If You Want Me Close

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Step 1: Fall for your best friend.
Step 2: Support him when tragedy strikes.
Step 3: Figure out how you screwed up Step 2.

Bisexual event coordinator Simon Novotny thrives on connection. He cherishes his large, queer-friendly family and his friends — especially his cute, brilliant work bestie, gay IT geek Ziah Holdaway.

It’s taken forever for Simon to to coax Ziah out of his shell. Time and again people have let him down, especially those who should have loved him unconditionally. But Simon would do anything for Ziah: text him jokes when he’s down, bring him homemade lunches, change his tire in the rain. Heck, if Ziah needs a kidney, Simon’s got two.

Minor crush? Maybe, but Simon’s not a make-the-first-move kind of guy. So when an unplanned hookup with Ziah proves their chemistry is off the charts, it also shakes Simon to his core. Because for Ziah, it’s not casual, it’s love.

Before Simon can fully process his feelings, a life-altering tragedy upends Ziah’s world. Simon throws himself into helping and also rallies his family. But for Ziah, family means rejection, and Simon’s uber-helpful clan sets off major alarm bells.

Can they find a middle path through the storm, or will this crisis cost them both their romance and their friendship?

A high-heat contemporary M/M romance novel with a guaranteed HEA.

Tropes: friends to lovers, hurt-comfort, grief, nerds in love, bisexual disaster, single parenting.

Cover Art Assistance: jem zero


Author’s Note

This book touches on, though is not about, the serious topics of depression and suicidality. Some of my family’s and my personal experiences are reflected here, but no fictional depiction is universal, nor was this book intended to show how every person with depression experiences it or should handle it.

I’m also not a queer man or transmasc author. I encourage you to seek out those voices. If you need recommendations in romance, YA, science fiction, fantasy, or contemporary fiction, hit me up.

Chapter 1

I was this close to throwing my computer out the window.

It might be overly dramatic. The head of Purchasing would certainly object. But my videoconference with the Miami hotel was due to start in twelve minutes, and nobody who’d showed up early to test their catering director’s preferred software could hear me. Nor could I hear them. Without all of us learning ASL in twelve minutes, which would have been awesome if possible, I had a problem.

Well, my employer had a problem. ITO Solutions accepted payments from various groups in exchange for organizing their conferences. An association of professional marketers in Florida was paying us to do just that. All would be well, except Sales had promised this client not only the sun, moon, and stars, but the equivalent of several fancy rocket ships for the sum they’d agreed to pay. Hundreds of professional marketers wanted to grow their core competencies while catalyzing professional synergies, and we wanted their association to hire us again to handle all the logistics for their next conference, too.

This became my problem because I wanted my boss to be happy that we’d stayed under budget, and holding up handwritten signs from Austin wasn’t going to get me the ten percent catering discount I needed to make it happen. Jobs with generous mental health and disability leave policies were hard to come by. Jobs where bisexual men could be comfortably out at work were also rare. I needed audio on this damn call.

I stabbed the bat signal button on my desk phone. One ring. Two. Eleven minutes left. Cristiano in our Seattle branch office was shaking his head, presumably at something I couldn’t hear.

My best friend and gloriously competent IT colleague answered his cell. “Hi Simon, what’s going on?”

“Ziah, if you’re not here in under five minutes to fix this computer, I’m defenestrating it.”

“Fortunately for the computer, I’m fairly certain the window in your office doesn’t open.”

The estimable Ziah Holdaway didn’t sound as chipper as he usually did when we played the game of Simon Dramatically Threatens Malfunctioning Company Property. Then again, it was early and he hadn’t yet adapted his mental software from growing up conservative Mormon to start partaking of the most popular drug in America, caffeine.

Ten minutes. It was time to accurately convey the urgency of the situation. “Would putting my chair through the window first count as opening it?”

I heard a certain Miss Mina Namkoong’s voice too. Not from the cube next to mine where it should have been, since my other best friend worked on my same team and should have been at her desk already. Her dulcet tones were instead coming from Ziah’s end of the line. Ziah traveled between both of our company’s buildings, but Mina never went to the Dark Planet, which was one exit further down the highway. If they were together, they were both in the parking lot right outside, which meant they’d gone to get morning beverages without me. Those jerks.

“I’m on my way,” Ziah reassured me. “Don’t break anything that needs a work order to get fixed.”

“Tell Mina I’m taking her chair if she’s not at her desk in two minutes.” I hung up, turned off my camera temporarily, and started around the partition between our cubes towards Mina’s beloved Steelcase chair. Okay, first I checked to make sure my hair was still standing up properly, in case the headset had messed with it. I smoothed down my beard for good measure. Priorities.

When I stepped out into the long aisle made by the medium blue and darker medium blue cubicle walls, I expected the glass door to the parking lot at the other end to slam open. Mina and her long black hair would streak past me just in time to launch herself into the chair, with Ziah following along as her designated coffee carrier. Not that any beverage with so much sugar added should legally or otherwise be called coffee.

Instead, I watched Ziah — with his always impeccable manners — hold the door for Mina as she stepped inside. She held her own beverage and gestured vehemently at him with her other hand. They paused briefly as the door swung shut, and Mina rose on tiptoe to… kiss him?

On the cheek? On the lips?

I couldn’t tell. I also couldn’t seem to move my feet.

Ziah stepped back from her and nodded, squaring his shoulders, before looking down the long row of cubes right at me. His face froze. Mina pivoted to follow his line of sight. I’d been planning to take exaggerated slow steps towards the doorway of Mina’s cube to give her time to run for it, but the joke didn’t feel funny anymore. Something had clearly changed. Like, since quitting time yesterday, when as far as I’d ever been told, my two best friends weren’t on kissing terms.

Mina frowned at me, grabbed Ziah’s elbow, and towed him towards me.

“Hey,” I said when they got close enough, “Everything okay?”

“What’s going on with the call?” Mina asked, which in no way answered my question.

“No audio.” I thought I managed to sound normal. “The hotel has a service they wanted to use, and it works for Cristiano, but not for me.”

Ziah stepped around me into my cube, dropped into my chair, pulled on my headset, and started fiddling with various settings. I didn’t tell him what I’d already tried, because I knew the process when my misbehaving technology needed his intervention. Step back, let Ziah do whatever he wanted, and don’t say a thing.

Which left my brain free to belatedly realize that my adorably skinny and geeky-as-hell tech guy’s short blond hair was atypically messy, and he was wearing the same clothes he’d worn yesterday: the light green short sleeve button down and the khakis with the small frayed spot on the right leg hem in the back. Somebody else might have done laundry and absentmindedly put on the same outfit, but Ziah was the only twenty-something I knew who ironed, and his clothes didn’t have their usual freshly pressed appearance.

It couldn’t be what I was thinking. Could it? By Ziah’s own description—while drunk for the first time in his life on mojitos we’d all regretted the next day for various reasons—he was ninety-seven percent gay. That was a lot of gay. Also, I wasn’t even going to disrespect his self-identification as, you know, gay. Yet would his self-confessed three percent mean just enough wiggle room for something with a woman? If so, Mina was an amazing person, but… Mina? Practically-my-sister Mina? She was short and pretty and wore those bright creative dresses that I did find aesthetically pleasing, but Mina?

This would be a seriously unexpected way to find out Ziah didn’t view her the same way I did.

“Video conferencing software is terrible,” Ziah said into the mic, and I saw Cristiano’s blurry face laugh and say something back.

Ziah pulled off the headset and looked up at me. Normally, his light blue eyes would be twinkling behind those silver-rimmed glasses as he savored his victory against the forces of technological entropy. He’d also be extracting my pledge to pay for the pizza on Saturday after I repeatedly cleaned his clock in Virtua Fighter. (Did I like him extra for never food policing me because of my weight? Yes.)

Today, instead, he seemed tired. Because he’d been up… late? All night? Doing—

“All set, Simon?”

I nodded, hoping my professional persona would reboot in time to not embarrass myself with the Miamians and Cristiano. Ziah vacated my chair. I sat down and I was about to turn my camera back on when he put his hand on my shoulder.

“You’ve got this,” he said softly. “I’m proud of you.”

I glanced at him, torn between the comfort of his touch and the impending call. Ziah was a dedicated member of my emotional support squad, but at work we usually kept it light unless I was clearly struggling, and then we took it outside. Had it seemed like I needed some shoring up?

“Thanks,” I said back, feeling awkward.

For a second, it seemed as if he wanted to say something more. Instead he squeezed my shoulder, nodded, and took off.

Now I was super-extra wondering what was going on. I forcibly sequestered the feeling, got on the call, and scored a twelve percent catering discount because I did sometimes kick ass like that. Once the rush wore off, however, it was tough to focus on my inbox.

Since one of the two parties involved in this morning’s weirdness was separated from me by only a fabric-covered cube wall and a laminated MDF core desktop, I crumpled a printout of a San Antonio hotel conference room layout and threw it over the partition into Mina’s cube. As a conversation starter.

“What, Simon?”

Ah yes, the faux-frustrated voice. My older sister used a similar tone when I showed up at her house near dinnertime. Honestly, Tereza had little reason for it, since I was usually willing to take all four of her kids out in the yard and wear them out so she could hear the inside of her own head. With the amount of bug spray that endeavor required applying in Austin and how squirmy kids were, one would think she’d be more grateful.

“Mina, c’mere.”

“You can come over here. Some of us are working.”

“Some of us were drinking overpriced coffee-adjacent desserts with Ziah in the parking lot this morning while others of us had already been at our desks for half an hour. Come here.” Surely if I was guessing right, they weren’t planning to keep it from me? Or had Mina’s emphatic gestures been her lecturing Ziah to not let anything slip? Although if that was the plan, the hallway kissing had been a strange choice.

None of this made any sense.

I heard a long, aggrieved sigh and a few stomps before Mina appeared in my cube’s doorway. I remembered yesterday’s dress, an asymmetrical pink number, and today she was in electric blue with white trim. But like Ziah, she didn’t seem well-rested.
Her tiredness didn’t have to be because of what I was thinking it was because of. Then again, it was none of my business who either of them slept with.

“Princess Mina,” I said, trying to keep things light, in case she had no plans to unpack whatever it was. “Is everything okay in your royal dominion?”

She squinched her dark-blue lined eyes shut. “Not really. I did it finally. Turned in the papers at the court office right before it closed.”

Papers? What kind of— oh. Her divorce papers. “Are you okay? Why didn’t you call me? I thought I was going with you.”

Mina opened her eyes and stood up straighter, putting her positivity back on. It had practically been worn through during the past few years. “I knew you were heading to your parents’ house, so I called Ziah instead. We got drunk and he ended up crashing at my place. Well, I got tipsy, and Ziah had a third of a beer and sat around looking conflicted about alcohol.”

The shock of her divorce news was wearing off. I could tell, because I’d gone directly back to imagining what could have happened after the imbibing. The resulting feelings weren’t exactly enjoyable. Even if it did happen, why would I feel bad about it? Ziah and Mina were my friends. She was finally getting divorced. In the unlikely scenario something serious had started between them last night, who was I to begrudge them? Hadn’t I been wondering lately why Ziah had never mentioned dating anyone?

“Well,” I said. “I’m, uh, glad he could be there for you.” I did my best to sound casual, friendly, and relaxed.

Except now she was giving me the Squint of Suspicion. “Simon? Why is this conversation suddenly strange?”

“It’s not strange. I’m glad he could be there for you.”

Mina’s dark eyes narrowed. “You said that already.”

“Okay, great. So, do you want me to redline the Miami contract with a twelve percent catering discount and send it back, or do you want to do it?”

“Twelve percent? You sexy beast! But you do it. I’m tired of you bitching about how I throw off the formatting, and also I have A/V requests to untangle for Omaha in two weeks.” Mina gave me a last suspicious look as she left my cube. I heard the creaks and rustles as she settled back in at her desk. She loved her chair, but a shot of WD-40 wouldn’t be amiss. I’d ask my Uncle Ivan to do it next time he came by for lunch. He adored Mina. I adored Mina. I adored Mina and Ziah. I would adore them both being happy. Together, if together was in fact what was happening. Or if he started dating someone who wasn’t Mina, I’d be happy about that too, on his behalf.

I tried to focus on my screen, but my eyes couldn’t quite decide where to look. If Ziah started dating, he might not come over as often to get his ass kicked at fighting games or help me get my money’s worth out of my Crunchyroll anime subscription, but we’d still hang out. Of course we would. Nothing to start feeling despondent about.



Luckily, the hotel contract didn’t need many tweaks. Just the cost savings for which Mina and I would humbly accept congratulations from our boss, and the requirement for a gluten-free table so people who needed it could eat without getting poisoned.

I heard Mina groan, exasperated, and this time it didn’t sound fake. She reappeared in the doorway to my cube. “You think I slept with Ziah, don’t you?”

Ugh, she’d gone psychic on me. “What are you talking about? And keep your voice down!”

“I did not sleep with Ziah!” she stage-whispered. “Simon. Look at me. Ziah and I are platonic friends, okay? I know you have significant shipping tendencies, but stop inventing a whole bunch of random shit in your head and freaking out.”

I shouldn’t have found it reassuring. I shouldn’t have been bothered in the first place. “I wasn’t freaking out.”

“You were absolutely freaking out. Simon…” She sighed dramatically. “There is nothing romantic or sexual going on between me and Ziah, and there never will be, okay? For many, many reasons.”

She gave me a stare that willed me to make some leap of comprehension. I flailed around for a minute and came up with nothing.
Mina rolled her eyes. “Enough with this. Besides the Omaha A/V stuff, we have nine thousand dentists arriving in Dallas in just over a month to get networked and educated and we don’t have rooms assigned to seminars yet.”

“You do realize that not every dentist in a state association attends the annual conference, right? We’re only responsible for the ones who register.”

She communicated her lack of appreciation for my clarification by rolling her eyes again, even more dramatically this time, and flouncing back to her cube.

After five minutes, I still couldn’t focus, and I realized I’d accidentally turned Mina’s big divorce announcement into me being weird about her apparently imaginary roll in the not-hay with Ziah. Not stellar friend behavior. So I pinged her on chat. Not on the company-provided Slack, because did I want Ziah’s boss in IT reading our personal conversations after what happened to the guy in Accounting last year? No, no I did not.

Simon: did you tell your mom already?

Mina: not yet
Mina: texting her bc I’m conflict-avoidant

Simon: I’ll talk to her when she calls if you want
Simon: I like her

Mina: she doesn’t like you
Mina: you know that, right?

Simon: not true, I’m super likable

Mina: nice to see your meds are working, self-confidence guy 😉
Mina: but she’s never forgiven you for me missing my chem test junior year of college

Simon: I had no way to know the hail was going to be bad enough to break a windshield!!!
Simon: anyway did you fill in the worksheet for KC wedding expo yesterday

Mina: yes I filled in the terrifyingly color coded worksheet even though thinking about weddings makes me want to throw myself off mt bonnell
Mina: texting my mother and telling her not to call me until after work, so get ready
Mina: thanks as always, I owe you

Simon: you NEVER owe me that’s not how it works!!!
Simon: also if you threw yourself off Mt. Bonnell I think you’d just roll down since it’s not really a mountain

When Mina’s desk phone rang three minutes later, she forwarded it to my extension.

“ITO Solutions, this is Simon Novotny.”

“Transfer me back to my daughter, Simon.”

I’d never heard Mina’s mother’s voice quite so rigid, like she was gritting her teeth but still somehow managing to speak clearly. Quite a skill. Hopefully she’d blow off some steam on the tennis court before Mina had to talk to her. I’d have been delighted to transfer the call back to Mina if her mom sounded at all sympathetic, but with the woman in this mood, that was a no-go.

“Mrs. Namkoong, hello! I’m so sorry, Mina’s busy.” Busy with a bar of raspberry white chocolate, judging by the sound of foil tearing in the next cube.

Mrs. Namkoong scoffed. “Min-a has you lying for her?”

I always loved hearing Mina’s name pronounced in Korean instead of the U.S. English version. It was like hearing my own in Czech. “Mrs. Namkoong, I’m so sorry, but Mina is working extremely hard this week. Speaking of which, congratulations on your promotion! You’re SVP now, right?”

I hoped it was decent bait, especially because I was completely sincere, but she didn’t take it. “Tell my daughter I’ll expect her here for dinner.”

“Always happy to pass along a message.”

She’d already hung up by the time I finished my sentence.

Hopefully Mina’s family would get over this divorce in time, especially if she found another Korean guy, but for a while things were probably gonna be tense. Her family life was way better than how Ziah’s situation sounded based on the minimal details he’d ever shared: big family, conservative, no contact any longer. That wasn’t Mina’s situation. Her parents loved her deeply and they were an important part of her life.

But of the three of us, I was the only one who’d lucked out with an uncomplicated family. The Novotny-Kolinski-Salcedo recipe was first and second generation Czechs linked up with some been-here-forever Mexican Americans, via my Uncle Ivan marrying my Tía Verónica, and the result was very chill. We all looked out for each other. When a disagreement arose, it was usually handled with a boisterous ten minute spirited discussion in some combination of English, Czech, and Spanish, depending on who was involved and who showed up to watch, and everything was fine afterwards.

An hour went by and I didn’t hear from Ziah. After two, I started to text him, but I couldn’t figure out what to say, even though I always texted Ziah during the day. As Mina had once dryly observed, heaven forbid I wait a full eight hours to get his opinion on a preposterous video game argument on NeoGAF or show him a clip of squirrels boxing. We also ate lunch together several times a week, especially when my parents or Tía Verónica had given me leftovers to share with friends.

It was unsettling to feel like he was out of contact. After I’d moved back into my apartment after living at my parents’ house for several months during Simon’s Big Depression Crash #3 last spring, Ziah had stuck by my side almost as much as he’d done while I was sick. We’d spent enough weekends at my place gaming until late hours for me to know what he looked like sleeping on my couch. His face was sweet in total relaxation and his pale bare feet inevitably snuck out from under the blanket my cousins’ Abuela Salcedo had crocheted for me. When Ziah and I didn’t order pizza, I cooked and we did the dishes together, him washing and me drying. He spectated at most of my soccer games and always told me I did a great job, especially when we lost.

I liked that. My life needed people, and he was one of the best people in it.

Which made me feel worse about how… okay, yes, how threatened I’d felt this morning. My jumps had been to conclusions I might have to admit were unsupported by the evidence, but even so, I should have felt glad for him. Ziah wasn’t much of a talker about his world outside of work, but from one or two stray comments, I didn’t get the feeling he wanted to be single forever. Yet in all the time I’d known him, I could remember zero mention of possible or actual dates.

Then again, how could Ziah date anyone when I was monopolizing so much of his time? The man had been there for me, kind and patient, while I’d been so sick I could barely sit at a table for a meal or pull on my clothes. I was way better for now, obviously, and I didn’t want to be the guy who repaid him by holding him back. I was overdue for diversifying how I spent my time.

So I put my phone in my top desk drawer to avoid the temptation to text him and got back to work.

Chapter 2

Tacodeli was crowded with hungry tech people in business casual. The line to order spilled out the door and along the orange-painted brick wall. I got in line at 12:25 behind two guys who I guessed might be from South Asia, or their families were. I enjoyed whatever gorgeous language they were speaking and the cool breeze equally.

Ziah had finally texted that he’d meet me here at 12:30 for our normal Thursday lunch. That had been a relief, but by 12:35 I was at the head of the line with no Ziah in sight. I went ahead and ordered. For him, his usual order of one Space Cowboy taco without the onions, one Heather without the lettuce, and a watermelon agua fresca. For me, two Papadulces so I could reassure Mamka I was eating vegetables and a Mexican Coke.

At 12:38, Ziah finally arrived. He’d done something to tame his hair since this morning, and it looked good. He looked good. I’d noticed a few men checking out his nerd cuteness before, in stores and restaurants and even at a couple of my soccer games. Had Ziah being overly involved in the care and feeding of Simon meant he hadn’t felt free to follow up? Maybe none of them appealed to him. What was his type? If I knew his type—

If I knew his type, I could help him meet someone.

It was as if a bell had rung in my head. My family had more than its statistical share of queer people in it (I wasn’t complaining), and they knew other queer people, and so on. Surely among all of us, we could find candidates who’d be intrigued by Ziah’s physical grace and uncanny ability to de-virus computers. Even guys who didn’t try to get their internet porn for free would probably appreciate that last bit. Finding Ziah a man would also help me not freak out, since I’d get to feel good about helping him. Win-win. Or win-win-win, if you included the guy who would get to date Ziah. Which I sure as hell did, because he was a catch.

The eligible bachelor in question frowned, but only mildly, when I handed over his drink and the two foil-wrapped tacos. “I’m sorry I was late. And thank you, but you know I can pay for my own food.”

I bumped his shoulder with mine as we waited for a seat to clear. “Saved time.” Such an excuse. My family lived to feed people. “There’s one seat free over there. You could sit in my lap?”

It was far from the first pretend-flirt he’d gotten from me, but the expression that flashed across Ziah’s face wasn’t one I’d ever seen before. When Mina and I had first met him, he’d been perpetually beleaguered. Over time, his default expression had become more neutral. Some of the old stress and weariness occasionally peeked through, but this wasn’t that. This was… nervous?

I opened my mouth to say something else, hoping it would be better, but two adjacent barstools against the window opened up and Ziah made a beeline for them. He hopped onto one and I took the other, putting my back to the wall so we were as close to facing each other as we could get.

My thoughts kept spinning while Ziah ignored me while practically inhaling half a taco. I reached for my drink, changed my mind and started unwrapping my first taco, and stopped again. He still hadn’t said anything. Ziah-Loves-Mina might have been made up by me, but something was off. The serious conversation between them. The extra contact in my cube this morning. Now this.

Everything had been fine yesterday. Ziah had stopped by my cube before he left work, which was not uncommon. He’d sat on my desk. I’d rested my knee against his dangling leg while we laughed together, slapped his thigh lightly a couple times when he gave me low-key sass. He’d left my cube with a friendly wave.

I struggled to hush the voice in my head that said today’s weirdness was my fault. I’d done something wrong, I’d never deserved his friendship in the first place, I’d been using him, I was selfish. It was easier to quiet the bad stuff to a minimum than it had been at some points in my past. As Mina had pointed out just hours ago, my current medication was working. Also, I literally hadn’t interacted with Ziah in between when he left work and this morning. So I couldn’t have done anything wrong.

The evil voice shared its ever-so-valuable opinion that Mina could have told him something about me to show him the truth. But anything important about me, Ziah already knew. My privacy had been a casualty of my depression, and I could have resented it, but the truth was I’d never cared very much. It had stolen other things that I was still pissed about, such as my sophomore year of college (the wasted tuition still burned) and probably five years off my father’s life when he and Ivan saved me from my only serious attempt in high school (belt, garage rafter, very scary). Compared to those losses, everyone knowing everything about me was no big deal.

So logically, I knew this wasn’t my fault. Couldn’t be.

I still needed to know what was going on so I didn’t keep telling myself the worst kind of stories anyway.

Ziah had polished off 1.25 delicious tacos by the time he noticed I wasn’t eating yet. He finally looked at me. “You okay?”

I could do this. I just needed to summarize the situation. Neutrally, as a starting point for a reality-based discussion. “I’m fine, but I can’t shake feeling like things have been weird between us today.”

“Everything’s fine, Simon.” I imagined this was how he sounded in work meetings. A little too bright and crisp.

It stung. He might not talk much about his life, but he’d never bullshitted me before.

“Ziah,” I tried again, but he cut me off.

“I’m sorry,” he said. The persona bled away. “You’re right, I just… It’s complicated. And last night was hard, with Mina. She was a wreck.”

I nodded. It had taken the poor gal five months after she moved out of Tae’s family’s house to finally file. She’d hoped her departure would be a wakeup call for the man she married a week after she graduated from college, none of us realizing his college partying was turning into something much worse. Sadly for everyone, especially Tae, Mina moving out hadn’t changed anything.

“She’ll be okay eventually,” I assured him. “We’ll find her a guy and they can have adorable babies. In the meantime, we could work on finding a man for you, yeah?”

Ziah almost choked on his agua fresca.

I continued while he calmed his esophagus. “Seriously, you’re an attractive young gay man in the most liberal city in Texas. You should be drowning in potential dude dates. Are you not meeting the right men? What’s your type? Give me something to work with.”

The guy had a napkin to his mouth, and his face was still a touch red. This was not what I’d been trying to provoke.

“You okay?” I asked, trying to sound like a person he could confide in. Also, trying to be quiet because I might have accidentally started a delicate conversation in a busy restaurant. “Sorry, I can tell you’re not. Is it because of the complicated thing? Whatever it is, you can tell me.” Might as well get it out in the open, even if it was going to hurt. I swallowed. “For example, if you’ve been hanging out with me more than you want to because you’re worried I’ll fall apart otherwise and it’s keeping you from having a life.”

Ziah looked positively stricken. He reached over and covered my hand with his. “Simon, no! When I’m spending time with you…” He stopped, took a quick but deep breath. “It’s not because I think you need someone watching you. I promise. And you have no idea how much better you’ve made my life, every day since I met you.”

I couldn’t stop the little warm burst in my chest from showing on my face. “Maybe you should tell me more about that, if I have no idea.”

Ziah took another one of those bracing breaths, but let go of my hand. My grin suddenly felt embarrassing. What had I said wrong?

“Simon,” he said, serious but suddenly and obviously nervous. “I wanted to—”

A tray across the room clattered to the ground, two large drinks full of ice hitting the floor with it and washing out across the floor. We were too far away to get splashed, but it would be a kindness to the staff for as many people to clear out as possible.

First, though, I wanted to know what Ziah had been about to say. I turned to ask him, but he was already rewrapping the rest of his food while getting to his feet.

“We should get out of their way,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “Can you bring that back to your office?”

I agreed, and again he went quiet as I gathered my stuff and we headed out. He did walk me to my car, and he held my food as I unlocked my door. I felt awkward as hell. Thursday was not turning out to be my favorite.

Ziah stopped me as I went to get in the car. “Actually, can we talk for a minute?”

Since communication was exactly what I’d been wanting, I nodded. I kept silent so I didn’t mess anything else up. Ziah motioned for me to pop all the locks. I slid into the driver’s seat while he went around.

“I’m sorry,” he said once we were both in. “I never meant to make you feel like you’re a project.”

The last thing I wanted was for him to feel guilty. “It’s okay. I just don’t want to hold you back, and you know in the absence of facts, I’m always going to decide something’s my fault.”

Ziah took a deep breath, let it out in a long sigh, and nodded. Then he turned to stare through the windshield instead of meeting my eyes. “It’s not your fault I have a hard time being honest with people. About my life.”

He was so quiet that I tried not to breathe. I had no idea what he meant, and I didn’t want to miss anything.

Maybe it was because he didn’t have to look at me while he said it, but suddenly words started tumbling out. “There’s so much you don’t know, and a lot of it isn’t… I haven’t always been the person I know I should be. I’m still not. I imagine trying to tell you, and I imagine how you would see me…”

Wait, what? He was afraid I would judge him?

“Ziah,” I said, “everyone makes mistakes. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect.”

I reached over to put my hand on his like he’d done for me in the restaurant. His hand was shaking slightly. I laced my fingers into his and squeezed.

“I tried dating,” he said, a bit hoarse. “When I first moved here from Utah after I graduated high school. I went to the eighteen and up nights at clubs. I didn’t know where else to meet people, but I didn’t know the rules. The way I was raised was so different. I mean, I knew it wouldn’t be like courting, but I didn’t realize if I met someone at a club they would be… expecting so much? Without hardly knowing each other.”

I stayed quiet hoping he’d keep going. It seemed like he needed to get this out.

“I did go out to dinner with a UT student once and I thought we hit it off, but the next day he casually mentioned that after we finished our date, he’d slept with someone else. I was stunned. Not that he did anything wrong, I just couldn’t get my expectations to match reality. I was uncomfortable with all the drinking too, and being offered drugs. I would tell people I was Mormon, and they’d make all these nasty comments, as if I wasn’t already aware of the problems, you know? They don’t know any of the positive aspects.”

He trailed off. I squeezed his hand again. I’d never heard Ziah talk this much about his past in one sitting. I didn’t know whether Ziah still identified as Mormon, but I’d never heard him say ex-Mormon either. Either way, hearing people talk smack about where you came from could be painful, and the culture clash he was describing must have been rough for a lonely teenager.

“What happened next?” I asked.

“After a while I guess I was tired of feeling like a kid. I also have to admit I was bitter about having lost everything that mattered to me with what felt like nothing to show for it.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Which was a terrible motivation for me to get online. How everybody looks on there and how they talk about people like they’re just parts…”

Ah yes, I knew all about the wall of abs. Plus, guy-on-guy dating apps could be full of ugly stuff, racism and anti-femme, anti-fat comments. I couldn’t handle being on most social media. No way I’d survive trying to use a hookup site, and it didn’t sound like the focus on the physical had been a great match for young Ziah either.

He smiled grimly. “I did find someone who was willing to… show me how things worked, you could say? Um, physical stuff. An older man. Neither of us had any illusions, but he was kind. Patient. After a couple of months he took a transfer to Colorado and told me two days before he left.” Ziah took his hand back. “It took a long time for me to accept that I’d done all that. With him.”

I hoped they’d played safe, but now wasn’t the moment to bring it up. I spoke as gently as I could. “You didn’t do anything to be ashamed of, Ziah. Exploring your sexuality with a cooperative partner isn’t wrong.”

“The way I was raised,” he said quietly, “it’s supposed to be special, with someone you care for. With him it was… educational. I mean, it was probably good for me, to let go of some of those expectations.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it. Watching him struggle with the guilt or shame or disappointment or a blend of all three, I wished so hard that young Ziah had found his way to a gay knitting circle or some other activity instead of party culture and then the internet. There were so many choices. Austin’s gay and lesbian film festival always needed volunteers, and I’d helped out a couple times. It was fun way to meet cool people.

“Thanks for trusting me with this,” I said, knowing this wasn’t the type of thing he told people every day. If he even had people to tell, aside from me and Mina. “Nothing you said changes my opinion of you.”

He nodded. “Simon, I… really care about you, but there’s so much, it’s all so complicated, and I… I wish I hadn’t missed him after he left? But I did, and I made some bad decisions after that. I don’t know how to talk to you about so many things.”

His voice had dropped almost to a whisper, as if he truly believed anything he could tell me would make me push him away. I must have been too wrapped up in my own struggle to make it clear how much he meant to me.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I responded softly. “You’re my best friend.”

It wasn’t hard to see that I’d said something wrong. Again. Ziah’s shoulders went tight, his expression turning to hard plastic.

“Thanks for listening. I guess we should get back to the office.” He opened the passenger door and took off.

Thursday. I was not a fan.

Content warnings

These are as spoiler-free as possible, but to the author it’s more important that folks who need content details can get them.

Does NOT occur (for clarity, given the blurb and trope list):

  • Child death or injury

On-page or significant discussion:

  • Sex on page, explicit (Chapters 9, 14, 19, 26)
  • Character with depression mentions past suicide attempt and hospitalization; references to symptoms, medication use, and Rx side effects including sexual dysfunction
  • On-page depressive episode (Epilogue)
  • Rejection by conservative family in adolescence due to orientation
  • Child custody conflicts due to orientation, police involvement (non-violent)
  • Loss of community (Mormon)
  • Internalized homophobia / struggle with being gay in a hostile world
  • Biphobia
  • Grief
  • Death in a car accident (off-page, no injuries described)
  • Child losing a parent
  • Adult character’s mother is unexpectedly hospitalized (positive outcome)
  • Divorce from a spouse with severe alcoholism
  • Social drinking

Off-page or brief mention:

  • Food policing and weight judgment by past partners and current physician (no weights or sizes are specified)
  • Dating apps, negative aspects of gay hookup culture
  • Drug use at clubs
  • Drunk driver killed a teenage friend
  • Juvenile vandalism leading to community service sentencing
  • Infection from tattooing needles (mention of risk, no details)
  • Vomiting (one brief reference)