Title: Smile My Best Smile
Fandom: TV: As The World Turns
Rating: T (Some adult situations and language)
Spoilers: Through the end of the season.
Genre: Angst, Hurt/Comfort, Drama
Summary: Time has passed since Reid's death, and Luke's friends try to get him open up again.
Author's Note: I kept thinking of the Garth Brook's song "Smile My Best Smile" and came up with this story. I hope you enjoy.
X X X
Luke Snyder wanted to kill his best friend, and he frowned as he approached the booth.
Settled together on one side of the table, Casey and his wife Allison snuggled together. Considering they'd only been married half a year, the way they sat with their hands intertwined didn't particularly surprise Luke. Nor did the way they leaned just a little into one another, as if that contact were vital.
No, the surprise sat directly across from them in the form of a man in his late twenties. From the way the stranger squirmed and looked away, Luke could only take it to mean that the poor guy had just realized he'd been set up, as well.
"Luke," Casey greeted, sliding out of the booth to pull him into an enthusiastic hug. "I'm so glad you could make it!"
"I am, too," he forced, feeling horrifically uncomfortable, and like he'd just told a whopper of a lie. Luke knew his friends and family worried about him – worried that he wasn't moving on after the death of his boyfriend, Reid Oliver. They didn't seem to understand that after everything that had happened in his life, he really was doing okay alone. The last thing wanted was to date.
That thought brought him sharply back to the current situation, and he realized he'd been staring straight at a man he didn't know.
Following Luke's gaze, Allison smiled and said, "Luke, I'd like you to meet Dr. Eric Emerson. He's an English professor."
By force of habit, Luke found himself stepping over to the table, tentatively reaching out, and shaking the quiet man's hand. He could only hope no one noticed the way he trembled, or hear how his heart hammered with anxiety.
"It's nice to meet you," he said by rote, before crossing his arms in front of his chest and wondering if this whole thing could be more awkward. He'd never been one for blind dates to begin with; this was worse.
"You, too," Eric softly replied, barely making eye contact.
Unfortunately, instead of Casey doing the right thing – the thing a friend would do – and sliding in to sit next to Eric, the bastard slid in next to his wife, leaving Luke with only a single option. He had to settle in next to the attractive man in jeans, a button up shirt, and sporting a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
The only redeeming quality to the experience thus far was that at least Eric seemed to be just as uncomfortable.
"Soooooo," Casey managed to draw that one word out impossibly long, before asking, "How are things at the hospital?"
Unwilling to play the game, Luke glared, shrugged, and gave a one-word answer, "Fine."
"Have you talked to Noah?" Allison asked. From the way she squirmed under Luke's gaze, it was obvious she was feeling more than a little uncomfortable, as well, forcing a fake smile.
"Yep," Luke replied.
Tension slowly built, thickening around the table as time ticked by excruciatingly slow. The entire time, he leaned back in the booth, with his arms crossed once more, glaring at Casey, until his best friend squirmed. Allison didn't look all that comfortable, either. If anything, she seemed to sink with every moment that passed.
He was so focused on his anger toward his friends, Luke jumped when he felt a hand touch his arm.
"I'm sorry, but I think I need to leave," Eric quietly said, breaking the tension.
Without thinking, Luke slipped out of his seat, letting the obviously uncomfortable man escape the confines of the booth. And it hit him like a punch in the gut; because for all he was mad at Casey and Allison, Eric sure as hell didn't deserve to be treated so poorly.
Guilt swamped him, and he didn't move until Eric had already reached the front door of the quiet restaurant. Then he sprung into action.
"Wait!" he called out, sprinting toward the door through which the other man had just existed. It took him half a block to finally catch up to Eric, who stood on the curb, hailing a cab.
"Eric!" he called out, pausing just as a yellow taxi pulled up. Reaching out, Luke laid a hand on the other man's arm, causing him to pause. When he turned, Luke gave him a small smile, and said, "I'm really sorry. It looks like you didn't ask for this, either, and…"
"No, I knew I was being set up," Eric replied sadly.
It hadn't been that long since Luke had seen that look of loneliness on a man's face – he saw it every morning in the mirror. His smile turned a little sad as he looked into mossy green eyes, and he quietly asked, "Can I buy you a coffee?"
Hesitantly, Eric nodded and gave him tentative smile.
X X X
They talked for hours, starting out tentatively and building as the night wore on. Once again they shared a booth; but this time sat across from each other. A much more comfortable arrangement.
Luke fell into habit, talking about family and work – avoiding the mention of Reid at all cost. However, just because Luke filled the air with words, it didn't mean he didn't listen to the man who used his words sparingly. By the end of their coffee, he knew the man with the mossy green eyes, curly light brown hair, and oval face loved Cary Grant, read murder mysteries voraciously, and lived for his students.
He also listened intently, and had a smile that never quite reached his eyes, unless talking about his 'kids'.
"The way you feel about them shows," Luke said, giving him a genuine smile. His smile widened to a grin when the man flushed a little at the praise.
Then out of the blue, Eric looked Luke in the eye and quietly said, "My partner and best friend died two years ago of lymphoma. We'd been together since high school." Awkwardly, he confessed, "I don't know how to do this."
Understanding that kind of pain, Luke reached across, laid his hand on Eric's and replied, "The man I planned to spend the rest of my life died in an accident eight months ago." His face contorted to reveal the dull pain he constantly hid, when he admitted, "I'm not sure I want to let go of him yet."
And how perfect a pair did that make them, he wondered. Both aching. Both wounded. When Eric began to stand, Luke's hand shot out, gripped the other man's forearm, and the young blond quietly said, "But it's hell being this lonely."
Sinking slowly back in his seat, Eric looked deep into Luke's eyes and nodded in mutual understanding. "Yeah, it is." Reaching out, he laid his fingers atop Luke's and said, "I don't live too far from here."
Sucking in a breath, Luke smiled sadly, nodding. The dam of need broke free at the recognition he saw in the other man's eyes; and the thought of feeling again overwhelmed thought or reason.
X X X
Hot hands stroked his skin, making him moan. Teeth nipping at his neck made him writhe. Stroke after stroke, panting, he let himself fall into pleasure. The pit of his stomach ached, knowing it wasn't who he wanted stretching him, making him gasp; but he couldn't stop.
Neither man could stop.
They'd known each other a matter of hours, but for the first time, neither felt that all encompassing loneliness that constantly plagued them.
Eric didn't notice when Luke moaned, "Reid."
He was thinking of another blond man.
X X X
The third time in as many weeks that Luke snuck off to Chicago, he smiled at the thrill of leaving without notifying his family. His mother still checked in on him on a regular basis. For that matter, so did his father; although, he had to admit that seeing his parents together felt good. It wouldn't surprise him if they ended up wearing each other's wedding bands again. Soon.
He barely made it through the doors of Eric's brownstone before he found himself shoved against a wall in a deliciously hard fashion. God, it felt good to have those hands, hot and hard, stroking him. The week of meeting upon meeting, designed to fill his time so he wouldn't have to think or feel dissolved as he closed his eyes and groaned.
Snap. A button popped off as his lover snaked a hand up to tug at his collar. Snap. Another button. Then Luke heard nothing, because his head is buzzing as Eric raked his hands down his chest.
There, barely inside the doorway, he was stripped naked and dragged to the bedroom.
It felt like nothing else, with every nerve flaring to life, as he flipped his lover underneath, slowly stripped the man to nothing, sucking and clinging the entire way.
Who was he to complain when Eric murmured, "I love you, Danny."
X X X
It was the second month, laying naked in Luke's hotel room, that something shifted.
"I want to see a movie with you," Luke quietly said from where he lay, his head nestled on Eric's chest. He smiled a little sadly when he added, "I want to do the mundane."
Stroking a hand down Luke's slick back, Eric leaned down to kiss the top of the younger man's head. Contentedly, he whispered, "I'd like that. I'd like that a lot."
As they fell asleep, desperately clinging to that last little bit of agony, they smiled.
X X X
"Wow. That guy was…" Luke left off, wondering how to describe the performing artist they'd just watched. "Well, let's just say he'd be impressive to play Twister with. I'd want him on my team."
"I don't know," Eric replied, tapping a finger on his lower lip on the pretense of being thoughtful. "There were a couple of moves that could be fun in bed."
Snorting a laugh, Luke gave his lover a wry grin and said, "Yeah?"
"Oh yeah," Eric huskily replied, dropping an arm over Luke's shoulder. Stopping on the sidewalk, with the late-summer sun dipping down behind the Chicago skyline, he turned and gave into a happy impulse. The kiss was light, friendly, and new.
It had been a long time since Luke had felt this kind of exhilaration. A long time since he'd felt his heart thunder at a look.
Later that night, wrapped up in each other, Eric pulled out a tome of poetry, his smooth voice giving emotion to word. When he suddenly stopped, Luke lazily tilted his head off Eric's chest and gave him a quizzical look.
"Would you want to come to my classroom and see me teach?" Eric asked, his expression turning shy and tentative.
Smiling wide, the younger man leaned up to give him a comforting kiss, before he said, "Yeah. I'd like that."
X X X
The first time Eric made the trip to Oakdale, it was in the middle of a school day. It hadn't taken him long to realize that the tight expression in Luke's voice meant something was wrong. Before long, he found the answers on the internet – a story of a man who died just one year before. So he'd done the unthinkable and skipped class. Hell, he'd skipped out of the entire city.
It took less time and effort to find his young lover than anticipated.
"I wish I could be him," Eric softly said when Luke opened his front door. "I wish I could give you just a few minutes, because I know how much they would mean."
His mate had died, but they'd said goodbye. He couldn't imagine not being able to say goodbye to Danny.
Stepping inside, he pulled Luke into a tight hug, kicked the door shut, and kissed him hard. Passionately.
Then Luke was kissing him back, running his fingers through his hair, while silent tears tracked down his face.
It didn't take long for Eric to have Luke splayed out naked on the younger man's bed, panting and begging. But he wanted to draw the moment out – give him a release that would make him forget the day if only for a moment.
Slowly he used his mouth to suckle and lick across slick flesh, while his hands stroked over and over to the moans of the man who writhed below him. And when Luke finally arched up and cried out, Eric almost wept. He'd been expecting to hear another man's name.
Instead, he heard his own.
X X X
Luke would never forget the day they got caught making out in Eric's office.
It wasn't so much that they got caught kissing. Hell, the kiss hadn't been all that hot. Rather, it had been comforting. Eric's bout of loneliness had seeped into his mood, making him grumpy and at odds. So Luke had been hell bent on chasing away the demons that had caused it.
One thing the younger man had learned in their time together was that odd things brought about these mood swings. He never resented or faulted Eric for it, though, because they were memories that brought back an awful loss. One that would resonate through time. In this case, it had been the fresh orange a student had given him, because a few years before, fresh oranges were all his partner could keep down as disease and chemicals ravaged his body. So his students would bring them every day, knowing it would please their favored teacher.
So that day, when Luke walked in, he found Eric simply staring at the fruit through misty eyes. His typically pale cheeks had turned blotchy and he looked up helplessly.
When he'd given a small smile, Luke had done the only thing he knew might help. He gave him human contact.
Stroking fingertips gently down his lover's face, he murmured, "It's okay," and leaned in to gently kiss him.
"Hey Dr. Emerson, I think I figured this out," one of his students said as he opened the door and walked in on the scene. Startled, the kid turned bright red, stammered, "Uh, yeah. Knock. Good idea. Um… talk to you tomorrow?"
Chuckling into Eric's lips, Luke asked, "Do all of your students run that fast?"
Smiling in return, Eric wrapped his hand in Luke's hair, pulled his head down, and kissed him in earnest.
X X X
"I'm sure he'll be here any minute," Holden Snyder said as he worriedly watching Luke pace back and forth.
Gathered for Thanksgiving, Luke had been anticipating bringing Eric home – introducing him to his family. They had been together for nearly six months. Considering how their relationship had started – with no more commitment than providing pleasure and relief to one another – Luke hadn't intended on sharing Eric with anyone. A funny thing happened, though.
After a couple of months, Luke had begun to think of Eric first and Reid second; and he'd begun to yearn to share a real relationship. Plus, it seemed as if his family and friends needed to see Luke and Eric together to believe the young philanthropist had truly moved on with his life.
But the professor should've already arrived, and Luke couldn't keep the tendrils of worry from slicking up his spine as everyone watched apprehensively. Over the last half hour, the calm, reassured young man had devolved as anxiety took root. No one needed to ask why the man worried. Several had been in the hospital when Reid had been wheeled through, and a couple had been there when Luke dissolved in the months after.
Watching him pace, though, it broke everyone's hearts when he paused mid-pace and looked at his father helplessly.
"He should've been here an hour ago," he said. He hated the cold that slithered down his spine, bringing to life dormant memories.
"Luke," Holden gently stopped his son and said, "Calm down, son."
Then, to everyone's astonishment, the young man's stiff shoulders relaxed, and his features softened. It wasn't until Jack Snyder looked out the window that he understood the reason for the rapid change in his young cousin. Smiling, he stepped out of the way as Luke rushed past, bounding down the steps, and throwing his arms around a man just an inch or two taller.
"Thank God," Holden said to the room at large as they all approached the windows to watch the scene unfold.
From their perch in the house, with proverbial noses pressed against glass, they watched the obvious apology from the man in the wire rimmed glasses and shy smile.
"Well, I think it's safe to say they like each other," Jack wryly said, when Luke fisted Eric's tie and pulled the other man into hard, quick kiss.
"All right, all right," said Luke's grandmother Emma, shooing everyone out of the kitchen area and back to the living room. "Let them be. They'll be right in."
Coming from a large family, Luke was oblivious to the looks he received a couple minutes later as he stood holding Eric's hand in the doorway and announced, "This is Eric."
"I apologize for being late," he said, his smooth voice carrying into the room. Even though the occupants waited expectantly for an explanation, Eric didn't offer one, making Luke grin a little. For a man who worked with words, showed an amazing amount of compassion to his students, and would often recite poetry in bed, the man at his side certainly didn't waste them.
X X X
It took several hours before Lily and Holden managed to corner Eric alone.
Luke had followed his cousins in to watch a football game. Given the chance, Eric had opted to slip away for a breath of fresh air. Unused to large groups except in the classroom, he'd escaped to the porch to look out over the landscape of the farm. It didn't surprise him, though, when the couple stepped out behind him.
He watched the wind rustle through the leaves when he quietly said, "Thank you for inviting me."
"Well, we're glad you could come," Lily said, looking up at her husband and letting him wrap his arm around her. "Luke's told us a few things, but… I guess maybe I want to know…" Even she must have realized she was prying, because she stopped – leaving the question unasked. They wanted to know his intentions.
For a moment, Eric debated how to answer. Put him in a classroom, with a bunch of freshmen students, and he could talk to his heart's content. But in real life, he spent most of his time tongue-tied or saying the wrong thing.
It turned out he didn't need to speak at all. Apparently, Luke's parents were willing to fill in the gaps.
With Holden's hand on her shoulder, providing comfort, Lily said, "We were so happy when Luke told us he was seeing somebody." Seeking Holden's support, she looked over her shoulder at her husband, before she faced Eric again and continued, "He wouldn't tell us anything about you, though. So we weren't sure what to think."
When she looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to talk, he sighed, and said, "I'm pretty sure you didn't expect me to answer his phone at five in the morning."
Well damn, that was the wrong thing to say, he thought, holding back a wince. For someone who could expound for hours on Yeats and Eliot, Poe and Whitman, Eric really sucked at everyday chitchat.
"No, I didn't," Lily replied, straightening her shoulders at the young man's bluntness. "Especially since you hadn't been seeing each other all that long."
Eric didn't miss the blatant disapproval in her voice. Not that he cared.
As far as he was concerned, their relationship wasn't any of their business. Particularly not the early days. Not that he was ashamed of how they'd been, but in the months together, they'd evolved – become something more than a physical release from their wants. Whether right or wrong, it had been something they'd both desperately needed.
A taut silence reigned as he thought of the Luke he'd first known. Both of them, aching and lonely, had sought out a source of pleasure – an addiction in which to drown themselves. Because just smiling wasn't cutting it anymore; and they were both professionals at smiling big and pretending all was fine.
"Look, we don't know how much Luke's told you about what he's been through, or about how he reacted when Reid died," Holden began, only to have Eric's temperature rising, and his hand shooting up in the universal sign to stop.
This had gone on long enough, he decided, and they were about to cross a line. Luke might be young, but he wasn't a child. And neither was he.
"I'm going to ask you to stay out of it," he asked, crossing his arms across his chest. That his lover had asked him to spend a few days with him had been a monumental and surprising thing. However, it was a tribute to how far they'd come. How far they still wanted to go.
"Mom? Dad?" Luke asked as he stepped out onto the porch. Almost immediately, he noted Eric's defensive stance and went over to stand next to him. Turning to his parents, he reached down, linked his fingers with his boyfriend's and asked, "Is there a problem?"
"No, honey," Lily replied, forcing a smile. "No problem at all."
Eric waited until Luke's parents had slowly backed their way into the house before he turned, linked his other hand with Luke's free one and pulled the younger man into a light kiss. With his forehead tilted against his lover's he softly said, "You parents wanted to know if I was aware you'd lost Reid. Or that you'd had a breakdown."
Freeing his hands, Luke took the opportunity to cup Eric's face, inhaling the scent of paper and ocean air all at once. Oh boy, did he love the smell of books now. That's what he smelled like – the hundreds of books in his home library and the soap he favored. A heady combination.
"Eric, I know we haven't been together long, but I hope you know what you mean to me," he said, massing the lower back muscle on which his hand rested. "I hope you know that for several months, it's been you."
For his part, Luke's boyfriend smiled. He drew back enough to gaze into the his eyes and whisper, "You have no idea how grateful I was the day you stopped calling Reid's name in bed, and shouted mine instead."
"You really never minded," Luke murmured, amazed at how free he'd been those first couple months together. It had been cathartic to not hold back – to give into the temptation of just being with another human being in the most primal way. The feel of skin on skin, feeling the weight of him on top, it had been indulgent. Needed.
"How could I mind? I kept thinking of Danny. Of what we'd lost. And then one day, it was you wrapped around me. It was you that I wanted," he said with a smile that mingled both regret and joy. "We used each other. Horribly."
"No, not horribly," Luke murmured, leaning in to capture Eric's lips in a small, all-too-quick kiss. "We used what we needed, until…"
"Until we found each other," Eric rasped, his heart rate beginning to speed up. All it took was the feel of Luke's thumb on his lower lip and the flare of desire in his eyes to have the professor taking short, harsh breaths. The world around them both ceased to exist. For just a moment, they lost themselves in each other, totally unaware of the fact that a few people inside took an interest.
"I wish I knew what was going on with them," Lily said to Jack and Carly, who had sauntered over.
"I don't know, but Luke's been happy lately. Centered," Holden replied. And that, at the core of it, mattered more to him than anything else.
X X X
If Eric thought he might have a little peace and quiet during the Christmas holidays, he thought wrong. It had been bad enough the chair of the English department had cornered him. By the time he'd left his office (thirty minutes late), traffic had begun to jam up. Then (and he hadn't told Luke this just yet) he'd nearly gotten into a head-on collision. He'd been so rattled, he gave up quickly when he couldn't find the damn cell phone. He'd just been happy to make it to the Snyder farm at all.
"Hey, what are you thinking?" Luke asked.
Turning his head, Eric replied, "I'm thinking you have a large family."
He didn't need to add that large families tended to make him nervous. Tongue tied. Defensive. Out of his element. In his mind, he could name a thousand emotions roiling through him that very moment. Asked to speak them out loud? He struggled, except with those whom he cared about. Luke. His students. The very few friends in his life.
"Um, Eric? Is that your phone?" Luke asked, snapping Eric out of his thoughts.
When he looked toward the object Luke pointed out, he groaned and sighed, much to the other man's amusement. No wonder he hadn't been able to find his cell phone earlier. Instead of his jacket pocket, he'd dropped it in his bag. He'd been hoping he'd actually left it at home. Less chance of having a faculty member call.
"You'd better get it," Luke said, grinning from ear to ear at Eric's annoyance.
By the third time the darn thing began to blare a loud, obnoxious tone meant to wake the dead, Eric managed to find it, flip it open, and bark, "What!"
Luke's grin softened as he watched the other man's face contort from ticked to pleased, with a tad confusion mixed in. He didn't bother to hide his blatant eaves dropping, nor did anyone else. Because when Eric smiled, his face lit up.
"It's one of his students," Luke whispered to his mother, as she approached. "He's gone into professor mode. He walks back and forth in front of his white board, too."
Together, he and Lily watched Eric shuffle through his bag, retrieve a book, and begin to thumb through the pages.
"Okay, go back and re-read one seventy five through one ninety," he said, snapping the book shut once again. "But do it tomorrow or even the next day. Relax and enjoy the holidays." He couldn't help but smile as he flipped his cell phone shut. His kids this year truly rocked. Young, imaginative, and eager to have their minds filled.
"What was that about?" Luke asked, and watched Eric's face light up.
"Earnie wanted to tell me I'm full of crap," Eric said with a happy sigh.
"This is a good thing?" Lily asked, confused.
"It means he's thinking for himself, and not relying on me to feed him an opinion. He's growing up and exploring the world about him. It's the best part of this job," Eric happily explained.
X X X
Standing on the porch where he'd first been grilled by Luke's parents, Eric tried once more to tie the bow tie and cursed under his breath when he couldn't. His hands shook with nerves.
"It's a big day," Holden said as he stopped Eric in his tracks to adjust his tie. Once he was finished, he patted Eric's shoulders and smiled mistily. "I'm so glad Luke found you."
"We found each other," Eric replied with a grin. Turning serious, he quietly asked, "Why are you okay with this? I know Lily doesn't agree with this ceremony."
"That's because at the end of the day, she worries about her son," Holden said. "In twenty years, she'll calm down."
"You don't seem to mind, though," Eric murmured as he nervously pulled on the sleeves of his tuxedo jacket.
"And I never will," Luke's father replied. "You're not Noah and you're not Reid, but I see a passion and contentment in my son's eyes when he looks at you. He loves you. And you love him."
Eric squirmed a little when Holden's eyes misted and the older man drew in a shaky breath. Reaching out, he awkwardly hugged him and said, "You know, Danny and I never got a chance to go through the whole parent ritual before our commitment ceremony. We were pretty much disowned."
Looking Holden in the eye, he continued, "I'll always love Danny. How can I not? But I love Luke – his passion and his patience; his faith and his optimism. And somewhere along the way he's become as vital to me as my next breath. I never thought I'd feel anything like this again."
"I'm glad, son," Holden said, smiling through his tears. "I'm really glad."
X X X
"I guess I always thought you and Noah…" Lily left the sentence wistfully unfinished as she handed Luke a paintbrush.
Surprised, he paused and turned to face his mother. It didn't so much surprise him that the conversation was about to happen, but that it had waited this long.
"Mom, you know I love Noah. He and Casey are my best friends," Luke patiently replied.
"I know. It's just that you and Noah were once in love, and I guess I always thought you'd go back to him," she said with a helpless shrug.
"No, you've been afraid you would lose another child," Luke countered. "You've always loved Noah, and in the process he became family. Another kid in the Snyder clan."
He waited for his mother to process his words, and knew the moment she acknowledged the truth in that statement before he continued, "What Noah and I had was wonderful. It's not something I turned away from lightly – not then and not now. But sometimes things happen that close a chapter of a book. Sometimes you can't go back to what was; you have to find what can be. Reid's death closed a chapter for me, and I had to open the next. I found Eric."
Reaching out, Luke waited for his mother to grasp his hand and he squeezed hers gently.
"You're an amazing man, Luke Snyder," Lily said, stepping into a hug.
"And you're going to be an amazing grandma," he replied, holding her close. Then, pulling back he looked around the room and said, "But first, we need to get this nursery painted. The baby will be here in two weeks."
X X X
"Okay, let me say that it sucks having two dads," Olivia muttered, as she sullenly sat at the table. At ten years old, she came home sporting a black eye and bruised knuckles.
Outraged, Luke asked, "Someone beat you up because you have two dads?"
"Nope," she replied, smiling proudly. "Craig kissed me full on the mouth, so I hit him, and we got into a fight. I gave him two black eyes."
"Honey, what's that got to do with having two dads?" Luke asked, thoroughly confused by his daughter's logic.
With a shrug, she said, "Because I kinda like him and wanna kiss him back. One dad would say no. I'm pretty sure you guys are gonna say hell no."
Eric, having walked in the front door and hearing this didn't know whether to laugh or groan. Luke did both.
X X X
Eric watched from his chair while Luke danced with Olivia. It still amazed him, even today, that he could be so lucky. He'd 'married' the most amazing man in the world.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Holden asked, settling himself gingerly into a chair.
"I'm thinking my daughter is glowing on her wedding day," Eric quietly replied, wishing his chest didn't ache with a sense of loss. He'd been so ready for his little girl to grow up, be whatever she dreamed to be, and one day fall in love. But now that she'd done all these things, he felt a chapter of his life coming to an end.
"She's marrying a good man," his father-in-law said, reaching out to sympathetically pat the younger man's shoulder. "Reid's a good man."
And wasn't there a wonderful twist of irony in life?
Casey and Allison had named their child Reid, giving Luke the most precious gift of all – a legacy of the man he'd loved. Not for one moment had Eric ever begrudged him that. After all, they named their daughter Olivia Danielle in honor of those men who had meant so much and been taken too early.
"They really are beautiful, aren't they?" Holden wistfully asked.
Turning his head, Eric noticed the moisture in the other man's eyes and snorted a laugh. "You're such a softy when it comes to your grandkids."
"You're darn right."
Thoughtfully, Eric watched the elderly man's eyes follow father and daughter dance across the floor. Holden had been so amazingly supportive throughout, and he suddenly realized something so very important that he almost wept with regret.
"Hey Holden? I've never said it before, but… I really do love you," he quietly said, and watched as the older man's blue eyes turned to him and crinkled in laughter.
"I know, son."
X X X
Very few times in his life had Luke hurt this bad. The first time had been when he'd lost his relationship with Noah. The second, when he'd lost Reid, followed within a few years by both of his grandmothers. The third, though, nearly destroyed him.
Standing out by the pond, Luke let the tears pour down his face.
He hadn't lost just one of his parents, but both. His mother had passed quietly in the night, held in Holden's arms. One by one, they'd come to say goodbye and let her go. They all felt their grief keenly, but Luke and his siblings had pulled together.
They'd held each other up, leaning upon one another until they could stand on their own.
None had expected Holden to follow so soon. He'd simply walked through the kitchen of that old farmhouse, laid down on the couch, and looked at Luke with a smile on his face.
"I miss your mother," he'd said. "I'll tell her you love her."
Then he'd closed his eyes and never woken up.
"I'm so sorry," Eric murmured as he wrapped an arm around Luke's waist.
Turning around, Luke dropped his head onto the comforting shoulder and wept. He'd forgotten how much this could hurt.
X X X
Lucy Hughes adored her grandfathers, just as they adored her.
Standing together, hand-in-hand, Eric and Luke watched the infant wave her little arms under the mobile in the nursery. After their own baby girl had grown, they'd downsized to a small home, only to find themselves taking away Eric's study to install another nursery. First with Aaron and then with Lucy.
Aaron's big-boy bed sat nestled in a corner near a small bin of toys, while their precious baby girl gurgled to her heart's content in a cradle near the French doors.
"Our baby makes beautiful babies," Luke said, brushing away the tears that slid down his cheek.
"Yes," Eric concurred, bringing his husband's hand to his lips. "Just spectacular."
He'd always loved that about Luke – the naked sentiment in the other man's heart. He'd always wished he could bare his soul with such ease. But on rare times such as this, as he turned his gaze from their little love in the cradle to the man who had shared his life, his throat clogged with emotion and he felt his own eyes misting.
"I love you," he murmured, leaning in to kiss his lover's graying temple. "You are the light of my life."
"Then you should show me," Luke murmured, and Eric's middle-aged heart skipped a beat.
X X X
"Grandpa, can I ask you a question?" Lucy asked as she settled on the sofa near Luke.
While he loved Aaron, his heart truly belonged to his granddaughter. He would admit it to himself, although to no one else; but in her, he found a kindred spirit.
"Of course, baby," he said, opening his arms and waiting for her to nestle down in that same way his own child used to. "You can ask me anything."
"I'm supposed to write a story about our family for a competition," Lucy said. "Mom told me that you had the best story to tell. Can you tell me the story of you and Grandpa Eric?"
For a moment, Luke thought of giving her the short and sweet version – the one a child should hear. But at eighteen, his little one had grown up too smart to fall for that kind of blatant omission. So instead, he steeled himself, and said, "Get plenty of paper."
Later, after telling her all about his first love, Noah, and a love stupidly lost, he told her of a doctor named Reid, and a love so tragically taken away. He continued through the way he and Eric had started, and the way they'd found their way to one another. And in the telling, he left out nothing. She would have known – seen it in his eyes.
Oh yes, his granddaughter took after him; because when he had finished, hours after he started, he looked down to find her pages blank as she wept silently into his shirt.
"I'm so sorry for all you had to go through, Grandpa," she said, raising her face to show off her red-rimmed eyes. Before Luke could respond, though, she added, "But I'm glad you did, so I'd be around to know you."
X X X
The first time Luke forgot a major event, Eric didn't worry.
When it began to get worse, he dragged his husband to Memorial Hospital and to the neurology wing where his son-in-law ran a series of tests. Dr. Reid Hughes, neurologist extraordinaire immediately consulted with another specialist.
No one wanted to say the word. Alzheimer's was just too final.
It couldn't be ignored, though. And as much as he hated it, Eric eventually found himself never alone with his lover. Even at their advanced age, the intimacy of their relationship actively flourished. The battalion of nurses traipsing in and out of their home didn't help. Once again, loneliness crept into his life a little at a time, even surrounded by those he loved.
While he relished their love, he knew the time drew near, so he sent them away as often as he could manage so he might lay by his husband's side… until he couldn't send the nurses away any longer.
"He's not here anymore," Eric mournfully said to his granddaughter, Lucy. The twenty year old had been spending more and more time with her grandparents, particularly her grandfathers. She'd known this was coming. Her brother, a medical student, had told her that much. He didn't tell her how to heal Grandpa Eric's heart, though.
So when she cuddled up next to him on the couch to watch Grandpa Luke sleep in the special bed in the living room, she wrapped her arms around him and let him weep into her hair.
When they laid Luke to rest a month later, Eric found his way out to Snyder pond. On the edge, he carefully maneuvered his aging body onto a log and stared out over the water.
"I miss him, Papa," Olivia said as she settled in beside her father and leaned against him for comfort. That always gave Eric a sense of existence – that he could still be needed by his little girl.
"If we raised you right, you'll always miss us," Eric said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. "You'll always think of family."
Olivia didn't miss the word 'us' in his statement. Two weeks later, she wept as she laid her Papa next to her Dad.
X X X X X X X
Many, many years later, Noah Bradley Ryan wandered down by the Snyder pond one warm summer night. There on the shores, he raked a hand through his spiked blond hair and sighed. His grandma Ali and grandpa Jake had just scolded him for making out behind the barn. He was seventeen, so shouldn't he be able to experience a little intimacy? For crying out loud, with all the doctors in the family, it wasn't like he could possibly be ignorant about the facts of life. Nor the risks involved.
The odds of catching some disastrous disease by necking with Luke Donovan were pretty damn minimal. Besides, what were they thinking? He sure as heck wasn't easy or promiscuous.
He was pretty sure he was in love with Luke, though. The way his auburn hair curled around his ears made Noah's stomach flutter with butterflies; not to mention he ran around with a perpetual smile on his face.
In fact, his best friend Emma teased him about it, poking and prodding. The two boys walked around school constantly dancing around the subject of each other. Yet every time Luke was near, Noah couldn't see anything else – another thing for Emma to poke at with glee. She even made fun of him, taunting him, and asking if he L-O-V-E-D Luke.
It was there on the edge of the water that it all sunk in, though. That he really realized that he did love Luke. That he wanted, more than anything, to spend every waking moment with him. When they were apart, his heart ached. When they were together, the other boy was all he could think about.
"I'm in love," he whispered. "Oh boy, I'm really in love."
Noah hadn't been the first gay man in his family. His great-great-great-grandfathers had been legendary. One man could speak to the world, while the other lived a quiet existence. They balanced each other, and found their place of peace in each other's arms.
Their tale of tragedy and redemption was still handed down from one generation to the next, especially since his great-grandma Lucy had used her talent and put pen to paper. Her novel, Smile My Best Smile had been hailed as a once in a generation novel. A classic.
She'd captured their story shortly after they'd died, giving credit to their lives and passing on their legacy. She passed away before it became part of many English Department curriculums.
At night, Noah sometimes wondered what the woman he barely remembered would think of being a point of study by students. Sure, there'd be pride. There would have been love and adoration there, as well. The love she felt for her grandfathers had come through with crystal clarity in the honest telling of their tale.
Noah knew the boy he loved had been named for one of them. Smiling, he walked down to the water and sat down on an old log. As the summer sun faded and twilight settled across the smooth water, he whispered, "I hope one day I have a history as amazing as yours."
He could have sworn he heard a sigh.