Ryan spent the first two weeks after Jenny left him on Esposito’s couch. He couldn’t remember them discussing it. He just woke up the first Sunday, still a little drunk from the night before, and Espo was there with a couple of suits and some underwear.
“You’ll need something for work tomorrow,” he said, and dropped the hangers over a spare knob on the coat rack. “Breakfast?”
Espo grinned and disappeared into the kitchen. Ryan contemplated how lucky he was to have such a great best friend--until the smell of frying bacon hit him and he had to make a dash for the bathroom.
“Oops,” he heard from down the hall.
“Stop laughing!” Ryan shouted back.
Even after Ryan repossessed his own place, with the help of several deliveries to Goodwill and some of those odor neutralizing sprays to suck all the floweriness out of the air, he still spent practically all his time at Espo’s. It was baseball season, and Espo had the better TV.
After a while, instead of ordering in every night, Esposito started making dinner. Ryan would squeeze a tiny stool into a tiny corner of Espo’s tiny kitchen, and they’d watch the game on the tiny TV in there while Espo cooked.
First it was just burgers, spaghetti, that kind of thing, with a dish here and there from the Puerto Rican side of Esposito’s family. Then Espo got more creative, and Ryan started to have to put his beer down and chop carrots or break eggs.
“I wish baseball season would never end,” he said one night. He and Espo were trying to stuff peppers and getting more meat on the countertop than anywhere else.
“There’s always hockey season,” Espo said. “You have tomato on your face.”
Ryan ran his thumb along his cheek and licked it off. “We don’t watch hockey.”
Espo flicked a glance up at him, then went back to the food. “We could.”
Ryan snagged a slice of green pepper and munched it thoughtfully. “Okay,” he said at last.
Thanksgiving with the Espositos was An Event. Espo--Javi, they called him--was the only one of his brothers and sisters who hadn’t married and had kids yet, so there was a kids table full of loud arguments and the occasional food fight. And then there was the adult table, which...didn’t have food fights, anyway.
Espo’s dad was Puerto Rican, and his grandmother of course. His mom was African-American, and his brothers- and sisters-in-law were a mixed lot, including his youngest sister’s new husband from Korea, who looked vaguely shell-shocked the entire time. Ryan shot him a sympathetic smile across the table.
He turned his attention back to Mrs. Esposito, who was asking him a question about their last case. “Yeah, we really didn’t think we were going to solve it. If Javi here hadn’t dug up the second set of account books, we’d still be scratching our heads over it.”
“Ah, c’mon,” Espo said. “Who chased the perp down three avenue blocks before bringing him down?”
“That was kind of awesome, wasn’t it?” Ryan fake-flexed a bicep.
Grandma Esposito leaned over and whispered something in Espo’s ear. He turned bright red and changed the subject to his nephew’s soccer team as soon as he could.
“I like your family,” Ryan said later as they made their way down the street to Espo’s car.
“They like you.”
“I can tell. I think I have permanent lipstick marks on my cheek from your grandmother."
Esposito slowed as they passed under a streetlight; his fingers were firm as they tilted Ryan’s head to the right angle, and light as they brushed across his cheek.
Ryan realized he was holding his breath.
“Yep,” Espo said. “Branded forever. Or until you can get to a really good bar of soap.”
“Maybe I like being branded,” Ryan said lightly.
Espo was quiet all the way back to Ryan’s place. “Rangers tomorrow night?” he asked as he parked. “Or is that too much of the Espositos for forty-eight hours?”
“I’ll hit the store on my way over,” Ryan said. “How ‘bout those chicken kebabs we almost got right last time?”
Jenny showed up at the office the following Monday.
Ryan was actually the last to notice; Castle poked him in the arm and he looked up from the DMV search he was running. “Wha--oh.”
“Hi, Kevin,” she said. She was twisting her purse strap around and around until it looked almost braided.
“Hi,” he said. He looked over at Espo, who stared stony-faced back at him.
“I’m sorry to bother you at work,” Jenny said, “but I couldn’t get through on your phone. I thought maybe you changed your number.”
He had blocked her number from his phone that first week, the third or fourth time Espo had caught him trying to drunk dial her and stopped him. “Something like that,” he said.
He looked around--Espo was still looking somewhere between neutral and angry. Beckett was pretending to work on the board but stealing glances their way, and Castle, of course, was watching them openly. He was probably trying to wish a bag of popcorn into existence. “This isn’t the best time, Jenny,” Ryan said. “Why don’t--" He gestured towards the door.
“I’m sorry, yeah,” she said.
He got up from his desk and walked a careful six inches from her as they crossed the room. “Is there something wrong?” he asked as soon as they were out of earshot. He hoped she didn’t want anything she’d left at his place back--he was pretty sure Goodwill didn’t do takebacks.
“No. Yes. Oh...” She stopped in the doorway, shaking her head ruefully. “I had a speech. It doesn’t--Kevin, I miss you.”
He froze. “I’m sorry?”
She looked at him with silent appeal.
“You dumped me,” he said.
“I know. And I’m an idiot. And--Kevin--" She reached out and took one of his hands in hers.
He stomped down on his first impulse, which was to jerk his hand away and hide it behind his back. “I can’t talk about this right now,” he said, a little desperately.
She pulled her hand back. “Right. I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” he said, and startled a laugh out of her.
“Will you call me, at least?” she asked.
“Yeah. Yeah, sure.”
He waited for her to clear the room, then covered his face with his hands. “Oh, God,” he said. He looked up and over at Espo, spreading his hands wide in shock.
Espo wasn’t there.
“Where’s Esposito?” he asked as he crossed the room again.
“He left,” Beckett said.
“You moron,” Castle muttered. Beckett kicked him. “Ow!”
“What the hell,” Ryan said.
“What the hell?” Ryan asked.
“A personal emergency, that’s all he said,” Captain Montgomery said.
“But we’re in the middle of a case!”
“He had the time available, he requested it, I granted it,” Montgomery said. “End of story.”
“I’ll get some uniforms to do the door-to-doors,” Beckett said. “Ryan, you okay on the license searches?”
“Yes, but--what the hell,” Ryan said.
Castle shook his head.
It took three days--three days of sitting next to an empty desk, driving past an empty house at all hours, and staring into an empty fridge in an empty-feeling apartment--before Ryan finally cracked. He’d been trying to answer questions about a case, and sounding like a moron, because he kept waiting for Esposito to jump in, and he thought he might be developing a stutter. And Castle had shaken his head and clucked his tongue for the whatever-teenth time that day.
“Excuse me,” he said to Beckett, and hauled Castle off to the men’s room.
“Do you seriously think she won’t follow us in here?” Castle asked.
Ryan leaned back against the door. “Not in time.”
Castle looked startled, so Ryan revised his interrogation menace down a notch. “Just tell me what’s going on.”
“With my partner. Don’t be an ass.”
“What do you think happened?” Castle asked.
“I don’t know! I thought it was something with his family, but he’d have called me back, and you’re obviously blaming me, Captain Subtle. So apparently there’s something going on, and I have no idea.”
“You really don’t know? Seriously? Seriously seriously?” When Ryan said nothing, Castle actually laughed, the bastard, and clapped his hands together like a kid at the circus. “I cannot believe it.”
There was a rattle as someone pushed on the door; Ryan set his feet and pushed back.
“What are you two doing in there?” Beckett called through the door.
“Be right out!” Castle sing-songed. He leaned forward and grabbed Ryan’s shoulders. “Okay, listen up, Sparky. Esposito has been trying to woo you.”
“Woo you. Court you. Seduce you.” Castle paused. “Although if he’d made any serious attempts to seduce you, you might have gotten the hint.”
Ryan thought of fingers on his cheek under a street light. He shook his head. “But--"
“Ryan. He took you to Thanksgiving with his family.”
Ryan stared at Castle. “Oh, God.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“I have to go,” Ryan said. He reached behind him and jerked open the door; Beckett half-fell into the room.
“Ryan--" she started.
“I have to go,” Ryan repeated, dumbly, and took off down the hall. “Cover for me.”
“Doesn’t anyone care about solving crimes in this office?” he heard her say behind him.
“Me,” Castle said.
Ryan rang the Esposito’s doorbell and wiped his hands on his pants. How could he be sweating? It was like thirty degrees out.
Espo’s mom opened the door.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hello there.” Her normally warm voice was chill enough to freeze ice cubes. “What can I do for you?”
“Would it be possible for me to speak to Javi?”
She eyed him. “What makes you think he’s here?”
Ryan scratched his head. “Um, I did a completely illegal search on his credit card, and he ordered pizza from a place a block over last night.”
“You did what?” Ryan looked up to see Espo standing right behind his mom, looking--Ryan couldn’t really tell what that look was, and it made him really nervous. They were partners. He was supposed to know all Espo’s looks.
He wiped his hands on his pants again. "I need to talk to you," he said.
Espo looked at him, then over at his mother. "Mama," he said simply, and his mother shot Ryan one more death glare before stalking back into the house.
Esposito stepped onto the porch, closed the door behind him, and looked at Ryan with a raised eyebrow. Ryan knew that look; it was the "talk fast, you have three seconds of my patience left" look, used primarily on suspects and people who bashed the Yankees.
"So I didn't know," Ryan said.
Esposito said nothing.
"No, really, I didn't. In my defense, you weren't horribly obvious about it--okay, with the cooking, maybe I should have--but I just thought you were being nice to me. And I like your family! I mean, significant holiday, in retrospect--look, I'm just saying, I didn't get it. Castle had to tell me."
"Tell you--" Espo was starting to look less peeved and more confused.
"About the wooing."
Both Espo's eyebrows went up. "The wooing?"
"The courting. The--the seducing. Don't look at me like that, it's what he said!"
"Castle said I was wooing you."
"Yes. Was he wrong? Because if he was wrong, why the hell are you avoiding me? I have been calling you for three days. I drove by your house half a dozen times. I illegally traced your credit card, Esposito. If Castle's wrong, and there's another reason, and you're just trying to make me crazy, then a, it's working, and b, what the hell is it, for the love of God?"
"Jesus, Ryan, I'm not trying to make you crazy. You apparently come standard with crazy. And why are you spending all your time trying to find me instead of making up with Jenny?"
"Jenny?" Ryan stared at Espo blankly.
"Yes, Jenny. Your girlfriend. That you're getting back together with."
Ryan's jaw actually dropped--he didn't think that happened in real life. "That's what this whole vanishing act was about? Jenny?"
"What I do with my personal time is my own damn business," Espo said. "Just like what you do with your girlfriend is your own business."
For the first time in three days, Ryan relaxed. He took a step closer to Espo. "Jenny's not my girlfriend," he said.
Esposito stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Whatever."
"No, really." Ryan inched another step closer. "I actually forgot to call her after she came to the station because I was too busy trying to find you."
"Well, there's no time like the present," Esposito said. Ryan watched his cheeks redden. "Go. Call her."
Ryan took one more step, until he was a fraction of an inch from touching Espo. "Nah," he said. "I don't think I will."
Esposito's mouth came down hard on Ryan's, and Ryan reached up to grab his shoulders. It wasn't like any kind of real first kiss--there wasn't any room in it to be tentative or tender. It was their intense, competitive, familiar relationship all rolled into one kiss.
Ryan broke it off, more to breathe for a second than anything else, and panted into Espos's mouth for a second. "Wait," he said as something occurred to him.
Espo's hands froze on Ryan's arms. "What?"
"Do I have to call you Javier now?"
Espo laughed and dragged him into another kiss. They were both still wrapped up in each other when the door opened behind them. "Javi, it's freezing out here--" Mrs. Esposito stuttered to a stop.
Esposito—Espo—Javi?—lifted his head and grinned down at Ryan. "I don't feel a thing, Mama," he said.
"I told you so," Castle said.
"No, I really did, I told you."
"He's been like this all day," Ryan told Javi. "There was even a little song and dance at one point."
"Hello," Beckett called from farther along the parking lot. She was blocked by the snowdrifts caused by the plows that had gone through (leading to the discovery of the body), but the crankiness came through loud and clear. "Are you people going to look at the body or sit back there and gossip?"
Castle opened his mouth. Ryan and Javi each grabbed him by one arm and tossed him backwards into the nearest snowdrift.
"On our way," Ryan shouted, and he and Javi walked side-by-side to the corpse, leaving Castle flailing in the snow behind them.