“Cole, why on earth do you stay with him? He’s such a crybaby.”

I clenched my fists and walked away before I hurt the guy who was now a former friend. It wasn’t the first time someone had asked me, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear, especially considering I’d once thought of Pete as one of my better pals. The question he asked had been tossed out by more than a few people, which led to the end of several friendships, because no way would I let someone belittle him. The ‘him’ in question was my husband of three years, Daniel ‘Danny’ Hayes.

Our initial meeting was such a fucking turnoff. It was at a mutual friend’s wedding where I was the best man to the guy who’d been part of my life since we met in middle school. I was there when he met Celia Vander Vale. The sparks between the two was instantaneous, and I knew one day we’d be in this position. Miles told me there was no one in his life he’d prefer to have with him as his best man, and I was only too happy to say I’d stand there as he took his first steps into his new life.

When Celia said, “I do” to my buddy, Miles, someone in the party wailed like a lost soul. It was so goddamn annoying, but Celia flicked her gaze to Miles who gave her a sharp nod. She turned and stalked to the blond guy in the front pew and knelt beside him, cradling his hand in hers. She whispered to him and he murmured something back. She glanced to Miles and tilted her head at the guy beside her. It was so surreal. Who stops in the middle of the ceremony like that? Yet, shockingly, Miles rushed to her and dropped down to his knee by them.

The rest of the church was stunned into silence, and I could hear the guy apologizing, saying how sorry he was, and that he was ruining their wedding and should go. I thought that was the best idea, but Celia and Miles both told him how sad they’d be if he left. He swore he tried to hold it in, but Celia assured him it was fine. If it needed to come out, then you let it out.

Another round of hugs ended with the guy saying he was sorry again, and then he urged them to go back. They did, but Celia never stopped watching the guy. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him. Tears stained his cheeks and he swiped at them constantly as they finished the ceremony. Afterward, at the reception, I pulled Miles to the side and asked what the heck that had been about. He smiled and told me that Danny was Celia’s best friend and adopted brother, had been since the day they met. He told me they were a matched set, and he knew that marrying her meant he was marrying into her family as well. He insisted Danny was sweet and could make Celia smile, and he was totally fine with having him in their lives.

I couldn’t understand it at all. But whatever. I didn’t need to. It wasn’t as if I’d be seeing him again after this.

Or so I thought.

A few weeks later, Miles and Celia invited me to dinner at their new place. They said it was a small, intimate gathering of four people, and that I didn’t need to dress up or bring anything more than myself. Of course I said yes, because Miles knew just how I liked my steaks cooked. Imagine my surprise when I showed up at their door promptly at six on Friday night, only to have it opened by Danny.

“Hi, you must be Cole.” He held out a hand. “I’m Danny.”

He looked very different than he had at the wedding. His blond hair was immaculate. His cheeks were more like strawberries and cream, instead of the beet red they’d been last time, his eyes were a gentle, sparkling blue, instead of bloodshot red, and his nose? It was pert, slightly upturned, and actually kind of cute when not crusted in snot.

“Good to meet you,” I said, taking the proffered hand in my own. I was taken in by how small and soft it was. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk at the wedding.”

He shook his head. “Oh, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I was a mess.”

At least he admitted it. He stepped back and gestured for me to enter. The place was great, and I could see influences of both Celia and Miles in the design. The kitchen had to be Miles’s domain, as it had a grill top, a high end oven with five burners, and a refrigerator I drooled over as soon as I laid eyes on it. It had a computer display, showing what was in the fridge, plus how much was in each item. It also served ice, water, and had space in the door for the juices Miles loved.

The living room was obviously something Celia, a film buff, put together. An eighty-five inch screen dominated one wall, with a dark jade sofa, loveseat, and two side chairs surrounding it. I could see the speakers Miles had asked me to help him pick up. Enormous didn’t even begin to describe them. It was a good thing their apartment complex had only eight units, and that each was billed as sufficiently soundproof, because these bad boy speakers would test that theory.

“Can I take your coat?” Danny asked.

I sloughed it off and handed it to him. “Thank you.”

He gave me a smile brighter than any I’d seen, except for when Miles proposed. It was a tossup who was happier, him or Celia.

“Would you like something to drink?”

“I don’t drink alcohol,” I informed him, though not willing to share the details of my lack of sobriety and the accident I’d caused. “Can I get a Coke?”

He smiled before he dashed off in the direction of the kitchen. Danny was so different here than he had been at the wedding. He was bright and bubbly, like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. I was seeing him in a new light. Maybe it was just the wedding that brought out the feelings in him. Or maybe it was seeing Celia moving on to the next part in her life.

“Cole!” Miles shouted as he came into the room. “Glad you could make it.”

“Me too. Thank you for inviting me.”

He waved me off. “You’re always welcome in our home. I see Danny is getting you a soda, so I don’t have to play host.”

I stuck my tongue out at him as Danny came back and handed me my drink, then he rushed off again. “You know damn good and well, Celia would have been doing the job. You’re a great cook, but you absolutely suck when it comes to being cordial.”

He sighed. “I know. She’s great. I’m a schlub.”

Which he wasn’t. Miles was gregarious, but only when he was really comfortable with people. If he didn’t know you, it took him forever to warm up. Once he did, though? You would never find a better friend. That’s why it kind of surprised me he’d taken Danny under his wing.

“Dinner is ready,” Celia called from the kitchen. “Want me to serve it, Miles?”

He jumped up. “No, I got it. Tell Danny to stop working and you can both come visit with Cole.”

He hustled into the other room, giving Celia a kiss as he passed her. She came out, Danny trailing behind her, and we took a seat at the table. Celia sat at the right of what I assumed would be Miles’s seat. I was stunned when Danny took the head of the table instead, but didn’t say anything. Miles returned, a platter of steaks ready to be devoured. Then he turned and went back to the kitchen, returning with a pizza that he placed in front of Danny.

I’m not going to lie. I was getting irritated again. Miles had made steaks, so why would Danny get something special? He must have seen something in my eyes, because he caught my attention and gave me a head shake. It was hard not to say something, but this was their home, and if they wanted to indulge this childish behavior, that was their choice.

Dinner was amazing, as always. My steak was perfectly medium-rare, and served with sauteed button mushrooms, thick cut homemade fries, and spears of asparagus that had been grilled as well. Miles loved to experiment in the kitchen, and me? I was always grateful to be the recipient of his endeavors. Celia spoke softly with Danny, who smiled at her. She was forever patting his hand or arm, and he gazed lovingly at her. My anger was still simmering, because I thought Danny was being disrespectful of Miles’s hard work.

After dinner, we sat in the living room. Miles and Celia sat snuggled together on the loveseat, while Danny and I shared the couch. It was suggested we watch a movie, and Celia grabbed the remote before Miles could.

“Aw, honey,” he pleaded. “It’s a new one, and I’ve been waiting all week to see it.”

“No. No slasher flicks after dinner.”

That was fine with me. Not a fan myself. Instead Celia pulled up a movie I hadn’t seen before. I knew the characters in Avengers, and Chris Evans was hot as hell, but sitting through a nearly two and a half hour movie? Ugh. But, she wanted it, so it was what we watched. It took me about thirty minutes to realize Celia wasn’t really watching the movie, but keeping an eye on Danny. It was then I noticed he was no longer on his end of the couch, but had moved to the middle. It was odd, I thought, but didn’t say anything.

When the part where Hulk smashed Loki into the floor came on, Danny let out the biggest, most genuine laugh I think I’d ever heard. It was filled with utter glee. And then I realized he’d moved until he was right beside me. I was about to stand, when Celia caught my attention and gave me puppy dog eyes and gestured for me to stay where I was.

So I did.

About thirty minutes later, Danny was leaning against me, head on my shoulder, dead to the world. Celia turned the movie off and got up. She said I could move if I wanted to, but I was fine where I was. We sat for another hour, chatting, when Danny woke up and rubbed his eyes. He turned and saw where he was sitting, and his face reddened.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” he exclaimed, scooting away from me.

“It’s fine. You were tired,” Miles told him. “If you want, I have the bed in the guest room made up for you. It’s probably too late for you to be going out anyway.”

Another thing I didn’t understand. It was only about ten or so. Still, Danny nodded and stood, then shuffled toward the back of the place, with Celia on his heels. A door at the end of the hall clicked, and Miles moved closer to me.

“Thank you for that,” he murmured.

“What the fuck, dude?” I grumbled.

He sighed. “After what I saw, I think you deserve to know about Danny.” He leaned closer, invading my personal space, and his voice dropped to barely a whisper. “He was Celia’s neighbor when they were kids. She said his parents sucked, and that many nights Danny ate at their house, shoveling down food like he hadn’t eaten in days. Which, they discovered later, was probably true. Danny grew attached to Celia and her family, and they loved him because he was sweet and considerate.”

“And now there’ll be a but….” I tossed out.

“It was a nasty winter. Celia’s parents told me the snow was up to their knees, and it was a lot higher on the kids. Like Danny, who was already too small for his age.” He balled his hands into fists, his anger obvious. “It took a long time for him to warm up enough to talk about what happened. He said his parents got mad at something and locked him out of the house. He banged on the door and begged to be let in, that he was cold. They ignored him. He sat outside their place and cried, not knowing what he’d done or why he was being punished. They didn’t pay attention to him. He wasn’t even in a jacket, just pajamas. He curled up on himself, and only the fact that Celia could see their house from her window saved him. She was getting ready for bed when she noticed something on their porch. At first she was sure it was nothing, but then it moved. It clicked for her that the lump had the same pajamas on that her parents had given Danny. She hurried downstairs, screaming at the top of her lungs that something was wrong with Danny, and ran out the front door in bare feet, her father hot on her heels. When they got there, Jim, Celia’s dad, was certain Danny was dead. He picked him up and was shocked when he whimpered. He carried Danny back to their house.”

“What the fuck?” I ground out. “Who’d do that to their kid?”

“It gets better. After leaving Danny in Jen’s care, he went back to Danny’s house and kicked open the door. Dear old mom and pop were passed out, needles from the drugs they’d been injecting strewn about the room. Jim was on the phone with the cops, who came and hauled them away and Danny was taken to the hospital for treatment for hypothermia.

“The biggest problem became what to do with Danny. Jim and Jen, who’d taken classes to allow them to foster Danny, which they were sure was going to happen eventually, were sure he’d be put into a home, and they didn’t want that, because they knew it would devastate Danny and Celia. They contacted a lawyer friend, who advocated for them to be allowed to foster Danny until they could officially adopt. It took several weeks, and that was expedited thanks to a sympathetic judge, but eventually Danny came to live with them. There was one thing that worried them, though. Danny was… different.”

“What do you mean?”

Miles reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze. “You’ve already seen. How he was at the wedding? That became his norm. He’d been abandoned by his family, tossed out into the literal cold. If Celia hadn’t seen him, it was almost certain he would have frozen to death. As it was, he had frostbite on his extremities. He was lucky he didn’t lose any body parts. But he did lose his trust in people. Except Celia, Jim, and Jen who he knew had saved him. You have to understand. Danny has what his psychologist called big emotions. I’m not talking crying at a sad film, I’m talking about shrinking in on yourself and sobbing during parts that are emotional, even if they’re not outright sad. He’s better than he used to be, but he still has those huge thoughts and feelings.”

“I don’t understand. I mean, I get why Celia is wrapped up in him, but why are you? Why did you make him pizza when we were having steak?”

“Danny loves animals. I mean, he loves them. If we tried to make him eat meat, he’d have a meltdown. He doesn’t care if we do, as long as we don’t try to make him do it. So I made him a vegan pizza, and it’s those little things that make him happy.” He leaned in closer. “I love Danny like he was my brother. He adores Celia, and having him in her life means the world to her. I’d kill to protect him. When I saw him sitting next to you, his head on your shoulder, I knew he felt safe and comfortable with you. I think it’s the size thing.”

“Size thing?” I repeated dumbly, because I knew. I’d dealt with it my whole life. At a shade over six foot seven inches and weighing in at nearly 250 pounds, I was pretty intimidating to most folks. It was rare to meet people taller or bigger than me.

“How can I say this?” Miles began.

“Danny needs shelter in a storm,” Celia finished for him, as she came in from the other room and took a seat beside Cole, lacing their fingers together. “He felt safe with you. Like you’re a real life superhero.”

That made no sense whatsoever. “He doesn’t know me,” I pointed out.

“He doesn’t need to. He can see that we trust you, so he thinks he can too. Congratulations, Cole. You’ve been moved from stranger to part of our family in the course of a few hours. That’s never happened before.”

I shook my head. This was weird. “It’s not like he’s ever going to see me again.”

Celia turned to Miles, who grinned at me. “Sorry, bud. You’ll be coming here more often. Danny needs structure, and he seems to have imprinted on you, so you’ll have to stop by.”

And then looking at their smiles it dawned on me. “You planned this.”

Celia grinned. “Maybe a little. Don’t be angry, please?”

“Why would I be upset?” I asked.

She sighed. “Danny needs a circle of friends. Miles and I are more than happy to have him here. We love Danny. But he needs more than just us. The problem is, he’s afraid to step out of that comfort zone, so we push him a bit.”

“So you don’t want me either?”

She turned and there stood Danny, his lip wobbling as his eyes filled with tears.

“No, Danny. I—”

He cried out and ran for the door, yanking it open before dashing into the hall.

“Fuck!” Celia snapped. She got up and started after him, but I stopped her.

“Let me go talk to him.”

She glanced at Miles who nodded. I rushed after Danny, who I found curled up in one of the emergency stairs after hearing his sobs. I took a seat beside him. Close enough, I hoped, where he’d feel my body heat. We sat quietly for a few minutes before he leaned against me and sighed deeply.

“I knew they’d want me gone after they got married, but why couldn’t she just tell me?”

“That wasn’t it at all,” I assured him. He looked up at me, his eyes wide. I could see why he was so important to both Miles and Celia. He was damaged, broken down by his parents, left to mistrust everyone, and now a few words of a larger conversation he’d heard from a person he cared for had brought him crashing back to that place where no one wanted him. I lifted my arm and wrapped it around his shoulders, pulling him close to me. I wasn’t surprised when he sighed and snuggled in. “They love you, Danny. You mean everything to Celia, and Miles told me you’re like a brother to him and he’d hurt someone who tried to hurt you. So they’re definitely not trying to get rid of you. They just want you to expand your circle of friends, and they thought I could be one of them. If you’d let me, that is.”

“No one wants to be my friend,” he assured me, his voice weary. “I know I’m clingy. It turns people off. I can’t help it, though. I find someone I think would be nice, and then I make a nuisance of myself trying to make friends with them. If I’m honest, I’m surprised Celia put up with me for this—”

“Stop that. Now.”

He jerked his head up, his eyes wide. “What?”

“You know Celia loves you. In your heart, you know it. She’s stood by you for your entire life, so why would she walk away now?”

“She has Miles, she doesn’t need an annoying whiner hanging around too.”

And I understood. I did. When you think someone new has replaced you in someone’s heart, it hurt. It wasn’t easy to believe or understand that people could have room for more than one person in their lives.

“Tell me how you met Miles.”

“I don’t want to.”

Before tonight, I would have been annoyed, angry even at his refusal. I had little patience for petulant brats, and that was how I’d pigeonholed Danny. The truth was far more complex, though, and that was becoming apparent to me. Danny could have died when he was a kid, due to his parents’ neglect. He was saved by Celia and her family, which became Danny’s. They’d become the most important people in his life, and now someone else was joining the mix and Danny feared being replaced in their lives.

“Miles loves you, you know.”

“He only tolerates me because of Celia,” Danny assured me, his voice stronger than I thought it would be.

“Is that what you think?” Miles asked as he came around the corner, his eyes filled with sadness.

Danny gasped and jerked away. He tried to stand, but I held fast. Miles came closer, then knelt beside Danny.

“Danny? Is that what you think?”

His features tense, Danny nodded. Surprisingly, Miles smiled.

“Then I haven’t done a very good job of being your friend, because you mean a lot to me. Would we have met if it wasn’t for Celia? Probably not. And that would have been my loss. You’ve been there for her since forever. You’ve got a spot in her heart that no one will ever be able to occupy. It’s Danny shaped, and no other person can fill it. And you know what? I’ve developed that same hole in mine. We love you so much, you don’t even know.”

Danny stared at the floor. I squeezed him to me.

“I think I’ve got it too,” I told him, hoping to bolster his fragile sense of self-worth. “You’re a sneaky little bastard, sliding into our hearts the way you do.”

He fucking giggled as he let his head drop onto my chest, but it quickly became tears. “I’m sorry, Miles,” he said softly.

“Nothing to worry about, buddy,” Miles assured him, reaching out and patting him gently on the back. “I know how overwhelming things can get, and I know you need Celia in your corner, but Danny? I’d like to be there too. If you’ll let me.”

“I… I’d like that,” he replied. Then launched himself at Miles, grasping him around the waist. “I’m sorry,” he cried. “Please don’t hate me. I don’t want you or Celia to not be my friends. Please, don’t do that.”

Miles carded his fingers through Danny’s hair, and I couldn’t help but watch as Danny leaned into the touch. “I swear to you, with Cole as my witness, that’s never going to happen. I’ve got my family here, with me, and that’s you, Celia, and Cole. And if you’re ever unsure, talk to me. If you don’t think you can, talk to Celia.”

“Or talk to me,” I said gruffly. “If Miles ever gives you shit, you tell me and I’ll smack him up for you.”

Danny’s lip twitched, but I wasn’t sure if it was in amusement, or if he was going to cry again. Oddly enough, I cared what the answer would be. Somehow, in the course of the night, my entire opinion about Danny changed. The why was easy. I did something I seldom did. Hell, it was something I wasn’t even sure I was capable of.

I listened and through that, I started to understand.

Danny wasn’t normal. I don’t mean that as an insult. Far from it. I mean, like his doctor said, he was filled with these overwhelming emotions that could make him giddily happy or turn him into a sobbing mess. There wasn’t much middle ground here that I’d seen so far. Stuff that some people might find humorous were things that could have Danny sitting in a pile of tear-stained Kleenex.

For example, I stopped at Miles’s place one afternoon, and found Danny watching Voltron: Legendary Defender. He was wrapped in a blanket that he was clutching to his chest. His eyes were already red, which told me he’d been crying at some point. When I looked to Miles, he grinned and shook his head. I wasn’t watching the show, but I did see a bit of it from where I stood. At one point, one of the characters, I think his name was Pidge, started talking about his father and brother, who were taken prisoner along with their friend, Shiro. Then Pidge and his brother found their father. Tears started streaming down those apple cheeks, and Danny snatched another tissue and blew his nose. Loudly.

“Shouldn’t he be happy?”

“Pidge has been searching for her father and—”

“Wait. Pidge is a girl?”

“Yeah. She’s a kickass one too. If they made a live action, Celia would be perfect for the role. Anyway, she’s been disappointed time after time, and each one of them, Danny feels her pain like a knife in his own heart. I’ve never seen someone get wrapped up in the lives of fictional characters the way Danny does.”

I couldn’t understand it at all. I mean, okay I guess maybe I could. It was Danny after all. When Miles went to the bedroom to take Celia’s phone call, I took a seat next to Danny, who stared at the TV. His knee was bouncing up and down, letting me know there was something on his mind.

He paused the show. “They’re not fictional,” he said softly, his voice cracking. “I mean, I suppose if you don’t have a heart, they could be. But to me? In my head they each have lives and hopes and dreams. Wants, needs, and desires. They’re no different than anyone else.” He sighed. “I read books, like romance stories, so you can get the teasing out of the way early.”

“Why would I tease?” I asked gently. If it had been anyone else, I might have. But not Danny. For whatever reason, I wanted to protect his feelings.

“Why not? A grown man reading love stories. Gotta be hilarious.”

I reached out and put a hand to still his fidgeting knee. “Hey, if you like them, then fuck what anyone else says. As long as you enjoy something, that’s all that matters.”

He turned to me, his stare telling me he was judging my sincerity. “People tease me about it all the time. I want to explain to them why I enjoy it, but they scoff. I don’t know why I bother to tell anyone. I should keep it a secret, because when they get on me, it takes away some of my enjoyment. One day I’ll probably stop reading because of all the negative, hate filled comments.”


He reared back, his shock obvious. “No?”

I tried to smile. “Never let others dictate how you live your life. Are you hurting anyone by reading?”

He was quiet.

“Danny? Do you hurt anyone with your reading?”

He shook his head.

“Then no one has a say in what you should do. The only opinion that matters is your own.”

He peered up, his eyes searching for something. “Do you mean it?”

“I do.” I should have stopped there. I have no idea why I said what I did. “And listen, anytime you wanna tell me about something that interests you, my ears are yours.”

“Stop teasing me!” he insisted, his voice sharp.

“I’m not. I won’t say I’m going to understand it. I’m not really in touch with anything other than bombs and explosions on the big screen, but I promise if you talk to me about something, I will always listen to you and do my best to understand. Will you be okay if I ask questions?”

He blinked a few times, then nodded enthusiastically. “If you’re sure.”

There was hope in his expression, and I refused to be the one to squash it. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

His lip trembled slightly. “Do you, maybe, want to watch with me? I can tell you about any of the characters.”

His voice was laced with need. I moved closer to him and lifted my arm. His eyes widened, but then he snuggled into my side, bringing the blanket around both of us.

“Thank you,” he whispered, his voice going out on him.

“It’s my pleasure,” I assured him.

I’d never watched cartoons. At least not since I was a kid. Little did I know as I sat there, listening to Danny’s take on the show, how much he was about to expand my world.

Somehow over the next six months my going to visit Miles and Celia turned into a weekly thing. We’d sit and have a good meal, and then Danny would grab my hand and drag me to the couch, blanket in tow, to talk about a new show he’d started watching, or all about a book he finished reading. Seeing him light up made me… happy. When he was shopping with Miles, Celia told me she’d never seen him this excited.

When the two of us watched a show, it never really got my attention. At least until Danny started telling me his feelings on it. He was aglow as he told me about the characters, the situation, and how he thought it would go. He never watched the same show twice, they said, because he always remembered it, and lost interest if he saw it again, because nothing was new.

And then there were the books. I hadn’t read one since graduation, and couldn’t see that changing. Then came the day Danny handed me a copy of a book he said devastated him. It was called ‘The Front Runner’ by Patricia Nell Warren. When I asked if I could read it, he blinked.

“You have to know, this book crushed my heart.”

So did the lives of cartoon characters, so I wasn’t overly concerned. “I’m sure I’ll be okay.”

By the time I finished reading the book, my heart was a piece of tinfoil that had been chewed up and spit out. I’d never read something so heartbreaking in my life. If it made even me sad, I couldn’t understand how Danny, who was touched by everything, wasn’t a gibbering mess.

The following Friday, Danny did the usual routine. He grabbed the throw first, then my hand before dragging us both to the sofa.

“Did you read it?” he asked, his excitement palpable.

“I did.”

He beamed at me. “And?”

“It destroyed me,” I replied honestly. “I don’t know how you dealt with it.”

He leaned in, putting his head on my arm. “Yeah, I cried buckets for days.” He sniffled. “I still do, at least if I think on it too much.”

I chuckled. “So you wanted me to suffer too?”

“What? No! I just….” He sighed. “Maybe I did. I don’t know.”

But he didn’t. He would no more hurt me than anyone else. “You wanted to know your feelings were valid. That you weren’t wrong for how you felt.”

He nodded. “I thought there had to be something wrong with me.”

“I’ll tell you as often as you need to hear it, there isn’t one thing about you that’s ‘wrong’. Everyone feels things differently. What makes you cry could make others shake their head and ask what’s so hard about it. I didn’t cry, but I did get all kinds of gooey feelings that I’m not used to.”

“Thank you for trying it,” he whispered, putting his hand on my bare arm and stroking it.

I tightened my grip on him and he sighed. It seemed that Danny enjoyed being held. And, as much as I hated to admit it, I was pretty fond of holding him too.

“What are you doing tomorrow night?” I asked.

“Nothing I know of. I usually stay in on Saturday and watch movies.”

“What would you say to having dinner with me, and then we’ll go to a theater and watch something on the big screen?”

“Really?” he asked, his eyes sparkling.

“Sure. I’d enjoy going with you, if you think you’re up for it.”

“I’d love it. What do you want to see?”

“We can look at the listings. I don’t have anything particular in mind.”

He was quiet for a few moments as he nibbled his lip. “Cole?”


“I don’t know if going out is a good idea.”

And I knew why. “Oh? How come?”

“Because of how I am. I don’t want to embarrass you.”

Even though he wasn’t looking at me, I smiled. “You won’t. But, if you’re more comfortable staying in to watch something, we can do that too. I want you to enjoy yourself.”

Again, several beats of silence. “Cole?”


“Is this…. Is this a date?”

Now it was my turn to be quiet. How did I answer that question? “Would you like it to be?”

He blew out a slow breath. “More than anything.”

“Okay. Danny, would you like to go on a date with me tomorrow?”

He sagged against me. “I really, really would.”

And that was how I scored my first date with Danny Hayes.

“You sure about this?” Miles asked again, his lips drawn into a tight, thin line.

“Yup,” I replied. “Are you okay with me and Danny staying here?”

He snorted. “You bought me and Celia dinner at a restaurant she’s been dying to try, and a movie after.”

“And he got us a room for the night!” Celia whimpered. “And it’s a suite!”

I wanted time to be alone with Danny, where we wouldn’t have to worry about anyone intruding. Not that anything was going to happen. That wasn’t why I’d done it. This was my first date with Danny. Hell, it was my first date in about two years. I hadn’t even had a hookup, for crap’s sake.

But Danny was afraid, and I respected that.

Again, weird, because that wasn’t the person I was. Or maybe it wasn’t the person I had been. Since Danny wormed his way into my life, I found myself caring about him. Wanting to protect him. Hating when he cried and I couldn’t do anything about it. He’d made me do a complete one-eighty, and I found it wasn’t as bad or scary as I thought.

As Miles and Celia were ready to leave, he pulled me aside. “I swear to God, Cole. I will smack the shit out of you if we come home tomorrow and find him crying.”

“Fuck that,” Celia snapped, stomping over to us. “I’ll cut him. He’s your friend, so I don’t have to worry about it coming back on me. I’ll just frame your ass for it.”

I wanted to be upset, because they were showing such little trust in me, but I understood where they were coming from. They’d protected Danny’s heart as much as they were able to, and now here I was, an asshole with the ability to crack it wide open and leave it vulnerable. If someone else had asked Danny out, I’d be the same way. Except where Miles and Celia threatened, I’d follow through. I was no stranger to violence. I’d been a cop for a while, then left to start a detective agency. Didn’t much care for that either, so shuttered it after a couple of years. So I did side gigs, like handyman, electrician, stuff like that. It brought in cash when I needed it.

But that wasn’t my only source of income. Thanks to some solid investments, I had enough money coming in to pay my bills, allowed me to rent a sweet little apartment, and buy a decent car that I kept filled with gas. Nowhere near rich, but certainly not destitute either. All that mattered to me was I could be happy.

“I swear to you, I’m going to do my best not to hurt him. I like Danny. He’s someone in need of protection, and I want to be his knight in shining armor.”

Celia scowled. “He doesn’t need a knight, you putz. He needs someone who’s going to be there and not walk away when things get tough, which you know they will. Danny isn’t a project for you to take on to make yourself feel better.”

It rattled me that she could think that. Then I realized why she would. Our initial meeting at the wedding, and my subsequent comments, showed I wasn’t a good bet for a relationship with someone I’d referred to as a crybaby.

So yeah, I understood.

“Believe it or not, Danny has helped me grow a lot since I met him,” I explained. “He’s got me watching anime, reading actual books, and other shit I haven’t done since I was a kid. I’m not trying to fix anything because there’s nothing wrong with him. I’m trying to stand between him and the people who think there is. Does that make sense?”

Her face lit up. “Yes! That’s what we try to do too. I hate when he gets emotional and people think he’s got issues. Who the hell doesn’t? But if we talk to him, if we let him know his feelings are valid, he usually calms down.” Her voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “At the wedding, he got emotional because he said I looked so beautiful.”

“Uh, he said we, thank you,” Miles added.

“Fine. We. I was prettier, though.”

“My mom would argue that,” he insisted, grinning at her.

Then they laughed, and it was warm and kind and loving, and I could see why Danny wanted to be part of their family, and I found myself grateful that I was too.

“Thank you. I’ll try to keep that in mind.” I sighed. “You know I’m not the most patient person.”

Miles snorted, then frowned, his eyes scrunched. “Sorry, that was supposed to be part of my internal monologue.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “You have something to say?”

“Nothing you haven’t already said. You are most definitely not patient. You get frustrated easily, and when you do, you have a tendency to get loud.”

The thing about having a best friend? They knew you way too well sometimes. That meant they could see things how they were, and not how you wished them to be. So, maybe, this wasn’t a good idea.

“Would you rather I not have dinner with Danny? If so, I’ll cancel.”

Miles narrowed his eyes. “And break him? Fuck no. You started this, so now you have to see it through.” Miles leaned in. “So you know, if you hurt him, I’ll let Celia cut you.”

Funny how this display proved their love to me, and rather than being hurt or offended for myself, I was pleased Danny had two such sources of strength around him.

“If I hurt him, I’d let you both take shots at me.” Thinking of Danny warmed me inside. He didn’t look at me and run screaming that the giant was going to eat him, like this one kid had. He actually liked me for my height. He seemed to enjoy snuggling against me when we were watching a show, or falling asleep on me, his mouth open and soft snores slipping out. It was during those times I snuggled deeper into the blanket with him. Me, snuggling. That didn’t happen before Danny. “I like that he trusts me enough to sleep on me.”

Miles grinned. “He doesn’t do that with me or Celia. He doesn’t mind sitting next to us, but we can’t provide him with what it takes for him to feel safe, like you do.” He reached out and smacked me gently on the arm. “Thank you for that.”

This, to me, was surreal. I lived in a world that I had to handle like cardboard, because one wrong move could send everything toppling over. I was too big. Too strong. Too… much. Maybe that was Danny’s power over me. His needs allowed me to be okay with what I had to offer. If it took my size for him to feel safe, then that was perfectly cool.

There was a knock, and my heart sped up. Danny was early.

“Okay, have fun. Get out.”

Celia chuckled. “Kicked out of our own home.”

“I didn’t mean it like—”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I’m kidding.” She came over and pulled me down. “Love you, you know. Be good to my brother.”

“Always,” I swore.

And then the two of them went out through the door to the other hallway, leaving me to fret. Yeah, me. Worried about upsetting someone a good foot shorter and about a hundred pounds lighter. Someone I could squash, if I needed to. And didn’t that thought scare the crap out of me?

The door opened. “Hello?”

I hurried to greet Danny, and was struck dumb. He’d cut his hair, the blond locks now looking darker. His eyes danced with scarcely contained happiness. Most telling though, were the tears that slipped down his cheeks. I reached for him and pulled him to me.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“You’re here,” he exclaimed. “You really meant it when you asked me out.”

I held him at arm’s length. “Of course I did. I’ll never play those kinds of games with you.”

He rushed back for a crushing hug. “Thank you.”

It struck me in that moment, with him in my arms, how much I wanted to kiss him breathless. To hold him close and show him the fruits of the seeds he’d planted in my heart. To tell him that it belonged to him now, and he was responsible for tending it with all the love and passion that he possessed. Instead, I pulled him toward the living room.

“I got us Spirited Away to watch,” I said, though I had other words my mouth was eager to say.

He stopped and I had to turn back. “I’ve seen it,” he told me.

“And that’s fine. We can watch something—”

“No!” he gasped. “It’s my favorite movie ever. It’s just….”

And I understood. “Lots of emotions?”

He nodded. “We can find—”

“You like the movie, right?”

He sighed. “I love it. Visually, it’s gorgeous. The story is amazing.”

“And it evokes feelings in you.”

He closed his eyes. “So many feelings.”

“Then would you watch it with me?”

His eyes snapped open. “What? Why?”

I reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I want to see the movie the way you do.”

“But it makes me cry.”

Which I knew. “Then it gives me a reason to hold you.”

He scowled. “You never need a reason to hold me.” And then, he must have realized what he said. “I mean….”

I pulled him in again. “I’m glad you’re okay with me doing that,” I said softly. “I wouldn’t mind doing more of it.”

He gave me this sappy expression that made me melt. What was it about Danny? Why did he make me… feel things that no one else I’d ever been with had?


“What’s up?” I asked, pulling my attention back to him. His expression was troubled, and I hated it. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Did… Did you invite me here for sex?”

“What? No! I invited you for dinner and a movie, just like we talked about.”

He nibbled his lip. “So you don’t want sex with me?”

He seemed disappointed, and knowing I had something to do with that bugged me.

“Danny? Sweetheart? Will you look at me, please?”

He sighed and lifted his chin to meet my gaze.

“This is our first date,” I told him. “I wanted to sit and watch a movie with you. I want to eat pizza with you—because, let’s face it, I can’t cook worth a damn. That’s all I hoped for. I don’t have a hidden agenda here. No seduction. No desire to make this into something more than it is. For now. Later? If it’s something we both want? Yes, absolutely. I have to be honest with you, though. Sex, as nice as it is, isn’t everything. Cuddling with you on the sofa? Watching a movie and seeing how your eyes light up? Holding your hand? Those are the things I’m going to remember when we’re old.”

His eyes widened. “When we’re old? You mean….” Again, there was hope in his voice. “Do you mean you might want us to stay together?”

It was then I realized I’d stuck my foot in it. I’d made a comment that hinted at long term. I led him to the couch where I sat and pulled him down beside me.

“Is that something you think you might want? I mean, could you see being with me in twenty years? Most people can’t stand being in the same room for twenty minutes, so—”

“Stop that!” he insisted. “You’re amazing. You’re so kind and patient. I know you don’t like watching anime with me. I can see your eyes glaze over, but you still stay.”

Well, that train of thought was something that needed to be nipped in the bud. “Have you looked at me recently when we watch something? I mean, sure, when we first began watching, I wasn’t interested because I didn’t understand. As we got deeper into the stories, though? Yeah, I started to enjoy them. Partly because of how good it was, but mostly because you were so patient, explaining to me who Anos Voldigoad was, or why Riko on Kuroko is such a great character. You opened my eyes, Danny to more than anime. You’re showing me the world in a way I’ve never thought to look before. You make everything I see all shiny and new, because your perspective makes them that way.”

He blinked, and I could see the glittery track of tears on his cheeks.

“Did I say something wrong?” I asked, uncertain what I could have done.

He shook his head and gave me a weak smile. “I never thought anyone other than Mom and Dad—Jim and Jen—could look at me and see something worthwhile.” He buried his face in my chest. “I know Miles and Celia told you how I came to live with Celia’s family. To this day, I don’t know what I did wrong that made them stop loving me. After they got out of prison, I wasn’t allowed to see them again. Not that I wanted to. Jim and Jen are great parents. They never made me feel like I was a burden. They also didn’t treat me like I was a throwaway they were stuck with. They showed me what parents were supposed to be like, and what a family could become.

“It was only a few weeks after I got adopted. We were supposed to sit down to dinner together one night. Jen had worked from really early in the morning, and even though she was supposed to be home early, she called and said she couldn’t be home until almost eight in the evening. I was afraid, because I worried Jim would be angry. I hid in the closet, waiting for him to go berserk. When the door opened, and light flooded in, I screamed, because I expected a beating would be coming. It didn’t.

“Jim picked me up and held me to him. There was no yelling, no fussing, just him saying everything was fine, I was safe. He carried me downstairs and put me in my chair for dinner. He wasn’t upset with Jen in the least, and he did what any partner should do. He shouldered the slack, and made something so Jen could eat before she crashed. Afterward, instead of going straight to bed, they sat me down and explained that they were human, and that arguments would happen, but they would never raise their hand to each other or their children. And that was when I understood. I was their kid and Celia was my sister. That, more than anything, I think, saved my sanity.”

We sat there a bit longer, and then I noticed that Danny had fallen asleep against me. Instead of being annoyed, I tossed out a silent thank you to the universe, hoping it would reach Celia’s parents, who’d taken a lost, scared kid and sheltered him from the world that had beaten him down.

And now, with Danny showing that he trusted me—had faith in me—I could step up and become that white knight I wanted to be for him. But also the white knight that would stay by his side for as long as I was allowed.

“I’m so sorry,” Danny whimpered. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

It was the fifth time he’d apologized, each time sounding so morose. “Let me ask you a question, okay? Did you sleep at all last night?” He opened his mouth, but I added quickly, “And tell me the truth.”

He closed his mouth, his lips thinning out, then shook his head. “No,” he said softly. “I was too nervous to sleep.”

Because of course he was. That was my Danny.

And that was the first time I’d thought of him as ‘mine’.

“And what were you nervous about?”

He slumped further down into the sofa, his freshly cut hair getting messed up on the fabric. “I was worried I’d get here and Miles would tell me you weren’t coming. In my head, I built it up to be a ‘ha ha, he believed me?’ moment.” He was quiet, then said again, “I’m sorry.”

Was I upset? Nope, not even a little. “Trust has to be earned, right?”

“But I should trust you!” he exclaimed, his eyes going wide.

“Why? What have I done to show that you could trust me? Seriously, nothing. This is something new, and that’s okay. We go slow, learn things about each other, and from that, we figure out how to trust. Why don’t you ask me some questions?”

“Why did you ask me out?”

No softball there. “Because I think you are, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. You’re adorable, charming, sweet, kind, considerate. You don’t seem to be the least bit jaded, which surprises me. It’s like everything that should have ground you down, instead made you all shiny and bright. Kind of like a pebble in a rock tumbler.”

He snorted. “A rock tumbler?”

I shrugged. “I had one when I was young. It fascinated me to see this roughhewn stone slowly have bits of it smoothed away, coming out like something you’d see in jewelry. Now that I’m older, I have a much larger one I like to use.”

“I’ve never seen one,” he told me.

This was a chance to share a part of my life with Danny, much as he’d shared his with me. “Well one day, if you feel comfortable, you can come to my place and see my workshop. It’s a small one, but I enjoy puttering in it. What about you? Do you have any hobbies?”

He flushed. “I like taking things I watch and writing stories where the guys end up together. Like Keith and Lance in Voltron.”

“Wait! I know this one!” I said excitedly, my heart thumping that I might actually be able to impress Danny. “That’s called ‘shipping’, right?”

He broke into a big smile. “You remembered!”

Was it weird I was proud of myself? Because I’d made Danny happy, and that made me into a giddy fool.

“I did. I told you, I listen to you when you tell me things. I like hearing what you want to say to me.” I gripped his chin gently, and held his gaze. “I always want to know what’s on your mind.”

“I want to know what you think about too,” he said quietly. “You do all this for me, but you never let me return the favor.”

I’m gonna admit something here. I never thought anyone would want to know what I was thinking, but now that it was in my mind, I couldn’t get it out. Why wouldn’t Danny want me to tell him what I expected he would share with me?

“My childhood was different than yours. Not worse, just different. Dad bailed on us when I was ten. Mom kinda fell apart, and I needed to step up to keep us together. I did the chores, learned to cook some basic things, and did whatever I could to make our lives easier. In the end it didn’t matter. She wasn’t able to hold down a job, and I was too young to work, so we bounced from place to place, crashing on people’s couches or sleeping in the car. That was a lot of fun when it got cold out, let me tell you.” Then I remembered what Danny had gone through. “Not that you didn’t already know. Anyway, it was during this time she met Steve, a friend of a friend who actually seemed to like her. He treated her well, and didn’t mind having me around. I hit my growth spurt at thirteen, going from four ten to five three. Then, over the next couple years, I added even more height, finally topping out at what I am now.” I sighed. I missed seeing Steve and my mom. I needed to reach out to them again. “Anyway, as I got taller, Steve became a mentor to me. He explained that a man was someone who protected. It didn’t matter what it was. It could be their family, their property, their jobs. It didn’t matter, as long as he stood up for something.

“It took me a few years to realize that Steve was standing up for me and mom. He married her, adopted me, and showered us with the love we needed. When I told him I wanted to be more like him, he smiled and offered to train me. I said yes. We did weights, calisthenics, strength training, martial arts. Over the next few months my skinny ass body grew larger, the muscles formed, and I felt stronger. That was when it happened.”

“What?” Danny asked, nearly breathless.

“That’s when I met this kid at school. He was being bullied by four guys. Everyone but me seemed to know about it, and they ignored it. When I heard they were planning on roughing him up, I went after them. I found them holding him in a bathroom, pounding on him. I grabbed the first one by the hair and pulled him off, then punched him hard enough it knocked him down. Then, one by one, I did the other three. By the time I was done, they ran out of the room, their own blood now messing up their faces.”

“You beat up four guys?” Danny asked, shock in his voice as he leaned in closer.

“Yeah. I didn’t have a choice. This kid, this nerdy, geeky kid, was bleeding and crying, and I was pissed. The lessons I was taught, about sticking up for those people who were important to you? Seeing this kid with a bloody nose and split lips made him important to me. I found out afterward that his name was Miles.”

“Miles?” Danny exclaimed.

“Yeah. While I was trying to help, he stared at me the whole time, like I was a god or something.” I chuckled. “In the end, I got suspended.”

“What the hell for?” Danny snarled. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

I shrugged, heartened by the fact Danny was angry on my behalf over an event that had happened a long time ago. “According to the school, I did. It didn’t matter that Miles had gone to the teacher and told them several times, no one took it seriously. Boys will be boys, you know.”

“I fucking hate that phrase,” Danny said, his cheeks reddening.

“So did I. When Steve got the call that I’d been suspended, he came and picked me up, then took me out to eat, telling me how proud he was that I found something to protect. And I did. Mom wasn’t as thrilled, at least not until she met Miles and saw how he looked. His face was a mess. She cooed and pulled him into a hug, and then Miles broke down crying. She told him it was okay, that I would always look out for him.

Miles became my very best friend, and he never once let me think otherwise. I learned what Steve meant about what makes a man. Yeah, his version was simplistic, but it was accurate. I wanted to protect people, so I became a cop. I didn’t like it, because people couldn’t trust us, and I didn’t want them to be afraid of me. I tried being a private detective, but it wasn’t for me either. So now, I do odd jobs and live from the money I make off those and what I get from my stocks and stuff that Steve set up for me. It’s not the life I expected, but it’s one I love.”

Danny blinked and I could see the tears.

“What’s wrong?”

“I never knew how you and Miles met,” he said. “You’ve always been a good man.”

I wished that was true, but I’d take the compliment. Danny was quiet for a bit, then he peered up at me. “Cole?”


“Am I yours?”

I reached my hand up and cupped his cheek. It was warm, wet, and beautiful. I never thought that someone would ask that question, but now that Danny had, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“Let me ask you one of my own. Do you want to be mine?”

He nodded vigorously, his eyes pleading with me for… something that unsettled my stomach.

“Can you tell me what that means to you?” Because no way did I want to assume.

He stared into my eyes. “You’ll always protect me. Not like Miles and Celia do, but like you take care of others.”

That set off a ping in my head and told me why I was feeling out of sorts. “Danny, are you being bullied by someone?”

His gaze darted around the room, looking anywhere but at me.

“Danny…. Talk to me. Please.”

He sighed.  “I—I—I…. Yes.”

White hot rage flooded my body. “Who’s the future dead man?”

He paled. “I’m sure I’m making a big deal out of nothing.”

But his tone told me he didn’t agree.

“What’s he doing, Danny?”

“He…. I…. He….” The tears came then, hot and heavy. Danny grabbed my shirt and buried his face in my chest. “H-H-He has a dog,” he said, gulping air. “A little black and white puppy named Diesel. It’s so adorable.”

And then the wails started. Harsher than the ones at the wedding, like they were being ripped from his very depths. We sat there, me stroking Danny’s back until he calmed.

“Okay, now tell me the rest of it. Get it out of your system.”

“He knows I love animals, and he does his best to make me cry. He tells me about how he beats Diesel when the puppy chews something in the house. He goes through great pains to make me know Diesel yowls and cries, but then rushes right back to him. When I did my best to ignore him, he showed me…. He showed….” He screeched then. “He showed me a video of him kicking the dog, and I had to hear the whimpers and yowls. I couldn’t understand why he’d do that.”

Because he was fucking scum, that’s why.

“Who is he, Danny?” I demanded.

He sighed. “His name is Eric. He thinks it’s funny to get a reaction out of me. Especially right before we start dinner service. The manager has talked to me more than once about my ‘emotional state’.”

I never asked Danny what he did, but it sounded like he worked in a restaurant. “Did you tell him what this Eric is doing?”

A quick shake of the head. “I don’t have any proof. After he gets me started, he deletes the video. When he wants to pick on me, he does it when no one else is around. Plus, he figures since he’s a relative of the owner, he can do what he wants, and no one is willing to call him on it.”

“When do you work next?”

He must have seen the fire in my eyes, because he put his hands on my chest. “Cole, don’t hurt him.”

Hurt him? I’d kill the little fucker. “Don’t worry, I’ll leave him alive enough to limp away.”

He winced. “Seriously, please don’t hurt him. He’s an ass, but….” He nibbled that plump, pink lip. “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble because of me. Especially you.”

Of course not. Danny was willing to take pain into himself, as long as it meant no one else had to feel it. Even if that person tormented him. That, to me, was the mark of a better man than I could ever hope to be.

“It wouldn’t be your fault,” I assured him, stroking a hand over his back. “It’s his for abusing his puppy and making you see it. That’s abusing you both, and I won’t stand for it.”

Danny frowned. “I’m sure he just thinks it’s funny and—”

I took his hand in mine and gave it a squeeze. “Hey, I want you to listen to me, okay? Abusing an animal is the same as hurting a person. If he’s doing this to Diesel, he’ll do it to someone else eventually. He needs help, or else someone will end up dead. I promise I’ll speak nicely to him, and let him know it’d be best to leave you and anyone else he’d been bothering alone, and to give Diesel to a good home. If he refuses, or if he can’t take the hint, then we might need to be a bit more forceful in our conversation. Regardless of how it goes, though? It’s not on you.” And now for the question I needed an answer to, so I would know how much this douche would pay. “Has he ever hurt you?”

And again, his gaze flitted around, telling me more than his words did.

“What did he do to you, Danny?” I ground out, pressing down hard on the anger even as it surged up, looking for a target.

He sucked in a breath as he lifted up his shirt. There, on that soft, pale skin, were dark bruises. Big dark bruises.

“He punches me when no one else is around. Usually in the ribs, but sometimes the stomach. One night he did it after our break, and I ended up in the bathroom puking. Then he laughed and told me Diesel wasn’t as much fun as he used to be, and maybe he should play with me instead, because I gave him a lot better reactions.”

I clenched my fists so tight the nails were digging into the flesh. This motherfucker had the audacity to lay hands on Danny? To threaten him?

“Did you tell Miles or Celia?”

He shook his head. “They deal with enough from me without me whining to them I can’t stand up for myself.”

“That’s what family—real family—does, you know. We stand up for each other, especially when it’s something we can’t handle on our own.”

And again, tears came. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispered, his pain lancing through Cole. “Last time he really hurt me. I tried to complain, but you know what they said.”

Of course I did. “Boys will be boys.”

He snorted a laugh. “What he does to me? That doesn’t matter. He’s treating Diesel like that. He’s hurting a puppy who only wants to be cared for.”

God, I loved Danny. It wasn’t about his safety, it was about the puppy.

Then I realized the thought I’d just had. I loved Danny. Like ‘loved’ Danny. As in, I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, making him happy, being there to share the highs and lows, the tears and the fears, all of which I had no doubt would be plentiful. Would it be easy? No. I had no spun glass fantasy of our lives together. It would take real work, and coming to terms with each other’s flaws. But I wanted it, desperately.

“Danny, I—”

“I know people will look at me and say it’s my fault. That because I’m not aggressive or something, I let him bully me.” He peered up at me. “But I don’t, I swear. I just want him to leave me alone. I don’t want to be like that.”

Why would he? That wasn’t who Danny was. “Good, because there’s nothing wrong with how you are. Him? Oh, don’t even get me started. Guess the head doctors are right. Those who abuse animals are psychopaths.”

Danny snuggled in close, his warmth pleasant and comforting. “Will you help me?”

There wasn’t even a need to answer that question, because as far as I was concerned, it had already been decided.

The restaurant Danny worked at was… nice. From the moment I stepped inside, I was taken in by the warm, welcoming atmosphere. The hostess greeted me with a wide smile and showed me to a table. It wasn’t a high end place by any means, with plastic red and black checked tablecloths and a blue silk flower in an empty and washed ketchup bottle. My mom would have said it was kitschy, Steve would have scoffed and said it was tacky. Me? I liked it, because Danny worked here.

Of course, the place was awash in the scents of the food, which made my stomach rumble. The garlic, the onion, the sauces, the herbs. It was like being in a grandma’s kitchen—or what I imagined that would be like, since I’d never known my own. Still, I liked it.

I’d seen Danny a couple of times as he came out and picked up bus tubs filled with dishes, then hurried back into what I assumed was the wash area. A bit later he appeared with clean dishes and loaded up the stations, then went to do whatever was next on his list. The thing was? He wasn’t happy here. I could see it in the furtive expression, the lost, blank look that told me he’d rather be home, with me, watching anime.

I wanted that too, with a desperation. I’d much rather order in a pizza and kick back with him, watching as Voltron saved the universe. Danny’s head would be on my shoulder, and he’d happily be munching on a slice of vegan pizza from Toppers. I hated to admit it, but I’d gotten use to them too, and loved sitting and eating with him. In fact, I realized I’d been eating his pizzas when Miles invited me over for dinner.

Whenever Danny appeared, my gaze snapped to him. I wanted to go grab his hand and pull him from this place, but I had a mission here, and I was determined to see it through. And it was at that time I noticed him.

Now, I might be projecting. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, but he was sleazy as fuck. As soon as he saw Danny he wended his way through the people and crowded him until they were in a quiet corner. Then he pulled out his phone and held the screen so Danny could see.

His face went white and tears were streaming from his eyes.

I got up and pushed my way through the assembled diners until I got to where they were standing. I snatched the phone from Eric. I didn’t even have to watch the video to be sickened by the sounds coming from it. Whimpers and screams vied for attention, and through it all, I could hear the sick fucker laughing.

He tried to grab it back, but that wasn’t happening. “Dude, what the fuck! Gimme that back.”

Danny was staring at me, his eyes pleading. I wanted to end this shit stain. To punch him in the face and drive it through the back of his skull, like they do in the animes, but with Danny watching, I knew I had to be careful of how I proceeded.

“Danny? Go get your stuff. You’re done here.”

“What? No. I can’t afford—”

“You’re through. Go get your stuff. You’re coming home with me.”

“Fuck that. He works here,” Eric snapped. “He’s not going anywhere.”

I sucked in a breath. “Look, the only reason you’re not on your back looking up at the ceiling, wondering about the sounds of the life support I want to put you on, is this guy here. He’s good and kind. Me? Not so much. You ever, and I mean ever look at him again, I’ll pop your eyes from your skull. You talk to him and I’ll cut out your fucking tongue.”

He was about to say something when an older woman came rushing up to us.

“What’s going on here? What are you doing to my staff?”

I turned to her. I bore her no animosity, but I wasn’t going to be particularly worried about her feelings.

“And who are you?” I demanded.

“Geneva Ricci. My husband and I own the restaurant.”

“Cole, please—”

“Danny, once more, go get your stuff. We’re leaving.”

This time he turned and rushed away.

“You can’t do that,” the woman said. “I’ll call the cops.”

“Yes, go ahead,” I dared her. “Then I can show them what this little fucker has on his phone that he’s been showing Danny to hurt him. He’s an animal abuser and he’s been using Danny as his punching bag. When Danny complained, someone told him ‘boys will be boys’. If that’s the case, you won’t mind if I beat the shit out of Eric, right?”

She narrowed her eyes, which flicked from Eric to me. What she said next didn’t surprise me at all. “No, I wouldn’t mind.”

“Zia!” Eric cried.

She spun on him faster than he could react. “You’ve been hurting Diesel?” she snarled, snatching the phone from my hand. She jabbed a finger onto the screen and paled as the video started anew, complete with the cries from the puppy. She turned it off, her eyes wide. “And you were showing this to Danny? How could you?”

“It was just some fun,” he protested.

Then she slapped him hard across the face. I was impressed by the sound and how people turned in our direction.

“You get the fuck out of my restaurant,” she growled. “And you take your worthless uncle Cal with you. If I have to hear him say boys will be boys one more time, I’ll beat him senseless.”

“My phone,” he protested.

“No. That’s going to the police. I love your mother, but this would sicken her if she was alive.” She turned back to me. “What did he do to Danny?”

“Punched him in the ribs and stomach. Hit him so hard one night, he puked.”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “If I have to look at you again, I won’t be responsible for what I do. I want to tell this man he can beat your ass, and that I’ll help him, but I’m not a violent person.”

“Oh, I can be,” I assured her. “I’m happy to do your part too. Especially when he’s touching what’s mine.”

She smiled softly, even as Eric hurried for the doors. He stopped and said something to a man, whose eyes widened, then he followed Eric out of the restaurant.

“I’m glad Danny has you. He’s too sweet and pure to allow alone in this fucked up world.”

And just like that, I loved the woman.

“I’m so sorry for what happened. I promise you, had I known, I would have been serving their balls in the antipasto.” She sighed. “You’re taking Danny out of here, right?”

I thought about it. If Eric was gone, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

“I’ll make you a deal. You get me Diesel, and Danny can stay if he wants.”


I chuckled. “You don’t have to talk to Eric?”

“I’ve got nothing to say to him. I’ll get the dog or he’ll go to jail. It’ll be his choice, but either way the dog is yours.”

And I knew that would make Danny happy. I said thanks and gave her my phone number.

“If Danny doesn’t want to stay, I understand,” she said. “He’s a good worker, and I would be sad to lose him, but after this? I wouldn’t blame him if he hated me.”

“I don’t hate you, Mrs. Ricci,” he said as he came back to where we were standing. “I’m sorry to be the cause of problems for you.”

Tears welled in his eyes, and she grabbed him and pulled him into a hug.

“You did nothing wrong, do you hear me? I can’t believe Eric did that, and I’ll be speaking with Cal about his use of ‘boys will be boys’. If he can’t get with the program, he can hit the streets.”

“But I…. I’m sorry and…. I didn’t mean to cause problems.” Danny was gasping for breath. I put a hand on his shoulder to give him strength.

She stroked his hair. “Danny, sweetheart, please stop crying. I’m not at all upset with you. I’m mad that I didn’t know this was happening in my own restaurant. Why don’t you go home with….?” She looked at me. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Cole, ma’am,” I said, taking her hand. “It’s a true pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise.” She squeezed my fingers. “Danny, why don’t you go home with Cole and take a few days to think about what you want to do. If you decide to stay, that’s great. If not, then we’ll see about keeping in touch some other way.”

“Are you sure it’s okay?” he asked, hiccupping as he tried to draw in a breath.

“More than okay,” she assured him.

He nodded and slipped his hand into mine. “Can I go home with you?” he whispered.

It took everything in me not to pick him up and carry him from the restaurant.

A few days later I got the call about Diesel. Geneva said she’d had to take him to the vet, and that she’d given the phone to the police when she found out what Eric had done to the dog after he’d gotten home that day. The vet said Diesel would be fine, but that he might not trust people anymore.

He was perfect for Danny, who would show the pup he could believe in him.

Speaking of Danny, he hadn’t left my place since that day. He kept saying he should go, but never actually made it to the door. That was fine with me. The day she called, I told him I had an errand to run, and he said he’d go with me. He was stretched out on the couch, watching Spirited Away again, and the tissues were piling up around him.

“Nah, finish the movie. I should be back soon. If you want to take a nap after you’re done, go ahead and do that.”

Danny admitted he wasn’t really sleeping before he came to be with me. Being here? It calmed him and let him rest.

“No, I should be—” He yawned so wide his jaw popped. “Maybe a short one.”

I chuckled. “See you in a bit.”

Geneva noticed me first, and hurried toward me, a small black and white dog on a lead trailing behind her. When Diesel saw me, he tried to back away, and anger at Eric again rose in me.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” she said, holding out the handle of the leash. I noted that Diesel did his best to hide behind Geneva, so maybe it was men that scared him.

“No, thank you for doing this. Danny will be ecstatic. He was worried for Diesel the entire time.”

“Is he okay?”

“He is,” I assured her. “And I’ll make sure he stays that way.”

She smiled. “You love him.”

“I do,” I admitted. “Haven’t told him yet, but I so do.”

“Tell him,” she urged. “That boy needs to hear it in the worst way. He needs to know there’s someone on his side.”

“My plan was to present him with Diesel, then tell him that I want them both to be part of our family.”

“Prepare for tears,” she said, grinning.

“I laid in a supply of tissues for the occasion,” I assured her.

Her smile slipped. “He’s not coming back, is he?”

“I don’t know,” I told her honestly. “Eric really did a number on him, abusing him both in mind and body.”

“That little fucker,” she snarled. “I wish I had known. I would happily have cut his dick off.” She fumed. “I’m getting divorced,” she said.

“Danny won’t be happy to hear that,” I told her. “He’ll be sure it’s his fault.”

“I know. I wish there was another way, but Cal has to go. He not only condoned it, but he encouraged Eric to pick on Danny because he hates ‘queers’. That’s not the man I married. The one who’d had a few bisexual encounters.”

“I’m sorry. What about Eric?”

“After talking to the vet and finding out what he’d done to Diesel, I knew I had to turn him in. I gave the cops the phone and told them what he’d done. I didn’t mention Danny, because I was sure he’d be hurt. Still, they arrested him and charged him with a few felonies, so hopefully he’ll be seeing the inside of a prison.”

As good as the news should have been, I already knew how it would impact Danny. I mean, I could just not tell him why Diesel was coming home with me, but that was disingenuous at best. And I would never lie to him, even if the truth hurt.

So, I would have to suck it up and let him know.

He was sleeping when I got home. Stretched out on the couch, the movie still playing in the background. He had the blanket wrapped around himself, pulled to his chin. He looked so comfortable, I hated to disturb him, but the wiggly little pup in my arms wasn’t about to be denied. I held him close to Danny’s face, and smirked when he licked a strip up that pert nose. Those gorgeous eyes fluttered open and he smiled at me.

“Sorry, I guess I was more tired than I—”

It was then he noticed I wasn’t alone. He jerked up and stared at the puppy.

“Diesel?” he cried out. “This is Diesel, right?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Why do you have him?”

And now the moment of truth. “I need to talk with you.”

He scooted over and I took a seat beside him. Diesel was insistent in his desire to get to Danny, so I let him go. He was immediately on Danny’s lap, giving him doggy kisses on the face, which had Danny laughing hard. Eventually, Diesel calmed and fell asleep in Danny’s lap. Apparently he already felt safe, which made me happy.

“Look, I won’t ever lie to you, okay? I need to be sure you know that.”

“I trust you,” Danny said, stroking a hand over Diesel.

So I told him the story Geneva Ricci had given me, along with the fact that Eric was likely going to be heading to prison. I waited for the tears, for the ‘it’s my fault’. What I got shocked me.

“Good, he deserves it.” He lifted a groaning Diesel up and kissed his nose. “So what happens to him now?”

“Well, you tell me. He’s your dog.”

His eyes widened and then the tears came. “Really?”

I smiled at him. “Yeah, really.”

He put Diesel down on the couch, then turned and launched himself into my arms. “Thank you, Cole! Thank you so much.”

I stroked a hand over his back. “There’s a reason I did it,” I informed him. “I care for you, Danny. A lot. I was hoping you and Diesel would stay with me, and the three of us could make a family.”

His lip trembled. “I care about you too,” he said softly. “You’re a very good man.”

I snorted softly. “You need to be sure,” I said. “I’m not nice or lovable. I would have kicked Eric’s ass for what he’d done to you and the mutt.”

“Aw, he’s not a mutt,” he defended. “He’s a sweet puppy. When Geneva asked if I wanted him, I tried so hard to say yes, but the landlord would never go for it. That’s how he ended up with Eric. And you really want us both here?”

“Oh, I really, really do,” I assured him.

“I’ll get a job,” he swore. “I can make good on the rent, I promise.”

So he wasn’t going back to the restaurant. I was grateful for that. While I liked and trusted Geneva, I worried what would happen if Eric or Cal decided they wanted to get hold of Danny. I knew it didn’t matter where he was, they could find him if they wanted, but the thought Danny would always be looking over his shoulder? That every shadow would make him nervous? That I didn’t like.

“Danny, you said you wanted to be mine, right?”

He nodded.

“Did you mean mine as in my family, or mine as in… you know, mine?”

He exhaled slowly. “I dreamed about you,” he admitted. “Since that night at Miles’s and Celia’s place where I fell asleep on your shoulder. I never met someone I was that level of comfortable with, especially so quickly. Celia told me to take some time to search through my feelings, and not to jump into anything. So I did. And you wanna know what I found out?”

“What’s that?” I asked, eyeing the awakening puppy.

“You’ve always been taking care of me. You pulled me in when I cried, you put your arm around me and held me to you while I slept, and more. But the one thing you never did? Was mock me for being who I am.”

And that uncomfortable need to tell the truth rose up in me. “I did,” I replied. “At the wedding, I thought there was something wrong with you. And the night we had our first dinner at Miles’s? I was angry then too.”

I expected him to be upset, but he smiled at me.

“You think I didn’t see that? You didn’t understand me. Did it stop you from being kind? No.”

“I’d never be unkind to you,” I said flatly. “You’re far too pure for this world, and I had to learn that through my own interactions with you. I can’t tell you how much I regret my thoughts back then.”

“And I can’t tell you how glad I am that you cared enough to learn who I was before you dismissed me.”

My stomach knotted, because I would have done that. No, that wasn’t right. The old me would have. Now? Danny had taught me to look below the surface before making judgments. And as I sat there, watching Danny and Diesel, I knew contentment.

I slumped against the couch as the two messed around. Then Danny got up and said he was going to take Diesel outside.

“I doubt Eric put a lot of effort into training him,” he said. “Should get him started on the right paw.”

He took two steps toward the door, when he stopped and came back. He stared down at me, and a shiver ran the length of my spine at the intensity of his gaze. Then he did something I wouldn’t have expected from him. He straddled my legs, then wrapped his arms around my neck.

“I’m going to kiss you,” he announced, seeking permission.

“If you don’t, I’ll kiss you,” I promised.

He leaned in and hesitantly brushed his lips over mine. It was so soft, so gentle. I’d never been kissed like that before in my life, and I wanted more. I also knew I couldn’t push Danny further than he was ready to go and—

Before I could finish my thought, I found my mouth full of his tongue, which startled me, but not enough to stop him. Instead, I sucked on the invader, delighting in his needy whimpers. I stroked my hands over his back, then under his shirt. His skin was so soft, so warm. I wanted so badly to explore his body, to feel as he came apart under me, but this was Danny, and I knew in my heart that we had to take this slowly.

I leaned back and peered into his shiny eyes. It wasn’t a surprise he was on the verge of tears.

“You okay?”

He nodded.

“Danny? What’s wrong?”

This time, even through the tears, he smiled. “I’ve never kissed anyone before,” he admitted.

That didn’t surprise me. “Is it okay? We don’t have to continue.”

“What? No, please don’t stop. I like it. A lot. It’s just… kinda overwhelming.”

That was obvious by the rigidness of his posture, his wide eyes, and his trembling lips.

“We can stop now, and try again later. Maybe this is something you need to work your way up to.”

And with those words he sagged against me.

“I’m sorry.”

I held him at arm’s length. “You say that a lot. What are you sorry for? I understand your emotional state, and I’m not surprised or angry. You need time to process the feelings you have, and I get that. I can be as patient as you need me to be.”


“But what?” I asked, reaching up to stroke his cheek.

“I want this. I mean, I’ve always wanted it with you since the day I opened the door and saw you standing there. I knew, all the way to my bones, that you’d be the one who’d keep me safe. And when you came into the restaurant and confronted Eric on my behalf? I knew then you were the person I wanted to spend my life with. Not because you protected me, but because you were worried for me, you knew what I could and couldn’t handle. You never tried to make me feel weak, like he did. You prop me up to stand on my own two feet, but you’re there to catch me when I can’t.”

“And if you will allow me, I’ll always be there to do it.”

He grinned. “I think we can manage that.”

Time passes slowly, they say, but they don’t know shit. Before I knew it, Christmas was creeping up on us, and I was trying to figure out what to get Danny for our first year together. Miles and Celia made a suggestion, and I found that I liked it.

Christmas Eve was the day it all went down. I had Danny wrap up, because it was bitterly cold out. He whimpered when the stinging air daggers hit his face, but a few moments later he was nestled in a warm car.

“You had to pick today to go out?” he whined.

“Sorry, but yeah. It’s important it be today.”

“Well, where are we going?”

I turned in my seat. “How much do you trust me?”

He tilted his head. “More than anyone I know,” came the reply.

“Then if I ask you to put your faith in me for a little longer, can you do that?”

His smile illuminated the street more than any holiday lights. “Yes, I can.”

I put the car in gear and we headed south, my heart thudding hard. What if he didn’t think this was a good idea? What if he hated what I’d done? I sucked in a breath. I’d already committed to this path, and had to see it through.

When we were about a block away, I pulled over. Danny cocked his head and stared at me.

“Okay, from here on out I need to make sure you can’t see where we are. Will that be a problem?”

“No. Go ahead.”

The trust in his gaze nearly undid me. I slipped a soft sleep mask over his eyes, then finished the drive to our destination. When we got there, I parked, came to the passenger side, opened the door, took his hand and led him from the car.

“We’re here,” I announced, my stomach threatening to revolt. “You can take the mask off.”

He did and I could see the confusion in his squinted gaze. “Why are we here?”

“Christmas is tomorrow.”

“Right, and?”

“I want to make a life with you, Danny. You and that weird mutt of ours.”

He snickered. Living with Diesel had been a learning experience for both of us. Once he’d finally come out of his shell and knew we would never hurt him, he started to show his personality. Diesel liked to take walks every morning at five sharp. He was at the point where he’d pull his leash down from the wall and jog into the bedroom with it, then sit there until we got out of bed. Danny and I played Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who would have to go.

Subsequently, I’d lost fifteen pounds.

Diesel loved to snuggle on the couch with Danny. If I was sitting beside him, our blanket wrapped around us, Diesel would crawl under and plop between us, his head resting on Danny’s knee.

Even though he was nervous around people he didn’t know, he loved us, and we him.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Of course not. He couldn’t see in my mind. “What do you think of this house?”

“It’s nice. Really pretty. I like the flowerboxes around the windows.”

“What would you plant in them?”

He chewed his lip a moment. “I’m not sure. I never had the chance to think about it. Seeing as how the siding is a dark shade, something light and airy to offset it, probably.” He turned to me. “It would take some research. Are you thinking about putting them in your other place? I mean, it’s kind of small, so I don’t know how well it would work.”

This man. I couldn’t imagine a day moving forward where he wasn’t a part of my life. I slipped a hand into my pocket and withdrew the key.

“Why don’t we go inside and look?”

“What? Why do you have a key to someone else’s house?”

“Sweetheart, if you like this house, it’s ours. I’ve already talked with the owners, and told them we’d put in an offer dependent on your opinion.”

His face scrunched. “What?”

And the tears started, followed by a keening sob as he threw himself into my arms. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m not,” I assured him, squeezing him tight. “I’d love to have a home with you. If you want one, that is. If not, we can stay in the apartment.”

“But how can we afford it? I’m not working, but I’ll get a job.”

“It’s already taken care of. My stepfather, Steve? He works as a CPA, and he put together a portfolio for me when I was a kid. It’s gotten good returns, and I live off the residuals or whatever they’re called. If they’re not that good for a month or two, I’ll take some manual labor gigs. If you want this house, it’s ours.” I tugged his hand. “Let’s go in and look around.”

When we reached the door, I urged him to unlock it. His hand shook as he tried, missing the keyhole several times. I took his hand in mine and helped guide him. Once it was in, he gave it a twist, then opened the door.

The place was empty, but I could see Danny’s mind working as he took in the cavernous space of the eighteen hundred square foot home.

“I don’t know,” he said softly.

He was nervous and thinking all the bad thoughts. “What would you put in this room?” I asked him, ignoring his quaking voice.

He looked up at me. “That should be your choice.”

“Nope. It’s for us to discuss. Remember when Miles and Celia moved into their place? They sat and discussed every little bit of the project, because it was going to be their home, and both needed to be happy with it. Now, tell me. What would you do with this room?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Then let me tell you my thoughts. On that wall, I could see us with a ninety-eight inch television, with an amazing surround sound system that would immerse us in the worlds we watch. No matter what movie or anime, we’d be able to be part of it. We’d have a couch in front of it, big enough to hold us and Diesel, so he won’t kick me out of the way to get to you. I see a couple of armchairs flanking it, so when Miles and Celia come over, they have a spot to sit. In front of the sofa would be a cherry coffee table. There’d be some art on the wall, maybe something anime, like pictures from Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. At least that’s the start of my vision, but it needs your input to make it something we’ll both love.”

He squeezed his eyes shut. “Please tell me you’re not kidding.”

I leaned in and kissed him. We hadn’t done much beyond kissing since that first time, and I was okay with that. Did I want more? Yes. Was it something I had to have? No. The only thing I was required to keep in my life was Danny.

“I am most definitely not kidding,” I assured him. “This could be a home for the three of us, if you think it’s something you’d like.”

“I would love it,” he said, his voice cracking. “And we would need a hutch in here to hold the Blu-ray movies. And over there, we could….”

I listened intently as he opened up, like a flower stretching for the light about what he’d like to see. I couldn’t wait to sit down together and make plans to finally have something we both wanted.

A home.

“Nervous?” Miles asked, reaching up to straighten my tie.

“No, not at all. Should I be?”

He shook his head. “You’re getting a wonderful man.”

“I know. Thanks to him, I got a wonderful family.”

Then Miles hugged me. “You’ve been so good for him. He’s opened up more and has been willing to go out with Celia to see a movie or do some shopping. He even tells us what his therapist is saying. She tells him how pleased she is with his progress. Yes, he still has meltdowns, and yes, he still cries at pretty much everything on television, but he’s functioning better. Plus, he has Diesel, and he said he whispers his secrets into those floppy ears, because he knows the mutt will never tell.”

I didn’t bother to inform Miles that Danny shared them with me too. In bed, late at night, with darkness enshrouding us, he came clean on so many things he’d kept hidden. And each one was like a layer from an onion peel. It made him cry, but when it was over, he was ready to move on to the next one.

“I can’t thank you and Celia enough for bringing us together,” I told him. “I thought I was happy before, but now? Danny brings so much joy to my life. I love reading his stories, especially the ones from animes we both love. His Lance and Keith saga is scorching. He posts them online, and he’s got a very loyal fanbase. I spoke with a couple of people about providing art for some of his stories, and letting him post them on like Webtoons or something. When he found out how much I believed in him, he bawled.”

Miles gave me a critical eye. “You’re not the same guy who waded into a fight to protect me in school,” he said. “You’re… calmer. More centered.”

“That’s Danny’s doing. He’s my rock tumbler, chipping away at the jagged edges, and showing the polished stones beneath.” I grinned. “Did I show you the rings?”

“No, not yet.”

I took the box from my pocket and held it out. Miles opened it, and gasped.

“These are gorgeous.”

“I had them made from some rocks that Danny and I tumbled.”

Blue and green striations throughout gave them an almost mystical feeling. When Danny saw the stones in the shop, he asked if I thought they would tumble well. Of course, we bought a big bag to try. I took the two nicest ones to a jeweler and had them made into one-of-a-kind rings.

“He’s going to flip when he sees these.”

That was my hope.

There was a tap on the door, then it opened and Celia poked her head around the corner.

“I got a young man out here who is ready to start a new life. Anyone know of a person who might want to take that journey with him?”

“Ooh, I do!” Miles exclaimed.

“Dude, I know where you sleep,” Celia said. “And I know how to smother someone with a pillow.”

He snickered. “I meant I know someone who wants to…. You know what? Never mind. I got this guy here, and he’s set to embark on a new venture.”

Celia came in and took my hand. “Let’s go,” she said. “And thank you for making my brother happy.”

“Thank you for allowing me a chance to do it.”

“Just keep in mind, I do know how to smother someone, so treat him good.”

“Will do.” I turned to Miles. “Your wife is scary.”

He snorted. “Tell me about it. If it had been her in the bathroom that day, those guys would be pushing up daisies.”

Celia opened the door and a hush fell over the few people in the room. Danny and I didn’t have many friends, but we felt it was quality over quantity. Of the twelve people here, each of them held a place in our hearts. My mom and Steve were sitting up front, him smiling widely at me, and her giving me a tearful thumbs up. Geneva was there, and her smile was radiant as she peered at Danny, who was dressed in a black suit with a thin silver tie. As soon as I saw him, my heart went into overdrive. In a few minutes, Danny would be mine for life, just like I’d be his. Never did I think marriage was for me, but now I couldn’t see living without it.

I made my way up the aisle until I stood beside my soon-to-be husband. As soon as I got there, he took my hand and squeezed. I knew he was overwhelmed, but he was doing his best to hold it together.

Even  years later, I can’t tell you one damn thing about the ceremony. Every bit of my attention was on Danny, making sure he was happy. Miles had to nudge me to say my vows, which I stumbled over quite a bit. However, in the end, we were legally married in all fifty states.

The remainder of the night was a blur. I know I danced with some people. Drank about a gallon of punch. Peed more than a few times. I honestly wished I could recall it better, but the only thing I remember was how beautiful Danny looked, and how much I loved him.

And now, here we are, three years later. We have another dog, Della, who Diesel adores. Danny’s webtoon is a hit, with tens of thousands of views every time he posts an update. I stick to my rock tumbling, rarely venturing out of my cave unless Danny comes to get me. More often than not, he stands by my side, the lights reflecting off his wedding ring, and pulls me down into a kiss.

I love him. More than I thought it was possible to love anyone or anything. My crybaby had grown up into a bright, sweet man, and he made my life complete.

At least I thought so. One night, after dinner, we lay on the couch, his head on my arm, as we watched a new anime. He tilted his head back and peered up at me.


“What’s up, baby?”

“I have a question I want to ask, but I don’t want you to get freaked out or upset.”

“I promise I won’t,” I told him.

This was a common refrain. He always hedged the questions, wanting to ensure I was okay with him asking. And I never said no.

He drew in a deep breath, then pushed it out slowly.

“Have you ever thought about having kids?”

I glanced down at him, his eyes sparkling in the dim room. “Is that something you’re interested in?”

“Not if you aren’t,” he told me.

I’d never given it any consideration before, but now? I could see us with a child or two adding to the chaos of our house that was filled with love.

“So that’s a yes, you are.”

He nodded. “I want a chance to show a child what love is like. How two guys can be amazing parents. How you could be an incredible father, with your kindness and patience.”

I turned and pulled him into my arms. “You’ve been thinking about this a lot, haven’t you?”

Another nod. “I want a chance to make up for their mistakes. To prove love isn’t about what they can get from it, but what each of us puts into the pot.”

His voice was strong, so I knew he had definite feelings on the subject. And I had to admit, I could see us raising a larger family together. One filled with light, love, and happiness, as well as heartaches and pains that we’d have to negotiate through.

“I think,” I said, “that a family with you would be an incredible thing. What do you say about us talking to Celia’s parents and their lawyer friend to see how we can get started?”

“For real?”

“And for true,” I said.

And the waterworks started. Tears of happiness from both of us as we cuddled on the couch.

And I hoped they’d be the only types of tears either of us would shed again.


And because I was asked, meet Diesel and Della.

by Parker Williams

Parker writes m/m fiction where happily ever afters will require work to reach. He loves broken characters, hurt and healing, pain and comfort.

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