Chapter 1: The Squeeze
It’s all Mr. Snyder’s fault.
Reid laid the phone beside him on Katie’s couch. He felt the familiar numbness, felt it prepare a path for cool analysis. He would learn from this death, as he had all the others. The difference was, this wasn’t his death. And it should have been. Rather, it should have been his save – there was no doubt that, had he been the surgeon, the woman would have lived. No doubt. It was his procedure, his CyberKnife; in only four years he had made UT Southwestern a stereotactic radiosurgery powerhouse. And now – now it had all been left in the hands of halfwits and dinosaurs thanks to a spoiled brat who wouldn’t wait his turn. Thanks to Mr. Snyder.
Or should I say Mr. Grimaldi?
Reid had almost forgotten how he’d been brought to this particular circle of hell – how he’d been blackmailed and bullied as part of an entitled tantrum by an embryonic thug. How said embryo had lied to the police, how he’d harassed Reid with monomaniacal fervor, slamming him into walls, eyes filled with pain—
Reid drew a breath sharply. There it was. The squeeze. A slight pressure in his chest – a faint ache, a subtle hitch. Now, just now, Reid was finally seeing the pattern. He’d first noticed the phenomenon when Noah, pleading for treatment, had minimized his relationship with Luke. Reid had wondered why he’d cared, why he’d pressed Noah for details. The next occurrence had been when Reid couldn’t keep thoughts of an irrelevant Maltese corpse from bobbing to the surface as he’d tried to focus on work. On work! Nothing broke his focus, nothing. Luke Snyder had managed to accomplish what World Series championships, terrorist attacks, and blow jobs had previously failed to do.
The symptoms returned soon after – again, while working – when Noah accused Reid of not going to the police station just because Luke was involved. Which was ridiculous, obviously – he was nothing more than a blip on Reid’s radar screen. A niggling, intermittently ear-splitting blip. Which was why Reid had immediately shut Noah down – any perceived defensiveness in his response would have been a gross misread, a fishing for phantom subtext. As for Reid’s saving the day after all – by confirming that the corpse wasn’t the embryo’s biodad – well, that was merely a calculated move to put Luke in his debt – no guilt or other soft sentiment involved.
The squeeze was back, however, when Reid had entered the police station and seen that look on Luke’s face – the surprise, the gratitude, the reevaluation…the flash of dimples Reid hadn’t known were there. At the time, he’d fleetingly wondered why the atmospheric pressure had seemed to be different in that building. Some misguided attempt to boost the Oakdale detectives’ mental processes, perhaps. (As if anything could help.) Reid would have been hard-pressed, so to speak, to come up with a similar explanation at the courthouse, however – the chest constriction hadn’t happened until Luke took the stand, increasing incrementally as Reid watched him testify on his behalf. The squeezing ratcheted, afterward, when Luke had made it clear that he’d been thinking only of guaranteeing Noah’s surgery. The snake coiling around his heart took a few extra turns when Luke had refused to shake his hand.
Mr. Snyder wouldn’t have had to testify had he not lied to the police in the first place. Reid forced the anger back to the surface. Why should he care? Why should he have been affected by the snub, by the frost in Luke’s eyes?
But he’d already seen the trend in the data; there was no use ignoring it. The common denominator was Luke. And the rate of occurrence was only increasing – there had already been multiple occasions earlier that day. At the police station, of course, against the wall. In that case the squeeze had been accompanied by an unstoppable urge to say the most inappropriate thing that had come to mind (“Lucky you have a spare”)…allowing other urges, thus diffused, to remain unexamined. Reid could almost still feel Luke’s hair tickling his chin. His eyes almost closed now, there, sitting on the couch; the squeeze intensified as he relived the moment. Luke’s hair had been as soft as it looked.
Hold the phone—
A pure tone pierced the silence. Reid rose from the couch and loped toward the microwave, all non-food-related thoughts evaporating. The empiricist in Reid was annoyed at the interruption, wanting to continue the investigation, to nail down a theory. Other, less identifiable parts were grateful for the reprieve. The overriding reaction, of course, was positive: dinner was ready. He removed the tray, peeled back the film. Mixing enriched flour and cheese product in its black plastic well, he idly wondered what Salisbury steak was supposed to look like. He noted his increased saliva production.
He recalled having seen Luke kiss Noah.
The fork stalled halfway to Reid’s mouth. By the time it completed its trip, his attention had shifted back to his chest. The milk protein concentrate in his mouth went untasted as he remembered Noah’s touching Luke’s neck earlier that day at the hospital. Reid remembered the squeeze.
Dispassionately, he examined the evidence. Chest pain, shortness of breath – if he hadn’t known better, he would have suspected a mild case of catecholamine-induced myocardial dysfunction. But there was certainly no reason for what had been trivially labeled “broken-heart syndrome.” Chewing absently, Reid sat back down on the couch. Could he be lonely? Ordinarily allergic to what he considered naval-gazing, he nevertheless followed the trail as objectively as possible. Fact was, he was being held captive away from friends and family. Contrast that with his life in Dallas and…well, no change there, really. And at least here he had Katie. Not to mention the unreasonably cute Jacob.
Was that it? Was seeing Luke with Noah, seeing his (obsessive and, frankly, not entirely understandable) devotion to Noah – was that inducing some sort of yearning for a more connected existence? Suppressing the automatic scoff, Reid forced himself to continue down this mental road – something was causing these symptoms. And he had to admit that the data fit, especially in light of the last time he’d experienced the squeeze that day – when Luke had gone on (and on) about Noah’s being the love of his life, about his being Luke’s life.
If there were even the possibility that similar words should ever emerge from my mouth, better to shoot me now.
But he supposed there could be something to be said for having someone feel that strongly about you. Well, maybe not that strongly – to be so dangerously attached was for borderline-personality types and cuddlers. That way led to losing oneself – to compromising one’s fundamentals. OK, so perhaps his life of hermetically sealed emotional isolation could do with some tweaking. Perhaps. But no great love – assuming, for the sake of argument, such a thing could exist – would ever change his essentials. He suspected that Luke’s essentials had already taken a hit. That his light had been dimmed. He couldn’t be certain, of course, but it felt almost as if Luke’s deathless bond with Noah were draining him, like an incubus – as if his actions on Noah’s behalf weren’t always in keeping with his true self. Not that Reid thought in such terms, of course.
His mind then drifted to the rest of their conversation – to the momentary détente as Luke had told him about Damian, how their sparring had taken an almost playful turn, how Luke had given as good as he got, how he was starting to see through Reid…through his defenses—
This time, Reid ignored the pressure in his chest. He refused to acknowledge the hitch. No. He picked up the phone, putting it back in his pocket. Never again would he forget just who Luke Snyder was. He wasn’t a sparring partner. He wasn’t in need of rescuing. He would never be a friend. He was a pathologically codependent budding mafioso who needed to stay out of Reid’s orbit until he could get as far away from this town as possible. He knew that Katie was trying to secure funding for a neuro wing to keep him in Oakdale – as fond as he was of her, part of him hoped she failed. He didn’t belong here. He had lives to save back home.
“It’s called being in love, Dr. Oliver – you should try it some time.”
Maybe his body was telling him that Mr. Snyder had a point. Humans were gregarious primates, after all. Some might say his aggressively corrosive wit could be the equivalent of a solitary zoo monkey flinging poo. They would be idiots to say so, of course, but, as long as he kept his sense of self, maybe – just maybe – it was time to try something new.
The front door opened to reveal a flash of blonde and a blinding smile. Reid put down his food.
“You’re not going anywhere, Doctor.”
Lifting a brow, Reid turned to face the door.
The smile got impossibly bigger. “Henry’s donating the money.” Pushing the carriage in front of the sofa, Katie sank down beside Reid. “I did it. I freaking did it.”
Reid’s gaze touched on Jacob before returning to Katie. A slender ribbon of smile linked eyes and lips. “Then I guess I’m here to stay.”
Katie’s smile remained even as she leaned in toward Reid. Even as she kissed him. Even as Reid returned the kiss.
Chapter 2: Ready, Set, Slip
Reid stood at Luke Snyder’s door. He hadn’t seen him in six and a half days.
He was ready.
His heart rate was elevated, his senses sharp; glucocorticoids were currently mobilizing his systems for the upcoming engagement. The tingling in his arms and legs was less easily explained – a bit of transient paresthesia he chose to ignore. Happily, the squeeze was nowhere to be felt. There was no time for that – Reid was on a mission. He was standing outside Luke’s house (three minutes and counting, which of course he was not) for only one reason: to ensure a future in Oakdale. As ridiculous as such an endgame would have seemed only a short time ago, now Reid was committed. To Oakdale. (He was getting better at suppressing the reflexive shudder.) To the new wing, his wing. He’d already made arrangements for short-term trips to Dallas to treat critical patients and for others eventually to be relocated to Oakdale when the wing was completed. And to Katie – she wouldn’t be his usual hit-and-run or convenient arrangement. He’d made a commitment to connection, to learning from each other. To seeing where things could go.
All week he had been methodically establishing a life here – only to have the foundation ripped out. By Bob Hughes, who had just taken a sledgehammer to it, smashing Reid’s wing to bits before it had even been built.
“There isn’t enough money,” Bob had said. “But that’s OK – we don’t need to save everyone, right? We can just substitute a deli slicer for the stereotaxis system. That way Oakdale can remain a bastion of mediocrity.”
Reid might have misremembered Bob’s words slightly. Didn’t matter – he wasn’t standing for it. Fortuitously, it just so happened that he knew someone with a fleet of private planes, a silver spoon up his ass, and, crucially, his own pet foundation. And this someone owed Reid. It was Luke Snyder’s fault that Reid was in Oakdale to begin with. Luke had already gone to quasi-felonious extremes to get his boyfriend the best treatment – what was a little pocket change? Because Reid wasn’t above using Noah’s upcoming surgery as leverage. Would Reid actually abandon Noah? Of course not, he was his patient. But Luke didn’t need to know that. To be honest, Reid was hoping Luke would turn him down at first – he was looking forward to serving a little karmic payback, to seeing the devastation on Luke’s face when he thought he’d failed the love of his life—
The door opened. For a moment, Reid thought he'd forgotten he’d knocked. But no, his arms were still at his sides, and Luke’s coat indicated that he hadn’t been answering the door but on his way out. No matter, Reid could reclaim the advantage and reestablish momentum. Shock and awe, that was his strategy – he would barrel past Luke into the (unexpectedly modest) house and present his demands. He was geared for battle.
And then he saw Luke’s face. The devastation.
“What’s wrong?” The words came out more softly that Reid had intended. He didn’t notice.
Luke blinked at Reid, as if finally seeing him. He didn’t answer.
“Is there something I can do?”
Luke blinked again, this time to clear the tears. He now was looking at Reid as if he weren’t sure what he was seeing.
Reid wasn’t sure, either. The only thing he was certain of was that he never wanted to see this look on Luke’s face again. It was as if a flower had fallen onto a busy highway. Make those two certainties: Reid had just collected another data point. His chest felt as if it were collapsing on itself.
Luke wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “What do you want, Dr. Oliver?” His voice was weary but hardening.
“What do I…?”
Luke strengthened as Reid reeled. “Are you looking for me?”
“I’m…” Systems scrambled to reorganize, to redeploy.
“Lost?” Luke leaned forward, brows raised.
“Did you take a wrong turn? Please say yes, ’cause otherwise I really don’t think I’m up to whatever it is you’re here for.”
“Why are you crying?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Turning, Luke walked back into the house.
Reid followed. He’d recovered enough to notice that the inside of the house was as unostentatious as the outside. He noted a simple chessboard sitting on the clean lines of a modest coffee table. Children’s toys were in a basket in a corner; a few that hadn’t made it in and were scattered on the floor.
Luke stopped in the middle of the living room and waited, his jacket still on.
His hair is too long. “I need money.”
Luke’s head jerked back slightly. “So…you got lost on the way to the bank?”
“I’m not lost. I’m here for you. For your money. You need to give it to me.”
“Is this a stick-up?”
Focus, Oliver. Marshal the troops. “Hank’s money won’t cover all the costs of the new neuro wing. Not if it’s going to be world-class. And, let’s be honest, I’m not going to waste my time and rock-star abilities on anything less. So, we need more money. And oh, look, you have a foundation. And, more importantly, you owe me.”
“I…oh, really?” Luke’s arms crossed over his chest.
“Oh, yes. You’re the tornado that dumped me into this alternate universe. And if you want me to stick around – which, I think you do – then you’ll pony up. Because otherwise you and your boyfriend will be back to facing a life of long-distance. And, from what I can tell, your relationship doesn’t need any more challenges.”
Luke turned so that his back was to Reid.
“So, what do you say? We’re talking win-win, here – I get my wing; you get your boyfriend in the same state. Classic no-brainer. Which, wait for it…is what the wing would be without your money.” Reid laughed nervously. The troops were tiring.
Luke was silent.
Come on, Mr. Snyder; don’t make me pull the trigger. The idea of employing the ultimate threat had lost all appeal in the face of having seen that face. As it was, he was fighting the urge to wish Luke well and retreat.
Still no reply.
Reid cleared his throat. He shut his mind to the goings-on in his chest. “You know, Mr. Snyder…if you don’t make this happen I might have to reconsider…I mean, your boyfriend might find himself—”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
A new type of silence fell, like a heavy, wet snow. Reid was reminded of how oppressive the absence of traffic noise could be – at times like this he was acutely aware of the fact that he wasn’t in Dallas anymore. He wondered if he’d imagined what Luke said. He wondered if he’d ever speak again.
Finally, a small voice: “We broke up.”
“Oh.” Reid swallowed. “When?”
“An hour ago.”
“Ah. So, that’s…that’s why…” Reid found himself stepping closer to Luke, toward his hunched back, his bowed head.
“Yeah, so…can we do this another time? I mean, if Henry’s money really won’t cover everything…then, why don’t…” Luke sighed. “Just go ahead and have Bob send the foundation a proposal, and I don’t see…” His voice trailed off.
Reid’s chest simultaneously ached and burned. As if it were being branded. His eyes were fixed on the back of Luke’s neck, on the stretch of exposed skin. The tingling in Reid’s extremities was becoming concentrated in his left hand.
“I just…I’d like to be alone now.”
But Reid couldn’t leave. He took another step. After everything he’s done for Noah. “You shouldn’t be alone.” Reid winced – what was he saying? “I’m sure…I’m sure he’ll come back.”
Luke’s sloping shoulders jerked with what sounded like a humorless laugh.
“I mean…now that he’s staying in Oakdale—wait.” Reid froze. “Did Bob already tell you about the money thing? Did you think that I was…that Noah was going to have to go to Dallas after all? Was that why—”
“No. I didn’t know. And even if I had, it wouldn’t…” Luke shook his downward-tilted head.
Good grief, Oliver – you were ready to use that threat yourself. Why do you care? It’s not as if their breakup’s likely to be permanent, anyway. But seeing Luke like this, his broken form – the idea that Reid could hold any responsibility for Luke’s current pain—
What are you doing? You've all but got your money, and Mr. Snyder’s…leaking. Why are you still here?
Rather than leave, however, Reid found himself stepping even closer, as if trapped in Luke’s gravitational pull. He couldn’t take his eyes from Luke’s neck, fringed by hair he knew must be soft – he remembered the feel of it against his chin in the police station. His left hand lifted.
Reid didn’t know the words were coming until he said them.
“Ah, I get it – so Noah had been looking forward to leaving town. And when he found out I was staying, well, I guess he just couldn’t stand the thought of suffering through any more of your Olympic-caliber clinginess. Close?”
Reid dropped his suspended hand as Luke wrenched his body around.
“What? How can you—?”
“Be so perceptive? Trust me, Mr. Snyder, a blind man could see the dysfunction in your relationship. To have someone be your whole life? That’s not romantic, that’s certifiable. They have medication for that. I’m not surprised Noah couldn’t take it any more. Kudos to him for making a break for it.”
From somewhere outside his body, Reid watched the fire build in Luke’s eyes. The pain.
He watched the money slip away.
He couldn’t stop. “Don’t suppose you’d take my advice and not go begging for a second chance? Or fifth, or twentieth, or whatever. Seriously, your relationship isn’t doing either of you any good. And I’ll get a much better journal article out of Noah’s case if he’s not under the constant stress of your smothering.”
Luke’s eyes rippled with transformative heat. “I’m the one who ended it. Now get out.”
“Really? Huh. So much for eternal love. New guy must be pretty hot for you not even to wait until Noah has his sight back.”
Reid reentered his body the moment Luke put his hands on him. He felt Luke’s fingers meet the muscles of his upper arms through the layers of fabric. Head down for leverage, Luke forced Reid backward, gaining momentum as they neared the front door. Reid’s body rebelled; he was done with not being in full control around Luke Snyder. His hands rose to grip Luke’s biceps, his body tilted forward, feet spread, right foot planted on…one of the un-tidied toys. A teddy bear. Off-balance, Reid was slammed against the door. The doorknob dug into his lower back; Luke’s breath struck the side of his face.
Momentarily stunned, the two men were caught, locked in combat, hands still gripping straining arms. A haze of fury continued to hover around Luke, enveloping Reid. Luke’s eyes were molten – the temperature higher than even the last time Reid’s back was to a wall. And Reid's reaction intensified in return – he could feel the destructive urge building again, only stronger and faster – a defensive wave of vitriol rising to spew and slap and scour. It was in his throat, in his mouth.
Luke looked down at Reid’s lips.
They began to burn; Reid could feel it. He felt the molten mix spill out of Luke’s eyes, glazing Reid’s lips with liquid heat. Felt it enter his mouth, pushing back the bile, chasing it down into his gut. Lower.
Reid dropped his arms. Luke lifted his eyes, confusion cooling them. Releasing Reid’s arms, he burrowed his hand behind Reid’s back, lightly pressing against Reid’s side as he fumbled for the doorknob. Reid let himself be shifted aside as Luke opened the door, let himself be pushed outside onto the doormat. Meeting Luke’s eyes, he watched them disappear as the heavy door swung shut, slamming with a rattle, a gust of air in Reid’s face.
Chapter 3: Proceed with Caution
No, seriously, proceed with caution.
“Your body is a wonder of nature.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Katie slapped Reid’s shoulder blade. “It’s how you get away with your sucky personality, isn’t it?” Standing behind him, she slid her arms around his middle.
Reid continued arranging luncheon meats on the kitchen counter. “My staggering genius helps.”
She rested her head against his back. “Seriously. You just had a lunch meeting.”
He opened a jar of relish. “Which I had to spend telling the architect how to do his job. You’d be surprised how much energy it takes being right all the time. And until I can develop the ability to photosynthesize – which, by the way, I am working on – that means food.” He momentarily paused in his failing attempts to prevent olives from rolling off artfully arranged luncheon meat. “Not that food isn’t a divine pleasure in and of itself, of course.” He popped the olives into his mouth. “Heading back for rounds, anyway. Berating the interns is an aerobic activity.”
Her hands slipped under his shirt to play along the skin at the waistband of his jeans. “Ah, so that’s how you keep your figure.”
“I crush Hank’s spirit for strength training.”
“Yeah, you know, you’d think you’d ease up on him a little. He is giving you your wing. I can see that gratitude might be too much to ask for, but really, is it so smart to keep antagonizing him?”
“What’s he gonna do? Check’s handed over. Done deal. Can I help it if the guy’s an amateur? That he didn’t at least try to make me sweat a little more before signing away his fortune and making all my dreams come true? He’s so easily swayed by beautiful women, you’d almost think he were straight.”
She pinched his stomach. “Still funny. And it wasn’t as easy as you might think. Even if you weren’t so…charming with him, I’m afraid you’re never going to be his favorite person.”
The second slice of bread successfully balanced, Reid leaned back against Katie. “Because I have you.”
One hand circled higher on his abdomen.
He turned his head to the side. “Speaking of aerobic activities…”
She smiled into his back before disengaging, picking up the plate with his sandwich and carrying it to the table in front of the sofa. Reid followed the food.
“Speaking of playing nice with benefactors, how was Luke?” She lay against the cushions, resting her head against the back of the sofa as she watched Reid eat beside her.
His chewing paused. “Not entirely useless.”
“What? You mean he actually had something meaningful to offer at the meeting? That he deserved to sit at the, what did you call it, the ‘big persons’’ table?”
“Do I believe he’s qualified to offer any substantive input on the design of the wing? No. Should he be on the board? Of course not. Will his involvement be as unbearable as anticipated? Jury’s still out. But not everything that came out his mouth was excruciating. Anyway, I have a lot of practice tuning out the little people.”
“He’s hardly a little person. He’s the reason you’re still in town.”
Reid looked at her, his eyes warming. “Only one of them.”
Katie smiled as she closed her eyes, her hand rubbing his thigh as he continued to eat.
You had to bring up Mr. Snyder. Not for the first time, he wondered why Luke had insisted on joining the board. He’d given up wondering why he’d agreed to fund the wing. Despite being certain he’d blown it at Luke’s house, Reid had arranged for the hospital to submit a proposal to the foundation, making sure that it had come from Bob’s office. Reid had tried to play up the pediatric aspect – Luke seemed the softhearted sort. He would have printed it on paper in Luke’s favorite color had he known what it was.
The next five days had been tense. He couldn’t admit to Katie exactly how fraught his encounter with Luke had been, telling her only that he couldn’t be sure of Luke’s mental state so soon after the breakup – whether he’d have time to focus on Reid’s request. By the fourth day, he was ready to enlist her persuasive talents – she and Luke were even vaguely related, right? (He was sure inbreeding depression could go a long way in explaining the problems of this town.)
On the fifth day, Bob called. The foundation would cover everything. Whatever Reid needed. He was so stunned, had been so prepared for failure, that he hadn’t at first registered Luke’s conditions: a seat on the board and input into the wing. After what had happened, Reid would have bet the entire grant that Luke never wanted to see him again, let alone ensure that they’d be working together closely.
Not that anything had happened.
Without Reid’s conscious permission, his mind traveled back to that day, to that moment. He’d been so close at the end to delivering what was sure to have been the deathblow – so close to flushing the money down the toilet. Why he’d stopped, well, no point dwelling. For whatever reason, Mr. Snyder had come though. And if Reid had to endure the occasional softheaded suggestion, then he would willingly pay that price. As for their dynamic, he had hope that even it might be salvageable. It would certainly make for a more tolerable working relationship. The lunch meeting had been promising, at least. His mind moved to the moment a few hours earlier when he’d seen Luke Snyder for the first time in eight, no, nine days.
Luke was sitting at a table in the hotel bar. His light-colored suit fit him loosely, as if he’d yet to grow into it. His hair was slightly more styled than usual. He sipped his drink. Reid approached slowly, taking only a few steps before Luke saw him. He didn’t look away. Neither did Reid.
Reaching Luke’s table, Reid simply stood, making no move to sit. “Mr. Snyder.” His voice sounded rusty. He cleared his throat.
“I see you’re wearing your grownup clothes.”
Luke’s mouth angled wryly. He looked down at his drink.
Reid shifted his weight. “No architect?”
“Not yet. But we can go up to the meeting room to wait. The food should be ready.”
Neither man moved. Luke wiped condensation from the side of his glass with his thumb.
Reid stared at the top of Luke’s head. Again, the words snuck up on him. “I’m an ass. Officially. I have awards.”
Luke looked up. His careful expression cracked slightly, though it gave nothing away. Reid waited. He forced himself to let Luke stare. To let him search. For five seconds, ten.
Finally, Luke looked down at his glass. His mouth opened, closed. “I…I was…” Again, he met Reid’s eyes. This time, regret was clear.
“Yeah, me too.” Reid felt his facial muscles relax. “Hey, thanks for the cash.” Luke smiled. Within Reid, tension both broke and built. “Even if it means I have to pretend to listen to your ideas.”
Luke stood, leaving his drink. He hung a dark leather bag on his shoulder, adjusting it as he began to walk toward the lobby. “Yeah, well, my ideas may surprise you…I’ve been doing some homework. You never know – I might just have something valuable to offer.”
“And would this homework involve medical or architecture school? Perhaps you’ve been researching other personnel to blackmail into joining the staff?”
“OK, I will admit – there’s been a learning curve. And I may have first exhausted all that Wikipedia had to offer. But afterward I found some shockingly helpful neurosurgeons to speak with. And here I’d thought you’d all had to complete a fellowship in assitude.”
“That program’s for only the truly exceptional.” They were nearing the elevator. “So, which hacks with too much time on their hands did you find to mislead you about the fine art of neurosurgery?”
Luke took out a yellow pad from his bag. “Well, let’s see…there was Santiago Keller at Mass General—”
“You got him to speak with you? Seems your powers of likeability are even greater than I thought. You’re like the human equivalent of a yellow lab.”
Luke ducked his head, appearing to concentrate on his notes. “And then there was Lisa Gambusic at the Mayo Clinic – she was actually pretty funny.”
“Well that’s an easy one – she’s got a thing for the gays. And she does have a way with…words. She tell you the sex swing story?”
Luke snapped his head up, almost dropping the pad. “Um…and then yesterday, I talked to Leyden Rusk at New York-Presbyterian.”
“Hmm. He reminds me a little of you. The Grimaldi side.”
Luke’s eyes had gone from wide to narrow. “Yeah, well…he was delightful. They all were.” Luke’s smile took a twist. “And they had nothing but kind things to say about you.”
“That’s because I’m beloved.”
Luke bumped Reid’s shoulder as they continued to wait for the elevator. Reid wondered at the change in air pressure.
“Why do you care?”
Luke turned to Reid. “What—what do you mean?”
“Why the sudden interest in neurosurgery? Especially since you’re not…as intimately involved with it anymore.”
Luke forced the pad back into his bag. He shrugged. “I just…I know what it’s like to spend a lot of time in hospitals. How hard it can be. If I can help…if I can bring the patient’s perspective…the family’s, then…I mean, it’s not like I’ll be funding another wing any time soon, might as well take advantage of the opportunity.” He peeked at Reid, his wry smile returning. “Plus, you made a great case in your proposal for all the precious little children you’d be saving.”
Reid smiled. He liked the feeling. He liked this. It was Luke who looked away first.
“I’m assuming this elevator isn’t just for show,” said Reid, ending the silence.
“Yeah, we have been waiting for a while—”
A hotel employee brushed past to place a white sign in front of the elevator doors.
“Right. Looks like we’re taking the stairs.”
“Where were you?”
“Where’d you go just now?” Katie’s hand continued to rub Reid’s thigh. “Thinking about another woman? Should I start worrying already?”
Reid placed the empty plate on the coffee table, placed his hand on hers. “There is no other woman.”
“What about all those adoring nurses?”
“If by ‘adoring,’ you mean ‘plotting my downfall,’ then yes, you should absolutely start worrying.”
“Guess I’d better up my game.” Katie’s hand curved inward, her fingers gliding in small spirals over his inner thigh.
“Hmm, now that you mention it, I think that one nurse’s crying all the time might actually be her way of flirting with me.”
“You don’t say?” Her other hand lifted to the corner of his mouth, wiping a dab of mustard with her thumb. She put the thumb in her mouth.
“Mmm-hmm. And another sends me romantic death glares. Really turns me on. I think she’s working up to making her move – maybe poison in the coffee.”
“Ooh, yeah – doesn’t get any sexier than that.” One hand still on Reid’s thigh, Katie slid the other under his shirt, lightly running her nails up, then down his side. “Looks like I have a fight on my hands.” She leaned into him, licking the same corner of his mouth.
He worked a hand into her hair, holding their faces close. His other hand kneaded the swell of her hip. “Lucky you have home-field advantage.” The sound of his voice slid around them both.
She shifted her body closer, pressing into his side, into the hand on her hip. Her fingers changed course, moving over his chest. Her nails skimmed a nipple. “You didn’t put any onions on that sandwich, did you?”
“I am the model of consideration.”
“You are fucking sexy is what you are.” She attacked his mouth, arching against him. Moving her hand away from his chest so that her breasts could press fully against him, she instead slid it around his body and into the back of his jeans. “Oh, this ass.”
He smiled against her mouth. Gripping her hair, he angled their heads as they opened to each other’s tongues. She sucked his into her mouth as the hand on his thigh moved up to thread into his hair. Without breaking the kiss she straddled him, undulating against the front of his body in a few slow waves. One of his hands still in her hair, the strong fingers of the other massaged her bottom as it rocked against him.
Katie threw her head back. “Ungh, those hands.” She ground against the bulge in his pants, both hands now in his hair as she dove back for another kiss. “Yohr mips,” she mumbled into his mouth.
Her lower body having established a satisfying rhythm, his hand there moved up, rubbing slow shapes up her back. He pulled her shirt free, pressed the whole of his hand against the smooth, hot skin of her lower back. She moaned. His mobile fingers explored the landscape, eventually traveling up her side. His palm pressed against her ribs, his thumb working its way under the bottom of her bra, up the slope of her breast. It swept over the erect nipple.
“Motherfucker.” With a different sort of moan, she lifted her leg and rolled off Reid, collapsing next to him, her head resting against the back of the sofa.
“It’s OK.” He laid a hand on her thigh, squeezing slightly.
“No, it’s really not. You have no idea how much I want this.” She turned her head to look directly into his eyes. “No. Idea.”
His smile was small but genuine. “You’re still not ready. There’s no rush.”
“Are you kidding? I am living with hottest piece of ass in Oakdale—”
“Whom you’re not related to. And I think you meant to say ‘the country.’”
“Shut up. And I can’t do anything with it. Oh, Reid…I mean, look at you…look at this…” Rolling onto her side, a pout in full force, she brushed her hands across his face, down his chest, her eyes landing on the hard ridge running down his thigh. “Look at that. Gah!” She flopped onto her back and shut her eyes. “What is wrong with me?”
Reid’s voice was soft. “You’re still in love with your husband. Not even my extraordinary hotness can change that.”
Opening her eyes, she looked at his face. “Oh, Reid. I am so sorry. You don’t deserve this.”
He touched her face, smoothing back a fall of hair. “What I don’t deserve is your kindness. And friendship. And your patience. You’re right – you somehow manage to live with me. Do you realize what an accomplishment that is?”
“You’re not supposed to make me smile. I’m supposed to be wallowing.”
“You’re not supposed to be doing anything. You know there’s no timetable for grief. If it happens, it happens. If it never does, well…you’ve actually brought me to the point where I can say entirely without sarcasm that I’m lucky to have you in my life – in any capacity.”
“Oh, there is no way we are always going to be just friends. I am going to tap. That. I don’t care if it takes decades – I will find you in the nursing home and crawl up onto your wheelchair.”
“Sweet talk me, baby.”
“Seriously, Reid. You don’t deserve this. I’m…” She looked down at her hands, now clasped. “To be honest, I can’t tell you that I’ll ever be ready. I mean, the fact that I’m not all over you right now...” She turned again to look at him, her elbow on the back of the sofa. “Just…promise me – if you find someone else, don’t think about me. Chances for love don’t come around every day, and you’re right – I have brought you far; I’ve gotten you to the point of being open to the idea of a relationship with an actual life form. Please, don’t let all of my hard work to go to waste. I don’t want you to miss out just because—”
“Katie, you’re worth waiting for.” He trailed a finger down her cheek. “Anyway, who else am I going to find? This is Oakdale.”
The flying cushion grazed the side of his head.
Reid closed the door to his bedroom. He checked his phone – there was still time before he had to return to the hospital. Tossing it onto the bed, he fell beside it with an aborted groan. It was going to be a long afternoon.
Listening for signs of Katie, he undid his belt and zipper. He reached for the lotion and tissue; he had to make this quick. Shouldn’t be too hard – it already was. Leaking, in fact. He settled on a rhythm quickly, envisioning a continuation of events on the sofa. He imagined being inside Katie, her soft, wet walls squeezing, searing. She was riding him, her head back, neck exposed, her own fingers in her mouth. Her shirt was partially unbuttoned; one breast out of the cup, full flesh bouncing, Reid’s fingers teasing the stiff nipple. Her moans sounded like soft hiccups in time with his upward thrusts. Now it was her mouth on him, wet and warm, her tongue tasting both their fluids. His hands were entwined in her hair, guiding her movements, forcing the pace. “I love your cock,” he heard her say, impossibly, her mouth full. Now Madeline Stowe was behind her, as she sometimes was. With wicked, knowing sloe eyes fixed on him, Madeline slid her hands up Katie’s skirt, bunching it at her waist, lifting her hips. She grazed Katie’s swollen vagina with her tongue. Katie began to writhe, to deep-throat Reid’s cock, increasing the tempo, the suction, the pressure – as Madeline, her eyes still on Reid, switched to licking Katie with long, slow strokes.
Reid was close – he imagined gripping Katie’s head more firmly, her soft, blonde hair tangling, wild, slipping around his fingers, drawing up from her shoulders, the strands shortening, sweeping into bangs, Madeline’s sly eyes winking—
Bruch’s violin concerto filled the room. On the edge, Reid slapped the bed with his free hand, finding his phone on the third try. He lifted it to his face.
The orgasm caught him hard, jackknifing his body. He almost smothered the moan.
The violin continued its ascent. Reid’s fingers slipped on the screen. “WHAT?”
“Um, hi…Dr. Oliver?”
“Uh, yeah…it certainly is. Are you…is this a bad time? You sound—”
“I, uh, I was just ru—” Fuck it. “You don’t want to know what I was doing. What do you want?”
“Oh. OK. Uh, um…well, I was just wondering if you’d seen the revised plans. He just sent them.”
“Haven’t checked my email. Heading to the hospital now. Goodbye.” Reid threw the phone toward the bottom of the bed, perversely hoping it landed instead on the floor. Hard.
Shit. He dropped his dick as if bitten; he’d been continuing to stroke it. He lay splayed on the bed, waiting for his systems to return to normal. Praying that Katie hadn’t heard.
He needed to get laid.
Chapter 4: Slippery When Wet
Reid’s tongue was as talented as his fingers.
He had refined control to the extent that he could precisely alter its stiffness and shape at will. Spearing, flicking, fluttering, lapping – no matter the job, Reid’s tongue was the ultimate tool. One he could wield indefinitely – he had the stamina and steadiness of a surgeon, after all – so, like his fingers, his tongue was tireless. His control even extended to perceived length – at times it could feel impossibly long.
Both fingers and tongue were currently engaged. Three fingers, bent slightly upward, were, at that precise moment, fucking Katie’s pussy. Reid’s tongue was actively engaging her clitoris, his lips sealed around it, applying rhythmic suction. His lower face shone with her secretions. The fingers of his other hand pressed arpeggios into her naked ass.
For Katie’s part, her mind had been blown three orgasms ago. By now a brain scan would have most closely resembled a collection of unsynchronized squiggles – the rubble of bliss. But her voice, what was left of it, continued to urge him on, as did her fingers snarled in his hair. Not that Reid was inclined to stop. He had yet to let up, relentlessly keeping her at altitude, on the razor-sharp edges of high peaks, gasping for breath in the thin air. After one final strong, sucking bite on her abused clit, he replaced his fingers with his tongue, stroking roughly over her slippery, swollen labia as she came.
Finally, it was time for his cock. Katie lay sprawled on the bed, her head to one side, eyes closed, arms extended, skin flushed. Reid rose to his knees, his heavy penis as perpendicular as it could be. Bracing one hand at the slope of her shoulder, he dipped his massive head into her, trailing slickness as he pulled back, closing his eyes momentarily as he teased them both. Then, in one smooth, isolated movement of his hips, he buried the entire length – all the way, balls-deep. She bucked off the bed, gasping as if suddenly reviving from a near drowning. The fullness was almost too much, the stretch almost too intense. Almost. She collapsed, a sleepy, wicked drone building in her chest, resonating through her body, into his. The sound began to oscillate once the thrusts began – hard, fierce, dominating. The humming grew louder, more insistent, competing with the accelerating slap of skin on skin. Reid leaned forward, drove harder.
Reid turned his head. Luke Snyder stood by the side of the bed. He wore the light suit, his leather bag hanging from one shoulder.
“I…what…what are you doing here?” Reid struggled to recapture the rhythm. Katie seemed oblivious.
“I thought we could talk about the plans for the wing. Did you have a chance to look at the changes?”
“The—” Reid momentarily lost his grip on Katie slick skin. “Wait…now?”
“Yeah.” Luke’s smile dazzled. “I mean, I guess you look kinda busy, but you can still talk, right? It’s not like you’re kissing.”
“What…I don’t…how did you get in here?”
“From over there.”
“I dunno. Look, I was thinking,” Luke withdrew a roll of paper from the bag, removing the rubber band and unfurling it on the bed next to Reid and Katie’s joined naked bodies. His attempts to point to a specific part of the blueprint were complicated by the rise and fall of the mattress. “Right here – it seems as if there's an area where we could squeeze in a few overnight rooms. You know, for families. And see? It wouldn’t interfere with lab space at all.”
“What? What are you—” Still plunging into a blissed-out Katie, Reid twisted his neck to see where Luke was pointing. Luke sat on one corner of the paper to keep it still. Reid’s thigh brushed Luke’s hip with every thrust.
“Only problem is now the second-floor lounge is too small. No way would we be able to fit in the video arcade and petting zoo.”
“What? Are you out of your—”
“Ha!” Luke slapped Reid’s pistoning hip with the back of his hand. “Gotcha. Don’t worry – there’ll just be the one pony. But seriously – what do you think about the overnight rooms? It’s a small thing, but it would make such a huge difference. And the foundation would cover any extra costs, of course.”
Reid studied the plans. “Well, I suppose…I mean, if you’re paying…it might not be the absolute worst idea in the world.”
“Really?” The room brightened.
“Less…talking,” rasped Katie.
“Oh, sorry.” Reid shifted, planting his knees more securely. He lifted one of her legs, holding it up.
“Here, let me help.” Standing on the floor, Luke took Katie’s leg from Reid, holding it at the ankle and behind the knee.
“Uh, thanks.” Gripping her hips tightly, Reid intensified his efforts, angling slightly circular thrusts toward her raised leg.
“Oh—oh—oh—oh, yes!” Katie’s whole body shook with each impact.
With his other hand, Luke fumbled with the blueprint, awkwardly trying to re-roll it. “So, any surgeries today, Dr. Oliver?”
“Uh, what? Um…I…I, uh, I’m not sure.”
“Oh.” The blueprint dropped on the floor. Luke tried to bend down while still holding Katie’s leg; he gave up, straightening. He smiled at Reid. “Hey, ever tried anal?”
Reid’s eyes opened. He stared at the ceiling, waiting for his breathing to slow. Waiting for the dream to fade. For his cock to stop throbbing. He reached for his phone – the alarm would have gone off in ten more minutes. He’d never been so grateful for lost sleep. Gathering the shards of his shattered psyche, he tried to remember what was on the schedule for that day.
Of course. Noah.
The surgery was a success. Goes without saying.
It was also harrowing. Not just because of the uncertainty – he never, truly, knew what he would find, and this time was no different. Noah’s brain was, in essence, a mess. Even with the treatment regimen, the damage had been more profound than expected, requiring eight hours of careful reconstruction with an intraparenchymal hemorrhage or two to keep things interesting. More than once, Noah had been slipping away. But Reid had done his job, better than anyone else could have. Nothing he hadn’t done before.
So, why was he shaking?
His scrubs hanging on him limply, Reid pushed the heavy swinging doors, leaving the restricted area. The hall was empty. He shuffled toward the cramped waiting area (maybe Mr. Snyder has a point). Turning the corner he saw him, hunched in a hard chair, sitting alone. The surgery had taken hours longer than estimated; apparently, the rest of Noah’s ‘family’ had left. Luke’s head lifted, his eyes meeting Reid’s. They lit with concern, caring, relief – Reid relaxed into them, felt the weary tension drain into their depths. It would be okay. Luke was there for him.
No. Luke was there for Noah. Of course. He forced himself to reexamine Luke’s expression, putting the emotions on display into their proper context.
He’d never felt more alone.
Luke had risen from the chair. “Well?”
“Well, what? When he opens his eyes, he’ll see.”
Reid thought Luke’s face had lit before. Now the floodlights came on. “Really? You’re serious? No complications?”
“No more than usual.”
“So—he’s going to wake up?”
“Any hour now.”
“Oh—Dr. Oliver—” Perversely, the glittering joy in Luke's eyes only further dimmed Reid’s spirits. He didn’t look for a causal link. (This is when they get back together.)
He also didn’t see the hug coming. Luke was a hugger – obviously, Reid knew this – but it never occurred to him that Luke’s hugging radius would ever encompass him. He wasn’t prepared. It was like a sneak attack on a holiday – Reid’s defenses were low, most of the troops eating turkey with their families. Into this uncharacteristically vulnerable Reid-state swooped Luke – all strong arms and warm body and soft hair, a full frontal assault of open emotion, soft sentiment spilling out like hot oil on sleepy, sated defenders. Reid stood immobile. He hadn’t realized how…solid Luke was. How large. How if only Reid could lean into him, if he could only let go…if only this weren’t a cruel facsimile of comfort, a caricature of connection. Because this wasn’t for him; this wasn’t his. Not that he wanted it to be. Not that both arms were tingling now, both hands lifting—
Reid took a giant step back. The hold broke.
“Sorry, but I’m afraid you’re gonna have to wait a little longer for that kind of action, Mr. Snyder. A good bedside manner doesn’t extend to standing in for your boyfriend.” He backed away further as Luke’s face fell. He couldn’t look at it, not with what he was doing, what he was saying.
Instead his eyes skipped from Luke’s heavily fingered hair to move over his crumpled clothes – the way his jacket was falling off one shoulder, how the shirt underneath was a network of creases. Reid wanted to fix, to smooth. He clenched his hands. “Someone will let you know when he’s awake, though maybe it’s better if you run home first to freshen up for him.”
Pulling away from Luke’s draw was like swimming against a current. Reid watched himself fight it, turning away as if in slow motion. He needed to retreat, to get back down the hallway. He couldn’t catch his breath here – not with the heavy air. Not with it carrying Luke’s scent. His scent. It was on him now.
Luke grabbed his arm. “Why do you do that?”
His touch was too much to fight; it pulled Reid under the water. His lungs began to burn.
“Why are you treating me like this?”
Reid closed his ears to the quiver.
His hand still on Reid’s arm, Luke stepped around to face him. “I thought—I thought that we were—”
“—that we’re past this.” Luke’s fingers tightened. “This isn’t you. It can’t be. I’ve seen you. I’ve seen you.” He ducked his head, trying to get Reid to look at him. Luke straightened. “Or maybe I just wanted to.” Pressing his lips together, he dropped Reid’s arm. “Maybe—maybe you wouldn’t be treating me this way if I were the straight partner of one of your patients.”
Now Reid looked at him. “Excuse me? You think I’m homophobic?”
Luke’s eyebrows were raised.
“That’s…ridiculous.” (I thought you weren’t his partner.)
“Really? Why? ’Cause some of your best friends are gay?” The sneer in Luke’s voice almost covered the tremor.
“What? That’s not—you know I don’t have friends, Mr. Snyder. It’s ridiculous because I’m from Boston and New York. I’m the liberal elite – it’s statistically impossible for me to be homophobic.” His face—why did he make me look at his face? “Besides, that would imply that I cared enough to form an opinion on the matter. I care only about my patients, not their…peripherals. Everything else – everyone – is beneath my notice.”
Luke took a step back. Once more, Reid looked away.
“Then what?” Luke sounded tired. “If it’s not because I’m gay, then what else could it be?”
“What do you—you kidnapped me. You hijacked my life. You trapped me in this—reality show.”
“No. That’s not it – you could have left by now. Heck, if you want to look at it that way, then it’s because of me that you now have a dream job, an amazing girlfriend— We are past that. No. This is something else.” Luke’s voice was growing stronger with every syllable. “This is about some—some switch being flipped every time that you come close to being human.”
Shaking his head, Reid took several steps down the hall. Luke blocked his path, pointing a finger. “No, it is. It’s like that time you showed up at the police station to help my father. I know you said it was just to get me to testify, but it was more than—I mean, it was the first time...it was like we were finally on the same side. Like you were almost letting yourself enjoy doing something for someone else. And then after I testified – you even went so far as to thank me. Like I was, gosh, I don’t know, an actual person – not just an annoyance or a means to an end. But then next time I see you at the station, you’re back to being your old destructive self. Even though I was in pain – maybe even because I was – you couldn’t help but fire up that flamethrower and burn everything down.”
The water was getting denser. It was pressing on Reid’s throat now, closing it.
“And then, when you came to my house—”
“—when you saw how upset I was that time, you almost…for a minute it almost seemed as if you cared.” Luke expelled a harsh breath, dimples flashing for the wrong reason. “But then once again Dr. Hyde shows up and says all those—” He took a breath. “But that wasn’t you. You can’t tell me that it was. And just now—we’ve been getting along – we have. But you can’t handle that, can you? Heaven forbid you let anyone in. Not as a friend. I suppose Katie’s different, of course – a man has needs, right?” Luke’s voice cut – though it seemed some of the damage at this point was self-inflicted.
Reid’s gut had clenched for multiple reasons, none of which he was willing to identify.
“And so, once again, you wait for the worst possible moment…when you can serve up maximum pain.” Suddenly, the hardness in Luke’s voice was gone. “But it’s not just meant for me, is it? That’s the sad part – it’s like you’re doing it to yourself, too.”
Luke had grown larger, was standing closer – his presence was everywhere at once. His eyes were too big, too bright, too sharp. Reid had only one thought in that moment: that he didn’t want to be seen.
He gulped for air. “Nice try, but I’m afraid that what you see is what you get. This is the real me. And I don’t discriminate – I’m an equal opportunity ass. I’m just this delightful with everyone.” He forced himself to meet Luke’s liquid gaze. Reid’s own eyes and voice were flat. Charred. “Sorry, Mr. Snyder, but there’s nothing special about you.”
Turning, he pushed his way through the thickness, down the hall, back through the swinging doors. Luke’s expression followed him, trailing like a deep-sea specter, translucent and filmy. Dissolving before his eyes as he climbed back to the surface, leaving only an imprint of injury. An impression of pain.
The expression he never wanted to see again, now etched behind his eyes.
Chapter 5: Deconstruction Zone
What makes Mr. Snyder so fucking special?
He didn’t look at Reid today. They had finally been in the same room – for the latest meeting about the wing, at which were discussed things Reid either already knew or about which didn’t care. Luke sat across the table, his body angled away, his too-long bangs obscuring Reid’s view. He hadn’t realized how he and Luke had developed a habit of meeting eyes every time the architect spoke in circular sentences or the other board members tried to sound as if they knew something about neurosurgery. Each time, Luke would smother a smile, as if he knew exactly how much Reid wanted to open fire. As if he would have enjoyed seeing it.
Not this time. This time, Luke looked through him. When he looked at Reid, when he had to, he didn’t see him.
Reid felt the loss.
And was at an utter loss as to why. For the love of—why on Earth do I care? He’s a fucking child who is no one to me. He’s nothing. I should be rejoicing that he’s finally leaving me alone.
Instead, the squeeze in Reid’s chest had become an ache. Something misshapen and impossibly dense had claimed a corner of his pleural cavity. Luke’s withdrawal had caused physical pain – akin to a death in the family. Which was utterly ridiculous, of course, unless it was the death of a third cousin twice removed whom Reid had never met. But maybe that’s it – maybe he reminds me of a nephew, or a brother…assuming I had any. Maybe he’s like the son I never had (upon first reaching puberty).
No, that definitely doesn’t feel right.
Did Luke remind Reid of his younger self? Unlikely, considering that Reid couldn’t think of one similarity other than male, American, and Homo sapiens. He wouldn’t even have been surprised had phylogenetic analysis revealed that Luke belonged to a distinct subspecies characterized by maladaptive levels of emotionalism and optimism (and insight and empathy). A taxon no doubt representing an evolutionary dead end.
But how else could Reid explain it? Why Reid felt an unfamiliar ease when Luke was around, as if he were a stable pony to Reid’s thoroughbred? And why it was so often accompanied by a paradoxical tension – not an antagonistic one (despite Reid’s best attempts to paint it as such), but rather an awareness, an alertness – as if invisible strings connecting them were pulled taut.
How else could Reid explain why Luke was so often in his thoughts?
Why the fuck am I thinking about him right now?
(Why will I dream about him tonight?)
And Reid did think about him. During rounds was bad enough, but when Reid found himself distracted during surgeries, let alone during happy food time… It was to the point where summoning Luke Snyder’s spirit was as easy as a passing mention of the wing. Or a visit to the Lakeview. Or a drive past the police station. The courthouse. (Any house.) At any time Reid might find himself having to snatch a delinquent thought from wandering too far in Luke’s direction.
And it was slowly driving Reid mad.
The hospital had long since stopped being a safe haven. Not only were thoughts of Luke violating the sanctity of Reid’s work with disturbing frequency, but should the Luke-stimulus ever be present for real – no matter how absorbed Reid might be parsing test results or enlightening a nurse, just the possibility of having heard Luke’s voice would cause Reid’s attention to slip toward the sound like quicksilver from a shattered thermometer. If Luke weren’t, in fact, there, then Reid would deal with the disappointment, the self-disgust, by snapping at the nearest inferior (i.e., anyone). If it had been Luke’s voice – if he were there, real, near – just a glimpse would bring both lightness and leadenness.
And then there was the coffee. Reid waited for it. He told himself that he wasn’t, that each time was an unwelcome surprise, an exasperating intrusion. That he didn’t have an eye on his office door, an ear on approaching footsteps. That he hadn’t stopped buying his own mid-morning coffee in hopes it was a Luke-day. That he wasn’t disappointed other days, days Luke didn’t appear, coffee on offer from extended hand. What had started as a blatant way to butter (or, rather, caramel) Reid up as a prelude to the latest bleeding-heart wing idea had somehow become an unofficial ritual. Luke would find Reid every two or three days, whenever at the hospital for board or medical business (why so often?) or to see one of his infinite assortment of employee or patient relatives. Or to support his…friends.
Of course, upon Luke’s arrival Reid would quickly call up the appropriate degree of grump, accepting the coffee as gracelessly as possible, making it clear that the action was a supreme act of indulgence in direct opposition to his true wishes. He never thanked Luke. Never once tried to get him to stay.
Why do I want him to stay?
There had been no coffee since the surgery. No Luke-days. Not that Reid hadn't known where Luke was, of course – in Noah’s room. By Noah’s side. As acute as the loss was, Reid couldn’t bring himself to face that sight. He found ways to avoid – accidentally, of course – that particular stop during rounds, instead attending to Noah after visiting hours. Neither man ever mentioned Luke’s name.
And so for days Reid had been left with only that memory, that image – of the wreckage he’d left in the hallway after Noah’s surgery. Until the board meeting there had been no fresh encounters to replace the vision that had appeared every time he closed his eyes.
Why do I hurt when he hurts?
And Reid was hurting. He could no longer ignore either the physical manifestation or its direct connection to Luke. Or the fact that it wasn’t just Luke’s physical and emotional absence that was the source of distress, but the knowledge that Reid had hurt him. That he had caused Luke’s light to dim.
And it was slowly killing Reid.
Which brought him back to why. What was it about Luke Snyder? Reid had never before cared where or how his words landed; why start now? Why was Luke...special?
“If it’s not because I’m gay, then what else could it be?”
The data point stared at Reid, challenging him: the physical reaction he’d had when Luke had charged him with homophobia. At first he’d attributed it to the accusation being so laughably untrue. But was it? Fact was, he did treat Luke differently, and not in a good way. There had always been extra venom in Reid’s bites, extra relishing of Luke’s discomfort. And Luke was right – Reid couldn’t blame it all on how he’d been brought to Oakdale. There had to be another theory explaining Reid’s singular behavior when it came to Luke Snyder.
Doth I protest too much?
The scientist in Reid couldn’t let it go. Never the most self-reflective person, he liked not being in control even less. He had to analyze the data. All of them, even the outliers. He also had to accept the results.
Reid was drawn to Luke.
He’d said it.
But drawn to him in what way? As a friend? Reid had never been a friend person. Was this what it was like to want one? Not just as a colleague with whom to pass the time after work or at a conference, but as someone to, what? Bond with? Connect with on a personal level? What did that even mean? Did he want to share secrets with Luke? Braid his hair?
I like the sound of his voice.
Reluctantly, Reid processed the unexpected thought. It was true. Though he liked Luke’s voice best when a smile lilted it (what?), he had to admit it appealed even when strident and whiny. No – best was “Dr. Oliver” said with that gentle impudence. As if he thought he was about to best Reid in some secret game they were playing. At times Reid found himself wondering what his first name would sound like coming from those lips—
Right. Not friendship. Something else. Something…more. But what could be more than friendship?
No. This is where the trail ends.
But how could he stop now? Reid had never retreated from a riddle, had never been intimidated by a diagnosis. He didn’t varnish the truth for his patients – he wasn’t about to start now just because he was the one with the challenging condition. He needed to test every hypothesis, no matter how far-fetched.
In what other way could he be drawn to Luke Snyder?
Am I attracted to him?
Reid sat with that for a moment. Had he ever been attracted to a man? Well, he’d wanted to be Han Solo, and he did feel a certain affinity with Hugh Laurie. And, objectively speaking, some of those male TV ballroom dancers did seem to concentrate charisma in their hips.
But had he ever wanted to kiss one? Or do…other things? Honestly?
No. Not that he could recall, anyway. Not even when it came to those most anything-goes moments – when he’d be by himself, working toward the final release. It was always women. Or the occasional female humanoid alien.
Do I want to kiss Luke Snyder?
Reid made himself picture Luke’s face, his mouth. Those lips. Closing his eyes, he summoned an image of Luke nervously licking them, imagined pressing his own dry lips against Luke’s moistened ones. Their faces close. Luke’s breath on his cheek.
Again, honestly…well, he supposed he had to admit that the idea didn’t entirely repulse him.
But then neither did it hold any particular appeal.
He realized, however, that his mind was lingering. Ah, so looking at his face—that idea does seem to engender pleasure. Perhaps it had something to do with being within looking distance – that inexplicable calm, the comfort that seemed to settle whenever he was in Luke’s vicinity – as if the resonance patterns of their fundamental particles were harmonizing.
But his face – was there something about Luke’s face specifically? The eyes? Luke Snyder did have powerful eyes. With just a glimpse, one could know exactly where one stood – what Luke was thinking, feeling. How much pain he was in. How much love he was capable of. Luke’s eyes could be liquid or solid, warm or cold, absorbing or repelling. They could be limitless space or a black hole. Reid conceded that, at times, he had to remind himself to look away. Other times he would rather look anywhere else. Still others, when Luke’s eyes would be focused on him…when instead of looking through him, they would look in him—
And that hair. That stupid, bleached, too-long hair. He wanted to touch it. Sometimes talking to Luke was a minefield of not staring too much at either eyes or hair. Or mouth. Okay, fine, Reid supposed he did occasionally find himself watching Luke’s lips move when he was speaking. Or when he wasn’t. They were very red. And could somehow alternate between surprising fullness and virtual disappearance. And then, in the police station, when those dimples appeared—
“That. Feels. Amazing.”
The feet in Reid’s hands wiggled, pressing into his lap. At the other end of the sofa, Katie’s head was thrown back. “What you can do with your hands.”
Reid tried to focus on the massage, on the present. On Katie. For several minutes the only sounds in the apartment were satisfied ones.
“You know those politicians? The ones who are all family-first, God-only-loves-some-of-us, legalizing-gay-marriage-means-you’ll-have-to-marry-a-gay-person—”
“They usually turn out to be gay, right?”
Katie sat up. “Why? Who got caught soliciting in a men’s room?”
“Down, girl – you can lower the adorable antennae. Just a casual question.”
“Since when do you do the idle chitchat?”
“Since I’ve been trying to learn your human ways.” Reid found a spot that deactivated her muscles; she melted back into the sofa. “I was just thinking how the biggest homophobes tend either to be carefully taught or overcompensating.”
She struggled to lift her head. “Oh, no – don’t tell me someone’s causing trouble for Luke and Noah?”
“What? No, of course not.” (LukeandNoah) “Mere mortals are powerless in the face of their epic love. It would take at least an 18th-level wizard.”
“Nerd-alert. And I thought they’d broken up.”
“And I thought that was always but a temporary state. Figured it was how they kept their relationship fresh.”
“Sounding a little homophobic there, buddy.”
“Um, joking. Ow.” Sitting up, Katie withdrew her foot, flexing it gingerly.
“Sorry. Not quite myself today.” He rubbed the back of his hand against his brow.
“Tough case?” She curled against Reid’s side, tucking her feet under her dress.
“Like nothing I’ve seen before,” he murmured, placing an arm around her shoulders. Together they watched muted figures on the television screen race toward a snowy fortress. “We’re friends, right?”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
He turned his head and spoke into her hair. “I didn’t have any trouble letting you in.”
“Okaay—have we been talking to Luke again?”
Reid stiffened. “What?”
Smiling, she lifted a finger to his Adam’s apple. “He just always seems to push your buttons. Did he accuse you of not having any friends? That you’re just using me for sex?” She rose to her knees. “Aww, are you such a gentleman that you’re continuing to let people think you’re defiling me nightly?” She kissed his cheek sweetly. “So gallant.”
“And of course it has nothing to do with the fact that it infuriates Henry.”
Reid cupped the side of her face. “I think only of your reputation.”
“My hero.” Still on her knees, she lifted her dress and straddled his thighs, stroking their length with flat palms. “How about you make an honest woman of me?”
Reid’s systems responded. “Are you—are you saying you’re ready?”
Her hands were at his belt. She leaned forward, breathing into his ear. Her voice slipped inside. “It’s your dream, baby.” Her tongue flicked the silk of his lobe. “Whatever you want.”
The sofa shook. Reid found himself wrapped in Katie, her dress pooled around them, skimming his skin as they rocked in a dimming room. Now on a bed, he sat naked, cross-legged; she sat impaled, legs around his hips, dress gently fluttering. Their torsos flush, arms around backs. Her face pressed into his neck. He looked behind her, into the dark corner of the room.
Where Luke stood.
He was leaning where the two walls joined, hands in pockets, leather bag diagonal across his suit. His face was hidden by hair and shadow, but Reid could feel his eyes. How guarded they were. How cool. The chill skimmed over Reid’s bare skin, raising the flesh.
“Reid? Baby?” Katie had pulled back slightly and was looking down beneath her lifted skirt. To where his softened cock had slipped out and lay surrounded by their soft hair. The bed jolted; their mutual hold tightened. Her fingers grazed his hairline. “Are you okay?”
Reid felt himself growing smaller, sliding into himself, away from her. He kept his eyes on her, willing the connection. He focused on her light face, her light hair – a bright beacon in the darkened room.
“I—I can’t.” Reid’s lips hadn’t moved.
She smiled sadly. “I know.” With one last brush of his brow, she briskly turned on the bed, hiking her skirt as she moved to hands and knees, looking over her shoulder to where Luke stood. “Help a girl out?”
She gave Reid a puzzled look. “What? We’re all friends here.” She smiled at Luke. “Ever wondered?”
Luke’s cool expression had flash-frozen; a blush broke the ice. With a sweet-sad smile, he lifted the bag over his head.
“You don’t have to do this—Mr. Snyder—Luke—” Why won’t my mouth open?
Without looking at Reid, Luke unbelted and unzipped, lowering his pants to his knees. Still grinning, Katie wiggled her exposed bottom.
The shadow had followed Luke, hiding details. Reid tried to close his eyes as Luke slid his hands over the illuminated skin of Katie’s hips. He tried not to see Luke lower one hand into the shadow, grasping himself, guiding. Reid’s eyes wouldn’t close; he watched Luke as he slid inside Katie.
Katie moaned, dropping her head. Luke began to move.
“Ohh, Luke—you feel—ungh.”
Luke’s breathing quickened with his thrusts.
“Mmm, sweetie—who knew you’d be so big?” Her words were whispering, rhythmic. “Bigger—even—than Reid.”
Luke closed his eyes. Reid looked down into his own shadow, at his deflating body, his featureless doll-parts. His flesh flickered, a flash of transparency. He heard a whine of air – looking beside him, he saw a pinprick form in the wall.
Katie’s panting was somehow loud in Reid’s ear. “Luke—Luke—how—does it feel? What—what you expected?”
Reid strained to hear Luke’s answer, to hear his voice.
“Wet. Hot.” It was Luke’s, Reid supposed it had to be, but the voice was slippery, low. There and not there. Reid tilted forward, with the room. He held his breath.
The room righted, briefly. Reid swayed in front of the pinprick; he felt a sucking stream of air against his disappearing skin.
Katie groaned through her smile. “Well, you feel fantastic. Just what I needed—ooh, yeah—just like that—” The bed began to list again. “Ungh—ungh—ungh—Luke—where are we?”
Luke’s bangs were stuck to his skin. Again, his words were dampened, disembodied. “My plane.”
“Oh—oh—oh.” The room shuddered. “Oh!”
Stopping abruptly, Luke dropped his hands and began to back away. “Sorry—the turbulence—”
“No, Luke – it’s okay.” Her smile was luminous as she looked at him under her arm. “We can try that.”
Luke didn’t move.
“Really, I’ve always wanted to—and he’ll never do it.” Looking at Reid, she stuck out her tongue.
Air was emptying from the room, speeding toward the growing hole in the wall, now the size of a coffee bean. Hair on the top of Luke’s head ruffled as he slowly returned to Katie. As he reached for her.
Wake up. NOW.
Luke was moving again, thrusting again, intent and intense. Katie’s head was tilted up, eyes squeezed shut, back bowed. Luke’s figure gradually unfocused, unmooring from the present plane, smudging into a twilight state.
This is wrong.
“I know—but it feels so—ungh, Luke—how are you so good at this? I would have thought—with Noah—”
The Luke-shaped shadow rippled, like an aura vibrating darkly. Reid could barely hear the voice over the intensifying sound of air screaming from the cabin. “We do everything. Every way. All the time.”
Still embedded, Luke’s form coalesced enough for Reid to see him draw a hand from the back of Katie’s neck down the glistening ridges of her spine; he saw Luke lower the hand around and under his own driving hips. He saw Luke’s eyes close, his head falling back as his fingers disappeared. He heard Luke gasp.
Finally, Reid wrenched his eyes shut, forcing his fingers over his ears. Only to realize that he could see through the lids, hear through the hands.
“—if only I had a prostate—”
The hole in the wall engulfed Reid’s chest – a vacuum attachment sucking inward – he could feel brittle bone and skin collapsing like a sinkhole. Reid was resigned – to dematerializing, to being lost to the dream. Now his only wish was for the plane to land.
Where are we even going?
A fully formed Luke looked at Reid. His eyes were clear. Old. His voice was inside Reid’s head.
“You tell me.”
A glowing Katie was in Luke’s arms now, kissing him on the cheek, both of them clothed. Serenely smiling, she reached a hand toward Reid – the air stream reversed, catching him and pushing him toward the pair. Neither seemed to notice his tattered nakedness. Reid and Luke each looked into unobscured eyes – Luke’s eyes weary and wary, Reid’s eyes—what? What was there to show? What was left of him?
White sheets of paper suddenly appeared in the air current, lifting toward the ceiling in a spiraling eddy. Katie captured Reid’s hand. Beaming, she ran her other hand down Luke’s arm, cradling the back of his fingers with her own. She lifted both hands, drawing them closer. Reid’s fingertips tingled.
Just as the hands were about to meet, Katie shouted over the sound of rushing air. “Now it’s your turn!”
Reid couldn’t breathe. He woke with two sheets of paper covering his face. He lifted them, releasing them to the wind filling his bedroom from the open window. He tried to release the dream, but it lay leaden and sharp in his mind. He remembered all of it – the medley of memories. The flight. He remembered Katie’s final words.
He remembered which response had been his.
[Author’s Note: Here endeth the het-sex.]
Chapter 6: Your Move, Reid
Get your hands off him.
Reid had started the day being of two minds. One mind was determined never to see Luke Snyder again. No more hair, no more eyes, no more dream fodder. No more existential crisis. This unwanted mental renovation project had gone on long enough – he was done with disruptions and escalating costs and bits of psychic plaster falling into his food. He was sick of workers going through his stuff and cavalierly demolishing load-bearing walls. He was more than ready to fire the contractor he hadn’t remembered hiring (he’d named him Norm). Reid wanted his life back. He wanted everything restored to its rightful place.
Reid’s other mind was currently in control. From its command center located somewhere in the hindbrain, it orchestrated operations in pursuit of a single goal: to see Luke Snyder. To find him, be near him again, within harmonic distance. To banish the memory of a hurt Luke from the hallway, a distant Luke from the board meeting, and a wrong Luke from the previous night’s dream. It was this mind that had directed Reid’s lower motor neurons to move his body in the most likely Luke-direction. Which explained why Reid was now standing outside Noah’s hospital room. During visiting hours.
And it was why Reid was watching them through the blinds – Noah sitting up in bed, Luke beside him in a chair pulled close. They were laughing, leaning into each other, their foreheads touching – close enough for breath to land on open lips. This mind wouldn’t let Reid pull back, refused to give him permission to close his eyes. It forced him to watch a still smiling Noah lift his hand to the back of Luke’s neck.
Get your hands off him.
This, it let Reid think. Or scream, as it was presently the only thought filling his skull and ricocheting around his brain case like a volley of ball bearings. Reid was effectively paralyzed, his vision throbbing as the pressure in his head strained blood vessels to their biomechanical limits.
Then Luke began to turn his head.
Immediately, Reid was released; he spun to one side of the blinds. The other mind, no doubt having become alarmed at the stroke risk, had finally broken through. Reid was free to go. Which he intended to – once he’d finished standing there, his back to the wall separating hallway from room, for an unquantifiable number of minutes. He couldn’t leave, not quite yet – not until he’d been in Luke’s orbit for just a little longer. Even through wood and glass and plaster he could feel his systems soothing. Realigning.
He’d seen Luke. He'd looked happy.
That was enough.
Eyes opening (when had they closed?), Reid pressed away from the wall. He wordlessly took the file from Curly Nurse’s slightly shaking hand and walked down the hall toward his next appointment. He didn’t look back. He didn’t see Luke watch him pass by the window.
Reid breathed a long, happy sigh.
He savored the smooth custard, the way it slipped down his throat. He marveled at how its seeming simplicity belied a complex interplay of subtle flavors and gradations of savory and sweet. He tracked the fluctuating activation of taste buds as each bite was processed. He reveled in the relative emptiness of his mind, congratulating himself on finally finding an activity that had no connection to Luke Snyder. He celebrated four-and-a-half minutes of Luke-free thought. Wait—
“Just can’t help yourself, I see.”
Sucking on his spoon, Reid stopped his slow walk toward the nurses’ station. It was either that or have to touch Chris Hughes, who now blocked his path.
Can dimples in isolation be characterized as smug?
“I guess once a thief always a thief.”
Reid’s next sigh was appreciably less happy. “‘Thief.’ Huh. Gonna go out on a limb here and argue in my defense that I didn’t steal your wit so much as offer it asylum. And that would have happened years ago. I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out by now.”
Chris made several starts at speaking before finally finishing one. “Yeah—well—I’m talking about that.” He pointed to the ceramic cup of egg custard in Reid’s hand.
Reid looked at him blankly. “Would you like to see the receipt?”
“Ha ha, you know what I mean. You know that the cup and spoon aren’t supposed to leave the cafeteria.”
Reid took another bite.
“But you can’t help yourself, can you? Always taking things that don’t belong to you. Writing your own rules.”
Reid swallowed, setting the empty cup and spoon on a passing laundry cart. He reached for his wallet.
“What are you doing?”
“Seeing how much cash I have on me. Yeah, sorry – you’re going to have to come back to my office so I can write you a check.” Reid raised his eyebrows at Chris’s stupefied silence. “The Shannon Fellowship? That I so unfairly won on account of my self-evident superiority? Honestly, it’s worth it to me at this point just to give you the money so that we can end this cycle of humiliation. You couldn’t compete with me then, and it’s kind of embarrassing watching you try to compete with me now. There’s just something—I don’t know, unseemly about sparring with someone who has the mental dexterity of a seventh-grader.” Reid shuddered. “So, how ’bout I put you out of your misery? You—you do take checks, right?”
“You’re a douche.”
With a light voice and a dark smile, Reid called after a retreating Chris, “I know you are, but what am I?”
That’s when Reid felt it – a disturbance in the force. Chris, food, direction, self – all forgotten as his awareness was unerringly drawn to the source. Turning toward the nurses’ station, Reid saw him – Luke, leaning against the desk talking to Plastic Nurse. Smiling at her. Though he had seen Luke the previous day at the board meeting, it had been eight days since Reid had last seen that smile. He noted his physiological response – the accelerating heartbeat, perspiring palms. The squeeze.
Speaking of junior high—
No, earlier – he was suddenly struck with a memory from fifth grade, of the day he’d approached JoAnne Tristani during recess. He’d found a treasure – a pill bug – and could think of no one he wanted to share it with more. Her friends had stopped talking as he’d stepped behind her, and she turned, her expression open if noncommittal. Smiling his small smile, he took her hand and dropped into her palm the small grey ball, which immediately unrolled and began to tickle its way across her skin. Startled, shrieking, the girl reflexively dropped the pill bug and tried to crush it with her patent-leather shoe. Reid dropped as well, wrapping both hands around her leg to lift and push. Off-balance, she fell into her friends; Reid didn’t see them run away, didn’t hear what they called him. He was focused on coaxing the creature from under the root where it had been kicked, carefully checking it for damage. Helping it roll back into a ball. He carried it to the edge of the yard, pushing it under the fence, toward the tree line. He whispered to it, told it not to come back. Told it to stay rolled.
By the time the memory had finished playing, Reid found himself halfway to Luke. He closed the distance, stepping to within a few feet of Luke’s back. Plastic Nurse stopped talking and moved away, not even pretending to find an excuse. Reid stood there, without words, waiting for Luke to notice him. Finally, Luke turned his head.
And looked at Reid blankly.
Reid’s shoulders slowly hunched.
Luke blinked, swaying slightly, catching the edge of the desk. Reid repressed the urge to help, instead backing away.
“Dr. Oliver—where are you going?” said Luke, too loudly, his voice reverberating against sterile walls.
Reid turned his back to Luke, beginning to walk in the direction from which he’d come. He heard Luke shuffle behind him.
“Dr. Oliver, wait—I just want to—”
Reid didn’t slow. “I don’t engage with drunks.”
It took only another step for Luke to stop him. He held Reid firmly with a hand on his upper arm. “What did you say?”
Reid looked down, away from Luke’s face. “Not that I engage with anyone, of course, but especially not drunks.” He pulled his arm free.
Luke grasped Reid’s arm again, this time with both hands. Reid instructed his brain not to process sensory signals from that side of the body. He refused to feel the warmth being pressed into the stiff fabric of his lab coat, the way the back of his hand was brushing the soft jersey over Luke’s stomach. He told himself that he only imagined the breath on the side of his face, the side of his neck.
“I have not been drinking.” Luke’s voice carried a wound.
Reid issued a warning to the auditory processors of his temporal lobe.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Snyder. I’m sure it was just accidental hairspray ingestion.”
“I—I don’t drink.” Luke’s fingers tightened. “I’m an alcoholic. You know that.”
Reid’s body froze. In every way. With considerable effort, he managed to turn his head, meeting Luke’s eyes. He spoke slowly. “And just how would I know that?”
Luke frowned. “Um, because I told you.”
The chill intensified. “I’m pretty sure I would have remembered that particular nugget of over-sharing.”
“What? How can you—” Luke released Reid’s arm. “It was, like, two days ago.” A wrong-shaped smile formed. “You said you weren’t surprised, remember? That it fit my personality profile?”
At Reid’s silence, Luke stepped back. “Oh my God—are you seriously going to pretend that it didn’t happen? Seriously.” Luke brought his hand to his mouth, backing away further. “Do I really mean that little to you?” His eyes began to glisten. “I suppose you don’t remember when I told you about my transplant, either?” Luke lifted his shirt to reveal a flash of scar against smooth skin.
Reid was struck by a barrage of disparate but equally disturbing reactions. “Your kidney.”
“Oh, so you do remember that? I’m honored.” Luke suddenly looked above Reid’s head. His mouth opened and closed, the movement of his lips making a soft sound.
Reid extended his arm, touching Luke’s cheek with the back of his hand.
Luke flinched, jerking his head away. “Don’t.”
“Why not?” Reid asked softly.
Luke’s eyes and voice were bruised. “Because you don’t mean it.”
Luke looked down. “You told me you didn’t.”
Reid’s manner was carefully mild. “What else did I tell you?”
Luke listed to one side.
“Mr. Snyder, what else did we talk about?”
Luke smiled distantly. “You told me about Annie.”
Again, Reid swallowed. “Annie?”
“Annie Judd. How much her death meant to you. How you’d almost saved her.” Luke’s eyes focused on Reid’s. “It was like, just for minute, you almost let me see.”
His smile, still dreamy, widened. “And it wasn’t easy, but I totally got you to admit it—that you secretly wanted to try.”
Now Luke’s look was faintly exasperated. “Riding the bull.”
His eyelids fluttered.
Reid gripped Luke’s arm. He turned to the nurses’ station. “You! Luke Snyder’s medical file. Now.” Plastic Nurse ran down a side corridor. Turning his attention to the male orderly she’d been whispering with, Reid nodded his head toward a nearby examination room. “In there.” The orderly rushed forward and began to lead Luke away.
Curly Nurse’s head appeared in the doorway of the neighboring room; Reid fixed on her next. “You – get me Luke Snyder's nephrologist and 250 milligrams of valproic acid.” Nodding, she jogged off.
Luke began to struggle. He leaned toward Reid, his eyes imploring. “I’m not drunk. I’m not.” His voice caught on something jagged. “Please.”
Reid looked at him steadily. “I believe you.”
Luke let himself be led into the room. His eyes stayed on Reid’s as the door closed.
“Luke’s drinking again?”
At some point Chris had reappeared behind Reid. Reid responded without turning. “No.”
“You sound sure.” Though sharp with skepticism, the edges of Chris’s words were no longer intended to cut.
“OK. So why so sure?”
“Because unless he’s secretly been a heavy drinker for months, alcohol intoxication doesn’t generally present with multi-modal hallucinations and absence seizures.”
Reid couldn’t see Chris’s eyes widen. “Holy—are you—how could you tell?”
“Well, among other things, I’ve never had a patient named Annie Judd.”
Now Reid heard Chris’s reaction – a low whistle. “So what does this mean?”
Reid began to walk toward the room where Luke lay. “It means I’m his doctor.”
Chapter 7: Approaching Significance
Reid was now an expert on renal-transplant patients.
Especially when it came to all the ways they could die.
The planes of Reid’s face were washed with hollowing light from the screen of the laptop. He had spent the past two hours exploring the labyrinthine underwater caves of medical databases, wading through nautical miles of journal articles and case studies. The computer was the only source of light in his office; he hadn’t taken the time to switch on the overhead lights before diving in.
(Luke is sick.)
Reid was immersed in cell death and system failure. He shuddered at the relative barbarity of conventional surgery – the only ‘knives’ in a stereotactic procedure were orchestrated gamma rays resolving a dissonant malignant target. His was a civilized world of therapeutic light and sound. Physical invasion was a last resort. What Luke had gone through, on the other hand…so many times… His medical file read like a horror novel. Or a telenovela script.
The kidney transplant had to be the key. The ways it could kill were legion. Assuming the patient even lasted until the surgery, let alone through it, the immediate post-operative period required constant vigilance against not just organ rejection, but also an onslaught of bloodthirsty hoards with such pagan names as venous thrombosis, arterial stenosis, lymphocele, and ischemic tubular necrosis.
(Luke could die.)
And even should the transplant take, living with a foreign body within your borders meant a lifetime of tribute paid to immunosuppressive masters. Subjugation required leaving your gates permanently open to any passing virus, bacterium, or fungus looking to pillage. It didn’t help that your new masters’ sense of humor was gratuitously cruel – the very drugs necessary for tricking your defenses into accepting the nonnative kidney were at the same time stealthily attacking it. And those drugs that weren’t destroying your kidney directly were waging war on other parts of your body – bones, heart, blood, eyes. Brain.
And their weapons weren’t bronze-age, but atomic. Reid had just finished reading a study finding renal-transplant patients to be four times more likely to develop the deadliest skin cancer. The odds were even worse if you were male.
(His skin is so pale—)
Eventually, of course, the kidney fails.
There were always stories of transplants from healthy, living donors lasting thirty years. But the average was much closer to ten, and Darwin only knew the provenance of Luke’s black-market organ.
(Seven years ago—)
The sibilance of the word wound through the stillness as Reid rubbed his temples and squinted at the screen.
Corralling his concentration had never required so much effort. Not once – no matter how cute the kid or pathetic the story – had there ever been this degree of difficulty divesting himself of irrelevant thoughts. Irrelevant feelings. Heartless, hardheaded, stiff-necked, rock-ribbed – this was who he had to be. There was no other way; there never had been. He hadn’t become director of one of the best neurosurgery programs in the country at thirty-two by becoming emotionally invested in his patients. Neither had he made it into Harvard at 14 by letting himself be sidetracked by the distractions of youth. He certainly hadn’t survived Harvard at 14 by not being able to tune out nonessential stimuli. He was no good to his patients if he couldn’t give them everything he had, everything he was. Every last one of his multitudinous talents, all applied with single-minded purpose – that was what his patients deserved.
What Luke deserved.
But Reid couldn’t help Luke if he didn’t close his h—mind to him. He had to disconnect.
Why can’t I disconnect?
He got it now, why it was ill-advised to treat a loved—family mem—person to whom one was attached in some unspecified way. In fact, here was yet more support for the hypothesis that forming attachments to humans in general was dangerous folly – you never knew when you’d have to treat one of them. Reid’s operating principle had thus been confirmed. He now had solid, legal grounds for halting the renovation and firing Norm. Clearly, it was a matter of Luke’s best interest.
(I can’t lose him.)
Reid closed his eyes. He gritted his teeth as he shook his weak inner self by the metaphorical shoulders. You will lose him if you keep this up. The only way you can help him is if you’re firing on all cylinders. So focus the fuck up.
He turned back to the evidence. If only he could have performed a more complete examination on Mr. Snyder. As he’d
feared suspected, by the time Reid had entered the room Luke had been in the tonic phase of a grand mal seizure. At that point Reid could do nothing but help the orderly position Luke on his side as he lost consciousness, holding him as his eyes rolled back, arms extended, legs and jaw working with aimless violence. Reid could only listen as the jagged, rhythmic whines and yelps sliced through them both. He felt the muscles of Luke’s shoulders jerk under his hands; with his knee and thigh pressed behind Luke on the bed, Reid fought the lurches of Luke’s lower back. When it was over, Reid gently rolled Luke onto his back, lifting his lids and fingering his bruised tongue. A nurse had entered; he left her to change Luke’s clothes, his sheets.
Reid had come directly here, to his office. He’d employed every available tool – his experience, his computer, his phone. Hardly one to be satisfied dealing with a temporary replacement, Reid had insisted that Luke’s vacationing nephrologist be found and brought to a phone. Reid’s relentlessness had quickly become the stuff of legend at the resort, eventually resulting in the disgruntled doctor’s being handed a courtesy phone as he dripped Dead Sea mud on the polished tiles of the hotel lobby.
The nephrologist had wondered why Reid had been so quick to discount alcohol withdrawal – it could have explained both the hallucinations and the seizures. But Reid had discounted it, immediately. He was sure the labs would come back clean – which could, of course, mean only that the alcohol had already left Luke’s system. But Reid refused to order further tests in that direction, no matter how strident the mud-caked doctor’s counsel. Not that he needed it, of course, but this time Reid had special reason to know that he was right. He, as well as anyone, knew how cryptic chronic alcohol abuse could be. His uncle Angus could function flawlessly when he put his mind to it, convincing child services time after time that he was a fit guardian. But Reid could always tell. As with everything, he had learned to excel – at gauging not only state, but degree. How bad it was, how long it would last. How drastic the evasive maneuvers should be. Reid knew all the signs – his detection abilities had by necessity become finely tuned. He’d written algorithms of survival.
Had Luke been drinking, Reid would have known it. For better or worse, he was attuned to Luke.
Which was why Reid should have known better – why he shouldn’t have immediately assumed that Luke had been drunk. Why he shouldn’t have immediately withdrawn. He supposed his past had been at play there, as well – he’d never since had tolerance for drinking or drinkers, and the thought of opening himself to someone who—
What the fuck does that mean?
Open. The word reeked of weakness. Open meant defenseless. Vulnerable to assault. Reid’s career – his very existence, if such a distinction were meaningful – was predicated on invulnerability. His patients, his research, his sanity – all demanded that he be impenetrable to attack, from frontal to sneak, by belt or by patent-leather shoe.
But Luke was already in. Since the first time Reid had laid eyes on him, Luke had been casing the joint, searching for structural faults, colluding with the contractor. For months he’d been prying open fissures, squeezing himself in as they widened, leaving more and more of himself behind. From stolen plans he’d discovered a design flaw in Reid’s death star, setting off a chain reaction of creative destruction. And then – not only was Luke forcing a radical transformation, but he’d managed to infest the building materials of the remodeled Reid. Ironically, Reid’s structural integrity was now dependent on Luke’s presence; he had permeated and replaced Reid’s constituent parts like groundwater mineralizing bone. Extermination was no longer an option (if it ever had been). There would be no getting him out.
Until Luke died, of course. Reid had opened himself to someone who might die. At any time, in so many ways. Reid would lose him.
But not today.
Reid re-focused on the case study he was reading. A renal-transplant patient had presented with a four-minute grand mal seizure, fluctuating headache, elevated blood pressure, visual hallucinations—
Reid tried to sit on the thought, but it shimmied out. It climbed up his side and slipped into his ear, burrowing back into his mind. (At least it hadn't taken the other route.)
Why had Luke hallucinated about him? Why had he imagined conversations in which they’d shared such personal, if fictional on Reid’s part, information? Why had he been so hurt when he’d thought Reid had forgotten – or had been pretending to forget?
Does he suspect?
Reid fought to keep the words in front of him in focus.
Is he feeling it too?
Reid forgot to breathe. He pictured Luke’s face as he’d touched his cheek to feel for fever. He’d seen the sadness. The open wound.
Feeling what, exactly? What are you feeling? How much longer are you going to analyze the data? When are you going to admit that the results reached significance a long time ago—
His exhale was audible as he processed the sentence he’d just read.
He picked up the phone.
“I'm sorry, did you just say there’s a wait?” Reid’s voice slithered, like a snake coiling before a strike. Stopping mid-stride, he pivoted down a side corridor. “I don’t care if Bob Hughes himself is halfway through a scan – I want Luke Snyder to get an MRI right. Now.” He slammed open the stairwell door, climbing three stairs with every step. His voice dropped to a dangerous level. “He’ll be there in five minutes.”
Forty-five seconds later Reid opened the door to Luke’s room. Luke was on his side, his back to the door, a fragile figure wrapped in a stiff white sheet. His hair was still damp, his breath shallow.
(Luke is sick.)
Reid slowly walked toward the bed. He wanted to climb onto it, to cover Luke with his body, to dig with bare hands into Luke’s flesh, into his brain, and pull out the sickness. To absorb it into his own body.
I can’t lose him.
This time, Reid couldn’t silence the thought. Just trying to imagine a world without Luke, a life without Luke—
My life without Luke.
Reid tried to catch his breath, but the squeeze was like a vise. He fought back, thinking at first that he was about to lose himself to a panic attack. Not an option. Gradually, though, he realized his body wasn’t under attack so much as it was being shaken awake. He could feel his cells vibrating with awareness; by the time he’d reached Luke’s bed, Reid’s most fundamental particles were resonating with collective resolve.
I don’t want a life without Luke.
What that meant – the specifics of what and why and how – that could wait. First, Reid had to fix him.
I can save him.
Luke’s strained breathing eased; he turned onto his back. A slow, sleepy smile bloomed. “Hi.”
Reid’s heart felt as if it were trying to break through permafrost. “Hi.”
Luke frowned, though remnants of his smile remained. He blinked.
He blinked again. “I—I can only see half.”
Reid ignored the fact that it was becoming physically impossible for him to draw a breath. He took out his penlight. “Tell me exactly what you see.”
Luke stared intently at Reid’s close face as the light flashed. “It’s like—it’s like I’m seeing half of what I should. In each eye. There’s only—half a circle. Two of them. Two of you.”
“Which side can you see?”
“Um, the left.” He sounded a small laugh, the puff of breath catching Reid’s chin. “I hadn’t realized Noah’s condition was contagious.”
Reid forced himself to smile. “Sounds like a different type of cortical blindness. Called homonymous hemianopsia.”
“Well listen to you, sounding all doctor-like.” With a softly cheeky smile, Luke peeked from beneath his lashes. “Does that mean you’re my doctor now?”
“I am.” As before, his voice was steady, careful.
“Well, doctor, you’d better tell me this isn’t permanent. ’Cause I kinda liked seeing the whole picture. This is—it’s like looking through broken binoculars.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not permanent – not if I’m right about what’s wrong with you.”
“Good thing you’re never wrong.” The smile banked before flickering out again. “I must be pretty sick to need a neurosurgeon—I feel like I should be more freaked out. Why aren’t I more freaked out?”
A wedge of hair was stuck to Luke’s forehead. The fingers of Reid’s left hand twitched.
“Because you’re probably enjoying something called postictal bliss. It occasionally happens after a seizure like the one you had earlier – it's all part of the recovery period. You can think of it as the silver lining.” Or as the precursor to another seizure.
“A seizure. Wow. That definitely does not sound like something I should be smiling about.” Grinning, he stretched, lifting his arms over his head. Reid watched the sheet make shifting shapes as it slid down his torso, revealing a thin gown pulled taut.
Luke froze mid-movement, mid-grin. “You called me Luke.”
Luke lowered his arms. He tried to sit up. “Why, Dr. Oliver—” His grin was fast approaching goofy. “No, I get it – this is another hallucination, isn’t it? How do I know you’re real?” He reached for Reid’s arm, just missing it as Reid stepped back. “Or—oh no,” Luke’s eyes widened playfully. “Is this the afterlife? Did I make it to heaven? Oh my G—Dr. Oliver, have you been telling the truth this whole time? Are you—are you actually God?”
A smile slipped through. “How I hate to disillusion you, but you are very much alive – and very much still in Oakhell.”
“But you’re still very much a god, right?”
“In this and every reality.”
“Good to know I have a constant.” Still grinning, Luke’s eyes narrowed. “Wait—so then why did you call me Luke?”
“You’re my patient.”
“So—it’s a well-defined relationship.”
“Really. Huh. I, of course, have to continue addressing you as ‘Dr. Oliver.’”
Reid wondered if the sparkle in Luke’s eyes was a symptom. “I’m sorry, was that in the form of a question?”
“Right. So, then—does that mean I’m ‘Mr. Snyder’ again once I’m all fixed and no longer under your care?”
“You’re serious.” Luke crossed his arms.
“As an empty fridge.”
“You would really go back to calling me ‘Mr. Snyder’?”
“Absolutely. It’s the natural order of things.”
“Yeah.” Luke’s smile wavered, withered. “I guess it is.”
The vise tightened.
“Then—I guess I’d better enjoy it while I can.” Luke licked his lips.
“Say it again.”
The door opened before Reid could respond. Within the minute, Luke was enveloped in parental arms. Reid stepped to the head of Luke’s bed, watching Lily bury her head in Luke’s shoulder as she rocked him, listening to her chants of “my baby.”
He watched Holden smooth away the damp hair on Luke’s brow.
“Dr. Oliver – can you tell us what happened?” Lily looked up as Holden spoke, her hands making circles on Luke’s back.
“Luke—” Reid cleared his throat. “Luke has had several episodes of generalized seizures in the past two hours. There have been visual and auditory hallucinations, and he’s currently experiencing vision problems. We’ve given him medication to control the seizures and to lower his blood pressure.” As he spoke, he raised the half rails on one side of Luke’s bed before walking around to the other side.
“I—what—his vision? Luke had seizures?” Lily stood, swaying, her hand gripping Luke’s shoulder.
Holden moved behind her. “His kidney?” he asked softly.
Reid unlocked the casters of the bed with his foot. He began to wheel Luke toward the door. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”
Lily stepped to the side, a hand covering her mouth. “But—Luke—is he—”
Reid reached for the door. “I’ll let you know once my diagnosis has been confirmed.”
Holden held the door open as Reid maneuvered the bed. Luke squeezed his mother’s hand before letting go.
“Wait—doctor—” Lily followed them down the hall. Reid continued to roll Luke, ignoring curious nurse eyes. “Did you say hallucinations? What kind? What was he—”
Reid could feel Luke’s sudden scrutiny. “They were conversations.”
Lily, keeping pace, frowned. “Conver—I don't—how do you know they were hallucinations?”
Reaching for the elevator button, Reid looked at Lily. “Because they were conversations with me.”
Lily’s mouth was still open as the elevator doors closed.
The otherwise-empty elevator descended slowly. When Reid finally looked down at Luke, the blush was still there.
“So—” Now Luke cleared his throat. “Where to?”
The elevator dinged. Reid wheeled the bed down the corridor, stopping in front of a wide-eyed technician.
“It’s Luke Snyder’s turn now.”
Bobbing her head and mumbling something about being right back, she retreated through a set of doors.
Luke seemed to be attempting origami with the edge of his sheet. “Um, these—these conversations.”
Reid stepped from behind Luke’s head to the side of the bed.
Luke’s eyes darted up briefly. “Which ones? Which ones weren’t real?”
Reid caught Luke’s gaze. “Before the board meeting yesterday, we hadn’t spoken in seven days.”
Luke flinched. “What? Are you—”
“Not since Noah’s surgery.”
Luke’s open mouth formed a progression of silent shapes. “What do you—you mean all of them? Everything we—” Luke looked to the side, seemingly lost in false memories. “Wait, but then how did I know about Annie Judd?”
“There is no Annie Judd. Never was.”
Luke’s attention snapped back to Reid. “What? What are you—you’re saying that wasn’t real? It felt so real—” Luke fingers crawled into the hair on either side of his head. “So—my brain just, what? Made her up?” His fingers tightened. “Like it made up everything—” He looked down at the wrinkled sheet covering his lap. “I’m really sick, aren’t I?”
Reid wanted to touch him. He almost did. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
Luke’s eyes lifted. Reid watched what little light remained be snuffed out. A weak smile lifted a corner of Luke’s lips as he dropped his hands. “Right. Of course. Nothing special.”
Reid tried to swallow, but the squeeze had migrated to his throat. He managed to push words past. “I wouldn’t say that.”
Luke raised his head.
“It’s not often that this brain-dead backwater provides a patient worthy of my diagnostic genius.” Reid eyes were clear. Open. “I’d say you’re pretty darn special.”
Luke held Reid’s gaze, his expression a muddied mix of tentative and searching.
“At the very least you’re currently lit by the reflected glow of my divinity.”
Luke slowly smiled. A small but distinct spark caught in his eyes. “That would mean I’m special only when I’m around you.”
The doors swung open, the woman returning to wheel Luke away. As she was doing her best to avoid making eye contact with Reid, she missed the way he was looking at Luke. The way Luke was looking back.
“I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Luke nodded as he disappeared behind the swinging doors.
Chapter 8: Inside Luke
Luke’s brain was the most beautiful thing Reid had ever seen.
Though not the brain, really, so much as the damage. And not the damage so much as what it signified. That Reid was right.
Not that there had ever been any doubt.
And not that he would ever admit to nearly suffocating from held breath in the time it took from Luke’s entering the MRI machine to the first images appearing on the screen of the workstation. He'd felt Luke’s slow trip into dark confinement, the uncertainty, the powerlessness. When the screen had finally flickered with reconstructed images, Reid’s exhalation had filled the observation room, startling the already jumpy male technologist, who had previously dared question Reid’s presence. The entirety of Reid’s attention had been centered on those windows into Luke, on grainy grays and blacks, shades of scalloped shapes – familiar images he’d seen in the thousands, and yet, suddenly, almost as if he’d never seen them before. As if this had been the first time, the only time, it had ever counted.
From now on his happy place would be slightly more specific.
Especially when he'd seen the first glimpse of white, a ghostly tendril smudging through the darkness, like a wisp of curling smoke. Then more images, more white – snowy patches spreading in just the right places. Reid had never been so happy to see too much fluid in a brain.
Luke would be safe.
Reid closed his eyes. When he opened them he saw Luke’s legs moving. Without thinking, Reid reached over the technologist to press a button on the workstation. Another seizure?
“Luke? Is everything OK?” Reid kept his voice level.
Luke stilled. A moment passed. “Is that you, God?”
Reid could hear the smile. He released another long breath, this time through curving lips. “Just try not to move.”
Reid released the button – followed by his smile upon noticing the incredulity being directed at him from the technologist. Reid’s face quickly collapsed into fearsome inexpressiveness; the tech’s neck cracked as his face snapped back to the screen. He didn’t see Reid take out his phone. Didn’t hear the picture-taking click.
Reid stepped back, letting the tech finish the scan with a minimum of back-seat interference. Though the squeeze was still in force, breathing had eased. The banshees in his head had decreased their volume from hemorrhage-inducing to merely migrainous.
Reid wouldn’t lose him. Not yet.
After speaking briefly on the phone with Luke’s temporary nephrologist, Reid moved closer to the window separating him from Luke. He alternated focus between where Luke lay and the screen showing pictures of what was going on inside him. Inside his brain. Though there was nothing Reid respected more than the human brain, never before had it felt like such a privilege, such a gift, to be allowed inside. Inside Luke.
Why him? What is it about him?
Reid searched the images for clues, for superpower-bestowing anomalies. Is that—in the left pre-frontal cortex…no…maybe I should order an fMRI, something more powerful—
Maybe he should order one for himself. Maybe all of…this was nothing more than the result of a brain tumor. Maybe he was the one with altered mental status, the one hallucinating. Maybe none of this was real. Maybe Luke wasn’t—
Reid noted the pang. He decided to discard this line of inquiry, these alternate hypotheses – if they were true, he wouldn’t want to know.
In that moment, Reid reluctantly acknowledged that an objective reality that didn’t include Luke in some form wasn’t worth pursuing. The alternative would hurt too much. If it came down to it, Reid would choose his perceived existence over absolute truth.
What the—what am I saying? That I’d close my eyes to what’s real? That I’d rather be sick? Live in a fantasy world? Have feelings for a m—
Reid drew a ragged breath. The tech knew better than to notice.
Things had changed. That was fact. The specter of losing Luke had been a catalyst, crystallizing Reid’s priorities. He wanted Luke in his life. He accepted this conclusion. The next step was to figure out what that meant and how to achieve it.
At the very least Reid could stop being so dickish. Pack up the flamethrower. Stop pushing him away, hurting him out of habit. Out of fear. Reid could try to look for things they had in common, over which they could…relate, or bond, or whatever the humans were calling it these days. Reid would even do his best to repress the eye rolls. Better yet would be engaging in something genuinely productive – perhaps Reid could try to act as a sort of mentor, though he could think of nothing he knew that Luke might be interested in learning, except possibly the art of the sandwich. Reid supposed he could always use an apprentice.
Maybe they could simply aim for friendship – he decided to revisit the idea. They could do what friends do, things Reid had heard rumors of. Watch a game together. Shoot pool. Play chess – yes, I could teach him chess. Reid began to warm to the idea, to the image of them spending time together, their combativeness channeled in service of a royal pursuit. Maybe I do have something to offer him. The warming trend continued as Reid envisioned engaging Luke’s agile mind; he had no doubt Luke would be able to learn quickly, to see connections. He already saw so much—
Or movies – right, they could watch movies. Friends did that. Reid could make sure that Luke was sufficiently schooled in the classics, starting with the Al Pacino oeuvre – “The Godfather,” “Dog Day Afternoon.” Real movies. He could deprogram Luke of any art-house pretentions that might have been a legacy of the ex (is he still an ex?).
Friends also commiserated about work. Reid supposed he wouldn’t mind hearing about whatever bleeding-heart project Luke’s foundation was funding. Especially if there was food involved – they could go out to eat; friends did that, too. Luke could complain about…shipping-company things, and Reid could complain about everyone, and they could both complain about whomever they were seeing—
This time the tech did turn his head toward the source of the strangled sound. He quickly turned back, no doubt deciding it was better not to know what had caused Reid’s skin to sallow to such a singular shade. The tech instead rose; the scan had ended. He left the small room, walking over to the machine as Luke’s prone body emerged from the diagnostic tunnel. After removing Luke’s headphones, the tech disappeared.
Reid was standing in the doorway of the observation room. He slowly approached Luke.
Luke’s smile was dreamy, his blinking sluggish. “You’re here.”
Reid remembered to breathe. “I said I would be. How’s your vision?” Reid wielded his penlight.
“Still two of you.” Luke’s voice was a happy slur. “And I thought one was bad.”
“Is there any pain? Dizziness? Any odd smells?”
Luke rolled his head from side to side on the table. “I still have music in my head, though.”
Reid froze for only a second. “What were they playing for you in there?”
“Duran Duran. Made me think of you.”
Reid lifted a brow.
Luke’s grin grew until his eyes nearly disappeared. “‘Hungry Like the Wolf.’”
Reid let himself return the smile.
“So, were you checking out my grey matter?”
“Was more in interested in the white, actually.”
“How’d it look?”
“Swollen. There were areas indicating vasogenic edema in your parieto-occipital and posterior-temporal lobes.”
Luke hummed. “Does that mean this is one of those times when I should be freaking out?” His eyes smiled into Reid’s. “Am I dying, Doctor?”
“Not quite yet.” Reid didn’t realize he’d yet to put away his own smile. “It means the lesions are where I was hoping they would be. You’re suffering from something called Posterior Reversible Encephalopathy Syndrome. There are areas of water build-up in the back of your brain. The swelling is causing your symptoms.”
“Okay. And that’s good because—?”
“Because of the word ‘reversible.’”
“Mmm, yes—reversible good. More things should be reversible.”
Reid fought to anchor his awareness in the present.
“So, Doc, how do we reverse it?”
“We adjust your anti-rejection meds. It’s probably the tacrolimus.”
“Huh. That’s it?”
Luke seemed to be struggling to stay awake. “Wow, that was fast. Even Dr. House takes a full episode. And he almost never gets it right on the first try.” His words were becoming less distinct. His smile drifted, as if he were straddling dimensions. “Knew I could trust you.”
Reid rested his hand next to Luke. The tech returned, preparing to take Luke back to his room.
“Let yourself sleep, Luke.” Reid’s hand pressed against the hard plastic. “You should feel better in the morning.”
Luke’s blinks were in slow-motion. “You’ll be here?”
“I’ll be here.”
Breaking away from Luke’s gaze was like pulling taffy. Ultimately successful, Reid turned to leave. Just as he was lifting his hand, Luke grasped it.
Reid turned back. He was caught again in Luke’s eyes, his smile – they were both glowing. Everything about Luke glowed.
Slowly, with exquisite care, Luke lifted the back of Reid’s hand, bringing it to his lips.
He kissed it.
Luke’s eyes closing in sleep, his hold loosened. Reid extracted his hand, backing away as the tech approached with a gurney. Reid kept going, backing out the door and into the hall, stepping to the side as Luke was wheeled past. Reid watched him disappear through the swinging doors. He melted into the wall.
The squeeze had reversed.
It was as if an oversized balloon catheter were being inflated in his chest. As if his heart were expanding – physically expanding, pressing against ribs and spine, rocking his core with each beat. As if the heart-balloon were lifting him up and out, filling the hallway, the hospital, blurring his borders, sending him into the sky, dissolving him into light and vibration. The view…he could see everything. There were no walls in his way, no confined spaces. Just horizon. And truth.
I have feelings for a man.
The sky pulsed. Clouds cleared.
I have feelings for Luke.
Chapter 9: Inside Reid (et al.)
Prepare to skim.
Am I gay?
Reid was back in his chair, at his desk, in his office. He had yet to turn on the lights. As before, his laptop lay in front of him, but it, too, was dark. Though his body was in stasis, his mind was alight – sitting and staring, he saw nothing but felt everything. He was processing on a quantum level, existing in all states at once, was everywhere, nowhere, exactly in between. He untangled spinning thoughts as he sat, outwardly immobile, for an interval of time greater than a sleep cycle but less than enough. His recall was abstract at best, not quite solid on the details of the trip from MRI to office – perhaps involving rematerialization, perhaps the stairs. The frequency shift from ethereal to earthly was complicating coherence; Reid fought to focus.
Am I gay?
The question coalesced. Computation had commenced.
Let’s see – eighteen years of satisfying sex with women would suggest otherwise.
He pulled from his mind a quickly constructed woman. He could see her, long hair tickling, graceful slopes and swells. He could smell her swirling florals, her subtle sweetness. He could taste the salted silk of heated skin.
But he felt Luke. Still. The warm, soft, slightly parted lips; the light suction as those lips moved inward; the tingling, lingering cool left on Reid’s skin from the moist heat of Luke’s mouth, his breath. Reid held the hand stiffly, moving it gingerly, as if afraid to dislodge a manifest memory.
Right. Bi, then?
In the interest of science, he forced himself to be ruthless. Really, Reid? Never? You’ve never been attracted to a man? He thought back to Dallas, to his residency, to med school, college…to locker rooms, showers, urinals…to mostly male chess tournaments…to the times he’d escaped Angus to lose himself on the beach at Coney Island—
Nothing. Not once. The only time he could remember looking at another penis was to validate his own considerable superiority.
His unseeing eyes finally focused. He opened the laptop.
“Handsome men” [return]
Scanning the results, he was struck more by the ubiquity of improbably developed rectus abdominis and prominent inguinal ligaments than he was by any stirrings. He did note the apparent universality of the concept of ‘sultry gaze’; he wondered if soul-deadening was directly proportional to come-hither proficiency.
He considered his next move.
“Handsome blonde men” [return]
Some looked like Luke. Some had his coloring, his hair, his build. Some almost had his smile. None did a thing. The needle didn’t move. No response – neither on a physiological level nor on a fuzzily emotional one. At most, the pictures served only to remind him of Luke.
The needle moved.
Opening his eyes, Reid traced the computer’s keys in the darkness, feeling their edges. He watched his fingers type.
He parsed the definitions. Am I ‘romantically attracted’ to men? Heck, am I romantically attracted to women? I’ve certainly never felt romantic love…but I suppose I could envision a scenario with a woman in which there was a ‘desire to connect emotionally’ or what have you. But with a man? Reid stared at his fingers. With Luke? As before, his eyes closed involuntarily. Yes. I feel—a fondness for him. There are…emotions involved. A desire for connection. I think that’s been established. Reid looked back at the screen. But a desire for something more? Something…physical?
Again, Reid imagined Luke’s face, his lips. His lips against Reid’s lips.
And again: nothing.
At least it doesn’t freak me out. Much. And it does say ‘sexual and/or romantic attraction.’ So, I guess in my case it’s an “or.”
But then he remembered Luke’s lips against his hand. Not that he could forget, what with the skin still prickling as if it had been asleep. As if Luke had woken it.
Is that physical attraction? The systemic sensations that were triggered—they didn’t feel sexual. To be honest, they felt...felt almost more like—
Reid clenched his hand. Straightening in his chair, he re-focused on the search results, following links, seeking comfort in facts. He was reassured by the claim that Freud had believed bisexuals to have “higher intellects.” And by a study finding bisexuals to have happier marriages than heterosexuals. No, wait, that was bisexual women. The men, on the other hand—
Moving on, he found another description of sexual attraction, one that included not just ‘erotic sensations’ but also admiration and affection. Yes—I feel affection for him. I do. There’s an urge to…I don’t know…pet him, or something. His hair. His hand. Reid unclenched. And once I got past the pique and prejudice (and, OK, a defense mechanism or two), I certainly did come to admire him. What he’s gone through…how he’s not only survived, but seemingly thrived…how he manages to share himself without depletion…how he touches people without even trying—
Right – admiration and affection. Check. He figured two out of three was sufficient. Time to finalize the results.
I have bisexual tendencies when it comes to Luke.
But only Luke.
Reid shook his head with small, accelerating movements. Is that even possible?
He continued to cyber-search, finding only weak, anecdotal evidence for person-specific sexuality. Other research seemed to call into question the very concept of male bisexuality.
OK, so I’m an anomaly. What else is new?
He supposed, however, that his situation could be consistent with a continuum theory of sexuality. It would mean simply that he was a degree short of straight. Ever-so-slightly curved. A touch heteroflexible. (One hundred percent homovestite, however.) Not so much bi-curious as bi-resigned. Unknown was the temporal dimension – many of the anecdotes were either tales of transition or ended with reversion. Seeing that ‘enduring’ was a constant presence in definitions of sexual orientation, he had to wonder how sustainable his current state was. Was this his new equilibrium? Would he always feel…whatever this was for Luke?
Granted, predictions were only as good as the still-relatively sparse data, but Reid felt fairly certain that his internal set of conditions wouldn’t be changing any time soon. Signal strength had only been growing since Luke had first come into range. Like it or not, Reid’s personal environment had altered. The only reasonable course was to adapt.
So, what now?
Reid stared at the screen, for once at a loss for search terms. He felt affection, respect; he wanted to be around Luke. He wanted to look at him, hear his voice, occasionally pet him. He had absolutely no interest in seeing him naked. That sounded like friendship; why couldn’t it just be friendship?
Because he didn’t want anyone else to see Luke naked either.
Reid’s sigh ricocheted off his hands, the keyboard, the screen. There it was: he didn’t want to think of Luke with anyone else. Not romantically. The idea was simply anathema. He couldn’t even…when he saw Luke with Noah…when he imagined Luke moving on…with another man— He couldn’t. He literally couldn’t imagine it. Not if he wanted to avoid assorted somatic aches.
I’m jealous. I feel jealousy. Possessiveness. I don’t want Luke to be with anyone else.
I want him to be with me.
Reid lifted cramping hands from the keyboard. He didn’t want to touch anything in that moment, didn’t want anything touching him. It was as if he were suddenly over-sensitized, as if any additional stimuli would crash the system. Even the blinking cursor was too much; he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, wincing at the contact.
The spinning thoughts slowed. Orderly processing gradually resumed.
You want him with you. Romantically, I’m assuming. Fine. Terrifying, paradigm-shifting, but fine. I’ll allow – the results do appear to be unambiguous.
But you don’t want to kiss him. Let alone engage in…other activities, I’m assuming. So, how would that work, exactly? Are you really expecting him to be satisfied with, what, holding hands? Manly hugs? Could you be satisfied with that? With an indefinitely platonic state of affairs? Or—were you planning on fulfilling certain needs elsewhere?
His hands, now resting over his eyes, dug in again. It was as if they were trying to contain a mind revolting at the thought of touching skin that wasn’t Luke’s.
Reid lowered his hands.
Right. Then I hate to break it to you, but that means you’re gonna have to…do…things with him. Let him do things to you. At the very least you’d have to kiss him. Reid lifted his still-tingling hand from the keyboard. Good thing you don’t find the thought too abhorrent. He brought his fingers to the bridge of his nose.
His hand dropped. Fine, next—what else do men do? Hand jobs? Reid flinched. He’d never been a particular fan, having yet to find a woman who knew what she was doing. Perhaps a man— Closing his eyes, he tried to imagine Luke’s hand on him. He couldn’t. He tried again – it was as if he’d encountered a firewall. He found himself hesitant to push.
Suddenly, his face contorted. Would Luke—would he expect reciprocation? Reid swallowed. OK, well…you touched worse in med school. At least this would be an ostensibly pleasurable context. To give Luke pleasure. (I could give Luke pleasure.) And at least his penis wouldn’t smell like formaldehyde. Oh, for the love of—come on, Oliver, enough with the shuddering. You’re a doctor, for fuck’s sake – you can say the word “penis” without an anxiety attack. You jerk your own off enough; what’s one more?
Reid ground his teeth. Right, then – what else? What else does one do with a penis— The laptop screen automatically dimmed. Reid shifted in the chair. No. Just—no. I’m afraid he’s just gonna have to be satisfied with hand jobs. Line drawn.
Reid stared at the screen until it went black.
Unless…he really wanted to…I mean, well, they do say that gay men give the best blow jobs. He was beginning to feel the heat of the firewall. And there are tales of otherwise straight men periodically partaking, so it can’t be that big of a deal—
Really? Are we really having this conversation? Are you actually considering—
Reid dropped his head. Do I have a choice? The logic was sound: being with Luke as more than a friend, keeping him happy, would require…compromises. The alternative, not being with him, was untenable.
But which? How many? How far could he go? What were the options, even?
He woke the computer up. The cursor winked.
He un-squinted just enough to see the images, relieved that his search settings had spared him from full frontal attack. He saw someone who looked like Luke – with a second young man, both shirtless, wet.
Reid wasn’t entirely repulsed.
He settled on another picture, of another young man, blonde, too-long hair, lying on grey sheets. The arm of a second man framed his face, his hand on the blonde’s brow, as if stroking it. The young man’s eyes were closed, his expression serene; his own hand was resting on the inside of his partner’s elbow. Reid clicked on the photo.
There were videos. He chose one.
It appeared to be scenes from a movie or TV show. TV, by the dialogue. He saw the blonde man—boy, really, more so than Luke. Too young, too thin. Too callow. For all Luke’s childish cheerfulness and unreasonable optimism, his experiences and responsibilities had forged remarkable maturity. Not that he wasn’t an over-passionate, annoyingly idealistic 22 year old, but there were times when it was clear that life had aged him. There were shadows behind the light. Reid supposed he was drawn to both.
He wasn’t drawn to the young man on the screen, but he kept watching. He was in too deep not to continue this particular scientific inquiry. He watched as the young man entered the orbit of a moderately older, markedly more dissolute man. The youth was obviously the innocent of the pair, and the man was steadily intensifying the initiation. They were in bed now, naked – the young man on his stomach, the older man slowly licking his way down the boy’s back.
I suppose that looks bearable. The guy’s just using the very tip of his tongue – not as if I’d run into a lot of hair back there on Luke. And just that simple act seems to be giving the kid pleasure.
The man’s tongue moved lower.
Reid considered never eating again.
Is he out of his fucking—are we supposed to think that he’s—do they do that? Don’t they realize that almost two-thirds of human feces consist of bacteria? The sheer number of potential pathogens he would have just ingested— The video played on; Reid was too shocked to move, too stunned to make it stop.
Note to brain: expunge all memories associated with the word “rimming.”
By the time Reid regained control of his motor functions, the couple on the screen had moved on. To intercourse. Once again, Reid was caught off-guard – he hadn’t realized that men could have sex face-to-face. He frowned; his discomfort was now equal parts watching-anal-intercourse and not-knowing-everything. He didn’t care for either.
Determination overcoming revulsion, Reid opened a new tab.
“Gay sex videos” [return]
He scrolled down, looking for sites with a low probability of transmitting viruses, either computer or vicarious. Fortunately, he had some experience with internet porn.
Unfortunately, he had no experience with gay porn, particularly with its terminology. Which is how Reid ended up on a hardcore site.
The first video seemed harmless enough. Once Reid got over the mild shock of seeing non-simulated male-male sex, he began to appreciate the technique and enthusiasm of the man giving what looked to be a stellar blowjob. Yeah, OK, perhaps I could suffer through— He had to admit that both participants – make that three, no, four – appeared to be genuinely enjoying themselves, which certainly could not always be said for straight porn. Just as Reid was feeling his squeamishness subside, the fellatio recipient began to urinate. Onto the face of his fellator.
Reid’s mind rather shut down at that point, save for one ephemeral thought: At least it’s mostly sterile.
Other videos on the site ranged from merely disturbing to truly traumatic. Though his higher brain processes were still mostly out of commission, or perhaps because they were, Reid kept clicking, kept hoping that he would finally find a scenario that didn’t make him want to scrub his eyes with a surgical brush. Alas, he was treated instead to a procession of automated-dildo impalements, genital shockings, punitive enemas, and entire arms in rectums. His bare hand…literally trillions of microbes….sweet son of—up to his bicep? But that’s—he can’t—that would mean he’d had to have turned the corner into the transverse colon—
Reid quickly clicked a link of what he assumed should be a relatively benign fetish: “sounding.” Is there singing involved? Not on the screen, but Reid did approximate a constipated falsetto as he watched an aroused man insert a steel medical probe deep into his urethra.
The desk shook as Reid’s fingers violently tapped and slipped on his computer’s track pad in his rush to navigate off the page. After several overshoots, he finally landed on a link identified only by an abbreviation.
Just close the tab already. But he couldn’t, not when these would be the images he’d be left with. Not when there was a young man in the current video who looked to be only slightly younger than Luke, hair only a bit blonder, a bit more styled. His smile was too big for his circumstances, too open – his radiance did not at all befit the black-sheeted bed or blood-red-lacquered walls or swinging suspended chains. And his let’s-play-with-puppies bounce seemed just a smidge out of place considering the dark leather harness and spiked codpiece. He turned his head over his shoulder and smiled, his look somehow both perky and provocative. A similarly dressed man entered, built for power, with short hair, a short beard, and a massive codpiece. Long, serpentine tattoos wound around both arms, climbing shoulders to frame pierced nipples. Where there wasn’t ink there was chest hair – a light, dark coating funneling to a line following the rise and fall of hard muscle. The silver spikes of his codpiece tilted to aim at the blonde on the bed with each step. As the bearded man approached, the young man spun to face him, balancing on his knees as the bed bounced beneath him. Licking his lips, he fingered sharp metal before unsnapping the bearded man’s codpiece. In the brief time between leather being removed and the man’s forcing the blonde’s head onto his monstrous, cock-ringed penis, Reid caught a flash of additional ornamentation.
Hold the—good lord, is that a metal rod in his glans? That’s clear through the corpora—I’m surprised he can still get it up. And from the positioning—how has that not bivalved the urethra? Wait, what’s…mother of—is that a ring in his frenulum? As the boy’s head bobbed, Reid leaned forward. Hang on, are those…more? Holy Hippocrates—the rings go all the way to the base…why on Earth—the risks to him, to his partner…even just a blow job – how has that kid not busted a lip?
The kid was weaving and teasing with ease and zest. He didn’t react except to sway his back when a third man with messy dark hair and lazy light eyes stepped behind him and began to knead the pale skin of the blonde's buttocks between the straps of the leather jock strap. This third man was even taller than the bearded man, with lean lines and full lips, his face a series of symmetrically sculpted shadows. He raised his hand – the arch of blonde’s back accentuated when the third man slapped him; the blonde hummed, redoubling his attentions to the cock in his mouth. Using one hand, the third man unsnapped his own codpiece; his uncircumcised penis sprung up, rebounding against his ridged abdomen.
The third man lifted his other hand – it held a whip. His fingers flexed on braided red and black leather; nine knotted strips rustled against his bare leg. With a control that made the movement seem almost casual, he stung the blonde’s ass brightly while slowly stroking his own cock. There was a brief break in the sucking as the young man dropped his head and moaned; his ass lifted higher. As the bearded man shoved his dick back in the blonde’s mouth, the third man whipped with circular strokes. He reached under the blonde to undo his codpiece; his next few blows struck the blonde’s balls with stinging tips. The young man yelped – breathing heavily he transferred the bearded man’s penis from mouth to hand and, turning, reached for the third man’s curving cock with his other hand. The two standing men moved closer to the bed as the blonde brought both penises to his mouth. He alternated from sliding foreskin to flicking metal to successive swallowing in sloppy rhythm. The blonde’s slightly smaller, though no less hard, penis swayed metronomically as the third man reached over to touch the short hair of the second. Pressing his palm at the back of the bearded man’s head, the third man pulled it toward him, leaning in to bite the bearded man’s bottom lip. The bearded man pulled away only to snarl the fingers of both hands into the shaggy dark hair of the third man; a look passed between them, perhaps a hint of history, before mouths mashed together above the busy blonde head. Exposed tongues twined with aggression; the grips on both heads tightened. As the blonde attempted to administer to both cock tips simultaneously, the kisses of the two standing men slid into something less frenzied, more fused.
The scene jumped – now the blonde was on his back, the bearded man bent over, his mouth full of cock, his own glinting in the harsh lighting. The blonde’s hands were above his head, his wrists chained to the wall from links on his leather cuffs. His back bowed off the bed as the man drew upward with fierce suction; the angle shifted to show his hand at the young man’s anus where it rotated a flared black base. With a long lick he lifted off the blonde’s dick to watch his own hand’s activities – as if opening a safe, he carefully twisted his wrist to the left, to the right, at times pulling the toy out slightly to reveal a rippled form. The blonde’s body twisted as well, his arms straining, his whimpers pleading as his hole stretched and sucked. With knees raised he bore down on the man’s hand, ass quivering. The man pulled and pushed, buried and released.
The dark-haired, light-eyed man now entered the frame, his hand taking hold of the blonde’s penis, gliding the length of it several times before lowering his head and licking the bearded man’s saliva off the tip. For his part, the bearded man had withdrawn the butt plug completely; he spit on the boy’s open hole. The light-eyed man raised his head from the blonde’s cock to watch the bearded man stand and fold the blonde in half, lifting his legs over tattooed shoulders. Grasping his own heavy penis at the gleaming metal cock ring girdling the base, the bearded man rubbed the pierced head across the blonde’s sphincter, running the steel balls of the barbell around the perimeter. The light-eyed man returned to stroking the blonde’s penis; his hooded eyes watched the oversized cock push into the slack hole, the stepwise rings along the underside disappearing one by one. The blonde’s eyes were closed, his head restless as he was filled with man and metal. He swallowed a gasp as a ball of the barbell piercing passed over his prostate.
Once the only jewelry visible was that adorning his balls, the bearded man began to thrust, the blonde flinching regularly as steel tugged at his insides. The light-eyed man had moved around to the back of the bearded man and, grabbing the vertical harness strap running down his upper back, kicked the man’s legs apart. As the bearded man continued to invade the blonde with increasing speed and force, the light-eyed man spat on his hand and lowered it to his hard-as-steel cock. He spread the bearded man’s ass cheeks and pushed into him, yanking on his harness as the bearded man closed his eyes, hissing breath inward through clenched teeth; his hips temporarily halted as the light-eyed man’s inexorable intrusion continued until his abdomen was flush against the bearded man’s lower back. The three established a rhythm – the blonde pressing down as the light-eyed man pulled out, the bearded man seesawing between the two, balls and ass slapping in turn. The light-eyed man leaned back as he thrust, one hand still gripping the bearded man’s harness, the other behind his own back, his hand, palm up, resting just above flexing buttocks. Eventually, he brought the hand up to the bearded man’s face and turned it toward him; the two men shared an imperfect kiss.
Fade out, fade in – the men lay on the bed, their heads at opposite ends, legs scissoring, erections pointing to opposite poles. The blonde, angelic eyes dancing with dark light, moved toward them on his knees, stopping when he was straddling them both. Biting his lip as it curved upward, he rose slightly, reaching for the two reclining cocks. He brought them together, cold metal to burning skin, partially encircling them both with one hand while reaching beneath himself with the other. The two older men were motionless save for increasingly laborious breathing. The blonde bit harder, squatting until the two cocks were poised at his opening.
(Close the tab.)
The blonde pressed downward, his head tilted back, eyes closed, forehead folding. A sudden jolt – both heads were in. His mouth puckered with exhaled breath as he opened sparkling eyes; he looked down at his impalement, his curving tongue touching his upper lip as he continued to squat and stretch and sweat. At last, the pubic hair of two men tickled his balls and buttocks as two cocks tested his receptive limits. Seemingly enraptured, he began to lift and drop with progressively more fluid movements, one hand on the bed behind him, the other caught in one of the bearded man’s nipple rings. The light-eyed man’s hand wrapped around the blonde’s dripping cock, twisting his wrist in time with the thrusts. Meanwhile, the bearded man winced with each absentminded tug of his nipple; his own hand lifted to pull at the other.
Suddenly, the bearded man sat up, flipping the blonde, still skewered, onto his back. The blonde now lay on top of the light-eyed man as the bearded man powered his own cock in and out, his piercings pleasuring both the blonde and the still-embedded light-eyed man. The blonde breathed rapidly out of his mouth, the muscles of his neck straining as he lifted his head to pin the bearded man with his eyes. The man bent down as he pistoned, capturing the blonde’s lips in a messy kiss. The blonde then turned his head to the side, arching to suck and lick at the lips of the light-eyed man, who was flicking the blonde’s nipple with a thumbnail. Breaking away, the light-eyed man gripped the bearded man’s head, bringing it down for another kiss, continuing to hold it as the blonde’s lips replaced his. The action intensified – thrusting and jacking, eyes and tongues impaling, wet skin lapped and bitten.
With another sudden movement, the bearded man pulled out. Sitting on his heels, he wrenched off his cock ring and began to jerk swiftly. The blonde eased off the second cock, shimmying on his back toward the middle of the bed as the light-eyed man rose to his knees and languidly began to stroke himself. The blonde lay looking up at both men as they kneeled over him, keen eyes hungrily tracking their steadily speeding hands as he played with his own nipples and cock. The bearded man’s hands began to blur – a growl, a spasm – cum coated his hands, continuing on to hit the blonde’s belly, his chin, his lips. Soon, silently, the light-eyed man followed, painting the blonde’s hair and chest in strong, bucking spurts. Licking what he could from around his mouth, the blonde waited for the men to finish before smearing their semen in circular sweeps, trailing his fingers up to flushed lips. He lowered his hands next to his anus, slicking himself with saliva and semen, eyes closed as he relived the invasion, as if trying to make it complete.
The blonde let the bearded man lift him, let him pull him against the dark skin of his tattooed chest, nipple piercings reddening the pale skin of the blonde’s back. The bearded man wrapped an arm around the front of the blonde’s chest; the light-eyed man folded his fingers over the blonde’s bursting cock tip, his thumb circling the small opening before moving down to pump the top half. His eyes still closed, the blonde began to pant in counterpoint to the light-eyed man’s quickening strokes; the bearded man tightened his arm and appeared to be whispering in the young man’s ear. The light-eyed man brought his free hand to the blonde’s forehead, lifting away sweat-stuck hair. Speed and pressure increased; the blonde’s pants turned to piercing hiccups rising in pitch, his body heaving against the bearded man’s chest, one hand reaching behind to grasp at the man’s head, the other reaching underneath to slip into himself. The light-eyed man bent down just as the blonde bucked a final time, arching severely, shots of cum caught by the light-eyed man’s tongue. He kissed the blonde, letting him lick the liquid from his mouth. Without looking, the light-eyed man captured the rest of the cum with his hand; the bearded man pulled it by the wrist up to his mouth with his free hand, snaking and sucking with lips and tongue. The three men remained entwined in idle engagement until the video’s end.
A message appeared: “Play again”
Reid didn’t close the tab.
He closed the computer.
A phone rang in a nearby room. The heating unit hissed. Reid’s stomach creaked like a slowly opening door. Eighty-seven seconds elapsed before Reid resumed accepting incoming stimuli. But only after subjecting them to a background check. He issued his brain a stern reprimand for what it had just let happen.
He begged it not to let him dream tonight.
He heard a woman’s laugh. Purging – Reid needed to purge. To sand-blast his brain and his palate. Slopes, swells, florals, silk…breasts. Naked breasts. Wet, soapy breasts. Being lathered by other women. By Madeline Stowe. Madeline lathering her own breasts. Lathering the breasts of—
Chapter 10: A Port in the Storm
The key stuck in the lock of the front door. Reid yanked without looking, his eyes scanning the apartment. “Katie?” His voice was the bastard child of a bark and a whisper. He needed her to answer. He prayed that she wouldn’t.
He cursed the day he’d ever discovered feelings.
Closing the door, he checked his phone. Perhaps a change of clothes before heading back to the hospital – the couch in his office would do for the night. No, he should call Katie; the need to find her was currently the sole force strong enough to take him from Luke – a feat accomplished only after having left redundant instructions with multiple nurses in hopes one could adequately follow orders. He checked his phone again – at the top of the list had been notifying him should Luke so much as roll over. He’d been sleeping on his side last Reid had seen – as he'd made a predictable detour past Luke’s room on his way out of the hospital. He’d been halfway inside, halfway to Luke’s bed before breaking free of the tractor beam generated by the curled, sleeping form with a sheet clutched under his chin.
Katie couldn’t wait. He wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find her – they’d managed to do an impressive job of avoiding each other lately. Or rather she had – he, of course, had to go out of his way not to be solitary. In the past few weeks their interactions had become fleeting and sporadic; he was realizing only now the extent of the change, of the cool front that had seemingly settled. He had little doubt it was his fault. He felt like even more of a heel.
Shit. Shit shit shit.
This was why he didn’t do relationships. Well, reason number nine hundred and twenty-six. Acknowledging his own feelings was tortuous enough – he was ill-qualified even to recognize those of another, let alone attempt to calculate reactions to his actions. Contrary to popular opinion, he knew he wasn’t God – that was, in fact, part of the problem. His job required godlike omnipotence. His patients expected it. And though he came close, operating at his level meant striking a mortal bargain: he was allowed only enough humanity to perform within hospital walls. Too much was erosive, fouling his foundation, whittling wooden pilings until he tumbled into the water. He should never have let the sea wall be breached – Katie, the kid, the other kid (Luke), they’d infiltrated his harbor and bored their way in, honeycombing his supports, weakening them to waves and wind. Until here he was, in the storm of the century, with everything he was, everything he was supposed to be threatening to wash away—
And then there’s the collateral damage.
Katie quietly closed her bedroom door. “Hey. Just got Jacob to sleep.” She walked into the living room, toward where Reid stood, still, by the door.
He took a step back, the knob pressing into his side.
Katie frowned. “Are you OK?”
She stopped at the far end of sofa. “Um, because you look like you’ve just been through a war zone. Oh, Reid,” she took a step closer, “did you lose a patient?”
“Huh? No. No, nothing like that.” The concern on Katie’s face capsized one of his boats.
“Okaay, well, something happened. ’Cause if I thought you gave a hoot about puppies, I’d guess someone had just squashed yours with a truck. Did you get bad news?” She glanced down. “I—I know I haven’t been a very good friend lately, let alone—”
“Katie, for God’s—no, please—” Reid took halting steps toward her. “You’ve been—more than I—trust me, this has nothing to do with you. I just wish—” He tried again. “Listen. Katie. There’s something—we need to—” He swept a hand over his face. “Oh, Jesus—I can’t—this is—” His body was stiffly crumbling. How am I supposed to do this? To her?
She stilled. “What is it?”
He wished this feeling of helplessness weren’t becoming so familiar.
“Is there someone else?”
Startled, he made the mistake of meeting her eyes before quickly correcting.
“Reid—is there another woman?” Her voice was as calm as the eye of a storm.
Would that make it better or worse? “Not exactly.” Reid braced, knowing he deserved whatever damage was about to be inflicted. Rather than retreating to higher ground, he stood at the end of the dock, ready to face the surge.
“But you’ve met someone, right? Someone you feel something for?”
“It’s not—I don’t—” He lifted lost eyes. “Yes.”
Closing the distance, Katie lifted her hands to hold both sides of his face. Reid tilted his head, looking down and away.
She spoke slowly. “You have no idea how happy that makes me.”
His eyes snapped back to hers. “What?”
She hugged him. “Oh, Reid, I have been feeling so guilty. It’s like I could hardly bear to look at you. I felt like such an awful person, leading you on like that—”
“What? What are you—I thought—”
She pulled back, rubbing his arms. Smiling. “But now we can be friends! Because as much as I love you – and I do, so you’d better just learn to smother that cringe every time I say it – as much as I love you and want to ravish the heck out of you…I just don’t know that I’ll ever be ready to be in love with someone again. ’Cause I’m telling you, if it hasn’t happened yet, and with you—” Her smile turned briefly pensive before brightening again. “But now you’ve found someone, so I can stop feeling like I’m holding you back…and as you know I have a proven track record when it comes to being best friends with my exes. Oh, Reid—” She swept in for another hug.
Reid’s mouth finally closed. He had to cycle through a few blinks before being able to generate words again, however. “You’ve been feeling guilty?”
She pulled back, rubbing a hand over her chest. “You have no idea. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed how things have been a bit, um, tense around here lately?”
“I—well, I—sort of? I haven’t exactly…been myself these days. I figured whatever was going on was my fault.”
“Oh, honey—I was sure you must’ve been starting to hate me. That you were ruing the day you’d ever agreed to move in here under false pretenses.”
The tense lines of Reid’s face finally relaxed. “Katie, I moved in because I liked you. Because I’d finally found someone I could stand to be around. And because you saved me from the microbial freak show that passes for hotel hygiene. There were no expectations. Only an unrealistic hope that I wouldn’t do something to make you kick me out before I was finally free to escape this hamlet of halfwits.”
She hugged him again. “Oh, Reid, I’ve missed you.”
A tide of scented softness rolled into him; he tried to find his footing, woodenly raising an open hand to tap against her back.
She released Reid only to grab his other hand; tugging it, she directed him to sit beside her on the sofa. She bounced slightly. “OK, tell me all about her. Who is she, where’d ya meet her, is tonight too soon to have her over for dinner?”
Reid’s eyes began to dart. “Yeah, it’s—it’s not that simple.”
“Oh?” She leaned in, dropping her voice. “Married?”
“No. But there is a…pre-existing relationship.”
Reid wondered why Katie had set the thermostat so high. “I’m not entirely—maybe.”
“Hey, if there’s no ring, baby—”
“It’s, uh, a little more complicated than that.”
“Why, is she a patient?”
Reid’s head tilted downward – somehow he’d managed to forget that particular obstacle. It gets better. “Yes.”
“Aha, so that’s how you met her. Forbidden love, I like it. Well, you know, she won’t be a patient forever, right?”
He shifted on the cushion. He’d thought the hard part was over. “I suppose not.” His fingers closed over the corner of a pillow. It slowly migrated onto his lap.
“So, are we talking chronic disease? Elective surgery? What’s the time frame here?”
“Come on, Reid, you can trust me.” Her voice dropped into a broad whisper. “Promise I won’t tell Bob.”
Both arms were now crossed over the pillow. With minute movements, Reid began to rock.
Katie leaned back. “Oh my God — you’ve really fallen for this woman.”
“What? Why do you—what?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I have never seen you like this. So…thrown. She really must be something else.”
The green apples in the bowl on the kitchen table were slowly being cooked into applesauce under the intensity of Reid’s unseeing stare.
A broad, mischievous smile bloomed. “I can’t wait to meet her.”
“Yeah, that’s not gonna—” But it would happen, right? Eventually? If this happened, whatever this was—it would come out. Everyone will know. Unless I asked Luke to—
Reid knew he couldn’t do that to him. Luke had been through enough – though Reid couldn’t be certain, the timeline of Luke’s medical history implied that the coming-out process hadn’t been a smooth one. No matter how terrifying or potentially embarrassing Reid’s personal renovation was becoming, he could never ask Luke to deny any aspect of his life. Assuming Reid even had the chance to be—
The heat in this apartment can’t be good for Jacob.
She touched his hand. “Reid, I know this must be scary for you—”
He looked up sharply.
“I know you don’t see yourself as a relationship person,” she continued. “And my guess is the strength of your feelings is what’s got you so unnerved. But this is a good thing. Feelings good. Trust me, you don’t want to let these kinds of opportunities slip away just because you’re afraid to change your life, to change the way you’ve always done things. You’ve already come so far…don’t be afraid you’re going to lose yourself. And listen, you honestly don’t have to worry about hurting me. As attached as you are to your unfeeling-ass persona, I know that must’ve been weighing on you.”
Yeah, once I finally remembered you for the first time twenty minutes ago. Reid’s guilt pressed him into the cushions.
“And like I said before, I’ve already done most of the heavy lifting, so this chick might actually stand a chance.
“It’s not a—” Reid imagined he could feel the sweat emerging from glandular ducts.
“Excuse me, this ‘woman.’ Whom I can’t wait to meet.” She pressed her palms together. “So, is she a fellow nerd? Did you bond over chess? Did your queens lock eyes across a crowded chessboard? Or, wait, was it more a case of opposites attracting? Is she a humble farm girl who lives close to the land and dreams of having your babies? Ooh, or is she a vegan missionary who’s trying to save both your stomach and your soul? No, I know, this woman’s a—”
“It’s not a woman.” The words tripped over each other as they tumbled out.
Both Katie and Reid froze.
“Okay. So…then—” She stopped her searching to gasp. “Oh no, Reid—don’t tell me—is she underage?”
“What?” He looked at her, horrified. “No, no. That’s not—No.”
“Wait, so, I don’t—” Her voice took on a teasing tone. “What, is it a guy?”
He dropped his head.
“Ha ha.” The laughter stopped. “Reid?” The smile winked out. “Reid, come on. Seriously.” She leaned in again. “OK, so how young exactly? Did she tell you she was older at first—?”
“Katie, no. I am not a pedophile.” His next words were barely audible. “Even though I might feel that way sometimes.”
“Reid, you’re kinda scaring me right now.”
“Reid. You know you can tell me anything. Think of this apartment as a judgment-free zone. I accept you as you are. Obviously. I mean, if I’ve managed to put up with the disrespecting of my friends and the subhuman eating habits and the diversity of messes I’ve had to clean up, then I think I can handle an…unconventional relationship. Just—please tell me she’s over 17. Or at least that you can hold out until her birthday. It’d kill me if the only way Jacob got to hear you sing Justin Timberlake was during visiting hours. And you’d also better tell me she’s worth it—”
Reid shut his eyes. It was out. She’d get it now. Done.
The old him was done.
He waited for the reaction. He’d been inside his head for so long, had been able to rely only on parallel processors within his own mind. Now it was in the hands of an other, an arbiter. There was nothing to do but wait. He didn’t move. His stillness, in fact, was so complete as to defy the tenets of string theory. Not even fundamental particles were vibrating.
He cracked a lid.
Katie’s eyes had grown so large they were well on their way to annexing the rest of her face. She opened her mouth, ready to deliver the verdict. “You’re in love with a man!”
Reid snapped out of his stillness. “What? (What?) Who said anything about love?”
Now her eyes threatened to engulf her entire body. “It’s true! Holy shit. Reid.” Scooting forward, she took his limp hands. “Reid.”
He stared at their hands, adrift.
She lifted them to her chin. Her voice held wonder. “I did not think it was possible for you to get any more attractive.”
Reid was starting to get whiplash from all the double takes. He peered at her, confounded.
After a dozen seconds of near-reverent regard, she lowered their hands. “OK, so now you really have to tell me. Do I know him?” Another gasp. “Is it Noah?”
Reid jerked his hands away. “What?”
“Well, you said he was a patient…and, huh, I suppose that would explain some of the animosity between you and Luke—”
Reid felt the sweat crystallize on his skin. Icicles hung from his words. “A little credit, please.”
“What? He’s a good-looking guy. All right, all right, you don’t have to look so appalled. So, who is it?”
Reid stood and walked toward the fridge. “No.”
Katie pivoted, slapping the cushion on either side. “Aww, Reid, come on…it’s not like you can keep it a secret forever.”
She followed him into the kitchen, ducking out of his way as he robotically assembled the necessities of sandwich-making. “I don’t see why you’re being so cagey about this. It’s not like this is the first guy you’re interested in.”
He paused in the act of untwisting the package of bread.
“I mean, you’re bi. Right? Obviously. ’Cause I know you’re not gay – not when you kissed me like that. Not when I could tell you liked it, if you know what I'm sayin’.”
He extracted two slices, keeping his back to her.
He put the slices on a plate. Again, he dropped his head. No-judgment zone. “I’m not…entirely bi.”
He opened the mayo.
“Um, you’re attracted to women, moi, and you’re attracted to men. Pretty sure that the diagnosis is bisexuality.”
He tried not to look at the mayo as he spread it. “A man. One. And I’m not…attracted to him so much as…drawn.”
She walked around the table to face him. “Hold up, buddy. Wait. Stop.” She took the knife out of his hand, the bread. Laid them on the table. “What exactly are you saying here? Is this—are you telling me that you’ve never had feelings for a man before?”
This time, Reid didn’t drop his gaze. Rather, he imagined he could feel fissures forming in the load he bore, could feel irregular chunks of it slipping off into the sea. “Yes.”
“Yes, you’ve never had feelings for a man?”
“This is the first man. Ever.”
Again, he nodded.
She covered her mouth with a hand. “Oh, Reid.”
For a moment, Reid let the befuddlement show, the vulnerability. Katie encircled his wrist, sweeping her thumb over the skin just above it.
“Sit.” She pulled out chairs for both of them. “First of all – what did I do to you? I had no idea my heavy lifting would cause this kind of structural change.” She successfully coaxed a smile. “Second – does he like men?”
“Does he like you?”
Sweat started to flow again. “I don’t know. There’s a chance—” He began to fidget with the deli wrapper of one of the luncheon meats. “He hallucinated about me. He kissed my hand. It was probably just the post-seizure state, though. It didn’t—I’m sure it didn’t mean anything.” The hot air was turning humid.
“Does he know how you feel?”
Reid shook his head no.
“Well, then, there’s only one thing to do. Ask him out.”
Reid recoiled in his chair, retracting both hands toward his stomach. “You’re joking.”
She smiled. “It’s what you usually do when you like someone. And it’s the easiest way to find out how he feels about you.”
“But, I—I can’t—we couldn’t…he’s my patient.”
“Which is why you wait until he isn’t. Then you ask him out.”
“To do what?”
“Um, I dunno, go to dinner? What do you normally do on your girl dates?”
“Yeah...there isn’t generally a lot of ‘dating’ involved.”
“Well isn’t that lovely—fine, then it can be firsts all around. You’ll ask him to dinner.”
“What? I can’t—what if he says no?” What if he says yes?
“Then you’ll have your answer. It’ll suck, but at least you’ll know. And then you can start trying to change his mind.” The mischievous smile was back.
Reid’s brain wasn’t firing at full speed. Could it really be that easy? “But…why do I have to—”
“Uh, because he thinks you’re straight, right?” Reid nodded. “So…I might not be quite up to speed on male-male dating etiquette, but I’m thinking that means he’s not gonna make the first move. Ooh, maybe you could try sending him signals.”
“What, like…flirt?” The shudder was ephemeral but distinct.
“You know…more like holding eye contact a little too long. Or…a little extra touching. A lingering hand shake. You could compliment his hair – that’s probably not a straight-guy thing to do. Maybe his shoes?”
“You want me to say nice things about his shoes.”
“Well, I don’t know, Reid—just do what comes natural. Uh, or maybe not. Biting his head off would probably be counterproductive. Unless—” The glint in her eyes intensified.
“What? You’re the one who told me you were drawn to him. So, just…let yourself be drawn a little closer. Feel him out…so to speak.”
They really had to do something about the faulty heater.
Katie rested her chin on her hands. The gleam in her eyes was strong enough to guide ships at sea. “Now, who is he?”
“Reid, I can’t fully help you if I don’t know who he is. And anyway, people need to be able to start making pilgrimages to this man with the miraculous powers.”
Reid rose from the table, stacking jars and paper packages in his arms. “I knew this was a—”
Katie rose as well. “OK, hey, I’m sorry…I promise at least to try to stop enjoying myself so much. This is…I can’t even imagine what you must’ve been going through all this time.” She grabbed a toppling loaf as Reid opened the refrigerator door. “Seriously, Reid – you’re not alone in this any more.”
He paused long enough to acknowledge Katie’s earnest expression.
“Wait, why are you putting all this away? You haven’t eaten yet.”
“I need to get back to the hospital.”
“What? You just got home.”
“Yeah, but that was only to—” The cool from the open door washed over clammy skin.
“To…let me down easy?” She rubbed a palm down the side of his back. “And now you’re going back to him. You’re a good man, Reid. He’s lucky to have you.”
Reid swallowed, wordlessly returning the rest of the food. He had yet to find his way back. Still lost at sea.
His restocking was cut short by the sound of music.
Katie raised a brow. “Is that a violin in your pants, or are you happy to see me after all?”
Stuffing the remaining items on a refrigerator shelf, he shut the door while reaching for his phone. Katie leaned closer.
Reid edged past her, walking toward his room as he answered. “Yes?” He stopped. His shoulders sloped. “What? Yes, you should absolutely give her that.” With a short sigh, Katie left in the direction of her own room. “And afterward, you can use one of your inappropriately large earrings to pop her when she inflates like a Thanksgiving-day float because, as it so clearly states in her records, she’s allergic to it. What, no, don't start—I mean, yes you would have killed her but...look, just give her...yes, fine. Oh, and,” his voice dropped. “Mr. Snyder, has he—? Right, well…yes, as soon as he wakes up.”
Reid jumped as he spun. “Holy ninja.”
“You’re in love with Luke?”
“What? No—would you stop with the—no one’s saying anything about…that. There is no that involved here.”
“Oh, Reid, you have to be careful with him.”
“Excuse me? He’s not the one having the existential crisis.”
“Yeah, but Reid – his history…I mean, Noah was completely in the closet when they first met. And there have been other—”
“I am not in the closet.”
“Riiight. Do you or do you not have romantic feelings for a man?”
She held up a hand.
Reid sighed. “I do.”
“And do you or do you not have sexual feelings for a man?”
“I do not.”
“But—that makes no sense.”
Reid shrugged as he opened a cabinet. “I have no interest in having sex with Luke Snyder. Or any other man. Definitely not any other man.” Withdrawing a box of children’s cereal, he unfolded the inner bag and reached in.
“That’s a sweeping statement. I thought you were new at this.”
“I’m also an empiricist. I did research.” He filled his mouth with colored sugar.
“You—do I even want to know?”
“You do not.”
“Okay—and don’t think I’m not coming back to that at some point—but if you don’t want to have sex with Luke, then what is all this about?”
Reid cleared his throat. “The precise details have yet to be determined.”
“Uh-huh. So what you’re saying is, you have romantic feelings but not sexual ones. So…no sex. Ever.”
Reid’s hand faltered as it descended into the box. “I suppose—it could depend on the kind. I’m not—there are…things he could do to me that I could conceivably get on board with.” He refilled his mouth; his crunches seemed to amplify the longer she was silent. He turned his back toward her, placing the box on the counter before reaching for a glass and turning on the faucet. “I know. I know this is ridiculous. I know it doesn’t make any fucking sense.” He leaned on his arms over the sink as the water ran, empty glass sideways in one hand. “I know this isn’t fair to him.”
“Actually, it might make perfect sense.”
Flicking off the water, he pivoted to face her.
“The two of you could be twin flames.”
“You realize that sounds vaguely homophobic.”
She smiled. “Twin flame souls. Destined to be together. It just so happens you’re both male in this lifetime.”
Once again, Reid was adrift. “If you say we’re soulmates—”
“It’s more intense than that, actually. We can have a bunch of soulmates but only one twin soul. You can spend lifetimes looking for each other – then a few more lifetimes working out your issues. In the final incarnation, it’s like you finally merge back into one consciousness. I don’t think you’d be quite there yet, though. I'd say you’re probably still a few go-rounds away from enlightenment. But this could definitely be one of the times when you’ve found each other.”
Reid tilted backward. “I’m definitely finding myself wondering how you kept your crazy so quiet all these months.”
“You know, Reid, not everything can be explained empirically.”
“Nice try, but my religion is too rational to be baited into debating make-believe with yours.”
“I’m not saying I necessarily believe all of this, but I once had a guest on ‘Oakdale Now’ and…well, it was during a rough romantic time – shocker, I know. I was having trouble deciding who I was meant to be with, and what she said—it resonated. It helped me figure some stuff out.”
“Yes, fairy tales can be very comforting.”
“Not asking you to believe any of this; I’m just saying there’s a way to look at it so it makes sense. Even the part about your connection being more spiritual than physical – that’s how it starts. I mean, you said you were drawn to him, right? Like you felt a pull and couldn’t figure out why?” She took his lack of snark as an affirmative. “When did it happen? How soon after meeting him?”
He adjusted his weight, his back pressing against the sink.
“It was right away, wasn’t it? Something tugged at you. Something flared.” She smiled at his growing discomfort. “You couldn’t stop thinking about him, could you? And when you’re around him – it’s like you feel better, more complete…like you’re at peace.”
Reid’s current state was anything but peaceful.
Katie nodded. “Yup, twin souls. You have no idea how much I envy you.”
“Oh yeah, you want to be me right now.”
“Of course, from what I've read it’s rare that twin souls are the same sex, but possible – could be that, based on whatever karmic stuff you had to deal with in this lifetime, one of you decided to be male.”
“Fantastic. Well, this relationship certainly would’ve been a whole lot easier if Luke had just stuck to being female.”
Her grin sharpened. “What makes you think he was supposed to be the woman? And are you sure it would have made things easier? Seems to me it’s the whole idea of relationships that you’re meant to be struggling with. I’d say the same-sex thing is probably only secondary.” Her eyes sharpened as well. “Wait a minute, you’re the one who brought up relationships – does this mean you’d actually be open to having one with Luke? A real one?”
He looked down at his hands. He swept a thumb over the back of one, grazing a phantom tingle. “I—I need to have him in my life.”
She stepped toward him and took his hands. “Well, the good news is, if any of this is true, then odds are he’s feeling exactly the same way.” Reid lifted his head. “So the sooner you ask him out the better. You think you’re confused – poor thing’s probably agonizing over having feelings for a straight guy. And why they’re even stronger than what he felt for Noah.”
Reid snorted. “Thought Noah was the soulmate.”
“He probably is. But remember, there are plenty of soulmates. There’s only one twin soul.” She squeezed his hands, waiting out the eye roll until he reluctantly met her smile with an approximation of his own. “So you like ‘em young, huh?”
He pulled free. “Yeah, I’m not going to regret telling you.”
“I knew you hated him a little too vigorously. Guess there really is a fine line between—”
He stepped around her and moved into the living room. “Say goodbye to that word, Katie.”
“And you know you didn’t actually have a choice – you had to tell me. After all, I was the one you were cheating on with a man.”
“Hang on – I thought you said—”
“And this scorned woman’s gonna need a constant supply of lurid details to keep her from wreaking all kinds of vengeance.”
“Oh my—wait, Reid—”
He turned back at her tone.
“What do you mean Luke is your patient? What happened?”
He hesitated, his hand on the front doorknob. “It was—he’s fine now. He should be. I can’t—call his parents. They’ll tell you.”
“Was it serious?”
Reid nodded, once, fresh pain flashing on his face.
“I have to go.”
“I’m going with you.”
“No—he’s still sleeping. With any luck till morning.”
“Then, you should sleep, too. You must be absolutely drained. I’m sure the hospital will call—”
“I can sleep in my office.” He opened the door and took a step into the hall, his face turned away, the edges hollowed by shadow. “I need to be near him.” He glanced back.
She nodded. “Listen, Reid – thanks for coming. You’re a good friend. And this is a good thing. Trust me. Everything’s going to work out.”
“For you, too.”
She smiled, a mix of sad and sweet.
He blew her a kiss as he left.
Chapter 11: Man with a Plan
Every step hurt.
Reid rubbed his neck as he strode down the hall, powering through the pain. He couldn’t remember the last time sleeping on a sofa had left him so sore. An awkward angle, no doubt; certainly not advancing age, though he’d been a resident last time he’d slept in a hospital for so many (consecutive) hours. Truth be told, he also couldn’t remember any sleep – anywhere – having been so deep. Or so dreamless. He’d answered the phone that morning with a just-awoken alertness that, for once, hadn’t had to be summoned. As he passed the walls of windows flanking the elevator bank, he noticed, for the first time, the world outside. Trees were less bare than he would have guessed, had trees ever been candidates for consideration. Neither was the sky quite the expected shade, but rather startlingly saturated, caricatures of clouds fluffing the corners. As he crossed corridors and stairwells, he catalogued sounds: elevator dings, rolling-cart squeaks, humming lights, tearing packages, nurse chatter – all registered but not dwelled upon. For the first time, the extraneous was no longer resented. His awareness was less restricted, more expansive. As if he no longer needed blinders to win the race.
None of this, of course, had anything to do with the fact that he was on his way to see Luke. Who, according to the aforementioned phone call, was now awake.
His steps maintained their brisk beat as Reid passed the sneer’s source. His voice in response was nearly lyrical with bonhomie. “Good morning, Chris.” Rounding the final corner, he noted a correlation between Chris’s more-dumbfounded-than-usual reaction and the alleviation of Reid’s remaining pain.
He slowed as he traveled the homestretch, however, his strides shortening. He felt the familiar pull and familiar fear. Though less fear of the unknown – not that his situation was any less terrifying, just slightly less fuzzy. Because Reid had a plan. It was simple, as plans went, which belied the sea change it represented, the upending of continents, the reversal of the Earth’s poles. He’d crossed the Pacific in pursuit of it; he’d tracked the Sahara from edge to expanding edge. He’d arrived at the limits of the known world, to the precipice where the next step could drop him into nothingness or, just as likely, past sharp teeth into a smoking, smirking mouth. But all roads had led here, and though there be dragons beyond, there be Luke, too. And at the moment Reid was feeling fireproof. Because he had a plan.
He was going to ask Luke Snyder out.
On a date.
Don’t over-think. There is no alternative. You’ve tried every iteration, the results always the same: you need the kid in your life. And logic dictates that it has to be in a romantic capacity. So get it done.
Which, according to Katie, meant asking Luke out. And though he wasn’t ready to buy all of her crackpottery, there were several tasteful pieces he was willing to consider finding space for in his newly remodeled being. One in particular, in fact, he had already committed to. Because the decision had been made – the foundation laid, the floor plan accepted. Reid was, at last, ready to move onto phase two of the renovation, and, as with all previous projects, he was set to act with maximum purpose and efficiency. He’d finally achieved some level of comfort – goal-oriented just happened to be his middle name. There was no need to wait. Well, no more than a day at most – he was confident that Luke would be soon no longer be his patient.
At which point Reid would execute the plan.
He’d have that appointment-making woman whose voice he was getting closer to recognizing schedule a meeting with Luke for the next day, at the hospital, in Reid’s office. There. Resting clasped hands upon smooth, shining cherry wood, he would lean into his desk and inform Luke that his evening was going to involve several hours spent in Reid’s company. Most likely just one; Reid couldn’t conceive of a dinner in a restaurant lasting beyond an hour. And even that was a stretch – how were they supposed to fill the remaining 45 minutes once the food was gone, what with there being a finite number of desserts on any given menu? Perhaps coffee – did Luke drink coffee? He’d never brought a coffee for himself to the hospital, only for Reid. Had Luke already drunk his? En route? In the coffee shop? (With Noah?)
Reid assumed such details would work themselves out – the primary objective was for the two men to eat dinner together. Followed by subsequent dinners, naturally. Preferably in someone’s home – surely Luke wouldn’t require more than a handful of public meals, such a useless concept, really. Odds were most food would be eaten while watching a televised sporting event or mutually working on laptops. Just as long as they were in the same room. (On the same sofa.) As for after the meals—again, details. The important step had been taken.
The decision. The plan.
Would Luke be surprised, momentarily thrown? Undoubtedly. But Reid had been reassured by Katie’s quick acceptance. Of course Luke would ultimately say yes – he was Dr. Reid Oliver. He’d never had to pursue anyone in his life. Whenever he’d felt the urge, a woman had appeared. No reason for this situation to be any different. He was still the center of the universe, after all – that hadn’t changed. There needed only be slight realignment – for all orbiting bodies to shift accordingly. To make room for his new moon.
Reid had arrived at Luke’s door; it was open. He stopped, his foot stilling on the threshold. He saw the halfway-drawn curtain, beyond it a bed, an outline of a white-sheeted foot, a leg.
Reid took the final step into the room. Closing the door behind him, he moved toward the bed with purpose, to where Luke lay leaning, semi-upright, against the elevated mattress, a rolling overbed table suspending a food tray above his lap. Luke’s eyes were closed.
Impatience, anxiety, uncertainty – Reid could feel them effervescing from his flesh. Luke was still too small, too pale, too mortal, but his presence did powerful things. Once again, Reid fought the insane impulse to cover Luke with his body. He settled on stepping closer, until his thighs brushed the bed, his eyes following familiar lines. They landed on Luke’s chart. He reached for it, tension rebounding, radiating from chest to stiffening arm – and then retreating as his eyes scanned low numbers and reassuring words. He’d been right. He wouldn’t lose Luke yet.
Now he just had to get him.
He continued to watch Luke sleep, taking in still features and shallow breaths. He supposed he couldn’t remain in the room indefinitely – certainly sitting in the chair would be hard to explain should Luke wake or a nurse enter. Good thing Reid was a professional stander. He could remain motionless indefinitely, holding Luke’s chart, his rounds still hours away—
Luke breathed a soft sound, his head turning toward Reid. Reid’s own breath flash froze, as if in carbonite. It hung in the air, a graceful shimmering arc, suspended in time with the rest of the room.
Luke’s eyes stayed closed.
Reid’s reality resumed, his breath completing its downward path, his eyes falling to Luke’s now slightly open mouth. To his unnaturally red lips. Time warped once again as all focus centered on those lips; he had seen them red, but never like this, so bright against white skin and sheets, the red of a forbidden apple. Reid tried telling himself he was looking with the eyes of a diagnostician, but there was little point – by now the curtain had been pulled back too far for him to forget what he’d seen. And the answer was found all too quickly: a lopsided lollipop lay on the tray beside the untouched food. Reid’s lips quirked; of course Luke would have had little trouble charming a nurse into slipping him candy from Peds.
Yes, thank you for reminding me that not only are you a man, you’re a boy.
Luke’s tongue emerged, wetting his lower lip in his semi-sleep. Reid’s mind was caught in the space between Luke’s lips, in the faint eddies of flowing breath. It remembered the softness, the warmth. It wondered—if he could—when the time came—
Reid swallowed. He dragged his eyes away, up, almost off – stopping on Luke’s brow. Sweat-darkened hair obscured it. A familiar urge emerged.
He was tired of fighting it.
For the first time, he acknowledged that the twitch of his fingers signaled a desire to push back the hair, to smooth and soothe. He glanced back at the closed door, ears training on faint sounds. He lifted his hand. It pushed through the air as if water, fingers first, generating only faint ripples as it glided downward, surgically steady. It stopped at the force field generated by the heat of Luke’s skin, Reid’s fingers hovering, inches high. They twitched. On a breath, Reid pushed through. Fingers landed on flesh. With minuscule movements, he pressed upward, the tips tangling in wet silk, moving it over deceptively delicate bone, across startlingly soft skin. Reid took another breath.
Luke’s eyes opened.
Reid retracted his hand, his arm, stepped back.
Luke blinked, focusing. On Reid. Eyes lit like dawn breaking through mist. Red lips began to curve.
Then, suddenly, sunset – the light dimmed, shutters closed. Luke pressed his head back against the pillow. “Dr—” He cleared his throat. “Dr. Oliver.”
Reid blinked, feeling his way through the dark. He realized he hadn’t changed his clothes. “And how many Dr. Olivers do we see this morning?”
An almost-smile. “Just one.”
“But more than enough, right?”
Luke looked down at the food tray. He missed the flash frown on Reid’s face.
Reid gripped his penlight, squeezing it as he illuminated the darkness of Luke’s eyes. “Tell me how you feel.”
Luke looked away once Reid was done. “Fine.”
“And if you were to answer again without choosing the most useless word in the dictionary?”
Luke looked back, briefly. The attempted smile appeared genuine. “Better.”
Reid grunted. “Any weakness?”
“Just a little tired.”
“Headache? Nausea? Any new symptoms?”
Luke’s only responses were head shakes.
Reid tilted his chin down, toward the tray. “You haven’t touched your food.”
Luke’s eyes followed. “Would you eat this?”
It took Reid a moment to realize the question was serious. “There’s still so much you don’t know about me,” he chided, lips twitching upward.
They collapsed as Luke’s head jerked backward.
Too soon. Shut it down.
Reid pretended to look through Luke’s chart. “Blood pressure’s down. If you continue to look this good I’ll be able to let you go tomorrow.” Yes, just like that. Bonehead.
Luke picked up the red lollipop and, watching it, turned it slowly between his thumb and index finger. “Actually, I—I’m kind of surprised you’re here. Ali said that a neurologist would've usually taken over by now. I mean, since there wasn’t any cutting.” He set the candy carefully on top of a covered dish of dark brown pudding. “She said I shouldn’t expect you to be back.”
Reid was cornered by several emotions. “Who is this Ali and why was she talking to you?”
Luke looked up. “Alison. Alison Stewart? She’s a nurse here? Well, an aide. And she’s been working here for a while now.”
“I didn’t realize I was supposed to know their names. Or that they were allowed to talk.”
“Well, she also happens to be a good friend.”
“Then she shouldn’t be your nurse.”
Luke’s red lips fell open.
“Rules exist for a reason, Luke. Pre-existing relationships muddy the water, make it easier to miss something. She’s not focused on you if she’s recounting the latest romantic shenanigans. Or second-guessing me.”
“She wasn’t—she cares about me. Are you honestly saying that’s a bad thing? To see a friendly face when you’re sick?”
“That’s what visiting hours are for. And I hadn’t realized you were in danger of running low on friendly faces.”
Red lips formed a thin line. “Oh, I see – so it’s only the people actually treating you who shouldn’t care about you.”
“The only caring going on should be medical.”
“Well, then I guess that means there’s no one you couldn’t treat.”
Reid’s fingers clenched around the chart still in his hands. He tried to hear beyond the mumbled words, to see into Luke’s downward-cast eyes. The darkness was disorienting. Reid searched slick walls for a way to climb out of the hole he’d unexpectedly tumbled into.
Luke lifted a finger to the clear plastic pudding cover. He pressed the edge of his nail against its soft give. “I thought I might’ve—” The rest of the words didn’t made it out of his mouth.
Luke shook his head. “I wasn’t sure—” He lifted his eyes. “You called me Luke. I was afraid—I wondered if I’d hallucinated that.”
Reid tried to anchor himself in Luke’s dark depths. “Nope, that one actually happened. There is the occasional upside to being treated by me.”
Luke’s eyes quickly lowered again. “Yeah, I—” He put his hands in his lap beneath the table. “I suppose I should—thank you…for saving my life.”
“You know, you’d think it gets old, but it really never does.”
Luke raised his head. A shutter cracked open. “What, being the hero?”
Luke smiled, closed-mouthed, but with a guest appearance from a dimple. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I already knew that about you.”
Reid’s eyes returned the smile. He’d found a foothold.
Luke’s dimple disappeared. “But other things… I’m—I’m still not quite sure what was…what was real. I mean, I know you said…everything before—that we—” He ran a finger the length of the lollipop’s white stem. “But then even yesterday – things are kind of…fuzzy.”
“Trust me, the brain doesn’t let you remember seizures for a reason.”
“Right. Yeah. So, I really—like, eyes-rolling-back, don’t-let-him-swallow-his-tongue—”
“You put on quite the impressive show.” (wrecked body, wet sheets) “But then again I suspect you rarely give anything less than your all.”
“You mean I can be dramatic.”
Reid shrugged. “You commit.”
“Gee, thanks. Still, I can’t even imagine what I must’ve…that you had to see me—” Once again, Luke’s attention was directed downward. “But even afterward…not everything is—” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m afraid I might’ve said or done—I mean, I wasn’t quite feeling—”
“No worries – you were a happy drunk.”
Luke’s pale face lost the rest of its blood, his voice almost all of its air. “What?”
Fuck. “Yeah, that—wasn’t—what I meant to—” Reid fingered the hair at the top of his head. “Your, uh, post-seizure period was characterized by a—an entirely benign euphoria. There was nothing, uh—you were no trouble.
“Oh. Right. Okay. But—are you sure that I didn’t do anything…embarrassing? Or—”
“Huh? No. No. I mean, well—no. I mean, there was the—you did—just a…small—” Reid raised his left arm absently, the hand flicking back and forth. “You…kissed my hand.”
In the elastic silence that followed, Reid struggled not to look at Luke. He hadn’t meant to say anything.
He didn’t want to know.
He failed. Of course he did – there was no not looking at Luke. Luke’s draw was absolute – Reid’s eyes could stay away no better than the rest of his body could. And so Reid looked.
And saw Luke’s widened eyes on Reid’s left hand where it hung bonelessly at his hip. Saw the sides of Luke’s lips angle up.
Heard Luke’s brightened voice: “Wow. Now that I definitely don’t remember. Well, you certainly don’t have anything to worry about – even if you were the last man in Oakdale you’d be safe from my advances. Trust me, you’re pretty much the opposite of my type.” Luke’s easy smile lightened his face.
Reid’s vision darkened. The edges vignetted, the corners closing in, creeping slowly, smothering his sight. The foothold began to give way.
And then the floodlights came on. Luke’s wattage suddenly dazzled, all apertures opening as he sat up, beaming. Reid blinked at the radiance.
Reid turned toward the door, following Luke’s focus. Noah was crossing the room, body tilted forward, face creased. Reid reflexively stepped back as Noah reached them, watched silently as Noah rolled aside the food table and sat on the edge of Luke’s bed, his hands gently resting on Luke’s forearms.
“I just heard,” said Noah softly, his eyes sharp with crystallized concern. “When you didn’t come when I was released—I had no idea.” His large hands moved over Luke’s bare arms. “It kills me that you had to—that I wasn’t here for you.”
“You’re here now.” Luke’s smile was beatific. Reid slipped farther down, farther away. Felt the pull of the underworld.
“And you can be sure that I am never leaving your side again.” Noah cupped the side of Luke’s face, moving his hand up, across Luke’s brow, pushing back damp hair. Luke leaned in, his eyes closing.
Reid took another step back. His visual field was almost completely obscured, the scene in front of him barely a pinprick. It was still too much.
Reid didn’t turn back as he walked out of the room, didn’t slow. Didn’t notice he was still holding Luke’s chart. What he did finally notice, as he pulled the door closed behind him, was that every movement, every step, hurt.
Chapter 12: A Parting Gift
The voice knocked again. “Please, Dr. Oliver—I just need to...just one second—please—” The doorknob turned slowly; the door opened even more so.
“D–Doctor? I’m sorry, I just—” Brown ringlets framed a sideways head. “Um, Doctor? Dr. Oliver?” A frown momentarily crowded out the fright on Curly Nurse’s face. “Is everything—” One could almost see her weighing the costs and benefits of her job. The last words were rushed as the head disappeared. “Dr. Hughes just wanted me to remind you, uh, about the surgery? That it’s been pushed up? The team is…um, whenever you’re ready.” The door clicked closed.
Reid was sitting at his desk. He hadn’t blinked, hadn’t moved. Hadn’t looked up from the open laptop. His hands were on either side, palms down on the desk. His eyes were fixed on the screen. Cosmic colors of the default background image glowed back.
His mind was in an empty house. Unclaimed paint sprayers and power tools lay haphazard in abandoned rooms. Stacks of recycled-glass tiles and reclaimed hardwood clustered in corners. A farmhouse hand-pump faucet rested against the kitchen doorway, its installation indefinitely delayed. Scattered across canvas-covered floors were shards of The Plan.
Luke was everywhere. Luke was gone.
Luke had never been there.
What was I thinking?
How could I have ever thought—how could I have assumed… I’m nothing to him. The opposite of his type. Fourteen years older, an ossified old man. He’s young and shiny and…beautiful.
Reid closed his eyes.
And I’m Reid Oliver. Social pathogen. I’ve never pursued anyone in my life. Wouldn’t even know where to begin. Not that he’d want me to. Why would he want me to?
The computer screen dimmed, unseen.
Just because I come to a life-transmogrifying decision, I expect him to—to forget that I’ve been nothing but an unpardonable ass to him. To forget that I’d be incapable of playing nice with anyone else in his life. To forget that he has a—that, of course, he and Noah are—
Reid’s palms pressed against cherry wood.
I’d just assumed he’d see me as a man. But he doesn’t even see me. Because I’m nothing to him. Here I am considering touching another man’s penis, and I’m nothing to him.
Reid squeezed his eyes shut, his face folding inward.
But the rage didn’t ignite; there was no fire when he opened his eyes, no rising smoke as he closed the laptop, pushed back the chair, walked slowly to the door. There was only the stale smell of an abandoned house.
Sweat stuck and curled. Reid blinked jeweled lashes, licked salted lips, counting the steps to the shower as he passed empty work stations and sleep-quiet rooms. The marathon surgery had simultaneously numbed and energized, a familiar combination at least partially welcomed. It should have reaffirmed, reassured, reframed. Instead, it had merely passed the time. All that was left was to try to wash the rest away, to scour and scald, feel and forget. He focused on the shortest distance between points, his steps accelerating as he cut corners, skipped steps, played the angles. Shower, sleep, rounds, surgery, shower. Food. He supposed there was always food. He supposed he’d eventually feel hungry again.
He supposed he should have expected the detour. His simple trajectory toward the shower had been illusory, the equivalent of infinite random walks over a landscape of predetermined probabilities. All roads converged on this room, as dark as the rest, its door ajar. Equilibrium lay inside, red lips against white sheets, but Reid knew now it was a specious state, a false approximation of the truth, most likely the result of sampling error, of faulty measurements. It wasn’t his truth. It wasn’t for him.
There was nothing here for him.
He pushed off the wall beside Luke’s door with hands he hadn’t remembered raising. Stirred air teased sweat on his neck as he turned to leave. It carried a hidden directive, a weak whisper to keep going, past the shower, past Katie’s, away from things he didn’t want to want, things he could never have, things it would cripple him to see…
A strangled sound came from the darkness of Luke’s room.
Reid pushed open the door, quickly and quietly, hoping, for once, that he was wrong. A Luke that wasn’t his was bad enough; a Luke that was sick…or…
A shuddering breath stopped Reid just inside the room. He stepped to the side, trying to see past the partially drawn curtain, to see more than just legs bent beneath a white sheet. A sheet that was vibrating.
Mastering the swift despair, Reid marshaled mind and muscles to act. This was what he could do for Luke. What no one could do better. A parting gift.
A last-minute override of Reid’s alpha motor neurons suspended the transfer of weight to the forward leg; the ball of his foot bore the brunt, heel hovering, thigh muscles firing in perpetual engagement. The signal characteristics of Luke’s soft whine had effectively shut down nearly all higher-order systems. Only the most rudimentary messages were now being processed.
Not a seizure.
The sounds of rhythmically rustling sheets, indistinct pants, and swallowed words had to push past the crescendoing whirr in Reid’s ears. He leaned incrementally farther onto his flexed foot – perspective pulled back the curtain to just beyond raised knees, to the point where the sheet fluttered like a slack drum being beaten from beneath. Luke’s covered legs swayed and opened, his hips lifted, rocked, the flurry at the center speeding and slowing.
Reid’s view continued to open as he tilted steadily more forward. He saw Luke’s back bow, the sheet edge rippled under his ribcage, his right arm extended across, down, disappearing. Another inch – there was Luke’s neck, a taut upward arc, his Adam’s apple on offer. Next, his chin, aimed up and back, then slanting downward as his chest collapsed sharply before opening again, elbows jabbing the mattress.
At last Reid could see Luke’s shadowed face. Luke’s lips parted for pants, closed as he struggled to muffle the moans. Blonde bangs fell to the tops of lowered lids; underneath, his forehead creased with concentration. He bit his bottom lip.
Luke’s hand slowed for several beats before accelerating, the tempo eventually approximating a double-stroke drum roll. His other hand slithered to his waist, slipping beneath the bunched sheet. He hunched slightly to his left side, the shoulder dipping as he stretched his arm down.
Luke jerked the side of his head against the pillow, pressing down as his two hands worked. He rolled his head, re-centering it, his face softening, mouth slackening.
The thigh muscles stopped firing. The foot Reid was balancing on slid forward abruptly, the sound of his heel striking the floor bright in the dark room.
The force of Luke’s gasp nearly ruffled Reid’s hair. The two men faced each other, brittle silhouettes, trying to see the other’s wide eyes in the low light. Trying to sort order into what was happening.
What couldn’t possibly have just happened.
Luke’s expression shifted first. Comprehension dawned, its garish colors creeping across his face, a grotesque lightshow prompting Reid to postpone his own processing. He instead evaluated next moves, courses of action that wouldn’t necessarily end in mutual checkmate.
He could think of only one.
Reid looked back only once as he stepped into the hall, closing the door behind him, a lightning glance, peripheral, compulsive. His view included only the foot of Luke’s bed, but it was enough to see Luke’s upper body jackknifed over his legs, his hands gripping the hair on either side of his head.
The water burned. Reid turned up the heat.
His head hung, an outstretched arm braced against the tiles in front of him. Hard water stung the back of his neck and shoulders, seared paths across stubborn stiffness, down reddened skin to the dip of his lower back.
He wasn’t thinking about Noah.
The words formed slowly, leaking in, testing the integrity of the flood wall. Reid tried relieving the pressure. Allowed an experimental flow.
Or maybe he was thinking about him. At first. Reid was sure Luke had been, or, rather, would have been sure had his pattern-processors been fully functional at the time. Maybe it had started with Noah – remembering, anticipating. Playing out the candlelit homecoming. It could have shifted, then, others appearing, faceless or famous, taking over or joining in. (Double-teaming.)
Reid shut off the cold water completely.
But by the end…the crowd had cleared. Luke wasn’t thinking about celebrities. He wasn’t thinking about Noah.
He was thinking about me.
Reid dropped his head back, water singeing his face and scalding his tongue. He reached for the shampoo.
He scrubbed his mind. Shut it down. It means nothing. Hell, the majority of my guest stars are women I have negative interest in otherwise engaging with. So he finds me attractive. (he sees me) He’d never act on it. He’s too loyal for that. Too…good. Too taken. He’d never betray him. The “love of his life.”
He let the water run into his eyes.
It probably wasn’t even me. I’m not “Reid.” Reid is his imaginary friend, the one he had ben having secret-sharing tea parties with. That’s the guy who does it for him. I’m just the inconvenient reality. The disappointment.
The flow of water pressed in, spilling over the wall, seeping through cracks, threatening to flood the unfinished basement.
That Reid probably knew what to do with him.
The shower air had become opaque, impenetrable steam penetrating, flooding Reid from the inside.
I wonder—what was he—
Reid closed his eyes, his mind. Fortified the front door, activated the sump pump. He couldn’t do this. There wasn’t enough of him left.
He felt for the soap blindly.
(What was he thinking about?)
As Reid retreated to higher ground, slippery fingers circled his belly button.
(Was he touching me?)
He spread suds along the thin line of hair, following it down. He encouraged his mind to short circuit, let himself fall into the familiar rhythm of post-surgery release, a ritual he’d lately been denying himself. He focused solely on sensations, on the build, the promised catharsis, a purging of days and weeks of dislocation and disquiet, of existential affliction and corporeal consequences, of powerlessness and near loss. He stroked toward oblivion.
He saw candy-red lips curving into a sleepy smile.
Reid doubled-down, reestablishing his hand on the wall, rerouting neural connections.
Madeline Stowe opened the shower door.
(Was I touching him?)
Reid reached for her, willed, bargained.
The spray dappled vanishing skin as she buttoned her blouse, backing away. Shaking her head. Wry eyes lowered, lingering for a last look.
Head down, weight forward, Reid jammed all signals, powering to the end, channeling autonomic impulses, riding pathways from sacral plexus to bulb and crus. The fulcrum of existence was the friction of palm and fingers. No thoughts, no images, no sounds…certainly not those sounds…his sounds—
Where was his other hand?
Reid choked on the cries as they scratched their way out, a feral pack of ricochets trapped in the ringing space. He collapsed forward, his forehead, his semen striking wet tiles, the surge dragging him under, ripping him out to sea. He grasped at floating debris, at what had once been his roof. He breathed water, gulped thick air, submitting to stripping currents, last moments, last thoughts. Last words.
Chapter 13: Crossing the Line
Enough with the water.
Reid threw the bag of soggy chips into the wastebasket beside his desk. The relentless rain was one thing – appropriate, he assumed, for the time of year, though he wouldn’t have gone with ‘showers’ so much as ‘biblical endtimes’ – but the soul-deadening humidity was a bit much. At least in Dallas air conditioning overkill would have taken care of such a food-wilting, curl-exaggerating, hand-clammying inconvenience by now. And the dripping. Drip. Drip. Drip. He was ready to hunt down the hospital architect to exact revenge for whichever aspect of his or her design had led to the funneling of rainwater directly to the windowsill behind Reid's desk where it fell with a rhythm just irregular enough to ensure that Reid never habituated to its cracked-metronome monotony. It didn’t even have to be raining – the water torture seemed to continue until every roof and façade reservoir had been drained. Not that it had stopped raining for more than half an hour during the past few days. He supposed the crops and…crop farmers were happy, but if he’d wanted to be around this much water he would have stayed on the East coast. And there, at least, there was the possibility of manly rain, fully committed, maximum damage and out. A hit and run storm, with wind and lightning, not this too-polite, passive-aggressive siege on his sanity. A storm you needed to buy plywood for, a storm that made you risk your uncle’s wrath by braving an expedition around your ravaged neighborhood, lugging a boombox-sized camcorder wrapped in a garbage bag to capture footage of flying awnings and sparking wires. Wishing you had a best friend to share it with, to play the plucky on-camera reporter, gamely ducking loosed limbs, light hair flying into his face—
He’s gone. Walk it off.
Reid refocused on the reports in front of him. He willfully ignored the drone of water on the ledge, the slip of his fingers on the pen, the fact that Luke had no doubt left the hospital by now. Reid had ordered his discharge that morning. And had then tethered himself to his desk. Better for everyone that Reid stay away – to spare Luke extended embarrassment, to spare himself the sight of true love. If Reid were lucky, he and Luke would never have to be alone in the same room again.
Reid tossed out the rest of his sandwich.
Contradictory numbers in the report he was reading made him reach for his cell phone. His thumb paused over the screen. It softly skimmed the home image, the symmetrical folds of greys and black, the posterior pockets of white. Tensing, the thumb switched to more purposeful motion. Within several moves it poised above “delete.”
The knocking on his office door drowned out the drip, if barely.
Reid flinched, glancing up at the door before returning to the phone. To watching his thumb hover.
The second set of knocks was more assured.
Reid dropped the hand holding the phone to the desk. “Yes?” The word was clipped, its edges cutting.
The door stuttered open. The emerging head was blonde.
The phone slid out of Reid’s hand.
Reid stood, the chair spinning slightly to one side.
Luke took a step into the office, his other leg still hidden. He was back in his own clothes, light jacket, dark jeans. The pallor had been edged out by a subtle flush.
Has he always been so tall?
Luke’s eyes were steady, though his chest had yet to move. “Um—” He shifted his weight into the room. “I just wanted to—Ali said it was OK to leave? I just wanted to make sure that was right.”
Luke stretched his head forward. “Uh, Alison. My nurse-slash-friend? The one who probably shouldn’t be talking to me at all?”
He’s going to pretend it didn’t happen.
“Well, if she was wearing an official uniform, then I guess you can believe her.” Reid fingered the papers on his desk with ostensible focus.
“Oh. OK. So, then—that’s it? I’m free to go. You weren’t going to…um—”
“The hand-holding portion of this relationship is over. You can schedule the follow-up with—uh, that woman at the desk.” Still looking down, Reid waved a hand. “I hereby release you into your boyfriend’s care.”
Reid looked up at the frown in Luke’s voice. “I assumed he was picking you up.”
“Uh, no. My mother is.”
“Ah, well, she can take you to him, then.”
“What? Why would she—Noah and I aren’t together.” The frown deepened. “You know that.”
Reid stopped mid-shuffle. “And how would I know that, Mr. Snyder? From yesterday’s tender reunion? Seemed to me you couldn’t have been any happier to see him.”
“Um, yeah, because we’re friends. We’re always going to be friends.”
Something warm began to bubble up. Reid redirected power to the containment field. “How evolved of you.” He turned his attention back to the papers. “You looked like more than that.”
“Yeah, well—” Reid peeked up to see the ducked head, the deepening blush. “Noah would like it to be more. But both people need to—” Luke looked down at his entangled fingers. “Too many things have changed.” He half-shook his head. “That part of my life is over.”
Bright emotion pressed up and out, its push painful.
Luke’s chest rose on a deep breath. “Listen, Dr. Oliver…about—”
The intense interplay of forces turned the emotion radioactive. “I’m pretty sure our business here is done, Mr. Snyder.”
Luke’s chest fell, both face and neck acutely flushed. “Ah, right. Of course. Dr. Oliver.” His head fell as well. “I guess I really am no longer your patient, then.” Eyes downcast, he shifted his weight to the hidden leg. “Sorry to have bothered you.” Reid watched as Luke nodded slightly, as he began to back away, out of Reid’s life, to pull the door closed behind him.
The radioactivity glowed. Like a light bulb.
Not my patient.
Not with Noah.
He was thinking about me.
“We should have dinner.”
Luke’s head reemerged. “Sorry?”
“We should have dinner.”
“Really?” Luke blinked away loose bangs. “Why?”
Reid was transfixed by the steadily advancing line as it slinked forward. The point of no return.
Luke’s eyes widened. “Wait a minute, what don’t I know? Is—is there’s something you haven’t told me? Oh my God—is it serious? I knew this was too easy—”
“What? No. No, you’re fine. Everything’s fine. I fixed you.”
“Oh. Ohh, so it’s business. The wing.”
“No.” Reid was having trouble collecting enough saliva to swallow. “Not business.”
“Oh.” Luke frowned. “So—” His shoulders sloped as he scratched the back of his head. “Look, Dr. Oliver, it’s been a really long, rough couple of days. Can we please just skip to the part where you insult me?”
The wince couldn’t crack Reid’s frozen exterior. He helplessly watched the sinewy line loom larger.
Don’t make me say it.
“No insults.” Reid managed to swallow. “Just dinner.” He searched for mooring in Luke’s soft eyes, their gentle current pulling him irreversibly closer to the edge. “Have dinner with me…Luke.”
The progression could be measured in blinks. They were sporadic during the first phase, punctuating the absolute blankness with quick bursts. Phase two, in contrast, was entirely blink-less. Eyes and mouth rounded to maximum diameter before locking into position, Luke’s body stock-still save for a chest cresting with accelerating heaves, as if trapped underwater with malfunctioning gills. The final phase began on a hard blink. Luke's features contracted, eyes breaking their searching hold to dart down and to the side. With each subsequent blink, his face shifted further, falling incrementally inward. Appearing more and more uncomfortable. More and more distressed.
Reid’s experience was simpler: a slow-motion, un-breathing, unbroken arc through the air, a liquid leap, a floating fall. A hard end. He was brought to his knees by the line – tangling, tripping, his hands outstretched, sinking into waterlogged earth that disintegrated beneath him. He was back in the hole, still black, now bottomless. There was no crawling out. There was no turning back. It was done.
He was done.
He stepped from behind his desk, picking up his phone as he cleared the corner. He brutally schooled his gaze away from Luke, for the first time successfully. He crossed the office briskly, pausing only at the body blocking the door.
As soon as the path was sufficiently clear, Reid exited, turning to roll down a random hallway, accumulating speed, bowling through swinging doors, past elevator banks and irrelevant windows.
Whom should I call first? Which bridge have I burned the least? The slap of his shoes reverberated in the empty stairwell. Dallas is out. I’d outgrown them anyway. From now on only places that deserve me. Maybe Mayo. Still gathering momentum, Reid typed into his phone.
He entered the parking garage, the door striking concrete with the force of his shove. Sideways rain reached for him from the open sides, misting his hair and clothes.
I’m Reid fucking Oliver. This Reid doesn’t pursue people.
This Reid had had enough. Enough of confounding factors and irreducible uncertainties and unforeseen variables. It was finally time to take himself out of the equation.
This town will have been nothing more than a blip on my radar.
The car chirped as he approached. One hand reached for the door; in the other, the phone vibrated.
His hand, chest, squeezed.
The phone bounced off the back seat as he slammed the door shut.
Radioactive orange dusted his phone. Reid licked his fingers.
“You know, I suppose that could be considered reasonable. But, alas, you’re not exactly coming from a place of strength. You’re coming from Rochester.” Reid tossed the bag of cheese puffs on his bed as he began to collect socks from the floor. “Number one program in the country, really, now how could I have known that.” He checked under the bed. Standing, he shook open a garbage bag and dumped in the socks. “Yes, well, I’m sure all those golf-playing hunters and retirees are just thrilled that they chose such an award-winning city. But – and here’s the problem – you’re in the Midwest. And the only way you’re going to get me to move to another aggressively friendly, minority-challenged, inbred Midwestern backwater is if you double that offer.” Reid’s phone chimed. “Gotta go, Boston’s calling.” He ended the conversation.
And deleted, unread, the just-arrived text. As he had all the others.
After refilling his mouth with cheese puffs, he upended the hamper into the garbage bag. He then did the same with the wastebasket. He was finally feeling his old self. Maybe he should give Mass General a call. They had been lusting after him for years. Wouldn’t Alex just love for me to steal his thunder. And then I could steal Angeline again—
Yeah, you can stuff that shudder, Oliver. You know that is exactly what you need. Exactly. What you’ve been needing badly for the last 97 days. The deficiency of which has no doubt been the root of all ills. You’ll go back to Dallas, finally pack up the apartment. Revisit old friends. Even buy them dinner first. Maybe.
He tied off the trash bag and tossed it into the hall. He fired up the phone. “Yeah, get me on a flight to Dallas tonight. Coming back Thursday.” Opening his closet, he pulled out a small rolling suitcase. “Is ‘tonight’ not an English word? After the surgery, obviously. Whatever the last flight is. Jacobs can cover me tomorrow. Oh, I don’t know, why don’t you tell her that I’ll consider forgetting that time she shaved the wrong patient’s head. Uh-huh. Right. Don’t care. Right.” Reid dropped the phone on the bed next to the swiftly filling suitcase.
Time for a sandwich.
He heard the knocks as he left the bedroom. He recognized their cadence.
“She’s not here, Hank,” he called from the open refrigerator. The knocks got predictably louder. “You know, your constant lack of faith in my word is starting to wound.”
When the knocking continued Reid swung the refrigerator door shut and ambled toward the front door. “Come on, Hank, are you really going to make me say it? (Perhaps there are some things I’ll miss.) OK, fine, she is here; she’s just too exhausted from our athletic lovemaking to—” Reid opened the door.
Luke was on the other side.
Reid’s old self receded like floodwater.
“Hi.” Luke’s eyes and voice were strong. Like those of a boy wearing his father’s jacket on an interview for his first summer job.
Reid’s grip tightened on the doorknob.
Luke half-rolled onto the balls of his feet. “Not Henry. Sorry.” His crooked smile was passably convincing.
Reid wiped his loose hand on his jeans, streaking the black with orange. He focused loosely on Luke’s chin. “Yeah, this isn’t really a—” He swayed backward as Luke put a hand flat against the door.
“I get that. I get that you don’t want to see me. Or talk to me. Or answer my texts. And I—” He rolled in his bottom lip. “I think I even get why.”
Luke’s face was no longer safe. Reid switched his gaze to a dim patch of wall behind Luke, pushing at it until it vibrated.
“But it’s not what you think.” The words were starting to thin; Luke took a distinct breath. “I mean, yes, my head is still exploding – in fact, I’m surprised the sprinklers in your office didn’t go off when my brain started to overheat,” he said as his free hand waved circles next to his ear. “You know, when it finally hit me what you were—that you—that you must be...you know—” He tugged an earlobe.
Reid’s hand on the doorknob began to cramp.
Luke dropped his hand from the door. “But see, the thing is, then I'd started to worry that maybe the only reason you’d asked was because of—well, out of pity, or something. Because of last night.” Luke’s head fell along with the volume and pitch. “But…eventually, I realized that wouldn’t actually make any sense. First, it’s not exactly the kind of thing you ask just to make someone feel better—I mean, especially if you’re not actually—and anyway, second, since when do you try to make people feel better? Non-medically speaking, that is.”
Reid wondered when he’d begun looking at Luke’s face again. At the moment he was watching the progression of white teeth revealed by a lopsided smile.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is—” Luke drew another chest-lifting breath. “I decided to assume that you’d meant it. And also to assume that, contrary to appearances, you’re not with Katie any more. Because I honestly don’t think you would do that to her. So yes.” His chin lifted. “I’m saying yes. I would love to have dinner with you…Reid.”
Reid watched Luke’s lips form his name. Breathed in the echoes as they reached his own.
Felt the world fracture.
Can’t. Too late. Too much. Hurts. No more. Can’t work. Need to go. Go.
He returned to Luke’s eyes; they were bright with bravado. The jacket almost fit. Almost hid the wrinkles of worry. The naked nerves. The plea.
It was the eyes that broke him. That fixed him.
Luke’s next breath added inches to his height. It dislodged the jacket, ruptured seams. Tiny rays of light squeezed past stitches, illuminating Luke like a fiber-optic piñata. Revealing the true extent of the effort not to burst. He smiled with closed lips, perhaps mindful of the pyrotechnic potential. He rocked on his feet, as if on the verge of lift-off.
He looked at Reid expectantly.
Reid could only blink.
Eventually, Luke popped a button. “I’m free tonight. Oh—well, except for the…no—no, never mind—I am. I’m free.”
The blinks stopped. “Tonight?”
“Yeah. Tonight.” Air began to seep out. “Unless…I mean, you probably—we could just…you know, whenever would be—”
Reid felt compelled to plug the leak. “Tonight. Fine. Yes. Oh, but no—I, uh, there’s a surgery. It could go late.”
“Uh, no, really—maybe nine.”
“No problem. I have to go back to the office anyway. I could just meet you at the hospital.”
“Ah. Of course. No, but it, uh, there’s a chance it could be earlier—it’s an AVM. Uh, yeah, that’s a malformation of—um—point is there’s really no way of knowing exactly what I’m dealing with until I get in there. It could even be later.”
“Okay, well, why don’t you just text me when you get out, and I can meet you at the restaurant.”
“Restaurant. Right. That’s a…n idea.” Restaurant. Shit, what restaurant? “I’ll, uh—I’ll pick you up.”
Luke’s head jerked slightly, his brow lifting. “Oh. Okay, sure.”
“Great, good. Fine, then.” He could no longer feel his hand on the knob. “So. Tonight.”
Luke’s smile spread slowly this time, in stops and starts, but finished in full force. “Tonight.” He dropped his head, looked up through lashes. Nodded as he turned to leave. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Reid nodded once in return. He lifted an orange hand in stiff farewell, lowering it only when Luke disappeared around the corner after a glance back through slanted bangs.
“Can you believe that he thought I’d go out with him?”
Keys rattle-fell into a dish.
“I mean, how could he—what on Earth was he thinking? He’s not supposed to be interested in me. After everything I’ve done…all the work I’ve put into fixing things…for him to be with the person he said he’d come back to town for in the first place. And then he hits on me? Really?”
A black blazer hit the back of the sofa.
“‘What kind of doctor would I be if I let you walk around in wet clothes?’ Ugh, he actually says this to me. Like I’m supposed to swoon when he gives me his jacket. Like he hasn’t just tried to kiss another woman. A woman I set him up with!”
The refrigerator door slammed.
“After all the trouble I’ve gone to… You know, I’m starting to think that maybe Alison’s got the right idea. Just say no to Chris Hughes. Clearly, the guy’ll go after anything that moves. I mean, seriously, who asks their matchmaker out to dinner? Their matchmaker who, as far as they know, is in a relationship? Wait a minute—” Katie carried her glass toward the sofa. “You don’t think that’s it, do you? That he was really just trying to screw with you? Which of course would make it so much less appalling. Hmm, I dunno…do you even think he’s capable of that kind of higher-level thought? Well, of course you don’t…and I’m starting to think I should’ve been listening to you all along… Hey—Reid?” She dropped next to him on the sofa. “Hello?” She extracted the pillow from his arms. “Are you with us?” She tilted toward him. “Have you entered some kind of power-down mode? Is there a button I should push?”
Reid’s profile was unresponsive.
“Oh, come on, I couldn’t have opened the door any wider for you on that one. Wait…what are you even doing home? Did something happen at the hospital? Reeeid—did you manage to get fired? Has all that practice finally paid off? Well, that’s lovely, but don’t think you’re getting out of next month’s rent. I’ve gotten used to having a neurosurgeon’s salary around.”
Slow blinks were her only answer.
“Any time now, Reid. Just because Chris has mad skills with the ladies is no reason to give up on life.”
Reid’s mouth opened, lips twitching toward forming shapes. Katie leaned in even closer.
“…to thank me for my all-around awesomeness?”
The blinking accelerated. “I…I have a…”
“Headache? Fever? Just so we’re clear—you do realize that if Jacob gets sick again I’m going to have to kill you?”
“No, it’s…I have a…”
“Lawsuit? Incurable God complex?”
A moment of silence preceded the piercing shrill.
“Reeeeeeeid. You asked him out! You asked him out and he said yes!” Reid’s body rocked with the force of her grip on his arm. “Holy shit, you actually did it! Wait, you did do it, right? You asked him?”
Still swaying slightly, Reid blinked, nodded.
“Of course you did! Because you listened to me! Because this town would be an infinitely better place if everyone just listened to me! Because of course he said yes!”
The rocking stopped. “‘Eventually’? What do you mean ‘eventually’? Didn’t you just ask him? Today?”
Reid nodded again, once.
“And…he had to…think about it.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, sure, I guess that makes sense. Straight guy who hates him asks him out – guy’s gotta be a little thrown.” The rocking resumed, this time with bouncing. “But then he said yes! He got over his shock and said yes! And now you’re totally gonna have to toast me at the wedding. Because I’m pretty sure this is my finest achievement.”
Reid turned his head, finally focusing.
“Oh, come on, Reid—not only do I open you up to the idea of a relationship, but with a guy? Now, granted—some women might interpret that a little differently. But I am taking it as a win, baby. Forget Luke’s magical powers, mama’s got some of her own.” She stilled. “We…we are talking about Luke, right?”
Reid’s eyes narrowed.
“’Cause, you know, Chris doesn’t seem to be all that discerning these days, and you two have been just as antagonistic…”
The glare was muted by distraction.
Katie squeezed his arm, adding a gentle rub. “Okay. Focusing. When is the date?”
“Tonight.” The word creaked.
“What? You asked him out for tonight?”
“I didn’t… That was more his idea.”
“Huh, okay. Okay, no, that’s good…yes, definitely a good sign…shows he’s into it. That he’s into you. And gives you less time to freak out. I am assuming you’re freaking out, yes?” With a hand on his chin, she turned his face toward her, nodded. “Yup, better to speed this right along. So, what time?”
“Uh…I’m not sure. Whenever I get out of surgery.”
“Hmm, a late night…you’ll be drained, guards lowered…I like it. Which restaurant?”
“Of course you didn’t think ahead that far. Alright, well, nowhere in town, obviously; you certainly don’t need any more pressure. Let’s see…Italian’s always safe…ooh, I know—that new place in Dixon. Perfect. I’ll get you the address. Okay,” She leaned back. “Yes. Those jeans. For the rest of your days, my friend. Do you have one of those black button-downs in your locker? Is it clean? Really clean? Hasn't been worn since the wash?”
The nods trailed into absent bobbing.
“Okay, good. All black is definitely your color. He’ll want to take it right off.”
Reid didn’t feel his jaw drop.
“Well, we already know he’s an eager boy, my dear…hope you’re not planning on making it to dessert.”
At the barrage of blinks she slapped his upper arm, tipping his suddenly slack body. “Your face! Oh, Reid, I’m so sorry. No, seriously, it’ll be fine. Although…from what I understand, gay guys do usually have sex on the first date – to be safe you should pick up some extra condoms.” Her expression folded more quickly this time; she fell forward, smothering her laughs against his shoulder. “Oh, honey, you are just too easy. Okay, really, no, I’ll behave. And you know Luke’s not like that, right? I mean, he and Noah waited a really, really, really, really long time.” She rubbed his stiff shoulder. “I’m sure he won’t expect you to put out until at least the second date.”
He yanked back the pillow, bending into it, muffling the “Fuck me.”
“That would be third date at the earliest.”
The “Fuck you” was equally muffled.
At the chirp he unfolded, reaching for his phone.
“Is it Luke?”
Reid shook his head. “Just a flight to cancel.”
“You know, if you’re planning on whisking him off to Paris, all you have to do is use one of his planes.”
Reid dropped his head back and ran both hands over his face. “My kingdom to be an ocean away from you right now.”
“Sweetie, as if I’d ever leave your side. Nope, no rest for me until you and Luke are having each other’s babies. Aww, unless you’d like me to have them for you?”
Straightening, Reid began to type into his phone.
“Reid, honey…what are you doing?”
“Changed my mind. I'm confirming my flight out of this devil’s pit.”
“Oh, please.” She rose and walked into the kitchen. “You know this is your favorite circle of hell. And now that you’ve found your twin soul…”
“Katie…” The name was a growl.
“Yes, dear? Don’t even try to pretend this isn’t the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” She opened the dishwasher, her back to him. “So there are gonna be a few awkward moments—I’m sure Luke will understand. How did he react when you told him?”
Reid lifted his head from where it lay on the back of the couch, fingers pinching his nose. “What?”
Glassware glinted in her hands as she turned to face him. “When he found out that he was, you know, the first. That you weren’t so straight after all.” She wiggled her brows. “Did he make you prove it?”
The pillow in Reid’s lap shrunk.
“I mean, you said he had to think about it, right? He must’ve had a ton of questions.”
Reid brushed at orange speckles on the side of his thigh. “He…uh—he seemed to accept it…relatively easily.”
“Oh—so, did he have any questions?”
“It’s—” She shook her head. “No, it’s nothing. It’s fine.” Turning, she bent to open a drawer; she closed it, spinning back. “It’s just—look, it’s not really my place, but—” She leaned against the counter. “You know his history, right? A little?”
“I’ve seen the file.”
“How about the romantic history?”
“Well, that’s part of it—Noah thought he was straight when they met.”
“So you mentioned.”
“And for a while after. It…wasn’t easy. For either of them, of course, but—see, Luke’s first crush had also been straight. Like, actually straight. And sort of a dick about the whole thing. Which, unfortunately, happened at a particularly bad time for Luke…”
“Among other things. But Noah and Kevin were basically kids; later—later there was a man. A man who should have known better. A man who also thought he was straight. To the point where he married Lucinda.”
Reid’s rigid upper body pivoted forward like a sprung latch. “Luke’s grandmother?”
Katie nodded. “Nothing really happened, but let’s just say this guy didn’t do Luke any favors. Of course it didn’t help that Noah didn’t believe him—”
“Listen, Reid, the point is—”
Reid watched his fingers curl against the top of the pillow. “The point is…the last thing Luke needs or wants in his life is another straight guy undergoing…renovations.”
“No.” She crossed to him in smooth, strong strides, kneeling in front of him and covering his hands with hers. “You are nothing like them.”
Reid’s look was sharp.
“Okay, fine – so you’re a work in progress, and everything’s still pretty new, but you know what you want. You want Luke. You asked him out – that never would have happened if you weren’t, at your most fundamental level, absolutely certain that this is what you want. That he is what you want.”
Reid closed his eyes. “But what if—” His voice barely filled the hush between them. “How can I be sure I—that I won’t hurt him, too?”
She touched her forehead to his. “Because I know you, Reid. You’re allergic to feeling powerless. So no way do you give up this kind of control without a pretty darned good reason. And you certainly don’t give up this,” a hand swept down her body, “unless you are one thousand percent sure.”
Reid almost smiled.
Katie stood. “Now quit your moping and go save a life.” She disappeared toward the bedrooms. “And good luck with the surgery, too.”
Reid grunted; he was replacing the pillow against the back of the sofa when her voice next sounded from the hall. “Hey, Reid—is this bag trash? Could you take it out when you leave? Wait—what is—is that a sock? Um, why are you throwing out your underwear?”
“Ah. Yeah—I’m going to be needing some of that back.”
At the beginning of this chapter, Katie is referring to a scene from the 4/21/10 episode in which Chris does indeed give Katie his jacket after having just tried to kiss Alison in a previous scene. It is only in the Outlier ’verse, however, that he subsequently asked Katie out. (And for those who are keeping track, the past two chapters do indeed take place on AU stardate 4/21/10.)
Chapter 15: The First Good Night (Part 1)
Despite my best efforts, I was unable to finish chapter 15 before sailing off to foreign parts (today!). In the meantime, I'll leave you with this wee preview.
It had been 34 days since he’d last stood in front of Luke Snyder’s door.
Reid was no more ready now.
He could see lights inside the house, movement, the impressions of shapes pressing through the shutter slats. Reid had sidestepped pools of light to stand submerged in darkness next to a potted pine. Or perhaps a fir. Reid had already reasoned that four months earlier it had likely been festooned with bourgeois cheer – disproportionate bulbs, limb-strangling flash, misplaced toys. Forensic examination had revealed a smatter of cowlicks winking with rogue sparkle. The abused bark could have been evidence of careless play by unquantified Snyder siblings, perhaps all of them, over years should the tree be small by design and not by youth. Perhaps each small Snyder had taken his (or her?) turn forgetting that, despite appearances, the tree wasn’t a disposable decoration, its surrendered needles to be swept away at the end of the season, but rather could outlast them all if given the proper neglect.
Reid had been reasoning for a while. Long enough for the night air to have nipped away the feeling in his fingertips. He rubbed them against the leather jacket, shifted on feet already flattened by hours-long surgery. The tree’s personal journey was thus far a more acceptable focus than was the reason Reid had yet to knock on the door. That answer lay in an empty, darkened hallway, so recently Luke-lit but now a metaphor for the hollowed good-night of Reid’s mind. Systems were not so much overloaded as gone on standby. Life-support services only. Fortunately, life support included life saving; surgical skills had not been compromised. But all piloting was automatic – up to the present point, that is. Here he had stalled, was stuck on needles and slats and amorphous shadows making muffled noises on the other side of the door – one of which may have been his shadow, the one waiting for him, anticipating, checking the time, speculating on the traffic between here and the hospital. Currently operating in ignorance of its own transformative power. But not a shadow – no, that wasn’t right – too dark, too passive, too few dimensions. Not a consequence of light but a cause. A wave-emitting source, flows cresting over dark ground, spilling around corners, illuminating gloom. Something bright and full, something serving as high-noon, catching every surface, revealing all. Something that was right there, a knock away, just one more step; something that could be his, that—
The door opened. “Oh! Dr. Oliver—I didn’t know you were out here.”
Something that still lived with its mother.
“Please—won’t you come in.” Lily Snyder pulled the door open wider with the hand not holding a garbage bag. “I’m just…I just have to—I’ll be right back.”
They switched places, Lily disappearing down the dark path to the curb, Reid rocking forward, floodlights first falling on his head and shoulders before pouring down the rest of his body. He stepped further into the light, over the threshold, past the door that had last blown air into his face. He looked down for scattered toys.
There was one other figure in the living room. A girl reclining on the sofa, long dark hair obscuring one side of her face. She looked up, fingers briefly stilling on the device in her hands. Reid forced a flash of a smile. He wondered if it looked as wrong as it felt.
Her eyes dropped to his jacket, his jeans. Thumbs resumed their typing.
Reid was bumped further into the room by a returning Lily. Sharp air clipped his skin as she shut the door. The air in the house was heavy, warm.
“So sorry about that, Dr. Oliver. Can I get you something to drink?”
He shook his head, the movement sliding the room into a slight tilt.
“Okay, well, I’m sure Luke will be down soon. This is certainly a long day for you – it’s awfully late for a meeting.”
Reid swayed backward slightly. “Ah…yes…well. Surgery.”
The smile reached her eyes. “I imagine you have to squeeze things in whenever you can. It must’ve taken Katie some getting used to.”
Reid’s mouth opened, closed.
“And I suppose things will only be getting more hectic the closer you get to the opening of the wing. For Luke, too – it’s already all he can talk about.”
Reid tried to take a breath.
“I mean, for him to have backed out of babysitting at the last minute – you must certainly have some important things to discuss. I’m about to head out myself—luckily, Luke’s sister was able to change her plans.” Her smile at the girl on the sofa was not returned. “Faith, honey? Can you please get your brother?”
The girl didn’t look up. “Luke! Your date’s here!”
Stagnant air caught in Reid's throat.
“Faith, stop it.” Lily’s voice was low. “You know that’s not appropriate.”
Flat eyes flicked up. “Like he’s been spending all that time in front of the mirror for a business meeting.”
This smile didn’t leave Lily’s lips. “Faith, please go upstairs and tell Luke that Dr. Oliver is waiting.” She pivoted to face Reid, her eyes warming. “Are you sure I can’t get you something? Some tea?”
The air had thickened in his windpipe, settling like sludge at the base of his neck. The room had entered a slow spin. He shuffled a step back, toward the door, toward breathing night air under relatively steady stars. He felt for the phone in his pocket with fingers stinging with returning sensation. Ring. It could ring. Or—he could say it did, or vibrated, or chimed, covered by a cough, calling him back to the hospital, back to safety, what was he doing here, what was he thinking, abort, abort—
“Young lady, I want you to get up right now and—”
The footsteps were fast and loud, punching the stairs in the accelerating cadence of a speed bag. A hand appeared first, then an arm, extended, pulling on a jacket, stretching it across wide shoulders, the red button-down beneath taught across a broad chest. A red shirt Reid had never seen. Had he? Was that something he noticed?
He noticed the hair, still long but lifted into a subtle architecture of peaks and swoops, form and intent.
He noticed the smile. Full and free and for him. It lightened the air, eased passage, righted the room, relaxed cramping fingers. Days-old tension dissolved, softening Reid’s face into the long-lost cousin of a smile.
The girl on the sofa snorted.