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“What’s going on?” Mateo tilted his head and tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
When that didn’t work, he angled it the other way and still couldn’t come up with a solid reason why Carlos’s backyard looked like a clown exploded all over it. With the in-ground pool set off to the left, the entertainment space veered from the double set of sliding doors to wrap around the right side. Normally, it boasted rectangular table and half dozen matching chairs, a fire pit with more seating, and an outdoor kitchen that housed a ridiculously massive grill.
Set under an enormous screen enclosure, it was one of his favorite places. The hominess of it worried him at first, much like everything else in the Padilla household—it’s residents right at the top of the list—but he was getting used to it. Or trying to. They kept throwing him curveballs, and he flubbed more than he caught. Big or small, it usually didn’t matter, but this one felt more like a lob to the head.
“You’re early!” Claudia and Camila exclaimed in unison, their matching glares reinforcing the idea that this—whatever this was—was somehow his fault.
Mateo objected. No one could blame him for the canopy of balloons that covered every inch of the screens ceiling. Nor could they accuse him of hanging miles of colorful streamers or funny little signs. And they absolutely could not pin the eight-foot banner on him. It didn’t matter if his name was on it, he wasn’t responsible.
“Hey, be careful.” With the two girls looking back at him, neither were paying attention to what they were doing—hanging the offensive banner-and when Camila’s ladder teetered beneath her, Mateo lunged for the base. “Are you crazy? You could’ve fallen.”
“Please, like you would’ve let that happen,” Claudia scoffed and shared a knowing smirk with her sister. Their faith in him was humbling and strange, but he didn’t argue. The truth was, he would fall on the sword before either of them got hurt on his watch. Not that he was on watch or anything, they were too old for that, and they had a father. A really great one, so really, he was unnecessary in the grand scheme of their lives.
“You’re thinking too hard again.” Camila’s knowing tone broke through his thoughts. Their ability to read him was as strange as their misplaced faith, their open acceptance, and the happiness they displayed whenever he showed up. No, he was lying to himself if he thought he was getting used to it. Mateo wasn’t sure he ever would.
“Just…finish and come down so you can explain this nonsense to me.”
With matching eye rolls, they countered with, “Obviously, we’re throwing you a birthday party.”
They continued to mutter to each other, no doubt poking fun at him before they were happy with the banner. By the time their feet hit the pavement, he was done. He would’ve argued that there was anything obvious about what they were doing, despite the glaring signs, but he kept quiet. Balancing his gratitude for their efforts with the melancholy of remembering the last person who cared about his birthday, Mateo struggled to find the right words without ruining it for them.
When none came, Mateo looked around the space again and wondered who they were expecting to fill all the chairs. Beyond the twins, Carlos and Jorge—who was still up at school and wouldn’t bother coming back just for this—he couldn’t think of anyone who would take the time out of their day to celebrate him.
“Mattie,” Carlos called his name from the open sliders and Mateo braced himself before turning. As much as he loved their family time and the way the kids included him, the struggle not to throw himself at the man’s feet in front of his daughters was a real problem. Especially today.
One of Carlos’s hard rules was that Mateo had to communicate what he wanted and needed, no matter what it was. Sometimes, getting the words out was the hardest thing in the world. At others, the need was so desperate that he was willing to say anything, do anything so that Carlos could help him. That’s why he was here early, and while he regretted ruining the surprise for the girls, Mateo wasn’t sorry it was happening when no one else was around.
Just thinking about what might have happened had he walked in on a yard full of guests made him cringe and when Carlos offered his hand, Mateo grabbed onto it like a lifeline. “Come inside, cub. We’ll let the girls finish getting everything ready.”
Following eagerly, he threw what he hoped was an apologetic glance over his shoulder and let himself be led inside. Carlos didn’t stop until they were in the bedroom, the door closing softly behind them. In silence, Carlos wrapped around him until he was locked down and secure. Safe. It was like a release valve, and the words just started pouring out.
“She was there.” Mateo grabbed fistfuls of Carlos t-shirt and sobbed. “I woke up, and she was there. Singing. She sucked at it, you know? But she did it. Every year. Woke me up and sang. No matter how many times I tried to put the pillow over my head, she’d tug it off and sing louder. I complained every time, but I loved it.”
Though the rambling had no context and shouldn’t have made sense, Carlos understood him. He always did, even when the words and the meanings didn’t match. “I’m sure she knew.”
“How could I forget that?” Like so many other memories of his mother, that one was buried—beaten down beneath the anger of his father. Since meeting Carlos and his kids, they’d been coming back at random. At least, most of them. This one…the reason was apparent, though it didn’t make it better. Remembering hurt, knowing he forgot was worse, but realizing he would never hear her sing again was like losing her all over again.
“Your girls are throwing me a birthday party.” Mateo lifted his head so that Carlos could see his face. “I need you to help me not ruin it.”
He’d come here to beg Carlos to help him forget. Oh, he knew that would get rejected right out of the gate, but it would open the conversation and together they would figure out what he really needed. Sadly, he didn’t always know, but as long as he was articulating, Carlos would do everything in his power to make things better. To make it stop hurting. That need changed, became something even more urgent, when he saw what the twins were doing.
“They planned a party for me.” It was going to take longer than they had for him to wrap his head around such a gift. “I don’t want them to think they did something wrong because I’m a basket case.”
Carlos sighed, no doubt because he’d said something negative about himself, and gave a small shake of his head. “If the party makes you uncomfortable, we’ll cancel it.”
“No way! And disappoint the twins? Carlos, no.” From what he could see, they really worked hard on it. He wouldn’t take that away from them. “No, it’s not happening.”
“So, you said several times.” Then Carlos smirked and teased, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a little excited about the idea.”
“Uh, no.” He wasn’t. Not exactly. Most people thought he was a loner and if he showed up anywhere, it was usually to work an angle. Parties just for the sake of having a good time were few and far between, but that didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy them when they were for someone else. For himself? “It’s been years.”
“I know, cub, but maybe it’s time.” Carlos watched him steadily, letting the idea of it sink in. Was it time? Mateo honestly wasn’t sure, but he trusted Carlos to know what was right for him and to keep him from fucking it up for everyone else.
“Okay.” Mateo knew Carlos would want to hear his agreement, even though he was pretty sure the man was a mind reader. Somewhere along the way, Carlos had developed a direct line to the often baffling and mysterious place that was his brain. He should have run screaming a long time ago. Instead, he stayed, welcomed all his crazy and helped him unravel the confusion one memory at a time.
With a pleased smile, Carlos led him over to the bed where they settled together against the headboard. Anytime they were near a mattress or, really, any flat surface, his dick perked up, but he knew Carlos wouldn’t fuck him yet. Where Mateo might have once used sex as a tool or a salve, Carlos used it as positive reinforcement. If they worked through this, Carlos would blow his mind. Until then, that’s exactly the part of him they’d work on.
“Tell me about Renata singing. I don’t remember her voice being that bad.” And just like that, remembering wasn’t so painful at all.
Want more? You can find Part 2 of Mateo’s Birthday on my Patreon (subscription required).