Learning to Breathe

an excerpt

Chapter One

"Remy! I'm going to AJ's for dinner. Want to come?"

Fresh out of the shower, Remy wiggled into shorts and called over his shoulder. "No, go ahead."

Avery poked his head into the bedroom. "Really, he would love to have you over."

"I know." Remy walked up to his closest friend in the whole world and gave him a kind kiss on the cheek. "But you two haven't seen each other all week with him on call. Go have some you time with your man."

Avery looked as though he was going to insist, but Remy flattened a hand to his chest and cut him off. "Go. I'll be fine. I know how to burn my own dinner."

Avery shook his head but relented. "Won't be late. Leave on the outside light."

"I will. Now, shoo."

Avery hesitated then finally vanished. Remy sighed and dug through his shirts, tugging on something thin. He didn't fully understand the relationship Avery and AJ were in, but if they were happy and knew what they were doing, who was he to judge?

Funny how things happened, for the both of them this year.

First Avery bought this house. Remy had to admit it was gorgeous, and he loved the fireplace. Then, when Avery had pipe failures literally days before he was due to move in, luck was on his side to have a neighbor, AJ, who not only knew how to fix those pipes, but also knew how to make Avery happy. Of course, AJ had to screw it up, on Avery's birthday of all days. Then there was the wannabe bank robber. Remy was sure he'd aged a few years himself that day.

AJ had come to the rescue after the police had done their thing and had stolen Avery away for a few days to get over it. Oh, and to kiss ass and apologize for breaking Avery's heart. Remy was glad for that. He'd hated seeing Avery hurting over the way AJ had treated him.

Remy closed his bedroom door and sauntered to the kitchen.

That day at the bank hadn't been crazy just for Avery. Ben, AJ's asshole of an ex had also shown up. Remy was pretty sure AJ had called him to come to the bank that day.

When Ben had plowed through the police line to check on Remy, he'd nodded dumbly and just asked--shh, begged--to get out of there. Granted, Remy had been in shock, so he hadn't complained too hard. Okay, not at all. He'd just been a victim of an attempted robbery!

Ben hadn't stuck around for long. Made sure he was home. That he wasn't freaking out, then that he ate. Remy had seen Ben a couple of times at AJ's during that whole debacle where AJ thought Avery was too young, or AJ thought he was too old, whichever it was. It was probably the only reason Remy had allowed himself to be coddled like that. He knew who Ben was, at least to some degree.

Oh! And then to just keep slathering on the bullshit, the rental he'd lived in for almost three years had sold and he had a month to find a new home.

And that was how he'd become Avery's roommate. Remy had never had a friend who'd stuck with him through thick and thin the way Avery had.

That had been three weeks ago. He'd settled in with Avery, forming a sort of brotherly bond. Avery and AJ were still dating, happily, that he could tell, which was all Remy cared about. The next time AJ hurt Avery he wasn't going to stop with a hook to the jaw.

It wasn't unusual to spend evenings alone on the nights AJ was home. Remy honestly didn't mind. He knew Avery wasn't there to entertain him and he understood his friend had a better choice in his actual boyfriend.

What he wasn't expecting while being home alone was for someone to knock heavily.

That wasn't Avery. He wouldn't knock at his own door.

He scooted close to peek through the viewer. And gasped. "Ben!" He swung the door wide. "What the hell happened?"

Ben leaned against the doorjamb, holding a towel to his face. "I didn't want to bother AJ. I know Avery is over there. Can I come in?" Dark eyes rose, pain making them glitter. "Please?"

"Try not to bleed all over the place. Go to the kitchen."

Ben didn't make a sound, simply doing as told with stumbling feet. Checking outside, he knew either Avery or AJ would notice Ben's truck if they looked. Shaking his head, he shut the door.

Ben confused Remy. He was this big, brawny guy with dark black hair and piercing eyes, but all Remy had seen was a kitten. He wore a huge silver belt buckle around a tight waist and muscle shirts that exposed tanned arms. But this hulk of a guy had been nothing but tender and gentle with Remy the day of the robbery attempt at the bank.

Shaking his head, he went to see what had happened. "Why didn't you go the emergency room?"

"Because it would have meant I'd have to report one of my own guys, and I couldn't do it." His voice was nasally because of the pressure and obvious swelling from his temple downward.

Remy's reaching hand paused and he pursed his lips. "A guy on your construction crew belted the shit out of your face and you didn't want to report him." See? Shit like that confused the fuck out of Remy.

He carefully removed the towel Ben had been using. Thankfully most of the blood was coming from Ben's nose. "Tip back. I think you're going to live. We won't have to amputate."

"Ha ha." Then Ben groaned.

"So what happened?" Remy quickly balled up ice in a fresh cloth and settled it to the side of his face. There were scratches but nothing needing stitches. His face was just a collection of blues that most didn't wear without a mask or stage makeup.

"It was Ignacio. The kid has a mouth on him." Ben took a breath and spoke slower. Pain was causing twitches around his jaw. "He's only saying what he's been hearing for the last nineteen years. Well, a couple of guys had finally had enough and jumped him. I had to pull them apart. I just wasn't fast enough. Someone swung a broken board and I caught it. That person will be fired in the morning."

"You should go to the ER anyway. Something might be fractured." He threaded fingers through the hair at Ben's temple but luckily didn't run across any breaks in the skin. "You've got busted vessels in your eye already."

Ben closed them.

"He clocked you hard, whoever it was, didn't he?"

"Home run caliber."

Remy caressed Ben's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

"Thanks for doing this. I've been seeing double since I left the job site. I didn't want to risk going far."

"Okay. That's it. I'm going to change clothes and we're going to get your head and maybe your brain looked at. Seriously? You were driving with double vision?"

"Not seeing double now," Ben pointed out a bit forcefully. He then grimaced.

"Yeah, and I'm totally going to believe that. Stay put." Remy would have whapped him upside the head, but figured he was in enough pain that it would probably make him fall unconscious.

Ben grumbled but rested with an arm against the table.

Remy debated calling Avery across the street, but nixed it. He didn't want to bother them either. A quick change and he helped a shaking Ben back outside.

"Please don't make me ride in your imitation car."

"It's a hybrid. Hater."

Ben huffed but didn't put up a larger fight as Remy lowered him into it. "Put the seat back if it's too close." He wanted to smack the door shut, but being a forgiving soul, didn't. This time.

He pulled away and aimed for the hospital. "You know they're going to give you pain pills for an elephant and keep you home for at least a few days. Especially with the goofy eyesight thing going on."

Ben lolled on the head rest. At least he was managing to keep the ice in place. "We'll see," was all Ben offered in reply.

Remy pulled to a stop in front of the ER doors and again swung an arm around the other man to help him stay upright. "Can I get someone to look at my friend?" he called. "He tried to stop a fight with his face."

The approaching nurse snickered. After slipping on gloves, he quickly took Ben out of Remy's hands. "Sure."

"I succeeded," Ben muttered.

"I can see that," the nurse said. He sat Ben down on a bed. "Let me call the duty doc. You're going to need X-rays."

"He's been seeing double," Remy was quick to offer.

A dark eyebrow flew up. "Okay. And an MRI." He did a scalp check with deft fingers. "Do you think you're able to lie down?"

"I think so."

Ben managed it, just slowly.

"I need to go move the car. Don't argue with the staff," Remy cautioned.

Ben waved a hand. "Yes, dear," came the mocking reply.

Remy rolled his eyes. "Drug his ass for that."

The nurse bit his lip to not laugh. "We'll be a few minutes. Go ahead."

Remy dashed out of the ER and parked his car before the hospital Gestapo tagged it for loitering.

His phone rang as he was walking into the ER, and with a quick glance to see if anyone was going to tackle him for using it, he moved over to a corner. "Hello?"

"Where are you?" Avery was freaked.

"I'm fine. Ben showed up, and he's going to be okay." Remy gave a quick rundown of the details. He could hear Avery's gears turning so fast, they whirred. "I'm going to hang out until we find out what he needs to do then I'm going to take him home."

"Are you sure you're both okay? AJ spotted the truck and no car, and when no one answered the house phone, I went home."

"And you found the bloody towel." That didn't even require detective work. "Stay with AJ. I'll be home soon."

"You're sure?"

"Yes." Remy gazed heavenward. One at a time, okay? "Enjoy your night with AJ."

"Okay. If I beat you home, I'll leave the light on."

"Thanks. Oh, the doc just walked in. Talk in a bit."

He hung up and half-jogged to the partition where they were taking care of Ben.

"I'm Doctor Teller. Isaac here says you tried to stop a fight with your face," he said, addressing Ben.

This time Ben merely nodded, and even that made him wince.

"Okay. Time for tests." Side rails were raised into place. "Start with the MRI and then do the X-rays. If he's having vision problems, we don't want to miss any swelling."

Isaac entered information on an electronic tablet and set it at Ben's feet. "This will take a while, if you want to wait in the outer area." Locks snapped and the bed lurched.

For no other reason than he knew Ben would appreciate knowing he wasn't being dumped, he reached for a hand and squeezed. "I'll be here until they send you home."

"Thanks, Remy," he managed haltingly, voice thready with pain.

Remy blinked as they wheeled him away from the ER.

That was the first time Ben had ever called him by name.