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Wow, Hughie thinks when he sees the flowers, a bright and colourful bouquet shoved into the garbage can at the end of the street. Someone’s relationship is going well.

They’re nice flowers, too. Not that he exactly knows a lot about that sort of thing. Butcher is- not the gift-giving type.

Who’d have guessed, Hughie muses idly, that the man to whom he refers solely by his surname despite the fact that they’ve been dating for long enough to live together is not one for romantic gestures.

Presumably whoever dumped all this in such a hurry wasn’t either.

It doesn’t matter, anyway. Hughie heads home, and he doesn’t think any more about it.

“Hey,” he calls, when he makes it through the door to their apartment. He doesn’t always get a response, but today Butcher appears in the doorway to his office, looking just rumpled enough that Hughie knows he’s been working on a case. “Good day?”

Butcher snorts, but he reaches out, welcomes Hughie into his arms with kisses and a strong, possessive hand on his ass. “Missed you,” he growls, deep and dark and accented, still without a doubt the sexiest man Hughie has ever seen.

They’re not the most conventional couple ever. Hughie knows his dad disapproves of the age difference. But- they met at what was a difficult time for both of them. Hughie had just lost Robin, and the cops told him they had no more leads. Butcher had bowled into his life, started a thoroughly horrifying conversation about shaking babies and nanny-cams, and had made Hughie feel something, for the first time in months.

When he’d mentioned he was a PI, Hughie had thought -hoped- he was joking. He was hardly the kind of person to whom Hughie felt comfortable handing all of his money. Except he had an actual licence. A website. Reviews online, all of them maligning Butcher’s personality but praising his work ethic.

Hughie had taken the leap. And Butcher never let him down, pursued the whole case with a relentless ferocity and he’d fucking done it, somehow. Found some new evidence, convinced the cops to re-open the case, actually brought them a suspect, some fucking meth dealer calling himself A-Train.

He was behind bars now, and all because of Butcher.

And somehow, those weekly meetings where Butcher updated him on the progress of the investigation just- hadn’t stopped. They’d kept having coffee and then one day, Butcher called him to say he couldn’t make it, that something had come up.

Hughie had been momentarily possessed by some kind of self-confidence spirit and said, “How about we do dinner, instead?”

Silence for long moments, while Hughie subtly had a meltdown, because he’d fucked it up, shouldn’t have pushed, wasn’t even ready to go on what was definitely a date yet.

“Yeah, alright.”

“Really?”

“Don’t make it weird, Hughie. I- fuck, gotta go.”

He hung up. Hughie had another small, hardly noticeable meltdown, and then went home to try on every item of clothing he owned, even there was no outfit on the planet that could allow him to compete with Butcher’s particular brand of brusque, brazen charm.

“You going somewhere?” his dad had asked, about as far from casual as it was possible to be.

“Just out for a drink.” That sounded less like a date than dinner, didn’t it?

“With anyone I know?”

“Uhh, no- New friend.”

“Well, you just be careful. I know all the kids are hooking up, these days.”

“Dad.”

“So I just want to know when you expect you, that’s all. I know it’s- been a while since you- dated.””

“Dad, stop. I’ll be home tonight, alright? It’s just a drink. I’m not looking for- that.”

“You call me if that changes.”

Hughie hugged him, on his way out. Things between them hadn’t always been great, since Robin, but they were getting better.

Which was why, a few hours later, Hughie had to tear himself away from the very pleasurable, engaging activity of having the breath kissed out of him, pressed up against the wall somewhere in Butcher’s apartment building, to say, “Fuck, I need to call my dad.”

“Now?”

“Before you fuck all of the sense out of me, yeah.”

“Well, then you’d better be telling him you won’t be back ‘til the morning.”

Hughie was at least ninety percent sure he wasn’t about to be murdered, and a hundred percent sure he didn’t care if he was, if it meant he got the chance to trace the muscles of Butcher’s chest with his tongue.

"Two minutes. Then I'm all yours."

"I promise to give you back, when I'm finished." Butcher was still crowding Hughie against the wall, pressed in to claim a long, slow, wet kiss that held so much promise Hughie's knees went weak. "Two minutes. Then I'm starting without you."

Hughie squeaked.

Butcher laughed as he walked away, unbuttoning his shirt. He'd only done half of them up to begin with.

"You were right," Hughie said to his dad, and he laughed, too.

"You be careful, Hughie."

"I will. I-" Hughie glanced in the direction of the door through which Butcher had disappeared, didn't want to be overheard making it clear he didn't quite trust him, but- "There's a business card in my desk. For a PI. I'm pretty sure he's a good guy, but- just in case."

“You’re a good kid, Hughie.”

He had been sort of concerned that Butcher was at least going to make a sarcastic comment about it, if not mock him outright, but all he said, when Hughie found him in his bedroom, was, “Your dad alright?”

And then, since Butcher was sprawled on his bed, entirely naked, tall and toned, tanned and freckled and glorious, Hughie replied, “Who the fuck cares?”

He got no sleep, that night. Somehow, impossibly, Butcher had seemed to want him just as much, hadn’t been able to lay next to him for more than an hour without waking him up, never pushing for more than Hughie wanted to give but consistently inspiring another round.

“I think I’m in love,” Hughie had confessed, when he’d staggered through the door at home, leaning dramatically against the frame.

“Well, just as long as he treats you right.”

-

Butcher does. He really, really does. He’s crass and impolite and insensitive, but he’s a good boyfriend. He lets Hughie know whenever he’s going to be late home. He has an almost compulsive need to reaffirm consent, sexually and otherwise. He seems to never forget anything Hughie tells him about himself, hoards that information away and brings it out again without seeming to think it’s anything out of the ordinary.

“I ate the yellow ones, I know you don’t like them,” he says, when handing over a bowl of gummy bears while they’re watching a movie.

“Saved you a Pad Thai,” he says, too, procuring a carton from the bag set aside when they’ve had some friends over for dinner and Hughie’s run late, had resigned himself to picking at everyone’s leftovers rather than getting his favourite.

“Sit down,” he says, with a hand on the small of Hughie’s back to ease him forward when Hughie finally finds the courage to attend a grief support group but can’t quite bring himself to join the circle, where there is only one visible opening. “I’ll get another chair.”

So- no. Hughie doesn’t mind the lack of flowers, when what they already have is so good.

He tries to imagine Butcher stalking into the florist to pick out some appropriate additions to a bouquet, fussing over colour and arrangement. It makes him snort into their kiss, and Butcher regards him curiously.

“Nothing. Just thinking. Got half an hour before dinner for me to show you how much I missed you?”

Butcher literally sweeps him off his feet and carries him in the direction of their bedroom, already murmuring all sorts of lewd promises in his ear.

Yeah. This is all Hughie needs.

-

The next day, it’s one of those edible arrangement things, the big one with -Hughie makes a small, wounded sound in the back of his throat- the little apple bears. It’s so cute, and it’s in pieces on the floor, not even salvageable. It’s a fucking travesty. Hughie wishes he was able to afford to buy a selection like that, let alone throw one away.

He’s not quite so far gone as to dig through the trash to see what can be saved. A couple of years ago he might have done it.

He’s come a long way in those years. And Butcher’s not even the only connection he’s managed to maintain.

-

“I really like him, you know?”

“He sounds like a dick.” Annie had informed him, through a mouthful of burger. They were in a booth at some generic diner close to the precinct where Annie worked, since she’d just come from there.

They hadn’t seen each other in a while, with her shifts at work and his, although his had been a little less unbearable recently, ever since he got that- pay rise. That he hadn’t asked for. Shortly after mentioning it to Butcher.

“Goddamnit,” he realised, chomping on fries with more aggression than was entirely necessary.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just- remembered I needed to tell Butcher something.”

“What kind of name is that, anyway? He sounds like a serial killer.”

“I think he likes that.”

Annie arched a brow. Yeah, that probably raised some red flags to a cop. “What’s his first name?”

“I’m not telling you.” Hughie knew better. She wasn’t supposed to use the police databases for her own personal enquiries but one could easily pass without detection, one name Hughie really didn’t want to know that much about. “He’s not going to be on there much anyway, he emigrated.”

“Where from?”

Hughie gave her a look. Begrudgingly, she subsided, returning her attention to her food but for one last venture, “He’s not- he’s good to you, isn’t he?”

“He’s great. I’ve never met someone I thought was less likely to hurt me. Except you, of course.”

Annie shrugged, with a twist of her lips like she was considering it. When Hughie threw a fry at her, she picked it up off the table and ate it. “I just haven’t seen you much lately. I’m worried.”  

“We’ve both been busy. It happens.”

It was a shock, as always, to see her insecure little look, the way she chewed her lip. She knew so many people -competent, adult people who had their lives together- that Hughie was consistently surprised she still opted to spend time with him. “Is everything okay?”

It had been too long since they had seen each other; he felt like he’d missed so much in just a few weeks.

“Everyone’s just- caught up in their job. Or doing the bare minimum until they can go home and spend time with their family. Nobody’s-“ with a sigh, Annie set her burger down, wiped her hands on a napkin. “I thought I’d come to this city and meet people and make friends and it would be like having a whole new family, you know? But you’re the only person who-“

She wouldn’t look at him. Hughie’s heart stuttered. They’d been close and getting closer, before. He’d wondered if they were going to try dating, at some point, maybe when he felt like he was ready to try again, but then Butcher strode into his life and all those considerations hadn’t seemed to matter anymore. He wanted to reach for her hand but didn’t know if it would be appropriate.

Her bottom lip trembled before she could bite her emotions back and he realised he didn’t care. He slid out of his seat and back into the one next to her, took both her hands and pulled gently until she leaned her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too. I know you’ve- got something really good, and it’s not about me, I’m just- tired of being alone.”

Hughie pressed his lips to the top of her head with a sigh. He squeezed her hands a little tighter. “Wanna get drunk?”

Annie’s answer was a watery little snort and a nod.

Neither of them was particularly good at drinking. By the time they got thrown out of the bowling alley -Annie threw hard, and maybe a couple ended up shooting down the wrong lane- they were staggering and giggling and messy, although not so messy that they couldn’t get served in another bar a couple more times.

It helped them talk, though, allowed them to vent some of their built-up frustrations, let them make physical contact without reading too much into anything. It was- liberating.

Annie loved her job, but she cared so much, and it was wearing her down to compete with indifference -at best- from those she worked with; those she was trying to help. She’d moved to a city containing millions of people but was finding it difficult to make meaningful connections. She had no energy left after long shifts and was beginning to wonder if she was doing something wrong just by being the way she was.

Hughie hadn’t realised just how much of his life was being absorbed into his relationship. Grateful for the opportunity to get away from his father’s well-intentioned but overbearing attention, he’d basically been living at Butcher’s place, and had been accepted into it all-too-willingly. He hadn’t thought anything of it, but now he wondered if he was making himself too available.  If he wasn’t so convenient, would Butcher still be interested?

“Hughie,” Annie slurred, eyes unfocused, slamming her fist down on the table then grimacing at the way her skin stuck to the surface. She was so damn cute. “None of that. You’re cute! You’re a catch. He’s lucky to have you, and I’m sure he knows. If he doesn’t. I’ll arrest him.”

“For not appreciating his boyfriend?”

“For-“ Annie visibly wracked her brain, “Breaking and entering. Your heart.”

“Oh my God you’re hammered.”

That made her snort, and then she covered her mouth, wrinkling her nose as she met his eyes. “I needed this. Thank you.”

“No problem. I’ll try and be around more. I thought- you’re amazing. I figured you’d have people fighting for your attention.”

“Only in the biblical sense.” Annie took a generous swig of her beer. “Soon as they realise I’m not gunna fuck them, most of them lose interest.”

“God, people are dicks.”

“They are!”

It was far too late to consider letting Annie make her own way home alone by then. With a somewhat garbled text message, Hughie ascertained that no, Butcher didn’t mind putting up a friend of his for the night, and they staggered back to his apartment in that childish attempting to be quiet way that only resulted in more noise than just walking in would have done. It took three attempts for Hughie to get his key in the door, two more for him to lock it behind them, Annie bumping drunkenly at his side all the while. It was late, but Butcher wasn’t exactly the early night type, and the lights were still on.

“Oh, this is nice!” Annie’s eyes were still bright and observant, even in her haze, and they widened in outrage when Butcher materialised to lean in the doorway to his office. “You!”

“Officer January. What a surprise.”

“Uhhh-“ Hughie said, intelligently.

“You shot me in the chest!”

“They not teach you what cover is at the Police Academy?”

“What?” Hughie asked, but he was being thoroughly ignored in favour of furious glaring and smug smirking, respectively.

“Twice!”

“Well, seems like you should have listened better, then.”

“I mean you shot me twice!”

“Well, those paintball guns can be temperamental, love.”

“Hughie said you were a serial killer and I should have believed him.”

“That’s not at all what I said,” Hughie corrected, although thinking back even he wasn’t that sure.

Butcher just winked at him though. “That’s alright. Not like the shitty cops in this city could catch me anyway.”

“I hate you.” Annie had, however, graduated from animated to sulky, and she turned on Hughie next. “I was right. He was a dick.”

“Why were you paintballing together in the first place?”

It turned out they were both in some kind of league, and they weren’t even the most competitive people there. Butcher knew a surprising number of Annie’s colleagues by name and by reputation, but even though Annie was a vocal drunk, he didn’t seem to be pushing her for any information he might be able to use. It was- not a budding friendship, but by the time Hughie got the couch set up for Annie, she’d begrudgingly accepted that he wasn’t quite so bad in person, although her boobs still hadn’t quite forgiven him.

Hughie was glad he was still a bit too drunk to properly process that comment. He kissed her cheek, and she flailed in his direction until he hugged her too, and then she told him in no uncertain terms that she could definitely find something to frame Butcher for if he needed her to get him deported.

“I think we’ll be okay.”

They were. Butcher welcomed him to bed with open arms, even though he was still drunk and stinking of booze, and he only made a couple of pointed comments about associating with the other side, whatever the hell that meant. Hughie plastered himself up against Butcher’s side and fell asleep before he had a chance to get going anyway.

-

The day after, there’s nothing in the bin. Whoever it is has either figured out their life or given up. Hughie hopes it’s a good sign.

Butcher’s home, but he’s been out.

“Butcher-“ Hughie can’t help it. Butcher might roll his eyes and wave off the attention but when Hughie’s gentle touch alights on the bloodstained bandage wrapped around his knuckles, Butcher leans into him, always does, closes his eyes and trusts. “What happened?”

“Would you believe I was cooking a healthy, romantic homemade meal and the knife slipped?”

“Not a chance.”

“Well, then you’re just gunna have to trust me.”

Butcher’s so soft, so relaxed that Hughie can’t bring himself to push it.

He’s always known Butcher isn’t exactly innocent. From the way they met, to his reaction when he was over for dinner with Hughie and his dad, and their landlord dropped by.

Mr Perkins had been making those visits for a while. Just with reminders about the rent, invoices for works to be carried out on the building.

Essentially, he kept asking for money but Hughie hadn’t thought anything of it. Butcher had tipped his chair back to watch the conversation, and he’d asked a few questions, after.

Hughie hadn’t thought much of it. Butcher was a PI. He was naturally curious.

Except he’d also been there when the landlord had called around again, this time apologetically grovelling, even returning -in cash- the money he’d said he needed. Apparently the contractors had come back with a lower estimate than the one they’d initially quoted.

He’d physically flinched when Butcher got up from the couch and shrank away when he leaned with his hand against the doorway. The skin over Butcher’s knuckles was split, Hughie noticed just then.

“You’ll have to give me the name of that contractor. Seems like you got a bloody good deal. I’ll be sure to drop by. See them in action while they make the repairs to the roof. When will they be in?”

Hughie barely heard the stammered response. He was trying to remember when he’d told Butcher about that and was drawing a blank.

“Well, that’s alright.” Butcher clapped the man on the shoulder with a big, strong hand. “I’ll be around plenty, the next couple of weeks. I’m sure I’ll catch them.”

“That’s a good bit of luck, isn’t it?” Hughie’s dad said, later.

“Yeah. Real good.” Hughie agreed.

-

“What did you say to Mr Perkins?” Hughie asked, later, when he and Butcher were alone, getting ready for bed.

“Who?” Butcher asked right back, and Hughie had been ready to go off, except Butcher stepped in and cradled his face with both marred hands, so unspeakably gentle, his eyes soft and expression hopelessly warm. “You don’t need to worry about that.”

“Butcher-“

“Hughie. I will always do everything in my power to help you, and protect you. Trust me.”

And Hughie had seen his dad so excited about finally being able to afford a new television set just a few hours previously; knew Carolyn down the hall had been suffering from mould in her baby’s bedroom because of the unrepaired leak in the roof for months; had seen Mr Perkins’ Aston Martin parked outside.

He nodded.

Just like he does today, when Butcher requests his trust, having earned it so thoroughly. He raises Butcher’s injured hand to his lips and kisses the dressing, just the lightest brush, earns himself an indulgent smile.

They get pizza for dinner in the end.

It’s Butcher’s left hand that’s injured, Hughie notices at one point, even though his dominant is his right.

It’s probably nothing.

-

The next day, even though Hughie isn’t expecting to see anything, there are expensive chocolates spilled all over the floor on that same corner.

It’s just wasteful now. They could at least have just left the box intact so somebody else could eat them.

“Hey Hughie,” he’s greeted as he walks through the door to the apartment.

“Oh, hey Frenchie. Hey, Kimiko.”

Frenchie’s gaze is fixed on the screen of the video game he’s playing. Kimiko waves jovially. She’s sweet. Hughie likes her. Sometimes he wonders what she’s doing with Frenchie, but then a lot of people wonder the same about what Butcher’s doing with him, so he tries not to judge.

He doesn’t dislike Frenchie, of course, but he can be a little- intense.

They hadn’t met in the best circumstances. Frenchie and Butcher had both been hired on opposite sides of a bad divorce, each entirely convinced they were in the right and seeking their paychecks.

It had left Butcher fuming and on-edge for weeks, as unbearable at home as he was at work, intent on exchanging blows with someone he’d previously worked alongside. Hughie had actually avoided him for long enough to cause their first real argument, the first time he’d ever seen Butcher truly hurt and wounded.

“Can you talk some sense into him?” Frenchie had asked, after revealing he had the nerve to actually accost Hughie on the street.

“You’re both as fucking bad as each other. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“This man’s wife is abusive. I need your help to get him justice.”

“Then find some evidence. Leave me alone.” Hughie shouldered past him, tried not to let on how anxious and intimidated he was. Did this lunatic, the one intent on standing up to Butcher, know where he lived? The thought was jarringly invasive.

“I’m trying to find evidence. Butcher is the one being unreasonable.” Frenchie followed him. Although at least it was at a careful distance.

“Not my problem.”

“He started this, you know,”

“Are you seriously quoting kindergarten rules at me right now? Somebody’s got to get hired first, how the fuck was Butcher supposed to know-“

“I mean this! He scared the shit out of my girlfriend-“

“Yeah, well two wrongs don’t make a- what did you say?” Hughie stopped walking so suddenly Frenchie nearly collided with him.

“He met Kimiko after work. Tried to convince her to get a copy of what I found out.”

“Excuse me-“ Hughie’s tone was so dark, low and furious that Frenchie actually took a step back. “I have to have a conversation with Butcher.”

He slammed the door to Butcher’s apartment open so loudly that Butcher emerged from his office, gun at the ready.

“Are you fucking kidding me right now?” Too angry to care, Hughie threw up his hands.

“Hughie. You alright?” Butcher was so worried, so concerned, set the gun aside with appropriate caution and it all only made Hughie angrier.

“You stalked Frenchie’s girlfriend!”

“Stalked is a strong- how do you know that?”

“How did you expect him to react-“

“I’m gonna fucking kill him.”

“Not if I kill you first.”

Butcher was primed to go but he stopped in his tracks at Hughie’s words, or the grip he had on the front of his ridiculous shirt.

“I don’t ever stop you from doing your work. I understand when you’re exhausted, or late home, or out all night. I admire what you do. But if you every try to get your way by accosting some innocent person on the street- regardless of who they’re dating, you will never see me again. I’m drawing the line.”

That hit home. For a brief couple of moments, Hughie had been concerned it wouldn’t, that he would be brushed off or dismissed, that a week of barely seeing each other would have reminded Butcher how good he had it before. Maybe he didn’t appreciate Hughie trying to act as his fucking conscience.

“I didn’t hurt her.”

“I don’t give a shit. She should never have been dragged into this and neither should I. This has gone too far. Butcher, who gives a shit what happens in this divorce? Both those people sound fucking terrible and they’re apart now, so problem solved. Just send whatever you’ve found to their lawyers and let them make sense of it.”

Butcher had been softening throughout Hughie’s little rant, but then his hands found Hughie’s face, thumbs caressing his cheekbones. “I’m sorry.”

“Apologise to Kimiko. And Frenchie.”

“He never stood a chance against you.”

They were so close by then, a genuine, terrifying amount of love and admiration in every aspect of Butcher’s expression, shining in his eyes, visible in the crease of his brow and the quirk in his lips.

Hughie had always been rendered so fucking weak by him. “I’m still mad at you,” he attempted to make clear, in a whisper of a voice, lips tingling with the promise of a kiss, the warmth of Butcher’s breath, his hands reaching out to find Butcher’s waist with no conscious input from his brain.

“I’ll make it up to you.”

That was good enough for Hughie.

For all of Butcher’s flaws, he wouldn’t lie to him about something like that. He wouldn’t see the point.

He did apologise to Kimiko. And Frenchie. They come over pretty regularly, sometimes with MM, although not often. Apparently his wife despises Butcher. Thinks he’s a bad influence.

“No, that’s fair,” Butcher had shrugged and said, when Hughie commented on it.

“He’s right,” Frenchie agreed, even Kimiko nodding too.

Hughie dreads to think what happened there.

“You guys staying for dinner tonight?” he asks, as he dumps his bag.

“If that’s alright. I brought dessert. Macarons.”

“Stay forever. Or I could come home with you.”

Frenchie snorts. Kimiko sticks her tongue out at him playfully.

Dinner goes surprisingly well. Butcher and Frenchie are actually working together on a case and since Kimiko, well, doesn’t speak, they end up telling Hughie what they can, at the table.

There are a couple of pointed comments Frenchie makes in Butcher’s direction, each more blatantly ignored. Something about- not doing something even when he’d said he would, Hughie gathers. But it’s not exactly out of character for the two of them to be having some kind of passive-aggressive exchange. He doesn’t think too much about it.

Aside from that, Butcher’s- thoughtful. Contemplative. In bed that night, he reaches for Hughie and seems reluctant to let him go, or to progress beyond long, lazy kisses and an inescapable hold. He seems tired.

“You okay?” Hughie asks gently, aware that such a query has only a slim chance of garnering an honest and helpful response.

Butcher is not good at talking about his feelings, and Hughie suspects it goes beyond the cultural thing he uses to deflect, but now his brow creases, and he strokes Hughie’s cheek, expression unreadable as he answers with another question, “You’re happy, aren’t you? With me?”

“What? Yeah. I am. Are- are you? With me?”

That’s when the walls come up. Shit. Hughie reaches out, and Butcher takes his hands to stop him.

But then he breathes, long and slow, closes his eyes for a moment and when he opens them again Hughie feels tears prick at his own with all the love he sees there.

So- “I know,” he says, curling his fingers around Butcher’s, lowering his head to kiss them, smiling when Butcher tangles them together and squeezes hard. “I know. You show me every day.”

Butcher gathers him up in his arms, holds him close and kisses his temple. And that’s the end of the conversation.

Hughie falls asleep with the steady beat of Butcher’s heart in his ear and a smile on his face.

-

There’s nothing in the trash on Friday.

Not in the one at the end of the street.

There is someone trudging about in the dumpster beside their building though.

It’s New York, so Hughie doesn’t think much of it at first glance, but then he stops and takes the necessary three steps back to peer around the wall into the alleyway.

Then he sighs.

And then he asks, “What are you doing?”

Butcher curses colourfully, but since that can serve for a greeting as much as a violent lamentation, with him, Hughie doesn’t pay it too much attention.

“You’re early,” Butcher says, and it might pass for conversational if he wasn’t tearing open a black garbage bag with gloved hands to reveal a congealed mess of food waste and an overwhelming stench that makes Hughie cough and step back, raising a hand to cover his nose.

“I’m not.”

“You’re not? Shit.”

“What are you doing? There could be fucking needles and broken glass in there.”

“I’ve got gloves on! And I- I need something. Threw it out by mistake.”

“Threw what out by mistake?”

Butcher turns guilty eyes on him, then, and if it’s enough to make Butcher feel actual guilt, then Hughie’s definitely worried.

“What?” Hughie asks. He has no idea what it could possibly be. Nothing they own is particularly valuable. There are backups of all their important documents, and they’re all filed away safely anyway.

Butcher’s staring at the bag in his hands when he confesses, through an audibly clenched jaw, “The nanny-cam.”

The nanny-cam lives on one of the shelves above the TV. It makes Hughie feel safe, rather than uncomfortable, somehow, to know it could be watching him. Occasionally, when Butcher’s been busy working, Hughie will pick it up, leave him a message to remind him how much he misses him. It’s- kind of stupid, or so he thought at first, but now every one earns him a night of Butcher’s undivided attention, kisses and cuddles, borderline worshipful sex. Hughie would put much more than his pride on the line for those nights.

The files can be easily copied, saved on a computer somewhere, sent to a phone. So it’s not like those messages are gone, if Butcher really wants to keep them. But the bear itself is still a sign of how far they’ve come, a souvenir of how they met. It means a lot to Hughie. He’s deeply hurt that Butcher could throw it out, even apparently accidentally, like it’s insignificant to him, and his anxieties resurface, that maybe he’s attributing meaning to casual gestures, in too deep to know that maybe Butcher’s not as invested in this as he thought. He’s been acting kind of weird all week, actually, and Hughie aches to confront him about it, because even if it’s the worst kind of news at least he’d know, instead of having to doubt.

Butcher’s frustrated right now though, cold and covered in garbage. He’s going to be in no mood to talk about it, and Hughie only risks alienating him and upsetting himself if he pushes it. “We’re talking about this tomorrow,” Hughie promises instead, and receives the same frown he always does when he trusts instead of demanding Butcher explain himself, Butcher’s expression caught between confusion, dread and relief. Then he nods.

This is- not how Hughie imagined spending his Friday night, but- “Move over. I’m coming in.”

“Hughie, baby, you don’t have to.”

“It’ll take half the time if the two of us do it, right?”

“This is my fault.”

“You-“ something occurs to Hughie then, something that stabs him through the heart and almost makes him stagger back with the near-physical impact of it. “You do want it back, don’t you?”

“Yes! Fuck, what do you think I’m doing here? It was an honest mistake, Hughie. I swear. I love that stupid fucking bear.”

“You do?” Hughie sets his hands on the edge of the dumpster, almost managing to ignore how the sticky surface makes his skin crawl when Butcher unevenly lumbers towards him, as beautifully sincere as any man with potato peelings in his hair and myriad unknown stains on an already horrible shirt can be.

“Yeah. It tells me when I’m being a cunt. Not making enough time for what’s most important.” With a surprisingly soft smile, Butcher holds out a hand, “You and me.”

Hughie’s too busy trying not to cry to resist taking that hand, and he’s hauled up and in, nearly loses his balance immediately and is steadied by Butcher, who also digs in his pocket for another pair of gloves and hands them over.

Hughie isn’t entirely sure he wants to know- “Where should I start?”

“That end? Meet in the middle?”

Regarding the task in front of him, Hughie sighs. There’s loose trash; unidentified mess that might once have been food; dirty containers, black bags full of more mysterious horrors. With bile already rising in his throat at the smell of rot and decay, utterly inescapable, the thought of all the tiny microbes and germs he can’t even see, he breathes in through his mouth, and he nods. “You got it.”

The adoring, proud look Butcher shoots him over his shoulder only somewhat softens the revolting, visceral sensations of finding himself wrist-deep in filth.

-

Miraculously, Hughie is neither bored of nor accustomed to the physical horror of his task by the time he finally finds the bear.

It’s as cute as ever, for being intentionally generic, somewhat stained and bedraggled from its time spent in the garbage. It’ll need a wash, although with how disgusting Hughie also is at that moment, he slips his gloves off to rub his thumb over the soft fur of its ear, mentally apologising for the state of them both. He has no idea what Butcher was thinking when he threw this away, and he’s not looking forward to the argument they’re going to have about it when Hughie’s doubts and Butcher’s defensive nature collide and clash. Those exchanges always leave him feeling cracked-open and exhausted.

Before he has to deal with all that, he thinks, he’ll figure out what he’s going to have to do with the poor thing. Maybe it can go in the washer? He opens it up at the back to check for a label or something, in amidst its electronic guts- which he should check, too, in case they got wet or contaminated. At least they save the contents of the memory card regularly, Hughie thinks, as he finds the hidden zip in the back, opens the bear up and-

He nearly drops what falls out, fumbles to catch it without thinking, then realises what he’s holding. That and the bear nearly slip from his grasp in his shock, saved only by the fact that the slim band of metal catches on his first finger.

“Butcher-“ he says, or means to. No sound comes out. This can’t possibly be what Hughie thinks. Butcher just isn’t the type. And Hughie isn’t deserving of being asked. He’s terrified, suddenly, that Butcher might have meant this for him, but the only option worse is that he might have meant it for somebody else. Why would he hide it like this? Why would he throw it away? Did he change his mind?

“Butcher,” he says again, too loud this time, and Butcher flinches like he’s been shot, whirls around, eyes wide and panicked as they alight on the bear. Then, the ring that’s now in Hughie’s other hand. Then Hughie’s face.

“Shit,” he says, and Hughie’s too furious to burst into tears like he wants.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? What is this?”

“Hughie. Love-”

“Butcher. Explain.”

“I-” Butcher sighs, hangs his head. He’s stupidly gorgeous, heart-wrenchingly repentant for someone who’s such a complete ass. “I wanted it to be perfect. I’ve been trying all week. I thought- if I just found the right moment. Maybe you’d say yes.” He stops to gesture to their surroundings. “Guess I fucked that.”

And- okay. That sets a lot of Hughie’s fears to rest. Butcher is a lot of things, but he’s not a liar, not about something like this. However far-fetched and ridiculous the situation- this is real.

Hughie’s voice is low but he’s on the verge of laughing hysterically so it shrills when he asks, “Why are we in a dumpster?”

“Just a warning about what you’d be letting yourself in for, I guess.”

No, that’s not right. Butcher’s visibly drooping, this apparently what breaks him after hours of rifling through garbage and a week of agonising. Doesn’t he know Hughie’s supposed to be the insecure one?

“Why did you throw it out?”

Butcher aborts running a hand through his hair when he notices the state of his glove, shifts awkwardly and looks about instead, like there might be anything that could save him from this conversation. Except unlike every other occasion, when he’s walked away or brushed it off or outright refused, he steels himself and powers through, “I bought another one, that was- just a stuffed bear. To give to you. Surprise you, like this. But then I realised that was a fucking stupid idea, so I threw it out.”

Fuck. Hughie hates that it all suddenly makes sense. He still wants to cry, but it’s no longer for all the wrong reasons. “But you threw the wrong one out.”

“I threw the wrong one out. And I didn’t even fucking notice until today, when I couldn’t find the ring. Thought I’d put it in a fucking safe place. I’ve been going absolutely fucking mental all week, Hughie. I was terrified. I wanted it to be perfect.”

“Butcher.” Hughie almost feels bad for laughing, so relieved and fucking thrilled he can’t even try to contain it, despite Butcher’s barely-contained wounded outrage. “I love you. I would say yes, if-“ he stops. Because he’s had a thought, and he takes two stumbling steps in order to press the ring into Butcher’s palm, to guide his fingers into closing around it. “I would say yes if you proposed right here, right now.”

He has no idea what Butcher is searching his face for, gaze intent and focused, can only smile with every ounce of love he can muster and wait.

Seeing Butcher sink -stagger- to one knee still makes his breath hitch, his bottom lip wobble, his eyes sting with tears. He squeezes the bear tight, hugs it to his chest briefly before setting it carefully aside, knows what’s coming but still somehow feels it like a stab in the heart when Butcher speaks.

“Hughie. I’m- shit at this. But you know that. I didn’t think- there was anyone who could make me feel like this. But you made it possible. And then you- made it easy. I promise- to never again attempt anything remotely romantic. If you just say yes. Will you marry me?”

There is no controlling the smile that overtakes Hughie’s face in those moments, and it only broadens with the hope he sees in Butcher’s eyes, the- “Wait. Was it you, with the flowers in the trash, and the-“

“Hughie!“

“Yes! Yes. I will marry you.”

“Oh, thank fuck.” Butcher’s hands are shaking as he gently slides the ring onto Hughie’s finger, rubbing a thumb over it once it’s in place like he can’t quite believe his eyes.

Hughie’s never felt so treasured. His bottom lip’s wobbling but his voice is steady when he says, “I love you so much.”

And Butcher never says the words back, but this time he’s the closest he’s ever been, “It’s never been like this, Hughie. You’re the one.”

They don’t talk about it, but Butcher’s been married before. Hughie knows that, and he shouldn’t feel a sense of triumph with those words, but he does. He can’t resist confirming, coyly, like there might have been some mistake and Butcher could have forgotten his own past, the years he devoted to someone else, “Yeah?”

Butcher nods, his eyes and expression soft. Maybe his words are all used up. That’s okay. Hughie helps him to his feet, drapes his arms over strong shoulders so he can admire his ring while Butcher stares at him with cautious triumph and helpless adoration, sets hands to Hughie’s waist and lets out a long sigh that takes some of his tension with it. He buries his face in Hughie’s throat, probably about the cleanest part of him, and Hughie holds him tight, noses behind his ear and whispers, “I’m happy.”

And Butcher’s breath hitches, and he squeezes with strong arms, and maybe he nods. They’re dirty and disgusting, cold and damp, and Hughie relaxes into the protective, possessive hold with a comfortable sigh. There’s no one he’d rather be with, than him.

He feels Butcher relax in increments, but his breathing’s picking up in a distinct, familiar way Hughie can’t help but respond to. He noses at Butcher’s skin, savours the warmth and softness, sensations of the man he loves in his arms, is sure the pounding of his heart can be felt against Butcher’s chest.

With fingers beginning to dig bruises into Hughie’s hips and a sharp nip at Hughie’s ear that makes him whimper, the final shadow of unease leaves Butcher as he growls, “I want to strip you naked, scrub you clean, and have you in our bed, wearing nothing but my ring.”

“It’s my ring, now,” Hughie can’t help but correct, gleefully, snatching up the bear with his free hand as he’s hauled in the direction that will allow Butcher to achieve every one of his desires.