Unedited. Subject to change. No release date yet. The usuals. Enjoy <3
He was in my workroom.
Bafflingly, I wasn’t bothered by the sight of him a bundle of steel wool in his – glove less – hands, cleaning the rust and grime from another spoke of the bike I’d been working on when he first arrived. I didn’t really let people touch my stuff back here – not even Vaughn, or my mother when she was alive.
Raf though… I didn’t mind.
Maybe because he got it.
Maybe because this was a passion I may not have even discovered if it weren’t for him. Whatever it was, I knew Raf understood the delicacy of the antique bike, and instinctively felt its’ importance to me.
“Mama found this one,” I said, as I approached the work table. There was only one seat, and he was in it, so I leaned over it, pressing my elbows to an empty space. “Her last gift to me, before she passed. I’m going to make it into something she’d ride.”
Raf looked up at me, his expression solemn as he nodded. “That’s a beautiful way to honor her, B. I… should’ve come to the funeral.”
“Absolutely not,” I shook my head. “You would’ve missed Strade Bianche that year, and I would’ve murdered you for it. That was one of your best races. You broke a record.”
“But I wasn’t here for you.”
“You were here in spirit,” I said, smiling. “Besides… the trophy you won looks great here in the shop.”
The shelves behind my front counter were decorated with pictures, plaques, and all kinds of other local accolades I’d won from cycling. There were ribbon-cutting snapshots from the bike lanes we’d lobbied for, pictures from community spin classes. Medals and trophies from races, all that. But I’d had a very, very ugly cry when I opened the internationally shipped package from Rafael. It held his hard-won, multi-record breaking Strade Bianche trophy from the race he’d been doing in Tuscany while I buried my mother.
It was like he was saying… because I couldn’t be there, the least I can do is make this count, and dedicate it to you. And I accepted that, wholeheartedly, and gave that trophy a place of honor.
“I could’ve come after,” he said as he dropped the steel wool in favor of a soft towel to wipe away the grime, leaving the spoke he’d been working on gleaming in the light.
I rolled my eyes. “You needed to recover – you had Cape Epic like two weeks after Strade Bianche, all the way in South Africa. You had to rest, and train. You’ve spent these years riding like a maniac.”
“Yeah, and what do I have to show for it?” he asked, tossing away the towel. He straightened on the stool, eyes on me with a challenge to answer, as if it wasn’t obvious.
“Um… titles and medals and notoriety and prize money and endorsements…” I said, confused when he let out a huff and shook his head.
“Bunch of shit that doesn’t even matter in the grand scheme,” he muttered, pushing his overgrown hair back from his face. “All that, and I’m not comfortable here like I should be, you know? All my relationships are fucked, I haven’t been there like I should for my friends—”
“Raf,” I interrupted. “All your relationships are not fucked. I’m not holding this against you.”
“I’m holding it against me,” he countered, nostrils flared as his volume went up. “Because all this, all the training and the winning and the traveling, yeah… I did that. People know my name, cool. But… I don’t want to do that anymore. But I don’t know what else to do,” he said, emotion straining his voice in a way that broke my heart.
I pushed away from the table to come around to where he was, taking his face in my hands. “Hey,” I soothingly urged, coaxing his gaze up to mine. “What in the world is going on with you? You know you can talk to me, right?”
“I do,” he assured, not looking away. “I just… I don’t even know the words to use, I can’t… I don’t know what to say. Or if I want to say it. Or if I’m ready to say it.”
I nodded. “Okay. Okay. But when all that comes together, you know…”
He wrapped his arms around my waist from his seated position, turning to pull me into a hug. I stepped between his legs, not just to accept it – to return it, pulling his head against my chest like my mama used to when I was little. And… hell, when I was big, too. It just felt like the kind of hug he needed.
We broke away after a few moments, with Raf looking up at me with a grin that shadowed how he’d been feeling just minutes ago.
“I see you’re back to being featherless,” he teased, clearing his throat.
I raised an eyebrow. “And I don’t see any oiled abs. Which… by the way, what was that even about?”
“Just playing my role,” he shrugged. “And I see it worked, cause they got the shots they needed.”
“Thanks to your idea. You saved the day, honestly.”
Raf took a little bow from his seat. “Anything for you, milady.”
“Yeah, and then you ran off and disappeared.”
He shook his head. “I just needed a lil breather. You know, all great actors have their methodology and all that. Honing our skills.”
“Which, speaking of skills… you are certainly a master subject-changer,” I told him. “You might be trying to front like all is well, but your lack of a haircut tells the real story.”
“Daaaamn,” he laughed. “I’ve got an appointment with Carter tomorrow, for your information – I was holding out for my old barber.”
I sucked my teeth. “Yeah, so you say.”
“I do say so,” he countered, grabbing my hands. “I love you, B.” he pulled my hand to his mouth, planting a quick kiss on my knuckles.
Inaudibly, I sighed, knowing this was all distraction, but also knowing… I had to give him the same space I would want him to give me. So instead of pressing him – like I’d fully intended when I came looking for him – I smiled.
“I love you too.”