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The night before Nell’s funeral, her whole family is seated uncomfortably in the pristine funeral home entryway- after, of course, some words were exchanged. In the aftermath, Shirley and Steve stay as far from each other as they possibly can without spilling out into another room.

There’s one, predictably to his older siblings, missing from the scene. But after a few heated jabs without any voice of reason to calm the fire, Luke does show up. Shirley left the door open for all of them, but she’s still surprised to hear it click open again. Luke opens the door like he’s trying not to make a sound, despite the fact that every one of them is staring right at him. They haven’t seen him in a while, after all, and Theo admits only to herself that it hurts to see her little brother look so small and defeated. She would never tell him.

The real shock comes when the door doesn’t close behind him, and a man about his same height walks in. Shirley’s first reaction is anger at the lack of warning for a guest besides family, but she tamps it down, seeing the already shamed look on Luke’s face. The man is ordinary-looking above everything, but well-dressed and lean. He doesn’t smile, fixing his dark hair before closing the door. Steve immediately has a bone to pick with him. He doesn’t know which bone, but he could find one.

Instead, he goes over and hugs Luke tight, trying to convey that he knows exactly how this hurts him more than any of them. He looks small and underweight and sleepless. Steve wants to blame the mystery man. “Hey,” he says, knowing there are more pressing matters at hand. “You alright?”

Luke swallows and shrugs helplessly. His expression just emphasizes the hollows of his face. He’s too young to have shadows like that. “Yeah, I… I don’t know.”

“Who is this?” Shirley asks curtly, a thin veil of politeness draped over her words. Their father watches the various reactions around the room, but doesn’t offer any commentary of his own. Luke looks to him briefly before returning to the question. It almost seems as though he forgot there was someone behind him, but they all know better.

“This is my friend, Matt, from the center I’m staying at now.” Matt was obviously waiting for that cue to offer his hand to Steve first, the closest to him. Steve takes it with some distrust. Matt still doesn’t smile, but he offers quiet greetings and condolences to all of them. “They let me go for the funeral, and I- I asked if I could bring him with me.” Shirley takes his hand begrudgingly, and Kevin doesn’t seem to read the mood, shaking it with a short knowing smile. They’re both outsiders looking in. Theo doesn’t leave her perch near the doorway, but since he comes to her, she figures the least she could do is allow the handshake. Hugh once again leaves them to their own dialogue, but stands up to meet this Matt halfway, patting his shoulder heartily.

All of them, including Luke, wait to hear what he has to say after making his rounds with the handshake. Matt returns to their brother’s side quickly and without much of a production. He puts his hand on Luke’s back, looking around at all of them, his expression unreadable. “I know this isn’t my business or my loss,” he says, voice even but stern. The certainty in it shocks them. “I’m here for Luke, but if there’s anything I can do to help, to honor her, I will.” He pauses then, continuing with a more quiet inflection. “There aren’t words for how sorry I am.”

Steve reconsiders his plan of beefing with Luke’s friend. After some hard thinking, he concludes that Matt could probably snap him in half (but wouldn’t, for Luke’s sake) and more importantly, deserves some respect for coming all this way. He has to wonder how this friendship came to be, about the nature of it, that Luke would ask him to come to his twin sister’s funeral. All of that, in a rehab facility.

“Thank you. We appreciate that,” Hugh speaks suddenly. Theo and Shirley look at him with betrayal, not ready to let go of the grudge they’ve kept since the door opened. Luke turns toward Matt, his eyes tranquil like the sickness and the grief is leaving him all at once. The three eldest siblings watch intently as he murmurs his own thank you- watch as Matt’s solemn exterior, too, finally dissolves into a smile. Theo turns her head, feeling that she’s looking in on something private. She and Steve share a glance before she follows him in losing her hatred for the guy. It’s obvious that he’s not just some random bum from rehab. He makes Luke feel less like shit.

Shirley isn’t convinced, although her resentment lies more with Luke than his guest.

“I wasn’t counting on you to show, much less a friend.” She bites her tongue on anything else she wants to say, truthfully because there are too many people in the room. At this, Luke’s sense of peace fades, and the comment obviously weighs heavy on him. Matt studies him with concern, but doesn’t look to Shirley for answers. It dawns on them that Luke might have told him about the family affliction of being an asshole while mourning.

Luke stares at the carpet, torn down once again, and doesn’t say anything.

“Luke?” Steve looks pointedly in his sister’s direction. He was already pissed with her, and this doesn’t much fix things. He knows that at some point during the night he thought the same thing, but still. “Do you want to come see Nell?” He takes Luke’s hand to maybe ground him. He only wants to comfort his brother.

When Luke pulls away from the grip instinctively, it feels like a slap in the face. Even when he mumbles an apology and puts his hand back in Steve’s. He privately thinks there can’t be a worse feeling than the disgust and fear that flinch stirred in him. Luke doesn’t want to go with him to see Nellie. That’s fine. He doesn’t want to be angry, but he is. He can tell that Shirley and Theo are angry too. Matt has an arm around Luke’s shoulders. It’s okay. Luke has clearly prioritized other things above his siblings. Steve’s fist clenches at his side until his hand turns white. Luke’s hand has returned to the other one, his expression scared and guilty.

“Okay.” He’s barely audible.

Matt lets go of him to Luke’s obvious chagrin, seemingly encouraging him to go with his brother. It almost makes Steve more angry.

But he sees the terror in Luke’s eyes, and then when they walk up the aisle to her casket, he sees Nellie. And maybe Luke was right to hesitate, because Steve abandons him there in front of her, stumbling to get a much-needed drink. Of course, Matt comes to replace him; he holds Luke and talks low to him until the pain of saying his goodbyes to Nell lessens.

“I- I wish you’d met her,” Luke tells him. Theo and Steve are in earshot at their makeshift bar in the back corner. She pours something strong for both of them and tries to meet his eyes, but he won’t look back.

“Me too. I’m happy I was able to talk to her though.” She nearly spills her fresh drink in genuine shock. Luke whimpers a little and coughs to cover it, unaware of the crisis at the booze table. Theo doesn’t even want to see Steve’s face this time.

Currently, their brother isn’t concerned with their existence. “She asked about you sometimes.” Just like Steve’s last straw was seeing Nellie, hearing that from Luke must have been Matt’s. He shuts his mouth tight, opening and closing it a few times before replying- like he knew her. Like he has a right to be upset.

“She did?” he asks faintly. Theo admits, she can’t be mad at someone for caring about her sister. But the whole thing. This whole fucking night. She can’t handle one more person’s emotions in this joint, and maybe this is her last straw too. She grips her glass tight and tries not to be conscious of Luke nodding earnestly and Matt looking at Nell in that coffin- fuck.

A few minutes later, they congregate back to the entryway and start up with the blame game again, a tired trend by now, but it’s familiar in a time when everything is sideways, so they cling to it. Luke stays quiet with Matt by his side, probably out of respect for his dead sister (a concept that they don’t understand until it’s too late.) To them, it doesn’t matter why he does it, because it just fills them with more rage. Theo is a little mad at him, but she’s mostly drunk. Steve combined with alcohol, however, is nearing pure hatred as he glares at his brother for most of the mudslinging session. She can feel it, and there’s an anxiety that follows after.

“Luke.”

Theo stops her current argument, fending off Shirley’s flailing with two hands on her shoulders, already knowing something is wrong. “Don’t touch me,” Shirley hisses, and then sees her expression. “What?”

“Luke,” Steve says again calmly, and he looks up at his name being announced in the suddenly near silent room. Theo is horrified, not knowing what he’s about to say; she doesn’t have to know to be scared. “Did you come here to ask for money?”

Quiet.

Shirley has had the same thought, but she knows better, and she would never say it, and she quashed the thought immediately because she knew it was never anything but her own irrational pettiness. She felt guilty too and knew that it was wrong to think of her brother like that.

Steve is drunk and unfortunately doesn’t have this privilege of thinking before he speaks. She may be a hypocrite for it, but there’s something about his tone that has her hackles up. “Steven, my god-”

In a few seconds, Theo is the one being held back, both by Shirley and her father. Steve is sat down with his hands in his lap like he isn’t drunk off his ass and doesn’t seem very remorseful. “What the fuck? How could you fucking say that when-”

It takes a moment for the comment to even register in Luke’s mind. “What? No, no, I- I came for...” He stutters and trails off, and between what Shirley said to him earlier and then this, he can’t hold it. Luke’s eyes well up with tears as he tries to explain himself. This is what makes Steve falter. A chain of events- Matt just coming back from the bathroom, Shirley losing her grip on Theo’s right arm, and Theo proceeding to sock Steve in the ear- sobers him up quick.

Luke stands from his seat and walks fast down the hallway, Matt right at his heels without any attention or judgment paid to any of them. He must know that they fucked up somehow, but scolding them obviously isn’t his primary objective. Shirley watches them go and finds herself with a deep respect for Matt, and an envy for his relationship with Luke. She can imagine, unfortunately, that Steve feels the same way as he holds one side of his face and sits betrayed by his own mouth. She knows that they both wanted that, always. To be good to their little brother and sister.

When they look to each other, Steve’s eyes tell her that he knows they were too late for one, and that he’s just royally fucked up the only chance he had left. He stands up, unsteady and distraught.

Theo pokes him in the chest, still fuming and shaking with fear. “Sit back down, asswipe. You’ve done enough.”

Hugh steps in. “Theodora, there’s no need to-”

“Dad,” she says, stopping him in his tracks. “When a twin commits suicide, it isn’t uncommon for the other to follow.” She can barely get the last few words out, even knowing she’s said this before to parents, to students, to colleagues. It doesn’t make it hurt less now. “We can’t… say those things to him.”

Steve visibly panics upon hearing that, and Theo knows he would never want it to happen, knows he would do anything for Luke in the end. So she touches his arm in a peace offering, and he hugs his dad like they’re still children and like he could fix this.

“Let’s just see if he’s okay,” Shirley says to placate him. Theo doesn’t gripe about the inclusion of Steve, since it’s obvious he only wants to make this stupid thing right. She thinks that Nellie wouldn’t want her death to pit them against each other. Especially not Luke.

Hugh and Kevin stay behind, mostly confounded and exhausted, while the three siblings make their way through the hall that he’d taken. When they come to a turn- the edge of the building- they hear muffled conversation in one of Shirley’s many rooms. After another few steps, they can hear it clearly- from one of the storage rooms.

Luke sniffs, and Theo is furious all over again. “They don’t want me here,” he sobs miserably. Steve nearly goes to the door (to correct him) but Shirley grabs him by the scruff like a cat before he gets close.

They almost forgot who he was talking to until a response comes. “They do,” Matt soothes. “They love you. I know they do. They’re just so angry. They should never take it out on you, but it isn’t that they don’t want you here.” Who knew the guy they all avoided like the plague would be the first to defend them?

“Just- I’m just such a fucking burden. I know it.”

A moment of pause. “I wish I could convince you otherwise.” He sighs. “You’re their brother. They love you. Nell loved you.” He stops again, and there are other noises they can’t account for. “I love you,” Matt tells him finally. “You know that?” Shirley and Theo exchange glances with the implications of that, while Steve remains mostly oblivious. Luke doesn’t say anything aloud. “Right. Do you believe me when I say your family does too?”

He hesitates for long enough to break their hearts. “Yes,” he says quietly.

Matt audibly kisses him, and Steve blinks and scrubs at his eyes. He’s too drunk and scared to deal with that kind of information right now. “Okay. Do you want to go back out now?”

“No.” Luke has a sense of urgency in his voice, like he’s scared too.

“We can just go to our hotel room if you want.”

Another whimper. “I wanna be with Nellie.”

“I know you do, sweetheart,” Matt assures him, and there’s a bit of shuffling. “You can be closer to her if we go back, and if you want to talk to them, you can.”

“I don’t.” The finality in his voice makes Shirley go cold.

“You don’t have to, but they’re hurting too, Luke. It’ll take all of you to get through this.”

A long silence before Luke lets out a hard breath and makes his decision. “I know. I just need another minute before…”

Matt hums in approval, then goes quiet. “Hey,” he says softly. “If they don’t help you through this, or don’t accept your help, it isn’t your fault. This is when you’ll need each other most, but you don’t owe them. Whenever you want to leave, you can just go to the car.” A jangling sound as he hands Luke his keys.

Luke sniffs. “Thank you.” They kiss again, and Theo pulls her siblings back when she can hear the doorknob turning. She’s never been so relieved, and she doesn’t have to look at them to know they feel the same way. It’s still a lot of information to process, especially for Steve, who is ultimately a sad, paranoid drunk. He’s more relieved than all of them, almost like he thought Luke would already be dead when they found him.

They return to their seats, Shirley assuring her dad of Luke’s well-being with a short smile and nod.

He shuffles down the hallway a moment later with Matt behind him like when they came in. Theo stands to let them sit next to each other and gives Luke a meaningful glance. He must know what she means, nodding as he takes Matt’s hand. As long as he knows that she knows, and that she supports him.

Matt must understand her look too, scooting closer to Luke to make space for her on the couch in a surprisingly sweet gesture. Steve and Hugh don’t quite understand the information being presented to them, being the thick-skulled men that they are. They both almost say something and decide against it when Luke nearly pulls his hand away- a bitterly familiar sight for Steve.

There’s another idea he hates; Luke is scared to hold hands with a man in front of his brother and dad. God.

Steve pushes himself out of his chair, kneeling to meet Luke’s eyes when he gets over to him. The shame he finds there nearly kills him. What does he have to be ashamed of?

“I’m sorry,” Steve says, and he puts his arms around his brother even though he knows he doesn’t deserve to. “I’m so fucking sorry.” He swallows around the lump in his throat as Luke drops his head onto his shoulder. “I don’t ever want to hurt you. God, Luke. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Luke nods into his sweater, the collar of it wet now. Steve’s eyes move over his back to Matt, who is obviously itching to also comfort Luke. The thought of letting go of his little brother aches now more than ever, but he knows what Nellie would want him to do. He pulls back from the hug and gets a tissue for Luke to dry his cheeks.

As quick as he turns away and back to them, Luke is in Matt’s arms instead, and he can’t be angry after what he said. He can’t say anything when he knows which one of them has been with Luke for the last few months. He hadn’t even called Luke until he told him about Nell.

Steve withdraws back into his chair and watches Luke close his eyes, head against Matt’s chest. There’s finally a moment of peaceful silence.

Theo has to break it, for her own sake. She turns to the man beside her and nudges him, trying not to disturb Luke’s rest. He must be exhausted. She cautiously slips off her gloves. “You said… you’d talked to Nellie before. What, uh, did she say?”

Matt cards his fingers through Luke’s hair idly and shrugs, not looking her in the eye. “I talked to her on the phone whenever we got time to call our families. My mom doesn’t talk a lot, so I usually wait for a while after the call. But Luke asked me to talk to his sister, and every time we went to the phones I spoke with her. She mostly just asked if I thought Luke was doing well, if he was sleeping and eating right.”

Shirley smiles. That sounds like Nellie.

Theo reaches out to touch Matt’s wrist, more curious than comforting. He doesn’t seem to mind and gives her a knowing look; maybe Luke’s told him about this too. Either way, she still can’t read him very well. There’s just something warm about him, and nothing memory-wise jumps out at her. She finds a few things pertaining to Luke that she would rather not see, and then she feels a distant rush- probably from heroin, if he’s in rehab for the same reason Luke is. Her brows furrow as she pulls away.

“What is it?” he asks, almost amused for the first time since he walked in. “You can tell me.”

All eyes on her. “You don’t have a lot of recent memories before starting recovery. I mean, I can’t see them.”

Luke shifts closer to him, and Matt leans back. “I don’t know why. But if you’re curious, I’m from Boston. I went to college in California for nursing and dropped out of grad school.”

“What about your family?” Hugh asks. As usual, someone else has to get in on the interrogation.

“I’m an only child. My parents split when I was a kid, and I lived with my uncle for a while. I just have a few cousins who I talk to sometimes, and that’s really it.”

Theo wants to ask more questions, but it doesn’t seem fair, and Matt doesn’t look like he has anything to hide. Her intuition usually serves her well.

 

-

 

The next day is the funeral itself, and Luke waits with his dad for everyone to file in. He’s a little overwhelmed by all the noise, and by the day itself.

Hugh picks a leaf off of his jacket, startling him a little. “Where’d you get this suit? It’s nice.”

Luke licks his lips nervously. “Matt’s stepdad let me borrow it.”

“You could’ve asked me for one,” he says, more wondering than accusatory. Luke just shrugs and stares at his shoes.

“I don’t have your number, and I wouldn’t want to ask for anything else anyway.” Hugh opens his mouth to respond and thinks better of it, taking a sheet of paper from one of Shirley’s many notepads to write his number on for the future. “Next time I need a suit,” Luke offers. Hugh just nods and hands him the paper. He stuffs it in his coat pocket as Matt comes into view. As it turns out, Shirley has needed him to do a lot of things, since for some reason, Kevin is nowhere to be found. He turns out to be Aunt Janet’s number one source of entertainment, which is the job he’s fulfilling right now, getting her a cup of juice. Luke smiles and meets his eyes for a moment before he’s dragged off to talk to another guest, probably Janet’s boyfriend.

Hugh tilts his head in Matt’s direction. “So you and him?” Luke stares at him questioningly. “Are you… together?”

He inhales and lets out a breath through his nose. “Oh. Yeah. He became my roommate a few months ago and since then we- yeah.”

A pause as Hugh considers his next words. “Does it make the program harder?”

Luke shakes his head emphatically. “I’m better now. Mostly. We keep each other in check. He… he helps me when I get low. And when he has cravings I sit and talk with him.” He’s smiling as he says it, wistful. “It’s been good these past few months.”

“I’m glad.”

“I’ve been thinking about leaving the center. With Matt,” Luke blurts out. “He- he won’t agree right now, I know he needs more time, but… whenever he’s ready, I wanna go with him.” Hugh studies his son for a moment after the confession as Luke stares at his own hands. He doesn’t get a chance to respond before Steve comes in to beckon them to their seats.

All the siblings and family members are up front so Luke doesn’t get to sit next to Matt, even though, Shirley thinks bitterly, they are currently seated next to Aunt Janet’s beau, and he was definitely not invited. When it’s his time to speak, Luke noticeably looks back into the third row for Matt, finding him and a reassuring smile. On the platform, he looks at his dad, his sisters, and Steve as he speaks, avoiding other faces in the crowd that might make him clam up. He’s scared of what everyone thinks of him, how they might talk about him, but he has to say something.

Arthur’s family is here, he knows. They loved Nell.

After the service, Luke finds Matt with a photo album of his sister, sitting away from most of the other guests. It hurts to see her wedding pictures, but he smiles anyway. Seeing her so happy, knowing how excited she was. He felt it. “She’s beautiful,” Matt says gently.

“Yeah, she is.” Luke twiddles his thumbs for a moment until he notices that Matt has closed the book and now watches him with an unreadable expression. “What is it?”

“Can I kiss you here? You can say no if you don’t want me to.”

He wants Matt to kiss him more than anything, but he couldn’t. “It isn’t that I don’t want you to,” he starts to explain, ashamed that he can’t do things like that in public. It’s too much for him.

Matt halts his speech. “I know, I just mean- if it isn’t a good time, or whatever reason. You don’t have to tell me why.”

Luke stares at him with wide eyes, stunned and grateful that he’s so easily forgiven. He looks around. There aren’t too many people in the room. “What if I said yes?” Luke taps his foot anxiously as he says it. Matt is somewhat surprised himself.

“Are you sure?” Luke nods emphatically, knowing that in a few seconds he’ll be too nervous. Sometimes fear overtakes him with these things, and he knows the only way to get past it is by doing them anyway. This isn’t therapy, but he’s sure the same rules apply in relationships. Maybe. Matt smiles at him incredulously, a look that always manages to get Luke’s pulse racing. “Just for a second then.”

Luke already has his eyes half-closed in anticipation. “Just for a second,” he agrees in a whisper. He’s nervous, of course, but there’s some kind of relief when Matt closes in and presses their lips together delicately, almost chaste. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s looking at them either. When Matt pulls away, Luke chases the sensation and kisses him again more thoroughly. He doesn’t care who’s looking. He just wants to get this one more time before he leaves; he deserves that much.

Later that night he takes Shirley’s keys without a word and prays that Matt won’t be angry at him for doing what he needs to.

 

-

 

He dreams about Nell and visions of a house Matt described to him one night at the center, after he’d woken up from a nightmare on the night she died. He laid next to Luke on the top bunk, arms around him, and said that one of his uncles left it to him in his will. He was planning on going back and fixing it up once he got his shit together. Luke didn’t really want to hear about any other house renovations, but he didn’t say anything, so Matt told him anyway. He said his uncle bought the house for his wife, a sweet little yellow cottage in Martha’s Vineyard with a big porch for their dogs. It had wooden shutters on each window and a brick fireplace at the center where they entertained guests during the winter. Matt said he wanted to bring Luke there, that he would like it.

Luke dreams that they’re the ones entertaining, and his siblings are all there to enjoy it with him. Nell’s laughter and a crackling from the fire are all he can really sense, but he knows where he is. He knows that she’s alive, and they’re not disappointed in him, and Matt makes it feel like the home Luke always deserved. He distantly thinks that it’s sad; he’ll probably never go to that house or host anyone because he’s dying or dead and there’ll nothing left of him for his family to keep. Luke isn’t in many of their photos, he realizes. He usually wasn’t there. Nobody asked him to come.

He wakes up in a hospital room, his legs numb and everything else jittery. As soon as his eyes open fully, he can see that it’s because Steve is passed out on one of his shins, and Matt is not much better, arms folded over the thin sheet covering his thigh. Both of them have blankets draped over their shoulders, obviously the work of someone else. Shirley probably did that but wouldn’t admit to it. Luke considers that he could still be dreaming, or that he’s dead. But he’s not in Hill House; he can be thankful for that. He’s okay if Nell couldn’t save him, if he was too far gone, if he sits up and talks and none of them see him.

Luke feels tears roll down his cheeks as everything comes back to overwhelm him, when he remembers what Nell said to all of them. He can’t quite move his arms yet to wipe them away, but his chest heaves the same without a bit of consideration given to his current state. Shirley walks in with a whole carton of coffee cups for- he looks around and sees Theo also waiting at his bedside, half-asleep with her mouth open. Shirley almost drops her delivery rushing over when she sees him conscious and crying. She wakes Steve and Matt with a sharp flick to the backs of their heads and doesn’t wait for them to come around before pushing toward her little brother.

“Hey, shh, it’s alright. You’re okay.” Luke sniffles weakly around the tubes in his nose and reaches out for her, only soothed when she takes his hands in hers. “We’re here,” she offers, always a bit awkward with comforting people, but she must have a lot of practice with her children these days. She’s definitely improved. Steve scrambles to his feet when he realizes what’s happened, as does Theo. The chair she had been leaning against leaves an imprint on her face, and he almost wants to laugh. Matt only lifts his head to reveal red-rimmed eyes, keeping his cheek against Luke’s side as everyone else fusses over him.

“I didn’t do that,” he slurs, because they have to know that he only wanted to die with the house. When the fire failed to consume Hill House or him, he knew then that it couldn’t be destroyed, and that he would have to take it with him for the rest of his life. He was certain that he would go along with it, but the house reminded him that he could never die on his own terms as long as it stood. “I wasn’t trying to…”

“We know,” Steve says, stopping him. Luke turns to Matt hopelessly. “He knows you didn’t do it.” He doesn’t mention the gasoline, since they didn’t bring Matt to the house, and he doesn’t need to know about that.

They make room for Matt to sit at eye-level with him and hold his hand, careful not to touch the IV taped to him. Luke feels worse when he gets closer, knowing that he scared him bad, but Matt only wipes his tears away and kisses his forehead. Luke pulls him in so he can lay his head down on his chest, just the reverse of their position the other night. He owes Matt this comfort, assurance that he’s still here. To be able to hear his heartbeat. He has to quiet himself for it, tears ceasing as soon as he makes an effort to stop them. Matt doesn’t ask why he went back to the house or why Luke didn’t say where he was going. He just closes his eyes and squeezes Luke’s hand with the faith that he wouldn’t do this to himself.

Luke chokes up again and pets Matt’s hair with his other hand. “Th-thank you.” He doesn’t say for what, because they both already know. He believed Luke when neither of them believed themselves, always put him first when he thought nobody wanted him around. Matt was always his friend and confidante and made him want to get clean like Nell did. He always wanted to get better for them. Matt smiles and rubs his knuckles, almost moving to kiss him before he hesitates. Luke meets him in the middle, because he deserves a kiss after being dead for a moment. He doesn’t have to open his eyes to sense all of his siblings sheepishly turning away to give them some privacy.

When the doctors clear him to leave about an hour later, the girls help him to the car while Steve and Matt stay behind for paper work and gathering their things from Luke’s room. Steve fills out a document, sitting at the very edge of the near silent waiting room, while Matt gets something from a vending machine right next to him.

“You know,” Steve says casually, and he pauses to listen. “I wanted to kick your ass last night when I saw you walk in next to him.” Matt turns around to see him smiling ruefully, and he returns it, huffing a laugh.

“Please. I would be kicking your ass if anything,” he replies without hesitation, slipping a few packs of cookies into his coat pocket.

Steve shakes his head. “That’s exactly why I didn’t try. I also probably deserved it more, so you certainly had the upper hand.” They both crack up at the ridiculousness of it, but Steve sobers first. “But then I saw how he looked at you. I knew… I knew if he asked you not to get into it with me, you wouldn’t. He probably did ask.” He stops and purses his lips. Matt stares at him, face blank. “If someone else said what I did, I would fight them unless- unless he asked me not to.”

He sits down in the chair next to Steve and looks at him earnestly. “He didn’t say anything about it. You all realized how you were treating him without me doing anything, and I knew that you wouldn’t hurt him on purpose.” Matt looks through the glass doors at Shirley’s car and nudges Steve in good humor, gesturing to an already yellowing bruise right under his hairline. “But your sister punching you probably helped with the realization part.”

“I’m sure she would agree.” Steve snorts and nudges him back before handing the paper to the receptionist. They can finally leave. Still, a silence lay between them as they stand in the darkened hospital lobby, neither man moving toward the exit.

Matt meets his gaze, expression flat and untelling. “Why didn’t you want me to go to the house?”

Steve doesn’t maintain the eye contact. “Luke would kill us if we let you come near it. And when I called Kevin to bring you up, he was already buckled into Shirl’s passenger seat. So, I said meet us at the hospital.” Matt nods with cautious acceptance, turning to walk with him out to the parking lot, but Steve grabs his sleeve to stop him. “If you love him like we do, I’m so fucking happy you didn’t see him in there. I’m going to see his dead stare and bloody foam dripping out of his mouth for a long time.”

He swallows thickly and puts his gloved fist against his mouth, obviously stricken by just the idea of it. “Shit, I… I can’t imagine.” Steve knows he can’t and forgives him for it. There are some things that just can’t be told, his dad said to him. He was right. “I’m lucky then,” Matt says quietly, disbelieving.

“Let’s get out of here,” Steve suggests to distract him from the imagery, and Matt follows him out into the cold with nothing left to say.

 

-

 

Luke figures that the center will forgive him for having his sister, his dad, and himself die in the span of a week and then taking an extra few days to get back, but he does make it. It takes Steve and Theo’s combined strength to wrench Shirley off of him when he announces his departure. She looks like a mother struggling to let her child get on the school bus, Theo thinks briefly.

“Do you have everything?”

Luke’s eyes are somehow both wide and exhausted as he says his goodbyes. “Shirl, I didn’t bring anything.”

She crosses her arms over her chest, lips set in a stubborn line. “Well, do you need anything then?”

He shakes his head. “I’ll be fine.” She’s obviously displeased with that answer, so he tries again. “Um, do you still use your knitting needles?” In typical Shirley fashion, she doesn’t answer, instead opening a side desk and magically producing a sandwich bag full of knitting supplies and yarn.

She drops the bag into his hands. Matt looks on from behind him, amused. “Please take them. I fucking hate knitting.”

Luke gives her a sheepish smile, a familiar look that he’s been giving them since he learned to make faces. “I could use a hobby,” he says, staring at the bundle with some trepidation. Matt takes it from him to put in their bag while Luke goes to give hugs to his other siblings. He approaches Steve slowly, shifting his weight from foot to foot in front of him.

Steve knows he’ll probably get a handshake or something equally distant, which hurts, but he doesn’t let it show in his face. His brother has a right to feel any kind of way about him at this point. If he doesn’t want to-

Luke opens his arms as invitation after only a second of pause- which was long enough for Steve to overanalyze it as he so often does- and relief surges through him. He pulls Luke in without even thinking and hugs him tight. “Oh god,” he says against Luke’s coat, muffled beyond recognition to anyone else. Steve sets his chin on Luke’s shoulder to be heard more clearly. “We love you.”

He swallows heavily. “I know.”

Earlier, it was easy to judge Shirley when she didn’t want to let go, but Steve finds himself in the very same predicament. He forces himself to step back after a long moment. He gives an acknowledging nod to Matt as Luke goes to Theo for a much quicker hug. (She’s never been as prone to dramatics as Steve is.) She pats Luke’s face after pulling away.

“Don’t think you’re all on your own,” she whispers to him, pointedly turning her gaze to Matt. Luke nods, and she leans up to kiss his forehead. “Call us when you can.”

Matt furrows his brows at the look, perhaps thinking she was talking about him. But Luke soon returns to his side and tucks himself under Matt’s arm reassuringly.

“Alright,” he says, looking around expectantly at all of them. “I’ll try and come back soon.”

That’s all they can hope for.