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Luke’s friends aren’t exactly known for being the model of restraint, but they at least have the decency to wait until Julie’s left their table and gotten into the lunch line to attack him.  The minute she’s out of ear shot, Flynn whips around to face him, grabs his wrist, and cries, “You and Julie’s anniversary…quick!”

Bewildered, Luke nearly chokes on his sandwich.  “Wha’?” he says, his mouth half full.

She wrinkles her nose in disgust.  “Your anniversary!  What do you have planned for it?”

By some miracle, Luke manages to swallow around the lump that’s risen in his throat.  It’s not the kind that promises tears, but it’s squirmy and uncomfortable and makes his stomach churn unpleasantly.  He drops his sandwich onto his brown paper bag and pushes it away.  So much for lunch. 

“I don’t know,” he finally says, shrugging.  “I figured we’d watch some movies?  Make out a little?  That’s what we usually do.”

He’s met with six expressions of horror from around the table, each with their own personal level of disdain.  Carrie, the most disdainful of all, says, “Are you serious?”  She looks to their friends for help.  “Is he serious?”

Luke rolls his eyes, face going a little hot.  He hates feeling stupid.  “Yeah?  So what?”

“So that’s—that’s—”  Carrie stops, unable for the first time in her life to come up with an adequate insult.  “Ugh, boys!”

Next to her, Alex lets out an offended squawk.  “Excuse you, it’s not boys, it’s Luke!  I took Willie on a sunset boat ride, remember?”

“I took Bobby to that nice restaurant downtown,” Reggie pipes up proudly, reaching over to link his fingers with Bobby’s under the table.  As hard as he tries to remain unaffected, even Luke can see the way Bobby goes pink in the face.  “Saved up for ages!”

Overwhelmed, Luke gestures between Flynn and Carrie and asks, “What did you guys do?”

“Art gallery,” Flynn tells him.  “It was one of the best nights of my life.”

“That’s all so—”  Luke stops, casting about for the right word.

“Romantic?” Willie suggests, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah.  And fancy and weird.”

“It’s your anniversary,” Alex points out.  He speaks slowly like Luke is an idiot, which is fair enough.  “It’s supposed to be romantic!  And showing people you love and appreciate them isn’t weird.”

“Julie does know I love and appreciate her,” Luke protests, because that’s something he knows for sure.  How could she not?  “I tell her all the time!”

There’s just enough time for Flynn to ask, “But do you show her?” before Julie returns to the lunch table, blessedly ending the conversation.  It’s a simple question, five words rushed out in a hurry, but it gnaws at the back of Luke’s brain, nags at him like pinpricks on his skin.  Even when Julie throws her arms around his shoulders and squishes him tight like she’d been gone for five years rather than five minutes, it’s still there like a dark cloud hanging over his head.

Do you show her?  Well, do you?

-

Truth be told, Luke doesn’t actually know when he and Julie got together.  There wasn’t any emotional confession of feelings or stumbling, awkward asking out, it just grew into something along the way without either of them noticing.  All Luke knows is that their songwriting sessions started to involve a lot more kissing than before and when he’d pulled away halfway through a makeout at the piano and asked, “Have you been kissing anyone else?” Julie had only laughed.

“Of course not,” she’d said, rolling her eyes.  “You?”

“Hell no.”

And since then they’ve been each other’s person. 

When pressed by their friends, they cite that conversation as the official beginning of their relationship, but it’s really not that simple.  Julie was special to Luke long before they ever talked about it, long before kissing and holding hands and Mr. Molina setting down “ground rules” about when Luke is and isn’t allowed in Julie’s bedroom.  Nothing about his feelings for Julie have ever been cut-and-dry, no matter how much their friends push or Tía Victoria teases or Luke’s parents tell him how happy they are that he’s found a nice girl.  Those comments, said through pleased smiles and congratulatory pats on the back, only serve to make Luke’s insides squirm, because kissing Julie didn’t mean he’d suddenly found her.  She was already there.

She’s always been there.

It’s not something he’s ever been able to put into words, at least not without his friends interrupting to taunt him about how hilarious it is that he took so long to realize he was in love, so after a while he just stopped trying.  He can write songs as easy as breathing, has even written some in his sleep before, but whatever he has with Julie is beyond explanation, beyond poetry.  That’s never really bothered him until now.

Now, when Carrie points out, her brown eyes huge and distressed, “You haven’t even been on a real date!  And don’t try to lie to me, because I know for a fact that you haven’t.”

She’s right.  She’s right and the entire world comes screeching to a halt as Luke realizes it for the very first time.  They’ve been together for some nebulous space of time that’s way closer to years than months and it’d never even occurred to Luke that maybe they should go on a date.  Dates had always seemed like they were for other people, people like Flynn and Carrie or Alex and Willie or Reggie and Bobby.  Not for Luke. 

Starting to feel sick to his stomach, Luke hangs his head.  All this time, there’s been a glaring omission in his awareness, one that should’ve been at the forefront of everything.  Because who’s to say that dates aren’t for Julie?  Maybe she’s been feeling left out and neglected this entire time and he never noticed, too caught up in the confusing intricacies of his own head to see that she wants something more.  Something closer to what their friends have. 

“I—” Luke falters, starting to tremble a little.  “I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t know that you haven’t taken Julie on a date?”  Carrie is staring at him in disbelief.

Luke curls into himself, feeling small and dumb and ridiculous.  “Yeah?”

“Luke, that’s crazy!”  Carrie turns to Bobby.  “Back me up here, dude.  Tell him that’s crazy.”

“Don’t drag me into this,” Bobby groans, looking over his shoulder at their Chemistry teacher.  Their off-task discussion hasn’t attracted her attention yet, but if Carrie continues at this volume, they’re sure to get split up soon.  Luke isn’t sure he’d mind.  “This is none of my business.  And, quite frankly, it’s not really yours, either.”

“Julie is my best friend and that makes this my business,” Carrie says.  “I’m just looking out for her and if you were any kind of friend, you would be, too.”

Resigned to his fate, Bobby sighs.  “It is kinda weird, bro,” he tells Luke, kind enough to be apologetic about it.  He slaps Luke on the shoulder.  “But you can come back from it!  Just take her on a nice date for your anniversary and everything will be fine.”  Then he makes a face.  “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but can we please get back to our schoolwork now?”

“Gladly,” Luke mutters even though he knows his concentration is shot.  As they mix chemicals and record color changes, his mind flies a mile a minute, flitting from one snapshot of Julie to the next.  Kissing in the studio loft, eating dinner with his parents, her fingers over his as she teaches him the piano chords for their latest song, spinning around in matching skirts at the thrift store.  But never a date

Do you show her?

Luke is ashamed to find that he doesn’t.  But even the most idiotic of mistakes can be fixed with enough determination, so Luke throws himself into it head-first.

-

When Luke asks Julie out, she laughs in his face. 

“For our anniversary,” he explains meekly, face flaming red.  Somehow, asking Julie on a date makes Luke feel even stupider than realizing he’s never done it before.  He’s not cut out for this shit.

When he doesn’t laugh along, just stands there fiddling nervously with his rings and rocking up and down on his toes, the teasing grin falls off Julie’s face.  “Oh,” she says, recognition dawning.  “Oh!  You were serious.”

Luke nods.  “Yeah.  If—if that’s something you’d wanna do?”

She tilts her head, studying him.  “Is it something you wanna do?”

It’s all Luke can do not to groan.  Julie never can make things easy on him, always so full of care and consideration.  If she’d think about herself just once, demand what she deserves from him and keep demanding it until she got it, maybe they wouldn’t be in this situation.  Because God knows Luke was never going to see his shortcomings without someone telling him.

That’s what Carrie is for, apparently.

Resolute, Luke squares his shoulders.  “Yeah,” he tells her.  “I do.  Because we’ve been together for ages, so I thought we should do something nice to celebrate.  You know, like normal people do.”

Julie’s face goes soft.  “Normal people, huh?  Since when have we been normal?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we should try it.”

She chews on her lip for a few seconds, then shrugs.  “Okay.  Let’s try it, then.  An anniversary date…why not?”

Relieved, Luke breaks into a smile.  There’s still time to fix this yet.  “Yeah, okay.  Okay!  Um, I’ll figure out the details and let you know?”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Julie says, but she grabs him by the front of his shirt and yanks him into a hug before he can be sufficiently offended by the implication.

Dates and anniversaries and finding someone may send Luke reeling, his mind muddled up something awful, but this – arms around waists and hearts pressed together and Julie’s hands on his back – has always made sense.  He melts gratefully against her, his eyes falling closed.  “I love you,” he whispers into her hair.  “You’re really important to me, Julie.”

“I know.  You’re really important to me, too.”

When all else fails, at least they have that.

-

The night of the big date, Luke almost throws up. 

His hair won’t lay flat no matter how hard he tries and his dress shirts all fit weird and his shoes are pinching his toes and he looks like a fucking idiot and he can’t breathe right and—and then his stomach lurches, sending him diving for his trashcan, terrified that he’ll puke onto his bedroom carpet.  Thankfully, nothing comes up but a distressed whine, the pathetic sound making his body go hot with embarrassment.  No wonder dates were never on his radar before.  They suck.

He knows logically that it’s not a big deal, that Julie isn’t going to be judging him from the other side of the table, just waiting for him to mess up, but he can’t keep his emotions in check.  Because this is all new, all unfamiliar and uncharted.  There are expectations and rules and, god, Luke doesn’t even know what they are.

One thing he does know is that he has to look nice, which is why he’s in this stupid, stuffy shirt no matter how much he hates it.  It has sleeves, a fact that he loathes with his entire body, tugging on the fabric with annoyance and something hot and angry igniting in the pit of his stomach.  He forces himself to take deep breaths until the feeling passes, knowing that having a breakdown over a shirt would be outrageous even for him.

Besides, it’s for Julie.  He can get through anything if it’s for Julie.

Even a date.  Even a date wearing sleeves.  Even a date wearing sleeves that he has to pay for out of his amp fund.  Shit, he really does need that new amp, though.    

Miraculously, he holds it together long enough to pick up Julie.  She answers the door with all the grace of an angel, the sight of her taking Luke’s breath away.  She’s absolutely beautiful, wearing a shiny purple dress and heels tall enough that they see eye to eye.  Her hair is loose and wild and Luke wants to bury his face in it.  Rather than do that, he offers her a shy smile and murmurs, “You ready to go?”

To his surprise, she shakes her head.  “Pictures first,” she tells him firmly.  “My dad said so.”

At the thought of having to stand still in his pinchy shoes and itchy sleeves, the fire in his stomach comes back full force.  It’s not like this is their wedding.  It’s not even prom.  And Luke knows exactly what the pictures are going to look like: a beautiful goddess of a girl smiling next to the sweatiest moron on the block.  Why did he let his friends talk him into this?

And then the question is back, just the faintest whisper at the edge of his awareness.

Do you show her?

Luke’s been given an opportunity to start and he can’t back down now.  He can’t.

So he poses for as many pictures as Mr. Molina orders and puts on a pretty smile that makes Tía coo at him and categorically doesn’t rip his shirt open so he can breathe better, though it’s a close thing.  The pictures come out alright, better than Luke thought they would, and Julie keeps kissing him on the cheek as they flip through them, pleased and giggling.  Seeing her so happy eases some of the tightness in his chest and by the time they finally head out, he feels a little bit less like a stranger in his own body.

They get to the restaurant without mishap and are seated at a table in a secluded corner, facing a picture window looking out over the city.  It’s a beautiful view, though it has nothing on Julie.  She’s practically glowing, her face lit up in a smile and her eyes dancing with contentment and the reflection of the candlelight.

If they were anywhere else, Luke would’ve told her already.  Told her how pretty she is, how glad he is to have her.  But they’re on a date right now and everything feels weird and off-kilter and it’s their anniversary, but it isn’t, really.  They don’t have an anniversary, because Luke has never known what he’s fucking doing.

“You look…nice,” he finally tries, the words coming out haltingly and like there’s a question mark on the end.  Somehow, he manages not to cringe at himself.

“Oh, uh, thanks,” Julie says, looking down at her dress like she’s just remembered she’s wearing it.  “You, too.”

“Thanks.”

Normally, words flow like water between them, music and family stuff and whatever their crazy friends got up to at school that day, but right now it’s like Luke’s mind has gone completely blank.  He can’t think of anything to say and after way too many minutes of squirming and stuttering, Luke can literally see the happy light drain from Julie’s eyes.  It makes him want to cry.

This isn’t where he’s meant to be.  This isn’t who he’s meant to be.

It’s only reinforced when a particularly vigorous tug on his goddamn sleeves sends his water cup spilling into his lap, the freezing water immediately soaking through both layers of fabric and making Luke yelp.  He leaps to his feet, ice cubes sliding down the front of his pants to land on the floor while Julie makes concerned noises and passes over their cloth napkins.  A busboy materializes out of nowhere to mop up the mess, making Luke burn so hot with humiliation he wouldn’t be shocked if he burst into flames.

“Can’t take him out anywhere, can you, Miss?” the guy says, winking at Julie like they’re in on some hilarious joke together. 

“Guess not,” she giggles and Luke flops back into his damp chair, pouting in his disgrace and his wet underwear.  It looks like he fucking pissed himself. 

“Relax.  It happens,” Julie assures him once they’re alone again.  “It’ll dry.”

Luke can only harrumph in response. 

The best thing about their meals arriving is that they have an excuse to stop talking, digging in right away.  The second-best thing is that the food is actually amazing – it better be, considering how much it costs.  Which brings Luke to the worst thing: the fact that when he reaches into his wet pocket for his wallet, he finds it empty. 

“No,” he mumbles, horrified.  He starts slapping his thighs and ass in a panic, hoping he’s just put it in the wrong pocket.  “No, please.  God, no.”

But, alas, he’d been so focused on hating himself on the way out the door that he’d forgotten to grab it.  So now he’s here at some fancy restaurant neck-deep in a check with no way to pay it.  He slams his head down onto the table, not caring about the loud clatter that results.  Everyone in the room already thinks he’s an idiot, he might as well prove them right.

He’s always lived to please, after all.

Julie is gracious about it, of course, handing over her debit card to the waiter without so much as a flinch when she sees the bill.  Luke can only watch, shame-faced, as she signs the receipt, thanks the waiter for their service, and gets to her feet, holding out a hand to help him up from his chair.  He takes it, following her outside like a damn child.

As if he’s not already embarrassed enough, by the time they reach the sidewalk Luke is in tears.  He’s trying to hold them back, honest, he is, but the last hour keeps playing on a loop in his head and it’s an even bigger disaster every time.  All he’d wanted to do was give Julie something nice for their anniversary, but even now, even as they walk in silence back to the car, he feels like he’s playing pretend.  Maybe Flynn, Alex, and Reggie can do it, but Luke can’t.  He doesn’t know why he bothered trying.

He’s done a pretty good job at keeping his tears a secret up until this point, but then his throat closes up and he has to gasp for air and Julie whirls to look at him, alarmed.  When she sees the wetness tracking down his face, her eyes widen and she flings herself at him, hugging him tightly around the neck.

“Oh no, Luke,” she’s saying, murmuring it into his ear.  “No, no, no.  C’mon, don’t worry about it.  It’s no big deal, okay?”

Rather than heed her reassurances, he blurts out, feeling incredibly sorry for himself, “Why am I such a bad—”  He fumbles around for the right word and settles on “—a bad boyfriend?” even though they’ve never used it before.  He figures it’s as close as they can get to describing whatever the hell they’ve been doing for the past few years.

“You’re not,” Julie says, stepping back to look at him.  Her eyebrows are pulled together in concern.  “None of this is your fault!  It’s alright.”

“No, I am!”  Luke throws his hands in the air, suddenly impassioned.  “I messed up our first date!  Oh yeah, did you realize we’ve never been on a date before?  Because I didn’t until Carrie pointed it out.  It never even crossed my mind…who fucking does that?”

Julie, for her part, doesn’t seem surprised at all by the revelation.  Clearly, Luke’s date-blindness isn’t a common problem.  But when she answers it’s just to say, “I don’t see why it matters.  We hang out all the time.”

“Boyfriends and girlfriends aren’t supposed to hang out.”

“Uh-huh, and did Carrie tell you that, too?”

Luke looks down at his hands, taking his ring on and off his index finger, too jittery to hold still.  “And other people,” he mumbles, sheepish.

“You need to stop listening to those other people,” she says pointedly, making it clear that she knows exactly who’s to blame.  Their nosy friends.  “They’re not a part of this…you and I are.  And I like how we are.”

“But I wanted to show you that I love you!  That was the whole point of this date!  But all I did was make a huge fucking mess.”  He drops his head and his voice along with it, swiping the back of his hand across his runny nose.  “I just want you to know that I appreciate you.”

Julie sighs, grabbing him by the shoulders.  She stands there, still and patient, until he finally forces himself to look up at her.  The unabashed care and affection that he finds written across her face makes his breath hitch in his lungs.  Even after everything, she still looks at him like he’s precious.  He doesn’t know how that’s possible. 

“You do show me,” she says quietly.  “You show me all the time.”

Luke can’t fight back the petulance when he demands, “When?”

“When you let me look through your song book – you don’t let anyone else do that!  When you give me your jacket to put over my head so my hair won’t get wet in the rain…and when you keep everyone quiet when I have a migraine.”  She pauses, breaking into a smile.  “How do you do that, by the way?  That’s a pretty impossible feat.”

Luke’s face goes warm.  “I threaten to shave off their eyebrows in their sleep.”

Julie laughs, shocked and loud and pretty.  “My hero!” she cries, patting gently at his cheek.  “Okay, how about the fact that you hang out with my dad even though it makes you nervous?  Or that you wore that shirt for our anniversary just so you could look nice for me?”

At the mention of the dreaded shirt, Luke looks down at it in disgust.  The whine that comes out of the back of his throat is a little wet and very, very pitiful.  “Julie, I hate it,” he says, picking at the cuffs like they might disintegrate through sheer force of will.  “I hate it so much.”

“And yet you still wore it for me!”  Julie makes a grab for his hand, squeezing it.  “Don’t you get it?  Just because our relationship doesn’t look like our friends’, that doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Fuck how things are supposed to go…we do things our way.”

“I like our way,” Luke admits quietly, swinging their hands back and forth between them.  And he does.  He likes the way they’ve never had to make a big deal about it or follow a script or agonize over how they feel and what they do.  Luke told Julie he loved her long before they ever kissed.  “Our way is good.”

Julie smiles, face soft.  “Yeah.  It is.  So if you’re done trying to be someone else, how about we go back to your house?  And you can change your shirt and we can watch a movie or something?  Like we usually do.”

Standing right there in the middle of the sidewalk, car horns blaring around them and Luke’s stupid pants still drying, he’s never felt more understood in his life.  More seen and more cared for and like he can just exist without apologizing for it.  It strikes him to the heart, makes his eyes well up again, and what ends up tumbling out of his mouth is, “Can we make out, too?  Just a little bit?  It’s our anniversary, Jules.”

Julie snickers into her hand.  “I don’t know,” she teases.  “Wouldn’t want Emily to catch us.”

Luke pokes his bottom lip out.  “Please?”

She holds her ground for a total of two seconds, a smile pulling across her face.  “Fine, we can make out, too.”

Before Luke can let out the triumphant whoop that’s on the tip of his tongue, she grabs him by the chin and presses her mouth to his.  Then she walks him backwards until he’s pressed up against the side of a brick building, a little dazed as he tries to keep up.  His skin is buzzing, burning hot and alive.

“No more anniversaries,” Julie whispers between kisses, like he needs one more reason to love her.  “And definitely no more dates.”

“Deal,” Luke agrees, deciding that maybe this disastrous first date was almost worth it…but only because it’s the last one, too.