It was nice, being held in Tobin’s arms.
Christen felt safe, being held in Tobin’s arms.
She could have fallen asleep, being held in Tobin’s arms.
But then there were frantic knocks at the door, and Mal’s voice was calling her name. Christen pulled herself from her state of semi-unconsciousness so fast it took her a few seconds to figure out that Mal wasn’t actually in any danger. Instead, her voice was laced with laughter as she told her to open the door, quick.
“Kelley’s on a warpath but she can’t kill me with witnesses around so we gotta go to the dining room!” Mal’s cheeks were flushed, clearly having run to her room from wherever Kelley was, eyes alight with entertainment. “You told them about the rings! This is so exciting.”
Mal finished talking, and looked past Christen to see Tobin still sitting on the bed. Her eyes flicked back to Christen, one eyebrow quirked.
“I’m good, now. Really good.” Christen said in a quiet voice, answering Mal’s silent question given what Mal had seen of her at the end of the Costa Rica game. She wore a blushing smile that Mal noticed, the younger girl beaming at her in response.
“Come on, Tobin! I’m not getting maimed on account of you being slow.”
Christen laughed at Mal’s statement and turned back to where Tobin was. Her heart almost burst out of her chest as she took in how soft Tobin looked from where she sat, clearly having been in the same position as Christen before of almost falling asleep.
She held her arm to her, clasping her hand open and shut a few times as encouragement for Tobin to get out of bed. Tobin’s hand squeezed hers when she reached it, holding her hand to the elevator and all the way down to the dining room floor. The only reason they pulled apart was because Mal slotted herself in between them, pressing into both of their sides.
“Kelley can’t get me if I have protection.”
Tobin just laughed, shaking her head and wrapping an arm around Mal’s shoulder as they entered the room.
Evidently, word travelled fast in this team. The first ones racing over to them were Sonnett, Lindsey and Rose. Sonnett showed none of the restraint she did a couple of days ago when Christen and Tobin returned from their date – the absence of Becky to keep Sonnett in line was definitely noticeable – and all three of Mal’s best friends were basically falling over each other to look at their rings.
Christen and Tobin blushed, obliging the young women whilst listening to them speak excitedly.
“I can’t believe it, this is so romantic.”
“Kelley was right!”
“Mal how did you keep this a secret?”
“Yeah, Mal, how did you keep this a secret?” Kelley’s voice entered the mix from behind, grabbing Mal under her arms and hauling her away from Tobin and Christen while they were distracted by the women looking at their rings.
Mal shrieked in surprise, laughing hysterically as Kelley held her while Alex tickled her sides, both of them playfully berating the young player on why they weren’t good enough friends for her to have told them.
“Chris! Tobin! Help!” Mal pitifully tried to call out, laughing hysterically as the onslaught continued and Kelley shook her head with a grin.
“Oh no, you’re on your own you little traitor.”
Luckily for Mal, Tobin was well practiced in this treatment from Kelley and Alex, and she stepped over to her. “Don’t worry, Mal, you just have to know Kelley’s weak spots.” Tobin zapped Kelley’s sides, making the woman practically drop Mal in her reaction as she laughed at Tobin, calling her an asshole.
“You want some of me too, Morgan?” Tobin grinned at Alex as Mal managed to scramble away, running back to Christen’s side and hiding behind her as she panted and laughed.
“No, I’m good.” Alex’s hands were up, a similar grin on her face, knowing how rough and ready her and Tobin could get. “You are an asshole, though. Can’t believe we’ve been asking all these years and you never told us.”
Alex moved closer to Tobin, picking up her hand and examining the ring again, the same one she’d seen on her friend for 12 years. “I’m happy for you, Tobs. You look it, too.” She squeezed Tobin’s hand, speaking softly to her. “This is something special. Don’t let it go.”
“I won’t.” Tobin smiled gratefully at Alex, squeezing her hand as well as she turned back to where the rest of their team was coming over to them, teasing comments and romantic sighs filling the room not just for the next while, but for the entire dinner period.
Christen and Tobin blushed the whole time, their ears turning redder and redder with every mention of a ring. This only spurred the team on more, all of them loving seeing how happy the two women were, and how wholesome their budding romance was. Anyone could notice the sparks between the two, and they wanted to help it grow in any way they could.
Christen went to sleep that night feeling happier than ever before, her lips still tingling from the soft kiss that Tobin had pressed to them as she dropped her to her room after dinner, a soft ‘see you in the morning’ that made her insides scramble in the best way imaginable.
The next few days were truly no rest for the wicked, the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament being brutal in the short amount of time it gave players between the games.
Christen’s life was a mix of hanging out with the team, helping Mal with her homework, doing yoga, hanging out with Tobin, stealing sweet kisses from Tobin, getting lost in Tobin’s eyes…the list could go on.
They beat Mexico 1-0 in their next game, Tobin playing the whole match and Mal subbing in in the 75th minute. Tobin had pouted the whole evening after the game, Christen suspected for her amusement alone, as she was ordered to take two ice baths – one extra because she didn’t stay in the first time long enough and Dawn suffered no fools or short cuts.
She came to dinner shivering, wrapped in a hoodie. The only contented smile on her face appeared when Christen curled her hand around her lower arm under the table, stroking softly over the skin there as they ate.
(Christen is still amazed she was able to touch Tobin’s soft olive skin for so long and not choke on her own food. She definitely didn’t take in any of the conversation that was happening with the players around her, that’s for sure).
Three days later and they were playing Puerto Rico, their last group match before they moved on to the semi-finals. Mal squealed and Christen’s heart leapt in excitement when they heard Mal would be starting, her first national team start. Kelley, ever on brand, just walked up to Tobin with a grin, saying she better give her an assist she can score on and then she’ll consider forgiving Tobin for omitting the information about the rings all these years.
“Good luck, baby. But you don’t need it. You’ve got it in here, and you’re going to be amazing.” Christen smiled proudly at Mal as they stood outside the bus, before her little sister threw her arms around her, practically buzzing in excitement.
“See you after the game, Chris.”
“I’ll be there. You’ll hear me. I love you.”
“Love you forever.”
Christen knew Tobin was standing just to the side of her, waiting for her turn to say goodbye. But even if she didn’t, she would have soon figured it out, because the entire right side of the bus started making kissy faces through the window. Christen was pretty sure she even saw Sonnett press her lips straight against the window, before Lindsey smacked her across the head and yelled at her, probably something about basic hygiene.
“That smile of yours makes me melt.” Tobin pulled her attention away from the bus, and the sweet statement made Christen weak in the knees. She took Tobin’s hand, feeling the other woman immediately move her fingers to play absently with the ring sitting on her finger.
How was this Christen’s life? How did she get so lucky?
She smiled that same dumb smile at Tobin, completely lost in her eyes, only barely remembering to care that she was supposed to reply. Tobin just laughed softly, curling a piece of Christen’s hair behind her ear. “You’re too cute.”
“You gotta stop,” Christen blushed, not being able to handle any more of Tobin’s compliments for fear she might combust and cease to function. “You’re the cute one. And hilarious. And talented. And you’re going to kick some ass tonight.”
“Only some?” Tobin grinned, prompting Christen to give her an eye roll. Tobin tapped her cheek with a mischievous expression, and when Christen moved in to kiss her there she turned her face at the last second, pecking her lips instead. “See you after the game.”
Christen isn’t sure how she managed, but she nodded, telling Tobin to be great as she squeezed her hand. Tobin eventually left for the bus, walking into it to the cheers and teasing of her teammates. Christen just laughed, sending Mal their kiss and flipping off Sonnett and Kelley before she went back into the hotel, waiting for her time to go to the game.
Mal’s first start couldn’t have been better. Christen was nearly on her feet the whole first five minutes, knowing it had to be soon that Mal got to make a run down the wing. That time came in the sixth minute, Mal stepping over the ball and around a player as she took off down the left hand side, her teammates running into the box with her.
“Pick your head up, pick your head up.” Christen chanted under her breath, her fingers tangled nervously together as Mal neared the time to cross the ball. Relief and excitement rushed through her when she saw Mal look up before passing, sending a perfect low cross to Crystal who slotted it in the back of the net.
She didn’t have to wait long for the next bout of excitement. In the 18th minute Mal had the ball in the box and cut through two defenders until one of them tripped her and she fell to the ground with a slam. Christen winced, her heart stopping before Mal bounced right up, nodding to Julie who came to check on her as the referee blew her whistle for a penalty. Carli slotted it in the net, 2-0 to the USA.
The first half ended well, and to Christen’s utter amusement, Tobin managed to redeem herself in Kelley’s eyes by sending her a cross that Kelley flicked in between her legs to go straight into the goal. It was such a Tobin-esque goal that Christen knew Kelley would hold it over her head for weeks to come. She saw the two of them cracking up laughing together as they ran back to the half, 3-0 up.
The excitement in the second half only continued. In the 60th minute, Mal made another darting run between defenders in the box, shooting what looked like a cross to Alex before it bounced off a defenders foot, flicking off into the goal. Christen jumped to her feet, cheering out for her sister’s efforts, knowing it would be counted as an own goal but being stoked just the same.
Later, Mal took the ball across the box when a defender poked it away right to Tobin’s feet. Tobin one timed it, sending a screamer into the top left corner that had the whole team jumping on her, and Christen on her feet again.
It was lucky she managed to stay standing at all, because when Tobin was running back to the half way line she turned and pointed up at her, right at her, sending her a beaming smile that made Christen weak in the knees. Her cheeks flushed immediately with heat, a smitten smile etched on her face for not only the few minutes after, but the whole rest of the game.
Tobin had scored, and pointed to her. Tobin had scored, and she’d dedicated it to her. There was a crowd of thousands around her, of tens of thousands more watching at home, and out of everyone and everything going on, Tobin was thinking of her. This time she knew it. Her and Tobin had talked about it. That security and sense of trust they’d established between themselves enveloped Christen’s heart in such a warm embrace it was a miracle she noticed anything else the whole game.
“I’m so proud of you!” Christen spun Mal around in her arms once she’d gotten let onto the field by security, Mal laughing in happiness. She’d had her first start and had assisted one goal and forced an own goal. “You put in so much work tonight.”
“Mallory! Mallory!” The crowd behind them screamed with excitement that Mal was standing so close to them, having gone over there to get Christen. They were holding all kinds of merchandise out, wanting her signature, and Mal looked a bit wide eyed at all the commotion going on, just for her.
Then she looked further along from the crowd, where a bunch of reporters with cameras were waiting, all looking eager to talk to her. She immediately turned back to Christen, mild panic in her eyes.
Christen had seen where she’d looked, and she put her hands on Mal’s shoulders. “You don’t have to go over there. You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to. Ignore the reporters, okay?”
“Mallory!” The crowd continued to shout, and then the cheer got louder.
“Hey, bud. You want to come sign some shirts with me?” Ashlyn had arrived next to the sisters, sensing Mal might be getting overwhelmed.
Mal looked to Christen for guidance, and her sister gave her an encouraging smile. She knew if Mal could forget about the reporters and focus on the fans she’d have a really good time. “Go sign things if you want to, baby. They want to celebrate the game with you.”
Mal slowly but surely got an excited look on her face, glancing over to the crowd and hearing them erupt into cheers for her again. She smiled at Ash, nodding to her, feeling comforted when Ash dropped an arm around her shoulders. “Okay.” She said to Christen. “Will you wait for me at the tunnel?”
With an excited nod and squeeze to the hand, Christen let Mal go, watching her little sister walk towards the huge crowd with Ash, who she gave a grateful smile to. Christen once again marvelled at how big Mal seemed in these moments, even though she was just 17 and could easily get overwhelmed at everything in her path. She took a quick photo on her phone and turned towards the tunnel, only to be met in step by Crystal.
Christen loved Crystal. She was so much fun, had so much energy, and she reminded her so much of the light and brightness that lived in her parents. Crystal wrapped her arm around Christen’s waist, pulling her into a side hug as they walked together.
“You gonna go out there and score 5 goals every match now?” Christen asked with an excited smile as Crystal had just contributed 5 of the USA’s 10 goals that game. Crystal just cracked up in response, sending out a sassy reply before giving Christen a knowing look.
“Girl, I’m more excited about that little dedication Tobin did after her goal. I’ve known her for years, and I’ve never once seen her do anything like that.” Crystal laughed at Christen’s blush. “You and her, oh you make my heart weak!”
“Oh, shut up.” Christen grinned, bumping into Crystal’s side with blushing cheeks.
“And here comes your boo. I’ll let you go.” Crystal slipped away with a wink, just as Tobin reached her side.
It was a shame they were standing in a field still surrounded by hundreds of fans, most of which had cameras out, because Christen wanted nothing more than to throw her arms around Tobin, bury her head in her neck and feel her place a kiss on her head that Tobin had become partial to doing recently.
She settled for being impressed by her own self-restraint as she smiled at Tobin, her eyes shining, hugging her for what she hoped was an appropriate amount of time. “Hi.”
“Some game you had.”
“Yeah?” Tobin’s eyes were bright, her smile easy and so, so beautiful. Christen marvelled at how someone could look so stunning even after playing such an intense game. “Would you say we kicked the adequate amount of ass?”
Laughter fell out of Christen’s mouth, and she swore Tobin’s smile grew bigger at the sight. “Definitely.” She stepped closer to Tobin, pressing against her side. “I liked your goal. And I liked the celebration even more.”
This time it was Tobin’s turn to blush, and she stared at the ground in a shy smile before sending it Christen’s way. “I hope it can be the first of many, for you.”
“I’d like that.”
It was a shame they were standing in a field still surrounded by hundreds of fans, most of which had cameras out. But really, in that moment, all Christen saw was Tobin.
“Semi-finals, baby!” A screeching Kelley O’Hara jumping on Christen’s back knocked her straight out of her reverie, and if Tobin wasn’t standing right there she probably would have fallen on the ground.
“Fuck! Kelley!” Christen’s reaction had those around her laughing, most of all Kelley, who managed to stay on her back despite Christen’s joking attempts to throw her off. “You ass!”
“Can’t a girl be excited we’re one step closer to Olympic Qualification?” Kelley spoke through a grin. “My legs are sore, I must rest. Onwards, my noble – ”
“If you say steed and inadvertently refer to me as a horse I’m dropping you on your ass so fast you won’t even know what happened.”
“ – friend, Christen! I was going to say friend! O ye of little faith.”
“Shut up, Kelley.”
The fifth groan in a row came out of Mal’s mouth and Christen tried not to laugh as she threw a shirt on.
“Strangely enough, groaning at the equations won’t help you solve them.”
“Not another word. You’re leaving me to deal with this hell on my own.” Mal muttered as she sat at the desk in Christen’s hotel room, school books spread over every surface. She’d hit a wall yet again with calculus and Christen couldn’t stay to help because she was going to lunch with her friends.
A strange flutter happened in her stomach when she thought about that, still not quite used to it. Her friends. This very normal part of life was something Christen had pushed aside for herself because hanging out with friends meant giving up time she did not have, and that wasn’t a priority for her.
But now Zach and Servando had shown up to Houston, here for the last two matches of the tournament, with the semi-final game tomorrow. Christen had asked Julie, Alex and Tobin at breakfast that morning, getting the priceless reaction of toast falling out of Alex’s mouth in shock happiness and Julie squealing in excitement at the news that she, Zach and Servando had a group chat going and had thought lunch for all six of them would be fun.
Tobin had stared at her with soft eyes and a knowing look, loving how big Christen’s smile got every time she talked about her friends.
“I’m sorry, baby. You know I would stay and help if I could.” Christen slipped her shoes on and dropped a kiss to Mal’s temple, picking up her phone and her wallet.
“I know. Don’t feel bad, I’m only joking. Well, not about calculus being the worst.” Mal turned to her with a smile, leaning up from her seat to kiss her cheek. “Have fun on your triple date!”
“This is not a triple date, we’re just getting lunch.”
Mal had already turned back to her work, waving Christen off absently. “Yeah, yeah, sure it’s not a date.”
There was a knock at the door and Christen knew it was Tobin picking her up. She laughed at Mal, kissing her head again. “Make sure you take a break soon, okay? You’ve put in a lot of school and soccer work recently. You’re doing so well.” She walked towards the door. “I’m really proud of you.”
“I’m proud of you!” Mal called out with a cheeky grin, rolling her eyes fondly when she saw Christen open the door for Tobin, both of them immediately getting lost in each other again with those ridiculous dumb smiles.
“GO MAL! WHOOOO! SHE DID IT!”
Five of the six guests at the table were crowded around Servando’s phone as they watched the video of Mal’s first goal from her first cap and Christen’s overjoyed reaction for probably the tenth time in a row.
“Look at her face, she’s so happy!” Alex clutched her heart as she laughed at the screen, telling Servando to play it again.
Christen just sat in her seat, blushing. Tobin’s face melted at how wholesome Christen was in the video, her heart eyes on full show. Christen had had to look away because otherwise she was worried she’d lose control and kiss her right then and there.
“Let me see the photo again?” Julie asked, squealing at Christen’s face in the photo Servando had taken when Mal had first gotten onto the field. She had a massive smile on her face but her hands half covered it, almost as if she’d wanted to watch but was too nervous at the same time.
Zach just laughed at Christen across the table, shaking his head with a grin. “You’re something else, Press. I can’t wait for these next two games.”
“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. I’ll start filming you two next if you’re not careful.” Christen’s tongue stuck out at Zach and Servando, the group finally breaking away from the phone and settling back into their seats at the table.
Tobin’s hand came to squeeze at her thigh reassuringly where she sat next to her, the softest smile on her face. “You’re too pure for this world, Chris.”
Her blush only grew, a shaking hand managing to find Tobin’s on her thigh to give it a squeeze. She tried to control her racing heart-beat. Tobin would really be the end of her one day.
“I’m so full. That was such a good lunch.” Zach sat back in his chair, grinning at his fiancé when she snorted at that comment, knowing he’d be back eating something more in the next hour. “How are you all feeling for the game tomorrow?”
The three players looked between each other, excited smiles on their faces. “Ready.” Alex said, the others nodding. “This is the only game that matters, it’s the decider for if we get to Rio. We’ve gotta go out there with everything.”
Zach smiled. “You’re going to – ”
“I’m so sorry to interrupt but could I please get a picture with you all?” A nervous looking young woman approached their table, Zach stopping mid-sentence when she began to talk. They agreed, nodding their heads easily, knowing that although it wasn’t really ideal to be interrupted at every restaurant outing they did, the fans were always great and they’d never really say no.
Christen took her hand off Tobin’s hand that was still on her thigh, feeling Tobin lift her hand off altogether. She half stood up in her seat, holding out her hand for the woman’s phone in the assumption that she’d want her to take the photo. After all, she was sitting at the table with five professional athletes. It was obvious Christen wasn’t meant to be in this.
When she reached out for the phone, the woman looked at her hesitantly. “Oh, no, I want you to be in it, too!”
A perplexed look came across Christen’s face. “Me?”
“Yeah! You’re Christen Press, right?” The woman said, both excitedly and nervously, although looking more and more hesitant as panic slightly set in on Christen’s face. “Mallory’s sister?”
“How…how do you…” Christen felt Tobin put a hand on the small of her back, maybe in an effort to settle her, maybe in an effort to get her to just sit down again. Instead, she did neither, still standing in puzzlement as the woman in front of her rushed to explain herself.
“I saw you on ESPN, after Mallory’s first cap she went to hug you, and there’s some other videos out there from the games recently. I think it’s so cool you support your sister so much.”
“ESPN?” Christen was having a hard time coming to grips with all of this information.
“Yeah! You haven’t seen it? Don’t you have Instagram or Twitter or something?”
She didn’t. It hadn’t been around when she was younger and she’d never cared for it when she was older. Mal had Instagram for professional purposes but barely used it, and the only stuff on there was about soccer. She didn’t know what to say in response, but she felt Tobin’s hand press more firmly into her back, so she let it guide her down into the seat.
“I’ll take the photo of all of us.” Alex announced from where she sat opposite Christen at the edge of the table, getting handed the woman’s phone and turning it on selfie mode. This allowed Christen a few grateful seconds to breathe, trying to process what she’d been told.
She managed to pull herself together to smile for the photo – well, she hoped it came out as a smile, and the woman was so excited once the photo had been taken there was no lasting awkwardness despite the shell shocked interaction Christen had had with her. She watched the woman walk away and kept staring in the distance, only coming back to when Tobin squeezed her hand.
“Hm?” She turned to look at Tobin, seeing concern swimming in the back of her eyes. The others at the table wore similar expressions, and it was all getting a bit much.
“I just asked if you were okay.”
“Oh, sorry.” Christen hadn’t even heard her. “Can…can we go?”
Tobin nodded quickly, barely glancing at the others who shared her sentiment before standing up. Tobin made to pull her wallet out but was stopped by Zach who shook his head, already having slipped what Christen saw was well enough to cover their lunch under the bill at the table. She wanted to protest, but her brain was still swimming with the information she’d just heard.
ESPN was no joke. What did that woman mean she’d seen her on there? She tried to remember what happened at Mal’s first cap. The interview Mal and Alex did had surely played on there, but they must have shown Mal running over to hug her as well.
Had they said something about her and Mal on the show? Their family life wasn’t common knowledge, nothing US Soccer had released discussed it. Not even kids at Mal’s school knew the full story, only knowing Christen was Mal’s guardian. That’s how well guarded they were.
Maybe something had gotten out? Maybe Joseph…no, he was a stupid social worker, but he wasn’t that stupid. That was lose your job, have your licence revoked kind of stupid.
Memories of the three games she’d attended in the last week rushed through her mind as she tried to piece the information together. She thought about what happened at the games, where she sat, who was around her. She didn’t think she’d stood out.
But, when she thought harder…Mal had always come up to her after the games, yelling her name, standing right at the barrier. Tobin had been there sometimes too. She’d talked to Mal right in front of the crowd with the cameras, and she’d talked to Tobin when the crowd was still there as well.
The woman had said there were videos from the games. Who had been filming? Were they really on the internet?
She doesn’t realize she’s walking out of the restaurant until Tobin has to physically stop her from crashing into a chair. They’re following the others, Christen completely lost in her thoughts, and she shook her head to snap out of it, looking over at Tobin.
“Did you know about this?”
Tobin shook her head no, and she believed her. She’d barely seen Tobin on her phone since she’d known her, much less on any social media apps.
“Should I have expected this?”
“I should have warned you. But I guess I’ve gotten so good at ignoring the noise I forgot all about it. I’m sorry.” Tobin wore an apologetic look, and Christen shook her head in forgiveness. “If it helps, I don’t think there’ll be much out there. Fans love to take videos and maybe in some of them you can hear talking, but once you’re a few yards away from the barrier they can’t hear anything.”
Christen tried to mull over that information. “It’s not that I’m expecting to remain anonymous, but it makes me uneasy. Mal and I have always been incredibly private. I know I legally adopted her but she’s still 17, and both of us will have issues with that until she turns 18. I don’t like the idea of people knowing who I am if they’re trying to figure out more about Mal and I’s past.”
Christen smiled at Alex in thanks as she held the door open for them. She was surprised to see the star forward wearing a little grin.
“What do you know, Alex?”
“I’m not saying there’ll be no one out there wondering about you and Mal. But I’d be willing to bet, a lot actually, that the woman knew who you were today not because of speculation about your family, but because of how much you and this one have been seen together recently.” Alex pointed at Tobin who looked the picture of comic surprise, tilting her head like a confused puppy.
“Have you ever seen your fans online, Tobin? You can’t honestly be surprised they’d be obsessing over you and a beautiful woman looking closer and closer every time you’re seen together.”
Suddenly, the news Christen heard from the woman felt entirely less worrisome to her. She knew there was an element involving Mal, an important one she’d have to discuss with her as journalists were growing more interested by the day. But knowing fans were recognizing her because she may or may not be romantically linked to Tobin?
It kind of gave her butterflies.
Zach and Servando were unable to restrain their laughter at Tobin’s blushing expression, Julie and Alex smacking them on the arm as they lead them back to the cars to wait, giving Christen and Tobin some privacy to talk.
“Tobin? Are you okay?”
An unreadable expression sat on Tobin’s face. “Are you okay, Chris? I’m sorry you got put in that position earlier. I never thought something like that would happen this soon.”
“Your fans would be disappointed to hear you have such little faith in them.” Christen wore a tiny grin, and Tobin’s face relaxed at that, lightening on seeing Christen wasn’t too traumatized.
“They’re great but they can be a lot. I wanted to talk to you about this, I just didn’t think we’d have to so soon.”
Christen nodded, knowing it was a conversation they’d have to have. “Are you okay with them talking about us like that?”
“I should be asking you that. You’re the one that’s new to this.”
“That’s true.” Christen nodded, nodding to the cars as they began to walk there. “But I’m not the one in the public eye. You’re the one that will have to face the questions, if there are any.”
“Well, I’d love to first take you on a date before anyone starts asking me anything.” Tobin looked over at her and smiled, bumping into her shoulder gently. “If people want to talk about us, I don’t care. It doesn’t change how I feel about you. All I want is for you to be happy and comfortable. If what happened today didn’t make you feel that way, I’ll do my best to keep you from that. I promise.”
God there was never a moment that Christen wanted to kiss Tobin more than right then. She felt like her heart was melting and exploding at the same time, feeling the concern and care rolling off Tobin onto her.
“I’ll admit it is a little unsettling, having people know of me. But I get it comes with the territory.” They stopped a few yards away from the car, Christen being able to see the others in it. “All I want is to protect Mal, and protect our story. So if people want to know me to know about that, I have a problem.”
Tobin nodded, agreeing with her.
“But, if people want to know me because they’re excited there might be something going on with us? Let them. All I care about is making this work between us. I’ll always be a private person. But I’ll never expect that I won’t be known because of the nature of your job. And I don’t want to have to shy away from you, either. I can block everyone else out. Can you?”
“In a heartbeat. I’ve been doing it for a lot of years already.” Tobin grinned easily. “Thank you, for being so cool with this. I know it’s a lot. But you’re right, it does come with the territory. And you know I’d never say anything to anyone about your past, and neither would anyone else on our team, as well.”
“I know.” Christen nodded. “And I know Mal will say something about it, but only when she’s ready. The emails are still piling up in my inbox, journalists from all over. But when I mentioned it to her the other day, she kind of shut down. I need to talk to her about it.”
“You know, I’d bet my bottom dollar Lindsey, Sonnett and Rose have seen whatever videos or photos are circulating the internet of us and what people are saying about it. Sonnett’s probably got a whole folder saved already. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve shown Mal.”
Christen laughed as they got into the car. “Yeah, that’s definitely some cheeky thing she’d store away to use against me later. I’ll wear her down when I get back, see what she knows.”
When she opened the door to her hotel room a short while later, Christen didn’t get the immediate chance to speak to Mal. Standing there were two people on the USWNT staff she’d seen before but never met, one of them holding a video camera with a microphone attached.
“Oh shit, sorry. Did I interrupt?”
“No, no, you’re fine!” The woman with the camera said, stepping away to let Christen into the room properly after they all introduced themselves to each other.
She saw Mal still sitting at the desk where she’d left her, pen in hand, and walked over to her. “What’s going on?”
“The team does these behind the scenes videos and they’re filming some of me doing homework.”
“Wow, your audience is about to be bored to death.” Christen deadpanned to the camera people, earning a slap to the arm from Mal.
“Shut up, Christen. It’s because I have a story to tell.”
“Oh?” Christen looked at Mal in question, before stepping back behind the cameras. “Please, entertain me.”
“I will.” Mal poked her tongue out at her, before hearing from the camerawoman they were rolling. She turned to pick up a book from her desk, speaking to the camera. “I’m reading the Handmaid’s Tale, so there’s that. And then, big ol’ American Government right here.”
Christen snorted as Mal slapped the cover of the textbook, making Mal laugh as well. Then she raised an eyebrow, as if to ask Mal where was this story she had to tell was.
“So I was down at lunch with the team before, taking a break.” Mal wasn’t necessarily speaking into the camera, more to Christen standing behind it. “And we were talking about my school, and Lyssa asked what Math I was in. I said calculus, and I don’t get it right now. She’s like, I’ll come up to the room and try and help, and then people just kept on flooding in trying to help, and then eventually no one could get it and everyone just kind of left.”
Christen’s hand had moved to cover her mouth as Mal told the story, holding her laugh in, but when Mal got to the end and saw her face she started laughing, setting Christen off, too.
“What do you think is the hardest part about having to do your school work on your own in the national team environment?”
“Well, I honestly wouldn’t be able to do it without my sister’s help. She’s the smartest person I know.” Mal answered the camerawoman, sending a tiny grin to Christen. “I think that the learning part, actually learning not doing the stuff, is the hardest part. Also my communication with my teachers is really on point. And they understand everything that’s going on so I can’t thank them enough for being so flexible with everything, cause, I mean, I don’t think I’d be able to do both school and soccer. So I’m really lucky.”
Christen couldn’t really relax in the room until the camera people left, thanking them for letting them interrupt Mal’s work. As soon as the door shut, Mal turned to her.
“So, how was it?”
A blush painted Christen’s cheeks immediately. “It was good. Fun. Something interesting happened.”
“This woman came up to the table to ask for a photo, I assumed with everyone else. Then she says she wants me to be in it too. She knew my name, and that I was your older sister.”
The expression on Mal’s face is a mix of confusion and panic. “What? How did she know you?”
“That’s what I wondered. She said there was a video on ESPN after your first cap. But as to how she knew my name, I guess it was from videos people had taken of the recent games.”
“That’s weird. That’s really weird, right?” Mal tried to keep her voice light, but Christen could hear the way it faltered.
“It is weird.”
“Did she…did she know anything?”
Christen held her hand out for Mal to take, and pulled her to sit next to her on the edge of the bed. She could see how instantly unnerved Mal was about it. “She didn’t. And that was what I was worried about as well. It really unsettled me. I hated it.”
A look of confusion still sat on Mal’s face. “Why are you blushing, then?”
An arm swatted at Mal and Christen rolled her eyes. “Alex said that this woman most likely knew who I was because Tobin’s fans would be talking about her and I being seen together a lot, recently. Talking about us, and what might be going on with us.”
Surprise came across Mal’s face. “So it’s not about you and I, it’s about you and Tobin?”
“Oh my god!” A huge beam appeared on Mal’s face, colored in relief. “That’s so funny! They probably think you’re together. Well, you basically are. So what did you eat for lunch?”
“I had pasta.” Christen said, slanting her eyes somewhat at Mal’s diversion of topic. She wasn’t quite done with it yet, and wanted to bring it back. “And you’re right, it is funny. Had you not heard anything about this? I assumed Sonnett or someone would have seen something by now.”
Mal shook her head, but her eyes lit up with an idea, trying to mask the panic still sitting on her face. “I bet she’s seen something. I’ll go ask her.” She tried to get up and make a hasty escape before Christen grabbed her arm to stop her.
“Wait, wait, you’re not finished yet.”
“Christen! I’ve been doing school work all day. It’s not fair!”
Christen raised an eyebrow at Mal’s outburst, not being fooled by what her sister was trying to pull. Mal’s complete 180 in behavior was an instant give away. She was never petulant like this unless she was trying to avoid something. “Can you please come and sit back down?”
A grumble and a half left Mal’s lips as she debated ignoring Christen before giving in, sulking back to sit on the bed.
“I don’t want you to leave yet because I’m not finished talking to you about this. This isn’t about school, though I am really proud of all your hard work. This talk is about something else. I know you know that. And your reaction to it suggests this is something we need to discuss.”
“This is about you and Tobin, not me.” Mal mumbled, still looking at the bed.
“It is about you. I saw how panicked you looked when I said what happened with the woman. And now you’re super eager to get out of the room.” Christen put her fingers under Mal’s chin and tilted her head up so she was looking at her. “It’s perfectly normal to be unsettled that someone recognized me, especially if it’s to do with our past. I know it’s something we’ve always kept guarded, particularly you.”
The beginnings of tears were glistening in Mal’s eyes, and Christen’s heart broke.
“Baby, please talk to me. Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Mal was clearly struggling with what to say, trying to make sense of her thoughts. She sat in silence for a while, before doing the thing she knew always brought her stability and comfort, and shifted across the bed so she could burrow into Christen’s side.
Christen’s arm wrapped around her shoulders instantly, pulling her close, and she dropped a kiss to the top of Mal’s head, murmuring to her how much she loved her.
“I’m sorry to get frustrated. I’m not mad at you.” Mal murmured, and Christen let her speak. “I know journalists are asking about me. You showed me their emails. But I don’t like it. I don’t want to talk to any of them. It’s nobody’s business what happened to us in the past.”
Christen nodded, not feeling surprised Mal reacted this way. Mal had never told anyone about their past, and Tobin was the first teammate she’d told, ever, before telling the rest of the team since they’d bonded so intensely over their time here.
But Mal knew how media spun stories, created narratives around players. She was already the youngest player in over a decade on this team, already fighting against people’s assumptions in that regard. To have something as traumatic as their past out there would only invite more questions, would only make it harder for her.
Maybe one day she would be ready to talk about it. But she was still only 17. Christen would never, would never put something this big on her baby sister’s shoulders. Not when she was already tackling so much else.
“That sounds perfectly reasonable. And I agree, it’s nobody’s business. You don’t have to say anything to anyone, not until you’re ready, or not ever. The journalists are asking, but you’re a soccer player first, not a public personality. You don’t owe an explanation.”
Mal just burrowed into Christen more, letting herself be reassured by her older sister’s words. Christen kissed Mal’s head again, rocking her ever so slightly. “What has you most worried about this?”
“If I tell a reporter I’m an orphan, it’s not like people will accept that as an answer and not ask anything more. They’ll want to know how they died, foster care, you, and…and I’m still 17 and I can’t bear the thought of having to talk about that while Joseph still thinks he has any kind of involvement in anything.”
Christen had a feeling Mal would still be worried about things because of her age. It was like no matter how much she reassured her that she had legally adopted her, Joseph had messed them up so much it wasn’t ever something either of them would get over until Mal’s birthday.
“I don’t want to have narratives written about me by anyone. I want to write my own.” Mal sat up, looking at Christen to see the proudest beam sitting on Christen’s face. “Maybe one day I’ll talk. But not now. Is that what you feel, too?”
“Yeah, it is. I’ll never say anything, and neither will anyone else, not until you’re ready. So you don’t have to worry if people start to recognize me. You don’t have to talk to anyone, and you don’t have to change the way you’re behaving either, okay? If you want to see me after the games, hug me, talk about me to people, that’s completely fine. If people ask you something you don’t want to answer, you can say no, okay?”
Mal nodded, taking a deep breath and feeling wholeheartedly reassured. “Thanks, Chrissy.”
“I’m so proud of the person you are, Mal.”
“I’m proud of you too.” Mal kissed her cheek. “But I’m still going to go and see Sonnett about those videos of you and Tobin.”
Christen just rolled her eyes. Some things never change.
Soccer was fun, so much fun.
But soccer with friends? Christen couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.
“Let’s go USA!” Zach said gleefully. He, Servando and Christen got to their feet in a cheer as the countdown for the game started. She could see Mal on the field, Alex in the middle, Tobin on the opposite wing, Julie behind them, and the rest of the team in position and looking ready to win.
Christen cheered, throwing her arms around the guys on either side of her as Servando held his phone up in selfie mode to get a picture of them all. They wanted to remember this one, it was the decider of whether the US would get to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
And get there they would.
In the 11th minute Mal took off down the right hand side of the field, cutting the ball back across the goal in a way that looked like it had missed Alex and Carli, until Tobin arrived right on time, hitting the ball on a spin and sending it into the back of the net.
Everyone jumped to their feet in celebration, Christen cheering her heart out for her two favorite people. She watched in delight as Mal ran to Tobin, jumping into her open arms in celebration, the rest of the team piling on top of them.
One goal closer to the Olympics. That soon turned into two when Lindsey assisted Alex in the 30th minute, three when Carli scored in the 43rd minute and four when Alex scored a blinder in the 71st minute.
Christen felt certain her heart would burst right out of her chest at the sight of the team celebrating with each other after the game. They were headed to the Olympics, they had done it. Her baby sister had helped the team to another world tournament.
She couldn’t help her wide smile, and it near burst right off her face two days later when they beat Canada 2-0 in the final, goals from Lindsey and Tobin to seal the deal.
“Champions!” Servando chanted, jumping around with his hands in the air in anticipation of the team doing the rounds with the crowd and dancing with the fans.
Sure enough they made their way over, instantly spotting the friends and family sitting in the section. The players danced around on the field, all of them clutching at their hearts at the sight of Christen, Servando and Zach jumping and cheering.
Christen could see everyone in the crowd with their phones out, no doubt recording what was going on. But she had the happiest feeling in her chest, and when Tobin threw an arm around Mal’s shoulder, both of them pointing up to her with beams on their faces, there wasn’t anything in the world that could make Christen care.
It was both exhilarating and terrifying how fast Christen had gotten used to what seemed to be their new normal.
Olympic Qualifying had ended, the NWSL pre-season hadn’t started back yet, and the next thing on the schedule (assuming everyone made the roster) was the She Believes Cup training camp in two weeks’ time. They were on a flight back to LA the next day.
They, being Christen, Mal and Tobin.
They had been packing their bags, and it barely took more than a “Will you come? Back to LA?” from Christen before Tobin was nodding instantly, a dumb smile on her face.
They had been on the plane home, Christen by the window, Mal asleep on her shoulder with her legs resting in Tobin’s lap, and it barely took more than a “Will you go on a date with me? Tomorrow?” from Tobin before Christen was nodding instantly, a dumb smile on her face.
They had been in the car, dropping Mal back at school on Monday, sending her off with a hug and a kiss. Then they were back at the house, shy smiles and excited eyes as they got ready for the day. And then Tobin had held out her hand, Christen intertwining their fingers, and they started their walk down the beach feeling like this was something they could get used to pretty fast.
(Christen felt like she already had).
It wasn’t technically Christen’s first date – she’d been to the movies with a girl from her club soccer team when she had just turned 15 – but it sure felt like it. She’d had butterflies in her stomach since Tobin had asked her out the day before, even though she’d told her it would just be casual, nothing to worry about, just them and a chance to get to know each other more.
She felt Tobin’s hand in hers, strong and steady. Even though her breath hitched in her throat every time she looked over and saw how the sun shone off Tobin’s skin, glistened in her hair, made her eyes come alive, she felt a calm wash over her as well.
It kind of surprised her. Over the years, despite the lack of them she’d been on, she’d synonymized the word date with money. Paying for your own drinks or meals or activities. Paying for other’s drinks or meals or activities. It all spelled out funds and time she didn’t have. She couldn’t afford to get dressed up nice and go to dinner. She couldn’t afford tickets to a show.
Living in Tobin’s house and having been mostly in camps for the last two months, Christen’s small amount of savings were still holding strong. She still thought about money every day, she wished she could get a job. But for the next two months at least – if Mal kept making rosters – she would still have to be travelling with her.
Christen thought it would drive her crazy. She had been so consumed by her lack of money for so long she thought it would be all she could think about. But happily, instead, her brain was choosing first to be preoccupied with Tobin. And Tobin was great with the money situation.
She let Christen buy things – coffee for them or snacks or little stuff. She didn’t demand that Christen spend nothing. She didn’t patronize her or pity her. By and large she was still buying the vast majority of things for Christen and Mal – though their only real expenses were food and petrol. But it worked, because Tobin just didn’t make it a big deal.
With anyone else, Christen knew this wouldn’t have worked for her. Her thoughts would have consumed her. The shame of being poor would have been too much. But the constant worry that money brought her seemed to dissipate when Tobin was around. She’d be naïve to think it would sort itself out, or go away altogether. But for the first time in 12 years, Christen felt like she could breathe, like it wasn’t a crushing weight on her chest.
This was Tobin, she knew Tobin. She’d known Tobin in her heart for 12 years. She trusted her, she felt safe with her. The butterflies she felt were exhilarating, but they didn’t debilitate her. They told her this was something special, the start of something that she, deep down, truly felt was inevitable.
“You’re really not going to tell me where we’re going?”
“Nope.” Tobin teased, her grin easy and beautiful. “You’ll just have to wait and find out. It is a bit of a walk though.”
Christen smiled, looking forwards at the never ending expanse of beach in front of them. “That’s okay, I love the beach.”
Her shoulder bumped Tobin’s, a blush rising to her cheeks. “I’m really excited this is finally happening.”
“Me too. I’m sorry it took so long to find the time.”
“I think qualifying for the Olympics is a pretty good excuse to delay a first date.” Christen grinned. “I meant more that I think I’ve dreamed of going on a date with you since I was 15.”
Christen’s statement had both of them blushing, smiling shyly down at the sand they were walking on before back at each other. Tobin squeezed her hand, and she felt their rings knock together. “Me too. I thought about it so much.”
“Yeah.” Tobin blushed even more, stuttering through her next words. “I, uh…after our first camp, I spent the next two months coming up with questions in my head that I wanted to ask you. I’d even imagine what your answers might be, trying to figure out how well I knew you, and what I could say in response.”
It was about the sweetest thing Christen had ever heard. Her heart wanted to burst at how endearing it was, and also how much it hurt that she wasn’t able to give Tobin the chance to ask her, because she’d never made it to that next U-17 camp. Tobin seemed to anticipate this hurt, too, because she squeezed Christen’s hand again, giving her a soft grin.
“That’s why I’m so grateful we have now. I’ve amassed a lot of questions for you in the 12 years we’ve been apart.”
“Okay – Squirtle, Charmander or Bulbasaur?”
A burst of laughter erupted out of Christen at the unexpected question. It wasn’t like the other questions her and Tobin had been asking each other over the last half an hour were all serious, there was definitely a healthy dose of hilarity in most of them, but this one really came out of nowhere.
“15 year old Tobin wanted to know my starter Pokémon of choice?”
“Yes!” Tobin answered as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “And so does 27 year old Tobin, in fact. I am, how you say, very cool.”
“I don’t know, Tobs. This could really cause a rift if we have different answers.”
“I have confidence, Chris. Hit me with it.”
“Oh thank goodness.” Tobin exclaimed, looking genuinely relieved, and Christen laughed again, although she hadn’t really stopped this whole date. “I knew I had good taste. Okay, your turn.”
Christen tried to remember how to breathe when Tobin winked at her as she said that, feeling her hand get clammy in Tobin’s. She pondered about what she’d next like to ask Tobin, and a thought popped into her head.
“Can you tell me a bit about your experiences being gay with your family and in soccer?”
Tobin smiled at her, nodding. “Yeah. My family are great. I think my parents, they always suspected. When I was in high school, I realized my Mom started referring to whoever I might be going to all the dances with in a gender neutral way. That was the first time I told her I’d probably go with a girl. She always tried so hard, bless her. I feel so lucky all my family and friends are so supportive. I know that’s not always the case for people who are religious.”
“That’s really great, Tobin. I’m so happy to hear that.”
“Yeah. And obviously everyone on the team here knows, along with every team I’ve played in, I guess. I’ve never really done the whole ‘coming out’ thing for my professional career, in terms of making a statement or whatever. And I probably never will. Sometimes I think about doing it, I know it would help a lot of people. But at the same time, I really value my privacy, you know? And I’m not hiding. I’m proud to be here with you, holding your hand. If someone were to capture that, I wouldn’t feel the need to explain myself. I’m just being me, and I’m happy with that.”
“I really like that.” Christen smiled, feeling Tobin squeeze her hand again.
“What about you?” Tobin asked, her voice light – not expecting – just asking. “I know you were only 15 when your parents passed. But did you ever talk about it?”
This was what Christen liked about Tobin. She knew that a lot of people shied away from asking about dead relatives or friends, not knowing how to talk about it. But Tobin, she never did. She was interested, she wanted to know things. And she never pressured Christen, either. It would have been clear to her by that point Christen wasn't the most avid talker about her parents. She wanted to share stories all the time, but she was still learning to deal with the hurt of their memory, even after all these years. Some days it flowed out of her. Other days she refused to talk about them. But she loved that Tobin asked, still. Gave her the option. Because she did want to tell her about them, even if it was hard.
“Yeah. They were so great, as well. I never felt like they expected me to be straight and then I had to correct them. I guess I just always had a feeling I was gay, and when I talked to my mom about it when I started high school, it was like the most normal thing in the world to her. I…I obviously wish I had more time with them. Every day, I do. But this is one thing I’m so grateful for, that I got to have with them before they went.”
“That’s really special, Chris. They sound like they were amazing parents.”
“They were. They were the best.” Christen nodded, squeezing Tobin’s hand the tightest she had yet. She let herself bask in their memory, feeling the sun shining on her, like they were right there with her. “I have a really funny story about this, actually. It’s about Mal.”
An excited grin immediately came across Tobin’s face and Christen laughed, loving knowing that her stories about Mal as a kid already had a reputation of being hilarious. And it was true, Mal was the funniest kid she knew.
Mal was wearing the hardest thinking face Christen had seen on her in a while. She held her hand as they walked home from school, the six year old skipping and jumping along though with decidedly less pep in her step than usual.
Just as Christen was about to ask her what was up, Mal came out with a question that was very much indicative of the hilarious and weird age she was at. “What’s a lesbean?”
Christen’s confused expression made Mal hesitate for a second as she looked up at her, before she doubled down on her statement. “A lesbean.”
“A le…Mal, do you mean lesbian?”
“Yeah! That’s it.”
Of all the things Christen was anticipating Mal asking, this was last on the list. She had the tiniest of amused smiles on her face, wondering where this was coming from. “Where did you hear that?”
“Today when we were reading in class.”
“You were reading about lesbians?”
Mal giggled, shaking her head like Christen was the silliest person she knew. “No, Chrissy! In the book, two ducks got a wedding.”
Christen smiled at her, encouraging her on with a nod.
“And Jessica, she said it had to be a boy and a girl. Then Max said it could be two girls because they could be lesbeans. Or it could be two boys if they were something. But I didn’t know what it means.”
“Right, I’m with you now.” Christen nodded, trying to quickly think about the most simple way to talk to Mal about this. She didn’t need to give her a whole gender and sexuality lesson, she was only six, and Christen at 16 wasn’t exactly the world’s expert on the topic. But this was obviously important, so she wanted to do it as well as she could.
“If someone in your class was gay, that would mean they were a boy who liked another boy.”
Mal giggled at that, her face flushing red as she stared at the pavement they were walking along. “Like like?”
“Yeah. Like like.” Christen couldn’t help but laugh at how adorable and innocent Mal was on hearing that word. “And if someone in your class was a lesbian, that would mean they were a girl who liked another girl.”
Mal nodded, thinking about what she said. “So if the two ducks got a wedding and they are girls then they are lesbean ducks?”
“Lesbian, Mal. And yes, they might be. They might call themselves a lesbian or they might call themselves gay, because gay sometimes means girls who like girls too. But, the ducks could also be bisexual. That’s when a girl likes boys and girls, or a boy likes boys and girls.”
“That’s right. And there’s also some people who don’t like to call themselves a boy or a girl. So there’s lots of different things out there. Does that make sense?”
“I think so.” The wheels in Mal’s brain were ticking as they stood and waited for a green light to cross the street.
“Mal, did you know that I’m gay?” In all honesty, Christen didn’t actually know if Mal knew that or not. It’s not like it had come up since they’d been in foster care, and Mal was probably too young to ever remember her discussing it with their parents.
“Yeah. I like girls. I like like them.”
“Okay.” Mal thought about it, then got an excited smile on her face, like she’d just figured something out. “I’m going to be gay, too!”
Christen didn’t react fast enough, and a laugh came out of her mouth before she could stop it. “Oh, my baby love. That’s not exactly how it works.”
“What do you mean?” Mal’s face had lost its excitement, turning into a downtrodden expression second by second.
“That’s not something we get to choose. It’s just who we are, inside. We don’t have any control over it.”
“But…but you’re gay."
Christen didn’t know what to do with herself, she wanted to laugh and cry and squeeze Mal’s cheeks forever at how precious and worried her little face was right then. “Yeah, I am.” She lead them over to a nearby park bench and sat down, pulling Mal onto her lap to finish their talk.
“Then can’t I be gay?”
“You can, Mal, of course you can be gay, if that’s who you really are. You can’t choose it, though. You can’t force it.”
“I’m gay. I know it.” Mal said with such finality, crossing her arms. Christen had never worked so hard in her life not to laugh. She was scared if she opened her mouth to speak she’d just burst into laughter, so she stayed quiet for a moment, and Mal got a worried look in her eyes. “I just want to be like you.”
“Oh, baby.” Christen pulled Mal into her chest, feeling her head rest there before she let herself smile at the sky, tears almost falling out of her eyes at how hilarious and precious this situation was.
“It’s not something you have to worry about right now. Sometimes kids your age get a feeling of what they might be, and sometimes people don’t know until they’re in high school, or college, or even when they’re old. I love that you want to be like me, but whatever you are, it will be special to you. You could be gay or bisexual or straight or you might feel you don’t want to define yourself at all, and that’s completely fine.”
“That’s when a boy likes girls or a girl likes boys.”
"What if I’m that? Will you still love me if I’m straight?”
Christen could have never imagined this conversation happening, not with a six year old, and especially not with Mal’s hilarious comments that were also incredibly heartfelt. She loved the innocence of Mal, how she didn’t know the tribulations out there for people who weren’t straight. “Baby, I’ll love you always, no matter what. You could be anything in the world and I’ll never stop loving you. I’ll never judge you and I’ll never think less of you.”
Christen tilted Mal’s head up, seeing tears in her baby sister’s eyes with a lone one rolling down her cheek. “Oh baby, please don’t cry. It’s okay, it’s all okay. I promise you don’t have to worry about this right now. This is something for when you’re older, okay? Don’t let it upset you.” She wiped Mal’s tears away before hugging her tight and setting her back on her lap.
“You can talk to me about this anytime you want to. But know that whenever you find out this part of yourself, it won’t matter to me. You’ll still be my Mal, you’ll still be adorable and funny and talented and loving and no part of you will change. And as you grow up, some of your friends will realize who they are, whether it’s gay, straight, bisexual, a boy, a girl or neither. And it’s our job as good friends to always treat them the same, too. We never judge anyone, okay? We never discriminate against anyone.”
Mal nodded, snuggling into her chest. “I didn’t know you were gay but you’re still my Chrissy.”
Christen’s heart clenched, wrapping her arms tight around Mal. “Exactly. I love you so much, baby.”
“Love you forever, Chrissy.” Mal slid off Christen’s lap and held out her hand for her to take, pulling them back onto the pavement to continue the walk home. “I’m gonna teach Jessica all about lesbeans tomorrow.”
Christen just laughed softly, shaking her head. Well, she’d tried. That was life with a six year old. “You’re the best kid in the world, Mal. Never, ever change.”
Tobin was laughing so much she was almost crying, and they had to stop walking. Christen’s heart hurt at how adorable the memory was, and she laughed at it and also at Tobin’s reaction, the other woman literally clutching at her chest.
“You’ve got to be kidding. That’s the cutest shit I’ve ever heard in my life!” Tobin wiped at her eyes. “She really cried because she wanted to be gay like you? And she made you promise you wouldn’t judge her if she was straight?”
Christen nodded, bursting out laughing. “She was pretty hilarious, right? Kept me on my toes, that’s for sure.”
“Oh wow, that was amazing. She’s so great.”
“She’s the best.” They re-joined hands as they kept walking. She was about to speak again before they rounded a corner on the boardwalk, coming face to face with a little shack. “Paddle boarding?”
Tobin had a hopeful look in her eyes, trying to gage Christen’s reaction to seeing it. When Christen’s face split into an excited beam Tobin let out a relieved breath, smiling along with her.
“Are we really doing it? I’ve always wanted to try this! This is so exciting, Tobin!” Christen bounced in place, not realizing how hard she was squeezing Tobin’s hand until the other woman let out the tiniest squeak of pain and she let it go, apologizing profusely. Tobin just shook her head at her fondly, that dumb smile back again, and she brought Christen’s hand up to her mouth to place a kiss on her knuckles gently.
“I’m really glad to be here with you.”
Christen’s excitement settled, her eyes softening as she felt Tobin’s lips press to her hand. She stepped forward, cupping Tobin’s cheek before pressing her lips to hers, ever so gently nipping Tobin’s bottom lip as she pulled away, blushing at how dazed Tobin’s eyes looked. “I’m glad too. And so happy.” She smiled, pecking Tobin’s lips again. “And I’m probably definitely going to fall in the ocean multiple times so I hope you’re a patient teacher.”
Tobin, as it turned out, was a brilliant teacher. They’d made it to the end of their session, Christen having successfully learnt how to stand – while Tobin admired the muscles in her core she’d developed through yoga – and had managed to stay upright on the board and crucially, not in the ocean.
In fact, Christen was so pleased with her efforts she felt confident enough to get distracted by the way Tobin moved on her own board, the muscles in her back and arms rippling with every push of the paddle in the water. She was doing so well, until Tobin flipped her hair, the sun hitting her skin in the most glorious light as she sent a smile her way.
Christen was falling. No, she was literally falling – the water hit her cool and hard and she spluttered as her head popped up for air, laughing at herself and feeling Tobin crack up next to her. Not one to let Tobin get away with that, Christen reached out her leg in the water and gave Tobin’s board a loving push, sending the other woman into the water, still laughing.
They dried themselves off back at shore, sitting at an outdoor table beside a Vietnamese food truck sharing summer rolls and basking in the afternoon sun. Tobin had paid for the paddle-boarding, and smiled with an easy nod when Christen told her she was going to buy them lunch.
“You know as soon as Mal finds out we went paddle boarding she’s going to be on your case to bring her here as well.”
Tobin grinned. “Yeah, that’s what I figured. I’d be so down for that, though.”
“I love how good you are with her.” A warmth settled in Christen as she looked at Tobin, her face hurting from how much she smiled when Tobin blushed at that. “Mal being happy, it’s so important to me. The most important thing. And she’s so happy, here. With the team and with you and – ” Christen reached across the table to take Tobin’s hand in hers. “You’re really something else, you know that?”
It looked like it took Tobin a while to gather herself after that, if the blush painting her cheeks was any indication. She squeezed Christen’s hand back. “It’s nothing compared to how you are with her. You’re incredible. You’ve given her such a good life. And I know it hasn’t been easy, not in the slightest. And there’ll still be hard parts to come. But…I hope now things seem a little lighter, a little more hopeful for you. Because you seem happy. Happier. If I can say so.” Tobin gave her a shy smile, her blush still there. “And you can start to thrive as well. Not just live to get to the next day, but live to live.”
Tobin’s words sunk into Christen as she listened to them. It meant so much to see how deeply Tobin cared. That she recognized Christen’s sacrifices, but reminded her that wasn’t how it had to be anymore. It would be hard but it wasn’t impossible, not anymore. Not with her there, not with friends to help. Mal was doing so good. Now Christen could, as well.
The silence that sat between them made a hesitant look cross Tobin’s features. “I’m sorry if that was overstepping. I don’t mean you don’t have a fulfilling life, Chris. Of course you do. I just mean – ”
“No, no. It’s okay. I didn’t think that.” Christen rushed to stop Tobin, realizing she’d been pondering her thoughts for too long. “I know I’ve been living my life for the last 12 years putting every need Mal has over my own. And it’s not easy to try and reverse that now. But I am trying. I am.” Christen squeezed her hand. “I’m trying for myself, and for Mal. And also for you. I’m in this, Tobs, with you. I like being here with you, and I want to be my whole self when I am with you. I’m learning what I want, what it’s like to put myself first. And having you by my side while that happens, it’s more than I could have ever dreamed of.”
“That’s how I feel when I’m with you. All the time.” Tobin murmured, causing Christen to blush and choke on air, not being prepared for how sweet and entirely encompassing Tobin’s words would be.
It’s really a miracle she got out her next question at all.
“Would you want to go on another date with me? Maybe?” Christen asked, barely managing to not stumble over her words as her face threatened to set on fire at how hot it was. Her heart was racing, waiting for Tobin’s response with clammy hands.
Tobin brought their intertwined hands up to her mouth and kissed them, before deciding to do one better and leant across the table, kissing her. “I would love to.” She murmured against her lips, soft and sweet. Christen was certain she was going to pass out.
All she managed was a blushing smile in response, nodding her head and laughing at herself – and at Tobin’s reaction as well.
“Wow, being asked out on another date before I’ve even finished the first one? I must be doing something right.”
“The date’s not done?” Christen asked, seeing Tobin’s grin in response.
“Well, I guess it technically is. But, we’ve got a whole beach to walk back yet. There may or may not be an ice cream stand we pass on the way. And me, I’ve had a lot of time to think of questions I want to ask you. 12 years, in fact.” Tobin winked as she stood up, gently pulling Christen to her feet as she lead them back across the beach, heading in the direction they came. “I haven’t even come close to knowing everything I want to know about you, Christen Press.”
Their hands fit together so perfectly, rings sitting side by side as they walked in step. There was so much she wanted to know about Tobin, as well. So much she couldn’t wait to find out.
She hoped there would never be enough things to discover about each other. That they would be able to keep doing this forever, because being with Tobin, it was right. She felt it deep in her soul.
Part of her already had a feeling – a beautiful, smile forever etched on her face feeling – that the hope she had was right.