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better than a harmony

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When Beth was a kid, she thought the hardest thing she’d ever have to do was leave Annie.  The image of her mother, who ignored her at best and was cruel at worst, who sometimes didn’t leave her bed for days, who seemed only to pay attention to Annie to compare her to Beth--and it was a long time ago that Beth started to notice that and feel the guilt in her belly and taste it on her tongue--left alone with just Annie, totally in charge of her…  As it turned out, it was a moot point. By the time she and Dean got married, Annie practically lived with them. There had been, for a moment, a naive thought that maybe if Beth were out of the way, Annie could shine at home, but that was quashed before the honeymoon was over.

When Beth was pregnant with Kenny, she thought the hardest thing she’d ever have to do was give birth.  And it had been hard.  But, as it turns out, it was the weeks later, when something weighed her down into the mattress and every step she took felt like she was walking through Jell-O and she looked at Kenny and felt nothing but despair, that were the hardest.  Dean had been better in those days, though, and the depression had passed, and she thought, Maybe this is just what motherhood is .   That thought was bolstered by the fact that it happened again and it got worse--it got worse with Emma and Danny and, by then, Dean just… he just didn’t see and she was so bogged down in shame for hating herself and feeling nothing else, completely numb at best, that she didn’t say anything.  It got worse until she got pregnant with Jane--and it had been the first time she’d ever had a panic attack. She’d been at Annie’s, and, mirroring a very similar but very different situation so many years before, Annie held her through it.

She never told Dean she got her tubes tied when they’d had to deliver Jane via C-section.  She never knew why, never really thought about it, just couldn’t go through this again.  And the depression after peaked until finally, finally someone saw her.  It had been Ruby who held her hand in the waiting room at that first appointment while Auntie Annie watched the kids.  And then the hardest part wasn’t the disease, it was the cure.

Dean didn’t see it, not until she explained it to him, and even then she didn’t think--still doesn’t think--that he really got it.

As time went on, the hardest thing she’d ever have to do got bigger and bigger.  After Amber, she thought the hardest thing would be to forgive him. After finding out what he’d done to their finances, she thought it’d be not killing him.  After finding out about all the other women-- how had it been? she’d demanded, face hot with fury, was it good?  Was it hot? Was it worth destroying a 20 year marriage?  I just want to know-- she thought it’d be telling the kids that she and their dad were getting a divorce.   That , at least, had been surprisingly easy, although she’d thought woefully about what she’d done as a mother if her kids only thought about presents when their parents were splitting up.

There had been so much in those few months--trying to work with him, trying to salvage the dealership until she ultimately had to find the steel her spine had been missing and send him home because they can’t both steer the ship , because she was good at this, better than him and better than his top salesperson, and it had felt good to be good at something for once.  He’d fought to keep her, but he never knew how to do it without somehow degrading her until she’d realized, finally, that she didn’t want this.

She’d kept the house, and, after a few weeks’ adjustment, she found it was surprisingly easy to get on without him.  Easier, even.

--

“I worry about him,” Beth sighs, wallet out as she and Ruby wait in line for ice cream, watching Kenny ignore Danny.  “Like, I can’t even trust him to get ice cream--he’ll just eat it .  In front of his siblings.”

“Well, he’s at that age,” Ruby responds, her own eyes on Sara and full of worry.  It’s a good day, but they both know how quickly a good day can turn, and Beth nudges her shoulder into Ruby’s sympathetically, pressing just a moment longer, I’m here, we got this, she’ll be fine .

“It’s too bad we can’t afford military school or something,” she jokes half-heartedly, ordering and paying in spite of Ruby’s protests, which she waves off with, “You got coffee on Sunday, remember?”

What happens next is totally her fault--Ruby's grabbed the popsicles, leaving Beth to take the cones, and it's not like she's never carried four ice cream cones before, but she realizes she's forgotten napkins.  Without thinking, she whips around and--runs smack into the person who was, apparently, next in line. She watches with dismay as one of the cones falls in slow motion, smearing chocolate ice cream down the front of a black shirt and then black jeans and finally landing on the toe of a black sneaker, and for a moment she's completely frozen.

She snaps out of it before the guy can say anything, reaching across him for a handful of napkins and mumbling, “Shit , I am so sorry, I--”

“Nah, it's cool, don't worry about it,” she hears above her even as long fingers close around hers, stopping her where she’s already started dabbing at the fabric.  She jerks back with a nervous laugh, eyes skipping over a weirdly detailed neck tattoo to dark eyes that look more amused than angry and leaving the napkins under his hand, and it’s only a momentary thing but it leaves her feeling hot and embarrassed.  Luckily, he turns away from her to look at the guy in the truck and asks, “Hey, can I get a chocolate cone?”

“You know, I've probably got a Tide pen in my…” she trails off, rummaging clumsily in her purse.

There’s a sharp snicker before, “See, we get ice cream on our way out, so it’s all good.”  She looks up in time to watch him shuffle his fingers through a little boy’s hair.

“Sugary treats before you leave the park?” she hears herself scoff, “Rookie move, you’re supposed to load them up then let ‘em run around.”

“That right?” he asks, smirking.

She opens her mouth to shove her foot in there-- Maybe your kid's better behaved than mine, which is probably more likely --but she's saved by a gruff, “Buddy, that's gonna be $9.”

“Wait,” she says, doing the math with dismay as the guy she literally just dropped food on pays for a new ice cream cone for her, “You really don't have to--”

“It's cool,” he interrupts, shoving it into her hand until she doesn't have a choice but to take it before handing some monstrosity that's supposed to be Spider-Man to his kid.  “See you around,” he grins in a way that doesn't totally set her at ease.

A moment later, she hears behind her, “Honey, you cannot be serious.”

“Huh?” she asks, distracted, looking back at Ruby who is giving her that wide-eyed I cannot believe you right now look which… she usually reserves for Annie, come to think of it.   “What?”

“I know it’s been a while, but seriously?” she demands as they walk back to the kids.  Once the cones have been divvied and Beth’s wiped melted ice cream off her hands with a wet wipe, she continues, “Like, I’m president of the Beth Needs To Get Some ,” she conspicuously lowers her voice here that somehow just embarrasses her more, “Club, but flirting with a guy with a neck tattoo?”

Eyes widening, Beth shoots her a look that she hopes fully conveys her unspoken, That’s so wrong I’m not even gonna dignify it with a response .  When her eyebrows just raise, she rolls her eyes and says, “I wasn’t flirting.”

“Would you even know flirting if it bit you in the face?” she counters.  “Or bought you a new ice cream?”

She doesn’t really have a response prepared for that, but Jane rescues her by bounding up to them with chocolate smeared across her face.  It’s been like a minute, maximum, and she still wonders how they do this so quickly. She thinks, Was I flirting with him? and she thinks, So what if I was, it doesn’t matter, I’m divorced, I’m entitled, and she thinks, Oh my God, what if he thought I was flirting?  She thinks, probably, if Ruby hadn’t brought it up, she never would have thought about it again--but now that it’s been brought up…

It takes a few days for the mortification to pass, but it does, eventually, pass.  She’s not sure why she’s mortified, really, and tries to convince herself she’s not , but it couldn’t be helped, and it probably didn’t help that Ruby told Annie and Annie had been merciless, which, in retrospect, is probably fair given how judgemental Beth has been in the past about her choices.  At a certain point, though, she quits dwelling on it--she’s spent too much time dwelling on a simple interaction with a complete stranger she’s sure she’ll never see again--mostly because she’s got more on her plate to distract her than not.  Before she knows it, she’s forgotten it even happened.

Well, until she sees him again.

The thing is that she almost doesn’t see him, but apparently that grin is burned into her retinas or something because as she scans the park from the relative comfort of her bench, she sees a guy and a kid playing soccer not too far off--the kid kicks the ball hard and it goes soaring past the guy, the guy turns with laughter across his face.  Of course, he turns towards her because that’s where the ball is hurtling, and Beth only has half a moment to consider that before she’s either gotta catch it or let it smack her in the face.  She does manage to catch it, but her hands sting with the impact and she’s still wincing when the guy jogs up.

“This is revenge for the ice cream, isn’t it?” she asks wryly, tossing the ball to him.

“Yeah, part of a master plan I started weeks ago,” he smirks back, twisting to lob the ball underhanded at the kid.  “Revenge is quality bonding.”

“Of course,” she laughs, “It is the #1 suggestion on all the mommy boards.”

The effect is immediate and weirdly gratifying--he tosses his head back and his shoulders shake and his laughter is bigger and fuller than she’d expect from, well…  Her face heats when she finds herself leaning forward and watching the bob of his Adam’s apple underneath his tattoo. When their eyes meet again, her heart is hammering so hard she wonders how he can’t hear it, and she mirrors him when his tongue swipes across his lower lip.  It’s not like Beth’s never been looked at before--people look at her all the time, and she’s not naive , she knows what she looks like.  But that’s not what’s happening here--she watches his eyes, they stray to her lips and her neck but they keep coming back up to her own, boring into her and leaving her feeling like she’s told a secret she doesn’t even know she has.

It shouldn’t make sense--and it should be too intense, he’s a stranger , but she doesn’t hate it.

“You got a name?” he asks after what feels like minutes but could really only be a few seconds.

“No,” she says, rolling her eyes but smiling as she stands and offers a hand.  “Beth.”

“Rio,” he responds, taking her hand.  His grip is warm and dry and not firm enough to be painful, but he holds it for a few beats longer than is probably necessary.  “What’s it short for?”

“Huh?”   Smooth.

“Beth, what’s it short for?”

As she pulls her hand from his grasp, she answers with an awkward, halting laugh, “Elizabeth, but no one’s called me that in…”   Ever , she thinks.   Years, decades.

His smile is lopsided and lazy, and she doesn’t have more than a moment to consider what he might be thinking before there’s a long, “Dad!” behind him.

“Guess that’s your cue,” she says, eyes sliding past him and to the kid even as the guy-- Rio --looks back.

“Guess so,” he replies, walking backwards.  “See you around, Elizabeth.”

It’s not until the fourth time-- not that she’s keeping track (not on purpose , anyway, she’s an organized person!) that she says, “You know, ‘See you around,’ does not come off as friendly as I think you mean it.”

He just smirks.