After a week or so the inevitable arose, and the group was summoned back to the temporary home of the Jellico’s. As expected, the labs had brought back nothing unusual, and Julie still had questions to delve a little more deeply into the psyche of Francesca and Ross. They were, essentially, still at square one, which was never where Daron liked to be.
It was an extremely pleasant spring day, the sun and blue sky visible through just a few wispy clouds. Which was nice, aside from Daron not being able to layer as much as he liked. He laid his newly washed green pants on the bed as he flicked through his closet. He’d been planning on a button-up overshirt, but even first thing in the morning it was nearly 65 degrees. He’d sweat buckets at his first movement in the afternoon, he knew, if he dressed like that.
Daron moved past his band tees as he glanced back at Freddie on the other side of his bed, putting on a light blue springtime dress with a sweetheart neckline. Between her and Francesca’s inevitable style, Daron felt like he needed to put on something a little more classy than something from a Megadeath tour. He decided to try a navy polo shirt he’d bought as a professional-yet-comfortable option for a previous job, and set it next to his pants.
“I don’t think I’ll even need my cardigan today,” Freddie said, swiveling from in front of the mirror to out at the sky. “It’s such a beautiful day.”
“Lucky for us,” Daron said, giving his girlfriend’s figure in her dress an appreciative glance as he tugged on his pants. Freddie caught this and grinned, blushing, then looking away - luckily. Being newly washed, Daron’s pants were more than a little snug, and took him a few deep breaths to button. Flushing a little, he quickly pulled on his polo to cover the pinched and therefore extra-pooching love handles along with his belly.
Standing to face the mirror, Daron stifled a groan. Unfortunately, and somehow still surprisingly, the old shirt clung to every pound on Daron’s frame, not so much hiding flaws as highlighting them in navy fabric. Before he could undo his mistake, though, two narrow white arms snaked around his belly and squeezed lightly as Freddie came up behind him. Daron rested his own thick, light brown arms over hers, obscuring his silhouette at least somewhat.
“What’s the prob?” She asked, standing on tiptoes to peer over Daron’s shoulder and meet his eyes in the mirror.
“I look like a…clueless fat cat,” Daron admitted with a slight groan. Polos had always reminded him of out-of-touch white CEOs who enjoyed golf anyway, and he couldn’t believe he thought he could pull this off. OR that it would still fit.
“Let’s see…oh,” Freddie unsnaked her arms to reveal the shirt underneath. Daron felt his face burn a little, and resisted the urge to wrap his arms around himself to try and block her view. “Yeah…hmm…”
“I wanted to wear something better than a t-shirt,” Daron felt like he had to explain. “But it’s gonna be too hot for long sleeves.”
“Any short sleeve button-ups?” Freddie suggested, kissing Daron’s shoulder as she looked up at him.
“None that fit me,” Daron admitted, then elaborated with some necessary optimism: “right now.”
“At all? Or do they just not button?”
“Uh…they might fit without buttoning,” he replied slowly, doing inventory in his head.
“Not that you aren’t just as hot in your Judas Priest shirts, but, maybe try that?” Freddie suggested, grinning up at him. As she said ‘shirts’, she teasingly pinched together a piece of his belly fat between her thumb and forefinger, dropping it almost as soon as Daron noticed. “I’ll get started on breakfast,” she continued, skipping over towards the door as he blushed in confusion, watching. “Throw that shirt in a donation pile,” she added as she opened the door, looking back at Daron slowly beginning to peel off the polo. “You shouldn’t hang on to clothes that don’t fit you.” And with that, she was gone.
Daron finished taking off his top and pulled out his newest trusty white undershirt, his head buzzing as his face burned. Freddie’s words were spoken with complete cheerfulness, no judgment detected, yet he couldn’t help feeling embarrassed. After only a brief hesitation, Daron tossed the polo onto a clear spot on the floor - now, in his mind, the donate pile. After all, even if he DID lose the weight to wear it, it really wasn’t his style.
Weeks ago, he wouldn’t have been able to imagine recovering from Freddie seeing him this way, Daron realized. But after nearly-daily phenomenal sex following their first time, Daron was becoming more comfortable with his body around her. Not completely - he still cringed and sucked in as best he could when even a bedside lamp went on - but Freddie had never touched him in a way that could be perceived as anything but loving. Even just now, when she had pinched his gut, he could feel the happy teasing as she held him. It was a stark contrast from the critical prods of Taylor (when she wasn’t actively avoiding the entirety of his soft torso). It was different.
The first short sleeve button up Daron uncovered was not just too small around his middle, but also pinched at his shoulders and limited his mobility, so that was a no-go. The second was a top that used snaps, not buttons, but either way they were unusable. It was very appropriate for spring, with light blue and yellow tendrils for its design, with short sleeves. Daron rolled his shoulders to make sure it felt alright after shrugging it on, and was pleased to find it did. Smiling ruefully at his soft reflection, Daron headed out to the kitchen to meet up with Freddie.
“Oh, you look great!” His girlfriend greeted him along with the smell of eggs and toast, smiling widely. “Hey, we’re kinda matching!”
She was right, the light blue on her dress a nearly identical shade to the accents on his shirt. Daron kissed the side of her head, tracing a hand along her soft yet muscular back before giving her the space to finish up cooking.
“Ready for the Jellicos?” He asked a few minutes later as Freddie served him three fried eggs and four pieces of toast with tiny lakes of butter in them. She sat next to him, with two eggs of her own and two pieces of toast.
“Can one ever truly be ready for…whatever that is?” Freddie mused, taking a bite of her toast. Daron laughed before tucking in himself.
After eating their fill at breakfast, Daron drove them to work. It was just a brief stop by the office, though, debriefing before the team loaded into Xander’s truck for the trip to see their clients.
“I want to see if I can get some more insight into Francesca specifically,” Julie told them. “But I won’t force it - Daron, Freddie, she seemed to open up to you a bit, so if that continues, feel free to take some time with her.”
“I’m not sure I’d call it ‘opening up’,” Freddie replied, after catching Daron’s skeptical eye. “More like…she was playing with us.”
“To what end?” Xander asked from the driver’s seat. Freddie and Daron exchanged another look.
“I don’t really know,” Daron answered honestly.
“For fun? Attention?” Freddie suggested. “Some upper hand perceptible only to her?”
“A distraction?” Daron added slowly.
“From what?” Julie asked. Daron shook his head. There was nothing he could specifically point to from what they knew, that was for sure.
“If we figure that out, we’ll let you know,” Freddie said, gently squeezing Daron’s two smallest fingers that she found on the seat. He offered her a half-smile, the case weighing more heavily on his mind than he would have cared to admit.
The group arrived on the outskirts of town in one piece, and knocked on the front door of the house. Several lengthy seconds passed before a somewhat sweaty Ross answered the door, a flannel over a wife beater rolled up to his arms. His pants were carhartts, and were rolled up to accommodate dark work boots.
“Welcome,” he said, wiping his forehead with a tight smile. “I apologize for the wait, and my appearance. I’ve been doing some home maintenance today.”
Behind him appeared the very pregnant, and very beautiful, Francesca. She was in flowing green pants and a black t-shirt, and both her pants and her face had smudges of brown dirt on them. It did not diminish her beauty whatsoever.
“I’m sorry too,” she interjected. “I was gardening, and got carried away.”
“May I join you?” Julie asked, her tone bright and conveying genuine interest. Francesca traced her eyes over Julie’s business casual apparel, cocking her head to the side, before finally nodding and turning to depart. Julie unbuttoned her suit jacket and quickly followed.
“Could I see what it is you’re working on?” Xander addressed Ross as they entered the foyer into the house. Daron sucked in his belly to try and avoid pressing into others in the narrow space. It only kind of worked, with one of his sides grazing Ross’s elbow and the other firmly pressed into Freddie.
“Certainly,” Ross said, gesturing for Xander to follow him into the house, in a slightly different direction than Julie and Francesca had headed to get outdoors.
“Let’s do a lap?” Freddie murmured as they disappeared out of sight, and Daron nodded, tugging his undershirt subtly away from his middle. His pants had yet to stretch out to the point where he was fully comfortable.
In each room, Freddie snapped photos with the DSLR she had grabbed from the office. They kept relatively quiet, as Xander and Ross’s words reached them occasionally and seemingly randomly. Sometimes, though, the strangeness of the home elicited remarks before they could help it.
“It’s still a dustbowl,” marveled Freddie as she snapped photos of the master bedroom.
“Seriously,” Daron murmured in agreement, seeing how the lack of wear clearly piled up even higher than before. The crimson bedding looking barely rust red under the cover of dust.
After getting her fill of photos, Freddie led the way back to the living room. She collapsed on the left side of the vintage couch they’d sat on their first trip, and Daron lowered himself much more carefully next to her. Out of his pocket, he pulled a packet of peanut butter M&Ms, and began thoughtfully shaking a few at a time into his hand.
“Honestly,” Freddie said, her tone still slightly hushed despite the voices of Xander and Ross having faded to murmurs. “Is there a single room that does look lived in?”
Daron glanced around at their current space. The seating arrangements were more or less clear of dust, but the shelves weren’t.
“I feel like there was one,” he said, not completely certain as he cracked the shell of the M&Ms open with his teeth. The perfect mix of chocolate and peanut butter flavoring filled his taste buds, making him feel simultaneously relaxed and guilty.
“Let’s see,” Freddie said, pulling out the camera and beginning to scroll through their recent photos. “It’s too weird.”
After a couple seconds of concentrated silence and occasional pauses to zoom in on a specific room, Freddie pointed triumphantly at the screen.
“There! The kitchen.”
“Yeah,” Daron agreed, studying the screen. “You’re right.” The kitchen, a long, thin room near the back of the house, may have had old appliances and a strange grey-green color painted on the walls, but it was obviously used. There was no dust or dirt in the photos, just the usual signs of wear. Well, mostly usual. “Hey, can you zoom in there? Did you see that?”
Freddie magnified the bottom left quadrant, where Daron’s thick finger had pointed. It was a recycling bin, upon further reflection, and was full to the brim with wine bottles.
“Damn,” murmured Freddie. “That’s quite a bit for one dude and his very pregnant partner.”
“Maybe they just haven’t taken it out in awhile,” Daron pointed out, though he knew what Freddie’s response would be.
“Do you remember it being that full last time we were here?”
“I really don’t.”
“Can I have an M&M?” Freddie asked after a momentary pause, looking up from the camera.
“What makes you think you’re released from the rule of needing to bring your own candy, Winnifred?” Daron asked in a lofty, faux-innocent voice. “Besides, you know, being my girlfriend now?”
Freddie’s mouth dropped at the nuclear use of her birth name. As she closed it, her tongue poked into her bottom lip as she half-smirked.
“Maybe because I also know now how hard those pants are working,” she said, tracing her eyes up and down her boyfriend’s form. “And I want to give them a little bit of a break on extra candy strain.”
Daron’s mouth dropped a little in an almost exact imitation. He immediately felt his face heat a little, and his chest tighten in affection and embarrassment. Freddie had been known to poke fun at his eating habits, sure, but not so much since they’d started dating (or since Taylor…or, well, since he’d really started to put on the extra weight, to be fair). Before he could properly react, though, Freddie had leaned in close, one hand on his knee, the other on his shoulder.
“I’m just teasing,” she whispered directly into his ear before biting very softly at the soft skin of his lobe. Immediately, Daron’s senses were overwhelmed by something very different than embarrassment. But before he could respond, the sound of a door opening and closing reached the duo, and Freddie pulled quickly away.
“Hi,” Julie said as she entered the room, her smile tight. “Just who I was looking for. Francesca would like to show you something, Daron.”
“I’m not sure, to be honest. Freddie, you should probably go with him.”
“Oh, that was never a question,” Freddie said. “How’d it go?”
“Ahh…” Julie made a skeptical, but slightly frustrated, gesture with her hands. “Fine. Have you seen Xander?”
“He’s with Ross, I think next to the kitchen working on the awning still,” Daron replied.
“Thank you. See if you can get anything else from her, and we’ll regroup soon,” Julie said.
Daron and Freddie exchanged a glance and rose, Daron gripping the arm of the couch to steady himself on the rise. As he did, Julie leaned in to Freddie and whispered something into her ear. Daron didn’t hear what it was, but Freddie nodded in response. This seemed to be the confirmation that Julie wanted, for she turned and exited the room towards Xander and Ross right after.
“Here,” Daron said, handing the half-empty packet of M&Ms to Freddie. “You’ve earned ‘em.”
“I don’t want them all, weirdo,” Freddie laughed, shaking out a small handful then handing the packet back to him. “I just wanted to be included.”
Daron laughed at her purposefully dramatic tone as he made his way to the door outside, knocking back a few more pieces of candy himself.
“There’s just no winning with you, huh?” He joked ruefully, squeezing through the familiar irritating door frame on their way outdoors.
“Never,” Freddie agreed. “Not even once.”
“Hey,” he said after a brief hesitation. “Julie okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Freddie replied easily, and Daron dropped it. They may have been dating, but he didn’t need to be in all her business, especially where work was concerned.
As they entered the grounds, Daron had to cover his eyes against the sun that was high in the sky by now. He scanned the horizon first, then quickly realized that Francesca was actually right up against the house, getting slowly to her feet. On instinct, he approached and offered her a hand. She took it and steadied her own bulk against Daron’s, offering him a grateful smile.
What’s different about her? Daron wondered, the thought popping up out of nowhere, then disappearing nearly as fast as Francesca’s smile faded upon seeing Freddie appear behind them.
“How are you, Francesca?” Freddie asked, and the woman brushed some dirt off her knees, finally letting go of Daron’s hand.
“I’m just fine,” she said. “My flowers are finally starting to come in. I thought Daron might like to see.”
Freddie looked like she was about to retort, but she swallowed it as she came down the steps to stand next to Daron. Daron, meanwhile, noticed what Francesca was talking about. Lining the house was a strip of dirt, and in the dirt was sprouting a series of flowers. Not any one kind, or any one color, but an amalgamation of types all on top of each other.
“Wow,” he said. “There’s…a lot.”
“When we first moved in, I found packets of assorted flowers. I planted them all! I felt sorting through them would be going against their intended purpose,” Francesca said brightly, leading the two down towards the distant corner of the house. “So now, here they are. Growing as they’re meant to. It makes me so happy to see that I lose track of time, which is why I was not as prepared for company as usual today.”
“You never have to dress up for us,” Freddie said, crouching down to get a closer look at the plants. She brushed aside some larger blue flowers to spy the tiny, tender bleeding hearts underneath.
“It’s true,” Daron echoed. Francesca didn’t answer, just kept her eyes stoically trained on Daron’s face. “Uh…so do you grow anything other than the flowers?”
“Yes, I try,” Francesca answered dreamily. “Here.” She led the way around the corner of the house, and Daron saw a square of dirt several feet by several feet. It appeared that pea shoots and some other vegetables were beginning to emerge.
“Oh, we missed this last time,” he said. “I should…do you mind if I grab a soil sample, Francesca?”
“Of course not,” she answered. Daron glanced back around the house, and saw Freddie was watching from her crouch, but not making a move to approach. “I’ve tried some of the green beans, but, well…they’re not turning out as well as the flowers.”
Daron pulled one of the spare test tubes out of his left pocket, while returning the empty M&Ms bag to his right. While he gathered soil from near the green beans, Francesca watched and hummed, fingering the plants nearby gently. As he straightened up with only a slight groan, Daron decided to test his luck.
“Francesca, can I ask you something?”
“Anything,” Francesca said, moving imperceptibly closer to Daron. Daron swallowed and resisted stepping back, reminding himself it was just in the pursuit of information.
“The wine bottles in the kitchen…are those all for Ross?”
“Well…I suppose… I could lie and say we have company, but that seems the sort of thing a smart man like you would learn rather quickly wasn’t true. Ross…and I, sometimes…we have certain needs.”
Daron blinked and cocked his head slightly, looking at Francesca in curiosity and concern.
“You understand, don’t you?” continued Francesca, who began to trace her gaze down Daron’s body. “The urge…the need...to consume? To fill yourself with that…feeling?” Her eyes stopped at the M&M bag poking out of Daron’s pocket, then moved to his round belly, then slowly back up towards his face. Daron felt frozen, and Francesca took the opening to move even closer, mere centimeters between them until she gently touched his left arm. “It’s a bit hedonistic, but aren’t we all?”
“Okay,” said an exasperated voice next to Daron, and he nearly jumped as he realized Freddie had reached his side in a flash as soon as Francesca had touched him. “What if we didn’t.”
With that, Freddie took Francesca’s tiny left wrist in her hand and removed it from Daron. Francesca didn’t fight her, and in fact, turned towards Freddie with the widest grin Daron had seen all day, seemingly delighted. That flash of confusion hit him again - what was it? - but Freddie, staring, dropped Francesca’s arm as soon as she saw her smile.
“Francesca…” Freddie said. “Are you…missing a molar?”
Francesca’s smile dropped instantly. Her hazel eyes clouded, and she took only a momentary break from glaring at Freddie to look at Daron.
Oh, fuck, THAT’S what it is, Daron thought, having caught the negative space in Francesca's grin before it disappeared. Apparently the dawning realization was obvious, for Francesca noticed, and - taking care only to bare her front teeth - she uttered a furious hiss.
“Get out,” she said, voice as dark as her expression.
“Francesca, we’re not judging,” Freddie said hurriedly. “I just wondered…”
But they didn’t get a chance to know what Freddie wondered, for Francesca let out an earth-ratting shriek.
“Get out,” she uttered again, her hands flying up. Daron was able to get an arm in front of Freddie and move her back before Francesca struck her. On him, it barely felt like an insect bite. Still, he moved back as she continued to grow in rage and volume. “Get OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT.”
Quickly giving up any illusion of decorum, both Freddie and Daron turned on their heels and ran towards the house. It would’ve been faster to run to the front, but they knew they needed to grab Xander and Julie. Luckily, it didn’t seem like Francesca was following - or at least, not that quickly.
“Fucking doors,” Daron muttered the first time his progress was severely impeded by a narrow opening, feeling embarrassed and guilty that he had approached it ahead of Freddie. Now she had to wait while he gripped the frame to yank himself through, slowing them both thoroughly. After squeezing through, he gestured for Freddie to go first, which she hesitantly did. The kitchen and room with the home maintenance project were both currently empty, so they continued through the house.
“We gotta go,” Daron gasped when the duo finally ran into Xander and Julie, talking with Ross in the front living room.
“What? Why?” Ross asked, while Xander and Julie immediately stood and began to gather their belongings.
“We said something to Francesca…I didn’t mean to be offensive!” cried Freddie, catching an irritated look from Julie. That explained the sidebar, Daron supposed. “I really didn’t, it was just a question!”
“She wants to kill us,” Daron said, somberly and he knew a bit dramatically, but he really didn’t think it was too far off. Supplementing his words was the noise of a furious scream - much closer to the door than it would’ve been if she was still by the vegetable patch.
“We were finishing up anyway,” Julie said.
“Ross, please call us when she’s settled,” Xander said.
“Yeah, we’re gonna need some answers,” Freddie agreed. The sound of a crash echoed from the back of the house, and the group all exchanged glances before moving quickly to the front door.
“Are you safe?” Julie asked Ross before they exited, and with an air of nerves but also exasperation, their host nodded.
“We will be fine. I apologize. We’ll talk soon.”
With that, the group hustled back into Xander’s truck. Daron didn’t feel his adrenaline drop until they were recognizably close to the office. The ride was mostly silent, except for the obvious question: what had set her off?
“Francesca is missing a tooth,” Freddie told them slowly. “When we tried to ask about it…she flipped.”
“To put it mildly,” Daron agreed. The group exchanged glances before falling silent, none yet willing to speak up about what that might mean.
Daron let the deep, earthy flavor of his whiskey hit his tongue before swallowing, sighing in pleasure. It had been a hell of a day, and when Freddie had asked weakly about a happy hour trip to Sisemite, Daron hadn’t taken much convincing at all.
The remaining hours of business had involved deep discussions amongst the group, along with the necessary paperwork. Julie felt frustratingly unfulfilled by her time with Francesca, but at least that gave them something to talk about.
“I do see what you mean about ‘playing’,” Julie had told them, sighing. “I’m not sure I got a single straight answer out of her.”
“Did you get an idea what she might have?” Freddie asked.
“It could be any number of things, honestly. I’m not in a position to diagnose. But it’s…something.”
“It sure is,” Daron agreed.
“Did you get anything out of her before the…tooth came up?” Julie asked.
“Sort of,” Daron said. “Freddie and I had noticed there were a lot of wine bottles in the kitchen. When I asked her about it…she basically admitted it was just them drinking it. Both of them.” Most of the group shuddered at that. “But… I’m not sure if she was even being honest then. It felt more like…a…way of toying with me. Trying to…fluster me, somehow?”
“Did it work?” Xander asked from the computer.
“It probably would have, if Fred hadn’t stepped in,” Daron said, giving his girlfriend a half-smile. She blushed as Julie’s gaze turned towards her too.
“She touched his arm! I was being good until then. I swear.”
“I really don’t think we’d have gotten anything else out of her, anyway,” Daron said. “One mention of the most interesting thing and she lost her shit.”
Julie shook her head, the frustration clear. Daron sympathized. All they had now was more questions.
“It’s just so strange,” Julie said. “It could have just been a meltdown tied into her mental health, she clearly prizes her appearance above much else, but…” she trailed off. No one picked up the train of thought, but Freddie and Xander both nodded slowly.
Now, a few hours later, Freddie stood across from Daron at a high top table, sipping one of Sisemite’s famous gin and tonics. She had asked Daron to stop by her house first, and had changed while she was there. Gone was the blue spring dress, and in its place was a pair of high waisted light grey jeans, into which a top featuring the cover of an Avengers comic was tucked, with torn sleeves hidden under a brown cardigan. Her bright daytime makeup had been transformed into a smokier eye, calling attention to their deep green color.
“You look great,” Daron told her, reaching across the table to squeeze Freddie’s forearm. The cardigan was soft under his hand. Freddie swallowed some more of her drink, and offered Daron a half-smile.
“Thanks. I was trying to be quick, so I don’t know about this outfit. I feel…” Freddie set down her drink and tugged at the top of her jeans uncertainly. Daron waited, but Freddie didn’t continue, avoiding his eyes.
“You feel what, Fred?”
“I feel… fat,” she admitted, letting the top of the jeans snap back into her waist. Daron, without meaning to, exhaled a surprised laugh. Freddie flushed, picking up her drink again. Daron followed suit, with a drink of his whiskey, letting it ground him before he responded.
“You feel fat? You know you’re talking to your boyfriend, an actual fat person right now, yeah?”
Freddie blush deepened, and she sputtered a few times before forming words in her sentence.
“I…just…am not used to wearing pants very often, and these are…old…and…snug.”
“Ohoooo,” Daron replied, unable to help himself grinning. “So I’m not the only one who should’ve been rationing those M&Ms, hmm?”
Freddie groaned, and sunk her head into her hands.
“I deserve that,” she mumbled through her fingers.
“Fred, c’mon,” Daron said, taking pity as he scooted around the table to wrap an arm around her. “You look fuckin’ hot in these.” He fingered around the top of her pants as well, feeling soft flesh rise slightly over it, but nothing too extreme. If anything, it felt nice. “You’re literally the most active person I know. Definitely not fat.”
“Yeah,” Freddie admitted. “But I leave my workouts and still drink beer and eat nachos, so…”
“Well what the hell else would we talk about if you didn’t?” Daron laughed. Freddie met his eyes, and Daron, recalling his last relationship, looked back with sincerity. “Seriously, I don’t want to go back to that kinda setup. And if there’s ever a time where you can’t work out as much, or just don’t want to, I’d way rather see you gain a few pounds than starve yourself in any way. Okay?”
Freddie’s face slowly split into a wide smile.
Freddie kissed him. He could taste the fresh juniper flavor on her tongue, which was surprisingly pleasant with the smokiness of his own whiskey.
“Well, good, ‘cause I’m pretty much fated to always be a little squishy,” Freddie said as they broke apart. “After all, I am 26 whole years old now. Well over the hill, as the incels say.”
“Oh, God,” Daron replied, wrinkling his nose. “Stop.”
“It’s true! Didn’t you hear? Even Scarlett Johanssen has lost her…her… ‘sexual market value’ or whatcha call it by getting old and having cellulite. So really, what chance do any of us have?"
“That’s so gross, dude,” Daron groused. “How do they not hear that that shit makes them sound basically like pedophiles?”
“Maybe they do, but they just don’t care,” Freddie said, snuggling into his shoulder. Daron kissed the top of her head, and she grinned up at him. “I’m gonna run to the restroom and get another drink. Do you want one?”
“I’m good for now,” Daron said, figuring he should probably eat something before another drink. Freddie squeezed his hand before heading out of sight.
Something tugged at the edge of Daron’s memory, but as sick as he was of his brain giving him the runaround, he diligently ignored it. He took a greater-than-sip of his whiskey, and as he set it down, realized the lanky figure visible in his peripheral vision was moving closer. Daron glanced their way, looked back at his drink, then - as his mind caught up with who he was looking at - whipped his head back in their direction.
“You remembered,” Freddie’s ex said, sounding suitably impressed for their last (and only) meeting having been around half a year earlier. “So how long’s that been going on?” She gestured her chin in the direction of where Freddie had departed.
“A little while,” Daron replied, his words casual but clipped.
“Hopefully not too long of a while.” Victoria raised her thin eyebrows over her copper mug.
“No,” Daron said, fighting to keep the resentment out of his voice as he stared back. “Not that long.”
“How do you know?” Victoria asked, but Daron didn’t stoop to responding to her implication. He just held her gaze, gripping tightly onto his whiskey glass. After a few moments, Victoria cracked a smile and chuckled. “I kid, I kid. It’s just a surprise, that’s all.” Her grey eyes broke away from Daron’s dark ones, tracing down his body with an obvious judgment. Daron tightened his abs as subtly as he could.
“I s’pose your wife looks just like Freddie, then?”
“Not exactly,” Victoria looked back up, some surprise in her gaze. She opened her mouth again, hesitated, then took a sip out of her mug instead. When she was done, she conceded: “touché.”
“Is she here?”
“Ana? No,” Victoria said, half-smirking. “There was a visa snafu in the past - she can’t come with me on trips to America.”
“What a surprise.”
“You seem tense…Devin, right?”
“Ah. I take it you and Freddie are monogamous, then?”
“That’s what we agreed on.”
“Ana and I had, too.”
Daron sipped his whiskey, his chest tightening. Another scan of his body with her eyes and Victoria continued, casually:
“So were you this big last time I was here?”
“What fucking business is it of yours?” Daron immediately retorted, gritting his teeth.
“I just don’t remember,” Victoria said innocently. “And I just wonder if Fred knew what she was getting herself into. That, or she has much…much…” Victoria took a step back and cocked her head at Daron, giving him an equally good view of her incredibly lean, androgynous frame. “…wider tastes than I knew.”
“Holy shit,” came the shocked voice of the object of their discussion. Freddie had made it back to the table without Daron noticing, and he nearly jumped. Freddie moved close enough to him that their arms were touching, but her gaze was trained on the woman across from him. “Victoria?”
“Hey kid,” Victoria replied with an easy smile, and Daron felt the rising tide of jealousy and frustration nearly choke him.
“What…are you doing here?”
“Having a drink, hoping to see some old friends between work.”
“This…isn’t really a good time,” Freddie said, her tone flattening out from the surprise as she looked up at Daron. He struggled to keep his own expression neutral.
“Right! You’re here with your coworker/boyfriend, we were just catching up…”
“Oh, jesus,” Freddie said. “Okay, let’s talk for a minute. Daron, do you mind?”
Daron simply shook his head as Freddie gave him a grateful half-smile before steering Victoria by the elbow into a more deserted corner of the bar. They were still in full view, and Daron was torn between staring, and finding something to pretend to occupy himself with. And he was hungry, dammit. He had been all set to order nachos and fried pickles. Now…
After a few minutes of debating, Daron went to the bar and got himself another whiskey. On the rocks, this one cheaper than his first. Being such a big dude, two drinks wouldn’t hit him hard even on an empty stomach, but Daron wanted to have 100% of his wits about him to drive or…whatever else became necessary.
He made his way back to their table, and saw Freddie and Victoria still deep in discussion. Victoria had the same frustratingly cool look on her face, adjacent to the cat who ate the canary, while Freddie seemed to be acting closer to how Daron was feeling. She gestured intensely with her hands as she spoke, and Daron’s heart twisted. He only wanted Freddie to get annoyed with him. So much of their love language was enthusiastic scrapping, he hated to watch Freddie get so passionate about someone else.
As he finished up his drink, Daron began to wonder if he should head home alone. Would that be giving up? Or just giving his partner necessary space? He rubbed a large hand over his closed eyes, his forehead, and through his hair in frustration. He didn’t know what the right move was. But when he opened his eyes, he saw Freddie returning determinedly to the table. Victoria followed, slowly.
“Is it okay if we just go home?” Freddie asked, from between gritted teeth. She set her empty gin and tonic on the table next to Daron’s whiskey glass, and he nodded.
Victoria, who had ambled her way up behind Freddie, snorted.
“Fine, kid,” she said, as though their conversation had included her at all. “I’m not judging, but just remember - chubby chasing isn’t cool.”
Daron nearly choked on the last piece of melted ice in his mouth as Freddie whirled around.
“Oh, shut the fuck up, Victoria. Go back to Switzerland.” With that, she took Daron’s hand and began to walk towards the door, muttering loud enough for him and likely Victoria to hear: “supposed to be 32 damn years old. Petty bullshit.”
The ride back to Daron’s was tensely quiet. Daron wrestled with convergent feelings of hunger and nausea, of appreciation and skepticism, of embarrassment and…something else. Freddie looked out the window as they drove, only the back of her brown and now lighter purple hair visible when Daron would glance her way.
Upon arriving home, Daron and Freddie made their way inside. Freddie followed Daron into the living room, looking like she was preparing to speak. Daron waited, but instead, Freddie kissed him. It was fierce, bordering on desperate, and Daron kissed her back until one of her hands went to slip beneath his undershirt.
“Whoa,” he said, breaking away. “Hold on a sec, Fred.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, taking a shy step back. “Can I make you something to eat, instead? It’s been awhile, and since we had to leave Sisemite before getting food…”
“I…” Daron was tempted, but he fought back the rising hunger. “No. Not right now. We should talk.”
“Okay,” Freddie said, her eyes casting down after meeting Daron’s serious gaze. “I really am sorry, Daron. I didn’t know she’d be there.”
“I figured,” Daron said. “Was the last time you saw her when we were all at Sisemite?”
“That trip, yeah,” Freddie nodded. “Why?”
“She had some fun implying there might’ve been meet ups more recently than that.”
“God,” Freddie groaned. “What a psychopath. Definitely not. As far as I know she hasn’t even been in the country. But even if she had…I felt horrible after you called me out last time. I wouldn’t have.”
“I was outta line,” Daron admitted. “Just defensive because you were right about Taylor.”
“Well, you were right about Victoria.”
“Maybe, but I still saw the way you looked at her.”
“Daron…” Freddie said cautiously, after a startled pause. Her green eyes raised back to his dark, even gaze. “I’m sorry, it’s…just some residual shit. I wouldn’t do anything with her or anyone else. I’m happy to be exclusive with you, but it doesn’t mean neither of us will ever be attracted to anyone else again.”
“I know,” Daron agreed. “But I wanted to talk to you about something I’ve been avoiding anyway.”
“My weight,” Daron admitted, after a tense pause. “I was just…fucking terrified about this turning out like Taylor, so…I’ve been avoiding it.”
“I am not Taylor…” Freddie began heatedly.
“I know! I know. But still. I’m…a big fuckin’ dude. There’s a reason Victoria started picking at it immediately. She has a point. I know it. But even when I was with Taylor, and eating the…well, probably average, but felt like bare bones portions she’d give me…and working out, and wanting to change to maybe, finally, stop hearing her critiques…even then, I didn’t exactly lose noticeable weight. What if I can’t?”
“Statistically, that’s probably true.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the people who lose weight and keep it off rounds to zero. And THAT’S the shit that’s hard on the body. Yo-yoing is way worse than just like…staying fat,” Freddie explained, offering a casual shrug of her shoulders even as she looked at Daron with concern. Daron ran a large hand through his wavy dark hair, unable to shake the image of long, lean Victoria and their smirk out of his mind.
“Okay, but, Fred…I don’t want to lose you. Your ex was maybe an eighth my size. You can see how that’s concerning for me.”
“I mean, Taylor was probably an eighth my size,” Freddie shot back immediately. “Didn’t you just tell me you’d prefer I enjoy good food with you, even if I’m a little heavier that way? Why can’t I feel the same way?”
“You…can,” Daron said, slowly. “But I’m…not a ‘little’ anything. I want you to be honest with me, Fred.”
“Daron, I am! Yeah, I tend to hook up with lankier girls. It’s a preference, not a dealbreaker. But when I get with men, I love them to be teddy bears.”
“I…” Daron blinked in surprise. “I may have blown past teddy bear 30 pounds ago.”
“So polar bear then, whatever. You’re not the only big guy I’ve dated.”
“Really? But…I’ve met your exes, Fred. The dudes you brought around work? They weren’t ‘big’ like fat. They were ‘big’ like body builders.”
“Wait, you didn’t figure it out? Daron, I literally only dated those guys to make you jealous. I thought if you saw me with someone generically attractive you might…I dunno, look at me as a more viable option. Not just your weird coworker. When it didn’t work, I dumped them. Barely anything happened.”
“I know, your girlfriend is kind of an idiot,” Freddie said, her pale cheeks starting to flush pink. “But like I think I’ve said, it’s basically been you since we met. Period.”
“Okay, but even with all the weight I’ve gained? I mean, you’ve had to yank me out of a hole in the wall,” Daron said, his own face heating a little at the memories. “And I was maybe five pounds away from needing the same in that attic door. I’m probably there now, actually,” he admitted, giving the side of his belly a short but harsh smack.
“Daron…” Freddie stepped closer at this, and took the offending hand in hers. “I don’t care about that. I think it’s kind of hot, actually.”
“You think it’s…what?”
“Well, yeah. I was gonna bring it up as a possible roleplay down the line.”
“Roleplay? What, with me getting stuck?”
“Look,” Freddie said, her cheeks elevating to near crimson. “All kinky shit is about power, right? And for the record, I love being dominated. You could throw me on that couch right now and demand I take all my clothes off and I’d probably come without you ever touching me. But, sometimes, I like to have the power. And being the one in a position to help yank you out of a tight spot…it just…would be kind of sexy, you know?”
Daron just stared at her, his brain whirring to try and process this new information. Freddie’s whole face collected the deep red of her cheeks before she took a deep breath, and some of it faded.
“I’m not sure how we got onto this. I didn’t mean to…jump the gun. All I was trying to say is that I love you as you are. Every inch.”
This time, it was Daron who moved in to kiss Freddie. It was still passionate, but without the edge of nervous terror from when they had first gotten back. After a minute, he broke away to respond.
“I love you too, Fred.”
“Oh, shit,” she said, her eyes widening. “Did I…?”
“Yeah,” Daron laughed. “Thank God you slipped first.”
Freddie buried her face in her hands. Daron took them in his, then used them to guide Freddie around until her back was to the couch, then he gently shoved. Freddie landed, grinning up at him.
“You’re looking a little hot,” he said. “I think it’s time to get rid of that cardigan, don’t you?”
Hours later, Daron was fast asleep next to the woman he loved, satiated by good food and great sex. Their conversation wasn’t a cure-all, by any means, but Daron had left their lights on without hesitation, and found himself more in the moment than he was fixated on how he looked or jiggled in certain movements. It was, pun intended, quite the weight off.
From the depths of his dreams, wherein he and Freddie were ruling over Saturn that was also somehow his childhood home, Daron heard an irritating buzz. A large beetle rose up near his foot, and he moved quickly away from it, his nose wrinkling. But the buzz got louder, the beetle coming closer. Right before it snapped at him, Daron awoke, realizing it was his phone ringing on the nightstand. Freddie, sleepily, raised her head and looked around the room.
“It’s Julie,” Daron said, sitting up and grabbing his phone. This woke Freddie up more, and she grabbed her own phone off the other nightstand.
“I missed a call from Xander,” she told him, right as he accepted Julie’s call.
“Jules, what is it?”
“Daron, I’m sorry to call so late. There was an emergency - Francesca started to bleed tonight, and soon it got out of control and she collapsed. Ross is a disaster and has been calling from the hospital. Is there any chance you and Freddie can meet us there?”
“Yeah, we’ll be there,” Daron said, catching Freddie’s eye, who nodded.
“Time to get some answers?” Freddie said, checking her phone again. “Almost midnight on a Tuesday. When better?”
“Yeah, hopefully,” Daron said slowly, running his hands over his face and through his hair to try and wake himself up.
“Everything okay?” Freddie asked as she stood, looking back at Daron.
Daron, realizing the feelings of dread weren’t draining away, decided to be honest.
In the car on the way to the hotel, Freddie’s head subtly tipped over until it was leaning against the window. Daron ignored it until he went over a bump, and heard her head smack the window.
“Shit, sorry, Fred. You okay?”
“Yeah,” his girlfriend replied, brushing her hand over her forehead and then into her eyes. “Just tired. I’ll be all right.”
Daron understood that. Adrenaline had pushed him through dressing - despite the first shirt he grabbed, a grey top listing all the bands present at a festival out in the boonies he’d attended years ago, being far too tight. He’d ignored the way it grabbed him and instead tossed a navy knitted sweater over it, figuring he shouldn’t overheat in the dark of night. The pinching of the snug button on his jeans pressing into his soft lower belly also kept him alert (and irritated, though most importantly, awake). Freddie’s dress she had tossed on seemed much less constraining, and she was subsequently having trouble blinking the sleep out of her eyes.
“Hope Francesca’s okay,” Daron murmured, and Freddie met his eyes as they stopped at a red light. His tone contained less concern, and more…wary confusion. Freddie nodded.
“Me too,” she said. “And that we can get some answers out of Ross.”
The hospital they arrived at about 20 minutes later was small compared to several others in the metropolitan area. Rather than being overseen by religious organizations, this one was a collaboration between a local reservation and independent doctors in the area. As a result, Freddie and Daron didn’t find themselves blinded by bright fluorescents or stopped by bustling workers when they entered the hospital. It was quiet, and dim. Julie had texted them to head to the second floor upon arrival, so they did, automatically shifting onto their tip-toes so as not to disturb the nearly oppressive silence in the dark halls.
Once they reached the next floor, they did actually find a nurse.
“She’s not receiving visitors now,” the middle aged woman informed them when Daron asked about Francesca. “But you’ll find the rest of your party down the hall, to the right.”
Daron nodded to her in thanks, and Freddie quietly slipped her small hand into his soft one. Normally Daron felt public hand-holding to be childish at best, but the unfamiliar and poorly lit halls DID give him an uncomfortable feeling. He squeezed her hand back gently as they followed the nurse’s instructions.
Daron felt a weight lift off him when he rounded the corner and saw Julie. To his surprise, she approached the pair quickly, and greeted both Daron and Freddie with a quick side-hug. Daron remembered to suck in his too-tightly dressed gut at the last minute, but his coworker’s slight frame still sunk into it a little before she pulled away.
“Are you all right?” Freddie asked their coworker, her green eyes concerned.
“I am, yes, sorry. Ross showed Xander and I photos of the scene before the paramedics arrived. There was…” Julie swallowed, her eyes flicking down and then back up. “A lot of blood. More than even I’m used to.”
“Shit,” Daron said.
“Where’s Xander?” Freddie asked.
“With Ross. Francesca is sedated. The baby may need to be delivered sooner rather than later…we’re waiting to hear.”
“So do they have any idea what happened?”
“Not yet. Francesca is at least stable, though.”
“What do you need from us?”
“Honestly, and I hate to ask this after dragging you two out of bed, but…just to sit tight. Francesca’s room is there-” Julie gestured across the hall to where there were three rooms closed by sliding glass doors. Shades were drawn for each, except the first, which was clearly empty, and Julie indicated the middle room. “And while Xander and I talk with Ross, we were hoping you’d keep an eye on her room. Just in case.”
“Sure,” Freddie spoke up. “Got any incidentals for some coffee and snacks, though?”
Julie smiled, reaching into her pocket.
After cheerfully receiving a bundle of $1s from Julie, Freddie took a seat in one of the plastic chairs across from the rooms. Daron joined her after wishing Julie luck.
“You settle in, I’ll be right back,” Freddie told him with a swift kiss on the cheek, heading down the hall. Daron followed her bright hair with his gaze until she disappeared around a corner.
He shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. The chairs curved up at the sides, apparently trying to comfortably cradle the user’s backside, but that was clearly designed for straight sized people. The soft edges of Daron’s rear cut into the sharp upward curve of the seat, causing him to shift back and forth. Finally, he found comfort with himself turned nearly completely sideways, only one buttcheek resting on the chair. Leaning his shoulder back against the wall, he looked around. There was a nurse’s station, but it was currently deserted and half in shadow. The very slight green tint from the low lights made it difficult for Daron focus on any one thing in the room, and soon, he closed his eyes.
But snapped them open right after, for he could have sworn he saw movement in his peripheral vision. A curtain rustling? Something moving? He wasn’t sure, but it didn’t become clear as he turned his head this way and that. By the time Freddie returned with two styrofoam cups and candy bars, Daron was slightly nauseous.
“Here,” she said, handing him the dark coffee. He closed his eyes and sipped, tasting the black of the coffee along with the heaping sugar that Freddie knew he liked. It grounded him.
Freddie sat back and sipped her own much lighter colored coffee, the scores of cream bringing it nearly to Daron’s skin tone. She handed Daron a large snickers and bag of chips, while she began to open a package of Reese’s cups.
“Thanks, Thornberry,” Daron said, trying not to think of their weakened client in the nearby room as he tucked into his treats. He alternated between a handful of chips and a bite of snickers, satisfying each salty and sweet craving as it arose. He caught Freddie watching with a half-smile as she finished her coffee and took a bite of her Reese’s. “What?”
“Nothin’,” she said. “You’re just cute.”
“Uh-huh,” Daron replied sardonically, suddenly becoming aware of how he must look. Trying to hide a blush, he brushed the potato chip crumbs off the top of his broad middle that had handily caught them.
“You do! Want my other cup?” Freddie offered, holding out the half-empty Reese’s container as she noticed Daron make another attempt to get a bite of Lay’s, but instead dump the salty crumbs left behind in disappointment.
“Fred, you may not mind me fat, but you don’t have to actively encourage it,” Daron said, trying to joke but with an obvious tinge of embarrassment coloring his words.
“I’m not encouraging anything except enjoying yourself,” Freddie protested, though even she flushed. “I don’t really want to eat it, and it’s gonna be a long night, so…” Freddie suddenly jerked her head to the right, towards the rooms, and Daron followed her gaze. He didn’t see anything, and by her confused blinding, neither did she. Right as he was about to ask what was up, she turned back to him. “If you don’t want it, no harm no foul, but I’m not gonna not offer just ‘cause you’re a little chubbier than society and some shitty ex would like you to be.”
Daron just cocked an eyebrow at that, and Freddie’s blush deepened as she made a show of beginning to pull the Reese’s back towards her.
“Oh, come on,” Daron said, reaching out. “Of course I want it. It’s Reese’s.”
Freddie grinned, her relief palpable as she released the package. Daron ate it in one bite, then settled back on his chair as best as he could, resting his hands on the height of his soft stomach. Freddie gently lay her head on his shoulder, and Daron, unable to resist, lay his head on the top of hers. He could feel his heart beating faster as he consumed his sweet coffee, but that didn’t do much to actually wake him up.
The re-emergence of his coworkers and Ross did, though. Daron raised his head and Freddie followed suit as they approached.
“We’re going to take Ross home,” Xander told them.
“Not for long,” Ross said hurriedly, a cowlick rising at the front of his hair as he blinked his red-rimmed eyes. “I just need a few things for Francesca.”
“Maybe help clean up a bit,” Julie added, in a tone meant for Daron and Freddie to hear her over Ross. The pair nodded.
“Can you two hold down the fort?” Xander asked.
“I don’t want her to be alone,” Ross said, his voice catching. “In case she wakes up while we’re gone.”
“Of course,” Freddie assured. “We’ll be right here.”
“Thank you two,” Xander said as Julie led Ross down the hall. “This means a lot. You’ll get overtime, of course, but this is really above and beyond.”
“No problem, Xander. Go take care of them,” Daron replied, nodding off down the hall. Xander clasped Daron’s chubby hand in a firm shake for a moment, then followed his girlfriend and Ross.
“Whew,” Freddie said, slumping back into the chair. “What a night.”
“No kidding. I should’ve brought my Switch.”
“Aww, that’d have been fun. Think we need to keep THAT close of a watch? I mean, we’ll know if she wakes up, right?”
“Yeah, pretty sure,” Daron replied, sitting awkwardly beside his partner. “I’d say we can get a little shut-eye in the meantime.”
The hospital corridors may have been dim, but the uncomfortable chairs still didn’t make for particularly conducive rest. Still, it was late, the earlier parts of the evening had been rather taxing - both mentally and physically - and Daron found his eyelids feeling heavy as Freddie lightly dozed on his shoulder.
It could have been hours or minutes later, but Daron’s eyes snapped open. He couldn’t tell you why - he didn’t immediately see or hear anyone or anything strange. Though as he blinked a few times, he realized the hall was almost TOO quiet. The buzzing of the lights was absent, as was the occasional beeping of machines and tumble of the wheels on rolling carts. Slowly lifting his head off Freddie’s, Daron realized his girlfriend was awake too - her entire body tense, eyes tracing the room.
Daron started to say her name, ask what was up, when she grabbed his thigh tightly in her hand. It bordered on painful, and the message was clear - shut up. Daron closed his mouth and stayed as still as he could, his dark eyes bouncing from shadow to shadow.
Then, almost imperceptibly, a movement and a sound from next to the open room. The area was bathed in shadow, but a creak and ruffle revealed a dark figure hurriedly stepping into the dim light. Daron’s mouth dropped as the person, tall and slight and clad in a black outer garment of some kind, slid open the door to Francesca’s room and stepped inside.
There was nearly a crackle of electricity between the pair on the chairs as they sat, frozen. But Freddie broke them out of their reverie as she jumped to her feet as she began to run to the room. Daron, just a few milliseconds later, followed suit.
“Nurse!” Freddie cried wildly as they reached the door, before ducking in. Daron followed, or at least, he tried to. The door that had been left open suddenly slammed shut - right on the midline of Daron’s body. He exhaled a loud oof as a result, feeling the door pressing several inches into his belly as it rammed him back against the doorframe. He struggled to free himself as his eyes adjusted to the dark of the room. Francesca’s heart monitor and the moon illuminated the figure they had followed in, and the sharp white dagger clenched in one hand as the other made sure the door kept Daron pinned. Freddie was on the other side of the room, near Francesca on her hospital bed. Daron squirmed harder, gripping the door in front of him, but it wouldn’t budge.
“HELP,” he yelled into the hallway, thinking (hoping) he heard footsteps headed their way. The figure took a step closer to Freddie and Francesca, and Daron reached frantically and sucked it in and finally got close enough to grab their hood. Rather than stopping them, it just came off, revealing medium length dishwater hair with a few faded highlights.
“Angela?” Freddie said, her wide green eyes mirroring Daron’s own shock at seeing Jeremy’s mother in the flesh again. In response to hearing her name, the lanky woman let out a sound that combined a growl with a groan, and lunged at Freddie.
“No!” Daron burst, and at that moment, a couple things happened. As he flailed helplessly, two nurses reached the room, and were able to release a catch on the door so it could be pulled off Daron. Freddie ducked under the ivory dagger that Angela wielded, charging and hitting her legs to knock her off her feet.
“Fred, Freddie,” Daron cried as he was released, pouncing and grabbing Angela’s hand that clenched the ivory dagger and prepared to swing it down. But as he looked at it next to him, he saw that the tip was already red. “Fuck, no!”
Angela hissed and dropped the dagger, which barely missed hitting Freddie as the girl rolled away. Daron heard her groan as she landed on her back, and saw a dark pool of liquid begin to spread out like wings from where she fell.
“Help her!” He cried to the nurses, who had first gone to the still-unconscious Francesca. He twisted Angela’s arms behind her in a pin, holding tight as she tried to fight away. One nurse dropped to the floor beside Freddie, while several more shapes filled the door. Xander, Julie, Ross, and two men in security uniforms.
“Call a cart. We need everyone out!” Called the nurse examining Freddie while security took ahold of Angela and led her away, while she continued vocalizing in an animalistic, guttural roar.
“Come on,” Julie said, touching Daron’s shoulder. But he didn’t move from kneeling by Freddie until Xander took his arm and hauled him to his feet, no mean feat even for their strong boss.
“I can’t leave her.”
“We need to let them do their jobs, and fast.”
Finally, Daron allowed himself to be led out of the room just before a doctor and third nurse wheeling a cart pushed their way in.
“I moved too late,” Daron said, unable to see what was happening but also unable to look away. “It’s my fault. I should have gone in first.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Xander said.
“Do you really think any of us could beat Freddie anywhere once she had her mind set to go?” Julie asked, and Daron didn’t respond. Partially because she was right, and partially because his too-pale girlfriend was being wheeled out of the room on a stretcher headed in the direction of the OR.
“What do I do?” Daron asked, his voice low enough that it was spoken half to his group, half just to himself. Still, Xander clapped a hand on his shoulder and responded.
Daron sat in his usual sideways position on the hospital chair, his toe tapping nervously. Xander offered his employee a comforting smile from the next seat until they heard the hospital room door next to them slide open, and the figure they’d been waiting for stepped out.
“Everyone, meet Atticus,” Ross announced, showing off the small, red baby in the swaddle in his arms.
“He’s beautiful,” Julie said. “Congratulations.”
“Does he…look like anyone you may know?…What? I’m still coming off pain meds,” Freddie said, defending herself against the side-eyed looks as she showed off the bandages on her lower back. Daron would normally give a good-natured eye roll, but instead he just moved closer. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get over the terror of seeing her attacked by Angela.
“I don’t know,” Ross said. “And I don’t care.”
“Really?” Daron couldn’t help but ask, surprised.
“Yes. I don’t care if he has another father or no father at all. He’s mine where it counts, and we’re a family,” Ross said firmly. “Francesca agrees.”
“It’s true,” Xander said, addressing his employees. “Francesca would also like us to drop the case.”
“But we don’t know…” Daron thought. “Anything.”
“We know Angela used Francesca’s teeth in her hex bag,” Freddie said.
“But how did she get them?”
“Francesca doesn’t remember,” Ross chimed in, though he didn’t meet Daron’s eyes when he said it.
“We know Angela was a witch,” Freddie continued, counting down a second finger.
“We know she thought she was a witch,” Daron interjected. Freddie ignored him, counting down her third finger.
“And that she had plans for Atticus, since she had to abandon Jeremy with us sniffing around…”
“But what plans?”
“Daron, I really don’t think we need to know. This isn’t that kind of story.”
“But what if I want to know? And didn’t you believe it was actually supernatural?”
“Yes, and that’s partially why I think we need to leave it alone, Daron,” Freddie continued firmly. “Angela’s still going away for a long time; we should take the W and move on.”
“Maybe I don’t want to move on,” grumbled Daron. “And maybe a ‘long time’ isn’t long enough.”
“Hey, I’m the one who got stabbed, y’know,” Freddie said, hip-bumping her boyfriend with a grin. He didn’t return it, but did wrap his arm more tightly around her at the memory. Disgruntled, Daron met Xander’s understanding eyes. His boss clapped him on his free shoulder, reminiscent of that night a few days before as they waited for news of Freddie.
“We don’t always get it all wrapped up in a nice bow. But everyone’s okay, and that’s what matters.”
“You’re right,” Daron said after a brief pause, taking in Freddie standing before him. His present, and his future. “You’re right.”
After each member of the team partook in the requisite amount of fawning over new baby Atticus, and wishing Ross and Francesca well, Daron and Freddie headed back out to his car in the hospital parking lot. Hesitating at the door, Daron turned to Freddie, who noticed and paused before hopping in the passenger seat.
"So if this isn't that kind of story," Daron said, slowly. "Where I get to make sure everything makes sense before we move on...what is it, then?"
"Hm," Freddie said, stepping over to him and burrowing her head in his chest as she thought. Her arm opposite her hurt side went around Daron's thick waist, and he gently held her. "I suppose it's a love story."
The nearly full church erupted in applause, and pale pink lips met full dark ones as Julie and Xander shared their first kiss as man and wife. Next to Daron in the second row of pews, Freddie whooped as she clapped. Still, despite her excited vocalizing, Daron couldn’t help but notice her eyes were wet.
“You good, Fred?”
“Yes! Yes. It’s just about time. We’re a family business now!”
“Almost,” Daron said, watching Xander and Julie break apart and raise their hands together in celebration. “Thinkin’…you next?”
“OhmyGod, Daron, I’m 27,” Freddie retorted. “What am I, a child bride?”
Daron winked at her as he clapped, and she blushed.
“Not that I wouldn’t want to…y’know…if anyone, well, with you…”
“I’m teasing, Thornberry. We have a couple more steps first. Like, making sure I can even live with someone who works out multiple times a day.”
“Well, if you can’t, we can always have two connecting houses. Like Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, minus the racism and inevitable breakup.”
“Right. And we can do that by…winning the lottery?”
“Stock markets?” Freddie said airly, waving her hands around in a gesture of dramatic emphasis. “Or, we take these three weeks we’re in charge while those lucky ducks are ziplining or whatever you do in South America on your honeymoon and turn this business into a profit machine.”
“And here I thought you’d want to focus on the weirdest cases while we still could,” Daron mused, making eye contact with Julie in her white satin dress as they walked down the aisle and smiling.
“…No, I do, you’re right. That was a terrible idea. If we only focus on the lonely rich ones falsely crying haunted house, I’ll throw myself off a bridge.”
“I know you will,” Daron said, pausing in his applause to tug his light green button-up away from clinging to his middle. Freddie had never given him a moment of concern over his continued weight gain, but it was still irritating, having to pick up new clothes for nice (but rare) events like a wedding. And she hadn’t let him size up; she assured him the fitted look was handsome and stylish. Maybe, but he couldn’t help feeling a little exposed.
“It’s too bad we don’t know for sure if Francesca and her clone baby made it to Italy. I’d take the opportunity to eat some real pasta in the sun while following up on that clusterfuck,” Freddie ruminated. Daron pulled a face.
“Not worth it,” he said. After closing the case, Francesca and Ross and their baby had all but disappeared. The dusty house sat empty, and they left no forwarding address. Despite Daron’s itch to learn the intricacies of any and all mysteries, he had long since decided to leave that one in the past. “I was thinking we could take a look at a few of the reports about malfunctioning computers while it’s just us. E-mails from deceased relatives, electricity flickering while in use, that kind of thing. Get some time in my wheelhouse.”
“You want to do tech support while we have free reign?” Freddie wrinkled her nose and looked at Daron skeptically. “That’s…super lame, even for you. What about the cryptid reports? We could even finance a trip to Appalachia to investigate, I bet!”
“You want to sneak a romantic getaway to find Mothman, Thornberry?”
“Mmmaybe,” Freddie said, slipping an arm through his. Her small hand held onto his soft, yet thick, bicep through his grey dinner jacket.
“Well, we have a little time to ourselves,” Daron said, patting her hand with his other free hand. “I bet we could manage both.”
“I bet we could too,” Freddie said, stopping to let some other attendees pass them in the aisle. She took the opportunity to gently swivel Daron her way, and plant a soft kiss on his lips while her free hand pressed into his soft middle. After a moment, he felt it playing around with the (just barely) too-tight button.
“Hey now,” Daron said finally, breaking away and removing her hand with a grin. “If we undo that, who knows if I'll ever be able to button it back up again? I haven’t even eaten yet.”
“Mmm…fair point,” Freddie said, pinching his soft side lighting quick before steering him out of the church. “We’ll just have to go shopping again.”
“Not cut back on food?”
“Definitely, no. Anything but that.”
It’s the end! Really really! I can’t believe I spent over a year on this story whose characters I am more than a little obsessed with. Thanks to anyone who read along, and after a little R&R, I’ll be back with some new ideas and stories. I appreciate you all for this platform!
Thanks everyone! Your words are genuinely so appreciated, and keep me coming back.
A sidenote & general announcement for any lurkers (since no commenters or “like”ers so far are guilty of this): I’m here to share stories, not make romantic or sexual connections. I’m on the ace spectrum, so being hit up for pics or RPs in my DMs is going to be a hearty “no” from me, and definitely keep me from coming back as often. Just in case you’re reading this and thinking about it bc I’m clearly into big men so I might want you, specifically - please don’t. I know others on this site are probably cool with it, but I’m not. Thanks!