They marry on the same day they met three years before. The day is clear and crisp, gentle breeze blowing as they walk up the steps to the courthouse, fingers entwined. Garrett feels a blanket of warmth at his back, but he can't tell if it's the weather or happiness causing it. He takes each incline of the stairs carefully, cautiously. Not because they're too steep for his leg to manage; just because he wants to savor every moment of this beautiful, impossible day.
He wants to take a million snapshots in his mind of Edward at his side in a navy suit, of the way his hair glints a hundred different colors, as if it's on fire. Of the way he keeps sneaking Garrett quick looks of 'oh fuck, are we really doing this?'
Of the way he doesn't stop smiling, even for a second.
It feels surreal to stand in front of the justice of peace and take vows they've already taken a thousand times – every time Edward cradles Garrett's hand inside his own, every time they kiss. There's words spoken by billions of people in probably a million different ways, and yet the words take on a new meaning when Edward speaks them. They're slow and solemn, like he's rolling each word around his mouth and capturing its taste before he lets it out. He stares into Garrett's eyes the whole time, his stare making a vow of its own.
I'll love you forever.
When Edward slides a band of brushed silver around the third finger of Garrett's left hand, he lays a kiss atop it immediately after. That band is a study in contrasts: heavy but small, closed-off but neverending, forged from fire but treated as if it was precious.
Garrett thinks maybe it's fitting that's the ring he'll wear for the rest of his life.
Edward cries when Garrett repeats the vows back to him. Not dramatic tears, not lurching sobs, just quiet, steady streams of wet that bracket the widest smile Garrett's ever seen him wear. Watching it turn into a laugh when Garrett adds the vow to obey into his vows feels like the first blossom of a spring after an endless winter.
That smile plants roots deep in Garrett's chest, the hope-laden soil of his heart causing it to bloom. The justice of peace is polite but perfunctory as she talks through the closing of the marriage ceremony. Their prompted kiss is nothing more than a meeting of their mouths, but every inch of Garrett's body is electrified by the simple contact.
And then they're married.
They walk back down the aisle, Edward leading Garrett because he's blinded by the sight of every dream he never knew he had.
Coming true, right now.
Edward and he had spoken at length about the name they'd take after the wedding. Garrett wasn't close to his parents, having moved out of their house at eighteen. They both knew they wanted to have to have the same one, they just weren't sure which.
Not until Esme.
Esme, who gave Edward his first chance at life. Esme, who gave Edward love when he hadn't ever known it. Esme, who gave Edward a home, a family, and her last name. Esme, who cried when Garrett visited her to ask if she'd extend that name to him too.
Esme, who Garrett is eternally indebted to, who would never see the gifts she bestows, just by being, as something to be repaid.
Esme, who gave them Rachel.
They'd seen children as a maybe. Edward hadn't had a childhood he wished to remember, and Garrett worried how he'd care for a baby on his own when Edward was working. They felt both lucky and incredibly bitter that they were allowed by law to adopt a child – more than perhaps anyone else alive, they were two people with lion hearts full of love to give, and yet they needed a special mandate to find a child of their own.
In the end, fate intervened in its own chaotic, wonderful way.
It began with Esme making a plea to Garrett to talk to a seven-year-old girl she'd been allocated as a case worker for. Garrett felt awkward and unsure, wondering why Esme would want him of all people to speak to a child no one else had been able to get through to.
Until he saw her.
Hair as black as night, eyes as blue as a wave. Chubby, dimpled cheeks, wild curls and a buttercup-yellow outfit.
And empty space where her right arm should be.
All at one, Garrett felt choked. By the injustice, by sorrow, by memories. He knew why Esme had called him, knew why she'd hoped he could be a last chance to connect. He didn't know much about children, but he knew everything there was to know about hope.
So he swallowed all the bad down and moved forward slowly, coming to sit beside the sweetest, saddest little girl he'd ever seen.
She ignored him at first, the only sign she'd noticed him present in the tightening of her arm around the ragged bear she cuddled. They sat in silence for a few minutes, her gaze never moving from the floor. Garrett didn't know whether to try to greet her or try to strike up a conversation. He shifted uncomfortably on the too-small child's beanbag, almost toppling off and having to flail his arms to stay upright.
Then it was like the heavens cracked wide open and a beaming light struck the ground right next to him.
A giggle. Quiet. Hesitant. Small, but there.
Just a second of sound, and yet one that sparked a fierce yearning inside him.
He looked down to see shy blue eyes peeking at him, snapping back away when she saw him staring at her.
"Well that was a way to introduce myself, wasn't it?" he said softly, trying to make himself less intimidating. "I thought maybe I'd tell you about my meetings with Santa instead, but I guess that's gone now."
Those eyes, flitting but curious, they ignited the hope that had never steered him wrong.
"And all the elves I met, too. They were busy making the toys, but they had time to make me some reindeer cookies," he said, and oh God, did he just tell a child elves murdered reindeer? "Not out of real reindeer, of course. They're too fast for the elves to catch. And the elves are too nice to want to ever make them into cookies. No, they use gingerbread instead, and candy for the eyes and noses."
Another giggle. He'd make a fool of himself a million times over to hear that noise.
"Or I could have told you about getting caught under the mistletoe with Mrs. Claus. Now that was way more awkward than almost falling off the beanbag."
"You're silly," he heard, and his heart broke. Her voice was scratchy from disuse, her words hushed and lurching, awkwardly paced. Still, they came from her, and that might have made them the most beautiful two words Garrett's ever heard.
"What's silly is how small these beanbags are." He rolled forward dramatically, letting his hips teeter on the edge.
"You're just big," she said back quietly.
"I know. I've always been too big, much bigger than everyone in my class at school. It made me upset when I was young."
Rachel's eyes were solemn and beyond her years when they stared into his. "Big is good. If you're big, people can't hurt you."
Garrett had to bite the inside of his cheek to ground himself and the tears pushing at the backs of his eyes. The girl's words still had that strange, slightly garbled tone, but Garrett would recognize fear even if it was in a foreign tongue.
"You can stop other people from getting hurt, too," he replied, just as quietly. The next words are ones that once would have made his throat close up, but now he speaks them proudly. "That was my job for a long time. I was a soldier, in a faraway country called Afghanistan. I helped protect whole villages of people, while protecting people here at home too."
Rachel shifted an inch closer toward him. "One time at school, we wrote letters to soldiers. And my teacher sent them cookies."
"Yeah? That was really kind of you all. I know when I was there, little things like that reminded me of why I was there. Why I was looking after people."
"Are you gonna go back?" She shook her curls away from her face, clutched impossibly tighter to her bear. "I could tell my teacher and we could send cookies."
More than any medal he won, more than any battlefield honor he received, this humbled him. He cleared his throat. "I'd love that, but I won't be going back. I can't be a soldier using these."
He prodded his crutches and saw her eyebrows furrow in confusion. She stared from them to him and back again.
"Last time I was there, I got hurt." He took a deep breath, praying he wasn't making a huge mistake. "The doctor's fixed me, but I still lost part of my leg."
Her head dropped down so she could look at his jeans, shooting back up when she saw the baggy fall past what's left of his calf. "Oh," she breathed. "Oh, you have an owwie like mine!"
She sounded almost excited at first, like she'd never met anyone else missing a limb before. Then her eyes filled with big tears that spilled over quickly, rolling down her rounded cheeks. Her lip trembled. She moved closer to Garrett, one tiny hand unclasping from around her bear and slipping into his. "Did it hurt really really bad?"
"Don't cry," Garrett whispered, feeling on the verge of tears himself. "It doesn't hurt anymore."
"I'm sad for you," Rachel told him. "Do people call you names?"
God, his heart was in pieces. "If they do, then I don't let myself hear them. Do people call you names?"
She stared at him, face sadder than he could bear, before she nodded slowly.
"I'll tell Esme and we can stop that happening, okay? That's not right, Rachel. That doesn't have to happen. It shouldn't happen."
He knew rationally that he shouldn't be making promises to her, yet this was one he knew he'd keep. There was no other option.
She clambered into his lap and wrapped her arm around his neck, clinging on like he was the only thing she had in the world except that torn old bear. He thought maybe he was, and so he cocooned her shaking, tiny body within his strong arms and hugged her back.
Even then, he knew he wanted to call her his daughter. He found out from Esme that Rachel had suffered from meningitis as a child, causing the loss of her arm and hearing damage that accounted for her speech issues. Her parents hadn't been able to cope with the demands of a growing child with disabilities, instead singing away their rights and making her a ward of the state.
Edward was disgusted any parent could do that to their child, but Garrett saw it differently. Rachel's parents knew they couldn't care for her and loved her enough to give her away to a family who could.
More than anything else in the world, Garrett wanted him and Edward to be that family.
Adoption was a hard, lengthy process that involved paperwork, probing questions and more than a few tears. It also involved Rachel and how her smile got a little bigger every day, or the way she asked Edward to read to her and then whisper the words back to herself so she could learn to say them the right way, and any amount of stress paled in comparison.
Finally, they stood in a courthouse and received the best gift they could ever be given – their daughter. She'd sat patiently throughout the proceeding, then when Esme had explained the judge had made Edward and Garrett her parents, "forever and ever", she'd run down from her seat and smacked into the sides of both Edward and Garrett's legs. She was crying, they were crying, and all around them was luminous, unimaginable happiness.
When they make it to the end of the aisle, their little girl is there, squealing and throwing flower petals she was meant to have sprinkled around on her trip up.
"Papa, we're a real family now?" she says, clutching onto Garrett's pant leg.
He bends down to pick her up, cradling her between himself and Edward. They both hold onto her, kissing her cheeks and making her giggle.
"We're a real family, honey."
She squeals again, throwing her weight against Edward's chest. He laughs and walks over to a beaming, teary-eyed Esme, but not before he throws a "Come on, loverboy!" over his shoulder.
Garrett watches his family walk out into the brightly-lit foyer, watching the glow around them, seeing none of the shadow.
Three years ago, his life was pinned to a butterfly's wings, praying for the barest hint of something to pull him through the day.
Three years ago, he was drowning in a sea with a tide that he fought against just to breathe.
Three years ago, he lived in darkness, trying to find a light.
And now, he has a husband, a mother, a daughter.
A sky so bright, he can't count all the lights within it.
A sky, studded with bursting, love-shaped light.
A sky, full of stars.
This story turned out to be so much more than I expected, as have the sweet reviews and comments I've received on it. Thank you. Whether you read or left love or pimped the story, I'm so grateful. Until next time, xoxo