After a few hours at the school, Luca and I had lunch, and then we decided to head back to our apartment. I put my phone on the bed and turned the speaker on to call my mom. I figured I should go through all the clothes I'd brought with me and make some space for Benji's stuff – he sure as hell was going to be spending some nights here.
“Ryan? Where are you?” my mother asked, voice tight.
“At my apartment,” I said, voice feeling strained. “Luca and I moved in. Didn't dad tell you?”
“Well he...Ryan, this is a rash decision. Why don't we talk about it?”
I shrugged, though she couldn't see. “Things have changed, Mom. I'm not a little kid. I don't want to be a doctor. I don't want to fight about it.”
She sighed. “I don't understand. Or maybe I do. You've been different. Your father tells me...there's someone new in your life. Benjamin. Has he...this just seems sudden.” I paused and closed my eyes. “Mom, Benji is...I knew him a little in high school. He's saving to go to school. He wants to be a teacher. He's excited I'm going back to school. He's very supportive. I think you'd love him if you give him a chance...because I think I do.”
“Oh, Ryan...so soon after Julia? Are you sure?”
“This is different,” I replied. “I feel different. The initial excitement...it's not going away. I look forward to seeing him, talking to him. I miss him when he's not with me. I see things and think that I want to share them with him, or hear what he thinks.” I paused. “How was it with you and dad? How did you know?”
She laughed lightly. “He was a pest. He kept telling me he'd make me happy, and I admit I enjoyed the attention. I didn't exactly say no, and he kept up his nonsense until I actually did say yes.”
“That makes dad sound like a stalker,” I said, laughing as I sat on the bed.
“I don't mean it like that. Times were different, yes, but I don't feel as if he crossed any lines. As I said, I never told him no, but for the longest time I didn't say yes, either.” She paused. “Sometimes the chase is exciting.”
“So's what comes after,” I said quietly.
She snorted. “Sons change lifelong plans, daughters become strangers and little sons have such a fascination with vegetables in orifices I have to wonder if he's not part vegetable himself.”
I sighed. “I'm sorry if you're disappointed. Medicine was never...maybe at one time I thought it was a good idea. That it would make you happy or proud. Maybe even a year ago, because it seemed like it was solid, like I could almost hold it. But it's not for me.”
She let out a slow breath. “No. It's not for you. I suppose it's for the best. You'd be diagnosing your brother, I think.”
I chuckled. “Stan's not that bad.”
“No, no, I'm sure he'll make us proud. Guinness book for most peas in a human nose.”
We both started to laugh.
“Did you register today? Your father said you would.”
“Yes. I'm signed up.”
“Okay. And...Benjamin. When can we meet him?”
“I don't know. I'll have to talk to him.” I told her about the confusion about his living situation and how it was affecting his plans for college.
“Well, maybe you should stop being an investigator and just ask him?” she suggested.
“Thanks, Inspector,” I said with a chuckle.
“What if he's being taken advantage of? What will you do?”
I bit my lip. What would I do?
“This is your father's fault. His whole side of the family is like this, you know,” she said breezily.
“What do you mean?”
“Remember when Luca wanted to play basketball, but his parents couldn't bring him? Your father was appalled that they were so detached from him. What was to become of him if his parents aren't involved, he would rave.” She paused. “So I asked him – what will you do, then? ‘I don't know!’ he'd say irritably – you know that tone he gets.”
I chuckled. I did know that tone.
“So he shows up everyday for you and Luca, like I knew he would. He starts bringing snacks for when you guys get done with practice. He suggests Luca come study with you because if his parents aren't watching his games, are they watching his studies?” She said all this with an air of amused exasperation.
“I know dad loves Luca like an extra son,” I told her. “I'm not sure what you're trying to say, though.”
“That your father already knew what he was going to do – help. And that's what you'll do because you're our son.”
I smiled. “Wouldn't that just make me his son?”
“Who do you think packed those snacks? Your father? Please! He'd have given you a Tic-Tac and called it good! Don't protest. You know how your father is!” she exclaimed, and we both laughed.
“Yeah. I have to help him. I don't know how, yet.”
Luca and I cooked dinner for Lilly and Benji that night. It wasn't fancy, but Benji and Lilly kind of teamed up and teased us before praising us.
“Look. I'm not exactly a stranger to a kitchen,” I told Benji.
“You know how those high school athletes go,” Lilly said to Benji. “You're going to have to watch his diet.”
“I know,” Benji said with a sigh.
“Ha, ha,” I said.
“Well,” Benji said, leaning back into me, “I can always keep him well exercised.”
“You talk about me like I'm a poodle.”
They both just laughed at me. We settled in after with some music and just hung out together. I thought we might go the way of a movie or video games, but the conversation flowed very well. We talked about the classes Luca had picked, choosing to go with a flexible liberal arts program. We talked about the conversation I'd had with my mother and Lilly asked Benji if he was nervous to meet my parents.
“Well, duh,” he said with a nervous laugh. He glanced at me as he said, “This is the most solid relationship I've ever had. It feels serious and I'm, like, feeling so adult right now. It's weird!”
“You think that's adult?” Luca asked. “My girlfriend and I go to art galleries and talk about things I pretend to understand because they sound so nice when she she says them.”
“Luca!” she said while slapping his leg. “That's not adult at all!” He laughed and pulled her to him, but it reminded me of something.
“You know, that makes me think of something I asked my mom once. We were at a friend's house for dinner and my dad told one of his stories – one he'd told a hundred times – and my mother laughed like it was the first time. So later I asked her why she laughs even though she's heard it before and she told me 'that's love'.” I chuckled. “Joking aside...when you can still smile or laugh at something just because your partner does – like a husband enjoying telling an old story – then maybe it's pretty damn adult. And serious.”
“Oh. Uh huh,” Lilly said and rolled her eyes. “Do you guys do things like that?”
“Sure!” Benji said enthusiastically and I raised an eyebrow. “Like I put up with him being so proud of pretending to cook. I'm sure that won't grow ol – ah!” He was cut off as I dug my fingers into his sides and tickled the fuck out of him.
“I. Can. Cook!” I firmly told him as he squealed under my assault.
“Okay, okay!” he said, breathless. “We agree – you can order out.” He paused and I darted my hands toward him. “You can cook! You can cook! No more!” he almost yelled and broke down in giggles, holding his hands up as if to intercept mine.
Eventually Lilly stood and stretched. “Well, I have to work in the morning.”
“I could drive you home in the morning, if you're tired,” Luca said quietly.
“Could you?” she asked, her lips curling into a smile as he stood and leaned in to kiss her.
“And you? I can drive you home in the morning, too,” I said to Benji.
He snorted. “You? Drive without coffee? I didn't see a machine out there.”
“Keep forgetting that,” Luca said before I could. “We'll see you guys in the morning.”
“Night,” we both said as they disappeared into Luca's bedroom and closed the door behind them.
“So. Wanna have a sleepover with me?” I asked, nibbling at his neck.
“What are you, twelve?” he asked, chuckling.
I pulled him back against me and pushed my nose into his hair, then made obnoxious sniffing noises which sent him off into giggles again. 'I love you,' I thought. That's what's different. Was it too early to think that? What were the rules? Can I tell him what I think I feel? Luca would. He's braver than I am.
“Where did you go?” Benji asked, a smile fluttering about the edges of his lips.
“Talked to my mom today,” I said quietly.
“You didn't mention...how did that go?”
“Good,” I said and smiled at his concerned expression. “I told her about you. How I miss you when you're not with me. How I do something or hear something and wonder what you'd say or think.”
Guardedly he asked, “And what did she say to that?”
“She wanted to know when she gets to meet you.”
He paused, then asked, “And you said?”
I shrugged. “I said I'd have to talk to you, first.”
He tilted his head. “Do you want me to meet them?”
“Oh, I don't know. I mean, I'd have no secrets at all, then. No mystery.”
He studied my face for a moment. “I'm kind of jealous, you know. You've been this golden boy for so long, dating Julia and your parents don't bat an eye that you're dating me. Your ex seems to have no problem with you switching teams and is even friendly to me. Who does that?”
I let out a breath. “Julia and I...we changed. I still care for her. Love her. But it's not the same. I dated around a little, but when we settled in it was partly because we were friends, partly because it was easier to manage a single relationship than trying to start new relationships with my schedule...and we liked each other.
“Now that's...matured into something that isn't romantic,” I said, thinking over the conversations Julia and I had had. “We each want the other to be happy. Did I tell you she wanted us – me and Luca – to help her find a new boyfriend?”
“No,” he said with a grin. “How'd that go?”
“It was kind of funny,” I said, enjoying his weight on me as I wiggled to stretch out beneath him. “She liked these two guys who work at this coffee place in the mall-”
“What coffee place?”
“Um...Oh, Cuppa Joes I think.”
“Did she like Mason or Ethan better?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You know these guys? These attractive guys?”
The corner of his mouth pulled up in amusement. “I tried their coffee once just because I thought they were cute. It wasn't bad, but the boys are cute together.”
“They weren't a couple, I didn't think?” I asked, furrowing my brow.
“Besties, clearly,” Benji said with a small snort. “I hung around a little to gather intel, you know.”
“Oh? And when was this?” I asked, digging a finger into his ribs. He jumped and grinned down at me.
“Last year, no need to be jealous,” he teased.
“Uh huh,” I said with suspicion.
“Anyway, Mason – the blond? He's – or he was – dating a pretty girl with kind of curly, wavy hair. And Ethan was dating this little blond guy who – I mean you just look at how the little guy would stare at Ethan like he was his whole world. It was intense.”
“Huh. Well, I think their status is the same. When we went those guys were working. There was a girl that looked like you were describing who was teasing Mason, said something about knowing what she likes. But the little guy you were talking about? When he and Ethan looked at each other, man...his smile took him from nice-looking to something else.”
“Yeah. They are cute together. I haven't seen them out, so maybe they are still in high school or something.”
“I haven't seen Jace out,” I said absently. “Actually, I have to reach out to Tris and Ehren.”
Benji frowned lightly. “I feel like I know them.”
“Yeah. They talked to us the night you and I agreed to meet – remember? You almost blew me off?”
“Hah. Keep it up,” he growled. “I think I remember them. Didn't you go eat with them or something while I was dancing one night?”
“Yeah. Nice guys.” I paused. “Ehren said something interesting. He told me about things you have to leave behind.”
“What does that mean?” he asked, frowning.
“He was kind of general about it at the time, but I think I understand it now,” I said. I looked at him, his warm eyes and sighed. “I was carrying a lot of stuff. Luca told me I was tearing things down and remaking my life, kind of. But I think it's more like Ehren was saying – I was putting things down I didn't need anymore. I don't need the tutoring, the scheduling and pressure of being a doctor or trying to get into med school – because I don't want it. So I can leave that behind me.
“My old relationship with Julia? Left behind. Whatever idea of who I was without you? Left behind.”
His expression softened to one of indulgence, much as he looked on me when he brought me coffee in the morning. “And who are you with me?”
Yes. Now was the time to leave fear behind, too. Luca'd given me the example, now it was up to me to use it.
“I'm in love. That's who I am.”
His expression shifted and he leaned back a bit. “What?”
“I know. It seems like it's early. Maybe I'm not supposed to say that; I don't know what the rules are. But I'm kind of leaving my fear – or some of it – behind me and telling you...answering your question.”
He sat up and I immediately missed his weight and warmth on me. I sat up as well, curious and nervous, but not fearful of his reaction. He fidgeted and glanced at me, seemingly on edge.
“What's wrong, Babe?” I asked. “Was that too much pressure? I don't expect you to say it back.”
He stood from the couch abruptly and wrapped his arms around himself, and then sat down at the edge of the cushion.
“She said you'd say...fuck,” he muttered.
“What?” I asked, mystified. I moved toward him and he seemed to squeeze himself tighter. I maneuvered to sit beside him and put my arm around his shoulders, holding him to me lightly. I felt like I could be more supportive of him feeling his solid warmth beside me. “What is it?”
“I told you I'm the youngest, right?”
“Youngest of six,” I confirmed.
“My parents...they're...unimaginative people,” he said haltingly. “Everything is done with a firm eye toward pragmatism. It's why I'm so stupid about organizing things and making stuff orderly. I mean, those things have helped me with work and stuff – not exactly the worst qualities to have, but it's all part of it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Go on.”
“My...they're kind of severe when I say pragmatic. No pets because they were more work. Toys were frowned on after a certain age because they weren't teaching us anything anymore. Books were the one big thing...but not fiction, really. They allowed one PC and it was strictly monitored for use with work or looking up 'wholesome' things like, I don't know, Wikipedia.”
“I've spent whole nights paging through some of their articles,” I said.
He gave me a wan smile. “My siblings all moved out when they could, and they don't come back. Except my brother, Mark. He's like my parents. Joyless.” He shook himself. “Their objection to my sexuality is, to them, pragmatic. Sex equals sexuality equals a waste of time because I can't have kids, and it's a good thing because it's an expense.”
“Exactly,” he said. “So when I moved out to save for school, it was really tense at home. Mark said I was being stupid and I should do as my parents asked and take their money for school. He pointed out that my other siblings had done similar things based on my parents strings to college money.” He looked up at me sadly. “But I was out. It took me a long time to get there and the idea of going back was just too painful. So I stuck to my guns.”
“Sounds like the right thing to me,” I said.
He shrugged. “Only they escalated. It went from school to car to place to live – slowly peeling back the things they provided to make me do what they wanted. I was desperate to get out, and that's when I hooked up with Gwen.”
“Oh, joy. Let's talk about Barney,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
“I'll keep it short,” he said quietly. “She told me I had no credit history, so getting my own apartment under my own name was out of the question. She offered to help me out.”
“That bitch,” I whispered. “Hey, did you talk to her? Is that what this story is heading toward?”
“Yeah, it is,” he said quietly. He took a breath before continuing. “We had a fight this morning. It pissed me off royally, but it's also been eating at me all day.” He wiped his eyes. “Don't say that you love me. You can't.”
“Uh, what? I think I know better how I feel than anyone – except maybe Luca. He can be annoyingly perceptive about me.”
His lips quivered. “Look, I'm a basket case. You saw how I was that first day, just because you didn't text me back.”
“And we talked about that.”
“And I fall too easily. I sleep with someone and sometimes I think it means way more than it does,” he said, as if I hadn't spoken. Turning to me he continued, “and you have to admit, I spread my legs whenever you want.”
I frowned. “I thought you enjoyed sex with me?”
His eyes went wide. “I do! I mean, I wanted to have sex, too. Just...you know I've been...easy.”
I blinked at him a few times. “I don't see it that way. I don't see you that way.”
He looked at me, his expression shifting between two points I couldn't pin down. “She told me...I was reading too much into this. That you just wanted to get laid on the regular. That I was doing what I always do and that I'd be smarter to not do this again and work on saving – keep my head down.”
“That manipulative cunt,” I said flatly. His eyes widened in surprise. “Okay, look, let me dismantle this whole thing, because I see what she's doing and I don't fucking like it.”
He licked his lips. “Okay.”
“First, she's using your parents’ training against you,” I said. “This whole 'keep your head down, focus on your goal' is great advice sometimes, but it's also a direct reinforcement of what your parents hammered you with – and what you ran away from. Secondly, I had to have liked what I saw and felt for us to go to bed together to begin with. Do I want sex on the regular? With you? Definitely. But isn't that part of a relationship? Showing physical affection from bringing someone coffee in bed to making love?”
“Well...yeah. But, I mean, I just give it up-”
“You're giving it up to your boyfriend,” I pointed out. “It's not like she makes it sound – like you're down at the club every night bringing home a new guy every hour. You're not a fucking whore,” I said, my tone biting.
“I just...she said you'd say you loved me, not because you did but because...because I wanted to hear it and it would make me...weak. And that-”
“And fuck Barney. I mean it. Fuck Barney right in all her holes,” I said with a sigh. “Benji, you've turned my world upside down. That's a good thing.” I squeezed him tightly to my side. “This thing I have with you is the best thing that's ever happened to me. Ever since I met you, you're on my mind. I don't care what Barney thinks, except that she's upsetting you and being a toxic friend. I'm not trying to say who you should be friends with, but she's gotten inside your defenses. She's a snake.”
He nodded slowly, looking a little lost. “I've been thinking about her a lot. She hates you, now. She's never liked anyone I brought home, never supported my relationships. I mean, she said they were going to fail, but did they because of...I don't know.” He shook his head and then looked up at me. “But I do know I feel the same way. I think about you all the time. Sometimes I think it's unhealthy.”
I hugged him again and spoke into his hair.
“When is your lease up?”
“I don't know – hello, non-sequitur.”
I squeezed him. “I left room for some of your stuff in my closet.”
“Y-you did?” he asked, turning just enough to look at me.
I smiled and stroked his cheek. “When is your lease up?”
He pushed me back and lay atop me, looking at me with curiosity. “Are you...suggesting we move in together?”
“Would that be so crazy?”
“It kind of is,” he said quietly. “Is that why you're asking about my lease?”
“Partially,” I said, playing with his hair.
“Partially? What other parts can there be?”
I pursed my lips and narrowed my eyes at him. “I want to take you to bed.”
He raised an eyebrow and smiled at me. “Nice deflection. Sex later, you do this talking thing now.”
I ran my fingers through his hair again and he slowly lowered his jaw to my chest, trying to look up at my face through his hair. “Your building doesn't have six-month leases.”
He sat up a bit, frowning. “What?”
“Something started rolling around in my head this morning,” I said. “After you left I was thinking about you. Where you live. How much you pay. How hard you work and how far away from your dreams that rent keeps you.” I paused and caressed the side of his face. “You're not spendy with your cash.”
“Spendy isn't a word,” he replied, staring at me.
“I mean...you're frugal. Even so, it seemed like rent was crushing you. Are you on the lease?”
“N-no,” he said slowly. “When things went down with my parents, Gwen was... I mean, I admit what she quoted was kind of high...wait, what did you say about no six-month leases?”
I explained about going to the office to check on the prices for apartments and what I'd learned, and how much apartments went for and how they only did twelve-month leases.
“I couldn't figure out why she told you six months,” I told him.
He sat up and crossed his arms. “Because I'm an idiot. That's why.”
I sat up straighter. “What do you mean?”
He pursed his lips and let out a long breath through his nose. “Every six months she's hit me up for half of the application renewal fee – a hefty hundred bucks. God damn, she's been shafting me and keeping me there and I just rolled over and took it!”
I could feel his frustration and humiliation rolling off him in waves.
“Then that should make this a simple thing. You leave and move in with me.”
He looked at me and frowned. “How much would my part of the rent be?”
“Zero. Luca's folks are paying the rent while he's going to school.”
He frowned more. “Then why would they let me live here?”
I shrugged. “Because you're living with me. Because they'll never be here to know. They assumed I'd move in with Luca, thus multiple bedrooms – well,” I amended, “Luca may have implied that to them. Still, Luca already green lighted you moving in. So all your earnings can get you into school faster.”
He sighed and looked away. “I don't think I can.”
“Why not?” I asked, my throat feeling tight.
“Because I'm not a charity case?” he asked, though it wasn't really a question. “Because I'm not waiting for a white knight to save me? I've worked my ass off to get as far as I have and-”
“And how far is that, babe?”
“I agree. You work your butt off, but for what? How much closer to school are you than you were a year ago?”
He licked his lips. “Well. I.”
“This isn't...buying you. I'm not rich, I'm not buying anyone,” I said and chuckled. “This is wanting you with me and listing the benefits of us being together.”
He looked at me skeptically and raised an eyebrow.
“I get you, coffee in bed, you in bed-”
“Uh huh, you were getting that already.”
I took one of his hands and rubbed my thumb across his knuckles. “Waking up to you every day. Arguing with you about whether moving in with me was ever a good idea, about how you disrespect my cooking skills-”
“What skills?” he said, laughing.
I grinned. “I get you and you get me. And that makes me happy.”
He tilted his head and his expression shifted to that indulgent look I loved so much. “Okay. But not yet.”
I frowned. “Why not?”
“Because I need to get even with Barney.” He looked at me and smiled. “And I have a plan.”