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It's Okay To Be NSA (or: "As The Wiretap Turns")

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DEDICATION:

To Adrienne, whose idea this was in the first place. Although you didn't specify which fandom, so... You're welcome? Please don't kill me.

DISCLAIMER:

Everything I know about the NSA, I learned from Google and season five of The Good Wife. Thanks television!

Yes, Luke's MySpace (myspace.com/atwtluke) and blog (lukesnyder.blogspot.com) are hilariously real.

And some dialogue (plus Cleo's diary entries) have been yanked straight from ATWT, because who am I to try and improve on perfection?

But the obsessive knowledge of Sleepless In Seattle and flagrant abuse of the em dash is all mine.

Banner image only exists because Jake Silbermann decided to post a picture of himself dressed like James Bond. I challenge anyone to ignore that sort of visual inspiration.

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

A lifetime supply of Emma Snyder's apple pies to anyone who recognizes which iconic Luke/Noah scenes and conversations I have bastardized here all for the sake of bad puns.

This started out as a 500-word self-indulgent cracky drabble, and became a 31k self-indulgent cracky AU. Reading this will probably get you put on a watchlist.

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"Did Martin Scorsese ever work in a cubicle?"

Noah Mayer typed the question into Google knowing full well the answer would be 'no'. If anyone snooped in his browsing history, they’d probably judge him for the number of times he’d searched that phrase this past week. But of course no one was snooping in his browser history – technically, that was Noah’s job now, as an analyst at the National Security Agency. It still seemed surreal.

Equally surreal was the mental image of Scorcese trying to make water-cooler chitchat with co-workers. He’d still probably do better at it than Noah. But, Noah reminded himself, Scorsese had never grown up as an army brat, or as the only son of respected Colonel Winston Mayer in the United States military. Scorcese was a Hollywood power player. Noah had just narrowly escaped bootcamp.

In fact, if Noah hadn't been scouted by the NSA's summer internship program the previous April, he would've been stuck back at home in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, doing pushups and running drills, the newest recruit in the United States Army, miles and years away from his dream of film school at Northwestern. Now, thanks to a surprise high score on some obscure section of the SAT and an unexpected phone call from a high-ranking National Security Agency official named Colonel Maldefore, Noah was spending his summer in Chicago as a junior analyst for the top-secret government PRISM initiative. Even though the NSA was turning out to be more Office Space than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Noah was grateful for the opportunity; he may have been confined to a depressing cubicle farm, exposed to sub-arctic levels of air conditioning, surrounded by long-haired civilian idiots who spent all day watching cat videos when their managers weren't around (for a surveillance agency, the NSA was remarkably lax about supervising its employees), and facing months of lonely nights in a sparse one-bedroom apartment, but at least he woke up to an alarm clock instead of a reveille.

Of course, his father hadn't been too happy about Noah taking a desk job—a “soft” job, in his words, one for cowardly corporate yes-men who wore suits instead of the uniform and helped Obama “take away the God-given rights I’ve fought for”—but Noah had done his hardest to convince him that working in a government agency was an honorable way for Noah to serve his country. Noah’s efforts hadn’t entirely changed his father’s mind. But at least the Colonel had allowed Noah to go to Chicago, even if that permission had come with warnings about corrupt Democrat fat-cats and a copy of Mitt Romney’s No Apology (which currently sat, unread, on Noah’s otherwise empty bookshelf). Still. Noah had to believe that the Colonel would come around eventually. Noah didn’t want to keep such an important secret from the most important person in his life. But his father was already so dubious of “big government” that Noah couldn’t imagine how he could ever accept his son being NSA. Noah knew that, deep down, the Colonel was just trying to look out for Noah’s best interests; that he only had such high expectations for him because he loved him. And Noah also knew he owed it to his father to do something respectable. So Noah could only hope that when he eventually told his father what his “government job” actually was—that Noah was following in his footsteps, that he was fighting the terrorists too, just with a computer in Chicago instead of a rifle in Afghanistan—that it would be enough for the Colonel to put his Tea Party politics aside and approve of his son’s civilian lifestyle. Noah just wanted to make him proud. It was the least he could do.

But now, two months into the Chicago job, Noah wasn’t sure if this was the way to do it. Despite the perks (free Keurig machine in the break room, a generous paycheck, living in a city which actually held a Pride parade every summer), he couldn't escape the fact that something about this job just felt... wrong. Listening in on other people's conversations had been interesting for the first week (blame it on a childhood obsession with James Bond), but lately Noah had been exhausted; there were only so many times he could read a melodramatic teenage break-up over texts or hear two finance executives discuss mortgage-backed securities before he started to question what he was doing here. His job description had defined his tasks as "collection of metadata", “message recombination”, and “targeted contact chaining”, but those phrases didn't seem to fully cover it. He knew he was working on behalf of the government, and of course he didn't want the terrorists to win, but was spying—because that's what it was, spying—on average citizens, being privy to the best and worst and most mundane moments of their lives, really the only way to do that?

The first time Noah had encountered these doubts, he’d turned to the employee handbook for guidance. He'd spent evenings poring over the introduction, committing key phrases—“The NSA's electronic surveillance operations are governed primarily by four legal sources: the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA); Executive Order 12333; and United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18”—to memory and recalling them like a mantra. Fourth Amendment, FISA, Executive Order 12333, Directive 18. The backbone of the United States government. And since PRISM was made possible through the U.S. Patriot Act, Noah’s job wasn’t just legal, it was patriotic.

Besides, Noah hadn’t just been hired, he’d been scouted. His record specified that he had met the Agency’s criteria for “honesty, trustworthiness, reliability, discretion, and unquestioned loyalty to the United States”. And Noah possessed those qualities; he knew he did. So if he couldn’t find comfort in the manual’s hundreds of spiral-bound pages that cited legal precedents and espoused the value of PRISM in keeping America safe, then the problem was with him, not the NSA. Noah had a job to do. And he was going to do it well.

It would just be nice if his brain got the “sit down and shut up” memo. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep dealing with the tension in his spine every morning when he logged on to his computer and was presented with the world’s information at his fingertips.

In times of crisis, Noah usually turned to his favourite films for guidance. But there weren’t any movies that could help him with this dilemma; the only NSA employees in pop culture were sexy secret agents who spent their days having sexy secret agent sex with other sexy secret agents. (Probably because summer students sitting in a cubicle and questioning the morality of the NSA’s existence would be a box-office bust. Also, maybe treason?) Noah wasn't Jinx Johnson. He was just jinxed.

Hence the self-pitying Google searches.

But today Noah’s daily dose of Scorcese-induced existential despair was interrupted by a shout from Jeff, the ironic-t-shirt-wearing hipster from the work station across the aisle. (Jeff was also responsible for convincing the higher-ups that World of Warcraft could be used as a terrorist communication network and that the virtual land of Azeroth needed to be “monitored”. Noah wasn’t sure he’d ever get over the fact that the government was paying for his co-workers to spend their days fighting digital dragons.)

"Dudes!" Jeff exclaimed. "I just got a hit on the Florrick wiretap—turns out her son's dating a Somali chick!" The news was met with a chorus of "no way!"s and "fucking knew it!"s from nearby co-workers, and Noah started to tune out the commotion. He wasn't quite sure why the NSA was so interested in tracking the wife of the Illinois governor, and he was even less sure what it had to do with counter-terrorism, but he swallowed the queasy unease in his stomach. We're doing the right thing, he told himself, not for the first time that week—or even that day. We're the good guys.

Noah swivelled around back to his desk just in time to see an alert pop up on his screen: the XKeyscore monitoring program had flagged a text message sent earlier that morning which contained ten sensitive keywords.

The screen flashed red.

And Noah froze.

Ten was an unusually high number of keywords for a single text. Noah reminded himself that every similar alert he’d seen over the past few months had been a false positive, but the knowledge was of little comfort. He wasn't sure if he envied or feared his more experienced co-workers who reacted with calm detachment, even indifference and amusement, to every new flagged message; Noah was still new enough that even the most innocuous pop-up threatened to make him sweat through his shirt. With visions of imminent doom and destruction flashing before his eyes, Noah clicked through to the text screen.

To: 618-576-2836
From: 616-787-4737
Well, if you want to play bad parent poker, I see your
"foster parents" and raise you "almost shot
by gun-wielding gangsters in a standoff with the
police at an airport when my biological father tried to
kidnap me for ransom". Not to crash your pity party
or anything. :P

Wait. What the hell was that?

Noah was simultaneously relieved—at least this didn't look like terrorist plans, meaning that the fate of the free world no longer rested in his totally underqualified hands— and really, really confused. Why would someone text this to someone else? Did something like that really happen? Could something like that even happen? Noah thought he would’ve at least heard about it on the news.

Unable to fight his curiosity about the text, and feeling only slightly guilty, Noah traced the numbers back to a "Luke Snyder" and "Jade Taylor", and read the full exchange from earlier that day:

From: Jade
To: Luke
10:32 am
what the hell do you want me to do? i'm having will's
baby, and i'm not going to let gwen stop me. we're meant to
be together. i was raised by foster parents, and i want my
baby to know its mom and dad.

From: Luke
To: Jade
10:37am
Well, if you want to play bad parent poker, I see your
"foster parents" and raise you "almost shot
by gun-wielding gangsters in a standoff with the
police at an airport when my biological father tried to
kidnap me for ransom". Not to crash your pity party
or anything. :P

From: Jade
To: Luke
10:41am
ha ha very funny. you know what i mean. all kids should
know their parents, damian is just an exception. will
would be such an amazing father. gwen doesn't deserve him.

From: Luke
To: Jade
10:44am
Jade, please. Come on. We've been over this. I don't want to
have this conversation again. Will isn't going to leave Gwen.
He loves her. He didn't mean for this to happen.

From: Jade
To: Luke
10:51am
i don't care what he thinks! i can't believe you're on his side! i'm
having HIS baby! and you can't stop me!!!!!!!!

From: Luke
To: Jade
11:01am
We need to talk about this. Meet me at Al's?

From: Luke
To: Jade
11:32am
I'm here. Where are you? :(

From Luke:
To: Jade
11:50am
Jade, come on. Answer your phone.

From: Luke
To: Jade
12:05pm
Oh my god, are you ignoring me? :\

From: Luke
To: Jade
12:26am
JADE ANSWER YOUR PHONE!!!!!!!

The text thread stopped there, and Noah blinked, sitting up straight in his chair. Well. That was... something. Whoever this "Luke Snyder" was, his life seemed unbelievably dramatic. Unbelievably dramatic, but very much not that of a terrorist.

According to official NSA procedure, Noah should have dismissed this whole incident. Should have marked the alert as a false positive, removed "Luke Snyder" from the NSA watchlist, continued monitoring other data streams, maybe even joined Jeff in following the Florrick drama, then gone home to his empty apartment and watched Netflix for two hours before collapsing into bed, drained and depressed, promising himself he’d go out and meet people that weekend even though it was inevitable he’d actually spend Saturday night arguing the creative merits of the new Sal Mineo biopic on the IMDB message boards.

But for the first time in his life, Noah didn’t follow procedure.

Because Noah traced the number to a small town in Washington County he had never heard of, then performed an XKeyscore reverse search for "Luke Snyder, Oakdale IL".

He told himself this wasn’t weird and shameful and incredibly nosey. And by the time XKeyscore had finished compiling the file, Noah had almost convinced himself that what he was doing wasn’t any more invasive than a standard Google search.

It turned out that Luke Snyder wrote a blog using his actual full name in the URL – the guy obviously wasn’t overly concerned with personal privacy online. Anyone could have stumbled across LukeSnyder.blogspot.com by accident, even without the use of state-of-the-art government software. Besides, it was an old blog that hadn't been updated for almost a year, so what was the harm in Noah giving it a quick glance?

About The Author:
My name is Luke Snyder. I live in Oakdale, Illinois with my parents, Holden and Lily, and my younger sisters, Faith and Natalie. One of my grandmothers is the wealthiest woman in town, and another owns the most popular farm. I go to high-school. I like to hang out. My best friend's name is Kevin. I'm confused about a lot of stuff. I blame my parents.

Well, thought Noah, with parents like your biological father, that blame’s probably well-placed. He also wondered how exciting Oakdale could really be if it had a "most popular" farm.

Noah spent the next two hours reading the entire blog. He even ended up skipping his lunch break, and he never missed his chance to leave the building and take in the sights and sounds of Chicago. But how could he even think about chowing down on an Italian beef hoagie when he could be learning that Luke's adoptive dad was also his biological mom's uncle, making Luke his own first cousin once removed? Or that Luke had been a preteen alcoholic who needed a kidney transplant before his 16th birthday? Or that Luke once almost hit a girl with his car, who turned out to be Jade (the now-pregnant-with-Will's-baby Jade), who was secretly Luke’s cousin but had once pretended to be his girlfriend just to piss off his parents? Yet, despite everything Luke went through, Noah was pleasantly surprised that he seemed to handle it all with an impressive level of self-awareness and humor — something the guy probably needs a lot of, considering his life, Noah figured.

By the time Noah reached the blog entry in which Luke admitted he was gay and had started to come out to his family, Noah was on the edge of his seat. (Literally. He had an embarrassing habit of doing that when he was engrossed in something.) The blog was like reading some kind of soap opera. His heart couldn’t help but go out to Luke — it sounded like Luke’s parents had taken his coming-out a lot worse than Noah's father had. The Colonel had understood, eventually, in his own way. The worst thing he'd done was rent "Brokeback Mountain" in a misguided attempt at a father-gay son bonding night. (But thankfully they'd shut it off as soon as the first tent scene started. Besides, Noah had already downloaded the movie the day it was released.) He liked to think his father was made more uncomfortable by the poor camping skills on display than the whole Heath-and-Jake-getting-it-on thing. The Colonel had certainly never done anything as hurtful as trying to "de-gay" Noah, not even when he had caught Noah and Gabe mid-makeout the previous summer. And when Gabe had broken up with Noah a few weeks afterwards because he wanted to "explore his options" in college, the Colonel had brought home a pint of Noah's favourite double mocha chocolate chip ice cream, no questions asked. Noah could only imagine how much less dramatic Luke’s life would have been if Luke had had a father figure as supportive as Winston Mayer.

Noah was so engrossed in Luke’s blog that he wasn’t even keeping track of how many pages he’d read. After a string of posts about Luke’s mother’s coma and his biological dad's crime connections and the whole airport standoff, Noah reached the final entry, in which Luke complained that his mom had hired someone to follow him around town. Noah was surprised to find that he wasn't surprised by it — nothing about Luke's life could shock Noah anymore. More upsetting was the fact that the blog hadn’t been updated for over a year. Now what was Noah supposed to do? Luke was an engaging and talented blogger with a knack for making his insane, ridiculous life compulsively readable; he had to have continued writing somewhere else.

Noah clicked back to the XKeyscore search results. The second link from the top was a MySpace page, so Noah moved his cursor over the link, took a deep breath…and hesitated. This wasn't creepy, right? Sure, there was irony in the whole “looking up more information on Luke to find out what happened to the person who was spying on him” thing, but Noah ignored that uncomfortable meta moment. He was just going above and beyond the call of duty, right? Luke's family seemed pretty messed-up, and what if that stalker his mom hired had done something bad to him? This could be an issue of personal safety. Nodding to himself, Noah clicked the link. Besides, Luke had been almost kidnapped before. Checking up on him was just Noah doing his job as a representative of the United States government to ensure the ongoing safety of an American citizen.

And if that citizen's MySpace profile just happened to showcase gorgeous brown eyes, perfectly tousled blond hair, and a frankly spectacular selection of well-fitting striped shirts... well, that was just a bonus Uncle Sam didn't need to know about.

Noah was so engrossed in Luke’s posts and blog entries (and photos, but Noah rationalized that as training his facial recognition skills), that by the time his shift finished at 5:00pm, he was shocked to realize he had spent the entire day reading up on—protecting, he quickly amended— Luke.

The last thing Noah did before leaving work was mark Luke Snyder's file as "ACTIVE: PERSON OF INTEREST".

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When he had first moved to Chicago in the early days of summer, Noah hadn't thought he’d miss Fort Leonard Wood, or life on a military base.

Ever since he could remember, Noah had wished he was different. If he had been the kind of person who could handle a rootless childhood, who could embrace the permanent temporariness of military life, it would have been easier to follow his father from post to post, to attend nine school districts in seventeen years, to cope with the fact that the only real consistency in his life was the five o’clock cannon and Saturday morning target practice with the Colonel. But Noah wasn’t that kind of person. He wanted out. He dreamed of moving to a big city, settling down, living as an independent civilian. The ultimate goal was Los Angeles, of course; hanging out with Seth Rogen, getting Jude Law to executive-produce his latest feature. Chicago had seemed like the first step on the way to his new life.

But what Noah hadn’t considered was that on a base, everyone was family; the army took care of its own. Although he'd never been the most outgoing guy—even before the self-consciousness that accompanied puberty and the alarming realization about his sexuality that if the military asked, Noah couldn’t tell—there had always been a newer or younger or shyer kid he could befriend and hang out with until the next transfer. There had always been someone to look out for him.

But here, Noah was on his own. Chicago wasn’t another fishbowl military community; it had more than one newspaper, more than three stores, and over two million people. It was bigger, and it was scarier, and it was a hell of a lot lonelier than he had expected.

++++++

Noah spent that first post-Luke night (and it probably should have worried him that he was already dividing his summer into pre-Luke and post-Luke) in his apartment eating greasy takeout and falling asleep on the couch halfway through TCM's broadcast of The Shop Around The Corner. He woke up the next morning with a crick in his neck and still wearing the previous day's clothes. But for the first time in months, he was looking forward to work.

++++++

When Noah arrived at his cubicle, XKeyscore was blinking again. There had been updates—lots of updates—on his active person of interest case file. (Yes, file. Singular. Noah told himself that tracking Luke's file was just practice for when Noah eventually came across actual terrorist plots. The government should really be thanking him for his tireless dedication and commitment to self-improvement in the workplace.)

Settling in for the day, Noah reached for his mug to take a sip of his morning coffee, only to find out it was cold. And stale. Apparently not only had he forgotten to finish his coffee yesterday afternoon, but he'd neglected to get a fresh cup this morning. What was wrong with him?

Casting a furtive glance around the office—pointless, not like anyone was watching him, but growing up with uniforms over his shoulder had instilled discretion as default—Noah opened XKeyscore and began to read the reports.

He found out that Luke was an enthusiastic texter, and that it wasn't unusual for him to hold six different conversations with six different people all at once — everything from telling his sister what time he would pick her up from dance class, to brainstorming ideas with his friend Maddie about their summer internship project, to exchanging good-natured complaints with his dad about the amount of wood they had to chop at the farm that weekend. Noah couldn’t imagine anyone being as comfortable in their own skin as Luke seemed to be; the only thing Noah was sure about in his own life was that he was never sure about anything.

Luke’s texts were even better than his blog; he was funny, and sarcastic, and unexpectedly sweet (even if he did tend to overuse emoticons). And Noah couldn't hold back a chuckle when Jade and Luke, who had apparently reconciled since the previous day, bantered back and forth about their lack of social lives: "we can be outcasts 2gether! the whore!" "And the gay boy? :D"

By this point into Noah’s investigation—No, not ‘investigation’, that made it sound like a bigger deal than it was. ‘Examination’? Way too clinical. He need something neutral, something that didn’t make him feel like the world’s biggest creep. ‘Interest’ sounded normal enough—Noah’s interest in Luke Snyder’s file, Noah figured he could map a rough outline of Luke's vast network of friends and family. (Being a NSA-scouted pattern-recognition prodigy had to have some benefits, after all.) But he was stumped by a late-night text to a number Luke had never contacted before:

From: Luke
To: 618-342-5224
2:34 am
i miss you

From: 618-342-5224
To: 618-576-2836
10:55am
New phone whos this?

Luke had never replied, and Noah ran a trace to see who had earned Luke's late-night outreach: a Kevin Davis. Was that Kevin Kevin, from the blog? As in, the same Kevin who had beaten up Luke, called him a fag, turned him into social outcast at school? Noah was furious. Who the hell was Kevin to treat Luke like that? It didn’t matter if Kevin had a new phone, he should have recognized Luke’s number. Hell, Noah already had Luke’s cell number memorized and he’d only known it for a day – it wasn’t that difficult, Kevin!

Spurred by his righteous anger on Luke's behalf, Noah checked Luke's email. Just to make sure that Kevin wasn't, uh, cyber-bullying him, he rationalized.

Luke's emails weren't too out of the ordinary—an acceptance letter from Oakdale University's Creative Writing Program (well, that explained the blogging skills), a chain forward from Lily urging him to "send this to the five people u care most about", an invitation to the wedding of Jack Snyder and Katie Peretti—and Noah had just about decided that okay, maybe this was going a step too far, when another alert pinged: Luke's phone had an incoming call from a "Lucinda Walsh" (618-655-7453).

Without even stopping to think about whether it was overstepping the already-overstepped bounds, Noah slipped on his headphones just in time to hear an older woman launch right into conversation: "Luke, honey, I met the most fabulous young man yesterday on business in Hawaii, and I think—"

Another voice (Luke's, Noah realized, and he refused to acknowledge how excited he was to hear it) broke in: "Hello to you too, Grandmother. And thanks, really, but I don't need you to set me up." The boy laughed, high and light, and Noah absolutely did not smile at the sound.

But the older woman continued as if she hadn’t heard him: "—verrrrrrry smart, great hair. Glasses, but we can fix that. I think you two would hit it off—"

"Please! Grandmother. I'm fine, really."

"Luke, don't say that, I haven't even told you anything about him!"

Luke paused and blew out a breath. "Well, uh, I do know one thing — that he lives in Hawaii?!"

"Oh, darling, that's not a problem, just borrow the jet, I already told Edward it shouldn't take more than—"

"Grandmother! Really, I know you're trying to help, but just... stop? Please?"

Lucinda sighed. "Oh, for heaven's sake. Luuuuke.” She stretched his name three syllables long. “You're young! You should be meeting more boys your own age, more... your own interest."

"Oh. My god. Stop. Please. Grandmother.” Luke’s voice was rising in pitch, and Noah winced sympathetically. He could almost picture the boy’s pained expression. “Are we seriously having this conversation now? Really?"

"I'm coming over to talk some sense into you. I'll stop by Al's first. You want chocolate? I'll get chocolate."

"What? No, I don't need a milkshake, I'm—"

Lucinda's phone clicked off, leaving Luke (and Noah) listening to dead air. Luke let out a sigh, muttered "oh my god" and hung up.

Noah clicked out of the call, and hesitated before archiving the recording. For research purposes, he reminded himself, then clicked “save”.

Noah had never had a conversation with a busybody grandmother, the kind he imagined always wore leopard-print jackets and accessorized with an abundance of scarves, but he thought he would like Lucinda. (And he would really like Luke, a traitorous part of his brain added.) But Noah was more relieved than he wanted to admit that Luke was not particularly interested in jetting off to Hawaii to meet eligible gay men… although he told himself that that was probably because Luke was already dating some great guy and had their whole future planned out and oh my god why was Noah still thinking about this?

A ping alerted him to the fact that there was new activity on Luke's MySpace page. (Because yes, okay, fine, Noah may have started tracking that too. But IP address information could be valuable in a state of national emergency, or if some 2001: A Space Odyssey stuff went down.)

Noah clicked over to Myspace.com/LukeSnyder, and noticed immediately (because he was an observant person, not because he was unhealthily obsessed or anything) that Luke's bio had been updated. Before it had been just a few short lines (and it was just so unfair of Luke to make “standing up for himself” sound so hot), but the last two sentences were new:

WHO I AM – I’m a regular guy. I didn’t ask to be the poster child for gay rights. It just kind of happened. I don’t go looking for confrontation, but if the kids in school tease me or the teacher picks on me, I'm going to stand up for myself. My parents are supportive, but they worry so much about me, I feel like I’ve got to have a happy face on all the time. For their sake. It gets kind of lonely being constantly on alert. Sure would be nice to have somebody I could just be myself around.

So Luke was definitely single.

Okay.

Cool.

Not like Noah needed to do anything with that information. Not like it was really information to anyone, or whatever, aside from maybe the IRS, if Luke had to pay taxes. He would have to file as an individual. Probably. Unless this Sexy Hawaiian Edward guy was his destiny and they had joint bank accounts and a dream house next to Lilo and Stitch. Or whatever. But now, Luke was probably classified as a dependent. He lived with his family, right? And wait, if Luke was 17 (even though an early draft of his birth certificate mistakenly said he was born in 1995), then did he even pay taxes?

Noah let out a laugh, high and nervous and one he barely recognized as his own. I'm losing my mind, he thought.

"What's that?" asked Jeff, and Noah whirled around to see the grinning goon leaning over the edge of his cubicle.

"What?" Noah repeated. He grabbed for some papers to shuffle on his desk, trying to make it look like he'd been working, and not... doing whatever it was he'd just been doing.

"You said something," Jeff replied, drumming his fingers on the wall. "Just thought I'd see what's up. I’m bored as fuck right now."

Noah grimaced. "Oh, yeah, sorry, no, it's fine, didn't, uh, didn't realize I said anything." He stumbled over his words. "Just talking out loud. To myself. You know." He shifted in his chair, doing his best impression of nonchalance, and attempted to angle his head to block Jeff’s view of the open MySpace tab on his monitor.

Jeff laughed. "Yeah, dude, no worries. You take this whole stop-the-terrorists thing pretty seriously, huh? Respect."

"Um." Noah paused, internally despairing of the government's hiring standards. "Thanks?"

Jeff shrugged, then yawned, stretching out his skinny arms so his It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia shirt rose up to expose a segment of his pale stomach. Noah tried not to look. "I'm gonna grab a coffee. Y'want, or...?"

Noah held up his cold coffee mug. "Uh, no thanks," he said, "I've already got mine." He took a sip, willing himself not to wince at the stale liquid, then forced a smile so tight his ears ached. "Thanks though.”

“Yeah, no worries.” Jeff departed with one last shrug and a call of "Yo, Brian!" to the next guy down the hallway.

When he was sure Jeff was gone, Noah dropped his head in his hands, barely registering the sharp stab of pain when his elbows collided with the desk. He was definitely losing it.

++++++

But it just got worse.

As the next few days turned into weeks, Noah's productivity dropped to zero: he spent half his workday waiting for Luke's case file to update with the latest batch of texts or a phone call, and the other half of the day hating himself for doing that. His weekly supervisor-mandated polygraph tests were torturous; if the questions were ever changed from “Is today Tuesday?” to “Have you been abusing NSA technology to spy on an attractive stranger?”, he’d be found out in a second.

Even his time away from the office was equally unbearable, when he went back to his shabby apartment and ate frozen pizzas while bingewatching cheesy nineties rom-coms. He didn't even like rom-coms. (He also spent one incredibly shameful evening re-watching Brokeback, and if he squinted Heath sort of looked like Luke, and after Noah’s first—okay, second—self-loathing wank session he realized he had A Serious Creepy Problem.)

So it was three weeks later, to the day, when Noah decided he needed to stop this surveillance. Well, more like stop this stalking. More like really creepy, really so-far-from-okay-it-wasn't-funny online stalking. Jeff and the others had gotten really excited this past week about the Florrick wiretap being upgraded to a three-hop, and now there was some kind of ethics violation with the governor, and something about his wife's law firm — all of which sounded dull, but safe, and something Noah should definitely work on instead. This is it, he told himself. Today is the day I'm going to close Luke's case file for good and pretend this last ridiculous month never happened.

Of course, that was also the day Luke's case file on XKeyscore updated with enough red flags to temporarily freeze Noah’s computer.

From: 618-522-3455
To: Luke
10:34am
hi luke it's cleo. Whats the security like in branson?
we need to keep gwen sAFEe. someon1 might try to
attack her or Put a bomb on stage. her talent makes her
a TARget. or someone cuts the power grid when shes sINGing?
that WOuLDld be a disaster!!!! oh and Do we neeed toW ORry
about border patrol if it's in a sdifffernet state? i dont have anythign
to worry about of course all i icare about is keeping gwen safe.
and its By AMTRAK station right?!?!?!?!? just cheCKing

If Noah had thought Luke's first text (the one that got Noah into this mess in the first place) had the dubious honour of containing a substantial number of flagged keywords out of context, this one was even stranger.

The sensible thing to do would have been to shut down the wiretapping. Monitoring a discussion of private citizens' vacation plans was far beyond the government's jurisdiction, and to be honest with himself, Noah didn't even really know these people beyond their names in a software program.

But.

Gwen might have been in real trouble. So it would only make sense for Noah to just wait for a follow-up text to make sure everything was okay. (Also, he kind of wanted to find out if this was the same Gwen who was married to Will, the guy who got Jade pregnant. Noah didn't want to reflect on what it meant about him as a person that he knew that.)

From: Luke
To: Cleo Babbitt
10:41am
Uh. Shouldn't you be talking to Gwen or Will about this? Or
Kim? I'm not in charge of any of that. We don't even leave
until next week.

From: Luke
To: Maddie Coleman (618-992-3279)
10:43pm
I just got the weirdest text from Cleo. :/ She was freaking
out about security for Branson even though we only started
planning it this morning? Did you give her my number?!

From: Maddie
To: Luke
10:51am
No, wasn’t me. (shrug) That is really weird. But she could just be
really concerned. Maybe Cleo will surprise us. Maybe she's
not quite the airhead that she seems to be. You know how
much she cares about Gwen. (smile)

From: Luke
To: Maddie
10:52am
Yeah. And Will.

From: Maddie
To: Luke
10:54am
That again? Come on. Cleo is harmless. (eye roll)
She's not exactly shades of "Rebecca".

Noah couldn't hold back a grin; Rebecca was one of his favourite Hitchcock films. Noah had already suspected he'd get along with Maddie—based on what little he knew of her through Luke's texts and the occasional comment she left on his MySpace—but her knowledge of classic Hollywood confirmed it. He only hoped Luke understood the reference. Because if Luke liked old movies too...! Noah allowed himself to envision a life of all-day TCM marathons on the couch next to someone who could appreciate the golden age of cinema right alongside him.

From: Luke
To: Maddie
10:57am
Mads, you know I love you, but I have no idea what
you're talking about. :P

From: Luke
To: Maddie
10:58am
Wait, is that the one you made me watch after prom?
The one about the crazy girl on the cruise?

Okay, Noah acknowledged, maybe he'd gotten ahead of himself there. Apparently Luke didn't know the difference between Rebecca and Now, Voyager. But so what if Luke didn't appreciate the genius of Claude Rains or Bette Davis? He could always learn. If someone was there to teach him.

From: Maddie
To: Luke
11:00am
You mean "Now, Voyager"? The one you fell asleep in?

From: Luke
To: Maddie
11:01am
Okay, come on. That is not true.

From: Luke
To: Maddie
11:01am
I was out for maybe three minutes.

From: Luke
To: Maddie
11:01am
But that's because it was in black and white! And
there were subtitles!

From: Maddie
To: Luke
11:04am
(sigh) Never mind. One of these days I'm going to make you
sit down and watch TCM with me. "Rebecca": 1940, Hitchcock,
jealous housekeeper, tragedy and doom. Like "Single White
Female", only a million times better.

Yes, Noah could always educate Luke with a movie marathon. Not like that would ever happen, because he was going to stop following Luke today, but still, if the chance ever arose, he would volunteer. As a hypothetical, it made sense. Obviously.

From: Luke
To: Maddie
11:06am
Whatever. If you make me sit through some boring old
black and white movie, I'm making you sit through the
NBA playoffs. :P

From: Maddie
To: Luke
11:08am
LOL! Sure. Basketball is the one with the sticks and the
bases, right? (smile)

From: Luke
To: Maddie
11:09am
Oh, it is SO on, Coleman!

Noah had barely started to plan which film he’d introduce Luke to first—an Ernst Lubitsch feature might be setting the bar a bit too high, but Casablanca could be a safe choice, even a jock like Luke could appreciate Edeson's expressionist lighting—when it hit him: Branson? Luke and his friends were going on a trip to Branson? As in, Branson, Missouri? Luke and Maddie and Cleo and Gwen and Will and everyone were planning a trip to a city just two hours away from Fort Leonard Wood? That couldn't have been a coincidence, right? That was obviously a sign! Not that Noah believed in signs from the universe or anything. But still. Maybe he should look into this Branson thing — if Cleo, whoever she was, was worried about Luke's friend, maybe Noah should keep an eye on things.

Before he could chicken out, Noah started a new file: "Cleo Babbitt".

It took XKeyscore nowhere near as long to scrape Cleo's data as it had taken to gather Luke's. Even though Cleo's phone was a hub of activity, it all came from one number—her own. For some reason, Cleo had been texting herself. But why? Noah clicked one of the earliest messages at random:

Dear eDIARY, anothere increidlbe day for urs truly! W's mom foudn a producer so the demo is defintiely happening and everyone eis lovving me. ANd G BROUGHT me to a real TV. stuido wher eher friends work and itnroudced me!!!!!!!!! W + G took off for a rmaontic celebraiton but im not jelaous. sometday it wont be g's hand hes holding it will be mine!!!!!!!!!!

Well, then. That was a little... odd. Noah didn't even need his NSA training to crack that code— "W" and "G" were obviously Will and Gwen. (And those "TV studio" friends? Luke and Maddie. He was prouder than he should have been of knowing that.) So Cleo was definitely trying to steal Will from Gwen, just as Luke had suspected.

This situation was melodramatic—and seriously, what was with this Will guy, why was every girl always falling all over themselves to get with him?—but it definitely wasn't a crime. There was no way Noah could justify keeping this file active. Small-town love triangles (or was it a quadrangle at this point?) were definitely not NSA business. (A tiny voice in his head reminded him neither were sassy blond boys with pouty lips and a laugh like sunshine, and that these were just two of a million tiny little things that, when he added them all up, they meant he and Luke were supposed to be together, and it was so clear, he just knew, he knew it the very first time he heard Luke, it was like coming home, only to no home he’d ever known, and it was like magic… and whoa, okay, Noah seriously needed to stop letting Netflix recommend Sleepless In Seattle to him because he was in way too deep.)

But checking just one more text from the previous day couldn't hurt. The military recruitment motto was “be all you can be”, right? So Noah was going to be as sure as he could be that he didn’t need to intervene.

DEAR DIARY. at breakfast this mornin i kept looking into W's eyes + thinking about the dya y when it would be just the 2 of US. i realiase i must do whatever it takes 2 destory that marriage. W is too fine a person to love me while he's marreid 2 somebody else. ALL I WANT IS 2 B WITH W. i was trying 2 get W AWAY from G the nice way but now it looks like i have 2 do it the MEAN way instead!!!

Wait. What? Getting rid of Gwen "the mean way"? That didn't sound good. Not terrorist-levels of 'not good', granted, but still very worrying.

This whole situation was starting to remind Noah uncomfortably of Coppola’s The Conversation – even though he’d always found the film unrealistic (no one would actually be dumb enough to openly discuss a murder plot like that!), the twist at the end had haunted him long after the credits rolled. And now Noah was living it. But what had Gene Hackman’s character done in the finale? He had jumped to conclusions, he had made assumptions, he hadn’t gotten the whole picture. So Noah needed to do the opposite. He wouldn’t risk letting this real-life situation turn around on him and fade to black on an ominous saxophone solo. (And not just because Noah didn’t know how to play the sax.)

Or maybe Noah was getting ahead of himself. The Colonel had always accused him of getting too wrapped up in his movies. This could all be in Noah’s head.

He needed more information. One more text, and he’d stop. Just one more.

The most recent text Cleo had sent herself was from earlier that day:

DEAR DARY i'm back! u wont BLEIVE what alsmot happened J ALSMOT FOUND YOU 2DAY. if she foudn u eveyryhting woudl be ruined and then W woudlnt want to be with me aANymore. i have to get rID OF J for good!!!! and G asked me 2 come 2 branson!!! i knew this was goin 2 happen its my desinty. my chacne 2 b WITH W FOREVER!

Noah shivered, and it wasn’t from the office air conditioning. This was seriously twisted now. Whoever Cleo was, Noah didn't want to know what she had planned for "J"... "get rid of J for good" sounded serious. But who was "J"? Before Noah could start a search of Cleo's phone for more clues, his computer beeped: Luke's cell was active, and he was making a call to Lily Walsh Snyder (618-122-3666).

"Mom, mom, pick up, pick up, please, pick up..." Luke’s voice was strained, and it sounded like he was pacing back and forth. Noah wondered what could have made him so anxious.

"Luke? Honey?"

"Mom! Thank god you answered! Jade's been arrested."

Noah jerked forwards. Arrested? With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he realized exactly who the “J” from Cleo’s diary referred to.

“Arrested?” Luke’s mother sounded more skeptical than concerned. “What did she do this time?”

"No, mom, you don't understand! She didn't do it, it was Cleo! Okay, I know it sounds crazy. But she framed Jade to make her look guilty. It was this whole thing, and…” Luke trailed off and took a deep breath. “I need you to help bail her out. I'd do it myself, but I don't have the money."

"What are the charges?"

“Attempted manslaughter."

“Oh my God,” Lily breathed, but there was a hardness to her voice.

"I know it sounds awful, but the worst part is Cleo's still out there, and Jade's powerless. Nobody believes her."

"Well, I don't blame them."

"What?” The rest of Luke’s words came out in a rush. “Mom, come on, she didn't do it, you have to believe me, it was Cleo—"

Lily cut in sharply: "That girl has lied about everything since the day she got here. Craig's party? Her relationship with Adam? Whatever she got herself into this time, she can get herself out of it." Then she hung up the phone.

“Mom? … Mom?” Luke cursed and ended the call.

In Chicago, 270 miles away from Lily and Luke and Jade and everyone whose problem this Cleo girl actually was, Noah started to panic. He spun around to look out at the office — everyone else was busy fiddling with pens or eating Cheetos or playing World of freaking Warcraft. How could everything be so normal here when everything was so wrong in Oakdale? There was a criminal was on the loose, and Noah was the only person in this room—maybe the only person in the state—who knew about it. He was a government employee in a room of government employees, and he couldn't do anything.

Or could he?

XKeyscore threw out another alert: Cleo had an incoming message... from herself.

DEAR DIRARY: and now J has been arretsted for runnign W off the road and no 1 knows iT WAS MEEEE!!!!!!!!!! tehn wehen W and G and i go to Branasosn we can fainally be togheter! + there is a train track! thaaT's the MEANAEST way but G brought it on herself by making me love her! this is going 2 b better than psitachio ice cream and sprinklesa alll mixed togehter!!!!!!!!!!!

Noah’s pulse raced all the way into his throat. Had Cleo just admitted, in a text, that she'd caused Will's car accident? That could be considered hard evidence, right? Noah racked his brain, trying to remember the crash-course in U.S. law he'd received as part of his training. He definitely couldn't bring this up to his supervisor — a hit-and-run wasn’t a serious crime, at least not on the federal level, and no way could he explain why he'd been tracking Luke and his friends for this long. But he needed to let Luke know about this. Somehow.

That's when Noah had the best—or worst— idea of his life. He pulled out his cell phone (yes, the one he wasn't supposed to bring to a high-level security clearance work area, but apparently he'd started ignoring the no-phones rule around the same time as he abandoned his own "no cyber-stalking strangers" scruples) and composed a new text message.

From: 773-674-7666
To: Luke Snyder
12:45pm
You’re right, Cleo caused the accident, not
Jade. She sends texts to herself, like a diary.
Cleo's going to hurt Gwen. She just wrote this:
“and now J has been arretsted for runnign W
off the road and no 1 knows iT WAS MEEEE!!!!
!!!!!! tehn wehen W and G and i go to Branasosn
we can fainally be togheter! + there is a train
track! thaaT's the MEANAEST way but G
brought it on herself by making me love her!
this is going 2 b better than psitachio ice cream
and sprinklesa alll mixed togehter!!!!!!!!!!

Luke’s reply came instantly:

From: Luke
To: 773-674-7666
12:46pm
Who is this?

Oh. Shit. Noah hadn't thought that far ahead. For one panic-stricken moment he worried Luke could trace Noah's number back to his cell phone and figure out the call was coming from inside the NSA — and then he realized no, duh, only the NSA had that kind of technology. Noah was turning into a paranoid wreck. He wasn't cut out for superspy stardom. This was the worst summer job ever.

From: 773-674-7666
To: Luke
12:51pm
Just a friend. Check Cleo's phone. That's
all the proof you need.

There. That was mysterious and aloof enough. “Just a friend”. It felt a little like he was in some kind of big-budget, high-stakes conspiracy thriller. Noah was basically Luke’s Deep Throat. (And he immediately regretted that reference when it conjured up mental images that were definitely not safe for work.)

From: Luke
To: 773-674-7666
12:52pm
Who the hell are you and how do you know
me? And Cleo? And Jade?

Noah turned off his phone before he was tempted to reply and confess everything (and then get arrested for divulging state secrets). He directed his attention back to his computer monitor, hoping that Luke was taking Noah's advice and going to find Cleo's phone. But instead, XKeyscore showed that Luke was more concerned about Noah’s mysterious texts:

From: Luke
To: Maddie
12:53pm
Did you just text me? I just got the weirdest
text from an unknown number.

From: Maddie
To: Luke
12:57pm
Nope! Why would I text you from a
different number? What did it say?

From: Luke
To: Maddie
12:58pm
Meet me at Al's. Something weird is going on,
and I think Cleo's behind it.

Noah tried to not to be disappointed that Luke and Maddie were going to have this conversation in-person. The citizens of Oakdale had already conducted so many deeply personal, over-sharing, oh-my-God-is-this-stuff-that-actually-happens-to-people-in-real-life? conversations through text, why did they have to choose now to be sensible and stay off the grid? But, Noah told himself, this was probably for the better. And it had to be better for his own sanity.

Noah forced himself to walk away from his desk and go to the break room for a coffee and an early lunch break. (Not that he needed the caffeine, because he was pretty sure he was running on second-hand adrenaline.) He rinsed out his dirty mug, refilled it, then slowly sipped his drink at a corner table. As Noah watched other workers file in and out of the breakroom, a parade of laminated ID cards flapping on lanyards, he came to terms with the fact his four-week window into Luke's life was about to shut. Noah had given Luke the proof he needed, Cleo could be arrested, Jade could be freed, and then everyone in Oakdale could return to their regularly-scheduled baby drama and scandalous affairs free of NSA interference. (This also meant that Noah would never find out what was going on with Henry and Vienna's new menu change. He told himself he could live without a resolution to the mystery of the mystery meat special.)

Noah had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that it took him several minutes to notice there was something… off… about the break room today. (So much for the supposedly keen powers of observation which had earned him the job.) Instead of a casual flow of conversation, employees were huddled together at tables, the usual friendly banter replaced with quiet, tense whispers. Noah tried not to listen in on others’ conversations – he did enough of that on the clock, thanks – but the tension in the air was impossible for him to ignore. He heard the words “Thomas Drake” from more than one table, and, sensing the importance of the name, he quickly brought up Google on his phone. The name didn’t mean anything to Noah, but then again he had never been the best at pop culture references. Maybe Drake was an athlete? Wasn’t the World Cup happening now?

The Google results for “Thomas Drake” were overwhelming. A knot formed in Noah’s stomach the more he read: Drake was a senior NSA executive who spoke with a newspaper reporter and got indicted under the Espionage Act.

The Espionage Act?

That didn’t even sound like a thing that should exist anymore. “Espionage” was Ingrid Bergman seducing Claude Raines in Notorious, it couldn’t be an actual charge that Americans were accused of in the 21st century. But Google didn’t lie: Drake was facing five counts of violating the Espionage Act, one charge of obstruction of justice, and four counts of making false statements to the FBI while under investigation. If convicted, he faced up to 35 years in prison. And Drake hadn’t even revealed anything top-secret – the extent of his crime was talking to a reporter about bloated budgets in a discontinued NSA program.

If a top executive could face decades in prison just for publicly complaining about wasteful government spending… Noah didn’t even want to think about what could happen to him if the government or the press discovered what he’d been doing with NSA technology.

Lost in his thoughts and imagining all the horrible ways in which he was totally, utterly screwed, Noah almost didn’t notice when his lunch hour was up. But at least he had formulated a plan: shut down Luke's file once and for all, catch up the weeks of actual work he'd neglected, and then talk to Jeff about getting in on the Florrick campaign case. Focus on his doing his job. Focus on not getting caught.

But because nothing in Noah’s life was ever going to be simple, he'd forgotten (deliberately forgotten?) to sign out of Cleo's file on XKeyscore, and a new message was waiting for him when he got back to his cubicle:

2:05pm
DREAR DIARY: i saw M and L talking @ AL's. they kept looking at you liek they want to take u away from me. I THInk tehyre onto me!!!! (im very intutiive about obvious things) i need to Makae sure they go away forever so thye cant talk to anayone! if they show W + G what IVE written about them theyd h8 me. YOU have to go awya now diary. goodbye. thank U for bieng my friend

Noah could feel his heartbeat pounding in his chest; he was numb and on edge all at once. Seconds later, the words "CONNECTION LOST" appeared in bright red letters across the screen, followed by the more ominous “DEVICE NOT FOUND.”

Cleo's phone was no longer in service. And "M" and "L" were in danger.

Fuck.

Noah pounded the keyboard in frustration. Cleo was going after Luke and Maddie, and they had no idea the danger they were in — somehow Noah had to inform them. But how? The anonymous "text from a friend" tactic earlier obviously hadn't worked. If anything, Noah had gotten them into even more trouble.

Noah clicked over to Luke's file, his sweaty palms sliding on the mouse. He switched windows so quickly that he accidentally closed the entire XKeyscore program, and he let out a string of curses as he waited for the program to restart. When the software finally loaded, Luke's file was still active, and he was in the middle of another call:

"Mom," Luke was saying in a rush, "you need to go see Will and Gwen right now, I just saw Cleo and she's—"

The call cut off. Big red letters popped up on-screen: "CONNECTION LOST. RETRYING IN 3. 2. 1." A beep. Noah sat, numb, staring at the screen as the words scrolled by: "CONNECTION NOT FOUND. RETRY? Y/N".

Cleo knew Luke and Maddie were onto her.

She was going to "make them disappear forever".

And now Luke's phone had gone unexpectedly offline.

There was only one thing Noah could do.

He only hoped he could make it in time.

++++++

Oakdale, Illinois was a picturesque tree-lined suburb, but Noah didn’t have the time to appreciate its charms as he pulled off the highway three hours later and careened around its winding streets. His GPS had gotten him this far south, but he had no idea where to go from here. Al's? Java? Yo's? All those places he had only read about from Luke's file. Should he even bother?

The agonizingly long drive had given Noah plenty of time for his actions to sink in: He’d left work, in the middle of the day, without permission; he’d copied classified files to a personal USB drive; he’d wilfully violated federal law by removing government documents from a secure facility. (Plus he’d definitely broken the speed limit on the I-57 the whole way down, but he figured traffic violations paled in comparison to treason.)

And all to track down a stranger — but not just any stranger, no, a private citizen whom Noah had cyber-stalked out of his own loneliness and sexual frustration. And now Noah had just driven for hours to find this person and his friends and warn them that another person Noah had been spying on was going to kill them. Not only did that sound pathetic, but it also sounded completely ridiculous. How likely was it that Noah had just happened to stumble upon a small-town murder/mystery plot? Probably just as likely as Noah still having a job after today. Which was to say: not at all.

He pulled off to the side of the road, rested his head on the steering wheel, and tried to talk some sense into himself. He should go back to Chicago and act like everything was normal, like he hadn’t broken every law on the books. But he absolutely had to quit his job. Turn in his security pass. Terminate his apartment lease. Head home to break the news to his father. Accept that maybe he didn’t belong anywhere except the Army, because even that fate he'd grown up dreading had to be better than a dozen years in a federal prison.

Then Noah’s phone vibrated.

From: Luke Snyder
To: 773-674-7666
5:38pm
Battery died, but back now. Who is this? If you
know as much as you say you do, you need to tell
us everything.

Relief flooded Noah’s body, and his brain stopped replaying images of Luke meeting a grisly death. (And then instantly replaced them with the definitely not endearing image of a frazzled Luke forgetting to charge his phone.) Noah quickly typed out a reply, not even bothering to spell-check his words before sending:

From: 773-674-7666
To: Luke Snyder
5:39pm
where are you/? i'm on my way, i'll explain
when im there

From: Luke
To: 773-674-7666
5:40pm
I'm at WOAK with Maddie.

From: Luke
To: 773-674-7666
5:40pm
And if you're some creepy stalker coming to
kill me, I'm gonna be really pissed.

Noah laughed, even though Luke's second text was closer to the truth than he'd like to admit. (The stalker part, not the crazed-murderer bit). Noah didn't want to risk giving himself away in a reply, so he tossed his phone onto the passenger seat and programmed WOAK into his GPS. His cell rang less than a minute later, but Noah reached over to turn off the device. The only person who ever called him was his father, and that was every Sunday morning at 0800 sharp; if this was Luke calling him—and it probably was, but Noah was too anxious to check—then he knew he’d be speaking with him soon enough. (There was no time for Noah to appreciate the irony of Luke checking up on him for a change.)

When he pulled up outside WOAK, Noah fumbled with taking the keys out of the ignition and nearly dropped them on the ground. He forced himself to walk through the front door of the building at a normal pace — a nice, normal, definitely-not-about-to-be-face-to-face-with-an-incredibly-hot-guy-he-may-or-may-not-have-been-abusing-government-resources-to-cyberstalk pace. It felt like his heart would hammer out of his chest. (And if he took an extra minute to double-check his hair in the mirror of the deserted front lobby… well, there was no around to see.)

Noah wound his way through a labyrinth of hallways, following the sound of raised voices he both hoped and dreaded belonged to Luke and Maddie. He finally found himself in the center of an open-concept studio, staring at the backs of two figures in an office. The male voice he immediately recognized as Luke's was frantic: "He's not picking up! What kind of idiot turns off his cell phone on the first ring?”

If Noah had been even remotely suave, he would have stood at the door of the office, calmly replied "this kind of idiot", and introduced himself to Luke with an outstretched hand, thus setting off a chain of events culminating in their epic love story and a lifetime of happiness, blowjobs, and 2.5 children. But instead, because Noah actually was an idiot, he stood there awkwardly staring at Luke and Maddie's backs before blurting "It's you!"

Noah hated himself.

Luke whirled around at the new voice. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.

"Oh. Uh. Hey. Hi.” Noah told himself the nervousness was just from the adrenaline pumping, and had absolutely nothing to do with the way Luke's arms looked in his too-tight t-shirt. "I'm Noah. Mayer. I'm the, uh..." He swallowed, pulled his phone from his pocket, and held it up weakly. "I texted you?"

Luke's face relaxed, but he kept his arms crossed. "How do you know our names?" he asked slowly. "You're not from around here."

Noah let out an awkward laugh. "Right. No. Chicago, actually. Well, really, Fort Leonard Wood. Army brat. Military. But Chicago now. For the summer, at least. And maybe after." Shut up, he told himself, shut up shut up shut up.

Luke gave him a curious look, like he didn’t know what to make of the rambling idiot in front of him. Noah would have been perfectly content to run away before it got away worse. But before he could turn around and flee, Maddie stepped forward, twisting a strand of dark hair around her finger. "Okay, but how do you know what's going on here?” she asked, more friendly than suspicious. “You knew all that stuff about Cleo?"

"It's a long story. Sort of... classified?" He barreled ahead, trying to ignore Maddie's raised eyebrows when he uttered that last word. "Anyway, it—"

But no such luck.

"'Classified'?" Luke snorted. "What are you, some kind of secret agent?" He widened his eyes in mock surprise, sarcasm dripping from every word: "Oh my god, are you James Bond?"

Noah managed a tight smile. James Bond never drove halfway across a state to stop a murder because he thought someone's MySpace picture was cute, he wanted to reply. "Not exactly," he said instead. "But it doesn't matter now. Do you know where Cleo is? I think she destroyed her phone, I can't access it anymore, the last thing she said she was going to do was get back at you two, I have her texts right here and—"

"How do you have access to Cleo's phone if you're from Chicago?"

Noah shook his head as if he could shake off the questions themselves. Normally he admired Luke's stubborn persistence, but right now it was the last thing he needed. "I'll tell you later, I promise," he said. "I know this sounds ridiculous, but you're in danger, and so are Will and Gwen."

Frowning, Maddie pulled her phone out of a dress pocket. "I just talked to Gwen a few minutes ago," she said, cradling the cell between her ear and her shoulder, "and she sounded just fine, she hadn't seen Cleo, but... Oh. That's weird. Straight to voicemail."

"I just tried Will," Luke added a moment later, his voice low. "Same thing."

"We need to go to the police," Noah said, aiming for a more authoritative tone than he felt. His palms were hot and clammy, and he tried to subtly wipe them off on his jeans (but he was pretty sure Luke noticed). "Where's the station?"

"We don't have time for that," Luke announced. "We have to go get Will and Gwen." He grabbed a jacket from the back of a chair and headed towards the front entrance, car keys clenched tight in his fist. "We can go to the cops once we're sure they're safe."

Unsure if he was supposed to follow, Noah stayed where he was. Luke turned around before he reached the doors. "What the hell are you standing there for?" he said. "If you know so much, come on!"

Noah followed.

++++++

Luke's knuckles were white around the steering wheel of his pick-up truck; beside him, Maddie was bunching up the folds of her dress into her hands. She was the first to try and make conversation over the low rumble of the engine.

"So," she said, turning around to speak to Noah. "It's Noah, right?"

"Yeah," he said, grateful for the attempt to break the tense silence. "Uh. Mayer."

"And you're from Chicago?"

"Well, originally from Missouri. And some places before that. But now I'm in Chicago, yeah. For the summer."

"Oh, Missouri?" Maddie said brightly. "We're going to Missouri next week!"

"I know," Noah said, before he could stop himself. "Branson's a great place, I loved Silver Dollar City, I used to go to there all the time with my boyfriend."

"We didn't say anything about Branson," Luke said sharply, at the same time as Maddie asked "Boyfriend?"

Shit. Noah had been concentrating so hard on finding a casual way to out himself to Luke that he'd accidentally outed his job. "Yeah," he said, shifting in his seat, running his fingers nervously over the illegal USB drive in his pocket. "Boyfriend."

"No," Luke said, "I distinctly heard you say 'Branson'."

Ten minutes into Noah’s Oakdale trip and he'd already made a major tactical error. Maybe his father had been right about him. He’d be lucky if the Army would even take him at this rate. “Look," he pleaded, "I really can't tell you how I know this stuff right now, I really wish I could, but I can't, I'd get in so much trouble."

Maddie smiled and patted Noah’s knee sympathetically. "That's okay, we trust you." She paused. “Well, sort of? You are a complete stranger. But, um, we wouldn't want you to get in any trouble." She tilted her head to the side, aiming for casualness. "You know, because your boyfriend might worry."

Noah cleared his throat. "Uh. Ex-boyfriend, actually."

"Oh!" Maddie smiled wider. "I'm sorry to hear that." She swatted Luke's arm. "Luke, tell Noah you're sorry he's single now."

Luke ignored her and gripped the wheel tighter. "We probably won't be going to Branson after all," he said. "Considering that the trip was planned by Cleo, and now she's trying to murder everyone."

Maddie winced. "I can't believe this is happening," she said, voice small. "First Eve, now Cleo."

"Eve?" Noah asked. He couldn't remember that name showing up in any of the case files he'd had activated, and he had the sinking feeling he was way out of his depth.

Luke barked out a laugh. "What, Mr. Secret Agent has seen Cleo's texts but doesn't know about the Oakdale Slasher?"

"I... guess not," Noah replied, feeling thoroughly rebuked. "Sorry?"

Maddie turned around to face him. "It's fine," she said quietly. "It was just something that happened a long time ago. We don't need to talk about it." She spoke again, hesitant: "It's just... Jade was suspected of that one too."

"Yeah," Luke muttered, "but she's actually in jail this time."

"At least she's safe there?" Maddie offered. "Cleo can't get to her in jail."

"Exactly!" Noah piped up. "The bright side of imprisonment. Extra security." He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. Oh my god, how lame did that sound? The first thing he ever said to Luke not about him and Maddie being in imminent danger, and it was a joke about Luke’s cousin being arrested? Noah should just fling himself out of the moving vehicle and get it over with.

But to Noah's surprise, Luke let out a small laugh. "You two are so weird," he said, shaking his head. "This is crazy. Oh my god, what does it say about our lives that we can joke about this?"

"Sorry," Noah mumbled, eyes firmly fixed on his own seatbelt. "I didn't mean—"

"Oh, no," Luke said quickly. "It's fine. Really."

Noah risked a glance at the driver's seat, and he noticed Luke was biting his lip. Noah wasn't sure if Luke was angry or sad or annoyed (or all three, with Noah's luck), so he tried to apologize again, eyes downcast. "No, it was my fault, I shouldn't have said that, and I—"

"Noah." Luke's voice was firm, and Noah raised his head just in time to see Luke turn around and catch his eyes. "Look. It's fine. Seriously. Just..." Noah tried to read the expression on Luke's face; he didn't look angry, just determined, but there was something else under the surface that Noah couldn't place. The air seemed thicker, somehow, and Noah swallowed around the lump in his throat. Then Luke abruptly broke eye contact, his gaze flicking downwards for a moment before his head whipped back to face the road. "It's... whatever,” he said with finality. “Nevermind.”

Noah was suddenly hyperaware of the fact that he was sitting on the edge of the seat; sometime during the exchange with Luke, he must have shifted forwards. He tried to slide backwards without Maddie or Luke (especially Luke) noticing, but his jeans squeaked against the leather upholstery as he moved. There was no way they both hadn’t heard that audible proof of his stupidity. Noah leaned his head against the window, letting his eyes go unfocused as trees and houses blurred past. Things could not possibly get worse.

"So!" Maddie chirped. Her eyes darted back and forth between Luke and Noah, and she clasped her hands under her chin. "Noah, are you in school, or—"

Luke cut her off as he slammed on the brakes and yanked the keys out of the ignition. "We're here," he said, pushing open his door. "Let's go."

++++++

Noah couldn’t be sure if he was imagining it, but it seemed like Luke was going out of his way to avoid him; when they piled out of Luke’s truck, Maddie ran up to the front door of the cottage, but Noah caught Luke staring at him before Luke spun on his heel and jogged ahead to catch up with her.

Noah hung back by the vehicle. This wasn’t how he had thought things would go. But he’d been ridiculous and naïve to think that he could just show up here, save the day, and get the guy. His life wasn’t a romantic comedy; it was Rear Window, but if Jimmy Stewart’s theory had been wrong all along and Grace Kelly spent the rest of the film hating him for it. And also if he’d read her emails beforehand. On second thought, who was Noah to try and compare himself to Jimmy Stewart? He’d be lucky to slum it alongside Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia. And even that Hitchcock hero rip-off’s hunches had been right.

Up ahead, Luke and Maddie were having some sort of disagreement; Maddie had her hands on her hips and Luke was shaking his head. Noah could only hear snatches of what they were discussing in low tones—he thought he heard Maddie say “tell him” and Luke hiss back “not until he tells me”—but he couldn’t be sure. They were probably planning the best way to tell Noah to get lost.

Noah was suddenly tired, and frustrated, and hungry. The adrenaline was wearing off, and fatigue was settling deep in his bones. This whole situation would be laughable if he didn’t feel so stupid – here he was, standing in the driveway of some stranger’s cottage in some random Illinois town watching a hot guy and an awesome girl argue about the fastest way to ditch him. Under different circumstances—less cyber-stalking circumstances—maybe all three of them could have gotten along. But as it stood now, Noah was a weird, awkward interloper in a place he didn’t belong.

He wasn’t going to stay here any longer than he had to. He had a mission, and he was going to follow through. And once he was sure Will and Gwen were safe, he could make his exit, head home and pretend none of this had happened.

Noah steeled his spine. He walked right up to Luke (who ignored him) and Maddie (who at least had the grace to look bashful about being caught in a private chat) and stood his ground. “Right,” he started. “I know how weird this whole situation is for you. It’s weird for me too. Believe me. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m going to leave you both alone as soon as I can. But first I want to make sure Will and Gwen are safe.” Noah couldn’t bear to keep looking back and forth between Luke’s moody glare and Maddie’s compassionate curiosity, so he deliberately focused at some point above their heads. He knew it was impolite, but manners hadn’t done him much good so far. “Then I’ll go home and get out of your lives forever.”

“You can’t do that!” blurted Luke. When Noah, startled, turned to look at him, Luke’s face was clouded over, like he hadn’t meant to say anything.

“What do you mean?” Noah asked, dreading the answer. (And he definitely dreaded the fact that Luke was kind of unfairly attractive when he was angry. How lucky for Noah that Luke always seemed angry.)

Luke opened his mouth, but no sound came out, and then he pressed his lips tightly together. After a moment, Noah turned to Maddie, who took one look at Luke and smoothly stepped in to cover for him. “I think Luke means we need all the help we can get,” she said. “With Will, and with Gwen.”

“Right,” Noah said slowly. He wasn’t sure what was going on between the two friends, or even between himself and Luke, but at least they hadn’t told him off yet. He reminded himself: Finish the mission. Get in, check on Will and Gwen, get out. It wasn’t a surrender; it was an honorable retreat. “Maybe we should—”

Luke interrupted him again: “You can’t leave yet.” He was standing up straighter, hands on his hips. His narrowed eyes locked onto Noah’s. “You got us into this mess, you can get us out.”

You sound just like your mother, Noah wanted to say. He couldn’t believe it had only been four hours since he heard that phone call between Lily and Luke and had learned about Jade’s arrest. The Luke from that phone call—caring, concerned, compassionate—had disappeared when he’d met Noah. Either Luke was a jerk, or Noah was. Maybe both. “Excuse me?” Noah scoffed, trying not to raise his voice to match Luke’s fiery tone. “I got us into this mess? In case you’ve forgotten, I’m trying to save your lives!”

“Trust me,” Luke huffed, “we would’ve been fine without you.”

“Well guess what. You got your wish. I’m leaving just as soon as we’re done here.”

“I’m just gonna…” Maddie jerked her thumb over her shoulder to indicate Will and Gwen’s cottage. “I’ll leave you guys to talk.”

“Maddie—” Luke started, but she cut him off with a glare and a firm “Figure this out”.

Noah wasn’t sure how much more of Luke’s anger he could take, so he tried to rein in his own irritation to make the situation as painless as possible. “I know you don’t like me,” he started. “And that’s…” Depressing. Soul-crushing. Probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. “…totally fine. It’s up to you. But don’t take it out on Maddie. You two have a really great friendship. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for messing that up.”

“No,” Luke said, and his words were clipped, like he was annoyed with himself for what he was saying. “Look. It’s not that.”

“What? You and Maddie aren’t friends?” Noah knew that couldn’t be true. “But I thought—”

“No,” Luke said again. “Not that. The…” He looked up at Noah through his bangs, and Noah was hit with the full force of his deep brown eyes. “The other thing. The, uh, the not liking you thing. I don’t, like, hate you. Or whatever.”

“Oh?” Noah didn’t know how to suppress the hope that sprang up in his chest, but he tried to keep his face neutral. “Well. That’s a relief.” When Luke didn’t say anything in response, Noah tried again. “It’s just, you seemed angry at me, and—”

“I guess I’m just messed up over this whole Cleo thing, is all.” Luke looked up from digging the toe of his sneaker into the dirt, and his voice was tight. “Nothing personal.”

Noah’s hope was promptly squashed. He felt like an idiot. “In other words: not everything’s about me. Right. Sorry.”

Luke exhaled. “Look. Whatever. It’s stupid. It’s nothing. Just…” He cocked his head to the side, looking at Noah with an almost expectant expression. Then he thought better of it, eyes squeezing shut in frustration. “No, forget it, it’s too weird.”

“Too weird?” Noah pushed. “Uh, in case you’ve forgotten, I just showed up in your town and said your lives were in danger. Like, twenty minutes ago. I think we’ve established that I do ‘weird’.”

Luke chuckled, so short and soft Noah almost missed it. “Believe me,” Luke said, shaking his head. “It’s a long story. You really, really don’t want to know.”

“Try me. Come on, man.” Because apparently Luke was the kind of person who turned Noah into the kind of person who awkwardly said ‘man’.

“No, it’s…” Luke had been clenching and unclenching his fists the whole conversation, but now something in his posture shifted, like a rubber band snapping when stretched to its breaking point. “We need to check on Maddie. Make sure Will and Gwen are home, warn them about Cleo.”

Noah had completely forgotten his mission. “Oh, right. Yeah. Sorry.” He couldn’t believe how easily it had slipped his mind. All it took for him to forget his field goal was a conversation with a cute boy? That was embarrassing. What would his father say? “I mean, that’s why I’m here, right?” He attempted a weak smile.

“Yeah,” Luke said, his voice sounding oddly distant. “That’s why you’re here.” He abruptly spun on his heel and started up the cottage steps.

Noah followed Luke to the front door where Maddie was waiting for them. The lights were on in Will and Gwen's cottage, but it didn’t look as if anyone was home. “I knocked,” Maddie said. “No one answered.”

Noah’s skin tingled uncomfortably, but he didn’t want to assume the worst. He’d already jumped to conclusions about Luke hating him, and he’d been wrong about that… for now, at least. He had a job to do here, and speculating or showing his panic wouldn’t help. “Well, maybe they’re out somewhere? There’s lots of places they could have gone. Maybe they’re at Yo’s? Or Al’s? Is Crash open yet?” He hoped his voice didn’t sound as desperate as he felt.

Maddie tapped her finger against her chin. “Maybe?” she asked. “I guess Gwen could have gone over to prepare for her show tomorrow.” She paused, offered more details to Noah: “She’s a singer.”

“Oh?” Noah said. He hoped he could act his way out of this; he couldn’t let on that he’d seen MySpace photos of Luke and Maddie in the audience of one of Gwen’s gigs at Crash the previous week. “That’s cool.”

“Ugh,” came Luke’s voice from the corner. (Noah had never heard anyone actually say ‘ugh’ out loud before he met Luke.) “This thing’s still here.”

Noah looked over and saw that Luke was grimacing down at a garish lawn gnome. The statue, complete with red cap and unsettlingly realistic eyeglasses, looked jarringly out of place on a porch.

"That's one of Cleo's," Maddie explained when she caught Noah's puzzled expression. "She really likes gnomes."

"Will bought it for her," Luke added. "Obviously, before we all knew she was crazy." He paused, raising his eyebrows at Noah as he spoke: "In retrospect? Gnomes? Probably should have been a clue she was a psycho."

Noah laughed; he couldn’t help himself. "Hey," he ventured, mock-offended. "Some of my best friends are gnomes."

There was an unbearable pause before Luke reacted, just long enough for Noah to panic and convince himself that he’d misread the mood and screwed everything up again. But then Luke burst out laughing, loud and hard. Noah felt every bone in his body relax.

"Oh really?" Luke replied when he’d caught his breath, angling towards Noah as he played along. "And what do you call them?” His mouth quirked. “Gnome-osexuals?"

Noah was giddy with relief, and he shoved his hands in his pockets before he was tempted to do something stupid with them. Like grab Luke and push him up against the outside wall and kiss him senseless. "Ten percent of the population, man!" he returned.

Luke giggled (honest-to-God giggled), and Noah’s heart soared: maybe he had been imagining Luke’s death-glare outside of the car earlier. Because right now, Luke was grinning at him, eyes shining, and Noah felt invincible.

“Guys, can you just be serious for a second?” Maddie chided, but she was hiding a smile of her own. She turned to Noah: “I know this probably isn’t the best first impression of our town, but it’s nice to have someone around here who gets us, y’know? Who’s willing to help.” She nudged Luke. “Right, Luke?”

Luke had been staring at Noah, lips slightly parted like he was considering saying something else, but at Maddie’s nudge his face hardened into a scowl. He turned around to peer into the glass windows behind them. "Can you see anything inside?" he asked Maddie — and only Maddie.

Noah almost physically recoiled. What was that about? He’d thought Luke had been warming up to him, but then he’d ruined a perfectly nice moment, and now… who could tell? At least he wasn’t the only one caught off guard by Luke’s mood swing; Maddie shot him a sympathetic glance and said, quite pointedly, “Noah, could you come check the side windows with me?”

Luke made a sort of strangled noise in his throat, but Noah ignored him and followed Maddie’s instructions. He’d hoped to catch a glance of something inside that would confirm Will and Gwen were safe, but it was impossible to see anything through the drawn curtains. He and Maddie regrouped with a sullen-looking Luke on the porch. Noah could feel frustration and anxiety getting the best of him.

"Do either of you have a plan?" he asked. "If they're not here, then..." He trailed off.

"Do we ‘have a plan’?" Luke retorted with a scowl. "You're the one who just showed up, all mysterious and saying all this stuff about Cleo's phone and telling us what to do!"

Noah refrained from mentioning that Luke had been doing most of the 'telling' so far.

"Luke!" Maddie admonished. "Be nice!" She turned to Noah. "I'm sorry, he's not usually as big of a jerk as he's acting right now."

Noah didn't know what to say in response; "No, that's fine, I probably deserve this emotional whiplash" would just raise more questions than it answered, and it wasn't like he had been honest about his reasons for coming here in the first place.

Luke sighed, but didn't apologize. "If Cleo could run Will's car off the road, she's capable of anything," he said finally. "Maybe they're fine. We just need to find Cleo's phone. As proof."

"Right," Noah said, choosing his words carefully, like he was walking on eggshells with every syllable, “but it's not on the network anymore. I can't track it if it's not online."

Luke gave him a long hard look, and Noah braced himself for the questions to follow, but Maddie spoke up instead. "You said Cleo must have destroyed her phone, right?" she asked. Noah nodded. "Then she probably threw it out..." Maddie gestured to the teeming garbage cans on the porch.

Luke exclaimed "you're a genius!" and began dumping out the containers onto the porch. Noah settled for a grateful smile and a nod in Maddie's direction.

The three of them finished overturning the half-dozen garbage bins and started digging through the smelly bags. Of all the ways Noah had intended this day to go (dramatic rescue, heroic moments, love at first sight), he never would have imagined it would involve pawing through a stranger's trash. After a few minutes, Maddie held up a jagged black object. "Is this it?"

Luke examined it. "Yeah," he said, "that looks like Cleo’s phone. Or part of it, at least."

They eventually found the phone smashed into ten separate pieces, the SIM card destroyed beyond repair. Luke gathered the debris into a small cardboard box they'd retrieved from the recycling and started walking towards the truck. Noah noticed Luke was on a collision course with an overturned bin and called out a warning to "watch your step", but to no avail – Luke tripped over the bin and he, the cardboard box, and the phone pieces crashed to the ground.

"I can't believe I did that," Luke groaned. He started crawling over the grass looking for the missing pieces.

Noah rushed over and got down on his hands and knees to help. "You okay?" he asked, retrieving a plastic piece from beside him. "That looked like a bad fall."

Luke didn’t reply because he had spotted the final fragment – but Noah had just seen it too, and they reached for it at the same time. Their hands touched as they both grasped the black plastic chunk, and Noah's breath caught in his throat, his heart pounding so loud and so fast he was sure Luke could hear it. Their eyes locked. It looked like Luke didn't know what to do with his face, his expressions cycling impossibly fast from annoyance to curiosity to something else… but he didn’t pull his hand away. His finger brushed over the pulse point on Noah's wrist, gently enough at first to have been an accident, but the second pass was deliberate. Noah’s skin tingled at the point of contact. They just stared at each other, trapped in the moment, and Noah was about to say something when—

"Guys?" Maddie called from the porch.

"Uh, coming!" Luke replied, jerking backwards. "Just, uh... just a second." He grimaced, and Noah thought he heard him mutter "damn it" under his breath as they both got to their feet.

Standing awkwardly, Noah brushed nonexistent grass blades off his jeans, fearing what Luke would say next. Obviously Noah had misread the whole situation, if the way Luke had reacted—more like recoiled—was any indication. He wasn't sure which outcome would be less painful: Luke acting like that moment hadn't happened (and proving that Noah was delusional), or Luke getting it over with and outright rejecting Noah (also proving that Noah was delusional). He only hoped Luke would take pity on him and let the subject drop, so Noah could drive back to Chicago as fast as possible and spend the rest of his life banging his head against a cubicle wall.

And then Luke spoke. "Yeah," he said, tossing his head so his bangs fell perfectly across his forehead. "Yeah. I'm fine."

Noah blinked. "What?" This wasn't a reaction he had expected. But at least Luke wasn't yelling at him this time.

"You asked me if I was okay," Luke said, a small smile spreading across his features. "I was answering you."

"Oh." Noah broke into a matching smile, hoping he didn’t look like a total dork. But he couldn’t ignore the small thread of hope winding around his chest. "Cool. I'm glad."

Luke beamed. "Yeah. Cool." He started to lean forwards, as if he were about to take a step closer to Noah, but he stopped when—

"Guys?" Maddie called again. "What happened to the gnome?"

"The gnome?" Noah repeated without looking away from Luke. "What?" He was feeling very out of his depth here. He blamed Luke's presence. His incredibly hot, incredibly distracting, incredibly maybe-kind-of-flirting-with-Noah presence.

"Cleo's gnome," Maddie said. "It was here on the porch when we pulled up, but now—"

And that's when everything went black.

++++++

When Noah regained consciousness, he awoke with a pounding headache, a dry mouth, and the terrifying realization that he couldn't move. Blinking blearily, he realized he was in the driver's seat of Luke's truck; Luke was slumped over in the passenger seat, unconscious. Noah's feet were tied together, and his hands were bound to a steering wheel. The keys were missing from the ignition. Straight ahead through the windshield, he could see they were in some sort of rock quarry, and Maddie and Gwen were propped up against a tree, motionless. Where were they? What the hell was going on? The pain behind his eyes increased, and he had to close his eyes to make the world stop spinning. He'd never been claustrophobic, but he was starting to feel like he could be now.

"Oh, good! You're awake." The voice came from beside him, and Noah opened his eyes to see a girl who resembled a life-size Cabbage Patch doll unlocking the driver’s door. She spoke like she had marbles in her mouth, and her thick eyebrows were knitted together in a cautious frown. "I don't know you," she said slowly. "But you're a big hunk." The girl put a hand on her hips, and that's when Noah noticed she was holding a lawn gnome covered in blood.

Noah knew this had to be Cleo. And that's when he knew they were in deep trouble.

He tried to speak, but his throat was raw. "Let us go," he rasped.

Cleo frowned. "I can't do that," she replied. "Not after what you made Bashful do." She held up the bloodied gnome for Noah to inspect; instinctively, he tried to back away, only for his head to hit the headrest with a shock of pain. The patch of thick wetness at the back of his head stuck to the leather with a squelching sound. Noah wanted to vomit.

Cleo began stroking the gnome, not seeming to care that she was getting blood—his blood, Noah realized with horror—on her hands. "I have to go talk to Will now," she said dreamily, more to herself than to Noah. "He's waiting for me. It's my destiny." Then her eyes turned hard. "But I'll be back for you two in a minute."

Noah could only watch as Cleo lumbered over to yet another tree, where a brown-haired boy in khakis was blinking awake. "Cleo?" Will asked, his voice rising as he realized where he was. "What’s going on? What have you done?"

Noah tuned out their conversation. He needed to concentrate on getting free. "Luke?" he called, angling his body as much as he could to the other boy. He tried to reach out, but the ropes held him back; his hands scrabbled pitifully on the steering wheel. "Luke? Wake up, come on."

Luke started to stir awake, and he let out a loud groan as his eyes opened. "Noah?" He slowly shifted in his seat, struggling against the ropes at his wrists and ankles as he gradually gained awareness.

Noah breathed a sigh of relief. "Yeah, it's me, I'm here. You okay?"

Luke started to nod but winced in pain, and thought better of moving his head. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said at last. He was obviously lying, and a wave of guilt rushed over Noah. "Are you okay?"

"I'm okay," Noah replied, but it sounded hollow even to him. "We're in your truck, Cleo's got us, I think she's going to..." He trailed off, not wanting to finish the sentence. From the look on Luke's face, he knew how Noah’s sentence would have ended. "She's got Maddie, and Will and Gwen."

"Oh my god." Luke looked out the windshield, swallowing hard when he spotted Cleo standing over Will. They could hear snippets of conversation through the open driver's door:
"...bring you sun screen and aspirin, oh, and tissues, since you're probably gonna be a little bit sad that Gwen's gone."
"Gwen? What about Gwen? What have you done with her?"

"We have to help them," Luke said. "We are gonna do everything we can to get the hell out of here." He started twisting in his seat and smacked his head against the window, letting out a yelp of pain he cut short.

"Hey," Noah said, "you really okay? How's your head?"

Luke smiled weakly. "Hard, as usual. I'm more worried about you. Your head looks really bad, Noah."

"Don't be," Noah muttered. "I just can't believe I got you involved in this." If I hadn't texted you, if I'd minded my own business, Cleo wouldn't have suspected you. And you wouldn't be here.

"No, no," Luke said. "We're in this together." He paused. "Noah. Listen. There is nowhere that I would rather be than here with you." Another pause, this one considerably more awkward, as Luke floundered to correct himself: "I mean, no one better to get captured with than a military man, right?”

Noah didn't correct the 'military man' error because he was too busy trying to process Luke's previous statement. Well, barely processing. He wasn't sure he could handle this… whatever this was right now, and he tried to break the tension. "Really, nowhere else?" he asked. "Not even, say, Hawaii?"

"What, and get sunburned to death?" Luke returned, his voice artificially upbeat. "No, no, this is perfect. You know, my little brother fell in a pit here last year, got trapped for two days. I’ve spent a lot of time at this place, it’s great.”

Noah refrained from saying, I know, I saw the police reports, I'm glad Ethan was okay. He settled on matching Luke's darkly comic tone: "Oh, so it's a popular vacation spot for the Snyders, then? Comes highly recommended?"

"Yeah, best abandoned quarry in the Chicago tri-state area. I gave it five stars on Yelp."

Noah wanted to laugh, but the sound got stuck in his throat. His conscience weighed heavy on him, taking up space in his chest, making it harder to breathe. It wasn't fair of him to let them both get murdered before Luke knew the truth about why he was here. He had to confess everything, even if it ruined their... whatever it was. "I have to tell you something," Noah said in a rush.

Luke looked over at him, his face open and questioning. "Oh yeah?"

It was now or never—and considering their situation, never was a definite possibility. "If we get out of this—" Noah started.

"Hey," Luke interrupted, “when we get out of this. Everything's gonna be okay, Noah." He shot him a small smile, one that was meant to be reassuring but which just made Noah feel even guiltier.

Noah opened his mouth, searching for the right words (ideally ones which wouldn't make Luke hate him), but before he could find them, there was a shout from outside.

"You're a lunatic!" Will was exclaiming. "You're not going to get away with this! What do you think is going to happen when people find us?"

"No one's going to find you," Cleo said simply, as if she were remarking on the weather and not a quadruple homicide. "They're only going to find Gwen. And Luke. And Maddie." She paused, then jerked her head backwards to indicate Noah in the truck. "And that one. I don't know his name yet." She giggled, the sound like nails on a chalkboard. "It's a shame, because he's a hunk."

Will shuddered, and Cleo rushed to comfort him. "Oh, don't be jealous, Will," she cooed. "You're the one I'm meant to be with. You're the one I want." Her voice turned steely. "We don't need him. We don't need anyone else."

In the truck, Luke laughed, short and raw. "She likes you," he said. "Oh, my god, Cleo likes you! Guess she has a thing for blue eyes." He added, in a voice low enough that Noah wasn't sure he heard correctly at first, "Can't say I blame her."

Noah felt his face go hot, and he stared at Luke, who was resolutely testing the ropes around his wrists and definitely not looking back at Noah. Considering they were probably going to die here, in some godforsaken gravel pit in some tiny town, Noah didn't see the point in holding back — what was a lifetime of embarrassment compared to, well, imminent death? "If I didn't know better," he said slowly, imagining a hundred different ways in which what he was about to say could make these last moments of his life even more painful, "I'd say you were flirting with me."

Luke froze, and Noah felt his heart sink. But then Luke slowly looked up to meet Noah's eyes. "And if I were?" he asked, his voice not quite steady.

Noah allowed himself to hope, just a little bit. "Then I'd say you had terrible timing."

Luke broke into a grin, dimples flashing. "The worst," he agreed.

This time it was Noah's turn to laugh, in both relief and disbelief. "Well that's just great," he said. "Glad we got this figured out just before we get murdered by a gnome-wielding psychopath."

"You're not giving up that easy, are you?" Luke retorted, his easy confidence restored in full force. "Because I, for one, am not going to die a virgin." Noah choked on air, but Luke ignored him, suddenly struck by inspiration. "The glove compartment! I should have a knife in there."

"Not that I'm complaining," Noah said after a moment (mentally applauding himself for focusing on something other than Luke and virgin), "but you keep a knife in your glove compartment?"

Luke rolled his eyes. "Not, like, an actual knife. A Swiss Army knife." He tossed his head, then grimaced at the pain. "You'd think an army guy like yourself would approve."

Noah was about to reply when they were interrupted by Cleo appearing by the driver's side door, her ghoulish face frowning down at them, gnome tucked under her arm. "I hope you two know this isn't anything personal," she said. "You really brought this on yourselves."

Noah tried not to panic, and thought back to what movie characters did in this situation. They kept the person talking. They stalled for time. "And how did we do that?" he managed, struggling to keep his voice even.

"Because you tried to get in the way of my destiny with Will," Cleo replied. She kneeled down and began testing the strength of the knots that tied Noah's foot to the gas pedal. "And if you try to get in the way of what nature intended, people suffer."

"Suffer how?" Luke chimed in. Noah turned to catch his eyes; in a wordless exchange, he knew that Luke had instantly caught on to Noah’s strategy. "Why did you put us in this truck?"

Cleo sighed. "It's going to be very sad. Very, very sad. The accelerator is stuck, and you're going to drive into a tree. And that's where Gwen and Maddie are.” She wagged a finger. “You're a very, very bad driver."

Noah felt bile rise in his throat, and he swallowed back the fear. He had figured that was her plan, but it was a hundred times worse to hear it confirmed. "You're not doing it yourself?"

"Oh no," she said, shaking her head. "I'd never let that happen. I'm a smashing driver." But her shaking had dislodged the gnome from the crook of her arm, and it bounced painfully off Noah's knee and landed on the ground. "What are you doing here?" she admonished the statue. "I thought I left you with Will. You need to stay safe. I don't want you getting burned."

Noah whipped around to stare at Luke. "Burned?" Luke mouthed. Noah could only return his look of horror.

"You're coming with me!" Cleo told the gnome, seemingly forgetting about Luke and Noah. She turned on her heel and started walking back to Will, Bashful pressed tight against her chest. For a moment, all the boys heard was the sound of gravel crunching under her feet as she stomped away with renewed purpose.

Taking advantage of Cleo's absence, Luke lunged forward and yanked open the glove compartment, unleashing an avalanche of loose papers and uncapped pens and old fast food wrappers. Luke muttered in frustration as he dug through the mess, tossing the garbage all around him: "I know it's in here somewhere... Maybe... Oh, wait... Oh! ... No, crap, never mind..."

Noah divided his attention between monitoring Cleo and Will and watching the way Luke's tongue poked out of the side of his mouth when he got annoyed. “No pressure or anything,” Noah said after a moment, “but it would be great if you could find that, y'know, soon.”

"Don't tell my mom," Luke groaned, pawing through a collection of empty take-out cups, "but she might be right."

"Yeah? About what?"

"That all this junk food is going to be the death of me." Then Luke let out of a cry of triumph, proudly revealing the long-lost Swiss Army Knife. "Or not." He popped open the blade and bent down at an awkward angle to start slicing through the ropes that tied Noah's feet to the accelerator. Noah willed himself to ignore—mentally and verbally and most importantly biologically—the fact that Luke's face was hovering only inches away from Noah’s dick. Noah cleared his throat and tried to shift the lower half of his body away from Luke and closer to the door.

That's when Luke turned his head to peer up at him, the slight twitch at the side of his mouth betraying his otherwise mild expression. Obviously Noah wasn't alone in having something on his mind besides the whole how-to-avoid-their-imminent-murder thing. "You okay?" Luke asked, deceptively innocent.

"Nothing!" Noah choked out. "I mean. What?” Luke grinned, and Noah reminded himself that he had a job to do. “I mean, I’m fine.” He cleared his throat. “Just uh, it should be you first."

Luke turned his attention back to the ropes, dismissing Noah’s comment with a shrug of his shoulders. "Oh, don't try and be a hero, Noah. You'll make me look bad."

Noah swallowed hard. "No, but if only one of us can get out of here, it should be you. Take the knife and get Gwen and Maddie.

"Yeah, well, I'm not leaving without you." Luke pulled the ropes off Noah's feet, then moved up to press the blade against the ropes on Noah's right wrist.

"Luke! I'm serious. Get yourself free first. You can get out of the truck. If Cleo comes back with the keys and tries to start it..."

Luke frowned, but grudgingly shifted back to his own seat and began cutting the ropes around his own ankles. "I work fast," he promised.

"I'm counting on it," Noah said, letting out a shaky laugh. "Put those wood-chopping farm skills to use."

Luke's slicing faltered, but only for a moment. "How do you know I work on a farm?"

Fuck. "Oh, uh," Noah stammered. "Lucky guess? It's a common expression. 'Farm skills', you know." Noah was the un-smoothest person on earth. He was the opposite of smooth. He was the human equivalent of sand paper.

"No, I don't know," Luke said, his voice as sharp as the blade in his hand. "When we get out of here, you're going to have to answer my questions, Noah. Honestly."

"Yeah," Noah croaked. "I know. And I will. I swear." A pause. "If it helps, I was going to tell you everything a few minutes ago, back when I thought we were going to die?" He hated that it came out as a question.

"Mm-hmm."

Luke still hadn't looked up, and his shoulders were tense as his sawing motions became rushed and less skilful. Noah worried Luke would accidentally cut himself. And of course it would be all Noah's fault. He’d screwed up. Again. Even though Luke’s rapidfire mood changes over the course of the afternoon had been confusing, Noah knew he was to blame for this one.

"I'm sorry," he tried, his words thick with guilt. "When we get out of here, I give you full permission to kick my ass." (It was a sign of just how panicked he was that it didn't even occur to him that he had just suggested Luke Snyder do something involving his ass.)

"Whatever," Luke replied, but his shoulders relaxed, and — to Noah’s considerable relief — his sawing motions became more careful. "I'll hold you to that, Mayer." The ironic cheerfulness returned to his voice: "But right now, how about we focus on the not-getting-murdered thing. You're suddenly quite the optimist: 'Back when I thought we were going to die'. We could still die."

“How could I forget?” Noah deadpanned. “Thanks for the reminder."

Luke gave a deliberately unenthused cheer as he straightened up to reveal the ropes he'd sliced from around his ankles. "You know," he said thoughtfully, balancing the knife between his knees and beginning the delicate task of cutting through the ropes around his wrist, "this would actually be almost kind of fun if we weren't fighting for our lives."

Noah snorted. He wondered if all we're-probably-going-to-die conversations were this strange, or if it was just Luke. "It's always something, right?" he offered. "Maybe we can make it more interesting."

"How so?"

"First one who doesn't cut an artery wins? Loser cleans up?"

Luke’s jaw dropped, but he laughed despite himself. "Oh, you're disgusting!"

Noah shrugged, feigning smugness he didn't feel. "Yet somehow you still like me." His voice cracked on the last couple words, and he was so self-conscious he wanted to die. Well, not actually die, obviously. That seemed like an especially poor choice of words in this instance.

Luke shot him a knowing smile, eyes crinkling. "Somehow," he echoed.

A flash of movement up ahead caught Noah's attention, and he could see through the windshield that Maddie and Gwen were beginning to regain consciousness. He couldn't make out what was happening, but they appeared to be whispering to themselves, and Gwen nodded in response to something Maddie said. Noah only hoped they were coming up with a plan, and that Cleo didn't notice they were awake.

Fortunately, Cleo was too wrapped up with taking care of Bashful to notice her other prisoners. She was lovingly setting the gnome down next to Will and wagging her finger in instruction. "Here," she said, "you keep him safe. I don't want him to have to see this, because you gave him to me." She hugged her arms around herself, vibrating with energy. "I love him almost as much as I love you!"

"Cleo!" Will shouted. "This is insane! I don't love you!"

Cleo frowned. "Well, maybe not just yet," she admitted. "But I'm working on it. I just wish we had gone to Branson. Missouri sounds so glamorous!" She smiled proudly. "I looked it up on the internet. I used your laptop. I hope you don't mind."

"Cleo," Will pleaded. "We can still go to Branson together. You, me, Gwen. All three of us. It'll be fun! Just like we planned. But you have to let us go."

"Three?" Cleo wrinkled her nose and thought for a moment. "Yes, the three of us — you, me, and Bashful! It'll be so much fun. Oh, Will!" She threw her arms around the boy, who visibly recoiled at the touch. "I knew you loved me!" She sprang back to her feet. "Now I just have to do this one last thing!"

"Luke," Noah hissed. "She's coming back!"

Cursing, Luke fumbled with the knife and it clattered to the floor. He bent over to look for it, ducking his head under the open glove compartment lid, the ropes around his wrist still frustratingly intact.

Cleo appeared on the driver's side, her face stretched wide in an eerie smile that reminded Noah of The Joker. "Did you hear that?" she exclaimed. "He loves me!" Then she smacked her forehead with exaggerated drama. "Oh, silly, I forgot to put the keys in! Cars can't go without that! Will would be so disappointed with me." She retrieved Luke's truck keys from her pocket and leaned over Noah to put them in the ignition. When the engine rumbled to life and Cleo clapped her hands in delight, Noah knew they were out of time.

He took one last look at Luke, eyes wide.

"Noah—" Luke started.

Noah nodded. "I know."

And that's when everything went to hell.

Noah kicked his legs out and wrapped them around Cleo’s neck. She started to shriek but Noah only clenched tighter as she tried to free herself. He grunted with the effort of containing her. Cleo’s feet scrabbled for purchase on the gravel as she continued to thrash. “Go!” Noah shouted to Luke.

Luke flung open the passenger door and ran outside, shouting to Maddie and Gwen. Noah took his eyes off Cleo for just a second and she hit the accelerator with her flailing arms. The truck roared ahead. Noah tried to slam on the brake, but the weight of Cleo on his legs made it impossible to reach. The ropes on the steering rubbed his wrists raw. He ignored the pain. He had to stop the truck.

Cleo was dragged along as the vehicle barrelled ahead, the tires spitting up gravel, dust flying everywhere. Noah yanked the steering wheel to the right, but Cleo thrashed and pulled it back. The truck stayed on its collision course. The accelerator was stuck, just like she had warned.

Noah saw Maddie and Luke struggling to free Gwen from the tree. The truck picked up speed. Maddie shouted something at Noah that he couldn’t hear over Cleo’s howls. He threw his entire body to the right, wrenching the wheel with him. One of the front tires bounced over a boulder. The truck tilted, threatening to dislodge Cleo, but she kept a death-grip on the wheel. The truck careened wildly as Noah and Cleo fought for control. Noah felt like his arms would be pulled from their sockets.

At the last possible second, Noah let go of Cleo and swung his legs back inside to stomp down on the brake. But it was too late. With a sickening crunch, the truck crashed into the tree where Gwen, Luke, and Maddie had been only moments before.

Noah's head slammed into the steering wheel. Steam and smoke rose up from the engine. There was a loud BANG. Noah vaguely registered the smell of something burning. He pulled on the ropes that bound him to the steering wheel, but they held tight. He was still trapped.

Maddie and Luke appeared in the open driver’s door. They tackled Cleo away from Noah. Cleo kicked and spit, screaming for Will to help her, until Maddie hit her over the head with a gnome. Cleo slumped to the ground, unconscious. “Get her out of here!” someone shouted.

Noah started coughing, the swirling dust and smoke filling his lungs. His mouth tasted like gummy charcoal. He couldn't see anything through the fractured windshield, could barely hear over the ringing in his ears.

“Noah!” Luke’s voice sounded like it was coming from far away. “Noah! Oh my god, Noah!”

Noah’s lungs started to hurt. Breathing was difficult. He was just so tired. But someone was cutting the ropes from around his wrists and pulling him out of the wreckage. The air was thick and grey. He couldn’t see more than a few inches in any direction.

Noah let himself be dragged along until the other person dropped to the ground, letting Noah collapse onto them with a whumph. The air didn’t choke him down here, and he took a deep gulp of oxygen. He blinked once, twice, to clear his vision, then looked down at his rescuer.

Luke was staring up at him, eyes wide with concern and fear and worry. His hands, calloused but gentle, were running through Noah’s hair, rubbing against Noah’s temples in soothing patterns. “Noah,” Luke was repeating, “Noah, Noah, Noah.”

Noah relaxed into the touch. "Hi," he croaked. His thoughts were very slow and very fuzzy.

A rush of thick, hot air crackled and sizzled over their heads. A bright flash illuminated the heavy smoke. And with a deafening POP!, the truck burst into flames behind them.

But Luke didn’t even seem to notice. "Noah! Oh my god, oh my god, are you all right?" Luke grasped Noah's head in his hands, checking for damage. “Noah, oh my god, your head, Noah…”

Noah’s legs were numb, his skull pounded like it was about to split in two, and judging by the warm coppery scent in his nostrils he was probably covered in blood, but Noah couldn’t remember the last he felt this… Alive? Elated? And considering his position, a little bit turned-on?

"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied, his voice shaky. "Are you okay? Sorry about your truck."

“My truck?” Luke asked.

Like some cosmic punch line, there was a flash and a bang as something in the hood exploded. They both turned around to stare at the crash site, watching the billowing plumes of smoke darken to sooty black as the blaze consumed more of the vehicle. Orange-red columns of fire licked the treetop. Glass flew in every direction as the pick-up's windows shattered and burst.

“Oh,” Luke commented after a moment. “Well, it’s really not that bad. Needed a new paint job anyway.”

Noah laughed, more out of shock and relief, and Luke began laughing too. They stayed like that for a minute, chest to chest, nose to nose, too giddy to properly catch their breath, just letting it all sink in. They were alive. The truck was destroyed, but they were all alive. They made it out.

Luke’s hand brushed against Noah’s temple again, and Noah could feel the rough scratch of a rope against his cheek – Luke had managed to separate his wrist bindings during the chaos, but the individual loops around each wrist were still intact.

It all came flooding back to Noah in a rush: the truck, Cleo, the steering wheel, the feeling that he was going to crash into Luke and Maddie and Gwen… Noah closed his eyes. He began to feel lightheaded. It was like he was back in the truck, unable to stop it, barrelling ahead, going to crash, it was going to happen all over again and Noah couldn’t stop it…

“Noah? Oh, baby, baby, you’re shaking.”

Noah tried to speak—it was just everything catching up to him, he was fine—but he couldn’t form the words. He didn’t want to open his eyes to see the rope, the reminders of the danger he’d gotten Luke into, how he’d almost gotten him killed. If he hadn’t texted Luke, if he hadn’t gotten involved… “If—if this happened to you,” Noah started to babble, “if this was your blood, on my shirt…”

“Hey, hey, Noah, hey.” Luke’s voice was calm but firm. “I’m okay, I’m okay. We’re okay. Okay?”

Noah nodded, his panic back under control. “Sorry, sorry, I just…”

Luke grabbed Noah’s hands, noticing for the first time, “Oh my god, your wrists, are you…?” They had been rubbed bloody and raw from struggling with the steering wheel, and Noah was just now noticing the faint throbbing of pain. “I know this is going to sound weird, so please don’t take this the wrong way, please, please don’t, but we need to stop the bleeding… can you take off your shirt?” He added quickly, “For a bandage.”

It had been a long time since anyone (well, since Gabe) had asked Noah to take off his shirt. And sure, this situation wasn’t exactly sexual (even if he was kind of maybe sort of straddling Luke), and Noah would hardly consider his standard outfit of a t-shirt and an open button-down to be even remotely sexy.

But still.

“You want me to take off my shirt?” Noah asked, a hint of suggestion in his voice. He could always blame the adrenaline later.

Luke looked away. “Shut up,” he replied, clearing his throat. “It’s a first aid thing. Don’t they teach you that in the army? Field doctoring?”

Even through the adrenaline-rushed haze, Noah couldn’t help but be a little pleased with how flustered Luke got. “It was your idea,” he shrugged. But then, because karma is a bitch, Noah struggled to take off his button-down. His arms felt heavy and useless, and he flailed with the layers like an uncoordinated toddler and almost fell over.

“Hey,” Luke said, looking smug but also concerned for the personal safety of the out-of-control double-shirted person above him, “don’t strangle yourself.”

“At this point, I wouldn’t mind if I did,” Noah muttered. He hated every part of his body. Every. Single. Part.

“I can do it,” Luke volunteered. He helped Noah untangle his left arm from the shirt cuff, then tied the fabric around Noah’s tender wrist. “Let me know if it’s too tight.”

Noah shook his head. “No, it’s fine.” And it was. “It’s better.” Or maybe that was just Luke’s presence. “Thank you.”

Luke blew out a breath. "Thank you for saving me. But next time, please, please don’t be a hero?”

“Oh, I didn’t do that for you,” Noah replied easily. “I just couldn’t stand to see that psycho with her hands all over that gnome.” He paused. “And wait. Hold on. Back then, with the… when I… Did you call me ‘baby’?”

“What?” Luke’s cheeks flared. “No. Oh my god. No. Shut up.” Noah laughed, and Luke eventually let out a sheepish grin. “Maybe?” he admitted.

Neither of them spoke for a minute, not even moving as sparks flew around them, stinging white-hot wherever they landed on bare skin.

“We should probably find the others,” Luke said at last. He started to shift, attempting to stand up, but Noah stayed firmly where he was.

Luke was covered in sooty sweat, but Noah had never wanted anyone as much he wanted Luke right then. And Luke must have read the naked desire in Noah’s face, because his own expression instantly changed from concern to want.

"Noah?” Luke asked, breathless, his voice lower than Noah had ever heard. “What’s wrong?”

Noah watched Luke gulp, watched the Adams apple bobb in his throat, watched as a thin trickle of sweat cut through the grime on Luke’s neck and continued down beneath the neckline of his shirt. Noah wanted to trace that path with his tongue. He settled for answering Luke’s question, and it came out as little more than a whisper: “Nothing.”

Noah leaned down just as Luke’s face rose to meet his. Noah found Luke’s bottom lip with his own, and at first it was just a quick brush of dry lips, chaste, with only the faintest pressure, but then Luke made a noise in his throat and his eyes flicked wide, and he dove back into the kiss, forcing it deeper, longer, hands gripping Noah’s neck, sliding along his biceps, and Noah was just hitching his hips, a moan trapped between mouths, when—

“Luke? Noah?” Maddie’s voice came from behind them, and Luke let out a groan, dropping his hands to the ground. Noah adjusted himself quickly before turning around.

Maddie had her head tilted to the side as she considered the sight before her. Noah felt only slightly self-conscious. “Sparks are flying, boys,” she teased.

Luke squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. “Really, Maddie?” he asked, voice strained. “Oh my god. This is seriously, seriously not the best time right now.” He raised a hand, palm out, as if that could block her knowing smile.

Noah was racking his brain for something to say—thanks for hitting Cleo with that gnome, sorry you saw me making out with your friend, can you please go away now so we can finish what we were doing—when Will and Gwen appeared out of the smoke.

“Will just tied her up,” Gwen was saying, “and she’s over by the tree. Should one of us—” She stopped talking when she spotted Luke and Noah. “Oh. Hi.”

Noah scrambled to his feet, hoping no one looked at him below the waist. He wasn’t sure how much damage control he could do to counteract their first impression of him as ‘that guy we found on top of our friend’, but he had to try. He stuck out his hand in greeting. “Hi. You must be Will and Gwen. I’m Noah Mayer.”

Will cleared his throat. “Hello Noah Mayer,” he said, clearly trying not to make a big deal out of the same-sex straddling situation they’d walked in on. “Sorry if this is a dumb question, but… how do you know Luke?”

“Noah saved us,” Luke piped up, rising to his feet to stand next to Noah. “He warned us about Cleo. He works for the government.”

Noah had been angling closer to Luke, to stand hip-to-hip, but at Luke’s words he instantly stilled. “What?”

Luke raised half a shoulder. “Well, you do, right?” The duh was implied. “It was pretty obvious, Noah. Maddie knew too, right, Mads?”

“I—it—No. I’m not,” Noah stammered, backing away from Luke. He was penned in, with Maddie and Luke and Will and Gwen staring at him. “I mean, I don’t. Why would you… why would you say that? I’m just, um.” He couldn’t even come up with a convincing lie. He felt exposed, stupid and wounded and dizzy with panic.

Luke reached out a hand and grasped Noah’s arm. “It’s fine, I know,” he said.

“No,” Noah said, fighting to keep his voice calm, wishing desperately this conversation could have been saved until later. Maybe he could blame his stammering on the smoke inhalation. Or the head wound. Or the very tight Luke-induced situation in his pants right now. “It’s not fine. Why would you say that. I don’t… it’s not…”

“Luke,” Maddie warned. “Maybe this isn’t the best place to have this conversation?”

Will and Gwen looked back and forth rapidly between the three of them, taking in Noah’s stammering, Luke’s confusion, and Maddie’s attempts to play peacemaker. “Okay, what’s going on here?” Gwen asked. “Because we just tied up an unconscious psycho stalker, and Luke’s truck is on fire, but obviously we’ve missed something else.”

“Something big,” Will added.

“We should call the police,” Noah blurted, fishing in his back pocket for his cell phone. “What’s, uh, what’s the number here?”

Luke scrunched up his face, looking at Noah like he was an idiot. “9-1-1.”

“Oh. Right.” Noah let out a self-deprecating chuckle, and no one laughed with him. This was a disaster. He turned his back to them as he dialed the numbers with shaky hands.

“9-1-1,” came the dispassionate dispatcher response, “what’s your emergency?”

What wasn’t Noah’s emergency at this point? The guy I’ve been stalking online knows I work for the government. I’ve blown my cover. My life is completely ruined. I’m going to jail for the rest of my life. That’s probably an emergency. Noah closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “My friends and I were kidnapped. But we escaped. The girl who did it, she’s unconscious. But our car is on fire, and we can’t get back, and…”

“What’s your location?” The operator didn’t even sound concerned. Maybe Oakdale PD got these calls a lot.

“We’re in a gravel pit.”

“Which gravel pit?”

Oakdale had more than one? Noah turned around and looked helplessly at Luke. “Which gravel pit are we in?” he asked.

Luke sighed, and gestured for Noah to hand over the phone. “Hi, it’s Luke Snyder,” he said, angling away from the others. “Can you put Detective Hughes on the phone, please? … Hi Margo. Listen, we’ve got a bit of a situation here. Cleo went nuts, and she tried to kill us… Yeah, I can wait until you grab a pen…”

Noah felt completely useless as he watched Luke walk further away and keep up a totally casual conversation with the police officer on the other end of the line. Knowing as much as he did about Luke’s life, Noah should have realized Luke would be on friendly terms with the local cops.

Noah should have realized a lot of things before now.

Maddie sensed Noah’s awkwardness, and she asked Will and Gwen to go check on Cleo—with a promise that she’d “explain this whole thing later”—before she sidled up to Noah. “Hey,” she said. “So, about Luke…”

Noah tensed. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” he said. Talking about this would just make it worse; the only thing he could do was change the subject. “I know it was awkward before, you walking in on me and Luke…”

Maddie let out a laugh. “More awkward for you guys,” she said lightly. “At least I still had my clothes on.”

“Hey, I’m still wearing a t-shirt!” Noah protested, sweeping his bandaged hand across his clothed chest. “It was just the top one. He needed it for a bandage. I was bleeding.”

“Of course,” Maddie replied, sounding unconvinced. “You two keep telling yourselves that.”

“We will,” Noah insisted, repressing a smile of his own. The kiss with Luke had been good – really, really good. All he needed to do now was avoid a discussion of the whole spying-on-him-with-the-government thing. His heart sank as he stared at Luke in the distance. There was no way this would ever work out once he took responsibility for his actions.

“He’s a really great guy,” Maddie said after a moment, her tone gentle. “And I’m really happy for you two.”

“Uh, thanks,” Noah said, rushed, stumbling over his words, “but, you know, I don’t really know him, we’re basically strangers, so maybe this is premature, and—”

Maddie cut him off with an indulgent smile. “I know him,” she said, playfully pointing a finger in Noah’s direction. “And I feel like I know you. It’s going to be okay. Whatever you’re worried about, with your job, it’s fine. He’s pretty good at keeping secrets.”

Noah panicked. “I don’t have any secrets.” It was an obvious lie, and he didn’t miss the way apprehension flickered across Maddie’s face.

Before Maddie could reply, Luke came back into earshot and fumbled handing Noah back his phone. There was something tentative in the way that Luke looked at him now, like he was suddenly nervous around Noah – even though just a few minutes ago Luke had been parting Noah’s lips with his tongue. Noah’s stomach twisted. Why did Luke have to suspect something? Noah knew Luke wouldn’t give up until the answer he was looking for. And that was an answer Noah couldn’t give.

“The police are on their way,” Luke said, his tone measured, carefully looking between Maddie and Noah. “Where’s Will and Gwen?”

“They’re with Cleo,” Maddie said. “Making sure she’s still… y’know… tied up.” She paused. “It’s weird to say that out loud, isn’t it?”

Luke nodded. “Seriously, seriously weird,” he agreed. He turned to Noah. “I know this must be new for you—I mean, I’m not saying that getting kidnapped and almost dying happens to me a lot, but I have some experience with it—and just… are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Noah said, the knot in his stomach turning to lead. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

Luke’s mouth twisted and he flicked his gaze to Maddie. “What did you say to him?”

“Nothing!” Maddie replied. “We were just talking.”

Luke turned back to Noah, pained expression on his face. “Oh my god, if she told you that thing from prom, I was a nerd, okay, and the Spice Girls are classic, and—”

This was good; Noah could handle joking. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said, holding his hands out in surrender. “We were just talking. But now I’m really curious about that prom story.”

“Later,” Maddie promised, smiling.

“Never,” Luke corrected, shaking his head emphatically. His bangs fell into his eyes; Noah wanted to reach out and push them back. But he didn’t. “Never. But speaking of things that are supposed to be secret…”

Noah knew it had been too good to be true. He knew exactly where Luke’s not-so-subtle segue was leading.

“Okay, look. I get that maybe you don’t want everyone to know about where you work? Or something? But you didn’t exactly hide it.” Luke rose a shoulder in a half shrug. “I mean, I figured it out, and I’m not exactly a computer genius.”

More than anything, Noah wanted to deny the charge—“Really not sure what you’re talking about, man”—but he knew he could only delay the inevitable for so long. He couldn’t be a coward. He had to take responsibility, bite the bullet, and tell the truth. And he might as well get it over with. “I’m not admitting to anything,” he said carefully. “But. Hypothetically. How would you have done that?”

A small smile spread across Luke’s face. Luke was obviously relieved Noah was playing along; Noah didn’t want to think about how that relief wouldn’t last when Luke found out the whole truth. “Well,” Luke said, “hypothetically, that person would have sent me a mysterious text from their personal cellphone number. Which I then Googled. Combined with lots of new hits on my blogs from an IP address of a government building in Chicago, and you kind of made it easy.”

Shit. Noah almost groaned out loud. The explanation was short, and painfully anticlimactic – and made complete and obvious sense. How could he have been so careless? A couple dumb slip-ups could cost him everything. “I can’t believe it,” he said, scrubbing the back of his neck. “Because if that person was dumb enough to do that. Hypothetically. Yeah, that’s… damn.”

“Exactly,” Luke said. The smile disappeared off his face, replaced with serious intent. “So what exactly is so secretive about this government job that you can’t – hypothetically – tell us about? And how did it get you access to all of Cleo’s stuff?” He didn’t pause before adding, “And can we drop the ‘hypothetically’? I mean, we’re in a gravel pit, it’s not like there’s anyone around to spy on us.”

Noah had been willing to confess everything, the words had been on the tip of his tongue… and then Luke used the ‘s’ word. Spy. Noah was NSA. He couldn’t reveal that to anyone. It would compromise the integrity of the entire PRISM initiative, possibly the Agency itself, maybe even the entire country. It wouldn’t have mattered if they were on a crowded subway car on the L line or in this deserted gravel pit in Oakdale. The rules were the same. Noah couldn’t tell anyone, not even if he owed Luke the truth. There couldn’t have been a more cruelly appropriate location for Noah to be, literally and metaphorically, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Luke and Maddie were looking at him expectantly, and Noah felt heat behind his eyelids. “I… I can’t say,” he stammered after a pause that only made him look guiltier. “But—”

Noah was saved by the sound of sirens. Three police cars and an ambulance sped across the pit, and uniformed officers swarmed around the teenagers in a clatter of equipment and shouts. Luke, Maddie, Gwen, and Will greeted each cop by name, and Luke made sure Noah wasn’t left out of the hasty introductions.

Luke also insisted Noah be seen first by the paramedics. Noah, in turn, requested they attend to Luke first. Maddie rolled her eyes, and pointed out there were two EMTs; the boys were treated at the same time, their (fortunately) shallow head wounds and minor cuts and scrapes bandaged and salved. Everyone agreed things could have been much worse; they only needed to take one look at the still-smoldering car wreck to know how lucky they’d been to escape Cleo’s clutches alive and relatively unharmed.

And yet Noah felt a twinge of sadness when the shirt around his wrist, bloodied as it was, was replaced with an actual bandage.

Once the entire gravel pit was taped off and secured, two officers carted Cleo into the back of a cruiser and sped off, while Will and Gwen got into a second car, leaving Luke, Maddie and Noah to pile into the backseat of the final vehicle. Fortunately, Luke seemed to have temporarily dropped the issue of Noah’s job in favour of spending the drive berating Officer Dallas for arresting Jade for Cleo’s crimes.

As Luke launched into his tirade—“It doesn’t matter that she had a record, of course she was framed, it was so obvious, you should have known”—and the cop tried to defend himself against the wrath of a Snyder scorned, the full weight of the situation settled on Noah’s shoulders. He was in the back of a police car, having just survived being kidnapped and almost murdered, and his knee was pressed up against an incredibly cute guy he had kissed only minutes before. He should have been elated.

But instead, with every can-you-believe-this-guy? eyeroll Luke shot his way, and despite every amused glance Noah exchanged with Maddie, all Noah could think about was the fact that he had to tell Luke the truth. His dread deepened the closer they got into town, twisting his insides into knots, filling his body with white-hot shame. The whole story would have to come out at the police station. He had to take responsibility. And Noah wasn’t sure he was ready.

++++++

The Oakdale PD station looked like it came straight out of a daytime drama; the building was impossibly small and impossibly crowded, the low ceiling buzzing with unflattering lights. The lobby was a hub of activity, ringing phones and a flurry of paperwork, and an officious blonde who introduced herself as Detective Margo Hughes escorted Luke, Noah, and Maddie through a nearby door that led to the main interrogation room.

“Right,” she said, dropping a stack of folders on the table and pressing a button on the tape recorder. “Let’s start at the beginning. You say that Jade didn’t try and run Will off the road?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” Luke exclaimed. “Cleo did it. You can let Jade go!”

Margo sighed, tapping a pen against the metal tabletop. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” she said. “Cleo’s still unconscious. We can’t ask her. All we have right now is Jade’s word she didn’t do it. And yours, too.”

“But we have proof!” Luke insisted. He and Maddie turned to Noah expectantly, and Noah froze. “Come on, show her.”

Noah dug his hand into his pocket, and took a deep breath before revealing his phone. "I have it here, ma’am,” he said, scrolling to the text he’d sent Luke and passing her the phone. “Right there. She says so, in a text.”

Margo squinted at the screen, frowning. "That’s from her phone?” she asked. “If it’s real, then that's certainly worth pursuing. How did you get it?"

Noah ducked his head to stare at the tabletop. "I can't tell you that."

Margo stopped tapping her pencil. "You can't tell me how you happened to get someone else's texts on your phone?" she asked, instantly suspicious.

"Yes ma’am.” Noah willed his voice not to waver, and he swallowed hard. His mouth was suddenly very dry. "I mean, no ma’am. It's, uh, classified."

"Classified?" Margo scoffed, her face settling in a hard line. "I don't have time to deal with games right now, Luke, and Maddie, and... Noah, was it?” Noah nodded. “So you’ve gone off, half-cocked, and taken this into your own hands. God forbid you should let trained professionals of the law handle this.”

Luke rose out of his chair, palms flat on the desk, ready to argue on Noah’s behalf, but Maddie stilled him with a hand on his shoulder. “Luke,” she whispered, and he sat back down. Noah should have felt empowered by Luke’s support. Instead, it just reminded him how much he still hadn’t told him.

“I wouldn’t believe me either, actually,” Noah said. “But, uh…” He removed the USB drive from his pocket and held it up. “Can I use your computer, ma’am?"

Margo narrowed her eyes. “What’s that?”

"It's everything you need to prosecute Cleo and prove intent. It's all on here. Just let me use one of your computers and I can provide the evidence, her texts, everything." When Margo stared at him, considering, Noah added, "Please."

Margo held out her hand. “I’ll give it to our techs,” she said.

"Uh." Noah hesitated. “Actually, ma’am, I have to be the one to do it.”

“I’m not letting some teenager touch police property.” Margo looked affronted. “I don’t know where you came from, but that’s not how we do things in Oakdale. If you’re not going to take this seriously, I’m going to get the other officers to come in here and—”

She had left him with no choice. Heart pounding in his chest, Noah fished his NSA I.D. badge out from underneath his shirt and handed it over to Margo.

"Noah?" Maddie asked, sounding more confused than she had been all day. "What's that?"

Luke just stared, silent, his eyes burning into Noah.

To her credit, Margo immediately snapped to attention. “Is that… what I think it is?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.” Noah tried to cover his fresh rush of nerves by sitting ramrod straight. He had never pulled rank before—never had reason to, wasn’t even sure if he was allowed to—but it was his only option.

“Then we’d better continue this conversation in my office.” Margo clicked off the tape recorder and rose out of her chair, indicating for Noah to accompany her.

Luke got out of his chair too, but Margo stopped him and told him to wait until they returned. Glowering, he sat down, eyes never leaving Noah’s.

Noah paused in the doorway, staring at the hurt and confusion written on their faces. “Luke,” he started. “Maddie. I-”

“Save it,” Luke said brusquely. “You can talk to us after you tell Margo, and get Jade the hell out of here.”

Noah knew that couldn’t happen, that he couldn’t safely talk to Luke or Maddie. The safest thing to do—for himself, and for Luke and Maddie, hell, maybe even the whole town of Oakdale, Illinois—was to keep his NSA identity secret. He had already revealed himself to Margo, but maybe, maybe, if he could convince her of the top-secret nature of the information, and if he could make damn sure that she never got her hands on the USB drive, then the whole situation could be contained. Luke and Maddie would never have to know, and Noah could leave their lives as quickly as he had entered.

Only…

He really, really didn’t want to.

But it was his job. He had made a pledge to protect the country, and nothing—not even Luke Snyder—could take priority.

“I’m sorry,” he said. The words didn’t go far enough. He was sorry for everything – for putting them in this situation, for having to keep the secret from them, but mostly for himself. His heart clawed at his insides, and the space between them felt like a gulf wider than the 8x10 room itself. Noah had screwed everything up. If he’d been more careful from the start, if he hadn’t broken the law, if he hadn’t been reckless and irresponsible enough to let his personal feelings get in the way of doing his job… But there was no use dwelling on it now. His father always said you couldn’t change a situation, only accept it. Stick it out. It was time Noah took responsibility for his actions.

“Just go, Noah,” Luke urged, gesturing towards the door. “You’re wasting time.”

Margo was tapping her feet in the hallway, waiting for Noah to catch up, and he left the interrogation room. They wove their way through the crowded station, dodging desks and officers, and Noah couldn’t help but feel like every eye was on him.

When they reached her office, Margo indicated he should have a seat and she closed the door behind her. “N. Mayer,” she said, reading from the ID card clutched firmly in her hand. “National Security Agency. Top Secret.” She handed it back to him, and he tucked it into a back pocket. “What’s the federal government doing in Oakdale?”

“It’s not,” Noah said, desperately wishing he could just hand over the evidence and exit her office already. The more time he spent here, the harder it would be to leave. “I mean, I’m not part of an official investigation. This is a…” Huge mistake. Life-ruining error. Go-to-jail-do-not-pass-Go-do-not-collect-$200 risk. “…special circumstance.”

But even a small-town cop could tell his response raised more questions than it answered. “Special circumstance?” Margo repeated. “Jade and Will and Cleo, they’re a special circumstance?”

“Just Cleo. We came across some intelligence. And I acted on that intelligence.” In the stupidest way possible.

“This… intelligence.” Margo paused after the word, like she couldn’t believe she was even saying it in the first place. Noah had a fleeting moment of panic—would she figure out that he was a fraud, that he was nowhere near as official as he was trying to sound?—but her face was deliberately blank. “You’re talking about her phone records? Her text messages?”

Noah held up the USB drive. “If I could use your computer, ma’am? Everything is on here.”

Margo gave him a stiff nod, and Noah fumbled to insert the USB drive and launch XKeyscore, conscious of her eyes on him the whole time. The program took ages to load. “I don’t think I need to tell you this, ma’am,” he said, simply for something to do as the progress bar crawled across the screen, “but this is highly sensitive government property. I’m going to have to ask you to keep everything classified. And to not look at the monitor.”

Margo sat up straighter, her curiosity and newfound respect evident in her posture. “Of course, whatever you need to do,” she said. “The Oakdale PD is at your disposal.”

When the program finally loaded a torturous minute later, Noah immediately brought up Cleo’s case file on the home screen. He noticed that Luke’s case file was flashing an alert, indicating his phone was currently in use. Luke was probably texting his family, letting them know he was safe. Hopefully he wasn’t reporting Noah to the President. Not like that was even possible… right? Noah X’d out of the pop-up then maximized Cleo’s file and started scrolling through the SMS data.

“A program like this seems pretty useful,” Margo began. Noah could tell it was driving her crazy to have to look at her desk from the other side. “Something like that would be nice to have here at the station. You’re probably not surprised to hear it, considering the welcome you got, but Oakdale’s not as sleepy as it might appear.” She gestured to the mountain of paperwork perched precariously on the edge of her desk. “Sometimes it seems like there’s more criminals than cops in this town.”

What a ringing endorsement for Oakdale, Noah thought; Margo should work for their tourist information board.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he replied, not remotely sorry at all. He didn’t want to think about how NSA tools could be exploited by the public. And he ignored the fact that, up until a few months ago, he himself was part of that ‘public’. He pushed those thoughts aside; now wasn’t the time for another moral dilemma over his job. “Government business. Classified.” He shot her his most officious smile, and Margo responded with an understanding half-shrug.

“Can’t blame me for trying,” she said. “And if I can ask. Luke and Maddie. How do you know them? Do they know about—” She made a rolling motion with her hand to indicate top-secret National Security Agency analyst job.

Noah turned back to the screen and continued right-clicking to strip the metadata out of the files; the last thing he needed was to provide the Oakdale police department with printouts that implicated the source as “N. Mayer” of the NSA. “Not if I can help it, ma’am,” he said, eyes fixed on his task. If he met her gaze, he was sure he’d lose his nerve. “Again, this is high-level government business, and I know we at the Agency would appreciate your discretion in this manner. I’m going to have to ask you never discuss outside this office the sensitive material you’ve been privy to here.” He found himself speaking like he was reading from the training handbook. ‘We at the Agency’? He’d never sounded so pompous in his life.

“Of course. I understand.” The printer whirred to life behind Noah, and Margo had to stop herself from walking over to collect the pages that were filling up the tray. “How long are you in town for?” Her tone was casual, but Noah knew there was intent behind the question. He admired her persistence; if he were in her position, he wouldn’t let himself get away with being this mysterious. He just wished she could go be persistent with someone else.

“I’m not sure, ma’am.” That was true enough. It would depend on how long Noah could spend time in Luke’s presence before Luke demanded to hear the truth. So, not very long. “But I should get back to Chicago as soon as possible.” Noah printed the last of the texts, exited XKeyscore, and returned the USB to his pocket before scrambling out of the chair. He left the documents on the printer tray. Somehow it felt like touching them—the tangible evidence of his law-breaking—would make everything worse. Margo could deal with the papers later, once Noah was long gone from Oakdale and it was his word against hers.

Margo settled into her chair as Noah paused in her doorway. “So here’s the deal," she said. "We'll have to send your statements over to the D.A.’s office. I’m not sure if you'll be called for trial or not, but keep yourself available.” She started shuffling some papers on her desk, and held up a file folder. “But you can go back to Luke and tell him that Jade will be released as soon as I complete this form.”

“Yes, ma’am. I will.” At least there’d be some good news for him to leave Luke with: Sorry, but you can’t tell anyone about what you saw here. Because you didn’t see anything. Because I’m just some low-level government employee and this is the last time we’ll be in touch and if you knew the truth you’d hate me forever, plus if anyone found out what I did here I’d spend the rest of my life in jail, and the government could go after you, too. But hey, at least your cousin can come home!

Noah made his way back to the interrogation room, heart thudding loudly in his chest. He removed the ID card from his pocket and looped the lanyard back over his neck and under his shirt. The fabric chafed against his skin, and the hard edges of the laminated card dug into his chest. He’d been wearing the same security pass for three months, but he’d never been so keenly aware of the badge until this moment. He hadn’t felt the weight of it—literal or metaphorical—since he had left Chicago that afternoon. It had never even occurred to him. But now it felt like more than just plastic and paper; it felt like a rock, dragging him down, choking him, and there was nothing he could do to catch his breath.

As he approached, Noah could see through the interrogation room window that Luke was pacing back and forth while Maddie stayed seated in a chair. Maddie, ever rational, was obviously trying to talk some calm into him, and it was just as obvious that Luke wasn’t listening.

When Noah opened the door, Luke stopped in his tracks. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “Are they letting Jade go?”

Noah cleared his throat, painfully aware that this was the last time Luke would ever be excited to see him. “Yeah. I just talked with Margo. She’s working on the paperwork now.”

“That’s great!” Maddie sprang out of her chair to shake Noah’s hand. “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done here,” she said. “I know I speak for the both of us when I say that we’re still not quite sure what you’re doing here, exactly, but we’re glad you came.”

“Um.” Noah locked eyes with a glowering Luke. “You’re welcome. But I really have to be going now—”

“Not so fast,” Luke interrupted. “We need to talk, Noah.”

Maddie looked between the two of them. “Annnnnnd that’s my cue to leave,” she said. “I’m going to go check on Will and Gwen, make sure they’re not too shaken up.”

Noah was conflicted. He didn’t want Maddie to leave—she could have been a buffer between himself and Luke’s intensity—but her departure saved him from having to lie to two people at once. Lying to Luke was going to be hard enough.

“Yeah, Maddie, you should go see them,” Luke said, eyes never leaving Noah’s. “We’re fine here.”

“If you’re sure?” Maddie asked, looking between Luke and Noah. Noah could tell she was curious about what was going to happen, but she also knew enough to leave them their privacy. She stopped in the doorway. “I’m just going to close the door behind me,” she announced, raising her hands in a gesture of innocence, “and when I come back, you two better have worked things out. Because someone needs to start telling the truth around here.” She shut the door.

“The truth,” Luke muttered. “Yeah, like that’s ever helped anyone in this place. Just look at what happened to Jade.”

“The American justice system is fair and impartial,” Noah said, without thinking. He realized he was parroting one of his military history textbooks; his father would be proud.

Luke gave him a curious look, like he knew Noah was repeating a line from somewhere. “Whatever,” he said finally. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten, from back in the truck? You gave me full permission to kick your ass if you didn’t talk. And since this is exactly the worst place for me to get arrested for assault, maybe we should talk instead.”

Noah broke eye contact. He’d never realized how fascinating the table was before now. “There’s really nothing to talk about."

“But I feel like there is something to—"

“Whatever you think happened?” Noah interrupted. “Didn’t.”

Noah knew Luke was used to getting his way. Hell, it took everything Noah had not to let Luke have his way with him right then and there; he wanted nothing more than to confess everything and skip ahead to the part where they made up with lips and hands, right there in the Oakdale police station. But Noah also knew it would never happen. His job was too important, the secrecy clause in his contract too binding, the U.S. government too powerful. And Noah needed to remember that.

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Noah forced himself to shrug. “I’m not… I'm not NSA!”

There was a pause, and Luke’s eyes lit up. “I never said that you were.”

Noah’s stomach crashed to the floor. He was caught. It became harder to breathe, and he wanted to run, to get out of the interrogation room and rush past the cops and get into his car and just drive.

Luke leaned back and crossed his arms. “What are you hiding, Noah?”

Noah backed up, shuffling towards the closed door. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing. It was a mistake. I never should have come here. I never should have met you. I’m sorry.”

“Wait,” Luke called out, and he grabbed Noah’s arm, halting him in his tracks. Noah could feel the warmth of Luke’s fingers through his shirt, burning his skin, pulling him impossibly closer. “Noah.” Luke’s voice was soft. “About earlier. Back there, in the truck, when you said you had something to tell me? What were you going to say?”

“Nothing,” Noah lied. They were close enough that he could feel Luke’s breath on his cheek when the other boy exhaled.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me the truth, Noah. What’s going on?”

Noah didn’t want to be here. He wanted Luke, of course; he didn’t even pretend not to want Luke, and against all odds, Luke—impossible, wonderful Luke—wanted him too. But there wasn’t a place for Noah here, not after what he was about to reveal.

Noah didn’t belong in Oakdale. Noah had never belonged anywhere: not Ford Ord, where he was born, or Ford Hood, where his father was waiting for him, or any of the bases and cities and states in between. Not even Chicago, with its lonely apartment and crowded streets and its morally-dubious job. He was always running away, never towards. And now Noah was going to have to run again.

He focused on the buzz of the overhead lights, the hum of station noise that bled through the walls. “I’ve—” His voice cracked, and he swallowed and tried again. “I’vebeenspyingonyou.” He said it so quietly and so rushed he wasn’t sure Luke could even hear.

“What was that?”

“I said…” He took a deep breath. “I said, I’ve been spying on you.”

“That’s what I thought,” Luke replied.

Noah closed his eyes and braced himself for the full extent of Luke's anger. But instead, Luke continued, “Although I’m not sure ‘spying’ is the right word. I mean, it was a public blog. I guess I should just be glad anyone read it at all.”

“What?” Noah was utterly lost.

Luke laughed, and Noah wasn't sure what reaction he'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't that. “No one reads my blog," Luke said. "Like, no one. Well, my dad once. But that was a mistake, and I had a really embarrassing password, and that’s beside the point.” He made a face. “Anyway. You read it. I took it as a compliment.”

“So you knew the whole time?” Noah asked. “When I showed up… you knew who I was?”

“Yeah. And Maddie did, too. I don’t keep secrets from my friends.” He gave Noah a pointed look before he shrugged. “And? If we’re doing a whole, I don’t know, confession, thing now? I may or may not have Googled you, too.”

“You Googled me?” Noah repeated. If Luke had cyber-stalked Noah, too, then maybe what Noah had done wasn’t so bad after all.

“Oh, hell yeah. Somebody starts reading my blog and isn’t immediately scared off by everything? Obviously there’s gotta be something wrong with them!” Then Luke visibly cringed, face scrunching up in adorable embarrassment before quickly adding “Not that there’s anything wrong with you! I mean. I didn’t find anything weird, or bad, or whatever. Just...” He let out a dramatic sigh. “You used your real name for your IMDB account. And I’m not sure how to feel about someone who didn’t like Mamma Mia.”

Noah barked out a laugh. “Because it was terrible!” he retorted. He didn’t even have time to think about how completely inappropriate banter was at this time. “Pierce Brosnan was completely miscast.”

“You take that back,” Luke demanded. “Pierce Brosnan is amazing at everything he does!”

“Not at singing, obviously!”

“Oh, what, like you could do better?”

“No, but I wasn’t paid millions of dollars to duet with Meryl Streep!”

“Just wait until karaoke night at Crash,” Luke crowed, “then maybe you’ll have more respect for the craft!”

Noah matched Luke’s grin, and they stayed like that, just staring, for a brief moment. Then Luke seemed to remember where he was, and his smile faded as he continued, “And speaking of being paid to do things… The NSA job? That was new to me. I figured you were maybe, like, one of those NCIS guys like on TV. The kind who drive around solving crimes? But NSA. That’s… different.” He wrinkled his nose as a thought struck him: “Hey. Maybe you know my grandmother?”

“Uh, not personally, no,” Noah said. Of course he remembered her from the phone calls—how could he forget the dulcet tones of hurricane Lucinda Walsh?—but he didn’t want to say that. It was already overwhelming how easily Luke was taking the cyber-stalking confession; it would be asking too much for Luke to react equally kindly to the inevitable reveal about the wiretapping, too. “Why? Does she work for the agency?” It seemed surreal to even be talking to someone about his job—and talking to Luke, of all people.

“Not exactly, no. Her company, WorldWide, they’re doing some big thing about the NSA right now.”

Noah’s skin prickled, instantly on high alert. “What kind of thing?” he asked. The name ‘Thomas Drake’ popped unbidden into his mind, and there was a sour taste at the back of his throat. “What’s she doing with us?”

‘Us’?” Luke almost laughed, until he noticed Noah’s serious expression and realized he wasn’t kidding. “I don’t know a lot about it. It’s an exposé. Something about corruption, I think. Wiretapping. Civil liberties violations. I don’t know, I’m not really involved in it. Why?” Luke’s eyes narrowed as a thought struck him: “Are you involved with that?” He dropped his hand from Noah’s arm and took a step back.

Noah’s stomach turned to acid. Lucinda was investigating wire-tapping? Civil liberty violations? Exposing the government?

What Noah did at the NSA was legal. Maybe not the most ethically sound, but definitely legal. It had to be. It was just like back in his cubicle, where he wrestled with the same issues day after day; only here, he was almost 300 miles from the office and he still couldn’t escape the questions. His gut roiled, and he swallowed hard. “I’m anti-terrorism,” he said. Like that answered the question.

“Who isn’t?” Luke replied, frowning in confusion at Noah’s unhelpful reveal. “And that’s why your computers knew about Cleo? Because she was a terrorist?”

This was it. Now or never (although again, Noah would really have preferred never). “Not quite,” he said. “It was because of your text, actually.”

My text?” Luke asked, incredulous. “What did I do?”

Noah explained the situation: everything about Xkeyscore, flagged keywords, the pop-up alert, and his relief and confusion when he found himself reading texts that sounded more a soap opera plot than a terrorist one.

Luke took the information in stride. “And you found my blog because, what, you wanted to know how it all ended?” To Noah’s immense relief, he didn’t sound angry, just curious.

“Yeah?” It came out as a question.

Luke scrunched up his face, considering. “That’s… kind of creepy.”

Noah hung his head. That wasn’t news to him. “I know. I’m sorry. But there’s more I haven’t told you.” He couldn’t bring himself to look Luke in the eyes as he told him about listening in on his calls; when he reached his final confession, about the dark time he’d scanned Luke’s inbox, he glanced up, and instantly regretted it.

Luke’s lips were curled in a scowl, and he took a step back. “You wiretapped me?” he asked, voice tight. “You wiretapped me?

Noah winced, trying to flatten himself against the door behind him. “Yes.”

“This is insane,” Luke declared, more to himself than Noah. His hands balled into fists at his sides. “What the hell did you do that for?”

“I- I don’t know,” Noah stammered. After an unusually promising start, things were now going exactly as badly as he’d first expected. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking, it just happened and—”

“It just 'happened'? You just 'happened' to start an NSA case file on me? What, did you click the wrong button? ‘Oops, I accidentally started wiretapping a stranger. Better keep doing it.’”

“It’s- it’s not like that,” Noah said, hating how pathetic he sounded. “I don’t know, I was- I was dealing with some stuff, and—”

“‘Stuff’?” Luke snorted. “We all have ‘stuff’, Noah! But somehow the rest of us manage to cope without spying on other people!”

“I was going to stop it, today, I promise, but—”

“Oh, you were going to stop. Because that really makes me feel better.” Luke stomped off to the other side of the room, arms spread wide. “When were you going to tell me about it, Noah?”

Noah fought to keep his voice even. He deserved this. “I wasn’t,” he said stiffly.

But Luke was just ramping up. “So you were just going to see how long you could get away with your, your, your cryptic statements and your secret insider knowledge of Cleo’s phone? Did you think I was stupid? Were you just laughing at us the whole time?”

“No!” Noah protested. His heart ached. Is that what Luke really thought of him?

“But you weren’t going to tell me, right?”

A pause, and the truth was heavy on Noah's tongue. “No."

“So why, Noah? Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

He swallowed, not able to meet Luke’s eyes. “It was for your own good.”

No,” Luke said, and Noah felt the word like a punch in the gut, “no, that’s bull, Noah. And you know it. There’s something you’re not telling me. What are you not telling me?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Noah pleaded. “I was going to stop today, I was, but then the Cleo thing happened, and—”

“The Cleo thing,” Luke echoed. His eyes still blazed fire, but the fight seemed to fade from him, just a little bit. “And then you drove all the way here to come to our rescue.”

Noah gave a hesitant nod. "Yes."

“And if you hadn’t come here,” Luke said slowly, “Cleo would have killed us by now.”

Noah didn’t want to nod again, so he stayed silent.

“Okay,” Luke said. “Okay. So you saved us. And maybe I’ll thank you for that someday – but not right now, because that’s still really, really messed up.” He squared his shoulders, peering at Noah through his bangs. “You know that, right?"

Noah gulped. "Yeah. I do." He clung to the fact that Luke had said ‘someday’, like maybe Luke hadn’t given up on him yet.

“Is it something you do a lot?” Luke asked. There was still venom in his voice, but Noah felt like maybe the worst of Luke’s rage was over. “Spy on random strangers?”

“No, no, it’s not like that.” Noah stumbled over his words in his rush to defend himself; he had to make Luke understand. “My job—”

“Right. Your job. Your job that has you spy on people. Your job that were you never going to tell me about.”

Noah bit his lip. “Because I couldn’t.”

“You couldn’t,” Luke repeated. “Why not?”

Noah felt his shoulders tense as he wracked his brain for a way to avoid giving a direct answer. It was a matter of protecting Luke, too. “Maybe because I knew you’d react like this.”

“Of course I’d react like this!” Luke snapped. “You just said you wiretapped me. How else did you think I’d react?”

“How am I supposed to know how you’d react to anything?” Noah asked, voice rising. “I’d just met you, and you wanted me to come right out and tell you everything from the very start?”

“Yes! Yes, Noah! That’s exactly what I wanted!”

“Then that would have required you saying more than two words to me when I first got here!” Noah shot back. Now it was his turn to go on the offensive. “You knew all along, when I first showed up at WOAK, you knew everything about me—”

“Not everything, obviously—”

“—and you treated me like crap! You didn’t exactly go out of your way to make me feel welcome. You were angry, then you weren’t, then you ignored me, then you kissed me. Make up your mind, Luke!”

“I didn’t kiss you, we kissed each other!” Luke threw up his hands. “And maybe some of us want the guy they like to be honest with them. To be honest about what they’re doing. And you weren’t, Noah! You lied to me.”

“I didn’t lie—”

“Well it’s not like you told the truth!”

“I’m telling you now!”

“Yeah, after you had no choice! Why weren’t you going to tell me, Noah?”

It must have been something in Luke's face, or his voice, or just in the intense way his eyes were locked on Noah in that moment... but whatever it was, it finally fractured Noah's defences, broke through the emotional dam he'd built to hold back the summer’s worth of insecurity and frustration and fear, and the emotions flooded through him as he blurted out “Because I can’t tell anyone!” The words were falling from Noah's mouth faster than he could stop them: “Not even my own father! There are rules against it. It’s illegal, Luke. I gave them my word. I signed a contract. I can’t tell people what I’m doing, what the NSA’s doing. It’s a matter of national security. No matter how much I wish I could.”

Luke frowned. “You wish you could?” His tone had changed from irritation to something else, something softer. It reminded Noah of when the Colonel taught him how to avoid spooking the wild animals they encountered in the woods on their camping trips. Only here Noah was the deer. “Noah, if you’re not happy with your job, if it forces you to do things you don’t want to do—”

“I don’t have a choice!” Noah fired back. “That’s just the way things are.” All the things he hadn’t said, all the things he’d thought and had tried to ignore, they weren’t just bubbling up to the surface, they were pouring out of him in a tidal wave of guilt and anger. Luke just didn’t understand. No one ever could.

“But that’s not the way they have to be, Noah,” Luke urged. “This isn’t just happening to me – it’s happening to other people. Innocent people.” He blew out a breath, looking at Noah with wide, imploring eyes. “I can’t believe this is going on. You have to do something about it, you have to change this.”

“Change?” Noah scoffed. “Change how? Things don’t change, Luke. You just have to accept them. You just have to do your duty and serve your country and make the best of it.” He sounded like his father.

Luke noticed it too. “That doesn’t sound like you talking.”

“Well it is! Why can’t what I’m saying be what I’m saying?”

“It sounds like you’re reading from a manual or something, Noah, if you’re not happy there, you have to leave. Talk to my grandmother, she—”

“I’m happy!” Noah interrupted. “I- I am. Things are good. Everything’s fine.” If he said it enough, maybe it would be true.

Luke narrowed his eyes. “Everything’s fine?”

“Yes.”

“Working for the government, doing things you can't tell anyone else about? That’s fine?”

“Yes.”

“Spying on ordinary people. Listening to their phone calls. Reading their emails.”

Noah didn’t respond. He couldn’t. The “yes” wouldn’t leave his mouth; his throat had closed up, his tongue had stopped working. There was still one confession that he held back, the last secret he hadn't yet revealed, and if he could tuck it away, keep it safe behind his shattered defences, if he could rebuild the dam, but stronger this time, make it able to withstand everything—

“Noah?” Luke prompted. “I asked if you think that’s okay.”

—everything except Luke. Noah felt the heat of the final confession burning in his chest, and he a took a step forward, a kaleidoscope of anger and confusion and guilt fueling his words. “What do you want me to say, Luke? That it’s easy? That I like spying on other people’s personal lives? That I think it’s the right thing to do? Because I know it’s not!”

Noah had never shouted at anyone like that before. He didn't even know he was capable of it.

Luke looked as stunned as Noah felt, but he recovered quickly. “Then we have to do something about it," he insisted. "What they’re making you do, it’s not right, Noah. They’re breaking the law, the Constitution. My grandmother—”

No.

“It doesn’t matter," Noah stated flatly. He regretted everything he’d just said. There was something about Luke that made him act impulsively, that made him say the wrong thing and reveal too much, that was capable of destroying in a single afternoon all the barriers Noah had worked so hard and so long to put up. It wasn’t Noah’s place to question the government, or his NSA superiors. Or his father. “I have a job to do. We’re keeping the country safe.” He paused, his voice getting small as Luke's words finally sunk in. “I… I just don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“But you are,” Luke said, not unkindly. “What you’re doing. It’s hurting people. Intentionally or not.”

Noah shook his head. “I can control it.” He put every ounce of strength he had into his words, trying to convince himself as much as Luke. “I- I will control it.”

Luke’s eyes softened. “Oh, no, you don’t—” He took a step towards Noah, hand outstretched, but Noah backed up against the door. Luke lowered his hand. “Look, I’m just trying to be your… I don’t know. Your friend?”

Noah didn’t need his pity. He just needed his silence. “Then be my friend." He hoped that wasn’t too much to ask for; he knew he’d lost the potential for ‘boyfriend’ as soon as he had revealed his I.D. badge. But maybe Luke could give him this one small thing. “Don’t tell Maddie about this. Don’t tell anyone. Let me live my life my way.”

“I can’t pretend this isn’t happening, Noah. It’s not just your life we’re talking about.” Luke wrung his lands, looking like he’d fall apart if he didn’t punctuate his words with motion. “If you feel that way, that's your call. But I'm just trying to get you to—”

“To do what?” Noah challenged. “Become a whistleblower? Tell everything to your grandmother? Do whatever you want me to do?”

“No!” Luke went wide-eyed, offended. “To do the only thing that's going to work. Look, Noah, if you were happy working there, if this wiretapping hadn’t been going on, if I was completely clueless – that would be one thing. But right now it's like this, this, this war that's never going to end, and—”

“That's not true!” But Noah knew it was.

Yes, it is! And I just want you to realize—”

Noah was afraid he’d end up pleading, so his words came out harsher than he intended. “Just stay out of it,” he snapped. “Even knowing about it puts you at risk.”

“But what about what it’s doing to you?”

Luke’s voice cracked on the last word, and Noah had to stop himself from reaching out, from giving into the kindness he was being offered against all odds. But no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t. Noah shook his head instead, straightened his spine. “Doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me.”

Noah scoffed. “Yeah, right, like you…” He trailed off, unable to finish the sentence, unable to hear himself over the sound of the blood rushing through his veins.

“Yeah.” Luke’s words were hesitant, but he didn’t break eye contact. “Like, for whatever reason, I still really care about you.”

“I…” Noah was at a loss for words. After everything that they’d been through, even after all the horrible things Noah had done and said, Luke was still looking at him like… Like what?

Like he forgave him.

Like he accepted him.

Like he… liked him.

And maybe that was enough.

Luke had more than broken through Noah's defences, he had annihilated them without even trying, and now Noah was open and exposed and vulnerable; there was nothing left for him to hide behind anymore, nothing left for him to say but the truth. His swallowed once, twice. “Luke," he said. "Same here.”

Then Luke smiled, genuine and bright, and Noah's heart soared as he basked in the warmth of its glow. At the back of his mind, he knew that he had things to sort out, his job and his father and everything else, but that all faded into the background when Luke was staring up at him like sunshine breaking through clouds.

“Good,” Luke said, cheeks dimpling. “Good.”

“Yeah,” Noah agreed, instantly emboldened, “good,” and he reached out to hook his fingers in Luke’s belt loops and pull the other boy against him until their hips were pressed together. “Really good.”

Luke let out a soft whine of agreement before his hands were tangled in Noah’s hair and Noah’s lips were on his lips and Luke’s knee was nudging Noah’s legs apart, and Noah was quite enjoying being trapped between a door and an impatient Luke Snyder... until the door rattled as someone knocked on the other side and called out, “Luke? Noah?”

It was Maddie.

Of course it was Maddie.

“Oh my God,” Luke laughed quietly into Noah’s mouth. Noah groaned. This girl had the absolute worst timing.

“Maddie,” Luke replied, tone straining for friendliness but mixed with obvious frustration, “Noah and I were just talking, and ohmygod—" Luke gasped as Noah's lips found that spot on his neck, "—and, fuck, uh, we’re gonna need a few more minutes.”

"I'm really glad you two are making progress," Maddie said fondly, “but you know everyone can see you, right?”

Noah’s eyes went wide as he pulled back. “Wait, what?”

There was the sound of fingers tapping on glass, and Luke and Noah whipped around to find the source: the window of the interrogation room. The window which they had entirely forgotten about. Everyone in the lobby had a clear view of Luke and Noah, who, in turn, had a clear view of Gwen waving, and Will giving a thumbs-up, and a girl Noah recognized as Jade pressing her nose right up to the glass. “Why’d you stop?” Jade hollered. “You two are hot!”

“Oh my God,” Luke said, pressing his forehead against Noah’s. “Is it too late to pretend they didn’t see anything?”

“Probably,” Noah replied, his heart thudding from nerves and his cheeks flushed with embarrassment, but feeling inexplicably freer than he had in a long time. “We could always run away to Chicago, change our names, they’d never find us.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Luke muttered, and Noah laughed.

“Whenever you two are done,” Maddie chirped, just the slightest hint of smugness in her voice, “Margo says we’re all free to go.”

Luke rolled his eyes as he stepped back to fix his hair, but smirked when he caught Noah turning away from the window to adjust himself. “Need a hand?” he offered lightly.

“In front of your family and friends, no thanks,” Noah shot back, before adding, with a smirk of his own, “unless you’re into that?”

“God, no!” Luke exclaimed, making a face, and his laugh was cut short by Jade exclaiming indignantly, “Luke Snyder, get out here right now and introduce me to your boyfriend!”

Noah was prepared to echo “Boyfriend?” to Luke, to test the water and see if the other boy was as secretly pleased as he was, but Jade continued, “And I need to go home and shower, and Lucinda's on her way over and you know I can't deal with her right now, and you owe me a milkshake, because the food here is awful and I’ll never complain about Lily’s cooking again and—”

Noah froze, the rest of Jade’s words fading out as one name echoed in his head: Lucinda. Lucinda was on her way. But Luke instantly noticed the change in him, and he rushed forward to grab his hand. “Noah, Noah, hey, hey, we’re going to figure this out, okay? You’re going to be fine.”

“My job—” Noah started. “The government. What I did, today, here…” His voice wavered, and he gulped. “…it’s treason, and I can’t get you involved in this, I did it, not you, and—”

“No,” Luke said firmly, “no, stop it, Noah. We’re going to fix this.”

If it had been anyone else standing there, anyone else telling Noah that everything was going to be fine, he wouldn’t have believed them. But this was Luke Snyder, who had already saved his life once today. If anyone could do it again, it was him.

“We’ll talk to my grandmother,” Luke continued at a rapidfire pace, “and my parents, and they know people, I know they do. And Margo, of course. The entire police force. And Oakdale, everyone in Oakdale, we’re not going to let anything happen to you.” He paused for breath. “You saved us, Noah.”

Noah shrugged, but didn’t pull away from Luke's warm and reassuring presence. But it couldn’t be this simple. Nothing ever was. “That’s not the point, Luke,” he protested, “I—”

“No, you did, Noah, you really did, you risked your life to come here and stop Cleo, and, okay, yeah,” Luke grimaced, “the way you found out about it wasn’t great—”

Noah winced—the remark stung, like Luke had intended, and he was sure this would be a wound on his conscience that would never heal—but then Luke raised an eyebrow and added playfully, “But that just means you have a lot of things to make up to me.”

Oh. This side of Luke, the angry-then-flirty side, Noah could definitely handle. “I do, do I?” he murmured.

“Yeah,” Luke said, nodding emphatically. “Yeah. And I have lots of ideas for how.” There was a pause, and they could hear Jade yelling at them to hurry up because she was “literally starving”, which, even as charged-up as Luke and Noah were, was a real mood-ruiner. Luke gave Noah a tiny smile before adding, “But first, let’s get out of here? Before Jade kills us?”

Noah returned the smile. “Right,” he replied as he turned around to open the door. “It would be pretty pointless if I came all this way to Oakdale and then let you get murdered by your cousin.”

Luke laughed all the way into the lobby.

+++++

In the end, Noah didn’t get fired. He didn’t even get caught. Once he and Luke had explained the whole situation to Lucinda over milkshakes at Al’s (Noah wasn’t sure that a crowded diner was the best place to have such a secretive conversation, but Lucinda assured the boys that in Oakdale nothing was overheard unless it was intended to be), she agreed to help Noah on the condition that he assist her company’s investigation into the NSA – a condition he readily, and happily, accepted.

“I’ll do my best, ma’am,” he promised, “but I’m not sure how much help I can be. I wasn’t exactly a model employee.”

“What,” Luke teased, eyes lighting up, “NSA agents aren’t supposed to stop small-town murder plots and then become romantically involved with one of the potential victims? That wasn’t in the handbook?”

“No,” Noah grinned back, “that wasn’t in the handbook.”

“Well, I’d certainly hope not!” Lucinda declared, the amused quirk of her mouth belying her serious tone. “But I know we would certainly be interested in taking a look at the employee handbook, to start with…”

++++++

Their conversation lasted hours. Noah listened eagerly as Lucinda explained the details of WorldWide’s investigations into government overreach and civil rights violations, and Noah in turn answered her questions about the daily operations of the Chicago headquarters and took notes on what PRISM files he needed to sneak out of the building.

(“Luke,” Lucinda said after Noah had finished reciting the extensive list of the departments he could access, “I like this young man of yours. So polite, so intelligent.”

Luke beamed as Noah let out a shy, “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Yes,” Lucinda continued, “he’s going to be so much more useful than Edward.”

“Wait, Hawaii Edward?” Noah blurted. The words had left his mouth before he could stop himself.

“How do you know—” Recognition dawned on Luke’s face, and his expression clouded. “Oh. Right. The wiretapping.”

“So you heard all about my magnificent plans to set up my grandson?” Lucinda couldn’t hide her smile. “I admit, I am glad he didn’t take me up on the offer.”

“No,” Luke declared, shaking his head, “no, I did not. Obviously I have better sense than to date an NSA whistleblower who has access to, like, my entire life.”

Noah’s face felt hot, and the milkshake in his stomach threatened to come up again. “Luke, I’m so sorry,” he mumbled, for what felt like the millionth time that night. He wasn’t sure he’d ever stop apologizing.

Luke,” Lucinda scolded. “This is hardly the time." She turned to Noah and continued, eyes softer, "Let me apologize on behalf of my grandson, I don't know why on earth he's chosen to act like—"

“Whoa, no, Grandmother, no,” Luke sputtered, panicked. “Noah. Noah, look at me. Relax. I’m kidding.”

“Not funny, Luke,” Noah grumbled. (Although watching him flounder like that had taken the sting away.) “Not funny.”

Lucinda made Luke pay for the next round of milkshakes.)

By the time they left Al's, Lucinda and her team had organized a plan for Noah to go back to work in Chicago, gather intelligence, and then report back to WorldWide’s headquarters in Illinois; with Noah’s help, her team of lawyers and researchers would finally have enough evidence to assemble their case and indict the NSA for violation of the Constitution.

Luke proposed that he accompany Noah to Chicago, “just to make sure that he’s not, you know, working with the enemy, Grandmother, that’s important.”

Noah immediately agreed that it would be a good idea, but Lucinda raised one perfectly-plucked eyebrow to ask, "Is that what you think?"

“Yes,” Luke replied, squeezing Noah’s hand under the table. “Someone has to keep an eye on him. And this case is important, and, you know, what if he can’t be trusted? So really, I’d be doing this for the American people.”

“How selfless of you,” Lucinda deadpanned.

One quick phone call to Luke’s parents later – “Oh, and don’t worry Mom, I’ll schedule a tour of the Northwestern campus while I’m there, you’re always saying I should make more of an effort to explore my college options” – and Lucinda was already informing her pilot to prepare the Walsh private jet for a morning departure to Chicago.

(During one of Lucinda’s many phone calls to her many contacts that afternoon, Luke turned to Noah, who had been concentrating on shredding his paper napkin into little bits, and asked, “Are you sure about this?”

“What,” Noah began, carefully, “you trying to make me change my mind?” This plan was the only way he could keep his job (sort of), and keep Luke. But if Luke didn’t think it was a good idea…

“No… no.” Luke swirled the base of his milkshake straw into the whipped cream topping, looking a little edge on himself. At least Noah wasn’t the only one feeling out of his depth. “I’m trying to make sure that you’re in a… a good emotional place before making a big life change.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation—Noah had just agreed to spy on a government agency that spied on people, his head was still spinning with all that he’d learned and all that he’d promised to do, and his entire life had been turned upside down in just a matter of hours—Noah couldn’t help but laugh at Luke’s earnest expression. “Have you been watching Dr. Phil?

“No!” Luke protested. “No!”

Noah raised an eyebrow, and after a second of silence Luke sheepishly held up one hand with his thumb and index finger pinched together. “A little bit,” he admitted.

But then Luke took the straw out of his milkshake to slowly suck the cream off the end, and suddenly television self-help gurus were the furthest thing from Noah’s mind.)

Noah worried the entire drive over to Luke's house, and not even Luke's constant encouragements that "you'll be fine" could keep his nerves in check. It was intimidating meeting Luke’s relatives—his parents and siblings and half-siblings and aunts and uncles and some other people who were very nice but Noah really couldn’t figure out exactly who was related to who—and Luke teased Noah that “maybe I should’ve uploaded my whole family tree on my blog, then you’d have it memorized, huh?”, which made Noah frown and look desperately for the nearest exit, but then Luke caught his nervousness and when he looked Noah in the eyes and said “Don’t worry about it, you have time to figure it out”, with a tone both serious and hopeful, Noah swallowed, and nodded, and just the knowledge that Luke was already anticipating Noah spending more time with his family, and with him, filled Noah’s body with a warmth and a surety he hadn’t felt before. And Luke was by his side the whole time, helping him tell enough of the story of the day to sound believable but leaving out anything that would jeopardize WorldWide’s entire investigation. It also helped that any of Noah’s discomfort or awkwardness paled in comparison to the enthusiasm with which everyone kept thanking him for “saving the day”. He tried to protest that Luke and Maddie had helped too, but Luke just whispered, “Nah, you can have this one, it’s only a couple murders. Just promise me I get all the credit for taking down the NSA”, and then Noah shushed him and Luke nudged him back and then they both grinned at each other, these stupid happy embarrassingly enamored grins, which caused the whole Snyder-Walsh-whoever clan to collectively coo, and then Noah was embarrassed and self-conscious all over again.

Noah didn’t have any experience with large families, much less this sort of high-stakes “meet the parents... and relatives... and half the town” buffet dinner, but Luke was bubbly and loud and funny, and, surprisingly, it balanced out Noah’s natural anxiety and anal retentiveness. He liked the person he was when he was with Luke. He was a lot more fun than the person he was in Chicago.

And starting the next day, he would find out what kind of person he was in Chicago with Luke.

(Spoiler alert: Pretty damn great.)

++++++

Lucinda’s plan worked flawlessly – of course, she would be the first to tell you that. By day, Noah worked undercover at the NSA, secretly undermining the corrupt agency at every opportunity and sneaking out key evidence about its illegal activities; by night, he and Luke explored the city and explored each other and fell asleep curled up on the couch in front of the television. (Luke had only complained twice about the accents when Noah showed him Casablanca, and in turn, Luke introduced him to “modern classics, Noah, you know, with colour and jokes and stuff”; Noah wasn’t sure he’d ever appreciate Semi-Pro to the same extent as Luke did, but he gave it a shot. And on nights when they couldn’t agree what to watch, they could always put the couch to a different purpose.)

In no time at all, WorldWide assembled their case, Noah and Edward and the other whistle-blowers testified, and the clandestine law-breaking of the PRISM initiative was exposed. The National Security Agency was indicted by the Supreme Court, and the entire program was dismantled and all records destroyed.

Overnight, Noah was hailed as an American hero, recognized for his outstanding contributions to exposing the constitutional violations of a wrong-headed agency. But while the press attention eventually died down, Noah never became entirely comfortable with his newfound fame. He reminded anyone who would listen that Maddie deserved her share of the credit, because without her, his first meeting with Luke would have gone disastrously and they might not have made it out of Cleo’s clutches alive… although they all agreed that she really needed to work on the timing of her interruptions. (Maddie, for her part, maintained that “I love you both, but for two smart guys, you’re both really stupid”, and upon hearing that, Lucinda immediately hired her as VP of Human Resources at WorldWide. Maddie was a bit of rockstar, all things considered.)

The NSA takedown was celebrated by all political parties, and while Noah appreciated the personal thank-you from the President, the best reward was the phone call from his father on the day the news broke; Noah had never heard his father cry, but on that day, Colonel Mayer could barely speak through his tears of joy, and he spent the next month proclaiming “My son’s a goddamn American hero” to anyone who would listen. When Noah told his father he was leaving public service in order to enroll in Northwestern’s film program, the Colonel gave his blessing: “You can do whatever the hell you want, son; you are relieved from your duty.”

Noah Mayer had served his country, had made his father proud, and – last but not least – had snagged a pretty cool boyfriend in the process… a pretty cool boyfriend who was now enrolling in Northwestern’s screenwriting program, moving into Noah’s apartment, and filling the empty shelves with books and sports trophies and covering every surface in a seemingly unending supply of illegible Post-It Notes and IKEA shopping lists.

So Noah wasn’t James Bond. But he wasn’t George Bailey, either. He already knew his life was pretty wonderful.

And his boyfriend was hot. Yeah, he’d wiretap that.