"I'd like to thank all of you for being here this evening, for joining me as we congratulate this years scholarship recipients and their families and raise the money to send more bright students like them to the top medical schools in the country. To the benefactors and generous contributors here this evening, thank you for being a part of this organization and for giving these students a chance, for giving them the opportunity to become the top doctors and researchers in their fields, for providing them the means to continue their education, to save lives, to cure diseases, and to carry medicine into a new Era.
"To this evening's honored guests, the ten students seated here in front of me, I would just like to say thank you. Thank you, for your dedication and your effort. I have faith in each and every one of you and I hope for nothing but success and fulfillment in your education and careers.
"I promised to keep this short, and I plan to keep to that promise. Tonight is a night of celebration, a night of gratitude and companionship. Students, you sit here with those who made it possible for you to be where you are now. Benefactors, you sit with the talented minds you told me you had confidence in. Tonight is a night for you to honor that relationship, to embrace and enjoy it. So now everyone's favorite part of the evening, dinner! So let's all eat and have a fun evening. Thank you so much."
Luke stepped down from the podium with a wide smile as the room echoed with applause. He passed each of the ten students he had just been speaking to, hugging some and shaking hands enthusiastically with others, congratulating them by their first names and leaving nothing but warm remarks in their family members' ears. He made it to his own table after nearly ten minutes of mingling; as the waiters began to shift through the room with the array of foods, people began to fall into their seats and quiet down. Luke finally dropped into his own chair, leaning on his arms with a dramatic sigh of relief.
"That speech was perfect, Luke. I don't know why you were so worried," smiled Holden. He and Lily, hands folded together on the table, sat to Luke's left, wearing a suit and elegant cocktail dress respectively. Luke was also clad in a professional suit, though like many others in the room he opted for the more casual approach, leaving the top button undone of his shirt and there was no tie in sight. One thing Luke loved about running his own foundation was that he finally had a say on dress code.
"That was beautiful, sweetie, I'm so proud of you," Lily said next, reaching over to take her son's hand. He beamed at her.
"Thanks, mom," he smiled.
"Perfection, as usual, Luke," came another, more energetic voice. Luke turned with a laugh.
"Thanks, Case," Luke replied as Casey and Alison came to take their seats beside him, wearing matching gold bands on their left ring fingers. "Have you heard from Noah tonight?" he asked expectantly.
"Actually, that's why we weren't at the table, I wanted to get up close so I could let him hear the whole thing."
"What?" Luke laughed, cheeks burning red. Alison practically giggled into her hand, shaking her head as Casey gave him a Cheshire grin.
"Yep. Called him up and let him listen live. He had to run but he said to tell you he'll call you later and that the speech was awesome."
Luke nodded and bit his lip, continuing to smile at his friends and unable to hide how happy he was that Noah had heard and liked his speech. John and Lucinda returned to their seats a few minutes later as well, having been making the rounds themselves. For Lucinda Walsh, mingling was like an Olympic sport, and she always won the gold.
"Brilliant, darling," she said, dropping a kiss onto his cheek. John congratulated him, patting him firmly on the shoulder.
"Reid would have been proud, son," he said, sounding rather proud himself. Luke's eyes softened, and he smiled appreciatively.
"I know," he said. "Thank you."
John pat him on the shoulder one more time before sitting down with Lucinda. Luke looked around at the three couples seated with him, the joy in their eyes and the laughter in their voices. He couldn't be happier for them. He glanced at the single empty chair, though, just to his right: The one that Luke insisted be left there. He smiled at it before glancing up to the small stage again, the banner above reading, "Congratulations Recipients of the Dr. Reid Oliver Memorial Medical Scholarship 2011!" His eyes glistened, that familiar lump in his throat taking hold. Luke shut his eyes, breathing deeply through his nose to calm the cramps in his stomach. He sighed, opening his eyes just as the food was being placed in front of them, a large smile taking over again as he let himself be dragged into the small talk going on between everyone and finding comfort in their company.
"We should get going, sweetie," said Lily, the group standing together just outside the building. "We're driving back to Oakdale tonight with John and your Grandmother. You three have fun, but behave," she added with a soft laugh, kissing Luke on the cheek. She let a hand hesitate on his arm, staring at him with tear-filled eyes. "I'm so proud of you, baby. Reid would be so proud, too."
It wasn't the first, the second, or even the fifteenth time Luke had heard that phrase tonight, but he never got tired of it. He knew it was true.
"Thanks, mom. I love you," he said, hugging her gently and laughing encouragingly as she wiped her eyes.
"Alright, alright, behave!" she reminded Luke, Casey and Alison as they started toward their car. She waved one last time as they drove past, blowing Luke a kiss.
"Okay!" shouted Casey as soon as the car was out of sight, clapping his hands together and rubbing them conspiratorially. "It's almost eight o'clock. We're in Chicago! What shall we do?"
Luke and Alison exchanged looks.
"Casey, we spent all of yesterday wandering around the city. What more is there to see?" laughed Luke.
"I don't know, but I'm sure we'll find something!"
"How about we just get some good old fashioned Chicago styled pizza and watch a movie at the hotel?" suggested Alison. Luke straightened up.
"You two are so lame."
After receiving a small punch in the arm from Alison and five minutes of straight laughter from Luke, the trio set off in search of pizza and arrived back at the hotel shortly after nine o'clock. They stayed in Luke's room, since he had less stuff and a spare bed for them to sit on. Casey got to pick the movie, turning on some B-rated thriller that Luke barely saw any of. Ten minutes in his phone buzzed and he scrambled into the hallway to answer.
"Noah!" he shouted happily into the phone.
"Hey there," Noah laughed, please by Luke's enthusiasm.
"I'm glad you called, sorry we didn't get to talk much earlier."
"No, it's fine. You had to get ready for the dinner, I got stuck at work. It happens."
Luke was smiling into the receiver, leaning back on the wall. "So, what happened anyway?"
Noah started laughing quietly and Luke could picture him scratching the back of his head. "Well," he began.
They spent the better part of two hours chatting about their day, Noah recounting the near catastrophe in lighting for the Indie film he was working on and Luke explaining that setting up simple fold out tables is apparently much harder than it appears. There was laughter and familiarity in the way they spoke. Luke ended up sitting on the floor against the wall, ignoring the one or two people who passed him in the hallway, his entire focus centered on Noah's words, Noah's voice.
"How's Ashton doing by the way?" Luke asked suddenly, feeling bad for not bringing it up before.
"He's doing alright. Still trying to find work, well, real work. He's got an interview to work on a play in San Francisco next week, though, so hopefully something comes of that."
"Wow, that's really fantastic Noah. Tell him good luck for me," said Luke brightly.
"So if he gets it, will you both be moving out there?"
"No, just Ben, at least for the beginning. Rehearsals would only be going for about a month and a half before the actual show, and he has some friends out that way he can stay with. I should be done with 'Reasons' in about three weeks, so I'd probably go join him for the last half of the run."
"Wow, sounds exciting!"
"I guess," Noah laughed. "Your speech was great, by the way. I told Casey to tell you."
"He did," said Luke. "And thank you. I'm glad you liked it."
"I know you've probably heard this a bunch, Luke, but Reid would have been proud of you. You're doing a great thing, with this scholarship."
"Thanks, Noah," smiled Luke, his eyes watering again. "That means a lot from you."
"Hey, well, I should get going, Ben's getting off in a bit and he promised to take me to dinner to make up for my bad day," said Noah kindly with a laugh.
"Sounds great!" said Luke, joining in the laughter. "Tell him hi for me."
"Will do. Take care, Luke. I'll talk to you later."
"You, too, Noah. Bye."
Luke leaned his shoulders into the wallpaper behind him, knees bent against his chest and both hands gripping the phone loosely between his legs and his stomach. And there it was, that knot he felt every time he said goodbye to Noah. It had taken them a long time, too long, to get to where they were now. Every time they said goodbye Luke's heart would clench, eager for the moment they would say hello again. It took him a few minutes to calm down, tight shoulders finally relaxing as he slumped further into the ground.
"I wish you could have been here tonight," he whispered into the air, a sad smile falling over his face. "I think you would have approved of them, the students. There's one, Kali Trent. She reminds me of you. She was so snappy and confident in her interview. Anyone else probably have turned her down, thought she was rude and cocky… but all I could see was you. She was the first one I picked in the end."
Luke spoke quickly, recounting the evening out loud to Reid and laughing at some of his own silly stories, imaging how Reid would have reacted, predicting when he would have rolled his eyes, and getting lost in the idea of holding Reid's hand at the dinner table. Silently, he cried, but even through the tears he somehow managed to smile.
Around midnight the door to his room opened.
"Hey," said Alison in her gentle voice, crouching down to touch Luke's shoulder. "We're gonna head to our room. Still on for breakfast tomorrow before we leave?"
Luke nodded. "Yeah, of course," he said with a tense smile. She stood back up, smiling back sympathetically as she took Casey's hand. Casey issued Luke a goodnight and gave a small wave before the two started down the hall.
He waited until they were around the corner and out of sight to slowly stand up and wander back into his own room. The TV was already off and Luke hit the lights, not even bothering to change as he fell onto the bed, almost instantly falling asleep.