Chapter 3: Good(?) Morning
Brandon sat with three generations of Franklins around a dining table. Sitting beside Tina, he watched her sidestep a few dozen questions about himself and a supposed exchange program, some convoluted story to explain his living with her.
As Tina’s grandparents badgered her on why she shouldn’t have offered the program her spare room, Brandon, sly as a fox, placed a hand atop one of her knees. Tina stilled. She shot the man a look, feeling embarrassed even though she knew the table hid them from view.
Beginning his explorations, Brandon slowly hiked up the brown-eyed’s skirt. Surprising Tina, his touch was pleasurable, made a zing shoot through her, and her legs part.
At her mother questioning the food’s taste, having noticed she’d barely eaten, the teen scarfed down some chicken and green beans. She battled a moan of pleasure, biting her fork hard. Craving more of Brandon’s skillful affections, Tina eagerly lessened the gap between her clothed core and his tantalizing digits.
With light pants, the woman wriggled in her seat. Brandon remained stone-faced, held back his smug satisfaction when he moved Tina’s damp undergarment to the side, heard her shocked gasp, and felt her shiver at the cool air’s kiss. Being played like a fiddle, Tina found it hard to control her squirming, the intensity soon drawing the attention of her grandmother. With her quick wit, the teen provided her granny an excuse for her behavior. Brandon smirked, somewhat impressed that in her glassy-eyed state, Tina remained articulate; he sensed her want, tickled her mound of soft curls before massaging her bountiful thighs. This was Brandon’s fun, witnessing Tina’s reactions, how her feminine body sang for him.
A few more teasing strokes and the heated woman tensed. Again, she stifled deep moans with her fork, knowing she couldn’t last much longer. If Brandon didn’t act soon, touch the teen directly, then she felt like she’d have no choice but to take matters into her own hands, family be damned.
As she edged into a whimper, Tina felt suddenly sharp nails leave her. She pouted at the loss of contact, looked to Brandon with unfocused and desperate eyes before sobering up at his horrific transformation, hairy, disfigured, and giant, his stature forcing his back to curve against the ceiling.
With her breath caught in her throat, Tina looked to the lumbering… thing’s eyes. She saw it snarl, gaze focused on her larynx before it lunged… Everything cut to black, the grating screeches of the Franklin dinner table a blaring and bloody symphony…
Waking with a start, Tina gasped for air. Sweat trickled down her forehead as her fingers anchored themselves in her bedsheets. She groaned, disgusted, “Never again...”
Tina refused to question the meaning behind her — dream, nightmare?
Narrator here again…
Hey, fantasies don’t need to make sense.
That is all.
Ignoring her rapidly firing mind, the teen stretched and swung a leg out of bed. “FUCK!” She winced, her arms flying to her side faster than she remembered Dee doing a week ago for a piece of gum.
With care, Tina lifted her shirt. Angling to face her closet’s mirror, she saw her left side patterned purple. She flinched as she stroked the bruise, the delicate ridges of her fingertips enough to make her hiss. Then Tina tensed. Realizing what she had to do, she let loose a string of curses that could cause a sailor to blush.
SHIT, THAT HURT! She held back tears. Flinging herself from her queen-size bed wasn’t Tina’s smartest decision.
Shuffling her aching body, Tina noted the eerie silence. She closed the door to the bathroom, guessed Brandon was still asleep. “Must be nice.” She rummaged through a cabinet for a compression bandage.
After freshening up and wrapping her torso, the Protected found herself face-to-face with last night’s closed door. She was about to knock on it when she stopped to inhale a familiar scent. Her mind worked double time, thinking.
…My parents aren’t here. Brandon’s asleep… Who the hell’s cooking?!
Jumping into action, Tina rounded the hall, landing in a fighting stance she’d seen in Hailey and Monáe’s latest movie recommendation. However, what she saw wasn’t what she’d expected. For once the girl’s kitchen slabs weren’t occupied by questionable concoctions, but an impressive spread.
As Brandon’s sight shifted to the corner, he couldn’t help the upward curl of his lips. Seeing his Protected’s pathetic defense brought entertainment to his cooking.
Tina’s eyes devoured the scrumptious meal before them, buttered toast, scrambled eggs with cheese, and a few strips of crunchy bacon. “He cooks?” she asked, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice. Relaxing her limbs, the woman got two glasses from a cupboard. She filled them with cold orange juice, placed them beside a bowl of fruit salad before stealing a few cherries.
“He does,” Brandon said with a scoff. “I refuse to call that boxed shit breakfast.” He yawned and gazed with reverted eyes at Tina’s cereal corner. “The rest of the good stuff will be ready in five.” He yawned again, inwardly cursing the hallway light he’d recently discovered was incapable of turning off.
With a pout, Tina threw her hair in a messy top bun. She made a mental note to go grocery shopping soon, already tired of the frozen foods her mother had stored in the freezer like a building blocks champion. “You didn’t poison anything, did you?”
Brandon fiddled with the searing pan, stared at it like a lifeline. “Not necessary, my meat is killer on its own, guaranteed heart disease. Now stop asking questions, woman.”
Eating a cherry, Tina took in her Guardian’s dress. Even if they didn’t get along, she still had to praise the man’s fashion sense. He always matched, something she didn’t know his sex was capable of from her experiences with family and Roscoe pre-girlfriend.
A plain t-shirt, some black jeans fashioned with a few rips at one of the knees, and a pair of well-worn sneakers were Brandon’s go-tos. The thick sleeves of his navy blue and white pullover were scrunched up, making the fancy, darkly inked clock on his right forearm, its time stating 11:00, visible.
Blue’s his color, Tina admitted before shuddering at a sudden memory of Angel, her eldest sibling who’d worn an atrocious suit to his twin’s nuptials. That feels like so long ago.
Tina remembered how beautiful Shawna’s big day was, how she’d spent thousands, and prayed it would go smoothly, apparently forgetting who Angel was. Against everyone’s advice, the best man dressed himself, earning disapproving stare after disapproving stare. At the time, Tina didn’t know what was worse, the satin pinstripes of her brother’s red and purple dress shirt, the gargantuan suspenders of his powder blue pants, or the Oxfords he wore in clashing orange and purple.
Blue was not his color. Tina shook, still horrified by the man’s rejected prom pants. God, the stares.
She had a flashback to the wedding reception, when she’d told the attention hog that she’d rather see him in a pair of assless chaps than attend another social event where people would know they’re related.
As she cleansed her mind of the terrifying fashion faux pas, Tina noticed something strange about the man whose messy locks hung uncharacteristically low on his face. “You’re missing one.” She ate another cherry.
“What?” Brandon questioned, eyes still on his bacon.
“Your earrings. You’re missing a stud.” Tina popped another cherry.
“Ah. Guess I must’ve lost it somewhere,” the Guardian said, knowing exactly where the stupid accessory had to be if not on him.
“Damn!” Tina exclaimed before she could edit herself.
“Hm?” Her Guardian spun back around, plate in hand.
As Tina reached for the man, he shifted. If she didn’t know any better, she would’ve sworn that the devious mastermind flinched. “What happened?” Tina pulled her hand back, voice thick with concern.
Understanding crossed masculine features. “Ah, this.” Brandon stroked the large bandage on his right cheek gingerly. “You gave me the good old one-two when you flailed back to life.”
“I punched you?!”
“Aye. Twice.” The Guardian chuckled, amused by his Protected’s shock.
Brandon stared at Tina, knowing he didn’t stutter. At the man’s lack of articulation, the woman cringed, remembered an early encounter where he explicitly stated he hates repeating himself.
“Shit,” Tina said, looking down at the ground she decided a knife would work best on. “I’m horrible.”
The Guardian tilted his head with a child-like curiosity. “Okay, I’ll bite.” He decreased the stovetop’s flame and turned toward Tina, his slender fingers tracing patterns on the nearby granite. “Elaborate.”
Gaping, Tina crossed her arms meekly, grasped the elbow of her uninjured side. She looked up. “What’s there to elaborate? I punched you without provocation. That has to be fucked up even in your book.”
Brandon read the room. After last night, he felt unusually cautious. “It’s not a big deal,” he said, knowing an early write-up wouldn’t be a good look.
Shocked, Tina retorted on instinct, “You say that, but you still took care of me after I treated your face like a punching bag.” Brandon suppressed an amused snort at the comparison, turned back to his precious meat. “And I’m mad at myself for not noticing the damage yesterday,” Tina muttered, crossing her legs to lean on a pillar that separated the kitchen and living room.
“Nothing showed until this morning,” Brandon paused before adding, “I got to give it to you, though. Under this, my cheek is as pink as a baboon’s ass.”
Tina’s eyes widened. She groaned disbelievingly into her hands, “Ugh, I’m so shit.”
Wait a second! Why do I feel bad? All those times I wanted to knock Brandon’s lights out, and I finally got to do it. What the hell, Conscious?
Watching his bacon sizzle, Brandon released an annoyed sigh. “Listen, just don’t let it happen again, and I’ll call us even.”
Tina dropped her hands, about to argue but stopping when she interpreted the look Brandon gave her.
Guess he’s done entertaining me. I’ll take what I can get.
Freeing herself of negativity, Tina’s inner cockiness, once more, bubbled to the surface. “At least now I know I can do some damage. Mess with me if you want to.” She made a stereotypical fighting sound and struck another poor pose she’d seen in that action movie, her silliness causing her to laugh before she winced.
Brandon watched Tina entertain herself in his peripheral. He rolled his eyes at how she stroked her ego, so, of course, he noticed when she’d hunched over in what seemed like pain. “You hurt?” he asked as he transferred the hot bacon to the plate he’d dug out.
Tina froze for a second before purposefully straightening herself. She refused to give her Guardian more ammunition, more reasons to harass her.
Brandon groaned. “Remember how I bit a second ago? Indulge me.”
She couldn’t help but grip her side and scold herself. “Fuck.”
Reaching the counter his Protected stood near, placing the meaty cholesterol and a cup of juice down, Brandon looked at her. “Any time now.”
“I’m fine,” Tina lied, knowing better. One of her Guardian’s eyebrows shot up. “Cramps.”
“Cramps?” Brandon inquired, his twitched brow lowering a fraction.
With a nod, Tina grabbed the citrus he slid her way. “So, are we supposed to be waiting for the food to get cold or…?” She used the back of her hand to wipe her mouth clean.
Brandon huffed before going to retrieve his glass of orange liquid.
Sipping on her drink, Tina returned to her room for her phone. She needed her daily fix of funny videos, a new tradition of her siblings’ group chat. Her family’s identical twins, the jokesters and her older brothers, Bailey and Quentin, Bailey Boo and Quin to her, maintained the thing like clockwork. In fact, the first few videos they’d sent were what got the youngest Franklin into mimicry.
Returning to the kitchen, Tina took a seat beside Brandon at one of the island’s barstools. She noticed him wince slightly, inwardly agreed that the sound the metal feet made as they scraped the tile was ugly. The two ate in relative silence, minus the sound of someone on Tina’s small phone screen telling a bad joke in a fake accent every now and again.
“Wow!” Tina’s eyes grew the moment crispy meat flakes met her tongue. She turned her attention to Brandon. “This is really good. I never knew that pre-cooked bacon could taste like this.”
“It couldn’t. I threw that shit out as soon as I found it yesterday and bought the real stuff. I can’t believe you ate that crap.”
Tina paused midchew. “If you threw away my bacon then you owe me three dollars”—she glared and then softened—“I’m like my mom, no good at cooking. If something has too many steps, I get them mixed up. And I’m scared to get popped by grease, so pre-cooked bacon has always been my go-to. But you, Brandon, you can truly cook.”
Instinctually, the Guardian rolled his eyes, disregarding the compliment. “Just how were you planning on surviving? Surely cereal, hot dogs, and pizza rolls couldn’t have been your plan.” He scowled at the packed freezer and colorful disaster in the corner.
Tina pushed on, ignoring Brandon’s dazed expression. “I’m serious. Is this going to be a regular thing? Because I could get used to it. And you know noodles and delivery servic-”
A distinct ringtone cut Tina off, her knowing exactly who was on the other end. She picked up.
“Morning, Ross. What’s up?”
“Wrong. Ash. My phone’s already dead.” Ashley’s tone made her pout apparent.
“That’s what you get. Stop playing that silly game on your phone. All it does is eat up your data anyway.” With her delicious food in hand, Tina glanced at the kitchen’s clock, noticing it was only 7:05 A.M. “What’s going on?” She knew something had to have happened for Ashley to be calling her this early in the morning. The girl loves sleeping in.
As she basked in her flavorful meal, Tina suddenly heard shouting.
“Hello! Babe, are you even listening to me?”
“Huh? Of course.”
A pause on Ashley’s end and then an annoyed demand. “Repeat back what I just said.”
“Yeah, sure. You said… you said…” Tina wracked her brain before admitting defeat. “Okay, I wasn’t listening.”
Ashley let out a tense exhale. “Wow, babe, you’re a true space cadet. Short version then. We’re picking you and Brandon up. Ross keeps saying he’s got a bad feeling about your car, so you know, take no chances.”
“Welp, I know better than to tempt the universe Murphy’s Law style,” Tina mumbled with a mouthful of bacon. “Thank God for claircognizance.”
Claircognizance is the ability to acquire psychic knowledge by utilizing intrinsic or tactic knowledge, knowledge that’s difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it; one simply knows things without knowing how they know them.
Basically, Roscoe just knows stuff, and nobody, not even him, really knows how.
“We should arrive in ten minutes. Be outside,” Roscoe shouted into his phone from the driver’s seat. “And stop messaging me at witching hours!”
“Mr. Smarty-pants, Hailey told me a while back that the witching hour ends at 2:00. I texted you after 3:00, thank you very much. See you.” Tina ended the call before either of her friends could respond.
As the Protected informed Brandon of their impending ride, she practically inhaled the rest of her food, throwing her dishes in the sink on the way to her room.
“Wonder what’s wrong with the moving death trap,” Brandon grumbled and cleared the rest of the counter.
Giving herself one last look, Tina felt good. Her outfit of the day was a pair of high-waisted blue skinny jeans, a dark green crop top, some ashen riding boots, and a gray, long-sleeved, waffle knit cardigan with knee-length cream and charcoal tassels. As she hid her compression bandage by doing up her slightly too big garment’s large center buttons, Tina’s silver ring, her right pinky finger’s staple caught the light.
As she left the safety of her room, Brandon tossed Tina her purple backpack.
Locking their shared home, the duo walked toward Roscoe’s idling car, Brandon informing his Protected that her third-hand sport utility vehicle refused to start.
Even through her sarcasm, Tina sounded defeated. “Poor Ol’ Sarah’s dead, huh? I’m having a great week.” She rubbed her forehead, her treacherous mind looping the previous night and early morning for her.
Maybe I’ll call Harley, see if she can come fix the thing, Tina thought of calling her middle sibling, a backyard mechanic who she knew would love to leave their hometown for some days. Regularly seeing that piece of shit after breaking off a five-year engagement can’t be healthy.
“Hiya!” Ashley sang over some Latin Reggaeton, her enhanced hearing picking up footsteps.
Tina bobbed her head to Roscoe’s native tongue.
Ashley’s joyful demeanor, keeping tempo with her white shoes and threading her fingers through her ponytail, careful to avoid her pinned back bangs, flipped to concerned when she looked out her rolled down window, performed a hasty once-over of the pair nearing the car.
“Oh, what sweet hell…” The feline familiar took in fresh battle scars. She couldn’t help her sigh, the rise of her chest noticeable in her lilac, off-the-shoulder, velour tracksuit that framed and accentuated her deep-set collarbones just so.
“Hey, Tina, you look nice today. Thanks, Ash. You look good too, love the minimalist makeup,” the Protected teased.
Ashley blinked. Her pristine eyesight missed nothing. “I would say that if you two didn’t look like you just came from a… what, boxing match?” Ashley looked to her boyfriend for confirmation.
“Two?” Brandon asked, his signature, curious eyebrow raising.
Angling his head above his beloved’s, Roscoe smirked with crossed arms, focused on the couple he dubbed fools stood on the cobbled driveway. Sitting tall, he unlocked his black doors. “Everything finally came to blows?” The man wagged his finger back and worth, from Tina to Brandon and vice versa.
As he moved, Roscoe’s muscles rippled under his leather jacket and tartan shirt. The green and black quilted thing looked ready to burst at the seams, unlike Roscoe’s baggy cargo pants that required a belt to fit properly, and nearly ate his tan, military-style boots.
Finally, looking toward the driver’s seat, Tina smirked, recognizing the tan scarf Roscoe wore as the one Ashley had gifted him last Christmas. “You picked the hunk’s outfit today, didn’t you?”
“Ouch, love.” The sharp man mocked offense.
Ignoring her boyfriend in favor of more information, Ashley pointed at Brandon’s face with one finger and Tina’s stomach with another. “What happened?”
Noticing his Protected’s heartbeat increase, Brandon’s eyes followed the line of Ashley’s finger. Until she’d pointed it out, he hadn’t noticed a sliver of the giant elastic Tina wore peeking out of her clothing.
As her lady friend’s pulse increased, Ashley squinted suspiciously, an unspoken question forming in her mind.
“Nothing.” Tina shrugged her way in the compact car. “I just fucked up my ribs being stupid.”
Brandon spoke now, “Wai-”
Ashley chimed in, “How-”
“Ribs?!” Roscoe ripped his car key from the lock cylinder and began pulling at Tina’s cardigan.
“You know, most men usually buy me dinner first,” Tina smirked. Roscoe frowned.
“You triggered the protective, big brother instincts. Deal with it.” Ashley huffed, seeking support on the doorframe for the elbow supporting her head as she watched the scene unfold.
As Roscoe pulled the elastic loose, it pooled around his friend’s hips. “You simpleton,” he grumbled, having pulled the sides of Tina’s pants down a smidge.
Brandon looked at the woman’s angry bruise, the one he knew he’d left. Ashley remained quiet, off to the side. She watched as Brandon’s features momentarily colored with shock and squinted deeper when she saw his mask of indifference get clamped back on.
Crossing her arms indignantly, Tina pouted and grumbled at Roscoe, “And wh-”
“You never wrap an injury like this.” The self-proclaimed doctor sulked. When Roscoe poked around for damage, it took everything in Tina to silence the screeches of pain clawing at her throat. “At least nothing seems to be broken.”
“No more playing doctor for her huh, hun?” Ashley asked, sounding amused.
“Definitely not,” Roscoe grumbled. He locked scowling eyes with the brown-skinned girl. “How did you even… You know what, nope, I would rather be ignorant.”
With a light growl, Tina snatched the bandage roll. She held it for just a second before it was commandeered again.
“Give me that, you dense woman! What did the Einstein just say?!” Brandon looked at Tina like she was blind, deaf, and dumb. She was really about to rewrap herself!
Tina pouted. “I like the pressure.”
“You could be killing your nerve-endings, genius! Ever think of that?” Brandon roared back.
Roscoe opened his car door before slipping the spare key Tina had given him when she’d first moved in off his key ring. He left for a few moments, reappearing with an ice pack. “Put this on your bruise.” He gifted her a tender smile. “It will hurt like hell at first, but you should start feeling better by the time we get to campus.” Tina thanked her friend while Brandon stuffed her almost tourniquet deep in his bag. Watching Tina wince at the sudden cold, Roscoe sighed before his light and innocent laughter broke the car’s tension. “Now that our little operation is over, T, I do believe that I promised to give you an update, the gym massacred me.”
By this point, Tina knew better than to giggle, laughter and her ribs were behaving like newly separated exes, hurting each other whenever they get together. She gave Roscoe a playful punch in one of his well-defined arms. He gave her a wide smile.
Finally, Ashley broke her silence. “Hey, we got an hour to kill before that new student orientation with Professor Kim. Anyone want coffee? Because I could totally go for one.” The fiery Guardian shot Tina a look through the rear-view mirror. “Babe?”
“Ew. How many times do I have to tell you that coffee is nasty before you understand?”
“Coffee is a main food group.” Ashley spouted her strange belief like it was instead a known fact.
Rolling her eyes, Tina forfeited the last bits of her sanity. “No coffee, but I will take a smoothie.”
“Whatever gets me to my vanilla latte faster.” Ashley squinted with high spirits.
“You and your weird daily rituals. I swear, I don’t know how you’ve yet to drive Ross to financial ruin,” Tina teased.