Riley was willing to do a lot for Eli. Like, a lot more than he’d ever done for anyone he’d dated. Which… admittedly wasn’t a lot of people. Pre-Eli, his romantic life had been more a sex life, and dating hadn’t really been an issue.
But he liked Eli. If he was being honest with himself, he more than liked Eli. He had more than liked Eli for nearly as long as they’d been roommates, and definitely before they had starting dating.
Which now meant they were living together, as well as living together, and made them the kind of disgustingly domestic couple that guys like Chase sneered at. Although fuck Chase, seriously. Because Riley had never expected this but he thought it was good. Which should have been sort of strange considering it had taken Riley all of two weeks into waking up with Eli before he’d accidentally called Eli his boyfriend when introducing him to someone.
Eli, thank fuck, had turned to Riley in astonishment a second before his face had been split in half by the widest, most shit-eating grin Riley had ever seen.
He’d gone shy about it once they were alone though, frowning that sweetly uncertain frown he did whenever a new recipe threw him, or when one of the kittens followed him into the bathroom.
“No, baby! Baby, please, listen. Just because I see you poops in the litterbox, doesn’t mean you need to see me poops.”
Riley planned on never letting Eli forget that moment. Not ever.
But it was a reminder that the two of them had sort of jumped from roommates to friends to lovers to boyfriends with shared custody of two cats very quickly. Riley couldn’t have helped it, really, despite his lack of boyfriend experience. There was no way, no way possible in the entire world, for him to have denied Eli the chance to have a kitten—or two—of his very own. And there was no way, no way in fucking hell, that he could ever have seen Eli cautiously letting himself adore two helpless, weak, little baby cats, and not confessed his feelings.
The rest was… like having a roommate who let you sleep in their bed, and sucked your dick, only freaked out a little in trying to figure out your pain thing in bed, which was only a little pain thing, and Eli had been so concerned he was doing it wrong that Riley had immediately lov—more than liked him even more.
Eli did a lot for him, so Riley shouldn’t complain.
And he wasn’t.
But if there was one thing he knew as much as how much Eli made his heart beat faster, it was that Eli’s mother hated him and did not want him at their family gatherings.
And yet here he was, wearing a tie, his hair slicked down, an electric blue scarf around his neck, waiting somewhat anxiously outside the bathroom door as Eli finished preparing himself to take Riley to his mother’s house for dinner for the first night of Hanukkah.
Eli, hilariously, had told him not to worry, it would be fine.
Eli was most likely throwing in the bathroom at that very moment. He’d had a similar reaction before leaving for his parents’ house on Yom Kippur.
In his defense, or so Riley had heard from Eli’s youngest sister Rachel, Mrs. Bernstein had done her version of ignoring Eli the entire night. For her that meant not commenting on his allergies, his choice in career, or his weight. Things Eli all disliked hearing about up until his mother stopped talking about them. Riley supposed it was how she showed she cared. He found it strange, but he knew better than to comment on anyone’s relationship with their mother, especially Eli, who might complain about his mom all day, but would defend her to the death if necessary.
Riley cleared his throat, loudly, hoping Eli would hear him through the door. Then he looked into their living room and sighed.
Their living room. His cheeks were warm and he wanted to smile and yeah, okay, he was as ridiculous as Chase thought he was.
The Christmas tree, tiny but real, was on top of an end table which had been moved against the wall, and on top of another end table. Pretty Princess, now nearly seven months old, liked to climb trees. The lights were pretty, and Riley—who had never decorated a tree of his own before—had basically covered it in soft blue lights.
In the window next to it was a gold colored menorah, waiting for its candles.
Riley glanced down at his hands, and the three—three—boxes of Hanukkah candles he was holding.
“Why am I bringing candles again?” he asked the door, and glanced back to their living room, where smug Pretty Princess and chubby little Butterbean were curled up next to each other on the couch. Butterbean was called just Butter now more often than not. She was a soft puffy cloud of lazy kitty, content to let her sister aggressively clean her ears for hours on end. Her sister, the Pretty Princess when Eli was feeling formal and just Princess when she greeted him at the door, had grown into her unfortunate splotch of black fur under her nose. She looked less like a German dictator now and more like a silly French clown.
She didn’t greet Riley at the door, although she would find his lap the second he sat down when he came home. He didn’t blame her for loving Eli more. Eli had never been allowed to have pets, and was making up for it by spoiling these two rotten.
The couch had not survived summer, the shedding season. Black fur seemed embedded in the weave of the cushions, and yet Eli, fussy, neat freak Eli, had only bought more lint rollers and hadn’t said a word about it. Eli didn’t celebrate Christmas although he didn’t mind that Riley did, yet somehow there was a brand new cat tree by the other window with a giant silver bow on it. He kept insisting it was a Hanukkah gift, not that it mattered. Both cats had so far pretended not to see it, although Riley had noticed black fur on the cat bed on top.
For now, with a human there to watch them, the cats were again disdaining the cat tree in favor of the couch. They looked comfortable where they were.
“I’d stay in if I could,” Riley whispered at them. “But Eli needs the support.”
Two cats stared at him, probably curious as to why Daddy Riley—Eli’s name for him when talking to them, and yes, Riley found it stupidly adorable—was whispering. He didn’t really know either. Better to deal with this directly. They were already late.
“Eli?” He tried again when there was no answer. “You know candles aren’t going to make her better about this.”
This, of course, being this, being them. Because Eli’s mother knew about them. Knew about Eli, and about the two of them.
He couldn’t even blame Rachel for that, although she had been drunk, and trying to get Riley drunk, at Eli’s dad’s birthday dinner in August.
“She’s twenty-four. Getting drunk is still a hobby for her,” Eli had hissed, not especially quietly, into Riley’s ear. Rachel had smacked his shoulder, and Riley probably would have commented if he hadn’t caught Mrs. Bernstein giving him the stink eye.
Riley wouldn’t have been able to win with her anyway, so having more wine or not having any wouldn’t have mattered. Eli was the one so nervous that he’d sipped cabernet on an empty stomach and kept forgetting where he was. Then he’d whisper into Riley’s ear, or put his hand on his shoulder, or take the breadsticks off Riley’s plate so could eat them, all the while oblivious to his mother’s stare.
Rachel, less oblivious, even with the booze, had apparently had enough of the whole situation just before the cake.
“No, I’m not going to settle down. I’m still in grad school,” she’d burst out, silencing her older siblings and making her father raise his bushy eyebrows.
Her mother had taken a drink from her martini, dry with a sweet onion—before replying. “I’m not saying you have to settle down. When did you hear me say that? I’m merely asking if you’ve considered something serious. Look at your brother Elijah. He’s always known what he’s wanted, my boy.” She’d said that with a proud look at Eli.
Eli had, understandably, choked on a breadstick. His mother had not approved of his career choices, ever, and yet he was being held up as the golden boy.
Riley had frozen, not sure what to do or even what face to make, and then Rachel, young, drunk, and pissed-off Rachel, had dropped a bomb.
“Of course he’s always known what he wanted to be. You might say he was born that way.” She’d tossed back another whiskey sour while her older sister Gilda had tried to shush her.
Riley had never actually known terror before that moment. He had instantly understood the reason Eli had never come out to his family in the second that Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein had turned from their youngest daughter to their youngest son, and then turned to him.
“Oh, please.” Rachel scoffed. “You know, you just won’t admit it. They come to every family gathering together. They own cats together. Riley covers up his tattoos for you. They’re boyfriends in gay love together forever.”
Riley did not have good memories of the rest of that night. When everything—and he meant everything—had been said and done, he and Eli had come here—come home—still shaken.
Eli had been trembling, and his nose had been running like that was the Eli version of crying but no tears were coming out, and he’d curled up on top of Riley on the couch with Butterbean in his lap and his face in Riley’s neck.
Riley had kind of felt like a jerk, because his family hadn’t freaked out at all when he’d come out or told them he was seeing Eli, so all he could think aside from petting Eli’s back until the trembling stopped, was that after that, with how much Eli loved his family, he had still chosen him.
Eli had come home with Riley. And stayed with him. And refused to take his mother’s calls for a whole three weeks, which was a record for him.
So yeah. Riley would do a lot for Eli. Almost anything, in fact.
Including trying to make nice with his mother. Who had never liked him. Who kind of hated him.
Not for turning her son gay. Mrs. Bernstein wasn’t that stupid, or that prejudiced to think that, even Riley could admit it. She could have accepted her baby being into men… eventually. She didn’t like Riley because Riley wasn’t good enough for Eli and they both knew it.
It was unspoken between them, and had been since their first meeting over a year ago. Long before Eli had dared to kiss Riley for the first time, Mrs. Bernstein had disapproved of Riley in her son’s life, with his tattoos and his interest in radical art and whatever else she didn’t like about him. Probably that he didn’t know anything about Hannukah, for starters.
Which was possibly why Eli had thrust three boxes of candles at him before dashing into the bathroom.
Riley sighed, but a lot more fondly than he had a few minutes ago.
He leaned against the door. “Eli?” It still amazed him that sometimes Eli, who was so together he owned Tupperware and a set of mixing bowls, needed Riley to help him with things like this. He stuck two of the boxes into the pockets of his leather jacket and scratched at the wood. “Look, you know I’m not the hugest fan of your mother—”
The rude snort was at least a reply.
“But she loves you.” Riley said the words, then considered them. “That’s the menorah she gave you, right? And it’s her latke recipe you use. And the really thick comforter on your bed? She bought you that because she thought you weren’t sleeping enough, and that thing is expensive and amazing. It’s like passing out while wrapped in a cloud.”
Riley’s mother, although she had never baked bread or gone to college, had squished Eli in a tight hug when Riley had brought him home, and absolutely delighted in sending them catnip-filled cat toys for her “grandbabies.”
She was embarrassing, but Eli knew where he stood with her. As long as he made Riley happy, his mother loved him. She might even love him if he didn’t. Eli had made her his risotto and possibly earned a friend for life.
Mrs. Bernstein however, was… she was just….
“Your mom is being stubborn. That’s… well, it’s not ideal, but it’s done out of love. Or… protectiveness anyway. She thinks you can do anything, be with anyone. And she’s right. You could. That’s how she sees it. She probably… she probably picked out the perfect lawyer husband for you the second she came to terms with your sexuality. So.” He wasn’t sure exactly what he was trying to say, but Eli was listening. “So while she could be handling all this better, that’s her fault. Not yours. She’s just not expressing it well. I mean, you told me how she reacted when you said you were going into tax law to work for non-profits. Did you really think this would be any different?”
In the months since that dinner, Mrs. Bernstein and Eli had started speaking to each other again. Eli had gone to his parents’ house for Yom Kippur and some other holidays, and come back tense and quiet until Rile had gotten him to relax. But they must have reached some sort of weird standoff situation that one of them, Riley didn’t know who, had decided to end.
All he did know was a week ago, Eli had come home, picked up Princess, plopped onto the couch, and said, in one breath, that his family was having dinner the first night of Hanukkah and he would like it if Eli went with him as his boyfriend if that was okay and if it wasn’t that was fine really it was fine.
So now. Tie. Candles. Talking to his boyfriend through the bathroom door.
“If it will upset her, you don’t have to take me along.” Riley swallowed. “Really, I… your dad is cool, and I can talk to Rachel, but your mom hates me. You can say it. And that makes it harder for you. I mean…” he paused to look at their living room again, their life. “I mean, she wants what’s best for you, and that isn’t a goy tattoo artist.”
“Goy?” Eli startled the shit out of him by opening the door. He was wearing one of his cute, soft button downs and a very brown, very adult blazer that made him look like an earnest teddy bear. He already needed to shave again. He fixed Riley with a not very stern glare. “I thought we discussed how goy you sound when you say things like goy.”
“Did I say it wrong?” Riley really wanted to pat Eli’s collar down, and then his hair.
“No, but….” Eli let out a breath. “Just don’t. She’ll pick a fight about it.”
“Even though that’s what she’s thinking?” Fuck it. Riley smoothed down Eli’s collar anyway, and then his hair. “She doesn’t care nearly as much about the gay thing as she does about the me thing. It will be easier for you if I’m not there.”
The glare that took over Eli’s face was almost terrifying. “How can you say that like you don’t make things better?”
“Eli, you know I meant that she’ll go easier on—better?” Riley interrupted himself. “How do I… How would I make it better? I still don’t even know why I am holding three boxes of candles.”
“Because when you find a place that sells Hanukkah decorations, you buy everything you can before it disappears,” Eli recited at him, just like he had when they had been in Bed Bath and Beyond and Eli had seen the endcap full of streamers, napkins, and battery-powered dreidels, all in bright silver and blue.
“Also because my mother will be happy to see them, whatever she says,” he added a moment later. “Which is why I want you to be the one to give them to her. Perfect lawyer husband, my ass.”
“You want your mom to like me?” To this day, despite everything, Riley still said dumb things around Eli. Eli was just that cute.
He blinked his big brown eyes at Riley and then wrinkled his forehead in an expression Riley knew only too well. Eli’s streak of stubborn determination had gotten him through his parents’ disapproval of his career path, and enabled him to deal with some of Riley’s bitchier friends and their comments. When he frowned like that, he absolutely meant whatever he was about to say, as his mother had learned that night.
“I want my mother to fucking love you,” he growled in his soft, baby bear voice, and then clenched his jaw before speaking again. “Like I do, which I told her and I made sure she heard me. You make me happy and she knows it, and that’s why she’s terrified. You can influence me, and she doesn’t understand you, and you might not realize this, but my mother is a bit of a control freak.”
“Just a bit,” Riley echoed, then reared back. “You love me? I mean, you told her you love me?” He took a breath while he tried, and failed, to be less of a dork. “Did you throw up? We absolutely do not have to go someplace that makes you feel sick. Do you really?” That was a stupid question; when Eli decided to stand his ground, he stood it.
“I—” Eli stopped short. His frown intensified, then lightened before his cheeks turned pink and he glanced away. “Well, I said it, so…. And no, I didn’t throw up. It was mostly me staring into the mirror over the sink and reminding myself that my mother means well.”
“So then I can kiss you.” Riley didn’t get that out nearly as smoothly as he meant to, but he did lean in—a second too late—to plant a kiss on Eli’s mouth. The kiss was too short, too forceful, but he was feeling a lot of things at once. Eli sighed into it anyway, with a small, sad puff of breath, before curling his hands into the lapels of Riley’s jacket.
“She hates this jacket,” he grumbled, while kissing the corner of Riley’s lips. “She says you look like trouble in it.”
“I could wear something else.” Riley loved this jacket, but there really wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for Eli.
Eli’s breath caught in his throat with a noisy little sound, as if he had realized that only in this moment.
“I like this jacket.” Eli said it simply. Then he tugged Riley closer, although they weren’t doing anything but breathing together. Occasionally Riley’s nose would brush Eli’s cheek. He smelled like soap. “Okay,” he added, after a while, and straightened up. Riley took it to mean he was ready to go, and that they were still going together.
“I’ve got the candles,” Riley assured him, watching Eli fidget with his shirt. “What do they mean again?”
Eli fixed him with an unamused look that quickly shifted into something more exasperated than angry. “You know what they mean. I told you the story of the oil like six times.”
“Yeah, but I like the way you tell it.” Riley smiled at him, because Eli loved him. Which he’d known, but trust Eli to actually say it when he wasn’t expecting it. Eli had kissed him first, after all.
“You’re messing with me,” Eli decided, and crossed his arms. Then he sighed. “This is going to suck.”
“I’ll get the wine,” Riley offered. “But you ate all the chocolate last night.”
“Chocolate isn’t going to cut it anyway,” Eli said mournfully, and stepped closer until their shoes bumped together. Then he leaned forward and got a death grip on Riley’s jacket again. “But wine? You should be the one drinking. You have to deal with this and her, and you’re being so nice about it, and you shouldn’t, and I still don’t get why.”
“You really don’t?” Riley heard himself asking in an embarrassingly uncertain voice. Somewhere, Chase was laughing at him.
Eli immediately lifted his head as if he heard Chase’s imaginary sneers. “Of course, I do. Riley, we have cats together,” he pointed out, breathlessly sarcastic, and then returned to quietly panicking against Riley’s shoulder. “I like our cats.”
“Me too,” Riley agreed, and then stood there, holding candles and his boyfriend until Eli’s phone rang in his pocket. Riley knew that ringtone. Eli’s mom wanted to know where her son was and why he was late.
Eli didn’t take the call, but he did straighten up when the ringing finally ended.
“Okay.” He drew in a sharp breath. “Okay. We are going to do this, and you are going to be you, thoughtful and pretty and a good boyfriend, and you are going to give her kosher candles and wine and she is going to love you. Or, all right, she is going to at least like you, because it’s Hanukkah and that is a time for miracles, goddamn it.”
He huffed another breath, then met Riley’s stare. “Okay?” he wondered, shy again, and Riley grinned at him.