Steve calls, and Luke actually answers this time.
It took him exactly fifteen days to work up the nerve to dial the number and only a few moments, it seems, for the line to connect and for Luke to grab the phone. Steve didn’t schedule it officially, but he waited until the time of day Luke had told him once was the center’s designated phone time. He said he stayed by the phone even if no one called.
“Hi, Steve,” Luke says first, and Steve freezes up.
He at least recovers quickly. “Hey. How’s everything going?”
“It’s good. I’ve gotten through a lot of the program steps since my 90 day chip, so… I think it’s going good.” He’s obviously proud of himself for this fact- Steve is proud of him too, smiling against the phone. He’s glad to have gotten over his hang-ups about calling Luke, even if the conversation is more formal and awkward than he’d like. It’s his own doing, so he can’t complain too much. “How about you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I probably told you this at Christmas, but Leigh is planning on some kitchen remodeling, so it should be fun trying to work when I’m surrounded by power drills.” Luke snickers. “But I’m really happy to hear that you’re making so much progress.” He has no idea what the steps include or mean for Luke’s recovery, truthfully, but it sounds like a good thing. He wants to be supportive above all else. “You mentioned that you want to move to a place near Boston. Anything specific on that?”
He goes silent, and Steve can’t tell if he’s thinking or if he’s upset. If he thinks Steve is upset. “It probably won’t be that soon, a month or two off, but I’m finishing the program here first. You know? I want to say I did it.” Luke sounds so determined; it’s hard to doubt him. That’s one of the biggest changes from so many other times. He isn’t going back to how he was before heroin, but that’s honestly a good thing. Luke even at age twenty was anxious, secretive, easily victimized, and most concerning of all- he was unresisting. Steve feels that all of the siblings as young adults didn’t realize how bad it was, and sometimes used it to their advantage, knowing he wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Looking back on it now, they actively ignored the fact that he was in such a weak state, and didn’t even think about what would happen because of it. It’s probably why they paid up for so many years, through different centers and sober living programs that he typically withdrew from after a few months. For a while, Steve and Shirley primarily footed the bill without complaining (out loud) because they knew they could be considered partly responsible for his addiction escalating so quickly.
Now, from what Steve can discern, he’s still quite meek, but there’s a resilience in him that never showed itself before. The dysfunction that controlled him early on is nowhere to be found. He excels in public speaking, surprisingly enough. Steve knows Luke probably has more to say about his plans, but- “I’m so fucking proud of you.”
Luke exhales quietly. Steve can tell he’s smiling. “I know.”
“Good,” he says, and he means it. There’s a pause as Steve scratches his neck and tries to come up with something else to say. “What about Matt?”
There’s a clear hesitance on Luke’s part to say anything on that subject. Steve curses himself. “Um, he’s fine.” Neither of them speak for a while, and he refuses to let this become something that Luke doesn’t want to tell him about.
“Is he… making progress too? I never really got to ask him about how it was going. When we talked, I mean.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s a lot faster than I am, you know? Since I was- I was in and out for a long time. It took him a while to get help, but now he’s just fighting through it. He’s almost ahead of me,” Luke tells him, almost self-deprecating.
Steve leans back against the wall and waves to Leigh when she walks in to get a drink. “Well, that’s okay. Remember what that girl, uh, Joey, said when I asked about recovery?” Leigh smiles when she realizes who he’s talking to and kisses his cheek without a word before she goes. “What’s been going on with her anyway? Do you still talk to her?”
Luke takes a deep, shuddery breath, and he thinks maybe they had a falling out. Steve always sort of thought Joey was interested in him, so perhaps she didn’t take his connection with Matt so well. Or if he was right, and Joey had burned him somehow. “Before Nellie died, she ran away. She- I heard she, um- I don’t want to say it,” he says, suddenly panicked, and Steve can hear a social worker ask him if he needs to hang up. He must refuse, because he stays on the line. “Don’t make me say it.”
Steve wishes he knew what the fuck Luke was avoiding, but he doesn’t. “It’s alright, you don’t have to tell me. I don’t… really know what you’re getting at, but I’m sorry. If you’re upset about her.”
“It’s hard. I thought we’d get better together.” That breaks Steve’s heart a little. Luke, even during other stays at different facilities, was always happy when other people finished the program and left. He always had hope that he would join those people one day, and it could only be devastating that one of his friends didn’t make it through.
He sighs. “I know.” That’s a lie. He can’t even imagine, and it took going to the house to realize that. That he would never know what Luke has been through, is going through. “Tell me more about Matt.”
Luke hums. “Well, he wants to go up to Martha’s Vineyard and work on a cottage his uncle left to him. Whenever we finish up with this stuff.”
“I’m going with him.”
“Oh,” Steve breathes. “That’s nice. It’s expensive up there, but it’s beautiful.”
“Why’d you call?” Luke’s voice crackles over the line suddenly. He flounders for an answer, preferably one that wouldn’t involve admitting he’s wrong, but it’s past that.
“Really, I… What I wanted to do was apologize. I’m sorry.” He knows what Theo would say. What for? What are you sorry for? “For making you feel like I wasn’t supportive of you. For doubting that you could do it. You can tell Matt I’m sorry too, for acting like a douche. I felt threatened, just because-” He stops and rubs his temple, pacing, almost too embarrassed to continue, but he had this speech planned out pretty well, so he has to. “It sounded like he was doing a better job of taking care of you than I was, and I blamed him for my own failures. So, you don’t have to forgive me now or maybe ever, but I just wanted to get it off my chest, which I guess is kind of selfish, but-”
Luke cuts through his hurried rambling. “Stevie, I forgive you.”
“Oh.” Steve nods, despite the fact that Luke can’t see him. He could cry, he’s so unbelievably relieved. But he doesn’t, because his mind shouldn’t be at ease, and it really, truly isn’t. “Then I want to say something else. I’m sorry that we never saw how much you were hurting before. I mean before you even started using. When I gave you money, I knew what you were using it for, and I thought I didn’t care. But I didn’t really know. I didn’t think about the withdrawals, the depression, what you would have to do to get more- I was fucking stupid. For not reading between the lines and seeing that you needed help. Okay? I just-” I didn’t want to think that my brother had a heroin addiction. “We thought it would just go away if we ignored it, and we were fucking wrong, and you paid the price for it. And I wish every goddamn day that I could take it back.”
The line is quiet for a moment before Luke lets out a muffled whimper, and Steve realizes he’s crying into his shirt sleeve. He doesn’t say anything else, swallowing thickly himself as he waits for Luke to finish. He sniffles once more before speaking. “Thank you f-for telling me. I... needed to hear that.” He doesn’t get forgiveness this time, but Luke feels better, and that’s all that matters. Steve can rest easy now that it’s out in the open. He’s surprised when Luke laughs tearfully. “You know Matt actually likes you, right?”
He huffs. “Or so he said when I was right in front of him.”
Steve can hear the smile in his voice. “He meant it. He asked about you, even before you met him. When you sent me one of your books, I gave it to him. He loved it.”
“That just means he has bad taste in literature.”
Luke is adamant though, and he’s obviously amused that Steve has a hard time believing this. “No, really. He liked your humor, and he always wanted to meet you.”
It sort of makes him feel bad that his immediate reaction to Matt was to hassle him, if it is true that he was really excited to meet Steve. “On the plane ride after I got out of the hospital, he said you guys had a good conversation in the waiting room.”
“I told him I wanted to beat his ass,” Steve says, determined to downplay the heart-to-heart they had back in October. Sure, Luke can know that he never meant any harm by his interrogating, but he shouldn’t think that Steve likes Matt.
His brother ignores him. “I think he understands you.”
“How so?” He sets one shoulder against the wall, his free hand shoved into his pocket.
“He took every opportunity to talk to you again. He knew you didn’t really hate him.” Steve is silent. Luke is starting to sound like the logical one of them. He just thought Matt kept talking to him because he didn’t want it to look like he was backing down. However, he realizes quickly that the only competition was on his side. Matt persisted for other reasons, now clear to him.
“Huh. Make sure he knows I’m not really an insufferable dick.”
Luke laughs. “I don’t think I have to tell him that.”
“Speaking of me being a dick, is that why you didn’t answer my calls after the funeral? I mean, you probably were really busy, but it seems like there was something else. Am I wrong?” Steve didn’t really mean to drop the question so suddenly, but his curiosity got the better of him. He’s been wondering for a while, and just barely resisted asking about it at Christmas. Leigh tried to tell him it was probably nothing, but he had a weird feeling about it, even when Theo said she’d also gotten put on hold a few times.
Just as he’d thought, Luke quite obviously avoids answering. “Yeah, I’m sorry, it’s, uh, it’s actually kind of stupid.” Steve waits to say anything for an uncomfortable period of time until he continues. He can almost picture Luke scratching his stubble, a nervous habit of his. “But I think I should tell you, since I’m supposed to be making amends and all. Um, I was actually scared. To talk to you. I thought maybe you were ashamed of me, and that it would be better if I didn’t know for sure. But my therapist said to call you, to face my fears, I guess. I called a few times, but you weren’t at home. And I thought- shit, I’m stupid. I thought you were ignoring my calls, and I panicked. I was happy, really happy, to see you at Shirley’s house, but when we went upstairs-” He pauses, swallowing audibly. “You stopped talking, and I kind of thought you were gonna punch me.”
Steve takes the phone away from his ear, even as he hears Luke reassure him. “But I know better now,” he says, full of hope, but Steve can only hear the slight edge of uncertainty there. “Steve?” After a few beats of silence pass, Luke obviously becomes anxious. “You there?”
“Yeah.” He’s about to throw up in the sink. He can’t let Luke know that though; he already feels guilty for being afraid of Steve. Next to learning that Nellie had died, these have to be the worst words he’s ever heard in his life. It makes him want to set himself on fire.
“Oh good,” Luke exhales with a nervous laugh. “I thought you hung up on me for a second.”
Whether he knows it or not, he’s still afraid. He’s still scared of Steve’s judgment, that he might be an embarrassment to his big brother. “Sorry, I just have to-” Steve clears his throat loudly, holding the phone a good distance from him as he does. He leans on the counter, breathes out hard through his nose; he doesn’t bother to blink the tears out of his eyes. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says steadily, belying his current state. Steve is at the point of improvising now. “That… Fuck, Luke.” He scrubs at his eyes as another bout of nausea hits him. Sometimes Luke would tell him when he’d hurt his feelings, with some sort of betrayal or anger or sadness. But then, there were all the times he didn’t. When Steve knew he’d said something that struck a nerve, and Luke kept quiet. He wonders if it was because Luke thought he deserved it. “I never- I would never.” He can’t continue and pinches the bridge of his nose to compose himself.
Luke makes a wounded noise, genuinely confused by Steve’s reaction, and it makes him feel worse. He doesn’t even know why Steve is upset. In some way, he wouldn’t expect him to know. Maybe he never told Luke about all the time he spent searching for facilities for him to go to, and he’s never admitted aloud to anyone that sometimes he fantasized about helping Luke find a nice apartment or seeing the writing that Joey had gushed about months ago. Leigh is the only one who knew and agreed not to use Luke’s portion of the book profits for his rehab or anything else, and Steve stubbornly decided to scrounge up the money some other way. He still has that money in a savings account, waiting to be moved over whenever Luke is done with the program.
He swallows hard, remembering his exchange with Theo in the parlor.
“ Does Luke know that I- ” Love him , he’d wanted to ask.
She interrupted that thought process. “ Of course he does ,” she almost snapped at him, and at the time, Steve could tell there was no room for argument. Now he’s uncertain.
“I’m sorry,” Luke tells him then, effectively scolded. “I know you wouldn’t, I just… You know I don’t always see things the right way.”
It’s not his fault, it isn’t, but he’s making it worse. So many conversations, and it takes only one to lay out for Steve exactly how he’s wronged Luke in every fucking way. He apologizes, doubts himself for Steve’s sake. It makes him seethe with anger, and more than that- he’s heartbroken. “No. Don’t fucking- you did nothing wrong. Don’t blame yourself for this. Of all things.”
Luke stays quiet. Steve paces around the kitchen island.
“You’ve said sorry before, alright? You wrote us letters for one of your steps, making amends or something. That’s over; you know we all forgave you.” He isn’t making much sense, Steve knows, but he has a point he’s working toward. “This one is on me, completely. I’m only upset because I know that I fucked up.”
“You didn’t do anything to make me feel scared,” he argues, still confused.
Steve shakes his head and sighs. “I didn’t do anything to make you feel safe either.” Luke doesn’t reply this time, probably because he knows that Steve is right. In a sort of fucked up, masochistic way, he’s actually glad that Luke told him. That he knows the exact nature of what he’s caused.
He tells Luke not to take the full blame, but it’s difficult in practice not to take it on himself. The whole family has always lingered on their own failures and regrets, so predictably, he and Luke both blame themselves.
“Maybe it wasn’t either of our faults,” Luke says placatingly, and Steve raises a brow. He’s still trying to find a way not to blame anyone. “I’m serious, Steve.”
“Well something had to make you scared.”
Luke huffs gently. “I’m scared of everything.”
“Shut up. First of all, you are absolutely not scared of everything. And second, let me have this. You don’t need to think about it anymore. It’s a me problem.” He can practically hear Luke rolling his eyes, but it’s much better than him feeling guilty for something that really isn’t his fault.
Luke groans, the subject forgotten. “Everything is a ‘you’ problem.”
“Correct,” Steve answers. He’s not as notorious for nosiness as Shirley is, but he’s just as bad. He manages a bit more subtlety, that’s all.
“ Anyway, I’m not mad at you. Just know that.” Luke sighs.
“Yeah.” He’s surprised at how much of a relief that is to hear, but in hindsight, Steve’s been worried about it for the entire conversation. “I’m gonna have to go soon. Matt wants me to talk to his cousin.”
Steve can’t help being a little irked. “Really?” he asks, with the lowest level of bitterness he can manage. However, he quickly corrects himself. “I mean, yeah, okay. I’ll… Can I call you again? Maybe in a few weeks?”
“Steve, you can call me whenever you want.” The little exasperated sigh he gives just reminds him of when they were younger. Luke and Nell both made very broody teenage flight-risks, and Steve was always fussing over them. He just knows Luke is rolling his eyes, and it makes him smile.
There’s a moment with only static between them, and then- “I love you.” Steve’s chest is tight, hearing him say it, and he knows that he’s being given a chance.
“Love you too, Luke,” he replies quietly, and his brother lets out a short breath on the other line. “I’ll talk to you soon, alright? Tell Matt I said hi.”
Luke laughs. “Alright, I will. Bye.”
“Bye.” And the line clicks dead, leaves Steve standing alone in their kitchen with the phone dangling from his hand. He rubs his eyes and leaves it on the counter, going instead to the bedroom where Leigh is reading. He flops face-first on the bed next to her.
“How’d it go?” She pats the back of his head, knowing that he’s prone to dramatics no matter the outcome.
“Exactly how you’d expect. I cried. He cried. I had to admit that, contrary to popular belief, I make mistakes on occasion.” Steve rolls over and shrugs. “Rarely, but it does happen.”
Leigh rolls her eyes. “Shocking. I would have never guessed.”
He ignores the obvious sarcasm. “You know, Luke said that his boyfriend read one of my books and liked it. Can you believe that? He likes my humor of all things.”
She shrugs back at him. “It’s not hard to believe. How did he get the book?”
“Luke gave it to him after I sent one- Gettysburg, I think- a while ago.” Leigh raises her eyebrows. “What?”
“If I know anything about Luke, he gave it up without reading it first.”
Steve sighs heavily and turns away from her to switch off the lamp on his side. “Of course he didn’t. I’m not insulted.” He is deeply insulted. “Wake me up only if my brother decides to elope with this guy. Otherwise I’m staying in bed and slowly decomposing for the rest of my days.”
“Dramatic, much?” He can hear the smile in her voice as she pets his hair.
He takes Leigh’s hand away from his head and kisses the back of it. “Not at all.”