People tell him that when he was three, he had a stuffed rooster named Crow that he never let out of his sight. It was cute, his mom tells him, except for the colors thing.
Every adult or older child (so really, everyone who existed as far as toddler-Tanner was concerned) would pucker their lips and widen their eyes at the sight of him sucking his thumb and cradling Crow protectively, and they'd say, "Oh! You're adorable." Which wasn't the problem. The problem was what inevitably came next. When the person would crouch and point to Crow's crown and say (in a baby voice, of course) "What color is that?"
"Red," Tanner would say easily enough (although it sounded a bit like 'wed' to be fair).
"And this?" they'd ask, pointing to Crow's face.
"Bwown." Tanner would mumble, already sensing the danger of this game.
Because next, they'd always point to Crow's beak. "And this?" They'd ask. And that's where things would begin rapidly deteriorating.
Tanner couldn't say the word 'yellow.' And it wasn't just because he was three, and so naturally, was still developing speech skills. It was because 'yellow,' was a very horrible word. Even the thought of it made Tanner howl in anguish, startling the innocent bystander who just thought they were participating in some cross-generational knowledge transmission.
He couldn't explain, then, why the word 'yellow' was so awful for him to hear, and he still can't fully explain it now, eighteen years later. All he knows is, it makes him feel like someone's put their fingernails in his eyes and started probing for his brain. Especially now that he knows how to spell it.
Shortly after Tanner's mother had to carry him out of the grocery store screeching in pain for the second time in a week because of that colors Thing, Crow was confiscated. After a meltdown on Tanner's part over the loss of his rooster-friend (which hardly compared to the color Thing, surprisingly), Tanner's mom fully expected her son to leave his strange eccentricity behind.
Unfortunately for her, Crow was just the beginning.
His mom tried to help him make a list once, of the rules, so that she could maybe get through a television show without Tanner jumping up and tapping on the walls (which was preferable to the screaming fits he'd had as a child, but was still quite frustrating). But it all went to shambles when she titled it "Tanner's Tricky Habits." He saw it, posted on the refrigerator, and refused to go back in the kitchen until she took it down.
"You just can't say that word, mom!" He said, pacing the entry hall.
"The—I can't say it! That's the whole Thing!"
She gave up after that, and they just acknowledged that he had aversions to some strange Things.
Things like not cutting along the dotted line of a coupon just right, and having to wear matched socks (which, honestly, wasn't all that weird in Tanner's opinion). But the biggest and most infuriating Thing was the words. Because Tanner couldn't say why certain words bothered him, and he could almost never predict one causing a problem until he heard or read it. So, yeah, 'tricky' wasn't the half of it.
Of course, seeing as though Tanner started collecting what his mother called Habits, he couldn't be sent to public school. So his mother gave him lessons at their kitchen table every day except for Saturdays (which was really for the best since 'Saturday' was a horrible word. To Tanner, it sounded fierce. Like a monster under the bed).
His mother, unfortunately, was at a loss for how to teach a boy who couldn't hear the word 'exam' without looking like he needed to throw up. She did her best though, letting Tanner read and write what he wanted, teaching him math through extreme couponing (which was necessary, since teaching him cut out the option of a full-time job), letting him draw how he felt instead of etch maps in geography. It wasn't the best education anyone's ever received, but Tanner feels like it prepared him alright for college coursework.
What it didn't prepare him for was the whole business of people, and how most of them would do stupid things like ask him what color a beak was (or worse, sing stupid songs about stupid brick roads or submarines). In fact, he has so much trouble with people that he's only had two friends in his whole life (unless you count his mom, which he doesn't).
Japheth is the best of those measly two (the other, Gloria, is a mousy girl from his Chemistry class who carries around a Thesaurus so that she can change lecture words into ones that don't hurt Tanner's eyes. Japheth thinks she's in love with Tanner, but Tanner thinks 'love' is a bit ridiculous and prickly).
He has known Japheth since he was fifteen and they met at a homeschooling get-together. Tanner was doing one of his Things (tapping each of his fingers four times against all four walls in a room), and he was trying to be covert about it—keeping his hands behind his back and moving slowly from wall to wall. On the third wall, second tap of his right index finger, a boy with messy red hair and more freckles than plain skin walked up to him and held out his hand. Tanner ignored it, frantically tapping the rest of his fingers (one, two, three, four. one, two, three, four. one, two...) "Oh, I am so sick of these stuck up snobs. Shake my hand right now and tell me your name."
Tanner sighed in relief (obeying direct commands was a Thing which trumped all other Things), and held out his hand, sweaty palm glistening. "I'm Tanner," he said.
They've been friends since then, long enough for Japheth to have learned most of Tanner's Habits. He knows when to change his wording so it doesn't feel like nails are raking down Tanner's cheeks. He knows when to issue commands, and when to let Tanner finish his Thing.
Japheth is nice, his mother says. Japheth is smart, their professors say. Japheth, also, is gay. But that's something Japheth himself says and Tanner could care less. He supposes the word 'homo' slides very nicely along his eyes (as opposed to 'hetero-', which makes him cringe). The problem, for Tanner anyway, isn't in the theory, but in the practice. Because recently (as in two days ago) Japheth informed Tanner that he'd be bringing someone home.
It was nice to be warned first, of course, but it doesn't really lessen the sting of anxiety when Tanner is waiting patiently by the door an hour and a half before Japheth and his paramour are set to arrive.
"It's funny," Japheth had said, "I feel like your approval is more important to me than my own parents'."
Tanner doesn't think it's all that funny, since Japheth's parents are the sort who approve of everything and Tanner is, well, not. Not that he doesn't approve (of the homo-thing), just that he doesn't really know if he wants another person to be part of a Japheth package deal.
He worries, now, that he'd been too quick to agree to this whole thing. Because even though Japheth told him "His name is Roz. He's a student like us. He's not too loud, and he said he'll back off if you need it." Tanner still thinks that maybe he's crazy to allow another person to see him at home, where he's grown so comfortable with his Things that he doesn't really notice when he's doing them. But what choice does he have?
It's not that he expected Japheth to be alone forever, just that he thought it'd be after Japheth got sick of living with a crazy person.
At precisely 8:05 pm (Tanner really doesn't like it when big things happen right on the hour—Japheth knows this), Tanner hears Japheth's key in the lock. He thinks bird sigh chaise and tries to look normal as Japheth and a comfortingly average looking man step in.
"'lo, Tanner," Japheth says with a reassuring smile.
"Hello," Tanner says, and holds out his hand to the other man (who is the perfect kind of human—not too tall or short, not too tan or pale, not too tired or hyper). "You're Roz."
He smiles, "I'm Roz. And you're Tanner. Nice to finally meet you."
Tanner ushers Roz in, looking forlornly at his left hand, which has not been shaken. It stings and feels very empty until Japheth reaches out and gives it a quick squeeze. "Better?" he murmurs. Tanner nods."Alright." He smiles encouragingly, and winks. "Now let's go get this over with."
It all ends up going rather well as far as Tanner's concerned. Roz seems nice enough, and Japheth can't shut up about him so, well, there's that.
For Tanner, life continues on as normal. He goes to class, he comes home and studies, and then he does it all again the next day.
The only wrench in the works is his friend Gloria.
Gloria is just a little too frazzled for Tanner's taste in people, but when you only have two friends and a mom to count on, you think twice about throwing somebody over because they forget to double-knot both their shoes every now and then. (Although Gloria is also a repeat-offender of the old not-blending-her-makeup-in-properly thing, which is something that drives Tanner absolutely insane. Not because he has a Thing about makeup, but because, honestly, a little care would go a long way.)
Tanner met her a few semesters ago in a philosophy class (which was full of some terribly prickly words like 'existentialism' and 'Plato' and 'teleological', but also gave him an arsenal of lovely words like Sartre a priori Marxist.). She had (and still has) a knack for taking the words that made his head ache and turning them soft and gentle on the way down (existentialism—human essence, Plato—Athenian, teleological—design).
She also seems to be on the same degree track as Tanner because she's ended up in at least one class with him every semester since. Currently, they're both in Chemistry for non-majors. Which is fortunate for Tanner, since Chemistry's chockfull of shudder-inducing words.
The only problem is, Tanner's beginning to think Japheth was onto something when he said, "That chick's got a crush on you that rivals your devotion to the word Thing." And now every time he shows up to class, he can't help but notice the little hearts Gloria's got scribbled all over her Thesaurus. She's an English major, the thinks, maybe she just loves words.
But somehow he knows that's not the only thing she's into.
Like, today she smiles at him and says, "Oh gosh, I'm so glad to be back in school. Don't tell anyone, but I missed you a little over the summer."
Tanner tries to make his smile genuine, and wishes, not for the first time, that he had the same kind of insight Japheth has into these types of things. "Oh," He says finally, "Well, class is starting so..."
She frowns, but doesn't press it.
After they've been dating about a month, Roz starts spending most nights of the week with Japheth, and it's not like Tanner minds or anything, it's just a little strange to be sitting down to breakfast with a guy he barely knows. Breakfast, after all, is the most intimate meal of the day. For Tanner, anyway. It's a time when he can sit in companionable silence with Japheth while Japheth eats whatever sugary cereal he's gotten this week and cut out coupons for his own shopping trips.
And for the most part, these things don't change much. Except sometimes, Roz does something stupid, like pick up Tanner's scissors when he's gone to get a glass of orange juice. When Tanner catches sight of what he's doing, he nearly drops his cup. "Wait!" He cries, skidding back to the table and gathering the advertisements to his chest. "Just—you can't, okay? There are—there are rules. There are...rules." Tanner pleads, shame spiraling around his head.
Japheth glances between Roz and Tanner, eyes wide, spoon halfway to his mouth. Roz sets the scissors down gently and draws his hands into his lap, "Alright, Tan."
Tanner closes his eyes and takes deep breaths through his nose (he read in a self-help book somewhere that this was a good calming technique). He thinks mouse oil sleeve over and over until he feels stable enough to open his eyes again. "I'm sorry," he mumbles, for Japheth more than anyone, since it's his boyfriend Tanner seems to be intent on scaring away at every turn.
"It's alright," Roz says, "but can you teach me the rules? Because I could really use that Shoe Carnival coupon."
Tanner starts to stumble back into panic. He can't teach the rules. They're not—they wouldn't make any sense to someone like Roz. Someone who can wear two different socks and say the word 'Carnival.'
"I..." he fumbles, tapping his fingers against the wall to his right.
Japheth sets down his spoon. "Tanner, cut out that coupon for Roz."
Tanner sighs, dizzy with frustration and subsequent relief.
Roz says, "Oh, no. You don't have to—"
Japheth puts a hand on his arm, and Tanner flushes red-hot, knowing that it means they'll have a conversation later. That this isn't going to be something everyone forgets about. That maybe they'll be in bed one night, and Tanner will be trying to sleep, and he'll hear them. And Japheth will say, "Sometimes you just have to tell him exactly what to do. It's weird, I know, but—" and Tanner will feel more like dying than he does now.
He swallows back a lump of frustration in his throat and hands Roz the coupon. "Here," he says unnecessarily. "Sorry, I—sorry."
Roz smiles easily and says, "My fault."
Tanner wants to tell him it's not. That it's really his own fault with these stupid Habits and he really should see a therapist or something but he doesn't want anyone to tell him he can't do the Things he does. He doesn't want to find out that even if he tries to stop them, maybe he can't.
The first time Tanner hears Japheth and Roz having sex it's not as horrifying as he's been expecting it to be. It's not great, and there are a few times (especially when Japheth makes a keening noise that catches in his throat) when he has to grit his teeth and think sill leaf sun. But then Roz sighs a heated 'yes' and Tanner's heart unclenches a bit.
It sounds very nice, is all.
The next morning, Roz sits down across the table from Tanner and taps gently on a coupon for a percentage off at a bookstore. "Cut that one out for me if you're not going to use it."
As he cuts carefully along the dotted line, Roz starts humming a Frank Sinatra song and Tanner's hands go shaky. He's thinking of that sibilant yes. How it sounded like Roz was inhaling and exhaling at the same time. How it trembled and expanded in Tanner's own chest like full.
But then Japheth stumbles in, bleary-eyed and smiling, and Tanner's hands go back to normal.
He really doesn't know what he'd do without Japheth.
"So," Japheth says one afternoon when they're walking home from campus, "What do you think of Roz?"
He's been asking variations of this question for a couple of weeks now, and Tanner says the same thing every time, "He's nice."
This time, though, Japheth seems to be looking for more. He says, "Right. He's nice, but I mean, what do you think of him?"
"I think he's nice," Tanner says, giving Japheth a look.
"Sorry," Japheth says, smiling, "I don't mean to be that kind of guy, I just. I really like him. And your opinion of him means a lot to me, you know?"
Tanner shrugs, "I think he's good for you."
"What does that mean?"
Tanner starts laughing along with Japheth and says, "I don't know, Japheth. I think he's smart and funny and good-looking and nice. And you're all those things. So you two are a good fit."
"You think I'm good looking?" Japheth grins.
"Someone's a narcissist," Tanner says, punching Japheth lightly in the arm. He winces then, as his left hand curls into a fist and longs for balance.
Japheth sees it and says, "Well go on then, give me another."
"I'll also mess him up if he hurts you," Tanner says, cuffing him with his left fist.
"You couldn't mess anyone up if you tried."
"I'd hire someone."
"Ah, well good. I can now proceed with this relationship in confidence."
"Mm." Tanner says, suddenly feeling unprepared for life in general. Especially now that Japheth seems to be so ready to get on with it.
"So," Roz says one night when Japheth has run out to pick up a pizza, "It's cool with you that I'm practically living here?"
Tanner looks up, startled. The two of them have never officially had a one-on-one conversation, after all. "Uh, yeah, sure. Whatever Japheth wants."
Roz laughs, rubs the back of his neck, and says, "You mind if I sit down?"
Tanner smiles a little, "You don't have to ask."
"Oh," Roz says, "Okay." He settles on the other end of the couch.
For some reason Tanner feels braver than usual. Maybe it's because it's a Tuesday (that's the best sounding day of the week, in Tanner's opinion). He says, "What about you? Is it cool with you that Japheth has such a crazy roommate?"
Roz barks out a surprised laugh, "Yeah, I mean, whatever Japheth wants, right?" He smiles at his feet (and it strikes Tanner suddenly that it's because he's thinking of Japheth. That the thought of him makes Roz smile. That that's what people do when they like other people. Tanner's never had the urge to smile at his feet over anyone before.) "Besides," Roz says, "you're not so horrible."
"Oh, thanks for the raving review," Tanner says, grinning.
Roz laughs again. Says, "You should talk more often. You're funny."
"Mm," Tanner says, nervous now that he's got something to live up to.
"What are you working on?" Roz asks, nodding his head towards Tanner's book.
"Just homework. World Religions." He immediately starts edging away from Roz, hoping the other man won't see the pages.
It's too late, though, because Roz says, "Why are you crossing out a bunch of words?"
Tanner sighs, "Um. It's just, this Thing I do."
"There are rules to the words, too?" Roz says, leaning in to peer at the marked up page. "To do with the consonants or something?"
Tanner shifts away and says, "Sort of. But not—it's just how certain words make me feel. Sometimes they're too sharp or, I don't know, too pushy."
"Mmm," Roz says. "How about 'embrace'?" he says, pointing to the next sentence in Tanner's book.
"It's alright," Tanner says, but crosses out the word 'recognize.'
"What's wrong with that one?" Roz asks.
"Look at it. It's pointy."
He expects Roz to laugh, but he doesn't, he just 'hmm's and says, "Does it hurt?"
Tanner's jaw drops for a second, because no one's ever asked him that before. He says, "I—yeah. It does."
Roz looks at him when he says, "That's rough."
Tanner, who tries very hard not to feel sorry for himself most of the time, somehow knows that Roz isn't pitying him, just calling it like he sees it. So he says quietly, "Yeah. It is."
Japheth and Roz have been dating for eight weeks before they have their first fight. Tanner doesn't know what it's about, and it blows over rather quickly (but it's followed by sex that is much pricklier than the last time he overheard it).
After Roz leaves the next day, Japheth spends a lot of time pretending like nothing happened, and Tanner spends a lot of time letting him.
Tanner gets a cold in November that takes the wind out of his sails in a major way. He spends an entire week curled up on his couch with a box of tissues and a disgusting glass that he keeps refilling with water and not washing in between uses. He becomes addicted to the show Animal Cops and tells Japheth about the saddest and happiest stories when he gets home from class.
For his part, Japheth mostly stays out of the way. "Sorry, Tan," he says, "This is crunch time for me with my classes, I can't get sick." He spends a lot of time at the library and doesn't get home until late. Tanner's a little lonely, but he sleeps so much he hardly notices.
One night, though, he's surprised when Roz knocks on the door and says he wanted to check in and see how Tanner's doing. The first thing out of Tanner's mouth is, "Japheth isn't here."
Roz looks taken aback, but then laughs, "No, I—I know, I just saw him on campus. He told me you still weren't feeling well and so I thought I'd swing by and see if there was anything you needed. I know Japheth's kind of a germaphobe so I thought, you know, I could help."
It feels weird for someone to talk about Japheth's flaws, especially when they seem so small compared to Tanner's. So the first thing he says is, "Oh, Japheth, he—he can't help..."
Roz just laughs again, "Relax, I'm not questioning his honor."
And then Tanner feels silly because of course Roz isn't badmouthing Japheth. He loves Japheth. Or, you know, something. "Sorry," Tanner says, "Come on in."
He starts hurriedly scoops up an armful of used tissues and throws them in the trashcan. "Sorry," he says again.
Roz waves him away, "Quit that. If I'm going to get sick, I'm going to get sick. You sit down."
"Oh," Tanner says, "Okay." He wraps himself back up in the comforter he's been living in the last few days, burrowing in so only his face is uncovered. "It was nice of you to come over. I really hope you don't get sick, though."
Roz shrugs, "I figured you were bored out of your mind."
Tanner laughs, starts coughing, and says, "It's a bit dull. But I've been keeping busy. You know, watching daytime television and all."
"Sounds harrowing, actually," Roz says, propping his feet up on the coffee table.
Tanner smiles, "That's a nice word."
"Yeah, it—never mind. Sorry." Tanner takes a drink of water so that he'll have something to do instead of say stupid things like that.
"No, what were you going to say?"
"I just. Listen, you don't have to..."
"Tan, please, I don't have anything better to be doing right now, and I'm curious about this word thing. So, harrowing."
Tanner sighs, "Well, yeah. Harrowing. It—well it starts with a sigh for one and it, I don't know, settles nicely. In my chest. And—oh, none of it makes any sense. I just, I really can't even know what words are good and bad until I hear them or read them."
"Ah," Roz says, "So, how's 'Kleenex'?"
Tanner winces a little and says, "Tissue's better."
"Huh." Roz says. He blinks. Says, "I don't get it."
Tanner starts laughing, "I don't either." He says, "Do you wanna just watch Animal Cops? There's supposed to be a new episode tonight."
"Oh, how thrilling," Roz says. He grabs Tanner's nasty water glass and takes it into the kitchen, coming back with a fresh one.
"Thanks," Tanner mumbles. Roz squints and presses the back of his hand to Tanner's head. Tanner shudders and looks up in alarm. Roz has never touched him before, and he's got a look in his eye like someone who's concerned. Or something. And it makes Tanner's stomach flutter. He says, "Um."
Roz takes his hand away and says, "Well, if you have a fever it's slight," and sits down like nothing just happened. Which, Tanner guesses, it did.
"So, Animal Cops?" Roz says, reaching for the remote.
"Yeah," Tanner says, pulling the comforter more tightly to his quivering body.
A few nights later, Tanner hears Japheth say, "I just don't get why you're so interested in him. I mean, it's great that you want to get to know him better and all, but it just seems weird."
Tanner feels guilty for listening in, angry at Roz for making Japheth feel insecure, and irritated at the guy who's drawing Roz's attention away from Japheth, where it belongs.
He decides, then, that he won't say anything else to Japheth about being quieter during sex, please. Maybe that'll straighten things out. And maybe he'll start spending more time in his room so the two of them can have the couch all to themselves. He just hopes they won't fight anymore.
Mostly, he doesn't want Roz to leave.
It's been nice having him around, is all.
He knows something is wrong when Gloria comes in late to Chemistry one day in December and sits behind him instead of next to him. He spends the next hour and fifteen minutes wincing against 'catalyst,' 'entropy,' and 'fission.' It's pure hell.
As he trudges out of the lecture hall after, clutching his tortured notebook like it's the only thing he didn't lose in a fire, Gloria catches him by the door. "Are you mad at me?" he asks desperately.
She's got a smudge of foundation under her right eye, and it's killing him. Before he can help it, he reaches out with his thumb and blends it in. "There," he says quietly to himself. Gloria looks at him like he's lassoed her the moon. He swallows and yanks his hand away.
"I'm not mad at you," she says, biting her lips against a smile. "I just wanted to know if you'd care."
"What?" Tanner hisses. He's seen girls play these kinds of games with boys on T.V., but he never thought Gloria would do something like this.
"Well," she pouts defensively, "It's just that I've sat next to you for almost two years now and you hardly even know I'm there."
Tanner clenches his fists and tries to decide what move he's going to make now. He tackles the easiest first, "That's not true. I know you're there. You...help me a lot. I—"
"Are you ever going to ask me out on a date?" she teases, smiling in a way that he's sure she thinks is flirtatious. He really just wants to go back to bed.
"Um," he says, thinking: was I? Hasn't he known for a long time that this is where things were headed? And Gloria's not really all that bad. In fact, she's quite nice and, like he told her, helpful. "Do you want to go to the movies this weekend?"
The thought of being alone with her for two hours in the dark makes his stomach hurt, though. He should have suggested mini-golf or something. But then he thinks, "We can double with my roommate and his boyfriend."
"I have a gay friend," Gloria says. He mentally takes back what he thought before about her being quite nice. That is not a quite nice thing to say. It's a stupid thing to say. Then he thinks he shouldn't be so harsh—maybe she's just nervous. God knows he is.
"So you're okay with it?" She nods vigorously. "Alright," he says, "Well, I'll call you tonight then, after I've talked with them. Um. Bye."
He dashes off before she can say or do anything else that is horrifyingly not quite-nice. Like kiss him or something.
When he gets back to his apartment, Roz and Japheth are sprawled on the living room floor, breathing heavy. Tanner starts to feel like he's just walked in on something he shouldn't have, and he tries to remember if there was a rubber band on the doorknob, or a sock, or something that means he wasn't supposed to barge on in like he lived here. Which, well, never mind.
But Roz sits up, grinning happily and runs a hand through his hair. Tanner blinks. Roz says, "Hey there!"
"Um, hey. Listen should I," Tanner hitches a thumb over his shoulder, "go?"
Japheth rolls onto his stomach with a groan. "Yes, please. And drag me with you. Get me away from this mad man. D'you know he just made me do an Ab-Cruncher video?"
Tanner flicks his eyes to the TV screen, which is paused on a woman who's in an uncomfortable-looking curled up position. "Oh," Tanner says, "Why?" He drops his backpack beside the door and sits at the kitchen table.
Roz stands up and squeezes Tanner's shoulder on the way to the sink for a glass of water. He says, "I had a little extra energy I needed to work off."
"Oh," Tanner says, rubbing his shoulder unconsciously.
"I'm never getting off this floor," Japheth moans dramatically. "You'll have to feed me and give me sponge baths from now on."
Roz rolls his eyes, but quirks his lips into a grin.
Tanner clears his throat. He says, "I asked Gloria out. Sort of."
This seems to startle Japheth enough to propel him into a sitting position. "What?"
Roz sets his glass down heavily. "Who's Gloria?"
"This girl who's been in love with Tanner for years." Japheth answers. Then, to Tanner, "Really? Wait. How do you sort of ask someone out?"
Tanner sighs, "I don't know. She ambushed me after class and asked me when I was planning on asking her out."
Japheth dissolves into a fit of giggles. Roz sits down beside Tanner and says, "Don't take this the wrong way, but, I didn't think you liked girls."
Japheth falls suddenly quiet. He's glaring at Roz, and the whole thing makes Tanner want to rush down the hallway and hide out in his room. "I don't," he blurts out. Japheth's eyes widen. "I mean—no. I don't not like them. I just, sort of..."
"You don't have to explain it to us," Japheth says, scrambling to his feet and joining them at the table.
"No, I—" Tanner wants to explain it—to Japheth anyway—but he can't. It's a little like his Things that way. "Well, I don't know. Anyway, I sort of panicked and told her I wanted to double with you guys."
Roz's eyebrows go up, but he doesn't say anything. Japheth nods. "Yeah. Sure. Whatever you need."
And that makes Tanner feel a little bit better about things.
Later that night, when Tanner is desperately trying to avoid thinking of Gloria, he hears Japheth and Roz talking in Japheth's room. He sighs, reminds himself to remind Japheth to move his bed to another side of the room, and tries not to listen.
"Why is it weird that I'm concerned about him?" Roz is saying.
"It's not. It's just...I mean it sounded like you wanted him to be gay."
Tanner throws a pillow over his head. Great. So they're arguing about him.
And what's Roz's deal anyway? Why can't he just act how Japheth wants him to act? Tanner doesn't think it'd be all that difficult. Maybe Tanner's the problem. Maybe the reason Japheth has never brought anybody home before is because he knew Tanner would wreck his relationship. And here he is, proving Japheth right. Why does he have to be so weird?
He keeps the pillow squashed against his face for a long time, and when he finally takes it away, there's silence in the next room. He hopes they worked it out.
The weekend comes much too quickly for Tanner's comfort, and on Saturday afternoon, he's an absolute mess. Japheth knocks on his door at about four in the afternoon and sits at Tanner's desk. "You ready for tonight?" he asks.
Tanner shakes his head. "Not really."
"Ah, it'll be fine. It was a good idea to double. Roz and I will have your back if anything goes crazy."
Tanner wants to ask how they're doing, if they're still fighting, if it's his fault. But instead he says, "Yeah. Thanks."
Japheth smiles brightly, "No problem. Now," he rubs his hands together, "What're you planning on wearing?"
"Um," Tanner says, shooting a bleak look towards his closet.
"That's what I thought," Japheth says. "What would you do without me?"
"I really don't know," Tanner says honestly.
They spend the next twenty minutes dressing Tanner up in different outfits until Japheth finally sits back and says, "Yeah. That's good."
Tanner plucks self-consciously at the faded red t-shirt, "This is too tight. And it's, like, washed out." It's Japheth's shirt, anyway, and Tanner doesn't know how it ended up in his closet.
"First off, it's not too tight. Second, it's supposed to be like that," Japheth says simply. "You look good."
Tanner guesses it's decided then.
Roz shows up a seven and they all pile into his car to pick up Gloria. Both Japheth and Roz try to make conversation with him on the way over, but he's so nervous he can't talk, only think weave air seven.
The problem is, he's not nervous because he wants the night to go well; he's nervous because he wants the night to be over. And that's not fair to anyone.
He's about to call the whole thing off when they pull up to her apartment and she's waiting out front and she's got a dress on. Tanner has never seen her wear a dress before. She looks so happy that he knows he's just going to have to man up and do this thing. Roz catches his eye in the rearview and nods. Japheth says, "Go get her, tiger."
Tanner takes a deep breath and gets out of the car. Gloria is hurrying towards him. Is he supposed to hug her? She says, "Hey," breathless. He taps his fingers against his thighs.
"Hey, Gloria. Um, you ready?"
She nods and smiles as he holds the car door open for her.
Once they're in, Roz pulls out of the circle-drive and Japheth turns in his seat to shake Gloria's hand. "Hi," he says, "I'm Japheth, Tanner's roommate. I've heard a lot about you."
Tanner gives him a look, but Gloria just blushes and laughs a little, "Really?"
"Mmhmm. This guy's sure a talker, haven't you noticed?" He cracks a smile to let Gloria know he's joking. Tanner suddenly feels more at ease with the situation. He should have known Japheth would make everything alright.
"Guess I'm just used to not being able to get a word in," Tanner says, grinning. Gloria laughs and Japheth clutches his heart like he's been mortally offended.
In the rearview, Roz is looking at Tanner.
At the theatre, Japheth pulls Gloria to the popcorn counter while Roz and Tanner line up for tickets. "He's good at this," Roz says, nodding in Japheth's direction.
Tanner smiles, "I almost wish he was her date."
Roz gives him a sharp look, and Tanner flushes, "Oh, no. I didn't mean he wasn't, um, with you, or—"
"I know," Roz sighs. "I'm sorry. I'm just a little uptight tonight."
"Oh," Tanner says, wishing the line would move faster. "Um, any reason?"
Roz looks at him for a moment that feels very long, and says, "Nah. Anyway, why am I complaining? How are you doing with this whole thing?"
Tanner shrugs, suddenly worried again that everything is going to go pear-shaped. Roz squeezes his forearm for a second, and says, "Hey, don't worry. As soon as the movie starts you won't even have to talk to her anymore. Besides," he says, stepping up to the ticket counter, "you look good."
Tanner wonders what that has to do with anything.
He buys Gloria's ticket and the four of them settle into their seats, with Japheth next to Tanner for moral support and Gloria and Roz on the ends. Japheth seems to be giving Gloria and Tanner some alone time, because his head is leaning towards Roz and the two of them are talking quietly. Tanner stares straight ahead, wondering if the movie will start early.
He can feel Gloria looking at the side of his face, and he feels bad enough about it to sort of angle towards her. "So," he says awkwardly, "You and Japheth are getting along pretty well."
She looks confused for a minute, but then smiles hesitantly and puts her hand on his arm. He forces himself not to pull away. She says, "Yeah, he's really nice. I don't think his boyfriend likes me much though. He keeps glaring at me."
"Roz?" Tanner says, stunned. "Why would he glare at you?"
Gloria shrugs, "Maybe he thinks I'm trying to steal his boyfriend."
Tanner squints, "He wouldn't think—Roz doesn't hate anybody."
"Doesn't really matter," Gloria says. "So, do you like comedies?"
She tilts her head towards the screen, "Comedies. Are they your favorite kind of movies?"
"Oh," Tanner says, "Well, um, not really. I like older stuff, actually. Like, black and white stuff." He likes them because the people in those movies use softer words, and they seem to speak more gently. He's actually a bit worried that the movie they're seeing tonight will be too pointy for him, but there's nothing he can do about it right now.
"You would," Gloria says, and he doesn't know what that means.
"Yeah, uh, what about you? Do you like comedies?"
Japheth told him this afternoon that it's bad dating etiquette to just vomit up the same question someone asks him, but he can't think of anything else to say. Gloria doesn't seem to mind. "All kinds," she says, "I'm not picky."
He supposes this is a good quality in a girl, but it doesn't really help him lead the conversation anywhere. "Oh," he says, turning back to the blank screen.
"Oh!" Gloria says, suddenly sounding nervous, "I didn't mean with everything. I mean, I can be very picky. My taste in men is very selective."
Tanner blushes and glances at Japheth for help. "Oh," he says again.
Thank god for him, the theatre dims and the advertisements start playing. Tanner pretends to be very interested in the BodMan Fragrance commercial so that Gloria won't try to talk to him anymore.
She seems to catch on.
The seventeenth time someone says the f-word, Tanner can't take it anymore. "Excuse me," he says to Gloria, "I have to—I'll be right back."
He hurries into the lobby and to the restroom, thinking blush soothe rope and trying not to panic. He should have known not to see a movie like this—one of the vulgar comedies that Hollywood's been rolling out like crazy—but Japheth had said a funny movie would be low-pressure.
Tanner doesn't even check to make sure the bathroom is empty before he starts tapping on the wall to his right. It's a little tricky because one wall is lined partly with stalls and he doesn't know if he should count those as walls or not. In the end, he decides he has to circle the whole room, and then treat each stall like its own separate room, but that will make eighteen taps a finger.
With shaky hands, he rushes through his ritual, worrying that Gloria will get concerned and come after him.
He's actually a little surprised when it's Roz that comes in when Tanner's on the mirrored wall with sinks. He smiles sadly at Tanner and says, "Ah, thought you might be doing this."
Tanner doesn't say anything so he won't mess up his count.
"D'you want me to get Japheth?" Roz asks.
Tanner shakes his head. No. That would only look stranger to Gloria. And besides, he doesn't want to disappoint Japheth for being so weird.
Roz stands by the door while Tanner finishes. After, Tanner stands in the middle of the room, breathing heavily and feeling ashamed. "Why didn't you tell me to stop?" he asks quietly.
Roz shrugs, "I figured you were too keyed up to listen. Plus, the longer you hide out in here, the less time you have to suffer in there."
Tanner nods, thinking that Roz is probably right. He leans against a sink. "Gloria thinks you hate her," he says. He doesn't know why he's bringing this up, only that the idea of going back into the theatre makes him want to start tapping all over again.
"Huh?" Roz says.
"I don't know. She says you keep glaring at her."
Roz chuckles, leans over the sink next to the one Tanner's resting against, and peers at himself in the mirror. "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare your girlfriend away."
"She's not my girlfriend," Tanner says quickly, too distracted to notice that Roz didn't deny he'd been glaring at her.
Roz just laughs again, "Alright. She's not. Anyway, do you think you're going to ask her out another time?"
Tanner says, "I don't know." He pinches the bridge of his nose. "No," he amends.
He looks over his shoulder and catches Roz's eyes in the mirror. Roz winks, and Tanner smiles. He doesn't know why, but the exchange makes him feel a little better, so he says, "Alright. Let's go back in."
Roz says, "You sure?"
Tanner takes a deep breath and nods. Roz follows him out of the restroom.
When they get back in the theatre, Gloria gives him a look and says, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Tanner lies, "long line."
Tanner avoids Gloria after that. He even skips Chemistry a few times, which is something he's never done before. He feels guilty about it, but less so than if he led her on any more than he already has.
It takes a toll on his grade, not having her there to translate for him, but he figures it's time he grew up and starting doing that kind of thing on his own, anyway. Besides, he does fine in all his other classes, so Chemistry shouldn't be too awful to get through alone.
When the semester ends, and Gloria doesn't sign up for any of his classes in the spring, he misses her a little, but not enough to do anything about it.
He even thinks, at one point: well, at least that's over.
The problem is, now he only has Japheth, and recently Japheth's been kind of a downer. He and Roz have been fighting more often and about dumber things, in Tanner's opinion. The other day he heard them arguing about pizza toppings. Still, it isn't his place to step in; he just hopes they fix things.
In the meantime, he's been trying to cheer Japheth up by cooking more, and doing things around the apartment. One night, he thinks it might be nice to make something special for Japheth and Roz, so they can have some time alone together and not fight about what they're going to eat, or whatever it is they feel like fighting about these days.
He calls Roz early in the day when Japheth is in class and leaves a message for him to come over when he gets off work, and that he's making dinner for the two of them.
He spends the rest of the day cleaning and making food that strikes him as romantic (some kind of chicken and pasta thing he gets a recipe for on the back of a Campbell's coupon, and a cheesecake, which ends up being much more difficult than he anticipated). By the time Roz knocks on the door, Tanner is feeling very proud of himself.
Roz looks a little uncomfortable, but smiles and says hello. He follows Tanner down the hall and sees the table set for two. Says, "This is nice of you to do, Tan."
"Oh," Tanner says awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck, "I'm sorry if it's weird or—"
"No," Roz says, "It's really nice. Thank you."
But Tanner is starting to feel like this was the worst thing he could have done. "It's just, you guys have been fighting so much lately, and I thought...I don't know."
Roz sighs and says, "We have, haven't we?"
Tanner cringes, "It's not because of me, is it?"
Roz's head snaps up to look at him. He opens his mouth like he's going to say something, but then thinks better of it. He says, "No, it's not because of you."
Tanner feels a little better. He says, "Well, I hope...I mean I hope things get better for you two. I—I just. Yeah. That's all."
Roz smiles, "Thanks."
Japheth comes in a few minutes later and pauses in the hall. "What's going on?" he asks, voice strained.
Roz says, "Tanner made dinner for us." He grins at Japheth, and pats the chair next to him. "He thinks we've been fighting too much."
Tanner thinks it's strange for them to talk like he's not standing right there, but he doesn't say anything.
Japheth looks at between the two of them, and suddenly starts laughing. He doubles over and clutches his stomach and laughs until his face turns red. "Oh Tanner," he chokes out, "What would I do without you?"
Tanner's not quite sure what's going on, but Roz is laughing too, and, well, if both of them are laughing and not fighting then this whole thing is kind of a success, isn't it?
Then Japheth sits down next to Roz and kisses him right on the mouth.
Tanner looks away, and wonders why he doesn't feel any better.
Things go smoother for a while after that. Roz and Japheth even rent a hotel room for their six-month anniversary, which Tanner thinks is a good sign.
But then, inexplicably, the fights start up again. And worse—because Japheth starts getting angry with Tanner, too.
Mostly Tanner just lets him, and doesn't say anything. But one night, they're all watching a movie about a heist and the language is a bit prickly. Tanner winces all through a speech about robbery and Roz says, "You alright? Wanna watch something else?"
Tanner is opening his mouth to say, "No, it's fine." When Japheth says, "Jesus Christ! He's fine! And if not, he doesn't have to watch it with us!"
Tanner's face heats. He says, "Oh, yeah. Sorry, I—" and starts to stand.
Roz clasps his arm to keep him from going, but is looking at Japheth when he says, "Hey. What's your problem, huh? It's his apartment, too."
Japheth scoffs, "Oh yes, thank you, Roz." He throws a glare Tanner's way, which Tanner might normally think is unfair except right now his whole body feels unbalanced with Roz's grip on his left arm and not his right, too. Japheth notices and rolls his eyes cruelly. "Better grab is other arm or he's going to go mental."
"Japheth!" Roz roars, "Do you even hear what you're saying? Jesus!"
Tanner says, "Please, just—" he's going to say he'll go. He'll go and they should stop fighting. But Roz must think he means the arm thing because he reaches over to grip his other forearm briefly before letting go.
"Oh for—" Japheth starts, throwing up his hands and stalking out of the room.
Roz sighs and drops his head into his hands. Tanner, who's still a bit shell-shocked, says, "I—"
Roz stands abruptly, "I'm just going to go. Sorry about..." he waves his hand to indicate what just happened, and then he gets up and leaves.
Tanner sits on the couch for a long time after that, trying to figure out how the whole thing could have gone differently.
Japheth apologizes the next day, but doesn't invite Tanner to spend Spring Break with him like he normally does. Tanner pretends not to notice, and convinces himself that he's got a lot of work to do anyway.
The first night of break, he settles onto the couch with his school work and is about to dig in when there's a knock at the door. He's surprised to see Roz at the door, especially since he hasn't been coming around much at all since that last blow up.
He looks good though, Tanner notices unwelcomingly, and for a brief minute, he entertains the idea that Roz is his, has been his this whole time, and that Japheth is the crazy roommate who doesn't know when to quit.
But then he wishes Japheth was home, because that's who Roz should be here to see. He doesn't know what Roz is doing here now that could amount to anything good, anyway. Besides, Tanner was really counting on the night alone so he could catch up on his reading (it takes three times as long when you have to scribble out so many words and try to make sense of what's left).
"Oh," Roz is saying, "I know he's not here. I just thought we could...hang out or something?"
"Why?" Tanner asks, tapping his fingers on the wall by the door.
Roz chuckles, "My, aren't you hospitable?" He catches sight of Tanner's fingers, "Stop that."
Tanner drops his hand. Says, "Thanks." Says, "Come in."
They sit on the couch and Tanner gestures for his book. He says, "D'you mind?"
Roz shakes his head and pulls a book out of his own bag. Tanner can't really concentrate with Roz right there, but he doesn't know when that started. Eventually, he gives up on his reading and says, "What're you working on?"
Roz frowns at his book, "This? It's not work, actually, just a pleasure read."
"What's it about?" Tanner asks.
Roz laughs a little, "You'll think it's stupid."
Tanner shrugs, "I might."
Roz smiles at him, "It's a romance novel. But it's—I swear it's not as bad as all that. It's got some plot. And," he looks down, swallows, "and the sex scenes are really good."
"Not your thing?" Roz says.
"Oh, uh, well, I don't know. I just—that word, I—I don't like it."
"What word? Oh, se—yeah, I can see why you wouldn't like that one."
"I—you can?" Tanner says, heart stuttering in his chest.
Roz shrugs, "Well, yeah, it looks a bit vindictive, doesn't it? All short and hissy."
Tanner blinks, chokes down what feels suspiciously like a sob, and looks away. No one's ever—well, he should forget about it.
"Ah, I got it, didn't I?" Roz says, setting his book on the table. "You alright?"
"Yeah," Tanner says, refusing to look at him.
Roz is silent for a while, but then he takes a deep breath and says, "What about 'kiss'?"
"Uck," Tanner says, "that's worse."
"I bet 'peck' is out of the question."
"You bet right." Tanner laughs, feeling the heaviness from earlier dissipating.
But then Roz says, "I'd like to put my mouth on yours."
All Tanner can think before Roz presses his lips to Tanner's is that 'mouth' is an awfully nice word.
Not surprisingly, Tanner has never been kissed. So when it happens, he hardly knows what's going on, just that it is warm and dry and horridly wonderful. He sighs before he can help it, and nearly collapses against Roz, who holds him up by the arms and strokes his cheek against Tanner's right one (Tanner nearly cries when Roz nuzzles into his left cheek for balance).
But then he remembers Japheth and he stiffens. "You should go," he says.
"No, Tan, just wait—" Roz says, cheeks flushed.
Tanner clenches his fists to keep from reaching for him. Says, "Please, Roz. I can't—Japheth."
And that seems to be the magic words because Roz flinches and says, "Shit. Listen, I—"
"Just go," Tanner says. And Roz does.
Tanner spends the rest of the night tapping walls and thinking font small Japheth.
The rest of the week is absolutely horrendous. Tanner spends most of it, it seems, tapping on walls and reciting words that make him feel good, if only for a few minutes.
On the one hand, he can't stop thinking about Roz. And on the other (which seems to be much heavier and horrid), he can't stop thinking about Japheth. Should he tell him about the mouth thing? (Maybe he should start thinking of it as a 'kiss' so it can stop sounding so appealing.)
Maybe it's not something you tell. Maybe it was a onetime thing and Roz has realized he only ever wanted Japheth and everything can go back to normal? Why doesn't Tanner actually want it to go back to normal?
By the time Japheth gets home, Tanner's a complete wreck. Japheth drops his bags on the floor by the door and says, "Man, what's got you?"
Tanner opens his mouth, closes it, and then blurts, "Roz and I kissed." He hopes, at least, that Japheth knows what saying that word cost him. Tanner feels like his tongue may never stop itching.
"You—" Japheth says, slumping against the wall. He drops his head in his hands and Tanner knows, with sickening clarity, that he's crying. "God damn it." Japheth says, shoulders heaving.
Tanner takes a step forward, reaching out, but then he thinks better of it. "Do you—" he says.
"Not now, Tanner," Japheth says, and stalks out of the apartment.
When he comes back, it is late, and Tanner's fallen asleep at the kitchen table. Japheth's eyes are red-rimmed and puffy. He says, "He's all yours."
Tanner is confused for a minute, having just woken up, but then he says, "Oh, no, I don't want—"
He realizes that's a complete lie when he hears Japheth's bedroom door slam shut.
One morning, after two whole days of not speaking to each other, Japheth says casually, "I'm not going to renew my half of the lease."
Tanner's hands jerk, cutting straight through the barcode of a coupon. He says, "You're—what?"
Japheth sighs, "I'm graduating next month, our lease is up in June, and, I mean, it's just a good time for me to go."
Tanner tries to think of anything he could say that would change all of this. He feels dizzy, and has to grip onto the table to keep from getting up and tapping. He thinks low sip sour.
"Is this because of Roz?" He croaks a few seconds later, after he's regained the ability to say the words he wants to.
Japheth closes his eyes, "That's part of it."
"Is it because of me?"
There's a moment where Japheth opens his eyes and looks at Tanner and Tanner knows: yes, it's because of him. Because he's become the kind of friend who kisses another friend's boyfriend and can't stop waiting for it to happen again. He flinches.
Japheth says, "No, Tan. It's not because of you. It's not—" but they both know he waited too long before saying so, and Tanner wishes he wouldn't have said it at all, now.
He says, "I'm sorry for what happened. I'm sorry we—"
Japheth puts up his hand and looks away. "Could we just—let's not—"
Tanner says, "Alright." He says, "I—"
"Don't." Japheth says.
Oh, Tanner thinks, I guess that's it then.
Tanner thinks he should have expected it when Roz comes by a few nights later (it's almost as if his sick, fervent wishing brought him around).
Even though Japheth had said he isn't leaving until the end of the month, he's already begun moving things out and not coming home some nights. He never tells Tanner where he's spending his time, and Tanner doesn't ask.
Still, when Roz knocks on the door and says, "Can I come in?" Tanner wants to say, "Have you seen him? Please—have you?" But he doesn't, and he lets Roz in.
They settle on the couch and Tanner pointedly picks up a book (which isn't for school, but has been sitting on the coffee table since he and Japheth moved in and he thinks this may be the last time he'll have a chance to read it.)
Roz clears his throat. He says, "How are you?"
Tanner shrugs, eyes tripping over the word 'brittle.' He says, "Do you have a pen or—"
Roz says, "Sure. Here." He leans over and crosses out the word himself. Tanner swallows, because for the first time since Japheth carried a packed box out of the apartment, Tanner's not thinking of him at all. No. He's thinking about Roz, and how not so long ago they were here, just like now and Roz had said the word mouth, and Tanner can't pretend anymore that he hasn't been thinking about that moment for every second since it happened.
He says, "Oh."
Roz pulls his hand away and says, "So, I know it's—"
Tanner feels panic rising in his throat. He says, "What?"
"It's, well it's. I don't know how to make anything better, but I—" Tanner can hear the nervous smile in his voice and he feel horrible for it. Horrible that he wants to smile, too. Wants to forget about Japheth and pretend this has always been just for him.
"We're not having this conversation," Tanner says, keeping his eyes glued to his reading and biting his treacherous, smiling lips.
"We are." Roz says, gently sliding the book out of Tanner's hands.
"Just because speaking directly calms me down doesn't mean I have to obey your every command."
Roz laughs. "I didn't think it did."
"Then phrase it as a question."
"Tanner, do you know how much I want to touch you right now?"
Tanner inhales sharply. Roz says, "What? Did I get some words wrong?"
"No." Tanner purposefully avoids looking Roz in the eye. "But you broke up with my best friend less than a week ago."
"I did it for you."
Tanner's smile vanishes at that. "I didn't ask you to do that!" He shouts, "I didn't ask for—and now he's leaving. Because of you! I always thought I'd scare him off. I always thought, I mean I knew he'd leave but—" He stands up, notebook clattering to the floor and starts tapping viciously on the walls. He says, "Water dust light. Water dust light. Waterdustlightwaterdu—"
Suddenly arms are clamping around his body, holding him as he thrashes against the embrace. "Stop it." Roz says. But he can't. Because Japheth is gone. The only person who ever stuck around without asking too much in return. Gone. "Stop it!" Roz again, firmly.
Tanner slumps into him, breathing heavily. "I'm sorry," he whispers.
"Me, too," says Roz. He takes a few deep breaths. "What I meant was, I did it for you, but not because of you." He backs off, leaving Tanner still shaking and staring at the wall. He drops one fingertip onto the chipped paint of its surface. Then another. Then he forces his hand to his side.
"That doesn't make any sense."
"Sure it does. I left him because I couldn't be there for him in the way that he wanted."
"How do you know you can be there for me the way I want?"
"I don't. But the difference is I want to try."
"Well, I...I don't know if. If I can. Japheth. He was..." his hand wanders up to the wall again, and he counts his taps aloud.
Roz steps close behind him, weaving their fingers together, but keeping loose enough for Tanner continue counting. "I know what he means to you," Roz murmurs. "I don't want to take his place. I just want..." he trails off, and to Tanner, it sounds like I just want.
Those words hit him harder than any others he's heard in a long time. I just want. The weight of it settles with a thud on his diaphragm, knocking the air out of him. He says, voiceless, "I just want."
He leans forward, a breath away from the back of Roz's back hand, and presses his forehead against the wall. He exhales. Roz's chest is against his back, their legs tangled together, and Roz's cheek rests on Tanner's hair. "You," Roz says, "I just want you. So much, Tanner."
He nods, not quite sure what he's resigning himself to, but too shaky to stay still. "Alright," he says, "Alright." And he leans his cheek against Roz's hand, stroking it softly. He already feels like he's given too much away, and that he hasn't gone nearly far enough, but it's all he can do right now.
Behind him, Roz sighs.
As hot breath flutters against the back of his neck, Tanner's heart rate picks up speed. He doesn't know how the two of them could get any closer unless they crawled inside each other. And the thought of the heat he'd find there—that blistering sweltering swooning heat—undoes him completely. "Please," he says, arching his neck and twisting his body to face Roz, whose eyes are dark and enticing, "I keep thinking and you have to—"
There is a growling noise in the back of Roz's throat as he swoops down, hands gripping Tanner's jaw and working back into his hair. And his mouth.
His mouth is drag-you-under hot, sucking on Tanner's lips like he's got nothing left to live for and Tanner wonders if all their kisses will be like this. He doesn't know if he can take it, or if he'll just shake apart.
Roz's hands are under his shirt, pressing hot against this upper back, curving Tanner's body towards him. Tanner feels at once disoriented and perfectly in charge of his actions. It's a strange feeling he's not sure if he likes. But when Roz's fingers start fumbling at his waistband, and he says, "D'you want to," Tanner says, "Uh huh."
They stumble to the couch and Tanner hikes Roz's shirt over his head. He says, suddenly aware of the fact that they're going to do this, they're going to actually do this, "It's not just because you're not supposed to have me."
"No," Roz says, "No."
But Tanner is already too caught up in the idea to believe him. Then Roz says, "Ask me after. Ask me again. I'll tell you the same thing. I—I just. If I'd have met you first I'd—"
"Alright," says Tanner, urging him to stop talking by baring his neck for Roz's mouth.
Neither of them says anything for a while after that.
Later, when Tanner is wondering if things were supposed to be as, well, probing as they were (especially in the towards the end, when Tanner had felt so hot and shaky that his eyes had watered and he'd made that sound that he didn't really want to think about anymore), Roz says, "Ask me again."
"You don't have to—"
"You want this because you want me, right? Not just because of the thrill or something?"
"Because I want you," Roz says. "I know it seems like I'm this horrible guy, and that—I just. I didn't mean for this to happen."
Tanner says, "Me either." He says, "But I'm—" he can't finish because it would be too awful.
Roz looks up at him from where he's sprawled across Tanner's chest. He says, "Me, too."
Breakfast, for Tanner, is the most intimate meal of the day. It's a time where he can quietly drink his orange juice and cut out coupons for his shopping trips. When he can wonder how long it will take for Roz to roll out of bed and join him at the table, drinking black coffee and asking him which words hurt and which feel good.
"What about 'Roz'?" He asks one morning after he's just wandered down the hall, still scrubbing his hands over his half-asleep eyes.
Tanner looks up at the tousled man standing at his kitchen table. The man who seems to have a knack for Rules like no one else. Who cuts perfectly along the dotted lines and has recently started wearing matching socks. Who lets Tanner tap his fingers along Roz's bare skin for as long as Tanner needs. Who Tanner thinks he might love, but won't say until he can find the right word for it.
Tanner looks at him, and he says, "It feels quite nice."
Roz smiles. "Fortunate for me."
Tanner smiles back, feeling sleek mouth Roz down to his toes, and says, "For me, too."