A/N: This is really late because I was sick this week and on top of it I had two midterms, but…Welcome back, Mr. President! And special shout outs to Maryland, Maine, and Washington for approving marriage equality!
Rules Of Estrangement
"I've heard horror stories about summer school and now I understand why. I think the teacher actually hates being here more than the students, if that's possible. I can't believe we have to suffer through another two months of this."
Heather slipped her arm around Grace's shoulders. "Learn to sleep with your eyes open."
"People actually do that?"
"If you're asking if they have the power to control it, I don't know, but I have done it before when I've micronapped."
"Basically pulled an all nighter – or a few – and then been so tired from sleep deprivation that I've fallen asleep for short bursts of time without even noticing it, but I somehow still manage to look awake and keep taking notes."
"Not good notes, mind you. It's all gibberish. I once ended up writing 'she knows' on my math notes and had no idea what that was in reference to because I don't remember doing it." Heather shrugged. "If you don't believe me, look it up. Micronapping is actually a thing, although the freaky notes are unique to me so far as I know."
They arrived at Grace's Prius and she unlocked it with her keypad. "Hey, how much homework do you have?"
"Do you want to come over and study with me?"
Heather climbed into the passenger seat and pulled the belt around herself. "I have to call get the stamp of approval from Margaret or Shakur first. They're a little hard ass about that. Ah, the woes of a problem child."
"Do you have a cell phone?"
"Nope. I haven't graduated with Ricky's stage of 'good behavior' yet."
Grace yanked her phone out of her purse and tossed it to Heather. "Use mine."
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Ricky padded about Heather's bedroom, picking up a bowl with a fork in it that had bits of dried macaroni and cheese and a layer of solidified golden grease along the walls of the bowl. He balanced it on a plate that dried barbeque sauce scars along its surface and then picked up a glass that had a little bit of milk at the bottom and was starting to give off a foul odor. Holding his breath, he carried the bounty down to the kitchen where he dropped them into the sink, turned on the water, and poured a quarter sized blob of lemon dish soap under the stream. The house phone rang and Ricky quickly washed his hands, dried them, and caught the receiver on the third ring. The caller I.D. flashed familiarly. "Grace?"
"Yo, Underwood. Is your mom home?"
Ricky glared at the charger for the cordless. "No, why?"
"I thought she was off today. Did she go into work?"
"She's out getting groceries for dinner."
"What do you want?"
"Grace invited me over to study. You think that'd be cool with them?"
Ricky huffed. "I can't speak for them, have you tried Margaret's cell?"
"Well I'd suggest that first and then if you can't get a hold of her, try Shakur's."
"And–" He heard the click of the disconnection and snorted like a bull. "–clean up your own dishes next time!" The cordless phone landed back in its charger with a plastic screech. Dishes were one of his regular chores and after four separate times of having to hunt down dishes turned petri in Heather's room, he was ready to request a revamp of household duties.
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"I could ask Mr. Molina if I could start tutoring at the middle school again, but that's pennies in the big picture."
Ben sat on the couch in the condo, staring at the screen on his girlfriend's laptop. "There have to be some job openings around here, right? Isn't there a website you could go to or something? Craig's List?"
"I wouldn't be able to start a job until after I get back from New York at the earliest."
"So you start looking as soon as you get back. That's still a couple weeks before school starts."
Adrian sat down beside him on the couch with a strawberry banana SoBe in hand. "And what if I don't find anything, like last time?"
"We'll deal with it then?"
"We don't have to make a decision yet, so we'll deal with it when the time comes."
Adrian shook her SoBe and then watched as the pink liquid settled again, the bottle half full. "You're too optimistic."
"You're too pessimistic."
"How did we end up together again?"
"Because I injected a little optimism into your pessimism?"
Adrian stifled a snort. "Only because you couldn't contain your optimism."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"It is when it costs us money."
"Oh," Ben whined, "and we were doing so well before you had to bring up money again."
"It all comes back to money in the end."
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"Are you sure you don't want anything?"
Heather held up a can of Sprite. "No, this is great." She took a slurp and set it down on the table they were studying at. "I always wondered what it would be like to be rich enough to have a guest house."
"We're not rich, far from it."
"You're looking good from where I'm sitting." Heather turned around in her chair, surveying the whole of the Bowmans' guest house: a kitchenette off to her left, two brown leather chairs behind a television and coffee table to her front, to the right of those were bunk beds in the corner of the room, a space of shelved wall for linens, and a tiny bathroom just around the corner from the kitchen. "Maybe I should've taken your mom up on her offer back when she asked, huh? It's like a studio apartment, but way nicer than the hell hole I was renting."
"Yeah, but it's haunted. At least according to Tom."
"Well that might not be such a bad thing, depending on who's doing the haunting. It's not Elvis, is it? Because between you and me, he was kind of my first crush growing up. I saw his picture on one of my granddad's old albums and I was head over heels."
Grace chuckled. "I've spent more nights out here than Tom and, sadly, I've never had any supernatural experiences, so I can't say."
"Dare you to spend Halloween out here with me!"
"Actually, that might be feasible," Grace said, setting her pencil down on her homework. "I've actually been thinking about asking my mom if I could move out of my room and in here."
"Seriously? You think your mom would actually go along with that?"
"I don't see why not. I don't sleep as comfortably in my room anymore anyway."
Heather looked at her Sprite can. "Is that where it –"
Heather nodded. "Well," she looked around the guest house again, "it's got everything but a washer and dryer."
"There's actually one in the bathroom, behind the door. It's one of the ones where the washer and dryer are stacked on top of each other."
"Oh." Heather nodded. "Well, hell, what are you waiting for? Double your room space, woman!"
"I wouldn't really be doubling it," Grace sighed. "The biggest reason I was thinking it might be a good idea is because of the baby. I mean, where am I going to put a crib and changing table and all that stuff in my room?" She noticed the sudden dewy look in the redhead's eyes. "I'm sorry, that was insensitive of me –"
"It's cool," Heather argued. "Sometimes things just surprise you, even though they really shouldn't." She stared at the bunk beds. "Maybe if my parents had had a guest house…and, you know, if I had had different parents…" She wrapped her hands around her Sprite and was momentarily silent. "So you're really keeping it then?"
"Yeah…I think so." Grace bowed her head. "Most of the time I think about how this baby is half of me: part of my mom and part of my dad, who I'll never see again. Not on Earth, anyway. But then sometimes, when I'm lying in bed at night and I can't sleep, I start to think about: what if he or she is like Grant? What if she or he looks like him? Acts like him? Sounds like him? What do I do then? Will I suddenly find myself resenting or hating my own child because of what that monster did to me? And then I think: maybe adoption would be better? But I don't know if I'm strong enough to do what you did."
"Considering I hopped on the alcohol bandwagon, I'm not sure I can say I was really that strong after all."
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"It's getting hot in here," Ashley said as she hopped off the last step leading into Ricky's basement bedroom.
Ricky was lying on his bed with his ear buds in his ears, connected to the iPod that was lying beside him. He hit the pause button with his thumb. "The A/C's on."
"That's not what I meant." Ashley sauntered over to her friend's bed and sat down. "You're pouting. Simmering. What's the deal? And where's Heather? She should've been the one exclaiming, 'Is that my cue to take off all my clothes?' when I walked in."
Ricky sat up and pulled out the ear buds, but he didn't respond to her.
"Oh," Ashley realized, "Heather's the reason for the simmering. What did you do?"
"What did I do? Why are you assuming I did something?"
"Because you have a tendency to be an ass."
"As if you don't."
"But we're not talking about me right now."
"I didn't do anything," he said scathingly. "She did. She keeps leaving her filthy dishes all over the place as if we have maid service or something. In what world is that acceptable behavior?"
"You really haven't had siblings in a while, have you?"
"What does having siblings have to do with anything? Pick up after yourself: it's common decency."
"She probably got into her habits when she was living on her own. You have to let her know she's pissing you off instead of just letting it bubble beneath the surface. That's what Amy and my mother do. I hate it!"
"So you always tell it like it is?"
"If it's the truth, why wouldn't I?"
"No wonder your house is always a war zone."
"I can tell her for you if you want."
"No!" Ricky raised his hands. "Don't worry about it, I'll deal with it. You just let me handle it!"
"Suit yourself." Ashley picked up her friend's iPod and tossed it between her palms like a ball.
Ashley and Ricky turned their heads towards the stairs at the same time. "Down here!" He waited until he heard his foster mother's footsteps and then swung his legs over the edge of the bed, sitting upright by the time Margaret had made it halfway down the stairs.
"I just got an emergency call and I need to run down to the free clinic to pick up some paperwork. I have a chicken in the oven and potatoes on the stove. Can you keep an eye on them for me?"
"Sure. You want me to mash them if they're ready before you get back?"
Margaret glanced at Ashley. "It's up to you, I know you have company right now."
Ashley smiled. "We don't mind."
Margaret nodded. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Thank you!"
"Got any chives?" Ashley asked when Margaret had retreated back up the stairs.
"Because you haven't eaten mashed potatoes until you've tried my grandfather's had a mashed potatoes and chives recipe." Her smile faded. "He's gone now, but it's still my favorite way to eat potatoes."
"My mom just went shopping a few hours ago," he said. "Let's go find out what she got."
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"Sounds like you've been spending a lot of time with Heather lately," Adrian said into her cell phone. It was currently cupped between her cheek and her shoulder as she stood in the kitchen of the condo, kneading a slab of dough.
"Well we're both in summer school," Grace's voice replied a little defensively.
"I'm not saying it's a bad thing! Just an observation, that's all. But I have to admit: I do miss you."
"That's good to know, because with all the time you've been spending over at the condo lately I wouldn't have suspected."
Adrian frowned as she hunted around for a knife. "Don't be that way, Grace. I haven't forgotten you, I've just had a lot going on with Ben. You know how that is."
"No, actually, I don't know." A swelling sigh ciphered through the speaker. "I don't have a baby and a boyfriend and a whole new life."
Adrian let her head fall back. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I didn't realize I was neglecting my best friend. Look, when do you have a free day? I'll clear my schedule and we'll get together then, okay? I want to spend a whole uninterrupted day with you before I go to New York. What're you doing this weekend?"
"I've got plans with Heather this weekend. What about next weekend?"
"Isn't that the Fourth of July?"
Adrian bit down on her glossy lip. "Okay, we'll plan for Saturday. Is that good with you?"
There was just breathing at first, then a low: "Yes."
"Perfecto. I'll see you then, Blondie."
"Yeah, see you."
There was a click in Adrian's ear. She laid a series of four strips of dough into the bottom of a glass pan and then moved to the sink to wash off her hands and set her phone down. The tone of her friend's voice had made her uncomfortable. She wanted to believe it was just mood swings, but the truth of the matter was that, as the thought about it, Grace was probably right about Adrian neglecting her since school had gotten out for the summer. Being so absorbed in the condo, there really hadn't been much time to see or even talk to her best friend. She poured a layer of canned tomato sauce, cooked up hamburger meat, and a thick sheet of shredded mozzarella cheese down over her dough strips, feeling guiltier with each layer. The idea of inviting the blonde over for dinner crossed her mind, but was quickly shoved to the back burner as soon as Mercy started to howl from the other room.
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Heather and Grace looked towards the door at the same time. "Do stalkers knock?" the redhead asked. But as soon as the words stepped off the cliff of her lip, she scrunched up her face like a pug. "I didn't mean –"
Grace raised her hand. "It's okay." She moved to the door and paused as Heather's words replayed against the memory of waking up to the sound of the doorbell on the night of the attack. She quietly angled herself to view out the peek hole and then opened the door. "Adrian?"
"Adrian?" Heather echoed. She moved quickly to join the blonde at the door.
"Your mom said you were out here. Can I come in?"
"Uh," Grace stepped aside and waved the Latina in. "You're already here, so why not? But why are you here? I thought I told you –"
"You did and I thought about leaving it at that, but I realized I couldn't." Adrian set her purse down and nodded towards Heather. "I'm sorry for intruding, but then again…I'm not. Grace, you basically told me you feel like I've been ignoring you in favor of Ben and everything going on with us. As I thought about it, I realized you're right. I'd spent hours working on this homemade lasagna to eat with Ben tonight and I had everything laid out on the table when he got home from work, but instead of sitting down to eat with him, I had him babysit because this was more important. Our friendship already suffered once when a – a –" she struggled for the right word "–male came between us and I'm not going to let that happen again. I'm sorry."
Heather looked to the silent blonde. "Well I'm convinced. If you don't forgive her, I just might." She mimed the motion of tipping her hat. "Clearly you gals have some things to hammer out, so I'm just going to go –"
"Heather, you don't have to do that," Adrian interrupted.
"Nah, I really do." She patted Adrian's shoulder and then added to Grace, "I'm going to go track down your mom to find out about using your house phone to see if I can get a ride home." She grabbed her backpack from the table. "It's been fun though. I'll see you in class tomorrow."
Grace nodded a bit warily and waved without verbalizing a goodbye. She moved to the door and watched until Heather had walked back into the main house, then shut and locked the guest house door before turning back to her best friend. "Maybe I overreacted? I'm sorry too."
"You didn't. A lot of things are happening all at once right now and I haven't done a quality job of prioritizing."
"Tell me about it." Grace motioned to the leather chairs. "You want to sit down?"
Adrian smiled, dropped her purse onto the floor beside one of the chairs, and collapsed into the seat. "Hey, these are pretty nice."
"They were my grandfather's. My dad's dad," Grace smiled wistfully. "He made furniture for a living. We have a lot of his pieces around the house."
Adrian rubbed her hand along the smooth molasses colored armrest. "Is he retired? I wouldn't mind having something like this."
"He died when I was a baby." Grace smiled sadly. "I don't have any conscious memories of him, just some pictures above the mantle and in my baby book."
"I'm sorry," Adrian said immediately.
Grace shook her head. "It's okay. I never knew him – or my uncle – so, as ruthless as it might sound, I don't miss them."
Adrian quirked an eyebrow. "I didn't know you had an uncle. Was it," she paused to collect her thoughts, "was it some kind of accident? Car accident?"
"Yes and no. My uncle committed suicide. Don't ask me why, my dad never talked about it. I didn't even know I had an uncle until I saw him in an old family photo album and asked my mom who he was. It was years before my grandparents passed away though. From what I'm told, it was a carbon monoxide leak. They both passed away in their sleep."
"Well this conversation has become uncomfortable surprisingly quickly, hasn't it?" Adrian laughed awkwardly and pushed herself off the chair. "I know you said you had plans this weekend, but what about tonight? Did you finish your homework? I know my mom's working tonight and I haven't been kicked out yet, so what do you say? You and me: girls' night in? We can rent the first two Twilight movies."
"You hate Twilight."
"Just Edward. And Bella. And…all right, I do hate it, but have you seen Taylor Lautner's shirtless torso in the rain? ¡Muy caliente!"
"Can't argue with that," Grace agreed.
"The only caveat is that I have to be back to babysit Mercy before ten tomorrow morning so Ben can leave for work, but…what do you say, Blondie?"
Grace was quiet for a while, then she slowly began to nod. "The only thing is: why don't we just stay here? I don't think my mom will mind. I kind of wanted to run my ideas about the guest house by you anyway."
Grace got up and moved to the kitchen, retrieving a couple of cans of Ginger Ale from the fridge. She rinsed off the tops, popped them, and handed one to Adrian. "Thanks for coming over."
Adrian clinked her can against Grace's and took a fizzy sip. "Thanks for keeping my priorities in check."
"Speaking of priorities, I think we should go inside and make sure Heather's got a ride home."
"Better yet, why don't we just drop her off? We can rent movies on the way back."
Grace bumped her tin against Adrian's again.
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"Did you have something you wanted to say to me, Underwood?"
Ricky looked over the edge of his laptop and glared. "Yeah: knock before entering."
"Oooh," Heather mocked. "Tough Boy!"
Ricky closed his laptop and pushed it aside. "You're not just a house guest anymore, you live here, so I expect you to have the same decency as the rest of the people who live here."
Heather rolled her eyes and dropped a handwritten note onto the foot of Ricky's bed. "Don't get your briefs in a bunch. I'll knock if you're going to get that pissy about it."
Ricky picked up the note.
Heather snorted. "And I'll try harder with the dishes."
"Don't try. Take a tip from Nike and just do it."
"I'm afraid I don't have a snappy slogan for you, but while we're being honest: why don't you stop leaving the seat up when you take a leak? Having to touch that to put it down is disgusting!"
"I've been leaving the seat up for years."
"Yeah, and as you so sweetly pointed out: now you're not the only one who has to use that bathroom." She snorted. "Get off your high horse, Rick." Heather passed Margaret as she went back up the stairs.
Ricky turned his glare from his friend to his foster mother. "Here to say 'I told you so'?"
Margaret waited to speak until she heard Heather's footsteps on the upper level of the house. "Having roommate troubles?"
Ricky fell back into his pillow. "Dance around the bush why don't you."
"Contrary to popular belief, I'm not here to gloat."
"Then what are you here for?"
"To find out if you've resolved your issues with Heather…although I suppose I have my answer now."
"You and Dad were assuming there were issues even before there were any."
"You're right." Margaret pushed Ricky's feat out of the way and seated herself beside him. She picked up the note. "Because your father and I were fostering children long before you and we became familiar with the routine, that's why we asked Dr. Fields to speak with you. Kids aren't always very open to discussing their issues with each other," she waggled the note, "let alone their parents."
"It's just a few stupid things," Ricky sighed, easing his walls down. "Give us time and we'll get over it. Just – just let me blow off my steam right now."
"It's not that simple. When you live with someone, that steam will build up until you pop." She flexed her fingers to emphasize the word. "You have to be open about the things that are bothering you."
"And what does that accomplish? Yelling and door slamming?"
"So that's preferable to the cold shoulder?"
"Not necessarily. But if you don't talk about your issues that can be even more detrimental to a relationship than if you do." Margaret patted Ricky on the leg. "Let me know if things get worse. But hopefully you'll be able to settle things without upsetting the apple cart too much." She started to head back up the stairs and then paused. "And Ricky?"
"Don't forget to put the seat down."
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"Amy, hey, it's Ben. You busy?"
"Uh, actually, yeah. I have Jimmy on the other line. Did you need something?"
Ben sat down on the empty bed in what he hoped would be his and Adrian's future bedroom. He was balancing a plate of hot lasagna on his lap and trying to cut off a corner bite with his fork while he held his cell phone to his ear with his other hand. "No, not really. I was just…bored. Sorry to interrupt. I'll catch you later."
"Sorry," Amy's voice squeaked.
"Bye." Ben dropped the phone onto the mattress and watched Disconnected flash on the screen. He shoved a wad of Adrian's lasagna into his mouth and savored the cacophony of basil, parmesan, tomato, garlic, and mozzarella among others. He set his plate on his pillow and rolled over to grab a paper lying on the other side of the bed: Adrian's list of expenses. The first side of the page was typed out and bullet pointed, but when he turned it over only half the page was typed, while several additional bullet points had been added in pencil and Adrian's handwriting beneath them. Ben sprawled out on his back and held the paper up above his face, staring hard at the words until they all began to blur together and he felt the lull of sleep drawing him in.