The blurb of this novella from He’s Come Undone caught me on this one: When best friends Yariel and Hatuey’s gaming night turns into an unexpected and intense hook up, Hatuey can’t wait to do it again. Yariel is less certain–the major leaguer might seem to all the world like he has a heart of stone, but he’s been carrying a torch for his friend for years, and worries this will ruin the most important relationship in his life. I went in expecting a friends-to-lovers, and maybe some nerdery or geekery (turns out the gaming night was video games, but whatever), but it wasn’t long before I hit a wall of something I really, really shy away from: the set up for this novella is a Gay-for-You; in the first moments, Yariel feels like he’s completely messed things up because Hatuey is straight.
I considered stopping, but I know it’s possible to write a gay-for-you that’s more of an out-for-you and doesn’t drop the straight-men-are-just-sexier garbage, and I’ve been listening to Herrera’s Dreamer series on audio and really enjoying them, so I took a deep breath and kept going. First, the good (and I want to be clear here, the good is really good): the chemistry between these two, and the building blocks of a life-long friendship, combine into a great burn. They want to be together, but Yariel is in his own way for multiple reasons (none of which he seems capable of expressing to Hatuey), and Hatuey is so very willing to do anything to make this work (other than directly telling Yariel that, since he believes—and maybe rightly so—that Yariel needs to get there himself). Herrera also doesn’t downplay the impact of being out as a major sporting professional, nor does Hatuey completely disregard how this may affect his own life if he does move forward as Yariel’s lover in public. They do a will-they/won’t-they dance that feels built on their own baggage rather than invented drama, and there’s also a hinted-at issue from the past that is revealed closer to the end that makes Yariel’s hesitation make a lot more sense, too. And it’s a romance, so you know the will-they is going to win. That’s the deal. And if you’re a lover of angst alongside your sizzle, Herrera delivers a truckload of both within the short turnaround of the novella.
One last time, I want to say I did end up enjoying this almost entirely, because I’m also going to mention the thing that left me really frustrated in the “but he’s straight” plot: there are zero uses of the word bisexual or pansexual in the whole story. We get “curious” as a negative (in the sense that, curiosity sated, Yariel might thereafter lose Hatuey), and there is a single line, “So you’re going to use 1950s gay-slash-straight bullshit to talk me out of what I know I’m feeling? Is that what we’re doing now?” from Hatuey himself that at least kinda-sorta references the non-binary nature of sexuality, but Yariel has multiple conversations with friends about Hatuey, and the word is never raised. Most curiously, this included talking with a friend I think I’m supposed to infer is bisexual or pansexual himself (at least, it sounds like he cares about the woman he has an off-again, on-again relationship with, and he also has hooked up with Yariel), where even just a single “Dude, maybe he’s bi like me?” would have been the perfect open door to avoid what otherwise just struck me as omission. That said, I know Gay-for-You is a thing I react strongly to, and your mileage may vary, and honestly, the rest of the story is strong enough that I otherwise had a good time.