A/N: So this was written for the Fandom Gives Back compilation. I hope you enjoy!
Thanks to Twilight Mundi, jfka06 and barburella.
Dedicated to bmango.
An old adage gets to be that way because person after person has discovered it was true. They're the words put to common sense - the thing even the dumbest of the dumb could figure out if only they stopped to think about it.
Jasper's mother always sighed that he could never learn a lesson until he made the mistake for himself. It didn't matter how much she told him - how well she laid out her argument or how much evidence she provided. The lesson didn't sink in until he was in the middle of the grizzly aftermath.
Of course, most lessons weren't so hard to swallow. It wasn't so bad when he was a teenager and his mother told him, "don't count your chickens before they're hatched" and he told all of his friends his dad was bringing home the cool new video game two weeks before it was supposed to be released. Jasper was a little embarrassed when his dad couldn't get a hold of it as he'd thought, but two weeks later everyone had the game.
About love and relationships, his mother had this to say: "Never waste a woman's time. If you know a relationship is over, let her know. Breaking her heart now is a lot more respectful than letting her believe you're as invested as she is."
Jasper never liked being that guy - the one who would break a girl's heart. It happened, of course. It was inevitable in the drama that was high school relationships. He broke a few hearts, he had his heart broken. Though he knew those relationships weren't the end of anyone's world, he hated the end of even the shortest relationship.
As he grew up and grew older, it began to occur to Jasper that his relationships never reached that serious point. He had fun but never got invested.
When he met Alice Cullen he fell head over heels. No one had ever made him feel the way she did: giddy and alive. Along with fantastically in love, Jasper also felt a profound relief. He'd begun to harbor uncomfortable suspicions about himself, about the wayward thoughts he couldn't seem to control. But his love for Alice was honest and true.
He married her because if he could make it work with anyone, it would be with Alice.
Except it didn't work.
Jasper tried to fool himself into wishing away the thoughts that had his eyes following the most attractive man in any room. He tried to ignore it when the cute cashier at his local Starbucks smiled and he felt his stomach twist with unmistakable butterflies. He tried to pretend he was satisfied when he went to bed with his smart, beautiful, adoring wife.
Slowly, it became increasingly apparent that he wasn't satisfied. There was a void, and they both knew it. Though he put on a smile, Jasper knew he wasn't fooling Alice. He watched as her pretty brown eyes got more troubled as he grew more restless. She tried so hard to please him, to fill that hole that Jasper wouldn't acknowledge and she couldn't explain.
Though he wouldn't admit it to himself at the time, Jasper knew. He knew there was nothing she could do. He was her everything, all she needed, but while she was his best friend and the person he would always love most in the world, there was a part of Jasper that needed something Alice could never provide.
When he heard the news, that his wife had been killed in a car accident, the first thing that ran through Jasper's head was that age old adage: Live like there's no tomorrow.
Worse than the crippling grief that literally sent him to his knees was the guilt that bowed his shoulders to the ground. For Alice, there was no tomorrow. He'd wasted so much of her time, and now it was too late for her.
He was going to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life.
Lesson learned - too bad Alice would never reap the benefits of it.
~2 Years Ago~
"You can't do this to yourself."
It had been a few months since Alice's death, and Jasper was still in something of a stupor. Many times over the last few weeks, he'd heard someone knocking at the door. The sound was so far away it hardly registered to him. He was ignoring everything - his health, his cleanliness. If taking a shower was too much for him to manage most days, the thought of dealing with other people was completely overwhelming.
Of course, Alice's brother, Edward, had the key. Jasper had been too devastated, completely unable to deal with identifying her body and picking up the things that had been salvaged from the twisted metal that used to be her hot yellow Porsche.
Jasper laughed, the sound bleak and exhausted. "What would you do, Edward? If it were Bella, what would you do?"
He saw his friend tense, his fists clenching at his sides. Edward breathed deeply, shaking his head as if to expel the notion. "I can't imagine what you're feeling, Jasper. I can't believe she's gone. Every day I wonder why she hasn't called, why she isn't dropping none too casual hints about what she wants for her birthday. She should be here, and it isn't fair. It isn't fair that the world goes on, but her life is over." His voice was tight with emotion as he spoke, and Jasper heard him take another slow, calming breath.
Jasper wondered if Edward would still be there, trying to help him, if he knew that Alice's life had been as unfair as her death if not more so. It had been months since Jasper had uttered more than a monosyllabic word here and there; he hadn't been able to confess what he'd done.
Ever the coward...
"But the fact is, you're alive. Nothing is going to change that for a long time." Edward eyed Jasper as he spoke to be sure the meaning was not lost on him. The blond man looked away, saying nothing. He had no intention of taking his life, as appealing as it sounded occasionally. Death would be a relief he didn't deserve.
Edward sighed and squeezed his friend's shoulder. "I know you don't always believe in an afterlife, but on the off chance there is one, Alice is watching you. Don't break her heart, Jasper. Would you want her to see you like this?"
At that, Jasper slumped in his chair, scratching his fingers roughly down the thick growth of whiskers on his cheeks.
"Just think about it," Edward said gently. Jasper heard the door open and close quietly a few moments later.
Jasper knew damn well what he must have looked like. Here he was on the cusp of thirty years old, sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees, ignoring the manners his mother taught him as he put his feet on the seat.
It felt like it was happening all over again. Actually, it felt worse because this time there was waiting and wondering. Last time he'd made Edward do everything at the hospital. He'd never stepped foot in the place.
He heard a rustle as someone took the seat beside him. Despite the chaotic, frantic thoughts that ruled his mind, Jasper felt a small inkling of annoyance. The waiting room was empty. There were plenty of other places to sit. He wanted to have his breakdown in peace.
A warm, firm hand pressed against the center of his back, and Jasper inexplicably felt the pressure around his lungs lighten. He sucked in a breath, able to breathe for the first time since he'd stumbled on his little dog - his furry Alice - unconscious in his kitchen. Startled, he turned his head to look at the stranger who'd sat down beside him.
Instantly, despite the gravity of the situation, his stomach felt full of butterflies. He found himself staring into deep brown eyes set into a beautiful, concerned looking face. It was a man, a young man who looked barely out of his teens if he was at all. Jasper blinked, feeling young and foolish and completely out of sorts.
"You looked so sad. I couldn't let you be alone," the stranger explained.
Slowly, suddenly self conscious, Jasper unwound himself, setting his feet on the ground. "Um. Thank you?" It came out sounding more like a question because Jasper wasn't at all sure the intrusion was welcome. Still, the gesture was kind and the idea of snarling at the stranger to get away seemed strangely abhorrent.
"I'm Riley Biers." He lifted his hand from Jasper's back, holding it out. Jasper momentarily felt a pang at the loss off connection but felt instantly better when he put his hand in Riley's, shaking with a grip more limp than was typical.
"Jasper Whitlock," he said belatedly, realizing Riley was staring at him with patient, expectant eyes. He also realized he was clinging to the man's hand and let go, wondering what was wrong with him apart from the obvious.
"Tell me about your dog," Riley prompted gently. "What's his name?"
"Her," Jasper corrected. He took a shaky breath. "Her name is Alice."
~2 Years Ago~
"Oh, Edward. Look at them," Bella murmured, her eyes going from one kennel to another. She put her hands to her cheeks, her eyes a little sad. "I wish we could adopt all of them."
Edward pulled her close and kissed her cheek. "You're way too fond of the wet dog smell for my tastes."
Jasper let his friends' conversation fade into the background as he wandered to the end of the row. He felt so apart from everything. Once, dogs brought an instant smile to his face. Now he stared listlessly at the beasts feeling nothing.
He was so disconnected from the rest of the world. Since Alice's death his every thought was in a constant loop. If only he'd had the bravery - both to face who he was and to hurt Alice. As deep in denial as he was, he'd known for a fair hunk of time that his relationship with his wife wasn't what it should be. How could he have not seen what it cost her? As it was, he knew she was sad and frustrated. How could he have been so selfish not to understand how precious her time was?
And he'd wasted it - squandered years of her life while he tried to be something he wasn't.
A persistent yipping noise drew Jasper's attention from his heavy thoughts. He looked down tiredly, finding he was leaning on the mesh cage of a kennel. At his feet was a small dog with sleek black fur. It yipped at him insistently, little tail wagging. Jasper's breath caught.
It had the most beautiful brown eyes he'd ever seen on a dog. They were the exact shade of Alice's eyes.
Sinking to his knees, Jasper pushed his fingers through the mesh of the gate. The little dog happily lapped at his fingers, and before he knew he was doing it, Jasper smiled, the expression feeling odd and out of place on his face. "Hi," he whispered to the little thing. The dog yipped in response, and Jasper's smile widened.
He stood suddenly, pushing himself off the wall and quickly down the hall to the front desk.
"What are you doing?" he heard Edward ask, but Jasper ignored him.
He caught the attention of one of the workers instead. "Excuse me? I'd like to adopt the dog at the end of the row here."
"You want to take her outside and play with her a bit? Get to know her?" the worker asked.
Jasper shook his head. "No. I want her. I'm sure of it."
Jasper rocked back and forth, going out of his skin. He remembered the first time he held the wiggling, squirming, happy ball of fuzz. She'd leaped right out of the shelter worker's hands and into his. Jasper had never felt such soft, soft fur.
He ached to feel her fur between his fingers again. There was nothing quite as soothing as petting a dog. When he was away at work for hours, sometimes knowing he was going to come home to her fuzz and her wet nose against his hand could bring a smile to his face, no matter how frustrating the day.
He just didn't know what he was going to do if he didn't get to play with her, watching her growl and pounce at his waggling fingers.
How could he explain to this stranger what little Alice meant to him? He'd often thought that lunacy should be added to the stages of grief. What else could he call it? He knew he'd been drawn toward little Alice because her eyes were the exact shade of his dead wife's. At the time, he'd truly believed that Alice was with him, pushing the dog into his waiting arms.
Often in the last two years, Jasper held little Alice on his lap, reflecting that if he'd been able to love his wife the way he loved his dog, they would have had a happy life. Love was so much simpler with dogs. Little Alice filled the void her human counterpart had left in Jasper enough that he could put together the shambles of his life. He had someone to dote upon again. Neither of his Alices could claim they lacked for his attention and adoration.
He knew where he'd failed as Alice's husband. It all came down to intimacy. Loving Alice to the moon and back didn't make it easier, or enough, to be physically intimate with her. Though he tried to push through, Jasper knew his performance was lacking. Toward the end, there were times his libido let him down completely.
Because of the nature of the secrets he kept - from himself as well as from her - his emotional intimacy with his wife was severely compromised, and that wasn't fair either. Intimacy was necessary in a human relationship. They both suffered in its absence.
Fair or not, little Alice was content with her life because she didn't need that intimacy, and Jasper was happy coming home to her. It was one relationship he was capable of, and that gave him a measure of happiness. While nothing could make up for the way he'd mistreated his wife, at least this little creature's life was fuller because of him.
"I don't want to lose her," he admitted to Riley, his voice wavering. "I don't know what I'm going to do if I lose her." He twisted his hands on his lap restlessly, trying not to cry because he'd already shown an embarrassing degree of emotions to a near total stranger.
Riley didn't speak. He just reached out, taking Jasper's hands in his and squeezing tightly. Startled, Jasper looked up again, into Riley's eyes.
For just a moment, staring at the boy's earnest, empathetic eyes, Jasper felt like everything could be okay - not that it would, but that the world had that capability. He hadn't felt that way in a long, long time.
Jasper opened his mouth, not knowing what he wanted to say but feeling like he had to say something. Before he could speak, the woman at the front desk called his name. "Mr. Whitlock? You can go back now."
Riley released his hands, and Jasper stood, feeling confused and awkward. For the space of a heartbeat he considered asking the younger man to come with him.
"Here," Riley said quickly, picking up a messenger bag Jasper hadn't noticed until that very moment. He took out a small notebook, scrawling something there and ripping the page out. He held the paper out to Jasper. "My number. Call me, okay? If you need to talk or... whatever."
"Okay," Jasper said, reaching out to take the paper. He looked at Riley for one more breath before he turned to get to his dog and her vet.
~3 Months Later~
Jasper stared listlessly at his teacup, shaking it to rearrange the tea leaves at the bottom.
Alice would have been able to read his tea leaves, Jasper remembered, imagining her reaching across the table to take his empty cup. She didn't necessarily believe in prognostication, but she was fascinated with the various tactics and beliefs that had developed throughout the ages. She'd told him once that somewhere, some culture believed they could divine the future by studying the entrails of the dead.
If divination had any basis in fact, Jasper wondered idly what the tea leaves or the entrails or the fucking crystal balls of the world would have to say about his life. He was 29 years old and as far as he was concerned, he was done. Was there anything to see besides day after day of bleakness?
Oh, Jasper went through the motions now. He held down his job, doing his work quietly and without complaint. He'd taken to wandering the city - anything to keep Edward's suspicions at bay. Jasper liked coffee shops because he could order and sit for hours without anyone bothering him.
It wasn't a real life, but it could pass for a reasonably priced knock-off.
All the window dressings with none of the quality.
Jasper wondered if his tea leaves backed up his claims and wished he could ask Alice.
It took a minute for Jasper to realize that someone was standing at his table. He shifted his head just slightly. Standing beside two feet in worn sneakers was an adorable, stocky Jack Russel Terrier. The dog barked at him, snuffling at his foot before looking up expectantly. Ingrained in him from years of meeting other dogs at dog parks, Jasper extended his hand, letting the dog sniff his fingers. Apparently this met with the dog's approval because he started licking Jasper's hand.
Chuckling from somewhere above him reminded the blond man that the dog was attached to an owner and he was probably being very rude. He looked up, surprised to find himself staring at a handsome, youthful, oddly familiar face.
The stranger chuckled. "You don't remember me, do you?"
"Uh..." Jasper stumbled. It wasn't much use. His mind was too foggy lately. He hardly remembered thoughts that had occurred to him a few minutes before let alone people he might have met anytime in the last few months.
"I'm Riley Biers," the younger man prompted gently. "And you're Jasper Whitlock."
He had such a pretty smile, Jasper found himself noting. He shrugged a little uncomfortably. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"We met at the vet clinic. Hey, how's your dog? Alice, wasn't it?"
Jasper looked away, shoving his hands deep in his pockets. "I, um... I had to put her down," he said quietly.
"Oh," Riley said, the enthusiasm in his voice gone. He sat down opposite Jasper without being asked. "Well, fuck. I'm so sorry. I can't even..."
Jasper shrugged again. He'd been heartbroken, of course, but since then he'd become resigned. Of course little Alice died. She'd given him purpose and happiness that he didn't deserve. It only reinforced his firm belief that he was destined to live this solitary life.
"I really wish you'd called me."
Jasper looked up, a little startled. "What?"
"That day, I gave you my number just in case you needed someone to talk to. When you didn't call, I thought everything must have been just fine," he explained.
For a long moment, Jasper just gaped at the kid in front of him. Then he laughed, the sound raw and odd because it had been so long since his mouth had made that noise. "No offense, kid, but did you really expect me to share that kind of thing with an almost perfect stranger?"
Riley tilted his head, looking confused. "Well, that's what I gave you my number for, man. I thought... you know, it would really suck ass if something happened to Dilbert here," he reached down to pet the dog at his feet, "and no one was there to talk to me about it."
"Your dog's name is Dilbert?" Once, what felt like a long time ago, this would have struck Jasper as very amusing. As it was, he was stuck with mild curiosity.
But then, mild curiosity was better than apathy.
"Dilbert," Riley called, patting on the third, empty seat. The dog hopped up happily, alternately sniffing around the table and looking at Riley expectantly. The younger man grinned, ruffling Dilbert's furry head. "He's kind of a dork, don't you think?" Riley asked with a grin. "Do you mind watching him while I grab some coffee?"
The question caught Jasper unguarded but then, what about this kid hadn't surprised him? He pursed his lips, bemused by Riley's blatant disregard of social norms. "Sure," he mumbled finally.
"Cool." Riley stood, pulling Jasper's arm toward him and sliding the leash onto his wrist.
"Your human sure is something," Jasper informed the dog when Riley had disappeared inside the coffee shop. Hesitantly, he put his fingers on the table in front of Dilbert, waggling them experimentally. The happy little dog darted his head forward, catching Jasper's finger between his teeth. He gnawed lightly, not biting down. "You're a good dog," Jasper told him, scratching behind his ears.
Jasper had no earthly idea what he was doing with this curious stranger and his dog. He felt as if he should regret not excusing himself from the conversation early on.
But what the hell. It was something, an anecdote he could tell Edward when he inevitably came poking around again. The last few months, Edward had become increasingly suspicious of Jasper's excuses and insistence that he shouldn't worry. Edward was too damn much like Alice - they could both sense when he was lying through his teeth.
Perhaps indulging the boy would be worth being able to repeat the story, Jasper mused. The last thing he wanted was his former brother-in-law trying to drag him to therapy again.
"You look so different with the beard," Riley commented a few minutes later when he'd settled back into his seat. He gave Dilbert a pastry to munch.
Jasper scratched his chin self consciously. "How did you recognize me anyway?"
"Oh, uh..." The kid looked sheepish, almost embarrassed. "It's your hair. I mean, this is probably a creepy thing to say but... I've never wanted to touch someone's hair so much in my entire life." He gave a little sigh, his eyes focused on Jasper's crown. "Not a lot of guys rock hair as long as yours anymore," he said wistfully.
Jasper felt his entire body go rigid at Riley's words and he looked studiously back into his tea cup, feeling uncomfortable.
"Wow, okay," the younger man muttered. He tittered, the sound completely embarrassed. "Don't... Don't be insulted or anything. I had no idea I was barking up the wrong tree. I didn't mean anything by it."
"No, that's not..." It was completely ridiculous that Jasper suddenly found it difficult to breathe around the lump that had formed in his throat. His heart was beating a fast rhythm against his chest. "I mean, I am..." He still couldn't make himself say it. He growled slightly and forced himself to look up. "I am," he stated plainly. "It's just... you look a little like jail bait, kid."
Riley's grin reappeared. "I'm not that young."
Jasper raised an eyebrow. "Can you drink without a fake ID?" He laughed when the other man frowned. "Yeah, I thought not."
Riley, it turned out, was twenty years old. He'd recently transferred to UDub from the University of Oregon, and originally hailed from Santa Fe. Since he had no family or friends in the area, he'd adopted Dilbert from a local shelter. That was why he'd been at the veterinary hospital when Jasper was there with little Alice. Dilbert was getting fixed so he could go home with Riley.
By the end of their first conversation, Jasper gave Riley his phone number on a whim. He couldn't really explain why. The hour or so he'd spent with the kid had been the most enjoyable hour of his life since little Alice died, without a doubt. He figured that's where the eagerness to see Riley again came from.
A month went by, then two. To Jasper's utter amazement, Riley continued to call, coaxing him out of the house. Jasper found himself attending soccer games - Riley played for UDub's team - or sitting with the younger man at the dog park, watching Dilbert do barrel rolls with dogs much bigger than he was.
One day, Esme Cullen - Alice's mother - stopped by, as she had been wont to do since Alice died. In the early days, Esme was the only reason Jasper's house stayed clean - the dirty dishes getting done and the refrigerator restocked. Maybe he should have felt ashamed of that fact, but back then, Esme needed someone to take care of as much as he needed the care.
Though Jasper had long ago begun to take care of himself, Esme still kept up her habit of visiting on a weekly basis.
"It's been so long since you've come to the house," she said. "You're still family, Jasper. Why don't you come for Thanksgiving this year?"
Jasper tried his best not to squirm like a child about to disappoint his mother. "I would, Esme. The thing is, I made plans with someone."
Since neither of them had family close by, Riley had suggested they spend the day together. "We can watch the game, and eat something that isn't turkey," Riley said with a snicker. "You know. Be rebellious."
Esme looked at him curiously, but Jasper could see a sudden pain flash through her eyes. When she spoke, though, her voice was steady. "Are you seeing someone, Jasper?"
"No," he said quickly. "No, it's nothing like that. It's just a friend."
"Oh." Esme brightened slightly. "Well, invite him. Or her. The more the merrier." She put her hand on his arm, her expression so earnest and sincere - hard to deny. "Really, Jasper. It's been so long since you've seen Carlisle and Emmett. They miss you. The kids miss their uncle."
"I'll let you know," Jasper murmured.
He didn't know how he felt about introducing Riley to Alice's family. What would they think of his friendship with a man nearly a decade his junior? But then, he figured he was overthinking things. As he'd told Esme, it wasn't as if he was in a relationship with Riley. They were friends. Was it so strange for him to have a friend?
"So how do you know these people?" Riley asked when Jasper broached the subject.
"They are... uh, were my in-laws," Jasper said, watching carefully for Riley's reaction.
The younger man's eyes went wide, shock obvious in his expression. "You were married?"
Jasper nodded slowly, waiting for him to ask.
"Oh," Riley said to his hands. "That's not..." He laughed nervously. "So will she be there? Your ex? That's a little weird, isn't it?"
"Oh," Riley said again. Then he shrugged, smiling again. "Well, it would be nice to do the family thing on Thanksgiving. I like that." He looked up, his expression uncharacteristically shy as his eyes met Jasper's. "I'll go if you want me to."
There was a strange warmth that pooled at the center of Jasper's chest then, like the first bite of brandy leaving a trail of comfort as it settled in his stomach. Unconsciously, his hand went to his chest and he pushed as if trying to find the source of the little tugging. He looked at Riley and felt his lips turn up at the corners. "Yeah. I'd like that."
Jasper couldn't have been more nervous if he walked into a bear's den covered in honey. Why had he thought this was a good idea?
"What?" Jasper exclaimed too loudly, jumping as Emmett Cullen - Alice's eldest brother - sat down beside him on the couch. He'd been watching Riley play with Emmett's youngest little girl but for some reason, he felt as if he'd just been caught watching porn on the family television.
Emmett furrowed his eyebrows. "Are you okay, man?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Jasper mumbled, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck self consciously. He had no idea what the hell was wrong with him. It wasn't at all unusual that he felt out of place and uncomfortable at the Cullen house. Though they were perfectly welcoming, he'd felt guilty being around them since before Alice died. He knew he didn't deserve their love and acceptance - not after what he'd done to their daughter and sister. Still, he'd never been this utterly restless and defensive.
"So why didn't you tell me you had an in on the UDub soccer team?" Emmett asked. That was the good thing about Emmett. Unlike Edward or Esme, who would have grilled him relentlessly about his reaction, the eldest Cullen son moved on easily to the next topic of conversation. "We could have made some great bets with insider information."
"It just didn't occur to me." Out of the corner of his eye, Jasper was aware of Riley's movements. The kid held Emmett's daughter in his hands, dangling her high above his head as the child shrieked with giggles. Why had he never noticed the muscular shape of Riley's arms? Jasper shook his head, trying not to concentrate on the lean cut of the younger man's body, and how ridiculously hot he looked in the navy blue sweatshirt he was wearing. He blinked, looking back at Emmett. "I'm sorry, what?"
Emmett's eyebrows arched. "Dude. I didn't say anything."
There was a moment of silence - uncomfortable silence as far as Jasper was concerned - before Emmett spoke again. "You know, you look really good, kid." His smile was wide and full of teeth. "Glad you decided to shave. That mountain man look was getting kinda nasty."
"You know your friend is gay, right?"
Startled, Jasper dropped the glass in his hand. It clattered into the sink noisily, making him wince, but didn't break. Sighing, he turned to face Rosalie Cullen, Emmett's wife. "What?"
"Riley. He's gay," Rosalie repeated flatly.
Jasper picked up the glass gingerly, rinsing it out and putting it away in the dishwasher before he turned back to her.
"Be nice, Rose," Bella chided, looking up from the opposite end of the counter where she was helping Esme chop.
Rosalie frowned. "I'm not being rude. I'm making conversation." She looked at Jasper expectantly.
"Does that matter?" Jasper asked, trying to keep the defensiveness out of his voice. "Can't I have a gay friend?"
"Jeez, calm down," Rosalie grumbled. "Like I said, I just wondered if you knew."
Jasper poured himself a glass of wine and drank heavily from it. "Yeah. I know."
"Hmm," Rosalie hummed. "So how the heck did you meet a college kid, anyway?"
"He helped me get over Alice," Jasper said without thinking. All three pairs of eyes were on him then and he hurried to cover. "The dog... my dog, Alice," he amended quickly. "I mean... he was at the vets when she... when..." He stopped, laughing wryly and slightly maniacally as he drained the rest of the wine in his glass and poured himself another.
What in the name of all that was holy was going on with him?
Jasper had never felt more paranoid in all his life.
He was even more quiet than usual, jumping slightly every time someone tried to pull him into the conversation. He felt like they knew, like it was written all over his face in bright red ink, and they were just trying to get a confession out of him.
He could swear Edward was glaring at him, he thought he even saw Bella elbow her boyfriend, giving him the side-eyes.
"Oh! I brought something," Riley exclaimed as they were about to settle down for dinner. He dashed out to the car, returning a moment later with a covered plate. "They're tacos from this great joint by the University."
"Tacos?" Carlisle Cullen - Alice's father - seemed amused. "Tacos on Thanksgiving?"
"Some of us like to be rebellious," Riley said with a grin. He looked up at Jasper and winked.
In spite of his discomfort, Jasper found himself smiling back.
"Thank you for everything, Esme," Jasper said, wrapping his former mother-in-law into a warm hug as everyone was saying their goodbyes.
Esme hugged him tightly and then held him at arms length, looking speculative. "Walk with me a second, Jasper," she murmured quietly.
Jasper's nervousness hit epic proportions, making him want to bolt out of there as fast as his legs could carry him. Instead, he nodded, stepping out the door and walking a few paces away with Esme at his side.
"Jasper..." she began, obviously struggling with her words. "I hope you know how much I care for you, how much all of my family cares for you."
"I know," Jasper assured softly.
"Well, part of caring for someone is wanting what's best for them - what they need," Esme continued. Jasper's entire body felt tense.
Did she know? Had she somehow finally discovered the truth - that Jasper hadn't cared enough about what was best for Alice?
"If you're seeing someone, you can tell me that," Esme said gently. Jasper stared at her, trying to match her soft words with his chaotic emotions. "Even if... I mean, if it's that boy," she nodded in the direction of the house where Riley and Emmett were having an animated conversation, "that's not... That doesn't matter. I want you to be happy."
"It's not like that," Jasper said quickly, truthfully. He noticed belatedly that he was wringing his hands and tried to stop. "I don't want... I mean, he's just a friend."
Why did it sound so much like he was trying to convince himself?
Esme studied him carefully and patted his arm. "I'm sorry to press the issue, Jasper, but does he know that? I've seen how he looks at you." She smirked slightly, tilting her head. "You'll forgive me for stepping in for your mother, but it's not polite to lead the poor thing on if you're not interested. If he's wasting his time, he should know that."
"You're so quiet," Riley commented as they drove.
They'd left the Cullens' house about ten minutes before. Riley had insisted on driving, noting that Jasper's cheeks were stained red from the amount of wine he'd had. Since then, Riley had filled the silence, chattering on about the Cullens.
Jasper hummed an acknowledgment but didn't answer. His thoughts were too heavy, turning Esme's words over and over in his head.
He thought he'd learned his lesson with Alice. Was he really doing the same thing to this poor kid?
"So, you have in-laws," Riley said slowly, changing the subject. "What else don't I know about you?" He looked over, waggling his eyebrows, trying to make Jasper smile.
It worked, to an extent. "I have a collection of Civil War era sabers," he mumbled, indulging Riley's game.
"Yeah. They're in the basement." He and Alice had argued about them, Alice saying they didn't fit the decor anywhere in the house and that hanging weapons on the wall seemed odd. Jasper smiled fondly at the memory.
"I can play the guitar," Jasper said after a moment. The words were a revelation to him - as if he'd almost forgotten.
"Acoustic?" Riley seemed excited.
Jasper nodded and shrugged. "Well, I can play any guitar, but yeah, I like acoustic the most."
With a gleam in his eye, Riley suddenly exited the freeway. Jasper looked around, confused. "What are we doing?"
Riley drove down the street a ways, coming up on a small park. He turned in, parking beneath one of the street lamps that illuminated the lot. The moment he turned the car off, Riley was out the door, spelunking in his trunk. He pulled out a beat up looking guitar and proffered it to Jasper with eager eyes. "Play something?"
"What, right now?" Jasper asked, taking a step back in surprise. As slightly inebriated as he was, it was a surreal moment. He hadn't played anything in so long and yet here was this boy thrusting a guitar at him in the middle of an abandoned park on Thanksgiving evening.
"Why not?" Riley asked, offering him the guitar again. "Come on. Just one song."
"You want me to freeze my fingers off," Jasper accused, but he took the guitar. He sat on a bench that bordered the lot, strumming experimentally, wondering if he still knew how. He strummed again, tuning the ill-used chords as Riley sat down beside him.
He didn't know what he was going to play until he'd plucked out the opening chords of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Simple Man. He didn't know he was also going to sing until he opened his mouth and the lyrics came out.
As he sang and played, he seemed to hear the lyrics for the first time, and imagined being a little boy wrapped safely in his mother's arms again, listening to her lessons before he disregarded every one, making a mess of his life. But the emotion the words brought up in him wasn't bitter or regretful as his thoughts usually were. Instead, he felt a weird lightness, something akin to hope, as if it wasn't too late to heed her warnings.
"Boy, don't you worry... you'll find yourself. Follow your heart and nothing else. And you can do this if you try. All I want for you my son, is to be satisfied," he crooned quietly.
He looked up then and found Riley's eyes intent on his. Who knew what it was - the combination of wine and music, the fact that they alone were sharing this moment, a moment lighter and full of more promise than Jasper had felt since, well, ever. All he knew was that when Riley leaned forward, smothering the last line of the song with his lips, Jasper made no move to protest. His hands stilled on the chords as the last of the music wafted up into the cool night air. He didn't immediately press forward, but he didn't bolt either. He just let it happen.
Riley's lips were patient but insistent, urging him to respond, to open... to move at all. For long moments Jasper's mind was blank, as if he'd forgotten how to do anything more than breathe. Then, his lips parted, taking Riley's upper lip between them. His breath was ragged as he reveled in the feeling. He hadn't kissed anyone at all in so, so long and this... This was so different from any other kiss he'd ever experienced.
With a groan, Jasper suddenly pulled himself away from Riley. He quickly set the guitar down and moved to get up.
"Wait!" Riley stopped him wrapping his fingers around his wrist and tugging him back down on the bench. "Where are you going? I don't understand why you're always running off."
Jasper slumped forward, burying his head in his hands and resisting the fight or flight reflex that was quickly rising in him. As irrational as it was, he felt cornered. No part of him wanted to have this conversation and the idea made him defensive. Esme was right. Obviously, Jasper had been up to his old tricks, refusing to see what was right in front of him: Riley was more than interested in him. He had been since the beginning. And since Jasper had no intention of starting anything with anyone, let alone the oddly persistent kid beside him, it was only fair that he know.
Still, Jasper didn't know how to form the right words.
"You like me," Riley said, it wasn't a question. He didn't wait for Jasper to confirm or deny. "Your face is so expressive, you can't hide when you feel something. And you like me."
Jasper opened his mouth to disagree but the look in the other man's eye was challenging, amused.
He sighed. "So what if I do?"
"So... that's how the universe works, right? You like me, I like you. One of us summons up the courage to do something about it?" Riley prompted, a grin tugging at the edge of his lips.
"What do you know about how the world works?" Jasper sneered, not really angry at Riley but pissed at how much he wanted to kiss that tiny smirk right off his face. He wanted it so badly, he thought he could taste it.
His head swum when he automatically, accidentally remembering what the other man tasted like.
"Jasper," Riley said with a sigh, his amusement erased. "I think that one's a basic. Kids on the playground have mastered the art."
"Yeah, well, maybe you should go back to the playground," Jasper muttered, pushing himself off the bench and moving off. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets, not really knowing where he was or where he was going but hoping Riley wouldn't follow him.
"Back to the playground is only going to get me arrested," Riley said, falling into step next to him.
"Dammit, kid," Jasper said, pulling up short. "Don't you get it? I want you to leave me alone." He started walking again, his pace so quick he was almost running.
"But why?" Riley persisted, keeping up with him. "I really don't understand. You're single, not seeing anyone. You don't have additional responsibilities and you do like me."
"Jesus Christ," Jasper muttered, still moving forward.
"Just tell me why-"
"I don't get to date," Jasper bellowed, stopping again. "Do you know what the point of a date is? It's to get to know another person, to see if they might be the one you can find happily ever after with. I don't get that, okay? I don't get it because she didn't get it. I stole that from her, and I deserve to have it taken away. That's the way the world should work - an eye for an eye."
There was no trace of humor on Riley's face at that. He was staring with wide eyes, completely startled.
All the anger left Jasper then and he felt tired. He felt like he could have slunk down right there on the pavement, closed his eyes and slept for a decade. He was so sick of the constant weight on his shoulders and the vice grip on his heart.
Without another word, Jasper turned around and walked away. This time, Riley didn't follow.
Days passed, turning into first one week, then two, and Jasper retreated in on himself. Again, he found himself going through life's motions. He showered and slept, he worked and ate, all the while urging himself forward using Edward's old trick. He imagined Alice was watching him, and that she was worried.
He was surviving, but not really living and he knew it.
Before, it was an idea he'd resigned himself to. Only right. But somehow, this time around, it seemed so much worse.
Though he hadn't realized it, hanging out with Riley had begun to bring him back to life. Jasper found he was acutely aware that there were better things, a better life, out there for him.
And he replayed the blissful few seconds his lips moved with Riley's over and over again in his head far too often.
He missed Riley. Badly.
Somehow, the kid had gotten under his skin. When that happened, Jasper had no idea.
Worse than all of that, the fog was back. The hazy place he'd existed in after Alice died and after little Alice died was swallowing him whole, quicker than ever before. He didn't know how to stop it.
One Saturday shortly before Christmas, Jasper's doorbell rang. He sighed. He was in no mood to be faced with any member of the Cullen clan, but he knew if he didn't put on a happy face, they were bound to get pushier. Reluctantly, he dragged himself up from the couch, shuffling to the door.
On the other side he found not a Cullen, but Riley.
For the first time in weeks, Jasper's heart seemed to beat at a more healthy rhythm. He wanted to smile, but he didn't dare. "Riley... what do you want?" he asked, his voice wary.
A look of hurt passed over Riley's face but he quickly covered it. "I just want to see you for a minute, that's all."
Jasper sighed. "I don't think that's a good id..." he trailed off as a movement distracted him.
"Is that...a beagle?" Jasper said dumbly, point at the little dog at Riley's feet.
Riley stooped, scooping the dog into his arms. "This is not just a beagle, Jasper. She's the most beautiful, adorable and sweet beagle alive. And her name is Chloe." He smiled winningly, putting the dog's cheek to his. "Come on. Let us in."
Jasper slumped a little, his insides feeling a little melted. With a sigh, he relented and waved the boy and dog inside.
"When did you adopt her?" Jasper asked, his lips quirking as the dog happily explored her new surroundings.
"Well..." Riley hedged. "Okay, here's the thing. I found her, and I got her checked out by the vet. She's fixed, she has all her shots - she's ready to go. I just don't have room for her and Dilbert in my little apartment. Dilbert doesn't have enough space as it is." He looked up at Jasper with too-innocent eyes. "I was thinking that maybe you could keep her."
"Me?" Jasper got on his knees, patting his legs so Chloe would come. She was agreeable. Jasper did smile as she pressed her wet nose to his palm, snuffling.
"Sure, why not. I know you loved your other dog...and it's time, Jasper. Dog people shouldn't be without dogs." Riley looked around, anywhere but at him. "And maybe... I can visit. The dog, of course."
"Riley..." Jasper began, looking up at the younger man with sad eyes.
Riley frowned, giving a little growl. "I know, I know." He put his hands on his hips, worrying his lip between his teeth without looking at Jasper. "I just... Will you tell me why? The whole story?"
Busying himself with scratching Chloe behind the ears, Jasper didn't answer right away. He knew he had to tell Riley. It was the right thing to do. He just didn't relish the confession.
But it was time to face the music.
He stood, already weary, his shoulders stooped with guilt, and sat on the couch, waiting until Riley sat beside him to start speaking.
For the first time in his life, Jasper told the story from the beginning, putting together all the pieces. He told the story of how is Texas-born momma taught him from a young age the right way to treat women. She'd also taught him that the right love would find him. What she didn't teach him was how to know what the right love felt like.
By the time he met Alice, when they were both 23, he was beginning to realize he was different from the other guys he knew. He was interested in girls but he wasn't completely enthralled. He only knew what he'd been taught; he didn't know there was another way.
But Alice... Alice was different. My God, how much he adored her. To that day, Jasper believed firmly that she was his soul mate, his missing half.
He thought it was enough. He thought he could make her happy. Even when he recognized that he felt wrong somehow, he stubbornly went ahead. Even when she begged him to tell her what was wrong, he denied there was a problem. He wasted months then years of both of their lives while he ignored the elephant in the room and denied his other urges.
"So, what?" he asked roughly as he got to the end of his story. "Alice died before I had to tell her that it didn't matter how amazing and gorgeous she was, she was never going to satisfy me. I got a get out of jail free card. Is that how it works?" He scoffed. "I don't think so."
Riley was quiet for a long time, but then he smirked. "See...there are way too many holes in your logic."
Jasper looked up at him, blinking sporadically. "What?"
"Well, let's say that Alice had lived. Hypothetically, she would eventually find this mysterious person who could love her like she deserved, right?"
Confused as to where Riley was going with this, Jasper nodded.
"Okay..." He grinned a little shaking his head. "This is like math shit, so bear with me. I didn't think I'd actually be using this in real life. So... if you accept that there was some reality in which she met up with the person who could love her right, then you have to accept that it exists for every person, otherwise you wouldn't be depriving yourself of the chance. Right?"
"Okay, then what about the person you're depriving? What about the people you're actually meant to love?"
Jasper blinked. "What?"
"Well, in any relationship, there are two people. So if you're taking yourself off the market, you're actually thwarting not only yourself, but someone else." Riley laughed at Jasper's dumbfounded expression. "This is your theory, not mine. All I'm saying is that if you're trying to atone for taking that chance away from Alice, it seems counter-productive to take that chance away from someone else."
"That's not what... I mean..." Jasper stumbled.
"Look, whatever," Riley said quickly. "I think my point is that love and all... that... it's not supposed to be like math. Alice's chance for everything is gone... and that really, really sucks, okay? But you're not going to even out the equation by crossing yourself out too."
Jasper felt a spark of irritation. "What do you know, anyway? What makes you think you can teach me about life? You're just a kid."
"Yeah, so you keep telling me," Riley said, a spark of annoyance in his voice. "I'm not talking out of my ass, okay?"
The younger man grumbled, crossing his arms as he sat back on the sofa. "I mean, for fucks sake. Come off it. Like you're the only one that's ever struggled and denied their sexuality. Things are getting better, but come on. We were all taught that boys like girls. That's normal.
"I wasn't any different than you," he said, his voice a little softer. "I tried so hard, too hard." He chewed hard on his lower lip, obviously troubled by something. Jasper wanted to reach out and take his hand, offer some measure of comfort, but he stayed on his side of the couch. "But no matter what I did, I couldn't make girls... happy. And I couldn't be happy with them."
He squirmed, looking uncomfortable. "Fuck. I don't do this...sharing thing," he grumbled.
"You don't have to-"
"No, let me say it," Riley insisted. "So I got to the University of Oregon. I was 18 years old and sure something was wrong with me and I sure as hell didn't like it. When who do I meet at some party but this gorgeous red head. I mean, she had a body... There are just some women who are shaped in a way you can appreciate, gay, straight or indifferent, you know what I mean?"
Jasper smirked and nodded. He understood. Women in general were aesthetically pleasing.
"And she was upset." Riley rolled his eyes, his expression rueful. "I don't know if you noticed, but I seem to have a thing for being needed. Not wanted. Needed."
Jasper frowned, instantly feeling guilty. Whether or not he'd acknowledged it, he had needed Riley. He had no idea how far he would have sunk without the younger man's intervention.
"Her name was Victoria. She'd just lost her boyfriend, or that's what she told me, and she was... vulnerable." Riley laughed without a trace of humor. "And almost from the start, she was all over me. Didn't I feel like the stud. Obviously I wasn't as broken as I thought."
The younger man smiled wryly. "Either way, I figured... yeah, I got this. I'm the man. So I ignore all my friends saying she's no good. I'm ignoring that little tickle in the back of my mind that's suspicious about certain things."
Jasper understood that. One of the more endearing qualities Riley had was his innocence. He felt a twinge of anger, a protective urge, at the thought that anyone would take advantage of that.
"Anyway, she got me to the point where I was telling some of my best friends 'back off or we can't be friends anymore.' They were obviously better people than I am, and they relented." Riley's expression became downright furious. "So of course, the minute she had their trust - because they trusted me - she robbed a few of my friends blind."
"Seriously?" Jasper asked, shocked.
"No shit," Riley confirmed. "I always wondered why she didn't want to invite people over - she wanted to go to their place. And then my friends started accusing her. I was livid. But... they were right."
He shrugged. "So I get it. I know it's not the same, but I understand how not being honest with yourself can cost too much to people you care about. And I get what you're doing. I did pretty much the same thing. I transferred here, and left all my shame behind."
"That's not what I'm doing," Jasper insisted. "That's not what I did."
"No," Riley agreed. "You're hanging on to your guilt with both hands, is what you're doing. But it's the same effect. You know that old adage: an error doesn't become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. Well, you can't tell me that sitting here, denying that maybe we could have something, is correcting an error."
Jasper was silent, feeling every bit as young as Riley and quite a bit stupider. His mind grasped for some argument, but they all felt silly. He couldn't make himself form the words.
Riley scooted closer and took his hands, making Jasper jump. He tried to pull them away but the younger man held him fast. "It's okay," the younger man said quietly, scooting another inch toward him.
Jasper had never been so aware of another person. Riley filled his senses. His lithe, soccer player's body was so close, and Jasper wanted to touch and taste.
He was so tired of resisting his most basic nature.
This time, it was definitely him who leaned forward. He yanked his hands out of Riley's grasp, threading his fingers into the other man's hair. He kissed Riley hard, like he had something to prove to the both of them. Riley's yelp of surprise turned into a moan that went straight from Jasper's mouth down to his cock.
"Fuck," he growled, moving his hands down to twist in Riley's shirt. "I can't... I want..." He didn't have words for the things he wanted. There was too many. So many things he'd only imagined, he could think of a thousand different ways he wanted to touch Riley, so many reactions and noises he wanted to elicit.
"You can have what you want," Riley said, already breathless.
Jasper stood, quickly pulling Riley up with him. He wrapped his arms more fully around the other man, one hand to his back and the other against his ass. Wanting his hands everywhere at once, Jasper had a passing frustration that he wasn't endowed with as many arms as the Hindu goddess Kali.
Their next kisses were full bodied ones, their arms and leg tangling, bodies brushing even as their lips and tongues moved together. Jasper hadn't felt so exhilarated in his life, so ... right.
This was his natural.
He forced himself to slow when he found his hands hand wandered to Riley's pants, already working the button. "You want this? You're sure?" he asked. They hadn't really talked about this part.
Riley laughed. He put his hands over the older man's, moving them together to push his zipper down. "Jasper, I've been waiting for you."
Jasper was hard instantly at his words and he groaned, slipping his hands into Riley's pants, feeling the skin of his ass as he pushed the younger man hard against him.
When Jasper later recalled the next few minutes, it was as if he'd stepped into a time warp. He remembered Riley's tongue in his mouth and the younger man's hands on his chest. It was an odd little dance they did, slipping out of their clothes, trying to shove pants down over shoes and almost tumbling to the floor together.
Jasper seemed to regain control of his senses when he wrapped his hands around Riley's length. Their frantic motion stopped and they both stood, panting, with Jasper's fingers exploring the younger man's girth while Riley nails dug lightly into the skin above his ass.
He realized he wasn't exactly sure what to do.
Riley leaned in nipping a long, slow line from Jasper's chin to the corner of his jaw. "Lie down on the couch," he murmured against his skin.
Jasper more stumbled backward than anything else, finding he was shaky. He laid down, watching with curiosity and anticipation as Riley knelt on one of the couch cushions on the floor. Riley kissed the inside of his knee sending wonderful shivers down Jasper's spine. The brown-eyed man kept his stare focused on Jasper even as his hands brushed the inside of the blond man's thighs, tracing a feather-light line down to cup his balls.
Tilting his head back, Jasper just reveled in the feel. It had been so long since anyone had touched him like this, and he'd never been as present in the moment as he was just then. He followed the motion of Riley's face, fighting the urge to let his eyes roll back in his head as he watched the first few inches of his cock disappear into the younger man's mouth.
"Oh, fuck. Riley. Baby. That's so... ungh." Overwhelmed as he was at everything that had happened, not to mention lost in the sensation of Riley's tongue swirling over him, coherency was just not high on Jasper's list of priorities at the moment.
Once Riley had worked his cock to a rock hard, wonderfully slick state of being, he pulled back, making Jasper whine as his sensitive flesh was once again exposed to the cool air of the room. A moment later, Jasper was distracted by Riley straddling his legs.
"You like this?" Riley asked, wrapping his fingers around Jasper's length. Keeping the blond man's cock in his palm, Riley used his other hand to align his length with Jasper's. He began to rub their cocks together, moving his hips in small thrusting motions.
"Jesus, yes," Jasper breathed, one of his hands going to the small of Riley's back. He brought his other hand down to wrap around both their cocks.
They moved that way for a few minutes, Riley sliding his hips along Jasper's length and the blond man letting his fingers play along the younger man's skin. This was, Jasper reflected, much better than any previous wet hump he'd ever experienced. Riley's skin was so warm and amazing against his. The way the other man's balls rubbed against the base of his cock as he moved over him was beyond hot - titillating.
Riley leaned down, kissing Jasper's lips briefly. "Are you gonna come for me?"
"Yeah," Jasper breathed, because he didn't think he could help it at that point.
"I want to see you come. I want to see what I do to you."
Jasper groaned, bucking his hips up to meet the other man's. Riley wrapped his hand around them both, pressing harder.
"Come for me, Jasper."
With a guttural cry, Jasper complied with the younger man's request.
Grinning like the cat that ate the canary, Riley reached out, grabbing one of their t-shirts from where it had been carelessly flung over the back of the couch. He used it to clean the mess Jasper had left on both their chests.
Riley slid back as Jasper sat up. His hand on the other man's cheek, Jasper kissed him deeply - a wordless, exultant thanks. Riley groaned as Jasper's body moved against what was obviously a painfully hard erection. "I'm sorry," Jasper said, breathlessly breaking their kiss. "It's been so long."
"I'm fine," Riley said dismissively. "It was worth seeing you come like that." He grinned mischievously. "It's a nice change. Anyway, you don't have to worry about me."
Furrowing his eyebrows, Jasper put his hands firmly on the other man's waist. He pushed forward, laying Riley down as he hovered over him. He kissed the brown eyed man once, hard. "Fuck. That," he growled.
Sliding down Riley's body, Jasper pressed his tongue flat against the other man's cock. Hot and salty, thick and hard. It wasn't like he'd imagined it all these years - it was better.
Jasper had always had an oral fixation. He put it to use, exploring Riley's cock with his tongue, his mouth and just the lightest scrape of his teeth.
"Fuck. Shit. Christ," Riley blurted, and Jasper's hand shot out just in time to pin the younger man's bucking body to the couch as he came.
Kissing a trail back up Riley's muscular body, Jasper moved until he was hovering over him again. Now it was his turn to grin as he swallowed the other man's pants, sharing his taste as they kissed.
A little wiggling and they both managed to rest somewhat comfortably, Riley mostly cradled on top of Jasper. The couch was really too small to host two full grown men but neither of them seemed to mind the confined space they found themselves in.
"Feel better?" Riley asked, his voice soft.
Jasper was playing with the locks of hair at the back of his neck. "Mmmhmm," he confirmed.
They lapsed into silence again, Jasper considering his mood.
His hunger, tampered down and ignored all these years, was no where near sated. Oh, he was near a state of euphoria he had no previous experience with, but under it all was a seemingly unquenchable thirst for more.
Now that Pandora's box had been opened, he wanted to explore all its evil, bewitching insides.
But how to ask the younger man - this boy who proved to be so much wiser than his years - if he was going to be the one to help him have those experiences.
Jasper looked over to find that Riley was studying him. "You think I have any idea what I'm doing?" Riley asked, looking amused.
"How did you..."
"I told you. Your face gives you away."
Jasper quirked his lips, bemused. "Is it naive to think we can do this again?"
Riley snorted. "Dude... I'll give you an hour and you better be ready for me again."
"An hour?" Jasper protested, indignant.
"Well, I was being generous. You being an old man and all that."
"Old man," Jasper said scathingly, smacking Riley's bare ass hard in retaliation.
They both chuckled, but Jasper quickly sobered. "Riley... I don't know if it's occurred to you, but I'm a mess."
Riley groaned. "I know what you are. I've been here, and I told you, I have no idea what the fuck I'm doing either." He looked at him, grinning wickedly. "We can grow up together - or at least, we can try to."
Jasper laughed lightly. It was as accurate a description as any.
Riley waggled his fingers near the ground, beckoning to Chloe who had been alternately watching them and chewing a book she'd retrieved from Jasper's low shelf. The dog ambled over, laying her head on the small sliver of couch she found.
"I'm in no rush," Riley said easily. "We'll take it one day at a time."
A/N: Thanks for reading, and for those of you who contributed - thank you.