Navy vet Aiden Cadotte might just be firefighter Beto Cepeda's undoing. Beto thought he had left him in the past, both on the joint base they operated from in Iraq and in the parts of himself Beto has tried to deny. But when Aiden shows up while Beto is on a call with his crew, Beto is transported back to a time when he wanted things from Aiden he could never let himself have. What’s stopping him from having those things now?
The answer is Beto. Because despite Aiden's unwavering patience, theirs is a relationship built on hurt and holding back. And though Beto wants Aiden more than he has ever wanted anything, there is still a part of him too scared to try.
Can Aiden give Beto the time he needs to find himself, or will he leave before Beto can hurt him again?
"I didn’t realize you were looking," he says anyway, despite being so aware of it.
Aiden looks him over again and smiles. "I have been."
"Is that a problem?"
"No. It really isn’t."
"Good." Why does Aiden have to look so pleased for that? Beto refuses to let his smile falter for being reminded yet again how much he has toyed with Aiden’s feelings in the past.
"Maybe I was looking too."
Aiden’s head shoots up in surprise. "Really?"
"Aiden. Look at you. Of course I was looking. I’m dumb, but I’m not that dumb."
Aiden doesn’t know what to make of that, apparently, for how he opens and closes his mouth, looks away, and can only smile. He gulps his beer before he can look at Beto again. "I’d say the same for you."
Why does he feel so fluttery for this? Beto tries to keep smiling, for not wanting Aiden to think he doesn’t like the idea. And for not really knowing what to do with his hands, Beto lowers his bottle to the floor, then rests them against Aiden’s thigh. When Aiden trails his fingertips over the back of one, Beto raises it for him to slot his fingers through, their hands then steepled together against his leg. Now what?
"We were sat by a campfire one night. You’d been out in an ambush, basically putting two people back together by the side of the road, while you were still being fired on," Aiden says, half-looking at Beto and half-studying their fingers. Beto is fairly sure where he is going with this, so only nods. "And you were just so tired for it. So beaten by it. You’d been thrown out of the truck you were in, hurt your shoulder, was covered in scrapes up your arms. You looked so defeated, Beto."
It isn’t often Beto allows his mind to replay anything from serving, for churning up memories of people he’s lost and some of the most horrific things he’s seen. Though he also sees Aiden every time he ever lets his mind wander. Having him here to share some of those memories, the thought isn’t so daunting now. "It wasn’t the easiest of days."
"And you’d argued with your dad earlier in the week, and you were really looking lost with everything. All I wanted to do was hug you. To give you some kind of comfort, to let you know you weren’t alone."
"I wouldn’t even let you hold my hand," Beto says, squeezing Aiden’s hand now like that might make up for it. If he tries, he can still see the flicker of that campfire across Aiden’s skin.
"It was really hard to see you like that. To not be able to reach for you. I understood, but it was ... that look on your face. When your eyes were pleading for something, but you just wouldn’t let yourself have it. I think sometimes that was the hardest thing of all."
Beto remembers, can feel the twisted agony of it now as they talk. "I was such an idiot."
"No, you weren’t. You can’t think about yourself like that."
"But I feel like that now. Like I’ve created all these blocks, these walls for myself that I react with, without even trying to do it. I want to be, I don’t know, freer, with all this, but there’s this thing in me that stops me."
"Habits are hard to break. You don’t need to punish yourself for it," Aiden says, running his thumb over Beto’s.
"But I am sorry, Aiden. That I never let you come near me when I need you to. That I couldn’t let myself be there for you when you needed it either."
Aiden gives him an encouraging smile. "We’re starting over, remember?"
"So, don’t worry so much. We’re doing okay."
He is forever understanding. In these last few weeks, Beto has come to appreciate just how much Aiden gives. And he knows Aiden; no one else in the world would get away with messing Aiden around with anything like he does. He’s seen people shrink away from one of Aiden’s withering looks, and others deliberately change direction when they see him coming. Why does he get to luck out with Aiden’s unwavering understanding?
"You’re so good to me," Beto says, and because he needs to do something to show how he’s trying, turns, and lets his face fall into Aiden’s neck.
Aiden unslots his fingers from Beto’s, cradling the back of his head to him as he lowers his bottle to the floor. When Aiden gets his arms around his shoulders, Beto moves so he can hug him better. Honestly, how did he ever fear letting this happen? He moves again, getting his arms around Aiden’s neck and bending his head to breathe him in. The rain can go on forever, so long as he gets to keep holding Aiden like this.