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i.

Daniel starts his day praying he can slip out of this strange house without anyone noticing. Well, no, actually; he starts his day wondering if he died and for some reason hell involves sleeping on children’s sheets and staring at a college graduation picture of his assistant. But once he realizes what’s happening, then he starts praying he can get out quickly and easily.

He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll soon come to learn there is no such thing as slipping out of the Suarez home unnoticed. It’s a pretty foreign concept to him—a house where people know who’s home and who isn’t. A family who keep tabs on each other. Hosts who always know when there are guests. And make said guests breakfast, even after the guests throw up the first attempt at breakfast.

So his prayer goes unanswered, and Mr. Suarez catches him and tugs him from sulking in the shadows to making Christmas ornaments, decorating the tree, and eating more popcorn than he’s stringing. He likes watching them in this tradition. It’s clear they do this every year. They know the endings to each other’s stories, the right places to laugh, the parts that are embellished.

It isn’t hard to see where Betty got that bottomless well of warmth and kindness. Mr. Suarez has been solicitous in a way Daniel’s only used to seeing from TV parents. He always feels extra sorry for himself when he’s sick, even when he brought it on himself from drinking himself blind, and there’s a part of him—a very large part—that’s absolutely gorging himself on the care he’s getting from a complete stranger. Before he brings out the thermometer, Mr. Suarez strokes his hand across Daniel’s forehead to feel for a fever. If he’s ever asked about it, Daniel will claim he doesn’t close his eyes for a second and relish the feeling, but he’ll be lying. Mr. Suarez keeps bringing him water and tea and frozen peas and medicine and crackers. He checks Daniel’s temperature regularly and clucks his tongue over the results.

And it isn’t like Mr. Suarez is putting this on just because Daniel’s here. Daniel sees him brush a hand through Justin’s hair, squeeze Hilda’s shoulder, silently eyeball how much they’re eating and heap extra food on their plates. Even Santos, who Daniel can tell has something of a fraught history in this house, gets a second serving of eggs without having to ask for it.

It’s not a big house. It’s not even a particularly nice house, not by the standards Daniel is used to. He could probably fit this entire house in one sitting room of his family’s vacation house on the Vineyard. His mother pays interior decorators more each year than the Suarezes have probably spent on all the decorations they’ve ever had. This is not a house people come to for a black tie party or a charity fundraiser.

But this is also not a house full of echoes, the palatial emptiness magnifying every sound. This is not a house where children hide under their beds when their parents start screaming at each other and throwing crystal wine glasses for the third time that week. This is not a house where a seven-year-old can fall down the stairs and not be found for an hour and then be rushed off to the hospital by a maid because his mother is passed out drunk in the bathtub. This is not a house whose occupants regularly plot against each other.

This is a home. This is where neighbors come for a barbeque in the summer, where kids race up the stairs laughing together instead of at each other. This is a family, the kind who actually love each other and want to protect each other and take care of each other. They make homemade ornaments they hang themselves on a tree that is, objectively, hideous, but also the most beautiful tree Daniel’s ever seen.

It almost hurts to be here, to see them like this. To know families and homes like this really exist. He’d always kind of hoped it was a lie by the media and every family was really unhappy and distant. But it’s undeniable they’re happy, even with stress and worry about bills and the loss of their mother and whatever that tense situation with Justin’s father is.

Just for a second, Daniel lets himself imagine growing up like this. No vacations to the Hamptons, no prep school, no private tennis and ski lessons, no fancy cars and private jets. Taking the subway his whole life. Standing on a stool as a child to place the angel at the top of the tree. Hugs and kisses every night before bed. A father who said I’m proud of you more than he said what is wrong with you. Parents who checked over his homework, who went to his parent-teacher conferences instead of sending a tutor. Parents who couldn’t stand to send him away to boarding school because they wanted him close to them. Parents who knew where he was and cared if he was safe or healthy or happy. How would that have changed Daniel? Who would he be now if he’d had that instead of a platinum card by the time he was fourteen and the knowledge that his father would never be satisfied with his choices?

“You’re going to make a great father,” Mr. Suarez says, and somehow it’s the best praise Daniel’s ever received. If Mr. Suarez, who actually is a great father, sees some potential in Daniel, maybe there’s really hope for him. It fills him with a strange warmth in his chest—not only the happiness of the praise, but the need to live up to it. Not in the bitter, hurt way he always wants to prove himself to his father. He just doesn’t want to disappoint Mr. Suarez.

Daniel understands Betty better now. He sees how she can keep pushing through the ridicule she gets at Mode and do such an amazing job. She doesn’t need the validation of some models. She has three people who love her so much it’s palpable. That kind of love must be like a force field. Daniel aches at the thought of ever knowing how that feels.

But as he’s finally leaving that night, he catches sight of the stocking Justin bequeathed him with complete ease, like inviting someone in was no big deal. The boy himself is asleep on the couch, and Daniel pulls the blanket over him even though it’s not cold inside. Hilda sees him do it and smiles at him, soft and thankful. And Mr. Suarez sends him home with leftovers, a concept Daniel’s not very familiar with outside of old takeout. Betty appreciates his awful attempts at decorating and gives him a hug before he goes.

He feels warm and buoyant, optimistic and ready to jump into a future with Sofia, and he realizes maybe he got a taste of that force-field kind of love after all.

 

ii.

Justin Suarez is pretty much the last person on Earth Daniel would expect to find holding a basketball. Maybe Marc is the absolute last, and Justin is above him on the list solely by virtue of being a kid. But there he is, rolling the thing around in a fairly mournful kind of way.

And when Justin sort of beats around the bush in asking Daniel to help him learn to play, there’s a part of Daniel that wants to ask him what the hell he’s thinking. The kid doesn’t even know how to hold the ball. But this kid also just lost his dad, really recently after reconnecting with his dad, and he’s sitting there all hopeful but also already dejected in a way that reminds Daniel painfully of Betty. It’s the same way Betty used to ask him for things—not actually asking, just optimistic enough to hint that she wants him to do something and hope he’ll say yes, but he’s been an asshole enough that she’s ready for him to crush her. Luckily, Daniel’s been doing a better job of not being an asshole, and now Betty’s less ready to be crushed and more confident in asking for things.

So Daniel’s not going to crush this kid, either. He likes that Betty knows she can ask without being afraid of him being a dick about it. And he can already picture the look on Betty’s face when she hears he took Justin out to learn to play. He wonders, briefly, if he should be worried the lengths he’ll go to keep a smile on Betty’s face. Just earlier today he got the sandwich guy fired for not giving her those extra sundried tomatoes. That guy probably deserved it, though. Anyone who can suck the joy out of Betty seeing the baby ducks and the cat must be some kind of monster.

Anyway, Daniel likes basketball, and there’s some kind of primal instinct in him that enjoys the thought of passing that on. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a showoff and can’t wait for the praise he’ll garner when he’s able to make shots from his wheelchair. The smile on Justin’s face when Daniel tells them they’re going is great, too. So they head out to the court and Daniel realizes, very quickly, that Justin Suarez was absolutely not blessed with any natural athletic ability. Not for basketball, anyway. Betty’s mentioned he’s a pretty good dancer, so at least he has that going for him.

Watching Justin fail, yet again, to follow the specific instructions Daniel gave him makes Daniel suddenly understand his own father’s penchant for yelling better. He cannot believe how frustrating it is to tell Justin exactly what to do time and time again and then to watch Justin do almost the exact opposite. Unlike his father, though, Daniel doesn’t yell. He files it away to be smug about later when he’s not using every available brain cell to hold onto that shred of calm and the memory of Bradford’s face when Daniel was nine and couldn’t remember which was starboard and which was port well enough to learn to sail. Daniel’s not going to do that to Justin.

He watches Justin take yet another wild, flailing shot and chants it in his head. Not going to do it to Justin, not going to do it to Justin. It’s just basketball. The kid doesn’t need to be good at it. Justin screams again when the ball comes back to him, and Daniel takes another deep breath. Maybe he should just keep his eyes closed for all this. Except he’d probably end up taking one of Justin’s crazy shots to the face if he did.

After Daniel’s successfully outed himself as a lying faker and Justin agrees not to tell Betty, Daniel sits down beside him.

“So, uh, you’re missing your dad a lot, huh?” Daniel asks awkwardly.

Justin looks down at the basketball. “I just…I’m not really like him, very much.”

Daniel considers that for a second. “And you wish you were.”

Justin shrugs. “He was a good guy. He saved someone. And my mom loved him so much. I should be more like him. He always wanted me to be.”

Daniel’s not entirely sure how to handle this. He’s not exactly the guy people go to for advice, much less kids and especially not kids going through a horrible tragedy. But disappointing your father with your shortcomings? Yeah, Daniel gets that.

“I’m not much like my father, either,” he says. “And I always felt like such a screw-up because I couldn’t live up to who he wanted me to be.”

“So how’d you deal with it?” Justin asks, watching Daniel’s face closely.

Hell if I know, Daniel wants to say. That would be the honest answer. He still doesn’t know how to handle the disgusted look on Bradford’s face every time Daniel messes up. Even worse is the triumph on Bradford’s face when Daniel proves they are alike, but in the worst ways. The selfishness, the cold calculations without factoring in other people’s emotions.

“Well, my dad and your dad…there are a lot of differences there,” Daniel says carefully. He only met Santos that one time with the Christmas tree, and he’d seemed like a bit of an ass with how he’d acted like Justin was an embarrassment. He could’ve been nicer to Hilda, too. But from what Betty’s said, he got better, and he was on his way to watch Justin in the school play when the whole thing at the bodega happened. They’re all hurting a lot from the loss. Santos, apparently, learned from his mistakes and was trying to be a better father. That is not something Daniel can say for Bradford, even with all this “new leaf” crap with Alexis.

“My aunt Betty doesn’t like your dad very much,” Justin says bluntly. “She says he isn’t very nice to you.”

Daniel huffs. “Well, she’s kind of right. But I did spend a lot of time when I was younger not giving him any reason to believe in me, you know? Betty knows what a screw-up I am now, and this is probably the best I’ve ever been in my life. So…it’s not all his fault.”

“So you’re learning to be more like him to make it better?” Justin looks worried. At least he’s self-aware enough to understand he’s not going to the NBA. If this is the only way Justin can think of to be more like Santos, it might be a lost cause. Daniel doesn’t want to tell him that.

“Sort of,” Daniel says. “But I’m also learning to do things that will make him proud, even if we’re not alike. And I know your dad was proud of you, Justin. You’re a great kid.”

“Thanks,” Justin says, eyes downcast. “But I can’t really make him proud if he’s gone.”

“Sure you can,” Daniel protests. “You know how he lived, what he believed in. You can do things that would make him proud to see, even if he isn’t here.” Daniel can’t remember their family’s stance on religion and the afterlife and all that, and even he knows you’re not supposed to tell a kid something that goes against their family’s beliefs. He’s trying to keep it vague without sounding like he’s bullshitting. “I’ve heard Betty talk about making her mother proud, and she’s gone, too. Honoring their memory is a way to keep them around, right? Keep them in our memories.”

Justin seems to consider this. It’s possible he thinks Daniel is full of shit but is too polite to say it. Daniel doesn’t really know how to tell when a kid is just humoring him. Either way, Justin looks serious, and it makes Daniel feel bad. Justin’s a kid, and it’s summer vacation, and he should be happier. Obviously Daniel can’t fix the main problem here, but he can at least try something to help.

“Listen,” Daniel says. “There’s a frozen yogurt place about a block from the building. The models go there for their once-a-month splurge because they have nonfat options. You want to get some?”

“Sure,” Justin says. He smiles about it, and he adds, “Thanks, Daniel. For teaching me basketball. And talking to me.”

“Anytime,” Daniel says. He means it. He really does. He realizes, with a strange, warm feeling in his chest, that he really cares about Justin, and he might’ve actually done something right with him today.

 

iii.

Daniel’s embarrassed when he shows up to the Suarez house in the middle of some kind of party. He vaguely remembers Betty mentioning she was throwing Henry’s ex-girlfriend’s baby shower, who the hell knows why, but he doesn’t realize that’s what’s happening until he sees the room full of pregnant women. And Amanda, for some reason, but he learned to stop trying to understand Amanda’s motives a long time ago. It’s kind of a lie when he says he ended up in Queens. Daniel just didn’t really know where else to go. He can’t pinpoint the exact moment in his life a crisis started to automatically mean he needs Betty, but it’s certainly true by now.

More embarrassing than crashing a baby shower? The look on Mr. Suarez’s face when Daniel admits he’d been out all night, drinking and partying and having a frankly medically dangerous amount of anonymous sex. Daniel’s used to Betty’s horrified judgmental eyebrows of doom. He’s not used to seeing that she got those judgmental eyebrows of doom from her father. Daniel has to get cab fare from them. It’s humiliating, and not because there’s anything wrong with their money or their house. It’s humiliating because Mr. Suarez must think Daniel’s the biggest jackass in all of history. And he’s right, because Daniel is. He can’t even do therapy right.

When Mr. Suarez asks Daniel to take a walk, Daniel can tell it’s not really a question. That, at least, is something Daniel’s father knew how to do—suggest things that are actually mandatory. They go down to the market without speaking. Daniel would pay for the soy milk if he hadn’t lost his wallet at some point between the roommates and the Russian ballerina strippers. He can at least carry the carton. Mr. Suarez has a heart problem, he remembers, and Daniel should do something to help.

The guy at the little bodega knows Mr. Suarez by name. They have a conversation in Spanish and Daniel’s pretty sure it’s about him. The bodega guy laughs a lot, which doesn’t seem very complimentary. But Mr. Suarez pats Daniel’s shoulder as he talks, so maybe it’s not all bad.

Then he starts talking to Daniel about mole, whatever that is, and telling Daniel to find what makes him feel good about himself. For a horrifying second, after everything that’s happened with Renae and Betty and the fire and the therapist and losing his wallet and, going back further, Sofia and his family and, quite honestly, his entire life, with Mr. Suarez’s hand squeezing his shoulder supportively, Daniel thinks he’s going to start crying in the middle of the street in Queens.

Find something that makes him feel good about himself? The only thing he’s been complimented on in years is being good in bed. He’s pretty sure that’s not what Mr. Suarez means, and Daniel’s certainly not going to bring it up. But Daniel’s not good at anything, really, besides making an ass of himself in public. He’s phenomenal at that.

Mr. Suarez has this look on his face like he knows what Daniel’s thinking. (Though hopefully not the sex part.) And then he adds another hand on Daniel’s other shoulder, squeezing gently, and Daniel has to hold his breath for a second so he doesn’t really start crying.

“Listen,” Mr. Suarez says. “It’s okay to feel a bit lost. You’ve had a rough time lately.”

Daniel swallows hard. It’s true he’s taken his father’s death harder than he expected. They never had a relationship Daniel would call “good.” There were times when it was less awful than others, but they weren’t exactly best friends when Bradford died. But Daniel’s been drifting a bit, since then. He doesn’t need to be good at therapy to know at least part of that is because he feels guilty. Maybe it’s his own fault. Maybe he should’ve forgiven his father more. Being a parent can’t be easy, and Bradford tried. Sort of. Sometimes. Besides, Claire forgave his indiscretions. Maybe Daniel should have, too.

And there were things Bradford did right. He wanted to fire Sofia after she humiliated Daniel. He gave Daniel the job at Mode, and even if his intentions weren’t the best, Bradford was the one who hired Betty. That alone is almost enough for Daniel to forget everything else.

Almost.

“My dad never believed in me,” he blurts out. “And I don’t really know anything that makes me feel good about myself.”

Mr. Suarez sighs, eyes sad. “I know it can be hard when you’ve got a voice in the back of your head telling you you’re not good enough. Even harder when that voice is a parent. But Daniel, you’re a grown man now. You’ve got to find your own path. Not for your father, not to prove anything. Just for yourself.”

Daniel swallows hard, trying to think of what he’s done for himself that wasn’t in some way acting out against his father. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll think about it.”

Mr. Suarez gives him a last squeeze and a little shake and then releases him. They keep walking, quiet, and Daniel thinks it must have been excruciating for Betty and Hilda and Justin to live without Mr. Suarez while he was stuck in Mexico. Daniel can understand completely why Betty made a deal with Wilhelmina to get him back home. They get back to the house and Mr. Suarez gives him money to get home.

“Make sure you cancel your credit cards,” he cautions, and Daniel wants to laugh because someone who steals his card could use it for months before he’d even notice a dent in his account. He also wants to cry, a bit, because Mr. Suarez uses a tone in his voice like he’s worried for Daniel. He cares.

“I will,” Daniel promises.

“Take care of yourself. And think about what I said.”

He pats Daniel on the back as Daniel leaves. Daniel feels stronger. He feels like he really can find something in his life he’s good at, something that makes him feel good about himself. And if he can’t find something he already has in his life, he’ll go out and find something new. He’s going to follow Mr. Suarez’s advice.

Daniel manages a little smile as he heads home. For the first time in his life, he feels like he just got fatherly advice. And it really did help.

 

iv.

Betty doesn’t push him to find another support group after the fiasco with the Community. For one thing, he actually is doing better. His mom and Betty have been helping him see that Molly really wouldn’t want him to throw everything away to try to keep her around indefinitely. When she said she was worried about him forgetting her, she definitely did not mean she wanted him to join a cult, take psychotropic drugs, and hallucinate her.

A bigger reason Betty hasn’t suggested Daniel find another support group is he’s pretty sure she’s genuinely a little afraid of what kind of group he’d find this time. It would sting a little if he wasn’t also pretty freaked out about it. He can’t believe he got sucked into a cult. He thought that only happened to crazy losers who don’t have any friends or family.

He resolutely does not let himself think about how he’s a crazy loser. He does have friends and family, thank you very much, so at least he has that going for him.

But it’s not like Daniel just woke up after the whole Community of the Phoenix thing and was totally a-okay, just fine, over Molly. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be over Molly. But he doesn’t know how to explain that to people, or even if he should.

Everyone’s lives have just kept going since Molly died. Everything moved on while Daniel still feels stuck. A lot of people don’t really want to hear about Molly anymore. They don’t want to hear about how much his misses her. They don’t want to hear that he still wakes up in the morning and rolls over expecting to find her there and then can’t breathe for that first blinding second he remembers.

Alexis never even met her, except on Skype, and she has no idea how to respond when Daniel tries talking about Molly now. It’s not like Daniel and Alexis ever had the easiest relationship to begin with. And Claire lost Bradford, but Daniel doesn’t feel like it’s the same. His parents had almost forty years together. They had children. And they also had a whole lot of hurt and infidelity and horrible parts to their marriage. He and Molly didn’t have any of that, the good or the bad.

Betty will listen, of course. She lost her mom, and she always very quickly says it’s obviously a different relationship, but Daniel kind of appreciates that she understands loss. Another part of him wishes really fiercely she didn’t understand it at all. She helps him pack up Molly’s things, and he knows she’d still listen fastidiously if he wanted to talk about Molly, but packing up her things makes him feel like he’s supposed to stop talking about her. Like Betty will tell him he got his closure and needs to move on now. He knows, in reality, Betty would never say that to him. But he’s afraid she’d think it, at least.

Daniel’s not even forty. He’s the kind of widower some people look at suspiciously, like maybe he killed her for insurance money or something. Like a kindergarten teacher would be a big payout. People get uncomfortable when they see his wedding ring, ask about his wife, and then hear the word widower or died. It’s not really the kind of thing Daniel can mention on a first date. If he ever felt like he wanted to go on a first date again, which he really, truly doesn’t. Daniel doesn’t know what moving on is supposed to be.

So he’s keeping it all to himself. Past experience reminds him what an awful idea bottling it up is, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He tried finding people who understood him and it led him to a cult, so he really doesn’t feel secure in Learning to Grieve Like an Adult. He just feels like he’s…worn down. Beat up. Dragged behind a car for a while. He’s alive, he’s going through the motions, but everything feels so much harder than it should.

Betty has to work on a story, but she left something at home in Queens—a storyboard? an idea binder? Daniel can’t even remember—so Daniel offers to go get it. That’s a normal not-boss-and-assistant, just-friends thing to do, he thinks. Although he is still her boss, technically. Matt is her direct supervisor, but Daniel’s the editor-in-chief.

Then again, they surpassed any kind of normal professional relationship a very long time ago, assuming they ever had one in the first place, and it’s basically impossible to even pretend to keep up any kind of propriety after you hallucinated your dead wife’s face over someone and kissed them and then they rescued you from a cult. Not to mention the time they helped exonerate your mother for murder and were the last person in the room with your father as he died.

Anyway.

Daniel doesn’t need to go to Queens, because Hilda had to come to Manhattan for something something political meeting something with her boyfriend. Daniel’s not the best at remembering details these days. But he can wait in the office for Hilda to come drop it off so Betty can go do research or maybe the interview for her story. Daniel can’t remember what her pitch was or what the final story idea ended up being.

God, he’s even worse at his job than before. Maybe it was all the drugs the Community pumped into him. Maybe they’ll wear off and the cotton feeling in his brain will finally go away. Except that feeling’s been there since he rushed home to ambulances and the coroner. He thought it would go away with Tibet. It didn’t. He thought it would go away with the Community. It definitely didn’t. Maybe it’s just permanent now.

“Hello? Earth to Daniel?” Hilda says, somehow standing directly in front of him. Daniel jumps about a mile in the air. Hilda raises her eyebrows. “Long day?”

Daniel scrubs a hand down his face. “Yeah.” Long day, long week, long month, long year. Long life. Unlike Molly.

“Here’s the movie Betty needed.” Hilda laughs a little, tapping a scarlet fingernail against the DVD case. “I had to buy her this DVD because she wore out the VHS copy we had when we were kids. She used to watch this every night.”

“She needed a movie?” Daniel asks blankly. He was sure whatever she needed had to do with the story she’s working on.

“Yeah,” Hilda says slowly. “A documentary about astronauts. For that shoot about space fashion?”

Daniel has no idea what Hilda’s talking about. Why on earth are they doing a shoot about space fashion? He doesn’t even vaguely remember this. Hilda tilts her head to the side.

“Are you okay?” she asks. “You seem a little out of it.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says robotically. My wife is dead, he doesn’t say. I just got used to calling her my wife and now she’s gone and she is never coming back and I’m supposed to just keep on living without her. And I know I will, because I am an absolute piece of shit so I know I’ll date other women and I’ll sleep with other women and someday I might even fall in love with another woman.

He can’t say any of that.

Hilda just stares at him. It’s the weirdest feeling in the world. She doesn’t say a word. She looks at him, eyebrows raised like she’s waiting for him to answer a question, except she didn’t ask him anything.

“Okay,” she says under her breath. She pulls out a chair and sits down. “Your wife died, huh?”

Daniel blinks. “Yeah?” He doesn’t know how she knew he was thinking about that.

“What’s it been, three months now?” Hilda asks. He’s touched she even knows that much. She and Justin and Ignacio all signed a card for him, but he just assumed Betty did most of the heavy lifting there.

“Almost four,” Daniel corrects. Three months, three weeks, four days, twenty-two hours. He used to know it down to the minute but then he was getting lost counting down minutes, and people notice when you lose the thread of a conversation to watch the ticking clock.

“So people don’t ask how you’re doing anymore. They don’t say sorry for your loss, they don’t give you that freaking stupid smile like they feel bad for you.”

“Yeah,” Daniel says. He feels breathless. That’s exactly right.

“And they’re wondering when you’re gonna move on,” Hilda goes on quietly. “Because you weren’t married very long. And you’re young. Like that’s supposed to mean it doesn’t matter as much.”

Daniel has tears in his eyes. “Like it doesn’t count.”

Hilda’s eyes are shiny, too. “I wasn’t even married to Santos,” she tells him, voice choked. “People act like that means it hurts less.”

“But it hurts more,” Daniel says. “Not more, I guess. But different. Because you can’t stop thinking about what you didn’t get to do.”

Hilda nods, biting the inside of her cheek. “Yep. And when you start thinking about someone else for the first time—oh, boy, that’s when the shit really hits the fan, you know? You feel guilty enough just when you’re happy about regular things, but when you’re falling in love with someone else?” She shakes her head. “I stayed in bed three days the first time I noticed a new guy’s ass.” She laughs as she says it. It makes Daniel laugh, too, but he’s crying.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do that,” he admits. “Move on. I know I—I’m still young, and I probably will. But I don’t know how.”

Hilda shrugs. “Yeah. You can’t really think about how. There’s nothing I can tell you. There’s not, like, an instruction manual. You just do. It starts to hurt a little less, and you feel a little less guilty.”

Daniel swipes at his eyes. “I don’t know if I want it to.”

Hilda reaches across his desk and lays her hand on top of his. “Hey. I know. That’s the guilt part. You think you should feel bad forever or it means you didn’t really love her. But that’s not how love works, you know? Not real love. Not good love. It makes you a better person. You can love more now. You know it could hurt, but it’s worth it. And I know it feels like bullshit when people say she’d want you to move on and be happy. Like, no, what she wanted was to be with you, right? She didn’t want to freaking die. But she did. And she does want you to move on and be happy. That’s what love is. If it was you and she was still here, you’d want her to find someone else, wouldn’t you?”

Daniel shrugs. He’d really rather not think about Molly with anyone else. It was bad enough knowing about her and Connor.

Hilda laughs a little. “I know. Papi said that to me at one point and I was like, excuse me? No, he better not move on. But not really. You wouldn’t want her to be sad and alone forever. And she wouldn’t want you to, either. You can move on without forgetting her. It’s hard, and it hurts, but you can do it.”

“So there’s no way to know how?” Daniel asks hoarsely.

Hilda gives him a sad smile. “It just takes time. I know how stupid that answer feels. But really. You just keep waking up and living.”

Daniel sighs. “Okay.”

Hilda squeezes his hand. “You can talk to people, too, you know. Regular people.”

“Not cult people,” he finishes her obvious thought. She winces apologetically.

“Hey, no judgment here. If they came to me right after he died and said they had a way for me to be with Santos again, I would’ve gone for it. They probably wouldn’t have let me in because I don’t have the money and I am not nice on drugs so I would’ve ended up kicking all their asses, but still. I found a bunch of old ladies at the cemetery and started carrying their teeth around, so I don’t know what’s worse.”

“I just feel like no one wants to hear it anymore,” Daniel mumbles. “Like…Betty will listen, but I feel like the whole time she’ll be thinking it’s been long enough.”

“Okay, shut up, you know my sister would never think that.”

“I know,” he admits. “But it’s just in my head.”

“And you don’t want to talk to your mom because she’ll talk about all the memories and the good times but like…you didn’t get that many memories or good times and you’re pissed about it.”

Daniel nods, unable to speak for a minute. “And I feel guilty about that, too. For not wanting to talk to my mom. And being kind of mad at her.”

“Yeah, I had a few blowups with Papi about that,” Hilda says. “Good thing he knew how mad the whole death thing makes you because I probably deserved a slap or two.”

“Your father would never slap you,” Daniel says.

“Of course not. He did smack my hand with a wooden spoon when I was a kid and I was trying to eat stuff before it was ready, though.”

“Betty’s never mentioned that,” Daniel says, surprised. It’s kind of funny.

Hilda scoffs. “Oh, please, he never did it to Saint Betty.” They both laugh a little. She taps his hand and then releases it. “You got my number?” she asks. “’Cause you know, you can talk to me. I know how it feels. It’s a little different, because I didn’t marry him and we did get to have Justin together first and I didn’t have to spend a bunch of time thinking about it before it actually happened, but I’m probably the closest you’ve got to someone who went through what you did.”

“Thank you,” Daniel chokes out. “Hilda, thank you so much.”

She waves a hand carelessly. “It’s not really a club I want to be president of, but here we are, right?” She stands up. “You good? I can cancel on Archie. It’s just bingo or something.”

It startles a laugh out of Daniel. “Bingo?”

Hilda rolls her eyes. “He needs old people to vote for him.”

“I’m good,” Daniel promises. “Thank you.”

“Anytime,” she says. “I mean it. Don’t try to, like, man your way through it, okay? Call me sometime.”

“I will,” he says. He thinks he might actually do it. “Hey,” he stops her just before she leaves his office. “How’d you know that’s what was wrong?” It’s kind of a dumb question; it was probably glaringly obvious to someone who went through a similar experience. But Hilda just winks conspiratorially.

“I got big sister mind-reading powers,” she says. “And mom mind-reading powers. Double the mind-reading. I’m freaking psychic.”

She leaves him laughing in his office, and he feels better than he has in months.

 

v.

It’s not like Daniel’s trying to make a habit of getting blackout drunk and ending up in Queens. But here he is, unsticking his eyelids to find Arielle and Sebastian looking back at him.

(He’d never seen the Little Mermaid until he’d mentioned that fact, off-hand, to Betty pretty soon after the first time this happened. Now he’s seen every major Disney princess movie. He can see some of the merits.)

Daniel tries to swallow through the dry mouth. The worst part of this particular time of waking up in the Suarez house is that Betty isn’t even here. She’s in London now. He didn’t call her in a slurring plea for help. He gave the taxi driver this address and came here himself.

Ignacio didn’t seem to mind. Daniel thinks, anyway; he can’t completely remember everything from last night. The house is so quiet. All the other times Daniel’s been here, it’s been loud and chaotic, buzzing with people. Now Ignacio lives here alone. Daniel’s stomach hurts when he thinks about that. He knows Betty’s must, too, though they haven’t talked about it.

They haven’t talked about anything. They haven’t talked at all since the night of her going away party, when he didn’t show up and he ignored call after call. He still has her increasingly sad voicemails. Sometimes, when he deserves a reminder of what a dick he is, he listens to every single one. And he makes himself listen to the last one twice, the one where her voice breaks as she asks if he’s going to come say goodbye to her.

He wants to get drunk again.

Except Daniel is not the same doofy-haired guy he was the first time he wound up drunk in the Suarez house. He’s older, for one thing, and he doesn’t handle multi-day benders nearly as well. He’s also more mature. He knows getting drunk is not going to change the fact that he acted like an ass and hurt Betty really badly. It’s also not going to change the fact that she’s gone, and it’s not going to bring her back. This is an amazing opportunity for her, and if he were the person he should be—the person she thought he was—he’d be happy for her.

He shakes his head, gently, and drags himself out of bed. He brushes his hand over that awful graduation picture, smiling fondly. Betty looks fantastic without her braces, obviously, but he didn’t really have time to get used to her without them. When he pictures her in his head, she still has braces.

Then he realizes he’s being a little creepy, especially considering Betty was only 20 or so in this photo, and he pulls his hand back. He tugs on his jeans and hunts around for his socks but gives up with only the left one. Crawling around on his hands and knees is not working for him this morning. He can smell coffee in the kitchen and he knows it’ll help him feel better. Ignacio will also make him feel better.

Except Ignacio isn’t in the kitchen. It’s Bobby, Hilda’s husband. Daniel pauses for a second in the doorway, wondering if he should just leave. He can only see Bobby’s back; maybe he didn’t notice Daniel come in. But then Bobby turns around. His eyes go wide. He obviously didn’t know Daniel was here.

“Hi,” Daniel says.

“Hi,” Bobby responds. He’s messing with the back door, the one that’s been broken for months. They just stare at each other for a little while. “You’re, uh, Daniel, yeah? Betty’s friend.”

Daniel’s mouth twists a little at the word friend. He doesn’t deserve the title. And yet he wants so much more. “Yeah,” he says, because he’s not going to unload all that on this poor guy who was just trying to fix his new father-in-law’s doorknob.

Bobby nods. He’s not giving Daniel the friendliest look in the world. “Ignacio know you’re here, or you just some rich guy who goes slumming in Queens to get drunk and crash here?”

Daniel blinks. “Um, no, he knows I’m here.” Daniel does remember Ignacio helping him up the stairs last night.

“So it wasn’t you who broke this doorknob?” Bobby asks, shaking the new one kind of aggressively. Daniel suddenly remembers Betty saying this guy’s family is in the mob. Or used to be. Or could be? He can’t remember the whole story.

“No,” Daniel says quickly. “I came in the front door.”

“Hm,” Bobby says. “You want some coffee?” he asks begrudgingly. “I thought Ignacio left this for me, but it was probably for you. You look like shit.”

Daniel nods. “Feel like it.” He gets himself a mug and pours some coffee, then adds his sugar.

“You know your way around here, huh?” Bobby asks. Daniel really does not know what the deal is with the hostility. He’s just hungover and wants to leave.

“I’ve known Betty for almost five years. I’ve been here a lot.”

“A lot, he says,” Bobby mutters, turning back to the door. “Uh-huh.”

Daniel’s a bit bewildered, but he’s too hungover to ask Bobby what his problem is. He just keeps drinking his coffee. He wants to ask how Betty’s doing, but he can’t seem to find the words. If it were Ignacio, he could do it. If it were Hilda, he’s pretty sure he could do it, too. He wouldn’t have to ask if it were Justin—Justin would tell him whether he wanted to know or not. But Daniel doesn’t know Bobby, and just thinking about Betty hurts, so he definitely can’t ask about her.

As if Bobby has the same mind-reading abilities as Hilda, he asks, back still to Daniel, “You talk to Betty lately?”

Daniel clears his throat. “Uh, no,” he says. “Actually, we haven’t talked since she left.”

For some reason, that seems to set Bobby off. He whirls around, now brandishing a screwdriver in one hand and the doorknob in another. “Yeah, and whose fault is that?”

“What?” Daniel asks quickly. “I mean—she hasn’t called me, either.”

“You didn’t go to her goodbye party!” Bobby shoots off accusingly. Daniel’s taken aback for a second. How does Bobby know that? Was Betty really hurt enough to tell everyone? He can’t believe he’s having this conversation with Hilda’s husband, some guy he’s only met once.

“I’m sorry, is that any of your business?” Daniel demands in his best editor-in-chief voice.

Bobby points with the screwdriver and Daniel gulps a little. “You really hurt her feelings, you know that?”

Daniel slumps, all the wind out of his sails. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I know.”

Bobby narrows his eyes suspiciously. “You know?”

“I was a total ass about her leaving,” Daniel says. “I wasn’t even happy for her.”

“So you got a lot of nerve showing up here after all that,” Bobby points out. “You’re a jerk to her and then you come crawling back to Ignacio?”

Daniel hangs his head. “I know,” he says miserably. “But I was drunk, and I—” He cuts himself off. But then he makes himself say it out loud. “I missed her. I miss her so much. Every day.”

Bobby taps the screwdriver against his chin thoughtfully. “What are you saying?”

Daniel sighs. “I wish I wasn’t such a jerk when she was leaving. And I wish I could figure out how to fix it now. I just don’t know how. I don’t think she’d even want to hear from me after how I acted. I set her release on fire.”

“I know.” Bobby crosses his arms over his chest. “You could try apologizing, you know.”

Daniel winces. “I’m not very good at that. I should be, with how often I’ve needed to do it, but…” He shrugs. “I don’t know if she’d answer if I called.”

Bobby rolls his eyes. “Of course she would. She’s a nice girl.”

Daniel shrugs again. “So she’d polite if we ran into each other or something, but she screens calls. I’ve seen her do it.”

Bobby laughs a little, looking proud. “Yeah, Chipmunk’s got bite to her.”

Daniel stares down into his coffee, eyes sliding out of focus. Maybe it’s the hangover, but his mouth is moving without his brain’s input. “I don’t know how to do this without her.”

“Work?” Bobby guesses.

“Life.” Daniel laughs bitterly. “We never kept our work separate from our personal lives, even when we got mad at each other and swore we were going to. She’s been the person I run to first when things blow up for so long now. But now the thing that blew up is…us. So how am I supposed to know how to fix it when she’s not here to talk me through it?”

Bobby scoffs. Loudly. Daniel looks up, surprised and a bit wounded. He was completely sincere. And he’s hurting. Why is Bobby acting like he’s being ridiculous?

“You don’t get to lean on Betty when it’s Betty you hurt,” he points out. “Come on. Get with the program. You knew her all this time, huh? You guys are such good friends, you’re always up in each other’s business? You danced forever at our wedding, didn’t you? You know how to make it right. You’re just chicken.”

Daniel’s mouth drops open. “Chicken?” he echoes faintly.

“Yeah. ‘Cause you’re crazy about her and you’re scared she’s not crazy about you.”

Daniel drops his head to thunk on the counter. “Yeah,” he says, face squished against the countertop. “That’s true.”

“Wow, I did not think you were gonna admit that so fast,” Bobby says. “Hilda owes me ten bucks.”

“You and Hilda bet on this?” Daniel asks.

“Oh, yeah. She thought you were still clueless but I was like come on. You don’t almost set yourself on fire if you don’t know.”

“What’s the point of betting money with your own wife?” Daniel asks absently.

“Don’t change the subject,” Bobby says. “You’re in love with Betty.”

Daniel rubs his eyes. “Oh, God. So Betty knows and I’m just completely pathetic?”

“Betty might have an idea,” Bobby corrects. “But then you were an ass and hurt her feelings and confused her.”

“I told her I couldn’t live without her,” Daniel confesses. “And she still left.”

Bobby rolls his eyes. “You said it at work and offered her a promotion?”

“Well…”

“Yeah, not gonna cut it. You know she took it like you meant it about work. Even if everybody else knows what you meant, and probably deep down she knows what you meant, she’s always going to go with the option that isn’t being loved back by a guy like you.”

Daniel doesn’t even ask what Bobby means by a guy like you. Daniel’s all too familiar with that term being applied to himself.

“But what if she doesn’t love me?” Daniel asks, voice small. He’s probably going to be embarrassed later about how nakedly emotional he’s being with someone he doesn’t even know, but he’s never been very good at keeping things normal when it concerns Betty.

Bobby rolls his eyes again. “You think a girl leaves you seven voicemails about coming to say goodbye if she doesn’t love you? Come on. I saw you two dancing. I saw her looking at you.”

“Then why’d she leave?” Daniel asks. “If she loved me, why wouldn’t she want to stay with me?”

Bobby shrugs. “You gonna be the guy who wants his girl to give up her dreams?” he asks simply. He points with the screwdriver again. “I ain’t letting that happen to my chipmunk.”

“You think I should call her,” Daniel concludes.

Bobby shakes his head. “I’m not telling you how to apologize. If you really love her, you know how.”

Daniel finishes his coffee. He rinses the mug and puts it in the dishwasher. “Okay,” he says.

“Okay,” Bobby says. He goes back to the doorknob.

“Thanks,” Daniel says. “Um…why’d you help me?” Bobby started this conversation ready to punch Daniel. It reminds Daniel of Betty telling him Bobby slammed a guy up against the window of the car to make him apologize to her.

“Well, mostly? If it’ll make Betty happy, I’ll do anything. I love that girl, even without her being Hilda’s sister. So you better make her happy.”

“I’d like to,” Daniel says. “Why else?”

Bobby shrugs. “Come on, man, you gave me a check for five grand for my wedding. I gotta do something to pay you back.”

Daniel laughs. “Well, if you help me get Betty, I’ll owe you forever. She’s worth more than all the money I have.”

Bobby grins. “I like that you said that. I like that a lot. But it also shows me you’re richer than I thought and you could’ve coughed up more than five in the first place.”

Daniel cracks up laughing. He likes Bobby. Feeling bold, he says, “Well, maybe for your anniversary. You know, if I’m sticking around.”

“Alright, that’s what I like to hear!” Bobby crows. “Go get your girl.”

“Yeah,” Daniel says, feeling some confidence starting to seep back into his bones. “You know what? I will.”

And he does.

 

+1

 

Daniel snores himself awake on the couch. He’s surprised he could even fall asleep—the Suarez circus is in full swing. Justin is upstairs practicing for his vocal performance class, and he apparently never learned that sometimes people sing quietly. Bobby’s keeping up a steady flow of curses with his head buried in the dishwasher, trying to find and stop a leak that’s been there for years. Hilda and Betty are doing dishes in the sink, judging by the clanking and splashing, but he can tell they’re mostly gossiping and cackling with laughter. A lot of it is probably at his expense. Bobby and Hilda’s two-year-old daughter, Rosa, is sitting on the floor babbling to herself, slamming blocks together and playing with the discarded wrapping paper from everyone’s presents. Daniel can hear his mother and Tyler laughingly talk up their club sodas as if they’re the best drinks either of them have ever had while Alexis reminds DJ they’re back in the States and he can’t legally drink anymore. Marc and Amanda are at the table, keeping up a commentary about the state of Betty’s hair and eating the flan Ignacio makes specially for Amanda every year since she eats dinner with her parents and only comes for dessert. He can’t hear Cliff, but he’s willing to bet he’s beside Marc, eating flan and not mocking Betty.

Daniel blinks. Sometimes it’s still kind of disorienting to be part of all this, the chaos and noise and life of this large extended family. Elena, now sporting a wedding band, laughs at him sympathetically.

“You’re gonna have to wait until you go home for a real nap,” she points out.

Daniel yawns. “I don’t think I’ll get to take a nap there, either,” he says, toeing the line between reporting facts and whining. “Apparently, we still have so much to do. I’ve painted every room in the house and now she’s changed her mind about what color she wants everything.”

“I can hear you!” Betty sing-songs from the kitchen.

“I love every minute of it,” Daniel promises. He can hear Betty snort, and then Amanda mimic the snort, and then Marc actually snort because he does that sometimes if he laughs too hard, and then Cliff laughing at Marc laughing and snorting.

The thing is, Daniel’s not lying. He may be embellishing, because he doesn’t exactly love when Betty bolts awake at 3 am gasping about outlet covers, but in the grand scheme of things, the big picture of owning a house and being married to Betty and living some of their more domestic dreams, he really does love every minute. When they decided to move back home to New York, he convinced her to get an actual house, not an apartment, because, as he pointed out, she should enjoy some perks of being married to a rich guy. The compromise was she wanted a fixer-upper that they could pour their hearts into. So far, Daniel’s been doing most of the work and Betty’s been horribly indecisive about it all.

It’s not terrible.

“Where’s Ignacio?” he asks Elena.

“I don’t know,” she says, apparently unbothered by this fact. Rosa keeps bringing her blocks and she’s acting excited about it each time.

Daniel pulls himself off the couch with a little groan. He’s getting old. Really. Betty pulled a gray hair out of the back of his head last week and he’d had to sit down with his head between his knees for almost a solid two minutes. Betty had laughed so hard she peed a little. Somehow even that can’t dampen his ardor.

(That’s a phrase he learned reading Jane Austen, at Betty’s behest. Not as bad as he thought it would be. He sees the appeal of that Mr. Darcy guy, even if Betty rolls her eyes every time he compares himself to him.)

Daniel has a pretty good idea of where to find Ignacio. Sure enough, Betty’s father is sitting on the back porch—the part that used to be Hilda’s salon and is now mostly a storage unit—looking into the kitchen and smiling. He turns that smile on Daniel as he sits in the discarded salon chair beside Ignacio’s.

“Hiding out?” Daniel teases.

“I forget how loud they can all be,” Ignacio says, shaking his head. “Every time I finally start getting used to the quiet, everybody comes crashing back in.”

“You love it, though,” Daniel says.

“Oh, I do,” Ignacio agrees, face soft. “Won’t even pretend I don’t.”

“Except when you’re trying to watch your novelas and Rosa screams the whole time,” Daniel counters.

Ignacio laughs. “I love my granddaughter with my whole heart,” is his only response. He nudges his shoulder into Daniel’s. “Pretty excited for another baby around here.”

Daniel ducks his head, overwhelmed for a second. “Yeah,” he says. “I…am excited.” It sounds weak even to his own ears. Ignacio snorts.

“You’re terrified.”

“So terrified,” Daniel admits. “The last time I thought I had a kid, he wasn’t mine. And he was already old enough to go to the bathroom by himself.”

Ignacio puts his arm around Daniel’s shoulders. “Well, we both know you don’t have to worry about the first part. As for the second…” He shrugs. “You learn.”

“What if I’m bad at it?” It’s a question that’s been haunting Daniel for months. Years, really, since he ever started considering having children. He hadn’t been a very good father the short while DJ was with him. He’d tried too hard to be a cool, fun dad and hadn’t really done much parenting. By the time he’d finally started to find his footing on that front, DJ got whisked out from under him. Now Daniel’s just the cool uncle who doesn’t have to worry about discipline.

“You will be sometimes,” Ignacio says bluntly. “Everybody makes mistakes as a parent.”

Daniel huffs. “Yeah,” he says darkly, thinking about his own father.

“But you’ve got a big heart, Daniel,” Ignacio assures him. “I’ve known it from the first time I met you. You threw up my huevos and bought us a Christmas tree and made Justin feel special and trusted Betty’s judgment and protected Hilda’s manger ornament. And I knew right then you were a very good man.”

It makes Daniel’s throat a little tight. He hadn’t been a very good man at that point. He’s still not sure he’s a very good man now. But when Ignacio says it, Daniel almost believes it. Ignacio is a good man, no question or doubt about that. If he thinks Daniel’s a good man, it might be true. At least partially.

“That was one of the most special days in my whole life,” Daniel admits. “It was the first time I remember understanding what a family’s supposed to feel like.”

There were some good times with the Meades when Daniel was a child. He knows there were. It’s just hard to remember them sometimes under all the conniving and faked deaths and addiction and pain. Still, when Daniel thinks of an ideal family, his mind goes to the Suarezes first.

“I’m glad,” Ignacio says. “We are so lucky to have you as part of our family, Daniel. And your mom and siblings, too.”

“I’m the lucky one,” Daniel insists. He cranes his neck a little so he can see Betty, the way she presses her hand against her uncomfortably large belly, the glow surrounding her and the way she keeps smiling.

“We can all be lucky,” Ignacio compromises.

Daniel huffs. “I can agree with that.”

“Oh my God,” Betty says, reaching out to grab the counter as she doubles over. “It is for real.”

“Shit!” Hilda cries. “I told you it wasn’t just indigestion! Daniel, tell me you got a go bag somewhere in this house. Because guess what, buddy? It’s go time!”

“What?” Daniel says stupidly. He jumps out of the chair and runs to Betty. “Betty? What? Are you telling me you’ve been in labor and didn’t say anything?”

“Merry Christmas,” she gasps. “Get me some drugs.”

There is a lot of screaming (mostly Betty, and then Rosa, after the screaming scares her, and then Justin, once he figures out what’s happening) and a fair amount of tears (all Daniel), but they get Betty her drugs, safely ensconced in a hospital bed.

“We can’t have the baby at my dad’s house,” she kept insisting as they waited for the ambulance. “Charlie had her baby here. It’s bad juju!”

Daniel doesn’t remember Betty ever caring about juju before, and it had taken him almost a full minute to remember who the hell Charlie was and why she would’ve had a baby in the Suarez house, but he’d focused on making sure Betty got what she wanted. Now, holding Betty’s hand as she screams her way through another contraction, Daniel’s not so sure this whole baby thing was a good idea.

“Can’t you give her anything more for the pain?” he snaps at the doctor. He’s never been good at sitting on his hands while Betty’s hurting.

“One more push,” the doctor soothes, mostly ignoring Daniel. “And your baby will be here.”

Daniel is still, somehow, crying more than Betty, and then his crying is drowned out by the baby crying, but then he starts crying even more, and then Betty’s laughing at him for crying so much.

“Congratulations,” the doctor says with a smile. “You have a daughter.”

“Oh, God,” Betty says, laughing abruptly turning into crying. “Oh my God, Daniel, we have a daughter.”

“A daughter,” Daniel echoes.

The nurse manages to keep their family out of the room for an entire hour while what feels like a swarm of people do tests and take notes. Finally, baby clean and dry and settled against Betty’s chest, with Daniel beside her in the bed with his arm around the two of them, the mob that is their family descends upon them.

“That’s your baby cousin,” Justin tells his little sister.

Claire’s weeping into a handkerchief. Ignacio comes right up and kisses Betty’s forehead, then the baby’s, and then even Daniel’s. Amanda squints and tilts her head this way and that.

“Wow, Betty,” she says. “Your baby isn’t hideous.”

“Thank God the Meade genes prevailed,” Marc adds. But they’re both smiling at Betty, and Amanda has tears in her eyes. She even goes so far as to say,

“Your sweatiness looks better than usual.” before rushing to Betty’s side to kiss her cheek.

Hilda went to Betty’s side immediately, a stream of encouragement and love pouring out of her so fast and so emphatically Daniel can’t even tell if it’s English or Spanish. Most likely a mix of both. Bobby gives Daniel a gentle punch on the shoulder, and Elena takes pictures. Tyler hovers, a little unsure, at the back of the room with Cliff, who kept asking if he should leave, and Alexis, who doesn’t want much insight into the childbirth process. DJ looks at his cousin a bit skeptically.

“I didn’t think about a girl,” he admits. “I thought it would be a boy.”

Betty, ever the romantic, had insisted on being surprised. Somehow, Daniel’s not actually that surprised to have a daughter. Maybe he’d like a son, someday, but seeing Betty holding a baby girl seems like the most obvious thing in the world. So much of her life has been shaped by her relationship with her own mother. It feels like the other half of a circle just clicked into place. He’s also secretly kind of glad. He’s really nervous about figuring out how to raise a son without turning into his father.

Shockingly, the last person to come visit them that night after they finish a video call with Christina is none other than Wilhelmina Slater. Daniel tenses up a bit, just at first, a fight-or-flight reaction to Wilhelmina he still hasn’t shaken after all these years. She looks at them, looks at the baby, and raises her eyebrows.

“I had to see it for myself,” she says. “I was afraid it might come out with braces and polka dots.”

But she and Betty share a look Daniel doesn’t fully understand, and he knows she’s part of their little family, too. The nurse is horrified by how many people they’ve crammed in here, and she shoos everyone away.

“The new parents need time alone with the baby,” she insists.

“Sure, until it comes time for diaper changing and then suddenly they’re going to be all oh, please, you’re so good with babies,” Hilda mutters on her way out. She gives Betty a last dazzling smile before she goes, though.

“Oh, Betty,” Claire sobs. “You did such a wonderful job.” She crushes herself against Daniel’s side. “I’m so happy, darling.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Daniel manages to say.

“I’m so proud of you, mija,” Ignacio whispers. “And your mother is, too.”

“Thanks, Papi,” Betty says tearfully. “I love you.”

“I love you,” Ignacio says. He kisses the baby’s forehead. “And I love you.” Then he squeezes Daniel’s shoulder. “And I love you.”

Everyone finally files out, and Daniel looks at Betty, looks at the tiny, wrinkled face of their daughter, and he lets out a deep breath he feels like he’s been holding his entire life. He’s been part of a family for years now, a family that’s a bit mismatched in DNA but so full of love it hardly mattered. He’s rebuilt his relationship with his mother and his sister and his nephew and discovered an entire new brother to love. It’s been a long time since he felt like the lost, lonely guy who leapt into bed with any model walking by because he couldn’t bear to be alone.

But this is a brand new family. An innocent, helpless little baby who’s going to rely on them totally for years. The biggest responsibility of his life and the most terrifying by far. But he’s got Betty at his side, and she’s been making him feel braver than he ever had any right to for years. They’ve got an entire crowd out there, people ready and waiting to help and guide them through any rough patches.

Daniel presses his forehead against Betty’s and strokes a finger down the back of his daughter’s tiny, perfect hand.

“Our family,” he whispers.

“Our family,” Betty agrees.

He stops thinking about his fears and his shortcomings, stops considering every way he could ruin this. Instead, he focuses on what he knows about family, all the ways he’s learned to love, and he closes his eyes. They can do this, he knows. He may have learned later in life, but he knows what family feels like now. And he can’t wait to teach that to his daughter.