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It starts the time he finds you crying in the otherwise empty hotel room.

The invite to meet up with the guys had come as a huge surprise. They are in the area for a concert and other media events. They want to get together with a few of their old friends. You have known Luke since you were tiny and the others almost as long, it seems. You are the one who had front row seats to their pre-fame practices in the garage. Whenever their parents got tired of the noise, you always offered yours. Your parents were hardly ever home and you lived far enough out that it was unlikely your neighbors would give a shit. You were excited to see your old friends and maybe relive the old days when you were all closer.

But coming was a mistake.

It never occurs to you that the guys will also have their girlfriends with them, assuming the girls can attend. It is really stupid of you, an oversight you should not have had. Just because the guys were awkward teenagers does not mean they still are. In fact, judging from what you have seen, they have all grown into themselves. Even Luke seems to be more self-confident and sure of himself. It is adorable.

What is not adorable is watching him and Sierra. She was here when you arrived, and has not let Luke leave her side since. He has barely even said anything to you all night. Not that you blame him, really. Despite what trolls have said online, Luke’s girlfriend is very pretty. Unfairly so, in your opinion. Two pretty people finding each other like this and making it work is like a slap in the face with reality.

Maybe if it was just Sierra, you might have dealt with it better. Unfortunately, the only other single person here is Ashton, and he is busy flirting with any of the girls who come near him. In an alternate universe, perhaps you would have gone over to flirt with him. There was a short time a few years ago when you harbored a tiny crush on the drummer, but it was fleeting. Your heart has thrown in on Luke, putting all your chips in one corner.

It sucks that you have already lost the game.

Still, with everyone preoccupied in the living room area of the suite – you are fairly sure it is Ashton’s – you are free to wander unnoticed into one of the empty bedrooms. It does not look like anyone has been in here, the bed still made and no luggage laying around.

You bypass the full-size bed, wandering over to the window. It is actually sliding glass doors, so you are relieved to step out onto the balcony. The sounds of the city are a nice distraction as you settle yourself against the security railing, sliding your legs under to dangle your feet over the edge.

For a moment, you are struck with vertigo, so you quickly pull out your phone and unravel the earphones you have a habit of tucking into your pocket.

There is a specific song you feel compelled to listen to, so you take a couple seconds to pull it up. Closing your eyes for a moment, you lose yourself in the song that you have listened to a thousand times.

You’re so zoned out that you do not notice anyone stepping out on the balcony with you. At some point, you started watching the city through tired, sad eyes.

It is not so much your name being called, as it is your phone being snatched out of your lap, which clues you in on the presence of company.

You jump with a squeal, looking up into the amused eyes of Luke. That amusement fades into concern when he gets a good look at your face. It is only now that you register the dampness on your cheeks as the warm breeze blows across the drying tear tracks.

Fuck.

To your horror, Luke looks at your phone with a little frown, but that fades into a slightly teasing smile.

“I know we aren’t great, but surely we aren’t so bad as to deserve your tears,” he says with only a hint of self-depreciation.

Only knowing him so well has you able to hear that.

Angrily, you rub at your face to try and get rid of the evidence. Your chest is light and your throat is starting to feel that way, too. Get it together, idiot! It’s a struggle, but you manage to roll your eyes at him.

“Your music is great and you know it,” you mutter.

In the past, you constantly gave similar compliments just for the selfish pleasure of watching Luke blush and stammer. That was back when your opinion still mattered.

Since you are not looking, you miss the flattered grin and light flush.

“Then why are you crying?” he wonders.

He still has your phone, but you don’t think anything of it. After all, there is nothing on there for you to hide. Out of curiosity, Luke swipes his thumb across the screen, removing the picture of your cat. Although he saw the band, he had not bothered to look at the specific song, so he does that now.

You brave a glance up at him. He’s frowning softly at the phone, and you see his tongue poke on his lip like it is trying to fiddle with the lip ring that used to be there. It’s stupid how much you miss that stupid piercing. Subconsciously you pull the back of your labret between your teeth.

“It doesn’t matter,” you finally answer. You force your gaze away from him, and his stupid, kissable lips. “Don’t worry about it.”

You miss the scowl he sends at you. Yes, he has not been as good of a friend as he should. His life kind of exploded once the band got famous. Now, years later, he still feels just as busy even if he has gotten used to the fame for the most part. He knows he should have made more time for old friends, and guilt is starting to gnaw at this stomach.

“You’re upset, [Nickname],” he argues, finally handing back the phone. “So it matters.”

Your earphones get wrapped around your phone before you stick it in your pocket. There is no point in trying to listen to music now. You recognize the stubbornness in your childhood best-mate’s face. For a moment, you almost wish his girlfriend would come take him away. It is stupid; you pine for him all evening and when he finally pays attention to you, all you want is for him to go back to ignoring you.

A weary sigh escapes you. Coming to this was a huge mistake. It has been years since you two hung out, so why is he noticing something is off now and not before? It isn’t fair.

“Please, just drop it, Luke.” Your voice is sad, quiet. You have turned your gaze back to the city view. It is pretty for being so crowded, busy, and loud. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Normally, Luke would let it go now. He does not like forcing you to open up; you always resisted and it wore him out. But you’re literally out here, sitting alone, and crying while listening to one of his – their songs. He might be a shit friend, but he is not that bad.

Luke considers the song you were listening to on repeat. It is one of their newer ones, and not particularly happy. You weren’t listening to the remix where they had a guest singer – someone who helped to write it, actually. So part of the song must speak to you, and he can only guess at which.

“So, who is it?” He changes tactics. If you won’t confess why you’re upset, maybe you will at least admit who is the cause. Maybe he and the guys can beat the bastard up.

A little frown pinches your eyebrows. “Who?”

He sighs in mock exasperation, but then he’s grinning at you. “Whoever the song is reminding you of, obviously.”

It is a good thing you aren’t facing him, otherwise he would have seen the panic on your face. You thought he figured it out, but he is only making an educated guess. At least you do not have to worry about him actually figuring it out. The last person he would ever guess is himself.

The urge to get defensive is so strong it is surprisingly difficult to fight it.

“Like I said,” you try again. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to talk about it, so please just drop it.”

The way your voice wavers on the last bit makes you cringe. Your eyes are starting to burn, that lump in your throat making it almost painful to swallow. You really don’t want to start crying in front of him. He used to be adorably bad at comforting you when you were kids. You honestly are afraid to see if that changed, because that would mean some other girl taught him how to do it. That’s completely irrational, and you know it.

Luke studies you for a moment. He wants to keep pushing, but remembers how poorly you reacted to that in the past. If you weren’t sitting on the floor like that, he would bend over to hug you.

For a moment, he misses your hugs. It has been like forever since he got to be this close to you. That guilt gnaws at him even more.

“Okay, fine,” he says with a sigh. He still offers you a hopeful grin. “At least come back inside, yeah?”

There is no good excuse not to. Besides, haven’t you wanted his attention all night? This is as good as it will get.

You pull your legs back and climb to your feet with only a little help from the railing. It’s as you are starting to stretch that you feel long arms snake around your waist. There is no time to do more than squeak softly as you get tugged in against the long, muscular body of your best friend. For a second, you tense up so fast it hurts. Around you, Luke’s arms tighten up for a split second before starting to relax.

Without thinking, you twist so you can press into the hug, sliding your arms around his narrow waist. It feels like your face is on fire, and elephant-size butterflies are flapping chaotically inside your chest. Before you can talk yourself out of it, you indulge just a bit by pressing your face into his chest.

Despite the passage of time, he has not changed. The familiar scent of him envelops you in a blanket of comfort. This has been, and always will be, your favorite place. It is like his arms will protect you from anything that might come your way. For a moment, your breath hitches softly but you manage to suppress the sob. Crying now will just ruin everything.

For his part, Luke has bent slightly so he can curl over you. The tension melting from your body releases some he hadn’t realized was there. A heavy, contented sigh escapes him as he briefly presses his face into your hair. He gives you a squeeze before he straightens back up.

“I missed these,” he admits, smiling shyly down at you. It is a good thing it is so dark, otherwise you would see how red his ears are getting.

Swallowing a whine when he pulls away, you squeeze your eyes tight for a second before blinking them open. Fortunately, no tears slipped free. You peer up at him through your lashes.

That shy smile damn near kills you. For a split second, you want to lean up and kiss the corner of it. Your best mate is fucking beautiful, and it is heartbreaking.

You obviously do not give into the tempting fantasy. Kissing him would destroy the relationship you have coveted for so long. Luke has clearly never thought of you in that way. As hard as it is to accept that, you have. Having him in your life at all is most important.

No matter what your hormones say.

“I missed it, too,” you confess with a fond little smile. I miss you.

You are rewarded with his big, happy grin. “Good. Now, let’s go back in. I think we will be ordering food soon.”

That hopefully means there will be booze as well. You can drown your sorrows in fancy craft beers or something. At least you’ll have something to distract you when Sierra inevitably steals Luke back again.


The next time is at a concert.

The guys have invited you, providing a VIP ticket and everything. You have never experienced them in concert like this, only the free ones in the garage. It is exciting and a blast. Watching all the adoring fans makes your heart swell with pride until it feels like you might burst. It is wonderful to see so many people appreciating your friends.

It is also depressing. With so many clamoring to be noticed, you don’t have much hope of standing out. The guys had joked about playing a game of “Where’s [Name]?” to find you in the crowd. Although it made you laugh at the time, right now you couldn’t see the humor.

But unbeknownst to you, Ashton spots you first. He sees the way you go from beaming up at them in blatant adoration, to looking around the crowd as the happiness slowly fades away. It hurts his heart to see you look so lonely and sad. He tries to catch your eyes from his place behind the drums, but fails.

He does not miss the way your gaze seems drawn to Luke like you have magnets in your eyes. Which is a really weird thought, actually; Ashton hopes he remembers it later so he can tease you.

At least you seem to perk back up pretty quickly. It’s cute how you sing along, even hitting the high notes that Luke and Calum can, although he can’t hear you or anything. It’s just obvious how into it you are.

So it is especially alarming how your entire demeanor changes when the next song starts. For a moment, you freeze like a deer in headlights, an unreadable expression on your face. Then your eyes go blank and you turn your head so you are no longer facing them.

Ashton does not miss the way your eyes avoid going to Luke for the whole song. As he watches you rub at your face in a way that looks suspiciously like you are wiping away tears, his chest tightens. Although you have always been closest to Luke, you became like their adopted sister almost. You were always the most supportive, their first and biggest fan. So watching their music upset you like this is very distressing.

He has to wait a while, but he does point you out to Calum and Michael when they look at him questioningly. He can see it on their faces when they notice how upset you appear. He can only shrug at their questioning looks, because he does not have any answers.

It’s Michael who manages to get Luke’s attention as they near the end of the song. So focused on singing, the youngest of the band only looks a little confused by whatever his friend is trying to communicate. Until he follows Michael’s gaze – and Ashton’s and Calum’s – into the crowd. With your face turned aside, it takes a moment to recognize you.

Luke struggles not to frown or otherwise react when he sees you rub at your face, too. There’s obviously nothing he can do right now, so he has to set his thoughts aside for the rest of the show. But he does his best not to look worried.

The ticket they got for you includes the backstage Meet’n’Greet package. At first, you almost do not go to it. You vaguely remember where they said their bus is, you are sure it is just as good to wait for them there.

You must secretly be a masochist, because you find yourself in the room set aside for the fans to meet the guys for longer than an autograph. However, unlike the rest of the fans, you are hanging back. It only makes sense, after all, you will be spending time at the hotel with them. You did not really need to come to this, and you were starting to regret attending the concert at all.

After that song, you caught the looks the guys were giving you, ranging from concern to confusion. There is a heavy feeling in your stomach, because you know that it will be brought up once you all are alone. For that reason, you have been avoiding their attempts to include you in the Meet’n’Greet session. You have seen a couple of the girls looking at you with little frowns. It is a good thing that you have managed to avoid the limelight so the only social media presence outside your personal accounts is being in a handful of backgrounds for their earlier photos. Those have mostly been lost in the timelines of their accounts so you are fairly certain most of these fans will not recognize you.

“Is that [Name]?” asks a girl who has been looking at you.

She is rather pretty, like almost all the girls here, although her makeup is a lot more natural than most of those others. Her orange-red hair and freckles make her rather adorable, too.

Ashton looks a little surprised, having assumed as much as you that no one would recognize you. “Uh, yeah, actually. That’s our [Nickname].”

“She’s our good luck charm,” Calum jokes, winking at the redhead who noticed you.

Her blush releases a tiny amount of tension from your chest. Anytime someone shows preference for Luke, you have to fight the impotent rage of jealousy. It is real stupid, and you are perfectly aware of it. However, Luke has gone for nobodies before. If it was not a possibility, he would not be on his two-year anniversary coming up.

The reminder makes you want to throw up.

“[Name] come over here,” Luke says, smiling at you in encouragement.

You heave a longsuffering sigh, but do wander over to the group where they are all sitting around together. There is no room for you, though, so you end up sitting on the arm of the couch next to Ashton. If Luke pouts a little, you do not notice it.

“I bet you have all kinds of embarrassing stories about them,” the redhead says, smiling.

It feels wrong to be getting this much attention from the fans of the band. The guys do not seem bothered by it, though. You try not to squirm.

“Yeah,” you admit with a tiny smirk. “I’ve got loads.”

“Hey, you swore not to tell those!” Now Luke really is pouting at you.

You barely manage not to flinch. It just isn’t fair how fucking attractive he is.

“Sorry.” You are focused on the nice redhead. “I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

A few of the girls whine, but you only care about the amusement on Luke’s face. You love the way his lips quirk up like that when he smiles. If only you weren’t so damn pathetic. When did it get so hard to keep your feelings trapped deep inside you?

The redhead does not look discouraged. You normally would feel suspicious of her intentions due to how nice she is being. However, you aren’t getting the vibe she might have if she was trying to impress Luke.

“Do you at least have any embarrassing photos of them?”

That makes you smile for real, and you miss the pleased look on Luke’s face as you dig out your phone. If he wasn’t so relieved to see you smile, he would have been focused on what you want out of your phone.

“Oh, yeah,” you joke. “How far back?”

There are some undignified squawks from the guys. However, it is Ashton who reaches up to poke you. As a distraction, it works, because you are suddenly flailing and sliding sideways. Maybe he should have expected a reaction, but Ashton doesn’t catch you except at the last second so you don’t roll off. You’re left to lay sprawled out on his lap.

“Ah, hey, Ash.” Your face is starting to burn. Maybe if you pretend you intended to do that, no one will notice? Probably not.

The drummer just pats on you. “No worries, babe.”

You almost manage to get away before the woman coos at you.

“Aww… You’re so tiny, you look so cute next to Luke. You should sit real close to him.”

You don’t have to glance at him to see the way he has shifted slightly so you can squeeze in next to him on the couch. Face still burning from the compliment, you somehow manage to crawl off Ashton and into the little spot cleared for you. You pretend not to notice that Luke’s body fits around yours perfectly.

A couple of the girls have been recording, or taking photos as you sat down. You take no notice of them; if you did you might be mildly concerned about these ending up blasted around social media. Still, you are relatively content to sit here and soak up the quality time.

You don’t miss the strange looks aimed your way by your friends.

Later that night, the guys have all gathered in Calum’s suite again. You all have been drinking actual liquor that the guys are now old enough to have without smuggling it in.

Calum and Michael have pulled Luke down to play a videogame, so you’ve been left on your own. There aren’t any girlfriends around which is an immediate improvement over last time. With the buzz of alcohol in your system, you are feeling pretty mellow.

Shifting so you are sitting sideways on the couch, you pull your knees up to your chest and rest your chin on them. It makes you feel incredibly nostalgic watching the guys play their videogame. This used to be a common scene for you, although at the time you would sometimes get roped into playing; usually it was by Luke whenever he tired of losing to the others.

Now you just feel like you no longer fit. It is like you are watching them through a window because you do not belong here anymore. It is hard not to dwell on that, because you already have an idea where it will lead. Considering how hard it is to get out of that dark place in your head, you are reluctant to get close. Especially here in front of your friends that will only worry about you.

Ashton has been watching you for a while. Although he knows you have not noticed, he still feels a little weird about it. However, you have not spent time with them much in a long time, so it feels important to observe you. He is aware that they are not the only ones who have changed over the past few years. However, he is fairly certain that time has been the kindest to you.

He sits on the couch with you and is not surprised that you do not immediately notice. You are so deep in thought that a little crinkle has appeared between your eyebrows. As he looks at you, your nose wrinkles up a little.

Have you always been so fucking adorable?

“Hey, babe, you okay?"

His voice startles you enough that you actually jump with a tiny noise. He has to struggle not to grin at it.

Glancing up at Ashton, you offer him a small, almost shy smile. “Yeah, Ash. I’m good.”

It is obvious he does not believe you, but you have no idea why. So far no one has mentioned anything from the concert, so maybe you had imagined those looks being aimed at you. That means that no one spotted you, which is good. Perfect, really.

“Did you like the show?” He cannot keep the hopefulness out of his voice, and it surprises him. Up until he realizes that seeking your approval has been important since the beginning.

Guilt strikes like a viper when he realizes how much they dropped the ball. He wonders at you not seeming to resent them at all. You just seem to have fallen back into place like a piece to their puzzle they did not realize is missing.

Ashton is staring at you with the cutest expression of hopeful vulnerability. It makes you want to flail at him until he stops. That he even wants your opinion fills you with bubbly warmth.

“Of course, you guys are amazing,” you answer easily with a smile. The look in your eyes is completely sincere. “It was awesome. I’m so happy you got me a ticket.” Because there is no way in hell you could have afforded it on your own.

The happiness on your face is enough to keep him from pushing. As much as he wants to know why you were so affected by that one song, he also does not want to ruin your mood. Maybe it is just a fluke. You do not seem to be upset like that anymore.

“Oi!” Calum has noticed the two of you; he remembers the way you looked during the song, too. However, he is all for distraction. “We should watch a movie and make up a drinking game.”

That is how you find yourself sprawled out on the couch in a sandwich between Ashton and Michael, completely drunk and the most relaxed you have been in months. While Michael has gotten lost in drunk texts to his fiancé, Ashton has essentially tucked you against him. He is warm, strong, and smells nice so you are not going to complain.

Somehow the movie chosen is the extended edition of the first Lord of the Rings. You have seen it so many times that you have it practically memorized. In fact, Ashton is giggling at your slurred recital of the lines. During the part where Aragorn and Arwen are talking, you chance a glance over at Luke. He has been sitting in a chair for the whole movie, and although he had started out drinking along, he is currently scowling at his phone as his fingers fly over the screen in what you hope is an intense game. It looks more like angry texting.

You are a shitty person for hoping it is a fight with Sierra, even if you only entertain it for a few seconds. However, you need Luke to be happy. That is by far more important than your unrequited love. Reality checks are a great way to make it easier to dim the flame of that torch you carry.

“Luke, mate, you’re being a buzzkill.” It seems Calum has also noticed the growing dark cloud around the younger guy.

For a moment, he looks irritated, like he will refuse to listen to the hint. If he storms off to the hotel room, you are not sure what you will do. Theoretically, you are supposed to be sharing it with him, but you don’t have your own key – you’d been honest when you said you would only lose it. Although he will open the door for you, it does not seem like a good idea to intrude upon this mood he is in.

However, his eyes land on you and he kind of deflates. “Sorry,” he mutters. He fiddles with his phone another second, before shoving it in his pocket.

Perhaps if you were sober, the way he throws himself into the game would have raised a red flag. However, you are past the level of sobriety to pick up on subtleties in behavior like that.

At some point, the movie gets paused and forgotten. There is an impromptu dance party in which you somehow wind up between Luke and Ashton. Both of them are drunk enough to find everything even funnier than normal. You are too busy having fun to notice the relief in their eyes, or the way Luke’s follow your every movement.

Calum eventually kicks everyone out so he can sleep. You all split up, you following after Luke. Or, rather, you two helping each other remain upright. It must be comical, considering how much height difference there is. Both of you seem to come to the same conclusion, because you both practically fall into the room when Luke finally gets the key scanned properly after struggling with dexterity function through the giggling.

For a moment, time stops. He’s smiling gently at you with a fondness that makes your chest hurt. You want nothing more than to kiss him, but you don’t. Instead, you nudge him towards the bedroom. He stumbles exaggeratedly, as if you are just so strong you’ve knocked him over.

Rolling your eyes, you don’t even try to hide the soft smile. As annoying as being emotional-drunk can be, at least it isn’t horny-drunk. That would make this all so much harder.

“Go on.” You make a shooing motion with your hand. “I want to get changed. So you get first dibs on the bathroom.”

He watches you for a moment, clear blue eyes unreadable yet full of emotion. The gaze is so intense, you start to feel uncomfortable. It makes the beginning flutters of panic in your chest. He does not know, right? You are pretty sure you have not done anything obvious. As far as you know, the only person who knows your real feelings is you. Which is how it should be.

You end up just blinking dumbly when he abruptly ruffles your hair. Normally, this gesture of affection would only reinforce the friendzone you know you are in. After all, the other guys do it, too. Yet, because it’s him, your nerves are extra sensitive to his touch. Briefly, you imagine your nerves arching into it like a cat arches its back when being petted. It’s an amusing mental image, but not enough to distract you from the tingles sliding down from your scalp into your spine. The little shiver makes you cringe and you hope he does not notice.

While he’s in there getting ready or whatever, you quickly pull out the pajamas you plan on wearing. Since you knew you were going to share the room with him, you made sure to only pack clothes that covered you up. He clearly does not find you attractive, so there is nothing to try and show off. Besides, you would much rather be comfy.

The pants you chose are technically men’s, so there is quite a bit of extra material that pools around your feet. The pants themselves have Scooby-Doo on them with a Halloween theme. Along with it, you pull on a plain black tank top. It is comfy and stretchy, and you won’t have to worry about any wardrobe malfunctions. The last thing you need is for it to twist just so that your tits pop out.

You are lazily scrolling through Pinterest when Luke comes out of the bathroom. The minuscule particle of disappointment at not seeing him change is easy to brush away. It’s a good thing, otherwise you would probably have to drink until you pass out.

“Your turn, [Nickname],” he practically sings.

Rolling your eyes, you slip past him. After doing everything necessary for you to go to bed, you finish by setting your toothbrush aside so it hangs slightly out over the sink. To dry. For good measure, you splash some water on your face.

The light is off in the living room area of the suite. You sigh softly, because you have not made the couch into your bed yet. There were extra pillows and sheets in one of the closets, so you use the flashlight of your phone to find your way around.

“What are you doing?”

His voice makes you jump with a squeak. Heart pounding, you look over at the tall silhouette in the doorway to the bedroom. It is a relief to see he is still wearing a shirt even if he has changed into pajama pants as well. In the dark, you cannot quite make out what is on those.

Why the fuck would that even matter? You push the thought away.

“Making my bed,” is your answer, hesitant only because you are confused by the question. What else would you be doing?

There is a pause during which you almost worry that he has passed out standing up. But then he’s leaning against the doorframe.

“Why?”

You cannot stop the incredulous look. “So I can go to sleep, obviously.”

There is another pause. “Why don’t you just share the bed? It’s way comfier than the couch. I promise.” He sounds almost shy.

Every logical fiber of your being is screaming not to do it. While the two of you used to be openly affectionate, it is not like that anymore. He certainly did not have a girlfriend back then.

“Okay,” is out of you before you can stop it.

Maybe you can just sleep on the other side of the bed so you will not be tempted to touch or cuddle. There really is no other way to bottle up your feelings. The alcohol has removed the last of the filter you have. As long as you can wait until you are sure you won’t just give in and reach out, then maybe this won’t be so bad. Maybe you can at least bottle it up until later.

Luke does not wait for you, returning to the bed with a little cheer. He hangs back, though, but only long enough for you to pick a side and crawl in. You slither under the covers with a tiny noise that sounds an awful lot like a moan of pleasure. You completely miss how suddenly he tenses up at the noise.

He waits until you are settled, before he turns off the lamp. Now that your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you can see when he tugs his shirt up over his head and tosses it aside.

You swallow hard, almost choking a little on it. For a moment, it feels like someone has smashed on the keyboard of your brain. You remain frozen as he slips under the covers with you. At least he does not moan the way you did. In hindsight, you almost apologize for the noise you made, but figure that will just make things awkward. With him on the other side of the mattress, you slowly begin to relax. Maybe this will be fine after all. It certainly is nice to be so close to him.

Something thumps onto the mattress next to you just as you close your eyes. You jump, startled out of the doze you are falling into. The offending object slides around, but you cannot tell what it is until you feel the tips of a couple fingers brush against the arm you have curled protectively across you.

The hand disappears accompanied by a little huff. “Why are you all the way on the edge, [Nickname]?”

This is hardly fair. Not only is he sharing a bed with you and fucking shirtless, but he is also being adorable-drunk like he is prone to. Belatedly, you remember that Luke has always been an affectionate drunk.

Fuck me dead.

“Because it’s comfy?” That is not a good enough excuse, and you regret it as soon as you have said it. Licking your lips, you try again, “It is too hot to cuddle. You’re like a furnace.”

“Hey, no need to get personal.” The American accent is coming through now. It makes you frown a little.

Luke does not even sound like Luke anymore when he does it. It feels like an obvious sign that too much has changed, but you block that out. No need to get nihilistic, [Name], you think.

“Sorry.” You aren’t, really. Cuddling is out of the question.

You can already feel the inhibitions slipping away. Would drinking some more help? Probably not, unless you drink until you pass out or end up with alcohol poisoning, whichever happens first. It is probably a good thing you are not aware of anymore alcohol in the suite, although you are fairly certain you could easily find some.

Luke is silent for so long you think he fell asleep. A yawn escapes you, big enough to make your jaw pop. It kind of hurts.

“[Name]?” His voice is quiet, almost hesitant.

Rubbing wearily at your eyes, you sigh. “Yeah?”

There is a pause again, like he is afraid to ask his question. It is beginning to be a little annoying. He needs to shut up so you can sleep, or just kiss you – Wait, what? Now you scrub at your face with both hands. You are too tired or drunk, or both, for this.

“Why were you upset at the concert?”

The muscles in your back tighten so fast you wince as something twinges. It is a good thing the room is dark. He cannot see your panic. Maybe you can pretend to have fallen asleep? No, he will just wake you up and you really cannot afford to feel his touch right now when your self-control is so lacking.

“Nostalgia,” you answer, knowing full well what he means. You hadn’t thought any of them spotted you. The only time you would have looked upset is during that song.

That is not the answer Luke is expecting, so he frowns a little. He wishes he could see more than the vague outline of you. It bothers him more than it should that you have put so much space between the two of you. He can still remember how soothing it was to cuddle with you before. He really wants to feel that again.

His expression softens a little although you cannot see it. Now he understands what you mean by feeling nostalgic.

He is too drunk to remember the particulars of why you might have been noticeably upset for now. The specific song is not a factor.

“Oh?” Maybe it is selfish, but he wants to hear about the things you miss, too.

Or perhaps he is a bit of a masochist, too.

Flooded with relief that he took the bait, you let out a breath you have not realized you were holding. Tension slips from your body with a sigh.

“Yeah.” You lift a shoulder in a shrug he cannot see. “I missed you guys rocking out in my garage.”

The smile in your voice puts a grin on his. “Those were good times.”

You do not say anything for a moment. “I miss y – seeing you guys.” That almost-confession makes you flinch and hide your face in your pillow. Clearly you are too stupid to be talking right now.

He does not miss that little slip. For some reason, he can feel his ears and neck start to heat up. He is a little disappointed you edited yourself.

“We – I miss you, too.” There, at least he will speak his mind.

It is perfectly normal to miss the person who has been by his side for as long as he can remember. He knows without asking that you will stay at his side for as long as you can. He shoves away thoughts of you eventually having to go back to your regular life when they are back on the road. It is too bad there is no way for you to join them. Right?

Unaware of his thoughts, you are preoccupied with what he said. The fact he deliberately changed it to him missing you and excluding the other guys makes those elephant-size butterflies erupt into flight in your stomach. Stop it, you nearly growl at yourself. He misses me as a friend and that’s it.

Getting your hopes up for more is stupid. There is no way he will ever leave Sierra for you. They have been together almost two years; considering Luke isn’t the type to leave people, it will have to be her to leave him. For some reason, I just don’t see that happening anytime soon… Or ever. Even your thoughts are so bitterly sarcastic it makes you frown. Why do you have to be so godfuckingdamn pathetic?!

With a hard swallow, you manage, “I miss you, too, Luke,” without sounding as torn up as you feel. It would have been so easy to tell him you love him, but you bite your labret to keep yourself from speaking.

There is a pleased little hum from his side of the bed that shoots a jolt of heat straight to your lower belly. Okay, no, never make that sound again where I can hear it, you mentally plead with him.

A comfortable silence settles over the two of you. You struggle to stay awake, in case he is not done talking.

“Uh, [Name]…?” His voice is so quiet you barely hear him.

Blinking rapidly in case that helps keep your eyes open, you frown at him. “What, Luke?”

Luke is not sure he should tell you. Wanting to cuddle is one thing, but actually having to ask for it is another. A tiny voice sneers that it should be hard either way since you are not his girlfriend. He squashes that voice down and dismisses it. You have been an important person to him for the majority of his 23 years. Cuddling with you has always been innocent – at least on your part – so he does not see how this is any different. Besides, he knows the last thing he will ever do is cheat. After the pain of being the one cheated on, he just cannot do that to someone else.

“Remember when we used to crash at your house after a practice?” He hates how timid his voice sounds. It has taken him a lot of work on himself to get to the level of self-confidence that he has. The shy, awkward Luke would not even have taken off his shirt – he conveniently ignores that he waited until the two of you were in the dark.

Those elephants have grown into mammoth butterflies. You distinctly remember the sleepovers with the guys. Very little sleep was had because goofing off and staying up late without adult supervision was too alluring to pass up. Still, whenever you all did eventually crash, Luke always ended up sneaking into your bed with you. The guys had teased him mercilessly each time they found you two snuggled up in the morning, but that did not deter him. You wanted him there probably more than he did, so you never complained.

You are aware of how hot your face is and absently wonder at the fact it has not melted the pillow.

“Yeah.” Fucking shit! Why is your voice so breathy like that? He is just asking a damn question, idiot! You clear your throat anyway. “What about it?”

Carefully ignoring the way his body tries to react to that change in your voice, he stalls to rub at his face.  You are not making this easier on him. He damn near whines at you, but swallows it at the last second.

“…. I miss it,” he admits, mumbling. “I miss cuddling like that to sleep.”

Oh, fuck. You do not know how to react. Of course, you miss it, too. Should you tell him that? Maybe this is some weird test, to see if he can still trust you. Nevermind that that does not make sense! A wave of panic crashes over you. You have no idea what the correct answer is here.

“I miss it, too,” is barely a whisper. Your hand slaps over your mouth.

You can feel your skin getting hot to the touch under your fingers. Why did you have to go and think out loud?! You are so fucking stupid. It is probably the alcohol, yeah! You will just have to never drink around him again.

Luke has no idea that you regret saying anything. He is smiling like an idiot, just relieved and happy you feel the same. It is unexpectedly nice to find another thing that has not changed.

Very, very carefully, he starts to wiggle closer to you.

“So… Are you still too hot?” The hope in his voice is silly, but he is not embarrassed by it. It is hard to feel embarrassed when he knows he has your support – as long as he is not being dangerously reckless or anything.

The temperature in the room is certainly feeling cooler now. It is weird that you can notice it when you are feeling hot all over. Calling Luke a furnace had not been an exaggeration; he really does put out an ample amount of heat.

“Er…”

You do not get a chance to formulate a more intelligent response, because long fingers are wrapping around your arm. From there, it is easy for Luke to tug you over to him, eliciting a small "Eep!" from you.

Like always, he is amused by the drastic difference in your sizes. He has over a foot on you. You used to make him feel gigantic and ungainly, but one of the memories he cherishes is your shy confession that you feel safe and protected with him, and that his height has a large role in that security he can bring you.

You feel him tucking you against him so he can wrap around you. For a moment, you are remembering the confession about how he makes you feel safe, too. It is the closest you ever got to actually confessing your real feelings. At the time, he had blushed, but laughed it off. You did not have the courage to try again before their career took off.

At the last second, with a resigned sigh – if it is unsteady, you are choosing to ignore that – you pull away just enough to roll over. Luke hums softly and tucks you back against him. This is even better, in his opinion, although memories of the handful of times he woke up as the little spoon are definitely favorites. However, like this, it is even more obvious how well you fit against him.

Without thinking about it, you stretch your legs out until you can feel your feet resting on the tops of his. Just like you used to, you briefly hook your toes over his so it is almost like you are holding them.

Luke is glad you miss the big, dumb grin he has. Even with that realization, he momentarily presses his face into a pillow. He had almost forgotten that you used to do that. It is still just as fucking adorable. The unfairness of how you are so damn cute surprises him. How did he forget? What else has he forgotten about you? He is actually feeling upset about maybe losing precious memories, but he is drunk enough to push it away until later. If he remembers.

“G’night, Luke.” Your voice is mumbly with sleep.

He gives you a little squeeze and rests his chin on the top of your head. “Sweet dreams, [Nickname].”


The next time is a mistake.

Luke has been kicking around an idea in his head since the concert you got to see. It has only recently taken root, though, and he is not sure how to go about it. When he mentions it, Michael suggests he talk to you about it first. It is rather disheartening to have it pointed out that you might not be interested.

He has to spend time hunting you down, although he figures he really should not be surprised to find you hanging out on the balcony of this hotel room. It seems to be a theme, although he cannot remember if you had this habit before or not.

It’s a nice picture. You are curled up on one of the lounge chairs, a drink next to you on the floor. You have your sketchbook in your lap and seem to be intently focused. The headphones are large enough to hide your ears, making you look little and cute in comparison. The extra material obscuring your feet makes him chuckle.

The fact your cuteness factor seems to be growing escapes his notice.

Once again, you are unaware of his approach until his shadow falls across your page. There seems to be a loose sketch of someone, and he wonders if this is your original work or if it is a freelance commission.

The reminder that you basically work from home is encouraging.

You glance up at him, squinting a little because the sun is trying to peak over his shoulder. Seeing this, Luke steps around so you will not be blinded.

“Hey.”

You pick up your phone and tap off your music, before pulling off the headphones. It is probably time for a break anyway.

“Hi, Luke, what’s up?”

He does not understand why he suddenly feels so shy. It is a simple conversation to have with you. Worst case scenario, you say no, that you have no interest in following them to America. Now he is not even sure you have a passport. Maybe he should just forget it, then, if he cannot figure out all the potential snags in the plan beforehand.

You watch in barely concealed amusement as he disappears into his own thoughts. You have no idea what he wants to talk about, but clearly he is second-guessing himself. Even as you think about it, you see his tongue poking at the corner of his lip where the ring used to be. You push on your own, wondering absently if you should switch the labret for one of the rings you have.

“Lu…?”

His head jerks, clear blue eyes landing on you. Only a blind person would miss the way his cheeks are turning red. You bite your lip to attempt to hide the amused grin on your face. If his ears also turning red are any indication, you fail at it.

“Uh…” He winces a little at how unintelligent he sounds. “I was just… Do you want to stay and travel with us?”

You blink a couple of times as you struggle to process what he just said. First instinct is to laugh it off and accuse him of joking, that he should leave the funny stuff to Ashton. But… You cannot help that you are hopeful. The idea of traveling around with the band is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can afford it; you mostly work as a freelance artist, although sometimes you have time to make stuff just for yourself. It will be easy enough with your tablet and computer. All you need is Wifi.

You joining them had been the original plan years ago. They just never had time to get you. At least, that is what you tell yourself. The alternative would just make you depressed, because it means they forgot about you. If only you weren’t fully aware that this is the most likely case.

You have taken too long, so Luke holds his hands up in surrender. “Sorry, you don’t have to.”

You blink at him. “What? I never said I didn’t want to.”

There is a brief flash of relief on his face, but it is gone so fast you think you might have imagined it.

“Cool.” He grins at you. “So, uh… You have a passport, yeah?”

A snort escapes you. “You ask me to come before making sure I can leave the country?”

Luke has the grace to look embarrassed, but he offers you what he hopes is a cheeky grin. “I got so excited by the idea I forgot?”

You roll your eyes to disguise the way you want to blush instead. Even if he is excited, it is not because he is interested in you romantically. Maybe he is just trying to make it up to you that he has kind of abandoned your friendship. It is not like you will have his undivided attention, so this is just a vacation, except you will still be working. Maybe traveling will provide you with new inspiration. You would like to do some projects for yourself and not just commissions, even if the latter is what pays the bills.

Yes, I have a passport,” you say, exasperated, yet fond. “It is even current, too.”

The enthusiastic cheer from him makes you giggle. He beams at you as if getting that giggle was a difficult feat he had to work at. Maybe it has been lately, although you do not mean to be a proverbial dark cloud. Hopefully spending more time with the guys will help you out of this weird rut.

Or, it will make it worse since he’ll be so close, yet still unattainable, a nasty voice says in your head. It’s like an evil version of your own, so at least you do not feel crazy. Or, well, crazier.

“Great! I’ll go get everything all set,” he says, practically skipping back into the room.

You can only watch him go, feeling slightly exasperated. It would not surprise you if he had not even made sure it was okay with management. Probably because he has gotten used to people doing what he asks.

Sighing heavily, you push yourself to your feet. This is going to be a long trip, and you really hope you don’t end up regretting it. Then again, what is the worst that can happen?

Determined to make the best of this chance, you gather your things and head inside. Who knows how long it will be before he is done on the phone, or one of the others comes looking for you. You might as well use this time to shower, so you are ready to go home and repack for a longer trip.

Showers are where you do the most focused thinking, so making up to-do lists that you will actually remember happens best in them. It’s also the only time you feel confident enough to sing. Not that your voice is bad, you just have always been extra self-conscious of it. Probably from having your best friend being so much more talented than you. You’re pretty sure the last time Luke heard you sing was when you had been dared to do a duet with him, which was leagues better than having to confess who you had a crush on. You had not been good enough at hiding a blush at the time to play off not liking anyone, not that you do a very good job now. Distracting everyone from noticing has gotten loads easier with all the practice you’ve had.

There is no reason for you to worry about being overheard.

Calum has been looking for Luke to ask him about something, but by the time he found his way to the empty suite his friend was supposed to be in, he has already forgotten. It is nothing important, anyway, he had just gotten focused on the hunt.

If he cannot track Luke down, then he will just go lie in wait.

He is about to get lost in the depths of Instagram when he hears the opening notes of a very familiar song. He is torn between snorting in amusement, and groaning. It is not a good sign if Luke is listening to this song again. It is as he’s pulling up the chat to see if either of the other two might know why Luke might be returning to this, when the singing starts.

It is not just Luke’s voice that he hears. The second ones is pleasant, it blends fairly well with the lead singer’s in an almost familiar way. Getting to his feet, he wanders towards the source.

Perhaps it might be weird to just wander into the bedroom, but Calum does not seem to be aware of it. As he gets closer, he realizes he can hear the sound of the shower now. It is probably supposed to muffle the singing some but it does not.

He feels really stupid when he finally realizes it’s you. In his defense, though, they have hardly ever heard you sing. You always make sure to sing quietly enough the music drowns you out. The only time you let that guard down is when you’ve been drinking.

Or when you are in the shower, apparently.

Realizing it will look really strange if you or Luke find him in here listening to you sing in the shower, he moves back into the living room area and plops down on the couch.

Not even seconds later, Luke wanders in, pausing to look at Calum in confusion.

“What are you doing in here?”

Calum honestly still cannot remember why he was looking for his friend. Not wanting to betray that, he shrugs. “I was lookin’ for ya, but now I’m listening to [Name] sing.”

It is entertaining to watch the realization dawn on the taller guy’s face. Blue eyes flick towards the bedroom, before looking at him again. The amusement must have shown on his face, because Luke glares at him. Calum chooses not to point out the blush filling in his friend’s cheeks and ears.

“She in the shower?”

“Yep.” Yes, this flustered look is definitely an interesting development. He wonders if Luke has even noticed it yet.

Luke nods a little to himself. Since Calum is studying him, he sees the moment the lyrics to the song register. To their bemusement, you slightly alter them to fit yourself better. The way you sing it has the same amount of emotion as when Luke was working on it. The pain in your voice makes both guys frown.

Feeling a surge of brotherly protectiveness, Calum glances at Luke. “Any idea what that’s about?”

Something passes over the younger man’s face too quickly for him to recognize.

“No,” Luke’s response is sullen. “She won’t tell me anything.”

In all honesty, Calum is not surprised. You have always been the most reserved of them, although that really only applies to your own personal life. You have never had a problem with stubbornly pushing until they cave and tell you what is bothering them. You have always been a great listener, and they know they can trust you to keep their secrets, even from each other.

For a moment, he wonders if maybe your head is so full of their secrets that you feel like you cannot open up about your own.

The two of them are lost in thought so they miss it when the water is shut off. Luke vaguely notes that the music sounds like it is growing louder, but does not think anything of it.

It is not until you step out of the bedroom, hair damp, looking relaxed and pleased like a cat in sunshine that both of them notice. You look at them almost suspiciously.

“What are you two up to?”

Luke looks guilty, while Calum offers you a grin. “Nothin’. Y’know, you should sing more, [Name]. Your voice is pretty.”

Your blood rushes out of your head and then floods back like a wave. Shit. There was not supposed to be anyone here to hear you singing. You had assumed Luke would be gone a while, and had not predicted anyone else coming in.

Whether or not Luke sees your reaction, he nods in agreement. “I’ve told you that before, [Nickname].”

Although it is true, he has complimented your singing, you do not really believe him. Maybe you can hold a tune and sing on key, but there is nothing else that makes your voice stand out. Compared to the band’s – and Sierra – you have no reason to think of yourself as competent.

Calum glances between you and smirks. “You guys should sing a duet again.”

Shit. Fuck.  You were hoping no one else remembers that. Resisting the urge to cross your arms defensively, you roll your eyes a little.

“Not gonna happen, Cal,” you state firmly. There is no way you will sing with Luke again. It does not even matter what song.

Luke tries to ignore the unexpected sting. It isn’t like you have to sing with him, but… Why don’t you want to? Subconsciously, he is starting to poke his tongue against where his lip ring used to be. His eyes land on yours and for a moment he regrets not getting it redone. He can still remember when you got it, having gone first to prove it was not that bad.

You aren’t sure what to do with the strange look on Luke’s face. His gaze is somewhere between your eyes and throat, but you cannot pinpoint it. You pull the back of the labret between your teeth. Why is he looking at you like that?

Calum is amused by the way you two both mess with your lip rings, even after Luke’s has long since healed up.

“What’s the harm, babe?” Calum is teasing you. “You’ve sung with him before.”

You scowl at him. “I was drunk, or it was a dare.”

His eyes light up. “That’s right! You refused to tell us who you had a crush on, so Michael said you had to sing with Luke instead.”

Frowning even more, Luke glances between the two of you. He only vaguely remembers that. You had turned such a bright red he had worried steam would come out of your ears. He almost let you off the hook, but you had muttered about accepting the dare. The three guys had huddled together to figure out the song for you to sing.

“I still don’t get why you all chose A Whole New World for us,” you grumble now, crossing your arms.

His gaze drops instinctively, before he realizes two things.

First, you are not wearing a bra.

Second, the temperature of the room is apparently very chilly.

In the few seconds it takes Luke to compute this, his ears have already started to turn pink. He jerks his gaze elsewhere, turning his head a little even so he cannot stare at your nipples. Why does he even care? He has seen you in varying stages of undress, so it makes no sense that this is affecting him so much.

To his relief, you do not seem to notice his reaction. Your gaze is on Calum who is damn near cackling.

“We knew you knew the words.”

You roll your eyes. You are just relieved you managed not to panic – or worse, look at Luke – when Calum mentioned that crush. It still is and pretty much always has been Luke. There is no reason for him to ever know that.

With a sigh, you shift your focus to Luke. “Did you get it all set?”

For a moment, he just stares at you completely clueless, but he catches on before you can repeat it. “Yep! You’ll need to go home and pack, right? You can do that whenever, but if you need help we should go sooner rather than later. We’ve got a couple interviews later this afternoon.”

You think about it for a moment. Part of you wants to stay near Lu – the guys. But you are aware that they need to rest while they can. Besides, it is not like you are going to be hauling furniture around. You just need to pack and make sure your apartment lease is renewed so you don’t have to worry about eviction. It might take a couple of hours tops, but that is all.

“Nah,” you say, smiling gratefully. “It isn’t like I’m moving out, so I don’t need all the muscle.” Your voice softens affectionately. “You guys should rest while you can.”

That last bit is rewarded with fond smiles from the two of them. Fortunately, you can focus on Calum, but your face still starts to feel hot.

“Thanks for your concern, [Nickname],” Calum teases, but you know him enough to tell he is sincere. Luke nods in agreement.

Not entirely sure what to do now, you fidget for a couple of seconds. Then you’re turning back into the bedroom to go figure out what stuff you have and what you still need. You have no idea how long they will want to keep you, so you will have to be smart about how much you pack.

When no one can see, you smile to yourself and do a little dance in place.

This is going to be fun!


The time after that is a relief.

The American tour is going really well. It blows your mind that your best friends have millions of fans across the world. It is one thing to read about their fame, and entirely different to witness it firsthand. The first couple of outings are crazy, and you are more than happy to sneak out before the guys so no one will recognize you. The guys joke about keeping you their little secret so they do not have to share you with the media.

Perhaps you should have known better.

A concert in Denver is preceded by a couple days of interviews, photoshoots, and other things the guys have to do. For the most part, it does not bother you. The only times you have to work are while they are out, or sometimes on rare nights when everyone disperses. The guys are off seeing their girlfriends – at least you assume – so more often than not, you end up sitting with Ashton in his suite. He will sometimes play quietly – as much so as a drummer can – and others he puts on a movie. You will curl up with your tablet, laptop at your feet or on the coffee table next to you. The two of you chat and just enjoy downtime in good company.

That is the plan for tonight. Luke is out with Sierra all day, and the other two have made themselves scarce. It does not really bother you anymore. As hard as it is to watch your best friend be in love with someone else, you are consoled by the fact you spend more time with him now then she does. Getting out of Australia has helped your mood significantly, although that probably has to do with the company. Yet even on the flight, you could feel the darkness peeling away the higher the plane climbed.

This trip has even helped with your art.

Which is why you decided to brave the elements of winter in the mountains. A Google search informed you where the nearest art supply store is located. It is not too far, you have walked shorter distances back home. Yet you were not prepared. The tall buildings, crowds, damn near hostile drivers – you are pretty sure that cabbie had tried to take you out – and the weather are way more than you planned on.

By the time you actually make it to the store, your nerves are so frayed only the promise of that new supply smell keeps you from having a panic attack. You end up slowly wandering the store, both trying to thaw out and gather up the fortitude to venture back out to go home.

The ping of your phone makes you jump, which is a pretty good indication that you are not ready to go anywhere yet.

                > Where u at?

The message is from Ashton. You resist the temptation to call him so he can come save you. That is just pathetic. You have survived so long on your own without any help from any of them. You can handle going to the fucking store.

                < Art store maybe 6 blocks away

Another thing you were not prepared for is the sheer size of these city blocks. It is like a small town inside each one. That might be a tad exaggerated, but not by much.

                > 6 blocks?!

                > Did you take a car

Was walking this far not normal? A glance out the window shows plenty of pedestrians. They seem to be a little more hurried now, but you are not exactly a good judge considering your lack of experience with foot traffic in Denver.

                < No? Was I supposed to?

No one said anything about you having access to one of the cars. You might have been able to get an Uber or cabbie, but to be honest you have been trying to be conservative with your limited funds. The guys have not seemed to mind paying your way, but you try not to let it happen all the time. You are not here for their money.

                > Guess not. But there’s a storm coming

You frown. What storm? You do not remember that on your phone when you glanced at it this morning.

                < Storm?

The message you get in response makes you smile. Ashton has his face in his hands in the classic pose of exasperation.

                > Big snowstorm, babe. Get back soon okay? Don’t want to send a rescue team to dig you out

                < It better include a Saint Bernard with a barrel of whiskey.

You don’t need to be there to imagine the laugh that will ear. Your body feels pleasantly warm, and the anxiety from earlier is almost gone. With the warning in your head, you get to work actually gathering the supplies that you came for in the first place. It does not take long; you brought pretty much everything you might need. Just certain larger things – like canvases – as well as specific colors, or refills for ones you did not realize were so close to empty.

                > Do u want me 2 come get u?

The text surprises you. Sure, you and Ashton have gotten to know each other better lately, but you had not realized he would go out of his way for you. Maybe that is silly; he is a sweetheart to everyone so it only makes sense.

                < If you want? I’m about to pay and leave

You do not really expect a response. As nice as the offer is, you doubt he is anymore wiling to brave the streets of Denver than you were. It is so bitterly cold, you can only think of getting back to the hotel as soon as possible. Maybe he will let you use his shower. You have been avoiding Luke’s room because the last thing you want is to walk in on them.

To be honest, you aren’t completely sure Sierra even knows you have come along. It has been fairly easy to keep your stuff hidden. Unless she actually gets in and searches for it, for all intents and purposes, Luke is the only one who stays in there.

This whole visit has been a decent reality check. You have made up your mind not to go back to the cuddling and sleeping in the same bed when you all move to the next place. In fact, you have been debating whether or not to crash in Cal’s room. Or even Ashton’s. Anywhere, really, that is not with Luke.

So wrapped up in your thoughts and with fighting the wind – disadvantage number whatever for being so petite, it feels like the wind will either blow your purchase away, and even you with it – you do not hear your name being called. In fact, you do not even notice until large hands brace themselves on your shoulders. It makes an undignified squeak escape you, before you recognize the rings decorating the long fingers and find yourself looking up into the concerned gaze of the band’s drummer. Relief rushes through you at the familiar face. 

“Sorry.” He looks sheepish, dropping his hands to his sides. “You didn’t hear me calling your name, huh?”

You can barely hear him now over the traffic and wind. He must realize this because he suddenly smiles at you. Before you can question it, he snags the large bag that has the two wrapped canvases. As you open your mouth to protest, he reaches up to tug the front of your hood down. It is so large on you that it basically obscures the top half of your face so that only your mouth and chin are visible. You huff, before reaching up to shove it back into place so you can see.

Ashton just grins at the grumpy look you give him. He knows you are not actually mad, so he can enjoy the fact your mock-rage is adorable like an angry kitten. The thought of telling you that he compares you to a kitten makes his grin even wider. Sometimes nothing is better than getting you all worked up.

You narrow your eyes in suspicion at that look, but any intimidation is ruined by the nearly violent shiver that almost knocks you over.

Serious now, Ashton grabs your unoccupied hand and starts to lead you back to the hotel. The heat of your face cannot entirely be blamed on the heat radiating inside your coat. You are not really sure why you are blushing, which just irritates you even more. If you weren’t afraid of hurting his feelings, and getting lost, you would pulled your hand free.

But you don’t. After about a block, you give his hand a gentle squeeze. No, you might not be falling for him, but Ashton is quickly making a special place for himself in your heart.

As he leads you along, you take the time to look him over. Yes, his coat obscures most of the details, but there is no hiding his broad shoulders, or the way he fills out his pants. You catch yourself staring at his ass, and yank your gaze away. Now the heat creeping up your cheeks makes sense.

Still, you are perfectly capable of compartmentalizing this and focusing instead on the aesthetic beauty of him. After all, your best friends growing up are all ridiculously attractive. It was necessary for your survival to separate your own feelings. Otherwise you are fairly certain you would have spontaneously combusted.

The walk back to the hotel feels longer, although that is mostly due to no longer having the wind at your backs. Maybe it is cheating, but you keep yourself behind Ashton so that he can act as a buffer. If he knows what you are doing, he chooses not to call you out for it.

You are still shivering hard enough to vibrate when you two finally make it back. Frowning a little, he reaches out and pulls you closer so that you can stand with your sides brushing against each other. At the questioning noise, he smiles gently.

He leads the way to the elevator, but pauses on what floor to allow you the choice.

You hesitate, before glancing at him. “Do you think I can borrow your shower? If not, it’s cool. I can see if they aren’t in.” They being Luke and Sierra, of course.

Ashton looks thoughtful for a moment, before shrugging. Luke might not mind if you barge in, but he doubts that Sierra will be too pleased. To be honest, he is a little concerned about how Luke seems to be treating you a bit like a mistress, making you sneak in and out when his girlfriend is not around. It does not seem to bother you, so he has not mentioned it yet. Maybe he should, though. Already, he and Calum have been discussing whether or not to ask you to move into their suites, even if only temporarily until they have moved on so that Sierra is unable to drop in at random.

He pushes the button for his floor and smiles at you. “Of course, no worries.”

You visibly relax a little more, although he can still see shivers wracking your small frame.

He resolutely ignores the mental image of wrapping himself around you to keep you warm.

You don’t waste time. Almost as soon as you’re both inside, you are placing your stuff off to the side out of the way and kicking off your shoes at the same time. Still wrapped up in the coat you are extra grateful the guys made you buy, you head straight for the bathroom.

Ashton sets your canvases on the floor with your stuff, snorting softly in amusement. He does not think anything of how hurried you seem to be.

A short time later, he hears music flowing through the suite coming from the bathroom. He realizes he has stopped to listen when he recognizes the song that is playing. It is not one of theirs this time. He cannot remember the artist, but he can hear the heartbreak in the music.

As lyrics about unrequited love drift form the bathroom, Ashton realizes he can hear your voice joining the original. There is a niggling pinch in his brain that he should understand something. It is like there is a puzzle with only a couple pieces missing.

When the song changes, he is not surprised to hear that one song that seems to get to you. After what he just heard, he feels even more suspicious. What is he missing? Maybe he can get you to open up to him.

Singing in the shower is therapeutic for you, so even if you do not want Ashton to hear, the need is too great to resist. Maybe you should have chosen a different playlist, but you can only blame yourself. This one is full of the songs that help you release emotions you have to keep secret. If tears slip free, they blend into the hot water that is thawing you out.

At least by the time you are done, you no longer feel quite so much like a volcano that is about to erupt. The pressure is back to a tolerable level. It isn’t until you are drying off that you realize you don’t have clothes to wear. What you had been wearing is now soaking wet and almost stiff. Putting it back on defeats the purpose of the shower.

Chewing on your lip, you sigh. There’s no other option.

You make sure the towel is secure before stepping out into the bedroom.

“Ash?” You aren’t too keen on wandering around the suite in just a towel, but you don’t have much choice right now.

Said guy is slouched back on the sofa, eyes closed, but they open when he hears his name. “Yeah?”

He hops up off the couch and walks to the bedroom. When he sees you, he freezes and chokes a little on the air. It isn’t like he has never seen so much of you; back before, you often wore bikinis to stay cool during their garage practices. Maybe it is the fact you look so vulnerable. Or, maybe it is because the towel could slip at any moment.

“Can I borrow y’clothes?” Why is your face on fire? It’s just Ashton.

You ignore the part of your heart that twinges because it wishes this was Luke.

Just stop it, [Name].

Not for the first time, you find yourself wishing you had fallen for the drummer instead.

“Uh, sure.”

Ashton practically scurries past you to fetch clothes for you. You have to hide the little grin, because it is pretty adorable. Fortunately, you manage to get rid of it by the time he is handing you a pair of sweatpants and one of his t-shirts. You smile gratefully.

Without thinking, you start to wiggle into the clothes right then and there. You feel cold, too much so to go back to the bathroom, so the sooner you get into the dry clothes, the better. You are so busy focusing on shimmying into Ashton’s clothes that you completely miss the wide-eyed flush before Ashton just turns aside to give you more privacy then you’ve allotted for yourself.

He still has his gaze averted when you finish pulling the shirt down, tugging the towel out in the same movement. Although it is just him being polite, it is a little nice that someone reacts to you like you’re attractive. It’s a nice ego-boost after so much time watching Luke practically drool over Sierra.

“So, what’s the plan for tonight, then?” You have everything you need to start the project you have in mind.

Ashton peeks at you, but once he realizes you are fully dressed, he relaxes. His color has returned to normal, too.

“Well, it’s just us again, so…” He kind of shrugs.

You frown just slightly. “Where’s everyone else?” You really should not have asked.

“Uh… Cal and some of the others want to check out a couple clubs, and Luke is taking Sierra out on a date.”

He does not miss the way your face goes blank when he mentions Sierra. It seems like a new thing, but he could be wrong. Do you not like her? He wonders why.

“You didn’t want to go clubbing?” You are a little surprised, since he usually goes where the fun is.

A muscular arm comes up so he can rub the back of his neck. “Nah, not this time. I, uh… don’t feel much like being around that many people.”

“Socializing sucks,” you agree with a definitive nod. However, you peer at him curiously. “Are you alright?”

The persistence from you is not new. They all know how stubborn you can be when it comes to prying their troubles out of them. It is sweet that you care so much, but also very annoying that you won’t leave stuff alone.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He hesitates, peering at you. Maybe you will understand? “I, er… I’m actually just really homesick.”

Cue your heart melting. He really is just a giant, goofy teddy bear. Without speaking, you just press forward to give him a hug. He is pleasantly warm, and you appreciate the way his muscles move under his skin as his arms come up to wrap around you. When you squeeze, he squeezes, too, hard enough you both hear – and feel – your back pop.

His grip immediately loosens. “Sorry, [Nickname].”

With a pat on his back, you offer a gentle smile. “It’s fine, Ash. Uh… I’m homesick, too.”

Homesick for the past when you were all together and Luke was not in love with someone else. That little slap in the face with reality deflates your mood a little. Still, you are happy to seek and offer comfort to Ashton. You give him another little squeeze.

“Y’are?” He sounds a little surprised.

You shrug. “Yeah. Traveling is great, but… Australia is home.”

Ashton smiles. “Exactly!”

Realizing, you are holding onto him, you give him one last squeeze before letting go. It makes you feel even closer to him now that you have this in common. A little, thoughtful hum escapes you.

“Wanna have a homesickness party?” you ask, grinning shyly. “Get some food, booze, maybe watch a movie?”

If he gets any happier, Ashton is fairly certain he will just float away. No wonder you’re Luke’s best friend; you’re amazing.

“Genius!”

Which is how the two of you find yourselves sprawling on the couch. There are empty and partly empty takeaway containers around. Evidence of drinking litters the coffee table: shot glasses, empty beer bottles, and a couple partially empty bottles of liquor. You have been in charge of drinks, getting steadily more and more generous as the night passes. Ashton is fairly certain that the drink you made him was 75% vodka to the tiny bit of juice. Not that he is complaining; the level of inebriated he is manages to not be quite as far gone as you, but it is pretty close. He cannot decide if this means he’s a lightweight, or if you have an impressive tolerance for your petite size.

He isn’t entirely sure when you got so close. You are half-lying across the couch, propped up against his side. Your legs are stretched out across the other cushion, feet swaddled in the extra fabric leftover from wearing his sweats. You look extremely comfortable, and even as he thinks it, you shift just a little to better snuggle into his side.

While he is suddenly wondering how it would feel to kiss you, something keeps him from doing so. It isn’t that you haven’t indicated any interest, but he isn’t sure you even feel it. Maybe you’re asexual? That would be interesting – not bad – but only because he is fairly certain he has never met someone who is ace.

He sees you worrying at your lip piercing – you have changed it to one of those rainbow-metal rings, and there are tiny gems on the balls at each end. It looks nice, kind of accentuates the fullness of your lip. He should really stop thinking about your lips.

Ashton’s stomach muscles tighten when you drape an arm across his waist. Have you always been this cuddly? He is reminded of all the times they would find you and Luke tangled up in sleepy cuddles. It was cute.

“Ash?”

Your voice is quiet, almost so soft he does not hear it over the movie. “Yeah?”

You hesitate. Your brain is so foggy right now form the alcohol, you cannot really remember how you wanted to ask. Or even what you wanted to ask, for that matter.

Twisting the ring around with your teeth, you shake your head. “Nevermind, I –”

The silence is broken by Ashton’s phone going off. You take the distraction and pull your own out, although you do not expect any messages.

There are several, though, from Luke.

                > Hey!

                > …

                > Where are you??

                > Ugh, [Name], look at your phone

Next to you, Ashton is scowling at something on his phone. Perhaps one of the guys sent him a photo that is upsetting him. You are almost afraid to ask, so you direct your focus to your own.

                < Sorry. At Ash’s room.

                < Boozy food is great!

Maybe you should give your phone to Ashton so you do not start texting Luke while you are too drunk to be unchaperoned. A drunken confession is not on your bucket list.

You don’t think anything of the lack of response. If he is just worried about you, no harm done. You are perfectly fine and safe right here with Ashton.

“Hey, Ash?”

He tears his gaze from his phone, expression softening when he looks at you. “Yeah?”

You chew on your lip, flicking at the ring with your tongue. You probably should not ask, and you definitely should not feel guilty for doing so in the first place.

“Do… Would it be okay if maybe I moved in with you?” You fidget, practically poking your fingers together.

The question startles him, but only because he had not expected you to ask. Maybe sneaking around Sierra really is making you uncomfortable. He wonders if Luke just has not noticed, or he does not care.

He takes so long to answer, you cringe. “Nevermind, it’s fine.”

With a frown, he bumps your shoulder. “I didn’t say no. I was just surprised.”

You peek up at him. “Really?”

“Yep.” He shrugs. “Are you wanting to move in tonight?”

“Ah, no. I’ll wait until tomorrow.” Mostly because you assume you can just get all your things in the morning. There really isn’t that much.

The two of you do not get the chance to do much else before there’s knocking at Ashton’s door. You share glances, before reluctantly shifting around so it is easier for him to get up. He does so grudgingly. It had better be important.

For some reason, there is a flare of annoyance when he sees Luke standing there. The singer had just been texting him, so he shouldn’t be so surprised. If he hesitates to let him in, no one seems to notice. Once he’s inside, Ashton shuts the door.

Luke’s gaze finds you immediately. “[Name]! I’ve been trying to reach you for a while.”

Something heavy is sitting in your stomach. There is no good reason for him to be looking for you when he is supposed to be on a date.

“Sorry, my phone was on vibrate.” You shrug. “I just messaged you back. What’s up?”

Luke frowns slightly, before shaking his head. He has seen the packages by the door, the large canvases sticking out of the top. A part of him is excited that you are planning to work on an original piece, but he cannot get the photos out of his head.

“The cat’s out of the bag,” he says with a sigh. “Someone spotted the two of you outside earlier, and took pictures. You two are all over Twitter and Instagram.”

That weight has dropped through your stomach, pulling your heart along with it. For the most part, you don’t care about being caught out and about. That it is Ashton is not a big deal. Fans who know who you are will assume is just helping. Hopefully.

The two guys watch the emotions flicker across your face. Ashton opens up Instagram.

Sure enough, there are maybe half a dozen photos of him running into you on the way back from the art store. There are a couple that even he has to admit look suspiciously intimate. The one where he still has his hands on your shoulders where you are looking up at him with a relieved smile, for example. His favorite is one where you have fallen in step right behind him to use as a buffer between yourself and the cold wind. The angle manages to capture the way you have latched onto his sleeve to prevent you from getting separated, despite already holding his hand. You look so small and adorable.

Still, he knows you well enough. You might not mind being on social media, but you prefer the pictures to be on your terms with your permission. Mostly, though, he knows you will worry about messing with his reputation.

“It’s not too bad, [Nickname],” he says, seeing the worry in your eyes. “I don’t mind pretending to date you if need be.”

That gets an amused snort from you, at least.

Luke does not appreciate being ignored. “Anyway, Sierra saw them.”

The amusement is gone from your face immediately. That blank expression from earlier is back. It feels like one of the last puzzle pieces is slowly falling into place. Ashton frowns at Luke like it is his fault that you no longer look happy.

If he notices the change in your mood, Luke does not say anything.

You rub wearily at your face. The pleasant buzz is gone, your head is starting to ache. Although it is a nice distraction from the one in your chest.

“I had to tell her you have been rooming with Ash.” It’s a lie. He could have told the truth, but he just was not in the mood to deal with the fight that would have ensued.

The tiny half-smile lets him know that you are aware of the lie. Yet you don’t call him on it.

“She went to the hotel spa,” he continues, ignoring the guilt stabbing at him. “So can you hurry and get your things now? Before she gets back. I think she might actually look.”

Somehow, you manage to just nod. “Sure,” you mutter, as you turn to walk away. “I’ll get my shoes.”

As soon as you are facing away from him enough that he cannot see your face, you roll your eyes up like you are looking at the sky through the ceiling. Maybe if you look hard enough, it will work. The burning is stupid; there is literally no reason to be upset. His kicking you out is fine. In fact, it is great.  After all, you already asked Ashton if you could. That was the plan all along.

So why does it still hurt so bad?

Because reality hurts, [Name]. He. Does. Not. Love. You. And he never will. The walls you have spent your whole life building and reinforcing are starting to crumble. Shit. Shit. Shitfuck.

Ashton watches as you pass Luke. He sees how tense you are. Maybe it is the alcohol, or maybe it is the fact he has been studying you intently for the past couple hours, but he watches as your eyes move to the ceiling. He sees the way you clench your fists tight enough your hands shake, your eyes clamping shut. The defeated sorrow on your face is alarming.

But it is gone so fast he wonders if the alcohol is messing with him. When your eyes open, they are empty and your expression is shut down. When you catch him watching you, you lift a shoulder in a shrug as if you had not just looked like you were about to cry.

That puzzle piece is almost lined up.

Once your shoes are on, you wave off their offers to help, before slipping into the hall. Luke lets out a heavy sigh, rubbing tiredly at his face. For once, Ashton struggles to sympathize. However, he feels dumb just standing near the door, so he moves to go sit back on the couch. He does not offer Luke a drink.

For his part, Luke is trying to ignore the irritation he feels over those photos. Despite the fact you have literally never shown interest in Ashton, it still makes his chest feel tight, face warm. When the drummer offered to pretend to date you, it had flared even hotter.

“This works out,” Ashton says, pretending to be absorbed in his phone. He is mostly just scrolling through the comments those pictures have garnered. The majority are rather positive. It is a relief; hopefully no one will send you hateful messages like the others’ girls have gotten.

Luke scowls. “What do you mean?”

Ashton shrugs. “[Name] already asked to switch over here with me. She was just going to wait until tomorrow,” he says nonchalantly, watching his friend from the corner of his eye.

The uncomfortable flash of heat is even stronger this time. He ignores it to focus on the hurt that is underneath. Until Sierra had seen those pictures, recognized you, and freaked out with the – correct – assumption that you had been sleeping in the same bed as him, the thought of you going to someone else’s room hadn’t crossed his mind. To be honest, he was planning to have you come back to his at the next stop, when Sierra will not be around. The nasty voice that whispers about you being sneaked in like his mistress gets roughly shoved away.

You are his best friend, have been here for him since the two of you were babies. You are not his mistress. He just doesn’t want to deal with Sierra’s insecurities. Telling her you have been rooming with Ashton had been like tossing water on a fire. She had looked torn between confusion and relief, but when he asked about that, she refused to tell him.

“Why would she ask that?” he wonders, not really intending Ashton to hear.

But he does. Tiling his head from side to side, he answers, “Maybe she got sick of havin’ to sneak in and out to get her things like she’s your mistress.” The tiny hint of a bite is an accident, but Ashton is growing steadily more irritated with the younger man.

Luke looks startled, eyes widening a little. “She’s not my mistress! That’s ridiculous.”

It almost sounds like he is trying to convince himself.

“She still has to sneak around like your dirty little secret,” Ashton points out. Is Luke really this oblivious? “She had to borrow my clothes and shower because she was afraid to actually bump into you two.”

The fact you are wearing his friend’s clothes is enough to make him feel twitchy. The fact he is starting to realize just how poorly he has been treating you, how he has taken you for granted, is what really pisses him off. It is so unpleasant to be so angry at himself, that he barely refrains from lashing out.

“It… I didn’t mean to make her feel that way.” It is honest, at least. “It’s only for this stop, anyway. Once we move on, she won’t have to.”

The incredulous look he gets has him tensing up defensively. Ashton just shakes his head and looks away. Luke is not sure what to do. With his friend’s hostility, he is not sure he should take a seat.

After a moment of awkward silence, he makes a frustrated noise and leaves, the door shutting hard behind him.

With a sigh, Ashton gets up and starts packing away leftovers and cleaning up the trash. The homesickness party is over.

When you return, you have to knock on the door. The whole time you were gathering your things, your eyes burned. No matter what, you know this is for the best. You need to get away from him to better compartmentalize your feelings. It just really sucks to be replaced in front of your face. Hell, you sometimes pretend to be his secret lover trying to sneak around, but you know you aren’t. You are just you. Fantasizing while acting like a ninja in order to make yourself feel less pathetic. Kind of ironic, actually.

Ashton answers the door quickly, taking your heaviest bag from you. You let him, too mentally exhausted to protest.

“I’ll sleep on the couch,” you mumble, not looking at him. You find it comfy enough for hotel furniture.

Ashton looks startled. “What? No, I’ll take it.”

You can’t help it, rolling your eyes a little. “You don’t even fit, Ash, I do. It’s fine.”

Honestly, you just want to cuddle and do not even care who it is.  You just want to receive physical affection. Besides, his body heat against the small of your back eases the aches sometimes.

“The bed is plenty big,” he points out thoughtfully.

Is he psychic? You stare at him, a slow smile growing. “Okay, if that’s what you want to do.”

Ashton will never admit it, but he is needy for some physical affection. He can’t help but hope you will snuggle with him, even a little. If not, he won’t be bothered either way aside from a brief moment of disappointment.

He deposits your suitcase on the floor next to his. The suite has ample storage space, so there are plenty of spaces to put your clothes. He has no idea if you will prefer that, or if you are someone who just lives out of a suitcase, getting what you need as you need it. You set your smaller bag on the dresser-TV stand, before digging out your toothbrush and whatever else you need to get ready for bed.

Ashton busies himself getting the room set up, before getting ready himself when he realizes you aren’t just going to barge in. By the time the bathroom door opens, he is already sprawled out on one side, his eyes closed. He peeks out between his lashes to watch you.

Despite the access to your own clothes, you do not bother to change out of his. They are wonderfully comfortable, and warm. Plus, they smell like Ashton’s cologne which you have found increasingly pleasant.

You just climb into bed, laying down so you’re facing him. You wonder if he will let you cuddle up to him. Probably not. That in mind, you roll over so your back is to him. It is stupid how your eyes are getting wet now. You refuse to cry in front of Ashton.

Hesitation eats at him. He can feel the mattress shake a little, and knows you are upset. He just does not know what to say to help. That would require knowing what is bothering you. You still will not open up; he is hoping you will if he figures it out on his own.

Very slowly, Ashton scoots across the bed towards you. It is encouraging when you do not try to pull away. His arm slides over your side to tuck his hand slightly under you. With that grip, he tugs you against him. For a moment you are so tense he almost backs away.

But then you are practically melting against him. It makes him smile.

“G’night, [Nickname].”

You smile a little. “Sweet dreams.” And thank you.


The fans cause the next occurrence.

For the most part, they have accepted you as a potential love interest for Ashton better than anyone else. It seems the fact you have been around since the beginning gives you a pass, when it comes to stealing their affection. A lot of people seem to think you look adorable with him, and after seeing those photos from Denver, you have to admit it is true. Aesthetically, you two look good together.

There are some comments claiming they thought you are cutest with Luke. Others even agree, stating they always figured you two would end up together. It is fortunate no one was around to see your teary, bitter reaction.

Still, Ashton seems to have taken his suggestion of pretending to date you seriously. He has stepped up outward displays of affection, although he has been careful not to completely cross the line from platonic, although he definitely gets close. Still it isn’t like you really mind. The part of your heart that belongs to Luke is slowly, finally scabbing over – at least you hope so. Maybe this is what you need to finally accept that the ship has sailed and will not be coming back.

You frequently find yourself seriously considering giving Ashton a chance. If only you could be sure he is not just playing the part well.

Ever since leaving Denver, Luke has felt increasingly out of sorts. He cannot put his finger on the cause, but he definitely has not been sleeping as well. You have made no indication that you want to come back to his rooms, and he is still too proud to ask. It is really irritating to watch you and Ashton goof off like Luke remembers you doing with him way back before the band took off. Those were the best times, and he finds himself yearning for things to go back to the way it used to be.

He even starts kicking around lyrics to a song he has halfheartedly titled Nostalgia.

On top of all of this, Sierra has been picking fights almost constantly. Despite you clearly rooming with Ashton – you even thought to put enough of your crap around the suite so it looked like you were always there – it is like something has flipped a switch in his girlfriend. She is usually so laid back even the hate messages from jealous, delusional fans rolled right off her back. Yet something about you has set her off. It is almost to the point where he feels like he should send selfies to prove he is where he says. He refuses to do that. He is not cheating. Aside from lying about where you used to sleep, he has nothing to hide.

The longer it goes without telling her the truth, the harder it will be to come clean, he knows. It’s just he does not see a reason to come clean. He feels guilty for lying, but mostly just wishes you had not moved after all.

It is not unusual for him to skim the comment section of their posts, so he does not always see everything. That is the only explanation he has for missing all the comments pairing you and him together. Well, that and the fact they were buried under thousands of comments proclaiming you and Ashton to be the cutest couple of the year.

It is actually Sierra who brings these comments to his attention. During yet another argument – at least by text and not over the phone – she goes from saying you and Ashton are faking to accusing Ashton of covering for you and him. Luke ends up just gaping at his phone, because – like, what the fuck?!

Maybe he should not have told her to not be ridiculous, but there is only so long that he can bend over backward for someone without it being acknowledged or appreciated before he snaps. He has spent weeks now trying to assuage her insecurities. He is about out of patience.

There are a couple minutes of blissful silence after that. Luke has been sitting on the bench in the booth at the bar everyone has dragged him to, eyes glued to his phone. Now, he lets his head fall back to rest on the back of his seat, eyes drifting shut in exhaustion. Fighting with his girlfriend is incredibly draining.

He groans out loud when his phone digs and vibrates with the arrival of a new message. Fortunately, no one hears him over all the noise.

Swiping his phone to open it, he is surprised to see that instead of a really long, rambling message, he has several screenshots with certain parts circled. Sighing, he opens the images to look closer.

To Luke’s surprise, it is a bunch of comments talking about you and him.

                [Name] and Luke are cuter!!

                                                                                        I really thought [Name] and Luke would get together. They are so cute!                        

                                       Anyone else think Luke is [Name]’s crush, or just me?  

                                                                                It would be even better if she and Luke hooked up!

                                                                [Name] is prettier than Sierra #sorrynotsorry

                                Luke needs to wake up and see what he is missing

                                                                                #ChildhoodSweethearts!  

Before he can really even absorb it all, Sierra is bombarding him with even more screenshots. These include images taken from way back on your Instagram account. They all involve the four of you in a photo where the three guys are goofing off. In the background, you are smiling, but your eyes are on Luke. There is a fondness on your face that makes his chest ache.

In every photo, you are in the background looking at him with a fond little smile.

As he scrolls through the images, he watches that fondness become partially obscured by sadness.

The most recent photo is from this year, maybe a month ago. You still have that smile on your face, but your eyes are sad; you look resigned.

“Luke!”

He jumps at his name, tapping the button on his phone to turn off the screen. The idea of being caught staring at old pictures of you makes his ears burn. Honestly, he is just super confused now. It makes him feel stupid, the weird fluttering in his stomach. The whole thing makes no sense. Besides, those are probably taken out of context. You could be looking at pretty much anything in his direction. Right?

“Mate, you alright?”

He waves off Michael’s concern. The last thing he wants is to talk about the accusations Sierra is throwing at him.

                > [Name] is in love with you. She always has been! Everyone sees it but YOU

                > I don’t feel comfortable with her there, baby…

He cannot respond. He leaves the messages unread so he can pretend he is too busy. This will come back to bite him in the ass, but right now he cannot bring himself to care. If that makes him a shitty boyfriend so be it. (He’s pretty sure there are a lot of other things that make him a shitty one first.)

Rubbing at his face, he glances around at the party that has been going on around him.

His eyes immediately find you where you are standing next to Ashton, leaning against him a little to stay balanced. Even he can tell how drunk you are. It’s too loud for him to hear what you two are talking about, he almost wants to tell everyone else to just shut up. He pulls his gaze away instead.

You do not even notice his attention. In fact, you are very focused on what you are doing. For some reason, probably because you are almost finished with the painting you have been working on every spare chance that you get, you have given in and turned to alcohol as a distraction method. It is the hardest thing to finish a painting. You never feel satisfied with it, but you have to avoid overworking it, too. Ruining it means a small mental breakdown complete with an impulsive purchase of a carton of cigarettes.

So, you have to release the emotions somehow. You are drunk, so clearly this means karaoke.

You have challenged Ashton to a battle to see who can move the other best with their performance. He has accepted, but you are pretty sure he plans to forfeit after your turn. Which is why you are making him go first anyway. He is trying to choose a song while you offer bad suggestions and try to decide what you want to do, too.

“What are you two doing?”

Your whole body tenses up so fast you are pretty sure you actually hear a twang. As drunk as you are, you have no filter. Not spilling all of your secrets is so much harder, but you know if you start you won’t be able to stop. Considering it is Luke coming to talk to you, you are doomed. Swallowing hard, you keep your gaze as close to focused on the list of song choices as you can.

“Karaoke.” Your answer is short, but not snappish.

Ashton chuckles at how you sound almost robotic. “We’re gonna see who is the better performer.”

You roll your eyes. Oops, that was a mistake, you realize as you almost fall over. Ashton catches you easily and props you back up. You miss the way Luke stares at his friend’s hands on you, but Ashton doesn’t.

“I’m gonna make the bastard cry,” you mutter, blinking hard to focus on the screen in front of you.

Ashton grins at Luke, who looks amused despite himself. When he gets drunk, he starts talking with an American accent. Apparently you just get even more Australian. Both of them find it really cute.

“I’m not gonna make her cry, I’m gonna make her laugh,” Ashton informs Luke with a smirk.

And he does. He gets barely even halfway through the first verse before you about fall off the stool you are perched on. There are tears in your eyes as you shriek with laughter. Ashton keeps going, giving his rendition of If You Think I’m sexy his all. Pretty soon, everyone is laughing at him, although he still gets a standing ovation when he finishes. Grasping the beer bottle he used as a prop in the dance, he hugs it to his chest as if he is accepting a Grammy.

While he is thanking the little people, you wipe your eyes as you pick yourself back up from where you have been curled up laughing on the floor. You feel so much lighter now after laughing like that you almost regret going second now. The song you chose is going to require reaching into the pain and heartbreak you keep locked away. It is a deep well to draw from, and you are a little afraid it will be all too easy for extra to leak out.

Oh, well. That just makes it more likely your performance will succeed in both the goal of making Ashton cry, but also releasing the pressure made from keeping everything you feel about Luke inside.

With slow, easy breaths, you move over to the select your song on the machine. You aren’t even sure Ashton noticed it as he was scrolling. All the better for you, really.

It is a shame Luke no longer has his face buried in the phone. You were kind of hoping that this would be something he missed. Unfortunately, Ashton’s performance and your reaction has drawn the attention of everyone else.

A little sigh escapes you as you accept reality.

Ashton is the only one paying attention to you when he sees the way you look at your selection. There is a strange acceptance in the slight quirk of your lips – it definitely does not deserve to be called a smile. For some reason, he has a bad feeling he is about to lose.

Your eyes are closed as the beginning notes start. Luke goes rigid when he hears it. Why would you pick this song? He searches your face, but you have them hidden behind your eyelids. Your head bobbing slightly to the beat is cute, but he cannot focus on it.

It is weird to hear your voice instead of his as you begin the first verse. Still, you really are a decent singer, so your voice fits well with the song. It isn’t until you hit the pre-chorus that the emotions in your voice threaten to take over. The raw heartbreak is reflected in the slightly pinched eyebrows, the way your voice becomes slightly thicker.

Everyone has gone quiet, watching you. Maybe you won’t be famous but your voice is still nice to listen to. The way you fill it with emotion makes the song you chose even more powerful.

Sitting the closest, Ashton is the first to see the tears slowly forming at the corners of your eyes. Your long lashes still trap them for now, but his heart hurts for you. Whoever you want to love you is obviously an idiot for not doing so. Despite the burning in his eyes, his hands are clenched into angry fists. If only you would tell him who it is. He could beat the asshole up. Or something.

The song is hitting you extra hard tonight, but you cannot tell if that is because of all the alcohol or Luke’s presence. Even with your eyes clamped shut, you can practically feel his eyes on you. The urge to look at him is so strong you know that if you open your eyes they will already be aimed at him. If you make eye contact, he will know.

You make the mistake of opening your eyes when you finish the second verse. Even as you sing about holding back tears, the ones your eyelashes have held at bay finally tumble free to slip down your cheeks.

With your blurry gaze glued to the back wall, you miss the way Luke’s eyes widen. Not only is he impressed by your being able to sing through tears, but the emotions you are conveying are suddenly making his own eyes sting a little. When your voice finally cracks a little on the bridge he almost stands up to stop you. He does not think he can handle listening to you sing about wanting someone to love you, and wants to pull you into his arms.

Ashton does not break down, but he does have to wipe at his eyes when you finally finish. You rub away your own with a deep, shuddery breath. Your throat hurts from forcing yourself to not sob but sing instead. It is worth it, though, for how Zen you feel right now.

“Wow, [Nickname],” Calum says, clapping. “You sang that better than Luke does.”

That gets a watery laugh from you, which is his goal. Others also compliment your song, before their conversations turn to other things. You are still being very careful not to look at Luke, who is openly staring at you with an unreadable expression.

“Welp, you clearly won,” Ashton pretends to grumble, pouting like a petulant child.

That makes you smile and give a quiet cheer. “Huzzah!”

“… Huzzah?”

You pout. “Shut up.”

It should not be legal to be as cute as you are when drunk like this. Ashton just wants to bring you back to the hotel so he can wrap you up in blankets or something. Will you let him smother you in affection? Maybe; it is worth a shot later.

“So…” You have hung the microphone up on the hook and are looking up at him again. “What’s my prize?”

Are you flirting? Luke’s gaze turns sullen as he watches you. He does not understand why it bothers him so much. He knows Ashton is a great guy. A best mate should be happy for you. But he can’t bring himself to be.

Damn near giggling, Ashton reaches out to smooth some of your hair behind an ear. “I dunno. What should it be?”

You move to follow Ashton so you can sit down while you think, only to trip over your own feet. He catches you around the waist and lifts you back upright. For a moment, time seems to slow down. In slow motion you watch his lips move as he asks if you are okay, voice sounding far away. There is an overwhelming urge to kiss him, and you cannot seem to push it away.

Ashton sees your gaze on his lips, trailing off as you look at him in a way he definitely has never seen from you before. He swallows hard, not sure what to do. You’re really drunk; so as much as he thinks kissing you is a brilliant idea, he refuses. It is likely you won’t even remember this in the morning.

Besides, he knows for a fact he is not the one you have been pining for.

Eventually, you manage to push it away. You are left feeling exhausted. Nothing sounds better than going back to the hotel to crash. When he sees how sleepy you are, the drummer gently nudges you.

“Wanna head back?” he asks.

You can only nod. The hotel means sleep, which means cuddles. It is also easier to avoid Luke so you do not have to deal with your longing while he is engrossed in his phone chatting with Sierra.

Luke watches you go with a tiny frown. He is just so confused now. For some reason, his girlfriend thinks you are in love with him. That sounds ridiculous to him, but only because he had the biggest crush for you in high school. He was just too shy and awkward to say anything, and neither did you. He remembers going over every interaction with you in order to discover whether you had any feelings for him, too. Part of him wanted to ask the guys, but he never did. He just did not want to embarrass himself. Still, surely if you felt the same, you would have given him some hints, right?

Like those looks you had behind his back in those pictures… He shakes his head to clear it. Sierra is just paranoid. Needing a better distraction, the singer slides out of the booth to go track down the stronger drinks than the beer he has been nursing all night.

Later, while you’re lying in bed with Ashton fast asleep curled up against you, you hear your phone vibrate. Sleepy, yet unable to drift off, you reach out for it. At least the light is already down and it is on night mode so you won’t wake up the man sleeping next to you.

                > I miss you

Heart pounding, you stare at the message from Luke. Maybe it’s a typo? He probably meant to text Sierra, not you. An angry huff escapes you at the wave of disappointment. Will you ever get over him?

                < Wrong number, mate.

Angrily, almost entirely at yourself, you shove the phone away. He will leave you alone now. Maybe you will finally fall asleep.

Your phone chimes.

                >This isn’t [Nickname]? Weird that’s how it looks on my phone

Oh. So he is intentionally messaging you? He specifically misses you even though he saw you a couple hours ago.

                < Are you drunk?

                > No!!!

                > Maybe a little

                > Why?

                < You’re drunk texting me then. Go to bed, Luke

                > Meanie T-T

                > I can’t sleep

                > I don’t have my [Name] to cuddle with

You smack yourself in the face with your phone, groaning softly in frustration. When Ashton shifts around you freeze. The last thing you want is to wake him up. They all need as much sleep as they can get.

The guilt you feel for not being there for Luke to snuggle while he sleeps makes you growl softly. A large, sleep-heavy hand pats on you absently as Ashton tries to comfort you even in his sleep.

                < Hug a pillow. Go to bed, Lu

Please.

You refuse to give in and go to his room. Maybe if he wanted you there so bad, he would make it enjoyable for both of you – or at least pretend like you aren’t some dirty little secret. Considering how poorly she reacted to even thinking you might be staying with him, you know for a fact she will not handle you cuddling with him very well. It is obviously a level of intimacy she does not want to share.

                > Not the same. I miss YOU

You can almost feel the pout through the phone.

                < That sucks. You can see me later. Go to sleep.

The reasons for continuing the conversation are only going to get you in trouble. As much as you want to revel in the idea of Luke meaning he misses you as more than just a body pillow, you know it is time to stop. Besides, this alone will give you plenty of good dreams.

You are almost asleep when he responds again.

                > Sierra thinks you’re in love with me XD

The twinge in your chest makes you whimper softly. Why the fuck is he telling you that? Why is she saying it? You have been hiding your feelings successfully for over a decade. It will not be ruined by his stupid girlfriend.

                < She’s weird. Going to sleep. G’night, Lu

                > Sweet dreams, [Name]

This time you shut off the volume entirely before setting it on the bedside dresser. Ashton whines softly when you pull away to do so, before tucking you back against him. Rubbing at your face, you nuzzle it into your pillow and close your eyes.


Everything unravels so fast.

Someone must have been recording when you sang Why Won’t You Love Me at the bar that night. By the time you all wake up, once again you have gone viral in connection to the guys. Whoever captured it, manages to catch Ashton looking both sad and murderous, as well as the surprise and sadness on the faces of several others. Even Luke is staring at you, eyes looking a little glassy in the dim lighting

The fans have a field day with it. No one knows why you cry during the song, although an alarming amount hit very close to the reason when they ask if you could be singing to Luke about your unrequited love for him. They helpfully point out that you are very careful not to even look in his direction for the entire song.

It is these speculations from the fans that finally slips the last piece into the puzzle. Ashton feels like an idiot for not realizing it sooner, and has to see if anyone else figured it out.

“Well, I know she liked him when we were kids,” is Calum’s response. “Why else would I try to get her to confess who her crush is?”

Michael had shrugged. “Obviously. She’s been in love with him basically their whole lives.”

“Does Luke know?” The question tastes bad in his mouth, but Ashton asks it anyway.

He really hopes Luke is just completely oblivious.

Both of the other guys look uncomfortable.

“I don’t see how he can’t.” Calum sounds hesitant.

“Honestly, I don’t think he does.” Michael is frowning thoughtfully. “Then again, I could have sworn he had feelings for her, too.”

Ashton just accepts that he is an idiot, but at least he is not as bad as Luke.

He has to keep himself from blurting out your secret the whole rest of the day. He is not sure how, but he manages. Mostly he tries to avoid even speaking with Luke, knowing he will be torn between blurting it out, and punching the younger guy. No one seems to notice.

Later, when the two of you are alone after a show, he can’t help himself.

“It’s Luke, yeah?”

You have been doodling in a tiny sketchbook. The painting is still not quite done, but you are having trouble deciding what is missing. Bringing the sketchbook allows you to free draw while enjoying their music. It is hopefully going to get you past the art block in your brain.

“What’s Luke?” You look completely confused.

Ashton glances around, before leaning in close. “The one you keep singing about,” he whispers in your ear.

The world stops. All you can hear as the blood drains from your face is the pounding of your heart and an odd roaring. Your vision starts to darken, growing fuzzy around the edges. Without saying anything, you are shifting onto your knees so you can bend over and press your forehead against the floor. Fainting is unpleasant, so you would prefer not to do so.

“[Name]?” Ashton’s voice is edged in panic.

Absently, you feel almost vindicated. Here you are trying not to panic until you pass out, and now he feels worried. Still, you just wave a hand dismissively. Maybe this will have been enough of a distraction to keep him from remembering his question.

For the most part, you are hoping no one else has noticed you.

“Y’just startled me, Ash,” you mutter.

Once sure you are no longer going to lose consciousness, you slowly sit back up. You do not want to meet his gaze, because he will probably read your mind. Or something.

He already knows, a voice whispers. Someone else knows!

The freedom you feel is wondrous, but fleeting. Even if he knows, it does not change anything. You still must hide your feelings. The realization makes you sigh.

“Sorry.” He looks a little like a kicked puppy.

“It’s fine, really,” you say.

He hesitates a moment, before rubbing a hand on the back of his neck. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

You flinch. “Uh…” You really do not want to admit it out loud. If you do, it will be out there. It will be something you cannot ever take back.

“Don’t worry, [Name], I won’t tell.” The smile he is giving you is full of sympathy.

You hate it. Pity is the worst and you wish you hadn’t seen it.

“Thanks…” You shrug a little, lifting one shoulder with a sigh. “Doesn’t matter, though. How I feel, or who it is.”

Ashton is not so sure. He has not been the only one who has seen the looks Luke has been giving you. There is also the way the singer reacts whenever he sees one of the guys – Ashton or Calum – showing you any affection. If he has to put a word on it, Ashton would say Luke looks jealous.

It is also no secret among the band that Luke is having issues with Sierra lately, too. He has not outright said it revolves around you, but they are not stupid. The drama did not start until she found out you are along for the ride. It will not be surprising if it turns out all of those fan comments shipping the two of you have gotten to her.

Your mind is on a similar track, although you laugh humorlessly. “I guess he is the only one who doesn’t know.” You refuse to say his name. What if he overhears?

Ashton looks confused. “Why do you say that?”

“Apparently, Sierra told him I’m in love with him.” You rub wearily at our face, like you can wipe away the stress. “Plus, all the fans keep calling me out about it…”

Ashton looks a little sheepish. He had hoped you were not paying attention to social media. You rarely did in the past. It might be you have even seen the meme of all the times you were caught on camera staring at Luke with love in your eyes. There is a huge possibility Sierra has seen those, too. Would she have shown Luke?

Unable to think of what to say to make you feel better, he reaches out to rub your shoulder. “Well, y’know he’s always been a bit of an idiot.”

You manage a smile. “He’s not, but thank you for trying to cheer me up about it.”

He feels bad for even bringing it up. Reaching out, he wraps his arms around you and gives you a squeeze. There is nothing any of them can do. This is something you will have to work out on your own with Luke, although it certainly looks like it is resolved. Just not in the way you want it to be.

No wonder you avoid going anywhere near him when Sierra is around.

Meanwhile, Luke is slowly coming down from the high of performing along with Calum and Michael. He had vaguely noticed when Ashton had disappeared, but just assumed the man needed to use the loo. That has been about 15 minutes ago now, and he still has not come back. He realizes he also has not seen you since before the show, although that is not unusual.

Still, he has a bad feeling Ashton is wherever you are. You two had better not be making out or – Wait, what? That should not bother him as much as it does.

As he wanders the halls backstage trying to locate either of you, he finds himself growing more irritated with rapidly rising impatience. Did you guys leave the venue already or something? It really should not be this hard to find you. While you might have been avoiding him lately, Ashton is not known for being particularly quiet. 

He gives up when he nears the dressing rooms. It is not like he can just open them all to look for you. There is no telling which ones are occupied or something. His solution is to pull out his phone and, after ignoring the messages from Sierra, he calls you. It is a lot easier to patiently wait for it to ring, then to keep looking for you on foot.

As it connects, he hears Ashton’s voice coming from a partially open door a few feet away. Luke does not hang up, but starts for the door.

It rings in his ear.

After a moment of delay, he hears the chorus of a specific song start up. It is obviously a ringtone, and it takes him a minute to realize it must be the one you assigned to him.

But… Why that song? Why those lyrics?

The song abruptly stops, followed by your voice in his ear. “Hello?”

For a moment he almost panics and hangs up. But that is stupid; you clearly already know who it is. Ugh.

“Uh, hey.” He keeps his voice low, backing away from the room where you are. For some reason, he feels like he was not supposed to hear his ringtone. His mind is a jumbled mess. “I was just wondering if you’ve seen Ash.”

You pause. “Yeah, he’s with me. Do you need him?”

“Nope.” Well, shit. Way to be conspicuous. Now what? “Just… we are going to be leaving soon. Consensus is the after-party is in Drew’s room. Are you guys going to come?”

Hopefully you won’t find the obvious hopefulness in his voice suspicious. He wants to actually get a chance to talk to you. He hardly ever gets to see you unless Ashton or one of the others is around. It feels a little like you are avoiding him.

Luke is just a giant ball of confusion and tumultuous emotions.               

There is silence as you debate whether to come or not. You must be a masochist, because you end up sighing heavily. “Yeah, we’ll come.”

Ignoring the way you answer for Ashton, too, like you are a set deal, he smiles. “Great. Then you two better get a move on.”

He has to hurry away before you and Ashton can find him eavesdropping like a creep. Still, just knowing you will be there already has him feeling lighter.

It only lasts until he checks his phone again. There are messages from Sierra and he really does not want to read them. Avoiding her does neither of them any good, but he just deletes the notification. Luke will make sure he reads it later when he is not sober enough to get upset or fight.

Two days from now is the last show of the tour. Then they have about five months off before starting their UK-European tour. He is fairly certain everyone is excited for some down time. He tries not to think about the fact you will be returning to Australia while they go back to their homes in Los Angeles.

Maybe he can convince you to come see his house. And just not tell Sierra that he is home until after you have gotten the tour and such. It will be like old times, only without worrying about parents barging in.

Hours later, you find yourself comfortably buzzed and watching as the bands get in a mock battle on the gaming system. The only other girl, Lennon, has gone to her suite to escape the chaos. This left a vacuum in the balance, so now you are even more outnumbered by the men. It’s not like you really mind. It’s just a louder version of the post-practice sleepovers, with more people.

When Luke comes to plop down next to you, the laziness from the alcohol keeps you from getting too anxious about it. In fact, you feel so good it is almost like you have temporarily forgotten the awkwardness that has been between you most of this trip.

So, when Luke lays his arm on the back of the couch, you do not hesitate to shift over so you can snuggle into his side. If he tenses up, it’s only out of surprise, and then he immediately relaxes so he can curl his much longer body around yours. A content sigh escapes the both of you at the same time.

The alcohol has calmed the tempest of thoughts in his mind to the point he can focus on the present moment and not getting lost in what-ifs. He has to admit that this, right here, is the happiest he has been in months. Maybe that should tell him something, but it eludes him for now.

“I miss you,” he mumbles into your hair.

You are a little startled, but just smile softly. “I’ve been here the whole time, Luke.”

He sighs heavily, leaning a tad more of his weight against you. “Maybe, but I miss you… I miss the way things used to be.”

Confused, you try to peer up at him, but he has his face hidden in your hair. “What do you mean?”

Why does it feel like your heart is going to explode? At the same time, your face is getting hot. As a distraction, you take a couple big gulps of your drink, wincing at the burn. That is the last time you let Calum make the drinks.

A puff of air tickles your scalp as Luke sighs. “I miss this.” He gives you a gentle squeeze. “Cuddling like this. I miss how things used to be so easy and not complicated. I even miss crashing at your house after practice.”

Your heart is starting to hurt, so you drink even more. It is a good distraction.

“I miss that stuff, too,” you admit.

This conversation is edging towards territory you are not willing to allow him into. No matter how much you drink, you know nothing good will come of confessing your feelings. Judging by the way Luke keeps slipping into an American accent, it is pretty obvious just how drunk he is. Chances are he might not even remember this conversation in the morning. That is probably for the best.

You are so lost in thought that you miss the pleased little grin on his face that he hides in your hair. Because he can, and his face is already there, he presses a gentle kiss to the top of your head. It is so light he almost hopes you do not feel it.

But you do.

With a questioning noise, you twist so you can pull away and look up at him with a confused frown. You freeze when you see how close his face is to yours. Using your tongue to slowly twist your lip ring around, you can only stare at him dumbly. Why is he so fucking beautiful? It really is not fair. At least this close, it is not too weird for you to take the time to slowly drink him in. This is going to be the last chance you allow yourself to get this close to him.

Luke’s eyes focus on the way you are fidgeting with the piercing, and he subconsciously mimics it by pushing his tongue to where the hole used to be. He does not miss the way your eyes track that movement, before you catch yourself and look away. Suddenly, all the things fans and Sierra have said rush through his mind. He remembers the song he found you crying to, the same one Ashton said upset you at their concert. The same song that you have assigned to him as a ringtone. The specific part of the song that played when he called.

“[Name]?”

You blink at the strange tone in his voice, turning to look back up at him. His eyes are half-lidded, like he is trying to hide something from you. Your chest tightens in anticipation of the worst.

“Yeah?”

He hesitates, expression going uncharacteristically vulnerable. “Nevermind.”

With a little frown, you shrug and look away again. “Uh, okay, then.”

Silence is fine with you. After all, this way no one says anything they might regret. Besides, it just reminds you even more of back when you two were younger. You used to be able to just spend hours together with minimal talking. He would be writing music with his guitar, while you set up to paint. Everything had been so carefree and easy back then.

You miss it so much it hurts.

It takes a moment to realize he is tapping the beat of a song on your arm. You do not mind; in fact, it almost starts to lull you to sleep. Sometimes the two of you would make a game of trying to guess the song based on the rhythm tapped out. He usually won, but only because he would use the beats to the songs he made up with the guys. When you accused him of cheating, he would just laugh – and then tickle you until you took it back.

Now, though, you could play their songs in your sleep. If you had any musical talent.

It must be the alcohol that keeps you from recognizing the song sooner.

Because Luke starts to quietly sing in your ear: “Now I wish we’d never met, because you’re too hard to forget…”

Fuck. You swallow the sudden lump in your throat that you are not sure if it is tears or panic. Shitfuck. Please, no.

“And I know you don’t, but if I ask you if you love me…”

You squeeze your eyes shut just as the burning begins. As much as you wish you can just enjoy this private, drunken concert, there is one big problem.

He knows.

“I hope you lie, lie, lie, lie…”

He knows.

“… Lie to me.”

A couple tears slip free, a little shudder wracking your body even as you bite your lip to trap a sob inside.

Fuck. He knows. A wave of nausea hits you. What do I do?

Luke is not sure what reaction he expected, but it isn’t this. The way you have curled up into a ball against his side. Your shudder does not fool him. Maybe you have rarely allowed him to witness you cry, but the times he has have never faded from memory. So for a moment, he forgets the room, the guys and dates, crew, basically everyone except you. Twisting, he nearly pulls you into his lap to hold you against him.

By the time he grabs you, your hands have come up to cover your face. It is important to hide your tears; crying was a sign of weakness in your household as a kid. Other people crying makes you feel awkward, too. Art started as a way for you to handle your emotions, but it has become the only way to process them. His finding out has been your biggest fear for as long as you can remember. Confronting you about it has pushed you into the panic attack that is going to be the trigger for the mental breakdown you have been desperately trying to hold off.

Shitfuck. He knows you love him.

Can the earth just open up and swallow you now? That would be less torturous, and an eternity of pain and suffering sounds like a preferable option to this moment right now. Your friendship – life – is over now.

He knows I’m in love with him.

“[Name]?”

Despite the fact he is the cause of it, the panic attack is slightly soothed by being held so tightly against his chest. It is not fair, because as much as you want to enjoy it and allow yourself to relax, you can’t.

A tiny, whimpery sob escapes you, making you flinch at the sound. You curl up even smaller even though that really is not possible anymore.

Luke is trying not to freak out. The smaller you try to be, the tighter he hugs you. This is what worked before. He is not sure he should sing for you since doing so is what set this off. So far no one else has noticed the two of you, which he is grateful for only because he knows you will be humiliated if anyone else sees you in this state. If he thought he could sneak you out of here to somewhere quiet, he would. It is a little hard to hide himself at his height.

Wracking his brain, he tries to come up with a song that won’t set you off again. For the moment, it is like he forgets every single other song except for theirs, mind going blank. But, when he glances down and sees your mouth is open in a silent scream, he head clears and he remembers a song that you used to like.

“When everything goes wrong, I’ll come talk to you…

Somewhere in the abyssal fugue you have fallen into, his voice cuts through the darkness to reach you like a lifeline. Just his singing combined with the vibration it causes in his chest is enough to stop the silent wailing. You are still shaking and trying not to hyperventilate, but at least you are a little more relaxed. Luke senses this and begins to rock with you a little.

You realize your nails are digging into your skin where they rest over your eyes, and carefully pull them free with a wince. You don’t lower your hands, because there are still tears leaking free and you are sure you look a mess.

“And I won’t be messin’ with the one thing that brings light to all my darkness…”

Now it is a nearly hysterical giggle that tries to bubble up that makes you shudder. Still, it has finally started to sink in that Luke has not pushed you away or otherwise rejected you yet. Instead, he has actually pulled you into his lap so he can provide the same comfort he did when you had panic attacks as a kid. The fact he still remembers what to do hits you just right to make another wave of mortified grief crash over you.

Even if it is just pity, you don’t care. This might – probably will – be the last time he ever touches you like this. With that in mind, you give up. Relaxing just enough, you shift to lie against his chest more even as your arms drop to slip loosely around his waist. You keep your face hidden by pressing it into his shirt. The urge to nuzzle at him is so strong, your body shakes as you bite your lip.

When you sag against him, Luke nearly does the same around you, although his grip does not loosen. He still does not understand your reaction, but this is a good sign. Hopefully you will be able to talk soon so you can explain it.

“You’re my best friend, and I love you…”

You shake again. Even though you know it is just the lyrics, hearing those words coming from him is enough to resurrect those mammoth butterflies. Habitually, you try to smash it down. There is no reason to get your hopes up. As soon as he realizes you have gotten yourself under control, he will push you off him and make up some excuse for why he has to stay away from you now.

It is for the best, [Name]. He’ll get married to Sierra eventually; you really plan on going to that wedding? Not that you think she will even let him invite you. Although at that point, she will have even less reason to feel insecure about your friendship with Luke.

“I—” You stop when your voice breaks. Swallowing hard, you try again. “I’m sorry…”

Luke is so startled he stops singing. He leans back to try and look down at you, but you tighten your grip and press your forehead against his chest. His heart starts pounding hard enough he wonders if you can feel it.

“Sorry?” he wonders quietly. “For what?”

Does he not know? You blink a couple of times. There is no way he doesn’t know now. Why else would he have sung that fucking song? Rage is a lot easier to handle, but you really try not to snap at him defensively.

It takes him a bit longer than it should. “Oh.”

Luke shrugs helplessly. What is he supposed to say? You are in love with him and apparently have been for a really fucking long time. On the one hand, he is impressed you managed to keep it hidden so long, but on the other he is disappointed you did not say anything sooner. That is hardly fair, since he never said anything either, though. Ugh. Why is this so damn complicated? The part of him that is practically giddy about your feelings for him is still being drowned out by the reminders of Sierra.

He realizes he has taken too long to respond when he feels you curling up again. Instinctively, he gives you a little squeeze.

“There isn’t anything to be sorry for, [Nickname],” he says, voice honest. “I’m not going to stop talking to you or anything stupid like that.” He has to stop himself from saying anything else as it would be a mistake.

His feelings are so conflicted and convoluted that he has to focus on yours instead.

A tiny part of the tension eases from your shoulders. At least you have not totally lost him now. That is the best you can hope for though. You have to squash the hopeful thought that he will now leave Sierra for you. That is a useless wish to have.

He sighs heavily when you relax a little. At least he has solved one thing that is bothering or upsetting you. Without thinking about where he is and who is around, he presses his lips to your hair.

“What the fuck!?”

Both of you jump at the shriek. You try to spring up out of his lap, but Luke’s grip spasms a little before tightening. You make a soft, confused noise, but do not try to get up again. Instead, you just peek out only to quickly wish you had not.

Sierra is standing near the door she just walked through. Her hands are clenched in fists as they rest on her hips. She looks irate, like she will lunge for you any second. When she sees you peering at her, she sneers a little.

But her gaze is on Luke, who has still made no move to let go of you.

The booze effects are wearing off. You really wish he would let go so you can escape to fill your drink up again. You are suddenly feeling much too sober.

“Sierra—” Luke starts, voice calm.

“What the fuck, Luke? I flew out here thinking it would be a great big surprise. Instead I see you and the lovesick puppy that is obsessed with you!”

Apparently Luke is even drunker than he thought, because he finds her calling you a puppy to be rather amusing. She obviously means it as an insult, but it seems oddly complimentary to him. After all, puppies are little and cute, which is not an inaccurate description of you.

The amusement must be visible, because Sierra looks even more upset. You are a little worried she might explode, but you are also afraid to move in case she is like a tyrannosaurus and will forget your presence as long as you stay still.

By this point, everyone is watching the three of you. Calum takes in the position you are in, the way Luke is holding you, and frowns. It has been a long time since any of them saw you have an emotional breakdown so it does not immediately click as that. By the time it does, Michael has already gotten up and is making his way over to you.

Ignoring the tension, he steps between and crouches down a little so you can see him easily. Sure enough, your eyes are red, eyelashes stuck together still wet with tears. You blink at him, before sniffling and lifting your head away from Luke’s chest.

“Hey, Mikey…”

He smiles gently at the nickname. Not many are allowed to call him that. “Hi, [Nickname].”

Behind him, he hears when Sierra scoffs at being ignored, he does not really care about that right now. His goal is to get you out of the danger zone so you are not caught in the crossfire when they fight. Hopefully getting you away will encourage Luke to take the fight elsewhere.

Michael is not the only one to notice how reluctant the singer is to let go of you. At the scowl he gets, the guitarist raises his eyebrows, before holding out a hand to help you get up.

As you shift, it becomes obvious that Luke does not want you to. His grip around you tightens, then loosens, and then tightens again before finally going slack. The urge to stay in his arms forever is only slightly weaker than the urge to kiss him.

No, stop. Nothing is going to change between us.

You grasp Michael’s hand so he can help steady you as you uncurl and slip off Luke’s lap. You weakly return the encouraging smile he gives you.

You just want to go crash for the night, or drink some more. Both.

The two of you do not get very far before the echoing crack of skin on skin makes you jump. You whirl around in time to see Sierra’s hand come back up. Luke is frozen, eyes wide in shock as his hand moves like it will touch the cheek that is still pale from impact, before his arm goes limp. The angry flush from her hand is quickly turning bright red. You wince a little in sympathy, before the guilt kicks in.

This is all your fault. If you had only kept a better lid on your feelings. If only you had been able to get over him. Shitfuck. Luke and Sierra fighting is all your fault. Luke getting slapped is all your fault.

You are ruining everything.

The little noise of distress is not enough of a warning before you are fleeing from the room. Michael is unsure what to do. The likelihood of you blaming yourself is so high as to be guaranteed. There is no one better suited to get through to you than Luke. He obviously is a little tied up right now so he is not available, and he’s not even sure Luke would be a good idea considering how he is the source of your anguish. Calum shares a frustrated look with him, before he moves to whisper in Ashton’s ear. The drummer practically leaps away from where he has been watching the other guys playing on the game system. He leaves the room only slightly less urgently than you did.

Luke still has not moved. It is actually a little worrisome; not a lot pisses him off, but once he is the temper burns with a fury. Calum is watching him warily, so he sees the way the younger man flexes his hands. Still, the look he gives his girlfriend is more hurt than enraged.

“What was that for?” His voice is calm.

Sierra is breathing heavily, tears forming in her eyes. “I can’t believe I trusted you!”

More than anything, Luke looks confused. Calum has to resist the urge to slap himself in the face. Did he really not realize how the two of you looked when he was holding you in his lap? Apparently not. Calum is not sure how to feel about this lack of self-awareness. At least a part of him is amused.

“What are you talking about? You can trust me.” Now Luke sounds more upset.

A part of him, the portion of his soul that is detached, wonders if she is going to outright accuse him of cheating. He is not sure how he will respond if he does. It will definitely be defensive, since he has prided himself on being loyal. If she compares him to Alex then he might snap.

“[Name]! What else?!” Sierra’s tears still haven’t broken free, but it is coming. “I told you that I don’t feel comfortable with her being here, and then I find you cuddling with her on the couch!”

He frowns. “She was having a panic attack. I know how to handle them.” Way better than anyone else.

Sierra rolls her eyes. “You expect me to believe that? She was practically clinging to you.”

“I don’t really give a shit if you believe it or not, because it’s the truth.” Now he sounds angry. He hates being accused of things he has not done.

A part of him is aware that he is essentially flushing a 2-year long relationship down the drain. That same part is also aware that he would literally rather be anywhere else right now. Most of all, he wishes he is wherever you have run off to. He is still so confused when it comes to you. But holding you is the happiest, most carefree he has felt in weeks.

“Right.” Sierra clearly doesn’t believe him. “Why did you even invite her to come with you on tour?”

Luke blinks, taken aback. “I missed her and didn’t want to go another couple of years only sometimes chatting over the phone.”

Wrong answer. He can see that immediately.

“You missed her?” Her voice is rising; belatedly, Luke wishes he had dragged her out before this started in front of everyone. “You missed her?! Oh my God, you are in love with her!”

If life was a sitcom, there would be a collective gasp, but there isn’t. He can feel his ears, face, and neck getting hot. A cursory glance at the guys shows absolutely zero surprise. Even Drew and Alex look like this has been common knowledge the whole time.

"What? No!” Luke is not sure why he is denying it. Probably habit, like back when he was in high school. “She’s my best friend, I’m not in love with her.”

“You are full of shit.” Sierra rakes her fingers along her scalp, fingers combing through her hair. “Why else would you bring her along? Why else would the fans ship you two so hard—?”

“To be fair, they ship him with Ashton, too,” Calum comments thoughtfully.

Luke gapes at him.

With a pensive hum, Michael adds, “Would that mean they want a triad? Because the [Name]-Ashton ship has quite a few passengers, too.”

Luke is desperately trying not to imagine his friend naked, although he does not fight as hard not to envision you.

Sierra glares at his friends. “Fuck you.” To Luke, she says, “Choose. You can’t be in love with both of us. I have every reason to leave right now. I love you, Luke, but I will not watch you indulge the pathetic, delusional girl that wants you to love her back.”

If anyone has any doubts about her having seen the Why Won’t You Love Me video, it is gone now. Apparently only Luke has been oblivious to the true meaning of your power ballad. His mind is reeling, like a movie of all the times he has been with you is flashing by on fast-forward. All the times you told him you loved him and he assumed you meant as best mates.

Even your reaction to the song a bit ago backs it up.

You are in love with him, apparently have been for years. You, his best friend, one of the most important people in his life. You, the first girl he had more than a crush on.

“That stupid bitch ruined everything!” Sierra sounds nearly hysterical, completely unaware of Luke’s epiphany.

“Hey, now…” Calum Is not okay with anyone calling you names, especially when you haven’t done anything and cannot even defend yourself.

The look Sierra gives him would curdle milk. “What, are you in love with her, too, Cal?” she sneers.

A quick glance at him shows that Luke is still checked out, lost in thoughts. He has to resist the urge to roll his eyes.

“No, babe,” he says. “[Name] is like a sister to me. Except, y’know, hotter.”

Michael snorts, but Luke does not even react. Calum wonders if maybe they should be worried about breaking the 23-year-old. Oops?

Sierra is glaring at him. “Do all of you worship the ground she walks on?”

“Uh…” Michael turns and shoves Calum over. “What are you doing? That’s where [Name] stepped!” If only Ashton was here, he’d prostrate himself and worship the carpet to play along.

The shriek of rage from Sierra seems to jolt Luke back into the present. He looks around in confusion, even more so when he sees that Calum is pretending to slap himself as some form of punishment, maybe? Meanwhile, Michael is carefully making sure no one has walked where you did when you fled. At this point, Luke is fairly certain he does not even want to know what he missed.

Sierra has whirled around to glare at him again, giving upon his two friends who are trying to lighten the mood. If this was in one of their suites, it would not be so bad. It isn’t, though, and the others look really uncomfortable.

“Well?” she demands, hands on her hips.

Uh oh. “Well, what…?”

It is honestly surprising that steam is not pouring from her ears. “Who are you going to choose?!” For a moment, the anger fades leaving Sierra looking extremely vulnerable and sad.

Guilt stabs through him.

“Choose? Why would I need to choose?” Damage control mode.

The anger is back. “Because you can’t have us both. It shouldn’t be a hard question, baby. If you love me, it should be obvious.”

Well, fuck. Luke just wants to run away from this. This is not a pleasant fight to have. Do they really have to do this now? In front of everyone.

He feels a little like a deer trapped in headlights. He does not want to choose. It is not even fair to make him do that; a seed of resentment takes root. Why couldn’t Sierra love him like you do? You would never give him an ultimatum like this.

Wait.

“Luke, baby,” Sierra’s voice is soft, almost tender. “It isn’t that hard.”

It really shouldn’t be.

“I love you, we celebrated our anniversary. We have been together for two years.”

You have been here even longer.

“Please. She’ll get over it.”

He really does not want you to. He does not want to lose you. The thought of doing so scares him.

“Luke, why can’t you just pick?! Why can’t you just forget about her?! Why is she so fucking important?!”

Because he loves you too much to let you go.

“Because I love her!” is out of him before he can stop it, voice raised to be heard over Sierra’s screeching.

Everyone goes silent, not moving. As soon as he realizes what he said, Luke’s eyes widen in shock as he turns his blue gaze on Sierra. She is staring him, mouth open slightly, her eyes quickly filling with tears. Fuck, he is such an asshole.

“Sierra, I—”

“F-Fuck you!” she snaps, voice wavering a little. Without waiting for a reaction, she turns on her heel and storms out the same direction you fled in.

Luke is left standing like a confused statue. He feels like he should run after Sierra, beg her forgiveness. He has a bad feeling she will be spreading shit about his time spent with you as being more than it is. Perhaps if he grovels, she won’t do that to him. To you.

That is foolish. Nothing he says now can salvage the relationship with her. Hasn’t he seen this coming? He has slowly been replacing her with you when it comes to comfort and affection. All they have done for the past couple months is fight over you. He has dodged a bullet. There is no way he would drop your friendship just to soothe her insecurities. You deserve much better than that.

You deserve better than him.

Groaning like he has been mortally wounded, Luke collapses back onto the couch. He does not remember standing up, but that does not matter now. His body basically folds itself in half as he puts his face in his hands.

Sierra dumped him. You had a panic attack when he even hinted at your feelings for him.

He has really fucked everything up.

“So… You love [Name], huh?” Michael’s voice is light, teasing.

The noise Luke makes is somewhere between a growl and a groan, his fingers roughly sliding through his hair. He does not want to deal with this.

Not saying anything, he pushes himself back up so he can walk over to the table where all the mixing stuff is. He ends up grabbing cranberry juice and vodka, pouring himself a drink and making it a little too strong on purpose. Maybe if he gets drunk gain, the night will rewind and start over. He can make less mistakes the second time around. Or something?

As Luke proceeds to drown his troubles, someone starts the game again. It’s comforting enough of a habit to watch and relax. With refills on the drinks – prepared and delivered by the two remaining members of 5SOS – soon the atmosphere is like it was before Sierra came in.

Once they finish with drink orders, Calum and Michael head straight for the now very inebriated singer. Luke has draped him across the couch where he had been holding you, like a giant, broken marionette. He has his eyes closed, so at first it looks like he passed out already.

Calum does not care, swinging his leg to tap his foot against one of Luke’s legs. He groans and shifts his leg over slightly so it is out of the bassist’s immediate reach. Michael rolls his eyes and nudges Luke, too.

“C’mon, mate,” he says. “At least go back to your room and go to bed.”

Calum snorts. “He owes [Name] an apology, although I suppose he is too drunk to handle that.”

The younger mans’ eyes are still closed, but he is starting to frown. Michael looks questioningly at Calum. Is he really trying to goad Luke into making a fool of himself of you?

“Besides, she probably won’t even speak to you now, mate.”

Apparently so.

Luke’s eyes open so he can glare at his friends. For how much he has had time to consume, his eyes are still rather sharp.

It isn’t enough to faze Calum, though. “What? Does the truth hurt? You fucked up, mate.”

The anger melts away, leaving an exhausted, miserable grimace behind. “Yeah… I don’t know what to do.” He is pretty sure you aren’t going to want anything to do with him.

He love you back. He always has he just never thought you would have romantic feelings for him.

Luke loves you.

And now he is fairly certain he lost you.

Calum and Michael watch in alarm as Luke sinks into that dark place he was back when he was earlier this year. They share a glance, Calum looking sheepish. He hadn’t mean to push Luke that far. He just thought Luke needed to face reality.

“C’mon, mate,” Michael mutters, taking the bottle of liquor out of Luke’s hand.

Calum leans down to grab at the one arm while Michael gets the other. It will take the both of them to haul him up.

“Sorry,” Calum sighs. “[Name] will still talk to you. She always forgives you.”

Michael hesitates, but the cat is out of the bag now. “She loves you too much to stay mad.”

Luke is not sure if that makes him feel better or not. He is leaning towards not, since it is just more evidence of how negligent to your feelings he has been. He doesn’t help when they try to pull him to his feet, but at least he does not go limp so as to be dead weight.

Calum frowns. “Luke, stop assuming the worst and go talk to her.”

That probably is not the best idea, but the bassist certainly cannot think of something better.

“Yeah, Cal’s an idiot,” Michael says. “But he makes good points.”

“Hey!” is Calum’s reaction to being insulted. The compliment that follows makes his eyes roll. “Seriously, though, I was givin’ you a hard time.”

“At least if you go talk to her, nothing will be festering.” Michael still is not sure this is the best course of action. You might need more time to recover from that breakdown you had.

“I guess…” Luke allows himself to be pulled upright, swaying slightly on his feet.

Calum just gives him a pat on the shoulder. “Go on. The worst that happens is she is already asleep.”

Luke nods absently. He doesn’t bother trying to straighten his clothes, and when he moves like he’s going to grab more alcohol, Michael snatches it out of reach. He gets a petulant look, but Luke doesn’t try to fight for it. This is probably for the best. He is certainly already plenty drunk. This really is not a conversation to have at – he glances around – two in the morning when he’s practically smashed. Still…

He waves off any attempts to help him walk. He is going to get to you on his own. Besides he really does not want to have an audience for it anyway.

It takes an embarrassingly long time for him to remember and then actually get to the room you are sharing with Ashton. That thought makes him tense up, hands momentarily clenching before he slumps in resignation. It is all his fault that you are staying here now instead of with him. It is his fault you have pulled away. His fault that you have basically replaced him with the drummer.

To be perfectly honest with himself, Luke admits that Ashton is probably a better choice. He’s older, technically more mature, and has not constantly let you down and broken your heart for the better part of his life. Maybe he should just leave you alone. Let Ashton take care of you, make you happy.

Luke freezes in front of the door, hand raised to knock, for a lot longer than he should. He actually turns to walk away. Suddenly he remembers the look on your face when you sang Why Won’t You Love Me not that long ago. Swallowing hard, he turns back and knocks before he can lose the nerve.

For a moment, he thinks no one is going to answer. He tries not to fidget, tongue going to mess with a piercing that isn’t there.

Then he hears the security lock being removed and the door opens. He probably should have known better. Yet Ashton standing there in sweatpants and no shirt still surprises him.

Ashton regards Luke silently for a moment. He hasn’t really gotten an account out of you. Right now, you aren’t even likely to hear him if he tries to talk to you. Maybe he can get the younger guy to talk.

When he shifts aside, Luke steps into the suite with visible relief. It looked like Ashton wasn’t going to let him in.

He notices that the couch is made up like a bed. There is a pillow that looks like it came from the bed, as well as a sheet. It is clear that Ashton was sleeping on the couch. He isn’t sure how to feel about it. At least he clearly has not been cuddling with you.

Ashton barely waits for his friend to get inside. Closing the door behind him, he crosses his arms. “So, what did you do?”

Luke is startled. His reflexes are dulled enough not to jump at least. “Huh?”

“What did you do?” Ashton repeats slowly, like he’s trying to speak to a child. “To [Name] obviously.” He couldn’t care less about what happened with Sierra after they left.

As much as he wants to get defensive, he doesn’t. Instead, he slumps a little and looks sad. “I sang Lie to Me to her. The, uh… chorus.”

The drummer doesn’t even try to stop himself from slapping a hand to his face. He wonders if Luke is always this stupid. If so, how do you put up with him?

“That was stupid. Why?”

The singer shrugs, looking away. “It’s my ringtone,” he mumbles. “She clearly thinks of me when she hears it.”

Ashton can’t even tease him for his ego, because he knows Luke is right. That is definitely the song you associate with him. A frustrated noise escapes him.

“Still didn’t explain why you sang it to her.”

Luke rubs wearily at his face. Coming to see you is a bad idea. “I know. I just… I wanted proof. All those comments about her being in love with me, it just… seemed like a good idea.”

It is obvious he knows otherwise now. He looks a lot like a kicked puppy. When he turns that look on Ashton, he is not surprised by the lack of reaction. It only seems to work on girls anyway.

Feeling like he is making a mistake, Ashton sighs. He is starting to get a headache and just wishes tonight was over already. Still, he knows that no matter how hurt you are right now, you will be more upset if he turns Luke away. At least, he thinks so.

“She’s in there,” he mutters, indicating the bedroom. “If you break her heart, I might have to punch you.”

Luke only nods. “Sounds fair. I don’t want to hurt her anymore.”

Ashton looks a little confused, but does not ask. When it is obvious he has basically been dismissed, Luke takes a deep breath.

He has to force his legs to carry him to the closed door. A glance over his shoulder shows that the older guy has laid back down on the couch to go back to sleep. When he cannot stall any longer, he reaches out to twist the doorknob.

The bedroom itself is dark, except over by the balcony. A tarp has been haphazardly draped over the floor. It confuses him until he realizes you are half-hidden behind a canvas. He moves around to see you, aware you are far too focused to notice him.

He ends up stopping so he can just take in the scene of you in your element.

With your headphones on, you are dancing a little as you paint. Mostly just little wiggles of your shoulders, or a shimmy of your hips. Even as he watches, you do a writhing move he expects to see at a club. It’s strangely both adorable and… He shakes the thought away and nearly falls over.

You have changed into your “paint clothes” – an old pair of sweatpants from Griffith University and a faded band shirt that someone cut the sleeves off. It takes Luke a minute to recognize it as one of his old shirts; you liked it so much you had ended up stealing it. It makes him grin a little.

You pause again, lifting up the bottom of the shirt so you can wipe at your face. It is only then that Luke realizes there are tears streaming down your cheeks. A little noise of distress escapes him, thankfully you cannot hear it.

The last thing he wants to do is scare you, so going up to you is not an option. While he is trying to diced how to about getting your attention, he realizes his feet are bringing him around so that he can see the canvas. The overwhelming curiosity spurs him to peek, despite knowing that you hate sharing unfinished work of your own.

The painting is beautiful. It depicts a girl – any resemblance to you is entirely coincidental, of course – sprawled on the ground like she just collapsed. The front of her shirt is stained a deep red. It’s obviously blood, because on the ground around her is a puddle of a similarly toned red. The girl’s arm is outstretched, and just out of reach is one of those wire trash cans. At the bottom of which lies a human heart it all its visceral glory. There are footprints that go through the blood and disappear into the background.

He peers at it, inadvertently taking a few steps closer. He wonders if it has… Yep. There it is.

Hanging through one of the holes in the wire basket, barely visible, is a thin black lip-ring.

It started out as a joke, but you enjoyed the challenge of making it an Easter egg. As far as you know, only you and Luke are even aware of it. The hidden lip-ring is practically your signature.

Luke doesn’t know how long he stands there watching you, but you turn a little to stretch your back – or maybe as a dance move – and glance up just at the right time to see him. Unlike earlier, you do not freak out or panic, instead you just silently regard him. The intensity of your contemplation makes him feel strangely shy. He really hopes Calum is wrong about you not talking to him.

“Do you want something?” Your voice is practically monotonous.

He shifts anxiously from foot to foot. “I just… I’m sorry for earlier. I didn’t mean to upset you like I did.”

You aren’t fast enough to hide your surprise. You really did not expect an apology. Although, to be perfectly honest, you still are not sure what you had expected. Part of you feels like this is just a really bad dream; you hope you manage to repeat whatever progress you make in order to fix the dream painting.

“Oh.” You feel uncomfortable, belatedly realizing your cheeks are wet with tears. Ugh.

Wiping at your face with the part of your shirt that isn’t already wet means involuntarily baring your lower belly as the sweats rest low on your hipbones. It’s enough for Luke to see the lines of a tattoo on your thigh. That’s new.

With a heavy, resigned sigh, you pull the headphones off your ears. He is not sure how to feel hearing his voice. At least Don’t Stop is a lot more upbeat than the ones you have been hearing the most recently.

He must have looked weird, because she rolls her eyes. “It’s a playlist, don’t get a big head.”

Tension he hasn’t realized is there, eases from his shoulders as relief rushes through him. If you are teasing him it means you can’t hate him. Apparently the guys are right about you always forgiving him. It makes him feel all bubbly inside.

“Why did you freak out?” is out of him before he can reconsider. That lack of filter when drinking is biting him in the ass once again.

You blink, visibly tensing up. That deer-in-the-headlights look is adorable, but now all it does is make him feel guilty all over again.

“I… I didn’t want…” You huff, lifting your hands to your face, only to stop when you realize you’re still holding the paintbrush and there is paint all over your hands already.  With the two cleanest fingers, you pinch between your eyebrows. “I don’t want you to… to know about my f-feelings.”

Luke does not understand why that stings so much. The alcohol makes it impossible to hide his reaction, and he can tell when you see it by the way your eyes widen. He doesn’t know what to do or say.

“Why?” His voice is a lot smaller than he planned. Oh, well.

You set aside the paintbrush to wash with a sigh. This really is not how you thought how your day would go.

Still, you turn a slightly incredulous look on him. How drunk is he?

“Sierra,” you state simply. “You’ve got a girlfriend. You’ve never shown any interest in me like that. Why would I think that telling you would be a good idea?”

Luke looks more wounded with each little thing you say, even though he knows you aren’t doing it maliciously. The worst part is that you are making very logical points. It just seems that there really is no point in telling you he knows. It hurts that you are still trying so hard to push him away.

“Ah, Sierra dumped me,” he admits, mumbling.

Why did he just tell you that?

You just stare at him a moment, before cringing away. “I’m sorry…”

“Sorry?” He sounds confused. “For what?”

“It’s my fault.” You sigh. “If I just did a better job at locking my feelings away then she wouldn’t have gotten so jealous.”

Luke just gapes at you. That is pretty convoluted, but he can understand where you are coming from. He shakes his head, refusing to let you take the blame.

“If I hadn’t been a blind fuckwit, then you wouldn’t have had to lock them away to begin with,” he says quietly.

It takes you a moment to understand what he is hinting at. Something tightens painfully in your chest, followed by a flash of rage that you automatically mute. If you allow one strong emotion, you won’t be able to keep from feeling all of them at once. A heavy sigh escapes you as you massage at your temples giving yourself something to do while you try to figure out what the right thing to say is.

“What do you want from me?” You don’t even try to disguise the resignation in your tone.

You already accepted he would never see you like this, so why is he telling you otherwise? It is not like he has had time to move past the last relationship considering it only ended an hour or so ago.

Luke is kind of startled by the question. What does he want from you? Nothing, really.

Except that is not true. He wants everything from you, all the things he has been searching for in previous relationships. He wants all your love, for the rest of your life to be spent at his side. He wants all of you. And he is more than happy to reciprocate. In fact, he wants nothing more than to give you all of him, too.

“I don’t…” He takes a breath, pressing his tongue against the corner of his lip in a vain attempt to fidget with something that isn’t there. “[Name], all I want is you.”

You jerk your gaze up to him. “What?”

His ears are starting to feel really warm. “I love you, [Name]. I have since we were kids, I just convinced myself that you would never feel the same way. I want to keep you by my side for the rest of our lives. Or at least until you tire of me.”

This is so much to take in. you feel like the dam holding back all the negative emotions is starting to crumble. If it does, you’ll end up in the same state as when he tugged you into his lap to ground you again.

“Do…” A frustrated noise interrupts you. “You realize how this looks, right? Out of the blue, you say you love me back. It doesn’t make sense. I think you’re just turning me into a rebound…”

Irritation flashes across his face, but it fades quickly. As much as it stings that you doubt his sincerity, he is not really surprised. This is just incredibly difficult, because he cannot think of a way to prove what he feels is the real deal. Maybe he should just go to his suite and leave you alone. The confusion makes everything so much harder.

I don’t know what to tell you, [Nickname],” he sighs. “I love you and I will wait until you’re ready to acknowledge or accept that. I just wish I had not wasted all that time with unnecessary heartbreak when you have been right here the whole time.”

The little flinch you make is confusing, but he doesn’t think he said anything that could upset you. Great, he can’t say anything right tonight. He really should just leave you alone. He even starts to turn to go.

“This is so stupid,” you mumble, voice unsteady.

He turns back now, looking hurt. That is kind of harsh. “What’s stupid?”

“This.” You are rubbing your eyes, trying to wipe away more tears before they can be seen. You half-laugh. “Me. I’m a fucking drongo.”

Alright, you’ve lost him. He has no idea what you are talking about. As far as he can tell, you are the only one who is not an idiot. You haven’t done anything wrong.

“What are you talking about?” He starts moving closer.

You are clearly upset, but mostly he is just tired of not touching you.

Hands dropping, you look at him incredulously, as if he should just know you are stupid. He sees the way your eyes tar up and it makes something tighten in his chest, squeezing his heart. It doesn’t seem you have noticed his approach yet.

“Us!” You give into the urge to flail a little, arms lifting up only to drop back down to your sides. Then you cross them defensively. “All this time, if I’d just told you, instead of trying to hint. Or if you’d actually listened to me. Like, how can you have loved me and not even picked up on my reciprocating even a—”

Luke interrupts you, bending down at the same time as he pushes a finger under your chin to encourage you to look up at him. As soon as you have, he is pressing his lips to yours.

You tense up in shock, but the arm that suddenly snakes around your waist keeps you from pulling away. It isn’t until he is using that arm to tug you closer that you just… give in. It is embarrassing how long you have wanted this. Even if it is just a really vivid dream, you might as well enjoy yourself, right?

Something eases in him when you press up against him, shyly slipping your arms around him in return. Luke practically sags around you, although he doesn’t make you hold up his weight. That arm around you tightens, tucking you closer. His other hand trials up between your shoulders, against your neck, and into your hair to lightly cup the back of your head.

A little noise escapes you that sends shivers down his spine. That pleased sound is followed by one of your hands slipping under his shirt, your nails lightly raking along across the sensitive skin of his side. It’s his turn to make a noise, a pleased little hum. He can feel the smirk against his lips, the cool press of mental from the ring.

“Come back to my room?” he whispers, barely breaking the kiss.

He sees the little smile this time, because he peeks. You must sense his gaze, because your lashes flutter as you open your eyes. There is so much love in them it takes his breath away.

Clearly, he is the idiotic one here.

Alarm bells go off in his head when two tears slip from the corner of your eyes. “Those are happy tears, right?”

You blush, huffing softly. “Yeah,” you answer shyly, not meeting his gaze. “Once the emotions leak out it’s hard to stop them.”

With a little chuckle, he nudges your hands away when they lift to wipe at your face, only to gently do it himself. He presses a kiss to your forehead. Before he can straighten up, you are up on your tiptoes to lightly press one on his nose. Luke’s face and ears get hot, despite how adorable he finds you.

“I love you, [Name],” he says, seriously. “No more tears over me, yeah?”

Your smile is a brighter version of those secret ones in old photos, soft and fond. “Only happy ones, I promise.”