Michael had let Ashton sleep in his bed that night, secretly needing the warmth of a familiar body as much as Ashton did. As he traced the curves he had already memorised years ago underneath the duvets he tried to push away the creeping memories with pointless thoughts like counting Ashton's breaths. Focusing on the older boy turned out to be a lot less pointless when he noticed the way the rhythm of his breathing quickened and became shakier and shakier with every new number Michael whispered into the dark. The lies he had uttered to calm his best friend down were so untrue it had made his stomach churn when the sound of his own voice reached his ears. But Ashton had to work a double shift the next day so he couldn't afford losing sleep over something he couldn't help. He'd rather the guilt keep him awake than Ashton.
That's how he ended up sprawled on the couch the next day, his bag still laying in the hallway where he had thrown it when he came home from work. Seeing as Ashton and Calum wouldn't be home any time soon, he was the one who had been assigned cooking duty. But instead of chopping vegetables, he was half asleep on the couch, taking a trip down memory lane. He gently traced the stains on the fabric, treating them with more respect than his own fucking life (which he may or may not have fucked up when he stopped going to school). The dried blood felt hard underneath his shaking fingers, a vivid memory of this one time he messed around with Luke a little too roughly and the boy ended up bleeding. It may seem like a sad thing to have etched into your brain as deeply as the Pythagorean theorem, but he had gently wiped the blood away and covered the wound with a bandage, on which he had drawn a smiley. Luke’s tears were only from shock and as soon as Michael wrapped his arms around him, insisting they’d cuddle until Ashton came home, they dried. Next was a coffee stain. It didn’t directly connect to Luke, but when Michael got in nostalgic moods like this one he was able to link anything with what he was missing. And Luke happened to have a strong dislike for coffee. He prefered hot chocolate, a remainder of the youthfulness Michael, Calum and Ashton had let go off too soon too precious to let go to waste.
The tense silence in the room came to an abrupt end when the doorbell rang and Michael fell off the couch with a hiss, abandoning the stains as he remembered that he was supposed to cook dinner. He already started muttering an apology to Calum, who was going to be the first to arrive, stopping halfway his suggestion to order take out tonight when he finally opened the door.
He almost choked on his words, not even considering to greet him but instead focussing on pushing his name past his lips. In front of him was not the familiar sight of a tired Calum with droopy eyes and a faint smile.
Ashton's voice boomed in his ears, last night's mantra of those beautiful pure blue eyes on repeat along with the sobs. He bit his lip, trying to keep his own tears from spilling because Ashton was right. His eyes still held that beautiful shade of blue, but so did the dark circles surrounding them, his trembling lips and the slender fingers he held up in an awkward wave.
Luke's features softened when he recognised his best friend, the corners of his mouth curling into that shy smile Michael had missed as much as having someone to mess with.
Without thinking it through, Michael reached out to his hair, brushing his fingers through the quiff and wincing when he felt the dried wax that clotted the strands together. He wondered when Luke had stopped straightening it, probably around the time he replaced his old acoustic with a Gibson les Paul and had to fit in with high-class perverts instead of a bunch of high school drop-outs.
Luke didn't shy away from his touch, instead he leaned in, savouring the feeling of something friendly.
"Michael," he mused, his voice, which was as soft and ethereal as the shade of blue Ashton had sobbingly termed pure, spreading a warmth that contrasted brutally with the coldness of his skin, reminding Michael that they were still stood in the doorway.
"Come on in, you must be cold."
He dropped his hand from his hair and rested it on his lower back instead, guiding him inside. Luke felt like a clay doll in his hands. Everytime Michael touched him, he bent, moving exactly the way he wanted him to. He leaned into his touch, melting all over his hands and Michael realised how awful that trait must be if Luke's life really was the way Ashton had described it. It made Michael wish that Luke was only this bendable when it came to him.
He pushed Luke down on the couch, his stomach doing somersaults when the younger boy smiled in recognition despite the bad things that had happened there.
"Would you like something to drink? You must be cold," Michael offered politely, already striding towards the kitchen. By the time Luke could chatter his way through a response, he had already disappeared.
"I'm sorry, I don't think we have any hot chocolate," his head peeked in the doorway when he announced the sad news to Luke.
"That's okay. I, I drink coffee now."
Michael's smile visibly faltered at the younger boy's response and he couldn't stop the following set of words that was about to slip past his lips.
"How about tea?"
Luke nodded vigorously and stood up, following Michael into the kitchen, which was still as small as he remembered.
There were sheets of paper scattered around everywhere, letters scribbled on them with a messiness so extreme they had had to be written while drunk or in the middle of the night. Along with the sheets there were empty mugs everywhere, marking every surface with dark circles.
Luke watched intently while Michael made tea, resisting the urge to press himself against the older boy's body and letting the warmth seep into his own. Instead of glueing himself to Michael, he simply stepped a little closer and held his numb hands over the boiling water. The contrast made another shiver run down his spine.
"Why are you so cold? How did you get here?"
Michael asked, eyeing his blue hands worriedly. The boy was still shivering uncontrollably and he wanted the tea to just be finished already. He hadn’t missed the way his eyes escaped Michael’s gaze and somehow ended up taking in the way the white damp rose to the ceiling.
"I walked here," Luke shrugged, trying to play it off as something unimportant. If it weren’t for his skinny legs, which were shaking from the effort, he would’ve rolled his eyes.
"Are you kidding me? That's like a twenty minute drive or something."
He settled for scolding him instead. Michael wanted to smack Luke and tell him off for being irresponsible, but he was already getting sidetracked, his attention caught by what Luke was wearing as he took in the boy's appearance a second time.
Luke shifted his weight from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable with Michael's stare inspecting him yet doing nothing to stop him.
He was wearing a tight shirt that clung to his chest and a pair of super super skinny jeans. Michael noticed the brand names of the clothes but convinced himself that he had seen it wrong. (There was no way Luke had ended up with someone that rich.)
"Aren't you about seventeen right now? Shouldn't you know of the existence of this thing called the weather?"
Luke blushed, wrapping one hand around his stomach to rub his skin soothingly before answering. His shoulders slumped a little like they did when Michael took things too far.
"There was no weather in the mansion." He shrugged without looking Michael in the eyes and the latter used that moment to realise that Luke really had ended up with someone that rich.
He tried to convince himself that a lack of oxygen and sunlight was what had caused the dark circles underneath his eyes and the pale colour of his skin.
"I'd offer to teach you all about it, but I take it you'll think twice before leaving the house without a coat."
With his eyes still trained on his $500 boots, Luke nodded almost invisibly. His fingers were fumbling with the hem of his shirt, searching for strands to pull on but finding none. It seemed to upset him even more.
"I barely have any warm clothes and the ones I have are in a special closet for when we go out."
His voice was so soft Michael barely understood what he said and when he finally deciphered the words he didn't even reply. He just poured the steaming water into a cup, put a tea bag in it and gave it to Luke, who immediately curled his fingers around the mug.
"Don't you have to make dinner?" Luke asked hesitantly, seemingly weighing each word before saying it. After Michael's silence, he was afraid to say something wrong, but he didn't want to be the one responsible for the others not having dinner.
Michael smiled and Luke finally looked up at the sound of his voice. The boy's eyes blinded his own with the softest shade of green and Luke wished he would just smack and tease him already.
"How about we order Chinese instead?”
When the door opened a second time, Luke was immediately enveloped in a hug. Michael had wrapped him in a blanket and the warm cocoon kept him from being able to move, but he smiled nonetheless.
The person to ring the doorbell in the first place had been Calum, all quivering lips and half-closed, sleepy eyes. He’d been in the middle of a yawn when realisation hit that instead of Michael holding the door knob, it was their long lost best friend.
Michael felt kind of bad for how awkward things had been when he let Luke in but the seventeen year old, their seventeen year old, showing up on their doorstep wearing clothes more expensive than every item in his wardrobe together, looking like he had let go of everything that made him Luke did something strange to his insides and caused a sudden urge to jump off of a bridge. Only when scared and sad did Luke resemble the boy he once was and Michael just couldn’t help himself.
Yet here Calum was, sitting on the couch with a boy they had met in what felt like a different century. Said boy was still trembling, despite the blanket and the arms that had found their way to his waist and shoulders. It was a sign of a nervousness Michael cursed himself for, just like the tears that were clouding Luke’s eyes.
“Did you hear All Time Low’s new album while you were gone?”
Calum asked excitedly, his knees bouncing up and down while he waited to tell Luke every single thing he had done since he left. There was a sparkle in his eyes that betrayed just how much he had missed the younger a boy, something Michael had often questioned when Calum smiled and serenaded them after their home housed one person less.
Luke looked up, happiness radiating from his skin as if Calum had just assured him that everything was okay, that everything would go back to normal.
And maybe he did.
Luke surprised them by jumping up, shrugging off his blanket while he strode to the other side of the living room. His shaky fingers fumbled with the zipper of a suitcase he had discarded when Michael wasn’t looking. When he opened it, Michael caught both himself and Calum trying to get a glance of what was inside, but as soon as he had found what he needed, Luke shut the suitcase.
He handed the item to Calum, nervously biting his lip and fighting a smile. Calum slowly accepted the CD case, clasping it tightly and tilting it so Michael could recognise the colours of All Time Low’s Don’t Panic album. The corners of his mouth shot up in an unavoidable grin when he recognised the scribbling.
“For Calum and Luke?” The exclamation slipped past his lips disguised as a question, as if he needed someone to confirm that that was indeed a note and autograph from the members of their favourite band. “You have a signed CD? And it has our name on it?” Luke nodded shyly, his fingers searching once again for none-existent loose strands at the hem of his shirt. “How did you even get this?”
Calum’s question made Luke’s hands fist the fabric, his knuckles turning as white as his face when Michael first opened the door.
“I don’t perform well when I’m sad.”
Luke seemed caught between wanting to prove his love for Calum and hiding what he did when he was gone. The latter ignored the comment and dragged Luke with him upstairs to go get his CD player, insisting they listened to the album together.
Michael hid his face in the armrest of the couch, his stomach doing stupid things at the thought of Luke being inside their house once again. He waited agitatedly for another call to open the door.
He sat there for ten minutes, fingers tangled in his hair and his eyes clenched shut, until the doorbell finally rang.
It was the delivery girl, handing him the steaming food with a smile that begged him for a tip.
He passed the time with dropping plates and cutlery while he tried to make room for four people at the dinner table (which wasn’t all that hard, if only his mind would stop spinning).
This time, he opened the door a lot less enthusiastically, his spirit killed by the thoughts of Luke and pure and not pure that wouldn’t stop coming.
Ashton cried when he saw Luke and Calum running down the stairs.
They were in Calum's room, the four of them hovering over a Luke's suitcase with various items scattered around. After considering all possibilities, they had decided that sleeping here was Luke's best option, seeing as it was the biggest room and Calum had an extra bed. His clothes were going to be divided, his shirts in Michael's closet, his trousers in Ashton's and the rest of his stuff in Calum's.
"You know, I was actually planning on selling these clothes. Most of them have only been worn, like, once or twice," Luke commented, nervously eyeing a grey blazer. As soon as he had started emptying his suitcase, the others had been complimenting his clothing, picking out random things here and there and demanding to borrow them.
"Why would you do that? These clothes are awesome,” Michael exclaimed while he buried his face in a shirt. It still smelled like the designer shop where Luke had bought it with only a hint of cologne to betray that it had been worn.
The only person who wasn’t that enthusiastic was Ashton. He had seen Luke wearing fancy clothes and he knew why he had to wear them. There was some merchandise that caught his eye, but that was all.
“I’d rather buy regular clothes instead,” Luke muttered with a shrug. Michael and Calum didn’t seem to understand, but Ashton did. He slid his hand into Luke’s and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
“You can still buy new stuff, Lukey. We all got a raise, so we’re not on minimum wage anymore,” He smiled, even though it was obvious that the younger boy was not convinced. He wasn’t very keen on spending their money and would have preferred to get some of his own first. Ashton was about to point at a particular Blink 182 shirt when Michael cleared his throat.
“Were you planning on selling this too?”
His icy tone surprised Ashton, but as soon as he saw what Michael was holding in his hands, he copied his disappointed look. Luke cowered in shame, his head hanging low as he tried to hide behind Calum, who had yet to voice his opinion.
The bags were small, but filled entirely with white powder. Ashton had seen what it did to Luke and he wasn’t planning on letting him anywhere near it again.
“No, I want to stop.”
Michael raised his eyebrows and Luke shrugged, visibly uncomfortable.
It came out soft and quick with Luke’s widened eyes amplifying his desperateness.
“No way man, you’re quitting cold turkey.”
Luke gasped for air, his gaze shifting from Ashton to Michael to Calum and back, searching for mercy, for one of them to stand up for him. Noticing that all of them thought it was a good idea, made him jump up, tears clouding his vision.
“Do you have any idea how hard that is? It’ll kill me, it’ll kill me!”
Ashton pulled him back down, which wasn’t hard considering just how badly his knees were wobbling. The physical contact sent tears down his cheeks, his breathing speeding up at the prospect of weeks after week of withdrawal symptoms. Luke thought against his grip, desperately trying to escape. His nonsensical exclamations shot Calum awake and opened all of their eyes.
This wasn’t going to be as easy they had thought it to be.
“I’ll go back! I’ll go back! Please, just let me g-go. We, we can forget about this. I’ll just go go back to the, the mansion and, and, and-”
Ashton switched techniques after discovering that the adrenaline strengthened Luke’s biceps enough to help them surpass Ashton’s. He roughly grabbed Luke’s chin, his fingers digging so deeply into the skin his knuckles turned white. Their new position forced Luke to look him in the eyes, but he still tried to look away.
“Luke, look at me,” he hissed. Michael crawled closer to them, unsure about where Ashton was going with this. “Do you really want to go back there?” His words were hard, harder than any of them thought Luke could handle, but at least they caught his attention. “Remember what they made you do for the cocaine? Remember what you did for one of these bags?” Ashton’s spit landed on Luke’s face in his rage and Michael kept getting closer and closer. After a lack of reaction from Luke, Ashton continued his rant. “I saw what you did. What you let them do. Shall I tell Michael and Calum? Shall I show them? Give them a nice little demonstration?” Luke started sobbing, his hands reaching out to free his face when one of Ashton’s clasped the waistband of his skinny jeans.
“Ashton, stop. You’re only making it worse.”
Michael tried to free Luke from Ashton’s grip, but the oldest boy wouldn’t budge. Instead he only brought him closer.
“Answer me, Luke. Answer me.”
Michael grabbed his arms, pulling them while yelling at him to let go. With Luke squirming and trashing in between them, he couldn’t do much.
“No, no, please don’t.”
Ashton drew his hand back, Luke calming down a little when he realised that no one would try anything.
“Will you quit for us?”
His voice grew softer, but it didn’t lose its insisting tone. Luke fiercely tried to nod, his face fighting against the grip that kept it still.
“Answer me,” Ashton demanded once more.
“I will, I will quit for you.”
He let go of Luke’s chin, ignoring the tiny moon-shaped indents that slowly started bleeding. The younger boy went limp in his arms, his breathing calming down when Ashton pressed him against his chest. He rested his chin on top of his head, gently rubbing his arm while he rocked them back and forth. “You’ll quit for us Lukey.” Supported by his arms, Luke continued crying silently before calming down completely.
“I know you will.”
The weekend passed by in a daze. Sometimes it felt like Luke never left, he crept his way into their memories, convincing them that he was right there with them all along. Other times, it felt like he was trying too hard to fit in.
He tried so desperately to hide his inabilities, because surely everyone knew how to make coffee. They tried to reassure him that it was fine, they didn't blame him, but he wouldn’t have any of it. He was always somewhere in the background, observing them, trying to memorise how they did things.
Michael convinced him to watch The Conjuring with him, even though Luke knew exactly why he hadn't seen the movie yet. The older boy left it to him to set up Netflix while he raided the kitchen in search of snacks. Luke hovered over the remote, pressing several buttons in an attempt to select a movie. It didn’t take him long to make things even worse and somehow exit Netflix altogether. He let out a shaky sigh, pressing his fingers against the grey remote as if that would soothe his frustration.
“Can anyone, like, you know, help me out?”
It came out all wrong and helpless and it felt as if the words had hooks that got stuck in his throat. Calum looked up and arched an eyebrow, clearly confused by the word vomit that did nothing to get rid of the tension between them.
His eyes then fell on the remote still clutched tightly in Luke’s hand and his expression softened. He smiled warmly at Luke, before standing up and sitting down next to him on the couch.
“What are you trying to do?”
Luke released his hold on the remote and gave it to Calum, inching closer so he could follow his movements.
“Michael asked me to set up Netflix so we could watch The Conjuring.”
Calum chuckled a little at that, “Don’t let Michael peer pressure you into watching certain movies, man.” Luke huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m not doing that!”
“I know you, Luke. This wouldn’t be the first time you got nightmares because of a horror movie.”
They both knew it was true, which only added up to Luke’s frustration.
“I can handle it,” he said. “Promise.”
“Whatever you say, Lukey. You’re sleeping in my room anyway. There’s always some space left in my bed if something’s wrong.”
Despite his joking tone, Calum was serious. He would always make room for his best friend.
Luke didn’t reply, he just bounced his knee up and down.
It was all he ever seemed to do, bounce his knee up and down.
They pretended not to notice.
When Ashton came home on Monday, he found Michael on the couch with Luke’s head on his lap. The younger boy was fast asleep, his skin unusually pale with red marks here and there.
Upon noticing his arrival, Michael looked up. Although he didn’t look nearly as bad as Luke did, he was still on the verge of tears.
“Oh Michael,” Ashton sighed, as he sat down next to him on the couch. Michael crumpled and rested his head on Ashton’s shoulders, biting his lip to silence his sobs. “Was it that bad?” Even though a response was entirely unnecessary, Michael nodded anyway. His hair flew up a little, before floating back down and sticking to his forehead again in a sad, lifeless manner. The bright red colour suddenly wasn’t that bright anymore, it only made his pale skin stand out more.
“He begged me, Ashton. One hit, one hit was all he asked for,” Michael whimpered, subconsciously raking his fingers through Luke’s hair, which was just as flat as his own. “At first he was ashamed of it, he tried to hide his frustration. And his leg, it just kept bouncing up and down.” He withdrew his hand to clench it into a fist. “It was driving me insane, Ashton.
“Then the pleading started. He asked so nicely, he told me, he actually reminded me of how nice he was asking. As if I needed him to be nice and obedient. As if that would, that would actually convince me.
It wasn’t even noon yet when he started crying. He curled up in a ball and complained about the feeling in his chest. He felt empty, he said. And it hurt. It hurt so much. I could tell by the sobs and the hiccups. Ashton, you know how much I hate seeing him cry.
“Once he noticed that I was not going to cave in, he scrambled off of the couch. He did it so sudden, he just wriggled out of my grip. Told me he was leaving, that bastard. That he’d go back to that Dom guy and I started crying. Not again, Ashton, he couldn't leave again. So I told him to think about why he left that place, about what they did to them. I shouldn’t have. Oh god, Ash, I shouldn’t have. He started freaking out. Started talking about these hands and how they were everywhere and they kept touching him and I tried so hard to convince him that it was just the two of us but it didn’t stop. He didn’t stop. I triggered him. I fucking triggered him, poor guy.”
Ashton wrapped his arms around Michael to the extent that the sleeping Luke allowed him to. Michael was shaking in his arms, his hands clutching the fabric of his shirt like a life line. Ashton wondered if it was all his fault for leaving Michael alone with a coke addict.
“Paranoia is one of the withdrawal symptoms, Mikey. Don’t blame yourself for this.
Michael didn’t reply, he reached out for the hem of Luke’s shirt.
“Look what he did, Ashton. He tried to get them off, to get them to leave him alone. He didn’t want them to touch him.”
Ashton cringed when he saw Luke’s skin. It was covered in scratches, scattered criss-cross on his skin. Some of them were just red lines, others must have bled.
“I didn’t know what to do, Ashton. I had never seen him like that before. I trapped him in a corner and hugged him, I hugged him until he went limp. He went all soft and watery and he called out to me. Mikey? he said. You know how he does it, with those blue eyes and his trembling lip. Then he, he-”
“What did he do, Michael?” Michael shook his head, latching onto Ashton and hiding his face. “You have to tell me.”
“He, he, he started offering, stuff,” he whimpered.
“Sexual stuff?” Ashton asked, his grip on Michael tightening when he nodded.
“We should have never let him leave, Ash! He should’ve stayed! He’s our best friend, he was our priority. I thought we agreed that he was our priority.”
“Did he start singing?” Ashton asked with a blank voice.
“Yes, yes! He sings so beautifully, Ashton. No wonder they took him in. But he’s ours. He’s ours and we can’t let him leave. I don’t care if we have to tie him up if we’re at work, he’s staying and that’s final.”
“Of course, he’s staying, Michael. Now go,” he lifted Luke’s head so Michael could stand up. “Take a shower, play some music. I’ll ask Calum to make dinner.” Michael nodded numbly, wiping his tears away with the back of his hand before shuffling out of the room.
He shifted Luke a little so he could run his fingers through his hair. Only now did he notice the bite marks on his hands. Today must have been hell for Luke and he almost, almost felt bad for making him quit like this. He lifted his hands to his lips and gently kissed the bruised skin.
Luke opened his eyes a little, peeking through his half-closed eyelids.
“I’m sorry for being annoying when you come home from work. I shouldn’t ask for cuddles, I should just let you rest. I know your job exhausts you.”
Luke’s words confused Ashton, until he finally caught on to Luke’s mindset. He was still half asleep and living in the past apparently.
“Will you forgive me?”
Luke sounded so desperate, like he truly believed that he’d done something wrong. Ashton felt a tear escape his eyes and watched Luke frown as he tried to figure out what it was that had just fell on his cheek.
“There’s nothing to forgive you for, Lukey. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“Promise you’re not mad?”
“Promise,” Ashton said, and he planted a kiss on Luke’s forehead, causing the younger boy to smile. “Now sleep, love. I know you’re tired.”
Ashton came home one day to Luke tied up on a kitchen chair. There were tears rushing down his cheeks, but he wasn’t complaining.
Sometimes all Luke would do all day was cry. Sobbing hysterically or curling up and a letting the tears fall to the ground soundlessly.
Some days he didn’t say word.
Ashton almost grew used to seeing Luke midst-mental breakdown, or asleep on the couch. More often than not did he find him murmuring about hands that were touching him and singing and begging and all three of them at once.
In the middle of the night, he’d hear Luke’s footsteps, almost as quiet as on the day he left. He didn’t have to worry, because Michael had locked all sharp things away so they didn’t have to tie him up anymore. There were no more knives in the shelves, no forks, no scissors, only blunt things.
They didn’t have to worry about him hurting himself.
Sometimes, he’d come downstairs and invite Luke in his bed. He’d fall asleep to the feeling of Luke’s gaze resting on him, the boy preparing for yet another sleepless night.
Those were things he almost grew used to.
But he was glad when,
one day he came home and realised that Luke was alright.
They were alright.