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I call and you come through

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Over the years, Tina dated men from a variety of backgrounds. She made mistakes, in her earlier years, judging how comfortable the man would be meeting her family based on the type of parents and/or siblings he grew up with. Even the oldest of six kids, or the couple of guys she dated who had two sets of parents with tense relationships after a divorce, never lasted long with the Belchers. There were so many complaints about her family from boyfriends she stopped trying to figure out what was wrong with them, and started wondering why everyone had such a hard time accepting the Belchers. 

 

There were men uncomfortable with how little her family cared for gender or sexual conformity – everything from Gene identifying as non-binary to Louise’s disregard for anything traditionally feminine had been a point of contention. One or two of her dates had made gross comments about Louise and her wife, Jessica, which meant Tina didn’t have to lift a finger to dump them. Most of the guys like that barely lasted the dinner or event, let alone another week of the relationship. 

Quite a few guys were put off simply by how boisterous and public her family was about everything. Every single one of the Belchers were passionate. Music, food, business, porcelain babies, organized crime... Any topic could get her family worked up, shouting across the dinner table or throwing fingers in each other’s faces at the Wharf. Linda Belcher was the prime example. She didn't have a single thought cross her mind that she wouldn't feel comfortable sharing with the world. Even though her youngest child was twenty-one, any insinuation of an insult against her children brought out a roaring, swinging momma bear. 

And there were no secrets in the Belcher family. Anything remotely resembling a secret – some hidden fact, embarrassment no one should have seen, a locked diary – stayed “secret” for more than a month in the Belcher family, no exceptions. 

It should not have come as a surprise, then, when her family started hounding her to meet The New Boyfriend. 

“Oh, is my Teeny Tina finally moving on from that disgusting Jimmy Pesto, Jr?” Lina trilled from the kitchen. She emerged a minute later with an armful of wine bottles, Bob trailing silently behind her with five wine glasses threaded through his fingers. Tina grinned a little when she saw that he was wearing the sweat pants she’d gotten him for Christmas, which meant he must have finally allowed her mom to throw out the last pair with the hole in the back. 

“I don’t remember telling anyone in my family that I was dating someone new,” she mused, plucking a bottle of rose off the table before Gene returned from the bathroom and started drinking it from the bottle. She finished filling her glass and settled against the arm of the couch, Louise sitting snugly against her to make room for their parents. Bob sat in the middle and allowed his wife the other outside seat just as Gene entered the room, wiping wet hands on their pajama bottoms and heading straight to the kitchen. 

They came back with two wooden cutting boards laden with cheeses, crackers, and a few bunches of grapes. “Are we talking about Tina’s new boooooyfriend?” Gene teased, placing one platter on the coffee table and taking the other one with them. Gene draped themself over the arm chair, legs akimbo, and balanced the snack plate on their belly. “Because I heard he was rather dreamy.” 

Tina angrily crunched a cracker between her teeth and washed it down with the rose, ignoring her sibling. Her dad shot her a pitying look – like it isn’t your fault, old man, one child was more than enough  – but that didn’t stop the rest of them from plowing on, full force, when there was gossip to be shared. 

“Yeah, T, Jess told me he showed up to the office and brought you flowers, even before I read about him in your diary!” 

“Have I told you how unfair it is that I work for your wife, Louise?” Tina grumbled. 

“He brought you flowers? Sounds like a proper gentleman, doesn’t he, Bobby? Oh, Tina, Tina, you have to bring him over for dinner. Oh! What about Saturday night?” Linda alternated her squeals with sips of the wine, muttering about the white under her breath and drinking with more enthusiasm. “Bring him over Saturday night, Tina, baby.” 

“You love Jess; she’s the best boss you’ve ever had.” Louise ignored their father’s disgruntled noise, a dangerous gleam in her wide, brown eyes when she continued, asking, “But I gotta know, sis, is it true? That thing you wrote about in your diary,” and again, the displeased grunt of her father was overlooked, “where he put your leg-” 

Bob and Tina were matching shades of red, but parental disgust won out over an elder sister’s browbeaten annoyance at the lack of privacy in her life. “No, nope,  no , Louise. You are not going to ruin our Wednesday Wine Night by talking about your sister’s dating life.” 

“But Dad!” 

“Bobby, I kinda wanna know what he can do with-” 

“I said no, Louise, Lin!” He cleared his throat, voice coming down an octave from his shrill panic when he spoke again. “Tina, if there is a new man in your life and you aren’t just seeing him...casually, we would love to have him over some time. Soon,” he amended at the sight of Linda’s harsh glare. “But uh, if he’s bringing you flowers at work already, he sounds like a good guy.” 

She smiled at her sensible, smart father and finished her glass of wine. “Thanks, Dad. I’ll see about bringing him around soon.” 

“So, there is a boyfriend!” 

“Mom, please, Dad is a better cushion than sound barrier.” 

“Louise, hush. Tell us about him, Tina. I wanna know all about this guy bringing you flowers. What kind of flowers were they? Oh! Did he bring you chocolates?” 

“Hold up, Mom, Jessica sent me a picture of the arrangement-” 

“Oh! An arrangement, Bobby!” 

“Why did she get a picture of the delivery but not the package, Louise? What a waste!” 

“You know she talks about how I should set boundaries with my siblings now that we’re all adults or whatever,” Louise scoffed. “Here’s the picture!” 

Tina was the only who didn’t rush to look at Louise’s phone screen, instead moving from her spot on the couch to track down the bottle of rose. Sure enough, it was sitting on the end table closest to Gene. Cracker crumbs were stuck to the mouth of the bottle, likely from the cheese plate that was half in Gene’s digestive track, half in the floor. She sighed, turned back to the table, and picked up the merlot her dad had picked out for the evening. With her family dissecting her boyfriend’s intentions from a single floral arrangement behind her, Tina filled her glass, drank that in one go, and filled it again before recorking the bottle. Bob eyed her from his place on the couch, frowning a bit. She smiled at him, and thought she did a good job at making it reassuring. He looked back to the picture on Louise’s phone, nodding and mhmm-ing at Linda’s exclamations. 

Perching on the arm on the couch, Tina waited out the initial barrage of questions they sent at her about the flowers. When everyone shut up, she started talking. 

“His name is Zeke Tomello-” 

“More like Zeke Tomato!” Gene’s grin faded slowly and they shifted uncomfortably after a few moments under Tina’s unimpressed, stoic stare. “Sorry,” they mumbled. 

“I met him a few weeks ago at that award ceremony I covered in the city. His cousin owns the catering company that worked the event, and he helps her out sometimes by moonlighting as a bartender. He’s actually a physical therapist, not a bartender, and says he likes it very much, even though he thought about going to culinary school.” 

She had predicted but nonetheless appreciated the way her dad seemed so excited at the opportunity to hang out with another foodie. From what she had seen, Zeke would do well keeping up with her dad’s exhaustive lists of weird vegetables or rare spices. Louise, unsurprisingly, scoffed at his day job, but Linda made approving noises. 

“Does he look good in his uniform, though, is the real question!” Gene interjected. 

“Gene,” Bob groaned. 

“Don’t they just wear scrubs and, like, sneakers?” 

“Also, a stethoscope, Louise. He looks very nice in his uniform, Gene, thank you for asking. Scrubs are almost as nice as baseball pants.” She heard her dad grunt, watched him take a long drink of his merlot. “Zeke grew up in Bog Harbor with his dad and step-mom. He's tall, and pretty broad; he laughs a lot; he has his own place, but spends a lot of time with his Nana, and he’s got a dog...” 

“Oh, Tina, baby, he sounds so nice! I just can’t wait to meet him! You’re gonna bring him around for dinner, aren’tcha honey?” Linda clapped her hands together excitedly a few times and then reached for the cheese plate, smiling encouragingly at her daughter. 

“Yeah, I mean, I could definitely make something nice, if you wanna bring him over. I wonder if shallots are still in season...” 

“Siri!” Gene hollered. 

Their phone, halfway across the room, came to life and answered, “How can I help you, Master Vesuvio?” 

“Are shallots still in season?” 

“Gene, you’re spilling the wine, fuck-” 

“Yes, shallots are in season from the end of December through…” 

“Watch your mouth, miss missy!” 

They passed another two hours in this fashion, until Linda was snoring on the couch and Gene was trying not to do the same. They were the first to leave the party. Gene hugged everyone goodnight, pressed a sticky kiss to Tina’s cheek, and then one to their slumbering mom’s forehead, before ambling down the hall to their room. Louise left next, hugging her sister and father goodbye when Jessica arrived to pick her up. It was just Bob and Tina, collecting wine glasses and wiping up cracker crumbs from the coffee table while Linda worked on her chainsaw impression. 

Tina collected the half-full bottles of wine. The sweet rose she’d sampled first was the only empty one, and she chucked into the trash can along with the remains of the cheese plate. She washed the glasses and set them out to dry as Bob roused his wife off the couch in order to propel her towards their bedroom. She could hear her mother snoring from the second her head hit the pillow until her dad closed the door behind him. 

When Linda was tucked into bed, her dad found her in the kitchen. Tina sat at the table, staring at the wood and remembering the stories behind the various stains and chips. Like the nick to the left of her seat, where Louise had driven her steak knife into the table during a vicious argument between her and Linda over dinner. She smoothed her fingers over the mark absently, listening to the humming of her parents’ refrigerator. Bob sat down beside her and cleared his throat. 

“Uh, hi, Tina,” he said. 

“Hi, Dad.” 

“I’m sorry about all of, uh, that, earlier.” He sighed, looking a little sheepish, hand on the back of his neck. “You know they’re all just really excited for you.” 

“I know, Dad.” 

“Especially your mother,” he continued. “I know she tried not to say too much about it, but she never really liked Jimmy Jr.” 

“She got that across pretty well, actually. Like the time she set his vest on fire.” 

“Th-that was an accident, mostly. You know how your mom is with fireworks.” 

“It was kind of funny. He was so scared that he didn’t even mind when Louise pushed him off the pier.” 

“The water did put the fire out, but he had a lot of trouble getting to shore in jeans.” Bob chuckled at the memory. His wife and younger daughter were certainly chaotic in their own rights, but together they often caused tremendous amounts of trouble. “He’s an alright guy, much better than his idiot dad, anyway, but I don’t think he...” He paused, unsure. There were too many things he could have said that would have upset Tina. The Pesto boy had always been a sensitive subject. 

“I know,” she sighed. “We were never really going to work out. We both held onto the relationship for too long. It was fun, as kids, with the forbidden aspect of our dads hating each other.” 

“Tina, I never would have stopped you from seeing Jimmy Jr. just because I think his dad is a tool.” 

“Oh, I know that, Dad. Mr. Pesto complained about his son dating a Belcher a few times, but I think that made Jimmy Jr. even more invested in our relationship.” 

“You deserve someone better than a kid trying to get back at his dad, Tina. That’s...that’s a terrible reason to stay in a relationship.” 

“You’re right, and I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time on him just because it’s what I was comfortable with. Jimmy Jr. was never going to want my affection or respect my opinions as much as I deserved, and I was forever trying to make up for it by being too pushy, demanding too much.” 

“The Belchers do tend to run a little hot. We’re a passionate family. Some people, just can’t handle that.” Bob put a hand on her shoulder, smiling at her a little awkwardly. 

Her heart lurched, a wave of gratefulness washing over her. He fumbled for words, sometimes, and he had a hard time giving affection offhandedly, but she was forever thankful to have such a good relationship with her wonderful dad. Bob did his very best to support his children in everything, from their hobbies to their identities. When she was reminded of fathers like Jimmy Pesto Sr., her heart went out to those kids who had never known a true, unconditional love from their parents such as that the Belchers had for their children. 

Leaning half-way out of her seat, Tina surged forward to give her father a hug. One of her knees banged the underside of the table and Bob grunted when she just about tackled him, but he wrapped his arms around her and allowed his daughter to hold on for a solid minute. They were both definitely not on the verge of crying when she pulled away. 

Bob walked her to the door, hugged her goodbye, and lingered with his hands on her arms, simply looking at his oldest child and reveling in the intelligent, mature woman she had become right before his eyes. “Do you want me to give you a ride home? It’s kinda late, Tina.” He looked around the block, eyes squinted and unsure, as if checking for possible dangers. 

She started to wave him off; her apartment was less than a fifteen-minute walk away and she rarely drove at all, let alone such a short distance. The cautious tone he took was familiar, though. More so than Linda, Bob struggled with his children growing into independent adults. Tina knew he often forgot they were old enough to do things on their own or didn’t need constant monitoring. It was a testament to how much her dad cared, she knew, and didn’t mind indulging him every now and then. So, with a small smile, she nodded and thanked him. Bob squeezed her arms and went back upstairs to fetch the keys and his house shoes. Tina waited for him at the bottom of the stairs and followed him around back to the car. She and her dad were comfortably silent the entire ride. 

The sights of Seymour’s Bay were nothing new, but Tina stared out at them nonetheless. She found beauty in the mundane, the town she had known all of her life, like her father and sister. Grant’s Park was deserted for the night, but she still recalled what it looked like in the spring with all the silver bell trees in bloom. Even her little cul-de-sac of apartment complexes were a pleasing sight – tall, elegant buildings with bright colors and white trim. When Bob pulled up to the curb of her building, he gave the blue three-story a relieved glance and his daughter a one-armed hug.  

“Goodnight, Dad. I’ll see you tomorrow.” 

“Let me know if we need to set an extra place for dinner Saturday, alright, Tina?” 

"Alright, Dad.”

The small, silver car her parents finally replaced the decrepit station wagon with idled outside as she climbed the stairs to her second-floor apartment and remained until Tina had closed her door. She watched from the window as her dad drove away, chest flooded with warmth. She flicked the porch light off and locked the door behind. Immediately, an impatient thumping noise came from the corner of the living room. 

Tina walked down the narrow hall towards the living room, smiling at the sounds of Lou’s familiar temper. He had already hopped front and center and was sitting before of the pen door, his long orange leg working a mile a minute to let her know he wanted out of there this instant. Jericho peeked his head out of his preferred bed under the little awning, livening up at the sight of Tina. Lou jumped over the short barrier as soon as the door swung open, moving about her feet and sniffing, while Jericho exited at a more reserved pace. He climbed the staircase, white-tipped feet moving quickly, until he stood atop the roof of their pen. 

Tail high on his back, he leaned towards Tina in greeting. She reached down and smoothed her hand over his black fur and said, “Hello, Jericho, Lou. Sorry I was out so late. Did you two have a good evening?” Jericho laid down flat, chin pressed to the dark gray runner atop the wooden pen, and enjoyed her attentions. The orange lop ear had more energy to expend. He was already jumping around and twisting about, kicking around his favorite branch ball. She bent down to pet him as well before making her way back towards the door. 

She unlaced her high tops, pulled them off, and sat them atop the shoe rack in her small hallway. The routine of coming home felt nice. Her buzz had faded into a hazy, relaxing hum, and the lovely night with her family made her feel just as pleasant as the wine. Returning to the living room, she filled both the water bottles and food bowls for the boys and smiled at them when they immediately set to munching on the leafy greens of their evening meal. One ear open for rabbit shenanigans, Tina entered her bedroom and grabbed an old tee shirt and soft cotton shorts. She plugged her dead cell phone into the charger, told her boys to behave for the duration of her shower, and put her change of clothes on the bathroom counter. 

Tina stepped into the cool water to cleanse the remainder of her day away. She washed her face first, then her body. She rinsed and conditioned her hair with sweet-smelling coconut products designed to keep her hair from frizzing to twice its size. The shower felt wonderful after the humid weather and a crowded living room stuffed full of her family. No matter how nice spending time with them could be, such boisterous company always zapped her energy. She enjoyed coming home to a quiet apartment. It could feel as refreshing as the shower, though there was a quiet, persistent guilt in her chest that came from finding herself at home without the rest of the Belchers. She still wondered when Jericho and Lou became her expected company, who she came home to and woke up with, instead of her parents and siblings. 

Not to say that she did not feel at home with them, because, of course, she did. No one on earth knew her better than her family. She visited her parents six days a week, at least, and saw her siblings just as much. Gene still lived at home while they worked on their first demo and co-hosted a morning radio show, a musical production degree under their belt from some pricey online school. The only persistently single Belcher –  they’re looking for someone to be the Jay-Z to their Beyonce, and that isn’t easy, okay?  they kept reminding the rest of them – was always around the restaurant or the apartment. They kept a running commentary on their day in the Baby Belcher Group Chat. Louise rarely replied to the chat, but frequently made herself at home at Tina’s apartment at random. She knew where Tina hid the spare key (taped to the bottom of the horse head planter on her windowsill) and still consistently chose to break in anyway. Most of the time, Tina would arrive home and find her sister camped out on the pull-out couch with a movie and mountain of junk food. Those were nice nights. They laughed a lot, talked about what Jess was up to with her wife out of the house, played fetch with the rabbits. Other nights, she stirred awake to the sounds of Louise slipping into the house. Lou would bark from his place in the bottom drawer of her bedside table; older and wiser, Jericho stayed hunkered down in his corner of the bed and waited until he could pinpoint her scent and recognize the intruder. She always went to the bathroom first, standing under the same shower spray for an hour at a time. Then, she tossed her clothes and a bit of laundry in the wash, rifled through Tina’s dresser, and crawled into bed. She curled up next to her big sister and never said a word, but she didn’t have to say anything. 

Her family felt like home anywhere, not just the apartment and burger joint where they all grew up. Gene and Louise had felt like home even at Mort’s, or in Florida or on strange school trips or on a cruise they were technically kidnapped on. Between the three of them and their parents, home became a much less tangible concept and more like something they all shared between them, no matter where they were. 

The one-bed, one-bath apartment that Louise pointed her towards after Mr. Fischoeder had to suddenly evict a tenant became her own place, something fully Tina. For the first time in her life, she lived somewhere quiet and uncrowded. She had initially felt excited to live on her own for the first time. It was more of a struggle to adapt to than she liked to admit, even years later. The smallest things became problems she never thought she’d have. Tina found herself forgetting to eat dinner three or four nights in a row because there had been no one there to ask her to cook or set the table, failing to go to bed until well into the middle of the night when she had no one to remind her of the time. With no one else to take care of, or remind her to take care of herself, she forgot to do just that. She stopped cooking because she always made too much for one person. She spent hours at the library, or researching at home, hunched over her laptop, with no one to distract her. Balancing her last semester at community college and keeping track of her diet, sleep schedule, and social calendar failed quickly. Her parents fretted over her behavior for months, even as she finished her associates with a 3.8 GPA and earned acceptance into a much more prestigious university to get her Bachelor’s. They were quick to point out that she was more exhausted and thinner than she’d ever been in her life, from working herself to the bone and skipping meals for so long. 

Bob solved the problem on her twentieth birthday with the gift of Jericho. He told her it was unhealthy for her to be alone so much, and this little guy could keep her company. The Belcher children (and Linda) had begged for puppies and kittens (and the odd feral raccoon), to no avail. She had never had a pet before. It was a new responsibility, and one she wanted to excel at. Tina felt too nervous about killing her rabbit from starvation to neglect a regular feeding schedule, and she worked hard to organize her own haphazard schedule around it. They took their breakfast and dinner at similar times. She made sure to have half days of classes so that her new pet wasn’t cooped up too long. Eventually, Tina was back to a normal workload and had gained back her weight. She was happier than ever thanks to Jericho. He filled a space she hadn’t realized was empty when she moved out, allowing her to care for something and take comfort from him as well. Then, last year, she rescued the temperamental and fiercely loyal Lou. They were her little family, keeping her on track and always ready to lend an overlarge ear after a stressful day. 

Tina crawled into bed freshly showered and relaxed, making sure to open the bottom drawer on her nightstand so that Lou wouldn’t wake her up with his angry thumping when he decided to come to bed. Jericho was already waiting on her. He slept on a cushion atop the shelf on her headboard, preferring the advantage of height. Tina liked to keep them close – both to know they were fine and that Lou wasn’t up to trouble in the middle of the night. 

“Goodnight, Jericho. Goodnight, Lou.” 

Like every morning, her alarm sprang to life with the melodic sound of Chloe Barbash’s voice accompanied by Gene’s soundboard shenanigans. She snaked an arm from beneath the blankets to turn the volume down. A low groan escaped her throat as she pulled herself from bed and lasted throughout her routine of closing the drawer Lou slept in and gathering something to wear for the day. Jericho hopped behind her, snuggling into the plush bath mat while she brushed her teeth and washed her face. His ears twitched in alarm when she tossed her clothes into the laundry bin a few feet away from him. Lou joined the procession when she exited the bathroom. They thumped their legs in unison as she filled up their bowls and checked their hay. 

Alone, she fixed her morning coffee and some toast. Tina took her breakfast on the balcony, catching up on the episode of The Evening Podcast she missed due to her hectic schedule. The rabbits joined her in their own time, sniffing the various planters lining the rail that kept them from the edge. Lou was outside for a few minutes at a time before jumping over the shallow barrier leading indoors, only to come back out and do it all over again. He had to be hustled through the door when she was finished, stubbornly attempting to hide under the tiny table. 

“No cilantro for you this evening, mister,” she chided as she pulled the gauzy, yellow curtains to cover the sliding doors. 

He entered his pen no problem, making his way to the side for a drink while her sweet Jericho nestled into his favorite hiding spot. Tina waved them goodbye, put her dishes in the sink, and gathered her keys and bag. She locked the door behind her and set off to work. The morning would be cool for a time, hopefully enough time that she wouldn’t sweat too much on the walk. Her pace quickened a bit at the thought of the impending heat. Besides, if she arrived early enough, she could grab an iced coffee before the ground floor bistro got too busy. 

Her walk to work was a familiar routine, full of about the same people she passed on the street and the expected amount of sweating for an early summer morning in Bog Harbor. She had learned what colors were safe to wear in the summer, and which ones would leave her with obvious signs of the Belcher over-sweating gene. She still smelled alright and her hair wasn’t too frizzy by the time she walked through the sliding glass doors of the building that housed the office space of the Bay County Chronicle. She could count that as a good morning. 

“Good morning, Tina,” the barista said. 

“Good morning, Colton. How are you today?” She nodded to him absently, eyes sliding over the display case to inspect the selection of pastries and wraps. Her stomach lurched at the idea of something sweet or heavy on her stomach, so she settled for her usual iced tuxedo and made her way to the elevators. 

She had a long day of editing before her, in order to get her last few pieces ready for publication. Tina waved lazily at Jess, who was slumped over the copier with a thermos in hand, and made her way over to her desk. 

Tammy had the day off, at least, sent off in the field to cover the details of the Wharf’s newest attraction: a stingray pool, where eager kids could pet and throw food at them. She would be back tomorrow, bragging about the shade-difference in her skin she called a tan and talking about how dangerous and gross the stingrays were. Tina could hear it already. 

The day without her was quiet, and she enjoyed it while she could. Jessica called Louise to bring them lunch and Tina spent the hour sitting on the corner of her boss’s desk, listening to her sister try to talk her wife into a trip to Cuba next year. It didn’t work, but it was entertaining. Especially when Louise wasn’t even mad that she lost the argument, only sighed with a little smile on her face that said she had expected just that. No scowling, no careless insults, no tantrum. 

“Maybe somewhere like Mexico, first?” she suggested to Louise when Jess stepped out of her office for a moment. “Start small.” 

Louise regarded her, calculatingly, for a moment. “You might be onto something there. I think Louisana is a good start. Get to see some gaters, too.” 

“No passport needed,” Tina said breezily. 

“Alright, Trip Adviser, I’ll call you tonight and let you know how this one goes. We’re going to her Gram’s for dinner so we won’t be around Mom and Dad’s.” 

“Me either. I’ve got too much work to do before the weekend.” 

“Speaking of weekend,” Louise sing-songed with a sly grin, “are we gonna meet the man Saturday night?” 

“I haven’t spoken to Zeke and asked him if he would like to come yet, no.” 

“Get to it, T! We gotta know! We need the deets!” 

“Yeah, T,” Jessica deadpanned as she entered the room. “Tell us an uncomfortable amount of details about your personal life because we have no barriers between us. How big is his dick? Is that leg-behind-the-head move really worth it?” 

Louise looked between her tomato-colored sister and glaring wife. “Okay, okay! I get it Jess. Tina,” she said, forcefully, “I would love to meet your new boyfriend, and if you decide to bring him around for dinner Saturday I will be thrilled, but I will not push you into sharing more than you’d like, at this time.” She turned an arched brow and blazing brown eyes on Jessica. 

“Good job, darling. Just like we practiced.” 

“Ugh. You’re so lucky I believe in death before I do divorce.” 

“That’s why I married you.” 

“I’m gonna...get back to work.” 

Tina slipped out of the office and pointedly ignored Louise’s smirking face when she left an hour later. Her phone vibrated in her desk drawer, revealing her sister’s parting words to be only a screenshot of a flight to Lousiana next month. No one could say Louise Belcher didn’t know how to get what she wanted. 

Which obviously meant she wasn’t getting out of bringing Zeke for dinner, no matter what words Louise parroted in front of Jessica. Tina sighed and closed out her conversation with Louise for the one with Zeke. 

Pick me up from work? <3  

He answered her immediately, a paragraph of excitement and emojis, and she smiled. With another trip to the bistro downstairs, she was ready to get to work. Tina powered through editing her pieces and even got started on turning an outline into an article before it was time to leave. She had a bit more to do, double checking her facts and throwing in a few catchy, interesting phrases to keep the readers around in her fact-dump piece, but that could be done at home. 

Zeke waited outside her office building, leaning up against a beat-up, half-rusted and half-black pick up. He perked up when she walked out onto the sidewalk. She felt the increasingly familiar swarm of butterflies come to life in her stomach, and not the dread she had felt the first time he showed up at her workplace. 

It had been two weeks after they first met, the day after their third date. It ended up with Tina sleeping at his place and a mad rush to get to work on time the next morning. Zeke showed up half an hour before her lunch break with takeout and a bright, beautiful arrangement of pink peonies and white roses. It was the first time someone had given her flowers at work, and the only second time one of her boyfriends had come to see her there. The first time had ended up with being an excuse to break up with her in the quiet cafe across the street. Zeke had also been the first to send her flowers at the office, and she was glad that arrangement had come with a round, pink vase, because she had put off throwing out the peonies and roses for as long as possible, so they had still been wilting in her lone glass vase when the arrangement came earlier that week. 

When she saw Zeke, who appeared to be defiant of all expectations, she couldn’t have contained the shy grin that answered his own exuberant smile if she tried. Not that she wanted to. She liked how happy Zeke made her, liked even more how happy he seemed to be with her. 

A part of her feared the happiness, kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and the rug to be swept out from under her feet. Her relationships were never this easy. She hardly had to try from the very start. He had been obvious in his interest, earnest in his passion, and Tina was swept away. Few of her past relationships were such a whirlwind; most of the time, she slowly developed a crush and worked herself up to ask for a date, or she was asked by someone else, after they’d been dropping hints. Whether or not she accepted the offer usually depended on when she had last spoken to Jimmy Jr. Rarely, and usually after a spat with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, she went out and found someone for the night. All of her one-night stands had started out like her night with Zeke – dressing up a bit, drinking a bit, finding someone to flirt with. None of them had ended up quite like this, though. None of her previous flings woke up the next morning, sticky and sated and still wrapped around her, and asked her on a proper date. Zeke had, and he kept on asking. 

She kept on agreeing, and he kept on wooing her.  

Tina’s smile stretched even wider. She did not skip to meet him, but it wouldn’t have been far off. Her heart felt like it skipped every time he looked at her. That wide-open honesty always caught her off guard, but it made her wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him deep, press her face into his neck when he chuckled at her greeting. 

“Good to see you, T-town. It’s been too long.” 

“Two days, Zeke,” she teased. 

“Two days, too long!” 

“Then take me home and quit wasting our time,” she said, only realizing how it sounded when he barked a laugh and sent her a salacious grin. Tina giggled, pushing him around the truck and towards the driver’s side, cheeks red. “I’ve got rabbits to feed and articles to read!” 

“And a damn fire under your seat, today, girl!” 

She climbed in the truck and shut the door after her as she slid across the bench seat, smiled at the familiar weight of Zeke’s arm settling over her shoulders before she even clipped her seat belt into place. The truck growled to life with a twist of the keys. Cold air and country music assaulted her at the same time and she reached out to start fiddling with various dials. It took a minute, but the air dulled down to a cool breeze, the music changed to an oldies station they both found palatable, and they were on their way to Tina’s apartment. Head resting on Zeke’s shoulder, she relaxed against his side, settled in for the ride home.