There’s something about the new tenants of Unit 522, Julio decides. He’s been a security guard of the Intalan Towers for a few years now—a long time in his book—, and he prides himself in his talent for people appraisal. Kind of comes with the job.
(That this is Julio's fourth reassignment and fourth tower in the past year absolutely doesn’t have anything to do with his penchant for appraising and not much else.)
It’s not like the conjectures are not founded on evidence. He knew the moment they walked into the lobby six weeks ago. At least, there was an inkling that never went away. Something unsaid hid behind the curly-haired man’s much-too-fond gaze upon his roommate and the fidgeting hands of the taciturn half of the pair each time the other came close.
Until tonight, Julio won’t name what has been very obvious in hindsight. There is very little room to doubt that the youngins—actual grown men in their early twenties, only that everyone is a youngin next to Julio—are, in fact, together.
In the romantic sense of the word, of course.
Julio being Julio, he likes to think his delayed realization is largely due to being preoccupied with the functions of his job, but even the next guy over is bound to scratch their head. The young pair keep to themselves half the time, and when they do interact with any staff, it’s always the bright young man with the dimpled cheeks talking a mile away, his partner content with a curt nod of the head or a silent smile that is few and far in between.
But tonight, all his doubts are laid to rest.
Freshly arrived for his graveyard shift, the guard is half a dozen yards to the basement parking elevator when the reserved young man whose name he learned to be Cairo—all thanks to Gavreel’s recent chat with the concierge—limps to his line of sight. The lad punches the button with a gloved hand not holding his duffel bag, and Julio doesn’t miss the way he leans on one leg, the opposite bent at the knee.
His curiosity getting the better of him, Julio jogs the rest of the way, stopping beside Cairo just as the elevator door opens. The tenant flinches so slightly that Julio would’ve missed it if he weren’t paying attention.
“Hello, Cai,” Julio greets as they file into the car. “Been a while since I last saw you.” The comment is both casual and factual. Another odd thing about Cairo and Gavreel is that one of them disappears for weeks and upon return, the other goes. Which only makes sense; they are said to be involved in a business that requires a lot of traveling.
“Hi, Julio,” Cairo says, polite. “It’s been a while, that’s right.”
They start to ascend. “How was your trip?”
“Exhausting, but productive. How have you been?”
“Same old, same old. Wish my job was as exciting as yours.”
Julio can’t see Cairo’s clear reflection on the metal door, but he swears the young man’s lips twitch, telltale signs of a smirk. “I’m sure you find ways to make it so.”
“’Course,” says Julio cheerily. Feeling bold, he adds, “Did you hurt yourself?”
Cairo good-naturedly lifts his bent leg and swings it back and forth. “Long story, but a client had too much fun. Good thing I have insurance.”
“Did they ask you to wrestle to negotiate a contract? That’s crazy. I only see that in movies.”
Cairo chuckles, so low in volume the confined space does the job of amplifying it for Julio’s ears to catch. “Let’s settle with that. The NDA obligates me to spare you the details.”
“Ah, of course.” There is a ding, and the door opens. “This is me. Will you make it alright?”
“Yes, thank you. Goodnight, Julio.”
Julio steps out and heads down the hall leading to the staff room. He salutes a utility man on his way in, changes into his uniform, then climbs up the short flight of stairs to the lobby where he crosses over with the guard on swing shift.
As soon as his colleague says goodbye, a very harrowed Gavreel emerges from the dark and runs up the stairs and into the lobby. He carries a paper bag with one arm, and a plastic bag of takeout swings from the other. The tenant with the wild curls makes it two steps past the door when rolls of bandage tumble out of the brimming paper bag. He curses under his breath, and Julio comes to his aid.
“Careful there, Gav,” says Julio, picking up the rolls of bandage and stuffing them back inside the bag securely.
“Thanks, and sorry, Julio. I was in a hurry.” Gavreel lifts an arm to sweep at his sweaty forehead.
“Clearly,” Julio agrees, taking in the lad’s appearance. He has seen this before, and he’s fairly acquainted with the cause of creased eyebrows and clumsy steps. “I can’t blame you. Your boyfriend was limping.”
Gavreel’s eyes widen and he flushes to the tips of his hair. “How—my what—?”
Julio decides that the reaction stems from embarrassment for being so obviously worried. “I saw him earlier as he was arriving,” he shares by way of explanation. “But don’t let me keep you. Go now, your boyfriend needs you.”
Open-mouthed, Gavreel’s eyes adopt a faraway look. He nods, slowly, a nervous laugh bubbling past his lips. “Right, right, of course. That’s the love of my life waiting for me.”
“Right,” Julio says, quite pleased with himself. He claps Gavreel on the shoulder and spins him around to the direction of the elevators. “Go, but don’t run. Can’t afford to get hurt now, can you?”
“I can't, no,” Gavreel acquiesces, stepping away. “Bye, Julio. Thanks for the help,” he says, his back on the guard.
Julio salutes Gavreel’s retreating figure and whistles as he returns to his post by the door, chest puffed out with pride.
Nothing like being of service to a person in love.
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 30S...]
To: angelofpeace@g*****y.org, victorious@*****y.org
Subject Line: DTR
A little birdie told me a snoopy security guard has made the assumption that you two are in a relationship. While this is no surprise to me, the higher-ups seem to be truly shocked that anyone would think of you as, well, romantic partners. They seem to be convinced that you hate each other (nonsense, in my evidence-based opinion).
The catch is that they actually want you both to keep up the façade.
That said, make sure you DTR ASAP.
Attached is a brief for your pretend relationship. I initially opposed sending this knowing you’re naturals at not pretending anyway, but they quoted the antiquated protocol. I’m just following orders.
Happy first day,
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 10S...]
To: mayorient@g*****y.org, angelofpeace@g*****y.org
Subject Line: Re: DTR
Tell them to go screw themselves.
This is all your fault.
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 10S...]
Subject Line: Re: Re: DTR
Thanks for the brief! Don’t worry about it, my baby and I will have no problem following it down to a tee.
No matter how busy the restaurant gets, Mario makes sure he knows the story of every person that takes a table. After all, there are only two things that convert a customer into a brand advocate: product quality and customer service. Contemporaries would argue that one makes up for when the other is short, but Mario of the firm belief that between the two is a multiplication symbol. Overall customer experience suffers when either is less than a hundred percent. Always.
The moment a young man in a neon green hoodie shows up in front of Mario looking as if all of the world betrayed him, Mario’s evening takes a turn.
“Hello, sir, welcome to Melo’s. Do you have a reservation?”
“Gavreel Alarcon,” says the man rather tersely. “He’s running late though. I’m Cairo. Cairo Lazaro.”
Mario doesn’t even check the list. He knows it front and back and he takes pride in that. “Come along, Mr. Lazaro.”
The two of them walk inside the ambient dining room, Mario guiding Cairo to the corner table farthest from the door and a blindspot for most servers coming from the line. While Mario feels some pressure knowing the grouchy customer is seated in the most inconvenient place, he doesn’t show it and instead beckons the server named Jay over.
Cairo plops down on one of the chairs and frowns at the cutlery as if they said something inappropriate to him.
“Mr. Lazaro, this is Jay. He will be your server for the evening,” Mario says. Cairo bobs his head in acknowledgment, clearly in a sour mood. “Jay, Mr. Alarcon made a reservation for Mr. Lazaro and himself. Please assist him while he awaits his companion.”
“You got it, sir,” Jay says with a grin.
Mario nods, turning to Cairo once more. “I’ll be out front, Mr. Lazaro. Please enjoy your evening. If you need anything, do let me know.”
“Sure. Thank you,” Cairo says, barely sparing Mario, or anything else but his plate, a glance. The maitre d’ gives Jay The LookTM, then goes back to his post by the front door.
Mario’s on his way for a periodic check of the kitchen when he runs into Jay looking green in the gills. “What happened?”
“He wants the appetizer—soup and bread—for himself and his companion to be served ASAP.”
“Oh, he’s pissed.”
“About to hit the roof,” Jay agrees. “We’re gonna humor him for now.”
Mario watches in mortification as the appetizers are served and Cairo (poor Gavreel) starts eating. Jay makes a show of shuddering as he goes back to the line to place the order for what is sure to be the main course. Which is a huge problem, because while there have been guests who order for their company in advance so as not to keep the famished latecomer waiting for longer, this gesture is clearly one of vindictive intentions.
Poor Gavreel. Heaven forbid that this is some special celebratory dinner. Imagine standing up a date on a birthday, or worse, an anniversary. Mario has seen it happen before, and more often than not, either party ever steps inside the restaurant again for a long, long while. Memories of everything unrelated to the food and service alter the palate all the same, and Mario has failed more times to salvage such circumstances than he can count.
Cairo is two-thirds through his angus steak when a man with windswept curls bursts through the doors, and quite literally. He stops short in front of Mario’s post, craning his neck about to survey the dining area. Mario takes a moment to appraise the newcomer in a zip-up sweatshirt, a get-up as casual as the neon hoodie of the customer whose scowl hasn’t budged through the night.
“Welcome to Melo’s. Do you have a reservation?” says Mario with practiced ease.
The man starts, turning to Mario with so much shock that the maitre d’ half-expected a breathless, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there.” Instead the lad says, “Hi, I made a reservation under my name, Gavreel Alarcon. Has my companion arrived yet?”
Mario blinks. He should’ve known. “Oh, yes, he’s actually started on the main course—”
“And he asked that mine be served, correct?” Gavreel says.
Mario takes a beat to nod. “We can heat it up for you—”
His suggestion seems to fall on deaf ears for Gavreel chuckles, a sound full of actual mirth and fondness. “Silly Cai. And please, there’s no need to do that for me. Although… can I have my steak for takeout?”
“Of course! I’ll ask your server to take it away when it’s time for dessert,” Mario says. “Would you still like the wine to be served by the bottle?”
“Perfect! And yes, please,” Gavreel says, smiling. Mario suffers a momentary lapse in consciousness when the customer’s dimples pop. “Knowing Cai, he wouldn’t let me live it down if I refused a good bottle of wine because I was late and empty-stomached.”
Mario decides that he likes Gavreel already. “If you say so, sir. May I show you to your table?”
“Before that, can I ask you a question?”
“On a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest, how pissed is he?”
Mario almost smiles. “Eight after the steak.”
“Thank you for the meat.”
Mario lets himself chuckle. “Shall we?”
They make a beeline to the table where a less angry-looking Cairo sits, cutting through the last bits of steak. He doesn’t look up even as Gavreel’s shadow falls on part of the table.
“Happy birthday, baby! Sorry I’m—”
“Just sit down. You look like a moron,” Cairo says through gritted teeth, and that was Mario’s cue to leave.
“I’ll be out front, let me know if you need me,” he says hurriedly, only because he has half an idea of what’s about to go down and he doesn’t play by that book to gauge customer experience. “Enjoy the rest of your meal.”
He’s only a few paces away when he hears Gavreel say, “Would you stop frowning if I gave you a kiss?”
“How about I stab you in the eye with this fork?”
“Are you really that upset that I’m late?”
“You know very well why I’m upset, Gavreel.”
“Aw, you worry about me.”
“I’d love nothing—”
Mario books it the rest of the way to his post and waves for Jay. “Lovebirds on a birthday dinner, apparently,” he tells the server.
“Oh. And how’s the situation?”
“Banter galore, nothing serious for now. Make sure you take Mr. Alarcon’s appetizer and steak for takeout when you serve dessert. Don’t forget the birthday lava cake.”
“And the wine?”
“By the bottle still. I think Mr. Alarcon was speaking in code. Wine equals a less dangerous Mr. Lazaro.”
“Roger that,” says Jay, then he goes away.
Some half hour later the party of two depart, and a wine-flushed Cairo thanks Mario on his way out. Gavreel, in hot pursuit of his partner and a bag of takeout tucked under his arm, wears a triumphant smile as he salutes and promises that they will be back.
Then and there, Mario concludes that there are actually three things that convert a customer into a brand advocate: product quality, customer service, and company, no matter how unforgivably late.
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 20S...]
To: angelofpeace@g*****y.org, victorious@*****y.org
Subject Line: Points for Improvement
First of all, great job at the pretend fight! Here are some pointers.
Cairo, I know nothing slips past you, but you need to STOP staring at surveillance every time. That kind of defeats the purpose of this whole exercise. See attachment.
Gavreel, the higher-ups tell me you’re too good at playing the part of a smitten other half. They suggest toning it down. (As your supervisor, I suggest you don’t. The more natural, the better.) See attachment. Nothing special there, just you running after Cairo as if your life depended on it. (It probably does.)
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 15S...]
Subject Line: Re: Points for Improvement
Thanks for catching that. I’ll keep this in mind next time.
I’d like to make the suggestion that we stick to what the higher-ups say. Gavreel makes me want to be sick sometimes.
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 10S...]
Subject Line: Re: Re: Points for Improvement
Cairo’s objection is overruled. I’m siding with you on this. My baby’s just playing hard to get.
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 10S...]
Subject Line: Re: Re: Re: Points for Improvement
I will gouge your eye with a dinner fork for real next time.
Having worked at a hospital for a considerable portion of his life, Luis has seen his fair share of tragedies both big and small. But nothing really prepares anyone—and definitely not overworked doctors—for midnight encounters with strangers crying in hospital stairwells.
The young resident is just coming off his twelve-hour shift at the emergency ward, about to descend the fire exit stairs, when he first hears it—the body-wracking sound of sobbing.
Now, there are two ways to go about the situation: continue his descent, or take the longer route instead. By choosing the former he’ll likely end up staying within the premises for as long as he will by choosing the latter (it has happened before; he is always running into someone who manages to rope him into gossip after shift). And so predictably, the more worthwhile and morally-correct choice is the first.
He eases himself onto the landing, grabbing the handrail so he can look down and see. The crouched figure is one and half a flight down. Not that long of a trek.
Half of him wishes the person will vacate the area, and the other half makes Luis start to descend without making too much noise so as not to scare the poor stranger away. But the more ground he covers and they don’t budge, the more Luis wants to go back up and risk staying behind longer than is acceptable when he’s at this level of fatigue.
He’s three steps away when the person suddenly speaks, making him grasp the cold metal rail tightly.
“Please don’t mind me, doctor. I feel like you want to talk, but I don’t really want to,” the man says, voice waterlogged and scratchy. “I’ll be gone before long.”
A small part in Luis’ chest aches at that. “I don’t intend to overstay, if that helps.”
The stranger doesn’t say anything.
“Are you family?”
“Family…” He scoffs. “What even is family at this point?”
The question was said with so much poison that Luis shudders. There’s definitely something else there, but the brain fog isn’t going to clear until he has hit the sack and gotten his shot of coffee. “But do you care about them?”
A mirthless snicker. “There are tears. They’ve got to count for something.”
That makes Luis smile a little. Tears say a lot, not just some abstract concept of something. “And how stubborn are they?”
“Like a bull.”
“Then you have cause to trust that they will be okay,” Luis says.
“And if I tell you it’s because of me that they’ve got one foot in the grave?”
“Do they care about you?”
That gives the man pause. When he speaks again, he sounds unsure. “I… I guess.”
“And how stubborn are you?”
“More stubborn than a bull for sure.”
Luis covers the last three steps so he’s standing right beside this nameless guy. “There’s your answer, sir,” he says, truly smiling this time. “Do you have time for a brief anecdote?”
“Depends on your definition of brief.”
The doctor laughs lightly and sits himself down. “I had this patient earlier. Young man, healthy build. Vehicular accident. The last thing he said before he lost consciousness was, ‘It’s not their fault.’ And what are the odds that I’m now talking to you, right?”
“You’re making this up.”
“I’m not. And even if they’re totally different people, you’ll have to trust that they care enough to not put the blame on you. That’s just doing right by them.”
His new friend is silent for a while. “What do you know, doctor?”
“I wouldn’t have lasted if I took accountability for every awful thing that happens here,” says Luis, remembering the first few years of daily breakdowns. “Some things happen, and sometimes those things are ugly.”
The stranger sniffs.
“I need to get going. Will you be okay?”
“What’s your name, doctor?” the young man looks at him for the first time. Bloodshot and swollen eyes on a handsome face.
“Luis. And yours?”
This jostles a memory from not even an hour ago. It’s not Caro’s fault.
Of course. Luis claps Cairo on the shoulder. “You should go. He’s been transferred to a private room.”
“There’s really only one person you care about, right?” Luis offers Cairo a last smile and with a small grunt, he rises and continues his trek down the stairs. He hasn’t made it to the landing before he hears him running.
It seems he made the right choice by going with the first.
SELF-DESTRUCTING IN 30S...]
Subject Line: SUSPENSION ORDER — Mayora and Her Babes
It has come to our attention that there was a breach in protocol during your most recent exfiltration operation. This has resulted not only in the target’s escape but also in Gavreel’s sustained injuries.
This is cause for concern as you may already be aware. We are also convinced that Cairo and Gavreel’s cohabiting, constant companionship, and pretend relationship have resulted in actual romance. While we do not prohibit any workplace relationships, they are still required to follow the agent handbook and make the separation between professional and personal duties. Such a rule, of course, may be enacted should we see any reason to.
Had this resulted in the actual death of the defector or our agent, the consequences would have been dire. As such, you and your team are hereby subject to one-month suspension. Use this time to reflect on your actions and steps moving forward. You may also want to rethink your team name, as I have already suggested before.
Please inform Cairo and Gavreel when and as you see fit. A care package is on its way to Gavreel’s hospital room.
Pearl sighs through her nose as she closes the email, then proceeds to stare at the wall. It’s not the first time that she’s been forced to put out fires—and she never starts fires—, but this time she’s most willing to take the brunt of their superior's cleverly-disguised ire.
She has seen love manifest in many ways, but not quite like this. And Gavreel may be a fool, but Cairo is not too far behind.
And she hears him before she sees him. As Cairo approaches the cold gang chairs in the waiting area, eyes bloodshot and shoulders hunched, Pearl opens her arms, a silent invitation. Cairo takes it, buries his nose into her neck, and Pearl’s heart clenches for Cairo never takes her up without rancor on offers for touch.
“All will be well,” she whispers to the crown of his head. Tell him when he awakes.
Cairo draws a shuddering breath, hot tears pressed into Pearl's skin. She holds him a little more tightly and well into the morning.