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The Stars Are the Greatest Thing

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Monica isn't a little kid.

She's not exactly a grown-up, either; she's not even a teenager yet, and her mom definitely still treats her like a baby a lot of the time. She's almost twelve now, though, and she's not dumb.

When she was five, it made perfect sense that Auntie Carol would spend the night at their apartment a lot of the time. She was Monica's mom's best friend, and that was what best friends did. Jade Dixon had been Monica's best friend back then, and Monica spent the night at Jade's house, after all.

Or anyway, she'd tried to. Twice. Both times, she hadn't been able to sleep, and Mr. Dixon had to call Mom in the middle of the night so she could come and get her. But Auntie Carol was a grown-up, and grown-ups could spend the night away from home and not get scared.

Monica's not in kindergarten any more, though, and she knows that adults don't have sleepovers.

Or, she knows that they do, sometimes, but they aren't the kind of sleepover that Monica had tried to have with Jade. (And then the crash happened, and Mom wouldn't let Monica out of her sight for very long, so she never got to try a third time. And then they'd moved to Louisiana, and by the time she'd made new friends and Mom wasn't crying as much, Monica was seven and spending the night was no big deal at all.)

Aunt Carol doesn't live with them all the time; she lives in outer space, which would be even cooler if Monica could tell anybody about it. Nobody's ever told her not to talk about it, but she figures most people are going to think she's either lying or crazy if she tries.

But when she's on Earth, Aunt Carol lives with Monica and her mom. Their house now is big enough that she can have her own bedroom; she doesn't have to sleep in Mom's room the way she did back in the old apartment.

After Aunt Carol came back the first time, Monica helped get the room ready, hanging up pictures and unpacking all the stuff Mom had kept in the closet. They'd done it while they were waiting for Aunt Carol to come back from space. It made it easier to believe that she was honestly going to come back.

But Aunt Carol doesn't sleep in her room. Monica has seen her leaving Mom's room early in the morning, headed for the shower, and they've bumped into each other a time or two when both of them had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Monica's old enough now that she knows what it means when there's a perfectly good bed down the hall, and grownups decide to sleep in the same room anyway.

She doesn't actually want to think about Mom and Aunt Carol doing any of the kind of stuff she's pretty sure they're doing, because yuck. Brian K. had kissed her at Deshaunna's birthday party last month, and that had been wet and sloppy and completely gross. She didn't know how people could stand doing any more than that. (Visualizing someone other than Brian K. made it a little less disgusting, but still. Too much spit.)

She's pretty sure that they do that stuff anyway, though, and they're just not okay with Monica knowing--not the details, of course not the details, but just the fact that they're... dating? Is it still dating if you never go anywhere except maybe the hardware store? Aunt Carol doesn't like to go into town when she's here--she says she wants to keep a low profile--so it doesn't look much like dating to Monica.

But maybe it's different when you're old like Mom and Aunt Carol.

It makes so much sense. How all of the pictures from when Monica was little, except when she was a tiny baby, have Aunt Carol in them. How long it took Mom to stop crying all the time after the crash. How she never did totally stop crying until Aunt Carol came back.

Why even though Monica's father hasn't been around since, like, ever, her mom hasn't ever gone on a date, not even once. And almost twelve years is a long time to not date, isn't it?

Except maybe not, if there was Aunt Carol, and then there was missing Aunt Carol, and then there was Aunt Carol again.

Aunt Carol's in space right now, and on nice evenings, Monica and her mom sit outside on the porch. They look up at the stars and tell each other stories about which one of those stars is where she is now, and whose butt she's kicking there.

Neither of them ever has any doubt about who's doing the butt-kicking, because Aunt Carol is awesome. She was awesome before everything, but now she can fly.

The weather has been dry for a while, so tonight, instead of sitting on the porch, they're lying on a blanket in the yard, looking up at the sky. Monica sees a shooting star--she knows they're meteors, but "shooting star" sounds so much prettier, and there's a time for not being accurate about things--and makes a wish.

And then, because her mom always says that wishing doesn't do any good unless you get off your butt and try to make it come true, she says, "Is Aunt Carol my stepmom?"

"Where did that come from?" Mom's voice sounds weird: scared and shaky. She didn't sound like that when the Skrulls were in their house, even before they knew that the Skrulls weren't anything to be scared of, but she does now.

"Just wondered," Monica says, shrugging. "But she's your girlfriend, yeah?"

"Baby," Mom says, "you can't just ask people that kind of thing. It's none of your business, and you can cause a whole lot of trouble for them if you aren't careful."

"You're not 'people.' You're my mom, so it's kind of my business. And I can't get you in trouble by asking you a question in our yard, with nobody else anywhere around." She props herself up on her elbows and turns to look at her mom. "I know she sleeps in your room when she's here. So. Is she your girlfriend?"

"She's... yeah. She's my girlfriend," Mom says, and she still sounds scared, like she thinks Monica's going to freak out or something.

"So she's my stepmom," Monica says flatly. "Because you can't marry her, but you would if you could, wouldn't you?" Maybe even back before the crash.

"I don't know," her mom says. "We might. But you're going to have to ask Carol if she's your stepmom." She's quiet for a minute, and then says, "This--are you okay with it? I don't know, we've never talked about--"

"I'm okay," Monica interrupts, before her mom gets even more awkward and weird and embarrassing. "It's the nineties, Mom, not the Dark Ages. Gay people exist." She's definitely okay. This is her family, and she likes knowing that they've always really been a family. It makes her feel like she can count on Aunt Carol not going away forever.

Her mom scoots closer to her on the blanket, puts her arm around Monica, and pulls her closer. "What did I do to deserve such a great kid?" she asks.

"I don't know." Monica grins up at her. "You should probably work harder to earn me. I can totally be bought with pizza."

Mom kisses the top of her head and says, "Maybe Friday night. If you're lucky, I might even throw in some ice cream for dessert."

Monica snuggles against her mom, looking up at the sky again. There's another meteor streaking across the sky, and she lets herself imagine that it's Aunt Carol, swooping around out there among the stars.

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