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a return to normal

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“Elena, Elena! Take a breath and listen to me - because I am your mother and I said so, that’s why.” Penelope grips the phone tighter to her ear, as if that will force Elena to hear her, and takes a deep breath, steeling herself. “I understand that you consider the expectation that you will help in the kitchen to be a relic of sexist stereotypes about the division of household labor. I know that you feel put upon by your Tia Claudia and how frustrated you must be. But I want you to remember that it’s only two more days, you do not see your dad’s family very often, and it will not kill you to pitch in even if Alex isn’t.”

It takes a few more minutes of negotiations and a promise to make Alex do all kitchen-related chores for a week once they’re home, but Penelope finally gets off the phone. She punches the end button and flops down on the living room sofa. It’s a Friday night and she didn’t even have a chance to sit down before Elena called.

“So, sounds like they’re having a good time.” Schneider calls from the kitchen sink where he turns one tap on and off then the other before seeming satisfied and gathering up his tools.

“Oh yes, it’s been a total blast if you ask Alex. Just don’t ask Elena.”

Penelope runs her hands over her face. The kids have been staying with Victor’s family this week. His mother moved in with Victor’s sister and her family in Salt Lake City when she retired. To say that this is not how Elena wants to be spending a week of summer break would be an understatement, but Victor’s brother-in-law was able to get a good deal on airline tickets and Elena couldn’t come up with a compelling enough reason for Penelope to let her decline a free trip to visit family.

“Yeah,” Schneider says and closes his toolbox. “Alex has been sending me some snaps.”

“Yes, I’ve been getting them, too. I’m so glad to know that he’s using his very expensive phone near water guns.” She sighs exasperatedly while Schneider chuckles.

“Well, in any event, your sink is unclogged and the water is back on so you can get ready for your hot date.”

This elicits a groan from Penelope.

“...or not.”

“Don’t ask, you don’t want to know. Suffice it to say, I will not be going on a date tonight or any night with that one.”

“Gotcha. Well, I would invite you to try the new Thai restaurant with Avery and me but her friend Jasmine called with an extra ticket to the Taylor Swift concert and no restaurant can really compete with that.”

“It’s fine. I’ll probably just curl up with a movie.”

“You know, a movie doesn’t sound half-bad. Want company?”

Penelope could say no and he’d smile sweetly and lumber off, but they’ve been slowly working back to being best friends again. A movie night might be just what they need. “Sure, but let’s watch at your place. Then I can pretend that I’m the one on vacation.”

Schneider grins. “Deal.”



---



“I talked to your mom earlier.” 

“Oh,” Penelope murmurs as she scans rows of movies on Netflix. 

“She said that she and Dr. B would be back just after Labor Day. Are you ready for that?”

Penelope shrugs. “I guess so. I mean. Of course. It’s just weird. The apartment has been so quiet without her.”

The truth is she’s had… a lot of feelings about her mother’s unexpected summer in Cuba. She’s happy for her mom. Cuba means so much to Lydia. That Dr. Berkowitz was able to give her mom this means a lot, but Penelope is a little jealous, envious too. She would have loved to take this trip with her mom, to be able to give this gift to her.

“Schneider.”

“Yeah?”

“How bout you go make some popcorn in the fancy air popper of yours.”

Schneider hops up. “Salt and butter?”

“Perfect.” Penelope says and selects a not-too-cheesy looking romcom she’s been meaning to watch.



---



The movie is kind of a dud. Too many tropes and plots and it’s just getting more convoluted with each one. Schneider and Penelope start talking over it instead. First, they make fun of the movie, though neither of them suggests turning it off. Their heckling eventually gives way to just chatting about things in general - how she’s liking being a Nurse Practitioner (a lot) and running the office without Dr. B (so-so, managing Lori and Scott is exhausting), how Schneider’s meetings are going (fine) and what he thinks about his new therapist (a little scary, but very nice). They skip around, everything still sort of surface level. Penelope would describe their relationship as somewhere shy of fully comfortable. It’s a work in progress.

After they’ve run down the list of other topics, they loop back around to the kids, as always. They’ve both missed them this week. Elena and Alex as humans, as sources of entertainment, and as buffers, fairly or not. Penelope feels a little lost without them under foot anyways, but this week has been a little harder than most. She hasn’t entirely put her finger on why, but when she tells Schneider that, it that doesn’t stop him from getting scarily close to it on the first try.

“Do you think it’s just the kids being gone for so long or that they’re there without you?” Schneider asks.

His insight catches her off guard like always.

“Hmm… a bit of both. Maybe the second one a little more than the first. But I don’t think it’s the kids being there without me so much as... Victor’s family was my family for a lot of years, too. I miss them.” She pauses, idly watching the movie without taking anything in. “I am glad the kids are getting the chance to visit, even if Elena is less than thrilled at the moment.”

“Yeah, I get that. I miss my stepmoms sometimes, too... It’s going to sound childish, but I really thought each one would be the last one, the one that stuck.” And then, after a beat. “It’s hard to lose people.”

Penelope watches Schneider feign watching the movie for a minute, the set of his shoulders tense, blinking quickly under his glasses. Slowly, she reaches out to take his hand in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“Schneider.”

He clears his throat. “Yeah, Pen?”

“I got you.”

He squeezes her hand back.

“I got you, too.”



---



Penelope is lying half on Schneider, half on the couch when she wakes up. The room is mostly dark save for a dim bit of light coming from somewhere else in the apartment. The tv has turned itself off, the movie apparently long over.

She blinks a few times, trying to clear her memory. She started nodding off and then… she has no idea, but here they are. It’s awkward, or it would be if Schneider was awake instead of snoring softly, glasses slightly askew on his face. The weight of his arms around her is nice. There’s a little voice in the back of her head telling her she should get up, but she’s so tired. Schneider is warm and her eyes are heavy. She closes her eyes, intending to lie there just a moment longer and then get up anyways, but it only takes a second and she’s drifted back to sleep.



---



She wakes up the next morning alone on the couch.

Schneider has coffee brewing and is working on an omelette at the stove. Penelope takes a seat at the bar, and he throws his head over his shoulder when he hears the stool scrape against the tile.

“G’morning.”

“Morning,” she mumbles, sleepily.

They eat breakfast and drink Schneider’s mediocre coffee. It’s not as awkward as it probably could be, should be, to have spent the night essentially in each other’s arms. He shoots her a few sheepish grins. She shakes her head. It’s not like they did anything but sleep.

But then again, maybe it’s not that, she thinks as they start talking about the kids - Alex’s latest snapchat video and Elena’s freshest wave of venting texts - and what each of their Saturday plans entail. Schneider’s yacht rock group is playing some poor girl’s bat mitzvah tonight. Penelope and Jill are getting lunch and then mani/pedis.

It’s the most normal Penelope has felt around Schneider in months.

“This was fun,” she tells him standing at the door. “But we never tell my mother I slept over.” Or Lydia would never let her hear the end of it. Not that she hadn't thought about it. More than once. But it's not the right time for either of them. Yet.

Schneider barks out a laugh. “Yes, good plan. That woman scares me.”

Penelope just shakes her head and smiles. She might not have Victor’s family anymore but her kids will be home tomorrow, her mom will be back from Cuba soon, and she has Schneider. On the elevator, she chuckles softly to herself. It’s not what she ever expected, but it’s really comforting to count him as a permanent part of her life.