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Jumping before the Gunshot has Gone Off

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It’s only because of Ashton that Luke even shows up to the party. He hasn’t seen him in ages, not since he left for whatever fashion show it was that had been held halfway across the world. The last eight weeks have been nothing but random two-minute expensive phone calls at odd hours of the day and night, because halfway around the world is synonymous for a six hour time difference. He landed back in the country early this morning, covered intensively by all of the media outlets in the city except, apparently, Luke’s. He had messaged him the moment his feet touched native soil, but Luke knew better than to fight the crowds to meet him there. The cameras had begun to roll on him, anyway.

He’s fifteen minutes late. It’s a private home behind a tall fence and an arsenal of landscaping that makes it almost impossible to even glimpse the marvelous hidden house. Luke has a car drop him off right at front where Ashton’s security team ushers him through the throng of paparazzi who are desperate for an edge into the personal life of Ashton Irwin and his elite friends. The flashes of the cameras are bright in Luke’s eyes, almost blindingly so, whenever the paparazzi realize exactly who the security team is escorting through the iron gates. They don’t get much, though, because Luke’s been playing this game for almost a decade now. It’s halfway through January, and the air is icy around them. He’s got a knit hat shoved down over his ears. His blond hair curls out underneath it, but the brilliant blue scarf he’s got twisted around his neck conceals the majority of his face. They only know it’s him by process of elimination.

By the time he gets inside, his ears are ringing from all of the shouts. The door closes behind him. There’s an almost deafening silence in here as compared to the other side of the fence. He rids himself of his heavy jacket, scarf, and hat. It’s quite warm in here, and he’s still a little uneasy about the flashes from earlier. The word faggot volleys around in his head, spoken in an unfamiliar, mean voice. It’s been five years since the world discovered his secret, and nobody really cares about his sexuality anymore, for the most part. Yet, the occasional taunts are no easier to hear.

“It’s about time you showed up, Lukey,” greets Ashton, all hugs and teasing smiles. He’s beautiful, even without all of the makeup and costuming he dons as a model. His legs are long, nearly as long as Luke’s own. His hair curls around the bandana wrapped around his head. He’s wearing a white and pink suit designed by Niall that fits him in all of the right ways. Where Luke normally looks like a sore thumb in those kinds of clothes, Ashton perfectly fills them out.

“Got held up at work,” Luke says, swiping his tongue across his lip ring in a nervous habit that he really needs to break. The excuse doesn’t sound any better spoken aloud. He steps back from the hug to smile at Ashton. It slips a little at the edges, belying the guilt that Luke does actually feel about being late to the party.

“So Calum said,” he responds. “You have such late hours to be hosting a morning show.”

It’s true, but it’s the schedule he forces himself to keep when so many of his friends are out of town and not available to distract him from the errant thoughts that still creep up on him even eight years later. It’s a Thursday, and he keeps Thursdays in particular as his long days. He gets up at precisely four-thirty in the morning to make it down to the television station by five o’clock and in the presenter’s chair at half past the hour. He doesn’t host the earliest morning show for the network, but his is the most-viewed AM program—or it is supposed to be. Luke’s been checking his ratings. They haven’t been good since before Thanksgiving. His boss has noticed it, too, and Liam has been meeting more frequently with Luke to discuss ways to boost the ratings.

“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?” returns Luke.

He’s probably a little shorter with Ashton than the man actually deserves, but he’s spent too long listening to other people, namely Liam, tear him apart for being a failure of an adult. He just wants to spend this evening getting completely wasted and catching up on quality time with the friends he doesn’t get to see very often anymore. They’ll only be in the city for about a month or so before they jet off to another exotic location to be all beautiful. It should make Luke feel a little self-conscious, being friends with so many people in the fashion industry, but he’s all right with it, mostly. Once upon a time, he had considered going into the business when Ashton had opened the door for him, but he’s glad now that he didn’t. He enjoys being on-air more than he ever would on a catwalk.

The bulk of the party is in the spacious living room where there’s a vintage jukebox playing today’s greatest hits. Luke doesn’t know the song, but he sways along to the beat anyhow. He loses Ashton almost immediately to the throng of people near the entryway who want to gush over the photographs from the fashion show. They fawn over him in their sincerity, these elite friends to whom Luke introduced Ashton.

The alcohol’s in the kitchen, and Luke passes by Ashton’s coworker Harry on his way to his destination. Harry stops him with a one-armed hug. He’s clutching a flute of champagne even though Luke knows how little he actually likes the drink. It’s good to see Harry again after the two and a half months that he’s been gone. Their weekly guys’ nights out have been rather dull with just Calum as company as of late.

“How’d it go with Liam?” Harry asks in a low voice, and apparently Calum’s got a pretty big mouth. He leans closer to Luke, his wild, curly hair falling into his eyes, so that others in the room can’t as easily overhear their conversation. It’s not total privacy, of course, but it’s not exactly confidential information, either. Anybody with the bare minimum knowledge of how the Internet works can easily stumble upon the charts and graphs that show Luke’s falling ratings.

“Another meeting tomorrow afternoon,” says Luke, because that is his life. He doesn’t want to talk about his job. It’s just been a bad quarter, and, truthfully, his ratings aren’t the only ones slipping. He’ll be fine, as soon as he and Liam finally come up with something that proves he’s the right man for the job. It’s not been easy stepping into the shoes left by his predecessor.

There’s a pretty brunette standing next to Harry who is shooting glares in Luke’s direction for monopolizing Harry’s attention. Luke uses it as an excuse to avoid the rest of Harry’s questions. Really, the man’s probably got about a dozen more, and Luke only wants this one evening to himself without worrying about ratings. Liam has probably already said everything that Harry wants to say by now anyway.

In the kitchen, the party is less dense. There’s only a couple of people gathered around the center island where the drinks and finger foods are set up. Niall greets him warmly, splashing some rum into his soda. He looks tired but happy to be back in a country that speaks English. His hair is a shock of blond again, but the dark roots are starting to show through. The side of his left hand is stained with pencil lead.

“It’s good to see you,” Luke tells him, wrapping his arm around his shoulders. He has to drop his arm lower than he would if they were out in public and he were wearing his signature boots that give him an extra inch or two of height. There are no cameras here, or at least of the kind that really care whether or not a prestigious fashion designer is dressed to the nines. Niall’s barefoot in Ashton’s kitchen. It’s not something Luke would ever be comfortable doing, but Niall’s never really liked the confines of shoes.

“Was beginning to think you weren’t coming, that you’d ditched us free-spirit world travelers for your snooty high-class chums.”

Luke barks out a laugh, because he’s never heard anything so outrageous in his life. Sure, he’s got a rather large circle of friends, most of whom are very influential, but these people here tonight—these people who landed back in this country barely eighteen hours ago—are his favorite. They occupy a strange sort of place in his heart. He’s the one who brought them out of the woodwork and introduced them into this social lifestyle. He opened a world opportunities to them that would have otherwise been firmly locked shut. It’s nothing that he’ll ever tell them, because they don’t owe him a single thing, but they’re his favorite friends. They’re the people he’d never leave.

“You all can’t get rid of me that easily,” he says. “After all, who else is going to bring me ridiculously expensive and immensely useless souvenirs from all corners of the globe? I’ve started a collection, you know, at work. Just this morning, I had a viewer call in and say she was looking forward to the new addition to my shrine des mis amigos.”

Niall smiles knowingly at him. He pulls open a drawer beneath the center island, eyes never leaving those of Luke as he roots through the contents. He knows this place as well as Ashton does. They’re best friends, of course, and have virtually lived in each other’s pockets since they were ten years old. It only makes sense that Niall feels at ease in Ashton’s home in a way that neither Luke nor Harry nor any of the others at this party do.

He comes up successful in the end and tosses a crystal figurine across the island at Luke, who fumbles to catch it. Luke’s thankful he has yet to drink himself to the point beyond coordination. The figurine has a tiny sharp beak, and it pokes him in the palm, leaving a tiny indention in his skin. He grimaces as he looks down. It’s a penguin, this cheap crystal figurine. It’s got two smooth wings and a pair of flippers that protrude out from the bottom. It’s the perfect addition for his collection. He closes his fingers around it. He’s emotional all of sudden, and he just stands there with his penguin and gawks at Niall across from him.

“Ash got you a t-shirt, too,” says Niall in the thickness of the moment. He smiles brightly at him, but the wobbly nature of the corners of his lips belies the truth he knows. Penguins are Luke’s thing. The ten dollar figurine is worth more than anything else they could have gotten him. “Don’t know where that’s at.”

Luke doesn’t actually care where it’s at, not now while he’s clutching the penguin. It’ll probably be the t-shirt Ashton throws at him in the morning after he’s drank his weight in alcohol tonight but still has to wake up at the butt crack of dawn to go into work. He’ll wake Ashton up by banging through the house, trying to be quiet but too hung over to shut doors in any other manner than loudly. Ashton’ll crawl out of his bed. Dragging his duvet along with him, he’ll toss Luke the souvenir t-shirt and a pair of pants that Luke’s left here before and that have gone through his wash. It’s been a good eight weeks since this particular series of events have played out between them, and Luke’s looking forward to tomorrow morning.

Niall splashes some more rum into his soda, offering to make Luke a similar drink. Luke shakes his head, because he’s never been one to mix rum with soft drinks, especially not as potent as Niall’s specialties. Niall shrugs in response, clearly amused by Luke’s reluctance to trust his bartending skills. It’s nothing that hasn’t happened before, but it’s the first time in eight weeks. It’s nice that everything is seamlessly falling back into order after Luke’s been separated from the others for the past two and a half months.

Niall leaves Luke a couple of minutes later and takes his drink with him. Luke stares down at the penguin in his hand. It’s such a breakable little thing. It would shatter if he were to drop it right now, scatter into a thousand tiny shard of penguin glass across the ornate tiled floor at his feet. He moves closer to the island so that he can pack away the penguin into a drawer until a time when alcohol is not in his near future.

“That mug of your still losing ratings?”

The devil appears out of nowhere, and Luke most certainly does not jump at the question. He whips around to face Michael. Michael’s wearing his signature mean smirk that seems to be designed solely for Luke. He’s not as tall as Luke, having to tilt his chin ever so slightly upward in order to meet his eyes. He is a menace of a man, but even Luke, whom Michael has made it his personal mission to hate from the very first day, has to admit the attractive features he possesses. He’s got soft skin and a piercing in his eyebrow and dyed firetruck-red hair. His eyes are clear green, intense no matter the emotion behind them. He’s got the perfect body for modeling, but Luke would never tell him any of this in a million years.

“Still riding on Ashton’s coattails, are you?” returns Luke nastily, because if Michael can’t be nice to him, he can be mean right back. It’s a bit thrilling, if he’s being honest with himself. Nobody quite gets him riled up like Michael does. Luke’s a pretty easy man to get along with, and he’s never had any problem making friends until he met this particular gem of spite.

The smirk drops from Michael’s face. His eyes flash dangerously, but, otherwise, he’s blank. He studies Luke for a moment, taking in the state of his dress. Luke tries not to feel inadequate underneath the heavy gaze. He’s aware that he looks less than put together. He had run straight here from work, and the top three buttons of his shirt have been undone for the past two hours. He really is a mess of an adult, a failure at all things that should come naturally to somebody who pays his own mortgage and washes his own clothes.

“You’re standing in the way of the drinks,” says Michael finally, nodding toward the line of alcoholic beverages on the counter behind him.

Luke glances over his shoulder and notes the terrible choices in glass bottles. There’s more alcohol on the other side of the center island where Niall had poured his rum. Those are more up Michael’s aisle, and Luke wonders why Michael’s being such a little shit to him. It’s really no different than usual, considering, and Luke should be just as pissy back to him. But he isn’t, because as much as this is Ashton’s and Niall’s welcome home party, it’s also Michael’s.

He graciously steps out of the way without a biting remark or concern that Michael might not want to do birthday cake flavored vodka shots. It’s his welcome home gift to Michael, this rare nicety in the face of his meanness. But Luke has to be honest with himself: he’d quite like to see Michael’s face whenever he throws back a gulp of alcohol that tastes straight-up like a burning birthday candle.

Michael doesn’t reach for the flavored vodka. He doesn’t even move from his spot just inside of the kitchen, barely out of the reach of the swinging door that lets into the rest of the house. It doesn’t actually lead to the party, so Luke’s not really sure why Michael had come from there in the first place. He doesn’t ask.

He doesn’t want to hang around in the kitchen with just Michael as company. It’s not exactly Luke’s definition of a good time. So he grabs the nearest bottle of alcohol, splashes some into a ridiculously expensive glass and makes his way back into the throng of the party. As he’s turning the corner into the living room, he swears he sees Michael sneak out the other way, hands empty of alcohol. He doesn’t look twice to make sure.

Luke’s a people person. He always has been. He enjoys shooting bull with others as much as he enjoys learning about somebody else’s life. There’s something fascinating about hearing the different walks everybody has taken to reach this moment in time that Luke just wants to soak up every story he can. He runs into a few of Ashton’s colleagues and talks to them about the fashion show. They’re all appropriately impressed that he’s the host of the morning talk show. He pulls out every trick he knows to learn more about them. He’s rewarded with anecdotes he’d never share with the city at six in the morning. He counts it as a win.

His alcohol turns out to be bourbon. It goes down smoothly, and he barrels through it and then another and another while he talks to Ashton’s colleagues. By the time he meanders farther into the party, he’s made friends with a couple of them. He hopes he’ll remember their names tomorrow beyond the haze of alcohol currently filtering his brain so that they can meet up for the promised lunch date in a couple of weeks.

He finds Calum on the back patio. It’s fifteen degrees outside, seventeen below freezing, and he’s got a cigarette tucked between his lips. It’s much quieter out here. The privacy fence surrounding the back yard hides them away from the rest of the world and especially away from the paparazzi who are probably surrounding the entire property. All of the greenery is dead, but there’s a certain charm to the bare branches of the beautiful trees that are spread out along the property line just inside the fence.

Calum hums out a greeting. He pushes his pack of cigarettes at Luke, but Luke declines them. He hasn’t smoked in eight years, not since Rena’s funeral when the stench of stale tobacco had clung to his shoebox-sized apartment for days after she was dead and buried six feet in the ground. It was there even when the blood was gone. Luke hadn’t known Calum then, or even Ashton. He doesn’t think he’s ever told them his aversion of cigarettes. This isn’t the night to spill his deepest, darkest secret, either. It’s not something he’s ever going to let slip, even for all of the bourbon in the world.

“How’d it go with Liam?”

Luke groans, dropping into the nearby lawn chair. It’s metal, and it freezes his butt right through the fabric of his blue jeans. He’s tired of this topic already. Calum’s probably the only one out everybody who knows as much about the state of the ratings as Luke does. It’s sort of Calum’s job to keep an eye on the station.

“He’s not going to fire you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” adds Calum. He sucks on his cigarette and lets it curl in his lungs before he exhales. The smoke dances blue up into the night sky, fading into nothingness a few feet above their heads. They watch it disappear, silent for a moment in their companionship until Calum lowers his gaze to Luke. He taps the end of the cigarette against the ash tray Ashton leaves outside specifically for him. “Liam’d be damn insane to get rid of you.”

“The ratings say otherwise,” returns Luke, because it’s true. That’s what he hates the most about discussing this topic. He can say the viewers love him and that he’s transitioned easily into the big man’s chair, but he hasn’t, not according to his show’s ratings. He knows that’s what his boss cares about, because that’s what ensures the budget for the next quarter. The more people like Luke’s show, the more money the station gets. He hasn’t made them much money over the past few months.

“Fuck the ratings. Seriously, man. It’s the demographics that are skewed. I’ve crunched the numbers. You’re doing much better than Nick did in his first twelve months. Liam knows this—he was the boss back then, too.”

It doesn’t help the rumble of uselessness in the pit of Luke’s stomach. He can lie to himself all day that he’d be fine if Liam were to up and fire him for his less-than-stellar performance, but the truth of the matter is that he lives for his job. It’s really all he’s got going for him. Sure, he’s got an active social life and a nice house that meets all of his needs, but his pride and joy is this job. It’s everything he’s wanted since he was eight years old.

Calum finishes his cigarette. He crushes it in the ash tray, leaving it to smolder itself out. Luke shoulders the weight of his gaze, but he doesn’t look back at him. He stares up at the bleached purple sky. It’s on a night like this that he misses the stars. They’re not visible against the brightly lit city lights that surround Ashton’s house and makes complete darkness a vain wish.

There’s a roaring noise of chatter on the other side of the house, and somebody important must be making their leave. It’s almost imperceptible from the patio, but Luke knows what to listen for. It’s half past eleven. He’s been here for four hours already, and in another six, he’ll have to leave for the station.

“I have another meeting with Liam tomorrow afternoon. He’s thinking about—he’s thinking about switching me back to nights.”

It’s the first time Luke’s admitted this to anybody outside Liam’s of office, though the possibility has been in the air for weeks now. He doesn’t look over at Calum as he says it, or even in the aftermath of his words. He loves the morning show. It’s the most-coveted spot, and he’s worked his ass off over the past few years to host it. Eight months in, and he’s already failing. It’s a sobering thought. He longs for more bourbon to wash away the doubts that have plagued him.

“Luke—”

“Don’t. Okay?” he says, cutting off Calum before he can make a counter argument. Luke doesn’t want to hear it, because his friends do this thing where they build up his expectations and then reality crashes down around him, and nothing is as he expected it. Calum and Ashton are the worst culprits. Luke wants to believe them more than anybody else, but he can’t. Not with this. Not when his entire career teeters precariously on the edge of a bottomless pit.

Calum’s face twists into an ugly expression somewhere between pity and helplessness, like he’s so personally affronted by Luke’s dismal future that he doesn’t quite know how to react to it. Luke stands up from the patio chair. The cold has seeped into his soul by now, after sitting out here in the middle of the night in mid-January without a jacket. His fingers are icicles, and he’s starting to shiver. Calum makes a half-aborted attempt to say something else, but Luke shoots him a dry smile and leaves him alone outside.

The party’s died down some by now. While it’s not spectacularly late by these people’s standards, it’s been going on for hours. Luke ducks by Harry and Niall in the living room. They’re surrounded by most of those who have yet to leave, so he doubts they even notice his appearance. He thinks about joining them, but he goes into the kitchen instead where there’s still a steady supply of alcohol.

The room’s vacant when he enters. He reaches for the birthday cake flavored vodka for the hell of it. Out of all the bottles carefully lining the center island, it is the fullest. There are no cups close around, so he tips back the entire bottle, letting it gather in the back of his mouth before swallowing in one quick movement. It burns all the way down, just like he knew it would, and the fumes that chase it back up taste like embers bedding across his tongue.

He takes another swig and then another until the fire-flavored alcohol burns away Liam’s suggestion and his friends’ pity and everything else collapsing in on him. He’s halfway through the bottle when he stumbles out of the kitchen, vodka in tow. He needs a bed, preferably the one in the room he’s claimed as his own. It’s a quarter past midnight. He’s more drunk than he’s been in a long time, and he’s only got about five hours to sober up enough to present tomorrow morning.

He slips out of his shoes just outside the kitchen, leaving them in a pile he’ll hopefully be able to find in the morning. He manages the stairs up to the second floor fine, but stumbles over nothing in the long hallway stretched before him. His destination is four doors down on the right, something his sober brain would have no trouble locating. He’s far from having a clear mind. The bourbon and the vodka are sloshing around in his belly, and he starts to doubt it was ever a good idea to mix them in the first place.

“Finally had enough of your own voice? It must be damn annoying being forced to listen to yourself all day. Dunno why you’ve subjected all of those nice people out there to it as well.”

The impish voice floats to his ears, and Luke staggers to a dead stop immediately. He’s standing in the doorway of the third door on the left-hand side of the hallway. It’s a guest room, but it isn’t the one for which he had been aiming. The greatest piece of evidence is Michael, grinning maliciously at him and standing shirtless near the ensuite bathroom. His pupils are blown, a testament to the alcohol that, too, is raging through his veins. He’s probably less drunk than Luke, as he eyes the vodka still clutched between Luke’s fingers with trepidation that isn’t shared between them.

“Could say the same about your face, too, sweetheart,” says Luke, and he doesn’t make it a habit to call Michael pet names. He doesn’t actually it a habit to call Michael anything except the occasional annoying bastard or snarky little shit. He’s certain that Michael’s names for him are just as flattering. Ashton won’t say, of course, but he’s pretty sure that the words asshole and fucking piece of shit are Michael-speak for Luke’s name.

“To hate it so much, you’re spending a long time staring at it now.”

Luke licks his lips and looks pointedly away from Michael’s face, not realizing he had in fact been staring until it was too late for his dignity. It’s not his fault, really. He’s drunk, and Michael is unfairly handsome, no matter how much Luke would wish otherwise. It’s just that sober-Luke never gets to fully appreciate Michael’s dashing good looks—the way the corners of his eyes crinkle whenever he’s trying so hard not to laugh, the way his pale collar bones peek out of the stretched-out t-shirts he favors so much, and the way his eyelashes flutter closed so slowly when he’s dead-beat tired but longing to stay awake a minute longer. Sober-Luke hates beautiful Michael, because beautiful Michael is all sharp-wit and vicious tongue and anti-Luke.

“Trying to resist the urge to punch it,” drunk-Luke tells Michael’s shoulder. It’s not really a smart place to look since Michael is shirtless. He’s a model, but he looks like the boy next door. Luke likes that in men. Apparently, when he’s drunk at least, he likes that on Michael even more. “Come to think of it, that’d probably be an improvement.”

“You’re so infuriating, did you know that?” asks Michael.

He’s no longer standing still. He crosses the room to Luke with purposeful strides, stopping just short of him. Luke has to look down to meet his eyes, and Michael has to tilt his head up. Luke feels like there’s something he’s missing, like he’s skipped an entire page in his favorite novel and doesn’t understand how the protagonist could be dying when they were just casually strolling through the marketplace.

“You’ve been telling me that for the past four years,” responds Luke.

His tongue seems to have a mind of its own, because his brain still can’t put two and two together to come up with a reason for Michael invading his personal space. This is probably the closest they’ve stood to each other since the day they met and were forced to shake each other’s hands as strangers who were so pitifully unaware of the tumultuous hatred ahead of them. This proximity doesn’t feel as odd as he would have otherwise expected. Michael’s breaths puff against Luke’s chin, and it smells like tequila and limes.

“Yeah, well, you haven’t quite gotten the message yet, have you?” demands Michael, and the next moment, he’s closing the last gap between them, and his lips are on Luke’s, and he’s kissing like there’s no tomorrow. It’s hot and heavy and wet, and Luke stands stock-still for a long moment until he gives into his own bodily desires. The bottle of birthday cake flavored vodka slips from his fingers. It falls to the padded carpet, spilling out across their feet. Neither man moves away from the mess, pressed tightly against one another as if they could become the same entity.

Michael moans low in his throat and pushes Luke against the doorframe without breaking the kiss. Luke’s not sure he didn’t finish the entire bottle of vodka and is rather experiencing the wildest, most unexpected alcohol-induced hallucination of his life. But Michael feels real underneath his touch when Luke moves his hands to cup Michael’s buttocks so that he can hoist the man into a better angle. Michael grinds against him. He’s a hard length against Luke’s own thickening cock.

There’s still a part of him that’s screaming in his mind, frantically, desperately searching for the true reality, hardly able to come to terms with the fact that Michael’s hard against him and that Michael’s kissing him like there’s no tomorrow. Michael reaches for Luke’s wrist and forcibly removes the attached hand from his buttocks. He presses it to the bulge of his hard dick underneath the confines of his jeans. Luke wraps his fingers around the outline, hardly in control of his own actions.

Michael’s still kissing his mouth, and Luke fumbles for the button and zipper of Michael’s jeans. He tugs the waistband of the hidden boxers down just enough that he can slip his hand inside and grasp Michael without anything separating them, skin to skin. Michael’s heavy in his hand, and the head of his cock is leaking precome. He breaks the kiss to drop his face to Luke’s neck, gasping against it. Luke tugs at the cock experimentally, his own pressed hard in its confines against Michael’s hip from the new angle. Michael moans, loud and deep and guttural in Luke’s ear.

Luke tugs once then twice and finally a third time, and that’s all it takes to send Michael spiraling over the edge. He comes all over Luke’s hand in a breathless grunt, lips pressed against Luke’s shoulder, teeth digging into the skin there. He shudders, full-bodied, a heavy weight in Luke’s hold. Then slowly, without preamble, he pushes himself off Luke, tucking his dick back into his jeans.

It’s awkward for a long stretch of seconds. Luke’s still unforgivingly hard in his pants, his dick leaking a stain into the stiff fabric. Michael’s gaze drifts down to it, and then it’s even more awkward. The frenzy of their sex is gone. Its climax mirrored Michael’s own. The carpet is squishy underneath Luke’s feet. The bottle of vodka is empty except for the tiny amount gathered behind the neck. Luke has the urge to throw it back right now, because this is a scene that only belongs in the bottom of the bottle.

Dead silence hangs between them. The air grows tense by the second, and Luke’s dick is still unfailingly hard. The thumping sound of drunk footsteps ramble up the stairs, floating into the room. Luke is suddenly aware that they never closed the door. Michael seems to realize this in the same instance.

Luke opens his mouth—to say what, he doesn’t know—but Michael’s a blur around him, leaving him stranded alone in the guest bedroom that’s not his with a hard-on that most certainly is. Ashton appears in the doorway next to him. He glances down at the bottle of vodka before his eyes drift up to Luke’s face. Luke knows he’s flushed, can feel it by the sweat beading along his forehead. He wipes Michael’s come off on his pant leg and tries to ignore the way Ashton’s eyes flash down to follow his movement.

“I get your love to try out new things, Lukey. I really do, but you’ve already professed your hatred for the morning sun that streams in through the bay window. You must’ve drunk more than I thought.”

Luke glances at the window in question and tries not to think about how handsome Michael had looked silhouetted against it just moments before, sharp and witty and exasperated in spite of everything. It feels like a lifetime ago already. Luke’s still hard in his jeans. When he finally makes it underneath the covers in his own proclaimed guest room, he thinks about jerking off to the memory of Michael coming undone all over him. It feels all wrong, though. Makes his skin crawl like he’s got no right to be privy to such a sight, so he doesn’t. He turns on his side and goes to sleep.

Chapter Text

Luke wakes at a quarter past five the next morning with a hangover from hell, head pounding and mouth dry as a desert. The bed beneath him is soft and wonderful and every bit as comfortable, if not more so, as the one in which he sleeps at his own house. It’s dead quiet at this time of day. It’s winter, so it’s still dark up in the sky, high above the city lights that stream in through the north-facing window. He stares up at the ceiling for entirely too long, even though he really doesn’t have the time to spare to begin with. The station’s closer to Ashton’s house but only just. His car will be here any moment, ordered by Miranda who helps to not only co-host Luke’s show but also to produce Brendon’s before his.

He needs to get up and splash some water on his face and find some clothes in this house that he can wear to work. He also needs to take something for his headache and get some food in his stomach to ward off his hangover. Basically, he needs to be a functioning adult. That’s not easily attainable at the ass crack of dawn, but he swings legs over the edge of the bed. His head is a little swimmy when he finally sits up. He has to brace himself on the mattress to keep from toppling headfirst into the floor below.

His mouth tastes like stale vodka and fire. His toes feel sticky when he digs them into the plush carpet beneath his feet. Michael’s face flashes into the forefront of Luke’s mind. It’s way too early to think about Michael—it’s probably the earliest the man’s ever crossed his thoughts—but once Michael’s there, he doesn’t leave. He’s like a parasite that’s latched onto every single synapse in Luke’s brain. That’s probably not a thing, not scientifically at least, but there’s really no other explanation for the total lockdown on the rest of his thoughts. It’s just Michael, big eyed and furious in the darkness of last night. It’s just Michael crashing against Luke, shoving Luke against the wall, using Luke to get himself off.

It’s just Michael doing what he always does, even when he’s a mere figment of Luke’s imagination. He takes what he wants—what he needs—and doesn’t give back.

Luke’s cell phone rings from the folds of his blue jeans piled on the floor next to his feet. The tone suggests it’s a message, and he doesn’t have to check it to know that Miranda's just ordered the car to Ashton’s. He has to get up now and get ready or else he’ll be doing the morning show in nothing but his day old boxers.

The nearest bathroom is straight across the hall from the guest room Luke has claimed as his own. He stumbles his way into it, knocking against the wall as he tries to quietly shut the door. He shouldn’t have bothered trying to reduce the noise, because he knocks off the entire tower of products Ashton’s got carefully stacked on the shelves from all of all of the fashion shows he’s done. They clatter loudly to the tiled floor and scatter everywhere. He would have been less noisy if he had just started singing at the top of his lungs.

It’s a bit like a scavenger hunt trying to locate every bottle to put it back. He takes two pain killers from the medicine cabinet and drinks them down with water straight from the tap before he embarks on his endeavor. Putting everything back in its place is probably a stupider idea than trying to be quiet in the first place. By the time he’s returned most of the bottles to the shelf, Ashton’s awake. He appears in the doorway, wearing an expression that is filled with entirely too much pity than should be allowed at this time of morning.

“This is why we don’t allow you anywhere near the breakable aisles in shops,” he says. He’s wrapped up in his duvet that he’s had since he was seventeen. It’s heavy and purple and designed with tiny drawings of drum sets in a mismatched pattern. He looks like he’s about two minutes away from sneaking back into his room to sleep until a decent waking hour. A quarter ‘til five isn’t for everybody, particularly someone who is still jetlagged.

From the other room, Luke’s phone rings again. The car is downstairs waiting on him, and he’s still standing half-naked in his boxers. If this is a testament to how the rest of his day’s going to go, he’d rather just crawl back into bed right now. It’s entirely too late to call in to work, though, and it’s not like his presence won’t be missed. Half of the city, at least, wakes up with his face on their television. He doesn’t need to give Liam any more reason to transfer him back to nights.

“Go. I’ll clean the rest of this up.”

Luke’s nowhere near finished with the bathroom yet. He’s actually only managed to use it to quell his headache so far. Ashton doesn’t linger in the doorway and neither does he move to clean up the mess right now. He instead retreats toward the stairs on a mission to perk a pot of coffee. Luke’s going to need an extra full thermos of it in order to make it through this morning.

After Luke freshens up, washing his face with a scrub he found during his scavenger hunt and brushing his teeth with the spare tooth brush he spotted in the bottom drawer of the vanity, he treks back across the hall to the guest room. There’s another message blinking on his phone. It’s the second reminder that the car is waiting on him, but the driver’s getting paid to wait. At the foot of the bed is a folded up t-shirt, brand new with the tag still clipped to the collar, and a pair of striped red and orange and yellow pants that he left here on Thanksgiving right before Ashton and the others left eight weeks ago. They’re probably the only pants he’s got here, if he’s being honest with himself.

He shrugs on the shirt, tugging off the forgotten tag when it irritates the back of his neck. He’s not going to be caught dead in the atrocious trousers, though. They were a joke for Thanksgiving at the station, but they’re absolutely repugnant. He’s sure Ashton just laid them out for a laugh.

His phone rings a third time. It’s five now, and he should have left six minutes ago at the latest. He slips into last night’s jeans. He doesn’t really have the time right now to think about all the reasons he might want to put on the striped pants instead. Not now when he’s got exactly negative three minutes to dash downstairs, grab his thermos of coffee, and clamber into the back of the car that hopefully hasn’t yet driven off without him.

So he goes into work with Michael’s come dried into the thigh of his jeans, and that’s just peachy. It’s not really noticeable, just stiff fabric stained lighter than everything around it. He’s a little self-conscious about it, but he can’t swing by his place for a quick change of clothes. He makes it to the presenter’s chair with exactly forty-eight seconds to spare. He’s a bit winded, though, having run up the four flights of stairs to the studio because the elevator was taking too long. His cheeks are flushed, dark red underneath the harsh stage lighting. His co-hosts, Casey and Miranda, shoot him identical curious looks that suggest they’re going to hound him for his tardiness in front of the entire city. It’s their right, he supposes. It might even bring up his ratings. He’s not really sure how they can get any worse.

The countdown clock above the camera changes from five to four then to three. Liam stands off to the side of the stage, out of sight from the viewers at home. He looks all official in his pristinely pressed suit, but he’s the kind of man who looks flawless no matter the setting. He’s got his dark hair gelled back, slick against his head and shiny underneath the reflecting lights. It’s the new look he’s been going for lately in his attempt to look more like a successful boss than a rockstar. Luke’s not sure the style really fits him, but he’s not going to say as much. Liam’s arms are folded across his chest, and he’s got his head tilted down so that he’s watching Luke’s performance through his eyelashes. It’s his typical judgmental posture. Luke had better not screw this up.

“Good morning, good citizens of this fine city,” greets Luke, shoulders thrown back. He’s sitting straight-back in his comfy chair. He’s caught his breath a little better now. There are bags underneath his eyes, and he hopes they’re not too noticeable through grainy televisions. These days, of course, everything’s in high-definition, but he can still hope, no matter how vainly, that he doesn’t look too hung over to be hosting the city’s most-watched morning show.

“I’d say it’s a good morning, Luke—or, rather, you had a good night. What’s that mark on your neck?” asks Miranda, traitorously. She’s sitting on the other side of the half-moon presenter’s table. Her hair is colored lilac at the ends, fading from black into the pastel shade. Her numerous rings glisten underneath the bright lights, and she’s grinning devilishly at him.

Luke’s certain he’s flushed a whole new color of red. It’s probably not flattering at all in high-definition. His mind catapults to the memory of Michael’s teeth grazing his skin, sharp and hot and intense in the fury of the moment. He shifts slightly in his seat, uncomfortable. Miranda and Casey both misread it as admission to naughty nightly activities. It’s so close to the truth and so far away at the same time that Luke’s momentarily thrown askew.

“Partied it up good last night, did you, Luke?” inserts Casey, taking advantage of Luke’s silence to further poke at the raw wound nobody really knows is because of Michael. Casey, leaning on his elbow, is grinning as wide as Miranda is. Luke doesn’t like the look on either of them. “Saw the pictures online this morning of you at Ashton Irwin’s. How is old Ash doing?”

There’s a glint in Casey’s eyes that suggests he is being purposefully nice to Luke. He could have very well taken this and run somewhere completely different with it—toward the very unsettling destination of Michael Clifford, though Luke would never in a million years release that name to anybody, much less to the entire city at six in the morning. Casey’s got this thing where he delights in walking people around in circles until they don’t know which way is up and they’re spilling their deepest, darkest secrets. Michael is among Luke’s most deepest and most darkest secrets, and there’s nothing he wants less in the entire universe than to avoid any conversation that may lead straight to—do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars—the unprecedented and baffling kiss from last night.

“Glad to be back in the states, I believe,” says Luke. He’s got this bubbling fear in the pit of his stomach that Casey’s setting him up to spill his secret anyway by seemingly directing the conversation in another direction. He seizes the opportunity to send the cameras over to the news desk. It’s only a few minutes until the dawning of a new hour. People are no doubt expecting the latest headlines. He needs a little time to himself already. His hands are trembling in his lap. He’s all too aware of the stain on the thigh of his jeans that is barely concealed by the angle of the table.

When the cameras are off and Jack-the-newsman is doing his thing in the studio next door, Luke lets out a long breath. The lights have readjusted for the time being, and he can see the critical gaze written plain in Liam’s eyes. Luke should probably explain his mental state this morning, editing his narration so that Michael is nothing more than Ashton’s faceless friend. Surely, Luke’s coworkers, even Liam, would appreciate the story. He doesn’t say anything about it, though. If word made it back to Calum, he’d know the real story in a heartbeat. Calum’s always good at putting two and two together.

The show goes off without a hitch, which is mostly due to Luke’s bull-headed refusal to discuss Ashton’s coming-home party in any terms beyond how glad he is that his good friends have returned to the city. He talks about them like he’s proud of them, because he definitely is, and not like he’s sorely missed them all, save Michael probably, since the exact moment they left. His viewers know how protective he is of Ashton and the others. Sure, there are those people who think he’s only friends with Ashton to advance his own career, but those people are stupid.

Luke had liked Ashton the moment he met him, six sheets to the wind in the middle of a concert in the park. Ashton’d been sipping on a purple cocktail with unidentifiable contents that, when mixed together, tasted like rainbows and pure sugar. Luke’d been so drunk that he’d had to hug a tree to stand upright. Ashton had been nice to him when so many other strangers—other people who were supposed to be his friends—had left him to his own devices. Ashton had probably saved his life that night, escorting him to his own run-down apartment and letting him cry on his shoulder about all of the horrible things that had accumulated in his life over the past few of years. Ashton hadn’t even pressed him about Rena, about how she fucked him up so badly or about why he was all alone in the middle of a sea of people who seemingly worshipped the ground upon which he walked.      

He’d put his life together piece-by-piece over the next few months, talking to Ashton-the-soon-to-be-college-graduate about everything under the sun except why he’d been so drunk the night they met. It was the elephant in the room for the longest time until it faded into the wallpaper, always there but never really trampling across anything. Luke doesn’t know why Ashton has never bothered to feed the elephant. He’s too scared to ask, so he’d buried it under hundreds of favors that jumpstarted Ashton’s career as a silent thank you, and he hadn’t looked back.

When the lights go down for the last time, Luke wishes the city a brilliant rest of the day. They break for a commercial so that the next crew can get settled in the studio for their shift. Luke turns his chair over to Nick, laughing when the eager mess of a man trips over his own feet trying to defer to him. Luke grabs Nick by his elbow to keep him on his feet. He makes sure Nick’s firmly seated in the plush leather chair with little to no chance of somehow injuring himself. He thinks vaguely that Nick’s been spending too much time around Harry whenever Harry’s back in town. Harry is the clumsiest person Luke knows, but Nick has become a close second.

It’s rather unfortunate that the cameras hadn’t caught the charming moment for the entire city to see. Nick’s been the network’s golden man for the past decade, making all the viewers swoon over his easy-on-the-eyes face and his inhumane, almost animalistic dedication to the city’s precious pride and joy television network. Nick’s the type of man who wears his heart on his sleeve and who makes anybody with whom he speaks feel like they’re the only person in the entire world. The viewers love him. He’s everything, basically, that Luke isn’t—or at least that’s what the latest written critique had said when Luke had read the monthly report last week. A moment like this, with Luke being a true gentleman concerned for the welfare of a man who sometimes has trouble walking across flat ground, would have to have warmed all of those viewers’ hearts who are still on the fence about Luke being able to take the reins from the great Alex. It’s been eight months. He doubts they’ll ever really warm up to him.

Nick thanks him for his trouble as the other chairs fill up around the half-moon shaped table. The cameras will go live within the next few minutes, and Luke’s sure Nick will want to speak to his fellow presenters before the lights switch. He needs to be gone before then, anyway, and Liam’s no doubt already waiting on him in his high-floor, city-view office.

Miranda and Casey are gone, probably to sit through their own meetings or to set up future shows or whatever other odd job they can do until the clock strikes two and they can leave. Luke makes his way up to Liam’s office. He tries not to fidget too much when he’s finally seated on the other side of the marvelous desk. The entire city is to Liam’s back, and Luke’s struck with a split second of inadequacy. He taps his fingers against the arm rest of the insanely uncomfortable chair, the drumbeat of his favorite song in his head. Once he realizes it, he stops abruptly and folds his hands in his lap. His fingers graze the edge of the stain on the thigh of his blue jeans. He cringes. Michael is the last person about whom he needs to be thinking at this moment in time.

“Three percent loss since last month,” says Liam as a way of starting this meeting. He’s lost his suit jacket by now. It’s hanging on the coat rack next to his office door. There’s a yellow umbrella hooked on the peg next to it. He’s got his shirt sleeves pushed halfway up his forearms. A black leather watch is clasped around his right wrist, the face resting just below his palm. The bare skin of both of his arms is adorned with the tattooed reminder of his days as a real life rock star. “Something’s not working.”

Luke nods, feeling chastised even though Liam had made an effort to sound like he was making an observation instead of placing blame. He’s as aware of the loss in ratings as his boss is, if not more so. It’s become something like a habit to check the moment they’re posted at precisely eight in the morning on the second business day of the month. He checked them yesterday. Liam’s technically wrong: Luke’s had a three point one percent loss since last month.

“The first year’s always the roughest. People are just having trouble adjusting from Alex. They just need to see you as somebody other than his successor. They need to see you as a public figure who is not confined to these walls. As somebody who exists outside of the television screen,” Liam goes onto say without waiting for Luke to correct him. He probably doesn’t even care that he’s rounded down—that he’s given Luke the benefit of the doubt. A sly grin stretches its way across his face, and Luke’s heart skips a beat in his chest. “There’s a charity event coming up. I’ve already signed you up for it.”

There’s a delightfully malicious glint in Liam’s eyes that makes Luke’s stomach flop. He’s seen this look on his boss before. It’s the same one he wore the day he told Luke that he was assigning Casey to his team, so Luke knows he should fear it, because whatever this strike of genius is that Liam’s just had will not end up well for him. Liam produces a brochure from one of the manila folders on his desk. He shoves it toward Luke.

“It’s a charity auction—and you, Luke, are the grand prize.”

The brochure is really nothing more than a tentative design hastily printed off on regular white paper. It’s a charity to raise money for a new rec center for kids in the city as part of the movement against childhood homelessness. The center would provide kids with hot meals and places to sleep and things to do when their families have fallen on hard times. It’s really right up Luke’s alley, as far as charities go, and he’d work toward it even if he wasn’t being judged by his viewers.

On the flipside of the brochure is a list of the hundreds of things that will be auctioned off. It includes everything from day-passes for the local zoo to, apparently, Luke himself. He’s a glorified whore, basically. That’s the word that Liam didn’t use, but, regardless of however noble the auction is, some unthinkably rich person is going to, theoretically, pay a lot of money to take Luke on a date. He doesn’t know whether to be flattered that Liam thinks he’s appealing enough that somebody might want to buy his time or to be miffed that he’s being prostituted out for his viewers who like him less and less by the passing day.

“You’ve really signed me up for this? All for the sake of the ratings?”

“For the sake of keeping you on mornings—unless you’d prefer to return to nights…”

Luke makes a face, nose scrunched up in distaste. He plays with his lip ring, anxious. Though Liam’s obviously just poking fun of him at this moment in time, the two of them have already volleyed around the idea of switching Luke back to his safety nest. The nights had been kind to him, and the viewers had liked his content. Theoretically, they should like his show of a morning, too, but Luke’s still stumbling through the transition in shoes that are three sizes too big for him.

“The date for the auction is at the bottom there. I suggest you pretty yourself up between now and then,” Liam tells him. He takes the brochure back from Luke and places returns it to the manila folder, efficiently ending any further discussion on the matter. Luke’s not really got a choice, anyway—not if he wants to keep his job. “Let’s talk Monday’s show.”

So Luke indulges him, because he’s tired of discussing his own falling ratings and because he doesn’t mind ironing out the kinks in the plan for the next show. Liam knows his stuff when it comes to the daily grind of the station. He probably knows more about this place than anybody, having thrown his entire being into it since the moment he started at the station over a decade ago. Luke’s not too prideful to take any advice that will improve some aspect of the entertainment.

He doesn’t stay in Liam’s office until the end of his shift, but it’s a pretty close thing. Miranda and Casey have both skipped off the clock early. It’s a Friday, and nobody wants to talk shop during the last couple of hours of their work week. Luke’s well among them, after he finally escapes Liam. He takes a cab back to his house and gives the driver a good tip for getting him home in a timely manner.

Luke’s place is a nice sized two bedroom American Craftsman style house. The owners who sold it to him a few years ago had gone all-out on landscaping so that his yard is entirely private. There are flowers growing everywhere in the warmer months and tall trees that he wouldn’t have if he lived in a more densely populated area of the city. As it is, the top-price real estate here is known to be a little more spacious than anywhere else in a fifteen miles radius inside of the city limits.

He lets himself into the house, entering through the living room. The place is quiet, but it always is. Sometimes it’s so quiet that Luke gets sick of his own thoughts. He likes being an adult, living on his own, and even paying his own mortgage every month, but there is a certain untamable type of loneliness that seeps into the crevices of his soul. That’s why he lives for his job and for his friends and for anything that can drown out the oppressive silence.

In the back of the house is his bedroom. It’s got a marvelous view of the landscaping, a glimpse into the flower garden in which he labors whenever he’s got the time or the weather’s pretty enough. There’s something about digging in warm dirt that’s therapeutic. Today’s not one of those days that he’s got any desire to work in the garden, though all that’s really out there now are the evergreen bushes that he has to trim numerous times during the summer, but it’s a pretty enough sight that Luke pauses in the doorway to his room to just stare at it for a moment to admire the view.

He strips himself of his clothes, leaving his jeans in a pile at his feet. Even just looking down at the folds of fabric, he easily spots the stain of Michael’s come. It haunts him, and he remembers how his own hardened dick had felt trapped inside of those jeans as Michael rutted against him. He puts a stop to that train of thought before it really leaves the station. His cock is starting to take interest in the images burned into his mind—of Michael wanton all over him—and it’s not at all a thing he wants to happen.

He ignores his arousal, because the idea of pleasuring himself to the memory of Michael still feels wrong, and he’d never allow himself to do so anyhow. Whatever it was that transpired between Michael and him the night before at Ashton’s had been a fluke. Michael must have drunk his weight in alcohol. Or he must have pictured Luke was somebody else, maybe some blond haired man with a dazzling smile who offered to buy him a drink but left him all alone in a strange club in a strange country. That’s all it was: Michael using Luke as a stand-in because he couldn’t have the real thing.

That has to be what it was, because anything other than that is just an entire plethora of issues that Luke doesn’t want to deal with.

Luke meanders to his closet to get changed into his pajamas, kicking aside his jeans as he goes so that he doesn’t have to see the stain any longer. He has no desire to go out tonight, because if he goes out, he’ll drink his way to the bottom of a bottle. His mind is already all over the place, and the last thing he needs to do is to drunkenly dial Michael and demand to know why he had kissed him last night. That’s the thing Luke can’t really figure out. Michael hates him. He shouldn’t go around kissing Luke. He’s never before given any indication that he may want to. He’s done quite the opposite, actually, ever since they first met.

So it may be Friday night and he may be known for painting the town, especially whenever Ashton is home, but he’s not feeling up for more than just lounging around on his couch and watching crappy television until an ungodly hour or until he passes out, whichever comes first. Because all of that sounds better than drinking himself maudlin over the memory of Michael spilling onto his jeans. Luke’s got more pride than that. He doesn’t even like Michael, anyway.

Luke ends up falling asleep on the couch watching whatever’s been recorded over the past week. It’s mostly crime dramas and half-hour sitcoms. He spends the rest of the weekend catching up with his other friends, with the people who are actually just acquaintances but serve as good distractions from his loneliness when Ashton and the others are off in an exotic place.

On Tuesday, he has lunch with Niall and Ashton like usual when they’re in town. It’s after he’s finally gotten off work. They’re free for a little while until they jet off to another location, so the timing really doesn’t matter to them at all. Niall sends a car to the station. It takes him twenty minutes out to a burger restaurant on the corner near Niall’s agency so he thinks Niall, and maybe even Ashton, might not be relaxing as much as the break would imply.

Nobody’s caught wind of their impromptu lunch, though it’s only a matter of time before they’re spotted by someone. It’s not like their lunch dates are a secret. They’ve been photographed hundreds of times together since they began having them. Luke enjoys the anonymity anyhow as he ducks into the restaurant. He orders a chicken sandwich and a side of fries, smiling kindly at the teenager behind the register.

“It’s a burger joint, Luke,” says Ashton the moment he’s sat down with his food. He’s halfway through his own double cheeseburger with extra bacon and mustard. “We pick this place for a reason.”

Luke makes a face in response. He doesn’t like burgers, hasn’t since he was finally out of college and no longer dependent on the dollar menu at fast food restaurants where all he could afford was a single cheeseburger. He’s not a broke student anymore, so he makes it a point to order anything else. He likes to lie to himself, and to everybody else, that it’s really a money thing.

“What’re you guys doing at the office? I thought you weren’t supposed to go anywhere near it for the next little bit. I mean, isn’t that the protocol?” returns Luke.

“Just a little side project,” says Niall with a flourish of his hand that makes it look like he’s pushing aside the topic.

Luke has follow up questions, but he’s distracted by the extra spot at the table and the accompanying partially-eaten meal that’s laid out in front of it. He has a total of two minutes to feel perplexed until the missing person returns to the table. It’s Michael. Of course it is, because for some reason Ashton is hell bent on his two best friends being friends with one another, too. Michael’s hands are still damp from the men’s room sink. He sits down next to Niall without as much of a hello to Luke. That’s fine, though, because Luke doesn’t offer one, either.

Michael’s got a tattoo, a pair of arm bands that wrap around his arm on either side of his elbow with a twisting symbol for home situated right in the middle of it. Half of it is concealed underneath the sleeve of his button-down shirt that he’s got pushed halfway up his arm. Luke has the desire to lick it, to feel the ridges of the brand new tattoo underneath his tongue. He takes a large bite of his sandwich to occupy his mouth, because that’s not a thought that frequents his mind or even one that is welcome.

“Where’s the next place on the map?” Luke asks once he’s chewed his food enough to speak. He makes it a point to ignore Michael, because if they’ve got to share this common meal, this is about as friendly as they’re going to be with one another. He also makes an effort to push aside the memory of Michael coming undone against him, underneath his own hand. They’re not lovers. They’re not even friends. Memories like that shouldn’t even exist in Luke’s mind in the first place.

“Australia,” answers Ashton, grinning. He’s always eager to visit the place which bred him. It makes Luke wonder why he’s here in this city right now when he could be thousands of miles away in the place he loves so much. “Why? You want to tag along?”

“My viewers would miss me,” says Luke. He’s not really opposed to anywhere that’s sunny or warm or exotic, but he really does love his job. He’s already in hot water with Liam anyhow over his ratings, so he figures he shouldn’t push his luck until he’s back on firm footing at the station. Besides, it’s easier to hide behind his job.

“What? All three of them?” retorts Michael. His top lip is curled into a sneer. He’s got mustard dripping down his chin. If Luke had been harboring any hope over the past few Michael-free days that Michael might be just as off-kilter about the incident as he himself is, it disappears instantly. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Michael’s sneer transforms into a shit-eating smile, the one that’s reserved solely for Luke. “Just face it: two of those are insomniacs who can’t find the remote and the other is half-baked out of his mind. ‘S no other reason anyone’d voluntarily turn on your show, now is there?”

Ashton opens his mouth to intercede, shooting Michael a clearly unamused glare, but Luke’s tongue is faster. He plasters on his best fake-smile, the one that he uses whenever a call-in viewer is being particularly dense or whenever the media, especially the critics, throw the word faggot so casually at him. It’s appropriate when dealing with Michael, too. No matter how harsh the faceless strangers can be, there’s something about Michael that cuts even deeper.

“Think people taking a dump are ever tempted to use that mug of yours as toilet paper even when the roll’s not half up? ‘S about all your photoshoots are good for, isn’t it?”

The muscle in Michael’s right cheek twitches. It’s not quite the rise for which Luke was hoping, but it’s enough of an indication of his success. Michael’s not exactly an open-book. He never has been. If Luke’s being totally honest, it’s the whole mysterious aura surrounding Michael that makes his face perfect for the magazines. Luke would never admit in a thousand years to admiring Michael’s work, if only on principle alone.

Michael stands up from the table. He’s still got mustard all down his chin, and he’s refusing to look at Luke. Something sharp dances through Luke’s chest, but he’s never before regretted anything he’s said to Michael. He’s not about to start now. Michael can give out as well as he can get. He’s yet to offer Luke an apology, either.

“Think I’ve lost my appetite,” says Michael. He grabs his napkin and scrubs the mustard off his face. He gets most of it. He pointedly doesn’t look at Luke, choosing to glance between Ashton and Niall with a smile on his face so fake that even Luke knows it’s not real. “There’s only so much of… your friend I can handle. ‘M going to head back to the office.”

He gathers the remains of his meal and walks a winding path around the other patrons of the restaurant to throw away his trash. Luke watches him leave, unable to stop his eyes from dropping to rest on Michael’s buttocks. He remembers the feel of them in his hands as he held Michael’s weight, pressing Michael tight against him like they could melt into the same human being.

Ashton clears his throat in an obnoxious manner, and Luke’s eyes snap to his, cheeks flushing guiltily. There’s a grin on Ashton’s face that Luke doesn’t really want to dissect. Ashton doesn’t know anything, not about him and Michael. He can’t, or else he would have already jumped Luke’s skin. Luke doesn’t have any desire to give him an opportunity to ask the questions he knows are burning in his mind about why he’s suddenly willing to watch Michael walk away, so he turns to Niall instead.

“So, Australia?”

Chapter Text

The second time it happens, Luke’s got a lasagna for one in the oven. It’s Wednesday night, and he’s got a long day ahead of him tomorrow. He wants nothing more than to just eat his dinner then call up Calum and Harry to see if they want to hang out this evening. He’ll probably regret it in the morning when he’s hungover underneath the bright lights of the stage, but it’s a price he wants to pay so that he can spend time with his friends.

The doorbell rings. He hears it immediately, but he’s sprinkling the last of the diced ham into his salad, so the bell rings again before he even leaves the kitchen. He wipes his hands on the dishrag, tossing it back onto the counter as the bell sounds once more. It’s this incessant, impatient ringing that first clues Luke in that this might not be a visitor he usually expects. Ashton’s got a key to this place. So does Calum and everybody who really matters. Anyone else who would normally make a house call at seven in the evening is usually more considerate of Luke’s reaction time.

So when he throws open the door, he’s caught halfway between flabbergasted and exasperated. It’s Michael. Really, Luke should have expected as much, because this is the way the universe works. But the thing is, Michael’s never been here before, not even in the early days of their acquaintanceship—or whatever this pseudo-relationship might be called when they’re really just forced to deal with one another because they have too many important friends in common—when Luke was all too happy to help Ashton and his friends reach the pinnacle of social status to advance their careers for no other reason than they deserved the best. Michael’s never before graced this doorstep with his presence. Luke hadn’t been aware Michael even knew where he lived.

There’s a stunned greeting on the tip of Luke’s tongue, but Michael doesn’t wait around for pleasantries. He pushes past Luke then—because he seems to be the only one capable of doing something other than stand stock-still in the middle of the entryway—he reaches around Luke to close the door. It’s probably for the best, really. Luke doesn’t really know what’s going on, but the last thing either of them need is some photograph showing up on the front page of all of the gossip magazines of Michael and Luke having a shouting match on the doorstep. It’s happened before, in a sense, and it wasn’t pretty at all. They had been at a function on the west coast just shortly after Luke met Ashton’s friends for the first time. Some two-cent photographer snapped a picture for his rise to fame of Luke and Michael seconds away from throwing overpriced daiquiris in each other’s faces. Luke doesn’t care for a repeat this close to home.

Michael is standing in the middle of the living room, pointedly looking everywhere but at Luke. He’s disposed himself of his winter jacket. It’s draped across the arm of the couch. His attention shifts over the hundreds of photographs of Luke’s life that compose a collage on the accent wall of the room. It’s a cheap setup, honestly. Luke hadn’t even bothered with proper frames. He likes the charm of priceless pictures taped over the blank space of the wall. Most of them are of his friends. Ashton and Calum are prominent figures, laughing happily alongside Luke in most of the photographs. There’s even one of Michael himself, hidden away somewhere in the middle of the collage that Luke would forever deny is meant to be there. Because as much as he dislikes Michael and as much as that feeling is mutual, there was just something missing in his absence on the wall.

“Did you get lost?” asks Luke, finally finding his voice.

There’s no other logical explanation. It’s bizarre enough that Michael’s found his way here in the first place. It’s entirely baffling that he’s chosen to do so voluntarily. Luke wonders if, possibly, some psychotic man held a gun to Michael’s head and told him to come here. As farfetched as that sounds, it’s still more likely than any other reason Luke can fathom.

“It’s so easy for you, isn’t it?” demands Michael, loud and brash in the silence of the house. It’s how he does everything. He’s always the center of universe, commandeering the attention of everybody else in every room he walks into. He’s so much bigger than his skin allows, and sometimes Luke forgets just how small Michael actually is until they’re face-to-face, alone together.

“Think you’re going to have to be a little more specific,” says Luke, because he’s at a complete loss for what Michael’s even talking about. He hasn’t really done anything today that would be classified as easy. He interviewed some big-name celebrity over the internet this morning on his show and then made a complete fool of himself in a dance-off against Casey and Miranda for the entertainment of his viewers.

Michael snorts like Luke’s just suggested the stupidest thing in the entire world. He’s got his tongue tucked between his top teeth and his bottom lip, and Luke’s trying his best not to stare at it. He fails, of course, because he can’t help but to remember that very same tongue damp against his neck. His dick takes interest in the situation, because it doesn’t care that Michael doesn’t like him. It just knows how Michael had excited him. It starts hardening in his pants, and Luke takes care to shift into the shadows in the vain hope that Michael won’t notice.

Because fate hates him or maybe because Michael’s got this bloodhound sensory that alerts him whenever Luke’s dignity is at stake, Michael’s eyes drift down to rest on the bulge forming in Luke’s pants. He tucks back in his tongue. His expression sobers, locked tight in some unreadable emotion that Luke doesn’t think he really wants to identify. Luke feels off-kilter enough being hard in the same room as Michael.

Luke almost expects it this time: Michael crossing the room in just a few purposeful strides and slamming him back against the nearest wall. It still knocks the breath out of him all the same. He doesn’t have time to catch it before Michael’s mouth is on his, and he’s kissing him in frantic desperation. Luke gasps breaths as they fight for the right angle. He doesn’t stop to consider why he’s giving in so easily, why he’s letting Michael use him again. He just… He just kisses back. There’s a fire underneath his skin, pulsating with desire, and he kisses Michael. He feeds into it. He’s powerless against it.

Michael’s hard against him, his dick pressed against Luke’s own through the layers of fabric that separates them. A frenzy builds up in Luke’s chest. He reaches for Michael’s wrists—for the hands that hold fistfuls of Luke’s shirt—and wraps his fingers one-by-one around them. He pushes his knee in between Michael’s legs, throwing the man off balance enough to spin them around. He pins Michael to the wall, his hands held above his head by Luke’s grip.

It jars Michael out of the kiss. He leans his head back against the wall, his eyes boring into Luke. He’s got his mouth hanging open. His lips are bright red and slick with spit and starting to bruise already. It strikes Luke right then that he’s done that to Michael, that he’s made a mess of the man who hates him. It’s surprisingly intimate, this debauchery.

Luke moves to release his hold, but Michael moans deep in his throat. He throws back his arms, trapping Luke’s fingers between them and the wall. Michael’s eyes are wide. There’s a glint of something deep inside of them that’s clawing its way to the surface. The realization nearly brings Luke to knees: Michael likes this. He likes being held down.

Luke sucks in a breath, the new information strumming along his skin. Michael’s defiant against the wall. He knows that Luke knows, because there’s the slightest hint of a blush on his cheeks. Michael doesn’t get embarrassed. Ever. But there’s something vulnerable about him underneath Luke’s hold. There’s something about him like this that makes Luke want to cover Michael’s body with his own and protect him from the rest of the cold, mean world.

It doesn’t make sense—not really—how Luke has ended up here in the grand scheme of things, pressed hard against Michael. They hate each other. Everybody knows that. But right here, in this moment in time, with his own mouth slick with Michael’s spit, Luke can’t think about that. Michael doesn’t seem like he’s capable of thinking about it either. He’s still hard against Luke and is rutting against him in the heat of the moment. Luke pushes back against him without thought, as desperate for release as Michael is.

But Luke remembers last time—because, amazingly enough, there was a last time—and he’s not about to be left high and dry again. He tightens his grip on Michael’s wrists. He’s just using one hand to hold him now, and there’s definitely going to be hand-shaped bruises whenever this is all said and done, but Michael doesn’t complain about the pressure. Luke holds him against the wall, lets him rut once more, then steps back out of reach.

The result is instantaneous. Michael ruts against nothing but the air, and he cries out, the sound ripped from his throat. He bends himself almost in half in an effort to reach Luke for some type of friction, but Luke doesn’t give. Luke’s own dick is straining against the confines of his pants and he wants so badly to find relief himself. The sliver of nothingness between them is torturous. It’s like burning alive an inch from the ocean. The relief is right there for him to take. All he has to do is to lean forward just a little bit, but he doesn’t. He stays as still as possible, just out of Michael’s reach, and watches as Michael draws in a trembling breath.

There are tears welling up in the corners of Michael’s eyes, and his face is a mess of all-too-much-at-one-time, but he’s giving no indication that he wants to stop. There isn’t a no falling from his lips. He could easily break out of Luke’s hold, could easily take his relief into his own hands. He doesn’t. He draws in another shaky breath. His eyes are large and so full of trust that it’s brimming over, spilling the gathered tears down the sides of his cheeks in jagged, little lines.

All of a sudden, Luke wants it to stop, because he can’t handle this. He can’t handle how pliant Michael is before him, how raw Michael is underneath the thick layer of bastardness he wears like a shield, how devastatingly breath-taking Michael is in the fury of this passion. It’s too much. It all washes over Luke at once, and he’s falling forward into Michael, face-first into his chest. They’re both still achingly hard in their pants, still separated by the whisper of nothingness that prevents their releases. Luke’s still holding Michael’s hands above his head like it’s the only point of contact that is keeping him in his own body. He’s doubled forward over Michael, breathing in the sharp scent of cologne. He feels like he’s everywhere all at once.

Michael falls back against the wall. Luke follows him, because Michael’s the only reason that he’s even still upright. Michael grunts as he bears Luke’s weight, but in the next second, he’s pressing kisses to the top of Luke’s head. It’s the only part of Luke that he can reach. His hands are useless above him. He’s got a mouthful of Luke’s hair, slobbering all over his scalp. It’s messy, almost not worth any of it except Luke’s never wanted anything more than Michael right now in this moment in time.

Luke makes a half-aborted attempt to compose himself before he throws all caution to the wind. He cranes his head, knocking his nose against Michael’s, and kisses Michael with all of his might. It’s the first time he’s instigated this, but it’s like they’ve done this a thousand times before. Their tongues dance against each other, teeth clashing. Everything’s happened too fast and not quick enough at the same time. Luke trails his free hand down Michael’s stomach, feels the muscles contract underneath his touch. Michael shudders against him, and Luke works open the front of Michael’s jeans.

Michael’s straining in his briefs, the head of his cock leaking a mess of precome. Luke breaks the kiss to drop his head to Michael’s shoulder so that he watch what he’s doing. He thumbs the waistband of Michael’s briefs, forcing them and the jeans halfway down Michael’s thighs. Freed, Michael’s cock bobs up and down, smacking against his stomach. The air is much cooler than the heat of their frenzy, and Michael hisses against it. Goosebumps rise along his skin like the high tide of an ocean coming into the shore. He bucks forward, desperate, but Luke places a stilling hand on his hip.

Neither man moves for the longest time. Luke can hear Michael’s heart pounding in his chest, his own ear pressed just below the curve of Michael’s neck. Luke’s painfully aware of his own arousal. He considers leaving Michael in this predicament, trapped against the wall with his jeans to his knees and his dick red and leaking and untouched, while he slowly works himself to completion. He palms himself at the idea, but there’s something wrong about it, so he wraps his fingers around Michael’s cock instead.

Michael cries out, melting back into the wall. Luke runs his thumb over the slit of Michael’s cock and spreads a circle of precome into the preexisting mess. He doesn’t move his hand yet, just lets Michael fall apart to the loose hold around his dick. This angle’s familiar, and so is the weight of Michael in his hand. This isn’t something Luke ever thought he’d know. It’s a bit surreal, even now in this moment with a drop of Michael’s precome sliding down his thumb.

Luke gives an experimental tug. He’s tired of his own thoughts, needs to focus only on Michael—on taking Michael apart piece by piece until he’s nothing except euphoria wrapped up in a shell of a man—so he cranes his head to crash his mouth against Michael’s once more. He works his hand over Michael’s cock, twisting his wrist in a quick jerk that steals the breath from Michael’s lungs. Michael falters in the kiss with his opened mouth still pressed against Luke’s. His eyes are closed, and when Luke adjusts his stroke once more, they flutter open. His pupils are blown, so large and black that only a sliver of green is left as an outline, almost as an afterthought of color. Icy desperation and fiery passion shining in Michael’s eyes, and this sight alone is enough to make Luke hungry for his own release. Luke changes the angle, tightens his grip, and tugs once, twice, and finally a third time before Michael comes with a groan on his lips, throwing his head back against the wall.

It’s so much different in the brightness of Luke’s living room than it had been in the darkness of Ashton’s bedroom. Michael’s face is an open book. Luke sees everything, eyes locked with the slits of Michael’s. He doesn’t really know where to focus. He pumps his hand, works Michael through the last of the orgasm until Michael’s wincing from overstimulation. Luke’s palm is sticky, and there’s gathered come in the crevices of his fingers. Michael’s stomach is in a similar state of messiness. The hem of his shirt has fared no better, damp stains splattered into the fabric. Luke wipes his hand on Michael’s shirt. It’s ruined anyway, and he’s not going to make the same mistake he did last time that led straight to him wearing Michael’s come like a medal the next day.

Michael bucks against Luke’s hand that holds his wrists high above his head. Luke had almost forgotten about his other limb, and he lets go of Michael almost instantly. The skin of Michael’s wrists is bright red and irritated, and Luke can see the outline of his fingers pressed along the curve of his arm. Michael’s not used to supporting his own weight. He’s still a little light-headed from his orgasm. When he starts to tumble forward, Luke rushes to catch him, his hands underneath Michael’s armpits.

They stand like that for a long moment, staring into each other’s eyes. Luke’s still tortuously hard in his pants. He has gotten no relief whatsoever since they began this, and he’s struck by the fear that this is it, that he’s going to be left with a hard dick and nothing to show for his kindness to Michael. It’s happened before. It’s strange enough that there’s been a before that Luke doesn’t even want to unravel why he’s so bothered about the idea of Michael leaving right now. Or why he’s almost overcome with the desire to fall to pieces underneath Michael, the man who hates him the most in the entire world.

Michael pushes him away, and a lump rises in the back of Luke’s throat. His dick begins to soften, the burn of disappointment eating away at his arousal. He should have known, really, because this has happened before. Michael left him to his own release last time, careless of the desire bubbling underneath Luke’s skin for release. There were no indications that this time would be any different.

When Luke starts to step back, cheeks flushed bright red in his humiliation, Michael grabs him by his shoulder and drags him near again. His lips meet Michael’s, and this kiss is nothing like the ones they’ve shared. It’s nothing like the hatred bred between them. It’s soft and slow, and Luke melts into it like marshmallows in piping hot cocoa. Michael touches him so gently, his hand ghosting from his shoulder down his chest and his stomach to rest over the bulge that is Luke’s rehardening dick. He doesn’t grasp it, not properly, just hovers his hand over it until Luke can’t take it anymore and thrusts into it, nearly losing himself to the tiniest bit of friction with which he is rewarded.

It doesn’t matter in this moment in time that they’re supposed to hate each other, that Michael’s spent the better part of the past four years tearing Luke apart, that Luke’s spent the same time giving back better than he takes. It doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t make sense. People who hate each other don't give each other hand jobs in their friend’s house. They don’t barge into each other’s homes and demand sex. That’s not how things work at all.

Michael drops to his knees. The floor has to hurt, has to jar him all the way to his teeth, but he’s too concentrated on the bulge of Luke’s pants just inches from his nose. He licks his tongue along his top lip, anticipation rolling off him in waves. He hooks his fingers underneath the waistband of Luke’s pants and tugs everything down in one swift movement. Luke’s cock springs free, and a string of precome dangles from the tip. Michael glances up to meet Luke’s eyes. Slowly, very deliberately, he leans forward and takes the length of Luke’s dick into his mouth until he can’t take any more.

Luke shudders and falls into the wall, resting his head against his arm so that he can watch what Michael’s doing. He’s practically bent over Michael, but there’s no way he can remain upright of his own accord. Michael’s a devilish tease with his tongue. Luke almost laughs, because it’s so typically-Michael that it’s not surprising at all. Michael takes more of Luke into his mouth, humming around his thickness, and Luke’s near-laughter morphs into a moan. He’s not going to last long. He’s been held on the brink since Michael arrived, mostly, and he’s putty underneath Michael’s talent.

He feels the pressure build up. The tingling sting of his imminent orgasm chases across his skin. He’s not in a state of mind to speak coherent words. He warns Michael by tugging gently on his hair with his free hand. Michael needs to pull off, and he needs to do it soon, because Luke can’t hold back any longer. So he tugs once more, but Michael only hums happily and continues sucking on Luke’s cock, and there’s nothing else he can do before he’s spilling into Michael’s mouth. He bites his own arm to keep from crying out Michael’s name, muffling it against his skin so that it’s lost in heat of the moment.

Luke’s always useless in the minutes following his orgasm, and he feels especially so after this one. His cock falls from Michael’s mouth, obscenely wet. He can’t do anything other than lean against the wall. Michael pulls up Luke’s pants, but his soft cock catches against his boxers, so Michael adjusts it into place. He stands up, pushing between Luke and the wall so that Luke is given no choice but to stand on his own shaky knees.

Michael looks like a wreck. The skin around is mouth is glistening and red. His lips are bruised fat. His pupils are still blown, but the green is starting to return to them, and his hair is a mess atop his head. There’s a satisfied glow about him that Luke’s never before seen. It strikes Luke in that moment in time that this isn’t a side to Michael to which he’s ever been privy. It’s a shame, really, because this is the Michael with whom Luke could get along. The Michael he might not hate on first sight. The Michael that seems to not hate him, either.

Luke has the urge to kiss Michael again, but in the absence of his arousal, it feels weird. Wrong, somehow. They can rut against each other all day long, but the moment they’ve satisfied their passion, intimacy is off-limits. The air around them is heavy, thick with anticipation, and Michael must feel it, too, because the glow about him dims. He makes to step back, away from Luke, but he’s already crowded against the wall. Luke moves instead.

That’s all it takes to break them. The room stinks like sex. Luke’s sure he looks no better off than Michael. There’s a bite mark on his arm from his own mouth, and his lips feel puffy, overused and swollen against the jewelry there. He glances down between them. Michael’s still got his jeans pushed down his thighs, his soft cock peeking out underneath the excess fabric of his t-shirt. It’s a delicious sight to Luke’s eyes, but it feels wrong to admit it to himself right now.

Michael jumps when the kitchen timer sounds. Luke would as well, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembers he’s got a lasagna baking in his oven. He looks back up at Michael’s face. It’s blank now, completely void of any remnants of their shared passion. It’s like a knife to Luke’s gut, how easily Michael can flip the switch. Luke himself is struggling to remember why Michael had even showed up in the first place.

The timer goes off a second time, and it’s this that finally scares Michael off. He pulls up his jeans in a jerky manner, struggling with the zipper and the button until he finally just tugs the hem of his t-shirt down over it. He steps around Luke without even looking at him as he goes to retrieve his jacket. Luke stands still, watching Michael try to compose himself in the living room of the man he supposedly hates. Of the man he just went down on.

When Michael gets to the door, he hesitates. He’s still not looking at Luke, but Luke can see the way his hand tremble around the doorknob. Luke’s struck with the desire to cross the room and throw his arms around Michael until he’s no longer shaking, until all of the tension leaves his shoulders. Luke doesn’t. He’s well aware that his dinner’s probably burning by now, but he’s stuck in a limbo, standing in the middle of his living room staring at Michael’s back.

He waits for Michael to say something. The tension is thick between them and yet hollowed enough for the space of the few words dangling by a thin thread from the tip of Michael’s tongue. All he has to do is let them fall. He doesn’t. He waits for a span of five seconds, ticked away by the nondescript black clock on the wall next to the kitchen. Then he opens the door, and he’s gone from Luke’s home without the slightest glance back.

Luke stares at the door. There’s nowhere else to look, really. He feels empty inside, like he did the first time they did this at Ashton’s house when Michael had left him alone with his arousal and no possible way of relief. It’s different now, of course. He’s had Michael’s mouth on his cock, and he’s gotten his share of orgasms this time, but he feels like nothing more than a five-dollar whore in the wake of Michael’s departure. Luke prefers to cuddle with his partners after exchanging orgasms or at least exchange a good bye kiss. That in itself—to want either of these two things from Michael of all people—is troublesome. Maybe this is why he feels as empty as he does. Because nothing except hatred exists between Michael and him, and their sex is really only an extension of that hatred.

The lasagna is burnt black on top by the time Luke pulls it from the oven, smoke billowing in his face. His salad is warm, too, because he had just left it out earlier when he had let Michael in. That’s just wonderful, the perfect meal for the shit-storm that is the inside of his mind post-orgasm. He eats his burnt lasagna and warmed salad in the kitchen with his back to the living room so that he doesn’t have to see the space of the wall against which he had held Michael. He tries not to think about the visible mouth-sized bruise darkening on his arm.

He doesn’t end up calling Calum and Harry like he had originally intended. He finishes his supper, leaves the dishes in the sink to do later, and heads to his bathroom to wash the smell of Michael off him. It’s not actually a thing, this Michael-scent that’s filling his nostrils, but he can still remember the sharp smell of Michael’s cologne overwhelming his senses. He can feel the ghost of Michael’s hands along his body, cradling his cock. He has to wash it all away, has to let it swirl down the drain, or he’s going to do something dramatic and stupid like chase Michael down and demand to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing, waltzing into Luke’s home and rutting against him like they haven’t hated each other from the moment they met.

The shower is hot. It’s steamy, and Luke just stands under the spray for a long, long time. He rests against the tiled wall, hands propped shoulder-length apart to bear his weight. He stares down at the floor, watches as the water drops splatter against the horizontal surface and tries to clear his mind. Showers always help him in that area, but Michael is like a virus, invulnerable to everything except vaccines. Luke doubts drug companies make any Michael-specific medicines.

The water goes cold after a while. His water heater’s good, but it isn’t equipped to deal with the extent of Luke’s current crisis. He pulls himself together long enough to shampoo his hair and run a sponge of soap over his naked body, picking the strongest scented products he owns to drown out his sensory memory. When he finally emerges, wrapped in a fluffy white towel, he smells like green apples and vanilla.

He dresses in a pair of flannel pajama pants and an old souvenir t-shirt Ashton once got him from Paris. He doesn’t go back into his living room, choosing to enter his kitchen from the hallway instead. He does his washing up in the silence of his house to the beat of the thoughts thundering through his mind. Every synapse in his brain somehow leads back to Michael. He thinks about the birthday cake flavored vodka in Ashton’s kitchen, about how Michael had tasted like limes when he kissed him for the first time, and how Michael had sank to his knees before him on the other side of his kitchen wall.

He might scream, yell until somebody calls the cops in fear that he’s being murdered. His thoughts take a drastic turn then, and he sees dead green eyes underneath washed-out mascara. He drops his plate back into the sink, splashing soapy water over the edge. He jumps back just in time to avoid the spray. His knees can no longer support his weight, and he sinks down to the floor, back to the center island.

On the counter above his head, his cell phone rings. It’s Ashton. He knows it is just by the song blaring from the tiny speakers. He makes no move to stand up or to stretch for it. He’s not sure he’s capable of anything except sitting in his own despair, much less engaging in an adult conversation with Ashton. He doesn’t want to talk to him, because he doesn’t want to say anything about Michael, because he doesn’t really understand what the orgasms mean between them, if they mean anything at all. If he talks to Ashton—if he picks up the phone right now and says hello, Ash—he’ll spill his guts. He’ll bare himself for Ashton. He’ll reveal his forbidden tangos with Michael without trying to comprehend it himself first.

So he doesn’t answer it this time when Ashton calls. He also doesn’t answer it when Ashton calls the second time. Ashton leaves a message then, evident by the short beep that follows fifteen seconds after the end of the ringtone. Luke’ll call him back tomorrow when he’s not so liable to vomit his thoughts for Ashton to pick apart. When he’s managed to be a functioning adult and get up off his kitchen floor.

Chapter Text

Harry hands Luke a butterscotch candy. He’s already sucking on one himself, because his breath smells like it when he offers his greeting. Luke takes the candy and pops it in his mouth. He and Miranda went head-to-head in a pepper eating competition, and while he’s never really gotten the fuss about spice, he’d quite like to get the taste of his failure out of his mouth. He’d been stiff competition, but she’d been better.

“The others are finishing up,” says Harry.

He’s already changed into his street clothes—a pair of blue jeans and a woolly red sweater—but he’s still got golden stage makeup lining his eyes. Luke doesn’t ask why it’s gold or even question why he’s failed to wipe it off. Harry’s just odd like that.

“I thought you all were on a break,” says Luke instead.

He uses his tongue to flick around the butterscotch candy, liking the way it sounds clicking against his teeth. It’s Friday, two days since he last seen Michael, and he’s doing everything in his power to ignore the tiny fact that he’s getting ready to see him now. He’s spent the entirety of yesterday and this morning pointedly devoting his time to his other friends, but he couldn’t avoid Ashton forever. Ashton is going to leave again soon. Luke’ll be alone in the city once more. He doesn’t want to be regretful as well.

“There’s never a break in this industry. You should know that by now,” responds Harry, shooting Luke a wry smile.

He’s got a point. Luke’s known Ashton for over four years now. He can count on one hand the number of work-free vacations Ashton’s ever taken, and even most of those wouldn’t technically qualify, either. Their culture is obsessed with beauty. Ashton and Harry and even Michael are beautiful enough to satisfy the people. They’ve got to stay in the business twenty-four-seven in order to remain relevant.

They’re at a warehouse shoot today. Luke doesn’t know the proper term for what they’re doing or what this shoot actually is, but he knows Ashton, Harry, and Michael have had to pose for the cameras in designer clothes worth more than Luke’s entire mortgage. It’s all for some big name brand, but Luke doesn’t care enough beyond the free coffee to bother with asking specifics. He had swung by this place after he got off the clock, arriving just in time to catch the tail end of their last shoot. He can’t see anything from here, but he’s sitting next to a window that has a great view of the city, so he’s not too put out.

Niall finishes first, because he’s only here as a fashion consultant. He’s actually a designer of his own line, but he’s friendly enough with whoever owns this particular brand that he’s been allowed to assert his claim over Ashton and the others to oversee this shoot. He hasn’t been allowed a sketchbook all day, though. His hands look oddly white without the ink that normally stains them.

“You should step in front of the camera, Luke,” says Niall, a lilt to his voice. He’s grinning brightly at him, already anticipating his response. “You’d kill with those eyes.”

“It’s his face that does it, actually,” says Michael, mean spirited. He appears behind Niall and looks devilishly unfazed by the presence of Luke, which is totally unfair, because Luke himself flushes from head to toe as he remembers Michael going down on his knees for him. “That’s why he’s losing ratings. The viewers can’t take the hideousness, would rather watch a blank television screen than his program.”

Michael’s good at this. He’s good at finding the tiny voice in Luke’s head that says he can’t do something, that he’s not good enough, and he amplifies it. Luke’s show had had fewer callers this morning. He’d been forced to play more clips of animals being cute and people being stupid for a laugh. It’s not the first time this has happened, either. Calum tells him that it’s really no indication of how good his show is but rather of a variety of other factors that periodically prevent people from watching any television in the mornings, period. He doesn’t know if he believes Calum or not.

Niall opens his mouth to chastise Michael, but Luke really doesn’t need anybody fighting his battles, especially against this devil, so he says, “Are you just here for moral support, sweetheart? I can’t imagine a designer of such prestige would want his product ruined by putting you in it. That’s just hurting sales.”

There goes that pet name again, and Luke really doesn’t know where it came from. Michael screws up his face, top lip curled upward and his nose crinkled. Luke doesn’t know if it was his words or the pet name that brought out this response. It could be either. Luke’s own mind flashes back to the last time he had used this term in regard to Michael. That evening had ended with his hand on Michael’s cock, and that’s not something he needs to think about right here, right now surrounded by all of their friends who are under the incorrect assumption that Michael and Luke have never exchanged orgasms. Luke’s dick threatens to harden in his pants at the reminder of its adventures with Michael, and the whole situation just gets worse. He tries to adjust himself so that nobody notices, but Michael’s bloodhound senses must kick in. He drops his attention to Luke’s crotch. His lips split into a nefarious grin.

“You would know all about that, wouldn’t you? Hanging around Ashton in the vain hope that it’ll save your career somehow, that people will like you better if you’re associated with beautiful models.”

“Guess that’s why you and I aren’t friends,” says Luke, smiling in spite of the fact that Michael’s words sting. It’s what the papers always say, that Luke is milking his friendship with Ashton for his own gain, but they’re wrong. So is Michael, but it doesn’t matter if Luke tells him that or not. Michael will believe what he wants to believe about Luke, and that’s that.

Michael snorts, derisively, and Luke thinks he’s going to come back with an even wittier retort. He doesn’t. A strange expression shadows his face, somewhere in between uncertainty and self-depreciation, and he says instead, “Yeah. I suppose you’re right.”

It should feel good, getting the last word. It doesn’t. Michael turns away from him then and disappears among the curtains that separate the shoot. There’s a hollowness about this victory that sits uneasy in the pit of Luke’s stomach. He stares at the spot through which Michael had gone and squashes the unprecedented desire to call an apology after him. The mere idea of it is entirely wrong. He doesn’t owe Michael any niceties. That’s not how their pseudo-relationship works. They hate each other.

Niall shakes his head at Luke, lips bitten together. He glances toward the curtains in the direction Michael had disappeared, and Luke really doesn’t need him to say whatever’s on his mind. Niall’s not Ashton. Niall was Michael’s friend first, is still Michael’s friend except for the fact that being attached at the hip to Ashton means having to put up with Luke. That, in turn, means he’s taken to adopting Ashton’s crusade of trying to get Michael and Luke to be civil with one another for the sake of everyone’s sanity.

“The least you could do is try to be nice to him.”

Luke laughs and wonders what Niall might say if he were to spill the beans, if he were to tell him exactly how nice he has been to Michael since they arrived back last week, if he were to tell him about the two orgasms he has given to Michael in exchange for only one himself. The words are right there on the tip of his tongue. It would be so easy to just throw them out there for Niall and Harry and whoever else is walking by to hear. But he doesn’t. He keeps the secret to himself, and it’s only thirty percent because of Michael. Luke himself doesn’t want to have to explain his own participation in their sexual exploits.

“It takes two to tango,” is what he ends up saying, and it’s probably the worst thing to say but also the best. He chuckles to himself, because he’s not lying, in a sense. He’ll be nice to Michael when Michael’s nice to him and not a moment sooner. Hell will probably freeze over ten times before that happens.

When Ashton finally emerges, some ten minutes later after Luke has finally agreed to be at least nicer to Michael, Ashton takes one look at Luke and frowns. Ashton is the only one of them all who has bothered to wash off all of the shoot makeup. There’s a small black backpack dangling from his fingers. His nails are still painted dark purple and accented gold, but Ashton’s never bought into gender stereotypes when it comes to fashion. Besides, the paint matches Harry’s eyeliner.

“Where’s Calum? I thought he was stopping by with you?”

“He got held up at the station,” says Luke. He feels a spike of guilt run through him. It’s not really his fault that Calum’s having to pull extra hours—Calum’s told him himself numerous times that it’s just in the job description that he has to stay at the station longer on some days—but it sure feels like it whenever he takes a gander at his falling ratings. “I, um, think he’s planning on meeting up for lunch?”

“It’ll be dinner by the time he gets out,” says Niall, distastefully. He steps toward Ashton and loops his arm through Ashton’s. Niall pastes a wide grin on his lips, having to tilt his head slightly upward to meet Ashton’s eyes. “You know how Calum is, always forgetful, that man. Waits until the last second to do everything.”

Luke doesn’t really think that’s the correct summation of Calum at all. He works hard and makes sure he meets all of his deadlines and usually finishes his big projects weeks ahead of time. Luke doesn’t say any of this to Niall. It’s not really that important to correct him, and, besides, the conversation has already drifted to a new topic.

Niall says he’s hungry. He always is after shoots. It’s something that they’ve all learned to anticipate. There’s this new restaurant that’s opened about a block from here, and Luke interviewed the owner of it on his show a about a month ago, so he’s got a standing table whenever he wants it. Today feels like the day to take it. They can’t walk to it, of course, because there are too many people with cameras on the outside of the building who will get in their faces and ask horrible questions for nothing more than to get a rise out of them that’ll produce a good story. Ashton calls a car to come pick them up.

It’s tight fit in the car for all of them. The driver is Ashton’s personal one so he sits in front with Niall, and that leaves Luke squashed in the back between the door and Michael. Harry had absolutely refused to sit in between them, had point blank told everyone he would rather chance the paparazzi than have Luke and Michael on either side of him. So that’s how Luke finds himself crowding as close to the door as possible. Michael, similarly, is scooted as humanly close to Harry as he can get, much to Harry’s distaste. There’s a clear space of about four inches between Luke and Michael.

The driver stops the car right in front of the restaurant, and the paparazzi haven’t exactly caught on to their lunch plans yet, so it’s not really any trouble getting inside the establishment. Luke strolls up to the maître d’, feeling every bit important because he can skip the month-long waiting list to get into this place. The nametag on her jacket reads Grace, and she recognizes Luke immediately.

“Will a table in the back be fine?” asks Grace. She’s a professional. That much is obviously by her carefully pressed clothes and her immaculate slicked-back ponytail bun. There’s a bit of a blush on her cheeks that belies her nervousness. Luke thinks he understands her pain: it’s hard being around so many beautiful people at once, and his friends are models for a good reason.

“It’s very much preferred. Thank you,” says Luke, and he paints on his best charming smile. It’s the one that Liam insists he use more often on the television, because Liam claims nobody can resist it. Luke doesn’t know how much he believes that. Liam, after all, seems invulnerable against it.

The table to which they are led is located in a secluded part of the dining room. Luke pulls out a chair for Ashton as a friendly gesture then sits in the one next to him. He ends up sitting opposite Michael. They start with waters for their drinks and a basket of rolls in lieu of a proper appetizer. Luke’s not really that hungry anyway, so he’s fine with just waiting until the main course.

Ashton orders a white wine that’s split between them all. Luke doesn’t care much for wine, but he sips on his allotment as he peruses the menu. There are a lot of fancy foods that he might like to try one day if this restaurant ends up living up to its hype, but he finally settles on a steak and potato course that is smothered in gravy. He tells their waitress, Kate, his order and ignores Ashton’s accompanying eye roll. Ashton has never approves of his eating habits.

“Don’t even start with me,” says Luke, tone clipped. “Gravy is a staple food, and, yes, it does need to be served with every meal.”

“But it doesn’t need to drown everything else. Seriously, Luke, don’t you think it would be better if you could taste something other than gravy?” challenges Ashton, and he’s got this look about him. It’s the same look he gets whenever he thinks Luke’s failing even more spectacularly than usual at being a proper adult. His voice goes soft, and he raises his eyebrows ever-so-subtly in concern.

Luke doesn’t think they’re talking about the gravy anymore, but he’s not sure what Ashton’s trying to get at. He hasn’t done anything so epically stupid in a while, with the exception of Michael, who Ashton most certainly does not know about, so there’s really nothing Ashton should be riding him about. Luke’s job is the only thing that’s up in the air at the moment, but Ashton enthusiastically supports the morning show, probably more than anybody else.

“Calum told me, you know, about the love bites on your neck last week,” says Ashton finally, and there’s a judgmental tone in his voice. Luke wonders how he let himself be walked right into this trap. “And there’s an interesting mark on your arm right there, too…”

For a long moment, Ashton’s words hang uncomfortably in the air. Luke curses himself for pushing up his sleeves in the first place a few hours ago when he was hot underneath the stage lights. He fights the urge to cover the fading bruise he had bit into his own arm. Ashton has already seen it, has probably had it staked out since he emerged from the photo shoot. He knows better than to pretend it isn’t there. He also knows better than to look anywhere in the vicinity of Michael, but he can see the man out of his peripheral vision.

Michael sits straighter in his chair. So do the others sitting around the table. They might be in a secluded area of the restaurant, but the table is small enough that private conversation is almost impossible. Everybody knows Luke’s dating history, and he’s almost certain there’s an on-going bet between them all of who his next bed partner is going to be. Faintly, he wonders if any of them had put their money on Michael.

“I like what I like,” says Luke finally, and he doesn’t look in Michael’s direction. He can’t. Because he’s seen what Michael looks like coming undone at the seams, and there’s a part of him that liked it. That wanted it to happen again. But it can’t happen again. The first time, they were both drunk. Last time had been a fluke. Michael had needed somebody to destroy, and Luke had been ready and available.

“Yes, but if somebody is hurting you—”

“I bit myself,” says Luke, almost crudely. He shoves his arm toward Ashton so that he can see the imprint of his own teeth in the faded bruises. He’d say more on the subject, but Ashton doesn’t need to hear the gritty details. Neither do the others. They don’t need to know how he’d bitten down on himself to keep from groaning out Michael’s name. “Thank you for your concern, as always, Ash, but I’m good.”

Ashton pushes away Luke’s arm with hardly a glance at the bite mark, taking his words for the truth they are. Ashton meets Luke’s eyes and stares at him. Luke forces himself not to react, keeps his attention firmly on Ashton, and reins his thoughts away from Michael. Ashton can read him like a book at times. He’d pick up on Michael in a heartbeat.

“All right. But, seriously, gravy?”

Luke laughs in response, because there’s nothing more he can say on the topic. He finally looks away from Ashton, finally looks to Michael. It’s a mistake, because Michael’s looking at him in a way that makes Luke feel like he’s naked in the middle of the high-priced, busy restaurant. Luke doesn’t really know what to make of it, this intense staring contest he’s found himself in, but he holds Michael’s gaze and doesn’t look away.

It’s strange staring into Michael’s eyes. It’s almost like a gateway into the other side of Michael to which Luke’s not privy. He knows that side exists. It has to, because Niall loves him and so does Ashton and Calum and Harry and basically everybody except Luke. He was never really given a chance. It was like they met, and fate said that was all wrong, that they had to hate each other, that there was not room for anything except antagonism between them.

Their food comes soon enough, and Luke drops his attention from Michael so that he can cut up his steak into bite-sized pieces. He sloshes the meat through the gravy in an obnoxious manner just to make Ashton roll his eyes at him again. The meal is good overall. Halfway through the course, Calum shows up, hair plastered to his head and jacket drenched. Outside, there’s a rainstorm pelting the city.

Calum scoots a chair between Ashton and Niall, calling out a general greeting to the table. Everybody resituates themselves to make room for the extra person. Kate the waitress pours him a glass of wine from the bottle Ashton had ordered and writes down his food request on her leather bound notepad. Calum downs half of the glass before she’s even left for the kitchen.

“Bad day?” prompts Harry across the table from him. He’s stabbing pieces of carrots onto his fork, making a mess of his plate in the process. He isn’t really paying attention to his food right now anyway. Nobody is. Calum doesn’t just chug wine for no reason.

“The station’s getting ready for that auction,” answers Calum, and Luke gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach before Calum even turns to him. “Speaking of, Liam wants to speak to you Monday afternoon. He thinks you’re going to need to be fitted for a nice new suit. We can’t have you going out there looking like we just pulled you in off the streets.”

“Wait—what is this?” demands Ashton, cutting off whatever response Luke might have had, and Luke kind of wants to smash his face into what’s left of the food on his plate. There’s a reason he hasn’t told Ashton about the charity auction. Ashton gets all crazy when it comes to public events that can embarrass the hell out of him. This certainly falls into that category. Luke hasn’t quite decided yet which would be more humiliating: somebody paying top-price to go on a date with him like he were an expensive whore or nobody bidding at all.

Calum laughs big and loud and looks past Ashton to Luke for a split second, long enough to flash him his most diabolical grin. Then he turns back to Ashton, and says, his voice full of mirth, “Our Lukey here is going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The prize? A date. One whole evening full of nothing but the company of Luke Robert Hemmings.”

“What is the station hoping to raise? Five dollars?” demands Michael, not nicely at all. He’s sitting back in his chair, relaxed and completely at ease. His food is abandoned before him. The chicken and rice dish is only about half gone, but he doesn’t seem inclined to eat any more of it. “Or are they charging for bids as well? Might make them seven then, you know. A dollar per bid pity bid.”

“Michael!” snaps Ashton.

Luke waves him off, malice building in his chest. He doesn’t need Ashton to fight his battles, not against Michael. He can give out as well as he can take. He sits forward in his seat and rests his elbows on the table in front of him. He folds his hands together, because he likes the illusion of control it gives him.

“Why? Are you wanting to know what competition you might be up against, sweetheart?”

“Nah,” says Michael, shrugging in an unconcerned manner. He sits a little taller in his seat, though. He hasn’t touched his wine beyond the cursory first sip, but his cheeks are pink nonetheless. “You’d have to pay me to bid on you—which, let’s face it: you’ll probably have to pay anybody to bid on you.”

It stings, because of course it does, because Michael’s still as sharp-witted and perceptive as always. Luke almost reels back in his seat. He almost gives Michael a satisfactory response, but he’s got his pride. He’s not about to let Michael get the best of him. He’s seen Michael on his knees before him. He’s held Michael’s cock in his hand, felt the release of Michael’s orgasm. He knows how to tear Michael apart, too. It’s scary, really, to have this power.

“Is that what you do when you trail after Ashton like a lost puppy to these fashion shows? Pay the man standing guard to let you through? To let you pretend like you belong on the runway?” asks Luke, and he knows he’s being mean. Anger courses through his veins, because this is Michael, and nobody can bring out the jackass in Luke like Michael can. He chooses his words carefully, chooses the ones he knows will cut the deepest. “How much does a bribe like that go for, anyway? A hundred bucks? Two hundred? A blow job?”

Luke stops, the rest of his rant dying on his lips. There’s a line in this dance of hatred between Michael and him. There’s a line that they don’t talk about, that they adhere to, but Luke’s just crossed it. Michael’s expression shifts to something dangerous. Luke thinks for a moment that Michael’s going to take his turn and charge across that invisible line with guns blazing. He doesn’t. He removes his napkin from his lap and throws it onto his plate. It’s white like a flag signaling surrender, but it looks like a challenge to a duel. Luke looks up from it to Michael, but Michael’s already walking off.

Ashton glares over at Luke. His arms are folded across his chest, all disapproving like, and his fingernails are digging impressions into the sleeves of his oversized sweater. Luke doesn’t even need Ashton to reprimand him. He knows he fought a little too dirtily, that he took Michael’s doubts and turned them to poison against him.

“Luke—”

“I know,” snaps Luke, cutting him off. He stands up from the table, too. His own napkin falls out of his lap, but he doesn’t waste time to pick it up. His stomach is turning over, and his chest feels hollow. He wishes he had taken his loss, that he had never one-upped Michael in the first place.

He stalks away from the table, leaving his friends in a tense sort of silence that’s thickening by the second. He doesn’t actually know to where Michael has gone, but the only thing in this direction of the restaurant is the men’s restroom. He ducks inside and hopes that Michael didn’t use the back entrance to leave for good. Luke would never hear the end of it from Ashton if Michael skipped out early.

Michael didn’t. He’s leaning on both hands over the sink. Luke takes a moment to admire the outline of Michael’s back through the thin button-up dress shirt he’d worn from the shoot. The shirt should be a crime, really, because Luke’s only got a little bit of alcohol in his system—not nearly enough to explain why he’s standing inside of the men’s restroom just staring at Michael—and it’s making him think odd things about maybe tugging down Michael’s collar and kissing the skin there.

“You’re an asshole,” says Michael, and Luke jumps at the gravelly sound of his voice. Luke wasn’t aware Michael even knew he was in here. Michael turns around slowly. There’s a hard set to his jaw, like he’s biting the inside of his cheeks. “You’re a fucking asshole.”

“Oh, and you’re not?” fires back Luke. He throws up his hands in exasperation, because Michael is the most infuriating human being alive. “You talk shit about my show and my ratings, and you rub in my face that I’m a virtual failure every damn time you see me.”

“You haven’t been nice to me since the day we met,” says Michael.

It’s a fair enough summation, because Michael hasn’t been nice to Luke, either. There’s a cynical twist to Michael’s lips. Luke wants to make it go away, no matter what it takes, because nothing good ever comes from it. Michael isn’t done speaking. He barrels on ahead, like a runaway train speeding down the tracks.

“You think you’re high class, that you’re too good for mere mortals like me. Well, guess what. You’re not. You’re just some piece of shit who thinks you’re funny on the television when you run those stupid gag reels of celebrities making fools of themselves, and have you ever thought that maybe you’re the fool? That maybe you’re too wrapped up in yourself to see what’s right in front of your face?”

Luke sees red, because Michael’s blaming everything on him, and it’s not entirely his fault. He’s just reacting to everything around him. It’s Michael who’s taken the first shot. It’s Michael who doesn’t like him. It’s Michael who showed up at his door two days ago and slammed him against the wall and kissed him like his life depended on it. Luke’s tired of it. He’s angry, and he wants nothing more than to get rid of that stupid cynical smile on Michael’s lips.

So Luke crosses the length of the men’s room. He grabs Michael by the shoulder, and he throws him bodily against the nearest wall. Michael lets out a startled gasp, but he doesn’t try to push Luke away, though he easily could. Luke grinds his hips against Michael’s. They’re both hardening in their pants against each other. Luke smashes his mouth against Michael’s, because he still hasn’t gotten rid of that stupid smile.

It’s not really the smartest place to do this. They’re not in the privacy of a home like they have been the two previous times, but it sends a shiver of thrill right down Luke’s spine. Anybody could walk in on them. Ashton or Calum or Niall or Harry could come looking for them, and then they’d all know the dirty secret that Luke and Michael share.

But the door remains closed for now, and Luke stops caring about anything beyond the feel of Michael against him. He grabs for Michael’s wrists without breaking the kiss. His lungs scream for air. He gasps in a quick breath as they fight for a new, better angle. He wraps one hand around Michael’s wrists like he did last time, and he traps them against the wall above their heads.

Michael ruts against him. Luke pushes his knee between Michael’s legs and forces space between them. Michael breaks the kiss then as he tries to rut against Luke’s thigh, but Luke move his free hand to Michael’s hip to steady him. Michael’s eyes are wide, a glint of wildness shining brightly within. He’s panting through his mouth. His cheeks are flushed dark red. The jewelry in his eyebrow glistens underneath the harsh lighting of the restroom.

It’s breath-taking, seeing Michael in such a state of vulnerable arousal. The anger buzzing underneath Luke’s skin transforms into red-hot desire, and he wants to wreck Michael right here in the semi-public men’s room of the high-priced restaurant where anybody can walk in on them at any moment. He wants to build him and tear him down like nobody’s ever done to Michael before. He wants to ruin him in the greatest kind of way.

Luke removes his hand from Michael’s hip. He’s not quite certain Michael will remain still, but he fumbles open Michael’s zipper anyway. It’s almost muscle memory now, with the forbidden amount of times they’ve done this. He pushes down Michael’s pants enough to free his cock. Michael is leaking precome already, and he thrusts into the air, the tip of his cock brushing against Luke’s hand, and he cries out, desperate for friction. Luke doesn’t give it to him.

He draws Michael back in for a kiss, no less frantic than the first. Michael kisses him like he’s dancing in fire, and it’s almost disconcerting that this is the same man who is pliant under the hand around his wrists. Luke breaks the kiss when his lungs start to burn again. He drops his lips to Michael’s jaw and kisses and bites his way down his neck.

Luke’s straining in his jeans, and it takes him two tries to free himself. He doesn’t really know what his original plan had been, but it doesn’t matter. He ignores his own arousal for a moment, wrapping his hand around Michael’s cock instead. He’s gotten used to this angle, and his fingers tighten of their own accord to just the right amount of pressure that he knows Michael likes. He goes back up for another kiss as he slowly jerks Michael off, thumbing over the slit and fondling with his balls until Michael’s writhing against him, breathless in their kiss.

It should be startling that he knows exactly when Michael’s had too much, that he knows one more jerk will send him over the edge. But Luke’s far too gone from his normal state of mind to worry about why he knows such intimate details about the man who hates him. Right now, he has Michael before him on the brink of orgasm, and he pulls off, releasing Michael’s cock so suddenly that it slaps against Michael’s stomach. Michael groans deep in his throat. He thrusts his hips forward, but Luke’s already accounted for that. There’s too much space between them for Michael to get any relief. He’s got his head thrown back, and he glares at Luke through the slits of his eyes.

Luke presses his mouth against Michael’s ear, and he’s so hard himself from just toying with Michael. He wants to get this over with, wants to reach the beautiful moment so that he can revel in it, so that his dick is no longer painfully hard in the cool air of the men’s room. He balls his free hand into a fist so that he doesn’t lose control. He nibbles at Michael’s ear, drawing another moan from Michael’s lips.

“I seem to recall you said I was too wrapped up in myself,” he murmurs. His voice is much rougher than he had expected. It’s kind of difficult to talk through the sexual haze that’s consuming them, but he does it anyway. “Maybe you’re right. In fact, now, I think I’m going to prove you right. Count it my apology for being an asshole earlier.”

Michael shudders, and Luke grins, leaning back for another kiss. It’s shorter this time, because Luke wants Michael to watch. He pulls back, but he keeps his left hand wrapped firmly around Michael’s wrists. He reaches down with his other hand to grasp himself. He’s so uncomfortably hard that he almost comes at the lightest touch. He wonders how Michael must feel all the way on the brink and slowly ebbing back. The thought goes right down to his cock, and he has to squeeze just underneath the head of it to keep from coming so embarrassingly quick.

He considers drawing this out for a long time. He knows his cock, knows what he likes, knows how to tango with his own orgasms to make himself last longer. They don’t have that much time, though. It’s a wonder nobody’s had to use the men’s room yet, and as much as the semi-public sex thrills him, he doesn’t care for this thing with Michael to get out. They hate each other, when their hands aren’t on each other’s dicks at least. Nobody else needs to think otherwise.

He jerks himself off without any fanfare or flourishes, tugging with a slight flick of his wrist. He’s already almost halfway gone anyway. It won’t take much to send him over the edge. Michael’s watching him attentively, his own cock still hard and leaking between his legs. Luke makes the mistake of looking up to meet Michael’s eyes, and it’s that which brings his orgasm crashing over him. He comes with a grunt that might as well be Michael’s name and spills all over Michael’s dick, making a streaky white mess all over it.

Michael blinks in surprise. Luke doesn’t waste a single second. He lets go of himself to grasp Michael’s cock, using his own come as lubrication. It’s wet and messy, and Michael throws back his head again, exposing the pale expanse of his throat. Luke can’t help himself. He leans forward and sucks a mark at the base of his neck. He feels a little fuzzy from his own orgasm, so his rhythm is erratic around Michael’s cock, but Michael comes quick, arching his back off the wall and crying out Luke’s name.

Luke lets go of his wrists to catch him with both hands before Michael can collapse to the dirty floor, his knees jelly underneath him. They pant against each other, their spent cocks soft between them. The fuzz still hasn’t completely left his brain, so Luke presses a gentle kiss to Michael’s lips, forgetting that Michael isn’t his lover and that this thing between them is just a physical representation of their hate. Michael kisses back like he forgets, too, so Luke allows his eyes to flutter close for the briefest span of seconds to enjoy it.

They part almost at the same time, Michael leaning farther into the wall and Luke taking a step back away from him. The smell of sex is strong between them. It’s not yet awkward like Luke thinks it should be in the aftermath of getting off with someone with whom he shares a mutual hatred. They’re in a bubble outside of reality, a bubble that allows a pseudo form of tenderness to cultivate between them, and Luke doesn’t want it to ever burst.

Luke’s heart swells, but a rush of nausea almost overcomes him. He shouldn’t feel fond for the man who hates him. He’s not that stupid, usually, but it’s difficult to remember all of the reasons he doesn’t like Michael when they’ve both still got their cocks out. Luke sets about cleaning them up, because Michael is still riding the aftermath of his orgasm, leaning against the wall like it’s the only reason he’s upright.

There’s only an industrial hand dryer next to the sinks. When Luke checks the stalls, they’re all completely empty of toilet paper, so there’s nothing in here he can use to clean them up. It doesn’t really matter to him, personally, as he’s not too messy. He tucks his cock back into his boxers and does up his jeans, none the wiser. The fabric of his underwear catches against the residual dampness on the head of his cock. It’s only mildly uncomfortable.

Michael, on the other hand, is a complete wreck. His dick is covered in come, and so is the surrounding area of skin. It’s a perfect picture of sexual debauchery, and Luke did that to him: he used his own come to make Michael make a mess of himself. Luke feels a surge of pride well up in him, and it’s followed by the strange reluctance to let go of this moment between them. So he reaches for the waistband of Michael’s underwear and slowly pulls them up over the mess that is Michael’s cock. He lets the band snap against Michael’s stomach. It makes a wet sound, and Luke’s cock starts to stir again, but he’s had his fun, so he ignores it.

He does up Michael’s jeans, zipping and buttoning them with fingers that tremble in the after wave of their intimacy. He cups Michael’s crotch, feels the fabric begin to dampen from underneath. The skin around Michael’s wrists is red, peeking out from under the sleeves of his button-up shirt. Luke looks up to meet Michael’s eyes. They’re still glazed over from his orgasm, and an unidentifiable emotion flickers across his face.

“We’d better get back out there before they come looking for us,” says Luke.

His voice is still rough. Michael looks like sex right now, and Luke’s sure he does himself, too. He’s almost overwhelmed with the idea of sidling right back up to Michael to press another kiss against his lips or maybe to suck the mark at the base of his neck a deeper color of red. He doesn’t do either of those.

He turns to the sink so that he can wash up. He dries his hands on the thigh of his jeans as he walks toward the door. When he leaves, he doesn’t look at Michael, who is still plastered to the wall against which Luke had held him captive just moments ago. He’s not sure he’d be able to resist the urge to go another forbidden round if he did.

Chapter Text

Luke hasn’t seen Michael in three days, not since he left him in the men’s room of the restaurant. It’s quite a feat, actually, for them to not cross paths. Luke spends the majority of Saturday hanging out with a few people he met at Ashton’s last coming home party. He has a work event that evening, so he eats dinner beforehand with Miranda and Casey.

On Sunday, he does laundry until he’s got nothing left to wash and no excuse handy to give Ashton when he pesters Luke into coming over. It’s not that Luke doesn’t want to spend time with Ashton, because he does and Ashton’s going to be leaving again soon, but he’s much more likely to run into Michael whenever he visits Ashton. Luke can’t really tell him that’s why he’s hesitant to agree to a movie night marathon with him and Niall and Calum, so Luke stops by the store to buy some alcohol on his way over. Michael doesn’t show up, and Luke doesn’t ask what he’s doing, though he knows the others would probably know the answer.

He finally saves his penguin figurine from the drawer in Ashton’s kitchen that evening. He’d actually forgotten about it for the most part, save for the random viewers of his show who had demanded to know where his latest souvenir was. It’s only by a stroke of luck that he happens upon the figurine when he’s searching Ashton’s kitchen for a bottle opener. He leaves the penguin out on the counter so that he won’t forget it again.

Bright and early Monday morning, he takes the penguin figurine into work. He’s got a whole display case of souvenirs that Ashton’s brought him back from all corners of the world set up in the background so that the viewers can appreciate what Ashton’s given to him as much as he can. He doesn’t put the penguin there, leaving it instead right on his desk next to his name plate.

“So you’ve finally brought it in,” says Miranda in the bridge segment between the national headlining news and the weather report. It’s too long for a proper commercial break, but it’s not really long enough for more than banter between Luke, Miranda, and Casey. The viewers seem to like it, those of them who call in or leave comments on the online stream. “The latest elusive gift, that is.”

“Ah, yes,” responds Luke, grinning. He plucks the penguin from his desk gingerly. He’s on his second cup of coffee this morning, but his coordination still isn’t up to par. He’s a little terrified he might drop the figurine and it’ll shatter into a thousand tiny pieces that he’ll continue to find six months from now. “I haven’t named it yet. Should I name it?”

“I think you should, but let’s see what the viewers say,” says Casey, and he’s a natural at spinning these segments into viewer interactions. He cues up the computer next to him, so he can read the comments posted to the Internet in real time with their show. “Here’s one: Pat G. thinks you should call it Ash-Ir.”

It’s a horrible set up of a name, but Luke raises the penguin to his face, just inches from his eyes so that it looks like he’s seriously contemplating the suggestion. He waits a beat then scrunches up his nose. His lips tug into the smile, and he looks over the top of the crystal head of the penguin at Casey.

“He might breathe actual fire if I named him after Ashton.”

“So it’s a definite he, then?” asks Miranda, eyeing the penguin. She sounds doubtful, and Luke almost wants to laugh at how important his penguin figurine is here at the station. Miranda glances at the clock above the camera. It reads three minutes and thirty-eight seconds. They’ve still got time to run with this. “Because I think Ashton would be quite happy having a namesake.”

“He would,” agrees Luke, “but I wouldn’t. Besides, he’s got a big enough head as it is. There’s no need to over-inflate it by naming this penguin after him. Make a note of that, people!”

Casey laughs, turning to the camera nearest to him. He doesn’t speak to the viewers at home but instead to the crew behind the scenes. It’s a thing he likes doing, giving the viewers a little taste of what it’s like to be on the other side of the television screen. The viewers seem to a get a kick out of it as well.

“Yes, and somebody please get this footage to Ashton. Hey, Calum! Show this to him!”

“Don’t you dare, Cal!” calls Luke, but it’s in vain.

Calum’s already got his phone out and is punching buttons on it. The cameras pan over to him. The lighting’s horrible. It’s all shadowy, and the bulky equipment everywhere doesn’t make the best of backdrops. Luke kind of wants to jump over the table to stop him. It’s not that he thinks Ashton will be mad but rather that Ashton will find this all too amusing and will probably bring him back a t-shirt from Australia that has the name Ash-Ir printed across the front of it. He’ll be forced to wear it, just like he had to wear those striped pants on Thanksgiving.

“He’s already watching,” says Calum, looking up from his phone to grin at Luke before winking at the camera. Calum’s never really been interested in sitting in a presenter’s chair, but he’s a good sport now, with nearly half of the city focused upon him. “Says he’ll get you a t-shirt.”

“I hate you both,” says Luke, but there’s no heat in his voice. He laughs. “What does Ashton think I should name the penguin? He’s its mother, technically, so he should get a say, shouldn’t he?”

“Oh, now, you’re just trying to butter him up,” says Casey, shaking his head in mock-disapproval as if he’s never stooped so low in his life. Just last week, he spent this very segment convincing Miranda that he didn’t remove the screws from her chair, and Luke had had to show the clip where he removed them the previous morning in her absence.

“No, I don’t think he is, Case,” disagrees Miranda. “He did just call Ashton the mother of a penguin so…”

Casey barks out a laugh, and Luke tells his viewers that he’s taking applications for new co-hosts as well. A fake email address flashes on the screen, courtesy of Olivia’s quick editing magic, and it reads lukeneedsnewfriends(at)youdontwantthisposition(dot)com. Calum’s phone dings with a new message, and everybody turns to him. He, however, only has eyes for Luke. There’s a malevolent glint in his eyes that wouldn’t look out of place on Ashton himself.

“Emsie. That’s the name of your penguin love-child.”

“Emsie?” repeats Luke, and his stomach flip flops, but he doesn’t understand why. He has to admit that Emsie is a fine name for an aquatic creature, even in the form of a small crystal figurine. He grins for the sake of his viewers. “Alrightie, then. Emsie it is. Liam, I want a nameplate for him. It’s got to be official.”

The camera pans from Calum to Liam, and Liam’s dressed in his pressed blue suit. It doesn’t matter that the lighting’s awful or that there’s a half-drank bottle of pop on the abandoned equipment next to him. He’s the boss. He looks more at ease in front of the cameras than anybody should behind the lines. He shakes his head fondly at Luke. There’s a smile on his face. He knows as well as Luke himself knows that this little segment is gold.

“Will he need a chair, too?”

Luke pauses, as if considering it. The clock above the camera is slowly counting down from twenty-seven seconds. He looks over at Miranda and thinks about the seat collapsing beneath her last week when it was missing its screws. He grins at the memory, shaking his head at Liam who is just beyond the center camera.

“Nah. I’m replacing Case anyhow. Emsie can have his seat.”

Casey guffaws, but it’s time for the weather, so he isn’t given the opportunity to argue against the notion. The lights dim over the stage. It’s easier to see everybody else now. Luke’s sweating through his sports coat. He shrugs it off his shoulders and pushes the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows. His skin is bare, unstained by ink and so pale in the winter month. He thinks about the tattoos on Michael’s arm, and he’s overcome with the sudden urge to match them, to permanently paint his skin with ink with something as marvelous as the ones stained on either side of Michael’s right elbow. It’s a disconcerting desire, because Luke shouldn’t want something that ties him to the man who hates him, but he does. He wants it like he shouldn’t want anything at seven-oh-nine on a Monday morning.

The rest of the show goes off without a hitch. Emsie the penguin sits proudly next to Luke’s own nameplate. For the time being, there’s a yellow sticky note stuck to it with Emsie’s name written on it. Luke chats with a couple of viewers via webcam, and all they want to talk about is Emsie. Liam grins proudly from the behind the camera. Calum flashes a thumbs-up with his cell phone gripped between his fingers and his palm, the screen illuminated to Ashton’s messages. It’s a good morning.

Luke meets with Liam after the cameras finally turn off and he’s turned his chair over to Nick. He tucks Emsie the penguin safely away in the drawer underneath his desk so that he won’t get broken. Luke makes his way up to Liam’s office where they waste the next hour going over the shows for the rest of the week. Luke spends the remainder of his time on the clock shuffling from meeting to meeting until he can finally call it a day.

He picks up a take-out order from the burger restaurant and heads over to Ashton’s, who had been the one to call in the food. There are no photographers hanging around the front entrance, but Luke has the car drop him off right next to the gate anyhow. It’s a habit. He punches in the correct code before he’s allowed to enter the property. He shuts the gate behind him, tugging at it twice to make sure it’s latched.

There’s an open-door policy for him. He doesn’t bother ringing the bell. His hands are full of the paper bags of food, so it takes careful maneuvering to get the door to actually open. Ashton appears in the entryway the moment he steps inside. He takes one of the bags from Luke and leads him into the kitchen where they deposit them all onto the center island.

“So who’s eating all of this food? The cashier offered me a dolly to get it all out,” says Luke, and it’s not that much of an exaggeration. There’s a mountain of food on counter between them. He carefully unpacks the nearest bag. Ashton’s doing the same across from him. “Seriously, how many burgers are you planning on eating yourself?”

Ashton laughs, the sound loaded. It grates across Luke’s nerves, but when Michael appears behind Ashton, Luke understands. He feels like somebody’s punched him in the gut. Michael looks dastardly good, wearing a soft pair of sweat pants and an oversized t-shirt. Luke thinks it’s a little unfair. He himself looks like he hasn’t seen a mirror in years. His work shirt’s all crinkled. He’s been running his fingers through his hair all morning and the product he had used earlier to keep it from uncontrollably frizzing has long since been worked out of it.

“I didn’t realize our food was coming with a side of him,” says Michael snidely. He stops just short of the center island. His eyes are boring into those of Luke, and there’s a glint of something Luke can’t identify in the depths of them. “Might’ve also requested a bottle of anti-nausea medication. Might help me keep my food down better.”

“Oh, sweetheart, all you have to do is ask,” responds Luke. He makes sure his voice is sickly sweet, and he’s really just given up trying to figure out why he’s got a pet name specifically for Michael. Maybe it’s because it brings a soft blush to Michael’s cheeks, and there’s something about that which reminds Luke of Michael down on his knees for him, and that’s not a thought he wants to entertain while Ashton’s in the same room. “I’m sure Ash won’t mind if we cover up all the mirrors, so you don’t lose your appetite looking at your own face.”

Michael glares at him, the pink in his cheeks settling a deeper color. He folds his arms across his chest. There’s that line between them again. Luke tries not to think about the last time they stood on opposite sides of it and he barreled across it like it was nothing. He tries not to think about jerking Michael off in the men’s restroom using his own come as lubrication or about leaving Michael to stew in the aftermath of the sex, cock still covered in the mess of their shared passion.

But once the roots are planted, Luke can think of nothing other than how wrecked Michael had looked. He wants to wreck him again, right here in Ashton’s kitchen. He almost doesn’t care that Ashton’s here also or that this thing between them is neither a standing invitation nor something that anybody else can know about.

Then Michael opens his mouth. “It’s really your face that’s the issue. Haven’t you read the latest reviews? You’ve got the worst face on morning television—they much prefer looking at Casey instead of you.”

They’re stupid, Michael’s words. If they were to come from any other person, they might have been funny. The idea that Luke’s entirely less favored across the board than Casey, who’s got a gangly body and an annoying habit of licking his lips even when they’re already moistened enough, is humorous. Luke’s not cocky about his own looks, but Casey’s never really cared to appeal to sexual aesthetics. He even occasionally commandeers an entire segment of the show to blast anybody who says he should do the morning news shirtless.

But there’s something about the way Michael says the words that knocks the air right out of Luke’s lungs and makes him almost sick at his stomach. Luke plasters a smile on his face, tries to appear unaffected, but he grabs for the edge of the counter. He’s pretty sure his knuckles are white around it. He doesn’t look down to make sure. He thinks about how gently Michael had kissed him the last time they saw each other, about how Michael had seemed to forget how much he hated Luke, and this right here feels like ten steps in the wrong direction that is the pathway of their tumultuous relationship.

“Sure that’s not just your preference?” challenges Luke.

Michael blinks, taken aback. Luke knows that Michael knows exactly what he’s referring to. This is the closest either of them have ever come to talking about their sexual escapades in front of somebody else. It’s a nice line to toe. Luke almost wants to cross it, almost thinks about turning to Ashton and saying I know what Michael looks like when he comes. But he doesn’t. He charges forward, dancing along the frays of the forbidden line.

“Gonna trap him in the men’s room next? Go down on your knees for him? I’ve heard he, uh, tastes good.”

It’s crude, and it’s partially the truth, because Luke really has heard too much detail about Casey’s sex life over the past eight months of doing the early morning show. Ashton gasps audibly, asserting his presence in the conversation. Luke knows Ashton’s about to reprimand him for being so vulgar and being so mean to Michael, but he’s had enough. He doesn’t have to stand here and let Michael be mean to him. He’s having trouble correlating this bastard of a man before him with the same man who kissed him so tenderly seventy-two hours ago. Yes, Michael hates him, and he hates Michael, but there’s something wrong with the picture of Michael down on his knees for him, of Michael writhing underneath him, of Michael coming undone at the seams because of him. These pictures just don’t connect with their hatred.

“You know, forget this. I think I’m going to take a rain check on this lunch,” says Luke. Thankfully, his voice doesn’t break. He removes his hands from the counter, and they’re shaking, but he hides them away in his pockets. He turns abruptly on his heel so that he doesn’t have to face them anymore. He lets the smile drop from his face. It’s too painful to hold any longer. “I’ll see you later, Ash.”

He doesn’t actually have a car to leave, but he uses his phone to check the bus schedule on the way out of Ashton’s house. He’ll have to take the bus into town and then get a car, because there’s not a stop anywhere near his own home. There’s a one on the edge of this neighborhood, thankfully. He can walk to it in about fifteen minutes. According to the Internet, there’s another twenty before the next bus arrives.

The bus route is time consuming. Naturally, the bus makes numerous stops and people have to get on and off. Luke only makes it to edge of the city before he, too, piles off the bus. It’s not the smartest of places to just randomly appear, because he sticks out like a sore thumb among the tourists who have their heads permanently angled upwards and their mouths gaping in awe. Luke understands their reactions. Of course he does, because he loves this city, but he doesn’t think that excuses them from walking like drunk toddlers into everything and everybody around them.

The third person who knocks into him actually recognizes him from television that morning. She’s a stuttering mess. Her tongue tangles her words together, and only her friend can understand her. He obliges them both with autographs and a quick photograph. It quiets them, but the damage has already been done. More people start to recognize him, because his show makes him one of the most well-known faces in the city—regardless of the current ratings.

He flags down a cab in a manner that’s so drastically different from the tourists around him that a car stops almost immediately in front of him. He crawls in the back, rattling out his address. It’s closer across the city, but the taxi driver takes the alternative route that avoids the rush downtown. When he pulls up outside of Luke’s house, Luke tips him twice as much as he usually would before he gets out.

It’s quiet when he lets himself into his house, and he heads straight for his bedroom via the kitchen. He can’t look at the wall in the living room against which he had once restrained Michael in the midst of their shared passion. He remembers the devastated look on Michael’s face in Ashton’s kitchen when Luke had torn him down with his words. He’s not particularly proud of himself now. He wishes he could take them all back.

He changes out of his work clothes and into the pajamas he had worn last night. The room is a little cool, so he ducks into the edge of the living room to kick up the heat, making sure to look only at the thermostat on the wall. He usually keeps his heat turned down as low as possible whenever he’s out of the house or whenever he’s asleep in a vain attempt to keep his electricity bill under control.

There’s a small television in his bedroom. It’s not connected to cable or anything, but he’s got a DVD player hooked up. It’s as good of an excuse as any to avoid going into the living room where the memory of Michael is gigantic. He stretches out across his bed to watch whatever film he’s left in the player. He doesn’t care what it is. He just wants something to keep his mind off Michael.

He reaches for his remote, and the television screen flashes bright white before the first few minutes of his favorite sitcom starts to play. He settles back against his pillows, propped up against the wall with his sheet draped over his legs. He’d really like a cup of hot cocoa right now, because hot chocolate with foamy marshmallows always makes him happy. Getting that cup of happiness, however, requires going into the kitchen, and he doesn’t really want to leave the comfort of his bed. Besides, he’s not really sure he deserves to be happy after the way he spoke to Michael, and that in itself is a novel thing.

He feels uncomfortable in his skin, like there’s an itch he can’t quite scratch no matter how many times his nails scrape across it. The sitcom isn’t enough to occupy his mind. It doesn’t erase the memory of Michael sharp-tongued and so vulnerable. It doesn’t silence the words he spoke to destroy Michael. He watches the television for as long as he can, but in the end, he has to turn it off.

The screen goes dark, and he drops the remote back to his bedside table. He sinks down lower in his bed, staring up at the ceiling. He hates Michael for doing this to him, for shoving him against the wall in Ashton’s house last week and kissing him for the first time. That’s when all of this really started. That’s when Luke began to lose control of his sanity. It was simple hatred beforehand, when Michael was just Ashton’s annoying bastard of a friend. Now, Luke knows what Michael gets off on, and his hands have left bruises on Michael’s wrists. It’s not so easy anymore to think that he hates Michael, because maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t. Or, at least, he doesn’t as much as he used to.

His thoughts are horrible, and his head hurts from thinking about Michael but trying not to think about Michael. He’s doing no good in bed, really, so he gives up and decides to do something productive around the house. He’s feeling a little hungry, because he skipped out on lunch. Now that a little time has passed, he’s feeling guilty about snapping at Ashton. He makes a mental note to apologize to him the next time he sees him, and he gets up to go raid his kitchen.

He eats his early dinner in there, the radio next to the coffee pot filling the stifling silence. It’s an evening like this after a long, trying day that he plays around with the idea of getting a dog or a cat or even an iguana. Probably not an iguana, if he’s being honest with himself. But he longs for companionship that is absent in a place only he inhabits.

The walls threaten to close in on him at any moment, and he’s so happy when the doorbell rings that he doesn’t even stop to wonder who might be on his doorstep at six in the evening on a Monday. He stalks to the door. When he reaches it, he throws it open with a greeting on his lips, glad for any distraction by this point. He freezes. His heart pounds loudly in his chest.

It’s Michael. Of course, it’s Michael, because Luke has spent the entire afternoon trying not to think about Michael, so fate’s having herself a good laugh and has brought Michael straight to his doorstep. He looks unfairly handsome still, even underneath his bulky winter coat that does absolutely nothing for his figure. Heavy winter jackets do that to everybody, though, and somehow Michael looks like he’s just walked off the runway.

“You’re stupid,” Michael tells him, and he pushes his way inside, barreling right into Luke’s home like an invitation’s been extended to him. Luke turns with him as he goes so that he can keep staring at him. Michael stops in front of the backdrop of the very wall against which Luke once pinned him. “Like I’ve never met anybody who is as epically, tee-totally stupid as you are.”

Luke shuts the door for lack of anything else to do. He’s not really sure where Michael gets off to dropping by just to insult him. It brings a bout of red-hot anger to Luke’s chest. He wants to fight back. He readies the words on his tongue, but he’s never given the chance to let them fall from his lips.

Michael steps forward again, crowding into Luke’s space until he’s backed into the door. Nothing happens for a long span of seconds. Michael’s breath is hot against Luke’s neck, and they’re standing almost chest-to-chest. Luke forgets how to speak under the intensity of Michael’s stare, lost in the depths of Michael’s eyes. He thinks about leaning forward to close the gap between their lips. He doesn’t, because Michael hates him, and he’s supposed to hate Michael, and things were a whole lot less complicated when they were as simple as that.

“So stupid,” repeats Michael.

He’s the one who bridges the gap, who presses his lips against Luke’s, full of confidence and fire. It’s not like other kisses they’ve shared. Luke tastes a hint of exasperation in the way Michael kisses him. They don’t fight for dominance. Luke just takes it, and he bites gently down on Michael’s bottom lip. It’s an accidental move, a product of trying to hastily get a better angle, but Michael gasps all the same, so Luke does it again just to hear Michael’s response.

It’s a sick ruse of love, this passion between them. Luke’s cock grows hard in his pajama pants against Michael’s stomach. Michael is just as eager for this as he, his own dick straining against the soft material of his sweat pants. His jacket hinders them from proceeding any farther, so Luke makes haste to undo the zipper. He drops the coat to the ground. It lands unceremoniously in a pile that they will likely trip over later.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Luke acknowledges that he should put a stop to this, that this is a bad idea. But he ignores that tiny voice. It’s easily drowned out by the arousal pooling in his belly. Michael grinds against him. He wants to get Michael off like this, wants to make him come by nothing but the friction of their dicks sliding against each other through the fabrics of their pants. He doesn’t, not now at least. He tries not to think about why he’s filing this idea away for later. He pushes the entire notion out of his mind and focuses only on Michael before him in this very moment.

He flips them around so that Michael’s got his back to the door then he shoves his hand inside the waistband of Michael’s pants and wraps his fingers around the base of his dick. He tightens his grip ever-so-slightly, just enough to elicit a rushed moan from Michael’s lips. It’s sound like victory. He wants to hear it again over and over and over until it’s all he knows, all he can think about. But Michael has other ideas, and he distracts Luke from his newly-declared goal in life.

Michael ruts into Luke’s hand, using him for his own relief. Luke lets him. It feels a bit forbidden, watching Michael do all of the work to get himself off. It sends a shiver of thrill down Luke’s spine. They’re not kissing anymore, so he drops his lips to Michael’s shoulder. The marks he left the last time are faded, barely visible on his skin. Luke works back over them, sucking and biting until they’re all brand new again, brand new and red and shining with his spit.

He can feel the twitch of Michael’s cock in his hand, and he knows that Michael’s getting ready to come. He, himself, is still unwaveringly hard in his pants, and he wants to press his dick against Michael’s, get them off at the same time, but it feels all wrong. Luke uses his free hand to palm himself through his pants instead. He tightens his grip around Michael’s cock, and Michael gasps one more time, and he comes all over Luke’s hand, paints stripes on the inside of his own boxers. Michael falls weightless against the door. Luke follows him, crowds back into him.

Luke removes his hand from Michael’s pants. He starts to wipe the mess off, but he meets Michael’s eyes, and there’s a shit-eating smirk on Michael’s face. Nobody should be this snarky so soon after an orgasm. Luke doesn’t want to see it, so he places his come-covered hand over Michael’s lips. Michael’s pupils dilate immediately, and a hot, wet tongue swipes across the mess in Luke’s palm.

That’s all it takes, really, to make Luke weak at the knees. He slips his other hand into his pants so that he can jerk himself off, too strung up with desire to draw out the moment any longer. Michael continues to lick his own come off Luke’s hand, and Luke tugs at his cock in the same rhythm, long strokes over his hard dick pushing him closer and closer to orgasm until it washes over him. He comes messily in his own boxers, Michael’s name trapped on his lips. He falls forward, chest against chest with Michael. His hand slips from Michael’s mouth and braces against the door, wet and sliding against the wood.

He doesn’t move, only breathes in at the same time Michael breathes out. The clock next to the kitchen ticks away the seconds. Luke feels like he’s everywhere and nowhere at once, anchored to reality only by the feel of Michael’s body hot against his own. Michael drops his lips to Luke’s neck, right above the sweet spot where it meets his shoulder, and he bites down hard. Luke moans, mindlessly. It’s pain that’s pleasure, and Michael licks over his bite before scraping his teeth across a fresh patch of Luke’s skin and repeating the cycle. Luke lets him, because he still hasn’t recovered from his orgasm. He lets him until Michael stops of his own accord. He remains weightless against him.

Michael shifts and raises his hand to Luke’s chin, tilting it until they’re looking into each other’s eyes once again. Luke blinks. His mind is all fuzzy from his orgasm, and it’s much simpler right now to admit to himself that he very much wants to kiss Michael. So he leans forward and presses his lips against Michael’s. He tries not to think about how he doesn’t think he really hates Michael anymore.

Michael tastes likes come, and it’s almost forbidden that this is Luke’s first taste of him. Luke hasn’t even gone down on him yet, but he wants to. He wants to take Michael’s cock in his mouth like he’s never wanted to go down on somebody before in his life. He wants to see how long it’ll take him to tear Michael apart at the seams, a bumbling mess on the tip of Luke’s tongue. He doesn’t really want to stop there, either. He wants it all, and that’s even scarier than not hating Michael.

Luke’s the one who breaks the kiss first, and he kisses down Michael’s neck to the crook of his shoulder. He hovers there for a moment. Michael exhales a shaky breath. He’s got his hands on Luke’s hips, fingers pressing bruises through Luke’s pajama pants. Luke’ll wear them like a badge, like a badge of honor that only he’s privy to know the story behind. That thought—the idea of taking away bruises Michael’s fingers have left on his body—is enough to make Luke suck another mark into Michael’s skin.

He doesn’t want Michael to leave, but that’s not how this works. He doesn’t hate Michael, but Michael still hates him. So when Michael pushes at his hips ever-so-gently, Luke licks over the newest mark and reluctantly steps back. It’s harder to ignore the hatred bred between them when Michael’s bending down to retrieve his jacket. It’s even harder to ignore when Michael leaves without another word, still zipping up his coat even as he’s already stepped out into the icy January air. It’s hardest to ignore when all Luke’s left with are the taste of Michael on his tongue and his own come drying in his underwear.

Chapter Text

Luke goes to a photoshoot on Wednesday to promote the auction that’s to be held on Friday. He wears clothes that Niall designs specifically for him. The photographer’s name is Zayn. He’s ethereally good looking. Luke almost feels ugly by comparison. Zayn is tall, almost as tall as Luke, and handsome with his dark hair styled so perfectly out of his eyes and tattoos all up and down his exposed arms. He wears a striped dress shirt that’s from one of Niall’s older lines and blushes whenever Niall compliments him on it.

“Can you at least look like you’re enjoying this?” propositions Zayn. He’s got his camera up to his right eye so only the bottom half of his beautiful face is visible. He’s frowning disapprovingly at Luke. His index finger hovers over the shutter button. “And what the hell is all over your neck? Did you, like, get in a fight with a vacuum?”

Luke forces a laugh and resists the urge to run his hand over the bruises Michael sucked into his skin. They’re fading, because they’re days old now, but he can still remember the heat of Michael’s mouth dancing pleasure into pain down his neck. It sends a tingle of arousal right down to his dick. He’s not really wearing the correct pants to conceal an erection, and he’s certainly not in the best position right now in front of Zayn’s camera to hide it, either.

“How did the makeup team completely miss this?” demands Zayn. He glares toward the heavy, industrial iron door that leads out into the dressing room then lets his gaze fall to the watch on his wrist. He sighs. “We’re running out of time. Alright. I think I can work with it. Look down for me.”

Luke does as Zayn asks, conscious of the blush staining his entire body. He hopes it won’t show up in the photographs. Zayn takes a few pictures, the shutter clicking loudly on the camera. The flash of the bulb is bright in Luke’s eyes. Zayn pulls the camera back from his face and cocks his head sideways at Luke, a thoughtful expression resting on his cheeks.

“Look up—at that beam right there,” he says, pointing in the general area to which he is referring. There’s a hesitant tone to his voice. Luke glances suspiciously at him, but Zayn waves toward the beam again. He sets his shoulders and raises the camera back to his eye. “Honey, I think this may just be gold if I can just…”

He doesn’t bother to explain what he is trying to do and allows, instead, his words to trail off into nothingness. Luke’s not sure he’d even understand if he asked, so he lets Zayn take the pictures and follows Zayn’s every command until they’re finally finished. Luke is sent back to the dressing room to get changed into his street clothes. Zayn moves over to the laptop plugged up in the far corner of the room so that he can dump the pictures right away.

Niall’s waiting for Luke in the dressing room. He’s alternated between watching Luke’s shoot and hiding away in here for the past hour. Now, he is packing away the carefully designed clothes into a duffle bag that has the emblem of his company. He pointedly ignores Luke as Luke trades his shoot clothes for the ones he had worn this morning.

“Ashton’s not happy with you,” says Niall, finally, after he’s put everything into the duffle bag. He shoves it across the table toward Luke, because it’s his now, after the shoot. Niall’s holding his sketchbook close to his chest. There’s a line of ink staining the side of his hand.  “He’s not happy with you at all.”

Niall isn’t either, Luke wants to point out but doesn’t. Niall has been short with him since Luke arrived this morning. Niall is probably responsible for his botched makeup job, too. Luke hasn’t spoken to Ashton since he left his house the other day, angry and no longer hungry. He’s not really surprised that Niall’s caught word of his spat with Michael. There are no secrets between Niall and Ashton, after all. Luke doubts there ever has been.

“Would it kill you to be nicer to him?” Niall asks. His tone is heavy with days’ worth of anger. The corner of his lips twitch as if there’s more that he wants to say, as if he’s been preparing himself all morning for this very moment, as if he’s ready to tear into Luke until Luke’s broken and bleeding on the floor. “Ashton said you weren’t very nice to Michael at all the other day and that he high-tailed it out of the house not too long after you left.”

Luke thinks about laughing, but he knows that would only make Niall angrier, and there’s nothing he could do quell Niall’s anger without explaining why exactly the fact that Michael left Ashton’s place not too soon after Luke himself did is funny. He can’t tell Niall that he’s already made his apologies to Michael in the form of an orgasm. Or that the only reason Michael left Ashton’s was to track Luke down. There may be no secrets between Niall and Ashton, but there is an entire universe of them between Luke and Michael.

 “Just pull your head out of your ass and be the bigger man, all right?”

It’s easy for Niall to say, because he’s not the one who Michael hates. Niall isn’t the one Michael has shoved against the wall and kissed, tasting like tequila and limes. He isn’t the one who is supposed to hate Michael, who is expected to hate Michael, but at the end of the day doesn’t.

Luke can’t. Hate Michael, that is. Not anymore, at least. Not since the moment he left Michael in the men’s restroom of the new fancy restaurant with his come drying on Michael’s cock. Probably not since the moment he drunkenly stumbled into the wrong guest room at Ashton’s place, because Luke’s basically that pathetic. He really is that wretched to fall out of hate with a man who never will, too.

“Whatever. Look—you don’t really know what you’re talking about so just drop it, okay?” returns Luke. He’s tired from the shoot, and he’s tired of having to hate Michael and then justify the stupid things Michael makes him say. He’s probably being a little too short-fused with Niall, but Niall doesn’t know that he and Michael have been intimate four times over the past two weeks. Niall probably wouldn’t really believe Luke if he told him anyway. “Thanks for the help today. Pass on my gratitude to Zayn as well. I’ll see you around.”

He shrugs into his winter coat and shoulders the duffle bag as he walks out of the room, in too much haste to leave. He doesn’t want to stick around to listen to whatever Niall might have to say in response. Niall is not an expert on Michael, much less on Michael and Luke together. Of course, they’re not together, not in any other sense than occasionally getting each other off, but Niall’s probably never even fathomed this, either. So, Niall doesn’t really know what he’s talking about here.

Outside on the busy sidewalk, Luke keeps his head down so that he won’t be recognized. He’s got a toboggan hat stuffed in the pocket of his jacket. He shoves it down over his ears. It’s probably the worst attempt he’s ever made at blending into the pedestrians of this city. It’s obvious that he’s not like the other business men and women who carry black briefcases and walk three paces faster than everybody else. His gait isn’t as determined. He sticks out, probably, like a sore thumb. He’s got an expensive bag thrown over his shoulder. The emblem alone, the letters NJH embroidered onto the front of the duffle bag, gives him away. It doesn’t matter, because nobody looks at him twice, as far as he can tell.

He has the rest of the afternoon off. Zayn’s supposed to send the station the tentative choices for the promotional that’s supposed to hit the evening papers. Luke’s already done his part in it all. He doesn’t actually get the last say in the photograph that is used. Liam does. All Luke has to do is show up at the show tomorrow morning and pretend like the photograph that is selected is the best of the shoot, and that’s that.

He wanders the sidewalks aimlessly for a while, but he notices, the fifth time he waits on a crosswalk sign to change, that he’s picking up a bit of a following of people. They’re all probably stuck in a limbo between recognizing him without a doubt as the man on their television every morning and rationalizing it couldn’t be him because he wouldn’t be so stupid as to just expect nobody to see him. He sort is that stupid at the moment, so he flags down a cab to drive him far away from downtown.

When he gets home, his front door is unlocked. He can hear the television all the way from the outside of his house. He knows who it’s going to be before he even steps inside. He goes in anyway and shuts the door behind him.

Sure enough, Calum and Harry are stretched out in his living room like there’s nothing out of the ordinary to lounge around on Luke’s couch while he’s gone. Then again, it probably is not that unordinary. Calum’s got a key to his place, so does Harry. They both have an open-invitation here, even when Luke’s away at a photoshoot.

“Are those barbecue?” is Luke’s greeting to Calum, eyes locked on the bag of potato chips laying on the cushion that separates Calum and Harry. Luke drops his duffle bag to the floor, kicking it aside so that he won’t trip over it later. It slides over to the wall against which he once pinned Michael, and he tries to put a stop to that train of thought before it has a chance to leave the station. “You didn’t find those in my kitchen, did you?”

“Bottom cabinet next to the refrigerator,” confirms Calum. He shoves a handful of chips into his mouth, crunching them obnoxiously. “They were buried behind, like, a mountain of five-minute dinners. Who does your grocery shopping for you, anyway? A seventeen year old?”

“I’ve been looking for those for ages,” says Luke, ignoring Calum’s jab. He takes off his jacket so that he can hang it on the hook next to the door. He toes off his shoes then pads sock-footed to the couch. He picks up the bag of chips and sits down between Calum and Harry. “I even made a special trip back to the store to get a bag last weekend.”

Calum laughs at Luke’s inconvenience like the good friend he is. He steals the bag of chips back from Luke so that he can grab another handful. The highlight reel of the city football team’s latest game plays across the television screen. Luke doubts either Calum or Harry are especially interested in the latest hometown loss. They’re men from outside of the city, men who’ve already established their love for football teams who can actually play the game rather than rely on good media coverage to make them look semi-decent. 

“So, uh, Liam’s got your entire date all mapped out already,” says Calum nonchalantly, steadily feeding himself more chips. There’s a twist to the corners of his lips that belie his amusement. He doesn’t look over at Luke, eyes glued to the television.

“I wasn’t aware I was dating Liam,” retorts Luke. His stomach sinks, though, because he’s already dreading this auction enough. He doesn’t need his boss designing the winning date. Luke isn’t really that pathetic on his own. He’s sure he can think of something to do with whatever sad soul buys his time. “Should I be worried about, I dunno, his wife showing up on my doorstep demanding a dog fight, winner gets Liam? Because I think I’d lose. No chance of winning, really. I heard she once ran with the bulls when she was visiting Spain. Don’t think I’m ballsy enough for that.”

Calum and Harry both look over at him at that, eyebrows raised in an identical manner. They stare at him then, at the same time because somehow they’ve linked their brainwaves or something creepy like that, they burst out laughing as if Luke tempting bulls is the funniest thing imaginable. He can admit to himself, and only himself, that the idea paints an amusing picture, but he doesn’t really think it warrants a full-bellied, body-shaking bout of laughter to which his friends have both succumbed. He elbows Calum in the side first, catching him just beneath the rib cage. Calum grunts, and his laughter disappears as he rubs at the sore spot. Harry’s given a heads-up, so he dutifully misses Luke’s elbow.

“It’s nothing fancy, so don’t fret over it too much,” says Calum. The reassuring message of his statement is lost to the airy note in his voice. He’s still rubbing at his ribs. Still, Luke has to admit there are perks to being such good friends with a man like Calum who knows everything there is to know about the station. “Just a simple candlelit dinner, a swoop through all of the cameras, and, bam, date finished.”

“And somebody’s actually going to pay money for all of that—wait. Who pays for the dinner? The one who wins the auction? Or have they already put out too much money?”

“The station,” answers Calum with a roll of his eyes. He got that from Ashton. There’s not a doubt in Luke’s mind, because Ashton’s perfected it over the years, and Calum’s become something like Ashton’s minion since the very first day they met. “So go all out. Enjoy yourself.”

“Isn’t that a line they use on over-priced hookers? I mean, isn’t that essentially what I’m going to be?”

“I think the proper term now is escort,” says Harry, wrinkling his nose as if he’s personally offended on behalf of people who get paid for sex. That’s just Harry, though. He’s a compassionate soul, and he’s probably the only one of Luke’s friends who would never consider paying for sex. “And technically, there’s nothing that says you have to put out at the end of the date, so I don’t think you qualify for that, either.”

“Except for the fact that this person is paying money to have dinner with me? To talk to me?” challenges Luke, and if his tone is a little too close to panicky, then it’s only to be expected. He’s not been excited about this auction from the very beginning, ever since Liam first sat him down in his office with the beautiful view of the city. It’s just around the corner now, and he’s rapidly losing the ability to think that’s a problem for Future-Luke, because he’s about to become the aforementioned Future-Luke.

“Because that’s not what they do Monday through Friday from five-thirty to nine every morning? Because people don’t pay for cable or satellite or internet so they can listen to you jabber on about this and that and everything in between?” returns Calum.

He’s about to launch into his famous spiel about how falling ratings don’t necessarily mean people don’t like Luke, that demographics are what is actually kicking him in the ass, but Luke doesn’t want to hear it. He’s allowed to be anxious about the upcoming auction.

“It’s not the same, now, is it?” asks Luke. Calum snaps his mouth shut, biting his lips together. “What if whoever wins the auction is a total douche? Or what if, God forbid, they only want to talk about themselves, and they’re, like, completely boring? What then?”

“You need to date more,” concludes Harry. He shakes his head disapprovingly as if he’s one to talk. His last relationship was two years ago, and that had gone so spectacularly up in flames that he refuses to even talk about the nitty-gritty details that led to the final showdown and left him brokenhearted and emotionally scarred in the middle of some mom-and-pop restaurant on the south side of the city. 

“Relationships are hard,” says Luke. It’s true. He might have a thousand and one things to pick at in Harry’s history of relationships, but his glass house is probably much worse. The fact that the last dick he saw belonged to Michael, a man who hates him, really says a lot about Luke in the romance department. It’s a sad comment on his sex life at the moment, too.

“But sex is easy, right? Or else you’re going to have to explain why you’re turning into a leopard—all those marks spotted on your neck. Somebody went to town, didn’t they?” teases Calum, and he really has no idea. He’s kind of like Ashton and Niall in that respect, and Luke can never in a million years admit to him exactly from where the bruises on his neck have come.

 “You know this is my house, don’t you? And those are my potato chips,” says Luke with entirely too much volume than is required when the only other two people here are seated on either side of him. He doesn’t want to talk about Michael or even about some phantom excuse in the place of Michael, because he’s not that good lying to Calum or to Harry. Or to any of his friends. He’s an open book, from the first page to the last, and really only has a few hard-earned secrets that he keeps close to his chest like the perfect hand of cards in a poker game. Michael’s the ultimate lock-and-key secret. “You two should be nicer to me.”

“I haven’t been mean,” argues Harry, like he’s really that innocent and not at all like he cried himself laughing just a few minutes earlier at Luke’s expense. “Besides, if we’re splitting hairs here, you wouldn’t even know you had those chips if Calum hadn’t found them.”

Luke groans, grinning widely from ear-to-ear. He misses this right here, this camaraderie with Harry and Calum, when the former is gone. It’s not that Luke and Calum don’t spend time together when it’s just the two of them alone in the city, because they do. There’s a certain non-reproducible charm, however, about three of them hanging out like old friends that he longs whenever for Harry’s gone on his world adventures being beautiful.

Calum and Harry stay until late that evening. Luke offers his spare room and the couch for them, but he completely understands when they leave him for their own beds waiting for them in their own homes. It’s an enjoyable night over all. Luke showers and climbs into his own bed about half an hour after they leave, because he’s got to get up before the ass crack of dawn to make it in for his show, and he doesn’t think it’ll look good for the upcoming auction if he’s late to work the day before the big event.

He isn’t late the next morning, but it’s a near thing. It’s really not his fault. The driver gets his streets confused at four-forty-five in the morning and turns left instead of right and that puts an extra twenty minutes on Luke’s commute. When they finally arrive at the station, the driver apologizes profusely, but Luke is too busy hauling ass out of the car to get into the building and, more importantly, into the presenter’s chair to really bother with niceties.

Luke makes it to his seat as the opening music beings to play, and the show goes pretty good. Liam comes down about halfway though, and Luke gets to see the selected photograph for the first time. He knows he’s going to hate it by the wide grin stretched across Liam’s lips. Apparently everybody but him has seen it, too, because Miranda and Casey both struggle to rein in their amusement.

Olivia’s edited the promotional well, and Luke watches the tiny screen next to the camera to get his first glimpse of the fruits of yesterday’s labor. The screen flashes white before Luke’s face appears in it. He gasps, and his cheeks heat up, and right there for the entire city to see in clear-cut clarity, even in the black-and-white still photograph, are the pepper of bruises Michael had sucked into the skin of his neck. They’re not the focus of the picture of course, but they’re all that Luke can see.

It’s one of the last photographs Zayn took yesterday. Luke’s looking up away from the camera, and his neck is exposed, and the marks there don’t look forbidden. They don’t look like hatred painted across his skin. They look… They look voluptuous, like somebody had taken their sweet time to stain their love into his very soul.

It’s almost too much to look at. Luke has to turn away, or else Michael threatens to overwhelm his every thought right here, right now on air, live for the entire city. Luke feels exposed, like he’s sitting naked in front of the cameras, legs splayed wide open and cock softened, laying off to one side. He knows realistically that he isn’t, that he’s fully dressed in a sweater and a pair of navy blue trousers, but that doesn’t stop the shiver that runs down his spine.

“Well, Luke, what’d you think? Marketable in your honor?” asks Liam when the advertisement ends, and the station breaks for a commercial. He’s got his eyebrows raised high on his head like he’s genuinely concerned about Luke’s reaction. “Zayn got a lot of good shots, of course, but he and I both agreed this one was the best.”

“It’s, uh, great,” says Luke. He tries to fake a smile, but he probably looks like he’s constipated or something. He can’t really disagree with his boss anyway, not when his future here at the station hangs on this charity event. If it goes well, Luke’ll keep the morning job without a doubt. If it doesn’t, he’s not so sure. “Good choice with the black and white.”

“The bruises were a little too bright in color,” says Liam. The glint in his eyes suggests he wants to crack a joke at the state of Luke’s neck or maybe ask whose artwork it is, but he’s a professional. Besides, it’s not like Luke would answer him. “Thought we might go for a little mystery. Try to show the people that you’re much more than just a face on their morning television.”

That’s what it’s really about, what Luke’s been missing since Thanksgiving. The people want somebody who is human, who is as open and honest with them as one can be at six o’clock in the morning. In the beginning, when Luke had first gotten the job, it had been easy. He had ridden the high of the promotion and pushed aside everything that held him back. Somewhere along the way, he started to construct his walls. His viewership had taken a beating, and even now, almost three months since the first drop in ratings, he’s not sure how to tear down the walls he so carefully reinforced.

The commercial break ends, saving Luke from having to respond. He’s given about two seconds to gather himself back up, to push aside all thoughts of Michael and the bruises that are still healing on his own neck, before the cameras turn back on. He launches into the next segment. It’s a bit of a rough transition. Casey glances sideways at him, smile plastered on his face for the benefit of the viewers. Luke pointedly ignores Casey, but he appreciates it when Casey wrestles the segment away from him as if it’s his purpose in life to gush over tiny ducklings following their mother around in one of the local parks.

Luke feels off-kilter for the rest of the show, like he’s gone back to back to back on a tilt-o-whirl with no pause in between. He’s never been as relieved for the end of the show as he is when he finally pushes his chair back to vacate it for Isaac. He has meetings afterward. They’re all about tomorrow’s auction, and Liam’s in most of them, too, so Luke stays on edge, raw and exposed, until he finally climbs in a cab that takes him straight home.

He fixes a five-minute meal for one, sitting down at his table with his back to the living room to eat it. The memory of Michael is still alive in there, in the wall where Luke had once pinned him and against the door where Luke hadn’t held him down but had made him come all the same. The food tastes bland when it’s finally cooled down enough to eat without cringing. It’s out of a box, so he can’t expect much, but, usually, he likes this particular beans and rice and chicken combination. He plows through about half of it before he can’t take it any longer. He throws the rest away in the trash, shuts off the kitchen light, and heads into his bedroom. He strips his clothes along the way until he’s wearing nothing but his boxers.

It’s mid-afternoon, but he crawls into his bed as if it were ten at night. He’s got a darkening curtain over his window, because he often naps after he gets home from work. It’s doing its job right now, blocking out most of the daylight. It casts a blue hue over his room. Luke’s eyes drift shut. He doesn’t fall asleep just yet. He rubs at the fading bruises along his neck and thinks of Michael’s mouth hot on his skin.

Arousal pools in his belly. His cock begins to harden by just the memory of Michael’s teeth grazing across the fresh bruises he had made. Luke palms his dick through his boxers, making no move to remove them. It feels wrong, somehow, being hard right now because of Michael, but the man’s not here, so it’s really just because of Luke’s too-good memory. This should be his own prerogative then, jerking himself off while recalling how Michael had felt underneath his hands, but it doesn’t feel like it is. Luke doesn’t like what it’s doing to his head so he squeezes his cock one last time and turns over on his stomach. He’s asleep within minutes.

He doesn’t sleep all evening and all night, but he gets quite a bit more sleep than he had intended. He wakes up two hours before he normally does and watches the DVD left in his player, volume turned down low and color dancing off the dark walls of his bedroom. When the credits finally roll, he climbs out of bed and pads to his ensuite bathroom where he spends the next half hour in the shower scrubbing every part of his body. He runs his washcloth over his cock and tries not to think about Michael, but it’s a pitiful attempt. His cock starts to harden. He thinks about Michael down on his knees, about Michael’s mouth on his cock. Luke’s skin starts to crawl like it did before he fell asleep when he was hard and unwilling to jerk off to the memory of Michael.

The wrong feeling is back now. Luke wrings the soap suds out of his wash cloth and drapes it over the bar to drip dry. His cock is hard, but he turns to face the shower head and blasts icy water over his body before he turns off the spray. A fluffy white towel hangs on the hook next to the shower where he left it the previous morning, so he braves tugging open the curtain to get it. Cool air tickles at his wet skin. He hastily dries off. His cock is soft again between his legs.

The car comes for him at its usual time. He packs up a thermos of coffee and heads down to it, climbing into the backseat earlier than he has in months. It’s not the same driver from yesterday who got them lost and almost made him late, so there’s not much hassle on the way to the station. He’s in his seat five minutes before the cameras start rolling, and when Miranda passes him another cup of coffee because he’s already blown through his first, he notices his hands tremble around the porcelain handle.

The countdown to the auction is on, and Luke’s only got a few more hours until he’s prostituted out for the good of his show.

The show goes well. Casey does a good job at remembering to promote the auction and to urge people to come out to show their support. They video chat with a few viewers who are all equally interested in Luke’s photoshoot, more specifically in the bruises darkened against his skin. Luke laughs them off, says something about the lighting in the studio he’d used, and that’s that. He probably sounds a little hysterical, but he can’t help it. This is as close as he’s ever been to talking about Michael live on air in a way that isn’t mean.

The viewers don’t know who Michael is, of course, and neither does anybody in the entire world except the man himself, but Luke feels like he needs to build a room inside the walls of his mind to keep Michael, safe and away from everything about Luke that could hurt him. It’s this thought, this desire to protect a man who hates him, that leaves Luke reeling in his chair, silent even as the latest video chatter prompts him to speak.

Miranda fields the question, barely glancing over at Luke, and he appreciates it. The video chatter is seemingly satisfied. After a couple of more minutes, they sign off then the show goes to a commercial break. The lights turn back on for the entire studio, not just the stage. Miranda and Casey both turn to him, moving as if on the same axis.

“Want to explain what the hell that was?” demands Casey.

He’s at least keeping his voice semi-quiet. There’s a lot of noise behind the cameras right now as the sound technicians hurry to fix the issue on the second line leading into the newsroom next door. It’s been a persistent problem for the past couple of days, and they’ve yet to really figure out what the cause of it is. 

“Just me realizing I’ve got less than twelve hours now until Liam becomes my pimp,” retorts Luke, because it’s safer if his coworkers think he’s nervous about the upcoming auction than if they know he’s internally freaking the fuck out at the notion that he might want to throw himself between Michael and, like, a train or something. “Think he’ll make me get a tatt on my ass? Something like Property of Liam?”

Casey laughs full-bellied like it’s the most hilarious thing he’s heard all morning. Since it’s just barely half past eight o’clock, it probably really is the most humorous thing. They’ve spent the majority of the morning promoting the upcoming auction, so it’s been a rather serious show. They’ll finish up the last half hour with something funny, maybe like a gag reel of kittens sneezing themselves off the back of a couch.

When the lights dim again and the camera starts to roll, Miranda gladly tells the entire city about Luke’s future tattoo. Olivia does some editing magic behind the scenes, and Casey bodily stands Luke up so that Olivia can CGI the shaky bubble lettered tattoo onto the butt of Luke’s trousers. It’s not a very flattering picture. He tells his viewers as much, craning his head around so that he can see himself in the tiny screen next to the main camera. Everybody on set gets a good laugh of it all. When Luke finally wiggles out of Casey’s death-hold to reclaim his seat, a glance at the computer screen tells him the viewers enjoyed it—as well, enough to comment on it, at the very least. The show ends, some fifteen or twenty minutes later, on a high note.

The auction begins at four o’clock that evening. Everybody’s expected to be in tip-top shape, so Liam dismisses them all from their afternoon meetings. The people on Luke’s team have been up for hours, and by the time the charity event ends this evening, it’ll be past their usual weekday bedtimes. It’s a Friday, though, so nobody’s really too concerned with staying up past eight.

Luke goes home to an empty house, sharing a cab with Miranda and then paying all of their fare when it pulls up to his place. He eats a ham and mayonnaise sandwich standing next to his center island, not bothering with a plate. There are still hours before he’s expected to be at the charity event.

He’s got a nicely pressed tuxedo hanging in the closet. He doesn’t change into it yet, though. He feels too jittery. Underneath all of the jokes, he really is worried that nobody will want to buy him, that this evening will be a total failure, and that he’ll have to type up a resignation to leave on Liam’s desk Monday morning. He really, really doesn’t want to quit his job.

He puts the mayonnaise back in the refrigerator then heads to his bedroom. The memory of Michael still haunts his living room, and now is certainly not the moment to think about him. It’s not the time to try to figure out why he not only doesn’t hate Michael anymore but also kind of wants to throw his arm around him and just protect him from everything in the world. He’s not sure when the time will be, but it’s certainly not now when he’s going to be sold to the highest bidder in just a few hours.

Chapter Text

He falls asleep stretched sideways across his bed, and it’s a fitful rest. He’s woken a little while later by the ding of a message on his phone. It’s from Ashton, who wishes him luck. Ashton is going to be at the charity auction as Calum’s official plus one. Luke’s pretty sure the rest of Ashton’s crew will be there, too. Calum, at the very least, personally extended an invitation to them all, and that’s definitely something he has the power to do.

The illuminated numbers on his alarm clock betrays exactly how little time Luke has before he absolutely has to leave. He showered this morning, so he doesn’t need to now. He stumbles into the bathroom to splash water on his face. It makes him feel a little more human and a little less like he’s only a bundle of nerves encompassed by skin. He dresses in his tuxedo. Somehow, he manages to fold the handkerchief into a perfect triangle to peek out of his breast pocket. When he looks at himself in the full-length mirror on the back of his bathroom door, he has to admit that he looks rather well put together, like somebody he might pay a lot of money to eat dinner with. He hopes he doesn’t vomit before the auction.

Miranda, being such a wonderful coworker, has a car sent to his house precisely forty-five minutes before he’s expected to be at the charity. His phone buzzes as he’s styling his hair to tell him that said car has arrived. He goes over his hair one last time with hairspray to make sure it’ll hold in place. It won’t, of course, because he’s already resisting the urge to run his fingers through it in the nervous habit he picked up in high school and still hasn’t dropped.  

His phone buzzes a second time. He pockets his cell phone, wallet, and keys before he heads out of the door. His hands shake as he tries the door knob behind him to ensure that it’s properly locked. He’s not really sure why he’s so nervous. It’s just a charity event, realistically, and he appears on television for the city every weekday. Surely, this shouldn’t be any worse.

But it is. He can’t exactly lie to himself otherwise, not now that he’s in the car on the way to the charity. It’s being held at the convention center downtown. He’s going to have to mix and mingle with people who could potentially buy his time. He’s going to have to make everybody he meets fall just a little in love with him so that somebody will bid on him and save him the humiliation of being worthless, even for a charity auction. That’s his biggest fear, if he’s being completely, one hundred percent honest with himself. Tonight, it could come to pass, and he’s not sure what that’ll leave him in the morning.

The car pulls up right in front of the convention center. There are already people lined up with cameras, eager for the first snapshot of the prestigious guests of honor. Luke takes a deep readying breath and tries to smile in the face of the bright flashes of light and the screaming. There’s a line of security on either side of the entrance, stretched all the way to the street. Luke takes refuge in the easy path to the ornate double doors, but security team does nothing to silence the word faggot tossed maliciously at him. He doesn’t know who said it. He doesn’t care, either, but it still prickles across his skin, hurtful and mean just like the first time he heard it screamed at him from a man behind a camera.

Inside of the convention center, the silence is almost deafening. Luke almost immediately spots Ashton standing on the top of the beautiful staircase talking to some important fashion designer whose name Luke has forgotten. He makes his way toward Ashton, weaving through the crowd in the big, open lobby. A few people stop him along the way. Laura from the charity committee gushes over his willingness to be sold off to the highest bidder for an entire evening. Louis, a heartthrob pop singer signed to his own family’s illustrious record label, catches him before he can dash up the stairs.

“I just love your show,” says Louis, smiling politely even as he unabashedly rakes his eyes over Luke’s body. Louis himself is a handsome man. Born into vast wealth, he isn’t marked by the wrinkles of hard work and stress. He’s wearing a charcoal gray suit worth three times as much as the one Luke shrugged himself into. The legs of his trousers are folded up around his ankles like they always are, crisp and neat and one hundred hundred percent Louis. His tie is midnight blue, and the color is complimentary to his brown that is carefully styled out of his eyes. “Where are my manners? I do hope you remember me. Louis Tomlinson. We met at the mayor’s dinner last November.”

“Of course, how could I forget you?” responds Luke, because that’s what’s expected of him. He does, in fact, remember Louis as the man who vomited all over the roots of the mayor’s prized bonsai tree. It’s definitely not the most flattering way to recall somebody, so Luke keeps quiet about it. “How is recording for your new album coming along?”

“Gloriously,” says Louis, and Luke knows that he can talk about himself all night. It’s what he did at the mayor’s party. Louis doesn’t, now, though. He stops ogling Luke to meet his eyes. Louis’s lips split into a charming smile as he leans toward Luke, crowding into his personal space like he’s got a right to be there. “I’m quite looking forward to the main event tonight.”

It feels like a cheesy pick up line, and it probably is, but Louis just winks and straightens back up. He doesn’t commandeer any more of Luke’s time, can probably tell by the way Luke glances periodically at Ashton who is still at the head of the stairs that he’s expected to be elsewhere. Louis offers his hand to Luke to shake. When he does, Louis brings Luke’s hand up to his lips and presses a soft kiss there like a gentleman promising his favor. He lets Luke go, not at all put out that the most Luke can muster up for him is a brief smile before he flees to Ashton.

Ashton is free of people by the time Luke reaches the top of the stairs, and he wastes no time in throwing his arms around Luke in a tight hug. Luke melts into it instantly, dropping his head to Ashton’s shoulder though he has to slouch in order to do so. Ashton smells of expensive cologne, of crisp citrus and a hint of spice. Luke breathes in a lungful just to have something else to concentrate on other than his hands trembling with nerves behind Ashton’s back.

“It’s a silent auction,” Ashton tells him as a manner of comfort as if he himself doesn’t know the details of the charity. They’re all to eat a fancy dinner and walk through the items and place bids on whatever catches their fancy and hope that their price is enough to triumph over everybody else’s. “Did I see you talking with Louis Tomlinson?”

“He caught me on my way to you,” says Luke, still into Ashton’s shoulder. He’s glad Ashton isn’t fixated on his nerves, that he knows when to stop comforting and just let him wallow in his own thoughts until he gets sick of them. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him I watched him projectile vomit once, all over this tree and the mayor’s eldest daughter’s shoes.”

Ashton chuckles, and it vibrates through his entire body. “That’s probably not the best thing to say to somebody who could potentially buy you tonight.”

Luke makes a face into Ashton’s shoulder, nose scrunched up in distaste. He pulls away from him and takes a step back. Ashton is handsome in his tuxedo. It’s black with white accents along the collar, sleek and expensive. A silver watch on his wrist peeks out from underneath his left sleeve. He looks like he’s ready for the runway right now.

“Where are the others?” asks Luke, because he knows Ashton isn’t alone.

“Calum showed them to their seats,” answers Ashton. He smiles at Luke and extends his hand to him, threading their fingers together. “I said I’d wait for you.”

He doesn’t have to say that he’s worried Luke won’t just walk right back out the doors before the auction even starts. It’s plain in his voice, in the tightness of his fingers as he leads them toward the ball room that serves as the banquet hall. Luke doesn’t really blame him. He’s got half the notion to slip out of his grip, claim he needs the toilet, and then sneak out the back. He won’t, of course, because he’s got so much riding on tonight, but the temptation is nice.

There are tables everywhere in the banquet hall. They’re all covered with white sheets and fancy china. Ashton easily navigates a path to their table where name cards designate each of them seats. Luke nearly gets stopped three separate times, but each of them take one look at Ashton and settle for a quick handshake instead. He’s a woman on a mission. Nobody wants to mess with him.

Luke sits down next to Calum, and Niall’s on the other side of him. Michael is on the opposite side as far away from Luke as he can possibly get while sitting at the same table. He looks devilishly handsome in his white sports coat and black tie underneath it. He has one of his hands resting on the table, his fingers drumming a steady beat. Luke catches a glance of the tattoo resting on Michael’s thumb, and Luke’s face flushes hot as he remembers how it had looked, Michael’s hands held above his head, the anchor tattoo upside down, in Luke’s living room.

“Ready for all of the bidding?” asks Calum, elbowing him in the side. He’s grinning from ear-to-ear. His cheeks are stained pink from the glass of wine he’s already halfway through. Luke doubts it’s his first. “It’s a shame it’s not a proper auction with an auctioneer and everything, isn’t it? I mean, just imagine—”

“I will end you, Calum,” snaps Luke.

The last thing he needs is for Liam to walk by or something and think that Calum’s just had the greatest idea. Luke’s already shaking with anxiety. He grabs his own glass of wine with both hands to keep from spilling it and drinks it all down in one go. The alcohol does nothing to calm him. He reaches for the bottle in the middle of the table to pour another glass, but his grip is so unsteady that Niall bats it out of his hand and pours it for him.

Calum laughs, because he’s got just enough alcohol in his system to find Luke’s glare funny. He doesn’t bother to finish his statement, though, and that’s partially thanks to Ashton laying his hand on Calum’s arm to steal his attention. Luke shoots Ashton a grateful, albeit small, smile.

He takes sip of his wine. It’s not as full as it was the first time, and he wants to call Niall on it, but the reality is that he probably doesn’t want to be wasted off his ass by the time the auction ends. He’s sure Liam expects him to be a professional tonight, not to drink his worries away with expensive, though still atrocious tasting, wine. 

“It’ll be fine,” Niall tells him, topping off his own wine before setting the bottle down out of Luke’s reach. He’s not as snappish with him as he was the last time Luke saw him. Though Luke hasn’t apologized to either Niall or Ashton, he’s not so sure they’re really looking for anything from him anymore. The words he said to Michael are water under the bridge. Michael still hates him, and Luke should hate Michael in return, but that’s just the way they two of them work. “I’ve already heard loads of people discuss how much they’re willing to pay for you.”

“Yep, still makes me feel like a prostitute,” he says, raising his wine toward Niall in a pseudo-toast. His voice drips with sarcasm that he can’t rein in and doesn’t try to hide. He takes another long drink of his wine before returning it to the table. “If this whole television thing doesn’t pan out, I guess I can always resort to selling my body.”

“For what? A quarter an hour?” retorts Michael, breaking into the conversation though he’s an entire two people away from Luke, at the closest. “It’s about all it’s worth, isn’t it, to spend time with you?”

“Michael!” snaps Niall, but the rest of his reprimand is lost to Luke’s response.

“What’s that say about men who go down on me for free, sweetheart? Or should I charge retroactively?”

It’s harsh, and Luke’s own cheeks burn at the memory of Michael’s mouth on his cock, but it’s worth the way Michael stiffens in his chair. It’s worth the way the smile drops gradually from Michael’s lips. Niall doesn’t have a clue what Luke is talking about, probably thinks he’s just spouting off his mouth to get a rise out of Michael in their age-old antagonistic dance. Niall turns away from Michael to reprimand Luke this time, but it’s a futile attempt. Michael speaks before Niall is given the chance.

“Nah, I reckon you can’t grandfather it in. I mean, they’ve all had this time to forget how good it could have been, you know.”

“Oh, I highly doubt they’d forget that,” says Luke.

It’s exhilarating, this charged exchange. It’s the closest he and Michael have ever come to talking about what they’ve done together, and they’re still not really discussing it. Niall’s glancing between them, and he doesn’t know that this is any more than just Michael being mean to Luke and Luke being mean right back. That’s what’s so thrilling about this. Luke knows what Michael looks like when he comes. He knows what he tastes like, too. He’s taken Michael apart, and he’s pinned Michael down, and nobody else in the entire world knows about it or would even fathom there was such a possibility.

His words bring a dark blush to Michael’s cheeks. They silence Michael, too, and he plays it off by taking a small sip of his own wine. Luke smirks across the table at him. He’s won this round. It’s the first time in a few days that he doesn’t feel guilty for his victory. It might have something to do with the smile that’s threatening to overcome Michael, but Luke doesn’t really want to think about that.

The servers bring platters of food to each individual table. It’s the kind of service that the station must’ve paid a lot of money for, but it doesn’t matter. It’ll pay off in the end. Luke loads his plate with as much food as he thinks he can stomach, but he ends up only picking at the chicken and lasagna when his nerves become too much. The others around the table try to make conversation with him to keep his mind off the impending auction. It doesn’t really help. He can see the hall which holds the silent auction from his seat, and people have already began to place their bids. He is half in the mood to skip out on the rest of the evening. He stays seated.

Michael is the first to break from their table, and Ashton and Niall soon follow him. Luke is left with the company of Harry and Calum. He’s still got a plate of cold food, but they’ve both elected to try dessert. There’s a mountainous chocolate cake in front of Harry. Calum’s got something smothered in whipped cream, and Luke kind of wants to vomit just looking at each of them.

 “You two make me sick,” Luke tells them.

It’s not really true, because in any other situation he would be trying to steal bites off both of their plates, but he needs a distraction. He needs to think about something other than the fact that somebody might be bidding on him right now in the room next door. The highest bid might have already been placed, some outrageous number that nobody would ever think to top, let alone attempt to match. Or maybe nobody’s bidding at all. Maybe the sheet of paper dedicated to his part of the auction is resolutely blank, and Liam will be forced to salvage the publicity for the charity and bid on Luke himself, force Luke onto a date where he can politely tell Luke to hand in his resignation.

“That’s not how you should speak to potential bidders,” Calum reprimands him. He spears a glazed strawberry onto his fork and smears it through the whipped cream before he flicks it in Luke’s direction, making a mess of dessert that thankfully doesn’t make it past the fancy flowery centerpiece. “Harry and I were going to pool our money together, you know. Figured there was plenty we could get you to do for us if you were our bitch.”

Luke frowns. There’s nothing less appealing than Calum or Harry winning him. They’d have a good go out of it, of course, and Luke’s sure Calum could spin it for the morning show’s viewers so that they would get a kick out of it as well. But Luke doesn’t want to face the humiliation of having his friends win the auction, of having the people who have to love him anyway take pity on him and place the winning bid so that it’ll look good for the viewers.

“I’m an awful cook. I don’t separate colors when I wash, and I’ve got half of a dozen pairs of pink underwear because of it. I use up all of the hot water whenever I’ve got longer than five minutes to shower. Seriously, Calum, I’m the last person you want to be your bitch.”

 Calum shrugs. He knows all of this about Luke already. It’s hard to miss, really, when they’ve been friends for years now. They didn’t really know each other back when Luke was capable of being a fully functioning adult whose life revolved around somebody else. The smell of blood still sneaks up on Luke occasionally when he’s spent too much time alone doing the things he used to do with help. He’s stopped caring as much.

“We can always find use for you in other ways,” says Harry, voice a slow, teasing drawl. It’s all good fun, really. It’s a good distraction from the bidding that’s going on now, so Luke doesn’t even try to stop him as he continues to rip into him. “Put you on a street corner, and see how much money you can bring in.”

“Take you to a karaoke bar and record a new segment for your show,” adds Calum.

“I thought the whole point of this auction was to bring in more viewers, not to make me lose them,” says Luke, because he can let them have their fun as much as they want, but nobody should be subjected to him trying to sing. He’s got no career as a rock star. That’s fine, because he likes listening to himself talk well enough. Even he doesn’t like to hear himself try to carry a tune.

“Good point. Maybe we’ll just make you do a strip tease at a club,” says Calum.

“Is this a come on? Should I let Ashton know your affections are truly directed elsewhere? That you only put up with him because you can’t get enough of my beautiful face?”

Calum barks out a laugh, the sound loud above the chatter of the banquet hall. He leans back in his chair, balancing precariously on its two rear legs in a manner that is completely inappropriate for the formal setting in which they are immersed. A white headed man at the table next to them glares distastefully Calum, but Calum ignores it like he does most things, careless of others’ opinions whenever he’s called into question. Calum can probably buy and sell the man with what he makes in a month alone. Nobody wears a cheap, rented tuxedo to an event such as this unless they can’t afford anything else.

“Ashton’s a lot smarter than you give him credit for. He’d never believe I’d prefer somebody like you to him. Seriously, Luke, get your head out of your ass.”

It’s Luke’s turn to laugh, but the sound gets caught in his throat when Liam steps up behind Calum. Liam is dressed sharply in his black on black suit, looking much more put together than Luke himself does. Liam places both his hands on the back of Calum’s chair and shoves him forward. Calum squawks. He scrambles for the edge of the table, eyes wide and terrified. Liam chuckles behind him. Calum glares over his shoulder.

“Coulda killed me, you know,” he huffs. There’s a light blush working its way up his neck. He’s just annoyed that he’s made a fool of himself. He may deal well with people who don’t approve of his own harmless fun, but he certainly doesn’t like it when someone manages to one-up him. “Then who would do all your dirty work for you.”

“I have other minions,” says Liam. He winks cheekily at him before looking up at Luke. It’s obvious by the glint in his eyes that Luke was his intended target all along. “The auction’s about to wrap up. We’ll do a quick taping tonight to announce the winner tomorrow morning during the weekend show.”

“You just can’t wait to parade me around, can you?”

“I can make you come in tomorrow morning to do it in real time if you’d like.”

Luke loves his job, but the idea of waking up at the butt crack of dawn on a Saturday is entirely unappealing. He tells Liam as much. Liam laughs, leaning his weight against the back of Calum’s chair. He raises his eyebrows deliberately. Luke knows that look. He thinks about playing dumb for a moment before he realizes that Liam could very well make good on his threat and force him into the office tomorrow morning. He stands up instead.

“Where do you want me?”

It turns out that Liam wants him anywhere and everywhere. Luke thinks about cracking a joke that he really is being prostituted out, but he doesn’t really get chance. He gets paraded around to all of the hot shots here. He makes small talk that he excels at, and he wins over nearly everyone with whom he speaks. It’s a lot easier to win over the crowd than he had anticipated. Liam looks on like a proud father watching his toddler son take his first steps on his own. Luke makes a face at him over the top of a new glass of champagne.

By the time he and Liam make it into the back room, the auction has ended. All that’s left is to tally up the total and to determine who won what item. Luke doesn’t care about anything except his own auction, so he makes a straight line toward the piece of white paper that holds his future in balance. He loses Liam almost immediately, as there are a dozen other people who want his final word of twenty different things. It’s a good distraction from Luke, because Luke’s not sure what he’s going to find on that paper.

There’s nobody around his auction now. It’s not labeled with a green piece of tape that suggests it’s already been finalized. There is a lot of ink staining the pristine whiteness of the paper. Luke’s heart skips a beat before he can even make out the scribbles down the page. He looks at the final bid first. That’s really the important thing. He’s been so preoccupied with what’s to happen after the auction that he’s almost forgotten this is a charity, and the money’s going to go toward something really, really good for children who wouldn’t otherwise have it. The final amount is staggering. He stares at it for a long time just to make sure he’s not misreading the decimal. He falls forward in shock and is forced to catch himself on the table, his palms splayed out on either side of the auction sheet. Somebody paid that much money for him.

It’s all so overwhelming, the idea that he has managed to raise such a large amount of cash for this charity by himself. He rushes to see the identity of the person who cared so much to spend this much money on him. It’s then that his stomach flops for an entirely different reason. The handwritten script is tiny and loopy, and he vaguely recognizes it before he even makes out the name. Whatever pride had built up in his chest—whatever happiness had blossomed in the face of the price this person had paid for him—disintegrates instantly, like the flip of a light switch that drenches a bright room in complete darkness. This wonderful event that was supposed to save his morning show turns into an unfortunate nightmare, for written to the right of the final staggering price is the name Michael Clifford.

Luke feels like vomiting, like upchucking the delicious meal he had choked down a little while before. Humiliation settles heavy over his body like an old, dirty blanket. This is all wrong. He rips the sheet clean off the table, and he marches in the general direction of the mass of people in the banquet hall. Liam hollers after him, but he doesn’t stop. He weaves his way through wealthy strangers, pushing off whoever tries to stop him for a chat. He doesn’t feel like talking, not to these people at least.

He spots his target stepping into the long hallway that leads from the banquet hall to the restrooms. It’s probably for the best, too, because this isn’t something that anybody else needs to know about, especially not all of these rich, influential people. They don’t need to know how humiliated he is. They don’t need to know why somebody’s paid all of that money for him.

Niall and Ashton are standing in the corner next to the doorway that leads out of the banquet hall. Luke pushes past them, ignoring their calls after him. He doesn’t even care if they follow. He’s got one destination in mind. Nothing is going to stop him. He’s sure his entire body’s flushed red, and his hands and trembling with anger at his sides. He must look like a madman, stomping down the marvelous hallway. His footsteps echo all around him. It sounds like a herd of stampeding animals, and it’s like the theme song to the fury coursing through his veins. He turns the next corner and stops.

“You fucking bastard! Is this a damn joke to you?!”

Michael freezes then spins around to face Luke. There’s an entire length of a hallway between them, some fifteen feet of no-man’s land that Luke wants to both cross and to never touch. Michael’s expression is of pure surprise until his gaze drifts down to the ink-stained white paper Luke’s still got clutched in his hand.

“My fucking career is at stake. What the hell made you think this was all right? That you could just swoop in and place the winning bid just to sabotage me?” demands Luke. He’s shaking, still, but it’s not all anger now. Fear has started to set in. The charity auction is going up in flames right before his eyes, and he can do nothing except yell at Michael for ruining everything. “I knew you were mean. I knew you hated me, but I never thought you’d be this cruel.”

He knows he’s screaming, that his voice is probably filtering out into the large banquet hall, but he doesn’t care. Nothing beyond this right here with Michael even exists at the moment. He doesn’t really know what to do with himself, how to handle the red-hot anger sizzling across his skin. He wants to crowd into Michael’s space and push him against the wall until he relents. But he doesn’t, because Michael won’t. Michael’s won this round. He won it in a way that Luke can never top. He’s played dirty, and he’s getting the satisfaction of watching Luke lose everything.

“Luke, what the hell is going on?”

It’s Ashton. His voice is sharp like it hardly ever is. Luke half-turns to find Ashton and Niall standing just behind him. They’re both wearing identical disapproving expressions. It’s probably because he’s yelling. He doesn’t usually yell. Michael’s taken a step back into the wall behind him like it’ll shield him from whatever Luke’s going to do to him. His eyes are wide and fearful. Niall opens his mouth to reprimand Luke, probably, and Luke can’t take it.

“You want to know what’s going on? You really want to know? That fucking bastard took it a step too far,” he spits, even angrier now that he’s having to explain his humiliation. He shoves the auction sheet into Ashton’s hands. He doesn’t wait for Ashton to read the bottom line. “I’m done, Ash. I’m done playing nice to somebody who hates my fucking guts.”

Ashton doesn’t even read the paper. He stares at Michael over Luke’s shoulder before resting his gaze on Luke. Next to him, Niall is brave enough to glimpse the final results of the auction. His sucks in a quick breath, and his attention snaps to Michael. When he speaks, it’s to Luke.

“You know, maybe it’s—”

“Seriously, Niall, I’m done,” interrupts Luke. He doesn’t want to hear what Niall has to say. He doesn’t want to look at Michael, either, but he does, and Michael’s just standing against the wall, eyes big and face blank. Luke doesn’t really know what to make of him, but he doesn’t care, not really. Not after this. “I should’ve been done a long time ago, but I dunno. Maybe I liked the thrill. I don’t anymore, and I’m so fucking tired of all this bullshit that I’m just—I’m just done.”

He thinks about Michael down on his knees for him, about Michael with his hands restrained above his head, about Michael rutting against him. He thinks about the way Michael’s lips had felt against his own, about how Michael’s come had tasted on his tongue. He doesn’t want to have these things of a man who hates him, so he tries to push them out of his thoughts, but he makes the mistake of meeting Michael’s eyes, and he knows that Michael’s thinking the same things. They’re forbidden on a good day, but here, when everything’s so wrong between them and Luke thinks he really does hate Michael again, it’s even worse.

There’s nothing left to say. Luke pushes past Niall and Ashton. He doesn’t look back at Michael. He walks away down the hallway, through the banquet hall, and out of the back entrance. He tries not to think about how tight his chest feels. He tells himself it’s better if he hates Michael, easier that way, because if Michael hates him, Luke might as well return the favor.

Chapter Text

Luke spends the weekend purposefully avoiding any phone call he receives. Liam calls three times early Saturday morning in a vain attempt to convince Luke to come into the station for a press release. He doesn’t answer any of the calls, only knows Liam’s intent by the increasingly annoyed voicemails he leaves. Luke doesn’t return any of them, either.

He rearranges his furniture on Sunday. He’s grown tired of not using his living room, but he still can’t look at the blank space of wall without thinking about Michael coming undone against it. Michael hates him, and Luke tells himself that he hates Michael, too, so he shouldn’t really want to remember that moment anyhow.

He pushes his entertainment system over a couple of feet and finally hangs up a picture he had found in a second hand shop a couple of months ago when he and Miranda and Casey had had to kill a bit of time between filming for a holiday special. Neither the new arrangement nor the new décor really take Luke’s mind off Michael, but they do allow him a little breathing room. He can at least sit at his couch and watch TV and not think about how Michael’s wrists had felt in his hands, held high and restrained.

On Monday, he goes into work like usual. He sees the promotional that’s been running all weekend for the first time. Olivia’s worked her magic, turning the charity auction results into something like a mystery that has the viewers hanging onto the edge of their seats. Nobody knows who won the auction. The station’s drawing it out as long as possible. Luke thinks Liam probably knows and Olivia and maybe some other important people higher up in the chain of command, but none of his coworkers seem to have any clue who placed the winning bid.

Casey and Miranda make a game of trying to guess who it is while they’re still on air. Luke just laughs off their suggestions, which range from the one of the mayor’s eligible twin daughters to Liam himself. They open it up to the viewers, too, taking suggestions via email and webcam and various social media websites. Nobody comes anywhere close to the name Michael, not that Luke really expects them to.

They don’t announce the winner on the show but rather prompt the viewers to tune in later that evening during the normal news slot for a special broadcast. It’s going to cover Luke’s date. He tries to keep an enthusiastic smile on his face as he reads the teleprompter, but his chest feels like it’s on fire. He’s going to have to eat dinner across the table from Michael, a man who hates his guts, and he’s going to have to pretend like there’s nowhere else he’d rather be in the entire world.

He’s not sure he’s that good of an actor.

It’s a relief when the cameras finally stop rolling. His cheeks ache from having to force a smile for so long. He gets up from his chair to turn it over to Nick, making sure to tuck Emsie the penguin back into the safety of his drawer. He turns over his name tag and Emsie’s brand new one to make room for Nick’s. Then he’s got nothing else to do except leave the stage. It’s really the last thing he wants to do.

Calum is hovering suspiciously in front of the door, though he’s allowing everybody to pass freely. Luke doubts he’ll extend that privilege to him. Calum doesn’t. He takes a step back so that he’s completely blocking the door now. He folds his arms across his chest. His expression is drawn tight in sternness. Luke inexplicably feels like a chastened schoolboy.

“‘M almost surprised to see you here this morning. I thought you might have, like, died or something over the weekend. I hadn’t heard from you.”

“Didn’t really feel like talking much. I mean, you’ve heard the news, haven’t you? Who won the auction like it was some sick joke?”

Calum wrinkles his nose in a manner that he’s definitely picked up from Ashton. His face is full of disappointment. He opens his mouth but shuts it almost immediately. Luke can almost see the cogs turning in his mind. It’s unsettling, really, Calum’s reaction, but it’s not necessarily surprising. Calum’s hooked around Ashton’s pinky finger, and Michael’s Ashton’s best friend, and Luke really should not have expected Calum’s allegiance to waver.

Luke doesn’t wait for Calum to speak. He’s not sure he wants to hear whatever it’s going to be, anyhow.

“Don’t make excuses, alright? I’m going to take him to damn dinner tonight, and then I’m done. Completely, one hundred percent done with anything that has to do with him, no matter what.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” says Calum.

No, it probably isn’t, but Luke knows this. He tells Calum as much, and he’s so tired of talking about Michael already that he doesn’t care if he’s being rude when he bodily pushes past Calum. He high-tails it out of the studio and down the hallway to the production room where Calum can’t corner him again. Calum’s job requires him to go the opposite direction. Luke doesn’t think he’ll bother tracking him down all the way here. Calum doesn’t.

Luke should feel relieved, but it doesn’t really feel like a victory. It sets heavily in his stomach in a way everything related to Michael always does.

He does his behind the scenes work and avoids everybody, especially Liam, who wants to talk to him about the dinner date. He’s got all the information he needs. He knows when and where to show up. He knows what to wear and what’s expected of him. There’s no need to sit in an office to go over everything that had been in his mailbox that morning when he got to work. He takes a late lunch and doesn’t return to work.

He wallows around at home, dreading every minute that brings him nearer and nearer to his fate. He busies himself with doing his washing. He doesn’t separate his colors. He knows better. He has the socks and underwear and one unfortunate formerly white t-shirt for proof, but he doesn’t really have enough dirty laundry to justify two loads.

The time ticks steadily closer to the seven o’clock reservation at the restaurant. There’s only so much he can do to distract himself. He spends the final hour before he has to leave standing underneath the spray in the shower until the water goes cold and he has to get dressed. He thinks about driving to the restaurant but ultimately calls a cab. He’s probably going to need plenty of alcohol to get through tonight. He might as well plan ahead.

The car arrives at precisely six-forty-two. Luke knows as he climbs inside that he’s going to be at least ten minutes late. He considers being a proper gentleman and texting Michael that he’s going to be late, but he doesn’t. It’s a bastard move, though no less so than the stunt Michael pulled that got them both in this mess.

There’s a mass of paparazzi outside of the restaurant. He’s got a security team waiting on him. Most are from the station, but he recognizes a few from Ashton’s parties. They escort him through the yells and the flashing lights to the front door of the restaurant. His ears are ringing by the time he’s immersed in the quietness of the dining room.

The maître d’ is waiting on him. She leads him to the private room in the back without being prompted to do so. There is a small group of carefully chosen paparazzi standing outside of the closed door. They snap a couple of photographs before Luke is allowed into the room. He’s been mercifully given a few moments alone with his date to lessen the awkwardness in front of the cameras.

He’s going to need much more than just a few moments.

He doesn’t look up immediately as enters the empty room. There is a private entrance to the kitchens on the wall opposite of him. He contemplates making a break for it right now before he has to sit down at the table and pretend like everything’s all hunky-dory. Because there’s nothing fine about this whole thing. Michael hates him, and he wants to hate Michael in return, and he definitely does not want to have to be civil for the sake of the cameras. For the sake of his career.

“It’s not the gallows, Luke. Don’t look as if you’ve just been sentenced to death. It’s not a flattering look on you, you know.”

Luke looks up so fast his neck pops. There’s Ashton, sitting handsomely in a crisp, black suit. He has a grin on his face, teasing like it always is in regard to Luke, but there’s also a glint down deep in Ashton’s eyes that belie his disappointment in him. Luke glances toward the private entrance again, almost expecting Michael to pop out from it. He doesn’t.

“Shall we put on a show for the cameras? I’ve already ordered the restaurant’s finest bottle of champagne. It’s atrocious, but you may like it.”

Ashton beckons Luke over with a wave of his hand. He takes a small sip of the drink as if to prove a point, grimacing on cue. Ashton shares Harry’s dislike for the champagne, but Luke does not. Thankfully, there is already a glass waiting on him when he sits across from Ashton. Luke downs it in one go. Champagne isn’t really meant to be drunk so fast. The carbonation burns all the way down then all the way back up when he belches. He apologizes, because he does have some manners, as he reaches for the bottle.

“I’m thinking the trout looks good, but I got a little sick the last time I ate fish,” says Ashton, conversationally.

He’s looking at his menu, but there’s a rough edge to his voice that suggests he’s resisting the urge to talk about the elephant in the room that is Michael’s obvious absence. Luke almost wishes Ashton would outright say whatever is on his mind or at least acknowledge the fact that he did not win the auction, that he is doing a favor for a friend—for whomever that may be in this case. Ashton doesn’t. He keeps his attention on the menu like it’s the most fascinating thing in the entire world.

Luke’s happy Ashton is here instead of Michael. Of course, he is. That means he doesn’t have to pretend to like somebody who hates him. It’s much easier this way. His chest is only tightening, because he’s nervous about the show he and Ashton have to put on for his viewers. That’s all. It’s certainly not because he’s the slightest bit disappointed that it’s not Michael sitting across from him. That it’s not Michael rambling on about the menu choices. That it’s not Michael in general.

Because Luke really, really doesn’t want that. Michael hates him, and Michael was mean enough to sabotage Luke’s career for a laugh. Luke shouldn’t want somebody who doesn’t want him, no matter the intimacy they’ve shared.

The waitress comes by to take their order. Luke has hardly looked at the menu, but he points at the first thing that looks vaguely appetizing. Ashton snickers behind his own menu. He’s all smiles when the waitress turns to him. Then they’re left alone again. Luke reaches for his champagne, taking a small sip.

“Listen, don’t you think we should—”

The smile fades from Ashton’s lips.

“There are cameras that are about to come in here in a few minutes, and there are windows right now that they can look through, so if you’re thinking about bringing up the one topic we shouldn’t discuss, don’t. Really, Luke, I’m not happy with you right now. You don’t need the entire world knowing what you did. That certainly wouldn’t win you any viewers.”

Luke snaps his mouth shut, feeling chastised. His chest tightens even more. Ashton meets his eyes. Ashton doesn’t smile or offer any apologies, but he sighs as he reaches across the table to lay his hand on Luke’s wrist. It’s a quick movement, only there for a moment, and Luke wonders if a camera has captured this moment. He wonders what it might look like on the other side of the window.

Mostly, he wishes it were Michael here instead.

“You’re an idiot, but you’re still my friend—my best friend. I just don’t like what you did Friday night. I don’t like it at all.”

Ashton starts to reach for his champagne but decides against it. He goes for his glass of water instead. It doesn’t have a straw, but he doesn’t mind. He drinks it anyway. He glances toward the window where half of a dozen cameras are pressed against the glass.

“They’ll let the hounds loose soon,” he comments, flashing the cameras a smile before turning back to Luke. “Imagine the headlines tomorrow morning. We should paint the town red tonight after this. Head to the club and give the vultures something to eat up.”

“Why do I think you’ve already planned out this evening?”

“Because I have. We’re meeting Calum and Niall at the club downtown. Calum says you interviewed the owner last week, maybe? Week before that?”

It doesn’t really narrow anything down, because Luke interviews dozens of people, at the very least, every week. Quite a few business owners in the city have been on his show over the past month alone. It doesn’t really matter if he specifically remembers or not, though. He doubts he’ll be able to tell Ashton no.

“You know I’ve still got to wake up at the ass crack of dawn tomorrow morning, don’t you?”

“When has that stopped you before?”

That’s true, he supposes. He doesn’t make it a habit to stay out late on weeknights, but Ashton’s always got this way of talking him into it. Besides, he probably owes Ashton for this dinner, anyhow. He doesn’t put up any more fuss.

Their food arrives a couple of minutes later. There’s not any time left to discuss anything. They’re given a couple of minutes of peace with their meals before the cameras are allowed inside. Then it’s a flurry of flashes and invasive questions. Luke’s got a lot of practice containing them all. So does Ashton. It’s all still almost too much.

They race to finish their food, eager to get out of the critical spotlight. Luke’s never been so happy to ask for the check. He pays with the station’s credit card. They didn’t do too much financial damage, so Liam should be happy about that. Luke helps Ashton with his coat for the benefit of the cameras. They exit the restaurant through the front, though he wishes they could escape out the back. There are more cameras out here, but there’s also a sleek black car waiting on them. Luke ushers Ashton in before him, and the car starts moving before he’s managed to completely shut the door.

Luke settles back in his seat and looks over at Ashton. He looks as frayed as Luke feels, eyes wide and smile nervous upon his lips. Ashton deals with the paparazzi more than Luke, but tonight is especially bad for the both of them. Luke thinks about apologizing and thanking Ashton both at once. When he opens his mouth, Ashton glares at him and shakes his head.

“It’s what the viewers want, right? Somebody who’s relatable, who can go on a date with a pretty face and eat a delicious meal at a fancy restaurant. They want somebody to live vicariously through.”

“Yeah, but—”

“But nothing. I knew what I was getting into tonight. Your viewers should be satisfied now. The dinner turned out well, I think.”

The driver opens the divider to ask for an address. Ashton rattles off the one to the downtown club. It’s not that far away right now, but Luke wonders how Ashton is going to stand the suit he has on. He asks about that when the divider goes back up.

“Niall’s bringing me a change of clothes, and you, too, I believe.”

Luke makes a noise in the back of his throat for lack of anything better to say. Ashton doesn’t seem to mind, turning his attention to the darkened windows where the nightlife of the city is beginning to wake up. Luke looks, too. It’s one of his favorite times of the day, when the lights of the city turn on and everything is alive with color. He lets out a long breath, feeling calmer than he has in days. The dinner is finally over with, and it was almost everything he could have hoped for.

They meet Niall near the entrance of the club, and he shoves a bag at them both. There is a private room just off to the right. Ashton’s got security on him already. They’re watching Luke, too, because they always do. A pair of guards stands outside the door while they change. Neither Luke nor Ashton bothers with separate rooms or even with the illusion that either of them care for dignity. They’ve seen each other naked on numerous occasions, so such charades are moot by now. When they’re done, a member of Ashton’s security team collects their evening clothes, making sure the fabrics don’t get wrinkled.

The jeans Niall’s brought Luke are skin tight, and the black t-shirt is hot enough inside the club without the leather jacket to keep him warm. He takes it off the moment he gets to their claimed table and drapes it across the back of his chosen chair. Harry and Calum are already seated around it, a plate of half-eaten nachos disappearing fast between them. Ashton sits on the other side of Calum, and Niall disappears to the bar.

“How was the date?” asks Calum.

“Like Liam didn’t text you updates every ten minutes,” retorts Luke. “I’m sure he had the station’s publicist give him updates every five.”

Calum shrugs, neither confirming nor denying. He snatches his cell phone off the table like Luke’s going to steal it right from under his nose to delete the text messages that have probably spammed his inbox. Luke rolls his eyes at him. Niall returns to the table with a round of tequila shots and six limes.

“D’you miscount?” Luke asks him.

Niall doesn’t answer, partly because he doesn’t have to. They’re not actually near enough to the dance floor to be overwhelmed with the thumping beat of the music, so it’s impossible for Luke to miss the sound of chair legs scraping across the floor. His head snaps toward the noise, and his grip goes slack around the shot glass. It falls an inch to the table, where some of the tequila splashes out onto the table. The knots return to Luke’s chest. Michael sits down in the seat next to Harry, and he pointedly does not look at Luke.

“Salt, tequila, lime!” shouts Calum.

Such a volume really isn’t necessary, but they’re in a club. Nobody seems offended by the noise, so Luke thinks it’s all right. He licks the back of his hand then steals the salt shaker from Ashton, pouring an adequate amount onto the slick spot on his skin. He passes the shaker to Niall and picks back up his tequila.

They all wait until Harry, the last one in the circle, is ready before they throw back their shots in synchronization. The peppery taste of tequila burns at the back of Luke’s mouth as he reaches for a lime on the plate in the middle of the table. It’s like a card game of spoons, only there’s enough limes for everybody. Harry steals Luke’s original target, so Luke grabs for another one, but his fingers wrap around somebody else’s.

His eyes dart up to meet those of Michael. Time stands still between them. Michael’s fingers feel right against his own, not unfamiliar or even wrong like he might have supposed they would. It’s this realization that pivots time forward again. He looks away as he lets go of Michael and grabs the lone lime on the other side of the plate, tossing it all in his mouth to get rid of the peppery aftertaste.

He closes his eyes, but it’s a mistake. Michael’s face is right there behind his eyelids, haunting him. It’s the first they kissed all over again in the guest bedroom of Ashton’s house. Michael had tasted like tequila and limes then, and Luke wants to kiss him now, too. But he shouldn’t. Michael hates him.

Niall shoves another shot glass into his hand. Luke opens his eyes, startled, to see another plate of limes set in the table between them. It looks like this is how he’s going to go down tonight. He’s going to have one hell of a hangover come four-thirty in the morning, but that’s future-Luke’s problem. They go through a few more rounds until Luke’s feeling tingly and warm and good. It’s Calum who ends up cutting them off, swearing off tequila in favor of tugging Ashton toward the dance floor.

“Oh, c’mon! This was supposed to be all of us having fun! You can’t just run off!” Niall calls after them, but it’s no use. They’ve already disappeared into the mess of people already shaking their butts to the beat. He grumbles, turning back to the table. “They can’t just run off.”

Harry laughs. There’s an extra shot of tequila on the table and an extra lime, because Niall had been too inebriated to order correctly last time, and the bartender had sent an extra. He tosses some salt onto his tongue, throws back the tequila, and sucks on the lime all in one quick series of movements. He bites back a grimace as he spits out the lime. He offers his hand to Niall.

“Let’s go show them how it’s done.”

Niall isn’t not given a choice. Harry tugs him up and away from the table. Niall stumbles over his feet but goes willingly. Luke starts to laugh at the scene the two of them paint, but his breath gets caught in his throat as he realizes he’s left alone at the table with Michael.

This is not how tonight is supposed to play out. He’s supposed to be done with Michael. He can’t be done with him if he’s forced to sit here alone with him, so he does the thing any rational person would do: he leaves the table. He doesn’t look back to see if Michael does as well or if Michael’s at all bothered that he has.

He tells himself he doesn’t care either way.

The dance floor is crowded. Luke slips into it, grimacing the first few times somebody else’s sweaty body rubs against his. He spots Ashton and Calum almost immediately, but they’re so tangled up in one another that Luke doesn’t even bother going to them. A pretty blue-eyed man sidles up next to him, instead, and starts to grind against him, moving his hips to the beat.

The stranger is drenched in sweat, his red t-shirt sticking to his chest like a second skin. He places his hands on Luke’s sides, pulling him close, and Luke lets him. The stranger takes that as permission to dip his head forward and start to bite at Luke’s neck. Michael’s face flashes into his mind. For the long span of a moment, Luke forgets that he’s on the dance floor with a stranger. He moans deep in his throat, lost to the memory of Michael’s lips against his skin.

Somebody elbows Luke in the back. The song changes, and Luke snaps back into reality. The stranger’s still sucking at Luke’s neck. Luke isn’t feeling up for it anymore. He’s not entirely sure he ever was in the first place. He has to get away from the dance floor, away from this stranger with the eager mouth, and away from everything that reminds him of Michael. There’s a monster clawing at his chest from the inside.

Luke pushes away the stranger, who stumbles back with an offended grunt. He glares at Luke, but Luke doesn’t care. He’s already shoving his way off the dance floor.

“Hey!” yells the stranger after him, chasing him down through the maze of bodies. He grabs Luke roughly by the shoulder, pulls him back. He’s a big, bulky man, and when he spins Luke to face him, Luke can’t figure out how he ever thought the man was pretty. He’s only pretty scary, teeth bared and anger rolling off him in waves. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m not done with you.”

“Get the fuck off me, man,” says Luke, because he’s never been one to lie down and take anything. He refuses to be afraid of this stranger. “Or I will break your face.”

“Pretty little thing like you? Nah, I don’t think you will.”

Luke rolls his eyes. He’s a little drunk, but so is this stranger. He can smell it on the man’s breath, whiskey mixed with something tangy. Luke grabs the hand that’s holding his shoulder and quickly peels back each of the fingers, bending them until they crack and not even stopping then. The stranger swears as he rips his hand from Luke’s grip.

“Wanna call me a pretty little thing again?” demands Luke. He’s fighting mad, and the stranger’s no longer as big as he once was, frozen in fear in front of Luke. “‘S what I thought. Now get the fuck away from me.”

Luke waits a beat to see if the stranger gets the message, and he does. He nods once, like doing so even another time would show more weakness than he’s capable of. Then he’s gone, disappearing back into the crowd on the dance floor. Luke feels sorry for the next unfortunate soul the man tries to hit on. He’s free himself, though, and he really needs to vomit so he searches out the toilets.

The thing about tequila is that he’s never been able to stomach it very long. He likes the ceremony of the shots, but it always sets wrong in his belly. He stumbles into a cubical in the men’s room and falls to his knees. He’d feel disgusted if this were his first tango on the floor of a restroom in the back of a club. It’s not even close. The knees of his jeans stick to the tile a little when he moves nearer to the toilet to vomit. He’s just going to have to run them through the wash twice now. It’s not a biggie.

He vomits three times and flushes once when he’s done. It’s rather unpleasant, but he feels much better. His stomach is no longer rumbling, though the vomiting has done nothing to ease the permanent knot in his chest. He staggers out of the stall over to the sinks where he can his hands and swish some water around in his mouth.

Out in the club, Luke orders a rum and coke, careless of what’s actually used for his carbonation. He drinks half of it in one big gulp when he gets it, eager to get the taste of vomit out of the back of his mouth. He sits down on the stool next to him so that he can drink the rest of his cocktail at a leisurely pace.

“This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I suggested this,” says Ashton, coming up to sit in the seat beside of him. Calum’s with him, and he sits, too. Ashton waves for the bartender. “You hanging around the bar, because you’re too sorry to dance.”

“I danced.”

Ashton raises his eyebrows at him, clearly unamused by Luke’s bullheadedness. The bartender comes over to take Ashton’s order. Calum gives both of theirs, rattling off some cocktail that Luke didn’t even know they served. Their order is ready within a couple of minutes. The bartender slides the glasses across the counter to them. Ashton doesn’t reach for his, too busy still staring at Luke.

“He was disappointed, you know.”

“Ashton,” says Calum, his voice full of warning.

He ignores Calum and turns his body to face Luke. “You were mean. You were very, very mean, and I know you think he was, too, but he wasn’t.”

“Ash.”

“Calum, shut up for a moment. Luke needs to hear this.”

Calum sighs audibly behind him. It’s obvious he doesn’t agree, but he doesn’t make another attempt to stop Ashton. He sips on his cocktail instead. It’s a purplish pink combination that wouldn’t look out of place at a carnival-themed party. A slice of strawberry is stuck on the rim on his glass. He’s never really cared about the patriarchal stigma surrounding mixed drinks. He’s shameless in ordering them.

“You don’t know everything, Luke, and I can’t tell you most of what you don’t know, but what I can tell you is this: I didn’t pay for the auction dinner tonight. He did.”

Luke’s mouth goes dry. He takes another drink of his rum, but it’s mostly gone now, so he doesn’t get much. He flags the bartender down to order another one. His stomach starts to churn again. He thinks about Michael backed up against the wall in the long hallway at the convention center, eyes wide and face blank, and he doesn’t know what to do with this memory, not in light of Ashton’s admission.

“What do you—”

“Just thought you might need something to think about.”

Ashton stands up from his stool and finally grabs his cocktail. Calum follows his movement, looking apprehensively between Ashton and Luke. Ashton doesn’t say anything else, and neither do the other two. The silence between them is thick. Luke doesn’t understand the memory running through his mind, and he doesn’t understand what Ashton really wants him to think about. Ashton walks away before Luke thinks to ask. Calum trails after him, and Luke doesn’t try to stop either of them.

The second rum and coke doesn’t go down as easily as the first. Luke nurses it for a long time, staring down at the expensive watch wrapped around his wrist. It’s getting much later than he’s usually out. He should be finding a cab home by now. Four-thirty is going to come awfully early, and he’s certain he’s going to stare at the ceiling in his bedroom for a long while after he finally makes it there.

He really should get going. He tells the bartender as much as he pays his tab. Nobody else has paid theirs yet, so he picks them up, too. He circles by their abandoned table to grab his jacket. It’s draped across the back of the chair he had been sitting in. When he goes to grab it, he knocks over a half-drank bottle of beer. It splatters all over the table and down his thigh. He curses under his breath. There is a total of two whole napkins at the table. He dabs at himself the best he can but decides his best course of action is to stop by the men’s room before he leaves and use the paper towels in there to clean off the worst of the beer. That way, his jeans maybe won’t be as sticky by the time he gets home.

There are two separate sets of restrooms in the club, one on each side so that there’s always a toilet ready if somebody is in dire need of it. He ambles back toward the one he had used earlier. The dance floor is even more crowded than it was when he was on it. The night may be getting too late for somebody like him, but it’s not for the average person, not even for a Monday.

He pushes open the door, intent only for the sinks, but he freezes just inside of the men’s room. It’s not empty like he had hoped. There’s a familiar stranger crowding somebody against the wall. Luke doesn’t know who that somebody is for a long second until the stranger dips his head down like he did earlier with Luke. It’s then that Luke meets Michael’s eyes. They’re big and wide and tear-filled, and it’s all wrong.

The familiar stranger is pushing his arm against Michael’s throat, holding him still. Michael gasps for breath, but the stranger doesn’t care. Luke gets a flash of dead green eyes, of a beautiful tear-stained face soft in death, neck stained red with blood. He snaps out of it almost instantly. He’s across the restroom in a second, grabbing the familiar stranger and throwing him back for the second time this evening. Michael sinks to the floor behind him, as disgusting and grimy as it is.

“You again?” demands the stranger. As recognition settles over him, he deflates like he had done earlier when faced with Luke’s anger.

“Me again,” parrots Luke in a horrible rendition of the fear in the man’s voice. He’s standing between the stranger and Michael. Every fiber of his being is itching for a fight. He’s never really cared for violence until now, until the very moment he realized Michael was scared and couldn’t breathe. “You leave him the fuck alone, d’you hear me?”

The stranger pulls himself up to full height again. He crosses his arms over his chest, and he tries to look braver than the fear that’s still shining in his eyes. It’s a pitiful attempt. When he speaks, his voice wavers in all of the wrong places.

“Why? Is he yours?”

No, he’s not. Nothing about Michael is Luke’s except for the knowledge of how Michael looks when he gets off and how Michael feels gently restrained underneath him and how spitting mad Michael can make Luke.

“Yes. Now, back the fuck off, and stay the hell away from him.”

Michael gasps, surprised, behind him, but Luke doesn’t turn around. He tries not to think about what he’s just claimed, either. He glares at the stranger until the man leaves like a dog with his tail tucked between his legs. The door slams shut behind him. It echoes in the men’s room where the beat of the club doesn’t quite reach. Luke takes a deep breath and turns to face Michael. He’s not at all prepared for the big-eyed, devastated expression written plainly across Michael’s face.

It’s much too late to start over from the very beginning—to forget about all of the hatred that they’ve nurtured between them, about all of the spiteful words they’ve exchanged—but Luke feels like this, in itself, is a type of new beginning. He offers his hand to Michael. It’s as much of a peace offering as it is an offer to help him up. Michael stares at it for a long time until he slowly raises his own hand to grasp it.

He looks up at Luke, meeting his eyes. He, too, is aware that this moment in time is nothing short of life-changing, but there’s not a trace of apprehension on his face. There’s nothing to suggest that he’s anything other than intrigued by whatever this is that’s looming in front of them.

Luke pulls Michael to his feet. Michael wobbles uncertainly on his legs, but Luke doesn’t let go of him. He steps closer until Michael’s backed into the wall again. There’s a flash of fear behind Michael’s eyes when they dart toward the door. The stranger is obviously still on his mind. Luke cups Michael’s cheek in his hand, ever-so-gently, and Michael’s gaze snaps back to his. His pupils are dilated. He’s had more than just the tequila shots from earlier. His breath smells like vodka, and Luke thinks about birthday cake, and he really, really wants to kiss Michael right now in this moment.

He doesn’t.

“Let’s get you home.”

He does.

Chapter Text

Four-thirty comes entirely too quickly for Luke’s liking. He has only been home for a total of three hours, and he spent one of those making sure that Michael was properly in bed, lying face down with the trash can within reach if he needed to vomit. Luke’s place had been closer to the club. That was the excuse he had given Michael whenever the cab had pulled up outside of his house.

It had been easy getting Michael inside, almost easier than anything else that Luke had ever associated with Michael. The alcohol and the adrenaline-induced exhaustion had made him pliant underneath Luke, and Luke had led him straight to his bedroom, as there isn’t a bed set up in the spare room. He’d pulled off Michael’s jacket and his shoes then he’d put him to bed. He’d taken the couch for himself.

Luke’s alarm has just gone off. He lays awake in his living room staring up at the ceiling wondering when Michael became a man he wanted to take care of instead of the man who hated him. He’s not sure the latter isn’t still true, but he relinquished the ability to say he hated Michael in return last night when he told that bastard of a stranger in the men’s room that Michael was his. Michael’s not his, of course, but he’s safe in Luke’s bed right now. Luke counts that as a win.

It’s ten minutes later when he finally rolls off the couch. His back is stiff, so he does a quick stretch on the floor. He’s not old yet, but he’s not as young as he once was. His head is pounding less than he had expected it would after the alcohol from last night. He ambles into the kitchen where he gets some pain killers down from the top of the refrigerator. There’s an empty glass setting next to the sink. He used it yesterday before he left for the dinner. It’s good enough to drink out of again, so he fills it up with water straight from the tap to wash down his pills.

He sneaks into his bedroom. Michael is snoring softly in his sleep, mouth open and drooling all over Luke’s favorite pillow. Luke is going to have to wash that pillow case now, but he can’t find it in himself to be mad, especially not at such an early hour in the morning. He leaves a glass of water and a couple of pain killers on the bedside table next to Michael’s phone, a small act of kindness that is actually so much more.

He tries to be quiet as he grabs some clothes for work, but it’s dark in the room. He can’t see much, which is the only reason he stubs his pinky toe against the dresser on his way to the ensuite bathroom. Pain radiates up his foot. He curses under his breath, standing on one leg so that he can try to rub the pain away.

Michael turns on the lamp that is setting on the bedside table. The room is filled with soft light, and Luke stops his ministrations to glance up at the bed. Michael blinks sleepily at him. The sight makes Luke’s heart skip a beat in his chest. There’s something divine about seeing Michael shirtless in his bed, expression a mix of fondness and exasperation that’s never before been directed at Luke.

“D’you wake up like this every morning? Try to kill yourself stumbling through the darkness?”

“Um—no? I was trying to not wake you up,” says Luke. He’s not sure whether he should feel offended or not. He stares at Michael, hoping for an indication of what’s expected here, but it’s almost a quarter until five in the morning, and he’s given nothing.

“You’re like an elephant thundering your way across an old wooden bridge like in that one movie, the Dr. Seuss one.”

 A laugh escapes from Luke’s throat without his permission. It brings a goofy smile to Michael’s lips, so Luke is not too disappointed. He wants this smile to last forever. He lets go of his foot, settling his weight on it. There’s a lingering spike of pain in his toe, and when he winces, Michael grins wider.

“Want me to call Liam? Tell him you’ll be hobbling in a little late?”

Luke glares at him, but it’s without heat. Michael laughs. The sound is deeper than it usually is, and Luke chalks it up to the earliness of the morning. He’s not awake enough to truly handle such a gift, so it’s no surprise when he ends up just staring in awe at Michael until the laughter dries up and uncertainty blossoms in Michael’s eyes, like he’s uncharacteristically in doubt of himself. Luke wants to wipe the insecurity away, because it doesn’t belong on somebody as sure of himself as Michael.

“Nah, Liam’ll just come here and drag me in himself, and nobody needs that.”

Michael cocks his head to the side as if he’s not entirely sure whether or not Luke’s being serious. Luke is, in fact, being completely serious, because Liam has threatened to do just that numerous times over the past eight months. He firmly believes that Liam would track him down and drag him into work, even if he were naked in the shower with shampoo in his hair. The station is Liam’s pride and joy, and he loves his job even more than Luke does. He also, for some unknown reason, likes Luke as his employee.

“Shouldn’t you be getting a shower, then?” asks Michael after a beat of silence. “You stink of the club, and that’s not attractive at all. I mean, think of your viewers, man.”

Luke smiles, shaking his head in amusement that he never thought would be because of Michael. He wants to point out that his viewers can’t actually smell him, but he’s otherwise distracted. His mind is caught up on the word attractive. He wants to know if it was a slip of the tongue or a purposeful adjective. He doubts it wasn’t an accident, and he’s too afraid of this unspoken truce they’ve drawn between each other to really ask. He ducks into the bathroom instead.

Michael’s gone from the bed when Luke finally finishes in the bathroom. He’s freshly showered and completely dressed except for his shoes, which are sitting next to his closet. He stares at the tousled covers and tries to ignore the empty pit in his chest. He hadn’t expected Michael to leave, but he’s nowhere to be found. Luke sighs to himself as he slips his feet into his shoes. He doesn’t bother with the laces.

He opens the bedroom door, and the aroma of coffee slaps him in the face. It’s a curious scent, because he doesn’t remember fixing any. He’d already planned a quick stop by the coffee shop on his way into work. He’s not gotten enough rest to justify going without caffeine. He cautiously approaches the kitchen. There’s a steaming thermos of coffee ready and waiting for him on the center island. He stares at it, feeling at a loss for everything in the world. Nothing clicks into place until his gaze drifts up. Michael’s still here, and he’s grinning smugly at him like he knows exactly how slowly Luke’s mind is working at this moment in time.

“I found some creamer in the fridge. Thought you might take it with it, but I didn’t add anything else to it,” says Michael softly as if this is something they do every morning, as if he’s supposed to know exactly how Luke takes his coffee but he’s forgotten.

Luke’s breath stutters. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he takes a tentative sip of the coffee. It’s perfect, just the way he likes it, if not a bit sweeter than he usually goes for. His eyes snap to Michael’s, and there’s no hiding the surprise he feels. Michael is supposed to hate him. Nobody knows how to make coffee for somebody they’re supposed to hate.

“You talk about your coffee a lot in the mornings, you know,” Michael deadpans, like he’s not admitting that he watches Luke’s show quite regularly. Like it’s something he’s comfortable letting Luke know, and Luke doesn’t know what to do with this information either. “And you, like, complain when Casey brings you coffee and it’s only got sugar, and you know he’s doing it on purpose just for a laugh.”

Yeah, Luke does do that. He does that quite often, actually, but he hasn’t been aware that anybody ever paid it enough attention to recite it from memory. It’s just him rambling in front of the cameras for something to do to take up time between segments, when all of the pre-planning in the world can’t account for video chats that get cut off suddenly or for weather reports that end too quickly because nobody can talk about the bland, cloudy day that’s ahead for longer than five minutes.

Luke’s phone dings in his hand, and it’s the car waiting for him out front. It strikes him, as he’s standing in front of Michael clutching his thermos full of almost-perfect coffee, that this might be the first time in eight months that he hasn’t wanted to go into work. He always finds Monday mornings hard to be enthusiastic about, and the same with mornings after hectic nights out, but this is different. He’s never before had a reason to stay. He’s never had to leave somebody, either.

“I need to—”

“Figured as much by your phone, honestly,” says Michael. “I’ll just clean up here and be out of your hair…”

Michael still looks tired, like he could lay his head on the hard surface of the counter in front of him and fall right back asleep. Luke doesn’t want to think about him having to brave the cold all the way across the city to his own rooftop apartment. He’s not sure that Michael will even be able to stay awake long enough to make it there.

“Go back to bed,” says Luke, and he ignores that tiny voice in the back of his mind that says he’s being selfish, that he’s only telling Michael to stay so that he’ll be here when he gets back from work. So he’ll get to know what it feels like to come back to somebody. “I’ll be back around noon. I’ll pick up lunch on the way in, like get a pizza or something.”

Michael blinks at him, surprised, and Luke can’t say that he blames him. Luke’s almost as baffled, too, that he’s spoken up. He tries not to let it show and tries, instead, to offer Michael a reassuring smile. The knot in his chest returns. Michael doesn’t look particularly put off by the idea of returning to the nice, warm bed just down the hallway.

“It’d better be pepperoni and jalapeños,” he concedes. He’s already walking around the counter, intent for the door right behind Luke. He hesitates, tilting his head ever-so-slightly upward to meet Luke’s eyes. “Have a good morning at work.”

Luke nods, saying nothing. Michael disappears into the hallway, and Luke wants to follow him, but he can’t. His phone beeps again with a second notification. He grabs the lid to his thermos and screws it on. His jacket is draped across the back of the armchair in the living room, so he slips into it as he leaves, juggling the thermos from hand-to-hand.

The morning air is icy. It is late January, and there is to be a snowstorm by the end of the week. The sky is bleak, clouds heavy with the rain that will probably fall by lunch time. Luke stares up at them as the cab flies down the dead streets. Nobody is ever out at this time of a morning. It makes the commute quick and sometimes allows him an extra five minutes at home whenever he is feeling extra sluggish.

The cab pulls up outside of the building, and Luke pays him his fare. He hurries inside, out of the cold. Liam’s hovering by the elevator. Luke spots him almost instantly. He slows down hesitantly. It’s never a good sign whenever he sees his boss before he even steps behind the camera. He stops a few feet from Liam, eyebrows raised expectantly.

“There’s no need to look as though I’m about to kick your puppy,” says Liam, shaking his head at Luke’s worried state of being. “I wanted to be the first to commend you for your excellent behavior last night. Ashton Irwin is a dear friend of yours, is he not? He was a fine choice for the date. Well done.”

Confusion washes over Luke, and he asks, “What do you mean he was a good choice? Wasn’t the whole point of the auction to get somebody to buy my time?”

“You know as well as I that he did not win. He didn’t even bid!” bellows Liam, laughter filling the resounding echoes in the tall, open lobby. He gives Luke an incredulous look. “That’s neither here nor there. The big bosses upstairs are extremely pleased with the publicity you have brought to the station. I thought you might want to know.”

Luke’s only met the big bosses a handful of times, and he’s never spoken to any of them. He knows they know who he is in the same way they know ever other broadcaster for the station. He just didn’t think he’s ever been important enough to be a blip on their radar, no more so than any of his colleagues, at least.

“What does this mean?”

Liam smiles mysteriously at him, so widely his cheeks almost push his eyes shut. He turns around then and presses the button for the elevator. It’s on the eighth floor coming down already, so it’ll be here soon. Luke takes a step forward to crowd into Liam’s space to remind him that he’s asked a question. Liam stares up at the changing numbers above the elevator doors.

“Whatever you want it to mean.”

Luke doesn’t understand Liam right now, and he doesn’t understand him an hour later after he’s been in the presenter’s chair since half past five. Liam is gossiping to Calum behind the cameras. They’re standing far enough away from the mics that the cameras don’t pick them up, but Luke can still see them in the light that sneaks in through the window in the door.

“So here’s the question everybody’s been dying to know all morning—hell, all night—wait, I shouldn’t curse on the air. Pretend you didn’t hear that!” says Casey, and he’s just funny enough otherwise that Liam doesn’t even stop the cameras right now to reprimand him. Casey snaps his fingers and points at Liam, shooting him a cheeky, apologetic wink. “Sorry, folks. The boss just gave me the stink eye.”

“What’s the question, Case?” asks Miranda before this segment gets out of control. It’s dangerously close anyhow, even without her interference. The teleprompter is blank between the cameras. They’re winging this part, because somebody behind the scenes has forgotten to set it up before the lights went up on the stage.

“Oh, yeah! So, Luke, just how skilled are you to take none other than Ashton Irwin to dinner last night but leave a club downtown early this morning with the devilishly handsome Michael Clifford?”

“What?!” demands Luke, and it’s probably the worst reaction he could have had in his life. He’s glad that he’s finished his coffee ten minutes ago during the last commercial break or he would’ve probably spat it all over himself or something. He cringes and tries to cover his own ass. “This is what everybody’s been dying to know?”

Olivia works her magic behind the scenes, and the show cuts to a photo montage of paparazzi shots of Luke and Ashton leaving the restaurant and then of Luke dragging Michael into a cab behind the club. The latter shots are grainy at best, like somebody hid behind a bush to capture them. Luke feels sick at his stomach, because the shots of him and Michael are blurry, but he can still see how gently he was holding Michael, like he’s something precious and fragile, and that’s nothing anybody else needs to pick up on as well.

“That I went to dinner with one friend and left the club with a different one?” asks Luke in a much calmer voice. He tries not to think about Michael in his bed right now in this moment in time. He grins at the camera, hoping he doesn’t sound as nervous as he feels. He’s not been this off-kilter since the first few days in front of the camera at half past five. “I mean, c’mon. I’ve been friends with Ashton for ages. We’ve got a penguin love-child together. Look at Emsie!”

He picks up the penguin figurine to prove his point, and he holds it in the palm of his hand. The secondary cameras zooms in on it, allowing the viewers to admire the penguin it all its glass glory. Luke pointedly does not think about the night Ashton gave this to him, about the night he got Michael off for the first time.

“Sure, you and Ashton are thick as thieves, but the real puzzler here is Michael,” says Casey.

He swivels his computer screen around so that Luke and camera three can get a good view of all of the comments on the page. It’s set to a filter of Michael’s and Luke’s names, and each of the comments display a range of surprise in regard to the two of them leaving the club together. Luke wonders what they’d all say if they knew Michael was asleep in his bed right now.

“I like Michael,” says Luke, looking up at Casey as he says it, and it doesn’t feel as much of a lie as it would have a month ago. As it would have before that night in Ashton’s guest room.

“Of course you do,” agrees Miranda in a way that suggests even she doesn’t believe her own words. “But you have to admit it’s a little odd.”

“I’m an odd person,” says Luke before she can continue. He knows he’s being rude, but the smile is starting to slip from his lips. He feels cut open, raw. He doesn’t want to talk about Michael on the air, because he doesn’t really know where he stands with Michael. “Let’s break for a commercial, and then we’ll bring out our next guest.”

It’s not the smoothest transition to a break ever, but Luke doesn’t care. Miranda and Casey chuckle softly at him, hiding their faces behind their computer screens as the cameras turn off for the break. He ignores them. There’s still a few more hours of the show to come. He considers making the name Michael a no-go, but he doesn’t want to give Miranda and Casey any more reason to rib him off camera. He busies himself with making sure Emsie is displayed at its finest.

The rest of the show passes in a blur. Their guest is a big hit with Miranda, and Luke gives her the reins of the interview. It’s good practice for her. Also, he figures the nicer he is to her, the less she’ll give him hell about Michael. The tactic works in his favor. Michael is not mentioned again until after the cameras have gone off. He puts Emsie away in his drawer before he turns his chair over to Nick.

Luke pulls his cell phone out almost immediately, partially to avoid any after-recording conversation. His coworkers give him a wide berth. He sidesteps around Liam and makes it out to the hallway before anybody can stop him. He has his phone pressed up against his hear, calling the pizza restaurant that’s between here and his house.

“Yeah, um, I’ll have one large pizza, all pepperoni, half jalapeños, and, um, an order of those cheesy breadsticks.”

The person on the other end of the line repeats his order. He gives his name in exchange for his total. The pizzas will be ready in half of an hour, which is almost exactly how long it will take him to finish up at work and catch a cab there. He pockets his phone when he’s finished with the call, ready to hurry everything up so that he can get home.

“You hate jalapeños,” says Calum behind him, and Luke certainly does not jump in surprise nor does he whip around to face him like a misbehaved child stealing the cookies before dinner. Calum is smirking at him. “Kind of interesting, isn’t it?”

“Is there something you want from me?”

“I’d say the truth and why you’re eating pizza with Michael—oh, don’t give me that look. Michael’s probably the only person in the entire city who likes that on his pizza.”

“There’s nothing to say, really. There was this jackass at the club last night. He tried to rough Michael up, and I didn’t have the heart to send him home on his own so he, uh, crashed at my place.”

“You hate Michael. You told Ashton and Niall you were, and I’m pretty sure I’m quoting here, ‘just done’ with all of Michael’s bullshit. Pizza doesn’t sound done to me.”

 Calum’s got a point, and he knows he does, too. Luke sighs and thinks Calum doesn’t understand. Calum didn’t see Michael this morning, all soft and sleepy in Luke’s bed. He didn’t witness how pliant Michael was under Luke’s care last night as he escorted Michael back to his home. Calum didn’t see the fear in Michael’s eyes as he choked beneath the weight of a careless  stranger. Luke is the only one who’s been privy to all of that. It feels special and forbidden at once. Calum doesn’t need to know any of it.

“Maybe it’s because you’re always too impatient to let the dough finish cooking,” says Luke sarcastically, purposefully misconstruing Calum’s argument, because he really doesn’t feel like being judged, especially by one of his dearest friends. “Look, I get that you’ve got this weird complex to watch out for me whenever you think I’ve gone batshit crazy, but seriously, man, I’ve got no food at my house. It’s really pizza or nothing. I mean, I can always let Michael starve if you’d prefer that.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“It was a joke. Geez. I’m not going to starve the man.”

“No, I know. I meant I’m not sure you and Michael are a—I mean, have you two even talked?” asks Calum. He sighs when Luke bites his lips together and remains quiet. “You guys have got to talk. That’s a thing you must do.”

“You know, I’ve been doing just fine with my life on my own.”

Calum raises his eyebrows at Luke, snorting like this is the most bizarre thing he’s heard all morning. Luke rolls his eyes in response, because he really has done well all morning not freaking out that Michael is waiting on him at his home in his bed. Michael still hates him, or at least he did until last night when he got scared and Luke was the only one there. Luke is not really sure what he is going to go home to, if the status quo has changed or not.

“Can you stop with the judging eyes? ‘Cause I’ve got a pizza to pick up soon, and I don’t think you’ve made your point yet.”

“Just be nice to him, all right? Like, I know you think you’ve got to hit back with everything you’ve got, but don’t—and, also, talk with him like proper adults.”

Luke nods his head only because Calum expects him to relent. He really does need to get going or he’s going to be late getting the pizza then it’ll be cold by the time he gets home with it. He likes cold pizza for breakfast, but he’s also fond of the way melted cheese strings between the slices when it is piping hot.

Calum stares at him until he’s had enough of Calum’s questioning. He says his farewells and slips into the nearest hallway, slamming the door shut behind him. It’s a little less satisfying than it would have been if Calum would have made an attempt to follow him. He finishes up his work at the station, stuffing a couple of folders into a briefcase so that he can, maybe, work on them at home. He is, after all, putting off all his responsibilities in order to return home to Michael as quickly as possible.

He hails a cab in front of the building, and the pizza is ready by the time he runs into to get it. He grabs an extra marinara sauce and a cup of garlic butter, shoving them both into the box that holds the breadsticks. His mouth waters at the delicious smell of the food. The cab driver seems to pick up on his eagerness to get home. The smile he gives Luke as he’s paying his fare suggests the driver believes him to be returning home to an afternoon of debauchery. Luke does his best to ignore the way his cheeks flush at the lewdness of it.

He doesn’t quite know what to expect when he pushes open his front door. Maybe a warzone, all of his belonging strewn everywhere because Michael wanted an easy laugh. Or maybe nothing at all, Michael gone from the house to leave Luke eating a pizza with jalapeños on it by himself.

The television is turned on, and Luke recognizes the dazzling smile of his coworker Nick before he realizes that it is his channel playing on the screen. Michael is stretched out across the couch, looking right at home underneath the multicolored afghan blanket Luke’s grandmother knitted for him when he was a kid. Luke stops just inside his living room. His heart skips a beat at the sight. Michael cranes his neck to look up at the door, and he grins when he spots Luke.

“You weren’t lying about the pizza then.”

He throws the blanket off him and gets up from the couch to take the boxes away from Luke. He’s barefoot, wearing a t-shirt that belongs to Luke and a pair of sweat pants that do, too. They look good on him, much better than they do on Luke, at least. Luke’s almost overwhelmed with the urge to kiss Michael right now, because he looks so kissable wearing Luke’s clothes in Luke’s home and not looking at all uncomfortable by the unprecedented situation. Luke forces himself to look away from Michael so that he doesn’t give into the desire. He looks down at the boxes Michael is taken from him instead.

“Can we eat in here?” asks Michael. “Or do you have this weird rule about no food outside of the kitchen?”

He eyes Luke cautiously. Luke takes a quick glance around the living room. There is an empty mug on the coffee table and an empty saucer that looks like it once held a poptart or some other type of pastry from Luke’s pantry. He figures, even if he did have a rule, it wouldn’t matter much right now. He’s never been one to eat meals at a table like a proper adult, so he shakes his head in response.

“Good. You got paper plates or something? I don’t want to miss this segment. Nick’s gonna eat three blackberry pies without his hands.”

 Luke nods on instinct. He does have paper plates, because he’s lazy sometimes and doesn’t want to do dishes after he’s eaten. He hovers in the living room for a moment, staring at Michael whose attention has returned to Nick on the television. The segment is getting ready to start, because Nick is wearing a rain poncho over his work clothes so that he doesn’t get blackberries all over them. Michael glances in Luke’s direction briefly, eyebrows raised in a manner that’s obviously meant to convey his impatience. Luke snaps out of his stupor and retreats to the kitchen.

When he returns a few minutes later, Nick has already got his face in one of the blackberry pies. There is juice dripping down his chin, trailing down his neck underneath the poncho. Michael takes one of the paper plates from Luke without looking away from the television. They divide the pizza and the cheesy breadsticks between them. Luke settles next to Michael on the couch. They watch the rest of Nick’s segment in companionable silence, occasionally breaking it to exchange commentary on Nick’s show. 

It’s so domestic that if Luke tries hard enough, he can convince himself that this is just a normal Tuesday night, that Michael belongs on the other end of this couch with him. He stops watching Nick’s show in favor of staring at Michael. He doesn’t get to do this much, not without alcohol to hide behind. He likes the way Michael laughs at Nick’s horrible puns and the way Michael chews on his bottom lip during the pre-noon trivia segment like he is the contestant trying to outwit Nick. It’s endearing in a way that Luke has never before associated with Michael. Luke’s chest feels too small at the realization.

The show cuts to a commercial just before the final results of the trivia segment so that the audience is left in suspense. Michael glances over at Luke. He has probably felt the heavy weight of Luke’s gaze for the past half hour. Luke meets his eyes, and his cheeks flush in embarrassment of being caught, though he hasn’t been trying to hide anything. Michael holds his gaze. His face is blank. Luke wants to ask what he’s thinking.

Michael opens his mouth to speak, expression now serious. Luke gets a flash of Calum’s words in his mind: you guys have got to talk. Tension thickens in the room. Luke wonders if this is it. If they’re going to talk. He holds his breath, waiting for Michael to speak.

“You’ve got pizza sauce all down your shirt.”

Luke blinks, cocking his head to the side. The tension in the room dispels immediately, as quickly as it came. He glances down at his t-shirt to see that Michael is right. There is a big stain of pizza sauce down the front of it. There is no saving it now—neither the stain nor his dignity. He glances back up at Michael and notes that Michael, too, looks baffled by his own words. They’re probably not what he meant to say at all.

The moment is pregnant between them. They should really be proper adults right now and talk about what happened last night, because Michael was assaulted and Luke called Michael his and there’s a whole slew of other issues they need to work through from the club alone. Luke should ask Michael why he did what he did that night in Ashton’s spare bedroom when he shoved Luke up against the wall for the first time and kissed him. Or he should ask Michael about all of the other times they’ve fucked, because he’s still perplexed, on some level, that he’s had sex numerous times with somebody who hates him as much as Michael does. Or he should even ask Michael what the hell had led to him trapped in that restroom with a jackass like that bastard last night.

These are things they should be talking about like the proper adults they are. When Luke opens his mouth to say all of this and more, all that really comes out is, “Nick wins the trivia challenge. The answer’s Tennessee, by the way, not Georgia.”

Luke doesn’t try to rein in the bark of laughter that follows. He watched Nick film the trivia segment last week. It’s one of the few parts of anybody’s show at the station that isn’t done live before the entire city. Most of the time, it’s played with celebrities and other big-name guests who don’t always appreciate being made a fool in real time. The contestant today is a politician in the state government, and he doesn’t know the answer, either.

Michael huffs in response and folds his arms across his chest, so obviously unimpressed by Luke’s spoiler that he feels the need to roll his eyes as well. Luke grins smugly at him, happy that the tension is gone between them. It hadn’t felt pleasant to know they needed to talk and that moment had offered them an opportunity neither man was prepared to take. The tiny glint of relief in Michael’s eyes suggests he shares Luke’s opinion. It’s gone in a second, the commercial break ending. Michael turns his attention back to the television screen.

Luke is still staring at Michael two minutes later when the answer is finally revealed and Nick is named champion.

 Michael stays most of the afternoon and well into the evening. It’s both remarkable and uneventful all at once. Luke doesn’t once ask him to leave. He doesn’t even think about it, actually. There is something comforting about Michael sitting next to him that makes him dread it all coming to an end. Michael seems just as reluctant to leave. He commandeers the remote after Nick’s show goes off to turn the channel to some musical documentary that he and Luke both take an interest in. They waste away the rest of the day in front of television until the darkness of night falls unavoidable in front of them.

It is almost too late for Luke to heartlessly send Michael out into the cold night back to an apartment that is dark and empty and, most importantly, not with him. Michael glances toward the door, a hesitant look on his face. This is such a bizarre experience, the two of them spending the evening alone in each other’s company without the need of a barrier to separate them. Neither really know how to handle themselves.

Michael looks from the door to Luke then back again. He taps his fingers on his own knee as he considers his place in this limbo between wanting to stay and knowing he should leave. It’s an odd look on him, Luke thinks, but he can’t imagine that he, himself, looks any different. He knows this limbo all too well. Michael and he may as well be holding hands in the midst of it.

Social protocol wins in the end, and Michael stands up from the couch. There is a moment when Luke thinks Michael is going to turn to him and maybe thank him for last night or for dinner or for something, but he doesn’t. That is not Michael’s style. He just strolls over to the door where his jacket is hanging on a hook. He quietly slips into it.

The television is still turned on, and it is a repeat of the first musical documentary they had watched hours ago. It is the only sound in the entire house—possibly, as far as Luke’s concerned, in the entire world. His gaze is on the outline of Michael’s back. He thinks that maybe he should be the one to say something right now, to acknowledge that this has been the best night in he has ever had in his house, that the loneliness he had come to associate his home with hadn’t seemed as overbearing with Michael sitting next to him. Nothing springs to his tongue. His mouth remains shut. He can only watch in silence as Michael moves to open the door.

It is raining outside, water pelting down from the sky in angry drops that drench the entire world below. A gush of damp, cold air rushes into the house, and Luke wants Michael to leave even less now. He can’t in good conscience send his houseguest out into such bitter weather. That’s all it is, he tells himself as he, too, gets up from the couch.

He crosses the room quicker than he ever has. He grabs Michael by the crook of his elbow, spinning him around so that they’re face-to-face, nearly nose-to-nose. Michael’s eyes are even greener in color up close. Luke gets a flash of them staring up at him with Michael’s mouth wrapped around his dick. It feels forbidden to recall that right now, standing so close to Michael.

“Stay.”

Chapter Text

Stay.

The request echoes in the quietness of the house, sounding more and more like a command as the seconds tick by. Michael stands in the doorway and lets the damp, cold air of the late January night inside. It’s still raining relentlessly, big drops of freezing water painting the landscape wet. He’s got one hand on the doorknob. His breath is warm against Luke’s neck. Neither man has moved away to reclaim their personal space.

Now that Luke thinks about—now that everything except Michael has faded from his peripheral—he doesn’t want to move away. He doesn’t want Michael to, either. This feels right, standing chest-to-chest with Michael and asking him not to leave. It’s not something Luke should ask of the man who hates him, but he does anyway, because nobody wastes away an evening on a couch with somebody they don’t like.

Luke isn’t really sure what to do with this realization. He’s not even sure what to think about the idea that Michael might not hate him, that this abhorrence they’ve nurtured between them might be dying. It’s so bizarre, and Luke really doesn’t want to think about it right now. He doesn’t want to do anything except kiss Michael.

So he does.

The world should stop turning right now. Luke is pretty sure this act is enough to send everything screeching to a halt. He’s the one who has pressed his lips to Michael’s this time, no provocation whatsoever except for the intensity of the moment that hangs between them. It’s not something he was every supposed to have done. Michael hates him, and Luke is supposed to hate Michael, but that’s not true, not really. As Michael kisses him back—throwing everything he has, everything he is, into it—Luke isn’t sure either of those are true.

Luke brings his hands up to cup Michael’s face, holding Michael as they kiss. He uses his foot to kick the door shut, and it’s warm again with the lingering damp chill of the outside. Luke backs Michael into the door. Michael hits it with a quiet grunt, breaking the kiss long enough to catch his breath before he dives back into Luke’s lips. Luke thinks about the last time they were in this position when he’d held Michael against this very door and brought him to an orgasm with a quick squeeze of his hand. He wants to do the same thing again, but there is something more he wants instead.

He breaks the kiss and sucks down the line of Michael’s neck. Michael shudders against him, tilting his head back to expose more skin to Luke’s lips. Luke eats him up eagerly, working his way to the crook of his shoulder. He bites down there, teeth sharp, then licks back over it.

Michael moans softly. He thrusts his hips forward. His hard dick presses into Luke’s, and it’s been so, so long that Luke almost loses everything by the mere brush of them, separated only by a few layers of fabric. Luke chases down Michael’s lips for one last kiss as he lets Michael rut against him, trying his best to keep his own orgasm at bay. He doesn’t want it to end like this. He has something else in mind.

He drops to his knees. Michael’s dick is straining in his borrowed pants, and Luke leans forward to mouth over the outline. His mouth waters in anticipation. He raises his hands to the waistband. He looks up to meet Michael’s eyes, and it’s a mistake. Michael’s pupils are dilated, and his cheeks are flushed, and he’s looking right back at Luke like Luke is the only person in the entire world. It’s too much, really, but Luke doesn’t break eye contact as he slowly pulls down Michael’s pant or even when he wraps his lips around Michael’s dick for the first time.

It is intimate in a way that every other blow job Luke has ever given haven’t been. Michael moans loudly in the back of his throat. He is the one to finally look away, head falling back against the door as Luke takes him deeper in his mouth. He is not far from the edge. His breaths come in short gasps, and it takes Luke a moment to find his stride, to find that one thing that makes Michael grab handfuls of Luke’s hair just to remain upright. He hums victoriously around Michael’s dick as he makes quick work of taking him apart with his tongue.

Michael comes with a grunt that might as well be Luke’s name. His fingers tighten in Luke’s hair, almost painfully so. Luke doesn’t even think about pulling back. He has tasted Michael secondhand before. It is nothing compared to this, compared to the hot rush of the euphoric moment pouring out Michael’s body. Luke swallows all that he can and doesn’t let up until Michael loosens his grip and tugs gently at Luke’s hair to make him stop. Words are beyond Michael’s capability, and Luke’s never felt more powerful in his life than he does right now in the after waves of Michael’s orgasm.

He stands on shaky knees to press a closed mouth kiss against Michael’s lips. He is still hard in his pants, but that is not high on his list of priorities. Michael is a mess of a man before him, and he feels a spike of pride for doing this to him. He wants to do it again and again and again until he no longer remembers that they’re supposed to hate each other. He’s so overwhelmed with this desire that he kisses Michael once more. It’s a little desperate, this particular kiss, but he’s beginning to come apart at his seams just by how debauched Michael is because of him.

It’s all too much.

When a hand presses against his dick, Luke almost instantly loses it. He is so strung out, already on the edge of his orgasm. His knees go weak, and he falls forward into Michael, pressing Michael closer to the door but never breaking their kiss. Michael’s hand slips into Luke’s pants underneath all of the fabric. Luke’s so close to losing it all from the very first touch that he bites down on Michael’s bottom lip just to focus on something other than Michael’s hand wrapped around his cock, slowly working him to an orgasm. Luke’s teeth elicit a gasp from Michael’s mouth.

Michael tightens his hand around Luke’s dick, and that is all that it takes to bring Luke’s orgasm crashing over him like an ocean wave against the rocky shore. Luke slumps farther into Michael, breaking their kiss to lean his forehead on Michael’s shoulder. It is only thanks to Michael that he is still even standing. The aftershock of his orgasm buzzes underneath his skin. His heart is too big for his chest. He feels like a helium balloon ripped free of its weight, floating up into the clouds.

Nothing can bring him down.

Michael removes his hand from Luke’s pants, wiping it on the inside of the already ruined boxers as he does. Luke is so far gone that he doesn’t even cringe as the material sticks to him in the most uncomfortable of ways. Vaguely, he feels a spike of disappointment that it is all over, that Michael has gotten what he wants, and that Luke will soon be left alone in the entryway of his own home. He doesn’t want Michael to leave, but Michael is not made to stay, not where Luke is concerned at least.

It is all one big mess in Luke’s head, this whole affair with Michael. His mind is still sluggish from his orgasm, so it’s even worse. He wants to kiss Michael again. He wants to take Michael by the hand and walk him away from the door and turn the lock so that he can’t leave like he always does. Luke doesn’t know how to say this out loud, that he’s tired of this dance between them. He forgets how to breathe as he draws in a choked breath.

It’s all too much, this whole affair with Michael.

Luke isn’t sure how long they stand there. He stays pressed against Michael, leaning on him even when he is certain that he can support his own weight again. His mind gradually clears, but the good feeling of his orgasm lingers. He is still a mess in his boxers. The ridges of the door have to digging into Michael’s back, but Michael makes no move to push Luke off him. Luke is too terrified to move, scared that once he does, the spell between them will be broken and Michael really will leave.

“It’s late,” murmurs Michael. His breath puffs warm against Luke’s ear. He has one hand on Luke’s hip and the other tentatively splayed out in the small of his back. He could easily shove Luke off him. He doesn’t. “You have to get up early.”

Luke doesn’t tell him that Michael does, too, because surely Michael knows that. It isn’t as early as Luke himself needs to leave, but it is early enough to contrast the lateness of this hour. They should both be asleep in bed right now, an entire city apart. They shouldn’t be here in Luke’s entryway pressed against each other long after their orgasms have subsided. Luke is surprised the world actually hasn’t stopped turning.

“It’s still raining,” is what Luke says instead.

Michael nods. He finally pushes Luke away from him. Luke’s heart sinks in his chest. He tries not to let it show on his face, because he remembers now more than he has this entire evening that Michael hates him and he’s supposed to hate Michael, too. He takes another step back from Michael. Their intimacy is lost in the space that rushes between them.

But somehow Michael hears the words Luke didn’t say, the so why don’t you stay the night? Maybe he even hears more, Luke doesn’t know, but he does hear that, and that’s enough, because Michael bridges the emptiness between them to take Luke’s hand in his own. He meets Luke’s eyes. There is nothing else for Luke to do other than to tug Michael away from the door so that he can kiss him properly one more time, so he does it.

When they break apart, Luke reaches behind him to flip the lock on the door and to hit the switch next to it all in motion. The living room darkens, except for the glow of the television. The documentary they watched earlier is coming to a close again. Luke presses the power button on the remote as he leads Michael to his bedroom. His covers are strewn about everywhere in a manner that doesn’t fit Luke’s body. He stops just inside the room to smile at the sight, a warm feeling rising in his chest as he thinks about how his bed will look like this tomorrow morning, too.

They don’t talk while they get ready for bed. The mood is all wrong for it. Luke gets some clothes out for Michael. They take turns in the bathroom, and when Luke goes in after Michael, he sees that Michael has found his spare toothbrush. He has left it on the counter next to the sink, not in the holder where it might be a permanent fixture. Luke cleans his teeth with his own toothbrush and leaves the spare one where it lays on the vanity.

He has a moment of trepidation as he approaches his bed in the darkness. It is not pitch black. The light from the city bleeds through the curtains that cover the massive window next to his bed, so he can see Michael already lying in the spot Luke never does like he already knows Luke’s bedtime routine. Luke is overcome with the feeling that Michael belongs there. It is so easy to forget the animosity they’ve nurtured between them for years when Michael looks at home between the sheets of Luke’s bed.

Luke sits down gently, never taking his eyes off the form of Michael in the darkness. He crawls underneath the covers in an even more tender movement, sliding his feet between the sheets until he’s lying on his back. He turns his head, his cheek pressed against the pillow so that he is looking Michael in the eyes. There is not much space between them. Michael is on his side, curled up in a ball. His knees skim Luke’s upper thigh. He has one hand tucked underneath his own pillow.

The night is quiet around them. It is slowly approaching the time when it is both way too late and way too early. Luke has to get up in just a few hours. He is already running off so little sleep, and He is so tired now, but he can’t bring himself to close his eyes. He thinks he might already be dreaming, because that is certainly a more likely possibility than Michael in the flesh lying in the bed next to him. He holds his eyes open as long as he can, staring into Michael’s, but he doesn’t win out in the end. He falls asleep, eyes partially shut and Michael’s knees against his thigh.

He sleeps soundly the entire night. Content.

When he wakes up the next morning, it is to a face full of hair. He breathes in the sharp scent of shampoo and sweat, and the previous night comes back to him. Michael had stayed. Luke had asked, and Michael had complied. Now, he’s lying with his back to Luke’s front. Luke has his arm around Michael and his knees in the crook of Michael’s own. There is a vent in the ceiling above his head that blows out warm air from the unit. Flush against Michael, Luke feels like he is in a furnace. He doesn’t want to move.

Somewhere in the floor near his closet, his cell phone beeps from the pocket of his discarded pants. It is the tone set specifically for Miranda. She has ordered the car to his house, and he has about twenty minutes, at best, before the car pulls up in his drive. He should be getting up to take his shower, because that is his morning routine, but there is a man in his bed that he doesn’t want to leave. He ignores the beep as he tightens his hold on Michael. He draws in another lungful of the scent of Michael’s shampoo and thinks if he had to smell only one scent for the rest of his life, he’d like it to be this.

He stays wrapped around Michael for much longer than he really should. The next time his phone rings, it’s with a different tone. The car is outside waiting on him. He is still dressed in his sleep clothes, and he hasn’t taken a shower, and he still doesn’t want to move. He never wants to leave this bed.

But he has to.

The phone beeps a second time. Luke isn’t actually sure how long the driver will wait before he inevitably gives up on him, so he forces himself to get up. The sheets pull away from him when he moves, and he lets them fall back around Michael. He hesitates on the edge of the bed, caught in an awkward place between standing and sitting. He is leaning toward Michael before he even makes the decision, and he presses a soft kiss to the corner of Michael’s sleeping lips. It’s all he can reach from this angle.

He physically pushes himself away from the bed before the notion of staving off work becomes too alluring. He dresses in record time, buttoning a wrinkled shirt as he brushes his teeth. There is a pillow line running down the length of his cheek. His hair sticks up in every direction, so he grabs some gel out of the cabinet behind the mirror. It is a loss cause, for the most part, but he manages to tame his hair into a style that might be acceptable for the television at five-thirty in the morning. He runs his hands under the tap to get rid of the sticky product then dashes out of the bathroom.

In the doorway of his room, he looks back at the bed to get one last glimpse of Michael. His breath catches in his throat. Michael is curled on his side facing the door, arms wrapped around the pillow Luke had used last night. He is asleep, but it is obvious that he has been woken up in the past ten minutes. Luke almost feels guilty that he’s disturbed Michael, but he can’t quite muster up the appropriate amount remorse as he realizes that Michael must have consciously decided upon cuddling his pillow. The thought does funny things to his chest, like make his heart skip a beat.

His phone beeps another time. He has never been this late before, but he suspects this is the last warning. He turns away from Michael’s sleeping form. He forces himself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That is the only way he is going to make it to work on time. He locks the door behind him. The car is still parked illegally on the curb in front of his house. The driver is obviously impatient, so Luke doesn’t waste another moment to climb into the backseat.

He is five minutes late. The broadcast should have already started, but they’ve been running commercials to give him time to get there. Liam stops him at the door, his eyebrows raised and his arms folded across his chest. Luke feels like a chastised schoolboy before Liam even opens his mouth.

“Difficult commute this morning?”

Luke grimaces. The problem with having the station order him a cab every morning is that Liam knows exactly how long it takes to get here from Luke’s house. He can’t very well tell his boss that there was more traffic than usual, because that wouldn’t hold up at all. Besides, Casey commutes on similar streets, and he is sitting in his chair.

“Slept through my alarms. Won’t happen again.”

He doesn’t make it a habit to lie to his boss. He respects Liam too much for that, and he hardly ever has a reason to lie anyway, but he’d rather Liam think that he is been incompetent this morning than to know the real truth—that Luke is late because he couldn’t pull himself away from Michael.

“You’re right. It won’t.”

It is a dismissal, plain and simple. Liam takes step back. Luke nods, properly rebuked, as he steps around Liam. Calum is standing between cameras two and three. It is too early to deal with him also, so Luke throws up a friendly wave and takes a path between camera one and the wall to his chair. Casey already has Emsie set up on the desk next to the brand new name plate.

“Good night last night?” asks Casey, grinning from ear-to-ear.

Luke rolls his eyes, not bothering to answer. He tries not to think about Michael still curled up in his bed, but he fails. He can’t stop the smile that tugs at his lips. Casey howls in laughter, gleeful of being right. He doesn’t have a clue what he is laughing about, not really, but it doesn’t matter. The countdown clock above the camera blazes past ten seconds. He still isn’t done laughing by the time the cameras begin to roll.

“Good morning, citizens of this fine city. Please excuse Casey here. He’s finally reached his breaking point. We’ll bring out the straight jacket during the next commercial. It’ll get ugly, trust me.”

Casey guffaws, not at all offended by Luke. Miranda takes the reins of the teleprompter. It is meant for Casey, but the man is too busy laughing to read it. She rolls her eyes at her coworkers’ antic, shooting a look, at the cameras, meant for the viewers that clearly says it’s too early to put up with these idiots’ nonsense.  It is all good fun. The show goes on, and there is no mention of why there was an extended commercial break prior to the intro.

They stop for the news a little while later, and the cameras go down on them to go up on Jack-the-news-man in the next studio over where all of the fancy green screens are kept. Luke relaxes in his seat, slinking down in a slouched posture that’d make Liam motion for Casey to grab him by his ear if the cameras were still rolling.

“So,” prompts Miranda, voice full of the mirth that she had restrained earlier when she had saved them all by being the only one to actually do their job. “Spill.”

“Nope,” responds Luke immediately, lips popping the ‘p’ as if the emphasis alone will be enough to ward off any further questioning.

“Ah, c’mon, Luke. You’re a sharer.”

“In more ways than one, apparently,” says Calum, appearing out of nowhere in the space between the cameras.

He flashes a smile at Miranda and Casey, but it is obvious by the glint in his eyes that he wants to speak with Luke alone. They take the cue without question, mirroring each other as they leave the desk to go loiter somewhere else in the studio. Calum sits down on the corner next to Luke.

“So, uh, by chance, have you happened to see our dear friend Michael? He was supposed to come over to Ashton’s last night for supper, but it appears as if you’ve held him hostage. Was the jalapeño pizza just that good?”

“You’re fishing,” responds Luke. He raises his eyebrows at Calum to convey his dissatisfaction with the topic. His brain betrays him, and he thinks of Michael who is probably just now waking up, still sleepy and warm in Luke’s bed.

“And you’re not really done with Michael, so we’re both in the wrong here, somehow.”

“Do you have a point? Or are you just using up all of my free time to make sure I’m not late for the next segment?”

The smile finally disappears from Calum’s face, and his expression sobers. He’s all big-eyed and concerned.

“What are you doing, man?”

“Working?” says Luke, purposefully obtuse. He doesn’t like it when Calum gets serious. It is even worse when he is trying to be all concerned. “I mean, that’s typically what I come here to the station to do.”

“With Michael, what are you doing?”

Luke bites his bottom lip. There is no more avoidance, because Calum has finally put Michael’s name on the table, and Luke can’t pretend like he doesn’t know exactly what Calum is getting at. He doesn’t really know how to answer Calum, because he isn’t sure what they’re doing, to be honest. He is not sure why he spent all day yesterday with Michael or why he wanted so badly to go down on his knees for him or why he couldn’t quite leave the bed this morning. All he knows is that he doesn’t hate Michael as much as he really should after their shared history.

“Feeding him all the jalapeño pizzas he wants, apparently.”

Luke.”

“Look, I don’t know what you want me to say,” responds Luke, glancing at the camera where the countdown clock is quickly passing twenty seconds. Miranda and Casey are hovering in the space between cameras three and four, impatient to return to their seats but unwilling to do so as long as Calum is still commandeering Luke’s time. “And I’ve got to entertain the entire city in the next fifteen seconds, so…”

Calum sighs. He takes a step back, but Luke knows it’s not a surrender. It isn’t even a retreat. It is just Calum being professional. He fades into the darkness as the overhead lights go dim. The countdown clock nears single digits. Miranda and Casey sit cautiously down in their chairs, each shooting side glances at Luke. He ignores them, and he ignores the feeling that he is possibly in over his head with Calum’s suspicion, and he ignores the longing in the pit of his stomach to be back home curled up in bed with Michael.

The countdown hits zero. The music plays. The cameras start rolling again, and Luke throws his all at the city for the rest of the show.

When the lights finally go back up, Luke is more than ready to be out of the presenter’s chair. He carefully packs away Emsie before he hands his seat over to Nick. He is free for the rest of the day, his normal afternoon meetings cancelled via an email he had received half of an hour ago. Liam has got some family emergency that he had rushed out of the studio for. He never misses out on work if he can help it, so the entire crew is a little off-kilter in his absence, like a moth chasing after the smoke of a dying flame.

It is only natural, of course, that Luke gets a text message from Ashton before he has even made it out onto the street a free man. Ashton wants Luke to stop by his work and drop off lunch, because he is five days out from his next big fashion show in some exotic country Luke has never been to in his life. Ashton is working like a dog like he and his crew always do in the lead-up to the shows.

Luke shoots back a message to remind Ashton he has Calum wrapped around his finger and could just as easily make him his lap dog. Luke doesn’t get a response back. He doesn’t actually expect one. He crosses the street to the restaurant to pick up the order he knows Ashton has already called in. There is enough food for an army, like there typically is when he orders. The cashier offers Luke a hand to his car, but he waves her off when he notices Calum’s car pull up right next to the door.

“Did Ashton send you? Because, seriously, I was well on my way home when he messaged me,” is Luke’s greeting as soon as he is seated in the passenger’s seat. The mountain of food is carefully stowed away in the trunk. He is partially lying, but Calum doesn’t need to know that. Neither does Ashton, for that matter.

“He’s going to be gone again soon. You’d better enjoy him while you can.”

Calum pulls out into traffic, heading toward Ashton’s office building where all of the models go to be beautiful. Luke tries not to think about the last time Ashton left, when his worst nightmare showed up on his doorstep and everything went to hell in a nicely woven hand basket. Ashton doesn’t know the story, of course, and neither does Calum, really, so Luke stays silent in his thoughts as the city streets fly by beneath the car’s tires.

The building Ashton works in is one of the more beautiful skyscrapers in the city, and he has a top-floor private office that he has no use for. It is right on Niall’s floor, so Luke figures that’s why Ashton is up there. Luke and Calum wrestle the mountain of food into the elevator. Calum has to press the correct button with his knee whenever they finally get settled.

Ashton’s floor usually requires a pass code, but Harry is waiting for them, rocking back on the heels of his feet when the elevator doors finally split open. He grins eagerly at them and doesn’t bother with any greeting. He does, however, grab a handful of food from both Luke and Calum, so Luke supposes he can forgive his friend the lack of manners.

Harry leads them into the conference room that doubles as their lounge. Ashton and Niall are already there, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at the head of the long black table. There are a dozen sheets of paper before them. They’re all proposed designs for a fashion show in the near future. It is fascinating to think that all of Niall’s masterpieces start out as nothing but chicken scratches on crinkled paper.

Neither Ashton nor Niall pay them no attention as Luke, Harry, and Calum deposit all of the food onto the opposite end of the table. They don’t really notice anybody else has even entered the room until Harry sits down in front of them with his burger and fries. Luke is the only one who got a chicken sandwich. He snatches it before he is inadvertently left with a cheeseburger. Apparently all but a couple of the bags actually go to Ashton’s colleagues, so Calum flags down a pair of interns strolling down the hallway at the wrong time. He loads them up with bags and starts to shut the door. Michael slips inside before he can.

“Did you all leave me any food? Or do I need to go track down Winnie and Margot?” asks Michael, sticking his head back out into the hallway in the direction the interns had disappeared.

Calum has to jerk Michael back into the room before he gets it in his head to chase after food that isn’t his. Michael shoots him a miffed expression, but he is easily consoled by the brown paper bag Calum shoves into his hand. He doesn’t take notice of Luke until he has finally sat down at the conference table.

Luke is already looking at him, has had his attention on him since the moment he came into the room like a moth drawn to a flame, and Michael’s cheeks flush bright red. He offers Luke a smile that is small. It is the nicest he has ever initially been to Luke, apart from the times he has shoved his hand into Luke’s pants to get him off. Luke can’t help but to smile back. It feels like a secret the two of them share, this tiny exchange of niceties.

“So, Luke, the oddest thing happened this morning,” says Ashton, and Luke just knows this isn’t going to be good by the tone of his voice alone. Luke’s gaze flickers to Ashton’s. He is grinning wickedly at Luke. “I sat down with my coffee at five-thirty this morning, and your station decided to run an extra-long commercial. Must’ve lasted like five or six minutes. Quite unusual, if you ask me.”

“Commercials are how we keep our lights on,” quips Luke.

That could be it if not for Calum sitting at the same table. Calum guffaws loudly, slapping the tabletop in front of him. The sound echoes in the room, and everybody’s attention snaps to him, except for Michael’s. His remains on Luke.

“Don’t let him lie to you. He was spectacularly late this morning. Liam almost sent me out to drag his ass in. It seems there was something more pressing to attend to than his job…”

Luke makes the mistake of meeting Michael’s gaze right then, and Michael blinks, taken aback by the new information. Luke tries not to blush, but he can feel his cheeks warm up traitorously. He doesn’t know how to read Michael’s response. They don’t know each other that well, were never really given a chance in their years-long war of wits and hatred. Michael looks a little awed and a lot surprised. Luke forces himself to look back at Ashton, whose own grin has transformed into something more mischievous.

“So that’s how it is?” asks Ashton, briefly eyeing Michael only to raise his eyebrows at Luke.

“Calum has always had a flare for dramatics,” says Luke, brushing him off.

Luke doesn’t know what the proper protocol here is. He and Michael haven’t really talked about what it is they’re doing, no matter how much Calum has advised otherwise. They don’t talk. It’s just not how they work. Yesterday evening, with the two of them devouring a pizza in front the string of music documentaries, had been the longest span of time they had ever spent in the same space without arguing. It had been nice, much nicer than any other evening Luke has spent after work, but they still hadn’t acknowledged the elephant in the room, so Luke has no clue how to play this moment right now, not when whatever this is between him and Michael is so fragile that he feels a fiery desire to protect it from the cruel world.

“You should know better than to listen to him, really,” finishes Luke.

He doesn’t glance at Michael, because that would be too obvious, but he thinks he has made the right move. Michael’s ankle brushes against his underneath the conference table. Luke isn’t completely sure, but he thinks it might be approval.

Ashton doesn’t quite buy it, if the way he glances between Luke and Michael is anything to go by. It is Luke’s turn to raise his eyebrows at him. Luke has laid his cards on the table, and he has to stick to them now. It feels too wrong to let Ashton, or any of their other friends sitting around the table, into the universe of secrets Luke has created with Michael, so he does not feel too guilty about lying. It is only by omission, anyway. He hasn’t outright said he isn’t having sex with Michael—not that anybody has ever really had any reason to suspect he is.

It is too risky to meet Michael’s eyes in front of them all underneath Ashton’s line of questioning, so he doesn’t. He shifts in his seat so that he can slot his knee in between those of Michael. He sees Michael smile that small smile out of the corner of his eyes, and he has to make a conscious effort not to smile, too.

Chapter Text

Luke gets the call later that evening around eight o’clock. Liam’s mother-in-law has died. He tells Luke, his voice wrecked from mourning all day, that he’ll be out of the office for the rest of the week. Luke is to pick up the slack left in his wake. He’ll share the duties with Calum, which means that he will be seeing a lot more of Calum at work than he already does. He assures Liam that he has it all under control and tries not to think about Calum’s tendency to ask invasive questions.

He fixes a dinner for one, a chicken pot pie he is probably going to eat again tomorrow for supper. There is so much of it. He is just getting it out of the oven when the door rings. It is déjà vu at its greatest, he thinks. He slips his hands out of the pot holders and leaves his dinner to cool while he goes to answer the door. It’s both a surprise and not one at all when it turns out to be Michael on his doorstep.

“Something smells delicious,” says Michael in lieu of a greeting.

He steps passed Luke with all of the confidence in the world, as if he had been invited to come over instead of just randomly showing up. Luke lets him, operating on autopilot because Michael fascinates him so. It isn’t really something that he’s ever acknowledged in this way. He has never before gone with whatever it is Michael does and had no desire to fight him on it, but, now, he thinks he’ll give it a shot.

“Chicken pot pie. D’you want some?” asks Luke when he should probably be asking why Michael is here or where he gets off on just traipsing into Luke’s home and demanding to be fed.  The alternatives don’t really cross his mind. “It’s fresh out of the oven.”

Michael knows where the kitchen is, because he’s not a stranger to this home, no matter how weird the concept actually is whenever Luke stops to think about it. He strides right into the next room without waiting on Luke. When Luke finally catches up to him, he is standing next to the stove lording over the dinner.

Luke needs to get out the plates which are in the cabinet next to Michael, but he can’t reach them without crowding into Michael’s space. For a split second, he considers stepping around the other man. He doesn’t. It feels natural to close the distance between him and Michael, his chest flush to Michael’s back. He takes in a lungful of the clean scent of Michael’s shampoo as he opens the cabinet door to retrieve the plates.

His body is bracing Michael’s. He knows what Michael looks like when he falls so beautifully apart, and he knows what Michael tastes like in the most forbidden of ways, but this right here, his body pressed innocently against Michael’s, feels even more intimate. He almost doesn’t know what to do with himself.

He dishes out the pot pie between the two of them, and they dance around each other preparing their drinks. Michael takes a glass of sweet tea with a splash of lemon juice. Luke fills up a glass of water from the tap. He follows Michael into the living room, where they spread out on the couch. Michael grabs for the remote like it’s his own, and he flips on the television, leaving it on a syndicated game show even as it almost immediately fades to a commercial.

They eat in companionable silence, letting the television bridge the space between them. It’s not uncomfortable in the slightest. Luke had seen this episode just last week, so he knows most of the answers, but it’s like he’s watching it for the first time all over again. Michael bellows out his guesses, unabashed. He’s hardly ever wrong, and Luke’s never actually realized how smart Michael really is. It’s something that has slipped into the canyon they’d cut between them with the raging river of hatred they’d nurtured for years. Luke feels a flush of privilege for finally catching this glimpse of Michael he has otherwise overlooked.

“I watched some of your show this morning,” says Michael casually during one of the commercial breaks.

They’ve been finished with their dinner for a few hours now, their dirty dishes stacked on the coffee table before them. It is much later in the evening than Luke normally stays up on a work night, though he’s seen this hour quite often since Michael and the others landed back in the country last week.

“Niall doesn’t really like it when we have the television on during the pre-shoots, but he always leaves it on for your show.”

Michael isn’t looking at him. He is intently staring at the television. Luke feels awkward all of a sudden, almost overcome with the urge to impress Michael, to make Michael proud of him. He has no right to want it, of course. He isn’t sure how to classify this thing between them, but he is pretty sure that he shouldn’t want things Michael isn’t obliged to give him. He shouldn’t set himself up to fall. He can’t help himself.

“And, uh, what’d you think?”

“That you should’ve put Casey in a straight jacket,” deadpans Michael, finally meeting Luke’s gaze. It is something Luke mentioned a few times during yesterday’s show. There is a hint of blush on Michael’s cheeks and a glint of shyness in his eyes. Of all of the things Michael could ever be self-conscience about, it’s this: admitting that he watches Luke’s show on a regular basis.

Luke almost thinks Michael’s going to ask about why he was late. He knows the answer, of course, but it is the perfect opportunity to put it all out on the table. They need to talk about whatever this is. The shiftiness of Michael’s posture suggests he knows exactly what moment is upon them, but he’s similarly petrified of being the first one to break.

The moment passes.

It should be awkward after that, the two of them so obviously dancing around the big issue set before them, admitting their fears to the other man, but it’s not. It’s nothing less than comfortable. The program comes back from commercial, and Michael turns back to it like he hasn’t just ceded significant ground. Like he hasn’t just bared a little more of himself to Luke.

Eventually, the hour of the night becomes too late for Luke. He is having trouble keeping his eyes open, because he has been up for far too long already. He tells Michael as much between a succession of yawns he tries to stifle. Michael smiles fondly at him. He is tired, too, but there is still another fifteen minutes left of the program they’re watching. Luke leaves him to it and goes into his private bathroom to get ready for bed.

When he returns to the living room some twenty minutes later, teeth freshly brushed and dressed in only his boxers and a t-shirt, Michael is still sitting on the couch. He looks out of place in all of the ways he hasn’t all evening. He glances toward the door, sighing forlornly like leaving is the last thing he wants to do. Luke doesn’t even think before he speaks.

“You remember where your toothbrush is, right?”

Michael’s gaze snaps to his, eyes wide in surprise. Luke takes a moment to reflect on his words. He realizes what he has said, but he makes no attempt to correct himself. There’s nothing to correct anyway. Michael is the one who used the toothbrush, and Luke hasn’t moved it. Nobody else is going to want to use it, so it’s only natural to call it Michael’s.

 “I’ll get you something to sleep in. Lock up, would you?”

He is pretty sure he has already locked all of the outside doors and turned off all of the unnecessary lights anyway, but he feels fidgety underneath Michael’s heavy gaze, because Michael is looking at him like he hung the moon or something equally crazy, and that is a lot to live up to, especially from a person who supposedly hates him. Or hated him. Luke isn’t sure where that line was drawn, or even when it was, but he isn’t so convinced that Michael hates him right now in this moment. He’s certainly not looking at Luke like he is, at least.

Escaping into the bedroom is really the coward’s way out, but Michael needs something to sleep in that’ll be more comfortable than the black skinny jeans he is wearing. He is still dressed in the clothes he’d worn at the office. Niall’s designer pieces aren’t meant to be worn between the sheets.

Michael trails into the room a few minutes later. Luke immediately hands him a t-shirt and a pair of flannel pants, ushering him into the bathroom so that he, too, can get ready for bed. Luke fiddles around in the bedroom by himself, straightening clothes on the hangers in the closet that are actually fine and reorganizing the silk ties he has hanging next to his suits, because he can’t quite get over how this is supposed to feel odd or even disconcerting that he’s waiting on Michael to climb into bed with but it actually doesn’t feel like anything other than the most natural thing in the world. Luke isn’t sure when the expectations set out by his mind began to fail to meet what actually happened.

It only takes Michael a few minutes to do his business. He returns to the bedroom wearing Luke’s flannel pants. The t-shirt he has borrowed falls off one shoulder. Exhaustion is plain on his face, over his entire body. Luke is ushering him to the bed before he even realize he has moved across the room.

They crawl between the sheets. It is different than it was last night, when they’d started out with space between them. Maybe it’s because they both know they’ll end up tangled together, Luke’s face to Michael’s hair. Whatever it is, there is no distance between them now. Michael is tucked up against Luke, his head on Luke’s shoulder, and Luke has his arms wrapped around Michael, his fingers interlocked behind the man. His arm is going to be tingling with numbness within the hour, but he doesn’t care. He just breathes with Michael, in and out like they’re one entity testing the waters of the newness of it all. He drifts to sleep feeling a little too over warmed from Michael’s body heat pressed flush to him.

He sleeps better than he has in a long time.

The alarm goes off at precisely four-thirty. Luke, in the sleep haze that still clouding his every fiber, hurries to turn it off before it disturbs Michael, too. He isn’t quite successful at his endeavor. He silences the alarm just fine, but when he turns back to Michael, he sees, in the darkness of predawn, the man’s eyes are open and staring right at him.

“Sorry,” murmurs Luke as softly as he can. It’s really not all that quiet in the silence of the early morning. He isn’t used to having somebody here before he goes into work, not in the same bed at least. He isn’t well practiced in the art of not making noise.

“‘S okay,” returns Michael, his voice rough from sleep. Luke wants to take the sound and trap it in a bottle so that he can have it whenever he wants. “Probably best if you’re not late two mornings in a row.”

Luke makes a noise of agreement in his throat, but he makes no immediate move to get out of bed. There are a hundred things he’s got to do today on top of his normal duties. He has no doubt that the work day is going to drag on and on in the absence of Liam. It makes him want to stay right here in bed with Michael in the sanctity of the darkness.

But Michael is right. He definitely shouldn’t be late today, because the station is going to depend on him more than usual. He needs to get up and be a functioning adult. He sighs, long and drawn out and loud in the silence of the morning. When he finally shifts so that he can get up out of bed, Michael, despite his earlier comment, presses closer to him, like he, too, doesn’t want Luke to leave.

Luke hesitates, but there is really no other course of action. He settles back down where he was. He holds Michael a little tighter, because he wants to and there is no telling when he’ll get this chance again. Not for hours, at the very least, but possibly not ever. They haven’t talked about what this is between them. It’s so precarious that Luke doesn’t really know what he can and can’t expect. His chest knots at the uncertainty of it all.

He doesn’t say anything to Michael. He just holds him until his cell rings for the first time and for the second, and then he finally extracts himself into the bathroom where he takes the quickest shower he can manage. His clothes are all in the bedroom, so he wraps a towel around his waist as he ambles out into it. Michael is missing from the bed. Luke dresses as quickly as he can, partially afraid that Michael has already jumped out on him.

When his phone rings for the second reminder that the car is outside, he dashes out into the common area of his home, his shoes untied on his feet. The strong aroma of coffee slams into him. Michael is standing in the doorway of the kitchen, dressed in Luke’s sleeping clothes and still looking warm with sleep. He is holding a thermos of steaming coffee out to Luke like this is something they do every single morning like clockwork.

“Remember what I said about Casey and the straight jacket, okay?” says Michael, a sleepy grin tugging at the corners of his lips.

Luke is overcome with the urge to kiss him, so he does. He freezes the moment his lips meet Michael’s, and he remembers that this isn’t what they do. They don’t go around kissing each other in the earliness of morning just before Luke’s got to leave for work and there’s no promise of sex to follow.

Just when he’s about to retreat, Michael grabs his arms and tugs him closer, mindful of the thermos still clutched in Luke’s hand. He kisses Luke like they’ve got eternity spread out before them. He tastes like bitter coffee, and Luke can’t do anything except throw his all into the kiss and hope for the best when they come up for air. 

The third ring sounds. It breaks the men apart. Both know that Luke needs to leave this very instant to have any chance of getting to work on time. It’s a reluctant departure on both of their behalves. Michael nips at Luke’s bottom lip one last time before they step away. Luke’s heart is pounding a thousand beats a second. His hand is shaky around the thermos, and his knees are weak.

He thinks that maybe, just maybe, he really is falling in love with Michael.

That thought steals everything else from his mind. Michael offers him a farewell that he echoes on instinct, but his mind is trapped in the realization of why his palms are sweaty and why he wants nothing more than to stave off work to just stay here with Michael. It’s like he’s experiencing everything though a sheet of glass. He knows what is going on, but he isn’t quite a part of it. Michael gently pushes him toward the door. He’s pliant underneath him.

His mind clears the second he steps out into the icy cold air of the late January morning. He walks down the pathway to the cab waiting on the curb, but he has to look back to get one last glimpse of Michael, who is standing in the doorway of Luke’s home watching him leave. It’s too dark outside and too light inside for Luke to really make out the expression on Michael’s face, but it’s enough of a consolation that he’s watching him go. Luke throws him a wave as he climbs into the back of the cab. 

He isn’t late to the station this morning, but he is certainly nowhere near early. By the time that he enters the studio, there are about three minutes left before the broadcast is set to begin. It is obviously more subdued today in the absence of Liam. Luke takes his seat in the presenter’s chair. When he looks around, he notes Calum isn’t here either.

“He’s doing some paperwork for Liam’s leave of absence,” Miranda informs him. “You just missed him, actually. I think he wants to see you after the broadcast this morning. Dunno want he wants to talk about.”

Luke can think of about a dozen reasons Calum might want to talk to him, all the way from official station business to Michael and where the two of them stand. He doesn’t tell Miranda this. He thanks her instead as he pulls out Emsie from his drawer. He sets about displaying the penguin figurine in the best manner he can.

The cameras start rolling on time this morning. Luke pushes everything except for his job out of his mind, and it works until Calum slips into the back of the studio after the eight o’clock news segment. He is in the middle of a story about a tutu-wearing-dog playing the piano when he spots Calum standing just between cameras one and two. He trips over the words in the teleprompter, and Casey dissolves into a fit of laughter next to him to cover it up.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the award for most well-spoken goes to Luke Hemmings! He’ll be here all week,” says Casey in his best announcer voice as soon as his laughter dries up enough for him to speak. Luke glares at him, and he elbows good-naturedly. “C’mon, man. How much sleep d’you get last night, not being able to form coherent sentences? Is this the point where I tell the viewers how late you were this morning? Let them think about that for a while?”

“Straightjacket, Casey,” threatens Luke, and his mind flashes to Michael involuntarily.

He grins right there before the entire city at the mere thought of Michael. He makes the mistake of looking past camera one to Calum, and the grin fades. He can’t see Calum’s face, not in the darkness of that part of the studio, but he knows Calum well enough to know that he has just picked up on the grin and that he is currently racking his brain for any possible explanation for the response. Luke pointedly turns back to Casey, though it means the camera has to switch from two to four.

“I swear I’ll wrestle you into it.”

Casey barks out another bout of laughter. It’s shorter this time. He is clearly not at all afraid of anything Luke might threaten him with, but it’s all good fun for the viewers, who are already commenting online that they’re enjoying this particular segment gone awry. Casey taps the screen on the computer to get Luke’s attention to it. Luke feels a flush of pride in regard to the viewer interaction this morning. 

The show goes on. When it is finally over, Luke tucks Emsie away in the drawer and turns his chair over to Nick. Calum is no longer in the studio, but Olivia stops Luke on his way out and tells him to go speak with Calum, utterly destroying Luke’s plan of conveniently forgetting Miranda’s instructions at the beginning of his shift. He can’t really avoid it now, not with Olivia and half of the studio knowing he knows he has to go, so he thanks her and takes a right in the hallway out of the studio. 

Calum’s office is a tiny room off one of the back corridors. It has a partially nice view of the city, and a large mural on one of the walls. His desk is covered in stacks of papers. There is a wad of sticky notes tacked on the corner of his computer screen. He is in the midst of it all, his shirt sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He waves Luke inside, and Luke sits down in one of the comfortable chairs in front of the desk.

“Liam needs you to sign those documents for the show next week. It’s for the guest. Who is it, again? Lloyd Sanders? No, that’s not right. He’s next week,” rambles Calum, straight to the point. He pilfers through the papers on his desk. “Louis Tomlinson is slotted for a couple of weeks from now, but I swear it’s something with an L.”

Luke grabs the stack of documents meant for him. There on the front page is the answer to Calum’s question. He lets Calum fuss a little bit longer until he finally takes pity on him. He would feel bad about it, but Calum is always so amusing when he is flustered. He gets this baffled expression on his face, and he rambles until somebody’s forced to shut him up.

“It’s Nia Lovelis,” says Luke finally, flashing the document so that Calum can see the proof himself. Luke knows the name, but he can’t quite place it. “Why is she on?”

“She’s the head of the campaign lobbying for an end to violence against women,” says Calum. “The local branch is making considerable headway, especially in among teenagers and young adults. She’s going to speak about how violence waged against gender is a detriment to society and what people can do to get involved.”

“And I’m speaking with her?”

“Yes, it was supposed to be Nick, but he was double booked that day,” answers Calum.

Luke nods as an acknowledgment that he’s been listening, but he’s still trying to figure out why that name sounds so familiar. There isn’t a picture with the document like there sometimes is. He could search the Internet for who she is, but it’s not really worth all of the effort right now. He’ll just make a mental note to look it up later. 

“What is it?” asks Calum, ever perceptive.

“Nothing,” shrugs Luke. “The name just sounds familiar.”

“Well, we’ve never had her on the show before, so I can’t help you there, I don’t think.”

Luke has already figured as much, because he remembers the name of everyone he has ever interviewed. He likes his job, and he likes talking to people on his job, and people like it when they’re remembered. Luke figures the least he can do for any of his interviewees is to recall their names. He has never interviewed Nia Lovelis before, but that doesn’t mean he’s never spoken to her. He just can’t remember if he has or not.

“So, uh, do I even need to bother asking?” prompts Calum, and Luke can tell just by the change in Calum’s voice that this is about to be a new topic of conversation. They’ve switched gears, probably for the worst. “About Michael? The two of you haven’t talked, have you?”

 It’s the one topic he doesn’t want to discuss with Calum, because Calum thinks they still hate each other. Things would so much easier if they did, Luke supposes. He’d know where they stand at least, and he’d know what he could and could not expect from their set up. As it is, Luke is no surer about the situation between him and Michael as Calum is. He is barely more informed. All he knows is that Michael has spent the past three nights in his bed and the past two tangled with him.

“Liam wants to know this?” asks Luke, purposefully obtuse.

Calum raises his eyebrows in response, clearly unimpressed by Luke’s attempt to play dumb. He never takes anybody’s crap, much less Luke’s. He has had Luke’s back since the day they met four years ago. Because what Ashton wants is what Calum wants, and they both want Luke to be happy, but he’s not been happy in a long, long time. Not truly happy. Not since the day he walked into his shoebox apartment and witnessed the end of his world.

“Look, I know you haven’t because Michael’s said as much to Ashton. Just—you should talk to him. Like really talk to him, not just feed him pizza and avoid him.”

 “You and Ashton were always fond of your gossip,” says Luke when all he really wants to do is to ask how much Michael has told Ashton and how much, in turn, Ashton has told Calum. It’s eating him up inside, keeping all of this bottled up. He wonders if it is for nothing, if he is holding his cards too close to his chest for nobody benefit, much less his own.

“According to Ash, you just fed Michael pizza and then you all went your own merry ways, but that’s not solving anything. I get it, man. The two you are like oil and water, fire and gasoline, or whatever other analogy you want to make, but it doesn’t change the fact that the two of you run in the same social group, that the two of you have friends—best friends—in common. Don’t you think it’s high time to put all of this hatred behind you?”

Luke thinks about Michael soft and warm in his bed, sleeping on his shoulder. He thinks about Michael half-awake making coffee at the butt crack of dawn because Luke’s got to leave. He thinks about Michael seated on his couch like it’s his own and looking anything but out of place. There is no hatred there, not in the sanctity of Luke’s home, and Calum really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Luke isn’t about to explain it to him, either.

“I’ll talk when he does.”

It’s the truth. The moment Michael says he’s ready to talk, Luke will be all ears. He doesn’t know if he’s standing on firm enough ground to breach that topic, and the last thing he wants is for everything to shatter beneath him. As much uncertainty as there is in regard to Michael, Luke is too selfish to let it go. Because he slept better last night than he has in ages. Because he doesn’t have half of a pot pie setting in his refrigerator to remind him once again how alone he has been. Because he had somebody at his home to leave this morning, somebody who stood in the doorway though it was freezing cold and watched him walk away.

Luke is done with this conversation with Calum. He needs to be before he lets the secrets between him and Michael fall from his lips. Calum is a good friend, and Luke can count on one hand the number of secrets he’s kept from Calum. The longer he sits here across from him and discusses Michael, the more likely he is to let it slip that neither Calum nor Ashton nor any of their other friends have any idea what is really going on right now.

He bids Calum farewell, taking his work with him. He escapes to the opposite side of the building where his own workspace is. Calum doesn’t follow him, but Luke hurries down the hallway to the elevator just in case. He is still rushing by the time he makes it to his own desk. Even then, his heart continues to pound in his ears. He is only halfway certain Calum isn’t going to pop up randomly in the next fifteen minutes to hound him about Michael some more.

Work drags by. Because Liam’s out of the office, Luke stay later than he usually does, far beyond the time that Miranda and Casey take their leave. There are about a hundred things he’s got to do. He has never really appreciated how much Liam actually does until now when his boss isn’t here to do it all.

It is winter, so night has begun to fall by the time Luke finally steps outside of the station. He has wasted the entire daylight hours at work. He flags down a cab to take him. He has never been so eager to see his front door. He pays the driver his fare plus a generous tip then climbs out. The sidewalk is icy as he hurries up it, and he has to grab for the railing when he makes it to his porch.

He doesn’t pay too much attention to the amount of light bleeding through the windows of his home, so it really is a surprise when his door is unlocked and he opens it to find the television set on a music station, blaring loudly and filling the entire house with life. There is a spicy aroma in the air, and Luke’s stomach grumbles. He follows his nose to the kitchen. He stops, captivated by the sight of Michael standing next to the stove.

There are pots and pans on all of the burners. Luke isn’t much of a cook, so the cookery is almost brand new. Michael dances around the kitchen like he’s been here a thousand times. He opens all of the right cabinets on the first try, and he doesn’t notice Luke until a few minutes later, long after he’s finished sautéing the vegetables and has added the marinated chicken into the pan. He turns around to grab one of the pot holders off the center island, jumping when he spots Luke.

“Do you do that often? Hover in the doorway like a total creeper without announcing yourself?”

“You’re still here,” says Luke, not answering the question. His own words come out a little dazed. This is the last thing he expected, to walk into his home and find Michael fixing dinner for him.

“Never left,” says Michael, and there’s a hint of self-consciousness that shouldn’t be there. “Thought I might treat you to dinner for once.”

“Was all of this food in my kitchen already?”

“I called the supermarket down the street.”

“Because you don’t have a key,” says Luke. It’s not a question. It’s the truth. Everybody else in their friend group has a spare key to Luke’s apartment, but he’s never seen any reason to give Michael one. Until now. He opens the drawer closest to him and pulls out the final spare key he had made. He places it on the counter on top. He refuses to feel self-conscious about it. “Take it. There’s no sense in you being cooped up here if you need to run out for a few minutes.”

Michael stares at the shiny metal key lying innocuously on the counter. He looks up at Luke, mouth parted. He starts to say something but thinks better of it at the last second. He makes a couple more aborted attempts to speak until he finally gathers his words.

“I hope you like fajitas. They’re sort of my specialty. Ashton always cons me into making them whenever we’ve been stuck abroad for too long. He calls it a taste of home.”

Luke has heard a lot about Michael’s ability to make delicious fajitas throughout the years he has known Ashton. He has never had them for himself, though. The history between he and Michael hasn’t been kind enough to allow them general niceties between friends, because the reality of it is that they weren’t friends. Luke isn’t sure what it is they are now, but he thinks it’s a step closer in the right direction.

“You sure know how to win a man over,” is what Luke says in response, and he freezes the exact second the last word falls from his mouth. He’s still holding Michael’s gaze. He wants to look away, because this was way too much for this moment, but he doesn’t. He runs his hand through his hair in the nervous habit he still hasn’t dropped. It has lost all of the product he carefully applied this morning, and he’s sure it’s sticking up in a dozen different directions now.

“Guess I learned from the best,” says Michael, holding Luke’s gaze for a couple of more seconds before the sizzling in the pan behind him becomes too much to ignore. He turns back around to the food. The line of his shoulders are tense, like he’s said too much, too, but he makes no attempt to clarify his statement.

Luke is left standing in the doorway of the kitchen to stare at the back of his head wondering what the hell he had meant.

Chapter Text

Michael’s fajitas really are something to write home about. Luke eats two platefuls of food before he has to force himself to stop or else he’ll likely slip into a state of food coma. He’s eaten himself to that condition a few times before. It’s not appealing at all to spew up his dinner into the porcelain toilet, especially since Luke’s not quite perfected the art of quietly vomiting his guts out. There’s no way Michael wouldn’t hear him.

Luke does the washing up after they’ve finished eating. He puts away the extra food into the refrigerator and then washes the dishes by hand. Michael hops up on the counter next to him while he works, and he can see the television from there if he leans slightly to the left. Luke tries not to get used to the idea of this, of Michael cooking dinner and him cleaning up afterward. It’s not a routine Luke’s had to live with for the past eight years. He had forgotten how nice it was.

When he’s done, he leaves the dishes to air dry. It’s late anyway, and he’s got another full day of work before him tomorrow. He offers Michael a hand to help him down from the counter. It’s an instinctive gesture. Ashton’s always been one who enjoys sitting perched on counters and walls and fences, swinging his legs back and forth like an innocent child, so it’s only natural that Luke moves to help Michael down.

Michael’s hand is warm in his, and he hits the floor with a grunt, springing down on his knees to take the jolt out of his feet. When he straightens, he’s nose-to-nose with Luke. The world stops turning. Luke can think of nothing except how much he wants to kiss Michael, and Michael must have the same idea, because he’s the one who bridges the distance between them, pressing his lips against Luke’s.

It’s soft and sensual. Michael grinds his hips against Luke’s, and Luke is half-hard in his pants. The kiss deepens. Luke bites down on Michael’s bottom lip, eliciting a moan. He wants to do it again and again, but Michael breaks the kiss. He leans his forehead against Luke’s, breathing heavily.

Luke wants to ask him why he stopped—how he got enough of that kiss in such a short amount of time—but his words are robbed right from his mouth when Michael dips his hand beneath Luke’s waistband and grips his dick. Luke gasps, shuddering, as Michael tightens his hand ever-so-slightly around his dick. The pressure is barely there, and Luke wants more.

Michael seems to read his mind, or maybe he, too, wants this as much as Luke himself does, because he doesn’t waste any time. He’s familiar with Luke’s dick by now, knows how to work it in his hand until Luke is a trembling mess. Luke is well past the stage where his knees can support himself, so he’s leaning bonelessly against Michael. His eyes flutter close. His mind is fuzzy, except for the feel of Michael’s hand on his dick and the steady in and out of the air in his lungs.

His orgasm is a crescendo. Michael twists his wrist for a new angle that drags desperate pleas from Luke’s lips. He tugs once more and then twice more, and then Luke’s spilling all over Michael’s hand. His entire body shakes. The world might as well be crumbling by the mighty power of an earthquake. It’s only thanks to Michael that he remains upright, but that doesn’t last long. Michael gives into Luke’s weight, and they fall to the floor, a mess of limbs and passion.

Luke is lying on top of Michael, and he has finally regained enough control of his tingling body to brace himself on the floor, elbows on either side of Michael’s shoulders. They’re nose-to-nose once again. It’s all too easy for Luke to lean forward and press his lips against those of Michael. Their tongues dance against one another. Luke lets Michael control the kiss as he grinds his hips down. He’s really too sensitive right now, but Michael is still hard against him. He doesn’t care that it’s almost painful for him.

All that matters is Michael’s release. Luke makes it his personal goal. He shifts his weight to his left elbow, hovering above Michael. Their lips are still locked. He breathes through his nose as they continue to kiss. Luke moves his free hand down to Michael’s cock. It doesn’t take much, because Michael has been on edge this entire time, probably longer. Michael comes, gasping into Luke’s mouth, and Luke continues his ministration until Michael weakly pushes him away.

Their hands are both sticky with each other’s come, but that doesn’t stop Luke from threading his fingers through Michael’s. He breaks off the kiss. Michael pants under him. Luke lays his head on Michael’s chest, ear pressed flush against the fabric of Michael’s t-shirt. He’s probably making it difficult for Michael to breathe, because he’s not making any effort to move his weight elsewhere, but Michael doesn’t complain or push him away. Luke counts it as a win.

They can’t lay on the floor forever. It doesn’t make sense to, anyway. There’s a nice bed waiting on them in the next room over. Luke’s reluctant to move, but he does, getting up on his knees and then crawling to his feet. Michael grins goofily up at him, still sated from his orgasm. It’s only instinctive when Luke smiles back. He extends his hand to Michael, helping him to his feet.

They stumble together through the house, turning off lights and making sure the front door is locked on their way to the bedroom. It’s an old dance between them by now, three evenings in a row of getting ready for bed at the same time has fostered a routine between them. Luke takes the bathroom first, but he opens the door once he’s finished with toilet so that Michael can brush his teeth at the same time. Michael makes a mess of his toothpaste as he cleans his teeth, the foam dribbling down his chin. Luke smiles around a gulp of minty mouthwash at the sight of him. When he’s finished, he leaves Michael to the bathroom.

Michael joins him in the bed a few minutes later. The pillow he uses already smells like him, and the sheets do, too. Luke rests his head on the edge of his own pillow, staring at the shape of Michael in the mostly dark room. Michael adopts a similar position, and his hand finds one of Luke’s underneath the covers. Luke falls asleep with their fingers tangled together.

His phone wakes him the next morning like it always does. He fights the urge to tarry in bed with Michael, who is still sleeping next to him. He can’t skip out on his responsibilities at the station, especially since Liam’s leave of absence extends until today. He forces himself out of bed but not before placing the lightest of kisses to the corner of Michael’s lips.

He showers and dresses, still half-asleep, by the soft light of the bulbs above the bathroom mirror. His shoes are by the front door, so he pads out into his bedroom wearing his socks. The light’s still turned off in here, but the bed is empty. The strong aroma of coffee fills the house, and Luke’s smiling before he even makes it to the kitchen.

Michael hands him his thermos of coffee with a sleepy hello. Luke’s just pliant enough by the time of the morning to lean forward and press his lips against Michael’s for their first true kiss of the day. It’s sweet and gentle, and Luke wants to kiss Michael again and again and again, but his phone rings in his pocket. The car is waiting for him outside. He pulls away from Michael. He can’t bear to part with him just yet, so he rests his forehead against that of Michael.

“Thank you for the coffee,” whispers Luke, and he’s aware on some level that this is the first time either of them have said those words. It’s too early to really think about why this is such a monumental moment and why it doesn’t really feel as big as it should. His phone beeps in his pocket once more. He doesn’t want to move. “I need to go.”

“I’ll be here when you get back.”

Luke nods against Michael’s head, feeling a rush of excitement. He wants to leave now so that he can come back and not have to go into work until Monday. He loves his Fridays, loves how laid back everything at the station is when everybody’s looking forward to their weekend plans. He’s never wished one away, not like he does horrible Mondays, but there’s a first time for it. Apparently, this is his first.

“I’ll be counting on it.”

It’s true. He already knows he’s going to spend the next eight or so hours with half of his mind of Michael, wondering what the man’s doing left to his own devices. He feels a little raw admitting it to Michael, but it’s more like how his skin feels after ripping off a band-aid. It’s the good kind of raw.

“Go,” says Michael, and he sounds just as reluctant about Luke’s impending departure as Luke himself feels. He threads his fingers through Luke’s hair, cupping the back of his head. He pulls Luke’s lips to his, and they kiss.

Luke’s phone beeps again. He can’t avoid the inevitable any longer. He kisses Michael for another few seconds before they part. He steps back from Michael, and it feels like stepping away from the edge of an endless pit. He’s still got his coffee clutched in one hand, the thermos keeping it nice and hot. He’s surprised he hasn’t dropped it in the past few minutes, as it’s only the warmth that reminds him he’s still holding it.

Michael offers him a sleepy smile, and he pushes Luke toward the front door. It’s probably a good thing, too, because Luke’s not sure he would’ve gone on his own accord. He stumbles away from Michael to the front door. He pauses there to look over his shoulder, and Michael’s right behind him. He grins. Michael leans forward to chase away his smile with a kiss. Luke really doesn’t want to leave now, but he does anyway after they break apart. He makes it all the way to the cab waiting out on the road before he looks back again. Michael is standing in the doorway just last yesterday morning, a dark silhouette against the bright light inside. 

This is how he wants to leave for work every day for the rest of his life.

The station is in a bit of a frenzy when Luke gets there, five minutes before he’s due to be on air. Calum is stalking out the elevator to ensure he’s the first person Luke sees, and it’s this that clues him in on the seriousness of the atmosphere. He slows his gait as he approaches Calum. The thermos of coffee in his hand is empty by now, but he appreciates having something to do with his hands.

“Meridia Casa del Valle cancelled—ten minutes ago,” says Calum. He looks frazzled. His hair is sticking up in a hundred different directions, and he smells like smoke, has probably just gotten back in from a chain smoking session. Luke can’t say he blames him for falling back on his vice at a time like this. He’s had to man the station singlehandedly in Liam’s absence until now, and it shows in the worry lines of his face. “Luke, we have nobody for your show this morning. This isn’t good. This isn’t good at all.”

It’s not like Luke couldn’t have gathered as much for himself. It’s his show, after all, and he knows, probably better than Calum, that Fridays are always the days of their big interviews, that the viewers expect to be thoroughly entertained by a familiar face during the seven o’clock slot. Meridia Casa del Valle, a famous architect known world-wide who was born and raised in the city, had been on the calendar for months, and Luke had spent the past week prepping for her interview.

“Who the hell are we going to get a hold of at five-thirty in the morning to replace her?” asks Calum. “I tried Ashton, but he’s got a dentist appointment at seven-thirty, and Harry’s out of town until this afternoon. I mean, I guess we could maybe try to see if Zayn—”

“Call Michael.”

Calum stops instantly, his next word dying in his mouth halfway spoken. He stares at Luke like he’s grown a second head, and Luke tries not to fidget underneath his gaze. He knows what it looks like. He and Michael aren’t technically friends, not by Calum’s knowledge, but he can’t help but to think it’s the perfect solution. Michael’s always looking for more exposure, and Luke left him awake just a little while ago, so he’s obviously available.

“Michael?” repeats Calum, dumbly. “As in Michael Clifford?”

Luke nods.

“And where, pray tell, is Michael currently?”

“In bed, I assume, given this time of day,” responds Luke, purposefully mulish. “Call him anyway. The worst he can do is say no—or just not answer.”

Calum’s still staring at him like he’s an unknown alien life form that’s come to the earth for the first time. It’s not like this is the craziest idea Luke’s ever really had. They’re running out of time anyhow, so they can’t really choose to be picky. Luke has got to be in the studio in exactly sixty seconds, and the elevator ride is going to take at least half of that. He presses the up arrow for the lift.

“Look, Michael’s the best idea I’ve got. If you can think of anybody else, have at it.”

The elevator doors open. Luke steps inside quickly and presses the button for the correct floor. He holds the doors for Calum to climb on as well, because Calum has no use down here any longer now that he’s spoken to Luke. Calum steps onto the lift robotically, still gawking at Luke.

“You’ll catch flies,” Luke tells him.

The elevator doors close. Calum’s got no response for him. They ride up to the correct floor in silence. The second the doors open, Luke bounds out. There’s a large red clock next to the doors to the studio, and it’s counting down the seconds until the cameras are set to roll. It’s on twenty. Luke breezes into the studio.

Emsie the penguin is already perched on his desk in his rightful spot. Casey must have set him up. Luke takes his seat in the head presenter’s chair. The lights begin to dim. Luke’s got just enough time to exchange brief pleasantries with his coworkers before the countdown gets to zero, and the cameras start to film.

The first hour of the show passes all right. Luke banters with Casey and Miranda, and the viewers respond positively online. Calum leaves the studio briefly about half past six. When he returns, he’s got his poker face on. Luke doesn’t really know if that means he got a hold of Michael or if he’s called in somebody else, but he assumes Calum has taken care of their crisis.

Luke gets antsier the closer the clock ticks to the seven o’clock hour. He wants to ask Calum to rid himself of the suspense, but he’s not sure he wants to deal with Calum’s smirk or with Calum’s questioning if their guest happens to be Michael. He keeps his mouth shut in the quick break they have a quarter until the new hour and talks with Casey and Miranda about Liam’s scheduled return the following Monday.

The door to the studio opens precisely four minutes before seven o’clock. Luke’s in the middle of a recollection of his top ten worst Valentine’s Day experiences in the spirit of the upcoming holiday. He looks to the door out of habit, the rush of light catching his eye, and he falters when he spots Michael coming to stand next to Calum. His lips split into an accidental grin in the space between his words.

He makes the mistake of shifting his attention to Calum, and the smile drops. He hurries to catch his train of thought before the audience really notices. It’s too late to hide his unhindered reaction from Calum, who knows him almost as well as Ashton does. Luke looks back at camera two and decides to worry about Calum later.

They don’t have time allotted to prep Michael before the first line of questioning, so Luke assumes Calum has already done that. He hopes anyway, because he’s always got a list of questions before him to fall back on, but Michael’s got nothing, really, except for his wit.

“So we’ve had a bit of a last minute scheduling change, haven’t we?” asks Casey, looking to Luke and doing a good job of acting like he’s not reading word-for-word from the teleprompter. “Meridia Casa del Valle, unfortunately, had to cancel, so we’ve scrounged up a surprise guest for you all. He’s going to be great. Would you like to do the honors?”

The teleprompter goes blank, because nobody has had time to script an introduction for Michael. Luke doesn’t need anything to read. He’s introduced hundreds of people during his tenure of this show alone. He shifts around in his chair so that he can get a better look of Michael standing on deck next to Calum.

Michael is grinning widely at Luke, hands tucked into the pockets of a pair of blue jeans Luke swears are actually his. The sweatshirt Michael’s wearing is stretched too big for him around the shoulders, and Luke knows without doubt it really does belong to him. Luke’s voice gets trapped in his throat for a fraction of a second—just long enough for a noticeable silence to hang suspended on the air—at the sight of Michael looking perfectly put together in Luke’s own clothes.

“He’s more than just a pretty face,” says Luke, and he’s not following protocol here. He’s not looking at the camera but instead directly into Michael’s eyes. There’s a part of him that acknowledges Calum is definitely going to hound him for this, but he doesn’t care. “He’s in the leagues of the esteemed Ashton Irwin and Harry Styles, and he works alongside of the prestigious Niall Horan, and I’m not even sure this man needs an introduction, but I’ll give him one anyway. Ladies and gentlemen of my kind viewing audience, give him a round of applause from your own living room and allow me to welcome to the studio the one and the only—the man Casey himself once deemed devilishly handsome—Michael Clifford.”

Casey barks out a laugh at Luke’s introduction, raw amusement plain there for everybody to see. Olivia cues up the music they always use when welcoming a guest onto camera. It’s a tango of drums and trumpets, and Michael enters to it like a victorious man. His grin hasn’t disappeared from his face. He’s still holding Luke’s gaze as he strolls to the seat set out for him on the other side of Miranda. He’s obviously been given a last minute once-over with makeup, as his skin is smooth and flawless in a way Luke intimately knows it wasn’t a couple of hours ago.

“Michael, welcome,” says Luke like he were talking to an old friend—like he were talking to Ashton or to Calum or to Niall or to Harry. He vaguely wonders what his viewers think of this interaction. His antagonistic relationship with Michael isn’t something that’s sailed underneath the radar of the press. Everybody knows the gory details of the history between the two of them, of the hatred they’ve nurtured like schoolboys fighting on the playground. “Thank you for getting up so early for us.”

“Not so early,” says Michael, easy as can be. “I’d been up for a while when Calum called. Was on my second cup of coffee. Actually settled in on the couch to watch this show, if you believe in coincidences.”

Luke doesn’t, in fact, believe in coincidences, but it’s no trouble at all to picture Michael stretched out across his couch with a cup of coffee in front of his television. The idea itself is enough to make him smile and drop his head to hide the blush that’s rising on his cheeks. He pushes the thought away, because he’s a professional who’s supposed to be hosting a television morning show. He can’t be reduced to such a humiliating state in front of the entire city, especially by the one man he’s supposed to hate.

“Don’t tell me you’re still jetlagged,” says Casey, falling into an effortless banter like he always does whenever Luke gets too trapped in his own head to take the reins. “You’ve been back in the city for a couple of weeks now, haven’t you?”

Michael laughs. “Yeah, no, it’s not jetlag. I just found something worth waking up early for.”

“You’re not talking about Luke’s show, are you?”

Michael meets Luke’s eyes in the space after Casey’s question. He laughs again, shrugging it off without much of an answer. It’s a golden opportunity for Casey to latch onto and chase like a hunting dog after a rabbit, but Miranda intervenes before he’s given the chance. The glint in her eyes suggests she knows exactly what she’s doing.

“So, Michael, we’re all curious about your next great adventure. Can you give us all of the deets?”

“Ah, the show starts Friday. It’ll be right be right in the center of Sydney,” answers Michael, appropriately turning toward Miranda. “It’s going to be beautiful. The weather’ll definitely be much better than the last show, that much I can say with certainty.”

“In other words, you can’t give us the down low?”

“Ashton threatened me with a rusty spoon,” deadpans Michael.

Miranda does an awkward laugh. It’s kind of like a series of quick hiccups. She looks helplessly to Luke for some sort of guidance, so obviously off-kilter by Michael’s response that she doesn’t quite know how to read it. Luke bites his lips together so that he doesn’t outright laugh at his coworker. He, unlike Miranda, knows Ashton well enough to know Ashton can be a menace with the most mundane of objects.

“Don’t look so surprised, Miranda. Ashton once pelted me with lumpy mashed potatoes until I agreed with him about something—but that’s a story for another time,” says Luke.

The anecdote is true, but he doesn’t want to get into the messy sob story that brought along such a cause from Ashton. About how he’d been so certain that he was cursed and he’d end up all alone in the end. About how worthless he was if he couldn’t even take care of what he had. Ashton had challenged him—and flat-out walloped him in the side of the face with the first thing he could grab, which was, for some odd and drunken reason, the bowl of cold mashed potatoes left over from their dinner—until he’d taken back his drunken words. Until he’d began to believe them, too. It was shortly after he’d met Ashton, drunk off his ass at a concert in the park many, many years ago. He tries not to think about it very often.

“I’m sure Michael won’t mind to hand you over to the hot seat for a moment,” says Casey, the traitor. He turns to Michael. “You don’t mind, do you? There’s got to be a good story behind this.”

“Ignore him,” says Luke before Michael can even respond. He shoots Casey a dirty glare before refocusing his attention on Michael, putting on his best presenter’s face. “You’ve been all over the world now, looking all beautiful in a sea of models. What is your favorite part about traveling?”

“It’s hard to say, honestly,” responds Michael, holding Luke’s gaze. “The destinations are always beautiful. Europe, Australia, across the United States—anywhere, really. The people I’ve met are amazing, and, of course, the food is delicious, no matter where it’s at. But I think maybe the best part about traveling is knowing that you’ve got somebody to come back home to.”

Luke freezes. It’s almost imperceptible to the cameras, but Michael picks up on it instantly. He lets his lips fall into a flash of a smile between his words. He isn’t done speaking. Time seems to slow for Luke as he takes in Michael’s words and bears the brunt of the weight behind them.

“It gets lonely traveling the world. I’m fortunate that I get to go to all of these places with a few of my best friends—with Ashton and Niall and Harry—but it’s still isolating to be in a country that a speaks a language I don’t, to be in a place I don’t call home. So I think my favorite thing about traveling is knowing that I’ve got something to come back to. That I’ve got somebody to return to. That even though I’m not here all the time, I’ve still got a place I can call home.”

“Sounds like you’ve got something serious going on,” says Miranda. “Have you exchanged your eternal bachelorhood for a relationship right underneath all of our noses?”

Michael shrugs, still looking at Luke. He’s not really looked anywhere else this entire interview—and neither has Luke. It could all be chalked up to the fact that this is Luke’s show, that Miranda and Casey basically represent Luke with their questions. It’s not that simple, not by a long shot, but nobody needs to know that Calum basically called Michael out of Luke’s bed this morning to come here to save Luke’s ass.

“It’s too early to tell, I think,” answers Michael. He laughs a little, self-depreciatively, and he looks away from Luke to Miranda, like it’s too hard to say this next part while looking at Luke. “I’m not great at conversation, especially not when it comes to something as important as this, you know? So, uh, it’s probably best that I get everything together before I start yelling from the mountaintops.”

“I think that may be a yes to your question, Miranda,” is Casey’s summation. He’s happily oblivious to the way Luke’s wringing his hands together underneath the table next to him. His next question is directed at Michael, in line with the current topic. “So it’s safe to say that there might be a mountaintop-moment in the near future?”

“I hope so,” says Michael, and he looks over at Luke again for just long enough to meet his eyes. Then he turns back to Casey. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Casey nods, agreeing with Michael’s sentiment. It’s well-due time for a break, so Luke cuts in to give the send off. The lights switch, brightening the entire studio. The cameras stop rolling, and the countdown clock is set to two minutes. Luke stretches in his chair then stands up. He’s sat through the last three commercial breaks. His back is starting to hurt. He’s reminded once again that he’s not as young as he once was.

Calum appears out of nowhere next to Luke. He smiles at Miranda and Casey, and they get the hint without him saying anything. They leave the presenter’s desk, heading toward the water cooler in the back of the studio where the rest of the crew likes to congregate around. Luke almost wants to follow them. The last thing he wants is to be trapped with Michael by Calum.

“So, Michael, you got here quite quickly this morning.”

“You said it was an emergency,” answers Michael. He has to have heard the accusation in Calum’s voice, has to see the suspicion twinkling in Calum’s eyes. He’s been friends with Calum for a lot longer than Luke has, and Luke notices both without even trying. “I threw on some clothes and hailed a cab. Told the driver to step on it, just like in the movies.”

“You didn’t,” says Calum.

“Alright, so I didn’t. That would’ve been a little rude, but I did ask him in the nicest way possible to get me here in a timely manner.”

“No, you didn’t leave from your place,” clarifies Calum, looking between Michael and Luke before finally settling on the former. “You couldn’t have. I can’t even make it from Ashton’s to here that quickly, and he’s fifteen minutes closer.”

“You’re a bit paranoid this morning, aren’t you?” interrupts Luke, because he feels the need to take some of the heat off Michael who’s starting to mimic a goldfish, mouth opening and closing without making a sound. “Sitting in the boss’ chair is hard work.”

“Don’t even get me started on you,” snaps Calum. He’s clearly unimpressed by the both of them. He folds his arms across his chest, and he raises his eyebrows in a manner reminiscent of Ashton when he’s tired of Luke’s bullshit. Calum pulls it off a little too well. “Coming in extraordinarily late this entire week, covered in love bites, wearing stupid smiles at inopportune times—if I didn’t know any better…”

He trails off, glancing between Luke and Michael. He makes no effort to finish his thought. Perhaps he’s not sure what he might have known. Luke’s never really been good at anticipating anything that comes out of Calum’s mouth. He doesn’t honestly understand the way Calum’s mind works, how the man can look at a situation and immediately pick out the important parts. Calum’s dancing dangerously close to the truth right now, whether he realizes it or not.

It’s more likely that Calum does know exactly what he’s unraveling this very second, but the idea of Luke and Michael together in any sense other than animosity is mind-boggling even to Calum’s perceptive eyes. It’s enough of a long shot that Luke steers right into the skid.

“It’s probably a good thing you do know better, isn’t it?”

He doesn’t look directly at Michael to see if he’s completely misread the tension in the air around them, to see if he was correct in his assumption that Michael is just as uncomfortable with Calum figuring out the truth as Luke himself is. It’s not a good idea to give Calum any more reason to be suspicious. He doesn’t have to look at Michael, anyhow. He can see him visibly relax out of the corner of his eye.

“Seriously, Calum, you’re going to, like, give yourself an aneurism, and I really don’t want to explain that to Liam.”

Calum opens his mouth to respond, but he hesitates, looking between the pair of them one more time. Luke tries not to fidget underneath his gaze. It’s hard not to, but thankfully he’s saved by the countdown timer ticking past the ten second mark. Miranda and Casey approach the presenter’s desk with trepidation, eyeing Calum but obviously in need to return to their seats before the cameras start to roll. Luke uses them as an excuse to usher Calum away. He sits down in own his own chair, and Michael mimics his actions.

The clock blinks five then four then three in the succession of seconds. Calum sighs, taking his defeat and withdrawing behind the cameras. He’s completely gone by the time they start rolling again. Luke takes the lead right back into the interview, and he tries not to think about how much of Calum’s defeat was actually Calum’s victory.

Chapter Text

Michael leaves the station soon after his interview is complete, too terrified of Calum’s curiosity to stay for even a cup of celebratory coffee from the machine in Liam’s office. Luke can’t say he blames him. Calum has been glaring predatorily at the pair of them throughout filming. Luke finishes his own segment a little while after Michael leaves and turns his chair over to Nick, making sure to tuck Emsie safely away in his designated drawer.

He has a few things to finish up at the station. He makes himself scarce in all of the areas that Calum’s likely to turn up, hiding away in one of the tiny offices on a lower floor just to ensure he won’t be cornered. He is avoiding Calum, and he’s not ashamed to admit it. His pride doesn’t trump the need to shield whatever it is between Michael and him.

It is early in the evening when he finally makes his escape, choosing the back entrance as opposed to the main one. He is pretty sure Calum is still holed away upstairs in some last minute meeting in Liam’s stead. He can’t be too careful, especially not with Michael and him so fresh in Calum’s mind.

He hails a cab outside on the street, and he’s nearly home by the time he realizes he probably should have stopped by a restaurant to grab dinner. He is starving. It’s been such a long day that he doesn’t really want to cook anything, but he’s not sure what he has left in his kitchen that he can fix in the microwave in under five minutes.

The cab drops him off in front of his house, and he pays the fare. He lets himself into the house, dropping his keys on the counter in the kitchen where he’ll likely remember them the next time he needs them. It’s quiet in here like it hasn’t been all week. He notices the empty spaces that haven’t been there, that Michael’s filled up with his presence, and he hates them.

He’s surrounded by all of the things he owns in the world, but he’s never stood in a place that’s been so empty.

It’s five-thirty in the evening. He’s hungry, so he fixes himself a ham and mayonnaise sandwich on stale bread, because it’s the best combination he can gleam from his kitchen. He takes it into the living room and sits on edge of the couch out of habit, making room for somebody who isn’t here. He doesn’t scoot over.

He’s halfway through his sandwich when he hears noise outside of his front door. There is the sound of a key scraping against the metal lock and then fitting inside. Luke glances over his shoulder toward the door, only partially interested in who it might be. All of his friends have access to his place. As long as it’s not Calum on a Michael-infused rampage, he’s not too concerned.

It’s not Calum, but it is Michael. He doesn’t spot Luke at first, too busy tucking the key back into his wallet like it’s more precious than the crown jewels of a ruling monarch. He shuts the door behind him. It’s only then that he finally takes notice of Luke, after two full minutes of trespassing in the house. He jumps when he spots Luke, and his lips tug into a guilty sort of smirk.

“Didn’t realize you were home yet. Can’t really see the lights from the television through the curtains.”

Luke knows. It’s part of the reason he chose the darkening panels to cover his windows instead of the more expensive sheer ones. He’s always valued his privacy more than stylishness, especially in the weeks that followed his promotion to the early morning show when Nick’s crazy fans decided Luke was in need of being stalked. The hype has died down some recently, and nobody really bothers staking out the curb in front of his house any more. He is still not inclined to change out his window covering.

“Want a sandwich? I think still got some ham left,” Luke offers, holding up the remnants of his dinner. He hasn’t quite made it halfway through his own sandwich. If he had known Michael was coming over, he would have waited to eat.

“You are such a deplorable human being, did you know that?” asks Michael, but his voice is fond. He has the handle of a plastic bag wrapped around one wrist. He holds it up for Luke to see. It’s got the logo of the corner shop down the street from here. “Luckily, you have me. I’ve got stuff to make homemade chili. Interested?”

“Is that really a question?” respond Luke with a snort. It earns him a grin from Michael. Luke waves toward the kitchen. “What’s mine is yours.”

Michael hesitates, staring at Luke as the words hang in the air between them. He chews on his bottom lip as he considers the weight of Luke’s statement. Luke, for his part, resists the urge to run his fingers through his hair. There is nothing for him to feel nervous about. Michael is going to fix him dinner—otherwise he’d be stuck with the rest of the almost inedible ham sandwich—so Michael is going to need access to everything in Luke’s kitchen.

Luke flips off the television. It’s more of a distraction that any real entertainment. He stands up from the couch, clutching his partially eaten sandwich in one hand, and looks expectantly at Michael, who finally snaps out of his stupor. Michael tries for a laugh to counteract the tension that has set in behind his eyes, but it falls dead on his lips. Luke leads him into the kitchen, his free hand resting in the small of Michael’s back.

“You know, Ashton’s talked about your chili before. I think he drooled a little over it, honestly,” says Luke, conversationally.

It’s his attempt to dispel the unnatural silence between them. There is something heavy settling in around them that doesn’t belong here at all. He approaches the sink, his back to Michael. He puts his sandwich down the garbage disposal, turning it on long enough to make the food disappear. He washes his hands methodically once it’s gone. He turns back around to face Michael.

“I didn’t realize you were such an amazing chef, but you’re turning me into a believer.”

“Give me time, and I’ll make more out of you than just that,” says Michael.

He turns away from Luke like the words are too much to say face-to-face. Luke is left to smile fondly at his back. He wants to tell Michael that he can have the rest of eternity if he wants it, but his chest tightens at the very thought. It’s a lot to take in right here, right now in his kitchen where the man who doesn’t hate him is cooking him chili. He keeps quiet about it and offers his help instead.

“Chop up the onion. I’ve left it over there in that bag.”

Everything is easy between the two of them. They hold mindless conversation as they prepare their dinner. Luke follows Michael’s every command and doesn’t fuss when he’s stuck with the worst jobs like standing over the pot and stirring aimlessly to make sure the soup doesn’t stick while Michael dances around him to put together grilled cheese sandwiches from fresh bread he picked up at the market. Michael fries them on the stovetop, saturating them with butter to make them nice and greasy in the most delicious of ways. The butter smokes as it melts into the cooking bread, and it fills up the kitchen until Luke reaches around Michael to flip on the exhaust fan.

Michael hates eating in the kitchen, so they fill up their bowls with the chili and carry their food into the living room where they spread out their feast on the coffee table. Luke turns on the overhead light. Michael sits down the plate of grilled cheese sandwiches and crackers in the middle of the table for them both to reach. Between the two of them, they scoot the table closer to the couch. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder before their meal, and Luke lets Michael choose the television program they watch.

The chili is even better than Ashton had once proclaimed it was to Luke, smacking his lips together in an obnoxious manner. Luke understands why Ashton had practically drooled in the midst of writing an ode to it. Luke feels like writing one himself after he takes the first bite. He moans low in his throat, shameless in how much he enjoys it after his own pitiful attempt to feed himself with an atrociously stale sandwich. Michael chuckles at him, but there’s a blush tickling at his cheeks that belies his pride.

They waste away the rest of the Friday night in front of the television without even a thought to hitting the town, though Luke’s phone is buzzing like crazy in his pocket. He doesn’t bother checking it, as it’s probably just Ashton inviting him out to a club or to one of his model friend’s house parties. Normally, Luke would be all for either of those prospects, especially since Ashton is only going to be in town about another week before he jets off to another exotic location. Luke has all he wants in his own living room. He’ll just meet up with Ashton for lunch tomorrow and make his apologies.

Luke tires early like an old man with a set bedtime, but he’s been up since before dawn. He’s used to his schedule, eight months in, and it should be easier to just go to bed. It’s not, because Michael has rearranged himself on the couch so that he’s laying his head against Luke’s shoulder. Luke is reluctant to move. Every time he yawns, he jostles Michael and draws a soft laugh from Michael’s lips.

“Just go to bed already,” says Michael after the fifth time Luke has unsuccessfully tried to stifle his yawn. He sits up so that he can look Luke in the eye. The television program has gone to a commercial break. “I just want to know if they win it all or not, and then I’ll be in there, too.”

It doesn’t take much convincing to get Luke to agree, not with Michael’s promise to soon follow. He stands up groggily and staggers toward the bedroom. He goes about his nightly routine half-asleep already. The sheets are cold when he crawls between them, naked except for his boxers. He is too tired to bother with proper sleeping clothes.

Michael joins him a little while later. Luke isn’t sure how much later, because he is already well on his way to a deep sleep, but he wakes up enough to acknowledge that he is no longer alone in bed. Michael tugs at his shoulder until Luke falls, pliant, into his arms. Luke buries his face into the space underneath Michael’s chin. Michael’s toes are ice against Luke’s knees. They’re both already a tangle of limbs, and it’s perfect enough to lull Luke back to sleep.

Luke wakes the next morning to an incessant ringing of his doorbell. His first thought is that Michael has locked himself out somehow, but that immediately proves to be untrue as Luke realizes there is still a sleeping form on the other side of the bed. They had drifted apart from each other in their sleeps, the press of another body too warm to remain tangled together.  

The doorbell rings a second time, long and drawn out like the person on the other side is purposefully leaning against it. Luke groans as he kicks the covers off him to sit up in bed. He’s not quite sure how Michael is managed to sleep through all the noise, but he doesn’t really want to wake him up. He tucks the covers back around Michael so that there isn’t a draft. He pulls on a pair of dirty sweat pants from the floor that he’s pretty sure Michael last wore and grabs the first t-shirt he can reach in his closet.

He shuts the bedroom door behind him before he pads across the living room to the front door. It’s Ashton who has been making all of the racket. He pushes past Luke into the warmth of the house. Luke lets him in without fuss, shutting the door behind him. Ashton turns to face Luke. He is dressed in a pair of skinny jeans and an oversized blue sweater underneath a leather jacket. It’s eight o’clock in the morning. He has obviously been up and about for a while.

“Where have you been? Don’t tell me you’ve been here the entire time? I tried to call you all night.”

“Stayed in,” answers Luke, making sure to keep eye contact with Ashton instead of glancing toward his bedroom door like he’d like to. Ashton is better than Calum at picking up on the things that Luke doesn’t want anybody else to know, so he can’t afford even the slightest slip-up. “Been dead beat tired filling in for Liam all week and just decided to call it an early night last night.”

The key to lying to Ashton has always been to be specific, but more than that, it has been to tell just enough of the truth to prove a point. Luke has spent the past four years carefully guarding secrets that he can’t allow his most treasured friend to discover, and Ashton has spent just as long being happily oblivious to the horror in Luke’s past. This thing with Michael is nowhere near the same, but Luke should have enough good practice by now to successfully lead Ashton astray.

Ashton purses his lips, carefully looking Luke from head to toe. Luke tries not to fidget under his stare, but he feels like a child about to be reprimanded by a parent. Luke isn’t six years old again trying to convince his mother that he didn’t have any of the freshly baked cookies before dinner. He shouldn’t act so guilty.

“You’re lying.”

Luke blinks at Ashton, mind blank of a response. He makes the mistake of glancing to his bedroom door, and Ashton notices it immediately. Ashton turns toward it but glances over his shoulder back him, a smirk on his lips.

“You sly dog. You let me believe you were all alone last night when there’s really a man in your bedroom?”

“It’s not what you think.”

Ashton’s smirk widens into a full-on grin. Luke gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. It’s really the worst thing he could have said in response. It’s exactly what Ashton thinking. Luke does, in fact, have a man in his bed with whom he has exchanged orgasms. It just so happens that said man is Michael, and Ashton is one of the last people he wants to be privy to that tiny fact.

“I mean, it’s—what are you really doing here, Ashton? You never just pop by at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning.”

“You never stay in on a Friday night, so I think we’re even as far as odd behaviors go,” Ashton says. He glances toward Luke’s bedroom door again. When he looks back at Luke, the grin has disappeared on his face. “Calum is worried about you. He says you’ve been acting odd all week.”

“That constitutes you breaking into my house this early on a Saturday morning?”

“I didn’t break in. I rang the door bell,” says Ashton. He isn’t stupid. He knows what Luke is doing right now, and he shoots Luke an unimpressed glare at his attempt to deflect. “This isn’t about Michael, is it?”

It’s only by chance that Luke doesn’t choke on his spit as soon as Michael’s name falls from Ashton’s lips. He tries not to react at all, but it’s so disconcerting that Ashton has immediately jumped this close to the big, bad secret Luke’s been keeping from him all week—or maybe longer if he goes all the way back to the first time Michael kissed him.

“I caught some of your show yesterday morning, and imagine my shock when I saw Michael’s face on my television screen,” continues Ashton, gaze heavy on Luke. There’s a considering glint in his eyes, like he is searching for something. “Calum said it was you who suggested Michael…?”

“He wasn’t my first choice, if that’s what you’re getting at,” says Luke. He feels a surge of pride that he manages to sound so normal. He glances worriedly toward the door, wondering if Michael is awake and listening to them. He speaks quieter than normal just in case. “You do realize Michael and I are separate entities, right? Like I don’t spend my entire day thinking about him.”

It’s a lie, and the way that Ashton huffs suggests he knows it, too.

“Look, can we talk about anything else?” asks Luke, and it’s more of a plea than anything. He’s got his pride but apparently not when it comes to Michael. He knows the glint in Ashton’s eyes. It’s never good for him, and the last thing he wants right here, right now is to talk about why Michael really was his first choice when he had a dozen other people he could have called yesterday morning.

“Fine. Let’s talk about the man in your bed right now,” says Ashton, meanly, and Luke almost groans, because this isn’t changing the subject at all, but Ashton doesn’t know this. Or Ashton doesn’t need to know this, so Luke doesn’t stop him as he continues to barrel forward. “Has he figured you out yet? That you’re interested for as long he’s there, but the moment he’s gone, you’re through with him like yesterday’s newspaper?”

“What do you want from me?” snaps Luke. He doesn’t want to listen to an analysis of his past relationships, of the people he’s been obsessed with until they shoved their way into the wrong part of his life, of the men and women who’ve pretended to understand why he’s got an aversion of blood so bad that he can’t even handle minor scrapes on his own skin.

“I want you to get your head out of your ass! People change, you know. You’re too caught up in the past to give a fuck about what’s right in front of your damn face. Listen, you’re my friend, Luke, one of my best friends, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been a downright bastard, and I’ve held my tongue long enough. We’re leaving tomorrow, and I can’t go halfway around the world without saying something.”

“You’re leaving tomorrow?”

“That’s what you’ve taken away from this?”

“I didn’t think the show started until Friday.”

Ashton raises his eyebrows at him, silent for a moment as Luke’s statement hangs in the air between them. Luke knows he has just misstepped—that he’s given Ashton more than he has ever had the right to have. He can’t bring himself to care. He’d been under the impression that Michael wasn’t flying out for another week. He had thought they would have more time to hang out as they had been doing, because Luke has never enjoyed himself as much as he has these past few days with Michael.

He’s faced with the end before it’s really begun, and he doesn’t really know what to do with himself.

“Are you going to miss me that much? Is that what this is about? I mean, I know you don’t like it when I’m gone, but I swear, Luke, I’m just a phone call away—day or night.”

“No, that’s not—”

Luke appreciates Ashton’s concern, but he stops himself. It’s true that he doesn’t do well on his own, with only Calum to distract him from the skeletons in his closet and the ghosts haunting him from his past. He has a lot easier time when Ashton’s in the city, a mere car ride away, even if Luke goes days at a time without seeing him.

“I mean, yeah, that’s sort of what this is about. It just caught me off-guard, that’s all,” says Luke. “I thought I had more time.”

Ashton expression turns to pity, a sad smile on his lips. Luke hates it on him. He almost prefers the judging look Ashton had adopted up until now. At least it looked normal on Ashton in regard to Luke. This pity, on the other hand, is something Luke has fought tooth and nail against since the moment he woke up on Ashton’s run-down couch the morning after they first met with a hangover from hell and barely the recollection of Ashton’s name.

“You can always tag along, you know. You’re long overdue for a vacation. I can’t remember you ever taking one.”

“Can’t. I’ve got the show.”

“Liam can—”

“Liam’s got enough to worry about. He doesn’t need the hassle of also trying to find somebody to replace me in the mornings.”

Ashton sighs, the sad smile still on his lips. He has always been good at hearing the words Luke doesn’t say. He knows there’s more to Luke’s answer. There always has been. He has invited Luke on every trip for the past four years, and Luke has said no every single time. There are some things that even the great Ashton doesn’t know about Luke, and most of those things begin and end with Rena.

“The offer still stands…”

Luke nods. He allows his gaze to drift past Ashton to his closed bedroom door. He thinks of Michael curled up in his bed right now, and he thinks about how he’s only got another day to enjoy this before it’s all over. It seems so wasteful to stand on the other side of that door with Ashton, who no doubt also has other plans for the day that are better than trying to sort out the mess of a human being that Luke is.

When Luke turns back around, Ashton looking toward the bedroom door, too.

“I can take a hint, I guess,” Ashton says, meeting his eyes. Gone is the pity, and in its place is a glint of ruthlessness. “I’ll demand details later—all of the gory ones that’ll make Calum blush and leave the room.”

Luke rolls his eyes. Ashton lets out a bark of laughter, cackling as Luke escorts him to the front door. Luke has no doubt that Ashton will pester him for the intimate details of the man in his bed and of their sexual exploits, but Ashton doesn’t know that it’s Michael who he is asking about. Luke is no sooner to tell him that than he is to tell him exactly what he and Michael get up to, no matter how many stops Ashton pulls in his efforts to make Luke spill his deepest, darkest secrets.

Ashton leaves without any further fanfare. Luke locks the door behind him and waits until he’s certain Ashton is gone before he returns to the bedroom. It’s only half past eight, but Michael is blinking sleepily at Luke like he has been awake almost as long as Luke’s been gone. It’s a heart-warming sight: Michael almost lost in Luke’s bedcovers, looking every bit like a lover that Luke could come back to for the rest of his life.

He thinks this is the perfect time to acknowledge that, to put it out there for Michael to know that this thing between them is more real than anything else Luke has ever known. The morning is new, and Michael is leaving tomorrow to be gone for an entire month. They’re running out of time.

But Luke’s voice gets caught in his throat. He stands just before the bed, looking at Michael with big eyes, until Michael peels back the covers to let him in. Luke goes easily, settling back into the cool sheets warmed by Michael. He lays his head on Michael’s shoulder. Michael wraps his arms around him, and it’s the most content Luke has felt in a long, long while.

They drift back to sleep, or, at least, Luke does. When he wakes again, it is much later in the day, well after noon, and Michael is already awake, smiling down at him. Luke stretches as much as he’s allowed to in the confines of Michael’s hold. He doesn’t try to make any more room for himself, though he’d quite like to loosen the rest of his stiff muscles. It can wait until later.

His head is still resting on Michael’s shoulder, and he can hear the steady rhythm of Michael’s heartbeat. It almost lulls him back to sleep, but he has already slept much longer than he typically does. He starts to feel a little restless. He only has one day left with Michael, and he doesn’t want to waste it by sleeping the entire time, regardless of how comfortable he may be here in Michael’s arms.

“Let’s do something today,” he says into the crook of Michael’s neck. It’s partially so that he doesn’t have to look Michael in the eyes, but mostly because he can smell the sharp scent of Michael’s cologne, and he doesn’t ever want to smell anything else.

“What do you have in mind?”

 Luke stops to think for a moment, because he hadn’t done that a couple of minutes prior before the suggestion fell from his lips. He doesn’t have to think very long. He grins and pushes himself up on his arm so that he can look down at Michael.

“Let me treat you to dinner.”

Michael bites his bottom lip, his expression clouding over. No doubt, he remembers the dinner they were supposed to share. Luke winces at the memory. He wonders, probably for the first time, what the dinner might have been like had Ashton not gone in Michael’s stead. Luke is sure it wouldn’t have been good, definitely not as good as the dinners they’ve shared this week in front of Luke’s television.

“Okay.”

It takes Luke a moment to realize that Michael has said yes, and when it finally dawns on him, he can’t stop himself from leaning forward and pressing his lips against Michael’s. They’ve both got morning breath. It should be awful. It isn’t. Michael laughs into the kiss. It spreads across Luke’s skin like wildfire. Luke never, ever wants to do anything else for the rest of his life than this.

They break apart after a couple of minutes, because they have to. Luke nips at Michael’s bottom lip one last time. He forces himself out of the bed or else he won’t ever leave it. He’s quite looking forward to treating Michael to dinner, even if it is still a few hours away. There’s so much Luke needs to do before then, namely find a nice restaurant and get a reservation at such a short notice. He can do it for Michael. He can do anything for Michael.

He heads to the bathroom before anything else, intent on relieving his bladder and brushing his teeth. He reemerges a few minutes later, feeling refreshed. Michael isn’t in the bedroom anymore, but Luke’s duvet also isn’t on the bed. Luke traipses into the living room where Michael is curled up on the couch. There is just enough room for Luke to join him, so he does. He settles into the spot between Michael and the arm of the couch, and he reaches for his laptop that’s sitting on the coffee table.

“Any preference of the restaurant?” asks Luke.

Michael smiles over at him and shakes his head. He has the television remote in the hand farthest away from Luke. He uses it to change the channel until he finds a game show to his liking. He settles back against Luke as the show progresses. Luke browses the Internet with one hand, searching for the perfect restaurant. He holds Michael’s hand with the other on top of the duvet, and he doesn’t want to let go, ever.

After an hour or so of searching, Luke finally finds the perfect restaurant. It’s a little pricey, but he knows the food is worth it. He’s eaten there a handful of times over the past few years while working at the station, and he has become pretty good friends with the owner, who is something like Liam’s third cousin.

He makes the phone call during a commercial break so that he doesn’t disturb Michael’s entertainment. The hostess recognizes Luke’s name immediately and doesn’t even falter over his request of privacy. She ensures him he will get the best. He thanks her then hangs up. Michael’s already smiling at him.

“I’m always in the mood for a good steak,” he says, unabashed of how closely he had eavesdropped. It’s not that it matters. Luke isn’t trying to surprise him, and he didn’t exactly try to go to the other room to make the phone call for the reservation. “I hope it’s as good as the company will be.”

Luke grins, a warm feeling ballooning up in his chest. He doesn’t know what to say, so he kisses Michael instead and lets it speak all of the words he’s not able to speak. He thinks Michael understands him anyhow. The kiss turns hot and heavy in a way that the rest of them so far today have not, and Luke feels desire pool in the pit of his belly. He wants to say forget the dinner and stay right here on the couch like they are, becoming entrapped in their passion, but he wants to take Michael out even more. He wants to show him a good time like he was too foolish to do the first time he got such an opportunity.

He pulls away from Michael, breaking the kiss to look the Michael in the eye. There is blatant desire shining back at him, and it makes his toes curl. He can feel the heavy length of Michael’s cock against his thigh. He knows, without a single doubt in his mind, that he isn’t the only one who wants to lose himself to this moment.

Michael is still holding his hand, a gentle and comforting grasp in his. Luke licks his bottom lip. He watches Michael’s eyes follow his tongue. He is secondarily robbed of the ability to speak, but he swallows the spit in his mouth. He thinks about kissing Michael again. He doesn’t.

“You’re leaving tomorrow,” he says, finally, because there is no use in dancing around the truth Ashton let him in on, not now when they’ve only got a few precious hours left.

Michael nods.

“Then give me tonight.”

Chapter Text

Michael looks devastatingly handsome in Luke’s suit. It’s a crime, really. The suit jacket is a little too big around the shoulders, but Michael’s arms are long enough to fill out the sleeves. He is wearing a pair of cuff links that Ashton once brought back from one of his exotic trips. They’re tiny little silver hearts with a single glistening gem stone set in the center of each of them, and they look much better on Michael than they ever have on Luke.

A car drops them off at the private entrance to the restaurant. Luke climbs out first. His tie is askew, but he ignores it as he helps Michael out of the vehicle. Michael grins at him as they stand face-to-face, lost in this moment. Michael fixes Luke’s tie for him and lets his hand linger on Luke’s stomach when he’s finished. Luke wants to kiss him. They’re alone back here, so he does.

The good thing about the spur-of-the-moment decision to take Michael out to a restaurant is that there are no cameras hounding them. Luke has a high-profile in the city, and so does Michael, but they enjoy the aura of anonymity as they kiss in the hidden alleyway behind the restaurant. When they break apart, Luke rests his forehead against Michael’s for a moment, too reluctant to truly let go of this between them.

Behind Michael, the door opens, and the maître d’ stands there to usher them inside. Luke sends away the car. He steps away from Michael, but he can’t bring himself to stop touching him, so he offers his hand. Michael takes it. Luke leads him into the restaurant. They follow along behind the maître d’ like ducklings through the kitchen and then into a small private room with a table set for two. She leaves them almost immediately, returning to her normal position at the front of the restaurant, but Luke barely notices. He can’t tear his attention away from Michael.

There’s a single candle standing lit in the center of the table. A bottle of champagne chills in a bucket of ice. Luke pulls out the chair for Michael, who smiles as he sits down. Luke can’t resist the urge to place a soft kiss against Michael’s cheek, and then he sits down in the chair across from him. A waitress appears out of the darkness, introducing herself as Mallory. She pours them both a glass of champagne and leaves alone with their menus.

Luke pretends to look over the choices, but he peers over the top of the menu at Michael. They’ve both lost their suit jackets by now. Michael has already pushed up the sleeves of his borrowed dress shirt. His arm band tattoo is peeking out from underneath the fabric. Luke reaches across the table for Michael’s hand, and when he gets it, he pulls it closer to him so that more of the tattoo is revealed. He wants to run his fingers along every curve and memorize the ink staining Michael’s skin until he knows it so well he can recreate it from memory.

Michael looks down at his tattoo then up at Luke. He’s smiling. He doesn’t make any attempt to pull back his arm or to cover up his tattoo. It’s like he knows the power he has over Luke in this moment in time, like he knows exactly what Luke wants to do to his tattoo and to him. A warm, fuzzy feeling overcomes Luke. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to feeling like he’s half a breath away from choking every time he thinks about what he wants to do to Michael, about how he wants to build him up and then take him down in a single swoop of endless passion.

Mallory the waitress comes back for their orders. Luke’s polite when he gives his, but he can’t bring himself to look away from Michael, so in love with this moment that he never wants it to end. If he tries hard enough, he can pretend this is his life for real, that he and Michael are going out on the first of many, many dates, but there’s a tiny voice in the back of his head that reminds him Michael is leaving tomorrow morning, but he tries to ignore it as much as possible.

“So how often does Ashton break into your house?” asks Michael in the span of silence between them that Luke doesn’t even notice until it’s broken. Michael has a grin on his face. His hand is still in Luke’s, lying on top of the table. The intimate overhead lighting does wonder for the mysticism that is his arm band tattoo.

Luke laughs, a startled sound full of amusement, before he says, “More often than you’d think. Lately, he’s been resorting to using Calum for his dirty work. I came home the other day from the station to find Cal and Harry eating all of my potato chips on the couch. Ashton’s under the impression I can’t take care of myself, apparently.”

“You can’t,” says Michael seriously. He has to bite his lips to keep from smiling, and it’s this that takes the acid out of his words. “I came home yesterday to find you in a state of starvation that no man over the age of twenty-two should ever resort to.”

It’s easy, this banter with Michael. It’s much easier than Luke would have ever thought it would be without all of the fanfare of hatred and the flourishes of grudges. Luke’s mind becomes trapped in the word home falling from Michael’s lips, and he knows he’s a goner. He has been for a long time—probably since that first night at Ashton’s when Michael had pushed him up against the wall in the guest bedroom and kissed him like there’d been no tomorrow. Right now, he sees more clearly than ever. The glint in Michael’s eyes suggests he does, too.

“Well, it’s a good thing I had you, isn’t it?” responds Luke. He tries for humor, but it comes out all thin and raspy, and this thing between them—this pseudo-relationship—is so much more real to him. He doesn’t think about how Michael’s going to be gone in just a few short hours. “Or else, who knows what might’ve happened to me. I’d probably have, like, food poisoned myself or something.”

“We can’t have that,” says Michael, softly like he’s so caught up in his own thoughts that he’s only speaking out of instinct. He’s looking into Luke’s eyes, and he’s not looking away, and the whole world just disappears for Luke, except for Michael before him, their hands interlocked on the table.

Mallory the waitress returns with their orders. It’s only because they need the table space that Luke and Michael let go of one another. Michael’s ordered a steak and mashed potatoes and fried apples. It all smells delicious, much better than Luke’s choice of marinated chicken smothered in brown gravy with a side of green beans and coleslaw.

Michael sets about cutting his steak. When he’s done, he catches Luke looking longingly at the food on his plate. Luke’s own food is untouched thus far, and Michael chuckles to himself as he moves the candle in the middle of the table aside so that he can push his plate toward Luke. He forks one of the strips of steak, smears it around in sauce, and holds it up inches from Luke’s mouth.

“First bite?”

Luke smiles before he opens his mouth as requested. His chest feels too small for his heart, and he can’t seem to draw enough air into his lung to rid himself of the dizzy-headed feeling that’s rushing over him. Michael feeds him the steak, withdrawing the fork to let it drop back to the plate as Luke chews. It’s probably the most delicious steak Luke’s had in his life. It’s undoubtedly the most intimate date he’s ever been on, and there’s nothing else he can do except swallow the food and return the favor.

They make a mess of their plates, taking turns feeding each other and stealing food off the other’s plate. They must look like a sight. They both have to lean over the table just a little to keep from spilling sauce and gravy everywhere, so they eat their dinner in a totally uncivilized manner, forks knocking together and apples sliding amongst the potatoes. Luke never wants to meal to end.

It does. When Mallory the waitress comes by to see if they want dessert, neither of them is really hungry anymore. Luke meets Michael’s eyes across the table. He feels so far away now that they’re properly seated, no longer crowding into each other’s bubble. The air is thick around them, like the first hot summer’s day after a long, brutal winter, and Michael orders a dessert.

Mallory the waitress brings out a fancy dessert that is, at its core, merely a brownie sundae. Michael scoots it to the middle of the table. He motions for Luke to pick up his spoon, and Luke grins as he obeys. He leans over the table again, back into Michael’s space where he belongs. He dips his spoon into the dessert, making sure to get everything in one perfect bite. It’s not for him. Michael doesn’t realize it yet, but the second Luke holds the spoon in front of his mouth, he laughs and takes the bite that’s offered to him.

They split the dessert like they did their meal. It’s only because it’s part ice cream that they are in any hurry to finish it. Luke has a strong distaste for melted ice cream, and he lets Michael finish up the dessert once the iciness of the treat has warmed too much for his liking. Michael rolls his eyes at Luke’s pickiness but has no problem in the end of having the rest of it by himself.

When the check finally comes, Luke picks it up without even allowing Michael the opportunity. He barely glances at the total as he slips his credit card into the placeholder and hands it back to Mallory the waitress before she even has a chance to leave the room. He doesn’t really care how much this dinner has cost him. It’s been the best evening he’s had in a long, long time, and he’d give his entire life savings for it to never end.

“I could’ve got that,” says Michael. “I mean, I did order the dessert.”

“Which I ate half of. Besides, I’m the one who asked, remember?”

Michael smiles, amused, and softly says, “Yeah, I remember.”

Luke wants to kiss Michael. There’s a table between them, but he doesn’t care. He leans across the table. It’s been cleared by now, and not even the candle gets in his way. Michael meets him halfway, and their lips crash together. Michael tastes like ice cream and brownies and champagne, and Luke feels desire pool in his belly. He wants more. So much more. So much more than he’s ever taken from Michael before.

“I want to take you home,” he murmurs against Michael’s lips.

There’s not enough space between them to speak properly. Michael shivers as Luke’s words wash over him. Maybe he’s thinking the exact same thing, and Luke’s just wasted his breath for nothing. Luke doesn’t know. He doesn’t care, because it doesn’t really matter. They’ve got the same end goal in mind. He’s impatient for the waitress to return with his card, so they can leave.

It takes Mallory the waitress a few more minutes before she comes back with the card. He sits back in his chair so that he can sign his name to the receipt with a trembling hand. He can barely keep his attention off Michael long enough to scribble a generous tip on top of the total. Michael’s not much better, pupils dilated from the champagne and smile wide in anticipation. Luke pockets his card as quickly as possible. He takes Michael’s hand and pulls him from the room.

The restaurant is a little less crowded now than it was when they first arrived. Luke catches a glimpse of a clock on the wall near the entrance to the kitchen. He’s surprised to note how late it actually is. They’ve spent the entire evening hidden away in the private room enjoying a dinner that should have taken an hour at most. Luke’s not sure where all the time went, but Michael’s hand is firm in his, and he doesn’t care. He’d give it all away again.

There’s a car waiting at the back entrance. Nobody’s gotten word of their dinner, so they’re able to leave the restaurant in peace. Luke has pretty much perfected the art of traveling undetected throughout the city, for the most part, but tonight is different. There is so much more at stake.

He really doesn’t want to be caught red-handed with Michael this evening, not when everything has gone so well, and he’s always on greater alert whenever Ashton is in town. People are hungry for a taste of Ashton’s life. Luke is collateral damage on that front. He’d never trade information about Ashton for anything in the world, but that doesn’t stop the paparazzi or random crazed fans from hoping that he will—and that’s on top of the fans Luke has garnered from his morning show.

Luke holds Michael’s hand the entire way back to his house. It’s partially because he doesn’t ever want to let go, but it’s also because Michael is the only thing anchoring him right now. He’s not sure he’d be able to wait any longer if he is left to his own self. Michael bumps his shoulder against Luke’s, and Luke looks over to see him smiling back. A shiver of anticipation runs down Luke’s spine. He’s overcome with the urge to kiss Michael, but he doesn’t. He’s not sure he’d be able to stop if he were to start.

The car can’t go fast enough. Luke says nothing to the driver about such, but they move at a snail’s pace down the city streets back to his house. Michael taps his foot on the floorboard, knee knocking against Luke’s on the upbeat. It sends heat radiating up his leg, like a flame consuming a line of gasoline along an old blacktop road. Luke bites his bottom lip hard, and he tightens his hold on Michael’s hand, and desire pools in his belly, and he feels like he’s spiraling out of control right here, strapped to the seat next to Michael.

When they finally arrive at Luke’s house, he’s so eager to get Michael inside that he almost forgets to pay their fare. Michael laughs at him, fondly, and pulls out his own wallet to hand the driver what they owe and a tip on top of that. Luke thinks Michael’s being purposefully too generous to make up for his gaffe. It’s only a passing consideration in his head, because the moment Michael’s turned back to him, he forgets all about the cab fare.

They keep their hands to themselves out of habit—four years of hatred bred between them is visible now even on the doorstep of their impending passion—on their way into the house. The moment the door is shut, Luke crowds into Michael, pushing him up against the hard oak wood like he did the second time Michael barged into this place with an arsenal of smart ass comments. It’s nothing and everything at the same time like it was then. Luke dives forward to kiss Michael like he’s wanted to since they got in the car, and Michael kisses back just as frantic. Just as needy. Just as desperate.

Michael’s cock is hard against Luke’s own, and he grinds them together. He sucks a gasp right out of Luke’s mouth, and he grins devilishly as they break apart to catch their breaths, breathing in each other’s air like there’s none else available in the room. Luke opens his eyes—he’s not sure when exactly it was that he had closed them under the knee-buckling onslaught that was the life force of Michael—and finds that Michael’s already got his open.

The world stops turning for them. It’s just Luke staring into Michael’s eyes, and Michael staring back. Their cocks are hard between them. There’s no rush anymore. They’ve got the entire night spread out before them. It feels like an eternity, like tomorrow will never come and Michael won’t leave and they’ll just spend the rest of forever as a single entity of LukeandMichael.

Michael’s eyes flicker to Luke’s mouth, or in the direction of it at least. They’re standing too close for either of them to see anything beyond the other’s nose. That’s the only warning Luke gets before Michael’s lips crash back into his. Their teeth click against each other. There’s no rhythm at all to this kiss. It’s hot and heavy and loaded, and it’s all Luke can do to just grab onto Michael’s hips and hold on for dear life as he lets the passion of Michael’s kiss consume him.

It’s over like the flip of a switch. Michael draws back from Luke’s lips to lean forward. He thrusts his hip, moving what little he can under Luke’s tight grip, and grinds their cocks together again. They’re both straining in their trousers, but that’s at the back of Luke’s mind. Michael presses his mouth to Luke’s ear. Everything else disappears except the hot rush of breath tickling his skin.

“Take me to bed.”

Luke’s breath catches in his throat. He nods, because he’s not sure he has the ability to speak right now. Michael laughs into a smile. He dips his head down, presses his lips to the crook of Luke’s shoulder, right where the collar of his suit jacket ends. His teeth are like fire across Luke’s skin. He works open the jacket without looking, nipping at Luke’s neck. The jacket falls to the ground. It’s actually meant to be hung up nice and proper, but there’s no time for that, not at the speed Michael’s undressing him.

When Luke is down to nothing but his undershirt and his boxers, he remembers himself enough to realize that he’d like Michael to be in a similar state of nakedness. Michael’s still backed against the door, trapped between it and Luke, and it’s so far to the bedroom, but Luke pulls Michael along, undressing him with every step they take, leaving a trail of clothes on the floor behind them.

They’ve slept in the same bed every night this week, and they’ve had sex more times than Luke can count, but there’s something breathtakingly intimate when they step inside of his bedroom. He and Michael are tangled around each other, stumbling toward the bed. The back of Michael’s knees hit mattress, and they go tumbling into the sheets, mouths locked in another kiss, cocks brushing together.

There’s an entire world outside of the bedroom, but Luke doesn’t know about it. All he knows is Michael pressed against him. It’s like everything else in the entire universe has ceased to exist. It’s just Michael and him wrapped up in each other, naked as the days they were born. They kiss for a while in absolutely no hurry to speed things along. They’re both still hard, cocks leaking precome. They’ve got a similar endgame in mind, but they’ve got hours stretched out before them.

Luke pulls away from the kiss, and Michael tries to follow him, but Luke sucks a trail down Michael’s neck, grinning into his skin. Michael throws back his head. He thrusts his hips forward, brushing his cock against Luke’s. He moans deep in his throat. Luke’s so hard, so close to orgasm that he has to draw back away from the feel of Michael against him. He feels like he’s standing on a tightrope with nothing below him but absolute oblivion. It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once.

He moves farther down Michael’s body, sucking and biting across Michael’s sensitive skin. He pays particular attention to Michael’s nipples. It feels forbidden but oh so right. They’ve never done this before, not with each other, but Michael cries out so wretchedly at the graze of Luke’s sharp teeth against his left nipple. Luke likes the sound so much, he moves to his other nipple to draw that sound from Michael’s throat again.

Michael threads his fingers through Luke’s hair, and he thrusts his hips forward. There’s nothing to give him any sense of release. Luke’s hovering above him just out of reach, kissing his way down Michael’s stomach until his chin bumps against the tip of Michael’s cock. It smears precome along his neck. He doesn’t tease this time. He wraps one hand around the base of Michael’s cock and guides it into his mouth.

He runs his tongue along the underside of Michael’s cock. Michael bucks forward mindlessly, lost to the feel of Luke’s mouth. Luke holds him down, his free hand pressed against Michael’s hips. There’ll probably be bruises tomorrow, faint outlines of Luke’s fingers as a reminder of this moment. It’s this part of Luke that Michael will wear to Australia, and the thought of it is enough to make Luke grin around Michael’s cock in his mouth.

He makes a mess of Michael, licking and sucking and thoroughly taking him apart. Michael keeps his hand in Luke’s hair. He tangles his fingers, and he tugs at Luke’s hair as he clenches his fist, so lost to his own impending orgasm that he cries out when Luke pulls off. A string of spit connects the tip of Michael’s cock to Luke’s mouth. Luke looks up to meet Michael’s eyes. They’re blown, pupils large.

Luke wants to dive right back in, to push Michael to the orgasm he so desperate wants, but he doesn’t. He’s got other plans. He pushes himself up on his knees. He crawls over Michael’s body, straddling him until he’s even with his mouth again. He goes in for another kiss. Michael’s hard cock is wet against the inside of Luke’s thigh, nestled there by the way they’re crowding into each other. Michael’s kiss tastes like a future Luke wants, but he kisses like they’ve got no tomorrow. Somewhere deep down inside, Luke has to push away the errant thought that this really is it. That come first light tomorrow, Michael will be gone, and whatever this is that’s built between them will disintegrate like it has with everybody else in Luke’s past.

That’s a problem for future-Luke, for the man who doesn’t have Michael at his fingertips right now. Luke ignores the voice of reason that warns him they should talk instead of get each other off. That voice sounds eerily like Calum, and he’s the last person Luke ever wants to think about in bed. So Luke throws himself into kiss with even more vigor. When they finally break apart, gasping for air they share between them, Luke murmurs a forbidden request against Michael’s lips.

“I want to eat you out.”

Michael’s breath catches in his throat, and he bucks his hips, his hard cock rubbing against Luke’s thigh, and Luke knows without even needing a verbal response that the answer is yes. He waits for it anyway, grinding his thigh against Michael’s cock until Michael finally gets the message and gasps out oh fuck—please. That’s all Luke needs to proceed forward. He grins and drops down to kiss Michael again. He’s giddy with anticipation.

He’s rimmed a handful of people in his life, but he’s never wanted to do it to somebody as much as he wants to do it to Michael now. It’s one of his favorite things. It’s intimate. He gets off on the power that he has, on his ability to reduce his lover to a shivering mess at the tip of his tongue. He wants to do that to Michael right now.

He kisses his way back down Michael’s stomach, crawling on his knees until his face is even with Michael’s cock again. It’s hard and leaking precome. Luke blows across it just to see Michael tremble. His own cock is hard, but he makes no attempt to satisfy himself. This is about Michael, and Luke is so hard that he almost thinks he could come from just this—from just pleasuring Michael.

He’s not sure how he really wants to do this. Michael makes the decision for him, twisting out from underneath Luke to get on his hands and knees, ass in the air, presented and waiting. He’s mostly shameless about it, but Luke can see the delicate flush of pink across Michael’s skin. He has to take a moment to collect himself—thinks Michael might need a brief break, too—because it’s all so much. He wants it so bad that he’s shaking, and Michael’s flushed, and Luke feels like a tension wire a hundredth of a millimeter away from snapping right in half.

Luke needs to concentrate on something else besides Michael right now or he’s afraid that he’ll self-combust like in those horrible science-fiction movies, and he’ll be nothing more than blood spatter across the walls. He gets a flash of dead green eyes, of blood staining an old white shirt, and of sirens in the distance that’ll never get there quick enough. He’s hovering above Michael’s body, and his stream of consciousness zaps whatever strength he has, and he collapses onto Michael’s back, lost in a barrage of thoughts from an entire world away. Michael grunts, shifting to support Luke’s weight, and it’s that sound which grounds Luke, brings him back to the present away from the woman who’ll never close her eyes. He breathes for a moment in time with Michael until he can finally function again.

He reaches into the drawer of his bedside table where he keeps his condoms and lube. He pulls both of them out, though it’ll be a while before they’ll need the former. His moves are mechanical, second-nature by this point in his adult life. He’s never done this with Michael before. They’ve never really needed condoms, so the act of tossing a couple onto the pillow next to Michael’s head is almost enough to make Luke forget how to breathe.

It’s not as overwhelming as it was a couple of minutes ago, whatever this is between him and Michael, but he can feel the ripples of it still pooling in the air around them, building up in the intimacy forged between them. He makes it a point to draw oxygen into his lungs and then exhale in a steady fashion. He’s afraid he might forget otherwise, drowning as he is in Michael right now. The repetitive pattern of his breathing is enough to soothe his fraying nerves, and he settles himself behind Michael.

The pink tinge to Michael’s skin is still there. Luke lays his hand on Michael’s left buttock, and Michael shies away from the touch. Luke doesn’t move. He can’t. He’s not sure if Michael’s completely turned off or just unused to the idea of somebody licking his ass. Luke wants to do this more than anything, but he won’t if Michael doesn’t want it, too.

“I can stop, sweetheart.”

Michael shivers the nickname. He turns his head to look over his shoulder, pupils still dilated. Luke himself chokes at the sight, at Michael on his hands and knees before him looking so devastatingly ruined before they’ve even really begun. It looks so good on him. It looks so damn good that Luke wants to freeze time so he’ll never have to look away.

“Not on your fucking life. Get on with it.”

Luke chuckles at Michael’s audacity even now when his position dictates he should be vulnerable. It’s true that Michael is lying bare before Luke like he is never been before, but Luke is equally open and raw, uninhibited by anything. He leans forward to press a kiss in the small of Michael’s back. He uses his free hand to touch Michael, fingers ghosting across his hole. Luke’s own cock is a dripping mess, and he’s not sure he’s going to make it much longer, not with Michael like this before him at his mercy.

He kisses across Michael’s ass, getting him used to Luke being there. The pink gradually seeps out of Michael’s skin until it’s the same pale white that it always is. Luke nips at Michael’s ass with his teeth, grazing across the skin, just to make Michael jump. Michael does, and he growls deep in his throat in response, but he pushes back his ass, demanding more. Luke gladly gives it to him. He kisses and bites his way to Michael’s hole until he’s forced to use his hands to hold Michael’s cheeks apart. He blows across Michael’s hole like he did his cock earlier, teasing him and warning him all at once. He waits a beat then two before he dives forward and makes the first tentative lick.

The act of rimming is never as glorious in the very beginning, when Luke’s in a rush to adjust to what he has to work with, but Michael is clean, and he shivers as Luke’s tongue swipes across his hole, and that’s all Luke really asks for anyway. Everything else fades from Luke’s psyche. The only thing there is Michael and how he can make Michael feel good.

Michael moans in all the right places, dropping his head to the pillow before him, sticking his ass higher in the air. Luke follows him through the motion, still focused only on bringing Michael to an orgasm. He keeps his teeth out of the way as he uses his tongue. He lets go of one of Michael’s ass cheeks, sacrificing his accessibility to Michael’s hole so that he can wrap his hand around Michael’s cock.

It doesn’t take long for Michael to come, painting white stripes across Luke’s gray bed sheets. It’s a mess Luke’s going to have to clean later when Michael is gone and Luke is left with nothing but the evidence of this moment in time. He can’t bring himself to care, not now at least. He keeps licking at Michael’s hole, and he keeps working his hand over Michael’s sensitive cock until Michael collapses away from him, body far too sensitive in all of the right ways to handle the stimulation, pleasure bleeding into pain.

Luke leans back to get a good look at Michael, laid out and bare before him in the after throes of his orgasm. The sight is enough to make Luke want to come right now. He is hesitant to move, even to shuffle away from Michael. The slightest touch to his cock would be enough to send him off, and Luke has never been this close to orgasm without being touched before. It’s so much all at once that it’s hard to breathe again.

He gasps for his breaths, hovering above Michael on unsteady knees. Michael is useless before him, in his post-orgasm haze, but he opens his eyes to look at Luke, and they’re still blown. The night has only begun, and in a few hours it’ll have to end. Michael reaches up to tug Luke down. Luke goes easily, pliant underneath Michael’s touch. Michael just wants to kiss him, so he does. Luke’s cock brushes against hip, and he cries out into Michael’s mouth, but he doesn’t come.

“Fuck me,” whispers Michael like a sin against Luke’s lips.

Luke only kisses him harder. He is trembling so much, on the edge of need and drowning in want, that he is almost paralyzed with the desire to do just that. Michael breaks the kiss. He flips over on his back, and he takes one of the condoms Luke laid out earlier from its wrapper. He reaches for Luke’s cock, hard and rigid, and Luke cries out again when Michael’s fingers touch him. He bites down hard on his bottom lip, almost drawing blood, so that he has something else to focus on other than the feel of Michael’s hand sliding a condom down his cock. He is so near orgasm that it’s only by sheer willpower alone that he doesn’t come at the first contact of fingers against him.

Michael lies back on the bed, legs spread wide like an invitation. Luke crawls between them on shaky knees. He grabs a pillow and shoves it underneath Michael’s back for a better angle. It is the first time, but it is like they’ve done this dance a thousand times before. Michael’s wet and loose from Luke’s tongue. It only takes a squirt or two more of lube and a quick press of Luke’s fingers to get him properly ready. Then Luke’s lining himself up at Michael’s entrance, and he thinks that he could do this for the rest of eternity, and he pushes in. Michael goes tense around him until he forces himself to relax. Luke doesn’t stop, steady and forward, until he’s pressed flush against Michael, unable to go any farther.

Luke halts for a moment, and time stands still between them. Michael’s cock is starting to harden again at the stimulation or maybe just from intimacy that is rich between them. Luke reaches for Michael’s hand, and when he finds it, he holds it tight like it’s the only thing anchoring him to the ground right now. He leans forward to capture Michael’s lips in a kiss. He counts to ten before he pulls out and pushes in again. Michael cries out in his mouth.

It doesn’t take long for Luke to reach the edge of his orgasm. Michael is tight around him, and there is no holding back any longer. He’d given anything to make this last forever, but it doesn’t. So he does the only thing he can really think to do. He wraps free hand around Michael’s cock to work him to his second orgasm of the night. Michael grunts, wincing at the overstimulation, at the sensitivity of his cock, but he bucks into Luke’s hand nonetheless. He comes after a couple of strokes, a desperately overwhelmed noise ripping from his throat. Luke thrusts once then twice more then comes, too.

His knees can’t hold his weight anymore. He falls forward again, face pressed into Michael’s shoulder. They breathe together. Luke feels like an untethered balloon floating up into orbit. His chest is too small for the warm bubble building up in it, and it’s all so much. Tears slip from his eyes that are clenched shut, and he’d feel embarrassed about it if not for the uncontrollable urge to scream the words I love you into Michael’s skin until they’re embedded there, safe and reciprocated.

It’s not something that he should be thinking about right now, not in the aftermath of his orgasm with his cock softening but still buried inside Michael. Once the words enter his mind, they’re like a mantra, and there’s nothing that Luke can do to stop it. It’s in the beat of Michael’s heart underneath his ear. It’s in the steady rhythm of their breaths synchronized together. It’s in their hands still latched in death grips.

The words wash over him, and he forces himself up off Michael. He pulls out so that he can rid himself of the condom. He ties it and tosses it into the trash can next to his bed. They’re both sticking with sweat they’ve worked up together. Michael’s come stains the sheets and sticks to his skin, but Luke can’t bring himself to leave the bed. He can live with the mess they’ve made. He settles in the bed next to Michael and draws the other man to him. It’s Michael’s head on Luke’s shoulder, and neither of them move for a long time, drifting off to sleep together.

In the morning when Luke wakes up, the bed is empty, and Michael is gone.

Chapter Text

Luke washes all of his sheets first thing. They smell like Michael, and Michael isn’t here, and somewhere in the back of Luke’s mind, he knows Michael’s not coming back. The only sign that Michael was even here in the first place is the lone trail of Luke’s clothing cutting through the living room. Luke goes about picking them up as well. When the sheets are cleaned and put back on Luke’s bed like Michael never slept on them, Luke throws his clothes into the washer, too, even though his suit should be dry cleaned instead.

He takes a shower in the darkness of his bathroom as his clothes tumble through the dryer. The single window is covered by a red curtain. It splashes a bloody hue over the entire room, and it’s the only source of light. He doesn’t bother with the fixtures above the sink. He doesn’t want to see the remnants of the passion he shared with Michael marked across his body, the finger-shaped bruises on his hips, the bites along his neck. So he washes his body without looking, and he puts on a long-sleeved shirt when he’s done.

He spends all day Sunday alternating between cleaning his house and sitting dejectedly in front of a blank television. The words I love you ring loud in his head. In the morning light, he’s glad he never said them. He’s not sure how he could have handled letting his heart travel halfway across the world without him. He’s barely handling himself here now.

Ashton calls a couple of times like he always does when he is traveling, but Luke ignores him. Ashton is with Michael, squandered away on some layover for the connecting flights, and Luke can’t bring himself to talk to Ashton when he knows Ashton is going to ask about the man in his bed yesterday, happily oblivious to Michael’s identity. He doesn’t want to lie to Ashton, doesn’t want to tell him that it was a one and done kind of thing, because if Luke is being completely honest with himself—and the bottle of Jack he pulls out around six that evening allows him such brutal honesty—he wishes Michael were right here with him still.

The whiskey goes down smoothly, and Luke barrels through half a bottle before he collapses face-down on the couch. There’s a haze of alcohol clouding his mind, and he tries to think about the wonderful part of his life pre-Michael. He wants to go back there. Because his heart hurts in his chest now in the absence of Michael. It’s hard to breathe, nose squashed against the couch cushion, and the ghosts Michael left behind are closing in on Luke, haunting him like a sacrificial burial ground.

He sleeps on the couch. The entire house is quiet, empty in the spaces that Michael occupied twenty-four hours ago. Luke wakes to the sound of his cell phone ringing from the laundry room where he’d left his mobile device on top of the washing machine after turning out the pockets of his trousers. It’s the first alert of the morning. The car is on its way to Luke’s home.

He should shower. He smells like whiskey, and he’s got a hangover, and a good shower is a good remedy for both maladies. He lies on the couch for a few minutes feeling sorry for himself and missing Michael more than he has a right to. It’s not until his phone beeps a second time to tell him that the car is here that he finally drags himself off the couch. He takes the quickest shower of his entire life, in and out in under three minutes. He dresses in the darkness of his bedroom, unwilling to look at the empty bed.

The taxi driver isn’t in a talkative mood. There is soft jazz playing at a soothing volume. It almost lulls Luke back to sleep. He rests with his head leaning against the window and watches as the city passes him by. He tries not to see Michael, but he fails. Michael is alive here in the heart of the city that Luke calls home, even when Michael is physically halfway around the world. Luke closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to see Michael, but he’s there, too, grinning devilishly behind Luke’s eyelids.

Luke wants to scream. He wants to yell and to thrash around until the taxi driver slams on the brakes and takes him directly to the hospital where maybe somebody will administer enough drugs to knock him out, to erase the memories of Michael shadowing his mind. He doesn’t. He keeps his eyes open and focuses on the tan fabric of the headrest before him. He lets the jazz music wash over him until he is nothing more than a cacophony of rhythms and saxophones and trumpets.

The cab stops in front of the station. Luke climbs out, keeping his head down so that he doesn’t have to look at the city where everything is still distorted by Michael. Luke has spent the past four years tagging along with Ashton, occupying as much of his time as possible with Ashton and his friends so that he isn’t left alone to his demons. Michael is alive and vibrant here, and Luke’s old foes stand at the top of the skyscrapers around him and breathe down his neck. He feels miniscule standing before them, but he’d rather run head-first right back into their den than face the ghosts of Michael right now.

He blows through the entrance of the station, and he makes a bee line for the elevators. They open after a moment. Calum is there like he has been waiting on Luke, which the bastard probably is. Luke considers the stairs for a moment. The studio is only on the sixth floor, so it wouldn’t be too inconvenient to traipse up the stairwell.

But he is a man with manners. He pushes aside that thought as he steps into the elevator with Calum. Another worker starts to enter the elevator, but Calum moves forward to block the man with a disarming grin. He presses the button on the elevator to close the doors on just the two of them then he pushes the one for their floor.

“Ashton says you’ve been avoiding him.”

“I saw him Saturday.”

Calum snorts, and he raises his eyebrows like Ashton does whenever he is judging Luke’s catastrophic life choices. Now, it is Calum doing it like he has got any right at all, like he hasn’t spent the past few years trailing after Ashton head-over-heels in love with him but saying nothing of the sort. Luke wants to be mean—wants to devastate any credibility Calum thinks he has—by pointing all of this out. He won’t say a word, though, because Calum is one of his most favorite friends, and Calum is really the only person Luke has left in the city, and maybe, just maybe, Calum actually has a reason to judge him this time. Not that he’ll admit this to Calum, either.

“You’ve been awful secretive lately,” comments Calum as the elevator starts to ascend the floors. He doesn’t look at Luke as he speaks. Instead, he keeps his eyes locked on the changing numbers above the button panel. “Ever since your dinner with Ashton.”

There is a thinly veiled accusation in his voice. Luke hears it loud and clear, even as the elevator dings. Neither he nor Calum move toward the exit. A few people hover uncertainly on the landing, obviously in need of the elevator but unwilling to interrupt the tension that’s risen between Calum and Luke.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” mutters Luke, glancing toward the strangers. This isn’t a conversation he wants to have with Calum, especially not in front of an audience. He’s got a show to do in a matter of minutes, so whatever it is that Calum wants to say, he’s got to say it now.

 Calum sighs, and he looks at Luke, saying, “The truth, for a start.”

Luke winces, guilt building up in his chest. He feels a spike of unfair hatred toward Calum for jabbing at his vulnerable defenses. Calum is just like Ashton, and those two are really the only people in the entire world that Luke relies upon so much. It’s scary, this condition in which he lives in the world post-Rena. Ashton has done so much for him over the past four years, and so has Calum, that Luke sometimes forgets that he owes these people so much. He takes them for granted.

He opens his mouth, ready to give Calum some type of excuse for why he’s been ignoring them, but he has horrible timing. Casey sticks his head out of the studio and calls Luke’s name. The show is due to start in under sixty seconds. Luke yells back that he’ll be there in time, eyes on Calum. He doesn’t move from the elevator, still intent to make up for being a bad friend.

But maybe it’s already too late for that.

“You don’t want to keep your viewers waiting,” says Calum, shaking his head. He bites his bottom lip, and he looks every bit as done with Luke as someone could possibly be. Luke gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, but before he can speak, Calum is still talking. “I swear, it’s like you care more about them than any of us.”

It hurts, and Calum knows it does. Luke staggers back against the shove of the words. He wants to tell Calum that he is wrong—that Ashton is his best friend in the entire world and that Calum is his rock whenever he is all alone in this big city and that his viewers are nothing compared to his friends. He opens his mouth to say so, but Calum is already long gone, walking down the corridor to the studio in long strides like he can’t possibly stand to be near Luke any longer.

The elevator doors start to close, but one of the people waiting to get on the lift stops it at the last second. The doors separate once more. The man climbs into the lift, shooting Luke an annoyed glare. Others start to pile into the elevator as well now that Calum is gone and Luke is not doing anything other than stare after him. The first man reaches around Luke to press one of the buttons on the panel. His arm brushes against Luke’s, and it’s this contact that snaps him out of his stupor.

He stumbles out of the elevator. The clock above the studio door counts down from eighteen, and he needs to be in his chair before it hits zero. Numbness settles over his body as he walks down the corridor on autopilot. Calum’s words echo in his mind: it’s like you care more about them than any of us, and Luke’s not sure he’s done anything lately to prove otherwise.

Liam is there front and center between cameras two and three when Luke walks in. He is talking to Calum, but he glances over his shoulder at Luke’s entrance, an exasperated though unsurprised expression on his face. Luke is so lost to his own thoughts, to the mantra of Calum’s words, that he continues to the presenter’s chair without calling out any excuse for his tardiness like he usually would. He can feel Liam’s gaze following him.

Emsie is already set up on the desk next to his name tag, and all Luke can think about is that night in Ashton’s upstairs guest room when Michael shoved him up against the wall and kissed him for the first time. Luke can’t take the reminder, not so soon after Michael’s departure. After his disappearance from Luke’s bed in the middle of the night without so much as a kiss goodbye. As a promise for a future for them. As a promise that he was coming back. 

Luke isn’t naïve. He knows Michael is not coming back—to him, at least. It’ll be awkward for a few weeks until he finally forgets what Michael tastes like, what he looks like curled up in his bed in the serene darkness of early morning, what he feels like pressed against Luke with their cocks hard between them. It’ll take time for Luke to reprogram his brain to hate Michael again, because that’s what he has to do. He is sure that’s the only way he’ll ever be able to handle Michael again.

Luke can’t take staring at the crystal penguin this morning. His chest feels too small for his lungs to properly expand, so he takes short, rapid breaths. The countdown clock above the camera passes three and keeps going. Luke snatches Emsie off the desk and drops him into the drawer with a loud clank, careless of whether or not he has broken the tiny, precious figurine. The clock hits zero. The lights change. The music starts, and Luke barely remembers to knock Emsie’s nametag facedown a fraction of a second before the cameras start to roll.

It’s not one of his best shows. He knows it, and so does Casey and Miranda and everybody else in the studio, and probably everybody watching it at home do, too. Luke sees Michael everywhere he looks in the studio. Michael is in the empty chair reserved for guests on the other side of Miranda, sitting there as a ghost of the man he was on Friday. He’s in the space next to Calum, standing arms crossed, drowning in Luke’s clothes, with his eyes boring into Luke’s. It’s all too much for Luke to think about, but Michael’s there in his mind, and he’s not going away.

It’s hard to concentrate on his job when he’s doing him damndest to keep his thoughts off Michael, wondering what Michael is doing in this moment in time and whether or not Michael is thinking about him, too. They break for an extended commercial shortly after the eight o’clock hour. Liam starts to make his way toward Luke, but Luke has no interest in discussing why he’s so off this morning. He high-tails it out of the studio, cutting a path around camera one and ducking into the men’s room at the first chance he gets.

He locks the door behind him, though this is a public restroom with two stalls and a wall of urinals. Nobody is in here now, and if somebody does need a toilet, there is another restroom around the next corner. He leans up against the door, sliding down it until he is sitting on the cold floor. He rests his elbows on his knees, and he leans his head against the wood at his back. He stares up at the ceiling. He hasn’t felt this out of control in a long time, not since Rena’s funeral at least. He thinks he may have sat on a dirty bathroom floor then, too.

His cell phone vibrates in his pocket. It’s got to be Calum telling him to get his ass back into the studio before the cameras start rolling again, because it’s too eerie for it not to be him. Luke lets it alone as it finishes. He has a couple of minutes before he is expected back in the presenter’s chair. He has no desire to sit somewhere vulnerable to Liam’s chastisement for the horrible performance he has put on so far this morning.

He holds out for another half of a minute before he finally pulls his phone from his pocket. He flips it over in his hand so that he can see the screen, expecting Calum’s face to pop up. It’s not Calum. Luke thinks about Calum’s words in the elevator and realizes that he should have never thought it might be him in the first place. Calum is good at holding grudges, especially whenever Luke is being a complete ass.

It’s Ashton instead, and it’s even worse than anything Calum could’ve texted him. Luke’s breath catches in his throat. He stares at the screen, his stomach churning uncomfortably. His phone is locked, so he can only see the caption that reads In case you don’t remember what your best friend looks like. He grimaces at the words, because they’re so similar to what Calum has already accused him of this morning—of Luke caring more about viewers than his own friends—that he feels a thousand times more guilty for not making more of an attempt to hang out with Ashton during his latest break.

Luke unlocks his phone to see Ashton has sent him a picture of a beautiful Australian coastline. Ashton’s grinning face is front and center, golden in the bright sunlight. He is the intended focus of the picture, but Luke’s attention is drawn elsewhere. In the corner, a little ways behind Ashton, there is Michael halfway turned toward the camera, a peaceful expression on his face like it doesn’t bother him at all that he snuck out of Luke’s bed twenty-four hours ago.

It hits Luke like a freight train barreling down the tracks at sixty miles per hour. His hand goes slack, and his phone clatters noisily to the floor. He’s having trouble breathing again, but this time it’s because he is fairly certain his brain has prioritized oxygen far below the wellbeing of his shattering heart. Michael doesn’t care. It’s plain and simple right here for him to see in Ashton’s picture message. Michael did what he always does—he took what he wanted and left destruction in his path—and he’s got no use in Luke anymore, not even enough left in him to appear even slightly torn up over how easily they had separated.

“Camera rolls in sixty, Luke. You’d better be there, or I swear I’ll use the emergency fire axe to break this door down!” comes Casey’s muffled voice from the hallway, just on the other side of the wall.

Luke’s mind is cluttered with Michael, but he has the passing thought that it should be Calum on the other side of this door, threatening to beat down the door regardless of whether Luke wants him to or not. It should be Calum elbowing his way into Luke’s most private thoughts, forcing Luke to show him the picture message and to tell him all about why this odd, seemingly insignificant thing is enough to have him cowering on the floor of the men’s room.

It’s not. It’s Casey saying his piece and walking away from the door, trusting Luke to be a responsible adult and pull himself together all on his own. Luke sits for a little while longer listening to the footfalls on the other side of the door of people going about their days without any care in the world that Luke is falling apart. He feels so sorry for himself, pitifully left to his own thoughts.

When forty of the allotted sixty seconds have passed, Luke makes the monumental effort to stand up from the dirty floor. He strolls over to the sink and shoves his hands beneath the tap, washing away the grime with the bulk soap that slips between his fingers and swirls down the drain. He dries his hands on the legs of his trousers instead of using the hand dryer provided.

He’s back in the presenter’s chair with three seconds to space. Casey does the lead-in, because it’s obvious that Luke shouldn’t be trusted with the reins right now. Luke consciously thinks he should care that his coworker is outshining him, that he’s looking bad in front of the viewers he’s desperate to please, but he doesn’t. He can’t bring himself to worry about anything other than the tranquil expression on Michael’s face halfway around the world, bright and shining in the Australian sun, and how vastly different the emptiness in his chest feels.

The cameras stop after another forty-five minutes when the ninth hour of the day commences. Luke vacates his chair for Nick before the man has even made it into the studio. He considers calling off the rest of the day and returning home to wallow in self-pity like he got to do yesterday. He makes it as far as the elevator before Liam hollers his name.

“Join me in my office.”

It’s a command that Luke can’t refuse, no matter how much he’d rather high-tail it out of the station right now. They climb into the elevator together. Liam presses the button for his floor, and the doors close on them and three other people who are also going up. Luke doesn’t like the silence of the lift as they ascend the floors, so he asks about Liam’s wife.

“How are things at home?”

“Fine. We’re all still adjusting.”

 “You know, nobody’d blame you if you needed more time off. Calum’s done a pretty good job of keeping this place running.”

“I flipped on the television every morning expecting to see that the two of you had burned it down,” responds Liam with a half-grin. “Funny thing to me, though, that neither you nor Calum have acknowledge your own contributions in my absence. Calum gave me the impression it was all on you.”

Luke laughs. The entire idea that he has ran this place for the past week is preposterous. Sure, he’s done his part of the responsibilities Liam had left him, but it really has been Calum who has made sure the station has been running smoothly. Luke only covered the meetings and the paperwork for Liam, but Calum has the one who’s done all of the legwork, calling people into work and making sure there were guests on each of the shows, except the last one, of course, but Luke’s heart hurts at the reminder, so he pushes that thought aside.

He brags on Calum to Liam instead as the elevator arrives on the correct floor and they get off it. Liam hums in his throat like he only halfway believes Luke. He’s kind about it, but he, out everybody, knows how impossible his job is to do alongside the jobs that Calum and Luke do as well. It’s the reason they’d split it in the first place.

The view from Liam’s office is just as beautiful as always. Outside, snow is beginning to reblanket the scenery, and Luke just knows he’ll have to salt his front walk when he gets home or else he’ll probably end up busting his ass against the concrete. He thinks of Ashton’s picture, and he wonders how two worlds can exist at once, how it can be three below freezing and snowing here in the city but sunny and fifty on the Australian coast. He thinks that maybe that’s just life. He’s here in the city that he loves haunted by the ghosts of Michael, and at the same time, Michael himself is halfway across the world liberated of Luke.

“I spoke with Ed at our parent station, and he was very impressed with your fan-engagement,” says Liam the moment they’re seated on either side of his desk. He has never been one to beat around the bush. “The charity auction really put you on the map.”

He stops speaking for a moment, head cocked to the side as he considers Luke before him. Luke thinks that maybe he should say something, but he doesn’t know the protocol here. Their parent station is known across the entire country, even the world. It’s really something to be told that he’s been noticed by the producer of such a large station, but he has his manners, and he’s not about to make an incompetent fool of himself in front of Liam gushing about how important a recognition makes him feel.

The truth is that his mind is too preoccupied with thoughts of Michael for him to truly appreciate the weight of Liam’s news. He can’t help but dwell on the figure of him in the background of Ashton’s picture, so happy and fine when Luke is still struggling to breathe, his chest in knots. Maybe if it weren’t for these thoughts running rampant through Luke’s mind, uninhibited, he might have been prepared for the next words to fall from Liam’s mouth.

“He wants to offer you a job.”

“What?” demands Luke, mind clear of thoughts of Michael for the first time in twenty-four hours. Michael’s face disintegrates in his mind as he tries to comprehend what Liam’s just said to him. He stares blankly at Liam.

“I said Ed wants to offer you a job,” repeats Liam with a chuckle. His laugh dries pretty quickly, though. A serious expression settles on his face, all tight lines across his forehead. “There’s an opening for the seven o’clock position. It’s better hours, better pay, and it would start next month.”

Luke gawks at him, listening to what he’s saying but not quite comprehending it. Liam can’t be saying what Luke thinks he is. He can’t be offering Luke a promotion that’s as close to his dream job as possible. One with more normal hours that won’t have him waking up before the ass crack of dawn, and one with even better wages than what he’s getting now, and one with a larger audience. It’s a lot to be offered. It’s a lot to consider.

“Are you serious?”

Liam nods somberly, like he’s trapped between a rock and a hard place, unsure whether to congratulate Luke on such an offer or to try to talk him out of it so that this station doesn’t have to search for a replacement. Luke’s transition to his current job had been rocky and only really recently started to improve after the whole charity auction. It would be even more difficult to shake things up again, so soon after the ground started to steady beneath Luke’s feet.

In the end, Liam merely says, voice somber like he knows it might be a deal-breaker, “But you realize you’d have to relocate.”

Luke nods out of instinct, because of course that’s obvious, but then he freezes as he realizes what exactly Liam means. Luke loves this city. It’s where he’s built his home and where he’s always planned to live out the rest of his days. But the city is unforgiving. It took Rena from him, and it lets Michael haunt him, and the truth is Luke’s not sure how much more he can take from this damn city before he’s forced to give up himself, too.

“Yeah—yeah, I understand.”

Liam sighs, eyeing Luke critically, but he soon gets down to business like the proper boss he is. He says, “Ed will be calling you tomorrow via video conference. He had some meetings today, but I assured him you would be free in the afternoon. It’ll give you some time to think it all over, and… whatever you decide, we’ll work with.”

“That’s it?” asks Luke, trying for humor in an attempt to hide the inner-breakdown he’s experiencing. “Some other station calls for me, and you’re giving me the boot like yesterday’s old trash.”

“You are yesterday’s old trash,” responds Liam. He chuckles like he knows exactly why Luke’s saying what he is. He plays along like the good boss he is. His eyes flicker down to rest on Luke’s trembling hands, folded neatly in his lap, and he says nothing about them. “Now get out of here. I need to look for your replacement. The top requirement will definitely be punctuality—I’ve learned my lesson.”

“Hey, have I been late?” demands Luke. Liam’s grinning, so he’s probably just joking about the replacement. He’s one of the ones who went to bat to get Luke this job. “Like really, truly, missed the cameras late?”

“Last week when we ran ten minutes of commercials at the beginning of the broadcast,” says Liam, his eyebrows raised so high on his head that Luke’s afraid they’re going to become lost in his hair.

“It was only five minutes—but, all right. Point proven.”

It’s not often he bows his head and takes anything, even from his boss, but Michael’s face flashes into his mind, and he’s suddenly eager to get out of Liam’s office so that he can lose himself and all thoughts of Michael to the workload waiting on him. His mind is a traitorous beast, though. He thinks of Michael curled up in his bed and how he almost couldn’t bring himself to leave Michael. His heart aches in his chest, his stomach churning. He feels like he might vomit right here in Liam’s office all over the nice carpeted floor.

He starts to stand, but the memories of Michael so content in his bed are too powerful. They almost bring him to his knees, trembling and helpless before their terror. He catches himself at the last possible second and falls back to his seat instead. Michael’s face is there at the front Luke’s mind, and he shakes his head to rid himself of the ghost, but it’s no use. Michael isn’t going away.

“Luke—Luke?”

A hand grips Luke’s shoulder, and it’s the touch alone that snaps Luke out of his Michael-induced psychosis. Liam is there before him, squatted down on one knee so that he has to look up at Luke. Concern is etched across his face, his eyes wide and the skin crinkled between them. He is looking at Luke like he is afraid Luke is half-dead in front of him.

“Maybe you should take the rest of the day off.”

Luke blinks a few times, trying to focus on Liam before him. It’s an impossible endeavor with Michael still lingering along the edge of his mind. He feels cold all over, like he’s plunged head-first into the depths of the arctic waters. Liam hasn’t moved his hand from Luke’s shoulder. It’s the only thing grounding Luke to this moment in time.

He is so lost in the shambles of himself, haunted by Michael, that it takes him a couple of moments to comprehend Liam’s suggestion. He chokes on the breath in his lungs. The last thing he wants is to return to the very walls in which Michael lives most vividly. It may be true that Michael’s ghost lurks in the studio, but he saturates the very air of Luke’s home, spread out across every inch until there is nothing there except Michael glaring back at Luke.

“No,” Luke croaks, and it’s probably the most pathetic sound he’s ever made in his life. He clears his throat. It doesn’t help, not really, but he speaks anyway. “No, I’ve got a thousand things to do today.”

“That’ll all still be here tomorrow,” argues Liam. He may have been absent from the station for the past week, but he knows everything that’s going on. He always does. Luke’s scheduled workload is no exception. “Go home. You look like you could do with a good sleep—maybe even a good bottle of gin.”

Luke thinks about the bottle of Jack he’d used to drink himself to sleep last night. It hadn’t worked to erase the memories of Michael, who had pursued him even in his fitful sleep. It hadn’t washed away the words I love you from his mind, and it hadn’t even made him mean them any less. He’s a pathetic human being. He’s so hung up on a man who has spent the past four years hating him. All it took was two weeks to wear Luke down. Two weeks of falling in love with a man who would never love him back.

Eight years ago, he and Rena had a rule about against falling in love with the wrong man, against falling in love with somebody like Michael. Luke had forgotten that rule in the years since, too desperate to forget the sight of Rena broken and splayed out on the cracked linoleum of their shoebox apartment, eyes wide in death and blood cooling in pools around her body.

He wonders what Rena would say to him today. What she would think of Michael, of Luke’s absolute weakness for the man who has spent so long hating him. It hurts so much to think about her, almost an entire decade later, but what hurts even more is the picture he’s got stored in his messages on his phone of Michael, happy and content halfway across the world away from him.

“I can’t,” says Luke, and it sounds like the voice is coming from somebody else. He knows it’s him who’s talking. He can feel his mouth wrap around the words that fall unevenly from his lips. “I can’t go home—not with—not—I can’t go home.”

Liam’s expression morphs into something even worse than concern, and he’s never looked so sorry for somebody in all of the time Luke’s known him. It’s not a good look on him. In any other situation, Luke might tell him as much, but he’s having trouble remembering how to function as a proper human being. It’s hard grasping for reality when the ghost of Michael won’t let him go.

It’s like going back to that shoebox apartment for the first time after Rena’s funeral all over again when her blood still stained the floor and the air smelled like stale cigarettes. He had fallen to his knees then. He hadn’t gotten up, and Rena’s dead face was right there in his mind, and it wasn’t going away. It didn’t go away for four whole years, not until that night in the park when Ashton had all but manhandled him back to his apartment. It was the first night in a long time he hadn’t slept with Rena’s ghost.

Now, it’s Michael who is haunting him, and there’s no getting away.

Chapter Text

Luke spends all day thinking about the new job offer. He stays at the station much later than he usually does working on anything and everything that passes his desk in a hopeless attempt to rid his mind of Michael. It doesn’t work. Nothing does. Michael never leaves. Not really.

The sun is long gone down by the time he steps onto the street outside. He needs to be back at the station in less than twelve hours. It almost seems pointless to go home now. He does anyway.

He stops by a fast-food restaurant instead of hailing a cab, and he eats the greasy meal alone at a table for two. He reads the menu twenty-five times from start to finish so that his mind never has a chance to happen upon Michael. The couple sitting at the table across from him keep shooting him worries glances, but he ignores them. He’ll do whatever it takes for a piece of mind he hasn’t had since he woke up alone in bed yesterday morning.

When he’s finished with his meal, he gathers all of his trash and throws it away in the bin. He walks to the men’s room to wash his hands, and he doesn’t look in the mirror to see how pathetic he must look to all the strangers in the restaurant. He doesn’t want to see the marks of Michael still lingering in the fading stains on his neck. He doesn’t need the reminders, anyway. He’s doing a fine job of remembering Michael without them.

Outside in the cool February night, he stands immobile on the sidewalk for a long time counting the cars that go past. He makes it to six hundred fifty-eight before the cold finally gets to him. He hails a cab.

His house is dark when he gets home. That is only to be expected, because he has nobody waiting on him. He lets himself inside. The heat has been on all day, but he still feels cold even as he slips out of his winter attire. He treks through the house without turning on any lights, letting the dark outline of furniture guide his way to the couch. The bottle of Jack is still there, partially drunk, on the coffee table. He strips down to his undershirt and his boxers. He grabs the bottle as he collapses onto the couch cushion.

Michael slips up on him again, his face right there in the darkness. Luke throws back the first gulp of the whiskey and then the second, and he doesn’t stop until there’s nothing left in the bottle. He drops it to the floor. He sits there on the couch, alcohol strumming through his veins, and he can’t take his eyes off Michael.

And some point hours later, he falls asleep still sitting propped up.

He wakes to the sound of his phone. The car is on its way. He’s got a crick in his neck, and he’s still so cold. He drags himself up off the couch then to the shower, turning it full blast at the hottest temperature he can. It burns across his chilled skin, but it’s still not enough to warm him up. He stays under the spray as his skin turns bright red.

Michael is still there.

Luke is dressed and out the door by the second time his phone rings, too unwilling to remain any longer with nothing but a ghost as company. He stares at the window instead of the city as the cab takes him to the station. When it pulls up out front, he crawls out of it and keeps his head down so that he doesn’t accidently glimpse Michael in the lights of the city still lit up before dawn.

In the elevator, his phone rings in his pocket. It’s Ashton, no doubt on one of his breaks, but Luke doesn’t answer. He rejects the call and turns off his cell, slipping it back into his jacket. The studio is quiet so early in the morning, people hiding yawns behind the cameras that have yet to roll. Luke slips inside, going around the perimeter to his chair so that he doesn’t have to make small talk to his coworkers.

Neither Casey nor Miranda are there yet, but when they finally show up a couple of minutes later, together, they stand just before their chairs for a moment to stare at him. He nods to each of them in turn then drops his head to read the papers on his desk that he never bothers with. He doesn’t look away from the papers, but he can see the empty space on his desk where Emsie the penguin should be.

The countdown clock above the camera reaches zero, and Luke doesn’t reach for the penguin.

He has a meeting with Ed over a webcam directly after filming has wrapped. He heads straight for it as soon as the lights switch in the studio. He probably looks like hell warmed over, but he doesn’t bother with a mirror to make sure. It’s hard to look himself in the eye when he’s still carrying Michael around with him.

Ed is handsome in the grainy picture of the webcam. Luke has seen him on the television before, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. He has wild red hair, clear blue eyes, and a tangle of tattoos all down his arms. He’d been criticized early in his career, Luke remembers, for the glorious artwork, but nobody talks about them anymore. It’s hard to talk trash about a man who built a media empire through nothing but sweat and blood.

Ed takes one look at Luke and winces.

“I spoke with Liam this morning, and he informed me you were not feeling well,” says Ed first thing, not bothering with the strict guidelines interviews call for. Luke must look really pathetic, even to this stranger. “If you aren’t up for this now, we can reschedule for Thursday.”

Luke shakes his head. Thursday seems like eons away. He’d rather go ahead and get this over with. He feels like a fraud. He’s not sick, no matter what Liam may have told Ed. His mind is jumbled, and he can’t really make sense of it beyond the white-hot pain that is Michael’s absence—that is Michael’s smiling face on the coastline of Australia. But Luke isn’t sick.

“No, sir. I’m ready and willing now, if you would.”

“I like your spirit,” says Ed. He politely tells Luke he doesn’t have to bother with formalities—that’s not how Ed likes to do things—and the rest of the interview passes without a hitch.

It’s easy talking to Ed. He doesn’t pry into Luke’s personal life, and he doesn’t care about anything beyond the workplace, not now at least while they’re still testing the waters between them. Ed asks easy questions. Luke tells a couple of jokes that make Ed chuckle, and Ed covers his mouth with his hand like he hadn’t meant to laugh in the first place. Luke thinks he can do this. He thinks he can work for a man like Ed. Luke, therefore, is not altogether caught off-guard when the interview comes to an end, but Ed has one final thing to say.

“The job’s yours if you want it.”

Luke thinks about this city and about Michael and everything in between. He thinks about the appeal of a new place, of new people. Ed is still talking, telling him that he doesn’t have to make a decision right this moment and that he can take a few days to really think it over, but Luke doesn’t need any more time. He has spent the last eight years in a tainted city. He can’t take it any longer.

“When can I start?”

Ed stops speaking, stunned into silence. He gazes at Luke for a long moment, really studies him like he’s seeing more to him than most people do. It reminds Luke of Ashton, and his heart lurches in his chest as he realizes that he has just committed himself to saying goodbye to his best friend. But he can’t turn back. Not when Michael so relentlessly haunts him.

“We’ll work out all the details, but sometime next month, probably. Maybe sooner,” Ed says finally. He pauses like he has to take the time to decide whether to say anything else. “A broken heart is a funny thing. It makes a person go a little crazy. It has the power to distort reality—don’t forget that.”

Luke nods, unsure of what to say. That’s all right, though, because Ed doesn’t expect anything from him. He bids Luke farewell with a pitying twist to his lips, and the screen goes blank. Luke is left completely alone in the room. The silence is almost suffocating. He draws in a deep lungful of oxygen and lets it out slowly, his eyes dropping closed.

Michael is still there.

Luke sits alone in the room for a little longer until he can’t take the silence anymore. He gets up to leave, and Michael is there with him, still, but he puts on a brave face anyway. When he runs into Liam later that day, Liam has already spoken with Ed. He offers Luke a handshake with a proud smile, and that’s that. Luke wonders if Ed and Liam got off subject while discussing him. He doesn’t ask. He’s not sure he’d want to know the answer anyway.

He works late again, and he’s back to the office on time the next day. He repeats this process for the entire week and, after drinking his way through the weekend, the next after that. It’s the hardest he has worked since he was an intern struggling to make in the media industry. He barely sleeps. When he does, it is only because he’s got at least half a bottle of alcohol coursing through his blood. He falls into a cycle he can’t get out of—an endless circle of work, drink, and sleep. He doesn’t see Calum outside of the studio, and he ignores Ashton’s phone calls, and he can’t stop seeing Michael everywhere.

Before he knows it, it’s Friday again. He’s spent the entirety of the past two weeks in a half-conscious state, living and breathing the entire time but unaware of anything except for how Michael looks conjured up by his own traitorous mind. He sits down in the presenter’s chair bright and early before Miranda and Casey arrive. The computer screen Casey uses to keep track of their online real-time feedback from their viewers is angled toward him. He can’t take another day of looking at the questions asking after Emsie the penguin’s absence, so he turns the computer monitor away.

Miranda arrives first, already having been at the station for an hour now, and Casey gets there before the cameras go up on them. If either of them notice the odd placement of the computer screen, they don’t comment on it. Luke is grateful, and he’s even happier that they don’t have a lot of time before the show to exchange small talk. He has seen the looks they’ve shot him all week, and he knows they’ve been talking about him, worried about how off he has been. They’ve been kind enough to leave him alone. He’s not sure how much longer he can expect such niceties.

The cameras start rolling, and the first half of the show progresses in the same manner that it has the entire week—that is with Luke putting on his bravest face and his two coworkers keeping the show going. He feels guilty, but he still sees Michael in the chair beside Miranda, and Michael is still there every time he closes his eyes. Luke is doing the best he can, considering.

They have a commercial break before they introduce their guest. Luke ducks into the men’s room to avoid having to talk to anybody during it. When he returns, the guest is standing off to the side talking to Liam and Calum with her back to Luke. He thinks he should know who she is—knows it’s somewhere in the notes that he’d stared at earlier before the show while trying to distract himself from Michael—but he can’t think of who it’s supposed to be to save his life.

The countdown clock hits zero, and Casey guides them right back into the show. The teleprompter runs their scripted segment at a steady pace, carefully using up all the time left until they welcome their guest. It’s Luke who normally does the honors, but he makes Miranda do it this once, telling the viewing audience that he likes to switch things up. Miranda knows the truth, that this is just another product of Luke’s odd mood, but she doesn’t call him on it. She jumps right into the introduction, and Luke tunes most of it out in favor of glancing down at the fast facts about their guest, the cheat sheet they all have placed in front of them on the off-chance the interview goes down the drain.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome the one and only Nia Lovelis.”

Luke’s head snaps up, and his entire world stops spinning. He feels all of the blood drain from his face. It’s like he has stepped through a portal in time. It’s eight years ago again, and it’s raining, and Luke is dressed in a cheap black suit and mismatched socks and scuffed loafers. There is a pearly white casket setting above an empty grave. He’s standing one side, and Nia Lovelis is on the other, somber in her mourning.

She was beautiful then, and she’s beautiful now, taking the seat next to Miranda. Her eyes are locked on Luke’s. He knows this isn’t accidental. He knows she knew what she was getting into—who she was going to be interviewed by. It’s there in the glint in her blue eyes, and it’s there in the way her top lip curls up, indecisive of whether to be glad to see such an old face or still angry about the blood soaking the time between them. She looks just exactly like she did that day eight years ago: dyed-hair and fierce and dressed to the nines in a black blazer and matching skirt. The only difference is that today her mascara sets perfectly on her lashes, not tangled with tears in dark streaks down her face.

Luke thinks he might vomit, faced with Nia. He wonders why the name never really registered with him. He has spent the better part of the past decade pretending like she doesn’t exist, pretending like he’s the only one who buried a part of himself on that rainy day. But here she is, living and breathing: Rena’s sister. And Luke can’t run away, not with every camera in the studio pointed to him. So he takes a breath and he grits his teeth together, and he pretends like Nia is just another unfamiliar guest.

“Nia, wel—uh—welcome to the show. We’re so glad you could join us this morning,” says Luke, and he tries hard to keep his voice from wavering, but he doesn’t know how good of a job he’s doing. It’s hard to hear over the blood pounding in his ears. “You’re out conquering the world of human rights. Tell us about your latest project.”

“Well, Luke, I’d like to start out by saying that I am extremely honored to be here this morning, speaking with you,” she says. She has a smile painted on her lips, and Luke knows that it’s not good for him. It’s not good at all. She isn’t sticking to the script. She isn’t looking at the camera, either. Instead, she’s holding Luke’s gaze, and she isn’t turning away. There’s a fire in her eyes that shoots tendrils of pain right through Luke’s heart. He can’t help but to think about how much she looks like Rena. “What the audience may not know is that you and I go way back, don’t we?”

She is still smiling, and Luke doesn’t really know how she is. His voice catches in his throat the first time he tries to speak. His mind is a jumbled mess running on the mantra of Rena, Rena, Rena.  He drops his gaze from Nia’s eyes to her hands. She has painted her fingernails bright red—the color of blood—and Luke remembers those very same hands curled into fists, pounding into his chest, leaving purple bruises in his skin that healed long before the stench of blood disappeared from the shoebox apartment.

“We, uh—yeah, we do, I suppose,” agrees Luke, speaking to her hands. He can’t stop thinking of her fingernails digging half-moon impression into her palms, hard enough to bring blood, as she watched the coroner zip up a black body bag on the floor of Luke’s apartment.

“My dear sister thought a lot of you,” she says right there for the entire city to hear

There is a gasp behind the cameras. Luke’s eyes snap up but not to her. He looks to Calum backstage, who is staring right back at Luke like he doesn’t even know the man before him. The truth is that Calum doesn’t know this part of Luke’s life—nobody does, not even Ashton—and Luke hasn’t spoken to Calum properly since the elevator incident, and he feels a spike of guilt run right through him at the betrayed expression lingering on Calum’s face.

“Eight years this November, right? Since she’s been dead?” continues Nia. She doesn’t wait for Luke to confirm. She knows the date as well as he does. It’s probably ingrained into her soul, too. “I vowed on that day I would do everything I could to reduce crimes against women. Because if that could happen to my little sister, it could happen to anyone.”

She doesn’t go into details of Rena’s death, and Luke is thankful. He is not sure he can sit through another retelling of that horrible, awful day that is permanently burned into his mind. Maybe she can’t either. Maybe stories like that belong right where they are: in the past, never to be dredged back up.

She talks about her work against domestic violence and other crimes committed against women, how her initial goal had been too narrow—that nobody, no matter the age or gender or lifestyle, deserved the atrocities committed against them—so she’d regrouped and refocused her efforts to benefit everybody she possibly could. Now, there’s an entire citywide effort toward human rights and the promotion of the standard of living across the board, and it’s all because some villainous man took the most precious woman from Nia’s life. 

It’s a cause Luke could get behind. He says as much as they wrap up the interview. Olivia works her magic behind the scenes and puts Nia’s organization’s contact information on the screen for the viewers at home. They’re out of time come half past nine o’clock. Luke’s never been so eager to sign off an interview. He stands up from the presenter’s chair to shake Nia’s hand as the cameras go down, and it’s the last thing the viewers see before everything goes black. The commercials begin for the transition between Luke’s and Nick’s shows.

Luke only has a precious few seconds to disappear out of the studio before Nia thinks to catch him. He gives it his best effort, snaking between camera one and the wall to the exit. He is halfway down the corridor to the elevator when he hears his name being called. It’s Nia. He spends a fraction of a second entertaining the idea of pretending like he doesn’t hear her shrieking his name and escaping into the stairwell instead.

He doesn’t. He stops and turns around, bringing himself face-to-face with Nia Lovelis for the first time in eight years.

“Surprised you’re still alive,” she says meanly. She stops in front of him. Her arms are crossed over her chest. She stands at her fullest height, and she’s nowhere near as tiny as her sister was so long ago. “You know, if it wasn’t for your show, I’d have started combing the cemeteries. You haven’t returned a single call in eight years.”

No, he hasn’t. It had hurt talking to Nia, thinking about Rena, in the first few days after Rena’s funeral. He hasn’t spoken to Nia since two weeks after the funeral when she’d stopped by to pick up the last of Rena’s artifacts that she wanted for herself. She’d been tearful, but Luke had already cried it all out of him. He’d been quiet in his somber state, letting her walk out of his life without saying a word. He couldn’t bring himself to really care.

He had spent a year or two or maybe three holed up in their old apartment, living off cheap alcohol and even cheaper takeout food, staring at the bloodstains that hadn’t washed out of the yellowed wallpaper until the walls themselves had started to close in on him. He got to where he couldn’t breathe, where the smell of stale cigarettes made him vomit instead of remind him of Rena. He’d gone to that fateful concert in the park, and he’d met Ashton, and he’d finally started putting himself back together, piece by piece.

“Luke, all those words I said to you—I’m sorry.”

Luke bites his lips together, because as much as he remembers all of the blood, he remembers those, too. He remembers how it might as well have been his fault, how he saw what was going on and didn’t stop it, how Nia had been the only one brave enough to tell him as much. How, even today, he doesn’t think she was wrong.

“I was mad. I was angry at the world, because she was gone, and I took it out on you, and I shouldn’t have. All that stuff I said to you—none of it was true. It wasn’t your fault.”

It’s definitely not what she said eight years ago when everything was still fresh, when the dirt had yet to settle over Rena’s grave. Nia had sounded much more sincere back then. Luke had an easier time believing her, too. Her words today sound rehearsed, like she has spent the time missing between them preparing herself for this very moment.

Luke thinks of Rena, and he thinks of that awful shoebox apartment, and he thinks there really are some things better left alone in the past.

So he nods curtly to her. He’s got nothing to say, really, to the woman who looks so much like Rena that it hurts. He turns on his heel and stalks to the elevator. It opens by a mere struck of luck when he reaches it. He steps inside before anybody else can. He presses the button for the ground floor and immediately afterwards pushes the one to close the doors. The last glimpse he gets before the doors shut together is Nia standing helpless, staring at him like it’s eight years ago again and he has just told her Rena is dead.

He isn’t alone in the elevator, but he doesn’t pay any of the other passengers any mind as he leans against the nearest wall and stares up at the ceiling. If he tries hard enough, he can picture Rena looking back down at him, all angelic-like, with a face full of disappointment. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t need to be judged by a woman who has been dead for nearly a decade.

“You look like you could do with some booze.”

Luke opens one eye, familiar with the voice but still needing to check twice just to make sure. His initial guess isn’t wrong. It is Louis Tomlinson who has braved the silence of the elevator. He looks just as handsome and just as expensive as he did two and a half weeks ago at the charity auction. He smiles kindly at Luke as if they’re old friends. He looks like the first rays of sunlight after a long and cold winter’s night. It makes Luke go weak at his knees in a way nothing has done for him over since the other night in bed with Michael. He has to grip the bar behind his back to remain upright. He struggles to find his voice.

“A quarter ‘til ten is a little too early for alcohol, isn’t it?”

Louis laughs, so carefree and weightless that Luke stands up straighter at the sound of it, desperate to soak it all up for himself. It is so far off from the emptiness inside Luke’s chest in the wake of Michael that he can’t help but to latch onto it. He drinks it in like a man starving for water.

“Not when it’s served with coffee,” says Louis without missing a beat. “I think I know just the place, if you’re interested.”

Luke hesitates. He shouldn’t be interested, Michael’s face flashing into his mind. It feels unfair, somehow, that he’s still so caught up on Michael. His first instinct is to say no and to just go straight home to wallow all day long in his pitiful state. But Louis’s face is open with hope in a way that Luke isn’t used to, and Luke doesn’t owe anything to Michael, not really.

He is going to be skipping out on the rest of work, but that was his intention after Nia anyway. He doesn’t want to field the questions that are bound to come his way. He is partially avoiding Calum, as well. He isn’t sure whether Calum even cares enough at this point to try to get a truth out of Luke anymore. He isn’t sure he wants to know if Calum doesn’t, so it is best if Luke puts as much distance as possible between them for now until he’s certain he can handle the cold, hard truth.

So Luke agrees to Louis’s proposition. He stops by the front desk to have the secretary there send a message to Liam that he’s going to work from home for the rest of the day. Then he and Louis are off on their way. Luke normally hails a cab outside the building, but Louis is one of those people who has his own personal car service. His vehicle is waiting on the curb just down the street from the station, so he leads Luke to it.

“Don’t look now, but there’s some paps across the street,” says Louis, leaning down to speak low in Luke’s ear.

It’s so intimate that it makes Luke shiver at the warm breath tickling his skin. He tries not to think of Michael, of how easily he himself could take Michael apart by doing the exact same thing, but he fails. Michael’s face flashes in his mind, and it’s only because Louis’s got his hand on the small of Luke’s back that Luke doesn’t trip over his own feet.

The driver gets out of the front seat of the black SUV to open the back door for them. Louis lets Luke climb in before him, and Luke sits on the far side and looks through the dark tinted windows at the men with cameras at the café across the street. They’re shameless in their endeavor, and it’s not something Luke’s unfamiliar with, but it’s odd at the same time to be in such a position without Ashton somewhere nearby.

Louis takes Luke to a fancy coffee shop in the heart of downtown, near one of the studio his family owns. The car pulls up right in front of the shop, and they’re inside before the car has a chance to drive off. Louis is a regular here, apparently. The workers call him by name, and they give Luke jealous glares every time they think Louis isn’t looking, and it only takes Luke about five minutes to realize exactly what he’d agreed to.

“Is this a date?” he asks, leaning across the table to invade Louis’s space so that he doesn’t have to scream it across the small dining area. He doesn’t want anybody else to overhear, not with the looks he has been getting. He tries not to think about how he’d once leaned over a table for Michael, too.

Louis smiles sheepishly, like it’d never been his intention to broach this subject. Or maybe not this soon into it, them without their coffees. It’s not like Luke hasn’t already entertained the idea that it might be a date, but, in his experience, men like Louis are never shy about what they want. Louis has yet to stake his claim.

“Was hoping to have some alcohol in you before I clarified that I was interested in dating you.”

“Think I’m that kind of man?” asks Luke, but he doesn’t feel offended. It’s impossible to when Louis is looking at him like that—all wide-eyed and nervous and hopeful. He thinks of Michael again, and how Michael has never been the type to ever show his nervousness, not when he went down on Luke the first time or even when he was laid bare before Luke, ass in the air and vulnerable.

“No, but I definitely am,” quips Louis, grinning.

Luke laughs. The waiter comes to their table then to bring their drinks. His name plate reads Jesse. He sets Louis’s drink down gently before him then all but throws Luke’s at him, and Luke thinks it’s amusing how passive aggressive this man is before him, like he views Luke as a superior just for commandeering Louis’s attention. In a completely vain way, Luke likes it. He feels important and wanted like he hasn’t felt in a long, long time. He certainly never felt that way with Michael, and maybe that was their problem. Maybe they were too caught up in hating each other that he’d mistaken their animosity for intimacy. 

“So, do I have a shot?” asks Louis after a beat. He speaks down into his coffee, but his eyes shoot up to meet Luke’s. He sounds uncertain, and it’s not pretty on him. It’s certainly not a look Luke ever expected from a man he once witnessed vomit all over the roots of a beautiful tree at the mayor’s residence.

Luke opens his mouth to answer. He thinks about Michael, about how the man still haunts him, about how the man is halfway across the world without a single care. His chest hurts. His lungs feel weak, like at any moment they could collapse under the memories of Michael and Luke’ll just choke on his own breath.

Louis reads the hesitation on Luke’s face. He reaches across the table, eyes full of concern and maybe a little pity. He places his hand on Luke’s, just a gentle, comforting touch, and that’s all it takes for Luke to crumble. Luke draws in a shaky breath. He feels trembly all over. He really wants a drink right now—a true one that will burn away all of the emotions welling up in his chest, all of the hurt Michael’s left him with—not just a dash of whiskey in his morning coffee.

“Hey, no hard feelings. I’m good for whatever you want. I don’t want to be an inconsiderate jackass or anything.”

Luke winces. It is true that his most vivid memory of Louis is of him vomiting all over the mayor’s prized bonsai tree, but that drunken bastard is a thousand miles away from this moment right here: from the man worrying after Luke’s broken heart. He thinks of meeting Louis at the auction dinner and praying that he wouldn’t win the auction. Now, he’s not so sure he wouldn’t have preferred Louis to win instead of Michael. It would have saved him a lot of heartache.

“No, you’re not,” says Luke softly, dropping his gaze to their hands on the table between them. “You’re not at all. I’m, uh—I’ve just, uh, come out of a rough relationship, I suppose you could say?”

“I assumed as much,” says Louis, squeezing Luke’s hand tightly like he wants to hug him, but they’re not close enough for that. “But, seriously, however you want me, I’ll be happy. No pressure. Your call.”

 “So if I wanted this to be a date?”

“I’d be delighted.”

“If I didn’t?”

“I’d be less delighted but fine with it all the same.”

Luke turns his hand over in Louis’s, their palms flush against each other. His chest is still in knots, and he still feels like he is liable to choke over his own breath any moment, but here with his hand in Louis’s, the ghost of Michael alive in his mind doesn’t feel nearly as daunting. He feels freer than he has since Michael left, and he wants to be selfish.

“I think I want this to be a date.”

Chapter Text

Luke has an expiration date. He spends all week thinking about it. He knows he should tell Louis, but he doesn’t quite want to. Louis takes him out to dinner every night, and he treats Luke like he can’t bear to lose him, and it’s nice. It’s so nice, and Luke thinks of Michael less and less by the passing day. He begins to think that he can survive this, that he can function without seeing Michael everywhere.

He begins to get hopeful.

Louis plans a nice weekend for the two of them, and Luke likes that he makes an effort to spoil him. He picks him up from the station on Friday afternoon. They go to Louis’s home on the upper side of the city. It’s much nicer than the house Luke owns, but Luke feels like he belongs anyhow. It is a penthouse in one of the taller buildings in the city, and he can see practically the whole city through the window.

They spend the entire weekend there at Louis’s. He orders in a fancy dinner from one of the five-star restaurants in town on Friday night and then again on Saturday and again on Sunday. It’s something that his name lets him do. The food is good every time. Luke tries not to think about how Michael would’ve gone to the store and cooked meals that would have rivaled them, probably even bettered them.

It’s nice spending time with Louis. They sit around and watch old movies, and they play board games when it’s too late of a night to sleep, and Luke curls right up against Louis in his expensive, plush bed, and he sleeps so, so good that he doesn’t want to ever leave it. So they don’t. Not on Saturday until it’s so late and they finally order dinner. Not on Sunday at all when Louis orders the food then caters it right to the bedroom.

Luke likes Louis, plain and simple. He’s surprised about how much he likes him, and it doesn’t really hit him until early Monday morning when his cell phone rings, and it’s the car being sent to his house. He is lying in bed with Louis, and his phone is on the bedside table, and Louis’s the one who leans over to pluck it up. He glances at the screen, because it’s hard not to as he hands it over.

“Tell them to call it back. I’ll send my car for you,” he murmurs into Luke’s ear, and they’ve not kissed yet, not properly, but Louis’s lips graze across Luke’s skin in the most intimate way.

“’S okay,” says Luke. “I’ll just have them reroute the car here.”

“Nonsense. I’ve got to go into work anyway. I’ll ride in with you.”

“At a quarter after five in the morning?”

“I’ll meet you for lunch,” says Louis.

It sounds like a plan for Luke. He’s so enjoyed this weekend that he doesn’t want to let it go. He hasn’t thought about Michael, not a lot at least. Michael isn’t alive in the walls of Louis’s penthouse, but he is at the station and at Luke’s home. Luke is scared to leave the sanctuary of Louis’s place. He’s terrified of Michael’s ghost, even two weeks after he last touched the man’s skin.

Louis feathers a final kiss just below Luke’s ear. They climb out of bed together. The penthouse has two bathrooms, and the hot water heater has a tank that is large enough to sustain the showers at the same time. Louis ushers Luke into the ensuite bath. The room is huge, and the shower is fancy. Luke stands underneath the spray for a long time. Louis has a wide array of fancy soaps. Luke chooses them at random, and he comes out of the shower feeling like a new man.

He doesn’t actually have any of his own clothes here. Louis has laid out his own clothes for Luke to wear. They’re expensive and obviously sophisticated, and they feel nice against Luke’s skin when he pulls them on. He stares at himself in the mirror when he is dressed. The gray sweatshirt is flattering in all the right ways on his body, and the trousers fit well around his hips. He thinks he might look better in Louis’s clothes than he does his own.

When Louis walks into the room, towel hung low around his hips and wet hair curling up around his neck, he whistles appreciatively. Luke glances over at him, and he’s grinning from ear-to-ear. He has a hungry look in his eyes. It makes Luke feel hot all over, desired. He lowers his head. His gaze drifts down Louis’s body, because it is easier to look at anything other than the desire in his eyes.

Louis is not like Michael, not at all. He doesn’t have fire-truck red hair or a piercing in his eyebrow or a dirty smirk whenever he speaks to Luke, and he doesn’t ever say anything to Luke that is less than nice. He is a perfect gentleman. A loving partner. He is everything Luke should be looking for, and Luke is happy with him. He is, really, but the thing is, he isn’t Michael.

“Is everything okay?” asks Louis, soft and sweet.

Luke’s gaze snaps up to meet Louis’s eyes. Luke pushes all thoughts of Michael out of his mind, forces himself to ignore the way Louis’s eyes don’t dance with endless mirth. He feels a spike of guilt right through his chest. Michael is a thousand of miles away, all the way on the other side of the fucking world, and Luke shouldn’t give a shit about him. Louis is here. He hasn’t left. Luke shouldn’t care about Michael.

“Yep. All’s good,” says Luke.

Even he can hear the flatness of his voice. Louis nods, accepting his answer, but he bites his lips together all the same, like he knows Luke is lying to him but also knows better than to chase the topic at such an early time of the morning. They’ve got to leave soon. Luke rushes around to finish getting ready. Louis dresses quickly and efficiently, and he doesn’t say a single thing about the way Luke can’t quite bring himself to look at him for too long at a time.

Louis’s car service is prompt, and Louis himself is a true gentleman, opening the door and holding it as he lets Luke inside the cab before him. They sit side-by-side. The windows are tinted. Luke watches the still-sleeping city around them as the driver takes them down the streets that lead to the station. Louis is pressed flush against Luke’s side. Luke has his hand lying in his lap, palm up. Louis reaches over and places his hand on top of it, giving it a squeeze.

Luke glances down at their hands together. He tries not to think about that last night in the restaurant with Michael when he had reached across the table for Michael’s hand, and he tries not to think about how Michael’s smile had looked, all soft in the candle light.

He forces himself to look up. It’s easier to forget about Michael when he is staring Louis straight in the eyes. Louis looks nice in the weak light of the early morning, golden in perfect two-second intervals from the glow of the street lights lining the sidewalks. Luke thinks he could get used to this. He could get used to having company on the sleepy car rides downtown early in the mornings, and he could get used to thinking that Louis looks nice—or he could, if he didn’t have an expiration date.

The car stops right in front of the building. Luke is on time, for once. He goes to crawl out, but Louis beats him to it, and he stands out on the sidewalk to help Luke out, too. Luke takes his hand. They stand there for a moment next to the car. The street isn’t busy at this time of a morning, and neither is the sidewalk.

Luke shivers in his heavy winter jacket. Louis steps closer to him and wraps his arms around Luke. He is less cold now, but the early morning air is still icy around them. The frigid air burns in his lungs, and it comes back out in white puffs whenever he exhales. He hates this time of year. He is mentally counting the days until the weather warms up before he realizes that it won’t matter as much in a few weeks when he is in a brand new city that is farther south and is, therefore, not prone to such brutal winters.

“I had a wonderful weekend with you,” murmurs Louis. He presses a kiss to Luke’s forehead. It’s a wet affair, Louis’s breath warm against Luke’s skin. “I’m sad to see it end.”

“Me too,” says Luke into Louis’s neck. Standing here with Louis, his face pressed into the crook of Louis’s shoulder, Luke feels safe from all of the bad things, even the errant thoughts in his head.

“I want to take you out tonight—on a proper date,” says Louis. He pushes Luke away from him a little so that they can look into each other’s eyes. Cold air rushes in the space between them. Nervousness tugs at the corners of Louis’s lips, and Luke is not sure why he is  propositioning him now. His confusion must show on his face, because Louis rushes to speak again. “I want that clichéd St. Valentine’s Day dinner with you. I’ve been thinking about it all weekend.”

St. Valentine’s Day. Luke had completely lost track of the dates during his stay at Louis’s. He had known the holiday was coming up. Of course, he had. It is February, after all, and the stores have been filled with heart-shaped candies since the day after Christmas. There is even been an obnoxious countdown clock posted in the studio to remind everybody of the upcoming lovers’ day. So, Luke has had plenty of opportunities to realize that today is Valentine’s Day. He has just not taken any of them. He hasn’t wanted to take any of them, not in the wake of Michael.

 “Roses, candles, wine, the whole shebang. I want that,” says Louis.

It takes Luke a moment to realize that he is still speaking. Luke gets a flash of Michael’s face across the table from him, candlelight splashed across his face. Luke’s chest knots up. He draws in a shaky breath. He squints his eyes shut and forces thoughts of Michael out of his mind.

“No candles,” he stutters out, looking at Louis once more. He winces at how rough his voice sounds and then does it again when Louis nods understandably without hesitation. Guilt churns in the pit of his stomach. He wonders what he has done to deserve a man like Louis, always taking but never pushing.

“No candles,” repeats Louis.

He leans forward to press his lips against Luke’s, smiling the entire way. Louis’s lips are chapped against Luke’s, but Luke doesn’t mind. He gives into the kiss as soon as it starts, and he goes weak at the knees at how sweetly Louis kisses him. It’s over within a couple of seconds, and Louis is leaning back again. Luke chases him until he can’t anymore. He falls back onto his heels, and he’s not sure when he went up on his toes in the first place. Louis is still smiling at him.

“I’ll be here when you get off work. Go wake up the city with that handsome face.”

Luke is reluctant to separate from Louis, but he knows he has to. He has a show to run. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he acknowledges that this is the beginning of the end for him at this station, and it excites him. He thinks about the first time he stepped foot into this place, how wide-eyed he’d been, tripping over his own feet in awe of everything. He’s still overwhelmed by this dream, sometimes, but he’s a seasoned veteran by now. He thinks of the job waiting for him at the parent station, and he wonders if he’ll ever feel the same wide-eyed excitement for that place.

He doubts it.

He may have arrived at the station on time, but he’ll still be considered late if he doesn’t head on up to the studio right now. He bids Louis a final farewell, leaning forward to capture the man’s lips in a final, brisk kiss, before turning on his heel and stalking toward the building. When he reaches the doors, he glances over his shoulder, and Louis is still there, standing next to his car, staring after Luke with a fond smile on his face. Luke’s chest fills with warmth. He raises his hand in a cheeky wave then disappears inside.

He has an expiration date, and he’ll tell Louis about it tonight.

The studio is abuzz with sleepy chatter. Everything is covered in red and pink and hearts, and it’s so festive in here that it makes Luke want to walk right back out. He tries not to think of Michael, but he does, because Michael might be across a fucking ocean, but he’s still has Luke’s heart. Luke really, really hates this holiday.

Luke steals along the wall to the presenter’s chair and plops down into it. Both Miranda and Casey are already here. They’re still setting up. Luke glances at the papers on the desk before him. They’ve got a typical show ahead of them, lead astray only by the St. Valentine’s holiday. The countdown clock above the camera reads one minute and eight seconds.

Casey reaches into the drawer between his and Luke’s seats. He pulls out the penguin crystal figurine Emsie. He starts to put it down in its usual spot next to Luke’s nameplate, its absence last week taken for granted. Luke’s heart leaps into his throat. It is like a mountaintop avalanche crashes over him. His blood runs cold. He reaches forward and grabs Casey’s wrist, stopping the man. Their hands hover above the surface of the desk. Emsie the penguin dangles from Casey’s fingers, and it gazes back at him, all in one piece and not broken at all like Luke might’ve thought it would be.

Luke wants to vomit. He swallows against the urge. He shakes his head, and he can’t look at the penguin anymore, so he squeezes his eyes shuts. It’s a mistake. He sees Michael’s face right there at the back of his eyelids, and he just wants to cry, because he hasn’t seen Michael this vividly the entire weekend, and he doesn’t want to now, either. 

When he opens his eyes, Casey is staring wide-eyed at him, face full of confused pity. So is Miranda when Luke’s gaze flashes to her. He slowly lets go of Casey’s wrist, loosens one finger at a time until he’s completely let go. His hand falls weightless to the table. He barely notices the impact of the drop, though it vibrates up his arm. He feels a thousand miles away from the studio, like he’s on that Australian beach from Ashton’s picture with Michael’s smiling face bright and happy before Luke’s own despair.

There is a movement out of the corner of his eye, and he looks that way, and it is Calum, who is staring at him like Miranda and Casey are—like he is afraid Luke might fall apart at any second. Or, rather, that he is watching Luke fall apart right before his very eyes in this moment in time. It isn’t a pretty look on Calum. Luke hasn’t spoken to Calum since last week, not since the elevator, and he doesn’t want to talk to him now. Doesn’t want to answer any questions of his psyche, because there isn’t a doubt in Luke’s mind that Calum wants to ask them. Perhaps the only reason he hasn’t yet broached the subject is because things are so broken between them still.

Luke doesn’t like it at all. Calum is his rock. He is his best friend. He is the only person Luke has left in this city when the others jet off to be all beautiful in exotic locations Luke will never set foot in himself. But Luke doesn’t have Calum this time. Not really. He hasn’t had him since that episode in the elevator last week when Calum finally ballsed up and told Luke the truth: that Luke is nothing more than the opinion of his viewers.

It had hurt to hear then, and it hurts to think now, even as the countdown clock passes ten seconds. He looks away from Calum, because it hurts to see him looking at Luke like this—like Luke is fragile. Luke is not fragile. He’s just not. He is a grown-ass man who can function like a proper adult without needing somebody to look over his shoulder.

He forces himself to focus on the camera before him. He takes a deep, centering breath, and he puts everything out of his mind, and then the cameras are actually rolling. He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. His mind is entirely void of words. There is a long second of silence, and Luke feels like a ball of yarn in the process of unraveling. He can’t speak. He can’t think. No matter how hard he tries, he still sees Michael. 

Casey does the lead-in for him. It’s best that he does, really, because Luke isn’t sure he’d be able to get his voice under control. It’s hard to function around the ghost of Michael saturating every fiber of his being, every inch of his soul. Casey reads straight from the teleprompter, but he makes it look like he’s doing it on his own. He’s a natural at it, and Luke wonders if Casey’ll be his successor.

There is a pause in the segment that connects the opening to the weather, and Miranda rallies the cameras to pan around the station to capture the extend of the holiday decorations, and she jokes that they’re going to shut down their television show to open up a St. Valentine’s Day shop instead. Casey’s bark of laughter is louder than necessary. It’s right in Luke’s ear, though, and it is enough to finally snap him out of his Michael-induced stupor. He takes the reins that are his. The rest of the show passes without hitch.

Luke is out of the presenter’s chair the moment the cameras stop rolling. He doesn’t hang around to talk to anybody, but that is okay. Nobody really tries to stop him anyway, not even Calum. His cell phone buzzes with a text message. It is in his pocket, and he digs it out as he steps into the empty elevator. The doors close as he swipes his finger to unlock his phone, and he leans back against the railing as he waits for the message to pop up on his screen.

When it does, it nearly brings him to his knees. It’s a knife right through his heart, and he grabs at the bar behind him to keep himself upright. All of the air leaves his lungs. It is a message from Ashton. Luke hasn’t heard from him since Ashton sent that picture message the day after he left. Luke has avoided every single one of his calls, and Ashton hasn’t bothered to message him again until now.

Luke wishes Ashton hadn’t even bothered now, because it’s another picture. This time it is a picture of a photograph illuminated on Ashton’s tablet. It is Luke’s face pressed against Louis’s on the tablet. It’s horrible quality on his cell phone screen, and Luke can hardly see past the horizontal lines that are frozen in their rolls across the screen. But he knows it is him, and he knows it is Louis, and he knows it was just taken a few hours ago. They’re standing in the dim light of early morning on the sidewalk in front of the station, and Luke’s face is pressed into the crook of Louis’s neck, but it’s not hidden from the camera. He looks tired. This much is obvious even though the awful quality that’s presented to him. He looks like a haunted man.

Ashton’s face is in the picture message, too, all handsome and decked out for whatever runway he is getting ready to go on. He has his eyebrows raised high on his head, judging Luke from ten thousand miles away. It’s not fair, really, that Ashton has this much influence over Luke that it makes him immediately feel a million times more guilty for ignoring his best friend. There’s so much space between the two of them, and it’s not all physical. He hasn’t told Ashton about Michael, none of it. He hasn’t told Ashton about his new job, either. He definitely hasn’t told Ashton that he’s going to be saying goodbye to him within the next couple of weeks.

There is a caption with this picture, and it says looks like somebody had a good fuck last night. It’s so blunt that all Luke can think is no, somebody didn’t. He doesn’t text Ashton back to tell him that, to tell him that he and Louis haven’t slept together. Then he’d have to explain exactly why he hasn’t put out for the hot, rich rockstar, and he’d have to talk about Michael, and that’s the last person he wants to ever talk about with Ashton. It’s bad enough that he was stupid enough to fall in love with a bastard like Michael who can’t even stand him, but it’s even worse to admit this to the man who was Michael’s friend first.

Luke is about to shut off the screen—because he has nothing to say to Ashton, not really—when he spots it. Luke’s entire world screeches to halt, and he still can’t breathe. His legs can’t support him anymore, not under the weight of this latest development. e slids He HeHe slides down the wall to the elevator floor, and he leans his head against the railing, and he can’t do anything else except stare at the corner of the picture where Michael is tiny in. Where Michael is happy in. Where Michael is seated on a plush couch with a glass of chardonnay tipped against his mouth. Where Michael is smiling even as he’s drinking and looking for all of the world like the name Luke means absolutely nothing to him. 

It’s sobering in all the ways nothing else thus far has been. Luke’s heart shatters in his chest, but he doesn’t feel the pain. Not like he did the first time he got a picture message from Ashton. A numb sort of feeling spreads across his entire body. He stares at the perfect form of Michael seated on the couch, lips pressed against the rim of the wine glass, and he knows that it’s not a good idea to linger upon the image, but he can’t help it. Because this man, this stupid man, is carrying around with him Luke’s heart, and Michael doesn’t care. He doesn’t fucking care.

The elevator lurches to a halt. Luke stands in the precious second before the doors split open. He pockets his phone, tucks away all of the bad things so that he doesn’t have to look at Michael’s happiness any longer. He tries for a smile at the strangers waiting to get on the elevator as he steps onto the landing. He probably doesn’t do a very good job, but he doesn’t care. His world has yet to begin to turn again.

He still has a few hours left of work. He buries himself in all of his duties so that he doesn’t have to think about Michael or feel guilty that he is still ignoring Ashton. Calum doesn’t stop by at any point like he would have a couple of weeks ago, and it’s an absence that Luke tells himself he doesn’t notice. He hasn’t gotten any better at lying to himself.

It is almost dark when he finally leaves the station. It is the middle of February, so it is only to be expected given the evening hour it is. Louis had texted him twenty minutes ago saying he was on his way to come pick him up, and here he is. The same car that brought Luke to work this morning is parked in front of the studio. It’s not a legal parking space at all, and there’s a police officer just across the street, but none of that matters the moment Louis steps out of the car to pull Luke into a hug then a brief kiss, just one long enough so that their lips brush together.

“Hope you don’t mind an early start to the evening,” murmurs Louis right into Luke’s ear. His breath puffs warm against his skin, and Luke shivers against him, and he lets himself be pulled into the waiting car. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”

Luke hums in his throat, because it seems like the appropriate thing to do. It sounds like an agreement, like Luke himself has thought of nothing except Louis the entire day as well, but that is far from the truth. It is hard to think of somebody else when he can’t get the picture of Michael, happy and relaxed halfway across the world from him, out of his mind. It is hard to feel anything other than the dull ache of pain that Michael evokes in him. It is even harder still to forget how much the words I love you are burnt into his soul, the words he is glad he never spoke.

Michael saturates his every thoughts, and there is no room for Louis in between them. Luke feels guilty. He should be thinking about Louis, because Michael has no right to trespass on his mind, not after what he did. Not after he left. Not after Luke had to wake up alone, stinking of their sex and heart aching over a man who hates him.

It is Valentine’s Day, the so-called most romantic holiday of the entire year, and Luke is going to spend it with Louis, but the ghost of Michael hasn’t relented, and it’s here still now even as Luke sits pressed against Louis’s side.

The restaurant Louis takes Luke to is nothing short of fancy and expensive. It is the best in the city, and it is only thanks to his name that he even gets inside at all. Louis gets out of the car first when it pulls up in front. There are cameras all around, not necessarily seeking him out but finding him anyway. He reaches back into the car to help Luke out. Luke takes the offer for what it is. Louis pulls him close to his side, one arm thrown around his shoulders, and he guides him inside of the restaurant away from the flashing of the bulbs.

The maître d’ seats them instantly, calling Louis nothing but Mr. Tomlinson. She knows Luke’s name as well, probably watches his show given the mixture of familiarity and nervousness that rolls off her in waves. She is professional, though, and leaves them at their table as soon as they’re seated.

Louis smiles at Luke across the table from him. It is intimate. The lighting is low, and their table is private, and Louis’s knees knock against Luke’s underneath it. Luke starts to smile back—starts to think that he can maybe do this, that he can focus his attention on Louis and Louis alone—but Michael’s face flashes into his mind like clockwork.

Luke is thrown back in time to another restaurant, much less fancy than this one, when it was Michael himself who sat across from him, bathed in the soft candlelight. It is enough to steal the very breath from Luke’s lungs even now. He grasps at edge of the table with both his hands to center himself in the present, but he can still feel himself slipping away to the past, away to a time when he thought that maybe, just maybe, he and Michael had a shot together. That Michael didn’t hate him after all. That he wasn’t being stupid falling in love with a man like Michael.

He is on the verge of hysterics. He closes his eyes when they start to water. Every single nerve in his body is on fire. A cold sweat breaks out across his forehead. It is so much to feel at one time, and Michael is right there in the back of his eyelids, smiling softly across the fabricated table at him. Luke struggles to breathe, struggles to remember how to draw air into his oxygen-starving lungs.

Louis’s knee knocks against Luke’s underneath the table once more, and Luke’s eyes snap open, Michael fading from his mind to be replaced with the sights and the sounds of the restaurant around him. Everything lurches forward, like time itself is trying to catch up. Louis’s eyes are big and so full of concern. He reaches across the table for Luke’s hand. Luke looks down at Louis’s upturned palm, and he tries not to see Michael, tries not to think about when it was Michael’s hand Luke held on top of the table.

“Are you okay?” asks Louis, and it’s clear from the tone of his voice that he knows Luke isn’t. It’s a peculiar mix of confusion and concern. His grip is tight whenever Luke lays his hand on top of Louis’s. He waits until Luke raises his gaze to meet his eyes. “Hey, we don’t have to stay here if you’re uncomfortable. We can go somewhere else. I just wanted to treat you. This is the best restaurant in the city.”

“No—no, it’s fine,” says Luke. He’s proud that his voice doesn’t tremble, even when he’s holding Louis’s hand with a death grip. “I’m just—I dunno. It’s just been a rough day. A rough few days, I guess.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

That is the last thing Luke wants to do, so he shakes his head. Louis nods, unsurprised. He draws circles on the back of Luke’s hand with his thumb. He bites down on his bottom lip, as if caught in between the desire to say something and the uncertainty of whether he should speak up. In the end, the desire wins out.

“He really fucked you up, didn’t he?”

Luke’s world screeches to a halt once more, and Michael is right back with him, only this time he is juxtaposed against Louis. Everything else fades from his consciousness. It is just Louis sitting across the table from him, eyes full of worry, and he chewing on his bottom lip like he is genuinely sorry he has even had to say anything at all. It is just the ghost of Michael overlapping everything, looking devilishly handsome even to Luke’s mind’s eye.

The two pictures don’t belong together, and Luke has the urge to scream. To yell and thrash around until somebody calls an ambulance, and they come to take him away to the hospital and pump him full of drugs so that he doesn’t have to feel all of the conflicting emotions that are strumming through his body. So that he doesn’t have to remember what Michael looks like when he comes or how Michael’s lips taste pressed against his own or even how it feels, his body pressed flush to Michael with nothing—not even clothes—separating them.

It is all made worse because Luke shouldn’t be thinking about Michael, not now on Valentine’s Day while he is on a date with another man. Michael left him. He got what he wanted out of Luke. He made Luke fall in love with him. Then he left. Luke owes him nothing, and Luke doesn’t deserve to be haunted by him, and Louis shouldn’t have to ask this question. He shouldn’t have to inquire after Michael at all, because Michael is not supposed to mean anything to him. Not anymore. Not since he left in the dead of night and Luke woke up all alone in cold sheets.

Louis doesn’t really need an answer, but Luke nods anyway. It is a belated type of response, and it is obvious that Luke doesn’t want to talk about it. That he can’t talk about it. Louis squeezes Luke’s hand once more, and he smiles sadly at Luke like he pities him, and he changes the subject.

“I think I’d recommend the trout.”

It’s easier from here on out. Luke does in fact order the trout when prompted, and he and Louis split a nice bottle of white wine, because Louis recommends that, too. It’s not that Michael really leaves his mind—Luke doubts that’s even a possibility anymore—but Louis tells good stories. He is engaging and funny, and he is enough of a distraction that Luke can focus on something that isn’t the ghost of Michael haunting him.

 Louis turns down dessert when offered, and so does Luke. He is so stuffed from the main course that he can’t imagine even eating another bite. They’ve finished the wine between them, and Luke feels a little light headed in all of the good ways whenever he stands up from the table after Louis takes care of the bill. Louis places his hand in the small of Luke’s back, and he guides Luke out of the restaurant, sticking as close as possible. Luke is thankful. He doesn’t trust himself not to trip over his own feet, especially when they step out onto the sidewalk outside, and the cameras are there again, flashing in their faces. He leans closer to Louis on drunken instinct, and Louis curls around him appropriately. He uses his body as Luke’s personal shield until they’re safe in the car.

The wine has done wonders to dull the ghost of Michael in Luke’s mind. It’s also spread a nice pink flush all over Luke’s skin that surely all of the cameras have captured in crystal clear photographs. Luke can’t bring himself to care, not now while he is in the back of the car with Louis secluded away from the rest of the world. It’s easier to push away Michael when the wine makes Luke feel warm inside, and he snuggles against Louis in the plush leather seats as the car speeds down the city streets.

He has his face pressed into the crook of Louis’s neck, and he mouths at the skin there, and he doesn’t think about Michael. Not really. All he thinks about is the way Louis trembles accordingly against the hot touch of Luke’s tongue and how much Luke really, really wants to wash away all memory of Michael from his skin in a way he has not yet managed to do, no matter how many showers he has taken. No matter how many times he has scrubbed his skin raw. Michael is still there, but he is less so when Louis grabs Luke under his chin and pulls him in for a deep kiss.

They kiss lazily all the way back to Louis’s penthouse. Luke is half-hard in his trousers, and Louis is, too, but there is no glory in getting off in a rush in the backseat when there is a nice soft bed waiting on them just minutes away. The car lets them out right in front as always. Louis pulls away from Luke long enough to get them out of the vehicle and lead them inside. Luke crowds into Louis the entire way up to the penthouse, eager to leave the ghost of Michael alone in the tainted city they close off once the door to Louis’s place shuts firmly behind them.

Luke pushes Louis up against the door once it’s closed, and he attacks the man’s lips with a fervor he hasn’t felt since Michael left, and he likes that he is feeling it again now without the man who hates him. Louis responds eagerly, biting at Luke’s bottom lip. He takes charge much earlier than Luke expects, and they leave a trail of clothes on their way to Louis’s bedroom.

Louis pushes Luke onto the bed, and Luke hits it, bouncing up once until he settles into place. Then Louis is right there, crowding into him, and Luke can’t get enough. He runs his hands all over Louis’s body. He has to touch every inch, has to commit this to memory. The more he explores, the less he’ll have to remember of Michael, and that is really all Luke wants right now. He just wants the ghost of Michael to leave him alone, and Michael can’t haunt him when Luke has the marks of another man on his skin.

Luke breaks away from Louis’s lips to trail kisses down Louis’s throat. They turn into little nips, scrapes of his teeth against sensitive skin then gentle bites as he progresses lower. Louis gasps at all of the right times. His hands make their way into Luke’s hair, fingers curling around his scalp, not guiding but merely resting there. When Luke reaches Louis’s cock, he takes it in his mouth without any fanfare. He is desperate for it, desperate for their impending release, desperate to get Michael off his skin.

He pulls out every trick he knows, learning Louis in a quick round of trial and error until he finds his stride. It doesn’t take much to bring Louis to the brink of orgasm. He has been hard as long as Luke has been, probably since they stepped foot inside of the penthouse. Luke teases him a little, sucking and licking until Louis is nothing more than a muttering mess. Nothing more than the mantra of Luke Luke Luke over and over again.

Then he draws back.

“I want—”

“Yes,” gasps out Louis, eyes wide and pupils blown. He doesn’t even need Luke to finish his statement. They’re so in-tuned to one another, both in similar states of overwhelming arousal. He fumbles around in the drawer to the bedside table next to him, and he produces a bottle of lube and a condom, and he throws them at Luke, spreading his legs. Inviting him in.

He looks good like this, in the midst of being completely debauched. Luke tries not to think about Michael in this very same position, tries not to think about how he’d taken his sweet time to get Michael to this point, tries not to think about why he’s not doing the same with Louis.

Luke ducks down for another kiss as he prepares Louis. He doesn’t think about how he’d gone about preparing Michael in a different way, about how much more intimate the entire process had felt. Luke is in a frenzy this time. He doesn’t have the entire night. He needs Michael off his skin, out of his soul. He needs to be inside of Louis right now.

He wipes his fingers against the bed sheet, and he uses his teeth to rip off the wrapper to the condom. He rolls it on in one swift movement. He slicks up his cock before he presses it to Louis’s entrance. He waits there for a long second, gaze held with Louis until Louis grabs him by his shoulder and drags him down for another kiss. Luke pushes in, and he goes slow—so, so slow—until he can’t anymore. He waits there, and he kisses Louis until it’s time to move, until Louis is adjusted to him, and he pushes away any thoughts of how it felt to be inside Michael.

Luke draws back slowly then pushes forward again, and he stays with this pace until Louis is writhing underneath him. The ghost of Michael appears then, right there with Luke’s eyes wide open, and Luke can’t handle it, can’t handle remembering how devastatingly beautiful Michael had looked underneath him, so he falls forward, and he kisses Louis again, and his thrusts become erratic.

 They build to an orgasm like that. Luke wraps his hand around Louis’s cock. It is leaking with precome. Luke’s hand is still slick from the lube, and he jerks Louis off in time with his thrusts. Louis groans into their kiss. It’s one then two then finally three thrusts before Louis is coming, spurting onto his and Luke’s chests. He throws his head back, exposing his neck. Luke gets a glimpse of Michael again—hears the desperately overwhelming noise ripped from Michael’s throat from his second orgasm in Luke’s memory of that beautiful but awful night—then Luke coming in real time, spilling into the condom.

Luke falls forward onto Louis again, his head against Louis’s chest, and he tries not to picture Michael. But he fails, and he wants to cry. He’s too worn out to, though, so he just lies on top of Louis and pants until he regains enough control over his body to pull out of Louis and deposit the used condom in the trash can.

Louis is cuddly after his orgasm. He pulls Luke to him the moment Luke is in reach, and Luke lets himself be tugged back onto the bed. Louis spoons up against him, his soft cock nestled against Luke’s butt and his breath hot against his ear. Laying here, surrounded by Louis in the aftermath of their sex, Luke feels safe, and the ghost of Michael has abated. For now.

It’s too hot to sleep with proper covers, and they’re pressed so closely to each other that they’re nearly sweating with each other’s body heat anyway, but they have a sheet pulled up to their hips. Louis places one last sleepy kiss against Luke’s jaw, the only part he can reach. Luke snuggles farther back into Louis’s hold, and he sleepily thinks that he’d like to do this against with Louis in a few hours, maybe, before he has to go to work. They drift off to sleep sometime later, Louis’s breathing evening off just before Luke’s does.

In the morning when Luke wakes up, it’s to his cell phone ringing in the folds of the trousers he’d abandoned the night before. Louis is still wrapped around him, hardly bothered by the ringtone interrupting the serene silence of the early morning. Luke slips from Louis’s hold, and he falls to the floor on all fours, crawling over to the trousers. He’d rather not wake Louis up, so he accepts the call without bothering to look at the screen. He puts it to his ear. His world skids to a dead halt at the sound of the voice on the other side of the line.

“Are you fucking in love with him?”

It’s Michael, because of course it’s Michael. It’s always Michael, even when he’s gone. But he’s not gone now, and he’s not merely a ghost in Luke’s life, haunting him. He’s real, and he’s drunk, and he’s crying on the other end of the line. Luke feels like the entire world is crashing down around him. All that is really left are him and Michael at opposite ends of the battlefield. Just like always.

“Is he a better fuck than me, is that it?”

No, thinks Luke, and it’s only through the mercy of an unseen deity that he doesn’t say it out loud. That he doesn’t bow to Michael. That he doesn’t absolutely, utterly fall apart at the sound of Michael’s voice after all of this time. Red, hot anger boils in Luke’s stomach, and it’s a familiar emotion in regard to Michael. It sobers him in all the ways that even time itself couldn’t.

“You were the one who fucking left,” he snaps, voice halfway a whisper in deference for the man still sleeping in the bed just feet away. It isn’t really an answer to Michael’s question, either of them, but he can’t bring himself to acknowledge them. “You’re drunk now, and you’re fucking calling me like I’m nothing more than a damn booty call to you, and I can’t be that. So go fucking sober up, and find Ash, and talk your shit out or whatever.”

Michael hiccups, drunkenly, and there is a pause in the sound that is coming across the line, and Luke suspects that is because Michael is taking a large gulp of liquor. Luke’s anger burns even brighter in the silence. He thinks about how expensive this drunken phone call is and how much he’s already given to Michael. He can’t do this anymore.

“What fucking right do you have calling me?” he demands, much louder than the first time he spoke. He is so fixated on the fact that he hasn’t talked to Michael since the night they had sex—that he has spent the past two weeks haunted by this fucking man who has been having the time of his damn life halfway across the world—that he can’t help but to repeat himself. “You’re the one who fucking left me.”

I love you!” shrieks Michael, loud and drunk into the line. “I fucking love you, but you’d never give me a damn reason to stay! I had to leave!”

There’s a rustling sound over the line, and it’s followed by a click, and Luke knows just by the sudden silence that Michael is gone. Luke sits on the floor with the phone still pressed to his ear, and he doesn’t quite know what to do. He can’t think of anything beyond the words I love you.

When he looks up, Louis is sitting up in bed staring back at him. It is obvious by the way the faint light dances across Louis’s face that he has heard the entire conversation. He is wearing that odd expression again, the one that is a mixture of pity and sadness. The both of them are quiet for a moment, and tension builds between them like a crescendo until Louis finally breaks the silence.

“Yeah, he really fucked you up bad.”

Chapter Text

Luke catches a cab to the station, unwilling to accept Louis’s offer to have a car drive him to work. It is nice of Louis, but Luke has no right to accept it, not after Michael’s phone call. He also refuses it for a totally selfish reason. Louis has been staring at him with that same odd mixed expression of pity and sadness, and it is all Luke can do to keep himself from totally falling apart into thousands of tiny pieces that not even all of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men from the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme could put him back together again.

So he slips into the clothes he’d worn to the station on Friday, as it’s the only set of his own clothes that he has at Louis’s, and he makes his escape as soon as the cab pulls up outside Louis’s penthouse apartment. The cab driver keeps glancing in the rear view mirror at Luke like he recognizes him. Luke hopes the man doesn’t feel the need to say anything. He isn’t in the mood to deal with anything this morning, not after Michael’s phone call has knocked him so askew. Not with the words I love you. I fucking love you, and you’d never give me a damn reason to stay. I had to leave cycling through his brain on an endless loop.

He pays the cab driver his fare before he gets out. He keeps his head down, face partially concealed by the collar of his winter jacket, against the paparazzi that linger outside of the station. They’re all probably hoping to get another glimpse of Louis, and they holler at Luke when they recognize him. They ask where Louis is at, but Luke doesn’t give them an answer. He dives into the safety of the station, the flashing bulbs of the cameras following him to the door.

The elevator is empty when he climbs inside. It is a short ride up to the studio floor, and he climbs out as soon as the doors split open. His heart beats in his chest to the rhythm of Michael’s words. He takes a deep, centering breath as he hesitates in the hallway outside of the studio. He isn’t entirely sure how he is going to carry an entire show with Michael’s voice playing on repeat in his head.

He doesn’t have the time to spare to pull himself together properly. He does the best he can do. He bites down on his bottom lip hard enough to make it hurt so that he has something else to think about other than the absolutely devastated tenor of Michael’s voice as he cried into the phone not even an hour ago. The distraction gets him all the way to the presenter’s chair without trouble.

Casey and Miranda are already set up. The countdown clock above the camera says they only have about fifteen seconds before the lights go down. Luke has just enough time to accidentally spot Calum hiding away in the back of the room before the cameras start to roll. He can’t see his face, not properly with all of the distance between them, but Luke thinks he is wearing that same apprehensive expression on his face that he has been all week—thinks he is waiting with bated breath for Luke to finish falling to pieces right here before them all.

Luke doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Michael’s voice haunts him, and Calum hasn’t been happy with him since the elevator incident, and Luke could really, really use a friendly shoulder right now to just lean on, but he doesn’t have that. It’s pathetic, really, the state of Luke’s life. He spends the entirety of the lead-in music feeling sorry for himself like he hasn’t done in a long, long time. Then he sucks it all up, forgets about Michael and Calum and everything in between, and throws his all into the damn show.

Later, when the show is over, Liam stops him just outside of the studio. Luke is on his way to jump straight into his after show duties, because he can’t trust himself with a moment of peace. He has done a good job at ignoring the memory of Michael devastated on the phone this morning and at pretending like he hasn’t felt the weight of Calum’s judgmental gaze for the entirety of the show. Now that he is free of his immediate obligations, he can feel everything start to creep back up on him.

Liam drags Luke out of everybody’s way to the end of the hallway opposite of the elevator. He crowds into Luke’s space, and when Luke takes a step back, he follows. His voice is quiet as he speaks, like he is reluctant for anybody else to hear.

“I spoke with Ed this morning. There’s been a change of plans.”

Luke’s heart sinks in his chest. He is suddenly grateful that Liam is still holding onto his elbow, or else he is afraid he might have sunk to the floor. Liam’s statement doesn’t sound too promising. Luke didn’t fully appreciate the out Ed had given him until right now. He is terrified to his very core that the change of plans in question are that he is no longer needed—that he is stuck forever in this city that is slowly suffocating him.

“He needs you to start Friday. Says there was a misunderstanding with the termination contract drawn up for your predecessor and that he doesn’t have anybody to even fill in the spot to give you a better notice.”

Luke breathes a sigh relief before he processes the implication of Liam’s news.

“Wait—this Friday? Liam, it’s Tuesday.”

Liam nods, biting his lips together. He looks somber, like he is aging ten years right before Luke’s eyes. Luke thinks about the day Liam first told him about the job, about how he had wondered if Liam was happy for him or sad that Liam was losing him. He thinks now that maybe it was more of the latter than anything else.

“We’ll do a proper send-off for you on Thursday. Go home and pack up. The parent station will put you up for a few days until you can secure a place to live, and then you can have all of your things shipped to you.”

“So I’ve got, what? Seventy-two hours to pack up my entire life?”

“Forty-eight is more like it. You’ve got a flight out after the show on Thursday,” says Liam. He pauses, eyes boring into Luke’s. A moment of silence passes between them. “I’m sorry, Luke.”

It sounds like he really is, and Luke knows there is nothing Liam can do about it. It isn’t Liam’s fault. It isn’t even Ed’s fault. If Luke had been acting like a proper, responsible adult, he might not be in a bind right now. He has known about his impending move for over a week, but he has done nothing to prepare himself for the future he knows is coming, such as search for a place to live or start packing away boxes. He has barely done anything more than just try to exist post-Michael. It has taken up most of his energy, and now he has the voice of Michael on repeat in his mind saying I love you over and over and over again, and Luke is even less capable of functioning like an adult.

“Yeah,” says Luke, mostly to himself, as Liam walks off. “Me too.”

Luke doesn’t move immediately. He stays in the alcove at the end of the hall, staring after Liam. He has a thousand things to do between now and Thursday, and he is going to have to do every one of them to the soundtrack of Michael’s voice in his head. It was bad enough being haunted by the ghost of Michael. His voice, so real and so heart-breaking from just hours ago, ringing in his head is even worse.

Calum emerges from the studio. He glances down the hall at Luke, and he hesitates in the doorway. Luke dares himself to meet Calum’s eyes. He thinks about the last time they stood in this vicinity together, when they were standing in the opposite direction of this corridor and Calum had finally told Luke the awful truth. The words strike him again here now, his eyes locked with Calum’s, but they are nothing compared to Michael in his head.

He wonders what Calum knows. If he and Ashton still talk about him even though he and Luke aren’t on speaking terms. Calum is not giving him any indication right now. He is not even making a move toward Luke, which clues Luke in on the fact that he has probably not spoken to Ashton this morning or, maybe, that Ashton is the one who hasn’t spoken to Michael.

Luke thinks about telling Calum now, about crossing the distance that shouldn’t separate them as best friends and pouring out his soul, bearing his heart that Michael has trampled all over. He wonders what Calum would think. If Calum would be surprised. Or if, possibly, Calum has already suspected as much between Luke and Michael, given their attitudes toward each other in the final week before Michael left.

It makes Luke uncomfortable to equate Calum with Michael, so he doesn’t move his spot at the opposite end of the hall. Calum is supposed to be his best friend—his only ally left in the city when the rest of their friends have left them behind—but he isn’t now. Luke is leaving the city in forty-eight hours, so Calum doesn’t really matter anymore anyway.

As much as Luke has an expiration date, so does everybody else he is associated with in this city.

The stairwell is behind him. He breaks eye contact with Calum, spinning on his heel, and escapes down it. He doesn’t look over his shoulder to catch a final glimpse of his friend to ascertain what his reaction is. He takes the steps two at a time, leaning heavily on the railing to help him keep his balance. It works well for the first few flights. Adrenaline propels him right to the ground floor, and he is out of the station within minutes.

There are paparazzi outside like there was this morning. Luke keeps his face hidden in the collar of his winter jacket as he hails a cab, and it is just his good luck that a car stops almost immediately. He starts to climb in it, even as the back passenger’s side door is being pushed open, but he catches himself at the last moment. It is Louis climbing out of the vehicle. The car is not a taxi cab at all.

“Where are you off to in a hurry?” asks Louis.

Luke wavers, rocking his weight from the heels to the balls of his feet then back again. He glances down the city street to see if a taxi is nearby, but he is looking in the direction of the cameras, so he turns back around almost immediately. He has nothing else to do but meet Louis’s eyes.

“Home,” he says finally, after a few seconds of silence that is broken only by the noise of the traffic on the street next to them. Then, because Louis has seen Luke at his worst at the mercy of Michael drunk on the phone, he dares himself to finally come clean like he should have when he agreed to go on a date with Louis. “To pack. I’m, uh—I’ve been transferred to the parent station. Effective Friday.”

Louis’s eyebrows shoot straight up his forehead.

“And you’ve known…?”

“Officially? Since the day I ran into you in the elevator and we went out for coffee.”

Louis blinks deliberately, surprise transforming into something like betrayal right before Luke’s eyes. He does nothing to conceal his reaction. Luke feels guilty, like he has stolen all of the cookies from the jar instead of just one. He swallows against the urge to fall apart right here on the sidewalk in front of the station for the paparazzi and Louis to witness.

“And you didn’t think to work that into a conversation? I mean, it’s not like you didn’t have plenty of opportunities to do so.”

“I know,” says Luke, and he knows this is the end of them. It has been the end of them since he accepted that phone call this morning and Michael’s voice came across the line.

The thing is, Luke can’t look at Louis without seeing Michael now. Maybe he has never been able to not see Michael when he looks at Louis, and he has just never noticed. Everything in Luke’s entire life tracks back to the bastard of a man who confessed his love for him this very morning. He was a fool to think that Louis was any different.

Even now as he’s staring straight into Louis’s eyes, he doesn’t really see the man before him. All that he sees is Michael. All that he is ever going to see in this city is Michael.

“I’m sorry,” he adds as an afterthought.

“Are you, though?” challenges Louis. His voice is much softer than his words, and there isn’t a bite to his tone like there probably should be. He sounds rather resigned, like he is finally accepting the man that Luke is before him. The man that has been here the entire time.

The city street is busy behind him, and his car is parked illegally. There are dozens of cameras flashing their bulbs at them. Louis stares at Luke for a long time. Luke tries not to fidget under his gaze. Never once does it occur to him that he should just leave, that he has no right to grace Louis’s presence any longer, that Michael’s ghost isn’t scared of Louis anymore.

In the end, it is Louis who makes the next move. He steps forward to draw Luke into a hug. Luke resists for a second, but he is not a strong man, so weakened by Michael. He gives into it, and he buries his face into the crook of Louis’s neck, like he likes so much. He soaks up the feeling of being held and being safe for this little bit, because he knows it is the last time.

“You can’t run away from love,” Louis murmurs into his ear. Luke hears him loud and clear above all of the city’s noise. “I think that’s what you’re trying to do, but you’re a foolish man, Luke Hemmings.”

Luke closes his eyes, his face still pressed against Louis’s neck. He clings to Louis like he hasn’t clung to anybody in a long time. He wishes right through his soul that it was Louis with whom he had fallen in love and not Michael. In this very moment, he is tired of pretending like he can fall out of love with Michael in the city where Michael haunts him. It hasn’t worked in the two and a half weeks. It hasn’t even gotten any better. Luke feels like he is half of a man, desperately longing to be completed. It is only made worse by Michael’s words echoing in his mind: I fucking love you.

Louis doesn’t hold him very much longer. He takes a step back from Luke, putting noticeable distance between them. Luke shivers, though he doesn’t feel particularly cold with all of the layers of outwear he has on. Louis gives Luke one final look. He is chewing on his bottom lip, and it is so familiar to Luke over the past couple of weeks that Luke can’t help but to smile sadly.

“I really hope everything works out for you,” says Louis, nice as ever even in the face of the sad end of their relationship. It is his turn to flash a sad smile at Luke. “Take my car back to your house. It’s the least I can do.”

He doesn’t give Luke a chance to respond. He walks off toward the station where the paparazzi immediately start to hound him. Luke watches him go as he thinks about hailing a cab. He taken advantage of Louis’s niceties too much over the past week, but the paparazzi start to turn one-by-one toward Luke the exact second Louis steps into the sanctuary of the station, and he needs to get out of here before they hound him, too.

Louis’s driver doesn’t say anything to Luke. He merely drives off as soon as the door is shut. Luke is grateful for the man’s silence. He stares out the window as they go down the city streets, and he thinks about how this will be one of the last times he gets to do just this in this city. The ghost of Michael sits next to him, and Luke’s mind is a mantra of I fucking love you. He sighs, leaning his head against the cold glass of the window. The ghost presses closer.

The car pulls up in front of his house, and Luke thanks the man for the ride. He offers to pay his fare, but the driver waves him off. The man is as nice as Louis. When the man drives off and Luke walks up to his front door, Luke can’t help but to think he doesn’t deserve all of the kindness that Louis has brought to his life.

He shuts the door behind him, and he stands just inside of the entryway for a moment. The couch is a mess of covers. He hasn’t slept in his bed since the night he slept with Michael, and it is obvious by the heavy blanket that is spilling over the arm of the couch that he has barely dared to venture into his bedroom. He has a stack of boxes right here in his living room. It is the only responsible adult thing that Luke managed to do in the past couple of weeks, and even it was an unsuccessful attempt to keep his mind off Michael when he ran out of things to do one afternoon at work. He is thankful for it now.

He takes a deep breath, tries not to think about all of the knickknacks he is going to have to carefully stow away into moving boxes, and starts to pack up his life.

It’s a monotonous task for the most part. He works in silence, finding comfort in the nothingness around him. He begins with the living room, because it is right here in front of him. The ghost of Michael sticks close to his side, and Luke tries not to think about how the real Michael had made himself at home on Luke’s couch. As Luke organizes his living room into the boxes, he refuses to think about how the real Michael had not stopped at this room. He’d made himself at home in the entire place, saturated Luke’s domicile with his every fiber of his being until it haunts Luke even now.

It doesn’t take Luke very long to pack up the things in his living room, though he takes the longest with the wall of pictures. He removes each one individually and tucks them carefully away so that they won’t be damaged in the move. They’re all that he is going to have left of his friends. They’re all that are ever going to exist of the people who mean so much to him here in the new city. He takes down the picture of Michael last. It is the hardest one to look at. The focus of the picture is a half-shot of Ashton’s face, but Michael is there in the background, head thrown back in laughter in response to a joke that Luke will never know. Luke stares at it for entirely too long, until long after his heart starts to ache in his chest, before he tucks it among the others.

There is a lot he can’t do right now in the living room, so he does what he can and then he moves on to the kitchen, where the memories of Michael are still alive but less so than they would be in the bedroom. He is just pulling out the pots and pans he seldom uses from the cabinet next to the stove when he hears his front door open. He stops and climbs to his feet, curious to know who cares enough to stop by anymore.

“You fucking fucker, when the hell were you going to fucking tell me about you and—what the hell is this?!"

It’s Calum. His voice reaches Luke before he appears in the doorway to the kitchen. He is fuming, face red and fists clenched at his sides, but his anger is rapidly being replaced by confusion. He glances around at the boxes that are stacked everywhere. He purposefully looks at each individual one before he turns to Luke, realization dawning upon him.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

Luke doesn’t really have an answer for him. He glances at the mess around them quickly before his gaze settles back on Calum, and he thinks it should be plainly obvious what he is doing. People don’t just pack away their lives into moving boxes for the fun of it. He feels a flash of guilt at the look of utter betrayal that is gracing Calum’s face. This is a shitty way of Calum, one of Luke’s best friends, finding out that Luke is going to be gone from his life in under forty-eight hours.

“Don’t tell me this is what it looks like,” says Calum. His voice cracks, and he stumbles forward to the center island in the kitchen. He grabs at the edge of the counter to hold himself up when his knees wobble beneath him. “Don’t you fucking tell me that my best friend is in the process of moving. Were you even going to let me know before you left? Or was I just going to walk into the station one day with Casey sitting in your spot and Liam saying that you’d skipped town on me?”

Luke stays silent in the face of his friend’s anger. This is exactly what it looks like to Calum. Luke feels guilty—he does—but he and Calum haven’t been on proper speaking terms for a while now, not since before Luke even found out about his move in the first place. It isn’t entirely his fault that it would have been so much easier to leave town without notice than to man-up and approach Calum and tell him that he has another job halfway across the country.

“Like what the hell have I done to you? Am I that shitty of a best friend that you didn’t want to tell me what the fuck was going on with you?”

Calum is pulling out all of the punches, and it is Luke’s turn to grab onto the counter to keep from falling to the floor, guilt almost entirely overwhelming him. It is not Calum that has been the bad friend, not really—that is Luke’s burden and Luke’s alone—but it has been hard to be Calum’s friend when Luke can’t think of anything beyond Michael.

“I’m sorry. I—”

“No, Luke. I don’t think you are,” snaps Calum, and Luke’s mouth snaps shut accordingly. Calum sighs, dragging a hand through his hair. He waves toward the stack of boxes. “You know this isn’t even what I came over here to yell at you about.”

Luke grimaces. The moment he has been trying to avoid for the past two and a half weeks—longer than, actually—has finally arrived. Somebody else knows about him and Michael. There is really no other explanation for the way Calum has barreled right into Luke’s home without regard to any manners or niceties. Luke supposed he deserves this, really, for being such an awful friend. He deserves Calum’s anger.

“Were you even going to fucking tell me about Michael? Like, you and him? You had sex. You had sex numerous times, according to Ashton, apparently—who, by the way, isn’t very happy he had to find all of this out a two weeks after the fact halfway across the world with Michael drunk and bawling his eyes out all over him. I mean, what the fuck, Luke?! What the hell was going through your mind? You and Michael?”

“It didn’t quite end up being me and Michael, now did it?”

“Don’t get smart with me, you jackass,” snaps Calum, and he is even angrier than he was when he first came here completely uninvited. His voice gets louder with every word he speaks. “You went behind our backs. What? Could you not trust us? What the fuck have we ever done to make you think that you can’t come to us with something as stupendous as whatever the fuck it was between you and Michael? I mean, is that why you’ve been so fucked up lately?”

“Calum, I—”

“No, that’s not even the worst part. Lying to us, going behind our backs, that was a total douchebag move, yes, but it wasn’t the pinnacle of horrible things you’ve done lately. I mean, seriously, Louis Tomlinson? What? Did you go down on your knees for him, too, the moment Michael was gone? Did you ever stop to think about what that might do to Michael?”

“He left me!” roared Luke, because this is something that Michael himself also forgot. If Calum is here now spouting off all of this bullshit about friends and secrets, then Luke is going to tell his side of the story. “He planted himself right into my fucking bed, and he made me fucking fall in love with him, and he fucking left me. Don’t you dare think for a damn moment that your precious Michael is entirely blameless, because he’s the bastard who’s responsible for this whole damn mess in the first place!”

Calum is stunned into silence, and Luke can’t stop talking. He can’t stop the words falling from his mouth like projectile vomit. He has held this inside of himself for too long, kept quiet about the all-encompassing pain that has been his reality. Now, he has a chance to speak, and he is taking it, throwing all caution to the wind. He doesn’t care what Calum thinks of him anymore. Doesn’t care that Calum may judge him. Because the truth is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a little too late. Luke is leaving for his new job in less than forty-eight hours.

“We fucked that last night before he left, you know. We fucked, and I woke up in the bed alone the next morning, and Michael wasn’t here, but he was everywhere. He was a ghost. A shadow. A parasite. He stayed with me, and he hasn’t really left. He still fucking haunts me, dammit,” he says, pausing to take a breath. He holds Calum’s gaze, and he doesn’t dare look away. Even now he can still see the ghost of Michael hovering behind Calum. Michael’s words I fucking love you echoes in his mind. His heart beats in time with them. “You can say whatever the hell you want to about what I may have done to Michael, but did you ever think to consider what he did to me? I can’t go anywhere in this damn city without seeing him. I haven’t slept in my bed since that night he was here with me, and I can barely sit in the producer’s chair without seeing his shit-eating grin staring me right in the face. And, yes, I dated Louis, and I fucked Louis, but it didn’t help. All I could see was Michael. All I’ve ever seen is Michael.”

“Luke—”

“I’m just trying to survive, Calum. I’m just trying to fucking survive with the shattered remnants that Michael’s left me with, and I can’t do that here, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that I’d taken another job, and I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you about Michael.”

There is a sudden, overwhelming silence when Luke finally stops talking. Calum doesn’t try to immediately fill it. He stares at Luke with that pitying expression that Luke hates so much, and Luke wishes he were anywhere but here talking about Michael with Calum. He feels like he has been flayed open. Like Calum has just taken a knife and sliced him right down the center and pulled him apart, spilling his emotions and insecurities and fears all out for the world to see.

“You’re my best friend,” says Calum, finally. He is much more subdued now than he was. He sounds sad, too, like he is half of a second away from circling around the center island and drawing Luke into a big hug. Luke wishes he would. “I don’t know what went wrong between us, but, dammit, you could’ve fucking come to me and told me about Michael and about you moving. What did I do to make you think you couldn’t?”

Luke huffs, and he thinks about the elevator incident, and he wonders if Calum has forgotten about it. If Calum has forgotten about that shining moment when he finally manned-up and told Luke the truth—that Luke is nothing more than the opinion of the viewers. Maybe that is true, and maybe that is not, but it had hurt to hear regardless. It hurts to remember now.

“You’re frustrating, you know that, right?” says Calum, and he grimaces like he knows exactly where Luke’s thoughts have gone. “Sometimes, you make it seem like nothing matters to you other than what stupid strangers think of you on their television screen. It’s so hard to compete with that. It’s like you’d rather I wasn’t even around, and I just got tired of it. I said some things that I shouldn’t have, and that’s not okay, but neither is you keeping Michael a secret or the fact that you’re moving a secret, so I suppose we’re both at fault here in our own ways.”

“I’m sorry,” says Luke.

There is really nothing else he can offer Calum. These past couple of weeks have been hard. Living beyond Michael is the most difficult thing Luke has ever had to do in his entire life. He has had to do it alone, and he knows that is only partially true. He could have come clean from the very beginning, from the very next morning after Michael shoved him up against the doorframe in Ashton’s guest bedroom for the very first time, from the very moment his entire life began this long downward spiral.

“I’m so fucking sorry,” says Luke again, because the first time doesn’t seem like it was enough. He should probably spend the rest of his life—or at least the rest of the time he still has here in this city—repeating those words. Calum is a good friend, and somewhere along the line, Luke forgot that. He doesn’t want to ever forget that again. Doesn’t want to ever be as alone as he has been again.

“I know. Me, too,” says Calum.

He finally lets go of the counter before him. He walks deliberately toward Luke, extending his arms. Luke meets him halfway, melting into the hug. It’s like coming home. Calum’s hugs have always been the best thing in the entire world, and Luke has missed them more than he cares to admit. He is so overcome by emotion that he presses his face right into the crook of Calum’s shoulder and thinks about crying—about letting go of all of the bad things that he has carried around with him over the past two and a half weeks—but the tears don’t come. Calum’s arms tighten around him. They sink to the floor right there in Luke’s kitchen that is filled with moving boxes. Luke doesn’t cry, but he lets go of all of those bad things anyway, and Calum hold him through it all.

Not everything is perfect between them. Luke is still hurt by Calum’s words, though less so now that they are out in the open between them, and Calum is still miffed that Luke didn’t trust him enough to spill his secrets, but they’re better than they have been all week. Luke holds onto Calum for dear life, and he doesn’t ever want them to let go.

Chapter Text

Calum is leaning up against the railing of Luke’s back patio, and he is smoking a cigarette. The city is falling asleep around him, the bright lights glistening in the darkness. Luke sits in the chair next to him. His ass is frozen to the seat, but he has his nice heavy blanket draped over his shoulders. There is a glass of whiskey in his hand. Calum has one as well. They’re not drunk. They’ve barely had more than sip each, but the presence of the alcohol is comforting in the awkwardness that still hangs in the air between them.

Luke is dead-beat tired from packing all evening. Calum has refused to touch a single box, not happy at all with Luke’s decision to stick with the move. To leave him behind. He has stayed and offered his company, though, and that has been enough for Luke, who has immensely missed his friend.

“So Louis Tomlinson—how good was he in the sack? As good as his money makes him seem?” asks Calum. He grins over at Luke in the darkness. He has his cigarette held between his lips, and it glows red when he sucks on it. “Nah. Nobody’s got it all, do they?”

Luke laughs, but his stomach churns. He takes a swig of the whiskey. It burns on the way down. He coughs. It isn’t the brand he favors, but Calum likes it. Luke had found an unopened bottle in his cabinets when he had been packing earlier, so he figured they might as well split it between them. He swirls the ice cubes around in his glass, staring down at it as he dutifully gives Calum his response.

“Don’t really know how to answer that, really. I, uh, could only see Michael.”

“Even when…?”

“Yeah,” says Luke. He doesn’t need Calum to finish his question, and his cheeks burn at the admission that it hadn’t been Louis who had gotten him off but rather the memory of Michael coming undone before him.

Calum snorts, aborting it almost immediately until he can’t hold it back anymore and it turns into a full-out laugh. Luke glares at him, but the effect is lost in the darkness. Calum continues to howl in laughter, his cigarette dangling dangerously between his fingers now. It is almost burnt all the way back to the filter. Luke has the urge to reach over and press it out before it leaves a dark circular burn in the wood of the railing. 

“I hope you choke,” says Luke without any heat.

Calum only laughs harder. The doorbell rings from inside the house, a tiny musical sound floating out into the darkness. Luke feels a flash of confusion. The only person left in the city who would make a house call is right here with him on the back porch. Calum’s laughter dries up a little, and he makes waves his hand toward the house, reminding Luke that it is his place to answer his own door.

Luke throws back the rest of his whiskey to get rid of it. He stands up from his seat, leaving the blanket a fluffy pile on the chair. He offers to take Calum’s glass of whiskey, but Calum isn’t done with it. He leaves Calum to his cigarettes and his alcohol, stepping back inside his house as the doorbell rings a second time.

He has to go through the kitchen to get to the front door due to all of the boxes he has blocking the path through the living room. He sets his empty whiskey glass down on the counter on his way through. The route via the kitchen isn’t much better, and he stumbles over the last stack of boxes in his way. He staggers to the door, only catching his balance against the sturdy hardwood at the last possible second. Once he is on steady feet again, he opens the door, and he freezes.

Ashton’s slap stings, but Luke isn’t given any time to really react before Ashton draws into him a tight hug. Luke stands unmoving in his hold for a moment, staring at Niall over Ashton’s shoulder. Niall isn’t nearly as happy to see him as Ashton is, evident by the cold glare that’s gracing his face. Tension starts to build around them. Luke thinks he should make an attempt to disperse it before it becomes unbearable, but he isn’t given the chance.

“Hug me back, you asshole,” demands Ashton.

So Luke does, his limbs acting of their own according. Ashton tightens his hold on him. He almost squeezing the air out of Luke’s lungs, and Luke finally rips his gaze from Niall.  He drops head so that he can press his face into Ashton’s shoulder. Familiarity washes over him. He has barely been gone two and a half weeks, but it feels like it has been an eternity.

“God, I’ve missed you, Ash.”

“Doesn’t seem like it. You ignored me the entire time I was gone. I had to jump on the first plane out once the show wrapped up—completely skipping out on all of the rad after parties, by the way—just so I could make damn sure you’d talk to me,” responds Ashton. His voice is a little muffled by Luke’s neck, but the words still land harshly on Luke’s ears, and Luke flinches. Ashton draws back from him. There is a glint in his eyes that suggests Luke isn’t going to like what Ashton is going to say next. “Was the phone too heavy to pick up or something?”

Luke’s blood runs cold. Ashton has always been good at dragging anything out of him, and the tone of Ashton’s voice belies that he already has a pretty good idea of exactly why Luke hasn’t answered any of his phone calls or responded to any of his text messages since he jetted off to the other side of the world with Michael in tow. Ashton is giving Luke his most unimpressed expression. Luke feels a spike of guilt shoot right through him.

“Oh, Ash, you’re not guilt-tripping him already, are you? You haven’t even made it inside yet,” says Calum, appearing behind Luke. For a brief second, Luke sags in relief, happy for his interruption. “And trust me when I say the best past is in here.”

Luke whips around to face Calum, any gratitude he had felt for him disintegrating. Calum has a shit-eating grin on his lips. His cheeks are pink from sitting outside smoking for so long. He has Luke’s duvet draped over his shoulders. He doesn’t look one bit ashamed that he is throwing Luke to the wolves. Quite oppositely, he looks damn proud of himself.

Ashton glances between the two of them suspiciously. He elbows past Luke, and Niall follows him into the house. They both stop just inside of the entryway. For a moment, nobody moves. Nobody says anything. Ashton stares at the boxes cluttering Luke’s living room, at the empty space on his wall that once held the collage of pictures of all of Luke’s friends. Luke stares at Ashton as he takes it all in. Guilt travels through Luke’s veins, and Luke’s lungs feel smaller than usual in his chest.

In the end, it isn’t Ashton who finally breaks the silence but rather Niall. He whips around to face Luke.

“Why are all of your things in boxes? Are you—you’re not moving, are you?”

Luke’s silent, because he supposes Niall’s question is rhetorical given all of the evidence presented before them, but Calum has still not gotten the enjoyment he wants out of this. He has spent the entire evening unhappy, watching Luke painstakingly pack away his entire life, and he has made sure Luke has known his feelings in regard to it all. He isn’t about to pass up the opportunity to triple-team Luke into staying.

“Oh, he’s not just moving. He was going to move and not tell anybody until he was gone.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” snaps Luke at Calum, but his attention is on Ashton, who hasn’t said anything yet. Ashton hasn’t even turned around to look at him, and Luke is starting to get worried. He would have thought Ashton would have been the first to speak up. He feels a shiver of fear across his entire body, because out of everybody, Ashton’s reaction worries him the worst. It is Ashton who Luke cares about the most. 

“Immensely,” agrees Calum.

Luke take his eyes off Ashton long enough to shoot Calum a dirty look, and when he turns back to Ashton, he is looking straight at Luke. Ashton’s expression is blank, but his eyes are cold. Luke swallows the excess spit in his mouth, bracing himself for the worst. He hasn’t been a good friend to Ashton. He deserves whatever it is Ashton wants to throw at him right now—verbally and physically.

“You’re a piece of work, Luke, but I can’t say I didn’t expect as much in the end,” says Ashton, and he doesn’t sound particularly mad, not like Calum had when he’d first found out Luke was moving. Ashton doesn’t sound anything except detached, and Luke thinks it hurts even worse than Ashton’s anger ever could. “You know, we’ve been friends for four years, and you’ve still not told me who Rena is or what the hell she did to you or why I had to pick up the pieces she left behind, so I guess it’s only natural that you wouldn’t tell me about this, either.”

“Ashton—”

“No, Luke. It’s fine, really,” says Ashton in that same detached voice that makes Luke’s toes curl. “I don’t know what the hell is going on with you—I don’t know if I ever really have—but if this is what you want, I’ll respect it. I’ll respect it like I have every other decision you’ve ever made, regardless of whether or not I’ve agreed with it. You want to get out of this city or whatever, and I won’t try to talk you out of it, but, you know, you’re going about it all the wrong ways.”

Ashton has said his part, and he waves off Luke’s attempt to respond. He stares at Luke for the longest time, giving nothing away, and his gaze is still cold. He sighs as he steps forward to press the softest of kiss to Luke’s cheek. It feels like goodbye already. Luke kind of wants to cry right here before them all.

Ashton steps away, and he turns to Niall, and he says, “It looks like it was a wasted trip after all.”

“That’s it?” interrupts Calum, sounding just as enraged as he had earlier when he had blown uninvited into Luke’s home. “You find out this bastard’s moving—that he’s not told anybody in the entire two weeks that he’s fucking known—and all you’ve got to say is that he’s going about it in all the wrong ways? Fucking hell, Ashton. The fact he’s leaving in the first place is wrong. He’s our best friend, dammit!”

“No. My best friend wouldn’t have ignored me while I was gone, and he certainly wouldn’t have conveniently neglected to tell me that he was sleeping with a man he swore up and down he hated, and he most definitely wouldn’t have been a total asshole for the past three weeks.”

“I’ve been the asshole?” demands Luke, staring at Ashton. He feels at a whole loss for the turn of the conversation. It hurts so much that Ashton thinks so lowly of him that he can scarcely breathe. It seems like time itself is slowing down, like seconds last entire minutes and minutes last hours. “He cornered me, and he fucked me up, and he left me, and I’m the fucking asshole?”

“Yes, Luke,” says Ashton, and his voice finally matches the cold of his eyes. “You’re not the one who was choking on their own tears, drunk off their ass in my hotel room over some bastard of a man who’s too afraid to love him back.”

Time slows to a complete halt. There is a fire in Ashton’s eyes, and one lit in Luke’s chest. Luke has never felt so insulted by anybody in his entire life, not even in the days that followed Rena’s funeral when he started to believe people when they told him it was all of his fault she was dead. It isn’t so much different now, faced with Ashton who is blaming him for the catastrophe that was him and Michael together. It hurts ten times as much and then some.

“Get out,” says Luke, because he doesn’t have to listen to anything Ashton might want to blame him for. Not when he’s already blaming himself. Not when Michael’s words I fucking love you are still playing on repeat in his mind. He points to the door, and his finger trembles, but he stands his ground. “Get out now.”

“You’re not—” begins Calum on behalf of Ashton, subdued in the face of Luke’s anger, but Luke isn’t having it.

“I’m serious. Get the fuck out of my house. All of you.”

Luke wants to cry. He wants to break down like he hasn’t let himself do in front of anybody this entire time, but he still won’t. He has his pride if he has nothing else. He’ll cling to it. He’ll fight tooth and nail for it. He wants these people out of his house, these people who have paraded around as his friends for the past four years. He wants them gone almost as much as he, himself, wishes he weren’t here.

It’s Ashton who breaks first. Ashton has never been one for overstaying his welcome, and Luke doesn’t want him here. Ashton doesn’t look at Luke as he obeys the request. He just walks out of Luke’s life with his head held high, and Luke is almost overtaken by the urge to really cry now. He has been a crap friend to Ashton. They’ve broken in all the ways he never thought they would. Ashton isn’t even fighting to get him back. Luke isn’t not sure he wants him to, either, not if things are this bad that Ashton can’t even look him in the eye as he leaves.

Calum sighs. He drops the duvet to the floor where it puddles at his feet. He opens his mouth to say something to Luke, to maybe calm him down. His eyes meet those of Luke’s. In the end, he says nothing. He pats Luke on the shoulder as he follows Ashton. It doesn’t feel as much of a goodbye as Ashton’s exit did, but there is a note of almost-finality to him as well.

It is only Niall left in the entryway with him. The door is standing wide open, because nobody’s bothered to shut it. The icy air of mid-February steals away the warmth of Luke’s heating unit. He doesn’t feel the cold, not really. He doesn’t feel anything except numb—numb over Michael and numb over shoving these people out of his life.

Niall dares to meet Luke’s eyes, and he isn’t making a move toward the door.

“You’re a fucking idiot.”

“Yeah, well, ‘s not exactly news to me, now is it?” Luke retorts. He wants to step forward and grab Niall by the shoulders and push him out of his home, but that would be rude. That would crossing a line that he doesn’t want to even touch, and, besides, Niall deserves better than that.

“He’s just looking out for friend.”

“Funnily enough, I thought I was his friend.”

“Really? Are you this shitty to all your friends, then? Ignoring them for three weeks, fucking somebody behind their backs, and then skipping town without them knowing?” asks Niall, meanly. He pauses to take a breath, but he isn’t finished tearing Luke down. “Because, quite honestly, you’ve not given Ashton a reason to think that you even give a damn about him.”

The ghost of Michael reappears, and it steps in front of Niall, and Luke can’t see beyond it. He can’t hear beyond the words you’d never give me a damn reason to stay. Niall is saying the same to Luke now, only he is in defense of Ashton, and Luke feels a thousand times worse.

“It’s not that easy!” he roars. Niall hiccups in surprise. Ashton and Calum can probably hear him all the way from his driveway, but he doesn’t care. It’s important that he says this now. He might not ever get a chance to again. “Michael fucking hurricaned himself into my damn life, and then he was just gone—no warning, no goodbye. Nothing. He was gone, and I was all alone. Do you know how that feels? Do you know how it feels to be so fucking in love with somebody who doesn’t give a damn about you in return?”

“Oh, let’s pity Luke,” sneers Niall, voice matching Luke’s in volume. “Let’s pity the one man on Earth who thinks that he’s alone in loving somebody who doesn’t love them back. Because surely there can’t be another dumb soul in the entire universe who’s stupid enough to fall in love with somebody who doesn’t feel the same.”

“Don’t mock me,” he snaps. “You don’t know anything. You haven’t been in a relationship for the entire time I’ve known you. I mean, you’ve had your head so far up Ashton’s ass that you’ve—oh, holy fuck. You’re in love with Ashton.”

The color fades from Niall’s face. The fighting stance he had adopted disappears instantly, and he shrinks in front of Luke, eyes wide like a scared child. Luke has hit the nail on the head, but he doesn’t feel as victorious as he might have thought he would. He is overwhelmed with a feeling of sympathy, because this man standing before him is wearing his shoes. He knows all too well how devastating it is to offer your heart to somebody who couldn’t care less to have it.

Fuck, Niall. How long?”

“I don’t know—forever?” whispers Niall, and he sounds halfway between humiliated and relieved, like he is finally getting this off his chest. He glances over his shoulder toward the driveway where Ashton and Calum are huddled against the car, closer than typical friends stand. When he turns back to face Luke, the light in his eyes are dimmed.  “It’s not the same, though, you and me. Ashton. He doesn’t like me back. I mean, he’s been practically dating Calum for years. I’ve got no chance in hell, really, and I’m just pathetic thinking otherwise.”

“You’re not,” says Luke. He feels his own heart break on behalf of Niall. It doesn’t matter what he says to comfort him. They both know Niall’s words are true. Ashton and Calum have always been more than just friends and, if not for Ashton’s crazy work schedule that keeps him out of the country over half of the year, they’d probably be even more.

Niall smiles sadly at Luke, but it’s different than the other sad smiles Luke has received over the past couple of weeks. There is no pity in it. There is just sadness, age-old grief that Niall has carried around with him for too long spilling into his expression.

“Michael loves you,” says Niall. “He might not ever tell you, not while he’s sober at least, but he’s fucking in love with you. He spent the entire trip moping over you, getting grouchy over the stupidest things, obsessing over your show. It killed him to see you with Louis, and he got even grumpier. He withdrew into himself, and I swear I confiscated like twelve bottles of partially drank alcohol from his room over the past week. He didn’t really say why, for the longest time, he was so heavy on the bottle, and then this afternoon—or well, morning here I suppose—he just… he just lost it completely. He saw those pictures of you and Louis going out on a date last night—on Valentine’s Day like a proper couple—and I think it was finally too much.”

Luke feels his knees go weak. His chest knots up, and it’s hard to breathe, and he has to reach for the door handle for support so that he doesn’t crumble to the floor. He hears Niall words, and he pictures Michael devastated and heartbroken just like Luke himself was, and it’s not painted to be a pretty sight at all. He wants to vomit right here, all over his own hardwood floors, possibly even on Niall’s designer shoes.

He thinks he should say something. He should tell Niall to stop talking about this. That it’s too late, really. That Michael has no right to claim a broken heart when he is the one that left. When Michael is the one who didn’t say goodbye. But he can’t find his voice. Niall continues to speak.

“Luke, I’ve known Michael since we were in diapers. I was there when he got his first kiss. I comforted him when the first guy he slept with left him broken hearted two days later. I watched him go through strings of men and of women throughout college, never settling down, always eager for the next pretty face. I’ve seen how he’s claimed he’s hated you since the moment you all met, but I’ve also seen how he’s been lying this entire time.”

Niall pauses, and he stares into Luke’s eyes so intensely. It’s like he is looking for something. Luke has still lost his voice, the pictures in his mind playing like a movie reel as Niall tells the story of Michael that Luke has never been privy to. Something deep inside him aches. He wishes he did know these tales that shaped Michael into the man he is today. But the thing about hating somebody for four years, Luke has never gotten these stories.

“He’s good at that, you know—lying,” says Niall, and Luke thinks he does know this. “He’s gotten better over the years. You’ve certainly given him enough reason to, with the way you two have carried on. But you know what I think? Michael has only claimed to hate you, because you blasted into Ashton’s life, and you were this amazing person, and he couldn’t help but get a little star struck by you. By how you commanded an entire room without even trying. I think he fell in love with you that very first day, but I think he thought you’d never give him the time of the day, so to protect himself from you breaking his heart, he decided to make you hate him anyway—I think he always figured you’d hate him either way.”

Niall’s words cut him deep, and he doesn’t really know how to take them. He doesn’t know how he feels, because, yes, he’s fallen head over heels in love with Michael. He’s spent the past two weeks haunted by the man’s ghost, but in the end, he was the one who Michael left. He was the one who had to wake up alone in a bed that smelled like their sex and pick up the shattered pieces Michael had left behind.

Maybe he’s wanted to hear these words since Michael left—the truth that Michael did love him all along, that it wasn’t just hate between them for four years. Or maybe he’s wanted to hear them longer than that, even. Maybe he’s wanted to hear them ever since that first night Michael shoved him up against the doorframe in Ashton’s guest room and kissed him. Because if he’d known this all along, everything might have been easier. Everything might have been different.

But he hasn’t known these words, and now that he has, he’s not sure what to do with them. The truth is they terrify him. They frighten him right to the bones, and he doesn’t know what to say in response to Niall. He isn’t sure how he is supposed to force his voice around the lump of fear in his throat.

He wants to be alone. He is so tired. Between Ashton’s dismissal and Niall’s news, Luke is so done with this day. On some level, he acknowledges the fact that he and Michael are in the same city once again, and that is almost more terrifying than Niall telling Luke that Michael is in love with him, that he has been this entire time and Luke himself was blind. It is all too much.

It is all too fucking much, and all Luke wants to do is crawl into his bed and just stare up at the ceiling and let his thoughts run unhindered a million miles per hour through his mind as he tries to get a grasp on the reality presented before him. He can’t do that. Not with Niall still here. Not with Ashton and Calum still fuming in his driveway. Not with the ghost of Michael still haunting him.

 “I think, um—I think I need some time to myself,” says Luke. His voice shakes as much as he expects it, and a couple of the words get stuck in his throat. “Just, um—just need to—”

“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” asks Niall.

He lays his hand on Luke’s shoulder, and Luke melts into it. He feels like he is half of a second from losing it all. The only thing really weighing him down is this familiar touch of a friend who isn’t mad at him for any reason now. It is strange, really, how a shared heartache can rally people together, but Luke thinks about how much it must hurt Niall to see Ashton with Calum all of the time—to see the love alive and obvious between them—and he thinks about his own hurt whenever Michael crosses his mind, and he understands why Niall has rallied for them. Why Niall has spilled Michael’s deepest, darkest secret.

“What if it’s too late?”

The question falls from Luke’s lips without first passing through his brain-to-mouth filter, and he blushes bright red all the way to his ears. He wants to take it back, wants to reach out into the space between them and wrap his hands around those words—around his insecurities—and hide them from Niall and everybody else. Niall is looking at him like Luke is the most pitiful thing in the entire world. Luke hates the look on Niall, especially directed at him, and he wishes he wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.

Michael has fucked him up so bad.

“It isn’t.”

“But what if it is?” Luke asks.

He can’t stop himself. He shivers. He tells himself it is because it is cold, and they’re still standing in the entryway with the door propped wide open. That isn’t the whole truth. Luke isn’t that good at lying to himself.

Niall scrunches up his face. His eyebrows are furrowed. There are wrinkle lines across his forehead, and he chews on his bottom lip. It’s a long moment before he replies.

“I think the fact that you’re even asking me this means it’s not too late. It means you don’t want it to be, and I don’t think Michael wants it to be, either.”

Niall sounds so sure of his words that Luke can’t bring himself to voice his insecurities again. He nods, ducking his head so that he doesn’t have to look Niall in the eyes any longer. It is much easier to keep his demons of insecurity quiet when he isn’t faced with Niall’s open, pitying expression.

“Just go talk to him, okay?” suggests Niall, almost apprehensively. He starts to walk properly toward the door now, sensing that he has said his part and it is Luke’s turn to take hold of the reins. Niall glances at the stacks of boxes scattered around the living room. “Don’t just leave and think that’ll be the end. It won’t be, you know, because this thing with Michael? That’s the kind of shit you carry around with you no matter where you go.”

Niall says nothing else. He shuts the door behind him and leaves Luke to the loneliness of his half-packed house. Luke doesn’t move for the longest time. The chill still hangs in the air. A car starts up in his driveway, and then another one does. They’re both gone within minutes, and Luke is completely, one hundred percent alone.

But he’s not really. He staggers to the couch, dragging the abandoned duvet with him, and plops down on his makeshift bed. He leans back against the cushions. When he closes his eyes, there is Michael, smiling that shit-eating grin that has haunted Luke for the past week and a half. He can hear Michael’s voice in his mind: I love you! I fucking love you, but you’d never give me a damn reason to stay! I had to leave! It plays on a loop over and over and over again until Luke almost can’t take it.

He throws himself across the couch, pressing his face against the worn fabric of the armrest. He prays for the oblivion of sleep, but it doesn’t come. It is just him and the ghost of Michael and the memory of Niall telling him that Michael loves him and has loved him this entire time, and it is everything Luke has wanted to hear over the past week and a half.

It is.

But it is everything he wishes he didn’t know. He is supposed to be leaving the city for good in less than forty-eight hours. As much as Niall had insisted it wasn’t too late for him and Michael, Luke can’t help but to feel like it is. His life is already half-packed away in the boxes scattered around his home.

It is obvious that sleep isn’t going to come. Luke feels restless. It is half past eleven o’clock in the night. He still has to do his show tomorrow, so he is going to need to be up in exactly five hours. He feels bone dead tired, but his mind won’t stop. It won’t rest. At the epicenter of it all is Michael and how broken Michael had sounded over the phone this very morning and how Michael is undoubtedly in the very same city Luke is right now.

Luke lets his mind drift with this. He thinks about what Michael is doing now. If he is with Harry, who was conspicuously absent in the party to greet Luke and Calum. Or if he is alone, too tired of being forced into tight quarters with everybody that he has had to get away by himself. That he has had to lock himself away in his own fancy apartment all alone. Or if, maybe, he is crashing at Ashton’s home, because nobody really trusts him to be by himself after he had called Luke drunk and crying this morning.

Luke tosses and turns on the couch, though the furniture isn’t really big enough for him to move too much. His mind doesn’t rest. It won’t rest, not with Michael saturating his every pore. Dozens of possibilities of Michael’s current whereabouts flood his mind, but there is only one thing Luke can fixate upon: wherever Michael is, he isn’t here, and Luke wishes he were, even after everything, and that is probably the worst part of it all.

Chapter Text

Luke shows up to the station for his second to last show ever exactly two minutes early. He has just enough time to take his seat and note Calum standing all alone in the far corner watching his every move. There’s no time now to call him out on it, but Luke thinks that maybe he should later, after the cameras are done rolling. He has spent the past week completely isolated from his best friend, and he is going to be gone from the city tomorrow, and he is not going to leave things stilted as they are between him and Calum.

Casey is digging in the drawer next to him. He produces the roll of invisible tape he had been searching for. He starts to shut the drawer, but a shiny glint of light catches Luke’s eye, and he grabs Casey’s wrist before he can do so. Casey looks up at Luke in surprise. Luke ignores him and snatches the penguin figurine from its resting place. He holds it gently in his hand for a moment before he sets it in its old spot next to his name tag. Emsie the penguin sits proudly in its usual spot for the first time in over two weeks.

The cameras start rolling, and Luke jumps head-first into his job, but he’s acutely aware that everybody in the entire studio is gawking at him. Emsie’s absence hasn’t gone unnoticed to anyone. Calum’s gaze is the heaviest of them all. When there is a breather during the weather, Calum doesn’t fail to make a bee line straight to him.

“Is there something I can help you with?” asks Luke, looking up at Calum, whose attention is on the penguin figurine on the tabletop. Luke glances down at it briefly then back up at Calum, and when he does, he meets Calum’s eyes. There is something glinting deep in them. Luke gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Liam said we’re planning a going away party for you tomorrow, still.”

“What do you want from me?” asks Luke. The sinking feeling in his stomach isn’t going away. If anything, underneath Calum’s intense gaze, it’s getting worse. Somewhere in the back of Luke’s mind, he is thankful, at least, that Calum is not ignoring him like he has been for the past week. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was leaving. I’m sorry you had to find it out yourself.”

“But not sorry enough to stay in town?”

“I can’t stay here,” says Luke immediately, the words rolling off his tongue on instinct. “Not when—”

“When what? When your entire life’s here?” challenges Calum. There is a fire in his eyes, and it reminds Luke of Calum’s anger in the face of Ashton’s acceptance yesterday. Calum’s gaze flashes down to the penguin on the table. “Or when Michael’s in the same city again?”

Luke grimaces, and just like that—by the mere mention of the man’s name—the ghost of Michael is right here again. He closes his eyes, but Michael’s there, too. His chest hurts. He thinks about Michael living and breathing in the same city, and it just sucks that he’s still being haunted by the ghost of the man.

“Look, I don’t know what all he’s told you—”

“A whole lot of nothing.”

“But it’s a little too late. Me and him, we didn’t quite work out, now, did we?”

“Never really gave it a good shot, now, did you?” returns Calum, and it’s not fair at all. He mimics Luke’s wince, like he knows exactly how deeply his words cut. He doesn’t bother taking them back. It wouldn’t matter if he did or not. They’re still true. He picks up the penguin figurine, and he runs a finger along the line of its clear wing. “It’s funny, you know. This penguin. You named it after Michael, and you didn’t even know it.”

“What? No, I didn’t. I—”

“Ashton knew exactly what he was getting you to agree to.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“No? Then why did you hide this away in your drawer for the past two weeks? Why are you just bringing it out now?”

“You know, I think I preferred it when we weren’t talking,” says Luke, but he doesn’t really mean it. Not really. He had been so lonely stuck in the city without even Calum as company, and he tries not to think about how lonely he is going to be in the next few months in the new city as he starts over. Calum won’t be in the new city. Nobody will.

“Did you and Michael even talk?” asks Calum. “Because Lord knows you don’t talk to me, and you haven’t been talking to Ashton, and I bet if I called up Louis, he’d say you didn’t really talk to him, either. You know, to talk for a living, you’ve got this strange tendency to avoid important conversations when they matter.”

“Are you quite done picking apart my dazzling character traits? Or would you like pen and paper to keep track of them?”

Calum raises his eyebrows at him, clearly unimpressed, and he says, “You’re doing it again. Do you even notice it? Like is this a thing you do for shits and giggles just to piss people off?”

Luke grimaces. His eyes flash to the countdown clock above the camera. It isn’t close enough to zero for him to justifiably shoo Calum away from the desk so that he can avoid the conversation at hand. He knows he has a knack for avoiding important topics. It is how he has survived the last eight years, honestly. He would rather not have it thrown back in his face, especially not this early in the morning by one of his best friends.

“This is about Ashton, isn’t it? About what he said yesterday?” asks Luke, sighing. He doesn’t have need of the question, really, because he already knows the answer, and the way Calum averts his gaze only confirms Luke’s suspicions. “I’ll head over to his place first thing after work, all right?”

“Are you sure you don’t need that precious time to unpack?”

Luke rolls his eyes. He doesn’t bother responding. They’re out of time anyway. He doesn’t have to wave Calum away. Calum leaves of his own accord, his part having been said. He’s as in-tuned to the routine of the morning show as Luke himself is. He is a professional. He can just as easily make Luke feel guilty by glaring at him from his corner.

The countdown clock lands on zero. The music plays, and Luke does the lead-in. It is hard to fathom not doing this after tomorrow, but that is his life. He is a little anxious about getting into a new routine at the parent station. It will take some getting used to. There is so much he won’t have in the new city that he has here. He has gotten so used to working alongside Casey and Miranda that he isn’t sure how well he will adapt to new people.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t looking forward to a fresh start.

They wrap up the show after a while, and it’s time for Luke to turn his chair over to Nick. He packs Emsie away in the drawer, placing it gently down in its resting spot. He isn’t sure whether or not he is going to take Emsie with him or if, in light of Calum’s latest news, it would be better all around to just pass the penguin figurine on as a parting gift to his successor. That, though, is tomorrow’s problem.

He slips past Nick on his way to the door, and he catches up to Calum at the elevator. It is not so easy to breathe now, not with how Luke’s mind tarries on the exact moment when he and Calum stood in this very spot and broke so terribly. They’re not broken now, or, at least, they’re not as broken, but Luke still can’t catch his breath until they’re both inside of the elevator and it’ is descending.

They’re not alone in the elevator, so they’re quiet. Though there are dozens of things they should talk about right now, all of them are things that other people don’t need to be privy to. They stand side-by-side staring up at the numbers slowly counting down the floors. The elevator stops two stories down to let out the other three people inside. Nobody else gets on. They’re by themselves for this precious moment. Luke is riding this to the ground, but Calum is getting off on the next floor down.

“Just talk, all right?” says Calum finally, his voice taking on a note of desperation that sounds eerie falling from his lips. “I swear we’re gonna listen, like if that’s your issue.”

That isn’t his problem, but Luke doesn’t tell him as much. He just nods, acquiescing. The real issue is that he has made it a habit not to talk about Rena and not to talk about Michael and not to talk about anything that really matters to him, because he is so fucking terrified of losing everything. He has spent the last eight years telling himself that he’ll be fine as long as he doesn’t get too attached. He can’t lose something that doesn’t mean that much to him. It can’t hurt him.

Only it can, and it has, and he hasn’t done a good job of holding Michael at arm’s length like he has done with everything else in his life. Maybe that was his downfall. Maybe that moment right at the beginning in Ashton’s guest room when Michael shoved him up against the doorframe and kissed him like there was no tomorrow—maybe that was the beginning of the end.

Maybe Calum is right. Maybe he does need to start talking.

The elevator dings The doors split open, revealing a long, empty corridor. Calum doesn’t immediately get out. He stares at Luke until Luke finally musters up the courage to look back. Calum has that awful look about him, the one that makes Luke want to fall to his knees and beg his forgiveness. The one that makes Luke want to spill all of his deepest, darkest secrets. Luke swallows the spit that has gathered in his mouth, and he averts his gaze before he starts vomiting up his most fiercely guarded thoughts.

Calum isn’t really the person he owes this explanation to anyhow. Not now at least. Maybe one day in the future Luke will tell him everything of his past. Or maybe Luke won’t have to. Maybe Calum will find out on his own accord.

“You’re my best friend, you know that, right?” asks Calum. It’s an odd moment of vulnerability between them, but Calum’s face is open and honest when Luke lifts his gaze again. “It was supposed to be me and you until the end, but now… Just… I still don’t think you should leave. No matter how badly Michael fucked you up—no matter how much you think you need to get away—you’re not thinking clearly, and in a week from now or a month or, hell, a year, you’re going to wake up and wish you were back home with all of us. Don’t put yourself into that position.”

“I’ve got a flight out tomorrow evening. I’m expected to start the new job on Friday morning. I can’t—Calum, it’s too late.”

Calum opens his mouth like he wants to argue more, but in the end, he says nothing more. He nods once, a gesture of farewell, before he exits the elevator. The doors shut almost instantly, as if they had only been held open for so long out of courtesy. It is another minute or so before the elevator finally stops on the ground floor, freeing Luke.

The lobby is bustling with activity. Luke skirts around it all, keeping his gaze set firmly on the exit to discourage anybody from attempting to flag him down to discuss work. He is done for the day. He needs to get home and pack up the rest of his house, but he has to make a stop first. He can’t really afford to be hung up at the station.

Outside on the sidewalk, he hails the first cab he can. He rattles off the address to the drive. The roads to his destination are familiar. Luke stares out the window at the passing scenery. He tries not to think about how this might be the last time he’ll ever take these exact streets. After tomorrow, he will be gone.

The cab stops right up front. Luke pays his fare, and he climbs out. He stands on the curb as the taxi cab drives off. He stares at the house before him. The last time he was here, he had stormed out in the wake of Michael’s cutting words. Michael had gotten the best of him that day, but Luke supposes the awful truth of everything is that Michael gets the best of him on any given day.

It takes a monumental effort to make the first step toward the front door, but by some miracle, Luke does it. It is easy to cross the rest of the distance. He hovers on the front step for a moment and just stares at the frosted glass of the door. He takes a deep, calming breath. He thinks of Rena and how he should have told this story a long, long time ago. He pressed the doorbell. He can hear it echoing inside the house.

Ashton opens the door a moment later, dressed in a pair of long pajama pants and Calum’s old university sweatshirt. He looks soft and friendly for just a fraction of a second before he truly realizes who is standing on his front steps. He looks like coming home—like Luke’s best friend—like the man that Luke isn’t really sure he can live without. But then realization dawns upon Ashton, and his face hardens. He opens his mouth to say something—probably to kick him out before he has even let him in—but Luke can’t let Ashton talk first. Luke needs to say his part right now before he chickens out.

“Her name was Rena Lovelis, and she’s dead because of me.”

It isn’t the introduction Luke had ever thought he would give his dead friend, especially not to Ashton. While he has maintained that he doesn’t want to talk about Rena to anybody, he has considered how he might approach the subject of her death one day in the far-off future. That day has come, but it’s nothing like Luke ever fantasized. He never thought he would be standing out in the icy cold air of a mid-February afternoon on the doorstep of his best friend’s house, desperate to make amends, or at least to explain himself, before he leaves all of this behind him.

“It’s a bit of a long story. Mind if I come in?” asks Luke.

It hurts him that he even has to ask Ashton. He has never had to before. There is a brief second in which Ashton doesn’t respond either way. Luke gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Ashton is going to turn him away. Luke has been so awful to him over the past few weeks, probably even longer, so Luke can’t say he doesn’t deserve Ashton’s cold shoulder. He has lied to Ashton about Michael and about moving and about Rena. He never used to lie to Ashton this much.

But Ashton steps back, motioning for Luke to come in. Relief floods Luke’s body, almost overwhelming the anxiety that had built up in his chest from the idea of finally talking about Rena. He lets this feeling of relief guide him into the living room, where he is not one bit surprised to see Niall lounged across the couch. Niall starts to get up, offering them privacy, but Luke holds up his hand. He understands Niall so much better now, and he doesn’t mind if Niall knows this story, too. Everybody will by the time it is all over.

Luke sits down in the arm chair across from the couch. Ashton sits next to Niall. Luke doesn’t speak for a moment, choosing instead to unabashedly observe how Niall unconsciously fits himself around Ashton like Ashton is his own personal sun. His own source of life. Luke’s heart aches on Niall’s behalf. It is awful being in love with somebody who can’t return it.

Ashton shifts, impatient. Luke’s eyes snap to him, and he can see the doubt in them that suggests Ashton is second-thinking having even given Luke a chance in the first place. Luke visibly winces. Ashton doesn’t react, just continues to stare at Luke and to doubt his choice. Luke has really fucked things up.

“She died in November, eight years ago.”

“I know,” says Ashton. “We saw your interview with Nia.”

Luke winces again. He really should have told Ashton this story a long time ago, long before Nia ever resurfaced in his life. It isn’t any easier to think about Nia now than it has been in the last few years. Even after having spoken with her, after having thrown the hatchet into a shallow grave between them, she reminds him of Rena in all of the wrong ways.

“We’d lived together all throughout college, and we had this great plan to conquer this city together, and there’s nobody I’d rather have had as my right hand man than Rena. We were thick as thieves,” says Luke. Every word is painful, but he pushes forward. “We graduated together, walked side-by-side right up to get our diplomas, because we were that dependent upon one another. We lived in this, like, tiny apartment. It was advertised as a two-bedroom, but my room was barely bigger than a closet. No lie. Hers wasn’t much better. We’d moved in together our freshman year of college, and we always said we’d move out one day into a place that had room for a full sized refrigerator in the kitchen and for an actual shower in the bathroom, not just a showerhead above a drain.

“That day never came. Life changes after graduation, you know. You lose track of friends. People move away, and you meet new ones, and suddenly we were six months out of graduation, and I had my first gig at the station, pushing papers in the basement. Rena started working at the record company just down from the station. She met a man there. His name was Gale, and it wasn’t just Rena and me anymore.”

Luke has to stop to catch his breath, to calm his heart pounding in his chest. This is the part he doesn’t like remembering. This is why he doesn’t tell this story. He closes his eye. When he opens them again, he looks straight at Ashton. To Ashton’s credit, he merely passively back Luke and gives nothing away. Luke glances over at Niall, just to make sure he is still listening, too.

“I should have known from the very beginning that something was wrong. It’s just… People like Gale, they don’t exist in real life, you know? He led on to the entire world like he was this perfect species of a man concerned with third world hunger and juvenile poverty and a whole slew of other charitable issues that everybody should really be concerned with, but, deep down, he wasn’t like that at all. He didn’t give a fuck about anybody. He got off on being superior to everyone around him. He was a sociopath, and he was so, so mean to Rena. It was always in the backwards compliment sort of way. Like, he’d tell her she’d look good in a pair of jeans if only they were a darker wash. Or he’d tell her that she may have been good at some things but not this thing in particular. That sort of shit.”

This is the most Luke’s ever said about the story of Rena, and he isn’t really sure he is even getting his point across, but neither Ashton nor Niall have interrupted him thus far. He hasn’t thought of Gale as a human being in so long that he had almost forgotten about the man’s self-proclaimed humanity. He had demonized Gale in the days after Rena’s death, and he had never bothered allowing the man any redemption in his mind. Gale didn’t deserve it, really. He had taken Rena from Luke. That was the worst thing anyone could have ever done.

“He was very genial when he was out in public. He was nice when others were around, and for the longest time I didn’t even realize who he really was in private—and I lived with Rena. Things went from bad to worse, and I tried to be there for Rena. I tried to patch her up when he turned violent. I tried to cover for her when she just needed a breather. I tried to get her out, but I couldn’t. It was too late. Gale had grown into too big of a monster. I was powerless, really, to do anything except watch my best friend die.”

He stops talking for a moment. He squeezes his eyes shut, and there is Rena splayed out in a pool of her own blood on the cheap linoleum of their shoebox apartment. It is an image that has haunted him for the past eight years. It is no less vivid right now in Ashton’s house than it was the day he saw it.

“It took me a year and a half to work my way up out of the basement. The promotion was great. It meant more money, and it meant Rena and I could finally move out of that forsakenly tiny apartment. We celebrated my promotion with a bottle of cheap champagne, just the two of us. In that moment, it really was just the two of us again, and it was good.

“But things don’t always stay that way. I started traveling a lot for my new job. I was away from home for weeks at a time, and I didn’t mind it, not really. I got to see sights in the world that I wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise, so I liked it. I liked it so much until one day I came home from an assignment in London, and the door to the apartment was standing open. Something was wrong, so I went in, and—and—”

He chokes over his words. In his mind, he is haunted by Rena’s dead blue eyes staring vacantly up at the ceiling. He is haunted by the blood that still stains his memories of her. He is not sure he can tell this story after all. Not if it hurts this much. Not if eight years haven’t dulled the sharp ache of loss.

Ashton lays his hand on Luke’s knee. Luke jumps, eyes flying open to meet Ashton’s gaze. Ashton’s own eyes are watering with tears that he doesn’t let fall. This is Luke’s story, yes, but Luke is Ashton’s best friend, and that is reason enough to share his pain. Luke lets his gaze drop to Ashton’s hand on his knee. He draws strength from the touch. He takes a deep breath and readies himself to power through to the end.

“He used one of our kitchen knives. There was blood everywhere, and the entire apartment stank of it. It stank of blood and stale cigarettes, and I’ll never forget the stench. Oh, fuck, I’ll never forget anything from that day, because the thing is—the thing that Nia Lovelis herself wasn’t afraid to tell me at Rena’s funeral—it was my fault. Rena died because of me. I left her alone, too caught up in my own world adventures to keep an eye on her like I should have. I could’ve—I could’ve done so much more to protect her from that bastard of a man, and I didn’t. I didn’t do anything except pat her back and tell her that it was all going to get better. I fucking lied to my best friend, and she died because of it. Now, every fucking November I get a damn newsletter in the mail from that conference I’d been gone to when Rena was killed, and it hurts all over again.”

He hiccups out a sob, and he is done with talking about Rena. Forever, probably. It is too painful. He is thinking about all of the small details he had forced himself to forget in favor of preserving his sanity in the weeks that followed her death. How she had only been wearing a single black boot, its mate abandoned near her bedroom door, probably lost in the scuffle that had taken place. How she had fought Gale so desperately she had broken her right hand. How her fingers pointed in unnatural directions. How the mascara ran down the sides of her face like it did when that time they were nineteen and carefree and splitting a bottle of Jack, both laid out on their small patio, lying side-by-side staring up at the city-lit night sky and laughing at anything and everything in the world.

These things are the hardest for him to remember. They cut him deeper. They remind him that Rena really did exist once upon a time as a living, breathing human being who always had Luke’s back. She isn’t only a dead woman that Luke didn’t try hard enough to save. She was real. She had lived, and he had been privileged to know her but not anymore.

“That’s a load of shit, Luke,” says Ashton. His voice wavers, and he draws in a sharp breath to stave off the tears that are threatening to spill over his lashes. He tightens his hand on Luke’s knee, like Ashton needs the physical contact as much as Luke does. “You didn’t kill Rena. You couldn’t have known you’d come back to that. Nobody could’ve.”

Luke bites down hard on his bottom lip. He so badly wants to contradict Ashton, because he should have known. He knew how Gale was, how Gale treated Rena. It really is all of Luke’s fault.

“What happened to Gale?” asks Niall, purposefully directing the conversation elsewhere.

Luke looks over at Niall and sees that he, too, looks like he might start crying. Luke wants to laugh at the absurdity of it all. He would if the situation weren’t so somber. He hadn’t come over here to make anybody cry. He hasn’t ever wanted anybody, much less Ashton or Niall or any of his friends, to feel the hurt that he carries around every day. 

“He’s dead.”

“Good,” snaps Ashton.

He looks every bit like he means it, and Niall nods his head agreeably. Luke tries for a smile, because he shares their opinion. He is glad Gale is dead. It doesn’t hurt as much to talk about this part of Gale’s role in the story, even if it ended shitty.

“Yeah, um, it was a car accident about a month after Rena’s death. He wasn’t even ever charged with anything.”

Ashton and Niall wince in synchronization, like their responses are directly linked together through some unknown force. Luke takes a mental step back from the narrative of Rena, and he considers his friends before him. He doesn’t know how he’s been so blind to Niall’s adoration of Ashton all this time, because it’s stark before him now. 

“The world’s just fucked up sometimes, I guess,” adds Luke in a closing statement.

He is partially talking about Rena and Gale and how there was really never any justice for her death other than the comfort that the monster who had stolen her life had lost his own not too long thereafter. Mostly, Luke is referring to how love is fucked up, how one person can fall head over heels in love with another but the other not care a thing in the world to return it. How Ashton is Niall’s entire world, but Ashton is so hung up on Calum that he himself can’t see anything beyond Calum. How Luke fell so fast and so hard for Michael, but Michael left so easily.

Maybe it is this city that is fucking everything up. Luke lost Rena here. Niall has spent forever chasing after Ashton only to lose him to Calum, their best friend. Luke fell in love here himself, and Michael fucked him up, and maybe it is this city that draws out the worst in people. It is time he leaves it. He has nothing left to give it. He is tired of letting it take everything away from him and from his friends. He is so, so done being haunted by Michael and by memories of Rena.

He has done the last thing he needed to do. He has made his amends with Ashton. He has given him the story he has owed to Ashton since that very first night when Ashton found him drunk off his ass in the park. Luke done right by Ashton finally, and it is time that he move on.

It is time he left.

Ashton seems to read his mind. He stands up just as Luke does and draws him into a hug before Luke can say his farewells. Luke melts into it, and he tries not to think about how this might be the last time in a long time that he will get to enjoy one of Ashton’s hugs. He is moving away tomorrow. Ashton still has a job that flies him all around the world, and it is going to be hard finding time to get together in the spaces between their lives.

Luke breaks the hug first, feeling the urge to sob over this goodbye. He won’t allow himself to, because this isn’t goodbye. Not really. They’ll still talk over the phone and through video calls. People like Ashton, they’re worth keeping around. So he turns to hug Niall as well, holding out his hand to pull Niall up into his arms. He holds onto Niall extra tightly. He wants to tell Niall that it will all be all right, this thing Niall has with Ashton. Luke doesn’t say a word, because Ashton is right here, and Luke doesn’t believe it himself.

He steps back from Niall, and they share a sad smile between them, finding solace in the common ground they have nurtured together through their heartaches. It is sad that they never really, truly understood one another until it was too late. But there is no sense in tarrying on it. There is nothing Luke can do now except go back home and pack up the last of his belongings. Niall and Ashton walk him to the door, because that is what one does with friends that one isn’t not going to see again for a long time.

Luke reaches for the doorknob, and Ashton’s voice stops him.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t ask, but, dammit, Luke. I have to. Why don’t you just stay?”

Luke freezes, his hand tightening on the doorknob. His body tenses. These are the words he so selfishly wanted to hear last night when Ashton stormed out of his house instead. It hurts more than Luke had expected, getting what he wanted but not being able to oblige the request.

“Please,” adds Ashton. It is a flat-out beg like Luke has never hear fall from Ashton’s lips, but Ashton is losing his best friend to a whole new life. “Just stay.”

Luke can’t bring himself to turn around to look at Ashton, because his answer has to be no, but he isn’t sure he can say it to Ashton’s face. Luke can’t stay here.

“I’m sorry, Ash,” he says, and then he lets himself out of Ashton’s house for the last time.

He doesn’t quite know how he makes it home. He takes the bus into the city then hails a cab to his house. He thinks about Ashton’s plea the entire way, and it’s only through sheer will that he doesn’t turn on his heel and run back to Ashton. But Luke stands by his decision. This city isn’t good for him. He has a chance to get out of it—a chance to move a place where he can finally start picking up the pieces of his shattered life that were left in the wake of Michael two weeks ago—and he has to take it. He will go insane if he doesn’t.

He pays the cab driver his fare before he gets out. He walks deliberately up to his front door. He thinks about all the things he has left to do in this place, about all of the things he isn’t going to be able to pack up before he leaves tomorrow and about getting the house ready to sell and about a hundred other things that he won’t be able to settle before his move. He digs his keys out of his pocket, slips the right one into the lock, and lets himself inside.

He stops in the doorway, feet glued to the ground. The light is on in the living room, and Luke knows for certain that he didn’t leave it on this morning. He hadn’t even bothered with it, still half-asleep as he had gone about his morning routine. The television is playing a game show that he can’t stomach any more, and there is a shiny metal key lying on Luke’s coffee table.

There, seated on the couch like he never really left, is Michael in the flesh for the first time in over two and a half weeks.

Chapter Text

Luke has stepped into a sort of alternate universe. There is no other explanation for it. There is no other reason for Michael on his couch right now in the living room that is stuffed full of boxes containing Luke’s life to be hauled away to a brand new city. Luke is vaguely aware of the icy February air seeping into the house through the open door, so he steps far enough inside to shut it. It is something normal to do, anyway. It is something to balance out the absolute absurdity of the picture of Michael right here in front of him—a picture he hasn’t seen in over two and a half weeks. 

“So it’s true then,” says Michael, daring to break the silence. He sounds just like he never left. His voice is soft in the serenity of the house. He is looking at Luke like he is looking straight through Luke to his very soul. It is hard to equate this man who is so in control of himself right now with the man who had cried over the phone to Luke just yesterday morning. “You really are leaving.”

Luke nods. He is pretty sure that much is evident from the boxes surrounding the pair of them. He can’t quite find his voice, not now when faced with this reality. With Michael so real and so alive before him on his couch like he has every right to be there. The ghost of Michael—the apparition that has haunted Luke throughout the city since the man himself left—merges back into the real thing before Luke’s eyes. There is no need for a memory to haunt him now, not with Michael seated on his couch.

“And you weren’t going to tell anybody?”

“Oh, you’re a great one to talk,” snaps Luke, and he has finally found his voice. It is nowhere as painful as he might have expected it would be to be faced with Michael again. Maybe there isn’t much left for him to feel after the emotional rollercoaster that has been his life since the morning he woke up alone in a bed that smelled like sex. All that is left is the indignation, a flash of humiliation, that he wasn’t enough for Michael to stay. That has been the kicker the entire time. “You’re the one who left me—or have you forgotten?”

Michael’s face clouds over. He bites his bottom lip. He doesn’t have an immediate response, not like Luke might have expected him to. He is a million miles away from the man who had shoved Luke up against the doorframe of Ashton’s guest bedroom, fierce and unabashed in his frenzy. It has been a long time since that moment, but it is burned into Luke’s mind. Into Luke’s soul. He suspects it is in Michael’s, as well.

Michael shifts uncomfortably. He drops his gaze from Luke to his own lap. He looks a little like a chastened school kid. Luke takes the opportunity of Michael’s distraction to really look at the man before him. The bright overhead light does nothing to hide the truth. There are bags underneath Michael’s eyes like he hasn’t slept in two and a half weeks, and there is a tense set to his shoulders that has never been there before.

Somewhere deep down inside, Luke’s selfishly glad he isn’t the only one who has been through hell.

“Kinda hard to forget when you’re always there, isn’t it?” murmurs Michael, but the game show has been silenced, and there is nothing else in the entire house to hinder his words from reaching Luke’s ears. He seems to grow brave hearing his own voice. He dares to look at Luke and meet his eyes again, and that man who illicitly kissed him in Ashton’s guest bedroom is back.

There is a fire burning in Michael’s eyes, one that Luke hasn’t seen since that very first night when Luke’s mouth tasted like vodka and fire but Michael kissed him anyway. Michael stands now from the couch, and he stalks across the room to draw up short of Luke. Up close, he looks even more run-down. His skin is paler than it should be, especially given the amount of sun he had been exposed to in Australia. His bottom lip is raw and chapped, as if he’s spent his entire time away chewing on it.

Luke wants to kiss him. He shouldn’t want to, not with the past week and a half between them, but he does. The realization nearly brings him to his knees. Everything crashes over him at once—all of the heartache, the empty feeling in his chest when he woke that awful morning to find Michael already gone, the way Michael haunted him from half of a world away.

It is only him and Michael left.

“Tell me to stop,” murmurs Michael, and his lips are coming nearer to Luke’s like he is reading his mind.

“Not on your fucking life. Get on with it.”

Michael chuckles—maybe it’s a hiccup—at his own words from two and a half weeks ago being used against him. There is no time left to decipher his reaction. Michael’s lips crash against Luke’s, and everything else ceases to exist. The world might as well stop turning.

It is everything Luke remembers it was, and it is so much more. Their mouths slot together like they have lost no time at all between them. Michael moans into the kiss, falling into Luke even more as the tension finally leaves his shoulders. It creates a new angle. Luke likes how he has to tilt his head down ever-so-slightly to keep their lips together. He dares to sneak his tongue into Michael’s mouth, and he is rewarded with a fight for dominance. He hasn’t been kissed this good in a while. It spreads a fire all over his body. 

He moves his hands to cup Michael’s buttocks, and he draws the man closer to him. Their cocks harden against each other, separated only by the clothes they’re still wearing. Luke still has his bulky winter jacket on. Michael’s fingers are working at the zip. He shoves it off Luke’s shoulders impatiently, like it has personally offended him. Luke’s button-up shirt goes with the jacket in the next second. They pool in the floor at his feet, and Luke is left naked from the waist up.

Michael’s hands roam all over his skin, leaving goosebumps in their wake. Luke shivers against it. He breaks their kiss so that he can catch his breath. He hasn’t been kissed like this in so, so long. He has forgotten how to regulate the flow of oxygen into and out of his lungs in the period of Michael’s absence. He had forgotten just how effortlessly Michael can take his breath away. Those are the things that are so easy to lose when survival is much more important.

He pants against Michael, and he isn’t embarrassed at all that he is out of breath. Michael is equally so. Luke uses the pause to his advantage, curling his fingers underneath the hem of Michael’s shirt and pulling it off over the man’s head. They’re equally naked now. Luke’s fingers run along Michael’s ribcage until he reaches the patch of sensitive skin just below Michael’s armpits. He presses the pads of his thumbs there. Michael trembles, and it is so devastatingly familiar that the arousal pooling in Luke’s belly intensifies tenfold.

Michael goes in for another kiss. Luke lets him, opening his mouth like he knows Michael likes. It’s frenzied between them, desperate almost. Michael’s hands go for Luke’s belt. He undoes it without even looking. Michael deepens the kiss, and he works his hands until he can slip one into Luke’s trousers. He wraps his fingers purposefully around Luke’s cock, holding it with just the right amount of pressure to elicit a moan from Luke’s lips. He tugs once, lowering his hand until his pinky finger rests against Luke’s pelvis then drawing back up to the tip.

Luke’s knees nearly buckle underneath him. He hasn’t been touched so intimately since the last time Michael and he did this. Anything he and Louis did together pales in comparison to the feeling of Michael’s able hand around Luke’s dick. Michael works it over like he has no other purpose in life. Luke loses himself to Michael, breaking the kiss and dropping his head to Michael’s shoulder.

Michael swipes his thumb across the slit of Luke’s cock. Luke shivers full-bodied against him. He is only remaining upright thanks to Michael. He can do nothing except stare down at the beautiful sight of Michael’s hand around Luke’s cock. His breathing becomes labored again. He has only just caught it, really, but Michael’s touch is almost too much.

It doesn’t take long before Luke gasps and comes all over Michael’s fist. Michael works him through it until Luke’s so sensitive that Michael’s touch hurts. He feebly slaps away Michael’s hand, and it falls easily to Michael’s side, leaving Luke’s softened cock hanging out of the front of his work trousers.

Luke draws in a deep breath and then another just to prove he can. It helps to clear his fuzzy mind. When the post-orgasmic haze finally begins to clear, he reaches for Michael’s hard cock, still trapped in the man’s blue jeans. Michael stops him, wrapping his come-covered fingers around Luke’s wrist.

“We should talk,” he says, holding Luke’s gaze. “Harry says we should talk, and so do Ashton and Niall, and so does Calum.”

Luke makes a face, wrinkling his nose, and says, slightly humorous but meaning it all the same, “Way to kill the mood.”

Michael lets out a short laugh. Luke grins in response, still riding the high of his post-orgasm bliss. Michael is hard against him. He wants to return the favor, but Michael steps away from him, separating them. Michael wipes his soiled hand on the thigh of his jeans. There is an air of reluctance about his movements. Luke knows the sentiment all too well. He tucks himself back in then does back up his trousers. He follows Michael to the couch anyway and sits opposite him, turning his body to face him.

The walls seem to close in on them. Neither one speaks, but Luke can hear Calum’s voice in his head asking did you and Michael even talk? He imagines that, maybe, he isn’t alone right now. That Michael is seated across from him with their friends’ words echoing in his mind, too. Camaraderie, however, doesn’t help him find his voice any easier.

Things are so broken between Michael and him that Luke doesn’t even know where to start.

“I was drunk the first night we kissed,” says Michael finally. “I was so drunk that I couldn’t even see straight, but I could see you. You and your perfect smile and your contagious laugh and your all-around show-stealing personality. You were every-fucking-where, and by the time you stumbled upstairs, I’d already convinced myself that you were nothing more than an illusion. A figment of my imagination. But the thing about fantasies is that—well, you were never that good in my dreams. I knew I’d fucked up. I’d mixed fantasy with reality. I was so mortified I had to get away.”

 “You left me hanging,” responds Luke. He blushes a little, and the color in his cheeks is easily captured in the bright light. He thinks maybe this is the point where he would normally turn away, hide his face. He doesn’t. “Quite literally, I might add.”

“Can you really blame me?” screeches Michael. He gives Luke a dubious look, his own cheeks burning. “I’d just made a fool of myself in front of you. I—I rutted against you like a bitch in heat. I’m pretty sure that alone killed the mood.”

“I thought it was kind of hot,” admits Luke, because they are meant to be talking now, and that means they should be honest with one another. He doesn’t have anything to lose, anyway. He is set to leave in less than twenty-four hours from now. Besides, it isn’t much of an admission. Luke is sure he has made it quite clear how he gets off on watching Michael come apart at the seams.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know that then.”

It is true. He didn’t. Luke has never told him otherwise. There is a lot that has slipped through the spaces between them. Maybe a little too much to salvage. But sitting here on the couch with Michael an arm’s length away, Luke feels a smidge of hope that he hasn’t had since the morning he woke up alone. He is just afraid it’s a little too late.

“It fucking hurt, you know, seeing you with Louis,” says Michael after a beat. He is going all out all at once, like he thinks it will hurt less that way. A bit like ripping off a band-aid. Luke wants to kiss him again. “There were pictures all over the damn place, and you just looked so—you looked so happy that I couldn’t stand it.”

“Happy?” Luke repeats with a snort. He thinks he might like Michael’s tactic. There is no sense in dancing around the truth for dignity’s sake. That is what got them here in the first place. Luke knows what Michael looks like when he comes, and he knows how it feels to be intimate with Michael, and he thinks that has to amount to something in the bigger picture of things. That has to matter when it comes to things like baring his all to Michael right now. “I was far from happy. I couldn’t—Jesus, Michael. You were everywhere, you realize this? Like I couldn’t go anywhere in this city without seeing you, and it was messing with my mind. It was fucking up my psyche.”

Michael quiet in Luke’s admission. Luke isn’t done yet, and somehow Michael senses it. He is patient with Luke. Listens to him like Luke is the only person in the entire world. Maybe, just maybe, he really is to Michael. Because if Luke is being completely, one hundred percent honest with himself, Michael is it for him. Right here, right now, forever and beyond. Michael has been for a while, probably ever since Michael shoved Luke up against the doorframe in Ashton’s guest room to kiss him for the first time. It is a terrifying idea, especially when a future might not exist for them.

“Louis was—for the longest time, he was the only thing keeping your ghost at bay. The only thing keeping me from going off the deep end after you left. When I was with him, I didn’t see you as much. Or, at least, I didn’t think I did, but you’re larger than life, you know. You were everywhere, even with him after a while. You were so much ingrained into my soul that I couldn’t shake you. Not really. Then I slept with Louis, and it was awful, but all I could really see was you.”

Luke reaches forward and dares to take Michael’s hands into his. They haven’t touched this entire time, not since they broke apart to sit on the couch. Even now, the contact they share between one another isn’t much, but Luke craves Michael like his lungs need oxygen. He tries not to think about the flight he is due to take tomorrow that will carry him far, far away from here. Away from this moment. Away from Michael again.

“It’s you. It’s always been you, and I know I haven’t said it. I’ve been a downright bastard, but so’ve you, and I don’t guess I really realized how much I love you until it was too late,” Luke says. It is scary to admit this, but he needs to say it. He is supposed to be leaving tomorrow afternoon for his brand new life. He doesn’t want to leave things as they are between him and Michael, not without putting everything out there. “I was going to tell you that night before you left. I was all ready to say it, but I was too fucking terrified of what it meant.”

Michael is quiet for a moment. Luke has nothing else to say. His thoughts are all jumbled. There are a million other issues they need to work through, but so help him, he can’t remember a single one beyond this one right here. It is the most important one: the fact that he loves Michael, and Michael loves him back, but it might not be enough. Luke drops his gaze to his and Michael’s hands. He can’t help but to admire the way they look interlocked together.

“And now?” prompts Michael. When Luke doesn’t immediately answer or even look up at him, he adds, “Do you still mean it?”

“I wasn’t enough of a reason for you to stay.”

“You were.”

“It didn’t feel like it.”

Luke glances back up at him, but Michael isn’t looking at him now. Instead, his gaze has shifted to the boxes piled around Luke’s living room. A troubled expression crosses Michael’s face. It stays there, taking refuge. Luke thinks of the way Michael had looked silhouetted in his doorway against the angry winter rain when Luke had asked him to stay for the very first time. It feels like an eon ago now.

“Am I enough of a reason?” asks Michael, turning back to Luke. He chews anxiously on his bottom lip. He looks vulnerable in a way that Luke never really thought was possible. “If I asked you to stay, would you?”

“That’s not fair,” says Luke, because it’s not. Michael can’t ask Luke to stay for him when Michael himself couldn’t stay for Luke—when Michael himself couldn’t even wake Luke up for a kiss goodbye before he left. When Michael couldn’t promise Luke that he would come back home to Luke. It just reminds Luke of how broken things are between them, about how things were never really fixed in the first place, about how scary the idea of trying to put themselves back together really is.

Michael is braver than Luke in the end.

“Luke, stay for me. Please.”

Michael’s eyes are big and wide and hopeful, and they’re brimming with tears, prepared to fall any moment. Luke swallows around the lump in the back of his throat. He looks down at the space on the couch between them, scarce though it may be. He has a flight booked for tomorrow. Ed expects him to talk to a brand new city the day after that, and his entire life is packed away in boxes right now.

It is too late.

Luke retracts his hand from Michael’s. The contact is just too much. There is a sharp intake of breath in Luke’s silence, and Luke knows he doesn’t need to say anything. Knows Michael is reading the answer clear in his hesitation. On his face.

“Then give me tonight,” pleads Michael, repeating Luke’s words from so long ago when it had been Luke asking Michael for one last night. He reaches for both of Luke’s hands. Luke doesn’t move, just lets Michael take what he wants like he always does. “Give me this, at least.”

Luke is powerless to say no. He always has been when it comes to Michael. This time is no different. He turns his hands over so that he can thread his fingers through Michael’s, and he tries not to think about how right it feels with their palms pressed together.

He squeezes Michael’s hands, and he stands up. Michael has to follow him. Luke kisses him in lieu of an actual response, lets something other than silence speak for him this time. Michael melts into the kiss, but Luke pulls away before it can go any farther. He isn’t having sex on the couch. If they’re going to do this—if they’re going to give each other this one last night—they’re going to do it in the bed that Luke hasn’t been able to sleep in since Michael left.

That is where Michael really belongs.

That is where Luke wants to remember him.

Luke lets go of one of Michael’s hands so that he can lead the way to the bedroom. He thinks of the last time they did this, when they had left a trail of clothes in their frenzy of passion. It is different now. More somber. Because this really is the last time.

Tomorrow feels much closer than it ever has in Luke’s entire life.

The bedroom is relatively untouched by Luke’s packing. He had put together a suitcase full of clothes, and that was it. It is the one room he couldn’t bear to take with him, the one room that reminds him too much of Michael. Now, Michael is back in it, and the walls don’t feel as suffocating as they have for the past week and a half.

Luke pauses before the bed, looking down at the pristine press of the covers draped over it, and he wonders if it is obvious to Michael that he has not been in it since the morning he woke up to find Michael gone. He wonders how it is going to feel tomorrow to be the one to leave this time. He wonders if it will be any easier to walk away than it was to wake up alone.

Michael steps up behind him, and he presses a soft kiss to the bare skin of Luke’s neck, right below where Luke’s shirt collar might rest. Luke shivers, snapping his attention away from the bed to the man he is taking there. He turns around to face Michael so that he can draw him into another kiss, hungry for Michael’s mouth against his.

They fall unceremoniously to the bed, lips still pressed together. It is like a fight to the end. It is Luke who breaks away first. He kisses a trail across Michael’s jaw and down his neck. Michael scoots up to the head of the bed. Luke follows him. His lips never leave Michael’s skin. He wants to make a mark here at the base of Michael’s neck, wants to leave a piece of himself behind that will stay well beyond tonight, so he does. Michael gasps, throwing back his head to expose more of his neck to Luke.

Michael runs his hands all over Luke’s naked skin as if he is trying to imprint this very moment in his mind forever. He touches Luke with familiarity, and when he brushes across the waistband of Luke’s trousers, he is fearless as he works open the button and zipper so that he can get his hand inside. Luke shudders as Michael’s fingers brush against his cock. He is still feeling the aftereffects of his last orgasm, the lingering tingling sensation that is buzzing underneath his skin, but his cock thickens at the merest touch of Michael’s hand. 

Luke knows what he wants in this moment in time. Knows what he wants to remember. Knows what he wants to do again if this is his last thing between them forever. He dives in for another kiss, brief and searing. He nips at Michael’s bottom lip before pulling away only far enough to speak.

“Let me eat you out.”

Michael shudders against him, as gone for the idea now as he had been the last time they had tumbled together in Luke’s sheets. Luke is eager. He can still remember the last time they had done this, when he had taken Michael apart so beautifully. It is one of his more favorite memories, and he will never forget it for as long as he lives. Now, he gets to do it again.

He kisses his way down Michael’s body, gently sucking marks into his skin like it is his mission in life to leave a part of him behind. He takes great care with each of the marks, sucking until Michael moans above him then licking back over the pain. Michael bucks against him, trying for friction but finding none. Luke grins against the skin of Michael’s hip, working over his latest mark.

He brings his hand up to ghost over Michael’s cock. It is already leaking with precome. Luke is pretty sure the slightest of touch is liable to send Michael toppling over the edge of orgasm. He is tempted right now to press a kiss to the underside of Michael’s cock, to run his tongue up the shaft, to take the head into his mouth. He would like so, so much to take him apart right now. But he doesn’t. He wants Michael to get off to the feel of Luke’s tongue against his rim.

Luke grabs Michael’s hip, the one he just marked up, and gently turns Michael onto his front. Michael is trembling with desire. His cock bobs up and down underneath him, the head of it making a mess of the bed sheet. Luke helps him get a pillow underneath his stomach so that he doesn’t have to hold himself up on his shaking limbs any longer.

Luke takes a moment to admire the sight he is presented with: Michael, legs splayed open, cock hard underneath him. It is almost too much in the way all things with Michael always are. Luke thinks he could come from this sight alone. He doesn’t want to. He reaches into the drawer of his bedside table and pulls out the lube and a condom. It is the best occurrence of déjà vu he has ever experienced.

He sets the condom and lube both aside as he returns his full, undivided attention to Michael. He kisses the base of Michael’s spine, because he is in love with the small of Michael’s back as much as he is with the rest of Michael. It is intimate. It is comforting, and Michael shivers underneath him. He continues peppering kisses there as he gently cups Michael’s right buttock. He doesn’t do much more for a few seconds, allowing Michael to get used to him being there again.

Michael relaxes under him, and he pushes back into Luke’s hand, impatient for what is about to happen. Luke chuckles into his last kiss before he pulls away, setting back on his knees to admire Michael before him once more. He wants to take his time with this, to properly experience this one last time, but he can’t wait to get his tongue inside Michael. To feel Michael fall so beautifully apart underneath him.

Last time, Michael’s skin had been tinged pink. The tension had been thick between them as they had blazed into a whole new territory of intimacy. This time, it is different. Michael is lax before him, and this is all a little bittersweet, knowing that, come morning, Luke will be well on his way to his brand new life.

But Luke pushes those thoughts aside, because they still have tonight.

He spreads Michael’s cheeks apart, not bothering with any hindering fanfare. Michael is as eager for this as Luke, and Luke is tired of denying them what they both want. He leans forward, licking his own lips in anticipation. His breath ghosts across Michael’s hole, and he pauses, just like last time.

“I can stop, sweetheart,” he says, grinning and praying to every single deity that could possibly exist that Michael doesn’t say no. He doesn’t think Michael will—doesn’t even think that is even an option, really—but Luke has never wanted something so bad in his life as he does this in this moment in time, and it would be just like Michael to want to fuck up Luke’s life for old time’s sake.

“Not on your fucking life,” says Michael, a little breathless, but grinning back at Luke all the same. He, too, is remembering the last time. Luke can see it in his eyes, and it steals the air from Luke’s lungs. Makes Luke’s heart skip at least four beats in a row. “Get on with it.”

So Luke does. He dives down, licking across Michael’s hole. Teasing him just like he knows Michael likes. He isn’t disappointed. Michael gasps out a moan, and he falls forward on his forearms, his face pressed against the pillow. His breaths come in short pants as Luke does his best to take Michael apart by the tip of his tongue.

It is intimate in all of the ways that Luke has missed over the past two and a half weeks are. He feels powerful. Like the entire world is at his command, and it is. Michael is his entire world. His beginning and his end. And right now, Luke is almost drunk on how good is he making Michael feel.

He works Michael over with his tongue, reaching around Michael to tease his fingers along the shaft of Michael’s cock. He knows that Michael is on the brink of an orgasm. Pride wells up in him that he is privileged enough to have learned Michael inside and out, and he never wants to forget anything about Michael, much less what it takes to reduce him to a quivering mess of moans and pleasure.

He wraps his hand around Michael’s cock, gripping it properly, and all it takes it a little bit of pressure to send Michael tipping over the edge. Michael comes, moaning Luke’s name into the pillow, and he makes a mess of the sheet underneath him, and Luke licks around his hole until Michael is too sensitive all over. Until Michael makes a half-hearted attempt to push him away, and Luke falls back immediately. He stares at Michael’s spit-slickened hole, how it glistens in the faint light, and he thinks that he has never seen a more beautiful sight in his entire life.

Michael pants raggedly, his breaths short gasps that are partially muffled by his pillow. The after waves of his orgasm pulsate underneath his skin. His hand reaches out for Luke. He is too blissed-out to do much more than wave his arm around in the vain hope that he might accidentally make contact. It is Luke who reaches forward, who steadies him, and who gives him what he wants. Michael tugs him nearer. Luke follows, draping himself over Michael’s back until they are flush together. His cock is heavy against the curve of Michael’s ass. Michael shivers.

“Didn’t I tell you not to stop?” asks Michael. His voice is wrecked. He tries for snark, but he doesn’t quite reach it, still too euphoric in the aftermath of his orgasm. “You promised me tonight.”

I did, thinks Luke, and he wishes he could promise Michael forever instead.

“You’re wasting time,” adds Michael after a beat.

He pushes back against Luke, dragging Luke’s cock farther down the curve of his ass. He sucks in a sudden breath, still a little too sensitive despite his words. There is hardly any space between him and Luke, but it is enough to allow him to turn over, so he does. He grins up at Luke, eyes shining with earth-shattering desire. He bucks his hips forward, his cock rubbing against Luke’s.

“Fuck me.”

It is a command that Luke goes straight to Luke’s cock. He thinks that maybe he could come from it alone. He wills back his orgasm. They have only tonight, and Michael is right: they are wasting time. He doesn’t need to waste anymore coming at only the idea of fucking Michael when he can do it for real—when he will never get the chance to do it again.

Luke presses a bittersweet kiss to Michael’s lips, quick but passionate. He pushes aside all thoughts that this really is the last time he will ever be privileged enough to share his bed with Michael—that he will ever be lucky enough to share his bed with Michael—and he leans back to sit on his knees. Michael spreads his legs now that he has the room to do so. Luke takes a moment to admire the sight he’s presented with.

He wants to burn this moment in his memory forever.

Michael doesn’t need much more prep, given that he is pliant and open from Luke’s tongue only a few moments ago. Luke still slicks up his fingers with lube and works Michael open one-by-one until Michael is impatient with desire once more. Luke is half-afraid that Michael might still be too sensitive for what they are about to do—that he might actually be too sensitive for everything at the moment—but he doesn’t stop. He can’t, given the choice, and Michael is begging him not to.

He rolls the condom on with lube-slickened fingers. He is trembling so badly with need that it takes Michael’s steady hands to help him get it on properly. Then he slicks himself up with a little more lube. He doesn’t want to hurt Michael. He doesn’t want Michael to associate their last night together as anything other than beautiful, because that is how Luke wants to remember it, too.

 He presses the tip of his cock against Michael’s hole. He pauses. The air around them is thick. This moment feels more important than any Luke has ever lived through in his entire life, and he wishes it would last forever. He wishes he could stay here on the brink of their intimacy until the end of times just so he will never have to know what it is like for this all to be over. Because he knows he is not going to last very long once he finally plunges forward, and Michael probably won’t last very long at all, and then that will be it. That will be the end.

Michael meets his eyes, and he offers him a smug grin, and Luke barks out a laugh as he pushes forward. Leave it to Michael to be cocky in the middle of sex. The grin drops from Michael’s face as he tenses just like last time. He relaxes in the next second, though. Luke doesn’t stop until his hips are pressed flush against Michael and he can go no farther. He stops.

It is almost too much, being inside Michael again after so long of a time. It is even worse as the mantra of this is the last time cycles through his mind, nearly consuming him. Luke can’t take it—almost pulls out entirely and calls it quits. He falls forward instead, his lips crashing against Michael’s, and he kisses Michael like there is no tomorrow. Because there isn’t, for them at least.

Michael kisses back just as desperately. His cock starts to harden again between them, and Luke finally starts moving inside of him, slowly at first because he can’t handle any faster. Luke’s hands find Michael’s in the folds of the sheet he laying on. He threads their fingers together, clinging as tight as he can to Michael’s hands in the hopes that they’ll never have to let go. In the hopes that this will never end.

He grows restless with his own pace, and Michael squirms underneath him, their lips never parting. Luke speeds up, pushing in and pulling out almost in the same motion until nothing exists except his cock inside of Michael and their tongues dancing together. The end is coming too soon. Luke wants to put it off as long as possible, but he can’t.

“I love you,” gasps Luke against Michael’s mouth, because he has to say these words. He has to stamp them on this moment forever. He will never get another chance. “I fucking love you, Michael Clifford.”

Michael cries out, coming untouched between them. His come splatters up his own chest and against Luke’s. It is this sensation that pushes Luke over the edge again. Luke is coming in the condom, his thrusts jagged and untimed until they’re nothing at all, and it is just Luke softening inside of Michael.

Luke doesn’t pull away immediately. It is almost like if he never moves, this moment will never end. Tomorrow will never come, and he will never jet off to another city halfway across the country from this beautiful man underneath him. In a perfect world, that is how things would work.

This world isn’t perfect, but the words Michael breathes like a sacred oath in the next second are.

“I love you, too, Luke. I love you, too.”

Chapter Text

Luke has never hated four-thirty as much as he does right now. His cell phone is blaring his first alarm, but he makes no move to turn it off. He has his arms wrapped around Michael. He doesn’t want to let go, because the moment that he does, this is all over. He will never hold Michael in his arms again. It’s a somber thought, and it twists at Luke’s heart, and when his phone rings again nine minutes later as a second alarm, he holds Michael even tighter.

“You don’t want to be late,” murmurs Michael into the skin of Luke’s neck where his mouth is pressed.

The for your last day goes unspoken, but Luke hears it loud and clear. Michael sounds sleepy. Luke feels a little guilty for waking him up. He doesn’t apologize, though, because he is selfish. He is glad for this precious time with Michael. Come tomorrow morning and the one after that and the one after that and every one thereafter, he won’t have Michael in his bed. In his arms. In his life.

Luke doesn’t want to go to work. It feels like every single Monday morning he has ever faced all piled into one right in front of him. He wishes time would stop forever so that he won’t have to leave this bed. So that he won’t have to leave Michael. Because in the morning light—with the words I love you shared between them—Luke realizes he was wrong last night: Michael is enough of a reason to stay.

But Luke is still expected to wake up in a brand new city tomorrow morning.

Life isn’t fair. It is even less fair when Luke’s phone beeps with the third alarm, and he knows the car is on its way. He has to get up and face reality. He has to let go of Michael for the last time.

It is the hardest thing Luke has ever done in his life, untangling himself from Michael to crawl out of bed. He does it by some miracle. He refuses to look back at Michael as he makes his way to the bathroom, fearful that he won’t be strong enough to continue on with his morning routine if he does.

He shuts the bathroom door behind him, but he doesn’t lock it. He showers as quickly as he can. When he gets out, he dries off with the towel that he has used all week. He brushes his teeth completely naked, his towel wrapped around his shoulders. The mirror is too foggy for him to see his reflection in it, but he doesn’t really care to look. He is sure he has bruises all over his skin from last night. These are marks he’ll wear with pride until they fade into nothingness.

He hangs the towel up to dry before he leaves the bathroom and walks naked into his bedroom. Michael is missing from the bed, but he typically is. A wave of nostalgia washes over Luke. He staggers to the edge of the bed and collapses onto it, his head in his hands. He doesn’t want this to end, this domesticity that he has fallen into with Michael. It ended once, and it nearly killed Luke. He doesn’t want to let it go again.

But he has to. It’s too late to go back now. He will be on a plane to a brand new city come this evening.

He dresses in his bedroom but doesn’t bother doing up the laces of his shoes. His phone beeps with the notification that the car is waiting outside. It can wait a couple of minutes longer. Luke makes his way into the kitchen. It is in a pitiful state with all of the boxes piled high everywhere, and Michael himself looks out of place wearing nothing except a pair of boxers and Luke’s old university t-shirt. It’s been stretched out through years of wear and tear, and the neck of it hangs loose to show off the myriad of bright red marks Luke had trailed down Michael’s body only a few hours before. They’re stark underneath the harsh overhead lights in the kitchen. They’re beautiful. Michael is beautiful.

“You don’t want to be late,” says Michael, his voice soft and filled with just as much dread as Luke himself feels.

I don’t want to leave, thinks Luke, but it isn’t kind of him to say that to Michael. Not when Michael himself had asked Luke to stay last night. Not when Luke can’t stay.

“Here’s your coffee,” says Michael, as if he is terrified of the silence that stretched between them. Maybe he thinks if he keeps talking, this moment will never end. Luke certainly hopes so. “It’s just how you like it.”

Luke doesn’t doubt it. He takes the thermos from Michael’s hand, because that is what he is supposed to do. He crowds into Michael’s space, and he doesn’t move away. He doesn’t want to move away. Ever.

“I love you,” says Luke.

Michael winces. After a beat, so does Luke, but he doesn’t want to take back the words. He can’t regret the truth, and he has never meant anything more in his entire life. Michael deserves to be told that he is loved. Luke wishes he had the rest of forever to tell him over and over again, but he doesn’t. He only has this morning. He is going to make the best of it.

“Will you be here when I get back?” asks Luke.

Michael smiles sadly at him and shakes his head. “I’ll probably head over to Ashton’s, and I—well, I can’t watch you walk away from me twice in one day.”

Luke nods. He bites his lips together, and he kind of wants to cry, but he doesn’t blame Michael. Luke remembers how it felt waking up alone after the first time they had proper sex together and knowing that Michael wasn’t coming back to him. He had been wrong, of course. Michael did come back to him. But it doesn’t change how world-ending it had felt right in the heat of things.

“I can—I can call when I land?” suggests Luke. He knows he is grasping for straws. He should be out the door already, seated in the car that will take him to the station for the very last time. He doesn’t move.

Michael looks like he might be the one to cry instead. He looks so sad, a frown forming on his lips. He is brave enough to meet Luke’s eyes, and Luke thinks he spies water building up in them. Luke hates himself in this moment in time.

“Please, don’t make this any harder on me. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle losing you a second time—and this time for good. It’s, uh, probably best if we don’t, you know, keep in touch.”

Luke draws in a ragged breath. Michael’s words feel like knives twisting in his heart, but he doesn’t blame Michael for wanting a clean break. It is the least he owes Michael for not being able to stay for him. Besides, even Luke has to admit that the idea of being able to speak with Michael but not touch him, not even to hug him, sounds like the cruelest form of punishment Luke could ever imagine.

There is nothing left for Luke to say except, “I am so sorry, Michael.”

“We’ve never apologized to one another before, why start now?” challenges Michael. He smiles ruefully at Luke. “We had a good run, I think. No need to be sorry for that.”

“You call this a good run? We danced around our feelings for a week, slept together, then spent the next two and a half weeks miserable without one another until you came back only for me to leave for another job halfway across the country.”

“Yeah, but you were mine and I was yours for just a little while somewhere along the way, and that was more than I thought I’d ever get.”

Luke’s breath catches in his throat. He doesn’t know what to say underneath the crush of Michael’s monumental admission—underneath the weight of the idea that Michael loves him so much that he was willing to take whatever Luke would give him and nothing else. Luke is overcome with the desire to give Michael everything, because that is what Michael deserves, but it is too late for such promises.

Luke merely kisses Michael instead. It’s a goodbye, Luke knows, and he gives his all to Michael, and he wishes that he had more to give. He doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter. Michael kisses back just as passionate, just as fierce, just as desperate.

They part, because time isn’t on their side. Luke’s phone beeps again, presumably for the final time, and Luke knows this is it. Michael knows it, too. Neither one of them speak as they walk side-by-side to the door. Michael helps Luke into his winter coat, and Luke ducks back in for one final kiss.

It’s over too soon. Michael pulls back, and he smiles sadly at Luke.

“I love you, too. Remember that, ok?” says Michael. “And remember me.”

“I’d sooner forget to breathe than forget you.”

It brings a smile to Michael’s lips, albeit a bittersweet one. Luke wants to kiss him again, but he doesn’t allow himself to. He is already running late. By this point, he’ll be lucky to make it to the presenter’s chair before the countdown clock reaches zero. It isn’t exactly how he wanted to go out, if he’s honest with himself, but it takes a monumental effort to step back from Michael.

There are a thousand things that have gone unsaid between them. Luke owes Michael the story of Rena as much as he had owed it to Ashton, and Michael deserves to have heard it from Luke personally, but he never will. This is the end. This is goodbye forever.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, way back in the tiny corner that isn’t self-destructing at the mere idea of this being the last of he and Michael together, Luke acknowledges that he is being a little melodramatic. Michael isn’t dying or disappearing forever. Luke can still keep tabs on Michael through social media and through Ashton. He can drop in for visits twice a year or something.

But the thing about being an adult and moving to a brand new city is that Luke knows everything will change. He knows that long distance isn’t really a thing that he’s good at. He knows that this right here—this moment in time—really is all that he has left.

He makes it all the way to the car and strapped into the backseat before he caves and looks back to get one last glimpse of Michael standing silhouetted in his doorway. Luke can’t see his face from here, but maybe that’s for the best. Because if Michael is crying any at all, Luke doesn’t think he could actually leave.

It’s hard enough trying to ignore the tears sliding down his own cheeks.

The ride across the city is the same as every single one before this one, and Luke tries not to focus on the fact that this is the last time he’ll ever do this, too. He wipes at his eyes, trying to get himself under control before he has to go in front of the cameras. He doesn’t need to wake up the city looking like he has bawled his eyes out, even if that is nearly what he is doing.

The morning air is chilly. He thanks the driver for the ride. He pulls his coat tight around him as he hurries toward the front door. Inside, the building is much warmer. He strips himself of his outwear as he rides the elevator up to his floor. He glances at the metal reflection of himself before the elevator doors split open, and he hopes that he can write off the blotchiness in his cheeks as a result of the cold air of the winter morning.

The studio is in a buzz, which isn’t all that unexpected since the countdown clock has rounded twenty and is rapidly approaching zero. Luke makes a beeline for the presenter’s seat, and he tries not to feel too nostalgic that this will be the last time he ever sits in this very spot. That this will be the last time he ever wakes this city.

Emsie the penguin is set up in its usual place, proud and obvious right next to Luke’s nametag. Casey must have set him up. Luke reaches out to run his finger along the line of its crystal wing. He thinks of Emsie’s namesake, and he knows that he isn’t leaving Emsie behind. He can’t. He’s already leaving Michael in this city. He can’t leave the penguin, too.

“Hey, uh, don’t stray too far from the teleprompter, all right?” says Casey, leaning over to speak in a low voice to Luke as the countdown clock passes five. “The higher-ups are watching this morning, apparently, and Liam wants everything to run extra smoothly.”

It is the first Luke has heard of the executives watching this particular show. Usually, things like this are scheduled weeks ahead of time, and Liam makes no less than four death threats to Luke to persuade him against being late. It wouldn’t look good on the station if the cameras went live on Luke nose diving into his chair. This time, however, there had been none.

Casey straightens back up before Luke can think to ask how the hell he missed that particular memo. The countdown clock reaches zero, and the cameras start to roll. Luke smiles at camera two. He forces himself to focus on nothing except getting through this show—which is especially important given the current audience. He puts on his best game face.

“Good morning, good citizens of this fine city,” greets Luke like it were any other day. He hopes that some of the blotchiness of his skin has faded away. That he doesn’t look too much like death warmed over underneath the harsh studio lighting. That nobody can tell he is hours away from leaving the love of his life behind forever.

Luke freezes at that particular thought, his heart clenching painfully in his chest. The teleprompter moves forward, covering some kind of breaking news story in the city, but Luke can’t bring himself to read it. Not in light of this world-ending realization.

He can’t leave.

Michael is the love of his life—and if Luke’s life fell apart in the two and a half weeks they were separated, there is no way he will be able to survive in a brand new city alone forever.

The next words get caught in Luke’s throat, but the teleprompter carelessly moves forward, directing Luke farther into the news story. Luke sits there in his presenter’s chair with his mouth gaping open and his entire world flipping upside down. Next to him, Casey jumps in to save the story, and he narrates what’s on the screen as if it was his to do the entire time.

Luke finds Calum standing in the back of the room next to the door. It’s hard to see him in the dim lighting, but Luke knows that Calum is watching him like a hawk now. Luke wonders if the realization is there plain on his face. If Calum can see it now from across the room. If maybe Michael is watching Luke’s show right now all cuddle up on Luke’s couch in Luke’s home where he belongs—if maybe he sees it, too.

For the first time since in his entire life, Luke has the desire to walk off the set right now in the middle of filming. He loves being in front of a camera. Loves waking people up of a morning, giving them the latest news or gossip or goings-on in the city. He lives for it. There’s no place else he’d rather be during the hours from half past five to half past nine in the morning. Nowhere.

Except now there is.

Michael consumes Luke’s entire being—not that he hasn’t since that very first time when he shoved Luke up against the doorframe of Ashton’s guest bedroom and crashed their lips together—and Luke has to leave right now. He has to. He needs to see Michael. Needs to tell him that Luke was wrong last night. That Michael is more than enough reason to stay.

“We’re left, of course, a burning question that I’m sure is on everybody’s mind,” says Casey.

He is completely carrying the brand new segment, has been for the past five or ten minutes as Luke has been trapped up in his life-changing realization. Truthfully, Luke doesn’t exactly know what happened in the last one. He can’t think beyond the mantra of I need to talk to Michael right now. Nothing else matters. Nothing else exists.

Only it does, and in the next second, Casey turns to Luke. Three of the four cameras turn to him, too. That is the most warning Luke has that he is about to be handed back the reins. He sluggishly glances at the teleprompter, almost as an afterthought, but it is suspiciously blank. That is odd. The higher-ups are supposed to be watching this show. Liam always makes sure Luke has the teleprompter to fall back on whenever the top executives are tuning into the station.

“Lucky for us, we’ve got our very own person on the inside,” says Casey, looking at Luke but speaking to the camera. There is a mirthful glint in Casey’s eyes that makes the bottom of Luke’s stomach drop out. Casey is up to something. Luke begins to suspect Casey had lied earlier about the executives watching the show. “Tell us, Luke. Why exactly did the great Ashton Irwin and his team leave sunny Australia mere hours after the last shoot wrapped? Isn’t it his style to stay until the whole thing goes out with a bang? Unwind a bit after all that hard work?”

It is, thinks Luke, whenever Ashton’s emotionally constipated best friends aren’t self-destructing over one another.

Luke doesn’t say that, of course. He doesn’t admit to the whole city that Ashton had high-tailed it from one of the most beautiful places in the entire world just to show up on Luke’s doorstep and slap some sense into him, angry at him for breaking Michael’s heart. For keeping secrets. For lying to Ashton.

Or, rather, Luke supposes that had been Ashton’s intent when he had left Australia in the dead of night with a heart-broken Michael and the rest of their team in tow. Then Ashton showed up to find out Luke had gone behind his back again and was going to leave him behind, and Michael’s heart-ache took a backseat to Ashton’s own pain.

The thing is that Luke has a knack for hurting everybody around him.

“Maybe Ashton missed my pretty face too much, ever think of that?” challenges Luke. It comes out a little strained, but it’s hard to speak around the lump in his throat. He glances toward the clock on the wall above the door. He wishes it read nine-thirty already.

“So the rumors are true, then?” asks Miranda.

She leans forward so that she can look around Casey to see Luke. There’s a devilish grin on her face. Her eyes dance with mirth, and Luke now knows with absolute certainty that Casey had lied earlier. That Casey and Miranda are setting him up. He doesn’t know exactly what their aim is, though. Luke thinks he might have missed something important a few minutes ago when he had been caught up in the realization that he couldn’t leave Michael.

“Depends on which ones you’re talking about,” hedges Luke. He doesn’t know what Miranda is referring to, but he does know how to put on a show for the viewers. One glance at the computer screen, and Luke sees that the live feed is blowing up. This segment is gold. Set up or not, the ratings for his last show will be through the roof.

“Oh, you know, the rumors floating around that you and a certain Michael Clifford don’t quite hate each other as much as the two of you have led on over the years,” says Miranda nonchalantly.

Luke freezes, startled, and it takes every ounce of self-control to not openly gawk at his coworker. Miranda, for her part, continues to smirk at him. The glint in her eyes suggest that this is the bit—that Luke has walked right into a preset trap. Horror grows in Luke’s chest. The entire world slows down. It feels like he is watching two trains barrel down the same track toward one another, like he is faced with a real-time catastrophe and he can do nothing except watch it happen.

Olivia works her magic behind the scenes then. The images that pop up on the screen before Luke and for the entire city to see appear a little too quickly for them to not have been chosen beforehand. Luke’s heart skips a beat in his chest.

The photographs are nothing to write home about at first glance. Grainy, they’re not professionally taken. They look more like something that a teenager with a smartphone might capture in the moment. The angle is awkward, and two of the three images displayed proudly on the screen are a little distorted from shaky camerawork. But there is no mistaking the subject of the photographs. Or, rather, the people.

They’re all photos of Michael and Luke on their date two and a half weeks ago.

Luke had thought they had managed to be sneaky. That nobody cared enough about his or Michael’s personal lives to recognize them in a dimly lit corner of a fancy restaurant. These pictures displayed for the whole city to see—on the Internet for the world to view—prove him wrong.

It almost hurts to look at the photographs. Michael looks as devastatingly handsome in the horrible quality image as he had in real life that night. Luke’s breath catches in his throat at the very sight of him. Luke knows he should say something right now—knows he should play along with the segment they’ve got going or, more appropriately, shut it down completely before it gets out of hand—but he can’t look away from the pictures.

The thing is that he and Michael look happy. They look in love. They look so naively carefree in their secret affections for one another that Luke wants to reach right into these grainy pictures and shake them both of them and tell them that they’re being idiots. That they’re going to break so horribly within just a few short hours. That they should just talk right then and say I love you before they both get hurt.

It’s almost too much to look at. To see how perfect he and Michael go together. To think about how they don’t have a future, but Luke wants so damn much to fight for one right now.

Vaguely, Luke notices the smirk fade from Miranda’s lips. Doubt begins to set into her cheeks instead. She glances helplessly off camera like she doesn’t quite know how to salvage this segment. How to make it go the way it was supposed to. Luke’s response falls from his lips before he thinks about what he is admitting.

“It’s kind of hard to hate the love of your life, isn’t it?”

There is a collective gasp from everyone in the studio. Miranda and Casey both stare wide-eyed at Luke, unsure of how to proceed or maybe unsure of whether they heard Luke correctly. Luke tears his gaze from the photographs still displayed on the screen. He looks beyond the cameras instead to find Calum standing watch in the back of the room. It’s too dark back there for Luke to really see Calum’s face, to gauge his reaction, but Luke knows this was Calum’s doing all along. Somehow, though, Luke doesn’t think this was exactly what Calum had expected to Luke to give.

Luke has no regrets. It’s a little scary, his admission, but the idea of leaving Michael once and for all is even scarier. Michael is the most important person in Luke’s life. Luke has learned his lesson about keeping the truth to himself, especially when it comes to Michael. He won’t ever do it again. Michael is more important than any dignity Luke might have.

They transition awkwardly into a new segment then since the previous one has done what it was meant to do. This one is more proper, covering the latest news story about a brand new law that is designed to improve the standard of living for impoverished families, especially in crime-ridden neighborhoods. It is the product of one of Nia Lovelis’s years-long endeavors. Luke lets Casey take the reins. His heart still hurts from the last time he saw Nia, and he still isn’t comfortable dancing so closely to Rena. His mind is still reeling from his admission regarding Michael anyhow.

When nine-thirty finally comes, after what seems like eons, the cameras go down. The lights go up. Luke starts to pack away Emsie in the drawer before he remembers himself. He winces. He is supposed to be boarding a plane to a brand new city in just a few hours. The crystal penguin feels heavy in his hand. He looks down at it, thinks of Michael, and makes a decision. He gently places Emsie in the drawer.

Luke needs to find Liam, but he hasn’t seen Liam all morning. Liam isn’t in the studio now, either, so Luke slips out of the room in the rush of activity that always consumes the precious few minutes between shows. He hurries to the elevator, hollering fifteen feet away from it for someone to keep it open for him. Somebody is nice enough to hold their hand in front of the doors so they don’t close. Luke jogs the rest of the way and climbs onto the lift. He thanks the stranger for his kindness, and he presses the button to Liam’s floor.

The elevator moves entirely too slow. It stops on every floor between the studio and Liam’s office. Luke thinks he could have managed the stairs in half of the time. It’s an exaggeration, probably, because Luke is impatient to speak with Liam. He needs to fix his stupid, careless mistake before it’s too late.

The rational part of Luke’s mind, though, knows it’s probably already too late. That doesn’t stop him from bailing off the elevator the moment the doors split open enough to let him squeeze out. He all but runs to Liam’s office, caring not for the scene he knows he’s making. When he arrives there, he bursts right inside, ignoring his professionalism. Liam, seated at his desk, merely looks up at Luke’s entrance.

“I—”

But Luke is panting too hard to speak properly. Liam pushes back the report on his desk and grins his amusement at Luke’s condition. He motions to the chair in front of his desk, directing Luke to take a seat. Luke, face flushed and heart pounding like crazy in his chest, does.

“Never known you to be so eager for our weekly meetings,” comments Liam. He digs through a stack of papers on the left hand side of his desk. Finding the ones he wants, he slides half of them to Luke. He picks up a black felt-tipped pen and chews on the end of it as he glances over the first page like he does every single Thursday. “The ratings are sky-high, have been relatively consistently since that auction dinner. Bravo for that. It looks like we’ve got Louis Tomlinson slated for Tuesday. Wednesday is open at the moment, but we’re—”

Luke, stunned, finally catches his breath.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Liam glances up at Luke, his eyebrows raised high on his head. Luke feels the urge to apologize for his language, because it was rude of him to speak to his boss in such a manner, but he can’t really focus on his manners right now. Liam is carrying on as if this were any other meeting. As if Luke will be here come Tuesday. Not as if Luke is supposed to be in a brand new city in just a few hours. 

“I was commencing our weekly meeting,” says Liam, his words deliberately slow, “but if you’d rather talk about something else before we begin, I guess we could start there.”

“I’m supposed to start my new job tomorrow,” says Luke, equally as slow. He feels more confused than he ever has in his life. “I mean, that’s why I ran up here—to see if it was too late to turn down the job.”

Liam blinks at Luke. For a long moment, it is silent in the room. Liam only stares at Luke, and Luke stares back. Just like earlier in front of the cameras, Luke can’t help but to feel like he is missing something. Then, as Luke is beginning to wonder if maybe Liam is ever going to say anything, Liam bellows out a laugh.

“I told Ed yesterday evening that you had decided to stay here. The station cancelled your flight. You’re supposed to be here bright and early at five-fifteen tomorrow morning as usual—or, more for you, I guess, at five-twenty-nine.”

“But—what?” asks Luke, stunned and unable to say anything else. “I just decided to stay this morning—as in a couple of hours ago.”

Liam smiles, amused. “Calum told me yesterday morning that you weren’t going to leave. Said something about you realizing that you couldn’t leave Michael but you didn’t know how to go about breaking the news to me and Ed. Truthfully, though, Ed and I had already assumed you wouldn’t go through with it, so we already had a replacement picked out just in case.”

“Calum told you?” repeats Luke. His voice is thin, because his lungs don’t seem to be able to function at their full capacity. His brain has other priorities, such as focusing on the fact that that he might quite possibly kiss Calum full-on the lips the next time he see him.

For the first time all morning—or maybe longer—Luke feels like a weight has been lifted off his heart. He doesn’t have to leave. More importantly, he has a future with Michael… if Michael so wants it, and Luke desperately hopes that Michael does. Luke isn’t quite sure what he will do if Michael doesn’t.

“Yep, after your show yesterday morning,” says Liam, still amused. He lets his statement hang in the air between them for a moment then, when Luke doesn’t pursue it any longer, he gets back to business. “So, on Thursday, you’re slated to interview Zayn. You remember him. He did the photoshoot for the auction promo.”

Luke does, in fact, remember Zayn. He nods his head distractedly. He can’t stop thinking about Michael, which in itself isn’t an unusual thing, but, now, he can’t stop thinking about how Michael is going to react when Luke offers him what he’s wanted to offer Michael this whole time: a future.

Before then, though, Luke has to get through this unfortunately long meeting. He finally grabs the papers off the back of Liam’s desk, and he pretends to follow along. His mind isn’t really on work, though. It’s on Michael. Liam probably suspects as much, as the meeting lasts about half of an hour less than usual before Liam sends him on his way with strict instructions to be on time for the show tomorrow morning.

Freed, Luke hardly bothers to attend to the rest of his work duties. There is nothing too important that cannot wait until tomorrow, and he has to see Michael now. He takes the elevator straight down to the ground floor. He hails a cab out front, ignoring the paparazzi across the street flashing photographs of him. He wonders what the articles will say about him. Wonders if they’ll hound him for his admission on-air earlier. But he finds, seated in the back of the cab on the way back home to Michael, that he doesn’t care.

As long as he can have Michael for the rest of forever, Luke doesn’t care about anything else.

Luke gets a message about five minutes into the car ride. It’s from Ashton, a simple come over command that makes Luke suspect Calum is responsible for keeping tabs on him. Luke wants to see Michael as soon as possible, but, as the cab drives nearer and nearer to his house, he realizes that he doesn’t even know if Michael is still there among all of the boxes and reminders that Luke is leaving or if he has already left for Ashton’s house.

It has to hurt, Luke thinks, to stay in a house that is half-packed away, so Luke redirects the cab driver to Ashton’s place instead.

When the taxi pulls up outside of Ashton’s house, Luke pays the fare and gets out. He lets himself in through the front gate. As he walks up to the front door, he thinks about leaving this place last night feeling like it was the end and about how he had almost turned around three separate times with the urge to have one more hug from his best friend. It seems trivial now, why he had fought so hard to run away from love, but it was an entirely different matter twenty-four hours ago when he thought he was nothing to Michael except a bit of fun. When he had thought he was in love with a man who, at the core, still hated him.

Harry answers the door. His skin is a rosy pink, burned by the hot Australian sun. He doesn’t move back to let Luke in. He stands in the doorway, looking Luke over. His face is stony, but Luke had expected as much. Harry is the only person Luke hasn’t seen since they all arrived back in the city. Harry must have been the one holding Michael together when Luke was too afraid to admit how much Michael meant to him. Harry and Michael have always been good friends.

“If you break his heart again, I will break your face,” says Harry. His voice is the coldest Luke has ever heard it, and it sounds all wrong coming from Harry, who is so kind hearted to everybody he meets. “You fucked him up real bad once. I won’t let you do it again.”

Luke bites back the urge to point out that Michael had hurt him, too. Harry’s heart is in the right place. He is just concerned for his friend. Harry and Luke don’t have nearly the same camaraderie that Harry and Michael do. Luke can’t fault Harry for being protective, especially since the last thing Luke ever wants to do in his entire life is hurt Michael again.

A familiar tune echoes in the house then, chasing after a commercial break. The timing is almost too perfect. Except that it isn’t, not for this pivotal moment. Luke smiles to himself.

“You saw my show.”

Harry grins. It wavers like it wasn’t a planned reaction, but it is enough of a confirmation for Luke, who shoulders past Harry into the house. Harry stumbles back at the slightest brush of Luke’s elbow. The grin remains on his face.

“Recorded it, actually,” quips Harry, friendly with Luke again now that he has said his warning. “That’s something we’re all going to want to remember forever.”

Luke nods, smiling himself, and he follows Harry farther into the house. He knows he will certainly never, ever forget how it felt to look into the camera and admit to the entire city that he was in love with Michael. Terrifying. Exhilarating. Freeing. 

In the living room, Nick’s show plays on the television. He is learning to dance from a world-class ballerina. It’s all good fun, except that Luke knows this particular prerecorded segment ends with Nick in the floor, groaning in pain after pirouette gone wrong. Even then, Luke had laughed his ass off behind camera at the absolute dumbfounded expression on Nick’s face whenever the medics told him his ankle wouldn’t even bruise, that it was only a minor sprain that would stop hurting within a few hours.

The segment is entertaining the second time, too. Luke hovers in the doorway of the living room watching it for a moment. Everybody else in the room is just as enthralled, except for Calum. He is seated on the couch next to Ashton, so close that Ashton is nearly dozing on his shoulder. The proximity is actually needless, as half of the couch is otherwise unoccupied. Even when Harry goes to sit down, he reclaims the arm chair he had presumably vacated. Niall is curled up in the other armchair, his back placed strategically to Calum and Ashton. Luke winces, remembering Niall’s confession, and he pretends, for Niall’s sake, that he doesn’t see the way Calum and Ashton are holding hands.

“Shouldn’t you be on a plane?” asks Calum, drawing Luke’s attention from Niall to him. If Luke didn’t already know all of Calum’s scheming, the tone of Calum’s voice belies his guilt. Calum doesn’t even sound regretful. “You know, for your brand new job?”

“You told Liam yesterday that I wasn’t taking the job,” says Luke.

“I did,” agrees Calum, grinning proudly and making no attempt whatsoever sound repentant. “And did you take the job?”

Luke glances toward the television. On the screen Nick is approximately two minutes away from making a bigger fool of himself for the entire city to see. Luke turns back to Calum.

“You know I didn’t.”

Calum grins even wider. “Knew you wouldn’t from the moment I found out about it, to be honest. ‘Cause you and Michael? You’ve never been good at keeping away from one another, even back when you supposedly hated each other.”

Luke bites his lips together. He knows Calum is correct. He and Michael spent years wearing the other one down, crowding into each other’s spaces, searching for the right buttons to push to get the upper hand. They’re no better now without the hate separating them. Luke’s entire life has been so saturated with Michael for so long that he spent two and a half weeks being haunted by the man.

“You’re a scheming bastard, Calum,” says Luke, because it is the truth.

Calum shrugs the one shoulder that Ashton isn’t resting against. The movement itself is enough to jostle Ashton, even though Calum had obviously tried not to. Ashton draws his attention away from the television screen long enough to smile mischievously up at Luke like the good friend he is. Luke vaguely wonders how he thought he’d ever be able to leave Ashton behind.

“And you’re wasting time,” Ashton says. “Aren’t you eager to tell the ‘love of your life’ that you’re his forever?”

Luke blushes, but it is true that he wants to offer Michael the world. He wants to do it as soon as possible so that he can kiss Michael again and promise Michael the future that he couldn’t last night. The future he and Michael deserve. The only problem, however, is that Michael is nowhere to be seen.

Ashton, as if reading his mind, laughs and says, “He’s upstairs. Said something about some pesky morning host waking him up before the ass crack of dawn this morning, so he’s taking a nap.”

Luke hardly waits for Ashton to finish speaking before he bounds up the stairs. Ashton and Calum laugh after him, but Luke thinks that, maybe, they’re laughing at Nick instead, who has just fallen on screen. Either way, Luke doesn’t care.

Luke makes it up to the second floor landing in just a few strides. His heart is pounding so hard in his chest that he fears it might bruise from the inside out. He can hardly contain himself. He is giddy with anticipation, eager to see Michael. To promise Michael a future.

He doesn’t know which room Michael is in, as Ashton hadn’t specified, but Luke has his suspicions. He steps inside the third door on the left-hand side of the hallway. It’s a natural choice, like déjà vu, and Luke smiles at the sight with which he is rewarded.

Michael is seated on the foot of the bed facing the door like he has been waiting for Luke this whole time instead of sleeping. He doesn’t notice Luke entrance at first. It is only when the door snaps shut behind Luke that Michael’s gaze darts up. He gasps, surprised and pleased, but he says nothing. The moment settles in around them. He chews on his bottom lip as he stares at Luke, and Luke thinks that Michael’s eyes might be a little bloodshot red. Michael still looks beautiful.

“Is it true?” breathes Michael. He draws in a trembling breath. “What you said on-air, did you mean it?”

“Yeah,” says Luke, immediately, and then, because that seems wholly inadequate for the staggering amount of love that Luke feels, he adds, “with every fiber of my being and then some. I love you, Michael Clifford. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too,” says Michael, automatically like he can’t bear the thought of Luke thinking he doesn’t. He is looking at Luke like Luke is offering him the most precious gift in the history of mankind. Of the universe. It’s a powerful sort of gaze that nearly brings Luke to his knees.

“I didn’t take the job,” says Luke. It’s important that Michael knows this. Important that Michael realizes how much Luke loves him. Important that Luke doesn’t put this off. “I couldn’t—fuck—I thought about leaving you, and I couldn’t do it. I love you too damn much to leave.”

“But you said—”

“I was an idiot too afraid of love to let myself have it,” admits Luke. There is entirely too much space between Michael and him, so he decides to change that. He moves closer to Michael until he can’t anymore then falls to his knees in front Michael. He has to look up to meet Michael’s eyes. “Nobody has ever meant as much to me as you do, and I was terrified of what that meant. But you know what’s scarier?”

Michael shakes his head, though the smile that is beginning to make its way on his face suggests that he does, in fact, know what is scarier than the idea of love.

“Losing you,” says Luke, and he cups Michael’s face with both of his hands. He leans up to ghost his lips against Michael’s, desperate to kiss him but holding off for just a little longer. “Let me give you forever. Let me love you forever. Let me be yours forever.”

“You already are,” says Michael.

He closes the distance between their lips, always the first to break. Luke gives into the kiss immediately. It’s a hungry sort of kiss, one that neither Michael nor Luke can get enough of. It tastes like a future. Like everything Luke has ever wanted, and Michael kisses Luke like they’ve got no tomorrow, but they do.

They have forever.