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For Better or Worse

By R. Cooper

Published by R. Cooper at Smashwords

Copyright 2017 R. Cooper

Cover by Lyn Forester

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Javier was in love.

The realization echoed through his mind like church bells. Javier was in love with a passion he had never expected to feel and it took his breath away.

Scotty had actually asked about his health. Javier had dragged his attention from the way Jimmy cracked his neck when he got feisty and told Scotty he was fine. The up-and-down fever of anxious, happy desire wouldn’t kill him, even if it felt fatal. Part of him wanted to savor it, to sit in the shadows beneath the overgrown, out-of-place magnolia tree in his backyard and listen to the sounds from over the fence as Jimmy stubbed his toe in the dark and then swore at the lawn furniture. Bacio’s collar and tags would jingle, because of course the dog would run over to investigate what was wrong, and Jimmy’s mild blasphemy would grow fond and distracted. Then the silence would only be broken by Bacio’s pleased grunting for her belly rubs, and Jimmy’s long, final sigh before they went in for the night. Javier would stay awake and think impossible things until he fell asleep with his head against the post at the top of the porch.

Waking up cold and uncomfortable a short time later didn’t seem to stop him. It was as close to being out of control as Javier had ever been, even if most people didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps because Javier had never been the type to broadcast his emotions. Some would have said he had no emotions in the first place. Javier Ramirez didn’t feel fear, and he didn’t lose it, not for anything, or so the guys—and Mary—at the firehouse said. He also didn’t date.

His mother and his aunts called him “choosy.” His sister and cousins thought he was full of himself for not wanting to go out with their friends. The people in town seemed to think he was a player. He still didn’t understand why.

Javier liked sex, sometimes, had hungered for it for those few months of happiness in college when he’d been in love for the first time, before he’d been dumped and crushed and left to barely pass his finals like every other freshman. But he didn’t want sex the way others did, the way he was supposed to want it all the time.

To this day he could remember the exact feeling of relief at discovering terms like demisexual and gray ace, and his immediate need to know more, and then still, always, that faint shame of not being what he was supposed to be.

He could feel it now, a familiar hollow space in his chest, but for the moment it was drowned out by the rapid beating of his heart as he watched Jimmy wash dishes.

The kitchen was bright despite the hour. The red-orange beams of the setting sun reached them from the wide windows over the small nook referred to as a “dining room” by the owner of the little house when he’d rented it out. The lights above the sink and stove were more than enough to see by even without that.

The evening was warm, but the faint sheen of sweat on the back of Jimmy’s neck could have been from the hot water, or Jimmy choosing to use his oven on a night when most people would have given up and eaten takeout. He was flushed, his skin warm and rosy. That might have been from the heat or the uncharacteristic second glass of wine Jimmy had poured himself at dinner.

His short dark hair stood on its ends, damp from running his fingers through it as he talked.

“Should let these soak for a while,” Jimmy complained, while gently washing out the inside of his prized saucepan. “It’s too hot for this shit,” he added as if Javier had said anything. He moved, always in motion, and the thin gold chain at his neck glinted in the light.

The little kitchen was almost unbearably warm, but Javier stayed put. “You decided on ziti, not me,” he pointed out and cracked a smiled when Jimmy twitched and then turned to fix him with a hurt look.

“Fuck you, you love my ziti,” Jimmy said seriously, before twitching again and quickly facing the sink. He reached up to brush his fingers over the small cross at the end of that gold chain. Water from his hands had probably already soaked through his T-shirt. “And so does the old man,” Jimmy went on, with a barely noticeable pause. “He’ll eat it and he’ll like it.”

Still smiling, Javier stepped over to the cabinet filled with plastic wrap and foil and plastic tubs with lids and pulled out some containers for the leftovers. He was careful not to disturb the pristine order inside the cabinet.

“Oh, thanks.” Jimmy twisted to watch Javier dish out what remained of the baked ziti, but ducked his head when Javier finished. He blindly accepted the baking dish and plopped it into the soapy water in the sink. “That is definitely gonna soak.” The traces of his Midwestern accent were stronger than usual, but that happened when Jimmy had been drinking. He looked like he ought to be playing an Italian-American gangster from the 1930s, or some cliché low-level guido thug, but when Jimmy spoke he put Javier in mind of hockey moms and casserole.

“Put more in the one you’re taking home.” Jimmy stopped to have another sip of the nice red he’d opened for tonight, as though he didn’t go on shift in the morning.

“Why?” Javier paused in the middle of sealing up a container. He expected to take one home. He always did after these nights, the same way Jimmy left Javier’s house with foil-wrapped food on the evenings he came over for dinner.

Jimmy shrugged. The movement carried down his body, emphasizing the thinness of his T-shirt and the thickness of his boxer’s build. The shirt was too old and too worn. It stretched at Jimmy’s shoulders and had clung to his chest even before Jimmy had gotten soaked by dishwater.

Javier took a moment to deal with the rush of icy prickling heat across his skin, the stab of need and the urgent pull toward Jimmy that still shocked him. Then he took a breath.

“How illuminating,” Javier commented pointedly, and sealed the containers exactly as they were.

“No appetite, that’s all.” Jimmy stuck the last fork in the drying rack, then let the water in the sink drain. “Quit worrying. I can hear you thinking.”

Javier opened, then closed, his mouth. He tried again. “You didn’t have to make dinner if you didn’t feel up to it. What the hell? It’s not as if I couldn’t make my own food.”

Jimmy snorted and took his time drying his hands. “The whole internet knows that, Javi.” His tone was dry and teasing, but he finished his wine in the next moment, then crossed into the so-called dining room to get the bottle to refill his glass. He tipped the bottle toward Javier when he was done.

Javier glanced down at his own glass and the half inch or so of wine at the bottom, then shook his head.

“Whole internet?” he scoffed, although his smile shifted into a frown. “Maybe just half.”

“I have seen the stuff they send to your PO Box. Postcards from all over the world.” Jimmy tossed the remark back easily, probably because they joked a lot about Javi’s cooking blog and his fans. Tonight, though, Jimmy scowled.

It would have been fearsome if Javier didn’t know him. Jimmy was strong, like any of the guys, and Mary, down at the fire station, but also tall. He had black hair and thick eyebrows and would probably have been as symmetrically handsome as Scotty if not for his Roman nose, which was not only big but had obviously been broken at least once in his lifetime. Jimmy had been a boxer during his years of community college, and it showed in his face and how he moved. He was graceful but rarely still, and he watched everything as if a punch might come from any direction at any time.

Javier looked at Jimmy’s faded Blues shirt and jeans and his pugnacious stare, then away. “You can’t just leave that in the sink. You have to scrub off some of the gunk first.” He went to the sink and grabbed the sponge. He used too much soap but he liked the grapefruit scent.

Jimmy made a noise of protest, probably because he still considered Javier a guest in his home after well over a year of regularly sharing dinners. Somedays, Javier didn’t mind. Other nights, like tonight, he rubbed the line across his thumb that had healed over without forming thick white scar tissue and reminded himself to breathe.

According to a lot of websites, it could be difficult to find someone willing to accept a partner who wasn’t as interested in sex as most other people. But Javier had never attempted to see anyone since figuring himself out. And then Jimmy had moved to town, and sometime after that Javier had fallen in love with him, because Javier had a stubborn and contrary heart.

Truthfully, being gray was the least of his obstacles here.

“He’s telling me how to clean up in my own home,” Jimmy complained to Bacio as she wandered in through the open sliding door in the living room. Her collar and tags jingled as he scratched her chest in greeting. “How’s the old man, huh? I know you were bothering him. I can tell by your guilty face.”

Bacio’s face did not look guilty. She was a picture of open-mouthed, tongue-lolling bliss as Jimmy fussed over her. She had looked that way nearly from the moment Jimmy had found the abandoned, starving pit-mix and brought her home. Javier had no idea what the mix part of her was, and neither did Jimmy, but she had a slightly large head and huge eyes and cute ears that flopped over instead of standing straight. She was also spoiled rotten.

Javier’s heart felt too big for his chest, so he went back to scrubbing cooked cheese off the baking dish. “She doesn’t bother him and you know it. My uncle adores her.”

“He’s babysitting her more than feels right,” Jimmy complained softly. “Give him some extra ziti for it. He’s probably gonna grumble some shit about heartburn or something, but he’ll eat it. He just doesn’t want to admit how good my ma’s sauce is.” There, Jimmy went quiet. Javier didn’t have to look over to know Jimmy would be rubbing his thumb against the small gold cross around his neck. He always did when he thought of his family, particularly his mother.

“You can have your own imaginary argument with him.” Javier picked cheese off the sponge, then wiped the dish clean. “I’m busy.”

“Yeah, yeah. Look at you. Doing the dishes.” Jimmy sounded closer. Javier raised his head to see Jimmy at the end of the kitchen counter, standing straight with his arms at his sides. He smiled a little, as if he was going to say something sarcastic, but he seemed sincere when he said, “You need to get back in the game. You are going to make someone a decent husband someday.” He put a hand over his chest and the cross now hidden by his shirt. “If we were home, my ma would have, like, six girls lined up for you already.”

The last thing Javier needed was more poor people being sent on dates with him. Only years of practice kept him from wincing. He tried to deflect. “What, none for you?”

Jimmy had an ex-wife. Javier had actually spoken to her once, when Jimmy had asked him to get the phone thinking it was Tiny on the other end. Of all the people in Jimmy’s past, the best friend he’d married at nineteen and divorced at twenty-one was the only one to ever call him out here in his new home.

She’d been pregnant and alone and Catholic, Jimmy had explained to him, after promising his ex-wife he’d call her back in a few minutes. He said he’d done what any friend would do and married her so her family wouldn’t throw her out or something else drastic. He said it as if anyone but him would actually do that when it wasn’t their baby, and Javier hadn’t corrected him. Jimmy still sent the kid birthday and Christmas cards, talked to him on the computer sometimes.

“Javi, do you or do you not remember those girls at that cabin last weekend?” Unaware of Javier’s thoughts, Jimmy brought up about the college kids who’d rented a place out by the reservoir. They’d overloaded the wiring in the old house despite all the notices the owner had put up warning guests about that, and caused a small fire with a lot of smoke. “Those kids—those girls—were all over you and Scotty. They didn’t even see me.”

But he’d wanted them to. That went without saying.

Javier pretended to consider the grateful girls in their shorts and bikini tops, and then the boys with them. Jimmy apparently wasn’t going to mention the soft boy with the piercings who had taken a liking to Scotty. And to Javier, but that meant it was a fireman fetish more than anything personal.

“You know you’re—” Jimmy moved around the counter to take the lighter container of leftovers and stick it in the fridge. “You know what you look like.”

Javier was no Scotty, but he was in shape the way the job required. He was tall enough, if two inches shorter than Jimmy. His skin was a mellow brown, though he’d get darker as the summer wore on. He kept his short, thick curly hair locked into place with pomade when he wasn’t working, but curls inevitably fell over his forehead anyway. He also smiled a lot despite the reputation for always keeping his cool that secretly bothered him a little. He was quiet, not calm.

Yeah, the girls—and boy—had been all over him, but Javier hadn’t been interested. Javier was, in the words of local wannabe big shot Kathy Blane, “a waste,” because he was a young, hot, Latino firefighter who liked to cook and yet he didn’t date anyone.

Javier had assumed Jimmy didn’t mind that but evidently he did.

“I remember them,” Javier said at last, to appease him. “Not as much as you, apparently. Do you want to get back in the game? Is that why—” He tried not to glance at Jimmy’s wine glass.

He failed.

“I grew up on this stuff.” Jimmy defiantly took a sip. “And, jeez, way to overreact. I wasn’t trying to marry you off, I just wanted to….” He emptied the last of the bottle into each of their glasses as he muttered, “Of course he forgot all about them already. Spezzando il mio cuore and he doesn’t even notice.”

Javier dried his hands and cautiously accepted his glass when Jimmy came forward to hand it to him.

“Salute,” Jimmy offered as he clinked their glasses together. His gaze was strangely fierce until Javier raised his glass to his mouth. Then his eyes went wide before he backed away and turned around. “It’s nice being in a kitchen with you again, since we’re still forbidden at the firehouse. Fucking stupid rule. Fucking Tiny thinking I’m a distraction.”

Almost a month ago, Javier and Jimmy had been in the station’s kitchen prepping dinner for everyone on shift when Javier had cut his hand. The wound wasn’t serious—hadn’t even been worth a stitch—but Tiny had taken one look at the two of them and banned Jimmy from the kitchen while Javier was cooking.

The rule was stupid. Jimmy was the best cook on their shift after Javier unless the dish was Italian, and the most useful to have around. But Tiny was firm on the subject, as if he knew. As if he’d seen Javier standing there with his hand wrapped in a bloody towel, unable to take his eyes off Jimmy long enough to take care of his own injury.

Straight people like Tiny usually didn’t notice stuff like that. Jimmy sure as hell hadn’t. All he’d seemed focused on was the blood and then making a hundred guilty apologies for how much he’d talked and how annoying he must have been.

Jimmy’s stream of words, and sometimes humming to himself as he cooked, wasn’t annoying. Javier, who was quiet even when in a good mood, enjoyed the sound. He could tune it in or out at will, and Jimmy didn’t seem to mind. Javier loved their time in the kitchen together like he loved Jimmy. Jimmy was his friend, possibly his best friend, and his crush. He’d accepted that long ago.

But in that moment, Jimmy had been humming. Not his usual wordless melodies, but something that sounded like Scotty’s workout music, so Javier had looked over, intending to make fun of him. And… and Jimmy was busy preparing tons of chicken to put in an alfredo bake large enough to feed everyone, and smiling to himself as he hummed Beyoncé or whomever. He wasn’t frowning or keeping an eye out. He wasn’t tense. He was happy.

He moved like a boxer, which was not unlike a dancer, stepping back to grab something from the spice rack before sliding forward again. His apron could have been pulled off him with one gentle tug. His grin was sweet and somehow still cocky. His hands were broad and sure, and Javier thought about how they would feel on his body a second before he jerked in shock and sliced through his thumb instead of an onion.

Javier was in love and that meant desire. He hadn’t been prepared for Jimmy the distraction, quirky, beautiful, and untouchable.

He took a large drink of wine as if that would make the fire in his blood go away.

“I know I talk too much.” Jimmy went on. He’d probably been muttering about it for a few minutes now while he dug around in his couch cushions for the tennis ball Bacio had hidden in there. “But you can always tell me to shut up. Kicking me out is just… I didn’t deserve that, okay?”

“Okay,” Javier agreed.

Jimmy waved that off. “I know it wasn’t you. We can be in a kitchen together just fine. We prove that practically every night. But one accident and Tiny overreacts, that protective fuck. It’s been over a month and I still feel like I’m in timeout. He ain’t my mother.” Jimmy paused, then smacked a cushion really hard. “God, you didn’t see him last night. So we got that call, right? About the kid stuck in the drainpipe—this fucking town. I love what it considers an emergency. Anyway, this poor kid. He was really wedged in there. So you and the other guys stayed at the station, and we just took one of the pump trucks, with Scotty along in case of any serious injuries. And the whole time we’re discussing how best to cut into this pipe to get the kid out, Tiny’s also asking Scotty about him and Cole, and if Cole’s treating him right, because if not he’ll sic the firehouse on him.”

Tiny had probably been joking. Javier tensed anyway.

Jimmy smacked the cushion again. “It’s not right for Tiny to say shit like that.”

After two years of working together and spending all this time in each other’s company, Jimmy still managed to surprise him.

“He was teasing,” Javier reassured him. He didn’t know it for certain, but Tiny had been the first person in town to make friends with Scotty and had stood up for Scotty in the firehouse after Scotty had been outed by Kathy Blane and her friends. Not little gestures either, like Javier had done. Tiny had done more than sit next to Scotty at dinner, or smile in support. Tiny had outright demanded that everyone in the station man up and accept Scotty as one of them.

And they had, although with complaints from some of the guys on the other shifts.

“I know that.” Jimmy made a face. “That kid was stuck in the drainpipe because he was hiding from some bullies, probably because—” Jimmy left that sentence unfinished and took a drink. “Tiny probably thought he was being helpful. But that Cole is… Cole’s a little guy, Javi. He’s little and he’s… he wears sparkly shoes and bowties. Sometimes you can tell about people, what they been through, but with Cole you don’t even need to guess. You know he’s been beat up before, maybe a lot, because of who he is. And just because he can take it doesn’t mean he should have to. Tiny should really think… he should think about what he says. That Cole talks tough, but he’s small and he’s… he shouldn’t be afraid of a firehouse full of giant guys. That’s not—that’s not right.”

“No.” Javier kept his attention sharply on Jimmy. The rumors about Jimmy, the stories no one spoke about anymore, whispered to him. Javier pushed them away. He knew better than to listen to gossip, even when it gave him hope. “No, it isn’t right. I’ll talk to Tiny about it. He means well, but there’s a different context here.”

Context. You and your college words.” Jimmy gave him a short, surprisingly fond look. “Anyway, Scotty laughed.” Despite everything he’d just said, Jimmy tried to shrug it off. “Called Tiny nosy, and told him he wasn’t worried about Cole going up to the city for, uh, Pride Weekend. Said Cole always does, to honor someone, and Scotty has to work anyway.” Jimmy frowned at his glass. “Tiny just asked about Cole’s sneakers.”

Javier could breathe again. “The rainbow ones?” They were very pretty.

“Yeah.” Jimmy raised his head to look at him. His eyes were wide and impossible to read. But he was tense despite the wine. He’d been tense all night. “I think Tiny’s gonna buy a pair. For Scotty, do you think? Tiny’s married so… I don’t know.” He rubbed his chest until Bacio dropped the tennis ball onto the couch again. Jimmy picked it up and tossed it out the open sliding door. Bacio scrambled after it.

Javier put his wine down. “I don’t think Scotty wears sneakers he can’t run in. But those rainbow ones are nice.”

Jimmy’s lips fell open. He swept a look over Javier’s body, down to his feet, then took an audible breath before bringing his gaze back up.

Even knowing Jimmy was probably just imagining him in rainbow shoes, Javier was shaken. He turned to get himself a glass of water. “I feel like Cole could secretly know kung fu and I wouldn’t be surprised. Or have some kind of superpower where he can kill people with words.” To everyone in town, Javier was smooth and impassive, but one glance from Jimmy and he was sweating. “But maybe that’s the impression he wants people to have. Little guy like that? With his tendency to speak up and not back down no matter what people are saying about him? He knows what pain is.”

He hadn’t thought Jimmy cared about Cole. Maybe not in a hateful way, but a lot of people avoided Cole and his sharp tongue. Jimmy didn’t go out of his way to talk to Cole, whatever the reason.

Jimmy was holding an empty glass when Javier turned around. “You can finish mine if you want,” Javier offered. Jimmy was picky about wine and only bought good stuff. It would be a crime to waste it. “You must have been feeling extra Italian today, with the ziti and the wine.” They normally had beer if they were drinking with dinner. “I wasn’t sure you liked Cole.”

“Fuck you, I’m Italian every day,” Jimmy responded immediately, then came over. He poured Javier’s leftover red into his glass, then silently toasted him before downing the last of it in one swallow. “He’s—why do I need to like him?” Jimmy’s voice was husky from the wine. “It’s not like I’m gonna be invited to their gay wedding.”

“Wedding?” Javier took Jimmy’s glass from him and carried both empty glasses to the sink. He got Jimmy some water. “They’ve been dating for a month, at least that I know of.”

A flush carried through Jimmy’s olive skin. “Mr. Listens to Records My Grandma Listened to While He Bakes Cookies doesn’t seem stupid to me.”

Javier tipped his head to the side. “And?”

And,” Jimmy finished dramatically, possibly a little drunk despite growing up with wine at every meal. “How do you not see this? Cole’s gonna lock Scotty down. We already know he’s the marrying type.” Jimmy ignored the water he should have been drinking as he made his point. “Funny. All that struggle to make it legal and you’d think Cole would get to be happy, but then his… his husband dies. And now it’s legal everywhere but it don’t make it any different from everyone else. It’s not any different, is it? Fuck. Did you want more to drink?”

His tone was off. Jimmy could sound like someone spoiling for a fight, but he never was. He just felt a lot, about everything, and liked to talk about it.

“I’m good on wine.” Javier shook his head. Jimmy huffed at that, almost offended, but went to his fridge and got out two beers. He slid a bottle across the counter to Javier, then made too much noise getting an opener out of a drawer. Javier studied the tense set of his shoulders. “You don’t object to that, do you? Marriage, between Scotty and Cole, or… whoever?”

He swung his gaze over to the bookshelf, full of pictures of Jimmy’s family. On the wall next to the bookshelf, Jimmy had hung a crucifix with some palm leaves behind it.

“Object?” Jimmy cracked open both bottles. “People should get to be happy. Scotty should get his happiness too. He gets enough shit from people, and I guarantee we don’t even know the half of it. But his sister seems cool, and he gets… he gets to help raise those kids. That must be good, having them around.”

Many of the pictures on Jimmy’s bookshelves were of children, nieces and nephews, possibly. His extended family was as big as Javier’s. But the pictures were several years old. The kids wore stuff that wasn’t popular anymore or were holding up toys that had been the item to have for Christmas three or four years ago.

“Yeah.” Javier nodded, because Scotty’s niece and nephew were adorable and because he also could not imagine life without having a ton of family members around. Javier had moved across town to share a house with his great uncle, but he was still near his family. He drove people when their cars didn’t work, and cooked at big dinners, and went to communions and graduations even when he was tired or it was a pain to do it, because it was family. He knew—he knew—Jimmy had once had that, and missed it because Jimmy put those pictures up but he never said a word about them.

“You going to drink that beer or just hold it?” Javier finally asked, voice gruff. He tried to tease a smile out of Jimmy, even though Jimmy shouldn’t have any more to drink tonight. Jimmy startled, as if his thoughts had been somewhere else, but he let Javier clink their bottles together. “To Scotty and Cole being happy, then,” Javier toasted, and took a quick swallow of beer to get rid of the rasp in his voice.

Jimmy watched him drink with sudden intense focus. His throat worked as if he’d swallowed too, but he hadn’t had any beer. Then he turned and took a long pull from his bottle. “You really don’t care, do you? Scotty and Cole being together. It doesn’t bother you.”

“No.” Javier knew Jimmy had his reasons for asking, so he didn’t get offended that he’d been lumped in with bigots and homophobes, even though the whole thing was painfully funny. He drew in a long breath. “No, I—”

Not for the first time, he thought about coming clean and telling Jimmy everything. He trusted Jimmy at work with his life, and he trusted him in his home with his cooking and his family. He would trust Jimmy with his heart if he thought Jimmy would want it. But he had a small, secret fantasy that one day Jimmy might want him too, and telling Jimmy meant letting go of that. Meant Jimmy probably scowling in confusion and then distaste the way his sisters had, or Jimmy insisting that Javier just had to keep trying until he found the right person.

That would do more than break his heart. So Javier had another gulp of beer he didn’t want. “What other people do, and who they fall in love with, shouldn’t be anyone else’s business, as long as they are adults and everyone is happy and safe.”

He received another sharp stare at the words. Jimmy’s lips were shining and parted with surprise. “I figured you’d give me a hero’s answer,” he said warmly, then dropped his gaze. “Safe?” His breathing was shaky.

“Safe,” Javier repeated firmly. “People should feel safe with who they love, safe with the one they love. If you don’t feel that, then the relationship isn’t good for you.” He didn’t think he was buzzed, but something made him keep talking. “Fuck sparks and sex appeal. They don’t mean anything if you can’t be yourself around someone. It’s like Scotty and those cookies Cole bakes for him. That’s—you should find someone who makes you feel like that, like who you are is okay with them, no matter what.” He shook his head. “Not for murder or being a white supremacist or something. But everything else. You should feel safe to be yourself around anyone you love, family or friends or... anyone.” He pushed the beer away from him, vaguely embarrassed at saying all that, but also not sorry. “Have you been worried about Cole this whole time?”

“Worried?” Jimmy flinched so hard he almost dropped his beer. “It’s not about Cole. It’s about people in general. Fuck me. That ain’t—that isn’t why I was thinking about it. Quit looking at me all soft like that! People are gonna—” His tight expression shifted to regret. “Jesus. I’m sorry. I know you weren’t…. You aren’t the kind of guy to say shit like that. Christ.” He dragged a hand through his hair, no less agitated than he’d been a moment ago. He took another drink then gave Javier a small, rueful smile. “Sometimes it’s like I’ve got no fucking manners. You’d think I would, right? You’d think I’d be like Cole, with manners coming out of my ears, and La Bohème in my headphones, fuckin’ rainbows on my shoes and my tie. Instead, I’m—”

Jimmy shut his mouth and for one second his terrified eyes met Javier’s. He dropped his beer though it was a half inch from the counter top. He straightened it with both hands before it could fall over, then turned sharply and went into the living room.

Javier took both bottles and set them in the sink. His hands weren’t shaking. They never did, no matter what was happening. He breathed in and out slowly, needing more oxygen to help him think clearly.

The words themselves didn’t disturb him. That was the silence afterward, and Jimmy’s fear.

“You want some more water?” Javier called out when minutes had gone by. He needlessly topped off Jimmy’s glass despite getting no answer.

Jimmy was in the living room, just in front of the sliding door that led to his yard. His house was an in-law unit, really, with a private entrance if he went through the yard and into his living room. He did have an actual front door, but it was around the back and by the landlord’s door so he never used it.

The yard was small but attractive, with a stone path and a bunch of hardy plants that didn’t need a lot of water and weren’t likely to die under the feet of an excited puppy. Though Bacio was almost two years old and hardly a puppy anymore.

On one side of the yard was a fence with a door that didn’t lock well, probably because no one had ever seriously locked it. Through the door was Javier’s yard. Or, to be correct, his great uncle’s yard, but Javier paid rent and cooked for him, so it might as well be part his. The trunk of the magnolia was there, the branches extending over the latticework border at the top of the fence to graciously provide a shady spot for Jimmy’s table and lawn chairs.

In that corner behind the table, Bacio was staring up at something in the tree, possibly a cat or a squirrel. Her posture was more curious than aggressive.

Jimmy didn’t look at him as he came up. Javier held out the water glass anyway. His heart was pounding and he had no idea what to do, because Jimmy hadn’t really said anything.

After a moment, he pushed the water at Jimmy until Jimmy grabbed it.

“I don’t need any fucking water,” Jimmy complained, maybe a little more spiky and defensive than usual.

But that was easy to respond to. “You work in the morning. Drink it.”

“I’m not going to get hungover from a few glasses of wine,” Jimmy answered stubbornly, the way he always did. His hands gripped the glass.

“Drink it anyway,” Javier suggested softly. “It’ll make me happy.”

That got Jimmy’s eyes on him for a second. Then Jimmy took a sip before he turned away. He kept his attention on his yard as though he’d never seen it before. “I, uh—” He sounded like he had trouble catching his breath. “I, uh, was thinking I’d stop by the nursery sometime this week. Get something that can grow in the shade under that tree. I might be getting the hang of this gardening thing. It helps that you don’t have real seasons out here in this weirdo state.”

“You’ve been here through three winters,” Javier reminded him.

Jimmy jumped on that, like always. “Breaking news: California winters are not real winters. You maybe get a bit wet. And then you complain about it! Try snow, huh? Try blizzards and freezing your nuts off!”

“No thanks. My nuts can stay where they are.” Javier smiled to himself, although his heart was still thudding against his ribs.

Jimmy sputtered, then closed his mouth. The air smelled of greenery and magnolia blossoms, almost like lemon or citron.

Javier could hear all his hopes and wishes in the silence, like whispers—Jimmy might be— Jimmy is—but when he tried to speak, he heard those other whispers, less loving, saw Jimmy staring at him, cornered and terrified.

He couldn’t say it was okay when they both knew sometimes it wasn’t. Jimmy had just said it, hadn’t he? While worrying over Cole and some scared kid.

“James Rizzo,” Javier said on a sigh, the name sweet even in this moment.

“You forgot the food.” Jimmy spun around to head toward the kitchen. “I’m almost insulted,” he called out, words a little too fast. “What, you don’t like my cooking now?”

The strain in the question might have been Javier’s imagination. He shook his head anyway. “You know I love it.”

Jimmy came back to lightly shove the container of leftovers against Javier’s chest. He released a small, shuddery breath when Javier took it, and then Jimmy hurried on, out the door. “I should see what Bacio’s stalking before she starts digging or something and gets us both in trouble. You need me to walk you home?” he asked from several feet of distance. The joke had stopped being funny over a year ago, but Javier took it as his cue to leave.

He took a few dazed steps before Jimmy spoke again, as though he couldn’t help himself.

“That old man is over there. I can hear him.” Jimmy directed his words to the fence. A laugh carried through the air. “Now he’s laughing. I bet he gave Bacio too many treats again, and I’m gonna be up at 3 a.m., letting her out to shit. I made you some extra ziti, old man! You hear me? I know you understand me, tio abuelo!”

His accent was terrible. On the other side of the fence, Javier’s great uncle murmured something in Spanish that Javier didn’t quite catch.

“Oh, he heard me,” Jimmy muttered. “And he understands me just fine.” He kneeled down and put his face against Bacio’s shoulder. “Night, Javi. See you in the morning?”

It wasn’t normally a question. Javier nodded, though Jimmy couldn’t see. “Night, Jimmy,” he whispered, clutching the plastic container of food.

He slipped through the door in the fence and closed it behind him, although even the smallest push from Bacio would open it again. It would serve his uncle right if the dog chose their yard for her late night toilet break.

Less of the fading sunlight reached him here, blocked by the thick canopy of the tree and part of the roof over the porch. In the corner where their fence met Jimmy’s, directly beneath the magnolia, Javier’s great uncle was bent over in front of the backyard shrine, pulling sprouts before they could become weeds. The Virgin of Guadalupe watched benignly from her niche of stone, bellflowers at her back and violets at her feet. She had a glass candleholder on either side, though no candles were currently lit. Solar-powered garden lights in the ground along the fence were already fading. They didn’t get much sunlight.

“Dinner,” Javier told his uncle, in English. Most of the Spanish he’d learned as a child had been lost in an elementary school that demanded English. He understood more than he spoke, and his uncle was more prone to Spanglish with Javier anyway, unless Jimmy was around. For whatever reason, Uncle Peyo found it amusing to rile Jimmy up by pretending not to speak English. Jimmy knew he was pretending. Somehow they communicated with each other anyway, mostly about Bacio.

“You didn’t eat with your friend?” Uncle Peyo put a lot of emphasis in that last word. He dug out a final weed, then got to his knees with a lot of cracking and popping sounds from his joints. At the sound of his voice, Bacio yipped and then snuffled at the fence before Jimmy called her away. Javier heard footsteps but wasn’t sure if Jimmy had gone inside or not.

“I did eat. This is for you.” Javier waited another moment, then climbed the three steps to the porch. He sat without much thought, sliding a hand down the post supporting the porch roof. He swung his legs over the edge, letting his feet touch the ground. “Ziti,” he added, much softer now although they were probably alone. “Do you not like it?”

Bacio was still out, collar and tags giving away her presence somewhere Javier couldn’t see.

“I like it.” Uncle Peyo thumped his chest as he walked over. “It doesn’t like me.” He stopped at the bottom of the steps. “You smell like wine.”

“I’m not drunk,” Javier defended himself absently.

“No, not our Javi.” Uncle Peyo knew why Javier didn’t usually get as wasted as some of the other firefighters did when winding down at the Saratoga. But the family had long since given up on Javier’s dad, and talking about him got them nowhere. He was a drunk and better off gone, if not forgotten. Uncle Peyo made a funny noise, nearly a whistle. “But your eyes are shining.” Javier held out the container. His uncle ignored it. “You finally get tired of all the date nights?”

“What?” Javier raised his head and swept a fierce look over his uncle’s short frame. “What?” he asked again.

Uncle Peyo pulled up the belt that he buckled below his little paunch. The belt matched his cowboy boots. He combed his thick mustache with his fingers, looking sly as he did it. When he spoke, he used a voice he clearly thought was funny. “I’ll cook you dinner. Let me feed you. We’ll take the dog for a walk in the sunset. Pfft. Un par de dumbasses. Every night when he’s in your kitchen, you don’t want him to leave. He doesn’t want to leave. El perro no quiere que se vaya. Every night you are over there, I wake up to find you aquí, en un sueño, staring. Tu es gay.”

“I’m not gay,” Javier replied without thinking. Then he swallowed.

Of all his relatives, Uncle Peyo was the only one who hadn’t questioned him when he’d tried to talk about his sexuality. It might have been because Peyo was also the family weirdo, who lived alone and had never married. All the same, after Javier had spent a year trying to date the women the knitting circle had kept throwing at him, and then broken down and given up, it was Peyo who had offered him a place to stay away from the rest of the family.

Javier hadn’t used the word demi, or gray. He hadn’t said anything. Peyo had ordered him to cook something, and while Javier did that, told him a small town had all types. “The same as a city,” Peyo said, “but you have more time to see people, to notice things. We’ve always had different types. Sometimes ‘bachelor’ means gay. Sometimes it means some chick broke his heart and he never married. And sometimes it means he never wanted to get married. Simple.”

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