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The first time Noah laid eyes on Luke, he was shocked. Most kids he’s met before share their ice cream with their dogs or not at all. But Luke was sharing his with a cat, a sleek black kitten perched on a picnic table.

The cat bumped its head against Luke’s wrist and Luke smooched it right on the mouth.

All of this was very shocking to Noah. First of all, nobody in Noah’s house was ever allowed up on the table. Not even their elbows. (Luke’s elbows would be in so much trouble.) Second, nobody kissed anybody on the mouth in their house. It was just not done. Third, Luke’s hair looked uncombed, tendrils of blond hair flying wild in the wind. And then there was the matter of Luke’s shoelaces, undone on the foot that’s dangling. (Luke’s other foot was tucked under so that he was leaning to one side.)

All of this meant that instead of eating his pretzel (warm and salty and his favorite treat), Noah had been staring at Luke for the past five minutes, watching him eat (lick) ice cream with his cat. But then the Colonel ended his call and turned his attention to Noah, to where Noah was looking.

Noah dropped his gaze and sat up straighter. “The cat almost fell, sir,” he said before his father could ask. (At least that part was true.) The Colonel arched an eyebrow at him but otherwise didn’t comment.

Noah’s eyes strayed to Luke again as soon as the Colonel was distracted with another phone call. Luke was looking back at him now, eyes huge and mouth/chin smeared with ice cream, white blobs with black specks. (Vanilla bean? That was Noah’s favorite, too.) Noah should have expected it, but he didn’t and he was shocked yet again when the cat jumped on Luke’s shoulder and circled around to lick at Luke’s cheek and then down to lick at the corner of Luke’s lips.

“Hallie!” Luke giggled and cradled his cat against his chest, looking like he loved her or something. Sometimes Noah’s heart tugged a little when he saw families like this, free with their kisses and hugs and I love yous. But mostly he just got uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to these ‘displays,’ as the Colonel calls them. He wasn’t used to them at all.

*

The first time Noah met Luke he wasn’t any less shocked. It was the week after he first saw Luke at the park. It was the first day of third grade. They were in Ms. Gail’s class and Luke just came right up to him and said, “You were staring at me.”

Noah’s mouth fell open and his cheeks flushed hot. “No, I-I wasn’t.”

“Was too. I saw you. You wanted ice cream, didn’t you? Do you like vanilla or chocolate or strawberry? Chocolate’s my favorite, but Hallie can’t have chocolate. It’s poisonous to cats. We should get some ice cream together. Or pie. My grandma Emma makes a mean pie. That means it’s good. Are you a pie or a cake person? I think they’re both good but pie is better. And pie with whip cream is the best.”

Noah stared and stared. He had never met anyone who talked this much. Luke didn’t seem like he was going to stop either. Maybe ever. But then Ms. Gail told everyone to quiet down and even Luke knew not to displease her. He grinned sheepishly at Noah and his cheeks dimpled and Noah thought Luke looked like a doll, except without the plastic skin and the fake lashes and mouths that sealed shut. (In other words, prettier.) But then he thought maybe he shouldn’t be thinking this kind of thoughts and his cheeks burned and burned.

It didn’t help that Luke sat next to him and Noah could smell his hair. Luke’s hair was layered and shiny and looked like it would feel really soft. Noah pinched his own wrist. It was a thing he did to stop thinking things he shouldn’t. It was a thing that the Colonel taught him when he was little and needed a little reminding of what being a man was about. Don’t cry. Don’t giggle. Never slouch.

*

Luke and Noah never did get to get ice cream together. Or pie. And definitely not pie with whip cream. Because two weeks into the school year, the Colonel moved them again, this time down to Texas, to another army base.

But Noah did get to sit with Luke for ten days, and Luke talked his ears off every single one of those days. At the end of it, Noah thought he probably knew Luke better than any kids he had ever met before. He probably knew Luke better than even the Colonel.

For example, Noah knew that:
Luke’s birthday was May 16. So, he was eight years and three and a half month old.
Luke’s full name was Luciano Eduardo Snyder. “But don’t call me that. I’m Luke.”
Luke had a bio-dad and a real dad. Holden was the real one. (Noah met him and had to agree he was real. He never saw the other guy.)
Luke lived on a farm with a pond and a barn (no ducks, yes horses) and a lot of family.
Luke’s favorite color was blue (and also green and also purple because he couldn’t choose just one).
Luke liked pens better than crayons, milkshakes better than smoothies, and grandmothers better than aunts.
Luke liked basketball and tractors and a whole lot of pies.

And that wasn’t even everything Noah knew about Luke. That list would take too long to make.

On the second Monday of school, Luke brought Hallie to class for show and tell. Noah remembered that day well. He got to pet her and hold her. She was tiny and her fur was soft. But not her tongue. Her tongue was rough as she cleaned Noah’s knuckles and made him (almost) giggle. Noah smiled anyway, especially when she looked into his eyes with hers, which were huge on her face. He supposed she was cute, maybe even as cute as Luke was.

(Pinch. Pinch.)

*

When they got to Texas, Noah asked the Colonel if they could adopt a kitten and the Colonel said, “I already have my hands full trying to raise you, Noah.” That was the end of that.

Noah did get to do some cool things with the Colonel though. They went camping from time to time. The Colonel taught him how to fish, how to string up bait and which baits to use and how to swing out the line and wait.

At night, they looked out at reflections in lakes or straight up at the stars pinpricking the sky. The Colonel told him about the constellations and how everyone’s a part of a greater whole. “We all have our parts to play, son. We all have our duties to carry out.”

Noah wasn’t sure he understood exactly, but he nodded anyway. His father seemed the happiest when they were camping and Noah liked him best on these trips.

*

They went across the world and there were a lot more schools and a lot more kids whom Noah met and sat next to and introduced himself to and talked with. But all of those faces and names eventually blurred – Sam-Mike-Tia-Aiden-Troy – except for Luke’s. Noah could still recall Luke’s voice and Luke’s eyes, Luke’s smile and Luke’s hair, even Luke’s cat Hallie with perfect clarity.

(Sometimes Noah made up lives for Luke and Hallie in his head. He imagined Luke riding tractors or Hallie riding horses. He imagined them on grand adventures. Sometimes they would even visit him. Noah liked those the best.)

*

There was one other name that came to be stuck in Noah’s memory, of one other boy, a neighbor of theirs. He kept that name and all of his thoughts to himself. The Colonel didn’t need to know.

Anyway, Noah thought the Colonel probably already knew. Noah never wanted to date the pretty (or smart or funny) girls even when they wanted to date him. His father kept looking at him with a little frown, but he never said anything out right. (It wasn’t like when they were camping and both had nice words to say or not say, words and silences that felt real and safe.)

*

When Noah turned seventeen, he was turned down by Northwestern University but accepted by Columbia. At first Noah was devastated. His neighbor friend was at Northwestern and he thought – well, it didn’t matter now.

But two days into orientation week at Columbia, Noah spied a blond head of hair that made all of the hair stand up on his arms. It couldn’t be.

~

Except it was.

“You were staring at me,” Luke grinned as he repeated the first words he’d ever said to Noah. Then Luke started walking in a circle around him. “Look at you, Noah! You shot up like a…like a shooting star.”

“I-I wasn’t staring,” Noah tried not to fidget. “I was looking. And, Luke, shooting stars shoot down, not up…”

“No, I’m pretty sure they arc and part of the arc goes up.” Luke stopped in front of him, sticking all fingers but thumbs into his jean pockets. Dimples. Noah traced his eyes over the dips of them and swallowed hard. God, but they were still pretty.

“Anyway, poetic license, shall we say?”

“What?”

“Me. Writer,” Luke pointed to himself. “Words bend.”

“Okay, Yoda.”

“Luke? Aren’t you going to introduce us?” A pretty brunette girl walked towards them and linked her arm with Luke’s.

Oh.

Luke tore his eyes away from Noah and laughed, leaning against her. “Noah, meet Maddie. She’s my best friend and my prom date. I had to take her because Brad Pitt was unavailable.”

Oh.

“Is this Brad Pitt then?” Maddie grinned at Luke before extending her hand. “Hi, I’ve heard so much about you, Noah.”

Noah shook her hand and tried not to stare at Luke, who was blushing, full-on blushing that extended to ears and neck. “Oh, I-um. Hi.”

“He is cute,” Maddie whispered just a bit too loudly to Luke. “Sorry I can’t stay and chat but I have to go to the registrar’s. I really, really, really want to get in the silent screen class.” And with a finger wave, she ran off, leaving Noah alone with Luke.

“She-um, she’s a film major, too?”

“Too? Oh, god, the nerdy movie quotes are never going to end now, are they?”

“Well, Yoda, write us better lines.”

“Maybe I will.” They grinned at each other for a stupid minute. “So… not to be harsh, but it’s been like, ten years. With compound interest, I’d say you owe me a lot of ice cream.”

“Well, you owe me pie. And whip cream.”

“I can’t believe you remember that!”

“I can’t believe you’re charging interest!”

*

Two hours later, Luke and Noah sat in the student lounge, still catching up. To settle the difference, they had decided to order ice cream with pie.

Noah learned a whole new set of facts about Luke. He’s got three new younger half-siblings now: Faith, Natalie and Ethan. He's got a kidney transplant. He played basketball in high school and had a fallout with his (now ex-)best friend Kevin, whom Luke met in fourth grade.

“Aren’t you glad I left when I did? Otherwise, that could have been me and you who had the fallout.”

Luke opened his mouth and then shut it. “If you put it that way.”

“What was fight about anyway?”

“Me… and him,” Luke didn’t elaborate and Noah didn’t want to push.

“Oh. Private. Got it.”

Luke heaved a sigh and shifted in his seat. “No, it really was just me and him. I liked him and he called me a name. So, that was that.”

“Oh.” Noah played with his little fork and stared at a corner of his napkin, which was getting slowly soaked through. “Sorry.”

Luke shrugged. “What about you? You’ve been around the world.”

“Oh no, believe me, not like that. I have not been around the world. Not even around the block.”

“Private. Got it.”

“No, not really. There wasn't... Well, there was this one… person. I liked them, they didn’t know, and then they left.”

Luke swallowed down a bite of pie. “Well, that’s a relief. If you’d said there was this one… space alien, then I’d be worried.”

Noah snorted and was about to make a witty reply. But then he looked over at Luke and they both burst out laughing. Luke's laugh was contagious and they fell (actually fell leaning into each other) in a giggle fit.

Noah hadn’t laughed like this in a long time.

*

College started on that high, on seeing Luke again and meeting Maddie (who was awesome and the film nerd of a friend that Noah always dreamed of but never had). And Noah met his roommate Reginald and Luke’s roommate Tony.

Reg and Tony hit it off right away, partying way harder than either Luke or Noah was inclined to. They stuck together, studying instead.

“We’re so boring,” Luke said one day as they were both typing away on their laptops, trying to finish up papers. “We go to class. You work.”

“You sleep.”

“Shut up,” Luke shoved him lightly, not even enough to move him. “We see movies. You take notes. You talk film-sgeek with Maddie.”

“You sleep.”

“Shut up!” Luke shoved him harder this time, enough to make Noah lean over.

“And, for the last time, ‘film-sgeek’ is not a word.”

“Poetic license.”

“Yeah… I don’t think you know what that means. You’re just making English teachers cry.”

“Oh my god, I swear, I’m so making you take that back.” Luke started pushing at Noah’s arms.

“Will not.” Noah pushed back.

But then Luke put actual intent behind his wrestling and quick as bug, he pinned Noah to the floor. “Take it back. Say ‘Luke Snyder is awesome and will be an amazing author one day. He makes English teachers smile.’ Say it.”

Noah was a bit breathless right then looking up at Luke and the span of Luke’s shoulders and how Luke’s hair was falling into his eyes. “Luke Snyder is awesome and will be an amazing author one day.” That part was easy to say because it was true.

But then Luke was smirking, actually smirking at him and Noah had to do it. “But right now he’s totally making English teachers cry.” He kicked Luke’s leg out as quickly as he could manage and flipped them over so that he could pin Luke’s arms down to the carpet.

“You take that back.”

“Nuh-uh.” Noah held Luke’s wrists, warm underneath his hands, and shook his head.

“Yes.”

They play wrestled. (Played more than wrestled.) And their faces slid progressively closer and closer. For the moment, Noah was still on top. So, he smirked and leaned close and said, “No.”

“Yes.”

Their noses brushed and Noah swallowed hard.

“Whoa! What did I just walk in on?” Maddie stepped in and then out and then half in again to Noah’s room. “Do you – should I come back later?”

“Maddie!” Noah scrambled up on his feet. “No, um, we were just -”

“Having an intellectual argument,” Luke finished for him, as he was wont to do.

“Right. Obviously,” Maddie closed the door and set her bags down. “Brownies, anyone?”

~

Later that night, they found themselves drawn to a water fountain and trying to walk on the curved rim of it.

“I just want to make art, you know?” Noah held onto the waist of Luke’s coat while Maddie hung onto his back. “Make good mo-movies. In the dark, anything could happen. You know, chaos could reign but the world would never end.”

"That's beautiful, Noah," Maddie slurred.

“Yeah. Tell you what. I’ll go to see your movies. I’ll even promise not to fall asleep,” Luke looked back at him with a sweet, goofy grin.

“Ha!” Maddie laughed too loud in Noah’s ear and startled him. With a splash, they all fall into frigid water.

It didn’t seem to deter Maddie though. “You,” she pointed at Luke as she stood, “need Red Bull to stay awake for our kinds of movies, Luke. Admit it.”

Luke spun around and Noah was confronted with Luke’s center stripes, which looked like a deadly collision of colors. “We should burn your shirt,” he blurted. “It’s Christmas dipped in Thanksgiving gravy.”

Luke giggled really hard even as he tried to look affronted. “What!? No. You’re both wrong. First of all, stripes rule. This is Christmas dipped in stars. Second, I’ll write the scripts, so they won’t suck. And then you and Noah can make the movies. I’ll come watch them. Lots of people will and then you can thank me in your acceptance speeches.”

Noah grinned at him. Luke is his favorite, favorite, favorite person in the world.

*

Luke and Noah continued having many… intellectual arguments.

There was that once when Noah’s father called him out of the blue and said he was in town and wanted to do lunch.

Noah was in the middle of walking from one building to another for class. Luke and Tony were both going the same way, too, and Noah had been trying to grab more of Luke’s attention than Tony because… well, because otherwise they may end up with more special brownies.

“What’s the address?” He mimed a pen and paper to Luke. Luke stared and mimed scribbling back and pointed to his own shoulder. Then he handed Noah a pen and a Post-it note, just one.

Noah mimed a ‘really?’ but did as he was told. He cradled the phone between shoulder and ear and tried his best to write on the little yellow square on Luke’s back. (It was just that Luke was warm and Luke’s shirt was ugly, and Noah was trying really hard not to say something inappropriate.) “Yes, sir,” he bit down on his lip. “I will see you soon.”

~

When Noah got back from his lunch with the Colonel, his mood was darker. There was the matter of the army and his father thinking he ought to join it. “Or ROTC, at least.” The Colonel brought up camping and didn’t Noah remember what they said about how everything was built upon depending on everyone?

Maddie being their waitress at the restaurant was the only bright spot about their lunch. The Colonel adored her with an ease that Noah wished his dad could love him.

“Noah? Are you okay?” Luke shifted his messenger bag off his shoulder and sat too close next to him. Luke put an arm around him too, which had to mean he looked really bad.

“I’m a terrible soldier -”

“You’re not a soldier.”

“- and a terrible son.”

“Noah. Noah, look at me.” Luke turned Noah’s head for him. “Look, you’re not a terrible person. I don’t know what your father said to you, but you don’t have to follow in his footsteps. I don’t plan on being a farmer or a business person and my dad doesn’t make me feel bad about it. It doesn’t mean we’re bad sons. You love him, don’t you?”

Noah nodded, staying close to Luke’s hand. It felt warm there, safe there.

“And you’re a hard worker. You’re not off somewhere wasting your education, your college fund.”

“I don’t know. Making movies is about as good as making cotton candy to my dad. It’s not – it’s not real.”

“Was it real to the little boy who sat in the movie theaters dreaming of better worlds?”

Noah smiled and made the mistake of looking up at Luke. Luke was close and touching him and saying something about his tie. “What?”

“I said, why are you still wearing a tie? You look like you’re strangling yourself with it.”

Noah looked down and started trying to yank his tie off. Except his fingers were all clumped together, clumsy under Luke’s gaze.

“Here, let me.” Luke batted his hands away and unraveled the knot for him. “There,” Luke unbuttoned a top shirt button for him too while he was at it and smoothed open the collar.

When Noah did nothing but stared and stared at Luke, Luke tilted his head and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” And Noah realized this was true. In this moment, nothing was wrong. Everything was as it should be. Luke was here, close to him. Luke’s hands lingered on him for no reason, except possibly the same reason that was making Noah’s heart beat like frantic drums. Noah’s eyes dipped down to Luke’s lips, slid open in moist invitation. Noah tilted his head and opened his mouth just as Luke surged towards him.

They met in the middle, lips meeting just hard enough to knock all thoughts out of Noah’s head. (Just soft enough, too, to melt his bones.)

Noah brought his hands up to cradle Luke’s face and felt one of Luke’s arms wrap around him, pulling him closer.

They pull away for one look. Yes. More. And dived back in.

Noah felt his whole body light on tingles. Kissing never felt like this. Never.

(Granted, his first and only other kiss was from a drunken girl who slobbered all over him.)

Still, Noah never felt this way even when watching movie kisses. This kiss blew movie kisses away by a lot. This kiss was with Luke, his Luke.

And Luke said a whole lot with his fluent tongue and his fluent hands. Noah let himself fall and fall and fall.

~

“Question: are you guys snuggling?” Maddie waited till Luke cracked open one eye. “Answer: why yes, I believe you are.”

“Maddie, what imaginary friends are you talking to now?” Luke rubbed at his eyes and leaned back into Noah, chasing his body heat.

Noah blushed but also chuckled and didn’t move from where he was tangled up with Luke in his bed.

Maddie rolled her eyes. “Hey, it was about time. Your UST was driving me crazy.”

“US-what?”

“Unresolved sexual tension,” Luke informed him.

“It’s still unresolved,” Noah muttered under his breath as he absentmindedly played with Luke’s fingers.

Maddie heard him anyway and laughed and laughed. Luke heard him too and blushed and blushed.

*

Much later – because there were friends and roommates and exams and papers due – Luke and Noah actually got around to talking about it, the U of their ST.

“Noah, I’ve never…” Luke traced his fingers down Noah’s neck and flicked his gaze up. “My parents had this whirlwind of a romance. Movie worthy and even though they break up too much for my taste, they always make up. They’re…it for each other, you know? I want that. I want my first time to be with someone I love. I don’t want to just hook up and then for us to be awkward and never be friends again.”

“I don’t want that either.” Noah leaned his forehead against Luke’s. “I mean, I want you, a lot, but you’re worth the wait, Snyder.”

“Are you wooing me, Mayer?”

“Is it working?”

Luke laughed and pushed him down to the mattress and kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.

(Noah figured it was working a little.)

~

"Come home with me," Luke scratched along Noah's scalp, soothing him the way he boasted he did with Hallie and made her purr for hours.

"Home?"

"Oakdale. For Thanksgiving. You haven't lived until you tasted my Grandma Emma's sweet potatoes."

"Sounds tempting."

"There are tons of pies, too. And milkshakes from Al's and cider and stuffing and coleslaw and me."

Noah thought about it. He really, really wanted to go. Thanksgiving with the Colonel was always a subdued affair. They said their thanks for the men and women who gave their lives protecting the country. They said their thanks for their health and safety. And then they ate regular-portioned takeout meals consisting of turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberries, to keep with tradition. After that, his father was usually too busy to stay around the house. They never had other relatives come by. Noah used to think it was because they moved so much that no one had their address anymore. But he wasn't five anymore and he wasn't sure they had any relatives.

"Can I invite my dad?"

"Of course. There's always room at the farm."

"Will I see Hallie?"

"You better. I think she's still a bit miffed at you leaving her forever."

Noah leaned back into Luke's palms and shot him a smile. "Projecting much?"

Luke pulled on Noah's hair just cause. "You wish," he said but smiled back and gifted Noah with an upside down kiss.

*

"Noah," The Colonel looked as uncomfortable as Noah had ever seen him.

"Sir?" Noah wasn't sure what this dinner with the Colonel was about. He still had to invite him to Luke's for Thanksgiving and had no idea where to start.

"I know I've not always been the best father."

"Dad," Noah started protesting because he was startled and because he knew the Colonel always tried.

"No, it's true. I sometimes put my work above your needs and that wasn’t fair to you. We have not been as close in recent years. And I know part of that is because we have not always been honest with each other."

Noah swallowed hard. So, they were going to have this conversation.

"I want you to meet someone, Noah. It's past time that -"

Noah's head snapped up.

"- you know about her. You have a half-sister, son. I should have told you about her earlier. But, well, you were young and I was… It was a moment of indiscretion that I wasn't proud of. I thought with her being in Iraq that you two would never meet."

"I have an Iraqi half-sister?"

"I know how much of a shock-"

"This is the best news! I have a sister. What's her name?"

The Colonel finally relaxed a bit and proceeded to talk about Ameera for half an hour straight. Noah was only too happy to listen.

"So, she's here in the states?"

"Yes. She's in L.A. right now but she wants to meet you. I thought we could all spend Thanksgiving together."

"Oh. About that..." Noah fidgeted with the napkin in his lap, stretching the fabric tight in his fists. "Do you remember my friend Luke?"

"Luke of 'Luke and Hallie'?"

"Yes. He's here at Columbia and I hang out with him and Maddie the most. They're my best friends."

"Maddie? Oh, yes, Madeleine. Charming girl."

"Right. Anyway, so Luke-"

"Third grade, was it? That was the most I'd ever heard you talk. Go on. What about him?"

Noah took a deep breath and went for it. "Luke invited us to his grandmother's farm in Oakdale for Thanksgiving. I'll ask him but I'm sure it will be okay if Ameera came too."

The Colonel looked at him for a long time. "You're blushing."

Noah blushed harder and cursed himself silently. But blushing wasn't like crying. No amount of pinching stopped a blush.

"I like him, dad." Noah blurted before he lost his nerve. "I think I always have."

His dad was silent for so long that Noah finally looked up out of morbid curiosity. The Colonel appeared contemplative and not quite as murderous as Noah was afraid he would find.

“Are you sure about this, son? What about Madeleine? You two seemed to get along so well.”

“I’m sure, dad. Maddie’s great. I’m just not – I only see her as a friend.”

"I see. Tell Luke we accept and send me the address."

"Really?"

~

"Really?" Luke threw his arms around Noah and squeezed him tight. "And you're bringing your sister! We can both show off our sisters!"

Noah snorted. "It's not a show and tell, Luke."

"I'm sure we can make it a show and tell. You haven't met Natalie. Show and tell is her favorite."

*

It turned out a lot of things were Natalie's favorite (including Noah, when he handed her a box of cookies he picked up from a café called Java on the way over). Noah felt his head spinning just looking at Luke's siblings. Not in a bad way, but in an overwhelming way nonetheless. And then there was his own sister, also new.

Ameera felt like kin though the moment Noah saw her. She was shy like he was. She was awkward like he was. She didn't know what to do with her arms or where to look. She looked alarmed by the Snyders. Her interactions with the Colonel were almost as stiff as his own. Noah simply stood near her and felt at peace.

It was something about the farm, too. The air smelled different and blew different. Noah felt like he could relax here, even with his father and his... Luke in the same room.

Now the Colonel was off on a trip to buy last minute marshmallows for Emma ("Oh, would you, dear? That would be a great help."), Noah felt even more at ease. He leaned against Luke and snaked an arm around his waist. Noah couldn't help himself. He just didn't seem to be able to stop touching Luke, even over his collection of striped shirts and god help him, striped sweaters.

Earlier they played with Hallie in Luke's old room. She blinked her (still giant) eyes and rubbed her (still cute) face all over Noah, getting his white shirt specked with black. She even tipped herself over and asked for a tummy rub. Noah felt carried back to when he was eight and short and in shock over an affectionate boy and his affectionate cat.

"Hi Hallie. Remember me?"

She sniffed him and then kissed him, rubbing a wet nose over his cheek and making him laugh. "I remember you," he scratched between her ears.

She purred and purred and sat herself down in his lap. She even crossed her front paws, stacking one on top of the other on top of Noah's knee. Noah kissed the top of her head. It felt as soft as he'd always thought it would.

Luke put away his phone and sighed dramatically. "Nobody loves me anymore. My boyfriend and my cat are cuddling, but not with me."

"Boyfriend?"

Luke opened his mouth but seemed at a loss for words (Luke! at a loss for words!), his cheeks flushing furiously.

"Do you want to be?" Noah couldn't help the smile. Happy, he thought. This was what happy was.

"Yes."

Noah grinned back at him. "Come over here, boyfriend." He held out his hand and Luke spooned up around him, warm, so warm. If they kissed and made out a little, well, Hallie didn't mind. She just calmly placed her paw on top of Luke's on top of Noah's. They were both hers apparently. Noah was okay with that.

Eventually though, they decided that they were probably pushing their 'tour of the farm’ even by Luke's chatty standards, so they came downstairs. Hallie wandered off to the parlor and promptly curled up on an old throw on the sofa. Noah found himself with Luke and Ameera lined up by the kitchen island.

"Do you need any help, sir?" Noah couldn't help but offer. Mr. Snyder looked like he was going to smash the pile of plates any minute.

"It's Holden. And thanks Noah. That would be great if you and Luke," Holden took in Ameera's aborted movement and smiled kindly at her, "and Ameera could set the table. I’ll go help mama bring in the Hubbard squash."

When Holden left, Ameera asks tentatively, "What is Hubbard squash? Is it like pumpkins?"

Luke looked up from arranging a fork next to a spoon and smiled. "No, not really. Pumpkins taste sweeter. But Hubbard squashes are a pride of this farm. We grow them this big," Luke gestured with two plates, "and it takes a lot of muscle to cut it. I bet dad is going to ask you, Noah."

Noah looked up, alarmed. "What? Why? I don't have any muscles."

"Oh, I beg to differ."

Noah raised an eyebrow on the word 'beg' but made no comment. His sister was in the room, after all.

"Noah, you and Luke - you are..." Ameera looked between them and tucked a strand of her hair (lustrous, black waterfall) behind her ear.

Noah reached for Luke's hand and held it in his. "Boyfriends," he confirmed.

Ameera smiled and looked down. "Back in Iraq, you don't see guys holding hands. But in L.A. I saw a lot. I think… the important thing is love, right? And family."

Luke squeezed Noah's hand in his. Noah could barely breathe for the lump in his throat. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "It was good to find both of you."

This was how the Colonel found them, folding together in a group hug.

~

Holden and Emma did end up asking Noah, Ameera and the Colonel to cut the Hubbard squash.

Hallie spent the night curled up on Noah. (“I see how it is. She loves you more already.” “I’m just warmer.” “I saw my brother sneaking her treats.” “Ameera! Okay, fine, guilty.” “Ha! I knew it.”)

Thanks went around the table at dinner (which was wonderful crazy delicious; Noah kind of worshipped Emma now).

But the most important thing that happened on Thanksgiving was an accident. Ethan went missing. For hours, there were frantic searches, through the rooms at the farm, through the barn, through the pond and beyond. For hours, there was hand holding and hair tearing, near hysterics, especially with Lily and Holden and especially Faith, who was supposed to watch him.

Noah and the Colonel paired up to search around the woods a little ways away. “Noah, I’ve had a good career in the army. I want in my heart of hearts for you to follow in my footsteps because I know how fulfilling a career this could be. But, you’re my only son. I don’t want to lose you over this or-or over Luke. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever lost you.”

Noah thought there weren’t that many things in the world that made him cry, but the Colonel was definitely one of them. Noah flung himself at his father, hugging him tight, tears misting over his eyes. “I love you, dad. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever lost you either.”

The Colonel hugged him back tightly. Then he sighed and gripped one of Noah’s shoulders. “There’s something I have to tell you, son. It’s not easy for me but it’s something you ought to know.”

“Do I have another sister somewhere? Or a brother?”

The Colonel chuckled. “Oh no, not quite. This is about your mother.”

“My mother? I don’t understand. She died when I was three.”

“To me, she did.” The Colonel stepped away and paced up and down a little hill. “I caught her in our bed with –” He broke off and raked a hand over his hair. “She was cheating on me, Noah. I made her leave. I told her that was no decent way to raise a child. In my own house! In my own home! It wasn’t right. So, yes, I told you she died. I didn’t want you around her influence. I wanted to raise you to be a proper man, do you understand?”

Noah didn’t know what to say. So he just nodded. “Did she have any – Do I have any aunts or uncles? Cousins?”

“Aunt. You have an Aunt Ruth in Memphis. I don’t think she married.”

Noah nodded. He didn’t know what to say. It was too much. He’d just recouped a sister and now he found he still had his mother out there somewhere and an aunt.

~

When Noah told Luke all of this later, as they took an after dinner walk around the pond, after all the thanks were given for a retrieved Ethan (fallen into a hole, of all things), Luke stared at him speechless for a while. “No way!”

“I know. It’s pretty crazy, right?”

“And I thought my family was special.”

Noah snorted. “They’re not so bad. They’re kind of great actually.”

“Is that the sweet potatoes talking or the pies?”

“Both.”

Luke laughed into his neck and Noah let Luke’s mirth lighten his heart. He would probably lie awake and think about his mother all night, but for now, Noah felt content to be out here in this little pocket of the world with Luke, with his boyfriend.

They hugged and talked and kissed till they could barely feel their tongues for the cold. It was the best Thanksgiving Noah ever had.

*

Christmas break was an anxious sort of an affair. Noah spent half of it with Ameera and the Colonel in L.A., in one set of clothing (long sleeved but no coats) and moods (good but anxious, missing Luke). And he spent the other half with Maddie and her brother Henry and the Snyders in a sweater, scarf and coat, feeling more than good but also anxious. He had a gift for Luke that he wasn’t sure Luke would like.

“Root beer float,” Luke pointed to the cup. “Seriously? This is my gift?”

“Shut up and eat, okay? This is the first part.” Noah handed Luke a matching note.

“The first time I ever saw you,” Luke read out loud, “you were eating ice cream with Hallie. I will never forget it. You looked messy and beautiful and happy. I wanted to be you.”

Noah handed Luke a second package.

“Pretzel,” Luke looked unimpressed. “This is a pretzel.”

“This is the bane of my life,” Noah handed him a second note.

“I was eating a pretzel the first time I saw you. And now I can’t look at a pretzel without thinking about you. Do you know how many pretzel shops there are in New York? In Oakdale? I do.”

Noah handed Luke a third package. This one he was most nervous about.

“A watch. Okay, I can’t eat this.”

“Turn it over.”

Luke did and there on the bottom was an engraving: worth the wait.

There was a Christmas card that went with it, too.

“Dear Luke,” Luke read, “Thank you for being there for me, for letting me into your family and into your life. Being with you has made me happier than I have ever been. Merry Christmas. Love, Noah.”

Luke closed the card and kissed him, sweet and salty and perfect. “Do you mean it?”

“Every word.”

“Come walk off the calories with me.”

They threw on gloves and coats and hats and headed outside, huddled together.

“I – Noah, being with you has made me happier than I have ever been, too. When I first came out, I was so lonely. I thought I was never going to have what Maddie and Casey had or what my mom and dad had. It’s not just the attraction, you know? It’s all of it – the just getting someone and having inside jokes or walking into a room and knowing that someone is happy to see you. You are all of that for me, Noah. You’re not afraid to call me out on my BS. And you’re patient with me, in every way. And you don’t have to say it back but I love you, Noah. I’m so in love with you.”

Noah cradled the back of Luke’s head in his hand and kissed him and kissed him. “Same here.”

They found a branch of mistletoe hanging in Old Town and sat on the bench under it. It was the perfect excuse.

*

New Year’s Eve was a bit of a disaster to start. Luke, Noah and Maddie decided to head back to New York City for the Time Square party. Only, Maddie got sick and started sneezing nonstop on the way. “Maddie, we’re going back. We’ll be here for four years. We can do this some other time.”

Maddie hiccupped through her sneezing and apologized again. “No, you should stay. You guys have never seen all the acts and all the people and the fireworks and the giant ball!”

“It’s okay. Balls are not that interesting.” Luke tried to say with a straight face.

Maddie giggled through her tears, and then sneezed again.

Once they got Maddie settled in her room with some cold medicine, Luke and Noah headed for Noah’s dorm.

“We won’t have to clean the room,” Noah pointed out. “You and Tony live in a pig sty.”

“It’s not that bad!”

Noah arched an eyebrow.

“Oh, come on!” Luke tried to tickle him but Noah wriggled away and took off running, laughing.

They’re both completely out of breath by the time they got up the three flights of stairs to Noah’s room.

“So,” Luke pressed him up against the door. “Gotcha.”

“Am I it?” Noah smiled back. “Cause I’m tagging you right back.”

Luke looked like he was going to say something else, but then he tiptoed and pressed a soft kiss to Noah’s cheek and then lips. “You are it. For me.”

Noah swallowed hard. He was pretty sure Luke meant…

Luke nodded and kissed him harder, dirtier. Noah turned the knob of his door and yanked Luke inside. He just needed Luke inside in all ways.

~

Noah thought he fell into some kind of movie. Because being with Luke was at the same time familiar – hair, smile, fingers, lips, tongue – and new and unearthly – hair sliding ticklish along his neck, smile wrapped around a nipple, fingers undoing his jeans, lips stretched wide and wet, tongue licking, licking, licking.

And the suction! God, Noah had never known suction before. Or how it was to die a little and then a little more and feel more alive than ever.

~

“You wrote me a note,” Luke said as they woke to a new year.

“I do better with notes.”

Luke read it to himself and wrapped his arms around Noah. “I’m so glad it was you, too. And Happy New Year, Noah. I’m pretty sure I forgot to say it last night.”

“No, I’m pretty sure you said it a million times. And it was a very, very happy New Year.”

Luke laughed and pinned him to the bed again, to kiss and to tease (and then not tease).

And then not tease some more.

(Reg wasn’t due back for another week.)

*

Years later, Noah finally saw his mother again for the first time. On the car seat next to his was Luke, hand squeezing his. Noah took a deep breath. He could do hellos. He could even do goodbyes, if he had to.

With Luke by his side, Noah felt pretty invincible.

*

“You were staring at me.” Luke whispered as they met in the middle, in front of the minister.

“Can you blame me?” Noah whispered back. “You were staring back.”

“Can you blame me?”

“Luke! Shhh!” Ethan shushed him from the side, where he was taking his ring bearer responsibility pretty seriously.

The whole room laughed.

And then the minister began. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

Noah felt his heart thumping hard in his chest. It was amazing how many people were in this room with him and Luke, and they were all friends and family.

His mother was here, sitting with his aunt Ruth. They never got to be as close as Lily and Luke or even Lily and Noah. But Noah was thankful that she was in his life at all. He found his love of movies definitely came from her side of the family. And she had stories about his babyhood and stories about his grandparents, stories he’d have killed to have heard when he was little and lonely. But he had them now and that was good enough.

His father, too, sat proud in the first row. And all it took was a basketball game to convert the Colonel’s views of Luke. Noah never understood it, but he was glad Luke dunking a ball (over and over again; Luke was kind of an expert at balls) impressed his father that much.

And of course, Ameera was there. His little sister, standing tall and gorgeous as his maid of honor. Noah looked at her and she threw him a wink, making him smile. Noah couldn’t believe he had grilled guys who were dating his baby sis, but yes, he’d become that guy.

Lastly, there was Luke himself. Luke was going to be officially his family, his husband. Noah couldn’t wait. After all, he was Luke’s the moment Luke first held him. He was irrevocably Luke’s the moment Luke first kissed him. Luke was it for him.