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23 Days

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David hasn't opened Tinder in weeks. He'd gotten it to appease his mother, who'd discovered it from her students and was convinced it was the cure for his relationship problems.

Not that he has any. Problems, that is. He'd have to have relationships to have relationship problems. And he finds relationships less interesting than camping, anyway.

But Bonquisha is interesting. Vibrant and a little vulgar, but it's oddly endearing. She's so confident, unflappable, fun. She teases him, and he's surprised how much he likes being made fun of by her.

It's his first Tinder date.

He thinks he'd like another.

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"What're you nervous about?" Gwen asks, lounging on his bed as he searches for clothes that aren't his camp uniform.

David isn't sure. Bonquisha already likes him. She asked for another date. Heck, another date the very next day! That's a good sign, right? It must be.

But he can't help it: he's an anxious person. It's one of the things that makes Bonquisha so intriguing to him, how she seems to power-drive through problems without fear. "What's the point in worrying?" she told him on their first date. "Doesn't change anything."

She's right. Gwen's right.

But David's anxious anyway.

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Bonquisha texts at 11:37. He ignores it because he's supervising Swimming Camp.

At 11:40 he pulls out his phone: "howre the kids? that blond bitch making trouble agin?" David smiles, reminds her Tabii isn't his camper. He doesn't mention that Bon was the one causing the most trouble.

11:43. "swimming? u in a speedo? ;)" He blushes and pockets the phone.

11:47. He tells her he's not sharing. She’ll have to guess.

11:50. "naw u'll tell me i have ways"

11:52. He's sure she's right.

11:55. Gwen swears if he doesn't stop texting she'll throw his phone in the lake.

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"You don't haveta tell me he's a shit. I know, remember?"

David sighs. "Max is a good kid. I just wish I could get through to him!"

"Tried video games?"

He hasn't — he wants outdoorsy activities — but he's getting desperate. "Maybe . . ."

Even over their terrible reception, Bonquisha's laugh is explosive and sunny. "Who doesn't love a lil violence anyway? Good for the soul."

"Th-that's not true!" he splutters, but there's a smile on his face.

"You'll get it. Ain't the type to give up, are ya?"

She sounds so confident, like she believes in him.

It's unfamiliar.

He likes it.

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When he asks where she's from, she says she's never been anywhere worth remembering. She gestures around the bar with a laugh and asks if anyone winds up in Sleepy Peak unless something in their life went seriously wrong.

David thinks about his small apartment shared with only his pet plant. His mom with her early graying hair and deep lines around her eyes and mouth. The last birthday card he received from his father wishing him a happy 20th — that arrived a few weeks ago.

He shrugs and says she could be right about that, then drops the subject.

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On their third official date David finds the courage to ask for a kiss. Bonquisha stares at him for so long that he starts to panic, think he's really screwed things up by moving too fast. So when she grabs him by the back of the neck and pulls him toward her, he nearly falls on his face.

Still, she's . . . gentler than he'd expected. Sweeter. Like she thinks he's fragile, or skittish — and he supposes he is, comparatively.

Her touch is soft and warm and instantly addictive, and he doesn't have to ask to kiss her again, so he doesn't.

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"Who cares bout being liked?" she asks, toying with his bangs. "That's easy -- the guys at work like me, everyone I ever dated liked me. Doesn't mean a damn thing." She pulls him more snugly against her, wrapping her arms around his chest and resting her chin on his head. "Wouldn't mind bein respected, though."

"What about admiration? That's like being respected and liked!"

Bonquisha shrugs, laughing. "Guess I wouldn't complain."

David tilts his head back to meet her eyes, his voice softening. He wants her to believe him. "I admire you, Bonquisha."

She smiles, kissing his temple. "Thanks, beanpole."

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"Gifts? Already?" Gwen's sprawled on his bed, watching as he carefully lays a roll of wrapping paper out on the floor.

He shrugs. "Oh, nothing special! BonBon just said she'd never gotten a present from a partner, so I thought . . ."

"David." The seriousness in her voice makes him look up. "You're not moving too fast, are you? I know how you get, and I don't want you to get your hopes up too soon or anything."

He beams. "No need to worry! I'll be fine."

Gwen looks like she wants to say something, but stays quiet and lets him work.

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“It’s unprofessional!”

Bonquisha frowns, watching him pace. “Who cares? Y’still won, right?”

David pauses, feeling the rush of pride and disappointment that comes from thinking about the Camporee. “Well of course we did. But it’s still harassment!”

She snorts. “Sounds like good tv.”

He gives her a tenderly exasperated look. “You’re as bad as Gwen.”

The amusement drops from her face, and she looks away. “No kidding,” she mutters, flinty, bitter. “That mean you’d be this mad if that Woodscout twerp ‘harassed’ me?”

It takes a second. “Bon-Bon . . . are you jealous?”

She turns those beautiful cat eyes on him. “Are you?”

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He’s sorry, and he tells her. She says it’s okay. “I can’t stay mad at you, stringbean.”

The next day he brings her flowers; she softens a bit more.

He writes her a song and she tells him he’s crazy, but she’s laughing and she wraps him in a hug that lifts him off the ground. (He doesn’t mention it was Gwen’s idea.)

He’s sorry, and he wishes he could fix whatever makes her face darken when she thinks he isn’t looking.

He wishes he knew exactly what he did wrong, but he’s never been good at not hurting people.

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He tries to keep Bonquisha from seeing his injuries. Bon is made of iron and fire, and he doesn’t want her to know how pathetically squishy he is in comparison.

But when she discovers a roadburn scrape across his shoulder blades, she doesn’t laugh or look annoyed. She listens to him tell her about being dragged on his back by three troublemakers in a golf cart, then squeezes his sides and says, “String beans bruise easy, Dave. Be careful.”

And she kisses him just above the scratch, at the nape of his neck, and he doesn’t feel pathetic at all.

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David didn't think being a gentleman could hurt anyone. But when Bonquisha pulls away, muttering that she doesn't need this, she'll find someone who wants to fuck her if he doesn't . . . he realizes his mistake.

He wants to go slow. He wants to be a gentleman. He wants to respect her boundaries — and his own.

But he certainly doesn't want her to feel like she isn't beautiful.

It's the first hint of vulnerability he's seen from her, and he feels awful but he's relieved that she's human too, made of anxieties and doubts and flesh and blood like he is.

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She's human, all right. He has no doubt about that anymore.

She's larger than life and braver than anyone that's ever existed, but David's gotten close enough to see the mechanisms and there's nothing robotic about her, no creaking gears or hard metal. She's entirely human, all flesh and blood and nerve endings and life , and David finds himself falling for every inch of humanity he uncovers, every gasp and sigh and breathless praise that sets him on fire and makes his fingers shake.

Bonquisha couldn't be more human.

Of that, he's very sure.