Pity The Poor Knight

By Ian Egan

 

   The phone rang, breaking his concentration. With a sigh, he set the guitar aside and reached for the receiver. So much for a quiet evening without any interruptions. He really wanted to get this damned song finished.

 

   “Hello?”

 

   “Hi, Mike,” a quavering female voice answered.

 

   Danielle. She was a good friend, but he hadn’t talked to her in a couple of weeks; besides, she never called this late in the evening. Mike glanced at the clock, and saw that it was almost 10:30. He could hear the sounds of a large group of people in the background; combined with the shaky note in her voice, this wasn’t good news.

 

   “Danny? What’s up? Are you okay?”

 

   “Yeah, I’m just kinda stuck… could you come pick me up?”

 

   “Where’s John?”

 

   That was really a stupid question, and he knew it as soon as he started asking it. He knew what was wrong.

 

   “Um, we sorta had a fight again, and he took off without me.”

 

   He could hear in her voice that she was very close to tears, so he didn’t press the questions. He suppressed a sigh, and gripped the phone a little harder. He had met John a few times, and wasn’t impressed. They disliked each other immediately; John didn’t understand Danny’s (as he affectionately called her) relationship with Mike, and Mike thought that John was one of those useless arrogant assholes who had absolutely no reason to feel superior to pond scum, much less to another human being. In Mike’s opinion (which was shared by a few of Danny’s other friends as well), he was just another pretty boy with an unfounded superiority complex, expecting the world to fall at his feet based on looks alone.

 

   “Okay. Where are you?”

 

   “I’m at Butch McGuire’s on Division Street.”

 

   Damn. Butch McGuire’s Tavern was one of those brewpub places that Chicago was famous for. It was a great place, but it was in Chicago… with traffic (even at 10:30 at night), it was at least an hour away. The bastard really screwed her good this time.

 

   “Okay. Get yourself something to drink at the bar, and try to relax. I’ll be there in about an hour.”

 

   In a scared little girl’s voice she said, “But I don’t have any money. I had to borrow some change for this phone call. John left with all my money and credit cards.”

 

   Of course he did. She was very close to tears now.

 

   “Don’t worry about it. Tell the bartender that you’re waiting for someone, and ask him to run you a tab. I’ll settle it when I get there.”

 

   Once again in that lost little girl’s voice she asked, “Do you think he’ll let me?”

 

   Mike clenched his teeth a little, but struggled not to let his frustration show. He instead gave a soft laugh. “Danny, you’re a young and very beautiful woman. Talk him into it. I’ll be there in an hour.”

 

   With a rush of relief in her voice Danielle said, “Oh, thank you so much, Mike. You have no idea what this means to me!”

 

   “Go into the bar and sit tight. I’ll see you in a little bit.”

 

   She started to say something else, which Mike knew was going to be something silly about eternal gratitude and “what would I do without you, you’re such a good friend”. Without a formal goodbye, he hung up the phone before she could get the words out.

 

   With a sigh Mike saved the lyrics for the song he was writing, closed the open windows on his computer, switched it and his guitar amplifier off, and grabbed his keys and wallet from the hall table. He really wanted to finish that song tonight. A project for another time, perhaps.

 

   As he drove down the Kennedy Expressway towards Division Street, Mike cursed his luck. He had known Danielle for several years, and had been her male confidant for most of that time. It was a platonic relationship, no matter how much Mike wished otherwise… and in the end that was fine with Mike. Better to be a friend to someone like Danny then to not have her in his life at all.

 

   Mike was the kind of guy who agreed with most women that men were generally scum; as a result, the vast majority of his friends were women. Danny was just one of several beautiful women that Mike counted among his circle of friends, all platonic. He had only one guy whom he considered a good friend, and Roger was the same way… he also thought that most men and their macho ways were a waste of good eyebrows.

 

   Neither Mike or Roger were gay… in fact, they were outright dedicated in their love of women as a species. Mike liked to joke that he was a “lesbian trapped in a male body.” Both were large men (Mike was a Marine sniper years ago, and Roger had served two tours in Vietnam with the Army), and they were both what was considered “renaissance men”. They had met through a local poetry reading and recognized a kindred spirit in each other. With the exception that they wrote poetry, were active in local theater groups, played several musical instruments apiece, were artists (Mike was a freelance cartoonist for a living, in fact) and cried at sad movies, an outsider who didn’t know them would think that they were two formidable bikers… until they started to talk to them and realized that there were keen minds at work behind their bearded faces. Every time they met each other they gave each other a great bear hug… and who would dare make fun of them for that? You would only laugh once.

 

   Mike considered himself big and ugly, and no matter how often he was told that he wasn’t ugly by his female friends, he never quite believed them. After years of being told that he was just this side of hideous by people from all walks of life in his youth, it simply became a fact in his mind. He accepted it, and compensated for his perceived shortcomings in the looks department by cultivating his considerable talents in other areas. He considered his few saving graces to be a good sense of humor (which was why he was a successful cartoonist) and a gentle nature that belied his massive proportions. To his female friends, he was just a big teddy bear… and he actually liked the tag. He had the spirit of a warrior with the soul of a poet, which made him a good friend to women and an enigma to most men. And being difficult to figure out (and at times, called outright weird) wasn’t always a bad thing. At least it kept most of the morons at bay.

 

   He had met Danielle at a party, and they had become good friends over the years. Danny was a truly gorgeous brunette with long, flowing hair and the most amazing blue eyes. She was very intelligent, but like most truly beautiful women, didn’t use her brains to their fullest potential. Why should she, when she could just flash her dazzling smile and bat her big beautiful blue eyes to get into or out of any situation? She had tried that a couple of times with Mike, and he had cut her off in the middle of her act and told her that he wasn’t going to fall for it. He had told her flat out that he knew there was a good mind inside that pretty little head, and he wasn’t going to allow her to get by on her looks alone with him. No one had ever talked to her like that before; from her father to her high school teachers to every male boss, client and boyfriend she’d ever had, she could sweet talk men in to just about anything. Mike was the exception. He forced her to be herself and use her brain around him; he accepted her for all of her faults and shortcomings, and it had cemented their friendship. She knew that Mike truly did accept her as more then just another pretty face.

 

   She, like most women, was more then a little leery about Mike’s intentions at the beginning… until she realized that he was the consummate gentleman who wouldn’t try to “hit” on her every chance he got. His father had taught him well; chivalry was alive and well in Mike’s life. Little things, like the fact that he looked her right in the eyes when they talked and not at her breasts, convinced her that he was different. It was refreshing, and something that she hadn’t experienced before.

 

   Danielle was a smart lady, but she was a terrible judge of character when it came to her taste in boyfriends. To Mike, she seemed at times to be actively looking to get hurt. Like other women, she was drawn to the “bad boy” image. Dangerous men attracted her like the moth to the flame. In the several years Mike had known her she had dated all kinds; aspiring rock musicians who thought that the world would discover their genius while they whiled away the day on her living room couch, drinking her beer; slick con men always looking for that big score, and draining her bank account dry in the meantime; drug dealers addicted to the lifestyle and their own product; and steroid soaked muscle boys who thought the world owed them a living simply because they looked good. In short, they were all losers. Something about lazy good-for-nothing bums triggered a maternal instinct in her that made her want to impulsively protect and nourish them. Mike smiled ruefully to himself as he negotiated the traffic approaching downtown Chicago; if she would just confine those instincts to an occasional lost puppy or kitten, things in her life would be easier and simpler. But not Danny.

 

   John, her current boyfriend, was just the latest in a long line of selfish pretty boys who treated her like shit and expected her to support them until the world paid them what they felt was rightly owed them. In most areas of her life, Danny had it together and knew where she was going. She was financially secure, owned her own real estate business, owned several valuable properties of her own…   she was a success professionally, but her personal life always seemed to be in shambles.

 

   As time went by, Danny became more and more comfortable with Mike. She would call him to get his advice on her relationships from a “male point of view”. He had rescued her several times from situations such as the one tonight… she had spent a few nights on his couch after he pulled her out of one bad scene or another. He had performed this same service for a few of his other woman friends; Danielle was by no means the only one who sometimes found them selves in the same predicament. But it seemed that she was a guest in his humble abode more often then others.

 

    On those nights, he would lie in bed and listen to her cry herself to sleep in the other room. He desperately wanted to comfort her in his arms and rock her… he wanted to stroke her hair and kiss her tears away, and whisper soothing words into her ear until she drifted off to sleep. He wanted to feel her warm body enfolded safely within his arms, protected from all the asshole boyfriends and crummy situations in her life.

 

   Yes, Mike was in love with Danielle. But he knew that his feelings were hopeless, and he was resigned to that fact for several reasons.

 

   First, he knew that he simply wasn’t Danny’s type. She liked the dangerous bad boys, and Mike was safe… he was a quiet nurturing presence in her life. To her, life with Mike would be quiet and simple and boring… and she was still out there taking chances with her heart and looking for the thrills that life had to offer. She might eventually want to “settle down” and live a stable lifestyle, but that time was at best many years and countless heartbreaks away. Until then, Mike was always there. Good old Mike.

 

   Secondly, Mike valued their friendship too much to jeopardize it by trying to take it to the next level. Despite her bad judgment in boyfriends, Danny was a wonderful person behind those big blue eyes and that pretty face. She was a strong independent woman who was smart and creative; she had a unique way of looking at the world and life in general that Mike truly loved. She was compassionate to a fault (witness her taste in men), and was always available to save the whales or the local historic landmark or the endangered yellow tailed hudsucker. She freely gave her time and money to the less fortunate, and Mike thought she was an angel because of it.

 

   They would sit and talk for hours over dinner or a cup of coffee. Danny had a wonderful sense of humor, and could talk about just about anything with intelligence and wit. Mike believed that a good conversation is one of life’s most precious gifts, and they are very rare in this world… so whenever Mike found somebody that could bless the day with one, he went out of his way to cultivate a friendship with them. It also didn’t hurt that Danny thought that he was one of the funniest and most caring people on the planet, and she also thought that he was a true genius with his cartooning and musical talents. Mike trusted her to honestly critic his work; she was always one of the first to hear a new song, or to see a new painting or cartoon from him. Her advice and opinion was valued greatly by Mike. He didn’t want to do anything that would change their relationship for the bad, and nothing destroyed a friendship faster then a failed romance.

 

   And thirdly, Mike didn’t try to elevate their relationship simply because he was afraid of the rejection. He still believed himself to be a big ugly brute (despite being more then a little intelligent), and he couldn’t fathom that someone like Danny could fall in love with him romantically. Mike had many girlfriends, but he always seemed to attract girls of a certain sort; women who were a little bruised and damaged, looking for a nurturing father figure. For some odd reason that Mike couldn’t figure, it seemed that accountants were attracted to him. There was nothing wrong with that, but generally speaking, women accountants were a little on the colorless and humorless side. Not all… but it was Mike’s observation that women attracted to the accounting profession who were good with numbers on the whole appeared to lack creativity and weren’t the best conversationalists. It seemed that virtuosity with numbers signaled a clumsiness with words, and vice versa. They didn’t seem capable of those creative leaps of logic that were the earmark of a good conversation; two plus two equals four, and that was that. Flights of fancy and philosophy had no place in their lives. If it didn’t add up, it wasn’t worth considering.

 

   As a rule the sex with an accountant was generally good… some of them were outright tigers in bed… but the conversation that was important to Mike afterwards was always lacking. (He was an exception to that rule as well… where most men just roll over and go to sleep, sex always seemed to revitalize Mike and enliven his sense of humor. He was a good enough and caring lover that it seemed that it was the woman who wanted to roll over and drift off to sleep first. The cuddling and conversation afterwards was always one of the best parts of a relationship to him.) He always wanted a strong independent woman in his life, but like Danny and others like her, they never seemed to be attracted to Mike or guys like him… as few and as far between as they are. Mike smiled a tight smile and sighed… Ah, well. Such is the cross that we bear.

 

    Mike pulled off the freeway onto the Division Street exit and concentrated on the late night Chicago traffic, weaving his way down Division through the buses and cabs that never seemed to stop their eternal wanderings through the city. He spotted Butch McGuire’s Tavern, and started hunting for a parking space. Parking in Chicago was a bitch at any time, but Mike got lucky and found a good space within a block of the restaurant. He was right on time, as promised.

 

   He walked down the street and into the tavern, which was hopping as usual. Butch McGuire’s was a popular nightspot, and they had a pretty good crowd for Friday night. He nodded to the bouncer who was watching to door… he always got a wary look from bouncers and doormen, because of his imposing size and presence. He knew that they were sizing him up as a potential troublemaker, and trying to judge how best to handle him if worst came to worst. He had been a bouncer for a little while as a young man fresh out of the Marines, and one look at him was all it took to know that he was capable of handling himself in a tough spot. Whatever else was missing in his life, he didn’t lack any personal confidence… and it showed in the way he carried himself at all times.

 

   He located the entrance to the bar area, and stepped inside. Brushing past the knots of people standing around in groups, he shut the loud drone of conversation out in his mind and started looking around for Danny. He located her sitting in a booth near the rear of the bar, and saw that she was not alone. What a surprise… a pretty girl alone in a nightclub bar actually attracts attention? Who would have thought? He smiled ruefully to himself and started across the room towards her.

 

   Danny looked up and saw him, and he could feel the relief that he saw in her face wash over him. She was dressed very nicely, and he caught his breath briefly as he looked at her. She was wearing a black miniskirt and dark nylons, and a pair of “fuck me” pumps that did incredible things to her legs. A simple dark sleeveless sweater was loose enough to be comfortable, but tight enough to accentuate her form… and although she often complained to Mike that she wished her breasts were bigger, Mike assured her over and over again that she had nothing to worry about. She always said, “Oh, if only more men felt the way that you do.” If only more men did indeed.

 

   He walked up to the end of the booth, and smiled down at her. He glanced over at the man sitting across from her, and got a hostile stare in return. Danny reached over and grabbed his hand, and gave him a dazzling smile.

 

   “Oh, there you are, sweetheart! I was wondering when you would get here!”

 

    Mike gave her a smile in return, and played along.

 

   “I’m sorry I’m late, honey… I couldn’t get away.”

 

   The guy sitting with her looked back and forth several times, and Mike could read the questions on his face… “What was a stone fox like this doing with a guy like him, when she could be with me?” But Mike knew that his size and imposing presence was enough to convince the smaller man not to protest the interruption. He mumbled something about getting back to his friends, and slid out of the booth. Mike stepped back to allow him a little room, but the guy still stepped closer and brushed against Mike with his shoulder harder then he needed to in one of those primitive displays of machismo that Mike hated so much. Mike stood rooted to the spot, not giving an inch; as a result, the guy bounced off of Mike like he had run into a concrete pillar, and stumbled back a step or two. Mike turned and stared at him with a slight smile on his face, daring him to react or say something stupid. He might hate the games that men play with each other to prove their manhood, but he knew how to play them better then most. The difference was, he realized that they were games. Most men never bothered to analyze their own simple behavior, and were so damned predictable in “mating” situations like bars and the beach. Men posturing and preening for female attention was such an intricate part of human behavior that most people (male and female) took it for granted and never thought much about it. Mike had studied it and analyzed it, and when necessary, used his knowledge to his advantage. And knowledge was power. It also didn’t hurt that he was six foot three and more then a little burly.

 

   The jerk mumbled a vague apology and made his way across the room towards a group sitting in the far corner. Satisfied that the situation was handled properly, Mike slid into the seat opposite Danny.

 

   “Thank God,” she said. “I thought that creep would never leave. I’ve been trying to get rid of him for the last half hour!”

 

   Mike smiled. “Are you ready to get out of here?”

 

   Danny nodded and started grabbing her purse and jacket. Mike stood up and said, “I’ll go pay for your drink. I’ll be right back.”

 

   Danny said, “Oh, don’t bother! I’ve had two guys buy me drinks since I sat down! I didn’t have to order anything!”

 

   Mike smiled and shook his head, and offered her a hand to help her up from the booth.

 

   “Of course… What was I thinking? And you were worried about not having any money!”

 

   Danny returned his smile and blushed slightly, embarrassed. “Yeah, yeah… I know. Let’s get out of here.”

 

   Because of the crowded bar, Mike went first and cleared a path though the tables with Danny close behind. They made it out of the tavern and started up the street to his car. Danny slipped her arm in to his, and he briefly wondered if it was because she was glad to see him, or if she was sending a signal to all the men that she was with him and didn’t want to be bothered. Either way, he secretly reveled in the feel of her breast against his arm and resisted the temptation to slip his arm around her shoulder. He escorted her to his car, unlocked the door, and then held it open for her as he did all the time. She had remarked before on this display of chivalry; she thought it was “cute”. She gave him a grateful smile and slid into the seat. He made sure she was clear, closed the door, and walked around the car and got in himself. As he pulled out in to traffic, he glanced over and gave her a smile. “Feel better?”

 

   She gave him a grateful smile in return and said, “Much. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”

 

   Mike shook his head and dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “Don’t worry about it… I’m glad I could help. What happened with John?”

 

   Danny sank down into her seat, crossed her arms over her chest, and got a pouty look on her face.

 

   Here it comes, Mike thought.

 

   “It was all my fault. We went out for dinner and maybe a little dancing, and during dinner he asked me for a loan so he could get the spoiler and tinted windows for his car this weekend.”

 

   “And you said no.”

 

   She looked at Mike defiantly and said, “I don’t have the money right now! I wanted to pay off the credit cards for that vacation that John and I took last month to Colorado! I can afford it next month, but I wanted to finish paying that off first! He insisted that it could wait, that he wanted to get his car fixed up first!” She ended with an extremely defensive note in her voice.

 

   “Hey, hey… calm down. It’s me, remember? I agree with you. Pay off the credit cards first. The car accessories can wait.”

 

   Her voice quavered. “Then why doesn’t he see it that way? When I said ‘no’, he got all pissed off and started yelling at me in front of the whole restaurant, calling me a ‘stupid bitch’ and everything. Then he walked out. I waited for him to come back, but he didn’t. After a half hour I went looking for him, and his car was gone. He left me alone and went home!” With that, she buried her face in her hands and burst in to tears.

 

   Mike pulled over quickly and threw the car in to park. He gathered her up in a hug as best as the bucket seats and seatbelts would allow, and held her tight as she sobbed. He didn’t say anything; he just held her until she calmed down enough to get her self under control. Mike held her for a few more minutes, breathing in the scent of her hair. When she was over the worst of it, Mike gently released her and reached into his center console to pull out a small box of tissues that he offered it to her. She grabbed several and started to wipe her tears away. Mike waited patiently, then reached out and gently took her hand. He gently squeezed it until she stopped sobbing. She sat still with her head bowed, staring off in to space, lost in her own world. Mike released her hand with a final squeeze and put the car back into drive, and pulled back in to traffic headed for home.

 

    They drove quietly for a few minutes, and then Danny seemed to shake her self slightly. In a plaintive voice she asked, “What am I doing wrong, Mike?”

 

   Mike suppressed the anger that had been bubbling just under the surface since he had received her phone call earlier in the evening. He wanted to get into her face and tell her EXACTLY what he thought she was doing wrong. He wanted to sit her down and rant and rave at her. Really knock some sense in to her. He wanted to say, “What are you doing wrong? How many times do we have to go through this? Where the Hell do you want me to start? Have you GOT a couple of days?”

 

   Mike swallowed, and started to say something, then stopped. He took a deep breath, then started and stopped again. Through clenched teeth, trying to keep his voice calm, he said, “You didn’t do ANYTHING wrong. It’s that selfish bastard who was wrong.”

 

   Instinctively jumping to her boyfriend’s defense, Danny snapped at him, “He’s not a selfish bastard!”

 

   Mike could feel his temper slipping away. “He drove away and left you alone an hour away from home because you wouldn’t buy him his toys! For God’s sake, Danny, what do YOU call it?”

 

   Danny recoiled slightly from the anger and venom in his voice. This was a side of Mike she didn’t see often, and she looked at him with a shocked expression. She knew him well enough to know that he would never physically harm her, but she also knew that with his intelligence and mastery of language, he could shred a person with words alone. She had seen him do it to idiots who crossed him at parties and such, and while it was entertaining when it happened to someone else, she had never been on the receiving end of one of his verbal attacks. She had always considered herself immune to this side of him because of their friendship. She saw what was coming, and tried to brace herself.

 

   Mike caught the look, and briefly considered clamping his mouth shut and saying absolutely nothing for the rest of the drive… but his anger was right there, and he decided to go for broke. His voice escalated to nearly a shout, and as happens when he got angry, it got deeper and more forceful. He calls it his “Marine Corps Drill Instructor” voice, and coming from a big man like him, the combination was guaranteed to grab and keep anyone’s attention.

 

   “What the Hell is the matter with you? Why do you let yourself get walked on like this? Don’t you see what’s happening with scumbags like John?”

 

   “Danny, you are one of the most beautiful and intelligent people I know, inside and out. You are capable of the most extraordinary accomplishments; you have more potential then almost anyone else I know. You’re only 29 years old, and you own your own house… a beautiful house that you bought all by yourself, without any help from anyone else. You own your own business, and you’re building it into a successful operation, all by yourself. I’ve seen you handle the most intense, stressful situations at work without batting an eyelash, and at the same time you show more compassion and caring for people then I ever thought was possible. You’ve got the brains to do ANYTHING you damned well want to! Just look at what you’ve accomplished in your life! Everyone who knows you and deals with you professionally has nothing but the highest regard and the greatest respect for you. No one EVER has a bad word to say about you. You have more admirers and champions then most people have friends, and yet you can’t seem to pick a decent guy who will treat you with the respect and compassion that you so richly deserve. Why do you seem to throw all of that out the window when it comes to your love life? You have an impeccable sense of style and taste in everything you do except your choice of lovers. I have total confidence in you, in who you are, in your capabilities and your abilities… and then you go and do something stupid like get involved with trash like John! Over and over and over again! Why can’t you believe in yourself as much as I believe in you?!?”

 

   Danny opened her mouth to come to John’s defense again, but Mike cut her off.

 

   “I’m not done yet. He IS trash, Danny. He’s a bum with a go-nowhere job, and no prospects. He talks a great game, but never gets off of his dead ass to accomplish anything. He treats you like dirt and always gets you to bail him out of trouble, which happens all the damned time! How much does he owe you now? I know it’s at least a couple of thousand dollars. How many ‘loans’ have you given him? How many has he even bothered to thank you for, much less pay you back? Has he even OFFERED to pay any of them back? How many have you refused before tonight? I already know the answer… none! This is the first time you’ve said ‘no’, isn’t it?”

 

   Mike clamped his teeth tightly and his words whipped through the car, stinging like a bullwhip in the hands of a master.

 

   “And if he doesn’t get his way, he stomps on your ego, makes you feel like shit, and then makes you feel like it’s your fault… and you fall for it every single time! Every single damned time! What the hell is the MATTER with you?!?”

 

   Danny stared at Mike with open-mouthed astonishment, huddled against the door of the car. Mike had never talked to her like this before, and he was working himself in to a serious lather. She realized that he was seriously pissed off at her. She started to tremble, and seeing her fear, he made a serious attempt to get his temper under control. He gripped the steering wheel hard until his knuckles turned white… Danny expected it to snap off in his hands at any moment.

 

   Mike took a long, shuddering breath. He forced himself to calm down, but his eyes still blazed an electric blue when he spoke.

 

   “Danny, you’re a smart, wonderful, loving lady whom I admire and respect more then just about anyone else in this sorry world. I personally think you’re an incredible person. A truly intelligent, unique, beautiful person who just happens to come wrapped up in a gorgeous little package. Why don’t you believe that? You deserve the best. How come you don’t think so? Why do you think that you somehow deserve to be treated like garbage?”

 

   Mike had exited the expressway and was back on the surface streets a couple of miles from home. He pulled the car over to the side of the road, threw it into park again, and turned in his seat to look Danny directly in the eyes. He spoke quietly, but forcefully.

 

   “Here’s the bottom line, Danny. What John did to you tonight was wrong. It was absolutely unforgivable. It doesn’t matter what you said, or didn’t say. What you did or didn’t do. There is absolutely NO excuse for leaving you alone like that. I don’t care WHAT John’s excuse is. I don’t care if you called him every name in the book and kicked him in the balls to boot.”

 

   Danny snorted at the thought, and a small smile touched to corner of her mouth. The tension that was as thick as smoke a second ago relented slightly. Mike smiled as well, but kept his eyes locked on hers. He was still deadly serious.

 

   “No one deserves to be treated like that. Every relationship is based upon respect, first and foremost. Without respect, there IS no relationship. And John’s behavior tonight not only shows a total lack of respect for you, it proves to me that he is a selfish bastard who doesn’t deserve your devotion… much less to be blessed with your beautiful smile.”

 

   This brought a wider smile to Danny’s face, and a tear to her eye. Mike reached out and grasped her hand and said, “How DARE he. I don’t care what his excuse was, or what justification you can come up with. No one deserves that… least of all you.”

 

   With that, the tears started to flow again. Danny slid across the seat and Mike once again gathered her into a gentle bear hug and whispered soothing words into her hair until the sobs slowed and finally stopped. With that little girl’s voice that always pulled at his heart, she asked, “But what do I do?”

 

   Mike gripped her a little tighter to his chest, and repeated the same old advice that he had given her (and other girls like her) a dozen times before in situations like this.

 

   “Fight back. Stand up for yourself. C’mon, Danny… you KNOW that you don’t deserve to be treated like this. You KNOW that you deserve better. You KNOW what the outcome of this is going to be. You KNOW what the answer is already. Why do you have to hear it from me all the time? You know as well as I do that it’s over between the two of you. The asshole abandoned you in downtown Chicago for chrissake, without a single thought for your safety. Do you honestly think you can trust him ever again? Yes, it sucks… it always does when love dies like this. But I’ve told you before that there is nothing worse then the long, slow, painful death of a relationship. Do you honestly think that there’s any hope left for you and John?”

 

    Danny hesitated for a second in his grasp, and then seemed to deflate. She shook her head against his chest, finally admitting the truth to herself. She started to sob again, and buried herself deeper in Mike’s arms. He let her cry it out of her system.

 

   After a few minutes, Mike pulled away, gave her a tired smile, and once again started to drive. Danny dabbed at the tears staining her face and said, “Damn. I’ve totally ruined my make-up. I must look a total mess.”

 

   Mike looked over at her and chuckled. “I’ve told you time and again, m’lady… you could come walking out of the woods after a week in the wild with twigs in your hair and mud in your pockets, covered in skeeter bites, and you would still be beautiful to me.”

 

   Danny snorted, “Yeah, you’re just saying that because you like me.”

 

   Mike started looking around, and pulled over into a twenty-four hour gas station. There was an old man, stooped and bent, pumping gas into an old Jeep Cherokee. Mike pulled up next to him and rolled the window down.

 

   “Excuse me, sir, we’re having an argument that I hope you can help us solve.”

 

   Danny looked at Mike like he was crazy.

 

   “This lady says that she doesn’t think she looks beautiful right now, and she won’t believe me when I tell her she is…”

 

   Danny started laughing and pulling at Mike’s arm. “Stop it! Stop it! Don’t do that!”

 

   Mike grinned and turned back to the old man at the gas pump. “Would you please give us your opinion? Take a look at this young lady, and tell us what you think?”

 

   Danny was squealing in the passenger seat, completely mortified that Mike would do something like this. She kept smacking his arm and pulling at him, laughing and demanding that he stop this immediately.

 

   The old man grinned and shuffled over to Mike’s window; he bent over to look across at Danny, and gave her the once over. With a twinkle in his eye he chuckled and said, “She’s a real beauty, mister. You’re a very lucky man!”

 

   The thought flashed through Mike’s head that yes, he truly wished that he was that lucky, mister.

 

   Mike laughed and shook the old man’s hand. “Thank you, sir!”

 

   All three laughed as Mike drove away. Danny kept smacking his arm. “I can’t believe that you did that! I can’t believe you!”

 

   Mike grinned at her. “Do you believe me now when I tell you that you’re beautiful?”

 

   Danny grinned defiantly at him and said, “No. I still don’t believe you.”

 

   Mike looked wildly around, and pulled in to the parking lot of a convenience store.

 

   “Wait! I’ll go get the clerk to come out here! Let’s get his opinion! Don’t go anywhere!” He opened his door and started to climb out of the car.

 

   Danny started grabbing him and pulling him back into the car.

 

   “No! I believe you! I believe you! Stop!”

 

   He grinned at her. “Are you sure? We can stop at every little store and gas station on the way if you’re not sure!”

 

   She gave him a huge grin and said, “You would, wouldn’t you! You’d embarrass me at every store, with every person we’d meet if I gave you half a chance! You bastard!”

 

   With the both of them laughing, Mike pulled the car out of the parking lot and headed back home. Danny looked at him with a wide grin and shook her head. “You are such a nut!”

 

   Mike grinned back. “Hey, I got you to laugh, didn’t I?”

 

   Danny laughed again and then suddenly turned somber. They were approaching her house. Mike gently asked her, “Do you want to go home, or would you rather spend the night at my place tonight?”

 

   She shot him a grateful look, but protested “Oh, no… I don’t want to put you out. I’ve already asked you for so much tonight…”

 

   Mike cut her off with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You know better then that, Danny. Me casa a su casa. It’s not a problem. Besides, it’s not often that I get to wake up to a beautiful woman. Even if she’s not sharing my bed.”

 

   Danny grinned back at him. “Thank you so much, m’lord. If it’s really not a bother, then I’ll take you up on your kind offer, gentle sir.”

 

   Mike nodded his acceptance. “It’s settled, then.”

 

   “Let’s just drive by my house and see if John is there. If he’s not, I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight.”

 

   Mike nodded agreement, and turned down her street. She lived a few short blocks from him, and it was on the way. He prayed that John would be home… for even though their relationship was strictly platonic, he enjoyed having her spend the night at his house. If only she felt the same way about him as he did about her.

 

   Mike sighed to himself again. That same damned cross to bear.

 

   Sure enough, John’s hot little sports car that was his pride and joy was parked in the driveway of Danny’s house, and all the lights were off in the house. The bastard was getting a good night’s sleep, totally unconcerned about the girlfriend he had abandoned in downtown Chicago. He could tell from the determined set of her jaw that Danny had finally made a decision, and her relationship with John was truly over. Maybe he’d wait a couple of days and then look John up and have a “talk” with him. If he thought he could treat a friend of Mike’s like that and get away with it unscathed, Mike would just have to show him the error of his ways. A secret wicked smile glanced across his face.

 

   “If you need me to be there when you talk to him tomorrow, let me know.”

 

   Danny nodded gratefully; Mike had been on hand twice before when she had kicked deadbeat boyfriends and roommates out of her house. Besides the fact that he was a comforting presence and effective protector, he helped her keep her emotions under control at moments like this. All she had to do was look at him, and decisions always seemed a little easier to make. He kept her calm enough to remain rational, even when emotions were running high.

 

   Mike secretly hoped that John would decide to argue with him tomorrow. But that would be too much to hope for. Before

anything else, John was very careful about John, and wouldn’t do something stupid enough to get himself hurt.

 

    Pity.

 

   They pulled in to his driveway, and walked up to the front of the house. Mike unlocked the door and held it open for her. They walked in to the living room, and Danny patted the back of the couch affectionately. “Hello, old couch… guess you and I will be spending the night together again!”

 

   Mike tried not to let the pang he felt in his chest show on his face. He couldn’t help but think how lucky the damned couch was. A little too briskly, he asked, “Would you like a cup of hot chocolate or something before bed?”

 

   Danny caught the note in his voice, and nodded. “Sure, thanks. That sounds wonderful. Why don’t we just sit and talk for a couple of minutes before bed?”

 

   “Sure… why don’t you go and get changed into something more comfortable to sleep in? You know where I keep my sweats.”

 

   She nodded and gave him a grateful smile, and walked down the hall into his bedroom. He could hear her opening dresser drawers, searching for a pair of shorts and a t-shirt that would fit. Mike shook his head, and walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove.

 

   They both sat on the couch, and got comfortable. Danny sipped her hot chocolate, and got melted marshmallow on her upper lip. They both laughed, and started talking about the banalities of life. It was a comfortable conversation, one that they had all the time. Safe. They laughed and joked, gently picking on each other. Before they knew it, an hour had slipped away. Danny yawned, and Mike took that as the cue that the evening was drawing to a close. He reached for her hand and said, “C’mon. I’ll help you get your bed set up for the night.” Mike had offered to take the couch and let her use his bed many times before, but she had always turned him down forcefully. She always said that she felt bad enough imposing upon his good will as it was… she wouldn’t stand for kicking him out of his own bed on top of it all. His house had several bedrooms, but he had converted one into his art room for his cartooning, and the other into his music room to hold his large collection of musical instruments and his small recording studio. He had joked with Danny that he should convert one back into a bedroom for her, but she didn’t find it as humorous as he did. She felt it insulted her independence or something. After a fashion, Mike stopped offering. If she was happy sleeping on the couch, so be it.

 

   He went down the hallway and gathered a spare sheet, comforter, and pillow out of the linen closet. He returned to the living room and helped her get the cushions just right for her bed, joking with her the whole time. When they had finished, she stepped up to him and threw her arms around him, giving him a big hug that he instinctively returned.

 

   “Thank you for everything, Mike. I don’t know what I would do without you! You’re just like a big brother to me!”

 

   Time stopped for Mike, and every fiber in his being screamed in silent agony. He hugged Danny a little closer and tighter, so she wouldn’t see the naked pain that flashed across his face. He held her for a long moment until he had regained his composure, and stepped back from her only when he had slipped the mask back on once again to hide the misery in his soul.

 

   Just like a big brother to me.

 

   Damn.

 

   Mike gave her a kiss on the top of her head, and flashed her a wane smile that he hoped she would take as a tired one.

 

   “Good night, m’lady,” he said. “Sleep well.”

 

   “Good night, dear sir… may you have a peaceful slumber as well.”   She smiled and slipped beneath the comforter, and Mike flipped the light switch off as he passed down the hallway.

 

   He went into his room, undressed in the darkness, and slipped into bed. He lay on his back staring up at the dark ceiling, imagining that he could hear her soft breathing as she slipped off into sleep down the hall.

 

   Just like a big brother to me. He wondered if she had any idea just how much he hated to hear those words; if she had even the slightest clue that he was in love with her.

 

   Damn it all.

 

   Mike rolled over and reached down deep for the soft folds of sleep that would erase his pain for at least one more night. In his dream he breathed in the soft fragrance of her hair, and smiled… 

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