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it's not what you lost, it's what you'll gain

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Nobody likes talking about death. Even as a ghost, it wasn't a subject that came up naturally, because being dead wasn't the same as dying, and dying was a lot harder to think about for Luke.

"Dying was," Luke started, then swallowed. Julie reached over and took his hand, letting him focus on the warmth of her, letting her ground him. It was a new miracle every time she touched him without going through him, one he didn't think he'd ever get used to. They were seated on the couch in her living room, and they were, for the moment, alone. This was not how Luke would have preferred to spend any time he got alone with Julie, but it was important. He needed to say it, all of it. He took a breath and forced himself to continue. "It's not like we all died at the exact same moment, you know? It…whatever was in the food, it hit us all differently. Alex was the first to realize something was really wrong. He couldn't…he tried to stand up, and got cramps so bad he couldn't breathe, and before me and Reggie even felt nauseous, he was already vomiting blood. Oh, God." He closed his eyes, but it did nothing to block out the memory of that night. The way the sky started spinning, the way the street vendor had panicked, trying to help, screaming for someone to find a phone to call 911.

"Luke, you don't have to—"

"I do. I need to tell you," Luke said. His voice was raspier, his eyes burning. He kept them closed for a moment as he tilted his head back and took a steadying breath. When he opened them again, Julie was watching him carefully, her own dark eyes glistening, but she was clearly ready to listen. Luke swallowed again, squeezing her hand. "We all made it to the ambulance, but Alex was only hanging on by a thread. Me and Reggie, we were trying so hard to talk, to tell him he could fight it, that he wasn't alone, but he couldn't hear us, and eventually we couldn't talk anymore either.

"Alex was the first to go." It hurt to say, hurt even more to remember. The way the light had gone out of Alex's eyes, the way the paramedics had started yelling, racing for equipment that was too late to do any good. "A lot of it is kind of blurry after that. But I remember…I remember looking over and meeting Reggie's eyes. And we just, we knew. We didn't need to say it. We couldn't let Alex go alone. He'd been so scared of being alone, he'd felt like he was alone for so much of his life already, his parents had already abandoned him, he felt like nobody could ever love him, and we were his brothers, you know? Who did he have, if he didn't have us?"

"Oh, Luke." Julie's voice wobbles, her free hand rising to cover her mouth.

"I don't know if we could have made it. It's possible the paramedics could have saved us, maybe. Maybe we could have made it to the hospital and gotten the help we needed. I guess I'll never know. We just…decided. Easy as that. We weren't gonna fight it, if fighting it meant leaving Alex alone. Reggie went next, and that was almost peaceful compared to watching Alex, and then…" He shook his head. "I don't remember the actual dying, which always seemed weird. Dying is a big deal, right? You'd think it would stick with you. But the last memory I have before floating out of the ambulance is staring at them both, and they were so still. Everything went quiet. I couldn't hear the paramedics anymore, or the siren, or even the music that usually lived in my head. It was all quiet. I know that I wasn't scared, not then. And then just like that…I was back with them."

Julie was quiet for a long moment, trembling under the weight of whatever emotions the story had sparked in her. Luke wanted to feel guilty for putting this on her, but she deserved to know. Everything he was…everything he was both with and for his band, his brothers, was in that story. He'd laid himself bare to her, the way she'd done so many times to them. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft. "Alex doesn't know, does he?"

Now Luke looked away. He shook his head. "How do you put something like that on a guy?" he asked. "I wouldn't change the decision I made, not for anything, and I know Reggie feels the same way, but Alex doesn't deserve—"

"He deserves to know," Julie told him. "He'd want to know. You know he would. If it had been you who died first, and they had made the decision to follow and not leave you alone, wouldn't you want to know?"

"Yeah, but that's different," Luke said on autopilot, but then he paused, really thought about it. Sure, they called Alex the sensitive one, but he was stronger than maybe all of them. Alex had been living in fear, in a dark and desolate closet, for years before he came out. And he'd borne it with a smile on his face and music in his heart, never letting on that anything was wrong until one mistake had left his life in shambles and Luke and Reggie'd had to pick up the pieces as much as they could. Alex could handle the truth. He shouldn't have to, but he could. And Luke knew that the longer is stayed hidden, the worse it would be if (when) he found out. Reggie and Luke never talked about that night, the decision they'd made, except in fleeting glances and subtle nods, but someday, the truth would come out. The truth always did.

"Just think about it, huh?" Julie turned on the couch to face him more directly, tugging until he was in her arms, face buried in her soft curls as he clutched at her. "And thanks for telling me," she whispered. "What you guys did…maybe some people would tell you it was foolish, and I wish things could have gone down any other way for all of you, but I also think it was stupidly brave. You guys are family."

"So are you," Luke said. "You're our family too, Jules. Just…" His arms tightened and he fought a sudden surge of fear, of could-have-beens that were literally impossible because she hadn't even been born then, let alone been in that ambulance with them. "Just promise you won't go doing something as dumb as we did, okay?"

She snorted laughter that sounded more like a sob. "I'd be a little late to the party at this point, huh? Also then Flynn would follow just so she could kick my ghostly butt." She sniffled. "I promise, Luke. But I can't promise I wouldn't have been right there with you guys if…" She shivered. "That scares me a little, honestly. What I would do for you boys. How far I would go. You are my family, just as much as Dad and Carlos and Flynn."

Ah, Julie, Luke thought around the sharp pain in his chest at just the thought. He didn't want to imagine it, her chest stilling and her eyes going dull and her skin going cold. It was unthinkable – Julie was sunshine and joy and life.

"Aww, geez, now I'm gonna cry," said a voice from across the living room, and Luke pulled away from Julie just enough to groan at the sight of Reggie giving them a wobbly smile from where he was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. When Julie gave a watery laugh and opened her arms wider, Reggie abandoned the cool-and-aloof pretense and practically dove at them, dropping to his knees beside the couch as he immediately snuggled into an awkward embrace with the both of them.

And then another voice, the clearing of a throat. Oh no, Luke thought, closing his eyes as his stomach plummeted.

"Alex!" Julie cried, and Reggie whipped around with wide eyes to stare at the final member of their little family. Alex was watching them from the entryway into the kitchen, hands shoved in his pockets, shuffling from one foot to the other and looking awkward until, again, Julie opened her arms to him and he took a few hesitant steps closer.

"Dude," Reggie breathed. "How much did you…"

"I've been here as long as you have," Alex said quietly.

When Reggie turned desperate, horrified eyes on Luke, he knew they were done for.

"Alex," Luke started, but had no idea how to continue. Julie stayed quiet, a steadying presence as always, though she reached out and took Alex's hand and tugged him gently closer.

"I already knew," Alex said, sitting on the coffee table even though Luke knew that he knew Ray would pitch a fit if he were here and could see them. Ghost butts were still butts, and no butts were allowed on the coffee table.

And then Alex's words caught up and Luke's brain short-circuited as he scrambled more upright. "Wait, what?"

Alex rolled his eyes. "I figured it out pretty much immediately. You guys aren't as subtle as you think you are. And…you weren't as sick as I was, there's no way you should have joined me as fast as you did before we went to that dark room. I'm not stupid. I just didn't want to make a big thing out of it, if you weren't going to. But…did you really think my twenty-five-year snot fest was just because we died?" His eyebrows furrow and he looks down at his lap. "Yeah, I felt guilty. I still do sometimes. A lot. I also felt guilty because I was glad. I was, you know, grateful. That you were there. That I wasn't alone. I still am."

Reggie sniffed. "We're having a moment here, aren't we?" he asked, tentatively, before unceremoniously yanking Alex onto the floor with him and wrapping him up in a bear hug. "Bro," he whispered, loud enough for Luke to hear. "No guilt necessary. Choosing to stay with my bros was a complete non-issue, I mean, you guys were all I had anyway. No way I was letting you go off and have ghost adventures without me."

"Jesus Christ," Alex groaned, but it was too late, Luke had already slid off the couch and was wrapping around him from behind, not letting him continue whatever lament he was about to make.

"Same goes, bro," he said. "I'm sorry we didn't tell you sooner so you didn't have to live with the guilt, which was totally unnecessary by the way, but I'm not sorry we did it. We're family. We're in this together, just like from the beginning. Just like till the end."

Alex had one arm wrapped around Reggie, and he reached up with the other to clasp Luke's arm, leaning his head back so it was resting against Luke's shoulder as he shuddered out a few harsh sobs.

He wasn't the only one crying, and nobody gave anybody shit about it. That's just not how they rolled.

Luke was barely aware of Julie moving until the coffee table was suddenly being pushed away to make room so she could join them on the floor, and then they were all piled together in the messiest hug pile ever, and it was great.

Maybe they'd died (most of them), and maybe that kinda sucked some (all) of the time, but Luke had no regrets if it meant he got to be here, like this, with the people who meant more to him than anything. Maybe everything they'd been through had been for a reason, to bring them here, to Julie and to this moment, because this moment, Luke felt, was pretty close to perfect.

It was band.

It was family.

It was home.