Mat had spent his entire day at the Portland State University Library. For the first time since Milo had moved in, he’d risen earlier than him, reluctantly peeling himself away from his sleeping form and out of the warm cocoon they’d created in bed together. He’d dressed, brushed his teeth, and gathered his belongings in silence, not having his first cigarette until he was out the door and not having his first sip of caffeine until he was on campus. He’d been at the library when it opened at eight and he’d stayed there for ten hours, calling out of work in the hope that, somehow, he’d find the motivation to do the impossible: finish his fucking Computer Ethics paper.
For ten hours, he’d sat in a secluded corner with his laptop and a sea of research materials, poring over article after article, taking notes, staring at the blinking cursor on his blank Google Docs document with his fingers suspended over his keyboard - but the words had never come. They hadn’t come after he’d listened to an hour of the Deep Focus playlist on Spotify. They hadn’t come after he’d taken a walk outside for a cigarette break. They hadn’t come after he’d prayed to a deity he didn’t believe in. They just hadn’t come, and now, as he trudged back into his apartment, Mat found himself having to admit that he knew why. He hadn’t expected his Computer Ethics professor to give him an extension on the paper when he blew it off and he hadn’t wanted one. He’d never intended to write it.
“Hey,” he said, offering Milo a rare smile as he entered the cramped studio they now shared to find him reading comic books on the bed, shrugging out of the lackluster jacket that had replaced his lost one and tossing his messenger bag - which contained not only his unused research materials, but his laptop - aside without a care. He knew what not finishing his paper would mean. He knew that failing to turn it in would result in another failing grade to add to the list of failing grades he’d accumulated by skipping his final exams, but he didn’t want to think about it - at least, not for one more day. Perhaps, not until Wednesday, when the grades were posted and his fate was sealed. For now, he just wanted to be with Milo, to put his uncertainty about his college career on the back burner and make room in his gut for a different feeling: the dizzying combination of an all but overwhelming urge to kiss Milo and the fear that had been holding him back for days.
“How was your day?” He asked, bridging the gap between himself and the bed and kicking off his boots before joining Milo there, reaching for his arm and tucking himself under it, resting his head on his shoulder. He already felt better. “I’ll get your pancakes started soon, but I want to do this first. I’ve been wanting to do this all day.”
Though it may not have shifted as much as Milo might have thought, or as much as Mat might have wanted, Mat’s mood had shifted considerably in the past week - and in a positive direction. He knew he should’ve felt more guilty about ruining Milo’s relationships with Caty and Laine - or at least guilty enough to care that he’d played a role in hurting them - but he hadn’t planned to confess his feelings for Milo when he had. Moreover, he hadn’t expected Milo to reciprocate them, and it was difficult to feel anything other than joy whenever he was reminded that his best friend, who he’d been lusting after for what felt like decades, who he loved more than any other person in the world, returned his affections. It was an unfamiliar feeling, this happiness, and while it wasn’t without its underlying doubts and fears, it was intoxicating - more intoxicating than the bourbon he’d poured into his coffee all morning and afternoon. It was enough to make him, the misanthrope, want to be kind not only to his friends, but to strangers. It was enough to make him want to sing in the shower. He wanted to hold onto it for as long as he could, to let it grow big enough, and powerful enough, to dissolve all of the darkness in him. He loved feeling like this. He loved that Milo made him feel like this.
“I missed you, too,” Mat said, smiling again and extending the arm that wasn’t pressed up against Milo’s side out so that he could trace tiny circles on the fabric of the other boy’s tee shirt with his fingertips, right over his heart. It was a strange how natural these intimate gestures felt, how easy it was for him to just reach out and touch Milo, after so many years of not being able to connect with anyone in that way. Well. Anyone with the exception of Milo. “I’m glad you had a good day. Mine could’ve been better, but I’m with you now, so it doesn’t matter.” He waited a beat before lifting his head up and gently prompting Milo to loosen his grip around him, shifting in his position in order to make eye contact. “You look tired,” he said, absently running his hand through Milo’s hair. “I hope I didn’t wake you this morning. I tried to be quiet, but you know. There aren’t many places for sounds to go in here.”
Mat may have had an aura of confidence about him, but that aura had been carefully crafted over the years, like a veneer for him to hide behind, and its upkeep could be credited more so to the incurable apathy he felt with regard to other people’s opinions as opposed to an inflated sense of self-importance. For this reason, he knew all too well what it was like to feel inferior, and he was almost certain he understood what Milo meant about feeling more insecure in this context - a romantic context - than in others even without having had any relationship experience himself. Although he believed Milo when he said he loved him, when he said he wanted him and only him, it was difficult for Mat to see why. He didn’t presume to know enough about Caty or Laine to make a “fair” assessment, but from what he knew of them, they seemed to be well-adjusted people despite their faults - or, at least, more well-adjusted than he was. While their friendship had spanned nearly each of their lifetimes, there were still things about Mat that Milo didn’t know, things he’d always felt too afraid or anxious to share - not for fear of being judged, but for fear of disappointing the person whose opinion he actually valued, or distorting his image of him. There was a laundry list of explanations he owed him from years past, from the nights he’d spent in a sleeping bag on his bedroom floor after climbing in through his window, pulling his sleeves down over bruises he hadn’t asked for, and from other nights. He came with a lot of baggage - or, as he’d put it, bullshit - and despite how much he trusted Milo, it was hard not to worry that there would come a day when something would scare him away, when the baggage would become too heavy a burden for him to bear.
Fortunately, being in close proximity to Milo was more than enough to distract Mat from the bullshit for a while, whether it had to do with his shadowy past or his uncertain future. “I meant it when I said I was going to work on knocking you out,” he said, closing his eyes when Milo leaned in to nuzzle him and stifling a laugh at the feeling of his breath on his shoulder. It was a kind of closeness he’d never experienced before, a gentle and subtle display of affection that also somehow made his jeans feel too tight, and he felt a twinge of sadness at the realization that he’d been missing out on something so good for so long. “I’m glad I’m here, too. I’m glad you’re here.” No longer able to resist the temptation, he turned his head just enough to press his lips against Milo’s temple, sliding his arms around his waist before whispering in his ear. “How hungry are you?”
Milo wasn’t the only one who was scared. Mat didn’t have the perspective of a child of divorce - though he suspected his parents must not have been in a good place to have given him up - but even without it, pursuing a romantic relationship with Milo did seem rather black and white. It was as if the boat they’d been rowing in for as long as they’d known each other had finally begun to sink, and their options were either to sink with it, or to swim toward something new. It was a terrifying thought, that they could somehow go down the same road Milo’s parents had - or worse, that they could end up hating each other forever - but the fear hadn’t been enough to make Mat’s feelings go away in the months after he and Milo had slept together, and it still wasn’t enough now. All he could do, despite the pessimism he was prone to under most circumstances, was hope that if not strong enough to withstand anything, their bond was strong enough to adapt, to grow and evolve with their relationship. Falling in love was a good thing, right? After years of pining and being afraid, on both sides, they did deserve a chance.
Not being especially outdoorsy, all Mat knew about altitude sickness was what he’d read in books, but he could’ve sworn that he experienced it sitting there with Milo - in the best possible way. It was as if by resting his forehead against his, Milo had also knocked the wind out of him, and the feeling of his hand gripping his shirt made him forget how to breathe in again. The air between them felt paper thin, and Mat could hear his heartbeat in his ears, growing faster with each second they spent hovering in that moment. Finally, he inhaled, letting out a timid laugh immediately thereafter and clearing his throat before speaking. “Burnt pancakes,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “You want me more than burnt pancakes.”
It was surreal, being in a position he’d been in with so many others before, but feeling nervous as though it was for the first time. It wasn’t surprising, though. What he felt for Milo was unlike anything he’d ever felt and that made it impossible for him to compare this experience to any previous one. Knowing it was only fair to meet him halfway after he had initiated their first kiss so many months ago, Mat leaned in and captured Milo’s lips with his own, pulling away after a few seconds to gauge his reaction. Though he hadn’t expected to meet any resistance on Milo’s part, he figured it couldn’t hurt to be careful. He wanted to be as careful with their relationship, as careful with Milo, as he could be. “Was that okay?”
Mat wished he could’ve counted the number of people he’d kissed on two hands, but the truth of the matter was that he would’ve needed all of the hands and feet between himself and Milo to count even a fraction of the people he’d kissed, and fucked - and it wasn’t something he’d ever been proud of. With few exceptions, all of his kisses had been wasted on one-night stands, given to strangers who had seen him as little more than a warm body during the short span of time they’d known him, and who were unlikely to even remember him now. He had a wealth of experience with empty sexual encounters, his night with the faceless Marriott guy being only one of them, and although he hadn’t started to admit it until recently, his promiscuity had left him feeling equal parts lonely and unclean for years. It had been even worse after the night he’d spent with Milo, after Milo had unknowingly taught him how loving and meaningful sex could be, and although Mat knew things were different now, he also knew it would take some time for him to reverse the damage done to him by sleeping around.
It was difficult not to give in to the urge to push Milo down onto the mattress when he pulled him in for another kiss. It was difficult not to give in to the urge to kiss him more fervently, to bite his neck, to grind against him until they couldn’t resist tearing each other’s clothes off, but even in the midst of their sexual tension, Mat remained aware of their situation, and he knew it was in their best interest to take things slow. It was probably in their best interest to take things much slower than they already were - but there were only so many urges Mat could defy. “Yeah, I’m okay,” he said, his voice low, before bringing his hand up to run his thumb over Milo’s lips. It was a flat response if there ever was one, certainly not worthy of the moment, but for all he felt and all he had to say, Mat found himself incapable of putting it into words in the immediate aftermath of their second first kiss. Instead, he leaned in a third time, pressing his lips against Milo’s and gently threading his fingers in the hair at the back of his neck, using his other hand to pull him in by his tee shirt. It was more than a few seconds before he withdrew this time, but when he did, nearly breathless, he paused to kiss Milo’s forehead. “I love you,” he said, at long last, looking into Milo’s eyes with a vulnerability that was uncharacteristic of him. “I love you so much, and as hard as it is for me to believe you could feel the same way about me, I can feel it when you kiss me. It should’ve been you kissing me all along.”
Romantic love was a concept that Mat had only recently begun to understand, and his understanding of it was exploratory at best. Throughout his adolescence, and even his childhood, he’d thought of romantic love as a fiction people chased because they were too naïve or unintelligent to know better, a fanciful idea that belonged on the pages of the kind of books teenage girls and middle-aged mothers liked so much. At the time, he’d written off the disgust he’d felt when Milo had started dating Caty as a symptom of being enlightened, and he’d convinced himself of this fabricated reality for years, until he and Milo had fallen into bed together and shown their affection for one another in a different way. In retrospect, he supposed there were plenty of moments when he should’ve known how his feelings for his best friend were changing from one thing to another, the first pang of girlfriend-induced disgust being only one of them. He remembered texting him in the middle of the night, when his numerous “homes” felt too much like prisons and he couldn’t sleep. He remembered not wanting to let go when he yanked him into his arms after his emancipation hearing and settling for giving him a key to his shitty apartment. He remembered wanting to kiss his forehead during many, if not most, if not all, of his panic attacks - to give him a sweeter form of ammunition to fight with than the pills in his pocket. And he knew now that, as sickening as it was, people chased romantic love because they felt similar to the way he felt - which he had to admit, despite himself, didn’t fit his definition of “sickening” at all.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Mat said, reaching out with his free hand to smooth a wrinkle in Milo’s shirt with his fingertips while he spoke. “I could’ve told you sooner, too… if not when we were younger, then after we had sex. I handled things so fucking poorly the next morning and I’ve always regretted it. I should’ve stayed with you instead of running off. I’m sorry I did that, it being your first time and everything. I should’ve been nicer to you.” He could’ve dwelled on his past mistakes for the rest of the night, but fortunately, the feeling of Milo’s lips on his knuckles left little room for self-loathing. His sense of humor helped, too. Mat laughed, unable to keep himself from grinning as he looked down at their hands. “I’d probably still jerk you off nonstop for three weeks,” he said, “but I know what you mean. Maybe you’re right. We might’ve had one of those explosive teenage breakups and ruined everything.” He paused, looking back up at Milo and gesturing toward the kitchen. “You want to supervise me making pancakes? Somebody needs to have the fire department on standby.”