[identity profile] noelleleithe.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] noelleleithefic
Title: Five Ways Reid Oliver Didn't Die (and One Way He Did)
Author: [livejournal.com profile] noelleleithe
Rating: PG
Pairings: Luke/Reid, Luke/Noah, Noah/OMC, Reid/OMC, Noah/Reid
Warnings: See pairings. LOL.
Word count: ~5,850
Disclaimer: I don’t own anything here except my own words. No copyright infringement is intended.

Author's notes: The title pretty much speaks for itself. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] escapes for beta!

~~~~

1.

The hiss of the oxygen and the beeps emitting from the monitors cut through Luke's consciousness, each low noise breaking another little piece off of his heart. He sat close beside the bed, one frail hand held gently between both of his, watching his partner fight to live.

It was a fight he'd already lost. He just wouldn't admit defeat.

A soft knock came at the door, and Luke glanced back to see his best friend's face, brow furrowed, eyes gentle but worried.

"Hey," Noah said softly.

"Hey," Luke replied. "Come on in."

Noah stepped in, pushing the door shut, walking toward the bed, standing behind Luke. He laid one hand on Luke's shoulder and tightened his fingers just a little. Luke let his eyes drift shut and soaked up the strength and love he knew Noah was trying to transmit.

"How's he doing?"

"The same." Luke's voice shook, and he swallowed, trying to steady himself. "Sleeping right now." He glanced up at Noah. "Where's Andrew?"

"Home," Noah replied. "He's been working long hours trying to tie up that project at work and finally finished this afternoon. I told him to go rest and I'd come over here. It won't do any of us any good if he makes himself sick."

Luke nodded, eyes back on Reid, who looked so peaceful except for a line creasing the skin between his eyebrows. Luke reached up a thumb to smooth across the spot, cupping Reid's cheek.

"He's not going to make it."

It was the first time Luke had said out loud the thoughts that had clouded his mind for the past two days. He'd fought Reid over everything for the past two months. He couldn't stop the chemo. He shouldn't give up.

It wasn't giving up, Reid told him. It was facing reality.

But all Luke could think was he's leaving me. He knew it was selfish. He knew it wasn't about him. He just couldn't seem to stop himself.

Reid coughed, and Luke leaned forward. "Reid?" he asked softly. Noah's hand gripped his shoulder a little more tightly.

Reid's eyes opened just a slit, brown glazed with pain but still so determined. Luke smiled, knowing it was tremulous but unable to do better.

"You've got company, baby," he said softly. Reid's eyes lifted to land on Noah, and he almost smiled.

"Hey," he pushed out.

"Hey," Noah answered. He leaned around Luke to run a hand down Reid's arm. "Good to see you."

Reid's eyes flashed at the private joke they'd sustained for going on half a century.

After everything, Luke and Noah had realized they loved each other deeply but couldn't reconcile their differences enough to sustain the relationship they'd both so desperately wanted. Reid had filled that need for Luke and eventually accepted that there were parts of Luke he'd never be able to reach. When he'd come into the picture a few years later, Noah's Andrew had learned the same.

Reid gaze returned to Luke's. "Luke," he rasped. "I--"

He coughed again, face crumpling in pain, and Luke shifted up further, holding Reid's face between his trembling palms. "It's okay, baby," he whispered, eyes roaming his face, now lined with age but no less handsome in Luke's eyes. "I'll be all right. You can go if you need to."

Reid licked his lips, so slow, so weak. "Don’t want to."

Luke bit his lip, bit back the sob building in his throat. "I know," he said. "I don't want you to go. But we both know it's time." He lifted one hand from Reid's face to brush through the front of his white hair. "We've had so many years together, baby. We've been so, so lucky. I love you so much."

Reid nodded, struggling, still not wanting to go. "Love you too," he rasped.

Luke leaned forward to kiss him. "Let go, Reid," he murmured against his lips. "It's okay. Just let go."

He swallowed Reid's last breath, holding it inside, a part of him he'd carry to his own grave.

When he finally let go, it was Noah who held him while he cried.


2.

Reid glanced toward the door at the low knock and frowned when it didn't open immediately. Andrew and the hospital staff always knocked, but they also always pushed right in without waiting for an engraved invitation.

"Come in," he said, his voice weak but still enough to make himself heard.

When he saw the face that peered around the door, he had to smile. No matter what else was going on in his life, Luke Snyder-Mayer always had that effect on him.

"Care for a little company?" Luke pushed through the doorway, glancing back over his shoulder. Reid could just see the other form behind him, hanging back, never quite as sure of his welcome despite a friendship verging on fifty years.

"Sure," he said. "And tell your better half to get his ass in here, too."

He heard the low chuckle as Noah followed Luke into the room. "Nice to see you too, Reid," Noah said, carrying on the decades-long joke. Luke grinned back over his shoulder as he crossed to the bedside.

"What's the good word, doc?" he asked, knowing the answer but hoping for something different.

"It's hospice," Reid said, shrugging one shoulder. "Could be days, could be weeks."

Luke reached for his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. "You look pretty damn good for a nearly departed form."

Reid rolled his eyes and leaned back against the pillows, suddenly tired. "Stopping the chemo helped with that," he said, letting his eyes fall shut. "Haven't been vomiting up my spleen."

The not that chemo was doing any damn good anyway stayed unspoken. Irony that brain cancer, metastasized and no longer treatable, was taking the great Reid Oliver, one of the few men in the world who might, at some point, have had a shot at cutting it out of his head. Knowing every detail of what would be needed, he'd deemed surgery not worth the risk. He'd rather live out the time he had left with his brain intact than end up a vegetable.

Noah had pulled over two chairs and encouraged Luke to sit. The twelve-year age difference between them and Reid didn't seem so large now that Luke had hit sixty. His health remained good, despite two intervening kidney transplants, but they all knew he'd probably gotten to the point of borrowed time.

Reid sighed. "I'm afraid I may not be good company," he murmured. "Tired tonight."

Another low knock turned their heads, and Andrew stepped in. He smiled at the visitors. "Hey guys, glad you could come," he said, crossing to sit on the side of the bed opposite them, pulling Reid's free hand into his and leaning down to kiss him. Reid tried to kiss him back, but his body didn't seem to be working right.

Andrew pulled back, frowning. "Reid?" he asked, just as one of the monitors started screeching.

Reid tried to keep his eyes open, but everything was turning dark, and he just didn't have the strength.


3.

Luke Snyder died much too young.

He was only 46 when his second kidney, transplanted at age 34, ran out of steam. By the time a donor organ became available, he was so weak that he'd barely survived the surgery. He couldn't survive the rejection that followed.

Noah's heart died with Luke.

They'd been together for twenty-three years, since Luke had finally realized what he'd lost, broken up with Reid, and followed Noah to Los Angeles. Things weren't easy. It took months for them to work things out, and more than once each of them had wanted to give up. But the struggle had been worth it. They'd been deliriously happy ever since.

After Luke died, Noah drew back into his shell and resigned from the world. Their daughter, whom they'd adopted as a two-year-old orphan when they were thirty, three years after they'd tied the knot, tried everything she could think of to help him. But she was only eighteen, and she could only do so much.

She had to call in reinforcements. Or, to be precise, she took Noah to them.

The Snyders welcomed them into the fold as if they'd been there all along. Lily, approaching seventy but still as beautiful as she'd been the day Noah first met her, settled him into the guest room, carefully avoiding the room that had been Luke's and all the memories that were tied up inside it. Faith brought her baby to visit, and Noah smiled as he rocked the little boy, just as he'd done for Amy when he and Luke had first brought her home, and for Ethan and Eliza all those years before. But his smile never reached his eyes.

Natalie tried board games. Ethan wanted to take him to a movie, usually a surefire winner. But Noah refused all offers and barely left the room.

The sharp knock at the half open door startled him. "Come in," he said.

The last face he expected to see peered around the corner.

"So," Reid Oliver said, as brusque and snarky as ever. "I hear you've decided you literally can't live without Mr. Snyder."

The dam broke. Noah cried for the first time since the day of the funeral, and Reid sat down next to him on the bed and held him, through the fifteen minutes of sobs where he could barely catch his breath, through the ten minutes of stuttered breathing, and finally until he fell asleep, exhausted from emotion.

When he woke up two hours later, Reid was still there, leaned against the wall with Noah's head cradled in his lap, long fingers carding softly through Noah's hair.

They were almost inseparable after that. Of everyone in Noah's life, only Reid could come close to understanding what Noah had lost. Reid had had fallen in love with Luke too, not the same way Noah had, but the only thing that compared in any way.

And Noah liked Reid. He'd never really hated him, just hated seeing him with Luke. After their breakup, he'd actually been a friend of sorts, even though they rarely saw him in person.

Six weeks after Noah came to Oakdale, Reid put him back on a plane to LA, sending him off with a kiss and promise. Noah couldn't fall in love again, not when his heart was buried in Oakdale Cemetery. But he could come close.

Theirs was mostly a long-distance relationship. Reid had made a place in Oakdale, even though he was as surprised as anyone about it. He had a best friend in Katie, a job running a state-of-the-art neurology wing, colleagues who respected him, and a new outlook on life. He even had a boyfriend for a while, but he'd found that he didn't really want something that serious.

Noah and Reid were never serious but always exclusive; Noah wouldn't consider anything else, not after being so devoted to one man for so long. They saw each other six or seven times a year, taking turns traveling back and forth, spending up to a week together, depending on their schedules. They spent every holiday in Oakdale, the two of them together almost filling Luke's empty space within the Snyder fold.

They got along well. They rarely argued, although if they were honest, they'd admit they rarely delved deeply into any subject. Reid taught Noah to play chess, and they discovered he was pretty good at it. Better than Luke had been, enough that he actually beat Reid a few times.

The sex was good. Very, very good. Their chemistry in that regard turned out to be off the charts. Not the first time, though. The first time they slept together was three days into Reid's first visit to Los Angeles, five months after Luke died. Noah wasn't ready, and they both knew it, but they did it anyway. Neither was surprised when Noah called out Luke's name as he came, and then sobbed for nearly an hour afterwards.

The second time was better, and the third, and by the time they reached double digits, they were as close to happy as either of them could get. As happy as Noah could be without Luke. And they did love each other in a way, as much as Noah could love anyone after Luke, and as much as Reid knew how to love anyone at all.

When Reid died, it was unexpected. They were in Oakdale for Christmas, ten years after Luke died, staying at the farm, which had gone to Ethan in Luke's will, after he inherited it from Emma. Ethan lived there now, running the stables and raising a family, looking so much like a perfect cross-section of Holden and Luke that Noah could hardly stand to look at him. Reid and Noah were sleeping together in what had once been Jack's room; Noah would never even consider sleeping in Luke's old room.

Noah woke to the sound of gasping and rolled over, finding Reid red and sweating, doubled over in pain.

"Reid!" Noah lunged for his phone, dialing 911 with one hand and trying to check Reid over with the other. The operator picked up almost immediately, but it was already too late. Reid gasped again, head snapping up, gaze locking onto Noah's for a long moment, and then he collapsed onto the mattress, limp and still.

Massive heart attack, the doctors said later. Even if he'd been in a hospital bed on monitors, it was unlikely that anyone could have done anything.

Noah buried a second lover in Oakdale Cemetery, in a plot just two down from Luke's. The space in between? He reserved it for himself. It was the only place he could imagine spending eternity.

Two days later, he went back to LA--by himself, but never alone.


4.

Noah paused outside the porch, looking in the window at a sight so familiar it made his chest ache. The kitchen at the farmhouse didn't look like it had changed one bit, right down to Emma at the sink and a cluster of Snyders and friends standing around.

Squaring his shoulders, Noah walked up to the screen door and pulled it open. He shouldn't have been surprised that Luke was right there.

"Noah!" He was enveloped in one of Luke's patented full-body hugs, pulled so tight against Luke's chest that it felt like he was being pulled inside Luke's body. He closed his eyes at the thought, pushing back a shudder. God, he'd missed this. Almost ten months since he'd seen Luke in person--the family wouldn't hear of him not coming back to visit at Christmas--and it felt like he'd never left.

Luke drew back, smiling at him, far below full wattage but still clearly very happy to see him. "I'm so glad you made it," Luke said. "I'm sorry you missed the ceremony."

Noah bit his lip. "I'm sorry, too," he said. "I can't believe I had two flights get cancelled. I feel like I've spent a week in airports and on airplanes."

He still couldn't believe Reid was gone. In the year and a little since Noah moved to Los Angeles, he and Reid had actually become friends of sorts, helped along a lot after Luke broke up with Reid just before Thanksgiving. They'd loved each other, but Luke had too much love and too much life in him to be satisfied with anything less than everything, and Reid just couldn't give him that.

And now Reid was dead, killed by a drunk driver, of all things. Noah would've thought only something more spectacular, like a meteor strike, could've taken out the great Reid Oliver, God's gift to neurosurgery. (He'd feel bad about thinking of him that way, but when he'd snarked it to Reid, it had garnered one of the few genuine belly laughs Noah ever hear from him.)

Luke pulled Noah out of his thoughts, sliding one hand down Noah's arm to take his hand. "Come on, have something to eat," he said. His gaze ran quickly down Noah's body and back up. "You look pretty put together for someone who's been traveling for over a day."

Luke looked pretty damn good himself, in a dark gray suit Noah had never seen before, his black tie just slightly askew, hair a little ruffled where he'd probably been running a hand through it. Noah cleared his throat. "I changed and cleaned up as best I could at the airport," he said. "Glad I just had a carry-on. Didn't have to worry about losing a bag in all the confusion."

His black suit was wrinkled around the edges, and his dress shirt was a complete mess, but he'd smoothed everything as best he could, washed his face with paper towels, and combed his hair before catching a cab into town. No way he was showing up for a wake in ragged jeans and sneakers.

Luke tugged Noah inside, where the room had emptied, voices floating in from the parlor instead. They stopped next to table. "We have sandwiches, potato salad, deviled eggs, chicken wings ..." Noah laughed softly, cutting Luke off, and Luke shot him a look. "What?"

"Nothing," Noah replied, still smiling a little. "I just seem to remember you giving me a similar spiel in this kitchen a few years ago."

The air shifted between them, and suddenly they were staring at each other, eyes wide and dark, wrapped up in memory. A moonlight swim, soaking wet and laughing, falling together against the counter, heat rising around them like a wildfire. The moment that Noah had dreaded happening and tried to insist never had for weeks, until he couldn't fight it any more.

Luke broke away first, clearing his throat, reaching for a plate and holding it out to Noah. "Help yourself," he said. "Whatever looks good."

Noah almost literally had to bite his tongue to stop saying the thing that looked best, by far, was Luke. He smiled instead and started filling his plate with his favorites.

He'd been surprised when Luke had said the wake would be at the farm, but then, Luke and Katie had been Reid's closest friends in Oakdale, and Katie's place was too small. Reid had softened up during the year and a half since he settled in Oakdale to stay, and people actually liked him now, if sometimes begrudgingly. He'd still been as brusque as ever, but everyone had gotten used to that, and he'd done a brilliant job with the neurology wing, even after losing out the chief of staff job to Chris. Heck, he'd even worked well with Chris, and that was nothing short of a miracle.

Luke, meanwhile ... Noah couldn't help but smile a little out of pure pride. Luke had gone back to his foundation, not only continuing to work with Reid on the neurology wing after their breakup but also reviving his original interests in helping sick kids and fighting for equal rights. He'd immersed himself in every aspect of the organization, from fund-raising to publicity to legal entanglements, and in their phone conversations he could easily bend Noah's ear for hours, talking excitedly about everything they were doing and getting fired up about the injustices he wanted to fix.

It was a tossup which of the two versions of Luke Snyder Noah loved more.

Because he did still love Luke. Body and soul, he belonged to Luke Snyder, and he couldn't even think about trying to let go. He tried not to hold out hope, but it seemed ingrained in his psyche. Hope had kept him going most of his life, and it didn't seem ready to release its hold any time soon.

Plates filled, Luke took Noah's hand again and led him toward the parlor, where he was greeted by a cacophony of happy voices and a cloud of smiling faces. He absorbed it all, letting himself sink into the love and warmth of the only family he'd ever known, smiling as Emma shooed Ethan and Natalie off the loveseat and turned it over to Luke and Noah. They sat there side by side, eating and talking, surrounded by nearly all of Noah's favorite people in the world.

As the conversation and meal wound down, Luke stood up, taking Noah's hand again and pulling him back through the kitchen, pausing only long enough to drop off their empty plates and assure Emma they'd be back to help with cleanup in a while. He kept going, drawing Noah behind him as he walked away from the house and toward the pond.

Noah didn’t know what was going on. They hadn't been to the pond together alone in over two years, not since before his accident. It had been a haven for them for the long months that they'd lived together at the farm, under Emma's rules, giving them chances for furtive gropes under the water and long make out sessions on the bank. They'd last been down at Christmas, when Natalie had dragged them there to go ice skating, but they'd had to turn back because of a large crack that rendered the surface too unstable. They'd thrown snowballs instead, leaving Luke with wet hair and pink cheeks and a huge smile on his face, and Noah had had to make an excuse about his stomach feeling queasy so he could escape back to the house and not give in to the urge to kiss Luke breathless.

This time, Luke stopped a few feet away from the bank, facing out over the water. "I've been spending a lot of time out here the past few months," he said, not letting go of Noah's hand. "It's peaceful. Quiet. Has a lot of good memories, too." He shot Noah a quick look from under his lashes, and Noah had to hold back a shiver.

Luke turned to face him then, smiling. "I bet you thought I forgot what tomorrow is, didn't you?"

Noah blinked. He'd nearly forgotten himself, and if it hadn't been for everything he'd had to go through to get a flight, any flight, that would get him to Oakdale, he might not have remembered. But it was October 19, and tomorrow would be his twenty-fourth birthday.

"I didn't expect ..." Noah didn't really know how to finish that sentence, but Luke saved him the trouble, as he so often did, reaching into his jacket pocket to pull out a small, flat box. He held it out, still smiling, eyes soft and open.

"I hope you don't mind gift recycling," he said as Noah took the box from him. "But I just couldn't seem to find anything else that worked quite as well."

Now insanely curious, Noah tore off the paper and carefully lifted the lid of the box. Inside was a watch, lying face down with the soft leather band curled to the sides, but Noah didn't need to read the inscription to know what it said. He'd been the one who ordered it in the first place.

He lifted his head to meet Luke's gaze. "I hope that's still true, Noah," Luke said, and Noah bit his lip, nodding.

"It always will be," he said, voice raspy, and the next thing he knew Luke's arms were around his neck and their lips were touching, and the rest of the world seemed to fall away around them.

The kiss was gentle, lingering only briefly before Luke drew away. "So," he said, hands smoothing down Noah's lapels. "When's that movie premiere?"

Noah smiled, hands cupping Luke's hips, feeling more at home than he had in years, maybe in his whole life. "Not long now," he replied.

"Good," Luke said, catching Noah's gaze and holding it, serious now. "Because I think maybe I'll want to come see it. And maybe I'll hang around for a while."
Noah kissed him again then, because he couldn't not, and when he got on his plane back to LA the next day, he had a single bag over his shoulder, a secondhand watch on his wrist, and a heart full of love, enough to sustain him for as long as he needed to wait.


5.

Luke tugged at the cuff of his dress shirt, straightening it under the sleeve of his suit. He stared himself down in the mirror, not really sure what to feel. By all rights, he should be deliriously happy right now, but having a honeymoon in Hawaii cut in half by tragedy kind of blew that out of the water. He should be on a beach drinking something fruity with an umbrella in it, not back in his old room at the farm in Oakdale, getting ready for a funeral.

A pair of long arms wrapped around his waist, and Luke sighed as Noah's chin settled onto his shoulder. "You okay, babe?"

"Yeah," Luke breathed. "Just ... it feels weird, you know? I mean, we were only together for a few months five years ago, but still, it's not quite like losing just a friend, you know?"

Noah nodded, holding Luke's gaze in the mirror. "I get it," he said. "He turned out to be a pretty good friend to both of us, too, and he didn't have to do that." He tightened his arms a little. "You know it's okay, right? Whatever you're feeling? You shouldn't feel bad about it."

Luke sighed again, turning in Noah's arms, his eyes dropping automatically to skim over his new husband's broad chest, moving up to linger on his lips before reaching his eyes. "I'm not really sure what I feel," he admitted. "I'm sad to lose a friend, sorry that we're all losing such a great doctor. But beyond that--" He shrugged one shoulder just a little. "I loved him once. Maybe some part of me still does. Maybe that's why I feel ... guilty."

Noah frowned. "You don't think it's your fault?"

"No, it's not that, not exactly." Luke turned, sitting on the foot of the bed, the one he'd slept in off and on for most of his life, most of that time alone. "I just ... I feel like I left him alone, you know? Like I was the only chance he had to find someone, and I took that way from him. But I never got over you, never stopped loving you, and there was just no way he and I could be what we should've been for each other."

Noah sat next to him, close enough that their thighs touched. He took Luke's right hand in his left, the metal of his wedding ring cool against Luke's skin. "That wasn't your fault," he said softly. "You couldn't force it to be more than it was."

Luke nodded quickly. "I know," he said. "I didn't say this made any sense." He smiled, knowing it was a little lopsided. "But seriously. The only guy I've dated even semi-seriously in my life other than you flies out for our wedding, and his plane crashes on the way back to Oakdale? It's kind of hard not to feel like it wouldn't have happened if not for me. As illogical as that sounds."

Noah's thumb rubbed across Luke's fingers. "I understand," he said. "But he wanted to be there. We told him most of your family was coming, so he shouldn't feel obligated to make the trip, even though we did want him there. And he came anyway. For us." Noah paused and squeezed Luke's hand gently. "For you. Because a part of him still loves you too." He leaned forward and grinned a little. "Not that I can blame him."

Luke smiled and kissed Noah gently, his free hand coming up automatically to up Noah's cheek. It had taken them a long time to get back to this after Luke broke up with Reid, a long time to regain the implicit trust and unshakable devotion they'd had before. Better than before, really, and as much as Luke knew they had themselves and each other to thank for that, he knew they could thank Reid Oliver too. The upheaval of his insertion into their lives had caused a lot of hurt, but it left them both wiser and more certain of what they wanted. And what they wanted was each other.

Luke pulled away slowly, and Noah gave him a soft smile before he stood up, using the grip he still had on Luke's hand to pull him to his feet. "We need to get going," he said. "Do you have your eulogy ready?"

Luke smiled, a glint in his eye. "Oh yeah," he said. "Let's just say if Reid was around to hear it, I think he'd give it a standing ovation."

Noah laughed, and together they headed for the door, to bury their friend, and a piece of their history.

~~~~

1.

Luke stopped them at the edge of the trees and turned to face Noah. "Do you mind if I ...?"

He trailed off, but Noah was already nodding. "Whatever you need," he said, as he'd said so many times over the past year that Luke had lost count. Noah's hand squeezed his. "I'll be waiting."

Luke smiled and leaned up to brush a quick kiss over Noah's lips before releasing his hand and walking alone toward the edge of the pond. He hadn't been here in over a year, not since the day he'd scattered Reid's ashes. He hadn't been alone then. Noah had been there, solid and loving, along with Luke's parents. None of them had ever completely understood his relationship with Reid, but then, Luke hadn't either. It had taken him until now for it all to make sense.

He stopped on the bank and stood looking out over the water, still and beautiful in early fall air. He smiled and let his eyes drop shut, soaking up the peace that the pond had always brought him.

His eyes opened slowly. "Hi Reid," he said. "I feel kind of weird talking to you like this, like you're standing here or can even hear me. I don't know how any of that works. I don't know what I believe. But I know I'm not really here for you. This is selfish of me, and I hope you'd forgive me for that."

He paused for a moment. "I loved you, Reid," he said, feeling his eyes burn as tears welled up. "I did. I don't know if you ever really believed that, even though you said you loved me too. I know there was always something standing in between us, and I honestly don't know if it ever would've gone away. Because ..."

He stopped. This was hard, and not just because of what he was about to say. He pushed himself forward. "Because I loved Noah, too. I never stopped. I tried to tell myself I had. It hurt too much otherwise. And I know now that part of the reason I loved you is because you weren't him. You were so different. And I know it sounds like I'm saying I only loved you because you didn't remind me of Noah, but that wasn't it. Well, it was probably part of it, but I still loved you for you."

He swallowed and closed his eyes again, letting the emotion wash through him. Letting it flow over his skin and run off onto the grass, draining down the bank and into the water. Letting it rest with Reid.

"I'm in love with Noah," he finally said. "I always have been. Even when I was in love with you too. I don't know if that ever would have changed. I don't think it would have, and it wouldn't have been fair to you--or to me, or to him, for that matter--if I'd kept trying to avoid that. I don't want to say that you and I wouldn't have been together forever, because I can't possibly know that. But we weren't. We aren't. And Noah and I ..."

He trailed off and again and smiled, his heart suddenly lighter. "I want us to be forever. I think we can be." He sobered again. "But we can't unless I let you go."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the chess knight he'd gotten from Reid's uncle, the one he'd kept on his bedside table for over a month. The one he'd taken with him when he'd gone to Los Angeles, where he'd been living ever since, first on Noah's sofa and then, after almost two months, back in his bed where he belonged.

The one Noah had insisted he not get rid of after they were back together.

"I love you, Reid," Luke said. "I don't think we ever stop once we love someone. But I'm in love with Noah, and I need to be with him. He asked--" Luke had to stop and swallow. "He asked me to marry him. And he said I didn't have to answer right away, even if I wanted to say yes, that I could take all the time I needed. He's been so good to me, Reid. Probably better than I deserved. He's so patient, and he loves me so much I can't even comprehend it. And I love him. I do want to marry him. But it's not fair to either of us to take a step that big as long as I'm still holding on to any part of you."

His fist closed around the piece, and his eyes fell shut. "I hope you're at peace, Reid," he said. "And I hope you know that whatever else might have happened or might happen now, you were loved. You are loved."

He threw the piece without opening his eyes, listening for the sound of it splashing down into the water. He let out a breath and dropped his head, wrapping both arms around his middle, waiting for what he knew was coming. Sure enough, within a few minutes a pair of arms wrapped around him from behind, warmth settling against his back, and he leaned into Noah's strength.

"You didn't have to do that, you know," Noah said. "Not for me."

Luke's eyes opened. "I didn't," he said. "It was for me."

He shifted, turning, sliding his hands up Noah's arms, wrapping them behind his shoulders. "Yes," he said, waiting quietly for Noah to get it. When he did, Noah jerked and his eyes widened.

"Yes," Luke repeated. "Yes, I'm in love with you. Yes, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Yes, I want to marry you. And yes, I'm very, very sure."

Noah smiled wide, the full, goofy, happy grin that Luke hadn't seen in so long and hadn't realized he'd missed so much. Luke smiled back and lifted up to meet Noah's mouth moving down to capture his.

When they walked away together, Reid Oliver stayed behind. Safe, secure, and finally at rest.
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