Alanna already wasn't sure about senior year.
She's had a great summer vacation--three months of hanging out with her new boyfriend and her other friends, working for Myles and at the coffee shop, and getting back into martial arts. It's been fun and easy, and no one since Liam has made a big deal about her dad and her being disowned and all that stuff.
Except for all the Facebook messages she's been ignoring from random acquaintances about what they read about her father, and her disowning, and is she a crossdresser now?
"And once everyone's back at school, I won't be able to just ignore it," she tells George, sighing. "They'll be here to ask."
"I'd tell you to just ignore them," he says. "But I know how good you are at ignorin' people who piss you off."
That gets a smile out of her. "Yeah, not really my specialty, huh?"
He kisses her temple. "You've got other talents."
She bites her lip, looking at him. It's not really the best way to bring it up, but she doesn't have a best way to bring it up. "Myles did give me another option."
He tastes the sauce he's making. "Another option for what?"
He turns around, giving her an assessing look. "Instead of classes?"
She swings her legs, looking down at the floor. "He's on sabbatical this year. Going abroad to work with an archaeological dig in Turkey." George is still watching her, steady, and Alanna knows he can tell where this is going. "He put in for a grant to bring some students with him, he didn't think it was going to come through."
"But it did," George supplies. She can't read his voice at all, and she suddenly can't stand being so far away. She slides off the counter top and crosses over to lean against him. His arms come up around her, but it feels a little slow.
"It did," she says. "I only just found out. It's not like I just want to avoid everyone. It's an amazing opportunity, once-in-a-lifetime."
"You want to go."
"No," says Alanna. "Yes. I want to go there during the day and come back home every night, but I'm pretty sure we don't have the technology for that to work."
She hears him snort softly, amused, and she holds him tighter. "I'm not goin' to tell you not to go," he says. "You know I'm not."
"I know," says Alanna. "But you don't want me to."
He pulls back to meet her eyes, considering. "Darlin', you know I don't want to see you leave, but I'm never goin' to tell you not to do somethin' you want to do for my sake."
"I don't even know if I want to," she says, sighing. "It would be amazing, but--" she laughs. "My father wouldn't pay for me to do study abroad. I was really down about it, until I started having fun going out with Jon and the rest of these guys."
"'Til you met me," George supplies, smug.
"'Til I met you."
"But you still wish you'd gone."
"No, but--it would be really cool."
The timer goes and George starts taking food off the stove. "The whole year?" he asks, soft.
"A break for Christmas," she says. "But yeah, the whole school year."
"I'd miss the hell out of you," he says honestly. "But if you want to go, you should go."
"I haven't decided yet," she says. "This time last year, it would have been--I'd have gone in a second." She brings food out to the table. "You'd have to take Faithful."
"I don't mind takin' Faithful. We'll keep each other company."
"You'd have to get a computer. Thom could give you one."
"Why do I need a computer?"
"So we could Skype. And email. And you could like all my posts on Facebook."
"Alright, Thom can give me a computer. But I'm not gettin' on Facebook. There's things I won't do even for you, darlin'."
She looks at him sharply. "You know, I'm keeping this hypothetical."
George's smile half breaks her heart. "I know you are."
"The whole year?" Daine asks.
"I know," says Alanna. "It's--amazing. A completely unbelievable opportunity. I'd get to explore ancient ruins. It's an extension of the work I'm already doing with Myles. I'd make all these connections. I wouldn't have to deal with all this stupid fallout with people I don't know and will never see again." She sighs. "And I'll be away from my boyfriend for three times as long as we've been dating."
"Yeah," Daine agrees. She takes a drink of coffee. "I'd miss you," she offers.
Alanna grins. "I'd miss you too. And Numair. Everyone."
"What about Faithful?"
"George would take care of him."
Daine nods. She doesn't look particularly pleased. "I suppose if it was--I don't know. If it was a chance to study the species of the Amazon, or something like that, I'd want to go too. It's a big opportunity."
"It is," says Alanna. "At the same time, it's not--" she runs her hand through her hair. "I still don't know what I want to do, or who I want to be. So taking nine months to go and do something that might not ever matter for the rest of my life is--"
"What you're supposed to do in college?" Daine offers.
Alanna laughs. "I guess it is."
"It seems to me, if you weren't dating George, you'd go."
"Yeah, I would."
"And if you broke up with George, you'd probably regret not going."
Alanna frowns. "But if I broke up with George because I left, I'd regret that too. But I know what you mean. I always wanted to travel, and I still do, but--"
"But you want to come home to him."
She sighs. "Yeah, I want to come home to him."
"We're going to have to take care of each other."
George raises his eyebrows at Jon. He's trying not to think about it too much. He's happy for Alanna; he thinks she should go. He knows it's a great opportunity. He knows it's good. He knows that he'd feel awful if she didn't go because of him.
He's not sure it's possible to feel worse than the hollow ache that's taken up residence in his chest. Nine months. With a visit for Christmas in the middle, at least. But nine months of Alanna on the other side of the world already feels like someone pressing all the air out of his chest.
"How;s that goin' to work? Goin' to tuck me into bed?"
Jon's smile is horribly understanding. "We all know how much you're going to miss her. I'll buy you a ticket to Turkey any time you want. As many tickets to Turkey as you want. I could get you an apartment in Turkey. I'm disgustingly rich. This is within my powers."
George snorts. "Don't know what I'd do if I followed her to Turkey," he says. "But it's a nice offer."
"She hasn't said yes yet, right?"
"Almost makes it worse," he admits. "I know she wants to go, and I know I'm why she's not sure. I don't want to keep her here. I keep tellin' her." He's surprised when Jon knocks gently on the side of his head. "Ow. What?"
"Just checking if it's hollow," Jon says brightly. "She doesn't think you want to make her stay, dumbass. She doesn't want to leave you."
George blinks. It's not really anything he didn't know, but hearing Jon put it like that, it's so obvious. He smiles. "Thanks. I needed to hear that."
"Dumbass," Jon says again. "She's totally gone for you"
"She'll come back in nine months and still be totally gone for you."
"What, you don't think she's goin' to meet some hot Turkish guy and forget all about little old me?" George teases.
"Not for a second," says Jon, and George smiles.
"Yeah. Me either."
"Skype is already installed," says Thom. He's talking like he thinks George is five. Then again, five-year-old kids these days are probably better with computers with George is. He's never really needed one. He was hoping he'd never need one, but--well, it's Alanna. "It's this green thing. You click on it, and it already remembers your name and password. It will sign you in automatically. Just open it whenever you're supposed to be talking to Alanna. Her name will be there, and if it's green, it means she's online."
"So she's online now," says George. Alanna's back at their apartment, so he can get the full experience of how Skype works.
"Yes," says Thom. "So you just hit the phone icon to call her."
George does so, and Alanna's image appears. There's a little lag, but it would be nice, if he hadn't seen her in a while. It would be something. "Hey," she says. "Think you've got it?"
"Think so," he says. "Hey, darlin'. This could work. You could see Faithful too."
"It's not too bad."
"Please don't have this conversation with me here," Thom interjects. "I'm tech support, I don't want to see the kissy faces and the angst."
Alanna rolls her eyes. "Thanks, Thom. Does he have an email address too?"
"And a gchat account," George adds. "He says it came with my email."
"Oh my god, you sound like someone's grandmother," says Thom. "This is so depressing."
"Thanks, Thom," says Alanna. "George, I'll see you later. Thom, I'll call you."
"It's really okay if I take this?" George asks, looking at the laptop. Computers are expensive.
"Yeah, it's fine," says Thom, waving his hand. "I never use that one. It's a few years old, I got all the good parts out ages ago."
George shakes his head. "Well, thanks. I really appreciate it."
"You couldn't talk her out of it?"
The question is sharper than George expects, and he looks up, surprised. "I didn't try. If she wants to go, she should go. She knows how much I'll miss her. The rest is up to her. Did you try?"
"No," Thom says. He shrugs. "I don't see her that often anyway. But I don't like the idea of her being so far away."
"Yeah," says George. "But I wouldn't try to make her stay. Not for anythin'."
"I guess," says Thom. "Well, tell her I'll miss her. Has she made up her mind to go?"
George takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He's going to have to get used to saying it. "Yeah. She's really goin'."
The party for Alanna is at the end of August, at the Dancing Dove. It's small, almost a quadruple date, since it's just her and George, Jon and Raoul, Numair and Daine, and Thayet and Buri. They toast (except for Daine, and Numair, who abstains in solidarity) and laugh and Jon spends most of the night clinging to her and asking how often he's allowed to visit Turkey.
"I could just come for the weekends! And make sure you're okay!"
"It's like a ten-hour flight," Alanna observes. "And that just gets you to Istanbul. So you'd probably have an hour to hang out before you had to go back to the airport."
George is quiet, not drinking much and sticking close to her, a warm presence at her back. Alanna stays just as close. She can imagine taking a twenty-plus-hour round trip to get a few hours with him, but she couldn't afford it. And it's silly.
"Skype as much as we can," she tells him, finding his hand and squeezing it.
He kisses her temple. "You're goin' to have a great time. And I'm goin' to be here when you get back. Jon'll take care of me."
"Not reassuring. Did I ever tell you about that time Jon got a goldfish?"
"I saved that goldfish," Raoul interjects.
"You took it down to the pond and told it to be free."
"And as far as we know, it's still free."
"As far as we know, it was already dead."
George squeezes Alanna's hand. "Jon's not gonna kill me and dump my body in a pond."
"And if he does, you know he'll send you a snapchat so you can share the moment," Buri points out.
"I'll take care of George," Numair says. "I'm very responsible. I'll feed him every day and talk him for walks."
"And I'll take care of both of them," says Daine.
"I'll take care of Jon and Raoul," Thayet volunteers. "In your absence."
Alanna laughs. "You can try. But thanks."
She's leaving in the morning, flying out with Myles and a couple other students, so they don't make it too late a night. She hugs everyone except for George, and Jon keeps coming back for more hugs, until Raoul and Thayet--taking her new responsibilities seriously--drag him away with consoling shoulder pats.
"I'm trusting you with George and Numair," Alanna tells Daine. "And Faithful, if George has any problems with him."
"I know," says Daine, sniffling. "And you'll be back for Christmas?"
"Yeah," says Alanna. She reaches up to ruffle Daine's hair. "I'll be back before you know it."
Finally it's just her and George, heading upstairs. She can deal with everything else, leaving everyone but him. "What happened?" she asks, when she sees him looking at her.
"You got more okay with this." It's been hurting, a little. She knows it's stupid. She should be glad he seems alright, but it just makes her worry.
George kisses her temple. "Jon helped."
"I know, it was a surprise for me too. I thought you didn't want to leave 'cause I didn't want you to. Helped a lot when he said you didn't want to leave me."
"That was it, right? Jon wasn't lyin' to me?"
"No, he's right. I would have told you, but I thought you knew." She squeezes him. "Leaving all you guys sucks. Leaving you is the worst."
"I know. But you'll have a great time. You'll get to do all kinds of important things. I'm proud of you."
"I'm not sure how important it is, in the grand scheme of things. But it'll be cool. I'm looking forward to it." She tugs him onto the couch. "You want to watch Netflix or something?"
He snorts. "You know Jon says watchin' Netflix is always just code for sex?"
"Jon thinks everything is code for sex. One time we got drunk and played a game called Things Jon Conte Can Make Into a Euphemism for Sex. It turns out the answer is everything."
George laughs softly. "I would love to watch Netflix."
"And have sex after."
"Well, of course," he says, pulling her into his lap. "Goes without sayin'."
Eleni drives them to the airport. Alanna tried to object, saying she could go with Myles and the others, but Eleni wouldn't hear of it.
"I've already got Daine and Numair taking care of him, but you will too, right?" asks Alanna.
"I'm twenty-six, you know," George says, dryly. "I'm older than all of you."
"Of course I'll take care of him," Eleni says, ignoring him. George glares at his mother. "You don't worry about a thing, Alanna. Have a good time in Turkey and come home to us soonest."
Alanna glances at George, red hair falling in her face. George's heart twists up; his apartment's going to feel so tiny. "Soonest," she agrees.
Eleni gives them time alone once they get to the airport, and George follows like a lost puppy as Alanna gets her boarding pass and checks her bag. Jon had offered to buy him a cheap ticket somewhere so he could get through the gate with her, but it seemed pointless.
He has to say goodbye sometime.
"I'll be back at Christmas," Alanna says, lingering before the security check. "For two weeks."
"I'll email you all the time. Skype. Everything."
He smiles. "You'll be busy."
"Yeah. But I will."
He smiles and kisses her. "I know you will. You're goin' to have a great time. I'm proud as anythin'."
She smiles and wraps her arms around him, holding tight. "I love you."
"I know. I love you too." He kisses her again. "You gotta go."
She nods, biting her lip. "I'll be home before you know it."
He smiles. "Now, you know that's not true."
She kisses him again, lingering as long as she can. "Yeah, I know."
Eleni takes him to IHOP on their way home. It's where they went to celebrate his birthday when he was a kid, the ultimate special occasion. They haven't been in years.
"You're tryin' to make me cry, Ma," he observes, putting his arm around her and kissing her hair.
"That's every mother's dream, making her grown son cry taking him to IHOP."
He smiles. "I'm goin' to miss her."
Eleni smiles back. "She's going to miss you too."
Alanna emails often. A lot of them are short--got here safely, here's my new room, the head archaeologist is kind of a dbag and not in a fun jon way--most of them have pictures, bad selfies with one of her eyes and part of her forehead in the corner of the screen. About once a week, she sends something substantial, a long, properly punctuated email about what she's doing and how Myles is. She ends every one with love.
George responds to all of them, even if he doesn't have as much to say. He sends pictures of Eleni's garden and of Faithful and of all their friends, and talks about Solom starting to make noise about selling the bar and starting to give him more responsibilities. It's not like she's with him, not even close, but it could be worse. She could feel farther away.
They don't manage Skype as often. She's seven hours ahead, which isn't awful, but it's harder to coordinate than it feels like it should be. Her internet lags, or his will, and it seems to make Faithful depressed, seeing her and not being able to really interact. George can't say he doesn't get it.
But damn if it isn't good to hear her voice.
Eleni invites everyone over for Thanksgiving. George follows-up by saying none of them have to come; he assumes they all have families of their own, and he's not moping or anything. And they've never had a big Thanksgiving tradition in his family. It's always just been him and Ma. He doesn't need anyone coming over to fret over him.
But they all say yes. Daine brings her friend Onua and Rikash, who's hired on at the Dove, now that Solom is getting closer to retirement. He's still more than a little scared of George, which just makes it better. Someone needs to keep the kid on his toes.
"You came because you felt sorry for me," he accuses Jon and Raoul when they show up.
"Um, no," says Jon. "We're going to his family's Thanksgiving and my family's Thanksgiving after this. We are having triple Thanksgiving. If that isn't living the dream, I don't know what is."
George snorts. "Well, when you put it like that."
Numair's mom is Indian, so he never has Thanksgiving plans; Thayet's father is an asshole, and Buri's family is out of the country. Even Thom shows up.
"Should we be honored?" George teases.
"What, you thought I was going home?"
"I told Alanna we invited you and she said you usually celebrated Thanksgivin' with a Star Trek marathon and Chinese takeout."
Thom grins. "That's what I'm usually thankful for."
Eleni takes one look at him and declares he needs more food and more sun. "You," she says, pointing at Rikash. "You look strong. Take him out back and get some pumpkins to decorate the table."
Rikash looks Thom up and down, appraising, and winks. "Come on, sweetheart. I'll be happy to do all your heavy lifting." Thom looks somewhat startled, and Jon snickers.
"We are going to make that happen," he stage-whispers, extending his fist to George. "I have been telling Alanna I will get her brother laid for years. You're on this with me, right?"
George snorts and bumps his fist against Jon's. "Always."
They do Thanksgiving lunch so they can Skype with Alanna; she's tanned, but she also looks worn and too skinny, and George wants to be there to make sure she's eating right and getting enough sleep. Alanna's better at taking care of her friends than she is at taking care of herself.
"Wish I was there," she tells them. "I'm sure it was delicious, Eleni."
"Well, you'll be here for Christmas," Eleni says simply.
The look of longing that flashes across Alanna's face near breaks George's heart. "Yeah," she says. "I'll be there for Christmas."
George thought he had trained Faithful out of yowling at paying customers, but he's under the counter trying to figure out why the soda gun is leaking, so he figures maybe the cat is just trying to help him with greetings. "Don't try and steal anything, I'm here," he yells. "Be with you in a sec."
Faithful's yowling intensifies, and George is about to check it out when he hears Alanna say, "Come on, laddybuck, don't be like that. George told you where I went."
He barely avoids hitting his head on the counter top as he jerks up to stare at her. She looks the same as at Thanksgiving, a little thinner, maybe, her hair shaggier, but-- "Alanna," he breathes, and vaults himself over the bar to go sweep her up.
She barely drops Faithful in time, laughing as he swings her around and kisses her. But she's clinging to him just as hard as he's clinging to her. "Hi," she says, breathlessly.
"Thought you weren't coming for a few more days."
"I wasn't. I rescheduled. Jon paid the difference when I told him I wanted to surprise you. He says this is your Christmas present."
"Great," says George. He kisses her again. "He could've at least told me to get the night off. Let me call Rikash. He's tryin' to get in good with your brother, he'll be happy to do you a favor." Alanna laughs, taking his hand and squeezing it when he lets her down. She doesn't seem any more inclined to leave his side than he's inclined to let her go. "You have to go back early too?" he asks, trying to keep his voice even. She'll be gone again in two weeks, after the New Year. It's no time at all.
"I'm not," she says. "I'm going to do my last semester here."
George stops and stares at her; she looks back at him, flushed and pleased. "You're not goin' back."
"No. I found a replacement to go for the spring semester," she says, picking Faithful up with her free arm when he keeps meowing at her. "I wasn't sure I'd be able to, and--" she smiles, a little impish. "Well, I wanted to see your face when I told you. Sorry."
George pushes her up against the wall and kisses her hard, more than a little desperate. "Don't have to apologize," he says, roughly. "I missed you. So fuckin' much."
"I know. Me too. It was--awesome. Amazing. And I'm really glad I did it. But I just. I couldn't do it for another five months."
"I'm glad," says George. "I'm not sure I could have either."
Alanna smiles. "Well, don't worry. You don't have to."
Christmas at Eleni Cooper's is every bit as excellent as Alanna hoped it would be. Everyone gets the prerequisite teasing about how long she and George were locked up in their apartment after she got back out of the way fast, and from there it's just food and family and presents. Rikash brings mistletoe, trying to score a kiss from Thom, and Alanna can't help grinning when Thom just rolls his eyes and kisses him before he can hang it up.
"Jon's going to be smug," she tells her twin, elbowing him in the side.
"What a novel change of pace that will be," Thom says dryly. "Jon? Smug? I never thought I'd see the day."
Alanna laughs. "Father's going to be furious when he finds out. His only children, kissing bartenders."
"Dad being furious is almost as novel as Jon being smug." He looks over at her, and then puts his arm around her shoulder for a half hug. "I'm glad you're not going back. George was mopey. He'd call me with made-up computer problems."
"Are you sure?" Alanna snags George as he passes. "Is your computer broken right now?"
"I dunno. It was makin' a noise. I'm not goin' to look at it again. I put it in a drawer."
"I keep telling you, that's the fan," Thom grumbles. "It's supposed to make that noise."
Alanna pecks George on the mouth and sends him on his way. "I don't think that was an act."
"Yeah, I'm glad I'm staying too."
Myles shows up for lunch and manages to trip over his tongue approximately thirty times in the first five minutes of talking to Eleni. George is pleased as anything, and even drags Myles aside for a talk about his intentions.
"Clearly I should have just brought Daine here when we first met," Numair observes. "Something about this house is obviously conductive to starting relationships. Perhaps a proximity to fresh produce--"
Daine elbows him. "If you'd brought me here when we first met, I would have still been seventeen," she says. She looks over at Eleni and Myles. "It's fair sweet. Stop over-thinking it. And if it was just about produce, everyone would be hooking up at farmers' markets."
"Yes, dear," says Numair obediently.
Alanna snickers. "I've never seen him shut up so quickly. You've got him trained well."
"I do," Daine agrees, smiling and giving him a kiss. "Now that I've gotten him how I like him, I'll probably keep him."
"How kind of you," Numair says dryly.
George and Alanna linger longest, staying for dinner after everyone else has taken off for other holiday obligations. When they finally leave, she kisses both of them on the cheek and gives Alanna an especially tight hug. "I'm so glad you're part of the family now," she murmurs, and Alanna swallows past a lump in her throat.
"I am too," she says, and squeezes back.
"And you tell that brother of yours he is too!" Eleni says. "He doesn't listen to me."
Alanna laughs. "I will. He's stubborn, but we'll get through to him eventually."
Walking back, she leans against George, trying to keep warm against the December night. She really hates winter. "I'm not just staying for you, you know," she remarks.
"Hm?" asks George.
"It's everybody. Thom and Jon and Raoul, and Numair and Daine and--" she squeezes his hand. "Anyway. Don't go feeling guilty about me staying here."
"I wasn't," he says, laughing. "I was too busy feelin' thankful. I don't know what I would've done if I had to say goodbye again in two weeks."
"Neither do I."
"Not that I'm sayin' you can't ever leave again," he says. "I know this might not be the place you want to stay for the rest of your life. But if you go after graduation or whenever else, I think you're goin' to have to take me with you."
Alanna smiles and tucks herself in closer to his side. "I wouldn't go without you."
"Well," he says, and pulling her closer automatically. "That's alright then, isn't it?"
"Yeah," says Alanna. "We're good."