukas worries he'll say no for some reason. Then he plucks an item from the workbench and hands it over.

"See if he might not like that. And be back no later than four, hear me?

"Yes sir." Lukas turns the book Dad gave him over in his hands. It's historical pictures of New York, people and places. "Was this Mom's?"

Dad nods and his shoulders rise so Lukas doesn't push for more. It's already a lot.

"Thanks. He'll like it—he likes pictures and art stuff." Lukas waits another minute, then he walks to the door. "Back by four, got it. And I'll be safe. And wear our helmets."

His dad doesn't turn but does a funny little side-wave. Lukas taps the doorway with his fist, clutches the book to his chest, and once comfortable on the bike thinks it'll be okay to open up just a little more around his dad.

15

Gabe smiles and digs the oar in to slow them down. Helen doesn't react—out here she's more in the moment, less an all-observant cop. Nothing about it that Gabe likes more but he still appreciates the difference.

The boys splash and make terrible progress ahead of them. He's been teaching them. Lukas enthusiastically jumping in the boat and whooping let's go finally got Philip nearer to the water than he ever could. Gabe's good with it. They need each other, and it makes sense. They also need to build trust and deepen their connection, become fluent in more unspoken languages than attraction.

They start going in a circle—the boys don't know it yet but Gabe easily recognizes the pattern and their uneven rowing—and he grins.

"Let's head to the island and set up the picnic. But slowly so they don't notice what we're doing. It'll give us a chance to actually eat something before they wolf it all down in the time it takes for them to figure out how to navigate there."

Helen twists back and smiles. "Starting with the shortbread Philip made." Her eyes widen as she gazes across the water at the boys' boat. "Who knew he was such a good baker? How lucky are we?"

"Very lucky." Gabe follows her gaze. The boys are relaxed and happy and delirious in one another—Helen has a new sparkle after solving the case but especially he suspects from saving the boys—and his heart is full. "The luckiest."

"Yeah." Helen nods. She looks back again and their eyes meet and her smile softens, until loud splashing draws her attention away. "Uh-oh, they're starting to paddle like they have a plan." She adjusts her posture and stroke of the oar. "Let's get moving!"

Gabe follows her lead, shovels water to speed them to the island, decides to hide what they don't eat of the shortbread and tell the boys they finished it without them.

16

Lukas lifts one leg and slides onto the computer chair behind Philip. He feels smooth and cool from figuring out to do that, and when Philip naturally leans back into him, he feels invincible.

"What are you still doing? I thought this wasn't going to take long." Lukas kisses Philip's neck. "Whatever this is."

Philip's breath hitches but he keeps working. "It's a compilation of your greatest hits—different angles and stuff—to give you something new to post. I picked a rocking song to play over it and yes, I'm almost finished."

"Whoa, that's a good idea. Cool." Lukas watches Philip mouse-click around everywhere on software he has no chance of understanding. "Maybe—maybe one day you can teach me how to use this program. Not that I don't want you to help me anymore, I mean, I meant it when I said you're amazing. And awesome at this."

"I can. Once you learn to read." Philip grabs a thumbnail of Lukas in midair and drops it into the center area, clicks a button, and then grabs another.

"Oh, ha-ha." He bites behind Philip's ear—the sound Philip makes goes straight to his dick—and tries not to laugh. "So, how long now?"

"A minute."

"Hmm." Lukas rubs his nose along Philip's jaw. "How about now?"

"A minute."

"But you already said a minute."

"Yeah, like half a second ago."

Lukas nods, gets his hands up Philip's shirt and spread over Philip's ribs. He loves this spot, Philip's smooth skin, the moles he can picture because he's memorized right where they are and kissed them a lot so they're basically burned into his brain—loves how Philip always relaxes and sighs and gives in when he does this.

"Now?"

Philip slaps at his arm and leans forward. "If you stop distracting me it won't take as long."

"Fine." Lukas tickles Philip a little but then relents, resting his cheek on Philip's shoulder.

They're at Philip's house, but not in Philip's bedroom. There's no one else here, but they're not hiding. They're working on promo stuff for him, but it's not a thin excuse to be around Philip.

It's good. It's progress and things he's been working on and it's being with Philip because he wants to be and accepted he can. He likes all of that. It feels more than smooth or invincible—it feels right.

"Okay, finished. Wanna see it?"

"Nah—just upload it. I know it's perfect." Lukas licks his lips then remembers to add, "Thanks." He opens his hands and drags them down to Philip's waistband. "Can I tell you something?"

"Only if it's good."

Lukas snorts against Philip's neck but his humor is quick to pass. "I've been thinking—"

"—always dangerous."

"Oh my god, shut up." Lukas digs his knuckles into Philip's side. "Assface."

Philip squirms, but only laughs and hums in agreement, and after a moment waves a hand in a go-on motion.

It takes another minute because saying this is hard and Lukas is afraid it'll sound stupid, won't make sense. So he draws Philip into him a little more and presses his forehead to Philip's temple.

"It's just that—even without all the crap that happened—I'd be alone without you. In like, everything."

Philip is silent, but it's a good silent. The kind that breathes and listens somehow. He's silent a long time and Lukas realizes he's crying.

Lukas would feel terrible if he couldn't tell so easily Philip's tears were like the silence—the good kind. The moment is so big and powerful he's not sure how to contain it, and a small, watery laugh escapes as his eyes well up, but he doesn't force the tears away.

"Yeah." Philip's voice is barely a whisper. "Me too."

He needs another-another minute and then he huffs, shakes them, nips behind Philip's ear. He's glad he said it but whoa, getting too heavy. Philip cranes around—no longer crying—and kisses him. It's quick and awkward but Lukas can't let go, wants more. Philip fumbles and turns, Lukas helping and holding and then dragging Philip in to straddle his lap. Their kissing gets good, tastes like tears and a sweetness Lukas can't name.

The chair wobbles and then they bang forward and the desk shakes. Philip steadies them and Lukas blinks, tries to get his breath.

"Wanna go upstairs?" he asks between kisses, hand up Philip's shirt, other hand getting into Philip's pants.

Philip stands abruptly, falls back down, untangles from Lukas' arms and launches from the chair. Lukas doesn't even need a half second to react, get with it, and follow.

17

"Thank you for dinner." Philip stands in the yard as far from Bo as he can get without looking rude. He also keeps his distance from Lukas, who's still dealing with being this way around his dad.

"Sure, glad to." Bo nods and has his hands in his pockets and is all kinds of uncomfortable.

Bo always takes them out to eat. He's worse than Helen at cooking and not so great at hosting them in the house. Eating at a restaurant makes for a nicely neutral middle ground.

Philip decides at least he's trying, and at least he hasn't banished Philip from ever seeing Lukas again or is beating Lukas up or other terrible scenarios that could have played out.

"You boys, uh, you boys have a good few days." Bo hands Lukas an overstuffed backpack. "I'll come for you in a couple days, all right?"

"Yes sir." Lukas grabs the backpack and then moves to stand, shoulders touching, next to Philip.

He smiles—can't help it—and bumps into Lukas. An unspoken hello, thanks, this is good. Lukas bumps back. They wait for Bo to figure out how to break away, and Lukas waves as the SUV turns onto the lane. Philip goes inside and all the way up to his room. He flops on the bed, starfishing his arms and legs, and a minute later Lukas is next to him again. Shoulders touching.

Philip fiddles his belt loop and exhales. "Got you something."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Here."

Lukas takes the sugar packet Philip retrieves from a pocket and his room goes really quiet. Even the fountain sounds muted. Then Lukas breathes out, all shaky and wet, and turns into Philip to push against his neck and gather him in.

"Best ever," Lukas finally whispers, clutching the sugar packet and a bit of Philip's shirt, hand fisted on Philip's chest.

Philip nods and kisses Lukas' forehead. "Best ever."

18

Lukas pulls from their kiss and rears back onto his heels. He stares at Philip so intently Philip blushes and starts to squirm. He looks away and runs his hands up Lukas' forearms, tickles in the soft bend of Lukas' inner elbows, and waits.

"Can I?" Lukas taps the button on Philip's jeans.

"What? Oh, yeah—of course."

Lukas nods and undoes Philip's fly, peeling his pants off with slow, gentle movements. He twists back around and skims his hands up Philip's legs and then his fingertips along the waistband of Philip's boxer-briefs.

"These too?"

Philip's blush deepens. "Yes."

"It's okay?"

Philip lifts his hips in answer. When Lukas hesitates he starts pushing them down. "Yes, yeah, it's okay."

Lukas stares at him open-mouthed, eyes darting from his mouth and chest and dick, hands following the same path.

"I want to try…" Lukas flushes dark red to his roots. He shakes his head and his hands flutter over Philip's ribcage. "Here, I want to… just tell me if it's not good."

Philip can't imagine anything could be bad about this. But he nods and puts his hands on Lukas' shoulders, a connection that grounds both of them, as Lukas kisses around his belly button and then lower. And lower. And lower.

"Oh god—oh," Philip breathes out and he can't stop babbling when Lukas starts flicking hot, experimental little licks over the head of his cock.

His skin is on fire. He can't believe Lukas is doing this and it's so amazing Lukas is doing this. Everything about him melts, melts, melts down into the point where Lukas' breath and tongue touches his dick. He's already coming and he can't hold back—wants to so badly wants this to last—but he grunts a warning and twists at the hips and squeezes Lukas' shoulders so Lukas can decide.

Lukas swallows, soft cheek surrounding Philip, and for a moment Philip shorts out completely.

Then Lukas pulls back before Philip can come, strokes Philip a few times, slithers out of his jeans and boxers and on top of Philip in one hurried, frenzied motion. Philip groans and pulls Lukas up, over him more fully, and they rut together so hard the bed smacks the wall and a bottle of soda knocks onto the floor and rolls away.

Philip comes first. It rips him open. It's the best thing he's ever felt—shared—and he's almost numb with pleasure. He lays there panting and rubs his fingers over the dimples at the small of Lukas' back.

Lukas makes strangled noises but Philip can't stop from moaning, long and loud, and they're all alone at Lukas' house so it doesn't matter. He moans again and Lukas half-laughs half-groans, the loudest Philip's heard him since they got together. He likes it, encourages another, and Lukas lifts up enough to look down as he finishes against Philip, gaze steady and devoted and losing focus.

Lukas hitches, bends down, hands painful grips holding Philip's thighs. Then he stills, straightens, and falls. Philip catches him. Brings him closer.

Philip isn't sure but he thinks he falls asleep—maybe Lukas did too. They're nestled on their sides, face to face on the same pillow, light through the window dimmer and the house is quiet. Lukas breathes in, out, opens his eyes.

"Hey."

Philip traces from Lukas' eyebrows, down nose, through dimples, keeps his finger on Lukas' chin. "Hey."

"I meant it to last longer." Lukas runs a hand up and down Philip's back and sighs. "But—was it okay?"

Philip can barely speak. He kisses Lukas and tries to put everything of just how amazingly okay that was into it.

"Oh—real good then." Lukas grins, cocky and wide. "Wait til I get better."

"I might die." Philip flattens his palms on Lukas' chest—over heartbeat slowing, over the scar still healing—and grins. "But first, I get to suck you off."

Lukas' mouth works soundlessly and he's nodding, chasing another kiss, biting Philip's lips and whining out a low moan. He falls to his side and shoves a hand down to grab his dick.

"Gimmie a minute and you can."

Philip laughs, props on an elbow to watch. "Probably ten, at least."

Lukas fists himself and strokes faster, "Uh-uh. Five at most," and pulls Philip to him for a kiss.

19

"Do you wanna go out?"

Philip raises an eyebrow. "Where?"

"I dunno. The coffee place? The City? …a club in the City?"

Lukas blushes but it's a good kind of blush, Philip can tell. He thinks about it, all the places they could go, including a gay club with Lukas ready and revved and accepting of it. But there isn't anything he really wants do to other than this.

They're in the barn listening to their playlists. He's reading and taking pictures when the mood strikes. Lukas is playing with his hair and chattering and short attention span reading a few pages at a time of a book borrowed from Philip. I wanna read something you like to read, a favorite he'd said. So they gathered snacks and drinks and blankets, and Philip picked out these books, and they've been here all day.

It's been a great day.

"Actually—no, not really." Philip rests his book opened over his thigh. "Why? Do you?" It occurs to him that Lukas might be bored or restless and unhappy or starting to feel smothered.

"What? No way. I was just making sure you didn't want to." Lukas' mouth pulls at the corners and he laughs. "Not to sound like an antisocial freak or anything."

"Sounded good to me." Philip leans in for a kiss, gets three. "I brought some of the peppermint brownies I made. Want one?"

"Yes way." Lukas grins—kisses Philip again—and after taking a brownie and pulling Philip against his side goes back to reading.

Philip takes his turn ignoring his book and watches the sun filter through the dust motes, listens to the birds and quietness outside, plays with Lukas' hair.

20

"You don't have to do this—"

"I do." Philip clenches his jaw.

He holds out his hands until Gabe relinquishes and takes the small, galvanized metal box, then heads toward the water. The box is cool to the touch and that bothers him but he won't think about it. There's a huge boulder way out and that’s the one he wants to stand on. It's shaped kind of like a tortoise and it's far away and it'll be a good place.

He's gotta stand downwind—or is it upwind?—whatever, he's gotta stand so the wind blows away from him.

He hops and leaps from rock to rock, over and past the incoming lapping waves, the spray wetting his jeans, never slowing so he doesn't lose momentum.

"—all on your own."

Philip has made it to the tortoise boulder. It's even bigger than he thought. Gabe said that, is standing right behind him, a little out of breath but calm and understanding as always. Lukas is just behind Gabe, peeking around at Philip and trying to ease past. Helen is going slower but she's almost to the tortoise rock, slithering and shimmying her way along the eroding outcrop that leads straight into the ocean.

He holds out his hand and Lukas darts around Gabe to take it.

He's got no idea which wind is which but he creeps to the very edge of the boulder, and then waits until Helen is standing with Gabe before taking the top off the small, galvanized metal box, and the ashes stare up at him.

He flings them in one angry, relieved, guilty, hard motion. Most of it arcs and falls quickly down to land in the water. Some of it floats, some sinks, and some hangs in the air in a wispy gray cloud.

They stay silent, giving him this. He says everything he can think of to his mom—including thank you, I love you, a final goodbye—then he wipes his nose on his sleeve and nods.

He returns the box to Gabe, who takes it and then drags him in for a hug.

He's still got Lukas' hand in his, and Lukas tightens their grip, moves so he doesn't have to let go.

He smiles through tears at Helen over Gabe's shoulder and she smooths down his hair.

"Your mom told me she loved Indian food. There's a nice restaurant not far from here—I thought we could go if you wanted. You can just have lots of naan if it's too exotic for you, Lukas."

Helen is the first to break up the moment. Philip is glad for it.

"Yeah, that sounds really nice. She'd like that." He escapes Gabe's bear hug and nudges Lukas. "You'll like Indian food. I'll order for you."

He returns to the edge of the rock for a last look. There's nothing left but there doesn't have to be.

He's crying, fast running tears, but they're cleansing and he doesn't hide them. Lukas' arms come around him, holding him close, chin resting on his shoulder. It surprises him—good surprised—and he can hear Gabe and Helen making their way back to shore over the waves.

He shuts his eyes and soaks in the sunshine, the heat and presence of Lukas, and then he's ready. They turn and follow, quicker and better at this than the adults, making precarious passes on the boulders and then breaking into a run, racing to Gabe's truck.

21

Philip is reading and Lukas is watching him read. He stands—holds up a hand and Philip nods—runs downstairs to grab some cookies and a soda.

He takes Philip's book, shuts the bookmark into it and drops it on the floor, and drags Philip to sit on the edge of the bed. For whatever reason he can't bear to sit down too, because he wants to keep watching, so he kneels on the floor, elbows propped on Philip's thighs. They eat the cookies Philip made that morning, still soft and gooey, shared between slow kisses.

Then they have the soda in long, traded gulps. Lukas burps and then grins when Philip rolls his eyes.

He rises, pushes Philip over, and gets them settled in the center of his bed.

"Naptime," he breathes as he finds the blankets and gets them tucked in, face to face, and cups his hand on Philip's neck so he can feel Philip's pulse thump against his palm.

They don't nap every day, but ever since Gabe's suggestion, they've found more than one reason to take one. Including even the obvious of being tired, hurting, and just needing a break.

"Nice," Philip breathes back and snuggles in.

22

Philip staggers his stance and plants his feet, frames the shot and takes in a long breath. Then he exhales, snaps the picture, and checks the display to see how it turned out. He adjusts the shutter speed and takes it again—more light gets in this time and the sky looks richer—and he nods and keeps walking.

Lukas trails after him, ripping heads off the foxglove grass and tossing handfuls of seeds.

"Why do you like photography?" Lukas stops walking so Philip stops. "And why do you take pictures of mud and branches and shit?"

"First of all, I never take pictures of shit." Philip snickers when Lukas makes a face, then smiles when Lukas steps into him and takes hold of his arms. "Pictures of mud and branches—or litter and footprints—or bricks and moss—or landscapes, whatever, it's all fascinating and even beautiful if you frame it right and the lighting is good. At least I think so." He shrugs. "I know what I'm doing when I take pictures. And I know I'm good at it."

Lukas goes silent and gets his thoughtful look, gaze almost inward, his fingers still busy tracing patterns on Philip's arms.

"Riding is like that for me."

Philip thrills at the admission. It's strange being with Lukas. They revealed to each other their longest-held secret, are learning each others' long-hidden desires, share an almost incomprehensible trauma—but there's so much small and ordinary stuff they don't know yet. He savors and catalogs every reveal.

Their nerves still flare up—they snap at each other and misunderstand things—but they don't fight. Even at their worst they never really fought. Philip used to take consolation in that, like it was somehow enough. It wouldn't be in the long run. Teasing, presents, making out—as fixes, frivolous gestures only goes so far to balance the bad. It's something he learned the hard way with his mom, always taking him out for a treat or bringing home a gift after a bender. So while it's good they don't really fight, and he's still so reassured their snapping doesn't ever devolve into that, he's taking and demanding so much more for himself with Lukas than consolation now, and that's even better.

"That's really cool."

Lukas raises an eyebrow. "You think so? I thought you weren't into motocross."

"I'm not." Philip rolls his eyes and boosts up to kiss Lukas' pout. "But I'm into you so that's pretty much the same thing."

"Oh." Lukas kisses Philip back. "Well then I guess I'm into photography. Like, hardcore."

Philip tries not to get intense but his ears roar and stomach turns inside-out and yeah it's really intense. He's breathless and nods and wonders if he's about to pass out.

"It's good what we like goes together, then. Me riding, you taking pictures. Sweet." Lukas quirks a grin. "Let me find you some mud. The best mud, with cracks in it and maybe even a snail shell and stuff."

Philip stays rooted in place and watches Lukas concentrate on searching out the best mud. He takes pictures of that—a lot of them—and then sets the camera carefully aside and tackles Lukas down into the grass.

23

"I want to tell you something."

Philip sits up and scoots away so they face each other. "Okay."

"It's nothing really, just that with this," Lukas gestures to his shoulder, "I only took pain pills when I absolutely had to. And didn't finish the bottle." This is hard to say with everything it acknowledges but he tries to stay chill. "I'm giving the rest back at my last check-up."

"But what happens if like, you're in pain again?"

Lukas smiles because Philip seems almost angry at the idea. "That's what they make Advil for, genius."

"Oh, whatever." Philip huffs, but his mouth does amazing things, proud smirk relaxing into a happy smile. "Maybe you can get Advil as a sponsor."

"You know, that's not a half bad idea." Lukas shrugs and lets out a shaky breath. "So yeah. That's all."

"That's great." Philip beams.

Lukas pulls on Philip, and they kiss, and Philip pats him approvingly before they settle together against The Tree.

Aside from alcohol at parties he was straight before all the crap started, and he never wanted to become a junkie or anything. But all the confusion and having no idea what to do about any of it made drugs seem like an escape route, even though on some level he knew it was a bad idea. With all the bad stuff behind them he hasn't even thought about wanting drugs and he needed Philip to know that.

He feels so light and good and Philip being proud of him does crazy stuff to his insides and kinda hurts around his heart. He thinks about hurting—stomachs and all—and his eyes widen. It's true and he knows it.

Maybe that should be the next major thing he figures out how to say.

24

"Are you sure you don't want Lukas along?"

"I'm sure." Philip crosses his arms and watches the world stream by.

Helen passes him a coffee.

"Thanks."

She nods, starts the car, and they head into the City. To the apartment.

Philip wanted to do this alone, but that's not really possible, so he asked Helen to take him. She was surprised—almost hid it well—and then she straightened and said of course, brisk and efficient and just like he wanted.

Of anyone, Helen would just get him processing this, going through the remains of his and his mom's life in their ratty apartment. She'll understand and give him space and won't be shocked by the conditions because she's seen more, worse, and will get clinical instead of judgey. He won't have to face Gabe's well-meaning but endless questions and willingness to Just Talk, and he won't be distracted by Lukas, or Lukas' reactions of pity and lack of comprehension that yes, this is where and how he lived for years.

Lukas has physical therapy today anyway, and his dad is taking him. Philip thinks Lukas having time with his dad is important.

Helen reaches over and covers his hand, holding it for a while, then she squeezes and lets go. Philip likes how she does it, her matter of fact approach. She's not trying too hard or faking it; her comfort and working to do better is on purpose.

The drive seems short because it's familiar. Helen has the key and they go in, and then stand there, light from the courtyard filtering in and landing on the sparse furniture, dusty corners, and mixed memories.

"I thought maybe I could clean out the bathroom to start?" Helen snaps on her crime scene gloves and unfurls a trash bag from the roll she brought. "That kind of stuff only needs to be sorted, but if I come across anything personal I'll leave it for you to decide about. I can do the kitchen basics, too, and then help you with your mom's room."

"Yeah, that'd be great." Philip turns in place and for a moment he's overwhelmed about where to begin. His room, he guesses. "Everything stinks like an ashtray. It probably always will—it's probably all ruined."

His mom wasn't much of a housekeeper on top of her smoking. He did his best, but taking care of her, trying to keep up with school, and escaping whenever he could always won out over freaking dusting. The spiderwebs floating from the ceiling and light fixtures are dark fuzzy clumps and lines, and there's a layer of cigarette tar and kitchen grease on everything.

"Tell you what. Let's not worry about that yet. We'll box up everything you think you want to keep, and take it to the storage unit where we can spread it around to air out. It's paid up through this month, so it won't be in the way or in danger of being nibbled on by the barn mice." Helen raises and eyebrow at him.

Philip lifts the empty box he carried in. "That is a good plan." He nods and starts toward his room, stops, and turns back to Helen. "Thanks."

Helen's expression softens, and then she stuffs a trash bag into the box he's holding. "Now go get started so we're back in time to clean up before Bo brings Lukas over."

She's bossy without heat and he rolls his eyes, but she's hitting the right note for how fragile being here doing this makes him feel, and she knows he's not being a jerk.

His room is small. Most of it is taken up by the twin mattress on the floor. There's not a lot he wants from here. But he starts going through everything methodically, beginning with the closet and working his way around counter-clockwise. He comes across things Mom gave him and has to really think about if it's worth keeping; it's mostly cheap dollar store items or Chinatown knockoffs that can't be rescued so he stuffs them in the trash bag. But he sets a notebook, some pictures of them he took, and a carved tortoise figurine she got him in the box.

It's tough going but he tries not to get bogged down. It's tough because this is the last tangible tie to his mom and how good she could be to him, how hard she always tried. It's tough, but after they leave with a few boxes of what he's keeping, lock the door and turn over the key, he gets to go home with Helen and eat the good dinner Gabe made while playing footsie with Lukas under the table.

It's tough. But he's going to make it. And he doesn't have to do it alone.

25

"Dude! You looked great out there—really shredding!" Lukas catches the handlebars and kills the engine. "Next thing you know we'll be swimming."

"Yeah. As if." Philip's voice is muffled and sarcastic and adorable.

He helps Philip take the helmet off and swivel on the seat because he's hyped, and turned on, and hums into Philip's mouth as Philip's legs close around his waist.

Philip is able to go several laps on uneven terrain now. It's good progress and Lukas is inordinately proud of being who taught him that. He's not sure he ever wants Philip jumping or doing tricks—jumping and tricks is dangerous—but he's psyched Philip wants to learn and once his new bike is fixed they can go riding together.

"Hey, look." Lukas leans back into the hold of Philip's legs hooked under his butt. He filmed Philip's ride, pushes play, holds it up for Philip to watch.

Philip's eyes track the motorcycle, and his mouth—lips puffy and red from their kiss—moves from disbelief his riding is solid to a wince when he wobbles and then a satisfied smile at the smooth end.

The vid runs out and Lukas shoves his phone in his pocket and grabs Philip, needing a kiss.

"You're so good, baby," he whispers, and he blushes and laughs weirdly, didn't mean to say that.

Philip tilts back, spreads his hands on Lukas' ribs and grins—clearly glad to hear it and more satisfied than watching how well he did riding—says I know and tugs Lukas into another kiss.

26

"You don't have to do this."

The words are uncanny but sound so different.

Philip crosses his arms so tightly his shoulder pops. "I need to."

Helen studies him a moment. "Okay. But I'm coming in with you."

She goes ahead of him and he lets her. It's nice to let her lead the way. She seems to be checking the place out then she moves aside and gives him space. He keeps his arms crossed, doesn't want touch anything, and walks to the middle of the room.

Gabe is sitting in the truck with Lukas talking about boats. Philip had the sudden need to come here and confront this place and he said it without thinking. So Gabe did a hard u-turn right in the middle of the highway, easy as you please, and drove here instead. Philip had the sudden need to come here but he didn't want Lukas to feel beholden to relive it too and Gabe understood his look, just started talking, while he and Helen slid from the truck.

The cabin is like he remembers from when Lukas brought him here—shabby, unremarkable, comfortable but tired—and he'd liked how it felt more like his apartment than anywhere else he'd been since arriving in Tivoli.

The blood spatter and bodies, the stink, the tangle of blankets and bodies and terror are gone. Cleaned up, removed. If only brains could be so easily scrubbed.

He hears the gunshots and sees the muzzle flares. He can't breathe and his gorge rises. He opens his eyes and Helen has him by the upper arms, talking gently, and he glances outside to the truck and seeing Lukas' bright blond hair anchors him.

"I'm okay," he forces out, nodding vigorously, because it's what he's so conditioned to do. "I'm okay."

Helen smiles, kind of sad, all knowing, reassuring. "You're going to be."

That stops his shaking—he didn't realize he was shaking—and he manages to relax his arms a little.

He surveys the cabin again but this time he doesn't relive anything, only a hint of his uncertainty with Lukas and the unbelievable thrill of their kiss and watching Lukas strip. He moves to the slatted door where Lukas tried to hide and takes in the obstructed view. He swallows past an itchy, tingling rush of sudden full awareness of how stupid and stupidly brave Lukas was to spring from here and defend him.

It's not something they've talked about. He should say thank you even if he doesn't know how. Maybe a batch of brownies and a blowjob and lingering over the sentiment, not the details, because he doesn't want Lukas to backslide into a dark place. Lukas will probably say it's not a big deal, and Philip will probably let him, but it is a big deal. Same as the enormity of everything else they went through and revealed together, are now, and talk about in clumsy words and fierce embraces and eloquent kisses.

Philip sucks in a breath and straightens, ready to leave, and he goes without a backward glance. They stand in the yard and Helen waves at Gabe, probably their agreed signal everything was fine.

"Yup." He looks at Helen and raises both eyebrows. "Definitely talking about this at therapy."

Helen cracks up, just a quick burst of laughter, and pushes him toward the truck. He climbs in, Helen slams the door, and Gabe just as easy gets them rolling again.

Lukas studies him intently, head to foot and back up again, eyes sparking with the same protective worry shown after the cabin, when he talks about life growing up and his mom, when he was going to be taken away. Philip nods—reassures them both—and Lukas sighs then smiles and drags him across the bench to sit closer.

27

Lukas heaves Philip onto the end of the counter without breaking their kiss and pushes right in after, getting between Philip's legs and getting his hands on whatever he can reach. Philip's got Lukas' shirt rucked up and almost all the way off, and Lukas tugs Philip's t-shirt, gets his hands underneath, breathes out in satisfied relief when he finally touches skin.

Philip's sides and back twitch under his fingers and he chases those twitches around, thumbing Philip's nipples and finding the one mole at the top rib on the right. He angles his head and licks into Philip's mouth, bites Philip's lip, draws away so Philip gives chase.

He's so hard it hurts and it's making him dizzy and he feels drunk and it's amazing. Philip is hard too, dick pressing insistently against Lukas, and they start rutting in jerky, uncoordinated thrusts that do all sorts of good things to whiteout his brain.

Something metallic and heavy thumps that Lukas can't ignore. He tilts sideways, listens. Someone's coming.

"Shit—my Dad." Lukas clenches his jaw, and Philip's frustrated groan matches his ragged breaths. He shakes his head and closes his eyes, kisses Philip again, tries to keep it short.

The good news is he's no longer freaked out of his mind by this. The bad news is he was really close and really wanted to fuck against Philip to finish and listen and feel Philip shudder and fall apart against him. And he really really wanted to kiss Philip after, when Philip's mouth is so perfect and soft and pleased.

Their kiss isn't short, and heavy footsteps land on the porch. Lukas reluctantly pulls his hands from Philip's shirt and he concentrates on buttoning Philip's pants. His hands shake, and he leans his forehead to Philip's chin, palms on Philip's thighs.

"Worst timing ever." He huffs dryly and moves back, helps Philip ease from the counter, and gets his own clothes more or less straightened just in time.

"Boys?"

Philip reacts to that. "Gabe?" he calls.

Lukas momentarily panics worrying something happened. His Dad went to Poughkeepsie today and wasn't supposed to be home until after dinner. But maybe there was a wreck or worse.

"Hey—I'm sure it's fine." Philip takes Lukas' hand and squeezes reassuringly.

Gabe enters the kitchen, almost carefully, but not so carefully Lukas is convinced Gabe knew what they were busy doing.

"Hey guys. So, I'm taking you home for tonight. Bo called—he ended up having to spend the night and we don't want you here alone."

"I want we here alone," Lukas mutters and catches Philip's quickly smothered grin.

"Go get your stuff together." Gabe smiles. "I made lasagna."

Lukas is still grumpy and edgy but Gabe's lasagna is excellent. He nods and adjusts everything as discreetly as possible and Philip follows him upstairs.

"This sucks." He stuffs clothes into a bag and scans his room for anything else he wants to bring.

During the month together he and Philip have started to share pretty much everything, shampoo and deodorant and whatever at both houses, so they don't have to cart it around all the time.

"Yeah, but there's still an hour before dinner, at least, when we get to my house." Philip holds up Lukas' music player and tablet.

"Oh nice—I was looking for those." Lukas stuffs them in his bag too and wraps an arm around Philip's waist. "You're so smart."

Philip grins. "It's true, but get moving because that hour isn't getting any longer."

"I'm moving, I'm moving." Lukas kisses Philip, short and hard, then shoulders his bag and pushes Philip ahead of him down the stairs, into the yard, and to Gabe's truck.

28

Philip tenses and Lukas weights them side-to-side. "C'mon. It's cool."

"Sure, yeah. It's cool." Philip turns his head in that certain way to avoid eye contact and stares down through the tunnel.

Lukas spins them to stand between Philip and Rose's approach. "If it's not cool with you that's different."

He watches Philip's mouth, because it fascinates him and he's learned how much it gives away. At the moment, uncertainly more than anything, with hints of disappointment. "I asked her to come hang out for a while. Just to talk and stuff. She's someone we can just hang with, you know? And that seemed like a good idea but maybe it isn't. I was going to tell you first and text her if it was a no-go, but she's early."

The words rush out and none of them are right. Lukas huffs in frustration.

Philip frowns, and then tries to smile. "No, it's fine."

"It doesn't have to be." Lukas carries so much guilt and it clashes inside even though he's learning how to deal with it—liking Philip, lying so much, every time he was mean to Philip over his own fears—but it rushes to the surface. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything—I'll tell her to go. Or we can go."

Philip studies him, and seems to know everything, smart and seen things in ways Lukas realizes but can't fully comprehend. But whatever Lukas is trying to get across seems to have landed, because Philip relaxes and goes onto his tiptoes, kisses Lukas so quick it's like it doesn't happen.

Before he can stop himself Lukas has Philip's upper arms in his hands, and then his hands on Philip's ass, the span of Philip's ribs, is kissing Philip for real. When he has to breathe and looks up, Rose is leaned on the tunnel entrance nearby, arms crossed and smirking.

All the blood drains from Lukas' face and his limbs tingle, and something hot snakes around his insides. "Uh," he manages.

Philip grins and bumps him side-to-side, grabs his hand. "C'mon, it's cool."

Lukas wants to sink into a hole or run but Rose's smile softens and she waves. Philip boosts up to sit on the retaining wall and helps Rose clamber up, and she dumps the plastic bag of snacks she brought on the ledge. Lukas shoves his hands in his pockets and listens to them laugh—something she says lowly that makes Philip break into a grin and Philip makes her giggle—then he grabs a pack of SweetTarts and settles leaning on the wall between Philip's dangling legs.

29

Philip sighs and turns into Lukas, soaking in the heat of the sun and Lukas' skin and heartbeat. They're curled together in the roots of The Tree, shirtless and pillowed by their shed layers, the world at the moment faraway, but for them starting to return and no longer terrifying. They have to go back to school next week. He isn't thrilled but he's willing. The dread and uncertainty that had filled his innards, staining his veins and senses and every breath, bled out weeks ago.

His hopes have grown into a sort of expectation. For continued acceptance. A place he fits. A home. That's the new scary uncertainty in life, but one he likes.

Last night after hanging with Rose and laughing about stupid stuff, he and Lukas made dinner for Helen and Gabe, and griped theatrically before agreeing to an hour of board games. Then bedtime—strict about it these days because good for their mental health and blah blah, but not like Philip had complaints about being sent to bed with Lukas—and it was weird to crawl into bed with Lukas and everyone knowing it after everything that happened, but good weird.

They'd stared messing around, only ever going so far at Bedtime, but then in the middle of a kiss he'd burst into tears. Lukas had seemed nearly broken by it, rolling them back over to look down at him and beg what was wrong, what had he done wrong.

Philip could only pull Lukas down over him and hide under Lukas' weight and presence for a while. He'd kept crying, long silent gasps, and Lukas had shushed and gotten them on their sides and tucked deep in the blankets, rubbing his back the whole time. His therapist told him he had a lot of self-taught coping mechanisms. It wasn't necessarily bad, but his ability to repress- go with it- keep moving on- wasn't necessarily the healthiest right now either, and to allow himself to space and time to be upset, and then heal, before that whole moving on thing. Letting the sobs out, and letting Lukas take care of him, made for a good start.

When he'd finally found his breath he'd said sorry—had that kissed away—and Lukas had yucked about snot and made faces until he'd been unable to hold back a laugh. Lukas snuck downstairs and brought back soda, sat in front of him, pensive and with his own issues bubbling just under the surface, but present and there.

There just for him.

"Doing better today?"

Lukas' question pierces through Philip's thoughts and he nods. "Yeah. Definitely yeah."

His hand finds the scar, unerring, and he circles the uneven edge with a finger. He'd cried for his mom, from stress and finally decompressing after so long, at having such a boringly nice day. From realizing his hope had become expectation and he wasn't afraid of that. He babbled through trying to explain all of it and figured it made no sense but Lukas got it, nodding and agreeing and then pulling him in for a do-over kiss before telling him to go to sleep. Lukas has cried like that a few times, and Philip isn't ashamed of being himself in every way around Lukas anymore, so letting go and going to sleep was easy.

"Good." Lukas shifts, lifting at the hips and then shoulders, and pulls Philip more atop him. He kisses Philip's forehead and his heartbeat speeds from the contact, then he breathes out and everything slows.

"How about you?"

"Good." Lukas tightens his arms. "Better than good."

The wind kicks up, rustling the turning leaves overhead and whispering through the tall grass. Clouds chase one another, blot out the sun, but he's too warm from Lukas and contentment to shiver.

Philip nods and closes his eyes.

30

"Here, sit here." Lukas grins—all nerves and energy—and squeezes Philip's shoulders. "It's comfy. Be right back."

"No, wait—" Philip latches onto Lukas' shirt and can't make himself let go, because he's about to panic at the thought of being left alone on this porch at a party in Red Hook with everyone who hates him.

Lukas looks around in that furtive way Philip knows so well. His guts sour and his lips curl inward, a nonsmile, and he nods. He starts to let go but Lukas huffs out, impatient seeming with himself, and catches Philip's wrists then presses a kiss to Philip's hairline before pushing away and stalking into the house.

Philip's ears ring and his head goes empty of thought at the enormity of Lukas doing that—something pretty minor and probably not seen by anyone because this spot might be comfy but Philip is pretty sure that's a cover story for it's in the shadows—and he can't even remember to panic much less what to make of Lukas braving such a gesture. Lukas said he would but Philip had no expectations based on that deja vu bullshit. But then, Lukas also said Philip's the only one he doesn't lie to, and the kiss continued the trend of that being true.

"Hey." Lukas walks up until their knees touch and puts his weight against Philip's legs.

Philip takes the cup Lukas holds out and hides his uncertainty in gulping down half of the flat lemon-lime soda.

"You want more? Here." Lukas offers his cup, and then dumps some in to fill Philip's back up. He fidgets, looks at Philip's hand, carefully puts his cup down and sits very close, covers Philip's thigh with his palm. "I thought, you know, no alcohol for a while."

"Good thought." Philip has another drink and puts the cup aside.

They sit in silence, music from inside warbling its way to them and hushed voices all around. The longer they sit the more nerve everyone seems to get, until there's chatter and several people on the porch.

Finally someone asks, "So Lukas, you hanging with him now? I thought you guys hated each other."

Him Philip thinks. That's all he is.

"His name's Philip and I don't hate him." Lukas shrugs. "And yeah, we hang, and it's cool so fight me or shut up."

Philip looks askance at Lukas and their eyes meet. Lukas nods resolutely and he manages to smile. Philip isn't having fun—he doesn't know if he'll ever like parties and he thinks Lukas secretly hates them too, but this is obviously a milestone or hurdle or something for them to reach and he'll take it.

"But you did it with Rose!"

Philip recognizes Bundy's voice, laced with the usual contempt for him, and slurred from alcohol.

"Rose was helping us. Me." Lukas' hands flex restlessly and he glances around. "Cover for us, since that guy was looking for both of us. And no one should give Rose crap for it either."

Everyone mutters and kind of agrees. It makes as much sense as anything else. Rose offers a brave shrug and dares anyone to challenge this version of events. Philip closes his eyes. Another lie, but one he can accept.

"We watched three people get blown away. I got shot. Philip was always in danger—he could have…" Lukas' voice goes flat and Philip hears him struggle to swallow. "So, yeah. Yeah, we hang together."

"Your stepmom is who got the bad guys though, right?" Kylie fiddles with the label on the beer she isn't drinking. She's never been awful to Philip but she's never been a friend.

Philip shakes his head and then nods. "My foster mom. And yeah, she did."

"That's badass." Justin says that.

Justin has been outright awful. Philip ignores the comment. He doesn't care what Justin thinks even if it's not shit. Rose smiles at him and winks.

Philip is proud of Helen, of the badassery that solved the case and helped rescue him and Lukas, being able to claim that. It mingles with the conflicted but honest, and growing, affection he feels for her, and he thinks that means they're gonna be okay. It's something to build on. A lot.

"Very badass." Lukas lowers his arm and tightens it around Philip.

No one points it out or even makes a teasing sound. Not everyone likes it and he's not going to have a sudden rush of new best friends, he can tell, but he doesn't care. Something loud thumps inside and glass breaks and it steals the spotlight from them, everyone whooping and going to investigate. Philip exhales and works to lower his shoulders back down and unclench his fists.

"We can leave soon."

"Good." Philip is light but serious. He's okay but this is not his thing.

Lukas smiles at him—just as nervous but not freaked out and not afraid—and he grins. Philip warms, inside-out, and finally lets himself relax. Lean into Lukas. Lukas holds him there.

1

Lukas studies the acoustical tiles of the hospital examination room. It's his final check-up, then he'll be cleared to start practicing hard again and he won't have to deal with this anymore, unless something twinges or goes wrong. He's determined nothing like that will happen; he doesn't want to be back here anytime soon.

"Hey, thanks for coming with me." Lukas flattens his hands over Philip's where they're resting on his midsection and his belly flutters. It flutters double-time when Philip smiles.

"Sure. Like I wouldn't have."

He nods in agreement and tries to name all the colors in Philip's eyes. Philip is thoughtful about something and not saying what. Lukas wants to tease it out of him before the doctor arrives and starts poking and prodding his shoulder until it hurts to then ask if it hurts.

"I can't believe we have to go back to school on Monday. Ugh—worst."

"Right? At least we get a whole weekend first." Philip's expression mirrors Lukas' unwillingness to let go of this concentrated only-them time together, but it's not what's on his mind.

Lukas tries a different tack, in part because it is bothering him. "Do you think they'll make us start staying at our own house? Like, overnight?"

"Yeah, probably. I mean, I overheard Helen and Gabe talking about it, and apparently my therapist told them getting my life back to a stable, normal routine is important." Philip makes a face. "Unfortunately, stable and normal routine doesn't really include us sleeping together."

"God, that's gonna suck so hard." Lukas is crazy just thinking about it. He sleeps so good with Philip beside him, knowing Philip is safe and okay, and Philip is always so warm and cuddly. He almost can't stand how good it is.

Maybe because the idea of it being gone is so scary.

He's been forcing himself to wake up early just to feel it—Philip deep asleep and noodly and melded to him all over, comforting and trusting, nothing about sex—and now that the terror of discovery is gone he loves just hanging out, just being together, just Philip just there with him.

"So gonna suck. But I think they'll let us have weekends together. That's something." Philip smiles, and Lukas knows from being pretty much an expert in Philip's face, that Philip is okay with it and trying to reassure him at the same time.

Not what's on Philip's mind either, then. He traces his fingers all over Philip's hands, everywhere he can touch, knuckle wrinkles and smooth skin and cupped palm, watches himself do it. Then he has an idea and squeezes Philip's hands with a grin.

"I know—I'll just wake up all upset about it again and you'll have be brought back."

Philip's hands—relaxed and open and so allowing of his exploration—tense and then withdraw. Lukas blinks and looks up, and Philip's mouth is a tight line. Disappointment, concern, memories from before when everything was hidden, soured, made up and used as a cover.

He recaptures Philip's hands and swings them, in and out. "No, it's… you're right. I won't lie about it."

Philip thinks about it, and then relaxes again.

"I'm not going to lie anymore." At Philip's yeah-sure look Lukas rolls his eyes. "I mean it—at least not all the time or whatever. Helps I don't need to at this point." He licks his lips and thinks through that. "No, more like I don't feel like I need to."

"Your therapist teach you that one?"

Lukas grins because Philip is smiling again. "Yeah, actually. Asshole." He pinches Philip but laughs and Philip is snickering too.

The door opens and the doc comes in, and Lukas sighs because he didn't get whatever it is out of Philip. He nods as Philip stands to get out of the way and catches a quick expression he hasn't seen before as Philip gazes down at him, and his skin tingles like it does before they kiss, and he somehow knows Philip is thinking about kissing him. Then Philip is turning away and the doc is asking him questions and he has to shift gears and focus on that instead.

*

"Oh my god, really? Really? Oh my god." Philip can't stop repeating this and he's grinning and his heart is pounding, and Helen and Gabe are nodding and encouraging him to accept this is reality. "Wow—wow. Thank you this is so great."

They're having a big meal outside to celebrate Lukas' final check-up and full recovery. Helen drove them home, and then in the middle of sandwiches and potato salad, Gabe strolled to his truck like no big deal, opened the passenger door, and out streaked a black-brown blur that made straight for Philip.

He sat in quiet disbelief until his brain clicked in recognition, and he leapt from the table, ran and caught the puppy up in his arms. It's wriggling and whining happily and Gabe is still saying something about it being the runt of the litter who needs love and a good home, and he's trying really hard not to cry, face buried in the fluff and warmth and Lukas is rubbing his back and yeah, he's crying, but that's okay.

"What are you gonna name it?" Lukas leans over his shoulder and ruffles the puppy's ears.

Philip shakes his head helplessly. He has no idea.

"Get to know him a little, it'll come to you." Lukas grins, and he's as pleased about Philip getting a puppy as Philip is.

"Have you had one before?" Philip is excited but a little freaked out. He's never done this and he doesn't want to fuck it up.

"Yeah. We'll train him up good, make him a really awesome dog. An amazing dog," Lukas emphasizes, and holds out his hands.

Philip reluctantly passes the pup over, even though he wants to share it with Lukas. Then without thinking he basically tackles Gabe for a hug, and gives a slightly more careful one to Helen.

"You guys, thank you. Wow." He watches Lukas with the pup, the tender, teasing gentleness displayed something he knew from the start existed in Lukas and part of why he was always so willing, despite everything else, to seek Lukas out, again and again.

"We'll talk responsibilities and a schedule for his care—later," Helen adds after a speaking look from Gabe. She waves her hands. "But we will talk about that."

"Yeah, of course. I want to do a good job with him. Not have him chew the furniture apart and pee everywhere and walk alongside me and all that." Philip is anxious to get a leash and a bed and go to obedience class and throw a ball for days, but he starts by asking, "Can Lukas and I take him for a walk?"

Helen starts to answer but she quiets when Gabe's arm drops over her shoulders.

"A short one, and then come back so we can finish lunch, and then you boys can help us clean up." Gabe smiles. "I don't know anything about his breed, but I do know he's in good hands. He's gonna be the happiest dog in the world."

Philip thinks it's a metaphor of some kind, and he doesn't miss the significance, but he doesn't want to let Gabe get going, either.

"Yeah." He grins and tugs Lukas' arm. "Put him down. Let's see if he follows us."

The puppy spends two seconds being bewildered he's no longer in Lukas' broad hands, but when Philip grabs Lukas' wrist and starts walking, the pup shakes his head, gives a little yip, and stumbles after them. It's almost enough to make his heart burst.

They ramble around, talking to the puppy and grinning at each other, and then suddenly they have to backtrack because the puppy has decided to fall asleep in the grass. Philip scoops him up and they settle under a tree, not quite out of view of Helen and Gabe, but hidden from any direct line of sight. He puts his hand over his puppy's fat, warm belly, and catalogs features that seem like a combo of a Husky and a hound and maybe a retriever of some sort.

"For the record, I'm going to miss sleeping with you too. And I mean just the literally sleeping together part." Philip shrugs and blushes, which is dumb, but he still does.

Lukas' eyes light up and he stares at Philip a moment, then he tugs Philip in for a kiss. "Man, me too! I was just thinking about that at the hospital."

"I was thinking about…" Philip doesn't know if he's ready to say it yet. To admit I love you aloud. Lukas gives him curious look so he says, "Also for the record, I really am sorry I kissed you and your dad saw."

"It's okay. Really okay. I think it actually helped a lot—no going back, you know?" Lukas covers Philip's hand on the puppy's belly. "I'm not sure I'd have ever figured out telling him on my own."

Philip tries to say more, can't find the words, decides the apology is good enough for now. He glances over to Helen and Gabe at the table. "We should probably head back." The puppy doesn't want to budge so he stands and holds it to his chest. "How about Kodak?"

"I like it. Heya, Kodak." Lukas strokes the puppy's silky nose, and then steps in close to him, puts his hands on Philip's shoulders. He swallows hard and licks his lips nervously.

"What?"

"Uh." Lukas coughs and then sets his jaw, serious eyes holding Philip's gaze. "My stomach really hurts. And it's been aching for days—for a long time."

"Mine too," he blurts out. He can't even play it cool and is not going to bother. He also can't feel his feet or his teeth and he can't hear anything—can't think of anything except this glowing white-pink sensation he can't explain—and Lukas looks the same as Philip feels.

They laugh—too loudly—and Lukas stares at him a long time, grinning goofily, then kisses him. Philip kisses back, still grinning, and they only break apart when Gabe calls out where are they.

"We should, you know..." He tilts his head toward the house.

"Yeah." Lukas smiles, then shifts his hold to one arm over Philip's shoulders.

They walk back so slowly it'd be ridiculous if Philip wasn't so enamored with every second he gets to look at Lukas, touch Lukas, watch Lukas watching him smile.

Philip thinks he must be lit up—incandescent—and Lukas is flushed and bright-eyed. Gabe gives them a Look, and a grin. Helen refills their lemonade, and they don't say anything about him setting the puppy on a table to keep napping or how close they sit and how Lukas' hand immediately finds his.

He can't wait for the weekend. He's not looking forward to school at all. He can't wait for every day ahead of him he gets to share with Lukas.