Author's Note: Wow it's done. You can decide for yourself whether this epilogue counts or not; if you hate the way things turned out, pretend it ended with the last chapter. I will be doing a sidestory type piece, where I will explore things that happened before this story and inbetween last chapter and this epilogue. That will be uploaded under a different story. Thank you for reading through almost 500k words of utter nonsense. Hope to see ya'll around again

Voyage of the Rust Bucket
Epilogue - Plus One

It's fucking cold in this shithole apartment. Winters here have gotten more brutal every year. I try to bury myself further under my heavy comforter only to discover my bedmate has confiscated it and wrapped himself in it like a burrito. After some finagling I find an entrance and wiggle my way in. Bumping into him makes him stir, and dazedly he lifts his arm so I can seek warmth against him.

Eight years ago, I purchased a cup of coffee on a road trip and while I enjoyed it, this man introduced himself by saying, "Nice backpack." Who knew from such an unremarkable first greeting we would find ourselves here, thousands of miles from our first meeting place?

beep, beep, beep, beep, beepbeepbeep

The shrill beep of my apartment door keypad stirs me from my sleep. I hate that thing. Unable to avoid the sound I grumble some curse words to myself. It's too freakin' cold. I don't want to be bothered.

Someone taps me repeatedly through the blanket. "Jess, you guys gotta get up. Charlie and Aisha's plane already landed and Hidalgo is gonna miss his flight."

What? I pop my head up and peek at the neon clock that's hanging on my wall. My alarm should've gone off hours ago. I've gotten into this bad habit in my old age, where I turn my morning alarm off and then climb back into bed. Guess I did that again. Any other time of day and I would be panicked, but it's morning and I haven't had caffeine so I couldn't give a damn.

"Are you already packed?" Roy asks. He's the one who patted me awake. I survey my studio apartment and find Danny gathering up bags and luggage.

I stretch and say, "Yeah we packed last night." Noticing Hidalgo has yet to move, I reach over and run my fingers through his hair, gently rousing him. "Baby wake up, you're going to miss your flight again." Yes, again. This man has missed more flights than the rest of the nation combined. Some people are perpetually late. Some people are perpetually a mess. He's both.

He groans, his body probably aching from the cold. "Do we have time for breakfast?" he mumbles. Opening his eyes halfway, he doesn't register that Roy and Danny are waiting for us. They're already dressed and ready to go.

"No, we're already late," I say. Tossing the comforter off and sitting up, I'm greeted by Roy with a good morning kiss on my cheek and a short embrace.

"Quickie?" Hidalgo requests.

Really? "If we don't have time for breakfast, why would we have time for that?"

"I meant a quick breakfast," he mutters.

I don't answer because I've already disappeared into the bathroom to get ready to go. I'll have to forgo some of my normal routine because we are really late. Like, an hour later than I'm comfortable with. Airport security is a bitch, the weather is a bitch, and getting to the airport in this weather is a megabitch.

Expecting Hidalgo to be ready by the time I am is like expecting to come into a billionaire inheritance from a distant aunt you've never met. It's a waste. I've gotten my teeth brushed, hair done, face cleaned and moisturized, and I'm dressed before he even gets out of bed. Pushing him along, I have to physically get him into the bathroom and start undressing him for his brain to kick on. "I got it, I got it," he says, waving me off of him.

Now we wait. Out in the living area, I properly greet Danny, getting another good morning kiss and hug. I gather little things not packed. Lip balm, some lotion, and my deodorant. Sitting between Junior the stuffed Badger and a toy model of a Lamborghini, is my phone. I grab that last, right as Hidalgo exits the bathroom and sits down to start putting on his shoes.

Half asleep, he struggles to do something as basic as tie his laces. We can't waste another second, so I kneel down to tie them for him. I hear Danny chuckle and say, "Is he your kid?" Feels that way sometimes.

Grabbing our luggage, we finally take off. Roy and Danny make sure to not leave their own backpacks as we head out to pick Charlie and Aisha up as we drop Hidalgo off. Down our apartment hallway we rush, jogging as we go. Hidalgo is barely able to keep up, his eyes threatening to close as he still hasn't shaken the sleep from his head.

On the third floor, we rarely take the elevator because it is the world's slowest elevator. In the time it will take for the elevator to get to our floor and take us down to the lobby, we could already be two blocks away. So we take the stairwell, our feet pattering down the hundred-year-old concrete steps like raindrops.

An older woman on her way up the steps catches our eyes. Taking steps slowly, one at a time, each taking four or five seconds for her, she moves out of our way. Bags, packed with groceries, from the nearby market are in her hands.

Hidalgo is wide awake upon seeing her. "Oh, Mrs. Ozaeta, good morning!" he chirps.

"Oh hello Hidalgo! Jessie, Roy, Danny. You look like you're going on vacation," she says. Each word out of her mouth sounds labored, due to the difficulty of the stairs and her age. Legend is she's been in this building since she was born, and that the day she was born was the day it opened.

"Ah, yeah, I'm going home. But I'll be back in a few months. I look forward to having some coffee with you then!" Hidalgo says, his enthusiasm at full speed. Roy and Danny already know where this is going and have moved to take the heavy bags from Mrs. Ozaeta.

Roy says, "We'll help you out, Mrs. Ozaeta."

"Oh, thank you boys so much," she says. I'll watch the luggage, I guess, as Roy and Danny carry her groceries and Hidalgo leaves his shit behind to offer his arm. Our sense of urgency is gone, having given way to the sense of duty they all have. I don't mind. Don't take any of this as complaint. I consider it a compliment to have men like that in my life.

"You know Mrs. Ozaeta, you don't have to go out by yourself in this weather. You're more than welcome to have one of us accompany you when you go out. Or better yet, we'll do your shopping for you…" Hidalgo's voice fades as they reach her floor and enter the hallway.

Standing in the stairwell by myself, I blank my mind of any anxieties abut being late. Otherwise I'm going to feel bad that Charlie and Aisha are waiting for us after flying up here through a snowstorm. I'm grateful they were even able to make it, considering how the weather has been. There is nothing I look forward to every year more than our annual Friendmasgiving celebration. I don't want them to miss it.

Ten minutes later, the three men come barreling down the stairs again. Their luggage is picked up and we're back to our hurry. I don't ask, but it's safe to assume the extra time was because they helped her put her groceries away. Sometimes service to others can go too far. Again – not a complaint.

Pushing through the lobby door, we arrive at the ground level. The entrance of this apartment building has a café sized area where renters can gather. It's empty. Only the building security guard, Ajit, is present. "See you in a few months. Mr. Chea," Ajit says as we run by him.

"I'll bring your wife flowers, Ajit," Hidalgo promises with a wink. Ajit chortles but refuses to entertain the idea.

We're halfway out the door when Roy turns around and says, "Can you take our mail up to our room the next couple of days? Please?"

Ajit waves his hand as though he were willing Roy to close the door and keep the cold out. "Of course, Mr. Robinson. Have a good time," he says, dismissively.

"We'll bring you back a plate!" Danny says.

"Close the damn door! I don't have a jacket!"

Done. We're out onto the sidewalk, currently being shoveled by a combination of building maintenance guys, volunteers, and city workers. Traffic is nonexistent. No matter how well plowed the streets are, no one dares to test the hills of Seattle when the winter storms hit. My favorite past time is staring out the window and watching the buses slide down the hill outside my apartment.

Now we have to test the icy, slippery hills ourselves as we sprint down the sidewalks toward the train station. Aside from the homeless and laborers, there's not a single person braving this weather. Hidalgo knows everyone and has to talk to everyone, so it's no surprise that as we pass by several people he tries to strike up a conversation. Roy has no patience for his bullshit, and drags the man by his hand.

Upon reaching the station, we've already got our metro cards out to tap and board. Except for Hidalgo. The three of us almost leave him behind, unaware he's held up digging through his million coat pockets for his wallet. He could shove a few bucks into the ticket kiosk but that, too, would require his wallet.

"Did you forget your wallet?" I ask, my tone indicating both alarm and annoyance.

He shakes his head. "No, no. I definitely have it. I never took it out of my coat."

"Oh my god! Just go! No one checks tickets anyway. Come on! Charlie and Aisha have already waited more than thirty minutes!" Roy says, having officially lost his patience.

"But…" Hidalgo begins to argue but I don't let him. Grabbing his ear, I yank once hard enough that he gets the hint. Transit police don't enforce tickets most of the time, and if they came around asking, all he has to do is find his card.

We've arrived with seconds to spare. The train has already begun boarding. Since there's barely anyone here to pick up as most are staying inside, we aren't given much time to get on. It begins moving before we're even seated. Even though it's sparsely populated on the train, we still follow the rules and make sure our bags are in the luggage designated area. Unwilling to stay standing if I don't have to, I plop down in a seat nearby. Roy and Hidalgo join me. Danny stays standing, playing on his phone and maintaining his balance without the need of support. An expert light rail rider.

Hidalgo's exhaustion returns. Within one minute his eyes are closed and he's zonked out. His head seeks support and lands on Roy's shoulder. Disgusted, Roy uses his fingers to push Hidalgo's head toward me. But his soft side makes an appearance, and his attitude changes as he gently brings Hidalgo's head against my shoulder. He gives Hidalgo a pat on the head as though he were a child. Then he gives me a look, the kind that is both amused and frustrated.

The ride from the station near our house to the airport is about forty minutes. Calculating the time it will take for Hidalgo to get through security, I'm starting to doubt he's going to make his flight. Hopefully takeoff is delayed long enough that he makes it. Meanwhile, Charlie and Aisha are stuck sitting around waiting for us. All of this because I dismissed my alarm.

"Aren't you the sea otter guy?" a kid a few seats over asks. Five other heads pop up to look, each of them looking no older than twelve. Who let's kids ride the light rail alone? In this society?

Roy, looking unapproachable with his arms crossed, looks up with a dazed expression. "Hmm? Oh, yeah. I'm the sea otter guy," he says.

"Is it true that sea otters have the thickest fur or did you make that up? It's okay, you can tell me," another kid asks.

Roy laughs. "It's true!"

The children make their way over to us, finding seats closer or holding onto bars. Roy is surrounded. Thanks to our proximity, Hidalgo and I are surrounded, too. The chattering doesn't seem to bother my companion. Dozens of questions are flung at Roy and he fields them with ease. Apparently, these kids had been to the aquarium during a field trip and saw his lecture on sea otters. Well, "lecture" is a bit of a reach; he shared fun facts about them, discussed a conservation program he helps lead, and showed off a pair of rescued sea otters he's worked to rehabilitate.

The combination of his knowledge and his charming, easy-going personality means his exhibit is one kids connect with. Sure, he could sit behind a desk all day or work in the field on the ice of the Arctic, but he's found his calling. Educating kids and adults alike about furry sea animals? Young Roy never would have thought that was possible.

"Why don't you kids have your parents give me a call and I'll set up a free special day for you? Have them ask for Royal Robinson," he offers.

"Wow, really? You can do that?" a kid asks.

"Yeah, of course," he says with a small shrug. I'm sure it's not that easy, but he's happy to find a way.

Two stops later, the kids depart. Their excitement can't be contained. I'm glad kids are still excited about things like sea otters in this digital age. Having the opportunity to see them up close and learn about them by someone passionate like Roy makes a difference. I don't know if Roy realizes he does have that kind of impact. Probably not. He's pretty humble.

Tranquil is not a word used to describe light rail rides often. Perhaps never. But today, it's tranquil. After the kids leave, we're basically alone. One homeless person wrapped up at the back of the car is our only other company. Out of respect for Hidalgo's nap, I don't talk.

Roy doesn't give a fuck though. He asks, "Why is he so tired?"

"Because he's old, Roy," I say.

I'm not wrong. We're all getting old. Roy's vision has degraded enough he wears glasses all the time just to function. He's had two back surgeries, including one that shoved metal rods in his spine. Blessed with a healthy body, I haven't had such issues, but I do require a lot more sleep, now. Working out takes more energy. Nights out don't happen anymore. Hidalgo – older than us – is into his 40s; his fast and easy lifestyle is catching up. The man is asleep by 9PM without fail and takes a nap around 3PM. His sideburns are gray. Smile lines and laugh lines couple with tear troughs to reveal his age on his face.

Danny? Aside from high cholesterol from all those greasy pizzas he ate, he's a baby. Every day he hits the gym for an hour. There isn't a single wrinkle to be found on his face, his hair is still jet black, he has no signs of balding, and I've never heard him complain about being tired. His back doesn't ache, his knees don't pop, and he's spry. I swear he has some anti-aging potion hidden somewhere.

Don't take any of this the wrong way. I don't feel old, despite my whining. My 30s have been better than my 20s, which were better than my teens. I'm sure my 40s will be the best yet, but those are far off. Or so it seems. One day I'll wake up and just like that, years will have gone by. The best age is whatever one you're currently living. That's how I've decided to see it. Aging is beautiful. It's a reminder that you've been blessed to see this time. Many around the world never get to see "old age."

"Next stop: SeaTac…"

I jostle Hidalgo awake before the train does, giving his cheek a couple of soft pats. Lifting his head, he doesn't open his eyes, and readjusts before deciding to go back to sleep. The train coming to a stop, however, causes his body to jerk and that prompts him to open his eyes properly. Danny and I are already waiting by the door for it to open; Roy has to hook his hand under Hidalgo's arm and hoist him up.

Rudely perhaps, I leave babysitting Hidalgo to Roy. Not that it takes long for them to catch up. Roy can't stand being more than ten feet away from Danny or I for long. Hidalgo can't stand being by himself period. Even if Roy were to abandon him, he'd either sprint to catch us or latch onto some poor unsuspecting sap's soul.

Down the escalator that's mere feet from where we depart is the entrance to the airport. Shuttles taking passengers to and from the train station over the skybridge to the main terminal buzz around. I'm ready to follow him but Roy checks his phone and says, "The kids are waiting for us at a diner a couple blocks over."

Hidalgo knows that means we won't be keeping him company. He sets his luggage down, eyes barely open as he struggles to stay awake. Probably should've went to bed at a decent time last night and stayed asleep. But we didn't. We're both paying for it now.

He wants attention, I know that. I know this routine. It's become ritual over the past couple of years. Every three or four months this routine takes place, when he comes to visit for a week or two and then departs to return home. Sometimes, it's not to home he goes. On more than one occasion he's taken a plane to someplace new, never content with an ordinary life.

I adjust his scarf, which has buried his face. My hands try to remove any creases in his peacoat, although there aren't any. Next I try to fix his unruly hair, which he didn't bother to comb before we left. Not that he had time. We don't even have time for this.

His hands grab mine and remove them from their hair duty. "I'll miss you," he says, his voice wide awake, a strange juxtaposition to his drowsy eyes. "Kisskisskiss." That is a demand, not a request, not him seeking permission. I appease him with three pecks on his lips, each one he annoyingly punctuates with a "mwah!"

Breaking away, I'm forced to step back when Roy shoves a bag between us. "This is for your son from us for Christmas."

"Oh! Really? You guys are the best! Thank you!" he says, once again full of energy. "Boot is gonna be so happy!"

"Boot?! You named your son Boot?!" Roy questions, mortified for the child. Didn't we go through this the last time he was here?

Danny laughs and asks, "What're you gonna name your next one? Cat?"

Hidalgo burst into laughter, the kind that has him slapping his knee and keeling over. The two men start a boots and cats and boots and cats amateur beatboxing throwdown. Eerie how the two of them are constantly on the same wavelength. This is them tired. Imagine them full of energy. Chaotic.

"Okay, okay, you're gonna miss your flight," Roy says, breaking up the session.

"Weather doesn't look super great. Might not matter if you miss it if it gets canceled. Looked like a pretty gnarly storm was coming in. They're already expecting to close down some roads," Danny says.

"If flights get canceled, take the train back up. You know the codes to our apartments. Make yourself at home," Roy says.

Hm, but then Hidalgo will be alone until flights are cleared to take off again. This is assuming his lazy ass even bothers with it. Flights have been canceled for days at a time during the worst storms. The three of us – Roy, Danny, and I – share a look between us. Roy is feeling the heat as he physically struggles with not giving in to the silent signals we're sending him. He knows leaving Hidalgo alone is rude, even if the man could survive just fine. But we're on our way to Friendsmasgiving, and that's sacred. Outsiders aren't allowed.

Then he cringes and sighs. "If it gets canceled, take an Uber to this address," he says, pulling out his phone and texting our destination to him. "But don't intentionally miss your flight."

"Oh, I don't plan to. I want to get back to my kid," Hidalgo says, giving an awkward chuckle. "One more kiss," he requests. Roy swoops in and gives him a kiss on his cheek. Smirking smugly, Hidalgo's dazed self doesn't react when Roy's hands grab his face and shakes him.

"I can't stand you, Hidalgo," Roy says, forcing a smile.

"Ah, that's too bad, I was hoping to take you out on a date next time."

"Hidalgo, you're going to miss your flight," I remind him. This time, it's my job to babysit. Hurriedly he slips his arms around Roy, forcing the man to hug him; then he gets a more welcoming embrace from Danny, who gives a loud, wet smooch on Hidalgo's forehead. Really, he's like our child.

Comparisons to a child disappear when he swoops in next to me, wraps an arm around my waist, pulls me snug against him, and gives a kiss. It's not a friendly peck. But it's not something that zaps undying passion into my bones. It's familiar. Safe. Comfortable.

"See you, beautiful," he says, his lips still less than an inch from mine.

"See you, quokka."

He snickers and releases me. Various verbal goodbyes are called out to him as he rolls his luggage to a waiting shuttle. He turns around only once to give a wave. Out of courtesy, we stay nearby and watch until the shuttle is out of sight, just in case he tries to check in on us again.

"He already missed his flight," Danny announces after checking his watch.

Roy sighs. Loudly. Way too loud. While we don't have a set schedule anymore, Charlie and Aisha have been waiting for well over an hour now. Shit, we made them wait so long they left the airport – which has restaurants in it – to walk in the snowstorm to another diner to get food. How bored did they get waiting for us?

We leave the train station, crossing a skybridge over International Boulevard. Snow is really starting to come down, now. Through the glass windows of the skybridge I see nothing but white. Recently plowed roads are caked again. Sidewalks and asphalt merge into one sheet of snow. If we don't hit the road soon, we're not going anywhere.

Roy is a few steps ahead but turns back to face me and Danny. His hand is outstretched. For which of us, I'm not sure. I grab it because Danny doesn't. Without gloves, I feel his warmth. His hand is like a heating pad. The pace he carries doesn't slow so I'm being pulled along. "When we get back I'm scrubbing you from head to toe, inside and out."

I roll my eyes. Danny laughs, finding Roy's bullshit amusing. So goes the routine: Hidalgo visits, Roy can't decide how he feels about it, Hidalgo leaves, Roy acts like I've been rolling around in a dump. The first time, I was moderately offended. After a while I realized it was less about any perception he has of either me or Hidalgo, and more that he's got some weird kink. It's not even about the cleanliness. It's about the act of care. Hidalgo is the excuse.

"Bro, you act like you don't like the guy but you jumped in to kiss him as soon as the chance presented itself," Danny points out.

"Yeah, well… he's kinda cute. For an older guy… right?" Roy says. I can't tell if his ears are red from embarrassment or the cold. "He's not into dudes though, is he?"

Oh, interested? I make a motion with my hand that signals it's iffy. "Ehh… bicurious?" That threat to take Roy on a date was legitimate.

"Bro!" Danny says, lightly punching Roy's back. I say "lightly" because its light by Danny standards. Meaning it's hard enough Roy makes an oof sound. "Get some!"

"You know I don't operate like that. Why don't you get some?"

"I fuckin' will!"

I'm not here to provide the details of Danny and Roy's relationship. More than friends, not quite a couple? Bang bros? But with heart? Two people who live together, sleep together, but don't go on dates together? A couple who are really good friends who focus more on their friendship than their romance? What even is romance, anyway? I've spent the last eight years trying to figure out the answer to that question, and I'm not any closer to knowing.

All I know is, they're perfect together. Whatever kind of "together" it is they are.

Hit hard with the cold, pelted by the frozen flakes, I duck between Roy and Danny. I never thought I would be here, back in this city, with these two. Out of all people, the two California kids packed it up and moved back with me. Well, it's inaccurate to say they moved back with me. Roy graduated, was looking for work, and it so happened Seattle had a spot for him. Danny wasn't going to let Roy leave without him again, and I don't think Roy wanted to go without him. Fortunately for me, Danny is the easiest person to get along with.

Walking several blocks in the snow, with no sidewalks visible, carrying our bags, is enough of a workout for me. Arriving at the diner, Danny doesn't wait for us. He flies through the door and descends upon the only occupied table in the entire establishment. He gets his hugs and kisses before we show up.

After all these years, Charlie's eyes are still like heatseeking missiles. The moment I'm within his peripheral his eyes shoot to me. His face already held a smile from seeing Danny, but the one he gives me is different. He's always had a smile that belonged to me alone. No matter the miles, the years, the people that have come and gone, that smile will always be mine.

Buzzed hair is hidden by a beanie. His body is shrouded in a hoodie and vest combo as he tries to keep warm in the PNW winter weather. Scruff, still uneven into his 30s, covers his chin and above his lip. But he looks good. Healthy. Happy. Eight years of stability have slowed his aging down considerably. Love has cocooned him, kept him safe from the world's ills.

I get one word out – "Hey" – before he engulfs me in a hug. Even now, years later, his hugs give me comfort and courage. His place on my shoulder is claimed, the same as it has been since that night on a California beach, back when I didn't even know his first name. Throughout the years he's added back pats and back rubs to his hugging repertoire, which he unleashes on me at a speed unknown to most men.

Everyone gets the same treatment. I'm not someone elevated above Roy and Danny. To Charlie, the three of us are irreplaceable and incomparable.

As Charlie goes about giving Roy a suffocating hug, my attention turns to Aisha, Charlie's longtime girlfriend. "Hello, Doctor," I say, smiling. The greeting is returned – sans the "Doctor" label – and we hug. "Congratulations."

"Thank you. I'm so glad to finally be done with that shit," she says when we part. I wish I could say the same, but I never finished my PhD. That's another story for another day.

Aisha is almost eight years younger than us. I wonder if Charlie ever looks at her and is taken back to the past, back to when we were her age. I hope not. I hope when he looks at her, he sees only the future. To me, what I see when watching his face as he traces her features with his eyes, is love. How can I explain that his expression is like that of a man who suddenly has the entirety of the universe in his reach? That's what she is to him – his entire universe.

"Wow who would've guessed that annoying brat would grow up to be a doctor," Roy teases.

I don't know the relationship between these three. I wasn't there for that. What I do know is that Danny is her cousin, and growing up her favorite athlete was the local football star, Royal Robinson. Maybe she had a crush on him. I mean, who wouldn't? But one day, Royal Robinson's career came to an end after a bad tackle broke his neck in college. So heartbroken was she that she set out to make sure no other athlete suffered the same way. Somehow, that passion never waned as she grew out of her childhood crush.

Am I envious that she finished her doctorate and I didn't? No. If you had asked me ten – no, even five – years ago, I would have been green with envy. I might've even been jealous that she had stolen Charlie's heart. But now? She's one of us. Part of the family.

Roy has to go fetch the car he's renting. Charlie volunteers to go with him, and the two leave their bags with us in this abandoned diner to rush a block down to the car rental agency. That leaves Danny, Aisha, and I to catch up. We chat about her finishing school, the internship she did with a college athletics department, the search for work. She wants to encourage Charlie to go to college, too, but says he has no passion outside of bussing tables and making pizzas.

"I taught him too well," Danny says.

She nods with a big smile and says, "You did. But that's okay. I just want him happy. If that's bussing tables and making pizzas, then he can do that for as long as he likes."

"Yeah, and when you get married and have kids, you can keep workin' and he can spend more time at home," Danny says.

Aisha doesn't say anything but her smiles seems to portray agreement. Given that she finished getting her degree not that long ago, I doubt they're worried about having kids. Let her get a job and get her career going, first. She's young. She has plenty of time.

That being said, I remember being her age. I remember thinking life was running out, that time was nearing its end. Funny, we focus so much on what we have or haven't accomplished based on our age that we don't enjoy life as we live it.

Let me let you in on a secret that a barista from Connecticut told me: the universe is exactly as it should be. Including you. Including where you're at in life.

Roy and Charlie return with an SUV, big enough for us to all fit and load up our luggage. Of course Roy is driving. I expect that Danny will take the front seat but he doesn't. Instead, he opens the door and holds it, motioning for me to climb in. I won't say no. The other three climb into the back, all sharing one row of seats.

Hitting the road, we're relatively quiet. This is for Roy's sake, so he can focus on driving. Our destination is Ted and Maria's in a suburb about an hour away. Sometimes the drive is a little more or a little less depending on traffic. Today it depends on weather, as I don't see many cars on the road with us.

"Feels good to be up here and see you guys. I know it hasn't been long but it feels like forever," Charlie says. Too busy running the pizzeria, Charlie rarely travels. With Aisha in an arduous program and internship, there was no way the two of them were going to visit until she was done. Recently the amount of times we've seen each other has dwindled.

"Yeah, and on better circumstances this time, too," Danny says.

About six months ago we were down in Roy and Danny's hometown for the worst reason. Daryll, Roy's father, became ill and passed away quite suddenly. Word came in he was being admitted to the hospital at about 11PM. Roy took the next flight down, but by the time he arrived, his dad was gone. Danny and I followed as soon as we could. Waiting for us with open arms were Charlie and Aisha. A solemn time made bearable thanks to dear friends.

Roy says nothing. Deep down he's still grappling with the loss. Perhaps he will forever. Having been there myself, I can say it certainly leaves a wound that can't be easily mended. For Roy, I think its compounded by the fact his dad was his only parent, and there is little doubt that Daryll loved him with all of his being. This is his first holiday without him. But we're here.

I grab his hand and bring it to my lips, giving his knuckles a kiss. He smiles, warmly, appreciative of the gesture. The rest of the drive is done with one hand, as he refuses to let mine go.

The neighborhood Ted and Maria live in has been called one of the safest places in the country. It's also one of the wealthiest cities. I don't bother to ask how much some of the houses around them cost. Millions. Maybe tens of millions.

Ted, despite his background, wasn't going to be able to afford one of those. Instead, they put a big down payment on an older home near Pine Lake, one that "wasn't much more than a million bucks" according to Ted. A bargain for his neighborhood. Vaulted ceilings, 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and a tennis court to keep Ted active. It's a beautiful home, with a breakfast nook, a formal dining area big enough for all, living room with a fireplace and a second playroom for kids. Only one problem: it's not enough for all their kids.

We pull up to their driveway and find that two cars are already parked here, both minivans. Being the last to arrive is common for us. Unlike the rest of the group, we don't have an excuse. I know as soon as we open that door, we're going to be swarmed by screaming children and a bunch of adults ready to tease us for our tardiness.

There is no need to knock. We're expected. Even if we weren't, we would walk in the front door like we owned the place. Our group may be spread across different towns, but each place we call home belongs to all of us. This is the "Ted Rule."

Opening the door, the chaotic noises of children screaming, laughing, playing and adults chattering like chittering monkeys hits us like a fresh snowstorm. Maria is the one to notice the door opened. At her feet is a girl about six years old, and Maria pats the girl on the top of her head and points to the door. "Look who's here to see you!" she says.

The girl turns and looks. Through her thick glasses she can barely see, but someone calling out Roy's name gives her the additional knowledge she needs. "Roy!" she screams and comes whooshing over as quick as her body will let her.

Roy crouches down – I hear his knees pop as he does it – and extends his arms out for her. "Anya!" he says back, a higher pitch than his normal tone. He scoops the girl up into his arms; her tiny arms wrap around his neck and she holds on.

"She's been asking all day for you," Maria says from her spot in the kitchen.

"She said she's gonna marry you, dude," Ted says, cracking a smile.

"Are we getting married, Anya?" he asks. Never too shy, Anya smiles and nods enthusiastically. Gently, he grabs one of her hands and expertly spells out the words he speaks in sign language. "I. Love. You." Excited for the message, the little girl squeals.

The rest of us get our greetings in, too. The kids demand attention, even the youngest one, baby Arturo, who is eighteen months old and noisy as hell. All together there are eight in this house: five that live here, two who call Liam and Justin their parents, and a boy that Holly gave birth to exactly one day before Arturo was born. We'll get to all these hellions in a second.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't the DINKs," Justin says from his spot on the couch, cocktail in hand. "And the leftover, Jessie." Ah, yes, my new favorite nickname.

"She's our plus one this year," Aisha says, linking an arm around mine. As the only one here not naturally paired off, I end up being the extra to a set. Typically it's the Danny-Roy combo I get shuffled into, because of my relationship with them. We're some sort of a… throuple… I guess… But sometimes, Charlie and Aisha claim me, as though I were a free agent coming off waivers.

Charlie puts his hands on our arms and says, "I'm gonna grab the rest of our bags."

"Don't slip out there, baby," Aisha says. It is getting to be quite dangerous out there. If we had been any later, we might not have made it safely.

Maneuvering around the bodies and toys and other junk on the floor takes practice. Due to our proximity, we've been here often enough that we're masters of the act. That being said, there usually isn't several other families all here at the same time.

Ted brings over a couple of beers, meeting us halfway. Most of the adults are in the kitchen, seated at the island or in the breakfast nook. I end up standing in the halfway point between the living area and the kitchen, next to Roy and Ted.

Because Roy is holding Anya, I have to hold his beer. The girl won't let him go. He doesn't mind. "Have you been healthy, Anya? No booboos?"

"Everything's been good with her. No seizures in a while and her last surgery went well. Did you see she has new hearing aids?" Ted says. In a fatherly way, he smoothly brushes Anya's long, curly hair back so the state of the art, tiny devices can be seen. Then he puts her hair back and pets the top of her head.

Ted is soft. I can't think of another way to describe him. Looking back, I can see that he's always been that way. Not just to kids but to so many people. To Justin and me. To Roy, Holly, Charlie, Liam. To everyone who ever crossed his path. But the way he is with his children? There is almost a physical transformation in his being when he's in their presence. I give him credit for being the absolute best father he could be. And I admit that any doubts I had about him were misplaced.

"How much longer until number six?" I ask Maria, who is busy fluttering about in the kitchen, a baby bump hidden underneath a well-used maternity dress. Yes, number six. Five of them Ted's, the first of course little Bella – who isn't so little anymore.

Maria rolls her eyes, forever the best at dramatics. "This man, I'm telling you Jessie, he won't stop until we can fill a bus," she says. A rolling pin, used to flatten out some dough, is pointed at Ted's head while she speaks.

"It's our Catholic duty, baby," Ted coos.

I hear Justin snort. "You're not even Catholic." Then, to his sister, "It's your fault for giving in to him."

"He's a charming bastard. I can't say no," she says.

"You're going to need a bigger house," Holly says.

"Are you two going to have more?" Maria asks. Holly shakes her head and Maria gasps. "Noo! You should! I know my useless brother won't be having anymore and God knows when the rest of them are going to figure it out."

By "the rest of them" she is referring to us childless adults who thus far have successful utilized birth control in order to avoid increasing the population of this already overpopulated earth, aka me and Aisha. Ted and Maria have produced enough children to make up for any I may have had if I had so wanted some.

Ted looks to Justin and says, "Wait, you and Liam aren't going to have more? Why not? Why don't you have one, you know, the natural way? Give birth? Then tell me what it's like," Ted says. Justin's brow raises higher and higher with each word, still not immune to Ted's stupidity all these years into their friendship.

Once he's in the clear, Justin says, "Ted, when will you learn to use your single-use braincell to give a semi-intelligent thought to yourself before you open your mouth and speak?"

Most of this isn't heard. Ted, upon hearing "when will you learn" opens his mouth and goes, "Ahh!" Not loudly. Not as loud as the famous dying walrus noises of his 20s. Loud enough that it shrouds Justin's lecture. He extends this "Ahh!" all throughout Justin speaking. Finding it funny, his other daughter, Camila, mimics his "Ahh!" Soon, every child is screaming. A choir of children shrieking.

Done, Ted's mouth slams shut. His lips curl up into a smile. All of the wrinkles forming on his face become evident. They're not wrinkles of stress or old age. They're signs of a life lived full of love and laughter. The way he used to precisely maintain how his hair was cut and styled, how he used to work hard to keep his face clean, all of the work he put into looking good for random women is gone. Don't get me wrong – it's Ted, and he cares about how he looks and he still looks good. But there's haphazardness about it now, as he's given all of his time to his wife and kids.

Camila continues the screaming long after the others have stopped. The endless energy of childhood is coursing through her veins and she's running around in circles around us. Ted snags her as she runs by and hoists her up. Immediately the screaming turns into joyous laughter.

Years ago, Ted wouldn't be caught dead without a designer watch. The timepieces worth thousands are gone now. In the place of a watch is a homemade bracelet of beads and simple string. Which of his children made it, I don't know, but he won't take it off until it breaks.

Grant, Holly's husband, comments, "You guys barely made it. Looks like we'll all be stuck here for at least a night or two."

"Luckily someone packs like we're going to be stranded for five days," Holly says.

"Someone has to be prepared!"

I like Grant. Holly will have to tell you their love story, because I know nothing but faint details. This is what I know: Grant was the first person Holly met after our trip. As in, the day our summer long road trip ended, she came back to Seattle and met Grant at her apartment complex before she even put her bags down. He is the most laid-back man on the planet. Never have I seen him get excited about anything other than Seahawks football. He's a softy, like Roy, but in a less excitable way.

In the most PNW thing possible, Grant works at a local cider brewery. He designs labels for their cans. No one is as versed in the taste of different ciders than he. The kind of man to wear rugged jeans, dirty boots, and flannel, one would think he should be out on a ranch rather than in a city. His number one duty is Dad duty; he spends most of his days at home now, taking care of their little one. Today he wears a simple t-shirt, covered in spit up and formula stains.

"Hey, now that we're all here, how about it, dude?" Ted says to Roy.

"How 'bout what?"

"Give us blessings, man!"

Roy sighs. Yes, he prays. Yes, he has faith. Every year, Ted accommodates Roy's faith by asking him to pray over the house, the gathering, the people, and everyone's family who aren't here. Some of the people here have an understandably rough relationship with religion, but this is the one time when everyone comes together in Roy's faith to show that he's welcomed, too.

"How about instead of praying, we go around and say the things we're thankful for? Everyone gets one," Roy suggests. His back is getting sore, so he sets Anya down. She doesn't go anywhere and latches onto him. At least he's not carrying her anymore.

Requesting not to pray is Roy respecting the preferences of people present. No one has issue entertaining Roy's faith but that doesn't mean he wants to make it anyone else's business. That being said, everyone has heard Ted give the call, and they've made their way to crowd around in the kitchen.

Once all are present – not counting the children, most of whom are too young to care – Roy asks, "Who wants to go first?"

"Oh, me!" Ted says, shooting his hand up. "I'm thankful for everyone that's here and that we're all one big family!"

"Really? That's what I was going to say. Now what am I supposed to come up with?" Charlie argues. Nearly everyone voices something similar. Apparently we all had the same initial thought. What are we most thankful for? This. All of this. The chaos, the noise, the joy, the love we feel.

Liam, one who has never made his thoughts on religion clear, suggests, "Why don't you pray for that?" If you're curious, Liam looks as good at 38 as he ever has. The Greek God remains untouchable.

Roy sighs again, this time a bit more subdued. He reaches for my hand, then the person on the other side of him – Holly. My other hand is grabbed my Ted and one by one, we're all connected. The kids aren't asked to participate; no one wants them to feel obligated to.

"Dad, can I do it, too?" Ovid, Justin and Liam's oldest, asks Liam.

Liam smiles warmly and says, "Sure," as he makes space for little Ovid in between he and Justin. A couple of other older kids find their way in; Bella, who has been involved in prayer her entire life, and Gabriel, Ted and Maria's oldest son.

I have to squeeze Roy's hand to give him the confidence to pray openly. He closes his eyes and bows his head; those around us of similar faiths do the same, while others keep their eyes open. I'm somewhere in between, glancing around at my second family with head bowed.

Roy clears his throat. "King of Glory, we thank You for Your protection, for granting us safe travels so that we may gather here as family. As we gather we count among our blessings the love that fills this home and our hearts, and we thank You, Lord, for bringing us together. For You're the one who gives life we thank You for the precious gifts of Isabella, Gabriel, Ovid, Camila, Anya, Tatum, Arturo, and Zane – "

"Jesus Christ that's a lot of kids," Aisha mumbles, her head still down and her eyes still closed. The interruption causes many to chuckle, including Roy, who can barely keep it together.

After he gathers himself, he continues, "Heavenly Father, we ask for Your protection of the unborn life in Maria's womb; we ask that she have a safe delivery, that the baby be healthy, that neither mother nor child worry or suffer. Protect them with Your love. I ask for guidance for my dear Aisha; may You protect her as she begins her new journey, may Your wisdom guide her in her treatment of those she comes to care for."

Aisha doesn't see it, but I do: The way Charlie looks up to stare at her, his lips in a big, proud smile, his eyes twinkling with adoration and love. His sixth sense goes off and he feels me looking at them. When he turns to make eye contact, his smile never falters. It's like his being is vibrating. He can't believe the woman whose hand he holds is someone who he knows intimately, spiritually. Even after he turns his head back to the ground, his eyes dance over to catch a glimpse of his beloved more than once.

"And Dear Father, I am blessed. Here I have a family that loves me beyond measure, that always thinks of me, that always put a smile on my face. I believe in Your love because I am blessed with theirs. For that, I remain forever grateful and Your faithful servant… And may the Yankees win the pennant. Amen."

"Amen," Danny and Aisha say first. Maria and Justin, raised Catholic, make the sign of the cross. I'm still processing the quickly added Yankees bit.

Roy glances down at me and smirks. Shithead. "And may the Mariners win the pennant, amen," I say to myself. I'm rewarded with a kiss on my temple. How I've managed to love a Yankees fan for all these years… well, consider that an act of God.

Justin and Aisha go to help Maria in the Kitchen, the rest work on keeping tabs of the many children running rampant throughout this two-story house. From the kitchen, Maria shouts out orders to anyone she sees.

A hand touches my back. I look over my shoulder to see Charlie is behind me and Roy. "Psst, hey, you guys wanna escape for a bit?" Charlie asks. He holds up his other hand to reveal a baseball glove. It's the same one he bought in Miami, during that long road trip that brought us all together. Why would anyone have a baseball glove with them in the dead of winter?

I don't know, but I have mine. So does Roy. We dig through our bags and bring out the gloves Charlie had gifted us. Each one of us even brought a baseball, just in case somebody forgot.

Slipping out the front door, we take refuge on the snow-covered lawn. Millions more flakes are coming down yet I feel warm. The sun, hidden by the flurries of snow and clouds, should be going down soon. We will be out here at dark, guided by the porch light and streetlamps.

Few things are as familiar as catching a baseball in a well-worn glove. This ritual between the three of us is as old as our relationships. Like the invisible thread that connects us, so does each pass of the leather clad ball.

The three of us chat about how we're doing. We share silly and nonsensical anecdotes about our daily lives. More than once we reiterate that we miss Charlie or that he misses us. Sometimes we recall shared memories.

At some point, Charlie asks, "Why did you stay up so late?"

Before I can answer, Roy says, "Hidalgo was visiting."

"Really? You should've brought him to breakfast. It would've been nice to catch up," he says. Catching a toss by me and rocketing his own to Roy, he adds, "Or you could've brought him here. You're the only person without a plus one or a kid. It wouldn't hurt if you brought him. Still less mouths to feed than the rest of us."

"We come here and feed ourselves. It's those baby popping freaks in there that cause the issues," Roy says. The insults are meant to be cheeky not serious. He would do anything for any of those kids in there.

The ball continues its journey. Something about this feels off. Our tempo slows. Charlie says, "Yeah… well… about that…"

"About what?" Roy questions.

"Well, I kinda brought you guys out here to tell you, since we're close. I mean, I'm close to everyone here, but you guys are special. Obviously. I want you two to know first. Okay, I mean, I know. Aisha knows. But of course we know, it would be silly if we didn't. Like, how could I tell you guys if we didn't know? So now, um… we… you know… have an extra mouth to feed."

Somehow, Roy couldn't figure out what Charlie was getting at as he rambled. It felt clear to me right away. Then, it hits Roy. "Oh. Oh my God. You?! And Aisha?!"

Charlie stands there, unsure how to respond as undoubtedly this seemingly angry reaction was not what he was expecting. Holding the ball, he puts a stop to our game. Insecurities or not, he pushes through, and with a smile says, "Yeah… we're gonna be parents."

"You two fuck?!"

"What do you mean, we fuck? Roy, you know we do! You've known for years!"

"Yeah but I don't think about it! Come on, bud! Aisha is still that little girl learning to color inside the lines! She can't be a mom!"

"She's a grown woman! She's a doctor! What do you mean she can't be a mom?!"

I laugh to myself. Roy's mind is unable to grasp that adult nature of Charlie and Aisha's relationship, but what was he expecting? They've been together for six years. Both of them are adults, more than capable of making their own decisions. The timing of this might not be in Aisha's favor, but they're smart enough to know what's best for them.

As they bicker, I walk up to Charlie and embrace him. That shuts their banter up. "I'm so happy for you," I say.

"Thanks," he mumbles, returning the hug.

Roy exhales and says, "Okay, okay. Let me get in on this." I feel his arms encase both of us, bringing the three of us close together. Now we can't escape because Roy has us trapped. "You nervous, bud?" he asks.

Charlie shakes his head. "Nope."

"Not even a little?" Roy questions.

Charlie grins. "Not even a little. Me and Aisha can do this. And if we have trouble – look," he glances over at Ted's house.

Through the window we can see our large unconventional family. We see Gabriel, Camila, and Aisha in dart gun battle with Grant, Danny, and Ted; we see Liam carrying Zane and Arturo. Anya and Tatum help in the kitchen with Maria and Holly; Justin shows Bella and Ovid how to use a bread maker. Many families from many places, many backgrounds and many faiths, together as one, melded into a single unit held together by love.

A sound from the road causes his attention to divert. The smile on Charlie's face gets bigger and turns mischievous. "Your plus one is here," he says.

"Her plus one or her child?" Roy jokes.

Confused, I follow his line of sight to the road, where a car has pulled up under the streetlamp. Hauling out his luggage and looking around like a lost marsupial, is Hidalgo.

I recall the words he said to me in that Connecticut coffee shop: everything in the universe happens for a reason, and everything is precisely as it should be.