“How many calories do you think are in a chocolate shake?” Luz asks, resting his head on the bars of the shoulder press machine.
“A lot,” is Lipton’s distracted response. “C’mon, George, three more.”
Luz sighs and pushes his arms up slowly, trying to remember how to breathe and do anything else. For some reason, exercise is the only thing that makes him forget how to multitask with his breathing.
“Okay, good, two more,” Lipton smiles at him, clearly enjoying the torture he’s been putting George through.
George’s arms shake slightly bringing them up over his head for what feels like the hundredth time.
“One more, George, you can do it,” Lip tries to encourage, but Luz is already glaring daggers at him.
“This is too many reps, I’ve done too many,” he whines, resting his forehead on the bars again.
“George, this is only your second set. Normally I’d be making you do at least three of these.”
Luz’s eyes shoot open at the claim and Lipton holds his hands up before George can complain again.
“I’m not gonna make you today, this is just about getting you back into working out. Nice and easy today, I promise.”
George wouldn’t call any of the things they’ve done already today “easy”, but he is the one who asked Lipton to be his workout coach. So, now he has to pay the price for that mistake.
He takes a deep breath and pushes again, just wanting these to be over. Lipton encourages him the whole way through.
“Knew you could do it,” Lipton says as George brings the arms back down and then immediately stands up, just in case they machine tries to keep him there.
“Yeah, I’m a regular meathead now,” George says, rolling his eyes.
He wipes down the machine before Lipton leads him over to the treadmills, claiming they’ll just do some cardio, and then stretch and then they’ll be done. George feels like they’ve been here all day, so he doesn’t really believe him. But Lipton is his best friend, so he follows him anyway.
“How’s Lenny liking that day camp she’s been going to?” Lipton asks as he jogs alongside of George, who has chosen to stick with a brisk walking pace.
“She loves it. She’s already made ‘ten thousand friends’, her words.”
Lipton grins. “Well, I don’t think anyone is surprised by that. How’s she behaving?”
“I haven’t gotten a call from the camp, so she hasn’t challenged anyone’s authority just yet,” Luz says, then adds, “though this is only her third day, so,” he crosses his fingers on both hands and holds them up to the sky, begging whatever power there is that Helena doesn’t just decide that she doesn’t want to follow the rules anymore.
“That’s great. So, you think she’s ready for Kindergarten? I know you’ve been worried about that.”
George nods, already feeling his breathing becoming a little more labored as he continues to walk.
“These past few weeks she’s really been doing better with following directions and sitting still…when she needs to.”
“And you think it’s those Taekwondo lessons?”
“Oh for sure. She’s constantly talking about how responsible she needs to be now. It’s all ‘Master Toye says this, and Master Toye says that.’ I swear, I think I’ve got a year round Santa Claus with this, if she’s ever misbehaving I can just say ‘what would Master Toye think if he knew?’ and she’ll go right back to being the innocent little angel we all know she’s not.”
Lipton laughs, slightly breathless. “Right, and she’s the only one who’s just a little enamored with the guy?”
George groans at his friend’s teasing, Lip already knows all about George’s giant crush on Helena’s instructor. He’s heard all the mortifying stories of George’s inability to stop saying something mildly dirty to the man every week even in a room full of children, his own daughter being one of them.
Lipton’s breathing is only slightly more winded than Luz’s as he jogs, and this is why George had asked for help. He’s just turned thirty and found that while he’s never been in perfect shape at any point in his life, he’s never been more out of shape than he has been over these past five years. It turns out that while raising a child does involve some heavy lifting and cardio of its own, it doesn’t do nearly as much for stamina or weight loss as George thinks it should.
As George looks around the gym, to keep his mind off of what he’s doing, his eyes catch on someone in one of the classrooms. For a moment, he thinks it’s his mind playing tricks on him. He’d just been thinking of Joe, so it makes sense that he might see someone similar looking and think that it’s him. Only, after a couple of seconds of staring, he realizes that the man really is Joe. He just looks a little different than George is used to.
He’s wearing a tight black tank top that reveals his broad shoulders and strong arms. There’s a tattoo on his right shoulder that George can’t make out from this distance but he finds himself staring at it anyway. Joe is moving back and forth around a hanging punching bag, his hits fast and hard.
The look of concentration that he can see on Joe’s face – when he circles the bag enough for George to see his face – makes him look intense and aggressive. That, mixed with the way he’s attacking the bag, makes Joe look pretty intimidating.
If George had never met him before – seen the way he smiles at Helena when she does something well – he’d probably just write him off as some scary guy who he wouldn’t want to mess with. Though still a hot scary guy. In fact, George will admit he’s probably a little hotter like this, which is probably why George is having such a hard time tearing his eyes away.
“Earth to Luz,” he hears somewhere to the side.
He finally pulls his gaze away, back to Lipton, who is smirking.
“Sorry, what’s up?”
“Well, I was going to say that we were almost done, but it looks like you can keep going, what with your new show to entertain you,” Lipton says, then raises his eyebrows and motions his head over to where Joe is.
“Do you think he saw me?”
Lipton shakes his head. “No, I think he was pretty busy. I gotta say, I never really thought someone like that would be your type.”
“He’s not…he’s different,” Luz explains lamely.
“Wait, do you know that guy?”
“That’s-“ Luz starts, but as he speaks he also looks back over and notices that Joe is leaving the room, and it looks like he’s going to take the path toward the locker rooms, which will lead him right past the treadmills and Luz.
“Oh god, no,” he says ducking down for a second, but then realizes he can’t easily do that and keep walking. He briefly contemplates rolling onto the floor and army crawling his way to the other side of the gym, because having Joe see him in a large shirt and sweatpants, ready to pass out at the easiest of workouts, is almost mortifying enough to be worth it.
But, he reminds himself that he is an adult, so he rights himself on the treadmill and quickly cranks up the speed to start running. If he’s going to look exhausted he may as well look like he’s earned it.
“What are you doing?” Lip asks, after watching Luz’s quick fit.
He doesn’t have time to answer before Joe is walking up on them. He’s nearly past, and Luz thinks that maybe Joe won’t even notice him. But Joe’s eyes meet his for a spilt second and Joe stops, looking at him for a moment – probably trying to place him out of context of where he usually sees him – then grins.
“Mr. Luz,” Joe says, in his low, gravelly voice, which sounds just a little out of breath still from his workout.
“Joe!” Luz exclaims, then closes his eyes to lament the volume he just used. He had been trying for happily surprised, but he’s pretty sure he just sounds manic, due mostly to already being out of breath from just the few seconds he’s been running.
He fumbles with the controls to make the machine stop for a few moments, then brings his feet to the edges and rests his arms along the side.
“Oh, sorry, don’t stop your workout for me,” Joe says, taking a step back.
“No, no, I was…I was done,” Luz gasps out.
Joe grins and steps back up to the machine.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before, did you just join?” Joe asks.
“Yep, Lip here is trying to show me the ropes,” George explains, motioning toward his friend who at least has the decency to pretend like he hasn’t been watching their exchange so far.
Joe looks a little startled, like maybe he hadn’t noticed Lipton was even there until just now, but then nods and sends him a tight smile.
“Joe was it?” Lipton says, in a voice that tells Luz that he knows exactly who this Joe is.
“Uh, yeah, nice to meet you.”
“So, do you work here too? Or just workout here?” Luz asks, because Joe looks like he’s about to step back again.
“I teach a few boxing and kickboxing classes, and a self-defense class on Mondays,” Joe tells him.
“Wow, so you just like all kinds of fighting,” Luz says, and can almost feel Lipton’s eye roll.
But Joe laughs, or at least lets out a small half-chuckle. “Yeah, gotta keep it interesting, ya know.”
Luz just smiles and nods, he’s never had a problem with keeping a conversation going, but he’s trying not to embarrass himself, and unfortunately that means staying quiet.
“So…how’s Helena?” Joe’s question is stilted and awkward, but he’s trying and Luz's smile widens just for the effort.
“She’s good, can’t wait for tomorrow.”
“I’m sure,” Joe says, clearly thinking Luz is just being polite.
“No, I’m serious, she talks about you constantly. It’s all ‘Master Toye says-, and Master Toye is-, and Master Toye always-, and Master Toye can do everything.’” George tells him, mimicking his daughter’s voice.
Joe chuckles and ducks his head, he’s got an almost shy smile on his face and George feels his heart beat pick back up a little.
“She’s a good kid,” Joe says, and George wants to roll his eyes and say he only thinks that because he sees her for an hour a week and for some reason can do no wrong in her eyes. But he prefers to let people believe that she’s as sweet as she sometimes appears to be.
“Well, I should get going, but I’ll see you tomorrow,” Joe tells him, stepping back again.
Luz nods. “Absolutely. Tomorrow. Great.”
With a nod toward Lipton and another small grin directed at Luz, Joe continues on his way toward the locker rooms.
As soon as he’s out of sight Luz groans and leans forward against the top of the treadmill.
“So, that was Master Toye then,” Lipton says, sounding amused.
“Did I say anything inappropriate?” Luz asks seriously, keeping his head on the machine but turning it toward Lipton.
“I mean, the whole thing was pretty uncomfortable, but no you didn’t come off like you wanted to strip him down and take him on the rowing machine, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Jesus, Lip. Yeah, thanks.”
“Are you gonna ask him out?” Lipton asks, as they finally leave the treadmills and head to an open area where they can stretch.
“I’m not crazy.”
“Luz, I don’t know the guy, but from what I can tell he seemed pretty interested. And, he already knows you have a kid, that’s a plus. I say go for it.”
Luz has only tried dating twice since Helena was born. What he found is that guys in their late twenties and early thirties aren’t usually looking to date a single dad. Knowing he could be with someone who already liked Helena, and who Helena adored right back, really would be ideal. Only, things aren’t often that simple.
“I couldn’t do that to Len. If things didn’t work out…she’s doing really well right now going to his classes, and I don’t want to mess that up because I think some guy is cute.”
Lipton frowns, then purses his lips like he wants to say something. Instead he just nods and begins stretching, and George follows suit.
There’s nothing wrong with having a crush that doesn’t lead to anything else, George reminds himself. He and Helena are doing just fine right now, there’s no reason to mess any of that up.
When they finally leave the gym, after what feels like hours, Lipton offers to buy him that chocolate shake.
This is not a representation of the real men, just a story based around the HBO characters.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Luz has been running late all day.
He can’t even blame Helena for any of this. She was up and dressed by the time he had run into the kitchen in order to get her something to eat for breakfast. She only whined once when she realized she was going to be late for her camp, which, according to her, is the very best part. All he can do is apologize and drive just a little over the speed limit. It doesn’t help much, but she still accepts a kiss on the cheek before he has to leave to get to work on time.
Work isn’t any better. For some reason, today is the day that everybody has questions for him and he doesn’t even have time to scrounge up any lunch – his morning had been too hectic for him to even think about bringing anything from home – before he has to run to a meeting he’d completely forgotten about, and probably would have missed if the reminder hadn’t popped up on his computer.
The meeting runs a half hour later than it had been scheduled to and by the time he picks up Helena her patience with him seems to be gone. She’s obviously the last of the kids to be picked up, as she is sitting outside with one of the camp counselors. He apologizes to the lady profusely for being so late, but Helena tugs on his hand trying to drag him back to the car before he can even try to have a civilized conversation with the woman.
“C’mon, dad, we’re gonna be late for class,” she whines, unable to actually move him, but trying all the same.
Luz wants to collapse to the ground and fold himself into the fetal position. He’d forgotten about taekwondo, it had been the thought that they could just go home and finally relax that had kept him going this long, and now he doesn’t even have that.
The woman accepts his apology and sends a quick goodbye to Helena before taking off, and Luz finally follows Helena back toward the car.
“Len, I forgot your stuff, I don’t think we’re gonna be able to make it to class today,” he tells her honestly, hoping that maybe she’ll be too tired to want to go anyway.
Only, instead of sighing in frustration at him like she normally does when he’s too scatterbrained to remember something, she immediately bursts into tears.
This causes him to start panicking. Helena has never been a big crier, choosing to throw fits in other ways, so this can only mean he’s really screwed up.
“I’m sorry, Lenny, we can get pizza and watch a movie instead,” he tries, but she just cries harder.
“Y-you promised we could go!”
“We can go next week, I just don’t think we can get there in time.”
“I’ll be behind!” she yells, and he’s pretty sure he’s got a migraine now.
“Helena, stop it, it’s not the end of the world.” He doesn’t tell her that they’re not going to be doing anything too differently this week than they’ll be doing next week, just as they’ve been doing pretty much the same thing nearly every week. Her class is too young for them to do much more than fundamentals over and over again, but he’s not about to bring her down like that.
Helena quiets her crying, and they spend the rest of the ride in silence, except for the occasional sniffle from her.
George feels like the worst parent in the world every time he hears one of her tiny, watery sniffles. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel and looks at the clock, the beautiful image of face-planting on the couch as soon as they get home slowly drifting away.
“Can you change in less than three minutes?” He asks her as they turn into their neighborhood.
“If you can change in less than three minutes we can go. We’ll be late, but…we can try,” he tells her. They will be late, but he thinks they can make it so they’re only sort of late, instead of obnoxiously late.
She perks up immediately, all the tears in her eyes suddenly gone. “I can change in less than one minute.”
He highly doubts that, but doesn’t challenge her. As soon as they’re parked he jumps out of the car to let her out, and they’re in the house in seconds. She pushes past him toward her room and is gone in a flash.
He just has time to take a couple Advil and lean against the refrigerator door for a minute before she’s racing back in and toward the front door again. Taking one more breath for strength, he pushes himself off his vertical bed and follows after her.
They make it only 8 minutes after class has already started. He notices that her hair is an absolute mess, so he attempts to put it up in a ponytail as they walk in, which isn’t the easiest task. Especially once they open the door to the room and class is already in session. He barely has time to pull the band around her hair one last time before she’s pushing him off and racing to join her classmates. Her ponytail is lopsided and he’s sure it’ll fall out before class is over, but there’s not much he can do about it now.
Joe greets her between his instructions to the class, then eyes George for a moment before going back to the kids.
George blows out another breath, and watches Helena for a few seconds. It’s clear that her attention will be on Master Toye for the rest of the hour, so he takes the opportunity to walk back outside to get some fresh air.
His hands are shaking slightly and its days like these that make him wish he still smoked. But, he stopped for a reason, and though that reason is often the source of most of his stress now, he knows it was the right decision. Still, if there was someone out here with him, offering him a cigarette, he’s pretty sure he’d take it, gladly.
He stays outside for most of the hour, hoping the Advil will finally kick in and make the ache in his head go away. When there’s just a few minutes left, he goes back inside. Helena doesn’t turn when he enters or seem to have noticed he was gone at all, which he expected. Julia, one of the moms he’s come to know from the class, sends him a knowing smile.
After class has ended Helena stops to talk to a few of her friends and Joe heads straight for him.
“Mr. Luz,” he starts, but George stops him.
“I’m sorry we were late, it’s all on me, today has been a rough one,” he explains.
“Well, in my older classes, if a student is late I ask them to do pushups. In these younger classes I don’t do that. Though, if it was your fault…” Joe trails off and Luz’s eyes widen at the prospect of having to do pushups.
Joe grins. “I’m kidding, Mr. Luz, I wouldn’t make a parent do pushups.”
“Oh, right, of course.”
“But, please do try to be on time. Making tardiness a habit doesn’t work with this kind of thing.”
“I know, I know. Honestly, we weren’t even going to come, but Helena wasn’t having it.”
Joe eyes him for a moment before nodding. “Well, I’m glad you did decide to come.”
George smiles, because Joe has a habit of doing this, saying something just a little bit stiffly, a little bit like he’s trying to say something nice, but it’s not easy for him to get out. It’s charming in its own way.
Also, George can’t help but think back to yesterday, watching Joe who looked so different from how he does here. Sweaty and intense and just a little bit scary as he attacked that punching bag. George eyes his arms, almost completely covered now, but he remembers how strong and powerful they looked. He quickly brings his gaze back up, realizing he’s just blatantly checking Joe out right in front of him, but Joe doesn’t seem to have caught on.
“By the way, just call me George, or Luz,” he finally tells Joe, because every time Joe calls him Mr. Luz he feels like he’s aged a year.
Joe responds with a small smile and a nod at that, but is called over by one of his helpers before he can say anything more than a short goodbye.
Helena finally gets done talking with all of her friends and skips her way over to George, taking his offered hand.
“So, what should we have for dinner?” he asks after starting the car.
“I thought we were having pizza.”
“That was when you couldn’t go to taekwondo,” he argues.
“You said we could get pizza!”
George sighs and feels his headache return at full force.
“So, what’s this I hear about you giving up on that karate guy?” Perconte asks out of the blue as they’re standing back from where Helena is trying to get a penguin to acknowledge her.
It’s kid’s day at the zoo, and George will take every free opportunity possible to get Helena out of the house and tired out for a day. While the zoo has never been Perconte’s favorite place to go – according to him it’s too dirty and it smells weird, and he just knows that a monkey is going to throw something at him one of these times – Helena had been able to convince him to come along. Most of George’s friends have a hard time saying no to his daughter when she decides to hit them with her big brown eyes and deceptively sweet smile.
Luz curses Lipton’s name under his breath before rolling his eyes at Frank.
“First of all, it’s taekwondo, not karate. Secondly, I didn’t ‘give up’ on him, I didn’t…anything him. He’s just a guy I think is hot. Just because I’m not going to ask him out for dinner and quick blow job in the parking lot doesn’t mean I ‘gave up’ on anything.”
Perconte chuckles. “And remind me, how long has it been since you’ve had a blow job?”
“Will you shut up?” Luz looks around, making sure that no other parents, or god forbid any of the kids, can hear their conversation.
“I’m just saying, you don’t have to marry the guy, I just think you need to go on a date.”
Helena turns around for a moment, trying to make sure that George and Frank both have their undivided attention trained on her. George smiles and waves, which is sufficient for her to go back to her penguins.
“Fine, just not him.”
Perconte raises an eyebrow at that.
“I’ve been reading a lot about how starting kids in taekwondo early can help them with self-discipline and confidence. I mean, not that she needs a huge confidence boost, but it’s been less than two months and I can already tell that she has more self-control, she listens better, she’s been more well-behaved these past few weeks than I’ve ever seen her. Plus, she loves the class, and she adores him, I think she’ll want to be doing this for a long time,” Luz explains.
“And you don’t want to eventually have to tell her that you’re pulling her out of class because you banged her teacher and he was into weird stuff so now you can’t even look him in the eye?”
Luz can’t help but laugh, the sharp sound makes the woman in front of him turn around for a moment. He ducks his head, and sends Perconte a smirk.
“Something like that.”
Helena grows bored of the penguins soon after and grabs her uncle Frank’s hand to lead them on to the next exhibit.
Once they’re parked in front of the black bear exhibit, and Helena has her face smashed up against the glass in order to try to see one of them, Perconte knocks his shoulder against Luz’s.
“Well, you just let me know when you’re ready, and I know plenty of guys who you’ll never have to see again if you don’t want to.”
Luz grins and thanks him, stepping forward when Helena screeches at him that she sees one of the bears.
That night, Helena nearly falls asleep with her face in her dinner, having been worn out from her long day at the zoo.
As he cleans up the kitchen, Luz can’t help but think about Perconte’s offer. He tried dating a couple of years ago, when Helena was only three, but that had quickly ended, when he realized that finding a guy his own age who was interested in him and okay with the fact that he had a daughter was not going to be easy to find. He’s not convinced that it’ll be any easier to find a guy like that, but maybe Frank is right, maybe he doesn’t need a boyfriend, maybe he just needs someone he can let off a little steam with.
Then comes the worry of what he would tell Helena. When she was three she didn’t care why he left her with one of his friends for a few hours. Now, she has a tendency to ask why about every little thing he does. He’s not sure if telling his five-year-old that he’s dating is a good idea, she’s probably too young. It’s not like he’d introduce anyone to her, but he also doesn’t want her to feel like he’s not being honest with her, she’s intuitive when she wants to be, if she feels like he’s not telling her the truth she may start having trust issues.
He has to make himself bring his thoughts back down from going out of control, as they often do when he starts thinking about all the things he could be doing wrong in regards to raising Helena to be a well-adjusted human being.
After taking a few deep breaths and letting his thoughts slow down a little he comes to the conclusion that he came to two years before. She’s too young now, and he’s obviously not ready to deal with dating on top of everything he has to do for her. Plus, it’s not like he’s got anyone he’s even trying to date, so he really has nothing to worry about, all he needs to do is just keep doing what he’s doing and they’ll be fine.
He resolutely ignores the part of his brain that is trying to remind him of Joe. He’s already made a decision about Joe. Joe is off limits, and there’s nothing more to think about there.
Thanks for reading!
Also, nobody has said this, but...in case you're thinking it. I'm aware that both Joe and George may seem a little OOC, Joe especially. I'd just like to say that currently, the Joe we are seeing is the instructor of a child interacting with that child's father, so he's trying to stay less casual than he'd normally be. He won't always been like this.
Joe makes an offer. Luz has a dirty mind. And an old "friend" returns.
“I don’t think this working out thing is working…out,” George tells Lipton, when just after five minutes on the stationary bike he gets winded.
Lipton side eyes him. “Luz, you only just started working out last week. It’s gonna take some time.”
“I don’t understand how I’m this out of shape,” he complains, but continues pushing through it.
“Your body is just used to you doing different kinds of things. It’ll get easier the more you do it. I promise, Luz, in a couple of weeks it’ll be easier, and you’ll be wanting to try harder things.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Luz mutters.
They move on to the weight machines after Lipton has decided that they’ve done enough cardio, and George isn’t sure this is any better. They’re both just different types of painful for him.
George’s arms feel like jelly by the time they get to the pulldown machine, so when Lip gets a phone call from his husband, Ron, and goes to the front of the gym to hear him better, Luz decides to just go through the motions of the exercise, without any of the pesky weight added on. He zones out, easily pulling the bar down over and over again just enjoying his small reprieve.
“Looks like you’re probably ready to start using at least a couple pounds.” Joe’s distinct voice comes from behind him, causing the bar to slip out of George’s hand, making the metal slam back down on the weights.
They both wince a little at the sound before George greets Joe with another overly enthusiastic, “Joe, h-hey!”
He’s not sure why he’s so caught off guard, he’d assumed he’d see Joe today. In fact, he’d been a little disappointed that he hadn’t seen him until now. Joe doesn’t seem alarmed by George’s behavior though, which is most likely because he’s only known George to be this frenzied in all their interactions.
“I uh…ya know, don’t want to get too bulky,” George jokes when Joe’s words process in his brain.
Joe grins. “Lighter weight, more reps, it’s a sound strategy. I’d still probably recommend at least adding ten pounds. I think you can handle it.”
George wipes at his face and smirks. “Yeah, well, my personal trainer had to take a call, so I was giving myself a little break.”
“I could give you some pointers, if you want?” Joe offers, taking another step toward where George is sitting.
Joe is wearing another tank top that shows off his arms, and it’s tight enough to fit snuggly around what he’s almost sure he can see is a well-toned torso and George catches himself staring again. He quickly looks back up to meet Joe’s eyes, and Joe quirks an eyebrow.
“N-no, no this is something you get paid to do, I’d feel bad taking it for free,” George tries to wave him off. He knows that Joe is a good instructor, has seen him in action, but he has no desire for Joe to actually see him working out.
“I don’t mind,” Joe says with shrug.
“No, thank you, Joe, I don’t want to take you away from your bag punching time,” he insists.
Joe’s eyes narrow in confusion and George realizes his mistake. That he’s essentially just revealed to Joe that he did see him working out last week, even though he had acted like he hadn’t. Joe seems to shrug off his confusion quickly though, so Luz hopes he doesn’t put the dots together.
“Well…I could teach you some moves there if you want?”
“Sure. It’s a good workout.”
“In one of your classes?”
“I don’t actually have any beginner’s classes going on right now, but no, I meant now, if you want.”
“Hey, sorry about that,” Lipton says, walking back over, stopping on the other side of Luz when he notices Joe standing there. “Oh, hi. Joe, right?”
This is why Lip is his best friend, because he’s convincing in his display - pretending that he doesn’t know exactly who Joe is, regardless of Luz’s continuous talk about the guy.
“Yeah, hey, sorry, I’m not sure I got your name last week,” Joe says, taking a step back.
“Luz isn’t great with the introductions. Carwood Lipton, Lipton is fine.”
“You were able to introduce yourself just fine without my help,” George argues.
“Well, I guess I’ll leave you to it then,” Joe says, and Luz turns back toward him.
“Oh, okay, right. Well…maybe a raincheck?” Part of him doesn’t want Joe to walk away yet, but he doesn’t want to hold up Joe’s workout any more, and he doesn’t want Joe watching him as he struggles to handle the easiest of machines.
“Sure, just let me know. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Joe nods at Lipton and starts walking away, he only gets a few steps before he turns back around.
“Oh, and try to be on time,” he says. His rough voice doesn’t lend itself well to sounding lighthearted, so it’s only when he grins that Luz realizes he’s teasing him.
Luz rolls his eyes but is serious when he says, “we will, we will.”
“Raincheck?” Lip asks once Joe is out of earshot.
“He offered to teach me some boxing moves,” Luz explains.
“You can go,” Lip offers.
“No, I didn’t think today would be a good time for that.”
“I wouldn’t mind, really.”
Luz looks back, to make sure Joe really is gone. “I need to get to a place where I don’t think I’ll pass out in the first five minutes of working out with him.”
“I doubt he’d make you work that hard.”
“It’s not really about that, ya know? I just don’t want to look like an out-of-shape asshole in front of him.”
“I’m trying really hard not to say anything that’ll make you mad at me right now,” Lipton says with a sigh.
Luz narrows his eyes. “Say it.”
“Well…if you don’t want to date him why do you care how you look?”
Luz scowls but doesn’t say anything in response. So, Lipton just shrugs and moves to add some weight to Luz’s machine.
“I’m not gonna say anything else, other than I think next week, if the offer is still on the table, you should take him up on it.”
“I’ll think about it,” Luz says, glaring at his newly weighted hindrance.
“That’s all I can ask. Now, first set, let’s go!” Lipton claps once, signaling that Luz should start pulling.
He takes a deep breath through his nose and pulls the bar down.
George and Helena are just getting out of the car to go to taekwondo when Helena spots Joe across the parking lot. He barely has time to grab Helena, stopping her before she races across the lot, completely unaware of any cars that may be coming.
Joe sees them and makes his way over, sending them a small grin as he approaches.
“Told you we’d get here on time,” George jokes as his greeting. It hadn’t been all that easy to get there early, but he had been determined to not have a repeat of last week.
Joe quirks an eyebrow up, but instead of responding he just purses his lips for a moment and looks down at Helena.
“Are you ready for today?” he asks.
She nods vigorously. “I’ve been doing my blocks, see.”
Helena proceeds to bring her arms up to cover her head, the way Joe had taught her, over and over and over, just as she’s been doing all week at home. Joe’s smile widens just a little as he watches.
“They look great, I can tell you’ve been working hard at it,” he tells her. “Hey, how would you like to help me in a demonstration today?”
Her eyes light up at the suggestion. “Yes! Yes, I can do it,” she assures him, then continues to show off her blocking abilities, as if to really display how good she’ll be in the demonstration.
“Great, I’ll let you know when I need your help,” Joe says, then looks back up to George who can’t keep the smile off his face.
They end up following Helena into the building as she steps and blocks her way across the parking lot. George has been dealing with this all week, but Joe seems extremely amused by her, so George doesn’t tell her to cut it out and walk faster or at least a little more normal, like he’s had to a few times now.
Helena takes her demonstration duties very seriously when Joe calls her up to help him. She does everything he instructs her to do, and stands still when he addresses the class. If someone had told George that she’d be so well-behaved two months ago he’d think that it was an impossible dream. Now, he beams with pride right along with her when Joe tells her that she did a good job, so happy that he decided to sign her up for taekwondo.
Class goes well, without incident, until about ten minutes before it’s over, when Luz’s phone rings. He panics, realizing he forgot to put his phone on silent and quickly struggles with it to shut it off. Joe’s eyes fly up and over toward the back of the room, trying to see who broke the rule about having cell phones on during class. George holds his hands up in a silent apology, but Joe just narrows his eyes for a moment before bringing his attention back to the kids.
Luz sighs, knowing he’s in trouble again. And he’d been doing so well today.
Once he’s sure nobody is going to be watching him, he pulls his phone out enough so he can see who the missed call is from.
The screen informs him that he has a missing call and voicemail from Rose. He puts the phone back in his pocket. He’ll deal with it later.
Joe makes a beeline to him once class is over and George entertains the thought of just grabbing Helena and running.
Instead, he says, “I’m sorry, I forgot to turn it off, I’m sorry!”
“Ya know, Helena is doing really well in class, it’d be a shame if I had to kick her dad out.”
“That’s the last time I’m disruptive, I promise.”
Joe doesn’t look like he believes him.
“Please, I’m sorry, don’t punish me, Master Toye.”
Joe had opened his mouth to say something, but he shuts it when Luz’s words hit him.
Luz closes his eyes and shakes his head. He’d been doing so well these past few weeks, at least in terms of not saying anything overly inappropriate. Apparently, that’s all out the window now.
“I-“ he starts, but really, there’s no excuse or apology for himself.
“In the two years since I earned this title I’ve never had this problem,” Joe says, almost like Luz’s ability to turn even the tamest of interactions between them into something at least vaguely dirty is some kind of math equation for him to try and solve.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, Joe.”
Joe stares at him for another moment before a small smirk forms across his lips. His eyes look a little lighter and George has a feeling he’s holding back a laugh.
Luz doesn’t have time to say anything else before Helena comes back over to them.
“Can I do the demon-stations every week, Master Toye?” she asks Joe, as she grabs onto George’s hand.
Joe’s smirk morphs into a grin. “Maybe not every week, but if you keep practicing your fundamentals I’ll need someone to help by being a good example to the others, and I think you have what it takes.”
Helena’s whole body seems to puff up at the praise and George can just see from how wide and bright her eyes have gotten that she’s imagining Master Toye and her teaching the class side by side.
“I can do it,” she assures him. “I practice every day. Don’t I, daddy?”
George nods. “Oh yeah, she practices in the morning, in the afternoon, at night, when she’s supposed to be in bed…Some might even say she practices too much.”
“No such thing as too much practice,” Helena scoffs and looks over at Joe, as though they can roll their eyes together at George who just doesn’t get it the way they do.
Joe seems both amused and torn between picking a side, so George saves him the trouble of having to choose.
“Alright, Lenny, we’ve gotta get going, and I’m sure M-master Toye does too.”
Joe tells them he’ll see them next week, shooting George one last smirk before going to talk to another parent who has stuck around.
George hasn’t forgotten about the voicemail. He’s aware of the phone in his pocket all evening. As he cooks dinner, and gives Helena her bath, and reads her favorite book – different voices and all – the call lingers in his mind.
Once Helena has fallen asleep, or at least is lying in bed and not jumping around calling herself ‘Master Helena’, George takes his own shower and picks up the kitchen and living room, enough so it only looks messy instead of like a disaster zone.
Finally, he decides he can’t avoid it any longer, so he sits on the couch and studies his phone for a minute. Then he quickly presses play on the voicemail before he can’t talk himself out of it.
“Hi George, it’s Rose. I-oh shit.” There’s some rustling on the other end of the call and George can feel himself smile.
“Ok, sorry about that! Uh, where was I…I’ll just start over. Hi George, it’s Rose. I know I haven’t called in a while. Sorry. You know time and I just…Anyway, I got your latest email and I can’t believe she’s going to be starting Kindergarten, that seems impossible.” George can visualize her shaking her head just thinking about it. He can relate.
“So, anyway, I was thinking maybe the three of us could do something before the summer is over and she starts school. And so, then I got to thinking…maybe that waterpark near you guys? Uh, what’s it called…well, you know. Maybe we could go there one day? Does that sound fun? I thought it sounded fun…”
It’s quiet for a few seconds before she starts again. “Oh shit…I just thought…can Helena swim? I mean, I know they have stuff for kids there, so I guess there’ll be things for her to do either way. But…does she know how? I’m sorry, I’m sure you’ve told me…I…and if she can’t that’s ok…I know you don’t always have time to take her to stuff like that. Sorry…”
She goes quiet again, this time for over a minute and George checks to see that there is still time left on the message before putting his phone up to his ear again.
“Ya know, we don’t have to do the waterpark thing…just whatever you think would be fun. I’d just like to do something with you guys. I know, you always tell me I can come over anytime. And I should, I know…I just always lose track of time and then somehow months go by and…you know all this, sorry…I just wanted to call while it was on my mind. Just let me know what you think.”
There’s a big sigh on the other line before her voice comes back on much more cheerful than before. “Ok, Georgie. Just call me, whenever you’re free and we can talk about getting together soon. Or…whenever you can. Love you, bye!”
Luz sits on the couch, spinning his phone between his fingers for several minutes as he contemplates what he should do. It’s not too late, so he thinks he can probably call her without waking her up. And he figures he’d rather talk to her sooner than later.
He checks on Helena one more time – and he can tell she’s really asleep now, splayed out as much as she possibly can, taking up more room on the bed then her tiny body should ever be able to.
Closing the door to his room and settling himself on his bed, Luz takes a deep breath before hitting call.
The phone rings twice before she picks up and exclaims, “Georgie!”
He grins. “Hey, Rosie, how’re you?”
“Oh good, good, you know me,” she says. “Did you get my message?”
“Was it too long?”
“No, it was fine,” he assures her.
“Oh, good, so, what’d you think?”
George runs a hand through his hair, giving himself one more second to decide.
“I think it’s a good idea. She’s been asking to go, and we haven’t really found the time yet this summer,” he tells her, honestly.
“So, I did good?” He can just see her pump her fist in his mind.
“You did good, Rosie. I think it’ll be fun.”
“And…and she knows how to swim?” she asks, softly, her voice taking on the same timid tone she uses when asking about Helena and the things she thinks she should know.
George tries to keep her updated, he sends her an email almost every week, but she forgets things he tells her sometimes.
“Yep, she’s been taking lessons since last summer,” he tells her, not for the first, or second, time. “She’s getting pretty good actually. I mean, she won’t be able to go on a lot of the slides or the wave pool, mostly because of her height. But they have pools and slides for younger kids that she still likes a lot. As soon as she’s tall enough though, you better believe she’s going on the biggest slide in the park.”
Rose laughs. “Well, she’s you, so that’s not surprising.”
George smiles, the way he does whenever someone comments on how Helena is basically just his clone. But it’s different with Rose, he’s never certain if he should assure her that Helena has parts of her too, or if that will only make her sad.
“Uh, so, when were you thinking about going?” he asks, instead of continuing that conversation.
“Well, how about next week? If you can get off work one day we can go during the week and maybe it’ll be less crowded.”
In his mind, he pulls up his calendar for the next week, thinking of all the things he has to do, both with work and with Helena and the idea of taking off sounds impossible.
“Next week’s not great, maybe, uh…maybe,” he goes through the week after that in his mind and he’s hit, not for the first time, with just how busy they always are.
Realizing he’s just going to have to accept that he’ll need to move a few things around he relents and says, “I can do a couple days the week after though, and maybe a couple the week after that.”
“Ok, how about Thursday?”
“Thursday could work, but we’d probably have to leave earlier. Len isn’t gonna want to miss taekwondo.”
“Oh, right, you said something about that in your last two emails. She’s doing well with it?”
“Yeah, she got to help with a demonstration tonight actually. Now, I think she’s ready to start teaching the class.”
“Wow, I never would’ve guessed. Don’t they have to be really well-behaved?”
“That’s the craziest thing, Rosie, she’s really taking it seriously. She sits and listens, she does what her instructor tells her to do, she’s doing really well.”
“That’s awesome. Maybe I can come watch her practice sometime?”
That makes George stop smiling and he’s not really sure what to say for a moment.
“Yeah, maybe,” he finally says, not wanting to dissuade her, but also not allowing himself to get excited at the idea of Rose being around more. “So, we still haven’t picked a day for the waterpark.”
“Oh, right, well…how about the Friday after next then?”
He hesitates again, because his mother usually takes Helena on Friday’s and knowing he’ll have to give her some reason for why he won’t need her doesn’t sound appealing. But, he figures he can just tell her that he and Helena are going to the waterpark, he doesn’t need to mention Rose. She’ll just give him hell about it, the same way his friends, and pretty much anyone in their lives, would give him hell about it if he mentioned it to them.
“That should work,” he finally tells her.
“Ok, I’m putting it on my calendar right now. And I’m gonna put an alert on my phone as soon as we’re done talking.”
“Ok…Friday after next, that’s the…11th. Got it. It’s written down,” she tells him excitedly.
He smiles at her tone. “I’ll see you on the 11th then. It was good talking to you, Rosie.”
“You too, Georgie. Thank you. I can’t wait to see you guys.”
George ends the call soon after and flops down on his pillow, breathing out a sigh, not really sure if it’s in relief.
Now, he just has to decided how long he should wait before he breaks the news to Helena that her mom wants to see her.
Helena wants to know where babies come from, Joe shows George some moves, and asks a question of his own.
George picks Helena up from Lipton and Ron’s place on Monday. Ron, Lipton’s husband, has been helping him out over the summer, watching Helena a couple days a week. He’s never been bad with her, but George is pretty sure he knows where Ron’s true motivations lie in watching Helena - getting used to having a kid around the house. Not that he cares, as long as he has somewhere to keep her during the day, George isn’t picky.
“Did you have fun with Uncle Ron?” he asks as they drive home.
“Yep!” she says with a quick nod. “Guess what?”
“You have to guess!”
He sighs and thinks, but not having enough to go on for her game he comes up blank. “You’ve stumped me, Len, I don’t know.”
She huffs at his poor guessing abilities but quickly gets over it and sits up a little straighter. “Uncle Ron and Uncle Car are gonna have a baby!”
George nods. “That’s right, they’re adopting.”
He’s a little surprised Ron didn’t already talk to her about it, he had just assumed that Ron must have mentioned it to Helena and that’s why she knew about the baby. He wouldn’t have even mentioned it if he’d realized she had no idea. But, he figures, maybe Ron decided George would be a better person to explain that particular topic to his daughter.
“Uh, well…you’ve seen ‘Annie’, that’s what Daddy Warbucks’ did, he adopted Annie at the end.”
“So, the baby Uncle Ron is uh-dopting is with someone mean like Miss Hannigan?”
“No, I don’t even know if orphanages exist anymore,” he says, more to himself than anything. “It’s more like…sometimes, when people make a baby but aren’t able to take care of the baby, they’ll give the baby up for adoption, so that people, like your uncles, who can’t make a baby themselves, can have the baby and take care of it and be their parents…” He flounders over his words, he’s winging it, having not considered that he might need to have this kind of conversation with her sooner rather than later.
She ponders his words for a minute before asking, “did I get uh-dopted?”
“No, your mom and I made you,” he tells her, hoping she doesn’t want him to go into more detail than that for the moment.
George glances back at her through the rearview mirror and she looks nearly lost in thought for a few minutes.
“Are Uncle Ron and Uncle Car both gonna be the baby’s dad?” she finally asks.
He looks back again, trying to figure out where her mind is currently at to be asking these questions.
“Yep, they’ll both be the baby’s parent.”
She doesn’t say anything again after that and George starts to worry about what it is she may be thinking about.
When they’re just about to turn down their street she finally says, “I’m glad you’re my only dad.”
“Why’s that?” he asks, trying not to let all the different reasons she doesn’t want a second parent around eat at him.
“The baby is gonna have two dads bossing her around,” she explains, her eyes going wide, showing her sympathy for the still unknown baby.
George lets out a startled laugh at that, slightly relieved.
Luz rolls his eyes when he sees Lipton’s text telling him he’s not going to be able to make it to the gym today. He knows what Lip is doing, he gets it. But Luz isn’t an idiot, he knows how to walk on a treadmill and lift some weights without his friend standing next to him counting off, he doesn’t have to bug Joe just because Lipton isn’t there.
Still, he finds himself wandering around the machines, looking at the people there for a few minutes before his eyes catch on Joe walking out of the locker room.
He hesitates for a moment, not wanting to take up Joe’s workout time by latching onto him. But he reminds himself that Joe did offer, and if he seems at all reluctant then Luz can just go about doing his own thing, no harm done.
Joe spots him before he’s made it over and the smile that forms on his lips causes Luz’s stomach to do a small backflip.
“Hey,” Joe greets him when he’s in ear shot.
“Hey, Joe. How’s it going?”
Joe shrugs. “Pretty good, how about you?”
“Well, I haven’t started working out yet, so I’m doing really well.”
“You just waiting on your friend?” Joe asks, and Luz sees his eyes scan the area behind him.
“Nah, he had to cancel, apparently, his husband needed him for something,” he tells him, not adding the real reason being due to Lipton’s obsession with getting Luz to spend more time with Joe, as though that’ll just change Luz’s decision. He doesn’t have to get to know Joe any more to know he’d like to jump his bones, the fact will still remain that it’s not worth the risk for him.
Joe nods for a moment before something seems to click in his mind. “So, did you want me to teach you some boxing moves?”
“Only if you want to, I don’t want to take you away from your own workout.”
“No, really, I used to have a class at this time but it got moved to Tuesdays, that’s the reason I still come now, I’m just used to it,” Joe assures him.
So, George follows Joe into the same practice room he’s seen Joe working out in the past two weeks. It’s big, designed for large classes of people to move around in. The far wall is just one big mirror, making the room look even bigger. There are crates of equipment along the sides, with resistance bands and free weights all stored away. There are only two standing punching bags in the corner, Luz guesses they bring in more for when there’s a class.
“First things first, have you done your warmup yet?” Joe asks, setting his bag down.
“I mean, I stretched a little? I don’t really get the whole warm up thing, I have to exercise just so I can exercise? Seems like just a way to wear me out faster.”
Joe chuckles but then puts on his teacher face, the one he’s seen Joe use whenever he’s teaching a new move to Helena’s class. “Yeah. The reason you should warm up is so that you slowly get your heart rate up and you’re not just immediately jumping into something, you want to get your blood flow going and loosen yourself up so you don’t hurt yourself.”
“Oh, I guess that makes sense.”
After several warm-ups, where Luz is already feeling the burn, and he’s not so sure he agrees with the ‘slow’ sentiment Joe had preached, Joe has him roll his arms and make himself go as limp as possible.
“You’ve gotta stay loose,” Joe explains. “Most people have a tendency to want to punch as hard as they can and all that’s gonna do is make you pull a muscle.”
Joe’s movements are all fluid and easy looking and he doesn’t even look phased from the warm up, while Luz has already started sweating.
“Ok, first and most important, you gotta keep your feet moving. Hold up your arms.”
Joe demonstrates, holding his left arm up and out and his right arm up and closer to his body, his fists loose. Luz copies him.
He has Luz move back and forth and up and down, keeping his arms up and his feet moving for so long that Luz feels like he’s had a full workout already.
“Is there actually any punching in boxing?” Luz finally asks when he’s sure it’s been at least 10 minutes of just side stepping back and forth. Or at least that’s what it feels like he’s doing, Joe moves around fast and easy, Luz feels like he’s stumbling over his feet and lumbering around.
That causes Joe to laugh, and finally there’s a slight breathlessness to it. It’s nowhere near Luz’s own panting, but it’s enough for Luz to feel a little better at how tired he feels.
“Alright, I just want to drill it in your head to keep your feet moving, that’s important.”
“Well I’m not gonna be able to keep my feet moving now, I’ve wasted all my energy on the practice part.”
“Do you wanna take a break?”
If Luz’s face wasn’t already red it might have turned red at this point, they haven’t even started and he’s already worn out, he knew this was a bad idea.
“No, no I can keep going.”
“You can get some water if you need to. We can take a break whenever, listen to your body, George.”
“I’m fine. Let’s keep going.”
Joe looks at him for a moment, clearly not believing him, but eventually decides to let it go with a shrug.
“Ok, let’s start with a jab.”
Joe talks him through the quick jab, even going so far as to take Luz’s arm and direct it through the rotating motion. Luz feels himself almost leaning into the touch and stops himself just in time to not fall over as Joe steps back.
He does the jab motion over and over again as Joe continues to tell him to keep his feet moving. Luz is almost sure that in his day to day life he’s able to use both his legs and his arms at the same time, but for some reason, that ability is currently failing him.
They eventually move on to a cross punch and Luz has the honor of Joe telling him to watch his hips, showing him how he’s supposed to move. Luz only tears his eyes away to then watch Joe demonstrate several jab-cross punches in a row and he’s more than just a little entranced at seeing Joe’s arms move so fast and look so powerful.
And damn if he doesn’t want those arms around him, maybe even holding him up against a wall or pinning him to a mattress. He’s really not picky.
Luz finally has to admit that he needs a water break soon after.
“So, when am I gonna actually get to hit a bag?” he asks, or more like wheezes out before sucking down his water.
Joe smirks. “I just want to teach you the proper way to punch first. People have a tendency to hurt themselves ‘cause they just want to start wailing on the bag immediately. Once you’ve got the form down we can start working with the bag.”
Luz wants to groan and complain that it’s way less fun without the bag, but honestly, as long as he can keep watching Joe move he doesn’t really mind.
They continue with the jab-cross and add in some hooks, all while Luz continues to forget to keep his feet moving for another ten minutes before Joe declares it’s time for a cool down.
And as tired as he is, he’s almost disappointed that his one on one with Joe is over.
So, he’s surprised when he sees Joe waiting for him outside of the locker room when he comes out.
“Hey, thanks again for giving up your workout time to help me,” Luz says.
“Don’t worry about it, really. If you want, next week we can add kicks into it,” Joe offers as they make their way out of the gym.
“Does kicking come up a lot in boxing?” George asks, grinning over at Joe who rolls his eyes.
“You planning on getting into the ring any time soon? You’re just working out, so it can be more kickboxing. But you let me know as soon as you’re ready to take on the top midweights and we’ll start your training immediately.”
“You got it, I think I’ll be in fighting shape soon,” Luz says, holding up his arms to do another one of those jab-cross combos that Joe is so fond of, then immediately regrets it when his arms feel like they’re weighted down with sand.
Joe looks on dubiously, but doesn’t say anything else until they reach Luz’s car.
“Hey, uh, would you like to get dinner with me?” Joe asks, when Luz is about to open his car door.
“Right now?” Luz’s mind immediately goes to the time, it’s too early for dinner and he has to pick Helena up in a half hour.
Joe chuckles. “No, just a night when you’re free.”
Luz’s stomach jolts at the realization of what he thinks Joe is asking and he stutters out, “j-just…like…dinner?”
“Yeah, like a date,” Joe says easily with a shrug.
He nearly chokes on his tongue as he stops himself from immediately agreeing, the way he desperately wants to.
“I-Joe, that’s…” he sighs. “I can’t…I’m sorry.”
“Ok,” Joe says with a shrug. “That’s fine.”
“No, it’s not…this sucks. I’m-it’s not you. Ok, that sounds bad…It isn’t you, but it is…it’s me. It’s just, I don’t think it’s a good idea, with Len and-“ George is rambling but Joe cuts him off by placing a hand on his shoulder.
“George, it’s fine, really. Just thought I’d take a shot. But if you think it’d be weird for Helena then I’m not gonna hold that against you. No hard feelings.”
“Yeah, right,” Luz accepts, lamely.
Joe might not be mad at him, but he’s definitely mad himself enough for the both of them.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Joe says, sending him a small grin before heading away to his own car.
Luz makes sure he sees Joe pull out of the parking lot before he starts banging his head against the steering wheel, and putting his new found punching moves to the test, causing the horn to blare a few times.
He pulls out his phone to text Lip and Perconte about how big of an idiot he is.
There’s a text from Rose, letting him know how excited she is for next week. She’s been sending them every other day. He still hasn’t told Helena about the plans for the waterpark, not wanting to get her hopes up in case plans change.
After he picks Helena up and they’re home, he looks at his phone again to see that both Lip and Perconte have responded. Perco has sent a thumbs down emoji, while Lip just sent ellipses. He knows that is both of their versions of agreeing with him that he’s a complete idiot.
He’s almost nervous the next day at taekwondo, not sure how things might be different between them now that he’s turned Joe down. But, just like every Thursday, Joe makes an almost beeline to him and grins.
“So, how are you feeling today?” he asks.
For a moment, Luz thinks that maybe Joe is asking if he’s feeling more open to the idea of going out with him today, but the ache that’s been running through his whole body reminds him of what Joe is actually asking.
“Like hell, thanks for asking. Helena nearly had to drive us around today because I didn’t think I could lift my arms enough to do anything.”
Joe chuckles. “Well good, see, it’s working.”
“If I want to be an amorphous blob by the end of next month, because all my muscles and bones have literally melted out of my body, then yeah, it’s definitely working,” Luz says, rolling his eyes.
Joe just rolls his eyes right back, unimpressed by Luz’s pain.
“So, do you want to keep working on it next Wednesday, or do you want to go back to the machines?” Joe asks.
“Oh, uh, no yeah, I’d like to keep doing it,” Luz stumbles in his response, a little caught off guard, and maybe a little surprised that Joe is still offering up his free time, despite what happened yesterday. But Joe’s not wrong, Luz feels like he worked his entire body, which can only be a good thing, plus he knows Lip isn’t going to care that he’s been replaced.
“Great, then I’ll see you Wednesday,” Joe says before making his way over to another parent.
Luz feels his shoulders sag a little and he sighs. The fact that Joe is clearly not upset over Luz’s rejection, and not planning on holding it over him, just makes all of this worse. He kind of wishes Joe would be a jerk about it, so then he could feel a little better about his decision. Now, he just regrets it even more.
Ok ok ok! I'm sorry, it had to be done! But! to make up for it, I wrote a companion piece for this chapter, taking place after the gym, from Joe's POV. I will post that tomorrow.
Luz gets to hit something, and things finally start going somewhere in this damn story, sort of.
Adding kicks to the routine may just be Luz’s undoing. He’s ready to call it quits after just ten minutes of punching and kicking the air. His pride isn’t strong enough to stop him from asking Joe for a break, though he’s pretty sure Joe would have called for one soon, with the way Luz has been wheezing his way through the workout.
“I’m so out of shape,” Luz admits, as he gulps down his water.
Joe just shrugs. “Well, you’re getting back in shape.”
“It doesn’t feel like it,” Luz says through gasps. “It feels like it’s too late for me.”
That makes Joe rolls his eyes. “You’re not that out of shape, George.”
Luz narrows his eyes as he continues to catch his breath.
“Did you forget? I do this for a living, I work with people in all stages. I’d say you’re about average for someone who hasn’t worked out much in the last five years.”
He’s pretty sure that’s not something Joe would lie about, so that makes him feel a little better. After another minute, Luz deems himself rested enough to keep going.
“How about we use the bag?” Joe suggests.
“Sure, I think you’re ready.”
Luz is pretty excited that he’s finally going to get to hit something, though he’s a little disappointed that they’re only going to be able to use one of the standing bags, instead of the hanging one he had seen Joe using before.
As Joe sets up the bag Luz puts on the gloves Joe gave him and he already feels a little more like a boxer. He does a few more punches and holds his hands up in the air.
“Alright, you’re not quite there, Rocky,” Joe says with a smirk.
He directs Luz where to stand, and, while things haven’t been nearly as awkward between them as Luz had worried it might be, Joe doesn’t just move Luz around like he probably would have done the week before. Luz is sure that Joe is just trying to make sure he doesn’t overstep any boundaries, but Luz never minded Joe touching him – quite the opposite, in fact – but he knows it’s his own fault that Joe has backed off, thinking that Luz would rather him not.
“Keep your feet planted when-“
“Wait, now I’m not supposed to move my feet? Mixed signal, Joe!”
Joe huffs in mock annoyance. “Anytime you’re not throwing a punch, I want you to keep your feet moving, but yes, you’re gonna need to ground yourself when you’re hitting, stay on the balls of your feet though. And keep your arms up, always keep em up.”
Luz tries to keep all the information in his head that Joe is giving him about the correct way to hit something, he never realized there was more than just ‘see target, hit target’.
After a few minutes, Luz feels a strain in his wrists and Joe tells him he’s not hitting the bag in the right spot with his knuckles.
“Okay, how about you just show me?” Because Luz swears he’s following Joe’s instructions.
Joe seems to consider that for a moment before walking over to his bag to grab another pair of gloves.
“See, you need to make sure when your fist connects it’s solid, and you’re not bending at the wrist,” Joe says, demonstrating both the correct and incorrect way to hit, slowly.
He hits the bag again, then does a few of the combos that he’s been making Luz do, a little bit faster this time. Luz just watches as Joe gradually begins speeding up, hitting the bag in different and more complicated combinations. Luz is completely transfixed as he watches Joe up close punching the bag over and over, staying light on his feet as he moves around. He doesn’t seem to be over exerting himself, yet the bag keeps snapping back from the force of Joe’s hits.
Luz feels like his heart rate has gone back up and his breathing is getting a little more labored as he just stands and watches Joe demonstrate his skill. Also, his arms…mostly his arms.
After just a minute, Joe finally steps back from the bag and shoots Luz an almost shy grin.
“Sorry about that.”
Luz’s mouth has gone a little dry and he has to swallow before he can stutter out, “n-no you’re okay. That was great. I don’t think I can do all that just yet.”
Joe chuckles. “No, let’s just make sure you can hit the bag without hurting yourself, huh?”
That is enough to shake Luz out of his lust daze and he scowls at Joe as he takes his place back in front of the bag.
He’s painfully aware of Joe next to him, around him, watching him, for the rest of the hour. And he’s positive he doesn’t look anywhere near as good as Joe had looked when he was hitting the bag. Part of him really wonders what Joe could have even been thinking when he asked him out last week. Joe could probably get anyone he wanted, there’s no reason that he should have to settle for an out of shape, single dad with a perpetual foot-in-mouth problem.
Joe waits for him again this week when he leaves the locker room. And though while they had been working out in the room there had been some charge between them, some dancing around each other, now he’s sure that he can’t be the only one who feels it. The walk out to the cars is so reminiscent of last week that Luz is almost ready for Joe to try asking him out again, so when Joe starts to speak Luz’s heart nearly seizes up, not sure he has it in him to reject him twice.
“Hey, are you enjoying the boxing? Because we can work on something else if you want?” Joe asks, and Luz is so glad he didn’t shout out the ‘okay’ that had been hanging on his tongue.
“O-oh, uh, no I really like it. Complaining is just how I get through most things,” Luz explains. “But really, I already feel like it’s working.”
Which is true, and though the kicks had nearly knocked him on his ass earlier, he has been feeling more energized and maybe even a little stronger lately.
Joe grins. “Okay, great, well then I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see ya, Joe.”
He watches Joe make his way over to his car before he rests his head on his steering wheel and lets out a deep breath.
Rose makes it over to their house a little past 10.
Helena has been a ball of energy all morning, and while that’s not unheard of for her on any given day, she’s been running around the house yelling about waterslides since before George had even made his coffee.
When Rose arrives, she squeals and gives George a hug and a kiss on the cheek before bending down to give Helena a hug. Helena leans a little into the embrace before leaning back out.
“Hi, how are you?” Rose asks, smiling down at Helena.
“Good,” Helena responds, gripping the end of her cover-up and ducking her head down.
Rose’s smile doesn’t wane as she looks back up. “Hi, Georgie, how was your week?”
“Pretty good, Lenny here learned how to do something this week. You wanna tell her?” he directs at Helena. But Helena just shrugs and shuffles her feet a little.
George watches her for another moment, but she seems to have lost the excitement she’s had all week over her new ability.
“She can finally tie her shoes without any help,” he explains, looking back up at Rose.
“That’s great,” Rose says, and looks down at the somewhat clumsy knot that Helena had made on her shoes. “Did you do that?”
Helena nods and responds with a small smile.
After another minute, where it’s clear that neither Rose or Helena have anything else to say, George speaks back up, “ok, are we ready to get going?”
He grabs the bag that he left on the couch and hands Helena her towel. Her energy seems to bubble right back up to the surface as she runs out to the car and jumps up and down until George opens the door for her.
He’s sure that once they’re all having fun at the waterpark, things won’t be quite as uncomfortable.
It does get a little less awkward as the afternoon goes on. Helena drags them from one slide to the next, and to the different pools that she can swim in. Rose is in good spirits and doesn’t complain at their inability to stay in one spot for too long, she seems happy enough to follow alongside George as he chases after Helena.
George and Rose talk and catch up more than they’ve done in a while as they watch Helena play, and there’s a slight tug in his chest when he thinks about the possibility of outings like this being a more common part of their lives.
One of the few small clouds in the sky moves away from the sun, causing George to have to squint just a little more through his sunglasses to watch as Helena shoots out the end of the small slide she’s on, before quickly jumping back up to go again. He looks at the time on his phone, and figures it’s almost been two hours since he last applied sun screen for her, so, when she comes back down again he calls her over before she has a chance to run back up again.
“C’mon, Len, gotta get some more sunscreen on you,” he tells her, walking over to his bag.
She whines a little at having to stop playing for even a minute, but follows him anyway. He pulls the bottle out, noticing the lighter weight of it, and his suspicions that he’s almost out are confirmed when he squeezes the bottle and barely anything comes out. He shakes it a few times, but he barely gets any more.
He knows he bought a new bottle just the other day, but he’s pretty sure he left that in the back seat of the car.
“Hey, Rose, do you have any sunscreen with you?”
She looks over from her lounge chair and frowns.
“No, sorry, do you need me to go get some?” she asks, sitting up and swinging her legs across the chair.
“No, I’ve got some out in the car, I can go get it.”
After he says that though, there’s a slight nagging at the back of his brain.
“You…will you guys be ok?” he asks.
“We’ll be fine,” she assures him.
He pauses for another moment, contemplating just untwisting the cap and digging out the rest of the sunscreen from the sides, but then realizes he’s being ridiculous. He’ll be gone ten minutes’ tops, there’s no reason to be worried.
He applies the small bit he retrieved from the now empty bottle to the tops of Helena’s shoulders.
“I’ll be right back, ok?” he tells her, making sure she’s looking at him so he knows she’s listening.
“Ok, ok,” she says impatiently, clearly ready to get back to her slide.
He looks back over at Rose, who makes a shooing motion at him, before grabbing his keys and making his way out of the park. With only one quick look back at them.
The park is big, and it has a parking lot to accommodate its size, so it takes a few minutes for George to reach his car.
The sunscreen bottle is exactly where he knew it would be – in the basket behind the front seat – and he reaches in and grabs it. The car is stifling from the sun beating down on it and he decides to crack the windows, pretty sure there’s no call for rain in the forecast, at least not in the next few hours.
He’s just turned the corner from the line of cars that his is in when he hears a voice behind him.
He turns to see Don Hoobler, from work, walking toward him with a grin, and a sleepy looking child in tow.
“Hey, Hoob, you playin’ hooky today too?”
Hoobler’s smile grows just a little wider. “Yep, figured summer’s almost over, gotta get as much time in here as possible.”
They talk for a few minutes about how fast summer seemed to go, and how time seems to pass more and more quickly the older they get, then move on to some office gossip that Hoobler had heard about earlier in the week. The boy – who Luz thinks is named Archie, from what Hoobler has told him in the past – tugs on his father’s hand.
“Daaaaad, you said we could go get ice cream,” the boy whines, having had to sit and listen to boring grown-up talk for much longer than any child should.
“Sorry, Arch. We’re going buddy,” Hoobler directs down to his son, before looking back at Luz with a grin. “We’ve gotta get ice cream.”
Luz smiles. “Oh, I understand, don’t let me hold you up. I’ll see you Monday.”
Hoobler tells him he’ll finish his story then and him and his son make their way further down the parking lot.
He realizes that he’s been gone longer than he’d planned and he walks just a little bit faster back toward the park, hoping Rose isn’t worried about where he’d gotten off to.
Walking back into the park, Luz holds up his arm so the lady at the front can see his wristband, showing that he’s already paid to get in.
But just as he’s passing the large sign that indicates all the rules of the waterpark he hears, “daddy!”
Luz tends to react to those words no matter where he is and no matter how much the voice doesn’t sound like Helena’s, he still will look around for a moment just out of habit.
Only, this time, it’s not habit that has him whipping his head toward the sound of the voice, because that voice is unmistakably Helena’s. He looks around for several seconds before his eyes lock on where she is standing, next to the Information booth.
He scans the area around her, and quickly realizes that Rose is nowhere he can see. What’s even more troubling than that, is that she is holding someone’s hand. It takes the amount of time for George to get over to the booth as it does for him to realize that the hand that Helena is holding tightly belongs to Joe.
George barely processes the concerned look Joe is sporting as he drops to the ground to meet Helena face to face.
“Look dad, I found Master Toye and – “
“Where is your mom?” George cuts her off, grabbing onto her arms to look her over. His blood has turned cold at the realization of what she must have done. He can’t believe he let this happen again.
“I-I don’t know.” Helena looks up at Joe and then back down to George.
“What do you mean you don’t know, did she leave?” he pushes, feeling the acid in his stomach make its way up his esophagus. His heartbeat is erratic, in a way no workout with Joe could ever create.
“No…I saw Master Toye – “
“And you just left?” The strange combination of dread that’s coursing through his veins, mixed with the relief that she is actually ok has him acting a little over the top, and his frantic tone is starting to make her lip wobble.
“Ok, ok, don’t cry, Lenny. But you can’t just run off like that.”
She sniffles and wipes her hand – the one that is not still clutching Joe’s – roughly across her face.
“I-I j-just wanted to say hi to M-master Toye.”
“I know, but then you ask your mom to take you over there, you don’t just leave.” He’s really trying to keep his tone calm, but he feels anything but calm and he’s pretty sure Helena can tell.
“I tried! She didn’t listen!” Helena’s tears turn into ones of frustration and she stomps her foot.
“Then you should have waited until I got back,” he argues back at her.
She’s not the one he’s mad at. All his mind is currently able to conjure up are all the scenarios where she hadn’t made it over to Joe, and Joe hadn’t taken her over to the Information desk, most likely in order to find George.
With that thought, he finally stands to look at and acknowledge Joe for the first time. Joe seems uncomfortable, and apologetic. As if it’s his fault that Helena had run over and disrupted his afternoon.
George runs a hand through his hair. “Thanks.”
He’s not sure he can put into words what for, like he’s thanking Joe for not abducting his daughter, or for not just telling her to leave him alone, because they weren’t in class and she wasn’t his problem.
Joe just shrugs, because thanking someone for not being an asshole doesn’t require much of a response.
“I'm, uh…I’m here with my sister and her kids. Helena said that she didn’t know where you were, so my sister suggested we come up here. I figured you were probably worried sick,” Joe explains.
George grimaces, because he hadn’t even known she was missing, and doesn’t that just make him feel like the worst parent ever. He can just picture himself, strolling back into the park, completely unaware of where his daughter was. Joe must think he’s an idiot.
“She was with her mom. I just went to the car to get more sun screen. She-” he cuts himself off from his pathetic explanation. Because, this is all his fault. He’d known the risks and ignored them, and once again, it’s Helena’s safety that suffers when he does this.
Joe watches George for a moment before nodding and looking down at Helena.
“I’ll see you next week, ok?”
She directs her still teary eyes up at him and nods. “Ok,” she says, before finally releasing the tight grip she’d had on his hand.
Joe reaches up and puts his hand on George’s shoulder and says, “I’ll see you next week,” to him too.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll see you…thanks.”
Joe looks him in the eyes for another moment, before nodding and taking off, leaving George to take Helena’s hand and pull himself out of his wallowing and figure out what he needs to do. First things first, he needs to figure out what happened to Rose.
“She was just…reading,” Luz tells Perconte, Lip and Ron.
They’d come over for dinner and waited for George to put Helena to bed before asking about yesterday’s events. He’d been sparse on the details the day before.
“Rose was reading when we walked back up. She hadn’t even noticed that Lenny had been gone for almost twenty minutes.”
Luz still feels the strange, warring sensation of fear and relief coursing through his entire body as his mind can’t stop itself from all the terrible ways that this could have turned out. He’d been up all night with all the different scenarios he could think of that might have happened to Helena had she not made it over to Joe. He has to keep reminding himself that Helena is fine, completely safe in her bed.
“What’d she say?” Frank asks, reaching over to pick up his drink.
“She was a mess. We left immediately after and she cried the whole way home, apologizing and…” He fades off with the sigh.
Rose really had been a wreck, at one point he had thought he’d need to pull the car over because she had almost been to the point of hyperventilation.
“And Helena?” Lip asks.
“She was upset, thought she was in trouble.”
Thankfully, Helena had woken up this morning completely over the events of yesterday and as happy and unbothered as any other day. George wishes he had that ability.
After a minute, Ron clears his throat and leans over to set his drink back down.
“Ok, since no one seems to want to ask this, I guess I will. Why did you go with her at all? This seems…look, I know Car and I were only just starting to date at the time, so I may not know what I’m talking about here, but this just seems like nothing has changed.”
Luz glares at Ron. “I get it, ok? I fucked up.”
“No, you didn’t fuck up, George. Rose did,” Lip argues. “You have to stop making excuses for her.”
“I don’t know what to do here. I already have full custody, Helena rarely sees her mom as is. I’m just supposed to stop letting them see each other altogether because Len has a tendency to run away and Rose has a tendency to get distracted?”
“C’mon, Luz, you can’t blame Helena for this,” Perconte says.
“I’m not! It’s just…”
“George, you are the only person who really wants Rose and Helena to have a relationship with each other. And I’m including Rose and Helena in that. Maybe when she’s older and doesn’t require the amount of attention she currently does, but right now I just don’t think it’s good for any of you,” Lipton argues.
Luz wants so badly to tell them that they have no idea what they’re talking about. That none of them have kids yet and they couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like to constantly be wondering what the right thing to do is. Things aren’t always as simple as just waiting a few years. Every choice he makes with her could potentially affect the rest of her life.
But he knows that their biggest concern is Helena, and her safety. They just want what they think is best for her.
That’s all he wants too, he just wishes he knew what that was.
More about Luz and Rose's past will be revealed in the next chapter, I know I've been kind of dragging all of this out. I'm just trying to go by what feels natural for the story.
Thank you all for the love on the companion piece, I'm so glad you all enjoyed it <3
Also, thanks to @luzlicious for Hoobler and his son Archie, she's already created a whole universe for them in her mind
Who's ready for some backstory??
I'll just warn that there is some child neglect in this chapter. No outright abuse though.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Keep your feet moving."
"Remember, arms up. Keep your arms up and keep moving."
Luz growls in frustration as he hits the bag harder and harder.
"Ok, ok, stop, stop," Joe says, holding his hand against the bag to keep Luz from hitting it any more.
Luz steps back and realizes how hard he's been breathing for the first time.
"Are you ok?" Joe asks, eyeing him over.
Luz walks over to his water and takes a big gulp.
"Are you? The way you were hitting that bag, you were about to throw your back out. Looks like maybe you were trying to get out some frustration.”
Luz sighs and leans back against the wall, letting it hold up some of his weight as he catches his breath. Joe hit the nail on the head, frustrated is a pretty good word for what he's feeling right now.
He's frustrated with his mother, who won’t stop calling, inquiring about her granddaughter, as though he just no longer has the capability to take care of his own daughter.
He's frustrated with his friends, who keep trying to share their opinions about Rose, and what he should and should not do about his daughter.
He's frustrated with Rose, who won't answer her phone, or call or text him back.
And he's frustrated with Helena, who seems to be determined to be as difficult as possible lately, especially when it comes to the things he buys her for school. Apparently, the shoes he got her are too tight, and the new clothes are too itchy, and all the school supplies are ugly or not the right kind, despite the fact that she’s the one who picked them out at the store.
And he’s incredibly sexually frustrated, because after some of his worry had finally dissipated after Friday, Luz began recalling more of what had happened. And one thing that his mind had not fully processed until well after the fact, was that Joe had not actually been wearing a shirt when he'd seen him. And now he knows that he looks exactly as good under those tank tops as Luz had always guessed. Having the mental image has made things a little more difficult – or easier - for him now. His dreams are even more intense and now filled more than ever with him being held down by strong hands as a smoky voice whispers dirty things in his ear. So yeah, one could say Luz is pretty fucking frustrated.
Joe just watches him for another minute as Luz alternates between panting and chugging water. Finally, Joe walks over and stands right in front of him. Luz can’t do anything but watch as Joe reaches down and grabs his left arm, pulling it up between them.
Slowly, he unwraps the Velcro from around the glove and slides it off Luz’s hand. Letting his arm drop back down, Joe reaches for the other to remove.
Luz is a little transfixed as Joe's eyes remain on him. His previously overheated skin is now raised with goosebumps along where Joe’s careful hands have brushed. And when Joe finally removes the other glove, all Luz wants is for him to step closer and put those hands all over the rest of his body. Instead, Joe steps back, tossing the gloves over toward his things and walks to his bag.
Luz watches him as he digs through it, but before he can ask him what he's doing, Joe stands back up, holding what looks like an employee badge.
"C'mon, I'm buying you a smoothie."
"Joe, I don't think-"
"It's just a smoothie, let's take a break."
Luz hesitates for a moment, taking a deep breath, but then decides what the hell, he's too tired to fight himself on this.
The gym has a small cafe up toward the front, with things like protein shakes and smoothies. Luz has never tried them before, due to his assumption that it's all over-priced and not really that healthy anyway.
"Are protein shakes really good for you?" he asks skeptically, as they walk over to the cafe.
Joe shrugs. "They can, but that's just if you're trying to bulk up, lifting a lot of weights, I wouldn't recommend them for you."
"Hey, maybe I wanna get ripped," Luz argues.
Joe eyes him for a moment and grins. "This from the guy I watched lift without any weights, because the thought of even lifting ten pounds was too much for him."
Luz just scowls, but can't really fault Joe's logic there.
"So, what's the healthy stuff here?" Luz asks, as they step up to the counter.
"Don't worry about that, just get what you want."
Luz isn't going to pass up that kind of permission from his unofficial personal trainer.
"Hey, Joe. Don't see you over here much," the girl behind the counter says with a smile as they approach.
"Yeah, just figured we'd take a break," Joe replies with a polite grin.
They both order their smoothies and the girl swipes Joe’s employee badge.
"You should stop by more often," she says to Joe as she hands him his badge back.
Luz turns around to hide his grin, pretending to be looking for a place to sit, he understands exactly how the girl feels.
"Yeah, sure," is Joe's non-committal answer, before they make their way over to a small table off to the side.
They sit in silence for a few minutes as Luz drinks from his smoothie and looks everywhere but at Joe, whose eyes he can feel burning a hole in the side of his head. But he knows Joe isn’t going to make him talk if he doesn’t want to.
The thing is, he kind of does want to. He wants to talk to someone who doesn’t already have an opinion on the matter one way or another.
“So,” Luz starts then pauses, not really sure how to begin.
“So,” Joe echoes. When Luz finally looks over at him, his eyes look just a little brighter.
"It's kind of a long story."
"I've got time," Joe says with a shrug, leaning back in his chair and taking a sip of his smoothie. “Is this about Friday?”
Luz nods, playing with the straw of his drink for a minute as he tries to find the words for how to tell this particular story.
"Rose, that's Helena's mom, she...she never wanted kids. Not for any reason, she just...wasn’t interested, I guess. That didn't bother me much, I never really cared either way. I mean...I always thought, maybe one day, but it wasn't anything I was hoping for, ya know?"
He scratches at the table, avoiding Joe's stare.
"We got together...well...our parents set us up, and...honestly, she became like my best friend, we really did love each other in our own way. So, it...it was easier than being honest with my family or myself about my sexuality. I mean...she knew, but, we just kind of kept -"
Luz shakes his head and looks around, these words are difficult, and having Joe know feels even worse, Joe is soon going to know that Luz is not worth any of the positive feelings he may still have toward him.
"When she found out she was pregnant, she was upset. I mean...she was scared and mad and..."
Luz trails off, remembering that night, remembering hiding behind the door to the bathroom as she threw things at him so he wouldn't come near her, wouldn't touch her. By midnight she'd finally calmed down and he hugged her close as she cried and asked him what they were going to do. He'd had no idea what to say.
"She decided that she wanted to have the baby. She wanted to have the baby but not keep it, wanted to give her up for adoption. I didn’t really know what to do, I just went along with whatever she wanted. I…let’s just say I hadn’t been the best boyfriend.”
He takes a drink and Joe waits patiently for him to continue his story.
“As it went on, I…I realized I wanted to keep her, the baby. She really didn’t want to, she never wanted a kid, and...and she didn't want to get stuck raising it all by herself when I eventually left her for one of the guys I was cheating on her with."
He raises his eyes up to meet Joe's. His eyes are narrowed some, taking in Luz's words, but he doesn't look appropriately disappointed in him, Joe doesn’t seem to be acknowledging that Luz is the selfish asshole that he is, and that keeps him talking.
"But…I thought that we could do it, I promised her that we could do it. She loved me, so she eventually relented and trusted that I knew what I was talking about. I basically made her keep Helena."
He feels a stinging at the corner of his eyes and blinks away the moisture that he can feel there, he looks around the gym and takes a drink of his smoothie, trying to hide his face from Joe.
Joe doesn't push, doesn't ask him to keep going. He just sits and waits for Luz to find his bearings again.
"It's tough, ya know? Raising a kid. No matter what your situation is, it's never an easy thing to do. Rose, she...she was there, she fed Helena, she changed her, things like that. But she wasn't really...there, ya know? She only ever held Helena when she needed to. She wasn't in love with every little thing that Helena did like I was. She just kind of went through the motions of what she knew she was supposed to do. I thought that maybe she had postpartum depression, you know they say that sometimes that can make a mother not feel connected to their child?"
"I dunno...it...it's like she said, she just didn't want her. She cared about Helena, in a detached kind of way. I think we both just kept hoping something would happen, some like innate mothering instinct would take over and everything would be happy and good.”
Luz nearly rolls his eyes at his own selfish naivety.
“It was mostly fine though, until Helena started being able to move around more. It was just little things at first. Like, one time I came home and Helena was crying and screaming because she’d climbed out of her crib and couldn't go anywhere because the door was closed, and Rose had turned off the baby monitor and was taking a nap. Another time I was out back, and Rose just left without telling me and I came back in to find Helena crawling around in the kitchen."
Joe has his eyebrows raised now and Luz hurries to explain.
"I talked to my mom when it would happen, and she assured me that things like that always happens with new parents. We were tired and just bound to do dumb things from time to time. So, I took that as things were at least close to normal, but...I was afraid for Rose to even give Helena a bath by that time, and that's not normal, you shouldn't be afraid that your other child's parent will just forget that they were doing something and then she's drowned." Luz shivers a little just at the thought of it.
"We talked about it, about what she needed and she just kept promising that she'd get better and she'd focus more on Helena and she wanted to be a good mom. She just...she really wanted to be a good mom," he sighs. "Not because of anything she felt for Helena, she just knew that's what she was supposed to do. But I didn't know what I was doing, and I knew that I was the one that convinced her to be a mom and all of this was my fault and I just wanted things to be good."
He stops again to calm down a little and take another drink of his smoothie, Joe is just rolling his drink back and forth between his palms.
“She…one day, I just had to run to the store, I was gone maybe 20 minutes. I was driving down the street, almost back home, when I saw…Helena was crawling by this point…she…I don’t even know how she got outside, but she was crawling around and was making her way out onto the street.”
Joe’s eyes have widened now, his lips parted, as though he wants to say something, but he stays quiet so Luz continues.
“When I got Helena back inside, Rose was just watching TV. She hadn’t noticed that Helena had crawled away, or somehow pushed the door open or made her way outside. I mean…shit like this happens to good parents too, but…”
Luz is quiet for a while, thinking back to that day where he’d seen his baby in the street, out in the open for anyone to take or run over or any hundreds of different and terrible things that could have happened. He remembers the feeling of complete terror and helplessness over their situation.
After a few minutes of silence Joe finally speaks up. “So, you left?”
Luz meets his eyes before looking away and shaking his head.
“No, she left. A few days later, she’d packed up and moved out, said we were better off without her.”
His friends had all said it was for the best, for all of them. They’d said that it would only hurt Helena in the long run if Rose stuck around, and that it was hurting Rose too. He understands all of this, and yet he can’t get himself to stop thinking ‘what if.’
What if Helena comes to him when she’s older and tells him she resents him for taking her from her mother? What if Rose one day tells him that he’s ruined her life by making her keep her baby and then not helping her be a better mother instead of just keeping Helena away from her? He knows it had been her choice to leave, and it’s been her choice to stay away, he just can’t help but wonder if he doesn’t keep trying, everything will eventually come back to hurt them all in even worse ways.
“Helena barely knows her, she’s only seen her four times since Rose moved out. She knows that Rose is her mom, but I don’t even think that label means anything to her. As for Rose…she keeps wanting to try, and I just never have it in me to keep her from it, from trying. After Friday though, I don’t…maybe I just have to accept that what’s best is that they don’t know each other.”
He shrugs, it still doesn’t sit right in his chest, it doesn’t feel like what is best for Helena or Rose or him. But all evidence has shown that it’s just better the way it is now. Just Helena and him.
Joe doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t offer some kind of consolation about all of this, or advice, he doesn’t chide Luz for all the things he’d done wrong in this situation. He appears to be processing it, but his face never twists in disgust or judgment over everything Luz had done to get them to this point.
“Thanks for telling me,” Joe finally lands on, after sitting in silence for several minutes.
Luz shrugs and nods, then his eyes drift behind Joe, noticing the time on the clock for the first time.
“Shit, I have to go. I’ve gotta pick up Lenny in a half hour.”
“You go to the locker room, I’ll grab your stuff,” Joe says, standing when Luz starts fumbling with his cup.
Joe is holding his water bottle and phone out to him when he exits the locker room.
“Thanks, Joe,” he says, shoving his phone into his pocket.
He doesn’t know if it’s clear that he’s not just thanking him for grabbing his things for him. Joe meets Luz’s eyes with his dark stare and nods, so Luz thinks he gets it.
He’s right on time to pick Helena up and when she runs out to greet him he pulls her into a tighter hug than normal. She hugs him back for a second but then starts wiggling in his hold.
“Dad, let’s go,” she whines, pulling herself out of his arms.
“Sorry, Len,” he says, standing back up and ruffling her hair a little. “How was your day?”
“The best!” she exclaims, then proceeds to tell him about all the fun things she got to do that day as they ride home.
In a rare treat for a Wednesday night, Luz makes them breakfast for dinner. After her bath, he even decides that they can watch a movie.
It’s one of their favorites and they both quote and sing along with it. George makes up funnier lines to say along with some of the dialogue, which never fails to make Helena giggle and try to do it herself.
“Look at my hat, it’s a big hat!” Helena says, in a slightly deeper voice than her own to try to dub over the man on the screen.
George can’t help but laugh along with her as she rocks back and forth from the force of her laughter at her own “joke”.
Once she’s settled back down again, he tucks her against his side, brushing some of the hair out of her face.
“I love you more than anything in the world,” he tells her.
Helena smiles and hugs herself just a little closer. “I love you too, Daddy.”
He’ll always regret the part he played in making Rose become the mother that she had never wanted to be, that he’d convinced her that it was just an inherent thing she’d have within her. He’ll regret that she loved him enough to believe that he was right, to go against everything she’d known about herself, and that she is constantly reminded of how she’s failed.
And as much as it pains him for the hurt he’s caused in her life, and his repeated missteps along the way, he’ll never regret Helena. And that’s all that really matters now.
The thing with Helena as a baby in the street, that actually came from when I was a bit younger I went out front of my house and a man had stopped there and gotten out of his car, because my neighbor's baby was crawling around in the street. The guy and I just kind of looked at each other for a minute before I pointed to my neighbor's house (I didn't know for sure if it was their kid, they had so many kids you guys, but I assumed and was right) and he took the baby up to them. I just remember being stunned and not being able to do anything but watch. So...yeah, I decided to add that into the story.
I've been very worried about this chapter since I first thought of the concept of Helena's mother and also just Luz's backstory in general.
Lipton and Speirs have some news, and Joe opens up a bit
Okay, this is a shorter one. I contemplated putting all of this in chapter 6, but then thought 'nah, there's enough here to be it's own thing'...I'm not so sure that's true.
But next chapter things HAPPEN, I PROMISE!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ron and Lip invite George and Helena over for dinner Sunday night. George accepts, happy to get he and Helena out of the house as much as possible.
Ron plays with Helena in the living room as George helps Lip in the kitchen, or pretends to help him, he’s mostly just moving things around for him when he asks and gossiping about their friends.
Once dinner is finally served and they all sit down to eat, the purpose of the dinner comes to light.
“We asked you two here, because we wanted you to be the first people we told,” Lipton starts, and George narrows his eyes at his best friend, hoping for good news.
“Carwood and I have finally been placed with a newborn boy,” Ron says, unable to hide his smile.
George looks back and forth between them for a moment, to make sure he understands correctly. Seeing the huge, relieved smiles on their faces solidifies it for him.
“You’re getting a son?”
Lip nods. “There’s still some more paperwork to fill out, and there will be more home visits before the adoption can actually go through. But…we get to bring him home next week.”
There’s a relief in Lipton that George hadn’t noticed before, but can now see clearly, he’s not sure how he’d missed it. Lipton and Ron have been going through the adoption process for almost two years, and they’re finally going to get their child.
“You guys, congratulations! Seriously, I don’t know any two people who deserve it more.”
Lipton’s smile just gets that much wider.
George holds up his glass to do a toast to them, but Ron stops him.
“There’s one more thing,” he says, then looks over to Lipton.
“Ron and I…would like to ask if you would be his godfather.”
Somehow, George’s heart begins to feel even warmer than it has already been.
“I- of course, thank you,” he tells them, looking over to Helena for the first time.
She’s been suspiciously quiet for the past few minutes, suspicious both because she had been so excited by the prospect of them bringing home a new baby, but also just her normal self doesn’t often stay quiet this long.
He uses this rare silence to once again attempt to toast his friends. As soon as they are about to clink their glasses though, Helena finally speaks up
“Does it have to be a boy?”
Ron and Lip both chuckle as George looks over to her.
“What’s wrong with boys?” he asks.
She purses her lips. “There’s just too many of them.”
George joins in on the laughing now, and Helena grins, realizing she’s said something funny.
He is finally able to toast to his friends, and they spend the rest of the night discussing the details of everything they need to get done before they can bring their son home. All that is interspersed with Helena continuing to make jokes that they all laugh at for the sake of her growing desire to be considered funny, and she just continues to preen, enjoying being the constant center of everyone’s attention and the baby in the room for the last time.
Later that night, when George has tucked her into bed and read to her, she sleepily says, “I think we should go get a new baby too. Only we can get a girl one.”
George chuckles a little, mostly to hide the absolute dread that fills him at the idea of having two children to take care of.
“I think the two of you against one of me would be unfair,” he tells her.
Helena’s eye keep drifting closed, but she’s able to mumble out, “we can get another dad to be on your side.”
She’s asleep before he can get past the shock of that statement and say anything else.
He lays in bed that night, thinking about Helena’s words. He knows she’d only said it to convince him to get her a sister, but he still can’t help but wonder if she’s, in some way, comfortable with the idea of there being another person in their life.
Luz opens the door to the training room to see Joe already there, sitting down and adjusting something on his prosthetic.
He doesn't want to stare, so he makes a point of turning around as he puts his stuff down. It's not that he hasn't seen Joe's prosthetic before, he saw it during Helena's third Taekwondo class, when a kid had asked Joe about it. Luz had mostly just been thrilled that it hadn't been Helena who had asked, and that while she did seem somewhat fascinated by the metal leg that Joe wore, she never really asked questions about it, the way she often does with so many other things. Luz has a theory that she thinks Joe is part robot, and doesn't want to clue anyone else into this fact, it's also probably just another reason why she likes him so much.
Luz has a tendency to forget that Joe has it though, not just because of his proclivity toward wearing pants more often than shorts, but also just the way that he moves. His movements are always so fast and fluid, in a way Luz wouldn't expect from someone who has a prosthetic leg from the knee down.
But, he figures that Joe has probably had it for a while, and with physical activity being his livelihood, he's probably just grown used to it. He's thought about it plenty, the fact that Joe's whole lifestyle is centered around physical fitness, while also having a part of him that no doubt makes all of that at least just a little harder, has impressed Luz since he's known.
Up until this point, Luz hasn't felt like it was any of his business to ask about it, if Joe wasn't going to share anything about it with him voluntarily. Even though he had been honest and candid with Helena's class when it had been brought up, and hadn't seemed like he wanted to hide anything about it.
"Hey, how was your weekend?" Joe asks as a greeting as soon as he notices Luz, and he rolls the leg of his pants down and hops up onto his feet, with an ease that once again reminds Luz of how impressive Joe is.
"Oh, not too bad, we're really trying to get everything ready for kindergarten. Or...I am, Helena's been going back and forth on whether she cares about it, lately."
Joe grins. "Do you think she'll be ok when she goes?"
"Oh yeah, she's never had a problem meeting new people or taking new places by storm. It’s really just her behavior that I'd been worried about, but with Taekwondo, she's been getting better.”
Luz can tell that Joe doesn't quite believe that he's being sincere.
"No, I'm serious. She can sit still, follow directions, listen to an instructor, and practice by herself without a constant reminder to do so. That's not really the type of things she excelled at before.”
Joe's smirk turns into a grin. "Well, that makes sense, Taekwondo is a really good tool for kids like Helena."
"Plus," Luz adds. "She's got a really great teacher."
Joe ducks his head and shrugs, and Luz is just a little captivated by the flustered display. Joe must have had parents compliment him before about how good of a teacher he is, this can't be the first time. But he doesn’t want to make Joe uncomfortable so he moves on.
"How about you?"
"How was your weekend?"
"Oh, oh, good, we had a belt ceremony. I got to give three of my students their black belts."
"That's cool, how old are they?" Luz asks, knowing that Joe doesn't just teach kids, but having no idea how old these people would have to be and for how long he’d be teaching for them to reach black belt status.
"Well, one student is in his 30's, I have another student who is in her early 20's, and then a student who just turned 18."
"So all over the place then?"
Joe nods. "It just depends on when you start. But I don't give out black belts until someone is 17."
"So, Helena would be able to get hers that young?"
"Sure, as long as she keeps her training up and moving up in belts, she'll definitely be a black belt by the time she's 17."
Luz knows that he's the one who brought it up, but he does have a minor, internal crisis at the mention of Helena ever being a 17-year-old.
"Some instructors give them earlier," Joe continues to explain, though he suggests it as though they might prefer to go to someone else, so that she could get it sooner, but Luz can’t imagine going to anyone else, and he knows that Helena wouldn’t be interested in any instructor but Joe.
Not wanting to entertain the topic of them leaving Joe’s training center, he asks, “when did you get yours?”
“I was 19, I started a little later than Helena.”
“When did you start?”
Joe narrows his eyes at Luz. “Are you trying to get out of working out again today?”
Luz startles a little, he, for once, really hadn’t been trying to get out of anything. “No, I’m just genuinely curious.”
“Oh, uh, well…how about we get started on warming up, and then we can talk,” Joe offers, apparently surprised that Luz hadn’t just made a joke about Joe catching him in his apparent diversion.
“I was about 15 when I first started Taekwondo,” Joe finally says, after leading Luz through their normal warmups.
The one thing that he’s been wondering since he’s first found out about Joe’s leg, and the thing that’s been itching at the back of his brain since he saw it again, finally just bubbles up to the surface.
“Did you lose your leg before or after you started Taekwondo?” Luz asks, deciding to just go for it.
Joe doesn’t narrow his eyes or act offended by the question, so Luz breathes a silent sigh of relief.
“Before. It’s actually why I started in the first place,” Joe tells him, finishing the wrapping on Luz’s glove.
“Like a physical therapy thing?”
Joe’s grins. “More like an emotional therapy thing. Arms up.”
Luz brings his arms up, but sends Joe a look that he hopes translates to ‘explain’.
“Let’s start with a jab cross jab, feet moving, arms up,” Joe says instead, and Luz sighs but follows his instructions.
He does the simple moves for a few minutes, with Joe’s encouragement sprinkled here and there, or more often, his reminder for Luz to keep his arms up.
“I lost my leg when I was 13, and…I became a pretty angry kid,” Joe explains, just as Luz finishes a jab.
Luz stops for a moment at that piece of information, but Joe just claps his hands and tells him to keep going. “I didn’t say stop.”
He huffs, but gets back to punching, his mind still reeling from the small, but important, bit of information he’d just learned.
Joe has Luz do different hooks and cross punches and has him bob and weave around the unmoving punching bag, without another mention of his past.
But when Luz calls for a break, Joe speaks up again.
“I had a teacher who eventually took me under his wing. He could tell I was struggling and ended up directing me to his sister who taught Taekwondo. I resisted for a while, but, like Helena, it helped. It calmed me down, made me more disciplined,” he tells Luz, keeping his eyes averted.
"Plus, having that physical part helped me feel like I wasn’t useless. It made me realize that I could do anything I wanted to, like learn boxing,” he adds with a grin.
“How did you lose it?” Luz asks, figuring he’s already gone this far, he may as well see how far he can push it.
“Car accident, my dad and me. Our car rolled for a while and my leg was crushed…he died almost on impact.” His voice is matter of fact, clearly having told this story enough times that it’s become just another thing he tells people. But it’s Luz’s first time with the story, and his stomach twists at the thought of it.
“Jesus, Joe. I’m sorry.”
Joe nods and shrugs, again, another thing he’s likely heard for years.
They get back to working out and Joe doesn’t say anything else about his past, and Luz doesn’t want to push any more than he already has. He feels like he’s just added a few new important pieces to knowing who Joe Toye really is, and he’s finding that the more he learns, the more he wants to know.
He has to remind himself that he’d been the one to turn Joe down for the date, an instance where he probably could have learned more about him, so he has no one to blame but himself.
Unfortunately, as much as he’d regretted that decision before, he’d felt pretty firmly that he’d been doing the right thing, especially for Helena.
He’s not so sure about that anymore. And now he’s has no idea if he’s missed his only shot.
Ok! So, I just want to say, the prosthetic leg thing. I know I didn't mention it AT ALL in the earlier chapters, which totally makes it seem like I was like 'ehh yeah this too I guess?'
But honestly, I did it on purpose that way, not for the story, but because of the way I'm writing this. I had two backstories for Joe in mind and hadn't decided on which way I wanted to go with it. My preferred choice was that Joe had lost his leg, so I wanted to go in that direction, but if I ended up not using that backstory I didn't want to have a whole bunch of earlier chapters where I'm at least hinting at the fact that Joe had lost his leg that I was kind of stuck with. So...yeah, that was my lazy way of doing that.
Hope it didn't feel too much like a cheat!!
Thank you for reading!
George texts with Joe, and takes Helena to the movies!
On Tuesday night, Luz has just put Helena to bed, and is attempting to tidy up the living room, when a text comes in from an unknown caller.
He opens it to see it’s from Joe.
Hi George, it’s Joe Toye. I had to get your number from our training center, Sorry I wasn’t sure how else to get a hold of you I wanted to let you know I wont be able to make it tomorrow. I have a meeting with a students parents I’ll see you Thursday.
George grins down at Joe’s stilted formality. He can just visualize Joe’s struggle between trying to text George as a parent of a student as well as something of a friend. At least George would like to think so, after everything they’ve learned about each other these past few weeks.
So, he types out his reply.
Hey Joe! No problem I cant believe we never exchanged numbers, that was dumb of us!
He waits a minute, but when he gets no response he types out more.
Does this mean I get to take the day off working out??
Almost immediately he can see that Joe is typing.
I think you can figure out the gym without me there one day. You know the warm ups. Borrw gloves from the front desk
Or maybe work with the weight machines like you were with your friend
Are you saying I’m weak?
George can’t help but laugh out loud at that.
Im crushed joe I thought I’d been looking pretty good lately!!
You’ve always looked good
Luz’s heart starts racing at Joe’s text. He watches the dots that show Joe’s typing start and stop three times before they just stop again and he doesn’t say anything else, so Luz decides to save him.
Not as good at you ;)
Luz really can’t believe he’s text flirting with Joe all the sudden. Not that he hasn’t flirted with him before, but having it written out like this makes it feel more real, or maybe just more obvious - something he can’t just laugh off as a slip of the tongue.
He watches with bated breath as it looks as though Joe is typing something long. Luz can feel his heart beat speed up even more at the thought of Joe maybe trying to ask him out again, or asking Luz to give him a chance, or maybe he is about to be pulled into full on sexting.
Luz reminds himself to give this a shot, that if Joe asks again, he should go for it. A part of him still isn’t sure, still worries that this could all end badly and if Helena got hurt at all by it he’d probably never forgive himself. But he has to try.
The typing seems to have stopped and he stares at the screen, thumbing over it to keep it from closing from disuse, and willing Joe to hit send.
There’s nothing for a full minute and Luz is about to reach through the phone and press send for Joe, when a text comes through.
I’ll see you Thursday
Luz groans and nearly throws his phone across the room. He settles for the other side of the couch and lays his head back, growling slightly in frustration.
They’d been so close.
Wednesday is fine. Luz wanders around the gym a lot, kind of bored having to work out alone, since he couldn’t get Lipton to come along, with the new baby coming he's a little too busy to count out reps for Luz.
He still puts in a decent effort, despite not having anyone with him to keep him going, and he thinks that's progress.
He's not sure what to expect from Joe on Thursday, but it turns out he has nothing to worry about, since he doesn't even get a chance to talk to him. Another parent approaches him, and keeps his attention for long enough that Luz feels awkward hanging around just to say hi and ask if Joe had been planning on saying something else in his text the other night.
He doesn't have time to worry too much over Joe though, as they prepare for Helena to start Kindergarten on Monday. Also, he’s pretty well distracted on Friday when they get to go over and see Lip’s son. Helena coos and stares at baby Charlie, forgetting for the night that he's just another boy in her life.
George has never seen two prouder fathers than Ron and Lip, he’s sure of it. He goes to bed that night just picturing the pure joy he'd seen on their faces while looking at their son.
On Saturday, George takes Helena to a movie, as he sure they’re not going to have time for movies for a while with school starting. He's just paying for their popcorn and drinks when he hears Helena make a squealing noise.
“Dad, it's Master Toye!”
George’s stomach swoops at the mention of Joe, and he turns to see him standing off to the side of the crowd by himself.
“Can I go say hi?” she asks, tugging on his shirt.
He picks up their food and holds out her small drink to her.
“Ok, but wait…for me…”
She's gone before he can even finish his sentence, but at least he has a line of sight on her as she bolts over to Joe. George grumbles at his daughter, as he attempts to carry the popcorn, his drink, and her drink that she had ignored, and he follows after her. He watches as Helena approaches Joe, jumping up and down in front of him. Joe greets her with a smile, but then immediately his head shoots up to look around, clearly reliving a few weeks ago at the waterpark.
Thankfully, George can step up right then to a show him that he's not going to get stuck with his lost child again.
“When I say wait, you have to wait,” George says to Helena, walking up and holding her drink out to her again. Finally, she takes her drink, holding on with both hands as she knows she’s supposed to.
Joe only looks marginally more relieved when he sees George, but his shoulders still seem a little high. George is only able to get out of quick “hey” before Helena starts talking again.
“Are you here to see Wonder Woman too?”
Joe grins down at her. “I've actually already seen it, I think you're really gonna like it.”
“You can watch it again with us, right Dad? Can Master Toye sit with us?”
“Len, he's here to see his own movie,” George tries to explain to her.
Before Joe can respond, there's a voice from off to the side.
“I'm so sorry I'm late!” the voice says, before a man steps up next to Joe, placing a quick kiss on his cheek, then turning his gaze to George then Helena. His smile is bright and perfect when he says, “hi!”
George feels like he's been dunked in ice water. The only two things running through his mind is that this guy looks good standing next to Joe, and that he needs to keep his face from showing just how he feels about that fact. Joe’s stiff posture is starting to make sense now.
“This is George and Helena,” Joe tells the guy, whose smile stays just as bright as ever, clearly not picking up on any awkwardness around him.
“This is Eric,” he tells George, looking in his eyes with an unreadable expression.
It only takes a couple of seconds for George to force what he hopes looks like a natural smile on his face.
“Hey,” he says, and holds up the stuff in his hands to show why you can't greet him more politely.
Eric just nods his head and says, “nice to meet you.”
“Are you Master Toye’s husband?”
Joe nearly chokes on the air as Eric's eyes widen just a fraction.
“Len,” George chides, and Helena just blinks up at him, clearly unaware of how awkward her question could be to two people on a date.
“I'm sorry, guys,” George directs at them, before turning back to Helena. “C’mon, we gotta go get seats.”
She only looks a little put out at the mention of leaving, but the reminder of the movie has her ready to go.
“Bye, Master Toye!” she says, removing one hand from her cup long enough to send him a wave.
Joe waves a little as well. “I'll see you next week, have fun on your first day of school.”
Helena sends him one last big grin.
“I'll see you,” George directs at Joe first, then quickly, as he steers Helena away, he says, “Eric, it was nice to meet you.”
George and Helena are gone before either man can respond.
He’s unable to focus as the movie plays, stuck in a cycle of humiliation and disappointment.
It’s not like he can blame Joe. He had asked him out, and George had said no, and so he moved on to the next guy. It makes sense, and when Luz is feeling less sorry for himself he’ll be able to fully accept that as a logical fact.
Currently though, all he can think about is how fine Joe had been when Luz had turned him down. At the time, Luz had thought that Joe was just a nice guy who hadn’t wanted to push him and was understanding of his struggle. Now, with his mind all messed up due to his embarrassment – he’d really thought that Joe was still interested in him, he’s an idiot – all his mind can think of is that Joe probably had been fine because he hadn’t really ever cared that much in the first place. Joe probably just had thought Luz was decent enough to fuck, but hadn’t planned on going anywhere past that with him.
His chest aches a little as thoughts continue to poison his mind, and he tries to fight against them, he really tries to remind himself that Joe being on a date with another guy doesn’t make him a bad person. But all that leads to is him reminding himself that he was never good enough for Joe in the first place. Why did he think for a minute that Joe was just going to sit around thinking about him, fine with lightly flirting once a week for months or maybe even years until Luz finally got his shit together? Nobody would do that for anybody, let alone someone like Joe for someone like George.
He’s so lost in his pity party that he’s really not processing what is on the screen, that is until Helena, who has been leaning against his arm, looks up at him.
“Wow, Diana is brave,” she force-whispers, her eyes wide in awe. And all of that poison, all of that bullshit just kind of melts away.
She’s already turned her attention back to the screen before George can say anything, but he still puts his arm around her, hugging her as close as he can with the arm rest in the way.
Because, once again, George is reminded that this is what is important. This is why he’d turned down Joe in the first place. Making sure he’s raising his daughter the best way he can. And that probably doesn’t include dating her Taekwondo instructor, who is currently dating someone else.
No matter how much George likes him.
I know Wonder Woman probably won't still be in theaters in August but whoooo caaaaares?
Ok! Things are about to start popping off people. I'm so sorry!
Helena starts Kindergarten, and George says some things
Didn't know how to summarize this chapter, a lot happens even though it's fairly short
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Monday is hard for George. It’s not as if Helena hasn’t been to preschool, and day care, and friends and families houses all day while he was at work, but there’s something about her going off to school, the finality of it, that makes his chest feel heavy as she clutches his hand walking into the classroom.
Helena has always been willing to go off on her own to meet new people, to make friends with kids her age, no matter where they go. For some reason, today she stays by George’s side until he has to leave. She doesn’t cry like some of the other kids, she doesn’t beg him not to leave. She just sits in the seat her teacher shows her and doesn’t make a move to talk to anyone else except for George.
He gives her kiss on the cheek and a big hug before leaving and she just smiles and waves him away. He’s pretty sure he’s the more devastated of the two over this whole new experience.
Luz keeps his phone by his side at all times but never gets a call from the school saying that Helena is in trouble or homesick, which he’s relieved by, but he still stays worried all day.
When he goes to pick her up she seems happy. He asks about her day and she says that she’s going to really like kindergarten, that she likes her teacher, and she’s excited about some of the things the teacher promised they’d be doing over the next year.
The one thing George notices she doesn’t mention is all the friends that she made, which is unlike her, as that’s usually the first thing she always tells him about. Usually, she’s made friends with every single person in the room, but today, that doesn’t come up, and when he asks her if she’d made any friends she just says, “umm, I don’t know”.
He reasons that maybe she’s just tired and overwhelmed by the day, so he doesn’t worry himself too much over this change. But Tuesday just turns out to be the same.
He’s still pretty concerned with Helena on Wednesday, but his dual worry of Helena’s social habits and what he’s going to say to Joe shift a little more toward Joe as he makes his way to the gym.
When he walks through the doors and sees Joe he quickly gets himself ready for warm-ups, in the hopes of signaling that he’s not particularly in the mood for talking like they normally do, that he doesn’t have much he wants to say right now. Or, there’s plenty he wants to say, but can’t seem to find the words.
Joe seems to be watching him out of the corner of his eye more than usual, and once they’ve stopped to take a rest, Joe decides to break the ice.
“So, about Saturday,” Joe starts, looking uncomfortable at having to broach the topic, so Luz decides to take over.
“Yeah, I’m sorry about Helena,” he says. “I hope that didn’t make things too awkward on your date.”
Joe seems surprised by that. “Oh, no, no, it wasn’t…I mean, it was fine.”
Luz nods and doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t say all the things that are burning in his brain and underneath his skin.
“We’ve only just gone on a couple date, ya know. It’s not anything serious,” Joe says, quickly.
Luz is suddenly tired, and not from his workout. He just feels all the nerves and frustration and uncertainty fade out at the idea that Joe is just going on casual dates with good-looking guys while Luz is struggling to figure out if dating one guy is a complete mistake. And all he’s left with is the feeling of exhaustion.
“Maybe it should be,” he says.
“Eric was cute, you don’t want someone else coming in and making a move and then you regret it, maybe you should make it serious with him. He seemed like a nice guy.”
Luz really tries to keep his tone friendly, instead of tired and bitter. He’s not sure he succeeds, as Joe continues to just stare at him for an uncomfortably long amount of time. Luz is just about to ask if he’d said something wrong when Joe turns away, making his way back toward the punching bag.
“Maybe you’re right,” is all Joe says, and other than a few instructions here and there through the rest of the work out they don’t speak again.
It’s not the hardest work out Luz has gone through, but it’s probably the most unpleasant. He’d take working out alone again over working out with a barely responsive Joe.
Luz knows he’d definitely said the wrong thing when Joe isn’t waiting for him outside the locker room when he walks out.
While George is unsure of what to expect from Joe on Thursday, his bigger concern is Helena. It’s been four days and she still hasn’t talked to him about any friends she’s made yet. He’s worried that something must be wrong, that maybe she’s not feeling well and not telling him. But, when they walk into the practice room, she immediately runs off to talk with all of her friends, looking as happy and sociable as ever. His anxiety lightens a little seeing that.
His phone buzzes in his pocket and he’s glad class hasn’t started yet, so he’s not going to get in trouble again, he doesn’t need that kind of heat with how shaky things currently are with Joe. Looking down at his phone he sees a text from Lipton that just reads ‘Charlie hates me.’
George frowns down at his phone and looks up to watch Helena for another moment, making sure she’s ok before he steps out of the room to call Lip.
“Hello,” Lipton answers, in a tired, frazzled voice that Luz isn’t sure he’s ever heard from him before.
“Charlie hates me.”
“I saw that, tell me why you think that.”
“Every time I pick him up he cries! He doesn’t want me to hold him, he’s afraid of me or just doesn’t like me or something,” Lipton nearly yells down the line, though his voice sounds tight and restrained. Luz figures Charlie is probably sleeping and Lip is attempting to not wake him up.
“Lip, babies cry,” Luz says, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he’s currently trying to talk Lipton down.
“I know that I know, but this is different. It’s as soon as I pick him up, whenever I hold him. He’d rather just stay in his crib than have me hold him.”
“Kids are picky, Lip. One day they don’t want you holding them, the next day they can’t stand being held by anyone else. It doesn’t mean anything, buddy, I promise.”
“Ya know, Ron and I, up until Charlie came, we’d been working on helping Ron get more comfortable with being around babies. I had no idea that it’d be me that we needed to worry about.”
Luz nods to himself, honestly surprised that it’s Lip that he’s having this conversation with instead of Ron.
“What’s Ron say about all this?”
“He doesn’t really seem to notice. I don’t know how to tell him that our son hates me.”
“Lip, Charlie doesn’t hate you. He’s a baby, he doesn’t even remember you exist when you’re not in front of him. It’s going to be fine.”
Luz talks Lip down for a few more minutes, assuring him that everything so far is normal. There’s a beep in his ear, signaling a call on the other line, he ignores it. But he does look at the time and realizes that he’s been talking to Lipton for longer than he’d thought, and class is almost halfway over. When he looks down at his phone, he realizes that missed called had been from Rose. He frowns for a moment but then gets back to focusing on Lipton.
“Listen, Lip. Talk to Ron, tell him how you’re feeling. I promise you’ll feel better,” Luz tells him.
Not that he knows that from personal experience, but he definitely knows he would have liked to have had someone there with him who was more of a teammate than what he’d had with Rose.
“You’re right. I will. Thanks, George, really.”
“Anytime, buddy. The perks of being the first friend to have a kid, I get to be the smart one for once.”
They hang up soon after and Luz looks down at his phone again to look at Rose’s name next to ‘Missed Call’.
While he’s happy she’s finally reaching out to him again, he’s just not in a place to talk to her. So, he decides to wait to call her back for another time, or day…or week.
As soon as George steps into the training room again, Julia walks up to him and starts talking rapidly, he’s not really comprehending her words before he’s looking around for Helena. He doesn’t see her at first in the group of other kids and his heart beat begins to pick up when his eye catches over in the corner of the room where Helena is sitting, crying into her knees.
George doesn’t spare another glance at Julia before rushing over to Helena, kneeling down in front of her and looking her over to make sure that she’s alright. She hiccups as she looks up at him, her lip wobbling.
“George,” he hears behind him, and he looks to see Joe standing there, having broken off from the class.
“You just kept the class going while she sat over here and cried?” George nearly yells.
“I would like to talk to Helena, but you needed to be here for that. She-“
“I need to be here for someone to sit with her while you all just continued on like nothing was wrong?”
He picks Helena up and carries her out of the room, only stopping to grab their bag. He knows that everyone is watching, but he doesn’t care, he’s furious.
Joe follows them out.
“She is five-years-old and you just left her crying by herself!”
“She’s not hurt,” Joe insists, trying to step in front of where George is walking.
George stops and leans back to look her over for a second. Her face is red and stained with tear tracks, but she’s stopped crying now and doesn’t look like she’s been injured in any way that he can tell. So, he sets her down on one of the chairs that line the hallway, before turning back to Joe.
“George, we need to talk-“
“What’d she do? Not listen exactly to your instructions? Look, I’m sorry that whatever I did upset you, but that’s no reason she shouldn’t be allowed –“
He cuts himself off when he sees the dark look that has overtaken Joe’s face. Those dark eyes look nearly black in response to George’s yelling. He nearly takes a step back, because that dangerous guy he’d seen before while watching Joe with the punching bag - the one he’d known was somewhere inside Joe - is right in front of him now, he never thought he’d see him look like this up close. He’s suddenly aware of how much damage Joe could do if pushed to it.
Just as quickly as they’ve darkened, Joe’s eyes fade back down, only now, it looks more like a wall has slammed down, and George has no idea what is going on behind them. After just a few seconds, Joe is the one that takes a few steps back.
“Mr. Luz, Helena hit another student in anger, so I had her sit off to the side until I could talk to both of you together.”
George scrunches his brow and looks back at her, sitting on her hands and looking sheepish as she sniffles through the ghost of her tears.
“As it is, you and I need to have a meeting about Helena continuing with us. Please call and make an appointment for the best time to meet. Ideally, before next Thursday.”
Joe’s eyes flicker over to Helena, and for a moment they look softer than they just had. Then he turns and heads back towards the classroom, not sparing a second glance toward George.
Thanks for reading!
Helena and George talk, Rose and George talk, and Joe and George have their meeting
George carries Helena out of the training center on numb legs. Her arms are wrapped around his neck tight, as she continues to sniffle.
Once he has her in the car he sighs and makes her meet his eyes.
“Len, did you hit someone?” he asks her, not that he doesn’t believe Joe, but maybe she has an explanation other than anger making her lash out.
Maybe she’d been play fighting and took it too far, maybe she’d thought they were sparring. Though he knows he’s ignoring the fact that something is wrong and has been wrong all week. He’s known and done nothing, and now she’s acted out in a way he’d never expected her to.
Instead of answering, her eyes begin watering again and her lip starts to quiver, he’s able to keep the tears at bay, stroking her hair and telling her not to be upset.
She calms down enough that he figures that is the best they can do for now and decides to just get home.
They’re halfway home when she suddenly has another outburst.
“M-master T-Toye h-h-hates me!” she nearly screams.
He winces a little at the volume before assuring her that Joe doesn’t hate her.
“He hates me,” she insists and begins another bout of sobbing.
All he can do is grit his teeth through the sound of her tears and keep driving.
He knows how she feels.
That night is hard, she doesn’t cry again, but she’s exhausted from her emotional afternoon and falls asleep at the dinner table having barely touched her food. He carries her to bed, and she only wakes up enough to help him put on her pajamas before she’s out for the night.
He lays in bed that night, contemplating what he needs to do next. He needs to figure out what is going on with her, to sit her down and really get it out of her, maybe talk to her teacher and see if there have been any problems that he hasn’t been informed of.
The thought of pulling her out of school, trying again next year, passes through his head. It had been something he’d been contemplating waiting on at the beginning of the year before he’d signed her up for Taekwondo and she became much better behaved.
She’s young enough to be on the cusp and she wouldn’t be any older than most of her classmates if she started next year, at the moment she’s one of the youngest in her class. He reasons that she’s only been there a week, it wouldn’t be much of a change for her to just stop going again.
But then he thinks about all the good things she has told him about Kindergarten already. Other than the friends she may or may not have, she seems to be enjoying the learning aspects of school, and he’s not about to take that away from her just because he’s worried about her social life.
And then there’s Joe and her Taekwondo class. She’ll be devastated if she gets kicked out.
He sighs and shoves his head against his pillow, there’s nothing he can do about it tonight, and there’s nothing that’s going to be solved by lying in bed and worrying.
That doesn’t stop him from doing that all night.
The next morning he considers letting Helena stay home sick. Only, when he walks into her room she’s dressed and getting ready to go, seemingly much more content after a good night’s rest. Once again, George is jealous of her ability to start a new day fresh and undisturbed from the previous day. Also, that she had been able to sleep.
When he drops her off at school he is able to pull her teacher aside before she is distracted by another parent or kid.
“Has Helena been doing ok? With the other kids, I mean?”
Helena’s teacher smiles. “Oh, yes, I’d say Helena is probably the most popular kid in the class. She has a tendency to yell out jokes or speak without being called on from time to time, but nothing that’s too disruptive, and otherwise she’s very well-behaved and eager to participate.”
Though she seems a little like she’s using practiced phrases that she probably uses on a lot of her students, the sentiment behind them doesn’t seem fake. And that is honestly surprising to him. He’d thought her teacher would tell him something about how she has been shy and keeping to herself, or maybe that her constant joking has turned some of the kids off.
He looks over at where Helena is sitting, not talking to the other little girl that is sitting next to her. The girl seems preoccupied with coloring, and Helena seems to just be watching intently.
“So, she hasn’t been having trouble getting along with anyone?” he asks, looking back at her teacher.
Almost as soon as he asks that he hears a small group of kids yell Helena’s name, and gather around where she’s sitting. Helena smiles up at them and starts chattering away as he’s used to seeing, though he can’t hear a word of what she’s saying over the noise of the classroom.
“No problems that I’ve noticed, no, has she mentioned something to you about a problem?” her teacher asks, looking concerned.
Luz shakes his head. “No, no she hasn’t mentioned anything.”
That night, he sits Helena down to talk.
“Lenny, is there a reason you haven’t told me about any of your friends from school?”
Her eyes widen a little at the question before shrugging and looking away.
“No, Len, I really want to talk about this. Your teacher told me you were getting along with all your classmates, but you haven’t told me anything about them. Is something wrong?”
Helena doesn’t look up at him but she mumbles out words he can’t understand.
“I said not all,” she says, elongating her words and pouting for having to repeat herself.
“Is someone being mean to you?”
She huffs and shakes her head.
He waits a moment, and that’s long enough for her to speak again.
“Except…Chloe doesn’t like me!” she exclaims, throwing her arms up in the air.
“She sits next to me and she doesn’t like me.”
“How do you know she doesn’t like you?” he asks.
She sighs dramatic and long suffering as always. “She never talks to me. All day I try to talk to her and she never talks back. She just colors and ignores me.”
“Maybe she’s shy,” he offers. “Does she talk to the other kids?”
“No, not really.”
He kind of can’t help the small grin that forms across his face, leave it to Helena to be upset that she hasn’t made friends with every single person in the room.
“It sounds like she’s just shy, Len. I doubt she doesn’t like you.”
That seems to perk her up some. “Really? How do I stop her from being shy?”
He knows he has no one to blame but himself for passing on the gene that makes Helena believe that shyness is just an inconvenience that can be fixed through overwhelming another person with friendship.
“You can’t, but you can just be nice to her, talk to her about things she likes. Maybe you two can color together.”
She gasps and her eyes light up. “I can share my big box of crayons with her! She’s only got the small box. I have way more colors we can share.”
“See, I’m sure she’ll like that.”
There’s a restlessness to her now that she has a plan, and he can tell that she can’t wait for Monday to come so that she can try out her crayon sharing idea. Before she can run off though he puts a hand on her shoulder to keep her sitting.
“We still need to talk about what happened yesterday,” he tells her.
She ducks her head, and for a moment he’s afraid she’s going to cry again, instead she just looks sheepish.
“Can you tell me why you hit one of your classmates?”
“He was in my way,” she says, her voice softer than before.
“What does that mean?”
She scowls and crosses her arms.
“Helena,” he says, voice stern.
“Master Toye put him in front of me and moved me to the second row. Even though he was new and didn’t know what he was doing.”
George narrows his eyes, as he thinks that over.
“You know that the more experienced kids are in the back, Len. That’s a good thing, it means Master Toye thinks you’re improving.”
She doesn’t uncross her arms or remove the scowl from her face.
“But I raised my hand when Master Toye asked for help and my hand went up way before his and Master Toye called on him anyway!”
George frowns. “Len, Master Toye let you help your first day too, remember?”
Her arms and pursed lips loosen slightly. “Yes.”
He sighs and shakes his head. “Even if that wasn’t the case, that’s no reason to hit someone else. No matter how mad you are, violence isn’t how you handle your problems. I know that you know that.”
She nods and lowers her head again. “I won’t do it again, I promise.”
He knows she means it, probably regretted it the moment she did it, so unless it happens again he’s not too worried about her having a problem with her anger.
“Does Master Toye hate me now?” she asks, voice small and sad, clearly a worry that she has clung to since yesterday.
“No, I promise he doesn’t hate you, Len,” he tells her with complete certainty.
He’s a little less sure of Joe’s feelings toward him though.
Once Helena is asleep, he decides to call Rose. He’s too keyed up to sleep and knows that if there’s anything that could keep his mind off Joe it is her.
She answers the phone softly, hesitant sounding, clearly having seen his name on her caller ID.
“So…why’d you call?”
She sighs on the other end.
“Can we get together soon? I’d really like to talk to you in person.”
His stomach clenches at that, conversations that need to happen in person are rarely good.
“Rose, I don’t -“
“Please, Georgie, just the two of us. It’s important.”
He shakes his head, wanting to tell her that this isn’t who they are anymore. But he can’t, probably will never be able to do that, and at least it won’t involve Helena, and he doesn’t have to take that into consideration.
“Yeah,” he finally says after they sit in silence for a long minute. “Ok.”
He drops Helena off at Perconte’s place on Sunday night before he makes his way to the restaurant he and Rose had agreed on.
She greets him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, but it’s much less enthusiastic than usual. In fact, she looks nervous, her hands scratching at the table cloth, and straightening the knife and fork on her side even though they’re already completely straight, as she’s done it at least ten times.
“What’s up, Rosie?” he finally asks, after they’ve placed their orders and have made stilted conversation.
She takes a deep breath and looks up at him.
“I’m getting married.”
It’s a shock, for sure, and not at all what he’d been expecting her to say. He does a quick gut check to know that what he wants to say next is completely real.
“That’s great, Rose, congratulations.”
“Yeah?” she asks, looking scared like she’s been afraid he would throw a fit.
The thought of that nearly makes him laugh.
“Of course,” he assures her.
As much as he does still love Rose, the parts he misses about her are the fact that she was his best friend, not his girlfriend.
She clears her throat and sits up a little straighter.
“And…we’re…I-I’m moving. Out of state.”
He has enough time to let that sink in as the waiter brings them their drinks.
By the time they’re alone again, all he’s been able to come up with is, “Oh.”
She grimaces. “He got a job in Washington, and we’re moving in two weeks.”
He nods, to let her know he understands, but for some reason, this has him a little lost for words.
“I was going to tell you sooner, George. The water park thing? I wanted us to all have a day together, and then I was going to tell you that night. But then I fucked everything up and-“
“No, I did, I know I did. And that just…it just reminded me that I’m not a part of you two anymore. Me leaving isn’t going to have any impact on your lives at all.”
He frowns and reaches across the table to hold her hand.
“That’s not true, Rose.”
“Really? How will me not being in the state change Helena’s life at all? I’m already not ever around, I may as well already be in a different state as far as she’s concerned.”
Her voice isn’t bitter, or even sad. It’s matter-of-fact, and he can tell she’s been practicing this speech.
She continues. “I did this, I made the choice to leave and I made the choice to not put more effort into caring for her. I’ve been talking a lot with my therapist about all this lately, and she’s really been helping me figure some of this out.”
He goes to protest, though she’s not wrong, she just shakes her head and continues.
“I know that you blame yourself for all of this, George. But that’s not fair, you didn’t force me to do anything. You didn’t manipulate or trick me into having her and keeping her. I know that you think that, but you didn’t.”
He leans back in his seat, releasing her hand as he moves. They stare across the table at each other as their food is set out in front of them.
Instead of saying anything else, she looks down at her food and digs in. He doesn’t feel hungry at all.
When she notices him just sitting there, staring at the table, she sighs and sets her fork down.
He looks up at her, meeting her eyes.
“Are you happy?” she asks.
She quirks an eyebrow. “That’s a pretty straight forward question.”
“I-of course I’m happy,” he says, knowing that she means in life, and not just in his present circumstance.
She narrows her eyes, clearly not believing him, but she just says, “Good, I’m glad. You deserve it.”
He doesn’t respond, but he’s sure his inclination to disagree is probably not a good thing.
“You don’t have to send me those emails anymore,” she tells him.
“You don’t want any contact at all?”
“No, Georgie, that’s not it. Please email and call whenever you want, you know I love talking to you. But…I want you and Helena to…I want you to have a life, not one that’s dragged down by the reminder that I’m over here but not with you.”
He nods and pushes the food around his plate. He knows that this is what he’s been told needs to happen, but having Rose finally be the one to say it feels a little like a kick to the stomach.
“I love you both, you know I do. But I think it’s time that we acknowledge that I’m not a part of your family.”
The rest of dinner is quiet, with Rose attempting to make conversation here and there, George tries to keep up, but his mind is a little too preoccupied for more than just the occasional ‘uh huh's’ and ‘sures’.
When they walk out of the restaurant she stops him and frowns.
“Are you mad at me?” she asks and squeezes his arm.
He shakes his head. “No, Rosie, I’m happy for you, really.”
She pulls him into a strong hug and after a moment he wraps his arms around her.
“I meant what I said, George,” she says into his hair. “You deserve to be happy.”
He lays awake that night replaying her words over and over again.
George is able to make an appointment with the receptionist at the training center for Wednesday afternoon. The irony is not lost on him. He’s not sure he’d have had the guts to meet Joe at the gym then anyway. Mostly due to the fact that he doesn’t want to know if Joe would have come or not, he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t have. That thought sets a tightness in his throat as he makes his way over to the training center.
The door to Joe’s office is open and Luz can see Joe at a cluttered desk reading something on his computer and drumming a pencil lightly against his fingers. Luz takes a deep breath before rapping his knuckles on the door to get Joe’s attention.
Joe looks up and over and his face is still as unreadable as it had been last week. His eyes, Luz can’t help but notice, don’t look deep and dark like he’s used to, they look dull and closed off and the fact that he has no idea what Joe is feeling in this moment is more distressing than if he would just look angry.
“Come in,” Joe says, his voice neutral, polite. Luz recognizes it from when they first met.
He walks into the office and takes a seat at the desk. Luz feels like he’s a kid again, being sent to the principal’s office for one thing or another. Only, when he was a kid, he never felt this nervous or concerned by what the person on the other side of the desk felt about him.
“So, I guess the first thing you’d like to know is that Tyler’s parents aren’t going to file an official complaint. They had just been auditing the class and have decided it’s not for him,” Joe tells him, and while that hadn’t been Luz’s main concern coming here today, it definitely is a small weight off his shoulders.
“Right,” is all he’s able to get out before his throat closes up a little again.
“Without that concern, I would like Helena to continue with the class if that’s what the two of you want.”
“Really?” he asks but doesn’t wait for Joe to repeat himself, as the main worry of Helena not getting to continue is off the table. “Yes, of course, she loves the class. She’d be devastated if she had to stop.”
Joe nods. “I would like to talk to the both of you about why she used violence in the first place. I don’t tolerate the use of violence for any reason than self-defense. If she does it again, regardless of the other parent’s wishes, I will have to remove her from my class.”
He turns his eyes away as he says this last point and Luz really wishes he could see what emotion he’s hiding, or if he’s even hiding one at all.
“She won’t, Joe, I promise.”
Joe looks back up at him, and there’s a faint hint of something behind his eyes, Luz can’t tell if it’s annoyance or anger, but he doesn’t care, because it feels like a step in the right direction.
“She’s been having a hard time adjusting to Kindergarten,” Luz tells him, and Joe’s eyebrows furrow for just a moment before he steels his expression back to business-like, but it’s enough for Luz to keep going.
“I guess...she wasn't able to make everyone her friend immediately, and it’s the first time that she’s ever had to deal with that and I guess when you paid more attention to…Tyler?” Luz cuts off for a moment and Joe nods to let him know that he got the kid’s name right. “When you paid more attention to Tyler she…she was jealous, Joe, she thought you didn’t like her anymore. And with all of that together, I guess she just lashed out.”
Joe doesn’t even try to hide his frown this time and Luz rushes to assure him.
“I talked to her though and explained that no matter how she feels that hitting someone else is never the way to deal with it. I should have talked to her before that, shouldn’t have let it get to that point.”
Luz shakes his head at himself, he’d known something was wrong, he’d just never believed she’d ever react that way. It really is his fault that this happened.
Joe looks like he wants to say something, even parts his lips in a way that Luz thinks he’s going to speak. Instead, he just lets out a breath and sits back a little more in his chair and nods.
“Well, then she is welcome to join us again tomorrow,” Joe finally says after a long stretch of silence between them.
Luz nods. “Ok, great, thank you, Joe.”
He tries to meet Joe’s eyes, tries to connect again with the guy who he’s come to know as a friend over these past several weeks, but Joe just keeps his eyes averted.
Joe clears his throat and looks past Luz’s shoulder. “That’ll be all, thank you for coming in to talk to me, Mr. Luz.”
His use of Luz’s surname again is just another blow to his chest, as though nothing he’s said today has made any difference on Joe’s feelings about this situation or him.
He stands and turns toward the door, trying to swallow and dampen the burning in his chest. He’s almost to the door when the nerve to speak comes back to him.
“Look, Joe, I’m sorry that I yelled and that I accused you of leaving Helena to sit alone. She’s my daughter, and when she cries I basically go on autopilot and want to attack anyone that I think may have hurt her,” he explains, turning back to look at Joe. Nearly pleading for Joe to understand, to forgive him, to look at him with any sort of emotion, to never call him Mr. Luz again.
He does get one of his wishes, as Joe’s eyes flash with the same anger he had seen last week, and Luz would be worried again if he didn’t feel so relieved to see some life in Joe’s eyes.
“I have been teaching kids for over five years, do you really think I’ve never been yelled at by a parent or been told I was too demanding or that I was lying when their child did something wrong? I don't care that you wanted an explanation for why Helena was in trouble.” Joe says and slowly stands from his chair.
Luz doesn’t know what to say, and he can feel his heart beating in his ears from the look that Joe is giving him right now.
“Then what, Joe? What did I do to make you so mad at me? I’m sorry, whatever it is, I’m sorry.”
Joe slams his hand on his desk, hard enough to make Luz jump at the sound.
“You wanna know why I’m so fucking mad, George?”
His eyes widen. “I-“
“That you think I would ever use my feelings for you against her like that. That you think I’m so fucking petty that I would punish Helena because you aren’t interested in me. That you think I could do that to her, that’s what the fuck I’m so mad about.”
Luz doesn’t know what he’s more stunned by, Joe’s outburst or his words.
There’s a ringing in his ears and his face feels hotter than it had before.
“Joe…” he starts, but there are no words coming to him at the moment, nothing he can think of to make this better.
After a minute of silence between them, Joe’s shoulders fall, the anger seeping out of his eyes and his stance and now he just seems tired, worn and done with this.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Joe says again, his voice flat as he sits back down and turns to his computer, letting Luz know he’s no longer welcome.
Luz nods and tries to swallow against the lump in his throat.
He tries not let the heat on his skin get to him, tries to ignore the slight stinging in his cheeks as he fights against the frown that wants to form. His feet drag as he makes his way back out to his car. The ache forming in his chest reminding him that this is all his fault.
This was the thing he’d been trying to avoid when he’d first turned Joe down because he had been afraid that something would happen to make it too hard to see Joe every week. Somehow, he’d just made everything worse by doing that.
He’s almost to his car when Rose’s words from the other night play through his head. He’s not so sure he deserves happiness, as he’s so hell-bent on ruining any that may come his way.
The realization that he’s just been sabotaging himself this whole time causes a spike of anger to run through his veins. He’s the one who has been holding himself back, not Helena, not Rose, only him. Punishing himself for who he used to be.
He'd used the excuse in his mind that if something happened between them it would ruin Helena's time with Taekwondo. Only, Joe was already rejected by George once before and he hadn’t treated Helena any different then. He somehow had a guy like Joe develop feelings for him and his belief that he didn’t deserve that had held him back.
Used to, his mind supplies, Joe used to have feelings for him. There’s no way after all this he still would.
Luz’s feet are moving before his brain has even figured out what he’s doing, and he’s back at Joe’s office without any plan as to what he wants to say.
He doesn’t bother knocking this time, instead, he walks through the threshold and closes the door behind him.
Joe looks up at the sound but isn’t over his surprise before Luz speaks.
“I’m sorry,” he starts, and that just makes Joe sag his shoulders even more.
“Please don’t call me Mr. Luz again, please.”
Luz takes the few short steps from the door to the desk and Joe eyes him warily.
“I am sorry, I’m sorry that I haven’t trusted you.”
That makes Joe’s eyebrows raise in question.
“I kept using this belief that if something bad happened between us she’d be the one that got hurt,” he tries to explain, but his mind feels scrambled and he’s running on adrenaline at this point, he can feel it zipping through his veins, keeping him standing there, instead of running away, which is what his brain is screaming at him to do.
“But that’s not fair to you, you’ve only been good to her, and she looks up to you so much, Joe. And in trying to keep all of that, I managed to just fuck everything up.”
Joe stands, probably to lead him out of his office again, but Luz keeps talking, because he needs Joe to know, even if it’s too late, everything is bad now anyway, so he may as well just get it all out.
“I’m sorry that I said no when you asked me out. I’ve regretted it every day since it happened. And I’m sorry that you’ve wasted so much fucking time just trying to be my friend when I’ve been acting like I’m still trying to decide if you’re worthy enough or something. When of course you are, that’s not even a question. I’m the one who’s been an asshole here. And, Jesus, you’ve got guys like Eric who you can date, and I’m just -“
He’s cut off by Joe gripping the sides of his face, he only gives Luz a moment to understand what he’s doing before their lips meet.
Luz, even with his slight warning, still gasps a little into the kiss, and his chest feels like it might burst from the way his heart is racing.
The kiss isn’t deep, but it’s hard, and Joe’s fingers dig into his skin enough that Luz can feel the desperation, feel just how long he’s been waiting to do this.
Joe starts to pull away, maybe to talk, maybe to smile and tell him ‘it’s about time’, Luz doesn’t know and doesn’t allow any of that to happen.
He nearly whines as he winds his arms around Joe’s neck to keep him in place, biting and licking at his lips until Joe lets him in. His mouth is hot and his grip is hard, and Luz just wants more of it. He feels himself moving without even realizing he’s decided to, pushing Joe backward until he hits the wall.
The rough treatment doesn’t seem to bother Joe at all, who he can feel smile against his lips before moving his hands from Luz’s face down to his hips and pushes him back a few steps before Luz can feel the edge of the desk.
He releases Joe, pulling away just enough to have both of them panting against the other’s cheek. Joe’s eyes are dark and smoldering and the heat he’s been feeling growing on his skin just gets hotter and his already racing heart just beats harder. Joe’s lips look red and bruised and he has to swallow some kind of undignified noise at knowing he’s the one who did that to them.
Luz moves back and maneuvers himself enough to sit on Joe’s desk, a brief flash of knocking everything off the desk like they do in movies crosses through his mind, but that feels like too much work at the moment. Instead, he just puts a hand on Joe’s neck again and pulls him back into another kiss.
Joe kisses back for a moment but keeps it lighter than Luz is going for, moves to kiss the side of his mouth, his cheek, his temple, and Luz whines at the lighter touches. He can feel Joe’s noiseless chuckle against his skin before Joe pulls back, a bigger smile on his face than he thinks he’s ever seen.
“We can’t do this here,” Joe says, amusement lacing his somewhat breathier than usual voice.
That makes Luz pause on his tugging and whining and he remembers where they are.
They share a look before Luz laughs too. He leans forward, pressing his forehead to Joe’s shoulder to catch his breath.
He feels Joe’s hand cup the back of his neck, and a soft pressure to his head that he’s sure is another kiss, and he can’t help the smile that he presses into Joe’s neck.
Aaaaah, I've been working to this moment for a while, I hope it somewhat lived up to all the pain I put you all through these last few weeks. It's not over, we still have a couple chapters left.
Also, for next Saturday. I am going to be out of town hidden away in the woods with no computer access, so I am not going to be able to get the next chapter out on Saturday. And I really don't want to promise that I'll have the next chapter done by Friday to post Friday morning before I leave. I'm getting back Sunday, so I will hopefully have it up Sunday night, or Monday afternoon at the latest. At least I'm leaving you on a good cliff-hanger instead of a bad one, yeah??
Thank you so much for reading!!