Disclaimer: I do not own anything ATWT does.

Notes: Written for nuke_anon's Challenge #10 using the prompts wait, one month, and homecoming (wild card).


1

Luke watched the retreating figure on the other side of the security gates. He'd worried their visit might be awkward, but having Noah home for Thanksgiving had been anything but. It was the first time in the two months since Noah's move (and the two-and-a-half since Reid's death) that Luke felt normal.

Now, Luke feared Noah's departure would rob him of the sense of calm he'd enjoyed during their visit. Just as Noah was almost out of sight, he turned to Luke, flashing the tentative but hopeful smile Luke had fallen for three years ago. He raised his pointer finger in the air, signalling to Luke what he'd already promised in their parting embrace.

One month.

2

He wished Noah had been able to stay for the weekend, but the demands of his film had necessitated his return to L.A. the day after Thanksgiving. Having Noah home had filled Luke's time with both easy companionship and welcome distraction. Luke found himself ashamed to realize he had barely thought of Reid during the holiday.

He'd thought of him plenty leading up to it, imagining what it might've been like to have Reid at his side around the Snyder table. He didn't doubt Reid would have bristled at the family intimacy, but rejoiced at Emma's delectable feast. Still, the day had come and gone, and Luke couldn't deny that slipping his palm into Noah's for grace had felt familiar, reassuring, and right.

3

His dad was watching Bears football. Luke was more of a baseball guy; as a child he'd quickly adopted Holden's love of that sport. He'd never really taken to football in quite the same way.

Knowing this, Holden raised an eyebrow when Luke plopped onto the sofa beside him, propping his own feet on the coffee table next to his dad's. He didn't ask, though. Turning his attention back to the game, Holden slightly nudged Luke's shoulder with his own, indicating the plate of Emma's secret recipe chicken wings in his lap.

As he reached for a wing and watched Jay Cutler endure a particularly brutal sack, Luke wondered what Noah was doing.

4

Watching his mom leave for the office, Luke was again struck by the fact he had nothing to do. Immediately following Reid's death, he'd been especially desperate for tasks of any sort to fill his time. He haunted the hospital boardroom, brought himself up to speed on the foundation's latest projects, and even showed up at the stables.

Luke enjoyed helping out because it made him feel useful, but true fulfillment was elusive. He knew he was only borrowing other people's lives; other people's passions. If he meant to move on with the rest of his life, Luke had to forge his own path.

5

The cursor seemed to blink more insistently now than it had five minutes ago. Maybe he was out of his mind for even attempting this. It had been so long since he'd written anything.

Even when he wasn't writing for school or his WOAK internship, Luke had always kept a journal. From his teenage years through his adulthood, all the way up until the past year. Then, Noah's accident happened, and he spent his time trying to find some way to fix what went wrong.

Not all his time. In truth, as things between he and Noah rapidly disintegrated, Luke was afraid to record those feelings. He told himself they'd weather it, and he didn't want a record of his own guilt and fear, and especially his growing resentment of Noah's behavior.

The difference was, in every other crisis they'd experienced, he'd continued to journal his emotions. In retrospect, Luke wondered if he hadn't done it in the aftermath of Noah's accident because deep down, he knew he'd be chronicling their demise.

6

As he discarded the blackened remains of what was supposed to have been his lunch, Luke couldn't help but smile. Noah was right. He did always burn grilled cheese sandwiches.

7

He woke up with his heart pounding against his chest. The nightmare had felt too real, like all of them involving Reid did. Strangely, in Luke's dreams, Reid was never dead.

But he was often in peril, begging for Luke's help. The pleading alone should have tipped off Luke that he was asleep. Reid Oliver didn't beg for anything, ever. Yet unconscious Luke could never access that reasoning, so every nightmare was real life until he woke.

This time, Reid was lying bruised and beaten on that hospital gurney all over again. But instead of the courageous acceptance of his dark fate he'd displayed at the end, dream-Reid looked lost, confused, and terrified. He seemed to try and reach for Luke, but couldn't summon the strength.

Even worse, he repeatedly beseeched Luke in a weak, fading voice. "Help me, please. Luke, I need you. Why won't you help me?"

Dream-Luke just stared, frozen on the spot. He wanted to help Reid - to save him, but he couldn't move. He was standing, but couldn't feel his legs, just like when he'd been confined to a wheelchair.

In the dream, Luke tried to offer words of reassurance, but his voice abandoned him. When he finally awoke, the image of Reid helpless and hopeless haunted him for the rest of the day. He couldn't shake the feeling that somehow, he'd let Reid down.

8

What's wrong?

The message was a response to the 1 a.m. text Luke sent thirty seconds earlier. It had only consisted of hey, what are you doing. Yet he wasn't surprised the reply didn't answer his question; the recipient knew him too well.

Noah could always hear what Luke didn't say.

9

Luke stretched his legs across the bed, his back settling on the pillow propped against the headboard. He placed the netbook in his lap, opening it to resume the document he'd begun yesterday. It was already twenty-five pages long.

Noah had called him after responding to yesterday's text, and they'd talked for two hours. More accurately, Luke talked, and Noah listened. Initially, Luke had been resistant to unload on him, knowing so much of what he was coping with involved Reid. He didn't want to hurt Noah.

But Noah insisted. After months of trying to come to grips with everything alone, Luke needed to vent too badly to turn down the offer. He wouldn't get a better one; Noah was the person he felt most comfortable confiding in.

And so Luke shared his struggle to make sense of what had happened - not just to Reid, but to himself and Noah. Luke confessed his survivor's guilt, too. He couldn't get past the fact that Reid, who'd spent his life saving others, had needlessly died. Meanwhile, Luke lived on, but with no comparable usefulness to anyone.

Noah had interrupted then. He told Luke that while his feelings were natural, they weren't accurate. Luke was needed and loved by many, and had touched more lives than he realized.

Noah proposed that Luke pursue something important to him, then went a step further by suggesting the very thing Luke had already tried - and failed - to revisit: his writing. Luke admitted fearing what writing honestly would reveal. Noah encouraged him to do it anyway, reminding that he of all people knew burying his darkest feelings didn't make them go away.

When they'd said goodbye, Luke took advantage of the late-night quiet of the Snyder household, the words pouring out of him on waves of pent-up emotions finally set free. By 5:30 in the morning, he was mentally and physically exhausted, but with a heart just a bit lighter than before. It was progress.

10

One thing Reid loved about the brain was its order. The temporal lobe controls speech. The medulla controls respiration. The frontal lobe controls judgment.

I think that needs an upgrade. Why do our brains strive to make sense of the senseless? Sometimes I'm drowning in a sea of "if". "If I hadn't done that... if I would have known this..."

Even if we could solve all the hows and whys of everything that goes wrong, would we feel any better? I doubt it. So why doesn't our frontal lobe give us the judgment to stop wasting energy on questions that will never have satisfying answers?

Sorry, Reid. The frontal lobe sucks.

11

The summer we had our apartment, Noah didn't have to work on Saturdays until the afternoon. Those Saturday mornings were the happiest time of my life, ever. It wasn't that we ever made special plans.

It was that we planned nothing. One of us would usually wake by nine or so, but there was no hurry to start the day. We might climb out of bed to shuffle off to the bathroom, or grab a water from the kitchen, but that was it.

Whoever had gotten up would climb back in bed, curl into the other, and fall back to sleep. Or not. Just lying there together was more than enough.

It was perfect.

12

When I was eight or nine, the horse I learned to ride on had a stroke. I didn't know what a stroke was, but I could see the result. Warrior had suddenly gone from the proud, strong stallion I knew to a feeble, agonized heap on the barn floor.

My dad broke the news they would have to put him down to end his suffering. Living on a farm, I understood what the term meant. I tearfully begged Holden not to do it, promising to nurse Warrior back to health myself.

He explained there was nothing that could be done. The horse wouldn't recover, and trying to prolong his life would only prolong his pain. It was most humane to let him go.

Years later, the doctors told me there was nothing they could do to save Reid. Despite any efforts they could make, he wouldn't recover. Upon receiving their analysis of his injuries, even Reid seemed to agree.

Why didn't anybody demand a second opinion - or a third or a fourth, if need be? Why didn't anyone fight harder for him? Why didn't I fight harder for him?

13

"So it's definite? You're coming home for Christmas?" Luke asked over the phone. "The right answer is 'yes'."

"I guess I better since you miss me so much. I can't let down the only boyfriend I've ever had."

Luke snorted in response. It had been awhile since he'd thought of their harebrained ploy to pose as boyfriends. Casey had been anything but an enthusiastic participant.

At least the memory of Noah's sham marriage no longer brought the pain it once had. For a long time, Luke listed it among the many things that had kept them apart, but that wasn't entirely true. It was a scheme they'd undertaken together.

As much as Luke came to resent the green-card union, he eventually admitted to himself it never would've occurred if he'd told Noah the truth in the first place. That he did have a problem with the idea, and absolutely didn't want it to happen. But he'd been too worried what Noah would think of him.

Rather than show himself fully - even his selfish parts - Luke allowed Noah to think he was on board with the plan. The irony was, Luke always pushed Noah to share more, and to believe he could tell Luke anything. But Luke hadn't held himself to the same standard, hiding the things he feared could cause him to lose Noah's affection.

He ultimately lost Noah anyway. If he could've done it over, he wouldn't make the same mistake again.

14

He'd looked for half an hour, but couldn't find the godforsaken coat. As he pulled an older, smaller one over Ethan's arms, his brother predictably howled. "It's too tight!"

"I know, buddy, but I can't find your other coat. You're gonna have to make due with this today."

"I caaaaaaaaaaaaaan't," Ethan wailed. "I can't bend my arms!"

Wrestling the zipper to get it closed, Luke couldn't argue the point. The kid looked ridiculous. The fabric was stretched taut over Ethan's limbs and torso, preventing him from fully lowering his arms, and making the slightest movement a Herculean effort.

"Ethan, you have to wear the coat. It's twenty degrees outside, and the bus will be here in two minutes. We don't have time to find something better right now."

Ethan sniffled, pouting at Luke as if perceiving a total big brother fail. "I wish Mommy was here."

Luke heartily shared the sentiment. When his parents decided to fly out to visit Meg, Luke had insisted he could handle getting the kids on the bus, seeing that they finished their homework after school, and insuring nobody starved. His parents probably thought he was desperate for something to do, and agreed to put him in charge rather than have Emma stay over.

Luke's babysitting tenure was something less than a resounding success. In two days, the Snyder kids had collectively lost one homework assignment, two textbooks, one lunchbox, and now, one winter jacket. Luke couldn't help but think fatherhood may not be in the cards for him.

15

"And the tortoise and the meercat lived happily ever after."

He finished the story, even though Ethan had nodded off three pages ago. All right; Luke was a little curious to see how the rapping tortoise and opera-singing meercat resolved their differences. Who knew you could mashup "Nessun Dorma" with Flo Rida's "Low"?

Luke stood, and pulled the covers to Ethan's chin. The kitten who'd caused such trouble yesterday slept curled up on the pillow next to Ethan's head. After his brother had grudgingly gotten on the bus, Luke continued the search for the missing winter jacket.

As it turned out, Ethan knew where it was the whole time. He'd found an abandoned kitten while playing outside the day before, and used his coat to fashion a pet-bed under the porch. Afraid he wouldn't be allowed to keep the feline, he'd snuck it food and kept it out of sight.

Luke only discovered the secret at all because he'd heard pitiful mewing when combing the yard for his brother's coat. He had to marvel that Ethan had gone to school in tremendous discomfort, all the while protecting the tiny stray's hideout. It reminded him strongly of someone else's tendency of sacrificing himself to protect others.

Luke just hoped Ethan never fake-married anyone.

16

He separated the long locks into three sections. Initially, he tried looping the left section over the other two and bringing it back, but that wouldn't hold. Starting over, he placed the left portion of hair over the middle, but under the right section. That seemed to work better.

Ten minutes later, Natalie's braid was complete, and her approval was enthusiastic. "Thanks, Luke!"

So maybe he didn't totally suck at this parenting stuff.

17

Emma had picked up the younger kids up for Sunday school. Faith had stayed overnight at a friend's house. And Holden and Lily wouldn't be home until the evening.

Luke knew he should use the early morning peace and quiet to write. Nonetheless, he found himself texting a familiar number. Are you awake?

I am now, came the bemused reply.

18

He'd managed forty-three more pages since yesterday. Every time he talked to Noah, Luke felt like he was given the freedom to write - to say exactly how he felt, without trying to sugarcoat things to shield himself or others. Noah told Luke his experiences were his own, and it wouldn't be authentic to water them down.

He wondered if Noah would feel differently once he read what Luke had written.

19

Luke stood staring across the pond, questioning his decision to distribute Reid's ashes here. At the time, he'd hoped it would help him feel closer to his late boyfriend. But he'd never spent time at the pond with Reid.

Consequently, each time he visited, Luke's thoughts moved in an entirely different direction. He remembered that first swim; the splashing and wrestling had felt less like horseplay than foreplay. He recalled long walks around the water hand-in-hand - the excitement of stealing just a few moments alone.

And he relived their kisses. God, he could never forget those. Taking his breaths from Noah's as their mouths fused together.

Clinging to Noah's shirt like it was a lifeline. Digging his fingers underneath to touch the taut expanse of muscle. The feel of Noah's hands gripping his hair as if worried Luke might escape.

When his own hand snaked into his pants, Luke shot back to awareness of the moment. He understood now this could never be his place of remembrance for Reid, because it was irrevocably wrapped in everything Noah. Especially X-rated Noah.

Walking back to his car, Luke wondered if Reid could see him now. Surprisingly, the idea filled him not with guilt, but amusement. He didn't doubt Reid would have a few choice words for him.

What truly troubled Luke was reflecting on the impromptu waterside memorial. Noah had stood at his side and been his rock, never openly questioning Luke's decision to spread Reid's ashes here. In retrospect, Luke realized Noah may have hidden his own hurt at the decision, just like Luke had done when Noah married Ameera.

The difference was, if that was what Noah had done, Luke knew it had been entirely for his sake - not Noah's.

20

He could've saved time by just purchasing a generous gift certificate to a tech store or a film-geek emporium, but Luke wanted something special. He'd scoured eBay for hours when he finally found it. Somewhat doubting the seller could ship the item two-day express, Luke chose the option anyway. At least it was sure to arrive before Christmas.

21

He lost his keys. He stubbed his toe. He wrote seventeen more pages.

22

Luke signed for the sizeable delivery, accepting the UPS man's offer to help him drag it into the living room. Luckily, he'd bought a colossal roll of (X-Men) wrapping paper; he was going to need it. It would've made more sense to have sent the thing to L.A., since he'd have to ship it all over again.

But Luke wanted to see Noah's face when he opened the old-fashioned projector on Christmas morning. That was worth any amount of hassle. The delivery spiked Luke's already burgeoning anticipation of Noah's Christmas Eve arrival.

Later, a text confirmed Noah was counting the days, too.

One week.

23

The words weren't coming. Recording the experiences of the past few years had been cathartic, but Luke was increasingly finding trouble revisiting those dark places. The culprit was no longer fear, though.

Luke was simply distracted. And happy. Distracted and happy because in six days, Noah would be back in Oakdale.

Mentally crying uncle, Luke closed the laptop and set it on the bedside table. He scooted from a sitting position to lie down. He idly wondered if the curls at the back of Noah's neck would be longer, or if he might've gotten a haircut.

Luke guessed he probably wouldn't have. Noah was a creature of habit, so he might wait to get his hair trimmed in the Old Town barbershop. Closing his eyes, Luke recalled the feel of weaving his fingers through those curls - which normally happened when they were cuddling, or kissing, or much, much more.

This time, Luke didn't stop his hand when it dipped beneath his waistband.

24

Can I read it?

Their texting convo had screeched to a halt on the heels of that message. The fear Luke had believed he'd let go of snapped back full force. While he'd gotten the courage to express some very difficult things on paper, showing them to Noah was another matter altogether.

It's not very good. I'd be embarrassed, Luke finally replied.

A long minute passed, in which Luke knew Noah realized he was full of shit. When his phone finally beeped, Luke imagined Noah's text had called him on it. Instead, the message read:

When you're ready. If you're ready. No pressure.

25

He made the decision. It was hard, and he badly wanted to edit things - soften them - in the worst way. But Luke knew doing so would eradicate all the progress he'd made in facing the truth about his life.

Especially his life with Noah.

Now, he just had to summon the nerve to press "send."

26

From: Luke Snyder
Date: December 21, 2010
Subject: Here it is
Attachment 373 KB

Noah,

I probably picked the worst possible timing for this. I need to warn you; some of what's in here isn't pretty. I don't want to ruin our visit, and to be honest, this might.

If you choose to read this now, know that I am so sorry for any pain it causes, and every bad memory it brings back. Most of all, remember how much I still care about you, and always will.

Always.

-Luke

27

It probably seems naive to anyone else, but at the time, I almost believed Noah and I would be together forever. We were each other's first real loves. I thought we'd beat the odds, and be each other's last, too.

Still, I said "almost" believed. Because no matter how good things were between us, I constantly waited for the other shoe to drop. I think Noah did, too. Too often, we were both right.

It would be easy to blame the incredible series of events that littered the years of our romance. Unbalanced fathers, persistent interlopers, and just plain bad luck didn't lend themselves to couplehood bliss. The most sobering thing is knowing if those obstacles been removed, we still wouldn't have made it.

We were two kids with difficult pasts and the battle scars to show for it. But I don't think we realized how broken each of us was. We were destined to fail before we'd even begun.

28

I never fully trusted in the strength of Noah's love for me. When I doubted him, I blamed him for it. It was his fault for not reading my mind to see I didn't want him to marry Ameera.

It was his fault I initially downplayed my insecurities when Noah told me about Mason's attraction to him. And Noah should've known spending so much time with Maddie when she returned to Oakdale would upset me. Instead of confessing weakness, I blamed Noah for not always knowing to soothe my fears.

I'm still not completely sure why I did it. I think I was afraid if I showed Noah the most irrational and cowardly side of myself, he'd leave me. That was unthinkable.

Noah was absolutely the most important person in my life. I was sure I couldn't survive if I lost him. And then I lost him.

And I survived.

29

Luke paced nervously in the airport terminal. His eyes kept searching the arrivals board just to make sure Noah's flight was still expected on time. In fact, he'd lied to his family, claiming to be picking Noah up from a later flight.

He thought they might need the time alone if Noah had read the 100+ pages Luke sent him.

Since he'd pressed send, Luke had re-thought that decision at least thirty times. Why had he felt the need to dump this on Noah now? Couldn't he have just let them enjoy the holiday visit, and hit him over the head with their tortured past in the new year?

It was true Noah asked to read what Luke had written so far, but that wasn't why he'd sent it. The whole truth was, Luke ached to share the parts of himself he'd held back when they were together. Even the ugliest, weakest parts.

If Noah could accept him like this...

"Luke!"

In his reverie, Luke had completely missed the alteration for Noah's flight listing from "On Time" to "Arrived." He watched Noah making his way past the security area, and steeled himself for whatever reaction Noah might have to what he'd read. Unlike their Thanksgiving visit, Noah didn't hesitate or seem tentative as he neared Luke.

Instead he kept full stride, his face a picture of intensity and purpose. Luke barely had time to wonder what that meant before he was clutched tightly within Noah's arms. Overcome with stark relief, he clung to Noah just as fiercely.

"I am so proud of you," Noah whispered into his hair.

Luke pulled back, wanting to see for himself the approval he'd yearned for but never expected. Noah's eyes told the same story. He meant what he said.

"I've been panicking ever since I sent it," Luke admitted. "I should've waited-"

"No way," Noah interrupted. "Do you have any idea what it means to me that you trust me like that?"

"I trust you more than anyone," Luke answered, weighing if this was the time to go for broke. "I... love you more than anyone."

When Noah just stared at him for a full three seconds, Luke was convinced he was about to be let down easy. Until Noah's mouth swooped down to capture his lips, sending Luke's mind into a dizzying tailspin and setting his senses on fire. The impassioned kiss lasted long enough that even through Luke's euphoria, he began to notice they were attracting onlookers.

Reluctantly, he ended the liplock. "How do you feel about taking this somewhere more private? Everyone's at the farm, so we could go back to the house..."

Noah raised an approving eyebrow. "I feel like that's the best idea I've ever heard."

Half an hour later, they'd come full circle, pulling and tugging and fumbling their way up to Luke's bedroom. An hour later, they lay wrapped within each other, reluctant to let go. They didn't have to be at the farm for a few hours, anyway.

When a jet-lagged Noah fell into an easy slumber, Luke listened to the even sound of his breathing. He rested his head against Noah's chest, feeling the softly thumping heartbeat against his face. Luke was struck by the knowledge that for the first time in too long, everything in his world was just as it should be.

Noah was absolutely the most important person in my life. I was sure I couldn't survive if I lost him. And then I lost him.

And I survived.

I survived because despite the heartbreak and the attempts to move on, I never completely let go of the hope. That Noah and I would come out on the other side of our shared hell. That we'd forge a path to be vital in each others' lives again. That if we were really lucky, we'd find the way back to each other for good.

So I hope. I wait. And when I fall asleep at night, I tell myself I'm one day closer to the moment Noah and I become "we" again.