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Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
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Chapter Nine

“Holy shit,” Freddie said as the words became clear in front of them. She crunched down on a fresh roll and peered closer over Daron’s shoulder. Daron also finished his fried roll, swallowing as he read.

Christian childfree

At-home abortion

Christian not ready for kids

Help - excommunication for childfree?

Christian couple’s therapy

Christian wives anonymous


And more.

“Well that’s a hard right turn,” Daron muttered as he scrolled.

“What’s that?” Freddie pointed at the screen. Her index finger had chipped sparkly blue polish on it, with her nail and skin around it chewed down with anxious energy. Daron looked where she was pointing.

“Naamiyah,” he read out loud. “I dunno.”

“Can you send me this?” Freddie asked as she leaned over his shoulder to get a closer look.

“Yeah, one sec.” Daron got the search results into an email and shot them over to Freddie, who skipped back to her recliner and balanced the laptop on her knees while she ate from the plate on her stomach. Daron watched until he was sure she wasn’t close to spilling food on the keys, then turned back to keep scrolling through the results.

It was a lot of the same, the searches becoming more bold and open as time went on. It painted a picture of a very, very unhappy girl. Daron felt the excitement of a breakthrough, but also felt badly for Erika. She clearly felt trapped in a way he could barely imagine.

“Dude, come look at this,” Freddie said, setting her barely touched food to the side and sitting up properly. Daron looked down and saw his plate was more than half empty. Whoops. He slid himself over in his desk chair so that he didn’t have to stand, and peered over Freddie’s shoulder.

She had a Demonology webpage open, with a tea-stained tint and a cartoonish Gargoyle looking drawing series along the sides. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Daron leaned closer and saw what Freddie was reading in particular: the story of Naamiyah, which alleged certain biblical interpretations described as a demon that tempted both Cain and Abel into impregnating her simultaneously. She gave birth to an army of half-breed demons, with the motivation to eventually outnumber humanity.

“The fuck,” Daron breathed, not even realizing he had said it out loud until Freddie responded.

“I know, right?”

“So…” Daron grasped quickly for an explanation. “She’s been planning the ‘possessed’ game for a minute, huh?”

“No,” Freddie replied. “I checked - she only searched Naamiyah the once, and it was just over two weeks ago. Nothing else going back before this all started that even hints at demonology. Unless there could be another - I dunno, double secret search history?”

“No,” Daron echoed. “This would be all there is. Can’t erase anything entirely. But…” He trailed off. Daron didn’t like leaving things feeling unfinished.

“Why would she lie to us about the demon’s name that she knows and has looked into?”

“Maybe she’s playing the long con,” Daron said, a little reluctantly. “Was going to reveal it later.”

“Maybe,” Freddie said, her tone echoing his own. “I’ll keep looking.” Taking that as his dismissal, Daron scooted back over to his computer. Freddie frowned at the laptop’s screen as she took another small bite of fried rice, and Daron clicked through the next round of searches as he scooped up some panang.

They worked in relative silence. Daron filled up his plate with Thai food twice more, while Freddie finished up her one plate.

“There’s still enough left to feed a small army,” Daron said wryly at one point.

“Yeah, but you know part of what’s great about Thai food is how well it keeps. I love me some leftovers,” Freddie said.

“Fair. Want a beer?”

“Yes, please.” There was an obvious tinge of relief in Freddie’s voice.

Using the time to rub his eyes and take a break from the screen, Daron headed upstairs. In the kitchen, he stretched out away from Freddie’s gaze (even his decently loose shirt rode up and showed a few inches of tan, round belly when he reached up) before opening the fridge. Grabbing a couple lagers from the northern California coast, he twisted from one side to the other, feeling a relief as his back cracked before heading back downstairs.

“Here you go. I tend to keep ‘em in the bottle but there are pint glasses if you want,” Daron said as he handed Freddie the drink.

“Bottle’s good. Fits the frantic research aesthetic,” Freddie replied with a flash of a grin up at Daron as she accepted the bottle. Her eyes behind the smile were still troubled, though. Daron didn’t push it.

He was most of the way through his lager (and his third plate of food) when Freddie called over,

“Jackpot!”

“What?” He asked, bringing his beer with him as he scooted back to his spot behind her in the recliner.

“There was a link to this Christian Wife Confessional tumblr in the search history - I thought it might just be more research but look. She’s the author. I found the drafts under the ‘Maskil of David’ folder.” Freddie turned to look at Daron to make sure he could see.

“Goddamn,” Daron said as he scanned the text in front of him. The blog wasn’t just confessional. It was angry. And terrified. The words could have been strung together by a cougar in a trap.

“Should we…call Xander?” Freddie asked hesitantly after a few minutes of silence while they read through the vitriol. Daron looked at the dates, noting that there were only two blog updates since the possession had taken place.

“I’ll let him know we found something,” Daron pulled out his phone to send the text. “But we should get all the info we can and convene tomorrow, I think.” The quick text response from Xander confirmed: they were having some luck as well, and would go over all of it the next morning. “Can you send that link to me?”

“On it,” confirmed Freddie, copying and pasting into an e-mail. “This poor girl,” she added quietly as Daron headed back to his desk. He looked at a clearly concerned Freddie and searched for the right thing to say. Nothing came to mind, though.

“Yeah.”
 

Ghostboo

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Location
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Chapter Ten

“‘I know my DH wants them more than anything but I can’t do it and I can’t tell him,’” Xander read aloud in their meeting area the next day. He looked up over his dark square reading glasses. “‘DH’?”

“Dear husband,” explained Freddie from next to Daron.

“Ah, of course.” Xander returned to the screen in front of him, as Julie alternated looking at him and looking at the pages in front of her. “‘I can’t tell anyone. I’m going to lose myself more after every kid. But there is no where else to go.’”

“Not so picture perfect,” Daron said. Julie nodded.

“‘I am alone,’” Xander continued solemnly. He studied the screen momentarily, and Daron knew he had reached the end of one of Erika’s many lengthy dissertations on her fear of having children. “From...May. Were there any more recent?”

“Just two,” Daron replied, after confirming with a quick look at Freddie, who nodded. Xander scrolled, then stopped at the latest blog post.

“‘Matthew 10:36’,” he read aloud.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household,” Freddie recited. Xander and Julie looked at each other. Freddie, meanwhile, avoided Daron’s eyes as she added, “there’s something else.”

Daron resisted groaning. He and Freddie had had a slight disagreement about the relevance of the other website they found. He knew Xander would latch onto it, but he also knew it was just a red herring.

Xander looked up from mouthing along to the Latin in Erika’s latest blog post, at Freddie. She had hopped up nervously and came around to the other side of Xander, tapping at the screen in front of him. Xander’s smooth dark forehead creased with concern as he looked in at the website that popped up.

“Naamiyah?” He read out loud, catching Daron’s eye first and likely noticing the slight eye roll.

“It’s nothing. Just some research for her little possession game,” Daron asserted. He could feel Freddie’s green eyes on him, but he avoided them, not wanting to be guilted over his opinion.

“Then why did she keep it from us?” Julie asked, backing up the point Freddie had tried to make the night before.

“Come on, Julie. Those blog posts back up what you were saying about a late onset mental break, doesn’t it?”

“Mostly,” Freddie muttered, crossing her arms. The last two entries were weird, Daron had to admit, but that didn’t mean this was anything supernatural.

“I should go talk to the church,” Xander said, breaking away from the group at the front of the room and heading towards his coat by the door. “And the family. Julie, can you join me?”

“Of course,” Julie said smoothly.

“Feel free to take a break, you two, but keep your phones on you,” Xander said as he put his coat on.

“I’m good,” Freddie replied. “I’ll probably finish up the paperwork on the last case and try to follow up on the lab results from Erika’s.”

“I can help with that,” Daron added, an olive branch that Freddie didn’t respond to.

“Sounds good,” Xander said. Julie gave Freddie’s arm a friendly squeeze before joining Xander in getting her coat on and exiting the room.

A quiet filled the space. Daron cleared his throat and tugged his shirt away from his middle. He and Freddie had worked late into the night, so unfortunately, his laundry still hadn’t gotten done. His pants bit into the underside of his belly more than was ideal, and his now-snug band t-shirt from a Pepper concert in 2014 wasn’t doing his figure any favors. He had tossed an oversized flannel on to try and cover up his too-tight outfit at least a bit, but it was at least a couple days past needing to be washed itself. Lose-lose.

“I can handle this if you want to go,” Freddie said in a slightly clipped tone as she turned towards one of the desks in the room where she and the others would write up their reports for the file cabinets against the wall. “Get lunch or something. I thought we were gonna have leftovers from yesterday, but.”

Daron couldn’t help it: he let out an incredulous laugh. He knew she was referring to the massive amount of food she had ordered last night, and how Daron had managed to finish all of it by the time they wrapped up their investigation late into the night. He felt immediately defensive - it was over the course of 5 hours, after all! - but he buried that.

“Winnifred,” he replied, leading into the shock in his voice. “Did you just make a fat joke? Is that how angry you are with me?”

“What? No!” But Freddie’s pale skin had flamed bright red at being called out, betraying her. She looked determinedly down at the desk, straightening the papers sitting on it. “And don’t call me that!”

“Wow, I can’t believe this was all it took for the façade of friendly professionalism to come tumbling down,” Daron said wryly, shaking his head and unconsciously tugging his shirt away from his belly button again.

“It’s not a façade! Oh, my God. You’re such a dick. It’s not up to you what info is relevant to a case, Daron. You don’t get to pout just because you think Xander will take it the wrong way,” Freddie retorted. “Like you just did over an innocent comment.”

“Yeah, mmm-hmm, right,” Daron said, smirking across the room at the girl who still wouldn’t meet his eye. He took a pause to consider the rest of her statement, then added, “You’re right, and I’m sorry, Fred. I didn’t mean to, uh…pout.”

“Men never do, and yet,” Freddie muttered, but finally met his eye and smiled a little. Relieved to have bridged the gap somewhat, Daron leaned back on the couch and pulled two things out of his pant’s pockets - his phone, and a packet of skittles.

“Anyway, I’m gonna stay and help despite that generous, passive-aggressive offer. I’ll check in with the lab, and I’ll do my best not to waste away,” he told Freddie dryly, shaking the skittles at her. The blue-haired girl looked like she wanted to say something in response, but she visibly bit her tongue as she sighed and began writing on the paper in front of her. After a mouthful of skittles, Daron put his phone to his ear to work on the lab follow-up.
 

loopytheone

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Always good to hear more of this! Hahaha, both of them being kind brats here, but I think we all are sometimes! I think the comments from 'Erika' earlier did touch more of a nerve with Daron than he'd like to admit, hah.
 
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Ghostboo

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Location
Alaska
Chapter Eleven

A few hours later, Xander and Julie returned. Daron and Freddie had all but wrapped up on their work, and were shooting the shit while looking over some photos on the walls.

“God, Xander just doesn’t age, does he?” Freddie marveled as she looked over the stills from Psychic Adventures.

“Nope. The man is blessed,” Daron said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice as he recalled the “oof” he exhaled upon standing his plump and unwieldy body up from the couch earlier - something he no longer seemed able to avoid.

“Oh, man. I always forget what a glow up Julie had,” Freddie marveled, moving on to photos from earlier years of the freelance business. Xander and Julie and a young man Daron didn’t know posed awkwardly in front of the office/cabin they were inside now. Julie’s hair was longer, verging on unkempt, and even through the photo her energy was much more stifled, far less of the calm confidence she possessed now.

“Yeah, homegirl really came into herself after she left Brad,” Daron agreed. “Not that she wasn’t great before. But…”

“He was draining her. You can tell,” Freddie said, so self-importantly that Daron snorted with laughter. Freddie hadn’t even been there, and yet...it was true. So credit where credit was due.

“You’re not wrong, Thornberry.”

Before Freddie could respond, there was noise at the door, and Xander and Julie entered.

“Hey! How’d it go?” Freddie asked, turning to greet them.

“It was fine,” Xander said, giving his employees a tight smile. Julie greeted them with a nod. Neither made a move to take their coats off.

“Did they agree to get her some help?” Daron asked, stepping up next to Freddie. Xander and Julie exchanged a glance.

“Yes,” Xander said, but they caught his pause.

“But…?” Daron filled in.

“But they wanted to cover all their bases,” Julie chimed in. “So they will be getting an exorcism for Erika as well.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Daron groaned, less angry than exasperated. Directing his less-rhetorical follow ups to Xander, Daron went on. “You have to recommend that to the church for them to agree, don’t you?”

“I do,” Xander confirmed. “I was not convinced this was entirely based in mental illness. Chances are, it is. But they would not agree to a psychiatrist without also involving the church.”

Daron threw his hands up at this before sticking them in his noticeably tight pockets and turning away.

“Well, I mean, that works,” Freddie added. But even she didn’t sound completely sure.

“Yes, it is a win,” Julie said firmly.

“Get your coats, please,” Xander said. “It’s been a long couple of days, and I’m taking everyone out for a drink.”

“Yeah?” Freddie said, her voice picking up with a hint of excitement. It had been awhile since they’d had an after-work outing with everyone. Freddie was used to having to beg even one of them to join her on the days when she didn’t have other plans.

“We’ve definitely earned it. How about The Door? Or Sisemite?”

“Sisemite,” Daron voted, facing his coworkers again. Freddie cocked her head in an unspoken question, and Daron rolled his eyes and elaborated. “The Door doesn’t serve food, and I’m starving.” He wished he had been able to keep the very slight note of defensiveness out of his voice.

“You got it. You two want to meet us there?” Xander asked. Freddie looked from their leader back to Daron again, her brow furrowed slightly but her eyes hopeful.

“Yeah, I’ll drive,” Daron sighed. He crossed the room and grabbed his coat. It was late fall, which meant varying temperatures in their neck of the woods, hence the layering. Over his band tee and flannel Daron threw on a snap-up wool blend jacket in dark grey with brown elbow patches. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant the snaps, which was good, because they definitely strained noticeably around his belly button now.

Freddie followed his lead and grabbed her black button-up jacket, a lighter version of the peacoat she’d worn to Erika’s the other day. Xander offered them a smile, then held the door open for Julie.

“We’ll see you there,” Xander said as he followed her out.

“See you soon,” sang Freddie in response, offering Daron a grin. Despite his irritation with the way the possession had unfolded, and with his body, and with the day overall, Daron smirked back at Freddie’s infectious enthusiasm before leading the way out of the work cabin.
 
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Ghostboo

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Oct 23, 2019
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Location
Alaska
Chapter Twelve

Sisemite wasn’t far from their workplace, but Freddie still grabbed the aux cord before Daron had time to object. Still, he was surprised that she put on one of the few artists they could occasionally...tentatively...agree on, Coheed and Cambria. He didn’t say anything as he adjusted his seat back a little. He hadn’t driven Freddie that morning, so he had left his belly precariously close to the steering wheel for a guest to see, he had realized as he squeezed into the car. Sucking in a little, hopefully conspicuously, Daron fastened the seat belt around himself as they pulled out of Xander’s parking lot.

“I know it kinda sucks, but like, at least they’re getting her some help,” Freddie was prattling. “Just in case. You know. It’s like baptizing a baby. Might as well.”

“What? Are you baptized?”

“Well, no. But I guess if I had a kid and my partner wanted to, I would. ‘Cause why not?”

“I’m not sure where to start with why not, Thornberry,” Daron replied. “Waste of time and money? Could be doing literally anything else? Not supporting an archaic institution and tradition?”

“Point taken, I guess,” Freddie sighed. “But if it’s like....you can either suck it up and have what amounts to basically just a party for the kiddo, AND ALSO all the support of modern medicine and shit? OR you can have NEITHER? I mean. Choice seems obvious.”

“But we’re only having to make that choice because of idiots like that procreating,” Daron said, tilting his head in his guess of a direction towards Erika’s house. “Her family drove her to this point and feeding into the delusion with an exorcism isn’t going to help. All that’ll help is getting out.”

“Well, maybe therapy will be a good step towards that,” Freddie replied as they turned into the lot for Sisemite.

“Yeah, maybe,” Daron conceded, turning off his car as they looked at the dive bar in front of them. Sisemite didn’t look like much from the outside, but inside, there was stained glass that allowed in the perfect amount of mood lighting and quality seating set ups. The drinks and food were decent, with general portions. And they were still in time for happy hour.

Xander and Julie were already inside, in a large semi-circular booth for 4 or 5, depending on the size of the patrons. Xander sat closest to the edge, and Julie was in the middle. Daron hesitated only for a moment before he began to scoot into the booth on the opposite end. He felt panic grip his heart as he noticed the table push stubbornly back into his rounded middle, but a second later, he realized the table was giving a little as he steadied himself with his hand. It wasn’t bolted down, thank god.

“Sorry man,” Daron said to Xander as he shuffled the table back a bit away from his soft gut, feeling heat rising in his face. Xander accepted the table being moved closer to him with a smile.

“No problem,” he said, helping Daron to move the table along the ground away from his employee. Freddie, luckily, was distracted by another patron seated across from them that she’d managed to make friends with in the 30 seconds since they entered the establishment.

“Have a good day,” she told them with a grin before turning back just as Daron finished scooting in next to Julie. Hopping down easily next to him, tons of room to spare, Freddie snatched a menu from the middle of the table (thankfully not mentioning now how much farther it was away from her than usual).

“Is it too early for a gin and tonic? It’s just so good here,” she said as she flipped the pages back and forth. “And a crazy good price for being all local ingredients.”

“Get whatever you want, Freddie,” Xander said.

“Ooohhh...I may do that too,” Julie said.

“Whoa, calm down over there,” Daron said dryly to the woman next to him. Julie flushed.

“The kids are being watched until 8 at least, I wasn’t sure how long we’d be working today…”

“Julie, I’m kidding. You go crazy,” Daron assured. A server approached the table, asking if they knew what they wanted.

“Two gin and tonics,” Freddie blurted before the young man in front of them could fully finish his sentence. She blushed a little as her coworkers chuckled.

“I’ll have the pilsner,” Xander said.

“Coffee porter,” Daron said. “And the nachos, teriyaki wings, and...the fried pickles. Thanks.”

“Cheese fries!” Freddie burst when it became clear Daron had ended his list. “Please. Don’t worry, I’ll share,” she added as the server nodded and left with their order.

“Cool, I won’t,” Daron said. They laughed again. There was a tinge of relief to it. It had been a long couple of days. At first the conversation hedged on the safe side, but as they received their drinks and began to imbibe, the case began to come up.

“I have seen too many people who really need help but won’t get it,” Xander said, shaking his head as he finished up his frosty, light beer. “Ever since Psychic Adventures. It’s heartbreaking. At least this family would compromise.”

“Thank goodness. That poor girl,” Julie said. “She needs it. But this has certainly been a strange one.”

“I’ve argued for less convincing exorcisms, that’s for sure,” Xander said.

“Why?” Daron asked, exasperated. He started to say more, but he caught a sharp elbow in his soft side. Looking over, startled, he saw Freddie giving him a dark look. Realizing he had just been about to say the same exact things that had caused him and Freddie to be fighting most of the day, Daron sighed and closed his mouth.

“Just in case. There are cases where it will definitely do more good than anything else. And I know, sometimes it does harm. But I’ve been doing this awhile and have learned to truly weigh the costs.”

“It just...makes me…crazy to see people treated that way,” Daron admitted, thinking about the poor young girl surrounded by, in his mind, zealots. Forcing her mind into this state. The server dropped off the wings to start, weaving through people. The bar was starting to fill up a little more. Xander motioned for another round of drinks.

“Not all religious people feel trapped that way,” Julie said gently. Daron snorted.

“Maybe not, but it sure as shit doesn’t help.”

“Sometimes,” Julie conceded.

“Oh please, you’re not an idiot, Daron. You know some people find actual comfort in whatever spirituality,” Freddie chimed in, finishing her gin and tonic with a flourish. “Just because most institutions encourage a lack of individuality doesn’t make anyone with beliefs bad.”

“I don’t think I said that, Miss Queen of Hyperbole over there,” Daron replied wryly.

“You’re acting like it and you know it!”

“I’m just pleased to have such a diverse team,” Xander said with a grin, helping himself to one of Daron’s wings. Daron glared, but not sincerely. He was glad someone besides the fat guy was eating as he stripped teriyaki-dripping meat off the bone rather than snap back at Freddie. Moments later, drinks and cheese fries arrived, which caused Freddie’s expression to lift from its fierceness into a pleased grin.

Halfway through their second round, and most of the way through all the food, conversation was still lively. Daron was diligently ignoring the fact that, now approaching full, his belly was close to touching the nearly fully pushed back table. Taking a sip of his second porter, Daron cast a look over his shoulder and saw a girl, lanky and short-haired in her late 20s or so, keeping a curious eye on their table. She didn’t notice Daron, keeping her eyes on the animatedly chatting Freddie as she sipped her dark iced drink.

Soon, though, the tall girl saw Daron. Grey eyes met his dark brown ones, and she took another sip of her drink, clearly taking her time as she thought. Daron, concerned, didn’t break eye contact, but did semi-set his porter on the wide shelf of his belly. It sunk in a little into the soft flesh, despite the hearty stock of bar food now digesting in it. Meanwhile, the girl seemed to make a decision, and she began to move towards their table.

“So all I can think is - you know - who stays married for forty years and still needs to be on the phone to keep in touch with their spouse all day?” Freddie was laughing as she told the table about a former coworker at the police department.

“Or what had they done to make that necessary,” Xander added, pointing a dark finger at Freddie and giving her a knowing look. Freddie laughed and touched her nose in a “you got it” move.

“Exactly! What was this dude getting up to that made her think she needed to call the department every hour?"

Julie was laughing along, but right before the mystery girl reached their table, Freddie realized that Daron wasn’t as invested in her story as the rest of them.

“Hey…” she said, turning to him, and seeing his eyes following something nearby. Swiveling again, Freddie saw the girl as she approached and stopped in front of their booth. Freddie’s sentence stopped as abruptly as it began.

Up close, the girl was even leaner than Daron had seen under the polar fleece vest she was wearing over a loose, artistic tee-shirt. She had a very androgynous look to her, between the relaxed fit and her short, swept hairstyle. If she wasn’t as tall as Daron, she wouldn’t have been much shorter.

“Hey Fred,” she spoke with a low but projected voice. It filled the space.

“Victoria,” Freddie said, her voice quiet and practically swallowed by the girl’s greeting. Xander and Julie exchanged a glance, but Daron, in his semi-coma of food and beer, drew a blank. He did gather enough of his wits to move his porter from the top of his soft tummy back to the table, at least.
 
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Ghostboo

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Location
Alaska
Chapter Thirteen

Freddie slowly got to her feet, distinctly more wobbly than she had been about an hour ago when they all arrived, and hugged the lean girl in front of her - Victoria.

“This is, um, Xander, Julie, and Daron,” Freddie said, sweeping her left arm away from Victoria to gesture at the table. Daron saw that Freddie’s right arm hesitated and stayed around Victoria. Victoria’s left arm held onto it. “We work together.”

“Right,” Victoria said in her husky voice, an easy smile playing across her angular face. “‘Psychic Adventures’, right? I remember.”

“That’s right,” Xander said, standing up out of the booth and offering Victoria a large, dark hand to shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Victoria and Freddie released each other as Victoria took his hand in greeting. Julie made no move to get up, merely nodding at Victoria with a tight smile coming over her slightly concerned features. Daron, not exactly wanting to deal with extracting his large and unwieldy body from the tight table confines, followed her lead and stayed where he was.

“Nice to meet ya,” Daron said.

“And you,” Victoria said, first to Xander, then nodding at Julie and Daron. “I’m going to get back to my friends, but Fred, feel free to come say hi when you’re done with your meeting.”

“Is Ana here?” Freddie asked.

“No, she stayed home. I’m just here for a quick weekend conference.”

Freddie’s eyes turned down towards the floor. Victoria offered the table another half-smile before squeezing Freddie’s hand briefly and sidling off, sipping out of her cup. Freddie, slowly, sat back down next to Daron.

“Your ex?” Daron asked, starting to (finally) put the pieces together. Freddie nodded.

“She’s great at showing up at the worst possible time. She lives in Switzerland with her wife Ana, but...always seems to know when I’m feeling particularly lonely or...otherwise...vulnerable. I dunno.”

“Wait, what about Jared?” Daron asked, referring to a particularly muscular sandy blonde that Freddie had brought around work a few times. He felt another elbow in his side, but this one was from the other side. Surprised, he blinked and looked over at Julie, whose eyebrows were raised at him. Shrugging in a definitive “what?” gesture, Daron returned to looking at Freddie for her answer, and was surprised to see her eyes flashing with genuine hurt.

“Jared and I broke up,” Freddie said. “Like...awhile ago.”

“Ah,” Daron said, slowly realizing that he hadn’t actually seen Jared since late August. “I’m sorry-” he started, but Freddie cut him off.

“I’m going to go to the bathroom,” she mumbled, avoiding their eyes as she shuffled out of the booth and walked away, towards the front of the bar.

Silence fell over the table for a moment.

“So...that was the ex?” Daron said, his tone a little wry as usual, but also with a genuine request for confirmation.

“It was,” Julie said with a sigh. “Quite the way to end an already long week.”

“That it is. Poor kid,” Xander said sympathetically. Everyone nodded as they sipped out of their drinks, and Daron stuffed a few cheese fries in his mouth, figuring at least while he was chewing he wouldn’t keep putting his foot in his mouth. He kept this logic in mind as he snacked on the rest of the table’s appetizers, and Xander and Julie chatted.

A little while later, a slightly flushed Freddie returned to the table. She looked at her plate of cheese fries, which had gone from one-third eaten to just a few errant fries on the plate. She looked from it to Daron, who caught her eye and smirked, preparing himself for a snarky remark about how she hadn’t meant that much sharing. But Freddie stayed quiet, helping herself instead to a fried pickle and nibbling at the breading. Meanwhile, Xander finished signing the credit card receipt that had been delivered to the table and smiled at his employees.

“Would you like a ride home, Julie?”

“Please, thank you. And this was lovely, Xander. We appreciate it,” Julie said. Daron and Freddie nodded in agreement, though Daron knew it was buying into the stereotype that he and Freddie were the “kids” of the group while Julie was like the mom.

“See you on Monday,” Xander said as they scooted out of their side of the booth.

“Will do,” Daron replied.

“Get some rest, you two,” Julie added before they left the table.

Daron, feeling especially full now, stretched both his elbows up towards the ceiling while holding the back of his head with his hands. Unable to stop himself, he grunted softly as he prepared for the drive home. The top of his back cracked gently as he twisted from one side to the next and then dropped his arms, tugging his too-tight t-shirt back down and out. He was diligently ignoring the urgent pressure that his already snug jean’s button was applying to his belly’s underside.

Laundry tonight. Definitely.

“You ready, Thornberry?” He asked.

“Oh, um. I think I’m gonna hang out here for a bit actually,” she replied, not meeting his eyes.

“What do you mean?” Daron said. “What time is it? I guess I can chill for a little longer…”

“No, nono. That’s okay. You should go home,” Freddie said hurriedly. “You’ve been working so hard. I don’t want to keep you.”

Daron stared at her. Freddie had never stayed out longer than him without begging him to stay. Even if she had other friends out...oh. Other friends. “Freddie,” he said, a little more softly, trying to catch her eyes even as they stared determinedly down at her hands. “Are you sure?”

Freddie nodded quickly. “I’ll be fine,” she replied, finally looking up and meeting his dark eyes with her bright green ones. But it was just for a second, and she looked back down at her hands before he could pin down the emotion in them.

“Oh...kay. Um,” Daron looked around. Freddie was still sitting, blocking him from the closest exit from the booth. He could scoot all the way around, and exit where Xander and Julie had, but the table was still almost fully pushed over to make room for his expanding and now fully stuffed belly. He shuffled a little over closer to where Julie had been, and within a couple feet met resistance that kept him from being able to move further. He sighed in irritation, looking down at the table pressing into his soft gut, which was what caused Freddie to look back up.

“Oh! Here, I’m sorry,” she said, jumping up and gesturing for him to move past her. Feeling his face turn a little red, Daron sucked his belly in as he scooted back the way he had come and stood up next to Freddie.

“Thanks,” he said, a little uncertainly, his thumbs going into his tight pockets. “I guess...I’ll see you on Monday?” He felt idiotic for echoing Xander’s cheery workplace departure, but wasn’t sure what else to say. He didn’t want to leave Freddie here to fend for herself with the ex, but she was all but shoving him out the door.

“See you then,” Freddie said, offering him a tight smile and then a quick hug. She wrapped her left arm around his soft middle and buried her face very briefly into his chest. Still a little stunned, Daron wrapped his arms around Freddie’s shoulders to return the hug, but she pulled away just as quickly as she had pulled him close. “Drive safe.”

Making his way to the front door of Sisemite, Daron saw Victoria standing near the bar. Victoria saw him too, smirked a little, then looked past him to where Freddie was standing near the group’s former table. Troubled, but not sure what else he could do, Daron made his way out the door and to his car. Freddie was an adult, and it was laundry time.
 
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