THE buzzing sound was getting on Alejandro Moreno’s nerves, but he held onto his patience now that he knew the source. He was bent over the petunia bed, weeding, the sun hot on his back, his long hair in a braid over one shoulder, his muscles aching since he’d only just started working this garden and there was a lot to do. Mr. Appleby, the fussy head of the garden board, had been right in this case—whoever had done the job here before Alejo had been one lazy cabron.
Alejo started this kind of work on people’s yards, gas station strips of greenery, and condo grounds as part of a landscaping crew in college. In fact, he’d liked it so much, he’d wanted to pursue a master of science in landscape design. But then his mamita had her first episode. Alejo was the man of the family since his father was dead. He had to do what was right: drop out of college, take care of her and his brother, Jose. Fortunately he didn’t need any special courses to take a summer job working for the city.
At first, the work wasn’t so bad. He worked in greenhouses seeding flowers to be planted in various common places, something he’d done all over town. He never thought he’d get a patch of his own, but right away he knew there was something different about this job. The wording and presentation of the assignment were very… odd. He’d received a scroll—rolled up and tied with ribbon—naming him the new guardian of Autumn Glade, a strange half-acre garden that, apparently, no one else wanted.
It took him less than two days to find out why.
“THERE’S a big-assed snail in there, you know.” A now-familiar and annoying silken voice interrupted Alejo’s reverie. “You almost stepped on it!”
Alejo sat back with a sigh, flexing the muscles he didn’t need a gym to maintain because of landscaping in the summer, construction jobs in the winter. He flipped his braid out of his eyes, looking around to see if he could spot his critic. “Yeah, I can see the trail. Don’t suppose you’ll tell me where?” He cocked a brow.
“Sorry, it’s the wee folk code. Can’t help the big, stupid people out.” There was a thread of insolence in the voice. Alejo would bet part of his family’s grocery bill that his visitor envied him just a little for being human.
“Yeah, wouldn’t want that.” Alejo grimaced.
“You look played out for a young lad.” The speaker had a slight accent, shaded Irish in intonation.
“I’m not played out. And I’m not a lad. I’m twenty-three, Soy majo—I’m hot, yes? And gardening is hard work. A lot of bending over and getting on your knees.”
Laughter. “I would think you’d be used to that.”
Alejo flipped his companion the bird before he found the snail shell and pulled it gently free of the underside of a winter pansy.
From his place propped on the bird bath, Fane, all nine inches of him, including his delicate webbed iridescent purple wings, gave Alejo a wary look. “Guess you’ll kill him now. Or maybe sprinkle salt on him, like the last gardener.”
Alejo shook his head. “You’d be wrong, mosco bonito,” he said, taking private amusement from calling the fae a pretty fly, since he was that, but irritating like one too.
He placed the snail in a small bag with the other assorted bugs and slugs he’d found as he dug through the raised beds, repairing the crumbling wood that divided them from the grass. This was a major task, and something he knew would take him at least a couple of weeks, pulling out rotting wood that circled the grassy area and the pebbled path, digging deeper, and replacing the wood with fresh. He already sent in a request for the planks, and to his surprise was assured, somewhat crankily, by Mr. Appleby that someone would deliver them the following week. It seemed the city board would give him just about anything if he kept working this particular garden.
The fairy demanded in an appalled tone, “You aren’t gonna eat that snail, are you?”
“Don’t you have anything better to do? Like… I don’t know, make nectar, or whatever guy fairies do?” Alejo pushed back damp, escaped strands of his waist-length hair. He was sweaty from the sun and he’d been followed around and mocked all day by the little guardian of the garden he was hired to care for. No wonder every other gardener quit! Although the last one went too far in trying to set fire to the sanctuary, Alejo could see how the resident imp might have driven him to it.
“Can’t believe I’m talking to an actual fairy,” Alejo grumped, still wishing he could go back to blissful ignorance about their existence. Fane scared the fuck out of him when he appeared like a streaking hummingbird, getting into Alejo’s face on his second day at the job and scolding him on how much he removed while pruning an aging apricot climbing rose.
“Gets boring being a fae. No one wants to talk to me, always thinkin’ they’re going mad,” Fane mused, leaning back lazily to let the sun warm his body. “Saw you have a lady in that locket you wear.”
Alejo paused, fingering the old fashioned heavy silver of the heart-shaped pendant he wore that was the twin of one he’d given to Alicia. He felt familiar pride that he had such a popular girlfriend even as uneasiness worked under his breastbone. He shoved it aside.
“How about you brag about how much she likes to fuck you? That’s always entertaining. You can pretend you’re virile for a human.”
Alejandro freed his braid, shaking out his long hair in a silken black waterfall. It was near closing time, and he thought maybe he’d stand under the garden hose in the greenhouse and cool off soon. As he climbed to his feet, he wondered how he looked to the fae, browned already because of his Hispanic heritage, six foot two, muscled but thin with serious sherry brown eyes, wearing only the cutoffs he lived in from spring to fall if he had his way. He had abandoned his T-shirt hours ago.
He probably looked pretty ordinary for a human. Not fancy, since he liked things simple, straightforward, even his appearance. His hair had grown so long because he forgot to get it cut, despite his mamita’s hints. But he liked the feel of it against his skin, so he let it grow.
“I’m not going to talk about my sex life with a guy who isn’t even as tall as my dick!”
“At least you have a sex life!” Fane lamented, and then his amber eyes widened with speculation—the fairy was terribly curious about Alejo for some reason. “And you must have a nice cock,” he said, eyes sparkling.
“Joder!” Giving the wee one a glare, Alejo followed the pebbled path to the compost house, a little lean-to he’d slapped together. He didn’t want to discuss his innocence with the fae. He knew people assumed that, at the age of twenty-three, he’d been around and he’d had plenty of opportunities, but he had reasons for preferring abstinence.
Fane followed, whizzing like a large dragonfly, as if stirred up over what Alejo would do next. Well, it wouldn’t take long before the fairy saw for himself.
Alejo took the time his first day to dig a deep pit for compost. Mr. Appleby thought it was a waste of his time—all this newfangled recycling was bullshit to him—but Alejo believed that a garden wasn’t just pretty flowers and statuary. It needed support, and that started with the basics.
Apparently Fane had watched him shovel all day long, stripped down to his T-shirt and wearing nothing but jeans with holes in them and heavy gloves. He’d told Alejandro that his sweat had smelled earthy, like a man used to the outdoors, so that’s why he introduced himself to the new gardener. Apparently not many humans smelled so good to a fey person.
In fact, for some reason that Alejandro couldn’t see, there must have been something about him, an ordinary seasonal gardener, that made Fane follow him around all day long. He did so right up until the moment the big man strode out of the walled garden, and then Fane would settle on a branch wearing a disgruntled expression.
According to Fane’s bragging, he’d already driven off the last twelve gardeners. They were all lazy or loud-mouthed, and one tried to capture Fane because he lusted after him!
Fane got quiet after he related that last bit, and Alejo paused in his digging, tense, but then Fane admitted he’d hidden from that one on the night he showed up in the garden after hours with a butterfly net and a bell jar.
Even though the little one was a pain in the ass, rude, and nosy as his brother, Jose, Alejo had been relieved Fane hadn’t been hurt by the amorous former gardener.
He finished raking up the compost and a few garter snakes wriggled free, vacating the steaming mess. The pile was a warm, safe nest for them. One of the snakes was missing a bit of its tail, maybe run over by a car, and it had found refuge in Alejo’s mash of leaves, twigs, and garden scraps.
Fane smiled, seeing them. “It’s a trip riding one of those snakes through the garden,” he shared. “If you find a good-sized one they can really zip along at a good clip.”
Shaking his head at this story, Alejo carefully emptied the bag with all the creatures he’d gathered into the pit.
“Won’t they eat the flowers and stuff? I mean, shouldn’t you just….” Fane drifted off, as if not sure why he was playing Devil’s advocate and as if he couldn’t make out this strange young human.
Alejo sensed Fane was wary of humans because they could easily hurt a fairy. Only his speed and his magic—not that Alejo was convinced he actually possessed any, but his mother and brother were sure a fae had to have it—seemed to have kept him safe.
“Maybe, but you can’t fight nature all together,” Alejo noted serenely. “I’ll just have to do more work in the beds and bring them back here if I find them. But there’s lots of decaying vegetation, so they should be okay. I was even going build a little wall around it and line it with copper tape. It doesn’t hurt them, but it keeps them inside.”
“You’d do all that rather than squish them?” Fane blinked, zipping onto a closer branch. Alejo studied him, taking in his shaggy black hair and strange glowing amber eyes. His skin was brown, but it glittered under the sun. He was nude, since he claimed no real fairy would ever hide his manly attributes—and Fane was proud of his.
Alejo flushed, but somehow Fane’s openness made him want to reciprocate, even if he was used to being self-contained, losing himself in abstract plans. “When I was a kid, I was walking home and saw a snail some other kids had used their shoes to squish all over the sidewalk. I, uh, stopped and gathered it up with leaves and buried it.”
The fairy stared at Alejo intently. He opened his mouth as if to say something but hesitated. Well, it was pretty dumb story, Alejo guessed, still blushing. He’d never shared it with anyone.
Alejo finished working with the compost, dusted off his hands, and rubbed his back, which had that stretchy-sore feeling. “Another day over,” he said, looking toward the setting sun.
Suddenly Fane hovered close, startling Alejo.
“Hey! Que haces?”
The fairy landed on Alejo’s left hand, then knelt, and kissed where a fresh callous had blistered and was giving Alejo some pain when he gripped the handle of his rake.
Alejo blinked, eyes dazzled as for a second his hand was engulfed in a kaleidoscope of mad, heated jewel colors, a rainbow that burned—
Then the wound was gone and so was the fairy.
He looked around but didn’t see Fane anywhere.
“Wonder why he did that for me?” Alejo mused aloud, rubbing his rough, large hand against his bare leg.
“I didn’t do it for you. Did it for that snail you buried,” a voice said from somewhere in the garden.