Vince goes back to Dillon because Luke wants him to. Almost two years after he left for good, got his mom out and started building them a smooth, straight road away to anywhere else. The people he left behind never quite stacked up against the memories waiting there, but now, on a bright Florida afternoon, in heat that's nothing like Texas, Luke asks him to come home with him, and Vince says yes, because Luke wants him to. It's no reason at all and the best reason there is; seems to Vince like it's the only reason for just about everything he does these days.
"You can crash at my parents' place," Luke says, goofy smile lighting up his face, excited like maybe they're kids planning their first camp-out. It's not hard to imagine the kid he was: wide smile and big eyes; always chasing down the next dream, asking politely to take it, certain it would end up in his hands. It's easy because that's mostly still who he is, the angry, sulky teenager he sometimes was put away with his Lions uniform. It's infuriating and inexplicable, and it makes Vince do any number of crazy, stupid things.
"Do they--" Vince clears his throat, looks hard at the Cowboys poster above Luke's bed. "Do they know? About us?"
"I haven't told them," Luke says. "Think they've got an idea, though." He sounds so fond that Vince can't not look at him. When he does, the tone of his voice is written there on is face, big and obvious as the display on any stadium scoreboard.
Vince's answering smile is reflex; it maybe looks a little sappy, too, but someone's gotta stop this from turning into a lifetime movie, so he says, "Constantly talking about how awesome I am doesn't mean much. You're just stating facts, man."
Luke grins a little wider. "Yeah, but not everyone reads their parents poetry about your eyes, do they?"
He tugs Vince in, then, before Vince can find a reply, and Vince doesn't fight him. When Luke kisses him, it's soft, and Vince can still feel the smile curving Luke's mouth. It goes on for a long time; it never makes it past unhurried and fucking gentle, and Vince doesn't mind. That he doesn't is either awesome or terrifying. He wants to do victory laps, a hundred or a thousand of them, and he wants to just run in a straight line, away, and never stop. But Luke's got an arm across his chest, a hand curled in the back of his shirt, so he stays where he is, at least until he figures Luke's roommate might come back. He kisses Luke, and he doesn't do anything stupid, like worry about meeting Luke's parents again, or what that might mean,or how telling his mom--telling anyone--about who he is, about this thing they have, scares the shit out of him.
He goes on not worrying about it for the rest of the week, for the miles and miles they drive between Florida and Texas in Vince's beatup old truck. They switch up driving, but not as often as they should--Vince is happier behind the wheel, focusing on the road and not what's at the end of it, and Luke's happier with him there, too. He's never quite gotten the hang of getting her to run smooth, because he doesn't like his cars with character; he only agreed to take her this time because Vince made it a condition of going at all. Everyone Vince knows tells him he should trade up, but she took him out of Dillon, to Florida and college and football, to a chance at a future. He's not superstitious, but he's not giving her up. Not that he's ever said that out loud. He just never listens, just like he isn't listening now. That's never stopped Luke before, though, and it doesn't seem like it's going to this time. He's sprawled in the seat, tanned and muscled and ridiculous, like something too good to be true. He's holding off unbelievability only with his hair, which has been blown into three hundred kinds of hilarious by the wind.
"She'll probably die on us here," Luke says, sort of like he's hoping she will, just so he'll be right. "And if not here, then on some other back road in the middle of nowhere, and we'll be eaten. By bears. Or coyotes. And man, is that not how I want to die."
"I ain't scared of bears or coyotes," Vince says, just to keep up his end of the conversation. Luke's got another twenty minutes, at least, of this to go, and Vince is happy for him to just go on talking, his words as easy and relaxed as the rest of him.
Only Luke's sometimes a tricky fucker, and what he says next, without any kind of signpost, is, "My parents already like you. They've met you three or four times, you know. You should probably stop freaking out about it."
He pulls himself up in his seat, grunting like it costs him to do it, and leans over into Vince's space. He kisses him once, quick and sure, before pulling away and smiling. Vince is completely warmed by it, as touched as he is spooked. He tries not to look around too obviously, checking for anyone who might've seen, because Luke hates that shit. He fucks it up, though, because Luke's smile gets a whole lot smaller.
"We're the only car on the road," he says. "I think we're good." He slumps back in his seat, but there's an edge in his voice, maybe not so's anyone else would notice, but Vince does. Vince has spent time figuring Luke out, like he used to figure out plays, how to run a field; he's as proud of the little things he knows about Luke that nobody else does as he is of anything he's done in a game.
"I know," he says. He can't think what else to say, because he does know. It just doesn't help all that much. He reaches out, puts a hand on Luke's leg and squeezes.
Luke sighs, but he slips his hand over Vince's, for just a second. "Anyway, like I said. You don't need to worry--about them liking you. They already do."
"Kinda different," Vince says. "Teammate me and, you know--" he takes his hand off Luke's leg, waves it vaguely in the air. "Whatever. I gotta make a good impression."
Luke laughs, and Vince feels the tension that's crept into his neck and shoulders in the last few minutes slip away. "Shut up," Luke says, and Vince does. Sort of. He sings along, loud and almost entirely off-key to the music blaring from the speakers. Since it was Luke's turn to pick, it's, like, the Greatest Hits of Bon Jovi, and, as always, no matter how badly Vince mangles each and every song, Luke stubbornly refuses to switch it out.
"You're probably keeping the bears away," is all he says, and when the album ends, he just starts the whole thing over again. That's how they make it to Dillon: tired and happy and loud, and in urgent need of a shower. It's June, and the Texas summer is just starting to settle in; there's a hundred million miles of clear blue sky, and Vince loves all of it with this sharp, clean fierceness he's managed to forget.
"Good to be back, right?" Luke says. He's watching Vince watch the horizon, too smug for his own good.
"I never said it wasn't beautiful," Vince says, because he didn't. He elbows Luke, knocks him off balance while he's holding their bags. "It's everything else you gotta watch out for."
Luke shoves Vince's bag into his arms and kicks out at his foot. "Everything else is good food, lots of sun and people who want you around."
"And your parents," Vince says. "Don't forget that."
Luke sighs and looks imploringly up at the sky. After a second, he gives it up and decides nothing divine is going to intervene. He reaches out to squeeze Vince's shoulder, says, "It's gonna be fine," and starts walking, not bothering to check if Vince is following. He doesn't need to.
It's pretty annoying, but Luke turns out to be right about his parents. Mr Cafferty is thrilled to see them, hugging Luke long and hard, shaking Vince's hand with the kind of warmth that's just for him, and nothing to do with how well he plays football, or what his future might be.
"You know anything about farming?" he asks, smiling in that bright, easy way that Luke does. It makes Vince feel instantly at home.
"Not really, sir," he says, which is a motherfucker of an understatement. He knows as much about farming as he does about astrophysics. "Don't mind getting my hands dirty, though," he says, and Luke's Dad claps him on the back approvingly.
Over dinner, he tells them stories about Luke as a kid: how he tried to set all the cattle free when he was six and recently enlightened as to where all his burgers came from; how he swore he was gonna be a pastor when he was eight, because he was pretty sure pastors went straight to heaven; how he snuck into the garage when he was eleven and got himself drunk on home-brewed beer on New Year's Eve, only to threw up all over his grandma.
Luke squirms and looks embarrassed and fond and pleased all at once; Vince soaks it all up, every normal, picture-perfect family detail. He's glad they don't ask too many questions about his life. They all know about his dad: back in prison again, missing every college football game Vince has ever played, will ever play. His mom's doing good, and he could talk about that, but doing good to Mr and Mrs. Cafferty maybe doesn't mean staying clean when her husband got himself another ten years, when her son nearly got put away more permanently. Vince doesn't know how to talk about that kind of pride, not with these people, in this clean, sweet house, with the family portraits on the walls, and the football trophies on the shelves.
So he listens more than he talks, and he lets Luke step in whenever the conversation seems like it might go to places Vince would rather it didn't. Mrs. Cafferty's quiet, too--watchful, like she's trying to figure Vince out, or maybe like she's trying to figure out her son with Vince. It's not unfriendly, though; when it comes time for dessert, she smiles right at him, says, "Luke told me key lime pie was your favourite."
"See, good food," Luke murmurs beside him. "Just like I promised."
And later, when they're upstairs, setting up the bed in the spare room and making plans to go see Coach in the morning, he says, "I'm gonna enjoy it when you agree that this was a good decision."
Vince tosses the pillows on the bed, watches Luke smooth the blanket down. He's full on too much pie, mellow on a couple beers. He feels brave or reckless or maybe just happy. He reaches out a hand, catches Luke's wrist. "You don't need any kinda ego boost," he says. He smothers Luke's reply with his mouth. He's not gonna get Luke off, not when his parents are right next door, but it's a kiss with promise, filthy and hot.
"I hate you," Luke says. He heads to the bathroom, and Vince lies back on the bed. Happy, he thinks. Definitely that.
He keeps that good feeling for days. There's everything Luke promised, and more, besides--Coach is pleased enough to see them that he actually invites them to dinner, and Jess's family does the same, which Vince appreciates even more. It turns out he likes being on the farm, too, no matter that all he's doing is mucking out cattle, taking shit from Luke for all the ways he's an urban loser. He's worked harder in college than he ever did at school, gone to bed exhausted and had nightmares about failing exams and essays that won't ever end, but he finishes every day here for a week filthy and beat and bone-deep satisfied.
In bars, at night, he sits close to Luke--watches the way everyone flocks to the former state champion and potential pro, like there's magic in him that might rub off on them. They come to Vince, too, but Vince has never really wanted that kind of attention, and Luke's why they stay. He's got entire oceans of Southern charm; the kind Vince's Daddy had, only with Luke, it's sincere. Watching him like that and not touching him starts to feel a little bit like seeing the end zone and not running for it. It gets harder the more he drinks, so he doesn't drink too much, is the calm, steady one when they leave, and holds Luke up while they walk back to his place.
Most nights, he ends up practically carrying Luke home, while Luke mumbles against his neck. Mostly it's just stuff about getting Vince alone, all this crazy dirty talk he always gets embarrassed by sober. Once, though, he stops, nearly sends them both tumbling. Vince catches him, holds him still, so close he could kiss him, here where it's quiet and no one would see.
"Could do this," Luke says, before Vince can either give into the impulse, or ask what his deal is. "You and me, Vince. Have a life and not just--not just a secret."
"Football's your life," Vince says. "It's ours." He thinks his voice might be trembling, but maybe that's just because the rest of him is. This is the thing they don't talk about, not really. They've stitched this thing together as much with all the things they don't say as with the things they do; Vince figures it wouldn't take much to pull it apart.
"That's just what you say to make it easy," Luke says, and there's definitely no mistaking the shake in his voice. He stumbles away from Vince. He makes it home under his own power just because he's a stubborn son of a bitch. He won't let Vince help him, won't talk when Vince speaks to him.
They don't talk about it the next day, either, or the one after that. They aren't fighting, except for the way they kind of are. Luke's smiles never quite reach his eyes; he never lets Vince get too close. Vince walks around feeling like he's dropped the ball, only he can't even see where it's landed, or how to get it back.
"You knew what you were getting," he says, finally, while they clear up after dinner and act like people who met an hour ago. "You knew what this was."
It might or might not be true. Talking wasn't exactly what they were focused on a year ago, but football is what it is, and Luke always knew that. Even for Luke Cafferty, the rules won't change that much.
Luke glances over at him, and says, "That doesn't solve much of anything."
He loosens up some, anyway, though maybe that's just the prospect of going to Riggins' for the night, hanging out with no crowds and no pressure to be anything. He's almost normal by the time they get to Riggins' place--this fucking awesome house, all open space, like it's a commercial for everything good about Texas. Vince sees Luke's face light up as Riggins shows him around, sees how proud Tim is of this thing he built himself. It's a life, right here, a softer happiness that football doesn't know how to be.
They sit out on the porch, beers in hand, Tim's dogs stretched out at their feet. They talk the sun out of the sky--college, and football, and Tim's plans for the land; Becky managing Buddy's bar, how she wants one of her own some day. Vince is half asleep when Riggins says, "So college girls, huh? Luke here swears he ain't getting any, but I know he's lying."
That wakes Vince up pretty good, and beside him, Luke goes very still. This is a moment--the time before every good play, nothing standing between the touchdown and Vince but himself. He wants to say He gets me, and he wants to say, I'd kick his ass, he got anyone else, but he says, "He does okay. Not as good as me, but he does okay." It's true, in a way. It's just not the way Luke wants to hear it.
Luke makes his excuses not long after that. He makes it clear Vince can stay, but Vince can already feel the unravelling between them; it'll only get worse the further away Luke gets.
They walk home mostly in silence, though. Vince tries to break it, but Luke ignores him. They're almost home, when Vince says, "I didn't come here to, I dunno. March in a parade, or whatever the fuck you want from me." It's like the reverse of that first night--he feels reckless, but he's not brave and he's not happy. He's just pissed, and his anger won't settle on a target.
And if Vince is angry, Luke's furious. He rounds on Vince, his hands in fists by his sides. He doesn't yell, though, and that's the worst part of it. "I'd settle for one person," he says. "Telling one person would really be kind of huge at this point. Like how I told my parents. How I brought you here to meet them."
Vince throws his hands up, but he plays defence like he's attacking, same way he always does. "Luke Cafferty," he says. "The world's bravest man. Must've been tough, thinking you might not be the golden boy for five minutes. Was it even that? Probably more like two, right?"
Luke's punch doesn't really connect, but only because he's shaking too hard. "My Mom still prays for me," he says. "She loves me, and she wants me to be happy, but she wishes I was something else. And that's what she told me after she'd had two years to pretend it wasn't happening." He rubs his hands across his face, and when he takes them away, he just looks hurt. "Sure, there are people who have it worse than me, but I'm sure as hell braver than you."
"Luke," Vince says. He didn't know that. Only he probably did--not the specifics, but it wouldn't take a genius to figure out Luke's mom's the God-fearing type. "Luke," he says again, but Luke's already walking away, and he doesn't turn back.
Vince stays out the rest of the night. He wanders, aimlessly, he thinks, until he ends up in his old neighbourhood. It's exactly the same, in all the ways that count. The dogs still bark; the lights are still mostly out. It's still the place nobody wants to be, the place everyone wants to get out of and most people can't escape.
Vince did, and maybe that means something. He didn't want it anymore than anyone else did, he knows. He got lucky. He got talent and his mama's stubbornness; maybe even his Dad's smarts. But he got good people: Luke and Tinker and even goddamn Buddy Garity, people who stuck by him when everything went to hell with his Dad. Most of all, he got Jess, and he got Coach, people who believed in him when Vince didn't. Jess isn't here, though she would be, in a heartbeat if Vince needed her, but Coach is in walking distance, and Vince has got nothing better to do but walk.
"Son," Coach says. They're in the kitchen, though Vince thinks he's got Mrs Taylor to thank for that more than anyone else. "It's a Saturday morning. And I mean, it's only just started to be morning. If you're not dying, you're gonna be in due course."
Vince lets himself smile. he shoves his hands in his pockets and leans against the counter. He feels like there are no words in the universe, like some part of Texas swallowed them whole. Coach opens his mouth to say something, and doesn't. He does what he does best. He waits. He puts the coffee on, his back to Vince.
That helps. Vince takes his hands out of his pockets, because he doesn't feel like that's where they should be when he says this. "I," he says. He stands up straight. "I'm seeing Luke Cafferty," he says, finally. It sounds very small, and it feels epic.
"You're seeing Luke Cafferty." Coach turns around, coffeepot in hand, face unreadable as his voice. "Seeing as in seeing? In the--the--"
"The dating sense, sir." He slouches back against the counter, as embarrassed as he's ever been. He can't stop talking, though. "I'm--maybe not dating. Nobody knows, you know? Because college football, right? It'd be stupid. But Luke. He's all--Luke. He thinks the world's all magic and happy endings and fairy tales." He takes a breath. "It's not," he says. His voice cracks around the words, and they both pretend not to notice.
Coach doesn't say anything. He hooks his foot around a chair and draws it towards him, and he watches Vince, quiet and thoughtful, just how Vince remembers. "I don't think Luke Cafferty needs to be told that," Coach says. "And I don't think--if you're--'course you're serious or you wouldn't be here." He goes quiet again, and Vince doesn't contradict him. "Did I teach you nothing?" he says, and he actually manages to sound kinda put out. "I mean, really now. The easy stuff ain't worth keeping, son. Maybe Luke just thinks you're worth keeping." He runs his hand through his hair and shrugs. "God knows why."
Vince swallows and doesn't say that Luke might've changed his mind in the last few days. Coach's gaze is steady on him; Vince looks for judgment, for condemnation, and doesn't find it. "Question is," Coach says, "Do you think he is?"
Luke's in the fields when Vince finds him. He's already sweaty, streaked with mud. He looks like hell, and he doesn't look up when Vince gets to him.
"I'm busy," he says, before Vince even opens his mouth. He doesn't look busy; he looks like he was at some point, and gave that up to stand in the middle of a field having a personal crisis. That's okay. Vince just got done having one of his own. He'll probably have a few more in the next couple months--definitely will, if Luke's had enough.
"Won't take long," Vince says, and then he can't quite figure where to start. He's got too many words this time. "I want to keep you," he says, because it's the truest. Luke just raises his eyebrows. "I'm not used to keeping people. I'm not used to--I used to think if I did everything right, my mom would get clean, my dad would stick around. I didn't want to be different, or not a good son, or whatever the fuck. I still don't." He reaches for Luke, because he needs to hold on to something. "But I want to keep you," he says. "Even if it's hard."
There's quiet all around them, seems like, even though there's really not. Vince holds his breath, and holds Luke, and waits. Finally Luke says, "You know I'm not a puppy, right?"
Vince laughs, more relieved than amused. "You kinda look like one, sometimes." He doesn't let go of Luke. "I didn't mean--I'm sorry. For what I said last night. I want what you have, sometimes--what I think you have. Perfect family. All that. Makes me stupid, I guess."
"Stupider," Luke says. There's affection in his voice, though. He moves in closer, wraps an arm around Vince's shoulders. Vince leans into him, works at letting himself just enjoy it.
"I'm still not marching in a parade," he says. Luke smacks him on the back of the head, and Vince smiles. Then he pulls back, meets Luke's gaze. "I'm probably not having sex with you on the football field, either. But we could start small. You could come to meet my Mom. As, you know. Not my teammate."
Instead of answering, Luke kisses him, right there in the field, under the Texas sky. It's warm and sweet, more than Vince deserves. He isn't going to argue, though. He kisses back, and he doesn't pull away until Luke does. Luke smiles at him, then, and Vince thinks that maybe he can start to be brave, too.