Even surrounded by the quiet, his mind still raced. Currently, it took him back to the time he had stood on this very spot and said goodbye. The ceremony had given him some peace of mind, enabling him to step over the threshold into the future and towards whatever new things life had in store for him. Never in a million years would he have thought life would lead him back here.
He was so deep in thought that he failed to register the footsteps behind him or the other man’s presence, until he heard a familiar voice say his name.
The dam he had built to keep his emotions in check, using every ounce of his willpower, broke at the sound of the only person who had ever been able to coax them out to their full extent. And tears finally started to flow.
A letter from Tamms Correctional Center, informing Noah that an altercation with a fellow inmate had resulted in Winston Mayer’s death, had arrived at the farm early last week; a package with the plastic pouch containing his father’s ashes followed four days later. Originally, the message was sent to the apartment he had shared with Luke. After Noah’s phone call had started the chain of events that sent his dad to the Tamms CMAX unit, and he had closed the door to his past with a ritual, Noah had never bothered to update his address with the Illinois Department of Corrections. But because Oakdale was the town where everybody knew everybody else’s business, Mr. Reece’s new tenant had forwarded the mail to Snyder farm.
For once, the meddling aspect of Oakdale left Noah feeling grateful. It had meant the news of his father’s death was conveyed through a call from Lily, instead of a missive to the LA apartment that—after seven months of living in it—only half felt like home because only half of his heart was there. Lily had promised him the ashes would be kept at the farm until he had made arrangements to pick them up, and her assertions of love and commiseration were followed by a FedEx delivery the next day of a whopping two pounds of Emma’s oatmeal raisin cookies and a heartfelt, five page long, handwritten letter from the lady herself.
And now here he was, arriving in town under the radar and sitting in what used to be his favourite spot in the world; until that same world had intervened with his happiness over and over again, and had replaced memories of midnight swims, and September picnics, and making love after a walk in the moonlight, with memories of a ritual send-off for an abusive father, and standing by the man he loved at an impromptu memorial for the man he despised, and belonging to a family left behind when he moved six states away.
Through the tearful hiccups that shook his frame, he could sense Luke sitting down behind him, see his legs planted on either side of his own, and feel strong arms sliding around his midsection, Luke’s chest pressing against his back. “I’m so sorry about your dad, Noah.”
He wanted to lean in. It had been seven months since he’d seen Luke, and way, way longer since he’d touched this much of him. Determined to give the other man the time and space he had promised to give him, communication between them had been scarce and always at Luke’s instigation. Noah physically craved to be close to Luke again and the thought of moving away from the comfort enveloping him made him queasy. But he had to. He didn’t deserve this.
Noah shifted forward, out of Luke’s arms, out of Luke’s reach, standing up and taking a few steps towards the water’s edge. He stood there, body shaking with sobs that wouldn’t cease, face streaked with tears that wouldn’t stop. “You shouldn’t do this, Luke.” Noah uttered the words with difficulty. “I don’t deserve your sympathy. I’m a terrible person.” He turned his back on the blond, too ashamed to face him, not seeing the confusion that clouded over his former boyfriend’s face.
This time he did hear the footsteps, soft as they were on the grass, and then he felt Luke’s arms go around his torso once more. They seized him tighter, determined not to let him get away again. “Nonsense,” was the firm reply. “You have every right to mourn for your dad, and every right to accept some consolation.” Noah tried to break free, managing to turn around in Luke’s hold and place his hands on the other man’s upper body to give him more leverage. He pushed out, and forced Luke an arm’s length away so Luke’s hands were gripping Noah’s elbows instead of being wrapped around his waist. “No I don’t!” He shook his head. “You don’t understand, Luke. That’s not why I’m upset.”
“Well, then explain it to me,” Luke said as he gently pulled down until they were both sitting on the grass again. He crossed his legs and extended his hands out to hold Noah’s, insisting to touch at least a part of him and waiting with uncharacteristic patience until the brunet had taken a series of shaky breaths to collect himself. Noah found it hard to look at him and focussed his eyes on Luke’s left ear, rather than the soulful hazel orbs staring at him in what he was sure would soon be a disappointed glare.
Gathering his courage with another unsteady breath, Noah came clean. “When I heard my dad had died, I wasn’t sad. Well, I was, but mostly I felt—” His fingers went back to plucking out grass blades and the start of a new pile quickly formed beside him. “Luke, I’m not sorry it happened! I’m not sorry he’s gone. I don’t even feel guilty about sending him to the place where he was shanked in the neck.” The fingers stilled and Noah fixed his eyes on the ground. “My father died a horrible violent death, and the thing I’m feeling above all else is an incredible sense of relief. Of…freedom.”
As he choked out the final word, Noah started weeping again. Powerless to stop it, he allowed Luke to fold his arms around him and offer the words of solace and understanding he had denied himself since Lily’s news had brought on an uproar of emotions and the sleepless nights that accompanied them. He leaned in like he had wanted to do before, and poured out all his grief, loneliness and self-loathing, until he was too exhausted to continue and cried himself to sleep in Luke’s embrace.
The sun hung a bit lower in the sky when he woke up. Blinking a few times to come to his senses, Noah realised he was lying down in the grass, next to Luke. His head was pillowed on Luke’s chest and the blond’s hands were softly moving through his hair, playing with a few curls, making Noah glad he was overdue a trip to the barber. When he stirred, Luke’s arms came down and wrapped around him, keeping him close without squeezing him tight, signifying permission to stay where he was. “Feeling better?” he inquired softly. Noah nodded against the steady heartbeat he could feel beneath his cheek.
He realised that, after a confession he was sure would be enough to send him running away in disgust for good, Luke was still by his side. And not just that, but he was holding him, offering him support and comfort. Noah couldn’t fathom why, but after ten days of mental self-flagellation he was too drained to deny himself Luke’s acceptance. Instead, he gathered his self-control and went for broke, bringing up the other thing that had been festering away inside of him. He sat up, and this time he did meet Luke’s eyes. All he saw there was kindness and affection, giving him the strength to say what he wanted to say.
“I owe you an apology, Luke.” The blond had moved to sit up with him and opened his mouth to protest, so Noah grabbed his hand to silence him. “Please? Let me say this? I have to say this.” Luke’s warm gaze softened even more, and he closed his mouth, allowing Noah to continue.
“This last year, I spent a lot of time thinking. About my dad, about what having him as a parent meant to me. And I realised something.” Determined not to start crying again, Noah blinked a few times. He could do this. He had to. “Luke, you grew up with Holden as your dad. A mentor, a father, somebody to look up to, somebody who was proud of you. I never had that, and I yearned for it. All my dad ever taught me was that I was a disappointment.”
Bringing a relief that was actually welcome, Noah felt the calm rising from inside of him at finally getting the words out. “After sending my dad off to prison, after burning his possessions to close that chapter of my life, I still found it difficult to let go of needing his approval. And when I started my new senior project, Mason provided that. Here was this professor—this authority figure—encouraging me and guiding me, telling me he was proud of what I achieved.”
Noah looked straight at Luke. “You were completely right. Mason Jarvis was a bad guy. But my need to have somebody older be proud of me, and counsel me, blocked out all of his machinations. I only realised what he was doing until it was far too late.” His throat almost felt too small for the words wanting to be spilled. “And even then, I downplayed his behaviour and defended him when you confronted me; because it was really hard for me to accept that the person I had looked up to as a mentor, as a father figure, was in fact a manipulative lecher.” Smiling a humourless grin, Noah admitted, “I was so busy seeing Mason as a role model, so happy to have him approve of my work, I failed to see what was really going on. And look what that lead to! In that respect I was blind long before those fireworks went off in my face.”
Luke was bursting at the seams to respond. Noah could see tears in his eyes, and his body was tense with pent up words and emotions at the second revelation of the afternoon. But when Luke practically pounced on him after he had finally stopped speaking, leaning in so close he was almost in Noah’s lap and taking his face between his hands, Noah still wasn’t expecting it.
“Thank you, Noah. Hearing you say that means so much to me! But this wasn’t all your fault. And since we are talking about father figures, I have a confession of my own to make.” Noah’s hand came up, his thumb stroking away the tear that had made its way across Luke’s cheek, and the other man leaned in to the touch before letting go of Noah’s face and settling down next to him. “I’ve been thinking a lot too. And looking back on it—” A long drawn-out breath left Luke’s lips.
“I knew I went to the wrong father with my grievances about Mason. I knew even then. I should have gone to talk to my dad instead. Holden would have made me see reason.” Luke gently bumped Noah’s shoulder with his own. “Hell, I could have talked to anybody else, Grandma, Grandmother, Mom, even Casey. They all would have reminded me that I knew I could trust you, and that you and I should figure out together how to deal with Mason. But I wanted to get my way, so I vented to Damian; leaving that disc with the one person I knew would indulge my every unspoken whim, immediately and without any questions asked.”
Luke turned his head to face him, and Noah saw his features were dark with regret. “The fireworks accident was just that, an accident. But Noah, the events leading up to it? That—in part—was me being a brat, and I am so, SO sorry.”
A lump formed in Noah’s throat and he found himself unable to talk. So he did what he always did when his way with words short-changed him. He let all his feelings show in his eyes, raising himself up to his knees and pulling Luke into a hug. They stayed that way for a while, swaying a little, neither of them willing to let go. Until Luke gently untucked his head from below Noah’s chin and sat back down. Noah followed suit and seated himself next to Luke, their shoulders and arms touching.
“Have you figured out what you want to do with your dad’s ashes?” Luke asked after a moment’s silence. Noah shook his head. “I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I’m not sure it matters where I leave the bastard behind, just as long as I finally get to do that.” He felt Luke leaning in to him a tad more.
“I believe it does matter,” he stated. “Do you remember telling me about the fishing trip you and your dad took to Lake Dunlap, when you were seven? You said it was the only vacation where you recall there being no yelling, no bruises. The only camping trip where the two of you just had fun.” Noah nodded and frowned simultaneously. “Yeah…” he replied, uncertain. “What’s your point?” “I was thinking,” Luke went on, “you could scatter his ashes there. That way your dad will always be in a place where you can think of him fondly.”
Noah turned his head and looked at Luke, words failing him again. When he said nothing, Luke shrugged and moved away from him slightly, biting his lip. “I don’t know. I was just thinking out loud. Maybe it’s a stupid idea.” Still speechless, Noah leaned in and briefly rested his forehead against Luke’s stripe-clad upper arm. When he pulled away he felt the blond relax back against his shoulder. “Just consider it, Noah. And if you’d rather leave your dad’s ashes here in Snyder Pond, you know you can, right?”
Luke picked up a small pebble and threw it at the water. “It’s funny,” he said. “I always thought of the pond as the place where we started.” He glanced sideways at Noah. “You know, that first swim?” There was sadness in his voice when he continued. “But now it seems to have become the place where we’re always saying goodbye. To your father. To Reid...” Noah saw Luke shudder involuntarily when he said the man’s name, and a pang of jealousy shot through him. But just as he was ready to convince himself again that he really was a bad person, Luke’s next words, spoken softly, surprised him.
“I could see it, Noah, when you came to find me here after his death. I could see how difficult it was for you to listen to the things I told you about Reid and me. I could see you were struggling. But I was grieving, and confused about us, and I didn’t care. And you still stayed.” Luke’s tears were flowing again, and he impatiently wiped them away before Noah could reach out to tend to them.
“You stayed with me, and then later you got me through the scattering of Reid’s ashes, and if I hadn’t insisted that you’d leave, you would have given up your dream of going to LA, without thinking twice about it, and stayed in Oakdale to look after me while I was mourning another man.” Luke turned to face him and wiped at his tears again, angrily this time. “That was the second time you were willing to give up the chance of a lifetime to help me through my grief. And I knew right then where I belonged! But I was too stubborn to admit it until now.”
Was this really happening? Noah struggled to believe what he was hearing. Thankfully, Luke made it easier for him when he went on, in a pleading tone. “I know we’ve only just started talking again, Noah. I know we have to talk a lot more. And I promise we will. There’ll be more explanations, and probably more apologies for the both of us, and maybe some couples counselling; whatever it takes to get us back on track and keep us on track this time.”
His heart, Noah was certain, was about to burst. He moved forward to grab Luke’s outstretched hand as the other man kept talking. “But can we just start now, please? I want to be here with you, for this. I want to give you the family you always craved by helping you finally put your father to rest; both in a place where you can remember him warmly, and inside your head and your heart.”
Luke’s other hand lifted, fingers skimming Noah’s face. “And can we go on from there, making new memories in new places? I don’t care if it’s LA, or Oakdale or somewhere else. That’s totally your call.” His hand rounded the brunet’s cheek before sliding down and resting on his heart. “I just want to earn back the right to call you Bubby.”
That last statement caused a wracking sob in Noah, but he managed to swallow it down and reached for the man opposite, pulling him in and holding him as tight as he dared without crushing him.
Searching for his eyes, Luke raised his head. As he spoke, his expression flitted from hopeful to scared to brave. “So tell me, Noah. Are you still waiting? Or have I taken too long to let you know what I should have said to you five seconds after I told you that we were not right for each other?” Noah could feel Luke starting to shake, so he gently rubbed between his shoulder blades to try and calm him enough to continue. “I should have told you then and there that I was an idiot and that I only said that to try and convince myself. Because the opposite was true, but I was too afraid to give my heart back to the only person it belonged to. So instead I tried to give it to somebody who never could have kept it safe even if he had lived for another sixty years.”
Noah’s hand sought for the watch on Luke’s wrist, fingering the worn leather strap. “You’re still wearing it,” he said. He could feel Luke nod and hum a muffled “Yes” against his chest. Noah genuinely smiled, for the first time in a long time. “Then do you really have to ask if I’m still waiting?”
After everything the world had cooked up to keep them apart, after all the pain, the misunderstandings, the heartaches, the accidents, the losses, the blaming, and the grief, it suddenly turned out to be that simple. Luke beamed at Noah through the waterworks and leaned up towards him for a kiss.
And they were THEM again.
This story is un-betaed. Please feel free to point out any mistakes you notice. That would be very much appreciated.