Sam first met Richard Blaine in 1931 in New York City; he’d been working at Joe’s speakeasy the Grindstone for two years, and he liked it pretty well. The Grindstone wasn’t no nightclub or revue; there weren’t dancing girls or orchestras or even a band, just Sam and maybe some brass or a saxophone or two on Saturdays. He didn’t have to play dueling pianos; nobody asked him why wasn’t he at that party last night, wasn’t he good enough to show up Fats Waller after all? and no high-society types came in.
He was the fanciest-dressed customer Sam had seen in a while, nice suit, looking full of himself, sure doing better than anybody else in the bar that night. Miss Melinda’s eyes lit on him the second he walked in the door, her forehead furrowed, probably wondering what he was doing in here instead of out on Seventh Avenue. He didn’t look over at her after he ordered his drink, just came up and draped himself over Sam's piano like a starlet. "Will you play something?" he said.
"Yessir," said Sam. "Anything you want specifically?"
"Something jazzy. All I know about jazz is that it’s supposed to be cheerful, and since I have joined the ranks of the employed, I thought I’d come out for a drink and some celebratory music.” He knocked back half his gin, which was a cut above the washtub stuff the bars next door sold, and frowned thoughtfully at the glass.
Sam smiled and nodded his head and started into a ‘something jazzy’ that he'd heard Charlie playing the other night, he didn't know the title. Maybe it didn't have a title, but his customer seemed to like it; he lit a cigarette and stayed draped over the piano, listening.
"That was like nothing I've ever heard before," he said when Sam had finished.
"You really never heard jazz before, mister?" Sam asked.
"I sure never heard it played like that. You here every night?"
"Six nights a week," said Sam. "Mondays off."
"I'll come back on a Tuesday, then," he said, and sauntered off. Sam frowned for a minute, but he shrugged it right off; he had another set to play.
* * *
In those times, he was lucky to have himself a job at all; the slump had finally gone on long enough that most of Harlem had quit pretending it was a white folks’ problem and hunkered down to try and survive. Lots of piano players were out looking for rent parties to play, hoping for one night in a club if the regular player was off, wishing they’d saved more of their pennies five years ago when things were good. Sam wasn’t bad off at all, as he’d been raised by fine penny-saving folks himself and as much as he kept his nose out of the air and his clothes from the same stores everybody went to and his talking just regular like most people, some habits stayed with you and when it came to money, well, he took care.
But still and all, he wouldn’t have wanted to live on his savings; they weren’t so much as to keep him comfortable for long. And he sure didn’t own a piano, so if he was going to play, he was going to have to work. The Grindstone was easy, quiet, and if Joe never wanted much but jazz, well, Sam liked jazz just fine and nothing said he couldn’t play whatever else he liked after hours.
Life was okay, and that was more than most could say in Harlem in 1931.
* * *
He came back on Tuesday. "Say," he said, "what's your name?"
"It's Sam, mister," said Sam.
"Richard, Richard Blaine, nice to meet you," said Richard, and held out his hand to shake.
"Nice to meet you too, Mr. Blaine," said Sam. "Any requests?"
“Whatever you want,” said Richard. “No idea what I like, anyway.”
“You don’t listen to music much, Mr. Blaine?”
“I never paid much attention to it,” said Richard. But when Sam started playing, he stared at the keys, frowning like he was trying to figure out how to play just by watching. Sam was having a hard time figuring him out; he wasn’t high-class, talking like that, but he wasn’t another working stiff, neither; he sure wasn’t an artist type, and he didn’t look to be trolling for girls.
“What was that called?” he asked when Sam was done.
“That was called ‘Sweet Lorraine’, Mr. Blaine,” said Sam. “You want to hear another?”
“I do,” said Richard. He took a drink; tonight he had whiskey. “This stuff is pretty good,” he said. “I may just have found myself a favorite bar. Very convenient, I’ve been meaning to get one for a while, now.”
Sam shook his head; he couldn’t help smiling a little. “You come back enough, you might learn something about music.”
“Anything could happen,” said Richard. “Say, you know anything about this Broadway business that everyone’s always so excited about?”
* * *
Richard came in again, here and there; he eyed the other customers like he wasn’t sure if they’d bite or what, and he always sat by Sam’s piano and listened like he was going to have a test on it at the end of the day. He’d ask about jazz: how did it work, why were the songs different every time, what was this improvisation stuff exactly, so then what did the key of C mean, really? When Sam played, he’d ask what the song was, ask if there were words—
“What, you never sing?”
“Oh, I can sing, Mr. Blaine, but this ain’t a singing sort of a bar. If a customer asked me especially, though, I’m sure I could remember some of the words.”
“I’ve only been listening to you talk about music for a couple of nights, but if you’ve ever forgotten the words to a song in your life, I’ll eat my hat with extra mustard.”
—ask who wrote it and why it was popular, all mixed up in a swirl of casual talk. Maybe, Sam thought, he was trying to impress a girl who liked boys who liked music. Maybe he needed to know about it for his new job he’d been bragging about when he first came in. He was after something, anyway, but it didn’t cost Sam nothing to talk about showtunes and jazz a couple of nights a week, especially since he could keep playing them while he did.
* * *
"You know any Duke Ellington?" Richard asked. “I read that he’s good, don’t know if it’s true.”
"You reading up on jazz now?" asked Sam, as he started tapping out Creole Love Call. He’d met Mr. Ellington a couple of times, and he hadn’t been too impressed, but the man could play some piano.
"I always keep up on my reading," said Richard. "Spent the whole week in the public library."
"I like those lions," said Sam.
"Guarding the font of knowledge from the illiterate masses," said Richard, "or they would be, if it weren't free to the public. Maybe they guard the illiterate masses from the font of knowledge."
"Those lions sure are a sight," said Sam, and started into Creole Love Call for real. Richard watched his hands through it, and when he was finished, he said, "Play something else."
"Some more of Mr. Ellington?" Sam asked.
"Anything," said Richard. "Doesn't even have to be jazz."
"Mister Blaine, you are overwhelming me with options," said Sam, and Richard looked hard at him while he tripped through a little Mozart, until Joe started glaring at him and he dropped down a third and started up Ain't Misbehavin'.
"Like those lions, huh?" Richard asked.
"I like me the books a little, too, Mr. Blaine," said Sam, and Richard smiled and lit a cigarette.
"Call me Richard,” he said. “Know any Gershwin?"
* * *
One of the last things Sam’s mother said to him, before they decided that they were both happier when they weren’t speaking to each other, was that she couldn’t stand the thought of him out there calling everyone ‘mister’ and ‘miss’. “Like you’re a servant,” she said. “Like they’re all better than you. Like those white folks that come to the nightclubs should be ordering you around.”
His mother’s idea of a Harlem nightclub was Connie’s or the Cotton Club, because they made it into the society pages; they only put blacks onstage or in a waiter’s outfit, but try telling Sam’s mother that most clubs were a different thing altogether. “I know who’s better than me and who isn’t,” he said. “I just want to play the piano,” like he’d said four or five times to everyone he’d ever met, the last month or so. “I don’t have no problem with being polite; maybe if Lester Chase called ladies ‘miss,’ he wouldn’t have been in the papers last week.”
“I cannot believe you are going to be playing piano in a bar,” said his mother, and that was that.
Sam was okay with calling people ‘mister’ and ‘miss’ or ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’. He just wanted to play the piano.
* * *
He saw Richard a lot, after that, and not just to answer questions about music. After a couple of weeks, that started to dry up—Sam figured he’d given up on the girl who liked it, or he’d lost the job he needed it for—but Richard kept coming in, started sitting with Miss Melinda and her crew sometimes, or Jackie Bennett and his buddies others. He never came in two evenings in a row, sometimes he was gone for a week at a time, and usually if he was in on a Wednesday (or a Friday, or a Sunday) one week, he'd be missing the Wednesday or Friday or Sunday after that—but not always. He liked, Sam thought, to saunter in and watch the faces light up, to keep people waiting and keep them from predicting what he'd be doing tomorrow or next week or next month. Trudy, their waitress, fluttered her hands over her heart when Richard's back was turned, and the regulars always wanted to wave him over to their table and listen to his crazy stories.
Sam always gave him the same smile, the same, "Hello there, Mister Richard," and played what he wanted, answered what he asked about it. When he could, he listened in to the stories—and figured, after the second or third one, that maybe half of what Richard said about what he'd done in Belize or Peking or Sarajevo was true, but which half was anybody's guess. But when he couldn't, he just played his set, and eventually Richard would wander back over to his piano and request something else, before he left for the night with vague promises about when he might be back, if the market held steady and the weather was nice and the Hudson was the right color.
Once he was gone for three weeks straight, and Sam almost started wondering if he’d found another favorite bar—not that it mattered if he had, but Sam had gotten used to seeing him—before he strode in on a Tuesday night, dressed to the nines and looking like a cat who’d stolen a dairy farm. He settled himself against Sam’s piano and said, “Honeysuckle Rose, if you please,” and waited until Sam had started getting into it before even ordering a drink.
It was a song to throw yourself into, and Sam let the tempo run wild, pounding the keys. Richard tilted his head back and smiled at the ceiling, listening, and waited until Sam was done before he lit his cigarette.
Sam reached for his water glass and patted his forehead with his handkerchief before he said, “So how was your trip?”
Richard’s head came down and he gave Sam a quick, searching look. “What makes you think I went on a trip?” he said. “Maybe I was just real busy weeding my garden the last couple weeks. Maybe my mother’s been sick with tuberculosis, and I’ve been by her bed day and night. Maybe I met a nice girl and I don’t want her knowing I frequent places like this.”
“I hear jazz piano is good for tuberculosis,” said Sam. “Soothes the body and the soul.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her nurses to put a phonograph in her room,” said Richard. “And my trip was fine, thank you for asking. The pyramids of Egypt have never looked so good.”
Which meant, Sam figured, that he’d been in Tokyo or Moscow or Johannesburg, or possibly Schenectady, and had too good a time to tell anybody about it. “Glad to hear it. I’ve never seen the pyramids of Egypt, but I hear they do look pretty good.”
“Next time you get a week off from this place, hop a plane and take a look,” said Richard. “They’re overrated, but not by a whole lot. And if you spend a little time in Cairo, you can hear some interesting music.”
“Thank you, sir, I’ll see if I can do that someday,” said Sam, and started “Basin Street Blues”.
* * *
The Depression wasn’t letting up; Sam put four dimes in his pocket every morning, and he’d give one to someone hungry and put one in a charity collection box, on his way to work and on his way home. Joe had to cut everyone’s salaries again, but everything was costing less anyway, so it didn’t hurt most of them so bad. But more and more of the nightclubs were shutting down, as more and more people gave up and admitted they didn’t have the money to go out like they used to.
Sam was glad he hadn’t stuck with that scene. His life was still okay, even kind of nice if it hadn’t been for everyone suffering around him. He played at the Grindstone, and after Joe closed up he played a little bit more, and then he went home and made himself a little dinner and maybe read a book or listened to some radio, or on weekends sometimes he’d go somewhere that was open later than the Grindstone and hear someone else play. He didn’t miss the nightclub life, and if he thought he wouldn’t mind a little more excitement sometimes, well, he only had to look around him to realize how much worse off he could be.
* * *
Sam mostly tried not to pay Richard too much attention, because he figured Richard got enough attention from everybody else and didn't really need any more. But Sam had to look at him sometimes, if only because it was hard not to look at someone who was slumped over your piano like someone'd marionetted him over to say hello and then just cut the strings.
"Bad day?" Sam asked.
"You always ask about me," said Richard thoughtfully. "And then I always have to make something up so I'll have an answer. Let's switch things up a little; how's your day going, Sam?"
"Oh, can't complain," said Sam, who probably could have if he'd really wanted to; Billy Lineman had been in again earlier tonight, flirting like he didn't care who saw, and Sam had had to play three ragtime songs in a row earlier, at the request of a young lady, which was enough to put anyone into a little bit of a mood. But Billy was gone now, and so was the young lady, and he was playing “Sugar” for Richard and he'd written a little bit earlier, so really, complaining wouldn't seem right. "Third set's soon, and then I'll get my break.”
"Then I'll buy you a drink while you’re on it," Richard decided.
"That's nice of you, mister Richard," said Sam, as he finished up the song, and let his fingers decide what they wanted to do next.
"Hey, that's real nice," said Richard. "I haven't heard you playing that before, what is it?"
"Just a little something I came up with earlier today," said Sam. "Needs some polishing, but it'll do."
"Hold up a minute," said Richard. "You write this stuff, too? You ever played anything else you wrote while I've been in here?"
"Could be," said Sam. "Sometimes when I ain’t the center of attention, I do a piece or two."
"You amaze me, Sam," said Richard.
"Oh, I ain't that amazing," said Sam. "Piano bars are a dime a dozen in this city, and they all got their players. Don't go thinking I'm special just because I'm the only one you ever hear."
"Just for that," said Rick, "I am going to visit ten other piano bars in the next two weeks, and I will come back with a verdict on your comparative quality. Don't think I won't."
"I don't think you won't," said Sam, looking away from him, down at the keys. "Your day any better, now?"
He couldn't keep his eyes from flicking up to see Richard smile down at his glass. "Yeah, Sam. It's better."
* * *
Richard just had these bad days sometimes, where he'd come in late, midnight or one o'clock, slinking like some animal wanting to hide. Only once in a blue moon, but Sam watched him carefully on those days. He was the only one who did; when Richard came in like that, he wasn't looking to be noticed; he'd sidle on by any occupied tables and sit in the shadow of Sam's piano, in a chair for once, and listen. Sam would play something quiet and keep an eye on him, and he could see the knotted muscles and the tight expression slowly, slowly start to smooth down, his hands coming unclenched, his feet sliding out until his legs were crossed, until he was leaning back in his chair, until his eyes drifted closed.
The third time it happened, it was about six months since they met, and this time, when Richard's eyes drifted closed, he stayed slumped in his chair, and Sam played softer and softer, and by the time they closed, Richard was asleep.
And then Sam looked at him, and looked over at Joe, and wondered why he'd done such a fool thing as play somebody to sleep in a chair in his bar. He sighed and went over to Richard's side.
“Richard," he said softly. "Richard."
Richard made a little bit of an annoyed noise. Sam, a little tired himself after a long day and not thinking as clearly as he might, reached out to give his shoulder a little bit of a push.
His reflexes were good, and he was too far away by the time Richard tried to pin him to the table, and all Richard got was Sam's wrist. His grip was hard enough to hurt and his hand was shaking with the force of it. For a second, five seconds, fifteen seconds, they stared at each other, until Richard shivered, blinked, and let go.
“Good morning,” he said.
“The birds are singing,” said Sam.
“I’ll just go appreciate some of that, then,” said Richard, and stood up and made his way to the door; he was moving carefully, precisely, like if he put a foot wrong he’d break.
“You get some sleep, Mister Richard,” said Sam to the air, after he’d gone.
* * *
Sam had been playing piano in some kind of establishment or other since he was twenty years old, and he'd seen all sorts of characters. Joe's bar had a few interesting ones itself; there was Miss Melinda, who was way too classy for the place and always forgot and tried to order things Joe just plain didn't serve; there was Billy, who should rightly have been at a pansy club because his wrist did hang a little limp, and who made the most awful moon-eyes at Sam when he thought nobody was looking; he had a crowd of girls he hung out with, brought them along when he didn't just come to listen and flirt and leave. There was Leonard, who could dance like he was on Broadway (and maybe he was, or would be someday), and who knew everything about every play the Yankees ever made (and somehow Joe, who was a Dodgers man, still smiled at him).
Sam probably liked Oliver and Pete the best; they were big, working men who came in to sit and enjoy a drink together, both the silent type, probably a little braver than their fellows to come to a place like this instead of the neighborhood soda fountain serving bootleg under the table, and they would sit a little distance away and maybe talk a little to each other, maybe not, and just drink and listen to the music. Sam could fade into the background sometimes, and he was sure glad of that particular skill, but he did like an audience, and the way they sat and were silently appreciative, well, he appreciated them right back.
And then there was Richard, who stepped in and turned heads—except that once in a blue moon, when nobody even saw him unless he wanted to be seen. Who bought drinks, asked Sam for dance tunes, told wild and unbelievable stories—unless he left his table behind to sprawl over Sam's piano and ask for something slow and sweet. Who for some crazy reason of his own liked to come over and wait for Sam to ask how his week had been, so he could make something up.
Rode an elephant last Sunday, he'd say. Bad luck, probably, riding an elephant on the Sabbath. Or, Do you believe my boss, Hector Livingstone, is asking me to draft an invoice for the business we did with Schlepp's Plumbing when it was *Donald* who actually sold them the soldering irons?
"Richard," said Sam to that, "why, I'm not sure I know what-all you're talking about, that big business stuff. You want to explain to me what that means?"
"I will be happy to explain what it means," said Richard, "as soon as you find me a dictionary so I can look up 'invoice'."
"Ain't no dictionaries in here," said Sam.
"Too bad," said Richard. "I guess I'll have to listen to Varsity Drag instead."
"I hear the New York Public Library ain't too far off," said Sam as he hit the opening chords.
"They're closed this late," said Richard. "The lions wouldn't let me in if I showed up, demanding to know what a soldering iron is."
"Maybe your boss Hector Livingstone could help you with that."
"Did I tell you," said Richard, "my boss wants to have words with me about the way I was acting in Mongolia. I swear to you on anything you want, I never knew she was the chief's wife." He grinned.
* * *
After a year of this, in little bits and pieces, Sam was pretty sure Richard was involved in *something* under-the-table, but hell if he could figure out if Richard was working for a mob boss or for the government or for the Sultan of Baghdad; he still figured half of what Richard said was made up out of whole cloth, but the longer he knew Richard, the more he figured that the half Richard left out was more interesting than the half he left in.
He got even more sure of this the evening, two weeks after the last time Richard had shown up at the bar, when he saw Richard after he'd gotten off work—after, in fact, he'd gotten home and was ready to put his key into the door of his building.
"Sam," said Richard from the shadows, and Sam had to pause a second to calm his heart down, and be a little annoyed with himself, because he was the only one in Joe's bar who always saw Richard coming and never looked wide-eyed when he did show up; at least no one else was around to see.
"Richard," he said. "I can't play no requests for you out here."
"I'm not asking you to play," said Richard, "but I do have a request. Can I come up?"
Sam took that in, then looked him over. "Yeah, okay," he said finally, "you can come on up."
"Thanks, Sam," said Richard, and followed him in.
Inside, Sam settled Richard on the couch, eying the way he moved; slow, like he was hurt. He was dressed head to toe in black, plain clothes, when Richard usually dressed up fancy; the right side of his shirt was shiny and wet. He sat on Sam's couch and watched as Sam moved around his kitchen, getting a towel and a bowl of water and coming back over.
"You should go to the hospital," he said, and after a second Richard pushed himself out of his careful sprawl and started lifting the hem of his shirt.
"Not worthy of a hospital," said Richard. "If you weren't insisting so very hard, I'd say just leave it alone." His shirt and undershirt were laid carefully along the back of the couch; Sam dunked the towel into the bowl of water and reached out to clean the streaks of dried blood along his torso.
He was right, though; the cut was shallow, along his ribs, and as long as it was cleaned up all right it wouldn't cause him no trouble.
But it did need to be cleaned up, and he had to get all the blood off just to be sure that that cut was the only one. He was careful not to press too hard against it; he'd never seen Richard even just in his shirtsleeves before, but he wasn’t at all surprised that Richard's ribs only had the thinnest bit of skin separating them from the open air; that cut would have laid open the bone if it had been just a little deeper, and it had to hurt like nobody's business.
"How's that?" he asked, catching the drips of water with the other end of the towel. "Hurt too bad?"
"No, Sam," said Richard, and he'd dropped his head back against the couch, eyes closing. "It doesn't hurt at all."
"Then I'll have to take you to the hospital anyway," said Sam, rinsing the towel out and cleaning further, working the blood out of Richard's chest hair, now that it had gotten wet enough to sponge away, "because if you really can’t feel nothing at all, you’re pretty far gone."
"Just my nerves; my nerves are gone," said Richard. He laughed quietly. "No hospital. I'd be ashamed that I couldn't even respond to the pretty nurses, not feeling anything."
Sam knew he should have something ready to say back, but he was remembering, now, that he had his hands spread against Richard's bare chest, that the last time he had had a shirtless man in this apartment—on this couch—it had been going a different way entirely—but so oddly the same, the dim light (he should turn on something brighter, so as to see Richard's chest better, but he just couldn't bring himself to), the murmuring voices, the head tipped back over the back of the couch; Sam was already crouching over Richard, who was sprawled back with his legs even slightly spread; Sam could just lower himself the rest of the way and see if he couldn't beat out some pretty nurses.
Sure he could, if he was stupid.
"If you can't feel nothing," he said, and he didn't look at Richard's face because he knew, the next time he saw it, he'd be noticing the line of his jaw and the darkness of his eyes and the curl of his hair over his forehead, and he had enough to be doing, right now, "then how do you know you're alive?"
"Sam," said Richard, and Sam looked up helplessly at the sound of his name, and saw Richard watching him from under his lashes, "you have hit the nail on the head. Can't imagine why I'm surprised."
He rinsed the towel out one more time, cleaned the last traces of blood from Richard's skin. His calluses caught in Richard's chest hair, rubbed roughly against his skin; he curled his fingers back to the other side of the towel. "And if you can't feel nothing," he said—his voice was steady, his voice was always steady—"why'd you come here to get this doctored?"
"Told you I didn't need it doctored," said Richard.
"So then,” said Sam, "why'd you come here?"
Richard lifted his head, and Sam set the towel back in the bowl and looked back at him.
"You know what," Richard said, "I was out in—doesn't matter where I was, really—and I was thinking about coming back home, and I thought I'd like to spend a little time with a friend, relax a little. Someone I could close my eyes to and he wouldn't try to sneak around me and stab me in the back. And when I got back, well, where’d I find myself? Right here."
With a lead-up like that, it wasn't like Sam couldn't see the punch line coming, but it still hit him hard in the gut, and he just managed to get out, "Mister Richard, sounds like you're starving for friends, then."
"Sounds like it, doesn't it?" Richard said, leaning forward. "Strange that I don't feel like it, though. Isn't that strange?”
“Sit back,” said Sam, “you’re gonna reopen that. Let me go get something to put on it, I got a first-aid kit in my bathroom.”
“’Course you do,” said Richard, and leaned back again. Sam went into the bathroom to get a bandage. When he came back, Richard was asleep.
* * *
After that, Sam could never be sure, when he stepped out of Joe’s place, whether Richard would be waiting for him, whether he would want to go for a walk or go back to Sam’s place and have a beer, or once, go for a drive in his car, far out of the city until the light started tinting the sky, and Richard pulled over into a meadow and surveyed the grass and said, “I think it’s traditional for us to lie down on the grass and look up at the approaching dawn and think profound thoughts.”
“I am profoundly against getting morning dew all over these here clothes I’m wearing,” said Sam.
“Good,” said Richard, “because I am profoundly against trying to drink the gin I have under my seat here while flat on my back. The glasses are under your seat, why don’t you reach down and get them?”
Richard’s stories also got a little less outrageous; Sam was still pretty darn certain that there was a lot being left out, but he thought most of what Richard did tell him (when he was feeling serious; when he wasn’t, it was still, “I was in the Punjab the other day and let me tell you what those crocodiles can do to a man’s leg—”) was actually true.
“I like Athens,” he’d say, stirring his coffee. “Not because of the Parthenon; big stone columns don’t impress me anymore. The Greeks, though,” he smiled, “now there’s a people who know how to have a good time.”
Or, thoughtfully, “You know, Sam, there’s only ever one place I went that had piano music as good as yours. It was in Marseilles, and it was called L’Orage.”
“A bar called the thunderstorm?” Sam said doubtfully.
“There was a whole long story about the owner and the night he bought the place and I don’t know, I wasn’t listening very hard because their piano player had me entranced. Entranced, I tell you, and there’s a word I don’t say very often.” Richard tapped his cigarette against the ashtray Sam never mentioned he’d bought just for him. “He was a great man. Died just last year, and L’Orage hasn’t been the same since.” He shook his head. “Alec keeps looking, but he can’t find anybody like Jean-Paul used to be.”
Or, sometimes—almost never—“Sam, you ever had any plans to go to Algiers?”
“Wasn’t planning on it anytime soon,” said Sam, watching Richard’s shadowed face. He’d turned off the lights in Sam’s apartment, and they were sitting on Sam’s couch, drinking pretty okay whiskey Sam had bought from Joe (Sam was trying to buy stuff from Joe when he could, because the Depression wasn’t getting any better and while he still had money tucked away, a lot of people including Joe didn’t anymore, and business had been dropping off lately).
“Well, don’t,” said Richard. “It’s lousy.”
And that was all he said about it, but he was sitting on Sam’s couch in the dark, clutching at his whiskey, and Sam figured that was about as much as Richard was going to say about what he was really doing when he left for days on end.
* * *
And then came the day, in February of 1934, when Joe called them all together and told them that he’d been straining as long as he could to keep them out of the red, that the Prohibition repeal had helped a lot, but he couldn’t and he couldn’t and he couldn’t and now it was all falling apart around his ears.
“I have to close the place,” he told them, his face stone-cold. “There’s no way I can keep it open. It’s not possible. I’m sorry.”
And there was nothing any of them could say about that.
* * *
Richard found him three days after the bar closed; it’d been a long, long time since he’d gone three days without playing a note. He’d gone around looking, but sure enough, nobody was hiring anybody right now; most were letting people go.
“So what now?” he asked, lounging on Sam’s couch like always.
“I got some money saved up,” said Sam. “But I can’t live on it forever. I have to get some work, and I think I’ll have to travel pretty far to get it.”
“Well,” said Richard, looking off at the wall straight ahead, “if you’ve got enough money to travel pretty far—”
“I do,” said Sam.
“—then I think you’ll be just fine. As long as you’ve listened to me about where to go, of course.”
“Not the Punjab, or the crocodiles will get me,” said Sam. “Not Mongolia, because I don’t want to get caught with a chief’s wife.”
“Not Algiers,” said Richard, quietly.
“Not Algiers,” said Sam. “Not Algiers, not Bangkok, not Damascus. I got nothing I need to do in those places, anyway.”
“Good,” said Richard.
* * *
Sam wrote his mother a letter and gave his keys to his landlord and walked to the docks with his bags, and until he got there, he had no earthly idea where he was going.
He bought a ticket to Marseilles.
* * *
Pretty much all the French Sam knew was from Canada or New Orleans, but he’d met a few people from France here and there, and he could get by okay in Marseilles. He asked around, and if the French people laughed at his accent, well, he figured out where he wanted to go.
“So I heard from somebody that you’re looking for a piano player,” he said to the owner of L’Orage.
Marseilles was pretty much nothing like New York City, but people were still people, and just because the regulars were Luc and Claudine and Gilles instead of Oliver, Billy, and Melinda didn’t make them much different. Sam played a lot of French music, but he also played a lot of Irving Berlin, and he figured out that he could speak English and pretty much everybody was okay with it, as long as he didn’t make them speak it back at him.
“However did you come to be in Marseilles, Sam?” Claudine asked. “Everyone is wild with curiosity about you, you know.”
“Well, Miss Claudine, I took a boat across the Atlantic,” said Sam.
“I suspect that is not the whole story,” said Claudine, sipping her drink.
“Well, you’re right about that, Miss Claudine,” said Sam. “I had to cross some of the Mediterranean, too.”
Claudine laughed at that, low in her throat, and asked him to play “Blue Skies”.
* * *
And then one day, three months after he’d left New York, a voice behind him said, “You know any Gershwin?”
Sam smiled down at his piano keys and said, “I surely do.” He started “I Got Rhythm”. “Hello there, Mister Richard.”
“Hello there, Sam,” said Richard, and came around to lean over his piano. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m doing fine,” said Sam.
“You miss New York?” Richard asked.
“I like Marseilles,” Sam said.
“So do I,” said Richard. “Right now, I like it a hell of a lot more than I like New York.”
“Something wrong with New York, Mister Richard?” Sam asked.
“The city’s fine. It’s the people in it I’m objecting to,” said Richard.
“Good thing you’re here, then,” said Sam.
“Good thing,” said Richard.
* * *
He only stayed a couple of days, and then he was off to Antarctica to visit the penguins, or maybe Norway to see the fjords. Sam played Duke Ellington for Gilles and his friend Odette.
“Sam,” said Odette, “what’s New York like?”
Sam thought about that for a minute. “Depends on who you’re with when you’re there, Miss Odette,” he said finally.
* * *
Richard stopped by again in June, and again in August, coming in to remind Sam that he liked to prop himself on pianos and be sarcastic, and leaving again.
“You have no idea, Sam,” he said one night in September, six or eight drinks in. “And I’m glad that you have no idea. It’s all power and politics out there, everyone looking out for themselves. Can we go for a drive?”
“Sure we can,” said Sam, and so they did. Sam’s car was tiny and it coughed, but it took them out of the city.
“Some good fishing around here,” said Sam. He came out here sometimes on his days off; fishing was something he’d never done back in New York, but it wasn’t so hard to learn and nothing beat it for relaxing, if you weren’t caring much if you caught anything.
Richard was looking at him like he’d never seen him before. “Fishing?”
“Sure,” said Sam.
“I’ve sure as hell never been fishing,” said Richard.
“Well, it ain’t that hard,” said Sam. “My tackle’s in the trunk.”
They went fishing. Richard sat on the riverbank, his coat spread out on the rock underneath him, and stared at the bobbing lures like they were telling him something. It was like one of those evenings back at Joe’s, when he used to come in late and sit and listen to Sam: his shoulders slowly started to slump, his head bent down, relaxing. He wasn’t, Sam thought, ever really relaxed, these days. Even before Sam left New York, he’d stopped coming in so late, always had a little of that nervous energy.
“You do this a lot?” he asked Sam, in the middle of a long silence.
“Some,” said Sam. “We can go again sometime, if you like.”
“Maybe,” said Richard.
* * *
One night in January, Sam was playing quietly just for himself, after hours, when Richard came in. He didn’t make any noise, didn’t knock on the door or say hello, but Sam stopped his noodling because he knew Richard was there.
“Hello, Mister Richard,” he said.
There was a long quiet space, until finally Richard said, “Hello, Sam.” His voice was heavy.
“Why don’t you come on over here,” said Sam. “You can lay yourself over the piano, take a load off.”
“I’m just stopping by,” said Richard. “I can’t stay.”
“You sure about that?” Sam said. “Because we’re all happy to have you around. Wouldn’t mind you staying awhile.”
Another quiet space, and then, “I’ve got places to go.”
“Where’re you going, Mister Richard?” Sam asked. He kept playing, quietly; he’d known Richard Blaine for three years and counting, now, and he’d known Richard was a liar for pretty much that whole time, and now he thought that finally he was reaching the place where he could tell which were the lies and which was the truth.
“Sydney,” said Richard. “By way of the Congo.”
“Lots of things to do in Sydney, then?” Sam asked.
Quiet again, but this time, after a minute, Richard came forward and finally let himself slump over onto Sam’s piano. “Not a damn thing,” he said.
“No reason you shouldn’t stay here, then,” said Sam.
“No,” said Richard, and his voice was rough and bitter, but he watched Sam’s hands as closely as ever.
* * *
Sam put Richard up on his couch—he offered Richard the bed, but Richard wouldn’t even listen to him talking when he said it—but Richard wasn’t about to go to sleep, so after Sam laid out blankets and a pillow, he made them coffee in his tiny little kitchen and they sat on his tiny little balcony and drank their coffee and looked down at the dark street.
“Sam,” said Richard in a low voice, “you never asked what I do for a living.”
“Figured if you wanted to share, you’d tell me,” said Sam.
“I didn’t,” said Richard, “and I still don’t. So I’ll say this and this only; I worked for the United States of America, and they were a God damned snake of a boss, which I only found out too late.”
Sam remembered the days soon after they’d met, when Richard would go on his trips and come back bright and self-satisfied, order his drinks and ask for his songs and tell his wild stories, and then later, as time went on, how he’d stopped doing that so often, how he’d started coming in later, drinking more and talking less, telling Sam to play whatever the hell he wanted to play, sitting in the piano’s shadow.
“That’s too bad,” he said carefully.
“Yes, it is,” said Richard. “It’s too bad, and it’s too late, because as of three days ago, the United States of America has fired me with extreme prejudice, and I think it’s best if we don’t see each other much after this, because I’m sure at least one of us would make an unpleasant scene.”
“Well,” said Sam, “how are you and France doing, you on okay terms?”
“France and I have never had any major arguments that I can remember,” said Richard.
“Then nobody’s going to mind if you stay here for a while,” said Sam. “That couch is sure comfortable, and we can find you your own apartment without too much trouble, I think.”
“Sam,” said Richard, “I shouldn’t have come to L’Orage and I shouldn’t be here now, because it’s possible that the good ol’ US of A might look a little too hard at anybody I happen to be with—”
“I’m near invisible to a lot of people,” said Sam, “and when they see me, well, they don’t always see what’s there.”
“A good point,” said Richard, “and a piece of human nature that’s confounded me since I met you. But I was going to finish that—I shouldn’t be here, but I’m here, and it looks like I’m not going to go away again, so all that’s left is to say I’m sorry and get on with it.”
Sam was pretty sure that he’d never heard Richard apologize to anybody for anything before. “You finished with your coffee?” he asked.
“I am, in fact, finished with my coffee,” said Richard. “Give me your cup and I’ll go wash up.” And he slipped the cup out of Sam’s fingers, and before Sam could say anything about guests and washing-up, he was in Sam’s tiny kitchen with the water running.
“Welcome home, Richard,” said Sam to the empty room.
* * *
Richard spent a couple of solid days asleep on Sam’s couch, as far as Sam could tell; twice that Sam saw, he started awake, half-sitting, hands up in front of him to fight something of. Sam would wait a second, give him a chance to figure out that whatever was happening wasn’t what he thought was happening, and then he’d say, “You want a cup of coffee? Or some baguette, I have a baguette,” and Richard would come over and eat a slice of baguette and stare off into the distance, and then go back to Sam’s couch and fall right back asleep.
Eventually, he woke up and stayed awake, and came with Sam to L’Orage.
“Maybe I should be a bartender,” he said, sitting at a table just on Sam’s left side. “Lead a simple life, mixing drinks and getting tips and telling drunks to take a long walk.”
“I don’t rightly think it’d suit you,” said Sam.
“How right you are,” said Richard, and stared down into his glass.
* * *
"You know anything about fascism, Sam?" Richard asked him, a week after he'd arrived.
"Just what people say," said Sam. "I hear some like it, I hear some don't. I hear those Italians are doing some different things, these days."
"You hear this stuff, do you?" said Richard. "You maybe form an opinion about it yourself?"
He sounded angry, almost. Sam played a soothing open fifth, thought about playing something soft and classical; Claudine would like it, and if Claudine liked it, most everyone else would pretend they did. He started Water Music.
“It ain’t my job to have opinions, when people tell me what they’re thinking,” he said. “But if you were asking, mister Richard, I might say that it ain’t right to do what they’re doing.”
“I might just agree with you there,” said Richard. “So then I should tell you that I’m taking a little trip to Italy next week. Probably I’ll just be gone a few days.”
Sam thought about that a little. “You want to come back to my couch, or you want to start looking for a place of your own?”
Richard fiddled with his glass. “I like the couch all right.”
* * *
When Richard got back, Sam had gone looking and had found a nice two-bedroom apartment just three blocks away from his old one. It had a slightly bigger balcony and a slightly tinier kitchen, and the landlord promised that the plumbing never backed up at all.
"Tuesday's my day off," he said to Richard. "I don't got much stuff, and I ain't seen you with much more than the clothes on your back, so I figure we can finish up moving in a day." He poured the coffee. "How was Italy?"
"Eye-opening," said Richard, and sipped.
* * *
They moved into the two-bedroom and settled down, and Richard slowly started to buy some stuff, until their stuff started mingling, and Sam knew that the book of Ellington songs scored for bass was his (he figured someday he might have the time to learn string bass, you never knew) and the full-on white tux and tails was Richard's (it didn't fit Sam), but things like the plates and cups and quilts and pens were all mixed up until it didn't hardly matter who had bought what.
Richard's trips were shorter, now, probably because he was mostly sticking to Europe and they were already in Europe, and now he always told Sam where he was going, stopped joking about Singapore and Newfoundland and the Hindu-Kush mountains. In March it was Dresden, in May it was Madrid, and then in June it was Istanbul and Richard was weeks getting back and he stumbled on the way in the door.
"Richard," said Sam, and his voice was soft, and he was somehow right next to him, holding him up, helping him to the couch and sitting him down and pulling his shirt out of the way, remembering another night in New York City, but back then he hadn't been afraid.
And he hadn't let himself think about it, the last week, as the days stretched on longer and longer, as he tried not to wonder about Richard, and how this was longer than he'd been gone since he arrived in Marseilles, of all the things that people were whispering about the people that Richard was fighting against, about how if Richard was shot or stabbed or tossed in a river, somewhere out there, there would be no way for Sam to find out about it at all, and he would just sit here in Marseilles, playing the piano, waiting for Richard to never come back.
"Hey, Richard," he said, "let me bandage this up. Unless you want to go to the hospital."
"I do not," said Richard very precisely, "want to go to the hospital. Unless I'm going to die on our couch, don't take me to the hospital."
He had a deep cut through his shoulder, and Sam was worried at first that maybe there was a tendon cut or that the joint had been hurt somehow, but Richard could move the arm just fine, "except for the excruciating pain," so he pressed cloths against it until the bleeding stopped, and he wrapped it up, and he made a sling.
"You're good at that," said Richard, slurring just a little.
"Thanks," said Sam, tying the sling so that Richard's arm would stay in close to his chest. "You sure you don't think your shoulder joint was hurt at all? Because you don't want to lose any movement in that arm."
"I sure as hell don't, so I wouldn't say so if I wasn't sure. God damn it, I hurt all over."
He was dirty, too, dust and smears of mud where Sam hadn't cleaned it all off around the wound, and when he moved the light around to look a little closer, he saw that some of the darker patches were bruises.
"Let's get you to bed," Sam said, and his hand brushed over Richard's chest; the skin was hot, soft where there wasn't any hair, and he shook himself and closed his hand firmly over the good shoulder. "You need some sleep."
"You're right, Sam," said Richard, eyes half-closed. "You're always right. I don't think you've ever said a wrong thing, not when you're telling the serious truth."
"I can be wrong the same as anybody else," said Sam, levering him up and pushing him towards the bed.
"Course, that's only the serious truth. Most of the time you're as much of a liar as me. Remember the New York Public Library?"
"Hard to forget, with them lions out front," said Sam. "Here you go, lie down."
Richard sprawled out over the bed, eyes closed, barely murmuring, "Have to lie if you want to survive; nobody likes someone they think is smarter than them. But it's nice to tell someone the truth, sometimes, don't you think?"
"Yeah, mister Richard," said Sam softly. "It's nice."
* * *
Richard slept for most of the next day, until Sam roused him out of bed to make him eat some soup and shove him into the bath. Richard looked up at him, sleepy-eyed--they hadn't had any coffee.
"Shouldn't you be at work?" he asked. "It isn't Tuesday. I don't think."
"I got the day off," said Sam. "Alec don't mind, it's the first day I missed since I got here."
"Of course it is," said Richard, sliding down in the water.
"Keep your shoulder out of it," said Sam.
"Sure," said Richard, "but you're going to have to help me, I can't reach anything and every time I move I feel like I’m going to slip all the way down and drown."
So Sam took a deep breath, rolled up his sleeves, and picked up the soap, and the next thing he knew he had his hands all over bare, soapy, wet Richard, who sighed and relaxed, trusting Sam to hold him up and wash him clean.
"Feels good, Sam," he said, voice low enough to crack stone, sounded like. Sam swallowed and moved south, past all the dangerous areas, and picked up a foot. It was blistered and the calluses on his sole were cracking, dirt ground in. Sam breathed deep again, clean soap and hot water, and scrubbed.
* * *
Richard stayed in Marseilles for a while after that, even after the sling came off, working here and there on something local, but spending a lot of nights in the bar, listening to Sam and talking to Alec and flirting with Claudine. Sam kept himself in check, but he couldn’t help looking over his shoulder once in a while, checking that Richard was still there. And he knew Richard knew it.
But Richard had itchy feet, and after a couple of months Sam came home to find him staring at a map of Africa. Sam hung up his coat and took off his shoes and said, “You thinking about going somewhere?”
“Ethiopia,” said Richard absently. His forehead was furrowed, and he was making quick notes
Sam said carefully, “You having some kind of problem with what you want to do there?”
“Oh, nothing like a problem, just that I’ve got to be in two places at once for this to work.” Richard sighed. “I should’ve been born twins.”
“I don’t know that that would’ve been a good idea,” said Sam. “What could two of you do in Ethiopia that one of you couldn’t?”
“One of me would be in Cairo, picking up the second shipment of stuff, because the first me would have to be in Ethiopia delivering the first at the time; the scheduling doesn’t work any other way. They’ve got to have the first shipment as soon as possible, and they can’t drop off the second any later.”
Sam sat down. He looked down at his hands, and over at Richard and his map, and he said, “You know, I hear those pyramids of Egypt are pretty impressive.”
Richard’s pencil stopped moving. He said, “The pyramids are in Giza.”
“Well, I’m looking at your map, and it looks to me like Giza and Cairo are right near each other. And there’s interesting music in Cairo, someone once told me.”
“No, Sam,” said Richard. “No. You don’t want to get mixed up in this.”
“You found a way to make yourself twins in the last five minutes?” said Sam, more firmly; maybe this wasn’t the best answer, to go and sit in Cairo while Richard went down to Ethiopia, instead of sitting in Marseilles, but he remembered waiting when Richard was in Istanbul and he plain did not want to do that again.
“No,” said Richard, very quietly. “I haven’t.”
“Well, then,” said Sam.
* * *
After that, it was a little different. Sam didn’t always go with Richard, and most of the time when he did go, he would be meeting the contact and taking the boxes or papers or packages to some other place, or he’d be told something that he’d then go tell someone else, or sometimes he would be there in case something went wrong, and nothing would go wrong, so he wouldn’t do anything. No danger, usually.
Sometimes there was, though. Twice he had to run from the police, and once he had to punch a man in the face—Richard had looked at him, after that, like he’d never thought Sam could do such a thing. Sure, Sam didn’t make a habit of it, but he’d been young, once, and he knew how to put his weight behind his fist.
In Spain, they sat in a foxhole together and waited for their position to be overrun.
“Still glad you came, Sam?” Richard asked, after a terrifying minute where he was head and shoulders out of their hole and firing.
“I do wish we had more than one gun,” said Sam.
“I don’t,” said Richard fiercely.
* * *
They made it out of Spain. After that, Richard was more careful where he took Sam, and Sam couldn’t decide if it was good or bad, because once he was out of the foxhole, he didn’t like to think about killing another human being.
But he would rather kill a man than wait in Marseilles for Richard until he’d been gone for months, for a year, forever. So he made his excuses to Alec and he went with Richard to Florence, to Prague, to Istanbul, bullied Richard as best he could into letting Sam come along, back him up, keep him from having to do it alone.
“Sam,” said Richard one day, “you like Marseilles.”
“I do,” said Sam. “But nothing says I’d mind living somewhere else.”
Richard spun his glass around, slowly, with one finger on the rim. Sam watched his hands; he couldn’t help himself sometimes, and sometimes he thought maybe he was hoping Richard would notice, but he never did.
“What would you think about Paris?” Richard asked. “I have some things I could do there, long-term.”
Sam thought about not having to leave at three in the morning to catch a tiny plane that would fly without running lights across the Mediterranean. “I know a fellow from Paris, he owns a place, he’s looking for a piano player. It’s called La Belle Aurore.”
* * *
When Sam met Ilsa Lund for the first time, he was following Richard’s line of sight. She came into La Belle Aurore and was seated on Sam’s left, and Richard’s eyes didn’t leave her for the whole time she was there.
Sam couldn’t blame him. She was beautiful.
She came up to him at the end of the night, graceful and polite and looking like she had no idea that Richard had been staring at her all night long, and asked if Sam could play, “As Time Goes By.”
“I surely could, miss,” he said, and started delicately, an octave up.
“Can you sing it?” she asked, and he smiled, started again, and sang.
She stayed by the piano for the song, watching him play, her face serious.
“Thank you,” she said when he was done. “That was beautiful.” And she went back to her seat.
“Sam,” said Richard, when she was gone. “’As Time Goes By’ is my new favorite song.”
“Got it,” said Sam, and watched as Richard got up and smoothly approached Ilsa’s table.
* * *
He couldn’t blame either of them, of course—who wouldn’t want her, and who wouldn’t want him, and if they wanted each other, well, they should be lovers, no question—he didn’t even want to blame them. He’d play for them to dance together, and he couldn’t look down at the keys for watching them. He’d come home and they’d be on the couch, Ilsa curled up next to Richard, watching the moon set, and he’d have stop inside the doorway to catch his breath. Separately, they caught the attention; together, they never let it go.
“Sam,” said Ilsa one night, when Richard was off working and she was at the café listening to him, “what was Richard like when you met?”
“Oh,” said Sam, “exactly like he is now. Richard don’t change, Miss Ilsa.”
“Everyone changes,” said Ilsa, and now she was watching his face and not his hands. “Even you, but I can’t imagine it. Have you changed, since you met him?”
He just played for a minute, softly. “Yes, Miss Ilsa,” he said eventually, the truth this time. “I sure have.”
“He changes you,” said Ilsa. “I’ve only known him a few weeks, and I’ve told him almost nothing about me, but I feel so different now than I did just a month ago.”
Richard was different, too; Sam had watched him calming down, looking at Ilsa and smiling. He worked a little less, and then a lot less, and he spent more time in here, listening to Sam, even when she wasn’t there. And he always wanted “As Time Goes By”.
Sam wasn’t sure if he was any different. Sure, he was maybe a little more hopeless than he had been, when it was just Richard and not Richard and Ilsa together, but that wasn’t a big change at all.
“You’re good for him, Miss Ilsa,” he said, finally: the truth. Richard had smiled more in the last two weeks than in the last two years, it seemed like.
“Thank you, Sam,” she said. “It means a great deal, that you would say that.”
* * *
Richard talked more, now, too, and about things he’d never talked about before. Once he sat down on Sam’s piano bench, which he’d never done before, all pressed up against his side, and said, “Hey, Sam, you believe in love?”
Oh, brother, Sam thought, but he said, “All us musicians believe in love, Mister Richard.”
“What, all of you?” said Richard.
“Sure,” said Sam, “even when we ain’t got a reason, even when it kicks us in the teeth. We gotta.”
“That’s nice,” said Rick thoughtfully. “You’re a bunch of idiots, but it’s nice.”
“I ain’t the one that decides these things,” said Sam.
Really, Sam had met a musician or twenty who thought love was the biggest scam ever invented by a songwriter, but his answer sounded good and meant he wasn’t explaining why he’d followed a skinny, sarcastic white boy across the Atlantic, why he’d sat next to him in a foxhole and got shot at by Nazis.
“I think I’m in love with Ilsa, Sam,” said Richard.
“Think you’re right about that, Mister Richard,” said Sam.
“It’s good to know I’m not making a unilateral decision about that, then,” said Richard.
* * *
Sam was a little bit in love with Ilsa himself; she was the kind of high-class lady that most high-class ladies weren’t. She had grace and manners and kindness, and she danced like she was floating on a cloud, and she sat and watched him play, her face quiet and composed and beautiful. She would ask him things about the songs—“Where did you first hear that one, Sam? It’s beautiful,” and “Did you really meet the man who wrote that song? What was he like?” and “Was that one hard to learn? It’s so complicated”—and it was just like Richard had been, except for how it wasn’t really like Richard at all. Sometimes it was too much for him and he’d have to say, “Oh, Miss Ilsa, I’ve known that song so long I don’t even remember learning it.”
For her, he brought out the songs he’d learned first, the piano lesson songs, the Mozart and Handel and Beethoven. He played “Moonlight” for her one night, after Alec had closed up and left them there together, and she caught her breath and bent her head and when he finished the first movement, she looked up at him and she was crying. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, in that moment, like the song and the silence and Ilsa were all taking up the space where air should have been.
* * *
“I want to marry her,” said Richard.
Sam’s first thought was, of course, Who wouldn’t, but his second was about how things were going to change. They would move in together, of course, and then Sam would be living by himself, no more coming home (carefully, always telling them how long he thought he’d be out, what days he’d stay late at the café, what time it’d be when he got back) to them curled together on the couch, or sipping wine on the balcony, or dancing to the phonograph; no more having their morning coffee together—no more even having his morning coffee with Richard, on the nights when Ilsa didn’t stay over, Richard vaguely hungover and annoyed, frowning into his coffee and thinking out loud about work, messages that needed to be sent and people that were being helped over borders and weapons stockpiles that were growing up in basements. No more casual chess (Richard beat him every time, but when he was setting up the chessboard, Sam couldn’t help sitting down across from him), no more writing music with Richard just over in his armchair, asking him if a melody sounded good and not getting any kind of helpful answer—
“Well,” Sam said, “who wouldn’t want to marry a lady like that?”
“Yeah,” said Richard, “I better get in there before someone else realizes it.”
Sam took a deep breath and played just a couple of bars of the wedding march; maybe he could get himself used to it if he tried.
* * *
And then the Germans arrived.
Sam hadn’t been working with Richard as much, living in Paris, but he’d done a little bit here and there, and everyone fighting against the Nazis had known, for a long time, that the Germans were going to come to France. When they got there, though, no one seemed to be able to believe it.
“Sam,” said Ilsa, “will you play ‘As Time Goes By’ for me, please?” She wouldn’t look him in the eyes, she’d turned away from Richard and was holding on to Sam’s piano with her small, graceful fingers, knuckles white. She hated the Germans, Sam knew, hated them more than Richard did, and he wished he knew why.
“Course I will, Miss Ilsa,” he said, and did.
* * *
* * *
“Mister Richard,” Sam said on the train, tentatively, “we going to stay in Marseilles?” He didn’t want to go back to Marseilles, to L’Orage, to try and be the same when nothing was the same. But he didn’t think he could say no to Richard right now, because his own heart was breaking but Richard’s was in pieces on the floor, nice elegant shoe-prints all over it.
Richard was staring out the window at the rain, and for a second Sam thought he hadn’t heard, but then he said, “No,” not turning his head. “No, we’re not going to stay in Marseilles. We’re leaving France. In fact, I never want to come to France again.”
“All right,” said Sam, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
When the train arrived in Marseilles, Richard just stood at the station for a minute. It was cold, real cold for the south, and Sam set the bags down and said, “You got an idea of where you want to go, or do you want me to go buy us tickets somewhere?” Not France and not America still left a lot of places, even a lot of pretty nice places.
“I’m sick of Europe,” said Richard.
“All right,” said Sam. “Not America and not Europe. Africa’s real close, and Asia ain’t too far away, you want to try either of them.”
“Took me thirty-one years to finish up with one continent and only five to go through another,” said Richard. “Let’s try Africa next, see if I last six months.”
“You’ll run out, you keep that up,” said Sam.
“We’ll see,” said Richard. “How about Morocco, you’ve never been to Morocco. I think you’ll like it.”
“Always wanted to see Morocco,” said Sam.
“Liar,” said Richard, and almost smiled. Then the smile disappeared, and he said, “You know, I knew you were a liar, and I knew I was a liar, but I had no idea she was a liar.”
“Ain’t nobody can tell the truth all the time,” said Sam.
“And I thought I learned that long ago,” said Richard. “All right. Let’s go to Morocco.”
“What are we going to do there?” Sam asked.
“I have no idea,” said Richard.
* * *
They ended up on their way to French Morocco; Sam thought about whether that meant they were really leaving France or not, but he didn’t say anything.
Morocco was hot and dusty. Richard had gotten quieter and quieter as they traveled, and when they reached Casablanca, he just said, “All right, we’re here.”
They walked through the city, almost got pickpocketed once, saw snake charmers and people playing music by the side of the road—there was a man on a trumpet, and he wasn’t bad; Sam dropped some francs into his case.
“You figured out what we’re going to do here yet?” he asked Richard.
“Well,” said Richard, “you’ll need to play.”
“I will,” said Sam.
“All right, then,” said Richard, and started off through the city.
Sam, not too sure what was going on, followed him; he stopped and talked to one man, who directed him to another, who gave him directions, which Richard then gave to a cab driver. They stopped in front of a big building, all cream-colored with rounded lines like all the ones around, and went inside.
“Call me Rick,” said Richard to the man who met them inside, shaking his hand. “I hear this place is for sale.”
Sam looked around. It was big and empty, sprawling out beyond the room they were in.
“It is, monsieur Rick!” said the man. “I am delighted to hear you are interested. Shall we sit down?”
They sat down, and Sam sat down with them, and Richard haggled with the man, and eventually handed him more money than Sam had known Richard had on him, and the man bowed to them and smiled wide and said, “Many thanks, Monsieur! I wish you success. May I ask what you intend to do with the building?”
“I’m starting a café,” said Richard.
“A café! But how wonderful! I will tell everyone I know to expect it. I would look forward to patronizing it myself, but now that I have sold the building, I am leaving Casablanca on the next plane.”
“Hope you like America,” said Richard.
Sam sat and looked at Richard as the former owner of the building started happily getting his things together. “Don’t tell me you always wanted to start a café,” he said, “because I know you ain’t.”
“I’ve got to do something,” said Richard. “I’m sick and tired of the God damned Germans, I’m sick and tired of trying to do something for people and them screwing it all up, I’m sure as hell sick of falling in love, so that lets out all my work experience so far. You have a real skill, so I figure we might as well put it to use.”
Sam looked down. “Thanks,” he said.
“What, thanks for not being selfish for once? Thanks for giving you something just because I don’t have anything else to do? Yeah, Sam, thank me.”
“Thank you, Richard,” said Sam, looking up at him.
There was a quiet moment, and then Richard said, “You’re welcome, Sam.”
* * *
That night, Richard went out and bought a bottle of something—Sam didn’t want to know what it was, although it was better than some washtub gin he’d had in his time—and got drunk. Turned out the upper back rooms still had some furniture; there was a couch, and they sat on it and Richard drank, and somewhere around the second hour of it he said, “You remember I looked her in the eye and said we should get married? And she let me think we were going to be.”
“I remember,” said Sam, keeping his voice soft. The liquor was mostly gone; Sam had had his share, just to keep Richard from drinking it all.
“I sat there smiling like an idiot, thinking about our wedding—it’d be quick, I thought, and maybe a little silly at first, getting married by the first person we could find to do it, but she’d be beautiful because she always was, and I’d find a ring somewhere, and you’d be the witness and the best man and I guess the maid of honor, too, and you know, it’d be perfect.” Richard shook his head and knocked back the last of his glass. “Smiling like an idiot.”
“You didn’t know,” said Sam; he hated this, not knowing what to say, having to say something; it all came out sounding lame and half-baked. “She—she shouldn’t have done that. She shouldn’t have just written you a letter. She should have said why—”
“She shouldn’t have left!” Richard shouted at him. “She should have come with us, she should have married me, she should be here. We should all be in Marseilles right now, in a tiny cramped apartment somewhere, you could play at L’Orage again and we’d come and—” He stopped, and pressed his hands to his eyes. Sam reached out, he couldn’t help himself, he reached out and put his hands on Richard’s shoulders, gripping tight, feeling his skin hot under the thin shirt, his body shaking just a little.
“Richard,” he said, so low he could hardly hear himself.
“She’s gone,” said Richard into his hands. “She’s gone and I’m never going to see her again and I’m never going to know why, and since no one can change any of that, I’m going to forget about her.” He lifted his head; his eyes were red but dry. “You hear that, Sam? I’ll forget about her. You can forget about her, too.”
“I ain’t going to forget Miss Ilsa,” said Sam; he should have said he would, should have done his bit to help Richard keep going, but sometimes he had to be a little selfish, too; nobody could do for others all the time.
Richard was quiet, and then he said, “Fine.” He took a breath. “But you never mention her around me, ever? And you never play that song again.”
“I hear you, boss,” said Sam quietly. His hands were still on Richard’s shoulders; he lifted them away.
“Good,” said Richard. “I’m going to bed.”
“Okay, boss,” said Sam, and stood up when Richard did, steadied him with both hands, spreading them over his shoulder and waist, thinking that this was a betrayal, wanting to touch so badly when Richard was like this, was needing her. But, well, he’d always been a little selfish.
* * *
Richard started going around and introducing himself (“Hi there, I’m Rick, nice to meet you; say, I’m starting a café, and I hear you sell…”) and outfitting the place.
“I think we’ll need a spotlight,” he said, looking around the main room.
“A spotlight?” said Sam, distractedly; he was trying to tune their new piano. “Ain’t that searchlight outside enough?”
“If you think I’m going to stick you in the corner and make you play a little jazz for the customers to ignore while they talk to each other, you’ve got another think coming,” said Richard. “I’m getting a spotlight. And you can go out and find yourself some backup musicians, if you want. A band or something.”
Sam shook his head at the piano wires. “You’re the boss.”
“Speaking of which, as your boss, I’ll be giving you twenty-five percent of the profits on this place,” said Richard.
“Oh, now I ain’t taking anywhere near that much,” said Sam. “That’s too much for the piano player by a lot.”
“You’re the whole reason the place exists, you should be taking a hundred,” said Richard. “Twenty-five percent.”
“You might be the boss, boss, but you can’t tell me how much I take home with me,” said Sam. “And I ain’t walking away with more than ten. You give me more than that, I’ll just put the rest in the safe for you.”
There was a knock at the door, and a man came in. “Monsieur Rick? I hear you’re looking for a croupier? My name is Emil, and I do excellent work; I have references if you wish to see them.”
“We’ll talk about this some more later,” said Richard to Sam.
“Not if I can help it,” Sam muttered, and got up to go see if he could find that trumpet player he’d seen their first day here.
* * *
Of course the café took off. Sam hadn’t thought it’d be any other way, with Richard running it—and he was really running it, putting his all into it, not thinking about anything else but making it a success.
He came to Sam a lot at the beginning, because Sam had been working at clubs and bars and cafés for over fifteen years now, and he was almost surprised at how much he knew—yes, the bar should go there; there should be about this many tables inside and that many outside; try stocking so much wine, so much beer, so much liquor; pay people about this much.
“I should be paying you as a business manager also, after this,” Richard said, looking through the estimates.
“This place does as well as it’s looking to, I ain’t going to need any more money than what I’m getting. Maybe I won’t need any more money ever.” Word was spreading through Casablanca; enough people were impressed with Richard that opening night was going to be packed, and Sam—well, he knew he played well enough to attract an audience. The liquor they were getting was pretty good. They’d be a hit.
Richard had started out looking grim—started out really doing this for Sam, Sam thought, and doing it because like he said, he needed to do something. So he worked at it, worked long and hard, until he didn’t have much time to be thinking about Ilsa or Paris or any of it.
(He still thought about it, though. There were nights, he’d be sitting on the couch when Sam went to bed, and Sam would come back out the next morning and he’d still be sitting on the couch, same position exactly. There were nights he’d sit by Sam when he played after hours, drinking quiet and determined, and he never relaxed like he used to when he’d do that back in New York, never at all.)
The thing was, though, working hard at owning a café meant meeting a lot of people, making a lot of friends, and drinking and talking and listening to Sam play, and after they opened, Sam saw the tension coming out of him; he was sleeping a little more, smiling some here and there. He still wasn’t like he’d been in Paris, even before Ilsa; he talked a little less, he laughed a lot less, and there was a harder edge to him, like he was more on guard now. He never draped himself over Sam’s piano like he used to.
But after a couple of weeks had gone by, a month, a couple of months, he stopped acting like running a café was the same as plotting against the Germans, and maybe even settled down a little. He’d sit with Sam after everyone went home, listen to him play; he sat on the couch in Sam’s room above the café and worked on the books while Sam wrote music; he started talking more, making friends with the staff, talking to Carl or Sascha before opening, sitting with Captain Renault of the Prefecture, who lucky for business, liked Richard a whole lot.
Sam himself was real happy with this café business; he’d had such a time, back in New York, trying to find a place where he could just play the piano. He’d liked the famous nightclubs well enough at first, and it was a thrill a minute, knowing he was good enough to play with James Johnson or Luckey Roberts, but that sort of competition, needing to pound out the best jazz there ever was until five o’clock in the morning just to stay ahead of the man wanting his own reputation, moving around from club to club because everyone’d think you weren’t so hot if you didn’t, well, Sam didn’t have time for that kind of life. He hadn’t wanted it—but he hadn’t wanted to be stuck in a corner and ignored, neither. Here, he was the headliner, he could sing and play what he wanted, take a break if he wanted, set his piano up off in the corner or under the spotlight, and Richard was always there, coming over to say something, sitting at his table and listening, pointing him out to customers.
He figured out pretty fast that the people here couldn’t get enough of a real Harlem piano player, and they liked that he was friendlier than Richard, they liked talking to him and singing with him and they liked his shows.
Louis Renault came up to him just a week after they opened, after he’d spent a couple of days checking the place out, dropping hints, or sometimes not even bothering to hint, about bribes and what-all to Richard, who offered him expensive drinks and let him win at roulette and seemed to like him.
“Sam,” he said politely, coming up to the piano.
“Captain Renault,” said Sam. “You have something you want to hear?”
“Whatever you wish to play is fine,” Louis said, waving a hand. “I just thought I would come over and introduce myself. You seem to be the primary reason this place is doing so well, after all.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Captain Renault,” said Sam. “I just play the piano, that’s all.”
“Well, you do it in such a way as to captivate the masses,” said Louis. “I’m glad, as I like this café and I would not mind spending many evenings here, which would be difficult if the place were to go out of business. Continue captivating, if you please.”
“Oh, I do my best, Captain Renault,” said Sam.
“I doubt that very much,” said Louis, and lifted his glass to Sam before fading back into the crowd.
Richard appeared a second later, dropping a hand to Sam’s shoulder from behind. “Well?” he said.
“That is one interesting fellow,” said Sam, because he couldn’t honestly think of anything else to say.
“He’d be dangerous if he wanted to be,” said Richard, and Sam nodded his head. “Fortunately, he doesn’t. Far as I can tell, he just wants to gamble and drink and sleep with girls. Or he admits that much out loud, anyway.”
“I’ll bet he wants more than that, boss,” said Sam. “But I’ll bet he never admits that.”
“Probably not,” said Richard. “I like him.”
“Course you do,” Sam sighed, and Richard laughed a little and squeezed his shoulder, and Sam shivered a little and concentrated on “Fools Rush In”.
So all in all, it was working out all right. It wasn’t perfect, but who had a perfect life? Sam played every night, and tried to keep an eye on Richard, but he didn’t worry so much, anymore.
The months stretched out, and not a lot changed; Casablanca was a limbo kind of a place, where people came and went but everything stayed pretty much the same. Until Ilsa Lund walked into the café.
* * *
* * *
Sam joined Richard at the train station three hours after Ilsa and Victor Laszlo had gone, handing him his suitcase. Louis raised his eyebrows at him. “Sam,” he said. “What a charming addition to our party. And the more I think about it, the less of a surprise it is.”
Sam reached into his pocket and got the five thousand francs that he’d separated from the rest of his money when he’d been packing it all away. “Here,” he said. “My share of the travel expenses.”
“Most obliged,” said Louis. “I suppose it would do no good to suggest that two would be less conspicuous than three?”
“I’d say not,” said Sam.
“I expected nothing else,” said Louis. “If you’ll excuse me, I have arrangements to finalize.” He bowed slightly and set off.
“Glad you could make it,” said Richard. He wasn’t looking as bad as Sam had been afraid of; definitely not near as bad as the last time he’d lost Ilsa.
“I ain’t letting you go off without me no more, remember?” Sam said.
“Oh, yeah,” said Richard. “Something about the pyramids, it’s coming back. You going to tell me you always wanted to see the Congo River?”
“I sure did,” said Sam.
* * *
It was a long way to Brazzaville from Casablanca.
Richard was quiet for a lot of it. It still wasn’t just like right after Paris—he was sad, sure, but not angry and not bitter—but it still left Sam with nobody to talk to but Louis.
Louis was happy to talk; he talked to them both, even though Richard wasn’t always paying attention, his head off in Casablanca or Paris or wherever Ilsa and Victor Laszlo were now. Sam listened because Louis said the craziest things in his quick, proper, accented voice; sometimes it was hard to believe they even came out of his mouth. Entertainment like that was worth something, especially since he couldn’t play the piano out here.
"Sam," said Louis after they'd been traveling for a little over a week, "I must commend you. I had no idea Ricky was so uninteresting over long periods of time."
"He ain't like this most of the time," said Sam—trying to be careful, he wouldn't tell Louis anything Richard wouldn't want him to know, but it wasn't like Louis didn't know pretty much all of it already, and he'd probably figured out half of the rest of it. "He's missing Miss Ilsa, is all. He'll be okay." He was pretty sure. He'd never seen Richard like this, exactly, but he was just a little distracted, really. He'd be fine.
"I see," said Louis. "Love leaves none of us untouched, does it."
Sam would bet that Louis hadn't been touched by love in a hell of a long time. But who knew, maybe he'd had somebody, once, and lost them, too. Sam tried to imagine losing Richard for good, and stopped right away. "No, it don't," said Sam, and it was a mistake, he knew it, but a little bit of what he was feeling came out in his voice.
Louis tilted his head a little, looking at him; Sam got up and said, "I better go find him."
"Yes, you had better," said Louis, sounding thoughtful. Sam escaped.
* * *
Slowly, slowly, Richard came out of it. He started paying a little more attention, cracked a few more jokes, noticed more when Louis was needling him.
“Sam,” he said one day, when they’d stopped for Louis to answer the call of nature, “why in hell did you come along?” He waved a hand out of their rusty Jeep, at the trees and the wildlife and the little flicker of the Congo River, which they could just see, up on this hill. “You haven’t played a note in weeks; I’d figured you shriveled up and died after a few days away from a piano.” He was joking, but his eyes were serious, resting on Sam from the backseat.
“I said before, I ain’t letting you go off without me again,” said Sam.
Richard dropped his eyes, rubbed a hand over his face. “I should’ve made you stay in Casablanca. It’s going to be dangerous, Sam. I hate to say the words, but Laszlo was right; I can’t just sit around and let the Nazis win.”
“Well, you shouldn’t,” said Sam, and if he was remembering the night Richard came back from Istanbul, well, that one night hadn’t done near so much damage as a year and a half of Richard pretending he didn’t care at all. “Anyway,” he said, “if you don’t hate France no more, well, maybe I want to go back there someday. I don’t want there to be Germans everywhere. Might as well try doing something about that.”
“Sam, you think about what you’re doing,” said Richard.
“I thought about it,” said Sam. “Didn’t I help you before?”
“You always help me,” said Richard, then shook his head and said quickly, “And the playing?”
“There’s got to be a piano somewhere in Brazzaville.”
“What if there isn’t?” Richard asked seriously.
“There will be,” said Sam, because if he couldn’t find a piano—well, there’d be one. And if there wasn’t—“If there ain’t, maybe I’ll finally learn myself the string bass. Been meaning to for years now.”
“Brazzaville’s famous for its string bass players, I hear,” said Richard, after a second.
“What’s that?” said Louis, coming up to the Jeep. “Oh, the music. I think you’ll find it adequate. It is a French garrison, after all.”
That eased something that Sam hadn’t been letting himself worry about, and he settled back in his seat while Richard said, “I never saw what made the French so much better than the Italians, myself,” poking the tiger with a stick and starting a debate that lasted for the next five hours; Louis smiled the whole time.
* * *
When they finally reached Brazzaville, it was mid-morning and hotter than Sam had ever personally been, dripping with heat. Louis pulled into the garrison, which was a ramshackle bunch of buildings, the French flag flying from one. Sam pried himself away from his seat and got out of the Jeep with a sigh of relief; he'd started to hate that car, although it was better than walking.
"Come," said Louis. "I'll introduce you to the commander, with whom I've been corresponding for months; we're quite well-acquainted, by now. I'm sure he'll adore both of you."
The commander was a stone-faced man who looked like he didn't adore much; Louis smiled and introduced them as his dear friends and the saviors of Victor Laszlo, which Sam didn't object to because it might be his ticket in here, being included in that. He was appreciating just being inside a real building, for the first time in what felt like forever.
"And now, my dear Colonel, I'm afraid we've been traveling for weeks and aren't fit to be seen; might you have some place we could put our things and wash up, perhaps find something to eat?" Louis raised his eyebrows.
"Mess is over that way, second building on your right," said the colonel, pointing out the window; his English was pretty good. "Quarters are the other way, and there are showers. Thierry will show you—Thierry!"
The colonel's aide stuck his head in at the yell. "Sir?"
"Take Captain Renault and his friends to the mess and then get them quarters," said the colonel.
"Yes, sir," said Thierry, "follow me, please."
The mess looked pretty nice from the outside. "The food, it is terrible," said Thierry, opening the door. "But we try to make it cheerful, because if you are not happy when you are eating, when can you be happy?"
"That's so French of you I could cry," said Richard.
"Truly Free French is the right side," said Louis, "because how could we allow the Germans to stamp out such sentiments? Merci, Thierry."
"De rien," said Thierry. "I will go arrange rooms for you. We do not have very much space; two of you may have to share."
"Ricky and Sam won't mind sharing," said Louis; he glanced at Sam, and when Richard was done with his sure, volunteer someone else to share a room, and nobody was looking, he winked.
Sam was still trying to figure out what to do about that when they stepped inside the mess. There was a piano in one corner.
“Hey,” said Richard softly. “Would you look at that.”
Sam went over to it, looked around the room for a second, but nobody said hey, that’s my piano, so he played a chord. It was tuned. He sat down.
“You even going to eat lunch?” Richard asked. “There’s—well, there’s bread. And soup.”
“Just a second,” said Sam, and started to play.
* * *
Thierry came back after a bit. “Oh,” he said, “you are a piano player. That is good, we have nobody here who can play very much. Perhaps you will play for us some evenings?”
“Be glad to,” said Sam, and stood up to follow Thierry with only a couple of backward glances at the piano. Richard handed him some bread as they were leaving, which Sam was grateful for; he hadn’t gotten a chance at the food.
“Showers here,” said Thierry. “Down the hall, now—here are your rooms. Capitan Renault, here with the officers in this hall; monsieurs, over here, together in this room. All right?”
“Just fine,” said Richard. “Let’s take advantage of that shower.”
“There are towels in the washroom; we do not have enough for everybody, so please have them washed and returned when you are done—the laundry is three buildings over that way,” Thierry waved a hand to the left.
“Got it,” said Richard. “Let’s go.”
The shower was purely amazing; Sam could hardly remember the last time he’d had one, and washing all the dirt and sweat off felt too good to be true. He stayed in too long—surely they wouldn’t be preserving water like in Casablanca, with that river right outside—but when he got back to the room, Richard still wasn’t back. He started rummaging through his suitcase for some new clothes.
Richard came in a minute later, towel wrapped around his waist. The room was tiny, and he brushed up against Sam, reaching for his own suitcase. He smelled clean, like soap, and his skin was warm and damp where it touched Sam’s. Sam looked down at his hands, frozen in his suitcase, and breathed.
When he looked up, Richard was looking at him.
“Richard?” Sam asked. “Something you need?”
“You know,” said Richard, “I had a very interesting conversation with Louis, a few days ago.”
Sam stopped breathing. He’d seen Louis figure it out, he knew Louis knew, but he sure as hell hadn’t thought that Louis would—
“That Louis,” he said, his voice rough, “he says some crazy things.”
“Yep,” said Richard. “And he always knows more than you think he does.”
Sam was crumpling one of his shirts between his fingers; he made himself take his hands out of his suitcase. “So,” he said, making himself say it steadily, “what’d he say to you?”
“He said he’d seen you looking at me.”
“I look at you all the time, Mister Richard,” said Sam, trying to keep his head. “Be hard to talk to you ever, if I didn’t.”
“I know you do,” said Richard, “because after he said that, I started paying a little attention.” He stepped forward, and reached out. Sam told himself to move away, told himself there wasn’t nothing good could come of this, but he was still standing there when Richard’s hand landed on his bare chest, when it slid along his damp skin. He couldn’t breathe.
“Sam,” said Richard. “What do you want?”
His breath came in a staggering gasp, and he couldn’t help himself, couldn’t think about why he shouldn’t, he just reached out, spread his hands over Richard’s chest. Richard twitched under his hands, and Sam started to pull away, but Richard stepped forward after him, up so close, and then he’d folded Sam in his arms, pressing up against him.
“Sam,” he said in Sam’s ear. “Sam, you never told the whole truth in your life, did you. How long?”
“Couldn’t say,” said Sam, trying to think past the feel of Richard’s body against his, Richard’s hands on his back, Richard’s mouth next to his ear. “And—” he said, “and you’re a fine one to talk about telling the truth.”
Richard chuckled a little, and Sam felt the vibrations through his chest, and finally he couldn’t stand it any longer; if he could have this, he was going to have it. He pushed Richard back until his knees hit Sam’s bed, until he let himself fall backward, the towel losing the battle to stay up and dropping down around his feet. Sam breathed in sharp, looking down at Richard, naked, cock just beginning to get hard, drops of water still tracing over his skin. Richard. He dropped to his knees.
“Sam,” said Richard, “you don’t have to—” but Sam had already taken him in his mouth, remembering that time in New York when he’d almost given in to the need to do this, feeling Richard get harder in his mouth, growing until he had to pull back a little. Richard made a sound above him.
Sam hadn’t done this in a long, long time; anything he’d done in Casablanca, everyone would have known about in seconds, so it’d been since Paris, just a couple of times, never anyone who knew Richard. It wasn’t hard to remember, though, and feeling the cock in his mouth, hot and hard and smelling like Richard and sex—he had to reach down, get rid of his own towel and cup himself while he sucked.
“Oh, God,” said Richard above him. “Sam, you’ve been—you’ve been holding out, I never knew—oh, Christ, Sam, come up here,” and his hands were on Sam’s shoulders, he was pulling Sam up to the bed. He came slowly, not wanting to let Richard’s cock slip out of his mouth, but Richard pulled him up and kissed him, and—this was everything he’d never even let himself think about wanting.
He was helpless with it, rutting down against Richard’s body, Richard saying, “That’s good,” around Sam’s mouth, “do it like that. Let it go, come on,” hands running over Sam’s back and ass and thighs, their cocks, sliding together, Richard all around him, and he put his head down and came against him.
As soon as he could get his breath back, panting, he moved back on the bed and dropped head down to Richard’s cock again; Richard let out a strangled cry, and Sam only sucked him for a minute or two before he was coming. Sam came up with the taste of Richard’s come thick in his mouth, and dropped down next to Richard with a sigh. It was just quiet and damp for a second; Sam stared up at the ceiling and thought he could almost see the heat rising off them in waves.
“Never have I ever,” said Richard next to him, “seen you lose control like that.”
“What you do to me,” said Sam, and bit his tongue.
“I don’t think I ever did it before.” Richard propped himself up on an elbow, looked down at Sam. “I think I’d remember.”
“Not like this, maybe,” Sam muttered.
Richard reached down and tipped his chin up; Sam could remember him doing the same thing to Ilsa, lots of times, and twitched away. “Sam,” he said, and smiled, like he couldn’t help himself. “I never thought.”
“You don’t have to—” said Sam, “I mean, this ain’t something I need to—”
Richard leaned down and kissed him, and Sam forgot what he was saying.
“You and me,” he said when he was done. “You’re going to show these Free French some piano like they’ve never seen, and we’re going to kick the Nazis the hell out of France, and when they’re gone we’ll find a nice place with a spotlight—”
“I don’t need no spotlight,” said Sam.
“You liked the spotlight, anyone could see that,” said Richard. “And we’ll stay there. All right?”
Sam sighed, and he could feel his muscles relaxing, feel the heat of Richard next to him. “All right,” he said.