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Only Child

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I like the house a lot. So does Gail. We've been there six months, through a water pipe break in the middle of a sudden cold snap, and through a break-in where Gail shattered the guy's wrist and kneecap with my baseball bat and spent a night in lock up for assault until the cops sorted out that it was our house and she was defending herself. The gun had been knocked under the dryer, which Gail thought was funny in a morbid way and told me about how Dov had killed someone before.

We got better locks and a security system after that.

And the house we moved into six months ago finally feels like a home.

The house is smaller than my subleased row house and bigger than Gail's efficiency apartment (though what isn't?) and we've made it ours.

Her school friends, the teachers and even some kids, threw a housewarming party for us, bringing new appliances and fresh food and of course, candy for Gail. While she eats a lot less junk food, she still has a sweet tooth and the kids love to curry favor with her and bring her treats. So do my parents, who sent us a box of Canadian snacks. Gail refuses to set them out and share.

Six months also means it's an anniversary of the day she came back into my life and the reason why. Six months, eighteen as a couple, twenty-four as friends again. Steve is two years dead.

This year, Gail tells me she's not going to Toronto. She only went back because of the gravestone and because her parents asked. This year, she wants to be home with me. I'm home. I like hearing that. I like hearing we're a home and a unit. I like the life we've made.

Unlike when she was ghosting around my house, finding her way again, living together now has a different rhythm. We both are early risers now, her so she can bike to her school and me so I can get to my office downtown. I try not to drive if I can help it, just because driving in San Francisco is an exercise in patience. More than once, Gail's come by on her bike and raced me home. She nearly always wins.

The days pass differently. By the time we'd moved back in together, Gail had gotten her teaching certificate and was full time at the school. She works year round, which she says she likes, but her breaks are when I take vacations too. We've made trips to wine country and the mountains and the ocean. Sometimes I'm too mired in work to take time off. The last time that happened, Gail took it upon herself to renovate the downstairs bathroom while I worked.

She managed to take the wallpaper down the first day (whomever put black and purple wallpaper in a bathroom should be shot) and by the time the week was over, had the tile up and the new toilet in. I hadn't known she'd known how to do any of that, and she admitted to having used YouTube a lot.

That success spurred us and we moved on to the master bath. She got the new shower in, something she did on a school holiday with a fellow teacher, which means I don't have to tromp down to the smaller guest bath every day. All that needs to be done now is the new tile and the sinks, which Gail swears we can do in one day.

I tease her about being the better lesbian because she's handy about things. Still, as we hit the end of the second day, she's right. We have the new floor, the backsplash, and the sink in. It's crazy how fast it went. After all that neither of us wants to cook, so we order dinner and eat out of the containers, drinking beer, and sitting on our deck.

The neighbors here are nice, waving at us as they walk by with their dogs. It's not too trendy, though Gail says it's too expensive. Her benefits from Toronto PD go a long way to making it all livable, and my father the accountant makes sure we've got savings. Admittedly, after two years in The City, she still thinks everything here is too expensive. I don't really disagree, but I am glad she stayed for many reasons.

What I really want is a way for her to feel safe all the time. I want her bad dreams and sleepless nights to go away. I want her not to freeze every time a car backfires. I know all those things take a long time. It was five years before I got in a car without breaking into a cold sweat. After the break in, things got considerably worse and she started sleeping less and less.

My insurance is better and covers Gail as my domestic partner (a term that makes her roll her eyes), but she uses her retired cop coverage for her mental health. Someone who understands cops and ex cops and nightmares and trauma is, surprisingly, not hard to find. It surprised me how long it takes to find the right one, though. Months passed before she settled with one who she says doesn't make her feel like a failure for being fucked up. That she calls him Dr. Crazy and he doesn't object makes it better, I think.

And as the months go by after that stupid break in, we three try a lot of things. Anti-depressants help a little with the self-loathing issues, stopping her from hitting her lowest point. They don't help the sleep issues, so the doctor changes up the meds a few times until she is able to get some more rest. It's not something she likes and there are other options out there. She doesn't like being reliant on drugs to keep her brain in check, she tells me, and it's something I think about a lot.

I shouldn't worry about her as much as I do, but I do. I hope it's just because I'm in love with her and nothing else.

"Hey," she says, nudging my leg with her bare foot. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm glad you're here," I admit.

She salutes me with her beer. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

I smile and lean back against the house. The other suggestions from her doctor linger in my head. "Should we get a dog?"

Gail eyes me. "We could," she says slowly. "Our schedules are kinda weird."

"Dr. Krazniy mentioned it is all." Her doctor suggested Gail consider a dog to help with the panic attacks and her fears of hurting me. She went to town on the burglar just for holding a gun, but he told me he didn't think that was the issue. He thinks she's just scared and the dog could help give her something safe to focus on. I've been reading a lot of literature about therapy dogs.

Making a face, Gail finishes her beer. "Maybe. I guess." She puts the bottle down. "Do you think I should?"

It's always a tricky conversation. But this time I have an answer. "I do." She startles at me. "I think it could help."

Grumpily, like she often pretends to be, Gail scoots to sit next to me. "I don't like it," she says. But she takes my hand and we watch our neighbor's four year old daughter squeal happily as their family dog licks sugar off her face.

"I know." I lean towards her and rest my head on hers. "I could give you sciencey reasons, but it all comes down to I think it would be good for you."

Her arm slips around my waist and she doesn't say anything. I know what she's thinking. Probably. She's thinking about how she's messed up and broken and damaged. She's thinking about those nightmares and the time the car backfired and she freaked right out. She's thinking about Steve and April and how we both had to get far away from things that hurt us. And how neither went back.

Then she sighs, loudly. "A dog. Well. We have a yard."

"We'll get one good with kids, and you can bring it to work."

She likes that part of the idea. Gail's really gotten into her job. She loves teaching the kids and the parents. She likes helping people. That's the part of being a cop she misses. Service was drilled into her from such an early age, I doubt she'll ever get away from it, and I'm not sure she should.

We talk about the idea of a dog, forming it beyond just a thought and into something that, once we finish renovating the bathroom, will be a thing. I've got the paperwork, I tell her, and she laughs.

A few months later, we have a dog. Biscuit is not the name he came with. They tried to tell Gail his name was King, but he's about the size of a sneeze, perfect for riding in Gail's bike basket, and she announces he's as big as a biscuit and the dog wags his tail. So we are the proud owners of a pint sized fluffy mutt called Biscuit.

As we drive home, Biscuit sitting in the back seat more well behaved than Gail, I bring up the obvious. "He's sleeping on his dog bed."

"He was your idea," notes Gail, amused. "Besides, he's teensy."

"I know, but you hear the stories about dogs and beds and... "

"The dog is not going to stop us from having sex."

In this case, Gail turns out to be right. And while Biscuit does sleep in the bed pretty much from day one (seriously, puppy dog eyes from the dog and my girlfriend is unfair), it's my rescue dog, Dakota, who causes the hold on sex.

Oh yes, I have a dog too. After watching Gail and Biscuit, I think it wouldn't be so bad to have two. A dog and a co-dog means they'd always have friends. That's my idea at least, and I pick out my pup (not a puppy, a teenager dog who was abandoned) from a no-kill shelter. Gail approves of it all, until Dakota is needy and a little too interested in what we do. One cold nose when I'm half un-dressed and I agree that we need to figure something out.

Gail teases me about it for weeks, which is about as long as it takes me to train Dakota to listen to us fully. Biscuit, to our everlasting amusement, leads Dakota around and bosses her around. Dakota's a bigger dog, part lab somewhere in there, that I fell in love with. Which is Gail's fault. Watching her and Biscuit made me jealous in a good way and I wanted some of that puppy love for myself.

The joke was all on me. Dakota adores Gail most of all. But the four of us go for walks and hikes all the time and they both snuggle with me on cold nights if Gail's out with the kids from her school. Maybe it's that both dogs can sense she needs it more, most of the time, that unconditional adoration. They know when I need it too, when I come home from a dark case. Those days, as soon as I'm out of the shower, I have two mini shadows who sit with me and unpressingly lavish me with quiet affection.

I probably should have gotten a dog when I was younger.

As the days get colder in what passes for winter around here, the people we know start in on those questions again. And they're the questions everyone asks, and they are so very annoying. Like Elaine and my boss want to know if we'll become American citizens. It's something I say that Gail and I need to talk about, but there have been so many other things.

The more time passes with us together, the more we talk about other things. Sometimes it's important, like the dogs, and sometimes not. We've somehow inched up on year three together and renovated the whole top floor to be open and airy. Gail's fixed the leak in the ceiling and I've tiled the kitchen.

Gail, again, doesn't go to Toronto on the third anniversary of Steve's death. This time, her mother comes to see us, stay with us, and she and Gail take the time to do the touristy things like Alcatraz and a cable car ride. I don't join them for most of it, giving them the space they need to sort out their new themness.

At first, Elaine is disparaging about the dogs. The second day, she pulls me aside at breakfast and says Gail looks happier and more relaxed with Biscuit around. By the time Elaine goes home, we have a photo of her asleep on the couch with both dogs. She does think Biscuit is a stupid name, and Gail just grins.

The dogs are great for her and for me. They even help Gail and her parents, since after leaving us Elaine gets one of her own. Of course hers is a retired K9 but it seems to be what she needed as well. The photos of Elaine and her German Shepherd named Oscar are hilarious. Gail loves the one where Oscar dug up the flower garden and found the lunchbox she and Steve had buried as children. Their time capsule. It's mailed to us, unopened and Gail lets it sit for a long while before opening it up with me.

That night she pulls out Steve's favorite action figure (Han Solo), his baseball card (Wade Boggs, which would be worth a lot more if it wasn't moldy), her medal for swimming (second place), and other weird kicknacks they'd felt were important. There are letters too. Each sibling wrote a letter to their future selves. She reads her own first, which is self-disparaging, noting that she'll probably be a cop unless she runs away and joins the circus. But it also tells her that her favorite thing is watching the sunset up at the cottage. Gail informs me that this was written before her parents made her walk from town to the cottage on her own.

She can't read Steve's though. She tries, and in the end I take the letter. The first part is about how he wants to be a detective before he's thirty, marry a brilliant woman, and have kids. The second half though is written to Gail, telling her to be what she wants to be, and he knew she'd read his letter anyway, so don't feel bad about it. He loves her. And he knows she stole his Princess Leia toy and wants it back.

We carefully keep the letters, and the moldy card, framing them together and hanging it up in the hallway. A photo of Gail and Steve from about that time is also in the frame. Gail's chubby grin is gap-toothed and broad, the canines flashing in the sun, while sunburnt Steve is already starting to look like the man I knew.

Most of that year, we spend fixing the yard up properly. Gail's first attempt at gardening fails after Dakota decides to 'help' and dig. Her second attempt involves wood pallets that she nails up to the fence. She had to rebuild the fence first, of course, but that goes amazingly well. A vertical garden was, I admit, not something I envisioned, but it gives the dogs space to run around while she can grow herbs.

Gail has, surprisingly to both of us, a green thumb. She grows herbs, of course, but also flowers. The backyard becomes a colorful realm of peace. When she adds in a small picnic table and chairs, we start entertaining our friends at night. Before long, our place is the hang out for Saturday evenings.

I like having friends. Some are from Gail's work and some are from mine. Some are actually our neighbors who have a kid and kids love Gail so that always works well. It's not the same as Lisa and Rachel, or Dov and Chris, but our friends stick by us all the same and it's nice. When we had our break in, the neighbors all came and watched the house for me while I was trying to get Gail sprung.

The neighbors too want to know if we're going to be American Citizens, so as we inch towards a fourth year, I start to think that I should bring it up with Gail more seriously. But after a long hike one Saturday when we get caught in the rain, and after Gail's washed both dogs and dried them and the house stops smelling like wet dogs, and we've got Irish mochas and a fire going, she says it.

"We could convert."

"To... What?" I'm confused.

"To Americans."

I eye her. "You mean become American Citizens? That's not conversion."

"Shut up," she laughs. "You know what I mean." Gail ruffles Dakota's head. "Scoot over, pup," she orders, nicely, and my dog huffs a long suffering sigh before getting up and walking over me so Gail can press herself up against my side. We're sandwiched between our cold, tired, canines. "We should, though."

"You want to be Americans? Give up health care, poutine, and hockey?"

"I think your boss would be happier if you did," Gail says accurately.

"True," I sigh. "And Canada won't make us rescind our citizenship, so we can go dual." That makes it not so bad. I like Canada. I don't go back very often, only once in the last year, since all my cases have been closed. Gail, on the other hand, is avoiding it a little.

Gail smiles. "Run away if America elects a raging Republican psycho?" Her arm wraps around me, pulling me close so I'm leaning up against her entirely. It's warm and comforting.

I rest my head on her shoulder, since it's there. "What about you?"

"Me what?" Her breath is warm, stirring my hair a little.

"You American."

"I did say we, didn't I?" She shifts and sips her drink. "If you do, of course I will. That way they can't kick me out without you."

There are other ways to ensure her permanence here, like marriage, but this plan is smarter. And that's how our next adventure begins, acquiring American citizenship. I've already been in the States for five years, Gail four and change, and I know it's five years of residency before you can even apply. We both have green cards, but this is the right next thing to do.

Another passing of Steve's death happens before then. I hate that I mark time like this. I hate that I think of his death as a simple flag to tell me that this is how I will remember when Gail and I became friends again. But as soon as he's been dead five years, then it will be another three months before Gail's had her green card for five years, and that means she is eligible to become an American.

I wait for her, telling my boss that's why, and it has a wonderful impact on things. I'm pretty sure the city medical examiners office would have a fit if she doesn't get citizenship, just because they don't want to lose me. Gail is annoyed with the fact that we have to take a test, but as soon as her students find out, they want to help.

I like her students. They're a mix of deaf and mute children, and Gail works in the transition department, helping them get ready for mainstream education. If possible. Gail's also been going back to school, getting a degree to help her with all that, though her social services bachelors degree is enough to make everyone think she's capable.

The oldest students she has are some teenagers who steadfastly refused to communicate until recently. Gail's been introducing them to music lately, much to their delight. She's also been teaching them how to flirt, which I'm sure isn't on the curriculum, but watching her signing with them and showing them how to be coy is hilarious and heartwarming.

While I can't say I didn't have the biggest lady boner for Gail in her uniform, I'm totally hot for teacher Gail too. There's something about watching her shine that makes me grin ear to ear. And she's happy. I love Gail all the time, but a lot of our first run at a relationship was spent in pain. This time we're happy and both in better places.

I don't know a lot of sign language, but I know enough to figure out that one of her students is gesturing at me and asking, I think, how Gail and I ended up together. Except they're a little more crude. As soon as I see them both look my way, I sign that I heard that and they break up laughing. Gail tells the kids she'll be right back and runs over to the fence where I'm perched with my bicycle.

"Hey, you solve the crimes already?" She leans over the fence to kiss me.

"I did. Ready to go?"

Gail glances back at the kids. "I'm here for another hour. Angie's kid decided that punching was the right response to idiot jokes about your mom talking funny."

I've met Angie and her son. She's one of Gail's fellow teachers, mostly deaf, and her son, who can hear, is constantly defending her to idiots. He's been suspended a few times. "Again? Poor Angie."

"She was calling him all kinds of things," sighs Gail. "Anyway, I said I'd fill in till after sports. You want to stick around? The kids wanna ask you about your job."

Which explains why she wasn't worried about them reading her lips when she talked about my job. "Oh, you have a wanna-be pathologist over there?"

"I got four teenagers who are into the morbid," she corrects, rolling her eyes.

"How mad will their parents be?"

Gail shrugs. "Maybe a little." She tugs my hands and I laugh. I can't say no to her easily.

I wheel my bike around. If it had been actual school hours, I wouldn't have swung by. But it's after hours and when I saw her here on Find My Friends, I figured she was finishing up paper work. Biscuit is happily playing fetch with one of the kids, but seeing me, he brings the ball over instead. The kid is upset for a moment, but then rushes over as well.

This is one of Gail's morbidly curious kids, it turns out, and he and I are talking about my work when his father swings by to pick him up. Gail and the dad chat in halting sign language, my cutie helping him form the gestures better. His son follows my look and tells me his father had been reluctant to learn sign language until he met Gail.

I know he means for it to be a happy ending for a troublesome youth, but it just makes me sad. Parents are so confusing. My own parents struggled coming to terms with the reality of me being a lesbian, for reasons they now say are absolutely stupid and pointless. My grandfather never got over it, to the point that he cut me out of his will. Mom likes to say the joke's on him, since she inherited it all anyway, and just gave me what I was supposed to get in the first place.

Families are seriously messed up. Even ours. Especially ours. Gail's parents are a handful. Her mother still thinks that Gail will 'get over it' and go back to being a cop, but she's finally stopped nudging Gail about the subject and leaves it alone. I think her father's given up. He's the Peck, after all, and it hurts him more visibly. Elaine, for all her fumbling approach, just wants Gail to be happy. Seeing her with me (and the dogs) shows her happy, so that seems to be enough.

Once all the kids are gone from school, Gail locks up, checks the building, and then plunks Biscuit into her basket. Watching her ride the bike with the pup in the front basket is always a little hilarious. I think, sometimes, that we could move to Portland and live in a lesbian Mecca that's better for her chosen method of transport.

Maybe one day we will. Maybe one day we'll move together to another city. Maybe I'll change careers. Maybe Gail will. We could go to New York or Texas... Maybe not Texas. The point is, we have a lot of possibilities open to us because next Tuesday afternoon, we will be American citizens.

That day is exciting to me for a lot of reasons, including that it's hit up on our anniversary. Five. Who saw that coming? When she showed up on my proverbial doorstep, it was the furthest from my mind. When we became friends, it wasn't on my radar. And now, now I'm happy with her.

"What's going on in that big brain, Stewart?"

"Are you happy?"

She does a double take and swings off her bike as we pull up to the house. "Happy? I think so. Why?" Gail chews her lip for a moment. "Are you, uh, not?"

I coast up to her and smile. "I am very happy, Gail."

Gail tilts her head. "Good...?" She's nervous and I get off my bike to kiss her. "Why were you thinking about if I was happy?"

"I was thinking about how I'm happy," I correct. "And I hoped you were happy too."

"Oh." She shakes her head. "You're weird, Holly." We push the bikes around and Gail lets Biscuit run off into the backyard. Dakota, ever patient, is silent even when we let her out to romp. Normally Gail leaves the dogs together at home, which causes less trouble than one home alone, but today she'd woken up uneasy. Today she'd needed her pup around.

The dogs romp around, clearly excited to see each other after the day. "What do you think they're talking about?"

Gail sits on the bench and watches them for a moment. "Smells," she finally says, smiling. And she proceeds to pretend to be the dogs, talking to each other about the day. I get the giggles when she describes Dakota's day as sleeping in different rooms and on places we don't like the dogs to sleep.

I sit in Gail's lap and drape my arms around her neck. "You're such a goof," I inform her and kiss her softly. In response, her hands slip under my shirt, cool fingers finding my spine.

She knows what I like, I realize. After five years, she ought to. But should she still make me feel little a giddy teenager? I don't think I felt like this when I was younger. I was too confused about my feelings for women, too determined to make emergency situations and get out of relationships with men. Right now, I don't want an emergency with Gail and I'm pretty sure she doesn't with me.

When another day passes, and we're finally American citizens, I ask her how she feels about it and she shrugs. "I still feel like me."

I catch her hand and squeeze it. "Yeah? Is you ever getting a driver's license?"

"Ugh, this again?" Gail's resisted it since settling in to life here. I'm not a fan of being the only person who drives. "Why? The city has Uber and Lyft and where do I need to drive?"

I shrug. "What if we move?"

She eyes me. "Holly." Her voice is low and serious.

My secret, my tiny teensy secret, is that I'm constantly being head hunted by forensic groups. It's not really a secret. Gail knows about it in general and has been supportive of my career, but with her emotional state, I felt it was better not to bring it up. And that is something she does not know. "I turned them down," I reply.

Gail sighs. "Holly."

Damn, she's good at that. "Portland's been making a pitch," I grumble. And it's a good one. I like it.

"Well," muses Gail. "My plan tonight was for a romantic dinner and then sex, American style. But Portland's crazy bike-able. And it's Oregon, which is like the lesbian Mecca. Bet there are lots of schools I could teach at, too."

Since when has Gail been this easy going? Have I missed a transformation? "You'd move to another state with me?"

"News flash. Kinda moved to another country already. State ain't nothing," she grins. "Look, do you want to be with me?"

"Always," I say before I can even think their might be another reply.

Gail gives me her best, toothiest, smile. "Okay."

I eye her as we get to the car. "That's it?"

"That and if we move, fine, I'll get a stupid driver's license." She steps in front of me and takes my other hand, pulling me close, smiling. "So. Romantic dinner? Sex? Or long talks about a maybe job up north that isn't Canada?"

A maybe is what got us here in the first place. "Sex," I decide. "Dinner first, though."

We get cards and calls and emails from our friends back in Toronto, teasing and then the next questions happen. Now that we're Americans, what else are we going to change? We own a house together already and we're clearly in a good place with our relationship. So of course there's Traci who wants to know if we're ever getting married.

I suspect not, I tell her.

It's not about love. I end up explaining this when she and Leo come to visit and Gail takes Leo out to the Pier for some tourist fun. I love Gail. She loves me. We know those things. But we also know things like we're both pretty messed up people. Gail's not the only one with trust issues.

Not that I don't trust Gail. I do. I trust her with my life and, maybe more importantly, my heart. I trust her to love me and care for me. But getting married is a big thing. It changes things in a lot of ways that I'm not really ready for. Like most girls, I thought about weddings when I was smaller. We played wedding in the school yard. I hated it. I didn't want to be the one in the dress, being given away like property.

Besides that, I know I'm still impacted by my sister's death. I try to take every opportunity life throws at me, which is why San Francisco was a thing and it's why I still float the notion of Portland. I may never get another chance for those things. I may never get another chance for Gail either, and I don't care to rock our wobbly little boat. I got a second chance already.

That said, I don't know Gail's feelings on the matter. I know she was once engaged to Nick, but that seems to be the closest she's ever gotten to any of it. I've always kind of wanted to know what went on there but I've never sorted out how to ask it. I do know why she got back together with Nick, and I quote 'it was easy and he was there.' She told me that when we started exploring a second chance, prefacing the statement by saying we weren't easy but she wanted to try.

Sometimes Gail can be incredibly romantic and sweet. Not often. I don't mind at all. She's caring and she's always here for me, so I'll pass on sweet and sappy as long as I get the woman who wakes up early to make sure I eat breakfast before court, does the dishes, and even though she still doesn't put her shoes away, walks the dogs every day.

Leo likes the dogs, as it happens. He finds it perfectly reasonable that Gail's dog is named Biscuit, and asks if Gail would bring him if she came back to Toronto.

While checking the grill, Gail nods. "If I do, sure," she says, and even the pre-teen catches that phrasing.

"You're not coming back?"

Gail sighs and shakes her head. "No, not unless I have to. I can't be there anymore, Leo," she tells him. Gail's so used to kids, but it still surprises me that she doesn't pull a punch with that. She's just going to tell him the truth.

Slowly, Leo nods. "Is it because Steve died?"

"It is and it isn't." That wins an annoyed look from Leo. "It's how he died."

Leo looks surprised and turns to his mom. "But—"

Clearly they've talked about it. Traci cuts him off. "It's not, Leo, I know. Gail knows."

This confuses Gail, who frowns. "Part of it is my fault, Trace," she points out.

"Sure. And part of Jerry is me, for not teaching him how to use his phone. I mean, it was an iPhone!" She grimaces.

Gail grunts an epitaph. "Well. Whatever. Toronto makes me feel like shit, I don't want to go back unless I have to."

We're all quiet for a moment, and then Leo announces, "That makes sense. I'll just come here more often! Right, Mom?"

With what are probably tears in her eyes, Gail hauls Leo into a hug. He yelps that it's not cool, but hugs her back.

A few days later, after Traci and Leo go home, after the house is us again, Gail brings up marriage. "Traci wants to know if we're going to get married."

"What did you say?" I'm deflecting and I know it.

Gail squints at me as we fold the laundry. "I don't know."

I eye her back. "You don't know what you said?"

"No, no," she laughs. "I told her I don't know. I mean... God I had the shittiest time of it with Nick."

I gnaw my lip. "Okay, I don't want to ask..." She hands me a towel with a smirk. "Can I ask?"

"About Nick?" When I nod, she nods back. "Sure. What do you want to know?" She sounds so calm.

"What happened? I know he left you at the altar but that's it."

She exhales softly. "We were in Vegas. On a vacation. It was fun, you know, in that drinking and partying way." Gail folds a towel and frowns. "After we saw the tenth chapel, I said we should get married."

When she pauses, I ask, "Did you want to?"

"Marry Nick? Yeah, I did. He was kind of scruffy then, a bad boy, but he cared a lot." She smiles and throws the last towel at me. "I was always way too much for him to handle."

I grin back. "I can see that. Did you get a license?"

"We did!" Gail laughs at me. Or maybe it's the memory. "We got a license and said if we still wanted to on Thursday, we'd do it."

"Thursday was significant?"

"Well Saturday we were going to drive home." She shakes her head. "Thursday comes around, we go to a chapel. We're in line, next up, and Nick got all pale. He got freaked out and said he couldn't do it, he didn't want to be that kind of guy, and then right as they call our name, he bails." That doesn't sound like the Nick I know, but I didn't really know him.

I pick up the basket of folded laundry and we head upstairs. "What'd you do?"

"I found him at the hotel, punched him, and told him to get the hell out of my sight." Gail sits on the bed. "He drove home, alone." And she falls silent and thoughtful.

That's odd. "How the hell did you get home?"

She's still quiet. "I called Steve," she says so softly I almost miss it. And then I could kick myself for asking. "I called him up, he bought me a plane ticket home, picked me up at the airport, and I stayed with him for the rest of the next week so Mom wouldn't find out I was home early."

I put the basket down and sit next to her. "I'm sorry..."

But Gail is smiling. "Steve was awesome. Really. He teased the hell out of me, but man, I deserved it. What the hell was I even thinking." She leans back on her hands, a real grin on her face.

Not a bad memory, it seems. I smile at her. "What did Elaine do?"

"Oh god, you know we never told her!" I laugh with her at the hilarity of that. "I just said Nick and I broke up and then... Then I finished college and went to the Police Academy," she sighs.

"Was that why?"

"Nah," she shakes her head. "I did it because of Steve."

I'm inching up on dangerous ground, and I know it. I don't know what to say, so I cover one of her hands with one of mine. The dogs sense something's up and hop up on the bed, Biscuit in her lap and Dakota sprawled over mine, her head on Gail's leg. We look at the furry beasts and laugh, because that's all we can do.

She leans over the puppy pile and kisses my cheek. Then she tells me about how she joined the force not because she was a Peck or because of Nick, but because the only person in her life who had stood up and cared for her was Steve. He always had her back, he always helped her, and he was a cop. So she was a cop. And when she'd floundered, after me and Sophie, it was Steve who collected her and pulled her along.

Which was why she couldn't do the job anymore. Not that it was too hard without him, but that it was too hard with knowing why he died. It wasn't her fault, she told me, but she'd seen him dying and was unable to do anything. Right then she'd realized how much she needed him there to do the job, how much she needed him, and then he was gone.

I lean towards her, resting my head against hers. I don't say I'm sorry. She knows that. She knows I know some of that agony and I'm not going to make her do anything. And I understand why she can't do that job anymore.

"Why didn't you talk?" The question surprises me. "That month?"

"After April died? No idea." I lie down on the bed, letting my legs dangle. "I just couldn't."

There's a disgruntled noise and the dogs get off us. "I can get that," she admits. "I didn't ... I didn't know what to say in the hospital." Gail lies back beside me. "Did you go to the hospital?"

I have to struggle to remember. "No. The EMT checked me out and ... My folks showed up, we got home, and then when I woke up, I just couldn't say anything."

She's quiet for a moment and then says something that surprises me. "I learned sign language because I didn't want to talk."

Turning my head, I look at her thoughtful expression. "Didn't want to?" It's the only safe question I've got at the moment.

"Yeah, I was being picked on for being weird in school, when I was eight, so I thought maybe I could become a mute. Steve said he'd learn sign language if I did, and then... We just learned sign language."

It's stupid, but I say the obvious. "I didn't know." Of course I didn't. She'd never told me.

Gail turns to look at me, smiling. "I was thinking, we could have met then. You being a selective mute, me being a hearing sign language instructor."

I scoff. "I was seventeen so you were, what, fourteen?"

She stretches a little. "And volunteering as an interpreter, because Pecks are nothing but over achievers."

Suddenly Gail the Teacher makes more sense. Social work, of some sort, has always been in her blood. And here she found a way to keep in touch with parts of her brother that she loved and leaned on and misses. "I think our relationship might have been a little icky at that age," I tease her.

Laughing, Gail pokes my ribs. "Perv. I knew you were into the whole Catholic Schoolgirl thing."

"Am not!" I laugh too, because it's just that sort of feeling.

"Okay, one day you need to tell me why you're a dead people doctor, Holls," she demands, but with a kiss to my cheek, she gets up and is out of the bed and back to doing the things we have to do on a weekend in order to have a clean house.

Weeks and months pass before we get back around to why I'm a doctor of the dead. It's not really an interesting story and really it's about how when I came back to Toronto for school. And that involves Gail getting the story about Pete, my nearly fiancé in med school. He broke up with me after catching me in bed with his sister. She laughs uproariously. The idea of me and a man is hilarious to her, since she always thought of me as a Gold Star Lesbian.

Nope. I had a boyfriend. I had a really serious boyfriend who had met my parents and came up to Canada for spring break one year, and then I started med school and he started law school and then I had a massive crush on a younger woman in my class. Who happened to be his sister.

In my defense, I didn't know that at the time. They have different last names and fathers. But what I did know was that I was drawn to her in a way I'd never felt before. There was something about her that made me blush every time we talked and I just wanted to be with her. She gave me sleepless nights and some pretty vivid dreams.

When I tell Gail that, she gets weirdly serious and tells me that's how she feels about me. As she explains, she knew she liked me but thought it was just as a friend until she realized how mad she was when I was at the Penny with that date. From that moment, being shot at just made her think none of anyone's stupid judgements mattered. She wanted me.

It's daunting and flattering and it sidelines conversations for the rest of the day because as she keeps babbling about how she didn't realize she'd been in love with me for too long, she really is and... The last time either of us had a case of motor mouth that bad, Gail kissed me to shut me up. Payback is sweet. I take a hold of her face and kiss her.

We're in the middle of the sidewalk, walking the dogs, and everything just stops for that moment. She's startled but leans in and kisses me back. Someone hoots at us as they drive by and I don't care.

"You had to stop talking," I whisper when we break apart.

"Har har," she sasses.

I kiss her again, softly and tenderly. "It really was a stupid set up. Lisa thought I needed to stop obsessing about this straight girl."

Gail smiles and takes my hands, kissing my knuckles before we start walking again. "Generally good advice," she agrees. "But currently more reasons to hate Lisa." I'm about to tell her there's no reason to hate Lisa, when she blurts, "Hang on. You met Lisa and Rachel in med school."

"I did," I nod.

"But you were in school in New York!"

I know I'm blushing. "I transferred after the whole Pete and his sister thing."

"And that explains the dead people doctor because…?"

I sigh. "I had a panic attack after I was back in school in Toronto. I had unresolved crap from April. I hadn't remembered I'd see her die."

She seems to understand that. "I'm sorry." It's one of the things I love about her. I can leave some things unsaid and she understands and doesn't press.

But I need her to know she's not pressing me right now. "No, it's okay, honey," I assure her. "It's just embarrassing that I'm a forensic pathologist because I saw my sister die, which I only remember after my boyfriend caught me in bed with his sister and chased me out of New York."

Gail frowns for a moment. "Yeah," she decides. "That's worse than the Nick thing!"

And it's funny again. We laugh about it and teasing each other about the idiot men we've dated and the things we did because of it becomes a new thing.

That does sideline any serious discussions about marriage for almost another year. That's when Oliver and Celery visit and he asks Gail if she's going to make an honest woman of me. I don't think Celery and I are supposed to hear the commentary, but the two are louder than they think.

"I'm just saying, you can't help who you love." That's Oliver.

"We're not having this conversation," snarls Gail.

"I know what you're thinking, I'm not one to talk. I move in with women I love too fast, I got married too fast, I'm in love with a witch."

"Holly's in love with a bitch," Gail remarks, snidely. "Stop, Oliver. I don't think we're going to get married."

I freeze and wonder how to pretend I didn't hear a thing. Celery looks surprised. "It's not that," I whisper. I mean, I know it's not that she wants to leave me. I think. I hope.

"Something wrong, darlin?" Oliver is so kind and his voice is so gentle now.

"No, God, you're all idiots. Any time I say we're not getting married, you all freak out." She's scoffing at him.

"Just not married?"

Gail groans loudly and Biscuit yaps at her. There's a sound I'm used to hearing, Gail scratching the pup. "I'm fine," she says, probably to the canine.

"Is it... That?"

"What? Perik? Or Steve?" She laughs at that. "Look, I love Holly. I've loved her for longer than I think I knew. But just because I love her and want to spend my life with her doesn't mean we have to get married. Does it?"

There's a pause and then Oliver allows, "Well. No."

"No. So I'm going to live with her and love her as long as she'll have me, because she's the best thing that ever happened to me, and I'm not fucking it up again."

Celery tugs my arm gently and we step away from the window. "I'll tell him to leave her alone about it," she says to me, and then hugs me. "Thank you."

I have no idea why she's thanking me. "I need her too," I mutter.

And it's so true, but so hard to define. I feel like I need her like plants need the sun and the rain. I need her to make my days brighter and colorful. I need her to help me when I need the strong shoulders of someone who understands why my work eats me sometimes. I need Gail because I've been in love with her probably since the wedding. I need her.

When we're all holed up in our rooms, the dogs doing their usual patrol of the house and making sure our guests aren't dead, I hug Gail close and whisper that I love her.

"This would be awkward otherwise," she jokes. "You heard me and Ollie, huh?"

Never try to pull one over on a cop. Even an ex-cop always knows. I roll my eyes. "Yes, I did. I don't want to get married either."

Gail exhales softly, tension oozing out of her spine. "Can we just live together forever and with dogs and a house and be happy forever?"

"I'm pretty sure you're not genetically disposed to eternal happiness," I tease her.

"Yeah. There is that. I'm really good at crapping on things."

"Climbing in trees."

"I hate men," giggles Gail. "But I love you."

It's nice to have that settled I realize, because nothing changes after that. Nothing about us at least. Once we declare we aren't getting married, that we're both okay with who we are together, it all seems to be easier and simpler. At Gail's push, I have an interview with the forensics lab in San Diego. The move here was a promotion in a way, changing to do a different kind of work and different cases. The one there, if I take it, would be the same thing in a new location with slightly different crimes. More border work.

We talk about the idea of moving and the idea of the job but, after a trip down to see the place, I realize I don't want that job. I like here too much, and there isn't as much for Gail to do down there. She asks me if it's her. If I'm saying no because of her. I'm not. At least I don't think I am. It feels more like I'm saying no because it's not right for me there. It's not right yet.

Lots of other things are right. We are very right still, and take a long weekend down in Ojai wine country to remind ourselves of that over the summer. Neither of us are heavy drinkers these days. Gail stopped when she started on anti-depressants and I stopped because I didn't think it would help her to have me drinking around her. But since then, we enjoyed a beer or a glass of wine at dinner. Nothing hard.

A long weekend in wine country for us means some long walks, a sleep in without the pups, and a lot of us time. A glass of wine at dinner and then we're in our tiny boutique hotel, and Gail's hands are in my hair and on my lower back, pulling me in close before the door to our room is even closed.

How I love how she makes me feel. She knows, somehow, what I need in the moment. When I asked, she just said something good had to come out of all that cop training. I can't like how it treated her, the shit it dragged her through, but without that, we wouldn't be who we are now.

The Gail Peck I have now, the woman who snores in the bed with me, who shoves her cold feet on me, is profoundly different from the woman I met in the woods. She's still sarcastic and bitter and silly and fun. But she thinks a lot more and she's quieter. Some of her died with her brother, and while I miss her being so vibrant all the time, I see the more intellectual.

Sometimes I wonder if this is what Gail would have been like without the parental influence. Is this who she would have been? Without the generations of service and loss, would she still have given herself to the world? Because that's who I fell in love with.

It was when she was shot at that I realized I couldn't hide what I felt about her. This woman who went out and did things because the world needed her, that was who I loved. I loved a martyr who would sacrifice herself. I loved the pelican who pierced her own heart to feed her young.

I could care less how our love manifests. We could have been friends... Well. No not friends. I would have cried myself to sleep if she'd only wanted friendship. But we could have kept living separately while dating. Because with the secure knowledge that I loved her came the trust that she would be there with me.

When I heard her tell Oliver that she didn't want to marry me, but she wanted to be with me forever, my heart exploded. Suddenly there was no question in my mind that she is who I will spend my life with. However she'll have me, in whatever way.

"You're supposed to sleep after mind blowing sex," she yawns. Her eyes are thin slits in the dark, the blue peering up at me with some annoyance.

"I need you," I tell her. Because I can't unpack everything in my head just yet.

Gail smiles at me in slight confusion. She probably wasn't expecting the word need, and I wasn't planning on saying it. But she does that to me. She makes me say things I feel without stopping to think. "Sorry, what?" She props herself up to get a better look at me.

I lean in and kiss her, slowly. The kind of kiss I know warms her. The kiss I know drives her wild. I do the thing with my tongue that she really likes, reminding her that I can do it in another way that will make her cry my name out into the night. "I need you," I tell her, breathlessly. "I need you in my life. I need you with me."

Her eyes have closed at some point, probably when we were kissing, and her smile is soft and slight. It's a smile that even I rarely see. "No ones ever said that to me before," she says quietly.

The idea that no one's ever told her they need her before cuts me to the bone. God the world is stupid. "It's true," I tell her, trying to put all of my sincerity into my voice.

Even though we're never getting married, I can't avoid my parents, who want to know if they'll get grand babies out of us.

That's the question Mom asks me when they come visit and Gail's at the store getting food for dinner. "So have you two thought about babies?"

"Jesus, Mom," I groan.

"You don't have to get married," she insists, giving me a look. "I'd just love to see you two, happy."

"Mom, we are happy." I'm firm. We don't need a baby to be happy, damn it. I don't want one. It's something Gail and I have talked about, and she was iffy on after having her heart torn out over Sophie. As for me, I love kids. All my objections about Gail's adopting Sophie had to do with how she met her. It was too much and it was going to eat her soul. Maybe I was the only person who saw how sensitive and vulnerable Gail was back then. Maybe I'm the only one who sees it now. Either way, I know she can't handle kids. Not after Steve.

We're still arguing about it when Gail gets back with my Dad. "Run, Blondie," he hisses at her. "My wife's got grandmother hands."

But this is Gail, who's faced down serial killers. She's stood up to her own parents, who are far more intimidating than my mother. Cute as a button is how most people describe Mom. Gail cants her head to the side and says, flatly, "We're not having a baby."

There's something about her tone that cuts my mother off cold. She apologizes and we go through dinner as if nothing at all had gone on.

After they go home, after life returns to normal, Gail tells me she doesn't think her heart can take raising a child. Not after everything else. "Some days," she says quietly, scratching Biscuit behind the ears. "Sometimes it takes everything I've got to get up and be us, Holly. To watch you go out, to go out myself, and just do normal things. It scares the hell out of me."

I cross my arms and look at her, Dakota leaning up against my leg until I pet him. "Then we won't," I say simply. Because ... It really is that simple to me. Option one is a life with her, option two is without, and there's no competition. Two is not going to happen.

"I'm sorry I'm all screwed up," she sighs.

She is. She's broken in ways I think may never heal. She's shattered and battered and in pain. Her guilt hangs over her on a good day. The bad days, it envelops her. I really only understand that gaping hole of loss. I miss April every day, and that has never changed in over twenty years. I will never not miss her.

Gail has to carry Steve with her forever. I cannot, I will not ever suggest that it should be any other way. It wasn't her fault he died. Her actions were an attempt to prevent it. She tried. She tried and could have died for it.

Still. I love her damaged soul. It's horrible to say that I love her because she's in pain, but in a way I do. I love her because the strength to go on, to muscle past the agony and heartache, has always been there. She's not a tragic little girl. She's not a sad, lonely, woman. She is amazing and powerful.

I unfold myself and walk over to her, taking her chin in one hand. "Don't be sorry." She blinks at me in confusion. "Don't be sorry for being you, Gail. I love you."

She exhales a puff that might be the word 'oh' and leans, pressing her cheek into my hand. "So now what?"

Now?

We will never have children.

We will never get married.

We won't live in San Francisco forever.

But we will be together.

I smile and take her hands, pulling her up. "Now we see what's next."

And I am content in knowing whatever is next, it's us.