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the days were bright red

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None of the Crains have ever been big fans of the holiday season, so it only makes sense that none of them have plans for Christmas. For Steve, Leigh’s family never liked him, so he kept a respectful distance from their property and stayed home every Christmas that they were together. Now they’re together again, and this is still the case. They probably hate him more now. Shirley usually does nothing but decorate a tree in the lobby and give gifts to the kids, so that they can have the good experience that she’s long-forgotten. (Meanwhile, Theo doesn’t care about any holidays outside of JCPenney sales.) Luke, for his part, hasn’t spent a Christmas anywhere good since he was a teenager, and even that would be a stretch.

Even so, Shirley invites them all back for a Christmas dinner, maybe because she felt like taking pity on her luckless siblings for once or because they’ve lost so much now that she thought it was only right to bring them together again. Either way, she somehow gets an invite to the rehab center, and she specifically mentions that Matt is also invited. Luke smiles when he reads the note, sent almost a month in advance, and he can imagine her pacing as she wonders if he has plans (as if he ever has plans).

He and Matt manage to schedule weekend passes and make it back up. Theo offers during a phone session to pay for their flight, but he refuses, saying that Matt and his family are footing the bill. They live in the same area, he says, and are hoping he has time to visit them too.

He arrives at Shirley’s door with a solid beard going and warmth in his face. She ushers him in, complaining about the snow briefly before realizing that he’s alone.

“Is Matt not with you?” she asks, not being able to help the edge of disappointment tinging her words. Shirley had kind of liked the guy and wanted to know more about him, maybe in a more friendly setting.

Luke smiles and drops his bags, shaking his head as he hugs her. She pats the back of his neck stiffly until he lets go. “He’s here in town, but he’ll come a little later. He’s having dinner with his mom first.”

Shirley nods and gestures to his duffle bag. “You have a lot more than you did last time.” His clothes are nicer, even.

Luke looks down at himself. “Matt took me to the mall today.” He makes a face and shudders, indicating his feelings toward shopping. Shirley struggles not to laugh. However, he brightens when he kneels down to unzip the bag. “I got gifts for the kids,” he says, presenting two neatly wrapped parcels.

She blinks and looks between his face and the presents. “Oh, Luke. You didn’t have to-”

“I know. It’s just- you talk about them on the phone, but I’ve never actually met them.” Luke shrugs, but there’s hurt in his voice. For some reason, Shirley was always under the impression that Luke had been introduced to them, at least briefly, but she realizes now that he’s right. He’s the only one of them who hasn’t really met her kids. She takes the boxes from him without question and puts them down on a table, swallowing heavily only when her back is turned.

Shirley smiles at him, and if Luke notices the guilt in her face, he doesn’t say anything. “Right. Kevin is bringing them to his parents’ house in a minute, they’re just getting ready, but you’ll see them.” Luke nods. Almost as soon as the words are out of her mouth, Allie and Jayden come out with sleeping bags tucked under their arms, Kevin begrudgingly holding their extra luggage. They stop when they see Shirley and her brother standing in the entryway. Jayden stays by his dad’s side to assess the situation, but Allie continues walking until she has to look up to see Luke’s face. “Allie, Jayden, you’ve seen your uncle Luke before, haven’t you?” Allie nods vigorously.

Luke lowers himself on one knee, seeming nervous, to be at the same height with her. He opens his mouth to greet both of them, but Allie tackles him with a hug before he can get a word out. He returns the embrace and looks at Shirley with wide eyes. She just shrugs. “Um, hi,” he says, shell-shocked. The little girl pulls away and gives him a pat on the head.

“I’m Allie.” Shirley has no idea how she raised such an outgoing child, but she had always been curious about Luke. It only makes sense that she’s excited to formally meet him. Jayden, on the other hand, is as reserved as can be.

Luke laughs gently, wiping his eyes. “I know your name.”

“You do?” She looks completely astonished. He nods to confirm, and she points to her brother. “Then what’s his name?”

“It’s Jayden, right?” Allie nods, amazed, as he finally walks up beside her. He’d obviously seen the look his mother gave him. It’s clear that his participation means a lot to her.

Luke puts out his hand, sensing that Jayden isn’t a fan of hugs, and he takes it without hesitation. “Hi,” the boy greets simply. Luke lets him be after that, since he’s surely ready to leave.

Shirley takes the short bit of silence to grab the kids’ presents off the table. “He got gifts for you guys to open tomorrow,” she says, handing one box to each of them, since Kevin has his hands full. At this, Jayden seems a bit more willing to make friends, looking up at Luke and thanking him quietly.

Meanwhile, Allie shakes her box, tongue sticking out, and examines the wrapping paper very carefully. “You spelled my name right!”

He almost tells her that it’s not really that hard to spell, but he bites down on a reply and lets her have the victory. “Yep.” He stands up at full height and moves out of their path, knowing that he shouldn’t keep them waiting for too long. Shirley opens the door for them, and Allie hugs Luke’s leg once more before picking up her sleeping bag and sprinting into the cold, and Jayden offers him a wave, which he thinks is a good sign. Kevin thanks him as well and kisses Shirley on his way out as she bids him good luck. He already looks tired- he’ll probably need it.

When the door closes, Luke sniffs a little bit and takes off his gloves to wipe a stray tear.

Shirley takes a moment to notice, but when she does, it causes a small panic. “What’s wrong?” she asks anxiously, holding his shoulders.

“She- she just reminds me of Nellie,” he whispers, smiling to reassure her. “That’s all.”

Shirley is certain she’s made the same comparison before, maybe even in a conversation with Nell during a visit. “Yeah, I know.” She takes his hand and squeezes it, letting him compose himself. Just then, they hear a muffled burst of laughter from Steve which brings Luke out of his reverie. He’s excited to see them again under different circumstances, she can tell; it’s kind of sweet. “Let’s go see what they’re up to now,” she offers, and he nods in agreement, eyes crinkling hopefully at the suggestion.

Arriving upstairs in the dining room, they see Steve and Trish doubled over as Theo looks on, lips pursed. All of them standing in the kitchen through a second doorway rather than in their seats at the table.

“It’s not even that funny,” she says bitterly, arms crossed over her chest.

Shirley doesn’t have to announce her presence to get their attention. “What’s not that funny?”

Steve stops laughing when he sees Luke next to her, and he’s quick to greet his brother instead of answering the question. “It’s good to see you,” Steve tells him under his breath. Luke gives him a quick, solid hug and turns his eyes to the kitchen floor. “Now I feel less like I’m interrupting girls’ night.” He laughs at that, surprised. Shirley and Theo roll their eyes and groan simultaneously, but Trish is new to the bunch, so she politely laughs at his stupidity. It seems like she and Steve- miraculously- get along, which only means trouble for her girlfriend. “Shirl, we were just talking about how Theo ate frozen dinners up until she moved out, since she burns everything.”

“First of all, I do whatever the fuck I want, and second, the microwave has never betrayed me, thanks. That’s more than both of you can say.” Theo hops on the counter and gives Steve the finger, at which Luke finally starts to question this chain of events. Theo isn’t wearing her gloves. She moved out of Shirley’s guesthouse.

His brows knit together in thought. “When did you move out?”

It takes her a moment to realize that he’s serious, and another to realize that he doesn’t even know why Trish is here. “Oh, early November, I think?” He nods wordlessly, and she elaborates, gesturing to the woman beside her. “I moved in with my girlfriend. This is Trish. You, uh, probably saw her at the funeral.” Trish beams with pride at the word ‘girlfriend’, and Luke thinks that it must be a difficult thing for Theo to say. He goes up to shake her hand, and she instead hugs him.

Again, he’s shocked, but again, he hugs back. It must be the holidays. “Nice to meet you, um, for the second time,” he says when her face is in view. Theo coughs to cover a laugh. Steve openly snickers. Trish looks around like they might be laughing at her, but it doesn’t give her much pause.

She hums. “This is a much better meeting.” He can definitely agree with that.

Steve waits for a pause to start his own line of questioning. “Speaking of newcomers, where’s your friend?” Shirley pinches the bridge of her nose. He’s really acting like he doesn’t remember the poor guy’s name.

Luke isn’t perturbed. “He’ll be here soon. He just wanted to see his mom first. They’re pretty close.” He smiles, almost reminiscing. “I think she likes me alright.”

Trish looks around for answers; there are none to be found.

“Well, good,” Steve pipes up. “I hoped we could talk again.” It’s meant to be a passive-aggressive snark, but it comes out as something more polite. Theo narrows her eyes at him from behind Luke, who is completely unaware of everything happening around him.

“Really?” Luke clasps his hands together in front of him, looking at Steve earnestly. Shirley wants to die, knowing that Luke thinks he actually means it. He has to quickly rethink the ‘threatening older brother’ strategy or face the wrath of the girls.

“Yeah. Really. He… seems like a nice guy,” he grits out. The pressuring glares aimed at him from both sisters disappear at once as Luke nods, clearly pleased with the answer. Steve sighs. He knows that any objection would come off as petty, especially since he has no problem with Theo’s girlfriend, but Trish is so much less threatening than Matt. Still, he should keep it to himself. Maybe in a different family his protective instinct would be more acceptable, but Luke needs approval from him. Not scrutiny.

Shirley looks at him and sees gears turning, so she turns instead to Theo. “We’re all hungry.”

“You heard the man. I can’t cook for shit.”

“The food is already made, genius. If you and Trish can get the sides, I’ll start cutting ham and we can stop this mope fest.” Theo taps the side of her head, appearing enlightened, and whispers the plan to Trish. “Appreciate it.”

Theo reaches out for a high-five. “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

“I will not hesitate to punch you again.” She says it with a straight face, shaking her head as she slaps Theo’s hand anyway.


-


Shirley and Steve sit at either end of the table, Theo and Trish on one side, and Luke sitting alone on the other. It bothers his siblings that he’s alone more than it bothers him.

They start talking about how the couple met, which inevitably leads to Shirley complaining about Theo’s very public sexual prowess when they lived together.

“I’m pretty sure you flashed the neighbors more than a couple times,” she snarks. Trish has been out of breath from laughter for the whole conversation, while Luke and Steve sit appalled.

Theo rolls her eyes. “That was probably the most action they’ve seen since, like, the first World War.”

“Jesus, Theo.” Steve covers his eyes.

“What? Old people love lesbians. Just a fact of life, Stevie.” She shrugs and shoves a bite of mashed potatoes into her mouth- probably to avoid responding to anyone else.

Luke smiles, playing with his napkin. He waits for a clear opening to speak. “Did you… how did you come out? To anyone, I guess. I know how we found out, but...”

Theo raises her eyebrows at him as she eats, but she knows why he’s asking. They all somewhat know why he’s asking. “I didn’t, really. I was just obvious about it until they noticed. And that’s still how it happens to anyone else I meet. Everyone just finds out.” Luke swallows, averting his gaze. She studies him. “But it’s different for different people. Some people announce it, or never tell certain people at all. It all depends.”

“Huh,” he says, like he was just asking out of curiosity. There’s a moment where they think he might say something else, but it doesn’t come. Theo smiles when she can finally catch his eye again, a silent promise. She’s always on his side.

A few moments later they hear a knock on the door. Steve can’t help thinking that Matt has impeccable timing.

Luke perks up quickly at the sound, and Shirley hurries down to open the door for him, since she is the host and all. It isn’t locked, but she guesses he isn’t going to try and bust into a funeral home. Matt reads the mood a little better than most guests and doesn’t try to give her a hug when he steps into the house, but his eyes light up with recognition when he sees her.

“Hey, the party’s upstairs.” She signals toward the stairwell as he comes in and shuts the door behind him. He nods and starts to go up. But Shirley makes a noise behind him, and he pauses. “Um, Luke said you took him shopping.”

Matt’s expression is calm and unreadable. “Yeah, he needed new shoes.”

She doesn’t even know what she wants to say. “You- you paid for it, then? And the other things he got.”

Suddenly he’s smiling again, shaking his head faintly. “It’s not a problem. I wanted to get something for him while I could.” Shirley was going to offer to pay him back, but the look on his face tells her that he wouldn’t accept a penny. She’s simultaneously charmed and irritated by it.

“I’ll take your word for it,” she finally concedes with a sigh, following him up to the dining room.

When Luke sees him, she’d think he was looking at God or a winning lottery ticket. He’s clearly got it bad, and Shirley can’t say she blames him. She still gags a little bit returning to her seat. Matt lays a hand over Luke’s shoulder and whispers something to him when he sits down.

He greets Theo and Steve before landing on a new face- Trish, who offers her hand up. She probably wouldn’t hug him anyway, but they’re also at the table. “I’m Trish, Theo’s girlfriend,” she says, as giddy as ever. Matt flashes her a knowing look and takes her hand. He’s already done his handshaking with this family.

“Matt. I’m Luke’s friend. I think I talked to you back in October.” She nods, but neither of them remember what the conversation was about. They’ve met again now, anyway.

Theo eyes him. “Luke said you went to your mom’s place before this.”

“Yeah, I wanted to catch up with her a bit. She’s not a talker, but you know, she wants to hear what I’m doing, how Luke is,” he says, serving himself a small plate of food. “I have an unbelievable amount of yarn in my rental car right now, since she wanted him to have it.” Shirley snorts, and Luke’s ears go red.

Steve keeps up with the conversation in his corner, but he’s mainly stuck on the fact that Matt still introduced himself as a friend when three of four people in the room have seen them kiss. He doesn’t want to bring it up, but he has to admit that he’s deeply confused. He shakes himself out of it, leaning toward his brother. “Is this new?” Steve picks at his sweater, and Luke exhales, grateful for a change in subject. He looks down at himself again like he doesn’t remember what he’s wearing. It’s a wine-colored cable knit sweater, something that Steve couldn’t picture him buying, and a dress shirt underneath.

He nods with a smile, revealing a previously unnoticed scar on his lip. “Yeah, I got it today. Matt took me to the mall. It was terrible.” Matt laughs, but still squeezes his arm sympathetically. At a few questioning looks, he explains. “I don’t like crowds. I spent an hour smelling candles, and I also ate too much.”

“Hey, the last two things aren’t that bad,” Theo argues. He isn’t swayed.


-


Later, when they go down to the living room (in the residential side of the home) just to sit around and bullshit, Matt and Trish volunteer to stay in the kitchen and do the dishes. Luke soon realizes that he left his drink on the table, so he heads upstairs to get it. Steve joins him, planning to grab a bottle of booze or two.

When they reach the second story, they see Matt and Trish facing the sink away from them, just through another doorway. Luke opens his mouth to announce his presence, but Trish speaks before he can.

“So how do you feel? Dating a Crain, with the family history and all.” Matt pauses in his cleaning, and both brothers stay silent, out of sight. They can’t help but listen.

“I’m not very subtle, am I?” he says, and Luke can hear the amusement in his voice. The two crack up after that, and Trish pats his shoulder.

“If it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t just you. Everyone was sort of acting weird, and Luke wears his heart on his sleeve.” Matt makes a noise of agreement and continues scrubbing at a plate, while Trish is idle, more interested in what he has to say than emptying the sink. “The question stands. You probably already know a lot about what happened. How do you deal with it?”

Luke knows she doesn’t mean to imply that Matt just tolerates him and his trauma, but it sort of sounds like it. He hates that he’s actually anxious to hear the answer.

Matt doesn’t reply for a while, looking down into the drain and then at her. “It’s really tough,” he admits, almost inaudible. Luke’s heart sinks a little. It’s not the first time somebody has said he’s difficult, but from someone else who matters so much to him, it hurts. Steve hears it too. Maybe a month ago he would have been smug to prove to Luke that Matt wasn’t the perfect, accepting caretaker he claimed to be, but now it feels like that image is ruined for Luke, and he hates it. They both start to sulk before hearing another word. Another genetic trait of theirs must be rushing to conclusions. Matt continues after a moment. “You know, I want him to feel like he can tell me anything. I want to be there for him. But I hate to see him so upset, and there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing to say that would make it better. That’s the only hard part; I want to make it better for him.” He drops his chin a little, and Trish studies him closely.

“That’s… yeah. I know how you feel.”

Luke blinks back tears, lips pressed together stubbornly. His first assumption was thankfully wrong, but the explanation still makes him want to cry. Matt doesn’t think he’s too hard to manage- he just wants to help so bad. That’s almost worse. Sure, it doesn’t make Luke feel inadequate, but it’s a lot for him to hear.

Matt scratches the back of his head bashfully and laughs, publicly flustered for the first time since any of the siblings have met him. “I’m… I’m so in love with him, it’s pathetic,” he confesses.

Trish swats at his arm. “Hush, he probably doesn’t think that. It’s really sweet.”

“Yeah.” He leaves it at that, putting the conversation to rest.

Steve leaves Luke to process their eavesdropping session while he finally moves to get his gift of liquor. They both look back at him, and he gestures with the bottle of vodka he got for Shirley as a sort of sympathetic joke.

“You’re welcome to it when you get down, if my presence leads you to drinking as it does for my sisters.” Trish giggles. Matt puts the last plate out to dry with a smile.

Steve brushes past his little brother on the way back downstairs and quickly opens up the bottle once Shirley and Theo are in view, setting down and filling each of the glasses he brought along with it.

“Took you long enough,” Theo says, already reaching for one of the glasses, and then looks up at him. She stops abruptly, eyebrows furrowing. “Jesus, what happened?”

Steve is already sitting down, startled in the middle of a sip. “What?”

Shirley grabs another shot, eyes also trained on him. “You look like you just murdered someone and then turned yourself in.”

“Wow, thanks, Shirl. For your information, nobody is dead except for my career.” Theo snorts in laughter. “Maybe I’m sometimes capable of deep thought, alright? I’m thinking about shit.”

“That’s too unrealistic,” Shirley deadpans, and Theo really has to make an effort not to fall out of her seat.

Back upstairs, Luke walks through the dining room quietly in his socks, but he has no illusions of going unnoticed. Both Matt and Trish are almost facing him, and they both turn at the movement in their peripheral vision. Matt’s entire demeanor changes when he comes in. His shoulders raise a little bit, and Luke can’t help but meet his eyes; although he looks away when Matt approaches.

The smile on his face fades a little as he walks closer and sees Luke’s wet eyes. “Are you alright?” Matt gently takes his hands and watches with concern when Luke opens his mouth to speak and nothing comes out. He tries again, nodding and curling in on himself to rest his head on Matt’s chest.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he whispers. He knows Matt wants to question it, but he doesn’t say anything, and wraps his arms around Luke instead.


-


Once everyone is downstairs, the chatter becomes mundane and even somewhat friendly. It reminds Luke of phone calls with Shirley or Theo at the center. Over the phone, they never lose patience with him or interrogate him; it’s always to talk about the children, or Theo’s coworkers, or the program. They ask him strictly polite questions and limit their teasing to a minimum. Usually, it’s quite the opposite when they’re face-to-face, but everyone seems to be behaving tonight. Luke stays at the outskirts of the conversation, only chiming in when asked a question. Matt, on the other hand, is almost leading it.

Steve resents this. When there’s a lull in the discussion- which is on the riveting subject of trashy Hallmark movies- he decides that he can manage a small bit of confrontation. “Hey, Matt?” The man turns at the sound of his name, and Steve has to think fast about what he wants to say. “Before I ask you this, I want you to know that I’m not actively trying to harass you.”

“Oh no,” Theo mutters blankly, in the middle of his sentence.

Matt gives him a sly look. It’s infuriating. “It’s fine, I like when you give me a hard time anyway.”

Steve, contrary to the belief of his siblings, has had a change of heart. Matt still pisses him off, but after listening to his conversation upstairs, his main intention isn’t to provoke. He’s serious about Luke. Steve heard the tone of his voice, the conviction in it, and was fucking terrified. Arthur, in their first few meetings, brought on a similar reaction from him, but there’s something even more fragile about this. Especially without Nell. She would be able to see right through Matt, and would either hate him or embrace him as part of the family just as fast. She talked to him, according to Luke, and evidently liked him. Steve would find it easier to accept coming from Nell herself, but she can’t give him that, and so he’s kept in the dark.

Steve considers all of it before he opens his mouth. She would understand why he’s asking. “Why,” he starts, suddenly intimidated by nothing. “Why did you say you were Luke’s friend?”

Matt tilts his head at the question. Theo looks ready to scold him, lips pursed and a positively mean glare. But she lets Matt answer, probably curious about the reply herself. “That’s what I am. I’m his friend.”

Even Trish looks confused. Steve didn’t really prepare for that response. Is he pretending to hide it for Luke’s sake? If so, should he leave it be to avoid embarrassing his brother? “We- we saw… I don’t understand,” he says. Matt said aloud that he was in love with him.

“I know.” The girls sitting on the other side of the room see a smile playing at Luke’s lips, something Steve doesn’t catch from his angle. Matt leans in closer to him and lowers his voice. “It doesn’t matter what I call it. We can be together and still be best friends. The most important thing is that I’m there for him, and that I would do anything for him. I don’t think ‘boyfriend’ has that implication. That’s it.”

Steve is stunned to silence. “Oh,” he exhales finally. “Makes sense.” A sudden epiphany hits him. He just knows that Matt had said something similar to Nell when they talked. She probably hadn’t questioned him, but Steve somehow knows that she must have heard this from him over the center phone, perhaps in a less solemn tone. From the looks on Theo and Shirley’s faces, he knows they have the same gut feeling.

Trish has her hand over her heart, inspired and unaware of the inner conflict in each sibling.

“Luke?” Theo calls. It’s an invitation for him to add his two cents.

He hugs himself as everyone’s attention falls on him. “That’s really it. I told Matt’s mom the same thing.” He’s quiet, but not out of shame. It’s the opposite, in fact. Luke still has a dreamy smile on, eyes shining with pride. Steve is reminded of the look that he first gave Matt the night before Nellie’s service, in the doorway a few feet from where they sit now. It was something like relief. Relief from everything that’s happened to him, like Matt could make him forget about it for a minute or two.

Steve decides very quickly: anyone who gives Luke that rare comfort- something none of them have been able to do- deserves a place in their lives. He doesn’t ask any more questions.

However, Shirley is emboldened by his inquiry to make one of her own, something that she’s been thinking about recently. “I’ve heard- I heard that you’re not allowed to have relationships in rehab. Why? How do you… get around it?”

The question is mainly directed at Matt, the more outspoken of the pair, but Luke is the one who answers. “It’s because if one person relapses, the other might do the same thing. It mostly applies in early treatment, since you want to find someone to cling to, and it just doesn’t go well. Uh, we’ve been there for a long time now,” he says laughingly. “We aren’t obvious about it, but I think the sponsor kind of knows anyway. We’ve been really good these last few months, so they let it slide. They know he comes with me every time we get weekend passes.” Luke seems almost embarrassed at that.

“You guys think you’ll be different?” Shirley can’t shake the concern (and a little bit of disbelief) in her voice; she only wants the best for him.

Matt replies this time. “We’re not better than people who do end up relapsing. The only difference is how long we’ve been in the program, and making sure we remember that we’re getting better for ourselves ad not each other.” Shirley nods. That’s acceptable.

“Besides,” Luke adds, hesitating to continue for a moment. Matt rubs circles on his back. “We’re thinking about transferring to an aftercare facility here, you know, closer to family. We would probably live on our own then, so it wouldn’t be a problem anymore.” They’re all shocked that Luke would want to stay anywhere in Massachusetts, but it makes sense. The relationships with his siblings are mending and Matt has a connection here. Steve can’t help but think that Luke wanting to come back means that Hill House’s influence, the fear it’s held over him for so many years- is waning.

“That would be… nice,” Shirley tells him carefully. Luke raises his eyebrows. “I always get worried when you’re so far away from all of us.” Steve wants to interject to say that he lives in the area, but he knows that’s not what she means. She worries when Luke is far away from her, and her only.

After that, the scene goes back to being relatively normal, with Steve and Matt holding a pleasant conversation, both of them opening up a little more to the other. Theo ends up getting hungry again and stands up from her spot on the floor to head to the kitchen.

“Luke, want to come up with me? You can make more coffee.” She doesn’t even turn back to him, casual enough not to raise suspicions, but obvious enough that Luke knows what she really wants. He nods and grabs his mug, following her upstairs. She immediately swivels on her heels to face him, crossing her arms over her chest. “I was just wondering… If you want to tell me, when did you first know that you liked guys?” He hesitates, and she backtracks. “For the record, I’m not mad that you didn’t say anything. I mean, fuck, I didn’t tell anyone.”

He drops his head to his chest, but she can tell he’s still looking at her. “When did you figure out that you liked girls?”

Theo figures that’s a fair question, if she’s going to be asking him the same thing. “I don’t know what brought it on, but it hit me when I was in like, sixth grade.” He snorts. “What?”

Luke shrugs helplessly, mortified. “I realized it when Matt got close to me for the first time. It was fucking months ago.” Theo is silent. She has no idea how to respond to that. It’s such a different experience than hers, and sometimes a painful one, to figure it out as an adult.

“That’s okay,” she says eventually, touching his arm. “That’s okay, Luke. You don’t have to know so young for those feelings to be real. We’re all still figuring shit out.” He nods tightly.

“It’s just, I didn’t know if I was just- I was high all the time, and I never thought of anybody like that. I didn’t know with him if maybe I was just desperate to lean on anyone, but I knew. It was never a girl.” Theo’s memories confirm it. He never had girlfriends as a teen or as a young adult, into the start of his addiction. She had assumed that he was focused on other things, which may have been true, but it never occurred to her that he might have never clicked with anyone before. It makes sense that he would be a late bloomer.

“Don’t doubt yourself, alright? You know how you feel. If you were just desperate, it wouldn’t last this long, would it? You’re, what, five months clean?”

Luke swallows hard and nods in agreement. His eyes go distant then. “If they knew,” he says, voice shaky, and pauses. “You think if Steve and Shirley knew when I realized it, would they think I just did what was easy?”

Theo shakes her head fervently. “No, they’d believe you. I believe you.” She finally turns away to warm up some of the food, Luke helping her put everything away after. As he waits for his coffee to finish brewing, she elbows him gently. “And by the way, nothing about what you’re doing is fucking easy. If they don’t understand that, they’re idiots,” she tells Luke. It at least gets a smile out of him, and Theo can classify that as a win.

Another beat of silence passes. “I like Trish,” Luke says after a moment, tilting his head as if in deep thought. “She’s… bubbly.”

She laughs. “You can say that again.” The amusement in her voice is fond. “I mean, compared to us anyway. We’re a broody bunch.” Luke makes a noise of agreement, and she turns to him. “I wasn’t so sure about Matt at first, maybe because we were all so fucked up those few days, but uh, I warmed up to him. Especially at the hospital. And when you talked about him.” Luke was quite discreet about making any reference to their relationship over the phone, but just his tone was enough for Theo to tell that Matt would be in for the long haul. Once, she had put her phone against her chest, on speaker, when he said that Matt would come up to his bunk and read with him whenever he woke up from nightmares. Trish saw the stricken look on her face and was actually worried until Theo reassured her that nothing was wrong.

She knew immediately, when Steve asked about Matt before dinner, that Luke hadn’t told his other siblings about those times. If Steve knew, he wouldn’t have said anything. He found out that Matt was a comfort to their brother anyway, but it took him longer. She privately wonders if Luke even tells him anything. When he doesn’t respond, she voices her curiosity. “Did you ever talk to Steve about him?”

Luke’s smile fades. “I didn’t talk to him. At all.”

Theo can feel her blood boil as accusations rise in the back of her mind. “He didn’t call? He didn’t fucking-”

“No, no,” he insists. “I was just scared. I was scared, and I told my therapist that I was afraid to talk to him, because- and uh, he told me to call anyway. I did. I called a few times.” He shuffles on his feet guiltily, like he’s tattling on Steve. “He didn’t answer. I was relieved. He called me back once or twice, and I had them tell him that I was busy. But he did call me. He tried.”

Once or twice, he said. Theo doesn’t think that’s trying hard enough, but she doesn’t want to upset him or be pissed with Steve yet again. “Why were you scared to talk to him?” she asks instead, now feeling that she needs to get to the bottom of this.

Luke falters and raises his shoulders, almost defensively. “I just…” He stops and takes a breath to steady himself, but it doesn’t work. “I didn’t want to disappoint him again.” His lip trembles, voice breaking like the words themselves hurt him. She pulls him into a tight hug, and he stoops down a little to rest his head on her shoulder. “I just thought, you know, I’m- I’m embarrassing him. Like, his brother, he’s already a fucking addict, and now he’s- he has a-” Theo hushes him. She’s heard enough. She wants to cry her eyes out for Luke, knowing that she can feel only a fraction of the pure shame radiating off of him. There’s nothing she can do about how Luke’s been treated in the past- by all of them- but she hopes she can give him some kind of reassurance.

She takes time to collect her thoughts before grabbing his shoulders, meeting his eyes sternly. “Listen to me. Steve can be a dick. Shit, sometimes he acts like he wants to disown all of us. But he is always going to be proud of you. He loves you, and he’s never given up on you, and he never will. Dad loved you. They have always wanted to see you happy.” Luke chokes up. She glances at the floor, suddenly with less assurance. What Theo really wants to say is that if Steve knew Luke felt like this, he would die. It would fucking kill him. She doesn’t want Steve to find out, but she doesn’t want Luke to feel like he’s overreacting and like he can’t tell anyone. “He only wants to see you get better,” she says carefully. “And I think he likes Matt too; he just wanted to start an alpha male pissing contest earlier.” Luke laughs more out of shock than anything else, sniffing right after. “Okay?”

He nods. “Okay.”

“You and him, so fucking easy to turn on the waterworks,” she sighs, exasperated, and thumbs at a tear on his cheek. “We need to stop giving you reasons to cry, I guess.”


-


When Luke and Matt leave, they both get hugs from everyone. Even Steve gives Matt a hearty slap on the shoulder, which is pretty much the same thing for him. It’s a gesture of hopefully atoning for his sins, and he thinks that Matt gets the message.

Steve and Theo sit alone in the foyer after Shirley decides that she’s had enough of them. She’s going to sleep, she says; Theo still has her key, and she can lock up the place when they leave. Trish is entertaining herself with a family photo album in the hallway, out of earshot.

They finish their drinks in silence before Steve snorts, gently fixing his glasses as he stares at his shoes. “What?” Theo laughs. She doesn’t know what’s funny, but her brother in glasses is always enough to give her a good chuckle.

“Shirl and Luke. They have the same limit for socializing.”

She taps her chin thoughtfully then. “Yeah. But that’s not why he left.” Steve raises a brow. “He doesn’t get to be alone with his boy that much. And I think Shirley is just too introverted to be a hostess.”

“True,” he concedes. “The whole thing is actually quite heartwarming. With Luke and all.” He’s back to openly refusing to acknowledge Matt as a person with a proper name.

She rolls her eyes, knowing already that he’s reached the point in drinking where he’s toasty and philosophical. “Jesus, I wish you’d act like it. You looked at him during dinner like you were about to propose a fucking duel. And for the record, your nerdy ass would get destroyed.” She’s only partially joking, and her anger is only partially playful.

Steve frowns. “Why are you bullying me?”

Theo drags one hand down her face and groans. “You spent a solid hour antagonizing this guy for no good reason. And somehow Matt’s the only one who likes your wacky overprotective big brother bullshit.”

“Hey, I really felt that at first. Protective, I mean. Didn’t you?” Yes, she did, but she’s not just going to admit it to him of all people. “I went on for a little too long, but I needed to be sure.”

“Fine.” She purses her lips, but it’s clear that his answer was found to be acceptable.

Steve knows he’s forgiven and doesn’t waste breath defending himself for any longer than he has to. “Anyway, did Luke say anything about what he’s been up to the last month or so? Besides being unavailable at the phone for all of November.”

Theo, for an instant, thinks he might have overheard their conversation, but his expression is one of genuine curiosity and a bit of annoyance. If he had heard it, she knows what would happen, which is precisely why she didn’t tell Luke to reach out to Steve about their problems. Usually, from a psychological standpoint, she would recommend making amends and putting the issues out in the open.

From a sister’s standpoint, she would expect only sheer devastation from Steve, who wouldn’t be able to cope with the idea of Luke fearing him in any capacity. She wishes it was all in her head, but Theo fully believes that Steve would be hysterical over it, inconsolable. He would be a fucking wreck. She knows better than to think that he’s less emotional than the other siblings about these things. Coming from Luke, his only brother and who he’d wanted to be a role model for since the twins were born, the thought would destroy him.

“No, just talked about weekend passes and gay stuff,” she tells him, and it’s a partial truth, so she feels less guilty about lying to him. “And you know, whenever I called him, he seemed to have a lot going on. They told me he was busy a lot too- I think, uh, with one-on-one therapy and all that shit.”

Steve nods, satisfied that he wasn’t the only one left hanging. Theo almost breathes a sigh of relief. But he suddenly looks downtrodden, and she has the feeling that her story wasn’t convincing enough. Steve traces the rim of his glass with his index finger and lowers his eyes once again. “Do you think-” He clears his throat and doesn’t look at her. “Does Luke know that I-”

“Of course he does.”

That doesn’t seem to comfort him at all. “I didn’t even think about how it looked. That I was… targeting Matt. I never did that with Trish, you know. And- and he must know. Does he think, maybe, that I don’t-” Steve puts the glass down, covers his mouth for a moment. Theo is terrified. “That I don’t approve of just him?”

She can’t bullshit Steve on this, but she doesn’t want to hurt him either. Not now. But she rationalizes that this is at least something he’s actually guilty of. Something that he deserves to know. “You kind of said it yourself. It was clear that you only had an issue with Matt.” His face falls even further, and she rushes to find an upside. “He might have thought you disapproved earlier, but he must know now that you’re okay with it. Right? You were friendly with both of them.”

She knows that although he feels deservedly awful, this at least won’t make him stab himself, like the knowledge that Luke avoided him out of fear would. A small victory.

He doesn’t show any signs of ending the melodrama quickly. “I didn’t say anything to support him,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose and abandoning the glasses in favor of scrubbing at his eyes. “I… I made him feel different.”

Theo grimaces sympathetically. “You sure did.” Steve finally glares at her, betrayed despite the fact that she’s only agreeing with him. “Hey, at least you’re self-aware.”

Then he sighs. “What a fucking mess.” He takes a moment just to think. “Is there any way to call him? Should I even try?” Theo considers that maybe he didn’t call Luke more often because he just wanted to give him space, and she remembers the conversation with her dad before Nell’s funeral.

“He doesn’t have a phone now, but when he leaves, try. He needs you to. Keep trying,” she says firmly. Steve nods and sinks back into the couch cushion, hands on his knees.

Trish eventually comes back out to drag Theo back to their apartment, and Steve is eventually sober enough to drive back to his own hotel. He stands up quite begrudgingly, putting his coat back on in preparation for the frigid weather. Trish makes sure to emphasize that she was so happy to see him again as Theo locks the door behind them, and he returns the sentiment easily. She’s a relief from the usual sulking everyone in this family is so prone to.

As they part ways in the dark to go to their respective cars, Theo grabs his coat sleeve. He stops in his tracks. “Hey.” She gestures for him to come closer, and Steve doesn’t need any more explanation than that. He hugs her.

“You were always the smartest of all of us, you know,” he says when they separate.

Theo grins. “I do know.”

Steve sits in the driver's’ seat for a while, even after his sister has left, and looks up the rehab center’s number again. He takes out his notepad, usually reserved for story ideas, and writes it down before turning the ignition.