This story was written as part of the Love is Always Write event at the M/M Romance Group on GoodReads.
PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Two dark-haired young men in jeans and t-shirts lie on a couch. One is reading while the other kisses his neck.
We have been best friends forever. During college we grew apart; he dated women, I dated men. Now, we have both moved back to our hometown and decided to share an apartment together until our careers take off. Can he ever feel about me the way I feel about him? Please let us fall in love and have our HEA without any cheating, ménage, or open ship.
***ETA: I would like the scene in the picture to take place at some point in the story.
tags: classical musicians; therapist; first time; bullying; abuse; friends-to-lovers; reunited
content warnings: none
by: Jenna Jones
The car hit West’s from behind, sending him bouncing between the one behind and the one before for what felt like a week. When he stopped bouncing, he sat for a moment, fingers white-knuckled on the steering wheel, and then threw open the door and got out.
The driver of the car that had hit him was a teenaged boy, who said, “Shit, man! Shit!” as he stared at their fenders. His face was pale and his eyes were wild, and West’s anger at being rear-ended diffused at the boy’s growing panic.
“It’s okay,” West said and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Are you hurt?”
“I just got my license!”
“It’s okay,” West repeated, and noticed from the corner of his eye that the driver of the car in front of him had gotten out too. “Take a deep breath.”
The boy nodded and inhaled, and the driver behind West said, “Is anybody hurt?”
“I don’t think so,” West said, glancing back quickly over his shoulder. “Just upset.” He looked at the boy again, who was still breathing deeply and looked less like he was going to vomit. “Do you feel better?”
“Yeah, man, thank you,” the boy said, still inhaling and exhaling like he was about to start meditating. “If I’ve got an accident on my record already –“
“You don’t,” West said and pointed to the bumpers. “See? It’s only scratched on mine and it’s probably not much worse on yours.” He bent to peer at the boy’s bumper. The car probably belonged to one of his parents — it was a sedate sedan, dark green, about five years old and wearing the battle scars of shopping carts and careless doors.
West’s car, on the other hand, was the same one he’d been driving since he was eighteen, a yellow ’69 VW Bug that had carted him to college in Los Angeles and home again to Seattle now that he was working on his master’s degree. As much care as he tried to put into it, oil changes and tire rotations and polishing out scratches, it looked like exactly what it was, the well-used car of a young driver.
At least the rear fender didn’t seem to have anything worse than a new scratch. That left the front fender, and the driver who was now waving to the cars behind them to go around. West went to the front of the Bug and bent to peer at their fenders, and the boy said, “So we’re okay? Should I call my Dad?”
The other driver said to West, “How’s your neck?” and West put his hand on the back to carefully feel the bones and soft tissue.
“I don’t think we need to call anybody,” he said. “My neck’s okay. I’ll probably be sore tomorrow but I’ve got a friend in chiropractor school who likes to practice on me anyway.” He straightened up to take a look at the boy — normal color restored, now looking anxious to get on his way — and the other driver, who tilted his head and narrowed his eyes and said, “West?” as West said, “Riley?”
“Oh, my God,” said Riley, laughing, and he hugged West quickly, slapping West’s back as he let go. “I thought I recognized Woodstock! How are you? When did you get back to Seattle? I heard you were still living in California or something.”
“I — Riley — I came home after graduation,” said West, stunned. “I’m in my second year at Antioch for my master’s degree. Riley. Wow. I thought you’d stay in Ohio.”
“Nah, I came home,” Riley said easily, looking away a moment. “Found I missed this crazy place. Wow, I know, right? You and me in the same city and didn’t even know it.”
“Hey, mister?” said the boy. “If we’re okay I need to get to work.”
“Oh,” said West, remembering why he’d stopped in the first place. “I’m okay. Riley? Are you?”
“Yeah,” said Riley. “The car’s okay and I don’t think I got hurt any. Start breaking earlier next time, kid.”
“Okay,” said the boy and ran back to his car. He took off at a near-crawl, though he neglected to check the other lane for traffic and caused another car to swerve and honk at him.
Riley turned back to West with a laugh. “Hey, are you on your way somewhere? We should totally talk.”
“I just got out of class and was on my way home,” said West. “Do you want to get coffee somewhere?”
“Let’s get coffee,” said Riley. “Gosh, where can you get coffee in this town?” He grinned, dimples showing and the same mischief in his dark, lively eyes, and West sighed inwardly. For years he’d been telling himself he was over Riley Cooper, and all it took was five minutes and he knew he wasn’t, not one bit.
There was a coffee shop that West particularly liked only a block away, so West gave Riley directions and they agreed to meet in a few minutes. West arrived first, not at all to his surprise, placed his order and took a table near the front windows so Riley would find him easily. He was grateful for the lull, really, since it gave him a few minutes to regroup and remember.
When he was twelve, his family moved to Seattle — in part because of his mother’s work, but also in part because life at West’s old school was approaching unbearable. New kid, new school, new year. In homeroom the teacher seated them alphabetically, and put West behind a tall, dark-haired kid with skinny shoulders named Riley Cooper. While the teacher continued to the D’s, West drew in his sketchbook, his head low and his movements small. His parents thought Seattle would be a new beginning for him but he knew it would be just like how it had been at home, that the second the kids figured out he was different they’d make his life miserable.
The kid turned around and said, “Hey, what’re you drawing?”
“Nothing,” West said and pulled a piece of binder paper over his sketchbook. The drawing was the mug full of pens and pencils on the teacher’s desk, nothing important, but he liked the arrangement of the pens and the way the florescent light glinted off the black ceramic.
The kid, Riley, moved the binder paper out of the way as he said, “It’s not nothing,” and then he was quiet. West flinched, expecting mockery or worse, but instead Riley had a funny look on his face like he’d expected something dumb like monsters or rocket ships and instead got a mug full of pens.
“That’s good,” Riley said, looking up at West. “I mean, really good.”
“Thanks,” West said, and Riley smiled at him.
The smile left West dumbstruck. It wasn’t mean or teasing, it was just warm and genuine and bright, and West thought, Smile at me like that again. He blushed, lowering his head over his papers before he said anything stupid, but then Riley had to turn around because the teacher was finally at the front of the classroom and passing out schedules for the semester. West thought, Okay, that’s over, but knowing it was over made him sad. Riley wouldn’t talk to him again, not once he figured West out, but it was nice while it lasted.
He’d still managed to get the attention of Jesse Snyder and his cronies. By the end of the day his lunch had been stolen and he’d been introduced to the girl’s bathroom. When his parents asked how school had gone he said, “It’s fine,” and spent an hour before dinner figuring out alternative routes to and from school and places where he could hide.
His favorite place wasn’t far out of his way. It was a little red brick church, St. Francis of something. West liked it because the statue in front was of a man with a fawn in his arms, a wolf at his feet and a gentle look on his face. The statue was in a garden with a lot of trees, especially a big oak that had low, thick branches that were perfect for climbing if you were light and spry. He experimented with climbing up it, and figured a guy who was friendly with deer and wolves would understand the need for one boy to hide nearby sometimes.
School was okay. Sometimes Jesse Snyder forgot about him, finding other kids smaller and less wily to torment, and West was able to eat his lunch and go from class to class in peace. Every day he saw Riley Cooper, who looked like he should be one of those kids who ate lunch with Jesse Snyder’s crowd except that his shirts were too big for his narrow shoulders and his jeans were too short for his long legs and he wore the same pair of shoes every day.
One day Riley came to school with a black eye. West looked at him with dismay, but Riley stared back like he’d land one on West if he said anything about it. When West tried to put a hand on his shoulder Riley shrugged it off like it burned.
West was walking home not long after that one rainy afternoon when he heard a lot footsteps behind him, and he cringed, knowing what was coming. Sure enough, Jesse Snyder and his whole group surrounded him, shoved him, snatched away his umbrella and yanked on his backpack, called him a girly-girl and worse, words that would get him sent to his room if he used them at home — so West took off running. It was the only thing to do. Home was still too far away to be safe yet and the church was close, and he was little and fast while Jesse was big and clumsy.
He reached the church first and climbed up into the oak. Safe in its branches, raindrops falling on him from the leaves overhead, he clung to a branch and held his breath when Jesse ran into the garden, his friends on his heels. “West the wuss!” Jesse bellowed. “West the wuss, West the wuss!” they all chanted, when the door to the little house attached to the church opened and the priest came out.
“Come in to pray or go on your way, boys,” he said sternly, and after a few minutes of nervous giggling and shuffling the boys moved on. The priest waited until they were out of earshot, and then said, looking up at the branches, “It’s safe now. You can come down.”
West didn’t move.
The priest waited a moment, then said, “Stay in the tree if you want, but it’s dry inside.”
West slid from the branch and dropped to the ground. The priest smiled at him, his face a lot like the statue’s a few feet away. “Come on. I’ve made hot cocoa.” He put his hand on West’s shoulder as they went into the little house.
There was another boy in the kitchen, as soaked as West, with a towel over his shoulders and an empty cup in front of him. It was Riley, of course, the bruise around his eye fading but with a new split in his lip, and he hunched under his towel when West came in. “Have a seat,” the priest said to West and gave him one of the kitchen towels from a drawer. “Were you hurt?”
“No,” West said, trying not to stare.
“Bullies,” the priest said to Riley.
“I know who that’d be.” Riley sniffed hard and wiped his face with his flannel sleeve. “They run the school. Nobody can do anything about it.”
“There’s always something people can do.” He said to West, “What’s your name, son?”
“West Cunningham.” He swallowed. “I’m not Catholic. I’m not anything.”
The priest smiled. He looked younger than West’s dad, and had brown eyes and a reddish beard. “It’s all right, West Cunningham,” he said. “The church offers sanctuary to anyone who needs it. That’s why Riley’s here.”
“Did you get chased by bullies too?” West said, and Riley stuck out his chin and looked away.
“Riley sometimes needs a safe place,” said the priest. “I’m Father Jackson, West. When you’re ready to go home I’ll drive you. Okay?”
West nodded. Father Jackson put marshmallows in his cocoa and told him the story of St. Francis and why the church was named after him. West told him hesitantly about wanting to be an artist when he grew up. Riley didn’t say much, but he did his math homework with Father Jackson’s help and looked at West’s drawings like they were something really amazing.
When they’d drunk their cocoa and done their homework, Father Jackson said, “You can play now, Riley,” and Riley lit up. He went into another room with Father Jackson, and West followed, curious. The other room turned out to be a study with tall bookcases and a desk in front of the window. Father Jackson sat in one of the chairs between the bookcases so West took the one at the desk. He thought Riley would sit in one of the other overstuffed chairs and they’d play chess or something, but instead Riley got an instrument case from a closet. He opened the case and took out a violin, and to West’s astonishment he began to play. It wasn’t sawing away with the bow, either, like most kids their age — it was beautiful and dreamy, and Riley looked like he was in heaven as he played. Father Jackson smiled while he listened, and applauded when Riley was done. West did too. He’d never heard anything so beautiful, not in person, not played by someone his age.
Before it grew any darker, Father Jackson drove both West and Riley home — Riley didn’t live that far away from West — but he dropped Riley off down the block from his house and waited down the street, his headlights off, until Riley was inside.
“Why?” West said when they were on their way to his house. “Why’d you do that?”
“I hope not to make things more difficult for him when he gets home.” He paused. “West. I know you feel very alone right now and not like you’ve got a lot of power, but there’s something you can do for Riley that very few other people can.”
“What?” West said, mystified.
“Be a haven for him,” said Father Jackson, and added at West’s puzzled look, “A haven is a safe place. If you can do that, he’ll be a safe place for you. I promise.”
West nodded, not quite sure he understood. His parents exclaimed over him when he got home, demanding where he’d been, but they relaxed when Father Jackson said West had been at the church to get out of the rain. “Lost his umbrella,” Father Jackson said, and his mother said, “He’d lose his head if it weren’t attached to his body — he’d lose everything but that sketchbook,” but she looked proud when she said it, and West thought maybe this would be okay.
He didn’t know how to be a haven for anybody, though, and when the hissing, “West the wuss, West the wuss,” started up at lunchtime the next day at school he thought wearily that this would keep going and going like it always had, no matter where they moved or what adults thought.
One of Jesse Snyder’s friends grabbed West’s sketchbook from the stack of books under his arm and waved it around. “Look what I got! West the wuss’s stuff!” He danced around with it, laughing and waving the book, and for the first time West got angry. Really angry, too, enough that he felt his face grow hot and his fists clench, and he was about to fly at the kid and pummel him until he gave the book back when he felt an arm go around his shoulders — a friendly arm, not one that was going to lock around him and drag him down — and Riley said, “Lay off, assholes.”
Jesse Snyder laughed at them. The girls were always sighing over him, saying how cute he was, and West thought in his secret heart that Jesse Snyder was pretty cute if you ignored everything else about him, but his laugh was ugly and wrong. “You’re friends with West the wuss?”
“So what if I am?” said Riley, lifting his chin, and West stared at him in amazement. He didn’t dare put an arm around Riley too, he knew that would be pushing it too far, but he relaxed for the first time since the first day of school and gazed back at Jesse, who looked at them like he didn’t know what to do. Riley was the only boy taller than Jesse in the class, and with his mysterious battle wounds he looked far more dangerous than Jesse could hope for. When Riley smiled, it was like Riley knew how to hurt, really hurt, and wasn’t afraid to show it. “Now give the book back.”
The other boys shuffled uncomfortably, and the kid with the sketchbook held in his hands and looked at Jesse like he was waiting for orders. Finally he handed West the book and muttered, “I’m just having fun, Jesus.” They trickled away like a pack of confused puppies, even Jesse Snyder, who looked like he didn’t know what had happened.
West exhaled and muttered, “Thanks,” and Riley said, “Anytime,” and let him go.
They ate lunch together that day, and the day after and the day after that. On Friday Riley took West to the garden of the church and they climbed the oak tree and carved their initials, RC and WC, high on the trunk where no would see it but them.
“This tree will be famous someday,” Riley said as he carved. “I’m going to be a world-famous musician when I get out of here, and people will come from miles around to see what I did when I was a kid.”
“Only rock stars get famous,” West said. “Not people who play violins.”
Riley flicked some bark at him. “There are famous violin players. I’ve seen their CDs in the store. I’m going to play for presidents and kings and people will swoon at my feet because my music is so divine.” He handed West the pocketknife. “And you’ll draw me. They’ll pay you thousands of dollars to draw me like only you can.”
West blushed and muttered, “I’m not going to be famous,” as he started his own initials, and he was flattered that Riley thought it might happen.
Now West was twenty-five. He wasn’t famous, but even worse — he’d never really wanted to be famous, anyway, that was Riley’s daydream — he hadn’t had a good conversation with Riley since their sophomore year of college. He hadn’t had a conversation with Riley at all aside from the occasional “Hey, buddy!” email, and the last one had been over a year ago. Now Riley was back in Seattle and West didn’t know what to do about it except smile when Riley came into the coffee shop and waved to him before getting in line to get his coffee.
West exhaled, told himself it would be two friends catching up, and managed to keep the smile going until Riley was sitting at the table across from him.
“You start,” said West. “Why did you come back to Seattle?”
“Just got hired by the Seattle symphony,” Riley said. “Second violin. It’s not a prestigious position or anything, but it’s a beginning.”
“It’s still pretty amazing,” said West. “A symphony — that’s fantastic.”
Riley smiled and looked at West through his lashes. “What about you? What are you doing home?”
“Getting my master’s degree in psychology.”
That got a cocked head and narrowed eyes again. “Didn’t you major in art? I always thought you’d go into art.”
“Majored in art and minored in psychology,” said West. “And now I’m studying art therapy. I’m using my talents to take care of people.”
“You always were good at that,” Riley said, and they looked at each other for a long moment before they both looked away. West sipped his coffee, remembering afternoons in the welcoming branches of the oak tree or Father Jackson’s kitchen, doing homework, talking about life, drawing and making music while Riley put off going home for as long as possible.
He remembered the night he woke to pebbles plinking against his window, and when he opened the window Riley was underneath, bleeding from his nose and his eyes enormous and desperate. “Westie,” he said, and West said, “Come around to the kitchen door,” without asking any more questions. His parents were still awake. They both started up at the sight of the bleeding boy in their kitchen, but they didn’t ask questions either. West’s mom cleaned Riley’s face and gave him a package of frozen vegetables to hold to his swollen nose, while West’s dad made a phone call that was angry but controlled. West’s mom made the top bunk in West’s bedroom and gave Riley some spare pajamas from West’s older brother.
“Riley,” West had said, lying awake in his room after an hour or more of listening to Riley try not to cry. “Why do you keep going back?”
Riley took a long time to answer. “Because he’s all I have.”
In the morning West’s mom and dad both talked to Riley, and Father Jackson came too, but Riley said no, no, he’d be okay. He was going home.
When they were sixteen, West was still slim and slight, but Riley had reached his full height and had begun to grow broad. He didn’t say what happened and West didn’t ask, but he stopped coming to school with bruises and blood. Still, there were two or three nights a week when he slept in West’s room, and his parents made sure Riley knew he was welcome on Christmas Day and Thanksgiving and any other time when being home was unbearable.
“Where are you living now?” West said out loud as he put the coffee cup down.
“A little dump near Washington State U.,” said Riley with a shrug. “It’s not much but the rent’s cheap. How about you?”
“I’ve got a place in Queen Anne.”
“Oo, nice,” Riley remarked.
“It’s really too much for a grad student. I had a roommate until two weeks ago, but then he got married and moved out. She’s an awesome girl and I’m really happy for them, but the rent is suddenly a lot steeper than it used to be.”
“Why didn’t you find a new roommate before he moved out?”
West sipped his coffee. “I didn’t want to,” he admitted. “Everybody who answered my ad had something wrong with them. Too fussy, too weird — yes, you can be too weird even in Seattle — or they didn’t like the fact that I’m gay –“
“I wouldn’t live with somebody like that either,” Riley growled, and West smiled at him.
“Always my champion,” he said. “Anyway. I haven’t found the right person yet, and believe me, I’ve dated guys with less vetting.”
“The exchange student.” Riley smirked.
“I still don’t believe that was all a big misunderstanding.” They both laughed — Sven had been big and blond and West had been utterly taken with him, and Sven had seemed equally taken with West through kisses and hand-holding and dancing, until suddenly he wasn’t — and West said impulsively, “Move in with me.”
“What?” said Riley, his smile lurking at the corner of his mouth like he wasn’t sure how seriously he should take this.
“Live with me.” He swallowed. “I mean, we have before, more or less, and we know each other’s habits and preferences, and we get along…”
“That was years ago. We were kids.”
“Have I changed that much?” West said, and Riley looked at him through his lashes again.
“You’re all grown up now,” Riley said, “but no, you’re not that different.” He toyed with his coffee cup. “Am I?”
“No,” said West. “You’re not that different.” Riley was solid, broad-shouldered, and rakish with his morning stubble still dark along his jaw. West felt waifish alongside him. “Think about it, anyway. I imagine the rent would be about the same as what you’re paying now, it’s a nice part of the city and you’d be about the same distance to the symphony.”
“Could I see the place?”
West leapt on it at once. “Of course! Are you busy this afternoon?”
“Actually,” Riley said, “I need to get to rehearsal. But I’ll come by soon. Maybe Saturday?”
“Saturday’s great.” He watched Riley pick up the coffee cup — cardboard with a holder, not one of the white china ones from the bar or even one of the many quirky cups used by regulars — and zip up his sweatshirt. “Give me a call — oh, here.” West wrote his name, phone numbers and the address of the apartment on a blank page from his sketchbook and tore it out. “Give me a call,” he repeated, smiling as he held it out to Riley.
Riley took it, a nostalgic look in his eyes. “You and your sketchbook.” He paused and added, “It’s really good to see you again, Westie.”
No one had called him that in years. “It’s good to see you again, too.” He watched Riley go, and then let out his breath and had some more coffee.
Riley didn’t come home over winter break their freshman year, and stayed with West and his family that first summer vacation. Their second winter break, West flew out to see him in Ohio for New Year’s Eve and stayed with him in his little dorm room.
“The dorm is mostly music majors,” Riley had told West happily when he got accepted to Bowling Green with a tidy pile of scholarships to pay for it. “We’re by the main music building and there are practice rooms right in the dorm.” He’d lost none of his enthusiasm for it even in his second year, while West was starting to feel worn out from living in Lost Angeles and being so far from home. There were so many good schools in Seattle, even if they weren’t ranked for their arts programs, maybe he should have gone to one of them …
He and Riley were talking about this the night before New Year’s as they lay in his narrow bed (his roommate’s bed was West’s while he was visiting) and it felt like old times, like when they would lie in the bottom bunk at West’s house and talk until they both fell asleep. He looked at Riley, as gorgeous as ever and happier than West could remember seeing him, and moved without thinking to place a kiss on those familiar lips.
It went on longer than he expected, longer than he’d ever dreamed, and Riley’s lips stayed soft and even opened. It went on until Riley placed a hand on West’s chest and said, “Dude, ” in a quietly reproachful way, and West said, “Right, yes,” and moved to the other bed. Riley had always been okay with putting an arm around him — had even kissed his cheek once in the tree — but they’d never done anything more and he still went out with the girls who flocked to him every Saturday night.
The next night, at the New Year’s Eve party thrown by the music students, West spent most of the night talking to a boy with green painted fingernails and dyed black hair who painted West’s nails while they talked, and Riley spent most of the night dancing with a girl with long red hair and earrings all the way up both ears. At midnight, West kissed the boy and Riley kissed the girl and West thought nothing had really changed.
That summer Riley stayed in Ohio with a friend from the music program, saying it was cheaper than traveling back and forth, and by the time he and West graduated he hadn’t been to Seattle for years.
West finished his coffee slowly and when he was done, went home to study. He had notes to write up and case studies to read. His favorite place to do this was a corner window that looked over the street, and when he looked up from his laptop sometimes he could see neighborhood kids playing or people working in their yards. His parents had wanted him to move home to save money, but he’d already agreed to room with one of his friends from undergrad and once they found this building they both had fallen entirely in love. At least the newlyweds’ new apartment was only a block away and West had a standing invitation to come by any time.
It was hard to focus. West’s mind kept wandering to Riley, their adolescence together, that kiss. They had gathered people to them throughout high school who ignored the Jesse Snyders of the world and found they could connect to each other. West had fallen in love once or twice. Riley had flitted from girl to girl, the kind of behavior he’d continued through college and, West assumed, the two years since graduation. No matter how many other friends they might have, though, no matter who they went out with on Saturday nights, they always came back to each other. The top bunk in West’s room was Riley’s, and they still did homework in the oak tree or at Father Jackson’s table.
One night when they were fourteen Riley had brought a bundle to West’s house, and they sat on the floor of West’s room as Riley carefully unwrapped the blanket he’d used to cushion this precious object: an instrument case, which he opened to reveal a honey-colored violin. “It was my mom’s,” Riley said, and West didn’t know what to say because Riley never talked about his mom.
“Play for me?” was what first came to mind. It must have been the right thing to say, because Riley beamed, took the violin out of its case and played for him, the bow sliding across the strings to coax out notes that were so sweet it made West’s throat ache. West didn’t know what was more beautiful, the music or the bliss on Riley’s face.
West was with a patient on Friday when his phone vibrated, and once the appointment was done he checked the message. It was Riley, wanting to know if they were still on for Saturday. West called him back at once, standing in the hallway outside the student counseling department. “Riley, it’s me. Sure, we’re on. What time do you want to come?”
“Is morning okay? We’ve got a performance tomorrow night. Hey, would you want to come to that?”
“Yes and yes,” said West with a laugh. “I’m usually up by eight. Come by any time after that. When’s the performance?”
“It starts at seven. I’ll tell you more tomorrow, I need to get back.”
“Good lu– wait, do you say ‘break a leg’ to a musician?”
“No!” Riley exclaimed, horrified, and West giggled as he hung up. He spent Friday night straightening up the place and making sugar cookies so it would smell good, and on Saturday morning woke up earlier than usual because he was so excited.
His doorbell rang at nine. Riley looked sleepy as he slouched in the doorway, solid and handsome in his T-shirt and jeans and denim jacket, his dark hair falling over his lively eyes. “Sorry,” he said, yawning. “Up late.”
“No problem,” said West. “Come on in. I made coffee.”
“And cookies,” said Riley, sniffing the air. “Or your mom did. It smells like your mom’s.”
“My mom’s recipe,” said West. “It’s the orange zest in the dough.”
“Awesome,” said Riley as he went to the table where West had arranged the cookies on a plate. “I haven’t had breakfast.” He picked up one and looked around. “Nice.”
“Yeah,” said West, though he felt “nice” was only the beginning. The apartment wasn’t big, but the floors were hardwood, the windows were tall, the kitchen was gleaming and there were potted plants in the bathroom to take advantage of the humidity. “This would be your room,” he said, opening the door to the unclaimed room, and Riley smiled again as he looked around. The view from the back wasn’t as pretty as from the front, but at least they were looking at other people’s back yards instead of a grungy alley. West said, “You know how Father Jackson was always going on about safe places? The minute I walked in here I knew this was a safe place. Everything about it said it was home. I walked in here and I — I could breathe.”
“It’s got a good atmosphere,” Riley said. He hesitated. “Westie –“
“I’m seeing someone,” West blurted. “If you’re worried about me making a pass at you again, it’s not going to happen. I mean, it wouldn’t happen even if I weren’t seeing anyone –“
“Oh,” said Riley, and then the smile came back. “It’s okay. I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
“Good,” West said. “What do you think of the apartment?”
“I love this place. I get what you mean, you walk in and you can just –” He exhaled, like words alone weren’t enough. “I can be out of my lease by the first.”
“Excellent,” West said. “Perfect. Do you want some coffee?”
“I’m meeting someone for breakfast at ten,” said Riley and looked at his watch. “I should be on my way. Lots to do today if I’m moving in two weeks.” He started for the door, and said on the way out, “Hey, bring your boyfriend to the symphony tonight. I’ll leave two tickets at the box office.” He added with a wink, “Dress up,” and let himself out.
“Thanks,” said West to the closed door and sighed. Once again, ‘boyfriend’ was too generous a term for the man he was seeing now, but Paul cleaned up well and would probably like the symphony, so West called him with the invitation. If Riley wanted proof that West was well and truly over him, seeing him with another man would probably do it.
The audience was filing into the symphony hall and talking amongst themselves when West’s phone buzzed with a text message from Riley: Just checkin on u.
We’re here, West typed. Row 10, middle. He sent the message, and then sent another: Next time I’ll bring roses.
LOL u better, Riley responded. West was smiling as he put his phone away.
It was a Mostly Mozart type of evening, and West recognized a few of the other names on the program. Riley was easy to spot among the rest of the strings section, even though his tuxedo was exactly the same as theirs — West supposed it was because his eye was instantly drawn to a familiar face. It was probably the same familiarity that made him sigh whenever he saw Riley smile over the body of his violin, even though the other musicians looked solemn for most of the night.
Paul whispered to him, “Which one’s your friend?”
“In the violins, third from the end,” West whispered back.
“Oh … the really cute one.”
“Yup,” said West. “The really cute one.” The true wonder about Riley, West thought, wasn’t his musical abilities, even though it was pretty amazing that he could pick up any instrument and make it his own. No, the true wonder about Riley was that, despite bullying and abuse, Riley could still smile like that, with his deep dimples and dark, shining eyes. There was nothing false or practiced about it. Riley still smiled like Riley.
At intermission, most of the musicians came out to the lobby. Riley found West quickly and hugged him, one arm around his shoulders. “I’m so glad you came!”
“Me too,” West said and hugged him back. “I haven’t been to the symphony since the last time my parents dragged me to it.” Paul smiled expectantly and West said, “Paul, this is Riley, my friend from ‘way back.”
They shook hands, Riley taking his arm from West’s shoulders, and Paul said, “How long ago was ‘way back?”
“First day of junior high,” Riley said. “Fourteen years, almost.”
“We were kind of inseparable then,” West added.
“I slept at his house whenever things weren’t so good at home,” Riley said. “Which was a lot.”
“And he chased off bullies for me.”
“I was happy to do it,” Riley said, looking at West, and West hoped he wasn’t blushing. “Hey,” Riley said abruptly, “how’s your neck?”
“It’s a little sore.” West rubbed the back of his neck. “But it’s nothing I can’t handle. Aspirin is keeping it under control.” He explained to Paul, “I got rear-ended the other day. Riley was in the car in front of me.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” Paul said.
“It was nothing, really. My car’s fine and my neck will heal.”
“Westie barely bumped me,” said Riley, sounding proud. “I’m glad you’re feeling okay.” Riley hugged West again, more gently than before, and shook Paul’s hand. “I need to say hello to a few other people. I’m really glad you came.” They all said good night and West watched Riley move on through the crowd, charming everyone with his smile.
Paul was quiet when they went back to their seats, and though he applauded like everyone else he didn’t seem to pay much attention to the music. He went home with West after the performance, and after they had kissed some West pulled away.
“Sorry,” he said. “I hurt more than I realized.”
Paul gently rubbed the back of his neck and West closed his eyes. “Does this help?”
“A little,” West said, though it felt more like pinching than relief. He closed his eyes and relaxed against Paul’s body. “Thanks.”
Paul said, “You and Riley — you were pretty close as kids.”
“I suppose so.”
“You’ve still got a thing for him,” Paul said and West opened his eyes.
“Every gay man I know has a story like that. The beautiful best friend they can never quite let go.”
“Most of us don’t get a second chance.” Paul removed his hand and kissed West’s forehead. “I’ll see you around.”
“It’s not a second chance,” West said but Paul had already shut the door.
Riley moved in on the first of the month, and West alternated between being overjoyed with having his old friend close by again and wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into. Riley wasn’t hard to live with — he was as easy-going as ever, as funny and as comfortable, so it wasn’t like living with a stranger. The familiarity itself was the problem. Riley thought nothing of stretching behind West to get something down from a shelf while West was preparing dinner, or letting their feet tangle together when they were both reading on the couch, and he was in the apartment only two days before he knocked on West’s door and said, “Hey, have you got a few minutes?” before lying down on the bed with West so they could talk. He wanted to know about Paul, how they’d met and how long they’d been dating, and if West thought it was a good idea to pursue one of the flautists in the symphony or if dating a co-worker was as bad an idea as everyone said.
“Bad idea,” said West, and told himself he’d say the same thing to anyone.
It was hard not to touch him when Riley was so easy with his own hands, but West was certain that the ease would disappear if Riley thought for a moment that West was being anything other than friendly. To keep his mind off of Riley, he studied, he worked, he carried on as he always had, and if a man caught his eye he’d ask for his number, like always.
“Do you ever think about settling down?” Riley asked him when they’d lived together for two months.
“No, do you?” West said, not looking up from his textbook. Riley was reclining on the couch, a book open on his knees, his lanky body taking up most of the room and his feet pressed against West’s thigh. Riley wasn’t exactly a monk, either. He had a date nearly every night he didn’t have a performance, and most of those nights, too. West knew there were women who were happy to be under his arm during intermissions and come back with him to the apartment no matter how late it was when that night’s performance ended.
“Sometimes,” said Riley and that made West look up. Riley smiled at him. “Isn’t that the point of dating? Finding that person who’ll always feel like home?”
West looked down at his book again, a lump in his throat. “It depends on what you want,” he said softly. “If you want variety and excitement or if you want safety and routine.”
“You don’t think safety and excitement go together?”
“Rarely,” West said and got up from the couch. “I’m hungry. Do you want anything?”
“If you make popcorn I’ll eat some,” Riley said and went back to his book.
West made popcorn. Riley ate most of it; his feet pressed once more against West’s thigh.
Riley liked to text. His phone was constantly buzzing with people responding to him, and he would often chortle to himself as he read them and typed his replies. At first West thought it was ridiculous — why not talk like a normal person? — but then Riley texted him from the living room, and then started texting him during the work day, and then while West was out with a new guy, and it wasn’t annoying. It was something to look forward to. West waited to respond between patients and classes and Riley always sent something worth reading, even if all West could say in response was a smile.
Riley texted West sometimes when he was out with a girl, too. Usually it was along the lines of “Bored, distract me,” so West told him stories or jokes he’d heard from his classmates or patients. He suspected it was Riley’s way of ending a bad date early, particularly when Riley came home before midnight — before ten p.m. once, and shrugged when West asked how it went. “Move over,” he said, so West moved his feet and Riley took the rest of the couch.
West hesitated, then began to pet Riley’s hair. “What was wrong with this one?”
“Nothing, probably. I’m sure she’ll make some accountant or geography teacher very happy.”
West tugged on a curl of Riley’s hair and Riley grinned at him. “Be nice.”
“I’m very nice. Everybody says so.” He rubbed the callus on his neck left by the violin. He had more on his fingertips from the strings. Music left its mark on him, like the pencil left a callus on the second finger of West’s right hand. “It’s — I mean, she’s pretty, she’s smart, she’s the kind of girl everybody is looking for, right? If you’re looking for a girl, anyway.”
“So what was wrong with her?” He sank his fingers deep into Riley’s hair to massage his scalp.
“I don’t know. I wanted to be with you.”
West didn’t say anything. Couldn’t. It was all he could do to keep the rhythm of his fingers steady.
“Anyway,” sighed Riley, “here I am, watching bad TV with you on a Saturday night. What are you reading?”
“The latest issue of Emotion.”
“Sounds riveting,” said Riley and got comfortable against West’s legs. “Read to me.”
“We’re watching bad TV.”
“I can do both at once if you can.”
“I can,” said West and began to read.
No one, thought West, would blame him for being confused. Riley liked women. He’d always liked women. He’d liked women in high school, no matter how often he stood up for West, and he’d like women all through college. He still liked women, particularly the women who came to the symphony in their best dresses and tasteful jewels, the kind who drank champagne and appreciated culture.
There was little time for socializing that spring. The symphony had a performance almost every night, and even the occasional afternoon program with a most casual atmosphere. West went to as many as he could, squeezing them between classes, studying for his therapist’s license and patient appointments, and Riley was as pleased to see him as he had been the first time.
He said once, “If you’re missing something important I’ll understand if you can’t come.”
“I’m not missing anything important,” West assured him. “I forgot the roses again, though.”
Riley smiled at that — not one of his big grins this time, but something small and sweet and even touched. “Next time, maybe.” He hugged West in his usual way, kissed his temple and went back to the orchestra.
No, thought West, no one would blame him for being confused. Anybody else in his position would be the same.
The frequent rains of Seattle were mostly gentle that spring, but sometimes a storm came in from the Pacific, bringing cold rain along with the thunder and lightning. West liked these storms — he liked to crack open his bedroom window to let in the sound and the scent, and slept soundly no matter how loud the thunder crashed.
Riley didn’t. He would curl himself up in the middle of his bed, cocooned in his blankets, sometimes with the light on. When they were kids West blamed it on Riley’s not liking loud noises in general, but now that they were older he suspected it was something more.
He woke up during one of these storms and went to the kitchen for some water. On his way back to his bedroom he noticed that the light was on again in Riley’s room. Normally he left Riley alone on these nights since there was nothing he could do, but tonight he knocked softly on the door. “Riley? Are you okay?”
“Come on in,” said Riley, so West opened the door. Riley sat on his bed, arms wrapped around his knees, and though he smiled at West like usual it was strained and small. “What are you doing awake?”
“Thirsty.” He held up his glass, and then came to sit on the edge of Riley’s bed. “Do you want to talk?”
Riley stared out the window. “I hate the rain.”
West cocked his head. “You live in Seattle.”
“I know. It’s the only thing I hate about this place.” He looked at West. “Have I ever told you how my mom died?”
“No,” West said. He tucked his feet under Riley’s blankets.
“We ran out of beer,” said Riley with that strained smile again. “My dad was fussing about it so my mom said, fine, she’d go get him some, and took the car to get it and never came home.” West reached out to rub Riley’s knee, and Riley said, “Stupid, isn’t it? Stormy night, my mom was upset, one twisty road, and that was all it took.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” asked West softly.
“I hate it when people pity me. Poor, motherless boy … I hate that.”
West said, still soft, “I only ever wanted to help you.”
“I know that now,” said Riley, and flinched when the thunder clapped loud enough to rattle the old windows in their panes. West moved closer so he could wrap an arm around Riley’s shoulders and Riley pressed his face against West’s neck.
“Tell me more about her,” said West. “Tell me about your mom.”
Riley began to speak, haltingly and softly, about her singing and dancing with him and playing her violin, teaching him to play piano when he was big enough to reach the keyboard and violin when he’d mastered reading music, how she had filled the house with music to drown out the yelling.
By the time he fell silent, the storm had subdued somewhat. Riley breathed more easily and West rubbed his back and watched the rain run down the windows.
“West,” Riley said and West’s hand paused. “Do you remember when we were kids and we’d fall asleep in the same bed all the time?”
“I miss that.”
“Then I’ll stay,” West said and turned off the light. He got under the bedding with Riley, and stared at the ceiling while he listened to Riley breathe. He could feel the distance between them like a canyon.
He closed his eyes when Riley laid his head on West’s shoulder. Suddenly it was hard to breathe, or to restrain the flinch when Riley moved his hand to lay it on West’s chest.
“Westie?” Riley said and West could feel the soft exhale of his name before there were lips on his, soft as he remembered, so longed-for that West’s fingers curled in Riley’s dark hair before he could stop them.
It took a moment for him to gather himself enough to push Riley away. “No,” he said even though Riley looked dismayed and confused. “You don’t — you can’t — you’re not allowed to do that, Riley!”
West got out of bed, needing the distance between them. “That time I visited you at school, remember? I kissed you and you stopped me and I’ve respected that! Even when you stopped talking to me I respected that!”
“West,” Riley said.
“But you come here and you cuddle me and you hug me and you touch me like it’s nothing, like I’m another one of those women you flirt with! I live with you, Riley! We’re friends!”
“Are we?” Riley said quietly and West stopped ranting to stare at him. “You keep your distance like we’re strangers. Every time I think you’re warming up to me again you pull back. I thought I knew what you want from me but I don’t and it’s making me crazy.”
“And your solution is to kiss me.”
“It usually helps to break the ice.”
“Break the ice,” West repeated. “Break the ice.” He left the room so he didn’t have to listen to any more, slamming the door behind him. Break the ice! Like he meant nothing, like he was a conquest, like he had no choice except to keep his distance!
His bed, rumpled as it was, presented no sanctuary. West pulled on the first sweatshirt he grabbed as well as the first pair of boots he saw, grabbed his keys and went out into the night.
When he was a kid he had gone to St. Francis’s church, to Father Jackson’s, every time he felt restless and angry, to climb the tree and sit in its top branches above the noise and hassle and pain of his everyday life. Even as a student he had sought out places on campus where he could do something like that, a staircase or tower or even a hillside where he could be away from it all. He’d always liked mountains for the same reason. They carried him away.
He hadn’t needed to do so for years, but tonight he was frantic with the need to climb, and it was no real surprise that his feet brought him to the old neighborhood where his parents still lived, and the little church with its pretty garden and the kind-faced statue. The oak tree stood by the rectory, its sturdy branches still spread protectively over the roof, though they all creaked in the stiff wind.
Fearless, West caught hold of the lowest branch he could reach — much higher than the one he used to climb when he was twelve — and swung himself up. The bark was slippery from the rain and West had to clutch with his fingernails and dig in with his feet, until he reached the broad branch that had been his seat and desk for so many years. He’d never climbed it in such a storm, though, and the swaying of the tree made his stomach churn.
Or maybe it was grief that made him wrap his arms around the trunk and squeeze his eyes shut. He supposed Riley would move out, and since most of the friends they had in common had moved away and Riley hadn’t kept in touch with West’s parents, they wouldn’t see each other except by accident.
He placed a hand on the trunk to balance himself, and felt bare wood where the bark had been stripped away and then begun to regrow. Their initials were still there, not overgrown yet, RC and WC, inseparable.
He didn’t know how long he was in the tree when a car splashed down the street, its headlights sweeping over the church. It pulled to a stop in front of the church and the driver got out, the headlights still on. The driver walked into the garden and peered up into the tree. “Westie? Are you up there? I know you’re up there. This is where you always came when things went bad. Come down, West.”
Riley. He’d know that voice anywhere. West climbed down, jumping from the last branch, and when he straightened up Riley was smiling at him sadly.
“I came back to Seattle for you,” he said. “I missed you. When you stopped answering my emails and stopped calling me I thought, okay, if he doesn’t want to see me I won’t bother him — but then I missed you. Don’t you get it, West?” he said, his voice breaking. “I had to come back to you.”
“I don’t know,” West said. “I don’t know how to make this work — I don’t even know what this is.”
“I do,” Riley said. “I want to live with you. I want to kiss you whenever I feel like and whenever you feel like kissing me. I want to feed you and play music for you and — and — be with you.”
West shivered. He blamed it on the rain dripping down his neck. “I don’t know, Riley.”
Riley closed the space between them and wrapped his hands in West’s sweatshirt. “May I kiss you?”
West whispered, “Yes, yes,” and Riley kissed him, warm and urgent and loving.
As good as those first soft kisses had felt, this felt even better: tender and hungry at once, purposeful. It was a kiss with intent, as if Riley meant to convey what he felt and wanted for himself and imagined for the two of them. It said I want you,M> it said I’m yours, it might have even said I love you but West thought that might just be his own desire talking. It left West breathless and trembling, as dazed as his first kiss ever. It was what West had been longing for, dreaming about, what he’d wanted when he was twelve and didn’t really know what desire meant, what he’d wanted from that hesitant first kiss six years ago and what he’d wanted tonight in Riley’s bed. Riley’s hands in his hair and tongue in his mouth, the soft movement of lips and the rising feeling of desire and excitement that made his heart pound in his chest.
It was one hell of a kiss.
They were both giggling when they parted. “We’re making out in front of a church,” West whispered and rested his forehead on Riley’s shoulder.
Riley stroked his hair. “In front of St. Francis, too.” He cupped West’s face in his hands and kissed him again. West swayed closer, not wanting to be any farther away from Riley than he had to be. “You’re soaked, Westie. Let’s go home.”
West nodded, glad he didn’t have to drive. He wasn’t sure he could focus on anything but Riley long enough to get them home safely. “Take me home.”
Back in the apartment, Riley ordered West into a hot shower and to take some zinc. Riley’s caretaker streak made West smile, so he took the lozenge without complaint, peeled off his wet clothes and tossed them into the washer, then padded to the bathroom and started the shower running. The hot water warmed and relaxed him, and he stood under the spray with his head tilted back until Riley knocked on the door.
“Westie? You okay in there?”
“Dozing off,” West admitted and quickly scrubbed himself from his leafy hair to his no-longer cold toes. When he got out of the shower he had to smile again — Riley had laid out a bathrobe and thick socks for him, along with his usual PJs of a T-shirt and flannel sleep pants.
“You’re really determined to look after me,” he remarked when he came to the kitchen, fully dressed as Riley had prescribed, a towel in hand to dry his hair.
“Of course,” said Riley with a nod. He pointed to the mugs on the table. “I made hot cocoa. We don’t have any marshmallows, though.”
“Thanks.” West sat at the table and wrapped his hands around the hot ceramic mug. They both leaned against the counter and sipped, sneaking looks at each other.
Riley was the first to put his mug down. “Okay. Cards on the table. When you kissed me that time at Bowling Green, I didn’t stop you because I didn’t want you to kiss me. I stopped you because you were dating someone.”
“I was dating a couple someones,” said West. “I haven’t had very many committed relationships.”
“I guess I should have said something.”
“It would have helped. You’ve always dated girls.”
“That you knew about.” West raised his eyebrows and Riley shrugged. “I’ve experimented some. Musicians, dude. Up for anything.”
West chuckled, his hands wrapped around the warm mug.
“I didn’t figure it out as young as you did,” Riley said. “Being bi’s hard. You’re always questioning yourself and everybody’s always questioning you, like you have to be either-or. But I did figure it out, I got to know me, and I’m satisfied with that. I like women, I like men, and I really like you. Anybody who thinks that isn’t real can go fuck themselves.”
West chuckled again, and then took a deep breath. “Cards on the table. I’ve loved you forever.”
Riley inhaled audibly.
“I thought if I said so, I’d lose you, and I wanted to be your friend more than I wanted anything else. I always thought I’d get over you if I found the right guy, but I’ve never found the right guy.” He looked at Riley finally. “There’s no getting over you, Riley Cooper.”
Riley smiled, his beautiful smile, West’s favorite of his smiles. “I know I should let you sleep tonight. I know you’ve got work and classes tomorrow. But I don’t want to not be near you tonight, you know?”
West’s breath caught. “I know.”
“I kind of feel like if I don’t touch you soon I’m going to go crazy,” Riley confessed and snuck a look at him again. West held out his hand and Riley took it. His skin was hot from holding the mug and his hand trembled a little, and Riley inhaled sharply when West ran a thumb over the inside of his wrist.
“I think,” West said slowly, “I can miss a few more hours of sleep if you can.”
“Yeah,” Riley breathed, “I can do that,” and his fingers clutched West’s bathrobe and hauled him close, and he kissed West like he’d never have the chance again.
“Your bed or mine?” Riley whispered and ran his teeth lightly over West’s lower lip.
West laughed. “Or kitchen table or the sofa or the piano bench or the floor?” He kissed Riley’s neck. “I don’t care. Anywhere. Everywhere. Just touch me.”
“Suddenly so easy to please,” Riley observed and pushed off West’s bathrobe. West held the counter behind him and found it was hard to breathe, hard to do anything that wasn’t kissing Riley and enjoying the warmth of his hands as Riley touched him, nerves tingling at the roughness of his calloused fingertips.
When he couldn’t wait any longer he took hold of Riley’s hips and turned him to the face the counter. Riley made a surprised, happy noise and looked at West over his shoulder, and West kissed him quickly before grabbing the hem of his T-shirt and yanking it up. Riley exhaled sharply again and West felt a shudder run down his body as West kissed down his spine.
Riley’s stomach fluttered as West pushed his hands under the waistband of Riley’s sleep pants, and he clutched at the counter as West pushed them over his hips and down his long, sleek legs. He turned Riley again, holding his hips, and Riley’s eyes were dark and enormous as he looked at West with hunger and impatience.
West had tried not to look at him, even when he practiced his violin while wearing nothing but boxer shorts, but he could look now. And look he did, at the breadth of Riley’s chest, his strong hands and forearms, his smooth skin, the treble clef tattoo on his hip, his long legs, his cock that was already stiffening under West’s gaze.
“West,” Riley growled. West deliberately licked his lips, loving the way it made Riley’s skin flush deeper.
Riley caught West’s face in his hands and kissed him, and he made a bereft noise when West stepped back. West yanked off his bathrobe and the pajamas he’d been bundled into, barely naked before Riley grabbed him again and kissed him, even harder and more demanding than before.
West dragged Riley to the table but Riley said, “Dude, no, we eat here,” which made West laugh. He dragged Riley out of the kitchen instead, while Riley laughed with delight and kissed him as much as he could. Riley’s room was closest but West’s had the lube and condoms, so West brought him there and pushed him onto the bed. Riley was still laughing as he went down, and his eyes were hot and dark as he lounged on the dark red sheets and looked up at West.
West knelt on the bed. “I have been fantasizing about you on these sheets for weeks.” He lowered himself onto Riley’s body and kissed him. He felt Riley laugh, felt Riley’s calloused fingertips sweep over his back.
“Tell me more,” Riley muttered against his lips. “Tell me more about what you want.”
“I want,” said West, “to kiss every inch of your body. I want to lick your tattoo. I want to suck you off while you play your violin.”
Riley laughed again. “I don’t know if I have that much control.”
“That’ll be the fun of it, won’t it?” He looked down at Riley’s happy face and smiling mouth, and wondered if Riley looked like this with all of his lovers or if this was due just to him. He pushed that thought away and kissed him again, one thigh between Riley’s to gently rub against his cock.
“Westie,” Riley gasped, “I love this slow seduction thing you’ve got going but I swear if you don’t fuck me soon I’m going to lose my mind.”
West laughed, his mouth against Riley’s throat. “Right. No problem. Slow later.” He nipped Riley’s collar bone and got out condoms and lube from their box under the bed. Riley threw open his legs, hands wrapped around his thighs, and West kissed his stomach before he pushed in the first bit of lubricant. Riley moaned a soft, drawn-out, “Oh,” and West kissed him, fingers stroking steadily, until Riley relaxed.
He thought he might come from the look on Riley’s face as he unrolled the condom, and he had to pause and close his eyes, exhale and steady himself, before he knelt between Riley’s legs. Riley pushed a hand into his hair and gently rubbed the back of his head. “Y’okay, babe?” he said softly and West nodded and kissed the inside of his wrist.
“I’m good,” he said, “I’m so good,” and then he pushed into Riley’s tight, slick body and Riley cried out, his fingers digging into West’s back. West stroked his face and kissed him. “Relax, Riley. Breathe.”
Riley breathed slowly, his eyelids as heavy as if he were drugged, and then he tightened his thighs on West’s hips and smiled up at him. “Okay. Keep going.”
West kissed him and resumed the careful slide, until he felt Riley relax enough for him to thrust. It felt like heaven inside him, tight and slick. Riley pushed up his hips to take West deeper and hooked his feet behind West’s knees, and when they kissed his tongue was hot and eager. Riley looked as blissful as when he played his violin, and his calloused fingers traced over West’s back and sides and face like West was a new instrument he was eager to learn.
“West, Westie,” he gasped as he threw an arm over his head to grasp a pillow. West slid his hand up Riley’s arm to rest their palms together. Riley’s hand clasped his, interwove their fingers, and clutched West’s hand tight. His body and fingers tensed, and his neck arched as he shouted. West clung to his hand as they moved together faster, and Riley’s fingers squeezed his hard when West’s hips snapped, frantic for a few last seconds of pleasure before the tension in his body finally released.
Riley’s face was so lovely as they moved together languidly, riding out the aftershocks, his eyes shining and soft and his lips swollen, the color deep in his cheeks. West kissed his mouth and rubbed their noses together, and stroked Riley’s wrist with his thumb. Riley’s fingers curled into West’s hair and coaxed West’s head to his chest, where West could hear his heart beating.
Despite the tall latte with an extra shot he picked up on the way to school, West stumbled through classes the next day. “Burning the midnight oil, were you?” one of his friends asked, and West managed to smile and nod instead of shout, “I’m in love with the man of my dreams!”
He was happy, despite his weariness, his body satisfied and his mind content, but there was something that still troubled him. Riley hadn’t said he loved West in return. West went over the night in his head, and while Riley had said a lot, love hadn’t come up again.
Well, Riley didn’t talk about his feelings much on a regular day. West could hardly expect something as big as love to be easy for him.
As he trudged up the stairs to the apartment, he realized he could smell bread baking all the way in the staircase. He ran the rest of the way up the stairs and burst into the apartment, and Riley, reading on the couch, put the book aside.
“Welcome home, babe.”
“Hi,” said West, feeling warm at the “babe.” “You made bread.”
“I made soup, too. Are you hungry?”
“Good. It’ll be ready in about fifteen minutes. Join me?”
West let his backpack slide to the floor and lay on the couch at Riley’s side. Riley wound an arm around his neck and kissed his hair, and then picked up his book again. West lay there, feeling Riley breathe, and then turned back his head to gently kiss Riley under his chin.
“I guess you had a quiet day.”
“Quartet rehearsal this morning, but our next performance isn’t until Sunday. So yeah, I’ve been lazy. I’ve puttered. Did the shopping, cooked for my man.” He hugged West close again.
West put his hand on Riley’s chest. “I need to know something.”
“Anything you want.”
West inhaled. “I need to know I’m not another experiment.”
Riley put the book down. “What?”
“You said you experimented, and I need to know I’m not another experiment.”
“West,” Riley said. They both sat up, West feeling uncertain and small, and Riley took West’s face in his hands. “Of course you’re not an experiment. You’re my best friend.”
“I need to know you’re not going to change your mind in a week or a month or whatever. I need to know you’re not going to decide men are only a phase.”
“Westie,” said Riley, and the hurt in his eyes made West duck his head. “We’ve been together a day.”
“I know,” West said miserably. “All of a sudden you want me too and it’s just — you’ve never dated anybody for long. You always move on to someone new.”
Riley stroked his cheekbones. “It’s not sudden. It’s been building a long time. You just didn’t notice.”
“I never wanted to push you.”
“Push me,” said Riley. “Push me.”
West climbed onto him and kissed him heartily. “I love you,” he said. “I love you, Riley.”
“I love you too,” Riley said, laughing. “Silly Westie. Don’t you know you’re the only home I’ve got?”
“I do now.”
They kissed, sloppily and happily, and in the kitchen the buzzer on the oven rang. “Bread,” Riley whispered and kissed West a few more times before they untangled themselves so he could go to the kitchen. “I hope you realize how much I love you, too. It’s not everybody that I bake for.”
“I realize,” said West. He propped himself on his elbow to watch Riley go into the kitchen. Riley looked like he always did, jeans and sneakers and t-shirt, his hair careless, but he looked particularly wonderful today. West snagged his backpack from the floor and took out his sketchbook and a pencil, and drew Riley in a quick rough sketch as he stood at the oven.
He’d never drawn Riley much, not even when they were young — he was too afraid of people seeing it, of them knowing that he wanted Riley or how much he looked at Riley’s body. He could do things like this now. Riley would like it. He could draw Riley sleeping and playing his violin and laughing and no would think it was strange.
Some of the musicians from the symphony got together to perform quartets or duets, and Riley had a performance with his quartet scheduled for Sunday afternoon. West had to push him out of bed to take a shower and put on a suit. He drove Riley to the symphony hall while Riley shaved with an electric razor.
“I’ll be back,” he promised as he kissed Riley, and drove away from the symphony hall to run a quick errand and put on his good clothes, too.
When he got back to the hall there were a few dozen people in the audience — normal for an occasion such as this, really — so West was able to take a seat near the front where the musicians could see him. He could see Riley scanning the audience when the musicians came out, anxiety creasing his eyes, and then he spotted West. Every line of his face relaxed.
West stopped applauding with the rest of the audience and took his seat, and held his surprise on his knee where Riley would be sure to see it. Their eyes met as Riley positioned the violin under his chin, and Riley’s face lit up when he saw that West had finally remembered the roses.