Chapter 1: The One With The Insomnia, The Louboutins and The Plot to Break Esposito
Kevin Ryan couldn’t sleep. He’d spent the last four hours tossing and turning, trying to purge the images from his mind. Javier bleeding out, gasping for air, fighting to speak as blood filled his lungs. Kevin held him tight; not having the words to say all he should. Tears filling his eyes as Javier buried his face in his chest; swallowing down the emotions, he focused on applying pressure to slow the bleeding.
The smell of blood filled the room, enveloping him in its sweet metallic tang. He knew the taste of it by heart. Memories flickered through his mind; cold pavement against his back, labored breathing in his ear, heart pounding against his ribs. Javier gasped and Kevin was back, wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve, leaving dark smears on the burgundy fabric. Warm, sticky liquid on his hands, soaking through his clothes, staining his skin.
“Kev -" Javier gasped, body straining and shaking.
“Stop.” Every weak pulse rippled through him like aftershocks. “Quit givin’ me that look; you can tell me later.”
This was all there would be for goodbye; cradling Javier as their foreheads touched, smiling down at him, willing him to breathe. To survive long enough to make it to the hospital. Counting each raspy, wet intake of breath, listening to the stomach-twisting gurgle of blood flooding his lungs. He couldn’t do this again, couldn’t lose another person he loved this way.
“Just keep breathing.” Tears slid unnoticed down his cheeks.
Those warm, dark eyes flickered shut for a moment too long, and Kevin’s heart stopped. His entire body on pause, waiting for the next breath. Shuddering with relief when Javier looked up at him again; would’ve kissed him if breathing wasn’t already an issue. Unable to speak as a thousand things welled up at once, Kevin stroked his thumb over Javi’s cheek, his breath catching as blood streaked red on brown. Sobbed helplessly, as Javier closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, pressing a kiss to the heel of his hand.
“It’ll be okay. I got you, bro.”
But he didn’t, because the blood kept flowing and no one was coming to save them. Javier Esposito’s eyes closed for the last time seconds before Beckett, Demming and Castle rushed into the room. Ryan’s piercing cry of grief pushing them down the hall, to find him on the floor covered in blood, rocking Javier in his arms. The low, anguished sounds rising out of his chest overwhelmed Beckett as she fell to her knees at his side. Even Castle was silent, as everything Ryan could never say poured out in a wave of grief.
He snapped awake; heart pounding against his sternum, threatening to crack open his chest as tears made tracks down his face. Memories danced and swayed like smoke; warm blood on his skin, the soft brush of lips against his palm, the look in Javier’s eyes as brown held blue for the last time. It was only a dream, already evaporating. Yet echoes of that gunshot rang in his ears.
Kevin lay there shivering in the dark, letting the tears fall as he closed his eyes. It was just a dream, a way for his mind to process the impact of the case. In that moment, with his gun aimed at Holliwell’s skull, all he could think about was Javier. Fear crashed down around him, as he imagined his partner dying, and everything he’d spent so much time denying fell into place.
He was in love.
Esposito had already been at the 12th for a year when Kevin transferred in from Narcotics. He wasn’t thrilled to be paired with someone new so soon after losing Thornton, let alone someone he referred to as “that kid from Narc”. But one night when they were stuck finishing reports, Ryan badgered him until he shuffled into the break room. Kevin had smuggled in an X-Box for when the endless paperwork threatened to drive him insane.
“Call of Duty break?” He grinned and tossed Esposito a controller, well aware his Awesome Points had just leveled up.
“Since you’re new I’ll be nice and warn you, ex-Army here.” He pointed to himself, looking rather smug. “I will kick your civilian ass, kid.”
Kevin rolled his eyes, plugging the console into the television as Esposito dropped into a chair, feet propped up on the table. He’d smuggled it inside with a backpack, then stashed it in a coffee container. His contraband remained untouched two weeks later, thanks to the precinct’s fanatical hatred of all things decaffeinated.
“Threats already? I haven’t even turned it on yet.”
“Just preparing you for the virtual beating which you are about to receive.” Esposito smirked; he was going to make Newbie cry.
“You never got the ‘plays nicely with other children’ box checked on your report cards, did you?”
“It haunts me to this very day.”
Three hours later, Kevin had him eating his words syllable by sweet syllable. He continued to systematically disassemble the younger cop’s X-Box cred through rounds of Splinter Cell, Halo, Rainbow Six and Call of Duty. Two weeks later, Javier finally relented and asked for some damn Madden already; something he had a possibility of winning. Kevin knew in some small way, the post-shift, pre-paperwork pixelated warfare was closing the gap between them. And he enjoyed beating Sarge into the ground; as the low dude on the totem pole, Kevin had limited kicks and so the look of indignant defeat on Esposito’s face was to be savored.
“Does it bother you?” Kevin asked one night, munching on a slice of cheese pizza while Esposito popped Madden in. “Playing first person shooters?”
Javi paused mid-step, and for a moment Kevin wondered if he’d gone too close too fast. Doctor Parish, the slinky medical examiner, liked to share. Probably got sick of talking to nothing but dead bodies, so it hadn’t taken much to get some stats out of her. Javier Esposito enlisted in the Army fresh out of high school, served for eight years and was active overseas during Desert Storm. He was a commended member of Special Forces, highly recommended for promotion and reenlistment, but upon completing his tour took his discharge papers and walked away. Afterward he virtually disappeared, only showing up in college transcripts and pay stubs from an automotive shop up state, until he joined the academy three years later. He stayed with the 54th until the death of his partner; he was then transferred to the 12th after the investigation was closed.
“Sometimes,” he said, the bravado fading for a moment. “But that’s the good thing about games, there’s always reset.”
Kevin stayed quiet while the X-Box started; watching the way Esposito’s shoulders fell a little as he settled into the chair. Followed by a sigh and pass of his hand over his hair. That night he decided Madden would be their game of choice, and Javier never questioned the disappearance of the others. Of course, he had a chance to kick Irish’s ass, so he wasn’t going to jeopardize that. When Castle finally arrived to round out their little hodgepodge family of wounded heroes a year later, Kevin was still “the new kid” but his relationship with Esposito had moved from annoyance to brotherhood.
Between his arrival at the precinct and those first months with Castle in the bullpen, things had changed. It wasn’t just bros and partners anymore, never really had been. But Kevin taught himself to ignore the chill that raced up his spine, when Esposito stood that little bit too close, the way his skin hummed whenever they touched. Javier’s chin millimeters from his shoulder as they shared a computer screen, a touch on his forearm to direct his attention somewhere important, the brief brush of fingers or wrists when they brought each other coffee.
He buried those emotions — familiar, raw and terrifying — down as deep as they would go. And the harder he fought to compartmentalize everything, the more his subconscious fought back. Filling his dreams with a hundred different possibilities he could never hope to have.
Laying in bed with just enough light for Kevin to make out his smile, resting on his boyfriend’s warm, muscular body. Idly tracing a line from his chin up over the shell of his ear. Chuckling when Javier shivered — that tickles — as his mouth trailed soft kisses over stubble, scraping his teeth against the corner of his jaw. Licking that red mark, breath lingering over his skin, just to hear Javier whisper curses at him. Grinning like a fool when he got his wish, and Javier’s fingers raked down his back as Kevin nipped his jaw again. His own bones melting with each slow sweep of Javier’s hands up and down the length of his back. Falling asleep with his nose in the crook of Javi’s neck, breathing in the familiar combination of sweat, tobacco and licorice.
Kevin thought his emotions were under control, but when Lanie asked him if he was in love with Javier earlier this year, because they had no concept of personal space and were constantly giving each other little looks fraught with subtext, he knew he needed to divert her suspicions immediately. Enter Jennifer Reynolds, stage left. His best-friend from childhood, who played his long-time girlfriend whenever he needed a cover. Over twenty-seven years of talking every day, regularly raiding his parents’ fridge, and judging every potential relationship Kevin ever had; Jenny had become the unofficial third Ryan kid. She was family. She also had stacks of dirt on him, which meant she’d mastered the role of “clingy girlfriend with horrid taste in ties” by his first year of college.
She was the first person he’d told about being bisexual at fifteen, and the following year she’d held his hand while he came out to his parents. Holding on tight, as tears filled his eyes and confusion washed over their faces. Shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee, they sat on his bedroom floor under the window listening to them come to terms. Voices rising up through the air vent. It had been the longest four hours of his life, until the night Javier left him standing in the parking garage.
They were never out of touch for more than a day or two, and her attention conveniently kept his sexuality off the table. Yet, she was the one who’d pointed out he was in love with Javier. All it took was one visit to the precinct for her to make the call. The look on Esposito’s face after they kissed was all the confirmation she needed. Pure shock with a light sheen of jealousy. Javier hated her instantly, which was of course, the whole idea.
“He’s crazy about you,” she whispered as they walked out of the bullpen hand in hand. “The kiss was a nice touch.”
“I thought so.” His grin matched hers as he opened the precinct door. “You were great, Jen.”
“I aim to please.” She beamed. “But, honey, kissing you?”
“Still like kissing your brother?”
“Totally.” She opened the car door and slid inside. “But it’s worth it if you snag Esposito. No wonder you get all twittery around him.”
“I do not get twittery around him.”
“Is that so?” Her eyes took on a deadly gleam, voice sultry. Rolling his name slowly around in her mouth. “Javier. Javier Esposito.”
“I am begging you to stop using that voice.”
“It’s very ‘my Spanish lover’. He’s a hot piece of ass; I’d totally hit that.”
“No.” His little sister had just called his partner a piece of ass, there were so many things wrong with this conversation. “N-no; no, no, no. You can’t just - you and … no.”
“Use your words, Kevin.”
She hadn’t seen him this flustered in a long time, and it could only mean one thing. He was in love, deeply and terribly in love.
“Puerto Rican.” He sank lower in his seat, cheeks burning. “He’s one-quarter Puerto Rican. Not Spanish.”
“What else do you know about him?”
“Stop it. Stop it now.”
Heat crawled from the base of his neck to his hairline, and sparks danced down his spine. Jenny knew him far too well, remembering just what triggers to flip to have him blushing and speechless in less than ten seconds. And she had no reservations about using her powers for evil.
He pulled at the knot in his tie. “I hate you so much right now.”
Jenny giggled, which just made it worse. “Would you like me to roll down the windows? You look a little warm?”
Kevin hit the button, using the finger he wanted to fire off at her, sending her a glare instead. Letting the cool breeze fill the car, and the symphony of city life distract him from thoughts of Esposito.
“We could totally use this to get the truth out of him.”
Not daring to make contact, Kevin watched her out of the corner of his eye. “How?”
“Simple, jealousy. Trust me, we can break him in six months or less.”
He stared at her for a long beat. “How do you not have a life of crime?”
“I prefer to use my powers for good, Father Ryan.” She smiled. “That and my evil laugh still needs some work.”
“That’s it, no more Dr. Horrible for you. I think you’re learning too much.”
“Aww, not fair. Though is it just me, or does Castle remind you of Captain Hammer?” She asked.
Kevin considered that, and couldn’t stop laughing. It absolutely fit, all he needed was some leather gloves and a cheesy theme song. He would never be able to watch that show without picturing Castle again.
“Do you see why I don’t bring you into work?”
“They’re all completely insane?”
“Still, what I said was true. I’m glad Esposito and Beckett are there to take care of you.”
She pulled him close by the sleeve of his jacket, planting a kiss on his temple. Kevin smiled as she took his hand and laced their fingers. How different his life would have been if she hadn’t marched over at the age of six and told him that his tyrannosaurus didn’t eat meat, therefore he couldn’t possibly be snacking on a GI Joes’ leg. Granted, it would have been quieter, but he would have missed out on the friendship that went much farther than Breaker and Rainbow Brite storming the vast battlefield of the Ryan’s backyard.
“So, what’s your plan, Evil One?”
“Patience. You keep talking about me, we share a few drinks sometime, and we continue being the annoyingly cute couple we are,” she said. “He’ll do all the hard work for us.”
“You are a deeply confident, yet twisted woman.”
“It’s why you keep me around.” She smiled innocently.
“What do I owe you this time?”
“You know those heels I loved? The pumps, not the strappy ones.”
Jenny had fallen hard and fast for Pepper Potts footwear, when they’d watched Iron Man last weekend. He should’ve known better than to let her watch it; he was used to paying her handsomely for her services, but he didn’t think it’d be such a significant chunk of his next two paychecks this time.
“You do listen when I speak.” She patted him on the head. He tried not to bite her. “You. Shoes. Purchase now.”
“They’re like seven hundred dollars, Jen.”
“I know,” she said, tossing her phone into his lap. “The price you pay, sweetheart.”
Pulling the browser up, he didn’t comment on the website she’d already bookmarked. Just pulled his credit card out of his wallet and watched over half a paycheck disappear in seconds.
“They’ll be at your door tomorrow.”
“Please and thank you!”
Chapter 2: The Sleepover with The Girl Porn and The Walk Down Memory Lane
He had to get out of his apartment, he’d spent too many nights dreaming of Javi’s arms around him, only to be disappointed when he woke up alone. Throwing his legs over the side and sitting up, he pulled on the t-shirt and jeans thrown over the foot-board last night, before driving into Manhattan at half past ten.
Kevin knew Castle and Esposito had a bet on how long the relationship would last; Writer Boy was about as opaque as a plastic bag. And though he liked to play the dumb white guy, because it exasperated the piss out of Javi, Kevin hadn’t graduated at the top of his class for nothing. He could read his best-friend like a departmental report. When they didn’t break up at the six week exit, he started to notice a change. The six of them hung out more after work and Javier even asked about Jenny, managing to keep an honest to God neutral expression on his face while he did it. The game had changed and Kevin couldn’t find the playbook.
It took him months to figure it out. Esposito was operating like a pro; kind and charming, the first to make her laugh or break out the work stories. Jenny soaked it up like the good, sweet girlfriend she was pretending to be. But darkness lingered under the charm. A shadow passed over Javier’s eyes whenever she leaned in too close, whispered in Kevin’s ear or kissed him.
One Friday night it was just the three of them left, Beckett and Demming had gone home and Castle had shuffled off soon after, citing something about a chapter being due. They all knew “writing” was code for “brooding over Beckett and Captain America.” Kevin pulled Richard aside and offered his sympathies, he couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to see Javier getting personal with another cop in the bullpen. Though the phrase “heart-ripping agony” came to mind.
Heading back from the bar with another round of beers, Kevin realized too late he’d left his pseudo-girlfriend and the man he loved alone. Tucked in their corner booth, he spotted the two of them leaning across the table. Javier’s gaze locked on Jenny’s as they whispered back and forth. Transfixed by the tension that crackled between them. Everything in Javi’s body language radiated fraying self-control, even at fifty feet away.
A claim was being staked and Esposito was playing defense.
Kevin never thought he would lose the chance to tell Javi the truth. Thornton was a painful reminder; they were cops, and their line of work wasn’t forgiving about turnover. He struggled through the next day, fueled by Castle’s magical espresso, but Beckett saw through his caffeinated high, sending him home with orders to take a week off. He would be fired on the spot if he showed up before next Thursday; he argued they didn’t have the bodies to spare.
“I’m not ordering a trip to Fiji,” she said. “Go home. Sleep. Demming can cover; we’ll muddle through without you until then.”
Won’t Castle love that, he thought, though he still had enough will to live not to say it out loud. “I can’t afford the time off.”
“I’ll get Captain Montgomery to sign off on the paid medical leave.” Her expression softened as her voice dropped to a whisper. “You’re no good to us running on empty, Ryan. I won’t have you — or anyone else — getting hurt on my watch because you’re lagging.”
He nodded, shoving his hands in his jean pockets. “Thanks, Kate.”
“Tell Jenny hello for me.” Beckett smiled over her shoulder.
Glancing in Esposito’s direction, all he got in parting was the other detective hunched over his desk. Kevin swallowed down a sigh; he was being shut out. Two days later he’d spent another night trying to push Javier out of his mind. Even with hot showers, old Storm novels and Tylenol PM, a solid eight hours evaded him. He could watch shadows on his ceiling all night long, but sleep would not pull him under.
He had to get out of his apartment, he’d spent too many nights dreaming of Javi’s arms around him, only to be disappointed when he woke up alone. Throwing his legs over the side and sitting up, he pulled on the t-shirt and jeans thrown over the foot-board last night, before driving into Manhattan at half past ten. Jenny answered in loose yoga pants and one of Dad’s old flannel shirts. He’d interrupted Roman Holiday on TMC. She let the door swing wide as he stood on her threshold, pulling him in by the hand and wrapping her arms around him. The anguished look on his face told her everything she needed to know.
“I’m thirty-three, shouldn’t I be over this already?”
“Didn’t Mom tell you? You’re never too old to be miserable for love.”
“Thank you for that beam of hope, Lady Gloom,” he muttered into her hair.
She chuckled, kissing his cheek softly. “You want some wine? I have a good Cabernet to finish.”
“Only if I can have the bottle and call it my Sippy Cup.”
Shutting the front door, he hung up his jacket and kicked off his shoes, before following her into the kitchen
“How’s about you start with a glass, and we’ll go from there?” She grabbed two down from an open shelf.
Jenny watched him play with his full glass fifteen minutes later, moving it in circles between his palms. His leg bounced a steady beat against the underside of her counter. Kevin was a champion fidgeter when under emotional stress. She’d seen it start after the assault, growing steadily worse as he crept closer to graduation. Nearly getting him diagnosed with ADHD in senior year, but their parents knew better; it had nothing to due with a short attention span or misfiring synapses.
Put him on the grisliest case that New York City had to offer, and Detective Ryan could collect and file with ease, but drop something personal into it and he shattered under impact. His brain worked best when he could channel the excess energy out of his body. Being forced into stillness when something personal was at risk, was the quickest way to make Kevin detonate. Repetitive movement neutralized the chaos in his thoughts.
The tapping on the counter joined the thud-thud-thud of his knee.
“Go,” she said. “You’ll think better on your feet.”
Relief washed over him and he nearly jumped off the stool. Jenny smiled to herself and poured Kevin’s untouched wine into her glass. She kept the path from her front door to the counter cleared of furniture, specifically for this reason. When he couldn’t be in the water, pacing the length of her apartment was his best coping mechanism. The connection of bare feet to cool wood floor made something come to life within his brain. Scrubbing his hands through his hair, he wished he could just dive into a pool and swim it out. Narrow his focus to kicks and strokes, laps from one end of the pool to the other. Being above the surface left his brain stuck on high-speed, and he hadn’t been able to sort out his manic thoughts for days.
“One step at a time, Kev. Start from the beginning.” Jenny moved around the counter and took up his stool. “First thing that pops into your mind. Don’t think, just say it.”
“I’m terrified of saying anything."
His blue eyes opened and she was pulled back to the day Kevin came out of that hospital room, with bruises on his face and tears dripping off his jaw. The man standing before her now wasn’t Detective Ryan; he was a sixteen year old boy playing grown-up, with his arm in a sling and heartbreak written all over him.
“I can’t lose Javi, I can’t handle it if he just disappears out of my life like -"
Kevin stopped cold, he hadn’t said that name out loud in fifteen years. Scott Moseley was completely out of his league; Captain of their high school swim team, the all-American golden boy. Messy brown hair falling into gray-blue eyes, sharp cheekbones and a smile that could break your heart from ten paces. Everyone in school either wanted to date Scott or be him. He could’ve had his pick from most of the student body, so no one was more surprised then Kevin, when Scott kissed him square on the mouth in the locker room after winning a meet. They’d been friends since Kevin signed up for swim team at the beginning of freshman year, not sure he would even get in. But Scott, as standing Captain, had pulled him out of the line on the first trial runs. He was quiet and gangly, but put Kevin Ryan in the water and he wouldn’t stop until he’d handed the competition their ass. Usually with a smile.
Later in life he would wonder if he had something to prove. Kevin always felt like he was on the bottom of the pile; step-son, bisexual, new guy in the precinct. That day he found his niche, a place where he belonged. But he never thought Scott could love him back. He wasn’t blind; Scott was perfect, everything he was not. And maybe there was the slightest crush, but Kevin always kept it to himself. Never told anyone but his sisters — whom he threatened to gleefully smother in the night if they blabbed — that every time Scott hugged him, he felt so high it could take days to come down.
For a moment the kiss had stunned him, turning him inside out. Until Scott ran a hand over his hair, thumb stroking a water droplet off his cheek.
“Nice win, Lucky Charms. I think I owe you a cookie.” He smiled, and Kevin felt his knees give a little. “Meet you outside?”
“Yeah.” He bit his bottom lip, eyes wide open when Scott kissed him again. Trying to decide if he’d tripped into an alternate universe or not.
Friendship had transitioned into love when he wasn’t even looking. The three of them managed to keep things quiet his whole sophomore year and Kevin was indescribably happy. Life couldn’t have gotten better for a kid who only felt like himself in the water. On dry land he was just a geeky fish out of water, in the pool he and Scott drove the team to victory again and again; they were heroes. Kevin spent the latter half of sophomore year in a cloud of giddy popularity. It wasn’t a feeling he was used to — this whole being famous and in love thing — but he relished it. They were the unstoppable trio, patted on the back and cheered on during meets, while Jenny acted as their liaison for the school journal and yearbook staff. Their very own Girl Friday. The regional and state takeovers even made the local newsprint.
It wasn’t until after the last competition of the year, when he kissed Scott in what he thought was an empty locker room, that everything unraveled. An unmovable grin on his face, he wrapped his arms around Scott, kissing him easily. Without even worrying about the consequences. No one was around, they were safe, and Kevin had a lot to celebrate. Scott had nailed the scholarship, he was going to college two hours away and planning to visit every other weekend. With two years left, Kevin already had scouts watching him at meets.
So he kissed his boyfriend, told him how much he loved him, how proud he was.
“Love you too, Lucky,” Scott whispered, holding him close for one last kiss. “Now hurry up or Jenny’s gonna come back here. You know how religious she is about her post-win milkshake and fries.”
Pulling on a dry shirt, he promised to be out after saying goodnight to Coach. His family was going out to celebrate with the Moseleys. Both set of parents knew their sons were dating, and the Moseleys had welcomed him into their family. His Dad still faltered around him, but Kevin knew he was trying. He was at the win tonight, and he was pretty sure his father cheered the loudest when they won.
Liam Ryan was still attempting to “get” that Kevin wasn’t gay; he liked girls and dudes. And it didn’t mean he was sleeping with everything that moved; he wasn’t sleeping with anyone, Scott or otherwise. He wasn’t ready for how it would change what they had yet. Plus there was that one horrific conversation about sex with his parents which made him consider priesthood. Until Jenny pointed out that bisexuality and Catholic servitude probably wasn’t the greatest combination ever. He’d told his Dad, in one long broken conversation in the middle of Lake Mary, that he still wanted a family and kids one day. Not now, but one day. Things slowly started changing between them that weekend. Bag hiked over his shoulder; he walked out into the parking lot, smiling over the memory of talking all day in that little boat. It was the most they’d spoken since he came out the year before.
The lot was draped in fog and mist from the rain earlier; dusk making the shadows twist and stretch. He heard whispers in the distance but didn’t give it much thought, kids liked to slip into corners to smoke or make-out. Probably the football team passing around a stolen bottle of Jack or the drama club sharing cigarettes. Nothing for him to worry about; the lights lazily flickered on overhead. It didn’t occur to him to be scared of the darkness, until he heard that word — faggot — spat out like poison, and fear shot through him. Ice cold as the water during early morning practice. Flooding his system and turning his blood to slush, surging straight for his heart; paralyzing him. The pools of light had nearly reached his car, and in the dimness he could see someone crumpled on the asphalt. Scott. Surrounded by at least a dozen kids. Stomping, kicking and punching him in the back, head, ribs; anywhere they could reach. The Golden One lying in a pool of his own blood, curled in a ball.
He watched as one boy, medium height and well-built, drove a kick so hard into Scott’s jaw he rolled toward the car. Probably the kicker for the football team, the form was effortless. Rage boiled up in his chest, as he dropped his bag and ran full-tilt into the group; shoving past them and wrapping himself around Scott as best he could. The mob surged with vicious delight at the prospect of fresh meat. Slurs rising into a cacophony as they layered kicks and punches into him. Their sneakers and heels driving into his ribs and kidneys. Grinding his fingers between Nikes and asphalt, pounding fists and feet into his face. One swift kick making contact with his lower back, skidding agony up his spine; their hands pulling at him, yanking his shoulder out of socket. Pain blooming in his body in twelve different places at once, but he would not be moved. Kept his head down, taking each fresh hit as he listened to Scott’s thin breathing. Whispering in his ear that it was going to be okay, they would be all right, just had to hold on.
Coach Ellis spotted the mob as he left for the night. Shouting for the security guard to call 9-1-1, and they scattered like sheep, in the face of six-foot-four Coach swearing and rushing them with a baseball bat. Kevin didn’t remember the ride to the hospital, or how Coach had never left him alone. Held his hand, talking to him the whole time as he dipped in and out of consciousness. Mom told him when he woke up in the ICU five days later. He had shoe-shaped bruises up and down his back for weeks; his left shoulder was dislocated, and the fractured ribs took months to fully heal. His left humerus was the worst of it; snapped in three places. He still had the scar, starting just above his elbow where they’d put him back together with bolts from ACE Hardware. Eight jagged inches of memory.
Scott had suffered much worse, almost losing his scholarship because of a broken leg and hip. That didn’t count the internal damage, or the fact that he nearly hemorrhaged to death on the way to the Emergency Room. Kevin could still remember in minute detail the day the Moseley’s left for Illinois. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago was the top rehab hospital in the country, and Scott was determined to get his life back on track and keep his scholarship. His terrorized parents simply wanted to get the hell out of dodge. Kevin sat beside him for hours while Scott waited to be released. Kissed his boyfriend goodbye, knowing they would never see each other again.
He still woke up some mornings with his shoulder and arm throbbing. Moving a certain way transformed his spine into a live wire, snapping and shooting with pain. Forcing him to down handfuls of Aleve to get through the day. Esposito believed he’d hurt his back helping his girlfriend’s grandmother move, because the truth opened too many doors to his past.
“You have to tell him, Kevin,” she said as he made tracks across her floor. “He deserves to know how you feel.”
“What if he doesn’t feel the same way, what if he thinks I’m some sort of – of –”
She watched him wipe away tears with the palms of his hands. That word haunted him through the last two years of high school, and could still create knots in his stomach whenever someone tossed “gay”, “fence sitter” or “fag” around like amusing adjectives. When he’d had all of those and more spray painted on his locker, and carved into the front door of his childhood home. His hero status had disintegrated once the assault was published in local news. By senior year, he was given a locker in the gym office by Coach, instead of the janitor having to repaint again.
“If he doesn’t feel the same way, I can’t handle what it’ll do to our friendship. What if he doesn’t want to work with me anymore?”
“Kevin …” She set her glass down and crossed the distance between them. Meeting his gaze and holding his head in her hands. “If he doesn’t love you, he’s the hottest dumb cop in the history of hot dumb cops. And if he even thinks something homophobic in your direction, I will personally hunt him down and kick him in the balls until he cries.”
He laughed, raising a brow at her. “Because you can read minds now?”
“Hell yes, I’m magical.”
Pulling her into his arms, he swayed on his feet from exhaustion and too much emotion in one night. He considered her threat, knowing she would make good on it. She was slightly homicidal when it came to his heart, but he could never hold it against her. Her crazy love was what kept him on an even keel when his own anxieties threatened to push him over the edge.
“Come on.” Jenny pulled away, pushing a fresh glass of wine into his hand. “Drink that down, or I’m breaking out a funnel.”
“Mmm, demanding. I like it.” He teased as she steered him into the living room. “Where are we going?”
“Couch. You’re going to rest and I’m going to feed you.”
“It’s only right, after all the years you raided our fridge.”
“Hey, I do not turn down free food, especially if Dad’s cooking.” She pushed him gently onto the sofa. “Spill that wine, and die.”
Her couch was a sexy strawberry colored number, the sports-car of sofas and she’d paid far too much for it. It was the first piece she’d ever bought, that was ever wholly her own. The couch made her an Official New Yorker, and not just a kid from Arizona sleeping on the floor with a duffle bag. Kevin remembered breaking the damn thing down, trying to fit it into the service elevator; that had been a bitch. He’d made her swear on fear of death never to move, or he was lighting her precious sofa on fire.
“Vegetarian pizza?” He gave her his patented “wide-eyed innocent” look.
“Yes, you string bean.” She pointed. “Sit. Drink. Enjoy the pretty lady … or man. What’s your split this week?”
He grinned after a good, full swallow of Cabernet. “Still 60/40, in favor of men.”
Chuckling to herself, she pulled a round of dough and fixings out of the fridge. Kevin liked his pizza simple; thinly sliced roasted tomatoes, her homemade pesto, fresh mozzarella and grated parmesan. It would only take minutes to put together, between laying out tomatoes for a quick visit to the oven, she sipped on her wine. It was good to see him easing back into the sofa, sprawling on the chaise lounge and making easy work of his portion of the bottle.
“You sure you don’t want help?” He called, glass a third of the way down. His gaze flickered between her, and Audrey Hepburn making the final speech at the end of Roman Holiday.
“Stay,” she pointed at him with a spatula. “You wanna start the next movie? Pull it up on the Apple TV.”
“You and your shiny gadgets, why can’t you just buy DVDs?” He whined.
She slid the pizza into the oven and pulled another bottle of wine out of the cooler. “Because it’s 2010, Grandpa.”
“Hey, I like gadgets when they’re useful. Castle’s murder board? Awesomest Thing Ever. Trusting all your favorite movies to a glorified hard-drive on Internet LSD? No, thank you.”
“You’re just worried about losing all your porn.” She said, coming round to top off his glass.
“I do not know this porn of which you speak, Ms. Reynolds.”
The pink flush on his cheeks gave him away.
“I’ve been in your closet, Kevin.”
“So have I.” He shot her a cheeky grin. “And I know where you hide your Laurell K. Hamilton.”
“Ooh.” She winced. “Touche.”
“Those books are dirty, woman! They’re like … girl porn.”
“Read them, have you?” She leered.
“Maybe. Occasionally. The middles.”
“Me?” His eyebrows shot to his hairline. “I’m ashamed to say I know you, my heathen friend.”
“Because you’re the poster boy for parishioner of the month?”
He sipped at his wine and smiled, loved when they started arguing. It meant nothing had changed since Kindergarten; they could still give each other shit, just as easily as they would have each other’s back in a fight. She reminded him of Esposito that way, never afraid to tell it like it was, even as she protected his blind spots.
“You were the trouble-maker. I was always the good one.” Kevin leaned his head back; smile fuzzy around the edges.
“Really?” She sat on the back of the sofa, barely containing her joy. “Then you won’t mind me telling Javier that you web crawl for Roach fanfic. Regularly. Because you’re just so damn pure, right, lamb chop?”
Kevin paled, his voice strained, “You wouldn’t?”
“Oh.” She took a sip. “I so would. Slap some Roach fic on his desk and you’re out like NPH.”
He stalled, gaze drifting over to the kitchen before flashing her his brightest, sweetest smile. “I love you.”
The kitchen timer buzzed, and he leapt off the couch quicker then she’d seen him move in ages. Figures, she grinned before setting her glass down and following him. She stood back and watched as he pulled two plates down. He must be in pain, he was favoring his left shoulder
“Why don’t you let me finish?” She took the plates. “I’ll get you some Tiger Balm and a brace -"
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“Stubborn is not a good look for you, Kevin Patrick.”
Which was a complete lie. Stubborn Kevin was actually damn cute and made her laugh on a regular basis, but she wasn’t having him in pain tonight. This week had been hell enough, without him purposely leaving himself in pain just to prove … whatever it was men tried to prove to women only to turn into small, needy children when they were hurt. She wanted him drugged, happy and falling asleep by the end of Sabrina.
She nodded. “Put on something more conducive to lounging. Spare clothes are in the usual spot.”
Jenny’s second bedroom pulled double-duty as an office and guest space. She’d arranged it for when he stayed the night; bed, dresser, closet and six-foot tall woven leather privacy screens to divide the two functions. He came out a few minutes later in blue plaid flannel bottoms and a gray v-neck, the sleeves shoved up just past his elbows. When he pushed a hand through his mussed hair, she could just make out the scar. Slicing the pizza at the counter, she smiled when he slid his arms around her waist, chin resting on her shoulder.
“Hi,” she said, batting at his hand when he tried to steal a piece of tomato.
He pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Hello. Thanks for letting me spend the night.”
“You’re welcome, and you’ll be getting me pastries in the morning, by the way.”
“When was this decided?”
“When you came to my door at nearly eleven and interrupted my Gregory Peck fix.”
“Oh, right.” He laughed softly.
“Grab some Aleve and I’ll dish up. Bottle’s in the cabinet over the sink.”
After swallowing down the pills, Kevin stuck his head in her freezer looking for something sweet. Finding the half gallon of dutch chocolate, he pulled it out with a grin and found her blender after much cabinet rummaging. She didn’t even have to ask what he was doing as he grabbed the almond milk, chocolate sprinkles and whipped cream. Just pulled out the two mugs she stored in the freezer door for this exact use. Milkshakes.
“Do you want chocolate or double chocolate?”
“If you’re actually asking that as a serious question, you need to get your ass out of my apartment.”
“Double chocolate it is then …"
With everything laid out on the coffee table, they snuggled up together on the couch; Kevin taking up the lounge again, while she nestled against him curled up on the love seat. This was their usual weekend habit, pizza and movies. Jenny hoped the familiarity would give him some peace. She worried about the dark circles under his eyes, and washed out pallor of his skin. Kevin never looked this tired unless he was sick or depressed.
They listened as Audrey’s opening monologue began, his fingers idly going through her hair, like he’d done a million times. Even on her worst days, he was always the man she could count on. Their connection had been instant and familial. Kevin was the one who screened all her boyfriends after her parents had abdicated the position. Though abdicating was putting it lightly; Jenny had run to the safety of exile.
On the day of her eighteenth birthday — with a ticket from Liam and Maggie Ryan, her adopted parents, in her pocket — Jennifer Reynolds was born. She left with a duffle bag of clothes, and not much more than her jacket and the sneakers on her feet. The first day of her new life. Kevin had been the one to meet her at the airport. Wrapped himself around her tight, right there at the Arrivals gate; all leather jacket, fabric softener and the drumbeat of his heart in her ear. He hadn’t let go ever since, twelve years later.
“I think you need to tell Javier,” she whispered, pressing back into him and drawing his good arm around her.
“What, exactly?” Walking his fingers along the arm of the couch, he snagged the remote and paused the movie.
“About what happened when we were kids. Scott. Me. Everything.”
“Jenny, that’s – we shouldn’t have to tell him about you, just so he’ll pull his head out of his ass.”
“But knowing about me, what I went through, maybe it’ll help him understand why we’re so close.”
Kevin’s body stiffened at the thought, relaxing only when her arms wrapped around him, head resting on his shoulder. The silence stretched between them, Sabrina forgotten.
“I’ll think about it,” he whispered.
His hand went to her hair again, toying with the springy blonde curls, the pads of his fingers caressing over her scalp. Feeling her melt against him. It had always been the quickest way to get her to fall asleep as a kid. Especially on those dark nights when all Dad had to do was honk the horn of their beat-up truck, and she would be running straight into Kevin’s arms. He could still see her mother standing at the door, palm on the screen, thrown into shadows by the foyer light. Wondering if Jenny would come back and — he always imagined — hoping she wouldn’t.
Chapter 3: The Video Clip, The Wardrobe Malfunction and The Emergency Contact
He couldn’t take his eyes off the image of young Kevin, hands shaking as betrayal and doubt crashed over him like a breaking wave. Remembering Ryan’s first year; so geeky, so damn eager, so freaking cute. He’d been completely annoyed with New Kid at first. The constant chatter, the family stories, the science fiction references he never got, the whole vegetarian thing. The general needling presence of someone in his life he’d neither wanted nor asked for.
Awake and sitting at Jenny’s desk at five o’clock, Kevin clicked on the dock and pulled up the web browser. Typing in his departure and arrival airports, JFK to FLG, he checked the one-way option. Four-hundred dollars for a ticket home, with only a stopover in Phoenix. It’d be a stretch, what with a chunk of his income regularly going to Jenny’s shoe fund - there had been subsequent payments for every sixth night out with the team - but he could make it. The woman had expensive friggin’ taste, yet still had the gall to scold his love of all things Converse. Maybe he’d sell off a couple things he wasn’t planning on taking with him. He made a mental note to give Javier his video games, and get signed copies of Heat Wave for his parents. A smile tugging at his mouth, he had to wonder if that’s where his fanboy tendencies came from. Both his parents devoured the latest Castle work like he’d relished A.C. Crispin, Rodger MacBride Allen and Neil Gaiman as a teen. They’d flip over having autographed copies.
This was it, Kevin thought to himself, pulling away from the keyboard and leaning back. He was actually making plans; he’d need to put his six week notice in at the station as soon as possible. Once the paperwork was filed it would just be a matter of waiting the guys out. It’d be hell, with Castle’s unstoppable questions and Esposito trying to get the truth out of him over beers and Madden. But lying had become second nature in over a decade. He’d learned to bury himself down so far below the charming smile and new guy reputation, he didn’t recognize his own reflection in the bathroom mirror anymore.
It would be different at home. He’d visit his parents and maybe his sister, Julie would actually be around for more than two seconds. He could start his life over; get a place in Phoenix and apply to one of the precincts. No connections, no emotions threatening to pull his heart straight out of his chest. He would do his job, stay low and hope he didn’t spend the rest of his life missing what might have been.
Grabbing his phone off the desk, he flipped it open with his thumb, breath catching in his chest as memories collided in his mind. Six messages marked as new, one voicemail and three texts. All from Javi. The voicemail was from Friday, when he failed to show up to their weekly Madden night. There was another two texts from Castle, asking where he was at poker night yesterday. Apparently Mrs. R and Beckett had taken him and Esposito for everything they had. There was even a video of Beckett doing one hell of a victory dance, while Castle wailed in the background about Alexis’ college fund being at risk. And how he needed Kevin to stop him from doing something monumentally stupid.
The video ended on Javier laughing from across the table, and Kevin told himself that the thought of never seeing that smile again wasn’t killing him. He’d stayed in bed and rewound it at least five times last night, staring at the frozen image and knowing it would linger in his dreams for months.
Watching it again, he turned up the volume just to hear Esposito laugh, the sound expanding the ache behind his sternum. Kevin told himself it didn’t matter, it would go away, like before. But the lie unraveled around the edges when he marked the messages as new. He nearly dropped his phone when it vibrated in his palm, an incoming text, eleven simple words stirring a frenzy of panic in his chest.
Where you been at, bro’? I’m worried about you.
He sat there staring at the screen; wanting to reply, to ask Esposito to meet him somewhere – anywhere – so they could talk. Finally let everything fall right at his feet. The words were so close to the surface Thursday night, a million possibilities hanging in the pause between them. He’d replayed that moment in his head over and over, willing himself to get the fucking words out, because this might be the last time he had the chance. But then Esposito asked him to stay, and another tape buried in his memory began to roll.
The looks that followed him through the halls, the isolation and panic that threatened to swallow him on a daily basis, the body memory of their fists and feet striking him. Over and over and over until he was broken. Before the words could form sentences, everything inside him curled up and shutdown. Just like that kid, the one that wasn’t him, left bleeding and numb on the asphalt.
The room tilted and dipped around Kevin, imagining the darkness that would descend over Javi’s eyes. The way his partner would subtly pull back, so their bodies were never too close, their easy familiarity becoming clipped and evasive. The thought of Javier never looking him in the eye again made Kevin’s lungs constrict. Inhaling shallow breaths – not enough, never enough air – he turned off the phone. Kept his eyes closed until he heard it power down, before tossing it blindly on the desk.
He had to get his breathing under control. Not dying, just a ripple of fear seizing him. Breathe through it and focus on something else. Home. Wide open landscape and nothing but copper striped rocks for miles. Scaling those same stones, holding his breath, standing at the edge with one sneaker halfway into the unknown. Contemplating the steep drop below, wondering if he would ever have the courage to make the leap.
When the band of panic eased around his chest, Kevin opened his eyes and hastily closed out the Safari browser before putting the computer back to sleep. It was six o’clock, and he’d promised his sister breakfast. He could stop at the precinct and get the forms while he was out.
Running to Financier’s for croissants and coffee. Back soon. - Love ya, K
PS: Yes, I’m getting chocolate ones. Chill, woman.
After tacking the purple sticky note to the monitor, he snagged his phone and changed into his clothes from the day before. Sucking water from the kitchen tap, he downed two more Aleve before shutting the front door behind him.
This was his fourth message in three days. If Ryan didn’t answer soon, he was going to turn into Jenny; calling every hour to demand his exact latitude and longitudinal whereabouts. And he was really trying to avoid earning his stalker Scout badge this week. But it wasn’t like Ryan not to return his messages for days. Javier Esposito was half tempted to start wooing him out of seclusion with the promise of hookers, surely Castle still had a connection there somewhere.
Leaning his head back against the wall of the empty break room, he tried not to worry. Failed at it, but tried. Beckett wouldn’t tell him a damn thing about why Ryan had inexplicably taken a week’s worth of medical leave, and being in the dark made the possibilities loom that much greater in his mind. There was nothing he didn’t know about Kevin, his partner shared too much shit during canvasses and stakeouts.
He knew that Kevin was the oldest of three kids, and the only boy. He had two sisters; Julie, a hot red-headed journalist type who was constantly flying to places like Japan and London to keep the world connected. Past family tales made it pretty clear that their relationship swung from love to hair-pulling, stroke-inducing exasperation on a regular twelve-hour rotation. The other sister, Lynn was the youngest and seemed to be Kevin’s first best-friend. He’d never seen a photo of her, but she had a career involving grapes or vines or something. He hadn’t really needed details, she made alcoholic beverages, and that was pretty much all he needed to know to like her.
Kevin’s dad, William, married his mother and adopted him when he was five. His biological father died before he was born. Esposito knew the fear of being unwanted (despite all evidence to the contrary) was something they shared, though it wasn’t spoken of much. Javi knew his parents loved him, had known it since Michael and Elizabeth Stanton had made him theirs at two years old, but he’d still given them hell for it between the ages of nine and eighteen. In the end it hadn’t mattered that he didn’t have his parent’s last name; he was theirs, and they were his. End of story, and they all lived happily ever after.
But Kevin had never been that steady; he always had something more to prove. Esposito could see it in the way Ryan devoured all the Castle books cover to cover – even the shitty Wiccan one – while he’d merely skimmed. Noticed the insecurity and doubt that lingered in those blue eyes when no one was looking. Worry had taken up camp in his gut; he was used to guarding Kevin, instinct evolved into habit. He’d never given much thought to it, or the fact that he always carried the big gun during raids, it just made sense to him. Old military training ingrained down deep, right next to his Mama’s lessons on please, thank you and how to treat a date, rising up automatically to take over.
If he found himself stepping in front of Ryan more often than not, stopping him from doing stupid crap like following him into the Thornton shitsstorm, it was nothin’. Just a part of having his back. He didn’t need to turn it round in his head, wondering if there was something more underneath. He’d nearly convinced himself of this when he heard footsteps approaching.
“Boyfriend not answerin’ your calls, Esposito?”
“I will shove my foot up your ass, Sergeant.”
"You're not my superior anymore, Javi." Tom had the nerve to snicker. “And that’d be a yes.”
“Get your coffee and leave me to worry in peace.”
“Why would I do that?” He pulled out a chair and sat down. “Do I get to guess who’s got you all flustered?”
“How do you -”
“Please.” Tom rolled his eyes. “Is it Castle? Can it be Castle? I’d consider that a personal favor, if it helps.”
He opened his eyes, brows lowering. “Dude, he’s totally straight. I don’t chase straight guys, though, flirting with the lesbians is fun.”
“Didn’t need that image, unless - Portia de Rossi lesbian or Sarah Shahi?”
“They’re both hot and the second one’s straight; this isn’t a relevant line of questioning.”
“Who said it had to be relevant? Answer the question, Esposito.”
“Now you just sound like Castle.”
“Mean, bro. Mean.” He winced. “So, what’s got you hung up this time?”
“I just don’t know what to do. They -”
“You mean he.”
Esposito resisted the urge to throw a chair at his head; though braining him with his own coffee mug was still a viable option.
“We both know it’s a dude, you’ve got that look.”
“The person,” he continued, aggravation causing the words to snarl around the edges, ”is taken. I don’t poach. I don’t even waste time -”
“Yearning?” Demming drew out the word with a smile.
“I swear, Thomas, I’m beating you to death in the parking garage after this.”
“Cryin’ about it already, man.” The smile stretched to a grin. “Leave clear shoe prints in my blood for Kate, please.”
Javier could feel laughter bubbling up, Demming was like a kid snorting Pixie Sticks this early in the morning. Or a grown man with Smarties in the middle of the desert, but that was a memory best savored another day.
“I’m not usually this shade of stupid about someone.”
“Such doubt, Espo.” He paused to sip his coffee. “I take it you can’t nail the Irishman down?”
He chose not to acknowledge the double-entendre in Tom’s question. Merely sent his friend another death glare, which had absolutely no effect on that perfectly pearly grin. Javier was going to bitch-slap him for it later, when Beckett wasn’t around to rescue him.
“Is Esposito loves Ryan on a bathroom stall somewhere in this building?”
“Yes, I keep writing it in Sharpie, but the damn janitor’s upgraded to steel wool. We’re locked in an epic war, he and I.”
“I hope you die in a fire.”
“Duly noted,” he said. “Now, are we talkin’ unrequited crush, Drew circa 1999, or somewhere in between?”
Esposito looked down into his coffee cup, feeling muscles from the base of his skull to his tailbone pull tight. Andrew Teller. He never let himself dwell on that part of his enlistment, except a few times a year, or if he unexpectedly found himself in the bottom of a Cuervo bottle. Still had Drew’s dog tags and flag in a box under his bed, along with a handful of photos and hand-written love letters. Mementos from a life that had never been.
Demming’s voice softened. “Does Ryan know?”
“No,” he whispered, looking up again. “I transferred because of Ike … I couldn’t.”
Tom sat quietly for a long time, watching his friend struggle with everything he wasn’t saying. He’d known Javi back in the day, long before the 54th, when he was a freshly buzzed recruit from New York. He’d been in the second year of his first tour, when Javier had rolled in with a batch of green high schoolers who were packing it up for Uncle Sam.
He’d been so quiet at first, anger simmering underneath all the self-protection he used to hide, Tom worried he’d never make it overseas. But in time the unit had become his second family, and Javier transformed into the intelligent, humorous, snark-filled bastard they knew and loved today.
Demming, in all his twenty-seven years of wisdom had taken Javi and a few other greens under his wing, affectionately tagging them his “ducklings”. Esposito, Teller, Hayes and Kasparkova had been the little brothers he never wanted but kept anyway. Esposito was just into his twenties, one foot still in the cradle, when he realized he wasn’t perfectly straight. Tom could remember the look on his face — the light in his eyes — when Javi told him in quiet, hedged words that he was in love with someone from their unit during an early morning security patrol.
“It ain’t me, is it?” He’d grinned in the dark. “Because you do not have enough ass to be my type.”
He had that same look now, Tom realized, standing there worrying about Ryan. Javier sighed and wiped a hand over his face, clearing away the tears. Demming felt a tug on his heart, but said nothing
“That’s the night I knew, knew everything was gonna be okay. That you weren’t gonna fly me off the nearest flag pole, light me on fire …”
“Oh Ducky, I wanted to run you up a flag pole for so many reasons.” He laughed. “But being bi was never one of them.”
Chuckling, Javier slid down the wall until he was sitting on the floor with his mug between his knees. Letting his body unwind for fifteen minutes. It wasn’t like his pile of paperwork was going anywhere this morning.
“You remember the fun we had in Japan?”
“That was fun?” Tom choked on his coffee.
He smirked. “For us.”
Demming had been cruising on a healthy beer and shots buzz in the middle of the club, dancing like he was the center of the party. Esposito found him doing the Macarena backwards, completely oblivious as the crowd went one way and he went the other. His faithful brothers in arms let him go like that for an hour, before each taking a limb and carrying him out. Nearly dropping him numerous times as he made race-car noises and loudly sang in the world’s worst high school Spanish all the way back to the car. Once inside, he passionately declared his undying love for each of them individually - long slurred speeches about patriotism, brotherhood and what pretty blue eyes Andrew had - before promptly passing out against Teller’s shoulder.
“I still can’t believe you let me sleep it off in the car.”
“You tried to put your tongue down my throat, and then Andrew’s; you’re lucky to still be alive.”
Tom paused, the color leaving his face. “Beckett must never know.”
Silence hung heavy for a beat, and they broke into laughter at the same time. The five of them had gotten into a lot of shit during their tour together. Crazy, funny, never tell your Mama trouble, with Demming leading the charge and Esposito not far behind. He was always the Alpha Duck, which to this day, was a tag he carried with quiet pride. As long as Beckett never found out about it. She could not have that kind of leverage over him, the woman had an evil streak wide enough to be seen by astronauts in deep space.
“You’re secret’s safe with me, so long as Beckett never hears about Alpha duck.”
“Aww.” He smiled. “But that’s just cute …”
Javier dug his phone out of his pocket. “I should see if Hayes still has that video -”
“Okay, okay!” He held up his hands in panicked surrender. “Put the phone away.”
Grinning, he opened it, hoping against hope that he’d missed a call. But the voicemail box was empty, save for an old one from his baby sister about family dinner next weekend.
Tom saw the disappointment. “Still no answer?”
“No. I’ve tried his cell, his home number. Texts. Nothing.”
“Do you have any emergency contacts?”
“Not on my phone. I’d have to go down to archives to check his file.”
Tom got up, crossed to the window and cracked open the blinds. Kate was getting up from her desk with her coffee cup, undoubtably coming in for a refill.
“Listen, there are files on my desk.” He rushed his words, ignoring Esposito’s look of confusion. “Take my ID and drop them off.”
“And you can’t take your lazy ass down there because?”
“Because my lazy ass doesn’t need a reason to to find Ryan’s file,” he said, snapping the blinds shut and turning around. “Did the Army teach you nothing about covert operations? All those nights of Capture the Flag wasted.”
“Not my fault you can’t hide things for shit.” He grinned.
“I’m sorry. It’s a little difficult when the options of hiding a red flag were sand, sand and more sand.”
Javier was about to say there was always the option of that special place where the sun didn’t shine, but he managed to hold it in. He’d seen a flash of brown hair in the window and bit down on his tongue.
“Get out of here. I’ll keep Kate busy.”
He said nothing more in response, and as Beckett came in they immediately switched to last night’s game. Esposito stood up and reached around Demming to leave his mug on the counter and Tom slid the ID into his back pocket. Kate was complaining about a foul shot, prepping the machine while turned away from them.
Tom’s hand stayed put, and for one panic-filled moment, Javier’s eyes went wide. Their whole stealth operation was going to be dead on the ground before it had even begun. Get your hand off my ass, Demming. Those blue eyes swung from Kate to Javi and back; she’d turned away to grab the milk out of the fridge. If she turned around again and saw them, there was no way they were getting out of this without some massive explanations.
Instead, she hunkered down in front of the fridge. And Javier almost dropped to his knees in thanks when the ice maker started rumbling like an enclosed avalanche. Deafening Beckett to their frantic whispers.
“Dude. Hand. On. My. Ass.” He glared.
“My watch is stuck.”
“You are fucking me?”
“We already had that conversation,” Tom said through gritted teeth.
Javier knew he was going to have TMJ for a week, the way he was clenching his jaw. Tom had paled to the color of the blinds. Kate was rummaging through the fridge, looking for something, and they both knew it was only a matter of seconds before she shut the door.
“Hey, Ryan left some Chinese in here. Dibbs!” She paused. “Javi, how old is this pizza? I think it’s learning to walk.”
“Not sure,” he said, still wedged against Tom. “From Tuesday maybe?”
“It needs to be cremated …”
At that moment, in what Esposito would later consider his every karmic due paid in full; Demming wrenched his wrist away, the pocket of his jeans ripped and he all but lunged for the door, just as Kate stood. He was outside and power-walking into the bullpen before the fridge sealed shut.
Sliding the files off Tom’s desk, he tucked them under his arm and swung around to take the stairs to the basement. It was quiet on the weekends, but he still dreaded going down to the archives with little more than some manila folders for a cover. He swiped Demming’s keycard, grateful there were no cameras, and left the folders in the in-box to be refiled by the clerk tomorrow.
Heart speeding in his chest, Javier could swear he was sweating more than he was fifteen seconds ago. Though the hole in his back pocket was providing some convenient air conditioning, he’d never been so happy to wake up and decide today was a boxers day. There simply weren’t enough words in the world to explain why he had a bare ass cheek peeking out the back of his button-downs.
Quickly, he found the old metal cabinets that housed Homicide’s files, and scanned for the drawer marked M-Z (2006); the year Ryan had transferred over from Narcotics seemed as good a place to start as any. Working from the middle, he skimmed past several dozen files until he spotted it, almost passing it over, heart jumping in his chest.
Ryan, Kevin P.
Looking around, he listened in the void for any other signs of life. Expecting Castle to materialize from nowhere at any moment or Beckett to bust him. The woman had eyes everywhere; like his mother, except with a gun instead of a wooden spoon. It hadn’t been directly stated, but Javier got the feeling she wouldn’t approve of him hunting Kevin down, when he was on orders to rest.
Tucking the file under his arm, he shut the drawer as quietly as possible, grateful when the ancient thing didn’t whine, and took up one of the reading nooks. He swallowed hard once, trying to dislodge his heart, before flipping open the file. Clipped to the inside of the folder was a photo, the very first one Ryan had taken for the precinct.
He couldn’t take his eyes off the image of young Kevin, hands shaking as betrayal and doubt crashed over him like a breaking wave. Remembering Ryan’s first year; so geeky, so damn eager, so freaking cute. He’d been completely annoyed with New Kid at first. The constant chatter, the family stories, the science fiction references he never got, the whole vegetarian thing. The general needling presence of someone in his life he’d neither wanted nor asked for.
Three years later, he was so desperate to save that connection, he was sneaking into personnel files. Because the minute Jenny had given Kevin that tie, Javier knew it was all one downhill slide until he was gone completely. Three days of absence felt like a nail being struck, and Javier wasn’t ready to give up. He had to find one last move, one chance to fix whatever had broken between them during the Thornton case.
With a deep breath, he began to slowly pour over the file, looking for emergency contacts and any major health issues he didn’t know about. He knew, logically that if Kevin were sick or otherwise unfit for duty, he wouldn’t still be on the force. But a part of him - the illogical, terrified part - still expected words like “cancer” and “heart defect” to be hidden somewhere between the lines.
All he found was the down allergy and a moderate problem with panic attacks. The evaluating doctor stated Kevin was managing both without them affecting his performance on the job. Javier’s mind lingered on the panic attacks, little things flitting into place in his memory. But it was the mention of previous injury that completely stalled his thoughts. He read it twice over, just to make sure the words were lining up right in his head.
Detective Ryan has an eight inch scar running down his left tricep brachii, related to a childhood injury and dislocated shoulder. Patient also noted moderate lumbar pain, which he manages with over the counter analgesics.
He’d never seen the scar before, never heard about the “childhood injury”. In all the conversations they’d ever had Kevin never mentioned it. That secret burned holes in his heart; perfect, smoldering rings of doubt.
“There was no helping your girlfriend move.”
As cold silence pressed around him, Javier thumbed his way to the next of kin and emergency contact information. Black and white words knocked the air out of his chest. Damn near shoving him away from the table, as he tried to make it all fit. Kevin had been lying to him this whole fucking time.
“Son of a bitch …”
Jennifer Lynn Reynolds was on his emergency contacts; his sister. Letters blurred and swam before his eyes, as a migraine pulsed against his temples. It took a minute for him to hear his ringtone over the roar in his ears.
He yanked his phone out of his pocket. “Esposito.”
“What the hell’s taking so long?” Tom asked.
“You’re gonna have to think of something to tell, Kate,” he said. “I’m going for a drive.”
The roar grew louder as he punched the end key. He stored the Manhattan address and cell number, before shoving the file back in the drawer. Marching out of the archives, he passed the ID off to Karpowski to return to Demming, on the way to the elevator. He left the station without looking back.
Chapter 4: The Google Mindsuck, The Flash of Romantic Genius and The Temporary Ceasefire
He wasn’t sure why he was here, he could never tell Richard he was in love with Javier. If there was one person he didn’t want knowing about that, it was the man who had bestsellers translated into more than a dozen languages. He did not need Richard getting it into his brainpan that Raley and Ochoa needed a love scene in the next novel.
She fell into one of those search engine tangents that usually happened late at night. An endless winding spiral, pulling her deeper into the mindsuck that was Google. Jenny woke up to find Kevin gone and a note on her display. 0615 marked in the bottom right corner; military time. Once an Army brat, always an Army brat. The delay meant he’d gotten sidetracked somewhere. He had fifteen minutes before she was throwing on clothes, hailing a cab and getting her own damn pastry. She was raising his fee tomorrow.
Wiggling the mouse to wake her iMac, she started her morning routine to kill time. Checking emails, voicemails and ASEV.org for news on the symposium she was attending next month. Opening a new tab, she pulled up Orbitz, mentally calculated how much tickets to Seattle could set her back. The numbers stopped flowing when she saw the airports were filled in.
New York City to Flagstaff.
She knew Kevin had been struggling, but this was more than nightmares and panic attacks. For uncounted heartbeats she sat there, staring at the date.
Two months and he would be gone.
It hadn’t taken much for Jenny to put the pieces together, nearly thirty years of data gave her invaluable insight into how Kevin worked. He’d been attracted to Esposito from the beginning. She’d spent two years keeping track while he fell deeper in love, totally unaware it had even happened until Thornton returned from the dead. Leaving Kevin the odd man out.
When he called her months earlier, begging her to resume the role of Girl Friday, Jenny’s calm life became a casualty of the windstorm building at her brother’s feet. The kind that left nothing in its wake, and nowhere to hide. Kevin’s hope of remaining in the background and just doing the job he loved, went up in a flash of publicity when Castle put the precinct on every tabloid radar nationwide. There was no way he could keep his sexuality, or his past a secret forever. By the time Richard was on his second book, Kevin was on a downhill slide.
Ever since high school he kept himself virtually invisible. He spent college focused on maintaining a strict 4.0 and graduating with honors. He didn’t date, never partied and had no apparent desire to do any of the usual stupid things college boys were known for. He read his favorite authors, studied and always turned in homework on time, swam but never tried went for tryouts and generally lived in the library.
He became quieter over time. Self-conscious of every word or action that could be perceived as weak, dorky or otherwise susceptible to scrutiny. It wasn’t until he was out of college and working Narcotics that she’d even managed to get him to agree to a blind date. A waitressing friend saw him picking her up one night, and said he was hot.
Jenny smiled to herself, remembering it as the first time she’d ever actually considered Kevin in the light of hot or not. He was good looking - sexy even, so long as he didn’t try - but she’d seen him naked when he was seven, and thrown up in his toilet on more than one occasion. Therefor her view was more warped than most. He would always be her brother who leapt off their porch railing in nothing but his Bumblebee Transformers Underoos when he was nine. There was really no romantic spark to be kindled after that.
Vampire waitress lasted two weeks before breaking out the coffin. Kevin had run down half a dozen blocks, barreled into her apartment and thrown himself into her tub, shouting that all New York women were fucking insane. He commandeered her master bathroom as his personal bastille for over an hour, until she swore she’d never make him go on a blind date ever again. She’d paid for that date with three weeks of therapy, and when he asked her to be on stand-by, she quietly agreed.
Managing a vineyard meant she didn’t have time for a man of her very own; which meant there was no one to justify the arrangement to. She knew it would comeback to bite her in the ass, but the urge to protect Kevin overrode everything else. It dated back to that Friday night, when she walked into his hospital room and saw her best-friend, her brother, her hero laying there with tubes down his throat. His entire left arm in a cast and bruises painting a violent mosaic on his freckled skin. She barely recognized him under the bandages. Laying on a cot in Intensive Care, watching him sleep because she couldn’t, Jenny silently promised to always protect him. And for eighteen years, she succeeded.
Then Richard had started getting curious, moving things from level green to orange on the terror scale in a matter of weeks. He was comfortable with them, and a comfortable mystery writer was a bored mystery writer. He’d started to ask loaded questions, ones that couldn’t be brushed off with simple answers - why didn’t Ryan date, where could he dig up backstory for Raley - and by the time Kevin tossed Honey Milk out in a blind shot to Esposito, Castle was on the cusp of putting too many things together.
Months before she’d even shown up at the precinct, they’d been running careful interference. Sending out little bytes of information; Honey Milk, ridiculous phone calls and the ugliest tie money could buy. Kevin never said anything directly to Castle, better to let him come to conclusions his own way, with the assistance of secondhand gossip. Indirect manipulation was less suspect.
Exhausted from the sheer weight of covering every step they took, Jenny slumped back in her chair. She needed coffee. Coffee and food, but her wayward brother was nowhere to be found. Pushing away from the desk, she walked back to her bedroom. Quickly changing from pajamas into a pair of raggedy jeans and her favorite red top, before throwing her hair into a messy ponytail and heading out the door.
Hailing a cab, she climbed into the backseat and pulled her iPhone from her purse. Still needed to check tickets to Seattle; the ten minute drive would be just the time to do it in. The cabbie was sweet and chatty, asking how she survived the summer with her fair hair and light skin.
“I’m from Arizona.” She smiled and met his friendly gaze. “I take sunscreen in my coffee. Works faster that way.”
He laughed, tapping a beat on the door to the song playing on the radio. Wedged into the corner of the bench, her feet tucked under her, she quickly double-checked the price. Five-fifty wasn’t bad, but since it was for the vineyard, she might be able to convince her tightwad of a boss to cough up half.
“How do you like that phone?” He asked at the second of many lights. “My grandson has one and loves it. I can’t figure out how to turn the damn thing on, and where’s the numbers at?”
Jenny couldn’t help giggling. He sounded like her father; Liam would just as soon throw a laptop across the room, than read a book on how to use it properly. Her mother, on the other hand, was a fifty-five year old Facebook junkie. Something that scared Jenny more with each passing day.
“Just swipe your thumb like this, see? The power button is on top. And the keypad pops up when you’re ready to make calls.” She leaned forward at another light, showing him how it worked.
He nodded, appearing impressed. “Can you really play Tetris on that thing?”
“Yup.” She chuckled; she and Kevin were currently in a battle for the high score on Chuzzle. Her margin of victory thinned every time he managed to steal her phone. “You can listen to music, read books, share pictures, even search the internet. You can find practically anything online anymore.”
“But that Google Maps, it’s not as good as someone who knows New York,” he said, tapping his temple.
Jenny grinned. “Very true.”
She was all too aware of Google’s navigational black holes. Once she’d been taken an hour out of her way, thanks to its not so brilliant directions. Julie still bitched about that road trip two years after it was over.
When he stopped at the curb near the bakery, she left him a generous tip and thanked him for the conversation. Not all cabbies in New York were quite so friendly. He wished her good day and warned her to keep safe in the sun. It wasn’t until she was waiting in line for her order, that her own words came back to her, and then she got an idea.
Between Varick Street and 6th Avenue, Kevin took a detour and landed at 425 Broome Street. Castle’s front door. He wasn’t sure why he was here, he could never tell Richard he was in love with Javier. If there was one person he didn’t want knowing about that, it was the man who had bestsellers translated into more than a dozen languages. He did not need Richard getting it into his brainpan that Raley and Ochoa needed a love scene in the next novel.
Yet, he stayed, lingered even. Castle was an unexpected ally in the misery that was unrequited love. Kevin hadn’t given Richard his ear at the bar months ago - and many nights since - for nothing. Every few weeks since Demming’s arrival, they’d blow off the group and meet at Mulligans, a local pub where they could share their combined heartbreak over beer an a shot or two of whiskey.
Castle thought his trials consisted of Jenny and Esposito not getting along; Ryan was content to let him believe that. It allowed him to vent about the situation, without giving too much away, and Richard listened. Something that surprised Kevin more than he wanted to admit. Maybe it was the failed marriages, but Castle was wiser than anyone - even Richard himself - gave him credit for.
He would always shrug away Kevin’s words with a Charming Smile™, playing it off as the nature of the beast. All part of being a writer; one had to be able to tap into a character’s psychology book after book. It was easier then admitting the wounds of divorce still lingered, leaving him with hard-won insight into why love thrived or failed.
But he had watched Richard with the people he loved most. He listened because he adored Alexis and - in Martha’s case - simply wanted to understand her. Most importantly, he wanted to be there for them, offer his support the best way he knew how. He couldn’t buy everyone hot red dresses and espresso machines.
Knocking hesitantly, Kevin realized as he stood there waiting, they’d never spoken outside the smoke-filled haven of a bar. Where low lights, tucked away booths and ample alcohol, made cracking open their hearts much easier than the cold light of morning. He was sure no one was home and about to walk away, when Richard opened the door and popped his head out.
“Hey, Ryan. “ He smiled. “Did I miss a call from Beckett?”
“No, no. I’m not here on the clock. You think I could come in … and talk?”
There was a moment of pause as Castle noted rumpled clothes, circles under the detective’s eyes, and nervous shuffling of shoes against the tile floor, as Kevin stood there with his hands in his pockets.
He held open the door. “You want some coffee?”
Coffee turned into Richard making scrambled eggs and toast, while Kevin tried to figure out exactly what to say. Richard had no problem filling the silence. He was hard at work on Naked Heat, stuck on whether to keep Detective Schlemming or chuck him, and eager for a friendly ear. Kevin was currently his favorite sounding board ever, voting to throw Schlemming off the island, or at least ship him to some big government job in California.
Richard grinned, arms crossed over his chest. “My god, you do read my books. And here I thought you just carried them around like props.”
Kevin knew his inner geek was on HD display and tried not to blush. “The Wiccan one was awful. Were you high writing that?”
“I can neither confirm or deny that possibility.” He became suspiciously studious about cracking eggs into a bowl. “I really needed to pay for Alexis’ private school.”
Laughing softly, Kevin took the offered cup of coffee and added sugar.
“You ever wanna write a sequel - gain proper atonement for your goat killing, group orgy sins, let me know.”
“Knowledgable of that world, are you?” Richard leaned down on the counter, ready for the good dirt. “Vampire girlfriends, possible bondage experience - where have you been, Wonder Bread?”
Kevin smirked. “My baby sister went through a phase - several of them. Goth, Emo, I will only eat meat on days that begin with T, Wiccan priestess initiate, fairy goddess child. You name it, Julie tried it. She cut off her hair and went by the alias James for the better part of her sophomore year.”
“Is she insane?”
“We’re afraid to ask. From 1992 to 1999, Mom lived off Chamomile tea and Xanax.”
“How messed up is your family?”
“We’re not - okay there are a few glitches, me and Dad, mostly - but Julie’s just -”
“High maintenance.” He laughed.
“More than Ms. Honey Milk? Do you collect irritating women as a hobby?”
With nothing more than a glare, Kevin returned to his original train of thought
“Her Goth-Emo run was particularly agonizing. The first thirty seconds of The Dope Show can still give my Dad chest pains.”
“Your sister listened to Marilyn Manson? I’m imagining a blue eyed, female you in fishnets and black hair … and now I’m completely disturbed.”
“It was the late 90s; it was Manson or Hanson. I pleaded on the side of Marilyn.”
“Weren’t you in New York by then?” Richard asked.
“Yes, but bubblegum pop or screaming rage? You make that choice.”
“They’re both similarly pain inducing. The occasional dose of girl pop, with the not so subtle lesbian connotations, feels much less threatening than it did five minutes ago.”
“Thought it would.” Kevin chuckled. “Julie’s been like a walking storm system ever since she was little. Sunny one minute and full on hurricane the next.”
Richard chose his words carefully, looking up as he swirled butter in the pan. “I’m guessing you still play clean up crew?”
He shrugged. “Both my parents worked full-time jobs. Somebody had to listen to her wail about how they hated her, and were like ruining her life!”
“And what did you tell her, oh wise big brother?”
“To cut vertically or stop her damn whining.”
Richard‘s jaw dropped, the pan clattering on the burner. “You did not!”
“Dad paid my rent for a year.” Kevin practically oozed satisfaction. “He could only take so many guyliner sporting, saggy pants wearing, BMXing boyfriends that came part and parceled with her I Hate The World and The World Hates Me routine. There is a critical mass threshold for every Irish man. Julie tap-danced on our father’s.”
“There is totally a Riverdance joke trying to form in my brain right now.”
Castle looked like he might explode with laughter. Kevin smiled over the edge of his cup. Still snickering, Richard poured the eggs into the pan, while Kevin stole the paper and sipped his coffee.
“She’s still alive, if it makes you feel any better.” He said after a beat. “Moved to New York after finishing high school at the top of her class.”
“Took your advice to stop whining?”
“For a while.”
“You know …” Richard mused. “You could totally work the guyliner.”
Kevin folded the paper down, smiling in a way Richard could only describe as complete smuggery dipped in undiluted evil.
“I do, I have, and you will never see the photos.”
“There are photos? Not fair!”
Turning back to the sports section, Kevin smiled behind the NYT. An evening out in the club district with his sisters’, and their combined determination to get him a date, was to blame for that knowledge. He never found the courage to walk into the club - too many bodies, not enough breathing space - but he knew he looked damn good in tight jeans and blue guyliner.
Now to divert Castle’s focus away from bribing either of his sisters for the evidence. They were savvy negotiators, not easily bought, but he was fairly certain Richard Castle didn’t have a mattress. Just slept on bricks of money duct-taped together with a fitted sheet over top.
“I’ve been thinking, if you’re gonna throw in Schlemming?” Kevin put down the paper. “And way to be transparent there, Captain Obvious -”
“I will stab you with my fork.”
“That’s assaulting an officer.” Kevin informed him with a smile. “Shouldn’t this dude be someone we can see Nikki with? Who poses a real threat for Jameson, leaving the readers torn over the best man?”
Richard pulled out slices of bread from the nearby bag, and popped four in the toaster.
“You’ve given this actual thought.”
Sipping his coffee, Kevin tried not to laugh. “Is that a bad thing, thinking?”
“For me, moderately. You, not so much. In fact,” he paused to stir the eggs and shake the pan. “I may fire my editor and keep you instead.”
Kevin beamed with pride. “If Schlemming’s just gonna be a two second pause, it’s not worth the investment. It doesn’t bring anything to the characters or plot, not even a decent red herring. It’s just an annoying delay in the Heat / Rook relationship.”
“And for that, you get to read the advanced copy when I’m done.” Richard smiled, dishing up eggs on toast and topping off his coffee.
“Speaking of people you’d like to kill off,” Kevin paused for a fork full. “How are you doing with the whole Beckett / Demming …”
“Love fest?” Richard pulled a face, and Kevin gave up on not laughing. “I’m hoping it’s simply an annoying delay in the Beckett / Castle relationship.”
“If you use that in the book, do I get credit?”
“I’ll put in a footnote just for you.”
“Awesome.” He grinned. “She likes you, you know? Beckett might not admit it, but those snips and snipes? She just doesn’t know how to say it with actual words.”
Richard wore a rueful smile. “Hardly. I am a nuisance. The eternal juvenile who gets in the way of her work.”
“You risked everything to shed light on her mother’s murder. That’s not juvenile, Rick. Though I don’t agree with how you went about it. She just needs to know you care. In a direct way, a way that doesn’t include you and Esposito invading her privacy. It’s called stalking, and it’s not romantic.”
“How could Twilight have steered me so wrong?”
Kevin nearly choked on his coffee. Richard laughed and tossed him a dish towel before flicking off the burner.
“I thought we were talking about you?” He dished up his own plate and dug in. “Besides I don’t think there’s anything I can do at this point. The ship has sailed on Kate and I.”
Kevin considered that for a moment. “What’s something she really loves?”
“Guns and corporal punishment?”
“Funny.” He rolled his eyes. “Your books; all of them pretty much got torched when her apartment went boom. Give them back to her, something that means home. If she doesn’t see that you’re serious? Then maybe she doesn’t deserve you.”
“Wow.” Richard paused. “Brutal but smooth, Ryan. Brutal but smooth.”
He shrugged easily and pulled off a bite of toast. “I get a flash of romantic genius every now and then.”
“Then why don’t you apply them to Esposito?”
Kevin did choke on his toast, and Richard was two seconds away from telling him to raise his arms up, when he finally spoke. Horror and fear were thick in his voice.
“I’m a writer, it’s my job to be observant.” He nodded, getting Kevin a glass of water.
“What gave it away?” he whispered, after a long drink.
“I’ve seen the way you two move around each other.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“No, it’s just the little things. The way you always stand so close, touch each other, how you know the way Esposito takes his coffee. He knows you’re allergic to goose down.” Richard smiled when Kevin’s cheeks went slightly pink. “When exactly, did bedding come into conversation with you two?”
“Camping trip.” He smiled, cheeks getting hotter. “Javi’s sleeping bag had down in it. He shoved it in a box in his truck -”
“I swear if your next words are and shared my sleeping bag with me I’m gonna have to hum the theme from Brokeback Mountain.”
Kevin laid his head on the granite countertop and laughed, otherwise he would've just fallen off his stool. Richard’s face was absolutely, painfully serious.
“We don’t touch each other that much,” he said, sitting up when he could breathe again.
Richard sent him a look. Kevin was pretty sure it was his “disbelieving father“ expression. He hadn’t seen one in a while, but recalled his dad having one that was remarkably similar.
“You two touch each other more than I have ever touched Beckett.”
“Because she would break your fingers.”
“Indeed. And these puppies are insured.” He wiggled him as though to prove his point. “I was there with Holliwell. That was some intense emotion behind the way you went after Esposito.”
“You mean hysteria,” he muttered.
“That too,” Rick said, laughing softly. “If it were Beckett, I - I honestly don’t know that I wouldn’t be sitting in jail for murder right now. I still can’t believe you didn’t shoot him.”
Kevin was silent for a long time, and Richard left him to his thoughts. Enjoying his breakfast and pondering idea about the books. He wasn’t sure what the results would be, but maybe it could be the start to something more.
“I almost did,” he whispered. “Walking into that lobby my hands were shaking so hard. I almost took him out when he wouldn’t tell me where Javier was. I thought about it; imagined how it would feel to pull the trigger.”
“Why do you think I followed you?” He didn’t miss the switch from last names to first. “It’s not just because I’m nosy - which I am - I wanted you to have someone with you in case …”
Kevin nodded sharply. They didn’t need to end that sentence, he’d imagined the worst possible alternative many nights over. In detail so vivid the mere memory could make him feel sick.
“I have no idea how to tell him,” he said. “There’s so much I wanna say, but I try to start and it gets all jumbled in my mouth.”
“That’s why I’m the writer and you just get the footnote.”
“Thanks.” He snorted. “It honestly doesn’t bother you that I’m bi?”
“Kevin, I grew up with a mother who worked in theater. I have more gay, bi and tri people in my extended - and wildly inaccurate - family tree than I can count. Throw a cat, hit a gay man. Swing a dead fish, down comes a lesbian.”
“I don’t know whether to laugh or buy you a gift card for therapy.”
“Both will do nicely, thank you.” Richard bit into his toast and grinned. “It’s not any of my business who you sleep with, but I’m grateful you trust me.”
Kevin nodded, his mouth turning down slightly. “I’ve gotten so used to hiding, what if I can’t find the words?”
“I’m gonna tell you something Gaiman told me -”
Kevin’s eyes went as wide as his cup. “You know Neil Gaiman?”
“Ah, fanboy are you?”
“I read American Gods when I was fifteen for a book report. I think I’ve got nearly everything he’s ever written.”
Richard chuckled, this was exactly how his fans got around him, it was interesting to see it from another angle. He made a mental note if he ever invited Neil to a poker game, he’d invite Kevin too. Just to see him flail.
“I asked how he gets through the hard parts - because all stories have them - the spots where you wanna slam your head against the desk, until brain comes out your nose. Or throw your laptop out the window, but can’t because you bought it on an advance, and you haven’t paid your publisher back yet.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“Not at all.”
Kevin smiled. It was rare that they got to see Castle the writer, the guy who sat behind a desk day after day, and made things up for a living. It was encouraging to know he faced struggles just like them. That there were days when the last thing he wanted to see was a blank screen, or in their case, a murder board without a solution.
“He said it’s not about divine inspiration, there are no magical elves that come in during the night to sort out that continuity clusterfuck you made in chapter nine. It’s you putting one word in front of the other, every single day, until it’s done. Like building a dry stone wall, one piece at a time, until you have something that’ll be standing long after you’re gone. And when you see what you built with your blood, sweat and mangled fingers? It’s worth every minute of the struggle.”
Richard let the silence remain between them. Knowing Ryan needed a moment to think. When you loved someone there was so much to lose, and that weight could either crush you or make you stronger.
“Find the words, Kev’. One at a time.”
He let out a heavy breath. “What if he doesn’t -”
“Tell him.” Richard said. “Get it out there. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
There was that look again, the one that said Castle was old friends with regret. Kevin sipped his coffee and didn’t comment on the wash of sadness in those normally unclouded blue eyes.
“Where do I even ask Javi to meet me?”
He sighed, stabbing at a bite of eggs and toast. Richard watched him, saw the frustration and exhaustion weighing down his shoulders.
Kevin stared at him a minute. “What?”
“Call him. Tell him to meet you here. It’s safe, familiar, private - except Mrs. Clements down the hall. You think she’d get her own life, but no.”
“Yes.” Richard smiled. “Mother and Alexis are out for a girly day. I’ll grab the laptop, hit the library; my editor will think I’m actually working and you’ll get the neutral space you need. Everybody wins!”
He laughed, anything for an excuse. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely!” He grabbed the plates and began to stack them quickly into the dishwasher. “I’ll put you to work while you wait. There’s a print of Heat Wave on my desk, go grab it and tell me what you think of Schlemming falling off the fire escape in chapter five.”
Kevin laughed all the way to the office. In life or fiction, Castle was determined that Demming was going down hard. Grabbing the heavy manuscript, he walked back to the living room, texting Javier before starting in on page one. Beyond him, Richard watched from the kitchen as Ryan poured over the first chapter. Someone deserved to get this love thing right, even if it wasn’t him.
The elevator was down for a yearly inspection by the time she made it home. Waiting for her order, she sat at a table and thumbed “Javier Esposito” into the Google search bar. You could find anything on the internet. By the time her order was up, she’d found three articles that warranted reading on real paper; logging into her computer remotely to print them. They should be sitting in her paper tray right now. Which would’ve been fantastic, if not for the man currently trying to break into her apartment.
Dark black hooded jacket and blue jeans, well built, wearing combat boots. A glimpse of his hands put him somewhere between African-American or Latino; not white and not fake baked. She logged the details in her mind for later, pulling out her gun. Breathing slowly, evenly, all the way in and all the way out. Just like Dad taught her. When this was over, she was flying home to hug him; thank him for all the kickboxing and self-defense lessons. It was the only way he’d agreed to let both his daughters go to New York. They had to know how to fight properly and comfortably handle a gun.
He was kneeling in front of her door, a roll of professional tools laid out at his side. She was behind him, out of his field of vision unless he turned his head. Switching her phone to silent, Jenny tucked it in her back pocket. Metal picks in his hands, he worked patiently, not even the slightest sense of urgency as he listened to tumblers shift and bump in the lock. Slipping off her sandals in the event of having to run like fuck, she quietly crossed the distance between the alcove and her apartment. Barely letting the soles of her feet touch the floor.
Standing directly behind him, her heart and head pounding in sync, she released the safety just as his cellphone rang. Startling them both. For a moment she couldn’t think. Then the right hemisphere of her brain kicked on, and she recognized it. Pearl Jam. She’d heard that ring tone before, dozens of times.
His tools dropped with a clang to the floor, the sound amplified in her ears. She yanked the hoodie off his head and when he turned, their gazes connected, green on brown. For a moment, shock flooded in and all the air pushed from her lungs, forcing her to take a step back. Moving made the room sway and her legs went tingly. Counting by the thousands in her head, Jenny took deep, tight breaths.
“What - fuck - how -” Her brain was too absorbed with staying standing, to form actual sentences.
“I’m gonna get up, okay?” Javier spoke carefully, never breaking eye contact, hands visible.
She had a white-knuckled grip on the gun, and he didn’t wanna get his face blown off by making the wrong move. He waited until she nodded to push to his feet, quickly flattening his back against the wall. If he moved into her personal space too soon, he’d end up with a bullet hole or five. That would really piss Kate off, considering he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near Kevin. Though, if Demming had done his job, for all Beckett knew, he wasn’t.
“What are you doing here? This is my apartment, my home.”
Panic lined her voice, her breathing sharp on the inhale. One hand still held the semi-automatic, the other pressed to her chest; before shifting and cupping the butt of the gun in her palms. Her arms were getting tired, the adrenaline was peaking and fading faster than she could cope.
“Can I have that?” He motioned to the trembling barrel. “I promise I’ll explain, I just need you to put the gun down, Jen. I just wanna talk to you.”
“So you brought a lock picking set?”
“Admittedly, not my best decision ever -”
“You think?” She pressed a palm to her forehead, her brain throbbed in her skull. Her eyes kept wanting to close, and her limbs felt ready to fall off at any moment. “What the hell are you doing here?"
“It’s not what you think.”
“Really? I’d say the felony was pretty damn obvious, Detective.”
The blonde rage vibe she had going was rather terrifying, and he was still very worried about getting his head blown off. He really didn’t want that unless his parents at least got benefits out of it. Getting shot by your best-friend’s head case of a sister, who might also - but god he hoped not - be his girlfriend, did not qualify for said benefits. An incest joke floated through his mind, nearly making him snicker, but he shelved it for after he’d gotten that gun out of her hands.
He swung to another tactic. “Okay it’s exactly what you think; does your head hurt?”
“What?” She blinked at him, barrel dipping slightly, making his heart catch in his throat.
“Does your head hurt? I think your blood sugar’s low, you’re going into shock.”
“It’s pounding. How’d you know?”
“My Mama got hypoglycemia a lot during chemo,” he spoke softly. Carefully prying her fingers from around the gun. “Do you have anything sweet on you?”
“Some Jolly Ranchers in my purse.”
He popped the safety and carefully holstered the gun in the back of his jeans. Not the most genius of locations, but it would do until she was settled. Gently, hands on her shoulders, he stepped her back against the wall. Didn’t miss the flinch when he touched her, but let it go for the moment.
“Sit,” he whispered. He waited until she’d put ass to carpet, before grabbing her purse and the two other bags he could see in the alcove.
“Careful, one has coffee in it.”
She sat with her head against the wall, eyes closed and legs sprawled out. Putting the bags at her feet, he looked in the bottom of her purse.
“Do you have a flavor preference?”
“What are my options?” She smiled.
He could be very sweet when he wasn’t trying to break and enter.
“I count eight sour apples, two cherries and a lone blue raspberry.”
Digging them out, he silently approved, putting them into her open palm. Tugging the gun out of his waistband, he pulled the clip and checked the chamber, all clear.
She nodded, speaking around a candy. “IDs in my wallet, behind my driver’s license.”
He nodded, but didn’t check. If she was carrying, Kevin had taught her to shoot. That was enough validation for him. Setting her purse down, he crouched at her feet, watching her pupils and breathing for further evidence of shock.
“Slowly,” he said when she popped a second in. Once those worked their magic, he’d see about getting real food in her. His own stomach was gnawing at him, among other things.
“I should shoot you in the leg,” she said after a beat. “You scared the shit outta me.”
“Too bad you can’t reach your gun.” He smiled softly, teasingly.
By the fourth candy, she was starting to ease her way around. Leaning against the wall instead of slumping. He sat down, leaning back on his hands, legs parallel to hers. Smirking when she chucked a candy at him and it bounced off his chest.
“Kevin always steals the sour apples.” She smiled. “I hide ‘um in my purse. He never goes in there.”
Grinning, Javier popped it in, the green ones were his favorite. With nothing but the sound of cellophane unwrapping between them, he thought about what happened. Emotions were still rolling off her, dulled by shock. There had been panic edged with fear, and the flinch said too many familiar things. He saw it every day, had experienced it himself a lifetime ago.
“There a reason you’re packin’ a Glock next to your Chapstick and Jolly Ranchers?”
“I like shiny, mechanical objects.”
He raised a brow, briefly considering the dirty rebuttal that shot through his thoughts. She held his gaze, green-gray and unwavering, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“You’re just a land-mine waitin’ to pop, aren’t you?” He asked, chuckle rolling out of his chest.
“Pretty much.” Pulling a bag closer, she lifted out two iced coffees, passing one to him. He took it with thanks. She sipped, steadied by cold and artificial caramel flavor. “What’d your Mom have?”
“The chemo, what’d she have?”
“Hodgkins lymphoma, stage two.” He paused, remembering the way she’d lost weight so rapidly. She was already light enough for him to toss over his shoulder, but he’d never seen someone waste away that quickly before. “She kept saying she was fine, just gettin’ old.”
He rolled his eyes as though the idea was ludicrous.
“If they caught it soon enough - how old is she?”
“Been fifty-five a long time now.” Javier laughed softly. “They were pretty rigorous with her treatment, my sister was pregnant at the time, first grandbaby and all -”
“That’ll make you wanna live.” She smiled. “How is she now?”
“In remission for going on four years, enjoying life as Grandma. Just celebrated her sixtieth last month. Trying to keep my Dad out of trouble, and get me to mow the lawn every other weekend. She abuses her Cancer card frequently. Likes to pretend she could drop any day now.”
“So, clearly, not dramatic or anything?”
“Not in the least.” He grinned.
She set her coffee between her knees, thinking about the night she staked her claim on Kevin. It felt so long ago, so opposite to where they were now. Jenny had to wonder if they’d gotten here sooner, had been grown-ups and said what they felt, how different things might be.
“We really fucked this up, didn’t we?”
“Considering I’m not shot and you’re still conscious, I thought we were doing fairly well.”
She laughed, leaning her head back against the wall. “I meant with Kevin.”
“Oh, that whole he’s mine, eat shit and die song and dance?”
“I was going to put it somewhat delicately …”
He held the words behind his teeth for a long time. “You’re not dating him, are you?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Never have. He’s my brother.”
“Biologically or otherwise?” He pointed to himself, when she sent him a questioning look. “Adopted since I was two.”
“Two sisters,” he said.
“You and Kevin share that burden.”
“It’s a special kind of hell, makes me believe God is probably a woman.”
Jenny giggled at his tortured smile. “We’ve been next door neighbors since I was six. Couple years later my Mom kind of went … off the air?” She still didn’t know how to say it. “Left Maggie and Liam with guardianship.”
“Where’s your dad?”
“That’s anybody’s guess.” She shrugged and blinked back tears. “I’m not trying to compete with you. But I’ve protected him - or tried to - for most of my life. It’s an explanation, not an excuse. Kevin is my family, all I know.”
The scar on his arm, that he’d never seen, that was the one time she had failed.
“Maybe you don’t stand down,” he whispered. “Maybe I just help out a little?”
“I give him to you for forty hours a week, plus overtime. What more do you want?”
He ducked from her smile, fiddling with his drink. He had no goddamned idea, he just knew at the end of the day, he didn’t want to lose his best-friend. But white hot hatred was hard to switch off. He listened, repeatedly winding the straw wrapper around his finger as she spoke.
“I don’t wanna make him choose. I know what will happen, Javier. Whether he’s happy doesn’t matter, Kevin will choose family every single time. He shouldn’t have to but what we’re doing - the whole territorial thing - it’s ripping him apart. I want him happy. He deserves that much, whether or not you deserve him ...”
“Please, woman. I am awesome.” He looked up and caught her grin. Matched it. “What is this then?” He motioned between them. “A truce, promise to play nice, temporary ceasefire to bury the dead?”
“I like the ceasefire, but the whole idea is to avoid casualties.” She said, crossing her ankles. “A temporary ceasefire to reexamine potential allies.”
“We’re really pushin’ the war metaphor here.”
“You started it.” She smiled, all mirth and mischief. “We both love him -”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Tolerate. I tolerate him on a very deep level.”
“Really, Mr. Fifteen to Twenty-Five?”
Javier could feel his cheeks growing warm. “And I was just starting to like you.”
She would have thrown her chocolate croissant at him, but it was delicious and that was just wasteful. Though she did refrain from kicking him in the face, when he reached into the bag for one, as a gesture of solidarity. Closer now, sitting with his legs crossed but not tucked, he munched the outer shell away before eating the interior.
“There’s just one more thing I need to know,” he said. “Why’d you lie about dating him?”
“He asked me to.” She said after a pause, not quite meeting his gaze.
“What’s he trying to protect himself from?”
Javier was silent, lines of worry forming between his brows. For a moment she merely looked at him; it was impossible to believe he didn’t know and yet he sat there, genuine confusion in his dark eyes.
Chapter 5: The Bisexual Pride Patch, The Burnt Irish Toast, The Holy Order of the PB&B and Closing the Gap
Javier couldn’t move. The word drove right through his heart. Jenny watched emotions flicker across his face, there one second and gone the next, as he grappled with the answer. Waiting until the light returned to his eyes Jenny stood and held out her hand.
“On your feet, solider.”
He passed back her gun, rolling up his kit as she tucked the Glock into her purse. Before she could start grabbing groceries, he was behind her, three bags on each arm. He passed her the one containing the coffee but wouldn’t let her take anything else.
“I have to know -” She leaned against the door, fishing out her key.
“If you’re asking if I love him, I can’t answer that right now.”
“Not asking.” She would, eventually, but not today.
“Good. You have to know what?”
“What’d you expect to find, Kevin taped to my ceiling in a deadly web of duct tape and bad ties?”
She smiled, before fiddling with the key in the lock; damn thing always liked to stick. Reaching past her, he twisted the knob and applied a little shoulder force. The door gave and swung slowly open.
“You admit it’s ugly as hell then?” He stepped past her.
“Buying it for him nearly cost me my retinas.”
A smile flashed across his mouth before he disappeared around the corner, setting the bags on her coffee table. Jenny watched when he returned, standing in the foyer, examining her door with careful eyes. Thumb running over the interior edge, picking a little at the red paint.
“Paint’s making it stick. I’ll come back next weekend. Sand it down, upgrade your strike plates.”
“What’s wrong with my strike plates?”
She kicked the door shut, followed him into the kitchen, noting to herself that he’d easily avoided answering her question. He’d also carried in all her groceries; she decided to let the issue go for the time being.
“They’re beat up, someone could easily break in.” He smiled cheekily at her.
“You mean someone without a lock picking set?”
His gaze dropped to the counter. “I just wanted to …”
“Make sure he was all right?”
Javier nodded, slowly beginning to unpack the green bags. She watched as he neatly sorted all her groceries into groups, gaze intently focused on the task at hand, avoiding hers at all cost.
“You really think all of this is just because you’re worried about a friend?”
He looked up and was met by her green gaze watching him. Understanding and critical all at once, as though she could see right through him. He sighed, plunked a carton of ice cream on the counter, and she held up her hands.
“Consider the question withdrawn.”
Silence grew around them as she reached for the emptied bags and started to fold them. Pressing them into smaller and smaller squares of cloth, until he met her gaze again. She wanted to ask him then but words stayed in her chest.
“Do you sort groceries alphabetically or numerically by UPC?”
“New groceries in the back, to be used stuff in the front. Related foods grouped together.”
“Are you some sort of closeted neat freak?”
He pulled open the refrigerator door, frowning at her in disapproval.
“I have seen neater crime scenes …”
“But - I -”
He continued frowning, pointing to the floor. Jenny sat, something about his disapproval was striking a Pavlovian chord. She was in the middle of her kitchen floor surrounded by sour cream, a wrapped quarter of pastry dough, two tomatoes, what once may have been celery that she was sure bordered on requiring Hazmat for disposal, and a bottle of ketchup from 1999. Moving her milk from the door to a shelf, led to him emptying the entire contents of her refrigerator and putting it back together.
Javier reappeared from the depths of her stainless steel fridge, head tilted in thought. “If this works out with Kevin, I’m gonna owe you a boyfriend, aren’t I?”
“You may even have to help me compare makes and models.” She smiled.
“Shit.” He disappeared again.
After he’d wiped down and reorganized the door, he started stacking the shelves and drawers. It didn’t take them long to work out a system with organizing the new groceries. She’d hand him something, tell him where to put it, and he’d then put it in a better place. It wasn’t until he down to stashing her two new cartons of almond milk that everything seemed to settle on him. Heavily. He sat back on his heels, carton of milk in his hand.
“He’s afraid of me?”
“He’s confused, terrified. This was never supposed to happen.”
“I’m not gonna rush it,” he whispered after a beat. “I know he can think himself dizzy.”
“You have been paying attention.”
She could swear his cheeks flushed, but he vanished before she could check. Organizing her chocolate stash alphabetically - that could rival the one he and Kevin regularly kept topped off in Kate’s middle desk drawer - Javier thought through all the steps they’d need to take. Years of tactical training put toward a whole new goal.
He could not, under any circumstances, push Kevin to tell him about his sexuality. Confrontation would only push him further away. Three years of partnership had educated him on how Kevin dealt with stress. He pushed it down until he was on the verge of exploding, and then he ran. Or, in Esposito’s experience, drove. He’d sat through many a car ride with Kevin silent and brittle beside him after a call from Julie Ryan. Fingers drumming on the wheel or door in agitation, until he ordered Ryan to speak, or be locked in the trunk for the remainder of the day.
Sometimes Esposito didn’t even ask, just pick-pocketed Ryan’s keys, grabbed him by the shirt cuff and hauled him down to the garage. It didn’t matter where they went, so long as Esposito drove, letting his best-friend simmer until he was ready to talk. Twenty minutes or two hours, he would simply wait for Kevin’s spine to decompress.
Once the words started, they would flow out like molten glass. Liquid and able to burn through damn near anything. Every bit of emotion Ryan kept so skillfully in control, rushing out wild and unchecked. Tightening his shoulders, triggering amusing hand gestures, and causing him to curse in three different languages - English, Irish Gaelic and Russian - sometimes all in the same sentence.
During those drives, Javier was grateful Kevin’s motorcycle was stored in his parent’s garage in Arizona. The last thing he needed was a call at four in the morning, saying his partner had driven himself into a neck brace and the ICU. It was his job to keep Ryan safe. Except at some point between a cabin in Florida and the standoff with Racine, the imperative had changed direction.
It wasn’t Ryan he was trying to protect during the Thornton case, it was Kevin. Kevin who had been standing there in the garage, words caught in his mouth, breath starting and stalling. Promising to be with him until the end, asking to stay by his side, only to be pushed away.
“He tried to tell me.” He closed the fridge, sat against it. Realizations landing like punches to his middle. “The other night with Racine. I wouldn’t listen, I wouldn’t let him finish.”
He turned over the memory of those blue eyes watching him. Ducking and connecting. Kevin hadn’t wanted him to go alone, had been worried when he slid into the driver’s seat and drove away. Javier watched him stand there, left behind, until his image disappeared from the rear-view mirror.
“Fuck … he should’ve hit me, tackled me, shut me up.”
“Jumped on the car?” She chanced an impish smile, sitting beside him.
He shot her a sideways glance. “Think he would’ve?”
“Maybe not jump - bruises like a peach - but sit on the hood with his arms crossed and glared at you like he could kill you with his brain? Absolutely.”
“I take it he’s done this before?”
“When he was eight Mom and Dad tried to force him to finish his steak; that whole “you will eat this or sit here” technique.”
“Because there are children in Taiwan who would sell their Grandma down river for your vegetables?”
“And I walked eight miles in gale force winds to buy these groceries for you?”
“And I didn’t even have shoes.” Javier laughed. “It was the mushrooms that got me in the most trouble. Does Children & Family Services know you people want me to eat fungus? That’s gotta violate the adoption agreement somewhere.”
“I can just imagine you standing on the kitchen table, brandishing your adoption certificate like a proclamation.”
“Why do you think my big sister became a lawyer?” He grinned proudly. “Winning the argument was the only way she could get me to shut up.”
“You gave your parents hell, didn’t you?”
He grinned, full of pride. “Mom still tries to drop me off at fire stations to this day. That safe haven law doesn’t work at thirty-four, but she keeps on tryin’.”
Jenny giggled in understanding. Her parents had the opposite problem, the blonde little girl from across the street had shown up one day, following their son inside for a snack like she’d been there all along. Almost thirty years later and she was still raiding their fridge every time she went home to Flagstaff.
“Kevin. Steak. Circle back, woman.”
She elbowed him in the ribs, just because. “After three hours of sitting there, he fell asleep at the table, they surrendered and carried him to bed. He’s been a vegetarian ever since.”
Leaning his head against the fridge door, Javier laughed. He could imagine Little Kevin, all red hair, eyebrows and limbs sleeping on the kitchen table. It was mental image he’d keep in the back of his mind for when he saw him again.
“Any chance he’s allergic?” he asked.
“I don’t think he’s ever looked into it. He’s just never liked it that much.”
“My niece is allergic, we didn’t find out until she was two. She gets really sick when she has red meat. I thought maybe with the down allergy -”
Jenny smiled. “You remember his allergies?”
This time his cheeks did flush as he ducked his head. “I told you, I pay attention.”
“Tolerate him, my ass …”
He sighed, head falling back easily against the door again, not having the words or the desire to deny her accusation. Javier closed his eyes and let memories move like afterimages through his mind. Weekend Madden matches, still moments in the armory or gym, hundreds of hours canvassing the streets of New York. Morning jogs when the only thing getting him moving was Kevin threatening to clear his kill count on Halo.
“All those nights we sat on my couch, had dinner, hung out.” He stopped, his voice softening. “Why didn’t he say anything?”
“He’s scared. Have I not made that clear?”
“Yeah, but, he knows me.”
The hurt of being left out, untrusted, after so many years was clear in the way the corners of his mouth turned down. Familiar lines forming between his brows. His knee bumped hers, and she found herself smiling, as a question formed in her thoughts.
“And where exactly, is your bisexual pride patch?”
“They’ve upgraded to photo identification.” He smirked. “I keep it behind my gun license.”
“Do you now?”
“Mmm hmm, it’s laminated and everything.”
“Does it say the year you were minted too?”
He nodded, the smirk becoming a grin. “2000.”
“You proud little switch hitter, you.”
Blush crawled up his neck, and she laughed, full and bright when he tugged at the neck of his t-shirt. Grinning in spite of himself, he pulled his bottom lip through his teeth, chewing on the patch of his goatee nervously. She didn’t make mention of the tell, and a question she wasn’t sure she should ask tiptoed to the front of her mind.
“Why didn’t you just tell him, if you’re bisexual too?”
His dark eyes clouded and she watched the grief edge in. Javi blinked, not wanting to acknowledge the burning behind his eyes, or the tightness in his chest. Tried to not hear the chaplain’s words or remember the weight of the coffin on his shoulder. How his insides had tied up in knots, when Andrew’s mother set the flag and dog tags in his lap long after the service was over. Didn’t want to remember Demming bringing him home, not to his apartment but to his parent’s house, because he’d gotten too drunk to even cry properly.
“It’s complicated,” he whispered.
She said nothing when he wiped the palms of his hands over his eyes. The man in the news articles, Andrew. Stillness settled around them again while Javier got himself together.
“You’re a confident man, Javier. Some might say egotistical, not me of course, but some.” She batted her lashes when he scowled at her. “Kevin’s heart has always been close to the surface. It’s just who he is. He’s dorky and sweet and the worst liar on the face of the earth.”
“But he kept this gem under wraps for three years?”
“Only because I was involved.”
“He couldn’t have managed all this without your evil do-gooding?”
“Not a chance in hell,” she said. “The confidence you have, the indifference about your sexuality? Kevin doesn’t have that. He has to figure this on his own timetable.”
He’d meant it when he’d said he wasn’t going to rush. No matter what was changing between them, they were going at their own pace or not at all. He hadn’t rushed with Andrew, and he certainly wasn’t going to with Kevin. He would be patient, even if it was difficult not to say “I know. I don’t care. Can we hug it out now?” the next time he laid eyes on him. It had taken them three years to get this far, and he knew rushing head first into anything would set them back to square one.
“Does he really think I’m gonna drop him just because he’s bi?”
“Javi,” her knee brushed his again, green gaze all seriousness, “he’s afraid of who he is. Him being bi … there’s a lot of trauma behind that, and he instinctively keeps the two tied together.”
Leaning against the fridge door, he let his head thunk against it once, twice, three times. He remembered what it was like to be scared of who, what you were. He’d been twenty-six when it all clicked that the attraction sitting in the back of his brain wasn’t something to run away from, to ignore. It was what it was, and it didn’t make him any more or any less than what he’d been. He was still the same Javier Esposito he’d always been, he just understood himself better at twenty-six than he had at twenty-five.
“I don’t care, Jen. Bisexual, vegetarian, closeted super-geek? It doesn’t matter. None of it matters if I lose my best-friend.”
“Good to know. Tell him that.”
Without asking Jenny leaned her head against his shoulder. He glanced down and smiled, draping an arm around her. She reminded him of his baby sister, equal parts vinegar, honey and gunpowder.
“You know you’re kinda awesome, when you’re not trying to shoot me.”
“Says the man who tried to break into my apartment two hours ago.”
“Point of argument, withdrawn.”
“I think that’s my sister’s line.”
“Well, she’s not here, is she?”
His laughter rippled through her and she made no move to get up for a while. Being near him was like standing in the eye of a storm. Knowing mayhem was ten feet away on either side, but right in the center there was peace. Everything about him was reserved yet solid, settled and not easily uprooted. Exactly what Kevin needed.
“You mentioned breakfast …”
“I did. You hungry?”
“Starving.” He got to his feet and pulled her up. “What’s left to put away?”
She looked through the last green bag; packages of copy paper, printer ink, pair of CAT-6 cables for her Time Capsule, and a new power strip for the office.
“Bedroom on the left. I’ll get breakfast going. You eat quiche?”
He took the bag, shaking his head. “It’s called pie, curly locks.”
“Quiche, don’t make me get out a dictionary.”
“You’re a bitch to play Scrabble with, aren’t you?”
Jenny only chuckled, low and deadly. “You have no idea.”
Laughing, Javier grabbed the bag and headed toward the office. Stepping into the room, his gaze was immediately drawn to the bed. Kevin had slept there, the thought nearly made his knees buckle. Javier stood still for a long breath, fingertips brushing over the comforter. Imagining what it would feel like to wake up and know instinctively, deep within his bones, that Kevin was there. He wished, for a moment, he could be certain of where they were going. Where all the struggling and wanting was taking them.
With a shake of his head to clear his thoughts, he crossed the room to her office; a corner desk that stretched along the left wall, leaving the city view wide open. There was a shiny silver iMac sitting on the desk, he figured that was as good a place as any to put the bags. Bumping her wireless trackpad, the screen melted from black to reveal the Safari web browser. He stared at the screen - Orbitz - and waited for the letters in the fields to properly arrange themselves.
Jenny pulled her phone out of her pocket while he was in the bedroom, opening the printer application. The three articles had never printed, she’d been out of paper. With a few quick taps on the screen she cleared the queue.
“Jesus H. Christ!” He marched through her living room seconds later. “Flying home to Arizona? He’d better be worth it.”
He was a deity on the warpath, wearing plaid and weekend scruff. No longer calm and steady, but a sight to behold. The embodiment of the Jehovah of her childhood, raining fire and brimstone down upon humanity. Dropping wearily on the barstool, the demiurge disappeared, becoming man once more. Made of nothing more than chaos and dust.
“He didn’t put the order through.” He sighed, deeply hating this never ending day. “He looked them up, but he didn’t hit submit. That’s gotta mean something, right?”
She only slid a plate his way in reply. Pulling it closer, he let himself enjoy the long awaited breakfast for a moment. Warm ham and cheese quiche with hash brown crust. It was familiar and comforting, made him miss sitting on a dock with the unit boys in Brisbane. Eating breakfast, talking shit and watching the early morning surfers hit the water.
Javier let the silence wrap around him, drawing himself deeper in. Kevin was thinking about doing a runner; fueled by fear that had been trapped inside him for almost two decades. He’d have to be careful, logical, compassionate. He couldn’t push forward, but he couldn’t give Kevin the opening to run either. He sent Jenny a look, and her sad smile said everything he couldn’t.
“He’s scared, and he’s -”
“When you see him and he drives you insane because he’s all raw and twittery, remember that underneath those shiny blue eyes and big smile, is a little kid who’s scared of who he is.”
He was halfway through his quiche, when the text came in. He didn’t pick it up right away, stared at it, beating heart stuck in his throat. He looked at Jenny, at his phone and back again.
“If you don’t pick it up, I will.” She was already trying to read the message upside down.
Hand shaking, he snatched up the phone. Every time he tried to unlock the screen his thumb would shake too hard. This was the first time he’d heard from Kevin since he’d left the station, and the thought that this might be goodbye was overwhelming.
“Do you want me to -” Jenny reached out.
“Touch the phone and die. I’ll get it.”
“While we’re young,” she muttered, as he shook the nerves out of his hand.
Relief washed over them both as they heard the tell-tale click of the screen lock opening, and it took Javier four read throughs before everything lined up into sense. Meanwhile, Jenny was standing by, trying to get an eye at the screen and slow her heart down.
She was way too involved. Right after he left she was going to buy herself a life on Amazon, rush shipping.
“He’s at Castle’s. Wants to talk.”
Javier wiped his hands over his face, breathing in deeply and slowly, as the pressure eased around his heart. He’s okay. He’s not in Arizona. He’s okay. The words looped through his brain like ticker-tape, and he nearly giggled with relief. Kevin was all right, it was the best thing he’d heard in days.
“I won’t tell him about this.” She motioned around her apartment. “I won’t tell him until you’re ready. You’ve got more important things to talk about.”
They were the only two words that felt right.
“And tell that little shit he owes me pastries.”
“Done.” He grinned. “When I come back to fix your door? We’re burnin’ that ugly ass tie you bought him.”
“I’ll bring the marshmallows, you bring the lighter fluid.”
Her mischievous laughter followed him down the hall and out the door. Stepping into the sunlight and walking the few feet to his car, he replied with one hand and opened the driver’s side door with the other. He’d be at 425 Broome Street in less than twenty minutes.
Castle was gathering his things from the office when the reply came in. Kevin’s every defense mechanism shot to red alert; it was all he could do not to bolt for the door. Javier was on his way. Richard watched in silent understanding, occasionally reminding Kevin to breathe.
“Is it too late to bail?”
Energy, hot and frenetic moved through him, tingling from the tips of his fingers up to his elbows. His heart was permanently affixed to the back of his throat and whenever he tried to stand, the whole world swayed. Not even Castle’s espresso was keeping him upright anymore. His knees buckled when he slid off the barstool after breakfast, and Richard had marched him straight into a comfortable leather chair.
“The way things are right now, they’re good, yes? They don’t have to change.”
“Do you enjoy living a lie?” Richard slid his laptop into a protective sleeve.
“It has its moments.”
Castle reached into the black lacquered cabinet behind his desk, retrieving an elegant decanter three-quarters full with amber liquid and a single tumbler. Sitting on the corner of his desk, he poured a double shot of single malt. Neat.
“To offset your flight response.”
Kevin stared at the glass in Richard’s hand. He wanted it. Wanted to upend the bottle and swill it down like water, until it flooded his nervous system and shutdown his crashing brain. Pulling in a tight breath, he shook his head.
“If I can’t do this sober, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
At his nod, Castle left the glass on the desk and replaced the decanter stopper. Kevin slumped down in the chair, covering his face with his hands. Feeling the pull of exhaustion beckon. He was officially coming undone at the seams. Leaning his head back on the edge of the chair, Kevin closed his eyes. Tried to let his body go boneless while the sound of Richard packing faded into white noise. Four days with less than three hours of sleep a night; every muscle ached, his joints radiated pain and his temples were throbbing. If he let it go any longer, the insomnia alone would convince Jenny to have him committed.
Opening his eyes, he stared at the glass on the desk, courage in cut glass. The desire to grab the drink and toss it back in one swallow pressed against his ribs. Flattening his lungs and making it hard to breathe. He knew once the eighty-proof whiskey met his bloodstream it would wrap him in a cozy blanket of numbness for hours. He turned away and walked, one step at a time, into the kitchen. Richard was grabbing a thermos from a cabinet as Kevin made his way over.
“If things get out of hand, call me. I don’t mind coming to play mediator.”
“You just want dialogue for the next Heat book.”
“I’d be offended, but it’s true.”
“I’ll be okay.” Kevin smiled, shuffling his Converse against the wood floor. “Thank you for everything.”
Concern shadowed Richard’s gray-blue eyes, Ryan had been on a downhill slide since breakfast, and it wasn’t looking to improve. Maybe he should stay. He did not want Kate finding out he’d played match-maker, and nearly sent one of her best detectives into a nervous breakdown. The fact that he’d allowed his home to be the location of their confrontation would not bode well for him in the court of Judge Beckett. He was libel to face a one-woman firing squad, and she would not give him the benefit of a blindfold or the complimentary cigarette.
Kevin drummed up his best tone of teenage annoyance when Richard wouldn’t stop frowning at him.
“I have you on speed dial, Mr. Castle. I promise to totally not have a party while you’re gone.”
“Not funny, Ryan. So not funny.” He glared, sliding the thermos into his bag. “If I come back and that single malt has been transformed into tea, you will be toast, Wonder Bread.”
“What if your vodka turns into water?”
“You are not Jesus, Ryan.”
“That was wine,” Kevin called after him.
“Toast, Detective! Burnt, Irish toast!”
Making his way over to the couch, he pulled the manuscript that Castle left him into his lap, thumbing over the edge and watching the pages flicker past. Esposito was going to show up at any minute. With a sigh, he put aside the manuscript and walked back to the office.
The tumbler sat there. Untouched. Sweetly whispering his name. He knew exactly what it would taste like in his mouth. It was top shelf whiskey, he could tell by the aroma and color alone. His father had bought him a bottle of Macallan the day he graduated from the Academy, toasting him in his workshop. Surrounded by sawdust and carpentry tools.
Cloves, toffee and wood smoke; smooth and rich as velvet, it would wash over him like a giddy flush. Enough to warm him through without overwhelming. A sweet burn that lingered with every swallow. Settling into his bones, making him feel lighter than he had in months, maybe years. His hand wrapped around the glass and his heart slowed. Comfort. Peace. Rest. All of it was there waiting for him.
With a full body shudder he marched out to the kitchen, decanter in one hand and glass in the other. He was just going to pour temptation back into the fucking bottle and be done with it. He never made it there. Esposito was standing halfway between the front door and the living room.
Kevin couldn’t think, every word he’d ever wanted to say was written on the back of his throat. Javier was just standing there, looking at him and Kevin fought the urge to turn away. Even as his spine felt as weak as a reed battling a hurricane at the sight of him.
“You gonna leave Castle any?” Esposito nodded toward the bottle.
“He poured me a shot …”
A faint smile touched Javier’s mouth and Kevin’s head swam, his pulse moving into third gear as chills swept down his back. With a sharp turn that made his vision swim, he stepped into the kitchen, feeling Esposito’s eyes track his every movement. Not overbearing, but there, burning through shirt and skin.
“If you’re gonna put that down the drain, I’ll drink it.”
“I’m pourin’ it back in the bottle.”
Javier said nothing in response as he studied his partner. Kevin’s eyes were bloodshot, his movements slowed, out of sync with his mind. He hadn’t been sleeping; it wasn’t hard to diagnose and it explained the disappearing act, though it left even more questions open for debate.
Standing there looking into the glass, Kevin got lost in the shimmer of light on the jeweled liquid. Last call. It felt so good cradled in his hand. All he had to do was toss it back and swallow. Desire curled around him like a vine, choking out everything else. His heart pounded against his ribs, threatening to crack them wide open.
He didn’t hear the glass break in the sink, only recognized the flash of white that was the kitchen lights, the impact of Javier’s chest connecting with his back, the arms going around him. Familiar words echoed in his ear.
“I’ve got you, Kev’. I got you.”
Holding him tight, Javier watched those bloodshot blue eyes flicker open once before Kevin’s head slumped back against his shoulder. Gently, he lowered them both to the ground, sitting with Kevin in his lap. Moments later his partner flickered back to consciousness, and Javier idly stroked his cheek with the hand that wasn’t monitoring his pulse.
Kevin made a noise that may have been a slurred question. His head was spinning, like he’d been doing circles in his office chair too long again. Javier’s arms around him were his anchor, keeping him from floating away; he closed his eyes and tried to breathe until his brain stopped swaying in his skull.
“One of you doesn’t eat, the other doesn’t sleep,” Javier muttered to himself. “What is wrong with you Irish people?”
“So many things.” He giggled, eyes drifting closed again.
Javier bit down a laugh, exhausted Kevin and drunk Kevin were similarly entertaining. Stroking his cheek with the back of his fingers, the urge to kiss him - then and there - welled up in his chest. He could kiss him, he could know and Kevin would be none the wiser after a good night’s sleep. Would probably think it was some insomnia induced dream, something to laugh about and shrug off over coffee.
“How many days since you slept through the night, Ryan?”
“Since Captain America,” he murmured. “Keep dreamin’ about losing you.”
Racine. Wednesday night, four nights without sleep; he held Kevin tighter. His free hand carding through that thick hair, over his cheek, all the words he wanted to say scattering like buckshot when Kevin leaned into the touch. Pressed a kiss to the heel of his palm.
His heart skittered at the sweet touch; this could break him apart so easily. He held Kevin tight, closing his eyes and feeling his heart beat under his fingertips. Listening to him breathing softly in the empty kitchen. The sound filling up the space, unfolding and expanding with every exhale, until it was all Javier could hear. Sitting on the floor cradling his best friend in his arms, trying to string the together the words he should’ve said years ago.
“I’m cold, Javs.”
He shivered on cue, and Javier pulled himself away from what he should’ve done. The past was a page he couldn’t rewrite. Without a word, he let his partner use his shoulder for a pillow, while he shimmied out of his coat and hoodie. Carefully helping coordination challenged Kevin into both, despite his protesting.
“I can do it,” he pouted, eyes closed.
“‘Course you can.” Javier chuckled, zipping the hoodie up to just under his chin.
His hands were freezing, and Javier wished he’d brought in the gloves in his box in the car. His body was going into shock from the lack of sleep. Dizziness, chills, black outs, slurred speech. He need to get Kevin warm and sleeping, before he ended up in the Emergency Room.
His head lolled back, and he became momentarily distracted by sniffing Javier’s neck. “You smell good …”
“Thank you.” Laughter crept around Javier’s words. Kevin was going to be grateful he couldn’t remember this later. “I’m gonna take you home, get you in bed -”
“But I don’t wanna sleep. Don’t wanna have bad dreams about you.”
“You won’t.” He whispered, buttoning up the jacket. “Not anymore.”
Evening had arrived by the time Kevin woke up again. Walking from the bedroom, the haze of slumber clearing with each step, he found Javier making sandwiches in the kitchen. He was standing at the stove slicing something into a pan; Kevin’s curiosity pulled him closer. There was a small food processor on the butcher block island filled with homemade peanut butter. With a quick look to make sure the coast was clear, he swiped a taste; warm, nutty and sweet.
“I saw that.”
Javier didn’t even have to turn around, he could see Kevin in the stainless steel backsplash. He smiled to himself. Kevin looked like a little boy with his hand caught in Mom’s mixing bowl.
“Is really good,” he muttered, finger still in his mouth. “What are you making?”
“Only the best peanut butter and banana sandwich you will ever eat.”
“Feeling nostalgic, are you?” He smirked.
“It’s peanut butter and bananas, what’s not to love?”
“You eat peanut butter right off the spoon, don’t you?”
“Spoon, knife, finger; whatever’s closest at hand.”
He paused, tilted his head. “Freak.”
“See if I feed you now.”
“But! No!” He drew out the vowel. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast, I’m withering before you.”
“That’s not news. Turn sideways, stick out your tongue and you’re a zipper.”
Kevin’s cheeks flushed pink. “I resent that.”
“Even if it is a little true?”
“… Yes.” He laughed. “Feed me.”
“Why do I put up with you again?”
“‘Cause I’m so pretty.”
Grinning, Kevin hopped up on the counter. It was the smile that did Javier in, unraveling the worry in his chest into laughter; the smile, those blue eyes and that awesomely skewed bedhead. Turning back to the stove with an exasperated roll of his eyes, he flipped the banana slices over to brown on the other side.
“So,” Kevin swiped another taste of peanut butter, still forgoing utensils for a finger. ”JIF is no longer the PB mecca?”
“This is PB&B for grown ups … or really spoiled nieces.”
“I take it Audrey gets this every time she spends the night?”
“Yes.” Javier pointed at him with the spatula. All seriousness. “And you must swear never to tell my sister, or I will be forced to take you out.”
“To preserve the Holy Order of the PB&B?”
Kevin chuckled at Javier’s obvious adoration; he’d never had the pleasure of meeting Audrey Washburne, but he’d heard stories about her. Going on three years old, all big brown eyes and attitude, she’d had her uncle wrapped around her finger from day one. Javier believed she hung the moon, and she relished that glory at least one weekend every month. Unless someone died and they was stuck working overtime.
Which reminded him.
“Was this an AW weekend?”
“Mmm hmm. One more strike and I am actually going to owe that child a pony.”
“I’m sorry.” Kevin’s mouth turned down. “We could go pick her up?”
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “I told her Mr. Ryan was sick … that I was taking care of him.”
“And what’d she say to that?”
“She hates you with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. Did you not hear the part about the pony?”
“Damnit, even when they’re toddlers I can not win with women.”
Javier grinned. “I’m planning on takin’ her to aquarium next month. The minute she hits the sea turtles, I will be her god once more.”
“Phenomenally cosmic ego, itty bitty living space.” He chuckled when Esposito scowled.
Kevin sat on the counter, watching as Javier slid the assembled sandwich into his grill pan, put a hot cast iron skillet on top, and then added a foil wrapped brick.
“What the hell are you doing to that poor defenseless sammie, Esposito?”
“MacGuyvered sandwich press,” he said, laughing softly at Ryan’s worried expression.
“But … are you trying to get information out of it?”
The kitchen smelled of caramelized bananas, homemade bread and fresh peanut butter. In a word: spectacular. He’d always known Esposito was a good cook, but it had been a while since they’d eaten a meal together that wasn’t Chinese or pizza. Once he’d determined that it had been appropriately smushed - swearing that was a culinary term - he sliced the sandwich.
It was nice. Poking at each other and eating real food that didn’t come in take-out containers. Without being asked, he hopped off the counter, moving easily around his partner as he grabbed down plates, silverware and got them both ridiculously large glasses of cold milk. All of it simply set on the counter as Javier quickly dished up dinner, and pushed a warm plate into his hands.
“Diagonal?” Kevin smiled.
“AW doesn’t do squares. Says they’re not pretty enough.”
“Someone’s fancy,” he muttered, examining the meal before him.
The sandwich was a hot mess, all warm sweet bananas and rustic, thick peanut butter on good bread with golden brown and delicious grill marks from the pan. Javier was serious about his PB&B. Picking up half, he took a careful bite, bananas and liquified peanut butter going everywhere. His fingers, the palm of his hands, the plate in his lap.
“Just go for it. Manners will do you no good,” Javier said, angling in for a bite.
With a shrug of surrender, Kevin dug in. Feeling like a little boy mowing through birthday cake or really messy spaghetti. Licking and sucking peanut butter off his fingers, laughing when Esposito twisted this way and that to keep from dripping the contents of his sandwich on the floor. Noticing, but not yet commenting, on how Esposito’s cheeks looked touched with blush, as he sucked peanut butter off his thumb.
“Fantastic. Make this for me every day?”
“Eat that one and I’ll see about the rest of your life.”
Javier wound up making them both seconds, and Kevin stood by his side, watching how it was done. Playing the lovely assistant and feeling the tension simmer between them with every bump of their elbows, every brush of their skin as they reached around and across each other. Kevin wondered when Javier slid by him to grab the cinnamon, if he wasn’t just doing it so that they could touch. On the third pass to grab the brown sugar, he knew.
Kevin stopped him, wrapping his hand around Javier’s wrist. Not letting go even as Javier’s skin felt hot under his palm, burning beneath his fingertips. He’d made the first move, all he had to do now was reach out, cup the back of Javier’s neck and let gravity do the rest. Stepping into his space would take less than five moves.
But nothing, not even Esposito’s familiar gaze, could compel him to move forward. No one had taught Kevin how to jump after he’d been hurt. He didn’t have the courage, even though he knew Javier was right there, would never let him fall. He’d only ever learned to duck and cover, waiting for the blows to stop. Tears burned in his eyes as Javier stood there, breathing hard, gripping the counter to keep himself still. His face calm, even as his dark eyes swirled with unspoken emotion.
“I won’t move, Kevin.” His words were rough, low. “I won’t move until you tell me to.”
“I know.” He was shaking, sadness swamping him. Because Javier would stand there until the house came down around them. “I can’t … I just can’t.”
He took off down the hall, slamming the bathroom door closed behind him. Leaning his forehead against it and squeezing his eyes shut, until he could hear over the beating of his own aching heart. It wasn’t a risk he could bear to take. There would be nowhere to hide if he let Javier in. He would see all of his weaknesses, finding all the ways in which Kevin would only disappointment him, everything he could never be.
Crawling into the tub, with his head against the tile, he pulled his knees to his chest. Tried to calm down, make himself small and tight. Nearly had his heart rate back to normal when there was a knock on the door.
“Can I come in?”
Javier, he thought, like it’d be the fucking Easter Bunny, Ryan. Genius. Pure genius.
Momentary pause and a twist of the knob.
“You didn’t lock the door …”
Shit. Half a beat later, Javier stepped into the bathroom, and it took everything in him not to crumple. Kevin was sitting in his bathtub, knees pulled to his chest, arms wrapped around his shins. A ball of pain and fear. Quietly, Javier stepped inside, letting his knees and elbows touch his best-friend’s, but otherwise holding himself at a distance.
“I used to hide in the tub when I was little,” he said. Kevin said nothing in reply, periodically making eye contact and ducking away. He continued. “When I was in grade school I’d get picked on, because I was adopted. I’d come home, Mom’d still be at work, it’d just be me and Reese until Dad got home. I’d go into the master bathroom and build a fort in the big jacuzzi tub.”
“I can’t imagine you hiding from anything,” Kevin whispered.
“You’d be surprised.” A sad smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Reese would find me, sit with me until I could tell her what was wrong.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
Carefully, Javier took his hand and nodded. Kevin fought the urge to pull away as his legs tumbled loose, looking down at how well their fingers laced together. A perfect fit, and it scared the shit out of him.
“Even if I can’t tell you what’s wrong?”
Nodding, Javier walled off the part of himself that wanted to fight against the incoming wave of disappointment. Steeled his heart against the words he knew were on their way, even though he wanted more than anything to be wrong.
“Even if I can never tell you what’s wrong? Even if we stay stuck here forever?”
“The situation or the tub?” He chanced a smile.
“How do you know?”
He didn’t want to say the words, even as they came out of his mouth. What he wanted didn’t matter, this was about Kevin finding his own way on his own time, even if it meant watching him walk away.
“If you can’t do this … me, us?” he said. ”Tomorrow, I’ll go to work, tell Castle we had a fight. We never talked and you never told me how you felt.”
It wouldn’t be a lie. Neither of them had said the actual words out loud. There was a long pause as the anxiety in Kevin’s blue eyes was replaced with calm. Calm that made Javier’s insides twist up into elaborate knots. Realizing too late, how much he wanted this - them, Kevin, all of it - until he was about to do lose everything he’d never had.
“We’d pretend like this never happened?”
He nodded. “Complete reboot. Return of the Bros.”
“You’d do that for me?”
No other words would come out through the cement lining his throat.
Kevin pulled his hand away. “Okay.”
Relief rushed into his expression, and Javier felt like he was going to be sick. He couldn’t even manage to come up with a decent joke about them sitting in the bathtub together. Climbed out while his legs would still hold, muttering something nondescript about cleaning the kitchen.
Leaning his head against the tiles, Kevin stared up at the ceiling as the adrenaline washed out of him. It was over, it was over and he still had Esposito. He could hear the faucet running in the distance, and for a minute he just listened to it. His thumb idly rubbing the back of his hand, like Javier had done a minute ago. It took a second for the knowledge to snap violently into place.
Javier had sat beside him and rubbed his thumb over the back of his palm, like they’d done it a million times before. Like holding hands was normal for them, familiar. Memories flashing through his mind, Kevin ran through their standard forms of contact.
Fist bumps. High fives. Shoulder checks. A thousand different types of idle brushes and touches that he never let himself think about. The dozens of times Javier had grabbed him by the wrist, collar, earlobe and hauled him out to his car because he was babbling about some family crisis or other.
They had never, in his entire four years with Esposito, held hands.
Shoving himself up and out of the tub, Kevin ran out of the bathroom and back down the hall. Frozen by the sight of the man he loved alone in the kitchen. Javier was standing at the sink, his hands on the counter edge, his shoulders tight and his head hanging low.
“We never talked and you never told me how you felt …”
He knew. Esposito had known how he felt this entire night. Shaking, Kevin took slow tentative steps towards him. Until he was standing directly behind Javier. Holding still as his partner angrily wiped a hand over his face and tried to breathe. Tension building and knotting between his shoulders. Gently, timidly, Kevin’s palm hovered over the tight spot. He nearly jumped when Javier stood up straight, wordlessly recognizing his presence.
With a deep inhale, Kevin pressed his palm against the soft gray cotton shirt. Held still when he could feel Javier breathe under his touch. Feel the echo of his heart beating, strong and fast, as he breathed in and out again. When Javier shuddered with relief and leaned back into the touch, Kevin took the last step and pressed his body in, holding on and not letting go, face buried in his neck.
It felt so goddamned good to just hold him. He was dizzy and his ears were ringing, but he didn’t want to let go. His chest had opened up, leaving him weightless, and only Javier’s gravity was keeping his feet on the floor.
Slowly, Javier turned until they were face to face, watched as that blue gaze dipped down. Hiding away under his fine eyelashes. It was hard not to look at Esposito - all that bravado, calm and strength - and not want to be a better man.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he whispered. “I’m not you.”
“I don’t need another me -“
“I’m going to disappoint you, eventually. I need you to know that.”
Kevin’s blue eyes were darker in the low light, open wide and Javier could see every fear, insecurity and doubt race across his face. Raw and twittery, the words echoed back.
“And I’ll disappoint you. I won’t do the things I should, like trust my current partner - who makes fucking fantastic speeches in the parking garage - when the old one comes back to life.”
“You’re down like fifteen points for that, I hope you know.”
Laughing softly, Javier shook his head, as Kevin slowly - carefully - wrapped his arms around him. Until they were toe to toe and chest to chest. Found his palms idly running up and down Kevin’s back. Until Kevin gave into the impulse and held him tight, chin resting on his shoulder.
“I know,” he said. “And there’ll be things like you not answering my calls, not telling me about insomnia that somehow involves me dying.”
Kevin ducked Javier’s stern gaze when they pulled apart, cheeks growing warm. He only spoke in his sleep when he was truly exhausted or completely smashed. Instead of facing those shinning brown eyes, he buried his face in the warm sanctuary of Javier’s neck again.
“I’ve spent most of my life trying to bury who I am. Run from it. Hide it.”
Javier nodded, understanding what wasn’t being said. I can’t do this alone. I don’t who I’ll be if you take all my armor away. And mostly importantly, I’m scared.
“On our own time. However long we need.” Javier pulled Kevin back, looked into his eyes, watching the storms that swirled in the blue.
“Javi, that could take years -”
“It takes what it takes. I’m not in a rush, Kevin.”
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, Javier had used his name. For the first time that night, and it sounded right in that soft, honest tone. It wasn’t “Ryan” or “Irish” or even “bro”, but his actual name. It was how he knew just how much Javier meant his words.
“I’m going to run on you -”
“And I’ll run after you,” he whispered.
When Javier stroked his jaw, looked into his eyes and didn’t shy away, Kevin knew everything was going to be all right. Took a slow breath as he watched Javi close his eyes, and he could feel his heart expand in his chest. Javier Esposito was standing in his arms, tough Special Forces ass-kicker, with eyes closed, patiently waiting to be kissed.
Kevin held there for a second - only a moment - to memorize the way black eyelashes rested against brown skin, the way Javier pulled his bottom lip through his teeth anxiously, his neck and cheeks a little pink. Beautiful.
Then, after so much waiting, he closed the gap between them. It was incredibly slow. There was no mad scramble of limbs or hands, his body leaned into Javier as though they’d been occupying the same space for a lifetime. Because, in actuality, they had.
He pressed his mouth to Javier’s and everything in him melted down to the feeling of Javi kissing him back, soft and sweet. Feeling his hands - warm, careful, calloused - cup his face. Thumbs stroking over his ears, hands sweeping tenderly down his back. Somehow keeping them both anchored, even though he was the one against the sink. Being held tight when those arms went around him, moved up his back again, fingers getting lost in his hair. Until they pulled apart enough to breathe, noses touching, vision blurring around the edges.
Javier kissed Kevin this time, halting his words. His lips and cheeks, chin and between his brows where the worry lines always formed. And Kevin couldn’t move, held his breath to keep the quiet around them whole, because each kiss was like being made new. He knew with each touch, that when he got scared because the emotions sitting in his chest made it hard to breathe, when he took off running for the first and the third and fifteenth time, Javier would come find him. That Javier would keep finding him until he didn’t have to to run anymore.
“No one’s offered to chase me before.”
“I will,” Javier promised. “I’ll come find you. Every time.”