Eli knows that he has been through a lot of shit. He lost his family, got sent to a research facility, got experimented on, lost an arm, gained a new robotic one, had more than a few changes done to his already messed-up body, and got rescued only to have to hide again. Only for the meantime. But also possibly forever. You can never be sure with these things.
All this, by the time he turned fourteen.
Eli knows that he has been through a lot of shit, so it goes without saying that Eli has no actual idea what Valentine’s Day was about.
Eli knows it’s not a crime, to not know things.
That’s what questions are for.
So he looks for Dana, because whatever Valentine’s Day was, it apparently makes the usual people he hung around with to disappear into separate places in the safehouse, and Eli doesn’t have enough patience to look for them. Dana, however, has always been easy to find. Dana stays put, usually in the library, where people go to him because he’s Dana, and Dana is who you go to if you need to go to someone.
“It’s a day for celebrating love.” Dana explains, always patient, an amused twinkle in his green eyes. “People celebrate loving, or being in love, with the ones they love.”
“Oh.” was what Eli comes up with for a response, before asking the next question. “That’s why they’ve all gone and split up in pairs.”
Dana gives a short laugh, but nods. “Who, exactly?”
“Tim and Tetsu. Erin and Camille. I haven’t seen Zoe, same with Luke, so maybe they’re together too.”
“They’re always busy, right? Fighting, looking after you and everyone.” Dana continues. “So maybe they’ve decided to just take a break today and spend it with someone special.”
“Hm.” Eli hums, then nods. “I understand now. What about me, then? It’s a special day, right? Is there something I have to do?”
Dana thinks about it before answering with a small smile. “Nothing in particular, I suppose. Although I’m sure just greeting them a Happy Valentine’s Day would make them happy.”
Another nod. “I see. Thanks, Dana.”
So Valentine’s Day is all about love.
Eli’s been through a lot of shit but he understands love.
After all, that’s the only way he has been treated by this new family, ever since they found him.
(Love is waking up in a comfortable bed, for what seemed like the first time in years, with someone asleep by your side and holding your hand.)
(Love is no questions asked or objections raised when you come out and say, “I think I’m… a boy.”)
(Love is unfailing support through the effects of the experiments in your body. Strong hands, warm embraces and encouraging words - as you healed and adjusted in those first couple of months.)
Eli gets distracted when he bumps into someone as he was walking through the hallway. Familiar hands steady him before he could fall over, and he looks up to see gold eyes and a smirk directed at him.
“Uh. Hey, Tim.” he blinks, and he looks the older teen up and down before noticing something strange. “What’s with the flowers?”
Tim grins at that, looking at the bunch of red roses in his arms. “They’re for Tetsu, of course. It’s Valentine’s, and we won’t be going anywhere, obviously, stuck in this house. So I wanna give him something nice at least. You think he’ll like them?”
“They’re pretty.” Eli says, and remembers what Dana had told him. “So you and Tetsu… are spending today together? Just the two of you? Because it’s Valentine’s?”
Tim chuckles and reaches out to ruffle Eli’s hair. He likes doing that. Eli likes when he does. “We can’t really do that, can we? We got chores and stuff. We’ll make the most out of our free time, though.”
Eli nods at this, looking at the roses again. He doesn’t know if Tetsu likes flowers, but presents always make people smile. Actually, just seeing Tim always makes Tetsu smile, majority of the time.
(That’s love, too. Love is when you light up and feel warm just because you saw someone special.)
“Okay, then.” Eli finally nods, and remembering what he learned from Dana again, he says, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Tim.”
“Oh, wow, thanks.” Tim smiles this time, not expecting the direct greeting from the usually quiet boy. He reaches into the bouquet and carefully takes a rose, then offers it to Eli. “Here. I want you to have this one.”
Eli is surprised, but he accepts the flower. He blinks when Tim leans down and presses a kiss to his forehead.
Eli likes that - he likes how Tim is always sweet and affectionate and never got weird about things. The other kids get weird sometimes. Eli’s not sure if it’s an age thing or a Tim thing. Anyway, kisses are nice things.
Another ruffle of his hair, an amused “Happy Valentine’s to you too, Eli.” and then Tim is walking past him, probably off to look for his boyfriend.
Eli smiles lightly as he looks down at the single rose in his hands, and goes on his way.
Tim and Tetsu are already eighteen. Eli is just fifteen. That makes Eli wonder if he’ll find a boyfriend or a girlfriend one day, like they did, if that was possible for him, who was stuck inside this safehouse with only his housemates. Housemates who all feel like family to him.
But Tim and Tetsu met each other in the safehouse. Tim was one of the volunteers, he is strong, with amazing fire powers, and he fights to protect everyone. Tetsu has no powers, but he helps look after the younger children in the house, including his little brother, the kid who can turn invisible.
Eli didn’t know how the two got together, but they did.
(Love is something you find even in the most unlikely places.)
Actually, sometimes Eli wondered how they got along so well. Tim was confident and popular, while Tetsu was quiet and shy.
But that doesn’t matter so much, apparently. Eli remembers the many times he sat to the side and watched as Tetsu scolded Tim for ‘overdoing’ something and putting himself in more danger than needed, yet no matter how harsh and angry Tetsu sounded, his hands working on patching up Tim’s latest injuries remained gentle and careful.
(Love is worrying and caring and forgiving.)
And then there’s Eli’s favorite memory with the two: Eli was hanging out with Tim who sat in his bed recovering from a flu when Tim sneezed and lost control for a second and his blankets burst into flames. Eli screamed, Tetsu rushed inside and paused for one terrified second before running towards them, grabbing the basin and the pitcher on the bedside table and splashing the contents of both items at his boyfriend. The flames were gone. There was a solemn pause between all three of them before Tetsu practically screamed.
“What the fuck, Timothy?!” - that’s the only time Eli heard Tetsu swear. Also, someone once told him that when people call you by your full name, that means you’re in trouble.
Tim had gaped, scandalized. “Wha-... Babe, language! Eli’s right there!”
Eli had stared at them for a stunned second before he stifled a giggle, and then the three of them burst out laughing.
(Sometimes love is burnt blankets and false fire alarms and getting angry but laughing about it in the end.)
“Eli!” - the voice cuts through his thoughts, and he realizes that he had reached the wide open doorway that led to the gardens. Eli turns to see two people waving at him from under the shade of one of the trees.
Erin and Camille were sitting together on a blanket, Erin’s laptop in front of them and some snacks between them. Eli doesn’t hesitate as he approaches them.
“All alone?” it’s Erin who asks.
“It’s Valentine’s Day.” Eli replies, assured that they’d understand. After all, they were paired up, too. But that’s not so unusual. Erin and Camille were like a package deal. Inseparable.
(Sometimes, love is always being together.)
“Oh? Who’s the rose for, then?” Camille asks this time.
“Tim gave it to me.”
They look at each other, in that way they always do. Eli thinks it’s weird that they can have whole conversations like that. Then Camille chuckles while Erin rolls her eyes and says, “That player.”
Then Eli eyes the snacks and the laptop. “What’re you two doing?”
“Oh, we’re gonna watch a movie. Wanna to join us?”
He fidgets for a moment before nodding, and they shift to squeeze him in between them. The movie starts, and they fall silent, letting the story drag them in.
Eli remembers nights spent like this. Erin and Camille always liked watching movies together, staying up late on nights when Erin wasn’t busy hacking and repairing systems and Camille wasn’t equally busy backing her up. Eli had joined them a few times, back when he shared a room with them.
Eli likes those days a lot. He likes being with Erin and Camille, they make him feel safe.
Eli remembers waking up in the night with a strangled scream, feeling Camille’s arms around him and Erin’s fingers in his hair, their voices gentle and soothing. He always apologized, for waking them up, for being loud, for being a bother, for crying - but they always shushed him and instead peppered him with more soothing words and kisses, and many times he went back to sleep snuggled against one or both of them.
(Love is waking up in the night - scared - and knowing it will be fine, because you’re not alone.)
For a while he wondered how they always got to him so quickly, how they always seemed to know what to do to ease his panic attacks and to calm him down after the horrible dreams...
Until he woke up one night to a scream that wasn’t his.
It was Erin’s, and Eli could do nothing but watch as Camille held the other girl through it, whispering assurances. “I got you, baby. You’re okay. We’re safe.”
Erin’s voice sounded broken, and Eli never wanted to hear her like that again, ever. “It felt so real, Cam.”
“It’s just a dream. We made it out, we’re fine now. You’re here, with me, we’re okay.” Camille soothed, but in a voice that made it sound like she was hurting too.
Maybe she was. Maybe she remembered too, and maybe it felt real for her, too.
Because that was how they met, Eli knew. They were captured together, they endured together, and they got out, together.
(Love isn’t really forgetting how it feels to be alone. Love is knowing there will be someone who makes sure you never feel like it again.)
When they felt too restless to go back to sleep, Camille pulled Erin to her feet and they just held each other close, swaying and turning slowly, lazily as Camille hummed a soft tune - until they got tired and fell back to bed again.
(Love is slow dancing after the nightmares.)
When Eli woke them up the next morning, they complained (Erin swore a lot, all the time, mornings apparently not an exception) but they let Eli pull them to breakfast, anyway. The others were waiting, there was a lot of stuff to do for the day.
(Love is cursing mornings but being thankful that you get to wake up in each other’s arms.)
Eli leaves after one movie. It looks like Erin and Camille planned to watch a bunch of them, and Eli’s not sure if he could handle that much. He wanders further into the house, greets housemates that he passes by, and stops when he recognizes two familiar figures in the kitchen.
Zoe is busy slicing an assortment of fruits on the kitchen counter while Luke is perched on a chair nearby, watching her in silence like he always does.
“Hey, Zoe.” Eli greets, walking towards them and leaning on the counter, eyeing the girl’s work curiously. “What’s that?”
Zoe looks up to smile at him before returning to her task. “Dove brought a lot of fruits and now we’re making a smoothie.”
“Yup, she’s parked out in the basement, you should drop by later.” then after another glance, she raised an eyebrow. “That’s a pretty rose. Where’d you get it?”
Eli twirls the flowers once in his hands. “It’s from Tim. Because it’s Valentine’s.”
“Well, isn’t he sweet.” Zoe chuckles. Tim is her best friend. She knows he’s sweet.
“He just took it from the bunch he’s giving Tetsu. I think he just thought I’ll get lonely because he won’t hang out with me today.”
“Huh. Is he right?”
“No, not really.” Eli shrugs, rests his elbows on the counter, his chin in his hands. “I’m not lonely. I like the flower, though. Can I have a smoothie too?”
Zoe smiles. “Of course.” She turns to the side to address their quiet companion. “Luke, can you pass me those mangoes?”
Luke blinks and stares for a moment, obviously distracted, before he reaches out for the fruits and hands them over to the girl. When she thanks him, he nods and clears his throat.
Zoe patiently waits for whatever it was that he wants to say.
(Love is patient, love is kind -- wasn’t there a saying that goes like that too? It’s awfully long, but in all accounts, should be true.)
“Um…” Luke starts with that, his deep voice laced with hesitation. “I forgot that it was Valentine’s.”
Zoe blinks. “It’s not a really big deal around here.”
Instead of being comforted, Luke simply looks more troubled, brows furrowed. “Do you… want flowers?”
Eli watches as Zoe blinks again. “I… don’t actually want them. I’d like it if I received some, I guess. But I don’t really want some.”
“But I should have gotten you something?” he asks further, frowning at himself as if he had done something terrible.
Zoe’s expression softens at this. “Luke…” she starts, her voice too fond.
“You’re-... I-... You’re important, to me.” Luke continues, with visible effort, and a faint blush to his cheeks. “So… I should do something, for this day. Right?”
Eli still thinks it strange to see Luke like this - more open, expressive. He’s still quiet and reserved most of the time, and all too often he gets that blank, faraway look in his eyes, but he’s… more alive… these days. Warmer. Quite a ways from the the stoic, closed-up young man that the team ‘saved’ and nursed back to health months ago.
Eli still has trouble approaching Luke, or even looking him in the eyes, sometimes. Eli still remembers a cold hand gripping his neck tight and harsh enough to choke and bruise, another breaking his prosthetic arm causing it to almost fall apart. Eli still remembers screaming to stop hurting him, stop hurting Zoe, stop hurting any of the others. Eli still remembers crying when he saw Tim bleeding. Eli still remembers seeing Luke standing above them, eyes blank and showing no remorse for what he had done.
Nowadays Eli doesn’t get terrified anymore, knows that the person who had done all those was not the person with them now. But he still maintains his distance, still tries hard not to flinch on the rare occasions that Luke might touch or even brush against him.
But Zoe is different. ‘Zoe works miracles.’, Tim had said once. ‘Zoe is too good, sometimes.’
Zoe tries hard - harder than all of them, to understand. To support. To let Luke know that what happened wasn’t his fault. Zoe explained this to Eli, when he was first opposed to Luke staying because he was scared of the young man. Zoe said that Luke wasn’t himself back then, when he did those bad things. Luke’s different now.
‘He has a name now, for starters.’ she laughed then. ‘It’s a good name, too. People should have names, not numbers, certainly not barcodes. You understand, right, Eli?’
Eli understands, really - like him, Luke has been through a lot of shit. Eli knows how it feels to not own your body, to be experimented on and to feel the after-effects of those experiments. Eli knows how it feels to lose memories, to not know yourself. Eli knows how it feels to suddenly have extra abilities he has no control over. Eli knows how it feels to be scared of yourself because of what you’ve become.
But Eli wasn’t made into a weapon. At least, he was rescued before it could happen. Eli wasn’t mind-controlled or whatever it was the labs did, to attack innocent people, to hurt. And Eli remembers bits and pieces of himself. Luke doesn’t, his past before the research facilities a blank slate, while his deeds as a weapon stayed to haunt him.
Yet despite all this understanding and knowing and remembering, Eli still finds himself having a hard time forgiving, accepting.
Forgiving and accepting is something Zoe seems to do like second nature.
Zoe makes it look easy. Eli knows it’s not. Not for him.
Not for Zoe, either. Because Eli catches the little things, too. Eli catches the split-second fear in Zoe’s eyes when Luke lifts a hand, or gets close enough, or breaks the silence. And then Eli sees Zoe push past whatever fear she felt, then she opens up again.
It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. And it passes.
(Love is looking past the hurt to see the person behind all the pain and fear.)
Eli knows Luke catches these, too. Luke sees more, perhaps. Maybe that’s why it had taken a full month for him to let them all help him? To give him a name, to talk to him, to try and welcome him to their family? Maybe that’s why he draws back after an attempt, a guilty look passing on his face before Zoe lets him in and assures him that it’s alright.
(Love is trying to heal. Love is believing things will be better.)
Whatever it was, Eli knows that Luke tries, like Zoe and everyone does. That’s why Eli tries, too. Right now, Eli still maintains a safe distance, but he’s determined to lessen that distance eventually.
It’s a process, he knows that now. One thing Eli has learned with his new family is that some things take time, including healing, including friendship.
It’s a process, and Eli knows he has to be a participant for the process to continue.
(Love is reaching out, taking initiative, doing what you can.)
So Eli extends his arm gingerly, single rose in hand, and Luke looks at him and blinks.
He holds Luke’s gray eyes for a second before looking down. “Go. Take it.” he mumbles, but he knows that Luke hears him.
Luke takes the flower, and Eli is glad that he risks a glance, because he catches a small, appreciative smile on the young man’s lips.
Luke holds the flower to himself for a second, then offers it to Zoe. “Happy Valentine’s.”
Zoe stops slicing fruits, looks to Luke, to Eli, then back to Luke, and laughs.
Her laughter makes them both smile.
“Why, thank you. You’re sweet. Both of you.” she says, accepting the little present and even smelling it for effect. “Come over here for a bit.”
Eli watches as Luke raises a confused eyebrow before walking the few steps needed to stand beside her. Zoe gestures for him to lean down and when he does, she presses a kiss to his cheek.
(Love is the girl who has no powers and a boy who was given too much of them, and how none of that matters.)
Zoe places the rose on a tall glass of water and pushes it to the center of the counter, then goes back to slicing.
Eli and Luke help Zoe shave some ice, watch patiently as she mixed the ingredients in the blender, adds milk and sugar, and in minutes the three of them finally find themselves enjoying quality fresh fruit smoothies together.
They take a moment to savor the taste of the cold beverage before a familiar voice chimes in.
“Hey, that looks tasty!”
Clari joins them in the counter, nibbling on a piece of chocolate. She was holding an open box filled with the stuff, and she holds it out to them. “Chocolate?”
Eli and Zoe dig in and take a piece each. Luke frowns slightly before slowly taking one for himself as well.
“Aren’t we spoiling dinner?” he asks, genuinely concerned.
“Just don’t eat too much.” Clari assures him, voice earnest and maternal as always. She takes a sip from Zoe’s smoothie when the teen offered, and hums in appreciation at the taste.
“These are really good, Clari.” Zoe said, pertaining to the chocolate. “Are they from Soren?”
“Mm-hm.” Clari replies with a smile, popping another piece to her mouth. She likes sweets a lot. “He says it’s for Valentine’s, but I think he’s just making up to me because I did his chores on top of mine for a whole week while he was away with Ross and Kali on that last supply run.”
“I thought you and Soren are not boyfriend and girlfriend?” Eli asks, clarifying, because that’s what Clari always told people when they mention the two of them.
‘It’s not like that. I don’t think we’re going for that. Maybe we’re still figuring it out.’ - was how Clari said it when Eli asked, and he settled on the idea easily, keeping it to heart as a tiny detail about two of the people he felt closest to.
But this time, before Clari could answer, Zoe beats her to it. “Um, yeah, they’re only husband and wife.”
“Oh, stop.” Clari says with a laugh and a roll of her eyes.
“Uh-huh, here he comes now.” Zoe lets out a sly smile, before cupping a hand by her cheek to whisper loudly. “Bet he’s gonna do something cute and sweet ’cause that’s his M.O. with you.”
Eli is frowning now. “What’s M.O.?”
“Method of operating.” Luke provides blankly. He’s good at answering questions like that, although sometimes it looks like even he doesn’t know why he knows the answers. A side-effect of his wiped memories.
Eli doesn’t get what they’re talking about, but then Soren joins them. Subconsciously he presses up beside Clari and rests a hand on her waist before he takes a piece of chocolate for himself - and then maybe Eli understands a bit.
Clari and Soren were kinda like Erin and Camille - always together - but in a different way.
Erin and Camille are always teamed up on assignments because of their complementary abilities. When it came to chores, they always find a way to be partnered up too (swapping schedules with others is not so hard).
Meanwhile, Clari and Soren can usually be found with different people, doing different things throughout the day, but they always seem to know where the other is when asked. Whenever they’re in the same room, they easily find their way beside each other. They rely on each other, take care of each other. And by the end of the day, they share a room, just the two of them.
(Love is the subtle things that, put together, paint the clearest picture.)
Eli remembers the first time Soren brought Clari in to live with them. She was supposed to take a spare room, but things happened, spare rooms were suddenly occupied, and Soren ended up having to share his room with the new girl.
It was a temporary thing, they had said. That was two years ago.
Clari still hasn’t moved out. When asked, they said they were fine like that. They like being roommates.
‘It’s nice to room with your best friend.’ Clari told Eli once, when Eli asked if it’s weird to be roommates when you’re one boy and one girl. ‘Ren and I like being around each other.’
(Love is the comfort of quiet familiarity nurtured through time.)
They’re like the mom and dad he lost, is what Eli thinks most of the time, whenever Clari fusses over him with her gentle hands and soothing voice, or whenever Soren indulges his questions and stories with an encouraging smile.
Eli had seen all the adults lose composure or start to panic at least once, during dangerous jobs or situations, but never Soren and Clari. They were always calm, steady, strict with the younger ones when they have to be. Despite being the two gentlest people in the safehouse, they were also both the most steadfast. Eli wonders if they get it from each other, the effortless stability of their relationship bleeding out to affect how they hold themselves up separately.
In the present, Zoe raises a hand to get Soren’s attention, and her hands move in sign language expertly.
They all understand clearly: “Where did you get the chocolates? Did you go out?”
Because no one leaves the safehouse just like that, except for supply runs and emergencies. Otherwise, their tight little community remains safely inside in their carefully-hidden sanctuary.
Soren smiles and they watch him for his reply: “Asked Dove to buy. I knew she’ll be here today to bring it.”
This makes Clari look at him too, chocolate-stained hands gesturing. “Really, you planned this?”
Soren looked at her and shrugged, “Mom said I should give you something nice.”
Soren’s mom is a very nice lady, Eli remembers. Soren’s mom also likes Clari a lot. Eli wonders if Soren’s mom thinks that Soren and Clari are boyfriend and girlfriend too, and if they bother to correct her.
“Married.” Zoe sings, and playfully bumps shoulders with Luke, who maintains a blank face. Zoe looks up at him and nudges. “C’mon, Luke. You can see it too, right?”
Luke looked down at his smoothie awkwardly. “I was told that they’re not in a relationship.”
It’s typical of Luke to back off from teasing others due to sheer fear of offending them. A tell-tale sign that he was a new addition to the family.
“Who said that? Of course we’re in a relationship.” Clari pouts.
Zoe giggles at Clari’s indignant expression and challenges, “Yeah, but DTR?”
This time Eli automatically inches closer to Luke, usual discomfort temporarily forgotten, mouthing “DTR?”
To his disappointment, Luke shakes his head cluelessly, indicating that he didn’t know too.
Meanwhile Clari only looks at Soren, then uses her shoulder to give him a light nudge. He chews a piece of chocolate thoughtfully before gesturing a single word: “Partners.”
(There are different kinds of love.)
“For life?” Zoe teases, and is surprised when she is answered by shrugs.
“Until we decide to call it something else.” Clari says with finality, leaning slightly against Soren’s broad shoulders, absently arranging the chocolates left in the box. “We don’t really do DTR’s.”
(Sometimes love is as simple as deciding: ‘I choose this person, and they choose me, and that’s enough’.)
Soren doesn’t seem to think much about it when he leans down to nuzzle the back of Clari’s head, hiding a yawn in her blonde hair before announcing that he’ll be taking a nap. He leaves just as unceremoniously as he arrived. Clari returns to her chocolates.
Eli still doesn’t know what a DTR is, and why not doing it might be troublesome, but he knows that Soren and Clari are both smart and sensible adults and he trusts their judgment.
He still doesn’t think he understands completely, but he finds that he doesn’t mind much. Soren and Clari are happy the way they are, as people, with each other, with the rest of them. That’s enough, too. Eli doesn’t need an explanation.
(Love doesn’t care for labels, it just is.)
Not too long after, Clari advises them to clean up the kitchen counter because dinner preparations should be starting soon. She leaves them to it.
Eli helps Zoe and Luke put their mess away, and when they ask him if he wants to hang out, he tells them he wants to see Dove instead.
Eli makes his way to the basement-slash-garage of the house, spots the familiar van and walks up to it. The back of the van is open, the door lifted high. Eli peers in to see Dove sorting through the wires, gadgets, briefcases and weapons loaded in the vehicle.
Dove spares him a glance before continuing her task. “Hey, kid.” she greets, voice soft, knowing how sensitive his hearing is, and that loud noises tend to echo in the hollow space of the garage. After a pause, she adds, “Come in, go take that seat over there.”
Eli climbs inside and makes himself comfortable on the rickety backseat made for three people. He contents himself with watching the woman work.
“What’s up?” Dove asks.
“Mm, just wanna see you.” Eli answers softly, distracted in fascination by his companion assembling and disassembling different gadgets, some of them weapons, with expert hands. “How long will you stay?”
“Overnight. I’m leaving tomorrow morning.” Dove never stays for more than two days at most. She has other jobs, clients, lots of places to go to, people to appease, things to deliver...
Eli’s eyes roam the familiar space of the van. Dove settles beside him and pulls up a makeshift table to type something on her laptop, and Eli notices the open box of chocolates settled beside the machine.
“Someone gave you chocolates too?” he inquires curiously.
Dove lets out a little chuckle. “Nah, Soren asked me to buy for Clari, then I thought I’d buy one for myself too.”
Eli hums in consideration and presses up to the woman’s side, staring blankly at the laptop screen as he voices out another question. “What’re you doing now?”
“Sending a message to my next client.” she answers briefly.
When Dove finishes sending the message, she closes her laptop and leans back against the seat. Eli stifles a yawn, and Dove simply reaches out and eases him to lie his head down on her lap. Eli curls up, makes himself comfortable as long slender fingers stroke his hair. He relaxes against the gentle touch and relishes in the comfortable silence offered.
The others always say that Dove is scary, that Dove is cold and uptight and might make unpleasant casual company. But everyone also knows that Dove is part of their family, no matter how seldom she stays, and that, like their older housemates, she is fiercely protective of all the younger ones.
‘Dove rarely shows her soft side.’ Zoe had told Eli once. ‘But I think she likes you.’
‘Why?’ Eli asked back, bewildered. Why would someone like Dove - tall, strong, beautiful - like someone like him - small, scrappy, scarred and broken?
Zoe considered for a while before she said, ‘Maybe you remind her of herself.’
Dove pulls Eli back from the memory when she tucks strands of his hair behind his ear. “So what did you do today?”
“Nothing much.” Eli replies, fiddling with the loose threads of his companion’s torn shorts. “Learned about Valentine’s Day. Tim gave me a flower. Then I gave it to Luke, so he could give it to Zoe. Because he forgot, and he feels bad for not comin’ up with something for her.”
“Huh.” Dove breathed. “Zombie boy’s a big sap, who could’ve known?”
Eli smiles. “I watched a movie with Erin and Cam. It was a good movie.”
A hum in reply.
“Then I went to you, ’cause everyone’s busy now.”
Dove looks down at him curiously. “Feeling left out with everyone paired up?”
Eli shakes his head a little. “Not really. But it got me thinking? D’you think I’ll… find a person too?”
Dove stays silent, so he continues.
“I mean I’m just fifteen. But Tim said when he was fifteen, he was already kissing girls and boys and he had a crush on Soren. And he said it was stupid, and he told me not to be stupid like him, but he also said kissing is okay, just don’t start crushing on Soren because it leads to heartbreak.”
Dove laughs at that. “I’ve known Tim since he was, like, ten. He’s always been a hot mess. And everyone gets a crush on Soren at some point, which makes his advice pretty useless.”
“Will I start blushing around Soren too?” Eli whines against her lap. “Like the other kids? The older ones?”
“It’s part of growing up, blushing stupid around Soren, believe me. We don’t know what we did to deserve that perfect specimen, but hey, he’s here.” Dove smiles in amusement.
All the safehouse kids had a ‘Soren Phase’, as far as she knew. The guy was just so ideal and nice and likeable that the teens growing up in the safehouse, at one point or another, had at least a small crush on the unofficial Best Big Brother of their community.
“But I’m gonna grow to like another person too, right? Like... when Tim liked Tetsu when he stopped being stupid about Soren?”
“Maybe.” Dove shrugs. “You shouldn’t have to worry about that too much, kid.”
“I should.” Eli mumbles, then in a clearer voice, he continues. “Will someone like me back, if I’m like… this?”
At this Dove looks down at him, and her touch becomes more gentle. “Like what?”
“Like… my body is… it’s all scarred from experiments, but not just that, it’s-... I have these… parts. I dunno how I really feel about them yet.”
There’s a silence that lingers when he says that, and he feels exposed. Despite this, he still feels safe, in the privacy of the van, in the presence of someone he knows would understand. There’s no instinct to run or hide. There’s no point.
Dove has been through this too, he knows that.
“Nayeli.” she calls him then - his full name, a girl’s name, which he kept because it’s one of the few things he could remember, a piece of his past he could hold on to. Eli knows he might have upset Dove with all his questions and complaints, but then she asks, “Do you hate your body?”
Eli stiffens, but shakes his head fervently. “No. It’s-... It’s my body. It’s a good body. I like it, even if it’s like this. I’m okay with it, I think. But other people? What will they think? When they know?”
“Tell you what.” Dove starts, her tone lighter this time. “Eon first kissed me when we were fifteen, too.”
Eli looks up. “Eon?”
Brows furrow in confusion. “That’s-... He’s…”
“We were fifteen. Stupid, like Tim. Eon was my best friend. One day he asked if he could kiss me. And I said okay, and I let him kiss me. And we kissed a lot after that, until one day I told him we should stop, ’cause it’s clear that he likes boys, and I’m not a boy.”
Eli falls silent as the hand stroking his hair stills.
“He was surprised, but he didn’t run away, instead he asked ‘So you’re a girl?’ and I told him that yes, I’ve always been a girl, I don’t care what my body looks like, I know that I’m a girl.” - she lets out a sigh to punctuate that, and Eli couldn’t help but be eager for more.
“What happened then?” the boy asks in a small voice.
“Well… He said ‘You should’ve told me earlier, I’ve been telling people I have a boyfriend, when I actually have a girlfriend!’ and that was the end of that, like it was no big deal at all.” she shakes her head, chuckling at the memory.
Eli laughs. “Awesome.”
“He had his moments, yes.” Dove nods indulgently, a gentle smile playing on her face. “It was weird, it was like he was dealing with it better than I am. Back then I was so insecure about my body. I wanted to change so badly, and in a way I wanted to do it more for him than for myself, because I felt like I’ll be a bother to him as long as I’m not... ‘corrected’. That’s how I felt. But he stayed patient and told me to take my time, he’ll be right there through it. And he said I should do what I really want for myself.”
Eli smiles, uplifted to hear a happy story, but at the same time he grew more somber. His smile turns sad, and he only says, “He loved you a lot.”
“I had a few downs, moments when I hated myself, but he loved me enough for both of us.”
(Love is caring for someone so fiercely that you make them forget all the reasons they think they shouldn’t be loved.)
“He never left, stayed by me through the treatments and surgeries and after that.” Dove finishes her little anecdote. “So, Eli,” she returns her attention to him in a firmer voice. “You shouldn’t worry too hard about what other people think of you or your body. So we’re trans. It’s just another part of who we are, like how you have brown hair and I’m taller than most people and Erin is nearsighted and Dana loves reading and Zoe is kind to everyone and Clari is a good singer. There are people who respect and accept you for who you are, and they’re the ones who’re worth keeping around.”
(Love is not something you keep for yourself. It’s something passed, shared.)
Eli nods again. “I know.” he whispers, then shifts to look up at the woman. “I think… I think the reason why I’m okay with my body right now… is because you and everyone else are okay with it.”
Dove goes back to stroking the boy’s hair. “Of course we are, chipmunk. You’re you. That’s enough for us.”
(Love is letting someone know that they’re loved.)
“Is it weird?” Eli starts again, after a while. “That I wish I’ve met Eon?”
“No.” Dove says. “He would’ve loved you.”
“He’s been gone a long time now, right?”
“About four years.” she supplies.
When Eli first met Dove, Dove was already the distant, calculating, stoic woman with the cold steely gaze, who comes in the safehouse from time to time, to discuss something with the other grown-ups, or to bringing supplies and other odds and ends. Zoe once told Eli that Dove wasn’t always that scary. Dove used to be warmer, happier.
Dove is still warm and happy, Eli thinks now. She just doesn’t show it a lot.
He doesn’t correct Zoe when he learns this. Somehow he thinks that she knows it, and the others do too.
(Love is keeping a person so close, so dear, that they take away a piece of you when they go.)
Eli doesn’t ask Dove if she missed Eon, because she must have. Instead, he asks, “Do you still miss him?”
“Every day.” Dove proves him right. Then she continues, “But I get by.”
(Love is also moving on.)
“And you still love him?”
“You think you’ll find ’nother one like him?”
“No. That’s not how it works.” Dove tells him with a chuckle. “You don’t replace people, Eli.”
“I know, I didn’t mean it like that, I just meant that-”
“I know what you meant.” Dove cuts him off soothingly. “And I don’t know if I’ll love again like I did back then.”
“Do you want to?” he can’t help but ask.
Because Dove is twenty-five, young, independent, and has already had a lot of losses. Eli thinks there’s plenty of time to try again. To gain something after all that loss.
“Honestly? I’m not sure.” she muses. “Right now, I’m doing good. I have you guys, and that’s more than enough. ’Cause you’re all a handful.”
She teases him with that last part, hands moving to tickle him, and Eli tries to squirm but laughs and giggles at her fingers before pleading for mercy.
(Love is not just wanting or needing. Sometimes love is being content with how things are, with what you already have.)
Eli sits up beside his companion to recover from the laughing fit.
“Look at you, kid.” Dove remarks, a smirk blooming on her face. “You just learned about Hearts’ Day and you’ve already psycho-analyzed me? What the hell?”
She ruffles his hair playfully and Eli laughs. “Sorry! I just got curious! Did I really ask too many questions?”
“Nah, it’s just your usual.” she reassures him, fingers patting down soft brown curls. “Which means, yes, it’s a lot of questions.”
Eli leans against Dove, and she lets him. “Thanks for answering them, though.”
“Mm-hm, anytime, kid.”
“Happy Valentine’s, I guess?”
Dove smiles one of her brighter smiles, and nods. “Happy Valentine’s.”
They stay like that, and Eli only draws away when Dove gives him a dismissive pat.
“Time to go, kid.” Dove says, pulling her young companion up to stand. “It’s almost dinnertime. I’m sure the others could use some help.”
“Okay.” is all Eli says, hopping off the van and walking a few steps before looking back towards the woman expectantly.
“Go ahead, I’ll lock up in here and catch up with you.” she says, waving him away.
Eli simply nods, and makes his way back.
The house is livelier now: younger children running around after their lessons, adults and teenagers going about their chores.
Tetsu was leading the children around to keep them out of the way. Luke, Soren and Tim were carrying baskets filled with freshly-laundered sheets. Clari was happily chatting up the other adults as they cooked dinner for everyone, a number of young teens being guided as they helped out. Eli saw more of his housemates making their way downstairs, Dana smilingly receiving the onslaught of children who bounded towards him with stories and questions about their day and lessons. Zoe, Camille and Erin were setting the table.
They saw Eli coming in, and Zoe calls after him, asking if he wants to give them a hand.
Eli smiles back as he says yes, accepts a little tray of utensils and sets out to help.
(Love is this.)
(Love is being home.)