Story:Barely Standing

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Barely Standing
Written by IllaRouge and Rourkie

Hortense d'Anconia by Jaymzeecat

The last season was over, and the new season was on the horizon, so Hortense's work load had shifted to other projects, more montages than editing and cobbling new footage. FSPN was in full guess-mode, what they called "predictions," so she spent much of her time looking at familiar images. Extra projects upon extra projects she took to try and show her skills. Her application was in for Seattle's Project Manager, but any extra favors she could curry wouldn't go unnoticed, she hoped.

And thus, she spent her day off working on Monday's highlight reel. Training camps had started up, so the commentators would need something to talk about. She stripped down to a simple shirt after having needed to go in for a tablet she'd left some notes on.

That's when a particular bunny arrived at the small apartment complex and texted the corgi. He hoped she wouldn't mind him surprising her like this. It was last minute, but he wanted to see her.

Hortense glanced at her phone, already dressed down for what felt like a long day already. She raised an eyebrow to no one in particular. <Yeah, I'm fuckin' home. Why? Wanted to Snype?> She headed for the bathroom and set her phone on the counter. She hopped up on a step stool and got to work putting her piercings in. She took out the clear plastic one in her eyebrow; the hole still needed time to set, but she couldn't have something big and shiny while she was at FSPN.

<I was hoping for something a little more intimate.> Lance grinned, thought for a moment, and added: <Who you fucking at home? ;03>

She finished putting in a small bar and picked her phone back up. <No one, tonight. Been a long day, didn't have time to go to sluts-r-us>

<Well, it's a good thing I'm bringing delivery then.>

He figured the time it took to get up to the second floor would be enough time to read before he rang.

Forgetting the doorbell didn't work, Lance knocked on the exterior door. His apartment in Arizona had a buzzer, but these apartments each had a private entrance. He thought he saw the neighbor's curtain move to check out who was lurking outside.

She narrowed her gaze. Looking at the phone, she allowed herself just the narrowest of suspension of disbelief. She hopped down and trotted to the door. The peephole was useless to her, so she just went on faith and opened. "Fuckin' hell."

"I was hoping for 'Fuckin' Heaven,' but I'll settle 'Fuckin' you to death' in a figurative sense." He smirked at her. "Hi, Teni."

She pulled him in by the hand and hugged his belly. "Hi, bun." She nuzzled him for a moment but pulled away. "Let the interrogation b-begin."

"Oh boy, role-playing the Gulag already?" He giggled and ruffled her head, mostly because he knew she hated it.

She slugged him in the butt and ushered him in so she could shut the door. "You wish," she said. "So, what the hell are you d-doing here?"

"Well, we had the weekend off so we could be fresh going into the season, so I thought I'd surprise you." He laughed. "Um, Surprise! "

She faked being shocked, letting it slip into her normal cocky smirk. She deadbolted the door and walked him into her modest living room. "Well, I'm flattered to say the least." She looked at the mild mess comprising the rest of her apartment. "Though it looks like shit, b-but you'll survive."

"Heh, it's looked worse after weekends before, and in don't mind a little mess. My place is always too clean."

"You wanna order some pizza, and catch up? What have you been up to?"

She reached for a phone book on the table and tossed it to him. "Pick out some place that looks good." She flopped on the couch and pulled her shirt over her knees. "Work, work, work, w-work. Pretty much all I have time for nowadays."

"Aww, all work and no play..." Lance sat next to her. "Well, all the more reason coming up was important." He laid his hand on her back in a half-embrace. "You'll get that position soon, then they won't get to dick you around so much."

She smirked. "Gotta pussy up that p-place," she offered, wiggling her toes. She sighed. "It's making me a mild wreck. They said they're starting interviews, but I hope it happens."

"Well, they can't not hire you for the position, you're amazing. And I would have thought that before we met. Always thought FSPN had awesome editing." He tickled her toes.

She flinched but allowed herself to be played with. "I hope you're right. They haven't had a f-female manager in Seattle before." She shook her head. It was too easy to get into the bad thoughts. "Pick a place. I'm starving."

Lance picked a place at random that wasn't too far. He didn't know the area too well, but he was starting to recognize the street names. "C. K. Kitchen, they any good?"

"Yeah, especially their garlic knots." She slid off the couch and scooped up her phone. "Requests? Preferences? Favorites?"

"Mmm, something meat on the pies, get enough for leftovers. Ooh and garlic knots sound good, get some of those and some mozzarella sticks, double order each. It's a mini-vacation, can afford to cheat a little." He chuckled, tossing her his card.

She made no attempt to catch it and let it fall softly to the floor. She winked, pulling the phone to her ear. "I'll get the whole menu," she cooed and headed to the kitchen to grab drinks while she ordered. "Pull up something good on EweTube!"

Lance logged into the XB-Ox, setting up the video app to play the latest episode of the Late Late Show, something they could pay half attention to.

She tossed her phone on the table when she returned. "Food, bun, is on the way." She set two bottles of porter on the table.

"Mmm. Then come and join me until it arrives." He'd already doffed his jeans and sweatshirt, matching his t-shirt and underwear to her outfit, much more comfortable and intimate. He opened his arms in invitation.

She raised her eyebrows in an exaggerated gesture of approval, before devolving into a snicker. She crawled up and nestled in his chest. Her own fluff squeezed out as she got a better view of the screen. "You got c-comfy quick."

"Well, it seemed I had some catching up to do. Besides, skinny jeans may look good on me, but they always feel too snug by the end of the day." He adjusted his own underwear a little, where the fur was still matted from the waistband digging in under his belly. "I'd much rather be naked, but I'm not sure the delivery guy would appreciate that."

She shrugged. "If it's the same guy, I've given him an eyeful more than once." She relaxed against him but made no move to tease him. She fixed her gaze on the television. "Not sure if I'm his t-type or not."

Lance chuckled. "More of you for me then. Maybe he's gay?" He laughed and wrapped his arms around her. "We could always give him a show, if you like." He smirked and considered nibbling her ear, but decided snuggling was nicer at the moment.

She snickered, hugging him tighter. "Not tonight, Lance. This is g-good." She smiled at him without a worry in her eyes. "So, you're not in space now."

"Yes, I'm glad you noticed." He chuckled. "Still forget how much effort moving things around sometimes takes down here, but I'm back on terra firma for the duration, and used to it again."

She patted his stomach. "D-Don't go launching again soon, huh?" She turned her focus to the television and settled in. "What's it like up there?"

He laughed this time. "I won't. I can't, even. First time is free, next time I gotta go the long way. You got a good 8 to 12 years before I'm allowed back up there, probably more depending on how long my career lasts," he mused, idly. "And it's kind of indescribable, but incredible. The views were worth the trip alone. Though, sometimes it made me lonely, even with other people there. Always dark, and the lack of gravity really leaves you without grounding. But oh man, I'll never look at 'up and down' the same way. There is no up or down, just whatever you want it to be."

She visibly shivered, and her hair stood up a little around her neck. "Yeah, that's all yours, b-bun. I'm fine with my feet on the ground." She sat up and leaned against the couch. "Besides, I've got enough to do here without worrying about all the stuff you've got to do to get into space. Oh g-god, it's so high."

"Yeah, it's pretty high. But you hit a point where the height just doesn't matter. It's all 'too high,' but that's what makes it kind of amazing. You can see so much up there, like being on top of a tall mountain, only so much clearer."

She gave him his due, though it seemed she would not be broken of whatever it was that held her firmly to the ground. "I'm glad you got to experience it. It m-must have been amazing."

"It was, and I'd do it again if I could, but not for a while. It's good to be back, where things make a little more sense." He smirked. "Besides, no comfy couches to snuggle on up there. We'd have to squeeze into a sleeping bag if we wanted to do this."

"I hear you can't fuck in space, so I'm out," she ended, giggling to herself. She stretched and let the video play for a moment. Before long, a knocking at the door prompted her to get up. She pulled some bills out of her wallet and padded to the door. It was clear she was wearing little more than a shirt, but the length of it combined with the deliveryman's apathy made it a moot point; he likely was sent there just because of his lack of caring. She took the boxes and tossed them up on the table behind the couch. "You w-want something else to drink?" she offered as she returned to the kitchen for plates.

"Whatever you're drinking is fine," he said, poking around the boxes to sort them out for better viewing. "You can't get delivery in space, either. It's all toothpaste tubes and MRE's. I'm definitely glad to be eating real food again." He paused to admire the view from behind; while the front of her shirt didn't show much, the back was fully exposed, and he was happy to drink it in.

She shoved a couple plastic plates under her arm. She popped the caps on two more porters and brought them with her. He'd already begun surveying the food, so she wafted the smell up with the plates until he noticed her. "Be careful. She's hot, but she can b-burn if you're not careful."

"Mmm, I been around her enough to know when she's safe to touch." He smirked again, an almost permanent fixture when (he thought) he was being clever. He took the plate and the offered bottle, but let her pick first.

She loaded her plate with a healthy selection of each of their choices. The bottle sat cradled between her fingers as she waddled back to the couch and hopped up. She wiggled against the padded cushions. Not much of her life now concerned more than her job, so when she had the opportunity to unwind, it was a welcome respite.

Lance kneeled backwards on the couch and did the same, a heaping pile to reflect the recent rekindling of his love for solid food. His boxers slipped a little as he leaned forward, giving Hortense a show in repayment for her own. "This looks amazing."

She smiled as he descended. The two delved into their food not unlike a feeding frenzy, though with a much more reserved edge. She sat her plate next to her and vacillated her gaze between him and the TV. "You got in fairly late t-t-tonight, huh? Won't be much to do until tomorrow."

"That's okay. We had an unexpected layover, and that always makes for a long day. I don't mind a low key night, they seem to be few and far between for me."

She yawned, before replacing the empty space with more food. Chewing a little, "Would you mind an early bed? I've b-been up for almost twenty hours."

"That would be nice. So long as you don't mind being a cuddlecorgi. I left my teddy bear at home." He smiled softly.

She scoffed. "I'll take that as a compliment." After giving him a light bump on the arm, she craned her neck up for a peck on the lips. "First, though, I'm looking to end up in a food c-coma."

Snuggling was even nicer than Lance remembered, not wanting to admit he hadn't taken to anyone's bed since she had visited him in Louisiana. (The quickie in the cargo bay at ISA headquarters didn't count, by his standards.) "Mmm, glad I came up, I've missed you."

She enjoyed being big spoon in these situations, despite the obvious height disparities. Having strategically placed herself in this position, she nuzzled into his back. "I'm having the same feeling." She sighed deeply and began to wish the two would be able to fall asleep quickly rather than her initial plan.

He moan-sighed, the pressure on his back just enough to really help him relax. As much as he loved to embrace someone, being held was a rare treat, and he was more than happy to oblige.

She wanted for him to intercede on her addled mind, provide some sort of bridge into a conversation that needed to happen, but her reliance was nothing she was going to put stock in. She gave one more loud exhale and tightened her grip on him. "Lance, I have something I need to tell you."

Having been half asleep, he tensed in her arms, suddenly awake. Not wanting to roll over her, he half-turned, and asked "What's up?" in a practiced, even tone, but she knew him well enough to hear the slight undercurrent of panic as he strived to play it cool.

She squeezed again to provide some measure of reassurance. "Don't do that," she warned, and they were instantly on the same page. She kept her hold on him, silently not quite ready to submit to face-to-face interaction just yet. "It's just something I've needed to talk to you about. I should have said something before you launched, but I didn't want one extra concern on your m-mind while you were floating up there."

The tension in his body softened as he gently shifted to his back, her head on his chest now. "Okay, well, I'm all ears." There was no irony or joking in his statement, as they held each other in bed.

She rolled away from him a little so that her gaze struck the ceiling. She folded her hands on her solar plexus and breathed slowly. She busied herself for a brief moment by counting the bumps on her popcorn ceiling. "You remember when you came up just before the playoffs started," more as a statement than a question."

"Yea-ha-hah," he said, laughing in affectionate recollection. "That was a lot of fun." He didn't say more though, he didn't want to interrupt, even if the memory was bold and vivid and beautiful.

"Can't argue with that." She took extended periods of silence. Her script was somewhat laid before her in her head, but putting those words into action was eluding her. She didn't figure a misrepresentation of what she wanted to say, but rather it just felt uncomfortable. "I missed a day before you came."

"Missed a d--" His brain ground to a halt. "Wait, you mean you're--" he didn't want to say it, but the excitement in his voice said it all. "Teni, that's--wow, that's--wonderful!" was the next word, but his tact got the better of him.

The look of panic washed over her visage. She stumbled for a moment, but she eeked out, "What? Fuckin' no! Let me talk, goddamn it."

He frowned a little, knowing she couldn't see it, but upsetting her was not his attention. "S-sorry. Go ahead." He bit his tongue, wondering how his excitement got the better of him.

She furrowed her brow, her annoyance eventually subsiding; this was tough enough as it was. "I missed a day, and I found out about a month after you left."

He reached for her paw, not daring to speak but trying to show he was listening, he squeezed her paw lightly

Hortense couldn't shake the look from her, nor could she get out exactly what she wanted. "I wanted to tell you before the launch. I figured it wouldn't matter if I waited."

He paused, giving her the time she needed, but when she didn't say any more, he started again, more gently this time. "I... well... I can see why you waited, but you didn't have to. Are you okay? How are you feeling? That's a lot to go through by yourself." He tried to pace himself, but he could hear the excitement creeping back into his voice, and tried to check it; but his love for his kids was feeding it. He forced himself to take a pause. "How do you feel?" He asked, a little slower.

"Well, I felt," taking a moment to collect her thoughts, though it didn't seem to make her appear better. "I don't think I want to go into how I felt at the time. All I know is I w-wanted to tell you before the launch, then after you landed."

He nodded. "Well, you can tell me next time, don't bottle it in next time, ok? We promised no secrets, right? Anyway, I'm here for you however I can be, okay? So you don't have to worry so much."

"Next time?" She propped herself up on an elbow to better view him. Perhaps a momentary miscommunication was what she needed to pace herself. "What do you think I'm t-talking about?"

His brow furrowed, and he glanced over at her for the first time in the conversation. "I mean, next time you think you can't talk about something. Or shouldn't, you can. I know why you didn't, but still, it's okay." He glanced at her, unsure if they were on the same page.

"No, you tell me what you think I was talking about, Lance."

He frowned again, wondering what was happening here. He chose his words carefully. "You said you were pregnant. That's a lot to go through alone, I'm just saying next time you wanna tell me something that big don't feel like you have to wait if you want to tell me."

She sighed. The whole conversation, as well as its basis, exhausted her, coupled with her own work-based stressors that didn't make her a prime candidate to deliver this sort of news. She was a believer of jumping in the deep end to learn to swim. "I was pregnant, Lance. I'm not pregnant now." She took a few seconds to order her next set of words, though she wanted to retain control of the conversation to help clarify her situation. "You made that one transmission from the station to call me, right? I-It happened about a week after that," still struggling to say the exact words.

"So you're not... I mean. Okay." He took a moment, almost afraid to ask. "What happened?"

A shrug was all she could muster in the moment after his question. "It just happened. It was there, then it wasn't." Her ears laid flat, yet no tears or other such signs of grief manifested themselves. Rather, she looked guilty more than anything.

"Are you okay?" He ventured, relieved and a little disappointed all at once, but he forced himself to focus on her.

She opened her mouth, and like other times when she got flustered, it looked like her words were withholding themselves. After she took a few seconds, she said, "I am, and fuck me, I feel guilty about it."

"I..." he paused, trying to formulate words. "I don't think you should feel guilty about it." He hoped the words didn't sound as stiff as they felt. He struggled to comfort her, even though he was even starting to feel guilty. But he let his mouth run anyway; "I mean, it's not like you did anything wrong, so why should you?" He nosed her cheek.

"No, I mean," taking another moment to center herself, "I m-mean I don't feel guilty about losing it. Like, I'm supposed to feel sad, right? Like this should be a really shitty time and I should be crying, but, nothing. I feel s-something like loss, but not like I assume it should feel."

"What should it feel like? I mean, did you get a chance to know her? It's not like you had much time, right?"

"Don't gender it, please." She looked more troubled by that than the rest of it.

He kept talking, but they were just words; he tried to shut out the image of his own kids not being born, and got a grip on it enough to be able to bury that idea under the feeling that Hortense needed him to be solid. "There's no book on this, people are bound to feel differently, yeah?"

"No, there's no b-book, but I'm supposed to feel worse, right? I don't think it's fair to just get over it." She sighed. "B-But if someone else came to me with the same problem, I'd never think they should f-feel had. So what's my problem, huh?"

"You're feeling guilty for not feeling guilty, yeah? Freud would have a field day with that." He snickered a little. "Seriously, though, a random person you don't know in Seattle dies unexpectedly, should you feel bad about that?"

She shook her head. "No, and I know I'm not responsible. But I guess it d-doesn't erase the fact that something seems like it should feel different." Her ears kept lowered. "But you, how do you feel?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. How should I feel? I never knew about h-- er... I mean, I just found out about this now, so I guess I don't really have any feelings other than making sure you're okay."

Hortense gave one breathy chuckle. "That's what I thought I'd have to do for you." She looked up at him finally. "You'd tell me if something was bothering you, right?"

"It's fine, and can't do anything about it anyway, right?" He smiled and nosed her cheek. "If you don't feel bad, neither do I."

She nodded. "Okay." She took his hand and squeezed it. "I just w-wanted to tell you. I don't now if right now is the best time to unpack all this."

"I'm glad you didn't wait. I mean this weekend. Thanks for telling me."

"Sorry. That's a hell of a start, huh?"

He pulled her close. "Not what I was expecting, but you weren't expecting me, so I guess we're even." He smirked.

She rolled her eyes. "Hardly a comparison." She kissed the underside of his chin. "Okay, food c-coma. I don't want to wake up until September."

Hortense only seemed to wake up in fits. She rarely woke up peacefully, usually only when Lance was around, sometimes Wyatt, so when she looked next to her and saw only ruffled blankets, things made sense. She squinted in the dark but couldn't make him out. She wondered where he was.

The water was running in the bathroom, and the light was on. There was another rhythmic sound, but it couldn't be heard clearly, drowned out by the tap.

The corgi groaned as she mustered the energy to move. Her modest, if growing, frame slid off the bed and touched down. Her species-inspired waddle carried her to the bathroom. Otherwise, she might exercise some propriety, but because it was her home, her bunny, she opened the door.

The rhythmic noise was all at once clear: Lance had been sobbing over the sink, his face dripping with water. Startled by the door, he stepped back, nearly falling into the shower behind him.

"T-Teni!" he exclaimed in shock, the slight stutter he'd picked up from the corgi in times of distress hung in the air, betraying his emotional state if his tears weren't enough to do so. "G-God, sorry, I was just..."

The loss of her shirt should have been a welcome sight. All at once, her muzzle scrunched up, her eyes full of anger, and she spun around and marched out of the room. The sound of a bottle breaking preceded her sliding door to her porch opening.

"Teni, wait! Oh shit. Shit, shit-- wait up!" He scrabbled after her. Clad only in his boxers, he chased after her, ignoring the night chill and vaguely worried for her being too cold. "It's not what you think!"

She slammed her fist against the glass without walking outside, a growl under her breath.

"Will you just listen to me?"

She spun around and pointed at him. "I am," taking long breaths, "the most pissed off at you than I have ever been at a person."

"What? Me? Why?"

"Because you fucking lied to me." She kept her bare back to the cool air outside. Her shoulders heaved. "I told you this, you said you were fine, and I find you crying in my goddamn bathroom."

His brow furrowed at her accusation. "I thought I was fine. You aren't making me feel bad about feeling bad about this."

She paced in front of the glass. Her fists clenched and unclenched. "So what is it? You feel bad for m-me? You?"

He sighed. "I feel bad for what might have been?"

She let out a far angrier sigh than her counterpart. "Jesus, is that what this might have been to you? Me being another goddamn mom off across the country?"

"Hortense, you are treading on thin ice with that."

"Oh? W-What? You basically just said it yourself. What might have been is this k-k-kid! And me raising it alone!"

"That's not how it would have turned out," he half-growled.

She scoffed. "No? I'm sure I'm j-just supposed to believe that." She tapped her foot. "Jesus, would I have just been another April?"

Whether it be her height and the lighting or something else, she'd never seen such a scowl from Lance. He huffed and turned on his feet. She thought he'd head for the bedroom, but he turned to the door. She pursued.

"Your fat ass isn't walking away from this!"

He threw the door open and marched out onto the small landing the connected the front doors of all the apartments. He caught himself with the metal railing and looked out onto the dark parking lot.

"What the hell," she said, standing in the doorway.

Hearing her voice, he scuffled farther away from the opening. "I should be saying that." He looked over his shoulder at her. "Where do you get off saying something like that to me?"

"I'm not going to pretend like April and your kids aren't already a thing." She crossed her arms over her bare chest. "You've got two kids you can't go see much. I get pregnant and start worrying I'll end up the same way. Call me crazy, I got nervous."

"This!" he exclaimed, pointing to the ground, "is not the same thing, and fuck you for comparing the two."

She matched his scowl but chose not to counter. "Fine, if we keep this what it is, y-you were supposed to c-comfort me. Even if I didn't need it. I don't give two shits if that's selfish talk."

"What do you want me to do? Pretend that this is okay? I'm terrified, and I don't want to take it out on you. And you want to know how this is different?"

"Not particularly."

"Well too bad. I thought you were better than April. You don't try to manipulate me. You don't try to play with my emotions when you're upset just to make yourself feel better. I don't know what to expect from you, from us anymore. I just wish we could...I liked the idea..."

"We could what?" She stepped out. "You're not walking out on me right now, and you're not keeping shit from me. Not after what I just fucking told you."

"I'm not keeping shit from you." He refocused on the urban abyss in front of him. He shook his head. "I just liked the idea of getting to come home every day and have you there."

"Have me there?"

"Seriously, it's dumb, please just forget about it."

She didn't make a move. "Lance."

"I can't explain it. If I say it, you'll think I want too much when I really just want to be around you more than once a month, and with you losing the kid, I can't...I already don't see anyone I care about nearly as much as I should, and can't imagine what my life would be like without Sage and Basil. I just can't help but think what I'm missing by always being alone by the end of the day. I should have been there. When you found out, and when you lost her. Or him."

"You want something like what you should be having with April and the kids."

"Dammit, no! I knew you wouldn't understand."

"I fucking understand better than you think," her foot tapping again, "asshole."

He faced her. "Fuck you! You don't know the first thing I want. And you're a better woman ten times over than April will ever be, so stop telling me what I think about you both. I love my kids, but I don't ever want that bitch to live in my house, or sleep in my bed, or be there when I make breakfast in the morning. Fuck you for telling me what I want."

She wore a shit-eating grin, still shaking her head. "You know, I fucking knew this is what this would turn into. This isn't the time I should be comforting you, but I knew I'd be fucking doing it. But stop acting like I shouldn't be scared. You want something that I'm afraid I can't commit to, and I don't know where that goddamn leaves me!"

"I don't want your comfort, or your fucking pity, or whatever the fuck else. I don't want your god damned commitment, or a promise, or any fucking thing else. I'm sorry that you're the best fucking thing I have in my life right now and that I'm greedy and uncaring enough to want to spend more fucking time than two days out of every thirty. And if that makes you uncomfortable, to know that I still don't expect anything from you, just that I can't get enough of you, then I don't know what the fuck else you want because you seem to have no fucking problem begging me to stay longer when I have to leave. God fucking dammit!"

"Don't tell me you want me right after you tell me to fuck off. Fuck you." She chuckled, but just once. "Then you tell me what my fucking problem is if you know me so goddamn well! Everything I say has f-fuck-all to do with you. I wouldn't know the first shit about you if my head was up your ass. So you fucking t-tell me what it is you think my problem is, you fucking knight in goddamned shining armor, fucking gift in my life p-p-p-pr-p-fuck!" He moved farther away, but she kept closing the distance.

Both of them paused a moment, as someone poked their head out, cigarette in his beak. He stared at them for a moment. "What the fuck are you looking at?!" she offered, before the neighbor slammed the door in embarrassment. She looked back at him, and they resumed without a hitch.

"Don't push this back on me. I never fucking said anything about you! And you know me better than anybody fucking else, and yes, that scares the shit out of me, doubly so because you start getting weird if we spend more than half a week together. But don't put words in my fucking mouth and don't pretend that whatever we have here is going to work long-term because if I get closer, you freak out, and if I pull back, you get weird." He pointed to himself. "I'm not some fucking boytoy you get to see when you want to get your monthly fucking rocks off and put back on your shelf when you're done with me. And yes, I want to have a fucking family. No, not even a family, I'd be happy forever just to know that someone gives a fuck enough about me enough to want to stick around at least part-time. I never had that, not growing up, not now, and probably never will, but that doesn't change what I want. He sighed and turned so as to avoid the heated glare he knew she'd be giving him. "I just want someone to tell me for once that I'm worth more to them than a good fuck, or a child support payment, or that they could see a future with me that didn't involve a happy accident. I told you it was stupid. I won't bring it up again. If you want me to be your fuck toy, then fine, or if you want me to leave, I will. Whatever you want out of this, out of me, say the word."

Hortense's jaw locked up. She got like this when her stuttering got bad. She could normally manage it, but when she got flustered, when she got truly angry, her words would get caught. She didn't sputter or stammer; she just clenched until it passed, if it passed.

She wanted to cry or scream, make any noise. Her speech pattern never bothered her, didn't keep her from doing or saying what she wanted, except in moments like these. It was these moments that she wanted to dig into Lance, into anyone, anything that might ease the anger. Her breathing came in indeterminate bursts. Lance could see her struggling.

He took her hand, almost automatically, but realized too late that it was not what she might have needed.

She balled up her fist and let it fly right into his side. "You're not a fuck toy, you fucking asshole!"

He yelped and staggered. Rubbing his side, "Then what am I to you?" he asked softly, no fight in his voice. "I don't know! Fuck! Not that! Never that."

"Okay." He paused. Some of the heat dissipated from their conversation. What do you want from me then?"

She took a moment herself. Her instinct was to jump down his throat, but they'd both proved that their snap judgments weren't the best. "I want you to do what's best for you. What do you want?"

"I asked first."

"I said I want you to do what you need. What more do you want?"

"This isn't about me, you made that quite clear." He smirked a little, trying to offer some consolation to their previous grievances. "I've always wanted to make you happy. Not fix all your problems, since I don't think you'd let me anyway. But you make me happy, and I want the same for you."

"Then why did you make me feel bad about wanting you to stay? I know I'm weird. I don't know what I want. Or what's good for me."

"Because I'm so confused. I don't ever want to leave when I'm around you, but I can never tell if you want me to go or stay. So I start to doubt why you keep asking me to come, and you still haven't visited me in Arizona."

She grimaced, yet managed not to shout. "L-Lance, I don't visit you because of my job. Don't make that a big fucking deal." She slapped her stomach. "That's how I got this goddamn thing. You really think I'm asking you to come all the way up here for a fuck?"

"I know that, but I'm paranoid. That's not on you, but it doesn't help when I'm lying in bed alone at four am. And I hope not, but every time I acknowledge anything but sex, you get quiet."

She sighed. "Yeah, that's a pattern with me. Get used to it."

He nodded, not much else to say about it now. "As for this," placing his hand on her belly, "it's kind of cute. We match now. He patted his own belly, which was somewhat rounder than it was after he returned from space, but still smaller than it was at the start of the season the year before.

She put her hand on his. "I'm just not sure what I'm looking for. Wyatt's been great in helping me realize that I can have a friend that I can fuck. You? You're different."

"What's different? I'm just struggling to make it through, like everyone else. It just gets easier when I have someone who can keep up and understands what it means when I want to watch Steven Universe at three am and eat Sven and Cherry's."

"But you'll fuckin' do it!" She put her hands on her hips and averted her eyes from him. "You'll do that shit just because you want to. I didn't ask you to do it, you just show up, and it's fuckin' normal."

"Well, yeah. You're not shy. If it's a problem, I know you'll tell me." He sighed. "What's wrong with appreciating someone who's brutally honest with me? Everyone always tells me what they think I want to hear, except you."

"Well, you deserve that respect." She leaned against the doorframe. It was like some cold hit her all at once, though without a shiver, as she hugged herself. "I just don't know what to do with that appreciation. Do I give it back? Tell you to stop?" Long exhale, "All I can think to do is run."

He tried not to seem disingenuous. "I don't think either one of us really wants that, but I only know for sure how I feel." He chuckled. "Why is running so appealing?"

"Because I--" She took a moment and scratched at her neck fluff. She tried to compose herself and stay on track with her voice. "Because I have no fucking reason to not want this," gesturing to the two of them. "I don't have a shitty backstory or a dad that beat me or a boyfriend that left me at the alter or a manipulative girlfriend. So what the fuck is so scary about this?"

"So you want to run because you don't, what, have an excuse to run?" Lance scratched his head. "That's gotta be confusing," he said simply, trying to puzzle it out in his head.

She uttered a single chuckle. "Right?" She slid down and sat naked in her doorway. "I shouldn't be afraid of something like this, but I am. There's a permanency that's j-just...terrifying."

He stepped closer to her. "It doesn't have to be permanent, but I'd rather have a future with you in it than you out of it. I don't do the whole 'normal family' thing because I don't know what it was like. I truly don't know what to expect, so I don't expect anything."

She looked at him. "But do you know what kind of family you'd want?"

He laughed. "I don't want my kids raised by a complete stranger. That's all I got. Everything else is fair game."

She folded her legs. Her eyes kept going back and forth between him and her knees. "I'm not promising a-anything, and I'm not saying anything has changed." She sighed, "But if anything is going to happen, you need to start telling me the t-t-truth, got it?"

"I didn't tell you because I didn't know what I wanted. Still don't, really, but I still haven't really come down since my trip. I don't even know if I was terrified being up there or exhilarated. But you get a lot of alone time there too, and looking back at the world makes you decide things you don't even know until they come out." He sighed again. "Heh, you're not the only one making things more complicated than they have to be. I promise to tell you the truth if you promise to listen without running."

"Fine." She looked him dead in the eye. "Then tell me about April."

"What about her? I don't go out of my way to avoid talking about her."

"No, but you never tell me why she's got your kids if she's so bad for you. You don't want her in your bed, in your house, making you breakfast, so there's something that you're not telling me."

"Because I think we could have been good for each other at one point and both didn't see it when the other did. We dated when I first joined the Alphas, but after my first offseason, we agreed to put it on hold. After that, when I was chasing her, she didn't want a real relationship." His smile told two different stories." "And when I stopped, she was upset that suddenly playing hard to get wasn't working. I don't remember the night we had sex, but people tell me she and I finally just clicked again. It was like when we first met, the chemistry was there and anything could happen."

Hortense punctuated the silence with light taps of her claws on the metal railing.

"We must have enjoyed it, because there were a couple rubbers in the wastebin, so we figured we were safe. The next morning was super awkward, and we didn't talk much after that until she told me, probably a month or so after. Then, it was a fight between me trying to help and her wanting to do things on her own, but she couldn't once she got far enough along. I think she hated that I was 'right,' when all I wanted to do was help."

He took a few breaths before continuing. "After the kids were born, she wouldn't let me help support her in any way. I finally convinced her to let me help pay child support, but she refused my offers to get a house, to quit and move to Albany, or to take the kids for part of the year. I could visit anytime I liked, but short of a DNA sample, I can't prove that they're mine, so the court ordered her their legal guardian."

"You don't even know if they're yours?" Her eyes widened. "I mean, shit, you care about them, so of course they'll always be your kids. Have you seen how happy they are around you?" She looked to the Seattle skyline in the distance. "But damn, you've been dealing with this by yourself?"

"Yeah, pretty much. I really only get to see them if April is in a good mood, or if she needs someone to watch them for an extended period of time. And I think she's afraid that they might not be mine, which is why she won't let them do the test."

She paused for a while. The space between her face and knees was filled with fluff, and she fiddled with it when she wasn't sure what to do. "Do you want to know?"

He gave it a moment. "I already know they're mine. You'd be silly not to see Sage has my athletic interest, and Bazil has my appetite." He laughed again, but there was a painful undertone. He shifted slightly, and his cheeks caught the light from a streetlamp; they were wet with tears. "But I can't prove it, and I could lose them on any given day if she said the word."

Hortense looked at him. She needed to see him in this moment. "And if you sued for a p-paternity test, she'd take them." She stood back up, unbothered by the cold. "So you have to continue as usual, like nothing's wrong."

He tried to answer but couldn't do more than nod his head. The banister he was leaning on creaked a little as he dug his claws into it, flaking some of the paint off as he did.

She raised her hand and put it on his. "Don't do that." She looked up, pointing at his head. "That, in your head. D-Don't do that."

"I..." He let out another sigh, but it turned into a stammer. "I fooled myself into thinking it could work. It was nice, you know? Getting to pretend for a little while before the kids came. I finally had someone to care for, someone who needed me. I knew she just wanted someone to hold her and tell her it would be okay, but I thought maybe if I was good enough at it she'd want me to stay. Once the kids were here, and she could take care of them on her own, I was expected to go to my flat, or back to Arizona. She didn't want me any more than she ever did."

Hortense put her free arm around Lance and squeezed. She kept her hand on his and let him talk.

"Now I just don't know what to do. I never had a family growing up, and now I already can't see my kids. I feel like I'm trying to do the right thing, but every time I try it blows up in my face."

She nodded. "It's not fair to you." Her ears drooped, and she leaned against him. "But there's h-hope."

"Life isn't fair, I gave up on 'fair' growing up. Just gotta find the good things and hold on to them as long as you can." He wrapped an arm around her and let her lean into him a little.

She felt both of their bodies relax. "And you're holding onto something good. I saw it when I came down for the launch."

"I was talking about you, Teni."

"I know." She shifted her weight. "But you can hold onto that part of your life, too, even if it feels fucked up. Those kids...they're beautiful."

"Yeah they are. They're more special than I never imagined." He hugged Hortense close, enjoying her presence.

She smiled. How he spoke about his kids always brought her pleasure. Seeing their excited faces at the launch, how blissfully unaware of their father's endeavor, she cherished it. "Maybe someday," she mumbled.

Lance was lost in thought. He looked down at the corgi. "What was that?"

She shook her head. "Your kids make it worth it. That's all I meant."

"Yeah, they really do. I'd pretty much do anything for them." He thought for a moment. "Hey, what did you think of April when you met her?"

Hortense shivered a little, perhaps from the cold. "She kept staring at me. L-Like all day." She thought of Sage on her hip, feeling warmer. She smiled. "It kinda felt good."

"Really? I mean, how? Like she was puzzling you out? Or was she annoyed? Nervous?" He cut himself off. "Sorry. I mean, for making you spend the day with her."

She shrugged. "She was k-k-kinda plain? I just kept catching her looking. Always smiling."

"Alright. So that means she doesn't hate you. That's good. Very good." He took her hand into his.

She raised an eyebrow. She played with his claws. "Yeah? After you told me how manipulative she is?" She snickered. "She was jealous of me carrying her kids, b-bun."

His eyes went wide. "She let you hold the kids? That's really really good." He laughed a little. "Jealous or not, she doesn't even let me hold 'em sometimes."

"Well, I say 'let me' loosely." She weaved her fingers in his. "Sage made me hold her, so when I looked at April, she couldn't say much. We w-were around a couple folks by then anyway."

"Ah, well, still. I'm just saying she isn't shy about saying 'no.' It's a small victory for me, even if it wasn't on purpose." He smiled. "Sage really likes you. I think Basil does too, but he's a little bit more shy."

She smiled. "Yeah, he's a bit like you."

He chuckled. "You think I'm shy?" He gripped her paw lightly. "That's a first."

"You're big and t-talkative, but I see that reserved side of you. You seem to gravitate to people you know. New p-people, you take a big ol' breath," mimicking, "before engaging."

He blushed a little at that, and though the color couldn't be seen, the action was never subtle for him. "I suppose so, unless they need help in some sort of sports complex." He grinned.

"Yeah? You help old ladies like me a lot, huh?" She looked at her bun and smile, then back to the city in the distance. "I don't have a lot of time left to have kids, but somehow, that's never bothered me."

"Pffff. Fuck that, you're not old. Older than me, technically, but you're only as old as you let yourself be." He considered. "You wouldn't want to have kids someday?"

She stepped farther out on the balcony. "It's never been a c-concern." She touched her stomach. "I never saw much of myself worth passing on."

"I never really thought about it like that. I think you'd make a rockin' mom, you're great with the kids, and you care a lot more for people than you let on sometimes."

"Heh, fuck people." Snickering, "Most people." She stayed silent for a bit, but not looking to be in pain in anyway. She reached her hand out to get him to join her. "I'd rather pass on ideas. Kids are a bit beyond my scope right now."

"Yeah, I get that." There was more to say, but he didn't want to push her now that they weren't arguing anymore. He followed her lead and joined her.

Her ears laid back a little. "Is it w-weird that I feel bad for not feeling worse?"

"Nah, kids aren't for everyone. They weren't for me until I had 'em. Life isn't just about procreation and settling down."

"I mean," she paused, "about losing it."

"I dunno. I think you'd have felt different if she had been with you for nine months. Hard to say, though. I think you've got a lot going in life right now that you can't be distracted from, so it's probably a good thing in some respect."

"Don't call it a good thing," she said tersely. Her ears popped back up, though, after a moment. "B-But I know what you're trying to say. Thank you." She set her eyes on nothing in particular. She found it difficult to focus on anything tangible at the moment. "I know there's nothing wrong. All I know is I got a taste of what that life might be like. I didn't hate it, but I still don't know if I'm ready for it." She squeezed his hand. "Day b-by day, I suppose. I have more to think about, but I'd rather keep things like as is for now."

He sighed. "I just, when you said you lost her, the first thing I could think of was what if I lost one of mine. It's different, obviously, but that gut-drop was still there. Maybe it's not a good thing, but there's nothing to be done, so we have to believe it's okay, you know?"

"It is okay." She looked up at him, at the same time excusing the gendering. "I didn't know the sex of the baby, so don't hurt yourself over comparing it to Sage or Basil. Do not do that, okay?" She said it all with a smile. Then he smacked his butt. "Come on, inside. I could cut diamonds with these things," pointing to her overly modest chest. "Besides, t-time to eat."

He wrapped a paw around her waist. "Now what do you want for breakfast?"

"I said, 'It's t-time to eat,'" looking over her shoulder, "then we go out for breakfast."

Featured Characters

Lance Wildfyre Hortense d'Anconia April Wigglesworth

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