Brandon glanced up from his position at the kitchen counter, trying to avoid the sting of the onions he was chopping.
"I wanted to know your opinion on something." The fifteen-year-old brunette was idly doodling on a corner of her homework and not really bothering to meet the man's gaze.
"Shoot," he prompted.
Hannah bit her lip as her pencil came to a halt. "I don't think my mom's said anything about this, but…" she trailed.
Brandon tilted his head a bit, but he waited to respond.
"I think she's started seeing someone." Her eyes flickered upward for all of a second.
When he realized his hands had slowed, Brandon quickly grabbed another onion and resumed chopping. "You think so, huh?"
"I mean, I'm not one-hundred percent sure, but I have this feeling, you know?"
He felt his heart pang softly. "And what gives you that feeling?"
"It's like… She's started coming home later from work – hours later, and it almost seems like every other time she gets a phone call, she leaves the room."
Brandon tried to offer a reassuring smile. "That doesn't necessarily mean-"
"And the weirdest part is that she doesn't even seem to care anymore if I'm out of the house. She used to get on my case all the time, and now I can do practically anything I want." She dropped her pencil and stared at the swirling patterns that had taken over her assignment. "It's almost like she doesn't want me around."
Brandon also stopped what he was doing and tried to catch her eye. "Hannah, that's not true. You know that."
"Maybe," she mumbled. "But it doesn't feel right."
The ensuing silence was only mildly uncomfortable.
"Hannah, your mom loves you more than anything in the world. Nothing is gonna change that, I promise."
The girl sighed, plucked a slice of bell pepper from the nearby cutting board, and chewed thoughtfully. "Why do you think she hasn't said anything yet?"
Brandon quirked an eyebrow as he placed the vegetables aside and set to work with the slab of pork he had bought with Hannah only hours before. "Well, it's possible she's not seeing anyone, isn't it?"
Hannah fought the urge to roll her eyes. "Honestly, I wouldn't have brought it up if I didn't think it was true. It's not exactly the kind of conversation I want to have with, well, anyone."
Gaze softening, Brandon tried this time for a sympathetic smile. "I guess that means you don't plan on talking to her anytime soon."
"Considering that she hasn't brought it up herself and doesn't seem particularly eager to? Nope."
"Well… Maybe she's trying to see if he's good enough for you." He gave a small shrug, which was met with sharp eyes.
"You think?" She grabbed another slice of pepper.
"Do you realize you've eaten an entire bell pepper since you've sat down?"
"Sorry." She grinned. "Not."
Brandon only sent her a mock glare.
The sound of crunching filled her ears, and she swallowed slowly enough to digest the thought that had been pervading her mind for too long. "I actually... haven't told you everything."
The man felt his stomach lurch, and he wasn't even sure why.
"Remember last weekend when she suggested that we go see a movie and get dinner since she wasn't gonna be home to cook?"
"Yeah. She went to visit your grandparents."
Hannah shook her head. "Personally, I don't know if grandma would've approved of a lacy black dress and stilettos."
Brandon opened his mouth to speak, but the sound just wouldn't form.
"And in case you're wondering, the only reason I know is because I was up when she finally came home at, like, four in the morning."
Brandon sighed. He wanted to be some source of comfort to the perceptive teenager, but the more he endeavored to put on a positive face, the harder his facial muscles seemed to protest at what would be a blatant lie.
Truth be told, he felt a bit guilty for hearing about what he felt was Andrea's business. He couldn't, however, just ignore the troubled feelings of her daughter, whom he genuinely cared for as well. If she wanted to confide in him, he would listen.
And so far, as juvenile as it might be, he didn't like what he'd heard.
"You know what's weird?" Hannah leaned forward, resting her elbows on the counter and drinking in the smell of basil piled high in front of her. "I'm totally over this kind of thing with my dad. I know he's had more than one girlfriend since he and my mom… And for some reason, even though it used to bother me, I don't even really care anymore."
"You've spent more time with her than you have with your dad."
"Yeah, but it's not just that. I know that kids whose parents get divorced just don't really like the idea of seeing them with other people. I mean, hello, guilty." She raised her hand. "But I swear it's different with my mom, and this is kind of why I can't bring it up with her. Not just now with this guy, but in general."
"All right," he prompted. "How is it different?"
"Dude, I'm fifteen, and I feel like a parent," she said with an air of exasperation that she probably thought explained everything. "I actually pay attention to how she acts around men, and if they look at her the wrong way, I just feel like I need to do something about it. Sometimes I feel like lecturing her, and sometimes I want to just slap someone for being rude." She held her hands out as if at a loss. "Isn't it supposed to be the other way around? I end up not saying anything, and it's so awkward, you don't even know."
Brandon's mouth twitched at that, but he kept it to himself for her sake. "You care about her. You want her to be happy. That's not weird."
"Brandon." She heaved another audible sigh. "I don't want her to get hurt."
Glancing at the food ready to be tossed into the skillet, Brandon wiped his hands and walked around the counter. He settled onto the stool next to Hannah and waited until she looked him in the eye. "What makes you think she'll get hurt?" he asked softly.
She was quiet for a beat before replying, "I've seen it happen." Her lip began to tremble, and a frown crossed her features as the memories flooded her. "I've seen it, Brandon. She never tells me what's wrong, but I know. All the guys she's seen, they knew about me. They knew, but they didn't want anything to do with a kid." She bit back a small sob that had risen in her throat. "And they just used her anyway."
Brandon felt utterly useless. Hannah was hurting, he was supposed to be her rock, and he felt like someone had reached inside of him and twisted his gut, keeping him rooted to the spot.
The guilt also returned. He wasn't supposed to know these things about Andrea, and it wasn't his place to interfere. He wasn't supposed to harbor anger for people he'd never met, and he certainly shouldn't consider doing something about a situation in which he was neither involved nor probably welcome.
Hannah was looking back down at her homework, and although her long hair obscured her face, Brandon didn't miss the wet spots that smudged her neat writing.
He needed to be rational and sympathetic. He should encourage her to let everything out without letting himself get caught up in her emotion. He needed to be an example. He would say what he could without prying into Andrea's life, and he would try to remain relatively detached from the situation. If that were his goal, he wouldn't let love cloud his judgment.
He wouldn't let love cloud his judgment.
He wouldn't let love...
Hannah sniffed. "Brandon, if you saw her crying, and she pushed you away, what would you do?"
If she pushed him away?
He wouldn't hug her. That would be too forceful.
He wouldn't take hold of her shoulders, look her squarely in the face, and say that no matter what happened, she could trust him, and that she didn't have to tell him anything that she didn't want to. That he wouldn't hold anything against her.
He wouldn't whisper over and over again that everything was going to be okay.
And he certainly wouldn't pull her into him anyway, whether she was filled to the brim with sorrow or rage or shame, and kiss the top of her head and keep her wrapped in his arms until her breathing steadied and her tears had run dry.
Because then she would know, and if she knew, it would be too late. It would be more than he could bear to feel her pull away in disbelief.
His voice cracked. "Hannah, I want you to understand something about your mom."
The girl was silent, but she tucked her hair behind her ear. Her cheeks glistened, but she made no move to wipe them.
"In all the years I've known her, she's probably gotten into more arguments with me than anyone else. You know why? She's stubborn. She's smart. She stands up for herself and knows how to fight back. She puts me in my place, and it takes me a while to realize how it even happened.
"The point is," Brandon continued as his eyes rested on a photo of Andrea giving her little girl a bear hug and laughing into her mop of messy hair. "The point is that she'll do these things, and she'll go out there and actually fight for the change she wants to see become reality. She'll be faced with high-stakes decisions, and she'll make mistakes. She'll find love, and, yes, she'll get hurt."
Hannah closed her eyes, and another tear slid down her face.
"It hurts to think about it. I know it does, honey." He placed a hand on her back and rubbed in small circles. "But it's not up to us to decide what's best for her. We have to trust in her and be there to help her when she needs it. You need to be there. In the end, it's you. Maybe it doesn't seem like it all the time, but her drive to work hard every day, her passion for changing and saving lives, and her very will to live all come from her love for you."
He hoped that his voice was soothing. He hoped that she wouldn't close herself off to him. He hoped.
"She would never do anything that she knew would hurt you."
The slow movement of her lips spoke a silent I know, and she looked up at him with the eyes of a child who had been separated from her parent in the supermarket. She threw her arms around Brandon and continued crying softly, and he kept rubbing her back."
"Just love her," he whispered. "Love her with everything you've got, and don't be afraid to tell her how you feel. You can't tell her what to do, but you can talk to her, and she'll listen. She'll listen to you. Because you come before everything else, understand? Don't think for a minute that anything or anyone will change that."
In spite of the whirlwind of conflicting feelings he'd experienced in a matter of minutes, he smiled to himself. He thought of the strong, beautiful, resilient mother who had given up so much and raised this child into a compassionate young woman.
His heart swelled.
When Hannah gently disentangled herself, she offered her own smile with a new sparkle in her eyes. "Thanks, Brandon."
He grinned and ruffled her hair, to which her automatic response was to swat his hand away and let out a giggle.
"You know, my mom stopped doing that when I was ten."
"Only because you made her." He pretended to reach for her hair again, and she jerked out of the way. "It's like you're allergic to me or something!" he exclaimed, feigning annoyance.
Hannah just laughed, sniffed, and wiped her eyes with her long sleeves.
Brandon hefted himself off the stool and returned to the food that shouldn't have been left out for so long. "I'm gonna get this fired up. Why don't you set the table?"
"Sure." The teenager hopped out of her seat, and Brandon was relieved to see the usual spring in her step.
He brandished a bottle of fish sauce and immediately decided to open a window before unleashing its unique scent upon the small kitchen.
"Too bad mom's not here," Hannah remarked as she poked through a cupboard. "Thai is one of her favorites."
He recalled the reason he had suggested the dish in the first place. "Yeah, I think you've mentioned that."
"When she called earlier to let me know, she sounded really relieved when I said you were here."
"Mmhm." She raised an eyebrow as she passed him, plates in hand. "It definitely wasn't the first time, either."
"Oh, the no-house-parties-at-the-Zuckerman-residence mandate was made pretty clear to me a long time ago."
The girl scoffed. "Yeah, uh, no."
The crackling of the skillet kept Brandon from retorting right away.
Hannah threw another glance at him as she set the silverware. "You know when I said I've seen her get hurt a lot?" She hesitated. "You've… seen it, too. You just don't know it."
Brandon tore his gaze from the sizzling mix and crinkled his forehead in confusion.
"I don't know how you do it, but you've got a way of showing up at just the right time. I'm almost surprised you can't tell, but, then again, my mom wouldn't let it show."
Turning off the stove and carrying the pan to the counter, he shook his head. "I haven't done anything for her."
"Not true." She pinned him with vivid green eyes. "Not even close."
After he had filled the plates, he set the pan back on the stove and leaned against the counter. Hannah was scrutinizing him, and he began to squirm.
"She told me she wished dad had been more like you."
Another pang in his heart.
"You're really busy with work, and it takes a long time to come up here, but somehow you make it, and mom doesn't even know how to thank you because she thinks she'll get all emotional and scare you off." She gave a small chuckle.
Some part of Brandon felt lighter. A weight that he hadn't known was there had begun to dissolve with each passing word and knowing twinkle in the eye of the discerning girl before him.
"I just wanted to say that you're right. We should keep loving her. Let her know that she's loved. That she'll be all right."
Brandon stared at her, his lips slowly forming the smile that spoke more for him than words ever could.
And as they sat down to eat, both heads turned as they heard the clicking of heels and met the surprised gaze of a tired woman hovering in the doorway.
"Hi, honey." She glanced at the food and flushed, looking apologetically at Brandon. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made you go through the trouble."
"What trouble?" He got up to grab another plate from the cupboard. "It's a pleasure. You hungry?"
Before she could answer, a third plate had been set on the counter, and Brandon was steering her toward the stool next to Hannah. "It smells delicious."
"I try." Her daughter smirked.
"Yes, you do try everything." Brandon pointed his fork at her. "It's a miracle there's any food left to cook with."
Hannah snorted, and her mother only shook her head.
"So, mom, I thought you were gonna be late tonight."
Brandon noticed Andrea's vision cloud momentarily before she blinked a few times, making herself appear more alert than she really was.
"My friend had a scheduling conflict." The woman rubbed her hand on Hannah's back as Brandon had done before. "But that's okay. I'd rather see you, anyway."
Hannah looked as if she were about to argue, but instead her lips fell into an easy smile, and she leaned over to hug her mom. "Me, too."
Once Hannah had excused herself and the dishes were left to soak in the sink, Andrea glanced at the clock and silently cursed. She hadn't meant to take advantage of Brandon's kindness by not coming home sooner and cooking dinner.
He'd probably wanted to take an early enough train to be back in DC by midnight, and it was already getting on for eight.
It was her fault that she didn't have the guts to go straight home without being an emotional wreck. The last thing she wanted Hannah to see was her blubbering over some asshole who didn't even acknowledge that she had a brain, though he'd kept up the act long enough. It was pathetic, really.
Her mind wandered back to the man in her kitchen, and she berated herself for getting lost in her thoughts again.
"Brandon, if you have work tomorrow-"
He held up his hands to interrupt her. "No work, don't worry. I'm not in a hurry."
At this she was finally able to crack a smile. Thank goodness for small mercies.
"Why don't you stay here tonight? I can drive you to the station on the way to the hospital."
Her mouth twitched at her old nickname, and she caught the amusement in his eyes as he treated her to one of his boyish grins that had sent many hearts aflutter since his very first days at West Beverly. She, of course, had been no exception.
"You know, since I have the day off and all, I could take a later train and just… you know, do stuff around the house, anything that you haven't had time for since you've got a lot on your plate." He stepped closer to her and tentatively squeezed her shoulder, clear blue eyes staring straight into hers. "I don't like seeing you stressed out."
"I…" Andrea stuttered and looked down. "I'm going to get a better handle on my schedule. I'll have more time to get things done around here myself."
She wasn't going to tell him that she'd been wasting time with a man. She wasn't about to gain sympathy from Brandon under the pretense that she was being overworked. He wouldn't find out that the bags under her eyes were becoming a permanent fixture because of sleepless nights and poisonous words.
So why did she feel like he already knew?
She felt her traitorous eyes beginning to water, and her breathing grew shallow.
Why was it so hard to hide it from him?
She made up her mind to turn away and make a point about getting cleaned up. Tomorrow would be a long day, and she would insist that he take the early train so that he could go relax at home. She'd assure him that Hannah would be busy with a school project and that she wouldn't be much help with housework, anyway. She would fetch blankets and make up a bed on the couch and make sure Hannah wasn't playing her music too loud. She would take a bath and a painkiller, and she would sink into a night of sorely needed sleep.
Or she would have if Brandon hadn't gathered her into his arms and pressed his lips to her temple, just holding her tightly until her limbs had learned how to move again. Her mind was blank, and she didn't know why she was suddenly gripping him like a lifeline, pressing her body into his until she felt no pocket of air between them.
"You don't need to tell me anything." His breath was warm and rippled her hair. It was the caress of a feather, and she closed her eyes against his chest. "Just let me hold you. Let me stay here with you. Let me do anything for you. And don't you ever, ever tell yourself you don't deserve it."
She'd expected tears, but those had run their course. She'd cried over failure in love. She'd cried over disappointing her daughter. She'd cried over dreams that were out of reach. She'd cried over crying too much. She was done crying.
Instead, she beamed and tilted her head to face the person who had been standing patiently the whole time, who had always reminded her that she was more important than she felt. Had let her know time and again that she wasn't expected to carry the world on her shoulders.
She looked at her best friend, and she placed a soft kiss on his lips.
She was not nervous, because she knew. Some part of her had always known, and she was sure that he did, too.
She knew that he admired her confidence and the woman that she had become, because she admired it herself. She had a beautiful daughter and a radiant smile that helped her young patients feel at ease. She had a work ethic that was spurred on by the thought of improving the lives of children like Hannah, and she was proud to be a mother. So proud that she wouldn't change that for anything in the world.
When Brandon returned the kiss with a tenderness that she just knew was reserved for her, she was not surprised. Not like she would have been in high school.
They had been in love for many years. It wasn't always romantic like this. They were friends, and they had loved each other as friends would. They had loved other people and lived other stories. They were two individuals forging their own paths. But they had lived within love, and they had guided each other.
She could look back at how much her life had changed, but she wouldn't feel any regret. There was no such thing as lost time if everything leading to this moment enabled it to happen. It wasn't a pinnacle or a turning point, either. It was simply as it should be, which she believed with such a fierceness that it would turn any self-deprecating thoughts upside-down.
Brandon rested his forehead against hers, gently cupping her cheek and running his thumb over smooth skin, and she could sense his smile even through closed eyes.
"How you doin', Chief?" A playful whisper floated into her ear.
"Not bad, Ace." She leaned into his hand and reveled in it all. "Not bad at all."