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i love this will they wont they romance

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It’s been a month since they all moved into a house together in New York. Luke had insisted they write their 3rd album away from LA, to leave the calls of collaborations they didn’t want to do and the carpets they didn’t want to walk behind and get back to writing music Julie, our music. It didn’t take much convincing of their management, as long as they promised some fan interaction, and soon they were set for a three month break.

After much debating, they settled on the outskirts of a little hallmark town in upstate New York. There wasn’t much, maybe three streets of downtown, but it was lined with mom-and-pop shops and trees just changing into the vibrant shades of fall as the early whispers of October swept in. Red and yellow leaves coated the cracked sidewalks, coming to a crux at the big intersection overlooking the water. The town was nestled right on the edge of one of the finger lakes, and from the old wooden ferry the brightly painted storefronts made the town look right out of a painting. It was magic. They rented an old, white colonial house on the lakeside a mile down the road, with a big backyard scattered with boats and jet skis by the boat house and overarching trees secluding them from neighbors. A long winded driveway backed the house up from the road, though the wide expansion of grass allowed it to be seen as a clear masterpiece as you drove by.

“I’m back! Anyone home?” Julie sang into the house, her voice slightly echoing around the high ceilings of the foyer. The early afternoon light danced across the dark hardwood floors, stretching out into the kitchen. In lieu of a coat rack, Julie hung her jacket on a large weathered lake this way! sign with metal fishhooks hanging beneath it. Light gray walls were accented with cheesy lakeside decor, oars and life preservers that should feel out of place in the otherwise modern space. To her left, she heard a faint, muffled groan answer her call behind the door of the game-turned-music-room. Julie smiled, picking up the faintest sounds of John Mayer playing through a speaker as she slipped off her shoes; the house was rarely absent of music during the day.

She opened the door to find Luke sprawled face down on the floor, his features hidden by the white fur of the rug that took up most of the room. His orange beanie laid awkwardly on his head, his Clash cutoff tee twisted around his body; for anyone else, Julie would’ve found their askew appearance ridiculous, but on him she couldn’t help but find it endearing. An acoustic guitar leaned abandoned against the black leather couch next to him, waiting to be put away. The song started to fade out from the laptop sat open on the coffee table, the screen gone black from lack of use. She stared at him for a second, a private smile on her face before lightly kicking his side. He flipped over wordlessly to stare at her with sad eyes.

“What’s wrong with you?” She asked, her tone not unkind. He just pouted, sighing loudly.

“John Mayer is such a legend, Julie. But Taylor Swift was so young. It’s not fair. How am I supposed to choose?” he moped, causing Julie to roll her eyes— they already had this conversation two weeks ago. “Playing his songs hasn’t felt the same since I found out.”

“I still can’t believe you didn’t know Dear John was about him.  His name is literally in the title,” she commented, placing the guitar back to its rightful stand in the corner before sitting cross legged on the couch. “And besides, it’s not like he did anything illegal. You can still like his music.”

“She was 19, Julie. Just three years younger than you. He was 32. He took advantage of her naivety,” he said, dramatics undeterred as he sat up slightly on his elbows to look at her. “If you told me you had a 32-year-old boyfriend, I would punch him.”

Julie scoffed at his protectiveness, but still blushed slightly at the image in her brain. She wasn’t one to promote violence, but there was something oddly sweet about the idea.

“I would!” He defended, his eyes teasing and bright. “I could even get Reggie and Alex in on it, I’m sure.”

She shook her head at him. “I don’t think you’d ever actually punch anyone.”

“Nah, for you? I totally would, no question,” he said confidently, his face settling into something softer as he stared up at her from the floor. “I’ll always look out for you. You know that. I always have.”

It was looks like those that made it hard for Julie to remember they were actually just friends. It’s not that they didn’t know the connection was there—they spent too much time writing songs with one another for that— but it just... never happened. They had always just let the moments pass, and then it became just what their dynamic was. To be honest, Julie wasn’t quite sure why. Sometimes it was safer to yearn, she supposed.

She smiled at him, letting the fondness show in her expression as she replied, “I know.”

He smiled back at her, one of those smiles that overwhelmed her with butterflies and made her look down at her hands with a blush. The ones where he looked like there was nothing made him happier than being a part of her world.

They fell into a comfortable silence, content to enjoy each other’s presence for the moment. John Mayer was still playing from his MacBook, slow and melodic. Julie laid down on the couch, closing her eyes to focus on the music.

Gravity is working against me,” the speakers sang.

 

...

 

She didn’t know when she ended up falling asleep, but it was almost dark when Reggie lightly shook her awake. Luke was still out on the other side of the couch, the bottoms of his legs tangled with hers underneath the white fleece blanket she assumed he’d draped over them. Someone had paused Luke’s laptop, allowing her to hear Alex singing along to Billie Eilish in the kitchen—as she said, the house was rarely absent of music during the day. She smiled sleepily at Reggie, too comfortable to fight against his suggestive glance between her and Luke.

Reggie was the closest thing to an older brother Julie had. Their moms had been college roommates and wasted no time in pushing her and Reggie together once Julie was born. The two kids only grew closer as they got older, and their lives got harder. She was there when his dad finally left for good when he was 14. He was there when her mom got sick a year later— and when she got really sick six months after that. During those months, Reggie was over every day. Sometimes just passing through, most times staying for dinner. He slept over enough to start taking over a drawer in the guest bedroom.

She doesn’t quite know when the other boys started coming with him to visit, but she’s pretty sure they didn’t want her to be lonely. She didn’t go out much back then. Luke and Alex would stop by on their own sometimes, bringing her snacks or doing their homework at the table with her. Other times they would sit in the garage, playing some random tune as Luke figured out a song in his head. I think these are my people, Reggie had told her. Them and you.

She was there for their first gig as Sunset Curve, before Bobby had moved to San Diego and couldn’t make it work anymore. She was there when Alex came out to them, defiant and defensive before breaking down into tears when he was met with acceptance. Even when Luke ran out on his parents and had shown up at the garage at 2am, phone calls to Alex and Reggie going unheard at the late hour. I didn’t know where else to go, he had forced out, the pain in his voice waking her more than her ringtone ever could. Julie had come outside in her pajamas and dinosaur feet slippers, letting him in the garage without a second thought. She brought down a pair of sweats from where Reggie kept his spare clothes in the house, making the pull-out couch as he changed. She sat with him until Reggie arrived a half an hour later, who kissed the side of Julie’s head before sending her to bed, sliding under the covers with a request to leave the door open for when Alex comes.

One of her mom’s last wishes before she passed was for her to never let go of music. Julie could still smell the sharp air of the hospital room as her mom stared up at her from the bed, hand weak in Julie’s but her eyes as fiery as ever. You’re too good to go on giving it up for me. She shook her head lightly at Julie’s small protests peeking through her tears, comforting her like she had all the time in the world. You’ve got living to do, mi cielito. I just want you to do it.

She still remembers the night Ray gave a set of the keys to the garage to Reggie. Here mijo, he had said, for your band. You should practice there instead. She would’ve loved it. It was threaded on a beaded necklace Julie had made, the different shaped beads of dark wood looking like an old-fashioned rosary. He wore it every day. Still wore it every day.

“Hey,” he said quietly, necklace dangling between them as he crouched down next to the couch. “I called your dad today, he says hello. You should call him— he said he wants to hear from you but doesn’t want to push your space.” She nodded, absentmindedly playing with the bracelets on his wrists as she woke up. She traced the diagonal lines of the friendship bracelets she made the four of them when she turned 19: the red, purple, blue, and pink stripes alternating across his wrist in succession, binding them together in harmony.

“You’re so much better at calling dad than I am,” she praised softly, squeezing his wrist lightly as a light blush bloomed on his face. He brushed off the compliment with a shrug.

“It feels nice that he wants to know what we’re all up to.”

When Reggie’s mom overdosed and was sent to rehab for the first time, just days before Reggie’s 21st birthday, Ray gave him a house key to add to his necklace— a silent offer that was probably long overdue. Reggie cried in Rays arms for hours that night, who only tutted when Reggie apologized for being emotional. Shhh, enough of that. You’ll never be judged for caring, Reggie. Not in your home.

Julie sat up, pulling her legs from Luke’s and causing him to stir as well. Reggie watched the easy smile spread across Luke’s face when he saw Julie— and the accompanying blush that rose when he was met with Reggie’s knowing smirk. They both chose not to address it.

Just then, Alex walked into the room, a cocktail glass in one hand and a rubber spatula in the other.

“Oh good, you guys are up. I’m cooking dinner if you’re ready to come help. Reggie didn’t do much but eat the slices of bread as I was trying to make garlic bread.”

Julie laughed as she kicked off the blanket, walking over to Alex and taking the drink out of his hand. He didn’t protest as she sipped it, only agreeing when she gave a nod of approval of the vodka and grapefruit juice combo. Reggie pushed off his knees to stand as well, holding a hand out for Luke as he stayed faced towards Alex and shrugged.

“I refuse to apologize for that. Uncooked bread with garlic and melted butter is arguably better than after its toasted.”

Luke took the hand and pulled himself up, his smile easy and eyes still somewhat squinted from sleep as he threw his arm over Reggie. “I’m with Reg here, the uncooked garlic bread’s the best part,” Luke said, ignoring Alex’s sound of judgment. They trailed after him as he led them back to the kitchen, the sounds of Billie Eilish getting louder along with the sizzling of whatever was on the stovetop.

“Children. I live with children.”

 

...

 

The first time the boys asked Julie to join their band, she said no. She was 17, still in school, and had only just started to feel like Luke and Alex were as much her friends as they were Reggie’s. Flynn had to trick her into agreeing to perform with them for Flynn’s 18th birthday for her try out a set at Beats & Eats. Now, two albums and one tour opening for Paramore later, not being in the band felt like another world.

Despite everything they told her though, she couldn’t help but sometimes feel like she still had to prove her spot. The three boys scolded her when they caught her doing it, but there were bad days on stage where all she could think about were the fans who wished they had put out a Sunset Curve album, or how nice it was they took pity on Reggie’s little sister and added her to the band.

Today was one of those days. She felt herself getting fainter, her body swaying as the sound of the music was muffled by her brain. Despite her unsteadiness, she refused to stop the performance. They were playing a concert a couple towns over at the lake house, the only one they had scheduled on their break. The venue sold out in under an hour, and some people from hours away had been dm’ing her their excitement for the show. There was no way she was going to be the reason they stopped.

She was on autopilot as the lyrics left her mouth, knowing the rhythm without the noise, trusting the drum beat through her converse. She grabbed onto Luke’s bare shoulder to steady herself as she sang with him, gasping for breath every time she moved the mic to his lips for him to sing into. She tried to plant her feet as firmly as possible onto the stage without losing stage presence— feeling more than heard when the drums had abruptly stopped playing.

“Woah, hey wait, wait stop.” Alex said into his mic, halting the rest of the band and signaling for the tech team to stop the light preset. He jumped down from the platform the drum set was on and half jogged over to them, grabbing a bottle of water on the way. “Julie, are you okay?” He asked her quietly, a hand on her arm. Now that the music had stopped, she could hear the blood rushing through her ears in waves.

Luke looked at him confused, and then over to Reggie who still stood on the other side of the stage. Her head felt separated from the rest of her body, like it was a balloon on a string, Alex’s grip holding her body in place so it doesn’t fly away.

She nodded quickly, too quickly, which only made her head spin more. She put all of her energy into focusing on Alex and not swaying. “Just dizzy.”

“How did you notice that from all the way over there?” Luke asked Alex, immediately placing his hand on the small of her back to steady her as she looked away from the lights. She took a long drink from the water bottle, leaning into Luke’s hand. Alex dropped his hand from her arm in favor of smacking Luke’s bare shoulder as he looked at him disapprovingly.

 “How did you not? You were staring right at her,” he scolded. She could vaguely hear them continue to bicker as she let Luke lead her over to a platform on the stage where she could sit down on, placing the water next to her. The room had gone quiet, waiting with bated breath for an update. A small nod to Reggie from Alex had him breaking the silence.

“Hey Julie? You good?” He asked into the mic, bringing the audience back into the conversation. 

She took another sip with her eyes still closed, pausing for a second before bringing the mic back up to her lips.

“Yeah, sorry, just give me a second, I went a little lightheaded there for some reason,” She answered with a shaky laugh. Luke had walked over to his microphone, and she opened her eyes back up right as he turned toward her, smiling lightly as his lips touched the mic.

“Jeez, Julie. I know I’m hot, but I didn’t think I was that hot,” he joked. The tension in the room released, a wave of relief running through the room as excited screams came from the crowd. She rolled her eyes at him.

“Ah yes, I couldn’t help it. It’s just so hard, looking into those puppy dog eyes all the time,” she said sarcastically, an incredulous look overcoming her face at the resulting sound of agreement from the audience.

“You’re saying it like you’re joking, but they’re not, so all it’s doing is boosting my ego anyway,” he responded cheekily.

“I hate you,” she said, trying to hide her smile.

“Don’t worry, it’s not your fault I’m so attractive. I’m used to having that effect on people. Reggie swoons when I sing to him too,” he teased. Reggie made a sound halfway between a laugh and a gasp turning towards Luke offense. 

What? I swear, you get lost in someone’s eyes as they serenade you one time, and you never live it down,” He joked. They were purposefully taking the attention off of Julie, which she very much appreciated. Alex grabbed his mic from the drum set and came back to sit next to her, content to wait for her cue to start up again.

Luke smiled wickedly, grabbing his microphone from the stand and turning towards Reggie. He took slow steps forward as he sang, eyes locked on his best friend.

“Baby all through the night I’ll make love to you.”

“Like you want me too,” Alex harmonized, their voices barely audible over the screams. He laughed when Reggie gave him a look of mock betrayal. Luke reached the other side of the stage, trying to sing through his laugh as Reggie curled away from him.

When Luke reached and touched Reggie’s cheek, he stopped his attempts of rejection at once, pretending to be captivated by Luke’s eyes instead. Reggie made a show of staring at him with awe, throwing a hand on his chest before dramatically crumpling into his arms. Luke held him for a second, then both breaking down with laughter before righting themselves. 

“Damn, maybe I am that hot,” Luke said to the crowd as he walked away, getting more screams in response. Slowly, he turned to Alex.

“If you take a singular step closer to me, I swear to god I will quit the band,” he warned. Luke stared at him for a second, like he was weighing out his luck, before turning quickly back towards the front of the stage.

“Well, two out of three ain’t bad,” he said, earning a laugh. “I’ll get him later guys, don’t worry. I know where he lives.”

Alex just shook his head. “Luke. Baby. I mean this in the nicest way, I’m too good for you,” he responded, leaning back against his hands and kicking his feet.

Luke gasped, his laughter breaking through his fake look of hurt. “How dare you. We’ve lived together for 3 years— we say I love you. What more can I do?”

Alex shrugged, playing along. “If you must know, my heart longs for another.”

“It’s Reggie, isn’t it?” Luke sighed, glancing forlornly to his right as Reggie pumped his fist in the air.

“Fuck yeah!” He said, pulling the microphone a bit closer before swinging towards Alex. “What it do, baby?”

He completed the call with a wink and finger gun, which Alex responded with a joking lip bitw and a jut his chin in response.

“Alright, alright! Stop flirting, this is a family show,” Julie chided, getting ahold of herself. “Let’s restart Finally Free.”

She waited for the confirmation from the tech crew before standing up. As Alex and Reggie reset, chatting aimlessly with the crowd, Luke walked over to her. His concern written clearly on his face. He held her by the shoulder, looking over face for any signs of distress. Finding none, he leaned down to speak into her ear; she could feel his thumb lightly scanning the junction between her neck and her collarbone.

“Are you sure you’re okay? We can skip Finally Free and add in Now or Never if you need more time,” he said, his lips brushing against her ear with every word spoken.  She pulled back and smiled at him, reaching up to grab his wrist and squeeze it lightly.

“I’m good. I promise,” she said. He searched her eyes one more time; satisfied with what he found, he walked back over to where his shoved his mic back into the stand.

She looked at him again from where she stood at her keyboard, smiling when he winked back in her direction. She just scrunched her nose happily in response. Both missed Reggie and Alex share a look, shaking their heads slightly.

 

...

 

Luke had come into her room later that night, knocking slightly on the open door. She looked up from her book at him in question; he rarely knocked when he came into her room, no matter how many times she told him to. Julie had the master suite, the olive green walls lined with white wicker frames filled black and white photographs of boats and watercolors of fish strangely complimenting the personal touches she added to the room. The vase of dahlias sat on the dark stained dresser next to the TV, and the drawings of mandalas that were taped between the pictures made the room feel more cluttered, but in a homey way. With the light off in the hallway, and his face was illuminated only by the low yellow light of her bedside lamp. In an oversized crew neck and sweats, he looked softer. Like quiet embers instead of his usual roaring fire— not as extreme but just as captivating. When he didn’t move further into the room, she tossed her book to the side and gave him her full attention.

“What’s up?” She asked. He bit his lip softly in indecision, reaching to rub his neck before speaking.

“I’m wanted to say I’m sorry I didn’t notice,” he said somewhat shyly. “During the concert. I should’ve seen you weren’t okay.”

She tilted her head lightly, a smile dancing across her face. He couldn’t help but smile back, his nervousness fading away. Her eyes were so warm he could feel it creeping through his soul.

“You don’t have to apologize,” she said, pushing her glasses higher up on her face.

He just shrugged, leaning against the white doorframe, and looked down at his socks. “I feel like I do. So, I’m sorry anyway.”

She got up to stand in front of him, forcing him to look back up at her. It was too late for music to be playing throughout the house, but Julie’s not quite sure they would’ve noticed it anyway.

“Then I accept your apology,” she said fondly. They stood there for a moment, taking in the calmness of being alone. The air around them was heavy, weighted with the all the words they always chose to leave unsaid. They had had moments like these their whole lives, even before he wasn’t anything more than just Reggie’s friend, though lately they were becoming a lot more frequent.

Neither of them had ever done anything about it. 

His looked her up and down quickly, biting his lips in a smile. Suddenly, she was very aware she was wearing one of his hoodies he had given her, the UCLA letters faded almost completely, her shorts hidden under the length. He reached up and pulled on one of the strings, matching it up with the other one.

“Do you wanna go write a song?” He asked quietly. She checked the time on her phone.

“It’s one in the morning, Luke,” she responded, doing the same fond head tilt she found herself always doing when they were alone. He shrugged, his eyes dropping down to her lips before bringing them back to her eyes. It didn’t really matter the hour; they both knew she was going to say yes anyway. He backed away slightly from the doorframe, nodding towards the open hallway.

“Come on. I’m feeling inspired.”

Neither one of them had ever done anything about it. Yet.

 

 

In hindsight, Luke did warn her. I don’t think you could punch anyone. She had said. Nah, for you? I totally would. I’ll always look out for you.

The four of them were sitting alone at the only bar in town, Dave’s Bar and Brewery (not to be confused with Dave’s Ice Cream, or Dave’s Fish Fry— apparently Dave had a lot of variety to his restaurant interests). It had the feel of your average run-down pub; yellow overhead lamps shined weakly through the dust covering them, with the only other source of light coming from the iron bar crossed windows in the front of the room. The chipped dark wood countertops were slightly sticky despite being wiped down regularly by the only bartender behind the bar, and the red leather stools were cracked with use.

There was a section in the back a couple steps down, with a few pool tables partially obscured by high tables and a banister. Julie and Luke decided to play a round, while Reggie and Alex made bets on whether or they would get the ball in the pocket or not each turn. It was barely 5pm on a Wednesday, but they’d already been here at least an hour; one of the perks of being musicians is that they didn’t really have to run on a workweek drinking schedule.

“I swear, this ones gonna go in that back left pocket over there,” Luke said over the 80’s rock playing throughout the bar, pointing with his stick before lining up his shot.

Alex shook his head vigorously over his gin and tonic. “There’s absolutely no way he’s gonna make that.”

“I don’t know, he’s naturally lucky. He does better on trick shots than a regular ones,” Reggie responded, sipping on his third Guinness of the night.

Luke hit the ball, bouncing it off the side of the table before it sinks into the pocket. “Ha! Drink!” Reggie said cheerfully, causing Alex to lift his drink in cheers to Luke before downing the rest. Julie tucks the cue under her arm and claps lightly at his shot. Luke preens at the praise from his friends, a happy blush clear on his face.

“Do you kids need anything else?” The bartender, Barbara, asked them with a warm grin as she walked over to the high table Alex and Reggie sat at. She was a nice woman, maybe in her 60’s, with wild dark curly hair streaked with gray pulled into a half up half down style.

“I’m driving, so I’m good thanks,” Julie smiled, her water still half full on the side of the pool table.

“How can I say no to the beautiful woman in front of me?” Luke said playfully, causing Barbara to laugh and wave him away.

“Oh, stop it, flattery will get you nowhere, young man,” she tutted, before leaning in with a wink, “except maybe a free drink, on me.”

On you? Are we talking a free body shot, Barbara? We just met!” Luke continued, faking a scandalized tone. Reggie laughed as Luke walked over, leaning on his pool cue and raising his eyebrows suggestively. “We’re gonna cause a scene!”

“Another round for the three of us would be great, Barbara,” Alex said with a smile. Just as she turned to leave, the door opened to two men who must’ve just gotten off work. They looked in their late 30’s, one in a blue sports jacket and the other in a red windbreaker. They spoke to each other loudly as they walked in— stopping only to yell out their drink orders. A look of distaste crossed the bartender’s features, her bright mood shifting as her real smile melted into a fake one.

“Jimmy and Mark, I’ll be right with you. I’m just gonna make these kids their orders first,” she called to them, tapping her knuckles on the table twice and giving them all a look before turning back towards the bar.

“Get us our usuals! And put a rush on it!” Red Coat yelled at her. Julie was immediately annoyed by his blatant rudeness. Blue Coat just made a noise of agreement as he walked over to the pool table. “You kids good at pool?”

“We’re just playing for fun,” Julie said, though her voice restricted and polite. They stood there for a second, waiting for him to leave. When he didn’t, she settled on trying to ignore him instead, bending over to take her shot. She focused on the cue ball and the green fabric in front of her, shifting her legs open a bit wider to get better leverage on the table.

“Your set up is wrong honey, you gotta arch your back more into the table,” the man said, voice grimy and suggestive, uncaring about their clear dismissal of him.

Julie immediately stiffened, standing back up and gripping the pool cue a little harder in her hands. Her discomfort was clear and growing in her face the longer he stared openly at her. She was never more regretful of an outfit she chose, the dusty rose skater dress feeling much shorter and more revealing than it did when she left the house. She was thankful for her pearled jean jacket at least, providing some coverage from his hungry eyes.

“Come on now, I didn’t mean to make you stop your game. I just thought I’d help you... position yourself better,” he said, the look in his eye akin to a lion who had settled on its prey.

“Hey, man. We’re just trying to hang out here, we’d appreciate it if you went back to the bar and left us alone,” Reggie slipped off his stool as he spoke, his voice as relaxed and easy. He came to a stop to stand in front of Julie, blocking his view. It was a clear gesture of fuck off, and the man’s eyebrows shot up in response.

“Why? I’m not doing anything, I’m just standing here watching the game,” the man said with a biting smile. “It’s a free country.”

At first glance, Reggie would probably be the last of them you’d think would be the fighter of the group. Luke was more muscular, and Alex was more passive aggressive. But Reggie was fiercely loyal— and familiar with fights in a way they weren’t. He had learned young how to fight off guys bigger and taller than him— and if he really needed help, Bobby was always ready to jump in when they were younger. Whether it was jocks messing with Alex or sleazy assholes hitting on Julie, Reggie kinda enjoyed the thrill of the fight.

He had promised Ray he would stop though, after he had gotten suspended senior year for punching the starting kicker on the football team when he stole Alex’s clothes in the locker room. He hadn’t thrown a punch since; he hated saying no to Ray. By then, people knew not to try him anyway. This was the first time the three of them saw Reggie come close to going against Ray’s wishes— on anything, let alone something as serious as he was about fighting. He would do it, but it would kill him, and they all knew it.

“Reggie, come on, it’s fine,” Julie said, reaching out to bring him back, but he just pulled his arm out of her grip without looking away from the man. She bit her lip nervously, looking between Luke and Alex to with an expression that clearly said do something. Luke and Alex looked at each other, a conversation unspoken and quick between them. The man smiled slowly at Reggie, sizing him up for a second before chuckling.

“Yeah Reggie, the girl says it’s fine. Don’t get yourself caught up in something too big for you to handle.”

Reggie just laughed under his breath and nodded; just like that his decision made. As he moved to take his leather jacket off, Alex and Luke jumped into action.

Alex made his way over to Julie and pulled her back behind him as Luke moved to stand next to Reggie, putting a hand on his shoulder to stop him from taking his jacket off.

“What’s going on here, Reg? You good?” He asked, voice fake cheerful in an attempt to deescalate. It was enough to switch Reggie out of Fight Mode, but Luke didn’t remove his hand in case he had to pull him back.

“Just trying to get an asshole who thinks it’s funny to make girls uncomfortable go fuck off,” Reggie said, his tone even. An angered expression passed Luke’s features, unable to resist glaring at the man before trying again to make Reggie back down.

“Come on man, let’s just go, you know we got stuff to do anyway,” Luke responded with a quick glance at the man in front of them, who seemed to be enjoying the whole situation.

“Looks like your boyfriend doesn’t want you to get hurt,” he said. Reggies hands clenched into fists at his sides, and Luke pushed him hard enough to the point where Reggie was forced to take a step back. Honestly, Julie’s pretty sure Luke would’ve let Reggie fight the guy if she wasn’t here; both him and Alex wouldn’t have told anyone, and he never had any hesitations about an asshole getting what he deserved.

He knew Julie cared though, and that was enough of a reason for him. Luke turned back to the man, distaste written across his face freely now he that he stood between him and Reggie.

The man took a step backwards, the air of victory around him unearned, though Julie doubted he cared much. As the man started to turn around, he couldn’t help himself with one more remark.

“If she ever gets tired of whoring herself out to you two and needs a real man to fuck her, tell her she can look me up anytime.”

The blow landed right on the man’s ear before any of them could really process what was happening.

The hit threw him off balance and he went down, hand shooting up to cup the side of his head as he landed hard with a thud against the stairs leading to the pool tables.

Both Luke and Reggie stood staring at each other in shock, Luke’s fist still curled in the air.

Vaguely, Julie remembered walking in on Luke and Reggie in the garage when they were 16, Reggie fixing Luke’s wrist positioning in his punch as he spoke. If you’re gonna start something, hit once, and hit hard. Going for the ear is always a good bet— you can burst an eardrum and send them down before you really have to start the fight at all.

“Dude. Nice hit,” Reggie said, causing Luke to smile a bit and shrug.

“Okay. We have to leave. Right now,” Alex said. He grabbed the jackets off the back of the chairs, pulling Julie’s hand as they made their way up the stairs as far from the man still down on the floor as they could get. They passed by the other man coming back from the bathroom, who hadn’t yet registered the scene enough to stop them.

They raced out the door with shouts to Barbara, hundred dollar bills thrown half hazardously on the table to hopefully cover her troubles. The jumped into the car and sped off in a rush of adrenaline, looking back every once in a while to make sure the man never followed them out.

When they stopped at a light far enough from the pub, Julie turned around to face Reggie and Luke in the backseat. Luke was methodically opening and closing his fist as Reggie checked for damage. Two of the most important men in her life.

She smacked them both in the chest.

“What the fuck,” Julie scolded, “was that.”

“I did say I would punch someone for you,” Luke responded, wincing as Reggie squeezed his knuckles too hard in response to the smack. “The guy fucking deserved it anyway, Jules. He can’t say shit like that to people , especially you. And Reggie’s on a no fighting rule.”

“I would’ve broken it,” Reggie said, somewhat defensively. “I’m pretty sure Ray would’ve understood.”

He was right. The no fighting rule came to be more because of Julie’s distaste for it than Ray’s— she hated the idea of him getting hurt for her. When it effected Reggie’s schooling, it was easy to convince Ray to promise him to stop.

“Well look, now you didn’t have to, and the guy still got his shit rocked. It’s a win-win,” Luke shrugged.

He knocked Reggie in the shoulder, forcing him to look up at him. “And I’m the hero of the situation, so it’s an even bigger boost to my ego.”

“I should’ve known you would want the glory to yourself,” he said jokingly, his voice filled with thanks. Luke just laughed before changing the topic, complaining about the pressure Reggie was putting on his knuckles.

Julie sat there, just looking at the backseat for another moment. She wanted to be mad at him, mad at the both of them. But she couldn’t help but feel somewhat warm at how willing they both were to protect her. She probably should tell them she could fight her own battles, or how she was an independent woman who could handle herself, but all she could think of was how sweet it was that they cared about her so much.

Luke looked up from his hand to meet her eyes, a hint of hesitation and question in his features. She could feel his worry that he’d gone too far and upset her. She smiled lightly, scrunching her nose in his direction. He grinned widely in response, eyes bright despite the state of his bruised hand. The red hue illuminating his face switched to green, and she turned back around to drive home.

When they got back, Reggie immediately took Luke to the first aid kit in the bathroom to wrap his hand while Alex and Julie went to go start dinner. Julie tried to keep busy, but now that a fight was no longer imminent, she couldn’t get her hands to stop shaking. It was dumb— she got grosser comments about her body online. Why would this be any different? None of the boys would let anything happen to her— though she guessed that was the problem. How dependent she was on the fact that they were there, how she froze.

“Hey Julie, you okay?” Alex asked quietly, careful not to be heard from the bathroom. He leaned against the island, watching her flutter around for a minute before reaching out to stop her. She went easily as he pulled her into his arms, immediately relaxing into the comfort of his pink sweatshirt. 

“I just can’t believe I froze up like that,” she said, muffled by his chest. He said nothing, just rubbed her back as she found her next words. “I’m a young, relatively well known woman for Christ’s sake. I get sexualized online all the time. I can’t handle an old, dumb townie from upstate New York?”

“It’s not always that cut and dry- certain situations just affect us differently than others. Like, it’s ten times easier for me to scroll past rude comments online then walk past someone shouting slurs on the street,” Alex responded, squeezing her one last time before releasing her in favor of threading both their hands together. 

She leaned back, trusting him to pull her back towards him, falling into an easy push-pull rhythm.

“I guess so. I just— I’m glad you guys were there, but I hate that they almost got hurt because of me,” she admitted.

“Hey, we’ll always be here for you. And don’t stress about that stuff; I’m pretty sure Reggie and Luke would go to the ends of the earth to make sure you were okay, and never complain for a second.”

He furrowed his brow and stopped their motion.

“Wait. Okay. I didn’t mean like— Not that I wouldn’t, but, you know. Reggie’s your brother, and Luke, well.”

“Yeah. I know,” Julie said, biting her lip and looking away for a second, remembering the altercation.

“Can I say something super out of character and then you can forget I ever said it to you?” He smiled at her expression.

“Are you gonna talk about how hot it was that you had two guys so ready to jump a man who looked at you the wrong way?” Alex asked. Julie sighed a breath of relief.

“It was really hot, right? The way Luke’s face changed when the guy said that ‘real man’ shit? He went from ‘this situation needs to end right now’ to ‘actually, fuck this guy’ in like, point two seconds. Kinda made the asshole worth it.”

“I’m pretty sure having hot guys jump in your defense never makes the asshole worse. The first time Reggie punched a lax bro in the face for me, it was genuinely one of the hottest things I’d ever seen,” he agreed. “I never even had a crush on Reggie. But in that moment? Homeboy could like, get it.”

Julie looked at him in confused amusement at the reference.

“Willie taught me that one,” he confessed, a light blush igniting across his face.

“Reggie’s too much my brother for me to think anything but like, ‘holy shit dads gonna kill him’, whenever he’d hit assholes in my honor. Luke though, damn. I could live having to see that again.” 

Alex laughed lightly, restarting their back and forth. “I can imagine. Who knows? We’re still young. Maybe he’ll finally start putting those arm muscles to good use.”

Julie threw her head back and groaned, face twisted in a pained expression. “Ugh. His arms are so nice. Why aren’t we dating again?”

Alex just looked amused at her frustration. It was a question she had been asking herself more and more lately, but she couldn’t quite find the answer to.

“Beats me. I was beginning to think you guys just forgot that that was what you were supposed to do,” he responded with a shrug.

She glared at him.

“Not helpful. Tell me something stupid he did in the past week.” Alex thought for a moment, filtering between the many dumb things they watched their friends do on a daily basis.

“On Tuesday, he flipped his entire bedroom setup from one side of the room to the other so that we could knock on the wall between our rooms and communicate via Morse code.”

She stopped their movements to look at him quizzically. “That incriminates you just as much as him.”

Alex shrugged. “Yeah, but he moved his whole room around for it; I just think that the fact we can do it now is fucking cool.”

“What’s cool?” Reggie asked, as he and Luke walked back into the kitchen. Alex smiled smugly, dropping Julie’s hands to cross them over his chest.

“That me and Luke can speak in Morse code through our shared wall,” Alex responded, the rest of their conversation abandoned the second the two boys came back. Reggies eyes lit up at the idea, mouth dropping.

“Dude, what? That’s sick! Julie, why can’t we do that?” Julie just rolled her eyes, leaving them to talk amongst themselves as she started grabbing ingredients. Soon, the speaker started playing old school Taylor Swift, and the kitchen descended into the barely organized chaos that dinner usually was.

And if Julie’s eyes lingered on Luke’s wrapped hand every once in a while, well, that was her own problem.

 

 

“Juuuulie,” Luke sang loudly, bursting the door open to her room a week later. She just groaned in response, turning away from him and pulling the white, brown trimmed comforter up higher over her face. The amount of energy he had in the mornings was criminal. He jumped onto her bed, his head propped up on his knuckles as he smiled at the back of her head. His hand miraculously hadn’t been broken just bruised, and the wrap pretty much immediately when he realized he couldn’t play with it on. The bruises had since faded to a light pink, unnoticeable against his skin (unless you were Julie, who spent more time than she was willing to admit tracking the transformation). It was quiet for a moment, and briefly she thought that she maybe could fall asleep if he stayed still. She should’ve known better. 

He bounced up and down, causing the whole bed to shake while banging his hand on the comforter. “Wake up wake up wake up!” He said cheerfully. She turned back around, glaring at him through her sleepy haze.

“I hate that you’re a morning person.”

“Me and Reggie have been up for hours, Julie. It’s almost 11.”

“What I’m hearing is that you already have someone to play with who actually wants to be up with you.”

“He’s waking up Alex." Luke shrugged, "we flipped a coin.”

They laid there for a minute, her glare against his happy eyes and undeterred energy, bouncing slightly like an excited puppy.

“Fine,” Julie caved, throwing the comforter to the side and slipping out from under the covers. She immediately whined, flopping back on the bed.

“Nope, never mind. It’s too cold,” she said, regretting her decision to wear a tank top to bed instead of a sweatshirt. Fall would barely qualify as a change in season in southern California, but that didn’t stop the morning chill of upstate New York from seeping into your bones. He sighed, getting up and coming to stand next to her side of the bed.

“Come on, let’s go,” he insisted, grabbing her by the wrists and pulling her up out of bed. She let herself be pulled, only to sneak her arms inside of the soft brown plaid jacket he was wearing and stealing the warmth from his body. He made a noise of protest, but wrapped his arms around her nonetheless to further cover her with his jacket.

“Jules,” he said in exasperation, the smile clear in his voice. She could feel his words rumble through his chest, causing her to smile slightly against his old Pink Floyd t-shirt. He rested his head lightly on the top of hers, letting the moment settle. They stood there for a minute, her eyes closed in content as she snuggled further into his body heat.

“How about this, if I give you my jacket, will you come downstairs?” He asked, breaking the silence. She hummed as she mulled it over, before sighed dramatically.

“I suppose that’s doable,” she relented, pulling back only for as long as she had to before wrapping herself back into the warmth. His eyes crinkled at the edges as he watched her settle into the oversized jacket, lip tucked into his teeth.

“What?” She asked, feeling somewhat shy when she noticed his gaze. She felt her whole body hum as he broke out into a smile, pulling her into another hug. 

“Nothing. You wear it better,” he said happily. She stuck her tongue out in response, blush prominent on her cheeks at the praise. He just repeated the gesture, giggling as they made their way back down the stairs. She could hear the faint croons of Frank Sinatra playing softly though the speaker in the kitchen, signaling the start of the day.

“The beast has risen!” Luke declared as they walked in, earning a glare from Julie. Alex didn’t look like he fared much better than she did— he barely acknowledged them as he stared into the steam of his black coffee. The big French doors leading to the backyard patio allowed the morning sunlight to filter through the kitchen, causing Julie to squint slightly at the brightness bouncing around the room.  The long white kitchen table was smooth and reflective, and she could vaguely see the silhouette of Alex’s tired face mirrored back at him through the surface. Reggie sat across him Alex, what was surely his second cup of coffee already almost done infront of him.

“Told you she was gonna take the jacket,” Reggie said to Luke with a cheerful smile. Julie just wrapped it further around herself, flipping him off.

“I have no regrets. Morning sweatshirts are too cold to put on, and Luke’s like a furnace. He keeps all the clothes he wears nice and warm.”

Reggie was fully ready for the day— and Julie knew from experience he had been for hours. He woke up at 7am almost without fail, and he wasn’t laying around either. When he stayed at the Molina house, he made breakfast for them every morning: eggs for him and Julie, a breakfast burrito Ray, and whatever sugary meal Carlos convinced him to make— Typically french toast. It was nice, in an annoying, start the day off right kinda way. She always came down to a fresh cup of coffee though, so she supposed she couldn’t complain.

“Yeah, didn’t even try to win that battle. Took under 10 minutes to get down here though, so I’d still call it a win.”

Julie ignored them, sitting down at the head of the table between Alex and Luke. Reggie, undeterred by her grumpiness, got up to pour her a cup of coffee. He pressed the pink mug she got from Flynn into her hands with a kiss to her temple, causing her to hum in thanks. Alex had today’s paper already laid out, crossword ready. The subscription had apparently come with the house, so they’d taken to doing them every day— usually, between the four of them they could work their way through it. 

Julie murmured answers and agreements as he started filling words in, offering notes next to clues of potential words or word play. When she had said all the ones she knew, she turned to back to Luke, who was opening up his song book to revise the chords for the song they wrote the night she almost fainted. It was almost finished, just a small guitar change during the bridge left. She could almost see the strings in his head, playing different sequences as he scribbled out potential tabs.

She hummed along to My Way, deciding to officially start her day and look at her phone. Four messages from Flynn, eight emails, and two voicemails from their manager sat waiting. She opened Twitter.

“Luke,” she said calmly.

“Yes?” He said, looking up from his notebook.

“Why are we trending on Twitter?”

“I have no idea,” he lied, smiling easily at her before looking back down.

“We, like the band or we, like, we?” Reggie asked.

She clicked on the LUKE AND JULIE trending tab.

 

@lukesphantomdick:

Luke and Julie are so cute

I hope she knows that she has the best boyfriend in the whole world (even if they’re not really dating)

@ralexstanacc:

they’re actually married I can’t believe this- i can just picture luke and julie laughing and watching us freak out PLEASE CONFIRM IT ALREADY 

@arthoemolina:

@lukepattersonjatp really said here’s some prime Luke and Julie content of us cuddling and her wearing my clothes :) anyways im gonna log off!! i hate this man

 

Julie clicked on his user to see his latest tweet from 20 minutes ago, realization hitting her when she noticed it had two pictures attached.

 

@lukepattersonjatp:

Down a jacket, but the star is awake! Can’t wait for you guys to see what we have brewing for our next album :)

[image description: a picture of Luke in Julie’s room, smiling at the camera with one arm wrapped around Julie, who was tucked into his plaid jacket. There’s a small smile on her face as she’s pressed against his chest with her eyes closed.]

[image description: a picture of Julie looking over Alex’s shoulder as he’s leaned over the crossword, her hands peeking out behind the oversized sleeves just enough to wrap around her mug.]

 

She turned her phone around to show his tweet back to him. Reggie laughed as he read it over Luke’s shoulder, picking up his phone to scroll through the tag himself.

“This, this is why people think we’re dating, Luke,” she said.

“That’s by far not the only reason why people think you’re dating,” Reggie interjected.

“Yeah, it might have something to do with the massive amounts of staring into each other’s eyes you do. Or writing love songs together. Or punching a man to defend her honor. Really the amount of tension that exists during any interaction you’ve ever had,” Alex added, not looking up from his paper.

Maybe that’s why they weren’t dating; the comments from everyone else in their lives would be insufferable.

“I just thought they were cute! I can delete them if you want,” he said defensively, ignoring the dating comments from his bandmates and throwing his hands up in surrender. Sighing, she clicked back onto the photo of them again— smiling a bit at the sight.

“Fine, I will admit, they are pretty cute. Sent them to me?” She asked as she hit reply.

 

@juliemolinajatp:

luke-warmed jackets just hit different, esp when the opportunity to wear your own clothing is right there

(also, I like “the star is awake” a lot better than “the beast has risen” pls use that one instead from now on)

 

His phone buzzed at the notification of her answer. She watched him as he smiled, making brief eye contact with her before typing a response.

 

@lukepattersonjatp:

But the beast has risen matches your dumb dragon feet slippers :/ also haha. luke-warm. Lukewarm.

 

She giggled, kicking one of her slippers into his leg.

 

@juliamolinajatp:

@lukepattersonjatp okay first of all theyre dinosaur feet slippers and second of all dont bring Barney and Arlo into this

@reggiepetersjatp:

@juliamolinajatp @lukepattersonjatp Guys please not at the table we’re trying to eat

[image discripton: Luke and Julie sitting at the corner of the table, huddled together and both smiling down at their phones. Alex is looking up at the camera, exasperation clear on his face at their antics.]

 

They both look up after seeing the notification from Reggie, light blushes on their faces. He just shrugged unapologetically, smirking at the two of them.

 

@lukepattersonjatp:

@reggiepetersjatp fuck off

[image discription: A chest up photo of Reggie smiling broadly at the camera. Slightly to the side and out of focus is Luke’s hand coming up from behind the camera, flipping him off.]

@mercersfavorite:

Juke cuddles, grumpy, wholesome morning crossword Alex and Julie and now high def smiling Reggie?? They really woke up and chose violence huh

@reggiesworld:

anyone else wonder so often what the keys around Reggie’s neck unlock or do I just fantasize about them hitting me in the face too much? just me? okay

@juliesdahlias

Reggie teasing juke about being adorable and Luke getting embarrassed is all I ever needed in the world

 

“I’m gonna do a live tonight if you guys are free later,” Luke said, leaning an elbow onto Reggie’s shoulder as he picked up the toast Reggie had left out from earlier, meaning into him as he took a bite.

Both Julie and Reggie declared their free schedules for the night, while Alex shrugged and threw the pen he was holding at Reggies face, abandoning the puzzle as he sipped his coffee.

“Depends when it is, I’m supposed to FaceTime Willie at 8. If you do it before dinner I’m down.”

“When are you gonna go public with Willie?” Reggie asked, unfazed by the projectile and just uncapped it to doodle on the inside of his wrist. Alex just shrugged again, tapping his painted nails on the table. His thumb and ring finger were painted sea green, while the rest were black— Julie was sure Willie’s hands back home were the opposite; they did things like that.

“Depends on what he wants to do. He’s never said he didn’t want to public, but I’m not gonna push him into stardom like that. He didn’t sign up to be famous. The balls in his court.”

The pair had been dating for almost a year but had managed to keep it under wraps. Willie wasn’t famous, but his job as a celebrity photographer made a great excuse foe him to be around all the time. And they got cool pictures out of it, so it’s a win-win, according to Luke.

“Does he know that it’s his decision, or did you assume he knew your stance without telling him and he’s waiting for you to say something?” Julie asked. Alex stared at her, about to respond, but snapped his mouth shut. She just sighed.

Well... Technically I never mentioned it, but I talk about how much I love him all the time! How could I not want to be public with him? Look at him.” Julie’s head thumped against the table.

“Oh my god, seriously? Men are so dumb. All men are so dumb. Alex, you’re the famous one with anxiety and control issues. You’re obsessed with knowing everything about what’s going on and staying ahead of it. Why would he ever think you were cool with whatever? You’re never cool with whatever!”

“She’s right Alex, He can’t know the balls in his court if you never even told him you’re down to play tennis,” Reggie agreed. Alex looked a bit confused at his analogy, opening his mouth to question him before choosing to just ignore it.

Alex stared back at Julie for a second, digesting her words before snapping his eyes back to Luke.

“Okay change of plans, I’m actually going to FaceTime Willie right now.”

 

...

 

Julie walked into the lounge later that day to find Luke and Reggie sitting on the floor amongst an assortment of pillows, blankets, and sheets. The furniture had been pushed to the sides of the room, leaving only the soft brown rug in the middle, chairs and couches placed deliberately around the space. She crossed her arms and leaned against the entryway, staring at the boys who had yet to notice her.

“And what are you two doing?” Julie asked, amusement seeping into her voice as they bickered about the best pillow placement.

They both stopped pulling at the pillow between then and looked up, like deer in headlights.

“Oh, hey Jules,” Reggie said, voice raised an octave higher than usual as he tried to sound casual. “Just, you know. Making a pillow fort.”

“For the live,” Luke said quickly, causing Reggie to nod vigorously in agreement.

“Yeah, for the live definitely.”

She nodded slowly, smiling at them as she dropped her arms and took the pillow from their hands.

“Flip the couch around and lean the pillows against the back— that way you can sit up in the fort and still be comfy,” she reasoned. “I’ll get the fairy lights from my room, that way we can turn the lights off and have it be perfect.”

Julie’s pretty sure Luke has never looked closer to kissing her than he had in that moment.

“Julie, have I ever told you how absolutely amazing you are?” He asked her, eyes shining as he stared in awe. She just laughed, turning to head back upstairs.

“Can’t hurt to be reminded.” 

She heard Reggie’s laugh as she walked away.

“Dude, you’ve gotta either make a move or get a grip.”

Her smile widened at the resulting thud that followed, and Reggie’s noise of protest as Luke tackled him into the pillows.

 

...

 

The live had gone well, the blanket fort being a hit— three full hours of blood, sweat, and tears, (and two bottles of rose) went into the build, and another hour just to figure out the lighting inside so you could see them all. She had only received a little bit of shit from Reggie after the live for sitting between Luke’s legs during live, which she called a win— able to pass off lack of space as the main reason she chose that particular seating arrangement, not her ever persistent crush. From the look Alex gave Luke when neither of them moved into the open space the laptop had left after the live had ended, she’s pretty sure he got shit for it too. The decision definitely had nothing to do with the gifs that popped up of his hands linked around her waist, chin tucked into her shoulder as they read questions from the chat, or screenshots of the way he looked at her when she wasn’t looking.

In the end, they decided to keep the fort up, the lounge having been relatively unused anyway. Julie’s had two movie nights in it in the past week since: one altogether, and one just her and Reggie, watching Horrible Bosses and Kingsman, respectively. She found she quite liked it in there— it was like it was cut off from reality. In the fort, you existed only within blanketed walls and fluffy pillows, surrounded by air just a little too warm but overall too comfortable to care.

Julie guessed that’s why when she got the email late on Thursday night of the completed song file, that was where she went. She texted Luke along the way, (song back!! meet in fort asap. bring good vibes and reeses) bringing her laptop for in case they wanted to add any production notes. She threw her favorite sweatshirt of his on, liking the look in his eyes when he noticed she wore it. She heard his footsteps down the stairs as she settled in, hearing him stop in the kitchen and the soft banging of the pantry opening and closing before his feet appeared on the outside of the makeshift doorway.

He crawled in, two packages of Reese’s in hand and some plastic bead necklaces with shot glasses attached in the other.

“I couldn’t figure out the best representation of ‘good vibes’, but I felt like these came close,” Luke said, reaching around her to put a necklace around her neck then the other around his own. His eyes lingered on her sweatshirt, making her cheeks flush. In the low light of the fort it was hard to tell, but she let herself believe he liked what he saw.

His hair was somewhat messy and ungelled, just she liked it. If she was drunk, she maybe would’ve run her fingers through it, under some flimsy pretense of it being too messy or sticking up weirdly. But she was sober and they were friends, so she chose the safe choice.

She picked up the shot glass around his neck, a look of judgement on her face before dropping it back down onto his blue threadbare T-shirt. She got back up on her knees to leave.

“You brought shot glasses and no alcohol to go in them? What kind of animal are you?” She asked, causing him to laugh quietly. Julie could hear that sound forever, bathe in their gentle banter and hushed tones until the world went dark.

“Its late, I wasn’t sure if this was a drinking thing! I just brought them for the vibe,” he defended as she slipped out of the fort. She made her way over to the bar, fingers dancing over the tops of the bottles before settling on the pink Whitney. They didn’t have a chaser, so a built in one would have to do. She thought about the safe choice, the easy deflections of their flirting and tension. She stood there for another moment, fighting her better judgement before unscrewing the cap and lifting it to her lips, the vodka going down as easy as it realistically could given the content. She made her way back into the other room where Luke was waiting with his head stuck out from the makeshift doorway.

“What’s the password?” He asked. She thought for a second, before couching down to his level.

“Luke Patterson is the best person ever in the history of Julie and the Phantoms,” she joked; he tilted his head in deliberation before shaking his head.

“Close, but no,” he responded, eyes alight with mirth. He looked at her up and down, confident in the alternate reality of the fort.

“Ohhh, I see. Julie Molina is the best person ever in the history of Julie and the Phantoms,” Julie said, rolling her eyes as he moved to the side and held the blanket open for her to crawl in.

“Look at that, got it on the second try. Ready to prove you’re not a robot? How many traffic lights are in these six photos?” He continued, waving a hand across six imaginary photos in front of him. She shook her head in fond exasperation but didn’t respond, pushing the bottle into his hands instead and pulling her laptop into her lap. She scooted back to sit next to him against the pillows and pulled up their working document for the song notes. It should’ve been all corrected for the final cut, but it was their first time hearing the song together— and they were perfectionists when it came to music. She stopped her fretting when she heard the distinct sound of the bottle opening, opting instead to watch Luke being the bottle to his lips. He stared at her with hooded eyes as she watched him drink.

“Don’t look at me like that, I know you drank some already without me,” he said. She shrugged, not denying it as she opened one of the Reese’s packets, giving him one to him and taking the other. It was their tradition when they finished a song, sharing a Reese’s before and after. It had started before she could drink, as a way of a toast, and now it was so ingrained in their lives they couldn’t imagine sitting anything else.

He put the cup down briefly on his red plaid pajama bottoms and lifted the green shot glass around his neck, pouring a shot out and repeating the gesture into hers before picking the candy back up. He held his shot and Reese’s up to hers in cheers.

“To perfect harmony,” he whispered with a smile.

She smiled back. “To perfect harmony.”

They took the shot together, him winking when he caught her watching him again. She looked down at her Reese’s, fiddling with the wrapper as she smiled a bit wider to herself. He threw his arm around her, and as she leaned into him as if they were magnets pulled together.

They slotted together comfortably, fitting into each other the way they always could but never allowed themselves to. Julie tried as hard as she could to savor the moment, in case it slipped away like it always did.

She pressed play and rested her head on his shoulder, hearing the opening notes and Luke’s voice lead in.

Step into my world, a bittersweet love story ‘bout a girl

Shook me to the core, voice like an angel, I’ve never heard before...

She felt his arm tense when her voice came in, instinctively pulling her closer to him. There was something different between them. Like reality had really shifted behind these blankets, and it was just the two of them against the world. 

The truth is finally breaking through

Two worlds collide when I’m with you...

Julie was actively trying not to look at him. Like one look could break the careful rising tension, and they would just brush it off again, like they always did. For once, she let herself want him, to see what would happen if they didn’t cut themselves off of What they truly wanted. Through the music, she heard him take another pull from the bottle, taking it gladly when it entered her vision. She closed her eyes as she drank, feeling his gaze on her face.

Love me as I am

I’ll hold your music here inside my hands...”

Luke’s hand shot out to stop the song. It was suddenly too much, the sincerity in their words too overwhelming. They held their breath in silence, not looking at each other. They couldn’t back out now— the song was made, they were in too deep. Wordlessly, she passed him back the bottle, this time his eyes stayed closed as she watched him. He took a longer drink than usual, not meeting her gaze as he hit play again.

We say we’re friends, we play pretend

you’re more to me, we create, a perfect harmony.

The air was tense when the song finished— more tense then when they wrote it, or even when they sang it in the booth. Back then didn’t feel real, the rawness not hitting them until it was all put together and sung back in their faces. They were just words, then parts of melodies, then snippets of songs, of feelings. This, though. This was real. The finished song had made the elephant in the room too big for the fort, too all encompassing to ignore. 

Julie moved down to lay down on the rug, looking up at the fairy lights. She liked the way they twinkled slowly, casting waltzing shadows over the space. The pink Whitney had made her tipsy enough to try and find patterns in them, like they were stars in the sky. Luke followed her movements, laying down next to her. Their arms pressed against each other, her skin buzzing at every point of contact down all the way down her forearm. Her pinky crossed his loosely, feeling the metal ring against her skin.

“Hey Julie,” Luke said softly.

“Hm?”

“Why aren’t we dating?”

There it was. The golden question. They were bound to address it at some point. Years of glances, smiles. Private moments, lingering hugs. She’d tried out a hundred different answers, but never fit quite right. The reason was never really the safety of friendship, or the annoying friends, or the comments from fans.

“You never asked,” she replied.

The moment she said it she knew it was true.

That was the only real answer she had. At any point in time over the years, if he had asked her out, she would’ve said yes. He could’ve asked her when she was most upset at him, and she still would’ve said yes.

He stayed silent for a moment, a mixture of indecision and frustration clear on his face as he battled his mind. She waited, silent, until he propped himself up on his hand to look at her properly.

“Hey Julie?”

“Hm?” She said again, turning her head to look at him. She spent so long fearing this moment, but now that they were here, she wasn’t scared. She felt safe, like if anything had went wrong they could just blame it on the fairy light stars; leave the alternate universe of the fort and go back to real life.

“You know you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, right?” He asked.

She laughed softly.

“Music’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you,” she corrected.

He didn’t laugh, grabbing her wrist instead, directly over her band striped friendship bracelet. He thumbed over it, his own dangling from the arm he leaned on. Red then purple then blue then pink.

Music was the main reason she never just asked him out. She knew he liked her, same as how he knew she liked him; that wasn’t the problem. But music was his life source; and she was tied to that. What if she wasn’t worth the risk? That was the real question that haunted her.

“No, it isn’t, Julie. No music is worth making if I’m not making it with you,” he said, keeping eye contact and letting her drown in his sincerity. “Any song I’ve written since we’ve met has been about you. You’re more to me than music, Jules. You are the music.” 

It was a declaration of love more than the word itself ever could be. His hand fell from her wrist as she shifted to lean on her elbow, facing him properly. She reached her other hand to touch his face, tracing the outline of his cheekbone.

“I think you’re my guardian angel,” she whispered.

It was his turn to correct her. “Reggie’s you’re guardian angel. I’m just here for the ride.”

He can’t know the balls in his court if you never even told him you’re down to play tennis. She shook her head.

“Reggie’s my brother. You’re my guardian angel. When I pray to my mother, I thank her for keeping you in my life, every time,” she said. “When she died, I was so set on giving up music completely. I couldn’t imagine making music with anyone but her. But you— I could never imagine not making music with you. You’re music to me too, Luke.”

His spare hand had found her waist. A small smile appeared on his lips, biting his lower lip softly as his eyes danced around her face.

“Hey Julie?” He asked.

“Hm?” She said, staring at his lips. They spent the majority of their lives When he didn’t answer, she forced her eyes back to his, the gentle warmth enough to make her smile.

He pulled her closer, face inches from hers. She could faintly smell the artificial lemonade of the pink Whitney on his breath, along with a little bit of peanut butter from the Reese’s. He stopped, right before their lips touched, to give her one more out, one last time. She was done taking outs.

They rushed together, his grip tightening on her face as he leaned down to meet her lips. A dam inside her broke, and a wave flowed through her body, pushing her further into him as they kissed. He moved his hand to her back, turning them until she laid flat on her back. She moved her other hand to his hair, running her fingers through it as he hummed in appreciation. She vaguely remembered all the excuses she’d made up to run her hands through it, causing her to laugh lightly into the kiss.

“Do you know how many dumb excuses I used to use so I could run my fingers through your hair?” She mumbled against his lips. The fairy lights made a soft halo around his head, the beauty of the glow second only to the way he was smiling down at her.

“Do you know how many dumb excuses I used to use to get you in my clothes?” He responded, shifting his weight to one hand so he could skim down her side with the other. “I swear, I buy clothes with the thought of you wearing them instead of me.”

He leaned down to kiss her neck lightly, and she reveled in the feel of his smile when she giggled. He kissed up and around her face, placing one final kiss to her nose before pulling back. She scrunched her nose in response, love drunk and content. He kissed her again, slow and easy, her arms wrapped around his neck as she pulled herself up into him.

After what felt like a lifetime, he pulled back, pressing their lips together quickly one last time. He looked at her again, eyes in glazed disbelief. He rolled off her and sat up straight on the rug, hands never leaving her body as he pulled her up with him. His face was flushed, lips red and shiny and smiling; she could stare at him like this forever. He picked up the vodka and refilled their shot glasses before opening the Reese’s packet with his teeth. 

She moved to sit between his legs, her own thrown loosely around his waist.

“To us,” he said.

She lifts her shot glass and Reese’s to his.

“To us,” she repeats, downing the shot and biting into the Reese’s. He shoved his into his mouth quickly, pulling her closer and resting his hands on her thighs just below her fluffy patterned sleeping shorts.

She wrapped her arms around his neck as he leaned in to kiss her.

“Wait a minute,” she said at the last second, pulling out of kissing reach. Panic immediately flooded his face, his fingers digging slightly into her skin before them pulling back quickly. He held his hands out in the air, careful not to touch her.

“You still never asked me out,” she accused without malice, giggling slightly when his body sagged with relief. He tilted his head back and rolled his eyes lovingly, placing his hands back down on her thighs and rubbing them slowly.

“Julie Molina, I’ve been in love with you for like, 6 years. Will you please, for the love of God and your mom and music and all things holy,” he said, pulling another giggle out of her “pretty please date me?”

She pretends to think it over, humming with a smile. “I would love to, Luke Patterson.”

She went easily when he pulled her back in. In the too warm fort with too sweet kisses, she was content to be in the moment forever.