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The Good Hair Family Sitcom

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

"TJ, where do we keep the placemats?" I ask.

"Check the cabinet in the dining room," TJ responds.

I wind around the pillar separating the kitchen from the dining room and kneel down at the back by the tall, black cabinet that me and my husband received when we first moved in here at twenty-one. It was a gift from Amber that she got at an antique shop. A swirly pattern is carved into the door faces, showcasing its beauty, and the wood grain shines through. However, the base of the structure is covered in dents, many of them having been created in the last week from the RC car that my ten year-old son's been driving around the house since the day he got it. I would regret buying him that, but he actually saved up his allowance to pay for it, so the trashing of all the furniture is just an unfortunate side effect of his financial responsibility.

I find the stack of wicker placemats and begin laying them out on the dining room table. My friends are coming over for dinner in a couple hours, and they're bringing their families. This will be the first time I'm seeing Buffy since she and her family got back from their vacation to Disneyland, so I want everything to be perfect. Once I have the dining table set, I go back into the kitchen to check the list I left on the island to see what is still needed to be done.

"Okay, tables are set," I mutter to myself. "Living room is cleaned. Dinner is cooking, which smells great by the way!" I spin around to look at my husband who's busy stirring a pot on the stove. "What are you making?"

TJ smiles as I wander over to take a look at the liquid simmering that's making the whole place smell of savoury vegetables and spices.

"This is the vegan gravy," he answers. "The shepherds pie is in the oven."

"Yum," I reply. "Okay, so we have almost everything done. What am I missing?"

The answer comes as a slam to my foot, and I look down to see a familiar red toy truck attempting to climb my ankle. My kids. The vehicle backs up before zooming forward again, using my foot as a ramp to launch itself into the air. I turn to where my son is standing at the bottom of the stairwell, holding the remote.

"Wyatt," I call. "I told you no stunt jumps."

"But Papa told me go big or go home."

I shoot my eyes to TJ, who just grins innocently back at me.

"You're a bad influence," I say, a smile peaking through.

I give up my stern look quickly as my eyes flick down to TJ's mouth, and TJ notices the hint, stepping in to give me a soft kiss on the lips.

"Ew!" Wyatt shouts as we part. "Cooties!"

"Wyatt, that's not how cooties work," I respond. "You catch those from the opposite gender."

"Yeah," TJ supports. "Gays are immune."

"Like how Superman is immune to green kryptonite?" Wyatt chirps, lighting up.

"Yes, exactly like that," I confirm, although I have no idea whether that's actually true or not.

"Cool!"

Wyatt's car steers back toward the stairs where he picks it up and carries it. On his way up, he passes by his sister, fourteen year-old Jayda who currently has her face scrunched in anger as she stomps into the kitchen and swings open the fridge. TJ and I watch as she fights with the orange juice jug, aggressively yanking it from its spot before shoving the door closed and unscrewing the cap. 

"Are you okay?" I ask.

"I'm fine," the girl snaps.

"Yes, I believe those were my exact words right before I drove into a library when I was seventeen," TJ reminisces.

Jayda glares up at her dad before going over to the cabinet and grabbing a glass.

"Well, are you going to be ready for when the relatives get here?" I check.

"It doesn't matter, because I'm not going to talk to them," she huffs.

"What do you mean?" I question, my worry doubling.

"I mean," she says, spinning to face me with grumpy eyes, "I don't want to see anyone. I'm not in the mood."

She pours orange juice into her glass and takes a sip. Next, she picks up the juice jug and begins bringing it back to the fridge, but then she thinks twice and decides to just take it with her back up the stairs to her room. With her gone, I turn to TJ and release a sigh.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

After only a second of moving, Andi has to step on the brake again as the car in front of us jolts to another stop. The whole highway is backed up with red lights as far as I can see, and the honking in the distance is definitely not helping my wife stay optimistic. Beside her, I watch Andi's patience dissolve more and more every time she has to stop again, while our thirteen year-old daughter, Hazel, sits on her phone, only looking up every time her mom groans in annoyance.

"Why is there traffic?" Andi growls. "I don't even see an accident ahead."

"Relax," I tell her. "We have plenty of time."

"We don't have plenty of time. You're just comfortable with being late."

"Sorry, it's a Kippen thing."

The car shifts forward again but halts just as quickly, only a few inches keeping our baby blue Honda from rear-ending the vehicle in front. 

"Why can't people just drive!" Andi complains.

"Momma," says Hazel from the back as she leans forward to speak to me, "why is Mommy yelling?"

"She has road rage," I reply nonchalantly.

"I don't have road rage!" Andi huffs.

I nod kindly then look back at my daughter again, saying, "She's in denial."

"If you don't like me driving, then you can drive," Andi states.

I let out a chuckle. "I'm the reason bad driving is a stereotype for gays."

Seeing a window of opportunity, Hazel leans forward, saying, "I'll drive," to which Andi and I respond in unison, "No."

________________________________________

Walker's POV

I glance out through the blinds in the living room of my townhouse, spotting something a tad off-putting.

"Hey, Jonah," I call. "I think we have a problem."

My husband enters the living room in his dress shirt and jeans, having chosen to look nice for the dinner with our friends. He comes over to window to see what's captured my attention, frowning when he sees it.

"You've got to be kidding me," he mutters.

Jonah rounds the furniture and heads for the front door. I follow him, stepping out onto the doorstep to get a better look at the giant SUV parked smack in front of our exit route.

"What kind of idiot parks in front of a driveway?" Jonah questions. "That's such a dumb thing to do."

"I think being dumb is a requirement for idiots," I respond.

"Well, what should we do?"

I shrug. "We still have a couple hours before we're supposed to be there. Let's wait and see if whoever owns the car moves it."

Jonah settles with that, nodding as we return inside our home. The car can't possibly stay there for that long, right?

________________________________________

Cyrus's  POV

After completing a few more items on the list, I go upstairs to check on Jayda, but her bedroom door is still shut tight, a signal for everyone else to stay out. Respecting the barrier, I return downstairs to my husband in the kitchen, hoping to seek his advice.

"Should we do something?" I ask.

"She's still up there?" 

I nod. "I know teenagers are supposed to avoid their parents, but they usually aren't this mad when they do it."

"Hey, speak for yourself," he says. "I was angry at my parents for an entire year whenever I talked to them, so I never left my room."

"Yeah, but that's because you were afraid to come out to them, because you thought they wouldn't accept you. I'm about ninety-nine percent sure Jayda's not afraid of that with us."

"Well, what do you think we should do?"

"I don't know. I've read a million books on parenting and psychology, but it all seems to slip away when my actual kid is in a crises."

I think TJ can feel my distress, because he lets out a sigh and says, "I'll try to talk to her. But if it's about bras or periods, I'm going to need that book you gave me."

I laugh a little and step up to TJ, reaching out to lace our hands together, slowly like the petals of a rose curling into one another to greet the summer. Then I rise up on my tip toes to grace his cheek with a soft kiss. On the way back down, his eyes follow mine curiously.

"What was that for?" he asks.

"Do I need a reason to kiss you?" 

TJ smiles and brings his hand up to touch my face, moving a loose strand of hair out of my sightline. My eyes hold his for another moment, wading in the warmth of his gaze, before TJ steps back.

"Here goes," he says.

TJ's POV

I take another second to capture in as much of Cyrus's encouraging smile as I can before I spin around and ascend the stairs up to my daughter's room. After knocking on the door, she replies with a shout.

"What do you want?"

Carefully, I open the door and look in at Jayda sitting with a bag of chips upon her mauve polka-dotted bedspread. She keeps her earbuds in, listening to something play on her laptop while crunching another mouthful of the potato chips. On her nightstand is the jug of orange juice, which is now half empty.

"Hey," I say. "Do you want to talk about what's bothering you?"

The teen shakes her head, shoving more chips into her face.

"Are you sure?" I press. "You know you can tell me anything."

"Not this," she insists. "I'm having boy problems. You wouldn't understand. Please just leave me alone."

I furrow my brows in puzzlement. I wouldn't understand her boy problems? What the hell does she think I'm married to? 

Deciding not to push it, I comply with her request, mumbling, "Um...okay," as I pull the door shut again behind me.

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

It's been nearly three quarters of an hour, and we've only moved what I could walk in five minutes. I'm trying to stay positive, focusing on the blue of the sky and the colourful flowers growing on the grass along the road, but Andi's aggravation only continues to grow.

"'Baby on board,' my ass," Andi barks, glaring at the car next to us. "There's no baby in that car!"

"How come Mom gets to swear, and I can't?" Hazel chimes from the backseat.

"When you can drive, you can swear," I reply.

Hazel lets out a huff and sinks back into her seat cushion. "You know this wouldn't have happened if we hadn't chosen to go to the bakery before going to Uncle TJ and Uncle Cyrus's, and you had just made the dessert."

"As far as your uncles will know, we did make the dessert," I retort.

I honestly can't bake for the life of me, and Andi was busy working on a sculpture for a company she was commissioned by, so really, buying a cake was the only solution. Yes, I could've tried making one, but I figured my friends and brother probably wouldn't want their kids getting food poisoning tonight.

"Also, Shauna at the bakery gives us free cookies when we go there," I add.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

"Kids, come on! It's time to go!" I call.

My eldest son comes running up the stairs from the basement, and my attention immediately goes to the scent that hits me as the fourteen year-old passes by in his T-shirt and jeans.

"Are you wearing body spray?" I question.

"Just a little."

"Why are you wearing body spray?"

"The chicks dig it," he says with a grin.

Footsteps sound out from behind, followed by the kiss on my head as Marty's arms wrap around me. But I can't process my husband's gesture right now. I'm too focused on my son's bizarre desire to smell like some kind of upper-class cedar tree.

"Marty, Andreas is wearing body spray."

"Ah, that explains why your room smells like a forest," Marty says to our son.

"I'm just tryna smell good for the ladies," Andreas says with a charming smile.

"The only ladies you're seeing tonight are your cousins," I remind him.

"Yeah, and the second you let your guard down, that's when they get you."

He continues on walking toward the mud room, leaving me only more confused.

"What does that mean?" I ask.

"No idea," Marty replies.

I forget about my first sone as soon as my second comes down from the upstairs in a neon orange, knit sweater that I've never seen before. I used to question him about where he gets some of his clothes, since it seems like he always has new items that I don't recognize, but honestly, as long as he's wearing clothes, and he's not in jail, I don't really care. 

"Brayden, you're going to get your shoes on?" I check.

"I was," the eleven year-old sasses. "But because you asked that, I might just go barefoot instead."

"Of course," I breathe as the boy carries on across the hardwood floor of the living room.

"Just one more," Marty says.

"Yeah, what is taking Cara so long?" I wonder then shout again, "Cara!"

The six year-old girl comes skipping down the stairs, dressed in her soccer jersey and a green tutu. When Andreas was little, I used to make sure what he wore matched and looked decent, but by the third kid, I learnt to just them wear what they want. It saves a lot of time, and honestly it makes mornings interesting finding out what random combination of clothes my daughter will put on each day.

Cara strolls toward the mud room, and Marty and I follow. There, our two sons are waiting with their shoes on, Andreas staring at his phone, and Brayden reading a book with a title that sounds like I was probably written in the early 1900s. But Cara, rather than going to put on her own shoes, reaches straight for the doorknob.

"Um, Cara," I say. "Don't forget your shoes."

She spins around and looks up at me, replying, "I'm not wearing shoes."

Marty kneels down to the little girl's height to speak to her personally. "You have to wear your shoes. Otherwise, you might step on something pointy and hurt your foot."

Cara sticks her nose up to the side and folds her arms over her chest as she says, "I don't like shoes anymore."

My husband glances back at me with a tired look. We didn't plan for this time delay. 

_______________________________________

Jonah's POV

My patience is gone by the next time I gaze out at my driveway being greeted again by the big hunk of metal on wheels blocking the garage. Walker comes over to stand by me as well, and we each silently evaluate the situation. We still have a while before we have to leave, but obviously whoever parked here isn't just stopping by. They're staying, and we have no idea who it is. Eventually, Walker makes a suggestion.

"We could try to go back out around it."

"If we go around it, we'll hit a tree," I respond.

"What happened to positive thinking?"

"That's what I have you for."

We just smile at each other for a second, getting lost in our own secret world. But the car dead in our window's view brings us back pretty fast.

"Should we call someone?" I ask.

"Who are you gonna call?"

Seeing the chance, I hold back a smile as I reply, "Ghostbusters?"

Walker turns his eyes to me, breaking into a laugh as he takes my hand.

"You're cute," Walker says.

"You're cuter," I respond, my grin matching Walker's in intensity.

"Well, you're gorgeous."

"And you're very handsome."

"And you're very sexy."

There's a single breath of tension before the elastic snaps, and the two of us fling together, our lips finding each other like second nature, which at this point, it is. With each kiss that follows, another spark flies through me, electrifying my breath and igniting my oxygen.

"What were we talking about?" I ask between kisses.

"I don't know," Walker replies.

His lips trace their way from my mouth down to my neck, only exciting the fire further.

"How much time do we have before we have to go?" I ask.

"Enough."

________________________________________

TJ's POV

"Do you think she'll be in there all night?" Cyrus asks me.

I shrug. "I don't know. She seems really upset."

I finish putting the finishing garnishes on the shepherds pie while Cyrus sits on a stool at the island, his mind clearly still stuck on our daughter as he watches at the stairs with sad eyes. I'm concerned too, but I'm hoping she'll come out before our friends get here. As long as she doesn't want to talk, I don't see what I can do to help. 

All of a sudden, I'm shocked as the very girl we're both thinking about comes walking into the kitchen. She carries the empty juice jug over to the pantry and tosses it into the recycling bin.

"I'll add orange juice to the shopping list," Cyrus mutters.

Jayda continues to ignore both of us grabbing a box of Corn Pops from the pantry before starting back toward the stairs. Damn it. Not the Corn Pops. I hardly got to have any of those.  

"Jayda," I say, making her pause. "Can you talk to us? We love you, and we want to help you."

She whips around to face me and Cyrus, her sleek, black ponytail swinging straight out as she does.

"You can't help me," she states. "Not as long as stupid boys like Jeremy Hudson exist!"

She marches forth to her room, leaving me and Cyrus staring at the last place she was visible.

"Well, damn," I say. "Jeremy Hudson sounds like an jerk. What do we do? I don't understand how straight boys think."

"Let me handle it," Cyrus says. "I've had plenty of practice from that time when Buffy and Marty were broken up in high school."

"Okay," I agree.

When Cyrus turns to go upstairs, I tag along, wanting just to wait nearby in case Jayda needs me. I tell myself it's for Jayda, but I know it's really for myself. I won't be able to focus on anything else until I know she's okay. Cyrus knocks and enters in, while I stand in the hallway, peeking through the crack in the door that Cyrus leaves barely open after he enters in and plops down at the end of Jayda's bed. The girl's eyes are irritated from crying, which fractures my heart like an ice pick. I know that this is what happens to kids as they get older—they get hurt—but knowing and actually witnessing something are two very different things.

"So who's Jeremy Hudson?" Cyrus asks, his tone as gentle as snowfall.

"No one," Jayda answers. Then quieter, "Just a boy."

Cyrus stays silent, letting the empty space in the conversation push Jayda to try to fill it.

"We were thinging, sort of," she goes on. "Like, he gave me his jacket and kissed me in the park. And then my friends told me about how they saw him swapping spit with that bitch Amanda at Jenny's Party."

I see Cyrus cringe a little when she swears, but he doesn't say anything, knowing that that would only make her retreat back into herself again.

"Boys are jerks," Cyrus says.

"They really are," Jayda agrees.

"But some of them aren't. And someday you'll meet one who isn't a jerk. You just have to keep trying."

"Why can't I just skip to the part where I meet a boy who isn't awful?" she whines.

"Because the trying is what makes love worth it in the end," Cyrus says. "It's part of what makes meeting the right person so rewarding, because you had to climb mountains to find each other."

"So I have to start mountain climbing?" Jayda complains. "That sounds awful."

"No," Cyrus corrects and takes in another breath of preparation. "I mean you just can't give up. You're a very amazing girl, and one day someone will see that."

Seeing Jayda's smile find its way home makes my anxiety loosen as she look at Cyrus, saying, "Thanks, Dad."

I let out an exhale of relief as the shadows that were lingering in the corners of the room disintegrate. She's not related by blood, but I still see a bit of Cyrus in Jayda's smile, how it dazzles her surroundings with her radiance, and the way her dark brown eyes glow like his. She's ours. It's a certainty I feel in my core. She's made of me, and she's made of my husband, the same man who helped me when I felt like the world was working against me back in eighth grade, the man who continues to convince me that magic really does exist, because I see it in his eyes every time I look at him. And I see it in my daughter's and my son's too. Wow. I really won the lottery on life, didn't I?

"By the way, we're out of Corn Pops," Jayda says.

 

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

This traffic is working my last nerve, but we're almost through. Please let us be almost through. When I see red and blue lights, I think my prayer must've been answered, and I light up, causing Amber to do the same.

"I can see the accident!" I cheer.

"Thank God," Amber responds.

"Uh, guys," comes Hazel's voice. "What about over there?"

I glance back to see her pointing at another set of red and blue lights farther up around the bend, which at this pace, means at least another fifteen minutes. I nearly smack the horn on the steering wheel as I drop my head down, groaning in agony.

"Can I walk?" Hazel suddenly asks.

"No," I reject.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Buffy's stress is clear as day on her face, and Cara is sitting on the floor, holding her own feet. I've been attempting to talk her into putting on shoes for too long, and our other kids are beginning to get restless.

"If we're not gonna go, can I go to Dylan's?" Andreas asks.

"We are going," Buffy snaps. "Cara, just put on your shoes."

I love Buffy, but her patience level is that of a toothpick. Feeling her worry clogging the air like smoke, I stand up and take her hand, leading her out into the hallway.

"It's fine," I tell her. "It's just shoes."

"I know it's just shoes, but why it makes no sense," she huffs. "Why is this even a problem we're having?"

"We had kids," I remind her. "So in return for all the happiness they give us, they also don't make sense sometimes."

She nods. "You're right. I'm sorry. I just need to relax. If she doesn't wear shoes, the stronger one of us can carry her."

"Oh, so me," I say with a grin.

"Bold assumption," she replies.

She tugs on my hands, bringing me in, and I kiss her. In that simple second, all the emotions of that very first kiss at Andi's party come back in a flash, and when I back away, I'm smiling like I did when I went home that night in grade eight.

"Now let's go be parents," I say.

The two of us make our way back into the mud room, ready to take on the situation, but as soon as we step in, we're stunned by a surreal sight. Cara is standing with her rubber rain boots on, holding her oldest brother's hand.

"What did you do?" Buffy asks, eyes wide in awe.

"I made her a deal," Andreas explains. "She wears shoes as long as she's allowed to wear something else too."

I furrow my brows. "What is something else?"

_____________________________________

TJ's POV

"Get this thing away from me or I'm throwing it out the window!" Jayda yells.

Her brother backs the RC up, a look of fear in his eyes. He tried to jump the wrong foot, and he knows it.

"Wyatt," Cyrus says, "why don't you go put that in your room so that it doesn't get stepped on when your family gets here."

The boy obliges, trailing along behind the machine as it zips toward the stairs. A second later, the doorbell rings, and I go over to answer it. The first guests are Buffy and Marty with their kids. They all say hello as they enter in. Brayden immediately goes to claim his regular spot on the corner chair of the living room, while Andreas finds Jayda in the kitchen. The smallest member of their family stands out the most, for she struts in dressed as Jack Sparrow, wig and all.

I look down at her then back up at Marty who explains, "This is the only way she agreed to wear shoes."

"Ah." I bend down to the little girl. "Well, ahoy there, Jack Sparrow."

Cara raises her chin, replying, "That's Captain Jack Sparrow to you."

She moseys on past me, and I let out a laugh, which Marty joins. Right when Buffy and Marty get comfortable in my home, the door opens again, but I'm not the one who opens it, and there's no doorbell. Amber lets herself in. Typical.

"Hi, Uncle TJ," Hazel greets as she passes on in.

Amber takes a cake in a container from Andi's hands and puts it in mine with a smile.

"Look what I made," she says.

I nod. "Looks delicious. Did you say hi to Shauna for me?"

My sister rolls her eyes as I chuckle. I don't know why she thinks she can fool me. She's never been able to bake. I remember doing her home ec. homework for her when she was in middle school, because she thought salt and sugar were interchangeable since they were both white and sprinkly.

A while later, Cyrus answers the final knock on the door, and Jonah and Walker come in.

"Sorry we're late," Jonah says. "We had to take the bus."

"You took the bus?" I repeat.

"It's a long story," Walker responds.

As the last of our guests mingle in with the crowd, Cyrus comes over to me to encompass my waist in his arms, and I take him in by the shoulder. We both gaze around at the group here that we call our family. Jayda laughs with Andreas and Hazel, my daughter's tears completely dried now. Buffy and Andi chat together at the island, their conversations never running dry, even after being friends for as long as they have. And Wyatt runs over people's feet with the RC Cyrus literally just told him to put away.

"We've got one good family," I say.

"We do," Cyrus agrees. "Dysfunctional but good."

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

"Hey, Cyrus?" I say as I round the corner into the kitchen. "What happened to all the lightbulbs?"

I just attempted to turn on three different lamps—one in my bedroom, one in the office, and one in the hallway—and each time, I found out that the bulb had been unscrewed and left laying on a table.

Cyrus takes a sip of his morning coffee and answers, "Yeah, Wyatt's been watching a lot of spy shows lately, and he's convinced that someone's bugged our lights."

My eyes wander past the pillar and onto the lamp on the dining room cabinet. The bulb sits right beside its base.

"Okay," I breathe. "Uh, do you know if the bulbs will be put back?"

"I told him he has to get them back in by the end of today," Cyrus replies, "so who knows. I saw him start to return the bulb to the lamp in the living room, but then he got distracted by a piece of dust in the air that he said looked like Bob Marley."

My attention is turned as Jayda steps into the room. She's up and dressed, in a jean skirt and floral top, with her hair curled and the radiating scent of all the hairspray she had to use to keep that curl in. On her face, she wears a bright smile.

"Great news!" she announces. "To get over Jeremy, I'm going on a journey of self-care."

"That's great, honey," Cyrus responds. "Sometimes you need that, to just take a bath or meditate or—"

"Can I have money for a tattoo?"

Cyrus nearly chokes on his coffee. "A what?"

My reply is so automatic that it hardly takes a second. "No."

"Why not?" she argues. "You and Dad have tattoos."

Okay, so Cyrus and I may have gotten drunk one night when we were twenty-one and decided to get matching tattoos. Now whenever I take off my socks, I see the word "bench" written in Arial font. It isn't that bad; it's a cute reminder of him. But I'm just glad it's not in Times New Roman.

"Yeah, but we were adults," I reason.

"You guys, adults?" she scoffs. "Can't imagine it."

"Jayda," Cyrus joins in, "we're only worried that if you get one now, you might regret it when you're older."

"But Tay's mom let her get a tattoo," she argues, crossing her arms.

"Do I look like Tay's mom?" Cyrus counters.

She throws her head back as she groans, "Ugh! You guys are so lame!"

She stomps out of the kitchen, and when she's gone, Cyrus looks at me.

"She never fails to make mornings interesting," he says.

"You can say that again," I reply with a chuckle.

As he brings his mug up to his lips again, an idea strikes me.

"Hey, when was the last time we had a night out?"

"Like a date night? Uh, maybe last month."

"How about we do something tonight?" I suggest. "I'll take you somewhere, just the two of us."

He grins at that. "I like it. But what about the kids?"

"They're responsible enough to stay home alone." After saying that, I pause for a second, Cyrus and I both looking at each other while we think a little deeper. Then I add, "I'll ask Amber to check in on them."

"Good idea," Cyrus agrees.

_________________________________________

Andi's POV

As I exit my art studio, I come into the hallway where a small black mark on the wall greets me. It's about the size of a fingernail and sits just higher than my head. My house is filled with art, but those are all sculptures I've built over the years, and those sit on tables and in the corners of rooms. A black ink stain on the wall is not the regular art here, and it's certainly not something I intended to have. At first, I try to ignore it, but the next time I pass by, it has become too obvious and annoying.

"Hey, Amber!" I call down the hall. "Where do we keep the wall cleaner?"

My wife appears from the living room, walking over as she says, "Why—? Oh." She sees the spot on the wall, falling under the same confusion as me. "Where did that come from?"

"I don't know."

"What are you guys looking at?"

We turn to see our daughter passing through. She holds a stack of schoolbooks in her arms, probably on her way to her room to do homework.

"This spot on the wall," I reply. "Do you know how it got here?"

She looks completely clueless as she shakes her head. "Weird, no."

She continues down the hall, and Amber and I go off to search for the cleaning supplies.

______________________________________

Jonah's POV

Buffy's the one who opens the door for me and Walker when we knock.

"Hi! Okay, so Andreas is at a friend's house tonight, so you'll only have to worry about Brayden, and Cara," she explains. "Dinner is in the fridge, so you can heat that up whenever, and just make sure to get Cara to bed by 8:30."

"Got it," I reply.

Buffy smiles and nods kindly at me then looks to Walker instead.

"Yeah, I'll make sure," Walker confirms.

"You don't think I'll make sure she gets to bed?" I question.

"Yeah, basically," Buffy replies bluntly.

Marty comes down from upstairs while finishing tying his tie. The two of them both have meetings for work tonight, Buffy with one of her clients, since she's a sports agent, and Marty with the other managers at Adrenaline City where he does marketing. Because Buffy thinks Walker and I don't have a life outside of our friends, she asked us to babysit, and because Walker and I don't have a life outside of our friends, we agreed.

After Marty an Buffy have left, Walker and I go in to join the kids. Cara is in the middle of a Barbie court hearing, which Walker offers to take part in. 

"Perfect! You can be the witness," she squeaks. 

"Cool," Walker responds. "What did I witness?"

"Manslaughter."

"Oh... Fun."

Meanwhile, I take a seat next to Brayden at the kitchen table where he's busy painting the last touches of bronze on what looks like a long, toy version of a historical machine gun. 

"Hey, Brayden."

"Hi, Uncle Jonah."

"What'cha doing?"

"Just finishing remodelling my Nerf gun to look like a World War I Lewis M1914."

I nod, having only caught one of those numbers he spewed, and it was the M. Basically, he's turned his Nerf gun into a long barrel with a handle and a 97-round pan magazine on top.

"Cool," I say. "Have you used it yet?"

"No. I have a few other guns that I made too, but I haven't been able to play with anyone yet."

"You know," I say, "I never got to have a Nerf gun fight as a kid."

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

We cleaned it. We got rid of the mark. So why is it back?

I stop in the hallway, dumbfounded as I stare at the black spot.

"Amber," I say as she walks by, "did we not just clean this?"

She halts beside me, completely thrown off by the mark's reappearance. "How did it come back?"

"I have no idea."

"Maybe it's one of those things that goes away when you put water on it but come back when it dries?"

I narrow my eyes at her, baffled. "What kind of things are those?"

She just releases a sigh and says, "I'll get the cleaner again."

A few minutes later, I'm scrubbing at the spot with a cloth while she sprays it. It takes a fair amount of elbow grease, which is coming fully from me. Amber is definitely not the one of us who worries about cleaning around our home. She's more of a clean-it-once-its-in-the-way kind of person, hence why she doesn't dust the picture frames on the shelf until the dust starts to block the pictures.

She squirts the cleaning liquid on the spot again, and while I continue wiping, she begins to giggle. I stop to look back at her for an explanation, which she gives right away.

"Remember when we were in high school, and we spilt all that paint on the art room floor?" she asks.

I smile at the memory. I'd never gotten in that much trouble and not regretted it one bit before that day.

"Yeah," I say as I laugh, "and then we had to try to clean it up before anyone realized we were in that room unsupervised. But seriously, who leaves full cans of paint without lids just sitting on the counters?"

"The drama department apparently," Amber recalls. "Though we probably should've checked our surroundings before deciding that that was the best place to make out."

Grinning, I glance down each end of the hallway, seeing nothing that could be troublesome, before settling my eyes on Amber, and she knows exactly what I'm thinking. She drops the cleaning spray, and I let the cloth fall as she takes me in by the waist, and I wrap my arms over her shoulders. Her kiss is golden like her hair, golden like daylight, streaming through me in rays. 

After, we take another moment to just rest our foreheads together, letting the colours of the world blur back to normal.

"I love you, Andi Mack," she whispers.

I grin and lift my chin up to kiss her again.

All of a sudden, our daughter's voice breaks us up as the girl says, "Is this what you two actually do whenever you say you're cleaning?"

She lets out a laugh as she carries on down the hall, and Amber bends down to pick up the cleaner again. She places the cloth in my hand with a smile.

"You're better at scrubbing," she tells me.

"Cyrus told me that that statement could be considered using compliments to manipulate," I tease.

"I'm not trying to manipulate you. It's the truth. You should do the scrubbing, because you're better at it. Just like I'm better at supervising."

"Okay," I respond. "Well, you're also better at cleaning the toilets—"

"I should've expected that."

______________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Our hands swing together as we walk down the sidewalk, and our feet move in time with one another, having had many years of practice. This sidewalk has held us up through countless events, witnessing all the times he snuck out in the middle of the night to see me, all muffins we ate here from the bakery, all the spontaneous kisses he's given me. Soon, TJ stops us in front of a restaurant, and I raise my eyebrows at him with a smile.

"This is the fancy restaurant you're taking me to?" I say. "The Spoon? We come here all the time."

"Yeah, but not alone," he replies. "Won't it be nice to eat without Wyatt trying to play the Bat Man theme song on the water glasses?"

I let out a tiny laugh. "And Jayda getting annoyed and telling him we've lost our jobs and need to sell his kidney?"

"Exactly," TJ says with a grin.

He brings his lips down to mine in a kiss as sweet as icing, then he reaches for the door.

_______________________________________

Amber's POV

When I see it again, I take a second to wonder if I'm starting to hallucinate. That stupid, black spot is back.

"Andi!" I shout. "I think our house is haunted!"

"What?" She steps out of her studio and freezes as soon as she sees it. "Again?"

"That's it," I snap. "I'm getting the bleach."

_______________________________________

Jonah's POV

My grandpa served in the Vietnam War. But I'm positive that he saw nothing like the brutality of this. Every table has been turned on its side, from the kitchen table to the coffee tables, and pillows are being stacked like sandbags, all trying to serve as some form of protection. But there's no protection against that little beast in the princess dress. Small enough to scurry around unseen, she gives her and Walker's team a competitive advantage, leaving me and Brayden struggling to get through the battle zone.

"You alright, soldier?" I question as he dives down behind the couch with me.

His chest rises and falls heavily as he manages to nod. "Yeah. She almost got me, but I'm alright."

The air is thick, like trying to breathe in a dust cloud, but I have to keep going. This is a war. One shot kills you. We just can't get shot.

"They're on both sides of us," Brayden says. "We're trapped. If we move, we're dead."

It's hard to think with my pulse throbbing from adrenaline, but I know what I have to do. Buffy entrusted me to protect her son, so if it's me or him who lives, there's only one choice.

I leap up over the couch, and a shot immediately rings out, but I manage to duck down again before the foam can penetrate me. Now I can see her eyes. They cut through the crack in the pillow wall, mocking me. That's one thing I didn't know about Cara until today: she has disturbingly good aim. Ready to snipe her, I pop up from the barrier, but she's gone from the place I saw her before. What? Where—?

I feel her foot push me down from behind, and I roll over, now lying with her gun pointed dead at my face. I have no chance. This is the end. With a grin, she pulls her trigger, and the foam bullet slams into my forehead.

"I'm sorry, Brayden," I cry out. "I tried to get her."

"It's okay!" he shouts back. "I've been watching you try to aim, so I wasn't expecting much anyway."

______________________________________

Cyrus's POV

The basket of baby taters sits in between me and TJ while we eat. After having finished our meals, all we have left are the baby taters. We've been picking at them while we chat, but eventually, I can't eat any more. Neither can TJ. He almost reaches for one but rethinks it before shifting the basket a little in my direction.

"You can have the rest," he says.

I shake my head. "I'm full."

Our eyes fall down onto the basket, and there's a moment of quiet while we breathe, pondering internally.

"Whenever the kids are here," I start, "they always finish them."

"Yeah," TJ recalls with a smile. "Even if that is just because Wyatt uses them to build towers."

I laugh. "Yeah. But he does make some pretty impressive towers."

"Yeah."

We're both quiet for another minute, the rest of the voices in the diner taking over the air.

Eventually, I break through the background noise again to say, "I miss the kids."

TJ smiles gently. "Yeah, me too."

I wait a moment before adding, "I love you."

"I love you, too."

He reaches across the table to pick up my hand in his, his thumb grazing over my knuckles.

"I'll get a box for these to bring them home for the kids," he says.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

As I enter the hallway again, I stop, but not because of the mark that's reappeared in the centre of the bleach-stained wall. I stop because of the girl dabbing ink from her pen onto it.

"It's you!"

Hazel's eyes grow in an instant as she sees me, and my eyes dig into her like thorns.

"Man," she mumbles to herself, "it had to be the angrier mom."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I question.

Obviously, she didn't realize I could hear that, because she stutters as she tries to answer, "Uh—well—you know—Andi's soft."

Suddenly, my wife comes up from behind me, asking, "What's going on?"

"I just caught Hazel putting ink on the wall," I explain, my voice sharp.

Hazel attempts to give us an innocent smile as she responds, "Well, Mommy always said she wanted me to get into art."

Andi just stares at her in shock. "Then colour a sketchbook, not the wall. Why? Just why?"

Hazel lets out a breath and answers, "It was for a project for my experimental psychology class."

"And what is this project about?" Andi interrogates.

"Insanity."

Although I'm glad she's doing her homework, the fact that she drove us to bleach the wall makes it hard for me to be proud of her. Actually, come to think of it, the bleaching the wall thing might help her on her report for this. Still, I'm annoyed.

"You've been using us as lab rats?" I say.

She rolls her eyes at that. "Come on. It's not that bad. At least I'm not home alone right now, live-streaming myself trying to stick-and-poke my own tattoo."

My eyes flash to Andi's in an instant, both of us remembering our earlier phone call with TJ. Oh, shit.

"I'll call Cyrus," Andi states.

"I'll head over there," I say.

 

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

I'm at the counter, paying for our meals, when Cyrus's cell phone rings.

"Yeah?" he answers. "Oh, hey, Andi... What? ...Oh my gosh. ...Okay, we're leaving now."

I take my receipt from the cashier and spin around to see Cyrus looking panicked.

"What's wrong?" I question.

"Andi just told me that Jayda is attempting to give herself a tattoo."

"Shit."

"Yeah."

We bolt out of The Spoon, and I get ready to break every speed limit on our way home.

______________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Amber stands up from the living room couch as TJ and I enter our house. I'm still a little disoriented from the drive. After going that fast, walking just feels incredibly slow.

"She's in her room," Amber informs us.

"And what about the tattoo?" I ask.

"I got to her before she could do it."

I breathe a sigh of relief. Okay, good. At least there was no permanent damage.

"Also," Amber continues, "you might wanna check on Wyatt after. He seems to think you're selling his kidney on Kijiji."

"Will do," TJ says. "Thanks for waiting here. You don't have to stay anymore."

Amber nods and comes over to put her shoes on. TJ and I head for the stairs, making our way up to our daughter's room where the door is open only a sliver. When I push it wider, I see Jayda lying on her bed with her headphones in, staring at the ceiling. She flicks her eyes to us as we enter but returns her focus to the ceiling immediately after, her frown unmovable.

TJ pulls her desk chair over to take a seat on that while I lower onto her bed by her feet. We both wait a minute for her to say something or react in any way, and for a while, there's silence, but eventually, she talks.

"I don't understand why you won't let me have a tattoo," she complains. "You wouldn't give me the money, so I found a way to do it myself. Isn't that being responsible?"

"Well, first off, you don't know how to do stick-and-poke tattoos," TJ says. "If you gave yourself one, it could get infected."

"That's not true," Jayda retorts, springing upright. "Angel showed me how in math class, and it turned out great."

Suddenly, I understand why she's hardly passing math.

"Honey, why do you want to get a tattoo?" I ask.

"Because it'd look cool."

She stops there, but I know she's not done. I can sense it.

She releases a breath. "Because... I don't know... Because I just feel like... Everything is changing. Boys are jerks, but girls still like them. Sometimes it all just feels really...really fast...and stupid." She wipes a tear that drips down her cheek as she continues. "And then Tay got a tattoo, and everybody loved it. And now I need to keep up, because if I don't, I'm old news, and then it's no wonder why Jeremy got tired of me."

"Jeremy is an idiot," I tell her. "I'm gonna let you in on a secret. All boys at that age are."

"But didn't you meet Dad around my age?"

I steal a glance with my husband as he chimes in, "Yeah, but I was kinda dumb back then too."

"You were?" Jayda responds. "Why? What did you do?"

He takes in a deep breath and says, "Well, I was mean, especially to your Aunt Buffy. She wanted to play basketball, and I tried to make her feel like she was worse than me."

"Why?"

"Because I didn't know who I was. I felt like I wasn't good enough, but I was good at basketball, and her being good too made me feel like—like I couldn't control anything in my life...like it was no wonder people didn't like me."

Jayda looks down at her hands, not bothering to clear away her tears anymore.

"I just want to feel important," she says, "like something about me is worthwhile enough that a boy would like me."

"There's plenty about you that many boys will love," I tell her.

"Thanks," she says, "but you know, coming from my dad, that doesn't mean much."

"I know," I reply, "but I can still say it."

She smiles a little and looks down again. After another moment, her tears have stopped, and she brings her attention back up to me and TJ.

"So if I can't get a tattoo, can I get something else?"

I look over at TJ, who asks, "What do you want instead?"

"Well, Lilah just got a second ear piercing, and it looks so good. I was thinking maybe just, like, a small stud?"

She waits with a hopeful eyes while TJ and I share another look, silently communicating our decision.

"Okay, fine," I agree. "But you don't need that in order to be liked."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever."

She grabs her phone and falls back on her bed, typing eagerly with a huge grin on her face. TJ just smiles at me, both of us amused by our daughter's excitement. If this piercing keeps her mind off a tattoo, then I guess it's a reasonable trade.

"Now, let's talk about Wyatt's kidney," TJ brings up.

That's when Wyatt's voice spins us toward the doorway as he shouts, "No! You can't take it!"

Then he goes running off to his room, bawling, leaving Jayda snickering on her bed.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

When Marty and I step into our home, Jonah and Walker are sitting on the couch together, watching TV. At first glance, everything looks normal, but then I notice that table is crooked, and the decorations on them have been shoved around. At the sight of us, Walker and Jonah shut off the electronic and come over to greet us.

"Hey," I say. "How was it?"

"Great," Jonah replies.

"Cara was in bed by 8:30?"

Jonah nods a little too fast. "Mmhmm."

"Alright, well, thanks for babysitting," I say.

My friends depart while Marty and walk into our house. Things have definitely been moved around. What on earth were they doing? Was there an earthquake that only hit my property? Then I find a little foam bullet in the kitchen sink and pick it up. When I turn around to show Marty, he's walking in carrying two of the Nerf guns that Brayden was working on.

"I found this in the sink," I say.

"And I found these under the bookshelf," Marty replies.

I look down at the guns, then at the bullet, and say, "I don't think Cara was in bed for 8:30."

"Definitely not," Marty agrees.

We both pause for a second, glancing between the toy guns and foam bullet.

"Best two out of three?" I challenge.

Marty grins and holds out a gun for me to take.

Chapter Text

Walker's POV

Knock. Knock.

"I got it," Jonah says.

He gets up from where we are watching television on the couch and opens the door with his classic smile. The man on the other side wears a green polo shirt with a logo on it for a brand called Ultra-Suck, and he holds a clipboard as he looks up at my husband.

"Hi, sir," the man says. "Can I take a minute of your time to tell you about our new Ultra-Suck Ultimate Vacuum?"

This is when I'd say no and bid him farewell, but of course Jonah does the exact opposite. He stands for the entire speech, and when he's asked if he wants to buy the product, he says yes. Jonah has a problem with turning salespeople away. He always has. Any time someone comes up to the door or a telemarketer calls, it's a guarantee that we'll end up with some random item to throw in the basement. Currently, we're subscribed to more magazines than I can remember and they all end up in a donation bin as soon as they arrive.

Jonah helps the man carry the long box into the house. As soon as Jonah thanks him and closes the door, I look at him in judgement.

"Jonah, we don't need a vacuum," I remind him.

"I know," he says, looking sorry, "but that guy probably got turned down so many times today, and I just didn't want to be mean."

"You can't keep buying whatever people try to sell to you. All the stuff just sits in our basement."

"Well, maybe in twenty years they'll have gone up in value, and we can sell it online."

"Because that mop-broom two-in-one thing will go up in value," I respond sarcastically. "What about that time you agreed to try that free sample at Costco and ended up in the hospital because of your nut allergy?"

"I couldn't say no," he whines. "She looked so eager for me to try it."

"My point is," I say, "you've got to stop saying yes to useless stuff."

"None of it is useless," he argues.

"Then prove it," I challenge. "Start using all the stuff, from the Ultra-Sucky Vacuum to the piles of magazines and weird kitchen tools that nobody needs."

"Fine," Jonah responds. "I'll use them."

I was hoping he'd just agree to stop buying everything that's offered to him, but I suppose he'll come to that conclusion eventually this way too. It shouldn't be long before he realizes that all the junk he's purchased is a waste.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

I can hear the laughing from the kitchen. It seeps through Hazel's bedroom walls, making me think our house must be made of paper. She and her friend, Camille, fight with Andi's blender for loudest in the house, but they still manage to win. The chatter dies by the time Andi's pouring her smoothie into a cup, and soon the two girls come past with cheery smiles, still giggling a little as they head toward the front door. When Camille opens the door to go, she pauses for another second to face Hazel who's eyes stick to her like tape.

"Thanks for the nail polish," Hazel says.

"Thanks for the lip gloss," Camille responds.

"No problem. It looks better on you anyway."

Both girls smile for a moment before Camille turns around and leaves, saying, "I'll see you at school. Good luck on your test tomorrow."

"You too."

Hazel shuts the door and falls back on it, muttering to herself, "You too? She doesn't have a test, you idiot."

Andi and I glance to each other. I recognize these symptoms easily. Nervous. Smiling way too much. Messing up her words. She either has a crush, or she's very socially awkward.

While Hazel's on her way back to her room, I take the opportunity to question her.

"How was the playdate?"

"Momma, we're thirteen," she responds. "It's not called a playdate."

"Okay, how was your mature, teen hangout session or whatever?"

"Fine."

"Just fine?" I pry.

"Yes," she insists. "Just fine."

She hurries down the hallway to her room, closing the door right before blaring pop music over a speaker, which rattles the house with its bass.

I look over to Andi and ask, "Did I push it too much?"

"With a normal kid, no, but with Hazel, yes."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

I let out an exhale as Marty and I drop the light grey couch down in its new place in the living room. I was getting tired with how the position of the furniture made it difficult to get into the kitchen, so we've spent the last hour rearranging it together. Of course, when I proposed my plan Marty thought it was pointless, saying it was easy enough to get through the room. I said, maybe for spiderman, but not for regular people. Eventually, I convinced him, and now the couch sits out of the way of the path, with the chairs spaced out enough to leave walking room.

"Awesome," I say. "Now all we need to move is the bookshelf."

Marty reaches his hand up to scratch the back of his head while he says, "Are you sure? It really does look great there."

"It's behind a chair right now. Nobody can get to it."

"Is that really a problem? It's not like anyone in this house reads anyway."

"No, but our guests shouldn't be able to tell that from where our bookshelf is, so we're moving it."

"Uh, I really don't think we should—"

"Why are you so against this?" I question. "What about that bookshelf are you trying to hide from me?"

"I'm not hiding anything," he answers.

"No? Then help me move it."

Marty sighs and comes over to take the other side of the structure. When I push, he pulls, and we manage to shove it over to the corner of the room where it should be. But as soon as I step back, I realize why Marty didn't want me to move it. Right where the bookcase was is a rectangle of unpainted wall, a giant hole where the frosty blue just stops. I spin to Marty in shock.

"You never painted behind it?"

"No, because I was running out of paint and didn't want to buy another can," he explains. "I figured since nobody was gonna see it anyway, it wouldn't matter."

"What about when we have to sell the house?" I say. "You didn't think that maybe a hole in the paint would bring down the value?"

"We could sell it with the bookshelf included."

I cover my face with my hands as I let out an exasperated groan.

"So let me get this straight," I say, removing my hands. "You were too cheap to buy another can of paint."

"Not cheap. Financially cautious," he argues. "That dinner we had last night? Yeah, that was paid for by the money we saved on paint."

"Oh my gosh," I mumble and cross my arms. "So what do you suggest we do now about this bare spot?"

"We can paint it."

"Marty, we don't have this colour anymore. We'd have to change it and repaint all the walls."

"How about this," he says, raising his hands for emphasis. "We have two friends who are artists, so what if we get one of them to paint some cool mural on it instead?"

I don't want to agree, because I don't want him to think he's right. But I also don't want to have to repaint all the walls, so I suppress my pride for a second to respond.

"Okay. I'll give them a call."

I go over to the kitchen to grab my cell phone and find the number for Walker's house in my contacts. Then I bring it up to my ear and listen to it ring.

Jonah's POV

I shove the Ultra-Suck Vacuum across the floor as it rumbles louder than I think is legal. It turns out it's only meant for carpet, which we only have on the second floor, but this thing is so heavy that I would be amazed if the Hulk could carry it up that far on his own. I'm pretty sure there will be some permanent scrapes in the floor after this, but I am not going to back out.

Suddenly, the vacuum begins to make a chugging sound, and I realize my sock is being sucked into it. I try to turn off the machine, but it doesn't work, so the result is a tug o' war game against the vacuum cleaner.

Buffy's POV

It goes to voicemail, and I bring the phone down, feeling my irritation come back.

"No answer?" Marty asks, and I shake my head.

"I'll try Andi," I say.

Andi's POV

When I hear the phone ringing in the living room, Amber and I both sit up.

"Not it!" she shouts right as I start to stutter, but it's too late.

I push myself up from the kitchen table and go over to the phone to pick it up.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Andi," comes Buffy's voice.

"Hey, what's up?"

"Okay, so pretty much when Marty painted our wall, he left a giant hole behind the bookshelf, because he was too cheap to buy more paint, so I was wondering if you'd be willing to come over and paint a mural there sometime?"

The funny thing is I'm not surprised Marty did that.

"Yeah, sure," I agree. "I have time tomorrow to come by."

"Thank you so much, Andi."

"You're welcome."

I hang up the phone and look over to Amber who waits for me to explain.

"I'm going over to Buffy's tomorrow to paint a mural on their wall."

"Oh, cool," she responds. "I can come help if you want."

"That'd be great."

"You're going over to Auntie Buffy's?" comes Hazel's voice as she enters from the hallway. "Can I come?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," I answer, thrown off by her eagerness.

"Cool."

She spins back around, returning to her room in a flash.

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I watch from the kitchen as TJ and Wyatt sit at the dining room table, schoolbooks spread out before them. Wyatt asked for help with his math homework, and TJ insisted that he provide that, saying that grade five math can't be that difficult, so I let him, figuring I could chime in if he starts to struggle. But TJ's been trying to help Wyatt understand question for the past ten minutes, and it's just too cute watching them work together like this, so I remain quiet and just observe.

"So division is like subtraction but upside down," Wyatt concludes.

TJ hesitates and responds, "Um...yes..."

The sound of the front door pulls my attention away, landing it on the entrance of my daughter holding the hand of some teenage boy in a hoodie and Adidas joggers. She's about to go straight for the stairs when I stop her.

"Uh, Jayda, who's your guest?"

She reroutes her path, pulling the boy with her into the kitchen for the whole family to see. A wide smile is on her face as she introduces him.

"This is Jeremy Hudson."

Immediately, a siren goes off in my head. This is the boy who broke her heart and caused me to have to buy three extra jugs of orange juice.

"Hi, Jayda's dads," Jeremy says with a wave. "I love your house. Also, I noticed that the buttons on your alarm system keypad are worn. You should really get those replaced. Makes it real easy for someone to guess the passcode. I would know."

He chuckles lightly, and TJ and I just stare at him, not sure how to respond.

Jayda doesn't even wait a second before explaining, "Anyway, we made up, and we're together now, so we're just gonna go hang out upstairs."

She pulls him toward the stairway in a rush, but I'm still trying to process what's going on.

Then TJ looks to me, asking, "How do we feel about this?"

"I don't know."

"I don't know either," Wyatt says, dropping his pencil and bringing his hands up to run through his hair in distress. "Why does Billy even need to split 42 watermelons?"

_______________________________________

Walker's POV

When I come out to the living room, I see Jonah lying in the couch, reading through a magazine with a focused face.

"What'chu reading?" I ask knowingly.

He flips the page, not looking up, as he answers, "Glow Girl Magaine."

It takes all my effort to hold in my laugh as I nod. "Hmm. Is it good?"

"Yes," Jonah attests. "I'm so glad I bought it. So far, I've already learnt how to stand up to bullies, and fun things to do with my BFF."

A bit of my laugh seeps out at that, but he ignores me, continuing his quest to prove that he's right, but he can't possibly win. There are too many random items. One of them has to be the breaking point.

Then I notice that one of his feet is bare.

"What happened to your sock?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

Buffy greets us with a smile, and my family steps in, leaving our shoes at the door, then she gestures for us to follow her.

"Thank you so much again," she says. "Here it is."

We stop in front of the big, blank rectangle. She wasn't kidding when she said it was a giant hole in the paint. There are a few brush strokes streaking into the space, but they hardly do anything at all to colour it. It's clear that Marty never intended for this to be uncovered.

"Hey, Buffy," Hazel asks, "where's Andreas?"

"He's downstairs," she answers.

My daughter nods and heads toward the stairs, and Amber and I stare at the wall.

"So you can paint it?" Buffy checks.

"Yeah, for sure," I respond. "I'm just gonna get my paints from the car."

"Awesome," Buffy replies. "Thank you. I said that already, but seriously, thank you."

She leaves to go upstairs, and I try to think of what could fit in the space.

"So you got an idea of what to paint?" Amber asks me.

I take another moment to mentally place the colours on the wall before answering, "Yes."

Hazel's POV

The gunshots of the video game crackle through the speakers as I step down into the basement. Down here is where the kids hang out a lot. Many of Cara's toys scatter the carpet. A television and a game system sit at one end. Posters of various movies are hung on the green walls. Right now, the only one down here is Andreas, and I'm thankful for that, because I want to be able to talk to him alone. Unfortunately, as I sit down on a chair, he's so focused on the random voices of the other online friends playing with him that he doesn't even notice me. He just continues shouting into the microphone on his headset as he bashes away at the buttons on his controller.

"No, dude, I told you to wait there!"

"Hey, Andreas," I cut in.

"Who's that?" comes a voice through the speaker.

"Nobody. Just my cousin," Andreas replies.

"Can I ask you something?" I speak again.

He nods but continues to play his game.

"Okay, um—"

I'm cut off by another player, saying, "Dude, you shoot like a girl!"

"Shut up, dude," Andreas says.

"Bro, get behind me!"

"Sorry, man," comes one more voice. "I'm off my game today. My girlfriend texted me saying she thinks we're not working out."

"What the hell? She sounds crazy."

"All girls are, man."

At that, I get fed up with all the other players on this stupid game and march up to Andreas, grabbing his headset and saying into the microphone, "Hey, dude, have your considered that maybe your girlfriend dumped you because you spend all your time saying sexist, dumbass shit on a stupid video game?"

"Andreas, is that your cousin again?"

Before anyone can say anything else, I go up to the TV and press the power button, making the screen flip to black.

Andreas looks at me in annoyance. "What the hell, Hazel!"

"I need help," I state.

"No kidding," he retaliates.

"It's about a girl."

That makes his anger die down as he leans back with a condescending look on his face, saying, "Well, you came to the master."

I roll my eyes as I sit down in my chair again. I want to talk to him about this, because as much as I don't understand it, girls like him, and he knows how to get them. I could talk to my moms, but they would make too big of a deal out of it, and I'd really rather just keep this to myself. I've always judged the whole concept of love harshly, saying how it's a pathetic use of my time and a weakness of the human race, so to admit that I actually kind of care about it now would be humiliating.

"Okay," I breathe, "so there's this girl."

"You mentioned that already."

"And we've been friends for a while," I continue, ignoring his comment, "because we're in the same class together, and I kind of think I'm starting to like her as more than friends, and now I don't know what to do. I would ask my other friends, but one of them is close with her—"

"Another friend?" he cuts in. "She cute?"

"Uh, I guess."

"What's she like? Does she post pics with flowers in her hair? I love those girls."

"Um, she wears a hijab, so no."

"Damn. Well, does she like guys who are funny?"

"She does," I say in a honeyed tone. "Too bad. Otherwise, you would've had a chance with her."

"That's no way to talk to someone you need help from."

"You haven't even helped me yet!"

"Okay, well, continue. You have a girl, and blah blah. What do you want to know?"

"I want to know what to do now," I state.

He shrugs. "Ask her out."

"Okay, but how do I do that?"

"Go up to her and say something nice like, 'On a scale from one to ten, you're a nine, and I'm the one you need.'"

"Andreas, that's awful."

"That's romance," he responds. "If you want her to like you, you gotta be smooth, cool. Act like you don't care but like you do care enough to make her interested."

I stare at him in confusion. "That works?"

"For me, yeah, but then again, I don't have to do much to get girls to like me," he answers with a grin.

"Okay, so why don't you have a girlfriend?" I challenge.

"I broke up with her last week. She was too clingy. Kept texting me all the time."

I'm now deeply questioning his qualifications as my love counsellor. I don't know why girls like him so much, but clearly it's not due to his impeccable teaching skills, since those don't exist.

"Let me ask you something," I say. "Has anyone ever said you were the master with girls, or is that a self-proclaimed title?"

"People have said it," he responds. "And it's not just that. I've been called the master of a lot of things. My style? Fly as hell. My Soundcloud raps? Straight fire."

"Didn't you try to write a rap for that girl in girl scouts a couple years ago, and it completely flopped?"

"The rap may have failed, but she loved me. I'm the reason she won her cookie-selling competition, because I told her she could go to Uncle Jonah's house, and he'd buy as much as she wanted, 'cause he can't say no."

"Well, that's great. You can marry a girl scout when you grow up. Might have legality issues with that age gap, though."

"Okay, are we done here?" he asks tiredly. "I want to get back to my game."

"Yes," I huff.

He reaches for the remote and flips the TV on again, and the other players' voices spring back into action.

 

Chapter Text

Marty's POV

Buffy pulls my attention away from my computer as she steps into the office that we share. She folds her arms over her chest and leans against the doorframe, looking at me skeptically.

"So what else did you not finish because you wanted to save money?" she interrogates.

I push my chair back, spinning to face her. I could lie and say there was nothing else, but I know she would see right through that.

"Only a few things," I respond.

Her jaw drops open. "What other things?"

"Uh, well, the dresser in Andreas and Brayden's room only has about two thirds of the screws in it that it's supposed to."

"Is that why it's so wobbly?"

"Probably," I admit. "And you know that light in the basement that started flickering?"

"Yeah."

"I never actually replaced it. I just go down and hit it with a broom once a day, because that seems to keep it lit up."

Her scowl changes into complete disbelief as she looks at me. To try to save myself from anymore anger that she has left, I stand up and go over to take her hands.

"But you know what?" I say. "I do those things, because I want to save money so that I can spend it on you, my beautiful wife, and our beautiful family. I want us to be able to have everything we want."

She falls soft at that, saying, "Aww," and giving me a kiss. But when she backs away afterward, she touches my shoulder and says, "What I want is for you to finish painting the whole wall when you start it."

"Okay," I mumble.

_________________________________________

TJ's POV

This is the second day Jayda's brought her boyfriend over, and I haven't been able to clearly focus on helping Wyatt with his history homework, because I keep trying to listen through the ceiling to hear what's going on in her room, but it's all muffled, and now I'm really wishing we had walls like Amber's.

When I hear them coming down the stairs, I get up from the dining table and go over to Cyrus in the kitchen to see her kiss him goodbye and close the door long after he has left.

"Jayda," Cyrus calls. "Can we talk to you for a minute?"

The girl walks over to us, looking completely oblivious to what we want to say.

"We just wanted to ask you about Jeremy," Cyrus explains. "More specifically, why you're dating him."

"Because I like him," she answers and crosses her arms. "Am I not allowed to like a boy?"

"No, of course you can," Cyrus replies. "It's just that we're not sure he's the best boy for you."

"So you're saying you don't like my boyfriend?" she says defensively.

"Jayda," I speak up, "you didn't even like your boyfriend until yesterday."

"Um, actually we've been dating for three days," she spits.

"We just want to make sure you've fully thought this through before deciding on it," Cyrus tells her.

"Oh my God!" she freaks. "I'm getting a boyfriend, not getting pregnant!"

She storms off in a cloud of teenage fury, stomping up to her room. While Cyrus and I are left silent, Wyatt sets down his pencil and chimes in from the dining room.

"If she does get pregnant, can I bring the baby to my friend's house to have baby races?"

"She's not getting pregnant," I snap.

_______________________________________

Buffy's POV

At the call of Andi's voice, Marty and I return to the living room, and I'm instantly stunned by a gorgeous painting of an abstract floral design. The bright blues and reds tie it in with the rest of the room. As I get up to it, I realize it's not just flowers. It's a family portrait. The various tones come together to show the shapes of me and Marty with our three kids. I stand in amazement, gazing upon the artwork.

"Do you like it?" Andi asks.

"Andi, I love it!" I reply.

"Yeah," Marty agrees. "If you can do a few more of these, I won't have to buy frames for our photos anymore."

I shoot my husband a glare, but I'm still too awestruck to mad.

"I'm kidding," he says. "It's really good."

"Thank you," Andi responds with a grin. "I might have to do one of these for our house too."

"To cover that bleach spot," Amber says.

"Good idea," Andi agrees. "I really need to get to painting that."

______________________________________

Walker's POV

Jonah's doing the dishes as I enter into the kitchen, but this picture isn't normal. Rather than using a cloth, he scrubs at a pan with a weird rubber-spiked brush. I can see the effort on his face as he works at the dish, and the disappointment that grows as none of the stuck food comes off.

"How's that scrub brush working for ya?" I ask with a chuckle.

"Great," Jonah answers.

I continue to observe him for a while. The way the scrub brush doesn't work at all is honestly uncomfortable to watch. Eventually, I can't stand it anymore.

"Jonah, just stop. That scrub brush isn't doing anything."

"No. I'm proving to you that it's better to be nice and just buy what the salespeople are offering."

"But it's not. The next time someone wants to sell you something, just say no, and then we won't have a useless scrub brush that only causes you more work."

"I won't do it," Jonah opposes. "I won't throw away my morals."

"This has nothing to do with morals. You just have to say you don't want what they're selling you."

All of a sudden, the doorbell rings, and Jonah and I both match eyes, then I hurry to get the door before him. I can tell right away by the company shirt that this is another salesperson.

"Hi," he says. "Could I take a minute of your time to tell you about our new no-stick frying pan?"

I see Jonah staring at me anxiously from the side, but I don't let him sway me.

"Actually, we're good," I say. "Thank you, though."

The man nods but frowns. "Oh, okay. Well, could you let your friends know about it? You see, my wife is in the hospital, so we need the money for her treatment, and I'm paid on commission."

At that, Jonah's whole expression droops, and he looks at me with sad eyes, pushing for me to change my mind. I don't want to do it, but I'm not heartless.

"Actually," I cave, "we'll get one."

The man perks up in an instant. "Oh, thank you so much!"

I pay him and fill out the paperwork, and he says he'll have the item mailed to my house. Once he leaves, Jonah gives me a gracious smile. As much as I hate to admit it, I guess I can understand why he doesn't say no.

Then I look back out at the man who's on the sidewalk now, a woman approaching him.

"Hey, honey, how'd you do?" he asks loud enough for me to overhear.

"Told him you were dying and sold two."

The couple takes off before my mind realizes what's happened, and I just look over to Jonah who smiles awkwardly.

"Okay, maybe sometimes you're right," he says. 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

The repeated smacking sound draws me into the kitchen where I see Amber aggressively hacking away at a carrot with a knife. With each chop, I become more worried that she'll accidentally take off a finger. I come over to the other side of the island to lean my elbows on it as I watch the woman violently prepare lunch.

"Since when do we make carrots fresh and not from frozen?" I question.

Amber doesn't look up as she replies, "Since I need something hard to cut to release my nerves."

She slaps the knife down again, making me flinch from the noise.

"How's that working?" I ask.

"Not well," she mutters. Then sets the knife down on the cutting board and puts her hands on the counter, saying, "Andi, I'm stressed."

"Is this about your dad?"

"Of course, it's about my dad," she confirms. "He hasn't bothered to visit or even talk to TJ and me in eleven years, and now all of a sudden he's decided that he misses his kids and wants to be a good dad. Yeah, that ship sailed along with his cruise to India."

She reaches behind her for a glass of red liquid, which she brings up to her lips to take a sip.

"Is that wine?" I ask.

"Yeah."

"It's eleven AM."

Amber shrugs and raises the glass again, saying, "If you don't look at the clocks, it can be any time you want."

After another gulp, she sets the cup down to her right, the lines of worry still on her forehead.

"Look," I say, "I know you and TJ don't have a great relationship with your dad, but if he wants to try, then maybe you should let him."

"If it were only us in this house, I wouldn't be so worried about it."

"It's about Hazel? But I thought you said he was fine with it."

Amber shakes her head and confesses, "I never told him."

"You never told him?" I repeat, my eyebrows going up.

"No. Because I knew he wouldn't accept her, and I'm scared to hear what he's gonna say now."

"Well, he's met Hazel before, and he always liked her," I reason.

"Yes, but that was before the dresses and the makeup and the puberty blockers..." Amber's anxiety is clearly audible in her tense voice. "He still only knows her by her deadname."

"Well, if he's coming to stay here, then you have to tell him," I respond. "It's not fair for Hazel to have to hide from her grandfather."

"I know, I know," Amber says. "I hid from him for eighteen years, and it was horrible. He's still a little weird about having two gay kids, but nowhere near like he was at the start, so maybe this will go over okay."

"Okay, so when he gets here, we'll find a moment to talk to him alone to explain it," I suggest.

Amber nods, but a second later, she asks, "What if he isn't okay with it?"

"Then he can leave," I answer. "This is out house. He's a guest in it, so he'll either be respectful or be gone."

Our conversation comes to a halt as Hazel enters in from the hallway, coming up to us with determined intention in her movement.

"Can I have eighty dollars?" she asks. "And before you say no, just know that it is for a very important cause."

"What cause?" Amber questions.

"I need a new outfit."

"You have plenty of outfits," I respond.

"Yes, but none of them are good enough," she protests.

"Good enough for what?" I say.

"For everything," she states, now getting worked up.

"Everything," Amber repeats, her brows furrowed in confusion.

"You know," Hazel starts, crossing her arms, "effective parents would say yes, because that would support my independence and self-confidence."

"Which psychologist said that?" Amber pokes. "Sigmund Freud?"

Hazel looks grossed out at that. "Ew! No. Freud is the guy who thought all kids wanted to have sex with their parents."

"Ew," Amber reacts, while I just mutter, "What are we letting you read?"

Hazel moves on, asking, "So are you going to give me the money?"

"Here, if you want a new outfit," Amber responds, "I can take you shopping."

"Shopping with my mom? That would be contradictory to my goal."

"What is your goal?" I question.

She just shakes her head and starts for the hallway again, mumbling, "Forget it."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

When I hear the front door open, I make my way toward it, passing through the living room where Jayda is glued to her phone and Wyatt is playing with some army men, both oblivious to the entrance of their father getting home from work. He greets me with a smile, and I go up, throwing my arms over his shoulders, but right as I'm about to kiss him, the aroma turns me off, and I step back.

"Oh, you smell like smoke."

"Papa!" Jayda says with a pleased gasp. "Are you smoking?"

My husband looks at her in disbelief, saying, "I'm a firefighter."

He returns his eyes to me, and I put a hand on his chest, saying, "You should go take a shower."

"I will," he agrees, "but first, while I have the whole family here, I want to talk to you guys."

He steps into the living room, but the kids still don't pay attention.

"Wyatt," TJ says, "could you please stop trying to melt your army men and listen for a second?"

"But they're in the middle of an interrogation," the boy argues.

"Wait, where did you get a lighter?" I question.

At that, TJ's eyes spring open wider, as though he didn't fully see what was happening either until now.

"I found it in the couch," Wyatt answers.

Jayda glances up to see it then says, "Oh, that's Jeremy's." She reaches over happily to take it from her brother. "He thought he lost it."

That doesn't help me feel any better.

"Okay," I say, my voice tense, "Wyatt, you're not allowed to play with lighters. And Jayda, you're not allowed to play with guys who play with lighters."

"Whatever," she mumbles.

"Why can't I play with it?" Wyatt shoots back to me.

"Because you could light something on fire."

"And my dad's a firefighter."

"Okay, I'm gonna bring this back to what I wanted to say," TJ declares. "As you know, your grandpa is coming to town—"

"Oh my God," Jayda interrupts, eyes widening in fear. "I don't have to share my room with him, right?"

"No," TJ says, becoming a little on edge. "He's staying at Amber's. But while he's in town, I need you guys to be on your best behaviour."

"That's fine," Jayda responds. "I'll be at Jeremy's most of the time anyway."

"Uh, no, you won't," I tell her. "Your grandpa's going to want to see you."

I also just don't want her at Jeremy's, but that's not a reason she'll listen to.

Jayda seems shocked by my request. "Then who am I supposed to talk to?"

"Talk to your family," TJ answers.

She lets out an exhausted huff. "Fine."

"Good," TJ responds. "Wyatt?"

He looks up from the spot on the floor that he's been staring at. "What?"

"Did you hear me?" TJ asks.

"No," he replies. "What makes the hardwood so shiny?"

TJ sighs, and I say to him, "I'll tell him again. You go shower."

"Okay," TJ responds. "Thanks."

He comes in to kiss me on the cheek, but I pull back, saying, "Uh-uh. I don't want to smell like a campfire too."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

"Dinner's ready!" I shout.

Marty finishes getting the vegetables out of the microwave while I take the beans off the stovetop and the potatoes out of the oven. Cara's the first to come in, and I fill a plate for her to carry to her spot at the table. But when Brayden and Andreas step in, two groans accompany them.

"What?" I say.

"This is the same thing we ate last night," Brayden complains.

"That's because your dad and I both worked all day, and this is quick."

"Yeah, and it's also burnt," Andreas replies, gesturing to the blackened potatoes.

"Not to mention it completely lacks any flavour," Brayden adds.

"You just did mention that," I respond. "Now either eat the food or go hungry."

"Yeah," Marty supports. "There are kids in Africa who would die to have a meal like this."

Brayden looks at him in confusion. "I think that would defeat the purpose of the meal."

"We would just like to have something good for a change," Andreas says. "Some of my friends' parents make them awesome dinners. Even something simple like quesadillas."

"Look, your dad and I work hard all day. The last thing we want to do is come home and work hard again to make dinner."

"But it's not that hard," Brayden argues.

"Then you two can make it."

Marty's attention turns to me. He can probably see exactly where I'm going.

"You guys can make dinner tomorrow," I go on, "and if you manage to make something better than what we make, then we'll start making some fancier meals."

Brayden narrows his eyes. "Deal."

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

When the door opens and TJ's family steps in, I feel a huge portion of my worry lift off my chest.

"Oh, thank God," I breathe.

Now that TJ's here, there's another Kippen to keep my dad entertained. He hasn't arrived yet, but he's going to be here later in the evening, and Andi already cut off my wine intake for the day so my stress is thriving.

While Jayda and Wyatt join Hazel in the living room, TJ and Cyrus come over to me and Andi in the kitchen, TJ's eyes examining my current state.

"You look awful," he says.

"You look dumb," I snipe back.

"Yup," Andi mumbles. "Still siblings."

"I'm sorry," I say. "I've just been freaking out a lot about Dad coming."

TJ sighs and says, "I know Dad's been kinda inconsistent when it came to being there for us, and he left without notice, but even if he bothers you, you can put up with him for the few days he'll be here. Really, what are you so worried about?"

I look over at the living room where Hazel is busy talking with Jayda and make sure she isn't going to overhear me. She's probably already scared enough about this all too. I don't need to build on to her fears with my own.

Deciding it's safe, I whisper, "Hazel."

TJ doesn't get it. "Why—? Oh. Right."

"Yeah," I huff.

Before I can get myself worked up all over again, I try to turn my mind onto something else, saying, "Anyway, what's new with you two?"

"Um, well, we just got the alarm system keypad replaced," Cyrus explains.

Andi furrows her brows. "What was wrong with it?"

"Jayda's boyfriend has questionable hobbies," Cyrus answers.

Jayda's POV

Whoever invented the cell phone is a life-saver. Without it, I'd have to spend all afternoon with my family and no connection to the outside world. Even though I'm stuck here, at least I can scroll through my Instapic to keep from losing my sanity. The posts show everything that I need to be caught up with. Kelly got a new dress. Totally stunning. Angel got bangs. Cute! Brooke got bangs. Ugh. What a wannabe. Tatianna posted another selfie, with comments galore beneath, all saying the same general message: gorgeous, wow, beautiful. I like the photo and leave a comment of my own: 😍💕💕

"What are you looking at?" Hazel asks.

She sits on the other end of the couch, watching me as I continue to scroll.

"Instapic," I reply.

"Oh, cool."

One new like. It's on the bathroom selfie I took from over my shoulder to get my backside, a cute but hot pose, according to all the comments. The like is from Jeremy. I smile at the thought of him looking through my profile.

"Can I ask you a question?" Hazel speaks again. "You have good fashion sense."

"That's not a question," I reply, "and that's obvious."

"Would you give me fashion advice?"

My eyes spark at that, and I lock my phone.

"OMG, yes!" I answer. "For starters, yellow is not your colour."

She glances down at her yellow dress then back up to me.

"Yellow is my favorite colour," she says.

"Hmm. Well, I suggest getting a new favorite colour."

"I just want to fix my wardrobe to look more like you," she responds.

My little cousin finally wants to fix her style, and she came to me. I'm the obvious choice, of course, but I'm still flattered. To be honest, I didn't think this day would come. She's always been way more focused on how the "personality is what matters" that she hardly puts thought into her clothes. I'm pretty sure she still shops at kid stores, and with her going into high school next year, she needs to change that. This job calls for a complete wardrobe do-over.

"Daddy," I call toward the kitchen.

My darker-haired dad looks in my direction.

"Can I take Hazel to the mall?"

Auntie Amber gets excited and responds before Daddy can, saying, "Yes! Please do!"

"But they'll miss your dad getting here," Daddy says to her.

Auntie Amber just brushes him off with a wave.

A smile beams on Hazel's face as she leaps off of the couch, and I stand up with her, more composed.

Then she runs up to her moms, asking, "Can I have that eighty dollars now?"

Auntie Amber replies, "There's money in the cupboard."

"Yes!" my cousin cheers.

"Wait, how are you getting there?" Daddy asks me.

"We'll take the bus," I answer.

I head for the door and put my shoes on before Hazel comes to join me, and we both exit together.

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

I've always known I was smarter than my brother. That's been made clear by our report cards over the years. But with cooking, the breadth of my superiority is being challenged immensely. I've never cooked. I've never had to cook, and I don't plan on ever having to. I plan on becoming wealthy by creating a successful business, and wealthy people don't have to cook. They pay people to do that. Money and intelligence are the two most powerful things. If you have those, you can build nuclear weaponry that can destroy a nation. And the beauty of money is that if you don't have intelligence in a certain area, you pay someone who has it. So learning how to cook seems like a bitter waste of my time. But my mom thinks I can't do it, and I'm going to prove her wrong. Of course, that could be hard due to the fact that neither my brother nor I have ever cooked before.

Currently, we've got olive oil, peppers, and onions in a pan on the stove, the beginning of our quesadillas. I've taken it upon myself to be leader and read the recipe out to my brother who simply follows my directions.

"Okay, add the salt into that too," I say.

"Got it," Andreas replies.

While he does that, I look down at the recipe again. After double-checking the next steps, I turn back around and see the sugar container sitting on the counter.

"Did you just add sugar instead of salt?" I question.

"Auntie Amber says it works as a substitute," Andreas replies.

I suck in a breath and hold it, trying to keep myself from flipping out.

"Okay," I say, "so they'll be a little sweeter than normal. Can you just get the salt from the pantry and put that in?"

"I couldn't find it."

"Well, look again."

He sighs and goes to do that. Meanwhile, I ponder over the cup measure and the half-cup measure, deciding which will be easier to measure three quarters of a cup with.

"I do wish these were written using the metric system," I huff. "It's so much easier to work with."

"I don't think you could measure salt in feet, though," Andreas chimes in.

I look at him, absolutely stunned. But that is interrupted when the phone rings, and I go over to see who it is. It's my mom. I press talk and try to sound confident.

"Hi, Mom."

"Hi, Brayden. How's the cooking?"

"It's going fantastic. You're going to be blown away when you get home tonight."

"Glad to hear it. Well, I won't keep you. Say hi to Cara and Andreas for me."

"I will. Bye."

I hang up the phone and look over at Andreas who's now pouring salt into the pan straight out of the container.

"This isn't working," I say.

He puts down the container and turns to face me, saying, "I didn't think it was going that bad."

"It is," I state. "And I have an idea to help us."

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

The mall is crowded. It's overwhelming, because I don't usually come here. Shopping trips for me are usually restricted to either Christmas, summer, or back-to-school. For Jayda, this is just leisure time. Girls like her live here. They're obsessed with their appearance, a superficial thing that I've officially given in to by being here with her. Is it so wrong to want to be considered attractive for once?

She leads me up to the entrance of a store I've only ever passed by but never gone into before. The mannequins here are wearing outfits that only cover about fifty percent of the surface area my regular clothes cover.

"This is my favorite store," Jayda says.

"Why does it look like the clothing manufacturer for this place wanted to save money on fabric?"

She rolls her eyes and takes my hand to pull me in, saying, "Just trust me."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

"Okay," Uncle Walker says as he and Uncle Jonah come into the kitchen. "What are we cooking?"

After Andreas and I failed on our own, we called Uncle Walker and Uncle Jonah, knowing that Uncle Walker is a good cook. He always makes the best dishes at family dinners, so I figured he could help my brother and I make something better than an accidentally sweet puddle of vegetables in a pan.

"Quesadillas," I answer.

"We started with a recipe we found online," Andreas explains, "but it didn't go too hot."

"That's okay," Uncle Walker responds. "I know a good recipe I can show you. Brayden, you can get out the tortillas. Andreas, empty whatever mess you have in that pan right now so that we can start fresh."

"Where's Cara?" Uncle Jonah wonders, looking around.

"She's playing in the basement," Andreas replies.

"Well, why isn't she helping?" Uncle Jonah asks.

"Um, Uncle Jonah," I say, "she's six."

"Age is just a number," he responds. "She can grate cheese."

"Making a six year-old do manual labour," I state. "This will be a nice throwback to the industrial revolution."

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

The dress has thin straps and a flowing skirt that goes out at the waist. The top is tight and smocked, framing my body, and the pattern consists of tiny, red flowers on a peach backdrop. I'm nervous as I pull it on over my head. I almost don't want to look in the mirror, afraid that I might not like what I see. I've always struggled with that. Getting dressed is one of the hardest daily activities, because it reminds me that I don't look like other girls, but I want to so bad. I want other girls to see me as the same as them. I want them to think I'm pretty, especially one girl in particular.

I take in a shaky breath before unlocking my dressing room door and stepping out to look in the mirror. Immediately, my shaky breath is taken as I comprehend what I'm seeing. My long, brown hair falls over my shoulders following the flow of the dress. The hem of the skirt cuts off at my mid-thigh, showing my legs, which look slimmer than I usually see them. And mixed in with the million freckles on my face is a smile, because I don't look like a little kid. I look like a thirteen year-old girl, and I feel like myself, which is so strange, because this is Jayda's favorite store. But I guess she knows me better than I thought. Apparently, she knows a part of me that I didn't even know.

Jayda stands to my left, gawking at my dress.

"Damn, girl!" she says.

I do a twirl, letting the skirt flutter back down as I return facing forward, then look in the mirror again.

"Woah," I breathe.

"See," Jayda says with a grin. "I told you you could trust me."

"Yeah."

"Wait here," she tells me. "I'll bring you another outfit."

 

Chapter Text

Hazel's POV

Jayda and I eat our ice cream at a table in the food court. Her eyes keep wandering over to every cute boy that passes, but she doesn't do anything, because she already has a boyfriend. She hasn't looked at her phone this whole time, and honestly, it might be a record. Usually, she clings to that thing like it's her baby, but apparently helping me buy clothes is entertaining enough, and I can't help but feel a little good about that.

"You're going to look so hot in those outfits," Jayda says before consuming another spoonful of ice cream.

She eats ice cream the way the love interest in a romantic movie would, in dainty scoops at a time, and letting the spoon linger on her lips before bringing it back down.

"You think?" I respond.

"Definitely," she says. "All the boys are going to love you."

I look down at my bowl as I reply, "Well, it's not a boy who I want to think I look hot."

Jayda lights up at that. "Oooh! Is it a girl? A non-binary person?"

"It's a girl," I say.

"Oh my gosh! My little cousin has a crush!"

"I'm only younger than you by a year," I remind her.

"Whatever," she responds. "What's her name?"

"Camille. She's my friend."

"Oooh! Is she pretty?"

"Very," I answer. "Way prettier than me."

"What are you talking about?" Jayda questions. "Sure, you're a little nerdy sometimes, but you're definitely pretty."

"Not like you," I say. "You're beautiful and popular, and everyone likes you."

"That's true," she agrees with a smile, "but just because you're not popular, it doesn't mean you're not datable."

I shake my head. "I don't even know how to date, or how to ask her out for that matter. I tried talking to Andreas, but all he gave me was a bad pickup line."

"Yeah, that boy is way too confident," Jayda says with a laugh. "Let me just say there's a reason why he can't keep a girlfriend for more than two weeks."

I giggle and try another scoop of my ice cream.

"Don't worry so much about yourself," Jayda continues. "You'll be fine. And if this girl is already friends with you, then she must like something about you."

I smile at that. "Thanks, Jayda."

_________________________________________

Amber's POV

When the doorbell rings, I stand up in a flash from my chair in the living room where I've been sitting to talk with my family. That must be my dad. He's here. That means I need to talk to him. I really wish I could just fast forward now to get this over with.

Seeing my nervous look, TJ says, "I'll get it."

He opens the door, and my dad's familiar face steps in. He looks pretty much the same, with a golf shirt and shorts, except that his hairline is more receded now than it was eleven years ago, and his skin has more sunspots. Rather than going in for a hug, he gives his son a pat on the back as he smiles.

"Hey, there, bud," he says, "but I thought this was Amber's house."

I step forward, and his eyes look over to me.

"Hi, Dad," I say shyly.

"Hey, champ. I hope you don't mind. There wasn't space in the driveway, so I parked on the lawn."

Um, actually, I do mind.

"No, of course not," I reply through clenched teeth. "How have you been?"

"Oh, pretty good," he responds. "I just got back from Australia. Let me tell you. They've got animals there with more venom than your mother."

He chuckles, but TJ and I just smile uncomfortably. He and my mom got divorced almost right after TJ and I both moved out. I assume that that was probably to spare us the difficulty of having divorced parents while living at home, but it does make me wonder how much of our happy family was a lie. My dad thinks that joking about it makes it easier, but it really doesn't.

"Anyway," my dad says, "tell me about you guys. How are the families?"

"You'd know if you bothered to call," I grumble.

"Hey, the long-distance charges are crazy across the world."

"Right," I mutter.

"Uh, my family's doing fine," TJ answers to the earlier question. "Jayda is a teenager now, and Wyatt's getting there."

"Ah, that's great," Dad says with a smile. "What about you, Amber? How's Tavon? The house full of women ain't driving him crazy, I hope."

That shuts everyone up in an instant, and my dad looks around at the room in puzzlement.

"What did I say?" he wonders.

"Um, about that," I say, "I need to tell you something."

Assessing the situation, Cyrus stands up and turns to his son, saying, "Wyatt, do you want to help me with something in the basement for a minute?"

The boy just replies, "No."

"Okay, come on," Cyrus says anyway.

He takes the boy toward the doorway that leads to the stairs, and TJ and Andi step back, figuring I'll need the space. And they're right. If not for myself, my fear needs the room, because it rings at my spine like a cloth and presses my breath to make it feel sharp and cold like trying to inhale ice. But I force myself to continue.

"Um, okay, so I don't know how to start this, so I'll just tell you," I say. "Tavon's name is Hazel now."

"What?" my dad reacts, scrunching his face in confusion. "You changed it? And to Hazel? That's a girl's name."

"Yeah," I breathe, feeling the cold start to freeze my lungs, making breathing even more of a challenge. "She's a girl."

"What are you talking about?" my dad argues. "I met him when he was a baby, and I think I would've noticed if he was a girl."

"Dad," I say, trying to keep my voice steady, "she's transgender."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

"You ready to see what they've made?" I ask Marty.

He nods, and I unlock the door to our home. As soon as we step inside, I smell the meal, and the two of us make our way into the kitchen where our three kids are standing with plates ready at the table. Brayden and Andreas have proud smiles on their faces, while Cara has a band-aid on her finger, making me wonder what she was doing while we were gone.

"Come on in and take a seat," Brayden instructs.

Marty and I do as told and take our chairs in front of the quesadillas they made. To my surprise, they actually look edible. And that worries me, because I was counting on this being a disaster. I love my kids, and I believe that they can do anything they set their minds to, but I didn't expect them to be able to do it in one afternoon without any prior practice.

"Try it," Andreas says.

Marty and I each pick up one of the quesadillas and take bites. And damn it, it's good.

"You like it?" Andreas asks.

I finishing swallowing then set down the snack.

"It's really good," Marty says.

"Yeah, it is," I agree reluctantly.

Marty looks over at me with a grin, still eating. "This is killing you, isn't it?"

"No," I say, even though it is kind of killing me. "I'm proud of you guys. You proved that cooking good food wasn't so hard after all."

"Did dad tell you to say that?" Brayden asks skeptically.

"No," I reply. "I really am proud. You guys worked really well together to make a good dinner, and I guess now that means I'll have to—"

Suddenly, a beep goes off, and I see Andreas's phone light up on the table. He reaches to grab it, but I manage to read the text before he does.

Uncle Walker: Let me know how they like the dinner. I have plenty more recipes to show you if they do.

My sons' faces go red, realizing they've been caught.

"You got Walker to make them for you?" I say.

"We only asked for help," Brayden argues.

"His help just happened to be directing the whole thing," Andreas adds.

"We called in reinforcements," Brayden says. "We were just being resourceful, which I think should earn us extra points."

"Nice try," I say. "You cheated."

"Okay, you were right," Andreas admits. "Cooking is hard."

"Well, I think you learned something useful," Marty tells him. "Now you guys know how to cook, and that will come in handy."

"When will knowing how to cook ever be useful?" Andreas questions.

"Girls like a man who can cook," Marty responds.

That makes Andreas's disappointed face turn positive again.

"Which is also why," Marty goes on, "I'll see if Walker can give me those recipes, and maybe I can try making a few."

He looks at me, and I know what he's thinking, and he's right. The kids went to the effort of learning how to cook today. We should try to get better at it for them.

"Yeah, and I'll help," I say with a smile.

I lean into Marty, putting my arm around him as he wraps his over my shoulder. I may not like to cook, but with him, I can bear it.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

This is getting tedious now. My dad isn't budging, and my worry has already changed into anger and now just plain sadness. I really want him to be okay with this, but right now, he doesn't even believe it.

"So he likes dolls and makeup," he says "That doesn't mean he's a girl."

"But she is," I state. "I know you don't really agree with this kind of thing—"

"I don't," he huffs. "I think it's nuts."

"But I would appreciate it," I go on, "if you'd at least try to accept her."

Suddenly, the front door opens, and I see Jayda enter in. Too soon. I haven't finished this talk yet. But I can't exactly turn them away now. My dad is already looking.

And then Hazel enters after Jayda, and the ice in my chest melts away in an instant as I look at my girl. She's smiling so wide that it's like the stars have become her crown. They shower her in a radiance that lights her from the inside out. She's wearing a new dress, a sky blue one with a square neckline and ruffled sleeves. It's simple yet soft in it's style, but the dress is nothing compared to the beautiful girl in it.

When she sees her grandpa, her face goes blank, and she stares at him, frozen. She knew he was coming, but I think she had the same worry that I did. She's a flower, bold and strong to the eye, but fragile when touched, and my dad is a gardener who could yank her out like a weed if he wanted to. Please, Dad. Please be kind.

When Jayda goes up to hug her grandpa, he takes her in with open arms.

"There's my granddaughter," he greets Jayda with a grin.

And then he looks over at Hazel, and he does something that makes me start to cry. He waves her in.

"Let's get my other granddaughter in here too," he says.

Hazel's look of fear turns into a smile, and she runs up, joining into the group hug. Andi comes over to hug me too, because she notices my eyes welling up. Although the image becomes blurry quickly from my tears, I can still see the outline of my dad, my daughter, and my niece, and I wish I could bottle this feeling of joy and keep it with me.

Thank you, Dad.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

When I walk into the kitchen, I see Cara sitting on top of the counter with a mixing bowl and a whisk. Beside her is a pan of dark blue cookies. If I were my wife, I would probably question why she's using the oven unattended, but hey, she's being independent. I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.

"Making cookies?" I ask.

She nods. "Mmhmm."

I reach for one of the treats and take a bite.

"Hey that's actually pretty good," I say. "What made them this colour?"

"Play-dough," she answers.

I pause my chewing for a second, then I shrug and take another bite. Play-dough's non-toxic anyway.

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

The show plays on the television in the living room while Cyrus leans against my chest, my arm holding him close. His eyes gleam the image of the screen as I look at them, but they're glued to the motion picture. Eventually, he realizes I'm staring at him and turns his sight to me with a smile.

"Have I ever told you how attractive you are?" I say.

"Yes," he responds. "I believe you've said something like that before."

"Well, then this is a reminder."

He grins and raises his lips as I lower my chin, but right when we're about to kiss, our daughter's groan of annoyance makes us split, and we both spin around on the couch to see Jayda with her arms crossed. She tends to do this exact thing where she doesn't explain her anger to us, instead just making it clear that she's upset, while waiting for us to ask about it.

"What's wrong?" Cyrus says, taking the bait.

"I'm trying to work with Andreas on our group project, and he's doing nothing!" she complains.

"Oh, no. That's your job," I reply jokingly.

But Jayda completely agrees. "I know!"

"Honey, he can probably hear you," Cyrus says.

There's only a wall that divides the living room from the dining room where Andreas is sitting, and neither rooms have doors to block the sound. Considering she's shouting, I think you could be anywhere on the main floor and be able to hear her, except maybe in the washroom.

"I doubt it," Jayda counters. "He has his headphones in, and he's watching videos on his phone. I'm supposed to be the one who sits around on my phone! Now I'm being forced to take control, and I can't do that!"

"Well, why didn't you choose a different partner?" Cyrus asks.

"Because," she replies, "it was either him or the kid who thinks that, because I'm Asian, I should be able to recommend good Chinese food places."

"Didn't any of your friends want to do it with you?" I question.

"None of my friends are in that class, and all the nerds were taken, so now I'm stuck with Andreas, and the only idea for our presentation topic that he's come up with in an hour is the evolution of girls' swimsuit models."

Both Cyrus and I just look confused.

"What is your project supposed to be about?" Cyrus questions.

"Human rights," Jayda answers. "We have to pick an issue from the past and present on it."

"What do women's swimsuit models have to do with human rights?" Cyrus wonders.

"He says it's a human right to have them."

"Okay, well," I say," if you need a topic, there's a pretty good human rights issue that your dad and I know well."

She only looks lost at that, furrowing her brows as she says, "Like what? Unions?"

"Um...well, that's a good one too," I respond, "but not what I was gonna say."

"Then what?"

Cyrus and I share a glance, but Jayda just gets impatient and shakes her head.

"Whatever," she says. "I have to get back to my homework." She spins around to leave but looks back once more to whine, "Homework! What has my life come to?"

_________________________________________

Jonah's POV

The hospital isn't too busy today. The nurses and doctors are calm as they wander between rooms, and the only families waiting in the sitting area of this floor are all chatting quietly, drinking their beverages and keeping their kids occupied. I like these days a lot better than when there's a stressful procedure happening, because then I have to watch the scared families try not to get too worked up, which isn't something I enjoy.

Cambry, the receptionist, gives me a smile as I go up, and she answers my question, knowing what I'm going to ask before I ask it.

"He's not out yet, but he should be soon."

"Thanks," I respond.

My husband is an art therapist here, and whenever I get off work at the same time as him, I swing by the hospital to pick him up. That's why many of the staff here know me. I've also come with him to several of the hospital's work parties before. There, I get to hear about all the hospital gossip from the nurses, which isn't much, since they're sworn to secrecy about most things, but every once in a while, there will be mention of a spicy nurse scandal.

When I turn around to go take a seat on one of the cushioned chairs around the coffee table, a swarm of toddlers catches my attention. There's about ten of them all being lead by three women with hospital tags, going toward the elevators. They start packing into one of the elevators, and I watch the children all gab nonsensically. Right as the doors start to close, I notice a stuffed donkey on the floor that one of the kids must have dropped.

"Wait!" I call, leaping up from my chair to grab it off the floor, but by the time I get to the elevator, they're already gone.

I can't let a child lose their donkey, so I go over to the receptionist to ask her about the kids.

"Hey, Cambry, what was that group of kids?"

"Oh, that was the daycare," she explains, "for the kids of the staff."

"Do you know where they were headed? One of them dropped their toy."

"Yes. The daycare is on the first floor. Go down there and take your first right. It's at the end of that hallway. Bright and colourful; you can't miss it."

"Thanks," I say.

Walker's POV

I end up staying late by a little while, cleaning up the paint that my last patient splattered everywhere. When I finally get out, I make my way to the sitting area where Jonah usually waits for me, but I'm surprised to see that he's not here. I suppose I could've sent him a text to say that I was gonna be a bit late, but I didn't think he would leave without me. Confused, I go up to the desk in the centre of the floor.

"Hey, Cambry," I say, "did you see Jonah at all?"

"Oh, yes," she replies with a smile. "He actually went down to the daycare about twenty minutes ago."

"Oh, okay. Thanks."

Why would he be at the daycare? Pondering that the whole way, I go down to get him. I know I'm getting close when the sound of children playing grows, and soon I turn through the door into the room with the baby blue walls and vibrant play structures and toys. It's a large centre with a space for babies to nap behind the sound-proof glass of a separate room, a space around the corner for the babies to be held and cuddled, and a play area with tens of toddlers all supervised by the daycare workers. In the middle of that area, I spot my husband sitting with a toddler playing with foam blocks. A wide smile lights on his face as I go up to him.

Before standing up, he looks at the kid beside him and says, "Take a five, Timmy."

Once up at my height, he puts his hands casually in his pockets and smiles like nothing out of the ordinary is going on.

"Uh, what's up?" I question.

"Oh, I found a stuffed animal that belonged to one of the kids here, so I brought it back, and then I stayed to help watch them until you got out."

Suddenly, a thud grabs my focus, and I look to see a Frisbee denting the wall before falling to the ground. Quickly, a little girl picks it up again and tosses it to her friend—vertically. Neither kid is able to throw or catch it properly. I return my eyes to Jonah in question.

"Did you give them a Frisbee?" I ask.

"It's never too young to start."

Joining our conversation comes one of the daycare workers with a large, gum-showing smile.

"Jonah, is this your husband?" she wonders.

Jonah nods, and the woman reaches out to shake my hand, giving it a pat as she does.

"Your husband is such a natural with the kids," she tells me. "He got them to stop crying by singing this lovely song about how he cried. It was the sweetest thing."

"I like to relate to the kids," Jonah says. "Helps build that mutual trust. They're calling me the toddler tamer."

"Yes, he's great," the woman agrees then turns to Jonah. "Feel free to stop by anytime."

"Thanks, Shelly," Jonah replies.

The woman is stolen away by a little boy pulling at her pant leg, and at that, Jonah begins heading for the exit, but I take another second to process everything I just learnt, following only when he looks back to call to me.

"Walker?"

"Yup, sorry. I'm coming."

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

Amber and I are sitting together at the kitchen table, Amber working on her laptop, and me sketching out a sculpture design, when our daughter comes up and slaps a giant book down in front of us. My wife and I startle our heads up, and our daughter plops down in a chair.

"I found this on the shelf, in the basement," she says. "And I wanted to ask about..."

She flips open the cover, and I see that it's a photo album, one I haven't opened in a long time. She swipes through the pages, stopping on a picture that sparks a vivid memory in my mind. It's one of the selfies that Amber and I took the first time she slept over at my house. In it, we're smiling wide, wearing wigs to look like each other.

"What were you doing here?" Hazel asks with a laugh.

Amber smiles as she recalls the moment, explaining, "I went to you mom's house for a sleepover, and we did each other's makeup and dressed up like each other."

Hazel furrows her brows at me, asking, "Why did you have a wig of your own hair?"

"I got it for a Harry Potter costume without fully thinking about it," I reply. "But I'm glad I had it, because that was a really fun night. I mean, it was until we snuck out, and she left me on the ferris wheel in the middle of the night."

"Wait, you snuck out to ride a ferris wheel?" Hazel echoes.

Realizing my mistake, I attempt to backtrack, but Hazel's expression shows that she's too into this story to let it go.

"No," I say then admit, "Well, yes, but it was a bad idea."

"I convinced her to do it," Amber confesses. "We shouldn't have trespassed at all."

I know she was trying to help, but Amber's statement has only made it worse, shown by how Hazel's jaw drops farther.

"You trespassed at an amusement park?"

"Yes," Is say, "but—"

"How were you not arrested?" Hazel interrupts.

"I was thirteen," I explain. "I was taken to the police station, but I wouldn't call it arrested."

"So neither of you have been arrested before?" she probes.

I pause before responding, "Well, I have, but—"

Hazel's gasp gets in the way of me finishing, and she says, "I always thought Momma was the bad influence, but you were just as bad!"

"No, Hazel. I—"

"This is too good," she says, laughing.

Before I can explain anything else, she gets up and heads for her room. Meanwhile, I'm here regretting this whole conversation.

_________________________________________

Jayda's POV

I sit across from Andreas at the dining room table. Our laptops are open, and our books are out, but Andreas is sitting on his phone, not bothering to even try to do work. It's really annoying. This is a group project. That means he's supposed to be paying attention while I bring the snacks. I already brought the snacks, therefore I did my part, and now he has to do his.

"Andreas!" I snap. "Can you focus for a second?"

He doesn't even look up as he replies, "I'm talking to Jackson."

"I don't care about—"

"Apparently, him and Mira broke up."

I gasp. "No way!"

Mira Madlin, beautiful volleyball girl who only plays that sport to wear the boots shorts for the boys, the bitch who totally insulted my bracelet the other day by saying her grandmother had the same one, the girl who fell off Bradley's balcony into his pool at a party two months ago, broke up with football player Jackson Cajas.

"Yeah," Andreas confirms, chuckling. "Apparently, he dumped her, and then she shaved his cat and stormed out."

"No way!" I say louder this time.

"Yeah way," Andreas responds. "That means she's single."

"Yeah," I scoff, immediately grossed out by his one-track mind, "and a psychopath."

"Think she'd go for me?"

"Well, she's a psychopath, so probably."

He blows off my comment, continuing his texting with a grin.

"Isn't she one of your best friends?" he asks.

"Yeah. What's your point?" Then I realize, "Shit. I need to text her to make sure she's okay."

"Put in a good word for me," Andreas says with a nod, and I roll my eyes.

_________________________________________

Walker's POV

I get out of my studio at the hospital and step out to the sitting area, finding that my husband isn't here again today. Maybe he went to the washroom, so I take a seat and wait. After a few minutes, I get up to go over to the receptionist desk, and Cambry has an answer ready for me.

"He's down at the daycare again."

I give her my thanks then take the elevator to the main floor, following the same path as the last time he came to pick me up. When I enter the room, Jonah is sitting in a circle with a bunch of toddlers playing Stella Ella Ola. I step out of the way of the door to watch as the kids all sing together, and after a second, one of the women in the room comes up to me with a smile.

"Which one is yours?" she asks. "Mine is the one year-old at the back with the teddy bear."

"Mine is the man playing Stella Ella Ola," I say.

The women scans me skeptically then looks at Jonah then back at me.

"He's my husband," I explain.

"Oh," she responds, understanding now.

She continues past me to pick up her daughter, and I wait for Jonah to be slapped out of the game. When he is, the whole group of toddlers cheers and giggles. I step forward to meet Jonah halfway as he comes over still smiling.

"How are the kids today?" I ask.

"They're great," he replies. "I taught one how to roll over."

"You mean do a somersault?" I question.

"Yeah, that!"

All of a sudden, a cluster of high-pitched gasps comes from the ladies to our right, and I look over to see five women all gawking at the baby in one of the ladies' arms.

"Those were his first words!" one of the women cheers.

"Say it again!" another woman tells the baby.

"Docious magocious," comes the baby's tiny voice.

Summoned by the occurrence, Jonah hurries over to join the smiling ladies, while I just stand here, completely dumbfounded.

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

The corn chowder is steaming, letting me know that it's almost time for supper. When I reach in the cupboard to get the bowls, I hear the sound of footsteps and stop what I'm doing to see Hazel passing through toward the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" I question.

"Just to hang out with friends," she responds.

"It's way too late," I say.

"Are you really one to talk?" she quips. "Don't worry. I promise I won't get arrested."

"Hazel," I say, "you don't know the full story."

She strolls back over to the island to lean on it with curiosity.

"Then please," she says with a grin, "enlighten me."

"I wasn't arrested for doing something bad," I explain. "I mean, I guess I was, but it wasn't really... Me and your aunt and uncles found out that there was this big clothing company that just threw away all the clothes that didn't sell, so we stole them from their garbage and gave them away for free."

Hazel's smile droops as she responds, "Okay, that's not the big misdemeanour I was hoping for."

"No," I say with a breath, "but it did end badly."

Hazel contemplates my story for a moment, her eyes focused on the island countertop.

"Look," I say, "I don't mind telling you stories about me when I was younger, but I need you to think of them as lessons rather than ammo to use against me. I don't ever want to have to pick you up from a police station."

"Fair enough," Hazel responds. Then she looks up at me again. "So if you don't mind telling me stuff, does that mean I can ask you about you and mom as teenagers?"

"As long as you promise not to use my answers as justification for the choices you make, then sure."

With that, Hazel's grin returns, and she leans in a little more.

"Did you and Mom ever sneak out any other times?"

I hesitate for a moment before responding, "Yes."

"Really? Where?"

I shrug. "Different places."

She nods then asks, "Was Mom your first kiss?"

"No."

"Was she your first time?"

"Okay, I don't see how this is relevant anymore," I state, flustered.

Hazel backs down, saying, "Fine. But I'll be back with more questions."

I chuckle awkwardly and respond, "Looking forward to it."

She steps back around the island to return to her room, and I carry on with my cooking, relieved to have our misunderstanding cleared up. However, I may have invited a whole new set of problems with this open-question policy, but I guess I'll handle that when I get there.

_________________________________________

Jayda's POV

The project is due in... I don't know. I think sometime this week. I sit on the carpet at the coffee table in Andreas's basement while he lounges on the couch. I think we were working at the start, but then Angel started sending me photos of shoes she's considering buying, and in order to do my duty as her friend, I had to stop and give my full attention to her. The purple flats are ugly. The silver heels are cute, but they have too many straps. The red stilettos are the best by far, especially with the black dress she's going to pair them with.

"Aren't you two supposed to be working on a project?" comes Auntie Buffy's voice as she descends the stairs.

She holds a laundry basket in her arms as she steps around the couch to see both me and her son, but neither of us bother to give her much of an answer.

"Yeah, yeah," Andreas mumbles.

"Whatever," I say, my eyes too focused on the next pair of shoes that Angel just sent me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Auntie Buffy shake her head then carry on toward the laundry room. Once, she's gone, Andreas speaks up, bringing his phone down from his face.

"Hey, what of you think of Amanda?"

I practically vomit right here, but I don't actually, because ew.

"She's a skank with hair extensions," I answer.

"Mmm. Just my type," Andreas says with a grin, and I roll my eyes.

"You're disgusting,"

"Then why do you talk to me?" he questions, throwing me a smirk.

"Because I have to," I retort, annoyed just by the question. "We're doing a project together, which we should really get back to doing, by the way."

"Saying we should get 'back to' it would imply that we were working on it in the first place."

"Whatever."

"What is our project even on?" Andreas asks, sitting up to see me better.

"We need to pick that," I tell him. "It has to be about a human rights issue of the past."

"I don't even know any of those," Andreas responds.

Suddenly, Auntie Buffy chimes in as she reenters the room, saying, "Um, Jayda, if you need a human rights issue, what about the one relating to your two dads? The history of LGBTQ+ rights."

Andreas and me both click out eyes together in an instant, saying a simultaneous, "Ohhhhhhh!"

"That's perfect!" I cheer.

Auntie Buffy looks proud as she moves on, heading up the stairs.

"Awesome," Andreas says then falls onto his back again. "Seems like we've done enough for today."

I stand up and toss my backpack over my shoulder, saying, "Agreed."

_________________________________________

Walker's POV

When I get off work today, I don't need to ask where Jonah is. I already know. A few familiar faces greet me as I enter the daycare. I don't even have a kid here, but the workers are beginning to know me. I look around in the area of toddlers, but I don't find my husband there, so I have to walk farther into the daycare centre.

I turn around the corner into the place where many of the babies are playing on colourful mats with more adults to watch, and there, by the window, I see my husband. He rocks from side to side, bouncing slightly, while holding a baby in his arms. The baby points out the window, tilting their little head to look, and Jonah points with them, speaking words I can't hear, but the smile on his face is all I need to know. Rather than go up to him, I stop and just take in the sight.

We've never once talked about having kids. That was just never a thought that crossed either of our minds. Maybe that's because we always had enough kids around as nieces and nephews. For me, I just never felt that a child was something I needed. I've always been happy with what I have, just him and me in a house for two. And I'm not saying I need more now. I don't. I love what I have. But I think that if Jonah and I ever did decide that we wanted a baby, I think we could do it. Seeing him in the glitter of sunshine coming in through the glass, he almost looks celestial, like a drop of heaven fell down to create him. And I have no doubt that, if given the chance, he would pass on some of that to his child.

When Jonah notices me watching him, he gives the baby over to a different man to carry, and then he comes up to me, his green eyes still shimmering, like foliage of the earth intertwining with the stars.

"Ready to go?" I ask gently.

He looks back one last time at the little infants all just waiting to grow and blossom as time carries them on, and then he turns to me again, and he nods.

"Yeah," he says. "Let's go."

He takes a step beside me, and I let my hand curl through his as we saunter out of the daycare together and into the hospital hallways. When the laughter of the children fades, I fill the emptiness with a thought of my own.

"I love you," I say. "You know that, right?"

He turns his eyes toward mine and responds, "Yeah. I love you too."

Our hands stay linked as we carry on toward his car, leaving my thoughts of children behind for another day.

_________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

"And that's when Cher's song, "Believe," saved the day at the gay disco," Jayda concludes.

She clicks out of her power point that she had playing on her laptop and turns to TJ and I with a smile. From our places on the living room couch, we smile back, but my smile is mostly a cover for my concern. TJ's eyes give away his confusion too, as hard as he is trying to hide it. After all, she already gave the presentation to her class today. She's only showing us because we wanted to see it, so us judging her now would be meaningless.

"What did you think?" Jayda asks happily.

"Well, um..." I start. "The historical accuracy is disputable, but the heart was there." I pause for a second before adding, "You do know the Stonewall Riots weren't in China, right?"

"What other wall is there?" she responds as though I'm the one who's wrong.

"Well," TJ speaks up beside me, "the Lady Gaga lyrics were a nice touch. Very inspiring."

I look over at him, asking, "Did you tell her to add those?"

"Of course," he replies with a grin. "It's not LGBTQ+ history without Gaga."

That makes me smile, but when I look back to my daughter, I remember how worried I am for her.

"Um, what grade did you get on this project?" I ask.

"A D+," she answers with a smile.

My concern disintegrates instantaneously, replaced by excitement. D+? That's above her average! This is a miracle!

"Then ignore me," I say. "Well done!"

She squeals and picks up her laptop, running off to her room in joy. 

Chapter Text

Marty's POV

This restaurant always has a lot of glasses clinking around in the background, joined by the sound of sizzling eggs from the kitchen. When The Spoon is busy, but the family wants to go for brunch, we always end up here, at the place a few blocks away, called Franny's Diner. Cyrus and Andi aren't great fans of this place, because they say that the way they pack all their chairs and tables together violates fire codes, but the rest of us just like the food, so they come anyway. Cyrus and TJ's family is at the far end of the long table that the servers have put together for us. Next is Amber and Andi with their daughter, then my household, and lastly Walker and Jonah sitting at the end, across from me and Buffy. The kids all chatter while trying to decide what they want to order, and I'm looking through the menu, considering what I could get that's new this time. But when I flip the menu over to the front side again, I end up looking at the drawing of a man with a wild, grey beard and moustache above the title of the diner. I assume this must be Franny.

"My grandpa used to have facial hair like this," I comment.

Jonah looks across the table to see and responds, "Yeah, I tried to grow one of those in high school, but my mom said I looked like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, because I couldn't get it as full."

"Oh, yeah," Walker joins in. "I remember seeing you with that."

"Too bad we weren't dating when I had it," Jonah says with a smile, "because you would've loved it."

"I'm actually really glad we weren't dating when you had it," Walker counters with a laugh.

"I've never had a beard or moustache before," I say.

Overhearing that, my wife chimes in, "Well, don't start now."

Big mistake on her part, because Jonah and I look at each other, mirroring the same grin. Immediately, Buffy and Walker start shaking their heads.

"Nope," Buffy says. "No. Nuh-uh."

Too late. Jonah and I only smile bigger.

"Oh, no," Walker mutters.

Cyrus's POV

Wyatt squints as he reads the menu, his face practically touching it.

"Do you know what you're going to order?" I ask him.

"Yeah," he says, looking up at me. "Can I get the—" he glances down again to read it "—Bandana Waffles?"

I lean over the table to read what he's pointing at.

"The banana waffles?" I correct him.

"Yeah," he confirms.

"How much are they?"

"Eighty dollars. Wait." He squints harder. "Eight dollars."

Interrupting him comes Jayda as she spins in her chair to face me more, saying, "Daddy, can I go to a party this Friday?"

"Will there be parents at this party?" I ask.

"Well, no—"

"Then no."

"What?" she complains. "Why not?"

"Because the last party you went to you came home with your clothes reeking of a certain scent."

"I told you," she presses, "I got sprayed by a skunk."

"Then you wouldn't want to get sprayed by another one," I retort.

She rolls her eyes. "I wasn't even the one trying—" she pauses to fix where she's going "—the skunk."

"And I'd rather you not be around the people who do."

"Seriously?" she whines, then she whips her head to face TJ, saying, "Papa! Do you agree with this?"

TJ's eyes flick from our daughter to me, completely caught off guard. I dig my look into him, convincing him without words.

After another second, he replies, "Yes."

Andi's POV

While I search the menu, I can't help but keep glancing up at Hazel whose eyes are stuck to her phone, oblivious to her little cousin, Cara, who is trying to get her attention from the chair beside her.

"Hey, Hazel," I say, but she doesn't look up. "Hazel!" I try again. "Could you please put your phone away for brunch?"

At that, she shoots up out of her chair, fuming anger and making the whole table rattle. Amber and I grab our cups to keep them from spilling over, and the whole restaurant's attention is steered onto Hazel as she shouts.

"Forgive me for have bigger things to worry about than this stupid brunch!"

When she goes quiet again, her face is creased with embarrassment, and she turns red as she notices everyone looking at her.

Quietly, she mumbles, "I'm going to go to the washroom."

She rushes away as fast as she can walk, ducking into the hallway with the washrooms. Amber and I meet our eyes together, both clearly concerned for our daughter. But Jayda is the first to break the uncomfortable silence as she looks at her fathers.

"Can I go to the washroom too?" she asks. Then she adds, "On Friday night from 9:00 to midnight?"

________________________________________

Amber's POV

When Andi, Hazel, and I step into our house, Hazel takes her shoes off right away and starts bolting for her room, but I call out to stop her.

"Hazel!"

When she spins around, she nearly hits one of Andi's sculptures with her hand, the one that looks like colourful tubes intertwined together and wrapped around the standing lamp at the corner of the kitchen and hallway.

"What?" she questions.

Although she was polite for the rest of brunch, the fact that she's upset is still evident in how she carries herself slightly slouched and looks down at the floor.

"Do you want to talk about what's on your mind?" I ask.

She just closes her arms over her chest, tucking her hands into her elbows, and shakes her head. 

"It might make you feel better," Andi reasons.

"I really would rather not," she responds. "All I need to feel better is Netflix and a lot of popcorn."

"That doesn't always work too well," I tell her. "Trust me. I've tried."

"Well, aren't you the one who always says to keep trying and never give up?"

With that, she turns around and continues walking toward her room, and Andi and I just look at each other, disappointed.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

The light is on in the washroom, so I step in to find Jonah brushing his teeth. As I go over to the counter and pull out my razor from the drawer, I realize something wrong with Jonah's routine. Jonah always brushes his teeth after he shaves. But he has a fine shadow of stuble on his face right now.

"You're going to shave, right?" I check.

He spits foamy saliva into the sink and takes a sip of water, swishing it around before draining that out too.

"Actually," he says, turning to me while dabbing his mouth with a cloth, "I'm gonna let it grow out."

I furrow my brows, disgruntled by that.

"You're kidding, right?" I ask.

"Nope. I'm growing a full beard and moustache."

"But why?" I question, my tone grey.

"Because I can. You just wait and see. It will look great."

"Yeah, okay," I reply sarcastically. "I bet this will just be like the time you tried to grow a ponytail and ended up cutting it off because it didn't feel right unless you owned an exotic pet too."

"You're the one who said we couldn't have a toucan," he argues, "And you're gonna love the beard. You'll see."

"I really don't want to see."

He puts his hand on my shoulder and looks into my droopy eyes, saying, "It will look great."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

"Oh, no. Nope," Buffy says as soon as I enter the kitchen. "Go back up and shave."

She's in the middle of pouring cereal for herself, shaking her head as she does it. But she's distracted when Cara flings her own cereal up with her spoon, making it stick to the ceiling for a second before falling back down onto the table.

"Cara," buffy says, going over to the table with a cloth to wipe up the mess, "what happened?"

"I'm teaching them how to do trapeze," she explains.

"Sweetie, I don't think they're cut out for the circus," Buffy replies. "How about you keep them in their bowl."

"That's why they ran away to the circus in the first place!" my daughter says. "They were being held from protruding their dreams!"

"You mean pursuing?" I question.

She nods, and Buffy finishes cleaning up, leaving the splash of milk on the ceiling to just evaporate. Then she comes back over to me and carries on with getting out the milk for her own cereal.

"Okay, can you go shave now?" she says.

"You don't like my beard?" I ask with exaggerated hurt in my voice.

"Not at all," she confirms.

"It'll grow on you," I tell her.

"It will not grow on me," she insists, "and it shouldn't grow on you either."

I let out a chuckle, amused by how much this bothers her.

"You say that, but I'm gonna change your mind," I state.

"Yeah, right," she scoffs. "You're going to want that thing gone by Friday."

I narrow my eyes at her with a grin. "Is that a challenge?"

"Yes it is," she replies.

 

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

Usually in the morning, Cyrus and I get our breakfast and sit down at the round table that's tucked into the back of the kitchen by the bay window, joining Wyatt in the meal. Jayda always takes much longer to get ready, resulting in her having to eat her toast in the car on the way to school. While Jayda's part holds true today, Cyrus and I don't sit at the table with Wyatt. Instead, we watch from behind the island as he stares out at something in the yard. He doesn't even have his breakfast yet.

"Wyatt," I say, "you should get your cereal."

"But I'm looking at the little dragon in the backyard," he responds.

Confused, I wind around the island to get a better look at what he's pointing at.

"Wyatt, that's a cat," I state.

"Then why does it have wings?"

"Those are leaves in its fur."

"Ohhhhhhh. That's boring."

I turn to come back toward the island, but Wyatt stays staring at the yard.

"Wyatt, cereal," I remind him, and he spins around.

"Right," he says.

While Wyatt goes into the pantry to search for what he wants, Cyrus comes over to me with a concerned expression.

"When was the last time we took him to the eye doctor?" he whispers.

"Have we ever taken him to an eye doctor?" I counter.

"Well, maybe we should."

I glance over at Wyatt who's in the midst of getting out a bowl for his alphabet cereal. His short, blonde curls bounce atop his head as he jumps to reach the shelf in the cupboard. He manages to get a bowl and drops it down with a clack on the counter.

"That's a good idea," I agree.

"These aren't letters!" Wyatt suddenly says as he looks down at the cereal in his bowl. "They're just blobs."

I return my attention to my husband, saying, "I'll book that appointment right now."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

It's been a couple days, and now my beard is actually becoming visible, although it's far from being full. As Walker finishes washing the last dish that we used to make supper, I go over to him, wrapping my arms around his waist from behind. He smiles and sets the last plate down on the drying rack then turns to face me.

"What do you want to do now?" I ask him.

"I know what you should do," he replies. "Shave that beard."

"Come on," I say. "It's not that bad. You must think I'm a little attractive."

"You are attractive," he states, "but the carpet glued to your face is not."

I grin and step in, hoping to crack his strictness, but when I try to kiss him, he backs away.

"You know," he says, "I made a promise to myself  when I was young to never kiss a guy with a beard."

"That's a weirdly specific promise to make."

"Yeah, well, I can't break it. Shave the beard, and then I'll kiss you."

He shrugs and starts walking away toward the stairs.

"You've got to be kidding," I say.

"Shave the beard!" he shouts back.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

My daughter's room is bright blue with crayon drawings of various things, like animals, pirates, and fairies, taped up around the walls. Photos of her and her brothers sit on her bookcase too, accompanied by the hundreds of Lego blocks laying in piles. Her bed comforter has little zebras printed all over it, which she always pretends to pet before climbing under it to go to sleep. As she does that tonight, I sit down on the bed beside her.

"So which story do you want me to read tonight?" I ask.

The girl doesn't answer, too distracted by my beard as she reaches up to touch my face.

"Are you keeping your beard?" she questions instead.

"Yes, but which story do you want?"

"I don't like it. You look like Santa Clause."

"Then you better be nice to me, or Santa won't bring you gifts."

She rubs the stubble around with her fingers, fascinated by it.

"Okay, which story?" I ask again.

"No story," she responds, pulling her hand away to tuck it underneath the blankets. "I don't want a story from Santa."

I always read her a story. She's never not wanted one. I know that this is now less work for me, but it's a little disappointing, because I'm losing some of that precious time that I get to spend with her.

"Are you sure?" I say.

"When your beard gets long, can I braid it?"

"I'm not sure if I'll let it get that long," I reply with a chuckle.

"Then no story," Cara affirms.

She turns over in bed, facing away from me, which is my cue to leave, so I get up and turn the light off on my way out. I take my time as I close the door, hoping to hear the girl change her mind and call me back in, but she doesn't. She didn't want a story because of my beard. But she liked it yesterday. I bet I know what happened.

I step into my own room, seeing Buffy right as she finishes buttoning up her pyjama shirt.

"Did you talk to Cara about my beard?"

She puts on an innocent smile, responding, "I may have."

"So you're turning our kids against me now?"

"I'm only encouraging them to express their opinions," she replies.

That's when Andreas stops in the doorway to peak in and say, "Night, Mom. Night, Santa."

He carries on with a grin, and I look back to Buffy who just gives me a shrug and turns around to hide her pleased face.

________________________________________

TJ's POV

Right as we step into the eye doctor, Wyatt spots the photos of people's eyes and shelves of glasses around the office, and he turns around to look at me and Cyrus with skepticism.

"This isn't the pie doctor," he says in a mad voice. "You said we were going to the pie doctor!"

"No, we said eye doctor," Cyrus corrects.

"Maybe we should take him to an ear doctor too," I mutter.

"What even is a pie doctor?" Cyrus questions.

Wyatt shrugs. "I don't know. You were the one who said we were going there."

Cyrus lets out a sigh and says, "Okay, Wyatt, we just think you might need glasses."

"Why would I need glasses?" the boy argues.

"Wyatt," I speak up, "you thought the sun was a stoplight on the way here."

At that, the boy's eyebrows turn downward in anger.

This is you guys' fault!" he complains. "You gave me your bad-eye genes!"

"Wyatt, that's scientifically impossible," Cyrus replies. 

Cyrus and I do both wear contacts, but Wyatt was adopted, and he's aware of that. 

"I don't want to get glasses," Wyatt huffs.

A lady steps out from behind the front desk in a doctor's white coat and looks around the waiting room.

"Wyatt Kippen?" she calls.

Our son looks back at the doctor then returns his eyes to us in dread.

"If I die from the anesthesia," he says, "promise to do one thing. Leave a bowl of water and some Cheerios under my bed once a day. Don't keep your hands under for too long, and don't ask any questions."

Cyrus and I stare at him, half in confusion and half in horror.

"Wyatt," I say, "you're just getting your eyes looked at, not getting surgery. And we're coming with you."

"Oh," he responds, calming down. "Then forget what I said."

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I unlock the door to our home, and Wyatt immediately runs in and plops down on the couch where Jayda is currently working on her laptop. She recoils away from him, snapping her laptop shut when he tries to peak at it, and then she notices the glasses on his excited face.

"When did you get glasses?" she questions.

"Just now," he answers. "Dads took me to the eye doctor."

TJ closes the front door, and the two of us go join our kids in the living room, taking separate seats by the window.

"Well, congrats to you for embracing your dorkiness," Jayda tells Wyatt.

"I thought they were dorky too," he says, "but then I found out I could use them to bend light and burn holes in things."

"Speaking of," I say to TJ, "how are we gonna patch the seat in the car?"

"I'll look at getting seat covers," TJ responds.

"Okay, um," Jayda says with sass, "you're never allowed in my room again."

"You don't let me in your room anyway," Wyatt replies.

Jayda doesn't even respond to that, for she gets a notification on her phone that steals her attention. While Wyatt has moves on to examining the diamond pattern of the sofa up close, Jayda releases a heavy breath and pouts.

"What's wrong?" TJ questions.

"What's wrong is that all my friends are going to Britney's party tonight except me."

I had forgotten about that, and I really hoped she'd forgotten about it too, but I suppose that was unrealistic to expect. I know Amber used to go to parties often when she was Jayda's age, and she's fine, so I guess I shouldn't worry as much as I do. It's just that she's my little girl, and I don't want anything to happen to her, because there are a lot of kids who could influence her.

"Angel just told me that Dustin's voice just dropped, like, ten octaves, and now he sounds like Morgan Freeman," Jayda says. "And I have to miss out on hearing that. I'm gonna be one of the losers who have to wait 'till Monday."

Going to a party to hear a kid talk like Morgan Freeman. That seems pretty harmless. I look over at TJ who has the same thoughful look on his face. Then his eyebrows go up, and he tilts his head, all to ask for permission. I nod. 

"What if we let you go?" TJ offers.

Jayda sparks up in an instant, saying, "Really?"

"Sure," I say.

She gasps in delight and runs over to hug us, stretching her arms out to grab us both at the same time even though we're on different chairs. Still smiling, she backs away.

"I'm gonna go choose an outfit," she says before darting up the stairs.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Am I ashamed? Yes. Do I care enough to let this beard keep growing? No. It's itchy, and I'm over it. Once Walker's gone from the living room, I pick up the phone and dial Marty's number. He picks up right away.

"Hey, Marty. How's the beard?"

"Good! Um...actually, can I be honest?"

"Please."

"I keep getting hair in my food, and it's getting annoying."

"I'm thinking the same thing," I agree. "I was gonna shave mine, but I know we're in this together, so I wanted to give you a heads up."

"I think I'll shave it too," Marty agrees.

I hear when my husband approaches behind me, and I turn around, seeing him smiling wider than a valley.

"Finally!" he cheers.

He walks up to me and kisses my lips, making me forget about the phone call I'm in the middle of, and I drop the phone on the counter so that I can pull him in closer. This is worth shaving the beard.

Marty's POV

When Jonah stops responding, I hang up the line. After less than a second, Buffy comes into our bedroom with a smile, having heard my entire phone call.

"Technically I didn't shave it before Friday," I argue, "because today is Friday."

"That's fine," she says. "I'm just happy you're gonna shave it."

Behind her, Cara skips up to the door with bright eyes, saying, "Daddy's getting rid of the beard?"

"Yeah, I am."

"Can I be the one to shave it?" she asks.

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

All I want to do is grab a can of cream soda from the fridge and go back to my room, to go watch The Princess Diaries for the third time tonight and pretend my whole life isn't imploding. But my moms feel the need to question me when I try to leave the kitchen, and I have to swivel around on my feet, trying not to let them see how broken I am.

"Hazel, are you alright?" Momma asks.

My moms sit at the kitchen table, Mommy working on her art as always, and Momma on her laptop, doing some of her own work for her job. She's a writer for an online news and entertainment website that my friends always end up sharing quizzes from. It focuses on basically everything that teenagers like, which is why it's so popular, and it's kinda weird whenever I find an article written by my mom. Another thing about her job is that it keeps her very knowledgeable about issues regarding teenagers like me, and that makes her a great person to talk to most of the time, but I'm really not in the mood today.

"I'm fine," I say, but it doesn't even sound like I mean it.

When my moms looks at me harder, I crumble down into my chair at the table.

"I didn't tell you this," I start as I let out a sigh, "but there was a girl I liked a while ago."

"Liked?" Mommy echoes. "You don't like her anymore."

"Well, I do," I admit, "but I can't. It was Camille."

"Your friend?" Momma says.

"Used to be," I mutter. "But then I took a chance and told her I liked her. Now she won't even talk to me."

"Oh, Hazel," Mommy says, placing her hand over mine. "I know how awful that feels. I'm really sorry. But I'm very proud of you, because telling someone how you feel takes courage."

"Yeah," Momma agrees. "But you could do that, so I know that you'll be able to get through this. You're too strong not to."

"Thanks," I mumble, "but all I really want if for her to talk to me again. I wish I could take it back and just be friends. But she won't even respond to my texts."

"It will get easier," Momma assures me. "It just takes time."

I nod. I want to believe her, but right now, I can't see how I'll ever let go of Camille. She's the first person I've ever liked this way. What if she's the only one? What if there's nobody else after her?

I'm so tangled in my thoughts that I don't even notice when the doorbell rings, and Momma gets up to answer it. I'm brought back when I hear a voice that I've had stuck in my mind speak at the door.

"Hi, Mrs. Kippen. Is Hazel here?"

Camille. Don't talk to her. She's been ghosting you for the past week. She doesn't deserve your forgiveness. Mom said you were strong, so be strong. Be strong. Be strong.

I'm weak. I rush to the door as soon as I hear her, and Momma steps back, letting me talk to the girl at the door alone. But my hands feel sweaty, and my tummy is spiralling like a slinky. Her wide, blue eyes do all of that to me. Her blue eyes and her wavy, red hair like autumn leaves. And her freckles like stars in the sky. And the shimmer on her lips. She's wearing the lipgloss I gave her.

"Why are you here?" I ask, barely able to find my voice.

She looks anxious, like she's waiting for something, the same way she gets before class presentations or social events. But whenever it was one of those, she would always look to me for support. Now she's just looking at me, and I don't know what to expect.

"Can we talk outside?" she wonders.

I give my moms a glance before obliging with her request, stepping out onto the porch, into the orange, overcast sunset.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I got weird when you told me you liked me, and I stopped talking to you. I was an awful friend, but I think I know why now."

I just listen. What else am I supposed to do? I've never been in this situation before.

"I think it's because I was scared," she goes on "...because I don't want to be just friends."

She's— No— She can't be saying—

She leans in, and her lips press to mine, making my heart float up out of my chest and twirl around. This is my first kiss. Oh my God. This is my first kiss, and it's with Camille, and Camille is the one kissing me. And she tastes like strawberries—strawberry lipgloss—and she smells like vanilla.

She steps back, leaving me wide-eyed and staring at her. After a second, we both dissolve into laughter as the butterflies fly back into their nooks inside my ribs.

"Um..." I start, "I don't know what to say now. Whenever I see people kiss in movies, the scene always ends after that, so..."

"Yeah, I've never kissed anyone before, so I don't know either," she responds with a gentle smile. 

"Uh, do you want to do something tomorrow?" I ask.

She nods. "Definitely. I've got to go home now before my mom realizes I'm not still meditating with her, but I'll text you."

"Yeah, sure."

I watch as she waves and begins walking down the street, her long shadow following her on the sidewalk. When her figure has wandered beyond my sight, I open the door behind me and step back into my house. Right away, my moms look at me for an explanation of the event they missed.

"What happened?" Mommy asks.

Rather than answer, I just explode in a squealing fit and run over to fall back on the couch, and my moms smile, knowing the answer.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

I sit with TJ on the couch, watching some show that he likes that I don't understand the appeal of. I'm just not really a fan of shows with a lot of gore, so TJ lets me hide my eyes in his shoulder whenever those scenes come on. At one point during the show, the main character goes into his bedroom, and that reminds me of something that had slipped my mind.

"We never asked what Wyatt has under his bed," I bring up.

All of a sudden, a crash sounds from the floor above, which is quickly followed by footsteps. It's gone after a couple seconds, but TJ and I are still staring at the ceiling.

Eventually, TJ looks down at me, saying, "I think I'm okay with not knowing."

"Yeah, I think I agree."

A second event pulls our focus toward the front door as it bursts open, and Jayda comes running inside. She has tears pouring down her face, and she moves so fast that she doesn't even bother to take off her shoes. As she aims for the stairs, TJ and I stand up in an instant, now afraid of something other than the show.

"Jayda, what happened?" I question.

"Nothing!" she shouts. "Just leave me alone!"

She's gone before I can even think to speak again, and then I look to TJ, but he's just as clueless as me.

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I knock on the door with one hand while trying to keep the laundry basket of folded clothes balanced between my hip and my other arm. 

"Jayda," I say through the wood of her bedroom door, "can I come in?"

"No."

The girl's room has been sealed since last night, and she's only come out to use the washroom and grab food. She also let me get her dirty clothes this morning, but bringing them back is apparently the hardest part of the chore. 

"I have your clothes," I tell her. 

"I just want to be alone!" she replies. 

"Jayda, you need to let me in, or you're not going to have any clothes to wear to school on Monday."

"Then I'll go naked! Just leave me alone!"

TJ overhears that as he comes up the stairs and looks at me with eyes struck wide. 

"I thought we had a few more years before that phase started," he comments. 

"Okay, Jayda, I'm leaving your clothes on the floor in the hall," I say. "Grab them when you want."

I bend over and place the basket by her door, and when I stand back up, I see Wyatt coming out of his bedroom. 

"Jayda, I'll grab them for you if you give me ten dollars!" he shouts. 

The teenager yells in response, "Keep your grubby hands off my clothes!"

Wyatt hangs his head down in disappointment and goes back into his own room, but he leaves the door open. I really wish Jayda would do that sometimes. When I turn around, TJ waves for me to come with him, and the two of us go into our own room where white walls greet us, along with a forest green bedspread and dark wood chest of drawers. 

"How are you doing?" TJ asks.

With his fingers, he strokes my arm down to my hand which he takes delicately in his. It makes me feel a little more balanced since the day's been constant rocking on tumbling waters. 

"I'm really worried about her," I confess. 

"Me too," TJ replies, "but I've been trying to put it into perspective. Amber used to do this all the time when we were teenagers, and she's okay."

"Amber also snuck out, like, every week," I remind him. 

"Okay, but let's be real. Jayda probably does too."

"You're not helping."

"Okay, so something clearly happened," TJ states, "but she's not going to tell us unless she wants to."

"I suppose you're right."

"Until then, we'll get a doggy door installed to slide her dinner through to her."

I manage to laugh at that, which lightens some of my fear. 

"Maybe we shouldn't support this by renovating our house to cater to it," I tell him.

He copies my smile, responding, "Okay. We'll just leave the dinner outside the door."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

I show up to Brayden's room with a stack of home-printed newspapers in my hands. Brayden and Andreas share a room upstairs. It's easy to tell whose side is whose, because there's a line on the carpet where Andreas's mess of belongings stops, changing into the clean, orderly area that is Brayden's. Whenever I go in there, I like to pretend Andreas's side doesn't exist. it's much easier to look at the maps and renaissance artwork decorating Brayden's side than the posters of various movies, bands, and actresses taped up crooked on Andreas's. Currently, my youngest son is sitting at his computer, typing away.

"So," I say, "I figured out why printer's out of ink."

Brayden spins in his chair, looking unbothered by my discovery. 

"I'll pay you back in revenue," he responds.

"What revenue? What are you talking about, and why are you printing newspapers? Are these pirated?"

"Relax," he says. "It's my own newspaper. I'm selling them."

I glance down at the top of the pile in my hands and read one of the headlines that I haven't actually paid attention to until now. 

"'Scorpion attacks kindergartener with lightsaber'? I'm 99% sure that this didn't happen."

"That one percent difference between you and me is why I'm convinced I was adopted," Brayden mutters. 

"Okay, first of all, you weren't adopted," I reply, "and second, no one's going to buy these. It's all fake news stories."

"Yes, you know that, and I know that, but the cul-de-sac of seniors at the end of street doesn't know that," he says with a grin. "It's business."

"You're taking advantage of people."

"Yes, business."

He stands up and grabs the stack of papers from me before plopping back down in his chair.

"This is wrong," I tell him. 

"Would you rather I not pay you for the ink?" he asks. 

Agh. 

"Okay," I huff. "Just don't get caught."

My son smiles smugly and brings his hands back to his keyboard to continue typing.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Andi stares up at the menu screen from beside me in the line. Walker and I were planning to get fast food for supper, but then Andi mentioned that she was going to come here too to pick up food for her family, so I offered to drive. The name of the restaurant decals the white walls many times, so much that you could never forget that it's name is Fry Guys. It's definitely a rip off a Five Guys, except that it's made an attempt to look like a '70s disco with a mirror ball overhead and colourful, tiled flooring. Although the decor is mediocre, the food is above average, which is what keeps me coming here. 

I already know what I want, so I just gaze around at the restaurant, and when my eyes pass by the front counter, I realize that I know one of the teenagers working behind there. 

"Hey, that's one of my students," I say.

Andi pulls her eyes down to see the boy. I teach him guitar at Red Rooster Records, the store I work at with Andi's dad, Bowie. After Bowie taught me everything he knew on the guitar, I started teaching other people part time there, and now it's my full-time job. I also teach bass too, an instrument I've picked up over the years. 

"You teach him guitar?" Andi asks. "That's cool."

"Yeah. Mondays at 7:00. His name is Marcus. He's great. Weird seeing him making my fries, though."

The person ahead of us steps over to the pick-up side of the counter, so I step up to order. Marcus isn't the one at the till, and he never looks over, so I don't worry about trying to get his attention. I just pay for my food and step aside to wait for it to be made. Once Andi's finished ordering, she comes over to join me. At first, we're just waiting, but then I notice her eyes hone in on Marcus and his coworker by the prep tables in the kitchen. 

"Are you hearing what they're talking about?" Andi says. 

"No, I don't listen to other people's conversations."

"Just listen," she directs, and I sigh and do as told. 

"...My mom was murdered," comes Marcus's voice, "and my dad went broke, so I have to go to this creepy guy to make some cash..."

"Did you know about that?" Andi questions, looking very disturbed. 

I shake my head. "He only talks about guitar with me."

"He sounds really troubled," Andi says. "You should try to talk to him. See if he needs help or someone to talk to."

"Andi, it's really none of my business."

"But you're his guitar teacher," she hisses. "You should care."

"I do care," I insist. "I just don't like to get involved where I'm not wanted."

My eyes are pulled back to Marcus when I notice him drop a fry on the floor then put it back into its cup. He places it in the bag quickly, and I read the number on the receipt, seeing that that's my order. 

"Ugh, I'm gonna have to ask him to remake my fries," I say, and that earns me a glare from Andi. 

"You will not!" she responds. "He has enough to deal with."

Yeah, I feel sympathy for Marcus, but I don't see how remaking my fries will contribute to his family issues. However, Andi's face keeps me from following through. When one of Marcus's coworkers begins carrying our bags over to us, I look at Andi and shrug.

"Alright," I say. "I'll take your fries instead."

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

As soon as I get home, I drop the bag of fast food on the coffee table and march over to Amber, who's on a ladder by the window, to tell her what happened. I still can't believe Jonah won't talk to his own student after hearing how much he's going through. Clearly, he needs the support.

"Amber, you won't believe it! So I was at the restaurant with Jonah, and one of his guitar students was working there, and we heard him talking about how him mom was killed and his family has no money, and I told Jonah he should try to talk to him to comfort him, and he won't do it!"

"That's great, Andi," Amber responds. "But could you maybe help me?"

I look up, seeing her balancing the curtain rod on her shoulder while attempting to pull the new peach-coloured curtains onto it. I reach up to lift the rod for her, and she lets out a breath of relief then continues tugging the curtains over the pole with much more ease now.

"Don't you think Jonah should do something?" I say.

"Maybe he just doesn't want to stick his nose where it doesn't belong," Amber replies.

That was not the response I was looking for. 

"You can't seriously agree with him," I say. "The boy and his family need support. If Jonah won't help them, then I will."

"No, Andi. That's a bad idea." Amber takes the curtain rod out of my hands and hooks it back over the window before stepping down off the ladder. "You should just stay out of it. You don't have a good history with getting involved. Remember the time with the neighbour's dog running away, and how we had to move?"

"Well, I didn't realize I found the wrong dog, and seriously, who files a restraining order over something like that?"

"No, I think it was pretty rational," Amber responds. "The point is please don't get involved in this."

"Fine," I huff. 

I'm totally getting involved. 

________________________________________

Marty's POV

The neighbourhood is quiet on the way home, and a light dusting of yesterday's snow cover's the grass. There's one more stop sign before I can turn right toward my house, but when I slow down to a halt, I notice someone pull up beside me, and I end up turning all my attention to him. Brayden is in his puffy jacket and gloves while sitting on his bike with a collection of newspapers in his basket. He doesn't notice me until I roll down the window, completely confused about what's going on. 

"Hey, bud, uh, what are you doing?"

"Sorry, Dad," he replies. "I'm on a tight schedule. Can I talk to you after work?"

Without waiting for me to answer, he takes off peddling down the road, and my confusion remains thriving. 

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

I would really rather just skip school today, but I have a history test, which I'm probably going to fail anyway, because my head is so full of emotion at the moment. I bet everyone's heard already too. I spent my weekend trying to hide away by binging the Netflix shows that I never had any interest in watching until they were all that was left to watch, so I wasn't really checking my phone a lot. I got a few texts, but I mostly ignored them. I wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone, and I'm still not, but if I have to see people, I'm glad it can at least be my girls—Angel, Tay, and Mira—who wait by my locker for me as I walk in. Everyone else seems to be staring at me, their eyes poking like needles with every glance. They must know what happened, but I can get over this. It was just a boy. I can find another one. Angel, Tay, and Mira all look mortified on my behalf as I approach them, and Angel doesn't waste a second before questioning me. 

"Jayda, what happened at Britney's party?" she interrogates. 

"You heard?" I mutter. It's obvious that they have, but I was hoping I'd be wrong.

"Uh...yeah," Tay replies, exaggerating both words. "So has, like, the whole grade."

"I should've known better than to give Jeremy a second chance," I say. "All he wanted was sex."

Angel gasps. "Oh my God, so it's true!"

Mira leans in. "You really slept with him?"

I'm stunned by that. That is definitely not what happened. 

"What? No," I deny. "I said I wouldn't sleep with him, and he broke up with me."

Tay furrows her brows. "Are you sure? Because that's not what he said."

"What did he say?" I press.

"He's saying you two totally did it," Angel answers. 

I feel my stomach plummet, and I think I might cry. Looking around doesn't help. I only see all the people staring at me in disgust. The people who aren't bent my way are all ones I don't care about anyway, so it might as well be the whole school looking down on me. Jeremy has a lot more influence than I do. He's basically the leader of his whole ring of friends. Him saying something about me is enough to ruin my reputation for life. I want to say I can't believe it, but I kinda can. 

"He's a lying creep," I snipe to my friends, but they don't seem to get it. 

Mira just shakes her head, saying, "Look, Jayda, you wouldn't be the first girl—"

"Oh my God! You believe him!"

"Well, you were the one who got him to go upstairs with you," Angel states. 

I'm speechless. Not even my own friends believe me. They trust Jeremy Hudson's word over mine. I would believe them if they were in my position...I think. I don't know. I didn't a month ago when it was Chantal who supposedly hooked up with Liam in the gym equipment room. But that's different, because she actually did that...I think. 

I notice a group of girls from the track team pass by, and their eyes scrape over my skin. I know them. We're friends. Well, I thought we were, but obviously that was fake, because I hear one of them mutter the word I knew was coming.

"Slut."

At that, I spin away from my friends and hurry away. I guess I won't be getting my books from my locker anymore, but it's not like I used them anyway. I could skip, but there's that test. I guess I have to stay. I'm just gonna have to try to keep my head down and ignore the whispers that are already following me down the hall. 

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

"So if we replace x with 1, we can see that we can remove the variable from the problem all together."

Mr. Parker drones on and on and on about some math problem that I wouldn't be able to understand even if I was listening. I keep glancing over at the girl in the desk beside me who keeps her head low to her paper while she doodles with a half-broken pencil that it looks like she found on the floor. When the class is told to work individually on a problem, I take the opportunity to finally try to talk to her, something I've been wanting to do all day. 

"Jayda," I whisper. 

She doesn't look up at me, so I try again. 

"Jayda."

"Will you shut up," she hisses. 

"I just have a question."

"Well, I don't want to answer."

I'm getting nowhere. Time for plan B. I take my own pen and slam it on the corner of my desk, cracking it in half, and then I hold it out for the ink to drip on Jayda's sleeve and my own cuffs. 

"Oh! Oh, no!" I shout dramatically. I recognize that I'm not exactly good at acting, but people tend to just go with it because of my effort. Jayda looks infuriated, but I ignore her, raising my ink-splattered hand and saying, "Mr. Parker, can Jayda and I go to the washroom to clean up?"

My teacher looks at me in shock and responds, "Uh, sure."

I get up and start walking into the hall. Once out, I have to wait for Jayda to get out here at her snail-like pace. She does not look happy as she comes out of the way of the door to where I'm standing. 

"Excuse my manners, but why the hell did you do that?" she asks, dripping with attitude. "You ruined my shirt!"

"I'll buy you a new one," I reply. 

She scoffs, "Oh, with all the money you make from being unemployed?" 

"I had to talk to you."

"About what?" 

"There's a rumour going around about you," I say. 

"You think I didn't know that?" she huffs. "Every girl that I thought was my friend now thinks I'm a slut. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hudson is getting a pat on the back."

Her eyes are starting to glisten with tears that she's desperately trying to hold back, but I have to ask. 

"Is it true?" 

"It might as well be," she mumbles, "because everyone believes him."

"So it's not?" I surmise. 

I'm not friends with Jeremy Hudson, but I do have friends who are. Our groups are closely intertwined on the social map of ninth graders at Grant High. I knew he was a jerk, but I didn't realize how low he could go to make himself look better. 

"No," Jayda answers. "I didn't sleep with him. He broke up with me because I wouldn't." 

She looks down, but her eyes catch on her shirt sleeve, and she lets out an annoyed exhale.

"Now I need to go try to wash this ink out thanks to you," she sneers. 

She whips around, almost hitting my face with her hair, and struts down the hall toward the washroom. 

 

Chapter Text

Marty's POV

When I go downstairs, I see Wyatt waiting by the door. Aside from how he got in here, which I'd rather not ask, because I probably left the door unlocked, and I don't want Buffy to hear that from upstairs, my main question is what he's doing here. 

"Hey, Wyatt. Um, are your dads here?"

"No," he replies. "I'm here for work."

"What—?"

All of a sudden, Brayden comes prancing down the stairs behind me, saying, "Ah, my employee's here. You're late!"

"Sorry," Wyatt says. "I saw a squirrel climbing a tree on the way here, and it was just looking for a challenge."

Brayden goes up to Wyatt and scans the dirt on the boy's jeans, replying, "I can see that."

"Okay, what do you mean he's your employee?" I step in.

Buffy explained the newspaper business to me, but she never mentioned anything about our son putting other kids to work for him. 

"He's selling papers for me," Brayden explains. "Don't worry. He's being paid on commission."

I look at Wyatt. "Wyatt, are you okay with this?"

"Yeah, it's great," the boy responds with a grin. "The old ladies always tell me how handsome I am, and sometimes I even get cookies."

"Anyway," Brayden cuts in, "we've got to get going. Can't keep the customers waiting. That's bad for business."

"Oh, by the way," Wyatt says to Brayden, "yesterday Marge told me that Bertha who lives on the corner died."

Brayden's eyes go dim. "Oh, man. That's fifty dollars gone."

"Fifty dollars?" I exclaim. 

"Well," Brayden says as he opens the front door for him and Wyatt to leave, "let's go make the rest of our money."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

Jonah notices me when I walk into Red Rooster Records, and right away I buzz up to the first set of records I see and begin browsing through them. 

"Andi?" Jonah says as he approaches me. "What are you doing here?"

"Uh, I'm looking at records," I answer. 

"You don't have a record player."

I was hoping he wouldn't know that. 

"Then I'm also looking at record players," I say with a smile. 

"At the same time as Marcus's lesson?"

"Oh, is it?" I respond, trying to laugh casually, but it comes out sounding awkward. "Crazy coincidence."

Jonah shakes his head. "You need to stay out of his business."

"I am," I lie. 

When the door opens again, Jonah's attention is turned as his 7:00 lesson walks in. He goes over to greet Marcus and Marcus's father. While Jonah begins the lesson, the dad wanders over to the selection of records near me, and I take that as a sign from the universe that I'm supposed to talk to him. I watch as he picks up a blank album case and examines it. 

"Oh my gosh!" I say excitedly. "The Beatles! I love them!"

"Really?" he responds, looking up at me. "You like the white album?"

I didn't realize that's what it was called, but I guess I'm going with it. 

"Of course!" I say. "I love all their stuff! Like the white album and the...purple album..."

He furrows his brows. "They didn't make a purple album."

I clear my throat. "Yeah, it's one of their lesser known EPs. Anyway," I quickly move on, "so your son plays guitar, huh? That's cool."

"Yeah, he got into it because of my wife," the man responds. "She loved it."

Here we go. This is where it gets heavy. 

"Loved?" I say trying to sound like I don't already know. "My condolences."

"Oh, no, she didn't die. She just doesn't play it anymore."

Now I'm confused. 

"What?" I say. "Didn't she— I mean you made it sound like— What about your son? Is he doing okay?"

"Yeah, he's great. He's learning real fast. Although he'd learn faster if he didn't spend so much time playing this video game he's always ranting about. Games these days have such odd stuff in them. He's playing one right now where he's a kid who had to join a gang because of family issues. I can't believe my wife lets him play that stuff. Do you have any kids?"

Video game. It was a video game. 

"Um, yeah, I have a daughter," I answer. "But she's not really into those kind of games."

The man continues talking, but I'm too embarrassed to pay attention, and when he looks at me with raised eyebrows like he just asked a question, I make up an excuse. 

"Um, actually, I have to go. It was great meeting you, though."

He looks confused, but I just wave and start for the door. On my way out, I see my dad walking by, and he stops me a he comes over. While my mom has continued to dye her hair to keep it from going grey, my dad has embraced the long-grey curls as part of his free-spirit musician look.

"Hey, Andi. I didn't know you were here."

"Yes," I respond, pushing the door open with my back. "I just finished not buying a record player."

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

At first glance, the cafeteria is the same as it always is, but underneath the looks, it feels different. It's stiffer and sharper, and everyone seems to be gossiping about something that makes their laughs sound like snickers. Lots of that could just be because I'm feeling angry, and that's affecting my perception of the room, but it still weighs on me like it's as real as ever. I sit with two of my friends at a table, only half-listening to them talk. 

"If I position the trampoline just right," Britain says, "I think I can make the jump from the roof."

"Dude, that's so dope!" Waleed responds.

Past their heads, I see Jeremy sitting with his friends at the table over, and I focus my hearing on them. 

"Yeah, Jayda practically begged me to do her," Jeremy tells his friends, "and you know I couldn't turn her down."

The guys laugh, and the sound builds my anger, making my fists close tighter. 

"Wasn't she a virgin?" says one of Jeremy's friends. 

Jeremy smirks. "Not anymore."

As they laugh, my eyes shift over to Jayda walking past with her tray. She tries to just look down and pretend they don't exist, but her steps stutter when one of the guys makes a comment aimed at her. 

"There's the little hoe."

Jayda freezes for a second, letting the laughter hit her like bullets, and they weaken her enough that when she tries to walk again, she trips, causing her tray to fall out of her hands and her food to spill. Now anyone who wasn't looking at her is. The girl's humiliated face scans all the eyes for less than a second before she takes off in a run. I see her wipe tears from her eyes as she shoves open the door to exit the cafeteria, and that's when my last calm nerve snaps. I whip up out of my chair and march over to Jeremy's table to look him dead in the eye. 

"Shut up, Jeremy!" I shout. 

I've stolen all the watchers with those three words, but they're not enough to wipe the grin from this jerk's face. 

"You're a lying asshole," I tell him. "You know Jayda didn't have sex with you."

There are a few gasps from the girls nearby, but Jeremy's glare only hardens on me. 

"And who the hell are you to know anything?" he sneers. 

"I'm her friend," I answer, "and you need to stop talking about her, because we both know what really happened, and it wasn't what you say."

Maybe he's about to respond, but I don't stay to hear it. I turn around and hurry out of the cafeteria to search for Jayda. 

Jayda's POV

This washroom is always empty during lunch period, because it's the farthest from the cafeteria, and nobody wants to walk this far—except me of course. I want to be away from everyone in this whole stupid school. I just wish this rumour would go away, but I know it won't. Sure, it will die down over time, but it will always be there, hanging in the back of people's heads when I talk to them. They'll always think they know more about me than they do, and it will always taint my name. Maybe I could get my name legally changed. 

The sound of footsteps makes me pull my head out of my knees and look up from where I'm sitting on the floor by the sink. Coming in is one of the last people I expect. 

"Andreas," I say, "this is the girls' washroom."

"Yeah," he responds, sinking down beside me on the tiles, "but you're here."

I don't know why he even cares. We're not all that close. If our families weren't lifelong friends, he would just be another one of the playboys in our grade who try to get girls like my friends. I'm pretty sure neither of us have even told any of our friends that we know each other. 

I sniffle and reach up to dab my eye with my sleeve. Seeing that, Andreas digs into his pocket and pulls out a white square. 

"Tissue?" he offers. 

I take it, feeling a smile come to my face. "What are you? A Kleenex commercial?"

"I'm just a friend who cares about you and doesn't want to see you cry."

Something about those words make me pause, like the world is readjusting its colours for a moment. Slowly, I bring the tissue up to my cheeks to soak up the tears, but I keep looking at the boy sitting next to me. I guess he's not just a horny idiot after all. He's, like, an actual person. 

________________________________________

Marty's POV

I'm sitting on the couch with Buffy, watching the Sports Network on TV, when Brayden drops down beside me with a huge sigh. 

"Hard day at work?" I ask. 

"You have no idea," the boy responds. "I had to fire an employee today. He tried to fold the newspapers into paper airplanes to speed up the delivery process. Gave two men paper cuts on their foreheads and lost me eighty dollars in merchandise."

Buffy leans forward at that. "You used eighty dollars of our paper?"

"Relax," Brayden tells her, letting his tired eyes fall closed. "That's what the bank loan is for."

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

Flowers burst up from between the stones that line the pathway leading up to the white wood doors. The roof of the building is arched with rustic pillars carved with a floral pattern. I bet inside will be just a nice.

Marty and I walk with Cara between us, holding both our hands, while Brayden and Andreas trail behind.

"Wow," I breathe. "Iris and Libby really picked a beautiful venue for their wedding."

Suddenly, I realize the amount of weight on my arm is beyond normal, and I glance down to see Cara hanging from my hand and Marty's, letting her feet drag behind her as we pull her.

"Cara, walk," I order.

"But it's like a ride!"

"You either walk now, or you walk home," Marty tells her.

"I'm okay with that," the girl replies.

"Stop it. You're gonna rip your dress," I say.

She plants her feet on the ground and lets go of our hands. Thankfully, her white, lacy dress appears to be in tact.

"Jayda says they're not called rips," Cara says. "It's called distressed, and it's fashionable."

"Sweetie, there shouldn't be anything distressed at weddings," I state. "That's for divorces. You're the flower girl. You need to keep your dress clean until the wedding, okay?"

"Okay," Cara answers with a pout.

To my left, I notice TJ and Cyrus's family walking from the parking lot up to us. TJ swings his keys around his finger before clutching them again and giving us a nod.

"Cara, wanna roll down a hill to kill time?" TJ suggests.

A smile splats onto my girl's face as she runs up to her uncle, and he crouches down to let her hop onto his back for a piggyback, but I go up to pull her off, shaking my head.

Jayda's POV

With my arms crossed and mouth in a closed smile, I saunter over to Andreas on the pathway. He has his eyes on me as I approach, but my eyes are on his pine green tie that he's paired with his black suit.

"Nice tie," I compliment. "I like the green."

"It's green?" Andreas responds, looking down in surprise. "I thought it was brown."

"Right," I remember. "I forgot you were colourblind. Well, you're lucky it's green, because brown would've clashed bad with the black suit."

"Hey, guys," Marty calls out, getting our attention, "why don't you two go inside and see if anyone needs help with decorations."

"Sure thing," Andreas responds, and the two of us head for the doors.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

I'm already in my own sage-coloured dress that reflects light down the whole skirt to the floor, the same one that all the bridesmaids are wearing, and now I'm helping Libby put the embroidered veil into her updo in the small room that she's able to change in before her wedding. Once I'm finished clipping it into her hair, the girl turns to face the standing mirror, and her hands come up to cover her mouth as she stares at herself in awe. Her dress has a vintage look to it, with embraoidered white flowers all the way down the train, and long sleeves that stop before her shoulders to show a bare collarbone that she's bedazzled with a gold necklace. Hazel looks from where she's sitting on a chair behind me, just as wowed as the bride herself.

"You look beautiful," I tell Libby, signing it at the same time. "Iris won't be able to take her eyes off you."

Libby looks at me in the mirror with a smile.

"Has she seen the dress?" I ask.

Libby shakes her head and signs, "I'm not taking any chances to make this go wrong, so I'm following all the wedding traditions, except for the groom part, but I'm wearing old shoes, a new dress, my mother's necklace that I borrowed, and..." Her eyes dart around her image before she realizes, "I forgot the blue!"

"Here," Hazel speaks up, and she hands me a tiny, blue piece of paper.

I look at it for a second before asking, "Is this a bus ticket?"

"She's a lesbian," Hazel states. "Make it into a dangly earring."

I spin to face Libby again and translate what Hazel said for her, and Libby lets out a breathy laugh, responding, "That works."

She takes the bus ticket and raises it up to her ear, examining it in the mirror to envision what it will turn out like. When she brings it down, she nods, confirming that it will be good.

Then she turns toward me again, signing, "I wonder how Iris and Amber are doing getting ready."

Amber's POV

"The best part of having a white dress is that you can accidentally bleach it, and nothing would change," I say.

I try to avoid stepping on Iris's dress while lacing it up in her dressing room. It's a mermaid-style dress that puffs out from the knees to the floor. The top is strapless with a sweetheart neckline. I was there to help her pick it out, and it looks even better on her now than it did then.

"That happened to your wedding dress, right?" Iris asks in response to my statement.

"Yes, and Andi never noticed a thing."

I finish tying the back and step away, allowing Iris to twirl in the mirror, admiring herself.

"It's as beautiful as I remember," she says, beaming.

"Even nicer knowing that it was on sale," I add.

She grins at me then looks in the mirror again, swaying her skirt around like a white sea wave. Suddenly, she stops as something tugs her dress tight, and her face wrinkles in worry.

"Oh my gosh," she mumbles. "Um..."

"Are you stuck?" I question.

"It looks that way," she responds.

I lift up my own bridesmaid dress and kneel down, letting the fabric parachute around me. The white tulle of Iris's dress is wedged into the frame of the mirror. I try to unhook it, but it doesn't budge.

"Okay," I say. "Don't freak out."

"I wasn't until now," my friend cries.

"I'm your matron of honour. It's my job to fix this, and I will."

I try again, this time wiggling the fabric a little, but it stays firm in the frame.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Inside, employees rush around, trying to put the finishing touches on the decorations in the banquet hall where the wedding will be taking place. The colour scheme is blush pink with ivory, and the flower pots and lacy garland show off the two brides' feminine personalities well. Libby's artsy side shows through in the colourful ribbons used to wrap the seats for the audience. Outside the banquet hall is the foyer where Andreas and I are standing, watching the other guests gradually enter in. I gasp when my eye finds who I assume must be a bridesmaid, because her pale green dress reaches her feet and has fabric flower embellishments like a fairy would have.

"Wait, is that a bridesmaid?" I say. "That dress is stunning."

Andreas looks over at where I'm fixated and makes his own judgement. "That green makes her look like a cabbage."

"How would you know?" I snipe. "You can't see green."

When my eyes move up to her makeup, I begin to pay attention to her lips, and then her words come into range, and I'm completely enthralled by the conversation she's having with another woman.

"I can see green," Andreas argues, "just not the way you see it."

"Shhh, shut up," I tell him, putting my finger up to silence him, my eyes still on the bridesmaid. "She's talking about something."

"He's one of Iris's bridesmen, and I'm going to have to walk down the isle with him," the bridesmaid whines. "How can one expect me to do that without remembering how deeply I am in love with him?"

"Oh, Maria, he loves you too," says the other woman. "You must mend your relationship before it's too late."

"But I must respect my parents' wishes. They want me to be with someone intelligent and successful. A musician is too wild and uncertain for their taste. It doesn't matter how thoughtful or romantic he is."

Andreas cuts in, muttering, "Are we in a soap opera?"

"Andreas, she feels conflicted," I explain, my voice dreamy from the romanticism of the bridesmaid's dilemma. "She's caught between her duty to her parents and her love for her man."

"I think I've heard a Michael Bublé song about that," Andreas responds.

I brush off his disinterestedness and say, "We have to get them together."

 

Chapter Text

Walker's POV

By the time Jonah and I get to the venue, there are already many people mingling amongst themselves outside, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Jonah and I are dressed to the nines in our tuxes, but some of the other guests here in their suits and dresses are really outshining us.

"Is it weird going to the wedding of a girl you dated in middle school?" I ask my husband.

"No weirder than Andi and Amber's wedding," he replies.

He glances around at all the people, but then he freezes at the sight of one woman with ginger hair, but she's not one of the brides.

"Uh, let's go through a different door," Jonah says.

He reaches for my arm and starts pulling me back toward the parking lot, but I keep my feet sturdy on the floor, making him circle back to me.

"There's only one door," I tell him. "What are you trying to avoid?"

"That's Libby's sister," Jonah says, nodding toward the ginger.

"And...?"

"When I was dating Libby, something happened. I won't say what, but it was bad."

"Bad enough to make you want to detour through an imaginary door?"

"Yes," he confirms.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

"Are you sure about this?" Andreas asks.

I'm peaking into the room where the bridesmaid went to sit. Inside are a bunch of fake plants around mismatched furniture, and photos on the walls. It's empty, since most of the guests are all in the banquet hall or foyer at the moment. This is the perfect opportunity to talk to the bridesmaid without any distractions, and I'm honestly offended that Andreas is questioning my choice.

"Yes," I answer.

He starts to talk again, but I ignore him, going up to the bridesmaid instead, and giving her a smile, while Andreas stays in the doorway.

"Hi," I say. "I'm Jayda, and you look amazing."

"Oh, thank you," she responds kindly. "So do you."

I look down at my own ruby red bodycon dress, saying, "Thank you."

"How do you know the brides?" the bridesmaid, who's name was Maria if I recall correctly, asks.

"Oh, my aunts are close friends with them. Also, my dad dated one in middle school, and my uncle dated the other."

"Oh," she responds, furrowing her eyebrows. "That's...weird."

"I know, right," I agree cheerfully. "I was planning to bring my boyfriend as my plus one, but we broke up."

I wasn't planning on that. Even if Jeremy and I didn't break up, he was never much of a respectful event kind of guy. But I'm trying to steer the conversation where I need it to go.

Maria's eyes go sympathetic. "Oh, I'm sorry."

"It's okay. It was for the best. He was an artist, and my parents didn't want me to be with him."

That's all it takes to open the dam, for she begins to spill about herself, saying, "Wow. I'm actually in a similar situation."

"Really?" I respond, resting my elbow on my knee and leaning in. "Say more."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

I've been holding Cara's hand this whole time, making sure she doesn't get into trouble. I have no idea where Brayden and Andreas are, but they're not featured in the wedding, so I don't care if they get their clothes dirty. Marty walks alongside me and our daughter into the banquet hall where two giant pots of assorted flowers frame the entryway. Our of the corner of my eye, I see Cara running her hand over the blossoms, and then she holds her palm up with a gasp.

"Look, Mom! I'm getting super powers!"

I turn to her and see faint yellow coating all her fingers, which makes me stressed instantaneously.

"No, that's pollen," I correct her, taking her hand to keep it out. "Don't touch your dress."

"I'll grab some napkins," Marty says.

I glance back as he starts walking to say, "Could you also get—"

"Extra?" Marty cuts in with a grin. "I will."

A smile finds my face, and he goes off to do as asked. Extra napkins. He knows me. He always has.

After a moment of reminiscing, I return my attention to my daughter.

"Okay, Cara, you have to keep your dress clean, so you're not allowed to touch anything until after the wedding. Got it?"

She gives me a big nod. "Okay."

Marty appears behind me with the napkins, and I take a few to rub Cara's hand clean. Once that's done, I'm about to continue walking into the banquet hall when I notice Wyatt walking through the lobby carrying a bunch of rocks in his arms. They create a layer of dust on his dress shirt, but he's unbothered by it.

"Wyatt, what are you doing?" I question.

"I found these in the garden and thought they'd be cool in my room," he answers.

"Can I have one?" Cara chirps.

Wyatt nods, and Cara takes a step out, but I pull her right back.

"No," I say to Cara. "And Wyatt, you can't have them either. Go put them back. Where are your dads?"

Wyatt just shrugs.

Amber's POV

I stand on the side, not blinking, while Cyrus and TJ are bent down by the mirror, and Iris is trying to not let herself hyperventilate from all the anxious breathing she's doing. After I coudln't get the dress unstuck, I found my brother and brother in law to help, but even with Cyrus's precise touch, the skirt stays stuck.

"I'm afraid of ripping the dress," Cyrus says.

Iris's expression goes even tenser, and she looks to me, saying, "What are the chances you'd carry the mirror down the isle with me?"

"I'm be honoured, but I'm also too weak for that."

TJ scoots into Cyrus's spot, saying, "Let me try."

He gives the dress a yank, and the mirror topples over, but thankfully Cyrus manages to catch it before it can smash on the floor.

"Good thing it didn't break," Cyrus says with a breath of relief. "That would be bad."

He lifts it back upright, and I spot a slice in my reflection.

"Nope," I respond. "There's a crack."

Iris's heavy breathing kicks back into gear as she says, "Oh, God. Did you at least free my dress?"

The look on TJ's face doesn't seem promising as he answers, "Yes, but..."

He raises the tulle, showing the hole that's been torn through it, and I reach out to hold Iris's shoulder, worried she might faint from stress.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Andreas now sits next to me on the bench with Maria who's sobbing so hard that her mascara should be running, but it's not. It's amazingly waterproof. I'll have to find out what kind she uses. Andreas passes me one of the tissues that he always keeps on hand, and I pass it along to Maria who takes it and blows her nose.

"I love him," she cries. "I do. But my family would never support us."

"But doesn't true love conquer all?" I reason.

"If true love came with a master's degree in engineering, then my parents would be ecstatic."

"Maria," I say sternly, "you only get so many chances at love. You're, like, fifty—"

"I'm thirty-four—"

"You might not have another opportunity like this one. You cannot let this man go."

"But my parents..."

"Who cares about what your parents think!" I reply. "I never listen to my parents, and I'm doing fine. What you need to do is march up to this man and tell him you love him and want to be with him!"

I feel like a football coach giving a pep talk before a game, and Maria raises her chin in confidence like one of my players.

"You're right," she agrees.

In the doorway appears a man in a suit with a tie the same sage colour as Maria's dress. He looks at her with gleaming eyes, eyes of longing. This is the man.

"Renaldo!" Maria calls.

Maria bolts up to her feet in an instant, and the two pull together, meeting in the middle, their gazes fawning over each other. 

"Renaldo," Maria repeats, "I was wrong to push you away. I love you, and I need you in my life."

"This is a surprise," Renaldo responds, his voice deep and his accent Spanish. "I have a Tinder date tonight."

"What?" weeps Maria. "You moved on that fast?"

Renaldo takes the woman's hands and raises them up between him and his lover, saying, "But I'll cancel for you, my love."

"Oh, Renaldo!"

He pulls her into a kiss, and it's romantic and steamy, like something out of a movie.

"This is weird," Andreas comments beside me.

"Yeah," I admit, "but it's still sweet."

 

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

The banquet hall is filling up as people take their seats. Marty's went ahead and gotten chairs for our family, while I'm standing in the center isle, scanning the room to find my oldest kid. I finally spot him moseying in with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his face.

"There you are!" I say. "Where have you been?"

"Reuniting star-crossed lovers," Andreas answers.

"Okay, I'm not gonna ask. Just go sit down. It's starting soon, and I need to bring Cara to the back to get ready."

"Where is Cara?"

I look down by my side, and she's not there anymore. Frantically, I sweep my eyes over all the people, trying to pinpoint my daughter's curly, brown hair. I find her sitting beside Brayden on a chair at the very back row, not where my husband has chosen chairs for us. While Brayden reads his book, Cara is sucking on a red lollipop, which makes me move at double speed to go over there and take it from her hand.

"Cara, no food," I remind her. "Where did you even get this?"

"Brayden gave it to me," she replies, and I give Brayden a hard look.

"What?" he says defensively. "It keeps her quiet."

"Okay, Cara, let's go to the back where they're going to give you your basket of flower petals."

"Pretty," Cara responds with a smile, and she hops down off her chair to come with me.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

Hazel's left to find her seat, while I remain with Libby in her dressing room, helping her practice her vows, but a knock on the door interrupts us, and I look over to see a concerned Amber coming in.

"Libby, hi," she says to her. "You look beautiful." Then she turns to me, opting not to sign as she asks, "Can I talk to you for a second?"

I go over to her, and her worried expression starts to spread to me.

"Can you sew something?" she asks.

"Why? What ripped?"

"Iris's dress."

"One of the brides' dresses is ripped?" I react in shock.

"Yes. Now can you sew it?"

"I don't have my sewing kit on me."

Of all the days I decide to leave it at home, it has to be the one day I need it.

"Well, who else would have one?" Amber wonders.

Both our eyes light up simultaneously.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

I'm relived when Amber comes back in, bringing Andi with her, because hopefully I won't have to keep trying to calm Iris down, and we can just get the dress fixed. TJ steps back to where I am to get out of the way of the workers.

"Andi," Iris cheers. "Perfect. Can you fix it?"

"No," Andi replies, "but we brought someone who can."

Brayden marches into the room with a sewing needle and white thread in hand, saying, "Where's the tear?"

Iris points to the hole, and Brayden kneels down to begin the mending.

"Thank you," Amber tells him.

Without looking up, Brayden responds, "E-transfer speaks louder than words."

________________________________________

Walker's POV

Jonah and I walk past the rows of seats to get to ours, but right as I'm about to turn down our row, Jonah grabs my arm and stops me.

"Great," he mutters. "She's in the seat in front of mine."

"Jonah, whatever happened was in middle school. I'm sure she doesn't care anymore."

He shakes his head. "No, this was bad."

"What even happened?"

"Okay," he breathes. "I'll tell you, but you can't judge me. When I was dating Libby, I accidentally broke her sister's laptop and blamed it on the cat."

"You blamed it on her cat?" I repeat with a chuckle.

"Yeah, but that's not the worst part. The cat ran away the next day. I think it could feel the way she was glaring at it."

"Does she even know that you were the one who broke it?" I question.

"I don't know."

"Well, we can't just stand here the whole time," I say.

"Are you sure? It would be like a constant standing ovation."

I take Jonah's hand and pull him along, saying, "Come on."

"Okay," Jonah sighs. "I guess it's time to be honest anyway and get this off my chest."

Our seats are beside Hazel's, who gives me a nod as I lower down next to her. Jonah has his eyes glued to the back of the woman's head ahead of us, anticipating what is surely about to come. And then it does, for she notices Jonah behind her and turns around, giving him a friendly smile. 

"Jonah!" she says.

Jonah paints a smile on his face to hide his nerves and responds, "Ellie! How are you?"

"Great. What about you?"

"Great."

The woman returns her focus ahead of her, and Jonah's smile turns from fake to real as he leans back in his chair, relaxed.

"I guess she doesn't know," he says.

"Aren't you going to tell her to get it off your chest?" I ask.

He considers that for a second before answering, "No, I'm good."

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

I can't recall the exact name of the song the violin is playing, but I swear I've heard it in the background of a Disney movie before. Everyone in the chairs watches as the bridesmaids and bridesmen walk down the isle, including Auntie Amber and Auntie Andi, two at a time. Jayda sits beside me, and her eyes go soft when it's Maria and Renaldo's turn. I had no intention of repairing a relationship today, but Jayda did it like it was nothing. I guess everyone has their talents, and hers just happens to be rewriting soap opera plot lines in real life.

"Look at them," Jayda whispers. "They're so in love."

"Yeah," I respond. "We might get an invitation to their wedding soon."

Buffy's POV

A few more people walk down the isle before Cara takes the spotlight. She smiles sweetly as she floats forward, dropping pink petals on the ground like a fairy with pixie dust.

"Well," Marty says as he leans over to me, "she managed to keep her dress clean."

I smile proudly. "Yeah."

Right as I say that, Cara gets to the end of the isle and wipes her hand on her dress, getting sticky, yellow pollen from the petals on the white fabric.

"Spoke too soon," Marty mutters.

Regardless of our daughter's mess, the wedding carries on, with each of the brides being escorted to the front by their fathers. When the time comes for their vows, both brides are tearing up right from the start, before the first one even starts talking.

"Libby, when I was little, I used to dream about marrying the love of my life, and today, that dream is coming true, thanks to you. You are everything I've ever imagined and so much more, from the way you see the bright side of every situation to how you never let me feel sad for too long. I remember when we met you at your little brother's band concert when we were in high school, and I was the only person in that whole crowd, other than our families, who could talk to you, which at the time I thought was sad, but now I realized how lucky that was, because then when we met again three years ago, because we just happened to be hired to the same company, I remembered your smile and your eyes, and I didn't want to miss you again .... "

Iris finishes her vows, and Libby starts her own while Libby's mother translates on the side for us. She tells a cute story about their first date and how they got stuck in the rain which ended up being the most romantic thing ever, and then Libby gets to the end.

"... Iris, I promise to stand by you even when we can't dance through the rain. I will love you when it snows and when it hails. If you're sick, I'll take care of you, and no matter what, I won't let you forget that the sun is always out there somewhere .... "

After the vows, which leave both girls' cheeks glistening from the tears that have streaked them, they exchange rings. Finally, the officiant pronounces them wives, and they kiss, sealing their promise. Clapping erupts from the crowd, and I prepare myself for the massacre of food stains that I'll surely have to try to get out of my daughter's dress after the reception and dinner.

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

I step out into the living room while saying, "Andi, our room is starting to look like Dr. Suess threw up in it."

Andi's been moving all of her sculptures out of the living room, and because she doesn't trust herself to not trip on our insanely thin stairs to the basement, all of the art is ending up in our room. Even while she responds to me, she's still in the midst of lifting her pop can tab flower off the shelf above the television.

"I'm not taking any chances," she says. "All my sculptures have to be out of the living room before Hazel's birthday party tomorrow. Fourteen and thirteen year-olds have no understanding of how to not touch things."

"In more ways that one," I mutter.

Last year, one of Andi's sculptures was broken, so she clearly wants to avoid that happening again this year. I don't mind having all the works in our room, except that it makes for quite a maze to get to the bed, and having to use the washroom at night would be a nightmare. It also blocks the closet where the things like Hazel's birth certificate are as well as the hospital photos of Andi and I together the day she gave birth to our daughter, which I usually end up looking at this time of the year. Hazel's birthday, along with my wedding day, were the two happiest days of my life.

"Okay," Hazel announces as she comes out from the hallway, "so Fatima, Aimée, and Darius are coming, but Bentley and Selena aren't. That's what I get for having a birthday on St. Patrick's Day."

"How does that affect anything?" Andi questions.

"I don't know! I need a scapegoat!" the girl huffs.

"Well, your cousins are coming too," I mention.

She sighs. "Okay, but not the ones I can't swear in front of."

"You shouldn't be swearing in front of any of them," Andi counters.

Even though we tell Hazel she can't, I know she still swears. I did. Andi didn't until I got her too, but she still did eventually.

"Only Jayda and Andreas," I assure Hazel.

"Okay," she accepts. "That's tolerable."

_________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

My excitement I feel for the day melts the second I see TJ in the kitchen wearing his navy work pants and shirt, the uniform he always has on before he has to put on his protective gear at the fire department. This can't be correct. He should have the day off.

"Um, TJ," I say as I step up to him, "why do you look like you're about to go to work?"

TJ puts down his coffee mug and turns toward me with a sigh. "I'm sorry."

"But you know what day it is," I whine.

"I know," he pouts.

He brings me in against him by the waist, and my frustration turns to bare sadness, because I was hoping I'd get to have more of this throughout the day. At least he keeps me close for now while he continues to talk.

"They called me in last minute. I tried to get the day off, but Tania got sick, and unfortunately 911 calls don't take sick days."

"I wish they would," I mumble.

"I know, but when I get home, we'll celebrate."

"Fine," I accept, "but you have to kiss me before you leave."

He grins. "I'll kiss you right now too."

Our lips pull toward each other, and my heart starts to flutter only to be shot down by a pinch to my arm.

"Ow!" TJ and I say in unison.

We look over to see our son standing there shaking his head.

"Wyatt," I say, to which he just shouts, "Wear green!"

_________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

One thing that most people don't know about TJ is that when he finds something he likes, he puts his whole heart into it. It becomes his passion, and he doesn't let anyone steer him away from it. When we were in high school, he found a Rubix cube and was determined to solve it. It took him four weeks, but he did it without searching it up online. When I was in college, and he was training to become a firefighter, he promised he would get strong enough to carry me up all 32 floors of the tallest hotel in Shadyside. It took a few pauses along the way, but he did it. When he got his wisdom teeth removed at age sixteen, and he was all loopy from the laughing gas, he told me he was going to marry me someday.

For every one of those times, there were people who told him he was trying too hard or reaching too high or thinking too far ahead, but I never doubted him, because what fun was that? Some of our best memories were when he had some idea that seemed crazy to me but was completely logical to his beautiful mind, like when we bored at home at 18, so he drove us to a different state to ride horses. I fell off mine, but he let me sit behind him on his, and he turned out to be pretty good at horseback riding. That photo is just one of the many in the album I'm flipping through at the kitchen island when I hear my daughter enter the room and try to get a glimpse of the pages.

"What are you looking at?" she asks.

"Just pictures."

She sits down on the stool next to me and leans over to see the album better.

"Is that you and Dad?" she asks. Then she gets a closer look at one of the photos and says, "Ew, you guys liked golfing?" She lets out a laugh. "You were old men before you were old men."

"For your information, we weren't golfing," I tell her.

"Then what were you doing in a golf cart?"

"He was driving me to the middle," I answer.

"The middle of what?" she questions.

"It was really cute. You had to be there."

She accepts that, giving me a slow nod.

"So what's so special about today?" she wonders. "Other than it being St. Patrick's Day."

"This was the day of our first kiss," I tell her.

"That's so sweet," she fawns. "On St. Patrick's Day?"

"We were at the park," I start, letting a smile take me over, "and there was a rainbow in the sky, and I remember him wondering what was actually at the end of the rainbow."

That topic causes Jayda to ponder, saying, "What is at the end of a rainbow?"

"Nothing. A rainbow is just light."

"Then I'll let you know now that Wyatt got at least one question wrong on his last science test."

"Anyway," I continue, trying not to think about Wyatt's science grades, "We were sitting there, looking at each other, and there was a group of people nearby playing a song obnoxiously loud on a speaker, but I remember that song, because it gave me this spur of confidence, and I kissed him. That's why we always make such a big deal out of St. Patrick's Day."

"And why there's always a trail of chocolate coins leading to your bedroom after I pretend to go to sleep?" she adds.

I want to defend that, but I can't. "Yeah, that's an odd tradition." But TJ started it the first year we were married, so we don't stop it, and I don't want us to. It's one of the quirky romantic things he does that makes me feel special.

"So when will Papa get home?" Jayda wonders.

"Not until late. I wish he didn't have to work."

She gives me a sympathetic look as she says, "Yeah." Then she hops down off the stool and heads out of the kitchen. "Well, have a good day."

_________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Walker answers the door when the doorbell rings, and Marty and Cara step inside, Cara already dressed in her pink ballet leotard.

"Hey," Marty says, "so dance class is at 6:00. Just don't be late."

"Don't worry," Walker responds. "We won't be."

"Okay, Buffy will be there to pick her up afterward."

Walker nods that he understands, and Cara waves her dad goodbye before he leaves back toward his car. Once Walker closes the door, Cara kicks her shoes off and makes herself comfortable on our couch.

"Do you have tea?" she asks.

"You drink tea?" Walker says in surprise.

"Of course," Cara replies. "I'm a quarter English."

Walker chuckles, saying, "Okay, well, I'll get a kettle on the stove."

While he goes into the kitchen, I sit down on the chair adjacent to Cara's couch. She sits very poise with her leg crossed and her chin up, waiting patiently for her tea.

"Since we have time before we have to go," I say, "why don't you show us one of your dances?"

Cara hesitates a moment before responding, "Oh, sure."

She stands up and walks around behind the coffee table to give herself space to dance. I notice Walker come back into the living room as the girl begins to dance. But she doesn't dance like a happy little fairy the way I thought she would. Instead, her movements are floppy and tired. She only gets through about eight beats of raising her arms and twirling before she stops, dropping her hands back down like they're attached to weights.

"That's all I remember," She says.

That's it? She only knows eight counts of a dance? That's hardly long enough for me to take one breath.

"Don't you have a recital in a couple of weeks?" I question, perplexed.

"I just watch what the other kids are doing and copy them," she responds, "like school."

Walker only manages to make out a confused "Ummmm..." before the kettle starts screeching, and Cara releases a huge exhale.

"Thank goodness," the girl says, relieved, starting toward the kitchen. "I need a break."

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I haven't had much to do all day. I planned to spend it with TJ, but now I'm just trying to find things to do on my own. I sit in the living room while the television plays a movie, the volume low enough for me to hear the creak of the stairs as my daughter descends them and bends over the top of the couch, putting her head beside mine.

"Daddy," she says, "this is, like, the definition of sad."

"I'm just watching a movie," I argue.

"You're watching one of your own movies," she retorts. "This is like a singer listening to their own music. It's weird."

This is one of the movies I helped edit for the small film company in Shadyside that I work for. It was always my dream to make films, but I also didn't want to leave Shadyside, so my job is pretty much as perfect as it gets. I did do a minor in social work in university, but I've never actually done anything with that.

"Netflix was logged out, and I don't know where your dad keeps the password," I justify.

"Why don't you get out and do something fun," Jayda suggests.

"What would I do?"

"I don't know. Go get groceries or something."

"Jayda, contrary to what you might think, parents don't run errands for fun."

"Okay, then what do you want to do?" she questions.

I pause, considering the options, but I don't know what things I could do that are fun that wouldn't make me wish TJ was there to do them with me.

"I guess we do need groceries," I sigh.

_________________________________________

Walker's POV

Cara sips on her third cup of tea while Jonah and I sit around on nearby chairs, watching the content little girl raise her pinky with every tilt of the Star Wars mug. When she finishes that cup, she places it down gently on the coffee table and turns her attention to Jonah.

"Can we have a movie night?" she wonders.

"Sure," Jonah responds. "What movie?"

"The Exorcist."

"Cool, I'll get it set up."

He stands up to grab the remote, but I give him a look that pushes him back down. I don't know a ton about parenting, but I do know that you don't show six year-olds horror movies.

"No," I say. "We're not watching that movie, and we don't have time for a movie anyway. We have to get you to dance soon."

Cara just pouts. "Oh, yeah."

I'm starting to notice that she doesn't seem to be very interested in attending her dance class, but I can't really do anything. I have one job to do, and that's to get her to dance class on time. Considering she only knows eight beats of her routine, she can't exactly afford to miss it.

_________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

I step into the house. Alone. The grocery bags are heavy, so they almost drag on the ground as I walk them into the kitchen. I don't think going out helped me to feel better. Instead, it only highlighted how unusually normal my day has been. It's just another day off, but the chalk drawings of clovers on driveways reminded me that it shouldn't be just another day off. Today was supposed to be me and TJ's day. We have the evening, but one evening is like a match in a deep cave. Its light doesn't even skim the walls. Moments like this are when it hits me again that the world wasn't built for me and TJ. It was made for seven billion other people who also need it to turn round for them. That's why TJ and I can't spend every second of every day together, although I wish we could.

"Daddy!" my daughter screams as she bursts out of the doorway that leads into the basement.

She scares me enough to make me jolt, and I set the mushrooms down on the counter to turn to her.

"There's a noise coming from downstairs," she says.

"A noise?" I repeat. "Like the furnace?"

"No, a weird one."

"Well, I'm sure it's nothing."

She rolls her eyes. "Oh my God. Just come on."

She grabs my hand and pulls me down through the door to the basement, while I hope that the frozen food won't get too warm. It's rare that she's this forceful about showing me something, so this noise must sound like Satan's bowel movement.

"Jayda, what is ..."

I step down off the last step, and my eyes stop on TJ's. He sits on the piano bench beside Wyatt, both of them smiling at me, and Jayda runs over to pick up a musical triangle and stick. So many questions run through my mind. What is going on? How is TJ home from work already? Was he fired? Will we have to switch to a cheaper phone plan to save money?

But then my husband spins around to face the piano, and he starts playing the low notes, while Wyatt plays the high notes of a song that sweeps me up in a memory: "Your Song" by Elton John. This is the song. It's the one that was playing at the park when we had our first kiss. And he knows all the words to it. Of course he does. I do too. I follow along in my mind as TJ starts to sing, and his voice gives me chills that swirl like summer wind around my spine.

With the melody comes all the feelings from that day. The excitement. The anticipation. His hand on my jaw and thumb on my cheek. The scent of early spring grass barely greening. The sound of the breeze rattling the swings nearby. Every time TJ takes another breath to sing, I feel one of my own fill me up.

The song concludes with a triangle ding from Jayda, and I remain standing mesmerized while TJ comes over to me, knitting his fingers through mine.

"When did you get off?" I ask.

"The last call was a fire that was put out before we got there, so I was able to convince the captain to let me go early," TJ explains.

I keep my eyes on his for a moment before letting them drop down to his lips, and he steps in to give me chills again, but this time, with his kiss.

Jayda and Wyatt make a beeline for the stairs right away, saying things like "Ew" and "Nope."

Our lips stay together a little bit after the door slams shut at the top of the stairway, and then I lean back with a grin.

"So I have you to myself?" I question.

"Yes," TJ confirms, "and Jayda's going to Hazel's party, and Wyatt's going to a friend's house."

"So we'll be alone?"

"Mmhmm."

TJ returns his lips to mine again, soft and slow like a butterfly landing home. He flutters away with the speed of a cloud, but once apart, he lets me go in a rush.

"Let's go drop them off," he says.

"It's kinda early," I counter. "Wyatt's thing doesn't start for another two hours."

"Well, we're his only ride, so he can't really be mad," TJ reasons, and I smile at that, following him upstairs.

_________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Cara twists around restlessly while holding my hand as Walker and I walk her down the halls of the recreation centre toward the room where her dance class is. When we get up to the open door, Walker and I stop, and I let go of Cara's hand, but she doesn't go yet. She stares in at the kids running around, a frown on her face.

"Cara," Walker says, "you don't like dance, do you?"

"What?" she responds. "I love it here. Max always brings his rat, and sometimes we put lipstick on it."

"Okay, but what about the actual dancing part?" Walker presses.

Cara's head drops down, and she mutters, "I don't really like that part."

"What?" I say. "Then why do you do it?"

"Because Mommy and Daddy always say how much they like watching me, and I liked it when I was littler, but now it's just kinda boring. I want to do something else." When she raises her head again, her eyes are caught on the room across the hall. "Like that!"

Walker and I spin around as the girl runs across through the open door of the karate class starting up. Kids in karate gis leave their parents at the door to enter in, but some are just in simple shorts and T-shirts, making me a little confused. Suddenly, a woman in her own karate gi walks up to Walker and me with a smile.

"You're here for open the open lesson?" she assumes.

"Huh?" I respond.

"Kids ages six to ten can learn a free lesson tonight," she explains.

Right after talking, she notices another family approaching her and turns to greet them. I guess Cara is actually allowed to be here, and she looks really happy as she talks to the other kids, showing off her own fight moves that she's seen on TV.

"Well, look at that," I say.

"Should we get her back to the dance class?" Walker wonders.

I look at Cara again and think for a second before answering, "Nah."

 

Chapter Text

Hazel's POV

Birthdays for me have never been big. I don't have enough friends to make them big. It's always just me and a few others sitting around a bowl of chips and playing card games or watching a movie. Darius, Andreas, Fatima, and Aimée are all playing slapjack. I was the first one out, which isn't like me, but I don't really feel like me today. It has nothing to do with my birthday or with my friends here. It has to do with the person not here.

My back is starting to ache from leaning awkwardly on the edge of the couch while sitting on the floor, so I adjust my position, but it doesn't help. My friends' hands slap the cards, spiking the air every time. Slap! Pause. Slap! Quiet. It's just a game. Why are you so anxious? Slap! Oh, that's why your so anxious. I tap open my messages on my phone and see the one I sent to Camille an hour ago.

Me: Hey. The party's started. Are you coming?

It's unread. She didn't even read it. Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Is that diminishing my feelings to say it's nothing? Why isn't she here?

The doorbell rings, and I swear my heart almost implodes. I get up and race to open the door. Finally, she's...here. Not here. She's not here. It's just Jayda.

"Oh," I utter.

Jayda gives me a critical look, saying, "Wow. You act like I'm your French teacher showing up here."

"Sorry," I say. "It's just...my girlfriend hasn't shown up yet."

"Well, maybe something came up," Jayda suggests.

"Yeah," I mumble. "You're right. I'm just being insecure."

Jayda flips her hair, responding, "I have that effect on people."

She steps on in past me, and I close the door, even though I hope I'll have to open it again soon. Please make me have to open it again soon.

_________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Walker and I are watching Cara's karate class through the glass window from the hall when Buffy suddenly steps up beside me, and I realize it's been an hour already, and this is when Cara's dance class would've ended, which we didn't take her to.

"Oh, hey!" I say, trying to act like casual, but under the surface, I'm preparing myself for Buffy's judgement. Oddly, that never comes.

"So no more dance class, huh?" she says instead.

"Yeah," I respond. "Sorry, but she really didn't like dance, and she was so into this—"

"It's fine," Buffy interrupts. "I was thinking was was starting to lose interest. I just wish I could get my money back for the rest of this year's dance classes since it looks like I'll be putting her into karate instead."

"She's really good," Walker comments.

"Of course she is," Buffy agrees with a grin. "She's my kid. Whenever she wants to do something, she puts her everything into it."

_________________________________________

Hazel's POV

Gifts have been opened. Movies finished. Games played. Food eaten. People gone. Moon up. Candles blown out. None were missed. Means no boyfriends.

She never came. I spent my whole party waiting for her to show up, but she didn't. Like expecting the wind to push the clouds away, but they just stay there, stuck in an alternate timeline where everything moves slower, like a turtle, and to you, light takes years to hit the earth, and you're starting to wonder if it will ever get there. And it doesn't. Because the gifts have been opened, the moon is up, the candles are blown out, and it's done. There's no more time.

I make scratches in the kitchen table with my fingernail while Mommy carries her sculptures back out into the living room. I said I didn't want to talk when my moms asked. I still don't, but mostly because I don't have the energy.

"Jayda," Mommy says as my cousin passes by, "when are your dads picking you up?"

"If there were chocolate coins involved, I might be sleeping over."

"I won't ask," Mommy responds to that.

My pity party is breached when Jayda sinks down into the chair next to me.

"Are you okay?" she asks.

"Yeah, I'm fine," I insist. "What? You expect me to cry over a girl?"

Now I'm starting to cry over a girl, and Jayda notices that and puts her hand on my shoulder.

"Okay," she says. "Let's go to your room."

I let her guide me down the hallway into my cream-toned bedroom where I collapse onto my dandelion yellow comforter. Jayda settles beside me, looking at me glumly.

"Have you tried to call her?" she asks.

"Yeah, I've—"

Cancel that. I'm getting a video call from Camille right now.

"I'll leave," Jayda says before getting up and leaving me alone in my room.

I'm about to hit the answer button, but then I halt to quickly peak in my mirror on the wall to make sure my makeup isn't smeared. When I'm sure it isn't, I tap my phone, and Camille's face appears on the screen.

"Sorry," she says, "you were calling?"

She doesn't look apologetic or tired or concerned at all. She looks normal, like she didn't just miss my birthday, and that stings me. She doesn't even care.

"Where were you?" I question.

"I was working on homework and had my phone away. Why?"

Why? WHY? SERIOUSLY?

"Um, it was kind of my birthday," I sass back.

I tried too keep my cool, but that's gone now. A welding torch of frustration evaporated it away.

Camille's eyes go wide. "That was today?"

"Yeah. I told you yesterday...and last week...and last month."

"I forgot. I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you."

"How? Are you going to rewind the day and show up?"

"Hazel, I was busy," she insists, which only makes me more mad.

"You're always busy, Camille!" I snap. "I get busy too, but when we make plans, I come. Remember last month when I came to your family's weird gardening party because you didn't want to be stuck with them all night?"

Camille scrambles to respond, "And you taught them so much about plants."

"That's because my grandpa is, like, Father Nature. But I had a test the next day that I barely passed, because you wanted me to come with you."

"I didn't tell you to do that."

"No, but I wanted to make you happy," I explain, hearing my voice crack as my tears return, now stronger than ever, "and I thought maybe you would've wanted to come to my birthday to make me happy."

"I'm sorry," she repeats, but it means nothing more than dead air. "What else do you want from me?"

"Nothing!" I shout. Then my volume drops down as I take a moment to breathe before saying, "Nothing. I think we should break up."

"You're breaking up with me over this?"

Over this. Over one thing. But a deer can die in one shot. So sometimes one thing can be everything. This is one of those times. It was my birthday, one thing that she should've cared about. But she didn't. Now she doesn't have to.

"Yes," I confirm, trying to sound strong, but I'm crumpling like tin foil. "Bye, Camille."

I press my finger to my screen to hang up the call before I can change my mind. My phone goes blank for a second before switching to my lock screen, which is a picture of me and Camille. I guess I have to change that now.

The doorknob twists, and in comes Jayda looking at me with empathy, saying, "Aw, baby, do you need a hug?" Then she adds, "I totally wasn't listening through the door. I'm just psychic."

I don't care how false that statement is. I open my arms, and Jayda runs up to fill them. This feels better...I think. I don't know. I wonder if I'll ever know, or if I'll always wonder whether I made the right choice to break up with Camille. But I guess the good thing about being only fourteen is that I still have time to change my choices. 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

The whole Good Hair Family is together once again for a meal, this time at Buffy's house for lunch. Her kitchen table is the longest, of everyone's, but we still need to set up two more collapsable plastic tables to fit everyone in, as always. Good thing our family isn't getting any bigger, because otherwise we'd need another table added on.

"Uncle TJ," Andreas says through a half-full mouth, "the pasta salad is really good."

"Thanks," TJ responds with a pleased smile.

He'd been wanting to try that recipe for weeks, but it called for sun-dried tomatoes, which we kept forgetting to buy.

"Yeah, it is," Jayda agrees.

"I'm glad you think so," I say, "because we have enough extra at home to last us the next four dinners."

TJ and I laugh a little as Jayda glares at Andreas, grumbling, "Why'd you have to bring it up?"

We may have gotten the measurements wrong when cooking and accidentally made seven times the amount the book called for, but I suppose you can never have enough vegan pasta salad.

"I have cookies for desert," Amber mentions.

That is immediately met with a lot of uncomfortable looks as everyone finds a reason why they can't eat them.

"I'm not really hungry for dessert," Brayden says.

"I'm cutting back on sugar," Jayda chimes in.

"I want cookies," Wyatt says.

TJ leans over to him to say, "Trust me. You don't."

Amber rolls her eyes, saying, "Relax. I bought them," and all three tables sigh in relief.

"Andi," I say, changing the topic to something I'm more curious about, "How was that sculpture you were working on for that big hotel company?"

"Fantastic," my friend replies eagerly. "They ended up paying me enough to pay for most of Hazel's college tuition."

Wow. It must be really nice to have a kid who she really trusts will be going to college.

"That's awesome!" Walker says to Andi.

"Yeah. My art's been doing pretty well lately. I have a ton of people wanting sculptures."

Beside Andi, Amber suddenly stands up, looking a little unsettled, and saying, "I'm gonna get more water." She grabs her glass before hurrying away from the table.

While she's gone, her daughter returns from the bathroom and plops down in the seat next to Brayden's.

"What's with the stuffed basketball in the bathroom?" Hazel questions.

"That's mine!" Cara shouts. "You didn't pee on it, did you?"

Hazel is taken aback, saying, "Ew, no. How would that even happen?"

"Ask Wyatt," Cara mumbles, and all eyes go to my son.

"I think it's offensive that you think my aim isn't flawless," Wyatt responds before chomping down on one of Buffy's tuna sandwiches.

"Then what was on my pillow?"

"That was milk," Wyatt answers, which only creates more questions.

"Why did you have milk in the washroom?" Brayden asks.

"Okay, we're eating," Andi interrupts, ending that conversation.

"I'll back up a bit to the basketball thing," TJ says. "Cara, when did you start liking basketball?"

"I don't really like the actual game," the girl replies. "I just use the pillow to sit on when my brothers kick me off the couch to play video games."

"My sister does the same thing, but not for video games," Wyatt joins in. "She just needs more space for her big head."

"Wyatt," Jayda says calmly, "don't forget that I know where you live."

"So basketball," Hazel says, bringing the talk back on track. She looks at TJ. "You play, right?"

"Yeah," TJ answers. "Played in middle and high school. Was the team captain in middle school."

"Mom was the team captain of the girls' team, right?" Andreas checks.

"Yeah," Buffy replies.

Hazel chuckles and says, "So who's better?"

The tension spikes as TJ and Buffy share a glance.

"You shouldn't have asked that," Jonah mutters.

"There have been countless games," I explain, "and both of them are pretty equally matched."

"We haven't played against each other in a while," Buffy points out. "How about some one-on-one?"

TJ's not near as competitive as Buffy, but he would never turn down an opportunity to play basketball, so he smiles and narrows his eyes.

"It's on, Slayer."

________________________________________

TJ's POV

Buffy and Marty have their own little basketball court in their backyard. It only has one net over a rectangle of concrete, but it's all we need to play. The two of us get ready on the court while the rest of the family gets seated in chairs around it and on the patio nearby. Although Jayda and Andreas are sitting on a couch to watch, the rest of the kids are elsewhere, Cara and Wyatt running around on the grassy side of the yard, Hazel rocking on the swinging seat by the garden, and Brayden out of sight completely. But all our friends are watching, and our husbands hold up a whiteboard, ready to keep score from their seats. I get ready with the ball, and Buffy prepares to steal it.

"On your mark!" Cyrus shouts. "Get set! Go!"

To this day, Cyrus still doesn't understand the difference between how a basketball game starts and how a race starts, but I don't care. It's adorable. Unfortunately, that thought distracts me as I start dribbling, and Buffy snatches the ball out of the air right away.

Marty's POV

Buffy scores the first basket, and Cyrus marks down a one on the whiteboard.

"You still don't know how to score basketball?" I question.

"I've tried to learn," he responds, "but I always get distracted."

"By what?"

The ball drops through the net again, this time from TJ's throw, and the blonde jogs around the edge of the court, running his hands through his hair, a sight that makes Cyrus stare.

"By that," Cyrus answers after another second.

The basketball game continues, but now it is taking much longer for anyone to get a shot in, because both opponents are getting better at blocking. I look over at Andreas and Jayda who are having their own conversation to my left. Well, Andreas is conversing. Jayda is focused on her phone.

"My mom's gonna crush your dad," Andreas tells her.

"Cool," she says mindlessly then sits forward. "What do you think of me in—" she holds her phone out for Andreas to see "—this dress."

His eyes go wide, and he responds, "I feel like I shouldn't be thinking of that."

"Dad!" comes my daughter's voice, making me turn around to see her tired face. "I'm bored. Can I draw chalk on the driveway?"

"Well, we're scoring the game, so we can't come."

"Wyatt can go with her," Cyrus suggests.

The boy runs over at the sound of his name, saying, "Huh?"

"Go to the front with Cara to watch her," Cyrus tells his son.

"But I'm in the middle of catching worms," the boy argues.

"Why are you doing that?" Cyrus questions, confused.

"I'm gonna keep them to watch them turn into butterflies."

"You'll be waiting a very long time for that, because caterpillars are the ones that change into butterflies."

Wyatt's eyebrows turn down in anger as he huffs, "Jayda lied to me! That witch!"

"Wyatt, what have I told you," Cyrus says sternly. "You can't trust your sister's knowledge of science. Just go with Cara."

Wyatt sighs. "Okay."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

After a while of watching the game, I get hungry and convince Walker to come find food with me. There are plenty of leftovers in Buffy and Marty's fridge, so Walker and I both steal slices of cheesecake from there. While I'm snacking on that, Walker closes the fridge again with a frown.

"They don't have any soda left," he says.

"Not in there."

I set down my little plate and fork to go over to the sink, under which I open one of the cabinet doors and reach for a cola from the stash behind the garbage bin. Walker looks at it in awe as I pass the can to him.

"We really spend a lot of time here, huh?" he says.

"Marty keeps extra here to keep the kids from finding them," I explain.

Right as I finish talking, Brayden steps into the kitchen from the living room, and I kick the cabinet door closed quickly.

"Brayden, why aren't you outside with the family?" I ask.

"Why are you not outside?" he counters.

"Just getting some...um..."

"I know about my dad's stash of pop," the boy says.

"Oh," I breathe in relief.

"So why are you inside?" Walker asks again.

"I have a paper I have to write by Monday," Brayden replies as he gets himself a glass of water.

"What's it about?" Walker asks.

"It's a personal essay about a defining moment in my life."

"That's cool," I respond. "What moment are you writing about?"

"A moment," he answers awkwardly. "An excellent one."

Walker looks at him curiously. "You don't have a moment, do you?"

"Personal essays are feckless," the boy huffs. "I'm acclimated to writing about history or authors' perspectives on history in the form of novels. But my life doesn't have a theme or a climax or a resolution, nor did it make any indelible imprint on society. My teacher has more imperative tasks to complete than reading the shoddy work of a sixth-grader writing about his own dull life."

I didn't catch most of that.

"You're fun," I say, hoping that's the right response.

Walker takes over, saying, "Brayden, your life has many important moments."

"Name one," Brayden demands.

"Well, um..." He starts thinking, but Brayden doesn't give him the time.

"That's only two words," he says. "I need five hundred."

"Well, we could help you," Walker offers.

"Wouldn't you rather be watching the game?"

"That game's gonna be going on for a long time," I respond. "I'm not worried about missing anything."

 

Chapter Text

Wyatt's POV

Nobody's outside except for me and Cara. There are some cars, but they're all just black or grey, nothing exciting. I'm planning on getting monster truck when I turn sixteen. I don't know how much they cost, but they're tall, so I can run things over to go fast. Not people. I just mean, like, small things, like smart cars.

Cara drops down a box of colourful chalk sticks before sitting down on the cement driveway and starting to draw lines overtop of the remains of a washed-away cactus sketch.

"What are you drawing?" I wonder.

"I'm making a maze to confuse the ants when they walk across."

She draws the outside of the shape and begins filling it in with squiggles, while I look at all the other pictures on the driveway and down the sidewalk. A giant line of hopscotch squares takes up lots of the sidewalk space, stretching all the way across the whole width of the driveway.

"Nice hopscotch game," I say.

"Thanks," Cara replies, looking up from her work. "I'm practicing for the hopscotch olympics."

"That's a thing? I wanna do that."

That sounds so much better than all the normal games in the olympics. Those are too overdone. Hopscotch is where it's at. But Cara eyes me up and down, then stands up, crossing her arms.

"It takes years of practice," she states, "and I don't think you're cut out for it."

"Well, when I compete in the olympics, I'm gonna beat you," I argue.

She raises one eyebrow, and I'm jealous. I can't raise only one eyebrow. How come she can do that?

"Care to put your money where your mouth is?" she questions.

I reach into my pocket and feel around before answering, "All I have is four pennies and a toothpick."

Cara just shrugs and mumbles, "Chicken."

"I'm not a chicken!" I shout back. "Like I'd be scared to lose to some six year-old."

"I'm six and sixty-eight seventy-thirds."

"Jokes on you! I don't understand fractions!"

________________________________________

Marty's POV

The third basket of the day is scored by Buffy, and I clap for her. She gives me a quick smile before retuning her attention to the ball.

"You got this, TJ!" Cyrus encourages.

"Who do you think is gonna win?" I ask him.

"I have no idea."

Andi's POV

Amber and I have been watching the basketball game silently. She's been so intrigued by it all, and I've been handling my own work on my phone, so I haven't bothered to make much conversation. Once I finish responding to the last message, I put down my phone with an exhale.

"I've been getting emails all day from this one client," I tell her.

"Oh, they must be really excited to get your art," Amber responds.

"Yeah, it's amazing. People are referring other people to me."

"That's great, Andi," she says with a small smile. "I'm really proud of you."

Although she's smiling, her eyes look dimmer than usual.

"I'm sorry. Am I being braggy?"

"No," she assures me. "You're fine."

Her demeanour says otherwise.

"No, I'm being braggy," I say. "You talk about your work for a bit. How are things at the office?"

"Um...actually..." She looks over at me in the middle of her sentence, but then she finishes. "They're great. Really busy." She smiles and stands up, explaining, "Uh, I'm gonna go get one of those sodas from under the sink."

________________________________________

Wyatt's POV

I hop between each numbered square with lightning speed. 1, 2, 3, 4. I'm basically a fighter jet zooming down here. 5, 6, 7, 8. Maybe I should be a pilot when I grow up. I bet I would be great, because I'd get people to their destinations in half the time. Or maybe a military airforce pilot. That'd be cool. 9. I grab the rock, only shaking a little. 9, 8. If I'm shaky in a plane that only makes it look cooler. That'd be a problem if I were steering a boat, but I don't plan on being a sailor. 7, 6, 5, 4. Are all sailors pirates? No, pirates are thieves. Wait, Jared in my class stole my eraser. Is he a pirate? 3, 2. I took an extra vitamin today. Am I a pirate? 1. I chuck down my rock in victory.

"Done!" I shout. "What was my time?"

Cara looks at her stopwatch. "6 seconds."

"That's better than yours," I cheer.

"That's only because you have the legs of a giraffe."

"Hey," I respond, hurt. "My dad says I'll even out as I get older. Either way, I still won."

"Maybe," Cara says, pursing her lips in thought. "But this course is boring. Let's go onto level two."

She bends over and grabs a piece of pink chalk from her box then marches down the sidewalk to draw a new course.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Walker and I use stacked pillows as our seats while Brayden gets his cushy office chair. He has a duel monitor setup for his computer, and they're both from different decades, making me wonder where he got the second one from. While Brayden pulls up a Word document, Walker finishes reading the outline of the assignment on Brayden's laptop.

"This is easy," Walker says as he closes the laptop. "Just think of any time that you remember as being important to you."

"I dedicate my days to studying the important contributions of people who matter," Brayden responds. "That leaves virtually no time for me to partake in my own adventures. That was going to be my mid-life crises."

"You're thinking too much," I tell him. "You don't need some big adventure. You just have to think of any time that changed who you are."

"Like Shakespeare camp?"

"Sure...or maybe something a bit more meaningful."

Brayden shakes his head. "If the kids at Shakespeare camp heard that, you would be bullied for life."

"There's so much irony in that," Walker mutters.

"What's an important time in your life?" Brayden asks me.

"Um, probably the first time I played ultimate frisbee. Or my first time playing guitar."

"My brother started playing the guitar to attract girls," Brayden says.

"Andreas plays the guitar? I didn't know that."

"He doesn't anymore. He quit after the first girl asked him to play a song, and he couldn't."

"Oh."

"Why did you start playing the guitar?"

"Well, uh, actually, I was struggling with my mental health," I confess. I don't think I've told any of the kids this story before, but all my friends know it by now. It's gotten a lot easier to talk about over time. "I was having a panic attack, and Andi's dad found me, and I said I wanted a guitar to avoid talking about the panic attack thing, but then he started teaching me how to play some chords, and I fell in love with it."

"You get panic attacks?" Brayden says.

"Yeah, but I got help and learned how to manage them, and they're pretty rare now."

Brayden looks down at his keyboard and mumbles, "That's a defining moment. I don't have one of those."

"Sure, you do," Walker counters.

Brayden shakes his head. "Every photo on my laptop is a screenshot of a historical film. No memories of me or anything I did. Go ahead. Look."

Walker lifts the screen of the laptop up, but he pauses, saying, "Oh, I'm locked out. What's your password?"

"The entire first paragraph of Edger Allen Poe's Tell-Tale Heart," Brayden replies.

Walker just closes the laptop, saying, "I don't need to see the photos. I believe you."

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

TJ blocks Buffy's shot, and they start again. Meanwhile, I'm sprawled out on my chair with my legs hanging over the arm rest and my head laying on my arms like a pillow.

"Remember when they'd do this in high school?" Marty recalls.

"I couldn't forget," I respond. "Those games never felt as long."

"Yeah," he agrees, "but those games didn't take twenty minutes for someone to get a basket."

"Curse their improved blocking skills."

________________________________________

Walker's POV

"Okay, grade five?" Jonah says.

Brayden ponders for a moment before replying, "I got one more haircut than usual."

He wasn't kidding when he said he doesn't do anything.

Jonah sucks in a breath and says, "Okay, how about grade six?"

"I tried playing badminton in the fall."

"That's something! What happened with that?"

"I quit and used the strings in the racket to lace a corset in theatre club," Brayden explains.

"Hey, I was in theatre club for a year in middle school," I bring up.

"Oh, I'm not in theatre club," Brayden clarifies. "They just asked me to help with a costume malfunction on opening night."

"Did that define you as a person?" Jonah asks hopefully.

"It defined Mallory Benner's waistline."

Jonah and I both sigh in sync.

"Well, maybe we can rephrase this question. What's something about you that's a big part of your identity?" Jonah questions.

Now we're getting somewhere. I can see it on Brayden's face. He has something in mind, but he doesn't say it. Instead, he turns his eyes downward.

"Maybe when I went to the Fort Douglas Military Museum for the first time," he mumbles.

"You seemed like you had something else in mind," I respond.

He shakes his head. "No. Nothing else. Uh, thanks, guys. I can write the rest from here. You can go outside again."

"Are you sure?" I check.

Brayden nods. "Yeah."

________________________________________

Wyatt's POV

My thumb hovers over the stopwatch, ready to press it and ignite the bomb that is Cara.

"Level twenty-five!" I call out. "Ready?"

"Go!" she shouts back, starting herself, and I struggle to click the stopwatch fast enough.

We're on another block now, having used up all chalk-drawing space on ours. The current course we're on is an epic journey of squares spread wide apart and scattered around like Alphagetti. It no longer looks like a hopscotch course. It's way cooler.

Cara leaps to each numbered square, launching herself over the valleys of the sidewalks cracks in between. One touch to any chalk line, and she'd be out, but she never lets that happen. She's a ninja, doing spins and kicks in the air on her way to get the rock. I think it's cheating, since my glasses fell off when I tried to do that, but she's six, so I let it slide. She gets back to the first square with a proud grin.

"Done!" she squeaks. "Your turn!"

I write down her time on our chalk chart—26 seconds—and we trade off. I throw the rock to the end and prepare my stance. When she shouts for me to start, I jump into the sky, and crash! I fall over, ending my ninja career before it can even begin. When I look up, Cara is looking down on me.

"Game over," she states.

"You beat me, kid," I say in defeat. "You should be in the hopscotch olympics, not me."

"Hey," she responds, putting her hand firm on my shoulder. "Don't give up on your dreams yet. In time, you could be as good as me."

I give a faint smile then reach into my pocket, pulling out my pride with the handful of pennies and the tooth pick that I think just drew blood from poking my palm.

"I guess these are yours," I mumble.

Cara pushes my hand back. "Keep it. Buy something to help you feel better after your loss. I'm gonna keep training."

She steps around me and begins the hopscotch course again.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

TJ gets a basket, and Amber gives a small hoot to cheer, but I can't focus on the game anymore. Amber's literally right beside me, yet I feel her distance like a sea of ice. And I hate it. I can't stand it any longer.

"Amber, are you okay?" I question. "You don't seem like yourself, and not just now. You've been acting strange for the past few days."

Amber hesitates to find the correct response, but she eventually decides against responding at all, instead saying, "Oh, my drink is empty. I'll go recycle it."

She gets up and heads for the deck to go inside, but I'm not letting her get away this time. I hurry after her, following her into the kitchen through the sliding screen door. When I get into the house, she's tossing her can into the recycling bin under the sink, and I go up to her, forcing her to look at me by just being here.

"Amber, what's going on?" I pry.

"I..."

Her eyes look glassy from tears building in them, and she fumbles with her lip anxiously. The longer she takes to respond, the more worried I get, and the more my brain is able to come up with its own answers. She's dying. She's leaving me. She lost all our money at a casino in Vegas. She committed a crime and is awaiting trial. She's straight. Oh, please don't let her be straight.

"Andi, a few days ago," she starts, her voice wavering, "my company had to make budget cuts, and...I was laid off."

She watches me closely, shame in her eyes, but I don't care about the job. I'm more concerned with the fact that she was keeping this from me.

"What? Amber, why didn't you tell me?"

"I—I was planning to," she stutters, "but I thought maybe I would just get another job first and tell you then, and I'm still working on that, but I just—I didn't want to be a disappointment."

"Amber, you could never—"

"Not to you. To myself. It's just—" She takes a breath before tumbling into a ramble. "Andi, you're so talented. You've always been talented, and people have always loved your art, ever since we were teenagers, and you were accepted into that art high school. And you would've done amazing there, too, if the school hadn't been overtaken by geese the weekend after you started there, forcing you to go to Grant instead. But even at a normal school, you were incredible. You were, like, the best artist there. I'm not like you. I only got my job because my friend referred me to the boss, and even then, I barely got it. And I've had six different jobs in the time we've been married, and I'm just— Sometimes I just feel like you're so much better than me, and as your wife, I feel like I should be just as good, but I'm—"

I cut her off with the taste of her lemon lip gloss lips and the feel of her blonde hair through my hands. She pulls me in, making me stay longer than I initially intended to, and I don't mind at all, but I do have to tell her something, so I back away for a second to talk.

"I love you," I say. "You don't need to try to be better, because you're already perfect."

She smiles, her tears creating rivers down her cheeks.

"Plus," I add, "I preferred Grant anyway. Otherwise we wouldn't have started dating."

Giving in to the pressure, I kiss her again, and her arms come over up over my shoulder, wrapping around my neck to keep me close like yarn knitting together.

But then a throat clears, and we split to see Brayden, unfazed and looking at us from the edge of the kitchen.

"Brayden," I scramble to talk. "Um, we were just—"

"I don't care," he interrupts. "Just make sure to close the cabinet door under the sink."

He goes toward the screen door, and Amber steps back, tapping the cabinet closed, her face burning red.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Wyatt and Cara both appear on either side of me and Marty in a flash.

"Has Papa won yet?" Wyatt asks me.

"Has Mommy won yet?" Cara counters.

"It's currently a tie," I reply, "but the next shot wins."

At this point, everyone is devoted to the game, watching and waiting for the final shot. Even Jayda has put down her phone to pay attention. Buffy dribbles around TJ, and TJ tries to get the ball, but Buffy blocks him and dribbles up to the net. She does a layup. Everyone holds their breath. But when the ball smacks the rim, the ring of metal comes crashing down onto the cement, leaving Buffy and TJ standing in shock, mouths agape along with the rest of the observers'. The only person not surprised is Marty who quietly gets up out of his chair.

"Welp," he says, "I'm gonna go before Buffy kills me."

"Why would she kill you?" I question.

"Because I was supposed to fix that loose rim a month ago."

He rushes away and into the house, while Buffy and TJ look at each other, not sure what to make of this endless game of basketball they just played.

"Cool, it's a tie," Andreas concludes.

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I think this is probably the first time that it's really hitting me: my little girl isn't a little girl anymore. She's growing up with every step that she comes down the stairs in her shimmery, emerald green mini dress. It has spaghetti straps and a cowl neck to show off her silver, crescent moon necklace, the one that TJ and I gave her for her middle school graduation. This is just a grade nine dance, but seeing her all dressed up makes me emotional. I don't know why. It must be due to the natural association of dressing nice with becoming an adult. She's only fifteen. She can't even drive yet. She's far from an adult, but she's certainly not a kid. I still have some time with her, and I want to hold on to those moments for as long as I can.

"You look beautiful," I say.

"Thanks," Jayda responds. "This dress costed you guys a fortune, so I better."

I glance over at TJ in concern, but he doesn't look any more knowledgeable than me.

"Um, what?" he mutters.

"What?" Jayda responds, smiling innocently.

"Did you check the price?" I ask TJ quietly.

"No, I just typed in my credit card and let her buy it online."

I place my hand on his arm gently, saying, "Let's stop doing that, okay?"

There's a knock on the front door, and I step ahead to answer it, greeting the entrant with a smile. Andreas nods to me, but his eyes are quickly turned in Jayda's direction, and his mouth drops.

"Woah."

Jayda puts a hand on her hip, saying, "Thanks."

"No, I'm talking about the paint on the stairs."

Andreas steps forward and kneels down on the stairway where a giant splotch of orange paint is dried, forcing Jayda to move over in the process. As the boy examines the spot, Jayda rolls her eyes and steps down the rest of the way to the main floor.

A second later, Buffy enters in through the front door and smiles at us.

"Yeah, Wyatt had an art project," TJ explains to Andreas, "and he wanted to finger paint, but he also doesn't wash his hands as much as he should. There's paint everywhere right now."

Summoned by his name, our son comes waltzing into the room, wondering, "Are you talking about me?"

Blue and orange paint covers his sleeves and arms, and there's even some in his blonde curls. He doesn't look like he was painting. He looks like he was wresting two paint cans and lost.

"Wyatt, go wash your hands," I instruct, "before you get paint all over Buffy and Marty's house."

"Fine," the boy sighs.

He trudges around the stairs to the powder room, and Buffy steps out of the way while he passes.

"Can we hurry up?" Jayda asks. "I don't want to be late."

"We're already late," Andreas responds.

"I'm fashionably late. Any later is just rude to my date."

"I guess we should get going," I agree.

Wyatt comes back out of the washroom smearing tinted blue water on his pants.

"Come on, Wyatt," Buffy says. "I'll drop you off at my house. Marty is looking forward to a fun evening with you."

"Cool, does he have paint?" Wyatt asks.

Buffy hesitates a second, looking over the boy's stained clothes, before replying, "No. No, he does not."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

I enter the living room to find my wife dressed up in bright blue leggings, a red tank top, and white, knee-high socks. Her hair, is tied up in a tree atop her head, pouring out of the elastic in blonde waves, and she's currently stretching out her arms.

"Amber," I say, "I know you've been going through hobbies since you haven't been working, but I think you should skip this one."

She spins around to face me, dropping her arms to her sides.

"You don't even know what I'm doing," she says.

"Well, you look like an '80s workout DVD."

"For a reason," she insists. "Your parents are coming over to have family yoga night."

"Oh, cool..." I sigh. "That's a thing again."

My parents and I used to have family yoga night when I was a teenager, and I thought I'd seen the last of it when I moved out.

"I used to dance, and that kept me fit, but now I mostly just sit around, and I fear I'm gonna turn into a potato if I don't get exercising," Amber explains.

"Potatoes don't come in neon," I respond, gesturing to her outfit, "so I think you're safe."

All of a sudden, the door bursts open, and my parents come in, dressed to work out too, although their attire is more along the lines of hippie parents rather than '80s style. They never knock before they come in, because I gave them a key to my house, which is generally fine, except that sometimes I come out to the kitchen to find one of them taking flour or spices because they were too lazy to go buy more for themselves.

"Heyyyyyy!" they say simultaneously.

"Who's ready for family yoga?" Bex cheers.

"Me!" sparks Hazel's voice.

I turn around to see her entering the living room with her own purple sweatpants, an off-the-shoulder top, and a sweatband around her forehead. She passes an extra sweatband to Amber to wear too, and I'm just confused.

"Since when do we have sweatbands?" I question.

"I found them in the back of the closet," Amber replies.

"Hey, I gave you those for your birthday," Bowie remarks.

"Uh, and I loved them so much that I didn't want to risk them getting dirty," I improvise.

"They're sweatbands. They're supposed to get dirty," Bowie responds.

"Okay, you guys got your yoga mats?" Bex asks. "Andi are you going to join us?"

Everyone looks at me, awaiting an answer. They're gonna be blocking the TV, so it's not like I could watch that anyway, and I don't really wanna do more art today. After a minute, I just sigh.

"Sure."

________________________________________

Walker's POV

"Walker!"

"What?"

"Come look in the yard!"

I come into the living room toward the window where Jonah is gazing through. Right away, I see the objects of his fascination. A mother duck along with twelve little baby ducklings paddle around in the pond that sits at the edge of the park across the street. Nobody else seems to be noticing them, for there aren't many people walking by, just cars on the street.

"That's so cool," I breathe. "I've never seen a family of ducks like that."

We watch through the blinds for a bit longer until eventually the ducks begin hopping out of the pond, onto the rocks. The mother leaves first, followed by the rest, who have some trouble jumping up to the shore, but they manage to get out—except for one. The lonesome duck continues to leap for the stones, but the water is too low, and the stone rim is too high. It simply can't get out. The mother duck waits for several minutes, quacking at the baby duck, until it gives up and waddles away, taking eleven of her babies with her into a bush where her nest must be. Her child remains struggling to escape the trap, but it can't.

"She's just leaving her trapped duck in the pond?" I say in disbelief.

"It'll find a way out. If it doesn't, it's the circle of life."

Jonah has the tendency to quote movies when he doesn't know what else to say. Sometimes it's funny, like a guessing game about which movie he's quoting, and other times it distracts from actually being able to solve a problem.

Jonah begins to turn around, but I stop him by saying, "Jonah, we have to help it."

"How?"

"Let's get it out somehow."

"Won't the mom, like, attack us if we touch it?"

"Then we need something for it to climb up to get out."

"Like a ramp?" he suggests.

"Exactly! Look around for something we can use."

"We have a bunch of your canvases that would work," he jokes.

"Better yet, we can use the neck of your guitar."

"Alright," Jonah huffs. "I'll look for something else."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Music pumps through the speakers as we enter the gymnasium of my school. The place has been transformed from a smelly place for jocks to show off into a flickering night club—minus the alcohol of course, although there is an open punch bowl, so who knows. Blue and white lights glow across the dim area, and strands of glittering fabric outline the room. Filling the space are tons on teenagers all grooving to the tune, some chatting along the side. Standing in a cluster, I see some of my friends—well, friends might not be the best word. I guess they still are. I don't talk to them as much anymore since the whole Jeremy thing, but now they've taken my side, since my side has become the popular side. It just took them a little too long. But I guess I can't be picky when people want to talk to me.

"Thanks, Dads. You can go now," I tell them.

"We're not leaving," Papa states. "We're chaperones."

"You guys were serious? I thought you were only doing that to scare me after I didn't take out the garbage."

"No, we're really chaperones," Papa repeats.

"Fine," I groan, "but don't embarrass me, okay?"

"Don't worry," Papa replies. "I'll limit my dance moves to just the worm and the sprinkler."

I raise my eyebrows, pleading him to not to, and he laughs.

"I'm kidding," he says. "Unless..."

I let out a huff of annoyance and order, "Go talk to some adults and pretend you don't know me."

Andreas, who stands beside me, looks at his mother and says, "What she said."

Our parents comply with our requests and leave to disappear into the crowd of people, leaving me alone with Andreas, well, aside from the hundreds of others making us not alone. I begin scouring the crowd visually, while Andreas does the same, but he doesn't seem as focused on it as I am. Rather, his eyes flick back to me repeatedly until he finally speaks what he's thinking.

"So where's your date?"

"He's somewhere here," I reply.

"So he really does exist," he says with a chuckle.

"Of course he exists. He's Eddie Burnet."

"The football player with the birth deformity that gave him a permanent six-pack?"

"That's the one," I confirm with a proud grin. "What about you?"

"Oh, I had to work to get these abs."

"Not that," I snap, and he just laughs. "Who are you here with?"

"Trisha Taylor," he answers.

"That shallow girl who only talks about either her poodle or her daddy's yacht?"

"That's the one."

I look at him, kind of shocked, but also not really. Like, I don't really expect him to actually care about a girl's personality, but I'm surprised that he's willing to put up with that annoying blabbermouth all night.

"There she is," he says, spotting her in the crowd.

He gives me a little salute before heading off to go find her, and I continue my own search for my date. I look around for another minute, not finding him, until I feel a hand take my wrist, and I'm spun around my the very boy I'm looking for. A strand of his slick hair curls over his forehead as he grins charmingly.

"Damn," he says, giving me once-over. "You look good."

"Thanks. You look good, yourself."

He smiles wider but then lets go of my hand, saying, "Hey, I'm just gonna catch up with the guys real quick, and I'll find you to dance after, okay?"

"Uh, okay—"

"Cool, thanks."

He leaves before I can even process it, and I turn to face the dance floor, gazing out at all the people without any idea of what I should do.

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

The woman in the yoga DVD talks us all through the movements, and I lunge into the warrior one pose with the rest of my family. I swear we're all sweating, but I can't smell it. Actually, I think it's starting to smell more like a greenhouse in here. My wife and daughter only radiate a flowery scent, and I guess my parents must just spend enough time around plants that they've absorbed the smell. Well, it could just be everyone's deodorant.

"Why does this lady in the DVD look familiar?" I wonder.

"That's Jonah's mom," Bowie answers.

"Ahh, kay."

"I actually like this," Amber says as we all dive down into chaturanga. "Andi, why didn't you ever invite me to join your family yoga when we were teenagers?"

"Yes, because I was going to invite my really cool, badass girlfriend to come join our hippie family yoga nights."

I love my family, and I didn't mind yoga, but Amber was also incredibly pretty, and still is, but back then I was far more intimidated by that, so I didn't want her to think I wasn't as cool as her. I know now that she wouldn't have thought that, because she's seen me do way more embarrassing things than family yoga.

"I think it's kinda fun," Hazel responds.

"I agree," Amber supports. "Maybe I'll be a yoga instructor."

"You want to be in a room with a bunch of sweaty strangers?" Hazel questions.

Amber thinks about that for a moment while we all fold into down dog then says, "Never mind."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

High schoolers are an interesting bunch. The vast majority of the dancers are doing uncomfortably repressed sidesteps, attempting to keep their cool image while moving around in heels that nobody should have to wear for more than a single photo. Some of the more wild friend groups are completely letting loose, jumping up and down to the bass. Still, there are a few of those couples who are slow dancing to the fast- tempo of the song. I pass by one in particular where the boy's hand is a little too far down on the girl's backside.

"Raise that hand, buddy," I order, and the boy shoots me a glare but does as told.

Crossing my arms over my chest, I return to where TJ and Cyrus are standing and watching the crowd without much thought.

"When did teenagers get so handsy?" I grumble. "And you guys are just hanging out, not even paying attention."

"Relax," TJ tells me. "It's a high school dance. Nothing's gonna happen."

"Uh, at my first high school dance, there was a fight between two members of the marching band," I counter. "There was a permanent feud between the woodwinds and the drumline after that over who would've won if the chaperones hadn't broken up the fight."

"I didn't realize marching band was so violent," TJ responds.

"They have access to giant chunks of metal that could easily be used as weapons in an instant," Cyrus reasons.

"Fair point."

The two of them continue gazing around mindlessly, while I spot a girl passing by my right, snacking out of a plastic bag.

"Are those peanuts?" I question. "Take those outside."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

The block of wood is sanded smoothly, creating a comfortable walk up. It fits perfectly in the pond, propping up to create a ramp up out of the water, easily accessible. And yet the duckling keeps on hopping at the rocks.

"This duck is an idiot," I state.

"Come on, duck," Walker encourages. "We're trying to help you."

The duck continues to avoid us, coming near the ramp but never touching it.

"Oh my gosh," I mumble. "You know, if you got stuck in my uncle's pond, you would've been eaten by now, so be thankful that we want to help you, and come on."

Nothing. I turn to look at Walker, meeting my tired look with his, but in the time that I do that, Walker's eyes widen, and I look back around at what's caught his attention, seeing the duck waddling up our homemade ramp. Finally! Walker and I smile at our victory. But then as soon as the duck finds the grass, it shimmies over another rock, falling into the sunken flower garden of the park. The little duckling jumps at the rocks, failing again at getting up, and I sigh heavily.

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

The punch bowl is just punch, but the longer I listen to my date talk, the l more I wish someone had spiked it. When I try to step around to stand beside Trisha, she shakes her head.

"Oh, no. Stand on my other side."

"Why?"

"This is my good side, duh," she responds in her grinding voice.

I put on a wry smile, saying, "I think they're both good sides."

"Cute but false."

Holy shit. Not even my charm works on her. I roll my eyes and walk over to the other side, and she doesn't even pause before switching the conversation for the fourth time.

"Oh my God! Wanna see a picture of my poodle? His name is Coco. We're all pretty sure he's gay, 'cause we saw him humping a photo of Young Leonardo DiCaprio, but you know, no hate. I love all dogs, and honestly, who wouldn't be gay for young Leo."

I mean, I wouldn't, but okay.

She takes out her phone before I can even answer, but I try anyway, saying, "I'm good. I don't need to see your dog."

"Wow, okay," Trisha scoffs. "When you asked me to the dance, I didn't realize you were so self-centred that you wouldn't even care about my beloved pet."

I let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine. Show me the damn dog."

She smiles and unlocks her phone.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

The wooden board drips onto the mulch of the garden, watering the soil as it sits in place. I wonder if maybe its wetness it throwing off the duck, because it wanders through the flowers everywhere but by the ramp. When Walker goes in to try to guide it out, the duck only walks sideways, steering clear of the exit route.

"Why is he going the opposite of where we want him to go?" Walker complains.

"Maybe it's a teenage duck."

I don't know if it's by coincidence, or maybe it heard my comment and wanted to prove itself to me, but the duckling steps its little webbed feet onto the wood and makes its way all the way up until it tips over the edge, tumbling onto the grass. For a moment it kicks its feet while lying on its side, until it finds its balance and manages to stand again.

Walker and I share a glance of awe before he hurries out of the garden to help me guide the duck toward the bush where the nest is. Once it makes it home, the mother duck quacks, and the baby joins its siblings in a big, cuddly reunion.

"I'm gonna add 'saved a baby duck' to my resume," I say with a smile.

Right after I say that, the family of ducks embarks out away from the nest, waddling into the street. They begin to walk down the centre of the road, just waiting to be flattened by the next car that passes through.

"Well, now I saved it, and I care too much to risk it getting run over," I whine.

"Guess we're going on a walk," Walker respond.

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

When we finish the workout, Andi and I immediately go to grab water. We are significantly more drained from the exercise than Hazel or Andi's parents are. They act like this is nothing, like all they did was walk to the mailbox.

"My thighs are burning," I pout.

Hazel lets out a laugh. "Weak."

She and Bowie share a high five, and I just ignore them, chugging back my water.

"Amber," Bex says, coming up to me, "how is your makeup still in tact?"

"Oh, everything's water and smudge proof."

"Wow, and it's really good," she adds, examining my face. "Do you ever do bolder makeup looks, like not just the basic day look?"

"She does for me on special occasions," Hazel replies. "She's really good."

"Yeah," Bex agrees. "Hey, if you're looking for a job, I could use some help at Cloud 10. It's been busy since Cece retired."

"Really?" I respond.

I've never actually thought about doing anything related to cosmetology, but this seems like a cool thing to try out, even if it doesn't last long. Plus, Bex seems like she'd be a cool boss. I mean, currently, she still likes me, so as long as I don't do something stupid to ruin that, it'll be good.

"Yeah. I know you probably won't want to do that permanently, but until you find something else, it'd be great to have the help."

"Yeah, sure. I'd love to."

"Hey, guys," Bowie speaks out, pulling everyone's attention his way, "you see that too, right?"

Out the window is a line of ducks making their way down the street, and behind them are Walker and Jonah blocking the backed-up string of cars. Andi and I head for the front door, and our whole family gathers out on the porch to get a better view of the sight. When Jonah and Walker see us, they give us nothing more than smiles and waves.

"What's with the ducks?" Hazel calls out.

"They're travelling," Jonah replies. "We're stopping traffic to make sure they're not run over."

A car honks, startling both Jonah and the ducks which halt and look around for a moment before continuing forward, and our two friends remain trailing close behind the feathery creatures.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Eddie dances with me to the beat of the music until the speakers fall silent, and another song starts up.

"I love this song," I comment.

He just shrugs. "It's okay."

Ignoring his apathy, I keep dancing, and he shuffles back and forth, but his mind is preoccupied. Suddenly, he lights up as his friend comes barging in between us, giving him a bro hug.

"Dude, we're gonna dip," he says.

"Where?" Eddie asks.

"Marvin's."

"Yo, I'm right with you."

I watch my date start walking with his friend before I think to say, "You're leaving?"

"Yeah," Eddie replies carelessly. "This dance is lame."

"So you're just ditching me?"

"Well, you can come with."

Okay, I know I don't have the most self-respect, but I have enough to not let myself go along with a boy who clearly does not give one damn about my feelings.

"No, don't worry about me," I say sarcastically. "Go to Marvin's."

"Cool. See ya."

He actually just left me alone at a dance he asked me to. What the hell? I look around at everyone bopping to the beat, all of them oblivious to my situation. One of them even bumps into me without apologizing. I guess here's to my first high school dance.

________________________________________

TJ's POV

Of the three of us, Buffy's been the most observant of everything going on with the dance. While Cyrus and I have just been talking and hanging out, doing our part as parents at this school by just showing up, Buffy's actually tried to keep things in order.

"I sense tension over there," she says. "I'm gonna go make sure nothing happens."

She zips into the crowd, leaving Cyrus and me alone by the wall. Teenagers wander by, some laughing, some crying. I don't see my teenager, but I'm sure she's somewhere having fun.

"How come we never went to our school dances until grade ten?" I bring up.

"Because you said you weren't much of a dancer," Cyrus reminds me.

Imagine: me willingly giving up an opportunity to dance with Cyrus. Seems insane now, but I suppose I wasn't as confident with him back then. Back then, we'd only been together for about a year. I didn't want him to know my secret, that I was actually below average at slow dancing. But he never even cared, not about my dancing, and not about his own. He's always be confident in himself. That's one of the reasons why I fell in love with him.

"I feel bad about that," I say.

"I don't. Picnicking at the park instead was a very delightful time."

I smile. "I'm glad. You know I stole that idea from a romantic movie."

"Which movie?"

"The Bee Movie."

Cyrus laughs. "If that's your idea of romance, I'm surprised out relationship lasted longer than a day."

"I think my unique idea of romance is what helped it last," I counter.

He smiles, and I know I'm right. Buffy comes back, ending our talk there and bringing her disappointed face into our bubble.

"Kids are mean," she says.

"What happened?" I ask.

"Some kids were getting angry, so I told them to calm down, and they just told me, 'Sit back in your rocking chair, Grandma.'"

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

"So Coco fell off my Daddy's yacht into the ocean, and I had to get my butler to jump in and save him! It was horrible!"

Jayda was not kidding when she said that all Trisha talked about was her dog and her yacht. I've literally been listening to this girl rant on and on about those two things for the past...God knows how long. I've just been thinking about what kind of car I'm gonna get next year when I get my licence. I'm thinking something cool with lots of class. Or maybe, like, a cheap Volkswagon off Kijiji. I could always just go to the Pick-n-Pull and build a car by collecting all the parts.

"He was cold and shaking, and I dried him off, but then a half an hour later, he fell in again!"

The electronic song switches to a slow pop tune, and I'm so grateful, because maybe I'll be able to get Trisha to stop yapping for a minute.

"Hey, how about we dance?"

"Uh, I'm not done talking," she sasses. "So I had to put my leash on Coco to keep him safe ..."

I attempt to block out her irritating voice by focusing on everything else, but all I see are a bunch of couples who actually took the time to shut up and just slow dance together. Must be nice to have some quiet for a nice three minutes of music.

Through the people, a figure I recognize becomes visible. It's Jayda. She sits dolefully on the bottom row of the bleachers, staring out at all the dancers. Why isn't she with her date? My spirit sinks at the sight of her alone. She shouldn't be alone. Of all the people here, she's the last person who deserves to be lonely on the side during a slow dance. Sure, she's no saint, but she's... I mean, she's Jayda.

"Are you even listening to me?"

I snap out of my stare and turn to Trisha.

"No," I reply bluntly. "And I don't want to, so you can keep talking, but I'm just gonna go."

She looks stunned as I start walking away, but before getting too far, I pause to turn around and say one more thing.

"Also, I don't think your dog 'fell' off that boat."

Jayda's POV

I stare down at the floor, counting the lines in each board, when I suddenly see Andreas's sneakers, and then his dress pants, and then his white collared shirt, and then him. Frantically, I wipe my tears away, hoping I'm not smudging any of my makeup, as he takes a seat next to me on the bleachers. He doesn't look at me right away. Instead, he just leans forward, clasping his hands together with his elbows resting on his knees, borderline manspreading, giving me more time to finish drying my eyes before he speaks.

"So why are you crying?"

"I'm not crying," I lie."I just saw someone wearing the ugliest dress, and I felt so bad for her that I got emotional. Shouldn't you be slow dancing with your date?"

"I think my date would rather be slow dancing with her poodle."

That makes me laugh, and it feels like lifting a blanket away that was only smothering my air and weighing down my bones.

"What happened to your date?" Andreas wonders.

"He went to Marvin's," I answer, feeling my anger bubble into Marvin's name.

"Marvin? Yo, I love that guy."

I shoot him a glare, and he redirects his response.

"But Eddie's a dick. And an idiot."

"Boy are jerks," I state. "I should just stop trying."

"Not all guys are jerks," he opposes. "You just keep going for the ones who are."

"Then who should I go for? Because I don't know at this point," I huff.

Andreas doesn't have an answer. He just looks at me for another moment before turning his eyes ahead at the crowd.

"I don't know," he breathes. "But you'll find him."

I wait another moment, listening to the song finish playing and another slow song start, a choice that convinces me that the DJ must hate me.

"Thanks," I eventually say.

He responds with just a smile, and we both go back to watching the happy couples before us. Part of me feels bad, because he could leave and find someone to dance with aside from poodle girl, and he's probably only staying here because he pities me. Although I know that's most likely it, I'm not going to tell him to go. It's kind of nice to not be alone.

As I'm gazing ahead, I realize that one of the boys is actually coming over to me. He's got a baby blue dress shirt with black jeans and curly hair like teenaged Timothée Chalamet. I recognize him from my math class. His name is Graydon. He's a total geek, but he's still pretty cute.

"Excuse me," he says to me, "but I saw you across the room and was instantly captivated by your beauty. Um, would you like to dance?"

Definitely not how Eddie would've asked me to dance, yet also really sweet. He's not really my type, but he can be my type for one dance.

Then I remember that Andreas is here. I look over to him with a tiny smile, silently asking for his approval for me to leave, and he just nods.

"Go ahead," he says.

Andreas watches as I stand up, taking Graydon's hand, and the blue-shirted boy leads me toward the dance floor. When I look back at Andreas again, his eyes have moved on to other things, so I carry forward, blending in with the rest of the crowd. As I slow to a stop in front of Graydon, I centre my attention on this gentleman who places his hands politely on my waist—my actual waist, not lower—and I smile as we begin to sway to the music. 

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

"Thanks for watching Wyatt for us," I say.

Amber and Andi stand in their doorway, while Cyrus and I wait on their porch, having just dropped off Wyatt to stay with them. I smell something like burnt coconut oil coming from inside, an awful scent if you've ever smelt it. I assume Amber was trying to cook.

"No problem," Amber says. "Where are you two going anyway?"

"We're going to this pub downtown to meet up with a bunch of our friends," Cyrus answers.

"You have other friends?" Amber says in surprise.

"It's this club/group of queer men who all hang out and play billiards together once a month," I explain further. "I found out about them through people at work."

"A bunch of queer guys playing pool?" Amber summarizes. "That's awfully straight of you."

"Hey, can we come?" Andi asks. "Hazel could babysit Wyatt."

"I don't think you'd really like it," Cyrus responds. "It's kind of just for queer men. That's kinda its whole thing."

"We all bond over discrimination and shit," Amber reasons. "What's the difference?"

"There are a lot of things that gay guys bond over that lesbians don't," I say, "like being the gay best friend to a group of low-key homophobic straight girls in high school or...musical theatre."

"First of all, you didn't do either of those things," Amber states, "and second, lesbians kill at musical theatre."

"Whatever," Andi huffs. "You two have your night."

"Thanks," I say.

"Come on," Cyrus tells me. "We've got to get there before Jonah and Walker, or they won't know where to go."

"Jonah and Walker are going too?" Andi whines.

Cyrus and I both start leaving, wanting to avoid another round of interrogation.

"Have a good night," I say with a smile. "Thanks again."

_______________________________________

Brayden's POV

A vexatious buzz lures me into the kitchen where I find Cara holding a blender amongst a mess of lemon peels that scatter the counters and floor. Her hair sprouts from a crooked ponytail, strands of the curls looping back around into the elastic while others are pulled out, and her little blue apron has stains galore.

"What is going on?" I question.

"I'm making lemonade," she answers.

She presses the button on the blender again and the machine screams to life before dying a second later.

"You know there are better ways to get the juice out of a lemon."

"I know," she says. "I'm not just juicing the lemons. I'm mixing the ingredients."

"What ingredients?"

"Lemons, sugar, strawberries, butterscotch pudding, and cayenne pepper."

"That sounds disgusting."

"That's because you have no appreciation for good food."

"I do," I counter, "which is why I don't appreciate this."

Cara gives the yellowish-brown mixture one last whirl in the blender before pouring some of it out into a cup and shoving it toward me.

"Drink it," she orders.

"I'd prefer to keep my digestive system in tact."

"Brothers are supposed to be nice to their sisters," she states.

"Good thing you have a spare."

She narrows her eyes and says louder, "Drink it!"

"Alright," I huff.

I take the glass and bring it up to my lips, taking a second to regret it in advance before sticking my tongue into the beverage. But once I've tasted it, I'm surprised and take a real sip, wondering how this is possible. It's sweet and creamy from the butterscotch but sour from the lemon, and somehow that all works together with the zing added by the cayenne pepper.

"Wait, it's actually good."

"Told you," Cara says with a smirk.

"No, this is actually good. How much did it cost you to make?"

"I didn't pay anything. We had all the ingredients."

I set the glass down on the counter and look around at the mess of spilt liquids before saying, "I have an idea."

_______________________________________

Jonah's POV

The pub has a stairway down into it, and once we enter, the dark wood finishings of practically every surface show clearly. Little round tables with stools are all occupied by people with drinks and food. At the far end, four pool tables are being crowded by a bunch of men cheering on the players. The lights are dim, and the ceiling is low, showing the pipes running overhead and bouncing back the voices of the room.

"Welcome," TJ says to Walker and I. "This is the gang."

"This looks great," Walker comments.

TJ's attention is stolen by a man who comes up and greets both him and Cyrus.

"What's up, guys?"

"Hey," TJ responds. "Walker, Jonah, this is Phil."

Phil extends his hand to each of us, shaking them as he says, "Hi. Nice to meet you guys." He returns his eyes to TJ, saying, "TJ, why don't you get in on the next game?"

"For sure. Get me in," TJ replies.

TJ follows Phil away toward the pool tables. Cyrus watches them go with a little smile but stays here with us.

"So when are you gonna play?" I ask him.

"Oh, I don't play. I tried once but accidentally hit the ball over the edge of the table and broke a picture frame."

"You, Cyrus Kippen," Walker responds, "have a special kind of talent."

"That's what my doctor says," Cyrus agrees.

Entering our circle comes another man, this one with short, black hair and a checkered shirt. Although he notices Walker and I, he only looks at Cyrus when he speaks.

"Hey, I'm new here. How does it work?"

Cyrus, polite as always, answers with a smile, "Just mingle and get to know people."

The man's smile tilts up on one end as he asks, "Can I get to know you?"

Walker and I share a glance, realizing exactly what's going on, but Cyrus is completely clueless.

"I'm Cyrus."

"I'm Kadence."

They shake hands. It's a left-handed shake, and I see Kadence take note of the wedding ring on Cyrus's hand, but he doesn't seem to care.

"I'm not really good at pool," Kadence says, "but it seems like that's kinda the thing here. Any chance you show me some tips?"

"Oh, I'm not the best at pool," Cyrus replies. "Actually, I'm frankly terrible."

I'm thankful to see TJ show up, him having overheard a bit of the chat on his way here. He puts his arm across Cyrus's shoulders, asserting his dominance over Kadence with that one move.

"Hey," TJ says to Cyrus before scanning the stranger in the group. "Who's this?"

"Oh, this is Kadence," Cyrus introduces. "Kadence, this is TJ."

"His husband," TJ adds.

"TJ could give you some tips on playing pool," Cyrus offers.

Kadence looks at TJ before responding, "Cool, cool. Uh, I'll get back to you on that."

He gives Cyrus, Walker and I a nod of farewell then steps away to go talk to some others at a table. When he's gone, TJ looks down at Cyrus who just has the same oblivious smile on his face.

"You know he was flirting with you, right?" TJ says.

"What?" Cyrus reacts. "He was not. He was being friendly."

"No, he was flirting," I confirm.

"He saw my ring," Cyrus reasons. "He was being nice. That's it."

The three of us look at Cyrus with doubtful expressions, which make him get defensive and remove TJ's arm from around him.

"Okay, if you don't believe me, I'll show you," Cyrus states. "I'm gonna go talk to him, and he's just going to be nice."

Cyrus walks away before TJ can say anything else. TJ rubs his hand to his head, grumbling, "Ugh."

"You worried?" I ask.

"Nah," TJ answers then takes another second. "Maybe a little." He lets out a sigh. "Cyrus is always oblivious to people hitting on him."

_______________________________________

Walker's POV

I'm holding Jonah's hand as we enter our home. I'd played a few games of pool and talked to a lot of people while we were out, but I didn't drink, since I had to drive. Jonah, on the other hand, is very tipsy, dragging along casually beside me with a dopey smile.

After closing the door, I turn to him and ask, "How you feeling?"

"Docious magacious," he slurs.

"Yeah, you're drunk."

"Yeah, I am," he says with a laugh. "I love you."

It's easy to know when he's intoxicated, because he gets way more emotional than usual. Like, he says things openly without holding them back, things that he wouldn't normally just blurt out randomly.

"I love you too," I respond.

"If I were thirteen, that would freak me out," he rambles.

"Well, you're not thirteen."

"Yeah. Where have the years gone?"

I adjust my grip on his hand and start leading him toward the back of the house to go upstairs to our room, but he gets distracted along the way, stopping by a picture frame hanging on the wall.

"Wow, that's a good picture," he says.

"Yeah, that's the stock photo that came with the frame," I explain.

We haven't gotten around to swapping it out yet, so right now we just have a black and white image of a mom, a dad, and a little boy lying together on the grass. 

"I want a family like that," Jonah gushes.

I glance between him and the photo. "Straight? Yeah, that's not what you got."

"No," Jonah whines. "Like that."

He presses his finger to the face of the little boy, and I go silent. Is he only saying this because he's drunk? Or does he really want... I mean, we've never... He's intoxicated. He's not thinking clearly. I'm not going to partake in this conversation right now, because I don't want to get hurt if tomorrow comes and he's feeling differently.

"Come on," I mutter, pulling him onward. "You should get to sleep."

 

Chapter Text

Walker's POV

The kitchen is bathed in sunlight streaming in through the window. It gives it a surreal feeling as I enter in and see Jonah getting out a bowl from the cupboard. Sleeping was...interesting, if you can even call it that. It was more like a series of naps, all finishing with the same dream, variations of my conversation with Jonah last night.

Jonah groans as he touches his head, tired and achy.

"How's the hangover?" I ask.

"Why did you let me drink so much?" he says.

"I tried, but you kept saying you were cracking open a cold one with the boys."

"How many cold ones did I crack open?"

"Only three."

"My body really can't handle alcohol," he mumbles.

I chuckle, agreeing, "Yeah."

While he gets the toaster out and plugs it in, I listen to the tugging in my mind that throws the memory of yesterday back over my vision again and again until I finally need to ask about it.

"Hey, so do you remember what you said when we got home last night? About the picture in the living room?"

Jonah shakes his head. "No. Which picture?"

"The one with the stock photo family."

"Oh, yeah," he says with a laugh. "We have to put an actual picture in that."

"Yeah, but, um...you told me you wanted a family like that."

Jonah furrows his brows. "Straight?"

"No, um...you pointed to the kid."

Jonah lets out an uncomfortable laugh. "Oh. Weird."

"Ha ha, yeah. Um, I just wanted to make sure there wasn't, like, any truth to that, anything more you wanted to say."

Jonah shakes his head and puts on a smile. "No, of course not. I love our family. I love us together. Who could need more?"

I guess I was hoping he would say something else, but it's okay that he didn't. I love him, and I just want him to be happy, no matter what we do.

"Yeah, I agree," I mutter.

The silence is strong as we both carry forth with making our breakfasts next to each other yet on our own.

_______________________________________

Brayden's POV

Cars are flying by outside our house, but many of them back up and parallel park when they hear the shouting of Cara and me advertising our lemonade. After all, what good-hearted person wouldn't buy the beverage of an adorable seven year-old girl. After making a sale to one couple, a lone woman comes up with a friendly smile.

"Aren't you two cute!" she says in a chipper voice.

"I'm not cute!" Cara retorts. "I'm fierce."

I look back at her, saying, "No, you're cute. Cute is good for business."

"How much for the gourmet lemonade?" the lady wonders.

"One dollar for a cup," I reply.

Is it expensive? Yes. But are people buying it? Still yes. The lady reaches into her purse and pulls out a dollar bill. I take the cash, and Cara hands her the cup. With a wave, she walks away, continuing down the sidewalk, and as she goes, a familiar red car pulls into our driveway right beside our lemonade table. My mom exits the driver's seat and scans our set-up in confusion.

"What are you two doing?" she questions.

"Making money," I reply.

"If you keep starting businesses like this, you'll have to look into getting a permit," she responds. 

"I'm only giving the people what they want."

"Brown lemonade?"

Stealing my attention away from my mother comes another woman on the sidewalk.

"Can't talk, Mom," I tell her. "There's a customer."

"Hi!" Cara says.

When the woman starts speaking, it's in Japanese, and Cara just stares at her blankly. Thankfully, I'm here, and I respond to her, recalling all the words. I complete the whole transaction, taking her money and giving her a cup, letting her leave with a smile and some brown lemonade. My family members turn their focus to me, both of them stunned.

"Since when do you speak Japanese?" Buffy asks.

"You gotta know how to communicate with your market in order to reach them."

_______________________________________

TJ's POV

I find Cyrus on the couch in the living room after getting home from work. After sneaking up behind him, I kiss his cheek, making him smile and tilt his chin up to let me kiss his lips too. I circle around the back of the couch and plop down next to my husband, encompassing him in my arm.

"So Marty told me about this new Netflix documentary series on the environment if you want to watch it with me tonight," I recommend.

"That sounds wonderful, but I'm actually going out tonight."

"My husband has a date?" I question.

"No, it's a friend," he responds. "You can come if you want."

"Which friend?"

Cyrus doesn't even hesitate to answer, "Kadence."

"That guy from the pub? Seriously? You're gonna hang out with the guy who was hitting on you?"

"It's cute when you get jealous, but you're wrong about this one," he tells me. "He's really nice, and I promise you he's not trying to do anything romantic. Besides, he's bringing his own friends too."

"That doesn't sound very romantic," I utter. "Sure, what the hell. I'll come."

"Yay."

Although Cyrus is positive there's nothing funny going on, I'm still not going to let my guard down quite yet. Cyrus is hot, and I wouldn't be surprised if this Kadence wasn't ready to let that go yet.

_______________________________________

Cyrus's POV

The hotel restaurant is fancier than the places TJ and I ever go to on our own. The wall behind the bar has glowing lights shining through bubbling tubes of water, and the seats are bright white, like they're wiped constantly. Everyone here is wearing nice clothing, and there's a glass railing on the far right that overlooks the hotel pool on the other side, which is, of course, only filled by adults. No children. This place is too classy for them.

I spot Kadence at a table alone across the restaurant, and I bring TJ over where we sit down in the two chairs across from his. Kadence gives me a wide smile as I do.

"Hi," I greet him. "Where are your friends?"

"Oh, they cancelled last minute," Kadence explains.

That gives TJ more fuel for his absurd belief that Kadence is into me, for TJ just responds slowly, "Did they?"

TJ shifts his eyes onto me, but I shake my head and focus on Kadence, saying, "That happens sometimes."

"Yeah, so it looks like it will just be you and me," Kadence says, and then he looks at TJ, adding, "and you."

TJ gives him a slow nod, obviously wary of him, but I just think he's thinking way too much into this. There's no way this nice guy wants to make a move on me knowing that I'm married.

"This place is nice," I say. "I've never been to it before."

"Never? I own this hotel," Kadence tells me. "I can get any room for free at any time."

TJ nudges my knee with his, making me look over as he mutters, "Wow. Any time."

I release a breath of exasperation then reach for my menu.

"So what's good?" I ask.

"The steaks are good," Kadence answers, "and same with the lobster."

"Anything vegan?" TJ wonders.

"Yeah, there's a whole section." The he returns his eyes to me, saying, "The margaritas are to die for. You should try one. My treat."

Before I can respond, TJ retorts coldly for me, "No, thanks. I'd like to keep his mind functioning at its fullest tonight."

I give TJ a scolding look, but he just ignores it, picking up his menu to flip through.

 

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

All I came here for was a granola bar, but when I enter the room, I get the sight of a kitchen covered in stickiness while my two kids blend their concoction and peel lemons.

"Making more?" I say.

"Business is booming!" Cara cheers. "We're gonna make so much money and become part of the top 1% of society."

"Not really what I want to hear, but okay."

I head toward the pantry, but Cara's scream whips me back around. However, she's not bleeding or hurt like I feared.

"We're out of pudding!" she shouts.

"We can't be!" Brayden yells back. "We have fifty cups of lemonade on backorder."

"See for yourself," Cara says.

Brayden goes over to the counter where a pile of empty pudding cups sits and examines it over.

"Welp," he says, "we're bankrupt."

"We had a good run," Cara says.

With the kitchen in a disaster state, both kids simply turn and exit, not wasting a single second to dwell, nor to clean up.

_______________________________________

Walker's POV

When I step into the living room, Jonah is just finishing putting a picture of us into the picture frame on the wall. The stock photo is crumpled a little in his hand while he rehangs the frame, which is fine. I mean, we're just gonna recycle the paper anyway.

"Finally getting this swapped out," Jonah says.

"Awesome," I respond.

He steps back, and I go up to see which photo he's chosen. It's one of us sitting on the steps leading to our front door together, my arm around him and pulling him close. There are four steps, and we're taking up two of them, but I can't help but notice how bare the bottom two look with their paint chipped away from age.

"Jonah?" I speak up and spin around to face him. "You don't want kids, right?"

"No, I'm good," he assures me. "We're good. I have everything I could ever need, and we're 38. It seems kinda late for that anyway. You don't want kids, right?"

"No, no, I'm good too."

Well, what else am I going to say? Kids are a big choice, and we would have to be on the same page. I guess we are. I mean, he's kinda right, I guess. I have everything I need right here with him. That, I know. He's all I need. But I guess I just wonder what life would be like if I had more.

"Cool," Jonah says.

"Cool."

A moment of quiet.

"Wanna watch a movie tonight?" he asks.

"Sure," I reply, trying not to let my feelings run into my tone. "I'll get the popcorn."

_______________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Shouting from the chefs in the kitchen chimes through the racket of clinking dishes and chatter around us, but it doesn't distract Kadence from finishing his story. I can feel the tension radiating from TJ, but I only hope he won't do anything stupid. I trust him and all, but he can get defensive, specifically when it comes to me.

"Yeah, I did a year of massage therapy in college," Kadence explains with a grin. "People always tell me how I'm really good with my hands."

"So am I," TJ responds, and I almost choke on the water I'm sipping, resulting in me coughing.

Worry hits Kadence's face, and he stands up, saying, "Do you need help? I know the Heimlich."

TJ shuts him down immediately, replying, "I'm a first responder. If he needs help, I got it."

Kadence sits down again, and right as he touches his chair, an announcement over the speakers above sounds. The buzzing voice requests the owner of a specific licence plate to go to the front desk of the hotel, for that vehicle is being towed.

"That's ours," TJ reacts, shocked.

"Did you park illegally?" I question.

"I was barely a foot over the line." With a sigh, he pushes himself onto his feet. "I'll deal with this."

My husband winds through the tables, leaving me with Kadence. I'm honestly a little relieved. TJ's been tense this whole time, and it's refreshing to be able to talk to my new friend without him picking apart every word.

"So," I say, "other than owning hotels and doing massage therapy, what else do you do?"

"I like climbing," he answers.

"Climbing what?"

He lets out a little laugh and answers, "Rocks. I went out to the mountains last weekend. I've got some pictures if you wanna see."

"Sure."

He takes out his phone, and I lean forward, ready to look, but rather than show me the phone across the table, he waves for me to come over, so I get up and go around the table to sit down in the empty seat next to him. Once there, he holds the phone out for me, and I'm confronted by an image of him hanging off the side of a rock with muscles that look like they're ready to burst through his skin.

"Wow. You are very strong, huh?"

He looks proud at that, responding, "I work out every day."

"I can see that."

"I've got major biceps," he goes on. "Wanna feel?"

I'm about to say no, but then he raises his arm for me, and I'd feel bad refusing, so I reach up to touch it.

"Yup," I say, "that's an arm."

That makes him laugh, and when he's done, he looks at me and says, "You're funny, Cyrus. I like guys who are funny."

Oh my gosh. TJ was right. He is hitting on me. Well, this is disappointing. I gave him so many chances. Why couldn't he just not do that?

I'm incredibly relieved when I see TJ walking back toward our table looking annoyed, but not at Kadence, for he didn't witness anything of what just happened. Instead, TJ's mad at the trip he just had to make.

"False alarm," he says. "It was a different car."

"Oh, good," I respond.

As soon as he sits down in his chair again, I give Kadence a glance then get up out of mine. In under a second, I swerve around the table, sink down onto TJ's lap, and kiss him. Although surprised by the action, TJ's more than willing to let me rope my arms over his shoulders and lean into him. After one kiss, I kiss him again, and again, and keep on letting the sparks fly, waiting for Kadence to get the cue.

"Hey, uh..." he starts.

I pull away from TJ and glance back at Kadence, saying, "Sorry. Could you give us a minute?"

I return my lips to my husbands, feeling satisfied when I hear the sound of Kadence's chair scraping backward as he gets up and walks away. I open my eyes to watch him exit, and at my sudden halt of effort, TJ backs his head away and looks the same direction as I am, grinning at the sight. With Kadence gone, I return back to my own chair beside TJ, and his eyes look at me, showing how eager he is to say it, and then he does.

"I was right?"

"Don't get all cocky," I tell him.

"I won't," he assures me, although his smile is proud. "I'm just glad you figured it out."

"He was really nice," I whine. "It's a shame."

"He wasn't that nice," TJ responds, although I know he's biased.

Then we both look ahead at the empty plates that remain on the table from our earlier meal.

"He left his bill for us to pay," TJ realizes.

"Yup."

_______________________________________

Marty's POV

"Brayden," I say as I walk up to his bedroom doorway, "there are twenty-three messages on the answering machine all asking you about some gourmet lemonade thing. Do you know what that's about?"

He swivels to face me in his office chair then stands up tall, letting out a sigh.

"It's supply and demand," he states, not at all answering my question. "Dad, it looks like you'll have to buy more butterscotch pudding. I have to give the people what they want."

Suddenly, Cara shows up beside me and peeks into the room, saying, "I have a better idea. I'm thinking kombucha."

Brayden gasps and agrees, "I like it."

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

The first thing I see when I wake up is the glow of white sun stripes shining through the blinds onto the bed covers, directly followed by my husband's soft smile beside me. His hair is a mess from his pillow, dark curls sticking out in random directions, and he has his glasses on, something I only ever get to see in the morning before he puts in his contacts, and at night when he takes them out. His vision is worse than mine, so I'm still able to make out all the important shapes of him, like his eyes and his lips, without my own glasses.

"Happy Father's Day," he whispers.

"Happy Father's Day to you too."

I give him a smile before rolling out of bed and standing up to open the blinds fully, letting in a wave of light that shocks my body awake as I grab my glasses. Cyrus sits up in bed, watching me while I find my pyjamas in the dresser and slide them on.

"Any guesses on what the kids are doing for us today?" Cyrus wonders.

"Well, last year's zucchini origami from Wyatt will be hard to top," I reply with a chuckle.

"I hope he does something different than that, because I need that zucchini for a cupcake recipe."

A knock on the door pulls our eyes toward it and raises our hopes, shown through our brightening smiles.

"Yes?" I say.

The door swings open just enough for Jayda to stick her head in and say, "Dads, can you get the laundry started? I'm going to a party later, and I need my dress washed by then."

The door closes, slapping our grins down, and I look back at Cyrus, disappointed.

"Well, Jayda's never been good with remembering the date," Cyrus reasons, although I can see that he's a little glum about it, "but I'm sure she'll figure it out."

"I don't know," I mutter. "She thought it was Saturday until Thursday last week."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Wyatt's RC swerves on the hardwood, scraping rubber marks into the floor. TJ and I step down the stairs and take a second to watch the toy car zoom back toward the kitchen where Wyatt is hidden out of sight, behind wall at the back of the staircase.

"Great," I mumble. "The RC is back."

When we enter the kitchen, Wyatt is at the table making the car do doughnuts on the floor, while Jayda is sitting across from him, doing something on her phone.

"Good morning," I greet.

"Morning," they both mutter.

"Nice day, huh?" TJ says.

Jayda glances out the window then back to her phone, responding, "It was sunnier earlier."

TJ's eyes catch mine as we both share the same dreary thought: they don't remember, or if they do, they don't care. I suppose it's selfish of me to expect anything special, but I'm just not used to this. Last year they remembered, because Amber and Andi made sure they did. They must've stepped back this year since the kids are now older, but they might've stopped helping them a bit too early. Of course, I can't say anything about it. Getting anything on Father's Day is a privilege, so me reminding them would be like going up to someone and telling them to wish you a happy birthday. It's just a little needy, and yes, I've been called needy, but I try not to be that way with my kids.

Jayda opens her mouth to speak again, and I feel myself spark up, thinking it's going to be for me, but then she immediately looks to Wyatt instead and says, "Hey, Wyatt, if you want my help, you need to come upstairs now, or you're not getting it."

Wyatt peels his eyes up from his RC, and the car stops spinning in and instant. Then both kids get up, and Wyatt's RC sputters to life again, driving down the hallway.

"What are you helping him with?" I question.

"Some game he's making," Jayda replies. "After that, I'm going to Angel's. Is that okay?"

Going to her friend's house on Father's Day.

"I guess," I answer.

"Cool, thanks."

With our kids now gone upstairs, I spin back to face TJ, no longer worried about hiding my disappointment.

"Did they really forget Father's Day?" I sigh. "I don't expect anything big, but shouldn't we at least get paper ties from Wyatt or something?"

"When I was little, I forgot Father's day, so I made a macaroni picture frame last minute."

"See, that's considerate and cute."

"Yeah. We had macaroni for dinner that night, though."

"Oh."

"Well, maybe they'll remember," TJ says. "It's only the morning."

"Yeah," I sigh. "At least they're spending some sibling time together. That's a nice surprise."

Jayda's POV

As soon as I seal the door to my bedroom, I spin around to Wyatt who's staring up at the string of round, white lantern lights that dangle over the ceiling in two rows.

"Wyatt," I say, and he brings his attention down to me. "Okay, so if they ask where I am, what do you say?"

"Angel's," Wyatt answers.

"Perfect. You stay here and keep them occupied... Wyatt!"

He pulls his eyes away from where they'd wandered over to the polaroids on my white wall by the closet.

"Make sure they're not wondering about me until it's time to go," I continue, "at which point, do you know how you're going to get them there?"

"I have a plan," he responds.

"What is it?"

"Okay, I'm gonna make a plan, but don't worry. I've got it under control."

Before I can press him any further, there comes a banging on my window, and I look above my bed to see Andreas sitting on the tree branch on the other side of the glass. He said he was going to meet me here, but this wasn't what I was expecting. I kneel on my bed to reach the lock and slide up the window, and he rests his elbows on the window sill but remains perched on the tree.

"You climbed the tree?" I say in surprise.

"That's so cool!" Wyatt says contrasting my judgement with his amazement. "And you didn't even fall!"

"This isn't the first girl's house I've snuck into," Andreas explains with a grin, which makes me rolls my eyes.

"Where's Brayden?" I ask.

"On the ground," Andreas answers. "He didn't want a branch to snag his sweater vest."

"Cool, well, I'll take the front door and meet you outside."

I start to turn around when Andreas tilts his head and says, "Come on. I didn't climb this tree for nothing."

He extends his hand, but I don't take it, still debating whether I want to risk dirtying my pale jean shorts for this.

"I wanna take the tree!" Wyatt exclaims.

"You're staying here," I remind him, and he frowns.

"Why do you always get the fun jobs?"

I shake my head at my brother before returning my eyes to Andreas whose hand remains out for me, and he has this stupid grin on his face, the one that insists I can trust him even when there is no valid reason to.

"Fine," I huff.

I grab a pair of shoes from my closet and slip them on before accepting Andreas's hand, letting him steady me as I climb out of my bedroom window. He lets me go once I've gotten hold of the branch, but while he swings himself down and leaps onto the grass of the front yard, I take a bit longer, carefully placing my feet on the branches. Both Brayden and Andreas stare up at me from the ground as I get to the bottom branch where I'll now have to jump.

"You gonna come down?" Andreas calls up after a moment.

I guess I have to. Okay, deep breath. One, two, three! I force myself off the branch, landing sharply with both feet on the ground, and when I start to wobble, both boys grab an arm to pull me back upright.

"You good?" Andreas asks.

"Yeah. Fine."

"I heard your comment about my sweater vest," Brayden tells his brother. "For your information, it's vintage, and snagging it would decrease its value."

"Whatever," Andreas responds. "Let's go."

We all start walking toward the sidewalk, but I pause when I have a thought.

"Should we have included Cara in this?"

"Oh, she's in on it," Andreas replies.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

Every customer walking through here is wearing something camo, whether than be a hat, a vest, or just some boots. That appears to be a staple for people who shop at outdoor gear stores, which makes me feel like a fish in a chicken pen. Cara clearly doesn't feel that way. She leads Jonah and I through the rows of fishing rods, lawnmowers, bicycles, and backpacks, acting like she knows where she's going even though she doesn't.

"This place reminds me of when my dad used to force me to come on fishing trips, thinking that if I caught one, I'd stop liking boys," I comment.

"I used to give my uncle gift cards for this place every Christmas," Jonah reminisces, "and then he'd bring the meat to New Year's dinner."

"That's a pretty self-serving gift."

"Yeah. My mom used to get me dish detergent for my birthdays."

"There it is!" Cara squeaks.

We look ahead at the pile of firewood. At some point in our walk, we ended up in an outdoor part of the store, though I didn't even notice. Cara's eyes are wide as she gazes at the mountain of logs.

"Let's buy all of it and start a huge fire!" she squeals. "Let's burn down the Whitehouse!"

Jonah crouches down next to her, responding, "Love the enthusiasm, but big dreams cost big money."

"I wanna be rich when I grow up so that I can light everything on fire!" she cheers.

Jonah just smiles and says, "If you can dream it, you can do it."

"Jonah," I interrupt, "we probably shouldn't be encouraging arson."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

"Buffy," I say as I descend the stairs, "where are all our kids?"

The house is strangely quiet, and it's a little concerning. Usually at least one of the three is making noise with whatever games they play to keep themselves entertained.

Buffy closes her magazine and tosses it on the coffee table as she stands up from her chair and comes over to me.

"Oh, they're all out," she answers.

"Out where?"

"Uh, birthday parties."

"Three birthdays on Father's Day?"

"I guess September is an active month for couples."

"When will they be home?" I ask.

"I'm not sure."

"Oh. Okay."

Buffy's usually the one who makes sure the kids remember important days. It's weird to me that she's letting them all out of this one. It's Father's Day. I made sure they remembered Mother's Day for her.

"Well, do you want to do anything today?" I ask her.

At least my wife is available for me.

"Sure," she responds. "What do you want to do?"

"We could go out for lunch?" I suggest. "We haven't done that in a while."

"It's a date," Buffy says.

She comes up and folds her arms over my neck to kiss me gently, a lovely surprise for the morning. When she backs up, she has a smile.

"Happy Father's Day." Then she grins as she asks, "Until lunch, anything else you want to do?"

"What are you thinking?" I wonder, letting a smile of my own creep up.

"We could do the thing that made you a father," she replies.

"Well, it's a little soon for a 4th of July party, but we do have lots of vodka—"

"No," she stops me.

She raises her eyebrows, pressing her eyes into mine, and I suddenly realize what she means.

I don't need any time before answering, "Yes," and she giggles as I take her hand and lead her upstairs.

 

Chapter Text

Andreas's POV

While Brayden, Jayda, and I are walking through the grocery store, the promotions in the health and hygiene area catch Brayden's attention. He stops at one isle and picks up a bottle of shampoo for thinning hair to read it, causing Jayda and I to have to stop along with him.

"It's on sale," Brayden says. "Should I stock up now? My teachers all say I have an old mind. Do you think I'll get old hair sooner?"

"You're twelve," I respond.

"You didn't answer the question, but I suppose that's not surprising, considering your test scores."

Just for that, I reach over to the shelf on my left and grab a small box which I then shove into my brother's hand.

"You should probably get some of this instead," I say.

Brayden reads the box. "Cream for reducing inflammation in bruises."

At that, Jayda grabs the box from Brayden and puts it back on the shelf, saying, "Okay, stop with the weird threats, and come on."

Brayden and I end our disagreement and follow Jayda toward the isle with the marshmallows. I can't see it, but somehow she has the vision of a hawk and spots her goal from the other end of the isle.

"Good. There's one bag left," she says.

I stay behind her as she power-walks ahead, but I get sucked in by the sight of a bag of multi-coloured mini marshmallows on the way.

"Hey," I say, picking one of the bags up. "We could get rainbow marshmallows instead, 'cause, you know, gay."

"Those are tiny," Jayda responds. "Plus, my papa prefers vegan ones, and he's one of the two gays. We'll get the vegan ones after, but right now we need regular-sized normal marshmallows."

"Fair."

When she spins back around to grab the marshmallows, she freezes, and I realize why when I see that the last bag is gone from the shelf.

She's shocked. "Who—?"

Then she sees a lady a little bit farther down the isle, and she's holding the bag that Jayda was about to take.

"Damn," I mumble. "We can go somewhere else."

"Screw that," Jayda denies. "I did not walk all the way here for nothing."

"You didn't," I state. "We still have to get graham crackers and chocolate and—and you're not listening," I breathe. "Cool."

Jayda struts up to the woman with the marshmallows and taps her on the shoulder. The woman's blonde bob swings as she turns around to see Jayda.

"Excuse me," Jayda says, "but I was about to take those marshmallows."

The lady just gives Jayda a smirk, responding, "Then why are they in my basket?"

Oh, shit.

Jayda's eyes narrow, and I can feel her rage boiling as she snaps, "Oh, you wanna play that game, Karen?"

Brayden suddenly appears beside me, asking, "Should I call a lawyer?"

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

TJ and I are in the kitchen about to make our lunch when Wyatt comes out of the door from the basement and begins heading toward the other staircase.

"He has to remember," I whisper to TJ.

"We could ask him."

"No. That makes it seem like we expect something from him."

"We do," TJ states.

"I know, but—"

"Hey, Wyatt!" TJ calls out, cutting me off.

He curves around the wall to go into the hall where Wyatt stops and spins back to him, and I hurry after TJ, giving up my not-caring facade.

"Do you know what day it is?" TJ asks.

"National Extraterrestrial Abductions Day?" Wyatt guesses.

I frown. "Not quite."

"Too bad," the boy mumbles. "I'm waiting for that day, because I think aliens will be bring Snappy back."

He goes upstairs, leaving me even more down than before, but now lots of that is guilt.

"Now I just feel bad," TJ says.

"Maybe we should've told him that Snappy died," I say. "I know he was only five, but kids can handle death."

"Hey, we didn't tell him that aliens abducted his fish," TJ reasons. "He came up with that."

"Yeah... Sometimes I try to imagine what it must be like inside his head."

"Probably like a funhouse."

All of a sudden, Wyatt comes running back down the stairs and into the kitchen. A second later, he comes out holding four cans of black beans.

"Forgot these," he says.

I'm— What?

"Uh, do you need a can opener?" TJ asks him.

Wyatt just shakes his head and starts up the stairs. "No, I'm good."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

After buying the firewood, we stopped to eat lunch, and now we're on our third stop. Cara yanks the door to the ice cream shop open in one tug, and Walker and I step in after her.

"This is the important last stop?" Walker says.

"Are you questioning my authority?" the little girl retorts.

"Did you hear that line on a TV show or something?" Walker says.

"No. My mom yells it at the squirrels when they won't leave the backyard," she explains.

"But squirrels are kinda cute," I say.

Cara just shakes her head. "You don't know their dark side."

Neither Walker nor I have even said yes to buying Cara ice cream, but she goes up to the cashier anyway and orders herself a chocolate cone.

"Guess I'm paying for that," Walker sighs, and he goes up to the counter alongside Cara.

After that, my husband and niece come back over to me to wait for the order to be ready. In front of us in line, a mom, dad, and little boy around Cara's age all receive their ice cream and begin to walk to a table. Right as Cara takes her own cone from the employee, a splat sounds out, and everyone turns to see the little boy weeping at his ice cream cone that he's just dropped on the floor.

Without even a second of hesitation, Cara goes up to the boy and holds out her own ice cream cone, saying, "Here. Have mine."

Not only am I amazed by the gesture, but the boy's family is too. It's such a selfless act for a seven year-old to do. The boy accepts the ice cream with a smile, and Cara returns to Walker and I, who are both still gawking from the event.

"I need another ice cream cone," Cara says.

Walker takes a moment to get past his awe before answering, "Yeah, of course," and going back up to the counter with the girl.

While they're away, the little boy's dad approaches me, smiling as he says, "You raised a good kid there."

"Oh, uh..."

I'm taken by surprise. I've never had any of my friends' kids be mistaken for my own. My first instinct is to clear up the misunderstanding and explain that Cara's not my daughter, but his eyes are so kind that I end up rerouting my path, not wanting to ruin his compliment. Honestly, what's the harm in just letting him be nice?

"Thanks."

He gives me a nod and says, "Happy Father's Day," before going to join his family at a table.

My eyes wander over to Walker and Cara who wait by the counter. She's not my kid. Obviously, that's not an issue, but what's really sticking with me isn't her being mistaken for mine. It's someone thinking I have a kid at all. It just feels really weird, but not wrong. Like maybe...I don't know. Maybe it might not be such a weird thing.

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

The manager's office is dim, lit by only a lamp since the light overhead is burnt out. A desk sits smack in the centre of the space, which has the angry, balding manager on one end, and the couldn't-care-less Jayda at the other. Brayden is out in the store still, trying to get everything on our list so that we don't end up being late, while I'm leaning against the corner wall of the office with my arms crossed, listening in on the manager's conversation with Jayda.

"Your conduct in our store was completely inappropriate and won't be tolerated."

"Well, I didn't know Karen was gonna call the manager on me," Jayda retorts.

Then the manager's eyes flick up to me, snapping, "You think this is funny?"

I snuff out my grin and reply, "No, sir."

He returns his attention to Jayda and carries on. "Look, you verbally harassed a woman simply because you wanted the marshmallows that she had already taken. Now, because you're a teenager, I'll let you go with a warning, but if anything happens like this again, you're banned from the store."

"Whatever," Jayda mutters.

The manager's face is red from anger as he throws his pointer finger at the door, commanding, "Go!"

Jayda stands up and saunters toward the door, taking her sweet time for no reason other than to irk the manager even more. After I've exited the office, I need to wait a few more seconds with the door open for her to get through it, but once she has, I let it fall closed and my grin comes back to my face as I look at her.

"What?" she questions.

"Nice job," I answer with a laugh. "Although I would appreciate it if next time we went somewhere, you didn't almost get us banned."

She rolls her eyes, saying, "This isn't my first rodeo, or whatever the saying is."

She starts walking back into the isles of the grocery store, but I'm still hung up on that last sentence.

"Wait, what places have you been almost banned from?" I ask.

"Not almost," she corrects me. "I am banned from the department store in Edgemont and the post office in Greenhurst."

"Post office? What were you trying to mail?"

"Not me. My friends."

"Wow. I don't know the story, but anything involving the United States postal service that got you banned seems risky."

"Chill," she says. "It's fine."

"I'm chill with everyone except you."

Jayda stops walking and turns to me, offended, to say, "So I'm stressful?"

"Kinda, yeah," I admit.

Jayda lets out a huff and whines, "Rude!"

"All I know is that I've never felt stress like I do when I'm around you."

I don't know what it is specifically about her—maybe just everything—but she makes me need to think more than usual, something I'm not used to, so yeah, I'd say she's kinda stressful. I'm not saying it's bad stress, or good stress. Just stress. Just more effort I have to put into functioning.

All of a sudden, Brayden breaks up our arguement as he steps in between us, and we pull our eyes away from each other and onto him.

"You know what stresses me out?" he says. "When you two go to grocery store jail, leaving me to have to do all the shopping. Here." He shoves the basket of items into my hands. "Pay."

 

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

Cyrus and I are on the couch together in the living room when Wyatt comes thumping down the stairs, and Cyrus pauses our show, knowing something's going to happen that will require our attention.

"Dads, I have a problem, he says, stepping around the couch in front of us.

"What is it?" Cyrus asks.

"There's a stain on my shirt."

"Then put it in the wash," Cyrus says.

Wyatt shakes his head. "That won't work. It's a bad stain. We need that special stain remover that Auntie Amber and Auntie Andi have."

I examine my son's T-shirt for a second before saying, "Wyatt, I don't even see a stain."

"It's invisible ink," he says without missing a beat.

"Then what's the problem if you can't even see it?" I question.

"Because when I go bowling, I'll be glowing like a firefly's poop!"

Cyrus shakes his head. "Wyatt, that's not—"

"Help a man out here!" He yells.

He begins marching toward the front door to put his shoes on, and Cyrus looks at me then sighs before getting up to follow the boy.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

I pull open the door when I hear the knock, and Jayda, Andreas, and Brayden are all standing on the porch with their bag of food for the evening.

"Where were you guys?" I question. "Cara, Jonah, and Walker got here, like, half an hour ago."

Jayda steps past me inside, answering, "There was a minor delay."

Andreas comes in after her, then Brayden last, who adds, "Jayda almost got us banned from the supermarket."

The kids walk through the kitchen to the door to the yard before I can try to piece together their response in my head.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Buffy drives through the neighbourhood while I sit in the passenger seat, getting more and more confused as the drive persists.

"Okay, I know I'm usually the one who gets dinner," I say, "but when I said let's go to the restaurant at the end of the block, I thought it seemed pretty self-explanatory as to where it was."

"We're going somewhere better," Buffy responds.

Better than all-you-can-eat wings for $6.99? I'm skeptical. When we take the next turn, Andi and Amber's house comes into view, and I look over at Buffy in concern.

"Amber and Andi's cooking is better? You sure you're okay to be driving?"

She puts the car into park against the curb and rolls her eyes, saying, "Just come on."

She climbs out of the car, and I do the same, although I have no idea what's happening. But once I step onto the grass, I notice TJ and Cyrus coming down the sidewalk, being pulled by Wyatt.

"Do you guys know what's going on?" I ask them.

When Cyrus and TJ attempt to slow down near me, Wyatt adjust his grip on both their hands and pulls harder.

"Keep going," he says.

The three Kippens carry on toward the gate to Amber and Andi's backyard, and Buffy gives me a nudge to follow. What I find when I step through the gate is my entire family, including all of my kids, sitting around a campfire with the ingredients for s'mores and hot dogs on a table, ready to cook.

"Happy Father's Day!" they all cheer.

Cyrus is by far the most outwardly surprised, his jaw almost coming unhinged.

"You guys did this?" he says to the kids.

Jayda nods. "We know how much you like camping, but we're also not old enough to get an actual campsite on our own, so we did something in the middle." Then she grabs a bag of tiny, multi-coloured puffs from the grass by her lawn chair, saying, "We also have marshmallows. They're tiny and rainbow 'cause the store was out of big ones..."

Andreas takes over, finishing by saying, "and 'cause gay."

"We also have regular-sized vegan ones," Jayda goes on.

"It's awesome," TJ responds, smiling wide.

Suddenly, my little girl climbs down off her chair that was situated between Hazel and Jonah, and she runs up to me, making me scared a little in the process, for she doesn't pay attention to the fire pit.

"I started the fire!" she squeals with a huge grin.

I look up at Amber, Andi, Walker, and Jonah, who all just put on their most innocent smiles.

"Well," I say to Cara, "it's a nice-looking fire."

"Happy Father's Day, Daddy."

She throws her arms around my waist, engulfing me in her hug. Soon, Andreas gets up out of his chair and comes up to copy Cara.

"Happy Father's Day," he says.

I bring my arm around my teenager too, and while two of my kids are with me, my third lets out a sigh and stands up to come over.

"Well, now I'm gonna look like the bad kid if I don't join." Brayden steps into the group hug, repeating what his two siblings said: "Happy Father's Day."

As they begin to let me go, Wyatt releases a grunt and stomps up to his dads, saying, "We can do better than them!"

Cyrus and TJ chuckle as Wyatt ropes them into a tight hug, and Jayda goes over to join too.

"You did it second," Cara points out.

"Well, we have two dads, so everything we do for them is automatically twice as good," Wyatt argues.

Amber's single clap breaks the glares as she says, "Cool, well, let's roast stuff before the fire dies out."

Hazel starts passing the roasting sticks around for everyone to take as they all get settled back in their chairs. Campfire smoke rises into the air as everyone begins to talk and laugh together the way our family always does. Brayden is teaching Walker and Hazel about some ancient philosopher's perspective on fire and the way it relates to the universe. To my right, Andreas is attempting to toss the mini marshmallows into his mouth while Jayda films it, laughing. Wyatt keeps hold of his dads by laying across both of their laps to prove his superiority over Cara who has already moved on. She sits on my lap, leaning toward the fire to roast a marshmallow, and I hold her tight, trying to keep her from falling in. After a while, I trade off with my wife who watches her, and I take in the beauty of this moment, the perfection of our giant family all fitting in Amber and Andi's tiny backyard. This is what Father's Day is about. It's about being able to spend time with people who love you and look up to you. This is perfection, and I get it every day.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

After spending the evening with the noise of all our friends, being back home seems eerily calm, like a frosted winter morning after a blizzard. Part of me misses the chaos and the smiles, but when I lie down in bed next to Jonah, the calm becomes okay. His hair is wet from the shower and clings to his forehead, and the lamp light reflects in his green eyes. Him being around me warms me instantaneously like blowing a cloud of breath into winter air.

"Today was fun, huh?" I say.

"Yeah," Jonah agrees.

He has a faint smile on his face, but I can tell that he's deep in thought, probably reminiscing about the events of the day like I am.

"All the kids put so much effort into giving their dads a good Father's Day," I say.

"Yeah. They really are special."

His eyes stare upward but he's still wrapped in his thoughts, so I don't try to talk any further. Instead, I decide to let him think about whatever he's thinking about, and he'll talk to me if he wants to.

I shift close to him and press a gentle kiss to his head then whisper, "Goodnight."

"Goodnight."

With a click, my fingers turn the knob on the bedside lamp, flicking it off, and letting the blackness flood the room. I roll over to lie on my side and try to fall asleep until suddenly, Jonah breaks the quiet.

"Walker?"

"Yeah?"

"I wanna have a baby."

Silence pours over everything, stopping not only my own breathing and heartbeat, but also every sound of the earth, from the wind outside to the easy blow of the vents. That silence swallows the space, letting us wade in its waters until I finally open my mouth and respond.

"Let's do it."

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I sit with my back to the bay window at the kitchen table, my husband on the left, and my daughter on the right with her hand blocking the sun from hitting her phone as she reads something and laughs. With none of us talking, the chickadee call from outside wafts in, competing with the chewing of our toast. While we eat, TJ and I both keep bringing our eyes back to Jayda every time she giggles at her screen.

"Jayda, why don't you put down your phone and interact with us for the meal?" I ask.

"My phone is my life," she defends. "It keeps me in touch with the world. Without it, I might as well be playing piano in an old folks' home."

"I feel attacked," TJ mutters.

He plays piano in old folks' homes sometimes to entertain them, but that just makes him an caring citizen.

"Well, at least talk to us," I say to her. "What's so interesting on that phone that you can't put it down?"

"Fine. You want to know? Tay tried to do her mom's botox herself to save money, and the photos are horrendous."

She has a grin on her face as she begins to turn the phone in our direction to show us, but I push her hand back toward her, shaking my head.

"I changed my mind. Don't tell us," I mumble.

I scoop up another spoonful of my cereal and bring it up to my lips, but it drips off right back into my bowl the second Wyatt stomps into the kitchen and drops something brown, fuzzy, and wrapped in a blanket down in the centre of the table. It makes a thud, causing our chairs to rattle, and the boy stares down sadly at the bundled blanket with tuff of fluff peering through its cracks.

"Please tell me that's another blanket under there," I say.

"No!" my son cries. "Monsoon died!"

"Who's Monsoon?" TJ questions, eyeing the watermelon-sized lump in the centre of us all.

"He's the bunny that liked to sleep under my bed," Wyatt explains, his forehead still wrinkled in despair. "He didn't wake up yesterday. I thought he was just old and lazy, but then I realized he wasn't breathing."

Most parents would be most shocked by the fact that their son had an animal living in their room, but this is my son, so I'm more surprised by something else.

"You named your rabbit Monsoon?" I say.

"Can you get that thing away from my food?" Jayda sneers. "It's grossing me out."

Wyatt turns his cold eyes to his sister, replying, "When your time comes, I'll remember how you treated Monsoon and be sure to give you the same treatment."

"I'm sorry about your rabbit," I say to Wyatt. "The most difficult normalcy of life is that everything has an end."

Wyatt nods sombrely, looking down at his covered bunny corpse.

"I want to sit shiva," he says after a moment.

"People don't usually sit shiva for pets," I respond.

"Then I at least want to have a memorial, and we'll pray and bury him."

"We don't have anywhere to bury him," TJ brings up. "I don't think we're allowed to do it in the yard."

I furrow my brows and ask, "Is there a law for that?"

TJ just shrugs.

"Then we'll compost him," Wyatt says.

"I'm sure Monsoon would like that," I say. "We can do it today."

"Thank you."

Wyatt sniffles a couple times then spins around and heads back toward the stairs.

TJ sits up, realizing, "Oh, he's leaving the—"

He sighs and looks at the blanketed bunny body again.

But Jayda's passed her tipping point, getting up and taking her cereal with her, saying, "I'm gonna take my food somewhere else before I vomit."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

Glue drips down my hands and over my arms as I lay another piece of soaked newspaper over the wires. It's going to become a lion's face eventually, which I'll then decorate with lots of colours and strings and maybe feathers or beads—wherever my vision takes me.

"Hey, Andi," Amber says, leaning into my studio. "Have you seen my black dress?"

"Which one?"

"My favorite one. A-line. Lace neckline."

I know exactly which one she's talking about, and I know where it is, but I'm not going to tell her that.

Last month, there was a bit of an incident. I was working on an art piece for an office building. It was a tapestry, and I was using a whole bunch of old clothes, blankets, curtains—anything fabric that I could tear up and sew into an abstract seascape for the tapestry. I had just finished sewing a blue bed sheet into waves, and I was about to create the black boarder. I lifted the scissors to cut the black dress.

But then I realized which dress it was. Relieved I didn't cut Amber's favorite dress, I began walking out to put it back in the closet, but I immediately bumped into one of my tables, causing me to drop the dress right as all the paint toppled over onto the floor, coating the dress in a rainbow of liquid. There was no saving it.

I unlatch from my memory, coming back into the present to ask Amber, "Why do you need it?"

"Wyatt's having a memorial for his rabbit," Amber explains.

How come every explanation regarding Cyrus's kids only ever gives me more questions?

"He has a rabbit?"

"Apparently. Anyway, the dress?"

"Uh, haven't seen it," I lie.

"Crap," she mutters. "I've looked everywhere."

"Well, maybe it's in the basement?" I suggest, solely to get her far enough away that she won't hear my own rummaging around that's about to start.

"Hmm. I'll look."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

I step into the kitchen right as Walker's finishing a call, so I stop walking and listen.

"Yeah ... Yes ... Sure thing ... Of course ... Thank you again."

Walker hangs up the phone and sets it down on the counter with a huge smile.

"Who was that?" I ask.

"That was the adoption agency. We've been approved for adoption."

At a loss for words, I go up and hug him, squeezing him in until my excitement settles down enough that I'm able to back up and speak.

"I can't believe it," I say. "We're actually doing this."

After our conversation on Father's Day, we began looking into having a baby. We considered actually making a child with one of us being genetically connected to the baby, like what Amber and Andi did, but Walker and I chose to adopt instead. It wasn't a hard decision, because Walker was also adopted, so he already had good feelings toward it. Currently, we are in the process of adopting a baby from South Africa.

"We're gonna have a baby soon," Walker says, his smile unmovable.

"Well, I hope we will," I respond. "The process is complicated."

His expression turns out not to be unmovable as it dims a little. "I know. I just really want this to work out."

"Me too."

Somehow I've managed to peel our happy moment back into one of worry with my doubt.

"Um, on another note," I speak up, interrupting the quiet, "Wyatt's bunny died."

"He had a bunny?"

"Yeah, nobody knows where it came from, but, um, we're gonna go to the memorial later at their house."

"Okay," Walker responds.

While he begins stepping toward the living room, a tug inside me makes me call out once more.

"Walker?"

"Yeah?" he asks, turning back around to me.

"Can we not tell them yet?"

Walker takes a second before nodding and replying, "Yeah, that's probably a good idea."

"I just don't want to get their hopes up in case we don't end up getting a baby."

"I agree."

"Yeah," I breathe. "We don't want a repeat of the new front door situation."

"Jonah, nobody cared about the door."

"I cared, and we didn't get it," I mumble.

Walker comes over and puts his arm around me, muttering, "Okay."

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

After rooting through nearly every one of my cabinets and trunks in my studio, I finally find the dress shoved to the back of the last cupboard, behind several balls of string. I pull it out and find out that the damage is worse than I remember. Every colour of paint covers the whole thing entirely, leaving not a single speck of black.

"What are you doing?"

I spin around to see Hazel coming in with her eyes curiously on the dress in my hands. I quickly shove it behind my back as I turn to her.

"Nothing."

"You know that saying 'nothing' doesn't make it true right?"

I sigh. "Okay, fine. I, uh, did something by accident a month ago."

Slowly, I bring the dress out from behind my back into Hazel's view, and her mouth drops into a shocked but amused look.

"Oh my God. Is that Mom's dress?"

"Yes. I was going to get it cleaned, but I kinda forgot about it, and now there's no time, because she's looking for it right now."

My daughter takes a step forward, calmly saying, "Okay, first of all, take a deep breath."

I do as told, but I'm still just as nervous.

"That did nothing," I state.

"Yeah, but it's something people say when other people are stressed."

"I need to get this paint out of this dress before your mom gets back upstairs!" I say, my voice on the edge of freaking out.

"Well, first thing's first."

She walks out of the studio, and I step forward enough to see her go across the hall to press the doorknob on the basement door inward and turn it, effectively locking it.

"Cool," she says as she reenters the studio. "Now time is irrelevant."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

"Hello," I say as I descend the stairs into the basement, "can I get your attention for one minute?"

All three of my kids look away from their current business. Andreas pauses his video game, Brayden marks the page of his book, and Cara drops her legos on the carpet.

"I'm gonna need you all to cancel whatever plans you had for this afternoon," I state.

"What?" Andreas reacts. "I had a date with Oceana."

"I had a beheading for a Barbie bourgeoisie!" Cara joins in.

"Unlike my egotistical siblings, I don't have plans and would be happy to do whatever you need," Brayden says.

"Unlike my lame brother," Andreas snipes back, "I have a girlfriend."

"You're not striking the nerve you think you are," Brayden mumbles.

Andreas just got back from camp, which he spent most of the summer working as a counsellor at. Although I missed him, I didnt miss the fighting between him and his brother which is back at full force since he returned a few days ago. When Andreas got back, he also had a girlfriend that I didn't find out about until she showed up at our house yesterday.

"Fine. You can bring Oceana," I say.

"I don't even know what we're doing," Andreas counters.

"We're going to a memorial."

"You expect me to bring the girlfriend I've had for one month to a memorial? That's more like a one year thing."

"Relax. It's for a rabbit that was living under Wyatt's bed."

"We're going to a memorial for a rabbit?" Brayden echoes.

"Yes, and it meant a lot to Wyatt, so you'll wear something nice and be comforting when you're there."

"Easy for you to say!" Cara speaks up. "You don't have a bunch of treasonists getting in the way of your Barbies' French Revolution!"

"Brayden," I say, turning my attention to him rather than the upset girl on the ground, "stop teaching your sister about violent history."

"If she doesn't learn it, she's bound to repeat it."

And on that note, I decide just to give up and go back upstairs. When I reach the main floor, I call out my husband's name, looking to inform him of our new plans, but I get no response. Right as I figure he must still be out, I hear the garage open, and I change my path, going through the kitchen and out the mudroom door into the garage where I see Marty climbing down off a smoke black motorcycle. He takes off his helmet and sets it down on the concrete as I fold my arms over my chest, raising my eyebrows but not in joy.

"What is this?" I question. "You were supposed to change our car insurance plan."

"I did," Marty responds, "but there was a motorcycle dealer next door, and there was this great baby, and I'd been thinking of this for a while."

The whole time he speaks, I'm nodding slowly, keeping my teeth clenched together. Marty's excitement fades into worry when he finishes his explanation and notices my critical look.

"You're not saying anything."

"I don't know what to say," I respond. "You went out and bought a motorcycle without talking to me first."

"I know, but I thought you'd like it."

"I'll really like it when it's returned," I counter.

"Buffy, seriously?"

"I don't want to talk about this, Marty. And considering you didn't either before you bought it, I assume that will be no problem for you."

I turn around and go inside, needing to find somewhere to just cool down for a while. I really don't want to deal with this, but I'm already starting to get a headache from the stress.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

We've tried everything. We tried scrubbing, dabbing, scraping, wringing. The paint is not coming out of the dress, and the water's been running at a pace that the bathtub drain can't keep up with. It's on the verge of spilling bubbles all over the bathroom tiles. Hazel continues scrubbing the dress with a sponge, but my head drops down in defeat.

"This stain remover is useless," I complain.

"Well, it wasn't designed to get thirty-dollar fabric faints out of an entire dress," Hazel reasons. "This isn't a stain. It's a complete colour overhaul."

"I don't know what to try now," I weep. "We've used every cleaning product we could find, from dish soap to drain cleaner."

"Well, is there's one thing you guys have taught me, it's that when all else fails, go get the bleach."

She drops the dress in the tub and stands up, but as soon as she starts walking, Amber appears in the doorway, and my chest tightens, terrified of how mad she's going to be.

"What's going on?" she interrogates.

"Amber," I say, getting up onto my own feet, "how'd you, um..."

"The basement lock is the kind where you just need a stick to poke into the hole.  I used a skewer. More importantly, is that my dress?"

She rushes past me and picks up the soaked fabric, her eyes horrified as she gives it a look over.

"I'm really sorry," I say. "Um...you see, the Skip-The-Dishes guy was insanely clumsy, and—"

"Mommy!" Hazel snaps, her eyes telling me to give it up.

"Okay," I sigh. "Last month, I spilt paint on it."

Amber shakes her head at the dress and looks to me. "Andi..."

"It was an accident. I'm really sorry."

"This was my favorite dress."

"I know. I'll buy you a new one."

"We share the same bank account," Amber reminds me. "You don't need to do that."

"I feel really bad," I tell her. "I tried to get it out."

"Why didn't you tell me a month ago?" she questions. She's not yelling anymore. Now she's just curious.

"I thought you'd be mad. It's your favorite dress."

"Yeah, it is, and I am mad," she states, "but you know, people make mistakes, and if there came a time where I made one, I'd want you to forgive me too."

I definitely wasn't expecting her to be so understanding. Usually, she gets very upset over the destruction of her clothes, or really any of her stuff. The only way she'd be this reasonable is if she..."

"Oh my gosh! What did you do?" I ask.

"Nothing," she insists, wide-eyed. "Can't I just forgive you?"

"Sure, but you're being very suspicious right now."

"I am not!"

"Amber!"

"Okay, your bracelet wasn't eaten by a racoon!" she confesses. "It came off my wrist while walking and fell into a sewer hole."

"I can't believe it!"

"On the bright side," Hazel chimes in, "I didn't do anything."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Buffy is in the midst of pulling her sneakers on as I enter the mudroom. She doesn't look at me, and it stings. She hasn't said anything to me since our fight, but I still don't get why she's so mad. Either way, I guess I should apologize, because I don't like fighting with her.

"Buffy—"

"We're going to a memorial," she interrupts me. "Can you save whatever you're going to say for later?"

Just like that, I've been shut down, and Buffy looks past me to shout for the kids who come filing in soon after. Andreas and Brayden get their shoes on immediately, but Cara goes up to her mom, upset.

"Why do I have to wear this dress?" she complains.

It's just a black one with red flowers on it. It's nothing especially formal, but nice enough.

"Because it's a memorial," Buffy replies.

"I want to wear what Brayden wears."

The girl looks up at her brother in his dress pants, bow tie, and pastel pink button-down shirt.

"Okay, next time you can, but it's too late," Buffy tells her. "We have to go."

"What's the bunny gonna do if we're late?" Cara retorts. "Die?"

"Just put on your shoes," Buffy orders.

The girl mopes but does as asked, and Andreas opens the door to the garage, his eyes brightening up when he sees what's beyond the door.

"Yoooooo! We got a motorcycle? That's so dope!"

"Don't get used to it," Buffy grumbles.

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

The whole family stands in the backyard, circled around the green compost bin. Wyatt watches with teary eyes as TJ and I lower the rabbit into the bin, and I think about how desperately I want to sanitize my hands. Once TJ and I are done, we step back to allow Wyatt to come forward with a backpack of things he hasn't yet revealed.

"Goodbye, Monsoon," the boy weeps. "You were the best friend a boy could ask for."

TJ leans in to me to whisper, "Should we be concerned that his best friend was a rabbit?"

"If it persists through adolescence, yes," I respond.

"I thought you should be with some of your favorite things," Wyatt goes on, "so I brought them."

He unzips the backpack and begins taking out its contents and tossing them into the compost bin, many of which aren't compostable, so I'll have to go in and remove them tonight. First is a handful of Cheerios that he sullenly drops like confetti. Next is a full, unopened can of black beans. Then a silver watch with an ugly, muddy yellow, pleather wrist strap that I recognize. Actually, I'm quite pleased with this toss. I always hated that watch. It's all ripped up and makes any outfit look ratty instantly.

"That's where my watch went," TJ mutters.

"Shhh. He's grieving."

Finally, Wyatt places a photo inside the compost bin as he explains, "And here's a photo of our trip to the beach."

"I don't recall that," I whisper.

"We should really keep a closer eye on him."

"I'll miss you, Monsoon," Wyatt says, and then he closes the lid of the green bin, letting his tears fall.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

My dads are with Wyatt in the living room, praying. I think Uncle Jonah is over there too, but everyone else is in the backyard still, going into the kitchen to get food then back out to the deck and patio every once in a while. I'm listening to Hazel talk about—I don't know—something, but I can't focus when I see the gate to the yard open, and a girl I don't recognize comes in and hugs Andreas. First of all, since when does Andreas bring girls anywhere important? Also, how does he know one so pretty? She has dark brown hair in tight waves down to her waist, and the highlighter on her bronze cheeks sparkles in the sun. She's wearing a pale blue sundress that floats as she moves. Are they related, and I just never heard about this? No. Buffy doesn't have siblings, and I'm pretty sure Marty's family is all white. That can't be it. Actually, she could be adopted like me. I've never met any of his cousins before.

Although Hazel's still talking, I'm hardly paying attention as she asks, "Do you think high school will eat me alive?"

"Yeah, probably. Um, who's that?"

I nod in the girl's direction, and Hazel finds the source of my focus.

"That's Andreas's girlfriend."

His girlfriend? Andreas with a girl like that? But really, his girlfriend?

"No, seriously," I say.

"Seriously," Hazel repeats. "That's his girlfriend."

"No way."

"Okay, can you move past this denial phase?"

"Since when does he have a girlfriend?" I ask, glancing back at the couple.

"He met her at camp," Hazel explains. "She was another one of the camp counsellors."

"Huh."

I watch Andreas with his girlfriend as they smile and talk, but then Andreas's eyes catch mine, and he starts walking my way with the girl by his side. And I'm nervous. Totally weird. I don't get nervous. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it's, like, basically true.

"Hey," Andreas says. His eyes stay on mine for a moment before switching over to Hazel for a brief second too. "Jayda, Hazel, I don't think you've met Oceana yet."

"Hi," the girl says shyly.

Cute. She's cute. Like, a genuinely cute, sweet girl. And she likes Andreas? Huh.

"Oceana's my girlfriend," Andreas says.

"So I've heard," I respond. Then I look to Oceana and give her a smile, saying, "Sorry the first time you're meeting my family is at a bunny funeral. You must think we're insane."

"Oh, no. My little sister had a cremation for her lizard," she replies.

We both laugh, and her eyes wander down from mine over to my wrist.

"By the way, I love your bracelet."

"Oh, thanks. I got it for my bat mitzvah."

"It's very beautiful. I love moonstones."

She's referring to the gem that sits on each link in the silver, windy chain bracelet.

"Me too," I respond.

Her smile has quickly gone from nervous to comfortable, not forced but real. Damn. She's really nice. She likes Andreas? Feels a little off, but okay. So, she likes Andreas. Huh.

"Good to see this is going well," Andreas says suddenly, and I snap out of my thoughts.

"Speaking of going," Oceana says, looking to Andreas, "could you tell me where the little girl's room is?"

"I can show you," Hazel says.

Oceana and Hazel go off toward the deck together, which leaves me alone with Andreas. I haven't spoken to him alone and in person in months because of his summer camp. This feels strangely confrontational.

"She seems sweet," I say.

"Yeah." He puts his hands in his pockets. "I was, uh, kinda worried you wouldn't like her."

"Why wouldn't I like her?"

He pauses for a moment, looking at me, before replying, "Uh, I don't know. I guess I just had a feeling."

"Well, if you like her, I like her."

"Cool." He nods, his eyes flicking around me and our surroundings like flies that can't stay in one spot. "Um, I'm gonna get some food."

"Good idea. I'm starved," I say.

"Were you not eating an entire plate of food, like, ten minutes ago?"

"What's your point?"

He chuckles and steps on past me, brushing my shoulder with his. I follow him onto the deck where he opens the door for me and motions me forth.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

The sun goes down earlier each night these days. Tonight, the sky is yellow by 8:00, and the kids are getting tired, but while they're all doing their things inside, I've lost track of one person. I find her in the garage. She leans against our mini van with her arms crossed as she studies the motorcycle. But she breaks her eyes away from it and onto me at the creak of one of the wooden steps beneath my feet. I finish stepping down from the doorway and onto the concrete while she comes up to meet me halfway.

"I called the store about returning it," I say. "I'm bringing it back tomorrow."

She says, "Good," but her brown eyes are still blue as she glances back at the motorcycle again.

"I'm really sorry. I shouldn't have got it. I guess I just..." I sigh. "I wanted to feel like the old me again. When we were young, we used to do exciting things and go places without talking about the cost first. I'm not that cool and spontaneous boy you fell in love with anymore, and I guess I just wanted to get some of that back, you know?"

Buffy shakes her head and steps forward, saying, "Marty, you still are that boy, and I'm still falling in love with you every day."

I give her a faint smile. "Well, I'll return the motorcycle."

"Marty, it was never about the motorcycle," she confesses, taking me by surprise. "I was about you getting it without me. We used to be a team. When one of us would take a risk—or run a marathon—we'd do it together. And I just wish you would've included me in this."

"I wanted to surprise you. I thought you'd like it."

Buffy tilts her head. "Come on, Marty. Obviously, I like it."

"So does that mean we can keep it?"

Buffy looks at the motorcycle again before bringing her eyes back to me. "Yeah, it does. Under one condition."

"Anything."

"I get to drive us now."

She goes over to the shelf and grabs the helmet that I bought for her and puts it on.

"Where are we going?" I wonder.

"Somewhere without speedbumps or any other cars around," she replies.

"This is your first time on a motorcycle, huh?"

She nods. "I didn't even ride Andi's motorbike that she had when she was thirteen."

"Cool, well, I'm scared, but that's half the fun, right?"

She mirrors my smile, and I grab my own helmet, ready to go anywhere—without speedbumps or other cars—with her.

________________________________________

TJ's POV

It's long past dusk, and Cyrus and I are about to turn in for the night, but on the way to our room, I notice the light below Wyatt's closed door. He's still awake. Either that or he left the lights on when he fell asleep. I don't know which is more likely.

"You think he's doing okay?" I wonder.

"Let's check," Cyrus responds.

We walk together up to Wyatt's door, and I knock gently but receive no response. Concerned, I carefully turn the doorknob and peer into the room. There, I see my son sitting in bed under the covers with puffy eyes from crying.

"Wyatt," I say softly, "how are you doing?"

He shakes his head and wipes his runny nose on his bed sheet. I push the door open the rest of the way and go inside, scooting myself across Wyatt's bed to sit down on the far side of him by the wall, while Cyrus cozies up on close side. With both of us around Wyatt, he lets his head fall down against my arm as he continues to weep. He rarely gets this upset about things, so seeing him like this is painful. It's a reminder that, although I want them to be able to live without any sadness at all, life doesn't work that way, and my beautiful kids weren't given any more mercy than the rest of us in this world. Someday, I won't be able to be here sitting with him when he's upset. But thank God that day's not for years. I'm not ready for that yet.

"I miss him," Wyatt whimpers.

Cyrus puts his hand on the boy's shoulder and rubs it with his thumb, providing comfort as he says, "Monsoon was special."

"He was," Wyatt agrees.

He transfers his head over to Cyrus's shoulder instead. But he doesn't forget me. He clings his hand to my elbow, keeping me connected. For a while, we just stay in silence, the three of us linked together like a chain.

Eventually, Wyatt speaks again in a frail voice, "Can we go to the park tomorrow?"

"Yeah, sure," I reply.

Wyatt smiles at that, his tears beginning to dry. But then he asks one more thing.

"Will you give me and underdog on the swing?"

I smile and lean in to kiss the top of his head before whispering, "Always."

Chapter Text

Hazel's POV

"I really hope we're not still doing track and field," Aimée says. "I can never jump high enough, so it's just embarrassing."

To that, Darius steps closer and replies, "You could say it presents you with a...hurdle."

"Good Lord, Darius," Aimée groans.

Three of my friends are in my P.E. class with me: Aimée, Darius, and Fatima. Their presence makes it a lot easier to be here, although I have to give most of that credit to my teacher, who, thankfully, isn't completely ignorant about my situation. He doesn't divide us by gender. Rather, he uses set standards to grade everyone, and the beauty of it is, as long as you show up to class and do what is asked, you're guaranteed to pass. I was terrified my first day of gym class at Grant, but Mr. Stichler made it a lot easier than I had expected. So walking into the gym now and not seeing him zaps fear into my pulse.

"Where's Mr. Stichler?" Fatima wonders.

After a few seconds of confused faces from the entire class, a woman with a whistle pushes through the doors and steps in, her lips grim and eyes cold, like a ghost who was just murdered and wants to repay the deed.

"Oh my God. I know that teacher," I tell my friends. "She used to substitute at my elementary school. She refused to use my real name and only ever called me by my deadname."

"I know her too," Fatima says, folding her arms over her chest. "She subbed for my math class last year at Jefferson. She compared my hijab to a towel."

"Okay, come in, class!" the teacher, Ms. Chernin calls. I couldn't forget her name even if I wanted to. "I'll be teaching your class for the rest of the semester."

Immediately, one of my classmates shoots their hand up, not waiting to be picked before asking, "What happened to Mr. Stichler?"

"Mr. Stichler's wife went into labour, and now he's getting paid paternity leave..." In a mumble, she adds "...because apparently if you have a baby, you get money for doing nothing."

I take in a shaky breath and let it out loudly. "Okay, I'm officially scared."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," Fatima tells me. "It's only three and a half-ish months."

"I hope," I respond, "because ninth-grade P.E. is mandatory, so I can't exactly drop it."

"Today we're starting the volleyball unit," Ms. Chernin announces, "so let's split. Girls on this side. Boys on that side."

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Um... To save me from my mental disaster, Fatima and Aimée link their arms through mine and gesture for me to come with them. It's a question, an offer, and I accept, following them over to the rest of the girls while trying to keep my whole body from turning inside out and imploding. I'm much more comfortable once standing with the other girls, and I feel my heart starting to slow again.

"Either of you good at volleyball?" I ask, attempting to focus my mind somewhere else.

"I've seen it played in movies," Aimée answers, "so, like, no."

The three of us laugh, and I'm starting to think this will be okay. But then I feel a tap on my shoulder, and I see the teacher behind me.

"Kippen-Mack, other side."

For a pure minute, I can't move. I'm completely paralyzed. And nobody else in the class is seeing this. They're just talking, some getting the volleyballs out from the equipment room, others just waiting to be given one. My friends don't do anything. After all, what would they do? What would I do? Well, I walk to the other side.

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

I'm hardly hungry at lunch. Honestly, I feel like I might throw up if I eat. I sit with my three friends at one of the tables outside the school. I didn't want to be in the cafeteria, visible to everyone from my gym class, not after this morning. My appetite really isn't being helped by the sight of Darius's long, brown curls dragging over his banana as he eats it horizontally like a corn on the cob. Eventually, I can't stand it anymore.

"Darius, what are you?" I snap.

He lowers the banana to the table and responds, "I wanted to make sure you weren't so upset that you wouldn't get mad at that."

He grins and takes a bite from the fruit normally. Aimée looks at him in confusion, but Fatima's still in thought.

"I'm pretty sure Ms. Chernin can't do what she did," she says.

"Well, she did it, so apparently she can," I reply.

I drop my face into my arms on the table, groaning in a way that reminds me of Jayda.

"It was humiliating," I whine and then lift my head again. "And I'm going to have to go through that for the entire semester. I can't do it."

"Well, what are you gonna do?" Aimée asks.

"I can't go back," I just state. "I'll do P.E. in summer school."

"I've never heard of anyone doing summer school for P.E.," Darius responds.

"Even better. If it's just me, then I won't have to worry about a stupid gender divide."

"So you're just gonna stop going to P.E.?" Fatima says.

"Precisely."

"You always say we should face our problems rather than avoid them," she reminds me, and I instantly regret ever having said that.

"I'm fourteen. What do I know? Plus, many great people in history were hypocrites."

"It's sad how true that is," Aimée mutters.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

I stand at the corner of the kitchen island while Wyatt sits on the stool, and TJ leans across the counter from the other side, watching as Wyatt spreads his deck of cards like a fan in his hands.

"Pick a card."

TJ selects one at random, and Wyatt closes his deck back into a stack.

"Put it in your wallet, and put the wallet on the table."

TJ does as instructed, and once the wallet is sitting on the countertop, Wyatt waves his hands over it. TJ and I share a glance. Wyatt's been into magic lately, and it's been adorable to watch him scramble to convince us there was magic involved in him peeking at our cards. But he doesn't peek at anything this time.

"Snap," Wyatt orders.

Wyatt can't snap, but he insists the tricks won't work without a snap, so TJ always does it for him. Wyatt waits another second before placing his hands down on the counter and looking up at his dad.

"Check your wallet."

TJ takes it off the counter and opens it up.

"The card's still here," he says.

"But see what isn't?"

TJ looks again, and shock hits him. "I'm missing my credit card. Give it back."

Wyatt pulls it out from the deck of cards, and I'm stunned. Okay, maybe he's not such a bad magician after all.

After putting his credit card back, TJ steps over to me, and says, "I know we're already saving up for his college fund, but we might need to start an account for bail funds too in case this magic becomes too good."

"Good idea," Wyatt chirps, having overheard. "One bale costs eighty dollars. Horses eat expensive."

He jumps down off his stool happily, going upstairs, and neither TJ nor I correct him. A second later, a knock on the front door gets our attention, and we both go over to answer it. Jonah steps inside onto the red doormat with a brown box in his arms.

"Hey," he says. "Here you go."

He passes the box to me, and TJ gives me a puzzled look.

"What's that?" he asks.

"It's this really strong bug spray that practically makes mosquitoes drop dead just by looking at it," Jonah responds.

"Since when do we use that?" TJ wonders.

"It's only for me," I explain. "Mosquitoes love me."

TJ chuckles. "Who knew I'd have anything in common with a mosquito?"

"Smooth," Jonah responds. "Also, is your doorbell working? I tried ringing, but you guys didn't answer."

"I didn't hear it," I say.

I look to TJ, but he shakes his head. "Me nether. But that explains a lot. I've been getting mad at the pizza guy this whole time for taking too long."

"Oh, yeah, the doorbell's broken," Wyatt suddenly says, coming down the stairs.

"Why didn't you tell us?" I question.

"Because I'm making a new one."

TJ furrows his brows. "You're making a new doorbell?"

"Yes," Wyatt confirms, "and it's going to be amazing."

He marches back up to his room without explaining anything else.

"I know a guy at a doorbell repair shop," Jonah mentions once Wyatt's gone.

"That's a very niche shop," I say. "How do they stay in business?"

"They also install carpets."

"They sell carpets and doorbells?" TJ responds curiously.

"No, they repair doorbells and install carpets. They don't sell anything. Anyway, I learned a few tricks about doorbell repairs from the guy there the last time my doorbell broke, so I could come by tomorrow once I have more time to fix it."

"That would be great," I say. "Thank you so much."

"No problem. I've gotta head out now, though."

"Say hi to Walker for us," I say.

Jonah nods and exits again, pulling the door shut behind himself. As soon as the door seals, Wyatt's voice sounds out again from the top of the stairs.

"You're wasting your time. I'm making something better than any doorbell."

I don't know what to say, because I don't want to kill his creativity, but we also do need a functioning doorbell, so I just settle on responding, "Can't wait to see it."

 

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

A clack wakes me out of my dream state, and I sit up in my bed, listening to the banging and clicking and scraping and hammering and stepping, all coming from the floor below. When we went to sleep, Wyatt was working on his doorbell, and the racket tells me that he still is. Cyrus sits up next to me, his eyes barely open.

"Wyatt's still up?" Cyrus grumbles.

"Should we check on him?" I wonder.

"Probably."

We both look at each other, but neither of us move. It's 3:00 AM. I'm too tired for this, and I can tell by Cyrus's groggy eyes that he feels the same.

"I suppose we shouldn't get in the way of his creativity," Cyrus eventually says.

"Just what I was thinking."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Buffy and I sit down in the two chairs at the desk of Mr. Mirshahi, Jefferson Middle School's principal, in his office. The door remains open behind us, allowing the chatter of the rest of admin ring through, and Mr. Mirshahi has yet to enter in.

"We haven't been in this office since Andreas's last day of grade eight," I comment.

"I know," Buffy responds. "I have moments where I forget we're not here for him and start planning punishments in my head."

Suddenly, the principal steps through the door, but he's still yelling at someone outside the office, "No. I'm the principal. What I say goes."

Like flicking a switch, he goes from heated to calm in an instant and nonchalantly sits down in his big, cushy chair across the desk from us.

"Sorry about that," he says. "The school board cut more funding, so there's a debate among staff over whether we should get rid of the free snacks in the staff room or fire a teacher. Anyway, I brought you both in here to talk about Brayden."

"Did he do something?" Buffy asks.

"His behaviour is fine," Mr. Mirshahi replies, "but it's come to our attention recently that he's being bullied."

"What?" Buffy reacts.

"What happened?" I question.

I know that Brayden can get teased from time to time for how smart he is, but there's never been a bullying problem so bad that the teachers had to get involved. And Brayden never mentioned anything about this to Buffy or me. I wonder why.

"There's a group of boys that have been shoving him around and calling him names to insinuate that he might be gay."

Of course the possibility of one of my kids being gay has crossed my mind before. How could it not? Six of my friends are queer. But Andreas clearly isn't, and I just assumed Brayden wasn't even thinking about that kind of stuff yet. Like, he's twelve. But I guess I was interested in girls when I was twelve. Brayden's just never shown any interest in anyone that way before. I'm his dad, so maybe that's why I've never seen it. He might just hide it. Or maybe there are just some boys pinning some of his feminine hobbies on him being gay, and he really isn't. Either way, I don't want him being bullied.

"What specifically have they said?" I ask.

"Various things. One name that is thrown around often is 'Gayden.'"

"So what are you doing to stop this?" Buffy questions.

"We're meeting with the boys and their parents as well, hoping to crush this before it gets worse."

"It never should've started," Buffy states.

"I hope you can understand how difficult it is to catch these things," Mr. Mirshahi responds. "Bullying isn't obvious. It's hidden behind jokes and actions passed off as accidents. The reason I'm talking to you rather than Brayden is because I'm sure you will want to talk to him about this on your own."

"Yes, we do," Buffy says, "but can I give you a tip for the future?"

When the principal looks uncertain, Buffy goes ahead.

"If you have another student being called gay, it might not be the best thing to go to their parents before you talk to the kid."

"Well, it's standard procedure—"

"It's also risking a kid's well-being even further."

With her stress causing her to be restless, Buffy stands up, and seeing that, I do the same.

"If that's all," she says, "we're gonna go."

She hurries out of the office, walking faster than her regular pace, something she does when she's worked up. I run to catch up, nearing her as we get out to the school hallway.

"Buffy, Buffy." I take her hand and turn her around to face me, saying, "Are you okay?"

"Our son is being bullied, and he never told us. Of course I'm not okay."

"Well, now we know, so we can talk to him."

Buffy nods and takes a deep breath as she squeezes my hand.

"Okay," she breathes.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

Marty and I wait in the parking lot for the school bell to ring. Soon, Brayden gets into the backseat of the car, and my eyes hold on to him in the rearview mirror. He looks completely normal. I never would've guessed he was being bullied. Something about him being so unaffected by it makes me feel even worse.

"How come I'm not taking the bus home?" Brayden asks.

"Um, well, we were talking to someone," I answer.

"I'm sorry," he says before I can continue. "I told my English teacher that you wouldn't understand my take on Othello, but she insisted she share it with you."

"No, that's not it, although it is a little offensive." I turn around in my seat to look at him better. "We were talking to your principal."

"Oh, sorry. I'm not cheating. He's just convinced I am because nobody's gotten a perfect one hundred percent on three history tests in a row before me."

I shake my head. "That's not it either."

"Are we sure he's ours?" Marty whispers.

"I ask myself that everyday," Brayden says.

"The principal said you're being bullied," I explain before I can be interrupted again.

That makes Brayden freeze, and he stays silent for a moment before eventually saying, "Well, the math kids do like to taunt me because I frequently bollix up the trigonometry equations—"

"What about being gay?" I cut him off, my impatience getting the better of me.

Brayden's eyes fall downward as he responds, "I don't know what you're referring to."

Marty has lost his patience too, and he joins in, saying, "People are calling you Gayden or something?"

"That's false," Brayden snaps. "It's a joke. Can we drive now?"

I look at him, although he's avoiding my eyes. "Brayden—"

"I'm in the middle of memorizing the La La Land script in French. I can't talk, so drive. Please."

He pulls out his phone in a rush to get away from the conversation, and I turn around to the wheel, giving up as I start the car.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

I step into Hazel's bedroom doorway with a knock, and she looks up from her sketchbook. When I asked her how her day was earlier, she only said it was good. Clearly, she left something out, because the call I just received told me otherwise. But she acts like she doesn't know anything. She just smiles at me, closing the lid on her marker to give me her focus.

"So I got a voicemail from the school," I start, and right away her eyes start to widen, showing me that she knows exactly what I'm talking about. "It said you missed second period. What's second period?"

"Uh, math," she answers without missing a beat.

"Why are you skipping math?"

She's never had a problem with that subject before. I'm pretty sure she was one of the top students in her class last year.

"Have you ever really thought about multiplication?" she challenges instead of giving me an answer. "It's pulling numbers out of nowhere. Making something from nothing should be impossible, and yet it isn't. It's just too much for me."

"Hazel, you have to go to class."

She looks terrified by that and shakes her head. "It's really hard. You would agree if you had the homework."

"That's not a reason to miss school, and it's also not like you. What's really going on? Are people being mean to you?"

"The word 'mean' is subjective, so really, is anything mean?"

"Stop confusing me with your bizarre philosophy."

"It's hardly bizarre," she argues. "For philosphy, that thought it quite tame. The idea that nothing is black and white, and people see things very differently, is, like, the basic bitch of philosophy."

"You're fourteen. You're supposed to see everything as black and white and get irrationally mad at everything."

"Is that what you did?" she questions with a grin.

Before I can respond, Amber comes by the door, saying, "I didn't hear anything else, but to your last question, yes."

Then she leaves, and I return my eyes to my daughter, just plain upset now. I don't know why she's acting this way. She's never been the rebellious kid. She always judged Jayda for being that way.

"Look," I say, "if people are being mean, then you need to let me—"

"Can you please just stay out of it for once?" she argues. "You don't always need to be so nosy and try to control my life."

"When do I try to control you?"

"Indirectly, a lot. You try to manipulate my feelings to get me to do what you want."

"Well, I'm sorry I'm such a bad mom."

"This is what I'm talking about!" she presses.

"I just want to help you!"

"If you want to help, just don't. I'll go to class. Just stay out of it."

After that, she stands up and comes over to the door, closing it on me with a slam. Still angry, I go into the kitchen and drop down into the seat next to Amber at the table.

"Do you think I'm nosy—?"

"Yes."

Her answer is so quick that I can't even finish breathing before she hurts my feelings.

"I only do that because I care," I defend.

"Sometimes your way of caring just ends up screwing things up," Amber responds.

"But some situations, I need to get involved. Like today Hazel skipped class."

Amber wasn't expecting that. "What? Oh my God. She's turning into me."

"I thought it was an irresponsible thing at first too, but now I think something's happening.

"Something's happening with her? What?"

"I don't know! That's why I need to pry."

"Okay, you need to calm down," Amber tells me. "Take a page out of Cyrus's parenting book. He's always very calm in tough situations."

"Jayda tried to give herself a tattoo last year, and Wyatt had a rabbit living under his bed for months," I state flatly.

Amber lets out a huff. "Fine."

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I stand by the front door while Jonah stands on a chair, removing the chime unit from it's place at the top of the wall right beside the door. I didn't even know this thing existed. I just never thought about where the doorbell sound actually came from.

"So what have you been up to?" I ask. "Other than fixing doorbells. You and Walker haven't mentioned much about what's new with you guys."

He fiddles with the wires in the wall while stuttering, "We—uh—we haven't been doing much."

"Nothing? Just same old? You and him hanging out?"

"Uh, yeah. Just me and him. Actually, um, we...uh..."

His thought is stolen by Wyatt's arrival as the boy thumps down the stairs, his eyebrows scrunched in anger.

"How could you!"

The shout brings TJ up from downstairs, and he walks through the hallway to come over to me and see the scene occurring.

"You guys are fixing the doorbell behind my back!" Wyatt yells. "You're cheating on me!"

"That's really not what's happening," I state "...at all."

Rather than argue, Wyatt walks down to the bottom of the stairs and whips open the door. Out there, there's a piece of rope that wasn't there before. He gives it a yank, and all of a sudden, I notice movement through the open window in the living room. The rope from outside has been fed through and tied to the leg of the coffee table. The yank of the rope jolts the table, which causes the vase of flowers on it to tip over and roll onto the floor, landing on a homemade lever system using a book and a banana for it to roll on. At the other end of the lever is a set of jungle bells that get tossed up into the air. By some miracle, the jingle bells doing nothing but flying make the actual doorbell go off, and Wyatt reenters with a victorious grin.

"I told you I'd do it," he says before leaving for his bedroom to continue basking in his glory.

"Actually, there was a wire out of place," Jonah explains once Wyatt's out of range. "I just fixed it."

"Hey, Wyatt may not be good at fixing things, but at least he has confidence," TJ says.

"Sometimes too much," I agree.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

Brayden hasn't spoken to me or Marty since we got home. Even at dinner, he opted to take his food upstairs rather than risk talking to us. That's by far the worst part of having kids: when they need help, but they won't accept it. As night nears, Marty and I go upstairs to his room, both still feeling like there's more to our conversation with him that we need to discuss.

Brayden is here at his desk, looking between his phone and a book. But Andreas is also here on his own bed, smiling at something on his phone that I'd probably find dumb.

"Andreas," Marty says, "could you give us a minute?"

Andreas looks at Brayden then at Marty and gets up, saying, "Oh, I see how it is. You want to talk to your favorite kid."

"He's not our favorite," Marty replies, confused by our teenager.

Andreas just smiles and says, "Cool. I'm narrowing it down."

He gets to the doorway as I say, "We don't have a favorite."

"Got it," the boy says with a wink that tells me he doesn't get it.

I decide to leave that chat for another time and step into the room with Marty, each of us kneeling down on either side of Brayden's chair. The boy brings his book up closer to his face, avoiding looking at us, but neither of us move.

"We didn't get to finish our talk in the car," I say.

"Really?" he responds. "I was finished."

I'm tired of him avoiding this, and Marty is too. Marty doesn't beat around the bush anymore. He gets straight to the point.

"Brayden," he says, "are you gay?"

"No," Brayden denies. "Anyone who says otherwise is fostering a purely erroneous idea."

Clearly, we've come on too strong, but I just wish he would be honest with me. Why can't he just talk to me about what he's feeling?

"Brayden, it's entirely okay if you are," I say. "You know that, right?"

"I told you I'm not," Brayden insists. "What more do you want from me?"

"We want you to know that we love you," I answer.

His eyes stay down as he mutters, "I know that."

"And gay or not," Marty joins in, "we're here for you through anything."

Brayden doesn't respond to that, but he heard it.

"You can always talk to us," I say, "or to Cyrus or TJ or Jonah or Walker. They're all there for you too. Amber and Andi as well."

After another minute of silence, Marty sighs. "Well, I think that's pretty much all we have to say, unless you want to say anything."

Nothing.

"Okay, well, we'll let you get back to your..." I look at the open pages of the book he's holding, but it looks like gibberish. "What is that?"

"German poetry," Brayden mumbles. "I'm using an app to translate it."

I nod. "Fun. Well, we love you."

"Love you too," he responds quietly.

At that, Marty and I stand up and leave Brayden to himself.

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

Nobody's in the stairwell at this time, since they're all in class. That makes it the perfect place for me to hide, tucked under the stairs beside a cello in a locker. I guess band class isn't happening right now. The door opening startles me, but I stay quiet, hoping whoever it is won't notice me. But then the face comes into sight as she lowers down onto the floor to sit next to me. Fatima's eyes speak before she does. She does this a lot. She leaves space for the silence to talk, and that always makes me want to spill everything to her. It's a trick I taught her. I shouldn't have. She uses it on me a lot.

"What are you doing here?" I question.

"Seeing how you are," she answers.

"How did you even find me?"

"On orientation day, you looked at the stairwell and said, 'That would be a good place to hide.'" She shrugs. "I took a guess."

"How did you even get out of class?"

"I asked to use the washroom."

I nod, and for some reason it feels like sinking into tar, being stuck when all I want to do is run.

"Yes. Go use your perfect, gender-affirming washroom."

Fatima tilts her head at me. "They let you use the girls' washroom."

"Yeah, but I use a different change room, because otherwise..."

I don't even know where to start. I've said all of this to Fatima before, but every time I just feel like there aren't the right words invented to describe how I feel. 'Dysphoria' is not at all strong enough.

"No offense, but you don't understand what it's like to try so hard to look the way you feel, but still people refuse to accept you, because...no matter what your wear or how you act, you're still trapped with this body that just isn't right. The universe really screwed up when it made me."

"You're right," Fatima says. "I could never understand what it's like to be you. But I don't think the universe messed up with you. I think you were made exactly the way you needed to to be made for you to be as strong and brave and kind and—" she releases a breath "—beautiful as you are. I believe Allah gave you adversity because He knew you could handle it."

Fatima pauses to pick up my hand and close it in hers before she continues.

"There are a lot of people who care about you and who do look at you and see you for who you are. Hazel, we've been friends since we were how old?"

"Six," I answer, feeling a smile try to escape, and I almost let it.

"Right, and since then, you've constantly inspired me. You gave me the confidence to be myself, because you were yourself. You were so unapologetically yourself, and it was incredible. Do you remember the first time I went to the mall in my hijab?"

I wipe the tear that is starting to well in my eye and nod. "Yeah."

"I was so nervous, because I felt like people were looking at me weird, but then I'd look at you and remember how you never cared about what anyone thought. All the people who didn't understand you... You said how we shouldn't hate the ignorant. We should help them."

"I don't remember that part."

"But I do. And I think about it all the time to this day. That and what you said about upside down being relative and therefore every direction."

She laughs a little then squeezes my hand once more before letting it fall away from hers.

"Come back to gym class," she says. "I think you'll be okay."

"Fatima, I—"

"Do you trust me?"

She stands up, and my eyes follow hers. Do I trust her?

With a breath, I get up and nod.

I don't really know what I expect when I go back into the gym, but it sure as hell isn't what I find. The whole class is sitting on the floor, not divided by gender, not playing volleyball, and the Ms. Chernin is nowhere in sight. At my entry, my two friends, Darius and Aimée, run up to me, while the rest of the class begins to get to their feet, eyes on me. What is this? What is happening? Aimée engulfs me in a hug, but I remain shocked.

"What did you do?" I ask.

Aimée backs up with a smile. "We said we wouldn't play unless you could play with the girls."

"You guys arranged that?"

"Actually, Adrian did."

"Adrian?"

Out of the crowd of people comes the boy. My friends step aside as he approaches me, giving me space to question him. Adrian is in my art class too, but I've never talked to him much except when he starts wondering about how numbers interact in different scenarios that have nothing to do with art.

"You did this?" I say.

He smiles and shrugs, responding, "Well, I only came up with the idea. Everyone was willing to help."

I'm still taken aback by the support of all my classmates, but the fact that Adrian organized it is even more curious.

"Why?" I question.

"In all honesty," he starts, "I've been subtly getting you to do my math homework for me by asking you all those random questions in art class."

"Oh. Well, thanks."

Not the answer I was expecting, but I suppose that proves that if you do things for others, they do things for you. And if I can keep relationships like this going, maybe I could grow some kind of army of supporters. With that, I bet I could handle high school just fine. I don't know. That probably won't happen. But who knows?

________________________________________

Andi's POV

When Hazel comes in the door after school, I'm sitting on the couch the way I have been for the past twenty minutes just waiting for her. Amber is in the middle of getting a muffin out from the kitchen, but she comes over as Hazel takes her jacket and shoes off.

"Hey," Hazel says.

"Hey," I respond, grinning wide. "So anything happen at school?"

She shakes her head nonchalantly, saying, "Nope."

"Oh, come on. You're really not gonna tell us?"

At that, she crosses her arms and narrows her eyes at me. "Tell you what?"

"That your transphobic gym teacher got reassigned to a different school."

"You called the school?" she guesses.

"Well, you don't tell me things, so I need to find them out myself."

Hazel looks to Amber and questions, "Were you in on this, Momma?"

"Actually, I was really excited to get Subway delivered, but that explains why it's not here yet."

"Yeah, I didn't call Subway," I admit.

"Snooping and lying," Hazel summarizes. "Where does it end?"

"When it comes to protecting you, it doesn't."

Hazel lets out a sigh as she comes over to drop down next to me on the couch.

"Mom, I know you want to protect me, but you need to let me fight my own battles."

"You've always done that," I remind her. "You've never needed me. When we'd cross the street when you were three, you'd tell me not to hold your hand."

"Mom, I do need you," she clarifies. "I just don't need you digging into my life all the time. But I do need you. I'd just like it if you'd let me come to you rather than you forcing your way in."

"Okay," I accept. "I can do that."

Hazel smiles. "I know you're gonna forget about that the second another incident comes up, but I still appreciate it."

She leans in and gives me a hug, and my thoughts are flooded instantly with nothing but how much I love her. This girl, my girl, is everything. I guess I will have to let her go someday. I really don't know how I'll be able to do that, but I love her, so I'll figure it out. 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

The speakers describe what's happening on the screen in the engaging voice of the announcer while TJ sits on the couch, his eyes glued to the basketball game playing on the living room TV.

"TJ," I say, "did you do the dishes?"

He doesn't move a millimetre as he replies, "Yup."

It appears that's the longest answer I'll get out of him as long as that game is on, so I carry on into the kitchen to begin getting the cookbooks out for later when our friends will get here for dinner, but as soon as I step into the space, my daughter shows up behind me and requests my attention.

"Daddy, what do you think of this outfit?"

It's a sleeveless, coral-coloured dress with an a-line skirt and a notched neckline that ties with thin string bow.

"It's very cute," I respond.

That earns me a groan off annoyance. "Ugh! Now I have to go change."

She stomps back toward the stairs but halts and swivels back around in less than a second.

"By the way," she adds, "you're gonna have to make dinner for one extra person, because Andreas is bringing his girlfriend."

"Without warning," I mutter. "Lovely."

While my daughter heads back upstairs, I turn to face the kitchen, but alas, all the dishes are still sitting on the counter by the sink, which means I can't start cooking, because I need some of them for it.

"TJ," I say as I return to the living room, but he doesn't hear me. "TJ."

On the second try, TJ jolts his eyes up, and he grabs the remote to pause the TV.

"What's up?" he asks.

"You didn't do the dishes."

"Oh," he says as the realization hits him. "Right. Sorry, I forgot."

"It's alright," I say, although my voice doesn't sound very convincing.

TJ stands up, saying, "I'll do them now."

With a nod, I give a bleak, "Thank you."

Right as I turn around again, and TJ goes to the kitchen, Jayda comes down the stairs again, this time in a short, sequinned skirt and a black, off-the-shoulder top.

"What do you think of this?" she asks, and I sigh.

"Jayda, if you're waiting for me to disapprove, you should stop. You're having dinner with our family and friends. I'm hardly concerned with how short your skirt is—although it is pretty windy today, so I wouldn't recommend going outside in that."

She gives me an offended expression, even though we both know this is what she does. She tries to find the one thing I don't want her wearing so that she can wear that. I guess it's part of her teenage rebellion. It's better than a lot of things she could be doing instead, so I tolerate it.

A second later, Wyatt comes down the stairs behind Jayda, saying, "That's a lot of plastic sequins. You look like you could kill a turtle just by stepping near the ocean."

That obviously wasn't the right kind of disapproval for Jayda, because she groans again, this time sharp and high, and shouts, "Andreas's girlfriend's name literally has ocean in it! I don't need her judging me!"

Wyatt ducks to avoid getting swiped by his sister's hair as she whips around and stomps back to her room.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

Once I ring the doorbell, I notice Cara scratching at some chipped paint on Cyrus and TJ's porch railing. To stop her, I lift her hand off the railing and hold it in mine instead. Cyrus comes to the door a moment later and welcomes us, Marty, and Brayden into their home. As soon as Brayden takes off his shoes, he immediately starts walking toward the hallway.

"I'll be downstairs," he says.

"Me too!" Cara cheers, dashing after him. "I wanna play on the treadmill!"

Hearing that, TJ comes over, saying, "I'll go unplug that."

He follows my kids to the basement door, and I finish removing my own shoes. Leaning against the back of the couch in the living room is Jayda who scans me and Marty curiously.

"Where's Andreas?" she asks.

"He and Oceana are on their way here," Marty explains, "but they're coming from her house."

Jayda nods, still looking a little perplexed but then Andi shows up behind us with her daughter, and Marty and I step out of the way to make room for their entry.

Jayda's POV

Hazel takes off her ballet flats and comes over to me, leaving our parents to chat amongst themselves. She gives me a once-over with her eyes, admiring my green, runched mini skirt and white, square-necked crop top.

"Damn. You sure dressed up," she compliments.

"Yeah," I say, glancing down at it.

I look at my clothes a little longer, wondering if this was too much, or maybe it's not enough, or maybe it makes me look too young like a ten year-old, or too old like a thirty year-old. I already spent three hours trying to select this outfit for tonight. I skipped lunch for this. I just don't want to get it wrong, because I know what you see is your first impression, and every time you talk to someone, you should aim to show them that flaws are something you don't have. That's my goal.

"I wanted to look hot," I ramble. "I don't know. Do I look hot? I tried to look hot, but I've also been looking at clothes so long today that I'm starting to see shoes in dust patterns, so I don't know if I totally failed."

"You look hot," Hazel states out of nowhere.

"Gross. You're my cousin."

Hazel furrows her brows and opens her mouth, but I don't care why. I'm too wrapped up in the place my mind has travelled to now.

"Jayda—"

"How are Andreas and Oceana getting here?"

"Uh, I think she's driving them."

"She drives?" I gasp. "How is that legal? Is she from Montana?"

"No," she says, still looking confused for some reason. "That's not how it works. She's sixteen."

My jaw drops. "No way!"

"Oh, this again," Hazel sighs.

My daddy's next question manages to reach my ears through my fog of thought as he asks, "Where's Amber?"

"Oh, she's still at Cloud 10," Auntie Andi replies, "but she'll be here later once she's finished with work."

________________________________________

Amber's POV

The shop is quiet, makeup tools scattered around. I'll have to clean those later, but for now I've just formed a collection by the sink for the end of the night.

"One more appointment," Bex says.

"Yes," I say with a smile. "I'm going to TJ and Cyrus's after for dinner."

"That's fun," Bex responds.

"The door opens, and we both turn to smile at the woman who walks in. She has a large, zebra-printed coat, a purse the size of a briefcase, and curly, dark hair, giving off big Cruella de Ville vibes. Already comfortable here, she plops down in the chair by the vanity and tosses her coat aside. It's a little more assertive than most customers are, but to each their own, I guess.

"Hi," Bex says.

"Enough chatter," the woman replies. "Let's get to it."

Bex gives me a glance before saying, "Okay. Um, what kind of look are you going for tonight?"

"I'm going to a party at my husband's work," she starts explaining, "and his boss is planning to fire him soon, but apparently, he finds me attractive, so I'm going to try to seduce him to keep my husband employed, because what do you do if you have four kids and no job?" She laughs nervously, while Bex and I both just listen uncomfortably. "My sister took all the inheritance, just because my name was misspelt. I always told my parents to work on their penmanship." Having run out of breath, she breathes in deep and lets it out as a sigh. "Anyway, you can pick."

________________________________________

TJ's POV

All the kids are in the basement, while the adults hang out upstairs. After talking with Walker, Jonah, and Andi in the living room about baby gates—I don't know how we got on that topic—I go over to the dining room where Buffy, Marty and Cyrus are all talking.

"Do either of you want something to eat?" Cyrus asks. "We have too many pre-made appetizers."

"Do you want me to bring the snacks over here?" I offer to Cyrus.

He looks over at me, for he didn't realize I was here before. Then he shakes his head.

"Don't worry about it," he says. "I'll do it."

He passes by me, not even giving me a smile, but not being cold. He's just...distant. And I can't help but feel responsible.

Marty's POV

While Cyrus and TJ go into the kitchen, Buffy takes the opportunity alone with me to bring up something that's been bothering her for the past few days.

"Do you think Brayden's okay?" she asks. "He hasn't really spoken to us, like, really at all since we tried talking to him."

"He never really talked to us before," I remind her.

She frowns. "I know. That's part of what worries me."

The entrance of Andreas and Oceana pulls our attention their way as they wave hello to us and open the door to the basement, disappearing down there with the rest of the kids.

Andreas's POV

Although I'm walking with Oceana, my eyes go to Jayda as soon as we get to the bottom of the stairs, and she leaves Hazel on the couch to come greet us. She adjusts her skirt as she walks, making sure it's not bent weirdly, which it was at the bottom, but that doesn't change anything about how good she looks. When she gets up to me, it occurs to me that I've let go of Oceana's hand by accident. But it feels weird trying to take it back now, so I don't.

"Hey," Jayda says.

"Hey," I respond.

Suddenly, another voice hops in, and I realize it's Oceana's. "I love your skirt."

"Oh, thanks," Jayda says with a smile.

"Wasn't that the one you tried wearing hiking in May when you gave up halfway up the mountain?" I recall.

She raises her eyebrow, replying, "At least I didn't waste a day of vacation in Hawaii to try to get the number of the barista three years older than you."

I roll my eyes, but Oceana is intrigued.

"What?" she says with a laugh. "When was this?"

"Don't worry," Jayda tells her. "He was twelve."

My girlfriend gasps, saying, "Oh my gosh. You were twelve? That's adorable."

"Yeah," Jayda agrees.

"I'm sure Oceana doesn't care about this," I say, wanting to get the subject onto something less embarrassing.

"No, I do," Oceana counters. "What else did he do when he was younger?"

"Girl, sit down. I have so many stories."

The girls go off together toward the sofa. I kind of want to stop this before it starts, but my friend and girlfriend are getting along, and I guess that's good. Still, Jayda knows a lot of stories about me that I'd rather Oceana not know.

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

I watch Bex struggle to apply eyeshadow to the woman, whose name we learned is Brenda and has quickly become the dictionary example of over-sharing. She keeps blinking, causing Bex to have to back away repeatedly, but if Bex tries to take a break, Brenda just tells her to keep going. I'm just getting the colours and brushes ready while trying to comprehend this woman's life story that she blabs on about.

"Honestly, I've given twenty years of my life to this man, and want to know what he's given me? A knitting class for my forty-fifth birthday, and head lice for forty-sixth."

Bex pauses a moment, asking, "How old are you now?"

"Fifty-one."

"Okay."

Bex returns the brush to her face, relieved.

"I'm fifty-one!" Brenda cries. "How did I get this old? We hardly talk anymore. He's always out golfing with Marsha. He can't do anything right unless I tell him exactly how. He forgets to pay bills. The cleaning is always left for me. We haven't had sex for six years."

"Too much," I mutter.

"You both have wedding rings," Brenda says, noticing our hands. "How long have you been married?"

She looks to me first, so I answer, "Seventeen years."

Then Brenda sweeps her eyes over to Bex who just says, "Longer than her. She's my daughter-in-law."

"Wow," Brenda reacts, and she smiles at me hopefully. "Do you and your husband have any kids?"

"Yes, my wife and I do," I reply.

That makes her eyes brighten up like a light switch. "Oh, you're a lesbian? That's the trick to it. I should've married a woman, but 'I loved him.'" Her voice seems to mock herself.

"Well, love is a constant choice," I say. "It takes effort to keep it alive."

"Ugh, you sound like the fortune cookie from the Chinese food I ate last night. Wanna know why I ate that? Because Gerald didn't make dinner again."

"Maybe there's a reason he's not making dinner," I suggest. "Have you ever asked?"

"He should tell me," Brenda huffs.

"That method doesn't always work," Bex counters. "Marriages take work, I know. But maybe you need to try work things out. Do you still love him a little bit?"

"I suppose so," she grumbles.

"Then start talking to him," I say. "Communicate. Find that spark again that you're missing."

Brenda looks to me. "How do I do that?"

________________________________________

TJ's POV

Cyrus is just putting a pan of potato wedges in the oven when I come over to ask, "Need any help?"

"Sure," he says, but he doesn't meet my eyes.

He goes into the pantry to grab some spices for the cooking, but I don't move yet.

"Anything in particular you need help with?"

"Just anything," he replies.

That's all it takes to push me over the edge. He's clearly upset, and I can never stand that for long. Cyrus is supposed to be happy. That's just a plain fact of life. If he's not happy, I'm stressed, and I don't handle stress well.

"Cyrus, are you okay?"

"Yeah," he replies as he sets the spices on the counter. "I'm totally okay."

"It doesn't feel like it," I respond. "Is this about earlier? Because I said I was sorry."

Cyrus turns to face me, saying, "I know. I know you're sorry, and I forgive you."

"Then what's going on?"

He sighs and begins his confession. "Okay, sometimes it just feels like you don't listen."

"What? That's crazy."

"Is it?" he challenges. "Because last week I asked you to take out the garbage, and you said you would, and then before that, I asked you to make sure Wyatt brought that family of frogs back to the park, and that didn't happen either."

"I have no recollection of you asking those things," I argue.

"You were watching the basketball game both times," Cyrus explains.

Now I feel bad.

"Oh," I mumble.

"And I don't have anything against you watching that obviously," Cyrus continues, "but when I talk to you, it'd be nice if you'd listen to me."

"I do want to listen to you," I say. "I guess I just get kinda wrapped up."

"I've noticed."

"Okay, from now on, if I'm not listening, you can turn off the TV," I offer.

Cyrus smiles. "That works."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

Uncle Jonah and Uncle Walker are talking by the island as I come up to the kitchen to get a cookie. Yes, the cookie tastes delightful, but as I finish chewing and notice Uncle Walker step away from Uncle Jonah for a moment to go join my parents, my other motive activates, and I round the island to approach Uncle Jonah directly.

"Uncle Jonah, could I talk to you for a moment?"

"Sure," he replies with a smile. "What about?"

I glance around. TJ and Cyrus are close by, cooking. My parents are also within earshot, and Auntie Andi just has the tendency to find out things people don't want her to.

"Any chance we could go somewhere else?"

Although surprised by the request, he agrees, "Uh, sure."

Since the downstairs is occupied, I choose the upstairs, except all the rooms up here are bedrooms I can't go in, and talking in the bathroom would surely be odd, so I sit down at the top of the stairs, and Jonah lowers down next to me.

"What's up?" he asks.

Although I've already pondered over how to phrase this for several days, actually saying the words is far more difficult. Logically, I know that makes no sense. He wouldn't judge me. None of my family would. But school is another story.

"Jonah, how did you know you liked boys?"

"Boys are hot," he says without a single second to think. But then he adds, "It took me a while to figure it out, though. I always thought I couldn't like guys, because I liked girls, but when I was fifteen, I started taking those Buzzfeed quizzes, and I more about what bisexuality was, and I realized it fit pretty well."

Buzzfeed quizzes. I've made a promise to myself to not take those, purely to resist that mindless teen media outlet. But if I didn't clear my search history constantly, it would certainly have a lot of articles about how to know if you're gay. Still, nothing is better than talking directly to someone who has experienced what you desire to learn about, and Jonah is the best option, for he doesn't stretch situations into bigger deals than they are.

"You were fifteen, huh?" I utter. "Did you ever think anything was different before that?"

"Sure. I just didn't have the vocabulary for it yet."

"Well, I have a big vocabulary," I mumble.

"I know," Jonah respond with a chuckle. "I only understand, like, half the words you say sometimes."

I know all the words. I know all the labels. Sometimes knowing all that doesn't make it easier. It only makes it harder to pick one. If I'm completely honest, I know the word already. I have a label. But saying it... Once I say it, I can't retract it. That will be it.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

"I haven't been a good wife!"

Brenda's sobs render all Bex's effort useless, because the colours are streaking down her face with her tears, turning her cheeks into a painting. But on the bright side, I think we might've solved Brenda's life for her.

"I haven't been around to talk to him. He only started going golfing with Marsha because I didn't want to go."

"Maybe it's time to try golfing," I say.

"You're right," she cries. "I'm going to fix things with my husband...right after I seduce his boss to save his job."

Well, um...okay...

"Cool," I mutter.

Having made her plan, Brenda now becomes aware of her appearance, and she touches her tear-stained face as she looks in the mirror.

"Oh, I smudged it with my crying," she whimpers.

"It's okay," Bex says. "We can do it again."

We're already half and hour overtime, so what's another hour, right? I sigh internally.

"Thank you," the woman cries.

"Okay, but you have to stop crying," Bex tells her.

"Oh, yes, of course."

She sniffles and sits up straight only to spill a few more tears soon after.

"Okay, just get it all out first," Bex says.

 

Chapter Text

Jayda's POV

Maybe it's just because all my friends are kinda fake as hell—which I can't blame them for, since I am too—but in comparison, Oceana is, like, actually really cool. We haven't stopped talking this whole time. Andreas doesn't really talk, but he's here, sitting on a chair near the couch which Oceana and I occupy. I mean, we are talking about embarrassing Andreas stories, but they're all lowkey cute, and she's smiling, so I don't see a problem.

"Then there was this time when Andreas got so mad at his parents for taking away his gaming system that he lived in the playhouse in his backyard for four days."

"Oh my gosh," Oceana reacts, laughing.

"Tell me about it. And for a whole year, he refused to drink plain water, because he thought it was just wet air, and that grossed him out."

The two of us laugh again, but Andreas interrupts after a moment, saying, "Jayda, can I talk to you upstairs?"

"Uh, sure?" I stand up but look back at Oceana to say, "I'll be right back."

She smiles, and Andreas starts walking upstairs, so I follow.

Andreas's POV

Once in the living room, away from everyone downstairs and everyone in the kitchen, I turn around to face Jayda, and she looks completely clueless.

"Jayda, can you stop telling all those embarrassing stories?"

"They're not embarrassing—okay a little embarrassing, but who cares? It's all past."

She crosses her arms and stands with one hip out, like I'm overreacting, but she just doesn't get it.

"You're ruining it with Oceana," I tell her.

"How?"

"Because you're making me look stupid," I argue.

"No, I'm not. I'm making you look like a normal human being."

"Girls don't see me as a normal human. I'm cool and charming, not real."

"Andreas, you're being so stupid right now," she says with an eye-roll. "You're not all that, so stop acting like you are."

All of a sudden, Oceana's voice interrupts, asking, "Can I step in?"

Both of us whirl our eyes to her, and I wonder how long she's been here for. Jayda backs away, going down around toward the kitchen, giving Oceana and I space. When Oceana looks at me, she has a gentle smile on her face that eases my nerves a bit, although I still wish I could go back and un-invite her to this.

"Don't get mad at Jayda," she says. "She didn't ruin anything. Actually, I liked hearing all those stories. You don't open up a lot."

"Not just with you," I assure her.

"Andreas, I like you, so you don't need to pretend to be something you're not. I like dating real boys, not fake ones."

That makes me laugh a little, and after just looking at each other for a moment, her eyes fall down to my lips.

Jayda's POV

When he kisses her, I look away, feeling weird about eavesdropping, and just about seeing them kiss. As soon as I shift my eyes away, I realize Hazel is standing by me. I don't know how long she's been there for, but the fact that she's scared me also makes me annoyed.

"God. Do you knock?" I bark.

"There's no door," Hazel responds. "Jayda, you're in a hallway."

"Whatever," I mumble and step the rest of the way into the kitchen and dining room area where the adults are talking.

Buffy's POV

Right as Andi finishes her thought, I notice Jonah come back into the kitchen. I saw him leave with Brayden a while ago, and now with him back, I feel compelled to tell him what's going on with him. If Brayden trusts Jonah, then maybe Jonah can help him. I step away from Marty and Andi and walk past Jayda, Hazel, Andreas, and Oceana, who are all heading for the island to get snacks, then I stop at Jonah.

"Hey, what were you and Brayden talking about?" I ask.

"Um, just personal stuff," he answers.

"Did he mention anything about his bullies?"

He just looks confused at that. "Brayden's being bullied?"

Jonah's voice is so loud that TJ hears him and says in surprise, "Brayden's being bullied?"

"What?" says Andi next.

The whole room is alert now, and of course in the middle of everyone's concern, Brayden has to walk back into the room. Instantly, all looks go to him, and Brayden's befuddlement changes to anger as he makes his own assumption as to what happened.

"I step out of the room for one second to tell my friend how to do a proper fishtail braid, and you tell everybody I'm gay!" he shouts at Jonah.

Before we can explain that that's not what happened, he runs back out of the room and upstairs again. Nobody speaks until Andreas breaks the tension.

"We're seriously gonna act like we didn't all know he way gay?" Andreas says.

Turning back to Jonah, I say, "You should go talk to him."

"Me?"

"Yeah."

"Shouldn't someone else?" he questions. "Like someone who's talked to kids during stuff like this. Maybe Cyrus or TJ?"

"You should talk to him, Jonah," Walker joins in. "He trusts you."

"But I'm—"

"You'll do fine," Walker insists. "Just say what you think you should."

Jonah finally nods, replying, "Okay."

Jonah's POV

Brayden is at the top of the stairs again. I don't know which one of us is more nervous. Here I am trying to comfort a kid that I helped watch since he was a baby, but this time feels different. I can't just screw it up and get over it, because I'm supposed to be getting a kid of my own soon. I need to be able to do this.

"So," I start, "I didn't tell them you were gay. Your mom mentioned that you were being bullied."

Brayden sits in silence for a minute before mumbling, "Oh."

"Yeah."

I don't say anything else, because it seems like he wants to talk, so I wait, and eventually he does.

"I'm pretty sure I'm gay," he utters.

"Cool. Welcome to the family."

That makes him smile, which gives me a little reassurance. If I can make him smile, then it can't be so hard to make another little kid smile.

"Who are these bullies?" I ask.

"Just some boys," Brayden answers. "They started teasing me because they thought I sounded gay. I don't have anything against sounding gay, but they do. I don't know why. It's completely daft if you ask me. The worst one is Deion King. He really doesn't like me."

"Hey, it has nothing to do with you," I assure him. "He's just close-minded. Don't let what he thinks affect you, because you're better than that. Be gay, do crime."

"Probably not what my mom would want you to say," Brayden replies with a little chuckle.

"Well, you're not actually gonna do crime, so I'm not worried."

Brayden smiles and nods, and after a moment of a bit more pondering, he says, "Thanks."

________________________________________

Amber's POV

It's way past the end of my shift when we've finally finished with the customer and sent her on her way. After cleaning up the store, I grab my purse, excited to get going.

"Maybe we should turn this place into a life coaching business," Bex says, and I laugh.

"I'm down," I respond. "But I think we need, like, actual qualifications for that."

"I guess," she agrees with a chuckle. "Anyway, have fun at your dinner."

I smile and turn to head for the door, but then I pause and spin around again.

"Bex, TJ's my brother, which makes him, like, your daughter-in-law's brother in—cousin—uh... I think there's some kind of relation there, so you should come."

"Really? Oh, yay! I'll call Bowie."

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

So Oceana and I are just as strong as before. Jayda didn't ruin anything. I guess I was overreacting. Maybe it's cause I'm used to really superficial, shallow girls, but Oceana's not like that. Later into the night, I pull Jayda aside again into the living room, because I feel bad for lashing out earlier. She stands before me, her brown eyes waiting for an explanation of why I wanted her alone. For a second, I forget why too, but then it comes back to me.

"I just wanted to apologize," I say, "for getting mad at you. Apparently Oceana wasn't turned off by all that weird stuff you told her about me."

Jayda folds her arms, responding, "Yeah, well, you're less repulsive than you think."

I laugh and look down for a moment, resulting in a couple of my usually parted brown curls to fall over my face. When I look back up to her again, I flick my head to get them back to the side, and Jayda's still looking straight at me.

"That's a very Jayda compliment of you," I respond.

She smiles and adds, "Also, your girlfriend is kind of really cool, so that helps."

Is it bad that I forgot about the whole girlfriend thing for a moment until she said that? I don't even realize how long I've been just looking at Jayda until she breaks her eyes downward and starts to speak.

"Um..."

Whatever she is about to say is shut down by the front door opening, which makes us both turn our attention there, where Amber comes in along with Bex and Bowie."

At the exact same time, Jayda and I both say, "Hi," and then we glance at each other, spooked by the occurrence.

"I'm not too late, am I?" Amber asks.

Entering the room, Cyrus answers, "We're just having dinner now. Come join."

They all go into the kitchen and dining room, and Jayda and I turn to each other once more.

"Uh, dinner?" she says.

"Yeah, uh—" I motion her forth "—after you."

"The hallway is wide enough for both of us," she reminds me.

"Yeah, uh, right," I remember.

Even after having agreed to walk, it takes me another minute to remember how to move. As we step through the hall side by side, I feel a kind of friction in the air. The closer I get to being around everyone else, the more I feel like I just want to be back in the living room with Jayda. Jayda smiles as we enter in, but I don't realize until I get my eyes off of her that she's smiling at Oceana who's waving to us. When she goes over to talk to my girlfriend, I do the same, but that friction stays, and I just wait for it go away.

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

Hazel finishes taping up the shiny sign on the wall right as Andi comes trudging into the kitchen. Her sleepy eyes shock open as she sees the birthday sign, and Hazel stands smiling, waiting for the rest of her mom's reaction.

"Oh, look," Andi says. "Forty."

Those numerals stands out the most across the sign that reads 'Happy 40th Birthday.' They also appear to be the most off-putting for Andi who quickly pivots to turns into the kitchen where she pours herself a glass of orange juice and chugs it back.

"Happy birthday," I say, trying to lift her clearly rocky mood, but unfortunately Hazel doesn't notice it.

"How does it feel to be one year closer to dying?" she asks.

"Hazel," I hiss.

"I'm kidding," she responds. "She could die at any time. Age doesn't affect that."

"Great," Andi cuts in, her tone tense.  "It's great."

Hazel nods and comes into the kitchen by her mom as she says, "I love when people say great when they obviously don't mean it."

"I'm perfectly awesome," Andi insists in a voice no more believable than before. "I'm going to be even more awesome when our friends get here to celebrate. Until then, um, I'm going to work on my art."

She takes her juice glass with her down the hall toward her studio, leaving me with Hazel in the bleak atmosphere of the room she's left behind.

"Well," hazel sighs, "I have to go to school, but let me know if you figure out what's wrong with Mommy."

She grabs her backpack and heads for the door, giving me a wave before locking herself out.

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

If humans weren't already lab rats for society, the bell surely proves otherwise. We are free. Are we? Are we free when a simple ring makes people scatter to go fill their brains with more propaganda for how to think like the norm, how to be regular, how to shut up and go along with society. I and my twenty-five other classmates who sit down in the history room all do so because there is no other alternative. If one were to choose to not stay, where would they go? Well, they would be an outcast. They would lose the support of their peers, the conditional love that is conform or leave. Because to not conform is to break the law, but when every single piece of grass, every stone, every wave is owned by someone, where does someone who doesn't want to lean back into the mould go? Nowhere. So they stay.

I like history class, I do. But I'm not oblivious to the conscious construction of our past that our textbooks communicate. Hence why I do much of my learning outside of the classroom, away from typical materials. Currently, I'm learning about some history of the Southern Paiute people. That book lays open on my desk while my friends in the desks directly in front of me and left of me talk about their typical carefree things.

"I love your braid," Linny says. "What kind is that?"

"I think it's a Dutch braid," Kelsey replies, sweeping her hair over her shoulder to get a better look.

"No, a Dutch braid is like an inside out French braid," Linny says.

"Then maybe it's a Spanish braid," Kelsey suggests, "or a Canadian braid?"

"I don't think there's such a thing," Linny says.

Right on cue, they both look to me, as they always do to settle their disagreements. They know that if anyone knows, it's me.

"You are correct. There is not such a thing. Kelsey, your braid isn't a braid. It's just the ponytail with multiple hair ties that Jasmine from Aladdin has."

Both girls look bewildered as they examine Kelsey's hair again. I turn my head back to my book, but as I do, a body passing by my desk knocks it off the table and onto the floor. Before doing anything, I look up and see the face of my bully, Deion. He has his hands in his worn-in jeans like he's too cool for history class, and a smirk on his face like he's too cool for me.

"Whoops," he says in an insincere tone. "Sorry, Gayden."

He carries on toward the back of the classroom, while Kelsey bends down to pick up my book for me.

"What a jerk," she mumbles as she places the book on my desk.

"How can someone be so insecure as to taunt you like that," Linny joins in.

"It's despicable," Kelsey agrees.

"He does what he does to feel better," I say.

"He must hate himself," Kelsey states.

"How tragic that a soul be so torn as to end up tearing at others," Linny adds.

"It's alright," I say. "His words don't determine my self-worth."

"That's very big of you," Linny compliments. "On another note, would either of you want to go to The Spoon later?"

"I believe it's my Aunt's birthday today," I reply, "and I have to be home to watch my little sister while my parents are out."

"Darn," the girl responds. "Another day."

A tap on my shoulder makes me turn around to see my classmate holding out a folded paper note with my name on it.

"It's from Deion," the kid says.

My desk neighbour is innocent. He's only doing what he's supposed to do as a member of a class that passes notes before the teacher arrives to actually teach us. I take the note and turn around, opening it up while my friends watch curiously. The paper has nothing but the word "GAY" written in giant letters, but that's enough to make my friends upset.

"Rude," Kelsey huffs.

"And uncreative," I mutter. "There are far more colourful words he could use that would do more than just state a fact."

I consider sending the paper back to Deion with a large rainbow drawn over the word, but of course I'm not nearly confident enough to do that. That's one of those fantasies that I like to imagine but know will never actually occur. Another thing stopping me is Kelsey who steals the paper from my hands and rips it to shreds like the beautifully protective friend she is.

"Jerk," she mutters again.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

"Do we really need to to move everything out of here?" Jonah asks. "Can't we just put a crib in the corner and call it a bedroom? The baby will grow up with an appreciation for classic rock."

The two of us stand in the middle of his music room where he's always practiced since we moved in years ago. We already had this conversation earlier as to which room will become the baby's room, and we settled on this one, but now that we're actually cleaning it out, Jonah is more hesitant to let it go.

"You really want all your guitars, records, and collectable posters in a room with a baby, a creature that touches everything it sees?" I ask.

"Can't we put the baby in your studio instead?" he suggests.

"My studio's the only room with good enough ventilation for oil paints."

"Well, good ventilation would be good for changing diapers."

"Come on, Jonah. This room is mostly storage anyway, which can go in the basement."

"That's what all the bins are?" he says, looking around at the containers laying throughout the room. "I thought we were just too cheap to buy chairs."

I shake my head and step ahead to start taking one of the bins out.

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

I step into Jayda's house with her after school, noticing only now the condition of her pink, jean skirt.

"Did you cut that yourself or buy it like that?" I ask.

She glances down before replying, "Bought it."

"It's not properly hemmed."

"It's a raw edge," she states. "It's cute."

"Why would you pay for a skirt that isn't fully sewn?"

"The same reason you pay for a half-dyed shirt."

She starts down the hall toward the kitchen, and I look down at my tie-dyed shirt, feeling judged, but I guess we're even. After dropping my backpack and hoodie in the living room, I join Jayda in the kitchen, taking a seat on a stool at the island while she begins scouring the pantry.

"My dads aren't home yet, so feel free to eat whatever you want," she says.

"Thanks. I'll probably just wait to eat until I can come home again."

"Yeah, it's your mom's birthday, right?"

"Yup. I would be there, but Momma's trying to prepare for it, and I never like the smell of burnt cake."

"At least she has perseverance."

"Sure, but her perseverance is borderline insanity."

Jayda reaches for a blue box on a shelf in the pantry and lifts it up, asking, "Do you like Oreos?"

"I actually ate, like, six of those at lunch, so I think I'm done for the day," I reply.

She shrugs and grabs one cookie for herself before putting the container back on the shelf. Then she scurries over to the fridge, leaving the pantry door wide open.

"Did you have cantaloupe?" she wonders.

"Uh, yeah," I say in shock. "Did you see me at lunch?"

"No."

This must be a coincidence, but it's so peculiar that I can't let go of it.

"Then how did you know what I ate?"

"Duh," she says, giving me a look like the answer is obvious. "I'm psychic, remember?"

Not possible. She's just extremely lucky. But it's still strange enough that I think it's my scientific duty to look further.

 

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV

I always walk past Red Rooster Records on my way home from school. Actually, usually I take the bus home, but sometimes I walk, even though it takes significantly longer. I just like being able to be outside with the air, unconcerned with time or deadlines, the things that restrict everyone else in cars so tightly. They're all trying to go somewhere. I'm just going, and somewhere I will eventually get. But there's no rush. Well, no literal rush. There is a lot of the band Rush inside Red Rooster, but of course I'm uninterested in that.

I enter into the store, becoming swept into the music of a guitar playing by the window where the lessons always happen, and I set my sights on the classical section of the records. While I flips through the selection, browsing even though I know I won't buy anything, for I've already invested much of my revenues from last year's business endeavours in stocks, my eyes wander over to Bowie teaching guitar to a boy. But it's not just any boy. It's Deion, recognizable by the fade of the back of his short, black hair, as well as by his dark skin, and the red T-shirt that was only peeking out underneath his black hoodie today but I now get to see fully.

I suppose my assumption was that he must be interested in more aggressive extracurriculars, like rugby or martial arts—or perhaps starting grass fires in the front yards of old ladies' homes. Any of those seem more suitable to his tastes than guitar. However, from what I can hear, he's actually fairly talented at the instrument.

For a minute, I pause to watch him play, but I eventually realize that my thumb has stopped on a pop-rock record in the display. How embarrassing. I quickly switch to the baroque compilations instead.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

When I peek into my wife's art studio, I almost get sprayed by the paint flying off Andi's brush as she splatters a sculpture of an ambiguous species of bird.

"Hey, how you doing?" I ask.

"Great," she replies still slapping the sculpture with her paintbrush.

"You've been in here all day," I say.

"Have I? Didn't notice."

"Andi, I know what you're doing."

"No," she says. "You can't, because I don't even know what I'm doing."

"You're doing exactly what I did when I turned forty."

She drops her brush down on the table before spinning around, shouting, "I am not! I have not had anything to drink, and I have not cried once."

"Not that. You're freaking out. Hiding away."

"Why would I do that?"

She puts her hand on her hip, getting a handprint of blue paint on her embroidered jeans. I step up to her to place my hands on her shoulders as I give her a gentle smile.

"Because you're turning forty," I say, "and it's scaring you."

"Okay, sure," she admits. "I'm kind of scared, because life is moving so fast, and it feels like I don't even have time to breathe, because even just breathing takes time, so really time just keeps making things disappear constantly."

"Well, I didn't think that deeply into it, but yeah."

"I'm sorry," Andi says, shaking her head. "It's my birthday. I should be happy. Our friends are coming over soon, and it's going to be awesome."

"Are you sure, because—"

"I'm sure," she insists. "It's going to be great." She raises her hands and takes a step back as she adds, "And I should wash this paint off before I track it all over the house."

She walks past me out of her studio, but I can still feel her lethargic attitude toward today.

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

I shouldn't still be here. It's been twenty minutes of me pretending to search through the same composers over and over, and I should definitely be leaving, but I keep repeating the process. Flip one cover, skip two, pause, again. The actions becomes quicker when I see Deion put down his guitar and stand up. I should go, but the analyst in me wants to understand what it is I'm seeing. When he starts walking in my direction, I turn to face the records. Flip, skip, pause, repeat. Flip, skip—bump. He bumps into me, but it's not on purpose.

"Watch where you're going..." his voice falls away when he realizes who I am, and I turn to face him.

The peculiar thing about seeing a bully out of school is it's like seeing a lion in the arctic. As much as I should be scared, the juxtaposition of this image—a virile boy in a bohemian music shop with a chicken on the front of it—makes him decidedly less intimidating.

"I believe you were the one walking, so you should watch where you're going," I correct him.

I definitely shouldn't feel as confident as I do, and Deion is surprised by my confidence too, but he blows it off and keeps walking. However, I don't want to let it go quite yet.

"I didn't know you played guitar," I say.

He turns back around, responding, "Yeah, well...whatever."

"How long have you played?"

Then he barks, "Why are you even talking to me, Gayden?"

He keeps walking away, and I nod to myself, knowing it was only a matter of time before his colours showed through. Still, that conversation still lasted longer than I thought it would.

"Because I made the ludicrous assumption that you had a heart," I mutter, even though he can't hear me. "My mistake."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

We're about halfway done emptying the room. All my music stuff is out, so all we have left are the boxes of stored items. I've gotten through a few of them already, but when I grab one blue bin, I'm unprepared for the amount of effort it takes to lift it up. Curious, I lift the lid off, finding a ton of old photo albums which are creating the weight, but on top of them is a stuffed animal that brings back a memory as vivid as the sun.

"Hey, Walker, check this out."

"I'm good, thanks."

"No, it's not another mouldy squash. It's that deerctopus I won for you back in college."

I lift the stuffed creature out of its bucket. It has the head of a deer and the body of an octopus with little sweatbands on each tentacle to make it look athletic.

"Oh, yeah," Walker responds, coming over to see. "The University of Shadyside really needed a better mascot."

"But that carnival was fun."

"Yeah."

He takes the animal from me and examines it with a smile.

"Maybe we should keep this up here," I suggest, "you know, for the baby."

"I think it might give them nightmares."

"It'll make them tough."

I clutch the deerctopus from Walker's hands and place it against the wall on the floor, and Walker watches with a smile.

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

Jayda lacks the focus I have as she sits at the dining room table with one leg up on the neighbouring chair and her phone close to her face. Meanwhile, I have my deck of cards laid across the table, carrying on with my experiment regardless of her failed interest. I reach for a random card and take it from the deck.

"Okay, what card am I holding?" I ask.

"I don't know," she grumbles. "Twelve of stars?"

"Jayda, have you ever seen a deck of cards?" I question.

"Of course," she retorts.

"Name one card you know."

Without a single pause, she replies, "Credit."

"Wow," I exhale in pure, flabbergasted wonder. "You amaze me."

"Sorry, can you repeat the question?" Jayda asks, flicking her eyes up from her phone.

I just shake my head and say, "Let's try the die."

"You want to kill me?" Jayda exclaims. "I didn't think I was doing that bad."

Trying to contain my annoyance with her, I pick up the tiny cube and shake it around in my hands. I flatten my palms together to stop it and hold them horizontally to ensure the die doesn't chance sides.

"Okay, what number is on the die?" I ask.

"Wait, you number your murders?"

"Jayda," I huff, "you need to pay attention if this is going to work."

"I don't really care," she responds. "What are you trying to prove anyway?"

"That you're psychic, but that was always stupid," I accept. "It's all just lots of coincidences."

As I let out a breath of defeat, Jayda's brother walks past, going for the kitchen, but he stops to look at my closed hands for a moment on his way.

"Did you roll a six?" he asks.

My subconscious makes my head shake in disbelief as I open my hands to see six dots on the top of the die.

"What the—?" I cut myself short, remembering that I can't swear in front of Wyatt. "You do it too?"

"Do what?"

"You know things you shouldn't," I answer.

"Yeah, I got in trouble for that in health class last year," Wyatt responds.

"She's talking about other things you shouldn't know," Jayda corrects him.

"Wyatt," I order, "sit down beside your sister."

He plops down into the chair next to Jayda, and the two of them give each other nods of greeting, while I get my cards shuffled again.

 

Chapter Text

Jonah's POV

With my eyes open, the room is now empty, save for the stuffed deerctopus on the carpet. There's nothing but blank walls and a window with blinds that let the sunlight of the evening shine through. But with my eyes closed, there's a shelf of children's books and picture frames. There are baby clothes on the ground that I likely tossed there and forgot to put away. There's a crib and a nightlight that radiates a faint glow over the shadow of night. There's so much that this little room can be.

I have my arm around Walker's shoulder while his holds my waist, and we gaze around at the emptiness with smiles powered by hopeful thoughts and wishes.

"You were right about this room," I say. "It's gonna make a good bedroom."

"Do you think we cleaned it out too early?" Walker asks after another moment. "I mean, we haven't even been matched with a baby yet."

"Definitely," I reply, "but we're gonna get a baby, right?"

A pointless question, because he doesn't know the answer any more than I do. But I always believe him, so hearing him say it gives me more faith.

"Yeah," he utters softly. "We have to."

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

Both siblings look bored as they sit at the table, Jayda on her phone and Wyatt with his chin on his arms on the table.

"Okay, what card is it this time?" I ask

I hold the card downward to keep either of them from seeing it

"Four of clubs," Wyatt answers.

I shake my head. "No. It's—" I lift the card up again to see that it actually is the four of clubs, but I swear it was the eight of diamonds before. "Wait. Where's the—?"

Wyatt brings his hand up from under his chin, holding up the eight of diamonds I'd somehow lost. I'm in complete shock, but Wyatt is so casual as he explains himself.

"I'm a magician now."

While I'm still trying to figure out how he did that, Uncle Cyrus gets home from work and comes into the kitchen. When he sees us, he gives us a smile.

"Hi. Uh, what's going on here?"

"Your kids are challenging everything I know about how the human brain works," I reply.

"Strangely enough, you're not the first person to say that," Cyrus says, "although the rest were all teachers."

"She's shook because we're psychic," Jayda says, pulling her eyes up from her phone for another brief second.

"You're not psychic," Cyrus denies.

"Then explain how I know that you're buying me a car for my birthday," Jayda says.

"That's not happening."

"Well, damn."

"Hazel," Wyatt speaks up, "some things are just meant to stay mysteries."

"Psychological discoveries don't get discovered by letting mysteries stay mysteries," I reply.

"No," Jayda rejoinders, "but Buzzfeed Unsolved is doing pretty well."

"Me and my sister have a special talent," Wyatt goes on, "and you just don't. Now, I'm gonna go poop."

He stands up and saunters out of the dining room. Uncle Cyrus watches for a moment with a concerned face before sighing and carrying on with his business, heading into the basement. Now it's just me and Jayda, and she looks ready to move on too as she lowers her phone and leans forward on her elbows, sighing.

"So I think today we learned that my psychic powers can't be controlled," she concludes. "They happen when they happen. So if you wanted me to tell you something like if a boy likes you or whatever then you need to let my mind work on its own clock."

"If anything, today proved that you are not psychic," I retort, "and it's all just a bunch of coincidences. Also, I don't care if a boy likes me. I'm a lesbian."

Jayda tilts her head, looking unsure about that. "You're gay? Not, like, something in the middle?"

"No," I assure her. "Maybe you're something in the middle."

She laughs lightly, replying, "I'm straight as...I don't know, a pencil or something?"

I narrow my eyes. "There are bendy pencils."

"Not ones that write well."

"They don't have to write well."

"Who's the psychic one here?" she snaps.

"Neither of us! You are not psychic!"

She pushes herself onto her feet and crosses her arms, saying, "Right. By the way, tell Aimee her pink hair looks super cute."

She starts to walk away when I respond in shock, "How did you know she dyed her hair?"

"Psychic," she whispers.

She steps around the wall to go down the hall toward the upstairs, but that's when I notice that my phone is lit up on the table with a text.

"No!" I shout. "She just texted saying her dad hates her pink hair!"

"Whatever!" Jayda yells back.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

I enter the kitchen to see my wife leaning on the island as she peels the paper off a carrot muffin. She goes slow, like there's no reason to rush it. Her melancholy face worries me most.

"Our friends should be here soon," I say.

"Great," she responds, forcing her voice to sound happy in a way that's like trying to get the last of the juice out of a dying battery.

"Andi," I say, "turning forty doesn't have to be scary. You're going into a new time with new experiences and adventures. Who knows what will happen with you and your career, with our daughter, or with us?"

"I know, but..." she takes a moment to get her thoughts together. "Remember when we were teenagers, and we used to go out to the edge of the city and look at the stars, just us and nothing to think about except your math test that next day that you were going to fail anyway?"

How could I ever forget. I'd shut off my engine outside her place to avoid waking her parents while she snuck out to join me. And the windows were always down. It could be the middle of January. We still kept them down, and I got to watch the breeze flutter her pixie hair. There was no real reason why we had to sneak out. Her parents were fine with us being together. But she said she liked rom-coms, and I liked adventures, so we made our lives into a movie that I wanted to watch every night.

"I remember."

"The older I get, the farther those times feel," Andi says. "And they're not coming back."

"You may be forty, but you don't have to be forty just yet," I respond.

"What do you mean?"

I pause, hearing a new plan wire itself into my mind in an instant.

"Get your jacket, and meet me at the car," I say with a grin.

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

When I open the door to my home, my parents are already putting on their shoes and coats to leave.

"Brayden, what took you so long?" my dad asks.

Well, other than spending too long pretending to care about sundry music genres after having run out of classical albums to flip through—although I am acquiring a new taste for jazz—all to stay and observe my bully in the safe space that is Red Rooster Records, I think I just walked slower getting home too because I was pondering.

"Selecting the right classical composition was an strenuous task," I reply. I'm hoping he won't notice that I don't have a purchased record in my backpack, and thankfully he doesn't care to check.

"Yeah, they all sound the same to me too," Dad says.

I want to debate that, but I also don't want to hold up my parents any longer.

"Anyway," Mom says, "we're heading out now. I've hidden all the lighters so that Cara can't find them, but if there are any issues, call us."

"Of course," I agree.

My mom reaches for the doorknob, but right as she touches it, she gets a text on her phone and turns back around, removing her coat that she'd just put on.

"Never mind," she says. "Party's cancelled."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

I like listening to Amber's breath over the sound of the breeze and the crickets of dusk. After finding dinner at a taco truck in a random neighbourhood, we ended up here, on the edge of town, parked just off the road so that our car is surrounded by tall flowers that are slowly starting to wither as autumn approaches. Her hair lies over my arm as my hand links with hers, and the two of us lie here on the roof of the Honda, staring up at the wide open sky above us. Red singes the horizon as the last of the sun sinks below the earth, and the galaxy takes over.

"Look!" Amber says all of a sudden. "A shooting Star!"

"That's a plane," I respond, spotting where's she's pointing.

"Oh, that makes more sense."

"And it explains why your shooting star is blue and blinking."

She giggles a little before letting us return back into the quiet night.

"This is perfect," I whisper. "I missed doing this."

"Why did we stop?" Amber wonders.

"I don't know."

"Let's start again."

I smile at that and let my face tilt in her direction. I stay like that as she eventually notices me staring and matches my gaze.

"You know what else we used to do," I say.

My lips attract to hers like a current drawing us together. For a moment when we kiss, it feels like we're seventeen again, and there are fireworks in our pulses that light us up through closed eyes. But in a way it's even better that I'm not seventeen, because it means my entire life with her was real, and it's still bursting colour every time we touch.

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

Cara and Andreas are already sitting at the table and eating their leftover pasta for lunch when Brayden enters the kitchen with a pamphlet open and his eyes scanning it across. He passes by me and Marty at the island and stops to ask us a question.

"Mom, Dad, have you gotten the shingles vaccine yet?"

"Brayden, how old do you think we are?" I respond.

From the table, Andreas asks his brother, "What are you reading?"

Brayden goes over to sit down in his chair replying, "I got this pamphlet on vaccinations from my school's health and wellness fair last week, and I don't remember getting as many needles as it says here I should've."

Marty shadows me as I go over to check the list of vaccines on the blue and white paper. I recognize every one of those and can recall bringing Brayden in. Actually, I think he signed himself up to get a few of them when he was little.

"No, you were vaccinated for all those," I say.

"If you weren't, you'd probably be with Wyatt's rabbit," Andreas comments.

Marty turns toward the smirking teenager, saying, "Shouldn't you get going? I thought you were meeting up with Oceana at 12:00."

"I am," Andreas responds.

"It's 12:13," I tell him.

"Shit." Andreas drops his fork and blasts out of the kitchen.

"No swearing!" I call out.

"Sorry!"

He flings open the door and leaves, his shoes only half on his feet. Brayden remains focused on his pamphlet, not bothered in the slightest by his brother's departure.

"Are you sure I'm not missing a vaccination?" he checks again.

"Like Andreas said," Marty replies, "you're not dead yet, so that's hopeful."

"What's a vaccination?" Cara chimes in.

"They're needles you get to protect you from getting certain illnesses," I explain.

"Did I get them?" she asks.

"Yes, of course."

"Let's check," Brayden says, and then he begins listing each vaccination. "Tetanus."

Marty and I both nod.

"Diphtheria."

Nod.

"Whooping cough."

Nod.

"Polio."

Nod.

"Hepatitis A."

... I look at Marty, but he just looks back. I don't specifically remember Cara getting that one.

"And we found the one," Brayden concludes.

I can't believe we forgot a vaccination for her. I guess by the third kid, everything just becomes so automatic that you forget the simple things like vaccinations and night lights and the fact that they shouldn't watch horror movies yet.

"Well, Cara," I say, "guess what we're doing today."

"I don't want to get a needle!" Cara shouts, getting worked up instantaneously.

"Would you rather get hepatitis A?" Brayden counters.

"No, you don't have a choice," I cut in. "We're going."

"Brayden always has to ruin everything," Cara pouts.

"Yes," Brayden sighs. "I'm aware."

________________________________________

TJ's POV

Wyatt sits at the kitchen table working on a lego battleship while Cyrus and I wait at the island, but we don't have to wait long, because Amber, Andi, and Hazel let themselves into our home and come moseying into the kitchen without invitation. Amber looks about as annoyed as I am. Maybe more. Andi looks just as confused and Cyrus does. Neither one takes the cake for that.

"Good," I breath. "You're here. You were always mom's favorite, so this should be easier."

"She told you guys that?" Andi says in shock.

"She believed in openness and honesty at all times," I explain.

"But she didn't believe in giving notice," Amber grumbles.

Amber drops her purse down on the counter with a smack before whirling around the island to take a seat on one of the stools with Andi across from Cyrus and me, while Hazel stays on the side, just observing.

"Nothing to say I love you like a text at 3:00 AM saying she's stopping by for the day to see us," I say sarcastically.

Wyatt's voice makes all four of us look over at him as he questions, "How come she can show up unannounced, but you get mad at me when I do that with my friends?"

"Because your friends are never human," Cyrus replies.

"When you're sixty-three with grandkids and only wear sandals even in the snow, you can do whatever you want," I tell him.

"If you do do that," Hazel speaks up, "please don't wear socks too."

After she finishes talking is when my own daughter enters from the hallway with that determined look on her face like she's about to start focusing her brain for a long time. Of course, that could be fifteen minutes or five hours. For Jayda, it doesn't take much to overwhelm her.

"Okay," she announces. "Nobody talk to me today. I've got a date later, and I need to figure out how to get my hair to form a ringlet without being burnt off by the curling iron before it agrees to stay in.

"You're not staying to visit with your grandma?" Cyrus responds.

Jayda looks caught off guard by the news. "Since when is grandma coming?"

"Oh, we forgot to tell you," Cyrus says. "Grandma's coming."

"Oh," Jayda replies, clenching her teeth. "Awesome. I'll go make sure my bedroom door is closed before she sees it and tries to rearranges everything to make the energy flow better."

She spins around and stomps out of the kitchen in annoyance.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

Jonah sits down on the living room couch while I uncap my felt pen and open the coiled notebook I got out just for this occasion.

"Okay," I begin, "so I'm thinking we just think of names without worrying about a gender, because names are just letters, and assigning genders to letters is a little—"

"Wack?"

"Yes."

"I agree," Jonah responds, although I have a feeling he doesn't have very strong feelings about that anyway, so this should be a walk in the park. "Let's just throw around some ideas and see what we like."

Neither of us have thought of any names yet, and I haven't really spent time thinking about it either. We still have lots of time to decide this, but we realized this morning that the longer we wait, the closer we get to getting a call and having a baby without a name, so we felt like we should just get this out of the way now.

"Do you have any names you like?" Jonah asks me.

"I was thinking possibly some names of artists who inspire me."

"Okay, shoot."

"Georgia," I suggest.

"You want our kid named after a red state?"

"Fair point," I say. "Wassily."

Jonah shakes his head. "Too many options for bullies to choose from."

"Well, do you have any ideas?"

"I don't know," he responds with a shrug. "My mom's name is Judy."

"I love you mom and all, but nobody under fifty is named Judy."

"Fair enough."

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

Oceana's hand is soft, but I can feel the cold metal of her rings with her fingers laced through mine as we walk down the sidewalk. It's a little weird. I've never actually been at the hand-holding part of a relationship before her, but I don't mind it. It is a little sweaty, though, but the October wind keeps it from getting too hot.

"Hey," she says as she notices a house to our left, "isn't that your not-actually-related-cousin's house?"

I honestly couldn't tell you whether it was on accident or purpose that we end up walking down this street with this house right now, but seeing it, I kind of want to take a detour. I haven't really talked to Jayda in a while. We run in different circles at school, so we don't get to hang out just us that often. I know Oceana being here makes it not just us, but it's as close to that as I can get it without feeling awkward calling her to see her.

"Oh, yeah, it is," I reply with a smile. "Hey, since we're here, we should stop by to say hello."

"Uh, sure," Oceana agrees. "I suppose the park never closes."

"Cool."

I pull her up the walkway to the door and ring the bell, but to my surprise, the person who answers it isn't someone who lives here. It's Hazel. Come to think of it, I probably shouldn't be surprised, since her moms' car is parked in front.

"Oh, you're not my Grandma Kippen," she says.

"I'm not," I reply. "I believe I'm missing a flower crown and a bag of birdseed for that."

I haven't met Hazel's grandma before, but I've heard many stories about her, so I have a pretty good idea of what I would need to be like her, and to put it simply, it's not really my vibe

"And you're not Jayda," I state.

"No," she responds with a laugh. "I'm missing a second ear piercing and a really tight skirt for that."

Suddenly, the girl I'm looking for comes down the stairs, looking at me and Oceana in puzzlement.

"Andreas and Oceana? What are you doing here?"

"Uh, we were just stopping by to say hello," I answer. Then I look down at her forearm which is smudged with rows of sparkly pigment. "What's with the lines of glitter on your arm?"

She steps down onto the floor as she explains, "I'm going on a date soon, and I haven't done that in months, so I'm kind of stressing about which colour eyeshadow I should choose."

"I like the plum colour," Oceana says, taking a step forward to look. "It'd look great on you."

"Thanks," Jayda responds with a smile. "Hey, if you have time, would you mind helping me pick a lipstick too?"

"I'd love to," Oceana says. "Actually, I'd be happy to help you with it all. My mom's a makeup artist, so I know a bit."

"That would be great."

"Oh, cool," I say, my voice accidentally sounding dull. "I'll just stay here and talk with Hazel."

Not my original goal, but I guess I haven't seem Hazel in a while either, so it's fine. Right?

Jayda and Oceana exchange excited looks and are about to ascend the stairs together when the front door swings open again, and we all look to see a woman in a flowing, earth-toned gown with frizzy, with white hair and a shrivelled flower behind her ear. She probably forgot it was there. It doesn't look like she's bathed in days either with her oily curls. Her arms open as though presenting herself to us as she smiles up at some unknown object just past our heads.

"Hello!" she chirps. "Jayda, Hazel, how wonderful to see you." Then she looks at me and Oceana. "Oh, they got more. Lovely."

"Oh, we're just friends," I explain.

"Oh, interesting."

She steps forward, and I have to split away from Oceana to let Hazel and Jayda's grandmother walk right through the centre of our group and toward the kitchen.

TJ's POV

There is no possible way to mistake my mother for anyone else. Her crooked-toothed smile and stance like she's constantly floating is part of her signature look. Her signiature greeting is the kiss on both cheeks that she gives me, Amber, and our spouses as she comes in. Then she sees Wyatt and releases a relieved breath, putting her hand over her heart.

"Oh, good," she says. "When I didn't see you, I thought they'd given you back."

Wyatt scrunches his eyebrows in worry. "They would do that?"

"No, we wouldn't," Cyrus quickly corrects.

"Oh, there's no shame," my mom tells Cyrus then looks at me and Amber. "Sometimes I needed a break from you kids too."

She lets out a musical laugh, while the rest of us just stand in discomfort.

"So, Mom," I speak up, "what brings you here...with less than a day's notice?"

"Oh, honey," she responds, touching my arm, "days are just abstract constructs created by society to tie us down."

"Debatable," Andi mumbles.

"See, I was on tour with the band," Mom explains, "and we were passing through Shadyside, so I figured I might as well stop by and see my babies."

She gives my shoulder and my sister's each an affectionate squeeze, but we're both stuck on the obvious question.

"You're in a band?" Amber says.

"Oh, no, my boyfriend is."

Without any of us asking, she pulls out a miniature photo album from her cross-body purse and begins showing us images of a young, muscly man who apparently never wears a shirt.

"Mom, how old is he?" Amber questions, examining the photos.

"Twenty-one," she answers.

"Oh, gross," Amber responds, her face wrinkled in disgust.

"What?" Mom says. "Age is just a number."

I lean over to Cyrus to say, "That's why we ate expired food all the time. We got food poisoning a lot as kids."

"And look at you two," she interrupts, "grown up to be strong, capable people."

As soon as she finishes that thought, her eyes bring her onto a new one as she catches sight of my dining room, specifically the art piece of a rural, prairie landscape that hangs over the antique cabinet.

"AJ, dear, this dining room is dull. Why didn't you pick a painting with more taste."

Amber follows my mom over to the dining room, replying, "This is TJ's house, Mom."

Cyrus looks to me as he whispers, "AJ?"

"That's what she called her," I explain.

"What's the J for?"

"Joni."

"I'm sorry," Cyrus says. "I'm not cultured enough to know which musician that's a reference to."

I smile at that and say, "Joni Mitchell."

"Still don't know," he responds.

"Well, TJ" my mother says, turning to face me, "if you want a better painting, I'm sure I could whip something up for you."

"No, thanks, Mom. Cyrus and I picked that out when we were moving in, so it has strong memories."

She sighs. "If only memories were visually appealing."

My mom takes the initiative to wind around the dining table and start lifting the painting off its nails on the wall. After a second of struggling, she glances back at my sister with a smile.

"AJ, dear, will you help me?"

Amber looks back at me in concern, and I just sigh.

"I'll just put it back up anyway," I say to her.

With my permission, Amber goes into the dining room and joins my mother in over-stepping her authority.

 

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

The health centre waiting room smells sanitized, regardless of all the bodies sitting and waiting in the rows of seats. The clicking of a stapler at the desk is louder than all the repressed chatter of the patients, except for my own daughter who doesn't mind her volume at all. She squeezes the arms of her chair as she rocks back and forth, kicking the floor each time.

"Am I gonna die?" she asks.

"No," I answer. "You're not going to die."

"This is how zombie games start," the girl mumbles.

"Actually," Marty responds, "usually the vaccination is how they end."

"What if I'm already infected?" she worries.

"Then you can't get any worse," Marty justifies.

"Will it hurt?"

"It will be a little pinch," I tell her.

"What if I move? Will my arm fall off?"

"Don't move," I reply.

"What if I have to move?"

"You won't have to," I say.

"What if I have to pee?"

"Do you have to pee?" I question.

"No, but what if I have to?"

"Then go now," Marty replies.

Cara shakes her head. "I don't have to pee."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

"Well, maybe we should rule out a few names first to make it easier," I suggest.

We both lie on opposite ends of the couch, staring up at the ceiling while contemplating. It's been a while of this, and the only thing we have written in our notebook is KFC, because that's what we want for dinner.

"We will not name them Guy," I start.

Walker nods. "Or Bertha."

"Or Gayle."

"Or anything that's a food."

"Or Richard."

Walker sits up to look at me, asking, "What's wrong with Richard?"

"For some reason their nickname is Dick."

He leans back again, agreeing, "Yeah. No Richard."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Oceana has me seated on my stool facing away from my vanity in my room to keep me from being able to see myself before she's done. She's very insistent on it being a surprise, which at first I was weary about, but now I've settled into a comfortable rhythm as my eyes follow her hand toward the eyeshadow pallet then back up to my eye when I have to close them again and let the sensation of the brush stoking my eyelid replace my vision. Her touch is so gentle that it gives me tingles throughout my spine with each dust of my skin. Sitting on my desk chair, she leans forward enough that the ends of her long hair graze my knees, but I try not to let that tickle.

"This colour looks so good on you," Oceana says.

"I can't see a mirror, which normally gives me anxiety," I respond with a nervous laugh, "so I'm trusting you."

"Well, I promise you can trust me," she says with a smile. "You look great."

She backs up to wipe the brush and change colours, and in that time, I notice the way the waves in her hair intertwine with each other like tree roots that have taken over a forest floor. I can totally see why Andreas likes her. I mean, she's stunning, like seriously, gorgeous. Her face is made of soft yet structured lines that all seem to sparkle, whether that be because of the lighting or just her. And her style is nothing underwhelming. The bell sleeves that start at the elbows of her pink, wrap top dangle down like floating rain the way her hair does, and her pale jeans frame her figure well.

"So," I say after a moment, "you and Andreas. How did you two...?"

She knows my question without me having to finish it, and she sets down the makeup palette to answer.

"Oh, well, you know we met at camp. Initially, he made a dumb pickup line that I can't remember."

"Yup," I say with a laugh. "Sounds like Andreas."

She chuckles a little and continues, "But then we started talking, and it turned out that that pickup line wasn't all he had to say."

"I've never been to camp before," I say. "Well, I did once when I was little, but I've never been very outdoorsy."

"I was born on a boat, so I pretty much had to be outdoorsy."

"You were born on a boat?"

"Cruise ship. Hence why my name is what it is."

"It's pretty," I compliment. "Your name. My name just means rock or something."

"Precious stone," she says with a soft smile.

"What?"

"That's what your name means," she explains. "I know because I used to have a friend with your name."

"Maybe we were friends before, and I didn't know," I theorize.

"You'd remember a girl named Oceana," she says.

"I mean, I'd probably remember you regardless of your name," I confess, letting my eyes wander over her again.

"Am I that memorable?"

"Hell yeah," I confirm.

I grin, and we both fall into giggles in time like following the same beat.

Andreas's POV

Hazel and I are in the living room while the girls are upstairs and the adults are in the kitchen. She and I each have our own seats here that we're resting on while I'm on my phone and she's trying to make conversation. For some reason, she wants to talk, but I'm just waiting to be able to leave again. Hazel's cool, but she wasn't who I intended to see here. Honestly, I don't know why I even cared so much in the first place. It's not like Jayda's anything special. She's just my friend.

"So why'd you bring Oceana here?" Hazel questions.

"Uh, we were passing by."

"I pass by a lot of places without going into them," Hazel responds.

"So I'm more respectful than you."

She nods skeptically. "Hot take coming from a guy who once flirted with a waitress to try to get a free meal."

I roll my eyes. "I don't do that anymore."

"Yeah, I guess you can't 'cause of your girlfriend."

"Oh, yeah."

I probably shouldn't be as thrown off as I am every time I hear someone mention my girlfriend. Thinking rationally, it makes sense that I would be put off by the word just because I've never really called anyone my girlfriend before. I mean, I sort of have, but also the title switched around a lot from girl to girl. Nothing ever lasted this long. I don't really know why this has lasted this long.

"What do you like about Oceana anyway?" Hazel asks, leaning forward.

"I don't know. She's hot. She's got pretty eyes."

"Other than her appearance," Hazel presses.

That, I have trouble with.

"Um...well, she's smart."

"Since when do you care if a girl's smart?" Hazel challenges.

Answer: since never. I don't.

"I don't know. She's nice. She offered to help Jayda out, even thought I was kinda hoping to talk to Jayda, but Oceana's nice, because she does things like that, even though Jayda definitely doesn't need any help to look good for anyone."

At the end of my ramble, I realize Hazel is giving me a strange look: narrowed eyes, thin grin. It makes me uncomfortable just seeing it.

"You know what I find most interesting about this conversation?" she says. "You've said Jayda's name more than your girlfriend's."

"No, I haven't."

"Sure."

Her acceptance is too easy to be genuine, so I keep going.

"I like Oceana."

"I'm not saying you don't," Hazel responds, "but I'm just wondering how much of her do you actually like?"

That's a stupid question. Obviously, I like all of her, otherwise I wouldn't be with her. Yeah, I like her. Hazel doesn't know what she's talking about.

Amber's POV

Wyatt got bored and went downstairs a while ago. Currently, my mom is finishing swapping the last of the bowls into the cabinet where the cups used to be. After removing the painting, she ended up going on a rearranging spree in TJ's kitchen, deciding that everything was in the wrong place, and that it had to be changed. My brother and his husband grit their teeth to keep from saying anything bad, because my mom would just blow it off anyway as being uneducated and silly.

"Isn't this better?" my mom says with a smile. "Now you have easy access to your spoons whenever you get a bowl."

"Thank God this isn't my house," I mutter to Andi. "Otherwise, I'd need easier access to the wine glasses."

"Mom," TJ finally speaks up, "I really don't need your help with my kitchen. I like the way it is."

"Oh, yes, of course," Mom responds. "You Gen Z don't understand the flow of things and how it affects your stress levels."

"I know how you affect my stress levels," I mumble.

"See, your sister agrees," my mom states, making me question if she's hard for hearing or just pays that little attention.

"Mom, I'm sure TJ doesn't need you telling him how to layout his house."

"Oh, sweetie, you're right. I've forgotten about you. You're full of negative energy. If I had helped you, maybe you wouldn't have lost your job."

Thankfully, Andi steps in before I can explode.

"Uh, Tilda," she says to my mom, "why don't you tell us more about your life?"

"I'd love to, but first, I'm noticing some problems outside that I have to address."

She starts toward the backyard doors, and TJ and I both share an annoyed look before following.

 

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

"Cara Driscoll."

When her name is called, Marty and I stand up, but Cara is shaking her head anxiously.

"I changed my mind," she says. "I want to be a zombie."

"No, you don't," Marty tells her. "Come on."

He raises her hand, lifting her onto her feet, and she reluctantly trudges along behind her dad as the three of us walk down the hall where the receptionist directs us. We stop in a little room with one seat for Cara where she plops down, a seat for the healthcare worker who is not here yet, and a seat in the corner of the room where Marty sits down. Cara looks around as her hands fiddle with the metal frame of her chair. She gets a disgusted look on her face when she sees a poster with a diagram of the human organs.

"Is that what I look like inside?" she questions.

"Yup," I reply.

"Gross."

"I completely agree," Marty says.

Realizing nobody's come to give her her vaccination yet, Cara asks, "Did the doctor forget about me?"

"No," I answer.

"Probably not," Marty says, and I give him a nudge on the shoulder.

"No," I repeat.

"If they don't show up in the next ten second, can we leave?" Cara asks.

Right as she's done that sentence, a woman in blue scrubs walks in, putting a pout on Cara's face, but my expression turns to surprise.

"Kaitlin?" I say.

My old friend turns to me and lights up at the recognition.

"Buffy?" she responds. "I saw 'Driscoll' on the papers, but I wasn't sure if it was the same one."

She steps up to hug me. It's been so long since we've talked, but she's still has the same pearly smile from my memories.

As the two of us let each other go, Cara looks up at us, saying, "You know the person who's going to stab me with a needle?"

"She was on my middle school basketball team," I explain.

Cara glances to Marty, saying, "Great. They're conspiring against me."

"Cara's a little scared," I tell Kaitlin.

"I don't get scared," my daughter denies. "I have a rational aversion to getting needles."

Kaitlin chuckles lightly as she takes a seat in the chair beside my daughter by the counter of medical tools.

"Well, there's nothing to be afraid of," Kaitlin says. "It's just a tiny pinch, and it will be over before you know it."

"It's stupid," Cara whines.

"Cara—" I start, but Kaitlin brushes me off with a wave.

"It's alright," she says. "I have kids of my own. Triplets, actually."

"Wow," I respond.

"Yeah." She looks to Cara. "And I'll tell you what I tell them whenever they have to get needles. This is kind of like getting a superpower."

Cara raises an eyebrow skeptically. "How?"

"Well, every superhero has to go through a little pain to become extra amazing. You have to get a needle, and then you'll be able to fight off a disease whenever it tries to hurt you."

"That's pretty cool," Cara admits.

Kaitlin smiles. "It is."

"Okay," Cara says with a sigh and closes her eyes. "Do it fast."

Kaitlin puts on her gloves and takes a wipe to Cara's shoulder to disinfect it. While she prepares the needle, Cara bounces her legs rapidly.

"Okay, ready?" Kaitlin asks.

"Daddy, hold my hand!" Cara orders, and Marty scoots his chair closer to wrap his hand around hers.

Cara squeezes her eyes shut while Kaitlin inserts the needle, and by the end of it, Cara is still holding still.

"All done," Kaitlin says.

Cara opens her eyes. "Really?"

"Yup."

Kaitlin takes piece of cotton and presses it to the spot then uses her free hand to lift up three different Band-Aid options: princesses, superheroes, or jungle animals.

"Which one do you want?" Kaitlin asks.

Cara picks the one with the superheroes on it, and Kaitlin sticks the bandage over the hole where the needle was.

"Thank you so much," I say as Cara hops up off her chair.

"It's my job," Kaitlin responds.

"We have to get together sometime to catch up," I go on.

"I'd love that."

"Can we get ice cream now?" Cara asks.

"Better yet," Marty replies, "we'll get smoothies. Superheroes drink smoothies."

"Are you trying to trick me?" the girl questions.

"No," Kaitlin supports. "Superheroes are big and strong, so they have to eat lots of healthy food to be that way."

"Fine," Cara accepts.

She tugs Marty along as she exits the room, and I step ahead to join them, but before leaving I turn back around to say one more thing.

"Thanks."

Kaitlin just smiles in response, and I hurry out of the room to walk with my family.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

I scroll on my phone to the next name on the list of random names that the internet has come up with.

"Cassia," I read out.

"Sounds like Narnia," Jonah responds negatively.

"Cassius."

"Sounds like Perseus."

"Cleo."

Jonah tilts his head, giving me an expression that tells me he doesn't completely hate it. That's enough to make me write it down on the notepad before continuing reading off the list.

"I'll skip Coco," I say. "Delilah?"

"Sounds like an old person's name."

"Domino."

"That's not a name. That's a game."

"Dylan."

"If we name our kid Dylan, we've signed them up to be an F-boy or F-girl from birth."

I've come to the conclusion that Jonah doesn't know what he likes in regards to names, but he really knows what he doesn't like. Unfortunately, with an endless supply of names, going backwards from names we hate to names we like will take forever.

"Maybe we should stop," I say.

"Yeah," Jonah agrees. "None of these names feel right."

"Let's think about it on our own some more, and we'll talk about it again another time," I suggest.

"Sounds good."

I set the notepad down and stand up to go use the washroom, which I haven't done for a few hours now. I notice Jonah go over to look at the names I've written on the notepad, and he speaks once more, making me look back to listen.

"I'm taking Robert off the list," he says as he crosses the name out with my marker.

"Why?" I ask.

"Because then they'll be called Bob."

"Valid."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

I hear a knock on my bedroom door as I finish zipping up the back of my violet skirt and double check that my satin top isn't folded up at the hem.

"Can I come back in?" Oceana asks from the hall.

"Yeah."

She carefully turns the door knob and peeks her head inside before reentering the room with her eyes focused on my outfit in awe. She gasps and puts her hands over her mouth, and I absorb the positive energy she's giving me. After a moment, she lets her hands drop again and smiles.

"Yeah, no, if this boy doesn't fall for you on the spot, he's certified brainless," she states. "You are stunning." Then she remembers, "But we forgot one thing."

She goes back over to my vanity and picks up the lip gloss that I'd forgotten about. I watch as she unscrews the brush from the tube and comes up to me with the wand raised and ready. A chill zaps through me in a wave the second she touches the brush to my lip, and my eyes follow hers which concentrate on my lips. Her eyes are brown but there are gold specks in them too that shine out from the rest of the irises. Tracing her face, my sight eventually goes down her her lips too, which are glazed with a translucent purple tint. As she finishes painting, her eyes flick up to mine, making me feel loopy for a moment before she backs away and closes the lip gloss.

"Um..." she says, looking down at the floor then back up to me. "There. Beautiful. I mean, you were before, but... You get it."

She spins around to head for the door, but it takes me another moment to get my mind back into action mode.

Andreas's POV

The second I see her walk down the stairs, I realize I wasn't prepared for this. Jayda looks...yeah. My palms get sweaty on the spot, and I stand up to go meet her as she descends the stairs. Hazel joins alongside me, and Oceana walks behind Jayda, the two of them touching the floor one after the other.

"Damn," I react.

"How do I look?" Jayda asks with a grin.

"Incredible," Hazel replies, "as always."

My hand comes up to rub the back of my neck like I do when I have to make speeches or talk to important people on the phone.

"Yeah," I agree. "Your date is one lucky guy."

"Well, I have Oceana to thank."

Jayda looks over at my girlfriend, and the two of them exchange smiles.

"I'm really glad you two are becoming friends," I say, because I don't know what else to say, and it's not like I'm lying. I am glad they're friends.

"Yeah," Oceana responds.

Both girls keep their eyes connected for another moment before Jayda takes a step back, saying, "Anyway, I'm gonna get going."

She heads for the door, and Oceana turns to me again.

"I'll go too," she says. "It's later than I expected, and I kinda need to finish reading a book for English before Monday."

"Oh, no problem," I say. "I'll get the door."

I open it for the ladies, and they both exit. They walk in a line up to the sidewalk where they split paths, both going in different directions. When I close the door, Hazel is looking at me with curious eyes.

"You're not gonna go after her?" she says.

"Why would I go after Oceana?" I question, confused. "She's just going home."

"Sure," Hazel responds dryly, taking a step back to leave for the kitchen. "That's who I was talking about."

________________________________________

Amber's POV

TJ, Cyrus, Andi, and I stand on the grass while my mother twirls around in the backyard, her arms outspread and chin up. Her expression is glum as she slows to a stop, looking at my brother.

"TJ, your garden is dreary," she says.

TJ and Cyrus haven't spent much time landscaping their yard. All it has are a few trees in the corner opposite of the detached garage that leads to the alley, as well as a bed of flowers beneath the trees, surrounded by a stone frame, with a few potted plants on the stone patio, deck, and against the garage exterior.

"I chose the flowers," Cyrus says in response to my mother's judgement.

"Oh, honey, I'll forgive you, because you're not my blood, but TJ, dear, you should know better than to put pots along that wall." She points to the garage wall. "That's north." Then she turns to switch her sights to the garden bed. "And why don't you have lavenders here?"

TJ steps forward, saying, "Mom, I love you, but I don't care about what flowers are out here."

Mom looks at him then to the rest of us and says, "Oh, you are all very tense. Here. Lay down."

I know what she's doing. She used to do this when we were kids too. My dad always got annoyed with it, which is part of why they fought a lot. TJ recognizes the instruction right away and shakes his head.

"Mom—"

"Lay down," my mother repeats, cutting him off. "You may not be kids anymore, but you're still my kids, so you'll listen to me."

TJ looks at me, and we both sigh. The two of us walk up next to her, leaving our spouses watching on the side, then lower down to the grass where we rest our heads back and spread our limbs out. 

"Now," Mom breathes, "do you feel the earth beneath you?"

"Yeah, we feel it," TJ responds.

"Let it absorb all your frustration and worry. Feel your anger draining from your body and soaking into the ground. Then feel the peace and tranquility fill you."

I do as told, and my breathing becomes the centre of my attention as my muscles relax. My mom may be way too judgemental, but she knows how to calm us down. Compared to Dad, she's at least far more open to alternative ideas, even if she isn't open to criticism. She was the easy one to come out to, because she never cared about that kind of stuff, which I do have to be thankful for. Of all the parents there are, she's far from the worst or even bad. She's pretty good, just a little much sometimes.

"Does Bowie do this kind of stuff?" I hear Cyrus whisper from the side.

"My dad's free-spirited, but not like this," Andi replies.

"Can you hear the earth?" my mom asks TJ and me. "Do you hear its hum?"

I might be crazy, but I actually do. I hear a low thrumming caress my ears, and I let my mind sink back into it.

"I can," I say. "It sounds like an engine."

"Oh, that's not the earth," Mom replies with a loose laugh as she sits up. "That's my boyfriend's van."

TJ and I stand up with our mom, and I realize the hum is pretty obviously that of a car coming from the front of the house.

"He's here to get me," Mom explains. "We're going to Alaska next."

"You know Alaska's nowhere near here," Andi chimes in, "right?"

"Oh, honey, don't be so negative." She blows us all a kiss, saying, "Au revoir, my little tulips. Tell the kids I say goodbye. Also, I left some new soap in your bathroom, because your old one had so many chemicals."

TJ takes in a heavy breath and lets it out in a kind reply, "Thanks, Mom."

She scurries toward the gateway, and the four of us follow her. Her boyfriend leans out of the sliding door of a Volkswagen van, wearing only ripped jeans and a wooden beaded necklace. No skirt. No shoes. My mom runs up, and he pulls her into the van where he kisses her hard, and both my brother and I turn our eyes away for the moment until the door closes, and whoever is driving the van accelerates down the roadway, going double the speed limit, indie rock music blaring through the sunroof.

"She's crazy," I say with a chuckle.

"Definitely," TJ agrees.

"But she means well," I add.

TJ smiles. "Yeah." Then he turns to me. "Will you help me put that painting back up?"

"Of course."

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

I'm drinking my morning coffee as usual while TJ grills tomatoes and onions for his avocado toast, and Wyatt chugs back a glass of apple juice at the kitchen table. The only sound is the sizzling of the juices in TJ's pan and the gulping of my son with his cup. Overall, it's calm—until Jayda comes marching into the kitchen, dropping her backpack on the ground with a clunk.

"So which one of you is gonna take me to my driver's test after school today?" she questions.

"That's today?" I respond.

Jayda is going to be able to drive. This now-sixteen-year-old girl who says stoplights are just suggestions is going to get her license. How terrifying.

"Yeah," Jayda confirms. "I've been reminding you guys daily since my birthday."

"So you're gonna be on the road, huh?" TJ says with a smile on his face but worried wrinkles in his forehead. "Fun. Make sure to tell me what times you're driving at so that I can make sure I'm not on the road."

"You have zero faith in me," Jayda scoffs.

"No, I have plenty of faith in you," TJ counters, "but are you sure you don't want to practice more?"

"I don't need practice," the girl asserts. "I'm perfect."

Seeing as she's not going to change her mind, I can only trust that the person judging her driving will make the right call.

"We'll both take you there right after school," I say.

"Can I come?" Wyatt chirps, and I look over at him.

"Sure," I reply, "but wear your—"

"Helmet," he finishes. "I know."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

If there's one thing my friends have taught me in this lifetime, it's that you can't be best friends with two drama kids without eventually being sucked into that life yourself. I have to admit, there is something reassuring about having a place to go after school where all the people know you and savour your stories unlike the many other obscure faces you see during the day. Here, I am not the keener kid who uses words beyond what the other kids deem satisfactory. Instead, I am Brayden, known by name, the kid who helps make sets. It's not much, but it's enough for me. I prefer that to anything in the spotlight. I'd rather not have a thousand eyes critiquing me constantly.

Linny and Kelsey walk beside me down the isle as we enter the theatre. Mrs. Wise is standing off stage, flipping through notes while the cast members stand on stage, some running lines, others marking dances. Behind the curtain is the backstage where all the costumes and props are stored, as well as where regular drama classes happen during the school day, since there's plenty of floor space and various types of seats for people to loiter on.

"I think I was born to be Jane Banks," Linny says as we walk, "or at least play her."

"If by that you mean you were born a female child with sandy blonde hair, then yes, you were," I reply.

"Brayden," Kelsey says, "next year you should join the cast."

"No, I'm very comfortable behind the scenes," I reply, "and even then, I only joined set crew because you practically forced me."

"Don't think of it as forcing," Kelsey tells me. "Think of it as a supportive nudge."

"Okay. You forcefully supportive nudged me."

As the three of us get up to the front of the theatre, Mrs. Wise becomes aware of our presence.

"Wonderful!" she exclaims. "Now that everyone's here, let's get my dancers for 'Chim Chim Cheree' to the stage."

I start toward the stairs of the stage to go behind the curtain, but the teacher stops me before I get there.

"Brayden, so you know, we have some students from detention here to help with painting the sets. Let me know if there are any problems."

"Certainly," I reply.

I leave my two friends in the theatre and disappear backstage. Back here, tables are set up with students busy painting the finishing touches on the set backgrounds. Each one takes up several tables, due to their height and length, and the paint has been coloured from the centre out to make it easier to reach. There are only two art students in drama club, but they lead the whole set crew by drawing the outlines of each background to ensure they didn't turn out too atrocious.

A few people say hello as I enter the room, and I smile back, going over to two kids working on painting the night sky for Cherry Tree Lane. I watch as one boy, Marcus starts brushing hot pink into the black clouds.

"Why are you adding pink?" Marceline beside him questions. "There's no pink at night."

"I thought it could be more abstract," Marcus replies.

"This is Mary Poppins, not a Picasso piece."

"Is there much of a difference?"

"I like the pink," I defend.

Marcus smiles, saying, "Brayden agrees."

Marceline just shakes her head and moves on, turning to me to say, "Brayden, could you go work on the night forest background with that detention boy? I don't think he knows what he's doing."

"Swell," I huff dryly. "Stick me with the delinquent."

I leave the two familiar people to go over to the specified scene, but the instant I see who the boy I'm supposed to work with is, I know his name. On a regular day, I would probably be scared, but he hasn't actually been bothering me that much anymore, not since I saw him at Red Rooster Records. The only times he says anything mean is when we're forced near each other, which we are right now, so this should be a hoot and a half.

"Deion," I say as I step up to the tables.

"Gayden? Of course you're in theatre club."

"Of course you're in detention," I retort.

"Whatever," he grumbles.

Knowing this is going to be uncomfortable no matter what I say, I just choose to end the small talk, saying, "I'll get the paint, and we can get started."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

When Jayda sees me, TJ, and Wyatt in the car together stopped in Grant High's drop-off/pick-up zone, she immediately opens the driver's side door and motions for TJ to switch seats.

"Papa, I'm driving."

"Are you sure?" TJ asks nervously.

"Yes," Jayda insists. "It's gonna look bad if I show up to the registry being driven by someone else."

"It'll also look bad if you show up with a huge dent in our car," TJ reasons.

"Move," Jayda orders.

TJ sighs and gets out, sliding into the backseat with Wyatt, while Jayda buckles into the driver's seat and adjusts her mirrors.

"Is this gonna be like one of those car stunt shows?" Wyatt asks.

"If I find a jump, I'll take it for you," Jayda responds.

"Please don't," I beg.

"Okay, both you and Papa need to chill," she says. "I know how to drive."

She turns the key in the ignition and brings her left foot up onto her seat so that her knee is in the air, and I shake my head.

"Put your leg down," I command.

"God," she scoffs. "Bossy much?"

She rolls her eyes and lifts her foot off the break, letting the car roll forward.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

The gallery has high ceilings that must be up to three stories tall. They make space for the larger sculptures in the room, the ones that give anything I've made a run for their money. Paintings and pastel work cover the walls, each with a special metal place stating their title, artist, and price. I'm thankful I told Buffy, Marty, and my wife to dress up nice for this, because everyone else here is in floor-length gowns, pant suits, and tuxes like some kind of adult prom with less sparkles and more shine.

"This place looks way too classy for us to be allowed in here," Amber comments.

"Yeah," Marty agrees. "How are we allowed in here again?"

"Jemila Mahama, the famous gallery owner, invited known artists to the grand opening of the gallery," I remind them. "I'm hoping that if I can make a good impression, maybe I could get one of my pieces in here. But as to you being allowed in here, you won't be if you do anything to make me look bad."

"You don't have to worry about us," Buffy assures me.

Marty's eyes catch on a wooden carving of a butterfly that sits on a pedestal, and he reaches out for it, wondering, "Are we allowed to touch them?"

Buffy puts her hand over his to lower it down away from the artwork, telling me. "You don't have to worry about me."

Although still concerned about Marty's presence, I turn back ahead and spot the woman herself, the one I've been meaning to talk to. She wears a long, black coat that curls at the ends like wrapping paper, and she has a black rose hairpiece with checkered feathers blooming from it. Her lipstick is dark too, but her tights are white, peeking out from under her knee-length black skirt.

"There she is," I say in excitement.

Amber looks to where I'm pointing and says, "She looks like a Tim Burton character."

Too eager to speak to the woman, I start in a power walk forward, slowing only once I get up to Jemila Mahama, and Amber rushes to keep up with me. Jemila stands beside a lanky, young man with a spotty beard and a white suit who appears to be judging the surroundings for her, because she just stares ahead at nothing. But my approach causes her to turn her eyes to me.

"Hi," I say.

"Oh, hello," she greets. "Are you looking for the washrooms too?"

"No, uh, I'm Andi Mack."

"Are you an artist or one of my husband's extended relatives?"

"An artist," I answer and then gesture to Amber beside me. "And this is my wife, Amber."

"It's nice to meet you," Amber says.

"Mmm, it is," Jemila responds with a pleased look.

"The gallery is amazing," I compliment. "So many great artists."

"Yes, I selected each piece myself. I need to only have the best here. If I carry something bland, I'll tarnish my reputation, and my customers will move on."

The pressure on me rises to match her standards.

"I totally get that," I say. "So, I was wondering if you'd be willing to see some of my pieces."

"I suppose I have a moment." Then she turns to her accompaniment saying, "Charles."

The man, Charles, disappears out of the room and comes back in a flash with a chair for Jemila to sit down on in the middle of the floor. I'm a little caught off guard by it, but then Charles shows up behind me with a chair, and I accept that this is normal and take out my book of photos from my purse to begin showing the woman my sculptures.

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

Wyatt's never been in the car before when Jayda was driving, but somehow his presence is making the chaotic driver into a not horrible one, although the amount of shouting in the car has my stress levels at their max.

"That was a stop sign!" Wyatt yells.

"It was a yield!" Jayda returns.

"Good! You're paying attention!"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

The vehicle turns out of the safety of the neighbourhood and onto the highway, zooming down the onramp at an inconsistent speed.

"Eyes on the road!" Wyatt shouts. "Merge!"

"I'm trying!" Jayda screams.

Her trying turns out to be good enough as the car smoothly blends in with the rest of the traffic. While she whimpers in the driver's seat and Wyatt continues barking orders, I glance back at TJ to see that he's just as amazed as I am at our kids' odd yet effective teamwork.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

With Marty and Buffy out for the night at Andi's art thing, we were asked to watch Cara at their house. Andi invited us to the gallery opening too, but Walker had already gone to the even more exclusive pre-opening, at which he charmed his way into getting four of his paintings on sale there. He didn't tell Andi that, though, because he didn't want her to feel bad if she didn't get her work in it too. I think another reason Walker opted to watch Cara with me instead of go to the gallery is because he's probably noticed that I've been kinda nervous about getting a kid. Watching your friends' kid isn't the same as having your own, because if you screw up your own kid it feels worse, but babysitting is still good practice.

"Do you want to play Barbie or something?" Walker asks Cara as she comes downstairs into the living room after finishing her homework, which consisted of nothing more than a spelling worksheet.

She shakes her head. "I'm out of those."

Walker's confused by that. "Out of?"

"I want to make bracelets," Cara says instead.

She shoots her wrist out for us to see the seven colourful friendship bracelets striping her arm.

"Those look awesome," I say. "You made them?"

"The girls in my class trade their candy at lunch for bracelets," Cara explains.

"You're bartering with bracelets at school?" Walker says.

"I can't sell things, but trading is allowed, because there isn't money involved," Cara states. "I also like candy."

"Be careful how much you eat," Walker warns her.

"I wanna eat a whole bunch to compensate for when I get diabetes," the girl counters.

"Does anyone in your family have diabetes?" Walker questions.

"No, but if I do get it, I will be sad if I didn't make the most out of my time with candy."

"Cool plan," I say.

Walker gives me a look, but I don't know why. Cara's planning ahead. That's a good thing. I mean, I think it's a good thing.

"So, how do you make these bracelets?" I ask.

"The kit is in my bedroom," Cara says. "I'll go get it."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

The silence between the two of us is almost eery. I dip my brush into the black paint and continue sweeping strokes over the shadowy base of a tree trunk. Frequently, I look up across the tables at Deion who paints in some leaves with short, abrupt lines that end up looking like pixilation in a video game rather than the smooth veins of foliage. But I don't say anything. Although his material he uses to put me down has run pretty dry recently, I don't feel the need to try to be bullied again by judging him. That stands true until I notice him take a break from painting to rub the wrist of the hand that holds the brush, and I forget my previous decision.

"Your wrist hurting?" I ask.

"I don't paint much," he explains.

I look over at his section of the background. It fiercely stands out from the rest due to its lack of blending.

"I can tell," I say. "The art kids would be shivering."

I set down my own paintbrush and walk around the tables to where he is. He doesn't fight as I pluck the brush from his hand and start demonstrating how he should paint.

"Long, flowing strokes," I say. "Not short ones. Blend them into the other greens to make it less sudden of a change between shades."

After showing him for another minute, I hold the handle of his brush out for him, and although reluctantly, he takes it back and tries the technique I described. Right away, the painting starts to look ten times better, and I observe him for another while as he fills in the leaves, his focus deep on his artwork. Eventually, I decide to retrieve my brush from the other side of the tables and join Deion in colouring in the greenery.

"What did you do to end up in detention?" I ask him while we work.

"Late for class," he mumbles.

"How come you were late?"

"None of your business."

"What a lovely answer," I reply, and Deion hears my sarcasm which makes him let out a huff.

"Morning took longer than usual," he goes on.

"You missed your buss?" I guess.

"No," he denies. "My bus missed me."

"Unique perspective," I say, an amused smile finding my face.

"Yeah, well, you read books. You know different perspectives."

"I do read books," I repeat, "the ones you always damage."

That casts Deion back into quiet as what was becoming a smile drips away into a frown again, and he continues painting, pretending I'm not here. Disappointed, I bring my brush back to the other end of the tables and carry on with the tree trunks, but before putting the colour down, I raise my pallet up for Deion to see, hoping to get him to talk again.

"Which brown do you think I should use for the trunk?" I ask.

I already know which one I'm going to use, so the question is redundant, but watching Deion paint in anger puts me on edge. Deion raises his eyes to look at the options then points to the one on the left.

"That one," he says. "The other has too much green. It would make the tree look like broccoli."

I nod and dip my brush into that colour. It was the one I was going to pick anyway.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Three things about my driving examiner: she has those weird, triangle glasses that grandmas wear; she clicks her pen so loud that is scares me every time; and she's not saying shit. Seriously, she's silent, and when she does talk, it's monotone instructions on where to turn next. Meanwhile, I'm here trying to remember which mirror is my rearview and doing my best to avoid hitting parked cars in the neighbourhood.

I nearly scream when the whole car jolts.

"Did I just run over that duck?" I freak.

"That was a pothole," the examiner mutters stoically. "Keep driving."

I keep my foot on the gas, trying to divide my eyes between the speedometer and the road, but my heart starts racing when I hear that stupid pen click and notice the lady scribble something down on her clipboard.

"Turn right here," she instructs.

I nod and move over to the side to take the corner.

"You just turned left."

"Which way?" I ask again, my nerves getting in the way of me being able to think straight.

"Now you're driving on the centre line."

"Oh, oops."

I laugh, sounding on the verge of tears, and adjust my steering.

After another torturous minute, the examiner orders, "Let's go back. We're done here."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Buffy and I have wandered so far through this gallery that we're now in a room of sculptures on pedestals and photography in frames on the walls. Nobody else is even in this area, probably because it's tiny and a lot less exciting than the other sections. But Amber manages to find us here.

"There you guys are," she says.

"You were looking for us?" Buffy responds.

"Yeah. Jemila Mahama's sidekick didn't give me a chair, so I figured I'd get out of the way. Also, I think I saw one of Walker's paintings in the other room."

"How'd he get his art in here?" Buffy questions.

"I don't know. What's this section?"

"Photography," Buffy answers.

Amber gazes around at the photos as she says, "I never understood buying photography. I took a photography class in college, and those photos were just as good as any of these."

"And you can get any of this photography free on Google images," I add.

"Not legally," Buffy says.

I step up to one of the frames, saying, "This one's interesting."

"Is that a shoe?" Amber asks.

"With gum on it," I elaborate.

"There must be some kind of meaning to it," Buffy tells us.

"Watch where you step?" I guess.

She shakes her head at me. "This is why I never take you to art galleries."

"I thought it was becauase you didn't care about art galleries."

"Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to."

"This one's kinda cool," Amber says from at different wall.

I spin around to look, but when I do, I feel my back knock into something behind me, and a shatter sounds as a clay sculpture explodes on the ground into several large chunks. The three of us all stare in shock. I just broke a piece of one-of-a-kind artwork.

"No worries," I say, trying to keep the girls from flipping out. "We'll just buy it."

Buffy looks at the plaque on the pedestal that says the price and states, "If we buy this, we'll have to sell one of our kids."

"Well," I breathe, "Brayden would do fine on his own—"

"Marty!" Buffy yells.

"I'm sorry! How do we fix this!"

The busted sculpture of what looks like was a person before mocks me as I look down at it in fear.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

I step back into the registry and see my dads and brother looking at me with hopeful eyes.

"How did it go?" TJ asks.

I just shake my head. My brother, however, doesn't accept that answer, and he marches up to the examiner who enters behind me.

"Ma'am," Wyatt says, "let's try once more, but bring me with you."

The lady, stunned by his boldness, responds, "I have other appointments to get to."

"You're not even halfway done the hour," Wyatt argues.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

"She said turn right!" Wyatt yells from the backseat.

I force the wheel to the right and take the turn, while the examiner scrutinizes my every move.

"Jayda Destiny Kippen, eyes open!" Wyatt keeps going.

"They are open!" I shout.

"There's a stop sign! Stop gently!"

I ease my foot on the breaks, coming to a seamless halt.

"If everyone gets to the sign at the same time, who goes first!" Wyatt challenges.

"The person on the right!"

"Correct!"

I get the vehicle moving again, and the examiner marks something down on her board.

"I've seen enough," she says in an emotionless tone. "Take us back."

"Did I pass?" I ask.

"You need a screaming boy in the back of your car in order to drive properly," she scoffs. "You expect me to pass you?"

"Yes?"

________________________________________

TJ's POV

When Jayda runs into the registry this time, she has an overjoyed grin on her face

"I got my licence!" she cheers.

I'm both shocked and happy for her as I respond, "That's great."

Cyrus watches me as I take out my phone and start typing on it.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"Warning—I mean telling our friends about the good news."

Jayda squeals in excitement and runs her hands over her clothes to ensure they're not wrinkled.

"Okay," she says, "how's my hair? I don't want a bad licence photo."

"Perfect," Cyrus replies with a smile. "Now go over there."

She hurries over to her examiner who takes her to the back of the registry where the photos are being taken, and Wyatt comes up to Cyrus and me with a proud grin.

"Good job," Cyrus tells him.

"Thanks. But save the compliments for the reference letter you'll write for me when Andreas turns sixteen."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

We've managed to tape all the pieces of clay back together with the roll of masking tape that Amber had in her purse for a reason she couldn't even remember. Yes, there are still cracks all over it, but at least it's in one piece, and from far away, it looks like nothing happened, except that it's still missing the tiny human head that's supposed to attach to the body.

"It's missing the head," Buffy states.

"There isn't a head," I say, looking over the floor another time.

"There has to be a head!" she insists.

"Your shouting isn't helping!"

"Guys!" Amber cuts in. "There's no head."

"No shit," Buffy says.

"We need to replace it," Amber goes on.

Buffy and I share the same uncertain look as she asks, "With what?"

 

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV

I look across the tables at Deion's work again, seeing that he's almost finished with the leaves of the tree he's on. He's now in this peculiar stage where he's teetering between just being content and holding his stone exterior. I notice a smile break through every once in a while, but it fades whenever he remembers where he is—or maybe who he is.

"That's looking really good," I say.

"Thanks," Deion responds.

"You might have to join theatre club now," I tease.

"I'll pass. I'm not a geek."

"Being a geek is pretty fun," I justify. "Comes with a lot of friends."

"I have friends," he argues.

I nod. "Right. The boys who help you pick on me."

He pauses for a moment before muttering, "Yeah."

There's a long quiet where he continues painting, his eyes softening into a deep dreary blue like the bottom of the ocean, a place I've never seen before in him, which keeps my curious gaze locked tight.

"What's it like having a group like this?" he asks after a moment.

"Well, I'm pretty new," I start, "but it's automatic support whenever you need it. It's also very embarrassing trips to the Denny's down the street."

Deion actually chuckles at that. I don't think I've ever seen him laugh in a way that wasn't a snicker before.

"If I wanted to be a nerd," he says, "I'd consider this."

"I'd argue that being mean isn't much better than being a nerd."

I'm noticing a pattern now. Whenever I mention how he usually treats me, he gets achingly quiet. But given a couple minutes to recollect himself, Deion speaks up again.

"Hey, Gayden," he says in a gentle, genuine tone, "what was that book you had today?"

I do notice the nickname, but I'm also starting to conclude that he must not be comfortable using my real name, for whatever reason. And I don't mind. I'd have to be made of glass for something like that to still bug me.

"Anne of Green Gables," I answer. Then I add, "I didn't realize you cared what I read."

"I only noticed 'cause my mom has that book," he explains. He waits another second before asking, "Is it good?"

"Very."

"I'll have to check it out."

He smiles but turns his eyes down to his painting again, and the two of us quietly start gathering our brushes and palettes to clean up for the evening.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

I was reluctant about Amber's solution at first, but seeing the Barbie head stuck to the top of the sculpture on the pedestal, I'm now just disappointed. This is a terrible solution, but there isn't really a better one.

"This looks like one of Cara's Barbies," I say.

"Yeah, she leaves the heads in my purse sometimes to scare me," Amber explains.

"Should we be taking her to a therapist?" Marty brings up.

Before I can, respond, footsteps turn my attention to the far hallway.

"Someone's coming," I say.

The three of us dash for the opposite exit from the footsteps, leaving our masterpiece of clay, tape, and doll on display.

"Think they'll notice?" Amber wonders.

"Hopefully they'll think it's part of the artistic expression of the piece," I reply.

All of a sudden, two men pass by us, heading into the room we're leaving, one of them going on about their art.

"You should see my piece, the clay man. I spent a week completing the details."

At that, the three of us pick up our speed.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

Cara, Jonah and I are all sitting at the kitchen table, braiding thread into friendship bracelets. Cara is quick, and her braids are clean, showing her extensive practice. I'm also not doing too bad, since I used to braid all my sisters' hair in different ways for them when we were kids. Jonah, on the other hand, takes it slow, carefully wrapping each string together, and it's coming out better than I had expected.

"Jonah, you're pretty good at this," I say.

He smiles, and Cara gives her own nod of approval.

"Not bad for a rookie," she says.

"So this is what girls your age are into?" Jonah wonders.

Cara just shrugs, keeping her attention down on her black, white, purple, and yellow strings that she's twisting into a zig zag patterned bracelet.

"Should I add some beads?" Jonah asks.

"It's your first time," Cara reminds him. "Don't get carried away."

"I want to get good," he says.

I know why he cares so much. He wants to be good at these things for our own child, and he's doing fine. I hope he knows that.

"You'll get there," I assure him.

He gives me a faint smile. "I'm trying."

"Or maybe you'll stay bad," Cara counters. "That's okay too."

I turn my sight to her, insisting, "But if he keeps at it, he'll get there."

"Maybe," Cara replies. "Maybe not. Either way, I'm happy you're doing it with me. My brothers won't make bracelets with me, and my momma says she's not having anymore kids. I wish she would, though. Then I could dress them up to be my sidekick for Halloween." Out of the blue, she gasps and drops her half-finished bracelet. "You guys should have a baby! Why don't you?"

Jonah and I look at each other, both unsure what to say, so I try instead to change the subject, holding up my red and orange bracelet.

"How does this look?" I ask.

"Why aren't you answering?" Cara interrogates. "Do you hate kids?"

"No," Jonah promises. "We like kids. We're, uh..." He looks at me, and seeing my openness on my face, he finishes explaining to Cara, "It's a secret."

"I can keep a secret," Cara says. "I possess some very delicate knowledge that could ripple the fabric of my entire second grade class if anyone found out."

I chuckle and look over at Jonah. It's clear from our eyes that we're on the same page.

"We are having a baby," I say.

"Really?" she says in excitement. "Where is it?"

Jonah, caught off guard by the question, replies without thinking, "Uh, storks."

"I'm not stupid," the girl sasses. "I know where babies come from."

"Yeah, with the internet, kids can find out anything," I mutter.

"Mommies and daddies use their brain waves to put a baby inside the mommy," Cara explains proudly.

"Yeah, let's go with that," Jonah responds.

"I meant where is your baby, because you guys aren't mommies," she says.

"Oh, right," I say, releasing a nervous laugh. "Well, it's not here yet. We don't know if they're even born yet. We're gonna find out later."

"How much later?"

"We don't know," I breathe.

Interrupting us comes the sound of the front door opening, and Andreas comes striding into the kitchen to look at his sister and only her.

"Cara, listen up," he says. "If you and your friends ever decide to sneak into a library after dark, don't. All it has are books. It's not worth your time."

He boomerangs back out of the room as soon as he's done talking, and Cara looks to me and Jonah with a smile.

"I learn important things from my brother," she says.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

Jemila Mahama's version of having a free moment is actually having multiple moments mixed into hours of not free moments, which has resulted in me having to wait for her to have full discussions with other people before she can get back to me only to have that repeat a minute later. Currently, I'm getting to the end of my art album, and I'm desperate for her to see a piece she likes, because so far she's brushed them all off.

"Oh, I love the lines in this one," she comments on one of my sculptures. "I think I saw something similar on a poster in my gynaecologist's office."

"Oh, that's—" I really don't know how to respond to that "—fun. Um, there's also this one." I flip the page. "It was a vibrant portrayal of nature using various types of strings and feathers and the like. I see you like feathers." I gesture to her hairpiece.

"It's a lion," she states. "Lions have been done to death since that Lion King musical. I think Disney has a patent on them anyway."

"On lions?"

"Yes."

"Uh...okay."

I turn to the next sculpture, and Jemila's face lights up.

"Now this is nice," she says.

"Yeah?"

"Yes. It's gorgeous. I could sell it for thousands."

"That would be amazing," I respond, smiling wide.

Suddenly, my wife and friends approach from behind Jemila, and I realize I haven't seen them in quite a while.

"Hey, guys," I say. "Sorry, I'm in the middle of something."

"No, we're done," Jemila corrects me. "I'll give you a call."

She stands up off her seat, and Charles retrieves it from under her. Then he comes over to me and takes mine too, making me stand.

"Thank you," I say.

She walks away without acknowledging that, but I'm pretty sure I just got one of my sculptures in the gallery, so I'm fine with it.

"It looks like it went well," Amber says. "I'm so proud of you. Uh, so Buffy and Marty have to get going."

"Already?" I say in surprise.

Buffy and Marty nod in sync.

"We should too," Amber adds.

I furrow my brows. "We should?"

"Andi, do you trust me?" she asks.

"Not right now."

"Wow. Well, listen to me anyway."

She grabs my hand and pulls me along out of the gallery.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

It's been a day since the event at the gallery, and I haven't heard anything about Marty and Buffy going into debt from buying a sculpture, so I think we got off scot-free. I step into the kitchen in the right as Andi is hanging up the phone, and she turns to me, ready to tell me something interesting.

"So that was the gallery," she says.

"Oh, what did they say?" I ask. "Are you getting your art in?"

"No," Andi answers. "It turns out there was an incident last night, and the gallery is shutting down."

I feel my muscles tense up as I ask, "What incident?"

"A statue was knocked off a pedestal and broken."

"The gallery's shutting down because of a statue?"

Wow. Marty's mistake really just cost Andi a place for her art at a major gallery.

"Actually," Andi replies, "because of the pedestal. Jemila didn't care about the statue, but apparently that was her favorite pedestal, and it has a dent now, so she got upset and cancelled the whole thing."

Okay, now I feel less bad.

"Andi, I'm so sorry."

"It's fine. She was kind of odd anyway, and I'm pretty sure she compared one of my sculptures to a uterus."

"Interesting."

"Yeah. There's another gallery opening soon anyway. Do you want to come to that one?"

"Sure," I reply, "but let's not invite Buffy and Marty this time."

"Why?"

"Uh, they're not big art fans."

Seeing right through that, she asks, "Do I want to know?"

I shake my head. "Nope."

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

With the sky black outside, the living room glows in the yellow of lamps and ceiling lights. Having finished finding the party blowers and sitting those on the counter for tonight, I join my husband in the living room. There, Brayden also sits on a chair, reading The Great Gatsby with his legs criss-cross. On the couch, Andreas sits with his arm around his girlfriend who listens in as Marty starts talking to me.

"It's nice that your mom lives close enough to come for New Year's. My siblings all live in Tennessee now."

"Where do your parents live?" Oceana asks him.

Andreas answers the question for Marty, saying, "Heaven."

Then Brayden adds, "We hope."

Stealing the show comes Cara jumping down the stairs in a black, hooded robe with a shredded bottom, but contrary to her disheveled appearance, she's grinning wide.

"What do you think of my outfit?" she asks.

"You're...Darth Vader?" I guess.

"No. I'm the Grim Reaper."

"Cara," Andreas says, "it's New Year's Eve, not Halloween."

"Wyatt told me that days are just abstract constructs made by society to tie us down," the girl replies.

"I think you look adorable," Oceana says.

That makes Cara happy. She runs over to Oceana, and the two of them do a special handshake together consisting of a couple claps, an elbow bump, a snap, and a fist. I didn't realize they had a thing like that. Oceana's really become a well-liked figure among my kids.

A second later, the doorbell rings. I go over to open it, and my mother steps inside with a smile and a dish. She lives in the city, so I don't see her often, but I like having her around on holidays, especially since my dad passed away.

"Happy New Year's!" she says.

"Hi, Mom."

She brings her free arm up to give me a hug then steps back again, and I look down at the pastry in her container.

"Oooh, what did you bring?" I ask.

"It's cherry pie. I baked it myself right before coming, so it's still warm. I'm hoping nobody else made this."

"You're the only one. I can't wait to try it."

Oceana stands up from the couch and comes over, saying, "I'll bring it to the kitchen."

"Oh, thank you," my mom says. "I don't think we've met. I'm Pat."

"Oceana. I'm Andreas's girlfriend."

Oceana's about to take the pie from my mom when the door swings open again, and all four generations of Macks step in, from Hazel, Andi, and Amber, to Bex and Bowie, and finally Celia who leads the pack entering in, holding a dessert of her own.

"Happy New Year!" Celia says. "I made cherry pie!"

My mom's smile is slapped away by that as she looks down at Celia's container. Everyone at the door removes their shoes and coats while Celia steps forward up to my mom with a smile.

"Hi, Pat," she says then looks down at my mom's pie. "Oh, what kind is that?"

"Cherry," my mom mutters.

"Oh." Celia's smile flickers a little, but her teeth stay pressed together.

"This is awkward," Mom comments.

"I know," Celia says innocently. "You bringing store-bought while mine is homemade."

The tension spikes, and Andi makes her way over to me carefully like walking on eggshells.

"From now on," she says, "Cece and your mom have to coordinate their pies together."

I agree, "Yup."

Walker's POV

Jonah pulls the key out of the ignition after parking outside Andi and Amber's house. As he unbuckles and climbs out of the car, I notice that the tank empty light shuts off on the dashboard, which means it was on. This is his car, so I don't drive it that often, and I don't pay attention to the kind of care he takes of it, but I would hope he'd pay enough attention to fill the gas when needed.

"Hey, the gas tank empty light is on," I tell him.

Having curled around the car to the sidewalk by me, he looks over, saying, "Oh, I know. It always is."

"Then how do you know when the tank is actually empty?" I question.

Jonah shrugs. "The car stops moving."

He takes a step forward up the path toward the porch but then turns back around.

"Hey, I think my wallet fell out of my pocket," he says. "Could you check my seat?"

I reach back inside the car and over the centre console, finding his brown, worn wallet laying open on his seat. I'm about to grab it when I notice the corner of a photo sticking out of one of the card slots. I pull the image out, curious as to who it is, and it turns out to be a man about our age in a checkered shirt, someone I don't know.

"Uh, Jonah," I say, lifting the photo up for him to see, "who's this?"

"I don't know," he replies. "Where'd you find that?"

"It was in your wallet."

"Weird."

"Yeah. Weird that you have another man's photo in your wallet."

"What do you think it is?" he questions, seeing my skepticism.

"I don't know," I answer. "Why don't you tell me who it is?"

"I don't know who it is."

"You don't know."

"Okay, can we just go inside?" he asks.

He walks up to Amber and Andi's house, fast like he does when he's stressed. I don't know what I should think right now, but this situation is just odd. I put the photo back into Jonah's wallet and shove the car door closed.

Andreas's POV

When Jonah and Walker come in, everyone greets them, after which, my Grandma and Celia immediately shove their pies in front of them, both doing their best to smile kindly, but you can see the competitiveness in both their eyes.

"Hey," Grandma says, "if either of you get hungry, you should try my pie."

"Or," Celia steps in, her voice so deceptively sweet, "if you don't want food poisoning, try my pie."

Walker nods, saying, "Thanks for the offers. Maybe later."

As soon as they step out of the way, there's another knock on the door, and the Kippens enter in. While Cyrus and TJ stay at the door, Wyatt finds Cara. After removing her coat and shoes, Jayda spots me standing with Oceana and joins us.

She gives both of us a smile, saying, "Hey."

"Hey," Oceana responds. "Loving the dress."

Jayda's dress is simple. It's red, I'm pretty sure, with a low neck and long sleeves.

"Thanks," Jayda responds. "I like your outfit."

Oceana's wearing a white turtle neck with a peach checkered blazer, and a brown—I think it's brown—pleated skirt.

"Thanks," Oceana says. "Everything was from a consignment store."

My mom's voice nearby pulls my focus over as she asks, "Marty, did you bring up the champagne glasses?"

My dad responds with just an awkward smile, and that answers my mom's question.

"You didn't?" she says.

"Nope," Dad replies.

"I can get them," Oceana offers.

One thing about Oceana is she always tries to keep her good impression on my family going. it doesn't matter that they already like her more than they like me. She keeps up her politeness. She's polite to everyone. Even when we pass by crackheads on the street, they're sure to receive a "good day" from her.

"Thanks," my mom responds. "Um, they're in the storage room. Do you know where that is?"

Then Jayda steps up, saying, "I'll show you."

I mean, I could've done that, but it's true that I wasn't planning on offering to. I was perfectly fine staying here with Jayda, but now my girlfriend and friend are leaving to the basement together, so I guess...it be like that sometimes.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

"Where's the light?" Oceana asks as we enter the storage room.

I feel for the chain that dangles from the ceiling and pull it, making the bulb overhead flicker on. It instantly illuminates the piles of storage bins stacked all around, mixed in with a few random items that couldn't be boxed, like a rocking horse, a few sleds, and some hula hoops.

"I've always wanted to try a light like that," Oceana comments.

While I'm starting my search for any bin that might hold champagne glasses, the light shuts off then on again, and I look back to see Oceana letting go of the string with a pleased smile.

"Is your life complete now?" I joke.

"Getting there," she responds with a laugh.

I carry on with searching and soon locate a box titled 'Fancy Cups,' in which I find the champagne glasses. I lift them out and turn around.

"Found them," I say.

"Awesome," Oceana replies.

She walks back over to the door to open it, but the second she touches the doorknob, a clunk sounds from the other side of the door, and then the knob on our side falls to the floor. Oceana tries to pull the door from the nub where the knob should be, but it doesn't open.

"Looks like we're officially in a sitcom plot," Oceana says, turning around to face me.

"Yeah, Marty doesn't fix things that often," I respond. "He just kinda sees how long he can leave things for. Taking a risk on a doorknob probably wasn't the best, though."

Oceana lowers down, bending at her knees rather than her waist, like she must wear skirts a lot and therefore know exactly how to conduct herself in one, and picks up the knob.

"What do we do?" she wonders.

I put the champagne glasses back in the bucket I got them from and say, "I'll text Andreas and get him to find someone who can fix it."

 

Chapter Text

Andreas's POV

I'm just chilling by the stairs when I get a text from Jayda.

Jayda: Hey, so the doorknob kinda broke off, and we're locked in the storage room. Can u get someone to fix it? Pretty please :)

Me: It broke off?

Jayda: Well, it's not on the door anymore so...

Me: Ok. I'm on it.

I push myself away from where I was leaning on the wall and go over to the kitchen to get my one of my parents, but then I see that my dad's in the middle of Celia and Grandma's war, both women watching him with hawk eyes as he chews a bit of each pie. On the side, my mom stands with Amber and Andi, all three of them looking highly concerned.

"Whose do you like best?" my grandma asks.

"I love both," Dad replies.

Celia's smile goes flat as she says, "Unfortunately, that's not an option."

Deciding not to step into that fire, I instead go into the living room where Cyrus, TJ, Jonah and Walker are all seated around, talking.

"Hey," I interrupt, "do any of you know how to fix a doorknob?"

All heads turn to TJ who stands up, saying, "I'm sure I can figure it out."

He follows me down to the basement and down the hall to the last door, and sure enough, the knob is lying on the carpet. I kneel down to grab it, feeling a little surprised even though I don't know what else I was expecting.

"Damn," I mutter. "She wasn't exaggerating."

"Andreas?" comes Oceana's voice through the wood. "Is the doorknob getting fixed?"

"Yup," I answer.

"I've never fixed a doorknob before," TJ tells me, "so I'll have to Google it, but I'm pretty sure I need a screwdriver."

"Those are in the garage," I say.

He nods and starts to walk back down the hall. Before I join him, I lean up to the door once more to inform the girls.

"It's gonna be a bit," I say, "so hang in there."

"Like we have a choice," Jayda's voice retorts.

Her sass makes me laugh a little as I respond, "Love the positive attitude."

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

I wait on a chair in the basement with Brayden, Cara, and Watt sitting on the rest of the furniture until Bex, or Grams, and Bowie, or Gramps, show up. In her hands, Grams is holding a box for a board game, and she has a smile way bigger than that game calls for. What game? Property.

"We found the perfect game," she says.

"My daddy told me that game shatters friendships," Wyatt speaks up.

"Come on," Gramps pushes. "I used to play this with my cousins at every holiday."

"I don't care what we play," Cara says with a smirk. "I'm going to crush all of you."

Grams looks a little put off by my cousin's determination, but she begins setting up the game anyway. While she unfolds the game board and takes out the pieces, Brayden makes his own comment.

"Property is the board game embodiment of the American dream," he states. "It suggests that, with hard work, you can prosper."

"I thought hot dogs and baseball was the American dream," Wyatt responds.

"No. That's your dream," Brayden corrects.

"No," Wyatt denies. "My dream is to build a fully-functioning motorboat out of pool noodles."

Grams cuts that thought off, saying, "Okay, I'll distribute the money."

She places the stacks of colourful bills in front of each player, but when she gets to Cara, the girl holds up her hand to stop her.

"I only need twenty dollars," Cara states.

Grams furrows her brows. "You're supposed to get fifteen hundred."

Cara just grins deviously and takes a lone twenty dollar bill from Grams's hands, saying, "I won't need it."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

With nothing else to do, Oceana and I look through the bins in the room, peering in at all the random stuff. So far, we've found lots of old toys, a collection of compostable plates, and a bunch of old electronics that I'm pretty sure don't work anymore, because none of them turned on.

"Is this how you pictured your New Year's Eve?" I ask as I continue rummaging between the boxes.

"Oh, of course," Oceana replies, leaning back on one stack with her hands in her blazer pockets. "It's not New Year's without being trapped in a storage room."

She laughs, and I feel myself grin. I'm very thankful she's not claustrophobic and can instead just joke about this situation. Otherwise, this would be hell.

Under the next lid I peel up, I find a collection of familiar princess dresses and accessories. I take out one of the plastic, jewelled crowns and hold it up for Oceana to see.

"Wait, are the Driscolls rich, and I didn't know?" she jokes, walking over to examine it better.

"This used to be mine when I was little," I explain, "this and a bunch of other princess costume stuff. Then I gave them to Hazel, and she gave them to Cara. I guess Cara grew out of them."

"Nonsense," Oceana says. "You can never grow out of being a princess. It's every girl's dream."

I smile and look down at the crown again before returning my eyes back up to Oceana. She and the little gemstones actually aren't that different. They both sparkle.

I let out a breath and say, "We might as well get that dream out of the way."

Oceana's eyes follow the crown as I raise it up and place it delicately on her head, tucking the little comb ends of the tiara into the girl's lush hair.

"I'm honoured," she says with a grin.

"No, it's my honour," I reply, "Your Highness."

That makes her giggle, and she steps past me to peek into the bin herself, pulling out another plastic crown.

"Can't forget about you, now can we," she says.

Tingles wash over my scalp as she sets the tiara atop my head. I keep my sight on her after she drops her hands down and admires my image.

"There," she says. "Beautiful."

"Yeah," I breathe.

I feel my face blush as I realize my mistake. She was talking about me. I wasn't. I was talking about her.

________________________________________

TJ's POV

In Marty's garage, there's a wall of shelving with milk crates on every level, each filled with some random woodworking items. One is filled with bags of nails. Another has multiple hammers. The only thing Andreas and I haven't found is the tool we need.

"Where would your dad keep the screwdrivers?" I ask.

"I have no idea," Andreas answers in a huff. "He never uses them."

I pull out the last crate and check it, finding just a half-used roll of sandpaper.

"Well, that's all the crates," I say.

I do another gloss over the shelves to see if I've forgotten anything, then Andreas turns my attention upward.

"TJ," he says, "they could be in that bucket."

Andreas uses the word 'uncle' on and off for me and Cyrus. His younger siblings always use it, but Buffy, Marty, Cyrus and I didn't really decide to use the uncle and aunt thing until both Andreas and Jayda were into their pre-school years, so both of them change the way they refer to each other's parents at random, although I have noticed that Andreas has been just using my name more lately. I don't really care. The only reason I noticed is because Cara and Brayden both feel weird not using 'uncle' to describe Cyrus and I.

Andreas points up at a cardboard box on the very top shelf, just beyond my reach. Andreas is almost taller than me, but not quite, so he can't help.

"Your dad got a ladder?" I ask.

"Definitely," Andreas replies.

"Where is it?"

"Beats me. We've never used it."

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

"This is not possible," I state, staring at the game board.

Cara just smiles smugly as she collects Brayden's money and organizes it with the rest of her massive cash display.

"There's literally nothing you can buy with twenty dollars," I say. "How did you get to four thousand?"

"I told you I was going to win," Cara responds.

"Well, you haven't won yet," Grams reminds her.

Grans focuses all her brain power on the dice as she shakes them and lets them go on the board. Five. Grams moves five squares and ends up on Cara's hotel property.

"Crud," Grams mumbles.

Cara holds out her hand, waiting for Grams to place the cash in her palm, which she does reluctantly. I'm now praying that Cara will have a bad roll to knock her cockiness down a peg, and by some miracle, she does. Her turn lands her in jail, and she glares at the square on the board while the rest of the players all smile.

"What are you gonna do now?" I question happily.

"You can take my Get Out of Jail Free card," Wyatt says, breaking my joy but repairing Cara's.

"Wyatt," Grams says, "why are you giving that to her?"

"We have an alliance," Wyatt explains.

"You can't have alliances," Grams says, but both Cara and Wyatt just wave it off.

"Well, you can't use that card 'till the next round," I state.

"Here," Wyatt says, passing another card to Cara. "Have my Double Turn card."

Gramps's jaw drops. "When did that become a thing?"

Cara smacks the two cards down on the board with a smirk. Right after, Cece and Pat show up, both holding their pies which have few slices taken out of either. Clearly no one wants to contribute to their arguement.

"Would any of you like pie?" Cece asks kindly.

Cara keeps her obnoxious eyes on me as she holds up her hand, in which Pat places a plate with a slice of pie.

"That's one for me," Pat says.

"No fair," Cece argues. "She's your granddaughter." Then she looks at my grams and gramps, asking, "Would you guys like pie?"

Grams puts up her hand, replying, "Mom, keep me out of your competition."

"Fine," Cece huffs. "Guess who's not getting dessert at Chinese New Year."

Grams rolls her eyes, and Cece and Pat go back upstairs to continue bothering other people.

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

While TJ is still gone with Andreas, I remain with Jonah and Walker in the living room, me sitting on a chair across from them on the couch.

"So yeah, apparently Wyatt does have a friend, and his dad is pretty cool," I conclude. "He's seen my movies too."

"That's great," Jonah responds with his regular, friendly smile.

"Yeah," Walker agrees, slightly less smiley. "Making friends, putting photos of them in your wallet...not telling your husband."

If I didn't notice Walker's eye-flick in Jonah's direction, I would be very confused, but clearly this isn't about me.

"I sense some passive aggression here," I state.

"Jonah had a photo of a man in his wallet and won't tell me who it is," Walker explains.

"I don't know who it is," Jonah responds. "What? Do you think I'm having an affair?"

"No, I know you love me too much to do that," Walker says. "I think you joined another band without telling me, and that's a bandmate."

"That was one time!"

"It was twice!"

"You were in bands?" I say, surprised.

"Sort of," Jonah confesses. "They only lasted a couple days each, so I never bothered to tell you guys."

"Country music," Walker says with a chuckle.

"One was rock," Jonah counters.

"Christian rock. It was great until their fans found out the new guitar player was married to a man, and the band started only playing songs in E flat and C sharp as a way to get him to quit without having to kick him out."

"What's wrong with E flat and C sharp?" I question.

"I had to keep detuning and retuning my guitar," Jonah explains. "And there were so many bar chords, which got really annoying."

I nod and lean forward, saying, "So back to this photo of a man in your wallet."

"I swear I don't know who he is," Jonah pushes.

"Can I see it?" I ask.

Jonah takes the photo out from his wallet and passes it across the coffee table to me. Right away, I know who it is, and I smile at the absurdity of Walker and Jonah fighting over an image of this man.

"Yup," I say. "This is my bubbee."

Jonah and Walker both look stunned by that.

"Jonah," Walker starts, "why do you have a photo of Cyrus's grandfather?"

"I gave Jonah that wallet back in college," I answer for him. "I must've forgotten to take it out."

Jonah puts a proud grin on his face and turns to Walker, saying, " Well, I'm no expert on wallets, but I'm pretty sure you owe me an apology."

Walker sighs. "Jonah, I'm sorry for jumping to conclusions."

"It's okay."

"You still love me?"

Jonah shrugs. "Sure, why not?"

My two friends come together for a brief kiss, during which Cece appears behind them holding two plates of pie.

"Isn't this sweet," she says. "Looks like a pie-worthy moment."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

I look over at my wife who leans against the kitchen counter beside Andi and Amber, my eyes pleading for her help, but she gives me none. I'm stuck in the middle of Celia and Pat's disagreement again, only now they're trying to give me reasons as to why I should choose each one of them.

"Marty," Celia says, "remember that time I let Andi have a party in my house, and you broke my favorite vase?"

Pat counters with, "Remember that time you married my daughter?"

My eyes go back and forth between them. "Uh..."

I'm so thankful when I see Andreas and TJ enter the kitchen. I don't know what they're here for, but I'm not letting this opportunity pass.

"Oh, yeah, for sure," I shout to them then look at Pat and Celia again, saying, "Sorry, I gotta help them."

I hurry away from the women and over to my son and friend who both just look confused.

"We didn't say anything yet," TJ states.

"I know, but I needed to get out of there. They're telling me to pick a pie, but Pat is my mother-in-law, and Celia is—well—she's scary."

TJ nods. "I get that."

"Isn't she, like, eighty something?" Andreas brings up.

"Andreas," I respond, "age does not diminish a woman's ability to rip the crap out of you with just her glare."

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

"You can do it," Grams encourages.

"Come on, Gramps!" I beg. "Don't let us down."

Gramps holds the dice tight in his hand as he gives Cara a weak look. "Cara, I gave you a succulent last week."

Cara keeps her icy stare and orders, "Roll the dice."

Gramps takes another deep breath before letting the dice drop to the board, and as soon as they stop moving, gloom sinks over everyone except Cara and Wyatt. Our last hope of beating those two rats is gone.

"That's it," Gramps utters. "I'm bankrupt."

Cara and Wyatt leap up in victory and high five each other as they cheer.

"Let's go buy stocks," Cara suggests to Wyatt. "I feel lucky."

"Stocks aren't the same as gambling, so you know," Brayden informs them.

Cara ignores that and pulls Wyatt by the wrist toward the stairs upward. With them gone, the rest of us begin cleaning up the board game, all mopey from our loss.

"I think they cheated," I grumble.

"Oh, they definitely cheated," Grams agrees.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

It's nearly half past eleven, and I'm still in the kitchen with Amber and Buffy, watching Cece and Pat carry on their arguement with just as much passion as when it started.

"My recipe was passed down for generations," Pat says proudly.

"Generations of Youtube chefs," Cece scoffs.

While Pat gasps in offence, I take the situation into my own hands, reaching out for both of the two pies that sit on the edge of the island. Careful to not make a scene that the women will notice, I begin sliding both pies to the left slowly.

"What are you doing?" Amber whispers.

"A favour," I respond.

"Mine won awards," Cece says, even though I'm almost positive that that's a lie.

"Really?" Pat responds with false interest. "They make an award for driest crust?"

The sound of both their pies splattering on the floor shakes them out of their fight as they look in shock at the red mess.

"Oh no," I say, putting on an innocent smile. "I'll clean that up. Looks like the pie fight is irrelevant now."

As I go over to the sink to get some paper towel from the cabinet beneath it, Buffy meets me there to say, "Andi, I love you."

"I only did what had to be done," I respond with a grin.

"It was for the better," Pat sighs. "We were getting too caught up in the competition."

Cece could take the high road too, but this is Cece. She just rolls her eyes and walks away, saying, "Oh, give it a rest."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

"What time is it?" Oceana wonders.

She looks across the room at me from where she sits on the floor, her back resting against the wall by the door. We've run out of things to keep us entertained at this point. Now we're just waiting.

I pick up my phone from where I'd placed it on top of a bin and check its digital clock.

"11:57," I answer.

"Almost midnight." She lets out a faint chuckle. "This isn't exactly how I planned to ring in the new year, but I suppose there are worse ways." She pauses before adding, "And worse people to be stuck with."

"Well, at least we have those champagne glasses."

I open a bottle I found in one of the cupboards in the back corner of the room and pour the liquid into two of the clear glasses. Keeping one for myself, I walk over to where Oceana is and hold a glass out for her.

"Oh, no, thanks," she says nervously.

"That's cute. You're a good girl. But relax. It's just sparkling apple juice."

She releases a laugh and accepts the drink. I slide down to the floor beside her as she takes a sip, then I take a swig of my own. Right away, I can tell it tastes way too sour to still be good.

"How old is this apple juice?" Oceana asks.

"I'd rather not know."

We both laugh a little and set down our glasses on the floor. With nothing else to do, I reach for my phone again.

"11:59," I say.

"You know," Oceana starts, "I thought this would be the first year I got a kiss at midnight."

"That would be romantic. Like a movie."

"Well, we are in the middle of a sitcom plot," she recalls.

That makes me laugh again, and she watches me, smiling. Then something weird happens. When I stop laughing, it's like everything else stops too. Suddenly, I become so aware of my own heartbeat and the way Oceana's eyes glitter back my reflection, and the twirling in my chest, and how her eyes aren't looking at my eyes anymore. They're lower. And then my eyes aren't looking at her eyes anymore. They're on her lips. And any common sense I ever had vanishes like smoke in the wind. There's only one goal: ruining this safe little barrier of air between us. And it's happening. We're almost there. One more inch. Less than that. I feel her breath like heat from a fire.

Cheering from the floor above tells me that it's now midnight, and thank God, because that rumble of voices manages to startle my brain into working again, and I pull away.

"No, I can't," I say as I cover my face with my hands to hide the humiliation of what I was about to do. "You're my friend's girlfriend."

"No, you're right," Oceana replies, her voice just as uneven as mine. "I'm sorry. I'm an idiot."

She pushes herself onto her feet to walk away, and I drop my hands, desperately saying, "No, I didn't—"

I shut up. There's no way for me to end that sentence. Anything I say would surely either end up being an instant crossing of a line I shouldn't with an untouchable girl—or a lie.

Suddenly, the door bursts open, and I can't tell if it's too soon or not soon enough. Andreas, Marty, and my papa all enter in. Oceana immediately runs up to hug Andreas, and I feel sick watching it. There's my friend, whom I care about more than most people on this planet, hugging his girlfriend who was going to kiss someone else if I hadn't stopped it. I want to tell him. I want to tell him to get away from her, that she doesn't like him like she should. But that would be stupid, wouldn't it? Because I'm the girl she almost cheated on him with, and if I say anything, I expose myself too. And if I'm being honest, if it were anyone other than Andreas, I wouldn't care about her unfaithfulness, because I like her. I have a crush on my friend's girlfriend. Didn't I just tell Hazel I was straight? Yeah, apparently that was a lie. Ugh! What kind of selfish bitch tries to kiss their friend's girlfriend? What do I even do now?

"Want help up?" my dad asks.

I guess that's what I do. I stand up.

"Sorry it too us so long," Andreas says.

"None of us knew where the screwdrivers were," Papa elaborates.

"No, it's alright," Oceana says. Then she links her hand firmly through Andreas's. "Um, let's go join everyone else upstairs."

The couple exits, and Marty follows after them. Andreas gives me a soft smile on his way out, but Oceana doesn't even look at me.

Now just me and him, Papa turns to me, saying, "You may have missed the new year, but there's still plenty of food. But no pie."

"Thanks, Dad," I respond quietly.

We go upstairs together, joining the rest of the family. I know it's all in my head, but I feel like they're all judging me, like they know what happened—or almost happened—and they think I'm horrible. Andreas and Oceana are sitting together on the stairs, so I head in a different direction, going to sit down on one of the living room chairs, the wring in my gut still in full bloom. A moment later, my brother comes over.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

"I'm perfect," I lie, but it makes me feel even grosser. "I'm fine. I...don't know."

"I was just looking for a 'yeah' so that I could move on," Wyatt explains.

Of course.

"Yeah," I force out. "I'm okay."

"Cool," he responds with a smile, but his smile droops when he sees that mine isn't going to come back, and he asks, "Do you want a hug?"

With all the emotions flooding my body right now, that question almost makes me cry, but I manage to hold it in and shake my head.

"Nah, I'm good," I say. "Thanks, though."

"No problem."

He carries on toward Cara, and I remain in my chair, trying not to let my eyes wander back to Oceana and Andreas every time I blink.

 

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

The coffee maker spills brown into Cyrus's mug as Wyatt sits at the kitchen table eating his cereal, and I finish eating my bagel. Jayda makes her entrance right as the last drop of coffee hits Cyrus mug, and she winds around the counter to pick it up for herself.

"Dads, I'm bisexual," she announces.

Cyrus steals the cup back from her, saying, "No."

She gives him a confused look, and then Cyrus realizes the timing issue. I don't think it fully processed in his head what our daughter has just said.

"This is my coffee," he elaborates.

Jayda rolls her eyes at that and places a hand on her hip. "So, my bisexuality. What's our stance?"

"We are good," I reply casually. "Congrats."

I never really thought Jayda would be bisexual, but she does have a clear phone case, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

"We love and support you," Cyrus says with a soft smile.

She claps her hands together once, responding, "Awesome."

Then she looks over at her brother, awaiting his answer, but he's still mixing his cereal around until it becomes milky slop.

"Wyatt," Cyrus calls. "Anything you want to say?"

"No," he answers. "I don't care."

Jayda goes over to him with a smile and starts rubbing her hand around his hair, saying, "You're a good little twerp, you know that?"

Wyatt slaps her hand away, annoyed, and she carries on back around the island to go into the pantry. While she's choosing her breakfast, the doorbell sounds, and Cyrus go over to answer it. Curious, I peek around the corner and see Cyrus lugging a package into the living room. When I see the bookstore's logo on the box, I walk over to him in shock.

"More books?" I say.

"Reading is food for the soul," he responds.

"Too bad you don't read any of them."

"What do you mean?"

As he's asking that, he's trying to shove the new books he just got onto our bookshelf in the living room. The rest of the books are already packed tight on there, and some are being stacked on top of other books. Cyrus tucks the new books into whatever cracks he can find, while I watch him struggle.

"Cyrus, you've got to stop buying books you aren't gonna read. Let's just donate the ones you don't actually plan on picking up to people who will actually enjoy them."

"I read a ton of them," Cyrus argues.

"You only read the books on psychology or the biographies," I counter. "I've never seen you even pick up one of the thousand novels."

"I have."

"Really?" I say, raising my eyebrows.

I step up to the bookshelf and grab the first book I see, pulling it out. It's perfectly flat and smooth, but after I peel open the cover once and let it go, the cover is bent, proving that this book has never been opened before. Cyrus just looks at it with disappointed eyes.

"That proves nothing," Cyrus says.

"It proves that you aren't going to read any of these," I insist. "They're just taking up space. it's going to become a fire hazard soon."

"No, it's a learning hazard."

"Still a hazard."

"These books are important to me," he pouts.

"You've never read any of them! They can't be important to you!"

"Yes, I have!"

I take a step back, crossing my arms. "Then you won't mind if I ask you some questions about their plots?"

"Not at all," Cyrus responds, "but let's do this tomorrow, because you have to get to work."

"You're lucky I do," I say.

Although his difficulty over this is bothersome, his grin is still cute, so I step up and give him a kiss before retreating toward the door to collect my coat and bag.

Cyrus's POV

I wave my husband goodbye as he leaves to go to the fire station, then as soon as the door shuts, I race back into the kitchen and get my kids' attention.

"Okay, what are you guys doing today?"

"Uh, school," Wyatt replies.

Right. I forgot about that.

"I'm down to skip," Jayda says.

"No, you're not," I state. "We'll just start after school."

"Start what?" Jayda questions.

"I need you guys to help me research and memorize a hundred plus books."

"You haven't actually read any of those," Jayda concludes.

"There's never enough time," I pout.

"Exactly," she agrees. "Now, if you could remember that when you get my report card—"

"Jayda, you don't have a job or two kids. You have time. But not today, because you're going to help me."

She drops her head downward, already exhausted.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Walker and I stand in the line outside Shadyside's largest instrument store. Usually, I would only buy from Red Rooster Records, but we only sell some basic instruments and have a very limited selection. This place has everything from pianos to cymbals, but what I care about is the limited edition guitar designed by one of my favorite guitar players, Terri "Tenth Freth" Marden.

"Okay, they're about to open," I say for the third time in one minute.

"Calm down," Walker tells me. "There are only six people in front of us."

"Yeah, but they only carry one of the guitar per day."

He furrows his brows. "That's a bad promotion."

"I know. Whoever manages the store wants to really annoy customers."

All of a sudden, a voice sounds out behind us, saying, "I'm not trying to do that."

I spin around, and it takes me a minute, but I soon recognize him behind his glasses and red hair. I haven't seen him since high school, but he still looks pretty much the same, though taller and with a deeper voice. On his shirt is a nametag labelled 'manager.'

"Gus?" I say. "You're the manager? When did you get into music?"

"I didn't," he answers. "When I was in college, I had a job as a sign spinner for the chicken place across the street, and one day the manager of this store had a heart attack and dropped dead, so the other employees panicked and offered me the job."

"Well, uh, good for you," I say, "I think."

"Why do you have only one guitar per day?" Walker asks.

"Terri Marden only ships us one per day," Gus explains. "I can't control it."

Terri Marden has always been a little eccentric, so I guess his business skills don't fall short of that.

"It's okay," I say. "I don't blame you."

"Uh, well you might," he responds, looking over my shoulder, "because the store just opened, and someone got your guitar."

I spin around, seeing the doors open, and everyone from the line has gone in. Now someone is walking out holding the deep blue guitar I wanted.

"I'm sorry," Gus apologizes.

"It's okay, Gus. We'll come back tomorrow."

Walker raises his eyebrows. "We will? Can't we just buy a normal guitar and paint it to look like that one?"

"You can't," Gus replies for me. "I've offered that to customers before, and they do not respond well."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

"Okay, class, listen up," says Mr. Zimmermann, my history teacher, in his English accent. "Today, you'll be starting a project." The entire class groans in response, which makes Mr. Zimmermann snap, saying, "You know what? I just had my kidney removed, and I didn't have half the negative attitude you all have, so quiet down."

Kelsey turns around in her desk ahead of me, whispering, "I thought maybe we would have at least a week after winter break before we got assignments again."

A hand spikes up from the rows of desks, and the boy who wears a red ball cap even during gym class asks, "Is this a group project?"

Mr. Zimmermann nods. "Yes, it is."

That receives a spew of cheers.

"Enjoy it for now," Mr. Zimmermann tells us. "Once you get to college, you'll beg for independent projects again. Now, for the project, each group will have to do a presentation on a famous explorer of your choice."

Linny turns to look at Kelsey and I, saying, "I'm thinking let's avoid being basic and choosing Columbus. How about Vasco Da Gama?"

"Did I say I was done talking!" Mr. Zimmermann whines to the chattering class.

Everyone hushes again while he recollects himself and carries on calmly, like he didn't just have a miniature explosion.

"You'll be in pairs that I'll be choosing."

"Booooooooo!" It's like my schoolmates are some kind of live studio audience.

"Booing me won't work," Mr. Zimmermann states. "I was the accident child of a family of eight doctors. My parents booed me for years."

It gets quiet quickly after that uncomfortable information.

"Now, I used a random generator to create teams," Mr. Zimmermann says, pulling out a list from his pocket. "Team one: Barry and Larry. Team two: Sherry and Mary. My goodness, we have a lot or rhyming names in this class." He lets out a laugh before saying, "Anyway," and continuing on. Eventually, I hear my name, and I perk up, but the name following mine is about the worst name he could say. "Brayden and Deion."

Before I can make my apprehension vocal to my friends, Kelsey does so with hers, muttering, "You've got to be kidding."

Mr. Zimmermann finishes reading the names and concludes with, "Okay, go talk to your partners. I have to call Wayfair about a couch that never got delivered."

The teacher exits the classroom to make his call, and the class begins diving up into their teams, but while my friends head off, I remain in my seat and just turn back to see Deion first. He's looking at me too, and he doesn't look particularly angry, so I force myself up from my seat and make my way over to his desk.

"So," I say, "do you want to get together to start our project maybe after school today?"

"Yeah, I guess," he mutters, his eyes switching from me to other things and back to me frequently.

"Good. I could come to your house, or—"

"No," he says before I can finish. "Uh, my house is under renovations. Can we go to yours?"

Although taken aback by his quick denial, I agree, "Yeah, okay."

I wonder how my parents will take to me bringing my bully home? I figure this can't be a common thing for kids to do. I'll have to be sure to double check that none of our photos have been vandalized when he leaves.

"Um, do you want to meet by my locker after school to take the bus there?" I suggest. "I know you know where my locker is."

"Sure," Deion responds, and that's the end of our conversation.

 

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV 

The typical routine occurs around me as the last bell of the day rings. Students flood the halls like a tsunami, their chatter rippling through in sound waves. After getting my coat on my backpack packed, I stand in front of my closed locker, waiting for one of the faces walking by to be the right one. Minutes pass on, and although it's not the one I need, I am delighted to see Kelsey's face emerge beside me.

"Where's the jerk?" she asks.

"Somewhere," I respond dully. "Hopefully."

"I can't believe how mature you're being about this," she says. "If I were partnered with that guy, I would've punched his face in already."

I laugh at that. Kelsey's the kind of person who makes common threats of violence but would never actually act on them. She avoids stepping on worms when it rains. She would never lay a hand on a human being.

"I have to catch my bus," she says. "Tell me how it goes."

I nod, and she heads off, leaving me in the hallway. The bodies begin to drain out, and still there's no sign of Deion. He could've forgotten, but I don't have his phone number, so I can't message him to find out.

From the left end of the hallway, I spot Wyatt with his cluster of friends, all of them running down the corridor excitedly.

"How long do you think he'll last?" one of the boys shouts.

"I don't know, but we gotta take photos before he's down!" another replies.

I have no idea what that's about, but I don't care, and I don't have time. My bus is going to leave. And Deion's not here. I suppose it was credulous of me to think he would show up. I push myself off my locker and join the rest of the students exiting the building.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

Andi and I are in the middle of binging Queer Eye when Hazel walks up to us with her little brown teddy bear.

"Hey," she says, "so I hear Uncle TJ is maybe donating some books, so that gave me the genius idea to donate this finally."

Andi's eyes immediately go sad. "You want to donate Snuggles? That bear was your favorite when you were little."

"It's creepy," Hazel states. "It's missing an eye, and the voice box is degrading."

She gives the bear's matted fur a squeeze in the stomach, and what comes out is not the sweet voice it used to have. Rather, it sounds like it's both underwater and in a blender as the voice cuts in and out, wavering in pitch, saying, "Let's be friends forever." It dips in pitch on the last word, only elevating how disturbing it sounds.

"Yeah, that's messed up," I say.

"So you agree," Hazel concludes.

Andi shakes her head. "I don't agree. This bear has so many memories. Don't you want to keep it to give to your kids one day?"

"If I hate my kids so much that I want to give them night terrors, I will do that."

"It can't be that bad," Andi responds.

"Sometimes the bear gets knocked, making it talk in the middle of the night without anyone going near it," Hazel says.

"You're being dramatic."

"I don't know," I join in. "I'd want to get rid of it."

"It has sentimental value!" Andi argues. She lets out a huff, saying, "I've got a sculpture to work on now, so goodbye."

With that, she gets up and heads for her studio.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Wyatt sits on the chair across from mine in the basement with flashcards. Around us is a mountain of books that I've been skimming through, although I've only made it through about ten of them, and I haven't retained much of the information.

"Okay," Wyatt says, reading off a flashcard. "The main characters of Little Women are...?"

I rack my brain for the answers, finding a few that feel right, so I say them. "Jo, Beth...Anne—"

"Wrong! Jo, Beth, Amy, and Marge."

"Got it."

I grab another book and open it, glossing my eyes over all the pages, trying to latch onto the important words, while Wyatt flips to the next card.

"What year is Brave New World set in?" he questions.

"2540?"

"Wrong!"

"You don't need to yell."

"I'm not yelling," he denies. "I'm projecting."

"That's just a nice word for yelling."

That's when Jayda shows up with her laptop, looking at me in pity.

"Wow, you're actually reading the books?"

"Skimming them," I correct.

"Cute. You've clearly never faked reading a book before," she says. "Put down the book, and let me show you the magic of Snapnotes." She sits down on the couch and opens up her laptop. "Any book you need, you'll find a whole summary on this website."

"It's concerning that you know this so well," I say.

"Hey, if I actually read the books I was supposed to read for English, I'd be doing way worse than I am right now, because I would never make it past the first chapter. Also, you think anyone would know what Shakespeare is talking about without looking it up?"

She makes a valid point. Even I relied on the translations in the bottom of each page when reading those plays in high school.

She clicks a button on her laptop, saying, "Now get ready to fill your brain with a bunch of useless themes and motifs."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

Day two. Walker and I are first in line this time, so we have to get the guitar. We just have to wait. We wait while everyone else starts lining up outside the instrument store, and the parking lot reaches capacity.

"We better get it today," Walker mumbles.

"We will," I reply.

I'm feeling pretty good about this. There's no way we could not get it today. But then the person behind me in line taps my shoulder, and I look around to see his glum face.

"Excuse me, but my mom is dying, and her last wish was this guitar."

How can I keep his dying mom from getting this guitar? I suppose I can come back tomorrow.

"When she's dead, she won't need a guitar," Walker responds before I can let the guy go ahead of us.

I frown at my husband. "That was harsh."

"Would you rather have to come back tomorrow?"

I guess not, but I still feel bad. When we both turn forward again, Walker suddenly spots something happening in the parking lot, and I look over to see a loose bill fallen from a man's pocket.

"Someone dropped his money," Walker says. "I'm gonna go return it. Don't move."

"Sure thing."

He heads out of line to get the bill, but while he's away, I get another tap on my shoulder, and I glance back.

"Excuse me," a woman says. "You budged me."

"Oh, sorry."

I step back with a kind smile, letting her go ahead, but when Walker returns, he looks at her and then at me in shock.

"Jonah."

"We accidentally budged in front of her," I explain.

"Jonah, we were the first ones here."

Oh, yeah. We were. My bad.

Before we can reclaim our spot, the doors to the store open, and everyone runs inside. A moment later, Gus walks out and finds us.

"Sorry, guys," he says. "Guitar's taken."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

When I walk into history class, my eyes immediately go to Deion who's sitting at the back of the class. He watches me the from the second I appear, but I'm done with him. I don't need to deal with this. I don't even need to talk to him, so I'm not going to. Linny and Kelsey observe my cold exterior as I drop down into my desk.

"I take it the project didn't go well?" Linny assumes.

"It didn't go at all," I reply.

"What did he do?" Kelsey asks.

"It's what he didn't do. He didn't show up."

"Of course he would do something like that," Linny grumbles. "I bet he's waiting for you to do all the work."

"Well, it doesn't matter, because I made an agreement with the teacher this morning to make sure I'm not penalized for his lack of effort."

"Smart," Linny responds.

But then her eyes drift up above my head, and I turn around to see Deion standing there. I can't tell whether he's sorry or just annoyed. I've never seen him sorry before.

"What do you want, Deion?" Kelsey questions.

Deion ignores her, focusing on me instead. "Look, I'm sorry I didn't show up. Something came up."

"Something that kept you from letting me know you couldn't make it?" I press.

"Yeah, that's pathetic," Linny snarls.

Deion rolls his eyes and asks, "Can we talk away from you backup girls?"

Kelsey gasps. "Excuse you—"

"Yes," I answer, cutting her off.

I love my friends, but with them being so forceful in their protectiveness, it keeps me from being able to get a complete understanding of the situation, so I stand up and walk with Deion toward the back of the room.

He turns to face me. "About yesterday—"

"It's fine," I interrupt. "I already talked to Mr. Zimmermann about the partnership's unequal effort, so he'll be marking me independently for my part."

Deion looks down, muttering, "Oh, okay." A moment later, he brings his chin up again, saying, "Look, can we try meeting up again? I promise I won't skip this time."

"Can't. My sister's having a slumber party today."

"Well, what if we go to my house?" he offers.

"I thought your house was under renovations."

He stays quiet, and I get the feeling that that story wasn't exactly true. I just wonder why he would lie about that.

"Fine," I agree.

"Cool," he says, looking relieved. "I'll find you after school. For real this time."

"I'll be holding you to that."

 

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV 

I'm surprised when Deion pushes the stop button on the bus and begins to stand up.

"Here?" I check.

"Yeah."

The bus driver pulls over against the cracking cement curb of Woodlawn, a neighbourhood I've purposefully never stepped foot in. But here I am, stepping down onto the sidewalk, next to a boy who still decently terrifies me. What if he's only brought he here to to something bad to me? Am I going to get jumped? My hardly exhaustive list of shady tales based in Woodlawn that I've heard from friends and acquaintances include muggings, assaults, several break-ins, and of course drug cartels. I've also heard that there are members of a mafia group around here. Of course, I hold sparse details about any of these events, but I was quite frankly comfortable with never seeing the place first-hand.

The houses here don't feel real. They feel like the type of buildings from which would spawn an excellent short story about the perils of life, with their peeling sidings and rustic garden decorations dusted in snow. One woman watches us from her porch steps as we walk by. She's smoking something that smells the way Andreas does after he gets home late from parties and makes me swear not to tell mom and dad that he was ever out. I feel unsettled, but Deion has no such reaction. This is simply normal to him.

"This is where you live?" I say.

"Yeah," he replies shyly.

"Oh. Interesting."

We continue down the block, and I realize I've quickly gained a habit of looking behind me every few steps. I sense Deion's eyes lifting up to me at random intervals as our silence progresses, and eventually he breaks it.

"I'm sorry," he utters. "I should've told you."

"No, it's okay," I insist.

"You sure? You seem a little thrown off."

I shake my head. "I've just never—I've never met anyone who lives...over here. I've never been here either."

"Yeah, Woodlawn kind of has a bad rep," he admits. "But the people here are nice. Mostly. Just don't go out at night. But during the day, it's chill."

Across the street is a house with a spectacularly unkempt lawn. The yellow grass is knee high, muddy from the January precipitation, and folding over on itself. Where there's not grass, dead weeds stick to the stone pathway that leads up to the door. Deion notices where my attention's gone to and begins to explain it.

"That's Dave's house."

"Dave can't mow the lawn?" I ask.

"He works three jobs. Doesn't have the time."

I feel contrite for having assumed the owner simply didn't care. I guess since my family has always had good jobs and enough money, so I didn't consider that someone else wouldn't.

We keep walking, and I notice a huddle of teenage boys farther down the street all talking around a car.

"Who are those kids?" I ask.

"Oh, don't look at them," Deion tells me.

I keep my head away from them as instructed and carry onward, following Deion like a boat to a lighthouse.

"Boy!" comes a shout from the house left of us, and I look over to see a an old lady on a rocking chair on the porch. "You from here?" She's talking to Deion.

"Hi, Mrs. Wilders," Deion responds. "I'm Deion. I hope you're having a good day."

"Oooh, polite," the woman says with a grin. "Your parents brought you up right."

While we move along, Deion looks to me, explaining, "She has dementia. I say hi to her everyday, but she can never remember my name."

I glance back at the lady again, wondering how such a smiley person could be ill. But I don't get much time to ponder it before Deion curves up a pathway.

"This is my house," he says.

It's a tiny bungalow, similar to the rest, but not like the cookie cutter houses of my neighbourhood. It's unique. Green window trim. Mustard yellow door. Metal wind spinner sticking out from the grass. Large oak tree raining branches over the street. Many of the trees here are like that. They cover the road. I bet it must be beautiful in the summer when the leaves form a blanket ceiling.

Deion unlocks his door with the house key he wears on a string like a necklace tucked in his shirt. Inside, there's not much of an entryway. Rather, it's a long, white-tiled hallway. I remove my shoes and coat, leaving the jacket on the little bench along the wall where he leaves his. I follow him down the hall, past a little living room and into a humble kitchen with about a quarter of the counter space that my kitchen has. In there, a woman in a red dress and apron smiles at us.

"Hi, Mom," Deion greets.

"Deion," she says, looking between me and him, "you didn't say you were having a friend over."

"We're partners for a school project," he explains.

I give the woman a polite nod, saying, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. King."

"You don't gotta be so fancy," she replies with a chuckle. "Just Dianne's fine. And what should I call you?"

"Brayden."

"Well, I am so happy to meet one of Deion's friends. I haven't met one of those in years—"

Deion shuts her down with a grunt and a head shake, and Dianne redirects her comment to a farewell.

"Well, I'll leave you boys to your homework. Deion, there're leftovers in the fridge for you and Jamar. Have a good night, okay, sweetie?"

She bends over to give Deion a kiss on the cheek, at which he scrunches his face in embarrassment. Then she leaves for the door, grabbing her purse on the way. Once she's gone, I look over at Deion, puzzled.

"Where's she going?" I wonder.

"Work."

"This late?"

"She works the night shifts as a server at a restaurant a few blocks down."

"What does your dad do?"

That question catches Deion off guard as he says, "Uh...he's...not around."

"Oh."

There's an awkward moment of nothing until Deion says, "Uh, let's start with the project."

He takes his books out of his backpack and drops them on the kitchen table. While I do the same, I notice movement coming from farther down the hall where I assume the bedrooms must be. Out comes a little boy, around five or so in age, who looks like a little version of Deion. In his hands he carries a stack of pink flashcards with words in bold letters.

"Deion," he says in an high-pitched voice, "can you help me with my words?"

"Jamar, uh, I'm kind of in the middle of something."

"It's okay," I say.

Deion looks at me, checking, "Are you sure?"

I nod.

"Who is he?" Jamar questions.

Deion answers, "That's G—uh, Brayden."

I end up smiling a little at that. I don't know whether it's because he used my actual name, or because his stutter was amusing. Maybe both.

"Are you his friend?" Jamar asks me.

Hardly, actually, but I don't want to tell the real story to this little boy, so I end up drawing out my response, saying, "Well...um..."

"Yeah," Deion answers for me, and I'm surprised, but not in a bad way. "Okay, J, give me the flashcards."

Jamar hands them over to Deion and climbs up onto the chair beside him at the table. Deion begins testing the boy on each word, letting Jamar try to read them aloud and cheering when he gets one right. I never pegged Deion as being like this—a nice, big brother. I guess I was wrong about a few things.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

When I hear footsteps from upstairs, I know it's time for Wyatt to put down the flashcards and Jayda to shut the laptop.

"Time's up," I say. "It's the moment of truth."

The three of us head upstairs right as TJ enters the kitchen. Wyatt and Jayda go over to the table to sit down, and I review all the plots of every book I just studied in my head.

"There you are," TJ says. "What were you guys up to?"

"Nothing of interest," I lie. "How was work?"

"A kid was stuck in a tree after a very extreme wedgie, so that was kinda unique."

"Aww, you got Malroy down?" Wyatt complains. "We were all betting on how long he'd stay there for."

"Wyatt," I say, concerned, "you didn't—"

"I didn't put him there," he answers before I finish. "I'm the good guy. I threw lunch up to him during recess."

I feel better about that and return my attention to TJ.

"So are you going to quiz me on the books?" I ask.

"Oh, yeah," he remembers. Then he takes his phone out of his jacket pocket and starts reading off it. "Okay, first one. Who's the protagonist of 1984?"

"Uh, Winston Smith," I recall.

"Good. How about who wrote The Grass Dancer?"

"Susan Power."

"Huh," he says, tucking his phone away. "I guess you do read those books. Alright. I'll shut up about you buying more."

"Wait, that's it?" I say, shocked and kind of annoyed.

TJ just shrugs. I spent two days memorizing a million random facts to be asked only two questions.

"Don't you want to ask me more?"

"To be honest, I only searched up those two things," he confesses.

"Oh, well, I've read them all," I insist.

He nods. "I got that."

He begins walking away toward the hall, and now the guilt hits me. Whenever I lie to TJ, he always figures it out, but he's not figuring this out. I'm a horrible person for lying and getting away with it. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Jayda glaring at me firmly, silently telling me not to crack, but I'm too fragile for that.

"TJ, wait," I call out. "I lied. I didn't read any of those books."

Jayda shoots up to her feet, huffing, "Does my effort mean nothing to you?" She glares at me as she walks out of the room, muttering, "Shame."

"You didn't read them?" TJ says.

"No," I confess. "I read Snapnotes to learn all the summaries."

From the table, Wyatt mumbles, "Waste of nine hours."

"I like books," I continue, "and I like getting new ones."

"Well, the point of books are to read them," TJ states.

"I know, and now that I know the plot to every one of them, reading them seems redundant."

TJ smiles, stepping in as he says, "So..."

I sigh. "I'll start a donation pile."

TJ makes two fists of joy, whispering, "Yes."

He gives me a kiss on the lips, and I pout as he backs away.

"Happy?" I ask.

"Very."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

An eery sound wakes me up in the middle of the night, and I recognize it right away.

"Let's be friends forever."

Amber is still sound asleep, so I decide to check out the situation for myself. The strange thing about it, and the reason my heart is pumping so heavily, is that the voice wasn't coming from Hazel's room. It was coming from farther, all the way in the kitchen. As I enter the space, I flick on the light, and my eyes adjust to the brightness. I figure this time to adjust is why I can't see the bear right away, but after a minute, it's still not in sight.

Then the phrase repeats from behind me, and I startle around, screaming, finding the bear sitting on the kitchen counter, looking at me. Hazel comes into the kitchen with her arms folded and a grin, followed by an exhausted Amber.

"One day that scream will have sentimental value," Hazel mocks.

"Okay, I see your point," I admit, "but it still has so many memories attached to it."

"I have a solution," Amber says.

She opens the drawer nearby and pulls out a knife. Then she stabs the bear in the back, slicing it open, and removes its sound box. The batteries pop out as soon as she takes off the cover, and she drops the plastic and batteries on the counter before handing the bear back to Hazel, stuffing sticking out of its back.

"Well, it's still missing an eye and overall gives big Chucky vibes," Hazel says, "but I guess I can keep it in my closet."

"And then Andi can find an eye to sew on and fix it up," Amber adds.

"That seems fair," I agree.

"But if it starts showing up in random places around my room," Hazel says, "it's going in the shredder."

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

"How come Walker couldn't come today?" Buffy asks me as we stand in line outside the store for my third day.

"He worked early," I answer.

"What about your job?"

"Oh, I took vacation time to get this guitar." Then I check my watch again. "It's almost opening."

"All you have to do is not move," Buffy states. "You think you can do that?"

I nod, but then my eye catches on a stand outside the restaurant next door.

"Hey, free corn dogs!"

Buffy pulls me back by the wrist when I start to walk away, and I remember my goal. Okay, the store should be opening right about...

The doors open, and a bunch of teenagers run in ahead of us, causing my jaw to drop. Not again!

"Jackasses!" Buffy shouts.

"Buffy, they're kids," I say.

"So they can run ahead of us?"

That's when Gus steps out of the store, and I catch the last bit of him telling the teenagers, "Sorry, no guitar today. Already sold."

As the kids walk away, Gus comes over to me and Buffy.

"Who bought it?" I ask.

"I did," he replies. "For you."

I'm in disbelief. "Gus, you didn't have to do that."

"Well, you're paying he back," he states.

"Right," I say. Him buying it without expecting money in return was too much for me to assume anyway. "Thanks still."

"Anything for a fellow Space Otter," he responds with a smile.

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

I enter the kitchen holding a daisy yellow skirt with a white blazer, and Andi and Hazel both look my way from the table to see.

"What do you think of this?" I ask.

"I think it's a little fancy for leftover night," Hazel replies, "but it's cute."

"It's not for now," I say, bringing my arms down. "I have a job interview coming up, and I want to get this right."

"You have an interview?" Andi responds in surprise. "For what?"

"Not that window cleaning company that said working for them gave you a special tax exemption, right?" Hazel asks. "Because I'm pretty sure they're not gonna be in business much longer."

"No. It's for a magazine that writes articles about the environment, including its issues and technological advances in that area."

"Green Tea Magazine?" Andi responds. "My dad had a subscription to that, although he thought the name was misleading."

"He thought it was a magazine about tea?" Hazel assumes.

"Yeah," Andi confirms.

"I really want this job," I say. "I love working for your mom, but with the amount of times customers have used me as a therapist, I'm going to need to start going to a therapist if I don't get out of there."

"Everybody could use therapy," Hazel tells me. "That's what my therapist says."

"Yeah, too bad having good mental health costs so much," I respond. "Now, back to the outfit. Yes or no?"

"Yes," Andi answers. "Now come eat dinner."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Since New Year's, there's been a total shift in the way everything feels, like someone switched the colour of the lightbulbs. It all used to be cool white: plain, easy; and now it's magenta: hot, loud. I've come to terms with my sexuality, but the situation with Oceana hasn't really been resolved, like, at all. She's still with Andreas. I don't know how long that will keep going. I still haven't said anything to Andreas. I don't know what I would say. And she hasn't really tried to talk to me—until now.

While standing at my locker at the end of the school day, I see her silhouette approach to my right, and I close my locker door, instantly becoming uncomfortable with how close we are. She's wearing perfume that smells like roses. That bitch. She can't do this to me.

"Hey," she says.

"Hey."

I fold my arms over my chest, trying to repress the pounding behind my ribs, but it's not working.

"Uh..." She looks down momentarily before starting her point. "I know we haven't really talked much, but I think we should."

"There's really nothing to talk about," I state, trying to sound confident, though I'm obviously nervous as hell.

"Jayda, call me crazy, but I thought we almost kissed."

"No, you almost kissed me," I hiss, making sure nobody around us is listening. "You're the one who almost cheated on your boyfriend."

"I just think we need to figure this out."

"There's nothing to figure out, Oceana. You're with Andreas, therefore this"—I motion between us—"can never be a thing."

I pick up my backpack and am about to leave when a student with dyed blue hair and a T-shirt that reads 'Let's Get Me Some Trans Rights' comes up to Oceana and me with a stack of tiny paper flyers.

"I'm getting some big bi vibes from you two," they say and hold out a flyer. "Pride club is having a pride fair next week. Make sure to attend."

Out of politeness, I take the flyer, but Oceana shakes her head. The kid moves on, and I return my icy glare to the girl standing before me.

"You don't have pride?" I ask coldly.

"I'm just not into that stuff," she responds.

"Is that why you're still with Andreas?"

She hesitates for a second before answering, "I like Andreas."

"Awesome. Then why are you bothering talking to me?"

It's a rhetorical question, one that I don't wait to hear her fumble to answer. I step away and strut down the hall, leaving Oceana in the distance.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

I measure the chili powder and drop the spice into the bowl while Andreas comes down the stairs, passing by his brother who sits on the living room couch with a book in hand.

"You're reading the Communist Manifesto?" Andreas observes with a laugh. "Aren't you, like, a die-hard capitalist?"

"My stance is swaying," Brayden mutters, keeping his eyes on the pages.

Andreas carries on to head downstairs, and Cara descends the steps next, taking his place with a disgusted expression.

"Ew! Commie!" she shouts at Brayden.

"I'm enlightening myself!" Brayden defends. "Will you all leave me be! There are some very good points in here."

Cara keeps her eyes narrowed as she continues downstairs, and Brayden gets back to his reading. But I can no longer focus on my cooking due to the racket of bass thumping and young adults shouting for someone to chug from the yard next door.

"Woah, someone's having a good time," Marty says as he enters from the mudroom.

He just got home from work, and of course he's greeted with the noise of the barbecue occurring beside us.

"Okay, I am getting sick of our neighbours," I say. "They have these loud, obnoxious barbeques every night, and they always go well past the ten when the law prohibits loud noises."

"If it persists a few more weeks, you could sue them for nuisance," Brayden suggests.

"I don't need to sue them. I just need them to stop their barbecues."

"They're, like, twenty-five," Marty reasons. "This is probably their first house. They're just excited."

"They're inconsiderate," I counter.

I slide open the door and step out onto the deck, anger fuming from my ears. Marty comes out behind me, curious as I take matters into my own hands. The group continues their business, not caring that it's way too early in the year to be having a barbecue. They're are wearing tank tops and shorts in 30 degree weather.

"Hey!" I shout above the music, but the boys and girls just keep laughing together and grilling their steaks. "Hey!"

That time, one of them turns down the dial on the music to respond.

"Yo!" he yells.

"Aren't you cold?" Marty calls out before I can ask my request.

"We're from the Yukon, bro!" the guy at the grill replies. "This is summer!"

"Can you turn down your music, and stop screaming?" I yell. "We can hear you from inside my house!"

"Oh, sorry!"

The boy snickers and blasts the volume dial up again, going way louder than it was before.

"Those little shits," I growl.

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

Oceana sits across from me in a booth at The Spoon. We always get baby taters to share, which we did today too, but I'm noticing that she hasn't really eaten many. Instead, she nibbles on one every few minutes then brings her arms back around her stomach, leaning forward toward the table.

"You feeling okay?" I wonder.

"Yeah," she responds, although her voice is breathy. "Just not very hungry."

I'm not an idiot. I know things with Oceana have been weird lately. I've been weird. I think I have a problem, because whenever I look at her, it doesn't feel right. It's like I'm looking at a forged photo, something that I'm told is correct, but it isn't. She's gorgeous and really nice, but it's been a really long time of us just being together, and nothing's really moved, but I think I'm moving...backward. I don't know what I want instead. No, I do know. I just don't think I want to admit it. Because that's insane, right? Here's this incredible girl in front of me, and all I can think about is—"

"So how about that weather?" Oceana asks, blocking my train of thought. "Pretty crazy, right?"

"Uh, yeah. Only partly cloudy. Maybe tomorrow we'll get fully cloudy."

She laughs uncomfortably. "Yeah..."

Why is it that when people are awkward, the first topic is always the weather? The weather's not even interesting today. It's not interesting any day. It's literally just clouds that vary their shape depending on the day. The direction of the toilet paper in public washrooms is more interesting than that.

"Hey, um, Andreas," Oceana speaks up after a moment. Her voice sounds frail like a fall leaf breaking off a branch. "I, um... I think we should break up."

Okay, here's the thing. I'm upset, yes. But I'm probably not as upset as I should be. Because it feels kind of like a weight off my chest, like I can now think about things other than her, look at girls other than her. I've never been cuffed this long before. Finally, I'm not. But now my ego feels under attack. Girls don't break up with me. Sure, they turn me down, but if one of them agrees to go out with me, I'm usually the one to end it.

"Why?" I question.

"I'm not..." She clearly hasn't prepared this part of her speech. "I—I—uh... It's nothing wrong with you. There's just... I kind of got feelings for someone else."

Okay, now I feel really conflicted, because I'm kind of mad, but I don't think I really have the right to be mad...

When I don't respond, she shakes her head and stands up, saying, "I'm sorry. I should go. I'll pay."

She turns around and walks away toward the front counter to get the bill, and I just stay sitting, trying to unwrap all the emotions going through me right now.

"Hey, dude," comes the voice of a teenager at the table beside mine, "if you're not gonna eat those baby taters, I'll take 'em."

"Not a chance," I huff and shove a baby tater in my mouth.

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

Walking through the doors of the office building is a surreal experience, because there's no change in lighting, due to the glass walls. White sofas hold people drinking coffee and working on tablets. At the end of a straw rug is the desk where I step up to, and there the man looks up at me with a smile.

"Greetings," he says in an enthusiastic voice. "How may I help you on this sunny day?"

"Um, I'm here for an interview for the writer job."

"Name?"

"Amber Kippen."

He searches his computer, finding it in a second.

"Yes, you can just follow me, and I'll take you to Claire's office."

I follow the man into an elevator, and he nods toward the buttons.

"Floor three please," he says.

Okay, I guess I'm getting that. I press the button, but it doesn't light up, and the doors don't close, so I try again. After fifteen pushes, the elevator finally moves. It could just be my nerves, but I swear the instrumental song in the elevator is "Hollaback Girl." Eventually, we get to the third floor, and the man leads me down to an open office door where I step in, seeing a woman in a long, black trench coat, looking out her glass walls at the sunshine.

"Ah, yes, my four o'clock. Welcome," the woman says. "I'm Claire."

"I'm Amber," I respond.

She comes over to shake my hand, and her grip is firm, automatically creating a power dynamic between the two of us.

"Come take a seat."

I do as told, sitting down on the chair across from hers at her desk.

"So," she says, "do you know what this building is powered by?"

"Yes, solar panels on the roof," I answer confidently.

"Yes, but not the answer I was looking for," she responds. "It's powered by teamwork."

"Of course."

"What about Green Tea Magazine makes you want to write for us?"

"Uh, well, I've always loved the magazine," I explain. "I'm a strong advocate for environmental conservation, and I would love to be a part of that."

"Good answer," she says with a smile. "I'm glad you didn't mention tea. When I see that in a resume, I automatically throw it out. Now, tell me, do you know what makes Green Tea Magazine thrive?"

"Uh, hard work?"

"Renewable energy."

"Right, that's what I meant."

She gives me a pity smile and keeps going. "You know—"

A blaring fire alarm suddenly sounds, and the sprinklers above start showering us with water. My body reacts before my mind, springing up from my chair in panic.

"Not a fire," Claire huffs. "It's such a waste of water."

________________________________________

Amber's POV

Everyone from the building stares up at the structure from the parking lot around it. The fire department managed to get the fire out, one of them being my brother, who comes over to me after it's safe.

"What were you doing here?" TJ asks.

"I had a job interview," I reply. "Do you know what started the fire?"

"Yeah, uh, looks like someone broke the level 3 button in the elevator, and some wires sparked and well, you know."

The level three button. Oh my God.

"I think I started the fire," I mutter in shock.

"Damn. Well, hope that job wasn't anything great," TJ says, giving my shoulder a pat.

Then I notice Claire coming over through the crowd, and I try to not look guilty.

"Crazy event during your interview, huh?" she says.

"Yeah, totally." I do my best to keep my smile looking normal.

"Some people don't know how to be patient and let the elevator take it's time."

"Yeah. Some people." I laugh awkwardly.

"So you ready to continue that interview?"

Is it moral for me to continue trying to get a job at a place I just accidentally set on fire? Would that be way overconfident? One hundred percent. But what am I going to answer? TJ eyes me from the side, but I just nod at Claire.

"Yup. Let's go."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Although the engine shuts off when I turn the key, the noise is still loud due to the music blaring next door. Buffy's done with it before we can even step out of the car, for she hops out and slams the door shut, beginning to walk toward the neighbours' house.

"They're still doing this?" she growls.

"It's really not a big deal," I tell her.

"Oh, so this isn't a big deal, but that time the other neighbours said you were slow, you had to train for a week to race them?"

"Okay, but I cared about that. I don't care about this."

My bluntness only fuels her more, and she shakes her head, walking on toward the gate to the neighbours backyard.

"You can't go through the gate," I say.

She goes through the gate.

"This is trespassing," I tell her as we enter the yard.

"They trespassed on my anger," she retorts.

"I don't think the law covers that."

As soon as we get in view of the young adults, all in their early twenties, a group of girls in tube tops and flip flops turn their eyes to me and my wife.

"Who invited their parents?" one of them asks.

"We're your neighbours!" Buffy shouts. "Turn down the music!"

"Sorry, I can't hear you over the music!" I boy on the deck shouts with a laugh.

All of a sudden, a group of people start cheering, and Buffy and I look over to see a girl shotgunning a can. Among the circle of observers is Cara. Buffy starts marching in her direction, and I hurry to follow.

"Cara!" Buffy snaps.

"They had cake," Cara defends.

Buffy grabs the girl's hand and pulls her away toward the gate again.

"You're lame," Cara grumbles.

"You're seven," Buffy replies.

"How come Andreas can stay, but I can't?"

At that, I look back to see Andreas on the deck by the boys at the grill. Buffy's about to start walking, but I hold up a hand and go instead.

"I'll get him," I say.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

When I walk in the door to my home, Andi is sitting on the couch, glancing at the clock in puzzlement.

"That took long," she says. "How'd it go?"

"Uh, you could say it was fire," I respond, going over to plop down next to her.

"Good fire?" she hopes.

"Literal fire. I may or may not have almost burnt down the building."

Andi gasps. "Amber!"

"We finished the interview afterward, but they still found out it was me who pressed the elevator button way too aggressively."

"What's with you and doing normal things in an exceedingly aggressive manner?" she questions.

"Hey, without me, our bedroom window would never open," I remind her.

"I mean, we could just get some grease or—"

"You really want to render my only power useless, huh?"

She chuckles and shakes her head.

"So I'm guessing you didn't get the job," Andi concludes.

"Hah, but I did," I correct with a grin. "My boss liked my enthusiasm toward getting to the interview."

"Wow, that seems like an awful business decision, but I support you!"

I giggle at that, and she comes in to hug me.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

"Marty, start the grill."

He nods, and I continue glaring from the patio at the source of the racket through the fence. They holler and shout above the pumping rap music, not caring who they're bothering. While Marty is on the deck at the barbecue, Jonah and Walker show up through the gate, Jonah carrying his electric guitar and amp.

"So why did you need us here, and why did I have to bring these?" Jonah asks.

"Because the neighbours are being obnoxious," I explain.

"And you want to prove you can be more obnoxious," Jonah pieces together.

"You get me," I respond with a smile.

Jonah begins plugging in and setting up his amp at the same time as Cara walks out onto the deck.

"I can't believe I'm stuck at the lame party!" she complains.

"No, this isn't lame, because we're going to keep our music going longer than they do," I respond.

"Sounds petty," my daughter states. "I like it."

Jonah plucks a few notes on his guitar, and the sound rings out until he mutes it with his palm.

"Hey," comes Brayden's voice as he steps onto the deck beside Cara. "I'm trying to do homework in here."

"Well, I'm trying to win," I argue.

"Alright," he sighs. "I guess I'll have to drop eighth grade French."

Marty furrows his brows at that. "Aren't you in seventh grade?"

"Congratulations," Brayden says sarcastically. "You know your son's grade."

"Why are you in eighth grade French?" Marty questions.

"I wanted a challenge. It didn't work."

Jonah starts playing a few chords, and after a moment, the neighbours finally respond.

"You trying to annoy us?" one of the boys yells. "We don't get annoyed! We used to fall asleep in blizzards."

"Sounds yummy," Cara comments. 

"Not those blizzards," Brayden informs her.

The neighbours dial their music up even louder, and Jonah gets ready to compete.

"Okay, here we go," he says.

He starts strumming a some chords, repeating the pattern while Cara goes over to the chair across from his, mesmerized. But then she says something that makes me stop.

"That's a pretty song. Are you gonna teach your baby it?"

Jonah's guitar falls flat, and we all turn to look at him and Walker. Cara suddenly has a guilty look on her face, like she knew she wasn't supposed to say that.

"Chickening out?" shouts the neighbour.

"We're in the middle of a family moment here!" I yell back. "Shut up!" Then I walk over to Jonah and Walker. "Jonah, Walker, what's she talking about?"

The two of them look at each other, like they never prepared for this moment. How come Cara knows? How come I didn't know?

"We're in the process of adopting a baby," Jonah finally explains.

"What?" I react, a huge smile growing on me.

"Guys!" Marty says from the deck. "Why didn't you tell us?"

"We didn't want to get anyone's hopes up before it happened," Walker answers.

"I'm so happy for you!" I cheer.

"Thanks," Jonah says. "But don't tell the others. We just don't want to jinx anything."

"My lips are sealed," I promise. "You're lucky Andi wasn't the one who found out."

"Or Cyrus's mom," Jonah jokes. "Okay, well—" he gets his guitar back in position "—back to annoying your neighbours."

 

Chapter Text

Jayda's POV

Hazel's in AP grade nine math, which is why she tutors me with my grade ten math, because she's just that smart. Just by our set-ups at the dining room table in my house, you can see who the genius is, because she has two calculators—one in case the other dies—a binder, a stack of papers, highlighters, pencils, and a whole-ass geometry kit. I just have a pencil too dull to write with and the back of a drama club flyer that I stole from the bulletin board at school when I needed paper.

"So," she says, still trying to explain a problem to me, "if all sides of a triangle equal one hundred and eighty degrees, then the answer to the third side in this problem must be..."

She looks at me, awaiting my response, but I didn't even realize she was finished speaking.

"Uh, x squared?"

"No. Jayda—"

She stops when my phone buzzes, and I pick it up to check who it is, but as soon as I see the name, I flip it over face down on the table. Oceana. I can't talk to her. I can't even see her name. I just need to get her out of my head. But damn, she's really good at being in there.

"You're distracted," Hazel states then sighs. "Answer your phone. I'll wait."

"No, I'm fine. Let's keep going."

I pick up my pencil, actually ready to write, but then my phone buzzes again.

"Who is that?" Hazel wonders.

"Nobody," I respond.

She grins. "Oooh, I sense drama. What's going on?"

"Nothing," I insist. "It's—it's nothing."

"But it's not."

"Someone is just trying to talk to me, but I don't want to," I explain. "Or I can't."

"Why couldn't you?"

I can't tell her this. She's close with Andreas too, and if he ever found out about me and Oceana, he'd hate me. He's honestly one of my best friends at this point. I don't think I'd be able to handle if he stopped talking to me. Plus, family gatherings would be hella awkward.

"It's complicated," I say.

"Oh my gosh, Jayda," Hazel groans. "You're going to tell me eventually!"

"I have a crush on a girl!" I scream before I can think twice. I did it to get her to shut up, but now I don't know where to go from here.

"Wait, a girl?" she says in surprise.

"Yeah."

"That's so cute. Who is she? Do I know her?"

"I can't tell you," I say, "and it doesn't even matter, because nothing can happen"

"Is this a forbidden romance trope?" she asks with a grin. "I've always been more fond of the girl next goor cliche instead."

"It's not a romance," I state. "We just...can't be together."

"But it's a girl," she clarifies.

"Yes. Why?"

She shrugs. "No reason. I just...pictured you with someone else."

"Who?"

Before she can answer, there comes a ring of the doorbell, and I get up, leaving Hazel in the dining room. When I open the door, I feel a rush of fear strike me. It was bad enough trying to face him after New Year's, but now that his girlfriend is actually trying to push things further, it's soul-crushing. Seeing Andreas's brown eyes makes me want to melt into a puddle right here from guilt.

"Andreas," I say. "What are you doing here?"

"Uh, I don't really know," he breathes. "I guess I just wanted to see you."

He wants to see me. He wants to see the girl his girlfriend is hung up on. How did I end up in this situation? Andreas is...amazing. He doesn't deserve this.

"Can I come in?" he asks.

"Oh, yeah, right."

I step back to make space for him to enter, and he goes over to the couch. After closing the door and taking a breath to try to settle my nerves, I join him there.

"So..." I breathe, "what's up?"

"Uh, Oceana broke up with me," he utters.

Oh my God. That must be why she was texting me. I never bothered to read them. She broke up with Andreas for me. What the hell! I can't do this! I can't do this to him! No matter how much I like her.

"I'm sorry," I respond. "Did she say why?"

Please let there be another reason.

"Apparently, there's someone else. She didn't really explain it."

I swallow hard. "That's awful. You must be heartbroken."

Andreas's eyes fall down to his hands as he mutters, "Uh, yeah. Sort of."

Another knock on the door turns both our heads.

"Sorry, it's probably a delivery or something," I say.

I get up and walk over to answer the door, but the person I see is a surprise again—and not a good time for it. I glance back at Andreas before stepping out onto the porch, shutting the door tight to make sure no sound gets through. Then I face Oceana, noticing the way her dark hair gleams blue in the moonlight of the winter evening. There's a frost on the trees along the roadway, making them sparkle in the background, illuminating this girl's enchanting presence. God, she's so perfect. Since when do people come this perfect?

"Hi," Oceana says.

"You can't be here," I hiss, folding my arms over my chest.

"I broke up with Andreas."

"I know that. He's inside right now hurting because of you."

"Jayda, I want to fix this all, but I don't know how. I just—I need you to listen to me."

I shouldn't. But I do.

"I feel something for you," she says tears starting to glitter in her eyes, "and I'm terrified of it, but if I have any chance of holding on to this feeling, I want to take it. Jayda, you can't stand here and tell me you don't feel anything for me."

I shake my head, feeling my own eyes start to well. This girl is going to be the death of me.

"Oceana, I like you. I admit that. Everything about you just..." I pause to collect myself. "I don't want to be just your friend, but I don't think we can even be that."

Our eyes are locked like chains interlinked. There's no breaking this. But I can't let myself go any deeper.

"My friend still has feelings for you," I state, "and what kind of a person would be if I put my own feelings above his?"

It takes her moment, but she eventually nods. "I understand. You really are a good friend."

There's a long pause where the only sound audible is that of the ropes between us snapping. They're no good anymore.

She releases a deep breath. "I guess I'll...leave you alone. Bye, Jayda."

She takes a step back, starting slowly down the pathway, and I turn around toward the door, using all my strength not to cry. I wipe my eyes and return back inside my home, but regardless of my effort to stay in tact, Andreas and Hazel are both staring at me from the living room.

"Hazel," Andreas says, "can you give us a minute?"

"Uh, sure," the girl replies then steps back around to the dining room.

Andreas stands up and comes toward me with a gentle smile.

"The window is open, by the way," he suddenly says, and everything inside of me plummets.

"Shit," I mutter. "Andreas, I'm so sorry."

He raises his hands up and places them on my shoulders, instantly comforting me with his touch. But I don't understand. How is he not mad?

"No, it's okay," he says. "I think you should be with her."

I shake my head. "I don't want to hurt you."

"You're not." He drops his arms again, opening his mouth like he's going to add something else, but then he just nods.

I'm stunned. He's so selfless. He's putting me ahead of him. I seriously don't deserve this kind of forgiveness, but he's giving it to me. All I know is...whoever ends up with him will be really damn lucky.

"Go stop her before she leaves," Andreas says.

I smile, then reach for the doorknob behind me. In the flash of a moment, I whip the door open and sprint down the walkway. Oceana's almost at her car.

"Oceana!" I shout.

She spins around and looks at me in bafflement, but I don't waste a second. The instant I get close enough, I take her face in my hands and kiss her. She leans into me like two waves of the sea crashing together, pulling each other as close as the laws of psychics will allow. Her arms hold my waist, raining butterflies over my entire body. She is the tide, and I've been pulled under. Deep under.

Andreas's POV

They look happy. Jayda and Oceana are happy together. I lean against the doorframe, feeling like I'm probably invading their personal moment, but as much as I wish I could look away, I can't.

"You look despondent," Hazel says as she steps up beside me.

"I don't know what that means," I reply.

"Sad," she explains.

I shake my head. "I'm just watching Oceana and Jayda. They're a thing now, I guess."

"Hmm." She nods slowly. "And which one of them is the reason you're sad? I bet I can guess."

That annoys me, and I shoot Hazel a glare, grumbling, "Go be someone else's therapist."

I stomp away toward the kitchen. It's a stupid question, what she asked. Stupid, because she's implying that I don't like Oceana most, that my girlfriend isn't the one I care about. Stupid, because how in denial would I have to be to stay with someone I didn't like for as long as I stayed with Oceana. Stupid.

It's a stupid question, because the answer is plain as day. It's Jayda. 

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

The paths of Adrenaline City are crowded with families and friends all enjoying the amusement park in the spring weather. Because of Marty's job as a manager here, he gets lots of free passes that today he's using to get all of the Good Hair Family into the park. Jonah and Walker talk to Amber and Andi while they walk. TJ and Cyrus keep an eye on Wyatt, making sure he doesn't get distracted and wander off. Jayda, having been with Oceana for over a month now, has brought her with us. Andreas has chosen not to open up about his feelings on that whole situation to me nor Marty. Rather, he just talks with Hazel, keeping his distance from the girls ahead. It seems like he got over Oceana really fast, which I guess I have to attribute to his incredible ability to bounce back.

The one creating the most chaos is Cara, who leaps from brick to brick on the pathway, avoiding all the cracked ones. She doesn't look up at all, causing her to get in the way of many strangers just trying to walk. They all dodge around her as she wedges between strolling families.

"Aren't you worried she might hit someone?" Cyrus wonders.

"She does this everywhere we go," I explain. "We've just accepted it at this point."

Right at that, Cara knocks into a man walking by her, and she nearly stumbles backward, but the man remains calm.

"Be careful, little girl," he tells her.

That simple request is enough to make Cara explode, shouting, "You be careful!"

"Cara!" I call. "Come here."

My daughter whips around angrily and stomps back to me.

"He called me a little girl!" she huffs.

"You are a little girl," I respond. "It's not an insult. And you bumped into him, so walk normally."

Although begrudgingly, Cara stops her jumping around and instead takes long strides to keep up with the rest of our group as we walk. But now with her eyes up, she sees the cotton candy stand to our left and begins tugging on my arm.

"Cotton Candy! Mom!"

"No," I reply. "You've had enough sugar today already."

She frowns and switches over to Marty's hand, yanking as she says, "Dad! Cotton Candy!"

"Sorry, baby. I'm with your mom," Marty says.

"Who do you always listen to her?" Cara pouts.

"Why do you listen to her?" Marty reflects.

"Because I have to."

"Exactly."

Marty glances up at me with a grin, and I shake my head at him, but I'm still smiling.

Jayda's POV

Oceana's hand is smaller than mine, so whenever we hold hands, hers fits snuggly in place. She walks alongside me, her long French braid swinging behind her. At first, she was opposed to holding hands in public, afraid of what others would say, but now she's become comfortable with it. I never had that problem. To be honest, though, sometimes I forget that some people still don't like same-sex couples. I've been raised around so many that it just feels normal.

"I love Adrenaline City," I say. "I come here all the time because of Marty's job."

"I came here on a physics field trip in October," Oceana responds. "We learned about how the rides demonstrate concepts like centripetal force, kinetic energy, friction, and things like that."

I don't know what any of those things are, except friction, because that's what wears down my shoe soles, but I smile and nod anyway, because I don't like having to ask her for explanations.

"Oh, yeah, totally," I agree.

Oceana hears the uncertainty in my voice and says, "Centripetal force is the force that keeps things spinning."

Yeah, that doesn't really connect in my head, but I pretend it does, laughing while saying, "Obviously."

"You don't understand," Oceana concludes. "That's okay. Well, the simple translation is I like rides."

I give her a smile, because I at least get that part, but I still feel kinda dumb.

"I also really like churros," Oceana adds with a giggle.

That, I can get behind.

"Yes, of course," I say, laughing along. "Anyone human likes churros."

"Well, my parents don't like them, because gluten—"

"Yeah, I know, uh... It was a joke."

"Oh, yeah, of course."

She smiles gently, but it feels more like pity. I try to ignore it, looking around instead at the rides running, attempting to settle back into the comfort of our hands interlocked.

Andreas's POV

I never really got the whole having an image stuck in your mind thing until recently, until February specifically, when Jayda and Oceana kissed outside her house. I kinda can't forget that as much as I try. I tried binging horror films to give me a more troubling memory to take it over, but all it did was add demons to the background of the scene. Although I do my best to focus on anything else, it's only natural now that I look over at Jayda with Oceana as they spot a ride and split off together, leaving the rest of the group.

"I see you're keeping your mind busy," Hazel sarcastically comments.

"Shut up," I mumble, feeling mad at myself for being so obvious.

"Cool," she responds in a breath.

I shake my head. "Sorry. I'm just..."

"It's okay," Hazel says. "I don't take it personally. I have not been in your situation, but I can imagine it's not easy."

I narrow my eyes, feeling ready to defend my emotionless self-image.

"My situation?"

"You know," she responds. "The one you're repressing."

"You really love to get into other people's business," I state. "You're becoming a lot like Andi."

Hazel's eyes go wide. "You take that back."

"Stop being nosy."

"You stop denying your feelings."

I give her a smirk, saying, "I guess we both won't be changing."

________________________________________

TJ's POV

At some point, Andreas and Hazel left their own way once Oceana and Jayda already had, and Amber, Andi, Jonah, and Walker broke off to get snow cones, so now it's just Buffy, Marty, Cyrus and I with Brayden, Wyatt, and Cara when Cara sees the sign for a roller coaster and starts screaming.

"I wanna go on that!"

"Are you tall enough now?" I ask her.

Cara runs away from our group to go check her height against the height board, and I guess she must be tall enough, because she shouts again, this time making everyone around pause to look at her.

"Yes!"

"I think she's tall enough," Cyrus says.

Cara dashes back to our group, saying, "Let's go!"

"Yes!" Wyatt joins in.

Both kids start to go, but then they turn back around to look at Brayden. Brayden's been reading a book of poetry this whole time, eyes focused down on it while we walked, yet he somehow didn't trip at any point. I get the feeling he reads a lot at events where he's supposed to be social.

"Are you gonna come?" Wyatt asks Brayden.

"I didn't think it needed explaining that I will not be going on that." Brayden responds, not bothering to look up from his pages.

"Lame," Cara says.

"At least I won't need anyone to bail me out of jail when I'm older," Brayden justifies.

"I'm not going to jail," Cara denies. Then she looks at Marty. "Dad, tell him!"

Marty freezes. "Um... Go on the roller coaster."

"Brayden," Wyatt says, "when the world ends, just remember that you chickened out of riding this really awesome roller coaster, and because of that, you lost my respect."

"Wyatt," Cyrus starts, but Brayden interrupts before Cyrus can lecture our son about kindness.

"I'm completely fine with that," Brayden states with a smile.

"Forget him," Cara says, grabbing Wyatt's arm.

The two kids head toward the roller coaster lineup, and Buffy and Marty turn to Cyrus and I.

"I'll stay with Brayden," Cyrus says, and they nod.

"Cool, then we'll meet you after the ride," Marty says before he and Buffy go after Cara and Wyatt.

"Mind if I go too?" I ask Cyrus.

"No. Go ahead."

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

After buying snow cones, Andi and I walk down a street of carnival games with Jonah and Walker. None of us are interested in the games, though. Rather, we stop to join a circle of people all watching a dancer in a red and white pinstriped dress and hair bow. She's part of the park's entertainment, doing tricks to a song while those around take photos and videos. When she does a kick, bringing her leg straight up by her face, the crowd ooohs and aahhs.

"She's really good," Jonah says between crunches of coloured ice

"Amber, can you do that?" Andi asks me.

"Yeah, you dance, right?" Walker recalls.

"Uh, yeah, but I don't dance much anymore, so I doubt I'd be as good still."

"Try," Andi says. "I'll hold your snow cone."

She takes my cone from me, and I sigh.

"Alright," I say.

I take a step back and try to move, bringing my leg up next to my head. Somehow, my jeans are stretchy enough to handle it, and I remain balanced there in a vertical split.

"That's amazing!" Jonah cheers.

"Wait," I say.

I lower my leg and try another trick I used to do. I bend over into a back bridge, then try walking forward like a spider. When I stand back up, I realize most of the crowd has changed gears, turning to watch me instead of the professional.

"Dance!" one person says.

I shake my head. "No, I'm..."

Then the chanting starts, spawning from a child and spreading through everyone until I can't ignore it. Giving them what they want, I begin free-styling my contemporary dance to the rest of the music playing, becoming energized by the clapping. I finish when the song ends, and there's a burst of applause before everyone moves on. But when I'm about to find my wife and friends again, I'm stopped by the approach of the professional dancer who looks upset.

"You trying to put me out of a job?" she interrogates. "I'm just trying to pay my mortgage, but of course some pretty, blonde woman has to come over here and do what I do but better."

I'm completely taken aback, responding, "I wasn't try to show you up."

Then a guest in the park passes by, really not helping my arguement by saying, "Adrenaline City should hire that dancer instead."

The professional grinds her teeth and looks at me again, growling, "You want this job?" She pulls out her hair bow and slaps it down in my hand. "It's yours. You have a show at Sunshine Stage at 4:00."

She marches away, and I'm left confused as to what I've just gotten into.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Marty, Buffy, TJ, Cara, and Wyatt find Brayden and me at a picnic table together after they get off the ride. Cara and Wyatt are both shaking from the experience still, smiling wider than I've seen them before.

"That was exhilarating!" Cara screams.

"That means fun," Wyatt explains proudly.

"Yes, I know what exhilarating means," Brayden replies, closing his book to stand up.

"Let me feel proud for a moment," Wyatt says.

"You should go on the roller coaster," Cara tells Brayden.

"I'm good."

"Maybe it would be fun for you," I join in. "Have you ever been on a roller coaster?"

Usually, I wouldn't get involved in the kids' arguement, but Brayden has the tendency to rule things out before giving them a chance, and I don't want him to become so stuck in his ways that he never tries anything new.

"I've made the sensible decision to pass on that," Brayden replies.

"You might like it," I say.

Then he smiles in a condescending way. "You are right. I'll go on it if you do."

All the attention shifts to me, and I regret ever encouraging Brayden. I should've just let him sit out.

"Well, roller coasters are boring anyway," I say.

"Cyrus," TJ says, his eyes pushing into me.

My husband comes over to sit down beside me, and I watch him nervously.

"You have your nausea patches, right?" he checks.

"You must have far more faith in the brand than I do."

"You'll be fine."

"TJ, if humans were meant to go on rides, trees would be shaped like them."

Buffy steps forward to chime in, saying, "You've been on worse."

"When I was thirteen," I remind her, "and even then I could barely handle it. Do you really want me to spray my lunch on some unsuspecting bystanders?"

"No, we don't," Brayden states happily. "Now let's go find a garden for me to view instead."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

The roller coaster is long behind us as Cyrus's and my family, minus Andreas and Jayda who are still off doing other things separately, walk down the path by the log ride. Of course as soon as I notice the ice cream stand to our right, I try to step forward to block Cara's view of it, but she's too observant.

"Mom, Dad," she says, "I hate to be predictable, but...ice cream! Can I please get it!"

"Cara, we have ice cream at home," I remind her.

"But that ice cream isn't this ice cream," she argues.

"Cara," Marty says, "when you get a job, you can buy yourself some ice cream."

Cara lets out a groan, at the end of which Amber, Andi, Jonah, and Walker come into sight. It's been a while since they got snow cones, and I just assumed they went on some rides without us. But apparently Amber got a costume change in that time instead. She's wearing a neon pink dress with rhinestones on it, looking like a pageant Barbie doll.

"What's going on with you guys?" I question.

"And why is Amber dressed as a highlighter?" Marty adds.

"It's a long story," Andi replies, "and unfortunately we don't have time to explain. She's expected backstage soon."

"Backstage?" TJ echoes in confusion.

Andi and Amber head off in the opposite direction of us, but Jonah and Walker stay to say more.

"Come to Sunshine Stage at 4:00," Jonah says.

"Why?" Cyrus asks. "What's going on?"

"Just do it," Jonah insists.

He and Walker take off to catch up with Amber and Andi, and I look around at the others, seeing that nobody is understanding this any more than me. With my attention on my group again, I suddenly realize that one of the three kids is missing. She's not standing between Marty and me like she was a minute ago.

"Wait, where's Cara?" I ask.

Marty's eyes go wide in worry as he starts looking around. "Uh..."

We pause to scan the whole area, but she's nowhere in sight.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

"Wanna go on the ferris wheel?" I ask.

Oceana looks up at the tall structure that sits in the middle of a large pond. Ferris wheels are hella romantic, and I think we could use something calmer after all the fast rides we've been on. I begin leading Oceana by her hand down the flower-lined pathway toward my suggestion, but she slows down the closer we get, eventually stopping as her eyes catch something else, and she lets go of my hand.

"We should go on that," she says.

I trace her eyes back to the round up ride, the type where you stand up, and it spins you. Just the sight of it makes my stomach flip, and I let out a nerve-filled laugh.

"I can do a lot of things, but spinny rides are not part of those," I tell her.

"You're afraid of spinning?" Oceana says.

"Not afraid. I just don't like throwing up."

"Relax, Jayda," Oceana says gently. "Take a deep breath."

I close my eyes and take in the air, during which I feel Oceana's hands touch mine again, automatically settling my fears a bit. When I exhale, I'm back to normal. There's no need to be worked up, because we're not going on that anyway. I open my eyes again, feeling better.

"Okay," Oceana says. "Ready?"

She starts pulling me toward the ride, but I let go of my grip, shaking my head.

"Oceana, no. I can't."

She sighs. "That's okay. We can go on the ferris wheel."

"Thanks," I say.

She saunters alongside me, continuing toward the ferris wheel, but it's hard to not notice her looking back at the round up ride every few steps. Eventually, I get annoyed and stop to face her. 

"If you really want to go on that, you can," I say. "I'll just wait here."

"No, I shouldn't," she responds, but I can tell it's just to be polite. I kind of can't stand that, when people just do things to be polite, as though I can't handle reality.

"It's fine," I insist. "It's whatever."

She smiles at that. "You're the best."

She steps in to kiss me before going away to her ride, leaving my lips feeling a little colder than before. With her gone, I find a place to sit on a bench nearby, and I take out my phone out of my cross-body purse, curious about where everyone else is. I start a message to Andreas and hit send.

Me: Hey. Where are you?

I wait a minute, but there's no reply. He's probably on a ride or doing something fun. I shouldn't expect a response. I put my phone back in my purse and lift my eyes to gaze at everyone who passes by. They look like blurs to me.

 

Chapter Text

Marty's POV

After looking at every stand that sells sugary food, we eventually made our way to the last resort: Guest Services. The building is painted purple with a tall door and an asymmetrical-shaped window. Since I know this park like my own home, I know that here we'll be able to get security to help search for our daughter. Buffy's worried enough for the both of us, so I do my best to remain composed as we enter in. Turns out we don't even need to talk to the employees at the desk, for we spot Cara sitting on one of the chairs, writing on a piece of paper.

"Cara!" Buffy says." What are you doing? You can't run off!"

Both of us hurry up to the girl who remains unfazed even as her mom lassos her in a hug.

"I'm getting a job," Cara replies.

Buffy lets her go, and we both look down at the paper she has in her lap.

"You're filling out a job application?" I say. "What position?"

"Head chef at one of the park's restaurants," Cara answers.

"You can't do that," Buffy states.

"Yeah," I agree. "You need one to two years experience."

"Cara," Buffy cuts back in, "we admire your initiative, but you scared us."

"Look," she says with an exhausted breath, "all I want is ice cream. What do I have to do to get that?"

I look over at Buffy who meets my eyes. It takes a moment, but eventually, I can tell that she knows that I'm not going to do what she wants, and she accepts that. What's the harm in a little more sugar anyway? I ate way too much sugar as a kid, and I'm fine.

"Okay, you can have ice cream," I say.

Cara leaps out of her chair, cheering, "Thank you!"

She does a twirl before running toward the door to leave Guest Services, and I look over at my wife who has her arms crossed.

"You mad at me?" I ask.

"No," she responds then takes a step ahead, leaning in once more to say, "because you'll be cooking dinner tonight."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

"This isn't how I thought we'd spend today," Walker says, "but I have to say I am thoroughly entertained."

He stands with Jonah and me backstage of Sunshine Stage where all the dancers are rehearsing in a huge, mirrored room. Among them is Amber who is trying to learn the moves at the last minute. She's not even getting paid for this, but she's putting all her effort into it. There also happens to be a kitchen attached to this building, so people keep coming by with food and treats that we're allowed to take for reasons I don't know, but I'm not dumb enough to question it.

"Yeah, I thought there'd be a few more rides," Jonah says, "but the free food is nice."

At that thought, someone comes by pushing a cart of candy apples, and all three of us reach out to take one each. I take a bite through the sweet, red candy, into the sourness of the juicy apple.

"Too bad Amber just got a new job," I comment. "I wouldn't mind her working here."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

So Andi, Amber, Jonah, and Walker are still off doing something I'm eager to learn what at 4:00. Andreas and Hazel are still on their own, and Jayda and Oceana are somewhere, but they've all been informed of the 4:00 plans. While the rest of us walk to the next ride, Brayden begins talking to me, and I listen happily, since he doesn't talk to people much, and this is kind of a rare moment.

"Uncle Cyrus, I'm really glad you're scared of big rides too, because it makes me feel less bad."

I don't know how much of a compliment that is, but I take it as one.

"No problem," I say.

"Yeah," TJ says leaning closer to tease me. "Good job on being a wimp and not facing your fears."

"I am perfectly comfortable with my wimpiness," I counter.

"Facing your fears is overrated," Brayden goes on. "I plan on living in a bubble my whole life. Who needs discomfort?"

Suddenly, I realize how bad of an influence I'm being. I'm promoting not trying new things. I'm encouraging this boy to stay inside his shell. There's only one solution to this, and my stomach spins as soon as I say it.

"Brayden, we're going on a roller coaster."

"What?" he reacts.

TJ smiles, and I let out a sigh, telling him, "I'm fine with my wimpiness, not his."

"I'm still proud of you," TJ responds.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

The roller coaster restraint presses down on my shoulders. TJ sits next to me in the car, with Brayden and Buffy ahead of us, Cara and Wyatt ahead of them, and Marty behind us. I can hear the chains of the track clicking away as we prepare to launch, but my rapid-fire pulse really tries to outshine it.

"Uncle Cyrus," Brayden calls out, "if I throw up, I hope it lands on you!"

I look over at TJ, and he gives me a soft smile, squeezing my hand.

"You nervous?" he asks.

"Well, this isn't how I am when I'm calm," I reply.

"It will be fine," he promises.

"As long as you keep my hand the whole time."

"Oh, there's actually a no hand-holding policy. For safety."

My face goes white in fear, but then he cracks into a grin.

"I'm kidding," he says.

"You're horrible."

He laughs and adjusts his grip on my hand right as the car starts rolling, and I get ready to scream in terror.

________________________________________

TJ's POV

Cara chomps on chocolate covered popcorn while she sits on the bench with her parents and Brayden to the left of Wyatt, Cyrus and me. It's nearly 4:00, so we're all gathered with the rest of the crowd at the outdoor Sunshine Stage, waiting for whatever is supposed to happen.

"I'm proud of you, Dad," Wyatt tells Cyrus.

"Me too," I say, looking at my husband. "You didn't puke once."

"Almost did," he says, "but I was so terrified that I think my body went into paralysis for a minute and forgot how to throw up."

I laugh. "Those nausea patches really are magic, huh?"

Andreas's POV

Today was mostly Hazel attempting to keep my mind off of what she calls my "situation" by forcing me on all the giant rides. I guess she's, like, a robot or something, because she could handle everything from fast to flipping to swinging. I'm pretty sure she purposefully avoided the spinning rides, because she knew that Jayda doesn't like spinny rides, and going on one would remind me of her. It worked pretty well. I didn't think about her much at all, until now with everyone in our group reconvening. 

When Hazel and I get to the seating area for Sunshine Stage, Andi is just finding her in front of Jonah and Walker and beside my parents. But from the opposite end of the walkway come Jayda and Oceana. They come up to me and Hazel, but it's only once they're right in front of us that I realize I've only been looking at Jayda, and I make a conscious effort to try to glance to Oceana once too.

"Hey," I say. "How was the day?"

"Uh, great," Jayda responds, her voice a bit drained, probably from screaming on rides.

"Super fun," Oceana agrees. "What did you guys do?"

"Uh, not much," I answer. "Went on rides. Hazel saw a pretty girl and was so awkward that she made us let four people go ahead of us in line to avoid having to talk to her."

Jayda looks to her cousin with a sad smile. "Aww, Hazel."

"I'm not good at talking to pretty girls," Hazel argues, crossing her arms. "It stresses me out."

"Some day you'll get better at it," Jayda assures her, but then Oceana gives Jayda's hand a little tug.

"Hey, the show is starting," she says. "We should sit."

"Oh, yeah," Jayda responds.

She turns to follow her girlfriend to an empty seat. Hazel has to give me a nudge to get me to stop watching Jayda and go join our families.

Jonah's POV

As soon as the music begins, and the dancers come out on stage, I notice my friends' mouths all drop at the sight of Amber. She kills it, hitting every beat like she's been doing this for months, not just a few hours. Walker sits beside me enjoying the show until about halfway through when his phone rings, and I look over curiously. I don't manage to see the number, but by the look on his face, it seems important.

"I've got to take this," he says.

He gets up and leaves the seating area to take the call, while I continue watching Amber swirl and bop with the others on stage, everyone looking like rainbow glitter confetti in their outfits. A couple minutes later, Walker returns with a smile that he's trying to keep contained, but he can't.

"Hey," he says, "so that was the adoption agency. I have good news."

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

Hazel sits at the other end of the kitchen table from me, typing away on her laptop while I'm busy sketching a plan for my next sculpture. We rarely get this time together. Usually she's in her room, so I want to take advantage of it.

"What are you working on?" I ask, trying to strike up a conversation.

"Homework."

One word, and she's back to focusing.

"Is it interesting?" I try again.

"The day plant cells are interesting, I'll learn how to yodel the Bangladeshi national anthem."

"What are learning about plant cells?"

"Mom, I'm just here because I needed an outlet close to a table," she explains, gesturing to the charging cable plugged into her computer. "I'll talk after I'm done my homework."

My daughter is too focused on her schoolwork to talk to me. I bet Cyrus and TJ never have this problem.

All of a sudden, Amber enters the room with her phone in hand, saying, "You know what we should get?"

"A trampoline?" Hazel says without a second of thought.

"We don't have space for that," Amber shoots down.

"We could get a small one," Hazel argues.

"What should we get?" I ask Amber.

"This car."

She brings her phone over to me to see a photo of an aquamarine car with crisp corners and an overall old-fashioned look, but it's brand new.

"You'd rather have that than a trampoline?" Hazel says after viewing the image herself.

"Amber, haven't you already had a car, like, the exact same?" I ask her.

"No," she denies.

"You definitely have," I press. "Well, it wasn't the same, but it was really similar. Sea green and kinda boxy."

"I have literally no idea what you're talking about."

"I promise you had that. I remember riding in it when we were teenagers."

"Then how come I don't remember this at all?"

I can't tell whether she's just being difficult or genuinely doesn't remember, but I will bet my life on this fact. She had a car like this before.

"Oooh," Hazel chirps. "Which mom is crazy? Let's find out."

"It's not me," I insist.

"It's not me," Amber retorts. "I think I would remember if I owned that car. Show me a photo."

"I don't have a photo."

"How convenient," Hazel comments.

I shake my head and look to Amber again, saying, "Let's talk to someone who would remember."

I stand up, leaving my sketchbook on the table, and head for the front door to get my shoes on.

"Who is that?" Amber wonders.

"Your brother."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

A knock on my window scares me, and I close my laptop and spin around on my bed to see Andreas sitting on the tree on the other side of the glass. I reach up and lift the window open then lean my elbows on the sill.

"You know the door isn't just for looks," I say.

"This is more fun," he replies.

"You like almost giving me heart attacks?"

He smiles. "You're fun to scare."

I back up to allow him to crawl through and kick off his runners onto the carpet. I close my window while he gets comfortable on the other end of my bed, sitting with his legs criss-cross. After, I open my laptop again, but he's giving me a curious look.

"What were you looking at on your laptop?" he wonders.

"The English assignment," I reply.

"I didn't realize English assignments had 'add to cart' buttons."

"Fine. I'm online shopping," I admit. "Are you done bugging me?"

"For now," he says with a grin that makes me want to roll my eyes because of the way it tries to get me to go soft. "So what's the assignment?"

"I have to interview someone on their life story and then write a paper about—I don't know—the connections and shit. Sorry, I don't English well."

"No kidding," he teases.

This time I do roll my eyes, probably as a way to try to counteract my own smile.

"Are you gonna be judging me this whole time?" I ask.

"I'm not judging."

"Right. You're just pointing out my flaws."

"Maybe I like your flaws."

I kinda both like it and hate it when he does this, when says uncomfortably sweet things like that. He gives me his wry smile and flower blossom eyes that would have me waiting the whole spring just to seem them bloom in the summer. He's like this with everyone, though, I'm pretty sure. He's charismatic. It's kind of his thing. He says and does things that just make everyone want to be around him. I'm honestly jealous of it sometimes.

"Then you're weird," I respond.

He just shrugs, and I move on, clicking open a new document to type on.

"Okay," I say, "so I was supposed to make questions, but, um—"

"You didn't do it?" he guesses before I can finish.

"I couldn't think of any," I defend.

That makes him laugh, which makes me smile, but I kind of have homework to do that might be due in, like, two days, so I get down to business.

"So, uh, just start talking," I tell him. "What's your life story?"

"Um, well, I was born on April third sixteen years ago," he starts, and I type while he talks. "Uh, my first words were 'It's Gucci'—"

"Stop telling people that!" I interrupt him. "They were not."

"They were," he insists.

"No. Not possible."

"My real first words weren't as cool," he confesses.

"You were one. They don't have to be cool."

It takes him a moment of pressure from my eyes before he sighs and says, "My first word was 'bubble.'"

"That's cute."

But even though I'm fawning over the idea of a baby Andreas loving bubbles so much that that was his first word, his face is turning red. Here's the thing: it's funny when he's embarrassed, but I also feel like I have a duty as his friend to protect his pride from my boring-as-hell English teacher who will be reading my paper. And maybe I like being the only one who knows the truth.

"What are you typing?" Andreas asks.

I click the period, finishing the sentence, and look up at him.

"Your first words," I say. "'It's Gucci.'"

He smiles, and I hit enter to get ready to ask him more.

________________________________________

TJ's POV

The basketball game plays on the living room television. Cyrus wanted to join me for a change, but I can tell he's starting to get bored, because while I'm still honed in on the baskets being made, Cyrus's head falls on my shoulder. I try to ignore it, but soon his chin raises, and I feel his breath on my neck as he stares at me.

"This is why I watch the game alone," I state.

He lifts his head up closer so that his nose is grazing my jaw, making my skin tingle.

"Why?" he asks gently. "What am I doing?"

"You know what you're doing."

He doesn't back away, but he does smile sweetly and reply, "Sorry."

I finally give up and turn to him, connecting my lips with his like a spring needing to be released. Unfortunately, right as we find our rhythm, the doorbell rings, and one of us has to be the mature one and break away to get the door. That happens to be me.

"We should've never fixed that doorbell," Cyrus mumbles.

I chuckle then pull the door open to find Buffy and Marty standing on the other side with Cara and Brayden.

"Hey," I greet. "What's up?"

"We're picking up that tupperware we lent you when we gave you all those muffins," Buffy explains.

"Right. Um..."

Now I remember the plan for her to come grab it, but I don't actually know where it is, so I look back at Cyrus who does the talking for me as he comes over from the couch.

"It's in the basement," he says.

Buffy nods and heads down the hall, followed by Marty. Cara and Brayden remove their shoes, looking bored already.

"They forced us to come on the way back from the mall," Brayden explains.

While the two of them disperse inside, the front door opens again, but this time it's my sister, her wife, and their daughter. Of course they didn't give us any notice that they were coming, but they have a key, so Amber seems to think that that means she doesn't need to give notice.

"TJ," Amber says, "we need you to settle an arguement for us."

"It's not an arguement," Andi retorts.

"It sounds like an arguement," Hazel comments. "I'm here 'cause I wanna see who wins."

Before any of them can explain the situation, a sudden crackle of thunder ripples the sky, and it begins pouring water and hail the size of golfballs outside. It beats the sidewalk like bullets, being lit up by every flash of lightening that follows.

"That came out of nowhere," Cyrus says, looking out the window with nervous eyes.

"Awesome," Hazel reacts. "I love hail."

"I hope my car doesn't get damaged," Amber says.

Thunder cracks again, and Cyrus jolts at the sound.

I place my hand on his shoulder, asking, "You good?"

"I'm not a big fan of lightening," Cyrus responds.

"It's just light," I reason.

"I cannot tell you how much of an understatement that is," he replies. "That's like calling the World War Two just a fight."

"Hey," comes Marty's voice as he returns from the basement, "where downstairs is the container— Woah."

He freezes to look outside at the massive downpour. After that, he realizes Amber and Andi are here and looks over at them.

"Oh, hey, everyone's here."

"Except Jonah and Walker," Andi notes. "But I haven't heard from them in a couple days, now that I think about it."

"Yeah, me neither," Marty responds.

More lightning, and Hazel's smile grows bigger with Cyrus's visible nerves.

"Well, looks like the hail's gonna keep us inside here for a while," Marty goes on.

I look to Cyrus, checking, "We have the windows closed, right?"

"I want to say yes, but now I'm unsure."

At the exact same time, we both spin around to go check.

 

Chapter Text

Wyatt's POV

I push the lever on the remote control, making the helicopter rise up high, almost hitting the ceiling, but I'm good enough at this to keep it from actually touching. Cara's beside me, sitting on my bed, watching me fly the toy around my bedroom. She tried to touch the remote earlier, but there's no way I'm letting her fly this. It took me way too long to learn it myself. It probably would've taken less time if I had read the instructions, but instructions are annoying. I get enough people telling me what to do all day at school. I don't need a piece of paper to do that at home.

"Do your dads know you have this?" Cara wonders.

I shake my head. "I traded so many Snickers bars for this. I'm not telling them, 'cause they'll tell me not to fly it inside."

Okay, it's definitely not my fault, but somehow the helicopter hits the bookshelf and plummets to the ground like a fighter jet being shot out of the sky. It looks really cool, but I hope it's not broken, because I'm out of Halloween candy.

Cara gets up and runs over to the wall where the helicopter landed by an air vent. She lifts it up and looks it over.

"It's okay," she tells me with a smile. "Let's go again!"

She's about to run back over to me, but she pauses, listening to some murmuring coming out of the air vent. It's the one that's connected to the basement. If people scream loud enough down there, I can usually hear them. I guess Cara can hear someone too, and giving it a listen myself, I realize it's Auntie Buffy and Uncle Marty.

"It's not going to work," comes Auntie Buffy's voice.

"It can work," Uncle Marty fights.

"No. It's broken and can't be fixed. I need something new."

All of a sudden, the helicopter propellors start spinning in Cara's hands, and she screams dropping it as I notice my hand pressing on a button on the remote, and I let it go.

"Sorry," I say, but she doesn't care.

"What do you think they were talking about?" she questions.

I shrug and say the first thought in my head. "It sounded a lot like what my friend said his parents were saying before they got divorced."

"Divorced?" Cara responds in shock. "Like breaking up?"

"Yeah, but with more paperwork. My dads wouldn't do that, though. I said the word once, and they got all sad and were like that for hours."

Cara's scared look turns to determination as she says, "I have to stop this, and you're going to help me."

"Cool."

"Not cool," she states. "Serious."

"Seriously cool."

She glares at me, shaking her head, but I don't know what's even going on.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

"Okay," I breathe, "we've been on your pre-school years for forever, and I hate to tell you this, but I don't think my English teacher cares about your struggle catching slugs in your backyard."

"Epic struggle catching slugs," Andreas corrects me. "Make sure you say epic."

He grins, proud of his annoyingness, and I roll my eyes.

"I should've picked someone else," I say.

"Nobody else would be this interesting."

I laugh, replying, "That might be a good thing. My paper's gonna end up being, like, thirty pages."

There's a short pause while I save my document before he asks, "Why did you pick me? Why not, like, Oceana?"

That's a drawer I didn't want to open, but now that it's been brought up, I don't think I can shove it away. I close my laptop and set it on the mattress beside me as I take in a breath.

"Um, yeah, I don't know. She's a bit..." I exhale heavily. "I don't know."

"It sounds like you do know," Andreas counters.

Yeah, I do know, but I don't know how to phrase it. It's all just been building up in my head for so long, and I've never tried to put it into words. I've never had to. Nobody's ever asked. Nobody's ever noticed. Because from the outside, Oceana and I are perfect, but inside... I don't know.

"We're just... I don't know. It's different now that we're dating. I mean, it wasn't at first, but now it's... I don't know."

Having said that mess of unclear responses, it occurs to me that nobody, especially Andreas of all people, would want to hear this. I doubt he actually cares about the problems I'm having with his ex girlfriend. But he probably didn't expect me to be so unsure either.

"I'm sorry," I say. "You don't want to hear this."

"No, it's okay," Andreas responds. "I'm your friend. This is what friends do. I think. My friends just drive their cars double the speed limit down highways while screaming to metal music."

I laugh, feeling a lot better about unloading my emotional baggage onto him. He seems to be good at making me feel better. He does it a lot.

"I like Oceana," I explain, "but sometimes I just feel like...this dumb little girl around her. Like, she's kind of way smarter than me—with everything. And sometimes when we talk it's like she talks, and I'm just...making noise."

I let myself fall back onto the pillows, too tired to hold myself up. I haven't vocalized those feelings yet, and now I can't tell whether I'm more relived or worried. While I stare up at the black ceiling, I hear my bed covers rustle as Andreas lies down next to me and turns his focus up to the same nothing I'm looking at.

"Nah," he says in a soft voice on the brink of being a whisper.

But he doesn't whisper. Whispering would be too unassertive for him. He likes to say things with confidence, even when it's the stupidest thing in the world. Somehow, stupid things sound sane when he says them.

"Your voice is definitely not noise," he continues, and then he stops and waits for the next line to form. "It's music."

How did that tiny, two-word sentence make my entire body feel this weird? Like, it's good, I think. But it's also just...weird. Unexpected, maybe. Because my heartbeat isn't supposed to go this fast normally, and my chest isn't supposed to feel this fluffy, and my hands aren't supposed to want his in them. It must be a comfort thing. Because he makes me feel comfortable and warm, even with thunder crackling outside and hail pounding the window. I actually forgot about the storm going on for a minute.

I tilt my head to look at him, but I don't even know what to say. All my head seems to be able to focus on is tracing each of his curls that rest on the pillow and watching his chest rise and fall with each breath he takes.

Suddenly, Andreas releases an awkward laugh. "That was weird, right?"

"No—I mean yeah—no—um..." Another thing I don't know how to put into words. "I didn't mind."

He smiles faintly before deciding to get back on topic, saying, "Tell me more about you and Oceana."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

The clunking of ice on the roof doesn't help with my fear of thunder. It only feeds it more, making every bolt worse. TJ, being the sweetest husband ever, comes over where I'm looking out the kitchen window, and he holds out a steaming mug.

"I know storms make you uneasy, so I made you some hot chocolate with almond milk," he says. 

"Thank you," I respond with a smile.

I accept the mug and take a sip while he sips his own. Not even a second later, Amber and Andi come over to us, both looking annoyed now.

"We need your help," Andi states to TJ.

"Andi is making things up," Amber insists.

"I am not. Okay, TJ, do you remember Amber having a green, boxy-looking car when she was a teenager?"

TJ ponders it for a moment before answering, "No?"

"See," Amber says.

"No, I remember it," Andi continues. "I remember riding in it."

"He doesn't remember," Amber pushes.

"He has to!"

Marty's POV

Cara pulls Buffy and me by our hands into the living room. There, Wyatt is sitting on a chair, casually observing, while I have not been told anything about what this is.

"What exactly is happening?" Buffy questions.

"Take a seat," Cara orders, and Buffy and I sit down on the couch, but Cara motions with her hand, saying, "Closer."

I move in toward my wife a bit more, still lost.

"Cara, what is this?" I ask.

Cara sits down on the coffee table and puts one leg up so that her ankle is resting over her other knee.

"Call it a discussion," she replies. "Let's chat about each other, specifically you two. Mom, how does Dad make you feel?"

"Uh, what is this for?" Buffy wonders.

"Answer the question."

Buffy, although still confused, answers, "Happy."

"Just happy?" Cara interrogates.

"What do you want me to say?" Buffy asks.

"I want you to take this seriously!" Cara explodes. "It doesn't work if you're not honest!"

Tears start sparkling in her eyes, and the sight kicks my paternal instincts into action.

"Cara, are you okay?" I say.

"No!" she sobs. "Our family isn't okay!"

"What's wrong?" Buffy questions, just as concerned and me.

"I don't want you to get divorced," she weeps.

Buffy looks at me, and I mirror the same dumbstruck expression. Good to know neither of us know where she got that idea from. Buffy opens her arms for Cara, and the girl comes to sink down between me and Buffy on the couch, clinging to her mom's arm.

"Honey, we're not getting divorced," Buffy tells her. "Why would you think that?"

"Because me and Wyatt heard you through the vent," Cara says between sniffles. "You said it was broken, and that you needed something new."

Suddenly, we both realize what she's talking about, and Buffy brushes her fingers through the little girl's hair gently as she begins to explain.

"Cara, we were talking about the tupperware."

"Yeah," I say. "We were only fighting because I didn't want to shell out more cash on new containers that are just going to get broken or lost again."

"If you stop losing them, half your problem is fixed," Buffy replies.

"You're fighting," Cara sobs.

"No, Cara," Buffy corrects her. "We just disagree sometimes. But we always find a solution, because we love each other too much."

I smile at Buffy as I say, "Like for this, I'll...start writing Driscoll on the containers so they aren't lost, and we'll all be more careful not to break them."

"That's a great solution," Buffy responds.

She leans over to give me a kiss on my lips, reminding me of how lucky I am to have her. I couldn't imagine anyone else making me feel the way she does.

"Why don't I get a kiss?" Cara whines.

Buffy and I both turn our chins down to kiss our daughter's forehead, and she smiles.

"I feel left out," Wyatt suddenly says.

At that, Buffy waves him over, and he climbs onto the couch to stuff himself into our group hug.

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

"I swear it existed," I keep going. "She had it for, like, two days before getting rid of it."

Finally, realization hits TJ's face. I knew it. I knew it existed. I'm not the crazy one. Amber is.

"Wait," TJ says. "Do you mean a purple car?"

"Was it purple?" I ask.

"One broken headlight?" he adds.

"Yes."

"Yeah, that car, the one she bought from Reed."

Amber gasps. "Oh my God. You're right. I think I blocked that out."

"Reed?" I repeat in surprise. "As in watermelon Reed?"

"I just saw it online," Amber explains. "I didn't check who was selling it, but then it turned out to be Reed. I only kept the car for two days, because he told me never to remove the seat covers when I bought it, and it seemed sketch, so I got rid of it right away."

"But we drove in it for one night," I say.

"I guess we did," she sighs.

"Well," Cyrus cuts in, "this was an interesting story."

"Yeah," Amber responds, "and it only came up because I wanted to buy a car that it turns out isn't anything like the one I used to have."

She gives me an annoyed look, to which I respond, "We'll talk about it at home," and her expression changes to a smile.

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

I made a mistake. I shouldn't have lied down next to her. Because every time I look at her, all I want to do is...more than I should. It's her black hair that shines like the raindrops hitting the window. It's the straight but soft structure of her nose. It's her eyelashes like sun rays that flutter as she blinks. It's my stupid self for being idiotic enough to get wrapped up around her.

"Sometimes she kinda shuts me down," Jayda says about Oceana. "Like, I know I'm not the smartest, and I don't have a lot to say most of the time, but, like, she has everything to say always, and she kinda...overpowers me, I guess. I don't think she does it on purpose. I don't know. Maybe she does."

I just nod. Oceana was like that with me too, but I didn't really care, because, I don't know, I don't think I paid much attention. She was a girl. That's all I really cared about. But I think now I want more than just a girl.

"What do you think I should do?" Jayda asks.

What do I think she should do? I probably shouldn't say that, because I know what I think she should do, but I'm positive it's not what she wants to do.

"What do you think you should do?" I reflect back to her, but she just tilts her head to me, and my eyes catch her lips for a second before I pull them away.

"I'm asking you," she says.

"You don't want to ask me."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm biased," I admit. "I don't like anything that makes you feel dumb."

"Then you'd hate all my math tests," she responds, looking upward again.

"Yeah, especially those," I agree with a smile, "'cause they make me feel dumb too."

She laughs and says, "When did letters become numbers?"

"I know, right? It's stupid."

"Totally."

Our laughter fades into silence, struck only by the beating of ice on the glass above Jayda's bed frame. It's dangerous, this stillness, because the longer we lie in it, the worse my stupid teenage impulses get. I don't do anything—but holy shit, I want to.

Then Jayda breaks the quiet, saying, "Should I break up with her?"

Yes. Yes, you should. Break up with her. Do it now.

"That's up to you."

"I can't be in charge of choices," she mutters. "I'll just screw them up."

"Well, that makes making choices more exciting."

Her eyes fall down to mine again, and I feel my pulse hitting way harder than the moment calls for.

She starts to speak, "I..."

Before she can say anything more, her phone dings, and she sits up to check it. I force my body up too and try to peek over at her screen.

"What's that?" I ask.

She smiles gently and replies, "It's Oceana. She bought a charm for my bracelet."

She shows me the photo of the charm that Oceana just texted. It's a tiny silver crown with a phrase engraved on it: 'Your Highness.' I don't know the meaning behind it, but clearly there's something, because Jayda's staring at it with a smile.

"That's neat," I say, trying to mask my own disappointment.

"Yeah," Jayda says. Then after a second, she adds, "I was being dumb, wasn't I? Oceana's so sweet."

"I don't think you were dumb—"

"It's good that I didn't do anything. I would've regretted it."

She looks like she's still contemplating that statement, which makes me wonder how true it is. But she texts back a little sparkling heart emoji and locks her phone before bringing her focus back to me.

"Don't tell her I was thinking about that," Jayda tells me.

"Don't worry. I won't."

I'm not here to break her relationship. I just want her happy, no matter who that's with. But there is still one thought on my mind that I have to speak.

"Why 'Your Highness'?"

"Oh, it's a thing we have," Jayda explains.

"You know the higher ranking would be Your Majesty."

"Yeah. I don't know. We didn't think of that."

"Yeah," I respond.

But Jayda deserves to be Your Majesty.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Cara are Wyatt drink hot chocolate together at the kitchen table while I keep my gaze out the window over the sink. The hail isn't as heavy anymore. Now it's more like corn snow that bounces on the deck. TJ's arm stays over my shoulder, and I hold the hand that hangs down, making sure it can't get away.

"At least the hail's lightening up now," I say.

"Does that mean, you're gonna let go of me now?" he asks.

"It's unlikely."

He smiles and accepts his fate, but the doorbell gives him his freedom as I let him go, and we head toward the door to see who it could be. Buffy is the one who opens it, and in comes one of my friends whom I haven't seen in a strangely long amount of time. Yes, a few days is strange for us.

"Walker!" Buffy says.

"Sorry," Walker responds with a smile. "We had to wait for the hail to stop before coming in."

"Wait, I haven't seen you for multiple days," Buffy realizes.

"Nice that you're just noticing," Walker jokes.

"Where have you been?" Andi asks, coming over with Amber.

Everyone is gathered around the doorway now, except for Jayda and Andreas who I assume must still be upstairs.

"South Africa," Walker answers.

Andi's eyebrows go up in surprise. "South Africa?"

"Yeah," Walker confirms. "We were picking someone up."

Andi is confused, asking, "What do you...?"

Her thought is lost as Jonah steps in carrying a little baby in his arms. The baby looks around with big brown eyes at all the faces around them, and they're dressed up in red overalls and a white T-shirt like a little candy cane.

"You got a baby!" Amber squeals.

"And you never told us!" Andi complains.

"We didn't want to get anyone's hopes up before it happened," Jonah explains.

Andreas's POV

Jayda and I have returned to the spots we started in, sitting on opposite ends of the bed from each other, her with her laptop open. But sounds of admiration and awe from the floor below get both our attention.

"Sounds like something's going on downstairs," Jayda figures.

"Yeah. Or they're just that excited about the hail ending."

She smiles a little at that then stands up, saying, "Let's check it out."

I join her, reaching the door before her so that I can open it up and wave her forward.

"After you," I say.

Rather than accept the gesture, she just looks at me and states, "You always do this."

"I'm chivalrous," I reply with a shrug.

"And I can handle going second."

She motions for me to go ahead, but that only gets another wave from me.

"You first," she orders.

"Jayda, you know there's no way in hell I'm going to let you go through this door after me."

A soft smile finds its way onto her face, and she finally accepts my stubbornness and leaves the room, but her eyes remain on me as she does, playing with my pulse like it's a toy she owns. I guess it kind of is.

Walker's POV

"Whose baby?" comes Jayda's voice as she and Andreas come down the stairs to cluster in with the rest of the family.

"Jonah and Walker's," TJ replies.

"What's the name?" Andreas asks.

"Her name is Austen," I answer. "Austen Beck."

"Adorable. Why that name?" Amber asks.

"Well, we never actually chose one," Jonah admits, "so we panicked and picked this."

"What's the middle name?" Hazel wonders.

Jonah and I snap our eyes together as we realize our mistake.

"I knew we forget something," I say.

Hazel just laughs and says, "You two will make great dads."

Everyone remains around my daughter in admiration, but no one is as fond as me and Jonah. My husband hasn't been able to take his eyes off her since we got her, and even now he watches her with a smile on his face. Personally, I still can't believe this is happening right now. It's like a dream that was accidentally brought to life. It's too good to be real, but it is. We have a daughter.

Chapter Text

Walker's POV

Jonah gets the door, and his mother enters in, giving him a hug on the way.

"Where's my granddaughter?" she asks.

Her expression goes soft as I carry the baby girl over to the door. We only got Austen a couple of weeks ago, but she's almost four months old now. Her head rests against my chest as I hold her with one arm under her bottom and the other wrapped around her torso. Amber and Andi got her an orange dress that always makes her eyes go wide when she sees it, so I decided to dress her in that for Judy's visit tonight.

"Oh my goodness! Isn't she adorable!" Judy says. "She's so calm."

Judy smiles wide at my baby, giving her arm a little stroke hello. Austen, of course, just gazes up at her grandma with no clue what's going on, but soon she'll be developed enough to know.

"Yeah, she's always like this," Jonah responds. "She really doesn't do anything. Kinda boring."

"Well, you should've seen yourself as a baby," Judy says. "You were stiff as a rock all the time. Sometimes we thought you'd been paralyzed, but you were just content with doing nothing. Wouldn't even move when doing the mommy-baby yoga with me."

"Mommy-baby yoga?" I repeat.

"It's a class I taught for new moms," Judy explains. "Helped them stay fit while bonding with their babies. Being a mom, it's hard to find time to exercise."

"Is there daddy-baby yoga?" I ask.

"Definitely. I know a bunch of places you could sign up for. If you want, I could even lead us in a little workout right now. You two will have to take turns with the baby, though."

I look over at Jonah who shrugs, replying, "Sure, why not."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

Marty and I are curled up together in the basement together watching television when our daughter stomps in front of the TV and turns it off.

"Mom, Dad," she says, "I've given it a lot of thought, and I've decided I want my present for my eighth birthday to be a trampoline."

"Cara," I respond in confusion, "you've already had your eighth birthday."

"Correct, but I haven't had a trampoline."

"Okay, why do you want a trampoline?" Marty asks.

"Because I'm tired of having to make friends with lame people just to play on their trampolines."

"Cara, trampolines are dangerous," I tell her. "If you guys used it one at a time, it would be better, but you and your siblings can't get along that well."

"I thought you'd react this way, which is why I had Brayden develop a presentation for me."

Brayden appears from behind us and begins plugging in a laptop so that the image appears on the television.

"Cara," Marty says, "we're in the middle of a show."

"Your kids are the best show of your lives," Cara states. "You signed up for this by having us."

Marty and I share a glance, knowing we won't be getting out of this.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

"Keep your baby at your hip, and lunge into warrior two."

With the furniture moved out of the way in the living room, Judy leads the yoga, while Walker and I follow. Currently, he's holding our daughter, trying to stay balanced at the same time.

"Trade," Judy instructs.

Walker passes off the baby to me, but the instant I get her, I'm locked on her beautiful little face and tiny features, forgetting all about the yoga. Part of me still expects to wake up at some point. Because she certainly can't be real. She must be a cherub, not a human, because humans are imperfect, but angels aren't, and Austen, she's as perfect as it gets.

"I can't believe something this precious exists," I whisper.

"That's exactly what your dad said when you were born," my mom says, abandoning the yoga.

"Really?" I say.

"Yeah."

I look down at my girl again, studying the way her dark brown eyes resemble those of a doll, and her coily, black hair is growing, getting longer every day. Eventually, it will be time for a haircut. I can't believe I'm excited for something so small like that. But it will be her first, and every first is a milestone, no matter how simple.

"Is it weird that I already don't know how I'd live without her?" I ask.

Walker's arm closes around me, and his hand wraps over mine to hold our daughter together. My mom watches close by, but I'm so focused on my daughter. At first, it's subtle, but then it becomes more defined: she's smiling.

"She's smiling at you," Walker says.

All of a sudden, the reason becomes clear at the sound of food passing through her, followed by the stink.

"I'll change the diaper," I say then take her up to her room.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Cara smacks the powerpoint on the television with a metre stick, shouting, "Next point!"

"Please stop hitting the TV," Buffy begs.

"Trampolines equal fun," Cara states, "and fun equals keeping us busy, and what does that equal? Less money spent on damages."

"But if you damage yourself, hospital bills cost way more," Buffy argues.

"But I won't get hurt," Cara replies, "because my brothers and I will only use it one at a time."

"You guys can't even agree to use the washroom one at a time," I remind her.

"I've already talked to Brayden, and he's afraid of jumping."

"I'm not afraid," Brayden speaks up from the side. "I'd just rather be on the ground."

"So he won't be a problem," Cara goes on. "And Andreas will be off doing his own thing anyways. Do either of you even know where he is right now?"

I look at Buffy, hoping she has an answer, but it's clear that neither of us do. Ever since Andreas got his license, he's started just going places, and he only tells us once he's already gone.

"You make a good point," I admit.

Cara grins proudly and smacks the ruler on the TV again, ordering, "Next slide!"

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

The house is huge, but it feels stuffy with all the bodies packed into it. Pop music sets the tone for all the teenagers mingling and laughing together with cups and bottles in their hands. I've never been to a party before, but somehow I let Darius convince me to come to this one. He said it was going to be chill, which I can't argue with, seeing as everyone is just talking, but some people I try to avoid seeing, specifically the ones blowing smoke clouds in the backyard or the couples leaving absolutely no room for Jesus while dancing. I follow Darius through the space, trusting wherever he's headed.

"This is exciting, but, like, I also feel like I'm gonna pass out," I state.

"Yeah," Darius responds. "I figured you'd be like that."

"So, like, what do people do at parties?"

"Hang out," Darius answers. "Chill. Sometimes get too chill. Other times get way not chill. Depends on how they feel."

"I'm just gonna pretend like that was a good answer."

It feels like seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. I'm seeing teenagers, unconstrained by the rules of school, now roaming free at a party. No supervision. No developed moral compass. No guiding values. They just do what they want without thought. Each clique is easily spottable: the populars, the jocks, the skaters. Tucked into the crowd are several straight couples making out, images I try to erase from my mind.

"Why do I look at straight people and think 'ew'?" I mutter.

"Thanks," Darius replies dryly. "I'm not offended at all."

"Not you. You're romantically straight, but you're not like that."

I motion toward the handsy couple that's currently stretching past the PG rating on my life.

"Yeah," Darius says, "being ace helps me."

He turns back ahead and continues walking, but after a few steps, I notice a familiar face in the kitchen, and I grab Darius's arm, pulling him back.

"Uh, not that way," I say. "That's my cousin."

"You don't wanna see your cousin?" Darius questions.

"I told my moms I was having a movie night at your place," I explain, "not a party at... Whose house is this again?"

"I don't know," Darius answers. "Some sophomore."

"I don't want to risk Jayda telling them the truth by accident or on purpose."

Darius obliges and reroutes our path.

 

Chapter Text

Jayda's POV

Tay holds out her phone with the hand that isn't holding a bottle. She's the kind of person who likes straight whisky. She also thinks life is better when she's hammered, so that's a thing. I can definitely drink more than her and be fine, but I prefer a Smirnoff instead. On Tay's phone is an image of a black and white rose sketch that appears to be dripping away at the bottom. She said one of her friends drew it for her during class, and now she's obsessed with it.

"That's totally cool," Angel says.

"Thanks," Tay responds with a grin. "Next time I'm drunk enough, I'll go get it tattooed."

Interrupting the conversation comes a boy who steps between me and my friends, giving me a grin like he must think he's the shit.

"Excuse me," he says. "I didn't know there'd be a model at this party."

"Sorry," I respond. "Not interested."

"I think if you got to know me a little more, you'd be very interested."

"I think, since you obviously speak English, you should probably figure out what the word 'no' means."

He keeps his chin up as he backs away, keeping up his cool act, at which I roll my eyes. When I turn back to my friends, they're looking at me in shock.

"Jayda!" Angel says. "Why did you do that? He was cute."

"I'm not into him," I say.

Confession: I haven't told my friends about Oceana yet. I know that I probably should, considering it's been months, but they run in different circles anyway, and to be honest, I'm afraid of how they'll react finding out I'm with a girl. Like, they know I have two dads, but having a friend with queer dads is different than having a queer friend.

Angel shakes her head, saying, "We really need to get you a boyfriend."

"I'd love it if you didn't do that," I retort.

Angel rolls her eyes. "Whatever. I'm gonna get another drink."

She starts to walk away, and I follow behind her, feeling annoyed, saying, "Me too."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

"And the money can come out of my college fund," Cara finishes, "because I'm going to join the circus anyway and won't need it." She puts down her ruler and the presentation goes to black. "What do you think?"

"It was a good presentation," I reply. "Kinda long though."

"I was covering all my bases," Cara says.

"Yeah," Buffy says. "So you want a trampoline."

"I thought the presentation made that clear."

"In their defence," Brayden chimes in, looking at Cara, "you were a little all over the place."

"Yeah, we didn't need the part about the average number of rainy days in Shadyside," I say.

"I don't want you guys saying it's too rainy to have one," Cara reasons.

Buffy lets out a breath and looks at me before telling the kids, "You two, go somewhere else. We're gonna talk."

Cara scurries away while Brayden takes his time, but eventually they're both out of the room. With them gone, Buffy focuses on me, her eyebrows raised.

"You want to get it, don't you?" she says.

"I would be kinda fun," I respond.

Her lips curl into a smile. "Fine."

"Yay!" comes Cara's cheer, and Buffy and I spin around to see her eavesdropping by the staircase.

"You weren't supposed to listen," Buffy tells her.

"I'm always listening to everything," Cara replies.

This time she actually does leave, running upstairs happily. For Buffy and I, a previous matter is brought back.

"Where is Andreas?" Buffy wonders.

"No idea," I answer, "but he's probably fine."

"Yeah," Buffy agrees. "I really wish he would tell us when he leaves the house."

"We'll make that a new rule starting tomorrow," I suggest.

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

Darius and I have found a comfortable place against a wall to stand and talk while I observe the other party-goers around me all not watching their volume. After a while, another face approaches, one I couldn't possibly forget.

"Hey, guys," Adrian says.

He glances from Darius to me, holding his eyes on me for an extra second before becoming fidgety and passing his red solo cup between his hands.

"What's up?" he goes on. "Either of you want anything to drink?"

"I'm good," Darius replies, lifting his own cup a bit, "and Hazel doesn't drink."

He raises his eyebrows. "No?"

"I like my brain better when it's not impaired," I elaborate.

"Fair enough," Adrian replies before taking a sip from his cup. "So what have you been up to lately?"

I hear the question, but my eyes have wandered left onto a girl standing alone by a window. I've seen her before, and I'm pretty sure she knows who I am, since we're in the same history class, but I've never spoken to her. She's a level of attractive that severely outreaches how far my social skills extend. She wears baggy jean shorts and shoulder-length hair with a short sleeve button up shirt worn unbuttoned to show a thin-strapped cropped top. And she has an eyebrow slit. If she wasn't already way out of my league, that pushed it over the edge.

"Hazel, he's talking to you," Darius says.

I break out of my stare to return to the boys, but it's too late, because Darius has already noticed the source of my admiration.

"You looking at Kylie?" he asks. "She's a lesbian, you know."

"Why would I care about that?" I say, crossing my arms.

"Damn it, Hazel. Go talk to her," Darius insists.

"I'm flattered that you think I have the confidence for that," I reply.

At that, Darius manually unfolds my arms for me and spins me around, pushing me forward as he says, "Go talk to her."

Having been forced away from my friends, there's only one way for me to go. Actually, there are many. I could go hide in the washroom or join the stoners in the yard. But the obvious choice is right ahead of me, and I'm already halfway there, so I make my heartbeat shut up for a minute so that I can finish my walk toward Kylie. When I go over, she flicks her eyes onto me and takes another sip from her cup.

"Hey," I say. "Um, I like your style."

She gives me a nod and a short smile, replying, "Thanks."

She says nothing else, and I feel my nerves start to grope my bones, making my hands shake a little, and I have to clasp them together to keep them still.

"Um, I'm Hazel."

"I know who you are."

"Oh, cool."

She's quiet again. Maybe she's just nervous like me. That's plausible, right? Should I go? Should I try again?"

"Um, I like your—"

"Hey," she says, cutting me off, "I'm a lesbian. And you're not, like, a real girl, so can you, like, not?"

For a moment, I'm stunned, speechless and motionless, unsure how to react. I've heard that before, that I'm not a real girl, but usually it's from old people or transphobic teenage boys who just want someone to pick on. I've never heard it from a girl I liked before.

Finally, I manage to get my legs working again, and I whip around, rushing back to Darius and Adrian, trying to hold in the downpour pricking at my eyes. It's humiliating. I put myself out there only to get shot down, and honestly of all the ways she could've turned me away, she had to choose that way. But maybe she has a point. Maybe I'll never be girl enough for another girl to like. Under all the makeup and clothes, I still have a long way to go before ever being like the rest of them. Screw this. Screw them. Screw everything. I just want to disappear.

"Didn't go well?" Darius guesses.

If I can't make myself disappear, at least I can make my feelings disappear. Rather than answer, I grab the cup from his hand and chug it. I don't know what's in it, and it tastes awful, but I don't let up.

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

Britain and Waleed both have their eyes half closed as they stand. I would want them to sit, but all the seats at the party are occupied, so instead they're just swaying back and forth gently while they smile.

"Bro," Waleed says. "It feels like I'm flying."

"Bro!" Britain replies. "You are."

"No, you're both high," I say.

"We're both flying high," Waleed responds.

"Woah," Britain breathes. "I can see Andreas's nerd cousin from up here."

Nerd cousin? I glance behind me at where he's looking, and my eyes spring wide when I spot Hazel laughing with some boys she definitely doesn't usually talk to, a cup in her hand. Based on how not uptight she's being, I take it that's not just pop she's drinking. Why is she here? Since when does she come to parties? She's supposed to be anti-social and boring.

"Hey, I'll be right back," I tell my friends. "Don't trip over your own feet while I'm gone."

I wind through the crowd to get over to Hazel. As soon as she's within reach, I grab her arm and pull her away from the boys. She gives me an annoyed look and rips her arm from my hand but stays in front of me.

"What are you doing here?" I interrogate. "Why are you drinking?"

"I'm drowning my excruciating emotions in alcohol," she slurs then raises her cup. "May I bask in the loveliness of being numb."

I steal the cup from her grip and set it down on a counter behind me, saying, "I'm cutting you off."

"Are you my dad now?" Hazel snipes.

"You don't have a dad."

"So stop being mine!"

She whirls around and stomps into a hallway to get to a doorway.

"Where are you going?" I question.

"I'm going to my room," she growls back.

"That's a closet."

"Exactly where I should've stayed!"

She pushes the door open and slams it shut behind her, leaving me in the hallway and worried.

 

Chapter Text

Jonah's POV

Austen is now sound asleep, but even as I sit with my husband and mother in the living room, I still can't stop worrying about my daughter. Every noise I hear, I glance back toward the stairs, wondering if it's coming from her room.

"That's just wind chimes," Mom tells me when I react another time.

"She wakes up a lot, so I thought it might've been her," I explain.

"Jonah," my mom says, "I can tell you're nervous about being a dad."

"Me? Nervous?" I laugh it off until my laughter becomes overtaken by my anxiety, at which point I admit, "Yeah."

I'm good at not caring about things, and I'm comfortable with that, but this is my child. I can't make mistakes with her. I need her to grow up okay. What if I'm bad at that?

"The trick to parenting is to trust your instincts," my mom says.

"I don't think I have those," I respond. 

"Everyone has those. Becoming a parent, that's when they tend to show up most. Like what do you do when she cries?"

"I don't know. Feed her. If that doesn't work, I play her a John Mulaney set to cheer her up."

"You also sing to her," Walker reminds me.

"Yeah, I do that too."

"See, there," Mom says. "You can get her to stop crying, so you can already do something that many parents struggle with. Don't doubt yourself. You're gonna do great. And you've got a wonderful husband to help you out."

Walker smiles at my mom, saying, "Thanks, Judy."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

"I don't get you," Angel yammers. "You pass up on perfectly good guys for no reason."

Tay's expression shows that she agrees with every word coming out of Angel's mouth, but I'm just trying to drink my Smirnoff, waiting until she stops talking.

"Do you want to be single forever?" Angel asks. "Makes no sense. If I were you, I'd stop being so picky and just go on a date already. Why won't you even try to get a boyfriend?"

I finish the last drop of my drink and smack the bottle down on the table behind me before spinning back to Angel, and with my newfound confidence given to me by the alcohol, I state bluntly, "I doubt my girlfriend would like that."

Tay and Angel's jaws both drop.

"You're gay?" Angel says after a minute to process.

"No, I'm bisexual," I correct her. "Stop thinking it's gay or straight. It's a whole-ass spectrum."

Angel furrows her brows. "So you like everyone? Ew, wait. Do you like me?"

"No. I'm bi. I don't have bad taste."

I whip around to leave my friends, but after a few steps, I bump into Andreas who I guess was looking for me.

"There you are," he says.

"How'd you know I was here?" I question.

He raises an eyebrow, saying, "Has there ever been a party you weren't at?"

"Point taken. What do you want?"

"Hazel's drunk and in a closet."

It takes my brain an extra second to realize what he just said. Hazel, my goody-two-shoes cousin who thinks cider is hard liquor is drunk? Who died for her to want to do that?

"Shit," I mutter. "What happened?"

"I don't know."

He leads the way down the hallway up to a door, and the minute he opens the walk-in linen closet, the smell of vomit hits me. My cousin sits on the floor, leaning against a rack of towels, looking completely drained.

"Oh, it's you guys," she mumbles. "Sorry about the smell. I threw up in that bucket."

I look to the other side of the space, seeing the Home Depot orange bucket with the brown fluid in it. Gagging from the fumes, I lift the bucket to put it in the hall for those people to deal with before shutting the door and sitting down next to Hazel, and Andreas sits by her other side.

"So why were you drinking?" I ask. "You're supposed to be the one who tells me not to drink."

"You don't listen anyway," Hazel says in her scraped-up voice.

"Why didn't you listen to yourself?"

"I did listen," she says. "I listened to Kylie tell me I wasn't really a girl, so she could never like me."

As if she has an endless supply of fluids to lose, her eyes start to spill tears.

"What if I never find a girl willing to date me?" she sobs. "What if they'll always see me as a boy pretending to be a girl?"

"That's stupid," Andreas replies. "You're as girl as any other girl."

"I don't look like them," Hazel weeps.

I bring my arm around her, saying, "I know. But someday you will if you want to, and even if you don't, I promise you there will be a great girl who's not transphobic who will like you."

Hazel sits quiet for a minute before a smile grows on her face, and then she tells us, "I'm starting estrogen soon."

"Hazel!" I say in excitement. "That's huge! Why didn't you tell us?"

"I was kind of busy throwing up earlier."

"Before that."

She shrugs. "I don't know."

Hazel looks between Andreas and me, smiling again.

"I really appreciate you guys," she says. "Can you not tell my moms I was drinking?"

"I think they'll be able to tell anyway," Andreas says, "but sure."

He stands up then reaches down to pull Hazel up onto her feet, and immediately, both he and I need to hold on to her to keep her from wobbling over.

"Let's get you home," he says.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Andreas and I help Hazel out of his car, resuming our teamwork to keep her upright as we walk toward the door of her house. We go slow to avoid losing our balance, and she's sort of holding herself up, but also not really. She's still definitely sloshed.

"What's puberty like?" she asks me.

"Awkward," I answer, "and kinda gross. Think of it as a pro that you won't start bleeding every month."

"Ew," Andreas mutters.

Hazel and I both snap back at the exact same time, "Grow up, Andreas."

"Sorry," he says. "It's actually pretty badass if you think about it. Chicks will be practically dying and carry on like it's nothing."

After getting up the porch steps, Hazel fumbles around her jacket pockets to find her house key, which she does successfully, but getting it in the lock is another story. I have to take over to unlock the door for her.

As soon as the door swings open, Andreas, Hazel, and I are greeted with the faces of Auntie Andi, Auntie Amber and both my dads sitting around the TV, now looking highly concerned at the three of us.

"Oh, hi," Andreas and I say simultaneously.

Auntie Amber's face shows deep worry as she asks, "Is she drunk?"

"Nope," Andreas lies. "Just constipation." He adjusts Hazel's arm around him and starts walking toward the hall, saying, "Come on. Let's get you to the washroom."

Hazel let's me go, and Andreas helps her to her bedroom. I start to follow but am stopped by the sound of Papa's voice.

"Jayda."

I pivot around on my feet, going back over to my dads with an innocent smile.

"Were you drinking at all?" Papa asks.

I hesitate for a moment before saying, "Define drinking."

That's all the answer he needs, and he shakes his head while Daddy continues to look at me in distress.

"You didn't drive, right?" Daddy checks.

"I did not," I answer proudly. "Andreas drove, and he is completely sober." But also, you wouldn't have noticed that I had any alcohol if Hazel hadn't been drunk. My tolerance is great."

"And that worries me a little," Daddy responds.

My attention is pulled over to Andreas as he reenters the room, saying, "She's gonna rest." Then he looks to me, asking, "Want a ride home?"

I look over at my dads who are my other option for getting home, but with them I'm probably going to have to listen to Daddy lecture about the dangers of underage drinking the whole way home, so it's really not much of a decision.

I return my eyes to Andreas, replying, "Yes, please."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Andreas drives a black Ford Mustang. It's old, and you can hear that as it rumbles to a stop in front of my house. He puts the car in park but leaves the engine on. That means I should probably go now so that he isn't polluting the air for too long, but after unbuckling my seatbelt, I can't get myself to leave yet.

"Hey," I speak up, turning my body to face him better, "you were a really good friend to Hazel tonight."

"You were a good cousin," he responds.

"You noticed she needed help. I didn't do that."

He smiles, showing his thanks without having to say it. For a few seconds, I follow his eyes as they trace my face, making me feel exposed, like he can see every piece of me. But I don't hate it. 

"Hey, I overheard what happened with you and your friends," he says. "I've never told you, but I want to make sure you know that I think bisexual Jayda is just as good as straight Jayda was."

I look down for a moment before responding, "Well, straight Jayda never existed."

"Even better. Bi Jayda is my favorite anyway."

I smile, and a laugh finds its way out of me, releasing along with some nerves I didn't know were there.

When my eyes find his again, he's suddenly moved on to the radio which he turns up when he notices what song is playing. "Falling" by Harry Styles fills the car, shaking the structure with its glorious vocals and deep bass. Andreas brings his eyes back to mine while I'm staring at him in curiosity.

"You listen to Harry Styles?" I say.

"I figured you would," he replies. "I heard bisexuals like him."

"That's a stereotype. But I do like him."

He grins then presses the buttons on his car door, making all the windows roll down to share the music with the rest of the nighttime neighbourhood. A streetlight flickers at the exact moment he does that, like it's trying to dance.

"Oceana would hate this," I say. "She's very insistent on following municipal noise laws."

I don't know why I thought of her. Maybe it's because of how not like her Andreas is. She's really...tame. But he's... I don't know what he is. And I think that's what makes him so exciting—because I'm constantly finding out.

"Well, it's a good thing I'm not her," Andreas responds.

"Yeah."

There's a moment when the beat of the music lines up with my own pulse, and suddenly everything feels so in sync, like the sun and moon are going to rise together tomorrow. He looks at me, one of his eyes partially hidden by a loose strand of spiralling hair. Why does he always look at me like this? I swear he doesn't look at other people this way. But also, if he ever stopped, if he ever cut off this bizarre string that loops me in his eyes with every glance, I'd be disappointed.

"Um—" I blink my way out of our silence "—It's pretty late. I should get inside."

"No problem," he replies.

He reaches for the dial and turns down the music, but I wish he would keep it playing, at least until the song finishes. It takes me another minute before I can push the car door open and step outside. I take a step toward my house before turning back around and looking into the vehicle at Andreas through the open window.

"Thanks for driving me home."

"No problem," he says with a smile.

Now there's no reason to stay any longer, so I return forward, walking up to my door. Before I go inside, I end up giving him one last look back, but he's already pulling away from the curb.

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV

The jumble of students passes by like schools of fish, but I remain at my locker, neatly packing my books onto the shelf like a game of Tetris. There's no space to waste, so I make every millimetre count. I do plan to take some of these books home, but I often forget when they're shoved so tightly into the tiny compartment. A familiar voice draws my attention away from my locker for a moment, and my eyes latch onto Deion's of who is walking with a couple of his friends, but seeing me, he stops, letting himself fall behind the flow of the others then comes my way. I smile and continue putting my stack of books away as he leans against the locker beside me.

"Hi," I say.

"Hey," he responds. "Uh, I finished that book you lent me."

"You're proving the disbelievers wrong," I comment.

"Because I finished a book?"

"Because you can read," I tease.

Deion grins at that, or just at me. It's unclear which.

"Did you like it?" I ask.

"I'm gonna be honest, I had to look up about every fourth word in a dictionary, which I didn't even know I owned before I went looking, so lots of the story was lost on me, but I think I got the general idea."

"And that was...?"

"That even the best person can forget their morals when given power," he answers proudly.

I smile, happy for him as well. Who knew he would end up enjoying the same books as me? I certainly wouldn't have guessed that.

"Did you listen to the record I lent you?" Deion asks.

"I did. I didn't expect it to be jazz, but it was good. I think I found my new study music."

"Yeah, my grandpa played in a jazz band," he explains. "I never knew him, but I tried to learn as much as I could about him."

"Is that why you play the guitar?" I wonder.

"Yeah, uh, I don't know. It makes me feel kinda...connected to him, I guess."

The rattle of the school bell defines the end of our conversation, and I shut my locker then bend down to pick up the books that I'll need for class that I sat on the floor.

"You heading to class?" Deion asks me.

"Where else would I be going?"

"Right. You're not me."

That makes me smile, and we set off for history class together. Once arrived, the two of us split to find our seats, him at the back, and me behind my friends who give analytical stink eyes to Deion as I sit.

"I still can't believe you talk to that imbecile," Linny states.

"He's not that malign once you get to know him," I insist.

"Either way, I'm not comfortable with you two being friends," Kelsey rebuts.

"I appreciate your protectiveness, but it's superfluous in this situation."

"Has he even apologized for being mean to you for so long?" Kelsey challenges.

I sink into soundless consideration, dreading the actual answer. No, he hasn't. Not once has he mentioned feeling any form of remorse for his actions. But he's different. He's positively not the same as before. But never has he acknowledged that. I wonder why.

"Yeah," Kelsey huffs. "That's what I figured."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

Hazel's ginormous grin calls for all the focus as I stop washing dishes in the kitchen and look over to her entering the room.

"You excited?" I ask.

"Yes, yes, but I'm totally calm," she replies in a frantic voice. "I'm not freaking out. Just because I'm taking estrogen for the first time— Oh my gosh!" she explodes in enthusiasm. "I'm taking estrogen today! I'm gonna get, like, female things! I'm gonna get boobs!"

Suddenly, Amber steps into the kitchen, wondering, "What are we talking about?"

"Hazel's boobs," I answer.

"Right," Amber says, remembering the plan, "you ready?"

"Yes," Hazel replies, "but I'm also lowkey terrified. Would you guys be with me while I do it?"

"We weren't planning on leaving you alone anyway," I respond.

"Thank you! I'm confident, but I'm also really scare I'm gonna mess it up."

"You learned all this with the doctor," Amber reminds her. "I think you'll be fine."

"You're right," Hazel says in a loud exhale. "I just need to calm down."

She spins around, returning to her room while trying to monitor her breathing, but her anticipation continues to get in the way.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

When I come through the front door of my home, Jonah walks up to me.

"How was your day?" he asks.

"Pretty good. How was Austen?"

"Cute," he replies. "She discovered her feet."

He glances back, making me notice where Austen lies on a baby mat on the living room floor. She holds one of her legs up as she gnaws on her toes, seemingly never getting bored of the activity. Smiling, I go over to kneel down next to her and start tickling her stomach, turning into those parents who say weird things just because they're talking to their baby.

"Are you having a snack?" I say. "Yeah?"

My daughter kicks her leg down and squirms around while giggling loudly. When I stop tickling her, she pauses, her face going blank for a moment, but a second later, she starts blowing raspberries, making spit fly everywhere. I have to use my sleeve to wipe it off my face, but Austen seems pleased. Now, she starts to roll over to her stomach and reaches out for a CD that's fallen off the shelf set where the television sits on. Before she can grab the CD case, I quickly swipe it and put it on the shelf.

"No, that's not a snack," I say.

Although too far away for her to grab, the CD is still in her sight, and with it gone, she starts crying. I lift her off the ground and stand up to rock gently while holding my sobbing daughter.

"Shhh, it's okay," I say.

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

He would never admit it, but with how often I've seen Deion in drama club recently, I'm beginning to think he can't be completely opposed to it. Nobody with rational decision skills would continue to repeat the incidents that lead to being here unless they actually do enjoy it. The tech booth at the back of the theatre is empty aside from him, and I give him a curious look as I find my chair at the table of controls.

"Detention again?" I say.

"I can't help it," Deion replies with a smile. "Teachers hate me."

"Teachers would like you if you behaved better."

"All I did was not finish my homework. I didn't shove anyone over."

"I'm glad you've retired that," I respond, recalling when he used to do stuff like that to me.

"Yeah, that didn't really feel good," Deion mutters.

"I believe it."

I grab the clipboard that has the lighting and sound directions for each scene of the spring musical, then start glossing over it.

"You get detention a lot now," I point out.

From the side of my eye, I see Deion just shrug. Of course he won't confess his true feelings. He could just tell me that he likes it here. I wouldn't judge him for it, but for him, simply using detention as an excuse is easier. Just avoiding emotions seems to be his typical procedure. That could be why he's never apologized. And I'm content with that—or I was. But Kelsey's words stick in my brain, and now I can't shut off the stream of insecurities hitting me, so I try to ignore them.

"What do we have to do with these buttons?" Deion asks.

"Um, the guy who usually works lights and sound is sick," I explain, "so we just have to follow along with the rehearsal and hit each button when directed while they practice each scene."

"Cool."

He comes to take the chair next to me, and with him right here, I need to settle my concern.

"Deion, are you ever going to apologize to me?"

"What?" He looks baffled.

"For bullying me all that time. Is there a reason why you did that?"

That's when his old, angry self flashes back as he says, "Even if there was, I wouldn't tell you."

"I see a nerve has been struck," I note.

"You struck nothing," he snarls. "Just shut up. What do we have to do with these stupid lights?"

"I would answer, but you told me to shut up."

"Whatever," he huffs. "You do it alone."

He shoves his rolling chair away to the corner of the room, as far away as he can get from me, where he starts going on his phone. I guess I'll be doing lights and sound alone today.

 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

The movie theatre is filled with people mingling around outside the ticket and snack stands, but nobody is in either line, because tonight isn't a regular night at the theatre.

"I'm so excited for your film," Buffy says, walking in beside me.

There's a short film festival tonight here for LGBTQ+ films by small film companies, and the one I work for got one of its short films in this. Since TJ is working late tonight, I invited Buffy, because she responded first, and I only got one extra ticket. I'm wearing one of my button-ups to look somewhat formal, but Buffy is only in jeans and a T-shirt. There was no dress code, but she's currently looking around at all the filmmakers who all have a style that makes it quite obvious that they're filmmakers.

"Everyone looks so...Film-y," Buffy comments. "Look, that person's wearing a beret, and that is most definitely a blazer from the '70s. I feel like I should've dressed different."

"Don't worry, Buffy. You look great," I assure her.

Suddenly, Buffy's head stops turning and latches on to the back of another woman across the floor with curly, dark hair and a navy wrap coat. As her profile comes into view, Buffy narrows her eyes even more.

"You see that woman over there?" she asks.

"Yeah."

"She looks kinda like..."

When the woman turns all the way around, there's no mistaking her.

"Kira," Buffy hisses. "I thought I'd seen the last of her after high school."

"I guess people still exist even after we stop knowing them," I say, "although part of me wanted her to just be a very detailed nightmare."

"She's coming this way."

"Oh, joy."

"Slayer?" Kira says in a honeyed voice, full of fake excitement. "Cyrus. Heyyyyy. How have you been?"

I force a polite smile on my face, even though I'd rather just leave.

"Wonderful," I reply flatly. "Do you have a film showing?"

"In this thing for small companies?" Kira scoffs. "No. I was just here to throw out some garbage, these diamonds earrings I got that ended up being 22 karat gold instead of 24 karat. Honestly, some people just can't get it right."

"What do you do exactly?" Buffy questions.

"I own a business of very popular makeup products," Kira says. "You've probably heard of it. It's called Prismshine."

Buffy nods, although reluctantly.

"What do you two do now?" Kira asks.

"Also super successful," Buffy blurts. "I manage an even bigger brand."

I guess we're lying now?

"Oh, really?" Kira responds. "What one?"

"Uh, Google."

Yes, we're lying.

"Wow. Impressive. And what about you, Cyrus?"

I'm about to answer truthfully, but Buffy replies for me first.

"He works for a super big film company. Way bigger than these. He's also rich."

"Wow," Kira says.

I look over at Buffy, scolding her, but she doesn't let me affect her. Then Kira's phone rings.

"Hold on," she says. "I gotta take this. Don't leave."

She steps away to take the call, while I turn to Buffy, my disappointment plain as day.

"Buffy, why did you say that?" I question.

"Because she's rich and successful, and I'm not letting her come back twenty years later and beat me," Buffy states.

"Buffy, life isn't a game. She can't beat you."

"She can't," Buffy agrees, which makes me happy for about one second before she adds, "because I'm going to beat her."

________________________________________

Walker's POV

Austen stares up at me with her big eyes from where she lies on her play mat. Meanwhile, Jonah is busy making dinner for us in the kitchen, the scent of which wafts toward me.

"Smells good," I call out.

"Thanks," Jonah responds. "I'll make sure to tell DiGiorno Pizza you like it."

He peaks out of the kitchen to smile at me, and I laugh. When I look back to Austen, she has her foot in her mouth again, but when she meets my eyes, she drops her foot and reaches for my hand instead, and I let her guide it up to her mouth where she starts gumming on my pinky finger.

"Okay, sure," I accept.

"Is this a sign that she's going to be a cannibal?" Jonah asks as he comes out from the kitchen to sit on one of the living room chairs.

"I don't think so," I reply.

"Good."

While still sucking on my finger, she uses one hand to start reaching toward the CD shelf again, and soon she stops caring about my hand, and I take it back for myself.

"You still want that CD?" I say to her.

She reaches and reaches but her arms are too tiny, and she hasn't yet figured out how to move.

"Alright," I breathe.

I take the CD case from the shelf, and bring it over to the CD player where I take the disc out and get the song going. Austen is back to eating her foot again, but Jonah looks pleased by the song choice.

"She chose The Who," Jonah notices. "What can I say? We're raising her right."

We let the song play for a moment but then Austen starts reaching for the CD case again, and I sit back down on the floor with her.

"Sorry, Jonah," I tell him. "I think she's more interested in the case."

Austen waves an arm out at the case, but I sit it on the table instead of giving it to her.

"No," I say.

Within seconds, the baby's face scrunches, and she starts bawling. I let out a sigh, and grab the CD case again, bringing it back to her.

"Fine," I breathe.

She immediately grabs the CD case, but rather than hold it and look at it, she begins sucking on one of its corners.

"She still has good taste," Jonah says, "just in a different way."

I smile back at my husband before pulling the CD case out of our daughter's mouth and putting it back on the table. Of course, the crying comes back in an instant.

"Nope," I tell her. "That case isn't good for you."

As her crying persists, I come up with another distraction, giving her my finger again, which she grasps on to and brings to her mouth to start gumming away.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

"Moms!" shouts Hazel.

Amber and I both follow the call into our daughter's room where we find her sitting on her bed, with a basket of all the tools she'll be needing. In her hands, she holds up a tiny, clear vile of liquid, then she tips it around as she smiles at it.

"This is it!" she says. "This is the estrogen."

"It looks like water," I comment.

"Don't drink it," Amber says.

"I'm not going to drink it. It just looks like water."

Hazel lowers the vile to examine it more personally.

"Why did I expect it to be, like, some weird colour, like a Harry Potter potion?" she asks.

She sets the vile back in the basket on the bed then picks up a cardboard box filled with dozens of needles.

"And here are the needles," she says. "I'm going to put one of these in my leg."

She stares down at the box, and I begin to notice that she's chewing on her lip from the inside. She's nervous, which is understandable. I'm probably more nervous that she is. This is my daughter, and although I know nothing bad will happen, my heart's beating like we're about to walk into a war.

"Are you okay?" I ask her.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm—" She switches from her calmness to total anxiousness in an instant. "Why did they give me so many needles! Do they think I'm gonna break one on the first try!"

I sit down next to her on the bed, saying, "It's okay. You've got this," but she's still breathing way faster than normal.

"Did you wipe the spot on your leg already?" Amber checks.

Hazel nods, and after a moment, she recollects herself and breathes, "Okay."

She puts the box back in the basket and picks up one of the needles. She knows all the steps well, probably because, if she's anything like me, she's already gone over them on repeat in her head for hours. Once the needle is set to the correct dosage, she passes that to me to hold while she wipes the top of the estrogen vile, and soon she has the needle in the vile, and she's attempting to draw the liquid into it, but something's not right.

"Why am I only getting air?" Hazel huffs in frustration. "Ugh! I'm already failing! Why didn't I just choose patches?"

"Because you didn't want it to be visible, and you like not having to worry about it for longer," Amber reminds her.

"Just take a moment to let yourself calm down," I say. "We'll figure this out together, okay?"

Hazel nods and sucks in a deep breath. She holds it for a moment then lets it out, saying, "Yup, deep breaths still don't do anything."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

"So Cyrus," Kira says, having finished her long phone call, "what films have you made?"

I'm not a very good liar, so I look to Buffy, giving her the responsibility of that.

"Uh, so many big ones," Buffy replies, "but you probably wouldn't know them. They're a little advanced for your taste."

Kira gives a cold smile as she flicks her eyes down over Buffy and back up. "Those shoes tell me my taste is at least better than yours."

"My personal stylist picked these out," Buffy answers in a rush. "They're a very high-end brand. I understand why you wouldn't get it. I could refer him to you if you want? I can tell you could use the help."

The glares of both women keep burning into the air.

 

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV

"Wonderful!" shouts the drama teacher at the actors on stage. "And spotlight!"

I flip the switch, making light flood down on the girl in the middle in a single beam. As she begins her monologue, I glance back at Deion who remains enticed by his phone. When the actress finishes speaking, I turn the spotlight off, and the teacher tells everyone to take five. Feeling the silence caving in, my instinct to end it ignites.

"My friends don't think I should be friends with you,"I state.

"They're probably right," Deion mumbles.

I spin around in my seat, asking, "Why is that?"

"Because I'm just a jerk who's gonna put you down all the time." He sounds angry but in a melancholy way.

"Recognizing the mistake is the first step to changing it."

Deion's eyes remain downward as he says, "I can't change. I'm a bully. Always have been. Always will be. Just some screw-up who gets detention all the time."

"Interesting, because I don't think many screw-ups go home and do puppet shows for their little brother because he can't go to sleep without one."

He still doesn't look up, but his eyes are motionless. He's listening, pondering.

"I don't think screw-ups will help do every chore for their mom to make life just a bit easier for her."

"Yeah, well," he mutters, "this screw-up does."

Up until now, I never realized just how deep Deion was cut. I don't know what from, and I don't think I could ever understand it entirely. That's probably why I speak in metaphors a lot: because it gets close to describing the indescribable, so I never have to actually explain what I can't comprehend.

"You don't have to give me a reason why you acted the way you did," I tell him. "Whatever it is, it's yours to know, not mine."

When he still doesn't speak, I take that as my cue to turn back to the controls and give up.

"Hey, I'm sorry," Deion suddenly says.

I smile to myself. Deion's not beyond emotions. He just feels them too hard. But he's sorry. That makes me a lot more relieved to know.

"So this button starts the music," I begin as I point to the controls, and Deion rolls his chair back in to listen, giving me a smile.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

After some problem-solving and reviewing of the instructions, Hazel finally managed to get the estrogen in the needle.

"Okay," she says, holding the tool up. "All I have to do is put this in my leg."

She's doing surprisingly well at controlling her hand, although her nerves are trying to make it shake. For another moment, she stares at the sharp tip of the needle, preparing herself.

"Do you want us to do it?" Amber asks.

Hazel shakes her head. "No. I'm independent and capable. I can do this." She closes her eyes to calm herself, but then she opens them again, saying in a shaky tone, "Ahhh. Why is this so terrifying?"

"It's normal to be scared," Amber replies. "Most people don't give themselves needles."

"There's a whole group of angsty kids at Grant who give themselves needles all the time," Hazel says. "If they can do it, I can do it."

"Please don't base your decisions off theirs," I respond in concern.

"Here I go," Hazel says.

She brings the needle down to her leg and starts pushing it down. Once it breaks the skin, my brain ends up in a constant debate due to how much I hate watching needles but how much I also really want to make sure Hazel does it okay.

"Ow, ow ow," she repeats until it's all the way down. "Okay, it's in."

The she starts injecting the clear liquid, which, by her more content expression, seems less painful. The problem comes when she pulls the needle out, and a spurt of red squirts out.

"Shit, there's blood!" she screams.

Amber comes to save her by giving her a gauze pad, pressing it to the skin to soak up the blood. Hazel sets the used needle down on its wrapper in the basket before letting the moment sink it and a smile flood to her face.

"Oh my gosh. I did it!" she says, leaping up.

She hugs both me and Amber tightly then steps back, beaming like the sun, holding back from letting all her excitement out.

"You want to scream?" Amber asks with a grin.

Taking the offer, Hazel lets out an ear-splitting half-squeal-half-scream, releasing her joy into the world.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

Having gotten past all the questions about lifestyle and occupation, Buffy's still trying to find the flaws in Kira's situation, but we've already concluded that any of those flaws will come in a four-story mansion on the town's edge with a butler and nine cars.

"So do you have a partner or any kids?" Buffy asks.

"Oh, gosh. Who has time for that with all my money?" Kira replies.

I don't see the relation, but I don't feel like pointing that out.

"Oh, no one would marry you?" Buffy snipes.

"Actually, I have eight open relationships," Kira says. "One man is in France. Another in Belgium. Oh, and I can't forget about the prince."

"A prince?" Buffy echoes, gritting her teeth.

"Yeah," Kira says with a smirk.

Tired of staying quiet, I finally speak up, "So you don't know the joy of having a family."

"Families are overrated," Kira replies.

"I wouldn't say having people constantly there who love you and look up to you is overrated. I think it's highly underrated, actually, at least in your life."

"I presume you're married, then?" Kira says bitterly.

"Yes, to TJ Kippen."

"Oh, that boy."

"Yes, and we have a daughter and a son who both showed me happiness that I didn't know was possible."

"Isn't that nice," Kira's sarcastic tone sounds. "Did you get that line from a gretting card?"

"You know, Kira," Buffy finally joins in, "I was trying to impress you, but I don't know why. I'm not rich. I have a regular house with a perfect husband and three very...interesting kids, while all you have is stuff and money that won't buy you anything near what I have."

"Wow," Kira responds, widening her eyes. "You know what money can buy me? The private jet I'm going to now for my trip to Tokyo."

She grins condescendingly and struts past us, heading out the theatre doors. Buffy and I both watch her with jealous scowls.

"Why'd you have to get all truthful?" Buffy mutters.

"I don't know," I sigh.

"Now I have to switch makeup brands."

________________________________________

Walker's POV

"Pizza's ready," Jonah calls.

I come into the kitchen to smell the simmering cheese with Austen in my arms, perched on my left side. Her eyes are starting to flutter as her head rests on my shoulder, and the music from the CD player cradles her ears.

"I think she does like The Who," I say to Jonah. "She's going to sleep."

"She finds it that boring?" Jonah responds.

"No, she finds it soothing."

My husband smiles as he watches our daughter fall into slumber on my hip.

"As long as she likes it," he says.

"I'm gonna go put her to bed," I whisper.

I carry the baby upstairs to her room, feeling her chest rise and fall against mine with each one of her tiny breaths. She truly is an angel in human form, just a little, foot-eating baby who finds wonder in literally everything. That's what I was missing before I got her. I forgot how incredible every single piece of the universe is. She's showing me that again.

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

My eyes flutter open into the summer daylight streaming in, but when I roll over, TJ isn't there beside me. Groggy, I push myself up, but my sleepiness vanishes the instant TJ comes out of the washroom in jeans and missing a shirt. The lighting plays on the ripples of his muscles, defining every groove, and making his body a sort of light show for me to admire.

"Hi," I say.

TJ grins and approaches the bed then leans down to kiss me. Like molasses, our lips slowly drip apart, clinging on as long as they can before letting go.

"Happy anniversary," TJ says.

"To you as well."

TJ steps away and opens the chest to grab a shirt and pull it over his head. Naturally, I end up staring.

"You should keep the shirt off," I tell him.

He grins as he turns around, saying, "I would, but I actually have somewhere to be, and you do too."

"Where?"

"I thought because this is a special year, we could do something special."

"Eighteen is a special year?"

"Every year with you is special."

That's so soft it makes me smile even softer.

"How do you feel about renewing our vows?" he asks.

"That's the sweetest idea ever," I fawn.

"Yeah?"

Rather than answer, I climb out of bed and go over to kiss him again.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

When Buffy and I enter the basement, the picture I see is the exact one Buffy said it would be.

"You were right," I tell her. "They're in these exact positions."

Andreas is busy gaming on the couch. Brayden is on another chair, reading a book. And Cara is sitting on the carpet at the coffee table, colouring her sketchbook beside Andreas's propped-up feet.

"Okay, listen up," I say.

The gunshots of the video game don't stop, and Andreas doesn't even give me a glance.

"Andreas, as much as I want that robot's head to explode too, you gotta pause."

He sighs and does as asked before removing his headphones and turning to face me and his mom.

"So Cyrus and TJ are renewing their vows today," I explain, "and we've all got to go and support them."

Brayden is the first to respond, saying, "Uncle TJ likes to think he's better than his mother at giving notice, but lately, all the events he's planned have been done so the morning of."

"Although that's true," Buffy agrees, "we still have to be there."

"Do we have to dress up?" Andreas asks.

"I'd like it if you didn't wear jeans and a T-shirt," Buffy answers.

"Cool," our oldest responds. "Sweatpants, then."

"Uh, no," Buffy shuts down. "Something decently nice."

"If we're dressing nice," Cara chimes in, "then I want a suit. You promised at Monsoon's funeral, remember?"

"Did I make that promise?" Buffy wonders, looking at me.

I shrug. "I don't know. I was too busy being sad about you hating my motorcycle."

She narrows her eyes, and I scramble to figure out why.

"Our motorcycle?" I guess.

"You did," Cara interrupts, "and I still don't have one, so we need to go shopping."

"Cara, I would, but we said we'd help set up," Buffy explains.

"Brayden and I can go over there to help," Andreas offers. "You take Cara to the mall."

Buffy is surprised but smiles, saying, "That's thoughtful of you."

"Yes," Brayden mumbles sarcastically, "volunteering other people for work is thoughtful."

Andreas gets up from the couch and walks past his brother, giving Brayden's book a bonk up with his hand, putting a scowl on Brayden's face.

"Was that thoughtful?" Andreas says.

"Not at all," Brayden replies.

"Good."

"Okay, Cara," Buffy says, coming back to the topic, "go get your shoes on."

Cara grins wide and springs to her feet excitedly.

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

I should've known that they'd be renewing their vows at the park. I've heard several stories about how they fell in love at this park. Also, it's free and open, so that makes it even better. TJ and Cyrus aren't here yet, but I do see Andi and Amber setting up some decorations and seats, with Hazel helping as well. Jonah and Walker are here as well, but they're busy talking to Austen who Walker is holding. She's currently chewing on Walker's shirt, which I guess doesn't bother him. She must do this a lot.

"Oh, a child. How lovely," Brayden mumbles. "I'm going to go talk to Hazel."

He splits away from me, so I go over to Jonah and Walker, giving them a wave.

"She's getting bigger," I say.

"Slowly but surely," Walker responds.

Jonah taps Walker's arm and tells him, "I'm gonna go help set up chairs."

"Okay," Walker replies. After Jonah's gone off, Walker looks to me again and asks, "Hey, if you're not doing anything, would you want to watch Austen while I help set things up?"

"Uh, I guess."

Before I can remember that I have no idea how to take care of a baby, Walker passes the child to me, and I do my best to hold her in my arms so that she doesn't fall. As Walker leaves to join his husband, I stare at the baby with eyes wide in minor fear. My knowledge of babies is this: they're dumb, and their only survival instinct is to cry.

"So, uh, what's up?" I say.

"Abababa," Austen babbles.

I nod. "Cool, cool."

________________________________________

Andi's POV

Amber and I both release breaths as we sit the arbour of flowers in front of the swing set.

"It's perfect," I state.

"Yeah, it's pretty," Amber agrees.

It's a strange placement for anyone else, but it wouldn't be TJ and Cyrus's vow renewal if they weren't standing under the swings. This is pretty much where everything began for them. I remember Cyrus telling me about that first day here, how he was scared of TJ at first, but now I'd literally give my entire life's earnings if TJ did anything to hurt Cyrus on purpose. They are a two-parter, designed for each other. They're like me and Amber, but I'd argue we're better. I do have a bias, though. Amber brushes her blonde hair behind her ear as she examines the arbour, the blue flowers in it brightening the blue of her eyes.

All of a sudden, we're interrupted by the approach of a man with permanent forehead lines and a beer belly in a plaid shirt. He doesn't even need to talk for me to hear his gruff voice in my head, but he still does.

"Excuse me. My family is having a picnic here soon."

"Okay. We won't bother bother you," I say.

"No. We're going to have a picnic here."

He points to the ground, and I furrow my brows.

"This specific spot?" I ask.

"Yes."

"Well, sorry," Amber replies, confused, "but we were here first."

"This is a public space. You can't be putting arbours in the middle of them," he huffs.

"I'm pretty sure you have no authority over me," Amber responds, crossing her arms over her chest.

But then the man whips out his wallet and flashes a silver badge in Amber's face.

"Look who's wrong!"

At first, I'm shocked, but then I read it closer.

"That says 'Deputy Fun Chief' for Giggles Arcade," I state.

"Oh, we have a know-it-all here," he sneers.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

I've never seen Cara so excited in a store before. She winds around the racks of clothing like a bee in a meadow, eyes darting around to search for what she wants. When she stops at a T in the path, I try to direct her.

"The kids' suits are that way," I say, pointing left.

"Don't help me," she responds.

She pops her finger in her mouth and raises it up, like testing the air. Then she immediately turns left.

"Does checking the wind help?" I mutter, puzzled.

"No," Buffy answers.

We trail after our daughter until she finds the suits. She gasps before instantly swiping through jackets and pants.

"It's all so pretty!" she says.

When she turns a corner to investigate a rack of coloured dress shirts, a little boy probably a couple years younger than her stops and looks at her.

"This is the boys' section," he says.

Without wasting a breath, Cara quips, "So why are you here?"

"Cara!" Buffy says in shock.

"Man, she's quick," I mutter.

The little boy runs over to his dad, looking upset, and Cara goes back to looking around at the clothes. She moves on to a rack of tuxes in various colours.

"Do you think they have checkered?" Cara asks.

"They might," I reply.

She flips one more hanger over then pulls out a pants and jacket set in baby blue.

"This is it," Cara states with the biggest smile.

"It's beautiful," Buffy says. "Do you want to pick out any others to try on."

Cara shakes her head. "Just this one."

 

Chapter Text

Andreas's POV

"Here we go," I breathe as I take a seat on the park grass.

After getting myself comfortable, I place Austen down in front of me, needing to give my arms a break. However, when I place her on her bum, she only stays upright for a couple seconds before beginning to tilt, and I pick her back up to stand again.

"Cool, not doing that," I say.

Out of nowhere, she starts to cry, and I'm terrified, trying to understand what I'm supposed to do.

"What do you want now?" I huff.

The crying continues, and she of course gives me nothing to let me know what's wrong.

"You're not gonna get anything in life if you keep whining about it," I tell her.

"I wouldn't normally step into a situation with a tiny, brainless human," says my brother, coming over to me, "but this is uncomfortable."

"Yeah, the baby's kinda dumb," I agree.

"Okay, we'll say I was referring to the baby."

I think I'm offended, but he also carries on before I can really figure it out.

"Have you tried feeding her?" Brayden asks.

"All I have are mints," I explain.

"The bottle," he states, his eyes drooping in disappointment.

"Oh, yeah, that's probably in Walker's bag."

Brayden goes over to where the satchel is on the grass. Walker gave it to me earlier, but I didn't know why. I guess this is probably why. My brother finds the bottle and comes over, passing it to me. With a nervous hand, I bring the bottle to the baby, and she starts sucking on the tip, which makes her shut up in an instant as she drinks the milk.

"It's working," I say with a smile. "When did you get good with babies?"

"They're literally the simplest form of human life, and not even just of human life. Most mammals are smarter than them. They're not that hard to understand."

"Huh."

Austen stops drinking, backing her head away from the bottle, and I get worried again.

"She's not drinking anymore," I say.

"She's full," Brayden states.

I guess that makes sense. I pass the bottle back to Brayden then wrap my other hand around Austen again, holding her upright in front of me. She's actually pretty cute. Lucky for her. If she weren't, nobody would want to deal with this. Then she smiles at me with her lips pressed together.

"Hmmmm," sounds her little hum.

"I think I'm getting the hang of this," I say.

I spoke to soon, because right after, she throws up. Thankfully, I manage to hold her out away from me before the puke can get on my shirt.

"Never mind," I say, shaking my head. "You take her."

I shove the baby at my brother, and he accepts her, letting me get away from the disgusting thing.

"I suppose since my brother is incompetent, I'll clean you up," Brayden says to her.

She giggles as Brayden carries her past me to get wipes from Walker's bag.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Not one minute behind. Oceana steps out of her house at the exact time I said I'd be here. She always does things to the second, not a moment late. I'm the opposite. Fifteen minutes late is on time, and if I say I'm on my way, it means I've actually run out of gas and need to get that, plus I haven't even left the house. But people expect it. It's built into me. Oceana doesn't really get that, though. The only reason I managed to make it on time to pick her up from her house today is because I don't want to hear another one of her talks about how I should start checking the time and getting ready earlier. I do get ready earlier, but then it takes longer. I don't know how. It just does. But she doesn't get that.

"Noon on the dot," I say as she climbs into the passenger side of my daddy's car, which he lets me drive.

"I like being on time," Oceana responds with a smile. "Makes sure people aren't waiting for me."

Wow. Even being on time today, I didn't avoid the targeted comments.

I put the car into drive and steer out into the road while Oceana gets buckled. Her work isn't too far away, so I won't have to drive her for that long at least.

"Thanks for driving me, by the way," she says as I turn a corner. "I hate bothering you with this, but I guess I need functioning breaks to drive my own car."

I laugh with her before she asks me a question.

"What are you up to today?"

"Uh, my dads are renewing their vows."

"Oh my gosh. If I had known, I would've gotten someone to cover my shift."

"Oh, yeah. It was kinda last minute."

Honestly, I'm kind of glad my dads only mentioned it today. I like Oceana but...it's just not how I thought it would be.

"That's okay," Oceana says.

"What did you do today?" I ask.

"Um, I finished a physics project."

"Oh, cool. What was it on?"

She laughs lightly as she says, "You wouldn't know what I was talking about anyway."

"Yeah," I breathe. "You're probably right."

I take a right turn, and Oceana glances back.

"You missed that sign," she says.

"Oh. Well, it's too late to stop now."

________________________________________

Amber's POV

"You need to move your little ceremony," the man huffs.

I can't believe we're still arguing with him.

"My brother's renewing his vows," I state,

"My family is renewing our picnic tradition, so you need to move."

"Why can't you sit over there?" I say, pointing to a wonderful patch of grass just the same as literally every other place in this park, but he wants to sit here. Like, seriously, who has picnics on playground gravel?

"Because I'm allergic to grass," he says, "so I need to be on gravel."

"There's gravel over there," I tell him, motioning to another part of the park.

"I'm allergic to that gravel."

Okay, I'm going to kill someone.

"Well, tough for you," I bark.

"Amber," Andi says, noticing how annoyed I'm getting.

"My brother and his husband fell in love under these swings," I push, "so we're not moving."

"Well, I fell in love with tuna salad under those swings," the man retorts, "so I'm not moving."

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

"Ready?" Cara shouts from inside the change room.

Marty and I sit on the bench just outside it, waiting for our daughter to show us her outfit. She doesn't wait for our response. She just whips the curtain open and steps out with her hands in the pockets of her blue suit. She looks so happy too, like standing-on-clouds happy, ice-cream-before-dinner happy. She does a spin before stopping in front of the mirror to view herself.

"Wow," I say.

"Pretty dashing," Marty adds.

Cara tilts her head at her reflection. "It needs a top hat."

"I don't think they sell those," I say.

"Well, I can't go anywhere looking this boring."

"You're in a light blue suit," Marty says. "That's not boring."

She walks out of the hall of dressing rooms to peek into the store again. Without notice, she bolts away. Before I can question what she's doing, she's done, returning with a black and white checkered button-up.

"This is the missing piece," she says.

I smile as she runs back into the change room, shouting, "I wanna look like a race car flag!"

While she's behind the curtain, I lean over to Marty to whisper a thought that's been on my mind since—well—a while, but mostly today.

"Do you notice that she's kind of—I don't know how to phrase this—not very girly?"

"Yeah, she's a tomboy," Marty replies with a shrug.

"Yeah, but...I don't know. Sometimes she just...seems like maybe she's not entirely in the same...mindset, I guess, as other girls her age."

"I don't think it's anything to be worried about."

"Oh, no, I'm not worried. I'm just...thinking."

"Well, she's young. She's got a long way to grow."

"Yeah."

After finishing our conversation, we wait another moment until Cara comes bursting out of the change room. She steps up to the mirror, looking very pleased with her ensemble.

"Mom, Dad," she says, "we got it."

 

Chapter Text

Jayda's POV

"Hey, if you want, like, a refresher driving, I can help you," Oceana offers.

I keep my eyes ahead, muttering dryly, "I'm good."

"You just changed lanes without checking your mirrors."

"Aren't you observant."

I try to push her judgements out of my mind so that I can focus on not hitting the car in front of me. Her phone rings, and I think maybe that will keep her occupied, but then she hits decline, something she rarely does. She even answers to telemarketers to tell them she appreciates their offers.

"You're not gonna answer?" I say.

"They'll leave a voicemail."

"Who was it?"

"My mom," she replies.

Okay, that's totally false. I saw the caller ID, and it wasn't her mom.

"It said it was some fancy academy or whatever."

"Oh, yeah," she says, pretending like she didn't lie. "Uh, well, Synchrotron club—"

"Your complicated physics club?" I ask.

"Yeah, um... Anyway, we made a plan for a model that you wouldn't get, so I'll skip explaining it, but, um, we won an award from the province for a contest."

"That's amazing," I say, and I do mean it. "Did you already get it?"

"No, um, we're getting certificates at a dinner thing where we can meet the governor, and yeah."

"That's really cool." Then I give her a glance before looking back at the road. "How come you didn't tell me? Did you not want to?"

"No, I did, but... You know, we're allowed guests, and I was going to bring you, but you... Well, you know. You'd feel out of place."

I don't know why that simple statement makes me want to cry. Why is my chest tight from trying to keep myself together? Why is it suddenly so much harder to read the road signs passing by. I think I'm going too slow now. I check the speedometer and press my foot farther on the gas.

"Right," I mutter. "Because I'm not into all that science-y stuff."

"Everyone there will be really smart and respectable, and you'd feel weird. I didn't want you to feel bad about it, so I didn't tell you. I'm sure you understand."

"Yeah, no, I get it," I say, blinking away the liquid starting to well.

I manage to keep my eyes dry, at least enough that they don't spill over, but it only makes my core curdle more. She doesn't think I'm good enough for her smart people friends, and yeah, I guess I can't argue with that. I'm not like her. I'm not insanely smart and generous and considerate of every stranger I see—but I'm at least considerate of her. If she's that way for me, then I'm clearly missing it.

I stop before turning at the next corner.

"Hey, you got that sign," Oceana says. "Good job."

I don't respond, not out of anger, but just because...I don't have anything to say. I pull up in front of the shop she works at and put the car in park.

"Thanks for driving me," she says.

"Yeah, sure."

She gives me a smile before opening the car door to leave, and once she's gone, I can feel the air loosen. I don't drive away yet, though. Instead, I find myself fiddling with my charm bracelet, touching the little crown charm that Oceana gave me. I don't think it should burn to hold. This isn't normal. Or maybe it's normal, but...it shouldn't be.

My fingers slip down to the clasp and undo it—I think by accident, but I can't be sure. But now that it's hanging open over my wrist, there's nothing attaching it to me, so I lift the bracelet off and drop it into my purse, out of my sight. My wrist feels lighter without the chain on it.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

"You have one more chance to leave, or I'm calling the police," the man threatens.

"And tell them what?" I scoff. "We're renewing out vows in your picnic spot?"

All I can say is this man is very lucky there are children around, or he'd have a hard time every having a stupid picking again with no teeth. Then Hazel shows up between Andi and I, folding her arms as she looks skeptically at the man.

"Excuse me, sir. Do you drive a white Sudan?" she asks.

"Yes. Why?"

"Well, you're parked on a permit-only street, and I noticed you don't have a permit in your car. Now, I've written down your license plate, but if you, say, leave now, I might lose the paper."

My daughter smiles smugly at the man who has a look of defeat.

"Well played," he says.

Finally, the man trudges away, and I turn to face Hazel, my incredible saviour in this time.

"Hazel, I'm so proud of you," I say.

"Well, I learned from the best," she replies.

"You're getting troublingly good at manipulation," Andi comments.

"Well, I'm a Ravenclaw, but I like to think I'm a Slytherin at heart," Hazel says.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

Cara runs ahead of Marty and I toward the park, beaming wider than the sun in her suit. As soon as she sees Andreas holding Austen, she rushes up to him.

"Look!" Cara says.

Andreas smiles and gives her a look over.

"Lookin' snazzy," he says.

"You've been taking care of Austen?" I observe.

"Yeah," Andreas replies. "Whoever said babysitting was hard doesn't know anything."

That's when Brayden steps up next to him, saying, "I directed him on everything."

The next person to get our attention is Wyatt who leaves Amber and Andi, whom he was finishing decorations with, to announce to us, "My dads are gonna be here soon, so sit please."

Andreas's POV

While the rest of my family finds their seats, I spot Jayda walking over from her car. She looks frustrated, but it could just be because she's trying to walk on uneven grass in stilettos.

"Hey," I say.

When she looks up, her eyes fall off me and onto Austen who makes Jayda light up in an instant.

"Oh my gosh," she says. "This is what I needed."

"To see a baby?"

"They're adorable and make anyone feel better," she responds.

Austen stares at Jayda with a smile, but I'm looking at her in concern.

"What are you trying to feel better about?" I ask.

Jayda hesitates a moment, touching Austen's arm gently, before answering, "Just stuff."

Then she reaches through my hands to steal Austen from me, and I'm honestly really relieved. I've realized babies are not my thing. They're cool when they're not my responsibility, but not when I'm in charge of making sure they don't die.

Jayda rests Austen on her hip, saying to her, "I can't wait 'till you're old enough to walk, and then we can go buy shoes together."

Seeing Jayda's mood lifted makes me smile as she carries on past me toward the chairs where the ceremony is about to take place. I kind of wish I were the one making her smile though.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

The second I see where the rows of chairs and the arbour are located, I turn into romantic mush.

"By the swings?" I say.

TJ walks on the grass beside me toward the park, dressed in a suit like me. He doesn't dress up often, so when he does, it's always hard for me to take my eyes off him.

"I didn't even pick it," TJ responds, "but I think our friends know what they're doing."

The beginning of a song playing over a wireless speaker spikes my emotions even higher as I recall my arms around TJ at our wedding reception, the two of us dancing in the centre of the floor, officially husbands for the first time. Before that, when we were teenagers, I played this song in his car once, and he told me it reminded him of us, and it become another one of what we consider to be our songs.

"'Lemon Boy'?" I say like a question, even though I already know the answer.

"Our first dance song had to be included," TJ says.

He smiles and holds his arm out, which I accept, sliding my elbow through his. The two of us walk down the isle created by our little Good Hair Family. If this were less last minute, we probably would've invited other people, but they've already all seen the wedding. This is small—to them. To me, it's everything, just like anything with TJ is everything to me. Our kids wait at the end of the line, Jayda holding a piece of paper while Wyatt just smiles beside her. As TJ and I stop and turn to each other, I get an urge to tell him I love him, so I do.

"Good thing," TJ replies. "Otherwise this would be embarrassing."

I smile at that, and Jayda glances between the two of us.

"Okay, cool, so..." Jayda pauses to read the paper before whispering, "Oh my God. That's long." She looks back up at us then asks, "I'm gonna skip past the intro. Uh, Papa, do you still take Daddy to be your lawfully wedded husband in sickness and health and avalanches and tax evasions and all that stuff?"

TJ grins as he looks at me, responding, "Yeah."

"Daddy, do you take Papa in... It's a lot of writing that I kinda don't want to read, but you know what it is."

My eyes stay linked to TJ's the way they've been since he first looked at me the day he helped me get that chocolate chocolate chip muffin.

"Yes," I breathe.

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV

Most people avoid the cracks on the sidewalk, treat them like some kind of sever in the otherwise unscathed foundation. They swing their legs a little farther to miss the divide and remain safely on whole ground. Deion has no such urge. He steps freely, as I suppose a regular person should, but regular people really aren't that regular when it comes down to little quirks. He notices me watching him when his foot slaps down on a crack, and to keep my attention, he stretches his next foot extra far to hit the next crack immediately. Before he can step on another crevice, I rush forward to plant my foot on it, and then the next, and soon we're competing to see who can walk entirely on breaks in the cement, laughing together until I stumble and fail, and we return to normal. It's peculiar, because me walking through my neighbourhood with Deion King is hardly normal under even a bizarre lens, but this is us now. At some point string turned to ribbon, and I don't recall when or how.

"Have you ever seen Casablanca?" I ask, sparking the conversation again.

"Nope."

"Well, do you want to watch it tomorrow? I've only ever seen it alone."

"I'm down," he replies, "but my house is gonna be taken. My mom's having friends over for dinner. I could come to your place?"

Here's the predicament. It's true that Deion and I have been friends for a few months, but I've only ever been to his house. Him coming to my house would be a completely different thing. Why? Because my parents know his name, and what they know is not favourable. How am I supposed to explain the strange events that resulted in me befriending my former bully. Even I struggle to understand it. We shouldn't work, but somehow we just do, like corn snow in the summertime or sun during the rain.

"Um... Yeah, that should be fine," I answer.

This could very well be something I regret, if my family doesn't take well to his presence. I wouldn't blame them, but I would be disappointed. However, thinking about this won't affect the actual outcome, so I'll simply have to wait.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

As soon as my eyelids open, my tired sleepy mind pieces together the sight of my wife sitting in bed beside me while working on her laptop. This isn't rare for her. She loves to push herself to get her work done whenever she has the time. Sometimes, though, I think she should take a break, like now.

I sit up and give her a quick kiss on her temple, which she only responds to by saying, "I'm working."

"You just woke up," I say.

"You just woke up," she corrects me. "I've been up since four."

"Four?"

That's disgusting. I don't care if there's a fire or tornado; no one should ever have to wake up at four. I reach up and close her laptop down.

"Nope," I say. "No more work for you. Go back to sleep."

Buffy puts on a smile before leaning over to kiss my lips, but she scrunches her eyebrows as she pulls back.

"Go shave," she says. "Your face is all rough."

"Okay."

I climb out of bed and start for the washroom, but before getting through the doorway, I hear the sound of Buffy raising her laptop again and look back.

"Don't try it," I tell her.

Buffy sighs and sets her computer down on the mattress, and I enter the ensuite to get my razor, but before I can even do anything, a little white object on the sink counter grabs my eyes. It takes me a second to realize what it is, but when I go over and see the lines, there's no way I could mistake this for anything else. I'm in shock as I spin around, seeing Buffy standing in the doorway watching me.

I try to find the words, but I'm too dumbfounded. "You're..."

A slight smile forms on her face as she nods, and in that moment, I rush over to hug her. We end up laughing together, probably as some way to get out our clutter of emotions. The surprise is a lot of my head right now, also joy and some stress, but I'm mostly just excited.

"When do you want to tell everyone else?" I ask.

"I was thinking tonight at Cyrus's," Buffy answers.

"Okay," I respond. Then a moment later, I release another breath, saying, "Wow."

She smiles. "I know."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

TJ and I walk around the neatly stacked bins in our storage room, while Walker and Jonah glance around, unsure what to look for. Which makes sense. I hardly remember what I'm looking for.

"So how come you never gave these toys to the other kids?" Jonah wonders.

"Because TJ lost them," I reply, "and we just found them yesterday. The problem is finding them again."

When TJ was looking for his old baseball award he got as a kid, he came across a box of Wyatt's old toys, ones we had completely forgotten about. He was a picky kid, so only every fifth or so toy that we got him he played with. The rest ended up in storage without being touched, and we didn't remember their existence again until yesterday. But now there's a bunch of stuffed animals, baby blocks, and teethers that we still have.

"Uh, the box was grey," TJ says as he glances around.

"All the boxes are grey, TJ," I state.

He looks around in uncertainty. "Yeah..."

All of a sudden, Austen's high-pitched laughter is heard from the main room in the basement.

"Are you sure you're comfortable with Austen being alone with Wyatt?" I check.

"I don't see why not," Jonah says.

Wyatt is eleven, almost twelve, so by just the age, one would be fine with the arrangement. But I know my son, so I'm a little more worried. Before I can continue rummaging through the boxes, Wyatt peaks his head into the doorway and shouts to me and TJ.

"Hey, Dads, where's my big RC truck? I wanna see if I can drive Austen around on it."

Walker immediately goes for the door, saying, "I'll get Austen."

________________________________________

Amber's POV

"Hey, Amber," Andi says as she comes into the living room, "have you seen my keys?"

I shrug, keeping my eyes glued to the television, not wanting to miss something by responding. But then Andi does the unspeakable. She steps in front of the TV.

"Andi, you need to move!" I shout. "I'm trying to find out who the sapphic bachelorette will choose."

"I'm trying to find my keys," she says. "If they're missing, that's a problem, because then someone has our house key, and also we can't drive my car to Cyrus's tonight."

"Did you lose them?" I ask.

"I swear I put them on the island, but they're not there anymore."

"Well, did you check your purse?"

"Yes. Did you move them?"

"I have my own car keys. Why would I touch yours?"

"I don't know, but they were there this morning, and now they're not. If you moved them, that's okay—"

"Andi, I didn't."

"You must've," she argues. "Otherwise that means I was dumb and lost them."

I reach for the remote to pause the TV before standing up with a sigh. I'll have to wait to see who gets the sapphic bachelorettes's violet.

"Okay, relax," I tell her. "I'll help you look."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

My doormat collects dusts as my shoes trample it, but the doorknob remains unmarked. I can't simply bring Deion into my home and expect my parents to have an average response. I need to have some kind of preface before his entrance. That's the only way I can be sure he won't be just met by astonishment.

"Could you wait here for one second," I ask Deion. "I need to, um, make sure the living room isn't a mess."

"I don't really care, but sure," Deion replies with a chuckle.

I smile and turn back to the door to unlock it. I only open it enough for me to slip in and see my parents look over at me from the couch.

"Hey, I'm bringing a friend in," I say.

"That's fine," Dad responds.

"Okay. I just don't want either of you to be alarmed or make a scene."

Mom furrows her brows in confusion. "Um, is your friend a drug dealer?"

I plaster on a grin, although I'm not sure if who I actually have is much better in their opinion. I open the door and wave for Deion to step in.

"Hi Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll," Deion says with a polite nod.

"Hello," Mom responds. "What's your name?"

"Deion."

Their jaws both drop in an instant, and I feel my stress levels overflow as I panic to get Deion away from them before we witness the rest of their reaction. I don't think they'd be rude, but I don't think Deion would feel especially welcome by anything they have to say to him.

"Let's go to the basement," I say, ushering Deion toward the stairs, and I hurry us down to the basement.

 

Chapter Text

Walker's POV

I hold Austen in my arms as she looks around in awe at the bins stacked in the room. When TJ lifts another box's lid, his face looks hopeful.

"I think it's this one— Nope."

He drops the lid closed again.

"This is why I wanted to colour code and label the boxes," Cyrus says to his husband.

TJ moves on to the next box, and finally, the colourful batch of toys is revealed. At the sight, Austen's eyes go wide.

"Here they are," TJ says.

When TJ picks up a little giraffe-patterned baby teether with giraffe a head on one end of the hoop, Austen starts reaching out, saying, "Aaaaaahhhhh!"

As soon as TJ brings it over to her, my daughter grabs it and shoves it in her mouth to chew on the ring. Then she looks at me.

"I think she likes it," Jonah says with a smile.

"I hope this was washed," is all I say.

"Well, it's around ten years old," Cyrus replies, "so, um, hopefully."

Austen's big, brown eyes flutter as they blink, but they stay on me while she gums the toy.

"Wuh wuh," she babbles through her blocked mouth. Then she makes a wide, closed grin as she hums, "Mmmmm."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

After pressing play on the movie, I return to the couch to sit down on the opposite end from Deion. We both lean back on the pillows, and I look between him and the TV, curious about how he'll like it.

"Why is it in black and white?"

"It's from the forties," I explain.

"So colour wasn't invented yet?"

I look at him in concern, trying to plan out how to respond in a non-condescending manner, but he starts laughing before I can.

"I'm joking," he says.

"Good, because I didn't know how to correct you."

I chuckle a little and look to the television again, but watching the film with another person around is proving to be harder than I expected, because I keep looking back at Deion.

"I see you're the type of person who wears their cap at all times," I comment.

Deion flicks his eyes up at his baseball cap with a Verizon logo on the front.

"I forgot I was wearing it," he says.

"You're with Verizon?" I assume.

"No. I thrifted it."

"I like it."

"Thanks," he responds with a smile. "So are we still watching the movie?"

"Yes, of course," I remember, turning toward the television.

I'm having trouble focusing on the screen, but I do my best under the current circumstances. My effort becomes redundant when I feel Deion's hat mount my head. I adjust the cap to fit straight then look over at Deion. He smiles at me before continuing watching the movie. I've never been a ball cap kind of person, but I predict I might be now.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

"I really don't know why you'd put your keys in the basement," Amber says.

She glosses over the shelves carelessly, while I'm here scouring the cupboards of art supplies. Our basement is unfinished, so the floor is concrete, and the walls are bare. There's furniture down here still, which is mostly used when the living room is occupied, and the spare bedroom is in the back, which actually is finished, although dull. The left wall has cabinetry that is stuffed with extra art supplies and tools of mine, and my electric kiln is tucked into an empty corner. The floor, although yes, it's not an actual floor, isn't exactly dull, because it's covered in sculptures of mine that I don't know where else to put. Amber has to swirl around them all to get through the space.

"This place is kinda a tripping hazard," Amber mutters.

I peek down a vase and see nothing.

"They're not upstairs," I say, "so they must be down here."

"Did you throw them out by accident?"

She lifts up a couch cushion and checks beneath it, finding nothing.

"I don't think so," I say, going over to her. "Great. What if I threw them out? How do I even get a new car key?"

"Don't we have a spare?" Amber asks.

"Yeah, we did."

"Did?"

"I used it in a sculpture," I confess.

"Which one?"

"Not one we still have."

"You need to stop keeping important things in your studio," Amber states.

"Don' you think I know that!" I yell, too stressed to calm down.

"Andi," Amber says, placing her hands on my shoudlers, "this is okay. You're gonna survive. You don't even use the car for anything other than coffee runs."

"I do that for you too," I tell her.

"And I love you for that."

"You married me for the coffee runs?"

Rather than deny that, she just kisses me, and instantaneously, my anxiousness melts away like butter in the sun. When her lips lose mine, it feels like stopping a song mid-chorus.

"Should I take that as a yes?" I ask.

"No," she answers. "I married you, because I love you."

Like coming back down from orbit, her lips return to mine, giving me another portion of the song, morphing into more than just a melody, but a harmony and beat as well. When we split again, the song still isn't complete, and I need to hear the rest.

"Hazel's not home," I remind Amber.

"Are you suggesting something?" she says with a grin.

She knows I am, and she kisses me again, this time not letting the music cut out.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Oceana knows about a bunch of sustainable clothing brands and local businesses. She's the one of us who knew about this local fashion market in Shadyside's downtown. A bunch of vendors have tables and racks of clothing, jewelry, and beauty products set up while people buzz around, browsing. I'm kind of surprised that Oceana doesn't know about all of the sellers here. For some reason I just figured she would. She talks like she knows them all. Of course, if I asked her about that, I doubt her response would be at all useful. She'd just be humble and cause me to feel bad about accusing her of being otherwise. But she's really sweet. She is. I mean, look at her. She lights up in a smile at every person she passes, apologizing when other people bump into her. That's just Oceana.

"Oh my goodness!" she gasps. "I love this dress."

She pulls a white midi dress with puff sleeves from the rack and holds it up. I only need a second to picture her in it, and yeah, she'd look amazing. But she always does. She really always does.

"Yeah, that'd be beautiful," I say.

Oceana hangs it back up, saying, "I'll consider it."

A few steps farther, and I find a necklace that catches my eye. I pick it up off the table and let the chain dangle from my fingers.

"I love this," I say.

"It's pretty," Oceana responds, "but I'd avoid gold for you. Silver is better."

I examine the gold chain again and let out a breath. "Yeah, totally."

My hand lays it back down on the table, and I make myself move on. She's right anyway. It would've looked bad on me. I don't always look amazing, at least not to her.

"You know," I say as we carry on to the next clothing rack, "I was thinking maybe I'd try taking physics next year. You know, I just want to be able to know what you talk about with all your Synchrotron club stuff."

Oceana smiles, but it's so obviously not real. "Oh, that's nice."

"Okay, what's up?" I question.

"Well, I know you," she replies, "and I think you'd be kinda confused."

"So I'll study harder—or at all."

She hesitates a moment before shaking her head with a pity smile. "Maybe don't. I don't want you to be disappointed."

That feels like a slice to bare hands, but I'm not really surprised. I had my palms out. I was just waiting for the time when enough blood spills for me to finally pull them back, to finally find my common sense.

"You don't think I'm smart enough," I say.

"Jayda, you're wonderful," Oceana assures me, reaching for my hand, but it stays dead as she laces hers into it. "But you're not..."

"As good as you?" I finish for her.

"I wouldn't say that."

"You already have said that."

"Jayda, we're not the same. And that's okay. I don't mind."

I pull my hand out of hers, my emotions starting to leak like a heating kettle.

"I shouldn't be something you have to decide to mind or not," I snap.

She's taken aback by my outburst, asking, "Are you mad at me?"

My head drops as I respond, "I don't know."

I don't know what I'm feeling about her, but I do know one thing: my bracelet is one charm too heavy, and I really need to make it lighter. It's hardly a decision. It's more like an instinct. I unclip the silver crown and drop it into Oceana's hand.

"Maybe it's better if you keep this," I mutter.

Oceana looks down at it, then back up at me. "What's happening right now?"

I take a step back as I respond, "You're smart. You can figure it out."

The second I turn around, I feel like I've just broken through a stone wall that's been holding me in. But that doesn't mean I'm happy. I'm relieved, yes, lighter, freer, but not happy. I manage to keep myself in tact until I get around a corner of the street. There, I shatter into tears.

________________________________________

Andi's POV

I check the last drawer in the kitchen for the third time before shutting it and finally accepting the truth: my keys are gone.

"Well, we've searched everywhere," I say, spinning around to face Amber who stands on the other side of the island.

"And more," she adds.

"Maybe we should reconsider that ghost theory," I suggest.

Suddenly, the front door opens, and our daughter comes entering in, saying, "Hey."

"Hey, how was The Spoon?" I ask her, still feeling defeated.

"We stayed until we got kicked out by management," Hazel replies. "Oh, and I also took your keys by accident. Sorry."

She tosses them onto the island before heading off the her room, and I stare down at them. I never even thought to ask Hazel. I could've save a lot of time.

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

Deion puts his shoes on while I wait at the door. He takes his time. I don't like dawdlers, so this would normally irritate me vastly, but I can stand it right now.

"It was a good movie," he says as he brings his focus up to me again.

"Even though black and white?" I challenge.

"Definitely."

He smiles and twists the doorknob, opening the door to step outside. I wait on the edge of the doorframe while he pauses on the porch.

"Tell your parents I appreciate them letting me into your house," he adds.

"Well, now that you've been here once, I believe you're consequently allowed back whenever you find you'd like to watch another old film, or to do anything else. I'm flexible."

Deion smiles, replying, "I'll take you up on that offer soon. Until then, see ya."

He starts to leave, but before he can make it to the stairs, I realize something.

"Oh, do you want your hat back?"

Deion glances back at me, answering, "Nah. It's yours."

We both share a smile for a moment before he breaks his eyes from mine and continues down the path. Right before taking the left to go down the block, he looks back at me once more, and then he's gone.

The instant I close the door, my parents come out from the kitchen, and my smile drops as I prepare for the upcoming debate.

"So your friend is your school bully?" Mom says.

"Former school bully," I correct her.

"But he still picked on your for months, right?" Dad says.

"Although that is factually correct, I would like to remind you that people's morality is fluid, and based on the evidence, his appears to have flipped over completely."

"What evidence?" Mom questions.

"He treats me in a cordial manner now," I state.

"Well, it seemed like you two were having fun," Dad accepts.

"He bullied my baby," Mom argues back. "He's not allowed to have fun in my house."

"Buffy," Dad replies.

"Yes," I tag on. "Buffy."

"You're not allowed to say Buffy," Mom tells me.

"'Mom' just sounds so bland," I respond.

"If he ever hurts you again, he's banned from here," Mom says, crossing her arms.

My dad gives her a smile, but she just looks annoyed. However, I don't need her to be happy. I just needed her approval, and I got it.

"I am pleased with this outcome," I say then begin toward the upstairs.

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

I let myself into my brother's house and raise the bottle in my hand.

"I brought wine!" I announce.

Jonah and Walker are already talking with Cyrus and TJ in the kitchen as I, my wife, and my daughter come over to join them. Wyatt is playing with his hand-held gaming system at the dining room table, while the youngest of the group, Austen, bites on a bubbly, blue teething ring with Jonah holding her up. My friends all greet me and my family with hellos as I set the wine bottle down on the island. As soon as I do, Austen starts reaching for it with one hand, and Jonah has to take a step away to keep her from getting it.

"You're a bit young for that," Jonah says to her.

"Ababa," she responds before exploding in giggles.

"I've got glasses," TJ says.

He gets a few wine glasses down from the cupboard.

"I'll grab a cork puller," Walker says.

Before he can even step away, I take my keys and stab one into the cork, twist it, then yank the cork out with a pop, and Walker stares at me, stunned. Clearly, he didn't know I had this skill.

Buffy's POV

When my whole family comes in, we're greeted with a bunch of smiles and some baby talk from Austen. Brayden and Cara go over to the dining room where Wyatt is, and Andreas, after looking around a bit, stands over by Hazel. Amber pours a glass of red wine immediately and holds it out for me.

"Uh, no, thank you," I respond.

While Cyrus and TJ don't think anything of that, Amber and Andi give me confused looks.

"Really?" Andi checks. "You never turn it down. Are you pregnant?" she jokes.

She laughs. It was a joke. But my brain didn't register that until after my eyes already went wide, and that split second reaction is enough for Andi to catch on.

"Oh my gosh," she responds. "You're pregnant!"

"Buffy!" Cyrus shouts in excitement.

"That's awesome!" Jonah says. "You're gonna make a little friend for Austen."

"Pawawaba," Austen agrees.

"Thanks, guys," I say. "What's good is that I already have a babysitter ready to go."

"I know you're looking at me," Andreas chimes in, "but you might want to reconsider that."

"Yeah," Brayden says from the dining room. "Andreas almost dropped Austen before."

That sends scared looks through Jonah and Walker.

"I said almost," Brayden states.

Jayda's POV

Entering my house is like crossing into an alternate universe. Like, everyone here is so happy, but I feel like shit. I definitely don't regret what I just did, but it's kind of like running through a flaming doorway to get out of a burning building. Like, yeah, I'm glad I left, but it still hurt like hell, and I should probably go to a hospital or something, but that part isn't applicable to this metaphor. On my way to the kitchen, I focus on holding my tears in and not letting anything flow out. This is not the time for a breakdown.

"Hey," I say, but my voice wavers.

"How was your day?" Daddy asks me.

"Great," I lie.

"We were just talking about Buffy and Marty's big news," Auntie Amber says.

"We're having a baby," Buffy says with a smile.

I want to smile. I really do, because, like, that would just make sense. But I'm physically incapable of that right now.

"Oh, wow. That's totally amazing," I say, trying to sound excited. "I'm so happy for you two."

"Thank you," Marty replies.

"Too bad we already got rid of all the baby stuff after Cara grew older," Buffy comments.

"Well, we've got a whole box of toys downstairs," Papa says, "so you can take what you want."

I'm glad they're not talking to me anymore. It's a lot easier to not cry when I don't have to think about talking. But even though the conversation is off me, one person's eyes stay here. Andreas. He looks at me, and I know he knows I'm not okay. I don't know how he does it, but he knows how to make my shield peel and flake away in mere seconds. I turn my eyes downward, trying not to let him see my emotions, but he can read me in the dark.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

She had beads in her hair, mixed in with her crinkled waves like flowers on water. We were smiling, my arms around her waist, pulling her close against me. God, I feel so stupid. In this image, her touch felt warm and welcoming. Really, I was just wading in hot water, and soon it was going to become too high to handle. I probably should've gotten out sooner, but how could I have known? It's not like she was outwardly rude. It was all those little things, the ones that could be brushed off once, but after brushing off enough, you end up with a pile on the floor that's too big to ignore. After looking at the photo for one more second, I hit the delete button, and Oceana's face vanishes from my phone screen.

Knocking sounds, and I startle, throwing my eyes to the door as Daddy peaks in.

"Hi," he says in a voice delicate as a snowflake. "It's almost midnight."

"Yeah, sorry," I say. "I'll get to bed soon."

He nods, but that's not enough to get him to leave. "You seem less joyful than usual. Is something going on?"

Although I don't like to listen to my dads, I'm not the kind of teenager who feels the need to hide every single part of her life from them, mainly because they're pretty cool. Like, they're terribly embarrassing, but they don't freak out over minor stuff. So telling my daddy what happened now isn't that hard.

"Yeah, um...Oceana and I broke up."

"Oh, Jayda, I'm sorry," he responds in sympathy. "Breakups can be really hard."

"Have you ever even been through a breakup?" I question. "I mean other than the one with Iris, because that hardly counts."

"There was one day when Buffy, Andi, and Jonah dared your dad and I that if we broke up, we wouldn't last a week, so we tried to prove that we had willpower."

"How long did you last?"

"Just the one day," Daddy admits disappointedly.

"Yeah, this isn't like that," I mutter. "I think I'm just gonna go to sleep."

My dad nods and starts to close the door again, but before he leaves, he says, "If you ever want to talk—"

"I know," I cut in quietly. "Thanks, Dad."

He smiles, but then his eyes wander above me, and he says, "Just make sure you close your window before going to sleep."

"Sure."

The moment he shuts the door again, I fall back into my exhaustion without sleepiness, the type of tired where I want everything to fade, but it's impossible to get my body to rest. So I continue with my business, swiping through the photos of me with Oceana, pressing the garbage symbol on all of them. After a string of ten or so pictures, I'm halted by an image of me and Andreas. It makes me pause as I take in the details. His curly hair blown by the wind. My own hair striping me face in uncontrollable strands. Our mid-laugh faces. The top of his thumb covering the lens. The park trees behind us.

A rattle from the tree outside my window makes me gasp, but the boy there holds up his hand before I can scream.

"Yo, chill," Andreas says. "It's just me."

"What are you doing here?"

"You didn't think I'd let you be all mopey at dinner and then not follow up, did you?"

Yeah, I guess that wouldn't be very in character for him. After climbing through the window, he tosses his shoes on the carpet and crowds in next to me on the bed. I come out from under the covers then scoot over to make more space for him, and he shifts again, getting comfortable a couple inches away from touching me. I feel a little weird being in pyjama shorts and a baggy shirt while he's fully done up in jeans and a T-shirt that probably costed an insane amount of money, hence why he only has, like, twelve shirts that he cycles through. Andreas, however, doesn't seem to mind my unkempt appearance.

"So..." he says.

"So..."

"La...ti..."

Somehow, that makes me smile, and I say, "Stop it. I'm trying to be sad."

"Well, I'm selfish, and I don't like it when you're sad."

He looks at me, one of his dark curls falling over his eye, but I don't move, although I do want to. But I don't know in what way. I drop my eyes down away from his for a moment before coming back up, ready to talk.

"I broke up with Oceana."

He just nods and responds with a light, "Hm."

"Yeah," I breathe. "Hm."

We sit in our pocket of quiet for a few seconds longer until my thoughts start banging too strong, and I need to let one out.

"Can you be honest for a sec?" I ask. "Did I ruin my chances of finding a decent person?"

I know I didn't feel that good when I was with Oceana. But she was good. I know that. It's a blatant fact. She was smart and kind and incredible, and anyone would support that statement. She's the best person I've ever dated. Honestly, it scares me that she wasn't enough. Maybe my standards are too high. But Andreas doesn't tell me that. He has a different answer.

"Anyone who makes you feel like you're not good enough for them isn't someone I want you to be with. I know you don't believe it, but you deserve so much more than you think. You deserve someone who is going to treat you like a queen."

It feels strange to hear that. I don't really know what to do with it, how to take it in. Part of me wants to deflect it back with a compliment for him, but his voice causes me to trust it, to let the phrase hang there in the air, to not try to blow it away to avoid discomfort. I am uncomfortable, but not in a bad way.

"Why are you always rescuing me from my feelings?" I wonder after a moment.

"Because you're really good at ending up in bad situations," Andreas replies with a laugh.

"Yeah, I am good at that."

"I am too. You're not alone."

He sends me a smile, and I hold on to it, liking the soft curve and warm brown eyes that look black in the weak glow of my bedside lamp.

"I also have something for you," Andreas suddenly says. "Wait here."

He doesn't bother to get his shoes before departing through my window again. I'm left alone again with myself, but a light under my bed sheet gets my attention, and I lift it up to find Andreas's phone laying there unlocked. It must have fallen out of his pocket. At first, I'm not planning to look. It's his phone, and that would be a total violation of his privacy, but the glimpse of my name on one of the messages makes it practically impossible to just stop reading. It's a conversation with Hazel. I only get to see two messages, but those are all it takes to make my body go still in shock and my heart start galloping.

Hazel: So what are you going to do about your crush on Jayda?

Andreas: Nothing. I'm not going to get in the way of her and Oceana.

Andreas... He... He can't actually...

The rustle of leaves alerts me, and I quickly lock Andreas's phone before retreating back to my side of the bed. The boy settles down on the mattress with a smile, and I watch him, curious about what he went to get. Then he opens his hand and reveals a tiny, plastic diamond the size of my pinky nail. He opens my hand with his and places the gem in my palm, sending chills up my veins.

"What is this?" I ask him.

"I don't know where it came from," he explains, "but it was in my car, and it reminds me of you, so I thought you should have it."

"A diamond reminds you of me?"

"Yeah. Because you're unbreakable."

"I don't feel that way," I utter.

"Trust me," he insists. "You are."

The way our eyes lock together is like second-nature. I've never questioned it, but now, now I do. Now I want to know why I'm always drawn to him. He's amazing, and I know that. I always have. But I've never even thought of the possibility that we could be a thing. And I'm thinking of it now. But I don't know what I'm thinking. And maybe I'm kinda scared to find out, because if I do...then this changes everything.

Chapter Text

Buffy's POV

After expelling the last of my insides into the toilet, I come back out to my bedroom, feeling like I've just been on a see-saw for two weeks straight. While I climb back into bed, the door floats open, and my husband glides in.

"How's the morning sickness?" Marty asks.

"I woke up twice to throw up during the night."

"Yeah, I heard. You don't have work today, right?"

I shake my head, "Thankfully, it's my day off. I feel horrible."

"Stay in bed," Marty tells me. "I'm gonna get you breakfast."

"Thank you," I say with a smile. Right when he's about to leave, I speak again. "Marty, can you make—?"

"Pancakes are frying," he answers before I finish my question.

"Thanks. But haven't you been upstairs for, like, ten minutes?"

He glances behind him then corrects his previous statement. "Pancakes are burning."

I can't help but smile and laugh as he leaves to take care of the food. I'm still feeling kinda gross, but it's getting better, accelerating quicker when Cara peeks into the room with her curly hair tied up with a piece of Christmas ribbon meant for wrapping presents.

"Mom, are you done throwing up?"

"Yeah, for now," I reply.

Cara enters the rest of the way in, uncovering a plate with a piece of bread and jam on it. Grinning wide, she brings it over to the bed and climbs up beside me.

"What's this?" I ask.

"I made you toast for breakfast," she explains, handing me the plate, "but I couldn't find the toaster."

The effort is what counts, and her effort is very sweet, so I respond with, "Thank you. I love it."

"Whenever I'm sick, you always take care of me," she says, "but your mom is slacking off—"

"She's in Palm Springs on a trip."

"Sounds like excuses. So I'm gonna be your mom."

"That's not quite how it works," I say with a laugh.

"Well, how does it work?" she ruptures. "Because no one will tell me, and I know it's not brain waves! A boy in my class told me something, but it's gross, and I don't believe it."

"Well, um..."

This wasn't exactly the time I expected to have this talk, especially not while my stomach is doing somersaults inside me, wringing itself inside out. My saving grace comes in a couple second when Marty enters with a glass of orange juice.

"Marty, great timing," I say.

Cara is immediately distracted by her dad, and she frowns at the cup in his hand.

"I knew I forgot something," she mumbles.

"Pancakes will be another while," Marty tells me. "I had to restart."

"That's okay," I respond.

"Mom," Cara interrupts, "what story do you want?"

"A story?"

"Yeah. You used to read me stories when I was little and sick, so I'm gonna read one to you, except I won't make you sound out words yourself."

"Oh, thanks."

Cara jumps down off the bed and gives me a bow, saying, "It's my pleasure, ma'am."

Then she scurries out of the room, past Marty, and my husband and I share a smile.

________________________________________

TJ's POV

"Why is the line so long?" Jonah complains. "Doesn't everyone call their phone companies nowadays?"

"The Millennials do, but Gen Z is afraid of making phone calls," Amber states.

All of my friends and I share a family phone plan together, including our kids, and none of us wanted to come alone to solve our problem with our plan, so here I am with Cyrus, Amber, Andi, Jonah, and Walker at the mall, lined up outside the tiny corner shop that is the Tell location, a telecommunications company. Initially, we tried rock paper scissors, but playing with six people proved pointless, since we always chose paper: every single one of us every time. We played five times before we gave up and just all came. Buffy and Marty got out of it, because we collectively agreed not to tell them about the problem with our phone plan, since, in Cyrus's words, "pregnant Buffy is scary." Austen is also tagging along with us. She keeps herself entertained by pulling at Walker's coily hair while we wait in line.

"There are, like, fifteen people ahead of us," Andi says. "This is going to take forever."

"Do we really care if our bill was too high?" Jonah asks.

"Too high by a couple hundred dollars," I remind him.

"We're positive it was a mistake?" Walker checks. "Jayda's pretty much always on her phone. I wouldn't be surprised if she broke our data limit."

"Jayda has her phone set to automatically connect to every free wifi within a five hundred mile radius of here," I say. "She's good at keeping her data down."

"This is annoying," Amber huffs. "Can't people just do their job right so that we don't overpay?"

"I'm sure they're doing their best," Cyrus says.

"If two hundred dollars too high is their best, I'm scared to know their worst," Walker says.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

Cara returns to my room empty-handed and remounts the bed.

"I forgot I don't have any books left," she explains.

That just confuses me. "What happened to them all?"

"Me and Wyatt used them to make ultimate paper airplanes."

I furrow my brows. "Did it...?"

"They were too heavy," she says sadly. "Now they're being repurposed into ultimate skateboards instead."

I don't see how that can possibly be safe, but as long as she wears a helmet and stays away from bushes, hopefully she won't end up like Cyrus the first time he tried to skateboard.

"So I'm going to make up a story," Cara says. She wiggles closer to me on the bed and leans back on the pillows as she takes in a breath to begin. "This story is about a spy named...um...Chrissy. She...or he...or..." She stops to look up at me. "Does it have to be either a she or a he?"

I'm surprised by the question, probably because this is such simple knowledge to me, but to an eight year-old kid, I guess she might not know this. I had just assumed she would.

"No, it can be a they, or a ze or anything else," I answer.

"Can real people do that?" she wonders.

"Yes, there are lots of real people who aren't a he or a she."

"That's cool," Cara responds. She ponders over that for a minute before continuing with her story. "Chrissy is a spy, and they got a mission, but they fell in love with a beautiful prince."

I smile while she speaks, but after a little bit, I have to cut in, saying, "Hold that thought. I need to throw up again," and then I hurry toward the washroom.

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

What a wonderful greeting by Jayda who answers the door to her house: "Oh, it's you."

"Thank you. My self-esteem is boosted," I respond as I step inside, holding in my hand the pale green top that I borrowed from her last week.

"I know you're being sarcastic, but I lowkey don't care."

"Yikes. Maybe I'll just keep your top."

Jayda snatches the shirt from my hand and tosses it upstairs, over the railing. Her throw is pretty impressive, but Jayda doesn't give it a second thought. She just carries on into the kitchen where she opens the fridge.

"What's with you?" I question.

"Nothing," she replies, but then she grabs the container of orange juice and starts chugging it right from the jug, and I recognize this as a symptom that it's not nothing.

"Right," I drag out dryly.

Jayda thumps the juice down on the island and leans her elbows on it as she says, "Okay, Hazel, um, you know people, right?"

"I have a theoretical understanding of them," I respond.

"Okay, uh, here's the thing. Um..." Her words fall away into nothing.

"Woah, slow down," I tease. "That's a lot to take in."

She shoots me a glare before continuing, "Before Andreas left for summer camp, something kinda happened. Remember the day I broke up with Oceana?"

I narrow my eyes curiously. "Yeah."

"Um, well, Andreas came over to help me feel better. And he left for a minute, and I noticed his phone was unlocked, and it was on a message from you, and, well, you'd said that he had a crush on me."

My eyes go wide in humiliation. I can't believe she read that. She was not supposed to read that. Andreas is going to be furious. I'm dead. This is how I'll go.

"Jayda," I say, shaking my head frantically, "you weren't meant to see that."

"Um, yeah, I figured," she mumbles.

"Can you just pretend you never knew?" I beg. "Please? He's gonna kill me if he knows you know."

"But that's not it," Jayda replies sharply.

I pause, waiting for the rest. I don't understand. What else is bothering her if it's not that?

"When I read that," she goes on, "I wasn't totally weirded out by it."

It takes me a minute to process that, but when I do, my jaw drops open as I gasp.

"Holy shit. You like him too?"

"I don't know," she snaps, getting flustered.

"How do you not know?"

"Feelings are complicated!"

"Well, what do you want?" I question. "Do you want to be his girlfriend?"

"I have no idea," she sighs.

I nod. "I see."

From the drawer at the end of the kitchen cabinets, I pull out a notepad and a pen then bring them around the island, placing them down on the counter in front of the stool I take a seat on.

"What are you doing?" Jayda asks.

"Helping you get an idea."

 

Chapter Text

Amber's POV

"Okay, we're next in line," I say. "Who's gonna do the talking?"

As soon as I turn to look at all my friends, they're looking right back at me. Then the employee finishes with the person ahead, and it's our turn to go up.

"Wow. Thanks, guys," I mumble. I step up to the counter and begin talking in a controlled yet kind way. "Hi, so we have a family plan, and our bill ended up extremely high last month. Higher than it should've been."

"Look, ma'am," the young adult with a full beard and backwards hat says, "I get it. None of us like to admit we go on the internet that much, but the facts remain the facts. One of you guys probably takes the bus every day and reads fanfiction for overrated drama shows, and if you didn't download the story first, that really kills your wallet. Unfortunately, I can't change that. All I can do is recommend that you change your lifestyle."

"Um, no," I shut him down. "It was a mistake by your company, and we want our money back."

"Dudette," he drones, "I swear on my grandma's reincarnated eagle body that we did not get it wrong."

"Show me the proof."

________________________________________

Hazel's POV

I finish scribbling the table onto the notepad, creating a column for likes and one for dislikes. Jayda just watches me write, not saying a thing until I look up at her.

"Let's start with what you dislike about him," I say.

"This is kinda extra," she criticizes.

"Because your idea was better?"

"I didn't have an idea."

I smile. "So we're on the same page. What do you dislike about Andreas?"

Jayda takes a moment to think before answering, and I get my pen ready on the paper.

"Um, well, he wears way too much cologne."

I draw a bullet point and write that first response down, but then Jayda keeps talking.

"I always tell him that," she says with a shake of her head, "and then he gives me this stupid smile and insists I like it."

By the end of her sentence, she's smiling wide to herself. I bring my pen back to the dislike section and cross the first point off the list.

"He likes to make fun of me sometimes," Jayda says next.

Okay, this one is definitely a dislike. I write it down.

"Which is totally annoying," Jayda states, "because I'm perfect, and I get mad at him, but I can never stay mad, because he always says something insanely adorable after, and it's so annoying."

Her grin is back, so I scribble that one out too.

"Okay," I sigh. "Things you like?"

This can't be hard. She's already accidentally said two things she liked about him when she was trying to say what she didn't like.

"Um, I don't know," she responds.

"You seem to know," I counter.

"I guess he's kinda nice, and sweet. And he pretends to be all cool and stuff, but he's such a dork, but in, like, a cute way. And he always looks at me all weird, like I'm the only thing in the room." She rolls her eyes and lets out a breath as she smiles then looks down at her twiddling thumbs. "And he kinda always knows what to say. Like, he literally always makes me feel better, and then he acts like he doesn't care about anything, but he does." Although it's clear she's trying to repress it, she can't control her smile. "God, he's such a dork."

I finish copying out her notes and snap the lid onto the pen.

"I have my conclusion," I say.

"What is it?"

"You're in love."

It's a plain fact, but for some reason, she still fights it.

"Love? Definitely not!"

"Fine," I huff. "You're in like."

"I don't know."

"Jayda, you were smiling while saying literally everything you said about him."

She listens to that and pauses a second then says, "I still don't know."

"Fine."

I get up and start walking down the hall toward the front door, and Jayda's worry heightens in her voice.

"Where are you going?"

"To your car," I answer. "Andreas should be getting home soon. We're going to see him."

________________________________________

Amber's POV

I wouldn't have believed it, but there's a frickin chart. All the lines are normal except for one that makes the scale skyrocket.

"I'm sorry," I say to the employee.

"All good," he says. "I get paid by the hour, not the customer."

He turns his computer monitor back to face himself, and I walk away from the counter in defeat. My friends all wait for my explanation, but when I get to the group, I know they aren't going to be pleased.

"Okay," I breathe. "So they didn't overcharge us."

"What?" TJ reacts. "How is that possible?"

"One of us just uses data like air," I state.

"Who?" Andi questions.

I flick my eyes to Jonah, and everyone spins to look at him, even Austen, but Jonah just looks flabbergasted.

"Me?" he says. "But I'm hardly on my phone."

"Well, he showed me a chart, and unfortunately charts don't lie. You used about twenty times as much data as any of us."

"I don't get it," Jonah says.

"It's okay," Walker tells him. "You probably just forgot to turn your wifi on."

Jonah still looks confused, but nobody else questions it, because it really isn't that surprising.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

"Then Chrissy and Lee fell in love, and they never had to go to school again."

Everything in her story made sense—well, as much sense as Cara ever makes—until this ending. It came out of nowhere, and I can't figure out why, because Cara's never been bluntly opposed to school before. I always thought she liked it.

"So they won't learn?" I ask.

Cara shakes her head and sinks deeper back into the pillows of my bed. "Learning doesn't happen at school. School is stupid."

Okay, I know the American school system is very flawed, but I believe that because the way students are taught is old-fashioned, and important parts of history are missing from the curriculum. But I don't think that's why Cara doesn't like it.

"Why is that?" I question.

"I have to write lots of stuff, and I have to do math," she grumbles.

"Yeah, it's hard work, but you're learning important things," I tell her as I reach up to brush a strand of hair behind her ear, "especially this year in third grade."

"When I was in kindergarten, I thought the grade threes were huge," she mutters. "I don't feel huge."

"That's okay, because you don't have to be. You just have to be yourself."

"People don't like people's self."

Any parent will say that the hardest part of having kids is not being able to help them when they need it. I wish I knew what to respond, but I'm just in bewilderment. Of all the kids, Cara has been the most confident in herself since forever, but this, what she's saying now, isn't confident. It's painful.

"What do you mean?" I ask.

She shrugs. "Everyone's the same. Except me. I'm not the same."

At that, I curl my arm around her and pull her closer to me. She lets her head fall on my chest while she stares out at nothing drearily. This is one thing I like about her still being as young as she is. My sons don't want hugs from their mom anymore, but Cara hasn't grown past that yet. It's strange to think that soon she will.

"You know, that's a good thing," I say, "because being different is what makes you interesting. Nobody wants to talk to someone who's exactly like everyone else they've talked to."

In a whisper barely audible, she speaks, "I wish people wouldn't talk to me."

"What?"

I must've heard that wrong. I really hope I heard that wrong.

"Nothing," she says.

"Cara."

"Mom, can I be anything I want?"

The question catches me off guard, and I don't really see what it has to do with anything else we were discussing, but I answer it nonetheless.

"Sure, you can. If you work hard, you can do whatever you dream."

"But can I be what I want?"

"Well, what do you want to be?"

"I'm not sure yet," she replies.

"Well, when you are sure, I know you can be it."

She smiles and snuggles a little further up to me.

"Are you ready for another story?" she asks.

"Sure," I respond.

She takes a second to come up with her introduction before beginning, "There once was a kid named Zoey."

 

Chapter Text

Andi's POV

The seven of us sit at a table in the food court, finishing the last bites and sips of our fries and sodapops, but while we've all moved on, Jonah is still thinking about his mistake.

"I don't get how I used so much data," he says.

TJ bites a fry and replies, "It's not the end of the world."

"But I'm not even on my phone most of the time," he says. "I give it to Austen to play with."

That turns our attention to the baby in the high chair fiddling with Jonah's cell phone and putting it in her mouth.

"You give a baby a phone?" Cyrus says.

"She likes to touch it," Jonah says. He holds a second before adding, "And eat it."

Curious, Walker leans over and steals the phone from his daughter's mouth, which makes her cry for a second before Jonah gives her a napkin instead to keep her busy, which she immediately starts waving around.

"I cracked the puzzle," Walker says.

He turns the phone screen to us, showing us the homepage of a website for some blog on how to teach your cat the alphabet. That's not the point. The point is that it's the internet. Austen's been accidentally surfing the web whenever Jonah gives her his phone.

All at once, we have the epiphany, sounding, "Ohhhhhhh."

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

Hazel and I walk side by side up the path to Andreas's house, and surprisingly, I feel nothing. Not scared or excited. I'm just normal. After spending the summer without him, I think seeing Andreas again was made into a much bigger deal in my head than it actually is. Honestly, I probably convinced myself I have feelings for him when I really don't, just because I've had no way to disprove it. This isn't anything special. I'm just seeing a friend again. 

"I'm starting to think maybe I thought too much into this," I say.

"How so?" Hazel asks.

"Well, I'm not, like, awkward or nervous, and if I liked him, wouldn't I be awkward and nervous?"

"I would like to point out to you that you have the tendency to procrastinate things until they become a problem, at which point you then get really worked up all at once."

"I'm seeing my friend, not taking a test," I state. "This is totally different."

Sarcastically, she echoes, "Totally."

We ascend the steps, and I press the doorbell. See, nothing. I'm totally fine. The door is opening, and I'm—

Shit. I like him. It's his stupid, brown eyes and his crooked smile, and the way he looks at me first before anything else. And now my body is getting all spirally, my heart is way too loud, and not a single word makes it out of my mouth. Like, am I about to have a stroke?

"Hey," Andreas says. "I just got back an hour ago."

I want to respond, but literally nothing is working. It's some chemical reaction of the shock and nerves that results in speechlessness. Hazel nudges me after a second, and it helps get one word out of me, but it doesn't make sense.

"Yeah," I say.

Andreas just furrows his brows at me and smiles a little, unsure what's going on with me, which is valid, because I also have no idea.

"Awkward and nervous," Hazel utters, "check."

"What's wrong with her?" Andreas asks Hazel, gesturing to me.

I try to answer, but all I get is, "Um..."

"Laryngitis," Hazel explains for me. "Can't speak at all."

"Cool, cool," Andreas accepts.

"Uh, cool," I say.

"Incredible!" Hazel blurts. "She's cured!"

I look over at her in confusion. "What?"

"You're not helping yourself," Hazel mumbles.

"How have you been?" Andreas asks.

"Uh, Good. Yeah, um, I just remembered I have a nail appointment to get to," I say through a flustered voice. "But, um, you have a good day."

"Uh, sure," he responds and lets out a laugh. "See ya."

I smile and spin around, latching on to Hazel's arm to pull her with me as I leave for my car.

"Why do I have to leave too?" Hazel whispers.

"Because you need to paint my nails," I hiss.

Once we're both safely sealed in my car and out of sight of Andreas's doorway, I automatically pull down the mirror. Normally, it's to check my makeup, but right now I'm just seeing how red I am. Yeah, I'm blushing pretty bad. Okay. Um...cool. I'm really hoping Andreas just thought I had a sunburn or something.

"So what's your plan of action?" Hazel wonders.

"There is none," I state, slapping the sun visor and mirror back up against my car roof.

Hazel just looks at me with furrowed brows, responding, "Okay, well, can I suggest first you tell him you like him?"

"Uh, no."

"Why not?"

Where do I even start?

"Hazel, it's been a whole summer, and he was away the whole time, so I have no idea whether he even still likes me."

"That's why you find out."

"But it's not that simple."

Hazel is smart, but about this, she's clearly dumb, because she is not getting what a majorly complicated issue this is. She looks at me in confusion.

"Okay, what about saying, 'Hey, Andreas, I like you,' is not simple?" she questions.

"Because if he doesn't like me back, then basically everything is going to go to shit."

It's not an opinion. It's a pure, plain fact.

"He's, like, not our cousin, but, like, he's sort of family, right," I explain.

"You're not worried about incest, right?" Hazel checks. "'Cause you guys aren't related in any way, shape, or form."

"No. I'm worried, because our families are really close. Even if he did like me too, if we do anything, and it doesn't work out, think of how that's going to affect everyone else."

"Okay, I get what you're saying," Hazel replies. "But I still think you're being stupid."

"Well, I can be whatever I want," I snap.

Hazel rolls her eyes and sighs. "Then I'll just have to tell him for you."

"Hazel, if you do that, you're going to die at fifteen."

Like, I wouldn't actually kill her, but I say it like I would, and she takes back her statement.

"Fine. I won't say anything."

"Thank you," I say.

I start the car and jolt away from the curb.

________________________________________

Buffy's POV

Cara's eyelashes flutter like butterflies landing as she starts to doze off. But she doesn't give up on finishing the story. She keeps going, repeating herself when she accidentally lets herself shut her eyes while lying on me.

"Then the dragon...the dragon..."

"You can stop if you want," I tell her. "I appreciated what I heard of the story."

"No," she says in a tired voice. "I'm gonna tell you all of it."

Her eyes close again, and I rub her shoulder gently as she hushes more with each breath.

"I'm telling you..." Her sentence drifts away. "Never mind."

She finally gives in and lets herself seep into slumber. Just like that, she's my little baby again, coming in to sleep by me after a bad dream. She's my angel who fights until her voice is lost in the day yet is so vulnerable when the night comes.

I place one hand on my stomach, feeling my other little baby inside me. Soon, they will be out here, needing me to hold them and help them fall asleep. But Cara will never stop being my baby too. None of my kids will. I'd lay my life down for any one of them, because they're building my life into something even better every day.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

When I hear the window above my bed lift open, I actually feel kind of relieved. I know a normal person would freak out at the sound of someone entering their room in the dark, but I was kind of waiting for it. It's nice to know I didn't make such a huge fool of myself today that he wouldn't want to do this. I sit up in bed, coming out from under the blankets, and turn on the lamp while Andreas kicks his shoes off then finds his spot beside me. We're closer now. Our shoulders are touching. But I don't move over, and he doesn't either.

"I can't believe I lasted the summer without someone coming in through my window in the middle of the night," I joke.

It's easier to talk now, maybe because there's not the pressure of knowing how I feel. I know how I feel. But now there are just so many more issues tied on to it. Like, we're really close, and doing something might ruin that. Or there's the fact that our families are life-long best friends, and if we messed up, everything would be massively awkward. So is acting on my emotions even worth risking this simplicity we have? Answer: I don't know.

"Well, you left the window unlocked," Andreas responds, "so if it were up to me, I'd guess you wanted me to come in."

I look down, trying not to smile, but that doesn't work.

All of a sudden, my door squeaks open, and Papa is peers in.

"Hey, Andreas," he says. "You do know it's eleven o'clock, right?"

"Yes, I do," Andreas confirms.

"Cool, well, uh, maybe you should go home and sleep?"

"Excellent idea."

When Andreas doesn't move, my dad just shakes his head and closes the door again, not bothering to push it any further.

"How was your nail appointment?" Andreas asks me.

I raise my fingers to show him. "Oh, uh, good."

"They were a little messy on the thumb, huh?" he notices.

I examine the dried pink on my skin, bitterly responding, "Oh, yeah. She wasn't the best at it. And she wouldn't listen either."

"Still looks good," Andreas assures me.

"Thanks. How was your summer?"

"Fun," he replies. "Um, I made lots of friends. Finally learned how to toast a marshmallow without burning it."

I nod and smile, but I know I won't feel settled until I ask a specific question, so I do.

"Any girls?"

"Like girl girls?"

I nod.

"Uh, a couple cute ones, yeah."

"Oh."

I don't know what I was expecting. This is Andreas. Obviously, he met someone he liked.

"Yeah, but no girlfriend."

"Oh."

I haven't even decided if I care about that, but I'm still kind of glad.

"What's oh?" he questions.

"Nothing. Just that, um, I figured you would've liked someone there."

"Nope," he denies.

"So you don't like anyone?"

He pauses a second but then answers, and it's not the answer I was hoping for.

"Nope. Nobody."

"Oh. Um, I mean, that's whatever."

I'm trying to sound like I don't care, but it's hard to do that when I obviously do care.

After a moment of quiet, Andreas finally speaks, "Um, I'm gonna listen to your dad now and head out, but you have a good night."

"Thanks. You too."

He leaves out the window, and I can't help but feel like there's suddenly too much space in this room. But I ignore it. I can't do anything about it anyway. 

Chapter Text

Cyrus's POV

TJ and I walk through the administration room toward the principal's office at Grant High school. Nothing's really changed since we went here. The blank colourless walls and orange wood furniture are all the same. Even the carpet is still here, just more muted and matted from use.

"I'm surprised we haven't been here before since Jayda came here," I comment.

"They asked me to come in about her grades once," TJ explains, "but I didn't see the point. They weren't getting any better."

Before we can step into the office, Amber and Andi suddenly come up behind us, and I become even more confused about the situation. If they're here, that means Hazel must be involved too. I can imagine Jayda causing a disruption that would land her here, but I can't envision Hazel doing that.

"What are you here for?" TJ questions.

"I don't know," Amber replies. "This is weird. We don't even come to parent-teacher interviews."

When we all step around a corner, both our daughters are sitting next to each other outside the principal's office.

"Finally," Jayda groans, looking up at TJ and me. "Get me out of here."

"Jayda, what did you do?" I ask.

"Nothing you wouldn't have— Actually, you wouldn't have done this. Nothing Auntie Amber wouldn't have done."

"She got aggressive with another student," Principal Schroo states, coming out of his office, to which Jayda rolls her eyes.

The principal has a lilac-coloured shirt and a fluffy moustache, like some kind of fantasy candy man.

"What about Hazel?" Andi wonders.

"Why don't you two take a seat in my office," Mr. Schroo suggests.

The four of us follow him inside, and he closes the door to keep both our daughters from hearing the conversation about to take place. It takes him another few seconds to get comfortable in his seat before he begins explaining.

"Your daughter," Mr. Schroo says, pointing to Andi and Amber, "was the focus of the incident. A girl, whom we've already dealt with, made a comment to Hazel that resulted in Jayda pouring her drink on the girl's head."

"Oh, that's totally something I would do," Amber realizes.

"What was the comment?" Andi questions.

"I don't know it word for word," Mr. Schroo answers. "It seems like it was a simple mistake regarding her gender."

"With all due respect," I cut in, "I don't believe that my daughter would waste her drink over a mistake."

The principal looks taken aback, responding, "Surely, you don't condone this behaviour."

TJ starts, "Well—"

"No, of course not," I block him off. "But would you let us talk to her? I'm sure there must be more as to the logic behind her actions."

"She's yours," Mr. Schroo says. "However, her week of detention still stands."

"I understand," I respond with a nod.

I get up with TJ and go for the door. As we exit the office, TJ is looking at his phone, and I eye it curiously.

"Hey, the station just called," TJ tells me. "I think I have to go in."

This happens on occasion where TJ needs to take a last minute shift. Although it's a little inconvenient, I'm sure the people nearly dying from fires right now are at an even bigger inconvenience, so I understand it.

"Oh, sure," I say. "No problem."

But Jayda doesn't look as okay with his departure.

"You're leaving me with the emotional one?" Jayda whines to her dad.

TJ shrugs, saying, "Sorry."

He gives us a wave before stepping out, and I look back to the two girls sitting on horribly stained chairs from all the kids who have sat in them over the years.

"When can I leave?" Hazel wonders.

"Ask you moms," I reply. Then I turn my eyes to my own daughter. "Jayda?"

Jayda sighs and pushes herself up out of the chair to come with me down the hall to get a bit away from where Hazel could hear.

"So what happened?" I ask her.

She begins explaining the situation nonchalantly. "Elliot with braces was behind Hazel in line, and she told Hazel she was really pretty for a guy, so I poured my Pepsi on her head."

"Jayda, we use words, not beverages," I say with a sigh.

"So what? Are you saying I was wrong?"

I'm not going to say that, because no, she was not wrong. She just didn't handle the situation in the most appropriate way. But I would've been more disappointed if she had done nothing.

"Wrong is based on perspective," I reply after a moment of thought.

She nods. "Mmm, got it. So what I'm hearing is next time use 7-Up so it doesn't leave a stain as evidence?"

"I can't support that. But also yes."

"Cool. I'm gonna grab my bag from my locker, then we can go home finally."

I nod and let her head off back to the main school halls. I start back to where Hazel is waiting, but on the way, a framed photo in an open office catches my attention, and I stop to admire it. It's a picture of a waterfall hanging on the wall with a rainbow glimmering in the water's shine. I only step inside the office for a second to get a closer look, but in that time, I hear someone come in and plop down on the couch across from the desk.

"There you are," a voice says. "I'm supposed to be choosing a college, but apparently I need math to be a doctor, and that's the only thing my parents will be happy with, so I'm thinking of running away and selling crystal meth to preteens instead."

When I spin around, it's a teenage boy kicking his feet up to rest on the desktop. Even though i'm positive I'm not who he intended to tell this information to, he doesn't look perplexed at all.

"I don't know how guidance counselling works," he goes on, "but if there isn't the whole counsellor-patient confidentiality thing, then pretend that was a joke."

"Guidance counsellor?" I respond.

"You're the guidance counsellor aren't you? This is my first time, but the teacher said I had to talk to you or he'd fail me on my dissection project for biology, because I started using the scalpel to spread the mayo on my sandwich."

"Actually, I'm not the guidance counsellor," I tell him.

"Then where is he?" the boy questions. "I've been waiting forever."

This is my problem with some school guidance counsellors. Some of them just don't care the way they should. I did a minor in social work while getting my film degree, so I know how difficult handling certain situations can be, but that's only more of a reason why these kids need proper support.

"I am qualified," I say, "so if you still want to talk to someone..."

"You don't work here?" he clarifies.

I shake my head.

"Even better. You can't tell my parents anything."

He gets himself comfortable with his hands behind his head and starts gushing.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

When the doorbell rings, I exit the kitchen and immediately let out a huge sigh. Toys and stuffed animals cover the floor, making it a maze to find a safe path to the doorway. I jump over a toy train, then trip over the crawling tunnel, but I make it to the front door after a minute. The postal delivery guy is about to leave when I finally show that I'm home, and he turns back around, looking in at the chaos in my house.

"Woah," the man in his twenties says. "You just throw a baby rager or something?"

I choose not to get into it. Otherwise, I'll end up more annoyed with the mess than I already am.

"Where do I sign?" I ask.

The man holds out his clipboard, and I take the pen to sign the paper with my name: Walker Beck. Once that's done, I receive a package of art supplies that I delivered, and the man steps to leave, but before he does, he says one last thing.

"Yo, careful not to trip."

"Yeah," I mutter. "Thanks."

I let the door close and spin around to plan my route back to the kitchen. After I've made it there, I leave my package on the counter and trek the rest of the way toward the stairs to go up to Austen's room where I find Jonah sitting on the carpet with her, playing with a set of fabric blocks.

"Hi," I say, sounding obviously frustrated.

At my voice, Austen drops one of the blocks, causing the whole block tower to collapse over as the little girl starts butt-scooting in my direction. She's gotten very good at this mode of transportation, and she makes it to my foot in seconds. Once here, she pulls on my pant leg, using it to help her pull herself onto her feet, and I reach down to pick her up.

"How, are you, princess?" I ask her with a smile.

She claps with her fingers spread wide as she giggles. After giving her a little kiss on the head, I turn my attention to my husband, getting more serious.

"Jonah, can you please clean up Austen's toys? I've already asked you to do it."

"Right," he says, standing up. "I was going to, but then we wanted to build a castle."

"You mean you wanted to build a castle," I correct him.

"She did too."

"She can't say 'castle' yet, so how would you know?"

"Father's intuition," he replies.

"Right. Well, can you clean up the toys?"

"Sure," he answers. "After we finish."

I shake my head. "No. I'm gonna take her for a stroll instead—" I turn around to exit, being confronted by the stuffy-filled hallway again "—if I can get out of the house without impaling my foot on a toy."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

Although I could've taken the bus today, today is Wednesday, which means Deion has a guitar lesson. He leaves school sooner than me. I'm pretty sure he skips his last period most of the time to get here. He says he's a fast walker, but nobody is this fast. As I pass by Red Rooster Records, I see the curly, grey hair of Bowie sway as he riffs on his guitar through the window. Beside him is my friend. Deion notices me instantaneously, like there's a tracker in him that knows when I'm within range. I wonder if he has this talent with other people as well or if it's just me. I smile at him, to which he raises an eyebrow, making me feel effervescent and fizzy inside. I attempt to reflect one eyebrow back, but the distraction results in me tripping over a break in the sidewalk, nearly causing me to topple. Thankfully, I regain my balance, but the accident has already triggered a sweltering blush over my entire face.

I wait for it to drain a bit before entering the shop. The last few minutes of Deion's lesson give me even more time to make sure my cheeks are a regular temperature again while I browse through the jazz albums. I glance back at him every now and then, calculating how much longer he should be, but still he manages to catch me when I'm not prepared, stepping up beside me and making my pulse spike before sinking down again.

"Hey," he says.

"Hi. How was your lesson?" I ask him.

"Good. I didn't play much over the summer, so I'm still a little rusty.."

"I'm sure you're at least better than me."

At that, he suggests, "Why don't you learn?"

I shake my head. "I listen to music. I don't play it."

"No, but you could," he replies with a grin.

"The most musical person in my household is my sister with her slide whistle."

"Come on."

He takes my hand, and a current of electricity sparks through me in an instant. Suddenly, I understand what all those authors mean when they compare sparks to a touch. And I also understand how accurate that truly is. But he releases our connection almost as soon as it occurs.

"Oh, sorry," he says, realizing what he did.

"It's fine," I respond.

I didn't have a any objections, which is a tad alarming. Shouldn't I find it uncomfortable like I do with everyone else? What happened to consistency of feelings? I hate the physical touch of everyone except him: this is inconsistent, and it's disconcerting.

He waves me over instead, and I follow him toward the window where he picks up his guitar. I sit down on the bench chair across from his, and he hands the guitar to me. I grab the neck of the instrument with my left hand, making Deion have to manually position each of my fingers on the strings. I let him guide me into the desired spot until he's done and sits down in his chair.

"This is a G chord," he explains.

I strum the strings with my right hand, getting my nail caught on the biggest string. Still, Deion smiles, and he changes the shape of my left hand again.

"This is C."

Another strum, and another change.

"This is D. Now you know about half of all pop songs in the world," he says with a laugh.

"Won't come in dire use, since pop music is quite bland in my opinion," I respond.

"I know," he agrees. "Here."

He moves my hand into another form, pressing my index finger flat over the strings.

"This is a dominant 7," he says. "You can move it anywhere on the neck and play a jazz song."

I smile, responding, "This is much more suitable."

 

Chapter Text

Jayda's POV

When I get back to where Hazel is still sitting outside the principal's office, my daddy is nowhere in sight.

"You see where my dad went?" I ask her.

"No idea," she replies.

"Cool," I breathe.

I plop down in the seat beside her right as her moms come out of the office, having talked to the principal for way longer than my dads.

"Awesome," Hazel mutters. "My turn."

"Hazel," Auntie Amber starts, "I don't know why they brought you to the office. You're fine. Jayda, you're a fantastic cousin."

"I know," I say with a grin. "I wasted a Pepsi for her."

Hazel gives me a smile, then Auntie Andi waves for her to get up.

"Come," Auntie Andi says. "Let's go."

Hazel pushes herself onto her feet, and the three of them begin to walk away, but then Auntie Amber turns around again to talk to me.

"Jayda, where's Cyrus?"

"Don't know," I respond, "but I'm sure he's around here somewhere."

Auntie Amber nods. "You don't need a ride home?"

"I'm good. He'll be out here soon."

He's not typically one to be late, so I figure he can't be much longer with whatever it is he's doing. Auntie Andi and Auntie Amber let me stay in my chair as their family heads out, and soon it's just me and the sound of staplers stapling and mouses clicking from the offices. After a few silent minutes on my phone, a body drops into the chair beside me, and I look up to see Andreas. Right away, I feel a bit embarrassed. He's probably wondering why I was sent to the principal's office. Yet he's smiling, which only confuses me.

"What?" I question.

Andreas grins wider and leans down to pull out a can of Pepsi from his backpack then holds it out for me. I feel my face flushing in humiliation even more.

"Oh my God. You saw?" I say.

"It was kind of the most entertaining thing happening in the cafeteria," he responds.

He moves the drink closer to me, and I accept it, trying not to let my awkward butterflies get too strong.

"I'm apparently good at making scenes in cafeterias," I say.

I believe two years ago I made a scene after Jeremy douche-canoe Hudson started rumours about me. What's ironic about that day is that it wasn't a bad day. Like, yeah, it was bad for most of it, but that was the day Andreas found me crying in the washroom and offered me a tissue. I don't think he carries tissues around to random places anymore. But it definitely was handy.

Andreas laughs, and I crack open the can, hearing the fizzing rise up to the rim. Then I take a sip.

"Hey, wanna go outside instead?" Andreas asks. "I like to limit my time in the office to Tuesdays only."

I smile and answer, "Sure."

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

I didn't intend to keep going with this whole substitute counsellor thing, but after the first boy, there was a girl waiting for an appointment, and she didn't care that I wasn't the actually counsellor either. Actually, she said she was glad, because the actual counsellor just tells her she should get enough sleep before tests rather than talking to her about why she can't sleep.

"I've been playing the violin for years," she goes on, "and now I want to switch to the viola."

"Oh," I say, glancing down at the page of instruments she gave me, "so that wasn't a typo. That's an actual thing."

"I don't know what to do, because this could be life-altering if I make the wrong choice. Collages won't accept me."

"Collages want students who pursue their passions, and if violin isn't your passion, then you should go after the viola instead."

"Well, my passion is to be an actress."

"You could join the drama club," I suggest.

"I would, but I was kicked out last time."

"Last time?"

"I cried too much that it interfered with the scenes, although I thought it added flavour it was lacking."

I nod, saying, "Of course."

The next student is another boy, but this one has about twenty-four bracelets on both his wrists put together and a bandana around his neck. I can't tell whether he was going for a grunge or western aesthetic.

"So do I use the eyes to scare my teacher or scare the girl who files her nails during bio labs?"

"I think when you're dissecting frogs, the eyes can stay in the frog," I recommend.

Another girl has a problem that's right up my alley.

"I really liked kissing her, but I'm straight."

"Okay... Let's start by discussing how you came to that conclusion," I respond, "because it seems to clash with the information you've just given me."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

After I finish strumming the final chord in what Deion called the twelve bar blues, I look up from the strings to see him smiling at me. It's a peculiar sensation, for his stare rings more vibrations than the striking of the strings did.

"And you said you weren't good at guitar," he says, shaking his head.

"Actually, I said I didn't play guitar," I correct him. "Learning things isn't something I struggle with, although my hand is sore."

"Yeah, that happens at the start."

"Start would imply that this is a continuing thing," I respond.

"You think I'm gonna teach you guitar and let you quit right away?"

"Society has placed an overly-negative view on quitting," I resist.

"Okay," Deion sighs. "I guess there's no reason for you to have my guitar anymore."

He steals the instrument from under my arm, and I'm a tad disappointed, because I quite liked the feeling of holding his guitar. It was a bizarre warmth similar to that of when he accidentally held my hand.

"Maybe I'll learn again sometime," I cave.

Deion flashes me a smile as he places his guitar into its case and kneels down to lock the latches. Noticing him struggling with one, I get down to help him. When we happen to both reach for the same latch, our hands collide, which would be a simple fumble with anyone else, but with him, it's lightning. Our eyes snap together at the thunder of my heartbeat, and we don't move—don't breathe—until the storm calms down.

He eventually pulls away and stands up, lifting his guitar case by the handle.

"Cool, um, I gotta leave," he says.

"Of course," I respond. "Farewell until tomorrow."

"Sure," he says with a small smile and a nod.

I stand here, completely lost as to what to do now, while he steps away from me. Out of the blue, he freezes and turns back to speak.

"Brayden, there's something I..." He pauses, and but my anticipation only grows. "Actually, forget it." And the anticipation plummets.

He departs the shop, yet I remain standing in oblivion, dazed by my own begging curiosity over what he was going to say. Did he notice my trembling hands? Could he hear my throbbing heart? Is he planning to break off our connection for good now that it's become too much of a chore? And then a couple minutes later, I get a text, and I blink five times before I realize I'm awake.

Deion: I'm gay.

Honestly, if this were a book, I would've seen this plot twist coming. In books, anyone can be anything, and anything can symbolize any feeling or foreshadow any event. In real life, people have no set purpose for their design. There is no reason why they are the way they are. We create reasons ourselves. Now I'm finding my head trying to decipher reasons for Deion's sexuality, reasons that I'm positive must be untrue: this is either the catalyst for his character arc, or he's going to be someone's someone special. I've heard people wonder about who the main characters are. Deion is definitely a main character. I suppose I must be his side friend. I wonder what my purpose for him would be if this were a story. It doesn't really matter, I guess, because this isn't that.

I realize after a moment that I still haven't responded. He's probably a nervous wreck waiting for me to reply. I pull the keyboard up and start typing.

Me: How wonderful. So am I.

It's not new, but I think if I were coming out to him, that's how I would want him to respond. Make it simple and calm yet still validating.

Deion: :)

Me: :)

I take in a breath and let it out at the same time as the bass in the song from the record player nearby hits. Seeing as there's nothing else for me to do here, I begin my journey home.

 

Chapter Text

Andreas's POV

I have my legs stretched out over the grass as I lean against the stone school wall. Beside me, Jayda sits cross-legged, and I watch the way her black hair blows in the breeze like the tall grass too close to the building to be cut with a mower. It's warm outside, so I imagine the wind must be a nice coolness ruffling her peach-coloured dress and kissing her bare chest and arms gently like frost over a car window. Although I thought she might be a little cold, she doesn't seem to mind at all.

"You watch the girls' soccer team practice," she says, looking ahead at the players in the field a bit away. "You're that straight, huh?"

I let out a breathy laugh, replying, "I came here before they started their season."

"So this is just a bonus?"

No, the bonus is having her here. Her hair is clipped back on one side with a white beaded barrette. She has on her charm bracelet, and the chain reflects splotches of sunlight off the very place where the charm from Oceana used to hang. Giving it more attention now, I notice a new charm, but it's not a charm at all. It's the tiny, plastic diamond I gave her, now glued to a chain and dangling from a link near the latch. I don't mention it aloud, but I can't help but smile.

"There's Elliot with braces," I point out on the soccer field.

"That bitch," Jayda snipes.

She takes a sip of her Pepsi as she glares out at the girl. I just smile.

"She has some stupid Youtube channel with beauty tutorials where she makes homophobic and transphobic jokes," Jayda gossips. "Meanwhile, her boyfriend is about as straight as her teeth."

"Other girls are basic with their shit-talking," I respond. "You're creative."

"I don't half-ass my shit talk," she says.

That makes me laugh, and my laughter results in her smiling and looking down at the grass before bringing her eyes up to me again.

"Do you ever wonder what people say about you?" she asks.

Not really. I've never thought about it. And I've never cared.

"Do you?" I reflect back.

"I do," she admits. "I wonder if people actually like me, or if it's all in my head. And I want to know, but even if I asked, nobody's honest. Everybody alive is a liar."

"I don't mind it."

"You like when people lie?"

I shrug. "I'd be scared to know the truth. At least if people lie, I can make up my own truth."

"So you would be fine with me lying to you right now?" she questions.

I shrug again. I don't know my answer. Because with her, I want to know the truth—but I think it might be better to just keep pretending like my hope is a possibility.

"Okay," she says. "Andreas, those white socks go perfectly with those black shoes."

She eyes my feet, and I roll my eyes, letting the insult slide off me.

"Ouch," I respond. "Well, if you're lying, so can I."

"Really? You'd lie to me?" she teases.

"Maybe I already have." Not directly lying, but I definitely haven't told the truth. "You'll never know."

"Lie to me right now," she challenges.

I shake my head. "No."

"Wussy."

Her grin makes me break, saying, "Fine. Jayda, you are hideous and completely boring to talk to."

She pauses a moment before responding, "Well, Andreas, you are entirely repulsive, and I hate being around you."

"I hate being around you too."

It gets real quiet real fast, save for the soccer girls screaming to each other from the field. I could tell Jayda the truth right now, take my shot. With any other girl, I would've already done that months ago. But this is Jayda. This is a girl I actually, like, really like, and I really don't want to stop talking to her if she doesn't like me back. She's too important to me to tell her how important she is to me.

She glances down at her hands and raises her pop can, saying, "Well, I really don't like this Pepsi. And I don't thank you."

"You're not welcome," I respond gently.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

I open the front door of my townhouse while Austen finishes blabbering the sounds that she's been telling me since I took her out of her stroller to carry her inside.

"Gabagababamamamabawa!"

"Riveting story," I say. "I'll have to tell your uncles and aunts that one."

As soon as I close the door, annoyance floods over me again at the sight of the jungle of toys still stuck in the same positions I left them in a while ago.

"Jonah!" I call, and my husband comes sauntering into the room.

I lower Austen down onto the floor where she immediately starts scooting toward the nearest toy.

"Yeah?" Jonah asks.

I gesture to all the toys on the ground, and Jonah slowly looks down, trying to act like he doesn't know exactly why I'm mad.

"You haven't cleaned," I state.

"That's true," Jonah replies, "but I did something better."

He walks around the wall into the kitchen and comes back a second later with a tiny toy guitar with buttons instead of strings.

"What is that?" I huff.

"A guitar."

"You went out and bought more toys? What's wrong with all the stuff you haven't cleaned up?"

"Nothing," Jonah answers, putting down the guitar on the couch. "I'll get to it."

"Good."

I step past him to go to my art studio, but then Jonah starts heading into the kitchen, wondeirng, "What can we make for dinner—?"

"Toys," I remind him.

He pivots back around and begins reluctantly picking up the mess.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

I haven't been looking at the clock, but I can't have been here for that long. Then again, I've had a lot of students come to see me, even some who didn't have appointments. Apparently, people are saying how I'm better than the actual counsellor, so everyone's deciding to walk in while I'm here. The current boy lies down on the couch with his salt-stained Vans on the arm rest.

"So how does the idea of university make you feel?" I ask.

"Like I might as well burn my wallet," he responds.

"Okay, yes, but you could make more in the long run."

"Is there a school to become a skateboarder?"

"I don't know, but we can search that up together."

I roll in the chair over to the computer and start typing into the internet explorer, but suddenly I hear a grunt, and I look up to see Principal Schroo in the doorway.

"Mr. Kippen," he says.

I stand up and tell the student on the couch, "One sec," before joining the principal in the hallway. I doubt this can be good. I wonder if there are any legal repercussions with being a counsellor for a bunch of students missing their counsellor.

"What's going on?" the principal asks.

"Um, it began as an accident," I explain. "One student started venting to me, and I couldn't leave him alone, and then another came, and another. I'm sorry."

"No, I'm not mad," he assures me. "You got fourteen students to apply for college who weren't before. I was going to ask if you wanted a job, because if you do, you've got one here."

"What about the other guidance counsellor?"

"Yeah, he left to join a cult a week ago, and we haven't managed to replace him yet."

So they need a guidance counsellor, and the students here seem to like me, and I do enjoy helping them. But I also have a job already at a film company.

"I'll have to think about it," I say.

I step back into the office where the boy looks over at me, saying, "Hey, can I see you next week too? I think talking to you is really helping."

He actually wants me to be around. This boy has found security in talking with me. You know what? I've been making films for a long time, but I think this might be a good change. It's certainly not the same at all, but I got my social work degree for a reason. This is it.

I spin back to the principal and say, "I'll take the job."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

My bedroom is the best place for thinking, specifically when Andreas isn't around. I've gotten very good at pretending his half of the space does not exist and that my posters of old film and book covers are the only things on the walls. I tip back onto the bed and let my eyes soak into blurriness as I stare at the ceiling and ponder. It's obvious that I feel something for Deion, but it's all so much more perplexing than in the past. I've certainly liked boys before, but with them it was a deep interest in getting to know them. With Deion, that has sprung beyond that. It's not enough simply knowing his mind. I find myself drawn to him in ways I haven't felt before, like I've unlocked some secret treasure box in life that gives me more intense feelings than I used to have.

My brother interrupts my spiral of thoughts by entering the room and flopping down on his own bed. Surely we've both had interesting days. Curious, I glance over at him.

"It appears we're both deep in contemplation," I observe,

"My head's being loud," Andreas responds.

"You wouldn't last a day in my head," I counter.

"What's in your head?" he asks.

I wouldn't usually confide in him. We've always had this relationship where we go about our lives, and neither of us have to interact with each other. But I sense that he genuinely wants to know, and that makes me want to open up.

"A boy," I answer. "But different than other boys. Special." I let that sit before asking, "What about your head?"

"'Take Me Home, Country Roads' EDM remix," he replies without a second to think.

"Peculiar," I comment.

When I bring my eyes upward again, Andreas adds something else.

"And a girl."

I look over again. "A girl?"

"Tell anyone, and I'll drive you out to a desert and shove a cactus through your pancreas," he threatens.

"Consider my lips locked."

We let the quiet return unharmed, but it feels a little easier knowing we're both holding it up. It's not there to suffocate us. It's there to aid us, to give our thoughts space to bloom. A minute later, my dad passes by the room and peeks in.

"Cool," he says. "You're both still alive. Just checking."

________________________________________

Walker's POV

A smile shines on my face when I enter the living room and see nothing but a clear floor and my daughter playing on her new toy guitar. Jonah sits on the couch, looking over at me.

"You happy again?" he asks.

"Yeah. Walking freely is nice."

I go over to sit down on the cushion next to my husband as a note is pressed on Austen's plastic guitar. The little girl grins at the sound and slaps another button.

"She's getting good, if you care," Jonah says.

"Jonah," I say, "I'm sorry for being hard on you. I love you."

"No, you were right."

He looks at me with a sorry smile, and I give him a kiss, but as I back away, I notice a purple mark on his arm.

"How did you get that bruise?" I ask.

"Uh, I tripped."

"Over what?"

"Toothbrush."

I look at him skeptically for a moment before saying, "You tripped over her toys, didn't you?"

Jonah quickly brushes past that, motioning toward Austen, saying instead, "I think she's gonna be the next Jimi Hendrix."

I smile and kiss my husband again, which makes him blush. Austen bangs another note on the toy guitar to get our attention.

"Lolly!" she says.

She hits the button again before falling onto her back in a puddle of giggles.

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

"Wyatt, you ready?" I call up the stairs.

My son comes blasting down in his basketball uniform, saying, "Sorry. I had to find my lucky socks."

At that, Cyrus comes winding around the stairwell out of the kitchen with a disappointed look on his face.

"Someone put them in your laundry basket," Wyatt goes on.

"Strange," Cyrus responds, even though I'm pretty sure he knows exactly how they got there. "Clearly something wants your socks washed. Maybe you should take it as a sign."

"No. Washing ruins them," Wyatt denies.

"Washing prevents foot fungus," Cyrus counters.

"It gets rid of the luckiness. Papa gets it."

Cyrus looks to me in concern. "Please tell me you wash your socks."

"Yes," I assure him.

"Papa knows the importance of your lucky charm to win a basketball game," Wyatt explains more. Didn't you have one?"

"Yeah," I say, "but mine was your dad."

"See!" Wyatt says like that proves his theory. "You didn't wash Dad. Otherwise he would've lost his luck."

"I didn't wash people people that often," I respond. "That's not really a hobby I got into."

"Plus, I did shower," Cyrus argues. "Maybe your socks can shower too."

"Socks can't take showers," Wyatt shuts down.

"They won't lose their luck," Cyrus promises.

"But they will, and I need it so that I can get Kill Them All 3."

This is the first I'm hearing of this, and it takes me by surprise.

"That M-rated video game?" I say.

"Yeah."

Cyrus looks equally as confused. "Why would winning help you get that?"

"Because you promised me you'd get it if I won my game."

Cyrus and I both look at each other at the exact same time. I don't remember making this promise, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Wyatt's only twelve, and sure, I'm not exactly strict with what I allow him to do, but an M-rated game is a bit too far. Maybe when he's thirteen, but not twelve. But Cyrus must've promised it to Wyatt, and I don't want to undermine him, so I don't speak up about my opinion.

"Uh, right," I say.

"I'm gonna win and get my game, so I need my lucky socks full of luckiness," Wyatt states. 

Cyrus takes another moment to process that before saying, "Um, okay, let's go to the car."

Cyrus opens the front door, and he walks with Wyatt out to the car, while I wait for the last person in the family to get down here. It's only a few more seconds before she does, walking down in a shiny, blue slip dress like she's going to a dinner date rather than a middle school basketball game.

"Why do I have to go to Wyatt's games?" she complains as she descends the stairs. "All he does is head-butt the ball and get benched."

"Yeah, well, he came to all your dance recitals as a kid."

"He was a baby. He couldn't drive to the mall instead."

"Still, all you did was copy the people beside you when that wasn't even your part to dance."

"The teacher failed me," she argues. "She didn't teach me well."

"Yeah, I've used that excuse before," I reply. "I know how it goes."

I wave for Jayda to come along, and she sighs before sliding on a pair of wedges and following me out of the house.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

"Hurry up," Brayden orders. "We're gonna be late."

I pull on my jacket in the mudroom while my three kids all get their shoes on by the door. Brayden finishes first and has to wait for the others, clearly annoyed while he does so. Andreas takes his time, not so concerned about the clock, and Cara just tries to force her feet into her runners without using her hands.

"So you like basketball now?" Andreas says to Brayden.

"No," Brayden replies. "Deion's on the team."

"Ohhhh," Andreas responds like he finally gets it. "So you like Deion now."

While Brayden's face turns tomato red, Cara starts mocking him by singing.

"Brayden and Deion sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S—"

"Stop it," Brayden snaps.

"I'm just joking," Andreas tells his brother, giving his shoulder a light shove.

"I'm not," Cara says.

Next, Buffy comes into the mudroom, her eyes tired and overall posture droopy like a flower limp from the cold.

"Hey. How you feeling?" I ask.

"Awful, tired, aching," she mumbles, "and desperately craving chocolate; regular pregnancy things."

"That's not good," I respond with a frown. "So you driving?"

She doesn't even answer the question. Rather, she just shoots me a searing glare and grabs her purse from the counter. She whips the door open and leads the kids out into the garage, not even acknowledging me.

"Cool," I mutter in confusion and head out with them.

________________________________________

Jonah's POV

I carry Austen as she gazes around at the student artwork on the walls of Jefferson Middle School. It hasn't changed much since I went here, except for the occasional refinishing of a scratched up wall here and there. Walker walks beside me toward the gym, but I have to stop when I overhear a man's phone conversation nearby.

"No, it completely shrunk," she man says, aggitated. "The mascot can't wear it ... No, Johnny. It couldn't fit in a microwave, let alone hold a teenage boy."

Angry, he turns around and takes a huge stride, bumping right into me.

"Whoops," Austen says.

That's something she says whenever she one of us falls or bumps into anything now. I think she picked it up from Walker who said that to her when she was even smaller.

"Sorry," I say, but then I see the tiny bear costume in his hand. "What's that?"

"It used to be the mascot," he answers with a sigh, "but someone left it in the wash for 3 weeks, and it shrunk so much that we'd need a baby to be the Grant Grizzly."

That gives me an idea, and I flick my eyes to Austen who matches them right back with her clueless face.

"Austen, do you know what sound a bear makes?" I ask.

"Baa!" the girl replies happily.

"Almost." Then I look to the man. "Do you need a grizzly?"

He smiles at the proposition, but then I notice Walker coming up beside me.

"Jonah," he says in an uncertain voice.

"That would be fantastic!" the man says before Walker can say anything else.

My huge smile wildly contrasts Walker's frown.

________________________________________

Marty's POV

My youngest son grows a smile the moment we step into the gym, and he sees his friend on the edge of the court with the rest of the Jefferson team. Deion waves, which Brayden reflects back. This simple gesture is enough for Cara to start singing again.

"K-I-S-S-I—"

"I'm going to make your teenage years horrific if you keep this up," Brayden interrupts his sister.

"I'm not gonna have teenage years," Cara shoots back. "I'm skipping them, because everyone says they're awful."

"Your optimism is admirable," Brayden mumbles, "but also just plain incorrect."

Buffy steps up to me, saying, "I'll be right back. I gotta use the washroom."

As she turns around to leave, I ask her, "Do you want me to get seats?"

That makes her monotone voice and emotionless face return as she replies, "No, don't worry. I'll do it."

She trudges away in a bad mood beyond what she's usually like, which means I think there's something more going on than just pregnancy. I look over at my oldest son, thinking he might know a bit more than me.

"She's mad at me," I conclude.

He raises his eyebrows, saying, "No shit."

"You know why?" I wonder.

"Chicks be crazy," he responds with a shrug.

TJ's POV

When the game starts, Wyatt's energy is overloading, seeping out every time he hops from one leg to another, eagerly waving for someone to pass him the ball. He's not great at basketball, but he's good enough to make the team. He runs past one of his teammates, the boy Brayden's friends with, and steals the ball from the opposing school. I want to cheer him on, but I've also got this nervousness in my gut, knowing that if he does well, he's gonna be getting nightmares from an inappropriate video game for the next month or so. Cyrus sits next to me, also lacking excitement, while Jayda is sitting farther up the bleachers with Andreas.

"Hope he does well," I say. "Then he'll get that game, I guess."

Cyrus soaks up the comment before sighing and saying in frustration, "TJ, why didn't you ask me first?"

"Ask you what?"

"Ask me if I agreed with getting him an M-rated game. I don't want him playing that."

Although that lines up with Cyrus's character perfectly, the circumstances make me shocked. He was the only other person who could've promised him that, so now I don't know what's going on.

"Me neither," I say. "I definitely didn't promise it."

"Are you sure?" Cyrus says, raising his brows. "You might've said it when you were tired, or maybe you didn't hear him fully."

"Why do you assume it's me?" I argue.

"Because you also tend to make promises when you're watching the basketball game on TV without listening to what you're promising," Cyrus justifies.

Yeah, he's not wrong, but I think I would've known if I had promised this. Plus, why does he blame me? I'm not the only one who ever makes mistakes.

"What about you?" I question. "You say yes as your go-to response."

"I swear that's only with you," Cyrus states.

"Well, I would've remembered him asking me about that game," I say.

"Well, one of us promised it."

"Can we take it back?"

Cyrus frowns. "I want to, but that also doesn't teach him a good lesson about honouring his commitments."

We both look out at our son who dribbles the ball until the other team swipes it from his range.

"Other option," I say: "we try to make his team lose."

Cyrus looks at me with a gasp. "TJ, that's horrible."

"So..."

"No. We're not going to make him lose," Cyrus denies. Then he pauses a moment before adding, "We'll just hope he loses."

 

Chapter Text

Jonah's POV

I hold Austen's hands to keep her on her feet while Walker sits on the bench behind me, near where the team coach is standing. He stares at our daughter in her little grizzly bear costume. The head was too big, so she has little bear ears on a headband instead, and she loves it, bouncing up and down while watching the middle schoolers run around the court.

"Ready?" I ask her, and she nods. "Okay. Go grizzlies!"

"Grrrrr!" she growls, giving the most adorable bear impression I've ever heard in my life.

Her little voice makes all those around us glance over and one of the boys on the court to get a whistle blown for travelling while being distracted by Austen.

"Jonah, why did you offer this?" Walker grumbles.

"She's a natural entertainer," I defend.

Austen turns toward her other dad and starts jumping and pulling on my hands while looking at him, saying, "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly!" Then she lets go of my hands to wave her little bear paws around. "Grrrr!" She giggles and tries to take a step forward, but right away, she loses her balance, tumbling backward onto her bum, and instantly she erupts in sobs.

I reach down to pick her up, hugging her close as I tell her, "Hey, it's okay. You're alive."

Walker just shakes his head and brings his eyes ahead to the basketball game.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

A middle school basketball game definitely isn't what I would've liked to be using today for, but it's my nephew, and he always liked when the whole family comes, and honestly he's almost a teenager, so that opinion will probably die soon, so we might as well make the most of this time. As the game goes on, though, Andi realizes we didn't bring any drinks with us, so we leave Hazel to go out to the vending machine to get some. As we approach the lit-up beverage box, I get out my wallet.

"What do you want?" Andi asks me.

"Anything but grape soda," I reply.

She takes a couple of coins from my wallet and drops them into the machine. "Root beer?"

"Sure."

The whole vending machine rattles after she hits the button, but when the buzzing noise stops, there still isn't a drink falling. Andi kneels down to check the bottom of the box where the can would've fallen, but nothing's there.

"Great," Andi mutters.

Out of habit, I try pressing the button again, and when that doesn't work, I hit a few more.

"That's how you started a fire," Andi reminds me. "Let's not do that."

"Well, who do we ask about this?" I wonder.

"I don't know. We can just buy a new one."

"I don't have anymore change."

"Then we'll skip the drink."

"I paid for it. I want it."

Andi sighs. "So what? We try to shake it out? That never works well."

I smile. "Maybe we'll be the exception."

Hazel's POV

Since my moms aren't sitting with me to force me to pay attention to the game anymore, I let my mind wander in other directions. I could go join Andreas and Jayda up the bleachers, but I feel like whatever conversation they're having is either going to be really awkward for me or just plain frustrating knowing what I know about both of them. Honestly, if Jayda would've just let me tell Andreas she likes him, then this whole thing could be sped up. With that card off the table, I notice Brayden closer to the bottom of the bleachers. It's so bizarre to see him this invested in a sports game. Obviously, there's something more than the sport keeping him tied up. Curious to uncover that, I make my way down the steps and cross the bench to sit down next to him.

"You not reading a book at a sporting event?" I tease. "That's quite a sight."

"Yes, I suppose it is," Brayden responds without removing his eyes from the game—or should I say the player.

Brayden and I are only two years apart in age, yet we don't talk frequently. If I'm being honest, a big part of that is probably because I thrive on the drama in Jayda's and Andreas's lives, but Brayden's never really had anything especially entertaining happen that would keep my analyzing brain occupied. Now there seems to be finally something a little bit interesting happening to him. He stares at player number 5 on the court. When the player glances over at Brayden with a wry grin, I notice Brayden perk up a bit.

"Is that your friend?" I ask.

"Yes."

"I didn't think you'd be friends with a basketball player. Aren't all your friends theatre kids?"

"My two other friends? Yes."

"So what's the deal with this guy?" I wonder.

"In what sense?"

I shrug. "I don't know. Like what's the deal with you and him?"

"Nothing peculiar," Brayden replies. "I like talking to him, and he seems to like talking to me, so we associate with each other sometimes. ...A lot of the time. I see him more than I see my other friends now."

The realization seems to make Brayden ponder, while I'm just saying, "Interesting."

"Not particularly," Brayden responds, trying to minimize his situation.

"So you two are close?"

"I see what you're trying to imply, but I denounce it. He's simply my friend."

"You jumped ahead there," I say with a curious grin.

"You were going to get there," he states.

"Yeah, but usually people let me get there on my own."

"I'm not my brother. I don't take a year to understand things."

His thought is ended by number five getting a basket and looking back at Brayden who warms into a smile like a sunrise making him lose interest in anything other than the sun ray on the court. When Brayden glances back to me again, he suddenly realizes how big he's smiling, and he quickly wipes it away, drowning in a scarlet blush.

Walker's POV

"Grrrrr!" Austen growls and cheers, "Go! Go! Go!"

She lets go of Jonah's hands to clap, and Jonah holds her waist to make sure she doesn't fall this time. I know Jonah likes...I don't even know what category this would fall under—maybe weird things that are also mildly nice for one person—but I wasn't on board with our daughter being shoved into a bear costume and forced to cheer. I'm still not on board, but Jonah glances back at me with a smile.

"See," he says. "She likes it."

"Austen," I say, getting my girl's attention, "do you like being in a stinky bear costume?"

Austen struggles to find the necessary words, so she scrunches her eyebrows in focus as she stutters, "I like—I like—I like—grrrrr!"

She looks up at Jonah with an open smile. I guess that's my answer. With a sigh, I get up from the bench and kneel down beside her.

"Alright," I say. "Let's cheer."

Jonah smiles as he begins, "Go grizzlies!"

Austen giggles in a ear-blasting squeal then looks up at Jonah and starts shouting, "Poppy! Poppy! Poppy! Grrrr!"

She laughs again resulting in her wobbling, but I push her back upright when she starts to tip. After her scare, she freezes for a moment, but then she looks at the basketball players again and continues her growling, which makes some of the moms in the bleachers nearby awww.

Chapter Text

Marty's POV

Buffy and I sit together on the bleachers, but she doesn't talk to me. She keeps her eyes locked onto the game ahead. Even when I try to make conversation, she brushes it off with a quick, one-word answer. Eventually, I have to ask the question.

"Hey, are you upset with me?"

She looks at me in disbelief. "It took you this long to notice?"

"No, I thought you were mad, but I don't know why."

"Of course you don't," she scoffs. She shakes her head and stands up, muttering, "I'm gonna go get some water."

She climbs down the bleachers and exits the gym, leaving me with no answer about what I did to make her angry. I don't remember doing anything. I wish she would just be straight up and tell me.

Behind me, Jayda suddenly leans forward next to Andreas.

"You're not going to apologize?" she says.

"I don't even know what I did?" I respond, turning to face her.

"You clearly did something," she counters.

"Then she should tell him that," Andreas chimes in.

That comment irks Jayda, and she whips her attention to him, arguing, "He should know."

"But I don't know," I say.

"Girls can't just expect guys to know things without telling them," Andreas complains.

Jayda halts for a few seconds, narrowing her eyes on my son.

"Well, girls shouldn't have to solve everything for boys."

"So why is she mad at me?" I question.

Jayda returns to me, saying, "You really don't know?"

I shake my head.

"Well, when did she start acting cold?"

"Uh, I guess when we were leaving the house."

"What did you do then?"

"Nothing," I answer. "She showed up and told me about how she was feeling bad, and we left to come here. She mentioned something about chocolate."

"That's it," Andreas says with a smile. "She wants chocolate."

"No," Jayda denies. "Well, yeah, but no." She looks at me. "You said she told you she felt bad. How did you respond to that?"

"I said how that's sad."

She waits for more, and when I don't give her more, she says, "That's it?"

"Well, we kinda had to go."

"So you rushed her out?"

"No. I asked if she was gonna drive, and 'cause she said she would earlier, and then she left really upset for some reason."

"Chicks be crazy," Andreas mumbles.

"You're both helpless," Jayda sighs. "It's obvious why she's upset. She finished telling you how bad she felt, then you brushed it off by telling her to do stuff."

"Well, why didn't she just tell me?" I say, annoyed with the entire situation.

"Chicks be crazy," Andreas repeats.

That makes Jayda snap her eyes onto him again, and he stiffens.

"Stop saying that." she orders. "I'm a chick, and I'm not crazy."

Andreas grins slightly as he teases, "Eh, you're a little crazy."

Jayda rolls her eyes, then Andreas leans closer to her to add one more thing.

"A good kind of crazy."

"Is there really a good kind of crazy?" Jayda challenges, looking right back at him in a way that causes my son to fixate fully on her.

"I think so, because otherwise you wouldn't exist," he replies.

"I'm gonna go talk to her," I say, interrupting their friendly arguement.

I get up and go for the hallway, finding Buffy by the water fountain. The moment she's finished drinking, she sees me and stands up, folding her arms over her chest.

"Hey," I say."

"Hey," she responds flatly.

It may have taken Jayda spelling it out for me to finally get why she's mad, but that doesn't mean I don't care. I guess it could've seemed like I didn't care about her. But I do. And I would literally say anything to make her happy again.

"I'm sorry I wasn't more considerate of you earlier," I say. "I didn't really think about how you must feel with me asking you to drive when you're feeling gross."

"Took you long enough," Buffy mumbles.

"I don't like fighting with you. Can you forgive me?"

A smile spreads on my wife's face as she drops her arms. "Yeah, I can. But you owe me a chocolate bar."

I take her hand and lace it into mine, saying, "I was gonna get you one anyway."

Cyrus's POV

Wyatt dribbles the ball up to the net, and TJ and I watch anxiously. Then he takes the shot and...misses.

"Yes," we both breathe.

Right as we say that, Marty and Buffy sit down behind us, giving us confused looks.

"Yes, he tried his best," I say, trying to save us.

TJ gives our friends a nervous smile before focusing back on the basketball game.

Amber's POV

On three, Andi and I rattle the vending machine together until we give up, and I step back, frustrated and wishing I had a hammer to just break the damn thing open. I just want my root beer. That's all.

"Can we just turn this whole thing sideways?" I groan.

"We're hardly strong enough to shake it," Andi reminds me.

Sick of this, I kick the machine, and suddenly, after all that shaking that didn't work, a clunk sounds from inside it. Amazed, I bend over to reach for the drink, but behold, what I take out isn't root beer. It's a grape soda.

"Andi, it's taunting me," I grumble.

"Amber, I'll take the grape and get you a pop later," Andi suggests.

"I was gonna have it for the game," I say, disappointed.

"Well, the game's almost done."

"This was a waste of time."

Andi nods and takes my hand to walk with me back to the gym.

"Next time, I'm bringing my tools so that I can take apart any vending machine that ignores me," I mutter.

"You do that," she says gently.

________________________________________

Cyrus's POV

It's the last few seconds now, and I've never been more stressed—well, maybe when I was coming out for the first time, but this is still very stressful. Wyatt steals the ball and passes it to a teammate who guides it toward the net.

"Please miss this shot," TJ whispers. "Please miss this shot."

Breaking our concentration comes Hazel passing by, wondering, "What kind of weird parenting method involves wishing for your twelve-year-old son to lose his basketball game?"

"Nothing," I react without fully thinking through my response. "We were talking about the other team."

Hazel carries on, and the ball gets passed back to Wyatt. I hold my breath as he runs up to the net and tosses the ball. It bounces off the rim, and the final buzzer blows. He lost. And TJ and I cheer.

"Don't cry too hard," Amber comments sarcastically from behind us. "It's just a middle school game."

TJ and I wipe our smiles clean as our son approaches us, looking defeated. It's not the time to be happy. It's the time to show empathy. And I do my best. But I'm really glad he lost.

"I lost," he says sadly.

"I know. I'm sorry," I respond. "You did amazing, though."

"Thanks, Dad, but it means more coming from other dad, because he actually knows how the points work."

Taking the cue, TJ tells Wyatt, "You did great. Darn. We were so ready to get you that video game, but hey, how about Slurpees instead?"

"Were you really going to get the game for me?" Wyatt asks.

"Of course," I lie. "We promised."

"Do you promise to get Slurpees?" he checks.

"Yeah, for sure," TJ says.

With that, Wyatt sighs. "Then I should tell you that you never actually promised to get me that game."

TJ and I both share stunned looks at the same time. He made us think we accidentally made a promise and made us blame each other. He's becoming cunning. He's turning into his sister.

"We didn't?" I say in shock.

"You're just realizing this now?" Jayda says condescendingly, coming down from the bleachers.

"You knew?" I say.

"Duh," our daughter responds.

"And you didn't tell us?" TJ says.

"Sibling code," the girl states. "We don't rat on each other unless we're doing hard drugs or are on someone's hit list."

"Wyatt, why did you lie?" I ask in disappointment.

"I said it as a joke. but then you believed me, so I figured I'd see how long it's take for one of you to realize. I didn't expect you both to be this oblivious."

"Papa's really good at being oblivious," I comment.

"And so is Daddy," TJ reflects with a smile, "even though he denies it."

"Whatever," Wyatt says. "As long as you get me a Slurpee."

"Hold on," I stop him. "Were you going to let us get you that game, knowing you were lying?"

Wyatt shrugs. "I wasn't going to not let you."

I look over at TJ, curious about his perspective on this.

"Are we, like, supposed to punish him or something?" TJ asks me.

"Is he too old for time-outs?" I reply.

"Wait, what did I do?" Wyatt speaks up. "You're the ones who can't remember the promises they make."

"But you lied about it," I remind him. "So you're..." I glance to TJ again, who gives me no help, so I have to come up with something on my own "...grounded."

"You're grounded?" Jayda echoes with a laugh. "Oh my God. I never get grounded."

Wyatt frowns at his consequence and asks, "Can I still go to Davey's tomorrow?"

"Sure," TJ answers.

Wyatt looks happy, but Jayda just gives both me and TJ an exasperated look.

"You have no idea how grounding works," she concludes.

TJ and I meet eyes again. This is the first time we've grounded one of our kids, so yeah, we don't really know the rules around it yet.

"Come on," I say to Wyatt. "Let's get those Slurpees."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

Deion comes out of the change room still shining from the sweat of the game but out of his uniform, instead in his normal jeans and hoodie. I watch him from where I sit on the bleachers, suddenly feeling self-conscious about waiting for him. I wonder if he thinks I'm being too clingy. I hope that's not the case. Based on the smile he gives me as he comes over, I decide it can't be.

"You're still here," he observes.

He has his eyes on me, as anyone speaking to me would, but his eyes seem to connect in a way nobody else's do—like they're a perfect fit, a lock and key, a gear shifting without any bumps.

"I have no reason to leave," I respond.

I stand up, accidentally getting closer to him than I had anticipated. I can't decipher whether this is a socially acceptable distance or not. But his face doesn't show me any signs of discomfort, so I don't back up.

"Homework?" Deion questions.

"It can wait," I answer.

The boy in front of me smiles, lips cupping naturally like a leaf catching and savouring a raindrop.

"I'm sorry you didn't win," I say.

"Hey, you were here, so I appreciate that."

"I like being here," I confess. 

I couldn't tell you why exactly, but it's clear I do. I like being near him. It doesn't seem to matter what we're doing. Just anything. Anything is enjoyable when he's present. That's why friends are friends, I suppose. Because they find pleasure in each other's existence. But he's a bit more. I'd have to be completely moronic to not realize that.

Chapter Text

TJ's POV

When I come into the kitchen, Cyrus is facing away from me, so I take steps light as air to sneak up behind him.

"Boo!"

Cyrus jolts, dropping the apple in his hand, and whips around in terror. When he sees that it's only me, he frowns.

"No. Stop," he whines. "That was mean."

"It's Halloween," I remind him.

"Not an excuse."

I shake my head and bend over to pick up his apple for him, saying with a laugh, "You scare too easy."

The instant I rise with Cyrus's apple, I almost drop it again as my teenage daughter steps into the kitchen in what I desperately hope is not what she's planning on wearing tonight. It's a black skirt that barely covers anything and a red camisole made up basically of just two triangles and a thin band of frilled lace. She has a headband too, on which stick up two red horns. Here's the thing: I'm fine with her wearing this around the house or to the beach or out with friends, but I really don't know how comfortable I am with her wearing this to a high school Halloween party.

Seeing my eyes widen in shock, Cyrus grins a little and mutters, "Now who scares easy?"

"Jayda," I say, "what exactly is your costume."

She points to the little horns on her head and answers, "I'm the devil. Duh."

I nod slowly, trying to put together in my mind how the little fabric she's wearing adds up to being the devil.

"Okay, I want to be as respectful as possible when I say this," Cyrus says, "but you're going to a party, correct?"

"Yeah," Jayda responds.

"And there's going to be alcohol?"

"And horny, straight, teenage boys who don't understand the meaning of consent?" I piggy-back on.

Jayda remains quiet for a minute while she takes in our fears.

"I won't drink anything I didn't open myself," she offers eventually.

"Could you not drink at all?" Cyrus wonders.

"That's very wishful thinking," Jayda replies.

Deciding we're done talking, she starts to leave, but my voice makes her turn back again.

"Jayda, please."

"Fine," she huffs. "I won't drink. I'll text Andreas and say I can drive us."

Right as she steps into the hallway, she is forced to make way for her brother who comes galavanting into the kitchen in nothing but swim trunks, a cape, and socks, and Jayda looks disgusted.

"I'm Aquaman's sidekick's sidekick!" Wyatt proclaims.

"He can wear that, but you freak out when I wear this?" Jayda complains.

"Wyatt, go put a shirt on," Cyrus orders.

"You're lame," the boy groans then heads back toward the stairs.

Jayda turns to leave too, saying, "Okay, see you."

As she exits the house, I look to my husband and ask him, "Shall we get going?"

"We have to wait for Wyatt," Cyrus says.

Our son comes back down in a flash, now in a white T-shirt, although it's on backwards.

"Better?" Wyatt asks.

"As good as it's going to get," Cyrus responds. "Come on. We'll drop you off at your friend's house."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

"What is your costume supposed to be?" Linny's voice buzzes through the Zoom call on my phone.

"I'm a newsie," I explain.

"Oh my gosh," Kelsey says beside Linny on the same video. "Either we've completely corrupted you, and you're now a full theatre kid, or you're lazy and just found a vest and hat to go with your everyday wear."

"It was Deion's idea," I say. "We're both newsies."

I walk up the pathway toward Deion's house. The smallest kids in the neighbourhood are already out going door-to-door, while the older ones are waiting for the sun to turn to pastel and drizzle away below the horizon. It's windy out. The crimson leaves of the trees race on waves of air like Mother Nature's breath blowing dust off a tabletop.

"Oh, that's actually really cute," Kelsey fawns.

"When did you two become, like, a thing?" Linny wonders.

It's not the first time someone's assumed I and Deion were in a more complex relationship, but it still makes me sigh. It's a little disheartening how nobody seems to think I can be friends with a boy and not fall for him. It's amusing too. Love is such a rare anomaly that to think I could find it with this random boy who picked on me last year is a gullible dream. I don't expect to find it until I'm at least forty and owning my own small bookstore.

"I don't know what you're talking about," I say.

"You're going out on Halloween in couples costumes," Linny summarizes.

"His mom asked him to take his brother and brother's friend trick-or-treating," I explain. "I'm just coming so that he has a friend to talk with."

"Well, we are going to get all the candy in the neighbourhood," Kelsey says. "We'll make sure to grab some Charleston Chews for you."

"Thank you."

"Bye!" Linny says. "Have fun with Deion."

"Don't replace us," Kelsey jokes.

"I assure you I won't."

I'm smiling as I hang up, and then I look ahead at Deion's front door. I can see the living room through the window, including the bookshelf of knick-knacks and the small, square television. Immediately after I ring the doorbell, I see a shadow pass over the carpet inside, and the door opens, revealing Deion standing there in his newsboy look. It includes grey pants, a white dress shirt, a plaid vest, and a newsboy cap. He has his sleeves rolled up above his elbows, making my eyes cling to the shapes of his veins and muscles throughout his forearms. After the brief moment, I continue admiring his costume, then at the same time, we both begin to speak.

"You..." we start simultaneously.

Deion quiets and says, "You go first."

"You look nice," I finish.

"I was going to say the same thing about you," he replies.

I smile and enter into his home when he motions me forth. Coming from the other end of the hallway is Jamar in a jedi costume that he made with a robe and a toilet paper roll lightsaber. It doesn't light up or make sounds, so he makes his own, saying "niew niew" every time he swings it.

"Did you make that?" I say. "That's really good."

"Thank you," the boy responds. "I spent a hundred days on it."

I glance over at Deion, both of us smiling at Jamar's exaggeration.

"Let's go so that we're not late meeting your friend," Deion says.

"Okay," Jamar agrees.

He runs past me to put on his shoes, and once he's finished, he looks up at me then over at his brother again.

"Is Brayden staying the whole time?" he asks.

"Yeah," Deion answers. "Is that okay?"

"Yeah. I like Brayden."

That makes me feel a slight sense of comfort. I did not expect to care about a random, seven-year-old boy enjoying my company, but the fact that it's Deion's brother makes it feel like winning a contest.

Deion smiles at me while responding, "Yeah."

His eyes break away as he gets the door, but the warmth stays with me even as we three step out into the autumn breeze.

________________________________________

Amber's POV

The bowling alley has a few glowing skeletons in the black lights, but other than that, it's not too dolled up for the holiday. Pins clack as balls strike them on the other lanes. My friends and I, all eight of us, find our lane at the far end of the alley. It was too busy for us to get two lanes, so we just decided on one long game of eight.

"I appreciate the limited spooky decorations," Cyrus comments. "I'm always paranoid that something's going to scare me on Halloween."

Buffy laughs a bit at that, saying, "Well, if anyone scares me, I'm gonna pee."

Buffy's now almost five months pregnant, so she's got a noticeable baby bump. Fortunately, since this is her fourth pregnancy, she's handling it all well. When she was pregnant with Andreas, she was also twenty-three and called coffee a superfood to replace sleep, so that took a lot of adjusting, but this now is nothing. The downside about her being pregnant, and the thing she finds the hardest, is not being able to play all the sports she likes. Bowling was the safest option she could think of, since she won't run the risk of falling.

TJ and Cyrus go over to the shelves of bowling balls and browse through their options.

"Which ball do you want?" TJ asks.

Cyrus takes a moment before reaching for a blue one, but as soon as he lifts it, he drops it down again.

"Nope. Too heavy," he says.

"That's the lightest one they have," TJ tells him.

"Oh."

Marty chooses a ball for Buffy and carries it over to the ball return for her before the two of them sit down at the end of the lane.

"Cyrus," Andi calls out, looking up at the screen, "you're up first."

"Alright," Cyrus responds.

He lugs his ball up to the dotted line, places it down on the floor, and gives it a light push. I can see where this is going even before it halts halfway down the lane, and everyone sighs.

"I'll get the employee," Marty says, then he stands up to go find someone who can solve our problem.

"Sorry," Cyrus apologizes, his eyes showing his embarrassment.

TJ throws an arm over his husband's shoulder and presses a kiss to his temple.

"When was the last time we went out without any of the kids, all of us?" Jonah wonders, looking around at our group.

"That time at the beach two years ago?" Buffy recalls.

"No," TJ says. "Brayden was there."

"How come I don't remember him?" Buffy wonders.

"He was charging people for plots of sand and wanted me not to tell you," TJ explains.

"Wow," Buffy breathes. "That was that long ago."

"We should've brought Austen," Jonah says. "She would've loved the blacklights here."

"Jonah, you do everything with Austen," Walker tell him. "This break is good for you."

"What if she misses me?"

"She's with your mom. Judy knows how to take care of kids."

"She doesn't know the trick to getting her to falls asleep," Jonah argues.

"What? Singing?" Walker guesses.

"No. ASMR videos."

"I'm okay with your mom not knowing that trick," Walker responds.

It only takes a second for Jonah to get distracted by something else, and he points across the room.

"Hey, a claw machine."

"Maybe you can win something to bring back to Austen," Buffy suggests.

"Claw machines are impossible," I chime in. "Don't bother."

Jonah ignores my advice, saying, "I'm gonna try."

Walker follows Jonah toward the game right as Marty gets back with an employee who has an expression like he hates this job and is only doing it to pay for college. Nonetheless, he steps out to the lane and shoves the ball down toward the end.

"Thank you," Cyrus says as the boy returns. "Could you please put the bumpers up too?"

The boy sighs and does as asked before heading back to the front desk.

"Where are Jonah and Walker?" Marty suddenly asks.

"Claw machine," Buffy answers.

"Good luck to them," Marty scoffs. "I used to play that thing forever. Never won a thing."

As soon as he's done saying that, Jonah shows up holding a stuffed frog and a huge smile, putting a dumbfounded expression across Marty's face.

"Look what I won for Austen!" Jonah says.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

I pull out my phone as I step up to Andreas's doorstep.

Me: I'm here.

A few seconds pass before he responds.

Andreas: You know there's a doorbell right?

Me: Coming from the guy who uses the window.

Andreas: Got me there.

I tuck my phone into my small purse as I hear the door unlock, and Andreas opens it up, but the second he sees me, his eyes fall down over my body, and his jaw opens a little.

"Woah," he reacts.

I roll my eyes, pretending I don't care for his response, but I have to admit I'm not totally indifferent to it. Like, I'm glad of happy I could make his eyes flicker over me then back to my face repeatedly like they're doing now. I don't think that was my intention when I was getting dressed, but who's to say there wasn't some subconscious thing going through my head.

"A devil?" Andreas asks.

"Thank you! My dads didn't get it."

He nods, his eyes giving me another glaze.

"What are you?" I question.

"Night," he answers with a grin.

I examine his black pants and plain black long-sleeved shirt.

"Yeah, okay," I respond with sass. "Ready to go?"

"Actually, so change of plans. My sister kinda just decided she didn't want to go trick-or-treating, and to be honest, I'm not desperate to go be around a bunch of my stoned friends all night, so I'm gonna stay home with her. Sorry, I was meaning to tell you when I got the door, but then you—" he gestures over my outfit but doesn't finish the sentence. "I kinda forgot."

"Oh."

"But you can go," he says.

"And be around my friends alone? I'd rather the stoners."

I step past him through the doorway. If he's not going to the party, then I'm not either. Because, like, yeah, I was only going to go because he was.

"You sure you don't want to go to the party?" Andreas asks.

"You think I'd lie?" I shoot back.

"You literally lie all the time."

I just roll my eyes and remove my shoes. Andreas closes the door at the exact time that Cara comes galloping down the stairs into the living room.

"Hi, Jayda," the girl says.

"Hi, Cara. No costume?"

The girl shakes her head.

"That's not like you. Didn't you dress as the grim reaper for New Year's?"

"I don't know," she mutters. "I'm gonna get a brownie."

She makes her way into the kitchen and out of the conversation. It's weird. She's usually a lot more chatty and loud. She also wouldn't skip getting candy on Halloween. It makes me wonder what's going on.

"What's up with her?" I ask quietly to Andreas.

He shrugs.

"Do you never talk to her?"

"Not really. She kinda just does her own thing now."

The girl returns from the kitchen with a handful of potato chips rather than a brownie. She brings it up to her face to crunch, making crumbs fall to the ground.

"Cara, why aren't you trick-or-treating this year?" I ask her.

"Didn't feel like it," she replies.

"Didn't feel like having candy?"

"I can get candy in other ways," she reasons.

"Yeah, but isn't trick-or-treating easier?"

"Easy isn't better," she shuts down.

She goes for the stairs, having finished with that way too real reminder. It makes me look at Andreas. Because what we have right now, this friendship, is easy. But I wonder if if could be better. Or maybe it would just go to shit if I tried to progress it. Andreas's eyes meet mine like flames dripping into each other and become one bigger fire. It tingles my nerves and makes me feel like I either need to pull up now or let myself drown.

"I'm gonna see what's in your pantry," I say, pulling up.

 

Chapter Text

Brayden's POV

Jamar's friend, Aman, is wearing a knight costume, a perfect competitor in their lightsaber-sword battle that occurs continuously as we travel between houses. They fight on the grass of the boulevard to keep the sidewalk clear for the other children to walk without getting a cardboard tube lodged into their sides.

"Okay, next house," I say, motioning for them to go up the path.

They skip the path, trampling the garden instead, a poorly thought-through choice, for Jamar catches his foot on a stone and goes plummeting to the grass. He hugs his knee to his chest, tears splintering his eyes, and I kneel down to get a better look at the situation.

"Are you hurt?" I ask.

"I scraped it," Jamar whimpers.

He flattens his leg out, revealing the spotty, red gash in his skin. Thankfully, I'm prepared for this. I reach into my messenger bag and take out a Band-Aid. Jamar's sniffles calm as I peel the packaging off and stick the bandage over the cut. He smiles gently and pushes himself back onto his feet, then he and his friend dash up to the door of the house to get their candy.

"You keep Band-Aids on you?" Deion notes.

""I don't like being underprepared," I respond.

"That's good, 'cause I'm never prepared," he says with a smile.

"Then we balance each other out," I conclude.

He smiles at that, even though it's nothing other than a simple fact. We are two ends of a see-saw. We provide what the other is lacking. That's why I'm always so excited to learn what he'll do and say: because it's opening a new book, turning a new page. He's the mystery that motivates me to keep reading. And I must confess that the cover of this book isn't what I'd call boring to look at either.

________________________________________

Andreas's POV

The beep on the microwave sounds, and I pull out the steaming bag of popcorn. Jayda waits by the island with a bowl, which I pour the fresh popcorn into. The kernels tumble out in yellow puffs, all crisped with black.

"Cool, I burnt it," I state.

Jayda looks down at it in confusion. "You only put it in for 30 seconds. I don't know whether to be disappointed or impressed."

"I have a talent," I joke.

She laughs, a sound like a song, and I pick up one of the kernels, popping it in my mouth, having forgotten how I wrecked it. It's bitter, and I regret it, but Jayda distracted me, and I don't want her to know that, so I keep chewing until I can swallow.

It's even worse when Jayda leans over the counter on one elbow while picking out a piece of popcorn for herself, because I suddenly become way too aware of how low her shirt is. And my thoughts are unholy, to say the least, so I try not to look there. But my other choice ends up being her hair which pours over her shoulders like a waterfall, hiding slivers of skin from sight, and that only makes me want to brush it back. So I try her eyes, but that was a fail from the start. I don't know why my dumb ass thought it would help to let myself get hooked into her deep brown gaze. Her eyelids glitter with smoky eyeshadow and are lined in black, drawing me in even more.

"That's the best costume you could come up with?" I say.

"What?" she responds, her lips curling a little. "You don't like it?"

"Um...I mean..." How do I respond to that? "Yeah, but, um... I don't know if the devil would look this..." I gesture to her shirt, but I can't find the word I want.

"You think the devil would be modest?" Jayda questions, raising her brows.

"Good point. Probably not."

She grins at her win, but I now feel bad for even bringing it up.

"I didn't mean anything bad," I tell her. "I just... I'm kinda glad you're not at that party, because boys are sometimes... You know."

"You're a boy," Jayda points out.

"I try not to be like them."

"Yeah," she responds, looking down for a second before bringing her eyes back to mine. "Yeah, you're not."

"I just wouldn't want anything to happen to you," I say.

I do believe girls should be able to wear anything they want without being objectified, but I also recognize that, with they way some boys are, I don't think I'd be able to relax if Jayda was at that party right now like this. And it's stupid and shitty, but I've never cared about anyone like how I care about her, so I don't want her to ever be in a bad situation like that. I would literally be her bodyguard if I had to.

Jayda's eyes linger on mine for a few breaths before she finally speaks, saying, "Let's remake this popcorn."

________________________________________

Marty's POV

Amber releases her ball, getting a spare, along with a high five from Andi, but I'm more interested in Jonah holding his stuffed frog. I don't understand how he got it. Claw machines are rigged. People never win on them. How is he the one in a million?

"I don't get it," I say to Jonah. "How did you win?"

Jonah just shrugs. "It's not hard. I'll show you."

"Jonah," Buffy cuts in, "you can't win two times in a row."

Although he acknowledges that with a nod, he still stands up and leads me over to the machine. Walker comes along to watch his husband who immediately notices a problem.

"I don't have a dollar," Jonah says.

I take one out of my own wallet and stick it into the machine. I don't care about having to pay. I just need to know how he did it. The timer counts down only five seconds while Jonah positions the claw overtop of a bunny. He hits the button, and the claw scoops up the pink toy and releases it into the prize drop. It looks so easy. Maybe this machine is different than the others. It has to be.

"I wish it was yellow," Jonah comments as he takes his prize, "but pink is fine too."

"Let me try," I say. "I literally practiced this every day when I was young and never got anything."

I drop a dollar in and shift the claw to where it has to—has to—work. But it doesn't.

"How did you do that?" I question Jonah.

Jonah, oblivious to the cause of his skill, shrugs.

"The universe just seems to like Jonah," Walker explains.

"I'm sure you'll get it," Jonah says. "Try again."

I try again. I don't get it. I'm annoyed.

"Must be broken," Jonah guesses.

"No. You probably got lucky," I conclude.

Lucky twice: not likely but possible I guess. Just to make sure, I put another coin into the machine and move the claw again, but then I hear my friends cheer, and I look over to see that Buffy just got a strike. When spinning around, Jonah accidentally bumps the handle of the machine.

"Oh, sorry," he says.

But I'm shocked. His bump hit the button, and by some miracle the claw grabs two stuffed animals at once. Seriously, is Jonah some kind of wizard?

TJ's POV

Buffy sits down proudly while Andi finishes showing Cyrus and me photos of Hazel's Halloween costume. It's just a rainbow floral dress with a lesbian flag tied around her like a cape and pink and orange hearts painted on her cheeks.

"I had to take this when she wasn't looking," Andi explains. "Otherwise she would tell me she didn't want pictures."

"What exactly is her costume?" Cyrus asks.

"I don't know," Andi admits. "She's just going to a party—not, like, a party party," she clarifies before we can think otherwise "—and she wanted all the girls to know she liked girls."

"I highly respect that kind of confidence," Cyrus says.

"If Jayda had a bi flag, maybe she would've done that," I say.

"She does have a bi flag," Cyrus corrects me. "She uses it as a curtain for her window."

"Huh. I haven't noticed."

"What's her costume today?" Amber asks from a seat across from ours.

"Well, about twenty percent of her was a devil," I respond.

"And the other eighty?" Andi asks.

"Nothing. Literally nothing."

"TJ's concerned about her clothes—or lack thereof," Cyrus explains.

"Ahh, I see," Andi responds.

"I know how teenage boys can be," I say, "and I worry for her safety."

She can make her own choices about what she wants to wear. I know that. But it's hard being a dad and having to battle between your daughter's freedom of expression and her safety. The amount of grey lines in parenting is something no one told me, and I had to learn it on my own. Sometimes I just wish she would let me decide things for her so that I wouldn't have to worry so much, but I know that's unreasonable. But it would make it easier.

"It's so stupid that that's even a worry we have to have," Andi says.

"I think I at least raised my boys pretty okay," Buffy says.

"You did," Amber assures her. "You made sure they knew it was their responsibility to respect girls, and not girls' responsibility to look like they should be respected, because everyone deserves respect. Girls should be able to dress how they want."

"I agree, but I'm just scared for her sometimes," I confess.

"That's completely understandable," Andi replies. "It's scary when they're growing up, and you have to trust that they'll be okay without you. But hopefully you won't be so scared eventually."

"You know I care too," Cyrus tells me. "I'm constantly struggling between letting her make her own choices and wanting to make them for her."

"Yeah." I let out a breath. "Man, she's almost seventeen. Can you believe that?"

"It feels like only a month ago that she was fifteen and screaming at her brother to stop running over her feet with his RC," Cyrus says with a laugh.

"Time goes faster the older you are," Buffy comments.

"Speaking of time," Andi says. "I believe it's time for TJ's turn."

I get up and go to bowl, hitting all of the pins except the two side by side in the back right.

 

Chapter Text

Andreas's POV

I don't even know what show we're watching. It's some Netflix show that Jayda picked out. The main character is a lesbian; I'm not surprised. I have to admit it's pretty entertaining. Just enough gore to make it fun but not so much that Jayda wouldn't like it. Actually, I don't know her opinion on gore. Maybe she'd love it. I wonder if she'd want to have a zombie film marathon sometime. If she does, though, she's got to stop reaching across the entire couch from the other end just to reach the popcorn then curl back up in her spot.

"You know you can sit closer," I say with a chuckle.

Jayda gives me a faint smile and shifts a bit toward me. But not enough. She's still reaching. And honestly, it feels pretty shitty. Maybe I'm making too much out of this, but it's like she doesn't want to be near me, like she's deliberately trying to keep her distance. Am I that bad?

"What are you guys watching?" comes Cara's voice as she descends the stairs, "and why are there so many bad words?"

I pause the show before spinning to face her, questioning, "What are you doing down here?"

Cara winds around the couch and plops down in between me and Jayda; there's plenty of room for her after all.

"I wanted to join you," Cara says.

"Uh, well, we can't really keep that show on," I respond.

"Do you want me to go away so you can keep watching?" she girl asks.

"No, not at all," Jayda denies. "Stay."

Jayda flicks her eyes to me, and I somehow understand her without any words. I switch to the Netflix homepage and start scrolling through.

"What do you want to watch?" I ask Cara.

"I don't know."

"Anything," I say.

"Um... I don't know."

The second 'I don't know' is what gets me, and I shut off the TV completely. Why? Because Cara always knows how she feels. Even when it's rude or unpopular, she has an opinion. Only this year has she started not really caring.

"Okay, what is it?" I question.

"What is what?" she wonders.

"I'm your big brother, right?"

She nods shyly.

"And you're my little sister."

She listens motionless, looking between the couch cushions and me.

"So you can talk to me about anything," I state.

"Anything?"

"Same goes for me," Jayda speaks up.

Cara glances back and forth between the two of us before muttering, "I just didn't want to trick-or-treat this year."

"You didn't want to dress up and see your friends?" Jayda says.

"I don't know," Cara murmurs. "I don't know what to dress up as anyway."

"You used to have a little Indiana Jones costume," Jayda recalls.

"I grew out of that," Cara says.

"You really are growing fast," I say. It's probably not news for her, but it's bigger for me, because it's weird to think that she used to not know how to even read a couple years ago, and now she can read the books that Brayden reads with only a few problems. She doesn't even play with dolls much anymore. Now she's really into crafting and building. It's kinda crazy how fast that all changed.

"I'm growing normal," Cara counters. "If anything, I hope I grow slow."

"Why is that?" Jayda asks.

"I just don't like it, thinking about growing up."

"Well, you know we're gonna have your back the whole time you grow up," I tell her.

She smiles and takes a moment to let that dangle in the quiet of the room. I don't know what's going on inside her head, but then again I never have. I never really tried to know. I think I should probably start trying more.

"I think I didn't want to wear a costume, because I'm sorta always wearing a costume."

I mean, yeah, sometimes she wears some pretty eccentric fashion, but I didn't think it was too costume-like.

Jayda takes a different spin on the confession, saying, "Yeah, sometimes we try to pretend to be things we aren't just to make people happy."

"Why do people care what I am?" Cara huffs.

"I don't know," Jayda responds gently. "People like to stick their noses where they don't belong."

"When will they stop?" Cara wonders, her eyes sparkling in the basement light, probably because of the layer of tears forming over her irises.

I bite my lip, annoyed about the answer, but I'm not going to lie to her.

"They don't," I breathe. "But you learn to stop caring about them."

Cara's breath is slow as she inhales and exhales steadily, becoming a rhythm.

"Can we watch She-Ra and the Princess of Power?" she asks.

I smile and get the show started.

________________________________________

Walker's POV

Marty's on, like, his thirtieth try on the claw machine now as Buffy comes up.

"Marty," she says, "do you want to take your turn bowling?"

"Jonah's won twenty-seven times!" Marty complains. "I have to win once."

Buffy looks over at the table of stuffed animals that Jonah has been collecting.

"I'm gonna donate most of them," Jonah says.

"Cool," Buffy says dryly. "Are we gonna have to take out a loan because of the money you're spending?"

"No, because I'm going to win," Marty defends.

"Okay," she says, but it's obvious she doesn't believe him.

Marty gains another loss, and Jonah steps up with a frown.

"I don't know why he's so bad at this," Jonah says.

"I don't know how you're magic," I respond.

Marty fails again, and on the next try, Jonah decides to take matters into his own hands.

"Woah!" Jonah exclaims.

Marty looks at where Jonah's pointing, giving Jonah a chance to tap the joystick and make the claw move into a better position. Marty looks back to Jonah, confused.

"What was woah?"

"Oh, just the green...over there," Jonah lies. "It's a cool colour."

Marty shakes his head, moving on past Jonah's awful excuse and presses the button. Finally, the claw grasps on to a toy, and Marty's jaw nearly hits the floor in amazement.

"Finally! I don't know how it happened, but I finally did it!"

Marty pulls out the prize, a creepy skunk in a pirate outfit, and smiles.

"This will be for the baby," he says. "They'll have the proof that I conquered the claw machine."

________________________________________

Brayden's POV

Jamar and Aman have stopped play fighting and are now deep in a conversation about Aman's sister. Deion and I trail behind them on the sidewalk, my hand tapping his every now and then, but it's nothing to be alarmed by. It's simply accidental. Simply accidental in a way that I like when it happens, and I try to make it happen again, but still and accident nonetheless, right? That could be an oxymoron...

"My sister isn't trick-or-treating this year," Aman says. "She sends more time with her boyfriend now."

"My brother doesn't have a boyfriend," Jamar replies.

It surprises me, because I didn't think Deion had come out to his family yet, but then the rest of the conversation exposes the fact that Jamar doesn't know. He's simply so innocent that he doesn't even understand why Deion wouldn't have one.

"Of course not," Aman says. "He's a boy."

"Why can't there be two boys?" Jamar asks.

"I don't know. There just isn't."

I give Deion a glance, and he gives me a contrite smile.

"Sorry about this," he whispers.

"I'm used to it," I respond. "But are you okay?"

I've faced plenty of homophobia. Deion, on the other hand, is new to this, or at least he is from what he's said. I don't get affected, but the idea of him internalizing the talk between these two little boys makes me feel somber.

Before Deion can give me an answer, Jamar looks back at him and asks, "Can there be two boys?"

Deion's eyes hit mine as he pauses, and then he replies, "Uh, yeah."

"See," Jamar says.

"My dad lied," Aman grumbles.

A smile entangles my face as I eye Deion, impressed by his courage. As the boys continue trotting along, I let my pace decrease, and Deion slows with me, enough that we won't be heard by the kids in front.

"I like that you're getting more confident," I say.

"Well, I have to if I'm ever gonna get a boyfriend," Deion responds with a smile.

For some obscure reason, that makes me feel twisty like candy vines.

"Oh, yes," I say for lack of a better response.

My brain's functioning ability has been overtaken by the dryness of my mouth. Yet my palms are sweaty, like my body just decided to relocate all its moisture.

"You'll have no problem getting one," I eventually say.

"How do you know?" Deion asks.

"Evidence," I reply.

He laughs. "Can't argue with that."

His smile does something a smile shouldn't be able to do. It strings through my body, capturing it in a magnetic field that pulls my own smile up and implores me to make my accidental hand bumps more frequent. I don't turn it down, and Deion doesn't appear to be against it either. We keep walking, creating sparks with every touch.

________________________________________

Jayda's POV

I stand against the wall in the hallway, across from Cara's doorway where Andreas peaks in.

"Do you need anything before going to bed?" he asks.

"No, I'm good," the girl replies.

"Okay. Door open or closed?"

"Closed please."

He does as asked then turns around to look at me. The moment his eyes meet mine, chills flutter down my spine. I don't know how this happens. How can he do this to me? How can a person make another person feel this vulnerable, this open, this exposed? Like, he could unwrap me entirely, and I wouldn't do anything to stop him. I should do something, but I wouldn't. I'm just that weak.

I push myself away from the wall, keeping my arms crossed as a way to try to keep him from puncturing me so hard that I lose my sense of logic. It's nine at night with no parents home, and Andreas is looking at me the way Harry Styles looks at the reader in a One Direction fanfic. I cannot let my guard down right now.

"You're really sweet, you know?" I tell him.

Andreas shrugs. "I only do what anyone should do."

"But that's the thing. Not everyone does do it. But you do."

"I guess."

"You really care about people. And it's kind of amazing."

His eyes drip downward before locking back on mine, and he says in his stupidly attractive voice that falls between a talk and a whisper, which makes it sound a little raspy, "I only care about some people."

"Like your family," I say.

"And others."

Others. "Like...?"

I already know this is a bad idea. I'm pushing for him to give an answer I cannot accept. But although my logical side knows I should shut this down right now, the side that makes my heart trill decides to say screw rationality. It's crying for a specific answer. And I don't know which side I'm rooting for.

"Like my friends," he replies. "Uh, the Postmates delivery guy. People who actually say thank you when I hold the door for them."

"You do that?"

He doesn't respond, but his smile confirms it. And then I have the frickin' nerve to keep pushing. Like, I seriously need to stop. But I can't help it.

"Anyone else?"

His gaze doesn't move from me as he responds, "Well, um, sure. Other people...and you..."

There it is, the answer that makes the temperature dial up a thousand times, makes my muscles go weak, and makes my lungs expand to prepare me for something that can't happen. This cannot happen. That was a stupid thing to ask. I drove myself into a corner, and now he's staring at me, and I could let myself give in to this. But the second one of us messes up, we'll have just broken our families. Like, there are way too many issues with our pairing, way too many things that could go wrong, way too many people who could get caught in the cross-fire of any stupid fight we might have.

Backing up feels like snapping a rope. The tension reduces to a manageable level, but there's still a bundle of butterflies screaming to be let out. I can't do it, though. I may not be the smartest, but I'm not that dumb.

"Well," I say, slicing the loud silence, "I guess I should get going."

I turn around so fast that I almost feel dizzy. After a few steps toward the stairs, Andreas calls out. 

"Wait, Jayda."

Okay, you can do this. Just turn around. Turn around and don't make eye contact. By the time I'm facing where he should he, he's not there anymore. A second later, he comes out of his bedroom holding a colourful circle of beads. He tosses it to me, and when I catch it, I realize they're not normal beads.

"A candy necklace?" I say.

"It's Halloween. You have to have some candy."

I smile and pull the circle over my head, letting it rest on my collarbone.

"Thanks," I say.

His eyes don't let go of me as I make my way toward the stairs, my fingers fidgeting with my necklace while taking each step. Eventually, I get to the front door, and I glance back, seeing Andreas leaning over the stair railing, still looking at me.

I take a deep breath and let it out as I say, "Okay, good night."

"Night."

I peel my gaze off him and open the door, sealing it shut, but it does nothing to crush the desire to be back inside with him.

Chapter Text

Andreas's POV

My parents make their breakfast at the island, while I eat the leftover buttered chicken from last night. compared to regular breakfast foods, this is better, and I don't really get why breakfast has to be just cereal or toast. Like, I'd much rather start my day off with this.

"Dad," Brayden says, marching into the kitchen, "what are you plans for the day?"

"Uh, going to work," Dad replies before taking a sip of juice.

Brayden looks to our mom instead, and she answers, "Also work."

"That makes my life severely more difficult," Brayden huffs.

"We make money to pay for you," Dad notes. "That makes it difficult?"

"Indirectly, yes, because that means you can't drive me where I need to go."

"Where would you be going anyway?" I question. "Don't you usually hide in our room all day?"

"I have an errand to run," he responds.

"You could take the bus," Dad suggests.

"I would, except that it's in Didsbury."

"That town an hour away?" I say in surprise. "Why are you going there?"

"I'm not, because I can't get there."

"What were you planning to get?" Mom asks.

"A book," he answers. "But it's irrelevant now, since I can't get it."

"You can't buy it online?" I say.

"It's an original print from the forties," Brayden explains. "The store has a copy, but it's only available in person."

"Well, sorry, bud," Dad says.

"Your apology has negligent effect on the outcome of my emotions," Brayden sighs.

He plops down onto the seat across from me at the table, putting his head in his hand. I don't really understand Brayden most of the time, especially not now. Like, I don't know why anyone would care about driving an hour out of town just for a book, but apparently it means a lot to him. Normally, I would just let him be weepy, but it's too early in the morning to be looking at his glumness. It's kinda annoying actually, and that's what gets me to make my next offer.

"Uh, me a