San Diego, CA
"Morning," Lena Foster's morning greeting is quiet and subdued. Stef doesn't blink. Lena's new mannerisms, the new tone in her voice isn't strange. It's as usual now. How quickly people adapt, but then, whatever is for any length of time becomes 'as usual'. It's been a week since Callie ran away.
Stef sips at her cold coffee, both hands wrapped around the ceramic mug, staring straight ahead. "Morning," she says neutrally.
There's an elephant in the room, sitting right next to the Callie shaped one. Today is Stef's first day back to work. The blonde's sleeves tug at her shoulders as she lifts her cup and tilts her head back for the last few dregs of caffeinated bliss.
Lena looks over her shoulder at the sink, fully dressed and ready to go. There was a time when she'd be standing here in her pajamas. Stef always wakes up first, goes in earlier—but not since that morning. Not anymore. Lena gets up with Stef now. It's 'as usual'.
"You're still coming home for lunch today?" Lena knows the answer; Stef knows that her partner knows the answer. This is what they do. They go over what needs to be done and then they do it.
Stef stands up and slips her mug into the sink, standing close enough to her wife to limit Lena's movement, "I'll be here, Love."
Lena nods noncommittally and pulls at her sleeves before shifting the dirty dishes to one side of the sink so she can run the faucet.
"Lena," Stef won't look away from her wife’s face. She made herself a promise as soon as she accepted that it was going to take time to find Callie: Stef will never look away from someone she loves again—and she won't let them either, "look at me please, love."
Lena's shoulders straighten and her hands still. She steels herself before meeting the compassion and pain in Stef's face—a look that she knows is mirrored by her own. Sometimes it seems that sharing the pain magnifies it, but Lena touches the side of her wife's face and softens her bearing, "I'm sorry this is all happening today, Stef. It's hard enough that you have to start today thinking about Callie…"
Stef closes her eyes and shakes her head in dismissal, "Doesn't matter babe. We have to do this today for Jude. God knows that boy deserves whatever stability we can give him."
Her statement doesn't require a reply. It goes without saying. Lena stands with her back to the sink, her hands clutching the lip of the counter. She looks thoughtful as she watches her partner go on with her morning routine.
Stef gets out the bread, preparing to start the kids' lunches.
The silence hangs, 'as usual'.
All of the blame and angry queries have already been assigned and dissolved. Some things deserve to be said more than once.
"What did we miss, Stef?"
"Lena…" Stef's pleading admonishment hurts her more than Lena. They've been through this. There was nothing they could have done, nothing more they could have 'seen'. Callie was happy the day of the wedding, Stef is sure of it. The girl made a choice and deliberately excluded her new family from it. There is nothing Stef and Lena could have done, short of putting the house in lock-down on one of the happiest nights of their life for no foreseeable reason. In one day, Stef Foster and Lena Adams gained a daughter, a son and they'd finally stood up to share their love with family and friends in marriage. In one day that euphoric high evaporated. In one day it felt like they lost all sense. In one day they lost Callie.
Lena opens her mouth to respond, to tell Stef that she knows—she does—that there is nothing they could have done but that she still feels like a horrible excuse for a mother because Lena doesn't only feel guilty. Lena is angry, she feels betrayed. She wants to ask the question that Stef refuses to speak. How could Callie do this to their family?
She doesn't get the chance.
Jesus swings into the kitchen, looking for breakfast, followed by a sullen Mariana.
Lena foregoes her early attempt at washing, tossing the dishcloth unceremoniously into the sink, eyes on Stef's back the whole time. Her arm shoots out habitually to slow Jesus as her son speeds around the table. He plops into the nearest chair with cereal and bowl in hand as Mariana rolls her eyes for no apparent reason, sitting across from him. She isn't hungry.
Stef has noticed Mariana's new diet plan and she doesn't like it. 'Miss Thing' doesn't always have time for breakfast with all the time she spends grooming, but Mariana normally tries not to miss it. She hasn't eaten breakfast in a week. Stef is going to make sure that doesn't become 'as usual'.
"Eat, Mariana." It's not a request and Mariana rolls her eyes again before snagging Jesus' cereal and looking back toward the stairs as Jude walks into the kitchen.
It's too late for the pre-teen. His 'as usual' isn't negotiable. Jude walks with a purpose now. He gets where he's going, says what he has to say—in as few words as possible—and does what needs to be done. The moms haven't seen his smile in a week or heard Callie's name from his mouth since that morning. Nothing they've said changes Jude's day-to-day routine.
Brandon is still the last one down, but now he's the first one to bed. Sleeping makes it easier, accept for the fact that it makes the morning come faster. Stef and Lena know that he blames himself and so does Jude.
The difference is Jude doesn't punish anybody, he never says anything bad.
Stef and Lena suspect that's why Jude's stopped saying anything of consequence at all.
"Why is everyone so quiet?" Mariana is the first to jump into the breach—she's not a glutton for punishment, but it's clear that there's something on everyone's minds and Mariana doesn't want to be the one to say what that is. It's safer to be the one who calls everyone else out.
Lena uses a spatula to drop a short stack of crisped pancakes onto the plate in the middle of the table and Mariana stops mid-chew. She and Jesus are eating cereal, Jude is already reaching for the box and the moms have clearly eaten already.
The other shoe must be about to drop.
Jesus sets his spoon down and says what no one wants to, "It's been seven days. They're not going to find her, are they?"
Stef stops with one hand inside a brown bag and bows her head before turning to her family. Her eyes fall on Jude, but she sees Lena watching him. Lena's got him—Stef focuses on the rest of the table, "We don't know that Jesus. And," Stef tries to get some momentum going as she piles a couple bagged lunches on the table, "I'll be able to do more from work."
"Don't they say if you don't find a missing person in 48 hours—" Mariana has the decency to stop herself when Lena glares at her and she notices her new little brother's pale face.
"Callie isn't that kind of missing person, Mariana," Lena says, pointedly dropping a pancake onto a plate and setting it in front of Jude while plucking the cereal box out of his shaking hand in one fell swoop, "She left on her own. Callie will be fine, and we'll find her. She can't hide forever—and Stef works faster than Callie can run."
Stef nods in the affirmative. It's as good an answer as any—but the sound of ceramic clinking against the salt shaker surprises her and Lena as Jude pushes his plate away.
Brandon chose that moment to enter the kitchen—one look at his little brother's stormy face and the eldest son felt the kitchen floor tilt under his feet. He can't stop himself; it's like diarrhea of the mouth, "What's going on?"
Jude doesn't try to stop, not this time, "Why isn't anyone saying it?"
Slowly, carefully, as if she's waiting for Jude to snap, Lena puts the spatula down and turns off the stove's electric burner.
Stef looks at the others. This isn't something that can be ignored or brushed past. She's never seen this little boy do anything aggressive. Her hesitation includes a lifetime of rapid analysis, "Saying what, Love?"
"How mad they are?" Jude's face turns red as he drops the hammer but he makes himself very clear, "I miss her. But I hate her right now because I feel guilty and it's not my fault!"
The pre-teen doesn't move and neither does anyone else. Stef's eyes shoot to Lena's face, but her wife's gaze is already there and waiting. This is exactly what Stef didn't want to voice.
Silence isn't the answer that Jude was looking for. He's never felt so alone in his life. He's always had Callie and now that she’s the problem he wants to know that he isn't wrong. He wants someone to tell him that he isn't a terrible person or an awful brother for the things he said to her and for the way he feels right now. Jude isn't stupid—he knows this won't last forever, eventually he'll just miss his sister and he'll do or say anything to get her back. Her absence is killing him. Anger is all he has and he has a right to be angry, doesn't he? She promised she'd stop being selfish.
"Jude…" Lena tapers off. She isn't sure she has the right answer. The woman kneels next to her youngest's chair and tries not to recoil from the accusing glare that he directs at her, "No one is saying that what Callie's doing is right. What Callie is doing, why she's doing it and even how it makes us feel right now…" Lena glances at Stef for help but for the first time in a long time, Stef looks like a deer in headlights. She's frozen. Jude has struck right to the core and she isn't recovering quickly enough.
Jude waits and he waits.
It's Jesus who comes to the rescue, "Listen little man—we all get it. I am so pissed at her right now, but I know this has gotta be killing Callie. Believe me she's getting hers. I just want her back, man."
Jude's face goes slack and Stef's petrified features study Jesus'. Stef studies her children, each and every one. They're all hurting. Somehow, they still manage to understand a girl who is in so much pain, who is so lost and confused that she's just walked out on everyone who loves her. Stef couldn't be prouder of her family.
From the floor, still next to Jude, Lena quietly calls everyone to action, "Let's go guys, you'd better head out, I need you to walk today, I'm going in a little late."
One by one the Foster children walk out of their shipwreck of a breakfast but Lena's hand on Jude's arm keeps the boy in his chair.
Stef finally sits down at the table across from her soon-to-be son and her wife. They're back in sync as Lena catches Stef's eye.
"It's ok to be mad, baby. We know you love your sister, no matter what." Stef pauses and Lena picks up.
"…And we don't think any less of you. Sometimes…it's the people you love most who hurt you the worst, Jude, but there's a reason we love them to begin with. We love them so much, we forgive them and we try to help them."
Jude won't look at Lena. He doesn't look up from the table at Stef. His face is a mask of petulant anger but it's slipping. The boy is losing his hard won composure, "I didn't mean it."
Stef's lips purse but she waits. When Jude doesn't continue she prods him, "Mean what?"
"What I said to Callie. She always takes care of me. She's not selfish. I was just scared you wouldn't keep us if…"
Lena is already shaking her head, "Jude, we love you and we love Callie. Everyone makes mistakes—and we will never send you away for them."
Jude looks defeated; he doesn't even notice Lena's choice of words. His foster Moms have never quite managed the word 'love' in regards to him or his sister before.
Stef and Lena recognize this face. The little boy isn't an angry stranger anymore. There's still hope, but he isn't hearing them.
"I'm sorry." Jude finally meets Stef's eyes but he can't look at Lena's hand on his arm, she's too close. He won't look at her.
Stef doesn't ask him to continue this time. She doesn't want him to. The pain that this is causing is written all over her face but she knows he needs to speak and that she and Lena need to reassure him.
"I'm sorry that I made her go."
"No…sweets, that's not—" But Jude is on a roll, he isn't done yet—he can't stop. Finally, the tears are rolling down his face.
"I'm sorry I got so mad, I'm sorry Callie is out there alone, I know Jesus is right—she's scared and hurt and probably hungry…I don't," the boy isn't sobbing, he can't do that, but it's hard to talk, "I don't want her to be hungry…" Jude doesn't know what he wants to say anymore. Nothing's making sense to him, "Don't be mad at her. Please? I just want her to come home."
Lena wraps the boy and chair in her arms, resting her chin on top of his bowed head. His fingers dig into her arms.
Stef is at a loss—and then she lies, "Jude—Jude baby, we're not angry."
What a day.
Stef doesn't bother to undo her belt—she likes the weight it carries. The uniform itself makes her stronger. She's trained to be strong, a pillar; a public servant while wearing this uniform and carrying her gun. The uniform won't let her pause before walking back into the kitchen—into what feels like the scene of a crime.
Lena's already there and so is Bill.
"Hi Bill, did you two start without me?"
Lena doesn't look good. Automatically, Stef takes the place by her side and wraps an arm around Lena's shoulders.
"Yeah, this isn't good Stef."
"What isn't good? I'm sorry, but I can think of a whole list of things—what are we talking about here?" Even Stef's sarcasm lacks its usual bite.
Bill blinks at the couple in sympathy before opening his mouth, "Callie's still on probation—she's a ward of the state and she already has a file full of—"
Lena's fists curl on the island top and Stef's eyes flicker, detecting danger, but it's too late to curb Lena's venomous response, "That girl is not her file. You know as well as we do that she and Jude fell through the cracks. The system fails these kids every day—you failed these kids."
The social worker isn't insulted. He doesn't take it personally anymore. Lena Adams—excuse him—Lena Foster speaks the truth. He knows it and he knows there's only so much he can do and so much blame he can accept. Bill isn't uncaring and he doesn't say it to be spiteful, just to be honest and to set the tone for the rest of this god awful conversation, "So did you."
Silence falls on the kitchen. Neither woman speaks.
"This is largely on Callie, yes. She chose to run away, but the state has questions. There's protocol to be followed. I know the two of you and I will vouch for you but I don't know if that will be enough to convince a judge to go through with Jude's adoption in Callie's absence. Your fitness as guardians will be questioned—"
"What are you—"
Bill raises a hand to halt Stef's interruption, "You're not gonna lose the kids Stef. This whole thing is a formality, but right now, I just don't see how we can cut through enough red tape to initiate Jude's adoption. And if Callie is found…"
"Are you trying to say we'll have nothing to do with what happens to Callie if she comes back?" asks Lena. Stef's arm tightens around her.
"You are more than welcome to petition the judge. I'll back you because I believe this is the best place for her, but if the judge thinks you can't handle her, or if he decides to utilize her parole violation, she'll end up back in Juvie."
"This's…" Stef bites back the words as she pulls away from Lena and starts to pace.
Lena doesn't have to watch her wife to know the floor is wearing thin, "And you don't think we'll be allowed to adopt Jude."
"I'm saying it's going to take time. If we throw Callie under the bus and paint her as a high risk, it'll be easy to cut the strings between the two kids. The adoption will go smooth…"
Stef warns from the other end of the kitchen, "We're not doing that."
Bill continues as if he hasn't heard, "If we try to work this so Callie has a chance at a life when she's found, then there's going to be some investigation. You're going to have to answer as to how you managed to 'lose' Jude's sister. It's not on you to find her but the state placed Callie Jacobs in your care. I know and you know that there was nothing you could have done. So prove it without making Callie come off as a risk."
Callie was a risk…a risk worth taking.
Lena stands up and Stef is at her side in a flash, hand on her shoulder. Fine.
"I'm not going to recommend removing Jude from this house—and for now I believe the state will accept my recommendation. You have a lot to think about."
"Thank you, Bill."
He shows himself out. The sound of the clicking latch is ominous.
Stef sinks down into the seat next to Lena and holds out her hands. Where to begin?
"The kids are all in bed?"
"Jesus is still on the phone with Lexi, but he's in his room."
"Good." Stef picks up her pillow and hooks the comforter with one finger, pulling it back. She's exhausted.
"Are we going to talk about what happened this morning?"
Stef doesn't want to.
"Aren't you tired, Love?"
Lena's reply is hissed, "Of course I'm tired Stef and don't think I don't see how run down you are. I know you're not sleeping. But that little boy was the only one with the guts to admit how he was really feeling this morning. We have to deal with this ourselves before we can help the kids."
Stef feels like sighing. Any anger she harbors is drowning under several layers of exhaustion—but she can at least listen.
"Stef," Lena drops onto her side of the bed as Stef collapses back into their pillows, "I know Callie is trying to protect Jude, but after everything we've been through with her, I expected her to trust us. I think we deserve that much. She should have come to us. Instead you're not sleeping, Jude is heartbroken, Mariana isn't eating, Jesus is stepping in when I hesitate and I'm just so angry with her for putting all of us through this. I feel...betrayed." There. She's said it.
Lena feels betrayed because all this time, Callie's been lying. She smiled at Stef and Lena, laughed with them. Lena thought Callie was finally happy. She relives the morning of the wedding repeatedly, searching for any sign that Callie wasn't happy about the adoption—that she couldn't handle it. Lena was happy that Callie was happy. Lena's angry now because she was wrong and because she's just as helpless as Callie is out there. Lena's scared.
Stef is too. One arm snags Lena's wrist and pulls her down into Stef's side, "So what, Lena?"
It's not an admonishment; it's an eye opener, "What does that change? We're all hurt. Yes, I feel the same way, but I also feel like my body is shutting down every day that goes by and I can't find her. I know she's out there, scared. She isn't safe and in my mind she won't be safe until she's back here with us, even if it means I have to handcuff her to the toilet downstairs," Stef pauses for a watery laugh but only gets a silent nod into her shoulder, "You're angry, I'm angry—Callie's probably angry too."
Stef isn't sure where to go from there, "What will you do when she comes home?"
Lena lifts her face from Stef's shirt. She can't believe she doesn't have a ready answer for this question. The truth is, Lena knows what she'll do—angry or not, she'll grab Callie and hold her until someone knocks some sense into the girl—or into Lena, whichever comes first. That's never really been in question. The only real question is how to live in the interim.
Stef stares at the ceiling, playing with her wife's curly hair.
The blonde grunts in acknowledgement.
"I just want her back here, under our roof, in our lives."
The long legged black woman tilts her head to see past Stef's jaw line.
"We'll bring her home, Love."