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“I hate you, and I hate it here!” Nigella screams at the top of her lungs as she kicks and pounds at the floor through a torrent of tears. 

Lane isn’t usually moved by his daughter’s tantrums – she’s been having them more and more, lately, ever since they moved out of the house they’d shared with Becca and into this horrid apartment – but tonight he’s exhausted, and angry, and god, he just wants her to sleep so he can have a drink and feel sorry for himself and they can do it all again tomorrow.

“Nigella, stop it,” he hisses. The walls are so thin; someone’s going to hear her and complain to the landlord. “Go to bed this instant!”

“I won’t!” She shoots him a glare so poisonous he does a double-take, eerily reminded of Becca, but before she can start screaming again, there’s a strange musical sound next door, like somebody’s turned on a pipe organ and accidentally hit half the keys as they sat down.

He frowns at the shared wall, puzzled, before this cacophony blossoms into a note-perfect melody. Hang on. He knows this song. How does he know this song?

After a moment, a clear, beautiful voice begins to sing along with the music. The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, and not a footprint to be seen…

Nigella sits up, pushes sandy hair from her face with a wet sniff, and goes quiet. She picks herself up off the floor. Her voice is a reverent whisper. “Elsa.”

Barely glancing at him, she takes her favorite blue blanket down from the back of the couch, wraps it around her shoulders like a cape, and plops down into a sitting position right next to the wall, rubbing fat tears from her eyes with one clumsy fist as she warbles out every word.

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see…

Augh. He despises this film for a variety of reasons. It plays on a constant loop everywhere he goes. It’s about a very depressed young lady. It features trolls.

But Ella adores it, and after the nasty, drawn-out divorce and nearly three months of misery in this dim little apartment—so different from their lovely big house full of sunshine and pretty things—it still makes her incandescently happy.

The song lasts for a long time – longer than it’s supposed to, he’s sure – but Nigella is rapt throughout. By the time it’s over, she seems to have gotten rid of much of her frustration with that cry.

“Daddy,” she says, glancing over at him once the music shifts into a complex piece she doesn’t recognize, “can I go to bed?”

Oh.

She curls into his chest when he stoops to pick her up, and even kisses his cheek as he tucks her into her little twin bed. For a moment, his throat tightens with gratitude for the musician who brought his darling girl a small moment of peace.

A few days later, Nigella’s at her therapy appointment, and Lane’s carrying a few bags of groceries into the flat, when next door’s front door swings open, and out sails the musician—a stunning red-haired woman in slim trousers, high heels and a gauzy floral blouse.

Behind her trails a skinny, elfin-looking blonde girl, wearing a baggy dark t-shirt with pink writing and a pair of zebra-print leggings. She’s probably around Nigella’s age. 

“Oh, hello,” the woman says, once she sees Lane. “Are you 4A?”

He realizes his mouth is hanging open, and shuts it. “Yes. Hello.” He clears his throat. “Lane Pryce.” 

“Nice to meet you.” Her voice is breezy. “I’m Joan. This is Kristen.”

“Hi. Your glasses are ugly,” says the little girl as she steps forward. 

“Don’t be rude,” snaps her mother, and gives him an embarrassed look. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s all right,” Lane wishes he wasn’t holding groceries; this would be easier if he could shake hands or do something other than stand around like a startled deer. “I’m sure you’re just curious, aren’t you?”

“What does curious mean?” The girl peers up at him with a frown, like he’s being very weird. “The bottom of your bag is leaking.”

 

 

**

 

“No, Daddy, don’t!” 

Lane’s trying to wrangle Ella up from the floor, desperate to quiet yet another tantrum. His pocketwatch clanks out onto the hardwood—not important or fragile, as it’s been broken for nearly a decade. Can’t even get parts for it anymore.

“Come on. Bedtime.”

“No, no, no, no!”

Someone knocks on the door, and both Ella and Lane freeze at the sound. A few seconds later, that same someone turns the knob and waltzes inside—the little girl from next door. Kristen, he thinks? 

“What are you doing?” Ella shrieks as she scrambles to her feet, eyes bugging out in shock. “You don’t live here!”

“Hey, we can hear you through the wall!” the little girl retorts, folding her arms across her chest. “What’s wrong with you? You cry a lot.”

“Now, wait just a moment—” 

“Nothing’s wrong with me.” Ella draws herself up very tall, although Lane can see her trembling.

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

“Excuse you.” Lane frowns at the other girl. “Kristen, no one’s rude to my daughter in her own home.”

Ella gives him a grateful look.

“But I’m not being ruuuude!” Kristen groans out a dramatic sound; her little arms flail at her sides as if she’s trying to shake off the entire conversation. “I want somebody to play with. Mom says if you stop crying then maybe we could.”

“Well, I don’t have to play with you if I don’t want to,” Ella says coldly.

Kristen just looks confused. “Why don’t you want to?”

Lane should be galled by the child’s utter lack of regard for things like closed doors and privacy, but for some reason, he can’t bring himself to boot her out.

“I don’t know!” Ella glances at the ground, squeezing her eyes shut and clenching her hands in two fists. “I don’t like it here.”

“Yeah. Me either,” Kristen walks closer and sits down on the sofa. As she draws her feet up, Lane notices that she’s wearing enormous blue furry slippers. The toes are made to resemble big sharp monster claws. “It’s the worst.”

“It’s not the worst,” Lane feels as if someone should stick up for the place. “These are nice apartments, you know.”

For the location, especially. They’re in good condition. And they’re very affordable. 

“Kristen Ann!” All three of them glance up. Joan’s standing in Lane’s doorway with her jaw set in a furious way as she hoists a full trash bag into the air. She’s wearing a skirt suit and heels—dressed up for work, probably. “What did I ask you to do?”

“Uhhhhhh.” 

“Why is this in the hall, when I told you to take it out ten minutes ago?”

“I was going to!” Kristen protests, ducking down behind the back of the sofa, her hands gripping the seam of the top cushion like the edge of a ledge. “Mommy. Let me explain.”

“Okay. Why are you in Lane’s apartment?” 

“Uhhhhhh.”

“Did he invite you in?” Joan’s voice is measured, but Lane can tell she's trying to control her temper.

“No,” says Ella, with a triumphant expression.

But you may stay, if you mind your manners,” Lane gives Ella a look that says more rudeness isn’t going to be tolerated. “Go take the trash, and you can come back.” 

“Awesome!” Kristen leaps off the sofa, runs to her mother, and grabs up the red handles of the bin bag. “Hey, Ella, want to come? We can race!”

His daughter looks boggled.

“Fine. Your loss,” Kristen begins to tug the bag down the hallway with a grunt. It pulls forward at a comically slow pace as she disappears from the open doorway. 

Lane lets out an embarrassed sigh, and looks over at Joan to see how she wants to handle this. “Come in, if you like.” 

“Thank you.” Joan’s heels click across the wood floor as she takes a seat beside the nearby dining room table. Her mouth purses slightly before she speaks again. “I’m sorry about that. She means well, if it helps.”

“She was horrible to me,” Ella whines.

“No, now, she’s just very social,” Lane is fed up with his daughter’s moodiness. “Some people like to drop in and visit, and you don’t. We’ll have to tell her that she can’t waltz in whenever she likes.”

“What’s a waltz? Who don’t you like?” Kristen runs up to her mother, breathless, and drops a kiss onto her sleeved upper arm before throwing herself into a sitting position and leaning against her mother’s leg.

You.” Ella puts her hands on her hips.

“Nigella!” 

Kristen is unfazed. Lane has no idea how one little girl is so unflappable.

“That’s okay.” She sits up and offers a terrifying smile to Ella, who looks astounded. “My Uncle Roger says people don’t always have to like you.”

“And he’s right.” Joan cards one hand through her daughter’s fine blonde hair, and smiles like this kind of self-assurance is more precious to her than anything in the world. Lane can’t help but push aside the familiar ache in his stomach. What if Ella could be as confident and happy as this little girl? What is he doing wrong?

“That’s not true,” Ella scoffs. 

“It is so! His therapist told him! She’s a doctor.”

Joan opens her mouth to say something, but Lane makes a quick, panicked motion with one hand that says no. Wait.

“Your uncle talks to a therapist?” Ella asks softly. “Like I do?”

She’s never spoken about this with anyone except for him and Rebecca. Certainly never with someone her own age. Lane honestly doesn’t know if she’s scared or excited for someone to say the word out loud.

“Oh, yeah.” Kristen lifts her head from her mother’s lap, and ambles over to the sofa, kicking off her monster slippers, and then putting them back on, over and over. “All the time. It’s not bad. Mom took me once. And my dad went, when he was a kid. But it didn’t help. He’s still a dick.”

Joan does interrupt, this time. “Kristen.”

“Oops,” says Kristen, in a flat voice that means she isn’t sorry at all.

The two girls are now standing together by the sofa. Ella hides a giggle behind one hand. “You said a bad word.”

Kristen grins. “I know. I’ll get in trouble later.” She glances Ella up and down before reaching out to pinch the fabric of Ella’s voluminous tulle skirt between two fingers. “This is really sparkly.” 

“Yeah. Um. I’ve got another one,” Ella offers shyly, rocking back and forth on her toes. “But it’s in my room. I’m not supposed to get it dirty.”

Kristen lights up with delight. “We can play dress up! It’s not dirty if it’s inside!”

Thirty minutes later, the girls are still in Ella’s room, giggling and screeching and talking up a storm, while Lane and Joan are having a nice, if slightly awkward, cup of tea together.

“Want to know a secret?” Joan asks, after he pours the second cup.

Lane frowns at her, not sure what his answer will prompt.

She gives him a significant look. “Kristen hates dress up.”

“Does she?”

“Honestly, I think she just wants a friend.” Joan’s mouth turns down for a second. “All the girls in her grade think she’s strange. She does everything alone.”

“They don’t even talk to her?” Suddenly, Lane aches for that bold little girl, who can bounce from place to place and speak her mind and have everyone hate her for it. God, that bloody school. He didn’t think anything could be worse than having your classmates say nasty things to you all day; he’d gone through it himself, and now Ella deals with it constantly. “Christ. I thought the teasing was bad enough.”

“Being ignored is worse,” Joan tells him darkly. “Trust me.”

She must have been the same way as a child, he decides, just like her daughter. It makes him want to tell her about Ella, and why she’s such a handful at the moment.

“I am sorry about all the crying. It’s—you see, what she wanted was to live with her mother, after we, er, separated.”

Technically, Rebecca wanted to put Ella in boarding school. When they’d fought over that, and Lane had absolutely put his foot down, Becca had been icy.

“Take her with you, then, if you’re so adamant. I won’t have her underfoot.” 

Like their daughter was a badly behaved puppy. When Ella heard the news, she sobbed for days. Mummy doesn’t want me! Why doesn’t she want me?

Lane will never, ever forgive his ex-wife for that. 

“And—now she’s in therapy,” he continues with a shrug, because even her mother has agreed to that much, “and it’s—we’re just trying to get settled, I suppose.”

“It can be painful.” Joan gives him a weak smile. “But I hope she knows—”

The bedroom door bursts open, and the girls run out of Ella’s room and up to the table, both carrying enormous pillows; Kristen’s got Ella’s dress on, with a pair of leggings wrapped around her head as a sort of hat, and Ella’s wearing a cotton Disney nightgown with a purple tutu cinched over it.

“Daddy!” Ella exclaims, and grabs up her pillow in two hands. “Look what I can do!”

She pulls the pillow to her face, hugs it tightly, lets out a long, muffled scream, and then yanks it away, beaming at them both. “Could you hear anything?”

“Not really.” Joan acts as if this kind of behavior is perfectly normal. “Did it help?”

“Sort of,” Ella says with a shrug, as Kristen begins tugging her backwards by one wrist, “wait, Kristen, you can’t wrinkle my dress—put on pajamas!”

“Okay!”

They sprint back into Ella’s room, and the door slams closed. He turns to Joan.

“What on earth was that?”

“Don’t know,” Joan says with a shrug, which makes him laugh. 

There is a muffled crash from behind Ella’s door, followed by a childish shriek of alarm and a loud gasp.

Lane pulls a face. “Oh dear.”

 

**

Fall turns to winter, and as the girls have less opportunity to go outside, Lane thinks he might die of cabin fever before the year is out. His only solution for boredom is to tell Nigella to draw or read something.

Joan, thank god, is more adept at solving these problems. Apparently – and unsurprisingly – Kristen’s attention span demands more creative solutions. That, and year round sports to tire her out a little. 

“I was thinking we could start doing this more often,” Joan tells Lane over dinner. The four of them have now had a couple of dinners together, so the girls could distract each other and the adults could have ten minutes of conversation that doesn’t involve homework or custody disputes. 

Tonight was Joan’s turn to host, so they’re currently eating bowls of macaroni and cheese with cut-up hot dog pieces in it. This is the only thing Lane has seen her cook on the stove besides eggs, pastas, casseroles, and pre-packaged foods that can be put in the oven. She does eat vegetables, at least, but really, it’s a wonder those two don’t starve of malnutrition. No protein at all. 

“That could be all right.”

Joan takes another sip of wine. The silver swirls on her stemless glass catch the light. “Or we could do a movie night. I don’t know. I just don’t want to do the same stuff over and over. Or watch the same movie.”

He knows exactly which film she means to avoid.

“Got a specific day in mind?”

“Well—”

Across the table, Kristen’s very animated, and tugs at the sleeve of Nigella’s dress. “Hey! Hey, Ella! Do you like seafood?”

His daughter hesitates. “Um. Yes?”

Kristen makes it to the punchline and sticks her tongue out just as Joan holds up a hand.

“Mouth closed, please. Nobody wants to see that.”

“Ew, Kristen!” Ella looks disgusted at the trick, but Lane can’t help smiling at her little annoyed face. And at the absurdity of such a terrible joke.

“Daddy, stop laughing! Do not encourage this!” 

He pretends innocence, and has to fight to keep a straight face when Joan flashes him a knowing smirk.

 

**

 

Lane never thought he’d be any good with children—he’s done his best with Nigella, but she’s had it rough—so it surprises him when little Kristen takes a liking to him. Even when Nigella’s not around or not interested in playing, Kristen starts spending much of her spare time in the flat, peppering Lane with questions about his job, his hobbies, and chatting about everything she’s up to in school.

Joan tells him to kick the girl out if she’s being a bother, but Lane honestly doesn’t mind. And privately, he thinks Kristen just doesn’t want to spend time with that bored-looking teenaged babysitter. Not that anyone would blame her; the girl looks as if she’s never had an original thought. 

Once he and Kristen find a common interest in baseball, Lane is sure he’s found a little friend for life.

“So when I’m nine, I can start training for the Little League World Series, and then when I’m ten, I’ll still be training because it takes forever to get really good. And then when I’m eleven I can play in the League for real, and then after high school, I wanna go to the majors. Or at least the minors.” Kristen takes a very deep breath. “I’m gonna be the first girl in the major leagues.”

Lane’s genuinely impressed by her ambition. Most children who want to be sports stars aren’t talented enough – or committed enough – to plan this far ahead. 

“That’s a very big goal.”

“I know.” She bares her teeth in something resembling a grin. “Mom says you have to write down your goals every six months or else you get stuck. But mine hasn’t changed since I was six and a half, so.” 

“Well, your mother’s very clever.” Lane turns on the oven light to check on the brownies; the top looks gooey, not quite done. “So that’s good advice, I think.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Kristen swings her weight from foot to foot, and then becomes fixated on opening and closing on of the silverware drawers. “She hates sports, though. She only does yoga.”

“Well, that’s still exercise, so it’s not all bad. No, don’t pull on that drawer handle.”

“But yoga’s not a spoooort!” Kristen lets go of the pull knob with a loud sigh. “Anyway, I wish she’d come to my games. All the boys’ parents show up.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. It sucks she works at night now.”

Lane keeps his expression carefully neutral. Kristen does not understand just how much it cost for her mother to leave an unhappy marriage, and he’s not going to be the one to drop that onto her head. So he just redirects the conversation. 

“Perhaps Ella and I could come and cheer you on sometime, if our schedules line up.”

Kristen whirls around with a gasp. “Seriously?”

“Of course. I’m always serious.”

A smile lurks at the corner of his mouth as the oven beeps; Kristen regards him with a bug-eyed expression before she realizes this is part of the fun, and quickly rushes over to hug him, throwing her arms around his middle and burrowing into his side.

“Thank you thank you thank you thank you!

Shocked, he actually laughs and pulls her closer, and then they get back to the real obstacle: getting the brownies out of the oven without incident.

“Here,” Lane hands the girl a pair of teacup-patterned mitts, browned from years of use. “You do the honors, and then we’ll wake Nigella up.” 

Hopefully Ella’s headache will be better after a little nap. 

Kristen bites her lip, steels herself, and stares into the depths of the oven as if she’s preparing to perform major surgery. “Okay. I can do it.”

Later in the week, Joan stops by to hand-deliver a copy of the schedule—for the indoor league and for the upcoming spring season, if the team roster holds up.

“You really don’t have to do this,” she informs him quietly, as he pins it up on the refrigerator next to one of Ella’s better drawings. 

“Oh.” Lane tries to wave away her knowing words, although she’s obviously being sincere. Joan never says anything unless she means it. “Well—I—it’ll be nice to see a few games that aren’t on the television.”

“Don’t get your hopes up. They lose all the time.”

Quickly, she fills him in on all the team drama—kids, parents, coaches, and everything in between. Lane listens absently to all of this as he circles a couple of dates on the calendar.

As he turns back to her, Joan puts one hand on his arm; her manicured nails brush over his shoulder through his collared shirt, causing him to look over in surprise.

“Thanks for this. Kristen really likes spending time with you.”

His mouth goes dry, and he quickly swallows. “Oh. Erm. Anytime. I—I’m sure you’d do the same if—well, if Ella played a sport, and I couldn’t be there.”

If his stomach flips when Joan smiles at him, or when she makes some joke about Ella’s future in sport (apocalyptic at best), it’s not anything to dwell on. It’s probably because he never talks to anyone apart from his brother and the lawyers.

It’s silly—meaningless, really. It’s just a passing fancy, and that’s it.

 

 

**

 

“So, don’t be mad, but I actually got you a little something for the holiday,” Joan tells him out of the blue, with only four days to go until Christmas.

The girls are in the living room, snuggling down in a pile of fuzzy blankets to watch an hour or so of cartoons before bed, while he and Joan are in the kitchen, enjoying a little wine.

She pushes a little brown box in his direction—wrapped with a thin blue ribbon.

“Oh.” Lane feels very embarrassed, first because her gift isn’t even here yet, and second, because he knows divorcing a doctor left Joan in quite a bind, financially. She’s even taken a second job to try and save up some money. “Joan. You really didn’t have to—”

“Don’t worry,” she says with a smile. “It’s not much.”

Puzzled, Lane unties the ribbon and opens the box. He doesn’t understand why his own pocketwatch is staring back at him until the little tick tick tick of tiny hands beneath the newly-polished gold lid startles him upright.

It’s fixed. How is it fixed? 

“My god.” His mouth falls open as he examines it. She got it cleaned, as well. It looks nearly new. “This is—everyone told me—nobody’s got the pieces anymore. I—oh, Joan. I don’t understand how you—”

His mother had bought this for him when he was fifteen and had received his A-levels; secondhand, and come to find out, it had cost her almost all her pocket money, that year. It’s one of his most cherished possessions—and one of the few heirlooms she was ever able to give him.

“Coworker of mine is into antiques,” is all she says, with a careful little shrug. “Anyway. He owed me a favor, so. Merry Christmas.”

For a second, Lane gets misty-eyed, and grabs for her hand across the counter. 

“Thank you,” he says—and after a second of contact, he realizes what he’s done, and quickly retracts his arm. “Really. It’s—I’m very touched. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Joan gives him a small smile, and then turns around. “Here. Let me get you some more wine.”

 

 

**

  

Yes, it’s true that Lane has started to get very weird when Joan comes around, and yes, he probably invents too many reasons for the two of them to spend time together with the children. But it’s not because he’s attracted to her, for god’s sake.

Joan’s a beautiful woman—that can’t be denied—but he simply enjoys her company. She’s funny and intelligent and appreciates good conversation. He’s not some pervy old goat trying to peek up her skirt, thank you very much.

Late January turns unusually warm, and one morning, Lane goes out onto the patio with his tea only to be confronted by a spandex-clad Joan standing on her own patio. She’s moving through her morning yoga routine in the sunshine, wearing nothing but tight black leggings, a bright sports bra, and a large, soft-looking tank top.

For a second, his brain goes completely, blissfully blank. And then the realization hits him like a freight train.

Lane spends several minutes sneaking obvious, open-mouthed glances next door as Joan stretches and flexes and curves her body into impossible positions, with the innate grace and poise of an Olympic gymnast. From the outside, it seems incredibly difficult, but she makes each move look effortless.

And her legs are so strong and lovely, and oh, that’s dangerous. Don’t think about that. Don’t imagine what it would be like to slide your hand over her thigh as— 

“Daddy, my oatmeal’s cold!”

Lane startles, and sloshes boiling tea over one hand and onto the concrete. “Ouch! Sorry, dearest. You startled me.”

“What are you doing out here?” Ella asks with a frown, and god, if he wasn’t certain about her parentage before, Lane knows she’s Becca’s daughter now. That snotty, skeptical lift of her eyebrow is exactly like her mother’s, right down to the unamused judgment in her dark eyes.

“Just enjoying the sunshine.” Lane takes another sip of tea to disguise the fact that he’s blushing.

Next door, Joan’s noticed the commotion; she’s rolled up her yoga mat and is waving at them with a friendly smile. Her hair’s in a messy bun and her bare face is pink and shining. She looks so happy and relaxed. 

“Morning,” she trills.

Lane manages to raise his mug to her in greeting as he stands up.

“Good workout today?”

She beams at him, which causes Lane to blush all over again. 

“Yes. Fantastic.”

 

**

  

Joan doesn’t know what Ella’s problem has been lately, but the kid’s been a real pill for weeks. She’s been crying all the time, and throwing temper tantrums again; she and Kristen even got in a fight earlier in the week, and those two are practically sewn together at the hip.

She and Lane were due to cook dinner together tonight—Joan’s weekday night off from the bar—but that plan was clearly over when Lane met her at the door of his apartment with a haggard, thousand-yard stare which translated roughly into please keep my kid away from me for the next decade.

And somehow—for reasons Joan can’t even explain—she’s now taking Ella to McDonalds to get food for everyone, while Kristen stays behind to finish up her math homework.

She tries to coax conversation out of Ella over the first few minutes, but there’s only so much childish sneering a person can take, and so eventually, they lapse into silence as they drive through the center of town.

Until Joan looks over and notices a giant curse word written on the sheet of loose-leaf paper Ella’s been scribbling on. “What the hell is this?”

Ella gasps, but Joan’s too quick; she snatches it up from the little girl’s lap and holds it just out of reach by the window.

“Hey! Give it!” 

They’re stopped at a traffic light; Joan takes the opportunity to study the page in her hand. Some drawing of Kristen’s has been crossed out with a big red marker, and another childish scrawl covers the page, full of curse words and nasty names.

Bitch. Slut. Whore.

“Okay.” Joan huffs out a breath through her nose, and fixes Nigella with the sharpest look she can muster before traffic starts moving again. “You’ve got ten seconds to tell me why you wrote this, or I’m turning the car around.” 

“I didn’t do anything!” 

“Ten.” The cars in front of her are moving, and bright yellow arches are in sight a few meters up the road; Joan’s already searching for a left turn lane to guide the car into the parking lot. She can turn around in the drive thru, or she can park, and get to the bottom of this. “Nine.” 

“I didn’t do anything!”

Joan floors into the parking lot ahead of the light, and makes an immediate right into the nearest empty parking space. She puts the car into park, turns to Ella, and holds out the paper with a flat palm. 

“Well, if it’s not yours, then you won’t mind reading it out loud. Seven.”

Ella’s eyes narrow in a scowl. “What?”

“Six. Five. Four.”

“But—I’m not allowed to say any of these words!” 

“Then we’ll go home,” Joan retorts. “Three. If I get to one, I’m leaving. And your dad’s going to hear about this.”

“But I—”

“Two.”

“You’re a bitch,” Ella snarls, her voice pointed and vicious, but this is the first sentence written on that paper, and so Joan stops counting.

Instead, she assumes the coolest look she can muster. “Well? Keep going.”

“Nobody wants you here. You’re a—” Ella swallows, looks ashen, “fil—filthy slut. Keep your nose out of our business, you nasty old—”

She lets the paper wilt in her hands, glances away toward the dashboard with a wordless whine.

“Keep going.” Joan’s voice is hard.

“Erm. You—nasty old—bitch, you stink. Everyone hates you. You’re ugly and you—oh, please don’t make me say this one.”

“If you can write it, you can read it.” 

“But I didn’t mean to!”

Joan assumes this is how she usually gets out of trouble. Nobody’s buying it today. “Ella, for god’s sake, it’s written in permanent marker. You wrote it. You meant it. And now you’ll say every word to my face.”

Ella looks like she’s swallowed a lemon. Her mouth is pinched in a sour expression, and the rest of her face has gone pale and sick. She takes a determined breath. Her eyes flick back down to the paper. “You’re so ugly and—and you’re—a—whore who d—doesn’t deserve anything nice ever. I hope you die.”

Normally, Joan prides herself on her composure, but it’s still hard not to flinch.

The little girl’s lower lip is wobbling. “And I hate you. I hate you. I h-hate you.”

“Do you feel better or worse?” Joan asks after a few seconds, as an awful, thick silence descends over the car.

“Stop being nice to me! You’re not my mother!”

Ella begins to cry, and Joan sucks in a sharp breath, because that phrase wasn’t on the piece of paper. Her little rant ended with the litany of I hate yous.

“You’re fake a—and loud and you’re never going to be her, ever!”

She bursts into loud, noisy sobs.

Oh, Jesus. Joan takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and forces herself to count to ten. This is not about you, she repeats mentally, it’s not about you; it’s never really been about you. 

“Good. I don’t want to be your mom." 

Ella yanks her head up with a shocked noise, still crying so hard she’s breathless.

“If you don’t like me, that’s your business. But you can’t call me nasty names just because I’m—” in your father’s life? “your dad’s friend.”

Strange but true: she and Lane are friends now. No use beating around the bush.

Ella swipes at her eyes. “Daddy doesn’t need anyone but me.”

“So you want him to eat dinner by himself, and never get invited anywhere, and always have to be alone when you’re not around? You know exactly how awful that feels.” 

Joan’s fingers itch for a cigarette, and for once, she indulges. She digs into her purse, finds the pack, and within a minute she’s inhaling that first deep drag, and rolling down the driver’s side window with her free hand. She takes another long pull, huffing out a gust of smoke.

“Look. Your dad is a good person. He deserves to have friends without you saying mean things behind their backs. And if you can’t deal with me being his friend, or coming around every so often, keep it to yourself. Because I’m not moving, and I’m not leaving. Got it?”

No reply—just another long, awkward silence.

“Can we get our food now?” Ella says in the smallest voice. 

Not the apology she was looking for, but Joan doesn’t have the energy to argue over this. She sucks down one last drag of her cigarette, holds the smoke in her lungs until she feels like she’ll burst, and then releases it in a whoosh. Feeling calmer, even if it’s just temporary, she then tosses the butt out the window and puts the car into reverse.

They don’t speak on the way through the drive-thru, and by the time they’re home and the kids have food, Joan’s nursing a migraine the size of a planet.

“I think I’m going to head to bed,” she says after half an hour of picking at her burger. Ella’s little voice keeps ringing in her ears. Bitch, bitch, bitch.

Kristen looks shocked, and she should be—Joan never goes to bed before eight o’clock unless she’s sick as a dog.

“Mommy, are you okay?”

Joan gives her daughter a wan smile, and pretends not to notice the way Ella’s fidgeting in her seat. “Just a little headache.”

Lane’s forehead creases with worry. “I’ve got some aspirin, if you need it.”

Joan refuses the aspirin, but takes a shot of whiskey once she’s alone in her own apartment. It’s kind of medicinal, right? She’s just changed into a set of old pajamas when the front door opens and little feet patter across the kitchen floor. 

“Hi, sweetie,” she says absently, as the footsteps pause in the doorway. “You have fun with—?” 

When she looks over, Ella shrinks backwards, and stares down at the floor for several seconds before tiptoing inside and placing a giant bottle of aspirin on the bottom left corner of the bed.

“Please don’t tell Daddy what I said.”

Oh, god. Joan rubs at her face with one hand. “Ella.”

“He’ll think I’m really awful, and he won’t want me anymore.” She lets out a whimper. “And then I won’t have anywhere to live and everyone will hate me.” 

Jesus, was Kristen ever this melodramatic?

“Come here,” Joan gestures to the other side of the bed as she turns down the comforter. If they’re going to have a real conversation, it’s going to be while she’s propped against a bunch of pillows. “Sit down. Get comfortable.”

After a minute or so, Ella walks over, pulls back the blankets, and begins to get settled, Joan grabs her phone from the nightstand and sends off a quick text to Lane. Ella’s here, wants to talk???

She gets back a bemused All right… with a smiley face before she puts her phone aside. Next to her, Ella’s about as relaxed as a frightened rabbit, ready to bolt.

“You know your dad would never hate you,” Joan says first.

“He does sometimes.”

“No,” Joan groans, and shuts her eyes as she leans back against the pillows. “That’s—he might get mad, or frustrated, but he tries really hard. Dads who don’t love their kids don’t try, and they don’t show up. Period.” 

“How do you know?”

“Personal experience.” Oh, god, she really is tired. She can feel the pull of sleep trying to drag her down, and stifles a yawn. “Sorry. Why do you think he hates you?”

The next thing Joan remembers is blinking her eyes open to a too-bright room and seeing Lane standing at the edge of her bed. Kristen dangles limply from his arms as he bends down and places her between them, right next to Ella, who is asleep in a tiny little ball at the other end of the mattress.

“Hmph,” Joan tries to drag herself upright, but it doesn’t work, and her eyes slide closed.

“You’re all right.” There’s a rustling as Lane spreads a blanket over the little girls, and eventually turns off the lamp, touching Joan’s shoulder as the room’s thrown into darkness. “Sleep well.”

Joan finds the mean note in the pocket of her driver’s side door the next day, and burns it with her cigarette lighter on a smoke break, trying not to dwell on why she wants to spare Lane’s feelings or soothe his kid’s jealous little temper.

It’s just polite—practical, even. That’s all.

 

 

**

 

One day in February, Lane pulls into the parking garage after picking Ella up from school, and sees Joan standing further up the way, just beside the garage level doors. She’s talking to an older chap in a suit with silver-white hair, long sideburns, and a thick mustache. He looks like he jumped out of a 1970s advert.

“Who’s that?” Ella peers through the windshield with a frown. 

“I don’t know.”

Lawyer? Ex-husband? Or god forbid—new boyfriend?

They get Ella’s backpack and school things out of the car and lock up; some of Lane’s earlier questions are answered once Kristen bursts out of the stairwell and rushes toward the man with a squeal of laughter.

“Kristy Thomas!” The silver-haired man opens his arms wide, and hefts her up onto his hip with a grunt. “How ya been, kid?”

“Good!” She kisses the man’s cheek. “I made a hundred on my last science test.”

“Oh yeah? That’s pretty slick. How’s the batting arm?”

“Not good.” Kristen scrunches her face up. 

“Well, no sweat, kid. That’s what the practice is for. You know you can’t make the majors until you’re the best.”

Joan’s watching with a knowing smile as this man holds her daughter, visibly proud and happy, and for a split second, Lane’s heart twists violently in his chest. Oh, god, she’s probably in love with him. And this chap knows Kristen and he clearly loves both of them and it’s only a matter of time before they get married.

He’s too aware of the prickly, awkward feeling in his limbs, and he feels hyper aware of his body as they walk closer and closer. Lane’s ready to wave at them and pass by without another word, but for some reason, Ella waltzes right up to the group and breaks the silence.

“Who are you?”

Lane puts a palm to his face. “Ella! Sorry. We were just on our way up.”

“Nah, it’s fine.” The silver-haired chap winks at Lane before turning his attention to Ella. “Name’s Roger Sterling. Let me guess – you’re the best friend?”

Ah. The infamous Uncle Roger.

“I’m Nigella.” Ella doesn’t seem to know what to do with being called someone’s best friend. “Are—are you Kristen’s dad?”

“Pfft. I’m way better than that idiot,” says Roger. Kristen snorts in delight and buries her face in his shoulder. “Joanie and I used to work together. We’re old friends.”

Lane’s eyes fly to Joan’s face; she meets his inquisitive gaze, shakes her head yes, imperceptibly, and mouths something he can’t quite catch.

Roger puts Kristen back down, and places a hand on her shoulders as he keeps talking to Ella.

“Hey, listen. Kay and I were just going to the batting cages to practice her home runs. You like baseball? Wanna come with us?”

Lane’s ready to make some excuse; his daughter hates strangers and she hates sports even more, so it surprises him when all Ella says is:

“I’m really bad at playing it.” 

“Aw, come on. What’s to play? It’s just swinging at balls with a big stick.” Roger glances at Lane, now. “Dad, okay with you if she joins us? Should be back around seven or eight. I’ll even feed ‘em.”

“Can we get a Happy Meal?” Kristen asks slyly, and Roger laughs. 

“Hell yes.”

“Erm,” Lane looks at Ella, who seems excited, and then at Joan, who’s watching him with an oddly hopeful expression. “Yeah, that’s fine. Go with Mr. Sterling. You can—do your homework once you get back.”

“Yay!” Ella drops her backpack on the ground, rushes over to Kristen, and barely spares Lane a glance as Roger hugs Joan goodbye, and produces a set of gleaming car keys. “Thank you, Daddy!”

“Yes. Well. Be good. I love you.”

“Love you, too,” Ella calls back, and then she and Kristen promptly start playfighting over the seatbelt situation.

Once he and Joan are in the elevator on their way up to the fourth floor, Joan finally breaks the awkward silence.

“His name’s not on her birth certificate.”

“Oh.” Lane’s face shifts into neutral, careful and guarded. “But he’s her—”

“Yeah.” Joan huffs out a long, sharp breath. “Um. My ex was deployed. And if I’d known Greg didn’t even want a kid, I wouldn’t have bothered lying.”

They pass another floor.

“Nice that Roger wants to spend time with her.”

“It is.” Joan isn’t looking at him, just staring at the panel of numbered buttons. “He’s better at the parenting thing, this time around. Maybe it’s easier because she’s athletic, and Margaret wasn’t. I don’t know.”

The elevator dings, and the doors open. As they amble towards their corner of the hall, Lane gestures toward his front door with Ella’s purple backpack. There’s a deeper story here, and he needs to know it, and they can’t very well have this conversation in the middle of the building.

“Erm. Do you—if you’re not busy, you should come in, have a drink, or something?”

Joan lets out another deep breath, and when he finally works up enough courage to meet her eyes, she looks worn out with relief.

His heart leaps in his chest when she smiles at him—tentative, but easy.

“I’d like that.”

 

 

**

  

“I think I’m in—in love with—someone.” 

Lewis, Mark, and Joyce exchange a knowing look, and then immediately pull out their wallets, and begin thumbing bills out onto the scratched-up bar. 

“Okay, who had March?” Joyce asks.

Lane groans and hides his face in two hands. “Jesus Christ.”

“Pay up, you little fools,” Lewis is insufferable as he collects his takings. “I told you it was Joan. Didn’t I tell you?”

“We all heard him, darling,” says Mark in a patient voice.

“Listen, I’m the one who pointed out the mentionitis, and that was months ago,” Joyce adds.

“Oh, all of you just—shut up.” Lane still can’t look at them. “Fine. It’s very obvious and I’m a complete idiot. Just—what the hell am I supposed to do now?”

“Seduce her, you ninny.”

Mark’s reply is more reassuring. Thank god someone in this family uses their head as more than a hat rack. “Have you tried talking to her about it?”

“No, because it’s bloody awful.” Lane sighs. “None of—well, the words won’t come out right.”

“I really don’t think you have a problem here,” Joyce takes another sip from her pint glass. “You guys spend so much time together you’re practically married.”

“Hear hear,” Lewis mimes a toast.

“I mean, honestly. Why would she give up all her free time to hang out with you and Ella if she didn’t like you?”

“She’s a—a good person,” Lane tries weakly.

“Hmph. Have you met your kid on a bad day? Nobody’s that nice.”

Fair point. Joan was never required to take Ella under her wing, but she has—to a shocking degree. Even when Ella was being a little terror, throwing fits about the slightest change in routines, or snidely calling Joan her ally in an attempt to be very cutting, Joan didn’t budge. She just kept her distance and stayed neutral. And now, Lane would venture to say that they’re comfortable—even friendly.

“You know she quit dating, right?” 

“What?”

Joyce shrugs. “Heard it from Peggy. She went out with some guy from Peg’s office around New Years, but ended it after a week. Didn’t even sleep together.” 

Lane throws her a long-suffering glare. “Don’t.”

“Hey, I’m just telling you what I heard. The woman might not have taken a vow of chastity, but she’s definitely not putting herself out there.”

“Mark,” Lane groans. Someone else, just—please be reasonable. 

“Well. I won’t claim to know how Joan feels—”

Lewis scoffs audibly.

“—but I’d venture to say that if you just have the conversation, weird as it may be, that’s a step in the right direction.” A pause. “She does care for you, I think.”

“Christmas,” Lewis grunts.

“Wait. What about Christmas?” Joyce asks, plainly curious.

“Came to the jeweler’s and got Lane’s pocketwatch fixed.” Lewis takes another drink from his glass, and seems surprised by the plain shock on Lane’s face. “Mark tried to pay, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Paid it off in pieces for months.”

Mark slaps his husband on the elbow. “That was a secret, Lew.”

“She did that for me?” Lane thinks back to December, and the radiant smile on Joan’s face as he’d clasped her hand, and a muscle tightens in his chest. He feels like he’s choking on his next words. “But—you know there’s never—we’ve never—”

“Well, you ought to, so don’t overthink it.” Lewis gets up and claps him on the shoulder as he walks down toward the other end of the bar.

Lane’s suddenly flooded with gratitude as his brother flags down the bartender for another round. Maybe he’s not completely delusional, after all.

When his phone buzzes half an hour later, Lane picks it up and finds a new text from Joan: a picture of the sales floor. Apparently she and Kate are getting very bored as they stage a new display of old ladies’ clothes. Lane’s mouth twitches, but the full smile only comes once the little dots appear, and Joan adds:

We’re trying to recreate our favorite movie covers. This one is First Knight.

Complete with a second picture. In the middle of the display stands a faceless male mannequin in an all-black ensemble, like an aging beat poet. To his right is a shapeless female mannequin in a long blue dress, and another male mannequin is positioned behind them in some kind of hipster jumper. The top is loose and baggy and brown, paired with tight trousers.

Genius. Get the beard and a couple of swords, Lane texts back.

The reply is immediate. Should be home in another hour or so. You staying up?

“He’s bailing on us,” Joyce announces loudly, which causes Lane to glance over. Nobody looks upset, at least.

“Erm. Yeah. If you don’t mind.”

“Whatever. Just bang already,” Joyce says with a smirk. 

“She means talk to her,” Mark half-clasps, half-squeezes Lane’s shoulder with a reassuring nod. “It’ll be fine, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Lane smiles at Mark, and although it’s forced and nervous, he can’t help but feel a little bit hopeful. 

I’ll be up, Lane types back after he’s paid his tab. Just out with Lewis and company – but missing my girls. See you soon.

He sends off a picture along with this message before he can talk himself out of it; it’s from months ago, of two little girls and one big girl all asleep in the same bed, a blithe tangle of arms and legs and blankets. Lane’s looked at it too many times to count, finding something new to smile over each time: Ella curled up on one side in her little striped dress, sucking her thumb the way she did as a baby; Kristen sprawled out every which way with her head nestled into Ella’s shoulder and two monster-claw slipper feet sticking out of the blankets; and Joan bookending them on the right side of the bed, rumpled and adorable in her blue pajamas, with a mountain of pillows around her head and shoulders, her hair in disarray and one hand slung across the mattress, almost touching Kristen’s hair.

My girls. God, he’s in trouble.

 

**

  

Nearly an hour later, Lane is watching some black and white movie on TV—nothing he recognizes. When Joan sails in and locks the door behind her, he quickly turns down the volume.

“How was work?”

She thumps down next to him with an oof, and leans into his shoulder. “Had a giant espresso from the food court at seven thirty. I’m never gonna sleep.” 

Lane laughs, soft. “Explains all the pictures.”

Even though he’s teasing, he can feel her tense up at the word pictures, and concentrates on keeping his heart rate at a normal level.

“Are the girls asleep?” asks Joan.

“Yeah. Erm. No trouble, apparently. They’re in Ella’s room.”

“Good.” 

He doesn’t know how to put this into words, and swallows thickly as he glances down at his hands. “Joan, I was—well, I’ve been thinking—”

“Me too,” she says, and when he looks over at her, puzzled, she puts her hand on his face, leans up, and kisses him.

It’s fast and rushed and a little off-center, but it’s still a kiss, and when she pulls back, he feels hot all over, and vaguely stunned, like he’s been stung. “Oh.”

Joan bites her lip in a very endearing way. “If you want to. We don’t have to. I just—I’m tired of not kissing you.”

He still feels like he’s missed a step on the staircase and tumbled all the way down; mixed up and vaguely sick but euphoric all the same.

“But you’ve, erm. Damn it. Sorry. I—this is—what you want? You’re sure?” 

She holds his gaze. “I’m in love with you.” 

The dam breaks in his chest; he pulls her closer to him, on top of him, and suddenly he’s kissing her like he’s starved, his hands sliding up under her shirt to caress her bare back, and her fingers tangling into his hair as she gets a leg over his hips.

“I’m sure,” Joan’s murmuring between kisses, breathless, and lets out a moan. “I want it. Oh, god, Lane, that’s—”

Lane kisses her again, deeply, and they stop talking after that.

 

 

**

 

“Yoga! Yoga! Yoga!”

Lane’s awoken by two insane little girls, giggling wildly as they jump up and down all over his bed.

“Mmph. Sleep.”

“Daddyyyyy. Come on!”

“No, it’s Saturday—ouch! You’ve just kicked me. Thanks for that.”

“Sorry,” Kristen drops to her knees, crawls up towards his chest, and cups Lane’s face in both hands, turning his head from side to side like he’s a deranged puppet. “Wake up wake up wake up!” 

“Stop that. All right!” Lane huffs out a sigh and pokes her in the ribs, where she’s most ticklish; Kristen shrieks and scurries backward. “Demon children. I’m very awake now.”

“Good morning, Daddy.” Ella’s perched at the end of the bed, dressed in leggings and a long smock, grinning at him as if she wasn’t just trying to fling him into the floor. “We’re doing yoga soon, so put on workout clothes.”

“Mmkay.”

They scamper off. Lane visits the toilet, changes clothes, and shuffles out into the living room in a daze, only to find Joan standing there with – oh, thank god – what appears to be the world’s biggest mug of tea.

“Nice outfit,” she says.

He glances down and realizes what he’s wearing: loose dark sweatpants and a faded grey thing that says Eat. Sleep. Mets. Repeat. in huge orange and blue letters.

“Oh. Yeah. Others are mostly—undershirts.”

“Hm,” Joan winks at him while the girls aren’t looking. “Can’t have that.”

“Cos they’re really icky,” Ella pipes up helpfully before putting down her glass of water. “The armpits are all stinky and yellow and there’s giant holes in all of them.”

Lane rubs at his stubbled face with a groan of embarrassment. “Thank you, dearest.”

“You’re welcome.” 

Next, Joan leads them all through about twenty minutes of yoga; it’s mostly vigorous stretching and meditating, but even then, the girls are the only ones who can do the poses properly. Ella’s a bit wobbly, yet still flexible, while Kristen pops up into various positions as if she’s been doing this all her life. And she probably has.

Lane, on the other hand, is a disaster. He’s currently trying a pose called downward dog, bent over with his bum sticking up in the air, which would be embarrassing enough even if his t-shirt wasn’t pooled around his shoulders and his arms weren’t wobbling like the dickens.

In front of him, the girls are giggling.

“Daddy, we can see your belly.”

Lane makes an unhappy noise, but before he can pull his shirt back down, Joan shushes them, and walks over to his side, placing both hands on either side of his waistband.

His senses prickle to life.

“Okay. Let’s move back into cat and cow pose.”

The girls obey instantly, dropping to their hands and knees and meowing at each other with gusto. They’re supposed to be arching and flattening their backs, but he’s fairly sure they’re just pretending to have paws and hiss at each other.

Joan lowers her voice, just for him. Her fingers flex against his waistband. “Hips up like you’re in the starting blocks. Breathe out, and then step forward with your right foot.”

Lane concentrates on shifting his weight to the balls of his feet, and does so, feeling a deep but not unpleasant stretch in his inner thigh and in both hips as he steps forward. He wobbles a little in the lunged position, and puts his hands out for balance, but it’s not bad. Better than he thought he’d do, anyway.

“And other foot. Hands toward the sky.” 

Joan’s palms are still on his sides. Lane has to force himself not to think about what he wants her to do. He brings his other foot forward, and is now crouched in a low standing position, more or less.

“Girls, let’s move into corpse pose now.”

Discreetly, she tugs Lane’s shirt back into place as the girls flop down onto their backs, eyes closed, splaying their hands out and giggling softly. They can’t really stay completely still. It’s kind of endearing.

“Shhh. We’re relaxing,” Joan reminds them as another fit of giggles threatens to break out. “Think about all the nice things you get to do this weekend. Deep breath in.” She demonstrates the breath. “And out.”

“Am I doing this one?” Lane asks in an undertone. 

“Later,” she murmurs in his ear, and runs two fingers up the length of his spine, causing him to shiver and suck in a breath. “You keep doing rag doll. Stretch a little.”

With a snort, Lane bends down as if he’s going to touch his toes, and closes his eyes as he dangles his hands bonelessly towards the ground. That sounds promising. 

Thirty minutes later, the girls have scarfed down half a pan of cinnamon rolls and are downstairs, wrestling two giant bags of laundry into the wash.

He and Joan are in his bedroom, making quick use of the time alone.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, oh my god, faster. Faster. Mmm!” 

Bent over at the waist in front of him, Joan’s leggings are down around her ankles and he’s wearing nothing but his t-shirt. Lane thrusts harder, and keeps thumbing at her clit as he increases the pace; Joan braces her hands against the bed as they rock together in unison.

“Feels so good.” Lane strokes his other hand down her back as he bottoms out. He bends down to kiss and nip at her dewy skin, then plucks at a nipple with his free hand as he buries his face into the side of her neck. “God, love. I’ve got you. C’mon.”

She’s too far gone; her legs are wobbling. And when she comes, she shudders, and her chest contracts with the force of it. Between his fingers and his cock, she gets so soaked that his thrusts become as sharp and smooth as glass.

“Fuck!” She white-knuckles the bedspread in both hands. “Oh!”

He keeps circling two fingers around her clit, not close enough to hurt, just enough pressure to keep her there.

“Ah! ‘M gonna—yeah, keep doing that—”

Lane does, and a couple of minutes later, her spine stiffens again, and she clenches around him with a loud yelp; it tips him right over the edge. He comes with a groan, and when it’s over, they stand propped against the bed for a couple of minutes, panting, before Lane finally moves upright.

Joan stretches, pops her back, and then reaches out for him, kissing him in a distracted fashion before pulling away. “Told you you’d like yoga.”

He taps her on the bum as she wobbles past with a happy sigh.

“I really do.”

 

**

 

“Dark,” Ella points toward the wall.

Kristen throws the black socks into the first machine, and then picks up a pale blue t-shirt from the basket.

“Light.”

Kristen pitches this into the second machine, and sticks her head into the bottom of the laundry bag so she can get the last few clothes out.

“What do you think they’re doing up there?” Ella asks, as Kristen throws a pair of red leggings into the machine on the right.

“I don’t know. Watching boring grown up shows. Or maybe kissing. Uncle Lewis told me they like like each other.” 

“Ew!” Ella pulls a face. “They’re not kissing. People don’t do that in the daytime unless they’re getting married.”

“Welllll, maybe they’re hiding our Christmas presents for next year?” Kristen offers as she throws one last pair of jeans into the machine with all the darks. “Anyway. You pour in the detergent. I’ll turn the button.”

They do this, shut the machine lids, and trample back upstairs, stopping only to make faces at Mrs. Francis’s mean yellow tomcat who lives outside of 3A. When they burst back inside Lane’s apartment, it’s pretty disappointing.

Mom’s sitting on the sofa, wearing a set of black and pink workout clothes, with her hair wrapped up in a towel as she reads a magazine. And Lane’s standing all the way in the kitchen in a big fluffy bathrobe, pouring hot water into a mug.

“Were you two kissing in here?” Ella demands loudly.

Mom glances up from her page, and turns to Lane with a raised eyebrow. Kristen doesn’t know why they’re staring at each other like that, but Mom just grins from ear to ear. “Not right now. Why?”

“But you could,” Kristen says slowly, glancing from one adult to the other. “I mean, do you guys do that?” 

Mom’s still smiling. “Sweetie, what are you asking?”

Ella beats her to the question. “Are you, like, boyfriend and girlfriend now?”

“Erm.” Lane’s face gets really red. Kristen can’t help snickering. It’s pretty funny. “Well, yes. Al—although it doesn’t mean that I—love you any less, dearest. It’s just that. Erm. You see. Joan and I—care for each other. The way that—oh. Augh. Er.” His voice goes all high-pitched. “Joan? Little help?” 

“She’s not listening,” Kristen informs him, and frowns at her mom, who just giggles and giggles. She’s got one hand pressed to her heart like this is the most hilarious thing she’s ever heard. The magazine she was reading slides off her knee and into the floor as she rocks back and forth, clutching her stomach with her other hand.

“Can’t breathe. Oh, my god.”

“You’re being so weird,” says Kristen, shaking her head.

“Honestly. Let’s go watch something,” Ella rolls her eyes, and then turns back to Lane. “Now, don’t kiss in here while we’re gone, or I’ll be very cross.”

Still cackling, Mom makes a whining noise, and wipes big fat tears from her face with the edge of her towel.

“Duly—noted,” Lane chokes out, and coughs really loudly a couple of times, hiding his mouth behind his hand. Oh, duh, maybe that’s why he made the tea! He’s probably getting a cold.

Without asking any more questions, they go next door and set up a pile of blankets and pillows as Ella picks out a DVD for them to watch. Wizard of Oz again. Kristen doesn’t mind. She likes the Scarecrow a lot. And all the colors. 

“Whew. Glad we figured that out,” Kristen sighs as she flops back into the pillows, and Ella picks up the remote control. “That could’ve been horrible.”

 

**

  

“Mom, do you and Lane sleep together, too?” Kristen asks Joan as they’re brushing their teeth together one evening. 

Joan spits out a mouthful of toothpaste, and arches a surprised eyebrow at the question, but decides to be honest anyway. “Yes.”

“Ah home?” Kristen’s voice is muffled. “’ike aw ha hime?”

She has no idea what Kristen is trying to ask. “What are you talking about?”

Kristen takes her toothbrush out of her mouth. White foam slings across the sink basin. “Well, we have our apartment, and Lane and Ella have theirs. How can you have sleepovers all the time in two different apartments?”

“Ohhhh.” Thank god this is not a sex question. She was almost positive it was a sex question. “I see what you mean, sweetie. It’s not every night. Just every so often.”

“Like when me and Ella stay over at Roger’s and share the big bed?”

“Yes,” says Joan, and fills a Dixie cup with a couple inches of water. “We just share. Now brush your back teeth, and then rinse your mouth out.”

“Wait! Are you going to live in the same house so you can sleep together all the time? No, wait, are you going to get married?”

“Possibly,” Joan’s careful with her answer. “But Lane and I would have to talk about living together first. Those are both fairly big steps.”

“Cool,” pronounces Kristen, and gets back to brushing again.

  

**

  

“Daddy? Are you awake?”

Lane squints at the door through the deep darkness, but shifts over and turns down the covers so Ella can come crawl into bed next to him. 

“Yeah. Erm, come in. Did you have a bad dream?”

“No. I just can’t sleep,” Ella sighs as she gets under the covers, snuggles closer, and puts her head on his chest.

Through a drowsy haze, he decides it can’t be a nightmare; else she’d have woken up screaming. And it can’t be another one of her nervous spells, because she’d be bawling her eyes out. Perhaps she had too much sugar before bed? Or caffeine? 

“You like Joan,” she murmurs after a minute. “I mean. You like like her.”

Lane snaps fully awake, although the phrase like like makes him smile. “Well, yes. That’s true.”

“Do you love her?”

Hm. He strokes her back in the dark, debating how best to answer this question.

“I do,” he says, and leans down to press a kiss into his daughter’s hair. “And she knows that. But it doesn’t change how much I love you.” 

“Oh, obviously, Daddy,” Ella assures him, as if she were eight going on thirty-five. “I just wanted to know if you were getting married.”

“Well. That’s—a very grown up question, dearest.” Lane clears his throat. He needs time to think about his answer. “What brought this on?”

“Kristen says you could.” She puts her little arms around his neck; her hands are clammy and freezing. “If you wanted. That’s what people do after they’re divorced and have boyfriends and girlfriends. They get stepmums or stepdads, and move in together.” 

“Well.” Lane doesn’t know how to talk about the anxiety that bubbles in the pit of his stomach, so he just keeps his answer simple. “We do—love each other. And that’s always the most important part. But I haven’t asked her to marry me yet.”

They lie there quietly for a couple of seconds before Ella moves backward and props herself up on one elbow. Even in the dark, Lane can feel her studying him very carefully.

“Are you going to ask her?”

“Yes. I—think so,” Lane says, soft. “Someday.”

His heart is hammering as he waits for Ella to respond.

“Oh.” She shrugs, and burrows back down into the blankets, putting her head against his chest again. “All right.”

“Would you like that?” Lane needs to hear the exact words. “Having Kristen as a sister, and Joan as your—stepmum?”

Ella considers this. He can feel her little brow scrunch up while she thinks.

“I think so,” she finally says, and a knot loosens in Lane's stomach. “But if we get a house, can I have a puppy?”

Lane can’t help grinning. “If you—oh, you little scamp.” He cards one hand through her long hair, and tousles it in a playful way. “What will I ever do with you?”

Ella swats at his hand, but then snuggles up against his chest. “Daddy!” 

“Go to sleep, dearest.” He kisses her forehead again. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

**

 

 Joan taps red nails against the steering wheel as she idles in the school pick-up line. Inside, the bell rings, and Joan starts scanning the sea of backpacks for sparkly purple as kids spill outside. Lane took off work early to go to Kristen’s first playoff game, so she’s grabbing Ella from school.

Five minutes go by. Ten minutes. As she waits at the top of the hill, watching other cars swoop in and out to get their kids, she starts to get impatient, and then worried. The line of cars thins and eventually disappears, and by the time Joan’s one of the few parents left on school property, she peels left into the parking lot, gets out of the car, and slams the door behind her.

Where the hell is that kid?

Maybe she had a test today, or got in trouble after school, or had a panic attack and went to visit the nurse. As she approaches the long row of double doors, Joan’s ready to storm inside the office and raise hell until somebody can find her kid. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to.

Another mother and child burst through the doors, going the opposite direction; the woman’s short, dark hair blows in the breeze as she tugs at her daughter’s hand. The expensive beige dress and short silk coat she’s wearing are too fancy for work, and her champagne heels tap impatiently against concrete as the little girl digs two sneakered heels into the concrete and tries to yank them backwards.

“Keep up. We’re going to be very late.”

“But I’m not supposed to go with you today! Joan’s got to pick me up and take me to prac—ouch, Mummy! You’re hurting my arm!”

“Oh, I am not, darling,” huffs Rebecca, and god, Joan hates this bitch already. “If you’d only start walking like normal, it wouldn’t hurt as much.”

“But I can’t come with you! Daddy said that—”

“For god’s sake! Your Daddy is wrong,” Rebecca spins on her heel and grabs Ella’s face in one hand, pinching the little girl’s jaw between her fingers. Ella turns mulish, angry eyes on her mother as the woman lowers her voice to a growl. “Now, it’s my turn to see you, and we are going to have a nice dinner, with nice people, who—”

“Hey! Get your hand off her face,” Joan demands.

Ella makes a shocked noise; Rebecca straightens up and casts an ice-cold glare in Joan’s direction. 

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’m really sorry.” Ella moves away from her mother, and starts to cry. “Joan, I really tried to find you.”

“Sweetie, I know. It’s okay.”

“Don’t you dare talk to my daughter like you know her—”

“Excuse me?” Joan steps forward, very purposeful. “I see your daughter every single day. Where the hell have you been lately?”

“Do you pass her in the hallway while you’re sneaking into Lane’s bed? That hardly counts as seeing her.”

Joan can’t help smirking. “What, are you jealous?”

“Ha! No need to posture at me, my dear. Lane’s never going to marry you. He’ll make all the right noises, but when it comes right down to it—”

“Mummy, stop!”

“—they never marry the sluts.” Rebecca’s eyes flick Joan up and down. “He’ll always find you wanting, even when you’re on your knees.”

“Stop it, Mummy!” Ella shrieks. “Stop it right now!”

Rage is boiling up in Joan’s throat; she swallows tightly. “Say that again.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll find someone else to scratch that particular itch soon enough.” 

Joan lowers her voice as she steps even closer. “At least I don’t have to worry my kid doesn’t love me.”"

“Well, everyone loves a whore—just not for long,” Rebecca snarls. “Your own child’s proof enough of—”

Joan moves before she can think, and suddenly her palm is stinging and there’s a red handprint on Rebecca’s left cheek.

Oh, my god.

There’s a split second of silence where they stare at each other – Joan panting hard with her hand extended, Rebecca clutching at her face with a shocked expression – and then all hell breaks loose. 

Rebecca lunges; Joan shrieks out loud as she’s knocked backwards and down into the concrete. They roll around on the dirty stone, punching, kicking, shoving, and scratching at each other: 

“Ouch! Horrid—bitch—" 

“God damn it, you crazy—”

“Jesus!” shouts a man; someone yanks Joan up by the back of her jacket and sets her on her feet, holding her by the shoulders. “What the hell are you two doing? Kids can see you!”

“I don’t care!” Rebecca swipes a trickle of blood from one cheek with a sparkling hand as she’s hauled unceremoniously to her feet.

Joan’s spitting mad, kicking and struggling against the thick arms holding her back. “They’re about to see you get your ass kicked—”

“HEY! This is over. My office, right now!”

Joan glances backwards and sees that the man holding her is Mr. Rizzo, the vice principal. She makes a disgusted face as he releases her arms, then takes her by the elbow and leads her toward the lobby. Across the foyer, Rebecca’s being chaperoned by one of the other coaches; some weedy-looking young guy Joan doesn’t recognize.

“Oh, come on!” she huffs, as the school nurse meets them at the front desk with a raised eyebrow and a shit-eating smirk. “This is bullshit!”

 

**

 

“Ughhhh, why did Ella have to get in a fight?” Kristen groans as they pull into the parking lot. “I’m missing the rest of my game. I gotta get back to the game, Lane.”

“Yes, I know,” Lane runs a hand through the back of his hair, and shuts off the ignition. “Come on. The faster we get Ella, the faster we can go back.” 

Kristen still trails a few steps behind as Lane rushes toward the double doors. “Is this because Todd Baird called her a lardass the other day?”

“He what?” Lane echoes, outraged, and skids to a stop.

“Oh, yeah. And some girls spread a rumor that we were dykes. Mainly me. But it’s cool. They didn’t try to fight us or anything.”

Lane swears under his breath, and starts walking again, picking up speed this time. If Ella was defending herself from some awful classmate, he’ll throw a bloody parade, consequences be damned. But if she was stupid enough to start a fight without cause, then by god, she’s in trouble. He will not condone violence for no reason.

By the time he sails into the main office and past the secretary’s desk, he’s built up quite a head of steam, and bursts into the principal’s office without fanfare. 

“Nigella Elizabeth Pryce, there had better be an—oh my god. You’ve got to be kidding!”

Kristen’s right on his heels. “Hey, who’s this? Hi, Coach Rizzo. You know this isn’t your office.” Pause. She finally takes a breath. “Whoa. Mom?!

“Hey, Kristen,” the administrator says flatly. Clearly, they’ve met. “Wait outside for a minute while I talk to your mom and Ella’s parents. You know where the chairs are.”

Joan adjusts the cold pack that’s currently pressed against her bruised cheek. “Sweetie, we’ll be done soon.”

Lane’s barely paying attention to Kristen anymore. He can barely sputter out two words as he stares at Joan and his ex-wife. “Why are you two—why the hell would you be—?”

Behind him, Kristen is openly cackling. “Mom, you have a black eye. Did you fight each other? That’s badass.”

Kristen Ann.

Mr. Rizzo raises his voice so it’s audible in the main office. “Dawn, do you mind—?”

A pretty young secretary pops into the doorway, and beckons Kristen out of the room.

“Well, I see your daughter’s about as mannerly as you are,” Rebecca snipes under her breath; Joan practically growls in response.

Lane loses his temper at last. “Someone tell me what the bloody hell is going on here!”

“Yeah,” sighs the vice principal. “Sure thing. Close the door.”

 

**

 

Ella’s mom has a really fancy voice, like someone on a nature documentary.

“Well, I assure you I don’t know what Mrs. Harris is talking about. I really haven’t done anything.”

Mom just sounds pissed. “Bullshit, you haven’t!”

“Ladies. Come on. Let’s just—”

Kristen tries to listen in at the door for as long as possible once Miss Dawn goes home, but she can’t hear much because the door’s so thick. It’s just Mr. Rizzo doing his usual thing, Mom and Ella’s mom trying to tell them what happened (what did happen??), and Lane finally losing it and yelling at everyone. 

“I cannot believe the two of you did something so monumentally stupid! You’re not two bloody teenagers at the lockers—we’re in our forties, for god’s sakes—have you no concept of how serious this is—”

Yikes. He’s really scary when he yells, and it doesn’t sound like he’ll stop anytime soon, so Kristen decides to go out and get a drink of water from the fountain. She’s not in trouble, so it’s probably fine to leave the office.

When she gets to the bathrooms, someone’s in there crying; there’s lots of sniffs and snorts echoing off the walls. Ooh. Maybe it really is haunted. A fifth grader told her that once.

Kristen tiptoes inside until she can peer around the corner and see the sinks and stalls, crossing her fingers before she speaks and squinting her eyes closed so she can’t see into the mirrors. “Hello? Are you Bloody Mary?”

“Go away!”

Oh, phew. Kristen’s just glad it’s not a ghost. 

“Are you peeing in here?” Kristen peeks into the first two stalls. Nobody’s there. “Ella, where are you?”

“You’re not supposed to look under the doors!” 

There’s sparkly sneakers on the floor of the big stall, so Kristen just marches over and crawls under the green plastic door. Inside, Ella sits in the middle of the left wall, her back to the divider, clutching her legs to her chest and resting her chin in the space between her knees. She’s breathing hard, her eyes are all red and gross, and her face is really wet.

Kristen crawls up and gives her a hug, then plops down next to her. “Why are you crying? You didn’t do anything.”

Ella makes a whining noise. “Did they tell you what happened?”

“No, but I saw Mom got a black eye. And Lane’s really pissed. He was yelling.”

Ella screws up her face again. Her voice gets really thick. “Oh.”

“Not about you,” Kristen says quickly. “At them. For fighting, I guess.”

“I don’t know why Mummy even came here.” Ella swipes at her nose with one hand; her fingers come away all shiny and boogery and gross. “Joan was supposed to pick me up, and then I’d see Mummy next Saturday like normal. But she came to my classroom right after the bell rang. And she kept saying the schedule wasn’t right, and I had to go to dinner with her, but I didn’t want to. Those dinners are so boring.”

“Oh, obviously.”

“And I thought if I just got my things together really really slowly, that Daddy would call and tell her she was wrong, or Joan would come and find me, but—” Ella’s voice wobbles “—Mummy got really mad at me for making her late.”

Hm. Kristen hopes it’s not as bad as the thing that made them get divorced. “Did she slap you?”

“No.” Ella shakes her head. “Just pinched my face. But it was really awful.”

Kristen makes a growling sound. “What a bitch.”

“Yeah.”

“And she was really mean to your mum. Like, really mean.”

“What’d she say?”

Ella frowns, and motions her closer. “Mummy called her a whore. And a bitch. And a slut.” She pulls back, and uses her normal voice. “I think she’s mad because Daddy likes Joan, and he doesn’t like her anymore.”

“Whoa. That’s crazy!” 

Ella shushes her. “You can’t tell him she said that. He’d get really upset.”

“Yeah, seriously.” Kristen’s about to ask Ella what the word whore actually means – is that the same thing as having sleepovers? But before she can ask the question, Ella clears her throat. 

“Do—do you think Joan hates me?”

“No.” Kristen actually laughs. The snort echoes off the walls. “Why would she?”

“She hit Mummy for saying mean things.” Ella’s face gets very serious. “But I’ve called her mean names before, too. The—same ones.”

“Oh.” Kristen’s face falls.

Ella’s voice gets faster. “It was a long time ago, I promise. And your mum didn’t hit me. She didn’t even tell Daddy.” Ella bites her lip. “Just said that I couldn’t be angry at her for being Daddy’s friend, and that I hurt her feelings. And—and then we talked about some other stuff for awhile.”

“Welllllll, that sounds okay,” Kristen tips her head from side to side as she thinks about this. “You know when Mom’s mad, she just whispers at you really quietly. Or she yells and slams things.”

“I hope she doesn’t hate me.” Ella whispers. Her eyes get all watery again. “At first I said I didn’t want Joan to be my mummy, but I actually really like her. And I don’t want you to go away.”

Kristen puts her arms around her. “Well, we won’t. So it’ll be fine.”

They sit like this for a couple of minutes, before an adult finds them.

“Girls?” It's Mom’s voice—really close. Uh-oh. 

“Ella. Kristen. Your dad and I need you both to come out now.”

Ella quickly scrubs at her face with her sleeve.

“Just a second!” Kristen calls out, and scrambles to her feet. Ella gives her a pleading look, but finally lets Kristen pull her up with one hand. They unlock the door and shuffle out into the rest of the bathroom.

Mom’s leaning against the wall by the sinks, and stands up when they come over.

“Hi, sweetie.” Mom hugs her; Kristen feels better because she sounds normal, even if she’s all bruised. “Go get your stuff out of Lane’s car. Then you and Ella can go play on the playground.”

“Kay.” 

Mom lets out a big deep breath as Kristen walks away. “Ella? How are you feeling?”

When Kristen turns the corner, she sees Ella’s mom and Lane standing at two different ends of the row of lockers. Ella’s mom is on her phone, texting and frowning with two butterfly bandaids crinkling up on the edge of her forehead, and Lane is just staring into space. He looks tired. His eyes are all droopy at the corners. 

She walks up to him anyway. “Hey. Mom says I have to get my stuff out of your car." 

“Oh.” He rubs a hand across his face. “Right. Well, erm, take the keys. But don’t lock them in. Put them back in the ignition when you’re done.”

“Are you okay?” Kristen asks, but he just pats her on the head before dropping the keychain into her hand. Wow, it’s heavy.

“Just fine, dear. I’ll see you in a bit.”

 

**

 

On the morning of Kristen’s regional playoff game – a Saturday, thank god – the four of them drive over to the ballpark in silence.

Joan takes Lane’s hand across the console when they’re about halfway there, and although they’ve been having a rough time over the past couple of weeks, Lane doesn’t deny her this much, just keeps driving.

Ever since the screaming row they had in Joan’s car, the day everything happened – which started out about the fistfight and ended with Joan weeping that she didn’t want him to marry her out of pity – things have been bad.

They’ve mostly just concentrated on the girls, and talked in pieces about the rest. Lane’s worried that once they finally have the conversation, and really dig into what happened, it’s all going to be over. And he’ll have to figure out how to do without half his family.

In the backseat, Kristen’s very quiet, with her earbuds in—getting herself focused, Lane assumes. By the time they arrive and she goes to warm up with the team, he can’t help crossing his fingers for her. Her team got the last win by the skin of their teeth. Hopefully today’s game won’t be such a nail-biter.

 

**

 

“Damn it,” Joan hisses under her breath, as Kristen throws another ball; this one bounces around behind the catcher for a couple of seconds before he finally picks it up. Second one in a row – and they’re bottom of the sixth, with only one strike to go. She gives Lane a worried look, but just raises her voice, and claps her hands a couple of times. “Okay, sweetie, you’ll get the next one. Just relax! You look good!”

“All right, Kristen!” Lane calls.

“Get him now!” Ella’s shaking the fence with both hands so it rattles and creaks. “Strikeout, strikeout, strikeout! You can do it!”

Staring down at the ground, Kristen toes her cleats into the pitcher’s mound for a moment, plants her feet shoulder width apart, and then, in one quick motion, rocks her weight forward onto her right foot, then back onto her left foot as she brings both hands up. As she slaps her empty glove down onto her planted right leg, her right hand sails backward for the windup, and by the time she steps forward into the familiar L shape, winds her arm all the way round and releases the ball, Lane’s sure this pitch is straight on target. It looks good from this angle.

Until the batter—some giant lanky boy who looks thirteen, not eight or nine—swings low into the strike zone. The bat shouldn’t make contact—it shouldn’t even be a decent hit at all—but somehow, this weird, desperate swing sends Kristen’s pitch cracking out of the infield, right between the second baseman and the shortstop.

“Oh, fuck!” Joan presses her forehead into the back of her palms—drawing shocked looks from a couple of nearby teenagers—but nobody else hears her over the sound of two baseline coaches shouting and the wild cheers of the other team.

“Brian, all the way! All the way, baby!”

In the outfield, one of the boys fumbles the easy grounder, and has to jog a couple of feet after the ball before he can even throw it toward the infielders. 

Lane watches in wordless despair as the opposing third base runner taps home plate, then the second base runner, and then the boy who’d been on first base—and coming in behind all of them is enormous clumsy Brian, who runs like a demented turkey, but is somehow leading his team to victory anyway.

The ball finally makes it back to second base, but it’s too late—Brian’s already tapped home plate, and nearly twenty little boys and girls in red jerseys and dark helmets are pouring out of the far dugout, cheering and pumping fists in the air and hugging each other as if they’ve just won the bloody World Series.

Game’s over. So’s the season.

On the pitcher’s mound, standing as still as if her feet are cemented to the ground, Kristen stands open-mouthed—clearly horrified. Without warning, she slings her helmet into the dirt before awkwardly yanking it back up and putting it back on. 

Some of her teammates are already stumbling past her, dazed and disappointed, as each team forms a line and goes through for the requisite high fives. Good game. Good game. Good game.

A couple of the younger boys are crying. And although Kristen gets through most of the group without incident, pale and stony-faced with her mouth set in a thin line, by the time she gets to the end, and has to slap enormous Brian’s hand, and then the hands of all the opposing coaches, she’s visibly close to tears.

Lane looks away for a second—just long enough to locate where the post-game snacks are set up—but when he looks back toward the field, Kristen has peeled off away from the rest of the team, snatched a bat from the warm-up area, and is sprinting away from the diamond as fast as she can, toward the outfield and the expansive park that stretches out behind it.

“Oh, god,” he says loudly. Nobody else seems to have seen anything.

“What?” Joan asks, and just as he’s about to yell out an explanation and rush after them, Ella’s darting through the crowd of people at the bottom of the bleachers. 

“Move, you stupid boys!”

She pushes past everyone until she’s at the mouth of the field, and sprints past all the children in uniforms, kicking up red dust with every panicked stride. Her long sandy hair streams behind her as she sprints after Kristen.

“Don’t! Kristen, stop!” 

Joan’s already pulling off her sandals, clearly ready to follow them anywhere, but Lane holds up a hand.

“It's fine, I’ll go. I’ve got it. You stay right there.”

With a huff of breath, he jogs off after them as fast as he can go. It takes him far too long to get to the other end of the little park. By the time he’s gone almost half a mile—it takes several minutes—he’s very out of breath, and has to slow to a walk.

Thankfully, in a nearby clearing just off the main path, Lane hears two familiar voices arguing loudly, and blesses every deity in existence for keeping them safe.

Once he gets closer, he realizes interrupting them probably isn’t a good idea, and pauses behind a large-ish tree so he can see what’s going on first.

Hidden away from most of the onlookers, Kristen is full-on hysterical; snot’s running down her mouth and chin and tears are streaming from her brimming eyes as she screams.

“—but you don’t go to the majors if you lose!”

A few feet away, Ella stands with both hands held out in front of her, clearly pleading for patience.

“But it’s just one game! You’ve got all next season to get better, and that’s when it’s really going to matter. Nobody’s coming to see you play until at least high school—”

“How would you know?”

“Well—that’s what Daddy and Mum said—”

“She’s not your mom!” screams Kristen. “You told her you didn’t want her to be your mom!”

I know what I said! But she’s going to be my stepmum, and that’s better!” Ella glances right, and gasps. Dimly, Lane follows her gaze, and notices that Kristen’s helmet is turned on its side; it looks rather worse for wear. “Oh, god, what did you do to your helmet? It’s all cracked on top.”

“So the dent wouldn’t be so obvious!”

“Well, now you’ve ruined it, Kristen—and it cost forty dollars!” Ella yanks up the helmet from the grass, scratches at a place on the crown with two fingers, and then tosses the whole thing aside with a growl. “What’re you going to do next year when you need another one? Do you think helmets grow on trees? Because they don’t!”

Kristen’s sobbing like she’s been socked in the gut. “I don’t need it!”

“What?!”

“I—I’m not gonna—”

“No! Don’t you dare tell me you’re quitting, because I’ll never ever speak to you again if you are! You’re a Pryce, and Pryces don’t cry and give up!” Ella puts her hands on her hips, as if to seem tough, but her voice cracks over the next word. “So you can’t either!”

Kristen’s face crumples as sobs overtake her. “Ella—”

“I’m sorry,” Ella whispers in a steady voice. For the first time, Lane can see how strong she’s become—how brave and determined she already is. “I didn’t mean to yell so much. I’m just upset. Come here.”

Kristen staggers into Ella’s arms, completely overcome; Ella immediately drops the act and clutches her very tightly.

“You’re my sister, and I love you. I’m sorry.”

Deciding to let them have a minute alone, Lane turns away from the girls, swipes at his eyes with one hand, and heads back for the baseball diamond.

 

**

  

When Lane gets back to the bleachers, he can tell he looks like he’s been crying based on Joan's horrified expression when she sees his face, but waves a hand at her so she doesn't panic and get the wrong impression. 

Joan immediately reaches out and takes his hand as he sits down next to her. A few hundred yards behind them, sounds from the team after party drift across the field—kids are giggling as they eat cake and swig tiny half-bottles of Gatorade, while parents and coaches are chatting excitedly about next season.

“Girls are fine; just having a moment.” Lane squeezes her hand. “Think it’ll be all right later, but everyone’s—” he gestures to his eyes. “Well. Kristen’s still very upset. Ella's comforting her.”

Wordlessly, Joan leans into his shoulder; he drops a kiss into her hair.

They sit in silence for a minute before he finally speaks, voice low and unsteady.

“You know that I don’t want to lose you. Either of you.”

Joan stiffens next to him, and makes a low, sorrowful sound.

“And if—there’s something simple I can do, or say, to help make things better between us, then I will. I’d like to do that much. This—I’m not going to throw out what we’ve got over something stupid.”

She’s still very tense, and her hand is shaking, now. “Fighting about marriage isn’t stupid.”

“No, it isn’t.” Lane lets out a deep breath, and taps the back of their clasped hands with his free palm. “Erm. You can tell me if this is—if I’m too far from the mark here—but—when we talked about it before. We discussed the children, obviously, but were you particularly worried about how Ella might react?”

“Yes,” says Joan, soft. The pad of her thumb brushes back and forth over the side of his index finger.

“Right.” Lane nods, once, and sets his jaw. “Because she said she didn’t want you to be her mother?”

All of the tension leaves Joan’s body at once; she slumps forward into his shoulder with a loud huff of breath. “Shit.” 

“Don’t worry,” Lane pats her knee, now. “She doesn’t know I heard that.”

“Oh, god. Honey, I’m sorry; I just had zero clue how to tell you.” Joan lets out an uneven breath. “I mean, Ella’s your baby. She’s so sensitive. How the hell could I put you in that position—make you choose between us? That’s not fair. She’s the priority.”

“Well, it’s not particularly fair to leave me in the dark, either,” Lane points out mildly. “But it doesn’t mean I can’t put my foot down when something—or someone—is important to me.”

Joan is even smiling a little, now, although she’s trembling like a leaf. 

“You and Kristen are part of our family,” Lane presses his forehead into Joan’s temple, and savors the calm feeling that swirls up in his chest. “And Ella’s told me that she’s excited to have a new stepmum, when the time’s right.”

Joan pulls back to look at him. Her smile’s gotten bright with relief. “Really?”

“Promise.” Lane winks at her. “Cross my heart.”

In the distance, a constant scraping sound is audible on the other side of the infield. He and Joan glance over and see two little girls walking hand in hand past third base; Ella carrying Kristen’s helmet in her free hand and Kristen dragging the metal bat behind them with her right. The tip of the bat scores a thick line in the dirt.

“I love you,” Joan murmurs, as they watch the girls amble towards home plate.

Lane turns back to her. “Love you too. So much.”

They kiss very briefly, a couple of times, and when they pull apart, the girls are finally within hearing distance.

“Ugh, stop snogging each other,” Ella groans. “Gross.”

“Daddy’s just trying to make me feel better,” Joan gives the girls a rueful smile as they walk up. “So. Do you want to go get a burger, or do you just want to go home?”

Kristen’s still sniffling a bit, but at the word burger, a tinge of light comes into her bloodshot eyes. “Um. I’m kinda hungry now.”

“Thank god.” Ella lets out a relieved breath. “Me too. I can’t wait thirty whole minutes.”

“Right.” Lane stands up, stretches, and helps Joan to her feet. “Well, come on, then, milkshakes for everybody. Think I saw a good place just down the road.”

“But we didn’t even win,” Kristen says flatly, as she hoists her duffel bag onto her shoulder.

“All the more reason we need milkshakes,” Lane tells her, and rubs her back a little before taking the duffel from her. “Here. I’ll get this for now. Ella, have you still got her helmet?”

“Got it.” Almost automatically, Ella reaches for Joan’s hand. Joan takes it without a word, but turns to pull a surprised face at Lane as they lead the way to the car. 

“I want mint chocolate chip,” Kristen sighs as she leans into Lane’s hip and winds her arm around his middle. “Or something with cookie dough.” 

“Both good choices.” Lane tells her warmly. “Think it’s pistachio for me again.”

“Bleh.” Kristen’s voice is too quiet by half, but she still sticks her tongue out in clear disgust, so that’s something.

They walk the rest of the way to the car in silence. In the distance, somewhere in the center of the celebrating team, some decades-old Springsteen song blares from a speaker that sits on one of the splintery red picnic tables. Lane hums a few bars to himself, a little off-pitch, as he puts Kristen’s duffel in the boot.

Well. Hopefully next season will be better.

“Daddy, let’s go!”

Oops. Lane closes the trunk, strides toward the driver’s side, and quickly climbs into the seat before shutting the door and buckling up.

“All right. Milkshakes, here we come.”

He turns over the ignition, puts the car into reverse, and reaches for Joan’s hand.