"Yeah, Dave's kind of a dick."
Alex had been sitting on that comment for two months since staying with Henry's aunt and uncle. Sure, he planned to keep it to himself, but apparently it needed to be known over cups of blueberries and sugar. Diane took the comment about her brother-in-law with a half smile, small hands setting the rest of their ingredients on the counter. Alex felt an instinctive need to apologize but pushed it down when Diane chuckled, a laugh she didn't mean to let slip, but there it was.
"You two didn't get along?"
"He liked me, actually." Which made everything weirder. "Kept pulling me into the garage." Which was sickeningly familiar, enough that Alex broke out in a cold sweat when he saw the same old grounds keeping boots his father wore, sitting in a corner scuffed and battered to hell. Unlike Adam, Dave wanted his opinion on tools, and about renovating the garage roof. "We went to Lowe's twice." It was almost like hanging out with a co-worker, instead of the uncle of the guy he was dating. Almost like hanging out with a co-worker, who couldn't keep his fat mouth shut about his boyfriend's career, hobbies, and how Alex was a real man's man.
"Margaret doesn't involve herself much in his projects, I'm sure he was excited."
Alex grunted, brow furrowed when she passed the recipe book in his hands. Muffin making 101. Alex bought extra eggs just in case.
"This might be a disaster."
"It's like science." Diane shook a metal tablespoon at him.
"I, uh, was pretty average in school." Alex grinned crooked. Diane shook her head this time, pointing down to the bookmark sticking out the side.
"Average muffins are still good muffins."
It was hard to argue, considering Alex didn't bake. What did he know. He flipped to the correct page and started setting out the measurements in the large bowl.
"I don't really cook."
"What did you do before?"
"Before? When I lived with my friend Elle, we went out a lot." Alex reread the amount of sugar suspiciously before scooping it out of it's canister. Sheepishly, he added, "Now Henry feeds me."
Diane smiled warmed, like her son's care taking was an achievement to be celebrated.
"You'll be able to surprise him then."
"Heh. You taught him, right?"
"I did." Diane's falling star earrings swished when she ducked to damp a paper towel under the sink, wiping down the dust of flour already on her counter. "Henry wanted to learn how to do things at an early age. He was in the kitchen with me, at the laundromat, the grocery store, wanting to take care of things, see how they worked. I think what helped most was Home Ec in high school."
Makes sense, Alex thought and began to stir up everything in the bowl. At least until he noticed the glaring white egg shell, and hopelessly tried to fish it out with a spoon. Diane patted his back and told him to just use his fingers. She smacked his back lightly when he sucked the batter off his fingers, causing Alex to laugh.
It's been losing a battle ever since Alex's youth, where cookie dough made an appearance in his diet.
Diane wrinkled her nose but couldn't help smiling, a cute zigzag running across her mouth. It made her look ten years younger.
"Scrape the sides of the bowl, Alex. All the dry mix needs to be used."
"Got it." Alex went back to stirring, slowing down when Diane started talking.
"Margaret hadn't liked it."
"Liked what?" Henry's aunt had soft speech, just like Diane, but always seemed put out by something. It was hard to tell if she had low blood sugar or a problem with everyone else.
"Home Ec. My church's sewing group. Henry spending hours reading and drawing, only going outside to take pictures." Diane absently wiped down the counter again as she talked, how even when Henry joined the track team, it was to use the track independently and not go to any practices, no competitions. Margaret and Dave had Opinions. Opinions about how Diane raised her only son. Alex was strangely grateful he had an opening to complain about them.
"Do they even have any kids?"
"No, they had tried but... there were medical complications."
"And Henry was the closest thing to a son," Alex guessed, done stirring once the last clump disappeared into the batter.
"It did feel like that sometimes." Diane pointed back to the recipe book and Alex realized he forgot to preheat the oven. She continued when Alex moved, "They loved Henry, always came when we invited them to school events, birthday dinners, he spent a lot of weekends with them."
She was struggling on her tiptoes when Alex turned back around, trying to get wrappers on a too high shelf.
"Oh, thank you, dear." Diane said when Alex reached overhead to grab them for her.
"I heard a 'but' in that sentence." Alex prompted her, putting off lining the tins until Diane playfully pushed him back towards the counter.
"Why do you want to hear me complain?"
"It's not that, just." Alex mulled over his thoughts long enough to decide it was better to be as honest as possible. "They did and said some things that pissed me off. And I want to get the clear from you before I open my big mouth."
Diane went quiet. Grabbed a dishrag and started drying dishes. But it got her talking and Alex recognized she needed the distraction to keep her grounded. "They're decent people. They're not particularly good, but that's neither here nor there. When it comes to Henry, they thought I sheltered him. That all I wanted to see in him was me. After my divorce they said I was hurting him, by not letting him be out in the world."
Alex flinched at the glassware hitting the sink when she dropped it to soap up another one.
"They blamed me. But in the end they blamed his trauma. They never understood Henry was just as introverted as he is now before Clarke started beating me."
A cold chill creeps up Alex's back, and his knuckles are white when he looks at them, clenched on the tabletop. He doesn't interrupt. Diane's never spoken so directly about it and it isn't his pain or anger to control or express. He grabs a spoon and starts dropping batter into the liners.
"Henry's greatest pride is in his independence. He moved away as soon as possible, worked through college, and found an apartment all on his own. He has never had to borrow or ask me for money. He asked me how to cook, how to stitch, where to find things I didn't know how to do. And I loved it. He has a life separate from me, that he enjoys, and does not feel limited in anyway. There's never been anything wrong with him."
There's a tremor in her final words and Alex looked over to see Diane, facing away, dish washed hands folding over her face, water dripping down her arms into her sleeves.
He hugged her with hesitation and she hiccuped.
"Thanks for telling me the truth," Alex said. Because an apology would mean shit and would erase the respect he had for her. So much livelier and more colorful than his mother. Who he loved, still loved, but wasn't the woman in his arms, whose personality wasn't that of a victim, but a woman who worked and volunteered and drank too much tea and played records that made her sway around her living room like she could dance on air.
"I'm real lucky he learned how to be strong from you."
Alex grinned at the wet laugh under his chin before she pushed him gently, smiling, at him, and then at her damp sleeves.
She rolled them up with a sigh and wiped her eye. The oven beeped and Alex went back to spooning batter.
"What did you want to say?" Diane asked after a peaceful silence.
"Yeah, Dave is a dick." Alex finally amended and Diane smiled behind her hand. "You weren't kidding about them being disappointed. Like the whole house reeked with it. It really pissed me off, that Henry's not manly enough for them." Whatever fucking bullshit you wanna call it, it came down to that. "Acting like he was my fucking girlfriend." He grimaced once the f-bomb flew out but made no moves to take it back.
"What do you think of Henry?" Diane had the closest thing to a Cheshire Cat smile Alex has ever seen in real life and he can't help but be wary of it.
"I... think it's obvious, about now."
"Try again," she teased.
Alex huffed, "He's quiet. Like me. That's really what it comes down to. He doesn't smile... but he, goes all soft. And if he does something, it always counts." It always meant something, that made Alex ache, and his throat tighten in so many cases where he felt more vulnerable than he should, because Henry saw through him, and embraced him each time. "Honestly, I think he's more of a man than I am."
He was guilty in the beginning, of assuming Henry was more passive, more submissive than he was, maybe that did equate with being feminine, but either way, Alex had been wrong. Once Henry's initial shyness went away... he lived in his skin so easily. Confidently.
"He's comfortable." Alex settled on, Henry was much more comfortable with himself than Alex was. But then, in spite of their traumas, childhood and silent hill aside, Henry was closer to thirty and Alex was closer to twenty. Experience really did count for a lot. Pain in the ass that it was.
Diane didn't seem like she had anything to say, just a small smile until she looked into the muffin tin.
Oh no. Alex flash backed to Lilian so fast he felt sick before the moment disappeared.
"These are not equal amounts."
Alex looked to where she pointed. No. No, they were not. And the batter sure did cling to the wrappers.
"Some will be bigger than the others?"
"We'll just take the smaller ones out before they burn so the others cook through."
Alex agreed sheepishly and followed her to the oven with the tins. They set two timers and talked about Diane's book club while they waited, slowly building a pile of blueberry muffins on the kitchen counter.
By the time there all baked, they're all slightly different sizes, shapes, and shades. But they tasted good and Henry ate three of them that night, so Alex considered it a win.
It was good to be home.