He hits rock bottom around Bobby's going-away party, shows up drunk and ends up drunker. Hits on Bobby, where other people can hear, and the shit that comes out of his mouth is nothing he actually wants to say, but he's angry and miserable, and it's just one more terrible decision in a lifetime of them.
He says he can't stay. That he has places to go, people to see, a life beyond the X-Men to lead, but his plan is to go back to his empty apartment and drink until he finally passes out, ideally in his messy, unmade bed, but he's gotten pretty used to the bathroom floor lately, so he's not exactly picky.
Inside the first liquor shop he sees, his phone rings, and he almost drops it in his haste. Pathetic, he thinks, at the way his heart leaps into his throat, but it's only his mom. For one long, bitter moment, he considers not answering, but it's been weeks, and he occasionally likes to reassure her he's not dead yet.
He gets maybe five words out, slurred and slow, before she says, "Mijo, come home, please."
He leaves without getting anything, and he's on the next plane to Guadalajara, hungover and broken.
He doesn't buy a return ticket.
By the time he's shuffling between gates in Dallas/Fort Worth, every part of him regrets leaving New York, but like everything else in his life, it's too late to back out now, so he resigns himself to his fate. This is what you deserve, he tells himself. He checks his phone again, but there are no new messages.
He stops by the bathroom to throw up then splashes water in his mouth to wash the bitter taste out.
He sleeps the rest of the way, head against the window, just pounding.
Even though she'd said she would be there, he's still surprised to see his mom at arrivals, a little older, a little greyer, but something swells in his chest, bright and warm, nudging at the lump he's been lugging around like a weight for weeks. He forgets about feeling embarrassed or pathetic or the million other ugly thoughts rattling around in his sick sad brain, and allows himself a moment to feel relieved.
"Mamá," he says, his voice raw and cracked, and then he's swallowed up into a hug, arms like a cinch around his chest. Of all the people he's treated poorly in his life, she's taken the worst of it. The last time he let her hug him like this, he had fit under her arm, and now her hair just barely tickles his chin.
"Welcome home, my beautiful boy," she says with a smile, placing a warm hand on his cheek.
An apology rattles around in his mouth, but when he tries to speak, his eyes well up instead. Stupid, he thinks, trying to pull back, but she brushes away the betraying tear with a gentle swipe of her thumb.
"You'll be all right," she tells him, firm, like she actually believes it, and pats him lightly on the face.
Mercifully, she takes pity on him after that, takes his carry-on bag even when he protests, but leaves the suitcase for him. He follows her to the car, rubbing at his eyes, under his nose. The drive home is quiet, and he stares out the window at the familiar scenery but feels removed from it, like he no longer belongs here either. This was such a fucking mistake, he thinks, pulling at his seatbelt restlessly.
Without saying anything, his mom fishes a tissue out of her purse and hands it to him.
He presses it to his mouth and just breathes.
She gives him three days of lying in bed, alternating between sleeping fitfully and staring at the ceiling in despair. Occasionally, he lumbers out in search of food or to piss, but on the fourth morning, she cheerfully wakes him up before eight, sweeping into the room. "I need you to take care of the chickens, Mijo."
"Fuck those things," he groans, pressing his face into the pillow.
"Language, Julio," she chides him, opening the curtains and letting the sharp light in. He squints at it, pained, but he sits up as she moves around the room, tidying up. "You know where the feed is."
"Mamá, stop that, come on," he says helplessly, as she starts to hang up the pile of jeans spilling from his suitcase, one by one on cheap plastic hangers. It's enough to get him out of bed, lunging for his pants, torn between fondness and exasperation, as he urges her out of the room so he can get dressed.
It's been years, but the chickens are no happier to see him than he is to see them. His mom has names for each one of them, but they're all angry assholes to him, especially when hungry. He tidies up a little, refills their water and gathers all the eggs from the nesting boxes into a plastic bowl. He leans over the fence to put the eggs in a safe place, then steadies himself and sets to getting these demons their food.
In the resulting chaos, he tries to slip out of the gate unnoticed, and when two of them escape, he's not sure who's chasing who, but he manages to corral them back into the coop after a few loops around the yard. He gets a few angry nips at his ankles in return, but he's not a kid and easy to terrorize anymore.
"Shower then food," his mom says when he puts the hard-earned eggs on the counter.
"Yes, Mamá," he says, pressing a brief kiss to her cheek, and tries to ignore her visible surprise.
He's been a bad son. He knows it. He resolves to be better.
He hasn't showered in over a week, and his hair is thick and oily between his fingers as he works the sweet smelling shampoo through it. The effort it takes is monumental, exhausting, and he presses his forehead against the cool tile. The chickens tired me out, he thinks, bumping his head against the wall. One more reason to hate those assholes, he decides, breathing in and out, the air steamy and suffocating.
He imagines drowning, lets himself savour the feeling, then rinses his hair quickly.
He thinks about shaving, but just can't bring himself to care that much.
In the kitchen, on the side of the fridge, just barely covered by an invitation to a wedding three months passed, is a clipping from a newspaper. Ex-Mutant's Cry for Help: Are We Doing Enough for the De-Powered? The grainy picture is clearly of him, toes of his boots over the edge of the building, ready.
He'd avoided all the media, after. He'd been embarrassed.
He's embarrassed now.
"Why is that there?" He asks, voice flat and hard, as his mom prepares the huevos rancheros.
"To remind me that you're still here," she replies, without turning around.
How do you apologize for that? He thinks, staring at the image. In it, he looks like a man at peace with himself, and a pang of yearning blooms in his chest. As if he can stop it, he puts a hand on his sternum, fingers digging into his skin. He makes a sound, just a small one, and a touch presses against his waist.
"It's okay, Mijo," she tells him. "I'm not angry with you. I love you, and I'm so happy you're home."
He wants to say, "I'm sick, still. In my head. I can't make it stop. I'm clearly fucked up. Sorry. Sorry for everything I've done and haven't done yet, but will, because I fuck everything up. I will never be happy," but the words hang like a noose around his throat, and if he says them, he thinks they'll tighten.
"Come, eat," his mom says instead, a guiding hand in the small of his back. "I made your favourite."
The fourth day turns out to be a write off, too. He lasts until lunch then goes back to bed.
His mom checks on him around dinner, to see if he's hungry, but he's not.
They try again on the fifth day. Same early wake up; same angry chickens. He's outside, cleaning the coop, when his phone buzzes. He ignores it for a long time, keeps his focus on the bloodthirsty poultry hungrily poking around his ankles. But eventually, wiping his hands on his jeans, he pulls it out of his back pocket, and even though he's replaced Star's name with Just Don't, he still opens the message.
are you ok
No, he wants to reply, staring at the screen, I am definitely not okay, but instead he snaps a picture of one of the chickens and sends it back. Enough time has passed between when Star sent it and when he replied that he hopes he doesn't seem desperate. And it's nice that someone cares enough to see if he's dead in a ditch somewhere, even if it's his ex-boyfriend. Maybe best friend. Whatever he is now.
He puts his phone back in his pocket. He has demonic chickens to feed.
His mom notices the shift in his mood almost immediately, but she doesn't demand any explanations. He pours them each a mug of coffee as she puts the food out, and they sit down at the table, just the two of them, sharing sections of the newspaper between them. It's a good distraction, a needed one.
It's just that the house is so quiet, the complete opposite of how he remembers.
"Where is everyone?"
"Yolanda and Miguel are away at school, Francesca works at a hospital in Mexico City, and Antonio lives with his girlfriend in Oaxaca. They're expecting a baby," she adds, unable to keep the bright shine of happiness out of her voice. He can't bring himself to smile. She reaches across the table, laying a hand over his wrist, and squeezes him tightly. "It's just me and you, Mijo. Like old times, no?"
He snorts a little. "Yeah, when you were saddled with a traumatized seven-year-old stepson."
"Blood has never been the thing that ties us, Julio," she says, sternly, and he swallows the lump in his throat, eyes focused on the wall behind her and the tick tick tick of the clock "You are the son of my heart. The others were too young to understand. But you and me, Mijo, we got it through it together."
Did we, he thinks, but doesn't say. She made it through okay, but him. Sometimes he wonders.
He wants to hide away in his room, wants to sleep and keep the dark thoughts out of his head, but his mom insists he come with her to the market. He would rather face down Mojo alone than leave the house, but she doesn't give him much of a choice. He's a grown man, with the power to destroy cities, but he still can't tell his mom no. Shrugging on a hoodie, tugging it over his head, he follows her out.
She leaves him with the cart. He leans on it with his elbows, forearms crossed, the back of one hand pressed against his mouth, as he tries not to look at the shelves of alcohol with anything resembling longing. It doesn't help. He knows that, but it at least drowns out some of the noise in his head for a few hours. He also tried to fuck Bobby Drake while wasted, so maybe he should just never drink again.
Shit, he thinks, stomach rolling, humiliation skittering over his skin, why did I do that?
He knows why. Because Star dumped him, like he'd expected all along.
Stupid, he thinks, stupid, stupid.
He almost makes it out of there without losing his shit, but then they run into somebody his mom knows, and she introduces him warmly, "this is Julio, my eldest son," touching his arm. Automatically, he offers his hand, and he watches how the stranger's expression slides into something sharp and ugly.
"I'll wait in the car," he mutters quickly, turning away. He doesn't want to cause any more trouble.
By the time his mom joins him, she's tense with anger, and he opens his mouth to apologize.
"I didn't take her for a bigot," she says, hands gripped tightly on the steering wheel. "I'm sorry, Mijo."
He shrugs, shifting his gaze to the window, at the people outside. "You didn't know. It's no big deal."
"Julio, look at me," she says, and he meets her eyes reluctantly. Her smile is warm and loving, and she touches a gentle hand to his cheek. "I'm not ashamed of my mutant son. I'm proud that you're mine."
He breathes in deep, something sharp in his chest, but he can't say anything back, his lips drawn tight. But those tears – those fucking tears – well up in his eyes again, and he wishes he could scream instead. Or destroy something. Or tear this stupid brain out of his head. Or just fix everything that went wrong.
He wishes for anything other than useless fucking tears.
That night, he wakes himself up screaming. The room rattles ominously, and the confusion is thick and heavy inside his brain. It's his mother's hand in his hair, and her soft words, "shh, Julio, it's just a nightmare, you're okay, I have you, shh," that bring him back enough that he can get the tremors under control. It's been a long time since she's had to do this, and he was so young back then. So harmless.
"I can't stay here," he grinds out, trying to push out of bed, tangled in soaking sheets, but she just guides him back to the mattress, urges him to lie down again. "It's not safe. I'm dangerous, Mamá."
"Shh," she murmurs, running a thumb back and forth over his brow, like how she used to. "It's okay."
"It isn't," he insists, helpless, but she stays there with him for hours, her thumb sweeping over his skin.
When he wakes up, the absolute last thing he wants to deal with is those stupid chickens, but he feels weird and guilty and embarrassed, and he thinks, if he just does this one small thing, his mom won't worry so much. If he just holds it together long enough to do that, maybe it will feel like an apology.
It doesn't, but at least those demons are fed for another day.
He spends the rest of the day on the couch, lying on his side, arms crossed, knees drawn up. Without a word, his mom drapes a blanket over him, tucks it tightly under his shoulders. They watch a rapid succession of telenovelas, so many that they being to blur together, and he zones out to the soundtrack of dramatic voices and the scritch scritch scritch of his mom's pen as she works on her puzzles.
His phone buzzes, and he peers at it over the edge of his blanket.
what are you doing
He snaps a picture of the television and sends it. His phone buzzes again a minute later.
are you by yourself
"Mamá," he says, and she looks at him. "Smile?"
The skin around her eyes crinkles, and he takes a quick photo. "Who are you talking to, Mijo?"
"No one important," he mumbles, the lie bitter in his mouth, but he sends the image anyway. This time, the phone buzzes immediately, but he holds it to his chest for a long moment. "Mamá?" When she glances back at him, eyes still smiling, he says, "what you said yesterday, about me being a mutant."
"Yes?" She prompts.
"Would you be ashamed of a gay son?" He asks, his voice quiet and strange, cracking a little, and his heart feels like it might rip out of his skin. He wants to look away, scared of what might show up on her face, but her expression doesn't change. "I mean, we broke up, but he was pretty important. Is. Still."
"I love my son," she assures him, squeezing his foot, "all of him. Thank you for sharing that, Julio."
He nods, snuggling deeper into his blankets. Something loosens in his chest, just a little bit, and while it fixes nothing, it does help. At one point in his life, he thought he'd never do that, that he'd die before he'd tell anyone other than Star, especially his mom. Belatedly, he remembers to look at his phone.
how are you
He briefly considers sending another picture, but he doesn't know what could possibly convey the mess of his own head, so he types Pretty bad. and hits send, then adds a second line But came out to my mom finally. He tells himself that he is acting like that pathetic ex that everyone rolls their eyes at, that he should just stop, that Star is just being polite or something, but he feels like he has to tell someone.
When his phone buzzes again, he looks at it immediately.
It's a picture of Star's hand, giving him a thumbs up, and he laughs before his brain can stop him.
He can't remember how long it's been.
He takes all the items off the shelves in his room, just in case, but he doesn't need to.
He sleeps through the night.
The next three days are fine. Not terrible, not good, but fine. He wakes up every morning to tend to the chickens, who remain evil and bloodthirsty, and even manages to shower, once, without being told to. He fails completely at leaving the house on the third day, when his mom needs to go to the market again, but he just wants to hide inside until his head straightens itself out, even if it takes forever.
"I'll be fine, Mamá," he says eventually, trying to soften the words, because he thinks he gets it. She doesn't want to leave him alone, and he hasn't done much to convince her that it would be a good idea, but he's not like he was, when he first showed up. He tries to smile. "Don't worry so much, okay?"
"It's what mothers do," she tells him.
"I just can't do it today," he admits honestly.
That, thankfully, is enough, and she leaves him alone for the first time in a week and a half.
He doesn't do much. Just sits on the couch, watching TV and fucking around on his phone, and when that gets boring, moves outside into the backyard so at least he's sitting in the sun. Dozes a bit, because he's still exhausted, and tries not too think about anything at all. It's hard. Almost impossible. It's not like this is new, being like this, but it seems to get worse as he gets older, lasts longer, hits harder.
The shit in his life just keeps piling up, higher and higher, as he gets buried below, suffocating.
"Fucking stop," he tells himself, and wishes he could call Star, but he doesn't want to be the crazy ex-boyfriend, and the idea of talking to anyone else is nothing he wants to consider. They wouldn't even have to talk about him, not that he wants to anyway. Sometimes he misses the noisy chaos of X-Factor.
It was so easy to drown out the screaming in his own head, back then.
He wanders back in when his mom returns and helps her bring in the bags. She's bought an enormous amount of food, too much for two people, especially when one of them can barely choke anything down. At his bewildered expression, she says, "Omar is coming for dinner tonight," as if it's nothing.
"My cousin Omar?" he asks, his pulse ramping up under his skin. "He's out already?"
His mom folds a hand over his wrist, squeezing. "People change, Julio. Please trust me. It'll be fine."
"Okay," he says, and if he doesn't quite sound like he believes her, she doesn't seem to notice.
She spends the afternoon cooking, and he helps, just to keep his mind busy. It's soothing, comforting. He's not the best cook in the world, but he finds peace in the chop chop chop of the knife as it slides through the mountain of vegetables he's been tasked with. His mom moves around the kitchen, and touches him constantly, in the small of his back, on the swell of his upper arm, even ruffles his hair.
He almost forgets, but then the front door opens and a familiar voice echoes down the hall, "this house smells fucking amazing, Tía, all the neighbours are jealous." His mom dries her hands on her apron, leaving him alone in the kitchen, and he can hear her chiding him for his language between laughter.
He doesn't know what to do, so he half-follows her, staying back in the shadows as if they'll hide him. Glances at Omar, who doesn't look all that different, face a little more defined, body a little more filled out, and when he looks up, Omar is staring at him, wide-eyed and speechless. Julio looks away quickly.
"Hooly," Omar breathes, and then Omar's all up in his space, hugging him, laughing. "You fucking asshole. How long have you been in town? Tía, how long have you been hiding this fucker from me?"
"Language, Omar," she says.
"Sorry," Omar laughs, stepping back, grinning, and Omar puts his hands on his shoulders, shakes him a bit, but Julio can't stop staring, stunned. "Shit, it's good to see you, Hooly. What's this mess on your face?"
"Fuck off," he says, finally, pushing him away, but Omar just laughs harder.
Typical, he thinks, rolling his eyes, but doesn't manage to keep the smile completely off his face either.
Omar talks all through dinner, most of the time with his mouth full, shovelling in food as if he hasn't eaten in weeks. Julio, on the other hand, pushes the food around his plate, and mostly just listens. The only time he eats is when his mom nudges him, urging him to at least try. If Omar notices, he doesn't let on, just keeps talking. It's like when they were kids. Omar the motormouth and Julio, his quiet shadow.
After, he helps clean up, silent, until his mom shoos them both out of the kitchen to catch up.
They settle on the back deck, and Julio stares at his hands.
"Listen," Omar finally says, "if I've learned anything on this earth it's that life's too short to waste on stupid shit, so I'm going to get this out of the way. We parted on bad terms, Hooly, and I called you a bunch of things you didn't deserve. I'm not gonna excuse it. It'd be easy to blame it on the fact I was a shithead eighteen-year-old or I had crappy parents, but I had choices, too, and I made all the wrong ones. I don't hold a grudge against you or anything. You've always been like a brother to me, Julio."
Julio swallows hard, takes a long time to say anything, and when he does, the best thing he can managed is a light, "you find religion or something, Omar?" His voice cracks rough when he says it.
"Nah," Omar replies easily. "You remember Silvia? She lived across the street from me."
"I knocked her up," Omar says, "right before I got sent to prison. I have a daughter. Amelia. And Hooly, Silvia did not owe me shit, probably would have been easier if she didn't even tell me, but she made sure I had pictures, visits, the whole thing. And so I had a choice: I could be a shitty dad just like my father, or I could try to be a better man, like you. Just because we're Richters doesn't mean we're rotten."
"Feels like it sometimes," he says casually, and feels a little better when Omar replies, "yeah."
After that, it's easier to talk. Or rather, easier to listen as Omar speaks a mile a minute, catching him up on everything. It's exhausting, some small part of Julio wants to climb back in bed and pull the blankets over his head, but that makes six members of his family that seem to be living a life not defined by guns, violence and hatred. He doesn't ask about anyone else. He knows no one comes by.
"How are you doing?" Omar asks suddenly, mid-way through a story about working construction.
Julio looks at him, can't ignore the finger Omar taps to his temple, and shrugs. "Not great."
"If you need to talk, Hooly. No matter what time it is. You call me, okay? Gimme your phone."
He hands it over automatically, and Omar types in his number then passes it back. Julio looks out into the settling darkness, frowning. Omar's only been out for a couple months. Is his fucked up brain public knowledge? He forgets how small the world is now. For years, only his mom knew where he was.
Omar, always too perceptive, answers his unspoken question. "Marco and Diego ended up on the same block as me. When it happened, they ..." He trails off, like he thinks he might say something bad, but Julio nods quietly, urging him on. "They found it funny as shit, Hooly. Made sure I knew about it, too."
"I put them in there," he says, numb all over. He knew when he was bringing down the family business that it would probably mean he didn't have a family anymore. He knew it, and he accepted it, but it still fucking sucks to hear about people he shares blood with laughing over the fact he botched his suicide.
"I didn't find it funny at all," Omar says, as serious as Julio's ever heard him. "I got a week in solitary for that beat down, and they got transferred out for their own protection. I've got your back, Hooly."
"Thanks," he replies, surprised to discover he actually means it.
The daily routine changes again, but it's manageable, and he gets up early more days than not. On the days he can't, Omar takes over chicken duty, which was his before Julio showed up. "It's a fair trade," he explains over breakfast one morning, mouth full of eggs. "Tía feeds me. I feed those bastards."
"They aren't that bad," his mom insists, laughing, to identical rolling eyes.
Star texts a few times, and Julio mostly sticks to sending pictures back. Star tries to call him, once, and Julio doesn't pick up, just watches his phone as it rings and rings and rings, relieved when it stops.
There's no voicemail.
He has another nightmare, worse than the one before, but the only casualty is a mirror in the hallway, a row of football trophies in the next room and his own wounded pride. It takes an achingly long time to come back into his own head, face pressed to the pillow, locked into a soundless scream. But his mom stays with him through the entire thing, thumb on his forehead grounding him, guiding him out of the confusion and the despair that follows. "I don't want to be like this," he whispers as if she won't hear.
"I know, my beautiful boy," she murmurs, thumb sweeping back and forth, hypnotic, soothing. "I know it's hard. My precious Julio, son of my heart, I love you so much." Her words drift into his ears, warm.
The next day, he forces himself out of bed, gets as far as the bathroom, pisses, then turns around and climbs back under the covers. Omar can deal with the fucking chickens, he thinks, staring at the wall. He's exhausted but not tired, which is the stupidest thing ever, but he's been fighting with his brain for years, and it's hasn't made sense yet. He naps off and on, fitful and restless, but mostly just lies there.
Skips breakfast and lunch, but Omar sticks his head in with dinner and climbs right into bed with him.
"Fuck, dude, what the hell," Julio grumbles, shoving at him, but Omar just grins at him like an idiot.
"Tía asked me to see if you'd eat something. She's your mom, so she care about your feelings and shit, but I'm just your jackass cousin, and I care more about shoving this sandwich down your throat," Omar tells him cheerfully and basically annoys Julio into eating half of it. "And drink some of this water, too."
"Fuck you," Julio says, but does it anyway.
Any hope he has of Omar fucking off is short-lived. He stays there, on the other side of the bed, flicking through his phone, showing off the occasional picture of Amelia, who looks exactly like him. "Yeah, it's a little weird," Omar says, when Julio remarks upon it. "She's got her mom's brain, though."
"Thank god," Julio says as Omar cackles, then feels his phone buzz where it's lying under his thigh.
Julio stares at it, wondering if it's a greeting or a question, but it's been years since Star spoke so formally, so carefully. He still isn't great with idioms, barely swears, and gets stiffly polite with anyone he perceives to have authority over him, but it's probably a question. Star just hates punctuation.
Had a nightmare, Julio texts back. Bad one. Pretty fucked up today, but dealing. Don't worry about it.
"Who are you texting?" Omar asks, leaning over his shoulder, and Julio sighs deeply.
"My ex." Omar makes a face, and Julio sighs again. "I know, I know. But it's not like that."
"Is she hot?" Omar asks.
"Incredibly," Julio replies then tries to match the easy cadence of Omar's voice, "but it's a guy. I'm gay."
"Well, holy shit," Omar says, stunned.
It takes Omar five minutes to get used to the idea, and then he's grabbing for Julio's phone, begging for pictures. Then it's another five minutes of wrestling, because no fucking way is Julio handing it over. It starts ringing in the middle of it, and Julio snaps, "just ignore it," when Omar tries to make him answer.
"What if it's your boyfriend?"
"My ex," Julio grinds out, even though he doesn't owe him any explanation, "and it's definitely him. The only other person who tries to call me is in the next room. I just don't want to fucking talk to him."
"But you'll text him?"
"It's complicated," he replies, sitting back, and Omar must see something on his face, because he drops it, and then it's tense and awful as shit, and Julio eventually mumbles out a contrite, "I'm sorry, dude."
"Nah, it's my fault," Omar insists, but it's really not, and they both know it.
The next day, he's outside being terrorized by overly aggressive chickens when his phone buzzes. Instead of Just Don't on the screen, it's Your Favorite Cousin, and Julio rolls his eyes so hard he actually hurts something in his head. He finishes putting out the feed, fearing for his life, then reads it.
I hope ur not beating urself up about last nite. Were cool Holly
Don't flatter yourself, he texts back, even though he's been ignoring the knot in his stomach all morning.
The phone buzzes again when he's closing the gate, after chasing one escaped chicken around the yard for too fucking long, and he checks it, just in case, but it's Omar again, three times in rapid succession.
Don't you do any fucking work?, he types back, and heads inside to take a shower.
After dinner, as a peace offering, since he still feels guilty about how he acted the night before, he shows Omar a picture of Star. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to find the right one. He doesn't know what he's looking for, since Star's insanely photogenic and looks amazing in all of them, but he settles on one where Star's looking away from the camera, his focus on something other than him.
Omar whistles, squinting at the screen like he can't believe it, but Julio's pretty used to that reaction.
"Hooly, how'd you end up with a good-looking guy like that? You have to pay him or something?"
"My sparkling personality," he says sardonically, but Omar eyes him up and down like he's serious.
"Yeah," he decides, after a long look, "if you weren't my cousin and I was bi, I'd totally bang you."
"What the fuck's wrong with you? I don't even know where to start with how messed up that is."
Omar laughs, loud and hard, and then Julio's in a firm headlock, with Omar hooting and hollering nonsense in his ear. Two weeks ago, if Omar had tried this shit, Julio probably would have opened up the ground under him, so he thinks it's a good sign that he basically sits there and endures it until its over.
"What are you boys laughing about?" His mom asks, walking outside with a tray of lemonade.
"Hooly's gorgeous boyfriend," Omar says then jumps up to help her hand out the glasses, grinning big, and Julio takes his glass with a glare. Omar cackles again. "Seriously, Tía, you gotta see this guy."
"I've met him," his mom says, settling down in her chair, which makes Julio flinch a little. His memory's pretty shit these days, but he's pretty sure he never told her who his boyfriend was.
Ex-boyfriend, he reminds himself quickly, staring down at his lemonade.
After that, things even out again. Routine helps. His mom and Omar keep him busy enough that he doesn't really have time to dwell on the thoughts rattling around in his head. Omar offers to take him to a barber shop, for a shave and a haircut, and he's torn between digging in his heels and actually going.
"I'll fucking fight anyone who gives you shit," Omar swears vehemently, "just watch me."
So Julio goes, tucked safely into his hoodie, and doesn't say much when he's in the chair, lets Omar chat everyone's face off, but he has to admit later, just to himself, looking in the mirror, that it was a good idea. His face is gaunt, thinner than it should be, but at least he looks like he almost gives a shit.
He gets upgraded to garden duty, and after making sure it's okay, cheats a little, using his powers to turn over the soil in the biggest garden that needs planting. Behind him, his mom watches, quiet, but when he looks to her, she smiles warmly. "Just marvelling at what you can do, Mijo."
"It's nothing," he says, dismissively, but it feels good to use them, in a way he can control.
"I'm going out for lunch with a friend," his mom tells him, kissing him on the head.
"Okay," he says, and returns his attention to the garden. It really needs a lot of help.
Star tries to call him again, half an hour later. Julio ignores it, sitting back on his heels, trying to decide which plant to add next, but his phone keeps buzzing, over and over, before he checks it with a sigh.
Three text messages, and one voicemail. The texts are short and to the point:
how are you today
can we talk
With dirty fingers, he taps in the password for his voicemail and tucks the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he finally settles on a row of bright orange succulents. He tries to ignore the relief he feels when he hears the timbre of Star's voice, still slightly accented, words crisp and precise, like him.
"Julio," Star says, and then there's a long pause, where he wonders if that's all Star called to say, but then he continues in a tone Julio has never heard from him before. "I don't know what to say. You have made it clear you don't want to speak to me, and I understand, but after consideration, I think we should." Another length of silence, but he can hear the noise of New York in the background. "Please. "
The messages ends, and Julio stares at the phone. Quickly, before he loses his nerve, he types back, I'm fine. I told you that you didn't have to worry. I would prefer to talk in person. Sorry. And then, after another moment, adds a second text: For everything. Then he gets up and puts the phone in the kitchen.
He returns to the garden, digs his fingers into the soil and just breathes.
He feels the shift in pressure before he hears it, and he's up on his feet before the portal opens and Star stumbles through it, in full uniform, breathing hard. Star recovers his footing, and then they stare at each other for what feels like forever. Hot anger slakes over his skin, warring with the way his heart jumps in his chest, battering his ribs, and on top of it all, his eyes well with tears, and he wishes his hands weren't so filthy.
"That was so fucking dangerous," he says finally, unable to keep the edge of hysteria out of his voice.
"You were worth the attempt," Star replies, hands clenched at his side, "though it occurs to me now that perhaps you meant for us to speak after you returned to New York. If that's the case, I apologize."
"I don't know what I meant," Julio admits. "Do you want to come in?"
"Okay," Star says.
He leaves Star in the living room then goes to wash his hands, scrubbing them more forcefully than necessary, and when he returns, Star is asleep, sitting up, head tilted slightly to the right. Careful not to disturb anything, Julio sits down, facing him, and draws his knees up to his chest, shoulder pressed to the back of the couch. Star looks terrible, though he doesn't think anyone else would notice, but it's in the tight line of his jaw and the dark skin beneath his eyes. Julio sits there, silent, watching over him.
Star wakes up once with a violent jolt when his mom comes home, but he puts a hand on Star's wrist and murmurs, "shh, it's just my mom, go back to sleep," and Star drifts off again. His mom gives him a look over the back of the couch, and Julio hopes his face conveys his answer without having to speak.
Star sleeps for the rest of the afternoon, and Julio keeps his hand where it is.
Eventually, he sleeps, too.
They both wake up when Omar arrives for dinner, yelling about traffic and the pendejo who just cut him off, dropping his boots with a thump in the hallway. It takes a good minute for him to even notice Star, who had greeted his mom with a polite, "hello, Mrs. Richter, it's nice to see you again," before allowing himself to be ushered to the kitchen table. Omar stops mid-sentence and narrows his eyes.
"You need me to kick this fucker's ass or anything, Hooly?"
"Language," his moms says from over where she's taking a casserole dish out of the oven.
"He'd murder you," Julio replies, sitting down next to Star, "and he speaks Spanish, you idiot."
"I'm perfectly fluent," Star adds blandly.
Dinner comes and goes without anyone killing anyone. Julio doesn't really say anything, and Star only speaks when spoken to, but it's not terrible, and he manages to actually eat something without much prompting. He can barely look at Star, even though Star's gaze is constantly on him, following everything he does. After, once Omar leaves, he says to Star, "can we talk tomorrow? I'm exhausted."
"Okay," Star says, easily enough.
After a hushed conversation with his mom while Star is in the bathroom, he gets Star set up in one of the spare rooms, loans him something to sleep in. If Star expected anything different, he doesn't say.
Tomorrow becomes the next day and the one after. Julio has one bad day in the middle, where all the progress he thought he was making feels like it never happened at all, and the best he can do is transfer from the bed to the couch, where he spends the day watching telenovelas with Star and his mom.
But other than that, it's okay.
In the meantime, he loans Star more clothes, and his mom puts Star to work around the house. He cleans out the garage. Julio wakes up on the third day to find Star outside, backed into a corner by the chickens, who are especially noisy and angry. Star looks like he's deciding which one to eat for dinner.
"I just don't understand why these creatures are so aggressive," Star says, jumping out of the coop and landing lightly on the ground beside Julio. He wipes his hands on the pair of Julio's jeans he's wearing.
"My mom takes in all the problem chickens in the neighbourhood. Always has. She feels bad for them."
"She has a kind heart," Star agrees, and Julio nods, letting his gaze drift over Star's face. Star stares back. They stand like that, silent, looking at each. A heavy, suffocating feeling settles in Julio's chest.
"I'm ready to talk," Julio says, after a while. He isn't, not even close, but he knows he never will be.
Better just to rip the band-aid off, he thinks, and hope he doesn't bleed out too messily.
"I'm glad," Star says and sits down with Julio, underneath the closest tree, in the shade.
They sit there a long time, not speaking, and Star eventually takes his hand and holds it, lacing their fingers together. "I can go first, if you want," Star says, cheeks a little pink from all the sun he's had recently. Julio nods and wishes he had the strength to keep his eyes on Star's face. He looks at their hands instead. Star's voice is achingly gentle when he asks, "why did you tell everyone we broke up?"
"Because we did," he whispers, throat tight.
"We took a break. I thought that's what you wanted," Star says in that same soft tone.
"It means the same thing," Julio replies, swallowing hard. "Everyone knows it means the same thing."
"I didn't know, or I wouldn't have suggested it. It was a mistake, and I regretted it the moment I said it, but when you agreed so quickly ..." Star's voice trails off, and Julio risks a glance, sees the agony on his face, and quickly looks away again. "But it was wrong. I did exactly the thing I didn't want to do."
"You moved out." Julio feels those tears prickle along his lashes again and tries to blink them away.
"I went to stay on Longshot's couch, provided he actually had one, which he did, surprisingly." Julio snorts a bit, wet, and Star squeezes his hand. "We have to stop giving up on each other when things get hard. I love you too much to keep doing that. It was a mistake the first time, and it's a mistake now."
"You deserve someone better, someone easier," Julio forces out roughly, tears beginning to roll down his cheeks.
"I want you," Star insists. "I love you."
The sob rips out of him, harsh and ugly, and he presses a hand to his mouth, as if that can stop it, but it can't, nothing can. He can barely breathe, and he weeps openly when Star curls around him, holding him tight. When he speaks again, it's the rawest he's ever been. It hurts. "I don't want to ruin your life."
"You've done nothing but improve it from the day we met. Please believe that. I love you."
Julio sobs harder, mouth pressed to Star's throat, with Star's arms across his back, firm and unyielding.
"I love you," Star says, a third time, as Julio cries and cries and cries.
In the aftermath, he feels empty, hollow, but more like something festering has been surgically removed and less like he's looking down into an endless pit of despair. He sits in the vee of Star's legs, head tucked under Star's chin, as one of Star's hands strokes through his hair. Idly, he twists the hem of Star's borrowed shirt between his fingers, feeling the first prickle of embarrassment, but he forces it down.
"I may never get better," Julio says, plucking at a loose thread. He stares at the dark patch on the neck of Star's shirt, stained with a mixture of tears and snot. "It might go away, but it always comes back."
"Julio," Star replies, warm in his ear. "I understand this is an illness, that you're sick. I know I can't make you better, but I can learn to recognize the signs that you're unwell. Your behaviour changes, and I was wrong to pretend I didn't see it. You became reckless, in battle and in bed. You drank too much."
"I haven't had a drink since I got here," he admits. "I don't plan on drinking again. Ever."
"I will support you in that," Star promises. He hesitates then only speaks again when Julio nudges him gently. It seems stupid to hold anything back, after everything. "Did anything in particular trigger it?"
Julio shrugs. "Not really. I mean, a bunch of bad shit has happened in the last year, that it could be one of those things or it could be none of them. Sometimes, I still feel like that seven-year-old kid with my dad's brains all over my feet. It's like I got stuck there, and I'm still back in that cell in Costa Rica."
"You never talk about it," Star says gently. "I would listen, if you wanted to."
"I know," Julio says, and actually believes it.
Nothing really changes. It must be obvious that they're back together, because Omar elbows him obnoxiously all through dinner and makes one very obvious tongue-in-the-cheek blowjob gesture, which his mom almost catches and Star definitely does. They're not exactly friendly, Star and Omar, but they tolerate each other. Star hasn't turned on the charisma yet, and Omar is pretty annoying.
"He looks a lot like you," Star says, later, when it's just the two of them outside.
"My bio mom and his mom were half-sisters, and then they married brothers. Genetics, I guess," Julio says, with a shrug, forcing himself to drink the glass of water Star put into his hand. "Personality-wise, we're pretty different. He's who I pretended to be, back in X-Force days. Made it easier to deal with things."
"That explains why I find him so aggravating," Star replies with a small smile. "I prefer you now."
"Come here?" Julio asks, putting his glass down. Star settles beside him, and Julio puts his fingers on his face, tracing along the line of his jaw. Star's eyes, so blue, fix on his, and Julio presses a soft, lingering kiss to his mouth. "Thank you for coming here. I love you, too. In case you didn't know."
"I know," Star assures him. "I've always known."
That night, alone in his bed, he has another nightmare, and his power flares up before he can stop it. The windows shatter, somewhere, fuzzy, in the distance, and he can't make his brain accept what's real and what isn't. When a hand touches his hair and a thumb sweeps over his forehead, he exhales sharply, shudders hard, and it's enough to pull him out, breathing ragged into his pillow. Above him, his mom and Star murmur to each other, and he's aware enough to know it's his mom leaving the room, not Star.
"Your mother showed me what to do," Star says softly, when Julio tries to move. "It's okay. Shh."
When Julio wakes up a few hours later, Star's hand is still tangled in his hair, his thumb still on Julio's brow. His eyes flicker open when Julio shifts in bed, sleepy, and Julio murmurs, "get in here, with me. You'll wreck your neck," and shifts over so Star can slide against him, solid and warm. They should have just started out the night like this, Julio thinks, but it hadn't felt right then. It does now. Safe.
In the morning, after Julio wakes up and feels like shit, but not as terrible as usual after a nightmare, he finds Star outside, building a shed. He's wearing only a pair of jean shorts and the boots he arrived in, and the sweat glistens on his skin "Your mother mentioned she needed one, and I offered," he explains.
"Have you ever built a shed before?" Julio asks.
"I'll figure it out," Star replies with a shrug.
Julio ends up helping, because he doesn't know shit about building a shed either, and it's nice. Good to keep busy. In early afternoon, when the sun's at its highest, burning, Star casually asks, as if it's no big deal, "may I have permission to speak to your mother about my feeling regarding your depression?"
Julio thinks about it then nods. "You'll tell me what you talk about? If I want to know?"
"Of course," Star agrees.
"You can speak to Omar, too," Julio decides. He knows his illness has isolated Star, who's always guarded Julio's privacy more fiercely than this own, and if he has a support structure of his own, maybe it'll be good for both of them. "If you want to, anyway. Fair warning: he's an ass, but he means well."
"Thank you," Star says and leans over the pile of lumber to kiss him.
So there are good days and bad days, and Julio starts having more of the former and less of the latter. He wakes up more than once to find Star in the kitchen with his mom, covered in flour and other ingredients, learning to cook and bake the things Julio likes to eat. Star even inherits his own apron.
They finish the shed with Omar's help, who calls them both unimaginative morons and redoes half of their work, barking out instructions. He catches Star chatting privately with his mom from time to time, and decides he doesn't need to know what they're discussing. Star spends a whole afternoon with Omar alone.
"He's exhausting," Star complains as Omar cackles, fearlessly throwing an arm across Star's shoulders.
"I swear, Hooly, four separate people swooned. It was fucking hilarious. If you decide not to date him, let me know. I might make an exception." He makes kissy noises in Star's face, and it devolves quickly into some sort of one-sided tussle. Star's never had family like this, so he doesn't know he can fight back.
"Knock it off," Julio finally shouts, trying to pull Star free, but he just gets dragged into it, too.
Later, they sit around, eating popsicles his mom brings out, straight from the box. It's easy conversation, comfortable, and Julio sits next to Star, under his arm, feeling lighter than he has in months. If this is the best things ever get, he could live with it, he decides. It'd be a good life.
"It's good to have you here, Hooly," Omar says casually, after a while. "I'm glad you came down."
"Thank Mamá. She's the one who asked me to come home."
His mom smiles, tinged with sadness, and says, "I told myself, Mijo, if I ever spoke to you and you sounded like that again, I would get you here, even if I had to go up there and get you. My greatest regret was believing you when you said you were okay. I knew you weren't, and we almost lost you."
He gets up and hugs her, tight and true, and can't say anything, or he'll just ending up crying, again.
They make definitive plans to return to New York, after the weekend. His mom offers to pay for their flights, but Star explains his powers. "I can teleport us back without a problem. I couldn't go alone, because I require an anchor. Julio is the only person I can directly teleport to. Our connection is strong enough."
Omar's eyes light up at that. "Connection, huh?" He says, waggling his eyebrows like a jackass.
"I will not miss you at all," Star tells him as Omar laughs loudly.
With his permission, his mom invites his siblings to their going away party. Omar asks if he can invite Silvia and Amelia, which earns him a swat on the back with a rolled up tea towel. "I'm not saying she's my girlfriend," Omar tells them. "I could only be so lucky, but I like her a lot, so talk me up, okay?"
"I'm incapable of telling lies," Star informs him seriously, but Omar knows him well enough by now to know it's a joke. They've definitely formed some sort of weird friendship, and that makes Julio happy.
The weekend is noisy, almost overwhelming. He barely knows his siblings anymore, but they're warm and friendly with him. Only Francesca looks like a Richter. Yolanda, Miguel and Antonio look like his mom. Antonio's girlfriend Sofia, who's hugely pregnant, is soft-spoken and looks equally overcome by the chaos. Silvia and Amelia fit right in, and he realizes his mom and Silvia actually know each other.
"We didn't want to overwhelm you," Omar explains, later, when he finds Julio hiding in his bedroom. He just needs a minute to get his head back together. "You don't gotta worry about your mom, Hooly. I got her. Silvia, too, and Amelia thinks she's great. It's not like I have my own mom to spend time with."
"Oh, shit, I'm sorry, I didn't know," Julio says, but Omar holds up a hand.
"She's not dead. She lives twenty minutes from here, but I haven't seen her since I got out. She hasn't ever met her granddaughter." Omar exhales sharply, expression serious. It's not a good look, Julio thinks. "We all had to pick sides, Hooly. Your mom and me, we picked ours, and it's the same as yours. Your brothers and sisters, I know they'd be here if they could, but they got their own lives to lead now."
"Fuck," Julio says and drags Omar in for a hug. "You're a good guy, Omar Domingo. You know that?"
"Don't tell anyone, Julio Esteban," Omar says, laughing.
"Are you sure about this?" Star asks, as they pack up to leave.
"No," Julio admits. "I've never been so unsure about anything in my life."
"We can ..." Star starts, but Julio shakes his head, sharp.
"I can't hide out here forever, even if it's tempting. I do feel better. I just have to watch out for the signs. You, too, if you don't mind." He glances over to Star, who smiles at him fondly and nods. Julio turns back to his stack of jeans, rolling them up one by one, as Star continues with his t-shirts. "And I think I might try to find a therapist. I talked to Doc Samson once. It wasn't the worst thing ever, I guess."
"I think that would be a good idea," Star agrees easily. "I will see one, too."
Julio nods. "If I look like I'm going off the deep end, it's okay if you try to help. Even if I get mad."
Star gets up and stands next to him, putting his hands on Julio's face. He looks better, Julio thinks, healthier, and he thinks maybe Star hadn't been sleeping right since he'd been gone. Star's always had problems with it, and as far as Julio knows, he's the only person Star's ever slept beside, unguarded.
"This time with you and your family have made me realize that what you say and what you need are not always the same thing. I would never force you to do anything you absolutely do not want to do," Star clarifies quickly, tracing the shape of Julio's lips with his thumb, as if to stop Julio from protesting, which he wants to. "But I can try to guide you to the proper course of action, if I think you need help. When it comes to your feelings, I will find the balance between overly careful and callous disregard."
"I feel like that's a jab at Omar," Julio says, a little rueful.
"It is a little," Star admits with a warm, loving smile. "But like you said, he means well, and I have to admit it is effective, but I think a boyfriend occupies a different space than a cousin or a mother."
Julio snorts softly. "I would hope so."
"I will make sure you know you are loved," Star promises him. "You'll have no doubt."
"Can't wait," Julio mutters, flustered, and truly means it.