I stewed a bit on that first session. I had agreed to go and I was going to put in the effort, just as I'd promised, but I wasn't exactly sure what I was doing. I did wonder about what she'd said and, while it was true Tris and I hadn't done much in the way of sex, that didn't mean there wasn't some desire. Tris was beautiful. Maybe as he continued to grow he'd become handsome or something, but I liked just looking at his face. There was a duality of peace and desire when we kissed, at least on my part. I liked his kisses and that's when her session clicked for me.
People I'd traded had kissed me for themselves. I hadn't known that until Tris kissed me because I was me. He kissed me, and I kissed him back, in a way I hadn't ever with anyone else. Somewhere my mind, and body, knew Tris wasn't like the others. But what did that mean?
Between the extra time spent on schoolwork, mitigated in its awfulness because Tris was with me, were visits with FBI agents and depositions by lawyers. It wasn't just Not-Larry that was affected, but the people he'd done business with as well as Coach Belcher. It dragged on, seemingly forever. I was sick of going to school as the weather cooled. Getting out of a warm bed to go to school became the focus of my ire as well as discussions in therapy. It wasn't that I didn't understand the purpose, I just didn't want to.
One of the recurring discussions was comparing what I grew up with versus an average teen. Even though she told me the point was for me to be able to see how my parents had influenced me had affected my development – like a parent does with every one of their children. She said I had to understand it, know where it came from, before I could address it successfully. Sometimes I felt like I'd been through an emotional blender.
In mid-November Mr. Belcher reached a plea deal. He was going to jail for five years. That night Tris and I were in my room watching a movie. I was deeply into the movie and was entwined with Tris like an ivy weed until the credits came up.
“That was so cool,” I said to him. He nuzzled the side of my neck and I giggled, pulling away from him. I pulled him to me a little tighter and inhaled the scent of love and safety. Also of school work and something of a taskmaster, but right now – just love.
“So Belcher only got five years,” Tris said quietly.
“Yeah. I kind of wish it were more,” I said. “He knew what kind of guy he was driving me to.”
Tris cleared his throat. “I do, too. They nailed him on, essentially, kidnapping and dropped the feet porn thing.”
I shrugged. “I don't get it. For me, it was just a foot rub. It felt good. It wasn't like, you know...other stuff.”
“I kind of...looked some stuff up. Didn't Belcher, like, take his pants off or anything?”
“Nope,” I said, knowing Tris was probably not happy the guy touched me at all. “He rubbed my feet and kissed them a few times. That's all he ever did.”
“And you...liked that?”
I frowned lightly and turned toward him. “Tris I never asked you, just assumed, but...no one but me gets to touch you, right? I mean....”
“Nobody gets me, but you,” he said firmly. He tilted his head. “What makes you ask?”
I lay my head back on the pillow. “It was something we talked about in therapy. Being equal, making rules that we both have to follow. She said I should be asking the same thing from you that you do of me.”
“Well, I'd never cheat on you, but she's right.” Quietly he added, “Nosy bitch.”
I chuckled. “I defended you, don't worry. She was trying to make the point that I have to respect myself. I thought I was, I suppose, but maybe...I guess it's worth saying those kinds of rules out loud. Right?”
“Anything you want,” he said and nodded. “So...did you like me rubbing your shoulders a few weeks ago?”
“Yeah. Felt good,” I said.
“You like shoulders or feet rubbed better?”
I rolled over and looked him in the eye. “I like whatever you're doing.”
His lips curled in amusement and he leaned in. Bang, there it was. I felt awash in peace with his scent and the feel of his body pressed to mine. In contrast, I also felt desire tugging at me as the kiss extended and sexual tension invaded my body. It was a delicious feeling.
A few weeks later we had a rare snowfall. We gathered at Brandon's house and threw snowballs at each other, stuffed snow down the back of shirts and stupid things like that. It didn't make sense to me at first, but I managed to get into the silly spirit of things. Melody started taking some pictures of us with her phone. At one point we used some fallen branches, light ones, to spar with each other like jousting knights.
Eventually we went inside and had a hot drink to warm up with. We sat in Brandon's living room, he in a one piece Batman pajama thing and the rest of us drying out in our normal clothes. We idly watched TV, each cuddled into our chosen halves. We made plans to attend a winter carnival a few weeks later.
Thanksgiving and then Christmas came and went. Tris insisted we not do gifts for Christmas, but I told him we had to. Beth and Emily had been teaching me how things ran in the store, and I was squeezing every hour in I could when Tris wasn't making me study or I didn't have therapy. My moms were completely on board with my gift to Tris.
Tris came over on Christmas eve. We cuddled on the couch, along with my moms, and watched Christmas movies all day. We both helped them cook dinner and, at the end of the night, we exchanged gifts before he left.
“A book? What do you know about books?” I asked with a smile, teasing him.
“I know you were interested in Oscar Wilde when he came up in English class last semester, and he's the lead detective in these books,” Tris said with a smug smile.
“Really?” I asked in curiosity, turning the book over to read the brief description on the back.
“You doubt your boyfriend's abilities?” he asked, lacing his arms behind me and tugging me to him. I laughed.
“About anything but books, no. But I admit, this looks very good,” I said, turning in his arms. “Thank you.”
“Can I just keep you? That would be a very nice gift,” he said, nuzzling my neck.
“I think I'm yours already. But, you can open my gift,” I said as I leaned back and smiled at him. He frowned at me in amusement and I dragged him to the small tree and pulled his gift out for him. Beth and Emily sat on the couch to watch and Tris smiled, his cheeks a little flush with all eyes on him.
He picked at the edge and pulled the paper away from a garment box. He popped the top to find a dark blue hoodie. “Oh, this is nice,” he said as he pulled it from the box and held it up to admire.
“You know, when I lived on the street I'd wear things until they were no more than rags. Like, they had to have no use at all for me to get rid of them.” I fingered the cloth of the hoodie. “I was washing the few clothes I had when someone loaned me their clothes and never took them back. I needed them, of course, but the one thing I just didn't have – clean or dirty – was shoes.”
“Okay,” he said uncertainly and with a smile.
“They were a nice blue color. I wore them until there were holes in them, but not because I had to.” I looked at him steadily and his eyes grew a little wet. “So I still found a way to use them.”
I rolled the hoodie up so he could see the inside where I'd sewn a small blue heart from the material left of those blue shoes. “You gave me something I needed that day. They meant something incredibly important to me. So I have my heart inside your hoodie-”
He grabbed me, pulling me tightly and shook in my hastily returned embrace. “I just want you to remember, whenever you wear this, that my heart is always with you.”
In early February the FBI let us know that the announcement about Not-Larry and his network would hit the news. There were over a hundred arrests and the charges came to an impressive total. I didn't feel better about it, really. Yes, these particular people would never do this again but there had been others who'd suffered like me, for far longer. Some of them weren't found. The ones they'd found so far might never recover.
I spent more time in therapy and I found it confusing. It wasn't like the times I'd spoken, or not, with Eileen Belcher. Therapy was odd. It seemed like part pep talk, part confession and part bullshit session. Eventually I began to realize the bullshitting part was more about getting me to think in a different way and I really tried to put in a lot of effort. I really tried to learn in therapy and to try and heal from everything I'd been through. It hadn't been as easy as I'd hoped. I'd had some very bad days and sometimes very hard nights. Beth and Emily had stood by me, alternatively prodding me forward and propping me up as needed. They'd really gone above and beyond anything I could have hoped for. I was slowly beginning to understand the bedrock of stability and love they were providing me and it also spurred me to try to be worthy of that. It isn't easy to change things you believe or are sure you know. But like Hastings had said, I had people. So it was only fair that, as Poirot would have said to his Hastings, I had to use my little gray cells.
At last the school year was winding down and it seemed that, barring a major screw-up, I was going to pass. Tris was understandably proud, after all he'd put a lot of hard work into my education. I still didn't like going to the Malone's, but I did it sometimes to help keep the peace. Perhaps one day we'd be closer, but I honestly didn't care that much anymore. I had my moms, I had Tris and Piper and even Brandon and Melody.
The rest of the world can burn.
Late one evening after we'd finished the last of our exams, Tris came to spend the night. Staying over wasn't exactly a common event with us, but it wasn't unheard of, either. We spent most of our time talking and being close, but we hadn't fooled around in a very long time. That worried me from time to time. We kissed and there wasn't anything like kissing Tris. It was a healing moment anytime he gave me one – or more.
Tris and I were on the couch and not really paying attention to whatever we'd put on the TV. The important thing is we were together; it was always enough.
He stretched out and rested his head on my thigh and said, “So I had a weird thing happen today.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Yeah. Tim came to talk to me. It was kind of awkward.”
I frowned and stroked his hair. “I'm sure. What did he want?”
Tris looked at me and said, “He said he talked to you the day you left, all those months ago, though he didn't know you were leaving.”
“He did,” I confirmed. I hadn't thought about Tim or that conversation in a long time.
“Is there some reason you never mentioned that?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, at the time he spoke to me I told him there wasn't anything I could do for him, if that's what he was after. I wasn't going to absolve him or anything.” I glanced at Tris and saw him deep in thought. “After...I guess I just didn't think of it. Whatever he was going to do – talk to you, seek forgiveness – that was out of my hands.”
“Why? Are you thinking of forgiving him?”
His eyes came back into focus as he looked at me. “I don't know. We'll never be even close to friends, again.” He shook his head and wiggled backward so more of him was laying on me. “I understand it was more than he intended – and if I was going to get even with anyone, it'd be his brother. I mean, the guy was supposed to be my friend. The part that gets me, though is how fake our whole relationship was and all he seemed to want, then, was to screw me.”
I ran my fingers through his hair. “I thought much the same thing. I didn't like that he was trying to manipulate your choices away from you.”
He looked up at me briefly and smiled. “Do you ever think about it?”
I shook my head. “I don't think about Tim at all.”
“Not that, Ehren. Well, I guess maybe you wouldn't, right? Not with everything else.”
I frowned as I thought about what he'd asked. “I'm confused. What are you talking about?”
A blush crept into his face. “Sex. With me.”
“Oh,” I said with understanding dawning.
Hurriedly he said, “I know. It's an awkward thing to bring up. I never wanted to push – and I still don't – not with all you've been through. I just wondered if you'd ever thought about it. Or if you do think about it, actually.” He let his gaze wander to the ceiling and I kept pushing my fingers through his hair. “That feels nice.”
“It does,” I said absently. “Sex has always been a strange thing, for me. I know what people say about it. I know people seem to enjoy it. I know the few times we fooled around, I liked it. A lot.” I paused as he moved his gaze back to my face. “For me, sex was always a business deal. I sold myself so I could eat, not because someone was good looking or because I was horny. I have no idea how sex is supposed to be, Tris.”
He nodded and looked back toward the ceiling as I resumed my ministrations. His hair was so soft, it was like stands of silk were parting around my fingers. He sighed and then I did, too. He closed his eyes and I drank in his serene face and was hit with a wave of affection for him. He's the most amazing person to ever exist, I'm sure. A pillar. My rock. Dare I think it, the ultimate cliché, my soul mate.
Yes, I dare. I dare each day.
“Is this subject making you uncomfortable?” he asked quietly.
I ran my hand down the side of his face, stroking his cheek. “No. I don't feel bad talking to you.”
He opened his eyes for a moment and I ran my fingers over his eyelids to urge them closed and then resumed stroking his hair. In that still moment I truly felt blessed. Despite my damage, despite my parents, my past, my bad decisions and my horrible urge to run when in trouble...this was the heaven so many people strove for. I'd found it, or it had found me.
“Be honest. Does anything I do make you uncomfortable or...I mean, do you like it?” His voice was low, and changed key which betrayed his nerves.
“Everything with you has meaning,” I said softly.
He opened his eyes and looked up at me.
Continuing to stroke his hair and face I said, “No one kissed me like you do. I never wanted to return kisses. I never thought anyone was as...good to look at, as you. It's all different and all good with you.”
He cleared his throat and I sniffled a little. He took one of my hands between his and let me keep stoking his hair with the other.
“The thing with Tim was, you know, I never felt ready. I mean, we fooled around some and that was cool. I liked it. But he kind of expected me to just do what he wanted. Sexually. I'd started to wonder if it was a good idea to date him. Part of me stayed because there weren't many other guys out there, you know?” He sighed. “I was still thinking about breaking up with him when he broke up with me. At first I kind of felt like crap – who doesn't when you get dumped? But then I was like, 'Okay, at least we can move on. We weren't a good fit.' But then the other stuff started up and...well, my point is I never felt like I could do that with him.”
Tris's face was growing more red by the moment and I felt stupid. He was trying to talk to me and...oh. I really am stupid.
“Tris?” I asked, not sure if I wanted him to say yes or no. My heart sped up and my stomach clenched. “Are you thinking about us having sex?”
He rolled over a little, so he could face me and still use me as a pillow. His soft, warm eyes looked directly at mine. No hiding.
“Promise me something?” Tris asked, a tremor in his voice.
“You have to shut this talk down if you feel threatened or not safe or anything, okay? Promise me?”
I nodded at him.
“The last thing I want to do is stress you, okay? Please Ehren, you have to pull the plug if you're uncomfortable, okay?”
He sighed. “I'm being selfish, Ehren. Having dated Tim before only underscores how superficial that relationship was. He never respected me and, I suppose I didn't have much respect for him, either.” He looked up at me and smiled. “But I love you. Inside and out. You're such a beautiful person. And, yes, I've been thinking about sex. I feel...good. Ready for it.” He nodded and swallowed. “I mean, sex with you.”
There it was. It was a healthy part of the majority of intimate relationships – spouses, extended dating or even very close relationships. The topic had come up in therapy periodically, both because of my past and because I was in a romantic relationship, as she called it. Panic clutched at my chest and yet I felt a stirring in my groin, and my heart.
“Do you think that's something you could ever do?”
Emotions ripped through me. His words landed like hammers on my heart, just as they did anytime he told me what I meant to him. It was one thing to think it, and another to have him verbalize it. There were complications, though – mostly to do with me.
“Tris. I love you, I hope you know that,” I began. He nodded and pressed my hand between his own and stroked my skin.
“It's okay. Forget it. We can talk about it when you feel stronger. I'll wait for you, forever,” he said quickly, stumbling and afraid he'd pushed me too far.
The tempest in me slowed and began to drain. I passed a hand over his eyes again and let my fingertips trail across his face as my heart rate stayed high, but the tension in me dissipated. With a calm I wouldn't have expected I continued, “Ever since I realized I was in love with you, I've never felt worthy. Not of your love, not to share your life – let me finish, please.”
Tris, who'd opened his eyes and been shaking his head violently, pressed his lips together and gave me a curt nod to continue.
“When I was on the street, I didn't care about the standards of the rest of the world. It didn't affect me. But once I committed myself to loving you, I've been floundering like a fish out of water.” I sighed and stroked his hair again. “By the standards of your world, I'm a whore. I never cared, like I said, except for you. I'm behind in school and I may not be able to get a good job to help support us. I know your folks worry I'm going to be a millstone around your neck, socially and financially.”
“Can I just?” he asked, putting a finger in the air. Without waiting for me he continued, “You did a great job this year. The fact that you don't care what others thinks only helps you, now. As far as education goes, you don't need a college degree for a good job. You could be a plumber or an electrician or any number of other things. And honestly? I don't care what anyone thinks, either. I've been through things, too, don't forget. You're true as the day is long and that's all that matters to me.”
I nodded. A coolness filled me, a calm, centered feeling and said, “I know. The thing is, Tris...I love you with everything I've got. I'm trying to tell you I have no idea what it means to make love or have someone make love to me – or if a thing like that even exists. All I know about sex is being paid.” I swallowed and fixed my gaze to his eyes, making sure he heard me.
“I trust you. If you can show me what I'm missing...if you can take all the love you tell me you have and show me – to make sex about everything we have between us, even a fraction. Essentially, make our love physical...then I want that. More than anything.” I swallowed and tried to calm the tremor in my voice. “Every time you tell me you love me, how proud you are...my heart aches and I don't know what to do or say. But I live to hear it.”
We stayed silent for a moment, the heavy emotions weighing us down. I felt tired, but I also felt energized. Would he believe me? Would I really find out just what it meant to have someone make love to me? The proximity of his head to my groin wasn't lost on me at this point and the idea of him turning those words into something tangible was giving me one hell of an erection.
Behind us I heard the door to Beth and Emily's bedroom open and slippered feet cross the hardwood floor. “Hey, guys, we're turning in,” Beth said as she placed a glass in the sink. “Are you staying up?”
His eyes grew wide as he looked up at me, clearly telling me it was my call. It was the final straw, the thing that set my desire to boil. He wanted to know if I was ready to love him and that I was in charge.
Looking down at him, staring into his eyes I said, “No, Beth, we're going to bed. Good night.” She walked up behind me and kissed the top of my head.
“Good night, sweetheart. Good night, Tris,” she said. He wished her good night as well and then she was gone, her door closing behind her.
I shifted under him so I could stand and he sat up and followed me. We went into my room, the air fraught with nervous energy. I closed the door and leaned against it, looking at Tris. He turned to face me, his voice filled with tremors again.
“Ehren, I...look. I'm a virgin, you know that. I have no idea if I'll be any good at this.” He sighed and put the tips of his fingers in the pockets of his jeans. “All that stuff you said about making my love for you into something physical...I promise...I'll love you the best I can.”
“I know,” I told him. Tris nodded and let a long, shaky breath out. Then he pulled his shirt off and tossed it aside. I'd always liked the way his chest looked. He took a tentative step toward me and my heart rate easily doubled.
“You tell me to stop if you aren't ready, okay? I promise I won't get angry or anything. This has to be right for both of us. Okay?” He sounded nervous, maybe as nervous as I was.
I reached out and placed a hand on his stomach, which contracted briefly under my hand. I slid up his skin, over a sensitive nipple and gently continued up onto his shoulder, then up his neck to cup his face.
“It's right, Tris. Love me. Please.” He licked his lips and leaned in to place a soft kiss on my lips. His hands, shaking, skirted my skin as he lifted my shirt and stroked my flanks. We resumed kissing, slowly, with our chests crushed together. I thought I could feel his heart hammering in his chest, or maybe it was mine? Maybe it was both, striving to beat in unison. I ran my hands down his back – he shivered - and held him by his hips. One of his hands strayed to a nipple and I inhaled sharply at the sensation. I'd never been touched so gently, so...lovingly.
I brought a hand up and stroked one of his nipples, mimicking him. He heatedly whispered my name and my pulse quickened and my temperature rose. He gently kissed my neck and crouched to place his mouth over my already stiff nipple and I groaned and placed a hand behind his head to hold him in place as he flicked my skin with his tongue. When he withdrew I pushed him back and fell atop him, the bed squeaking once, and I skipped the gentle kisses on his neck and simply attacked his nipples – one by hand and the other with my mouth. As much as I'd enjoyed how he'd made me feel, I was elated to hear his groans of pleasure and to feel him writhe under me.
He pulled me toward him and I kissed my way up his neck before we resumed kissing, a slow and satisfying precursor to the approaching main event. We turned on our sides eventually and I missed the contact with him immediately. He reached for my belt, fumbling. My hands weren't much steadier, but I copied him and pushed his pants down. We awkwardly struggled to free ourselves of clothing.
He stood on one leg and then the other as he pulled his socks off. Then he pulled mine off for me. He smiled at me nervously. I felt a calm come over me as I looked at him, dressed in just his underwear and obviously aroused. This was different and I could feel it; breathe it. Before, it was always me hoping it would end soon. Now I wanted it to on on forever.
I leaned past him and turned the bedside lamp on and then crossed the room to shut off the overhead light. Turning back to him I paused to drink him in. It wasn't just anyone lying on my bed, flushed and aroused. Everything about him had been my reason for hanging on in a hellhole. I ached to be with him, to feel him make his loving words manifest into the physical. I crossed the space between us and resumed the kiss for a moment, savoring the feeling of love. The difference between what I knew and what we were doing wasn't even in the same...well, it's why one is sex and the other is making love, I suppose.
“I love you, Ehren,” he said softly and caressed the side of my face.
As usual my heart swelled. No matter how many times he said it, I couldn't hear it enough. “I love you too, Tristan.”
“God. I love it when you say that,” he whispered and a shiver ran through me.
I pushed my underwear down, pleased with his eyes drinking me in – that he was feeling pleasure from just looking at me. There was lust in his look, no doubt, but it wasn't the lust of someone who's paid for me. This was someone who...couldn't believe they were allowed to touch me. It was a heady, addicting feeling. I pushed his underwear down and he wiggled out of them and then we came together, resuming the kiss and lowering ourselves to the mattress with more care than when I'd nearly shoved him.
Anyone who has had sex will know the description of what happened reasonably soon afterward. This was no hasty rush in a public place or a one sided affair. I'd never gotten to, nor had the urge to explore. Now I did. Everything, both physically and emotionally, was completely different. I'm convinced beyond any doubt we did make love to each other. The difference was obvious. The expression of love through pleasure, and not simply taking for himself. It was evident in every caress, every tease of his tongue and I returned it willingly – desirous of his touch, his taste, his groans and heated whispers.
I looked up into his eyes, clearly to be seen, as he entered me for the first time. Lovingly, and with great care to my comfort. He tensed and asked if I was okay. A tear slid from my eye and I nodded and told him it was perfect. His rhythm was slow and hesitant, inexperienced. My previous experience had been quick and brutal. He found somewhere inside of me that blossomed with pleasure when he sank into me. He paused, holding still while fully sheathed within me. His kiss was tender. His whispered devotion of love was with a ragged breath and what very nearly sounded like a sob. He resumed, but minutes later his muscles locked and I knew he'd finished inside me. I clutched him, holding him close as his chest heaved and he planted tiny kisses across my chest.
Then, surprising me more than anything I'd have thought, he wanted me inside him. I'd never done that. No one had ever wanted me to do that. Somehow it felt like it was wrong of me, that it would make us too equal. I knew he was far superior to me and yet he insisted. The incredible feeling as I looked down on him – knowing he'd looked down on me, knowing I had surrendered to him washed through me. He spread his legs wider and encouraged me, though I was supposed to be in charge or something. It didn't matter. It was one more example of my flawed ideas of sex. Yes, he was surrendering to me, offering himself and yet I wanted nothing more than to please him.
“Are you okay?” I asked and began to withdraw.
“Don't,” he said quickly putting his hands on my hips. He was breathing raggedly and I looked down on him with concern. “Go slow. Push in me.”
I looked at him doubtfully.
“Please, Ehren. I want you.”
Hesitantly I pushed forward and he lifted his hips to meet me. Wonderfully there was seemingly no area where I ended and he began, pressed as tightly together as we were. There was not a millimeter more of me that could go farther into him. Like a frieze we held our place, staring at each other in wonder.
“Oh. Oh God, Ehren,” he said softly and a tear leaked from his eye.
“Does it hurt?” I asked and began to pull back again, but he wrapped his legs quickly about my waist and shook his head from side to side while reaching out with his arms to hold me closer, to keep me from retreating.
“No. No pain. I've wanted this...you. For so long,” he said, his breath coming in gasps. He smiled and nodded at me. He nudged me with his feet and I tried to set a rhythm. He guided me, encouraged me and finally exhorted me to make love to him as his legs released me and he pulled them back toward himself. It was an incredible feeling to be so connected. Soon I was spent. I lay atop him with my head on his chest. He peppered me with questions about if I was okay and if it felt good. I never felt out of control, even when surrendering to him. I felt safe, loved and turned on in a way I'd never expected nor had experienced.
I assured him repeatedly that I was okay. I asked after him and he let out a bubbling laugh that sounded close to sobs. He had tears in his eyes as he told me I had been everything he'd ever hoped for. I liked laying atop him and I stayed as he let his fingers trail across my back. This was the elusive thing people paid others for and called sex. In reality they wanted love and substituted sex.
“I'm going to want to do that again,” I told him, whispering in his ear.
“You do? You really are okay? No bad memories getting in the way?” he asked anxiously.
“Nothing bad,” I assured him. “Some days, Tris, I don't feel like I'm worth much. I feel down. When you tell me you love me, it lifts me up. When you show me with hugs and affection, I feel secure. But what you just did...makes me feel whole. Loved. I want you to love me. A lot.”
Later, after the light was switched off and the moonlight filled the room, I looked down at him as he slept quietly. We nestled together, skin warm against the other, and I marveled at how complete I felt, as if pieces I hadn't realized were missing had suddenly completed me. At the end of this particular journey I'd found real love. I'd found a real home. I'd found that sex was not worth my time, but making love was transcendent. I knew I wanted more and more. I knew I wanted to see him nude again and again. It was a hunger I'd never felt inside myself.
Perhaps, taken all together, I'd found a life. One I was ready to live to the fullest.