**A/N: Unrelated to this book, but just got back from the vet’s a bit ago and can confirm Roxie DOES NOT have the kidney failure her symptoms led us to fear she did. It’s nice to finally be able to breathe again**
“Where’d you put them?” Theodore asked the exact moment he stepped foot into his house.
Russell chuckled, reaching back to close the door. “They’re in your room.” He kicked off his shoes as Theodore sat down to take off his own. Russell took Vera’s coat and hung it up on the hook on the wall. “If you don’t like one of the fish, let me know, okay? I’ll take it so you can just have the ones you genuinely want. They’re a Christmas present, so I want you to like all of them.”
Theodore lifted his head, a smile on his face. Russell couldn’t help but smile right back at him. He loved every damn smile that tugged at Theodore’s lips. It was the simplest and most obvious sign that Theodore was comfortable and safe. “Russell, you bought me fish. I don’t care if they’re a bunch of Barbs or an Angelfish. I already love ‘em.”
“Fingers crossed.” Russell grabbed Theodore’s hand, helping him to his feet. Vera walked out of the foyer first, more than happy to lead the way to the tank of surprise fish. She stood on her tiptoes to turn on the light and rushed over to the tank.
“Holy shit,” Theodore whispered. “Is that a fifty-five gallon?”
“Yeah. Best I could tell from the pictures, your old one was, too. It fit pretty well on the table here, so… figured I guessed correctly.”
“You did. I-I can’t believe you got a fifty-five for me.” Theodore pressed a hand to the glass as he sank down to Vera’s height, free hand still held in Russell’s. “Mollies, Guppies, Platies…” Theodore shook his head. “Russell, these are amazing.”
Russell squatted down beside him, pressing a kiss to Theodore’s temple. “I wanted to do what I could to match at least some of the ones you used to have. I figured that was the easiest way to know you’d be happy with them.”
“Happy? Russ, I’m ecstatic.”
That, Russell knew was true. He could see it shining in Theodore’s eyes, a nearly childlike excitement that pulled at either corner of his mouth and blushed his cheeks. “I-I’m glad to hear that. Glad to see it, too.” Russell rubbed a hand up and down Theodore’s spine, smiling as Theodore dropped his head to his shoulder. “What do you think, Vera? How’d I do?”
Vera grinned. “You did really good, Russell.” She tapped a finger to the glass. “Lots… and lots of fishies. You did good.”
After watching a movie, Russell carried Vera to bed and tucked her in while Theodore took a shower. Now, after checking the locks on the doors, Russell headed back to Theodore’s room and climbed into the bed. It wasn’t long before Theodore came out of the bathroom, checked on the fish, and slid under the covers.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how much those fish mean to me, Russell. Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Russell rolled onto his side, wrapping an arm around him. “They’ve been in my office for, like, a month to assimilate them to the tank and stuff. I was so worried I’d forget to lock that door and you’d get adventurous, look around.”
“I don’t like snooping. I’ve been, uh… warned against it.”
Russell pressed a kiss to Theodore’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, you can snoop in my house all you want. I sure as hell won’t be mad.”
“I know you wouldn’t. Most of me knows, anyway. But I think no snooping is still, like… a positive quality.”
“Yeah, I’d have to agree there. I’ve dated people that have gone through my phone and shit the moment I leave the room. It’s not like I keep anything shifty on there or like I’m texting other cute boys, but I just enjoy my privacy on my own phone. You know?”
Theodore nodded. “I don’t blame you there. I like mine too. It’s been one of those things I got back after Shane was, umm… arrested. It’s been nice to have that privacy again.”
“I can imagine so, Teddy.” Russell closed his eyes. “Unrelated, but, uh, I’d like you to meet my sister and my niece sometime. I want you to meet my brother and my mom eventually, but for obvious reasons, my sister and my niece are less… scary for, umm, everyone involved.”
“I would love to meet your sister and niece.”
Russell felt Theodore nod. “I’m assuming they’re not against us dating?”
“No. My niece has been really excited to see the cute bookstore cashier I’m dating ever since we, uh, started.”
Theodore laughed. “Did you tell her I was cute?”
“Duh. I would’ve been lying if I said anything different.”
“You’re sweet.” Theodore laid a hand over Russell’s, threading their fingers together. “Do you know how you want me to meet them?”
“I was thinking we could host a little supper or something. We could do it at my place so it’s somewhere familiar to you but so that no one else finds out your address. I’ll obviously take care of most of the cooking, with some hand-holding from you, of course.”
“You know me too well.”
Russell nuzzled Theodore’s neck with his nose. “I know you just well enough, Teddy. Helps me not accidentally overstep boundaries, too.”
“I know. I love it.” With a little grunt, Theodore rolled onto his bad hip and laid a hand on Russell’s cheek. “I’d love to help you make supper sometime for a little get-together at your place. Vera gets to be there?”
“One hundred percent. I want that little girl in my life just as long as I want you in it, Theo.”
Theodore smiled before pressing a kiss to Russell’s lips. He pulled away, eyes still closed. “You don’t know how much it means to me that you care about her, Russell.”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea.” Russell leaned his forehead against Theodore’s. “She’s part you, Teddy. How the hell could I go around without caring about someone that’s part you?”
Theodore sniffled, but he didn’t respond.
“Sorry,” Russell whispered.
“Don’t be. I just… Christ.” Theodore opened his eyes, pulling away to wipe at his cheek. “I-I hate that I don’t feel worthy of this.”
“I know.” Russell laid a tentative hand on Theodore’s cheek. When he didn’t pull away or brush his hand off, Russell wiped a tear away with the pad of his thumb. “Theo, I wasn’t even abused by a spouse or a significant other, and I still have days where I feel like I don’t deserve any of the good things you say to me or good things you do for me. And it sucks. We don’t wanna feel this way. We don’t wanna be this way. But… but someone tore us down and picked apart the pieces of our brains that know we deserve love and care and respect, a-and it can take… a real long time to find those pieces and put ‘em back together.”
Theodore let out a little laugh, closing his eyes as another tear raced toward Russell’s hand. “We’re supposed to be sleeping, not crying.”
“Ah, my life mantra for over a decade.”
Theodore laughed again. “I don’t know what I’d do without you right now,” he whispered.
“You’d continue healing. Just… without me.” Russell cleared his throat. “But for what it’s worth, I’m glad I’m here for it.”
“Me too.” Theodore kissed him again, soft and sweet. “Hold me?”
A smile on his face, Theodore rolled back onto his good hip. Russell scooted closer, wrapping a protective arm around the shorter man. “Night, Russell.”
Russell smiled against his shoulder. “Night, Teddy.”
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