Chapter 1: A Better Time
Why aren’t I having a better time?
Luke wandered into the crowded ballroom, idly eyeing name tags. Something medical. Explains the open bar. He pushed further in, wondering why he wasn’t out enjoying the greatest city in the world. I finally get back to New York, and I don’t even leave the hotel. Tomorrow, he thought, I’ll be full of energy tomorrow. Ready to take on the city. Back to my old self. Whoever that was.
For now, Luke just wanted to get lost in a roomful of strangers. He found himself checking out the spread – not that he was hungry, but because being around people in medicine made him think of…yeah, Luke, what doesn’t? He would never, ever admit to himself that his heart had stuttered a bit when he’d realized this was a medical conference; neither would he admit that his remaining in the ballroom had anything to do with the infinitesimal chance that he would be there. Because that would be pathetic. More than usual. He refused to peer more closely at the nametags to see the association name – in case his pathetic (pathetic, Luke!) hopes had any foundation. Not that his not knowing helped keep those tiny hopes alive. No, he could never acknowledge that particular line of reasoning. Not if he wanted to make it through another day. (Alone.)
Luke picked through the canapés, almost daring someone to stop him. Self-destructive much? He stayed away from the bar.
“Better than last time, huh?”
Startled out of his reverie, Luke turned to the man on his right. Young-ish. Good looking, if Luke ever noticed such things anymore. Luke offered him a crooked smile. “Yeah, well, to be honest, I’m kind of crashing.”
The man laughed, “Beats New York restaurant prices.”
Luke’s smile widened. “And eating alone.”
“Oh yeah, can’t beat the company. Room full of drug reps and neurosurgeons.”
A heart can literally stop beating. I’ll have to keep that in mind should I ever start writing again.
“And which are you?” Distantly, Luke marveled at his ability to appear normal, to pretend that his heart had, in fact, resumed beating.
“Surgeon. Alex Martin.”
“Luke Snyder.” From somewhere outside his body, Luke watched himself shake the man’s hand.
“So what relatively exotic life do you lead, Luke?”
“What? Oh, nothing too exciting. Foundation work, mostly.”
“Better watch out – this crowd can smell free money.”
There, I’m mostly back in my body now, right? “Well, actually, we do work a lot with hospitals.” Which has nothing to do with him. Nothing.
“Really? Where are you based?”
“Um, well, I was in LA for a while, but now I’m back home. In Illinois.”
“No, place called Oakdale.”
Alex (that was his name, right?) smiled. “No kidding? Friend of mine used to work there. Of course he called it something else.” He started to look around.
“Hey! You’ll never guess who I found.” Alex waved someone through the crowd, standing aside to make room.
This time, Luke’s breathing stopped as well as his heart. Well, I guess that makes sense. Nothing can happen without a heartbeat. Huh, I wonder if I’m in shock? Good thing there are doctors around. Is mental babbling a symptom? Babbling—
And then Reid was there. In that dark shirt and those dark jeans. With that hair and that face. That body. Looking at Luke with casual disinterest. Wait, what? This wasn’t how it was suppose to go. Not that Luke had ever imagined this moment.
Alex clasped his hand to Reid’s shoulder. (Nooo.) “Thought you said I’d never run into anyone from Oakdale. That was the name, right? Have to say, Reid, this guy seems pretty normal.” Alex was grinning widely. “Not inbred at all.” He turned to Luke, “No offense – just that Reid didn’t seem to have the best time there.”
Luke searched Reid’s face, looked for some sign, anything. “None taken. I know it wasn’t the most exciting place for someone of Reid’s caliber.” Should I have called him Dr. Oliver? Luke was surprised he was able to speak at all.
Alex looked delighted with the turn of events. “Ah, of course you would have heard of him. Reid’s got a way of making his presence known.” By this time Alex’s hand was finally off Reid’s shoulder. “Was your foundation involved with that ill-fated neuro wing?”
Still nothing from Reid. Nothing. “Um, yes, actually, a little.”
Alex didn’t seem surprised that Reid wasn’t contributing to the conversation. “Don’t suppose you could fill in any details about his time there? Such a mysterious detour.” Alex smiled at Reid a bit wickedly. (Too wickedly.)
Luke answered quickly. (Too quickly.) “No, no, sorry.” He rubbed his ear.
“Ah, well, maybe the next person I run into.” Alex seemed not to notice the tension. (Or was that only on my part?) “So, Luke, how long were you in LA?”
Did Reid just take notice at that? “About two years.”
Alex smiled again. “Couldn’t stay away from Oakdale?”
Breathe, breathe. Remember how it went in your fantasies. “Actually, I left LA after I broke up with my boyfriend.” This time, he forced himself not to look at Reid. Play it cool. Well, as cool as possible. “That was almost a year ago.”
Even though Luke was focused on Alex, he missed the glint in his eye. “Really? Long-term relationship? Must have been tough.”
Please don’t make me talk about Noah in front of him. “Um, yeah. Since high school.”
“Wow, first love, huh?”
This wasn't how it was supposed to go. “Yeah, I guess.” Luke began planning escape routes through the crowd. Why hasn’t Reid said anything? Why isn’t he looking at me as if he sees me? Perversely, Luke almost wanted this line of conversation to continue, if only to get some sort of reaction. Almost.
“Aw, man, those are hard to shake. Took me most of med school to forget mine. One of the reasons I chose neurosurgery – knew it would be all-consuming.” Alex casually turned to Reid. “Hey, remember that time I got you drunk? Told me even you’d had a first love.”
Finally, Luke saw Reid react. A small change, but noticeable to Luke’s Reid-attuned eye. As to what the reaction was, Luke couldn’t say. But it was there. And Luke wished it weren’t. He didn’t want to think of Reid loving someone. One of the high-school crushes? In college, before Reid’s shields were firmly in place? Luke knew he had no right to feel this way. Of course he wanted Reid to be happy, to have been happy. Even if that were with Alex. (Nooo.) Luke had had his chance. Well, OK, probably not, who was he kidding? As if, even had Luke not so royally screwed things up before they’d even begun, Reid would ever have fallen in love with him. At the thought, Luke’s heart squeezed in on itself and threatened to take his lungs with it. A fanciful idea at which Dr. Oliver would no doubt scoff.
I will not cry.
Alex wasn’t done yet. “You remember that night, don’t you? The bottle of cachaça?”
Luke was pretty sure he didn’t want to hear any more. As he distanced himself mentally, he vaguely noted that, in that moment, Reid reminded him of a statue. Roman, perhaps.
By now, Alex had turned back to Luke for the big finish. “And can you believe it? Turns out Reid’s first love had been in Oakdale.”
It took a moment for Luke to register what Alex had just said, had just done.
What he had just done.
Luke reentered his body with a thud. Wished he had been paying closer attention, because now he started to doubt. He must not have heard Oakdale. One look at Alex’s face, however, cleared up that doubt. Utterly dazed, Luke next tried to think of whom else Reid could have fallen in love with. When, idiot? Before you? While he was giving up his career for you? In those few days between your running back to Noah (stupid, STUPID) and his leaving town? But it still made no sense. It couldn’t have been Luke. Sure, Luke knew he had self-worth problems (as if he could possibly have been worthy), but it was more than just that – there hadn’t been time. They’d never even slept together (STUPID). And Reid had never once tried to contact him after that day. (How was I supposed to turn down Noah’s proposal?)
Then Luke looked at Reid. And Reid was looking back. Steadily. Still nothing there, nothing in his eyes, but Luke knew. And felt sick.
“Small world, huh?” Alex smiled at both of them. He’d had his fun. Luke wanted to punch him in the face. Punch something. He could only imagine the show his expressive face was giving everyone (shit, shit). Reid was keeping his emotions to himself, as usual. Certainly no feelings left there. Now Luke knew he couldn’t stop the tears. Not here.
Luke was determined not to embarrass Reid. He could do that much for him. “Well, I should probably get out of here before I’m discovered. Got an early morning meeting tomorrow, anyway.” He shook Alex’s hand. “It was nice meeting you, Alex. Enjoy the conference.”
Luke turned to Reid, smiling blandly. “Good to see you again.” It was all he could manage. If he touched Reid, even his hand, he was sure he would crumble. Into a thousand pieces. A puddle of flesh. Get out of there. Then Luke chose an escape route and didn’t stop until he was in the elevator. He didn’t look back.
Luke’s mind was racing, and yet it was blank. Finally, it settled on one thought: What have I done? No, another: What have I lost? The elevator reached his floor. Had there been other people on the elevator? He honestly hadn’t noticed. He made it to his door, found the key card in his hand. Wondered why it was wet. I must be crying. Finally, he was in his room. Sunk to the floor in the abbreviated hallway.
Realized he’d never even heard Reid's voice.
Chapter 2: Closure
The floor wasn’t very comfortable. Eventually, Luke realized this. A little while later, he cared enough to move.
Reid is in the building. He’s here. And he was in l— No, Luke wasn’t ready to go there yet. The human brain could handle only so much. Luke made himself smile a bit with that one. See? I’m not broken. And I can fix this. I can try.
Luke knew he could never be with Reid. Knew that chance was gone. (And to think there’d been a real chance! Stop—no more tears.) So maybe the fantasy wouldn’t play out in its entirety. But the first part – the part where Luke tries to make things right, tries to make Reid understand the enormity of Luke’s lunacy, tries for some sort of closure – that was still possible.
Now stop being a drama queen and go wash your face.
His senses were alert. No more brain fog. No more out-of-body experiences. Luke was on a mission. He moved through the lobby with purpose, his mental antennae searching for signs of Reid. Luke was determined not to let this opportunity get away, no matter how icy the reception. And, oh, he expected it to be icy (mental ice skates? check). Tears only as last resort, he thought with a rueful smile.
His spirits dipped a bit when he saw that the ballroom had cleared. I must have been upstairs wallowing in self-pity longer than I thought. He swallowed the rising panic and looked around. He took stock – hotel bar, two hotel restaurants, ask the concierge where conference-goers like to drink—should all else fail (wander lower Manhattan calling his name), find a way for the Lakeview to ask this hotel for his room number. Camp outside his door.
Luke was ready.
Except that he wasn’t – when he rounded the corner toward the hotel bar and practically tripped over Reid sitting in an armchair in a small cluster of armchairs by the wall of phones. Reid was making notes on a short stack of papers and had journals and flyers spread out on the table in front of him. He was still wearing his badge, hanging from a chain around his neck. He looked beautiful. Foreboding.
Not ready, not yet.
Luke wished he could just look at him – observe him in his natural habitat. Soak him in after three long (long) years.
He should have known that wouldn’t be an option.
“Hello, Luke.” Reid hadn’t looked up.
That voice. Luke was momentarily stunned by it. Let it wash over him, resonate over and over. Shit, no, down boy. He shifted slightly.
“Hi.” Good grief, was that his voice? Man up. “May I join you?” There, that sounded somewhat confident.
Reid distractedly motioned toward one of the other chairs, all of which were empty. He still hadn’t looked at Luke.
Luke sat and steeled himself for battle. “So—how’s the conference?”
Silence. Luke tried again, “When does it end?”
“Friday.” Reid continued to mark up the papers.
OK, maybe I should just get to it. “It’s good to see you.”
Luke got a look at that, a brief you’re-kidding-right? But it was gone too soon for Luke’s taste. He wasn’t comfortable with this new version of Reid, one that didn’t engage in the usual ways. I never thought I’d miss his sarcasm (liar). It was as if Reid didn’t even care enough to get annoyed. Even the way he’d said Luke’s name had been flat. Luke’s resolve faltered. He’d been prepared for Reid’s usual defense mechanisms. How do I handle indifference? He ignored the rising wave of despair. Regardless of which Reid he had in front of him, he would see this through.
“I was an idiot.”
Finally, his attention. Reid looked up slowly, put down his pen. “Go on.”
So he wants a hair shirt? I can do that. Been doing that for three years. “I just wanted to say—I mean, I wanted you to know—” Breathe. “I never should have left you.” Too presumptuous. “I never should have ended things. Not that there was anything to end.”
Reid just looked at him, that steady measured gaze. Keep going. Go until you break through. You have to break through.
“I mean, I wanted there to be something. With you. I’ve regretted my decision every day for three years.” Every. Day. “If only you had called—” No! What are you doing? “No – it was my fault. Everything was my fault.” Crap, did my voice just break? “I was weak and afraid. Afraid of what you made me feel.”
There. That was everything. (Not quite.) The release Luke felt was like a physical thing, like the Earth’s gravitational force had just become measurably weaker (see, Reid? I’ve started thinking like a nerd to feel closer to you). It almost didn’t matter what Reid’s response was. But of course it did. Luke had a flash of memory, of Reid’s accusing him of wanting a Father Confessor. It was nothing like that, couldn’t he see?
Luke studied Reid’s expression, if you could call it that. Luke couldn’t find any ice. So there was no thawing. Only a blankness becoming…slightly less blank? Or was that wishful thinking? Say something, please.
Reid swallowed. (I’ve been reduced to looking for meaning in a swallow.) The corner of his mouth lifted ever so slightly. (Better…better) “I appreciate the thought, Luke, but I really didn’t need you to say any of that.”
What? Luke struggled to decipher Reid’s meaning. Reid just waited, brow lifted, for Luke to catch up.
“Wait,” No! “Do you think—I said all that because of what Alex said?” Luke was horrified. Once again, the fantasy was taking an unpleasant detour. “Reid, seriously, I’ve been wanting to say that to you since the day you left. I have a hundred versions of phone call scripts written out, a hundred emails. Once a week (day) I google you to make sure that I know where you are so that I can call you (fly out to you) if I ever get up the nerve."
Luke moved to the edge of his chair. "Reid, please, please don’t think I said any of this just because your boyfriend wanted to mess with you.”
Reid had retreated to blankness during Luke’s outburst, but at the end his expression shifted to, what? Slightly wry? At least he was finally looking at Luke. A bit like a shark would, but still, Luke figured that was some sort of progress.
Don’t say anything more, Luke. You’ve embarrassed yourself enough for one trip. “So? Do you believe me?” Sigh.
“I was just wondering what Alex’s wife would think of our being boyfriends.”
Wha? Luke had forgotten what it was like to be constantly off-guard around Reid. “You’re not…?”
“Seems your gaydar is still a bit off.”
Ouch, that hurt a bit. And Reid doesn’t look entirely comfortable having said it. Good – lash out, Reid. I need you to care.
And I need to shove my hopes back down.
“Well, about that—what he said—” Luke took a deep breath. “I had no idea.” He looked down, felt his lips tug into a sad little smile. “And I doubt you wanted me to know.”
Reid stared at him, hard. Until Luke met his gaze.
“What part of giving up my dream job for you did you not get?”
Oh. Ohh. I am a stupid little shit. A stupid, stupid…. Once again, Luke was mortified to feel the tears form.
What have I done?
Reid sighed. “Luke, come on, listen—it’s not all on you.” Dimly, Luke noticed that he looked tired. “I know that I could have….” Reid paused, as if unfamiliar with this part.
Fix-it Luke, nurturer Luke took over. “No, it’s OK. I’m just—I’m still ashamed by how I handled that.” The memory still burned. He could still smell the scorched flesh. “I mean, who did I think I was—what on Earth was I thinking, expecting you to—”
Reid started to say something, but Luke cut him off. “No, please, Reid, I’m just glad I had this chance to clear the air. To let you know that, well, that I was wrong (about everything). And now I can also tell you how deeply, deeply sorry I am for any hurt I may have caused you. If it’s any consolation, I was miserable with—I’ve been miserable without you.”
Luke looked at Reid intently, willing him to believe, to understand. Half a dozen heartbeats later, Reid shared Luke’s crooked smile – fleetingly, but it was there.
It’s going to be OK.
It was over. I can rebuild my life now. I can move on (liar). I can make a start. And, with any luck, Reid won’t hate me every time he thinks of me. Though Luke knew it wouldn’t be Reid’s hate that would plague his nightmares now, but his indifference.
Reid stood, collected his papers, stuffed them into the conference bag. Luke finally saw the name: American Society for Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery.
He’s brilliant. I’m nothing.
Luke took the cue, stood up. Waving a little, he gave Reid the warmest smile he could muster.
Reid nodded and turned to leave. He stopped, briefly, his back to Luke. Reid turned his head but didn’t meet Luke’s eyes.
“Room nine twenty-six.” And then he was gone.
Chapter 3: Room 926
Holy fucking shit.
Luke stood motionless in the lobby long enough to elicit a few odd looks. Which he did eventually notice. What the—what just happened? Luke’s brain had officially stopped working. Does not compute. System failure. Other parts of him were working just fine, however. No confusion there.
Did he mean—? Am I supposed to—?
Luke sat down. (In Reid’s chair. Sap.) He tried to reboot, to sort through the possibilities. Did Reid want to continue their conversation? Unlikely, even if we weren’t talking about Reid. Did he want to order a pizza and watch a game?
Right—then that leaves sex.
But why? What would it mean? Unfinished business? Would it be Reid’s form of closure? And to be honest, isn’t this how the fantasy plays out? Well, sort of. I suppose in my version there’s a bit more—feeling. But I could work with this. I’ve always been good at improvising.
Or could it just be a—what’s the word, booty call? No, hookup. That’s how gay men are supposed to do it, right? A hookup. No expectations. Luke could just be someone Reid locked eyes with in a hotel bar. In his darker moments, Luke would try to imagine Reid’s life, what sort of men he would be with, how it would happen. Luke couldn’t see Reid in a long-term relationship (no, not after what I did to him). Only a series of loveless, soulless, faceless encounters. Men in bars, on the internet. Luke wasn’t always sure which of them he was punishing more with these scenarios. (And would certainly never admit to getting off on them.)
So that’s what it probably is, then, a hookup. Had the chair not had arms, Luke would certainly have slumped to the floor. It all fit – sure, tonight Reid and he had connected a bit by the end, but not like in the past. Not like before Reid had seemingly surgically removed his Luke-feelings. And who could blame him? Luke wished he could have done the same.
But Luke’s desire for a spotless mind wasn’t stronger than his desire for Reid. Any way he could get him. Any way he wants to have me. So Luke wasn’t surprised to find he was already at the elevator by the time he’d consciously made up his mind. Was there even a decision? He’d spent three – and a half – years wanting Reid on him, in him, around him. He had rubbed himself raw. Had hated what he was doing to Noah, how he was never with Noah. At least he’d never said Reid’s name (please tell me I never said his name). Had kicked himself again and again for never finding out what it would have been like.
This was his chance.
It didn’t matter what Reid’s motivation was, didn’t matter if this would be the only time. He would get to be with Reid. And he was pretty sure the memories would last him a while.
Despite his eagerness (and current unsuitability for family viewing), Luke hesitated outside Reid’s door. Is this too soon? What’s the protocol? Did he want me to follow him right away? Or should this be a late-night thing? He checked his watch: 11:45. Did that qualify as late-enough-night? Perhaps Reid had been going over his notes for a speech the next day (pause to imagine him confidently addressing an audience of his peers). Would he not want to stay up too late? Luke recognized the faint absurdity of his musings but was paralyzed by the fear of messing this up. Like I’ve messed up everything else.
Approaching voices snapped him out of his fugue state. Luke tried to look as casual as possible as an affectionate couple passed by. I could have that. It’s on the other side of this door.
Luke knocked. Seven-one-thousand, eight-one-thousand— Did he hear something? Did Reid change his mind? What if he’s in the shower? (pause again—) Should he come back lat—
The door opened. They stood for a moment facing each other, Luke with his open, questioning, hopeful face – Reid giving away nothing.
Reid was barefoot but otherwise still fully dressed, still wearing the badge. Luke nearly came on the spot. Don’t blow this. The embedded joke didn’t help.
Reid glanced down, up. His expression changed, finally, becoming hotter, as if a pilot light had been lit. Luke wondered if he’d even make it inside.
Anything you want with me.
To his dismay, the pilot light dimmed. As if Reid had deliberately turned it down. He turned and walked back into his room. Luke followed and shut the door. He was about to explode with nerves, with desire.
Anything I can get.
What does one say in this situation? Too bad Reid can’t offer me a drink. Will we even speak? Do hookups speak? Or is this something more? (don’t go there)
Reid disappeared into the bathroom. Had there not been that brief flare in the doorway, Luke would have wondered if he’d had the right idea about what this visit meant. (What does it mean?) Luke gingerly stepped further into the room and looked around. More papers, a laptop, food containers. A king-sized bed, still made up. Blood rushed to both of Luke’s heads.
Reid emerged and moved over to the laptop, which was on. Without sitting, he tapped a few keys, closed a few windows.
Luke couldn’t take the silence. “Nice room.”
Reid tilted his head to the side and down. Didn’t meet Luke’s eyes but smirked slightly. He finished on the computer and closed it. Then he moved over to the bed and began tossing pillows to the ground.
The Earth’s gravitational force had shifted once again, this time pressing Luke down into the ground. The silence made the buzzing in his ears deafening. The only sound he heard was of the chain of Reid’s badge hitting his shirt buttons with each toss.
“So—is this how things are done?”
Reid paused and looked at Luke questioningly.
“Things...like this—” Shut up, Luke.
“You know, hookups.”
Luke hadn’t even realized there’d been light left in Reid’s eyes until it was gone.
Reid slowly straightened and even more slowly approached Luke. Instinctively, Luke backed up until he hit the wall opposite the bed. Reid continued his approach. He lifted his badge from around his neck and dropped it on the floor. When he reached Luke, he put his hands on the wall on either side of Luke’s shoulders. Reid leaned in.
“Yeah, this is how it’s done.”
Alarmed by the deadness in Reid’s eyes but too aroused to care, Luke moved to kiss him. Reid snapped his head back and gave Luke a slight tsk-tsk look. Without warning, Reid dropped to his knees. With what must have been superhuman speed, he had Luke’s jeans unzipped and around his knees. By the time Luke remembered to breathe, he was in Reid’s mouth. The strength of Luke’s gasping moan slammed his head back against the wall. Sweet mother of—
Reid had the wrong career. He had somehow managed to get the entirety of Luke’s (rather large) cock down his throat, and his tongue seemed to be in all places at once. And what was he doing to his balls with his hand—? Holy shit, those hands. Reid’s other hand was assisting his mouth with every stroke. Luke was barely coherent. He knew he wouldn’t last long. And would that be the end? Please, God, let that not be the end. With Reid in whatever mood this was, Luke couldn’t be sure of anything.
Again, Reid performed magic. At some point he had moved his saliva-and-pre-cum-slick fingers toward the back. As soon as Luke felt one slip inside him, it was over. He nearly toppled Reid over with his uncontrollable jerking. Reid held on (like an urban cowboy) and sucked Luke dry. Luke crumpled to the floor, stunned. He’d had no idea it could be like that. None.
Once Reid had licked Luke clean, he sat back on his knees, looking at Luke with a predatory gleam. No, it’s not over. I might never walk again, but it’s not over.
As if reading his mind, Reid stood up and walked over to the bed. He yanked the covers back and waited. Luke pushed himself up with his hands and knees and started to pull up his pants.
Reid shook his head.
Luke paused, then kicked off his shoes and took off his pants. At Reid’s reproachful look, Luke removed his boxers as well. Blushing at the dirty heat in Reid’s eyes, Luke pulled his shirt over his head. Reid didn’t move, didn’t undress. He just watched. Slid his eyes slowly from top to bottom. And back. Luke’s intense unease somehow added to his arousal and he felt himself growing hard again. Reid’s gaze lingered.
Reid put a knee on the bed. Luke stumbled toward him. He was desperate to feel Reid’s skin. To see that chest again. To see all of him. If tonight was all he was going to get, then he'd need to do a bit more research for his fantasies. Reid, however, brushed aside Luke’s hands when he tried to unbutton Reid’s shirt. Luke’s dazed look was questioning and slightly hurt. Reid merely pushed him back on the bed.
Dimly, Luke realized he still hadn’t heard nearly enough of Reid’s voice. So quiet, not enough skin, not enough—what? Tenderness? Surely, that could come later? Yes, after I’ve been thoroughly fucked.
Luke was lost in Reid’s eyes – in his cold, hot eyes. Reid reached into a bag on the nightstand and took out a tube and a long strip of condoms. This is real, Luke thought. This is happening. Any fears that the reality wouldn’t live up to the fantasies had evaporated with his first orgasm. Why the fuck didn’t we do this years ago?
Reid straddled Luke on the bed and parted his legs. Luke was self-conscious but compliant. Reid placed Luke’s legs over Reid’s shoulders – he gazed thoughtfully at Luke’s now-throbbing cock and idly ran his fingers over its length.
“Uunnngh,” said Luke.
Reid continued his examination, seemingly oblivious to his own painful-looking bulge. He skimmed his fingers to Luke’s hole, almost clinically probing it. Luke bucked off the bed and tried to stoke Reid’s face, his hair. Skin, need skin! The feel of Reid’s clothing against Luke’s sensitized flesh was driving him mad.
Reid responded by taking Luke’s hands and holding them over his head. Their heads were close now, their short, heavy breaths intermingling. Luke was mesmerized by Reid’s mouth and arched up to taste it. One again, Reid jerked away. Instead, he drew the fingers of one hand down Luke’s face and into his mouth. Luke sucked wantonly, wanting to be close to Reid, to have any part of him he could. Luke and Reid rocked against each other as Luke sucked. They stared at each other – until Reid closed his eyes. Luke never looked away.
Reid removed his fingers and trailed them down Luke’s body – around a nipple, into his belly button, down his cock. Finally, they reached his hole. Reid’s eyes burned as he circled it and inserted a finger. Luke’s cock jumped. Slowly, so slowly, Reid rotated the finger. Luke was certain he was about to burst. His head, his dick, his heart. Without breaking his gaze, Reid reached over to the tube and uncapped it, squeezing lubricant onto his engaged hand. He briefly withdrew his finger (nooo), coated up, and inserted two. Then – a third. Luke was no longer of this world. He threw his head back, closed his eyes, and made unearthly sounds. His rocking became so insistent that Reid had to lean his weight against Luke’s hip to keep him still enough for Reid to continue his ministrations. Luke managed to hold on even when Reid’s other hand encircled Luke’s penis.
Then Reid targeted the prostate. Without warning, Luke’s cock convulsed, and both Luke’s stomach and Reid’s shirt were coated in trails of semen. Throughout, Reid’s fingers never stilled. When the spasms finally ended, Reid bent down and kissed Luke’s cock, his stomach, his chest.
But Luke was out cold.
Chapter 4: After the Hail
Tap taptap. Tap taptap tap tap.
“I’m assuming this place is more impressive when the gods aren’t trying to kill us?”
Luke snuggled closer to Reid – as close as the gear stick would allow. He looked up at him through his lashes. “C’mon, this is kinda romantic. Sure, not quite the picnic I’d envisioned, but a dramatic hailstorm? The water churning, wind whipping—us in here—dry and warm—I almost can’t think of a better way to show you the pond.”
Reid looked down at him skeptically. But his arm tightened. “I’ve had enough drama for a while, thank you. I—suppose there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, though.”
Luke looked up, delighted. His smile caused Reid to squint. It burned through the last of his defenses. No amount of sunblock could keep Luke from penetrating his soul, from illuminating, cleansing every last dank and dusty crevice. Reid cringed at the maudlin imagery. What had Luke done to him? And why was he so happy about it?
Reid realized he had lied to Luke. He couldn’t think of a better way to spend that moment, or any moment. Well, except for what he had planned for that night—
Luke’s phone bopped tinnily. Reid was about to offer withering commentary when he saw Luke’s face. Instead he just said, “Go ahead.”
Luke hesitated. His smile had collapsed, had imploded, like a star. “No, it’s OK.”
Reid closed his eyes. “Answer it.”
Taptap tap taptap.
Luke opened his eyes, remnants of a dream evaporating before he could grasp them. Something about water. And sun.
Mmmm. He felt melted into the bed. Like dried wax on a tablecloth. He supposed he could lift his limbs if he really tried. He wasn’t sure why he’d want to, though. He lay there for another moment, wholly content. Observed idly that there was a sheet covering his naked body.
But what was that sound?
Luke rolled his head to the side and saw Reid sitting at the desk. He was typing efficiently into his laptop. Luke smiled like he’d just finished Thanksgiving dinner. Or just had his sexual mind blown. And he hasn’t even been inside me yet. Not completely.
Luke noticed that Reid had changed his shirt. A slowly forming memory caused Luke to blush. I should probably buy him a new one. Luke recognized this shirt as the one Reid had worn the day they’d traveled back from Dallas. Luke loved how it matched his hair.
“How do I make you feel?”
If only I hadn’t been so afraid.
He lay on his side and continued to watch Reid work. He didn’t want to disturb the scene just yet. He wanted to imagine that this was their life together. Traveling the country to conferences – while Reid attended sessions, Luke would telecommute—or, better yet, write. Afternoons in bed. Dinners with fellow doctors and (the other) spouses. Later, a child’s cot in the corner of the room—
Reid closed the laptop, causing Luke to jump slightly. Reid stood and approached the bed. Luke was relieved to see that his eyes had softened somewhat. Luke smiled and stretched lazily.
“Welcome back,” said Reid with a hint of a smile. He stood next to the bed.
Luke knew he was grinning like a fool but didn’t care. “How long was I gone?”
Reid’s gaze had turned intense. Luke shivered with anticipation.
He ducked his head. “Sorry about your shirt.”
“You’ll make it up to me.”
Luke licked his lips. Reid’s eyes followed.
How about right now? That’s what Luke wanted to say. What he should say. Hadn’t he just been wishing he could move past the fear? Had moved past it years ago?
But doubts were creeping in. Reid hadn’t moved – wasn’t moving except for his left hand, which was lightly clenching in and out. He was close enough to touch, but Luke felt a chasm between them. Reid’s emotional force field was so strong it was palpable.
Luke faltered. He intuitively knew Reid was waiting for him to make a move – almost daring him to. But Luke thought back to Reid’s working on his laptop, to the late hour. He wondered how long before a hookup outstayed his welcome.
I am a fucking pussy.
“Were you working on something?” Luke glanced at the laptop.
Reid’s hand stilled. He rocked back onto his heels. Nodded.
Luke pulled up the sheet. Looked at Reid expectantly.
“I’m giving a talk tomorrow morning.” The corner of his mouth lifted, lowered. “Another miracle case.”
“Oh, of course.” Great job. Great fucking job. “It must be late—do you—do you need to—”
Luke fought against the tide of despair inexorably moving in. Just as he could feel Reid drawing steadily away.
“Should I leave?”
There. The chasm was now bottomless. Reid’s face had effectively shut down.
When he answered, his tone was deceptively calm. “You do what you have to do, Luke.”
Luke’s chest had just been ripped out. He was sure of it. If he looked down, he would see a void. A mini-black hole, slowly sucking the rest of his body into nothingness. What have I done? His vision started to cloud. His ears started to ring.
NO. You did this. You fix it. You and your stupid fear, stupid insecurity. He’s standing right in front of you. The man you – for years – have been fantasizing about in such exquisite detail that you’d started to wonder about the boundaries of insanity. He’s standing RIGHT THERE. The chasm is bottomless only in your mind. His shields are there because of you; you can take them down. Blast through them if you have to.
Man the fuck up.
Luke lifted his head. He met Reid’s cold gaze solidly. Resolutely. Throwing back the sheet, he kneeled on the bed. He reached for Reid’s waistband and tugged, bringing him closer. He didn’t care if Reid noticed the trembling; he wasn’t going to let anything stop him – certainly not his own fear. Not any more.
Suspecting that a kiss would be pushing his luck, Luke settled instead for finally satisfying his curiosity. Breaking Reid’s gaze, he set to work on his belt. After several fumbles – during which Reid continued to stand motionless – he released his prize. Luke was gratified to see that Reid’s frigid demeanor was, at least partly, a front. Luke had found hard evidence against Reid’s indifference. So fucking hard. Luke was transfixed. He wasn’t entirely sure it would fit, but he knew he had to have it inside of him.
First, though, he had to taste it.
With an almost embarrassing degree of reverence, Luke took Reid’s cock into his hands. He heard (felt) Reid inhale sharply, but he couldn’t look up. Couldn’t look away. He smoothed his thumb over the engorged tip, under and around the slit. Smelled the sweat and pre-cum. Leaned in. Licked it. Ignoring the tears (where had those come from?), he slowly took Reid into his mouth. Just the head, at first. He sucked slowly and tried to remember what Reid had done with his tongue. His entire being was focused on using this act to show Reid how he felt. How deeply he felt. How Reid would be his world if only he’d let him. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had much practice at this; he could barely recall his sex life with Noah involving anything more than the occasional hand job. But Luke had had plenty of time to craft detailed fantasies of what he would do should he ever get his hands on this. Too bad he hadn’t been more coherent during Reid’s master class. Didn’t matter – he was determined to make this count.
He belated remembered he should start off slow for greatest effect and withdrew his mouth. He began licking the sides with deliberate strokes, palming Reid’s balls as he worked. After the shaft had been thoroughly attended to, he trailed his mouth down to the balls and began to suck gently. Meanwhile, he had moved his hand further back, just behind. His other hand dug into Reid’s buttock. So firm. Perfect. He took brief detours to the inner thighs, at one point sucking hard enough to leave a mark. If this is all I get, then I’ll make sure you remember me, at least for a little while.
Eventually, Luke brought his mouth back to Reid’s straining penis. After a few more licks, Luke grasped it in his hands and looked up.
Reid’s face was utterly terrifying. His black eyes bored into Luke’s skull. Raised blood vessels throbbed. His gaping moth emitted short, ragged breaths. He looked like was at war with himself. With Luke.
Just as long as he doesn’t stop me.
Luke understood the stakes. Intimidating as it was, he maintained eye contact as he leaned back in. Just before his mouth touched the head, he blew lightly, teasingly. Reid jerked and briefly shut his eyes. Luke stiffened his lips and popped the head in his mouth. Down as far as he could, then up, twirling his tongue around the head. Moving his hands back to Reid’s ass, he began a rhythm. Reid gripped Luke’s head and moaned. Luke answered with an extended hum, causing Reid’s fingers to tighten painfully. Luke intensified the vibration, varied the rhythm. Sucked and blew. Relished every involuntary shudder and groan. He’d been planning to try to deep throat, but Reid’s movement had become too frantic, too fierce. Luke wanted to give everything.
He hoped it was enough.
Suddenly, with what could only be described as a roar, Reid pulled away. Dazed, gasping, Luke looked up. Reid pushed him back on the bed and spread his legs. With a ferocity that was frightening, Reid grabbed Luke’s buttocks and lowered his head. By the time Luke had figured out his intent, Reid’s tongue was in his ass. Luke saw stars. Honest to goodness stars. He blindly grasped his own penis and began to jerk himself off. But hurricane Reid was already moving on – with only a brief tearing sound as warning, Luke felt Reid’s searing, swollen cock start to press inside.
Reid was relentless. He insisted on filling Luke up. There was nowhere that Reid wasn’t. Nowhere to hide. But Luke didn’t want to – he wanted to be exactly where Reid was. In the same place, the same physical space. Part of him. Reid began to thrust like a man possessed. The sound of flesh slapping flesh filled the room. He grabbed Luke’s hair in one hand and stared into his eyes, gasping. Finally, Luke saw behind the veil, saw what Reid had been so carefully protecting, so fiercely hiding. Saw the agony. Saw what a scream looked like. Luke felt himself flayed open in response. Reached his arms around Reid, held on as tightly as he could.
Then, in Luke’s ear: “How many have there been? How many?” Reid’s words sounded ripped from his chest. The slaps echoed.
It took a moment for Luke to register the words. He could only guess what Reid meant.
“No one. No one else.”
Forcing himself out of Luke’s embrace, he roughly grabbed the side of his face. Locked eyes. Luke felt his soul being scoured.
Reid squeezed his eyes shut and, with a low, keening sound, abruptly withdrew and flipped Luke around. Luke had barely braced himself when Reid reentered. Almost impossibly, the tempo increased. Though he seemed on the verge of losing control. Reid managed to wrap one hand around Luke’s cock and stroke in time to the thrusts. Distantly, Luke heard his own shouts as he came. He was certain he’d entered a whole new realm of consciousness. He was sure he would never be the same.
Reid wasn’t far behind. He made the loudest sound yet – a ragged, prolonged cry that tore at Luke’s core.
“You’ve killed me.” Reid was heavy against Luke’s back, his voice a jagged rasp. “You’ve killed me.”
Luke shut his eyes against the tears.
Carefully, Luke shifted slightly so that they were on their sides, Reid still behind, still inside. Luke reached back for Reid’s hand. With what little strength he had left, he placed it over his heart.
Chapter 5: All Yours
My heart is shining. Like the sun.
It took a moment for Luke to realize that his heart was not, in fact, emitting solar radiation. It merely felt that way – he woke with Reid’s hand still clutched to his chest, the rest of his naked front slightly chilled. His back, however, was delightfully toasty. Luke noticed the room had lightened.
Do I have to move? I suppose we’ll need food eventually. Reid will definitely need food.
Using as few movements as possible (and wincing slightly), Luke turned onto his other side to face a sleeping Reid. He couldn’t remember ever seeing him look so at peace. I’ve never seen him sleep before. He looks like an angel, an archangel. Luke’s eyes drifted downward, took in his still-clothed form – clothed except for the unfastened jeans slung low on his hips, revealing his softened cock. OK, maybe a fallen angel. (How had I not noticed before that he wasn’t wearing underwear?)
Luke felt rather fallen himself. Marvelously so. He was a bit scandalized by how much he relished the sticky discomfort. He was covered in Reid’s scent. He was also acutely aware of how his nakedness contrasted with Reid’s state of (almost complete) dress – as if only Luke had been the one to bite the apple. As if Reid had been the one to give it to him.
Luke stared at his mouth. He still hadn’t tasted that mouth. The yearning was almost physically painful. Reid opened his eyes to find Luke fixated on his lips.
Luke blinked. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Reid croaked.
They looked at each other, almost nose to nose.
There was so much Luke wanted to say. Instead, he reached out his hand and tentatively touched Reid’s face. Caught the almost imperceptible flinch. Saw that his eyes were wary. Vulnerable. Slowly, so slowly, Luke leaned in. For some reason he felt compelled to give Reid time to back away.
Their lips touched. Time stopped. Later, looking back, Luke would decide that there was no way around using that particular cliché. Time had literally stopped. The kiss was simple. Soft. By far the softest thing that had happened that night. Perhaps the most powerful. As kiss-action went, it was uneventful – just two pairs of lips resting gently together. But Luke felt the shift – felt their energies touch, connect, accept. Felt Reid let him back in, if only on probation. Understood the significance, the risk. This time, Luke was determined to treasure his gift. Now that he knew just how truly precious it was. How utterly essential.
The kiss ended. As he looked at Reid, foreheads touching, Luke was gratified to find that his expression was no longer inscrutable. Luke could almost hear Reid’s thoughts: “Please let me not regret this. I’m going to regret this. Am I going to regret this?”
And then: “Don’t hurt me.”
Luke felt his heart squeeze, expand. He tried to use his eyes to reassure Reid. Words weren’t quite coming yet.
Hesitantly, Reid reached out to touch Luke’s hair – as if he didn’t quite trust that he could. Luke leaned into his hand like a cat and closed his eyes. Reid combed through Luke’s hair and then trailed his fingers down the front of his throat. Rested them lightly at the base.
“You must be cold.”
“You must be warm”
They grinned goofily at each other. Luke thought he’d never seen anything more beautiful.
And then words came. “I don’t want this to have been a hookup.”
Reid’s grin froze and slowly transformed into something more guarded. Thoughtful. He withdrew his hand. “Good, because that wasn’t what I’d had in mind.”
Luke released the breath he’d been unconsciously holding. “It wasn’t?”
A moment passed. Reid’s expression became a combination of resignation and release. “No.”
Luke could feel the hope bubbling up. For the first time, he let it.
Reid lightly skimmed his hand across Luke’s shoulder. Let it drop. “Did I—are you OK?”
Luke cocked his head.
“Do you hurt?”
Luke glanced down, suddenly bashful. Shook his head. Smiled up at Reid in that effortlessly flirty way. “I’m good.” With every ache I feel you inside me. “But now that you mention it, I am feeling a little—dirty.” He bit his bottom lip. “Come on.”
Reid let Luke grab his wrist and pull him off the bed. Deliberately, Luke reached into Reid’s bag and pulled out a condom. He pressed it into Reid's palm. Backing toward the bathroom, Luke enjoyed the way Reid’s eyes were roaming over his body. He was enjoying his view, as well – especially the way Reid’s jeans hung open. For the first time in a long time, Luke felt exhilarated. Empowered.
After turning on the shower, he finally did something about Reid’s clothes. Starting at his waist, he ran his hands up Reid’s torso, lifting the shirt up and off. Yeah—that’s more like it. Fuck, he looks even better than I remembered. He ran his hands over Reid’s chest and belly like he had just found a wondrous new toy. Reid stood watching, an indulgent smile playing at his lips. Luke wetly kissed one nipple, the other. Tugged at it with his teeth, flicked it with his tongue. Reid tangled his fingers in Luke’s hair. Next, Luke disposed of the jeans, pausing briefly to admire the velvety weight of Reid’s semi-hard penis. At last, they were both naked. Not quite metaphorically, not yet. Luke still sensed that Reid wasn’t completely bare. But at least the chain mail was gone.
Luke saw the mark on Reid’s inner thigh. Reid saw that he saw it. Lifted an eyebrow in salute. Blushing while grinning wickedly, Luke stepped into the bathtub under the spray. He deliberately reached for the soap and began lathering his own stomach in slow circles. The circles widened to include his nipples, his pubic hair. Reid still stood where Luke had left him and watched with a predatory gleam. The only signs that Luke’s show was affecting him were the increasing rise and fall of his chest and the increasing size of his cock.
Luke briefly focused on his own growing penis, attending to every inch while maintaining eye contact with Reid. Then one hand traveled lower, to his balls. He closed his eyes, imagining Reid’s hands on him, caressing him. Opening his mouth under the spray, he locked eyes with Reid again and continued to move his hand further back. With one hand still on penis, he rubbed and teased the stretch of skin behind his balls with the other. He massaged the flesh, pressing lower, pressing in—and flinched.
“You’re not OK.” Reid frowned and stepped into the tub.
Luke put a hand on Reid’s chest. “No—no, I’m fine.” He grinned crookedly. “It’s a good pain.” He reached back down and circled with a slippery finger. Put it inside. He whispered huskily, “See?”
Luke could see Reid’s concern battling with his lust. “Maybe you’d better let me take a look.”
Luke smiled. “I hadn’t realized your expertise extended to this part of the body.”
“Only when the patient’s head is so often up his ass.”
Luke held onto to Reid’s arms and laughed against his chest. Reid smiled into his wet hair. When the laughs subsided, Luke ran his hands down the side of Reid’s arms and, holding his gaze, turned around and placed his hands against the wall. He arched his back and presented his ass. “Please, Doctor. It’s all yours.”
Luke felt singed by the heat in Reid’s eyes. Luke could have sworn the water sizzled as it fell on his flesh. Reid stepped forward and grabbed Luke’s head, bring him up and around to face him. Reid kissed Luke wetly, deeply, with an open mouth and a tongue that took, gave. Claimed, worshiped. Luke dissolved against him. Felt himself spinning down the drain. Reid gripped Luke’s ass to support him, causing their slick penises to slide against each other. The lack of friction was exquisitely frustrating. Excruciatingly intense.
Reid turned Luke back around and placed Luke’s hands against the wall, his own covering them. Reid kissed his mouth, licking the corner. Reid drew his hands down Luke’s arms, his shoulders, his back. He followed with his mouth, alternatively kissing and licking. When he reached Luke’s ass, he picked up the soap and lathered carefully, evoking a pre-surgical scrub. Luke shuddered. His ass began to sway back and forth.
Smelling faintly of lemongrass, Reid put down the soap and began to massage Luke’s buttocks, gently spreading them. Just as Luke was expecting him to move his hands towards each other, Reid instead bent down and blew lightly. Luke dropped his head and moaned. He raised his ass higher. Continuing the massage, Reid teased the area around Luke’s hole with his tongue. He moved closer and closer until he began to lap leisurely, deliberately. His attentions now were as tender as they had been ruthless the previous night. It was if he truly wanted to heal Luke with his actions. Heal inside as well, both emotionally and physically (for now his tongue was inside – not stabbing, like last night, but languid; to give pleasure, not punishment). As if he could afford to be generous now that the self-protection weren’t so all consuming, so vital. Luke didn’t register the change on a conscious level, of course – a fire alarm wouldn’t have registered – but his heart recognized. It rejoiced.
Relaxed and ready, Luke felt Reid replace his tongue with his cock. Reid positioned it at the entrance and ran a hand up Luke’s back and into his hair.
He bent over. “Good?” It sounded as if the effort cost him.
“Yuuungh,” Luke managed, nodding jerkily.
With a slow and steady movement, Reid buried his cock in Luke’s ass. They both moaned, low and feral. Reid began to move. His other hand, still slippery with soap, found Luke’s cock; the clever fingers stroked in time with his thrusts. Reid kept the tempo slow, his hips moving in slight circles. Already at the brink, Luke mindlessly shoved backward, trying to quicken the pace. Reid readjusted slightly, finding Luke’s prostate.
“Fuuuuck, yes. Yes. Reid.”
Water and steam surrounded them, cleansed them. Melded them. Rivulets ran from Reid to Luke.
“Luke,” Reid whispered hoarsely. “Luke.”
Luke came with great hiccuping cries. They echoed off the tiles, resonating in Reid’s ears and throughout his body.
Reid turned his own cries inward. His long shudders were silent. He collapsed on Luke’s back – his open mouth on his shoulder, his eyes squeezed shut.
The spray of the water washed away the tears.
Chapter 6: Be Home Soon, Dear
I’m drowning. I’m drowning in him.
What a way to go.
Luke gradually became aware of his surroundings again. He felt the weight of the water, the weight of Reid. He felt totally, irredeemably lost. In him. He couldn’t imagine not feeling Reid’s skin against his skin, Reid’s hand in his hair. The prospect was simply unbearable. I can’t lose him. I can’t lose this.
Luke pushed against the wall and turned so that they were facing. Closing his eyes, he wrapped both arms around Reid and buried his face in Reid’s neck. After a moment, he felt Reid’s arms close around him. They stood there, silently, under the spray.
Luke lost track of time. Eventually, Reid withdrew, but not before kissing Luke on the side of his head.
“We should probably save some hot water for the other guests.” At the surprised look on Luke’s face, Reid added, “What? I’ve grown.”
Luke grinned and reached for the soap. “Well, then, we should get you clean.” With dogged efficiency, Luke washed Reid’s chest, his shoulders, under his arms. He lingered only briefly between Reid’s legs. Turning Reid around, he lathered his back and arms. Luke’s single-mindedness faltered, however, when he reached Reid’s buttocks. He was irresistibly drawn downward, in. But before he could investigate further, Reid pulled away.
“Not bad, Nurse Snyder. But poppa needs his breakfast.” Reid shut off the shower and began to dry off. He tossed a second towel to Luke. By the time Luke left the bathroom, towel wrapped around his waist, Reid was rummaging through the minibar.
“Reid, you do realize that stuff is ridiculously overpriced?”
Reid turned to him, his mouth already full of cookies. He looked at Luke blankly. “There’s food. In my room.”
Luke rolled his eyes and caught a bag of skittles.
Reid began to throw on clothes. Luke sat on Reid’s bed, suddenly uncertain. What’s happening? It’s too soon.
“Feel free to order room service. My talk shouldn’t take that long. I’d be shocked if I got any coherent questions from this audience.”
Shrugging on his jacket, Reid paused when he saw Luke’s face. Reid adjusted his cuffs. “No—right. You said you had an early meeting. Right.” Silence. “Right.” Blinking, Reid turned away and began to gather papers.
What are you doing? Snap out of it.
As if pushed, Luke sprang off the bed. “Well, actually, it’s not all that important. The meeting." Not like it took six months to arrange. “It was just since I was in town anyway—” Not like it was the whole reason I was in town in the first place. “I was just going to talk about foundation stuff.” With the mayor. “I can cancel.”
The guards were up. The sentries posted. “No, really, have your meeting. We can catch up some other time.”
The fuck you say. “I’m canceling.”
They stared at each other. Gradually, the sentries put down their weapons. Went back to their naps.
Luke stepped toward Reid and reached out to adjust his badge. Smiled shyly. “You look handsome.”
Reid’s eyes dropped to Luke’s mouth. Lower. “So do you. That look suits you. Though I think I prefer you like this.” Reid smoothly undid Luke’s towel. “Now all you need is a feather duster.”
Luke put his hands on his hips. “You know what you can do with your feather duster.”
Reid leered. “Why yes, I do. Do you?”
Luke’s mouth opened in mock offense, and he swatted at Reid’s shoulder. He tried to hide the quick quiver that ran through his body. I wonder which end?
Grinning, Reid grabbed his laptop and kissed Luke on the cheek. “I’ll be home soon, dear.”
Though he knew the words were in jest, Luke’s heart swelled.
Reid paused as he reached the door. “Listen, Luke—if you wanted to go back to your room to get things for any reason—to change, or whatever, I could—I could leave the key. But, of course,” Reid swallowed, “you’d have to be here when I got back. I mean—it’s the only key.”
Standing naked, stripped, in front of Reid, Luke looked directly into his eyes. Willed him to understand. “I’ll be waiting.” For as long as it takes.
Reid left the key.
Lying naked on Reid’s bed (it smells like him), Luke wondered what Reid had meant. What constituted “things,” exactly? Just a change of clothing? Something to read while waiting? An overnight bag? Everything I’d need to start a life with you right now? Luke was simultaneously anxious and hopeful. The thought of spending another night with Reid – one we could start off right – suffused Luke’s body with heat and his soul with joy. One hand drifted to a nipple. But he was petrified by the possibility of assuming too much. He could always make due with less should he be so lucky – too much might scare Reid off. Are you worried about Reid or your own pride? Better to show that he was committed? Luke’s head hurt. Don’t overthink.
And what about the room? It looked like a bachelor pad – one in which the bachelors had been having enthusiastic sex with each other.
Luke knew there was a lot to do and only a little time in which to do it. And Reid still hasn’t had a proper meal. He also knew that the undisputed worst-case scenario would be Reid’s knocking on the door to an empty room. There would be no third chance. Better make this one count.
Now get your hand off your dick and get to work.
Luke picked up the phone.
“No, please, that can’t be right. You don’t understand – there has to be a room.” Luke was closing in on hysteria. He had neglected to mention to Reid that he was scheduled to check out that day. Luke had figured it wouldn’t be a problem extending his reservation another night (or two—or ten). He’d been wrong. Panic had already started to set in during the excruciatingly long wait in line at the reservation desk. No time, no time. His other errands had taken longer than expected. Now this. He could feel the sweat spotting his shirt.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re booked solid through the weekend.”
The wooden edge dug painfully into Luke’s abdomen as he pressed against the desk. “Please. I know how hotels work – there’s always a room. Seriously, I’ll take anything.” This isn’t happening.
The woman’s face was sympathetic. “I’ve checked. I’m sorry. Turns out we’ve booked those rooms, too.”
No. Nonononono. Luke forced himself to think. Concentrated through the cacophony in his head. Maybe he could stuff essentials into his smaller bag and ask to put his suitcase into storage. So he’d run the risk of appearing presumptuous – pride was the least of his concerns now. And Reid would never have to know.
Fuck, what time is it?
Would nearby hotels be booked as well? Fucking summer tourists. Surely there was an empty room somewhere in New York City. But could he find one quickly enough? Maybe he should just check out now and then quietly call hotels from Reid’s bathroom? Shit, but what about the luggage? Maybe he could—
“Mr. Snyder will be staying with me tonight.”
Luke spun around to see the owner of that quietly commanding voice standing behind him.
“Room nine twenty-six.”
A few keystrokes and it was done. “Very good, Dr. Oliver. I see you’re checking out tomorrow.” (Too soon, too soon.) “Mr. Snyder, here’s your key. Enjoy the rest of your stay.”
A bit dazed, Luke walked away from the reservation desk with Reid. Luke was certain that all of the blood in his body was now concentrated in his face. That was ridiculously mortifying. That was ridiculously hot. “You didn’t have to do that, you know. I—I was gonna figure something out.”
Reid glanced over at Luke as they walked. “I know.” They moved farther into the lobby, toward the elevators. “But you realize your little freak-out was unnecessary. I had no intention of letting you sleep anywhere but in my bed tonight.” Reid’s eyes were hot. Possessive.
Luke wanted nothing more than to be possessed.
They reached the elevators. “I wasn’t freaking out, you know.” The corner of Luke’s mouth lifted. “I was merely—weighing my options.”
“Got it. No rescuing necessary.” Reid pinned Luke with his eyes. “But you never really had a choice. You’re not going anywhere tonight.” The elevator arrived, and Reid stepped in first. Luke wasn’t sure he heard correctly what Reid said next: “I don’t care who calls.”
Reid pushed the button for the ninth floor.
Once again, Luke felt the physical effects of Reid’s proximity. He’s like a drug. Luke tried to clear his head. “I should probably—get my stuff now.”
Reid just looked at him expectantly.
“Oh, eighth floor.”
Reid nodded and pressed the button. Held out his hand.
“Right, your key. Here—and thanks.”
Reid nodded again. The elevator hummed.
Luke smiled slyly. “So—you sure you’re going to be OK riding to that last floor? Alone?”
Reid gave him a flat stare. “You did not just bring that up.”
Six…seven… Luke’s grin widened. His eyes veritably batted. “Sure you don’t need me to stay on to distract you?”
Eight. The doors opened. “Oh, I’ll be able to think of something to distract me.”
The last thing Luke saw as the doors closed behind him was the salacious gleam in Reid’s eyes.
Luke sprinted to his room.
Chapter 7: Meant to Be
Luke arrived on the ninth floor only a few minutes after Reid. Wheeling his hastily packed luggage down the hallway was an almost out-of-body experience.
I’m going to our room. I’ll be sleeping in our bed. Well, maybe not sleeping—
And maybe it was still technically Reid’s room. But it was as close to how things should have been as Luke had gotten in the past three years. And he was going to relish every moment. However many were left. Don’t think about tomorrow.
He lifted his hand to knock on the door – then remembered his key. My key. He took metaphorical satisfaction in seeing the green light flash. OK, now you’re just being silly. He didn’t care.
Luke found Reid sitting on the bed, still holding his laptop case. His expression was blank.
“When—when did you do all this?”
Luke set his luggage by the bed. Our bed. “Well, I made sure housekeeping got to us first.” Us. “And I figured you’d still be hungry.” He was satisfied to see that the room had been cleaned and that the food appeared to be hot. The air was thick with the distinctive smell of breakfast food. The entire breakfast menu, in fact.
Luke grinned, pleased with his efforts. “My treat.”
At that, Reid glanced sideways at Luke. “You should be grateful I’m not processing words at the moment.” He stood and began wandering amongst the food, lifting covers, smelling, tasting. He seemed thoroughly dazed.
“And here,” Luke picked up a long, bulging oblong package wrapped in white paper. “For lunch.” He handed it to Reid.
Carefully, Reid unwrapped the package. His puzzled look gradually turned to wonderment. “My sandwich,” he breathed. Myriad smells wafted, everything from roasted meats and pungent cheeses to grilled onions and sweet peppers. Assorted sauces leaked. Reid was mesmerized. “How did you find it?”
Luke looked relieved. “Well, I figured that at some point you would have gone looking for a sandwich. So, I just got a list of sandwich shops in the area from the concierge. Then I went to them and, well, started asking.”
Reid was still admiring his gift. “Asking what?”
Luke scratched his ear. “Well, I asked if they’d remembered a man coming in and ordering—well—anything unusual.”
Reid paused in his careful rewrapping to look up quizzically.
“You know, something with a lot of stuff in it. Lots of combinations. I also, uh, mentioned that the man might have been a bit, you know, rude.” Luke ducked his head and smiled apologetically.
Reid stared at Luke. Then: “Good call.”
Luke grinned. “So, eventually, I got lucky. Seems you can be quite—unforgettable.”
They shared a quick but potent look.
Reid put the sandwich on the dresser. “Wait, what do you mean, ‘eventually’? How many places did you visit?”
“Oh, I don’t know—” Luke’s voice trailed off. “Maybe five—ten?”
That registered. Reid was finally getting it. He swallowed. The moment stretched. Finally, Reid looked away.
“’Bout time you earned your keep.” Reid rubbed his hands together. “Let’s eat.”
“Mmm. Mmmmm.” Reid had positioned a chair so that he was surrounded by three food-laden tables. Luke sat on the bed with a plate on his lap, enjoying the show. Reminding Luke of a ravenous octopus, Reid maneuvered around the food ambidextrously, his concentration never wavering. No wonder he’s so good in bed.
Only when the majority of the food had disappeared did Reid speak with words. “This eggs benedict isn’t half bad.”
“You should taste my grandmother’s”
“Since when is Lucinda domestic?”
“Ha ha. Too bad Emma never got to cook for you. It would have been true love.” Luke froze. Stupid stupid stupid.
The rate of food shoveling momentarily slowed, but Reid otherwise didn’t react.
“And how is my favorite circle of hell?”
Luke exhaled. “Actually, not as crazy as it used to be. It’s practically boring now. Hardly anyone’s come back from the dead.”
With a loud, contented sigh, Reid leaned back in his chair.
“Mom and dad are back together. To the surprise of no one.”
Looking at nothing in particular, Reid rubbed his belly slowly. “Hmm, yeah, I heard.”
“You heard—? Oh, right, Katie. She mentioned that you’ve kept in touch.” And that’s all she ever told me, no matter how hard I begged. “So—had she mentioned I’d moved back?”
The rubbing motion stopped. “She knows not to say your name.”
Luke blinked away tears.
Luke shook his head as if to clear it. “Um—fine? Still in LA. Well, actually, I think he’s at a film festival at the moment.”
Reid’s head was tilted downward. He looked at the table sightlessly, his long fingers rhythmically tapping on a glass of cranberry juice.
“I mean, I’m not really sure—we don’t exactly talk much these days.”
Reid continued to look down. “That must be hard.”
Luke’s unease increased. “Um—?”
“You’re obviously still hung up on him.”
Luke’s jaw fell. “I’m—? I’m sorry, did I miss something?” Did you miss something? Like the part where we spent all of last night fucking? (was that all it was?) Luke put down his plate and leaned forward. “My feelings for Noah changed a long, long time ago.” Longer than you realize. “We’ve been broken up for a year.”
“Exactly.” Reid turned to look at Luke. His face gave away nothing. “You’re a healthy, young, gay man. There’s no other reason for you not to have—” Reid looked back at his glass.
What the—? Slowly, comprehension dawned. Reid. You still don’t get it. “What I said last night—about not having been with anyone else. Not since—”
Reid shifted in his chair.
“Reid,” Luke said softly, “Noah’s not the one I’ve been hung up on.”
Reid slowly lifted his head. His eyes met Luke’s. In Reid's was a mix of wary disbelief, weary vulnerability, and a measure of anger. Luke’s gaze was steady, compelling. Imploring.
“You have to know—for most of it Noah and I were more like roommates than anything. I mean, yeah, we were technically engaged, but we pretty much both knew it was a mistake the minute it happened. But by then, you were gone. And so I—I tried to go back to what was familiar. Tried to make it work. We spent almost two years pretending that it wasn’t already broken.” That my heart wasn’t with you.
Reid’s expression had turned to stone. As if he were refusing to listen, refusing to believe. But Luke could tell he was barely hanging on. That the effort to shut Luke out was costing him.
“I thought you were finally mine.” The words appeared fully formed, as if out of thin air. Reid hadn’t moved, hadn’t seemed to have spoken at all. Luke barely dared to breathe.
“That day at the pond—I let myself believe that you could be mine. That it was possible. That you’d chosen me.” Reid’s voice and gaze were lifeless. “I actually looked forward to being introduced to your ridiculous family as your boyfriend – granted, if only to see the look on your mother’s face. You’d promised me an Emma-supper that day—”
Transfixed by the bleakness in Reid’s far-away stare, Luke didn’t notice the tears rolling down his own face.
“I’d promised you a night you’d never forget. You just didn’t know it yet.” Reid’s mouth lifted cruelly. “And then he called.”
The night Noah proposed. Luke remembered going to tell Reid, remembered how Reid wouldn’t let him inside the apartment. Ohh, Reid. What had you been planning for me? Remembered how he’d watched something die in Reid’s eyes. How Luke had killed it. I killed him. And I knew even then that I’d killed myself, too.
The next thing Luke knew, Reid was on the bed beside him.
“Don’t cry.” Reid put his arm around Luke’s shoulders and lifted a hand to wipe away the tears. Kissed the side of Luke’s head. “It’s OK. I know we weren’t meant to be.” Rather than be consoling, Reid’s quiet words terrified. Because Luke heard the emptiness behind them. He heard the finality.
Luke knew there were no words that could do battle with such desolation. Luke kissed the fingers that were brushing his face, bringing a hand up to immobilize them. He kissed Reid’s wrist, his forearm. He rubbed his face against the inside of Reid’s elbow, resting it there. The knuckles of Reid’s other hand lightly skimmed up and down Luke’s back as he watched Luke’s progress. Luke continued on, nuzzling Reid’s shoulder and chest. He breathed in at a small gap between the buttons of Reid’s shirt and then swiftly brought up his hands to undo them, kissing exposed flesh as he went. Reid rested his head on top of Luke’s and then helped to pull off the shirt completely. After Luke removed his own shirt, he took Reid’s face in his hands, pressing their naked chests together. Luke waited for Reid to meet his eyes. He refused to accept what he saw there, refused to believe Reid’s words. We are meant to be, you bastard. I’ll show you. With his eyes alone, Luke tried to fill up the emptiness. Reid was passively receptive, but the void proved too deep. Luke added his lips. He gently sucked on Reid’s upper lip, nibbled at the corners. Softly, so softly he darted his tongue against Reid’s lower lip. Reid opened his mouth. Allowed Luke in. Their mouths now sealed, Reid’s tongue met Luke’s and slowly slid against it. They both gently sucked, leisurely explored.
Luke’s fingers tangled in Reid’s soft waves. Carefully but firmly, Luke pushed Reid back slightly and straddled his lap. With unhurried movements, they continued to kiss and gently rock against each other, their hands in each other’s hair and stroking each other’s backs.
Breathlessly, Luke pulled away slightly and rested his forehead against Reid’s. He lightly dragged his nails down Reid’s chest, resting at his belt. Reid’s abdomen tightened, accentuating the muscles. Luke felt puffs of Reid’s breath on the tracks of his drying tears. With only slightly trembling fingers, Luke undid Reid’s belt and pants. He gripped Reid’s penis with one hand, lightly rubbing his thumb along the underside of the head. He looked into Reid’s eyes. Reid’s lids were heavy, but he was there. Willing to be convinced. Looking around, Luke leaned over to one side and lifted a pat of butter off the nearest table. Without breaking eye contact, he rubbed his hands together, melting the butter. Cupping his hands slightly, Luke placed them on each side of Reid’s penis and slowly stroked from base to tip several times. Next, Luke began to roll the growing hardness between his palms, moving up and down, using the heels of his hands to apply extra pressure. Reid leaned back heavily on his hands. A low rumble emanated from his chest. Although Reid’s eyes were threatening to drift closed, Luke kept them open with the ferocity of his gaze.
With one hand firmly pulling down at the base, Luke began stroke upward with the other, at first using only his thumb and forefinger. He then added a twisting motion as he moved upward, eventually using his entire hand. He gradually increased the tempo, alternating short and long strokes at the base and tip. Luke never once looked down; his gaze never faltered. Grasping the base firmly, he rubbed the underside of the shaft with his palm, pushing the penis into Reid’s stomach. The rumbling intensified. Reid threw his head back, closing his eyes. Still gripping the base, Luke focused on the head with the other hand, pulling up and twisting, stroking the underside with each turn.
Sensing that Reid was close, Luke began to rub both hands up and down the entire length of his cock in rapid strokes. He then moved one hand down to Reid’s balls and gently tugged at the scrotum. Reid’s entire body jerked. Luke massaged the balls, the perineum. Opening his mouth, Reid’s rumbling became a low, desperate whine. It was the sound of a soul trying to escape a body. Panting, pumping, Luke brought a hand to Reid’s head and lifted it, clenching his hair tightly. Forced out of his trance, Reid opened his eyes and was caught by the intensity in Luke’s. Their wills clashed. Both gazes turned pleading, but for different reasons. The air crackled. Reid’s breath hitched, and with a piercing wail, he came. Luke maintained his grip on Reid’s head, maintained the eye contact. His other hand was a blur, focusing on the head of Reid’s cock. Semen coated his hand in seemingly endless spurts.
Reid collapsed back on the bed, taking Luke with him. Reid’s eyes were closed, his face slack. Luke lay sprawled across Reid’s chest, listening to the hammering heart he was so desperate to own. His slick hand slowly rubbed patterns on Reid’s abdomen. Panting, Reid rubbed a hand through the back of Luke’s hair. Tugging gently, he lifted Luke’s head and, with soft, sleepy eyes, kissed him. Luke’s fingers curled where they touched Reid’s skin. Tenderly, Reid positioned Luke’s head back on his chest. Encircled him with his arms.
You don’t believe yet, but you will. There’s still time.
Chapter 8: The Sweet Life
“...need a car…tomorrow morning…JFK…7 am flight—”
Man, I’ve missed that voice. Wait, what?
Luke dragged himself back to consciousness. He saw Reid, still shirtless (mmm), sitting on the edge of the bed. Hanging up the phone. Luke cringed at the reminder – that their time together had an expiration date. And so early! Need time to think—how could I have fallen asleep? Damn you, deliciously starchy breakfast food. And thanks for nothing, hard-on.
“Don’t move.” Smiling with his eyes, Reid moved back over to Luke and positioned them so that they were on their sides facing each other. Reid lay with his head propped on one hand. His mood was one of alert contentment. Luke tried not to dwell on how undisturbed Reid seemed at the prospect of leaving.
Luke smiled sleepily. “Sorry—didn’t mean to crash like that.”
“Mm, s’OK. I like watching you sleep.”
Luke blushed. “What time is it?”
Reid’s eyes dropped to Luke bare chest. “Time for a snack, I think.”
Now Luke was fully awake. Yes, please. No, wait— “Um, I thought maybe we could talk.”
Reid watched his hand as it glided over Luke’s chest. “I believe that the talking portion of our day is over.” He seemed particularly fascinated by Luke’s chest hair.
Luke forced himself to focus. He had the unsettling impression of Reid cataloguing memories. “But, there’s kind of—unfinished business, don’t you think?”
Reid’s gaze dropped further down to Luke’s bulge. “Definitely.” In one graceful movement, Reid straddled him. With singular intent he unfastened Luke’s jeans and pulled them down and off.
Luke closed his eyes and tried to collect his thoughts. We need to use words now. Words. “Reid—”
Reid palmed Luke purposefully through his underwear.
Luke nearly choked on his own breath. “Wait, no—I just have to—ohh—I just want to—ungh—”
Reid was now gumming him through the thin cotton.
Later. Words can come later.
With his hands and legs on either side of Luke, Reid lapped and sucked his way up to Luke’s neck. He lingered at the base, attending thoroughly to the hollow. Luke arched his back to press his skin to Reid’s skin. His heart to Reid’s heart. He grasped Reid’s head, combed his fingers. I’ve dreamed about his hair.
Reid backed away slightly and reached for something on one of the room-service tables. With the hint of a smile, he pressed Luke back into the bed. Massaged his chest with one hand. Circled a nipple.
“Mmm.” After a quick but deliberate look into Luke’s eyes, Reid bent his head and slowly took the nipple into his mouth. As he rhythmically sucked and flicked and bit, his hand moved to the other nipple, where the nimble fingers tugged and rolled with precise movements.
“Holy fuck.” Luke felt Reid smile against his chest. Luke’s outstretched hands balled the sheets to either side. His feet flexed.
Suddenly, Luke felt cool air against his moist nipple. It wasn’t until he felt the cool weight of liquid, however, that he opened his eyes.
Reid was pouring syrup on him.
First one nipple, then the other. Reid met Luke’s eyes as he set down the small pitcher. Held his eyes as he bent back down. Licked once, twice. Circled the nipple, lapping up errant streams.
“Mmmmm.” Reid moved to the other nipple and settled in. Mouth fused over the stiff nub of flesh, Reid’s tongue swirled and bathed. Luke gripped Reid’s head again, mindlessly sifting through his hair, restlessly tugging at the strands. When both nipples had been assiduously cleaned, Reid reached for the pitcher again. This time, he let syrup drip into Luke’s chest hair. Reid’s mouth followed, his clever lips and tongue moving over the sweet, sticky flesh and gently pulling at the hair. As he worked, he rocked his hips forward until they met Luke’s. Lazily, he began to grind.
“Ohh—fuck, yeah. Reid.” Luke began to writhe against Reid, against the bed.
Reid lifted the pitcher once more and held it high. As one hand skillfully removed Luke’s briefs, the other slowly drizzled the viscous liquid down Luke’s abdomen and into his pubic hair. Still holding the pitcher aloft, Reid’s eyes lifted; Luke felt himself swirling into their glistening, darkened depths. For the first time, he saw in Reid’s expression a wicked playfulness. A sense of fun. Sex with Reid could be fun. Luke was more convinced than ever that he couldn’t live without this. Without him.
Reid’s lascivious gaze moved to Luke’s swollen, throbbing cock where it lay diagonally against Luke’s belly. His free hand wrapped around its girth, his fingers squeezing in sequence. Luke’s back arched reflexively. He moaned. Reid loosened his grip slightly and began to rub up and down slowly, the heel of his palm pressing down. Finally, he began to pour. Trickles of syrup coated Reid’s hand and Luke’s cock. Reid’s rhythmic movements seamlessly spread the caramel-colored liquid from base to tip. Reid bent down, as if to taste. At the last moment, however, he changed direction and instead began to lick the trail of syrup on Luke’s abdomen. His hand continued to stroke. Luke continued to writhe. Reid followed the trail downward, his nose tickled by tacky drops as he licked his way through Luke’s pubic hair. Again, just as he was about to reach Luke’s cock, Reid hesitated. Instead, he lengthened his body to bring their faces level. Still stroking with one hand, he set down the pitcher with the other. Before leaving it completely, he dipped a finger inside, then brought it to Luke’s lips. Leisurely, he spread the syrup, seemingly mesmerized by Luke’s pornographic mouth. Artlessly, Luke’s tongue met Reid’s finger and ran across his own lips, desperate to sample the sweetness. He pulled Reid’s head down for a kiss, licking at Reid’s mouth and sipping at his tongue. Holding Reid’s head in both hands, Luke tongue followed trails of treacle on Reid’s chin, his cheeks, his nose. Luke practically purred. Smiling, Reid dipped his finger again into the syrup and brought it to Luke’s lips. This time, Luke sucked Reid’s finger into his mouth. He met Reid’s eyes, his expression deliberately suggestive. He waggled his eyebrows. Reid laughed, his first genuine laugh.
After one last kiss, Reid moved back down Luke’s body, licking up the last remnants of syrup as he went. His other hand had never stilled; now there was pre-cum mingled with the syrup. This time when Reid reached the base he didn’t stop. His mouth followed his hand up one side of the shaft and then the other. Gripping the base firmly, he licked the underside in one fluid movement, lingering at the tip with quick feathered strokes. Luke’s hands again lost themselves in Reid’s soft hair. Breathing erratically, he forced his eyes opened, determined to watch Reid work his special magic. And work it he did – Luke was desperately clawing himself back from the edge even before Reid had taken Luke completely into his mouth. Eventually, he did, at which point Luke could no longer concentrate on the proceedings. He could only feel. And pray. Pray that these feelings, this man, could be part of his life forever. God, I’m finally living. I’m finally living. Don’t take this away.
Distantly, Luke noted that this time was different. Last night, Reid’s equally expert efforts had left an impersonal after taste. Though Reid had been the one on his knees, his agenda had been to dominate, to shock and awe. (Certainly not to feel, to relish, to rejoice – for Reid had been just as ruthless with himself that night, something that Luke would never know.) Now, however, it was all about pleasure. For both of them. The act was neither selfish nor selfless. It was shared. Luke could feel the connection.
And then Luke felt Reid’s tongue on his balls. With his cock still buried in Reid’s mouth.
“Ohh—oh, guuungh!” Luke bucked under Reid’s mouth, his fingers tugging Reid’s scalp sharply. Reid continued to suck, and lick, and swallow. Eventually, he let Luke go.
“Mmmmmmmm.” Reid smiled up at Luke, a satiated look on his face.
Luke laughed. He laughed with release and an unaccountable sense of joy. Reid’s smile widened; his eyes sparkled. He plopped down next to Luke, sighing with pleasure. Idly, he stroked Luke’s thigh. Barely able to move, Luke turned his head toward Reid. Reid lay on his back, his eyes unfocused. A smile still on his lips. After a minute of mutual contentment, Reid rolled off the bed and disappeared into the bathroom. Luke could hear water running, water splashing. Reid emerged bearing a wet washcloth. Wordlessly, but still with a slightly devilish grin, Reid sat on the bed next to Luke and began to move the washcloth across his chest. Wearing a wicked grin of his own, Luke put his hands behind his head, watching as Reid meticulously removed all remaining traces of syrup.
“A sponge bath from a doctor – I’m honored.”
“You should be.”
Luke inhaled sharply when Reid reached his still sensitive penis. Reid ignored him, attending to his task with gentle but determined strokes. Finished, Reid sat back briefly to admire his work. Though Reid's gaze was ostensibly professional, Luke still felt a shiver of arousal. Tossing the cloth behind him onto the floor, Reid leaned in for a soft kiss, a lambent light filling his eyes as he pulled away. And then he stood.
“Lunch time.” Reid clapped his hands together and walked briskly toward the dresser.
Luke blinked. “Excuse me?” He propped up onto his elbows and looked at Reid quizzically.
Reid picked up the sub sandwich and hopped back onto the bed, unwrapping eagerly. He settled next to Luke – his back against the headboard, legs stretched out.
Luke watched, agape. “How can you possibly be hungry?”
“Man cannot live on syrup alone.” He stopped, as if considering. “Cum, maybe.” He spread a napkin on his lap.
Luke looked around at the teetering piles of empty breakfast plates. “Reid, you just ate enough to put a herd of elephants into a food coma.”
Luke was treated to one of Reid’s patented patronizing looks. “Yeah—that was over an hour ago.” He raised half of the gargantuan sandwich to his lips. Paused. “’Herd of elephants’? That’s what you went with?”
Luke tossed a pillow at him. I’ve missed this.
Reid motioned to the other half of the sandwich. Luke recoiled. “Noo, I think I’m good—for at least another week. But thanks – I do realize it took a lot for you to offer.”
Reid dipped his head. “I’m nothing if not gallant.”
Luke shook his head as he watched Reid begin to engulf the sandwich with almost as much relish as he had shown engulfing Luke. Almost. “Seriously, where does it go?”
Reid shot Luke a vaguely obscene look. “I work it off.”
Luke rolled his eyes, choosing to interpret Reid’s comment as a dirty joke. He certainly didn’t want to think of Reid’s working off calories when Luke wasn’t involved. And, anyway, he’ll be working exclusively with me from now on.
All that was left was to convince Reid. Oh, is that all? Suddenly remembering that the clock was ticking (when was his flight? 7 am?), Luke curled onto his side facing Reid, his head resting on his hands. He tried to look nonchalant.
“So, how do you like being back in Boston?”
Reid paused in his chewing, if only briefly. “Right, Google.”
Luke scrunched his face. “Yeah, I guess I mentioned that, huh?” What I didn’t mention was the “Reid” file on my hard drive stuffed with three years’ worth of news stories and journal articles. And I certainly didn’t mention the desktop photo. “You’re at Mass General, right?”
Reid nodded once.
“Well? Is it up to your standards?”
Reid surveyed his sandwich, considering his next angle of attack. “It’s no Mayo Clinic, but then Rochester’s no Boston. And they mostly stay out of my way.”
Luke cringed at the reminder that, not only had Reid given up the neuro wing, but he’d also passed up a position at the number-one-ranked neurosurgery department in the country. And Luke doubted that Reid’s aversion to Minnesota had played much of a role in the decision. No, once again, it had been for Luke. And Luke had callously tossed his gift away.
“Top five isn’t bad, though, right? And this way you get to be a Harvard professor—I mean, I saw you have tenure and an endowed chair and everything.”
Reid flashed Luke an appraising look then tilted his head in a half shrug. “Formality, mainly. I get away with a seminar here and there. And letting the occasional student scurry underfoot.” Reid looked up wistfully. “Their tears feed me.”
Luke tore off part of the napkin and wiped a mystery sauce from the corner of Reid’s mouth. “Are your parents still alive?” Google has its limits.
Reid moved on to the second half of the sandwich. “Nope.”
Luke frowned. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. They were old.”
“Any siblings?” So much I don’t know.
Reid took another bite.
Luke (hoped he) knew the next answer but had to ask. “Do you live alone?”
Reid turned to Luke, his expression inscrutable. “What do you think?” No, not inscrutable. Matter-of-fact. As in, ‘What do you expect? How could I ever trust anyone again?’ Shit.
Change of tactic. “Were you a Red Sox fan growing up?”
Reid waited until he swallowed before answering. “Well, I was a fair-weather fan. So no.” He took a small bite and chewed thoughtfully. “Have to admit, I’m still not quite used to the idea of them not sucking. But give them time.”
“Come on, they were never that bad. They were always contenders.”
“Exactly. That’s what made it worse. They raised dashing hopes to an art form.”
Again, Luke inwardly cringed. He could only imagine the perennial pain of Reid the boy (because of course he had cared more than he let on). And Luke was profoundly, bitterly ashamed for the part he had played in dashing the hopes of Reid the man. But I’ll make it up to you. If it takes the rest of my life.
“You never know, they may surprise you. The curse has been broken, after all. Maybe they’re back for good.” Luke held his breath.
Reid licked his fingers one by one. “I’m rarely surprised.”
Rarely. Not never. That’s progress, right?
Luke shivered slightly. But he ignored the chill; he didn’t want to cover himself. Didn’t want anything else between them, not even a sheet. Wanted to be open for Reid. Exposed. Luke shifted closer to the warmth of Reid’s body. “I’ve never been to Boston – what’s it like?”
All that remained of the sandwich was a grease-stained wrapper. Reid rested his head against the headboard. “Provincial. Lousy weather. Good Thai, though.” Reid casually draped his arm around Luke’s back and idly played with the hair at the nape. “And the spring’s not bad—I used to love sitting on a bench by the lagoon in the Public Garden. For some reason I had a thing for weeping willows.” Luke gazed up at Reid, transfixed by the words, the voice, the fingers. “And though I’d deny it to all who would listen, I secretly loved going on the swan boats whenever we had visitors come to town.”
Reid pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh, just these ridiculous old paddle boats powered by some juvenile delinquent performing his community service by pedaling in a giant swan shell. You’d go on a slow trip to nowhere and be constantly harassed by ducks and over-caffeinated tourists from Podunk, USA.” Reid shot Luke a sideways glance.
Luke’s dimples flashed. “And you loved it.”
“I suppose it had its mawkish charm.” Reid’s hand continued to play.
Luke closed his eyes. “Boston sounds nice.”
“Too much snow”
“Mmm, I love snow.”
“Bet it’s a nice place to raise a family.” Luke felt Reid’s hand still. Whoops. Luke opened his eyes.
Removing his arm, Reid balled up the sandwich wrapper and launched it into the trashcan across the room. He turned toward Luke; the salacious gleam was back. He ran his hand down Luke’s side, rested it on the curve of his hip. Squeezed.
“Time for another snack.”
With an effort that was almost physically painful, Luke ignored the wave of lust. This was one chess game he had no intention of losing.
He sat up and looked at Reid brightly. “Let’s go out!”
Chapter 9: Forgives Neglect
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Go out—let’s go out!” Luke bounced on the bed a bit as he said this. “Come on, Reid—we’re in what some consider the greatest city in the world. And I bet this week you haven’t been more than five blocks from the hotel. I know I wanted to see a bit of the city while I was here—gosh, it’s been almost two years.”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
Luke pushed Reid onto his back and straddled him. “Aww, c’mon—we can’t stay in here all day.” OK, poor choice of argument. Ignore what the look in his eye is doing to you, Luke. Ignore what his hand on your hip is doing— “Seriously, it’s beautiful outside. The sun is shining, birds are singing—”
“We could walk around, feel the energy—” Hard sell time. “—maybe get something to eat?”
Reid’s hands moved from Luke’s hips around to his buttocks. Reid began to rub. His gaze dipped. “There’s plenty to eat right here.”
Luke glanced down. Oh sure, he says jump and you say how high? Hmph, it’s as if you belong to him and not me (true). Focus—
Luke decided to go with the hardest sell (and getting harder). He leaned back against Reid’s hands and arched his back. Licked his lips. Slowly circled one of his own nipples. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
Reid’s eyelids dropped to half-mast. His eyes darkened. And dropped.
Luke’s hand dropped as well, moving from nipple to stomach to— “After we get back.”
The rubbing stopped. Reid regarded Luke through narrowed eyes. Though Luke’s confidence was waning steadily, he didn’t move.
Eventually, Reid spoke. “No Times Square, no Broadway shows, no FAO Schwartz. No clothes shopping of any kind. No carriage rides, no Empire State Building at sunset, no candle-lit dinners. That includes Serendipity. No Yankees-related activities. And I reserve the right to molest you in public at any time.”
Luke’s smile lit up the room. “Deal.”
Reid waited for Luke at the door. “So what are we talking, half an hour, tops?”
Luke swatted his arm. “You are going to enjoy yourself, mister.”
Reid opened the door for Luke. “That’s doctor mister to you.”
“Oh, excuse me, Dr. Oliver.” Luke smiled cheekily as he brushed past Reid and stepped into the hallway.
And bumped into Alex Martin.
“Oh, excuse me!” Luke backed into Reid, who was closing the door. “Alex, right? Hi.”
Shifting his keycard to his left hand, Alex reached out to shake Luke’s hand with his right. He smiled a slow smile. “Luke, hi.” Alex nodded. “Reid.”
“Alex,” Reid answered calmly.
Luke was feeling somewhat less composed. After dropping Alex’s hand, he made a dismissive gesture with his own. “I was just—uh—” Upon seeing Alex’s keycard, Luke’s hand changed direction – fingers nervously tapped at lips. “Are you—are you staying on this floor?”
Alex’s smile got even bigger. “Yeah, you didn’t know? I’m right next door.”
Fuck. Me. “Really?” Luke’s face contorted into a grotesque approximation of a smile. “That’s great.” The walls are thick, right? I mean, I haven’t been able to hear anything—
“And it sounds like you two have been catching up.”
Luke’s frozen, unnatural grin was now accompanied by a sort of convulsive head-bobbing. “Yeah—right—” Can we all just please die now? Especially you, Alex, you smug little son of a—
Reid put his hands on either side of Luke’s waist from behind. “I apologize if our love-making has been keeping you up, Alex. It must have made it hard to work on your talk – you know, the one in which you have to announce to the world how none of your treatment protocols was successful.”
Alex’s expression registered the hit. The grin twisted dryly. “Well—I’m just glad that last night I was able to do my small part for true love.” He took a few steps toward his door, then stopped. “I don’t suppose you’ll be able to make it to my talk, Reid? No one seems to have seen you at any of the morning sessions.”
Reid’s hands slowly kneaded Luke’s sides. “Alex, you know the odds of my hearing something I don’t already know are infinitesimal at best.”
With a smile that was almost wistful, Alex unlocked his door. “Right. Well, enjoy the rest of your day, you two. Luke, maybe I’ll be seeing you back in Boston.”
The kneading turned into a firm push as Reid steered Luke away and down the hallway. “Goodbye, Alex.”
Reid hurried them down the hall toward the elevators. But Luke had barely noticed Reid’s reaction to Alex’s last comment.
Love-making. He said love-making.
In the elevator, Luke subtly pressed up against Reid. He ran his hand up the inside of Reid’s arm. Reid didn’t move away.
Luke left Reid in the lobby. As they neared the entrance, Luke jogged (OK, skipped) ahead and out the door. By the time Reid had caught up, Luke was holding open the door of a taxi and poorly suppressing a grin.
Reid got in. “Let me guess, you have a magical afternoon already planned.”
Luke shut the door behind them. “Now when would I have had time to do that?”
Reid slowly shook his head. “If I see one Rockette—”
Luke grabbed Reid’s arm and nuzzled his shoulder. “Trust me.”
After the briefest of moments, Reid put his arm around Luke.
Luke watched Reid’s face as Washington Square Arch came into view. A face that gave away nothing, of course.
“Here’s fine. Thanks.” Before Reid could react, let alone protest, Luke had handed the cab driver a bill and pulled Reid out the door, causing him to stumble slightly.
“I was joking about the half-hour thing, you know. We’re not in that big of a rush.”
Luke took hold of Reid’s upper arm and pressed against his side, leading them under the arch and into Washington Square Park. “I know. I’m just excited to be spending time with you outside the hotel room.” And I keep expecting you to change your mind. To disappear. To send me back to my half-life.
Reid looked around at the collection of life forms on display. “I’m not sure I see the appeal. I prefer to do my groping in private.”
Luke grinned as he led Reid toward the center fountain. The day was hot enough for it to be filled with children playing in the spray. Parents stood by watching, singly and in couples, their air of peace a contrast to the active squeals of the children. Luke and Reid stood watching for a moment; Luke rested his head on Reid’s shoulder. Someday—
Reid shifted restlessly; the two began to amble down one of the side paths. After passing a sea-shanty-singing pirate, they noticed a young woman wearing a black hat with a birdcage veil singing while playing a large black accordion. Luke recognized the song as “La Vie en Rose.”
Reid grunted as they passed. “Predictable. Don’t French buskers know any other song?”
Luke just smiled and leaned his head against Reid’s shoulder. He had yet to let go of Reid’s arm. “Hey, black-eyed Susans!” He tugged Reid over to the side of the path where there were flowerbeds.
Reid did not go easily. “Do I look like someone who appreciates flowers?”
“Well, you did admit to carrying a torch for weeping willows.”
Reid winced. “This is why small talk is hazardous.”
“It wasn’t small talk, it was sharing. And I love learning more about you.” I crave it.
Reid had perceptibly stiffened by now. “Yeah, well, some things are better left unshared.”
Like your life? Not anymore, buster.
Luke leaned over to get a closer view of the flowers. “I love these guys. They’re so cheerful. And they thrive almost anywhere as long as they get full sun.”
Then, at Reid’s lifted brow, Luke continued: “My mother has a thing for wildflowers. And she says that black-eyed Susans ‘forgive neglect.’ I love that.”
Reid turned to consider the daisy-like flowers with vivid deep-yellow petals surrounding a purplish-brown center. Luke wasn’t sure, but it seemed as if Reid’s expression subtly shifted from indifferent to pensive. And then it was gone.
“Hmm.” Reid nodded briefly and turned back toward the center of the park. By this time a crowd had gathered in a circle and music was playing.
“Is that—a grand piano?” Luke urged Reid closer. Indeed, at one side of the makeshift performance area sat a man in top hat and tails playing a full-sized piano.
“Oh. And look. He brought a friend.” Reid motioned to the center of the circle where a sinewy tattooed man was folded. Inside a small box.
“Holy—” Luke squeezed Reid’s arm. After extricating himself with a flourish, the contortionist smoothly balanced himself in a handstand on two thin poles. While still inverted, he positioned both legs behind his head.
“Impressive,” said Reid. “Not sure about the pink and green spandex, though.”
“Yeah, but look at that body.” Each muscle was defined and straining as the man effortlessly moved through a series of poses. “He’s kinda hot.” The hotel has a gym, right?
The piano music swelled as Reid gave Luke his full attention. He slowly lowered, then raised, his eyes.
“You are infinitely hotter.”
Luke was caught by the absolute sincerity in Reid’s eyes, the lack of raunch. This is new. I’ve never felt this from him. Not even before.
Reid turned back to the performer. “Now we just need to limber you up a bit.”
Still arm and arm (or, rather, Luke hugging Reid’s arm and Reid letting him), they began to walk down another side path. Patches of grass on either side had been claimed by sunbathers, readers, lovers, and assorted other recreationists. Luke and Reid’s attentions were drawn almost simultaneously to one young man dancing barefoot on the grass. As they approached they noticed that his dance involved hula hoops – first one, then two. Lithe, tan, and shirtless, with a secret smile on his lips, he undulated and twirled ecstatically – as if he were hearing dance music in his head. Luke was captivated. Reid was not.
“I will never be that gay.”
Luke watched in wonder. “Aw, come on, he looks like he’s having fun.”
Reid’s nose crinkled. “He’s wearing rolled-up jean shorts.”
Slowly, Luke started to move closer to the man.
“Luke. Luke. Where are you going?” Reid looked around. His voice became more insistent. “Don’t engage. No feeding the wildlife. Luke!”
Without slowing his twirling, the young man smiled as Luke approached and spoke to him. Then the man nodded, and Luke bent to pick up a third hula hoop. Turning back to Reid, Luke shouted, “Hey, come on over! Let’s see if you can shake those hips, old man.”
Looks like I’m not the only one who can blush.
Reid stood motionless, a hunted look in his eyes. He watched as Luke put the hoop around his waist and began to roll his hips.
Luke called out in a sing-song voice. “Reeeid. There’s another one here with your name on it. Come on, you know you want to.” Luke began to sway from side to side as he rolled. “You know you wanna dance.” He lifted his arms and moved them rhythmically.
When Reid had recovered enough to take a few steps, he did so backward, not forward. Gradually, however, his obvious mortification subsided, transforming into something else, something more contemplative. Bewitched. He moved no closer – no, that wasn’t going to happen – but his breathing slowed and deepened even as the cadence of his collective pulse points became more pronounced. He watched as Luke became more confident in his movements, more fluid. He watched as Luke laughed with the young man, as he tried to learn how to run the hoop up and down the length of his body, how to spin the hoop on one arm. Reid watched as Luke turned to focus on him, and him only. Watched as Luke’s expression alternated between goofy and seductive. As his movements switched from joyous to provocative. All for Reid.
All for you. Everything.
Reid watched as Luke thanked the young man and jogged back to Reid. Luke’s smile was dazzling. Reid was dazzled.
“OK, that was too much fun. You so missed out. Do you know he does that with fire? At, like, parties and festivals. And he learned how to do it right here, from watching someone else.”
Reid touched the side of Luke’s face with his hands, using his thumb to wipe the fine coating of sweat from Luke’s brow. “Then we should get you out of here before you try to learn any more.”
Luke smiled coyly, ignoring an irrational jab of disappointment. “What, you don’t think I have potential?”
The hand on Luke’s face shifted to his ear; gentle fingers stroked the shell. When he answered, Reid’s voice was colored in smoky shades. “I think you’re a natural.”
A jazz quartet began playing from a nearby bench. Reid dropped his hand, but not before giving the side of Luke’s neck a light squeeze. “But you’re probably doing more good in this world with your foundation work. The kids in the new pediatric center in Columbus would probably agree.”
Luke blinked. Reid seemed to catch himself; what had been a soft expression stiffened.
Looks like I’m not the only one who’s been googling.
Now Luke was the one with a secret smile. He threaded his arm lightly through Reid’s and matched his easy gait as they continued down the path. Sunlight filtered through leaves, dappling the walk; Luke tilted up his head and closed his eyes as the patterns of light and shade played across his face. Colors seemed brighter, sounds sharper. He could feel the wind slither against his skin. His hand tingled where it touched Reid’s flesh under the rolled-up sleeve. He was close enough to breathe in Reid’s scent, to feel it become part of him. Luke felt as if he were finally emerging from the shadows, as if his senses were becoming unblocked. He wanted to do the same for Reid. He wanted to bring him back to life.
Luke became more alert when he realized they were approaching the end of the path. He snuck a glance at Reid, whose face remained impassive. They entered a small plaza in the corner of the park; there, arranged in a semi-circle of benches and tables, were men huddled over chessboards.
Luke’s arm tightened on Reid’s. He watched Reid’s face. Nothing. They slowed, stopped.
Luke swallowed. “I thought—I mean, I’d heard it was kind of a must-do thing for chess fans—you know, to come and play these guys. I didn’t know if, maybe, you'd be interested—I mean, I know it’s probably a bit of a hustle, but I’d read that sometimes famous players show up.” Reid had yet to look at Luke.
Crap, this was a mistake. “I mean, I know your parents kind of forced you to play—I’m certainly not trying to do that—I just thought that if you—”
A large man with a springy grey beard looked up from his game and saw them. Ignoring his opponent’s startled look, he stood and strode toward Reid.
“Ollie! Yak zhyttya?” The man pulled Reid away from a stunned Luke, hugging him and kissing him on alternating cheeks three times.
“Matvi.” Reid smiled warmly (warmly?) and returned the embrace. “Everything’s fine. How’s Larisa?”
“Ah, you know. Still putting up with me.” The man turned to Luke. “And who did you bring me? You’ve never brought me someone before.”
Reid’s words and movements were spare, but he seemed at ease. “This is Luke. And he’s not for you.”
“What? No?” Matvi spread out his hands. “You don’t play?”
I am so lost. Luke glanced at Reid, who shook his head slightly. “Um, not really.”
Matvi looked at Reid. “What, no rating at all?”
Reid smiled. “No rating.”
“Ah, so—this one’s for show, then?”
Reid sighed but the smile remained. “Yes, this one’s for show.”
The nature of Matvi’s appraisal of Luke shifted subtly.
Reid cleared his throat. “Luke, may I present Matvi Chmerkovskiy. Former Grandmaster.”
“Now, Ollie, you know that title never goes away.”
“Nor does your humility.”
“Ha! I’ve missed you.” Slapping a hand on Reid’s back, Matvi guided him to the table where Matvi’s opponent was still sitting and still slightly stunned.
“Sorry, my friend, the game is over.” Matvi handed the man several bills and all but pushed him off the bench. “Ollie, sit.”
Luke followed Reid to the table, stopping behind Reid’s chair. He noticed that the other resident players, even those engaged in matches, were showing considerable interest in the activities at Reid’s table.
Luke leaned down and whispered. “I thought you stopped playing seriously when you were a kid.”
A half-smile on his lips, Reid answered, “I stopped playing competitively.”
Who knew chess could be so hot?
By the third game, Luke had given up trying to concentrate on the moves. Though the speed of play made following difficult, far more distracting was Reid’s unmistakable mastery. Though his style was outwardly relaxed, he radiated quiet intensity. He saw everything, heard everything, processed it all with lightening speed; like a coiled snake in a tree, with infinite patience he waited for opportunities and then struck decisively, fatally. Masterfully.
Yeah, he wasn’t holding back or anything all those times we played together.
By now a crowd had gathered, the other games forgotten. Reid and Matvi had each won a game. The men watching included several speaking a Slavic-sounding language (Ukrainian?). Despite Reid’s obvious focus, he shocked Luke by speaking companionably with the men as he played. In their language. Although certainly not fluent, Reid appeared to be holding his own in what was a conversation characterized by good-natured ribbing. At one point a middle-aged man with disconcertingly green eyes seemed to have reached some sort of deal with Reid and Matvi.
With all eyes on Luke, his curiosity overrode his reluctance to interrupt Reid. He bent down. “OK, something just happened. Do I want to know?”
Reid kept his eyes on the board. The half-smile was back. “Depends.”
Luke sighed. “On?”
“On if you think I can win.”
Carefully, Luke said, “Let’s say I do.”
Reid captured Matvi’s second knight. “Then you won’t have to worry about going home with that man tonight.”
Luke decided not to ask any more questions.
Though he did wonder about the phrase he kept hearing. Seemingly used in reference to him. He detected no reaction from Reid, who had initially said it or something similar (Luke couldn’t quite tell). From that point on the men used the phrase in first a mocking and then a casual way. Probably better not to know.
Suddenly, the match was over. Shaking hands, Reid and Matvi said their goodbyes, then hugged and patted each other on the back. The other players nodded and drifted back to their own tables.
Reid turned to Luke. “Ready to go?”
Luke look confused. “That’s it? Who won?”
Reid began walking toward the street. “I did.”
Luke released the breath he felt silly for holding. Before he could join Reid, Luke felt a strong hand on his shoulder.
“Luke, my boy, you take care of Ollie.”
That’s the plan. Luke shook Matvi’s hand. “It was great meeting you.” Then, before he could stop himself, he asked, “Um, Matvi, that phrase I kept hearing people say—something like yedina kohanya—what does it mean?”
Matvi looked at Luke for a moment, then smiled. “Yes—how do you say—something like, ‘one’—’one love’—”
Luke’s mouth had gone dry. “First love?”
“No, no, not quite—more like—yes, more like, ‘only love.’ You know, as in, the first, the last.”
Luke didn’t hear anything after that.
Chapter 10: Unexpected Moves
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Luke quickly looked away. They were almost out of the park. “Like what?”
“I don’t know—like I’m some boy-band singer who just agreed to take you to your prom.”
Whoops. Luke put his hands in his pockets. “It nothing. I’m—I was just impressed by your chess skills.” He smiled sheepishly, one dimple flashing. “Clearly, playing there was nothing new for you.”
Reid shrugged. “The chess world can be pretty cozy. I try to make the rounds when I’m in town.”
Luke’s smile turned teasing. “If you’d lost—would you really have let me gone home with that guy?”
Reid turned his face to look at Luke directly. “I don’t lose.”
They slowed as they reached the street.
“So—then I suppose you already know about the chess shops on Thompson Street?”
Reid gave one of his micro-smiles. “I do.”
“So—did you want to stop by?”
Reid turned left. “For a minute.”
Luke fell into step beside him. “OK. Good.” Luke kept his hands in his pockets as he walked, but his arm brushed Reid’s every few steps. They were quiet as they walked; Luke tried to limit his Reid-gazing to occasional side-glances.
They turned right onto Thompson Street. When Luke started to head for the first chess shop, Reid put his hand on Luke’s arm and motioned to a store across the street and a few doors down.
Luke paused as they reached the shop; he was captivated by row upon row of chess figures displayed behind tall glass windows. Wood, stone, glass. Traditional, abstract, whimsical. Zombies. He’d had no idea.
“Simpsons—endangered species—holy cow, Reid, have you seen all this?”
Reid waited patiently, peacefully. He wasn’t looking at the chess sets.
“Oh yeah—Reid, I found your Christmas gift. Red Sox versus Yankees.” Luke flashed a cheeky grin.
Reid’s look could have dried oil paint.
You think I’m kidding. (And you think we won’t be together at Christmas.)
Luke continued his survey. “Lord of the Rings—Star Trek—what, no Star Wars?”
“Good. That franchise is dead to me.”
Smirking, Luke reached for the door. “Let me guess, you weren’t a fan of the new movies. Reid, you have to learn to forgive.”
Reid entered the store, his face unreadable. “Some things are unforgivable.”
Before Luke could process what he might have just stepped into, the shop clerk looked up from his paperwork.
“Hey, Reid! I thought you weren’t going to be able to make it in. I have that—”
“Hi, Colin. Yeah, thanks. Maybe you could—” Reid nodded his head toward the back of the store.
Tall, blonde, and lanky, with pierced lip and brow, the clerk stepped from the behind the counter. “Sure, no problem. You want a timer?”
Luke saw Reid shake his head. Luke had been momentarily distracted by the dark woody sights and smells of the chess shop, the shelves packed with more of the same wonders. But he had caught that last part.
He turned to Reid. “Are you going to play chess here?”
Reid’s face was carefully blank. “Yes.”
“Oh, OK. With that guy?”
Luke lifted his eyebrows in question.
Luke’s head jerked back. “Wait, what? No—you don’t want to do that. Why would you want to do that?”
Reid continued to look at Luke impassively.
“Reid, you just played a Grandmaster. You just beat a Grandmaster. Obviously, your skills go deeper than I’d ever realized. I can only imagine how you must have been laughing to yourself all those times we played. Why on earth would you want to play me now?”
Reid was still, focused. “I’ve missed you.” He tilted his head slightly. “Playing with you.”
Luke had to remind himself to respond. He ducked his head and smiled half a smile. “I find that hard to believe. You said yourself I was a lousy player.”
“You were starting to improve.” Slowly, Reid began to walk toward Luke. “And frustration looks good on you.” He stopped inches from Luke. His eyes dropped to Luke’s mouth. “You pouted when you lost. I miss that pout.”
This time, Luke had to remind himself to breathe. “So what you’re really saying is that you miss beating me.”
The spark in Reid’s eyes was so intense that Luke feared for all the wood around them.
“We can try that next if you’d like.”
The floor creaked with footsteps. “Uh, Reid? It’s ready.” The clerk stood at an angle, his face averted. Luke stepped back quickly.
“Thanks, Colin.” Without looking at Luke, Reid went into the back room.
With a deep breath, Luke followed. He took in the rows of tables, mostly empty. Took in the backgammon game. Saw two silent chess games being played on thin mats with black and white plastic pieces. Saw Reid sit down in front of a—Whoa, what’s that?
The wood glowed in cream and chestnut. Oversized pieces in classic shapes waited on a thick, polished board. Luke’s fingers itched; he gently ran them along the inlaid border. He couldn’t bring himself to touch anything else.
Reid tracked Luke’s movements. He motioned to the chair across from him. “Sit.”
Gingerly, Luke positioned himself in front of the board. “This doesn’t look like mine.”
“That’s because this one isn’t a toy.”
Luke had yet to lift his eyes. “It’s beautiful.” Now he did look up. “Am I allowed to call a chess set beautiful?”
A suggestion of a smile flickered. “You’re allowed.”
Luke grinned. “You must be a celebrity here. No plastic for you.”
Reid only smiled, another flicker. “Your move.”
Luke looked at his pieces. They were the color of aged red wine. “Shouldn’t you start?”
Reid’s shrug was almost imperceptible. “It’s time to break some rules.” His eyes glinted.
It took a concerted effort for Luke to break eye contact. He looked down at his pieces. They gleamed. With a reverent touch, he skimmed his fingers over a knight. The mane, the muscles, the teeth – Luke had never seen such detail. He moved on to the rook. Fingered the top.
“Have you forgotten how to play?”
Luke lifted his hand. “Huh?” Sheepish grin. “Oh, sorry. I was just admiring.” He lifted a pawn. Was startled by the weight. “It’s heavy.”
“It’s how a chess piece is supposed to feel.”
Luke looked up through his lashes. “Guess you still have a lot to teach me.”
Reid’s expression remained blank. “Just move.”
Luke moved. The room was silent except for the rolling, scraping sounds of backgammon and the periodic slapping of chess timers. Though he had been half-expecting Reid to crush him in five moves, Luke held his own, at least for a while. Throughout the game, Reid’s attention had been increasingly focused on Luke. As if he were trying to classify a newly discovered species.
Finally, Reid spoke. “You’ve been practicing.”
Luke’s grin was slightly sly, slightly shy. “Now and then. Online.” It made me feel closer to you.
Luke noticed that the shuffling of the backgammon game had stopped. Looking over, he saw that the other chess players had paused their play as well. Were looking at him.
“It made me feel closer to you.”
I did not just say that out loud.
With a half-formed prayer, Luke turned toward Reid. One look at Reid’s face, and Luke’s heart dropped into his stomach, out the bottom of his chair, through the basement, and onto the subway tracks below. It was as if Reid’s face had been flash-frozen. In mid-gape. Luke found himself focusing on Reid’s eyelids. He hasn’t even blinked.
Reid blinked. Closed his mouth. Advanced his bishop. “Your move.”
That’s it? That’s all the reaction I get?
The backgammon dice rolled again. Beyond flustered, Luke exposed his king.
“Checkmate.” With exceptional speed, Reid stood and walked back into the main room. Luke stayed in his chair, collecting himself. It's OK—I’m glad he knows. He should know.
Before Luke could stand, Reid returned with Colin, who was carrying a tote bag and wooden box in the same rich color as Luke’s chessmen. Colin began to pack the chess set.
“So, the sustainable rosewood is usually with boxwood, but I managed to find it with maple. You’re sure you want the maple?”
Reid aimed a lambent look at Luke. That slid down to his chest. “I’m sure.”
Wait, is Reid buying this? And what’s so special about maple—ohh. No, couldn’t be. Too sentimental. Not Reid.
Colin filled the tote bag and handed it to Reid. “It’s a great set.”
Still a bit at sea, Luke focused on the way Colin’s piercings shifted when he smiled. Colin returned to the main room and ducked behind the counter. “Too bad we can’t all make your kind of money. Come back any time, Reid.”
With a stiff nod and smile, Reid held the door for Luke. Luke squinted in the sunlight. They stood on the sidewalk, silent. Moments passed. Reid readjusted the bag.
“So where have you planned to take me next?”
Startled, Luke looked at Reid. Just like that, Easy Reid was back, the Reid of the park. Well, as easy as Reid got. Luke gathered his thoughts. Remembered his plan.
The fire banked. “Always.”
Luke grinned sunnily. “So let’s get a cab.”
They began to walk to the cross street. Reid lifted the bag, switching hands.
“Here.” He stretched it toward Luke. “You might as well carry this.”
Luke cocked a brow. “Why? Is it damaging your precious hands?”
Reid continued to hold the bag calmly. “No—because it’s yours.”
Luke stopped walking. Shook his head. “What are you talking about? You just bought that.”
Reid began to speak with exaggerated patience, as if to a child. Or an intern. “Right—for you.”
For the umpteenth time in less than 24 hours, Luke was thrown. “No—but—why would you—” Blindly groping, Luke couldn’t even find the horse to climb back on. “I already have a chess set.”
Reid’s look was bone dry. Desert dry. “You’re a big boy now. You need a real one. This is a real one.” The bag waggled.
Still stunned, still uncertain, Luke took the bag. Unseeing, he opened it and looked in. “But—it must have been expensive.”
Reid began to walk. “I may not have trust-fund money, but I do alright. It didn’t break me.”
Luke heard that. Tried not to dwell. Settled on continuing to be overwhelmed.
“Reid, I—thank you.”
Reid nodded. Waved his arm. When a cab pulled over, he opened the door and looked at Luke expectantly.
“What? Oh.” Luke slid into the cab and leaned forward. “77th and Columbus, please.”
Reid looked at Luke suspiciously. “Nothing fancy. No candles.”
Luke smiled innocently. “No candles.”
The cab inched through Columbus Circle. Luke looked out the window at the southern edge of Central Park. The tote bag sat on the seat between them.
“So—Reid—when did you order this?”
Reid continued looking out his window. “Hmm?”
“The chess set. When did you order it?
Reid started to turn toward Luke, but something outside seemed to catch his eye. “Uh—before we left. I called.”
“Oh.” A niggling thought had been planted. Had taken root. Had begun to wrap around Luke’s slender sapling of happiness like a vine, threatening to choke the life out of it. “Then—you were planning to go to that shop all along?”
Reid finally looked at Luke but his focus was still elsewhere. “What? No. Not until you took me to the park.”
“Really?” Luke frowned. “So how were you going to pick it up?”
“I wasn’t.” Reid was looking out the window again.
“Oh.” The vine made another turn. Tightened. “Then how were you going to give it to me?”
Even from the back, it was clear that Reid was finally present. He slowly faced forward.
“I was going to have Colin send it to you.”
Luke was Reid-still. “In Oakdale.”
Luke’s voice was calm. “And were you going to have it inscribed ‘thanks for the fuck’?”
Reid glanced at the cab driver, who was moving his head in time to a West African beat. Reid pinched the bridge of his nose. “I was hoping that you’d use it. That you’d like it.”
“That I’d look at it and remember you fondly? As a memento of our time together?” Luke looked down at his clasped hands. His voice dropped. “Were you ever planning on seeing me again?”
Reid dropped his head as if weary. Luke could feel the bag growing larger on the seat, separating them further.
“You do not want to have this conversation now.”
Luke’s voice strengthened. “OK, Reid, when? After dinner? When we get back to the hotel? After you’ve flown back to Boston? Is that what you’ve been planning?” Luke’s simmering anger was keeping the tears at bay. “That we’d part like adults? That I wouldn’t cause a scene?”
Reid had retreated into blankness. “Yes. I’d hoped that we could deal with this like adults. That you’d finally grown up.”
Luke closed his eyes. “I thought adults dealt with their issues. That they didn’t run away.”
Reid turned his head sharply. “You think I’m running away? That I ran away then? Luke.” The name sliced. “It’s called dealing with the reality of the situation. It’s called cutting your losses and moving on.”
Luke looked at Reid with hard, sad eyes. “So you can move on. You’ve moved on. Great. Good for you. Well, I haven’t. I can’t.” And then he looked harder, more deeply. “You know I haven’t.” He quickly turned back to the window. Quietly: “And I don’t want to.”
The frustration roiling inside Luke was a tangible thing, a taste-able, touchable thing. He knew Reid was lying to himself, to Luke. (Only love.) But Luke couldn’t see the way in. He knew he’d made progress – the walls were chipped, the turrets tumbling – but Luke had yet to breach the main defense.
Meanwhile, Reid looked at the back of Luke’s head. Just looked. Had Luke been facing him, he would have seen the infinite sadness, the unprocessed grief. The regret. But Luke wasn’t facing him. Reid turned back to his window. The silence was a weight on both of them.
The traffic was moving now. The cab was passing Lincoln Center.
“The Met’s doing Turandot.”
Luke turned his head to see Reid pointing to a banner.
Luke surreptitiously wiped his face. “Oh, so opera would have been OK?” A weak smile struggled to take shape. “So you’re that gay?”
Reid continued to look out the window. He may have smiled. “In general, no. But I always liked that Turandot was pretty much the only dramatic opera that ended happily. The comedic ones were always too prance-y for my taste. I prefer some angst with my singing.”
Luke spoke softly. “I remember Turandot—Damian liked opera. Something about a guy who had to jump through hoops for the love of a princess. Or else die. Fun stuff.”
Reid was silent for a moment. “Yeah, but then Pavarotti sang that song into the ground. Kinda killed it for me.”
The car became quiet again, and Luke slipped back into his memories. He had remembered more than he’d said; he remembered listening to the opera with Damian, one of the happy memories. He remembered Damian telling him about the three riddles that the suitor in the opera had to solve or else be beheaded. He remembered the third in particular: “What is like ice, but burns like fire?” He remembered that the answer was Turandot, the princess. The one the suitor loved.
He also remembered the first riddle: “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” He smiled bitterly to himself. Hope. You think my hope is going to die with the dawn, don’t you? It’s what you’re counting on.
Luke’s reverie was interrupted by Reid’s voice.
“I wanted you to have something beautiful. Something worthy of you. And so you wouldn’t forget me. That’s why I bought it.”
Luke turned to see Reid still looking out the window on his side of the cab. Slowly, haltingly, Luke reached out. Touched Reid’s hand. Passed his thumb over the back of Reid’s hand once, twice. Lifted it. Gently placed it on top of the tote bag between them and covered it warmly, completely with his own. Turned back to his window.
The dawn isn’t here yet. I still have the night.
Chapter 11: Close Enough to Touch
For the final few blocks there was neither sound nor movement in the back of the cab. Their hands still rested together. After a subtle squeeze, Luke lifted his to pay the fare as the cab pulled up to the corner of 77th Street and Columbus Avenue. He grabbed the tote bag.
They stood on the corner as the taxi pulled away. Reid stared across the street.
“You’ve taken me to a museum. Are we eating in the cafeteria?”
Luke smiled and put both hands on Reid’s shoulders, turning him around. “No, we’re eating here.”
Reid looked up at the sign. He looked at the crowds and stools behind the wall of windows. He looked at the line out the door.
“No, this is much better. You’ve taken me for fast food. Or do they serve only shakes here?”
Luke’s smile widened. “This is better than fast food. And yes, Shake Shack serves actual food. Though I’ve heard you shouldn’t pass up the shakes.”
Reid looked at Luke skeptically. “Heard from whom?”
Luke maneuvered them into line. “From my friend Maddie. You—kind of met her, I think. She used to live in Manhattan.” He ducked his head. “I may have called her for suggestions.”
“Hmm. At least we get to wait in a long line for our fast food.”
“Trust me, from what I’ve heard, this line is nothing compared to the one downtown. And this way we get to eat in Central Park.”
“Oh joy, another park. Aren’t you sick of nature yet?”
Luke just bumped the side of his body against Reid’s.
Luke’s phone rang. As he fumbled for it, he shot a look at Reid to see if he’d recognized the ring tone as his own from three years ago. In his haste, Luke answered his phone without looking at the number.
“Hello? Grandmother, hi…yes, I know—something came up.” Luke turned to the side and lowered his voice. “No, they weren’t able to reschedule, but I’m going to call again on Mond…OK, OK, I’ll let you…I know, I’m sorry…yes, it was something important…OK…OK, bye.” Luke turned back to Reid.
“Sounds like you should’ve gone to that meeting.”
“What? Oh—no—it was nothing important.” Then, at Reid’s disbelieving look: “Well, OK, it kinda was.” Luke faced Reid squarely. “But it wasn’t more important.”
Reid held Luke’s look. The line shuffled forward.
“So—what did this Maddie recommend?” Reid turned to the large menu printed on a wall.
Luke grinned. “Oh, you’re getting the Shack Stack.”
“Yup. You just figure out what kind of shake you want.”
“Hmm.” Reid focused on the shake section of the menu. Like a laser.
Luke was impressed. “You really do take your food seriously.”
Reid concentrated in silence until it was their turn to order. Luke stepped up to the counter.
“I’ll have a Shack Stack and a double ShackBurger, both with everything, an order of cheese fries, a blueberry frozen custard, and—” Luke looked back at Reid.
“A chocolate Concrete. With everything.”
The woman taking the order look confused. “I’m sorry, sir—?
“Everything.” Reid waved a hand at the list of add-ins on the wall menu. “All of those.”
Luke put a hand on Reid’s shoulder. “Reid, you’re supposed to choose only a few.”
Reid directed a bored gaze at the woman. “Is one not allowed to choose all of them?”
“Um—no—you can—if you want.”
Reid looked at Luke. Luke looked at the woman.
“And a chocolate Concrete with everything, please. To go.”
Reid nodded, satisfied. The woman handed Luke a pager. “It’ll buzz when your order’s ready.”
Luke and Reid threaded through the thick crowd to stand in a corner, where they pressed against each other by necessity. Reid’s breath tickled Luke’s ear. Luke could smell a faint trace of lemongrass. And then he felt a hand under his ass.
Luke jerked forward. “Reid!”
Reid’s look was guileless. His hand returned. “What? I’m within my rights.”
Luke looked around but let Reid’s fingers play. He shivered. “Mmm—I guess a deal’s a deal.” He leaned back against the wall, against Reid’s arm and hand. Reid’s strong fingers moved over the denim. They rubbed and pressed, around and up.
Reid leaned closer to Luke’s ear. “I want to be inside you right now.”
Luke’s eyes closed. He managed to turn the incipient moan into a small whimper. He was breathless. “What about your food?”
Reid stroked. “Need you more.”
Luke slammed himself back against the wall. Blindly, he turned sideways and reached for the side of Reid’s face, reached for Reid's mouth with his own mouth. Reid reached for Luke’s hair with his free hand, grabbed, pulled. Tongues slicked wetly, hotly.
Luke’s pocket vibrated. They pulled apart, both breathing heavily. Looked around. Luke was relieved at the apparent indifference of the New York crowd.
Luke leaned into Reid and whispered. “Later.” He then turned and fought his way back to the counter.
Laden with food slotted into two cardboard trays, the tote bag over one arm, Luke met Reid at the door. He saw that Reid’s eyes were slightly glazed. He wondered if his were, too. Wordlessly, Luke went outside and crossed the street, Reid following closely. After passing the American Museum of Natural History, they waited at the traffic light to cross into Central Park. Reid’s hand went to the back of Luke’s neck. He fingered the hair at the nape. Luke leaned into Reid’s hand. The light changed.
Luke handed Reid a tall cup and spoon as they entered the park. “Here, you should probably start this before it melts.”
Reid reached over to Luke’s tray and scooped out a spoonful of his frozen custard. He held it up to Luke’s mouth. “You first.”
Looking into Reid’s eyes, Luke took it into his mouth and swallowed. He licked his lips.
“Mmm, worth the wait.”
Reid slowly slid his eyes from Luke’s and peered into his cup. “Blueberry? Really? You are such a girl.”
Luke shrugged and smiled sidelong as he led Reid down a short path toward a large rock. “What? Blueberries—summer—they belong together.”
Reid looked around. “Why, Luke—are you taking me to the Ramble? Not that I’m complaining, but I’m pretty sure that the action doesn’t get started till after dark. And I thought you weren’t interested in hook-ups.”
Now it was Luke’s turn to deliver a withering glare.
The path led to a large outcropping of ancient glacial rock on the banks of a large lake. Luke climbed onto a low flat rock at the water’s edge. He sat cross-legged and waited for Reid to join him. Reid poked at his Concrete, a thick, creamy frozen custard blended with, well, everything. In Reid’s first spoonful Luke could see fragments of bananas, almonds and toffee, as well as streaks of what might have been caramel, peanut butter, fudge, and/or marshmallow. The spoon entered Reid’s mouth. Reid closed his eyes, the better to evaluate, to savor. His eyes opened. Slowly, still chewing, he looked at Luke.
“I think I just saw God.” The sounds were misshapen.
Luke grinned, taking a spoonful of his own frozen dessert. “Told ya.”
With a dazed look, Reid leaned forward and kissed Luke softly. As the kiss deepened, cool silkiness passed between them, coated their tongues, the insides of their mouths. As their lips parted, Reid licked the corner of Luke’s mouth.
“Maybe that blueberry isn’t so bad after all.”
Luke smiled and unwrapped his burger. Seeing that Reid was once more absorbed in his shake, Luke unwrapped Reid’s burger as well and put it on Reid’s lap, followed by a paper container of thick, crinkle-cut fries under a molten layer of cheese. Eventually, the wafting meaty, cheesy smells penetrated Reid’s haze of ice-cream lust. He looked down.
“Hmm.” He set his shake beside him and picked up a smothered fry. Carefully meeting it with his tongue, he folded it into his mouth and began to chew. His look was approving, as if the selected fry should feel honored for having received such approval. He next took the burger into his hands. If it could be called a burger – it was a precariously constructed, oozing achievement in sandwich creation, unwieldy not just from the pickles and tomatoes and trailing strands of onion. He put in his mouth, bit, chewed. His eyes widened.
“Sweet fancy moses.” He looked at Luke accusatorily. “What the fuck is this?”
Luke's smile was slow and wicked. “Was I wrong?”
Reid hastily swallowed and took another bite. He peered into the sandwich. “Seriously. What. The fuck.”
Luke’s smile was fast approaching supernova status. “OK, so it’s a cheeseburger and a giant deep-fried portobello mushroom that’s been stuffed with two kinds of melted cheese. With all the toppings and some kind of special sauce.”
“Must. Try.” Reid held the sandwich to Luke’s lips.
“You sure you can spare any?”
“Quickly. Before I change my mind.”
Luke bit into the burger as carefully as he could. Even so, sauce and cheese painted his lips and nose. “Mmm. Not bad.”
Reid didn’t appear to have heard Luke. Once more, he leaned over to clean Luke with his tongue. He playfully sucked the very tip of Luke’s nose. “Mmm. Even better.”
Reid took another bite where Luke had bitten. He stared out at the water in a sort of meditative state, interspersing mouthfuls of burger and fries with spoonfuls of shake, his expression alternating between incredulity and rapture.
In his own state of bliss, Luke ate his dinner watching Reid. Occasionally, his eyes moved over the rest of the tranquil scene. He saw the New York skyline to the south and the densely wooded area called the Ramble across the water to the east. The lake itself was dotted with rowboats piloted by couples and families (and one shirtless, bald man wearing diamond-studded sunglasses). Birdwatchers stood on the banks, as did a woman holding a leash attached to her swimming dog. Luke lay back on the warm stone, a gentle lapping in his ears and a soft breeze on his face and arms. And Reid close enough to touch.
This is perfect.
Reid’s rate of eating had slowed; it was as if he didn’t want it to end. He made a sound that was both pained and vaguely dirty. “I am in love with this burger.”
Still lying on the rock, Luke turned his head toward Reid. “I’m in love with you.”
Reid’s chewing stopped. His gaze was unfocused in the direction of the opposite shore. After a handful of heartbeats, he swallowed and took another bite.
Luke’s breathing had stopped. He was faintly disappointed – he’d expected at least a choking-on-the-burger, or maybe even a dropping-the-burger-into-the-water. Not that he’d expected to say what he had. No, that hadn’t been part of the plan.
“You’re going to pretend I didn’t say it?”
Reid chewed. He still didn’t look at Luke. “You’re not in love with me.”
Luke sat up. “Oh, I’m not?”
Reid swallowed. “No. You’re in love with the sex.”
Had Luke still been eating his burger, he would have choked. “Excuse me?”
Reid continued to stare at the water. “It’s the first time you’ve experienced real sex. Your mesolimbic dopaminergic pathways are going crazy.”
“Oh, really? And how do you know it’s the first time—”
Reid’s swift look cut him off.
Luke sat on his heels. “OK, fine. So maybe I hadn’t ever experienced anything remotely resembling what it’s been like with you. (Understatement.) But, Reid,” Luke leaned forward. “I’ve been in love with you since before the sex. I’ve loved you for years.”
Reid was still. Perfectly still. Resistance radiated in palpable waves.
This time, Luke was determined to break through. “I can’t remember exactly when I fell in love with you, but I realized it the day of Noah’s surgery. When I thought he might never be able to see again—that I might have lost my chance with you. Reid—the thought of not being with you, of never being with you—it destroyed me. That’s when I knew.” Luke searched Reid’s face for a sign, any sign.
“So, then, naturally you begged Noah to take you back.”
Luke winced. “I never said I knew how to deal with it—with knowing that I was in love with you. I spent way too much time trying to convince myself that I wasn’t, that it was just confused lust. And then—at Yo’s when you said to make a choice—I chose out of fear. Out of denial. I chose Noah because what I felt for you terrified the shit out of me. I’d realized that my feelings for you were stronger than they’d ever been for him. That I loved you more than I’d ever loved him. And that was definitely not how it was supposed to be. Noah was supposed to be the love of my life, not—” He looked down. “Anyway—it kinda messed me up for a while.”
Reid exhaled slowly. “A while. Yes.” His eyes remained fixed on some distant point. “And the second time? After you—” The words stuck. “—chose me?”
Luke kept his head down. A father-and-son rowboat momentarily grounded itself on the nearby gravel beach. Neither Reid nor Luke noticed.
“I really thought I’d moved on.” Now Luke was looking out at the water, too. “I was happy with you. I mean, really happy. Like, ridiculously. Break-out-into-song happy—and you know I don’t sing.” He laughed without humor. “I was almost embarrass-myself happy, and we hadn’t even—” Luke looked down again. “And the way you looked at me—like I was desirable, like I was lovable—like I was worth it. Like I was an equal.” Luke exhaled sharply through his nose. “Of you—like I was your equal.” Luke twisted his mouth. “But I knew I wasn’t. Not even close. And deep-down, I didn’t believe I deserved you.”
Luke saw Reid close his eyes. “I know, I know—trust me, I’ve been working on it. But at the time—Noah’s proposal was the perfect out.” He smiled bitterly. “The perfect way for me to self-destruct. I mean, finally—he said all the right things—everything, everything I’d ever wanted him to say. And of course it was the way things were always supposed to work out. How everyone wanted things to work out—except that it wasn’t. Not that I found that out until later. People had seen how I was when I was with you. How different I was. How much—stronger.” His voice dropped. “How much happier.”
Luke spread his hands. “So, you see? Couldn’t have messed things up more if I’d tried.” He faced Reid again. “But don’t ever, ever think that I didn’t love you. That I don’t.”
Reid balled up the burger wrapper in his lap. When he spoke, his tone was carefully flat. “So—what? You expect me to move back to Hellmouth, Illinois? You gonna build me another wing?”
Luke sat up straighter. His tone was also careful. Carefully hopeful. “I could come to Boston.”
Reid crushed the paper more tightly. “Really? And uproot your entire life? Tear yourself away from the tentacles of Oakdale?”
“Why not? I've already done it once.”
“Right, for Noah.”
Another wince. “The point is—yes, being around my family is important. But not nearly as important as being with the man I love.”
Now it was Reid’s turn to wince. “Stop saying that.”
“What? Love? That I love you?” Luke leaned in. Annunciated. “I love you. Reid, I friggin’ love you!”
Reid closed his eyes. Seconds passed. He opened them and looked at Luke. “‘Friggin’’? So now you can’t even curse properly?”
They sat in silence, there on the rock.
“So what happens the next time you get—too happy?”
Luke’s head turned sharply. He looked at Reid, really looked. Reid was still facing the water but Luke could see the vulnerability, had heard it. At face value the words had been pessimistic, but Luke could sense the tentative tendrils of hope emerging from cracks in the concrete. The wall had been breached. He could see inside now – not all the way, not everything, but he saw more of what Reid had been hiding. Not the raw despair, the brutal picture of a broken soul that Luke had glimpsed their second time together (and would no doubt plague his dreams forever), but the potential openness, the possible foundation for something new on the wrecked remains of what had been. Granted, the foundation was something like the gently rolling rubble of a ruined coral reef – not impossible to rebuild, but challenging. A painstaking process of slow growth in favorable conditions. But Luke was up to the task. Once he conquered the looming dawn deadline, he had nothing but time.
Might as well start now. “A lot has changed in three years, Reid. I know myself better now. I know what I want. I know how to fight for it.” Luke’s lips quirked. “And I’m already a hundred times happier, right now, than I have ever been. I’m not going anywhere.”
Reid gazed at nothing for a few moments longer. Then he collected the detritus of their meal and stood. Luke stood as well, close to Reid. Reid brushed past him and took the path back to the main road within the park. After throwing away the trash, he looked at Luke with raised eyebrows. Luke smiled slightly and turned north. They walked along the road, their arms brushing lightly.
Wordlessly, Reid took Luke’s hand.
Chapter 12: Bridal Song
His hand is warm in my hand.
Luke couldn’t speak. He didn’t want to speak, didn’t want to break the spell.
He knows I love him. That I’ve always loved him. And my hand is warm in his hand.
The sun was angled but still bright. Luke and Reid walked in silence along the path in a world of their own, a shared sphere of existence generated by their joined hands. They moved as one, an infinite, unit-less entity part of, but apart from the weaving patterns of strolling, running, cycling, roller-skiing mortals enjoying what was left of the afternoon.
Luke’s awareness centered on hand against hand, palm pressed to palm. He noticed that there was more tension in his fingers than necessary to maintain the grip – not an anxious tension so much as exhilarated, alert. Alive. He wanted to hold hands, just like this, for hours, for days. To stay linked to him, at least until morning. To tether him, at least until he believed, really believed. Reid’s grip was firm and steady. If only I had the hands of a surgeon. Luke had no doubt that Reid’s hands were capable of any movement in any position for any length of time. Luke was faintly saddened at the thought of his hand tiring or cramping before Reid’s, of disappointing Reid with weakness. There has been enough weakness already. Done with weakness.
The air of otherworldliness only intensified when the fairy-tale cottage appeared. All dark wood and gables, the rustically romantic building materialized as if conjured.
“Hey—I remember this place.” Luke pulled Reid forward. The sign read “Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater.”
Luke stood with a dreamy look. “Last time I was in New York, it was in the middle of this snowstorm—and I’m walking through Central Park—when, suddenly, I turn the corner, and there’s this—this, magical place—this house, covered in snow. It was like—all soft white and muffled sounds. And there were these amazing icicles hanging under the gables. I felt like I’d taken a wrong turn into what Sweden must look like.”
Reid had been watching Luke, but now he turned to the cottage. “It does look authentic.”
“Yeah, it totally is—I looked it up when I got home and found out that Sweden had shipped this traditional schoolhouse to Philadelphia back in the 1800s for the big centennial. Something to do with showing how good they were at building stuff. Anyway, turns out some New York officials fell in love with it, and the guy who actually designed Central Park suggested they take it apart and rebuild it right here. It’s been used for all sorts of things, but now it’s for marionette performances for kids.” Luke squeezed Reid’s hand. “Man, isn’t it beautiful?”
Reid was looking at Luke again. “Beautiful.”
Luke gazed at the cottage for a few more moments; then, turning to Reid, “Wait, do you mean you’ve seen real Swedish cottages? Have you been to Sweden?”
Reid nodded. “For conferences.”
“So you’ve been more than once.”
“There’s still so much I don’t know about you,” Luke said softly.
Reid turned to Luke, who braced for a cutting response (after all, whose fault is that?). Instead of drawing blood with sharp edges, however, Reid’s gaze was calm, steady. Like his grip. His eyes left Luke’s; they wandered up – to his brow, into his hair. Down – along his cheekbone to where a dimple was momentarily hiding, down further to his chin, to the slight cleft there. Leisurely, his eyes moved up, resting on Luke’s lips. His upper lip.
Luke’s breath had quickened, but he hadn’t moved. His heart was too full. There was a familiar ache there, one usually associated with letting his thoughts settle on Reid at any point during the past three years. This time, though, he was sure that the ache was from his swollen heart pressing against the ribcage from the inside. This time, Reid’s gaze wasn’t sexual or possessive or objectifying or any of the things it had been in the past day. (Twenty-one hours.) This time, Reid wasn’t angling for a kiss, or a fuck, or trying to make a point. A casual observer might have even classified his gaze as approximating indifference. But Luke felt it for what it was: a caress. A meandering journey over a lover’s face. A loved one’s face. A moment of forgetting yourself and becoming lost in another person. Of coming back to yourself and realizing you haven’t resented the detour. It just—was. You were. In him.
Reid’s eyes lifted. His smile was lazy. “Where to now?”
Luke took a breath to break the spell. He realized he’d been stroking the back of Reid’s hand with his thumb. He smiled and led Reid along the side of the cottage and up a set of steps flanked by a lattice of roughly hewn wooden logs. At the top was a stone path through a riot of bushes and flowers. They wandered through the controlled chaos of primrose and wormwood, lark’s heel and rue.
Luke’s grin intensified. “I was wondering what this would be like in the summer. This is the Shakespeare Garden—every plant you see was mentioned in one of his plays.”
Reid’s look was indulgent. “Hmm.”
“I wish I knew what everything was. Too bad my mom’s not here.”
“Yes. Too bad.”
Luke ducked out of the path of a butterfly bound for one of the blooms. He pulled Reid by the hand around a trio of women having their picture taken. Luke led Reid on a circuitous path; Reid didn’t seem to mind the extra steps.
The maneuvering became more challenging as they left the garden. Luke and Reid had to thread through an increasing number of people as they approached a large, curved building. A banner read “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Luke squeezed Reid’s hand. “Look—it’s Shakespeare in the Park. I’ve always wanted to do that. The tickets are free—I heard you just have to wait in line for, like, five hours.” He looked at Reid with a crooked grin. “We could’ve done that this morning. ”
“I don’t wait in line. Unless it’s for something important. Like fast food.”
Luke nudged him, still smiling. “Aw, come on—it would be an experience. And to see Shakespeare performed outside—with a backdrop of water and—and a castle, even—as the sun sets—you have to admit, it would be pretty special.”
Reid looked unimpressed. “I prefer the modern masters. Like Stoppard.”
Luke’s tone turned teasing. “Opera, theater—so many hidden depths.”
“You have no idea.”
They walked in silence for a few steps. Luke looked at Reid out of the corner of his eye. “So—then I suppose you wouldn’t want to try for tickets tomorrow morning? We could stay an extra day.”
Reid’s voice was neutral. “I have surgery tomorrow.”
“Oh—sure.” Luke focused on their linked hands.
The path led back to the main road where they continued north. Luke had become more aware of his surroundings now, of the people. He tried to pick out the natives from the tourists, wondered which impression he and Reid gave.
After a few minutes Luke noticed two men walking south across the road. The taller man, with grey-flecked hair, had his arm around the shoulders of what looked to be a man in his thirties. They seemed comfortable. Settled. Their gait was relaxed and matched, despite the height difference. The taller man turned his head slightly to whisper in the other man’s ear and then kissed the side of his head.
Both men looked up the road and smiled. A small girl rose from where she’d been stooping a short distance ahead and ran back to them holding out a rock. The shorter man took it and examined it closely as the older man lifted her up and settled her on his hip. They continued walking, the girl leaning over briefly to kiss the shorter man noisily on his ear.
Luke turned to watch as the family disappeared. Reid appeared not to have noticed. Several seconds passed.
“Ever thought about having kids?” Luke had aimed for nonchalance but wasn’t sure he’d achieved it. He knew it didn’t matter anyway. Such a question could never be casual between them.
Reid was quiet. His hand twitched, causing Luke’s grip to tighten reflexively. Nice, Luke. You had to ruin the mood.
Just as Luke was searching for a less charged topic, Reid spoke.
“I doubt I’d be very good at it.”
Luke turned his head sharply. He quickly directed his gaze forward again. “I think you’d be a great dad.”
“I’d never be home.”
Don’t forget to breathe, Luke. Just your everyday conversation. “Well—I’m pretty sure it’s quality, not quantity.”
“I’m sorry, I’d thought you’d met me. I’m allergic to warm and fuzzy. I’m sure any quality time with me would lead to lifelong therapy.”
“Oh, come on. You were great with Jacob. I know he loves you. He refuses to give up that bear you fixed for him, even though it could use a few more major surgeries at this point. And Katie wouldn’t admit it, but I know you must have been the one who sent him that blue stuffed—animal, or bacterium, or whatever.”
A whisper of a smile. “Penicillium. And it’s a fungus.”
“Yeah, well, he loves that too. You’ll be happy to know that he’s well on his way to nerd-dom.”
They had walked a few more steps before Reid spoke again. “Jacob has Katie.”
And our child would have me. But he or she would have you, too.
Luke wished he could let the subject drop, knew it should drop. Knew there had been sufficient progress. “So—you’ve never even considered it? Not even after all those months with Jacob?”
This pause was longer.
“There was a time when I’d considered it.”
Luke felt a force strike his stomach and push him backward. He was surprised to find that he was still walking straight, that he seemingly hadn’t lost a step.
He let the subject drop.
They continued to walk in silence until they reached a large pond. Luke stole a look at Reid out of the corner of his eye.
“We’ve been walking for a while—I thought maybe we could sit for a minute.” Luke walked to a bench next to a large tree with long branches that hung like dark-green tinsel, the bottom branches trailing in the water. He tugged on Reid’s hand. Reid raised his eyebrows but said nothing as he sat next to Luke. Luke shifted closer until their sides were touching and their clasped hands were resting on Luke’s thigh.
A line of ducks smoothly cut through the mirrorlike surface of the water in front of them. Luke supposed that some of them were large chicks on the verge of leaving their family. “Wish we had some bread for them.”
“Yeah, I’m sure they’re starving.”
Luke watched as the duck parade joined a larger group under the tree. “I wonder what happens to the parents once the kids leave. Do you think they stay together?”
“Really? I thought most birds were monogamous.”
“Most birds pair up. Doesn’t mean it’s with the same mate every year—and certainly doesn’t mean there’s no screwing around.”
“Gosh, Reid—such a romantic world view you have.”
“There are pretty stories, and then there are facts.” Reid slid a look at Luke. “Still think I’d make a good father?”
Luke turned his face toward Reid. “The best.”
Reid’s head jerked ever-so-slightly back. He broke eye contact after a few breaths. Turned back to the ducks.
They watched as the ducks fussed and dove. Muffled traffic sounds drifted from the west.
“Bet they’re happy when they’re together, though.” Luke watched a male and female circle each other.
“Sure—when the males aren’t too busy raping.”
Luke gasped. “Reid.”
“What? Waterfowl in general are a rape-y little bunch. And mallards in particular—in the water, in mid-air, doesn’t matter. They’ll go after other males, too. Even if they’re dead.”
“OK, now you’re just making things up.”
Reid put his free hand over his heart. “Luke, I do not lie about science.”
Luke squinted at Reid skeptically. Eventually, his attention returned to the ducks.
“Well. Thanks. You’ve officially ruined ‘Make Way for Ducklings.’ Maybe you should skip that particular bedtime story.”
Reid smiled. As Luke continued to watch the ducks, Reid’s gaze drifted up to the tree. He froze. He closed his eyes briefly.
Yes, say it just like that. “Reid.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
Now Luke froze. “Um—to see the rape-y ducks?”
Luke sighed. “I was wondering when you’d notice.”
“That we’re sitting next to a weeping willow on the edge of a body of water not unlike the lagoon in the Boston Public Garden?”
Luke cringed slightly. “Well when you put it like that—too sappy?”
Before Luke could stop it, Reid withdrew his hand. The loss was a palpable thing. Luke’s palm tingled. He barely stopped himself from making a sound.
Reid then lifted his arm and wrapped it around Luke’s shoulder, where it lay warm and heavy. It drew Luke closer. Luke’s body suffused with warmth and, before he could react, Reid reached for Luke’s hand with his other hand. Placing Luke’s hand on his thigh, Reid covered it with his own hand.
Luke did the only thing he could do: he rested his head on Reid’s shoulder in the curve of his neck.
Chapter 13: Occasionally, There'd Be Monkeys
“When did you stop hating me?”
Luke could feel Reid rotate his head several degrees toward him. He could feel the easy strength, heavy and claiming, in Reid’s arm around his shoulder. Of Reid’s hand on his hand where it lay on Reid’s thigh. Reid was stroking the back of Luke’s hand with his thumb. Luke relaxed even more against Reid’s shoulder and neck.
“I never hated you.”
“Uh, yeah, you did. We hated each other.”
“I never hated you. I hated what you made me feel.”
Luke frowned but didn’t raise his head. “Which was?”
Reid didn’t answer immediately. “Feelings.”
“Hate’s a feeling.”
Another silence. “Non-hate feelings.”
Reid sighed. “You made me—uncomfortable. You made me think about you. My life was relatively simple before I met you. It was clean. Predictable. You disturbed my equilibrium. Plus, I wanted to jump you.”
“Even at the beginning?”
“Even at the beginning.”
A tongue of wind ruffled Luke’s hair against Reid’s chin. Neither man moved.
“But—then—why were you so mean? Not that you were sunshine and roses with anyone—and I know that I was the one who, um, kidnapped you, but—you always seemed to have a little extra venom reserved for me. That didn’t really start to change until—I don’t know, maybe around the time—”
“I found out that you and Noah had broken up?”
“Oh. I guess—but what would that have had to do with anything?”
“Luke. Not only was I having inconvenient feelings for the pampered prince who was largely responsible for my indentured servitude, but I couldn’t even do anything about them. Not that I would have—probably—but you two were practically married. He was your life, blah blah. ‘You should try being in love’ blah blah.”
“Every time I saw you—it just reminded me of what I could never have.” Reid’s voice was calm. “So forgive me if I was a little cranky.”
By now more ducks had congregated under the willow tree. Their occasional flaps and splashes were the only sounds in Luke and Reid’s corner of the pond.
“You really found me attractive from the beginning?”
The fingers at Luke’s shoulder had been sketching abstract shapes. “Remember when you ran into me with that file of supposed bad-dad photos?”
“Right—the ones that were actually of a guy with Huntington’s.”
“Remember what I did when they fell on the ground?”
“You mean, other than delight me with your wit? Um—you pretty much did nothing, if I remember correctly. In fact, you stood on them when I tried to pick them up. Then—yeah, then you suddenly started helping. It was kinda weird, actually.”
“I liked seeing you down there.”
Luke lifted his head.
“On your knees.” Reid looked into Luke’s eyes. “In front of me.”
Luke was scalded by the heat in Reid’s gaze. Slowly Reid smiled and lifted the hand around Luke’s shoulder to settle his head back into the crook of Reid’s neck. His hand rested in Luke’s hair. It slowly sifted.
“I didn’t believe him.” Luke was surprised to hear himself say the words out loud.
“What? Oh, nothing.” Shut up, Luke.
The hand in Luke’s hair stilled. Started again.
“What didn’t you believe?”
“It’s just—he said that you’d told him you’d started having feelings for me the second or third time you met me.”
Reid turned his head so that his mouth was in Luke’s hair. “Laid eyes on you.”
Luke momentarily lost his train of thought. “Right—I just—I found it hard to believe, that’s all.”
Reid’s hand sifted. Again. “You were the sexiest thing I’d ever seen. Your mouth—” The fingers briefly faltered. “And you were definitely not my type.”
Luke tracked the heat as it moved up his body. “You had a type?”
“Yeah. Tall, dark, and silent."
Luke’s hair moved each time Reid exhaled. “Only you.”
Luke shut his eyes and turned his face into Reid’s shoulder. Reid’s hand flattened against the back of Luke’s head. Their clasped hands tightened; Luke added his free hand, covering Reid’s as it covered his.
Luke’s breath warmed the skin of Reid’s neck. It intensified his scent. Luke breathed it in, made it part of him. Claimed it as part of his own essence.
When Luke spoke, his voice was muffled. “I didn’t hate you either.”
Reid slowly rubbed his mouth against Luke’s hair. “Hmm?”
“Even at the beginning. Well, maybe on the phone that first time.”
“But then you saw how hot I was.”
Smiling, Luke turned his head to the side again, still resting it on Reid’s shoulder. “That was the problem.”
“Hotness is never a problem.”
“Unless you can’t have the person, right?”
Reid didn’t answer.
“Not that I wanted to have you—I mean, I was totally committed to—and, anyway, of course I thought you were straight. But the fact that I found you hot at all—” Luke’s voice drifted.
“You are allowed to find other people attractive even when you’re…committed.”
Now Luke was silent. He looked down at their three joined hands.
“There may have been dreams.”
Reid bent his head as if hear Luke better. “What?”
“I—may have dreamt about you. A few times.”
Reid’s fingers began to massage Luke’s head. His voice dropped. “What kind of dreams?”
Luke kept his eyes down.
“Luke—what kind of dreams?”
“You know—those kinds. Not at first—at first we would just fight. Occasionally, there’d be monkeys. And, OK, sometimes I would be naked, but I think that was probably more of an anxiety thing. You know, over not being able to convince you to do the surgery.”
“But then—the fights would kind of—take a turn.”
Reid’s fingers continued to massage. “Tell me.”
Luke took a deep breath. “There was—that time I showed up early at Noah’s appointment, hoping to catch him so I could talk to him about Damian’s disappearance. And instead I ran into you.”
“I remember. I remember your hair was in your face.”
“Yeah, well—I remember that you were such an ass—I guess I really did hate you then. For keeping Noah and me apart.”
The hands in Luke’s hair slowed.
“Which—is what made my dream that night all the more disturbing. I mean, I was supposed to hate you—I did—I thought I did. But in my dream—when you threatened to drop Noah as a patient if I didn’t tell you why I was looking for him—in my dream I pushed you.” Luke had begun to rub the top of Reid’s hand. “I slapped my hands against your chest, and I pushed and I pushed—until I was kind of in you—my hands were caught in your chest. And I couldn’t understand why that was so thrilling—to be part of you like that. And then you pushed back.”
Reid’s fingers deepened their massage.
“You pushed me—hard—until I could feel the slats of the blinds against my back and the doorknob in my side. It was weird how it was so vivid—how I could remember it so clearly when I woke up. When you pushed me, my hands were still in you, so the force of your push meant that you slammed into me when I hit the door. I remember feeling your breath against the side of my face—it was hot and hard—like you were forcing me to breathe it in—so that part of you would be inside of me, too. And then your hands went around me and they—they dropped down to the small of my back.” Luke could feel Reid’s breath against his face, could feel the short bursts coming more quickly. “You—I don’t know—you somehow made me look into your eyes, and they were so angry—you were so angry. Like you wanted to punish me. But your hands—they were gentle. I could feel them rubbing, inching lower and lower.” Luke took a deep breath. “All I wanted was for you to keep going—to go all the way down—to rub everything, to dig your fingers into my skin, for the clothes to be gone. For your fingers to be inside of me—”
Luke turned one hand so that he could press both palms against Reid’s hand. Fingers intertwined. Gripped and released.
“Finally, finally, your hands went down—and they pulled me even closer toward you. All of me. But especially below—your hands pulled and pulled until I was as pressed against you as I could be—until our cocks were pressed together, burning each other through our clothes. And then you pulled me into you. Until our cocks were, somehow, like—merged, or something. Like I was sliding into you and rubbing against you and becoming part of you all at the same time. And my hands were still in your chest and everything was so hot and liquid and pulsating—so consuming—like we were being fused together—our flesh and our insides—like I could live inside you—”
Luke smiled nervously. “OK, it sounds kinda gross when I describe it.”
Luke could feel Reid shake his head.
“It was—it was just so—intense. And it disturbed the shit out of me. I felt like I’d cheated.”
Reid murmured against Luke’s head. “You didn’t ask for it.”
“Yeah, well, it didn’t help that it was the most turned on I’d been in a long time. That I don’t think I’d ever felt that kind of passion before. And it was only a dream. I’d certainly never dreamt about Noah that way. I could barely even look him in the eye after that. And it was just one of many.”
Luke sighed against Reid’s neck. “Ohh yeah. Practically every night. Especially if we’d had a run-in that day. Then I was sure to relive it that night, only with a twist. Lots and lots of twists. And then I’d have to face Noah. And you. I was almost glad you’d given me an excuse not to be with him every day.”
Reid’s fingers gently massaged the outside of Luke’s ear. “You know, just for the record, when I agreed to take on Noah as a patient, I’d originally told him only to keep you away from me. I didn’t say anything about what you two did on your own time.” Reid ignored Luke’s disbelieving noise. “Now, did I hasten to point that out when I saw you taking things to extremes—maybe not. Maybe part of me—even part that I consciously acknowledged—was happy to see trouble in paradise. And I did believe that your codependency wasn’t good for either of you.” Reid’s hand moved restlessly against both of Luke’s. “I just knew I couldn’t handle seeing you play the devoted boyfriend every day. That definitely wouldn’t have been good for me.”
Reid watched their fingers play. “But as for these dreams, they were nothing to beat yourself up over—it wasn’t cheating. It’s not like you had any control over them.”
Luke expelled a short breath. “Maybe not—but I certainly had control when I masturbated to them.”
Reid’s hand in Luke’s hair stilled, and he lifted his head to look at Luke. Reid’s eyes were bright. “You don’t say?”
Luke had thought he was beyond blushing. “I can’t believe I’m telling you all this.”
The hand that had been in Luke’s hair moved down to his back. “Oh—you’re telling me.”
Luke smiled and buried his face in Reid’s shoulder. “I just couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop thinking about you. It was like you’d infected my nights and my days. I couldn’t even get off thinking about Noah any more. And that freaked the living heck out me.” Luke took Reid’s hand and turned it so that the palm was facing up. He began to draw on it with a finger. “And it wasn’t just to the dreams—I’d fantasize about our fights. Pretty much any interaction, really. I didn’t even have to turn it into something dirty.” Luke grinned. “Of course I’d do that, too.”
“Jeez, I don’t know—any of them—all of them. Mmm, yeah—I remember getting a lot of mileage out of that time at the police station, when Damian was being shipped off to prison.”
“Yeah—that was a good one.” Reid sounded wistful.
Luke shot a look at Reid. “It was something, that’s for sure. We were both asses that day—I can’t believe I slammed you against the wall.”
“Neither could I.”
“You took it in stride, though. Your snark was in especially fine form.”
Reid lightly dragged his nails in circles on Luke’s back. “And why do you think that was, Luke?”
Luke lifted his head.
“You do realize it took every last measure of willpower I possessed not to grab your face and suck your tongue out of your mouth? Not to spin you around and pin you up against the wall with my dick? I had to say something to get you away from me.” Reid’s eyes began to smolder at Luke’s surprised look. “You weren’t the only one who fantasized about our fights.”
The spark caught in Luke’s eyes. “Tell me one.”
The hand on Luke’s back circled lower. “Let’s see—there was that day in the courtroom, when you testified that I hadn’t stolen your car. But that wasn’t a fight, so it doesn’t count.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“No—doesn’t count—and it was really just your basic blowjob. Although there were the later variations—” Reid shook his head. “And then of course there was—no, again, not a fight. And kind of goes without saying, anyway.”
Luke grinned. “Yeah, definitely a given.”
Reid’s hand continued to trace low, lazy circles. “Ah, I know. Elevator.”
“Mmm, the elevator. Good choice.” Luke returned his head to Reid’s shoulder.
“Yeah—still technically not a fight, I suppose—”
“But there was pushing involved, so totally counts.”
“Well I had to push you, didn’t I? Otherwise you would have killed us both with your jumping.”
“Mmm, yes—definitely saved the day.”
“Exactly. And in my version, you properly showed your gratitude.”
“Oh I did, did I?
“Absolutely. I’m pretty sure at some point you called me your hero.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
The hand on Luke’s back made small circles just above his waistband.
Luke subtly leaned back into Reid’s hand. “That push—you were so intense, so raw. And by then of course I knew you were gay—which had just, like, dialed my fantasies up to 11. I mean, not that I thought you were into me—definitely not—but the fact that you were into guys at all—that it was theoretically possible for my fantasies to become real—let’s just say my showers became even longer than they already had been.”
Luke began to outline each of Reid’s fingers. “You asked if your admitting you were human would make my day.”
“And you said it would be a start. Or—something like that.”
Luke smiled. “Yeah, well, in my fantasies—” The smile turned wicked. “—you would finish.” He focused on Reid’s third finger. “But—to be honest, I think the hottest part was when you opened up to me. When you let me see inside.”
A small dog ran up to the water a few feet away. Several ducks scattered. A light breeze carried the suggestion of a chill; Luke molded himself to Reid, absorbing his warmth. Relishing the contact, the connection.
Reid’s voice was soft when he spoke. “Actually—that might not have been exactly how my fantasy went.”
Luke shifted his head slightly but said nothing.
“After I pushed you against the side of the elevator—in my mind—when I’d think about it—you would respond by reaching out. By touching my face. You were able see through me—you could see the fear, the irrationality of it. Only this time, you didn’t try to calm me with words. You—”
Luke waited for Reid to continue.
“You wanted to help, of course, because that’s who you are. That’s what I loved, even then.”
Luke tried to suppress his soft gasp.
“So you rubbed my face. You held it. Looked into my eyes. Yours were so deep, so—so vast. Like there was enough room in there to take in the whole world, like the world was missing out—if only it knew what was in your eyes. I still couldn’t feel, was beyond feeling, beyond thinking. But I responded to those eyes. And then you smiled. You smiled like you knew me, like you knew every part of me—and you wanted me anyway. And then you reached for me—your hands on the side of my face—”
Again, Luke just waited.
“And you put my head on your shoulder. One hand moved to the back of my head while the other went around my back and pulled me against you. And your hand rubbed—both hands rubbed—and stroked—and—and you whispered in my ear. Not words, not usually—more like, soothing noises. Like we were beyond words. And your arms and hands were strong, and my arms and hands were strong and they moved around you—around your back—the back of your head—into your hair—” Reid’s eyes closed briefly. “And then we had hot, crazy sex.”
Luke’s eyes were already closed. He smiled. He was beyond words.
The silence stretched. The ducks moved on, leaving only the branches of the willow to disturb the water.
After several minutes Luke opened his eyes and shifted his head so that he could see Reid’s face. “Why didn’t you tell me you were gay?” At Reid’s look, Luke quickly clarified, “Why did you wait so long? And don’t give me some line about it not coming up or your not being an over-sharer like I was. It had to have been deliberate. For someone so out-of-the-closet, you had to have gone to some effort for it never to have come up.”
Reid looked at Luke. He brushed a piece of hair off Luke’s forehead. “You’re right. I didn’t want you to find out.”
“Why not? It never made any sense.”
“Sure it did. I knew that—once you knew—it would be only a matter of time.”
Luke cocked his head. “Until what?”
“Until I showed my hand.”
Luke smiled softly. He lifted Reid’s hand and gently kissed it: first the back, and then the palm. He then interlaced the fingers with those of his own hand and placed it back on Reid’s thigh.
Reid’s other hand moved back and forth along the top of Luke’s belt. “That’s part of the reason why, at first, I almost turned down the neuro wing.”
Luke looked up at Reid, surprised.
“Yeah—when Katie first told me about Hank’s philanthropy, I actually told her that it didn’t matter, that I was still going back to Dallas. Part of it was not wanting to embroil Memorial in the Judd mess, but mostly—I knew I just had to get out of there. It was bad enough, my wanting someone I couldn’t have. It would have been simply unbearable for you to have known it.”
Luke threaded the fingers of his free hand through Reid’s hair.
Reid leaned into Luke’s hand. “I was already afraid my feelings for you were compromising who I was as a doctor. That I was losing myself—who I’d always been. That day you came to find Noah, when Damian had disappeared—afterward I was completely unprofessional with Noah. You had thrown me, and I took it out on him.”
“I’d thrown you?”
There was no humor in Reid’s brief smile. “You’d looked so lost—you made me feel things—things not entirely sexual. I didn’t want to force you to tell me what was wrong—I just—I couldn’t stop. I found myself actually wanting to—to help you or comfort you or something. You were making things messy for me. I hate messes.”
“I had no idea.”
“Why do you think I called you Mr. Snyder for so long?”
Luke lifted his eyebrows.
“It was the last line of defense.”
“But you finally did call me Luke.”
“My life had just been given back to me. Thanks to you.” Reid turned to look at Luke. “And once I’d kissed you—I didn’t want to take it back.” His gaze was steady. “All the lying to myself, to you—the avoiding—I didn’t see the point any more. Life was too short. Nothing was certain. Well—almost nothing.”
Luke felt the certainty in Reid’s eyes. The certainty of then. He just needed that same certainty now.
Luke’s hand traced the side of Reid’s face. “So—this messiness I made—that you were trying to keep so clean—is that why you were so quick to insist the next day that nothing had happened when you’d come to my place asking me not to say anything about Mr. Judd?”
Reid’s lip quirked almost imperceptibly. “Maybe.”
Luke was close enough to breathe Reid’s breath. “I wanted to kiss you that day.”
“Luke—you kept looking at my mouth.”
Luke grinned. “Yeah, I guess I do that sometimes.”
“Sometimes.” Reid smiled as well.
Luke’s eyes dropped. “Even though I’d just broken up with Noah—all I could think about was kissing you.”
Reid slipped the hand at Luke’s belt up under his shirt and ran a finger along the flesh above his waistband. “What about now?”
Luke’s fingers moved just below Reid’s bottom lip. He nodded. “Now—an hour ago—” He looked up into Reid’s eyes. “A year ago.”
Reid’s hand stilled. Luke could see Reid’s Adam’s apple move as he swallowed, but only out of the corner of his eye; Luke didn’t break Reid’s gaze.
Slowly, Reid moved his hand father under Luke’s shirt so that his palm was pressed against the small of Luke’s back. Skin to skin. “I want to be alone with you.”
Luke’s eyes and face lit simultaneously. He drew his hand down Reid’s face, down his neck, down his chest. He pressed his palm over Reid’s heart. Briefly, he rested his forehead against Reid’s. Then, squeezing Reid’s hand with his other hand, he pulled Reid with him as he slid off the bench.
Luke’s eyes shone. “Come with me.”
Chapter 14: A Hawk's Tale
“I’m pretty sure we’re headed the wrong way.”
Reid tilted back as he said this, tugging slightly on Luke’s hand as the two made their way farther north, farther into the park. “You do realize our hotel room is in the other direction?”
Luke looked back and smiled cryptically. Seductively. Reid stopped tugging.
They had little company at this hour; the waning sun now warmed only the occasional dog walker. They descended several stone steps toward the sound of running water. A path led alongside a man-made brook fed by a modest tumble of water and continued under a stately span of geometric bedrock. They entered the arch hand-in-hand. Sights and sounds instantly darkened. Luke felt a tug again, this time sharper and more decisive. The momentum thrust him against the cool stone of a shallow grotto cut into the side of the wall. Reid moved to Luke’s front, positioning them both so as to be invisible from either end of the path. Reid swept his thumb across the back of Luke’s hand as he inched closer, slowly pressing the fronts of their bodies together, pressing Luke’s tote bag, slung over one shoulder, into his arm and side. Pressing hip to hip.
Reid’s eyes were warm and bright. Luke was struck by how soft Reid’s face looked, how young. With both hands he reached for Reid’s face, for his hair, for his neck. Reid echoed his actions, stoking Luke’s cheeks and brow and lips. Hands buried in hair. Their eyes were as restless as their fingers, skimming over surfaces and landmarks, surveying territories. Marking for ownership.
More and more, their eyes met, lingered, sparkled. Slow secret smiles emerged as they continued their manual explorations of face and hair and back of neck, front of neck. Reid’s thumb paused on Luke’s bottom lip. It began to move, smoothing the lip slowly, back and forth. Reid looked at it with a peculiar intensity, as if he’d never quite seen it before. Luke felt hypnotized by Reid’s look and touch. Eroticized. His bottom lip became the center of his sensory experience. Nothing existed but the slightly rough contrast between lip and thumb. Even the exquisite ache where their pelvises burned against each other receded into the background. Luke’s entire world became the rhythmic, almost painfully sensitive slide of skin against skin. He joined Reid in that moment; their attentions were one, a crystallized moment of connection.
Reid’s eyes lifted. In them, Luke could see a shade of surprise. As if Reid had somehow only just noticed that Luke was there, in front of him. As if he had, for the first time since seeming to look right through Luke in the ballroom the previous night, allowed himself to see him. To accept that he was real, not just a fantasy to have been realized, or a memory to have been repaired and enhanced and stored away. That’s right, Reid, look at me. I’m here. I’m yours. Worthy or not, I’m yours.
Unconsciously, Luke wet his bottom lip with the tip of his tongue. It brushed Reid’s thumb. Reid looked down, his expression a subtle mix of wonder and yearning and exposure. And fear. Luke sensed the fear, was attuned enough to Reid to suspect he feared that accepting Luke’s presence now meant risking his absence later. I’m here. I’m yours. Trust me.
Luke gripped the side of Reid’s face. He met Reid’s eyes, pressed his mantra into them, through them, all the way to whatever part of the brain stored certainties. After a moment Reid broke the gaze, looking back at his thumb on Luke’s lip. He brought his other hand up to Luke’s face and, holding it as if it were something easily bruised, leaned in. Luke felt Reid’s breath before his lips; both were feather-light. Luke’s hand curved forcefully into Reid’s hair, but Reid kept the kiss soft. Careful. Fine cracks appeared in Luke’s heart when he felt a slight tremble in Reid’s touch.
Luke could once again feel the entire expanse of where their bodies touched (burned) and needed more. Needed to show Reid more, give Reid more. Give him everything. Luke used his tongue again, this time deliberately. He licked at the seam of Reid’s lips, circling and probing the slight gap in the center with the tip. Reid opened for him. As Luke’s tongue pressed in, Reid’s hips pressed forward. His delicate handling of Luke applied only from the neck up. There, Luke took the lead. His tongue slicked over every inch of the inside of Reid’s mouth. He lived in that mouth. Set up a homestead. Planted crops. Left no doubt as to his intentions. Reid let Luke’s tongue roam, received it with his own. Luke arched his back, bringing their bodies impossibly closer. In his increasingly transcendent state he could almost feel their mouths and cocks fusing. Luke strove for their merger, for the reality of the dream he’d told Reid. If only because it would definitively assure Reid of Luke’s permanence.
A dog barked. Reid pulled away first, shielding Luke from view with his body. Luke would feel grateful once he’d become aware of his surroundings again. An earphoned man entered the tunnel pushing a stroller. Luke reentered his body in time to notice that the stroller contained three Pomeranians. The man merely glanced at Luke and Reid as he passed.
Reid turned back to Luke. The vulnerability was gone, but the warmth remained. He leaned into Luke again, hands flat on the stone on either side of Luke’s head. His lips grazed the curve of Luke’s jaw. “Tell me again why we’re not in our bed right now?”
Luke’s hips involuntarily bucked. Still gathering the remnants of his senses, he slowly walked Reid backward, away from the wall. A smile emerged. “Oh, we’re still hours away from our bed.” He let himself relish, just a bit, Reid’s stunned expression as Luke turned and left the tunnel. He decided that the impact of his cheekily dramatic exit line had almost been worth momentarily losing the physical connection to Reid. Almost.
Luke’s cost-benefit assessment changed, however, with each step that he wasn’t next to Reid. Just as he was about to look (run) back, he felt Reid’s hands around his waist.
“So where are you taking me?” Reid’s breath warmed the side of Luke’s neck. One hand eased under Luke’s waistband and found flesh.
Luke stopped walking, slipping his hand under his belt so that it rested on top of Reid’s. He squeezed. “Someplace safe.”
He felt Reid’s breath stop momentarily. Reid’s head turned slightly. He kissed Luke’s neck. “It’s about time.”
Luke and Reid’s hands lifted from Luke’s waist but they remained joined, fingers intertwining. They walked further along the path, passing a sign that read, “The North Woods.” The name was appropriate; in Luke’s mind it was as if the arch had been a wormhole to a remote forest. The air cooled under the tall canopy, and both bird and cicada song became more conspicuous. There were no signs of human life on the trail; sporadically there would be a vertically scurrying squirrel or bright red flash of cardinal. Luke and Reid crossed a rustic wooden bridge over a stream.
“It’s like we’re in the Adirondacks.”
Reid’s warm look dried.
“Well—I read that’s what they intended. The guys who made Central Park. They wanted it to look like a trail in the Adirondack Mountains.”
Seemingly against his will, Reid smiled. “And was this place just as magical in the snow as that Swedish house?”
Dimples appeared. “Even better. It was like—undisturbed white everywhere. There was heavy snow weighing down all the branches. And it was just—profoundly silent. I couldn’t believe I was still in Manhattan.”
A squirrel ran across the path in front of them, disappearing into the understory. Except that it wasn’t a squirrel. Wrong tail.
Reid nodded and kept walking. “Yup. Like we’re hardly in the city at all.”
Luke took more interest, then, in what was on the ground.
The path followed the stream as it flowed north. As they walked, Reid periodically swung their linked hands so that they lightly brushed Luke’s backside. Luke began returning the favor.
Reid leaned into Luke’s ear. “How long?”
Luke lightly swept their joined hands against Reid’s crotch. “Almost there.”
As Luke began to move away, Reid pulled him back, clutching at Luke’s hair with his free hand as he guided their mouths together for a short, fierce kiss. When he pulled away, Luke’s only thought was of how Reid’s eyes reminded him of sunlight glinting on water. He watched as Reid licked his lips. Luke turned down the trail again, the pace a bit faster now.
Despite the increasing desperation of his arousal, Luke’s curiosity won out when they came upon three people looking up, one with binoculars. After fruitlessly peering in the same direction for what must have been too long, he heard Reid break the silence. Loudly.
“Yeah, what are we looking at?”
A woman turned and pointed to a nearby tree. “Red-tailed,” she whispered.
So close he couldn’t believe he’d missed it, Luke saw a large, tawny-colored hawk perched motionless on a nearby branch. Silently, the head swiveled, giving Luke an unobstructed view of the sharply pointed beak and coolly penetrating gaze. The hawk seemed unconcerned by the human company. It radiated the quiet mastery of a top predator.
Reid was standing behind Luke, their arms wrapped around Luke’s stomach. Luke leaned back to whisper. “That arrogance seems familiar. And it enjoys biting off the heads of lesser beings.”
Reid inched their hands south and began to shuffle their feet up the trail. “We both take pleasure in what we put in our mouths.”
Luke smiled, stopping their progress. “Come on—when’s the last time you’ve seen a red-tailed hawk? And in the middle of a city?”
“You’re assuming I’ve looked.”
Luke leaned back against Reid. “You know, this could be the famous Pale Male—it does look lighter than the usual hawk, I think. Kinda like your hair, actually. Or maybe it's one of his kids—he’s had dozens of them. He’s like the king of the city.”
Reid’s eye roll was almost audible.
“What? If you can have rape-y ducks then I can have romantic hawks.”
Reid dropped his head, sighing. “I’m not going to get sex until I hear this story, am I?”
Luke grinned and continued to whisper. “So Pale Male showed up in Manhattan one day and was the first hawk ever to try to nest on a building—on 5th Avenue, no less. No one thought he’d be able to get a mate there, but sure enough, the next year a female joins him. Then, after having lots of sex on Woody Allen’s balcony, they shock everyone by being able to raise a family successfully. I don’t know why anyone was surprised—there’s certainly plenty of food around.” Luke reflexively looked down at the ground. “Anyway, then she gets hurt, and she has to leave Pale Male when they take her away to some rehab facility. So he mates with someone else, and they have a few kids, but after a while that female dies. And these guys do mate for life, by the way.” Luke could feel Reid smile against his hair. “By this time, his original mate has finally healed, and they release her in Central Park. And even though it’s, like, three years later, she and Pale Male find each other and pick up right where they left off. Like they had never forgotten each other.” Either Luke or Reid had begun to rock gently from side to side. Luke’s mouth twisted slightly. “She died, though—ate a pigeon that had eaten rat poison. But I’m sure he never forgot her.”
Reid started to speak, but Luke cut him off, moving their hands closer to his belt. “I said: I’m sure he never forgot her.”
Reid closed his mouth. When he spoke, it was carefully. “I’m sure he never forgot her.”
Luke’s grin widened. “Oh, and my favorite part? Her name. They called her First Love. Now tell me that’s not romantic.”
It took a moment for Luke to notice the sudden stillness. Then he stilled as well. Scanned back through their conversation. Wished he could see Reid’s face. It took another moment for him to notice that Reid’s fingers had tightened. Luke squeezed his in response. I’m here. I’m yours. You can trust me.
The hawk continued to sit and watch and wait. The other people shared the binoculars amongst themselves, at times speaking in hushed voices. They paid no attention to the two men frozen in an intimate pose, staring at the hawk with unusual intensity.
After several more moments, Reid moved his mouth to Luke’s ear. “Do you want to know what my go-to fantasy always was? What I’d think of at that moment—right at the end?”
The charge in the air around them shifted in nature. Luke became aware of a firm pressure against his backside. He gave half a nod.
Reid’s voice slinked across Luke’s skin. “I’d imagine the look on your face when you finally got properly fucked. By me.” Reid’s free hand rested on Luke’s hip; his thumb pressed into the swell. “I’d think about what that moment would be like—the look in your eye—the sweat on your skin. The sound of my name coming from those lips. Every day I’d think about it. Every day—for three and a half years.” His voice dropped to the edge of sound. “I could never forget.”
Luke barely managed to turn his moan (sob) into a loud coughing fit. Ignoring the glares, Luke ducked past the bird watchers, pulling Reid behind him briskly. They sped down the path, their pace increasing as a rushing-water sound grew louder. Shortly, the stream became a waterfall – a smooth curtain of water falling amid a deceptively casual assortment of boulders. The path turned to cross the continuing flow of water, which disappeared under an arch formed entirely of even larger boulders. The natural beauty barely registered, however, as Luke led Reid up stone steps, at one point turning off the paved path and onto a thin dirt trail up a hill. Several times Reid steadied himself by placing the hand not gripping Luke’s onto the small of Luke’s back, each time drifting down as he regained his balance. Not that Luke wasn’t already constantly aware of his nether region; the grade of the slope and the tightening of his pants meant that each step reminded him of last night and this morning’s activities. Every twinge, every chafe only heightened the anticipation.
By now even dog walkers had deserted this part of the park. Luke and Reid’s progress was silent except for the raucous calls of bedtime birds. Several turns and path changes later, they arrived at a gentle slope leading to a large outcropping of smooth, flat, bedrock that had been subtly grooved by millions of years of exposure. On top sat a simple square building made entirely of stone.
Luke pulled Reid up the slope toward the building. “Here it is—the oldest structure in the park. It was a fort built for—”
“Don’t care.” Reid came up behind Luke roughly, wrapping one arm around Luke’s chest and grinding their joined hands against Luke’s fly.
“Ungh.” Luke nodded and pulled Reid around to the north side of the fort, completely out of view of the deserted trail. Here the building abutted a wide expanse of flat rock ending in a steep drop to the darkened forest floor far below. Glimpses of Harlem to the north could be seen through the thick trees. Both building and rock were speckled with the amber light of a dying sun.
Backing up so that he was flat against the rough stone of fort wall, pure sex in his eyes, Luke tugged on Reid’s hand, bringing him between Luke’s spread legs. He took Reid’s other hand.
Reid’s eyes flared to match. “Are we there yet?”
Luke licked his lips. “We’re there.”
Reid took their interlocked hands and lifted them, spreading them against the wall on either side, just above their heads. With a languid, almost dreamy smile, Reid’s eyes dropped to Luke’s mouth and he moved in – only to veer at the last moment, landing his lips instead just below Luke’s ear. He pulled the skin against his teeth and soothed it with his tongue as his lower body slowly pressed in. Luke tried to pull his arms down, to take a more active role, but instead settled for thrusting his hips forward to meet and dance with Reid’s. Leisurely, Reid moved down Luke’s neck, nipping and sucking and licking. Still, he held Luke’s arms against the wall, no matter how much Luke strained for release. Luke’s grinding became more pronounced.
“Reid—Reid.” Luke’s eyes were closed, his head rolling against the stone.
“Let me.” His voice was breathy. His body burned.
“Let you what?” Reid’s words were wet against the skin of Luke’s neck.
“Let me love you.”
Luke could feel the sharp burst of breath against his damp flesh, after which neither man seemed to breathe. Then Reid squeezed Luke’s fingers for a brief, painful moment and untangled their hands, lowering his to Luke’s face. With eyes already closed, Reid sank against Luke’s mouth. He breathed into it, breathed from it. Luke wrapped one hand around Reid’s back and the other around his head. He brought everything he had to the kiss, everything he was. The kiss was an endless, unbroken melding of lips and tongues and teeth. (And hearts. My heart.)
Eventually, the involuntary rocking of their hips demanded attention. They broke the seal of their lips, gasping harshly against each other’s wet mouths. With an unbroken gaze, Luke reached over to work on Reid’s belt. Reid reciprocated. After the initial flurry of buckles and zippers and elastic, both men looked down to watch slickened hands rub cocks and hands rub hands and cocks rub cocks. Luke was already so close, just from this, from the hike, from Reid.
“Too long—too long without you inside me.”
Reid closed his eyes. He brought one hand, wet with both of their pre-cum, to cradle Luke’s cheek. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but no words came. A shaft of red-gold light from the west lit his eyes like phosphorescent fire on the surface of a luminescent tropical bay. He kissed Luke softly.
Slowly, with eyes locked on Reid’s, Luke slid his back down the wall to sit on the flat bedrock. Reid knelt between his legs. Luke took one of Reid’s hands and brought it to his mouth, licking the fingers one by one. He lingered on the thumb, sucking it into his mouth, spiraling it with his tongue. Reid swept his other thumb over the slippery head of Luke’s penis and lifted it to Luke’s lips, exchanging it for the cleansed thumb. As Luke tasted himself, Reid leaned in to share with his lips and tongue. His other hand dove into Luke’s hair; Luke’s hands were busy where their hips met. Needing to be closer, Luke broke the kiss just long enough to lift his shirt over his head. Shaking hands then targeted the buttons of Reid’s shirt.
“Luke—we should probably stay as clothed as possible.”
Running his hands inside Reid’s now-open shirt, Luke brought their chests together and kissed the slope of Reid’s neck. “Need—this.”
Reid’s hands were at the back of Luke’s head as they held each other in the dappled light. Luke's mind was at their joined chests, their joined hearts. He was almost close enough. He was almost in.
Luke pushed Reid onto his back so that he was straddling him. He leaned into hands spread over Reid’s heart. Luke drew them down Reid’s abdomen, counting the faint ridges. He drew them into Reid’s hair, around the soft skin of a penis as hard as the ancient rock beneath them.
“I need you inside me. I need this inside me.”
Reid’s hands were at Luke’s waist, on his stomach. His eyes were black. “So get on and ride.”
Digging into a pocket, Luke brought out a small container of lubricant and a single wrapped condom. Reid shifted slightly to reach into his own pocket; he withdrew a similar container and a strip of three condoms. The haze of lust surrounding them lifted long enough to let semi-drunken smiles break through. Then, as if waiting another second would kill him, Luke shoved his pants down to his knees with one hand while ripping the condom open in his teeth with the other. Reid lay back and watched until Luke tossed the tube onto Reid’s chest before rolling the condom down Reid’s length. With hot eyes still on Luke, Reid opened the container, squeezing the lube into Luke’s waiting hands. Luke quickly spread it on Reid, on himself, in himself. He went back for more. Reid continued to watch Luke work, to watch him take the lead. Watched as he slowly, too slowly lowered himself onto Reid, feet flat on either side, the play of light and sweat gilding his upper body with liquid fire. Reid let Luke set the pace even though it seemed as if his restraint were costing him. But it appeared to be a transformative torture; he appeared to be as lost in Luke as he was buried in him, watched him spellbound as Luke rocked and lifted and clenched and ground. Reid seemed transfixed, dazzled, absorbed whole. Luke’s movements became more assured, more insistent, his moans louder. One hand went to his dick, the other to Reid’s chest. Reid’s hands were braced on Luke’s hips as he rode. He watched Luke throw his head back, his hair a radiant halo of last light.
“Say it again.”
“No. What you said before.”
Luke focused on Reid, on what was in his eyes. On what was behind them. What he saw suffused him with the golden glow around them. It lit his soul.
“I love you.”
With a sharp gasp and a silent cry, Reid bucked violently, nearly unseating Luke. But Luke held on, held tight, and joined Reid in release, futilely fighting to muffle his own sounds. His muscles melted and he collapsed, half on top of and half beside Reid. Legs and belts and dicks tangled. Ragged breaths reverberated. Heads turned toward each other. Weakly, Luke lifted a hand to trace a finger down the side of Reid’s neck. He stroked the damp skin at the hollow, then moved his finger up to Reid’s jaw, drawing a line there as well. Reid watched silently, steadily. Now with two fingers Luke smoothed the faint lines between his brows. He lightly followed one eyebrow to the end, then even more lightly brushed the top lash from inner to outer corner. Reid never once blinked. As Luke lifted his fingers from the corner of Reid’s eye, he noticed that they were wet. He touched the side of Reid’s eye again, this time with his thumb. Gently, he smoothed the tears down and away. Luke’s eyes filled as well and, holding his glistening gaze, Reid turned his head slightly into Luke’s hand.
After seconds or minutes, Luke skimmed his hand down to Reid’s chest. Pushing aside the open shirt, he flattened his hand over Reid’s heart.
Reid covered Luke’s hand with his own.
Chapter 15: Saturation
By mutual consent, Luke’s head had moved to Reid’s shoulder. Luke had nuzzled Reid’s open shirt aside so that cheek could touch flesh. Reid’s arm had wrapped up and around into Luke’s hair. Hands remained over heart.
The mottled blanket of light covering them had turned from gold to a deep rose. Talk about afterglow. Luke had never felt so at peace.
“So a fort, huh?”
Luke smiled but didn’t open his eyes. “Mmm-hmm. I could tell you all about the history and everything.”
“And yes, it was magical in the snow.”
“That must have been some trip.”
Luke was still.
“Did you come here with him?”
Now Luke opened his eyes. He lifted his head, propping himself on an elbow. “No—why would you—of course not.”
“You seemed to know right where to come.” Reid's eyes were directed skyward. “I suppose the snow would have made things difficult, but one of you could have leaned against the wall—”
“I told you—things weren’t like that. They were nothing like that. I was here alone.” Luke’s hand flexed on Reid’s chest. “Reid—don’t.”
Reid turned his head to meet Luke’s eyes. He no longer seemed immune to what he found in them.
“It was the second winter without you—after you’d gone. I got a chance to come to New York, and I took it. He couldn’t come—which to be honest was kind of the point. I wanted to be alone. Oh, I had great plans—museums, book readings—and the snow wouldn’t have stopped me from doing any of that, I just—couldn’t get motivated. I’ve spent a lot of the past few years in a kind of lethargy. Like I wasn’t really alive.”
Reid didn’t move, didn’t answer. Didn’t look away.
“So I found myself just wandering the park. Just trying to be somewhere else. Someone else. With someone else.” Luke looked down at their hands. “I imagined what it would have been like seeing everything with you. What it would have been like being here with you. Like this. I played it out in my mind. That’s why I knew where to come.”
Reid lifted his free hand, resting the back against Luke’s cheek. “And the reality?”
Luke tried for coy and failed. “I think you know. The limits of my imagination were reached—oh, sometime last night.” Luke’s eyes fell into shadow. “About the time you first put your mouth on me.”
Reid’s lips parted in a half smile. “You liked that, did you?”
“It was alright. I could give you some pointers.”
Reid’s hand drifted down to Luke’s stomach, where it spiraled languidly. “Yes, you could. And you’re good with your hands, too.”
Luke was becoming too turned on to blush properly. Just a light touch, a few words, that voice – and he was hardening again, no doubt a physiological impossibility. But he’d already given up trying to make sense of anything. About the time Reid had first put his mouth on him.
“What about you?”
“Hmm?” Reid was watching his hand move over Luke’s skin.
“Did the reality disappoint?”
“The look on my face—was it what you expected?”
Reid’s hand slowed. “No. It wasn’t. Nothing’s been what I expected.” He looked up at Luke, his gaze guarded but perceptibly softening. As if it were becoming harder to maintain the mask.
Luke leaned down to kiss Reid. Their skin didn’t slide smoothly everywhere it met.
Reid sat up, wiping his stomach. “We’re going to want to do something about this before it dries completely.”
Luke looked down at the trails of tacky fluid on his own stomach and thighs. A leaking condom lay beside them.
“I’ve got napkins.” Sitting up, Luke rummaged through the tote bag, emerging with napkins from the Shake Shack. He began to clean Reid’s chest and stomach; Reid lay back on his elbows and watched. His unbuttoned shirt slanted open, framing smooth muscle and slick skin. Like a male model. Or a porn star.
Doing his best to ignore his own physical response, Luke moved lower. He strove for professionalism. Good grief, do I have any cum left? Once he’d blotted at stains on Reid’s jeans as best he could, he reached into the bag for more napkins, extending them to Reid. Reid looked down at them. Looked up into Luke’s eyes.
Feeling a frisson of uncertainty, Luke instead began to wipe his own stomach. With disconcerting speed, Reid was on his knees, taking the napkins out of Luke’s hand and placing them on the ground. Pressing his hands against Luke’s shoulders, lowering him onto his back. Still unsure as to Reid’s intent, Luke nonetheless looked up at him with absolute trust.
Reid bent over Luke and began to lap at his chest with languorous strokes. Luke let his head fall back completely and wove his fingers through Reid’s hair. His legs fell open as far as the lowered jeans would allow. Reid slowly moved over Luke’s chest and stomach with his tongue. Luke tried to focus; he thought he felt, for the first time, Reid linger over the thin lines of raised skin that marked Luke’s past. All he could be sure of was of a contrast to that morning’s syrup-related exertions; rather than teasing, Reid’s actions were closer to earnest. As if there were nothing more important in that moment than cleansing Luke Snyder. Than tending to him. Than letting himself, finally, savor Luke’s taste, his smell, his textures. Luke let him taste. Was a willing meal, wished he alone could sustain Reid, that he could provide him with all the nourishment Reid would ever need. For his part, Luke had no doubt that he could live on a diet of Reid alone.
As Reid moved lower, his attentions became even more focused, even more luxuriating. His first touch of Luke’s penis verged on reverent. He cleansed the shaft, the leaking tip. He buried his nose in the base as he supped on Luke’s testicles, pulling at the skin. Slowly sucked them into his mouth and massaged them with his tongue. Luke was transported. He didn’t care about the increasingly loud sounds he supposed were coming from him. Reid didn’t stop him. He didn’t seem to register anything but the flesh filling his mouth. The Luke feast in front of him.
Reid’s mouth moved lower, to the pucker still lax from earlier exercises. He carefully bathed it with his tongue, only briefly pushing inside with the tip. Luke whimpered when Reid withdrew.
Reid looked up. “It’s sore, I know. It was probably too soon after this morning. And last night.”
Luke shook his head from side to side. His eyes were glazed but focused.
Reid’s eyes widened just barely. He wiped his mouth. “Luke—I’m sure there must be pain.”
Luke’s head shaking sharpened.
“It had been a long time—you should probably take it easy for a while.”
The shaking became more frantic.
Reid brought a finger to Luke’s hole, slowly circled. “This doesn’t hurt? No tenderness?”
Luke’s head jerked.
“Not even a little—raw?”
Luke’s penis jerked.
“How about now?” The finger slipped inside.
Reid’s breathing accelerated. He gently began to work the loosened ring of muscle. He pulled out only long enough to apply more lube. Slipped back in.
“Luke—Luke—you’re so open for me.” His tone was soothing. Soothed. “You’re so—the heat. No one burns for me like you. No one takes me in as deep. Only you—only you.”
Hitching a breath, Luke pressed down on Reid’s hand. Reid inserted another finger.
Reid continued to speak, as if to himself. “No one lets me in like you. Why? Why do you let me in—so far—so deep? All the way. What do you see?”
Luke struggled to catch his breath. When his voice came, it was nothing more than a croak. “You. All—for you. Everything.”
Reid closed his eyes. Continued to stretch with his fingers. Continued to feel.
When he spoke, his eyes remained closed. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this—I wasn’t supposed to tell you my room. You weren’t supposed to come in.”
Clumsily, Luke reached for Reid, managing to grab a wrist. He wished he could speak, wished he could find words. Hoped there was time to say them all.
Reid opened his eyes. He reached down to move Luke’s damp hair off his flushed face. Rolled a bundle of strands between his fingers. Without conscious thought, Luke began to rub his own penis with his free hand.
“Here, let me.” Without removing his fingers, Reid placed his other hand over Luke’s. He moved them both up and down Luke’s distended length. Their tandem hands appeared to mesmerize Reid. He followed their movement with an increasingly famished look in his eyes. Eventually, he moved their hands to the base and engulfed the top with his mouth. Hands and lips and tongue and dick converged in a liturgical dance. Reid appeared lost in Luke. Not like before, when he was a passive participant along for Luke’s ride. This was an active worship. He was both giving and taking, more than he ever had before. Somewhere, faintly, Luke thought he could feel the change. Feel the progress. As the sun set, he feared the dawn a little less. Close—so close—
Luke thought he was there when the third finger went in. The stretch was uncomfortable, and he burned in multiple ways. But the pain sharpened his pleasure. It grounded him, bound him to Reid. Kept him fastened to the immediacy of the moment. He wanted to stretch for Reid, to open for him, to hold nothing back. To feel open for him. To feel everything, give everything, make up for everything. I’m here. I’m yours.
And then he felt the fourth finger.
Despite the lack of warning, Reid managed to catch all of Luke’s release. To take all of him in. Like he was starving. He then tenderly washed Luke’s penis with his tongue before laying it on Luke’s stomach. With a regretful look, Reid slowly removed his fingers from Luke’s ass. Even in his blissed-out state, Luke felt the loss. By now the stinging had subsided to numbness. Luke still wanted to feel.
The vivid colors were gone now; all that remained was the flat light of dusk. Luke noticed that Reid was having trouble fastening his jeans.
Reid looked up.
“I can help with that.” Luke remained spread on the stone. All attention was trained on Reid’s erection. Like a hawk watching a squirrel.
“I appreciate the offer, but I think you’ve done enough for one day.”
“Uh-uh. Let me help. Want to.” He licked his lips. “Want more.”
The spark in Reid’s eyes was visible from Jersey. “Haven’t you had enough yet?”
Reid stood motionless for a few moments, then unzipped his fly and straddled Luke’s chest, kneeling by his head. Luke was too spent to move even an arm, but his face was eager. Wanton. He parted bruised lips. With one hand holding his heavy penis, Reid used the other to stroke the line of Luke’s cheek, of his jaw. Resting his fingers there, he lowered the head of his cock to Luke’s lips. Luke’s tongue darted out to taste, then strained upward with lips that looked stained by a cherry blow pop. Reid’s eyes briefly closed as Luke’s mouth surrounded the head with wet heat. Luke weakly tried to lift a hand.
“No, shh—it’s OK—like this.” Reid placed a hand behind Luke’s head and slowly began to thrust into Luke’s open mouth. “It should be easier this way—you can just let go—let go—I’m right here.”
The remaining tension left Luke’s neck as he relaxed his throat and jaw completely.
“Mmm—yeah—like that. Just like that. Ungh—you OK? Feel OK?”
Luke tightened the seal around Reid’s cock. With eyes fixed on Luke’s, Reid gradually increased the pace. Luke focused all of his remaining energy on his mouth; his tongue twirled, he sucked and swallowed, adjusted to changes in rhythm and depth. He took Reid in, as much as he could. He relished the feel of Reid’s cock at the back of his throat, relished the feeling of fullness. Of yielding. Of completion.
Reid’s lids dropped, but they never closed. His eyes never left Luke’s face. So when he saw the subtle change in Luke’s expression, he immediately withdrew from Luke’s mouth. Luke lifted his neck to follow, resisting the loss. The broad tip emerged trailing a thin ribbon of saliva and pre-cum down to his swollen red lips.
Reid’s hand moved back around to Luke’s cheek. “What is it? What is it, babe? You OK?”
Luke nodded, hungry eyes on slickened cock. “I want—” Suddenly, he felt shy. But arousal – and something deeper, more elemental – soon won out. “I want you to fill me again.”
Reid continued to stroke Luke’s cheek, his brow. “No—Luke—that’s not a good idea. Not now.” The hand on his penis began to rub in short, quick strokes. “It’s OK. I can just take care of it myself.”
“No,” Luke gasped, struggling up onto his elbows. The thought of losing Reid’s penis entirely manifested as a physical pain radiating from his core. “Reid, please—I’m so open—it wouldn’t hurt.” It would hurt just enough.
Reid’s chest rumbled. “Luke—I couldn’t—we shouldn’t—”
“I need you, Reid. I need to feel you.” It’s the only way I can be sure that you’re really here. And I know it’s still the only thing you can give me.
“Oh, you’ll be feeing me all right. You’ll be feeling me for a week.”
“It’s not enough.” Luke’s eyes implored. He was naked now; there was no masking the imprint of the years of desolation. “I’ve been so empty—for so long. Fill me, Reid.”
Reid dropped his head, squeezing his eyes shut. “You’re killing me.”
After what felt like geologic time to Luke, Reid exhaled slowly and swung his leg, stretching out on his side next to Luke. As Reid reached for supplies, Luke could feel his slack arousal approaching a Zen-like state.
When Reid was ready, he gently turned Luke on his side so that his back was against Reid’s front. Reid leaned on an elbow and ran his hand from back of neck to small of back. This time there was no mistaking it; Reid bent and kissed along the length of Luke’s transplant scar. Luke was in complete surrender. Had relinquished everything. Was Reid’s, inside and out. But especially inside.
Reid’s long, skillful fingers played over the smooth curve of Luke’s bottom. Kneaded and skimmed. Fitted into the upper fissure and slowly drew down. Luke arched his back, shimmying slightly.
Reid mouthed Luke’s shoulder. “Who knew you’d be this insatiable?”
Luke’s words were slurred. “Your fault—you’re the one who woke me.”
“With a kiss on your cock?” He brushed his nose along the back of Luke’s neck. “You are a beauty when you sleep. But why do I feel more like Doctor Frankenstein?”
“Yeah, I can feel the flames. You burn hot.”
Luke pressed back against the hard heat of Reid. “Only for you.”
Reid wrapped his arm around Luke’s chest and hugged him close, resting his face in the slope of Luke’s neck. His hand drifted to Luke’s abdomen but avoided his oversensitive penis. Eventually, Reid pulled his hand back, inching slightly lower and shifting Luke’s bent top leg forward. With freshly lubricated fingers, he carefully parted Luke’s cheeks.
This is it. This is everything. The stretch was exquisite as Reid slid home. His hand securely gripped Luke’s hip; the other arm lay under Luke’s head.
Luke’s groan was pornographic.
Smiling against Luke’s neck, Reid began to rock his hips. Sways turned into circles turned into thrusts. Shallow movements grew deeper. Quiet pants gave way to low hums. Awarenesses aligned. Converged.
His mind swathed in gauze, Luke somehow managed to find the fingers of Reid’s hand and bring them to his mouth. He wet them with his tongue, licking between and around, bases to tips. Drew them in. Applied suction.
Groaning, Reid picked up the pace, the fingers of his other hand curling into Luke’s hip. Back and chest met in a scorching seal of sweat and pressure. One hand at Reid’s wrist, holding it steady as he sucked, Luke dropped the other hand to his penis. Although still somewhat over-stimulated, it was already half-hard. Ignoring the abused nerves, Luke pumped it with his fist, imagining it was Reid’s hand. Imagined being enveloped as well as penetrated.
He didn’t have to imagine for very long. Still thrusting, Reid gently tilted Luke so that he was partially lying on his stomach. No longer needing his hand for leverage, Reid instead moved it to encircle Luke’s hand and dick. Luke slid his hand from beneath Reid’s, allowing direct access to what burned only for him. Luke reached back, seeking Reid’s skin, landing on firmly flexing power and smooth grace.
There was nothing more Luke could give Reid, no space Reid hadn’t filled. No part that wasn’t saturated with Reid.
They came together. Like one being with two hearts and two dicks. Perhaps one had triggered the other; Luke couldn’t tell. Could only feel and smell and taste Reid. Heard his breathing slow by degrees. Thought he heard, might have heard a whisper by his ear. The faint movement of air and lips.
It was worth it.
Luke was having trouble with his pants. He had tried to lift them while lying on the ground; didn’t happen. Kneeling almost worked – strength had sufficiently returned, but the pull and scrape of the denim was a problem. Finally, after pushing with his hands to a standing position, the path was clear. Though he wondered when his underwear had shrunk. And become made of burlap. He checked Reid over his shoulder, relieved that his struggles seemed to have gone unseen. That his winces had been successfully suppressed.
“We should get you checked out next week. Make sure nothing’s damaged. I am unusually large, after all.”
Luke spun to look at Reid, but all he saw was a jeans-cupped ass as Reid bent to pick up the tote bag. Luke had no better luck when Reid handed him the bag – reading Reid’s face proved impossible in the tricky light that remained.
“So how does one catch a cab out of this wilderness?”
“Huh? Oh, we can head out that way.” Luke pointed toward the northwest corner of the park, where lights twinkled through trees.
Reid nodded and stepped from stone to dirt. He turned back, holding out his hand.
Before joining Reid, Luke took one last look around them, telling himself it was only to make sure nothing had been left behind.
“Oh, Reid, is this your—” Luke bent to pick something up.
“Yes, thanks, must have fallen out.” Reid was back to Luke in seconds. Seconds too late. Luke’s hand tightened reflexively as Reid attempted to grab the object. Luke’s slack face drew closer to its glow.
Luke held it up. “When did you take this?”
Reid looked only at Luke. He shrugged. “Last night.”
Luke looked down again at his hand. At the phone in it. At the image of Luke’s sleeping face. Luke searched for thoughts and words. “But—when?” Not this morning—we woke up the same way we’d fallen asleep. Last night, last night—ah, when I woke alone in the bed. When Reid was working. When I had a sheet over me.
Reid’s face was still unreadable. Where are city lights when you need them?
Suddenly, Luke remembered Reid’s words: “You are a beauty when you sleep.” How long had he watched him? What did it mean? And for him to have made it the home image—Luke had forgotten he’d asked an actual question until Reid answered.
“After you’d fallen asleep. The first time.”
Luke tried another one. “Why?”
“I needed a replacement.”
Not an answer Luke had been expecting. His confusion was apparent even in the failing light.
“I’d deleted the others.”
Reid was quiet for a moment. “The first was of you on the mechanical bull. I deleted it after Noah’s surgery—I was so sure you’d get back together.”
Luke was glad he had trouble seeing Reid’s expression.
“I regretted it the moment it I did it. But I didn’t take another—didn’t want to jinx things. Until I finally thought it was safe—that day at the pond. In the hailstorm. You were plastered against me like lichen, with that besotted grin—and I was pretending to hate it. To be preoccupied with important cell phone business. You never suspected a thing.”
And then Noah called. It just keeps getting worse.
“I kept it, though. After. Knew I’d never get another. And kept it there, on the main screen. Even when I’d change phones. Hated myself, of course, my weakness—but I couldn’t let you go. Every time—I’d feel the pain. The loss. The love. It was a constant reminder never to let myself slip again. And the thing was—it was pretty much the only time I’d ever feel anything. So I kept it.”
By now Reid’s voice had emptied. Had hollowed. The phone had become a sinister presence in Luke’s hand.
“Until last night. I finally deleted it, after all those years. Just as soon as you left the ballroom. Gone. I wanted it gone. Having you in front of me again—the pain would no longer have been an abstraction. I’d seen you. I’d heard you. I’d breathed you in. It had all become too—raw. Like I was back to square one. Like you were at my door again telling me you were going to marry him.”
“And of course Alex had seen it. It was one of the reasons he’d been able to figure out who you were. Who you’d been.” Reid’s voice was as inscrutable as his expression. “But then I got over it. Then I just wanted to fuck you.”
And you took another picture. Why? Because it was safe again? Doubtful—more likely because you thought it would be your only chance. That first time was so—bleak. Mind-blowing but bleak. No, that won’t do at all.
“Take another one.”
“Now. Take one of me now. Awake. This thing has a flash, right?” Luke held out the phone for Reid to take. Luke felt the scrutiny even if he couldn’t exactly see it.
Reid took the phone from Luke. Silently, he lifted it and aimed. Luke didn’t smile. For once, he didn’t curse his mobile features, his ridiculously expressive eyes. He used them. Summoned all his powers of transparency and bored a hole right through the lens (or where he guessed it was). Reid would know, would feel exactly what Luke was thinking, was feeling every time he turned on his phone. Would see the words burning from Luke’s eyes.
I love you.
Reid took the picture.
Luke walked past Reid and began to descend the trail.
“Don’t you want to take one, too? I would have thought it’d be right up your sentimental alley.”
Luke didn’t turn back. “Don’t need one.”
It was easier than Luke had expected finding a taxi willing to take them to Brooklyn.
“You did not just say Brooklyn.”
Luke smiled enigmatically. “The night is young.”
They weren’t technically touching, but the gap was narrow. Their thighs brushed with each pothole. And Reid had established himself on Luke’s half of the seat.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I can’t go to Brooklyn right now.”
“And why not?”
“Don’t have my passport.”
Shoulder swat. “If you don’t behave, I happen to know of a bar on the Lower East Side with a mechanical bull.”
The cab interior heated. “Is that supposed to be some kind of threat? I’m not the one who’d suffer.”
Luke’s involuntary clench only reminded him of his discomfort. A discomfort he filthily wallowed in. His hand traveled to Reid’s upper thigh.
“So where did you say we were going? To see ‘Dumbo’? ’Cause I’m telling you right now: I’m not afraid to cry.”
Luke smiled at the image. “No, DUMBO. As in, ‘Down Under the Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass.’ More like under the Brooklyn Bridge, really. There’s a great art scene there. Amazing views. Famous food.”
Reid slanted Luke a cautious look. “And in which of those three will we be partaking?”
Luke couldn’t help but slouch in his seat slightly. “All three.”
“Really? What flavor of art?”
“Not a fan of surprises.”
“You’ve been doing pretty well so far.”
Reid’s hand covered Luke’s. “You’ve been making it worth my while.”
“Then trust me.”
The taxi sped through a city as dark as it ever got. Reid fiddled with his phone.
“Your phone’s been awfully quiet today. I’ve never seen you go so long without getting a call or a text.”
“I turned off the sound.”
"So it's on vibrate?"
“Wow—really? Is that a good idea?”
Luke laughed weakly. “I hope no one’s died.”
As Luke worked to calm his racing thoughts, Reid continued to work his phone.
I wonder if he’s changed the photo yet.
“OK, what the fuck is St. Ann’s Warehouse and why are you taking me there?”
Luke stopped his surreptitious straining for a glimpse at Reid’s phone. He straightened, startled. “How did you—?”
“You told the cabbie 38 Water Street.”
Luke dropped his head. Reid held his thumb over his phone threateningly.
“Their website is but a click away.”
“OK. Fine. We’re going to see a show.”
Luke evaluated potential answers.
“Will we be watching the storage of goods? Loading and unloading? Meat-packing, perhaps?”
“Are we going to a revival meeting? Will you be asking St. Ann to save me from my wicked ways?”
“Definitely not. Anyway, I’ve already had my religious experience for the evening.”
Their fingers interlaced on Reid’s thigh.
Luke continued in a small voice, “There may be another type of revival involved, though.”
Reid sighed. “The singing type?”
“What was on my list, Luke? I said no Broadway shows.”
“Are we anywhere near Broadway?”
Reid looked at Luke through eyes like slits. “Someone’s asking to be punished.”
“Is that supposed to be a threat?”
“This story never ends well.” Reid looked around skeptically.
Even Luke was a bit unsettled by the desolate neighborhood in which the taxi had left them. The streets were lined with monolithic warehouse- and factory-like structures.
“Um, I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Yes. I hear post-industrial wastelands inspire all the best art.”
“I guess this is it.” They approached a long, squat block of a building with blood-red lettering along the side. “I read it used to be a spice warehouse.”
“Of course you did. I don’t suppose you also read what show we’ll be seeing?”
Luke didn’t answer as they entered the building. He led Reid by the hand into the cavernous and crowded interior.
“Yup. Looks like a warehouse. Who would’ve thought I’d be missing nature already?”
Luke could tell the moment Reid saw the signs above the box office and on the wall. His unease grew in proportion to the length of Reid’s silence. He squeezed Reid’s hand.
Luke felt compelled to fill the vacuum. “I know it’s no Turandot—I mean, if I hadn’t already gotten tickets to this—but it’s kind of an opera, right? An operetta? Actually, we just missed an international toy theater festival here—apparently, there were all these tiny sets, including one for Turandot, complete with little decapitated heads on spikes—you know, belonging to all the suitors who couldn’t solve the riddles—”
Reid put an end to the babbling. “I like chess, and I’m gay. Ergo, I must like be a fan of the musical ‘Chess.’ Is that how the thinking went?”
Luke’s features scrunched as he watched Reid’s profile.
Reid slowly turned his face toward Luke. “You always could see right through me.” He treated Luke to the widest smile he’d yet seen from this version of Reid. Luke was dazzled. And relieved.
“Really? You’re not secretly groaning?”
“Luke, you’ll know when I’m groaning.”
They moved into the ticket line. Reid casually ran his fingers up and down Luke’s back.
Luke still couldn’t believe his luck. “Seriously? You’re not just trying to spare my feelings?”
The look Luke received in response was appropriately Reid-like. “Would you feel better if I told you that, while I thought Idina Menzel was an appropriate choice for the concert version, Adam Pascal was no Murray Head?”
Now it was Luke’s turn to smile broadly. He fitted himself against Reid’s side.
Reid rolled his eyes and rested his hand on Luke’s waist. “You’re so easily pleased.” In turn, Luke’s hand moved to the back of Reid’s belt. And up under the bottom of Reid’s shirt.
“Mmm, pleasing you seems to have its benefits. OK, how about this: I’m such a fan that I saw it in London years ago. After Anthony Stewart Head had taken over for his brother.”
“You know, Giles. From that show.”
Luke straightened and placed both hands flat against Reid’s chest. “‘That show’? You mean ‘Buffy,’ don’t you? I love it! You are totally a Buffy fan.”
Reid tried to appear nonchalant. “Isn’t everyone?”
“Ha, I knew it. The minute you called Oakdale ‘Hellmouth’ back in the park. Don’t tell me—you had a thing for Angel.”
Reid’s withering look could have deforested Central Park. “Please. If I liked tall, dark, and dull I would have gone for your ex. A little brooding goes a long way.”
Luke would have cringed had he not been in such a wonderful mood. If anything, his face became brighter. “Ah, of course! Dangerous wit, extreme cockiness, hot, tight little body—”
“Don’t forget superhuman sexual prowess.”
“It all fits. You are Spike. Figures there’s no one you’d love more than yourself.”
Just as Luke was trying to think of a clever way to compare himself to Buffy, he saw the look on Reid’s face. It pinned him in place. He took a mental picture for his mind’s home screen.
Impatient noises behind them alerted Luke that they had reached the box office window. After collecting their tickets, Luke joined the slow-moving crowd funneling through the curtain to the performance area while Reid left for the men’s room after a final squeeze of Luke’s waist.
“Been here before?”
Luke turned to see a striking man with carefully casual brown hair and intense hazel eyes.
“What? No, actually.” Luke forgot himself for a moment. The man’s gaze was disconcertingly direct. He looked at Luke as if he were a piece of candy. Something suckable.
“It’s not a bad place. Always something interesting.” He held out his hand. “I’m Brian.”
Luke wasn’t sure why, but he hesitated to take it.
“I’m Dr. Reid Oliver.”
Reid eased beside Luke, slipping his hand low around Luke’s waist. Almost unthinkingly, Luke molded himself to Reid’s side. Reid’s hand disappeared into Luke’s jeans. Brian dropped his hand, smiling as if he’d just heard a dirty joke.
“Pleasure to meet you, Doctor,” he drawled. A blind barista could have recognized the naked interest in his eyes. “You two have plans after the show?”
Luke’s mouth dropped. Reid seemed unfazed. The fingers of his hidden hand played subtly.
“I’m afraid we do. It’s our last night here.”
The crowd continued to shuffle. The trio was almost to the curtain.
Brian cocked his head. “Aw, such a shame. Well,” a card appeared in his hand, “should your plans change.”
Before Luke realized what had happened, he found himself holding the card. With a last, lingering look, Brian disappeared in the crush.
Luke had yet to close his mouth. “Well. I don’t think we’re in Middle America any more.”
Reid removed his hand from Luke’s waistband and guided him up the shallow stairs along the side of the theater, his hand on the small of Luke’s back. “You’d be surprised.”
Ohh. Is that how it usually happens? Straight-forward, no-strings? Is that how it happened for Reid? In Dallas? In Boston? (In Oakdale?) Luke derailed his train of thought. It didn’t matter. The focus now was the future.
Before Luke could read what was on the card, it had been transferred to Reid’s fingers. And then was gone. Reid’s hand was warm against Luke’s back as they made their way down the row to their seats.
“You won’t be needing that tonight.”
The combination of words and sitting reminded Luke whom he belonged to. Not that he was likely to forget. And he was finally beginning to allow thoughts of mutual ownership. This man—this beautiful, desirable man. I know him so well. All the important bits. And he knows me, inside and out. Luke spread his fingers through the waves at the back of Reid’s head. He leaned into Reid’s neck and breathed him in. He felt his scent permeate his tissues. It was a balm for his intimate aches.
“We may not be in Middle America, but even Sodom probably frowns upon public fornication.” Reid’s pliant posture belied his chiding words.
“The lights will be off soon.”
“Yes, but the giant video screens might brighten the place up.” Reid’s droll tone caught Luke’s attention.
“Oh. Right. This, uh, isn’t your typical revival.”
“Yeah. Apparently this company is into experimental, multimedia stuff. You know, superimposed video and weird sounds.”
“How very cutting-edge.” Reid looked around at all the young, white faces. “Are you sure I’m not too old for such a hip, New York theater experience?”
“It’s OK, you can say you’re with me.”
Reid smiled into Luke’s eyes. “Thanks—I’ll make sure to let everyone know we’re together.”
Luke let the contentment in. Offered it a beverage.
He observed how well the curve of his palm fit the back of Reid’s head. “It might be a little weird, but it’s gotten great reviews. The music should be mostly intact. There just might be some, you know, avant-garde trappings.”
The lights dimmed. The avant-garde trappings consisted mostly of silver-space-suit costumes and the simultaneous projection of a 1960s sci-fi B-movie. Luke was sure it was all somehow profound. Reid looked less convinced.
The musical numbers were, however, largely unchanged. Luke had been unfamiliar with story; from what he could tell it involved cold-war tensions and a rivalry between two chess masters over winning not just matches but also the love of a woman. The music was catchy. At first he just enjoyed the ABBA-esque melodies and powerful voices. After a while lyrics began to penetrate. One of the chess masters was singing.
Don't get me wrong
I'm not complaining
Times have been good
But what's the point
If I'm concealing
Not only love
All other feeling.
Now I'm where I want to be
and who I want to be
and doing what I always said I would
and yet I feel I haven't won at all
Luke couldn’t help but think of Reid and his successful, sterile life before Oakdale. Before Luke. Before he’d even realized there’d been anything missing. Luke stopped his thoughts from drifting to Reid’s life in Boston – after he’d learned to let love in. After he’d learned what losing love was like.
Instead, Luke spent time trying to decipher the plot of the sci-fi movie. The title had been something about vampires, but as far as Luke could tell the danger was in zombie form. Specifically, zombie chess pieces. By the time Luke’s mind returned to the music, the heroine was singing.
I love him too much,
What if he saw
My whole existence
Turning around a word,
A smile, a touch.
One of these days,
And it wont be long,
He'll know more about me
Than he should.
All my dreams will be understood,
Nothing more to learn
From the look in my eyes
The day that I find,
Suddenly I've run
Out of secrets,
Suddenly I'm not
Always on his mind.
Luke frowned. Huh. Not quite the upbeat romantic tale I’d been expecting. Luke ignored any twinges of disquiet. There’s no such thing as being too open—
Luke tuned out again, preferring to focus on the entertainment next to him. Luke had grown addicted to the sounds and cadence of Reid’s breathing. It was an almost extrasensory attunement – Luke didn’t have to hear Reid’s breaths to feel them. To feel minute shifts in depth and frequency. The faint whooshes of Reid’s exhalations had become Luke’s personal sound machine – they relaxed him, lulled him. Reassured him. It was at the point where Luke doubted he could fall asleep without Reid’s specific rhythms. At the moment he could both hear and feel Reid’s rise and fall. The subtle vibrations of both breath and pulse traveled along Luke’s arm where it lay next to Reid’s on the armrest between them. Luke studied where their pinkies met. He watched Reid’s chest out of the corner of his eye. He matched their breaths.
Still I love you completely and hope I always will
Each day we get through means one less mistake left for the making
Luke listened to the main couple duet. That’s more like it. He turned to Reid, catching his eye. Reid’s gaze was steady and soft. Luke rested his head on Reid’s shoulder and tried to figure out why there were Martians on the stage.
It wasn’t until later that another woman’s impassioned performance lured Luke in to attending to the lyrics again.
And though I move my world to be with him, still the gap between us is too wide…Isn’t it madness he won't be mine…Didn't I know how it would go…from the start—
Luke shut down quickly. Peeking at Reid obliquely, Luke didn’t think he saw anything worrisome. Isn’t it time for another chess tournament already? How about some more zombies?
He looked back down at their paired hands. I love his hands. His fingers. With slow strokes, Luke outlined each of Reid’s elegant, powerful fingers. Delicately, he ran down their lengths. He traced tendons, blood vessels, up to the wrist. He lingered over faint marks. He counted hairs. With a tender, nurturing touch, he massaged each nail, smoothing tops and edges. He massaged lower, entire fingers, an inch at a time. Index. Middle. Ring. At the base of the ring finger, he paused. He hadn’t even realized it at first. He just knew he couldn’t move on, couldn’t take his eyes off that particular patch of skin. Of bare skin. Of his left hand.
Eventually, Luke felt Reid’s eyes on him. Luke looked up. Reid’s gaze was steady again, but it was no longer soft. Yet it hadn’t hardened, not exactly; the gates hadn’t shut, but the sentries had been awoken from their naps, though at this point they were more curious than hostile. Luke returned the gaze, once again counting on the look in his eyes to reveal his dreams, his secrets. This time, the message was just as clear.
I’d say yes.
The gates shut. There was no slamming, no agonizing scrape of metal or shrieking of gears. Just a firm, gentle closure. A slow but deliberate withdrawal of hand. Reid turned back to the stage.
Luke turned inward. To where his insides were supposed to be.
Knowing I want you
Knowing I love you
To my despair
Knowing I’ve lost you
Luke could no longer keep the lyrics from infiltrating. Dully, he noted that the main couple was duetting again. That it seemed to be nearing the end of the show if a stage littered with zombie-killed characters was any indication.
I've been a fool to allow
Dreams to become
Luke aimed for numb. He didn’t want there to be any more tears.
You could not give me
More than you gave me
He thought he sensed a slight tension in Reid’s body. He couldn’t decide if that would be a good thing or not. The rest of the lyrics fell in rapid succession, like hail striking the roof of a car. Striking flesh.
Though my heart is breaking
I'd give the world for that moment with you
When we thought we knew
That our love would last
But the moment passed
With no warning, far too fast
But here we are today, and it’s over
Hold me and tell me
We’ll meet again
One happy moment
All characters, dead and alive, were now on the stage. Sliver space suits glinted under colored lights. Chess pieces swayed in time. Luke waited for the uplifting resolution – for the main couple to fly off into the sunset on their spaceship.
But we go on pretending
Stories like ours
Have happy endings
The audience applauded.
Wait, that’s it? That’s the END?
Disclaimer: All lyrics in chapter 16 are by Tim Rice from the musical "Chess" (an amalgam of both the original and concert versions). "Chess" does not normally involve zombies. Or spaceships.
Chapter 17: Enter the Gates of the Ferry and Cross from Shore to Shore
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It was the end.
Luke and Reid remained in their center seats as the isles became congested. Luke used the time to collect himself, to mute the lyrics ringing in his head. To curb the tears. He suspected he hadn’t been entirely successful when he turned to find Reid looking at him with a faintly wary expression.
“I, um, thought they’d end up together.”
Reid continued to stare at Luke for another beat before speaking. “He went back to the Soviet Union for her, so that her father would be released. Anyway, he did already have a wife and kids.”
“Oh.” Luke wished now he’d paid closer attention to the plot.
“You didn’t like it.”
“What? No—it was—the music was great. The melodies. And the zombie chess pieces were…scary.”
“Right. There hadn’t been quite as many gruesome deaths in the versions I’d seen.”
“I guess they might have been trying a little too hard to make the two stories fit.”
Reid stood. “Maybe you had to be a film student to appreciate the brilliance.”
Luke looked at Reid sharply, but his back was already turned. Luke followed him out of the theater and onto the street, where they hesitated in the midst of a milling mass. The moon was high and full, which almost made a difference in the sparsely lit block.
They stood as if someone were between them. Luke’s hands were stuffed into the front pockets of his jeans. He had yet to gauge Reid’s mood.
“It’s getting late.”
Luke blanched. He could hardly have imagined a more dire response; his throat began to close.
In case of emergency, break glass.
“I just thought you might like to try the best pizza in New York.”
Reid froze, then tilted his head back slightly. He looked at Luke as if he’d unexpectedly captured Reid’s queen. “I suppose you did promise ‘famous food.’”
Air began to pass more freely. “And we can eat it with an ‘amazing view.’”
Reid’s face was shadowed. Neither moonlight nor streetlight could touch it. “I guess I’ve trusted you this far.”
Luke was sure relief showed on his face to a pathetic degree. He was past caring. Without removing his hands, he tilted his head and turned left. Reid matched his steps as they walked toward the sparkling lights of Manhattan as framed by the Brooklyn Bridge.
“See? It’s already a great view.”
Reid checked his phone.
The air was heavy with late-summer humidity. The barometric pressure was beginning to oppress.
Pizza will make everything better.
They crossed under the bridge in silence. Luke looked back to see the illuminated span of the Manhattan Bridge behind them. The scope of achievement represented by the massive bridges should have been inspiring – instead, lyrics echoed in Luke’s head: “still the gap between us is too wide.” Frustration began to overwhelm.
Other remembered lyrics didn’t help. “One happy moment”—is that how you still view our meeting again? As something to be enjoyed while it lasts? Haven’t we moved beyond that yet? Luke thought they had, that it was finally safe to allow thoughts of a future together. But he couldn’t help but be unsettled by how untroubled Reid seemed by the story’s resolution. How accepting he was of the finality of it, of the idea that a couple could love each other but not end up together.
He remembered another line, this one from Reid as he wiped away Luke’s tears on the bed in the hotel room: “It’s OK. I know we weren’t meant to be.” Dread pooled in his stomach like liquid mercury, shiny and toxic.
“I've been a fool to allow dreams to become great expectations.”
We should have seen Turnadot. At least that had a happy ending.
Luke mentally slapped himself as they approached the end of the street. His wallowing days were over. He focused instead on the progress, on the resolve to make it to the end by Reid’s side, no matter how many land mines were detonated along the way. But what about the day when he knows more about you than he should? When there are no more surprises? Luke gagged that inner voice. He stuffed it in a trunk and locked it in a wine cellar.
Pizza pizza pizza—
They turned the corner and ran into the end of the line for Grimaldi’s Pizzeria. The entrance of which could barely be seen at the far end of the block.
No, wait—it’s OK. Down, panic, down. “Come on, we just need takeout.”
They’ll probably be closing for the night before most of these people ever get inside. Ignoring Reid’s skeptical expression, Luke grabbed his arm and marched to the beginning of the line. Where he saw the sign taped to the door:
“Take out is the same line.”
Panic didn’t even bother to rise up threateningly again. It didn’t have to. Luke simply capitulated. He stood there, collapsing into himself, under the green and red sign promising a coal brick oven, next to a store renting chairs for queuing customers. It was like a creeping paralysis, a mind-wiping hopelessness. It’s just pizza.
He knew it wasn’t.
At some point Luke had dropped Reid’s arm; therefore he didn’t at first notice when Reid approached the man appearing in the doorway to call people in. Luke watched with a sort of detached attention as Reid spoke with the man and then followed him inside. Not quite trusting his current stupefied state, and fully expecting to be stopped, it took Luke a few moments to open the door and venture inside to look for Reid.
He stepped into a churning sea of red-and-white-checked tablecloths, lively voices, and brick-oven smells. An entire wall was dedicated to Sinatra. Another wall featured a Brando poster claiming he was “gonna make you a pizza you can’t refuse.” Pizza-makers at the far end performed behind plexiglass, a ballet of dough-flattening and pepperoni-arranging and oven-wrangling. A heart-broken Freddy Mercury provided the accompaniment:
Love of my life, don't leave me
You've taken my love; you now desert me
Love of my life, can't you see
Bring it back, bring it back
Don't take it away from me
Because you don't know
What it means to me
You will remember
When this is blown over
And everything's all by the way
When I grow older
I will be there at your side to remind you
How I still love you
I still love you
ENOUGH WITH THE LYRICS.
“Are you looking for someone?” The man from outside spoke to Luke with an exasperated tinge.
“Um, well, I was just—” Luke searched through the crowd.
“The line’s outside.”
“Yes, I know, but my—my friend—”
The man began to herd Luke backward. Just as Luke was at the door, the sea parted. Reid strode through the restaurant, two large pizza boxes and two bottles of root beer balanced in his arms. The man stepped aside as Reid exited. Luke dazedly followed outside.
Reid stopped and turned. “I used my people skills. Where to now?”
They ate the pizza by the water, on a large wooden pier surrounded by, yes, amazing views. The sweeping lights of Manhattan reflected as a softly shimmering rainbow on the surface of the East River. The site of the first ferry crossing between Brooklyn and Manhattan, the pier had been restored a century after the bridges had caused the ferries’ decline. Luke and Reid sat on a curved metal bench designed to evoke the cleats used on ships to secure rope. Each man had a pizza box in his lap. By now Reid’s contained one slice, Luke’s half a pie.
Reid’s answering nod was blink-quick.
“I’m not even going to pretend to be surprised that you got them to put on what looks like every possible topping. I’ve never actually had anchovies on pizza before. They’re not too bad. And I’m thinking these are—capers?”
“Saltiness makes everything better. As does cheese. And garlic.”
Luke was glad to see signs of spring. “So?”
“How does it rate?”
“Acceptable. For a thin-crust, Italian pizza.”
“Let me guess—you’re a deep-dish guy?”
“More like Boston-Greek. Spongy, crusty, pan-cooked, cheap cheddar, oozing grease—no comparison.”
“You must be happy to be back, then.”
“It was certainly something I missed.” Reid leaned over to take a slice out of Luke’s box.
“Which is your favorite pizza place?”
“But that would be like choosing among my children.” Reid chewed thoughtfully. “I suppose the one I missed the most was this little shop in Watertown. The owner and I used to commiserate about the Red Sox.”
“You’ll have to take me there.”
Reid swallowed. Wiped his hands and placed the empty box on the ground. Stood. He walked to the railing, bending over it, his back to Luke.
Luke joined him at the railing. He was sure his heartbeats were audible. As he leaned over the water, he noticed words etched into the top of the metal fence that surrounded the pier on three sides. They appeared to form part of a poem. He looked at the particular word he was leaning against. What kind of poem uses the word “throb”? He stepped back to read the full line.
“Throb, baffled and curious brain!”
He exhaled sharply. Reid’s head didn’t move from its bowed position. Luke moved down to read the next line: “Throw out questions and answers!”
OK, universe. I get it. It’s time.
“You’re pulling away.”
Reid said nothing. Luke waited. Lapping sounds lulled.
“You want more than I can give.”
Luke faced Reid. “I do want a lot. You’re right. I want it all. I want the happy ending. I don’t care about your wife and kids.”
Reid continued to look down at the dark water.
“And maybe you can’t give it now, give it yet, but I’m willing to wait. I’ll just be waiting in Boston.”
Reid closed his eyes.
“There’s no life without you, Reid. Not any more. And it has nothing to do with the sex. OK, maybe a little.”
Again, Reid didn’t smile at Luke’s weak attempt at humor. He simply looked weary.
“I’m serious, Reid. I’m never letting you go again. You’re just going to have to deal with that.”
“So why did you?”
Reid’s eyes had opened, but they were directed downward. “Why did you let me go?”
Luke was unexpectedly shattered by Reid’s soft tone. “I—I told you. I was weak and confused and self-destructive. I knew it was a mistake the minute I told Noah yes.” Luke noticed Reid’s left hand twitch. “By the time I'd realized the extent of the disaster, you were gone.”
“So why didn’t you come after me?”
There it was. The one question Luke had been dreading most. The question that revealed what he had hated most about himself. The part he still hated. His insecurity. The crippling self-doubt that had been hobbling his attempts at happiness for years. That he’d been using as a sort of perverse crutch to avoid making the hard decisions. No more.
“At first, I felt I wasn’t good enough to be with you. Sure, I knew being with Noah was wrong, but the way I figured, I didn’t deserve what was right. And then I had to make it work with him—I certainly couldn’t admit defeat. As long as we were together, I wouldn’t have to confront the full reality of what I’d done, that I’d thrown away the greatest thing that had ever come into my life. That I’d thrown it away for a mistake. Pretending that Noah and I were in a relationship was the only way I could keep myself from falling into total despair.”
Still, Reid didn’t look at Luke. “And then? When it did end? What, a year ago? If you thought you weren’t alive without me, if you were imagining skipping through parks with me—what stopped you from coming to me then? You obviously knew where to find me. What took you so long, Luke?”
Luke tried to catch his breath. The attempt was mostly unsuccessful.
Reid turned his head to look at Luke. His eyes were as empty as his almost-smile. “Of course, the truth is—you never did, did you? You never did come after me.”
Luke started to speak, but Reid cut him short. “And I actually thought you had—at first. When Alex called me over. I thought ‘this is it’—finally—you’d come looking for me. After all those years—waiting—” Reid shook his head briskly. “But then it quickly became clear that you hadn’t expected to run into me. That running into me had been the last thing on your mind.”
“That’s not true. You’ve always been first, Reid. Front and center. Why else would I have been wandering around a room full of neurosurgeons? I was looking for you there before I’d even known there was the possibility I might find you. That’s what I did, Reid. That’s how I’d been living my pathetic life.”
“Well that was a pretty lousy way of looking. Especially considering you knew exactly where I was.”
“You’re right—but part of me was terrified of actually finding you. I was sure you’d want nothing to do with me. After all this time, after what I’d done—how was I supposed to have any idea that you’d still want me? I mean, I’d pretty much convinced myself that it had been a fluke that you’d wanted me in the first place, some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, or the warping effects of Oakdale’s limited dating pool. And the more time that passed, the more I was sure you’d forgotten about me—or, if not, that your memories had turned more and more bitter. That you were like, ‘what the heck was I thinking?’ That the last thing you would ever want would be a surprise call, or visit, from some college-dropout hick, some needy, smothering drunk with only one kidney—which I know you noticed. I mean, come on, who would want that?” Luke cursed the tears he could no longer stop.
Reid straightened slowly. He turned to face Luke with his entire body. His voice sounded like a lion on a leash. “You thought I wouldn’t want you? You thought I wouldn’t—” His breaths appeared carefully controlled. “Luke. I haven’t wanted anyone but you. Not since the first time I heard your voice.”
Luke’s lips formed a rueful twist. “I’m not talking sexually—”
“Neither am I.” Reid took a step forward, reducing the gap. “I haven’t been with anyone else since I heard your voice.”
Luke was too stunned even to blink. He was sure he’d misheard.
“Do you honestly think that would have been the case had I only wanted you sexually? Believe me, you can lust after someone and still fuck other people. I couldn’t even—look at anyone else. And God knows I tried. Guys who looked like you—guys who didn’t look like you—I even got myself checked out. I mean, come on, no one could be that fucking in love with someone. Certainly a man couldn’t. But even when I tried to imagine it was you—” Reid looked out at the water. At the glittering skyline just across the river. Almost close enough to touch. “After a while, I stopped trying. I was half-way resigned to being a fucking monk for the rest of my life.” His laugh was a harsh rasp. “And you thought I wouldn’t want you.”
Luke’s mind was still in stasis. Until a memory flashed – images, sounds. Of the ferocity in Reid’s face, his eyes, his cries – when he was inside Luke for the first time. When he asked Luke how many there had been. Luke crumpled over the railing, clung to it, the etched words pressing into his stomach. The smell of stagnant water filled his nose, his mouth. Tears hit the river. He imagined he could hear the splashes.
Reid leaned against the railing beside him. His loud breaths could be heard above the sound of the strengthening wind. Their upper arms barely brushed.
When Luke spoke, his voice was small. “So why didn’t you ever come after me?”
“I figured you were still with him.”
“And I loved you enough to want you happy. I’d hoped that losing you had, shall we say, opened his eyes. That he’d somehow, miraculously, become a better man. Someone who appreciated you, who finally treated you the way you deserved. Regardless—I didn’t want to cause you any more pain. You’d made your choice.”
Luke lifted his head, watched the slow-moving lights drift across the Brooklyn Bridge. He felt the weight of that bridge on his chest.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“I didn’t expect you did.”
“You have to know – I never, ever stopped loving you.”
“Neither did I.”
Luke nearly fell over. His head snapped around. Reid met his eyes. Luke tried to speak, to form words with uncooperative lips.
“Am I really that hard to read?”
Luke made assorted sputtering sounds.
A shade of a smile colored Reid’s eyes and lips. “I let you take me to Brooklyn.”
Luke laughed hoarsely, cathartically. He leaned incrementally closer to Reid. Music drifted from the direction of Brooklyn Bridge Park to the south.
“So—when I asked what your type was now, and you said only me—you weren’t kidding.”
“I wish I had been. But apparently you’re it for me. Heaven help my heart.”
Luke caught Reid’s eye. “No offense, but if I never hear another ‘Chess’ song, it will still be too soon.”
Reid’s lips threatened to form a smile.
Luke watched a sightseeing cruise pass before speaking again. “Then what about—what about all those condoms?”
“That strip you had—last night—” Luke couldn’t finish.
Reid leaned into him, encouraging him to continue.
“I mean, if you hadn’t been planning on, you know—”
“Yeah, that. Not that I’m—doubting, or—”
“No. It’s OK. It’s a fair question. I was decidedly prepared when you showed up at my door. But that’s because I’d just done a little shopping.”
Reid continued to lean. “Why do you think I was sitting in the lobby when you came looking for me? Because I’m so sociable?”
“You were hoping to see me?”
“I’m not even sure I was holding those papers right-side-up. All I know is I’d never before been so happy at the mere possibility of using a condom.”
“You, uh, bought quite a few.”
“I had a lot of time to make up for.”
The resonance of Reid’s voice set off vibrations deep within. “What if I hadn’t shown up in the lobby? Would you have come looking for me?”
“I don’t know. I told myself I wouldn’t. But I’d told myself I wouldn’t do a lot of things.”
“Like telling me your room number?”
Reid’s eyes found Luke’s. “I knew once I let you in, I’d never get you out.”
A man and woman joined them at the railing several feet away. They fed each other bites of their ice creams cones.
“But you were going to try anyway, right?”
Reid had been staring absently at the couple. “What?”
“To get me out. Even after waiting all those years, even though you still—even though I’d just told you how much I wanted to be with you. You weren’t planning on more than one night, were you?”
“Not entirely true.”
“Fine, then—two nights.”
Reid’s breathing cycled several times before he spoke. “You told me you’d regretted…what happened. That things with him hadn’t worked out the way you’d hoped. That you were sorry you’d hurt me.”
“I told you I’d never stopped thinking about you.”
“No, that you’d never stopped wanting closure. I figured we could both get some.”
“And then you’d just walk away? Take my picture and go? You really could have done that?” Luke’s voice hunched in on itself. “And you’re still considering it, aren’t you? Even after everything.”
The breathing became deeper. “I’d always known love was theoretically possible—a product of intersexual selection acting via hormones and monoamines—all to guarantee attraction and attachment long enough to raise some kids. The theory was sound, and I suppose I’d run across anecdotal evidence that it could last. But did I really believe it? Did I think it would ever be even remotely relevant to my life?” Reid’s eyes were fixed on the bridge in front of him. “You made me believe it. You made it real. Tangible. Attainable. Idiotic love songs didn’t seem quite so idiotic anymore. I didn’t care that nurses no longer trembled in my presence. As much. You even had me reconsidering my stance on ceremonies—” Reid straightened his arms against the railing. “And you’d assured me that if you’d wanted to be with Noah you would have agreed to move to LA with him. The first time.”
Luke closed his eyes.
“And then. And then I discovered that all of those equally ridiculous break-up songs weren’t, in fact, exaggerating. That love is actually some sort of—parasite that infiltrates every organ with invisible filaments, every bone and blood vessel and fat cell and muscle. And the brain, of course, everything from brainstem to prefrontal cortex. Like a high-grade infiltrative tumor impossible to extricate without profound damage. Only instead of killing you, this parasite makes you completely dependent on it for basic life processes, and it controls your thoughts and moods and perceptions. And they’re lasting changes, which means that, once it’s removed from your life, from your body, you can no longer function. Not in the same way. Never in the same way. Everything’s different. Foods taste different. Key body parts stop working properly. Things become…faded. Like someone’s turned the lights down. Has dimmed the sun.” Reid looked at Luke briefly. “Tissues eventually regenerate, but patterns and connections are permanently altered. I hypothesized that the extent of the damage depended on the duration of the parasitic presence.”
Luke looked at Reid. “In other words—you’d rather things ended sooner rather than later?”
Reid looked back. “The longer I have you, the worse the pain will be.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Reid looked away.
Luke grabbed the arm closest to him. “Reid. You have to believe me.” He annunciated his words. “I Will Never Leave. You might not always want me, but I’ll never leave. If I’d had even the slightest idea that all these years you’d—OK, maybe that’s not exactly the truth. Maybe I still would have found a way to let the fear sabotage me. But I’m not scared any more. Not of risking my heart or my pride. The only thing that has the power to scare me now is the thought of a life without you. So you don’t have to worry about my panicking about being too happy or not worthy enough. I know I could never be your equal, but you need me in your life. We complement each other. And even if we didn’t, if you didn’t, I’m more selfish now. There’s no way I’d ever give you up.” His hand on Reid’s arm loosened. “OK, so I can’t actually promise that I won’t worry from time to time about being able to hold your interest. That one song did kinda freak me out a little. But I promise I won’t leave unless you push me out. And even then I’m not promising anything.”
A frown had slowly crept over Reid’s face. “Luke. You held my interest captive even when you were a thousand miles away. It did your bidding for years. How could you possibly think there would come a day when I wouldn’t want you?”
“Yeah, well—the idea of someone can be a lot more compelling that the boring reality.”
Reid lifted a hand to Luke’s face. “Your right dimple alone has the power to hold my interest for at least eight years. Your lower lip, decades. Your cock—” Reid seemed to respond to something in Luke’s expression. “But the twists your mind takes, particularly when I think I finally know which way it’s going—maybe 60 years. Sixty-five, tops. Your ability to keep up with me—in every way—your bizarrely detailed knowledge of New York City and its hawk inhabitants—the ways your past has shaped you,” Reid’s hand dropped to Luke’s side, “your mutant capacity for loyalty and compassion, even when it’s not deserved—your compulsion to help and to fix, even when it isn’t appreciated—the fierceness with which you fight, especially for someone else—the fierceness with which you love, even when all hope seems gone,” his hand lifted to Luke’s chest. “And how when you love, it’s with everything. You give everything. It will take me the rest of my life to figure out what sort of freak interstellar alignment resulted in your giving so much of it to me. It’ll take the rest of my life to be worthy of it. But mostly, I’ll be with you for your money.”
Luke covered Reid’s hand as if it were a bird about to fall out of its nest. His eyes were wet. “You’ll be with me? You won’t be doing all of this figuring out from a distance?”
Reid looked down at their hands, his body still except for the movement of his breath. “I fear the parasitic recurrence is already too advanced. Any attempts to treat now would most likely be fatal. The only reasonable course of action would be long-term management of the condition.”
The slow-motion supernova began in the vicinity of Luke’s heart and radiated an advancing wave of luminosity until his entire body beamed. “Sounds like you’d need round-the-clock care.”
“The hours would be long and the patient at times uncooperative."
“Chronic conditions can be scary sometimes. Sometimes the patient just needs to know that they’re not alone. That they’ll never be alone again.” The fingers of Luke’s other hand lightly lifted Reid’s chin. “And sometimes the best treatment is to be around others who suffer from the same condition.”
Reid’s eyes were clear. The gates were open, the guards honorably discharged. “So we should form a support group? For parasitic hosts?”
“Support will definitely be involved. And respect and acceptance—”
“And sex? Nothing too twelve-step-y, right? I hear those sorts of groups tend to frown on members sleeping with each other.”
“And just how many other members do you plan on allowing in?”
Reid leaned closer. Luke swore he could see in Reid’s eyes the reflected incandescence from his own.
Disclaimer: Freddy Mercury was singing (and wrote the lyrics for) "Love of My Life" by Queen. Odds are good he was singing about a man :-)
Also, the poem excerpts are from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Walt Whitman.
Chapter 18: In Mutual Light and Color
“Maybe it’s not a parasite.”
Luke and Reid were lost in each other. Support came more from wrapped arms and steady postures than from the railing against which they nominally leaned. Luke rested his cheek on Reid’s shoulder; Reid’s nose nuzzled Luke’s hair.
“Maybe it’s more like a—mutualist. Sure, it’s still dependent on the host, but it helps, not hurts. Both the host and the—love benefit. It couldn’t exist without you and, in turn, it makes you better. It feeds you. It enriches your life.”
“Until it’s taken away. And then you die.”
Luke squeezed. “More like—the love is beneficial but not essential. Like the kinds of coral that have these microscopic algae living inside them. The coral gives them a safe place to stay, and the algae give the coral food. Could the coral live without them? Some types of coral, yeah. But they wouldn’t grow as well—and they’d be completely colorless. Because all coral are white – it’s the algae that give them their color. So it’s like you were saying—without love, life becomes duller. Less vibrant. You feel—drained. Like you’re a coral reef that’s been bleached ’cause it’s lost its algae.” Luke’s voice dropped as he pressed his mouth against Reid’s neck. “At least that’s how it was for me.”
Reid’s hands stroked Luke’s back. “Surely, you didn’t just have time to google all of that.”
Luke smiled as his nose filled with Reid’s scent. He hunted for traces of lemongrass. “You’re not the only one who can get all science-y, you know. My bio teacher was kind of a hard-ass. Always on us about how there were actually different types of symbiosis. And don’t call me Shirley.”
Reid’s hands dropped lower. “Hard asses can be good. Both in and out of the classroom.”
The sound Luke made was half-groan, half-sigh. As if magnetized, his bottom pressed back slightly into Reid’s hands.
“But not all corals can live without their algae, right?”
“Hmm? Yeah, there are lots of kinds that can’t. If they lose them, they just die. They’re the type of mutualists that are—wait, what’s the word? Obligate, I think.”
Reid’s mouth found Luke’s ear. “I’d be one of those.”
Luke tightly wrapped both arms around Reid’s middle. Me too.
They continued to stand, lean, hold. The ice cream couple had moved on.
Luke wondered when he’d wake up.
“Can I buy you an ice cream?”
Luke smiled as he lifted his head. “That was next on the list.”
Reid slid his arms from around Luke until hands were holding hands. “It was hard not to notice the light-house thingy behind us from which emerged people bearing cones. I’m assuming it’s something historic? Dare I say, famous?”
“It was a fireboat house in the twenties. And yes, it is where we will get the rest of our ‘famous food.’”
“And then home?”
Luke swayed with pulses of breeze. “And then we’ll head in that direction, yes.”
Reid peered with a suspicious eye but said nothing. After dealing with the remnants of dinner, Luke and Reid walked hand-in hand toward the white two-storey house with brick-red roof and central tower.
“So what’s the tower for if it’s not a light house?”
“It’s for hanging fire hoses to dry.”
“Dang, you’re good.”
Luke grinned, the supernova’s radiation yet to fade appreciably. Reid blinked.
A man was locking up as they arrived.
“No!” Luke pressed his hands against the glass of the door, including the hand holding Reid’s. He trained full puppy-power eyes at the man, who took in both eyes and hands. As well as the $20 bill Reid was holding up to the glass.
With a sympathetic smile, the man opened the door. “One more,” he called back.
Luke bounded up to the counter, pulling Reid behind him. A woman waited with a long-suffering air.
Reid scanned the menu in an instant. “Banana split. Two spoons. All of those.” He waved a hand at the toppings board. “Extra wet walnuts.”
As the woman prepared their dish, Luke kissed Reid on the cheek.
“You’re a fan of wet walnuts, too?”
“Never heard of them.”
“Then why the kiss?”
“Because I love you.”
Reid’s eyes widened as he inhaled. He lifted a hand to Luke’s cheek, slowly drawing it down to his chin.
“$11.43.” The woman placed an overflowing, clear plastic dish on the counter in front of them. Toppings tumbled down mounds of ice cream nestled between a long, split banana.
Still looking into Luke’s eyes, Reid gave the woman another $20 and left the store with the dessert in one hand and Luke's hand in the other. Luke didn’t notice any of that; he was surprised to find himself back outside in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, opening his mouth as a laden spoon approached.
“Don’t forget to chew.”
Luke took the load into mouth, his head tilting questioningly.
“You seem a little distracted.”
Luke’s grin was as moony as the actual moon. “It’s been a big night.”
“And day.” Reid lifted ice cream from the corner of Luke’s bottom lip with his thumb, bringing it to his own mouth. “Just be sure to taste before swallowing. It is famous, after all.”
“Good point.” Luke chewed thoughtfully. Swallowed. “Sorry. Couldn’t help pretending it was you.”
With deliberate movements, Reid took a spoonful of ice cream for himself, turning it over in his mouth with his tongue. “I suppose we can taste the ice cream next time.”
Luke shut his eyes against echoes of the earlier stellar explosion. Is this real? Please let this be real.
This time, Luke decided not to try to hide the hope. “That’s right. Because there’s going to be a next time.” With eyes now open, he searched Reid for signs of hidden fortifications, secret chambers where reservations might be hiding, regret lurking.
Luke found nothing but open gates and inviting rooms. When Reid leaned in for an easy kiss, Luke let himself be just as open. Let himself simply enjoy the feel of Reid’s lips, the faint scratch of stubble. Let himself simply feel.
They took turns feeding each other the rest of the dessert. ‘Accidental’ slips were corrected with tongues and lips. Neither felt the need to move from where they were standing. Mooniness was mutual.
Eventually, Luke noticed the actual tastes in his mouth. “Mmm—what is that?”
“Is there magic involved?”
“Close. Maple syrup.”
Luke opened his mouth. “More.”
Reid kissed it.
Luke suckled his tongue, sharing the sweetness. “Mmm, magic.”
As their lips broke, Reid groaned. “Is there a taxi in our near future?”
Luke began to shuffle back the way they’d come. “I thought we’d walk home.”
Reid followed with raised eyebrows, tossing out the empty dish as he wrapped an arm around Luke’s shoulder. “I suppose we have the time.”
This is real.
They followed alongside the bridge and eventually under, where an art installation consisting of static explosions of white fiber-optic light led them to a stairwell. With a smile only a few degrees short of full-wattage, Luke began to climb. Reid followed, his expression a shifting contrast between indulgence and intoxication. They emerged onto a walkway sloping above the cars crossing between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Pointed neo-Gothic arches towered ahead; the sweeping steel cables suspended on either side were draped with points of light. The immensity of Manhattan shone in the near distance.
Luke turned to Reid, his face emitting its own light. “Up for a walk?” Flickers of doubt hovered, but only barely.
Reid pulled Luke closer, fitting him along his side. Together, they began to cross the bridge. Luke could feel what little gap remained between them diminish with each step.
Snaking his arm around Reid’s waist, Luke’s lips again found Reid’s cheek. Lingered. Reid tilted his head to rest against Luke’s as they moved in tandem. After a short distance the walkway changed from concrete to wooden planks; the transition went unnoticed. As did the fellow walkers, the singles and couples and families, as did the occasional ringing, honking bicyclist blurring past. Luke and Reid were alone on that bridge, suspended in air, above opalescent water, beneath moon and suns and supernovae. Their weight was insignificant; the slight downward forces sped along trusses and twisting bundles of straight and sloping cables to monumental towers planted in deep earth.
Luke had gradually awakened to the possibility that he wasn’t in a dream. That he no longer had to think in terms of bubbles that could burst or links that could sever. The connection was real now; he felt it. Reid was solid against him. Luke no longer felt the urgency, the necessity of securing Reid to this plane of existence, of trapping the ephemeral. Luke had begun to believe. To believe that Reid believed.
They passed above their pier. Just beyond, to the left, tiny human forms were assembled in front of a free-standing movie screen in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Farther still, the islands of New York City Harbor glowed dimly.
“Aren’t you going to point out the Statue of Liberty?”
Luke’s eyes searched off the southern tip of Manhattan. “Ohh—I can see it.”
“And would you like a picture?”
“Hmm—s’OK.” Luke felt the muscles of Reid’s waist undulate as he walked. He was wholly content. He was whole.
Soon their view was crisscrossed by a web of wire cables, as if Spiderman had shot them from multiple points atop the towers. Luke reached out to touch one.
“So tell me.”
Luke felt the vibrations of Reid’s words where their bodies touched. “Tell you what?”
“Something interesting about this bridge.”
“How about—it’s over a mile long.”
“Not quite what I’d like to hear, but OK.”
“Um—it’s really old and took a long time to build.”
“You’re slipping, Snyder.”
“Lots of people died building it? But of cool stuff, like the bends—because the towers went down so deep.”
“Sorry—my brain’s kind of mush right now.”
“Good mush or bad mush?”
“Is there a neurosurgical distinction?”
“Mmm-hmm. I learned all about it at Harvard.”
“Well, then—good mush. Definitely good.”
“Sounds like a temporary condition.”
“Really? Because I feel like it might last for a while.”
Reid met Luke’s dreamy gaze. To the untrained eye, Reid’s face would have appeared nearly expressionless. But to Luke’s, it looked rapturous.
“Must be the algae,” Reid whispered.
Luke’s answering smile crinkled his eyes. He melted further into Reid.
They passed through the first of the two sets of towers. To the right arced a kindred stretch of gracefully lit steel spanning the East River. Luke admired the way the full moon floated above the younger Manhattan Bridge. Beyond, he could see the colored lights of the Empire State Building.
“Wonder why the top of the Empire State is blue and white tonight?”
Reid’s eyes narrowed perceptibly.
“What?” Luke nudged Reid. “What do you know?”
“Mets and the Yankees were playing today. Guess the Yankees won.”
“Aw, poor Reid. Are you OK?”
“You know, I am—for some reason I can’t seem to be bothered with—not being OK.”
“Wow, that is some powerful algae. So would you be up for catching a Yankees game next time we’re in town?”
“Absolutely. And after, I can show you a bridge I got for sale.”
Luke’s face was beginning to hurt from the near-constant state of besotted grinning. Atrophied muscles pleaded for respite. But Luke couldn’t stop – the smiling, the squeezing, the feeling. Though breathing was rather tricky; it was difficult moving air past the miniature neutron star that had formed in his chest as a remnant of the supernova. Trillions upon trillions of tiny generated neutrinos were currently passing undetected through Luke’s body and into Reid’s. And then farther, into Manhattan and Brooklyn and New Jersey, through wood and metal and water and soil, deep into bedrock and far into cosmic space. All from a spinning, shining mass burning hotter than the sun, knocking up against Luke’s lungs and heart. He wondered if similar stellar phenomena were happening inside Reid. He knew there must have been explosions of some sort; he could see the rubble. The creative destruction of established paradigms.
He’d been rethinking his stance on ceremonies—
Luke recalled what Reid had said at the pier. The star cooled slightly.
No. There’s no way. We hadn’t been together long enough. We’d barely been together at all. But Luke wondered, now, at the decisiveness of Reid’s reaction in the theater. Wondered if there’d been more at play than just Luke’s poor timing or the part Noah’s proposal had played in the breakup. Clearly, the depth of Reid’s feelings had surpassed Luke’s imagination at every turn. Why should this be any exception? Why shouldn’t the true situation, the full extent of the damage, be still worse? His refrain from last night returned: What have I done?
Luke stopped under the second set of arches, forcing several picture-takers to rearrange their shots. Turning toward Reid, Luke closed their bodies like a book. Threading his other arm under Reid’s and around his back, Luke dropped his chin against the back of Reid’s shoulder and hung on as if drowning. As if they both were.
“I am so sorry.” Tears seeped under closed lids. “I promise I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you.”
After a minor hesitation, Reid completed the hug. He ran a hand into the hair at the back of Luke’s head. “Shh—it’s OK. Shh.” He touched the side of Luke’s neck with his nose.
Reid was celibate for three and a half years. Because of me.
Luke’s arms clutched even more tightly, tears streamed more steadily. “Reid—so much time—we wasted so much time.”
The fingers in Luke’s hair contracted and relaxed to a soothing meter. The fingers on his back splayed with solid pressure. “Luke—Luke—it’s OK. It’s OK.”
“It’s not. We both suffered so much—for nothing. For the worst mistake of my life. And trust me, that’s saying something.”
“Luke—listen to me. It was worth it. Everything—it brought us back to each other.
“But so much time—all this time—we should have been together.”
“What’s three years? Luke—if the history of the Earth were a calendar year, our time apart would be less than one second on New Year’s Eve. Anyway, I’d much rather be with a 25 year-old than a 22-year old. Makes me feel less pervy.”
Luke smiled wetly into Reid’s neck. “That one second felt like a lifetime.”
“But Luke—my Luke—we’re together now. And there’s still a lifetime to go.”
That’s when Luke felt it happen. The dense, hot mass spinning in his chest responded to an answering pull from deep within Reid’s. The inexorable draw of an equally dense body, the mutual capture of whirling suns. Luke felt the twin stars pulled into close orbit, a binary dance with the power to bend space and time. Past and future, wrongs and rights, twisting and burning and blurring, poles aligning to pulse cleansing bursts of light. Galactic scales dwarfed the experience of Earthly time. Affecting and affected, Luke and Reid were now bound together by forces both in and out of their control.
Luke’s grip eased. “We’re together now.”
“For a lifetime.”
Luke felt Reid’s breath hitch. And then felt the regular rhythm resume.
Reid’s hands continued to tranquilize. Stars spun in steady orbit.
Luke lifted his head, drew back, until the embrace was an easier one. His eyes were shining from more than just moisture. “It doesn’t have to be so complicated.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Reid began by wiping the tears; he ended by kissing their tracks. Luke let himself receive, let the radiance within both of them sear the sorrow, cauterize the wounds. They stood there under epic arches, their souls twin blazes of linked light. Eventually, foreheads rested against each other. Orbits, breaths, beats—all were harmonized.
“You felt it too,” Luke whispered. His eyes were closed
Reid’s were open. “I felt it too.”
Chapter 19: Il Nome Suo Nessun Saprà
“It was a leap of faith.”
“This bridge. I remembered something else about it.”
A soft wind lifted the humidity from their skin as they walked, still wrapped in each other, toward the widening wall of lights. Other weight had been lifted as well, though mass and measurability differed somewhat from that of water vapor. The bridge carried without comment.
“I remembered that the building of it has been described as a ‘literal leap of faith.’ So many bridges failed back then, and this was by far the largest that had ever been attempted.”
“Looks like it didn’t fail.”
“Nope. Solid as the granite it was built out of. See what I did there?”
“Snuck in another fun fact. Told you I loved your mind.” Reid’s words were spoken against Luke’s hair. Meanwhile, Luke’s smiling muscles had resigned themselves to their aching fate. They were currently stuck on ‘goofy.’
“And at the time it linked two of the biggest cities in the US—’cause Brooklyn was its own city back then. It wasn’t long after the bridge joined them that they ended up merging.”
The walk continued in silence as the electric cliff face of Manhattan loomed larger.
So many places for two hawks to nest.
Luke wondered where Pale Male was at that moment, if he was sleeping on his balcony or if he had learned to use the city lights to hunt. If he was missing First Love. Thoughts landed briefly on the risks of love, of losing love through fear or misunderstanding. Through distance. Through death.
It’s worth it. It’s worth the risk. Every second with him is a lifetime.
Luke’s hand tightened on Reid’s waist. He focused on what lay under his fingers, on the smooth, warm skin under fabric. On the muscles beneath that shifted with each synchronized step. They were Luke’s muscles now, Luke’s flesh. He was as much owner as extension. Boundaries had been blurred. If he flexed the muscles they would flex; if skin burned he would hurt. All moved as one now, consolidated, coalesced. Energy from interstellar events had cycled into fluid motion of the shared system. As they drew closer to the electrified island, new currents stimulated, burning off dreamy haze. Luke felt energized.
“So do I get to keep my head?”
“Depends which one we’re talking about.”
“‘What is like ice, but burns like fire?’”
Reid cocked his head, frowning slightly. “Methane hydrate?”
“Could you be any more of a nerd? Think opera.”
Reid’s face slowly cleared. “Turandot. The three riddles.”
“And you’re my prize.”
“Are you implying that I’m like ice?”
“Care to poll the nurses?”
“Not quite what I’m into. I’d much rather burn for you.”
The timbre of Reid’s voice further excited the currents running through Luke’s body. His fingers dug into the side of Reid’s waist. Reid’s next exhalation ended in something not unlike a growl.
“I didn’t realize you knew the opera so well.”
Luke’s fingers relaxed. “Yeah, well—Damian liked it.”
Mobile sources of light decorated the river. Draped harbor cruises passed barges and patrols. To the left, the golden gabled outline of South Street Seaport seemed to float forward into the river.
Reid looked at Luke expectantly. “Do you remember the other riddles? Your head is at stake, after all.”
“Pretending I didn’t hear that. Let’s see—there was something about being red and hot but not being fire.”
Reid’s eyes fixed on Luke’s lips.
Obscuring haze began to seep back in. Luke fought to stay on point. “Do you remember the answer?”
Eyes lazily lifted. “I’m not the suitor.”
His eyes flaring with calculation, Luke licked both lips, recapturing Reid’s attention there. He brought his head closer to Reid’s, eyes catching the seemingly involuntary swipe of Reid’s tongue across his own lips. Just before landing, Luke’s head banked, his lips veering to the side of Reid’s neck. Without losing a step, Luke’s lips locked on, his tongue circling over the enclosed patch of skin. With gentle suction, he coaxed the skin between his teeth, releasing briefly before repeating the capture. Then bit down. Hard.
Luke lifted his head and, in an exaggerated gesture, licked his lips again, as if savoring.
“I’m pretty sure there were no vampires in Turandot. Unless you happened to see a production in Brooklyn.”
Luke’s smile was tinged with mischief. “So I take it then you don’t remember the answer to the riddle.”
Reid rubbed his neck with his free hand, his movements slowing as he thought. “Blood. Right.” He looked at his hand, as if for traces of it. “Maybe you’re the one who’s Spike.”
“Nah, that’s OK—I’d much rather be the one who gets to sleep with him.” Luke leaned in again, ignoring Reid’s theatrical flinch as he sweetly kissed the reddened flesh.
“You know, you should really watch your step. I am the daughter of the Chinese emperor. I could have your head at any time.”
“You absolutely could. Any time.”
Eyes were locked until Luke bumped into one of the benches scattered along the walkway.
“So that leaves one more riddle. Should I assume a defensive posture?”
Luke’s smile took a pensive turn. “That’s an easy one. ‘What’s born each night but dies each dawn?’” He snuck a look at Reid. “I may have thought a little about that one today.”
Reid’s eyes were soft as they met Luke’s. “And what are you thinking now?”
“I’m thinking my hope won’t be dying anytime soon.” Even in the shifting shadows, belief was clearly set in the soft lines of Luke’s face. The faith was unmistakable.
Bring it, dawn.
They passed through a vertical pool of light from a lamppost designed to evoke the days of gaslight. Luke could just make out the alternating footrests for a lamplighter to climb.
Luke looked at Reid.
“You can keep your head. At least until we get back to the room.”
And the rest of it?
This time, Luke spoke with neither words nor actions. He refrained from reminding Reid that the prize for solving the riddles was the princess’s hand in marriage, a fact he was sure Reid already knew.
This is enough. This is everything.
But Luke’s buzzing brain couldn’t let the subject drop entirely. “I could give you an out, you know.”
“For—you know, having solved the riddles. In the opera the prince loved Turandot so much that he gave her a way to renege.”
“Ah, right. The dawn deadline. All she had to do was find out his name.”
“Yup. And even then—his love was so strong that he ended up being the one to tell her what it was.”
“Bit of an idiot, that prince.”
Luke grinned and squeezed. “But a super-romantic idiot. And it worked, didn’t it? When dawn came, she announced that she had discovered his name—but when it came time to reveal it, remember what she said?”
“Don’t you mean sung?”
“Do you remember what she sung?”
“If you think you’re getting me to say it, you’re more of an idiot than he was.”
“Aw, come on—it’s the most romantic ending ever.”
“If by romantic you mean unbearably cloying, then yes, without a doubt.”
“As if you could fool me. You already said you liked it because of its ending.”
“I said I liked it because there was a gratifying amount of angst followed by a reasonably happy ending. It was simply refreshing not to see one or both lovers lying dead at the end. I could have done without the sap. Anyway, Puccini never adequately justified Turandot’s change of heart. It was most likely just lust – on both their parts.”
“You know you loved it. You’re a secret sucker for sap.”
“Guards!” Reid looked around. “Arrest this man.”
“On what grounds?”
“Illegal use of alliteration.”
“I’ll have you know I have a license. I am a writer, after all.”
Reid looked at Luke closely in the low light. “Glad to hear it.”
Blushing slightly, Luke placed his head on Reid’s shoulder. They walked for a few paces before he spoke again. “Well I thought it was a perfect ending.”
“This is my shocked face.”
Without raising his head, Luke pinched Reid’s waist. The currents in Luke's brain transposed, firing the first notes of “Nessun Dorma.”
Love. She said his name was love.
Chapter 20: Products and Porn
Luke could see the end. (The beginning.) Wind was picking up, was picking its way through angular shapes of steel, along girders and rivets, riding wrapped wires, dodging traffic. It carried the walkers, pushed them toward Manhattan, toward one end of the path. Invisible hands nudged. Luke felt them, felt it all: exhilaration and trepidation, expectation, promise, precaution. Anticipated next steps. Embracing both certain and uncertain. They had passed through the minefield and into an asteroid belt; careful maneuvers still required, but now dangers were less hidden, less explosive. Less potentially fatal. Mechanical bulls could be taken by mechanical horns.
“So, Reid—where in Boston do you live?”
“Near Mass General. Why?”
“Oh, nothing—I was just going to try to arrange a place to stay when we got back to the room. A hotel nearby.”
“Reid, look, I—”
“Luke.” Reid turned to him. “Not necessary.” The walkway was ending; Luke could see pedestrians fanning out. He stopped.
“Listen, Reid, we don’t have to do this right away. It’s a big step. I don’t want to crowd you—I don’t want to have pestered you into something you’re not ready for. Seriously, it’s enough for me that you’ve agreed to move forward. I don’t need to invite myself in. Really, I’d much rather just stay at a hotel for a few days while I find a place.”
“Luke, relax. It’s not a problem. And it’s not as if we’ll be spending any nights apart.”
Stay on target—use the force, Luke—
“That may be the case (fuck yes), but we’re talking about something major. I mean, psychologically speaking, there’s a difference between spending every night together and living together.”
“Luke—psychologically speaking, you’re being an idiot. Granted, I didn’t pay the closest of attention during my psychiatric rotation, but I’m pretty sure I would have remembered the part where paying two rents while using one apartment was a recommended course of action. Unless of course there’s something you need to hide in your own closet…a life-size cardboard Spike, perhaps? Embarrassing comics collection? Oh yeah, that’s it – you got yourself a nice stash of Boys’ Love manga. Am I right?”
“Reid, this is serious. I don’t want to rush into anything.” I don’t want to spook you.
“Farm boy, I’d say it’s already too late to close that barn door.”
“See, that’s just it, we went from no contact to—well, full contact. It’s like we’ve hit fast-forward.”
“After the pausing just about killed me.”
The asteroid collision reverberated in Luke’s gut. “I just want to do things right—this time. I’ve messed up everything else.”
Throughout the exchange, they had been facing each other with hands idly moving over arms and backs. Now Reid’s hand grazed the side of Luke’s neck.
“From here it looks like you’ve been doing everything right.”
“I just want it to be perfect.”
“And it will be—once your hair products are in my bathroom, your Japanese porn is in my closet, and you are in my bed.”
“Reid—” the name was buried in a breath.
“Luke.” Both hands moved to cradle Luke’s face. “Live with me.”
Luke lifted his own hands as paired stars pulsed brightly. Hands guided faces in for a kiss. The stream of walkers flowed around them, spilling into the streets of lower Manhattan.
“Now can we go back to the hotel?”
Luke smiled through the mist. “Now we can go back.”
Nodding, Reid took Luke’s hand and began to walk the final steps of the promenade. To the right soared the classical curves and colonnades of one of the largest government buildings in the world, built to meet the needs of a newly merged city and, for almost a century, the destination for all those seeking union with others. Its tiered tower was lit in pale green and gold and topped by a gilded figure holding symbols of victory, triumph, unity.
This is real. We’re together. I’m moving to—
“I shouldn’t have left.” Reid’s words were quiet but distinct as they neared the street.
Luke’s mind was quiet but alert. Still walking, still linked by hands, he waited for Reid to continue.
“When you—when you told me about Noah. The engagement. I shouldn’t have left.” Reid’s eyes were focused on the darkened trees of City Hall Park ahead. “I should have stayed. I should have fought.” He looked at Luke. “I just wanted you to know. It wasn’t all you.”
Luke stopped again, this time to hold – an arm across Reid’s back, a hand at the back of his head. Reid’s arms around Luke’s waist, his face in Luke’s neck. A mutual gathering in.
There will be no more messing up. There will be no more leaving.
Reid’s lips touched Luke’s neck. “Let’s go back to our room.”
The words felt right now. Almost expected. Luke drew back but still touched. “It actually shouldn’t be too far away. We could easily walk.”
In answer, Reid took Luke’s hand, stretching his other into the street. He deftly maneuvered Luke into the cab that stopped in front of them, tersely giving the driver the name of the hotel. Reid then turned to Luke, who, also shifting, lifted one knee onto the seat between them. Laying his head against the backrest, he loosely circled Reid’s wrists with his fingers. As the cab began to move, Luke watched the play of streetlights across Reid’s face. He basked in the soft radiance emanating from Reid’s eyes.
“In a rush, are we?”
The radiance became less diffuse, more focused. “I’m looking forward to losing the audience.”
Luke had to shift on the seat, which further reminded him of the effect Reid had on him. How he had marked Luke. Branded him. His knee bumped Reid’s hip.
“We were alone at the Blockhouse.”
“That fort thing?”
Luke nodded, his knee pressing in.
“The trees had eyes. Furry little eyes. I saw a squirrel watching us.”
“Better than—a different rodent. Or a rape-y duck.”
“A duck wouldn’t dare. And I want complete privacy now.” Reid’s voice dropped, barely carrying over the hum of the motor. “There are thing I want to do to you that are for my eyes only.”
Luke’s entire being hummed. His insistent knee prompted Reid to mirror Luke’s posture until their two bent knees slid against each other on the seat. Neither had noticed that the cab was caught in traffic.
Luke’s smile was back to goofy. “So—Boston.”
Reid disengaged a hand, flattening it over Luke’s stomach.
“Does this mean we’ll be vacationing in Provincetown?”
“There aren’t enough sandwiches in all the world.”
“Two words: beach sex.”
The radiance pulsed but Reid’s voice remained level. “If you don’t mind picking sand out of your ass. And even less privacy – I hear hermit crabs have compound eyes.”
Luke’s knee slid over Reid’s, brushing his crotch. “I hear privacy can be overrated.”
Even in the shadows, Luke could see the light narrow further into concentrated beams. “Insatiable, kinky—how many more hidden depths do you have, Snyder?”
Luke’s bottom ground subtly into the seat. “I’m pretty sure you’ve already filled them all.”
Now Reid noticed. “Any reason we aren’t moving?”
Without removing his knee, Luke twisted to look out his window, “Looks like construction.”
“Well if this driver doesn’t find a way around it soon, you’re gonna have that particular kink satisfied.”
Luke nudged with his knee playfully.
The beams now cut like lasers. “You think I jest.”
Luke retracted his knee. The cab inched.
“So what else is there to do in Boston?”
“Besides plumbing your depths?”
Unconsciously, Luke’s knee crept back toward Reid. “I figure we’ll be leaving the apartment together at some point.” Our apartment. Together. “How about taking me to a Red Sox game?”
“It wouldn’t be fair to start you on a lifetime of delusion.”
“OK, well what about showing me around Harvard Square?”
Reid’s hand lifted to play with Luke’s hair. “I suppose I should show you the good comic book stores so you can get your fix.”
“Thanks, but I was thinking more about showing me where you learned chess. C’mon…Ollie.”
“Care to try again, Mr. Snyder?”
“Well—will you at least take me on a Swan Boat? After all, I am a tourist from Podunk.”
“No, you’re not. A tourist, that is.” Fingers and eyes hypnotized.
Luke tried to let himself fall under the spell completely. He had become progressively more skilled at ignoring the murmur of too-good-to-be-true. This is how it’s supposed to be. He finally believes.
Luke almost believed. Could almost stop from asking. “Are you sure?”
He saw and felt everything about Reid freeze. His fingers, his breathing, even his eyes – in the irregular flashes filling the cab as it slowly rolled through the street, Luke thought he could see the advancement of spicules of ice forming a crystalline structure across the surface of Reid’s eyes. Luke fought through the answering chill; though he couldn’t quite identify the source of the sudden cold front, he nonetheless felt compelled to clarify.
“I mean, I do have an embarrassing array of hair products. Are you sure you have the shelf space?”
Reid’s breathing resumed. The front began to recede. “I’m sure.”
Luke’s smile strove for natural. “Yeah, my collection could probably do with some purging anyway. My comics collection, though—no Japanese comics, but I think we might need a second apartment after all just for all the Richie Riches.”
The remaining ice crystals sublimated from the sudden blast of heat, scalding Luke. The fingers tightened in his hair. “You’ll be with me. In my apartment. If we’re going to do this, be in the same city, then I’m not going to risk—I can’t risk losing—” Reid’s increasingly labored breathing seemed to keep him from continuing. Somehow, Luke was able to identify the subtext. To recognize the desperation. He grabbed the side of Reid’s face, forcing him to meet Luke’s eyes.
“Reid. I’m not going anywhere.”
Reid’s breaths slowed as he seemingly allowed Luke’s eyes to fill him with assurances. Luke was half-expecting Reid to cover for his lapse by retreating behind a quip or cavalier mask. What he didn’t expect was for Reid to cover the hand on his face with his own and strip what little mask remained. His eyes moved restlessly over Luke’s features, giving Luke a clear view straight through to the innermost courtyard of the battered fortress.
“Are you really mine?” The words were whispered, their faces now close. Reid closed his eyes before Luke could answer.
Luke pulled Reid’s face closer, cheek to cheek, mouth to ear. “I’m yours. You own me.”
Reid was pliable in Luke’s arms. His hand moved from Luke’s back into his hair. They held the closeness as time stretched like molten glass.
Finally, Reid spoke against Luke’s skin as his hand massaged Luke’s scalp. “Pack everything. All the products.”
Luke smiled as he felt Reid’s nose in his hair. “I didn’t get the chance to do my usual styling this morning—do I still smell like lemongrass?”
Reid inhaled deeply. “You smell like sex.”
Luke’s knee found Reid’s bulge. “I smell like you.”
Reid’s fingers dropped to Luke’s lower lip. “You look like sex.” Lids dropped as well as Luke’s tongue darted. “Tired?”
Luke shook his head ‘no,’ his mouth occupied with Reid’s middle finger.
“It’s been a long day.”
The finger slipped out. “I’ll sleep when I get to Boston.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“Then I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“Neither of us will be dying any time soon. And I intend to keep you pretty busy in the afterlife, too.”
Reid’s knee slid under Luke’s to reach his bottom. Luke adjusted so that he could grind against it. The pain was exquisite.
“I want you to fill me again.”
The fingers in Luke’s hair tightened once more. “We’re giving certain areas a rest tonight. Doctor’s orders.”
Luke rocked against Reid’s knee. His next words were whispered. “Not even your tongue?”
Reid’s eyes blackened to the point of absorbing all the light that was washing over his face in periodic waves. “There could be an argument made that it be considered post-traumatic care.” He leaned into Luke’s knee. Reid’s words were now whispered as well. “I can still taste you.”
Luke pressed down, stifling the flinch. “Well—you know—I haven’t tasted you yet, not really. I want you to come in my mouth. Want you to fill me up—I want to feel your warmth sliding down, coating my throat. Filling me all the way down.” The whisper almost evaporated. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Hey! Hotel.” Their private bubble was punctured by a sound like asteroid fragments striking; the driver had rapped on the clear plastic divider to get their attention. With singular focus, Reid handed a bill through the opening and herded Luke out of the cab. Taking his hand, Reid pulled Luke past the doorman and into the lobby.
“Are we ignoring them?”
Reid slowed, looking down to where Luke was tugging their hands. “What? Who?” He followed Luke's gaze to the hotel bar, where Alex was sitting on a stool next to an older man.
“Reid!” The older man waved and lifted his drink. Alex was smiling.
Reid dropped his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. Luke was suddenly acutely aware of their clasped hands. He loosened his hold.
“We’re giving them 30 seconds.” Reid turned to walk toward the men. He tightened his grip on Luke’s hand.
The older man’s smile broadened as they approached. “You live! Alex was just trying to convince me that you hadn’t checked out early. I figured there must have been an emergency for you to have missed Su-ha’s talk.” Luke could sense the man’s struggle not to stare at Luke – or their hands – too blatantly.
“Yes, Reid—you know how much she was counting on you to lend a little star power to her first big presentation. You could tell she was crushed.”
Luke was surprised to see Reid redden slightly. “I’ll be sure to apologize. It couldn’t be helped.” Luke was less surprised to see the challenging look Reid then gave Alex.
Alex smirked but only nibbled at the bait. “Yeah, well, she’ll probably understand—she has a special place in her heart for epic romance, what with all those soaps she watches.”
“As opposed to your epically classy ‘Real Housewives’ habit.”
Alex merely smiled and turned his head. “Hello, Luke. Fancy seeing you again.”
Relaxing his hand again, Luke shifted his weight away from Reid. “Hi, Alex.”
“You two get up to anything interesting while you were out?”
Luke could feel Reid winding up. Before he could throw his next words, however, the other man, who was, by now, already leaning dangerously forward on his stool, reached out his hand.
“Luke, right? Hi. So nice to meet you.”
Luke had to release Reid’s hand in order to shake the other man’s. The initial parting of fingers felt like a slow-motion caress.
“Luke Snyder, this is Santiago Keller, my department chief.”
“Why Reid, I think that’s the first time you’ve ever acknowledged that.” He gave Luke a genuine smile. “Whatever you’re doing with him, please keep it up.”
Luke ignored Alex’s deepening smirk. “It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. Keller.”
“Oh, please, it’s Santi. So, Luke, are you from New York?”
“Ah, then you came here to meet Reid?”
“Uh, no—we, uh, kinda ran into each other.”
“Thanks to me,” said Alex. “I was but an instrument of fate.”
Santi frowned. “Oh. So—you did already know each other, though?”
Reid stepped closer to Luke, brushing arms. “Luke’s an old friend.”
“Wonderful! I’ve never met a friend of Reid’s before.”
Looking at Luke, Reid took his hand. “That’s because he’s the only one that counts.”
Santi was momentarily speechless. He soon recovered. “Yes. Well. We’re getting a table. I have to hear more about this fate business. Not to mention that I was convinced that a Reid outside of medicine was just an urban legend.”
“Sorry, boss, but the no doubt hilarious awkwardness of such a conversation will just have to wait for another time. It’s an early flight tomorrow.”
“Well, Reid, just so you know, I’ll be staying down here a while longer—so don’t worry about my interfering with your sleep,” said Alex as Reid began to lead Luke away. “Wait, hold on—so then there'll be another time? Does this mean we will be seeing you in Boston, Luke?”
Scratching the back of his downward-tilted head, Luke looked at Reid. He saw the crystalline lattice that had once again appeared in his eyes – this time not forming ice, but sapphire. Twin star sapphires reflecting radiant energy from twin stars.
Luke lifted his head. “Yes, Alex. You will.”
As he and Reid began the final steps to their room, Luke could almost hear Santi’s next words.
“Why does he look familiar?”
Chapter 21: Emergent Properties
The elevator doors closed. Luke climbed Reid like a lemur.
“Hello.” Reid let Luke’s tongue storm his open mouth, his head held steady by Luke’s free hand, his other, joined hand pressing against his own bottom, helplessly helping Luke mash their hips together. The corner of the tote bag hanging from Luke’s shoulder was caught between their bodies.
“You held my hand. In front of them.” Luke’s lips had moved to Reid’s ear. He lapped at the lobe.
“And that does it for you?”
“Ohh yeah.” Teeth tugged.
“That’s it – you’re coming to work with me. I’ll hold your hand all freakin’ day. You might have to assist during surgery, though.”
“I’m a quick learner.”
“I hadn’t noticed.” Mouths met as the elevator sang the ascent.
Luke brought their hands around, burrowing to where their pelvises burned. It was unclear whose hand rubbed whose bulge, whose body felt which sensation.
“You practically called me your boyfriend.” A dim corner of Luke consciousness couldn’t help but hold its metaphorical breath.
Now it was Reid’s lips at Luke’s ear. “You’re more than that.”
The doors opened. Legs and feet tangled as the rush to the room entered its furious final stage. Someone stopped in front of the right door; someone found a key card, eventually fumbling it into the slot. Both bodies fell past the door and into the abbreviated hallway of their room. They made it no farther; the bag falling from his shoulder, Luke backed Reid against the wall next to the bathroom, licking Reid’s lips, his chin, the front of his neck. He paused at the Adam’s apple only long enough to flatten his tongue around its contours in a circular crawl. The back of Reid’s head scraped against grasscloth-covered wall; his eyes closed. Luke’s head descended further, past the hollowed base, past angled bone, onto smooth, simmering planes. Luke rode the rise and fall as his nose tunneled into the open collar, his lips and tongue straining to claim new territory. Reid appeared lost, his hands lost in Luke’s hair, his hips slanting forward. Mouth over heart, Luke’s hands abandoned their losing battle with the bottom buttons of Reid’s shirt, moving instead to those at the top. When efforts there fared no better, tactics changed, from finesse to force, as thread tore and buttons scattered. Releasing the handfuls of cloth, Luke surveyed his dominion. He claimed with taste, with touch; he breathed in acres of Reid.
My Reid. Beautiful, brilliant man—I claim you.
Luke remembered that no man had touched where Luke touched, not for years. Never so it counted. With sinewy turns, Luke’s brain slowly wrapped around the full extent of what that meant, of what he’d been given.
I’ll never take it for granted again.
Luke took stock, journeying over great plains and ridges, marking his finds with nails and teeth. Reid held Luke’s head when he reached a nipple, grunting ferally when Luke bit down. Luke pressed his fingers into Reid’s side hard enough to feel the sting himself; he was certain their figurative connection was becoming corporeal, that he no longer had to imagine, no longer had to dream of a melding of flesh and senses, that boundaries were literally beginning to blur. It wasn’t a loss of identity so much as a transcendence, the manifestation of emergent properties. They were more than their sum, not less, as it had been with Noah. Luke was more of himself now. It was as if he’d finally emptied his pockets of kryptonite, as if Reid’s proximity provided the ideal set of ecological conditions for Luke to thrive. He liked to think, was certain of it, that they provided it for each other, that they were each other’s perfect balance of nutrients and source of liquid water and protection from solar winds. It wasn’t a matter of two halves of a whole or completion or complementarity or even mutual ownership – it was both simpler and more complex, more elemental, more vital. Yes, they belonged to each other (yes), but that was shorthand for a deeper, less easily articulated truth. They were each other’s niche. They were each other’s odyssey. They were all-in.
Luke continued south, past amber waves. After causing only slight damage to Reid’s zipper, Luke scaled purple-capped majesty. He staked his flag. Dropping his knees to the carpet, he rubbed his thumbs up the underside, bowing his head until his lips paused just above the already-wet glans. Inhaling, he skimmed down and around the shaft, lips almost touching scorching skin. He was drowning in air, in Reid’s scent, stronger and more familiar than ever. As thumbs continued to stroke, Luke’s mouth landed low, simultaneously breathing in Reid’s musk and tonguing the base of his balls. He felt fingers wind into his hair. He slowly sucked each testicle into his mouth, pulling them downward, running over every surface with the tip of his pointed tongue as he began palming the entire penis with both hands twisting in opposite directions. Reid’s fingers tightened to the point of pain. Leaving a wide trail of saliva, Luke drew his flattened tongue up to Reid’s penis, up the shaft, his pre-cum-slickened fingers dropping to the base. He had tasted this before, just this; he was close to coming just from anticipating the main course. Before reaching the glans, Luke tilted his head, darting tongue and lips in quick kisses around the swollen girth. He lifted frisky eyes, waiting until Reid opened his. And then Luke began to bite. Reid gulped air, his fingers flirting with permanently tangling in Luke’s hair as he nibbled. With an active tongue, Luke slowly rasped his teeth up and around the shaft, his eyes never leaving Reid’s. In them Luke saw only pleasure – and trust. Dizzy with everything he’d been given, Luke struggled to focus on his goals: to taste, to share. One hand settled into a corkscrew rhythm at the base of Reid’s penis, the other pushing down his jeans until Luke could reach the inner thigh, where he began to make curving forays with his nails. Finally, his mouth reached the flared ridge of the head. With glacial movements, his eyes still on Reid’s, Luke rested pursed lips on the top. His tongue fluttered. Reid’s lids dropped but remained open, a narrow slit following Luke’s every move. Luke slowed his tongue, limiting its movements only to the small hole at the center, saliva spilling out of his mouth and mixing with Reid’s own fluid as it slid down the sides of his penis. Reid began to hum. Luke harmonized, lowering stiffened lips until the entire head popped into his wet mouth. He paused for a moment, overwhelmed by the taste. As his own penis strained against the inside of his jeans, Luke flicked the underside of the ridge with his tongue, both hands increasing the intensity of their movements. Again, Luke used his teeth, this time scraping up from just under the ridge.
“Fuck!” Reid broke Luke’s gaze, the back of his head knocking against the wall.
Abruptly, Luke picked up the pace, coordinating his sharply squeezing hand stationed near the base with his now strongly sucking mouth repeatedly moving down from the top. The mixture of liquids overfilled his mouth; loud, wet sounds filled the room. With his tongue firmly pressing against the underside of Reid’s cock, Luke rapidly suctioned his mouth up and down, his hand at times chasing his mouth, at times meeting it. He moved his other hand from Reid’s thigh to his balls, cupping them. As thirsty as Luke was, he nonetheless slowed his rhythm each time he felt Reid’s testicles lift and tighten so as to intensify the eventual crest. Reid’s pleasure would be his.
“Luke—I need—” Reid’s rasping breaths dueled with the wet sounds of Luke’s mouth. His hands in Luke’s hair shook as if from the effort not to force the pace.
In answer, Luke squeezed and sucked with maximum power and speed. Hands and mouth cooperated to cover the entirety of Reid’s massive cock. Luke’s eyes closed, his awareness centering on the processes within, initiated by him, for him, of fundamental fluids journeying through ducts and vesicles, squeezed by muscles, coming to him—coming—
Luke didn’t notice Reid’s shout or spasms or his own stinging scalp. He didn’t even register the expanding wet spot in the crotch of his own jeans. He felt only the first warm spurt at the back of his throat, the sensation expected yet still startling. Summoning enough presence of mind to tug sharply on Reid’s scrotum, Luke milked the shaft upward with his other hand. He wanted every drop. Every taste – he lifted his head until only the glans was in his mouth so that no taste buds would be left unengaged. He tried to parse what was filling his mouth – spice, cream, heat, salt, smoke. How it clung and coated and slipped. How it was Reid – complex, fulfilling. He knew he would never get enough.
“Holy. Fuck.” Reid had slid to the floor, his softening cock still in Luke’s mouth, still being licked and sucked. “Babe—I think that’s all there’s gonna be for a while.”
Luke was too absorbed to hear. He’d been transported to a new realm, a new consciousness sometime around the first swallow. It wasn’t an out-of-body experience – no, that couldn’t even come close to describing the place he was now. He was decidedly in his body. Had never been more so. He could feel every atom of every cell, every flavor of every quark. And he was sure he could feel Reid as well – not just the part still filling his mouth but what Reid was feeling, what was happening inside, the cellular processes and electrical currents. The love.
They lay there on the carpet, next to the bathroom, across from a mirrored closet. Two Reids caught their breath; two Lukes continued their occupation with two dicks. Reid rubbed the outside of Luke’s jean-covered thigh, watching his efforts without comment. With meditative movements, Luke gummed and kissed. He felt with fingertips, with his cheek, with his chin. He surrounded it with his mouth; he undulated against it with his tongue. At last it began to respond.
Reid’s slow breaths quickened. His hand moved up to Luke’s buttock. “You realize I can never let you go.” The words were hushed, but this time Luke heard. Reid’s cock still in his mouth, Luke turned his head and opened his eyes. His tongue continued to circle as their eyes locked. He reached with one hand to cover Reid’s where it lay on the rough carpet. Fingers interleaved and folded. Luke’s other hand left Reid’s penis and traveled back, skimming past the scrotum to the strip of skin behind. Wet fingers massaged as they inched. They found the puckered skin.
“It’s time we did things right.” Reid disengaged Luke long enough to kick off shoes and loosened jeans, pulling him up until they were both standing in each other’s space. Reid shed his torn shirt as he backed Luke toward the bed. His eyes on Reid’s half-hard penis, Luke stepped out of his shoes, lifting his shirt over his head and unzipping his wet jeans. When the back of his legs hit the bed, he sat and shimmied backward, using the friction to help remove his jeans completely. He blindly reached back to toss away pillows as Reid peeled off Luke’s underwear and joined him on the bed, heavy penises bumping as the men managed to pull down the bedspread. Stretching his naked body across the crisp sheets, Luke once again latched onto Reid. With absolute concentration, Luke carefully swallowed, relaxing his jaw and neck until the back of his throat rippled against the head of Reid’s rising cock, his nose wedged beneath Reid’s scrotum. He fell deeper with each in-breath. His arms worked their way around Reid’s hips, his nails scoring firm flesh as he hugged Reid closer. He could feel the pleasure building. He could sense the surrender. He’d never been more certain of their connection, of their attunement.
The sense of a shared experience was so powerful that Luke couldn’t be sure exactly when it had become literal – exactly when Reid had inverted himself alongside Luke, his mouth fused to Luke’s cock, his arms around Luke’s hips. Luke now truly felt as Reid felt; his mind was Reid’s mind. Luke’s trance had become wholly immersive, the boundaries of identity and perception obliterated. The circle was infinite. They had merged.
Luke had lost all reference to time. A minute, an hour – he had absolutely no idea how long they stayed in this position. Nor did he care. He didn’t have to, as deadlines had now lost all relevance. He did, however, eventually become aware of the tongue circling his ass. His moan of pleasure vibrated around Reid’s cock. At the tongue’s gingerly prodding, Luke wriggled his bottom encouragingly. His hands playing along the length of Luke’s fully distended penis, Reid pressed his pointed tongue forward, slowly rotating it. Gagging slightly as Reid’s penis reached maximum size, Luke withdrew his mouth, trailing viscose liquids.
While Luke began to work Reid’s cock in earnest with his mouth and hands, Reid incrementally inserted a finger. Luke clenched his approval. While the finger slowly stretched, Reid’s mouth returned to Luke’s cock, the fingers of his other hand rubbing small circles beneath Luke’s scrotum. Luke was having trouble placing the soft slurping sounds he was hearing – though they were likely produced by one or more cock-sucking mouths, they also could have been the sounds of Luke’s mind being grasped at by oblivion, like boots being sucked by a swamp. He fought the creeping bliss, determined to share the end with Reid. His head bobbing with purpose, he tried for Reid’s hole again with a slippery finger. He reached it; the ring of muscles rippled under his touch like a reef creature retracting into its casing. He petted it, coaxed it, began to win its trust. His movements here were as subdued as those on Reid’s dick were balls-out. He felt the pucker begin to relax, to open. To let him in.
It was at this moment that Reid’s fingers finished Luke. As he deep-throated Luke’s dick, Reid prodded his prostate – from both sides – using not only the inserted knuckle but also the finger pressing below Luke’s scrotum. Luke lost himself beneath the sucking mud. But he was not alone – his explosive release seemed to trigger Reid’s own, and hot cum filled both mouths, slid down both throats. Luke sucked and swallowed as if parched, as if he’d been dry for days.
A twinge told Luke that Reid’s finger was out. He felt momentarily unplugged, untethered; he had to remind himself that the semen in his belly was in no immediate danger of leaking out, that Reid would remain part of him for at least a little while longer. Even more reassuring was Reid’s mouth making its way up the side of Luke’s naked body, up to his lips. Luke lay back as Reid anchored Luke’s head with his hand for a kiss so deep it was fathomless, so boundary-blurring that Luke wasn’t sure which tongue was his or whose cum he was tasting. Their damp bodies slid against each other; their softening penises tangled. They cleaned each other’s mouths.
Eventually, Luke regained the power of speech. “What—was that?”
“That was my line,” said Reid between slow kisses. “Though I probably would have added a ‘fuck.’”
Luke smiled against Reid’s mouth. “I think in some cultures we’d be married now.”
Reid responded almost quickly enough. “And/or in jail.”
“Totally worth it.” Luke’s hands spread the sweat across Reid’s back. He closed his eyes. “I can’t believe I thought I knew what sex was.”
Reid’s mouth seemed unable to contain the smirk.
“Or love.” Luke’s hands continued to wander, but now his eyes were open – and fixed.
Reid returned the gaze. After a few moments he joined their lips in a soft kiss.
Luke made a sad sound as Reid lifted his body but then snuggled (there was really no other word) contentedly against Reid’s chest after being repositioned, heads now on pillows, bodies correctly oriented. Luke couldn’t tell if Reid were a willing cuddler or just a resigned one. It didn’t matter; they fit.
“You taste amazing.” Luke’s breath fanned Reid’s skin. “I already want more.”
“It’s the junk food. Highly addictive.”
“Mmm, I am never making fun of your eating habits again.” Luke’s fingers followed the faint furrows of Reid’s abdomen. “Maybe I should give them a try.”
“Nothing could ever taste as delicious as you already do.”
The rumble in Reid’s chest collided with the shiver riding through Luke’s body, the results rippling out in multiple dimensions. Every breath entering Luke carried Reid, carried their sex. Luke’s hand stilled, his mind having found a frequency of absolute peace.
“I guess Noah turned out to be good for something.”
The frequency faltered. Luke looked up blankly. “Yeah—I’m too blissed-out right now even to worry about where this might be going.”
A smile winked and was gone. “I just mean—at least he gave you something to practice on.”
Luke’s look became blanker.
“Your technique—spectacular. The teeth were a nice touch.”
Luke’s body couldn’t decide whether to frown, blush, or laugh. It went with a mutated amalgam of all three. Reid lifted a brow.
Luke pressed his face into Reid’s chest so that when he spoke, the words were too muffled.
Luke smiled, his mind still stuck on dirty. “I said—it wasn’t Noah.”
“Huh, I can’t believe I missed that entry in his medical records about being a eunuch. You know, it explains so much.”
“Ha ha. No, it’s just that—he didn’t really like—getting that.”
“Ah, so I missed the section about his being clinically insane.”
“We never really went into it—his upbringing was, well, a bit dysfunctional.”
Rather than retort, Reid pressed his hand against the small of Luke’s back.
“He tried to, you know, give it—but I see now that he was pretty clueless.”
Reid’s expression was a mix of smugness and confusion. “So how the holy heck did you learn how to do all that? I hadn’t realized the navy had a presence in Oakdale. Then again, if there’s an international shipping company headquartered there, it must be a pretty important port city.”
“I, uh, internetted.”
Reid craned his neck downward. “You googled ‘how to give a blow job’?”
“Pretty much. And it wasn’t just the gay sites – there are some women out there who really seem to know what they’re doing. Actually, their advice was usually better written.”
“But—hang on, if Noah wasn’t a fan, why were you amassing such a treasure trove of knowledge? To change his mind?”
“No. So that I’d be ready if I ever got up the nerve to come find you.”
Reid touched Luke’s chin where it rested on Reid’s chest. The hand on Luke’s back increased its pressure. “I’ll have to find a way to thank these women.”
Luke leaned up for a kiss. He pulled at Reid’s bottom lip as he drew away, settling his head on Reid’s shoulder.
Reid rested his head on Luke’s. “So—that was really the first time? That you tasted a man?”
Luke’s nod moved both their heads. “When he’d let me try, he never wanted me to—finish.”
“Funny, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want you to. The minute I saw that mouth of yours—all I could think about was it wrapped around my cock. My semen on your lips. What it would look like. What it would look like seeing you lick it off. Seeing you swallow. Knowing part of me was so deep inside you. I dreamed about it.”
Luke’s hand was drawn to Reid’s cock. His fingers needed to feel it, to feel the soft weight filling his palm.
“So it was mostly anal, then?” Reid’s low voice was casual. He winced as Luke’s fingers reflexively tightened, however.
“What? Uh, no, definitely not. I mean, we did, at first, eventually. He always wanted to, you know, be the one on top. But for most of it, the little time we were doing anything—it was really just hand jobs.”
“No wonder you were starving,” said Reid against Luke’s hair.
Luke’s hand left Reid’s penis, his arm stretching across Reid’s torso, his hand tucking under, pulling him closer. “It wouldn’t have mattered. You’re the only one who’ll ever be able to fill me.”
Reid hugged back. They held on, muscles engaged, heads pressing against each other. Chests pressed as well, sweat and heat fusing the skin. Deep within, languidly orbiting stars gently pulsed, each turn further reconciling dreams and expectations, circling ever closer to a happy ending.
Deep within, full hearts adjusted their beats until there was unison.
Chapter 22: Coalescence
“Are you asleep?”
“Are you sure?”
“Responding verbally while asleep is not one of my many, many talents. At least I don’t think it is. Though I suppose I wouldn’t know—and wouldn’t actually be surprised. My talents are literally countless.”
“Reid, I think someone might have told you by now.”
“Unlikely. No siblings. Always had my own room. And even I wasn’t able to speak as an infant.”
“Yeah, but—surely, you’ve slept in the same room with someone as an adult.”
“Nope. And don’t call me Shirley.”
Luke lifted his head. “You’ve never spent the night in the presence of another person? Really.”
Reid met his eyes. “Nope.”
Holy shit. “Oh.”
His eyebrows still hovering near his hairline, Luke let his head be repositioned on Reid’s shoulder. The rumbles of cargo trucks seeped in through the closed windows. “So—do you want to go to sleep?”
Reid wrapped a finger in Luke’s hair. “I’m assuming that’s a leading question.”
“I just—I know you have surgery tomorrow, and I don’t—”
“Luke. Anything you want.”
Luke lifted his head again. After a brief check of Reid’s eyes (would he ever get used to seeing the trust?), Luke reached over to the drawer of the nearest bedside table while trying to maintain as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. During the rummaging Reid’s hand smoothed along Luke’s bare back, resting just above the curve of his buttock. Luke pulled out a bottle.
Reid watched silently as Luke returned to straddle him, both hands lifting to Luke’s thighs. Luke popped the cap.
“Hold the phone—is that—that smells like—caramel.”
A blush infiltrated Luke’s wicked grin as he squeezed oil into his palm and rubbed his hands together.
“Seems you were a busy boy while I was giving my talk this morning.” His thumbs turned circles over Luke’s skin. “So what are you gonna do with me now?”
Luke licked his lips. “I thought I might try giving you a massage.”
Reid’s smile had slightly more staying power than usual. “By all means—show me what the wisdom of the internets has to offer.”
Though the blush deepened, Luke’s hands continued rubbing the oil as he leaned forward. He skimmed his fingertips up Reid’s breastbone and across his clavicle in opposite directions, continuing up the side of his neck and ending at each ear. Beginning at the top, Luke rubbed small, soothing circles spiraling down to the lobe. With his eyes never leaving Reid’s, Luke hands traveled to the back of Reid’s head, lifting it, his fingers finding hollows at the base of the skull where they continued their circular pressure. Their faces were close; they exchanged breaths from open mouths.
Lowering Reid’s head back to the bed, Luke moved his fingers to Reid’s temples, again rubbing in slow circles. Backing his head away slightly, Luke used his thumbs to massage between Reid’s eyes – he imagined his thumbs were tingling from the activated energy (as the website had promised). Then, after making a detour to the bottle of oil, he pressed his palms above each nipple.
“You got the warming kind.”
The blush snuck back.
With only brief breaks in his gaze, Luke manipulated indentations – first below Reid’s collarbone and then over his heart. He spread his palms again, communing with Reid’s heartbeat, slowly fanning oil over the entirety of Reid’s chest. At first he ignored the hardness of Reid’s nipples, swerving around and down Reid’s belly with repeated strokes. Finally, he pressed into them with his full weight, backing off slightly to work each with a thumb and forefinger. He bent down to one, tripping the tip of his tongue with all the force of a fluttering eyelash.
“Mmm – really does taste like caramel.”
“And I’m supposed to take your word for that?” Reid seemed to be having trouble completing each word.
Grinning, Luke leaned over to the other nipple, wetly sucking it into his mouth before continuing up Reid’s body, his mouth hovering just short of Reid’s. Luke opened his mouth and extended his tongue. With the speed and accuracy of a snake, Reid captured that tongue for a brief, hard suck.
He licked his lips. “Maybe I should pour some in my coffee tomorrow. Though I’d rather pour it on you.”
Luke bent for a quick kiss before returning to spread more oil on Reid’s chest, eventually elongating the strokes to move past his shoulders (those shoulders) and down both arms (those arms), focusing on his biceps and fingers. He pretended not to notice the way the front of his body brushed against Reid’s penis as he slid to sit farther down, his eyes never leaving Reid’s. Squaring himself over his arms, Luke buried the heels of his hands into the thick tendons of Reid’s groin, his fingers curling into flesh as he sank his weight down. Then, skirting Reid’s penis, Luke framed his belly button with his hands, his thumbs taking a quick dip before rhythmically rubbing down the trail of light hair to where it thickened. With restraint he didn’t know he had access to, Luke lifted his hands before they reached (attacked) Reid’s leaking cock.
Reid complied, his commentary limited to only a lifted eyebrow.
Luke resettled on Reid’s body, sitting again on his legs. He squirted oil across the subtle strength of Reid’s upper back, smoothing outwards with flattened hands, kneading lightly with fingertips. Softly, he kissed the back of Reid’s neck. Working his thumbs under the edges of Reid’s shoulder blades, Luke searched for spots of special tension, his reward a sustained groan. Once again ignoring an awakened cock (this time his own), Luke pressed his thumbs and feathered fingers down the length of Reid’s spine several times, on the last pass switching to closed hands. Reid’s background sounds became louder with each dig.
“Remind me to order the highest-speed internet when we get home,” Reid mumbled into the pillow. “And to buy stock in Google.”
Gaining confidence, Luke used the weight of his body to press the heels of his hands into Reid’s lower back. He smoothed slick hands up and away across heated skin, methodically making his way back to the base of Reid’s spine.
Reid’s rumbling stopped when Luke brushed his buttocks on the way down to his feet. The low drone resumed as Luke began working upward from arches to calves to thighs. Luke lingered at Reid’s inner thighs, his thumbs pressing up and in. He wondered if Reid realized he’d begun rocking his hips.
Luke dug the heels of his hands into the crease at the bottom of Reid’s ass. Stuffing his nerves down, he let himself focus on Reid’s matchless matched ass cheeks, on their shape and texture, on the smoothness and tautness and resistance and give. On the heat of skin and muscle and oil. On how each rotating squeeze gave him a glimpse into the shadows. His mouth literally watered when he saw the puckered hole. Girding his loins, he focused instead on his movements, on the progression from fanning to kneading, working from hip to cleft on each side. He pummeled with cupped hands, then fists, first tentatively, then with more force. He returned to rubbing – slowly, deeply, with whole hands, from bottom to top. Inescapably, his attention was trapped by what was revealed with each spreading pass; increasingly mesmerized, increasingly helpless, Luke found his fingers drifting inward, making tighter circles, found his thumbs holding the cheeks apart wider, for longer. Found his spine curving inward, his neck sloping down. His lips parting.
Reid reacted only when Luke’s fingers grazed his hole. At that he quieted, tensing, though it seemed a half-hearted gesture. Encouraged – and not at all sure he could stop – Luke circled the closed ring with his thumb, rubbing oil into the surrounding flesh, through the fringe of hair. He pressed harder, spread wider, watched it undulate and wink. By now his face was close, so close that he could smell the mix of sweetness and earth. So close he could drown in it. He fell farther, closer, until he could feel Reid’s skin on his forehead, on his cheeks and chin. Pressing against his nose. Now Reid’s reaction was to grind slowly into the mattress, his groans gradually replaced by the sound of trembling breaths.
Luke touched it with his tongue. Reid pressed into the bed, his entire body clenching. Luke followed down, massaging the ass cheeks, continuing to spread. It wasn’t getting away this time. Drawn deeper by the scent, chasing the taste, Luke licked the skittering ring of muscles until it unlocked. His tongue curved around the entrance; he let the saliva flooding his mouth drizzle down, drenching it, getting it ready for when he pressed in with the tip, which he did accompanied by guttural sounds Reid was making into a pillow. Luke had thought he already knew the taste of Reid, that he was already addicted. But this – this was profound. Like being buried in soil, covered by mulch, transformed into fertile ground by the forces of nature. Luke was at once rooted and aloft, earthbound and astral. Both welcomed and opposed – Reid’s opening alternately grasped at and repelled Luke’s tongue as it made its way in, following the heat and softness and strength. Luke twisted and thrust, pulling out to kiss and lick and suck and bite. His fingers left marks in Reid’s cheeks. They moved around to grip Reid’s hips, to allow Luke to ride out the rutting. Luke brought his index finger up to join his tongue, to stroke the outside of the wet, pulsing hole, to join in the pressing, slipping in alongside the pointed tip of Luke’s tongue, through both muscular gates and into yielding warmth. It moved farther in, farther than Luke had gone, farther into Reid than he’d dreamed of going. He felt for the nub, wanting to give Reid even a fraction of the pleasure he’d given Luke. Licking around his finger, Luke focused on the internal massage.
“Ahhh—ffff—” Reid constricted sharply around Luke’s finger, nearly dislodging his tongue as he bucked. The hand on Reid’s hip pressed down with strength.
Luke realized he was humping Reid’s leg, his turgid penis strikingly veined. Abruptly, he withdrew from Reid’s body, roughly turning him onto his back. Clearly in a daze, Reid opened heavy lids. Luke slithered up Reid’s body, mashing together wetness and hardness. Grabbing the sides of Reid’s face, Luke pushed his tongue into Reid’s mouth, mixing tastes, sharing them, drawing his just-buried finger down Reid’s cheek, closer to his own nose. Reid let himself be consumed and invaded and filled. He dug his nails into Luke’s ass, lost his other hand in Luke’s hair. Spread his legs for Luke’s thigh. Luke had never felt such abandon, such urgency – there was no desperation, only rightness. A drive to completion. It was as if the dual orbits of their twin stars were starting to decay, to enter their final phase, slowly, inexorably spiraling closer and closer. Luke felt the pull, the inevitability. In the grips of something cosmic, Luke pulled away, fumbling in the bag on the nightstand and sitting lightly on his heels. With his eyes locked to Reid’s, he spread Reid’s legs, lifting and hooking them around his own waist. He could feel Reid’s awareness snapping back into focus the moment Luke began to stretch Reid’s hole with lubed fingers.
Luke tore the condom wrapper with his teeth, his eyes boring into Reid’s. Reid stared back, the battle between trust and fear clear – fear of what, Luke could only guess. Of pain, of relinquishing, of no more secrets, nowhere left to hide. Fear of the unknown.
Luke froze as Reid’s rugged gasps ricocheted in Luke’s ears, eyes filling with questions. Certitude started to subside; suddenly, Reid’s anal skittishness made more sense. A tide of mortification began to wash in, leaving corrosion and atrophy in its wake.
What have I done?
Dropping his eyes, Luke started to withdraw fingers that suddenly felt cold.
Reid clenched around them. Looking up, Luke saw it – the nod. The small but distinct movement of Reid’s head. The permission in Reid’s eyes, almost lost amid the anxiety, but glinting as clearly as a beacon in a foaming sea. He lifted a hand to Luke’s face, pushing back damp hair. Another nod.
Biting his lip and holding his breath, Luke slowly slid his finger back in. With the care of a surgeon, Luke continued to open him, eventually easing in a second finger. He fought to keep his mind at least somewhat intact, not completely blown by what his hand was feeling, focusing instead on the state of Reid’s eyes, on what messages were being transmitted, on how far Luke should go. The blue seas were blustery, but the light stayed green. Even when the tip of Luke’s cock knocked at the gate. Even when it began to press. To push against sucking resistance as it circled a collapsing aperture. For the first time in his life, Luke wished the flared head of his penis weren’t so wide. He leaned over Reid, straining, sweating, applying gentle, steady pressure to the slippery, gradually giving hole. He tried to pacify Reid with his eyes, to reassure with his own transmissions of trust and faith and love. Of conviction in an inviolable bond. Of certainty. Increasingly, he could feel the pull of Reid’s star; he knew this had to be the next step. That it was essential. That it was safe.
Let me in.
Reid arched his back, gulping for air after apparently having forgotten to breathe, his arms and hands tangling in the sheets beside him. The head was in. Bracing straight arms on either side of Reid’s head, Luke arched his own back, closing his eyes, trying not to be immediately undone by the sensations, giving Reid time to adjust. He was gone for only a moment, his eyes quickly falling back to Reid’s. There, Luke became transfixed by what he saw. By the pain. The extent of it was shattering; immediately, he began to pull out – but once again Reid’s muscles constricted, locking Luke in. Luke resisted, appalled at the idea of hurting Reid, but he grasped the sides of Luke’s face, pulling it down. He lifted and constricted his lower body, pulling Luke in. Millimeter by millimeter, his breath hitching, Luke began to press forward. Other than the efforts of ragged breathing, movement and sound were virtually nonexistent; eye-to-eye, hip-to-hip, the distance between them gradually diminished until it was finally gone. Evaporated. Luke was in.
Leaning down farther, Luke fell to his elbows, folding along Reid’s body, whose penis pulsed between them in counterpoint to the matched heartbeats thrumming against their fused chests. Searching Reid’s eyes, Luke’s own body unclenched as he saw the pain incrementally replaced by what looked like peace, a look promptly swamped by desire, prompting Luke to attempt his first slow thrusts. Reid looked as if he were fighting not to show the pain; his hands inched into Luke’s hair, urging him on with eyes and fingers, with legs and heels and hips. Responding to Reid’s cues, Luke cautiously increased the depth until he had pulled out practically to the entrance at the beginning of each thrust, the end marked by his balls against Reid’s ass. He could barely believe what was happening, what Reid was allowing to happen. What Reid was entrusting. Reid’s hands on Luke gripped harder; his sphincter muscles grasped at Luke’s cock with each withdrawal. Luke had never imagined anything as powerful, physically or metaphorically. Not only was the pleasure exquisite – the soft, tight, sucking, encompassing heat (fuck) – but it was as if Reid’s body were trying to prevent Luke’s loss, to keep him embedded. To keep him in.
Inside Reid—I’m inside—
Luke’s control was wavering; he felt the call of Reid’s star, the inexorable spiraling in as shared orbits steadily collapsed, pulling tighter, spinner faster, sending increasingly intense waves of energy through bone and tissue and consciousness and soul, illuminating adjacent hearts. As the stars sped on paths of shifting ellipses, Luke brought his hands to Reid’s face, the thrusts speeding as well, becoming harder and louder. Luke and Reid’s open eyes burned as they held each others faces, all that they could have been – their infinite potential – transforming, in those moments, to awakened energy: kinetic and chemical, heat and sound. A revolution approached – of revolving objects and resolving lives. The physical tempo of slapping skin increased in time with the stellar duet until the stars spun near the speed of light, their energies touching, assimilating, colliding, whirling around each other a thousand times each second in a gravitational embrace. Luke and Reid pressed foreheads as they gripped and burned, salty sweat and sweet oil filling noses and mouths as hard breaths passed between them.
The collision, when it came, was silent. Impossibly magnetized stars coalesced, their tangled lines of magnetism curling and twisting, becoming buoyant and flaring – causing magnetic reconnection on a cosmic scale. Spiral arms spun off, the celestial merge releasing the energy of ten billion suns. Earthly bodies manifested interstellar events as explosions of light and liquid and love – with the power not just to breach fortresses but to obliterate them, to liquefy stone, to transform the landscape into something soft and green. Eyes had remained open, so Luke had seen the metamorphosis, from moated stronghold to blooming meadow, sunlight glinting off the crystalline surface of an alpine lake. A wide open space, stripped of fortifications, back to nature. Black-eyed Susans shone by the shore. Willows wept.
Closing his eyes, Reid pulled Luke’s head against his slick neck, clenching his fingers in the damp hair. Open-mouthed, panting, his slack tongue just touching hot skin, Luke could taste burnt caramel and spiced Reid. The synchronized pounding of heartbeats and pulses shook and deafened, from chest down to dick up to inner ear. Everywhere their skin met it was sealed by sweat and semen and stellar activities. Belly buttons and nipples aligned; Reid’s passage still gripped Luke’s cock. When Luke began to pull out, the hold tightened: Reid’s legs and arms wrapped fiercely, hugging Luke’s body as if to fold him in, as if to absorb him. Luke returned the embrace, transferring as much weight as possible to his knees and elbows as he weaved his fingers into Reid’s hair and let the electromagnetic afterglow envelop them. He had no words, no thoughts; they were beyond such things. They were beyond.
Luke felt the drift toward sleep, felt Reid’s internal and external clutching finally subside. Kissing Reid’s neck, Luke gently eased out, a final act before floating together into pressureless space.
The light of dawn angled across Luke’s face. There was no moment of disorientation or anxiety – he knew exactly where he was and with whom. Knew he was right where he was supposed to be. For the first time in three years, Luke left sleep willingly, met the morning with a smile. For the first time in three years, he felt the sun’s full brightness, felt it permeate his tissues, dance behind his eyelids, burn off the last of the lassitude that had been plaguing his days. With eyes still closed, he lifted a hand to his chest, feeling for remnants of the interstellar merger, imagining he could still sense the magnetic pull. Turning on his side, a smile still curving his lips, he reached out for Reid.
And felt the cold sheet. Luke sat up, his eyes finally opening, blinking in the light. He looked toward the dark bathroom, at the clear desk, into the too-empty closet. He saw his own bags – and no others. Pivoting, he threw himself toward the foot of the bed, whipping his head to look down the small hallway, to search all corners of the room. Swiveling back slowly, air leaking from his lungs, his eyes fell on Reid's pillow, where he saw that only the hint of an indentation remained. His hand returned to his chest; he felt density and pressure increase, felt it begin to collapse under its own weight, bending spacetime.
Reid was gone.
Chapter 23: A Singular Bloom
Had the mangling, crushing compression near Luke’s heart been measured with the proper instruments, it could have considerably clarified the debate on the consequences of colliding neutron stars. For there was no doubt – the superheated sea of degenerate matter swirling within Luke’s ribcage meant that he was currently losing the battle with gravity.
A black hole was forming in his chest.
He could feel it feeding off the rest of his body, absorbing the dawn light filling the hotel room, reflecting nothing in return. He sat on the bed, against the headboard, tangled in soiled sheets smelling of him. Nakedly aching, in a state of sweeping gravitational collapse, Luke waited for the void to grow large enough to end him.
You can see the Statue of Liberty from our room.
His mind fixed on the distant figure, on the somewhat curious fact that he hadn’t before noticed. He carefully avoided the connotation of “our room,” of its being all they would ever share. Part of him knew he was being unnecessarily maudlin; Reid wasn’t forever gone, wasn’t dead. He was in Boston. Luke could easily find him.
But Reid had left. After everything. After Luke had given everything.
After I took what he wasn’t ready to give.
The oblivion crept, swallowed. Luke welcomed it.
Just before his eyes closed, he saw it. The curve of a black strap on the floor next to the bed, beneath the lumpy bedspread pooling on the carpet. He watched it for a while, waiting for it to make sense, waiting for his muddled, sluggish thought process to sort through the incoming signals, to tune out the foreground feedback wailing in his skull. It wasn’t his strap. His bags were over there (undisturbed, no paper note left on top to break their blackness). A note – suddenly, Luke was standing, lurching over to the chair, to the dresser, looking under the desk, stumbling into the bathroom, turning on the light.
Not even a note.
He leaned against the doorframe of the bathroom, facing out. Facing the mirrored closet door, faced with the pale figure of a man covered in Reid’s marks, in his semen. A hollowed man Reid had left behind. Despite knowing that they were each other’s best chance, only chance, at happiness, at living in a properly lit and colored world. Luke tried to look into his own eyes, to find signatures of what they had shared, evidence of merger, echoes of oscillating energies; he closed his eyes, trying to feel magnetic lines of reconnection.
All he could feel was the singularity of despair.
Without looking into the mirror again, he turned back toward the bed, eyes again gravitating to the horizon of New York harbor. As he shuffled slowly forward, he began to feel a different pull, familiar in its frequency but startling in its strength. Out of the depths of the emptiness in his chest crawled a compelling need. A command. The trajectory of his feet bowed before his mind caught up; suddenly, he found his body angled in an unexpected direction.
He was facing the minibar.
His eyes fixed on the smooth chrome framing orderly forms behind glass, rows of round metal and liquid amber. Luke could taste it. Any of it, all – it could fuel the void, end the struggle. It would silence the low hum that had always been present, at times swelling, especially in recent years, but never to this magnitude.
Luke could no longer think of a reason not to give in.
He dragged a foot forward, a foot closer. It bumped the fallen bedspread, catching in the forgotten strap. Momentarily distracted from his final purpose, he lowered to the edge of the bed and reached down, uncovering a small black travel bag. He lifted it to his lap, fit his palms over the zipper, pressed his fingers against the leather, wondered how long ago Reid had bought it, how many places it had traveled with him, if he had noticed yet that he’d forgotten it. Wondered what small parts of Reid’s life it contained. He began to unzip.
There was a faint outline of petals, as if etched, on the precisely folded tissue. Luke fingered the dark circle of dampness at the center before carefully peeling back the top layer, his mind still far behind his actions. Within, he saw the colors, vivid against the pale tissue and the dark interior and the muted grays and browns of the toiletry bottles beneath. He saw the sharply folded green stem angled upward across the flower face, bisecting the brown and radiating yellow, the slender petals creased and slightly crumpled but otherwise intact. As if they’d been pressed between the folds of the tissue, as if in a pocket. Luke looked down into the bag for a good moment, almost seeing, the high-pitched feedback that had been ringing in his ears gradually fading. Finally, mental pathways began to clear, his reeling mind to realign. Siren calls subsided. His solar mass stiffened; degeneration reversed as the curved rim of the void began to close, unfreezing space and time.
The time. What time is it?
He re-zipped Reid’s bag, scanning the room for his jeans and then rushing over to dig out his phone from a pocket. As the phone on the other end rang, he reached for one of his bags, carefully placing Reid’s inside. He then dressed quickly, balancing and hopping as he went, oblivious to pained muscles and encrusted skin and flattened hair. Finally, his call was answered.
“Thank God you picked up. OK, please, just listen to me.” He temporarily gave up trying to put on his shoe. “Are you in front of your computer? Great, OK, I need you to book me on whatever flight leaves JFK at 7 am for Boston. One way. Yeah, I know it’s tight.” The phone wedged between his shoulder and ear, he finished stuffing his shoes onto his feet and the remainder of his scattered belongings into his bags. He began to roll toward the door. “What? Seriously? OK—fine, book both of them. Yes, both. Fine, first class—whatever’s left. No, from my personal account—this isn’t for the Foundation. No, no return flight to Oakdale. I know, just tell her—tell her I’ll explain everything later, OK? Thanks, bye.”
The singularity in his chest had transmuted into a singular sense of purpose. Luke held the tote bag close to his body, briefly considering leaving the other two bags behind to be shipped to Boston before deciding that the request would take more time than it would save. He raced through the lobby, a bag slung on each shoulder, the third being briskly wheeled behind. He checked his phone.
There’s time. Hop in a cab, no traffic on a Saturday morning, there’s just enough time. I can make it. I can catch him.
And then he saw the line. Or rather the loose but large assemblage of bleary-eyed coffee drinkers and their luggage positioned between Luke and the curb, where a doorman whistled for taxis on a mostly empty street.
A fist of nothingness punctured Luke’s chest. The void was back. Its promise of oblivion was dangerously seductive.
Unsure what the next move should be (checkmate), Luke sank into a temporary paralysis. He dimly heard the piecing whistles, their high-pitched frequencies swallowed by the growing vacuum within him. He almost saw the yellow cab pull up to the front of the line, the doorman leaning in to speak to the driver before opening the backseat door for a man turning to grab the last of his bags, on the verge of stooping into the cab.
The voice halted Luke’s descent into his internal abyss. He lifted his attention to the man with one hand on the door of the cab. The other arm was waving.
“Hey—” Alex stopped when he saw Luke’s face. That must have been it; Luke could later think of no other reason for what Alex did next. Luke’s expression must have told of tragedy.
Putting a hand on the doorman’s shoulder, Alex spoke into his ear; the two men then motioned for Luke to approach. Still dragging his awareness fully up from the depths, Luke rolled forward, gradually picking up speed, not quite yet present enough to notice the varying degrees of pique exhibited on passed faces.
Alex briefly looked around as Luke moved closer. “Reid?” asked Alex softly.
Luke shook his head, his eyes large and dull.
“Don't suppose you're heading to Newark?”
The slight hope that had been incrementally building seeped out with a nearly audible reedy whine. Again, Luke shook his head, dropping it.
Sighing, Alex stepped back, rolling his suitcase to the side. With one hand still on the car door, he flourished an arm toward the interior of the cab. “See you in Boston, then.”
Luke looked up, struggling to make sense of the exotic expression on Alex’s face: a sincere smile. Which twisted only slightly when Luke hugged him before throwing his luggage and then himself into the backseat of the cab.
Luke found his voice. “JFK, please. As fast as humanly possible. Faster. I have to make this flight.” He turned from the driver in time to see Alex salute him as the cab pulled into the street. Luke held up a hand in return.
“Huh? Oh—” Luke struggled to snap his mind back to working order. Right. He checked the time on his phone. Crap. Time for only one try. Shit. Please, God—
“Jet Blue.” Please please please. “And it leaves at seven.” Luke could see the cabbie’s eyebrows rise. “And I’m known for my generosity.” The cab accelerated.
Luke checked his phone again before forcing it deep into his pocket. The timing was out of his control now. What he would say, how he would get through, how he could recapture lost ground, that should be his focus. But he could feel the nonexistent ticking through his pants pocket, could feel it with each clicking pass of tires over breaks in the road, at each sadistically long red light. He had to get to Reid now, before Boston, before the rhythms of Reid’s recent life reclaimed him, before old patterns were remembered and reinforced. Before he could rebuild – even at a distance, Luke could feel the meadow being disturbed, quarried, the earth turned to lay fresh foundation for a new fortress. Every minute meant further progress toward devolution.
This time it’ll be different.
This time I’m coming after you.
As the cab bisected the bottom of Manhattan, Luke tried to think, tried to plan. What should he say? That he loved him? That they were meant to be? That he would never let Reid go? He'd already said it – and to what effect? It hadn’t worked. Not true – it did, we did. Reid just panicked. Decided on emergency surgery to cut out the parasite (mutualist) before it – before I – could get any farther in. Because he couldn’t handle what he was feeling. That had to have been it – I mean, come on, not even a note? No way he’d ever be so heartless. Not with me. He just wasn’t thinking straight. And at least there was no note telling me not to follow. He had to have known I would follow—
But Luke couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Reid had been counting on the fact that Luke wouldn’t follow. That he would be too weak or indecisive. Or devastated; surely, Reid would have known what his leaving would do to Luke. How it would destroy him (like Reid had been destroyed).
No. He could never intentionally be that cruel. It was just a moment of panic. (so why didn’t he turn around and come back?) It shows how deeply he loves me, so deeply it terrified him. (then why didn’t he ever say the words?)
At first Luke didn’t notice when the canyons of Manhattan abruptly gave way to water views. The cab was halfway over the East River before he realized he was once again crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, only in the opposite direction, and in daylight.
The emptiness of the cab suddenly served as a moving focal point for the entire weight of the bridge – trusses and towers were now merely conduits funneling all forces directly into the backseat. Onto Luke’s chest. Reid’s absence from the seat beside him was a tangible shadow entity; Luke lay the back of his hand on top of the tote bag in the middle of the seat, closing his eyes, willing the weight of Reid’s hand to materialize against Luke’s palm. His fingers involuntarily curled.
His pocket vibrated. He nearly twisted a finger pulling his phone out.
“Hello? Oh, right – yeah, I still need both tickets. Just send me the confirmation numbers—great, thanks. I seriously owe you, Sabrina. What? No, no rain here—why, is there supposed to be? Nope, not a cloud, blue skies. I’m actually crossing over water now—it’s really beautiful. Yeah, I’d better go. Thanks again.”
As the cab continued over the bridge, Luke craned his neck to watch the play of sunlight on metal and stone. Why isn’t it raining? It should be raining. The day has no right to be this perfect. The script should call for rain during the race to the airport.
Luke looked down at his phone. At least I have an excuse for not just calling him. I don’t have his number. The thought was anything but consoling. He returned the phone to his pocket, closing his mind to a doleful thought: I should have taken the photo.
The rest of the ride was spent oscillating between constructive planning and destructive doubt. Through it all, Luke kept an internal eye on the cosmic state of his chest, occasionally resorting to pressing a hand over his heart to keep dark forces at bay. At least the traffic gods were on his side – Brooklyn soon turned into Queens, and airport signs began flashing by.
There’s time. This will work.
“Terminal five, right? There, you see it?” Luke was on the edge of the seat, sharp eyes darting among all windows. As the cabbie took the last turn, Luke sorted his bags and pressed against the door, digging for cash in his wallet, grateful that he still had a few large bills. “Great job, thanks.” He handed a couple to the driver, pushing out of the taxi as soon as it slowed to a roll.
With stress hormones sharpening his senses, he flew through the gate, stopping briefly at a self-service kiosk and blessedly short security line. His spirits lifted as his speed increased – he was soon running and rolling at top speed over the polished floor, past shops just lifting their gates. He was attuned to announcements; he heard the first boarding call for his flight as he made the final approach toward the gate.
I’m here, Reid.
The passengers were lining up as Luke arrived. He skidded to a halt, still not quite sure what the plan should be when he found Reid. Better to see him before he sees me. Luke hung back, sweeping his attention over the extent of the queuing crowd, tempted just to close his eyes and feel for the pull. After the initial scan he walked closer, his pace picking up as he wove through the passengers, his search becoming more overt. More frantic. Finally, he wheeled up to the check-in counter and asked if any passengers had already boarded. The answer caused him to lift a hand to his chest. He stood searching for stragglers, watching the door of the men’s room, looking in the direction of the food court. But the fight was leaving him. The evidence was fast-approaching irrefutable: he’d picked the wrong flight.
By now the signs were familiar – the crushing lethargy, the yawning emptiness. The overwhelming desire to fold into complete collapse. This time, there would be no external savior or serendipitous sign to halt the implosion. This time, there was only the internal – lessons learned, strength accrued. Connections forged in heat and pain and blinding light. Trust. But was it enough? In a moment of clarity, Luke realized Reid hadn’t been the only one with fear-based defenses. Luke had thought he couldn’t have given more, couldn’t have been more open to Reid. And in the moment, in Reid’s presence, that had been true. Luke had held nothing back. His love and trust had performed miracles in less than a day and a half. But alone, without Reid there to see and touch, to grasp and tether, when the clouds obscured the moon and the gnarled hand of self-doubt burst up from the grave – that’s when Luke’s lack of faith was revealed. He did finally (almost) believe that he was worthy of Reid’s love, that he could give as much as he received. But deep down, in the dank inner chambers, did he believe that what they had could survive the elements? That their relationship could outlast squalls and zombies, especially if Luke let his guard down, his attention slip? Because if he relaxed his grip, wouldn’t their connection vanish? Hadn’t it already? If I hadn’t fallen asleep— And not a burnished connection consisting of nostalgia and gilded grief, but a working connection, a durable partnership – did Luke believe it was even possible without constant vigilance and diminishing returns? He had always been able to fight for relationships, but he wondered if he could truly trust in them. If he could trust in resilience, in the idea of a relationship as a mature, evolving thing that he could live in and not always have to cling to. But there was also the fear that he wouldn’t be able to open himself completely now that Reid really had vanished. Now that Luke had felt this pain. Pain that – as Reid had pointed out – would no doubt be exponentially worse next time.
It was then Luke realized that both of them had let security and trust be casualties of fear. Luke had let not only self-doubt, but also fatalism sabotage his relationships. He had chosen to believe in the inevitability of failure over love. He had let others – past and present relationships, family – set the tone, the pace, the rules. He could change that now. He could open by letting go.
Luke closed his eyes. His attention centered, landing again on the threatening chasm. This time, he felt beyond the fear. He listened. He heard Reid, felt him. Realized he would always be with him, no matter what the ending.
So you have a choice, Mr. Snyder. You can either stand there leaking, or you can get back to the business of securing our life together. There’s a plane boarding right behind you. Get on it and find me in Boston.
His eyes still closed, Luke let the sounds of the airport fade as he turned even further inward, descending to neglected depths. He followed the stellar signature to his polestar, his constant self, in whose orbit he listened for truth, felt for the path. Let himself trust. Desperation evaporated as a wave of celestial certitude radiated, obliterating the remaining darkness; Luke knew he could find Reid in Boston, knew he could make him believe again. He also knew – could feel – that Reid was in pain.
Luke opened his eyes. And began to run.
Chapter 24: The Rules of Opera
Luke ran. Gripping bags above and below with firm fingers, he ran past the line of passengers, past the gate, past the shops and food court and restrooms. Past security and baggage claim, past too slowly sliding doors into still cool morning air.
He stepped into the path of a passing airport worker. “Delta – which terminal?”
The man leaned back, reacting to Luke as if a tornado had just touched down in front of him. “Uh, I believe all their flights leave from Terminal 4 now.”
He pointed carefully to the left. “The airport shuttle leaves from over there.”
The man slipped away as Luke’s attention fixed on the empty shuttle stop, on the empty roadway – and then on the taxi stand across the narrow lane, empty of passengers but not of taxis. He rolled into motion and crossed the street.
The cab driver dropped his newspaper as Luke propelled himself and his bags into the backseat. “Yes, good morning, sir. Manhattan? Brooklyn?”
The driver’s accent thickened. “I’m sorry?”
“Terminal 4. Please go, now.”
“But sir—there is a free shuttle.”
“But there are set prices—”
Luke retrieved the last large bill from his wallet, extending his hand past the divider and into the front seat.
“Yes, sir.” The taxi pulled into the road.
Luke closed his eyes as the road curved; he deepened his breaths. He still felt it – the certainty, the cool wash of guiding light. He also felt the pain. Reid’s pain. Luke focused on keeping his inner tempos steady, opening his eyes only as he felt the cab slow.
“Terminal 4, sir.”
Without a word, Luke uncoiled from the backseat and targeted the terminal entrance. He looked down at his phone, retrieving the confirmation number for the second flight as he sped over smooth surfaces toward a row of self-service kiosks. The boarding pass printed successfully; there was still time. He ran to the short first-class security line, now grateful it had been the only type of seat available. After pulling off his shoes and emptying his pockets, he momentarily closed his eyes while waiting for the slow full-body scanner to screen each passenger, closing them again when it was his turn. He didn’t mind the exposure. There was nothing left to hide.
I’m coming, Reid.
“Excuse me, sir, is this your bag?”
Reaching for his luggage as it emerged from the x-ray machine, Luke realized the uniformed woman was speaking to him. He looked up to see her pointing to the tote bag.
“Uh, yes, is there a problem?”
“Please step over here, sir.” She moved to a table at the end of the conveyer belt. Her voice was large and sharp. “Please empty the bag.”
Ripples of anxiety pulsed through Luke’s aura of focused calm. Cool colors began to turn garish. “It’s a chess set.”
“Please empty your bag.”
Forcing shallow breaths down to previous depths, he lifted out the rosewood box and placed it in front of the woman, striving to appear and sound as non-threatening as possible. He landed in the vicinity of pleading. “Please—my flight’s about to take off.” He wished he’d brushed his hair.
Steadying his hands, Luke unlatched the box, unfolding it to reveal orderly nestled pieces. “See? Just a chess set.”
The woman ran fingers tipped with nails painted black and silver along a row of maple before settling on a gleaming queen. She lifted it from its velvet bed. “Why is this so heavy?”
“Um, because it’s supposed to be. It’s weighted.”
“Weighted with what?”
Luke’s local atmosphere shifted quickly now, placid air masses dissipating under harsh light. Calm escaped on a sigh. “I have absolutely no idea.”
“Please step back, sir.”
Luke again applied force to his breaths, this time squeezing them through narrowed passages. He watched the woman reach under the counter for an explosives ‘sniffer’ cloth, which she rubbed around the base of the queen before temporarily returning it below to a detector. She then picked up a knight.
I almost made it to you.
Luke felt the pull more distantly now, as if the signal were trying to pass through metal, through lead. “Please, ma’am, I need to get on this flight. Someone’s waiting for me.”
The woman didn’t answer, simply worked through the pieces methodically, placing each on the counter in a line as she finished with them. Luke watched the flashing silver of her nails make ephemeral shapes in the air; he saw the outlines of shooting stars against black lacquer. Matching paired sparkles were clipped into her dark, smoothed-back hair, creating dissonance with her colorless demeanor.
“Did you purchase this yourself, sir, or was it given to you?”
The last wisps of equanimity floated just beyond his reach, carrying with them the will to lie. He dropped his head. “It was a gift.” His voice, also dropping, was saturated with equal parts resignation and longing. “From someone I love.”
Luke closed his eyes again, trying to recapture the calm, to secure the slender but still tangible cord of connection. It’s OK. I’ll just get on the next flight. What’s another overpriced last-minute first-class ticket? I’ll have Sabrina try to track down his address while I head for the hospital to wait until he’s done with his surgery. It’s just a few hours difference. Just a few more hours of fortress-building. A few more hours spent in pain.
What Luke didn’t see was the woman’s movements becoming progressively slower as she passed the cloth over each piece, her fingers skimming the silky grain and precise edging. She picked up the white king.
“You should marry her.”
Luke opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”
“The woman who gave this to you. She’s a keeper.” She rubbed her thumb up the slope of the king. The jagged peaks of her voice had weathered into blunter edges – less Andes, more Appalachians. “Makes me wish I knew something about chess.”
The light from Luke’s polestar winked. “You’re right – he is a keeper.” The woman looked up, the blankness of her expression filling in like an etch-a-sketch. Luke leaned forward. “And he’s on that plane, right now, thinking I’m not coming. Thinking that we’re not meant to be. And it’s slowly killing him.”
Luke didn’t breathe, didn’t blink. He drew back the curtains, let her see in, showed her a whirlwind slideshow of past regrets, present purpose, future fulfillment. Aimed the urgency in his eyes into her opaqueness, past the boredom and dissatisfaction. The image appearing on her face gradually resolved; Luke could see his own likeness, a blurred but discernable reflection of the faith, of the belief emanating from him like a corona.
“Guess you’d better catch that plane.”
She briskly repacked the pieces; Luke’s fingers brushed silver stars as he took the tote bag from her outstretched hand. The brilliancy of his smile made them sparkle.
“Wait!” The crack of Luke’s voice whipped off the wall of windows and snapped the head of the gate agent in the process of closing the boarding door. “I’m coming!”
Luke’s full-speed momentum was too much at the end, his rolling suitcase clipping the back of his heels as he stopped in front of the female agent, the hand holding his ticket headed for a handful of breast before a last-minute adjustment landed it more safely on her shoulder.
“Sorry,” panted Luke. He held out the crumpled ticket. “Please—one more.”
The woman paused, her scrutiny making Luke feel more bedraggled than ever. It was as if he were standing under a beam of ultraviolet light, as if she could see the dried fluids on his clothes and skin.
He didn’t care. So fucking close. “Please. Please.” He backed up slightly so as to stop gasping directly into her face. His eyes openly begged.
She took the ticket. “We’ve been paging you, Mr. Snyder,” she said, looking down at the creased paper. “We almost left without you.”
“I’m—hard—to shake,” he wheezed.
She cracked under his crooked smile, her own dimples emerging as she scanned the ticket and then moved to the door, opening it wide enough for him to pass. “Enjoy the flight.”
Luke accelerated through the walkway as if it were pitched on a steep downward slant. The pull was strengthening. He slowed as he approached the open plane door, attempted to gather scattered energies. This was real. Reid is here.
He barely heard the male attendant direct him to his seat, didn’t remember lifting his suitcase overhead. His eyes were busy scanning – as he passed the first-class rows, as he craned his neck around the female attendant blocking his view into the coach cabin.
She turned toward him, pushing him back into first class. “Please take your seat, sir – we’re about to depart.” Luke let himself be pushed, reluctantly allowing that now was probably not the time. He sat on the wide leather aisle seat of his empty row, buckled in but twisted backward, systematically scouring what was visible of the rows behind.
Just as the plane lurched away from the gate, Luke saw a black pant leg, a black sleeve – there, on the aisle, is that—? – at which point the attendant unlatched the divider curtain, cutting off Luke’s view.
The seatbelt cut into his abdomen as Luke strained toward the back of the plane, as if he could reach the curtain from his seat. Just a glimpse. I just need to see him. He wrenched back around on an exhalation, fitting himself against the back of the seat, hands crushing the armrests. A stream of air from above dried a patch of sweat at his hairline. His heart wriggled like a trapped ferret, repeatedly hurling itself against his ribs, trying to escape, to scamper down the aisle, to find him. The plane turned, then turned again, the droning of the engines intensifying, the beat frequency reverberating in the spaces of his mind and body, between thoughts and cells and atoms. He twisted around again, willing the curtain to move. And it did – the female attendant’s frozen blond hair poked through. The male attendant joined her from the front of the plane; he held back the curtain with his shoulder while together they grappled with an overhead compartment. Luke ducked his head down, around, angling for a view back to that aisle seat, on the opposite side, in the exit row—
Reid was there. Luke felt the tug, as if a fish had been caught on a line connected to his chest. As if it had pulled away a portion of the Brooklyn Bridge that had become trapped there, pressing down the entire time, a stopper plugging up the light of his polestar. As the male attendant continued working with the compartment, the woman walked down the aisle. She stopped at Reid’s row. At that moment the male attendant’s body shifted, blocking Luke’s sightline; Luke unbuckled his belt and crouched lower, half out of his seat, finding a vantage point in time to see the woman bending over Reid, speaking to him, motioning to his lap. It wasn’t until she touched his shoulder that Reid looked up and seemed to register what she was saying. Luke saw Reid feel beside himself for the ends of the seatbelt. Saw him grimace as he shifted in his seat, buckling and tightening. Saw him return to his previous still state. To his blankness. The woman continued down the aisle. The man, finally finished with the compartment, let the curtain drop.
Luke faced forward again, gutted. For he realized it wasn’t blankness he’d seen, but emptiness. Vacancy. The death shadow after an atomic blast, etched into the sidewalk – the outline of a human form, an impression of death. Luke was almost glad he hadn’t been close enough to see his eyes.
What have I done?
No – this wasn’t Luke’s doing, not this time. Not completely, anyway. The psychic (and now physical) pain, the haunted depths of the fear – of loss, of betrayal – Luke would always carry some responsibility for those (you break it, you buy it). But the rest, the current manifestation – this was the aftermath of an extreme event; this was coral bleaching on an epic scale. This was why Luke had felt the urgency, why he’d needed to find Reid now, before the aftershocks could do any further damage.
How can I fix this?
Luke already had an idea. He just needed to trust in his inner directives, in the bond – perhaps a bit frayed at Reid’s end at the moment, but still cosmically secure. As if it would take more than a single panic attack to sever it. As if, even in death, neither man could be persuaded to let go.
Luke was pressed back into his seat as the plane left the ground. He was fixed in place for the time being, left to his thoughts and plans, engines thrumming around and within, awakening aches (I feel you, Reid). He was also left to old insecurities, flashes of doubt – who am I compared to him, how could he possibly want to share his life with me – but they were less compelling now, more easily subdued. Luke knew he might not always understand why he and Reid worked, only that they did. He knew in his core there was no other outcome. He believed.
And Reid would, too. He almost had, almost did. Luke suspected he didn’t need to stop pushing; instead he needed to convince Reid that it was safe to let himself be pushed.
Now if only the seatbelt light would—
Luke was unlatched and out of his seat in seconds. With similarly focused movements he moved into the aisle and lifted the overhead-compartment door, reaching in to unzip his suitcase and retrieve the black toiletry bag. Closing the door he turned down the aisle – only to be thwarted by a beverage cart that had materialized in front of him.
Luke checked the angles and estimated distances, grudgingly accepting that he was just going to have to wait until the cart had passed Reid’s row. He stood at the curtain, folding it back just enough to see the bleak beauty of Reid’s face, the absolute stillness. The profound absence. Luke doubted that, had he even been in his line of sight, Reid would have noticed him.
Luke was convinced there were glaciers in the world advancing more quickly than was this beverage service. He had to hold himself back from offering to help. At last, the cart reached Reid’s row. Again, Reid didn’t respond to the attendant. Though he did finally move – he eased his phone out of his pocket, looking down at it while the attendant reached over to hand a drink to the woman sitting by the window. Reid then bent and lifted a bag from under the seat in front of him, placing it on the empty middle seat beside. He unzipped and began to rummage, swiveling his body toward the window – away from the aisle, away from an approaching Luke. Reid’s movements became increasingly frantic as he searched the bag. He started to pull out clothing.
“Yeah, you forgot something.”
All motion ceased. Reid’s hands froze where they were, deep in the bag, as if he’d just discovered a bomb while operating. Marginally faster than a glacier, Reid pivoted his torso around, stopping before facing Luke fully. He looked at Luke’s chest, at his face – dropping his gaze quickly to the small black bag Luke was holding out.
Reid closed his eyes.
Of all the possible scenarios, Luke hadn’t anticipated this one. He wavered. Is he waiting for me to go away? He stayed, lowering the bag to his waist but otherwise not moving. He waited. He wished he hadn’t seen the limits of visible space in Reid’s eyes just then, the crush of infinite density. Wished he didn’t now have proof that gravitational collapse had been mutual that morning.
Reid broke the silence with a shudder. His eyes were still closed as he expelled a broken breath, as chest and shoulders rose and fell in fits and starts. As his eyelashes darkened, channeling rivulets over taut planes.
Lost in transfixion, Luke crouched beside Reid’s seat. He rested the bag on the armrest.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but you can’t stay there. You’ll have to—”
Luke’s stricken face stopped the female attendant. His eyes asked for time. The woman backed away.
By now Reid’s eyes were open. He didn’t notice, perhaps didn’t care about the tears. His focus was the bag – without touching Luke’s hands, Reid took the bag and rested it on his lap. He placed his hands across the top, across the zipper, much as Luke had done earlier that morning. He squeezed gently.
“You opened it.” Reid’s voice was rusty.
Luke’s voice was tender. “I did.”
Though the tears had tapered off, Reid didn’t look up.
“Doesn’t quite seem fair – as mementos go, I think I got the better deal,” said Luke. “Even the security lady was impressed.” Reid lifted unfocused eyes, blinking away the wetness. “The chess set,” Luke continued. “Wins against a flower any day.” The tension in Reid’s face lessened slightly. Luke lightly brushed his fingers against the back of Reid’s hand, perching them there. “But we’re beyond mementos now, right?”
On a sharp inward breath, Reid turned his head away, facing forward, once more closing his eyes. His hand remained as it was. A man brushed past Luke on his way to the restroom. The woman in the window seat appeared to be asleep with headphones, her drink forgotten. Luke noticed neither of these things.
“You came.” Reid’s words were ragged. They unraveled as soon as they left his lips.
Reid turned his head sharply, opening his eyes. Luke’s were waiting, soft and light.
“Ah, so that’s what this is about?” Reid sounded slightly more of himself now.
“Reid,” Luke paused as Reid’s eyes briefly shut, “if we never had sex again, I would still be here.”
The look in Reid’s eyes reminded Luke of their time under the stone bridge in Central Park, when it seemed as if Reid were finally allowing himself to see Luke.
“But that would be—tragic.”
Luke smiled, flattening his hand against Reid’s. Squeezing. Reid slowly lifted his other hand from the top of the bag and covered Luke’s.
“Luke.” Reid paused, as if momentarily lost.
Reid closed his eyes again; he seemed to be breathing in the breath that had borne his name. “You’re really here.” Luke’s grip tightened. Now Reid’s open eyes were moving over Luke’s features. “I’m not sure about the hair, though. Not your best look.”
Luke pinched Reid’s arm. “I had other priorities.”
Reid’s almost-smile slid into something sadder. He looked down. “Luke—‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. I—I just—”
“Would be an understatement. It was—”
“Intense? Too much?”
Reid met Luke’s eyes. “It was everything. It was the universe. I was offered the entire universe. And I just—I couldn’t risk losing it.”
Luke nodded. His eyes were wet. “So you couldn’t risk having it.”
Their layered hands tightened. Luke rested the side of his head against Reid’s; Reid pressed back.
“I was dead without you. I was dead.” Reid whispered against Luke’s skin. “It was too late—the infection had spread too far. I’d forgotten I couldn’t survive without my algae.” Luke lifted his free hand around Reid’s neck, into his hair. Reid’s grip on Luke’s other hand burned. “I believe time of death happened somewhere over the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Luke pulled back. “Then why didn’t you turn around? Why didn’t you come back?” Tears had slipped out of the corner of Luke’s eye. Reid intercepted them with his thumb.
“I thought it was too late. If you’d woken up—after everything—after everything you’d given me—everything I’d promised—I didn’t think there’d be any coming back from that. I was sure I would have lost you.”
“Then you’re an idiot. How could you possibly think that? Reid, what did I tell you? I said I’d never let you go again. Did you really think I wouldn’t come after you?” Luke’s voice lost some of its steam. “Because I didn’t last time?”
Reid’s palm fit against Luke’s cheek. “I thought I would have hurt you too badly.”
“Didn’t compare to what I’d done to you.”
“Luke—I asked you to live with me.”
“I know. And I know you didn’t do it for the right reasons.”
“No, it’s OK – I know you did it out of fear, because you were afraid that if you didn’t hold onto me that I would disappear. I pushed you into it.”
“I did. And I’m going to keep pushing.” Luke moved his hands to Reid’s waist. He unbuckled the seatbelt. Standing, he grasped Reid’s upper arms; with a cautiously confused look, Reid let himself be lifted, let himself be pulled into the aisle until they were standing facing each other. Luke’s voice was low but clear. “I’m going to push because this is right. We're right. And maybe it's been only a day and a half, but even a non-medical-genius can figure out the prognosis – that it's no use for either of us to try to make a life without the other. I think it's been made pretty clear that the last three years have been kind of a disaster for both of us.”
Reid had reverted to stillness. To watchful waiting. The tension in Reid’s arms traveled into Luke’s fingers and up through his own arms. But he kept his core calm. He held on. “So now it comes down to trust. Trust that I'm never going to disappear. That I'm never not going to follow you. Trust that this,” he gingerly touched Reid’s frozen cheek, “that what we have is never going to be taken away from you. From either of us. And though you’re probably not going to like it, I know of one good way to reassure you of that.” Luke lowered his hand from Reid’s face, running it down Reid’s left arm to his hand.
Luke knelt on one knee.
Immediately, Reid tried to pull Luke to his feet, pressing his other hand against the back of Luke’s shoulder. “Luke, no—get up. Don't do this. Don't do this just because you think it's the only way to—”
Luke resisted, tugging firmly on Reid’s hand, settling squarely on his knee. “Will you stop, please? I'm trying to embarrass myself here.” He blocked out the murmur rising around them. “I'm doing this because I've been dreaming about being with you for over three years. Constantly, vividly. You’ve been everywhere—in my thoughts, on my desktop—you’ve never not been with me, Reid. I’m doing this because I want it for real now. I want to wake up.” Luke was conscious of the firm warmth of Reid’s hand, of the careful cool of his eyes. “I'm doing this because you're it for me. You're my first love—my first true love, now that I finally know what that is. And I think it’s safe to say that you’re going to be my last. You're everything – you're my universe. You're the alpha and omega. You're my yedina kohanya.” Luke waited for the gleam of comprehension, for the moment of embarrassment – followed by the smirk. “That's right.” Luke smiled. He rubbed across Reid’s knuckles with his thumb. “There's only you.” Reid’s hand relaxed in Luke’s, even if his eyes still revealed little.
“And this isn't a fear-based move, Reid. Trust me,” Luke flashed a crooked smile, “I've done that. I don't want my defining moment to have been one of fear. I want it to be one of faith. I have faith in us, Reid. I have enough for both of us. I love you.” His eyes were lit with galactic fire. “And I answered the riddles, so now you have no choice but to marry me.” His smile was blinding. Hopeful. “Marry me, Reid.”
Reid’s expression remained frustratingly blank, his eyes fiercely inscrutable. But Luke saw the sheen, like a liquid film over blue arctic ice in spring melt. “Luke, stand up, please.”
Again, Luke resisted. “No, not until you believe. Now, I know you're not a fan of weddings, so I'm actually fine with just being engaged. That's commitment enough for me. I just want to belong to you. As officially as possible. And there is nothing in this universe that I wouldn’t give to know that the great Dr. Oliver belongs to me. To know that we will always be in each other’s orbits. Of course, this whole proposal would have been more impressive had I had time to pick out rings—”
“You can use these.”
Speechless, Luke watched Reid’s right hand emerge from the front pocket of his jeans holding a silver chain. Two bands dangled at the bottom. Reid handed the chain to Luke.
“What—?” Luke fingered the rings. He looked up at Reid. “When?”
“When do you think?”
Horror crept in as befuddlement retreated. “No—not—not that last day?” Reid nodded. “Oh my God—” Luke almost choked on his breath. “Reid, that night—you weren't going to—"
One peak of Reid’s top lip lifted. “No, nothing like that. It wasn't quite that bad. I just—after we left the pond, when I was getting supplies for that night, I passed one of those shops that I’d never previously registered as existing—but there I was, looking at those in the window. And it was like I saw your reflection there, like I saw that smile—and next thing you know, I was the proud if slightly shell-shocked owner of wedding rings. I was going to wait the appropriate amount of time, of course. Wait until you were under my sexual thrall.”
Befuddlement launched a counterattack. “You mean, back then—you really—I thought you hated the idea of ceremony and vows—”
“I did. But I loved you. And little did I know what that would mean. What that would make me want.”
“But—but then, why—why do you—?”
“Why do I happen to have them in my pocket three years later?” The curve of Reid’s lips was tinged with darkness. “Probably for the same reason I kept your picture on my phone. Because, apparently, I'm a masochist when it comes to you. And so I'd never forget my weakness, how I wasn't enough for you. So I'd never forget what it felt like to lose. To lose everything that counts.”
Luke realized his grip on Reid’s hand must have been causing pain. He loosened but didn’t let go. “OK. Right.” Luke stood and released Reid’s hand. “Here’s how it’s gonna go. We're going to forget all that nonsense and go back to what it meant when you first bought them.” He wiped at the tears that were interfering with his efforts to undo the chain’s small, stiff clasp. “And you can also forget what I said about just being engaged – clearly, my powers are greater than I ever realized. I'm going to be expecting a full-on wedding now. Lucky we’ll be living in Massachusetts.”
With the chain finally open, Luke slid the rings into his palm. Marveling at how little his hands were shaking, he chose the slightly smaller of the rings and reached for Reid’s left hand. He didn’t look up into Reid’s eyes until the ring was halfway on.
He saw the arctic ice had broken.
“You seem to be taking certain matters for granted.”
“Oh, you've already said yes. You said yes the moment you bought these rings.” Luke lifted his right hand toward Reid, palm up, lone ring resting. “And obviously I said yes the moment I proposed.”
Head tilted slightly back, Reid regarded Luke with eyes that were rapidly melting into summer seas. Holding Luke’s gaze, Reid reached for both the ring and Luke’s left hand. Sure and steady, his eyes still fixed on Luke’s, he slipped it into place. His hands held Luke’s hand. Reid blinked once, slowly, lids lifting to reveal a radiance capable of causing continental thaw.
Luke was sure his answering smile had transformative properties of its own. At the very least it lightened the shadows lingering on Reid’s face.
“So that's it, then? It's over?” Reid’s thumb rubbed Luke’s band.
Luke brought his other hand back up to Reid’s cheek. He stepped closer, leaning in, twisting his grin to match a playfully dramatic whisper. “No, Reid, it's just beginning.”
Luke didn’t stand a chance. The subtle shift in stance, the flash of wickedness – had Luke’s circuitry been less overloaded, he might have recognized the warnings. But he still would have lost the match. Because it wasn’t until his world had tilted and there existed only the certainty of Reid’s arms and lips that he realized his life would always be securely unexpected. That there were no more landmines, no more asteroids – they’d completed the gauntlet. That though he might never be entirely able to predict Reid’s moves, Luke realized he’d come to relish being off-balance. And not only had he mastered a few new moves of his own, but he and Reid were finally playing as one team.
As Luke was righted smoothly, he realized other things as well – that most of the passengers had rearranged themselves to watch the show, overtly or otherwise, that several were still applauding.
That the female flight attendant was standing directly behind Reid. “I'm sorry, sirs? Congratulations, but you're really going to have to take your seats, now.” Two more realizations quickly followed – first, that she was motioning toward the first-class cabin and second, that a life of surprises was, indeed, only just beginning: Reid kissed the back of her hand. Her resulting blush was, so far, the only part of the past day and a half that Luke had been able to see coming.
“So you're still moving in, right?”
Reid sat by the window, his right arm solid around Luke’s shoulder. Luke’s head rested in the slope of Reid’s neck, his eyes on their clasped left hands resting on Reid’s thigh.
“Still moving in. Porn, products and all.” The pulsing thrum of the engines harmonized with their heartbeats. “That whole thing was pretty mortifying, wasn’t it? All those people looking at us? Bet you hated it. Bet you blocked it all out.”
“Eh, I’m sure someone’s already put it on youtube by now. I’ll catch up later. Figure out what the heck I’m doing with this darn ring on my hand.”
“Excuse me,” the female flight attendant stood by their row holding two flutes. “The captain and the rest of the flight crew would like to offer you champagne. That was the first proposal for any of us.”
Reid smiled. “Yes, thank you – but would you have sparkling cider instead?”
“Of course, sir, just a moment.” She withdrew toward the front of the plane.
Luke lifted his head. “You know you didn’t have to do that. You don’t have to be careful around me. I’m stronger than you think.”
“Oh, I’m well aware of that.” The hand around Luke’s shoulder moved to play with a stiff whorl of hair at Luke’s temple. “I just find I’ve recently lost my taste for experiencing things alone.”
Luke let the smile sweep over him before leaning in to brush his lips against Reid’s. The tips of their tongues grazed. Luke resettled his head on Reid’s shoulder.
“So, did you really just propose to me, Mr. Snyder?”
“I certainly did. And to be honest it was kind of an epiphany when I realized I didn’t have to wait for someone to ask me.”
“You don’t say. Was there lightning involved? Hail, perhaps?”
“Just being around you seems to do it. I finally feel like the man I’m supposed to be.” Luke watched their entwined left hands rock gently as his thumb ran rhythmically over Reid’s platinum band, his own catching the strengthening sunlight. “Did you really carry around these rings in your pocket for three years?”
Luke cocked a brow. “And you wondered why you couldn’t be with anyone else?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” Luke could hear Reid’s grin. “And it was suggested to me at one point that it might not have been helping the situation.” Luke angled his neck, peering up. “Like I said, I got checked out. Once I finally found a doctor who wasn’t hopelessly bush-league.”
“But of course you didn’t listen.”
“Of course not. Anyway, I wasn’t ready to let you go. Even if it did cause the junior Oliver considerable unhappiness.”
“I’ll have to be sure to make it up to him.”
“Sounds like an excellent use of your time. When you’re not funding hospital wings for the young and disenfranchised, that is.”
“You totally googled me.”
The shoulder under Luke’s head lifted briefly. “It was my responsibility to keep track of potential funding sources. I did think you were still running the foundation from LA, though.”
“LA never felt like home.”
“And what are your feelings on Boston?”
“Well, considering my heart has already been there for years, I’d say they’re pretty positive. Go Red Sox.”
“I suppose I could use some company rooting against the Lakers.”
“Never liked ’em.”
The flight attendant returned. “Your cider, gentlemen. And again – congratulations.”
“Thanks!” Luke turned his wattage from the woman to Reid, touching their glasses. “To the Celtics. And to Alex.”
“Hmm—I suppose he should get a modicum of credit. But best to keep that to ourselves.”
“He does grow on you.”
“Like a fungus.”
“Like the fungus that makes penicillin.” Sipping his cider, Luke relished the smile he’d coaxed. “And he did help me out this morning when I was desperate. Let me have his taxi.”
“Oh, I’m sure he loved that.”
“Actually, he was pretty gracious about the whole thing.”
The arm around Luke’s shoulder tightened as Reid turned his head into Luke’s hair. “Luke—I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”
“It was worth it. And—in a way, I’m glad I had the chance to prove myself to you.”
“No. Nothing could be worth what it must have been like for you.”
Luke brought his right hand to Reid’s cheek. “I would have gone through a million times worse.” The corner of Luke’s mouth twitched. “Just do me a favor – next time you have a panic attack, don’t forget to think about brains.”
“My happy place is somewhat different now.”
Their eyes eventually unlocking, they resumed their previous postures of mutual melting. Luke’s world hummed. It was warm and sound and precious. Towers of cottony clouds beside the plane occasionally tempted his gaze away from their encircled fingers.
“Hang on, how did you find me?”
It took a moment for Luke to respond; he’d been captivated by the way Reid finished each word when he spoke, as if savoring the final consonant. “Huh? Oh, I heard you on the phone yesterday ordering a car. You said it was a 7 am flight from JFK.”
“Crafty. I didn’t see you at the gate – you must’ve cut it close.”
“I would have made it sooner if I hadn’t gambled on Jet Blue first.” Luke met Reid’s inquisitive look. “Seems there were two 7 am flights to Boston.”
“Had to try them both.”
“Ahh.” Reid’s arm tightened a touch. “So, that explains the—”
Luke pointed to his head, his lips pouting, his voice singsong. “Sad hair.”
“I’d say we could both do with a shower. It’s been a while. Lots of intervening activities.”
“Sounds like a plan. When’s your surgery?”
Luke waggled his eyebrows. “So there’s time.” He nuzzled Reid’s neck. “But I kinda like the way you smell now.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to recreate it.”
“Mmm.” Luke’s voice dropped. “Are you—are you sore?”
“Well, it is to be expected. My fiancé does have a massive cock.”
Luke turned his face into Reid’s neck to muffle the groan. Blindly, he reached for an in-flight magazine in the seat-pocket in front of him, opening it and laying it on his lap. “Oh Reid—”
“Did I say something?”
“Fuck, say it again.”
“Ooh, dirty—fiancé? Or cock?”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific.”
Unfastening his seatbelt, Luke curled into Reid’s side, lifting the armrest, the magazine tumbling to the floor. He pressed his groin to Reid’s thigh.
“This is highly inappropriate behavior, Mr. Snyder,” Reid murmured against Luke’s hair. “Or should I say—future Mr. Oliver?”
“Aww motherfu—” Digging their joined hands into Reid’s thigh, Luke grasped Reid’s right arm, wrapping his fingers tightly, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried to minimize the humping. He was intensely grateful for the empty row across the aisle. “Reid—do you think we have time—” Luke flicked his tongue at the skin of Reid’s neck. “I mean, do you think it’s possible—”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our initial descent into the Boston area. At this time we would ask that you please return to your seats and ensure that your seatbelts are securely fastened…”
Luke collapsed against Reid’s side. “Uhh.”
“Sorry, no mile-high club this time. Looks like you’re going to have to control yourself a little longer. And it’s highly unlikely we could’ve done anything under-the-radar on this particular flight.”
Luke whimpered weakly as he focused on regulating his breathing.
“Anyway, I think I’d prefer to be initiated on one of your many private jets.”
Still maintaining maximum contact, Luke shifted back into his seat and refastened his belt. “So—then you’re saying it would be another first for you?”
A ray of light from the opposite side of the plane lit Reid’s eyes like a shock of magnetic reconnection during a solar flare. “I have a feeling we still have plenty of those to come.”
Luke placed his head back in its home. His right hand reached around to play with the curl behind Reid’s ear.
“So does that mean you had to buy tickets for both flights?”
“Good thing you’re rich.”
“And good thing I have such a great assistant. We owe Sabrina a dinner.”
“I see you’re inviting houseguests already.”
“Mmm.” Luke snuggled in. “So—honeymoon.”
“Ah yes, the upside to ceremony.”
“Beach? Mountains? Ooh, I know – bird-watching tour. You can defame species to your heart’s content.”
“I’ve always wanted to see the aurora borealis.”
“Mmm, cosmic. I’m thinking that feels right somehow. It’d be nice to go somewhere neither of us has been. We’d have to go north for that, right? Should probably do it before it gets too cold.”
“What happened to a long engagement?”
“That was before I knew what a secret romantic you were. Now there’s no reason not to make you mine immediately.”
“But won’t you need time to plan the giant wedding? I figure it’ll take a while to track down all the previously unrevealed half-siblings and presumed-dead relatives. And then there’s your side of the family.”
“I was thinking something simple. At the pond. We already have the caterers on speed dial.”
“I want Emma.”
“She can do the pies.”
“Fine—but I know what I want for the entertainment.”
“Two words: hula hoop. Wait, two more: on fire. Think you can swing it?”
“Are we talking literally?”
“Indeed we are. I already know you have the talent. Hmm, though come to think of it, perhaps it’s better to save that for the honeymoon. I want you dancing only for me.”
His eyes flickering with caught light, Luke drew his hand from Reid’s curl to the corner of his mouth. “Only you.” Soft words landed on open lips. Their breath mingled, unseen eddies twirling as the distance between them dissolved. Their tongues duetted.
Lips slid apart slowly. The hand around Luke’s shoulder had lifted to embed itself in his hair. “We should spend Christmas in New York,” Reid whispered against Luke’s lips. “No, I suppose you’d want to be around your ridiculous family for that. New Year’s, then.”
Luke’s eyes lit.
“Banish all thoughts of Times Square from your mind.” Reid kissed Luke’s resulting pout. “I just find I have a yen to see Central Park in the snow.”
The pout was gone. “It can be magical, you know.”
“So I’ve heard. Though I suspect the magical ingredient might actually be you.” With a final kiss, this time on a smile, Reid re-tucked Luke against his side. “So what happened to my out?”
“Hmm? Should I pretend to know what you’re talking about?”
“After you answered the riddles—you were supposed to love me enough to give me another chance to behead you.”
“Focus, Luke. This is important. The future of the Chinese empire is at stake.”
“Well—if I remember you had to find out my name before dawn.”
“And you were supposed to be an idiot and give it to me.”
“I am definitely an idiot for loving you—but sorry – dawn deadline’s come and gone. The rules of opera demand that you marry me.”
“The rules of opera also call for singing full-voice while dying of tuberculosis. The rules of opera need work.”
“Don’t care. Holding you it.”
“Yeah, but you love me anyway.”
“I do.” A quality in Reid’s voice prompted Luke to tilt his face up. Reid’s eyes were molten. “I love you, Luke. More than food. More than brains.”
“Yeah, right.” Luke tried to keep his voice light.
“Luke,” Reid’s grip and gaze pressed into him, “I would give my hands for you.” Luke’s eyes flitted down to where his left hand lay curled into the palm of Reid’s left hand, their fingers interleaved. Reid waited until Luke’s eyes returned. “No matter what happens—no matter how I try to mess this up—never doubt that.”
Luke felt the tears. Felt the lightness. Felt his polestar pulse. “So, does that mean you believe?”
The smile broke slowly, ultimately lighting Reid’s eyes, like a celestial sunrise transforming a ribbon of atmosphere into a halo of brilliant blue. “I believe.”
“May I please take your glasses gentlemen? We’re about to land.”
Still sharing stellar smiles, Luke and Reid passed the rest of their cider to the attendant. Luke leaned across Reid toward the window, enraptured by his first glimpse of the Boston skyline surrounded by sapphire water. He felt Reid vibrate.
“Why, Dr. Oliver, is that an illegally turned-on phone in your pocket or are you just that happy to see me?”
A smirk winking, Reid checked his phone. “Just a text about scheduling.”
“Think I’m cheating already? Thought you were all about trust and whatnot.”
Luke grinned, quickly snatching the phone. “Exactly. So trust me.” He turned in his seat, away from the window, leaning his back against Reid’s side. Reid rested his palm at the nape of Luke’s neck, teasing his hair while looking out the window.
Reid had changed the photo. Luke saw his own face, eyes open, slightly overexposed. He saw the unmistakable expression, the unambiguous message. His smile once again testing the limits of his facial muscles, he opened Reid’s address book and began to scroll through the contacts.
Hmm, which name should I give myself? Hubby? Mr. Oliver? Luke paused, taking a moment to ride the wave of heat as it passed. Let’s see—Black-eyed Susan, Algae, Wet Walnuts— He was almost there. Magic Hands? Ooh, I know—Massive Cock.
He’d reached the “L”s. His name wasn’t there. Ohh. Right. He would have deleted my number. Of course. Wait, what about— His search of the “M”s came up empty as well, no “Mr. Snyder” – neither was there a "Snyder, Luke." Luke shook off the encroaching melancholy. That was the past. We’re writing a new story now.
Scanning the “L”s one last time, Luke was just about to create a new entry when he saw it. He checked the number to make sure. It was his. Mind and body arrested as he forgot to breathe, forgot to feel anything but the warmth of Reid’s hand against his neck, the soothe of his fingers. Luke stared at the name.
She said his name was love.
Chapter 25: Epilogue
Tap taptap. Tap taptap tap tap.
The room had darkened. Reid looked up from the journal article on the screen of his electronic tablet; he watched and listened to shards of frozen rain hurl themselves loudly against the tall windows, whipped by wind, stopped as if by a force field. He watched the wind in the willows below, watched the pendent ropes of leaves sweep across the already disturbed lagoon surface. A row of stationary swan boats shuddered against the dock, jostled by the churning water making its way under and around, a procession of peaks chasing each other under a stately footbridge linking the longest shores. Reid smiled, remembering the warmth of Luke’s head against the curve of his neck as they had passed under that bridge for the first time, alone on a swan boat filled with tourists. He remembered the warmth in Luke’s voice as he’d informed Reid that the footbridge was reported to be the smallest suspension bridge in the world. Not long after, when Reid had balked at the price of the condo, Luke had turned him toward this same wall of windows, wrapping his arms around Reid’s middle, fitting himself against Reid’s back.
“You’ll never guess which famous New York bridge they modeled it after,” Luke whispered into his ear.
Turning to the real-estate agent, Reid reached for the paperwork in her hands. “We’ll take it.”
The fire snapped. Reid let himself be warmed by the flames on the hearth, watched the play of colors on his outstretched legs and bare feet, ankles crossed at the other end of the sofa on which he lay. The changeable glow reminded him of the golden light that gilded Luke’s naked form every time they would come together, here, as the sun set. Reid loved these windows.
A spark flared, briefly illuminating the momentary truce between Yankees and Red Sox chess pieces sitting next to the fireplace. Nearby, firelight danced over more sedate maple and rosewood counterparts. Reid returned to his tablet, minimizing the current article to open a new one. He paused as the background photo came into view, caught once again by light and color – the frozen undulation of celestial shades of green and blue and orange hanging over a boreal landscape, almost obscuring the dark dome of stars. Less obscure were the bright faces of the two men in the lower right-hand corner, blindingly lit by love, framed by soft snow and stiff pine trees. One face, Luke’s, was in profile, laughing – the other’s, Reid’s, faced the camera he appeared to be holding in front of them. Reid had yet to notice his own face.
His attention was caught by other noises, then – a soft sniffle, hushed words. His eyes fell to the carpet beside him, to his husband lying on a blanket. To the baby gathered in his arms. Reid watched as Luke whispered to their daughter, soothing her, trying to lull her to sleep. Her eyes would close only briefly before there would be more gurgles and squirms, at which point Luke would cradle and hush, murmuring calming words against the soft fuzz of her head. Reid knew they were both tired; the baby was just getting over a cold. Laying his tablet on his lap, Reid shifted his seat on the cushion slightly, the familiar dull throb below reminding him that Luke had gotten even less sleep than had their daughter; though Luke hadn’t been able to settle her for the night until almost morning, and though Reid had needed the sleep for an early surgery, when Luke had finally joined him in their bed, they’d been drawn together like magnetically saturated bodies – a silent, inevitable coupling, a connection they had long since given up trying to control. They couldn’t not be together, their bodies moving in concert, sliding and fitting and filling. If they were anywhere near each other’s orbits, they would be in each other. And they were never out of orbit, even after all this time. Stars coalesced nightly. Reid watched Luke with their daughter, knowing he was feeling similar aches. Knowing he was similarly relishing them.
The baby momentarily pacified, Luke looked up. A smile fought through the drowsiness, growing until it outshone the flames, brightening the room – a beam of radiance aimed directly at Reid, a fire burning only for him. Had any dark places remained, they would have been exposed, cleansed. But Reid hid no dank chambers; Luke had aired them all out. He knew the floor plan, had all the keys. He had planted black-eyed Susans where the moat used to be. At some point, Reid wasn’t exactly sure when, he had stopped waiting for the inevitable collapse, for the expansion of the universe to reverse, for the critical density to be too much, or too little, leading to a universal rip or universal freeze. He had stopped waiting for Luke to leave. Reid believed. He met Luke’s smile; Reid’s eyes burned right back.
The baby stirred; Luke’s soothing sounds once more wove among those of striking sleet and hail. Eventually, both Luke and the baby stilled, their eyes closing, faces turned in the same direction, lashes fanning against cheeks. The baby lay in the angle of Luke’s elbow, her tiny hand outstretched, fist balled. Just beyond her reach lay two plush toys – one a blue fungus, the other a grey neuron. The journal articles long forgotten, Reid watched them sleep, listened to the soft, rhythmic breaths, the faint nasal rumbling.
Quietly unfolding from the couch, Reid lowered himself behind Luke on the blanket. He eased one arm around Luke’s waist and his head against Luke’s neck, nosing his way from shoulder to ear, settling against Luke’s hair, breathing him in. Without perceptible movement, Luke melded himself to Reid’s contours. Reid lifted the other arm up and around, fitting his palm over the crown of his sleeping daughter’s head. Closing his eyes, he surrendered to the spell of fire and rain, let elemental forces envelope the three of them.
Mine. They’re both mine.
Eyes still closed, Luke reached for the hand around his waist. Reid felt their rings connect.
Ours. Our universe.
Slowly, Luke guided their hands up his chest. He rested them over his heart.